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way, the play experience of games that – for the average player – are now hard to access due to the inaccessibility of outdated platforms.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:



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.

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 her 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.


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.


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.


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.


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”.


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

June 2nd

Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off)

What a week. I’d make a joke about secretly being cast as the Twelfth Doctor, but I imagine that would get me angry letters in my inbox. Let’s stick to what we know, shall we? And what we know is the very best in games writing on the internet. It’s This Week in Videogame Blogging!


No less than Janet Murray herself has weighed in on the conclusion of Peter Molyneux’s Curiosity, with a few ideas on why it was such a draw anyway.

Porpentine and Merritt Kopas come together in a tangle of radical game dev limbs with a co-written essay toward an erotics of videogames, and play as political, subversive act. (Content warning: abstract nude figures, sexual subject matter.)

I desire living play:

Play that collaborates across artforms, across bodies.

Play intended to “provoke admiration” of other humans.

Play for human, not for capitalist death machine.

The goal isn’t to replace one corrupted form of play with some recovered, true one. Instead: exploration, acknowledgment of difference. Explosion of the lie that there are right/wrong ways to touch, to fuck, to create, to play.


It’s unusual for something like NeoGAF to feature on these roundups, but this reply from faceless007 in a discussion on Xbox One’s potential effects on the used game market is a whammy.

If this industry can’t find a way to make money off the primary market — even with DLC and exclusive pre-order content and HD re-releases and map packs and online passes and annualized sequels and “expanding the audience” and AAA advertising and forced multiplayer — then, if I may be so blunt, fuck it. It doesn’t deserve our money in the first place. If an entire industry has its head so far up its ass, is so focused on short-term gains, and has embraced such a catastrophically stupid blockbuster business model in the pursuit of a stagnant market of hardcore 18-34 dudebros that it thinks it has no choice but to take away our first-sale rights as its last chance of maybe, finally, creating a sustainable stream of profits, then it can go to hell.

On PopMatters Moving Pixels, Scott Juster opines that the Xbox One addresses the living situation of only a global privileged minority– a “first world problem,” as the kids call it (note: don’t call it that).

Meanwhile, on Kotaku, Leigh Alexander presents us with a satirical take on the Xbone’s dead paradigm.


On the original and still very best Brainy Gamer, Michael Abbott offers some much-needed perspective on the so-called creatively limiting trappings of genre. Specifically, that genre can also be a format by which to creatively flourish.

The second Tropes vs Women in Games video is out, continuing Anita Sarkeesian’s analysis of the Damsel in Distress trope. On Medium, Jenn Frank expounds on Sarkeesian’s statement that we can still enjoy problematic media, talking schlocky games, slasher films, and still being a feminist.

And over on Gamasutra’s member blogs, JJ Wang throws in their own two cents about the Tropes vs Women in Games series, to whit: even if you totally, utterly disagree with Sarkeesian’s charges of sexism, these tropes are still lazy and a sign of bad writing.

Jordan Rivas has been playing Star Wars: The Old Republic and noted some unfortunate implications with shortcuts taken in the worldbuilding:

On multiple planets in the game, across varying class storylines, both Republic and Imperial characters are asked to occasionally kill enemies labeled “anarchist”. Finally, on a planet called Belsavis […] I was continually asked to kill anarchists simply because they were in prison and trying to get out.


It made me pause. Why is being an anarchist a crime? Is that their only crime? What else could they have done, besides adhering to a political philosophy, that caused them to be imprisoned. […] [D]oes the Republic jail political dissidents?

On GameInformer, Liz Lanier takes a look back at Grandia‘s End of the World.

Responding to the Mises Institute article we linked last week, Craig Bamford maintains that often enough, game economies like Diablo 3 aren’t meant to function like real-world economies:

Even if real-world economies behaved that way, games arent supposed to be completely free and open in the first place. Games are systems of rules and restrictions. The economies of games are about those rules and restrictions and the enjoyment that the player gets from operating within that space. The whole reason why Diablo 3‘s economy was a miserable failure, and why the PS3/PS4 version of the game won’t have an auction house at all, is because Blizzard forgot that.

Problem Machine answers the question: what’s the difference between rules and mechanics? And UnSubject offers up a bit of chartporn analysis on how Metacritic’s weighted metascore differs from unweighted averages.


Back on Gamasutra’s blogs, developer Jen Whitson points to one way in which developers continually select for a particular kind of work culture (read: bro culture).

Also in the Gama blogs, I Get This Call Every Day dev David Gallant argues for a more inclusive independent scene as well.


On Videogametourism, Robert Glashüttner takes a look at erratic horror.

And Sebastian Standke and Christian Huberts have put out a bilingual (German/English) call for interviews on the subject of atmospheric games.


David Surman has put together a collection of work from one of Christian McCrea’s classes, showing off conceptual hard case covers for thatgamecompany’s Journey.

I don’t often list my own work here, but this is one subject I can get pretty passionate about: on Let’s Plays, their history, and why they’re worth preserving.

I’ve saved the best for last, of course, and this roundup’s sign-off goes to David Sirlin, who has announced his exciting new game, Chess 2!


Thanks for reading! Please do be dears and continue sending your submissions in by email and Twitter! We love them!

And be sure to submit to Alan Williamson’s Blogs of the Round Table feature. We love him as well!

See you all next week for our exclusive pre-E3 coverage (note: there won’t be any).

I thought glasses only clinked in movies, but nothing made people get closer than $3 Sangrias and a mural of a woman lying across a pool table. Yes, it is the eve of the Game Developers Conference, or as the game industry calls it, “Christmas”. But even with such tempting distractions in store, and Google Reader threatening the existence of our RSS feeds, it’s time for This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better

Being Women’s Herstory month, the gaming community still has gender issues on its mind, and this week showed many different perspectives on the evolving conversation. We would be remiss if we didn’t include this insightful conversation between Yannick LeJacq and Rhianna Pratchett about the videogame woman of the year so far. The interview refuses to take a strong, one-sided stance on the game, as does the personal disclosure about the game from Rhea Monique:

Tomb Raider triggered me, sure. But it didn’t do it needlessly. It didn’t do it tactlessly. It didn’t do it for a cheap rise. It instead captured a real emotion and a real experience millions of women will encounter in their life. Some of them won’t be as lucky as I was. Some of them won’t be as lucky as Lara Croft was, either. Some of them won’t survive. Some of them will be silenced forever.

Some of them will die and some of their attackers will live.”

But for most, Lara Croft isn’t enough. Samantha Allen at The Border House outlines why enough is enough, there should be more women protagonists in videogames by now. In the same vein, Maggie Greene illustrates via her knowledge of the brave women in Chinese history, noting that the kinds of women we need in games aren’t necessarily the most obvious ones:

“I don’t mean to imply that it’s only these types of ‘quiet’ strength that are worthy of attention, just that perhaps we don’t give it as much attention as it deserves. It’s something that is harder to valorize than the more obviously ‘heroic’ qualities. Qiu Jin is a clear hero, and she hits some of those points we like: she shunned the expected female roles of her time (leaving her husband and children to head to Japan), she embraced the idea of revolutionary violence, she was photographed with weaponry. Delicate Chinese flower she was not, despite having bound feet. But there is heroism in Xu Zihua’s story: it is not bombastic, and it doesn’t involve assassination plots, but it speaks to a person who willingly bore a tremendous responsibility in a volatile time.”

Making an unexpected appearance at BuzzFeed, Courtney Stanton explains why she isn’t shocked about the reaction surrounding Adria Richards, and in fact, has come to expect it:

“One time I was afraid to leave my house because of the internet. My unforgivable sin was refusing to just be cool about rape jokes in a gamer comic and its associated fan convention’s merchandise. Sometimes the hill you find yourself dying on is weird and unexpected; I feel a lot of empathy for Richards in this. But as final lines in the sand go, “I would like to attend a professional conference without multiple instances of men being juvenile, unprofessional, and just plain gross” doesn’t seem like an outrageous demand to me.”

In an interesting twist, Michael Thomsen makes a case against the irresponsible use of ‘dudebro,’ and how the community’s lack of rigor actually marginalizes certain experiences key to understanding the typically overgeneralized demographic of shooter fans.

Tell Me a Story I’ve Never Heard Before

The blogosphere is often grappling with the way videogames deal with narrative, and this week is no different. Over at PopMatters, Mark Filipowich extrapolates how homes are underused in games as narrative contrast and our own Eric Swain teases out similarities between cinematic time jumping and that of Thirty Flights of Loving. Line Hollis talks about how Dear Esther and The Stanley Parable work as interrogations of typical narrative structures in games and the determinism therein:

“While both games are about storytelling, they approach the theme from opposite directions. A story, traditionally, is a sequence of events that follows a chain of cause and effect. The Stanley Parable is about how story structures mock the idea of free will. Dear Esther is about how people force incomplete and untrustworthy information into story structures. One features a protagonist trapped in a deterministic world, and the other a protagonist trapped in a non-deterministic one. One of these turns out to unsettle players much more than the other.”

Worth mentioning also, back in June of last year an unnamed author over at Still Eating Oranges talked about how not all narrative structures rely on conflict, and the assumptions we have are very much ethnocentric.

It Hurts So Good

The strange relationship between pain and pleasure that games give to players has been a focus of interest with gaming thinkers lately. Kyle Carpenter at Medium Difficulty talks about the satisfying play in Trials Evolution and how it relates to J.G. Ballad’s Crash. On his blog, Robert Yang muses about how The Elder Scrolls games deal with murder and how the games set up an interesting system to communicate gravity to their murder. And thought notoriously painful, Brendan Keogh also reflects on his isolated nature in games and how Dark Souls complicates his single-player experience with multiplayer influence.

The Bonds Between Us

Relationships and intimacy is a long standing fascination of game critics, and writers continue to push our thinking on how relating can happen in games. Jordan Rivas speaks to the Citadel DLC of Mass Effect 3 and how it created a feeling homecoming, of friendship that essentially fulfilled your needs for some bonding. This time on Medium Difficulty, Mark Filipowich renews the conversation about intimacy in games through the Prince of Persia games, and how they explored the Prince’s lack of emotional bonding. Over at his personal blog, Brad Galloway shows the subtle ways sexuality politics works against diversity in the newest Fire Emblem while Matt Marrone exercises his relationship anxieties through playing Spaceteam with his girlfriend and friends at Unwinnable:

“Is your former college roommate’s wife overseeing the V-pod? She’s furthest away from you at the table. Maybe you’re not saying it loud enough. Maybe she’s never really liked you.

Or perhaps it’s your girlfriend who’s ignoring you. You’ve been training her to do it in your spare time, anyway, with your incessant rambling, and now you’ve doomed yourself to an eternity floating through the empty vacuum of space.”

Utter Miscellany

Sometimes game bloggers don’t like to be easily categorized, much like the confusing experiement that is presenting Dwarf Fortress as a museum exhibit, as highlighted here by Bill Coberly. Megan Patterson speaks to Actual Sunlight‘s Will O’Neill about the nebulously personal, but inspiring direction game development is headed. Going in a different direction, Mohammed Taher gives a detailed run-down on the influences and progress of game development in the Middle East.

And if all that was too heavy for you, perhaps instead of the top 40 lists of attractive women in tech, why don’t you try out Darius Kazemi’s ClickBait, created in response to the piece?

In San Francisco this week? Make sure to say hello to your favorite Critical Distance contributors, and come see my panel with the very timely theme of women in the games industry. If you cannot join in the wonderful festivities that is GDC, fear not, as we will be back here, same time and same place, with even more juicy videogame blogging. You can still reach us by email and Twitter for recommending good reads, which is always immensely helpful! And don’t forget about this month’s Blogs of the Round Table.

Until next time!

Tomb Raider triggered me, sure. But it didn’t do it needlessly. It didn’t do it tactlessly. It didn’t do it for a cheap rise. It instead captured a real emotion and a real experience millions of women will encounter in their life. Some of them won’t be as lucky as I was. Some of them won’t be as lucky as Lara Croft was, either. Some of them won’t survive. Some of them will be silenced forever.
Some of them will die and some

As 2012 comes to a close and we look forward to 2013, we at Critical Distance look back at all the great writing from this year. We dug deep through the 1080 links from all the 2012 entries of TWIVGB, narrowing it down before also checking the 150 additional articles you, the readers, submitted to us for consideration. From there we did our best to create a list of the most memorable, most important and most representative writings of 2012. Critical Distance is proud to present This Year in Video Game Blogging.

In the past this category has been called “print,” but the world has changed in that time and things that would have been traditionally published have in some cases moved into digital representations of the same. Not in every case, but we honor both here.

One of the most talked about critical efforts this year, Brendan Keogh’s ebook Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line is a massive achievement for game criticism.

The book has received its own share of in-depth responses as people weighed in on its take of the game. Both Cameron Kunzelman and Darius Kazemi offered up their reviews of the book.

Another end of year project is the inaugural issue of  Five Out of Ten magazine. It features the stellar work of Bill Coberly, Brendan Keogh, Lana Polansky and our own Kris Ligman and Alan Williamson. The magazine, for which Alan serves as founder and editor, is set to be put out bimonthly.

Meanwhile, print publications are still hanging in there, as Anna Anthropy (aka Auntie Pixelante) proved with her developer call to arms Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreams, Dropouts, Queers, Housewives and People Like You Are Taking Back a Art Form.

Critical Video Game Blogging
Every year the majority of the talking is about the games themselves, ranging from looking at the title as a whole, to one particular aspect of it, or to connecting it to the greater trends and themes of the medium. This goes for both games of this year and games of old.

By far the most talked about game of the year was That Game Company’s Journey. Ian Bogost for the Atlantic looked at the studio’s evolution as a creator entity in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Game Studio.”

Michael “brainygamer” Abbott contends Journey is not another retelling of the ‘hero’s journey’, but connects it to the sapta bodhyanga of Buddhist Enlightenment.

Robert Yang writes that Dishonored fails as an immersive sim during its tutorial as it closes off possibilities to learn mechanics.

Tami Baribeau of The Border House says that the portrayal of women in Dishonored flits back and forth between tired stereotype and commentary on a sexist society.

Where many others found a disgusting brutality in Max Payne 3 towards foreigners, Fernando Cordeiro found a certain catharsis in shooting his countrymen with regards to his lifelong frustration with the mindset of Brazil.

The Extra Credits crew uses Max Payne 3 as an example of Hard Boiled in games and how the industry has confused it as mature.

At Unwinnable, Jamie Dalzell detailed his experience in the Arma II mod Day Z through a four-part first person account.

Drew Dixon at Game Church grapples with his faith in humanity after his time in the land where society had been torn asunder.

Chris Bateman looks at The Thin Play of Dear Esther and breaks down the excuses made to delegitimize Dear Esther as a game.

At Medium Difficulty, Miguel Penabella writes “An Ode to Stanley & Esther” and to the concept of a game delivered through only walking and existing in an environment.

As part of his A Sum of Parts feature on Gameranx, Brendan Keogh looks closely at Binary Domain in how it creates and represents the other and on the concept of posthuman humans.

Maddy Myers writes about the American narrative towards violence and masculinity and how it relates to Hotline Miami for the Boston Phoenix. This reading was done in the wake of, and touches on, the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

Patricia Hernandez wrote one of the best personal pieces of the year as she explores how Fallout 2 disillusioned her of the American Dream and shaped her life against the more traditional family ideology she grew up in.

Christian Donlan sat down with his father who was a member of the LAPD in the 1940s to see what reaction L.A. Noire would elicit. What he got was a unique method of traveling down memory lane.

Mattie Brice uses Persona 4‘s Naoto to look at gender identity, its presentation and the world’s treatment of trans people in the game and in her own experience.

To David Carlton, Super Hexagon is less of a game and is more akin to learning a language.

Tevis Thompson says that Zelda has been going downhill since the original and he wants to save the franchise.

Alex Curelea explains “Why Diablo 3 is less addictive than Diablo 2.” He explains that the missing reward loop is to account for the real money auction house, but it kills the quality of the game.

Robert Rath, in his column Critical Intel at The Escapist, looks at how drone warfare is represented in three very different 2012 releases: Spec Op: The Line, Call of Duty: Black Ops II and Unmanned.

Helen Lewis gave John Brindle the floor at her column at the New Statesman to explain how text-based games are examining war in ways that traditional games either choose not to or simply can’t.

Jordan Rivas explains how Splinter Cell is the true post-9/11 game for him and his brother. The word has changed in the decade since and so has the series.

Our own Kris Ligman calls Analogue: A Hate Story a work of scholarship in the guise of an interactive experience.

Kate Cox looks back to Dragon Age II and says the mistake so many others have made about it is to look at it through the lens of the hero’s journey when it is more akin to a Shakespearian tragedy.

Drew Dixon chastises a number of reviews who still evaluate Papo & Yo through the traditional lens of challenge and fun instead of the artistic merits on which the game is working.

Eric Swain at his PopMatters column wrote a number of pieces on Driver: San Francisco, starting with “Magical Realism as a Game Mechanic.”

Destructoid’s Jim Sterling thinks there is more to the gender politics of Lollipop Chainsaw than is immediately apparent due to the treatment of Julia Starling’s boyfriend and how it ends up flipping the script on otherwise tired clichés.

Joel Goodwin of Electron Dance, started off the year by looking in depth at 2011’s indie marvel Cart Life.

Anjin Anhut of How Not To Suck At Game Design compares Bioshock and Spec Ops: The Line in “A Man Chooses A Slave Obeys – from Rapture to Dubai.”

Taylor Clark wrote an expose on the creator of Braid and the upcoming The Witness, Jonathan Blow, for The Atlantic. He called Blow “The Most Dangerous Gamer.”

Sam Machkovech explores Fez as the real extension of Phil Fish in lieu of the “idiosyncratic crazy-man, played up for entertainment’s sake” that Indie Game: The Movie presented him as.

Matthew Weise saw a decline of anti-American sentiment in the Metal Gear franchise.

Space-Biff! has an index of in depth writing on Metro 2033 by Daniel Thurot.

The International House of Mojo has a fairly deep retrospective on the LucasArts masterpiece Grim Fandango.

Pat Holleman of The Game Design Forum reverse engineered the design of Final Fantasy 6.

Finally, this year has been so jam packed full of game from every strata and of every description. There would be almost no way to cover them all. Sparky Clarkson came close as he enlisted 12 critics to help him out in explaining the greatness of as many 2012 releases in alphabetical order as possible.

Theory Blogging
While many focused on specific games, other pieces looked as concepts themselves. They looked to what games are, how we criticism them and how we view them as a culture.

Games as art is the debate that will never die. But Jimmy Brindle of the Brindle Brothers has put their unique stamp on it by saying what art really is: a flaccid penis.

Sophie Houlden likewise undermined the entire question by flipping it and asked “Can Art be Games?

Shifting gears to criticism itself, Jonathan McCalmont says that we live in a post-critic world where such gatekeepers of culture are useless. Instead the art world has turned towards curation and perhaps game critics should as well.

Richard Clark looks the difference between reading something into a text and getting something out of a text and how that relates to criticism of video games.

The jury is still out on the “proper” way to write about games and I think this is the way it’s supposed to be – there is no agreed-upon method for movie or music criticism. As games writing matures, it will become broader, more varied and more confident.

What game writing needs isn’t less personal writing, but more voices, more brutal honesty and more grappling with diverging viewpoints and perspectives. More than anything, we need a community of writers who are open to second-guessing themselves, in their writing and otherwise.

L. Rhodes at Culture Ramp, conducted a series of interviews on video game journalism and criticism that he called The Ludorenaissance.

Katlin Tremblay laid down the 101 on gender criticism for gamers at Medium Difficulty.

Design Blogging
While many focused on specific game, others looked towards design itself. Some looked at aspects of games while others looked at the purpose and nature of design itself.

Robert Yang turned his No Show Conference talk into a 3-part essay for Rocks Paper Shotgun, collected here, called “A People’s history of the FPS.”

Andrew High went in depth on what he sees as the next great barrier for video game creation, the proper use of audio with detailed descriptions and many examples of music and mixes.

Jonas Kyratezes says what he aims for in his design is grace.

We say games are art, but do we mean it? We certainly don’t behave like it. A comparison with other art forms immediately highlights the difference. No-one sells a book with a feature list. Not even blockbuster movies, the most commercial of all film types, are sold as if they were haircare products or power tools. Only games are.

In response to the Jennifer Hepler debacle, Tom Auxier comes to her and others’ defense by explaining, “Why some game developers shouldn’t like games.”

Culture Blogging

Gaming is more than just code or artifacts. It’s a culture. And any art form is only as good as the culture that surrounds it. I can only hope that these are the signs that things are getting better. Art affects people. People affect people. To understand games as a whole, one must look at the people as well.

I had things organized by general subject and put related things together. But given the nature of some of links I had to switch things around for the sake of this: Trigger Warning for Rape, Harassment, Shaming, Death Threats and all the bile that goes along with them. I’ll post when this section ends.

Anita Sarkeesian was the target of one of the vilest campaigns of targeted harassment ever. Here she details the image-based and other visual based harassment to shed light on what was going on.

The R Word” by Anonymous is the autobiography of one victim’s struggle and the burden it has place on their life. This was to show the debate on rape’s use wasn’t about offense it was always about harm.

I put this here to defer to Brendan Keogh’s own trigger warning. He describes to those who still don’t get it what Rape Culture is. As other commentators have said, including Brendan, he wouldn’t have been listened to or gotten such a tepid reaction if he was a woman.


Katherine Cross wrote “Game Changer” for Bitch Magazine listing down the biggest of sexism clusterfucks of the year.

Our own Katie Williams details her experience with a PR rep at E3 and her desire to simply be allowed to play and do her job.

Maddy Myers waded into the Boston fighting game scene to learn and improve and found a bastion of sexism and unwelcoming atmosphere at every turn.

Cara Ellison repurposes Ginsberg’s poem Hadda Be Playing on the Jukebox into Romero’s Wives.

Sometimes sexism is so ingrained that you bring it to bear against yourself as Jenn Frank describes in her piece for Unwinnable “I was a Teenage Sexist.”

Patricia Hernandez fell into the same trap during a match of Gears of War where she uttered three words so common to multiplayer gaming, but offered her no solace against her opponent.

Lara Croft was an important figure to Cara Ellison, as she explains how the recent treatment of the character makes her feel in a male dominated culture.

J.F. Sargent describes how certain video game designs turn bigotry into a form of play by teaching the systems and ideas of oppression and reinforcing the status quo.

Author John Scalzi created the best metaphor of how sexism, racism and all the other -isms affect how one lives in the world. The straight white male is the lowest difficulty setting in life.

W, a solider now working with a PMC, wrote a guest piece on the type of person that exists as a solider in a modern warzone: a sociopath, himself.

Patricia Hernandez, writing for Gameranx, talks about how shooters now perpetuate war as the new normal in our lives. A never ending conflict that happens somewhere else to someone else. “War is routine, war is spectacle, war is sanitized, was is surveillance.”

Bill Coberly looks at what games are actually teaching their players about guns by how they are portrayed.

Steve Boone wrote two pieces in response to the violence smorgasbord that is E3, in particular The Last of Us and the modern war shooter genre.

Lucy Kellaway at the Financial Times was asked to participate in the GameCity prize, specifically because she was an outsider. She details her experience and thoughts with the games nominated.

Our own Alan Williamson, wrote for the New Statesman that we shouldn’t dismiss non-gamer voices when they talk about games and begin critically examining their place in our culture.

Jonas Kyratzes looks at what the $100 barrier to entry for Steam Greenlight means for a struggling indie developer.

John Brindle explores the elitism of gaming and how gamers are like the posh twits looking separate themselves from the plebes.

Also at Nightmare Mode, Porpentine goes to epic lengths to explain the Twine revolution and how it relates to capitalism, how it can be used and a short expose on the hacks to create with it.

Robert Rath has a two part examination of the conflict minerals in nearly all of our electronic devices and the awful conditions in which they are mined and shipped from the Eastern Congo and what the west can and is doing about it.

Miscellaneous Blogging
Then there is the stuff off the beaten path that doesn’t really fit anywhere else.

Two years ago, Brendan Keogh started a Minecraft blog where he would play a nomad and always travel Towards Dawn. That journey ended this year after two in-game months and several updates.

Rainer Sigl wrote a piece entitled “The Art of in-game Photography” on just that. In addition, he wrote “Confessions of a Videogame Tourist” where games offer a substitute for real travel.

Richard Clark helped President Obama get over a tough time this year by playing some games with him.

Rob Zacny published on Polygon a long expose on the management failure Kaos Studios for the dead on arrival Homefront.

Cara Ellison wrote a love letter to the games that she will never finish due to the connection they have to her life.

A Picture is Worth A Thousand Words
For all the digital and real ink spilled on games and issues trying to describe the complexity of the problems or bring truth to light. Sometimes a single image can do what a dozen articles could not:


E3 Booth Babes
Blogger of the Year
And now a brief interjection by our Senior Editor, Kris Ligman:

It’s been customary for those of us at Critical Distance to name one or more authors as the breakout blogger of the year. For the first time, we’ve elected to make this custom an official part of our end-of-the-year roundup.

In the past, the honor of “best writer” has gone to such stellar talents as Kirk Hamilton, Kate Cox and L.B. Jeffries. These breakout names went from standing near the periphery of our reading of games writing to taking center stage in the critical discussion, and each year, they help raise the discourse to new heights.

This year, we are proud to name Brendan Keogh our Blogger of the Year.

Brendan, as should be evidenced by the inclusion of his book and many articles peppered throughout this roundup, has proven himself to be a prolific, evocative writer with a lot to say and the means to say it. We salute you, Brendan, and look forward to your future work.

Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot
This year has been fruitful. Games writing has never been better with a higher quantity and quality of work than ever before. So much happened and came out this year beyond the messy confines of this round up that we could not hope to contain the whole zeitgeist. Going through the TWIVGBs of this year reminded me of so much has happened that some felt like it was different era. So much has changed and we at Critical Distance hope for a bright future as we march forward. A big thank you to all those who emailed us suggestions and to all my colleagues at Critical Distance.

Next weekend we are back to our usual routine. So please continue to send your suggestions for TWIVGB to our email or our twitter. From all of us here at Critical Distance, have yourselves a Happy New Year.

A little later than we expected, but here we are! Thank you for your patience while the French-Canadian down in Engineering sorted out the dilithium crystals or whatever it is that keeps the U.S.S. Critical Distance running. We’re ready to go, so full speed ahead, Mr. Sulu. Engage!

This Week in Videogame Blogging CLXXXIII:
Return of the Subheaders


Let’s get this one out of the way right at the start. Jonathan Jones catches word that more games are being inducted into New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and takes umbrage at the idea of games being featured alongside traditional art. Sophie Houlden, tired of the “are games art?” debate, reverses the question in this terribly on-point riposte:

Having situated the art on a wall in the living room, I asked Emily if there was a special way to look at it to make the art work. “No, you just look at it.” she explained, clearly as frustrated with the experience as I, “Like a TV?” I asked. The look on Emily’s face then became that look you get when you’re at risk of losing a friend, so I quickly said “Oh never-mind, I think I’ve got it figured out.” and stared at the lifeless picture, pretending it gave me a similar sense of emotion I got from actually exploring the beautiful landscapes that developers craft for their games.

After Emily left I checked on the internet and it turns out she was right, you really do just look at it, that’s all!

Where was the engagement-building interaction of games? Where was the sense of teamwork and community you get from multiplayer games? Where was the emotional investment you can only get from stories and characters that actually involve you, a real person?


Saul Alexander has a great interview with Obsidian’s Chris Avellone up at Gamasutra.

Meanwhile, at Flash of Steel, Troy Goodfellow suggests that Molyneux is out of touch with developments in his own field of expertise.

In the wake of the Rab Florence Affair (or Doritos-gate, if you prefer), Florence has ventured to tumblr to pursue a less regulated platform for his strongly-worded criticisms. On the chopping block this week: Kickstarter, or rather the industry veterans who are increasingly turning to it to fund their games.

[T]hese capitalist animals, Molyneux and Braben to name but two, are transforming Kickstarter into a shopping website for products that don’t yet exist. They package their products with ridiculous “bonuses” that the gaming audience are paying small fortunes to secure. This is the same game audience that, just a few years ago, was laughing Bethesda out of the room for charging a small amount of cash for horse armour. And we at least knew something about that game.


Also on the subject of the crowdfunding platform, Cliff Harris likewise has some criticisms for the “fixed dreams” it sells the comfortably well-off: “Kickstarter is the absolute poster-child for inequality amongst gamers, based on income.”


Here’s a nice article, courtesy of Kill Screen, profiling the upcoming LA Game Space, games’ “first high-profile residency program.” Predictably, it too has a Kickstarter. (Although arguably, this project better fulfills the intentions of the service as a charity platform than many of the greenlit projects that have gained notoriety in the past.)


Critical Distance contributor Cameron Kunzelman returns to his own blog to advocate for a more inward-facing style of game criticism:

Instead of writing about the internal human process of playing a game like Dishonored, Game Centered Criticism takes the game as its own self-supporting entity. Dishonored‘s diegesis and mechanics do not exist wholly for the player–rather, Dunwall exists for itself, and its own history, just as much as it exists for me to “read” it or interact with it. It has a life of its own. It has a complex universe and being that rewards careful attention.

Obviously, isn’t a conservative appeal for Old Games Journalism, whatever that was. This also isn’t a denigration of New Games Journalism on the whole. More than anything, I’m just kind of tired of games only having worth because they were transformative for a human subject. We need a critical toolbox that allows us to talk about the digital and material qualities of games-in-themselves, not just as extensions of human minds into ludic spaces where we get to vacation sometimes.

Kotaku’s Tina Amini proposes that sometimes the most fun you can have with a game is exploring its glitches. In a similar vein, check out this humorous video by Nick LaLone which explores the same idea, of glitches as “disruption.”

Rachel Helps of Nightmare Mode reminds us that humans don’t just eat food–we have complex cultures of preparation and consumption, and games serve as a unique venue to explore that.

On Gamasutra, Nick Halme argues for a more sophisticated understanding of “difficulty.”

Michael Brough makes the unconventional suggestion that games are too mature:

The days of the arcade, where every second game was new and strange and different, are long past. (The rest were clones, but never mind those.) That cacophony of ideas has been replaced by fixed genres, mostly the fully consolidated FPSRPG – a powerfully mature setting for a certain kind of interaction and storytelling, but a very limited thing to be the main thrust of our medium.

Meanwhile, back at Nightmare Mode, Bill Coberly writes at length about how gun games miss the haptic reality of guns as physical devices, creating an abstraction which doesn’t “respect” their lethality:

Most modern military shooter-games heavily market the authenticity of their weapons and equipment. Medal of Honor: Warfighter has an entire section on its marketing website dedicated only to descriptions and photographs of the various real-life weapons modeled in the game. The implication is clear: the marketers behind these games want you to think that this is how real warfare works, and that these are the tools used by real warriors.

The idea that these are real weapons that mimic real life is contradicted by the unembodiedness of firearms in the game. Gun usage in the modern military shooter does not foster the necessary respect for firearms. By using the same grammar as more obviously preposterous games such as Borderlands, these games teach that firearms are neat toys, magic wands to be used to “solve problems” and neutralize targets. Behind their cosmetic differences, smart-talking laser guns in Borderlands 2 and AK-47s in Call of Duty: Black Ops behave exactly the same.

This lack of respect seems to foster dissonance in both discussions of military action and civilian gun ownership. Even ignoring all the other ways the modern military shooter has little in common with real war, by ignoring the physicality of the soldier holding the gun and fostering a lack of respect for that particular gun, these games gloss over the fact that real war is fought by human beings against other human beings. […] It’s a deeply physical and embodied experience, and decisions around if, when and where we should send American soldiers to shoot people need to be made with this in mind.

On a similar note, Scott Juster of Moving Pixels writes of Call of Duty‘s troubled relationship with reality.


Buzzfeed contributor Chris Stokel-Walker gives us a lengthy but rewarding history of Pong.

On Eurogamer, Simon Parkin furnishes us with a vibrant tale of the Grand Theft Auto player who “spilled” Hot Coffee.


It wouldn’t be TWIVGB without a few in-depth critiques of specific games. Let’s get to it.


Josh Bycer wraps up his analysis of X-COM: Enemy Unknown‘s strategic and tactical layers.


Joe Flood, a Native living on the Pine Ridge reservation of South Dakota, engages with gaming’s first high-profile Native American protagonist.


Michael Clarkson digs deep with The Walking Dead‘s take on the Hobbesian “state of nature.” Also worth reading is Clarkson’s close critique of the series’s second chapter, Starved for Help.


Lana Polansky experiences an unexpected paratextual gutpunch while going through the game’s campaign missions.


Brendan Keogh’s Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line released last week to generally enthusiastic response. Now Keogh brings us a roundup of some early and very worthy reviews of his book, acknowledging what his critique does and doesn’t accomplish.


At Unwinnable, Jenn Frank pens this emotional introspection on her work in games, the death of her mother, hanging on and letting go. Also worth reading is this very valuable B-side.

Daniel Starkey pays tribute to his own ailing mother in this Gameranx feature about dealing with his mother’s failing health through the Commander Shepard he modeled on her.

And over on Kotaku, guest contributor Phil Owen offers up this strong self-examination of his suicidal depression, unemployment, and how his gaming habits may have helped or fed into that depression.


(This section carries a general trigger warning for descriptions of sexual harassment and verbal assault.)

One of the sweeping stories of the past week has been the #1ReasonWhy hashtag, in which women game developers, journalists and players from around the globe share personal experiences of harassment, isolation and invalidation within the game industry and gaming culture at large.

Alex Raymond starts us off with an overview of the hashtag mini-movement as well as choice tweets and links.

Critical Distance contributor Katie Williams takes to her personal blog to outline her own myriad reasons, noting finally: “Because I’m scared to post this on Twitter.”

Rhea Monique adds her own voice as a critic and a hardcore player. The women of Not Your Mama’s Gamer weigh in as well.

Tami “Cuppycake” Baribeau relates a harrowing first-person experience with industry sexism and gender inequality.

Gamespot editors Laura Parker and Carolyn Petit share a discussion on the importance of addressing sexism in the games industry.

On Gamers With Jobs, Colleen Hannon provides a good dismantling of some of the common derails and criticisms written in response to the hashtag. (Skeptical readers are encouraged to read this thoroughly before deciding to leave their own comments.)

Johnny Kilhefner storifies a virtually inexhaustible roundup of #1reasonwhy tweets from all sources.

Writing for the Guardian, Mary Hamilton shares a good treatment of the hashtag as well as the need for proactive responses to inequality. To this end we’ve seen quite a few answers: Rhianna Pratchett initiated the #1ReasonToBe hashtag, and almost immediately in its wake emerged #1ReasonMentors, designed to create a support network for women developers. Elsewhere, IndieCade speaker and LA-area developer Akira Thompson has set up Be the Solution, a new tumblr intended as “a proactive response to #1reasonwhy.”


Many articles this week tackled discrimination in the industry and gamer culture at large beyond the scope of the #1Reason hashtags.

On Polygon, Tracey Lien profiles Iron Ribbon, a grassroots effort to end discriminatory trashtalk and other behavior in gaming.

Edge observes that the representation of women in the industry is at its lowest point in a decade and asks several devs and advocates how the trend might be reversed.

Emily Short provides us with an excellent roundup of women game developers both AAA and indie.

Merritt Kopas discusses using games to educate on systemic social inequality and injustice:

Because [anna anthropy’s] dys4ia requires active participation by the player, it draws them into the logic of a system bigger than the individual. It gives non-trans players a tiny glimpse of the frustrations of living in a society that tells you over and over that you do not exist, and that, when it on occasion deigns to admit that you do, then drops obstacle after obstacle in the path of your desires and goals. Here, one student said that the game helped them to better understand the process of transition and all of the institutional and societal barriers involved. Another told me that the game helped them to better understand the idea of ideology as a force bigger than the individual, something that can structure one’s options and choices in life without one’s knowledge or consent.

Much has been made of tactics to remove the barrier for entry into game development. Writing for Nightmare Mode, the mononymous Porpentine provides us with a brief history, and stirring manifesto for the creation, of interactive fiction including a good Twine how-to. In conjunction with this, here’s a recommended interview with Porpentine about her Twine work Howling Dogs, conducted by IF luminary Emily Short.

Lastly, from the desk of Cara Ellison, have a poem:

Had to be screamed from the studies of businesswomen
Had to be hissed under breaths in bars in San Francisco in March
Had to be ummed by women games designers
Had to be thought in elevators at conferences
Had to be leant over a keyboard at 3am with Merlot eyes half shut
Had to be seen in absence
Had to be seen in the lack of trying
Had to be seen in statistics of applications
Had to be segregated in schools
Had to be guided away from sciences
Had to be a self-taught programmer
Our apathy and the games industry are in cahoots

*drum tap*


That’s all for this week, but as always we look forward to your submissions which you can send to us via Twitter or email.

Please note that the tireless Alan Williamson is in the process of moving house so the December Blogs of the Round Table should be a bit delayed. Take advantage of this opportunity to sneak something in for November’s “origins” theme!