October 15th

The big discussion of the week is loot boxes – also known as gacha mechanics – or, in-game microtransactions with randomised contents. A long-controversial aspect of free-to-play games, these items have featured prominently in recent AAA game releases, provoking a wave of vocal frustration. In this roundup, I’ll cover the loot boxes story first, and then move on to other topics, including some new work on ludo-narrative dissonance and visual expression in games.

Loot boxes

“You are not a valued player; you are a statistic on a spreadsheet. You are red or black ink. Loot boxes certainly aren’t there for fun. They have always been designed for the purpose of making sure that a company turns a profit.”

Disrupt intent

While some of the discussion about loot boxes evokes treasured notions of player agency, critical writing on other games continues to trouble the assumption that players should always feel in control – or, examines what that dream of control means in the context of people’s personal ethics.

“The exact same restrictions that real urban spaces create are built into the physics of the game world. There is no way to disrupt intent. Unlike “real” parkour, the act of movement itself is not autotelic; it can only be used to accomplish something else.”

Contrast

Dissonances are also explored in these two pieces on the surprising narratives told through games that seem to be about one thing but turn out to be about another.

“It’s a contrast that’s often reflected in the game’s terrific soundtrack. Many of the tunes begin with a simple melody plucked out on a down-home instrument like a banjo or piano, then shift midway through to a more synth-dominated, dreamlike sound. All the twee charms of a simple small-town life, but with a hint of something more.”

Absurdism

These two pieces showed me new ways of making use of the absurd or illogical in critical writing.

“When the game’s perspective and the player’s collide, what’s left is an absurdist mess, one where the things the game abstracts can’t be made to make sense.”

Visual language

Further expanding notions of how we should read games as critics, these two writers challenge us to sharpen our visual literacy.

“If videogames struggle with meaningful, powerful imagery, it’s probably because our culture has never been able to recognise the form’s unique visual language that’s distinct from a technical visual language.”

Scenes

This has been a great week for writing on the history of games in non-Western contexts.

“If you look at Western games, designers first develop the core mechanic of a game. In Japan, the story is the key, like in the role-playing games, while Korean games use cutting-edge technology. In China, gaming is a product not a service. When your core design philosophy is based on making money, then innovation will drastically decrease”

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