Author Archives: Eric Swain

Episode 25 – The History of Everyday Games

April 17th, 2015 | Posted by Eric Swain in Critical Distance Confab: - (Comments Off on Episode 25 – The History of Everyday Games)

This month we are joined by game historian, University of Lancaster PhD candidate and editor-in-chief of Silverstring Media’s Critical Publishing arm, Zoya Street. Zoya has written two seminal books on games, Dreamcast Worlds and Delay, and is the founder of the wonderful free e-zine, Memory Insufficient. Here, we talk about his background in design history and what that lens means for videogames as artifacts as well as what isn’t said by the artifact itself, but rather is left to the community surrounding to interpret and define. Have a listen.

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Dreamcast Worlds

Delay: Paying Attention to Energy Mechanics

Memory Insufficient Back Catalog

Memory Insufficient at Silverstring Media


“Between excessive fantasy and selfish disillusionment” – Reading a Japanese essay from 1999 about visual novel ‘Captain Love’

Opening Theme: ‘Close’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

Closing Theme: ‘Wishing Never’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

Minisode 01 – Cyberpunk and Personal Stories

March 31st, 2015 | Posted by Eric Swain in Critical Distance Confab: - (Comments Off on Minisode 01 – Cyberpunk and Personal Stories)

Welcome to the first Critical Distance Confab minisode!

We’re trying something new with the podcast. There are so many games coming out at every level, everyday. So many of them fall through the cracks for one reason or another. Everybody has asked themselves the question, “How did this game not get talked about? How is there no criticism on it?” We are a curatorial site. As curators we see the conversations that happen and as individuals often the conversations that do not happen.

In an effort to combat this in our own small little way, we have decided to do a series of minisodes, on a trial run, that will specifically highlight those games that fell through the cracks. Every month, one guest and I will list off three games, each in hopes that the critical community sees them, tries them and maybe write about them, giving them the criticism we think they deserve. Anything goes. They can be anything from ich.io art games to prestige indie games to missed AAA titles, just so long as they are games that missed the boat for one reason or another.

This month’s guest is Polygon Senior Editor, Danielle Riendeau. Take a listen!

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Danielle’s Picks




Eric’s Picks


Shadowrun: Dragonfall – Director’s Cut

Beneath Floes

Opening Theme: ‘Close’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

Closing Theme: ‘Wishing Never’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

Episode 24 – The Zine Knight Rises

March 26th, 2015 | Posted by Eric Swain in Critical Distance Confab: - (Comments Off on Episode 24 – The Zine Knight Rises)

Continuing on with our theme of notable published video game books, we turn our eye to the other major work on 2012, Anna Anthropy‘s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreams, Drop-outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form.

As much as it was a manifesto and a revelation back in 2012, it feels even more prescient now with all the changes and advancements that has occurred on the fringes of videogame creation since its publication. I talk with Anna about not only Rise, but also her other books, games as well as her self-published zines and how they all revolve around this do-it-yourself ethos.

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Anna Anthropy’s Patreon

Anna Antropy’s Zine Distribution Patreon

Anna Anthropy’s Twitter

Rise of the Videogame Zinesters


Choose Your Own Death: Star Wench

A Game Design Vocabulary

Zine Store

Calamity Annie

Queers in Love at the End of the World

Lesbian Spider Queens of Mars



Opening Theme: ‘Close’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

Closing Theme: ‘Wishing Never’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

Episode 23 – Books Fight Boss

March 12th, 2015 | Posted by Eric Swain in Critical Distance Confab: - (Comments Off on Episode 23 – Books Fight Boss)

Continuing on the theme of video game book publishing, we decide to talk with Gabe Durham, the founder and editor of BossFightBooks, right now, the leader in single game book criticism. As of recording he had just wrapped up the Second Season Kickstarter and was taking pitches for the backer chosen game, Shadow of the Colossus.

We talk about where the idea for BossFightBooks came from, how their publishing system works and what he’s looking for in both authors and pitches to continue providing a variety of voices, styles and games.

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Fuck Videogames

Rise of the Videogame Zinesters

Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter

Some Thoughts on Darius Kazemi’s Jagged Alliance 2 and my own Killing is Harmless

Opening Theme: ‘Close’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

Closing Theme: ‘Wishing Never’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

Episode 22 – On ‘Killing is Harmless’

January 13th, 2015 | Posted by Eric Swain in Critical Distance Confab: - (Comments Off on Episode 22 – On ‘Killing is Harmless’)

In 2012, critic and Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology PhD candidate Brendan Keogh released his long form critical piece on Spec Ops: The Line in the form of an ebook. Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line was at the time the first known published book of criticism on a single game. In the years since a cavalcade of books of video game criticism has been published and more to come in the future.

Two years after initially publishing the book, we decided to interview Brendan to get his perspective on the book, the reception and how things have change over time in his critical methods. We also get into musing on the book’s cultural and historical placement given the recent boom in video game criticism books.

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Brendan Keogh

Critical Damage

Darius Kazemi Review: Killing is Harmless, by Brendan Keogh

Cameron  Kunzelman’s On Killing is Harmless

Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation”

Susan Sontag’s “On Style”

Noal Carroll’s On Criticism

David Sudnow’s Pilgrim in the Microworld

Spec Ops: The Line Critical Compilation

Opening Theme: ‘Close’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

Closing Theme: ‘Wishing Never’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

This Year in Videogame Blogging: 2014

December 30th, 2014 | Posted by Eric Swain in Spotlight: - (Comments Off on This Year in Videogame Blogging: 2014)

So comes to a close the year 2014. It is a time for reflection and consideration.

We at Critical Distance have gone back over the last year and put together a compilation of what we feel best represents what has passed year. We compiled the most important, most memorable and most representative critical pieces of the year to give an idea of what 2014 was all about. Now, Critical Distance is proud to present the 2014 edition of This Year In Videogame Blogging!

Whatever anyone might have thought of 2014 before, the arrival of GamerGate in August changed everything. We are a curatorial site and This Year In Videogame Blogging is a feature which looks back and tries to create an outline of what the year was — but with GamerGate in the mix, it is not so simple. Many have mused that pre-August felt like it belonged to another decade compared to the avalanche of destruction that engulfed the latter half of the year.

There is no ‘debacle timeline’ this year to which we can all refer. GamerGate was too long and too multi-pronged; nearly every day brought some new accusation; some new horror in the ostensible name of “ethics in games journalism.” So I beg your forgiveness if our own efforts to summarize fall on the brief side. No roundup can completely address everything of the last few months, from explaining the harassers’ tactics, to condemning the lies, to acknowledging the pain and honoring the losses suffered by the gaming communities everywhere. Content warnings for this section include discussion of sexual harassment, stalking, rape and death threats, and all the rest that the GamerGate hashtag has come to exemplify.

(Editors Note: Some weeks into 2015, Reddit user Squirrel Justice Warrior was kind enough to actually create such a timeline and we deemed it meticulous enough to include here as a primer to the activity details of the ongoing nightmare.)

So many places to begin, but I want to open with the voice of the woman whose harassment began it all. Zoe Quinn, after months of putting up with the some of the worst events anyone can imagine, struck back against their fig leaf of a justification for all the has been done in the name of the hashtag saying, “Fine, Let’s Talking About Ethics in Games Journalism.” As you might expect, what the hashtag focuses on and what really impacts the industry are very different things.

Alexandra Erin wrote as well on the topic of ethics, commenting: “#GamerGate really is deeply concerned with ethics in videogame journalism. It turns out they’re not a fan of the idea.”

Dan Olson, aka the Foldable Human, took a critical theory lens usually reserved for media studies and applies it to the movement surrounding the hashtag, cutting right to the bone of its recursive ideology.

Katherine Cross wrote We Will Force Gaming to Be Free for First Person Scholar, a widely shared piece in which where she attempts to academically excavate the lies and hypocrisies of the so-called “consumer revolt.”

Also related, Carolyn Petit wrote Why Political Engagement is Critical to Games Journalism, despite a vocal minority claiming they want politics out of games journalism. Midnight Resistance’s Owen Grieve, along the same lines, argued that “Game Design is Always Political” you can’t change it no matter how much you may whine about it.

Liz Ryerson looked at “gamer” as an identity, not as the marketing ploy, but as the social construct we made it around something we love and the historical precedent to our current concerns around videogames. Ryerson wrote that we need to acknowledge and deal with the problems that come with this identity.

Similarly, BioWare’s Damion Schubert declared that he wanted to reclaim the term “gamer.” Most gamers are good people, he argued, and we should oust those destructive elements, because, to paraphrase Office Space: “Why should we change? They’re the ones who suck.”

We lead out of this section with probably the most misquoted piece of the year, Leigh Alexander’s Gamers Are Over, in which she speaks specifically to an audience of developers on the diversity of current game playing demographics, in contrast to the omnipresent “gamer” stereotype which cultivates so much of the industry’s attention.

Culture Blogging
Every year, we have a section devoted to pieces that focused on the community that surrounds our medium. This year, more that ever previously, such pieces dominated the conversation. The biggest event might have been directly addressed above, but it was only one in several interlocking pieces where critics tried to break with the status quo.

Based on an article he penned for Polygon from earlier this year, Tropes vs Women in Videogames producer Jonathan McIntosh produced the video “25 Invisible Benefits of Gaming While Male” for the Feminist Frequency’s YouTube channel, getting 25 men of the videogame industry to label their privileges.

Anita Sarkeesian also released her two part dissection of the Background Decoration trope, which should be considered essential viewing. A content warning, however, for graphic violent imagery present in the videos.

At Paste, Cara Ellison explored the 17% figure in videogames, a recurring number in media studies as the percentage at which men judge the gender ratio of men and women to be equal. Anything more than 17% and men start to perceive women as the majority of a given crowd.

Switching gears from gender to race representation, Jed Pressgrove hosted a conversation with Sidney Fussell on race in videogames, focusing on the representation of blacks and their coded fantasy counterparts.

Shivam Bhatt tackled the Far Cry 4 cover art controversy using it to explain how South Asians are represented and treated.

At US Gamer, Daniel Starkey spoke with Doom developer John Romero and others to discuss the treatment of Native Americans in videogame development. From Custer’s Revenge to this year’s Never Alone, Starkey said, they are “More Than Shamans and Savages.”

On his blog Stay Classy, Todd Harper explained the dichotomy of The Subtle Knife: as a gay man, when does he want being gay to matter in a game? “Always,” he said, and “never.”

Samantha Allen — in one of her final pieces of her games writing career — expressed a disbelief in the so-called split between “short form, single author queer games or long form works that are developed by teams but weighed down by the trappings of dominate culture.” She believes the gap can be closed — and is already closing.

The subject of representation goes beyond the content of games, into the makeup of the industry itself. Jenn Frank wrote about The Rolodex and how the normal processes of business networking can be a self perpetuating system of exclusion if it isn’t recognized and actively countered. Responding to well-meaning but confounded readers, Leigh Alexander wrote a few Dos and Don’ts on combating online sexism.

Squinky, aka Deirdra Kiai, delivered an impassioned talk at this year’s #1reasontobe panel at the Game Developers Conference, namely on the challenges of being gender non-binary in a highly gendered industry like videogames. “Making games is easy. Belonging is hard,” was the refrain of their talk, as republished here on Squinky’s professional site.

Stacy Mason attended her first GDC this past March and found that she did learn a lot, just not what she was expecting. The game industry wants to have rock stars, she observed, but copies the worst aspect of other mediums in its quest for legitimacy.

Maddy Myers concluded her GDC experience with an epilogue and how the dominate culture seeks to discredit the work not already appreciated, both at industry social events and within the hiring process. Later in the year, Myers also held a talk at AlterCon about the myth of “objectivity” and the need for Gonzo Journalism.

Daniel Joseph argued that we must Let The Enthusiast Press Die for its stagnation, while Javy Gwaltney pointed out that while we may laugh at some of the coverage on mainstream game news sites, we should take it seriously for how it comes to represent games journalism to the rest of society.

Tadhg Kelly explored the brave new world of Patreonomics, in which more and more creators are turning to Patreon and other crowdfunding sites to make their livelihood. (Critical Distance is itself funded by its readership via Patreon, so we’re part of this trend ourselves!)

Our own Lana Polansky worried about that if the legitimate anger from activism can be so easily twisted, so can the new form of support for the most in need. The anger is necessary in the face of little other support, yet can easily turn toxic and people against one another.

Along those lines, Critical Distance alumna Mattie Brice commented on how she and so many others are more than their pain, but often that is all that gets noticed for that is all that is marketable about minority writers.

Further demonstrating Polansky’s point, Leigh Alexander wrote The Unearthing, a creative narrativization of the excavation of the ET cartridges in the New Mexico desert earlier this year. The event itself is less important compared to the mindset of the critic in this space, feeling constantly under siege.

Ian Danskin’s video “This is Phil Fish” — made prior to Fish’s complete departure from the industry — discussed the strange obsessive cult of celebrity concerning the titular figure and others like him. Developer Liz Ryerson used the video as a jumping off point to talk about Indie Entitlement based on already outdated notions of what the indie community is — and the harm these notions cause to those outside the “norm.”

Industry problems abound. Mike Joffe at Videogames of the Oppressed brought up Conflict Minerals in Games. (Content warning: discussion of rape and sexual slavery.) Back on Paste, Ian Williams and Austin Walker critiqued a recent Blizzard Entertainment recruitment video and how it subtly preyed upon the dreams and aspirations of new developers.

Also, Jared Rosen details GAME_JAM: How the Most Expensive Game Jam Crashed and Burned in a Single Day. The original article is lost to time, but it is archived for now through the Wayback Machine.

Actual ethical debates were brought up and ignored. For instance, Eurogamer’s Simon Parkin asked “Are YouTubers breaking the law?” With prominent personalities doing advertorials and promotions for their subjects, this is a question we’re bound to return to in the new year.

Claire Hosking explains the whole Grand Theft Auto V being pulled from Target shelves in Australia thing from the perspective of Australians, contrary to the mainly American outcry which has dominated the conversation.

Rami Ismail, developer and business guy at Vlambeer, explains how even in a world of code and systems, being English speaking is an enormous advantage in this world. This also carries over to the field of criticism, as Memory Insufficient’s Zoya Street dove into the Japanese videogame criticism and brought back some translations and insights in these three pieces.

The inaugural Critical Proximity — organized by Zoya Street — was held this year just ahead of GDC. Joshua Comer was inspired by a number of the talks to examine “Criticism’s Difficulty Settings.” Meanwhile, Mike Joffe “Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Myriad and Nebulous Concepts None of Us Can Agree On.”

Another digital based conference, Indie3, happened later this year, as a “counter-conference” to the AAA-focused E3. Cameron Kunzelman and Austin Walker wrote a Postscript for Paste on the floundering that happened in a space that didn’t define up front what it was all about.

Speaking of conferences, “‘Everyone Was There’ And You Weren’t” wrote Dan Cox, on the exclusionary rhetoric that gets thrown about at events like conferences and conventions. He wondered: if everyone was there, then are those who couldn’t make it nobodies?

And we can’t go without mentioning Cara Ellison’s Embed With… series, in which she travels around the world visiting important names and faces in the field. Her visit to Paris-based, American ex-pat developers Katharine Neil and Harvey Smith is a great place to start.

Finally, you want objective game reviews? Here’s a whole site of them. Be careful what you wish for.

Theory Blogging
Some criticism focuses on the specific instance, a single game or other work. Other pieces look to broader conceptions and understanding of both game design and criticism.

Earlier this year, Stephen Beirne started off a grand conversation about capitalistic design in RPGs and whether it was inherent in leveling up. Austin Walker responded that Beirne’s assertions “sacrifice complexity for strategic power.” He saw papered over cracks and wanted to explore them, while Zack Fair figured we should be careful with definitions and distinction regarding in game resources.

Our own Mark Filipowich explored the “Narrative and Abstraction of the Camera in Games.” What we see is not literally there, but a representation of something we are meant to understand is there.

Austin C. Howe defended the notion of games about games as it he finds it severely reductive and ignored so much they actually have to say and denouncing them dangerously results in asserting that games exist in a vacuum.

Touching on the critical reception to Vlambeer’s Luftrausers (with its Nazi-inflected aesthetics), Craig Stern took to task the saying “no interpretation is wrong.” While it may not have been the case here, not all interpretations are valid, he said, especially those that discount and ignore the material in the actual work being discussed.

Brendan Vance delivered a one-two punch on our assumptions regarding games this year in “The Cult of the Peacock” and “Form and its Usurpers.” The first article concerns design dogma while the latter focuses on the ideology of form and content divorced from their artistic roots.

Writing for Indie Haven, Joe Parlock asserted that the “What is a Game?” debate is not only pointless and annoying, but actively damaging to the medium at large.

At Videogame Tourism, Eron Rauch noted the echoes of history as the current rhetoric around the art revolution of indie games matches up so well with that of the Impressionists some hundred and fifty years prior.

Play the Past’s Gilles Roy explored how strategy games are changing our understanding of popular history. The ludic rhetoric that gets used, he argued, alters perception of events and realities.

David Hayward of the YouTube channel Feral Vector took us for a walk in the countryside, a parable of space fascists caving each others heads in and, more broadly, the ridiculous seriousness with which the games press discuss games.

Speaking of video blogging, Errant Signal’s Chris Franklin had several significant contributions this year, such as this piece where he related that the current deluge of new releases requires curation, not gatekeepers. In the end, he said, he wants more information from critics, not fewer games.

Our own Eric Swain began a new weekly feature series this year called Non Play Criticism, where he takes a piece of criticism from a different medium and pulls a lesson from it that can be used in videogame criticism.

In the inaugural issue of the Journal of Games Criticism, Brendan Keogh wrote a long piece about the status of academia to games criticism, warned against the ivory tower and the need for the middle voices between enthusiast press and academia. In a response, Zoya Street had a few things to say about his take on the matter as well, invoking the term “The Cyborg Critic.”

Critical Videogame Blogging
In the end, it all comes down to the games themselves. All the talk would be for naught without something to talk about, something to both channel ideas through and receive ideas from. It’s not just about new games, but new conversations whether they be about new games or old ones.

It was a big year for Assassin’s Creed. As the series has gone on, Jamie Patton noticed a disturbing trend in the games toward colonizing history by inserting our own modern values as if they were eternal and universal, erasing the struggles that actually went on.

In a series of six posts, our own Cameron Kunzelman made his way through the Assassin’s Creed II trilogy, exploring various elements such as control, the interface, the city and the animus.

Nick Dinicola looked at Assassin’s Creed IV and the series’ recent shift toward the creed of not just assassins but their competing templars and, presently, pirates. Dinicola described these warring ideologies as a propaganda battle of their philosophies.

In his Critical Intel column, Robert Rath made the historical case for women in Assassin’s Creed: Unity, given their prominence during the French Revolution.

At Paste, Justin Clark reflected on what it means for him and his school teacher mother to see “blackness flaunted with utmost dignity” in the trailer for the Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag – Freedom’s Cry DLC.

Moving from one Ubisoft property to another, Errant Signal’s Chris Franklin blasted Watch Dogs, while Austin Walker examined what it means to be an NPC in both Watch Dogs and Middle-Earth: Shadows of Mordor, especially when our only way to meaningful interact with them is violence. “I can’t touch anyone,” Austin lamented.

Carolyn Petit wanted Shadow of Mordor to let her enter the world of Tolkien, but instead she got a painful reminder that women are considered disposable and that violence asserts the status quo. At The Verge, Chris Plante called Shadow of Mordormorally repulsive” for turning the player into a torturer and terrorist. And at Polygon, Alexa Ray Corriea published a huge feature on the history of The Lord of the Rings in videogames.

From one strain of adaptation to another, Brendan Keogh had quite a list of notes on Alien: Isolation. Elsewhere, Cara Ellison had some choice words to the developers who made the graffiti in the game: “We’re not idiots.”

On Matter, Gone Home developer Steve Gaynor took part in The New York Review of Videogames to look at Alien: Isolation and The Evil Within as games that carry “the weight of their histories” with them as they try to balance nostalgia with novelty.

Edward Smith put forward Hideo Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro’s PT as an example of how to make a horror game right. Instead of systematizing horror scenes, he said, let the world have understandable rules to never let the player gain their footing.

Telltale concluded two game series this year, The Wolf Among Us and the second season of The Walking Dead. Becky Chambers, formerly of The Mary Sue, reviewed the second chapter of The Wolf Among Us and examined how it uses a well-worn trope of ‘mature games’ — the brothel house — but does so with uncommon deftness. At PopMatters, Jorge Albor asserted The Wolf Among Us takes a victim centric approach to storytelling. The character Narissa, in particular, is highlighted.

Albor also looked at The Walking Dead Season Two Episode 3 and how it portrays toxic masculinity. In trying to assert dominance, he noted, the character Carver ends up seeding only destruction.

On Kill Screen, Carli Velocci explained she had a panic attack while playing The Walking Dead. Given what it’s going for, she mused on whether that was a good thing.

War never changes. Neither does Call of Duty. Christ Priestman wondered: if Call of Duty can’t do grief right, then who can?

With an eye toward history, Andrew Dunn lamented Valiant Hearts’ atonal treatment of the conflict of its subject matter, the first World War.

Ria Jenkins detailed the horrible content of the Chico Tape 4 collectable in Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes and how it undermines Paz’s character to confirm the worst stereotypes about women. (Content warning: descriptions of sexual violence and gore.)

Looking at a more contemporary set of affairs, Mike Williams of US Gamer remarked that Life Imitates Art, looking at how the upcoming Battlefield: Hardline mediates the militarization of urban police departments. Kevin Nguyen at The Paris Review also noted how awful the game’s timing is, both specifically and where we are as a culture.

Back with his Critical Intel column, Robert Rath observed that in all of games’ portrayals of Nazi horrors, few get it as right as Wolfenstein: The New Order. Rath wrote that the game hits upon one very important truth, both then and now: “We see that survival, merely living life, is an act of resistance.”

Border House editor Anna pointed out that Nintendo’s attempt to make no social commentary with Tomodachi Life is social commentary. Todd Harper concurred, saying that “erasing your audience isn’t fun.” Patricia Hernandez of Kotaku made her Tomodachi Life “a little bit gayer” but struggled to get around the heteronormativity of the game to portray her friends within.

Bayonetta 2 also caused some discussion, with Maddy Myers seeing merit in Bayonetta as a sex positive figure that doesn’t bend to anyone’s gaze. On the other hand, Apple Cider Mage didn’t feel a character like Bayonetta can fill that role until there is a plethora of other characters of all types.

Todd Harper decided to take a week and write anything about Bayonetta 2 not having to do with the titular character’s position either as sex empowerment fantasy or sexual object. And at Failing Awkwardly, Kateri penned a nine-part survey of all the sexual partners one can have in The Witcher and how they are portrayed.

In another direction, our own Kris Ligman posted the notes from an extemporaneous talk delivered at Lost Levels on reading Phoenix Wright of the Ace Attorney series as an asexual character.

Jorge Albor saw his own experience with race reflecting in Dragon Age: Inquisition, while Patricia Hernandez saw a very different type of culturally-inflected experience in Papers, Please.

Katherine Cross looked at one of the best characters from Christine Love’s Hate Plus, Oh Eun-a, and used Alpha Centauri as a template to urge writers not to give into caricature.

Mobile games also had a lot of focus this year. Gita Jackson wrote about Kim Kardashian’s Hollywood and the stresses of fame which pervade the game. Jackson observed empathetically: “For Mrs. Kardashian West, however, this isn’t a diversion. This is her life.”

Threes! saw quite a few problems earlier this year, with the game’s extensive clone taking the spotlight. Leigh Alexander penned a feature on the entire affair and one of the game’s more successful clones, 2048. The developer, meanwhile, felt compelled to publish their emails entailing the entire design process to deflect accusations theirs was the clone in this situation.

There was a great deal of coverage on Flappy Bird, not all of it competently researched or presented. In a bid to counter this trend, developer and game design educator Robert Yang attempted to frame the Flappy Bird affair in its correct context.

Also touching upon the game, Brendan Keogh lamented the constant push for innovation while ignoring a game that just manages to do something really, really well.

Multimedia editor at PopMatters, G. Christopher Williams, wrote a piece exploring what Simogo’s Device 6 had to say about the player not as the “free man” a la The Prisoner, but as the “special man.”

At Paste, Ansh Patel wrote about Kentucky Route Zero Episode III’s Musical Centerpiece and how it exploits the relationship between player choice and the game’s narrative.

Newcomer writer Melody Meows penned a wonderful three part essay on the themes of Supergiant’s Transistor, including democracy and the tangibility of ideas. Claire Hosking looked at Transistor through the eyes of its city and the artists who formed it.

The mononymous Greg described his impression of hopelessness in The Banner Saga‘s indifferent world and asked: “Can Games Teach Us to Die?

Interactive fiction luminary and Versu developer Emily Short had some things to say about Gone Home and the crutch of games telling their story through backstory. In a similarly literary vein, on Unwinnable Jill Scharr wondered if she is The Novelist, after trying to understand what the game has to say.

Writing for his blog The Animist, Alex Duncan used The Stanley Parable to look at metafiction and how treating the game as a dichotomy rather than approaching it holistically leaves something to be desired.

Joshua Calixto penned a feature for Kill Screen about Super Smash Bros. Melee‘s staying power, its status among the fighting game community and how it became an albatross around its creator’s neck.

Samantha Allen explained the Centipede’s Dilemma with Mario Kart 8. There is so much nuance in playing videogame nowadays, she contended, we don’t even know how we do it.

Justin Keverne penned another large design analysis this year, this time a 12 part breakdown of the most recent Thief for Sneaky Bastards.

The Starseed Observatory also launched this year, an entire site of criticism dedicated to droqen’s Starseed Pilgrim, founded by Richard “KirbyKid” Terrell and Daniel Johnson.

Chay Close at Kill Screen reasoned every videogame is a comedy, but only a very few are in on the joke. Writing for Kotaku’s UK branch, our own Zolani Stewart advanced the concept of Sonic Studies in order to isolate where, exactly, the little blue hedgehog started to go so wrong.

Austin Walker reviewed The Crew for Paste, seeing the America within as a postcard of the nation. He found some delight in the abstraction of the country, but soon it became apparent to him that The Crew‘s fantasy of accumulating power is not the Americanism he wanted to engage with.

Stephen Beirne found he had made a mistake in Spec Ops: The Line under pressure by a moment in the game’s fiction. Comparing the game with BioShock Infinite, Beirne found that the moment left a far greater impact than BioShock Infinite‘s carnival throw because he could “point back to afterwards and see a ghost of myself living in it, so impassioned and alive as to be conceited of the absence of any alternative, so foolish and honest and gloriously mine.”

Ansh Patel discovered that The Longest Journey‘s anti-climax broke something within him, but found he “had stumbled on something beautiful and deeply meaningful beyond anything I could comprehend then.”

Jimmy Maher, The Digital Antiquarian, went back to Ultima IV and pieced together the story behind its philosophical departure from its contemporaries.

Finally, this year Javy Gwaltney was reminded of the drives he took alone in the night, and how Glitchhikers is the perfect recreation of that experience.

What was originally a scant few pieces of criticism stepping out from the aether of the internet has grown into a full fledge movement. Books and digital magazines are emerging to fill a long form space the web can’t quite satisfy.

New videogame book publisher BossFightBooks opened strong in its inaugural year, putting out two notable publications. First, Anna Anthropy’s book on ZZT, focusing on the community aspect of this creative game. Second, Darius Kazemi put his money where his mouth was and produced his own videogame criticism book, on Jagged Alliance 2. Brendan Keogh wrote some thoughts on Kazemi’s book, continuing the conversation from two years ago following the publishing of his own book on Spec Ops: The Line, titled Killing is Harmless.

Zoya Street also released a new book this year, Delay, looking at energy mechanics common in social and mobile games. His digital magazine, Memory Insufficient, also continued publishing into its second year. We highlight the Asian Histories issue in particular, because it led to e:\>_, an e-zine designed “to create a richer, more nuanced understanding of the social histories of gaming in Asia.”

Critical Distance’s own Alan Williamson completed a second year with his Five out of Ten digital magazine. The zine has collected issues 6 through 10 in a Year Two bundle. Williamson has been quite busy this year, publishing a book with co-author Kaitlin Tremblay: Escape to Na Pali: A Journey to the Unreal about the PC classic Unreal.

Finally, we welcome two newcomers in the games e-zine space. The Arcade Review, headed by our own Zolani Stewart, had a great inaugural year focusing on small, strange and often overlooked games in criticism. Unwinnable also began publishing their digital magazine this year, Unwinnable Weekly. You can read their 0 issue for free.

Blogger of the Year
For this section, I cede the floor to Senior Curator Kris Ligman:

It has become customary in these end-of-the-year retrospectives to highlight the contributions of a particular writer, or writers, who helped define the year’s critical discourse.

In the past, the honor of “best blogger” has gone to a newcomer or standout writer who went from standing near the periphery of our reading of games writing to take center stage in an ongoing, ever-evolving critical discussion. Each year, these breakout talents have helped to raise the discourse to new heights. Previous years’ winners include Kirk Hamilton and Kate Cox (2011), Brendan Keogh (2012), and Liz Ryerson and Samantha Allen (2013).

This year, we are proud to name the remarkable Austin Walker as our Blogger of the Year.

Austin’s articles on the intersections of games, race and class were among of the most-shared in 2014, and it’s very easy to see why. Even in this roundup, we’ve linked to a number of Austin’s pieces. In lucid, thoughtful language, Austin draws necessary but all too often overlooked connections in the powerplay of games and our larger society. One only has to look at his articles for Paste on The Crew and Watch Dogs to see why his writing has struck such a chord with so many readers.

We congratulate Austin Walker on his many contributions to 2014’s discourse on games and we look forward to his future work!

Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot
Imagine a box, wide and vast. We crisscrossed the box every which way. We found an edge and, with one hand on the wall, began to walk along it. We reached the corner and turned with it. And again. And again.

After a long while, we had circled the inside of the box. Then we began the journey again. Over and over we walked the perimeter of the box. Each journey took less and less time. Our stride grew as did we. Now we don’t even move. We are stuck in place, as the walls push against us, constricting us.

But we too push against the walls of the box. Not too long ago, it was only our arms that brushed against the sides. Now it is more and more of us. The walls will soon buckle and deform, then break down altogether. That is 2014. That is what we have striven to create with this document.

I thank all my colleagues at Critical Distance, both new and old. I thank my editors, both here and afar. And I thank readers like you. I’ll see you next year.

We will be resuming our regular weekly roundups the second week of January. In the meantime, don’t forget to send in your suggestions for TWIVGB to our email or @ message us on Twitter.

Critical Distance is proud to be completely community-sourced and funded. If you can, consider signing up for a small monthly donation. We really do depend on all of you.

From all of us to all of you, we wish you a happy — brighter — New Year!

Episode 21 – Actually, It’s About…2014

December 17th, 2014 | Posted by Eric Swain in Critical Distance Confab: - (Comments Off on Episode 21 – Actually, It’s About…2014)

It’s that time again, the end of the year is upon us. Rather than exhaustively go over everything of note that happened in 2014, instead we more skim over several various broad topics of interest. 2014 hasn’t been a pleasant year overall, but in the spirit of gladder tidings we decided to focus as much as we can on better things.

Direct Download


Eric Swain: The Game Critique

Kris Ligman: Dire Critic

Alan Williamson: Five out of Ten

Lana Polansky: Sufficiently Human


Flappy Bird is Making $50,000 A Day on Mario-Like Art

You Are Mountain

Twine, the Video Game Technology For All

Cat Petting Simulator

The Terror Aboard the Speedwell

The Uncle Who Works For Nintendo

Support Games Criticism

Critical Proximity

Video Brains

Does Twitch Plays Pokemon Give You Hope For Humanity?

Opening Theme: ‘Close’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

Closing Theme: ‘Wishing Never’ by The Alpha Conspiracy

Full list of games mentioned at end: Bayonetta 2, Mario Kart 8, Shovel Knight, Curtain, 2:22 AM, LaLa Land, Kitty Horrorshow’s games, Aeryne Wright’s games, Shadowrun: Dragonfall, The Fall, 80 Days, Gods Will Be Watching, The Niflheim, Layton vs. Phoenix Wright, Coffee: A Misunderstanding.

Our TYIVGB Methodology

December 9th, 2014 | Posted by Eric Swain in Announcement: - (Comments Off on Our TYIVGB Methodology)

Every year, Critical Distance produces a feature entitled This Year In Video Game Blogging. You’ll be seeing 2014’s roundup in just a few weeks, so let’s take a moment to talk about how the sausage is made.

We have always endeavored at Critical Distance to be open and honest with our methods. Over the years, we’ve refined our process, taking note of what eased the load, while broadening the view.

The Starter Lists

We begin by creating the three starter lists. The first list is my own, crafted by going through all of our This Week In Video Game Blogging roundups featured over the past year. The second list is created by our staff curators. The third and final list is the combined suggestions from our readers.

The First List

The first starter list is the bedrock on which TYIVGB is built. First, I put together a list of links that are auto-shortlisted. Either they have been deemed to sum up an issue or game perfectly, it was a huge deal throughout the year, or otherwise is one of those pieces which was so significant that it clearly merited inclusion. Previous examples include Brendan Keogh’s book on Spec Ops: The Line, Killing is Harmless, and Leigh Alexander and Kirk Hamilton’s Final Fantasy VII letter series.

For the rest of the first starter list, I read through all the TWIVGBs of the past year. I pull out all the links I remember throughout the year and any further links that seem of interest for the year roundup. Previously, I read all of the featured links, but this was time-consuming and my current method creates pretty much the same starter list in a much shorter amount of time.

The Second List

The second starter list comes from our other curators. Each staff member creates a list of pieces they feel should be considered. They can submit anything they feel worthy of inclusion to augment my own effort, whether it’s something they feel I may overlook due to my personal perspective or simply a piece that didn’t make it into a TWIVGB for whatever reason. They use their own discretion in how they each create their personal submission lists.

The Third List

The final starter list is the simplest: we collect all the suggestions emailed from our readers, as long as they’re before the final due date. If you’d like to send in a reader submission of your own, you can learn about that process here.

The Longlist

Once I have the starter lists, I clear out the duplicates. Since inclusion in the shortlist isn’t based on popular vote, if something is already on one list, it doesn’t need to be on another. This helps streamline the next few steps. Also, I remove any obvious non-starters: joke suggestions, pieces that go against our mission statement, and those that don’t meet the higher standards necessary in a yearly roundup. They may be perfectly fine for TWIVGB, but TYIVGB is a different beast — it is more selective and refined.

From there, we consolidate all three starter lists into a longlist. This usually contains 100 to 300 articles. The length determines how long I spend culling it. Some pieces cover the same ground; others don’t meet the same standard of quality; and others still are those we like, but ultimately don’t add significantly to the critical corpus.

We also have a method for special edge cases such as if there is no single, high-quality article on an important issue; if there’s a gap representing a larger conversation that is spread quite thin; or if there is other missing representation in the fabric of the year. For these cases, the Critical Distance advisory board can make decisions where straight curation fails. Such cases are rare, and I have probably spent more time considering how to deal with hypothetical cases than I have ever actually needed to deal with a real one.

The Shortlist

Eventually, the longlist becomes the shortlist. In practical terms, this is when the list length is down to double digits. Then I meet with Kris Ligman, our Senior Curator. Together, we give the shortlist a once-over. It’s good to have a second set of eyes check the work, ask me questions about the choices and give me an opportunity to defend any questionable pieces i.e. for the aforementioned reasons of notability. By this point, my brain is usually fried, and it never hurts to double-check your work.

An Aside Concerning Self-Nomination

As all of our staff curators are themselves critics and commentators actively writing about games, it only makes sense that articles with our bylines would show up among the longlists and shortlist. That being said, we’re not here just to promote our own work, so we’ve developed an honor code of sorts for dealing with these situations.

It has long been our policy to never recommend our own work for the weeks we do TWIVGB. We can nominate our work when someone else is doing the roundup and thus able to properly evaluate our work, but never for our own weeks, except in special cases (for instance, when we are linking to a zine or anthology in which we are one of several authors). In my case, I adopted this policy because, in years past, I was the primary submitter of links and thus had considerable influence over the curation. As our site has grown in popularity, that influence and inclusion rate has decreased considerably, but we have continued with this policy in the name of fairness.

Being the lead curator on our year-end roundup, I recuse myself from judging any of my own work for possible inclusion. Instead, anything of mine which has been included in TWIVGB over the past year I hand over to Senior Curator Kris as a separate document. Kris makes the call on which, if any, of this is included. I have no say in this part of process, and I’ve done it this way every year since the first TYIVGB. It’s only fair that someone else pass judgment on my work.

The Write-Up

Once the curation is finished, we organize the articles into an outline and then comes the easy part: writing the feature. I write the descriptions and attributions of each piece, along with descriptions of their respective categories and a conclusion that sums up the whole year.

Like any act of creation, curation is an work of subjectivity. TYIVGB is what I, and the rest of the team, personally consider to be the most representative writing of the year — not necessarily the “best,” however that may be defined. Additionally, while others contribute to the process, it is still me behind the feature. TYIVGB will thus come tinged with all the biases and thought processes inherent in those facts.

Hopefully, This Year in Videogame Blogging will act as a snapshot of the year. The aim is simply to create something that someone looking at it years hence will read and say, “Yep, that was the year that was.” If we can accomplish that, then we’ve done our jobs.

Now Accepting Submissions for TYIVGB 2014 Edition

December 5th, 2014 | Posted by Eric Swain in Announcement: - (Comments Off on Now Accepting Submissions for TYIVGB 2014 Edition)

It’s that time of the year again here at Critical Distance! We are opening the floodgates to reader submissions for our annual end of year feature, This Year In Video Game Blogging.

In addition to my own efforts and the work of our staff curators, we are asking you the community to help fill the gaps. In general, we are looking for pieces that will help outline 2014 as a year. This is a feature of reflection and, in the future, a starting point to give a general idea of what 2014 was all about. Below are a list of general guidelines of the type of things we are looking for to give anyone who may need it a starting point. The only hard rule we have for submission (other than our general content policy) is that any suggestions must be from this year, 2014.

Now for the guidelines.

1. Any piece of writing that just sticks out in your mind. Days, weeks, months later you remember this piece of writing. Pieces that get cited to this day are would fall under this category. Examples from previous years:

The New Games Journalism by Kieron Gillen (2005)
The Lester Bangs of Video Games by Chuck Klosterman (2006)
Ludonarrative Dissonance by Clint Hocking (2007)
Taxonomy of Gamers by Mitch Krapta (2008)
Permanent Death by Ben Abraham (2009)
Video games can never be art by Roger Ebert (2010)
The Pratfall of Penny Arcade – A Timeline (aka Debacle Timeline) by Unknown (2011)
Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line by Brendan Keogh (2012)
Tropes vs. Women in Video Games by Anita Sarkeesian (2013 to present)

2. Any pieces that are an excellent example of larger trends surrounding the most talked about games of the year. Like from last year — BioShock Infinite, The Last of Us, Gone Home and so on. We want example pieces that highlight the discussion that took place around those games.

3. Any example pieces from the important voices and platforms (critics and sites) that stood out this year. These are the pieces that best highlight or represent the critics’ writing and work throughout the year.

4. Any pieces pertaining to gaming culture that highlight a conversation from this year. Large compilation pieces are preferred should they exist or pieces that otherwise capture the scope and variety of the conversation.

5. Any pieces that is simply an exceptional piece of meritorious writing about games.

6. Yes, you can nominate your own work.

Please email all links with “This Year in Videogame Blogging” in the subject line. DO NOT use Twitter for TYIVGB submissions. EMAIL ONLY.

Also, please keep emails brief. No long lists of 50 links with an essay praising each one. If you forget a link, go ahead and send another email.

The deadline for TYIVGB reader submissions is Midnight, December 24th Eastern Standard Time.

We thank you for your time and hope you have a happy December. My hair is going white already!

November 30th

November 30th, 2014 | Posted by Eric Swain in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on November 30th)

Hope for all our US readers you had a lovely, stuffing Turkey Day and didn’t spawn too many family brawls. For everyone else, happy weekend. Welcome to This Week In Video Game Blogging!

Bioshock and Beyond Earth

Bioshock is back in the critical eye. Anthony Burch at his blog No Wrong Way to Play decides to see what the consequences of the little sister decision is by never using any of the Adam earned from making a moral choice and finds the game lacking in its response. Meanwhile, Rick Stanton at Rock Paper Shotgun looks at the legacy of Looking Glass Studios in regards to the Bioshock series.

On the other half of the header, Katherine Cross writing for Polygon finds that Beyond Earth can’t top Alpha Centauri. Peter Christiansen writing for Play the Past, focuses on the Beyond Earth‘s tech trees and notes that while in many ways it is no different than Civilization’s determinism approach to technology, in others it matches with recent historical understands of Actor Network Theory. And Errant Signal’s Campster feels the game has a bit of an identity issues between Civilization and Alpha Centauri‘s different styles and themes.

AAA Themes

Jamie Patton finds the Assassin’s Creed series through III to fail by creating an everlasting present of anti-colonialism values that devalues actual history and our ability to change for the better.

Romance author Ruby Duvall takes and does not take issue with a Dragon Age: Inquisition side quest dealing with a character liking a romance serial and the serial’s inclusion as part of the greater world of Dragon Age. Looking at Bioware’s other major property, Dara Khan at Videogameheart thinks through the theme of transhumanism being presented in Mass Effect‘s final choice and finds it doesn’t mesh with what the rest of the series has been about.

At TransGamer Thoughts, Heather Alexandra explores at one of the most underlooked games of the past few years, Binary Domain, and how it deals with AI and what it means to be human.

Meanwhile, George Mylonas looks to a more recent game, Alien: Isolation, and how it functions through the research done about the horror genre.

Interactive Fiction

You may remember a few weeks ago we posted a piece on Alter Ego by The Digital Antiquarian. His wife, Dorte, has written a follow up from the point of view of a woman playing the game as a woman. Later that week, he focused on what looks like the final game in his “digital book” series, 1987’s Portal. It doesn’t look like something that would be out of place in the modern day’s more avante guarde Interactive Fiction scene.

Javy Denton muses on driving alone at night and how Glitchhikers nails the need to talk to someone in the wee hours, even if it’s just other parts of yourself.

The Feel of the Game

At The Butter, Brian Oliu talks about the feel of being the superstar that NBA Jam evokes. It’s not about winning or losing, but putting on the most amazing basketball show possible.

In The Binding of Issac: Rebirth, one starts off with a normalish looking body and by the end has transformed into a monstrous blob of flesh. At PopMatters, G. Christopher Williams explains how it is a statement of freedom in a way, “free from established rules and stricture, free to continue to grow into something other than what others desire it to be.”

In his review of Never Alone, Daniel Starkey comments on how happy he is, as an American Indian, that any tribe would get a game made in conjunction with them to valorize their history and beliefs as “an interactive piece of folklore.”

And Cara Ellison, in her NSFW column at Rock Paper Shotgun, chats and laughs with some real world lesbians about the hilarious failures of Girlvania, an ‘All-Girl Sex Simulation’.


Our own Zach Alexander goes back to a notable title in the mobile battle monster game genre, Puzzles and Dragons, and digs into its exploitative practices against the genre uninformed, likening much of it to capsule machines.

The Extra Credits crew praises the Dark Souls series for its approach to scalable difficulty.

Criticism on Criticism

Nick Capozzoli comes back to his own blog, to unpack the recent statements about opinion and objectivity of Youtuber Total Biscuit. How, when boiled down, the complaints always seem to be, “Why Wasn’t a White Guy Consulted?

Brendan Keogh decides to return the favor to Darius Kazemi and review his book on Jagged Alliance like Kazemi did to his book two years ago. In it, Brendan continues the conversation about approach towards long form criticism.

Melody of Melody Meows About… talks about the need to defend oneself from the purposefully compulsive nature of many of today’s video games. They are designed not just to be enjoyed, but all consuming to the detriment of everything else.


Remember, we are always accepting suggestions for our weekly roundups. Just submit them via our email or @ message them to us on twitter.

If you’re quick you can submit a piece for November’s Blogs of the Round Table.

If you can, please support us and the good work we do here at Critical-Distance through our Pateron. If you can’t afford it, but want to help, signal boost our efforts.

Thank you and have a lovely week. I’ll be subsuming myself into the end of year curation mines.