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Author Archives: Kris Ligman

About Kris Ligman

Senior curator for Critical Distance.

June 21st

June 21st, 2015 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on June 21st)

Phew. Bit of a brief one this week, readers. Not sure why — something about a giant days-long series of ads and trailers occupying most of everyone’s time? Well, who knows. Let’s cleanse your palettes with a short-but-sweet This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Design Notes

There have been a few essays connecting the film Mad Max: Fury Road to games, but this piece by Matthew Codd is by far the most effective I’ve seen, identifying how the film’s writing mirrors that of successful games.

At Terrible Minds, author Amanda Gardner discusses the writing of Perception, an upcoming independent game developed by Gardner, her husband Bill (formerly of Irrational), and a robust team of industry veterans. As a novelist, Gardner shares her impressions of working in a collaborative medium:

When you’re writing a novel, it’s yours. Sure, you may have great critique partners and a stellar agent […] but at the end of the day it’s your baby. You own it, regardless of how much input you’ve listened to or how many eyes have edited it.

Writing a videogame is quite different. […] I was a piece in this very intricate puzzle of designers, artists, musicians, voice actors, and more. And each of these people have different, and often game-changing ideas that they contribute. You have to be flexible and not get too precious about your ideas, because in one day, an entire level can be struck from the game, or two characters could end up becoming one.

(A necessary caveat: while the author mentions some of her influences in crafting Perception‘s blind protagonist, I didn’t see any reference to the team bringing on co-writers or consultants with any sort of sight impairment. However, the game is still in development.)

Past is Present

Don’t Die continues to profile some of the lesser-known names in game development, this week offering up a laid-back interview with Microsoft alum and founding Xbox team member Ed Fries. Don’t Die’s David Wolinsky also wants me to let our readers know his site has a Patreon.

Shifting from real histories to the imaginary, in the latest Memory Insufficient Mark R. Johnson explores how the Command and Conquer: Red Alert series communicates its alternate history timeline through its art direction.

And on Not Your Mama’s Gamer, Samantha Blackmon notes a few of the problems inherent in Cuphead‘s reference to 1930s-era cartoons, which are often rife with racial caricatures (such as blackface and black minstrelsy). As she points out, some of this may be entirely invisible to those who don’t have to navigate racism in their daily lives:

My life, my experiences, and the body that I live in makes Cuphead and its artistic style problematic to me because of all that it has come to mean in the last 85 years or so and that’s something that I just can’t let go of. […] The game threatens to draw upon racist caricatures to inform the narrative and give players a series of racism infused bosses and obstructions to justice to properly hate. Perpetuating the stereotype and, in some cases, feeding the racism that is foundational to the art style itself.

Blackmon and NYMG co-editor Alisha Karabinus extrapolate further on this in an excellent video analysis, while also taking care to note Cuphead is still in development.

(Content Warning: both of the above links include examples of racist imagery.)

Players Playing Play

On his blog, Andrew Brown proffers an engrossing analysis of symmetrical competitive game design, and in particular the simple-yet-effective systems in place in Nintendo’s Splatoon.

Meanwhile, at Psychology of Games, Jamie Madigan has a brand new, fantastic interview with Riot Player Behavior Team leader Dr. Jeffrey Lin (podcast). If you haven’t heard Lin speak on some of the strategies Riot Games has experimented with over the last few years to reduce toxic player interactions in League of Legends, this is a highly recommended listen.

Inversions

At First Person Scholar, Mark R. Johnson has this fantastic long-form article on danmaku (bullet hell shooters), the player culture surrounding them, and the particular ways in which the adaptive enemy generation system of Warning Forever turns the genre’s tropes on their head. As he explains:

[W]hereas in most danmaku games the player learns the bosses’ patterns, the reverse is true in Warning Forever. The bosses — or rather the AI which generates them — learns the player’s pattern, and constructs each subsequent boss to be more and more effective at defeating that particular type of player. This means that the player is forced (if one wants to seriously compete at a world-class level in this game) to adjust their strategies as the game goes on; adhering too long to certain strategies will meet with increasingly challenging foes as the AI zeroes in on the player’s strategy and adapts to challenge it.

Paired with the above interview with Jeffrey Lin, these two pieces have some excellent observations about machine learning intuiting player behavior.

And last but by no means least, on PopMatters Moving Pixels G. Christopher Williams praises the attention-based systems which differentiate Kitty Powers’ Matchmaker from other games modeling human relationship dynamics. Nothing revolutionary, but certainly an uncommon approach!

That’s All, Folks

Thanks for reading! I warned you it was a short one. Have a link to submit for consideration? We very much welcome your recommendations by email or in a mention on Twitter!

Also, you have a little more than a week to submit to June’s Blogs of the Round Table and This Month in Let’s Plays!

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And as always, a reminder: Critical Distance is entirely funded by you, the reader. If you like what you see and want to help us continue doing what we do, please consider lending your support with a small monthly donation on Patreon! We really do depend on all of you.

June 14th

June 14th, 2015 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on June 14th)

Greetings, fellow travelers of roads perhaps sometimes better off not taken to begin with. As I write this, it’s early Sunday morning, so here we go: it’s time for This Week in Videogame Blogging!

It’s (Still) Not About The Witcher 3

The discussion on race representation in games which reached a fever pitch last week is still going strong. First, Austin Walker blogs a bit on Giant Bomb, noting any criticism of a game like The Witcher 3 must take into account its country’s history as well as its present social politics:

It’s not that the game isn’t aware of this stuff. It’s that despite its engagement, despite the greater context of race in games right now, despite the fact that the game is not a pure replication of Polish history and myth, and despite what Ian Williams calls its “relentless humanity,” it misses this one opportunity. And some fans want to lay on a sword over this. And whether its intentional or not, when those fans say “Why should they include a person of color?” it ends up sounding a lot like “I’m glad they didn’t include people of color. It was right of them not to. The game would be ruined otherwise.”

And would it? What would be ruined? It’s can’t be their escapism, a fear that they’d suddenly have to care about ethnic and racial politics — because again, the game already touches on those. Would their “immersion be broken” the first time a brown or black face walked down the street or into a tavern? I have my doubts.

Walker later expounded upon his points in a full-on editorial, challenging the argument that criticisms such as his “force” an agenda on developers:

Those of us who write about things like race, gender, class, and sexuality in games do so because we fucking love games. […] We want to figure out how a game might fit in a larger cultural context or try to communicate how it fit just so into our lives. We often see the faults in these games we love because we’re so close to them. And sometimes, pointing out those flaws doesn’t mean we love them any less. Even our most brutal critiques–the ones that come closest to head shaking and dismissal–are rooted in a broader love for the medium.

On Gamasutra, Katherine Cross echoes Walker’s sentiments, questioning the premise that a series like The Witcher is bound by cultural influence — or that any game should be:

Being influenced by something should not mean being shackled to it; that’s the opposite of creativity. Influences are merely that: ways to flavour your creation, expressions of what you have learned over the course of your life, the threads that comprise your unique creative fingerprint. But they are not a prison, and they most definitely do not demand prejudice.

Finally, inspired by these recent discussions, the writers for FemHype recently together to list off their recommended games featuring non-white protagonists. While the list is admirable, it should also be observed how often the same titles are repeated — which is just what cultural critics like Cross and Walker are getting at.

Moving on:

There Will Probably Be Blood

At Vice, Javy Gwaltney argues not for less violence, but for more realistic consequences for violence in games. Meanwhile, at IndieHaven, Joe Parlock criticizes Life is Strange‘s stigmatization of disability as tragedy and poetic justice.

Design Notes

In reviewing Puzzles & Dragons Z + Super Mario Bros Edition for The Washington Post, Michael Thornsen strikes upon a difference in design philosophy between console and free-to-play mobile games which should ring true for many developers straddling that divide:

Free-to-play games are designed around creating conflict between short-term desires and long-term plans, inducing purchases on essentially useless in-game goods. If you die mid-level in the free-to-play versions, you can buy Magic Stones that allow you to continue without having to lose all of the items and upgrades you have collected. But in the 3DS version you simply collect them as in-level treasures. Stripped of their real monetary value, these stones and the systems they connect to, feel strangely disruptive.

[…]

[T]he design ethos of Mario games isn’t the threat of loss, but delight in variation and discovery, games designed to engineer success rather than failure.

At ZedGames, Jody Macgregor lays out an analysis of Akira Yamaoka’s compositions for landmark survival horror series Silent Hill. At Paste, videogame critic cum fashion blogger Gita Jackson takes aim at the historical inaccuracy of the costume design in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate. And writing for Offworld, independent developer Anna Anthropy contends that game design can learn a lot from the simple playfulness of children’s books.

Over on Gamasutra’s Expert Blogs, Michaël Samyn pops the hood on his two-person studio’s newest title, Sunset, to show some of its inner programmatic workings. Meanwhile, Don’t Die has just released their latest interview with lesser-known industry voices, this time with producer Maxwell Neely-Cohen.

Also, a blog recommendation for any and all designers: Tiny Design is a fantastic Tumblr dedicated to “an in-depth look at the smaller bits of game design.”

Beyond the ‘Single Story’

Latoya Peterson delivered a powerful one-two this past week, first showing up on ESPN to question the relentless focus on harassment narratives when we talk about women and girls in games. Instead, Peterson argues, we should celebrate the diversity of these stories, and has announced a new series for Fusion dedicated to just that.

The Steam Refundpocalypse

Valve recently introduced system-wide refunds on its industry-dominating distribution platform, Steam. That this also landed around the same time as Steam’s annual summer sale got a lot of developers talking about the economics of Steam and how it helps or harms the business.

One dev, Rob Fearon, is particularly concerned with modern sales practices like bundling and frequent Steam sales, which he argues may move copies in the short term but don’t build and retain an audience. Meanwhile, Craig Bamford contends that while Steam refunds have the potential to be a boon for indies (for example, by reducing the amount of post-purchase customer support for technical issues), without facilitating in-depth feedback, Steam refunds don’t really help a developer understand what they need to improve.

I Don’t Know Where To Put This

This didn’t exactly fit within any of the sections above, but it’s so good I can’t not include it. At Videogame Heart, Grayson Davis provides a complex breakdown of the emotional stakes of getting “salty.” While he notes the slang precedes games by decades, its particular inflection in the competitive game scene is pretty engrossing:

The driving thesis of salt is not “I should have won” nor “you should have lost.” To be salty is to believe that there is a “should” at all, that competition has a moral arc with a rightful conclusion.

[…]

One match from a 2013 fighting game tournament perfectly summarizes the problem of salt and the plateau it can represent. FSP, a talented Street Fighter IV player, squared off against a random competitor named, in a delightful irony, Gandhi. Gandhi played in a spectacularly terrible fashion, making random, sometimes bizarre choices. He played the game at an astoundingly low level for someone attending a major tournament. […] The problem is that FSP is trying to play well, but Gandhi doesn’t behave like any rational player. You beat such players by playing patiently and defensively, two qualities compromised by frustration. FSP is visibly upset on stream, but you hardly need to see his face to recognize his anger. The commentators state that he shouldn’t lose, but that doesn’t change the fact that he does.

(The link above contains video of the match in question, if you’re curious.)

End Notes

Did you enjoy this week’s roundup? Many of the links we feature here come from readers just like you! If you find or create a piece of writing (or a video, podcast, or virtually anything else to be honest) you think would suit these pages, please send it in to us! We take submissions on Twitter and through email.

We also welcome submissions for our other ongoing monthly features, Blogs of the Round Table and This Month in Let’s Plays!

Critical Distance is proud to be completely funded by its readership. If you like what you see and want us to reference poems in our openings a little more esoteric than Robert Frost, consider kicking a small monthly donation our way on Patreon! We’re on Recurrency too!

See you next week!

June 7th

June 7th, 2015 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on June 7th)

Greetings, Sunday readers! It is I, your senior curator. Did you miss me? I’ve been off fighting a few dragons of a more mundane variety (see: taxes, traveling, and day job), but I trust my capable team have kept your eyeballs busy while I was gone. Let’s get right to it, then, with This Week in Videogame Blogging!

The Things We Don’t Talk About Enough

Over on Gamasutra’s Member Blogs, Felipe Pepe raises a good point: for every lost game like P.T., there are countless other game histories that are being lost without apparent outcry. In particular, Pepe calls out the dead archives on game sites of days gone by (something that matters quite a bit to us and our own anthologies project!) as well as a lack of interest in interviewing some of development history’s smaller names.

As if in answer, David Wolinsky’s audience- and developer-focused Don’t Die has just released an interview with Purple Moon founder Brenda Laurel which is enlightening as it is bracing:

I remember when we showed our website to [Microsoft co-founder] Paul Allen he said, “Oh, this is cool. Can you make this for boys?” Now this is after $4 million and four years’ worth of research on girls he says this. I don’t think they ever got it, honestly. And that was true of Atari, as well. Investors in those days, they rarely understood what they were doing. And those of us who were doing the work were trying to do stuff that mattered.

Turning from developer histories to the current state of the industry, Brendan Sinclair has been doing some important legwork following up on game hardware manufacturers’ use of conflict minerals — another aspect of the business which could benefit from more active discussion.

Design Notes

At his Radiator Blog, Robert “Cobra Club” Yang has adapted his recent GDC presentation on level design and architecture to point to a philosophical disconnect in how large studios approach matters of design, instead advocating for what he calls “local level design”:

The idea here is that these gray boxes ARE the soul of the level, and art assets and detail are just “ornament” — and according to the high modernist architects of the early 20th century, ornament is not “real” architecture. This is VERY different from ideas of early level design […] Industrial level design views every design problem as a problem of production time, dependent on the ability to scope and plan and manage human labor.

In contrast, local level design views every design problem as a problem of dialog and methodology, it is a “compassionate formalism” that tries to collaborate on conceptual frameworks rather than imposing them. I hope these already existing examples of locally-oriented practice across architecture and level design demonstrate that it is something possible, important, and real.

Also from a past GDC, the good folks at Gamasutra have revived this 2012 design talk by Timothy Cain (video) about the development of the first Fallout.

Meanwhile, at Play the Past, Gilles Roy has published an interesting two part interview with developer Jos Hoebe, developer on the recently released World War I-themed game Verdun. From the interview’s first half:

Hoebe: All the studios were mainly driven by a commercial agenda. [You] just take the biggest subject, like World War 2, with a clear narrative of Good versus Evil, which doesn’t exist in World War 1. There are reasons why there have not been World War 1 games made, especially from a first person perspective, which at bottom is the lack of Good versus Evil narrative, which is better for selling games to a broader audience, etc. […] [There] are other titles which have something to do with World War 1, like time travel, and zombies, etc. But we wanted to take a realistic approach, in a similar fashion how the Red Orchestra series — and to some extent the earlier Call of Dutys — went about it.

The Play’s the Thing (Or Sometimes, Isn’t)

Gamasutra columnist Katherine Cross sings the praises of Darkest Dungeons‘ minimalist characterization, which acts on the player’s tendency to create closure out of the elements presented to them. And over at The AV Club’s Gameological Society, Jake Muncy takes a turn at Republique and muses on the omnipresent voyeurism of games.

Paste’s Maddy Myers wonders why so few women protagonists are given love interests and interrogates a few of the reasons developers have offered in the past. And on his Worldmaker blog, Max Battcher challenges the idea that a “skip combat” feature is either novel or, in any sense of the word, “cheating.”

It’s Not About The Witcher 3

Much has been written in the last few weeks concerning the disproportionate whiteness of the game industry and its resulting products, versus the increasing racial diversity of its players. But Tauriq Moosa’s opinion piece on Polygon turned the flame into a firestorm when he called particular attention to the all-white cast of The Witcher 3:

The Witcher world itself features Zerrikania, whose inhabitants seem very much inspired from the Middle East. In the first Witcher, a prominent Zerrikanian character is named Azar Javed, an Arabic name. Like mine! Culture and names are welcome, but skin color, it seems, is not.

You’ll often hear “based on mythology” as well as “historically accurate,” in the same breath, even though it can’t be both. If it’s based on mythology, then it’s fiction. If it’s historically accurate, then we must talk about our ancestors’ legendary fights with sirens on shores of [the game’s] Arg Skellige.

It is incredibly unwelcoming to be shown the door by the same people who open it for fantasy creatures.

(If you’re not yet swayed, consider this breakdown of the “it’s based on Slavic mythology” defense presented by Actual Slavic Person Luke Maciak.)

But this extends far beyond The Witcher, as highlighted by the #GamesSoWhite hashtag which saw a revival in response to Moosa’s article. Jelani Greenidge provides a great overview of #GamesSoWhite as well as why racial representation matters in games. Quote Greenidge:

American society has so traditionally catered to the needs, whims and desires of white people that often people of color feel like we are invisible. So when teams of exclusively or mostly white people assemble to develop a video game, even if none of those people have racial animus in their hearts, they inadvertently perpetuate white supremacist norms by filtering their narrative through white lenses. They think only of the stories, issues, foods, clothing and other cultural signifiers that matter to them. The reason why the #BlackLivesMatter movement has gained so much steam is because PoC in general and African-Americans specifically are told, again and again, through examples from popular culture, that their cultural priorities, tastes, or experiences are at best tangential and at worst completely irrelevant to the American story.

It goes further. At Houston Press, Jef Rouner did some digging and managed to find only 14 playable black women in the entire history of videogames, discounting avatars whose skin color can be chosen by the player. And at RH Reality Check, Shonte Daniels reflects how recent pushback on this topic together with current events have turned videogames from a hobby into a source of distress (Content Warning: discussion of violence, racism, mental health).

Virtual Bodies

At his blog Arms Folded Tight, Daniel Parker muses on the aesthetics of games’ “power fantasies,” many of which go beyond our conventional understanding of the term. In doing so, Parker surveys several recent articles on the subject of avatars and how these writers engage in a “power fantasy” of embodiment.

Elsewhere on the subject of virtual bodies, Kat Hache opens up about their childhood affinity for Legend of Zelda‘s Link and how it continues to influence their self-image.

Meatspace Bodies

And at last, we come full circle, back to the subject of the faces behind the screen. On Gamasutra’s Expert Blogs, Laralyn McWilliams writes bracingly on the “culture fit” of the tech world and the creative diversity this mentality has helped suppress. Speaking as an educator, Not Your Mama’s Gamer’s Alex Layne reflects on the games brought into the classroom and how they may influence the next generation of young developers. And finally, we find The Mary Sue’s Emma Fissenden interviewing Catt Small, game developer and co-founder of Tech Under Thirty and Code Liberation.

Further Reading

Want more? Of course you do. Co-editors Reid McCarter and Patrick Lindsey have just released SHOOTER, an ebook collection of essays on the first-person shooter. The book is available on Gumroad and Amazon. If you’re interested in a preview, McCarter and Lindsey have a feature in the most recent issue of Unwinnable Weekly which should be right up your alley.

Further Listening

But wait! There’s more. Paste’s and Offworld’s Gita Jackson has been on a bit of a podcast high of late, not only appearing on the (fantastic) Spawn On Me podcast but also launching a new, Chicago-based podcast with Kotaku’s Patrick Klepek and former developer Sam Phillips, Match 3. Both are very much worth a listen.

Did I Forget Anything?

No, seriously, did I? As always, we greatly appreciate your recommendations and self-submissions, so please keep sending them in over Twitter and email!

The past week saw a new This Month in Let’s Plays roundup as well as the conclusion of May’s Blogs of the Round Table theme, “Plans”. And you’ll love June’s BoRT prompt: “Pets”!

Did you know we run a twice-monthly podcast now? Be sure to tune in to our full-length episode featuring Kaitlin Tremblay as well as Critical Distance’s own Alan Williamson and Lindsey Joyce, and then check out latest minisode featuring ZEAL‘s own Mammon Machine, Aevee Bee!

“Wow,” you must be saying, “Critical Distance actually runs a lot of features these days. I remember when this was all field.” So do I! Want to help us continue this breakneck pace of ours, as we also embark on our own print anthologies project? Consider kicking a small monthly donation our way via Patreon! We really do depend on you to keep this car running, in my now hopelessly mixed metaphor.

Be well!

April 5th

April 5th, 2015 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on April 5th)

Good morning! To those who celebrate it, a Happy Easter! Let’s get right underway with This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Systems and Beyond Systems

On First Person Scholar, Gino Grieco has produced a stellar essay on the lenticular design of Nintendo games — and also Magic: The Gathering.

Meanwhile, at Videogame Tourism, Kent Sheely has an interesting piece up on the recent revival of games with rules and conditions mediated by the player. A world away and yet in a strikingly similar vein, we have Eurogamer’s Robert Purchese writing about Eve Online again, namely on why it is Eve‘s metagame of its economy and alliances which make it so much larger than life. It also fits in nicely with this piece by Austin Walker on Clockwork Worlds, about the metagames and in-character/out-of-character dynamics which play considerably into what we often call “immersion.”

Speaking of resuscitations of some fraught game design terms, Roland of 9pp pens a short-and-sweet piece on the medium specificity of games, without invoking a wishy-washy word like “interactivity.” Namely, Roland says, it is about games’ ability to both offer control and depict its loss.

Next we move over to The Guardian where Simon Parkin, in his characteristic style, paints a compelling portrait of Dark Souls and Bloodborne director Hidetaka Miyazaki, whose unconventional entry into the Japanese games industry makes him an unusual success story. And keeping with the focus on Japanese games, on Metopal Nathan Altice offers a fascinating analysis of the time dilation and compression functions of J-RPGs, and in particular Square-Enix’s Bravely Default:

Though many RPGs stretching back to the 80s have a Charge, Wait, or Defend option, I’ve never seen them used as a temporal modifier, nor have I seen their opposite function used as a play mechanic. Strategically using multiple stacked Braves [advance actions] can end battles after one party member’s turn. Effectively, that member’s battle timeline is operating independent of both their combatants’ and allies’ battle timelines, as if they have a time machine transporting future selves to the present in hopes that they will erase a possible future where the enemies are still alive. It’s conceptually mind-bending, but works smoothly in practice.

In the Creases

At Wizard of Radical, Ray Porreca has embarked on a touching letter series on childhood memories of videogames with his incarcerated brother.

World Autism Awareness Day occurred this past week, and at Polygon Joe Parlock surveys several games depicting autistic characters, finding most of them wanting. Going a step further, at Vice, Jake Tucker (who like Parlock is on the autism spectrum himself) relates how L.A. Noire inadvertently created a player-character who seems to share his disability.

Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency has launched the first in a new series highlighting positive, strong, and unique representations of women in games, which is certainly worth a look.

At Video Game Researcher, Wai Yen Tang has drawn up an interesting condensation of several research studies seeking to identify the (manifold) reasons women are not equally represented in STEM fields and game development. Coming at it from a player and industry perspective, Tegiminis responds to the assertion that women “naturally” prefer different games than men, arguing that to treat the push for better representation in the core market as “cultural colonialism” is, at the very least, misguided:

The framing of our new conversation on games as cultural colonialism is appalling on just about every level. Asking for games to mature in their treatment of women and minorities is, and it’s comically absurd that this even needs to be said, not colonialism. […] This isn’t colonialism, it’s maturation. Games aren’t being colonized because everybody who is saying these things was already here.

Defying Gravity

At his development blog, independent designer and games instructor Robert Yang goes into the development process of his game Stick Shift, in which the player participates in erotically stimulating… well, exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a fascinating exploration of both social-political metaphor and alien phenomenology, considering that, as Yang says, “this is arousal on the car’s terms.”

At Hopes and Fears, Joe Bernardi details the lasting impact of Dogma 99, a Scandinavian LARP scene aimed at reducing the artifice and barrier for entry to live action roleplay.

Lastly, at the ever-delightful Offworld, the equally delightful Katherine Cross reviews Gravity Ghost, a small and accessible game best played by letting go:

I stopped trying to tightly control my orbit and instead relaxed into the gravity of the little planet that I’d been fighting this whole time. I stopped seeing Iona as a superheroine battling against an impossible power and yielded to it instead, embodying her trust and turning her into a ghostly moon swinging in the arms of a larger force. […] There was no hurry, no clock to beat but my own. I’d find a way, gravity would find a way. Ultimately, the solution was simple: I had to stop treating Gravity Ghost like every other game I’d played.

Pagan Fertility Rites Et Cetera

Thanks for reading! As always, we greatly appreciate your submissions through email or by Twitter mention! And yes, we welcome (and encourage!) self-submission, so don’t be shy.

A bit of the usual footer business: the April Blogs of the Round Table is here with the prompt “Palette Swap” which should be promising. Also, we’ve released our March BoRT roundup for “Extended Play,” our latest March This Month in Let’s Plays roundup is live, and we have two new podcast episodes with Anna Anthropy and Polygon’s Danielle Riendeau, respectively! Whew!

Some signal boosting: our friends and colleagues at Five Out of Ten Magazine have released a special collection of features from some of our other friends and colleagues at Haywire Magazine. You should definitely give it a look!

While we’re at it, have we mentioned that Five Out of Ten has switched to a Patreon model? Because it has and we recommend you give it your attention. Likewise, Not Your Mama’s Gamer have also launched a cool new Patreon. If you are an independent games and media publication or writer who has recently launched a crowdfunding campaign, let us know about it!

Critical Distance is proud to be completely funded by our readership. If you like what we do and want to help us continue to expand, consider pledging a small monthly donation of your own! It would help us a lot!

That’s it from me! Now I’m off to watch my favorite Easter film, Wicker Man. Enjoy your Sunday and have a great week to come!

March 22nd

March 22nd, 2015 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on March 22nd)

It feels like March has just flown by us. These Sunday mornings are too swift for my liking too. But, before it grows any later in the day, let’s head right into it with This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Spring on Jupiter and Mars

We start with the recently launched Offworld, where Zoe Quinn is talking about altgames, the punk scene of game making. A good starting place, to be certain, although not all-inclusive.

Meanwhile, at Heterogenous Tasks, Sam Kabo Ashwell– well, I’m not going to spoil it for you. Just read it, and sigh nostalgically for histories which never were.

And, holy crud, Clint Hocking wrote a thing! Specifically, he responds to Ian Bogost’s recent article in The Atlanic regarding the alleged limiting nature of narratives and characters in games, arguing that to juxtapose them with the analysis of systems is to create a false dichotomy:

I think we already have numerous, though tentative examples of these kinds of games; games that are both about the journey of an individual, but also about the big ideas of the culture (fictional or otherwise) in which that individual exists. I will admit that along a number of axes we have mostly done a fairly poor job of achieving the goals Bogost implies. [But] I think there is a huge undeveloped space here for us to explore as designers, and a fruitful landscape of discovery here for players.

Writing for his regular column on TechCrunch, Tadhg Kelly also responds to Bogost, arguing that it is the culture surrounding big-V Videogames that is stifling how we talk about games in a wider sense:

There’s not a game maker that I respect who isn’t sick to death of Videogames and the sense of self-entitlement and drama that comes with it. Whether in the business of trying to make fun engines or quirky art installation projects, the prospect of running the TotalBiscuit-style gauntlet makes developers cringe. Their kind of “pro-consumer” position devolves into the psychology of the bullied in turn bullying, the mentality of dissatisfaction in the face of nostalgia, the self-appointed demanding appeasement. […] Not unlike the state of comics fans in the 1980s, todays gamers come with a “seller beware” association. An association that says “Are you sure you really want to deal with these people? Why not make casino games instead?”

Back with Offworld, Gita Jackson has penned a feature which serves – in some ways – as a mission statement for the site: what reactionary gamers of big-V Videogames see as a colonizing force is anything but.

And speaking of reactionary gamers — that hashtag which shall not be named — Anita Sarkeesian’s recent four and a half minute talk delivered at the All About Women conference in Sydney is a bracing thing you should definitely watch.

God Games

Here’s an interesting piece which showed up in our inbox this week, by Christopher Howell over on Fare Forward: an analysis of The Last of Us from a Judeo-Christian theological perspective which includes some interesting observations.

Approaching faith in games from a different tack, Troy Goodfellow looks at how it is modeled in Rod Humble’s recent strategy game, Cults and Daggers:

[T]he more I think on it, the more I think that Cults and Daggers is not about faith at all. It might be about religion, but it’s really about fear. […] [E]veryone is out to destroy you and your community of believers unless you can get to them first. You can blaspheme against local gods and then pin the blame on a rival cult. You can go into deep cover, only emerging to murder a persuasive enemy preacher. You can invoke prayers that will transform your ministers into agents of chaos. You build temples, suck up to nobles for protection and count on the hope of the people to carry you into the next age.

In many ways, it is a very paranoid game.

By Land or By Sea

Are you sick of hearing about Offworld yet? Because we aren’t! This is the most exciting games publication to hit the scene in a very long time, and AM Cosmos’s wonderfully diverse primer on Japanese-style dating sims is a great example of that.

Also a very unique piece this week, Irishman Stephen Beirne provides perhaps the world’s only in-depth analysis of Folklore, an early-generation Playstation 3 game distinguished by being one of few titles set in Ireland and featuring a real Irish voice actress as its lead.

On FemHype — another cool publication which recently made the scene — Emm speaks with the anonymous creator of a mod which enabled women characters to date an exclusively heterosexual female party member in Dragon Age Inquisition… and which prompted so much backlash the creator was effectively driven from the internet. Emm asks why similar mods — including ones to whitewash a character of color — haven’t produced the same furor.

And back with the PBS Game/Show, Jamin Warren believes the Legend of Zelda franchise is overdue for a female protagonist — and while his argument is not the most robust (no mention of Metroid? really?) he draws on some interesting bits of lore and developer interviews to undergird his point.

Did Someone Mention Formalism

Not to reopen recently scabbed-over wounds, but on Medium, Rachel Simone Weil is able to put a fine point on why, specifically, the invocation of ‘form’ in games brings to mind a fraught history:

I don’t believe that video game formalists are sexist or don’t want women to participate in game development or culture. What I do believe is that there is a long history of using the centrality of logic and reason and abstract thinking as justification for the suggestion that women “naturally” do not belong in a certain space.

And yes, she has examples.

Not to do with formalism specifically, but of a similarly academic bent, Evan Tilton on Thinking While Playing responds to the citation guidelines of the Game Studies journal, arguing that a more comprehensive citation approach to games might include the technological and regional specificities of how the game was played.

Whose House Are You Haunting Tonight

Not Your Mama’s Gamer’s Ashley Barry — in responding to this piece on FemHype — laments that even when games manage to duck the most obvious pitfalls of treating mental illness as a lazy shortcut, it can still fail to address its subject matter in a meaningful way. (Content warning: discussion of ableism in both articles.)

And speaking of Not Your Mama’s Gamer, have you noticed their shiny new site design? They’re looking for new writers too!

And this doesn’t really belong anywhere in particular, but is lovely nonetheless: a gorgeous curated collection of obscure Japanese games (Content warning: flashing animated gifs).

This is The End, Beautiful Friend

Oh, there’s so much more I wish I could show you, but alas… It will have to wait till next time!

Till then, please keep sending in your links via email or by mentioning us on Twitter! And yes, since it’s come up recently: you are more than welcome — in fact, encouraged! — to self-submit.

A few more items: we’re approaching the end of the month, so please remember to send in your entries for Blogs of the Round Table and This Month in Let’s Plays. Also, we’ll be reopening our call for feature pitches soon, so watch out for that as well!

Finally and as always — Critical Distance is proud to be completely funded by readers like you. If you like what we do and want to help keep us going, please chip in with a small monthly donation!

March 15th

March 16th, 2015 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on March 15th)

Hello, everyone. I swear, between Friday the 13th and the Ides of March, if I find out Mercury is in retrograde right now, I am just quitting everything. But, you’ve waited long enough for this week’s roundup, so let’s get started. It’s This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Form and Content

We start with Ian Bogost on The Atlantic, who questions whether, in our quest for social progressivism in game stories, we lose sight of how games can explore and critique higher-level socioeconomic and political systems. And while you probably won’t agree with all of it, it has plenty of pointed observations:

Amidst arguments on Twitter and Reddit about whose favorite games are more valid, while we worry about the perfect distribution of bodies in our sci-fi fantasy, the big machines of global systems hulk down the roads and the waterways, indifferent. It is an extravagance to worry only about representation of our individual selves while more obvious forces threaten them with oblivion—commercialism run amok; climate change; wealth inequality; extortionate healthcare; unfunded schools; decaying infrastructure; automation and servitude.

In a similar vein, writing for his personal blog, Critical Distance’s retired founder Ben Abraham considers the divide between games and other forms of media criticism and whether it is possible to — in addition to what he terms the broad genre of “human reaction” criticism – build out another kind of rigorous critical analysis for games:

[H]ow the sausage is made is not always important, or even relevant. Just like how we wouldn’t really care about whether the musician inserted the sample with Logic or Ableton – that’s not the important detail to focus on, and it’s actually fairly telling that the games industry (as embodied, partially, by [games journalist turned Gearbox developer Anthony] Burch) still cares a great deal more about how the “sample” is inserted than what that sample says or its history and place within a larger history and trajectory of games/music/etc. […] Frankly, I mostly couldn’t care less about how a game is made, unless it’s under conditions of exploitation.

Abraham stresses that there is nothing wrong with “human reaction” criticism — indeed, he says, it performs vital work. Similarly, over on Paste, You Were Made for Loneliness‘s Javy Gwaltney writes empathetically about the value of characters who move beyond power fantasies, which speak to the experiences of disabled players like himself.

And taking another approach, Nelson of Video Games and the Bible expresses concern that, despite many notable games by avowed Christian developers, Christianity is still treated as a dirty word in games. Again, some valuable takeaways, even if you don’t agree with the author’s every position.

Design Notes

On Eurogamer, Christian Donlan pens an affectionate essay for deceased children’s author and illustrator Ellen Raskin, whose puzzle-mystery novels exhibited a gamelike sensibility. And on his website International Hobo, Chris Bateman continues an inter-blog conversation with Jed Pressgrove on philosophy of tutorial design. While Bateman essentializes a bit (a fact he acknowledges), his breakdown on design differences in Western versus Japanese games is good food for thought.

If you happened to miss out on everything written about Twine in the last couple years, Liz England has a great primer on it and other interactive fiction formats over on Gamasutra’s Expert Blogs section. On Designer Notes, Soren Johnson chats with Spry Fox’s Daniel Cook, while on The Psychology of Video Games, Jamie Madigan has just launched an exciting new podcast — in the debut episode of which, Madigan discusses behavioral research methodology with Oxford University’s Andrew Przybylski. The language they use is both accessible for the layperson as well as rigorous in its discussion on how behavioral research on games is conducted. I highly recommend keeping an ear on this podcast!

I Don’t Know How to Categorize This

Patricia Hernandez’s feature on Kotaku concerning violent pornographic fan films built in Valve’s Source Filmmaker has caused a stir — unsurprisingly, given its subject matter. While Hernandez is meticulous about neither defending her interviewees’ subject matter nor shaming those for whom rape fantasy is a kink, this article nevertheless bears a strong Content Warning for explicit sexual material, including depictions of rape and discussion thereof in fan communities.

GDC

I’ll leave you with some good in-depth coverage of two more panels from the Game Developers Conference, which concluded earlier this month in San Francisco.

First, Polygon’s Philip Kollar covers an excellent roundtable discussion hosted by developers Derek Manns and Dennis Mathews on black stereotypes in games, both on the player and the industry side. This pairs well with a recent letter series/roundtable hosted by Evan Narcisse and several critics and developers on Kotaku, which addressed many of the same issues.

Secondly, writing for FemHype, Kim Correa recaps what sounds like a fantastic women in eSports panel, on the rising prominence and ongoing hurdles to women’s participation in competitive game events.

Signal Boost

That’s all for this week! A little short, I know, but bear with us please. As always, we greatly benefit from your submissions through email and Twitter mention, so please, keep them coming!

Be sure to check out this month’s Blogs of the Round Table prompt, “Extended Play“! And send us your submissions for Blogs of the Round Table with the hashtag #BoRT!

Our latest feature, This Month in Let’s Plays, is also actively seeking submissions! Send us your critical Let’s Plays, video or otherwise, with the hashtag #LetsPlayCD.

Also: we would be remiss if we didn’t mention Australia’s upcoming Freeplay festival, beginning on April 10th. For the first time ever, they’ve announced they will be live broadcasting the festival for free online!

Lastly and as ever: Critical Distance is proud to be entirely funded by its readership! If you like what you see and want to support our work, please consider signing up for a small monthly donation! Those who donate a little more get special features and even some physical goodies!

February 22nd

February 22nd, 2015 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on February 22nd)

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

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

Racefail

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

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

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

She’s Not Playing It Wrong

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

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

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

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

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

The Reason So Many Babies are Born in November

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

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

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

The Play’s the Thing

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

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

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

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

Design Notes

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

Ice-T Woodenly Mentioning Kotaku

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

Cats Though

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 8th

February 8th, 2015 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on February 8th)

I hope you’re hungry, because I have a banquet for you this time around. And no, I’m not letting you go until you clean your plate. It’s time for This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Give Me That Old Time Country Formalism

We are now in our third (or 783rd) week of what Chris Franklin adeptly describes as “The Debate That Never Took Place.” Watch that video before reading the rest of this section, as it provides an excellent breakdown of the ludology vs narratology ‘debate’ of the 90s and early 00s, the one which forms the basis of the current (waning?) discussion over formalism.* You may also want to check out our coverage in previous roundups here and here.

If the whole thing is still clear as mud, I would recommend Matthew Burns’s stab at the subject, using mathematics education as a helpful analogy.

With our baseline established, the next place we need to visit is Game Design Advance, home of Frank Lantz, who apologizes for the off-the-cuff nature of his original blog post which sparked this discussion:

I don’t want my ideas to provide cover or support to ignorance and aesthetic & cultural conservatism, and I don’t want to be associated with anti-progressive ideas. […] I don’t agree with those ideas, I wanted to distance myself from them, and I wanted to signal to other people who think like me that I think they should distance themselves likewise. I wanted to suggest that there could be a smart, progressive formalism that was diametrically opposed to the vulgar formalism polluting the current environment.

So, how’d that work out? I’ll tell you how it worked out. It was a colossal flop. I would say pretty much the opposite of what I wanted has happened. Somehow, I’ve managed to create a situation in which the battle lines that define the landscape of contemporary game discourse have been re-drawn with me on the wrong side. I botched it.

Lantz also attempts to better articulate his original position, to mixed reception. The comments are worth a read as well.

I cede the floor to Ian Bogost for the final word on the subject, in which he contends that, while this ‘debate’ may be without end, it can still be conducted respectfully:

In fact, it might be worse to pretend that we agree on the right, best, most pleasurable, or most aesthetically redeeming aspects of games (or anything) rather than to acknowledge that real differences in motivation, aesthetics, and political concern are at work.

[…]

Nobody wants to be accused of being part of the hegemon […] And sure, there are interlocutors who are dismissive in a manner that demands critique or even scorn. But that doesn’t make the very idea of such critiques detrimental or problematic, unless the purpose of the objection is to reframe the conversation around the my-favorite-formalism just mentioned. It also doesn’t mean the two “sides” must or even can find reconciliation! History is full of legitimate, unresolved intellectual and aesthetic disputes.

*Franklin’s video also provides the first clear, accurate and useful definition of ludonarrative dissonance I’ve seen in quite some time, so I highly recommend it. It also plays into the following section.

Difficulty Curve

Touching off of Lantz’s piece above, Soren Johnson grapples with (actual) ludonarrative dissonance as it crops up in game design:

[G]ames make us all fascists and communists; anarchists and tycoons; kleptocrats and ascetics, so we better hope that games are not as powerful as we once dreamed they might be.

And yet…

What makes our totalitarian game rules so slippery is that often the dynamics that emerge from these rules are actually at odds with the beliefs of their creators. For example, Will Wright, an atheist, began making Spore as a game about evolution but somehow eventually shipped a game about intelligent design. Monopoly started life as The Landlord’s Game, a board game meant to teach about the evils of capitalist landlords, who unfortunately ended up being a lot of fun to play. […] Civilization was supposed to be a game about history but — despite my best efforts — many of the lessons it taught were somehow the opposite of what I actually believe.

Parallel with this thread, Chris Bateman introduces three useful terms to perform some of the heavy lifting regularly (and improperly) handed over to “ludonarrative dissonance”: ruptures, or fragmentations of the modes of play; inelegance, or disunity between main and secondary systems; and perplexity, “the experience of re-learning what has already been learned differently, or learning under conditions of insufficient information.”

At Game Bias, Jed Pressgrove expounds upon Bateman’s third term, perplexity, and the examples he gives (differing controls, poor tutorials). Pressgrove muses on the popularization of tutorials versus older games, where unique control schemes and paper manuals were both far more ubiquitous.

Coming at it from the opposite end, videographer George Weidman also touches on perplexity versus convention, criticizing the other extreme: the standardization of control schemes and gameplay grammar which he feels has left a wide swath of contemporary, mainstream titles functionally indistinguishable from one another. Certainly not a unique sentiment, but one he illustrates exceptionally well through gameplay footage.

Also talking tutorials and design, Gamasutra’s Alex Wawro interviews developers including Brenda Romero and Soren Johnson on pedagogies of tutorial design, while Silver Grinding’s Devon, responding to our January Blogs of the Round Table theme, has reposted a piece from November creating a rough taxonomy of types of difficulty in games.

Finally, Amsel von Spreckelsen recently played the (much-maligned) Aliens: Colonial Marines on its easiest setting and discovered it becomes essentially a ‘walking simulator.’ Von Spreckelsen muses on what exactly that even means.

Reaver Is Industry

Switching gears from design to business, Kongregate CEO Emily Greer posted the slides and notes from her recent talk delivered at Casual Connect Europe, where she takes to task the very concept of ‘casual’ games and the stereotypes therein. In a similar vein, Brianna Wu goes into the playtesting process of Revolution 60 and her team’s decision to engage a non-core audience.

Reacting to this recent piece on USGamer, Rob Fearon disputes the idea that the console market is only now in freefall — rather, he says, this is the result of conditions many years in the making:

AAA gaming was and is a small part of all the videogames ever made, its domination of the enthusiast press, of mainstream discourse a necessary side effect of the need for big businesses to stay big. There are many great big box games but over the years so many more crushed by it, hampered by it, left abandoned by it. Over the course of the last generation, we’ve felt the rumbles but rarely managed to put two and two together that we’re not where we are now because budgets were unsustainable, we’re not where we are now because the manpower required to power the AAA machine is just too much, at least not entirely. We’re where we are now because this is where the quest for money led us and we were too distracted to notice the changes as they happened.

Riffing on Wertpol’s Presentable Liberty, Stephen Beirne argues that the current state of big box titles should be a call for self-awareness:

On [Assassin’s Creed:] Unity‘s release, many folks were more interested in lamenting ‘patch culture’ than in calling for labour unionization, despite the clue being in the title. As examples go, it is just one raindrop in a torrent. I have to indict myself in this too, because we are a culture bred to consume simply in order to fulfil ideals of consumerism. There’s no time to consider the human cost of our purchases; we must feast.

And on Paste, Austin Walker engages Jacobin’s Ian Williams in a letter series concerning Funk of Titans, how it divorces its Blaxploitation aesthetics from their historical context as amateur and counter cinema, and what a real equivalent to that context would look like in games.

The Game’s the Thing

At Kill Screen, Ewan Wilson compares David Braben and Ian Bell’s landmark 1984 space sim Elite to its modern iteration and finds a remarkably intact ideological throughline. By contrast, on Game Exhibition Vincent Kinian digs into Dust: An Elysian Tail and decides that, in its attempt to play to large, mythic themes, Dust fails to provide a lush or engaging setting.

On the recently launched FemHype, Jillian takes a multi-pronged approach to Skyrim‘s representations of women and is underwhelmed. She writes: “I came up short on the way women were portrayed. And that bothers the hell out of me for a title that purports to be the be-all, end-all of open world games.”

At Storycade, Amanda Wallace pens a compelling review of Porpentine’s most recent Twine game, With Those We Love Alive, which asks players to draw ‘sigils’ on their arms as part of its interaction. And on PopMatters Moving Pixels, Scott Juster suggests, in roughly so many words, that Shadow of Mordor is the Lord of the Rings game that Sauron would play.

Kotaku’s Patricia Hernandez provides an (and I use this word under duress) explainer for Five Nights at Freddy’s and the rabid fandom it has inspired. It’s actually pretty interesting stuff. Not everyone is so happy about it, though: David Szymanski gripes that feels the popularization of indie horror games, especially through Youtube, has created a glut of the same design elements.

Players and Played

At Abnormal Mapping, Matthew Marko returns to the well of Ocarina of Time and asks if, in Zelda‘s attempt to give players a ‘blank slate’ protagonist to project onto, it ends up leaving behind more compelling stories:

It’s no surprise that people have been demanding a Zelda-led game with increasing fervor in the years since. […] She exists to be the Luigi to your Mario, but unlike that duo, the power dynamics are never righted by people coming and giving us the Luigi’s Mansions and deft writing of the Mario & Luigi games to allow the space for the support role to shine. Zelda instead is eternally frustrated, just as Saria is frustrated, and the games are content to never even question whether, on that forest bridge, maybe the game should have stuck with Saria after that moment instead of following Link onto bigger and presumably better things.

At Not Your Mama’s Gamer, Ashley Barry praises Among the Sleep for flouting a certain horror genre convention. And at Vorpal Bunny Ranch, Denis Farr — a dual citizen of Germany and the United States — tries out Wolfenstein: The New Order to see if its depiction of Nazi Germany really is as textured as its hype suggests.

Brett Douville is co-teaching a course with Michael Abbott at Wabash College this semester and shares his and their students’ reactions to This War of Mine. And this academic article by Jaime Banks appearing in peer-reviewed journal First Monday appears to be a promising piece on the interplay between players and their avatars.

The Nitty Gritty

On Level Design, Mateusz Piaskiewicz has written an exceptionally meaty, long-form guide on 3D level design composition. A great read even for the layperson. And in Gamasutra’s blogs section, Emily Thomforde shares how her local library ran a modified version of the Global Game Jam geared toward children and teens.

Gamasutra has also been featuring some exciting post-partums by developers in the past week. Failbetter Games’ Alexis Kennedy has released the first two in a three-part series on the studio’s newest title, Sunless Sea. And Young Horses’ Phil Tibitoski has embarked on a charming series on the studio’s debut title, Octodad: Dadliest Catch.

You’ve Done Well to Get This Far

Thank you for reading! Remember, in addition to scanning hundreds of articles on our own each week, we gather a great deal of our best pieces through submissions by readers like you! If you find or make something you feel would do well on these pages, drop us a line or mention us on Twitter!

Room for dessert? Be sure to pick up the most recent issues of Memory Insufficient, Five Out of Ten, Unwinnable Weekly and Arcade Review! Gosh, so many…

Oh, and don’t forget to check out February’s Blogs of the Round Table prompt, “Buddy Systems“!

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December 21st

December 21st, 2014 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on December 21st)

Here it is, the last regular This Week in Videogame Blogging of the year! It seems fitting that it should land on Winter Solstice — or Summer Solstice, for our friends down under. Stay cool and hydrated over there!

Anyway, as you might expect, we have a bit of a short one this week. Worry not, though, as next weekend we’ll be running our 2014 edition of This Year in Videogame Blogging! We’re still seeking reader submissions, so if you have something you want to get in, be sure to do that quick like.

Now, onto this week’s treats!

All Together Now

The crew of Shut Up and Sit Down (that is, the best board game blog happenin’ around these parts) have been counting down their top 25 board games of all time — and here’s the top five!

Kill Screen is running an interesting set of end-of-the-year features as well. Here are some highlights: Chris Breault on the (sometimes nonsensical) ubiquity of map illumination as a game mechanic and Gareth Damian Martin with a look at architecture in games, particularly in recent experimental works such as Shadowing, Abstract Ritual and NaissanceE.

On the developer side, Adriel Wallick (pioneer of the Train Jam) spent her 2014 making a game a week. Here’s her post-partum of the experience.

Design Notes

In his regular Critical Intel column, Robert Rath has a few notes on what Far Cry 4 gets right — and wrong — about its Nepalese setting.

Elsewhere, in Aevee Bee’s zine Zeal, Brian Crimmins has some fond words for Sakura Taisen‘s portrayal of Japan’s Jazz Age from 1912 to 1926.

PopMatters’s Jorge Albor, who is Chicano, found himself unexpectedly relating quite a bit to the complex racial politics of BioWare’s Dragon Age Inquisition. Meanwhile, at The Gaming Intelligence Agency, Nich Maragos finds pleasure in the ‘mundane heroism’ of Fantasy Life.

Gone Home‘s Steve Gaynor turned up at Matter this week as part of its New York Review of Videogames. Gaynor analyzes both The Evil Within and Alien: Isolation and finds that both, in their attempts to play to nostalgia, venture to strange places.

And this one’s good for a chuckle: at Playthroughline, Ed Smith does a snark-filled readthrough of Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption

Lastly for this section, I leave you with the always-incisive Liz Ryerson, whose newest post is a little bit about Brendan Keogh’s book, a little bit about Goldeneye, and a lot about Perfect Dark.

Beyond the Mat

(That’s the name of a very good WWF documentary, incidentally. I recommend it!)

Back with Matter’s New York Review of Videogames, author Kerry Howley pens a riveting essay on the complexities of EA Sports: UFC and how it, perhaps inadvertently, rings true of the hardships of its subject matter.

In a stroke of synchronicity, this week also brought us an interesting entry from Kotaku, where editor-in-chief Stephen Totilo has some complicated thoughts on playing through WWE 2K15 as a fan-made simulacrum of deceased wrestler — and murderer — Chris Benoit. (Content warning: Although it doesn’t get in-depth, this article does refer repeatedly to Benoit’s murders.)

Visual Novels

In her first guest piece for Polygon, my fujoshi partner-in-crime A.M. Cosmos makes a strong case for the localization of adult-themed visual novel DRAMAtical Murder. Meanwhile, the one and only Emily Short shares an in-depth narrative analysis of “pigeon dating simulator” Hatoful Boyfriend, noting that it seems odd that the visual novel scene and interactive fiction scene don’t seem to overlap more than they do.

That Old Canard

BioWare designer Damion Schubert — no stranger on these pages as of late — offers a firmly worded argument for why the supposed pervasive “progressivism” in games reportage does not actually exist:

As an example, IGN, Gamespot, Polygon and Kotaku all wrote dozens, if not hundreds of articles on every possible angle of Shadow of Mordor when it came out. One of those was the very silly ‘kiss vs kill’ article about the tutorial […] which is no big deal. But in this case, [certain readers] were led to think this was the norm – that most games writing was actually analysis like this.

This is not at all the case, of course. Most of the articles talked about the sick graphics, the incredible killer combos, the brutal death scenes, where to find all the easter eggs and paid lip service to the pretty-cool-but-really-unnecessary Nemesis system. Just like all the old magazines did when they were printed on tree pulp. These articles represent 95% of games media coverage, talking directly to gamers in their own language, and they rarely raise an eyebrow. That tiny 5% though, the people who decide to try to write about games with unusual perspectives are the ones who cause outrage.

Pairs Well With

Consider the following a red wine to go with the above’s butternut squash ravioli.

At The Atlantic, Laine Nooney pens what is, at first blush, a history of computer games’ first published work of erotica (and predecessor to Leisure Suit Larry). But it is more accurately a rumination on a period in the tech industry’s all-too-recent past where computers were not yet colonized as the domain of heterosexual men. (Content warning: images may not be considered safe for your workplace or your young relative reading over your shoulder.)

The letters [objecting to the adult ad] in Softalk, in some backwards way, show that the world of computing was once more diverse than we’ve ever imagined. Women were teaching computer literacy classes in the interstate outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia. Men were defending an ideology of computers as “sexless tools.” Softporn wasn’t the distillation of computing’s misogynist kernel. In 1981 the microcomputer and its allied industries were not already destined to become a space where women are violently harassed for discussing inequity, or simply presumed to have no native interest in technology. Its future was not yet determined, and need not have played out the way it did.

[…]

In some sense, Softporn is least interesting as a game, and most interesting as a piece of social theater. While Softporn seemingly affirms every long-suffering trope gaming has to offer — its latent misogyny, its middling cultural stakes, its limp internal humor — it was also developed under shifting social and spatial constraints within an emerging populist computer culture. Softporn flexed a predictable, uninspired muscle against disorienting technological and social circumstances that we long ago forgot were ever disorienting.

And to All a Good Night

While this marks our final regular weekly roundup for the month, you are encouraged to still submit your TWIVGB recommendations by email and Twitter! Normal roundups will resume the second weekend of January.

If you want to submit your links to our This Year in Videogame Blogging mega-roundup, remember that we are accepting these only by email. Go here to learn more. The deadline is December 24th!

Also, if you’re in the writing mood, there’s still a little time to get in on this month’s Blogs of the Round Table prompt, “New Game+.”

Critical Distance is proud to be funded entirely by its readership! If you like what we do and want to help us toward our next important funding goal, please consider signing up for a small monthly donation!

November 16th

November 16th, 2014 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on November 16th)

It’s half past five in the morning here, and I’m asking my phone’s AI if she obeys Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. She’s stonewalling me, I think. So, in the meantime, welcome to This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Design Notes

At Melody Meows, the titular Melody has published the third part in an ongoing essay series on Atlus’s Catherine, a fraught game which nonetheless invites some interesting analysis. Here, Melody attempts to tease out the game’s “true” ending and in the process makes a few pointed observations on how the game’s morality system is, ultimately, not representative of any morality we might know.

Speaking of our complicated relationships with some games, over on PopMatters regular columnist takes aim at the recently released Bayonetta 2 and how it is like attending a Beyonce concert in both form and function.

Meanwhile, on the Justice Points Podcast co-hosts Tzufit and the Apple Cider Mage chat with scholar and game developer Michael Lutz on the intersections of Shakespeare, performance and gameplay.

And at Kill Screen, Shonte Daniels compares the rise of ‘auteur’ games with a similar 20th century movement in the world of poetry.

Deep Dives

At The Digital Antiquarian, Jimmy Maher performs a meaty retrospective on Activision’s seminal 1986 Alter Ego and its key developer, psychologist Peter J. Favaro.

Elsewhere, Kyle Kallgren’s usually film-focused video series Brows Held High goes for the interdisciplinary approach this week with a fascinating analysis of the interplay of the visual languages of games and cinema — taking as its starting point Gus Van Sant’s experimental ‘road trip’ film Gerry and its unorthodox source of inspiration, Tomb Raider.

Gonzogunk

We’re seeing an observable downward trend in the frequency of thinkpieces on The Hashtag Which Must Not Be Named, but like any good horcrux, we’re still a ways from seeing it die off completely.

The first thing to keep in mind is that this wave of harassment is not new, and it is long from defeated. Pointing to several instances just in the last few months and just within games, scholar and treasure Katherine Cross highlights how minoritized individuals are still frequently targeted disproportionate to their voice or prominence in the discourse. (Content warning: misogynist and transphobic slurs.)

Ravishly’s Jetta Rae DoubleCakes has been running a series of fantastic interviews, including two from among Critical Distance’s own ranks, contributor Lana Polansky and alumna Mattie Brice.

There has also been a recent push within certain sectors of game design academia which has urged solidarity. Over on Gamasutra’s Member Blogs, USC’s Interactive Media and Game Design chair Tracy Fullerton has released a joint statement on behalf of much of her faculty condemning the harassment campaign which has dominated the discourse of the last few months.

Finally, for a good cathartic chuckle, the ever-reliable Damien Schubert has designed a highly accurate pie chart on the true influence of “social justice warriors” on game development.

My God, Pure Ideology

Thanks for reading! As always, we welcome your submissions by Twitter mention or through email.

The November Blogs of the Round Table is under way and looking for your contributions!

A signal boost: the Montreal-based Game History Annual Symposium 2015 has put out a Call for Papers for its 2015 conference. French and English papers will be accepted, deadline January 15th, 2015.

(Do you have a site, zine or conference looking for submissions? Let us know and we’d be happy to link it here!)

Finally: remember, Critical Distance is community funded by readers like you! We’re closing in on our very important $2,000 funding target, which brings with it more features and our proposed print anthologies, so please consider signing up for a small monthly donation!