Author Archives: John Kilhefner

About John Kilhefner

Johnny is a freelance writer you may have read in Five Out of Ten, Unwinnable, Pop Matters, The Arcade Review or elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @jkilhefner.

November 15th

November 15th, 2015 | Posted by John Kilhefner in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on November 15th)

There wasn’t a whole lot whirring out of the videogame criticism engine this week, but don’t call it getting by on scraps, these delectable morsels are more than satisfying enough.

Contents within presented without filler.

Welcome to This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Rise (and fall) of the Tomb Raider

Carolyn Petit reviews Rise of the Tomb Raider for Feminist Frequency (video), finding it less sadistic in its treatment of Lara Croft’s tribulations, but well short of providing the meaningful psychological context seemingly promised in the original teaser. What’s more, while admiring the sublimity of the game’s environments, Petit notes Rise of the Tomb Raider forces the player to de-emphasize the aesthetic, reducing environments from sublime to a mere container of player plunders.

Petit addresses the backlash to her review in a follow-up on her Tumblr:

Some readers–those, for instance, who attack less-than-glowing reviews of highly anticipated games that haven’t even been released yet and that they haven’t yet had a chance to play–aren’t interested in actual criticism. They are interested in being told that their emotional investment in a particular game, their anticipation of it, the sense of greatness that they have already imbued this particular entertainment product with, are all justified, that the game they have yet to play is indeed going to be fucking awesome.

Fallout 4, Plausibility and Witchcraft 

In contrast, Kill Screen’s Reid McCarter discusses the role of Dogmeat in Fallout 4 as a measure to “keep the player grounded amongst the immensity of Fallout 4’s environments”:

Games like Fallout 4—games with sprawling worlds, in which the player decides when, or if, to take part in specific story beats—differ from the directed narratives of media like film and books. Unlike the carefully selected sentences and exactingly shot scenes that form these narratives, an open world videogame is scattershot in its presentation. Because the player is given freedom to explore the environment in the order and manner they choose, the game’s director can’t ensure that they see everything of importance.

Over at FemHype, Melissa finds legitimate qualms with Fallout 4’s reliance on the heteronormative:

Here’s the thing, though: Fallout 4 isn’t real life … That’s because Fallout 4 is a video game set in a fictional apocalypse based off an American 1950s vision of the future. If they can implement rocket cars and nuclear shelters that can sustain people for hundreds of years, I’m pretty sure they can manage a nonbinary or gay trans person who has a child with their partner …

(FemHype recently bumped its call for reader support, by the way.)

“Video games have to be plausible if you want to suspend disbelief” – at least, that’s what Stanford postdoctoral fellow Sebastian Alvarado remarks to The Guardian’s Will Freeman:

Developers are constantly trying to motivate players in a level by giving their actions purpose and meaning. Scientists have been doing the same to build logic around the natural world – and we’ve done so for centuries. Our team has an edge because our scientific expertise is only matched by a shared passion for science fiction trivia.

While back at FemHype, Josephine Maria looks at witches in Skyrim and Dragon Age, exploring the way folklore is employed as media additive, drawing on the historical to overturn our assumptions or keeling under the weight of archetypal assumptions:

Skyrim draws heavily on witch folklore for its cast of magic users who are women, though they exist primarily in side quests and as faceless antagonists. An issue with any open world game produced on the AAA level is that deadlines and the sheer size of the game leave many elements feeling either too formulaic or unsatisfactorily explored.

“War Has Changed”

Jack Muncy’s write-up of Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 for Wired discusses the annual shooter’s “brutal body horror” in a convoluted plot that awkwardly toes the line between cookie-cutter science fiction and cutting-edge real-world technology: “Meanwhile, Darpa is experimenting with everything from exoskeletons to the sort of fantastical, bio-integrated tech featured in Black Ops III.

Over at Unwinnable, James Murff finds Black Ops 3’s departure from binary plot constraints of old a welcome change:

This plot setup allows Call of Duty to explore themes of human augmentation, mental breakdown, the nature of sentience and even the afterlife. While it doesn’t approach them as intelligently as a cyberpunk novel such as Neuromancer or Snow Crash, it’s far smarter and more strange than a Call of Duty game has any right being.

Politics as Usual 

Not Your Mama’s Gamer details an anonymous reader’s two-part account of sexism while working at a major game studio:

I was told that I’d get ahead in the company by sleeping my way to the top, and it turned out that rejecting at least one advance definitely affected my ability to get ahead. Additionally, I had to deal with receiving inappropriate comments, and, afraid of being flagged as unprofessional, I silently dealt with the fact that an ex-boyfriend working in the same office told me he counted how many times a day he passed my desk without me seeing him. In the end, I felt lucky that I didn’t have to deal with inappropriate touching or overt demands.

At Gamasutra, Chris Baker took the year’s biggest videogame copyright ruling to task, examining the impact of the U.S. Copyright Office’s new ruling on copyright restrictions in games:

Of course, the elephant in the room is that jailbreaking consoles and circumventing game authentication is commonplace nowadays. People are doing it all the time for purposes of entertainment, research, education, and art projects. But anyone worried about the legal (and ethical) questions surrounding this has had to refrain from doing so. This was particularly true for museums and libraries.

Over at FemHype, author Rachel W. talks identity and inclusivity in Read Only Memories:

Read Only Memories is a celebration of diversity and features many LGBTQIA+ characters. You work with a detective who is your sister’s ex-girlfriend, two street punks are hinted as being boyfriends, and a character who flaunts a big moustache and a beard uses she/her pronouns. Every character’s sexual and gender identity is not made completely obvious and, more importantly, it does not define their character.

A Grand Design

Let’s talk design, and what better a perspective to hear it from than a designers? Keezy Young, writing for Remeshed, takes a look at the design of eight female characters and what makes them standout:

If a character wears heavy makeup and silks and coiffed hair, maybe it’s that they value their appearance, or are in a position where their looks are important to maintain authority or popularity. If they’re covered in scars and nicked armor, it tells you that they’re probably battle-hardened, and used to close combat fighting. When you start mix-and-matching design attributes, you can get some really interesting subtext—a warrior with scars and nicked armor who also carefully applies makeup and wears a nice silk scarf, for instance, is someone I want to find more about. Why do they care about their appearance even on the battlefield? Were they always a warrior, or did they have a different background? Is there someone they want to impress or look nice for?

Guess what’s out? Unwinnable Weekly issue 69, continuing a series profiling Unreal developer grants in “Revving the Engine: Planet Alpha 31”:

There are many sources that inspired the visuals of Planet Alpha 31 — from ancient Greek architecture to the vintage look of Star Trek, Alien and Aliens to the amazing futuristic design found in cities like Singapore to space photography — we live in an amazing world with no shortage of inspiring sights.

Elsewhere, Ross Keniston falls for a new character in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate – Evie Frye – what with her “bad-assery” and clear familial dominance within the brother-sister dynamic Syndicate employs.

Heading over to U.S. Gamer, Jeremy Parish interviewed Mega Man mastermind and Comcept President Keiji Inafune, picking his brain on the Tokyo Games Show and Mighty No. 9; while at Pop Optiq Seth Shepard profiles Nina Freeman’s catalog of “vignette games.”

Over at Gamasutra, Josh Bycer talks challenges of asymmetrical balance in artificial intelligence; specifically, what designers get right and wrong about designing AI that is beatable without being disadvantaged and competitive without being overpowered.

But it’s not just the AI, the mere act of playing a game can be challenging to the non-initiated, as written by Radical Helmet for Plus 10 to Fire Resist:

As people who’ve been playing videogames for a good chunk of our lives, it’s easy for us to forget just how intimidating they can be for outsiders. I’m not talking the subject matter, either (although that can be a problem), but just the fundamental act of playing a game. The modern controller has two clickable analog sticks, four face buttons, four triggers at least, a d-pad and extra buttons for functions like pausing or bringing up a home menu, and the modern game routinely expects you to take advantage of most if not all of these features. Trying to get these people to play a PC game isn’t much easier, and just serves to remind us that these devices weren’t actually invented to play videogames, and that we’ve essentially had to hack the existing setup to make it work.

Oh, did you know that Carl Sagan, who would have been 81 on Nov. 9, dabbled in game design? Here’s Alex Wawro discussing “a rough design document” Sagan developed for a videogame version of his novel Contact (which was also adapted as a criminally underrated movie -ed).

And congrats to Brendan Keogh who released his finished PhD thesis online, which is “about videogames, what bodies do with them, and what they do with bodies.”


While short, I hope you found this week’s selection uncovered gems that may have otherwise flown under your radar.

That’s what we’re here for.

As always, your submissions keep the Critical Distance gears grinding, so hit us up on Twitter or email, or both if that’s your style.

As you’ve probably noticed, C-D is completely ad-free, so we encourage our readers to support us on Patreon, Recurrency or even with one-time payments via PayPal.

And if you’re already a patron, please, for the sake of the new senior curator we’re currently recruiting, keep up the support!

October 18th

October 18th, 2015 | Posted by John Kilhefner in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on October 18th)

Is there really anything you look forward to more on a Sunday than our roundup? I think not. Welcome to This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Why Do You Keep Coming Back?

Over at Video Game Heart, Grayson Davis doesn’t find bad design in videogames to be all that bad:

Bad design isn’t always always without value. On the contrary, Mario Maker is an amazing tool. Much like listening to someone describe their dreams, the Mario Maker experience is a fragmented mess, […] So video game producers and art directors put them in their creations to draw on that shorthand.

Meanwhile, Tim Conkling makes a salient point of the perception of design:

The notion that design is intellectually relevant is uncontroversial. Nobody would ever seriously write off, for example, an Eames chair or a Gehry building; whether these objects fit some random definition of “art” is inconsequential to their perceived cultural value. But outside the industry, I don’t think that games are really understood as designed objects.

Kill Screen’s Jake Muncy reviews Undertale and confronts a moral dissonance between playing the game in a way that feels true to his own interpretation, finding his morality at the whims of the game’s mechanics itself. “Every boss fight was not a question of, ‘Do I want to kill this individual?'” he said. “It was a question of, ‘Can I solve this puzzle? Do I have the resources to survive long enough to deliver mercy before Game Over?'”

Quintin Smith believes videogames ought to borrow more from board games, while Filip Wiltgren ponders the differences between tabletop games and videogames.

Meanwhile, the latest edition of Unwinnable Weekly features Taylor Hidalgo yearning for the days of couch co-op gameplay:

If nothing else, simply having another set of eyes in the room changes the way I interpret myself. In a vacuum, we don’t question any aspect of ourselves. They’re just reflexive. With an audience, everything we take for granted comes screaming to the forefront, carrying with it aspects of our consciousness we were previously entirely unaware of.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain 

(Content Warning: spoilers.)

In “The Wolf in Snake’s Clothing: Metal Gear’s Twisted Hero,” Jeffrey Matulef discusses the unreliable narrator in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, which allows Snake to do “horrible and badass” things without being held accountable; and Matulef also questions whether the Metal Gear series can go on without Hideo Kojima.

Who Do You Think You Are?

At FemHype, Ashley Lynn’s interpretation of Assassin’s Creed’s Ezio leads to an exploration of how women are presented within Ezio’s world, and Nico W. reveals in The Mary Sue how she discovered her sexuality through Borderlands 2:

It was without a doubt one of the most enlightening experiences of my life, and as I read through story after story that could have all been written by me, I felt a weight lifting off my shoulders. I had been wrong—I wasn’t broken—I was just asexual. It quite honestly changed my life.

And I had a freakin’ FPS to thank for it…

But not everybody can see themselves revealed through games, as Kotaku’s Evan Narcisse explains how black hairstyles have become “visual shorthand” for a number of outlandish tropes:

‘See, our black character is spiritual. Or edgy. Or threatening. Threateningly edgy in a spiritual way. What’s that?! An Afro?! Boy, this black guy must really funny! Get ready to laugh at him, players!’ Look at a natural and what do you think? ‘Boy, that sure is… middle of the road.’

Not Your Mama’s Gamer continues putting out excellent content, as Alex Layne comments on a culture of entitlement and “participation medals” as facilitators of aggression, specifically against women in the gaming world:

Women don’t need participation medals. We fight every fucking day to gain an inch more at the table, to gain one more penny toward equal pay, to gain some semblance of control over our own bodies. We have never been entitled to the world, so we work for our medals.

Heads up: NYMG also introduced a new feature about race and representation — The Invisibility Blues — launched with this video.

Culture Shock

At The Guardian, Naomi Alderman talks about the importance of cultural education in videogames, and why it’s not cool to claim “intellectual superiority” for knowing nothing about video games:

But more aggravating even than this are the forums, summits, breakout sessions and seminars on ‘digital literature’ run by exceedingly well-meaning arts people who can talk for hours about what the future might be for storytelling in this new technological age – whether we might produce hyperlinked or interactive or multi-stranded novels and poems — without apparently noticing that video games exist. And they don’t just exist! They’re the most lucrative, fastest-growing medium of our age.

When it comes to games literacy, Ed Smith takes a stab at The Beginner’s Guide, where he states:

Compartmentalizing games into items with meanings, or aggrandizing them as pristine, not-for-touching rarities, smacks of fear, a kind of potted, exaggerated mock appreciation typical of somebody who has never felt anything genuine for artwork at all.

As for cultural appreciation, Jess Joho notes how videogames are keeping the symphony orchestra from obsolescence, with The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses attracting twice the amount of concert-goers than the average classical symphony event.

(Content Warning: Descriptions of racial discrimination and sexual abuse)

At Vice Motherboard, Andrew Paul finally discovers Minecraft, but while in the game’s 2b2t server, Paul enters an “… unforgiving cyber-wasteland, a hellish, pixelated world where one wrong step will lead not only to my death, but to public shaming of my virtual ignorance, as well.” And Go Make Me a Sandwich posted about “cringe-inducingly racist” games that actually find funding on Kickstarter. It’s not pretty.

Elsewhere, former developer turned pub owner Jon Blyth compares the games industry to the alcohol business:

Then there are the people who say Her Story, Gone Home and so on aren’t “games”. We’ve got that with Craft Beer – eye-rolling at the fizzy upstart, tutting at the genre-stretching novelty of a Chocolate Aniseed IPA, and wincing as the high price of craft beer collides hard with the preconception of craft brewers as privileged hipsters. Conservatism is ugly, whatever the size of the C. Let’s just all get drunk on whatever we enjoy and make out in the toilets.

Sadly, Jessica Curry, Director and Composer of The Chinese Room, explains why she is leaving the studio behind, due to a combination of a degenerative disease and toxicity in the games industry:

On a personal level I look back at my huge contribution to the games that we’ve made and I have had to watch Dan get the credit time and time again. I’ve had journalists assuming I’m Dan’s PA, I have been referenced as “Dan Pinchbeck’s wife” in articles, publishers on first meeting have automatically assumed that my producer is my boss just because he’s a man, one magazine would only feature Dan as Studio Head and wouldn’t include me. When Dan has said “Jess is the brains of the operation” people have knowingly chuckled and cooed that it’s nice of a husband to be so kind about his wife. I don’t have enough paper to write down all of the indignities that I’ve faced.

(End content warning section.)

From the Expert Blogs of Gamasutra, Shaun Leach discusses trust, accountability and the concept of creating a ”strong ownership model,” while over at Unwinnable Jeremiah Cheney contemplates the impact of voice acting on the games industry.

Creators need platforms to get their games into the hands of players, but as David Gallant is experiencing with his creation I Get This Call Every Day, that is difficult to do when the marketplace your game is on is in the midst of a collapse:

Unlike almost every other storefront I have used thus far, Desura decided to completely anonymize customer data … If I had access to those addresses, I could very easily migrate those customers over to Humble or and ensure that they retain access to their purchases and future updates. But I don’t.

Until We Meet Again

That’s it for this weekend’s roundup, but if you’re interested in unearthing a time capsule of games writing, check out this archive of GameZero, a zine which ran from 1992-96, edited by Bryan under the pseudonym R.I.P.

If you’re a writer currently looking for work, check out our Resources for Writers page, and please send us any articles, videos or podcasts through email or Twitter.

And remember, we’re funded by your generosity, so a monthly pledge through Patreon or Recurrency goes a long way to bringing you the best games writing on the web every week!

June 28th

June 28th, 2015 | Posted by John Kilhefner in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on June 28th)

Facebook feed getting you down? Clear those tabs and get ready to open a bunch more, it’s This Week in Videogame Blogging!

What’s Old is Shenmue Again

Stu Horvath explains how the enthusiasm (or lack thereof) surrounding both Metroid Prime: Federation Force and Shenmue 3 are two sides of the same bad penny, but David Carlton has a different outlook, choosing to refute several opinions of Yu Suzuki’s Kickstarter:

Of course it’s true that there are other funding models possible for the game: doubtless, in a many-worlds version of the universe, there are universes where Sony decides to pay for it out of pocket, universes where a collection of fans somehow scrape together money to buy the IP, universes where Warren Buffett is a huge Shenmue fan and decides to pay for it himself!

It’s Business, Not Personal

Getting away from Shenmue 3, Austin Walker slides into his new role at Giant Bomb nicely with a thoughtful piece on public funding in the games industry:

Yet every year, around E3, I feel like we have this conversation: “Why do so many games feel so focus tested, so same-y?” And the answer is (again and again) the same: “Because it’s risky to take chances.” So I find myself wondering: What if there was more consistent, predictable funding? What if small studios had access to the same sorts of public support that some major developers do? And hey, what if those major developers had more support, too? How might that encourage a little bit of creative risk taking? A new IP instead of another sequel? The adoption of new, expensive technologies like VR? Maybe (could you imagine?) a little less ‘crunch.’

While at Gamasutra, Michaël Samyn and Auriea Harvey talk about the liberating feel of trying and failing to make a game for gamers.

Josh Bycer looks at game development from artistic and business viewpoints, and Rob Fahey examines Bungie’s decision to produce Destiny content without a subscription.

Elsewhere, Stephen Winson looks back at World of Warcraft’s gold economy:

But what is true in the rest of the world is true in the world of gold farming: reducing your labour costs is a fast and easy way to increase profits in the short term. And as in the physical world, farmers had three basic choices to make in how they went about it: automation, theft, and slave labour.

Higher Level Gamer’s Nick Hanford writes about capturing nostalgia as a game publisher. Johannes Köller muses on the insipid dizziness of E3 in “The Circus of Values” in Unwinnable Weekly. Jackson Tyler, meanwhile, writes about his victories and defeats in “These Lost Three Years”.

The Ghost in the Machine

At the New York Times, Nick Bilton discusses how online playgrounds mimic real-world social constructs through the eyes of 10 year olds.

In “Footsteps in Movies,” G. Christopher Williams posits that audio visual representations in media do not have to agree wholeheartedly with their real-world counterparts, while at Kill Screen Devin Raposo discusses silence in videogames and Jess Joho examines surrealism in Tangiers.

Stephen Beirne talks weapon degradation over at his blog, Normally Rascal, which you can fund here, and A.L Brown schools us on competitive symmetry in games. Over at The Dweeb Jar, Jake Crump delves into why we love boss fights.

At Not Your Mama’s Gamer, Alisha Karabinus avoids combat, and Matthew Jenkin talks about the pointless grind at Gamasutra while Brendan Caldwell weighs the benefits and pitfalls of fast travel.

Javy Gwaltney dives into the character of Batman and Why Dishonored Is The Best Batman Game Ever Made. While, back to Gamasutra, Felipe Pepe gives an abridged history on 21 RPGs.

Sex, Exclusion and Art

Katherine Cross uses Night Witches to define the “difference between a ‘sexist portrayal’ and a portrayal of sexism.” Meanwhile, in response to another Katherine Cross piece for Gamasutra, Lana LeRay argues AAA games are making progress with depictions of sex and intimacy.

Over at FemHype, Jillian looks at exclusion in GTFO The Movie:

What was most uncomfortable for me to watch in GTFO was when women’s experiences were explained through the lens of cis white men on several occasions, most notably concerning Miranda Pakozdi. The sexual harassment she faced and subsequent media frenzy following her time on Capcom’s reality show Cross Assault was bad enough to witness, but hearing it explained by a man with only peripheral knowledge of the incident was deeply troubling. I’m not saying we should be completely dismissive of men’s opinions whenever the topic of ~women in the games industry~ is brought up, but I am saying that maybe GTFO wasn’’ the appropriate space for that dialogue.

In “More than Representation,” Mattie Brice talks Tale of Tales and the burning out of marginalized creatives.

While Sidney Fussell asks “are black nobles and paladins really too fantastical to exist, even in worlds of sorcery, wizards and unicorns?

Brendan Keogh explores the oeuvre of Robert Yang’s works in “Immersion Phallicy,” and at Kill Screen, Jake Muncy takes Hatred to task for its violence:

By taking on such a subject matter, the game places itself at the nexus of a number of powerful issues and veins that real transgressive art has let bleed — anonymous violence, the relationship between spectacle and real destruction, the pernicious discomfort of simulated death — but it doesn’t seem particularly interested in any of them. It doesn’t even seem to understand them.

Over at Medium, Elise Wehle taps the Impressionists to say angry mobs shouldn’t dictate art and Samantha Blackmon and Alish Karabinus respond to criticism to the critical analysis on Not Your Mama’s Gamer.

Lastly, Salvator Pane uses his affinity for Spring Breakers to explore the notion of entertainment in media:

It will not be our generation who unlocks the artistic potential of videogames as a medium, it will be the next, the one that grows up on BioShock and Noby Noby Boy, the generation who goes into gaming without any preconceived notions about fun.

Until Next Time

That’s it for this week! Remember to send us your crit picks for consideration by email or Twitter mention, and share our stuff on Facebook.

You have a little time left to submit to June’s This Month in Let’s Plays and Blogs of the Round Table.

As always, Critical Distance is completely reader-funded, so please consider supporting us with a monthly Patreon donation.

May 17th

May 17th, 2015 | Posted by John Kilhefner in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on May 17th)

Whoa, talk about a lot of good writing to get through in This Week in Videogame Blogging! Let’s get right into it.

In trying to figure out what to say this week, and by say, I mean figure out how to structure what these other writers were saying in such a way as to best complement their work, I found this piece by Maddy Myers to really say it all:

Creating art and music is not just about the glamorous act of being inspired and pouring out your soul. It, too, is rife with the thoroughly unromantic grind of production and editing and refinement and polishing. The grueling march of notating, measure by measure, every single not that every instrument must perform, and at what time, and in what way. The rote memorization required for performance. The expectation of acknowledging an existing “canon,” even if only to rebuke and subvert it. And even when the code loads or the right notes get played, all art can fail, in its own way. That’s exactly why creation is terrifying.

It might be my own background in music, but what a beautifully succinct description of creators of art. I hope you’ll find the selections this week to be a phrase of individual notes, the different tones creating a harmonious melody.

What’s In a Story?

At Offworld, Leigh Alexander asks, “Why are the stories in video games so bad?

The writers of FemHype want to make you cry, or at least, relive what games made you shed a tear or two in “Press F to Grab Kleenex: Our Top Emotional Moments in a Video Game” (Content Warning: descriptions of sexual assault).

Elsewhere, Drew Toal writes of two games recently released that both take place in Victorian London, but only one of them gets it right.

Sam Zucchi riffs on the narrative defining tracking shots of Daredevil and True Detective, comparing them to the camera in action games, and it’s not pretty:

Yet the very elements that tracking shots can transmit are too often the very same elements that action games neglect, producing their opposites: linear environments instead of complex ones; buggy, stodgy action instead of grace; the lazy expression of a vicarious power fantasy instead of legitimate tension.

Over at VICE, Ed Smith writes about Watch Dogs‘ Aiden Pearce and how the music on his smartphone makes him an even worse character.

While at MotherBoard, Soha Kareem takes on “The Dirtiest Job in Video Games

In light of Koji Igarashi’s Kickstarter campaign, Michelle B. took to FemHype to examine Igarashi’s history with women protagonists in “What Is a Woman?! Bloodstained & Koji Igarashi’s Female Characters

Blake Reynolds comes to terms with pixel art and his desire to communicate with his audience in a language they understand, even if it means foregoing the form he loves.

While at Offworld, Jon Peterson writes about the blurring of the lines between reality and fantasy by not the players, but the authority figures.

Finally yet importantly, Carolyn Petit looks at how a graphic novel challenges the convention of videogames:

Why do we simply accept that so many games present violence as the only way to solve a problem? Why do we accept so many narratives about brave heroes fighting evil and rescuing the girl without ever questioning how the narratives are constructed precisely to leave us with no room to ask questions about whether the bad guys are really so bad or whether what we’re doing is really so good?

Actually, it’s about…Ah, Screw It

At Tech Crunch, Tadhg Kelly takes videogame journalists to task for rigidity in their thinking:

However in videogamemedialand the idea that iPhone and Android games matter more than PC or console games is still heretical. This is because gaming journalists are still operating from an older paradigm with a richer cultural heritage. Theirs is the paradigm of console as blockbuster-cinema, PC as arthouse-cinema and a few darlings like Nintendo doing their own thing. This kind of thinking is so prevalent as to be unconscious. It’s the conventional wisdom, but it radically needs updating.

In “Not So Hot: GamerGate’s Deep Freeze and the ‘Facts’ on Game Journos”, Alisha Karabinus struggles with the latest iteration of GG confusion in the form of a website dedicated to upholding journalist integrity without personal bias but only when personal bias is needed, or some such.

Meanwhile, David Wolinsky grapples with defining “games journalist” and concludes that we’re all just in marketing.

Over at Forbes, Michael Thomsen posits “A More Robust ‘Valve-Is-Evil’ Hypothesis“:

But considering its success alongside an epochal transformation of employment that’s allowed relatively small pass-through companies like Valve to amass more profit than they would have as content producers, there is a real argument that a fully commercialized and professionally polished Gone Home isn’t an adequate upside to the downsides of THQ going bankrupt, Konami and SEGA slowly cutting their investments in console game development, a massive surge in outsourced labor and short-term contract employment leading to long-term precarity and emotional suffering for families.

Fire Dancers, Speed Runners and the Cruelty of the Industry

At VGChartz, Corey Milne bemoans the loss of P.T. and the need for a culture of digital conservation:

There’s a cultural numbness here that dictates that if a product is not actively generating capital then it is rendered worthless. To compound the issue, while publishers actively seek to dismantle the past, they try to sell us on the lie that our digital-only future, as inevitable as it is, will mean that our games will live forever. At least until they unplug the servers.

Elsewhere, Simon Parkin deftly navigates the intersection of the real and virtual in Eve Online.

In keeping in the spirit of immeasurably vast expanses of digital spaces, Raffi Khatchadourian of The New Yorker profiled No Man’s Sky chief architect Sean Murray:

Because of the game’s scope, and because he had decided not to reveal key features, he feared that it had become a Rorschach test of popular expectation, with each potential player looking for something in it that might not be there.

Jeffrey Matulef dives into the world of speed running in “The Loneliness of The Long-Distance Speedrunner”.

Meanwhile, at Kotaku, Jason Schreier reluctantly goes into “The Horrible World of Video Game Crunch” and over at The Guardian, Keith Stuart reminds all of the Sega fans of their grueling years begrudgingly clinging to their Saturns in “Sega Saturn: how one decision destroyed PlayStation’s greatest rival“.

Elsewhere, Scott Juster writes on PopMatters of the excitement of the unique discovery in “Fighting FOMO in Bloodborne”.

Virtue Ethics, Mental Health and Online Confessions

Over at Not Your Mama’s Gamer, Jennifer McVeigh talks virtue ethics in Life is Strange in “Doing the Right Thing: Life is Strange and Virtue Ethics“, while Carly Smith talks about the importance of support for students in “Mental Health and the Do-nothing Adults in Life is Strange”.

Kill Screen’s Chris Priestman plays Selfie: Sisters of The Amniotic Lens and finds the bottled despairs of relative strangers as “beautiful” and even “new to videogames.

On FemHype, Doc Martens gives a harrowing account of a family member’s sudden terminal illness:

I can’t hack and slash my way through cancer no more than I can pummel my coworkers when they are driving me crazy to deal with stress. But I can hack and slash 10,000 attack squads, armored golems, Cactuars, and Master Tonberrys instead, watching my character’s attributes and my gil keep climbing higher.

Mechanical Error

Josh Synder’s attempt to review Ether One on the PlayStation 4 was called into question by a blurring of game mechanics and bugs from shoddy porting:

Each time, after a couple minutes, the game will magically reappear, as if load times of that length are normal. Granted, one could argue that this is intentional design, given the game’s subject nature, and I may be willing to buy that with the texture pop-in (a literal translation of someone’s memories slowly coming back to them, I suppose) but when looked at alongside the inexcusable load times, I begin to suspect that there is nothing intentional here.

PopMatter’s Nick Dinicola discusses the relationship between horror, tension and control in “She Who Controls the Flashlight, Controls the Horror” and over at the Haptic Feedback blog, Austin C. Howe talks “republican dad” mechanics in Dark Souls.

Ray Porreca at Wizards of Radical talks about his favorite RPG of lateMLB 15: The Show, and Shawn Trautman played Modern Warfare and found the perfect analogy for what bothered him so much about it.

Lastly, on Gamasutra, Katherine Cross writes about game manuals functioning as alternative game mechanics:

The manual becomes, here, another vector for expressing Minkomora’s aesthetics and sensibilities, conveying the game to you as you read it. Simple though it may be, lacking my beloved appendices and subsections, it still effectively conveys a strong sense of what Minkomora is and means, lending character and colour to the game world before you even set foot in it. It also shows a path to digital distribution for cost-conscious developers; you no longer need to expensively print copies of a manual in order for it to perform these functions.

This is The End, My Friends

Whew! I told you it was a lot to get through, but I hope you enjoyed reading as much as I did.

Don’t forget to check out May’s Blogs of the Round Table as well as Lindsey Joyce’s critical round-up of Let’s Plays.

As always, we’re entirely funded on the generosity of our readers, so if you haven’t already, please take a look at our Patreon page and consider donating!

And don’t forget to keep those links coming via Twitter mention or email.

Until next time, I’m going to see about ascending in Kanye Quest!

March 29th

March 29th, 2015 | Posted by John Kilhefner in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on March 29th)

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

What It Means to be Indie

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

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

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

Trauma, Transcendence and Mental Illness

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

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

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

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

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

Mapping Out Our History

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

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

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

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

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

Battlefield Hard Sell

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics as Usual

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

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

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

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

Whose Category is it Anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 18th

January 18th, 2015 | Posted by John Kilhefner in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on January 18th)

Hi! For the sake of avoiding that awkward conversation where you pretend to remember the stranger enthusiastically greeting you, it’s This Week in Videogame Blogging!

GamerGate: Picking up the Pieces

It’s 2015 and GamerGate is still in the conversation, so let’s start this week off with Ian Miles Cheong’s interview with developer Caelyn Sandel discussing the nefarious hate campaign that is totally not a hate campaign (it is). Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu appear on Nightline to discuss sexist tropes in games and the impact GamerGate had on their lives. Damion Schubert, however, reminds us that GamerGate is far from over as it leaves a wake of orphans in its path.

Reference This

Our own Mark Filipowich likes Brendan Keogh’s book Killing is Harmless more than Spec-Ops: The Line, even though it’s totally Coppola’s seminal film Apocalypse Now and by extension Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness novel.

Wait, that’s it for this section? OK, moving on!

Identity Report

Jessica Conditt offers a multi-faceted look at the representation of black gamers, from the troubling lack of prominent black voices…

“The games industry is hurting badly as a creative medium in terms of diverse voices,” Treachery in Beatdown City developer Shawn Alexander Allen told me. “We don’t see many prominent black or Latino (or really any other minority populace) representation in protagonists, critics, marketing or creators. I mention prominent because while many other cultural forms like music, movies and writing have a dearth of black voices, they at least have people who are out there making their culture better at all levels and are very visible.”

…to the disheartening lack of positive black characters in games:

These virtual worlds tend to reflect the white male majority found in their development and audience, meaning representation of black characters in games is also anemic. A 2002 study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 56 percent of human characters depicted in games were white, and 22 percent were black – but 87 percent of all human heroes in games were white. The seven top-selling games specifically designed for children starred only white human characters, the report read. A separate study from University of Southern California Professor Dmitri Williams in 2011 studied 150 games across all platforms and ratings, and found that 10.7 percent of characters were black, though they were mainly athletes and gangsters.

Over at IGN, Jesse Matheson discusses a project in an isolated mining town in Western Australia providing indigenous youth a digital space to preserve their cultural identity.

Gil_Almogi of Game Revolution looks at the dating sim Coming Out on Top:

The player character cannot be changed, so very much like the majority of video games, you can only play as a conventionally attractive, white, cisgender man. Although this was as advertised, it leads to an awkward moment when the player utters, “I’m not racist, but…” Thankfully, this doesn’t segue into terse conversation with either of the men of color in the game, but I couldn’t help but feel this could just not have been a thing. Later, when Jed is thrown a racist remark and physically threatened by a random person, it drives home the idea of the privileges white, gay men experience that their brethren of color do not benefit from.

Robert Yang’s Succulent makes for a particularly tasty social commentary for Jess Joho to deconstruct gay male culture:

But by the end of Succulent, sex is the last thing on the player’s mind. Finishing the game with a final blow to the Queer as Folk, consumer-driven lifestyle he sees as so prevalent in the media representations of homosexuality, Robert explains that “after consuming the carrot/popsicle/corn dog and hypnotizing you, [the character] has nothing left to feed upon, so he reveals his demonic nature and proceeds to consume you.”

Finally, Alisha Karabinus wonders where we might be if Mass Effect‘s Commander Shepard had been exclusively a woman:

That’s not a choice. That’s not equal presentation. It never has been, and as best as I can tell, was never meant to be, because the industry is geared, in every way, toward male players of a very particular type.

Form and Politics

Stephen Beirne expresses his thoughts on ludo-fundamentalism and ludocentricism, offering insight on how we use language to mean, but also how the application of concepts can become a prescriptive de-valuing of aesthetic experience in digital spaces:

It can be done by associating general concepts like ‘form’ or ‘interactivity’ to only mean specifically ludic form or mechanical interactivity as a matter of fact, for example, which erases all other aspects of form and interactivity from the equation. When self-identified formalists say they focus on form to mean they focus on ludology, this is the removal of non-ludic parts from the scope of what could constitute a game’s form, illustrating ludo-fundamentalism.

Brendan Keogh stepped out to toss the ol’ formalism ball around, calling out himself and other “humanities based videogame critics” for a lack of interest in form:

I want more critics accounting for videogame form. Art critics can talk about a type of paint used and film critics can talk about camera work and lighting and actors and scripts, and we definitely struggle with that as videogame critics. More account for videogames as things that are touched and played with and not just worlds that are magically entered is what we need. That means we need a more coherent language to talk about form.

Elsewhere, Jake Muncy plays Metro 2033 and discusses the poetics of urban agoraphobia:

Subways are naturally orderly spaces, each corridor and tunnel built with a purpose, moving people and property in a mechanical, logical way. Transfigured here into the home of a new human society, they are a hope for order, a place where control can be measured along the length of the train tracks.

And Gamasutra’s Leigh Alexander attributes 80 Days‘ success to an avoidance of preconceived notions surrounding text games. Still, even the developers felt the pressure of an ever-present exclusionary mechanic-centric discourse:

Money and luggage made a natural inventory system, and the relationship stat suits the interaction between Phileas Fogg and Passepartout. Time, of course, is the most crucial resource in a story about rushing to circumnavigate the globe in record time. “In general when you’re looking to make a narrative game, as a developer you’re often looking for excuses to shove a bit of ‘gameplay’ in….a few quicktime events maybe, to give you the sense there’s a skill element involved. 80 Days just gave us this gameplay element for free, and that was handy.”

An Inquisition into Meaning

Our winner of 2014’s Blogger of the Year, Austin Walker, writes about choice and meaning in Dragon Age: Inquisition, while Todd Harper pens a weepy confession to the narrative beats induced by flirting in Dragon Age: Inquisition:

I think most of us understand how painful unrequited love can be. If you grew up queer (as I did), there’s an additional layer to that experience: being in love with someone who you know not just doesn’t return your affections but, really, can’t. In many cases, these feelings are for the people in our young queer lives that are our support network. As a wee gay in the mid-90s, my close allies were very, very few and I was assuredly in love with at least one of them. It’s a feeling you learn to bury, or at the very least, to try and transform into a different kind of closeness, so that you don’t lose something very important in the process. If you’re lucky, you can deal with it all on your own.

Jorge Albor doesn’t cry (in this case –ed), but he does wonder about the ontology of meaning created through mechanics centered around choice:

Maybe it would help to explore how some choices mean differently than others. Take for example, my friend’s statement that your choices don’t matter in The Walking Dead? When, exactly, does “mattering” take place? Is meaning created in the moments leading up the decision? In the decision itself? Or in the repercussions of that decision? When is the deadline for a choice to matter that, when passed, signifies an earlier decision’s futility?

Over at Tumblr, Heather Alexandra gives some thought to “The Meaning of Meaning” while also making us curious about a multi-verse reality branched off from a really fucking hungry Isaac Newton:

But this comes with a very clear and obvious issue: meaning is not a formal quality or status that is achieved. It is not some apple on a tree that we can just pluck down and eat if we reach a little higher. It is a happy coincidence of circumstances, a by product of interactions which then must be filtered through the lens of the individual. It is not the act of plucking the apple; it is the observation of the apple falling. Newton allegedly saw an apple fall and found a window to the cosmos but if he had been really fuckin’ hungry that day, all he might have seen was a snack.

Lost to Time 

Over at Gamasutra Lena LeRay’s reality gets shattered by the historical perspective of Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s lore:

In one swell foop [sic], BioWare has changed everything. So often in fantasy stories, The Legends turn out to be True, but they have just knocked the bowling pins of legend over with a bowling ball made of reality and revealed that the pins were all just a facade the whole time. But it’s not a retcon. Everything points, now, to all the myths and legends in the lore being based on a series of actual historical events seen from different perspectives, but with details lost and twisted over the centuries. Some of the things in The Legends may very well be True… but not all of them.

Simon Parkin reveals how lackluster curating efforts is a death sentence to contextual experience:

Still, their social, political, and cultural context remains hidden. Few contemporary explorers of the archive will recognize, for instance, that Wanted: Monty Mole is a riff on the U.K. coal miners’ strike of 1984 — you play a courageous mole who breaks the picket lines in defiance of his union leader, a character modelled on the real-world National Union of Mineworkers president, Arthur Scargill. Nor are today’s gamers likely to sense the Cold War paranoia that suffuses Atari’s Missile Command, which reputedly caused its designer, David Theurer, to wake at night in panic sweats.

Reality is Artificial, Survival is Insufficient 

G. Christopher Williams talks Jazzpunk and its achievement of comedy through reference, abstraction and interactivity:

Jazzpunk feels different than Schafer’s games. It isn’t a game that solely tells jokes in cutscenes and through dialogue. It more often involves the player in the jokes and depends on the player to complete actions necessary to complete those jokes. It is a comedy that hinges on the fact that games are more interactive than other media. The comedy becomes a collaborative act between the game and its player.

Meanwhile, in Kill Screen, Chris Priestman discusses how The Stage removes the player from center stage in favor of the artists:

To Jack, this is what the stage is all about. It’s the symbolic opposite to the multi-million dollar videogame industry. The stage is raw, mistakes can happen, will happen, and are part of the show. This is why, as he told me, The Stage is ‘not a project about finished products but more about process’…Importantly, the distinction that The Stage makes from other types of game performance is that the centerpiece is not the player, but is instead each artist that shaped it. Crucially, the player only interacts with The Stage to incite the show, they do not control what happens. This is best demonstrated when an episode starts, plays a song and some repeated animation, and then ends abruptly, with the player only having moved around the stage wondering if there’s anything more they can do—there isn’t. They are not calling (or firing) the shots here.

And Hannah Peet of Videodame, in a review of Ian Bogost’s How to Do Things with Videogames, reflects on a better reality where games are the “cornerstone of media conversations and artistic reflection.”

Perhaps it is time to insert these small, movement-less scenes of reflection into the player’s instinctual gaming mannerisms. I can feel these reverent pauses in many games, but the player must be willing to listen for them in order for them to happen. Similarly, non-players should be willing to find this metaphor by spectating the fiction, actions, and environment. The player or spectator should appreciate such a positive moment of reformation for cultural beliefs and values. Games often don’t force players to pause in-game as games are inherently a lean forward activity. Reflection on player choices should happen periodically while working through a game, but it’s also time to implement reverence outside of the video game itself and into the conversations we have about the medium, its participants, and the symbols involved.

Douglass F. Warrick provides an account of forfeiting his autonomy to fall in love with a sex ninja in Apocalypse World:

By actively affording control over character creation to the other players, Apocalypse World encourages players to explore levels of experience outside of their usual frame of reference and to approach the narrative from a position of collaborative improvisation.

If you’re still wanting more, ask Emily Short about games of co-authorship, she’s got what you need.

Whew, we’re almost there! Now let’s wind down with a touching poem from Dalton Day exemplifying experiential interplay. And while you’re at Cartridge Lit, check out this preview of their forthcoming Chapbook, “An Object You Cannot Lose” by Sam Martone.

It’s Been Real: The Existential Crisis

Now that you’ve had your weekly dose of reality-reaffirming criticism, we won’t be mad if you take a break from reading and sharing our findings to read and share with us via Twitter mention or email.

There is still some time to participate in January’s Blogs of the Round Table topic, Player’s Choice.

And remember, we’re funded entirely by our readers so please consider signing up for a monthly donation to our Patreon.

Until next time!

Uncharted 2

March 16th, 2012 | Posted by John Kilhefner in Critical Compilation: - (1 Comments)

Editors note: This is the first Critical Compilation we’ve hosted in a long while, and it comes to us from our newest contributor, John Kilhefner.

It’s been called visually stunning, a revelation in character writing and the greatest movie ever played. Regardless, the real meat of the Uncharted 2: Among Thieves experience isn’t in the game at all, but in the writing surrounding it.

In “Naughty Dog’s Lemarchand Defines Uncharted‘s Heritage,” Leigh Alexander examined Naughty Dog’s desire to “capture and reinvent the spirit of the pulp action genre;” the same well from which Indiana Jones sprang. What they ended up with was a game with a story we’ve all seen in one shape or another: Treasure hunter searches for mythical treasure through a revolving door of double-crosses and ancient landscapes. No biggie. In fact, the story of Among Thieves is neither remarkable nor does it try to be. Alexander’s piece sheds light on Among Thieves writer Amy Henning’s prep work involving classic pulp fiction stories and established conventions such as “running, jumping, bare-fisted brawls and chases.”

As Michael “Brainy Gamer” Abbott sees it in “Long Live the Author“, Uncharted 2 “isn’t a question of core design, but a question of quality,” insisting that making a game relying on “’30s serial action adventure movie tropes” must be done with “plenty of style, panache and Hollywood production values to carry you over all the obvious pitfalls.” Additionally, the characters have to feature naturally smart dialogue, gameplay directly connected to the story and, above all, enjoyable play mechanics. “If this all sounds terribly formulaic, that’s because it is,” said Abbott.

Formula can be the paint-by-numbers template that makes your project look wholly derivative, or it can be the sturdy container that holds something special. You’d be hard pressed to identify a single genuinely original aspect of Micheal Curtiz’s Casablanca. Dozens of movies have told similar stories with similar characters. What elevates Casablanca is the way each of its elements: cinematography, music, performances, screenplay — so clearly surpasses the pedestrian work of other similar films.

Dean Takahashi at Venture Beat also spoke with Richard Lemarchand about the research undertaken for Among Thieves, where Lemarchand looked to classic heroes like Robert Louis Stevenson, Robinson Crusoe, Doc Savage and Tintin for inspiration. In some ways it’s this classic sense of heroics that makes Nathan Drake instantly appealing. But, “Dude Raider he is not,” says Ian Miles Cheong in his piece for Hellmode, “Ancient Temples to Ice Caves: Discovering Uncharted“. “Unlike Lara Croft, Nathan Drake is a multidimensional character — one full of personality,” Cheong says. Drake is questionably moral, undeniably heroic and absolutely relatable. Love him or hate him, we can all agree that Nate and his adventures if nothing else. “More than just a simple treasure hunter,” says Cheong, “Drake was apparently gifted with the skills of an assassin (albeit a slightly clumsy one) who could have given Batman a run for his money; he didn’t have to resort to stupid tricks or a tool-belt full of toys. When his fists weren’t enough to do the talking, a gun could open diplomatic channels.”

Between the classic adventure elements, everyman quality of Nathan Drake and cinematically executed gameplay, Among Thieves Uncharted 2 positioned itself as the definitive bargaining chip for PS3 owners, one that didn’t begin with “Metal Gear” or end with “Solid.” Metacritic named Among Thieves the most critically acclaimed game of 2009 with a score of 96 out of 100; IGN gave it game of the year and a near perfect score of 9.5; and most every publication you could think of drooled over its blockbuster production values. But beneath the surface there were more interesting opinions bubbling, with some critics unafraid to toss the critical fat on in the fire.

The Little Things

It’s “The Little Things” that intrigue Michael Abbott: from the subtle changes in “Nate’s Theme” from first to second game, nods to classic serial adventure tropes, naturalistic facial expressions, witty banter and character chemistry. Similarly, in Alex Raymond’s review for Game Critics, she cites the attention to detail as key to propelling the game to “masterpiece” status. Trains creak before crashing down and stones and bridges wobble and then crumble, all serving to move the game forward at a “breathless pace.”

In “The Minimalism of Uncharted 2,” however, Mitch Krpata attributes the notes that aren’t played as the reason for Among Thieves‘ success. The intuitive analog stick to run control scheme, the lack of a crouch button and the subtle auto-assist when climbing are a few of the small things Krpata feels helped rather than hindered the game. Naughty Dog’s ability to leave out exceptional but unnecessary components is a rare quality in all art forms, let alone video games. He likens this to an imagined developer who makes an awesome water effect and decides to “put water freaking everywhere.” Uncharted 2 is different. It doesn’t milk its golden moments dry, but practices minimalism over obnoxiousness.

Chris Breault fails to find Krpata’s minimalism, speculating in “Don’t Call Uncharted 2 a Film” that “maybe Uncharted is aimed at Alzheimer’s patients.” Blowing up trucks? Yawn. Falling off cliffs? “It’s the Uncharted handshake.” When it comes to the little things like planning, choreography and stunt work that give action films their blockbuster quality, “Uncharted 2 has all the charm of an assembly line.” Tristan Kalogeropoulos’s “Beyond Cinematic,” however, congratulates the marriage of cutscene and gameplay as “a cohesive mix of passive and active storytelling.” The in-game characters agree with the cutscene characters without the “dissonance” often observed from cutscene to game.

What’s In a Character?

Alex Raymond writes that “characterization is one of the areas where Among Thieves is head and shoulders above nearly every other major game out there.” “If everything comes together just right, Nathan Drake could very well be heading into the upper echelons of videogame character fame,” says Sinan ‘shoinan’ Kubba in “Drake, The Icon.” He makes an interesting point of Nate’s “everyman” quality, pointing out traditional video game icons such as Link, Solid Snake and Lara Croft, each of whom standout by their silhouette alone. Nathan Drake doesn’t standout at all. He’s just some guy. Several notable games journos had polarized takes on the character of Nathan Drake. In his article “Extra Punctuation: Uncharted 2,” Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw sheds light on Drake’s motivations of greed, his depravity and the “no prisoners” attitude he showed his enemies by comparing him to the ideal Indiana Jones. In his 300 Word Review, Charles J. Pratt points out that “There’s a reason that Indiana Jones uses a whip: it is very hard to feel for the plucky, underdog hero if he spends most of his time mowing people down with an automatic weapon.” Nate’s film counterpart, Indiana Jones, relinquishes vital bits of character through sequences showing him flustered at a particularly striking student’s advances, condescending to authority and fumbling over writing on the chalkboard in front of his class.

Meanwhile, Snake Link Sonic finds Drake’s adventure more National Treasure than Indiana Jones, going so far as to say relating Among Thieves to Tomb Raider or Indiana Jones is “just the game becoming self-victimizing.” Breault thinks Nate merely spends “a lot of time commenting on women’s asses as they go up ladders.”. Banter during the adventure and action segments allows the player to get to know the characters and portrays a sense of camaraderie (or rivalry) as appropriate. And Kalogeropoulos feels that “spending time” with the characters reveals a great deal of their past relationships and personalities. Cheong believes that while Drake is “in it for the loot,” his appeal is that of a regular guy rather than a Superman.

Scott Juster’s take on Drake in the first Uncharted still holds true for the second. In “Nathan Drake in: The Curse of Ludonarrative Dissonance!” Juster contends the gameplay–Drake who slaughters hundreds throughout the game–is at odds with the cutscene–Drake, an “everyman” hero.

In “The Fallacy of Choice” Justin Keverne puts “everyman” Drake under the microscope: “A real ‘everyman’ would have fallen to his death within the first few minutes,” he sayd, commenting on the audience’s longing for a relatable hero but a hero nonetheless. It’s precisely this paradox that make Nathan Drake the character he is, and the game makes no bones about it.

Borut Pfeifer’s “The Spatially Driven Story” concludes that the flow of the game’s locations is symbolic of Drake’s internal struggles–rather than making Drake simply a character that “is,” the developers Naughty Dog made his internal conflict visible through external motivators. Pfeifer points out that “the purpose the other characters serve isn’t to bring you to a specific location, it’s to change Drake’s motivation for going somewhere.” He doesn’t just do things because the game needs him to; he does them because he is manipulated into doing so, whether for the right or wrong reasons. “Story elements that at first glance seem like they are there to superficially highlight exotic locales serve a deeper purpose to communicate internal character motivation.” Regardless of his internal and external conflicts, the classic hero in Nate always comes out of a predicament unaffected, whether it’s his ex and current fling facing execution right in front of his eyes or a mythical beast stalking him. These events don’t show the emotional weight we saw, say, Snake take on when Meryl was picked apart by Sniper Wolf in Metal Gear Solid. Though Uncharted is precisely the kind of game that calls for this kind of impenetrability, Croshaw “want[s] to see more of Nathan Drake than a wisecracking bubble that grunts a lot.”

Uncommon Women

Perhaps it’s this same sentiment applied to the Lara Crofts of gaming that prompted Naughty Dog to approach the female leads in a less cliché way than other games. Raymond highlights the characters of Elena and Chloe as two examples of remarkable writing of independent female characters who don’t stoop to stereotypes so present in game portrayals of women. Brinstar, writing for the Border House, examines the “interesting, believable, three-dimensional personalities” of Elena and Chloe. Rather than plot devices designed to push the player forward, they have their own motivations which intermingle and entice/intrigue/mystify a curious Drake. On the other hand, Snake Link Sonic acknowledges the strong female characterization but felt that “the game would have functioned just fine without [Chloe].” G. Christopher Williams’s “Sorry, But Our Princess Wants To Be in Another Castle” likens Chloe to the more provocative side which Elena lacks, using sex to play the game from Nate to Flynn as her assets allow — an effective way to piss off the player with an emotional connection to Drake. At first seeing her as a princess in need of rescue, Williams found surprisingly found Chloe “is one ‘princess’ that has no interest in being saved.”

Playing a Movie: The Cinematic Action Genre

Practically every critic has gushed over the game’s visual production values. “You’ll spend much of your time playing Uncharted 2 with mouth agape, staring slack jawed at the glorious vistas spread out before you,” said Susan Arendt in her review for The Escapist Magazine. Former Editor-in-Chief of Kotaku Brian Crecente commented that “More than most games Uncharted 2 looks like a movie.” In “How We Talk About Games: Graphics,” Grayson Davis reveals how in-the-rut our collective descriptive vehicle is when it comes to discussing visuals. Picking apart the Among Thieves reviews from IGN, 1UP, Giant Bomb and Eurogamer, Davis concludes that graphic writing still “sound[s] like they’re writing for the back of the box.”

Snake Link Sonic wrote his piece without even playing the game, but instead by watching a complete YouTube play through. In “Values and Characteristics of the Cinematic Action Genre” Michael Clarkson attempts to define the values found in such interactive films or as he puts it, “Cinematic Action” games. Cinematic action characteristics include filmic realism, seamlessness, a developer-controlled narrative and emotional engagement. “Uncharted represents not a new kind of game unto itself but an exemplary actualization of certain values in game design,” game design that the HD generation is capable of producing effectively and possibly on-par with motion pictures. According to Jorge Albor, the Hitchcockian use of set pieces inch it along the gap between game and film.

“If a game features a well defined protagonist then the notion of including the option to behave in a way that goes against the nature of that protagonist is foolish,” says Keverne. “The very appeal of such a character is that they are already defined, often as a heroic character. Why introduce the seconding guessing and evaluating that comes from the inclusion of choice?”

Like the characterization, the gameplay also polarizes people who either feel immersed or disengaged by it. Snake Link Sonic perceives the comparison to Tomb Raider as an unfair one representative of the lack of games of its kind, and that Among Thieves more closely resembles Prince of Persia in terms of its linearity. Williams, meanwhile, finds the dissonance from Tomb Raider jarring, particularly the laid-on thick gunplay in favor of exploration. This same gunplay Pratt finds “unimaginative” and lacking the strategy of other third-person shooters like Gears of War: “It’s the mix of the movie and the game that makes Uncharted a little unsettling.” On a similar note, Brad Galloway’s Game Critics review penalized Among Thieves for being “a jack-of-all-trades and master of none.” While Galloway concedes that the production values are top-notch and if the player is in the mood for a pot-boiler it alone would suffice, he feels the all too often gunfights, lack of direction and simplistic puzzles bring the game down.

“Nearly anyone playing Uncharted 2 wasn’t in it for the shooting,” says Gameranx writer Matthew Stewart in his article “Uncharted Series: The Gameplay Gets in the Way of the Story.” Instead of the gameplay serving the story, Stewart feels it did the opposite: “The obstacles in the game can be like someone who knocks the book I’m engrossed with out of my hands.” He illustrates his point with comparisons to games such as Ninja Gaiden, Quake 3 and World of Warcraft in which the story is created by the player rather than pre-determined by the developer. Crecente talks about the narrative pushing the ludic qualities of Among Thieves the way a good book makes you rush to the next page.

Daniel Bullard-Bates calls Uncharted 2 the “best movie-based video game of all time.” Breault, however, challenges these highly regarded movie qualities: “as much as Uncharted 2 imitates the movie aesthetic, it remains a game; if you judge it on the same terms you would a film’s narrative, it comes up short.” Hammering the point, Breault compares two similar chase sequences in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Among Thieves. In the former, he notes how the editing breaks up the action by alternating perspectives among all parties involved, giving the cannon fodder a touch of humanity and allowing for some hilarious gags. Among Thieves‘ chase sequence, however, simply sees Drake trading gunfire with depersonalized moving targets, blowing up trucks until the entire scene becomes an exercise in redundancy.

Abbott’s “On Pace” article uses his stage director experience as a lens through which to gauge the pacing of Uncharted 2. “Pacing in games is an intricate balancing act,” says Abbott; “And Uncharted 2 manages it better than any narrative game I can think of.” Abbott notes a “dynamic control” of pacing not seen in theater or film by allowing the character the freedom to slow down the pace or engage the game at full-throttle.

“…Uncharted 2 is a successful game because it doesn’t try to box outside its weight,” Abbott writes. “It’s a ripping adventure that makes good on its wisely limited ambitions….[Among Thieves] functions beautifully as both story and storyteller. It’s quite possible to see this distinguishing feature of games as no less compelling than their ability to immerse us in an emergent play-driven narrative.” And isn’t that why we play videogames in the first place?