May 15th

Welcome back! I’m filled with determination after spending three days running a small exhibit of games, talking with artists who are more familiar with work in other mediums about some of the things that make this form critically interesting. I did most of the reading for this round-up sat in that public gallery space, feeling soothed by the ambient sounds that were mixing together from different digital environments.

“The feeling of efficacy”

How do resilience, progression and success really feel meaningful in games that allow you to revisit your actions and continually try and try again? These pieces offer new answers to a question that seems to be returned to rather often in games criticism.

“In Yoshi’s Island healing isn’t forgiveness so much as it is redemption. It is making up for mistakes though extra effort. By making the player have to earn it the emotional payoff is much higher and that is what makes this system in Yoshi’s Island so satisfying. Every mistakes results in a nice mini-arc of failure, struggle, and redemption.”

“The necessary unfamiliarity”

History plays a greater role in this week’s selections than any of the round-ups I have done so far. Perhaps we are in a bit of a historical moment for games writing, with critics going beyond the rote reiteration of events of the past, instead approaching history as a way of complicating simplistic ideas about games as cultural objects. First, these pieces consider the history of games as spatial experiences.

Fallout

Critical writing on one of the most-discussed game franchises can still surprise you. The pieces below are absolutely worth your attention, regardless of whether or not you have played any of the Fallout games.

  • Fallout 3 Is Garbage, And Here’s Why | YouTube (video)
    This 90-minute long dissection of Fallout 3 is well-edited, funny, and insightful. It takes up a large amount of time without wasting a moment, making a well-reasoned argument with implications that stretch beyond the Fallout series to the historical changes to AAA computer RPGs as a whole.
  • Fallout 4 and the Sublime
    Justin Keever gets at larger issues about how we talk about the pleasure of traversal and spatial experience in games in this piece on the merits of Fallout 4.

“When Franklin accusatorily [sic] claims that the latest Fallout is “less cerebral” than the systems-focused isometric games, he accidentally gets at something interesting: the appeal of Bethesda’s latest lies beneath theme and strictly intellectual engagement. The appeal of the new Fallout lies in pure emotional response, the recasting of a negative tension as pure pleasure. It is sublime.”

“This dawning Epoch”

Addressing hell, apocalypse and darkness in historical perspectives on history, these three pieces fit remarkably well together, providing a useful study of how grittiness can be placed into a larger history of literary and aesthetic forms.

“Friedrich’s Wanderer is generally thought to represent introspection and a sense of the uncertain future that faces each of us. That Dark Souls 3 might remake the image with a deathless hollow at its center perhaps carries a sense of irony—the future in question being only an endless cycle of death after death, the metaphysical plane of peace and salvation remaining forever distant and unknown.”

Battlefield 1

The Battlefield 1 trailer has inspired a great deal of discussion about the wisdom of setting an amoral, high-octane game in a war that is defined in popular imagination by sadness and reverence. I imagine that after this title has been released, it will be a good subject for a critical compilation to comprehensively cover all of the pieces written on it. However, here I want to be more selective. I think that the two links below bring rare expertise to the fore and complexly imagine how historical reality and game design might be brought face to face.

  • Battlefield 1 Historical Trailer Analysis | THE GREAT WAR Special (video)
    This moment by moment reading of the costume, mise-en-scene and landscapes by a WWI expert is startling in its level of detail and in what it reveals about the kinds of narratives about the war that the trailer seems to hint at.
  • Battlefield 1 and the problems of making a game out of World War I | Alphr
    Despite the title, the strength of this piece is that it doesn’t limit its scope to a simplistic moral inquiry into the propriety of a bombastic videogame representation of WWI, but interviews academic historians to bring out informed perspectives on how the conflict dynamics of WWI might play out in the specific context of a neverending multiplayer online conflict between large teams of antagonists.

“Remember when I told you that I preferred civilized conversations”

Building in part on the Battlefield 1 controversy, these pieces address violence and history. For me, a particular strength — although this is by no means their sole focus — is that they challenge the whiteness of the dominant historical narratives that act as benchmarks for whether or not a subject is valid material for action-oriented mayhem.

“In the years since its release, Crackdown has veered eerily from the escapist confines of speculative fantasy to skirt all too closely to the increasingly militaristic law-enforcement procedures of our present day.”

“If only you could talk to these creatures”

These meta-conversations about games criticism itself come to bear on how we consider the discussion about violence and history in games.


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