April 17th

Thanks for checking in for another round-up of the week’s videogame blogging! Once again, there’s a chunk of potentially triggering material at the bottom of this post, so in case you choose not to venture into those depths, I will promptly issue the reminders that would usually live in the concluding paragraph. Critical Distance is community supported, with our readership providing financial contributions and recommendations of writing we should be checking out. We’re very grateful for any help you can offer us!

Interactivity

This week’s writing exemplifies how discussions about the interrelationship between interaction and narrative cannot simply be boiled down to the question of “ludonarrative dissonance.” Here we have three pieces in one week that address interaction from the perspective of narrative pacing.

“By removing the safety net of unlimited saves and transforming the “grind” from a necessary evil into a ludological metaphor for the player’s uphill battle to the surface, Dragon Quarter puts the player in the same viscerally anxious emotional state as the characters.”

Flow

It seems we’re witnessing a remarkable critical engagement with the oft-cited conceptualization of perfect user experience as balance between frustration and boredom.

“Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow” is often conceptualized as opposite ends of a spectrum; they are non-overlapping experiences due to the inverse relationship of the variables (“skill” and “challenge”) involved. But, I found that Shelter made anxiety and boredom set in simultaneously—I did not have the skills to intuit where I was supposed to go and what I was supposed to accomplish, and so anxiety was running fiercely in my blood. However, once I scaled my attention up from the diegetic level of the game, I found myself, strangely enough, bored at the exact same time, for the simple reason that I knew a higher level of skill would not have altered anything about my experience.”

Education

Writers from various fields of expertise are taking a fresh look at not just educational games, but more broadly, the role of play in developing familiarity with a subject.

“[…]it doesn’t really feel like a game. It’s more like a destination, a technical tool, a cultural scene, or all three put together: a place where kids engineer complex machines, shoot videos of their escapades that they post on YouTube, make art and set up servers, online versions of the game where they can hang out with friends.”

Spatiality

In some design thinking that runs on more traditional lines, the architectural planning of spaces and movement come into play in two different ways this week.

Institutionality

With the release of Dark Souls 3 this week, a title seems has leapt instantly to a place in the canon of video game design history. Much of the writing on Dark Souls 3 reflects this. Pieces of writing that would ordinarily boil down to a list of features and flaws, have instead answered more challenging questions about title’s significance. As it happens, this comes in the same week as a couple of provocative pieces on canonicity in other contexts.

“This tale, I think, goes some distance towards explaining why so much new media art is mired in nostalgic reverie, despite its patina of geekish futurism. Cultural history suggests that “the look of now” tends to age badly. This is no less true in technology than in fashion and hairstyles. Any new style or medium runs the risk of being obsolete tomorrow, discarded and bulldozed under”

Dark Souls 3

Narrativity

Emily Short and other experts on game narrative have really been spoiling us lately, with excellent pieces week after week on how games tell stories and how stories can be playful.

“In The Canterbury Tales, the rapist knight in The Wife of Bath’s Tale is sentenced to death unless he can find the answer to a riddle: “What do women want?” And it’s only when he both learns the answer—autonomy, that which he has denied to his victim—and puts it into practice that he gets his happy ending. Women want to choose. And in learning about our own desires through choice-making games, we discover what works and doesn’t work for us. “

Morality

Heroism is complicated nowadays, with protagonists in a number of titles having the deal with the consequences of moral dilemmas in which somebody is guaranteed to get hurt.

“Video games have taught me that you can always solve a problem with enough tries, or solve it a little more quickly or efficiently. That’s what extra lives or infinite continues are for. But in the world of The Descendant, there are no second chances.”

Content warning from here on: discussions of online harassment and abuse.

Inclusivity

The conflicts over cultural dominance in games have received new treatment this week, including design choices from an MMO developer that might challenge players to see things from somebody else’s perspective.

“I think that it’s important to note that Mulvey was writing about these things in 1975, and I think it’s really easy to apply theories like that of the male gaze in ahistorical and essentialist ways. So something I’ve been thinking about is how it is we might more effectively historicize the male gaze—how might we situate it in the contemporary moment, how might we broaden the conversation, how might we contexualize, complicate, and problematize the idea of the male gaze, especially within the specific context of video games?”

Rust

Sociality

Finally, the construction of social spaces in and around games is being discussed, with specific reference to how we value the labour of people and machines that work to create a sense of togetherness.

“Meanwhile, women also face social pressure to distance themselves from sex work because Madonna and Whore are the only categories available to them. You’re either a Woman In Games or a Booth Babe, and that’s it! Rather than questioning the division, women just hurry to cast themselves in the Madonna category, which is a lot easier to do if you’re only surrounded by other Madonna types.”