April 10th

One thing that most games share in common is the sense that they are a world apart from the lives that we ordinarily live. This week’s round-up of some of the most provocative writing on games is organised around ideas about separation and togetherness. I’m able to bring these articles together every week thanks to the support of readers like you, through Patreon and through sending in recommendations. For another way to get involved, perhaps consider contributing to our Blogs of the Round Table on the topic of food.


The white cubes

This thing we do as games critics can feel far removed from the physical world, so connecting games to physical spaces can be refreshing, with some critics even going beyond written language to address games abstractly, using physical structures and materials.

“If “weird” games celebrate their own lack of finality, their own brokenness, should we break our writing too?”

The possibility space

Games are often about traversal, metaphorically or literally. Many mechanics are, at their core, about closing the gap between self and other, between the familiar and the unfamiliar, and critical writing on games often walks the same ground.

“We are so used to it we might not notice, but Chess is a very modern game in some regards. Instead of fighting to the death or strangulation like in most abstracts, the win condition is the capture of a single, practically unarmed piece. This is huge! It enables a wide range of plays and the threat of the game ending in a single move introduces a lot of fun and tension. And the pieces? They are all a bit strange. The Bishops move diagonally despite the game being vertically-bound. The Knight can move through other pieces but doing so makes it alternate between white and black squares. Pawns form the backbone of the army yet are barely capable of harming each other. There are a lot of curve balls in Chess that makes it feel fresh and exciting.”

The past is a foreign country

One way that the unfamiliar is made familiar is by coming to a deeper understanding of our place in history.

Wind Waker knows that you know how this goes. Nintendo is often criticized for exploiting players’ nostalgia, and while there’s some truth to that criticism, Wind Waker plays with the burden of the franchise’s past in surprising and interesting ways.”

1979 Revolution: Black Friday

“I realize how foolish, arrogant, and just plain ignorant I’ve been—to assume that I am poised to alleviate the tension and suffering of the Iranian people. I didn’t and still don’t know enough about the religious and cultural complexities of the Iranian people (and what’s been endured from all sides), but 1979 Revolution has given me invaluable and humbling insight.”

History of Eve Online

Andrew Groen’s book on war in space in cyberspace is out, with extracts in major games publications for you to try out.

“For some of the best player groups in the game, pride was a resource. Skilled pilots could build up their egos after winning a string of battles, but it was only a matter of time until they were humbled. And when they were, the illusion of mastery could unfold and unravel the social fabric of the group. If your corporation is based on being the best, what happens when you lose?”

Cyberspace

Closeness is being nurtured in online spaces in new ways, with people playfully trying out new forms of social bonding.

Miitomo is a different sort of social media platform to the current titans of the landscape, although, like them, it too is defined by its restrictions as much as its features. Twitter (for now at least) limits us to 140 character utterances. Snapchat’s messages self-destruct on delivery. Instagram is life viewed through a clutch of kindly filters. Miitomo, meanwhile, is defined by exactly the kind of restrictions you might expect from such a conservative and image-conscious company. You cannot upload photographs of your pet or baby for example. You cannot link to divisive thinkpieces, or call out your boss for sexist behaviour. It’s unlikely that anybody is going to get fired anytime soon thanks to an ill-judged Miitomo status update.”

Inner space

Perhaps the most intimate relationship we have through games is the one with our avatar. Writers looking at games as spaces for expressing oneself often talk about character customisation, but this week sees some pieces take that conversation further by critically engaging with how it feels to be the player-character.

“Preaching the subjectivity of games while rejecting walkthroughs is hypocritical. Every experience is different, every person needs a unique amount of guidance. I used to get really frustrated with some games, and I think that’s only natural in this medium, or at least for some people. A certain hangup I had would stain the entire game for me, and I’d scramble to find “objective design flaws” to justify it. Once I could internalize that every experience is subjective, seeking walkthroughs is a natural extension. I can roll with the punches, take a game’s goodness and leave its badness. It’s only natural for me to reach for help when I’m challenged past my understanding.”

Outer space

Games are not only for children, but the medium’s enduring association with adolescence creates a supportive environment for narratives about relating morally to other people, and the reasons why a person might feel isolated. Content warning: spoilers for Undertale and Final Fantasy VIII

“In a context where the hypocritical justification of violence is made so mainstream as to be invisible, the mere act of depicting it as an action with consequences becomes radical. Given that, I kind of wish the game had included more tacit interrogations of the sort of pacifism it encourages engagement in: being kind to people so they’ll do what you want, being the good guy to get the ‘best’ ending.”

Final Fantasy VIII

“When Squall meets someone who actually seems to like him, and he likes her back, they dance around each other completely unable to handle or address their feelings in an adult way. They finally get together, but they don’t kiss in Squall’s mom’s basement or at Ben’s crappy birthday party. They kiss in outer space after breaking into an ancient, dragon-shaped spaceship, which is precisely as strange and impossible as it feels to kiss your crush for the first time.”

The friend zone

Sometimes the emotional distance that critics observe is caused not by the game’s narrative goals, but by cultural inequalities between genders and species.

“My good friend Bishop never behaved like the Nintencats or Ubisoft’s Petz or the EyePet. When she was hungry, she didn’t beep like a Tamagotchi. On the rare occasions she met other animals, we never had to worry about her devouring them, Viva Piñata style. While she was an affectionate beast, she never gamboled up and licked you like the felines in Kinectimals (unless you had pizza cheese on your face). No video game about pets or raising animals has ever properly captured what it’s like to live with a cat, but Sony’s Jingle Cats comes close.”

The ivory tower

Discussions about alienation between academia and online communities have been reignited, addressing the ways that academic writing can seem cloistered off and inaccessible to a broader audience that enjoys thinking about similar topics.

“[…] middle state publishing exists because traditional academic writing is an oppressive force that keeps our knowledge locked up in the light of academic libraries and keeps those not privileged enough to be part of the academy in the dark.”

The Valley

Finally, discussions of diversity and division continue, with a new project aimed at raising the profile of women, LGBT and people of colour in tech. Content warning: discussion and quotation of sexism and transmisogyny

The Techies Project

“Then there’s Medium — which has raised over $82 million, is led by white-male billionaire Ev Williams, and hasn’t even bothered to release its own diversity data (I think we can all speculate on why, but as a data point, the company Williams previously founded, Twitter, is just as white and male as they come… and that hasn’t changed in a decade and isn’t changing now.) In fact, Techies Project will be posting one story a day on Medium – helping to drive significant amounts of traffic, visibility and reputation-enhancing kudos (in sum, $$) to this white-male owned and funded platform – while none of the people who the project is ABOUT and FOR will get money.”