Going through the archives of the past year, if I had to boil all this writing down into a single word, it would be “resist.” As far back as day one of this year I found lots of emotive and thought-provoking work in which games critics were all telling each other, in some sense, to “resist.”
Resist orthodoxy. Resist the calcification of “the way things are”. Resist the poisonous ideologies that have taken root.
For seven years, I have created Critical Distance’s annual roundup of the most important games writing. This process of reading through our archives is the main way I make sense of what the year was like. In other years, games critics have noted problems or complained about the staleness of the state of the field. This year, it feels as our collective position has evolved. We’ve become braver intellectuals, more ready to stand against the troubles we see looming ahead on the horizon.
This post is a roundup of the most representative critical pieces of 2016. Critical Distance is proud to present the 2016 edition of This Year In Video Game Blogging!
Pieces on particular games
Every year the majority of criticism is focused on particular games, and this year is no exception. These works are the bedrock of any media criticism, and critics should examine and challenge their objects of interest, be they new titles released this year, or the games of the past.
- Game Natures: Firewatch and The Long Dark | YouTube – Noah Caldwell-Gervais
Noah Caldwell-Gervais compares Firewatch and The Long Dark as games in the tradition of western nature fiction and non-fiction.
- So what about the men: A deeper look at Firewatch and Catherine | Gamasutra – Kathrine Cross
Katherine Cross looks at the portrait of men created by the games Firewatch and Catherine as more human examples than what most video games offer.
- Critical Compilation – Firewatch | Minding Games – Ada Knitter
A collection of the myriad different ways Firewatch has been written and talked about.
- Open World: Nostalgia Ultra | Haywire Magazine – Miguel Penabella
Miguel Penabella looks at what indie game Oxenfree has to say about nostalgia in the form of a coming of age story reminiscent of John Hughes film.
- Oxenfree The Duality of Grief in Clarissa and Alex | YouTube – Red Angel – Angelina Bonilla
Red Angel looks at the characters Clarissa and Alex as two people coping with the loss of a loved one.
- Oxenfree, Memory and Public History | Play the Past – Christopher Sawula
Christopher Sawula sees Oxenfree’s island as an example of how history is represented by our preservation of the past and how the errors can creep in.
- One Hand Clapping | LudoNarratology – Michael Clarkson
Michael Clarkson says that art is not about that “One True Meaning™” and it would be a mistake to try find it for The Witness. He offers “a” possible meaning.
- The Unbearable Now: An Interpretation of The Witness | YouTube – Electron Dance – Joel Goodwin
Joel Goodwin goes down the rabbit hole of the mental journey that The Witness’ puzzles take you on as you begin to think through them.
- Time and The Island | Eruditorum Press – Jane Campbell
Jane Campbell compares The Witness to Jonathan Blow’s previous game, Braid, and finds them to be two sides of the same mind.
No Man’s Sky
- No Man’s Sky. (Emphasis on “Man”) | Outside Your Heaven – Matthew Weise
Matthew Weise sees all the discovering you do in No Man’s Sky as a colonialist fantasy, where you rename what has already been named and claim someone else factory for your own.
- Behold: Our Massive No Man’s Sky Round-Up Is Ready For Your Enjoyment | Orbytl – Andrew Brown and Evan McIntosh
A large collection of links of the spread of writing No Man’s Sky produced.
- ‘No Man’s Sky’ Argues For Design | PopMatters – G. Christopher Williams
Chris Williams sees the response by players to No Man’s Sky as a desire for creator’s hand to be felt in the universe.
- The Apocalyptic Fandom of No Man’s Sky | Kill Screen – Sam Zucchi
While Sam Zucchi finds the parallels striking between No Man’s Sky’s fandom and a religious cult.
That Dragon, Cancer
- That Dragon, Cancer & Purpose | YouTube – Satchbag’s Goods – Satchell Drakes
Satchell Drakes looks at That Dragon, Cancer and how it asks that basic question we all yearn for an answer to, one of purpose.
- Errant Signal – That Dragon, Cancer (Spoilers) | YouTube – Chris Franklin
Chris Franklin sees the game as a memorial for the developer’s son Joel Green and a personal exploration of their faith.
- Guest Column: Turning in the Badge | Giant Bomb – Heather Alexandra
Heather Alexandra sees the failure of The Division, partly as its failure to allow the player to express nuance in their heroism and the lacking of empathy required in said heroism.
- The Perverse Ideology Of The Division | Kill Screen – Gareth Damian Martin
I think the title encapsulates what this piece is about perfectly.
Homefront: The Revolution
- Homefront: The Revolution Is Everything Wrong With America | Kill Screen – Will Partin
Will sees the garbage rhetoric Homefront: The Revolution is sprouting and sees it as the exact same as that sprouted by the many militia groups in the SPLC’s database.
- ‘Homefront: The Revolution’ Takes the American Myth Too Far | Playboy – Reid McCarter
Reid McCarter also finds the rhetoric problematic in how calls back to a past America that never existed as an excuse for horrible acts of violence.
Far Cry Primal
- Far Cry: Primal: Make This Village Great Again | Paste Magazine – Cameron Kunzelman
Cameron sees Far Cry: Primal asking him to help “make this village great again” and all the problematic simplicity that implies.
- Let’s Play: Far Cry Primal Ep.1: An “archaeological” exploration | YouTube – Vlexo – Philip Riris
Archaeologist Philip Riris turns his talents to Far Cry Primal and what can be learned from the game, anthropologically speaking.
- Battlefield 1 and the problems of making a game out of World War I | Alphr – Thomas McMullan
Soon after Battlefield 1’s annoucement, Thomas McMullan muses on the difficulty of turning the first world war into a video game, especially the game shown to us in the trailer.
- Battlefield 1 and Modern Memory | ZAM – John Brindle
John Brindle, meanwhile, points out the vast difference in conception that World War One has in Britain than it does in America.
- “Battlefield 1 is a Fantasy” | Bullet Points Monthly – Gareth Damian Martin
Gareth Martin counters a lot of the hand wringing by saying, everything we think about the first world war is a fantasy and Battlefield 1 is playing off of that creative rendering and not the original conflict.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
- ‘Real world issues’ in games like Deus Ex are there for marketing reason, not for art | ZAM – John Brindle
That title there is John Brindle’s argument. He sees the theme as ways to get hype without the responsibility of dealing with the issues.
- Futurism, Realism, Racism: Deus Ex & The Quest for Credible Science Fiction | Medium – Steve Wilcox
Similarly, Steve Wilcox wants good old fashion science fiction that is able to make their take on the science AND the social issues credible.
- A Closer Look At The Best Mission In Deus Ex: Mankind Divided | Kotaku – Heather Alexandra
Much of the praise of the Deus Ex games goes to their multi-layered structure and Heather Alexandra gives us a close look at Mankind Divided’s best mission.
- Overwatch and the problem of caring labor | The Meta – Ryan Khosravi
Ryan Khosravi sees how Overwatch evaluates the play of its support classes as mirroring how our society values the labor of care givers.
- Why Overwatch Fan Are Obsessed With ‘Shipping’ Its Female Characters | Kotaku – Nico Deyo
A report about fem shipping and what about Overwatch allows to be so much more prevalent in its fan community than in others.
- Our Thoughts On Overwatch’s Tracer Being Gay | Kotaku – Heather Alexandra, Cecilia D’ Anastasio, Nathan Grayson, Gita Jackson, and Riley MacLeod
Overwatch postergirl Tracer was revealed to be Gay and a bunch of Kotaku’s writers got together to chat about it as a thing and how said thing was executed.
- Dishonored 2: The Stories of Women | Not Your Mama’s Gamer – Alisha Karabinus
There are many women characters in Dishonored 2 and Alisha Karabinus looks at how their characters are presented in the game as tropes and subversions of tropes.
- Colonial Power in ‘Dishonored 2’ | PopMatters – Jorge Albor
Jorge Albor looks at how your actions affect the city of Karnaca in the way a colonizer affects the lands they take over.
- A Trick Of The Light: Uncharted 4 And The Search For Greatness | Gamechurch – Richard Clark
Richard Clark identifies Uncharted 4’s hunt is not for gold or jewels, but for prestige and that indefinable adjective of “greatness.”
- Uncharted 4 Solves The Series’ Identity Crisis | Kotaku – Evan Narcisse
Whether or not you agree, this piece is the perfect sendoff for the franchise and Drake’s tumultuous history.
Kentucky Route Zero
- Opened World: Art Imitates Art | Haywire Magazine – Miguel Penabella
Miguel Penabella looks at the Kentucky Route Zero interquel ‘Limits and Demonstrations’ as an art gallery and the vast thematic ground it manages to cover in its short 10 minute play time.
- The Unsteady Steadying The Unsteady | Cara Ellison – Cara Ellison
A beautiful piece of writing that catches the sadness of existing in a broken world and how art like Kentucky Route Zero keeps Cara moving forward.
1979 Revolution: Black Friday
- 1979 Revolution: A Snapshot of Chaos and Propaganda | ZAM – Robert Rath
Main character Reza insists he is just a photographer, but Robert Rath notes that his photos are propaganda regardless of what he intends and have a real world effect.
- History Respawned 1979 Revolution Black Friday | YouTube – Robert Whitaker
Host Bob Whitaker has Dr. Zackery Heern of Idaho State Univerity to discuss revlotutionary ideologies, religion and America’s place in the events the game depicts.
- “Who is Lincoln Clay?” | Bullet Points Monthly – Various Authors
Bullet Points Monthly asks a bunch of writers how they view Lincoln Clay’s character.
- Opened World: On The Margins Of History | Haywaire Magazine – Miguel Penabella
Miguel sees the Playboy collectables as a metonym for the fiction altering of Mafia III’s history as a whole.
Other 2016 Releases
- Watch Dogs 2 Is a Love Letter To A San Francisco I No Longer Recognize | Kill Screen – Caty McCarthy
As a San Francisco native, Caty McCarthy sees Watch Dog 2’s simulation of the city as representative of the city’s welcoming nature that doesn’t really exist anymore.
- Pony Island and the Horror of Social Anxiety | Gamasutra – Sean May
Sean May finds the moment where Pony Island harnesses your Steam friend’s list against you, to be the best in the metafictional game.
- The System Will Set You Free | Medium – ZEAL – Iris Jay
A short comic about SUPERHOT and the transcendence of the body.
- Errant Signal: DOOM 2016 | YouTube – Chris Franklin
A good encapsulation of the new DOOM and how it captures the old DOOM feel by Campster.
- ‘Virginia’ Masks, Identity and the Horror of Our Own Reflection | PopMatters – G. Christopher Williams
A look at the masks Anne wears in Virginia.
- Pokémon Go is everything wonderful about tourism | Polygon – Evan McIntosh
Evan McIntosh notes that Pokémon Go taps into a lot of the same psychosocial motivators as traditional tourism.
- Who Gets to Be a CIVILIZATION? – Between the Lines | YouTube – Kyle Kallgren
More than that, but what does it mean to be civilized in the first place and how the answer to both has changed over time.
- On Dark Souls and Easy Modes | This Cage Is Worms – Cameron Kunzelman
Cameron would like to experience what the Dark Souls games have to offer, but cannot get past the game need to be harsh and often in the way of what he finds interesting.
- Souls Without Darkness | Normally Rascal – Stephen Beirne
In response, Stephen wonders about that argument, seeing it as someone who wants the tidbits without the context. He also wonders if Dark Souls reputation of its difficulty rather than its actual difficulty is in the way.
- How ‘Dark Souls II’ Reflects Our Historical and Political Anxieties | Waypoint – Brendan Vance
In the view of philosopher Walter Benjamin, tragedies never stop as their effect continues onward. To Brendan Vance, this idea is the perfect encapsulation of Dark Souls.
- Fallout 3 Is Garbage, And Here’s Why | YouTube – hbomberguy – Harry Brewis
An hour and a half counter to the mainstream video game reviewers that established Fallout 3 as a classic in highlighting all of its myriad structural flaws.
- Anatomy of a Side Quest: Beyond the Beef | YouTube – Game Maker’s Toolkit – Mark Brown
A look at the craftsmanship of a single side quest in Fallout: New Vegas and the number of ways it can be completed.
- Fallout 4 And The End Of History | First Person Scholar – David Bowman
“Fredric Jameson cites the observation that ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,’ and Fallout 4 takes this to its logical conclusion.”
- The First Levels of Sonic Games | YouTube – Super Bunnyhop – George Weidman
Super Bunnyhop looks at the first level of every Sonic game an what that can tell us about each game and era as a whole.
- On Sonic ’06 | Medium – ZEAL – Zolani Stewart
Everything you never knew you wanted to know about the travesty that is Sonic 2006 in Zolani Stewart’s continuing work in #SonicStudies.
- The Dark Side of Pacifism in ‘Undertale’ | PopMatters – Nick Dinicola
Undertale is a game in favor of non-violence, but in the game’s story that has some disturbing implications, Nick Dinicola notes.
- Perverted Sentimentality: An Analysis of UNDERTALE | YouTube – hbomberguy – Harry Brewis
Undertale is about fandom and liking things and a critique of the same, especially if you happen to be a fan of Undertale.
The Beginner’s Guide
- The Artist is Absent: Davey Wreden and The Beginner’s Guide | YouTube – Innuendo Studios – Ian Danskin
Academic literary theory is broken down into simple, thorough explanations using the metatextual analysis in The Beginner’s Guide as a starting point.
- Sin Apocalypse Cash parts 1-4 | Video Game Tourism – Eron Rauch
Eron Rauch endeavors to write about The Beginner’s Guide and dissects whether doing so is the trap that other critics have made it out to be.
And The Rest
- Street Fighter II: An Oral History | Polygon – Matt Leone
“An inside look at the creation and fallout off Capcom’s industry-defining fighting game, as told by those who were there.”
- Grand Theft Auto and the airbrushing of history | Alphr – Ed Smith
The LA riots of the 1990s were complicated affairs with decades of backstory. Rockstar’s version in San Andreas, not so much.
- Guest Column: On Monsters, Role Playing and Blackness | Giant Bomb – Gita Jackson
Dragon Age: Inquisition caused Gita Jackson to reflect upon her own life experiences as the game unexpectedly acted as a mirror.
- The Social Justice Witcher | ZAM – Rowan Kaiser
Rowan Kaiser notes, Geralt of The Witcher is many things, but he is a hero that, first of all, listens to women and believes them.
- How RimWorld’s Code Defines Strict Gender Roles | Rock Paper Shotgun – Claudia Lo
Getting into the nitty gritty code, how that affects the behavior of the characters and how it required conscious effort to enforce those strict gender roles despite being procedurally generated.
- Phoenix Wright & Aviary Attorney – AFA | YouTube – Lord Faust
Lord Faust examines how Phoenix Wright and Aviary Attorney portray justice and critiques the systems that are suppose to carry it out.
- We planned for Brexit at Football Manager. So why did no one else? | The Guardian – Miles Jacobson
The lead of the Football Manager team explains how they incorporated Brexit into their simulation and the strange aftermath of being treated as an expert on the subject.
- Final Fantasy X’s Generational Conflict or “I Hate You (Really) Big Daddy” | Video Games of the Oppressed – Mike Joffe
Mike Joffe explores the rather unsubtle story of Final Fantasy X and how Sin is perpetuated by old men and institutions not wanting to pass the torch to the next generation.
- A House of Teeth: On ANATOMY | Medium – Dante Douglas
Kitty Horrorshow’s ANATOMY is about, “The anatomy of the house, likened often to the anatomy of the human body, is cast as both backdrop and object of horror.”
- Story Beats: Bastion | YouTube – Innuendo Studios – Ian Danskin
Ian Danskin affirms that the ending choice in Bastion of whether or not to save Zulf is a storytelling technique that only a video game could pull off like the other techniques from his short series of videos.
- A Thorough Look at Baldur’s Gate | YouTube – Noah Caldwell-Gervais
And he does mean thorough. At nearly two hours it examines every possible relevant detail of the Baldur’s Gate series.
- SM64 – Watch for Rolling Rocks – 0.5x A Presses (Commentated) | YouTube – pannenkoek2012 – Scott Buchanan
“But first we have to talk about alternative universes.” Resembling transwarp equations is an explanation of how to beat a Mario 64 level in half a button press.
Games criticism is not just about particular games, but about an understanding of game design itself. So some criticism isn’t specific to a single title, but to an abstract concept; some sort of idea that is used and seen in numerous places.
- Extinguishing Neutrality in Game Design | Gamasutra – Elizabeth Sampat
“The first step to truly affecting game design is to realize that nothing is neutral.” Elizabeth Sampat explains we try to divorce situations from themselves and their lives in an effort to be neutral and it doesn’t work.
- When Good Intentions Go Awry | Psychology Today – Gina Roussos
Gina Roussos explains what happened when a game meant to explain the plight of the poor ended up fostering less empathy than simply watching the game being played. The answer was agency.
- Alien Languages: How We Talking About Procedural Generation | Gamasutra – Michael Cook
Michael Cook looks at how we talking about procedural generation in games and how unhelpful it is at getting at what it really is.
- A Proceduralist View On Diversity In Games | Journal of Game Criticism – Gillian Smith
This academic piece explains how procedural generation reveals the biases of its creators with regards to the roles of gender, race and sexuality that are procedurally generated.
- Beware the Magical Negro: On Tropes, Race, and Black Lives Matter | Not Your Mama’s Gamer – Samantha Blackmon
Samantha Blackmon looks at how the myth of the “magical invincible negro” in fiction has a deadly role to play in the real world shootings of unarmed black men.
- Guest Column: Visibility is Not Enough | Giant Bomb – Heather Alexandra
Heather Alexandra explains the further steps of beyond having token representation by having marginalized voices telling their own stories as writers, designers and actors.
- Are LGBT Characters “Forced” Into Games? | YouTube – Rantasmo
A light hearted take on the argument that LGBT characters are forced into games some vocal game players espouse as exemplified by the Siege of Dragonspear kerfuffle.
- Strangling my dinner with my own hands | ZAM – Laura Michet
“Survival game fantasies are weird as heck,” asserts ZAM editor-in-chief Larua Michet.
- Against Crafting | Kill Screen – Matt Margini
Seven reasons why crafting in games are a bad idea, including it doesn’t resembling crafting in real life and allows players to forget the dimensions of objects have meaning.
- Friedrich Romanticism and Games | How To Not Suck At Game Design – Anjin Anhut
Anjin Anhut asserts German painter Caspar David Friedrich is one of the most video-game-defining artists ever.
- What cyberpunk was and what it will be | Versions – Darran Anderson
A look at the history of cyberpunk as a reflection of the 80s and where the genre could be going into the future.
- AR is an MMO | Raph Koster’s Website – Raph Koster
Raph Koster asserts that AR games like Pokémon Go have much in common with an MMO and developers should stop acting otherwise when it comes to community management.
- The Unexpected Joy in Repetition | Kotaku – Heather Alexandra
Heather Alexandra muses on the pleasurably in games asking her to do the same simple things over and over.
- How Games Do Health | YouTube – Game Maker’s Toolkit – Mark Brown
A quick survey of how games present an avatar’s health from Gamer Maker’s Toolkit.
When most criticism focuses on the player-game connection, the picture of who actually makes games and how becomes blurry. One cannot criticize a medium without also looking at the manner in which the works of that medium are produced, and these pieces often bring out some of the concrete political issues that play out in media creation.
- How do we reform tech? | Medium – Human Tech – Anil Dash
Outside forces don’t seem able or willing to reform the tech industry, so Anil Dash explores what we can do.
- A Productive Look at Burnout in the Games Industry (And Everywheere Else) | Prescription Pixel Blog – Jennifer Hazel
Jennifer Hazel compiles a quick overview of what burnout is, its effects and what can be done moving forward.
- The Curious Appeal of Crunch | Waypoint – Tanya Short
This report tries to explain the complex reasons crunch is still a thing in the industry even after been demonstrably proven to not work and have detrimental effects in the long term.
- The game industry’s disposable workers | Polygon – Colin Campbell
Colin Campbell investigates the use of contractors as a growing slice of the game industry and their station as “disposable workers.”
- The Industry, the Union, and the Strike | Rami Ismail – Rami Ismail
Rami Ismail explains what is going on with the SAG-AFTRA strike and how it was caused by game industry’s seemingly inherent inflexibility.
- Video Game Translators Are on Your Side, So Stop Hating on Them | Vice – Kate Gray
Translation is never, ever perfect, but those problems are inherent to the process, not a fault of the people behind the thankless work, argues Kate Gray.
- Patch the Process | Rami Ismail – Rami Ismail
Rami Ismail explains the day one patch and how it’s a result of the console maker’s outdated certification processes, not lazy developers.
- A progressive future for VR: why VR is already getting worse, and how to make it better | Radiator Design Blog – Robert Yang
Robert Yang sees a new arena of creation and wants the iconoclasts to plant their flag and dictate its future before the calcification of the game industry sets in.
- A Conspiracy of Silence: How NDAs Are Harming The Games Industry | Kotaku UK – Rick Lane
NDAs stifle communication, creativity and in the end don’t really help anyone. They are an outdated form of protection in a growing industry.
- “No Reviews means no possibility of negativity” | GamesIndustry.biz – Christopher Dring
A critique of Bethesda’s new review policy as a cynical attempt to court only good press at a game’s launch. It affects only traditional reviewers, YouTubers are exempt as they are viewed as marketing.
- Why We Write About Games | Kotaku – Gita Jackson
Gita Jackson talks with Dante Douglas and Amr Alaaser, editors of the new game blog Deorbital about their new publication and their focus on new games journalism style writing.
- Publish Or Perish? Or Publish With Purpose? | First Person Scholar – Emma Vossen
Emma Vossen looks at the current state of academic publishing, sees it as broken and hopes First Person Scholar can act as a model for a new way forward.
The culture that surrounds a medium is reflected in the work and produced by it. Culture is nourished by the people who create art, experience it, and foster spaces for it. Culture is what is at stake when we make games, play them, and talk about them, and these pieces focus in particular on how we can trace culural change in the world around us.
- What Gamergate should have taught us about the ‘alt-right’ | The Guardian – Matt Lees
Matt Lees looks at how Gamergate ended up being a canary in the coalmine for the ‘alt-right’s’ tactics and ideology.
- Tabletop Gaming has a White Male Terrorism Problem | Latining
One woman’s experiences in the tabletop gaming sphere.
- The Ugly New Front In The Neverending Video Game Culture War | Kotaku – Patrick Klepek
Patrick Klepek tries to navigate the ground of reporting on Allison Rap’s harassment without falling into her abuser’s trap of legitimizing their claims as they try to ruin her life.
- The Mess That Came After Nintendo Fired An Employee | Kotaku – Patrick Klepek
Patrick Klepek’s follow up piece after Nintendo took action to fire Allison Rap based on the harassment campaign’s efforts.
- Magazine: Firmware | Deorbital – Wasim Salman
A series of poem-esque stories about gaming and the military shooter genre’s presence in Wasim Salman growing up in Lebanon (editor’s note: a prior version of this page mistakenly said Salman was from Syria).
- Editorial: An End to “GIT GUD” – You Don’t Need To Be “Good” At Games To Enjoy Them | Rock Paper Shotgun – John Walker
Shaming people for the quality of their play is “gross” and requiring a critic be better than you is irrational. Games are fun, let people have fun, says John Walker.
- Tragedy and E3: It’s Not Just the Guns, It’s The Stories We Tell | ZAM – Robert Rath
In the wake of E3 and the Florida nightclub shooting right before, Robert Rath says its not all the shooting and violence in games that’s unhealthy, but how they are framed.
- Why do we need @GamerX? | I Need Diverse Games – David Gaider
David Gaider didn’t realize how much he needed a place like GamerX until he found himself walking around without his customary filter and he could just be.
- Why is everybody criticizing Bioshock Infinite these days? | ZAM – Cameron Kunzelman
Cameron Kunzelman addresses the above question by pointing out, it’s not new, you just weren’t paying attention before. It’s not the question asker’s fault, game disappear quick in the public consciousness.
- Video Games Are Boring | GamesIndustry.biz – Brie Code
“Maybe everything we know is wrong,” wonders Brie Code as she explains her experience trying to convey what makes video game special to her non-gaming friends and the difficulty in trying to reach those uninterested in traditional gaming pursuits.
I wish you all fulfilling and energizing New Year, and as we move forward after 2016, I will take with me the message that it is vital to resist. Resist the willingness to become complacent. Resist the easy path of accepting what has been said before. Resist, and imagine a better world for the future. Don’t give up, don’t give in and never surrender.
We will resume our weekly roundups in the second week of January. Please continue to submit your suggestions for TWIVGB to our email or @ message our Twitter account.
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