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March 29th

Posted by John Kilhefner in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on March 29th)

What’s up, fellow crit enthusiasts? If you’re looking for Easter candy, you’re a week too early, but we’ve got plenty of goodies from a slew of amazing writers to keep you content until then. So, welcome to This Week in Videogame Blogging!

What It Means to be Indie

Luke Pullen reacts to Offworld’s printing of Zoe Quinn’s Alt Games manifesto with jubilation for its recognition and a pessimism of historical sorts for how its artists cope in the future. On Gamasutra, Bryant Francis interviews several developers including Dan Cook, saying: “Let Get Real about the Financial Expectations of ‘Going Indie’:

“In another industry, we’d have labeled the folks making games on new digital platforms as ‘entrepreneurs,’ but because of the rush to be ‘art,’ mere discussion of business takes on a negative tinge. The result is a lot of very poorly-equipped folks trying to run businesses for the first time.”

Over at TransGamer Thoughts, Heather Alexandra talks about the lack of empathy dealing with the emotions and fears of trans people in games. Soha Kareem discusses “Games That Heal” at Offworld, noting how her work, and others of a deeply personal thread, facilitates a coping method for indie artists.

Trauma, Transcendence and Mental Illness

Bouncing off that last one, let’s dive into a few articles peeking under the curtain of themes of illnesses and healing. On PopMatters, G. Christopher Williams describes how mental illness in White Night allegorises American economic inequality, and At Madness and Play, Amsel Von Spreckelsen discussed the treatment of mental health in Darkest Dungeon:

It is mired in decades-old RPG design and all that the automation of putting it on a computer does is  make the bookkeeping easier; and when mental health becomes relegated to a bookkeeping exercise, when the advances are based on more efficient crunching of variables and modifiers, then it should be clear that this does not help us understand pain and dysfunction and joy and the life that you lead when you are mad.

Back at Offworld, Laura Hudson talks VR’s applications for immersion beyond marketing. Meanwhile Dara Khan, delves into profound spiritual experiences with games, and finds Dragon Age: Inquisition’s story at odds with its gameplay.

Laura Kate recounts a deeply personal trauma on Indie Haven, one resurrected by a scene in Life is Strange: Episode 2. (Content warning: discussion of suicide.)

Joe Parlock, inspired by Laura Kate’s post, tells of how his own feelings blinded him to an option in Fallout 3, and elsewhere, Taylor Hidalgo tackles morality in The Deer God.

Mapping Out Our History

Over at the Ontological Geek, James Hinton wrote about how game maps tend to ignore practical implications for interesting design in land masses, and Brendan Vance’s “The Ghosts of Bioshock” reflects on the Wounded Knee massacre of the Sioux and the framing of history in Bioshock: Infinite:

On one hand I feel [Bioshock: Infinite] appropriates: It snatches the juiciest, tenderest piece from a complex and valuable history so it can put that piece on display, neglecting to offer its historical subjects their due consideration. I think it telling that the game’s plot reduces the Massacre to a mere skeleton in the closet of its protagonist Booker DeWitt; I think it tells us that Infinite is a game about white experiences to the detriment of non-white experiences, greatly complicating any sympathy it may bear towards the myriad victims of white imperialism. Yet on the other hand I must consider in its defence that it uses Wounded Knee as shorthand because that is the most its matrix of contradictory constraints permit it to do; that in employing this shorthand it creates a tiny space for others to approach the game’s subject matter with more focus and more empathy (a space I now hope to cultivate).

On Offworld, Tanya D. gives developers a reason to be historically accurate by including more black characters and fewer stereotypes:

Even Vivienne de Fer, who gave me so much hope initially, disappoints. She falls head over hennin into the “Strong Black Woman” archetype from the moment she’s introduced. She’s a supposed “ice queen,” an untouchable woman who’s too good for the plebes around her. She says “my dear” like some women say “bless her heart,” and her words cut sharper than any spell. Any flirtation attempts result in her putting you down, emphasizing her own unattainability. Why can’t she just be a black woman with the romantic and relationship quirks we all have?

But what if we couldn’t choose race in games? What if race were parceled out at random?

Battlefield Hard Sell

Battlefield Hardline came out last week, and with it so did plenty of interesting writing. Let’s start with Austin Walker’s “Cop Out“, which takes Hardline to task in an incredibly thoughtful review:

And so Battlefield Hardline speaks to our context, too (whether or not that’s what the developers would like). It speaks a politics even as it flails in the single player campaign, desperate to avoid saying anything about the dead black boy on the pavement—about 75 unarmed black bodies on the ground. It flails in the multiplayer, eager to wave aside any critiques of police militarization. It flails and flails and flails. And the flailing is the message.

Carolyn Petit, too, takes on Battlefield: Hardline, both on KQED and Tumblr, finding its mechanics shallow and its themes underwhelming.

Meanwhile, Marc Prices believes Battlefield deliberately avoided social issues by disguising itself as a cop procedural, and our own Mark Filipowich explores his thoughts on crime gleaned through invoking literature, film and TV:

The player does all the friendship building questing that would be expected of an RPG, but it does so in the context of an urban world: they only have power with access to electricity, the internet, social conventions, architecture and guns; the power’s domain is the city and the city is everywhere. Most of the game the player takes on errands for cash, selling their bodies into violent labour to undermine the big-bad. And yet, the existence of magic always provides hope. As miserable as things may seem, there is a force beyond the city that promises equilibrium.

Finally, Anthony McGlynn at The Arcade talks “Battlefield Hardline and Politics in Games“…

Politics as Usual

…a point echoed by Leigh Alexander who argues “You can’t ‘just keep politics out of it’“, while Emily Joy Bembeneck discusses how even games like Cities: Skyline inject politics:

Games are engines of persuasion, and despite some common rhetoric that disagrees, they are delicious morsels of politics. They’re drenched in it, marinated in it, and just because it tastes good doesn’t mean it’s all ok. And the politics of Cities:Skylines is that education is the easy answer.

Keza MacDonald at Kotaku UK reacts to the strange desire to keep politics out of fiction:

It also makes me monstrously uncomfortable, because in a former life I was an academic (I did a Masters in German and another in Comparative Literature before ducking out of the first year of a PhD to do this video game thing full-time), and every time I see language like this it kinda reminds me of the Nazi attitude to art. They very much took the view that art should be “apolitical”, which of course eventually resulted in the extermination of all the art that didn’t fit THEIR politics. I feel like anyone who’s ever read anything about Entartete Kunst couldn’t help but feel deeply troubled by the notion that art “should” be unpolitical.

Whose Category is it Anyway?

Just because I failed to properly categorize the following doesn’t mean they aren’t compelling in their own right. Just look to Jorge Albor, who plays Earthbound as an adult and finds it a compelling piece of children’s literature:

Playing Earthbound now, it is easy to find moments of satire, when the game criticizes the strange and mysterious elements of adulthood. At the Stoic Club in Summers, Ness and his friends encounter a room full of adults who have meaningless verbose conversations with each other. One denizen exclaims, “You guys can’t envision the final collapse of capitalism? Incredible!” This isn’t just a silly in-joke for adults. This is the “kids’ table” perspective of adult conversation. Earthbound is the closest piece of fiction that I have seen to induce the feeling of being a child.

In keeping with Brendan Vance’s “death and photography,” Rowan Kaiser re-articulates his 1UP article, “The 80 Most Influential Videogames of All Time,” and Doom still tops the list, while Jillian of FemHype elaborated on her love for the original Lara Croft:

While her clothes were laughably ill-suited for raiding caves and deep-sea diving, the Lara from the earlier Tomb Raider installments was never a pawn to be neatly directed by the hands of the men she encountered in-game. That Lara faced some pretty tough shit, too. A couple hundred cultists armed with guns and grenades? Pfft. Oh, please. The original Lara faced down a T-rex with only two pistols and lived to fight another day. Don’t even play, folks. She’ll mess your dinosaur ass right up.

Auke Peters listed “Ten Fierce Female Game Characters That’ll Blow Your Mind“, and yes, Lara Croft is in there.

Last, but far from least, we have some video for you by way of Innuendo Studios, “Who Shot Guybrush Threpwood“, giving a compelling explanation for why adventure games died and why that was a good thing.

If Every Pork Chop Were Perfect, We Wouldn’t Have Hot Dogs 

Welp, that’s it folks! Thank you for reading, and please continue to support and send us underappreciated voices; whether it’s your work or a writer you’re keen on, send it via Twitter mention or our email submissions form.

And don’t forget to submit to this month’s Blogs of the Round Table and This Month in Let’s Plays.

If you like what we do here, please consider donating to our Patreon, as we are funded entirely on the generosity of wonderful readers like you!

February Roundup: ‘Buddy Systems’

Posted by Mark Filipowich in Blogs of the Round Table: - (Comments Off on February Roundup: ‘Buddy Systems’)

Well friends, we’ve come to the end of another very short February, and to show my dedication to you, I’ve decided to spend today indoors to do this roundup even while a sudden heatwave is bringing temperatures as high as -7. No no, don’t thank me, that’s what friends are for. Y’know what friends are also for? Videogames, which is why we wanted to hear all about the ‘Buddy Systems’ that bring us closer together:

As competitive as games may be, they’re equally cooperative in nature. What do games do to foster teamwork? Which game characters can you only think of as partners? Which of your friends do you depend on to share med-kits in Left 4 Dead and fire flowers in Mario? How have you used games to bond with others? On the other hand, how do games fail to bring you closer to others? Do your friends take you for granted because you prefer support classes or are you tired of having to always carry everyone else to victory? Tell us about the friendships that captivate you on either side of the screen, the mechanics that foster human contact or the systems that pull you apart.

Jeb Wrench kicks us off at his blog, Jeb Writes, by pointing at the failure of games in portraying non-romantic friendships in their rush to include a love story. In his own words:

A deep, meaningful friendship can resonate along completely different chords to players. Unfortunately, friendship is usually just marked along the same axis as romance – a measure of points along a slider. Often just a level below romance. Which I feel misrepresents the importance of friendship as a relationship. A strong friendship can be just as powerful, just as important and as a romantic relationship.

The author then moves into a brief discussion of Saint’s Row IV to point out a videogame plot that actually cares about friendships.

Tom Holt looks on the friendships games create between players, citing some of the games that has kept his social circle in tact across long distances. Furthermore, Holt examines the kinds of games that encourage mean-spiritedness between partners and the kinds of trolling that ruins friendly competition, even by imitating it.

Over at Discover Games, Shawn Trautman takes a different approach, suggesting that the value of games can’t be decided by authority or community, rather that it is perfectly valid to approach a game personally and disregard the consensus. He hammers his point home with this gem:

This Wind Waker situation provides the perfect opportunity to illustrate this idea without being accused of simply knee-jerkingly defending my opinions and playstyles. Based on my experience with the game, the oft-lamented “giant fetch quest at the end” criticism makes absolutely no sense. There is no giant fetch quest at the end for me, and there didn’t have to be for you, either. But here’s the twist: that criticism is still valid.

Phill English also misses the days when he and his friends could saddle up on a couch and charge into a game, but he’s glad to find new ways to connect with friends over games:

LANs are a thing of the past, surrendered to the inconvenience of having to schedule weeks in advance, blocking out time around work and family to lug our rigs around to a single address for a day’s play. No, it’s far easier these days to admit that we’re busy (read: old) people and instead take advantage of moments where our online friends lists align.

Looking back into games, Stephanie Jennings, writing for Ludogabble, discusses how odd it is that for all the emphasis Pokemon places on social activity, until Pokemon X and Y, there is no effort to create any relationship between the player’s avatar and their pokemon. Jennings muses about how appropriate the pokemon-amie system originating in X and Y is, comparing it to Mattie Brice’s Pokemon: Unchained challenge from 2013. From Jenning’s article:

But I wonder if players would feel increasingly uncomfortable with the violence of battle if the opportunities to develop emotional attachments expanded. I wonder what a Pokemon game would look like if bonding were the central concern, rather than combat. I wonder what a Pokemon game would be like in which the point actually was journeying, getting to know others, seeing and experiencing the world, and learning how to selflessly care for one’s friends. I wonder if we’d notice more how disturbing it is that we are content with the myths of the values of battle in the first place.

Speaking of violent friendships, Leigh Harrison explores how the clunky, awkward violence in Far Cry 2 challenges how he relates to the avatar’s thuggish friends compared with the rest of the NPCs in the game’s world. Whoo. Dark.

The Rev chronicles the great battle on Google’s Ingress, a multiplayer augmented reality game where people are aligned in teams based on their real life cities. Our intrepid narrator then relates to us how playing to the game’s virtual goals are accomplished physically. Pictures of each moment as they happened in the virtual and physical worlds particularly point to how Ingress crosses the boundaries between each kind of play.

Finally, I decided to throw my hat in the ring and it looks like I barely made my own deadline. This month’s topic was an opportunity for me to talk about “friendly games” on my blog, bigtallwords. Unlike your garden variety co-op games, which just allow multiple players to occupy the same space in pursuit of the same goal, friendly games like Kirby’s Epic Yarn are structured to actually get players talking and cooperating with little risk of failure.

Well I better get going now, you know how it is. But I really had a good time. We should totally get together more often. Hit me up by putting the Link-Matic 5000 on your very own site:

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Anyway, our good friend Lindsey will be along with the next topic soon, but in the meantime if you’re interested in what we do here, consider contributing a monthly amount of your choosing on Patreon. Thanks again for reading and happy blogging!

February 22nd

Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on February 22nd)

Hello! Did you know it’s National Cat Day in Japan? This is what Twitter tells me, and by ‘tells me,’ I mean it’s filling my timeline with even more cat pictures than usual. I can’t exactly complain.

That said, I’m here to perform a duty, catvalanche or no catvalanche. Let’s get to This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Racefail

We start with Kill Screen founder and PBS Game/Show host Jamin Warren, who in the show’s most recent episode tackles several of the extant issues of race representation in games. As Warren argues, people of color are still dramatically underrepresented in games, and what representation does exist often falls into stereotypes and tokenism.

Back on Warren’s home turf on Kill Screen, contributor Will Partin provides a good companion piece for the above video, going into further detail regarding BioWare’s Dragon Age and Mass Effect series and their failure to engage with (human) race issues in a non-abstracted way.

Cutting to the heart of the issue, over on Kotaku Evan Narcisse hosts a roundtable with an all-star panel consisting of Austin Walker, Shawn Alexander Allen, TJ Thomas and Catt Small, discussing the shortcomings of black representation in games from their own vantage points, issues which extend much further than (but certainly includes) diversity among developers.

She’s Not Playing It Wrong

Responding to the Kotaku roundtable, Not Your Mama’s Gamer’s Samantha Blackmon reflects on her recent experience playing Life is Strange and how her experience as a black woman subconsciously inflected how she treated the game’s authority figures. This dovetails nicely with a recent essay by Shawn Trautman, on overcoming the myth that there is a ‘right’ way to play a game:

Based on my experience with the game, the oft-lamented “giant fetch quest at the end” criticism [of Wind Waker] makes absolutely no sense. There is no giant fetch quest at the end for me, and there didn’t have to be for you, either. But here’s the twist: that criticism is still valid. If someone didn’t know that the Triforce shards could be gotten earlier, or they didn’t know that they would be important later, I suppose I could do what’s been done to me and say their criticisms are wrong because it’s their “own fault”: they made that annoying fetch quest happen by waiting. But the truth is the game is just as much to blame for not signposting these things well, and “blame” isn’t really the point, anyway. If a person plays a game the only way they know how, and the way that makes the most sense for them, their experiences are valid. Categorically. Full stop.

Elsewhere, as part of Aevee Bee’s always-splendid ZEAL e-zine, Joshua Trevett offers up a compelling essay on cs_gonehome, a mod which places Counter-Strike combat within the domestic space of Fullbright Company’s Gone Home. We soon find out that it’s more than a cheap gimmick:

[Counter-Strike] is a game about guns. CS loves guns. Conversely, cs_gonehome feels as though it’s fearful of guns. That’s because in three broad ways, cs_gonehome plays quite differently from Counter-Strike on a typical map.

And, over on 99 Percent Invisible, Roman Mars chronicles the demise of EA’s misbegotten Sims Online, and in doing so reflects on the challenges of games preservation to capture the essence of multiplayer and social games.

The Reason So Many Babies are Born in November

As Valentine’s Day covered the Earth in its rose-petaled grip last Saturday, the thoughts of many writers turned to… well, you know. You can consider most of these links not safe for work, just to be on the safe side.

For example, Damion Schubert took a look at — don’t giggle — a masturbation rhythm game titled Cock Hero. Meanwhile, following another (perhaps classier) thread of erotica, Emily Short surveys recent trends in the sphere of adult interactive fiction (“choose your own erotica”), much of it written by and for women and queer authors.

And naturally, the singular and sensual Cara Ellison has devoted the most recent entry of her S.EXE column over on Rock, Paper, Shotgun to… a search for good platonic male-female friendships in games, coming upon the LucasArts classic Full Throttle. You didn’t expect that, did you? Ms. Ellison will not be boxed in!

The Play’s the Thing

On As Houses, Leigh Harrison attempts to pin down just what it is about Far Cry 2 which has made it a classic:

It’s a game in which your main objective is to shoot things, but also a game which wants you to question the validity of its own existence and those of its contemporaries. It makes you feel insignificant and weak in a genre built upon power, forcing you into the arms of dangerous strangers to make up some of the deficit. […] Your final betrayal is the game’s way of making sure you’re listening when it tells you for the last time that war is horrible, that it corrupts and eventually makes liars and thieves – or corpses – of us all. In the end, the only source of true conviction is the game itself.

Meanwhile, on Play the Past, Gilles Roy looks to the strong Greek mythological aesthetic of Apotheon and contends that there’s something about it which perfectly suits its gameplay:

The action hero of the video game resembles, in many ways, the action hero of Greek mythology: typically masculine, bereft of psychology, projected into a universe of vivid happenings, quasi-immortal, yet in a perpetual state of existential threat, fighting for redemption. Perched between life and death, the mythical hero exists as an “immovable centre”, a bridge between immortals and mortals, story and audience, game and player.

Design Notes

Hamish Todd, who wrote our excellent Level Design Analysis Spotlight, here does a deep dive on a particular room design in the first Doom. Elsewhere, George Weidman shares his enthusiasm for the Resident Evil REmake, and in particular analyzes just what makes it so splendid to play.

Critical Switch, a mini-podcast in which Austin Howe and our own Zolani Stewart trade off hosting duties each episode to tackle a particular short subject. In this episode, Howe explores how party size in Japanese role-playing games can take on a symbolic and narrative meaning.

On PopMatters Moving Pixels, Scott Juster wonders why death, such a mainstay of the Game of Thrones television show, is treated so inflexibly in Telltale’s game adaptation. And over on Virtual Narrative, Justin Keever and Miguel Penabella exchange a letter series on Max Payne 3 and discuss how, in a subtle way, it seems to tap the fourth wall just as the first game did:

Max Payne 3 is perhaps best explained as the residual effect of that cognizance [of the first game]. Loosed from Remedy’s penchant for ludicrousness and absorbed by neo-Rockstar’s proclivity towards straight-faced drama, Max Payne is finally imprisoned in a world that’s less parodic than it is abjectly cruel. Max Payne 3‘s São Paulo is a world of puppeteers, where the poor and desperate fall victim to the whims of the rich and petty in the name of microscopic gains in power – a world of deep systemic corruption whose agents permeate every level of society, like sickly veins extending from a diseased heart. Self-determination is a myth, a falsity for all but the affluent and empowered.

[…]

We didn’t pay for Max, we paid for an avatar – a puppet with the capability of violence, without the means to protest the things we make them do. But the nebulous “they” that Max refers to doesn’t simply mean the player.

In a striking essay, Jeroen D. Stout identifies what we might call a ‘Frankenstein moment’: when the systems of a game coalesce with the game’s fiction to reveal the finely tuned yet awful implications of the player’s actions. Given that Stout refers to Alpha Centauri for much of the article, this pairs well with a recent essay by Civilization 4 lead designer Soren Johnson — which we also featured on these pages — on system design deviating from developer intent.

Robert Rath paints a picture on the difference between ‘realism’ and ‘truth’ in war-themed games — and how for as many games are about warfare, few seem to have much to say. Meanwhile, on Paste, Austin Walker bemoans the lazy design and ableism inherent in the ubiquitous ‘sanity meter’ of horror games, while also looking to more recent titles like Darkest Dungeon to explore how they might offer a more nuanced, culturally responsible representation of mental illness:

Every adventurer starts with an empty stress meter and a few quirks, both positive and negative. These quirks represent a wide range of characteristics, from personal preferences to physical capabilities, from special knowledge to (yes) psychological diagnoses. But mental health isn’t treated as more or less important (or pathological) than other personal traits.

[…]

[One quirk is called] “Guilty Conscience.” The mouseover text says that [the character] “bears the crushing guilt of deeds real and imagined.” I slide the mouse cursor over this long list of red words and sigh. “I don’t even know if ‘Guilty Conscience’ has a real effect,” I say, “but it sounds bad.”

The critique Darkest Dungeon is making is of critique of me, and of the culture that taught me to read words like “crushing guilt” and wonder if it has a “real” effect on a person.

Writing for Reverse Shot, Brendan Keogh muses on how sports games simultaneously deploy immediacy (a feeling of inhabiting the game) and hypermediacy (a feeling of witnessing the game as a televised event). In response, Higher Level Gamer’s Nick Hanford advances another question: does hypermediacy (or remediation, as he refers to it) really holds water in games over time, and is it the most interesting aesthetic feedback loop going on between games and television?

Remediation works really well when we’re looking at the design of sports games and how they are marketed as new experiences, but I wonder what happens when players start their hundredth or two-hundredth contest in these games.

[…]

What I’m more intrigued by is how remediation can be opened up and understood as flowing in both directions. Television has certainly impacted the design of games, but games have also affected the ways that sports are televised. The late-1990’s saw the introduction of the Skycam for American football broadcasts that provided a videogame-like, bird’s-eye view of the game. While not directly related to the presentation of sports, this year EA started filming NFL rookies’ reactions to their in-game statistical representations. Along with that, sports journalists and game companies have pushed the official simulations of championship games for a few years now. If we have these specific instances of change flowing from game to television, I wonder how the experience of games also changes the experience of television.

Ice-T Woodenly Mentioning Kotaku

We have to at least talk about Law & Order: Special Victims Unit‘s recent Gamergate-themed episode, unfortunately. And of those who talk about it, Leigh Alexander, unsurprisingly talks about it best. In particular, while she does spend some time recapping the episode and its various problems (a Content Warning is in order for descriptions of sexual assault, stalking and harassment), but more broadly, the piece serves as a reflection back on certain core ideas from her (widely misinterpreted) “Gamers Are Over” editorial.

Cats Though

Thanks for reading! As always, we value your contributions and hope that you’ll take the time to send us a link — your own of someone else’s — for inclusion on these pages, either by Twitter mention or email!

There is still a little time to get involved in February’s Blogs of the Round Table and our monthly Let’s Play roundup as well! When submitting on Twitter for these, please use the #BoRT and #LetsPlayCD hashtags, respectively.

A little signal-boosting: the most recent issue of academic journal Game Studies has gone live with six new articles for your perusal.

Critical Distance is funded completely by its readership! If you like what you see and want to help us advance our current and upcoming features and other exciting projects, consider signing up for a small monthly donation on our Patreon! We really do depend on you.

Finally, a personal aside: I will be in San Francisco for the Game Developers Conference the first week of March, so TWIVGB duties will again be handled by members of our formidable team! And, if you find yourself up by GDC as well, come and say hi! I will have our special exclusive Critical Distance pins with me, as well as some surprise goodies!

That’s all for this week. Happy Cat Day!

January Roundup: ‘Player’s Choice’

Posted by Lindsey Joyce in Blogs of the Round Table: - (Comments Off on January Roundup: ‘Player’s Choice’)

I think we can all agree that yesterday was a big day. Here at Critical-Distance, we had an amazing new guest curator (Jill Murray!) to present This Week in Video Game Blogging, and there was also a big thing with lots of expensive ads to watch on TV – you guess it: the Puppy Bowl!  What with all that excitement, we wanted to hold back on the Blogs of the Round Table roundup to make sure you had time to take in and digest everything yesterday had to offer. Hopefully, you’re now recovered/recovering from yesterday’s happenings and are ready for an exciting roundup. This month’s theme was ‘Player’s Choice’

This month, we’re interested in hearing about self-regulated or self-inflicted rules. For instance, do you take stealth games so seriously that any detection causes you to restart from the last save point? Or maybe, when you played Skyrim you completed the game without once using a melee weapon? Alternately, perhaps you refuse to run left in side scrolling games – no backtracking allowed. Maybe you only ever allow yourself to rotate Tetris pieces two times. Maybe you played with an all female cast in Fire Emblem? Maybe, just maybe, you always choose the last dialogue option in games, no matter what it is. These are the circumstances we want to hear about: choices you make as a player that aren’t dictated or necessitated by the game, but which alter your experience and understanding of the game. Tell us about your choices and commitments to self-regulated play circumstances. Let’s talk about the resolutions you’ve made and how strong your resolve was in sticking to those modes of play.

Kicking us off this month, Oscar Strik of Sub Specie uses the theme to discuss the ways players create subgames and what the creation of those subgames reveal about play styles and player types. His analysis covers stealth play and  role play. Strik’s analysis also considers what happens when the play styles we once to incorporated ourselves become a part of the game itself. He says:

The more your specific playstyle becomes part of the official game rules, the less it becomes a game within a game.

Commodore Purry’s Cupcake Party contribution also discusses roleplay by musing over self-imposed roleplay in Fallout: New Vegas. Commodore Purry developed a list of constraints to make playing in hardcore mode even more meaningful. I won’t detail the list of constraints here, though there are some good ones, because the really interesting bit is in how the constraints changed morality in the game:

I felt myself playing the game differently as well as viewing my own morality in a more disposable way.

PeterZ was also thinking about morality this month. Over at One More Continue, PeterZ discusses the eternal conflict between the dedication to play as the bad guy when we’ve been socialized to want others to like us. This is especially difficult, PeterZ notes, when unlike real life, video games validate our goodness thereby making it even harder to be evil.

Taking a different tack, Phil of Tim and and Phil Talk About Games, took the opportunity to discuss ‘Player’s Choice’ in terms of multiplayer games – specifically Counterstrike. Phil describes his self-imposed play style is being comprised of ego (challenging himself to use challenging weapons) and empathy (considering whether everyone in-game is having a fun/good experience). Phil states,

These two tendencies–one which is essentially showing off and another that boils down to some kind of strange fairplay–might seem to be at odds with each other. But they find a home in exploring the joy of competition within the rules of the game. The theatre of it.

This month, Leigh Harrison also considered the theme in terms of a multiplayer setting: a Half Life mod in which a group of role players made the most of the mod’s limited amenities to create a rich world of interaction. Harrison then uses this as a springboard to compare and contrast the role player’s dedication to eschewing the game’s rules against his own, more “adversarial” mode of play.

Over at Depth of a Failsman, Taylor Hidalgo recalls his experience with Shenume and his exploration play that stretched and reformed the limits of its narrative. Hidalgo notes,

The more choice the game gave me, the more I pushed at the boundaries. However unorthodox, though, I don’t think the game ever made my choices “wrong,” per se. They never did more than waste a few minutes or yen, for the most part, and sometimes managed to help Ryo’s quest along.

Also considering the bounds of narrative, but this time through the lens of translation philosophies, The Rev catalogs an experiment in which a friend, Rick, plays through the original Japanese version of Catherine (Kyasarin) to see if the game is different in translation. To make the experiment more interesting, Rick must play with some other, alcoholic, parameters too. The end result, in addition to what I imagine would be a rough hangover, is that Rick’s perception of the characters and story did change.

In a similar vein, Zachary Kerr reflects back on his experience of trying to be a pacifist in Skyrim, and how playing this way revealed the inherently violent undertones of the game itself. He states,

My pacifistic experience reveals dissonance between the heroic tone of the game and the nature of the acts I’ve committed. There is Skyrim the story, and there is Skyrim the game. The clash between my story and the mechanics weakens the game for me. The game pretends that I am a hero while I commit severe crimes against other people.

Over at Vidyasaur, Steve Hernandez played through Castlevania: The Adventure and added one simple rule: No destroying candles unless required. Dorin remarks how much additional difficulty this adds to the game – stage 3 was impossible:

I didn’t make the game harder by changing the difficulty within a menu, I made it harder by choosing not to interact with a ubiquitous and useful element throughout my adventure.

Tom Holt talks about his experience with the (as he notes “poorly named”) Straight Character Challenge in Final Fantasy Tactics, and the six things he learned in the process. In addition to six specific learning outcomes, Holt also advises others to try playing with self-imposed rules and reflects,

self-imposed challenges are a great way to learn something. I strongly encourage everybody to try playing games in a new way, whether officiated or not. Limit your toolkit, and learn to adjust for the gaps. It’s like the old saying: When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

I Think that’s a great thought on which to end this month’s roundup. I hope you enjoy reading this round of submissions as much as I did. It was great to see so many people contribute. If you haven’t already, feel free to use this code to embed the links in your blog (provided your publishing platform allows iframes, that is):

<iframe type=”text/html” width=”600″ height=”20″ src=”http://www.tinysubversions.com/bort.html?month=January15″ frameborder=”0″></iframe>

Also, make sure to check back tomorrow for Mark Filipowich’s February theme. I’ll look forward to your submissions!

Introducing: This Month in Let’s Plays!

Posted by Lindsey Joyce in Announcement: - (Comments Off on Introducing: This Month in Let’s Plays!)

Friends, we are excited to announce that Critical-Distance is branching out into new curation territory: Let’s Plays. For some time now, we’ve included Let’s Plays that engage critically with game content in our This Week in Videogame Blogging feature. As Let’s Plays become more popular avenues for people to engage with criticism, ideas, and play, we’d like to give them their own curatorial focus. With that in mind, we’re looking for submissions by Jan 31st for a pilot run of: This Month in Let’s Plays!

So, what are we looking for? Here are some examples:

Let’s Plays That Offer Criticism of a Particular Game:

For instance, Brendan Keogh’s critical Let’s Play of Modern Warfare

Or Cameron Kunzelman’s Let’s Play of Grand Theft Auto

 

Let’s Plays that Engage a Particular Issue Across Multiple Games:

While these may not be Let’s Plays in the most traditional sense, since they don’t show sustained play of a single game, these style of commentary allows us to use a visual medium to discuss other visual media: games.

Errant Signal provides some great source of this type. Take a look at this one on the concept of “fun”:

 

Historical/Preservation Let’s Plays

At this point Let’s Plays also allow us with a means to preserve, in some way, the play experience of games that – for the average player – are now hard to access due to the inaccessibility of outdated platforms.

Leigh Alexander has done some great work in this area already. For example, here’s her Let’s Play of Death in the Caribbean:

 

Multiplayer Lets Plays

Another advantage of Let’s Plays is that it affords the possibility of collaboration and dialogue between two players/critics/thinkers in real-time.

A great example of this type of Lets Play can be found at Stream Friends. Here’s their first Let’s Play of Knock-Knock:

 

Other

Just because I haven’t listed it here doesn’t mean we aren’t looking for it. I’ve merely tried to identify some of the more common types of Let’s Play that have been emerging. In fact, let me take a moment to clarify what we aren’t looking for because, honestly, that might be easier: we aren’t looking for Let’s Plays that violate our Missions Statement in any way. We aren’t looking for Let’s Plays that add nothing to conversation about games or are simply straight video of a game being played. We aren’t always, necessarily, looking for video: Let’s Plays can take many forms including screenshot posts, Storified livetweets, and much more besides. So we welcome your critical eye as well as your creativity!

We hope you are as excited about this as we are. We’re eagerly awaiting your submissions which should be sent, as usual, via email or on twitter. Please use the hashtag #LetsPlayCD.

August – September Roundup: ‘Catharsis’

Posted by Mark Filipowich in Blogs of the Round Table: - (Comments Off on August – September Roundup: ‘Catharsis’)

Well, Lindsey and I have reached the end of our first month at the helm of BoRT and I think I speak for both of us when I say there’s a great big emotional relief – a catharsis, of sorts – in seeing such enthusiastic participation. Wait a minute, ‘Catharsis!’ Why, that was the theme of August-September’s Blogs of the Round Table! (Nailed it.)

It’s not abnormal to hear players reference the time they devote to games as a type of stress release. We play to escape reality, to cope with emotions, to vent frustration, and to experience surmountable problems in the wake of real-world problems that may seem unsolvable.

Tell us about your experiences with games as catharsis. Did a particular game experience help you find peace of mind? Did a particular narrative strike a chord that helped you overcome a challenge? Did your frustrated rage of a particularly hard level help you vent deeper frustrations that weren’t game related? Did you ever rage-quit a game and have an epiphany about yourself? Did you ever find yourself in a better place or positive position as a result of play?

We begin our decompression with Rachel Helps at one of the best blog-title puns around, The Ludi Bin. Helps found playing the third Ace Attorney game useful in mitigating her anxieties surrounding the first time she had to breastfeed her newborn daughter. As she concludes in the article, “Playing games also helped me to feel like I was more than a milk machine–I was a milk machine AND someone who could connect small logical leaps in a videogame!” And, really, is there anything more to want? In seriousness, I was happy that the roundup kicked off on such a positive note.

Over at Experience Points dot net, Scott Juster and Jorge Albor turn one of their infamous “serious, but not humourless conversation about videogames” to our current discussion. They run the gamut, from the games that expunge negative emotions, games that seem to encourage negative emotions but actually don’t, games that inspire positive emotions, games that vacate bowels…wait. They cover a lot in thirty minutes and their trademark levity makes even the headier ideas digestible.

Matt Leslie takes to his blog, Lesmocon, to describe how his experiences with videogames and borderline personality disorder interacted in cathartic ways. Leslie describes not only how success in a multiplayer match of The Last of Us can help him negotiate difficult social situations or how failure in a game can be profoundly frustrating.

I find it helpful that there is always an opportunity for me to interact with other people without the need to engage with them intellectually or emotionally. I go through semi-regular periods of withdrawal, where it’s just best for me to lock myself in a dark room and get on with whatever needs getting on with, but it’s important to not completely detach yourself from the world.

It’s a really balanced approach from a perspective often overlooked in games, which is why I was glad to see Leslie and a few other folks take it.

One of the other writers to personalize and balance the idea of catharsis is Jake Tucker on Indie Haven. Tucker discusses how videogames provided a cathartic outlet that helped him deal with Asperger’s syndrome while also evincing how that same catharsis, without moderation, resembles addiction. “I wanted to write an entirely uplifting blog post, but there’s two sides to the story. Catharsis is defined as the purification and purgation of emotions. Sometimes this catharsis can do more harm than good.”

Over at As Houses, Leigh Harrison has a brief conversation with his younger self via Internet Time Gate about Postal 2. Harrison, who has made me suddenly very conscious about my high clause-per-sentence ratio, praises Postal 2 for letting the player dictate the terms of its violence. In a nutshell: “Postal 2 was/is compelling because it allows you to, for a time, play it as though you exist in a world where you have least one other response available to you.”

Like Harrison, Bill Coberly of Ontological Geek fame looks at how violence can prompt a form of catharsis. Coberly examines the Lancer, the default, be-chainsawed weapon of Gears of War series. As Mr. Coberly explains, the use of the totally-practical auxiliary chainsaw bayonette is rife with emotional drama:

In many games, killing an enemy is not, in and of itself, particularly tense.  The badguy pokes his head out of cover, you blow it off with a sniper rifle.  But the chainsaw kill is rife with tension.  When you rev your chainsaw, you have to stop shooting and slowly advance towards your target…

…It’s brutal, egregious, and incredibly satisfying.  The catharsis after a successful chainsaw-kill comes not only from whatever real-life emotional baggage you might be working out on the poor bastard, but also from the emotional tension the mechanics built along the way.

Amanda Swan goes a different direction. As she explains in her blog, Player One, Lara Croft’s self-assertion in the latest Tomb Raider is remarkably cathartic because she is able to be heroic and without the usual baggage that women protagonists are saddled with, “She kills the bad guy and rescues the damsel in distress while maintaining a believable feminine edge.” Context is queen for Swan, and Lara’s deviation from the norm is a huge relief.

Meghan Blythe Adams invites us to her online home of The Bagatelle to describe the most anxiety-provoking moment she ever experienced in a game: the accidental killing of Ellen, an NPC in Fallout 3. Her experience, though unpleasant, became “something of a watershed moment for my academic practice…the fact remains that I already experienced the worst anxiety and self-doubt my beloved object of study could muster in me.” For what it’s worth, I also felt too bad about what happened in the vault to get much farther.

Daniel Parker at Arms Folded Tight puts the topic to rest with his own personal remix of Depression Quest. Parker stamps his own experiences with depression onto the game’s template in a deep account of his own experiences with the condition and Depression Quest’s role in learning to manage it.

Y’know, that actually did feel pretty cathartic. I think I needed that. Anyway, don’t forget to add the BoRT Linkomatic 5000 to your blog. Just embed the following code on your blog’s page:

<iframe type="text/html" width="600" height="20" src="http://www.tinysubversions.com/bort.html?month=October12" frameborder="0"></iframe>

I’d like to thank all the writers who partook in this festival of feels and I hope that everyone else enjoyed reading this month’s submissions as much as I did. Lindsey and I are going to try to make BoRT to a monthly activity again, so stay tuned for October’s theme.

Hello, lovers and other strangers. Welcome to a short but edifying edition of This Week in Videogame Blogging. This week brings us offerings on love, hate, media studies, and the greater horrors that lie between them.

Play it Again, Sam

Kicking us off, Jennifer Culp invites us to take another look at the badassery of one Dr. Karin Chakwas, Mass Effect’s Chief Medical Officer. Culp sings the doctor’s praises while also observing the dearth of visible–let alone active and interesting–older women in videogames,

In a medium in which women are often fridged early on in order to provide narrative development for male characters, in a real world where a distressingly large segment of the population seems to consider women obsolete once we pass mid-life, it’s refreshing to encounter an older woman upon first boarding the Normandy.

At Videodame, Jeremy Voss reconsiders his negative reaction to the GTA V boycott. Contemplating the paltry inventory of female characters he’s played in games, Voss wonders if the most subversive thing Rockstar’s attempt at social satire could do would be to provide a playable and well-written female character.

At Paste, Maddy Myers admonishes game designers to take another look at Metroid and Alien if they intend to make Metroidvanias. It’s not enough, she argues, to borrow mechanical tropes and conventions, or even to feature a playable woman protagonist in your winding space platformers without also acknowledging the “aesthetic and tonal success” of Metroid’s and Alien‘s universes respectively. (Content warning: discussion of rape.)

Show, Don’t Tell 

Katherine Cross challenges the hostile anxiety surrounding criticism in videogames, calling it a cultural “terror dream” that games are going to be censored or taken away by nagging parents and moralistic lobbyists. Or just as well, perverted so much by the inclusion of different audiences that the traditional design focus of games as havens for straight, white, cis male power fantasies will disappear. (Oh, the humanity.)

On Infinite Lives, Jenn Frank uses the lack of a pause button in Destiny as a jumping-off point to discuss her feelings of guilt, frustration and resentment of being made into a “Game Widow,” and talks about how design choices in games can put real strain on personal relationships depending on how they influence the player to manage their time and attention,

Later, Ted tells me there is no “pause,” not in the sense where games often have a “pause.” He isn’t even playing multiplayer; he is on a solo mission. “I can’t put the game down,” he explains to me, helplessly.

This, I do understand.

I am not angry with Ted. I am furious with Destiny, however. Due to a design flaw—in this case, the flaw is with a game that cannot be paused—I am finally experiencing true relationship strife.

At Eurogamer, Christian Donlan compares two unfinished, procedurally-generated horror games, Monstrum and Darkwood, looking at the various ways they succeed and fall short at designing truly horrific experiences. Donlan looks at how they both handle pacing, mise en scene, perspective and even UI to suggest horror through design, and where those design styles might actually obstruct feelings of horror by making the player too comfortable.

Casey Brooks recaptures the spirit of GTA V‘s extensive gaming photography subculture with this artful photoseries, which uses the game as context to tell its own stories through the static medium.

I’ll Take “Business Ethics” for 200, Alex

At Twenty Sided, Unrest’s lead writer, Adam “Rutskarn” DeCamp, speaks frankly on the energy, labour and resources required to manage an indie game studio when Kickstarting a game, why game companies might fail to deliver on promises or fall apart under strain, and why asking for thousands of dollars from patrons isn’t absurd or obscene.

Finally, on Gamasutra Blogs, Folmer Kelly explains his decision to quit participating in game jams, saying,

And I couldn’t help but wonder- “are we perpetuating the idea that game jams make games happen rather than people make games happen?” And that thought fucked me up! I started feeling like game jams have become a forced frame for creativity, a required activity for those interested in making games. It’s like we collectively started saying “You wanna make games? Do jams.”

Instead of focusing on jams as sites for game creation to happen, he argues, we have to instead holistically support the people who are coming to these jams to make games.

That’s All She Wrote This Week, Everyone

Remember that every bit helps Critical Distance provide the goods, including submitting reading recommendations via our email submissions form or by mentioning us on Twitter. And please consider keeping us in perfumes and caviar by donating to our Patreon! (She’s lying about the furs and caviar. :{ –ed)

See you next Sunday!

We’re back. We never exactly went away, but now we’re here, fully, renewed breath in our lungs. It’s time to sound the bells. It’s Sunday afternoon. It’s time for This Week in Videogame Blogging.

Dev Tools

Critical Distance’s audience can roughly be split into two halves: games bloggers, critics and scholars to one side, and game developers of various stripes on the other. It’s my belief that these two have more in common than even they may think. With that in mind, I’d like to start off this week’s roundup with some recommendations tailored particularly to devs, although anyone design-minded will benefit from them.

We start with Kill Screen, where several of its writers have devoted an entire week to the subject of game genres — in particular, where generic conventions may be going in the near future.

Games are not shoes, says Chris Bateman, who argues that Steam’s recent change to allow devs to set their own prices will not result in some catastrophic zero-sum game. And over on Unwinnable, we have the free-spirited Gus Mastrapa offering two highly exploratory concepts for the future of massively multiplayer online games.

Mirror’s Edge and Tomb Raider scribe Rhianna Pratchett turned up in the forums of The Escapist this week to share a bit of her experience writing for games. Meanwhile on Medium, Aevee Bee makes a case for ‘small writing’ and interstitial worldbuilding moments in games.

Microrevolutions

There are many ways we can challenge norms of play. Here, a collection of writers share their experiences playing against the grain, either in opposition to industrial logic or narrative conventions.

GayGamer and Border House alum Denis Farr muses on the limited impact of certain decisions in Dragon Age and The Witcher, and concludes that isn’t so much about a player’s character changing the world as deciding where they stand:

These are games that are built on decisions, and people seem disappointed when the decisions do not lend themselves to larger changes that carry over from game to game, or even from decision to decision in the same game sometimes. But, if we allow ourselves to inhabit the characters that would make such a decision, it does allow for a narrative to be constructed. These types of games are a collaboration of the players’ imaginations and reasons with the story being told.

Mark Filipowich has me at his opening line, in describing one game’s romp through peak videogame absurdity: “If somebody were to make a game out of that one twitter bot that proposes random situations (@AndNowImagine) the result would look something like Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII.”

A Mind Forever Voyaging author Dylan Holmes spent the last year fighting the tide of the release cycle to instead work on his backlog.

Meanwhile, UK-based writer Leigh Harrison lauds The Bureau: XCOM Declassified for subverting a particular trend of modern shooters:

The Bureau should be celebrated for its bravery in swimming against the current of accepted videogame design. It fearlessly deconstructs the prevailing notion that videogames must not only constantly strive to look better, but also appear more naturalistic as the medium and its technology advances. As The Bureau progresses, it subtly strips away the layers of peripheral aesthetics normally seen as a necessity in modern games, until at its end it is visually little more than a VR mission from Metal Gear Solid; an experience completely defined by its mechanics alone, uninterested in anything threatening to overcomplicate the purity of its experience.

Half-Assing on the Holodeck

Ben Kuchera’s well intentioned, if perhaps poorly executed opinion piece on Gender Swap, a two-person VR simulation in which players briefly experience ‘inhabiting’ one another’s body, has garnered a bit of criticism.

Rose & Time developer Sophie Houlden outlines over the course of two articles what Gender Swap (and its too-eager embrace by cisgender writers) fails to account for:

You haven’t had to experience with how people treat that body. You haven’t felt pressure to change based on the expectations of having that body. The bodies we are born with force us to have experiences which are outside our control. These experiences shape us as people and who we are in our minds is not so easily separated from them. You can put on the headset and look at a mirror, but you have no idea what life the body’s owner will return to when you take the headsets off.

Or, as Jessica Janiuk sums it up in an opinion piece on Polygon (as part of a larger discussion of the therapeutic potential of games):

Here’s another example of how to understand this [gender dysphoria]. Imagine you slipped on an Oculus Rift, and in that virtual world you existed as a person that was not your gender in the real world. You’d look down and see a body that didn’t feel like yours. Your voice wouldn’t sound the way you’d like to express yourself. In some cases the sexual options available to your character don’t match your sexual feelings.

Now imagine you’d never be able to remove that VR helmet again.

Redshirt developer Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris weighs in as well, further challenging Gender Swap and similar VR exercises for proposing easy solutions to complicated problems:

The point is, this stuff is difficult, and complicated, and to think of it any other way does a disservice to how deeply ingrained and nuanced these issues are.

Perhaps there is some utility to this kind of VR experiment, but I feel like wider culture better representing and listening to minorities is a far better offering, which works to serve minorities and everyone else alike, rather than experiences which are specifically for people on those relevant axes of privilege.

In her post, Khandaker-Kokoris also links to her recent TEDxEastEnd talk on ‘One Weird Old Trick to End Sexism and Racism,’ which I cannot recommend highly enough.

A Rape in Cyberspace

(This section bears a CONTENT WARNING for discussion of rape, assault and harassment.)

On RE:roll, Angus Morrison conducts (rather, attempts) an anthropological study of DayZ, only to find that the deck is stacked against him — and, indeed, he’s not immune to the game’s psychological effects.

Elsewhere, avid DayZ player Kim Correa shares a traumatic experience in the game (TW: rape) and muses on the point at which the game’s sociopathy stops being harmless.

And back on Kill Screen, Matt Albrecht describes his recent visit to a showing of If You Can Get to Buffalo, an adaptation of Julian Dibbell’s 1993 “A Rape in Cyberspace,” and likewise asks where the line is drawn online.

(End content warning section.)

Crawling Toward Sunlight

Where the “Microrevolutions” section above paints ways for games and players to resist convention, this section offers up possible solutions for developers to counteract toxicity from the production side.

On GayGamer, Mitch Alexander adeptly challenges arguments that equivocate male and female objectification under a straight male gaze and explores what might developers do to “queer” the male gaze.

Go Make Me a Sandwich’s wundergeek observes the challenges of, and proposes a possible solution for, satirizing the straight male gaze in videogame art when game art is already frequently ridiculous.

Finally, Desktop Dungeons developer Rodain Joubert shares how his team chose to approach non-sexualized women avatars and rectify gender disparities for their game.

Within Four Walls

Even if we happen to be the most radical of indies, consumerism and corporate culture remains a fact of life for many in games. These pieces take a peek inside studio culture — or muse about PR from afar.

Toward the latter, Mat Jones of Oh No! Videogames wants to remind us (yet again) that Pac-Man is Back, but questions whether he was actually inside us all along, deteriorating with the rest of our internal organs.

Towards the former, Polygon offers up two features from within studio development. The first: the last years of BioShock developer Irrational Games, as told via Chris Plante. The second: a brisk post-mortem of Activision’s Singularity, as told by developer Keith Fuller: “This wasn’t development, it was triage. We had to save who we could and bayonet the dying, and we had no time left to do either with any subtlety.”

On the lighter side, The Escapist’s Greg Tito offers an interesting peek inside Civilization 5 studio Firaxis Games and a difference in player strategy which seemingly nearly tore the studio in half.

It Starts With Us

In the years since I started writing Critical Distance, I don’t believe I was at all opaque in my curatorial approach. However, this last week has brought a lot into sharp focus once again, including the reminder that, now and then, we need to reaffirm our goals and priorities.

In this case, however, I believe those goals are summed up best by independent critic and C-D contributor Lana Polansky, who, in acknowledging the shortcomings of crowdfunding, maintains a call to openly and consistently signal-boost the kind of work we want to see:

I’m going to make it a general policy to amplify voices in criticism or development or whatever else who deserve that amplification, not because of who they are but because of what they’ve said or made. This is my general policy anyway, but before right now I hadn’t fully declared and applied it. No more amplifying those who are already topical or popular just because doing so may, in some abstract way, be career-advancing. Fuck career advancement. Fuck trying to “make it.”

In the spirit of Ms. Polansky’s words, here is a selection of writing from the last week that I believe, though it may not fit easily into any of the cubbyholes of games blogging, is important and worth viewing.

First: on Gamers with Jobs, Alex Martinez shares a personal story of two formative experiences from his childhood — namely, the video game rental store in his neighborhood, and the LA Riots which ravaged it in 1992.

On Kill Screen, Rich Shivener profiles MIT’s recent QUILTBAG Jam organized by Todd Harper, and in particular the LIM-like Label Gear Solid — a game that is, by design, unbeatable:

In Label Gear Solid, it’s impossible to go unnoticed. In fact, the Suens admit there’s no way to win the game. […] Every time you run into another square, labels physically obscure the screen, until you give up, possibly at the point where you can’t see anything. It takes the idea of label-making to absurdity. On Twitter, one player told the brothers it’s a “cruel world.” Ten seconds into the game, you might feel the same way.

On Paste, Cara Ellison profiles Deirdra Kiai, developer of Dominique Pamplemousse in: “It’s All Over Once the Fat Lady Sings!” — which is presently up for four Independent Game Festival awards.

Porpentine’s weekly roundups of free independent games on Rock, Paper, Shotgun is, as ever, a valuable resource.

Lastly, I would be remiss in failing to mention Starseed Observatory, a compilation of analysis, criticism and discussion focused on Droqen’s Starseed Pilgrim.

Dispatches from Vienna

Our German-language correspondent Joe Koeller has hooked us up with the latest from the German language games blogging scene.

On her personal blog, Valentina Hirsch chats feeling ownership over games as medium. Meanwhile, at Polyneux (arguably the best name for a games blog we’ve seen this week), mayaku talks about deserted servers in World of Warcraft.

Gratitude and Departures

We usually end these roundups with a word of thanks to all those who submit recommendations through email or by Twitter mention. You are, as always, incredibly invaluable to what we do here.

However, I want my thanks to extend much further this week, to the many (nearly 150) patrons who have already contributed to our new Patreon. Your support allows us not only to remain open and ad-free for the foreseeable but will also us to finally go forward with our many community-building projects, which will include a wiki, archive, job board for writers, and much more besides. Do you want to see more podcasts like our recent one on Black History Month? So do we. And with your help, we can make that happen.

A last point: while I will be scarce on the site for the next two weekends due to the Game Developers Conference, if you are in San Francisco during that time, I am giving two talks you may wish to attend!

On Sunday the 16th, I (along with quite a few other members of the C-D team) will be presenting at Critical Proximity, our sibling conference headed up by Zoya Street. Then, on Thursday the 20th, I will be speaking at Lost Levels, a GDC-adjacent “unconference” organized by Robert Yang. Neither event requires a GDC pass to attend, so I hope to see many of you there! Please check out Critical Proximity’s and Lost Levels’ respective websites for more.

That’s all from me this week. So, from all of us at Critical Distance, thank you again for all your patronage and support. You’ll be seeing more from us soon!

As part of our ongoing efforts to enrich and diversify the curation of critical games writing, Critical Distance is proud to present this new Spotlight feature bringing together a selection of top-tier level design analyses by guest contributor Hamish Todd.

Level designers are the people who take the objects of a game engine and arrange them to create activities for players. They might arrange them by hand, or design/program some procedure that generates semi-random arrangements. A game engine is an instrument that the music level design is played on. The level designer decides what choices and propositions the players will see. So the job is pretty damned important; in some genres (puzzlers, stealth games, platformers) it seems to me that it is the job with the most importance.

Despite this, longform analyses of level design are relatively uncommon. But these sorts of articles are valuable for us for a number of reasons:

  • If we have any suspicion that artistic expression in videogames might be to do with setting up interesting decisions for players within a consistent game engine, then level design is crucial.
  • Level design is a difficult discipline, and new designers shouldn’t have to “make things up as they go along”. The critical community can provide developers with advice and recommendations for role models.
  • A lack of discourse also means that critics lack a framework that allows them to articulate or even understand their own feelings about interactive entertainment. Why, for example, is playing Halo: Combat Evolved so much more interesting than playing Crysis? Why do people enjoy Mario games so much? Why is it that after a long and at-the-time enjoyable session of playing Peggle, you have the nagging feeling that someone just scammed you? Many writers try to address questions like these solely on abstract, narrative or pop-cultural levels. But analysis of gameplay is significantly more important.

This is why I am turning the spotlight upon the best writings on the internet that analyse level design.

Mega Man

I’m going to start by linking to the most important level design analysis around: Arin “Egoraptor” Hansen’s look at Mega Man X (his other Sequelitis videos are good too). I say it is important because it has almost seven million views. When the teenagers who enjoyed it have grown up, you might see many more game analyses like it. And is it a good analysis? Well no, not really – the links below will take you to discourse that is much better, if a bit less entertaining. Mega Man X is more repetitive and less thematically clever than Egoraptor makes it out to be, and a player’s first experience with it is likely to be more chaotic than he makes out. That said, the way the game teaches wall jumping is indeed genius.

The best writing about intro stages, and the articles which really started this form of analysis, were anna anthropy’s level design lessons. There’s a lot of them in that link! In my opinion, the best ones are this one about Catacomb Abyss that introduces the idea of “teaching through accident”, and this one about a thoughtfully-planned puzzle from Super Mario Bros.

One thing that emerges as a theme in anna’s SMB article and others is an awareness of the multiple ways a part of a game can be played. I don’t mean Deus Ex- or RPG-style “choices”. I mean in the more capricious sense of “is there some situation whereby the player won’t encounter possibility X, and will instead just experience Y again?”. This is what you will come to understand the importance if you ever see one of your favorite games played by an unskilled player – something worth doing if you want to write an articles like these.

A good awareness of that capriciousness is shown in this forum post about Sonic. There’s also good forum work by user “Glass Knuckle” in this Talking Time thread, which surely influenced Egoraptor’s Mega Man video.

Next I’m going to link to a few of my own writings.

TFV

This article about Portal is my finest work. Portal is the perfect subject matter, with expressive and perceptive design, and I took the time to create animated diagrams of the levels too. I’m also proud of this gamasutra article looking at a collection of platforming setpieces in the original Tomb Raider. In general, TR has boring level design, but I was determined to flush out everything I could. With this Half Life article I had to settle for bad pictures, but it has good insights and a lot of work in it (trying to get Destructoid to publish it was one of the most horrible experiences of my life. Editors, please treat your freelancers properly. And pay us.)

Mostly on my own, I’ve created a TVTropes article for the “antepiece”, the powerful and underappreciated level design teaching-technique I came across while looking at Half Life. Tvtropes is a completely awful as a source of information on design patterns, but it can be improved.

“Expressive level design” is the thing I’ve strained the importance of since I started out with this analysis on Kotaku of Castlevania’s “Medusa Heads”. I’m still happy with that analysis, except for my treatment of the “axe knights” setpiece, where I got infatuated with one player approach over all others. Last-and-also-least, there’s this article about a fight in Shadow of the Colossus. It has too many words and not enough pictures, but I said some interesting things.

supermariobrospractice

There is a slight cliche in this kind of analysis for talking about the opening scenes of Super Mario Bros. Of the various essays on that level I could link to, I’ll choose Jeremy Parish’s post on 1up, which also ties it together with the start of Super Mario Bros 3. There’s also some nice articles about SMB 3 on this blog. Parish, by the way, has a lot of level design analysis on his personal blog; one of my favorites is this look at the end level of the original Metroid. Super Metroid is another common target for level design analysis. The best dissection of it I’ve seen is here – although it’s not so rigorous or good, it’s just so comprehensive that it inevitably makes many notable observations (“Metroid fans only”, perhaps).

Everything I’m linking to here has a critical and analytical element. However, an unfortunately large amount of level design writing does nothing but describe levels, which is boring and pointless. It’s also complacent. The sad fact is that, even in many above-average games, the game design you encounter is at best incompetent, and at worst insidious. It makes me physically sick to watch this Extra Creditz analysis of Bejeweled; it’s like listening to a gun nut gush about how easily their rifle could end a person’s life. “Social” game developers have game design publications on the internet too, but I have no desire to link to those.

Braid

An example of a highly critical, highly informed article is Krystian Majewski looking at Braid’s puzzle design. Braid’s puzzles are some of the best the world has ever seen, and actually Krystian knows this, so you’re looking at a very thoughtful article here (although it’s a pity Krystian went with the convention of referring to the player as “he” when the gender-neutral “they” could have done as well). To understand those puzzles better, here’s Jonathan Blow’s developer talkthrough of Braid.

Lying halfway between “How to profit from fucking your audience’s brains up”-style writing and decent analysis is James Partridge’s talkthrough of Half-Life 2: Episode 2. I’ve timestamped that link because the first ten minutes aren’t so interesting. What I take away from that video is “Half Life is fun because you’re constantly doing stuff, and that stuff is often unmistakable busywork, but you’re thick so you gobble it up haha”.

Thief

Continuing to look at good analysis of FPSs, the other best works I’ve seen are Robert Yang’s well-illustrated essay on a level in Thief, Simon Ferrari’s brilliant recent look at Left 4 Dead, and Liz Ryerson’s articles about Wolfenstein. Those articles take a holistic perspective, but it’s important to look closely at individual shoot-out arenas, so Steve Gaynor’s “comparison” of FEAR 1 and 2 is perhaps more worth reading. His next best article is about helpful level layouts. Of course, many first person games are really less about strategy and more about “environmental storytelling”, aka “walking around looking for shit”. This is the direction Steve went in with Gone Home – you can see him move towards that in his other blog entries, if you’re into that kind of thing.

One could argue that FPS encounters are so chaotic that thinking too hard about the initial states of objects in them is pointless. I believe that that is generally untrue, but I have to acknowledge that that does apply for beat-em-up encounters. Beat-em-up design analysis from a more appropriate perspective is, however, offered by Ben Ruiz’ wonderful blog.

A clarification before I go: I do not enjoy multiplayer games, though I know they can involve a lot of clever design. I touch my cap to them, but obviously I can’t feign authority about them! If there are articles about multiplayer games you enjoy, then I fully encourage you to post it in the comments. Also bear in mind that I haven’t quite seen everything and I am enormously biased, so please post as well if you feel I’ve omitted something good!

Hamish Todd is a science enthusiast and designer of Music of the Spheres, a recently released PC puzzle game about bouncing bullets, sound, and mathematics. He sometimes blogs at Gamasutra.com and is available for consulting.

June 30th

Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on June 30th)

Get ready for the jingle-jangle of This Week in Videogame Blogging, the Internet’s top shelf stock of videogame criticism, analysis, deep reads, cultural critique, and more.

TEXTUAL READINGS

Who doesn’t love a good textual analysis? They may be out of vogue among academes, but these are my media studies comfort food.

We’ll start with Mike Joffe’s Videogames of the Oppressed, who has managed to draw some interesting connections between the Jewish folktale of the Golem and Treasure’s Sega Genesis title Dynamite Headdy, specifically its hidden ending.

On Ontological Geek, editor Bill Coberly wades waist-deep into the concept of Primordia as a tale of ideological fallout.

On PopMatters Moving Pixels, Mark Filipowich observes that few games have their heroes wrecking the local ecosystem. As if in answer, Ontological Geek’s Sebastian Atay poses that Metroid Prime‘s ‘Ruined Fountain’ area is an illustration of exactly this.

Last before we move beyond the land of textual readings, but Janet Murray brought us a hell of a (welcomed) blast from the past this week: the slides from her 2005 DiGRA keynote, “The Last Word on Ludology v Narratology.

BEYOND PLAY

Those darn kids, playing with their videogames beyond just playing with their videogames. On that note, Ontological Geek (we seem to be featuring them a lot lately) has Hannah DuVoix discussing a subject near and dear to my heart: user-generated game media, namely Let’s Plays.

It’s also Fanfiction Week at Unwinnable, which sounds like several of my nondenominational midwinter holidays coming at once. Lana “the Gun” Polansky pens the generational legacy of the Super Mario Bros Goomba and Jacob Siegal shares with us the diary of an unwilling Animal Crossing mayor.

The fanfiction times weren’t limited to Unwinnable’s shores, either, as Gamers with Jobs’ Sean Sands got in on the act with this narrativization of a play of Crusader Kings II.

As a side note, this stuff makes me miss Bit Creature. Someone find James Hawkins some venture capital.

GAMES AGAINST HUMANITY

Slaus Caldwell recently logged into his wife’s Mass Effect 3 multiplayer account and got to experience first-hand the torrent of misogynistic trashtalk women players face on a daily basis.

Quintin Smith turned up on Kotaku in recent days decrying videogames’ overreliance on killing and win/lose states, saying that it’s stifling the medium. He offers some alternatives befitting his areas of interest: board games.

Back on PopMatters, Scott Juster recently played Cards Against Humanity with his in-laws and poses that perhaps it’s not the subject matter of games that keep them at arm’s length, but their actual interfaces.

Meanwhile on Paste, Garrett Martin contends that E3 continues to address the press as fans, and the press aren’t helping.

QUEERLY GEN

Chris of Not Quite Literally poses the interesting concept that World of Warcraft is inherently queer.

Responding to the recent outrage over transphobic comments by Penny Arcade’s Mike Krahulik, GayGamer’s Mitch Alexander puts his finger on what exactly the problem was with the whole incident:

Mike Krahulik makes a poignant remark in his statement – if he was Just Some Guy, we’d largely be ignoring his statements. But that’s just the point, not only of this specific discussion, but of anti-bigotry movements in general – people with power need to be careful not to misuse it against the powerless, especially those made powerless by people and institutions that the empowered affects or is affected by – otherwise it becomes an intersecting web of oppression that it’s enormously difficult to get out from.

And on re/Action, videogame scholar Zoya Street writes toward a more inclusive idea of “queer games” and explores his identity a bit as a trans man in the games scene.

MEANWHILE

Edge has a look at where the global game scene is going.

If you speak German, you may have an interest in Sebastian Standke’s thoughts on the recent launch of Steam Trading Cards and his own inevitable demise.

Also for our German-literate readers, you may remember when Nina Kiel recently slammed German games sites filled with E3 booth babe creepshots. Now she’s back discussing the issue with fellow German critic Petra Fröhlich in a podcast hosted by Daniel Raumer.

THE MACHINE

Long-time readers will know of my unabashed affection for Robert Rath’s frequently war-and-politics-themed column on The Escapist, Critical Intel. He ranks high on my list of must-read critics, but I must say he outdoes himself with this week’s column: “Modern Warfare is a Comforting Lie“:

If Activision had any courage, Modern Warfare 4 would be about Syrian rebels fighting and dying while waiting for empty promises of Western aid. That’s modern warfare. The Arab Spring and various uprisings in the Middle East – some secular democratic, some Islamist, and many a mixture – are as much a part of the modern story of the War on Terror as Special Forces raids and drones. Where are those stories? Games love to invent narratives like Modern Warfare 2 and Homefront where America spontaneously becomes the underdog, but they’re loath to take on conflicts that are actually being fought against overwhelming tyranny.

A recent piece on The New Inquiry, an interview by Hermione Hoby with Kuwaiti musician Fatima Al Qadiri, who grew up amidst the Gulf War, is also another must for the week and a good coda for Rath’s article:

[Desert Strike] didn’t say “Saddam” and “Iraq” and “Kuwait” because they wanted to make it acceptable or marketable or whatever, but it was very obvious what they were talking about. The thing that struck me immediately and made me realize this wasn’t a game for children was that there was no soundtrack. It was very clear to me: This is not made for children, this is a thinly veiled training game for the American military. I was repulsed by it and I played it out of compulsion — this video was made out of my experience — but it was very, very disturbing and very surreal. I just felt reality collapse into my head and I was in the grid.

BITS AND PIECES

Unfortunately, I have no cheerful chasers for that. Well, there is this Let’s Play of the DS version of Animal Crossing, but I hear it shouldn’t be read before bed.

Sorry guys. Apparently my two modes are “depressing” and “yay Animal Crossing” this week. It could be worse?

Anyway, the usual business: please continue submitting your link recommendations by email and Twitter. Alan Williamson’s May-June mega-Blogs of the Round Table will be wrapping soon, but you should be able to squeeze a submission in within the next 24 hours.

For all the rest, there is next week. Stay frosty, readers.

P.S. Oh! We might have a poll of some kind at some point. More on that soon.