June 5th

This week there has been an upswing in articles about mental health and gaming, in no small part because of an excellent series run by Not Your Mama’s Gamer. I’m very glad to see this conversation  gaining traction, and it sits well next to another emerging theme: well-rounded player-character development.

This does mean that there is a substantial amount of potentially triggering content. I’ve tried to arrange it so that the pieces most likely to be distressing to some readers are at the bottom of this roundup, and I’ll let you know when we’ve reached that section so that you can choose whether or not to keep reading past that point.

Since not everybody will read past that line, I’ll say here what I would normally say in the conclusion. Thanks so much to everybody who has submitted articles for consideration this week over Twitter and email. I was delighted to get so many submissions from people. Please do make sure that you write “TWIVGB” in your tweets, even if addressed to @critdistance, so that the link will automatically be sent to my reading list. Finally, Critical Distance is community-supported, so please consider becoming a sponsor on Patreon: details here.

For sale: soul, excellent condition, dark

I keep trying to not include so many pieces on Dark Souls or Bloodborne. I worry that it’s getting to be a bit much, particularly for anybody who just isn’t that into them. However, the Souls games have become more than just another set of objects to study — they have become containers for a bewildering array of interlocking cultural, literary and designerly questions. The pieces below all reflect on how these kinds of literary canons function, and what they give to our understanding of games.

“Through its role in atroc­i­ties like colo­nial­ism, ‘sci­en­tific’ racism, nuclear weapons, and envi­ron­men­tal pol­lu­tion, sci­ence has gone from reveal­ing hor­ri­fy­ing truths about the uni­verse to per­pe­trat­ing them. Bloodborne first links this explic­itly to its Victorian set­ting, ref­er­enc­ing breaches of med­ical ethics closely asso­ci­ated with that period in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion. Victorian doc­tors infected chil­dren and pris­on­ers with dis­eases like syphilis, gon­or­rhea, and the plague to study their effects. Similarly, in Old Yharnam, the Healing Church infected peo­ple with ashen blood dis­ease, then burned the neigh­bor­hood as the plague spread out of con­trol.”

Space for rent in speculative reality

While the pieces above look at history in relation to literature, these next three look at history in relation to place, and in particular, imagining different possibilities for how places are represented and constructed.

“Perhaps the best example of gaming culture’s cross-fertilization with historical research is the burgeoning field of counterfactual thinking in academia and popular fiction, in which games and simulations play a leading role.”

Wanted: well-rounded character, experience required

(spoilers for Kentucky Route Zero, Firewatch and Uncharted 4)

Returning to a more literary angle, character development is being explored as a key part of game narrative, signalling a marked shift from the RPG silent protagonist to player-characters with complex inner worlds, that we come to understand more as we play with them.

“Too many writers try to make games about something – loss, existentialism, the apocalypse, abuse, childhood – instead of about someone. Firewatch is a videogame about its character and for that it stands out.”

Uncharted 4

Uncharted 4 doesn’t feel like it wants for any kind of explanation. The game harbors a brutal honesty about the space between self-image and reality. Nathan Drake is not just a euphemistically nomenclatured ‘treasure hunter’ in this installment. He is, in his own words, a thief.”

Pest control service: bugbears, creeps and toxicity

(Content warning: addiction, abuse, mental illness)

Following that step towards the existential, we head into the troubled waters of the psyche. This section carries a trigger warning for addiction, abuse and mental illness. Please take care of yourself when wading in.

Loops closed

First, the relatively positive subject of the kinds of satisfaction and peace that games can offer us — tinged with the poignant awareness that some of the things that make games feel so calming are the very same things that can make them dangerous when we are emotionally vulnerable.

“the moment I stopped caring about games was when I allowed the first piece of myself to fall away. The pleasant distractions that each of us enjoys — whether it’s video games, books, or something else — are more than just our pastimes of choice. They form a small, but vital part of who we are. If we lose that, who have we become?”

Wounds opened

Looking more closely at that darker side of how we respond to gaming’s endorphin loops, these pieces address addiction, violent obsession, and sexual assault.

“Kabat-Zinn argues that all ineffective coping mechanisms are addictive. Addictions can (and often do) go unrecognized or underestimated, especially when the behavior they produce is considered normal or socially acceptable or even desirable. But in the long term, inappropriate coping strategies increase our stress levels and do not help us face our lives’ problems effectively.”