Author Archives: Kris Ligman

About Kris Ligman

Senior curator for Critical Distance.

We Are Hiring a New Senior Curator!

November 7th, 2015 | Posted by Kris Ligman in Announcement: - (Comments Off on We Are Hiring a New Senior Curator!)

Hi everyone! Kris here.

As many of you heard just moments ago via our Patreon newsletter, we are putting out an open call for a new Senior Curator. That’s right: my job. I am shifting my role here at Critical Distance to focus more time on our print anthologies, and we are looking for someone to take up lead curatorship in my stead!

This is a paid, part-time contract position. The approximate time commitment will be 10-16 hours per week, usually on the weekends.


  • Handling the majority of our This Week in Videogame Blogging roundups.
  • Preparing the digest editions of these roundups for Gamasutra and Offworld.
  • Performing last-look edits on our other features and for TWIVGBs on weekends they aren’t covering.


  • Familiarity with games and major strands of ongoing discourse (in other words, if you think about writing an essay debating whether Roger Ebert was wrong about games never being art, this position is probably not right for you).
  • A well-rounded understanding of the different types of games writing we tend to feature on these pages, from academia to devlogs and everything (or at least most things) in-between.
  • Able to work with a small team of contributors and foreign language correspondents, sometimes at weird hours.
  • Strong editing skills and the ability to self-edit.

Past experience curating for us is a plus, but not required. As is any foreign language ability!

If you believe this is up your alley, please email us and include your CV/resume, clippings or samples, and a short intro! Be sure to mention in the subject line you are applying for the Senior Curator position.

October 11th

October 11th, 2015 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on October 11th)

Hello everyone. Are you having a good Sunday? I was just beginning to celebrate the cooler temperatures when suddenly my city was struck with another heat wave, so at the very least I hope you’re having a slightly more temperate weekend than me. Welcome to This Week in Videogame Blogging!

The Beginner’s Guide

Discussion on The Beginner’s Guide, from The Stanley Parable co-creator Davey Wreden, has begun to trickle in. I say ‘trickle,’ but really what I have for you here is half of a Critical Compilation already. Whatever you may think of it as a work, this game is catnip for game critics.

WARNING: heavy spoilers follow for this section, including in the selected pullquotes.

Let’s start with Offworld’s Laura Hudson, who had a strong reaction to the game, concluding that it both invites and rebuffs critique:

[I]t’s hard to look too deeply at The Beginner’s Guide for too long without feeling a little self-conscious, because it is built on the sand of semiotic contradictions, and designed to shift beneath your feet. It insists upon being read as a personal story but resists that conclusion; it is intended to provoke analysis and emotional responses, while simultaneously rebuking players for analyzing games too intensely or too personally.

Maybe we’re supposed to conclude that it doesn’t matter, that by digging for the “truth” about Wreden and Coda as either players or critics, we transform ourselves into the same sort of point-missing voyeur “Wreden” reveals himself to be by the end. Or maybe we’re supposed to conclude that saying too much about a game is a way of pinning down the butterfly of art with the needle of analysis, and that something is inevitably violated, or diminished, or lost when we do it. Maybe I’m doing exactly what the game is criticizing simply by asking the question.

Writing on Medium, Amsel von Spreckelsen picked up on this theme as well, but admits he isn’t too fussed about the implications:

I could see the accusation that was being levelled at me, but did not feel that it was any different from the accusation that I would level at myself already. […] I have for a long time now felt complicit in the violence enacted by the viewer on the creator of a work of art. I can neither be, personally, angry or sad at The Beginner’s Guide, even as I can and do love it for what it is because I cannot but see it as yet another morsel in an endless stream of creations that I will cannibalise as I have always and will always do. And this is neither a failure or a success on either of our parts, but merely what is and what is between us as we meet at this specific point on our journeys as creator, creation and consumer.

Elsewhere, Heather Alexandra contends that interpreting the game isn’t the problem — it’s in searching for an “objective” truth, attempting to pin down authorial intent as an outsider (video). Kill Screen’s Dan Solberg arrives at a similar conclusion, saying:

Narrator Wreden’s interpretations of Coda’s games are limiting and, at times, reaching, but that’s not where the game leaves us as players. Through Wreden’s subsequent unravelling, we’re clued in to the fact that if there’s any “solution” to Coda’s games, it’s that the nature of art is in constant flux, and that looking for truth in art via intent is likely to reveal more about the one looking for it than the original subject.

Cara Ellison — who first played a build of The Beginner’s Guide in 2014 — suggests that the seductiveness of the ‘lone genius’ narrative plays a large part in how we interpret idiosyncratic games like this:

It’s always about how close we are to the creator that excites us. What is the hype around auteur theory if not the singular thrilling idea that we might be witnessing a genius’ thoughts transmitted directly to us, one of the only people in the world who can truly appreciate that genius? And if that’s not the case, if in fact [Metal Gear lead designer] Hideo Kojima is backed by hundreds of talented brains and most of the brilliant design decisions were made or tempered by other humans, doesn’t it somehow mean that a sole person can be less brilliant, is our shine less bright? Is it disappointing to learn that all that amazing beauty might actually be teamwork? Some people might say yes. I don’t think so, but some people might say yes.

Some critics are less interested in the game’s fiction than its structure. Brendan Keogh, for instance, praises how the game makes the player conscious of their act of playing:

The Beginner’s Guide is a videogame about videogames, then, but not in a cloying you-are-the-monster way or a hey-remember-Mario way. It’s a videogame about the act of engaging with a videogame, both through creation and consumption. It presumes a particular literacy in its audience to recognise certain glitch aesthetics and understand certain things about the Source engine, but this feels less elitist and more assuming the audience’s intelligence. This videogame wants the player to be aware at all times they are exploring, unpacking, and ultimately ruining a videogame work as they trod all over it, and it wants the player to think about what it means to engage with a videogame (what the game engine does, what the player does, what certain mechanics and aesthetic choices do). The Beginner’s Guide is a self-reflective exercise for Wreden, almost definitely. But it is also a self-reflective exercise for the player to think about their relationship with virtual spaces, and with the human beings who craft them.

Some questions have been raised about the game’s authenticity, specifically whether Coda is a real individual whose work has been (presumably illegally) appropriated. This is a theory advanced by Laura Dale at Oh No! Videogames (podcast), who acknowledges that even if it’s not wholly nonfictional:

If it is a performance art piece that is slightly misleading in how much of it is autobiographical, then it is stunning at being that.

(Dale’s co-host Mat Jones at one point refers to her as a Beginner’s Guide “truther,” a label I personally would love to see more widely adopted.)

Whether the game is a complete fabrication, a real document, or something in between, interactive fiction author Emily Short advises against reading the game as taking the ‘side’ of either of its central figures:

Several reviews have described this game as self-indulgent. Certainly Davey-the-character is portrayed as self-indulgent. But I think The Beginner’s Guide makes the most sense if Davey-the-author is in sympathy with both Davey-the-character and Coda-the-character, exploring the tension between wanting to know and be known, and wanting security and privacy; needing validation, and fearing exposure; wanting to productive and visible, and feeling that the creative wellspring has dried up.

As if to encapsulate all this discussion — though he technically does this during an aside discussing his own work — Bruno Dias arrives at another salient point about interpreting the game: “The smokescreen is as true and important as the feelings it’s supposed to conceal.”

Mirrors, Windows

Back over at Offworld, Sidney Fussell points out that if videogames can manage to reboot Lara Croft beyond her male gaze roots, why have depictions of black men gone virtually unchanged in the past 20 years?

At Kill Screen, Will Partin takes to task Introversion Software’s Prison Architect, concluding that while it is engaging enough as a game, it utterly fails as either simulation of or commentary upon its subject matter:

Every simulation, of course, is a simplification of the real-world system it models. The issue with Prison Architect is not that it fails to represent every aspect of prisons’ complexity, but that the aspects it omits are among the most important for understanding why and how mass incarceration is the way it is. Perhaps this makes for a better game, but it’s ludicrous to pretend that it makes for a worthwhile study of the 21st century American prison, which has much more to do with decades of punishing state and federal policies on incarceration than the variety of meals inmates are offered.

In a Polygon guest piece, Laura Dale brings to readers’ attention that Oryx, from Destiny‘s The Taken King expansion, is implied to be transgender:

On the one hand you could argue that Oryx is a transgender man who isn’t defined by his gender transition. The fact he used to use different pronouns and lived under a different name is such a non-issue that it’s never used unnecessarily as a plot point. […]

On the other hand, the reason that he’s not defined by his gender and that people have not made a big fuss about it is largely because nobody knows it’s in the game. By including this as one footnote in a lengthy set of collectable lore outside of the game itself, [developer Bungie] are able to on paper state that they made a huge move for visible, high profile transgender representation, without actually having to face most of the risks associated with doing so.

While suggesting that there is merit to a character’s queerness not being a foregrounded part of their characterization, Todd Harper wonders if calling out these “subtler” representations is necessarily always useful. “What does an argument over Oryx’s ‘legitimacy’ as a trans character get us,” he asks, “other than a way for lots of non-trans folks to voice their opinions about what a ‘real’ trans person is?”

Dev Notes

At Gamasutra, Dan Chamberlain looks back upon the homebrew community which built up around the Net Yaroze, one of the first publicly-available devkits. And at USGamer, Kat Bailey provides a feature on ex-pat developers living and working in the Japanese independent games industry.

Writing for his Game Design Advance blog, educator Frank Lantz shares some words of praise for Serpentes, a variant of the classic Snake with some notable changes to the formula:

Most action games involve a process where, over time, you internalize the behavior of the game’s objects, how they move and interact. It’s like you are learning a language, learning to associate the game’s visual iconography with the underlying properties of the objects in the world. Guns do damage, keys open doors, skeletons are weak to magic, cassette tapes contain new wave songs. Playing a game means learning this language, the game’s semiotic system, and then using it to assemble larger ideas and meanings.

In Serpentes this process is short-circuited. Instead of the solid, one-to-one relationship between symbol and meaning that we are used to, we have a chaotic system that circulates between a handful of symbols and a collection of properties that are endlessly re-assembled into new clusters. Instead of the familiar experience of repeated play in which the gameworld’s grammar is burned deeper and deeper into our neural pathways, we find ourselves perpetually occupying the beginner’s mind, thrown into a brand new world and struggling to learn its logic.

Meanwhile, fellow educator and developer Robert Yang — who has become well known for publishing extensive design articles on each of his games — contends that games exist in a cultural economy where playing is only one vector for engagement:

To “consume” a game, it is no longer necessary to play it. Rather, the most important thing about a game is that it exists, because that means you can think about it. (Or maybe, games don’t even have to exist? Consider the endless press previews and unreleased games that engross so many people. These are purely hypothetical games that are often better than playing the actual finished product.)

The concept, and your explanation of that concept, and your audience’s understanding of that concept, is your game.


A few joyful links to round out the week. First, Omar Elaasar has drawn up a cool primer on the many variations of shmups and bullet hell genres.

Next, the latest issue of Five out of Ten is out, featuring articles by Jake Muncy and Carly Smith among others. Did you know FooT has a Patreon you can support too?

And finally, if you’re in the mood for some things to watch, head on over to Hyrule Hyrulia, a new Youtube channel with developer interviews and critical Let’s Plays!

All Ashore Who’s Going Ashore

Thank you for reading! Have an article, video, podcast or other neat web thing you think would look good on these pages? Send us a link! You can reach us by email or by mentioning us on Twitter!

This week we rolled out our Resources for Writers page, a listing of games-specific and games-inclusive publications which welcome unsolicited submissions. Have a site you want to see added to this roster? Drop us a line!

There is still plenty of time to get involved in October’s Blogs of the Round Table prompt — “Leadership” — and if you missed Lindsey’s most recent This Month in Let’s Plays compilation, now’s the time to get caught up!

Critical Distance is proud to be completely funded by readers like you! If you enjoy our features, consider pledging a small monthly donation on Patreon or Recurrency!

Our new Resources for Writers page

October 9th, 2015 | Posted by Kris Ligman in Announcement: - (Comments Off on Our new Resources for Writers page)

Here at Critical Distance, we often field questions from young and aspiring writers on where to go to get their work published. Obviously, you’re always able to go to a place like WordPress, Blogspot or Tumblr to start your own blog (send us a link to it if you do!), but for those wishing to go to an established site to cut their teeth before an audience, we now have a resource for that!

Our new Resources for Writers page collects games-specific and games-inclusive publications which welcome unsolicited pitches and submissions. Currently, we have 22 listings for publications as diverse as quarterly academic e-zines to salon-style entertainment sections and developer-focused open blogs. And we’ll be adding more as we find them and editors reach out to us!

Recognition (and compensation) for one’s work are ongoing issues in the world of games criticism and discourse. A page like this by no means solves all these things, but we believe that by pooling knowledge and making clear, accessible tools to help writers find an audience, we can start to address a few of those problems. A resource page like this may be small, but we hope it eases at least one of the headaches that comes with starting out. And for more established writers, this can serve as a resource for branching out into other formats and topics!

If you are an editor of a publication taking unsolicited pitches related to games, consider getting in touch so that we can add you to our list. Is your site already listed, but you’ve recently changed submissions editors or need to make some other correction? Let us know. Gearing up for a special issue or themed month? Send us your Call for Pitches and we’ll link to it in our next weekly roundup!

The Resources for Writers page was compiled by Joe Köller and Kris Ligman. Its creation and ongoing maintenance was made possible through the generous support of readers like you! If you’d like to see more features and special resources like this, consider pledging a small monthly donation through Patreon or Recurrency!

October 4th

October 4th, 2015 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on October 4th)

Ahh, it’s finally October. Days are getting shorter, and the temperature is finally dropping enough that I have to close my windows at night. I’m sure it’ll be blazing hot for IndieCade though! It always is.

Enough about the weather, though. Let’s talk about what’s happening in the world of games discourse. It’s This Week in Videogame Blogging!

I’ll Take My Steak Medium-Rare, Thanks

You may have heard a few rumblings over Twitter about a dispute between Star Citizen lead Chris Roberts and an unsatisfied former backer (and some anonymous former employees, and a news site). Fellow industry veteran Damion Schubert provides a good recap and offers his own (as always, even-handed) take of the situation.

Elsewhere, on the newest Critical Switch, Austin C. Howe argues that the same “immaturity” which stigmatizes games is also common in more respectable media like film and books (audio) — so why do we treat the latter as so much more legitimate?

Down In the Nitty-Gritty

At PopMatters Moving Pixels, Scott Juster digs into how Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain‘s prologue teaches the player the nuances of crawling. Meanwhile, at Kill Screen, Chris Priestman profiles game designer Pippin Barr’s latest work, an anthology of Breakout derivations which reveal the “fragility” of game design.

At his devlog, Lars Doucet slams the shoddy Final Fantasy V port which recently hit the Steam storefront, criticizing its lazy ‘update’ of the game’s original graphics. Doucet goes into detail not just on better methods for upscaling games to HD resolutions, but some of the tools used to do so as well.

Beyond ‘Empathy’

At The Psychology of Video Games, Jamie Madigan explains the Kuleshov Effect, a cinematic device also found in games that leaves players interpreting a series of images. Elsewhere, in Gamasutra’s Expert Blogs, Laralyn McWilliams makes the argument that while multiplayer online games are accustomed to allowing players a range of emotional expressions, single-player games often stunt an emotional response:

Most single-player games start a conversation with players and then leave them emotionally stranded. We handle pivotal character moments in cutscenes, or when they’re in live gameplay we leave players only able to run, jump, or crouch. We’re creating a culture where the expected — and only — response to emotional moments is mute acceptance.


To that extent, single-player games have a culture of emotional isolation that goes beyond the fact that you’re playing them by yourself. I believe that’s a large part of the popularity of live Let’s Play video feeds: the person playing can finally express the emotions provoked by a game in a setting where someone’s listening — because the game clearly isn’t. Isn’t that a mistake in an interactive medium?

Meanwhile, the newest issue of Well Played is out, via Carnegie Mellon University ETC Press. This issue, which can be downloaded for free, includes articles on The Walking Dead, DotA 2, and an academic study on the limits of “empathy games.”

This is a subject also on the mind of veteran designer and author Anna Anthropy, who decries the term “empathy game” as a facile device to avoid real engagement with oppression:

Empathy Game is about the farce of using a game as a substitute for education, as a way to claim allyship. […] Being an ally takes work, it requires you to examine your own behavior, it is an ongoing process with no end point. That people are eager to use games as a shortcut to that, and way to feel like they’ve done the work and excuse themselves from further educating themselves, angers and disgusts me. You don’t know what it’s like to be me.

The Map and the Territory

On Medium, Rowan Kaiser praises The Witcher 3‘s open world design, contending that the dynamic way it handles quests makes for a far more interesting environment than either Skyrim or Dragon Age: Inquisition.

Elsewhere, on her personal tumblr, Carolyn Petit lauds the road trip game Wheels of Aurelia for furnishing the player an interior life for its women characters:

These conversations are not the stuff of what some might nonsensically dismiss as games writing with a political agenda, but rather an example of writing that acknowledges that life as individuals and as women within social systems is inherently political, and that women actually talk about their lives in ways that recognize this. If you don’t think women actually talk about these sorts of things, you get too many of your ideas about women from movies and television.

Finally, with a more literal take on the subject header, Eron Rauch is back on Videogame Tourism this week continuing his series on demystifying MOBAs, this week analyzing the play maps and tactics in the ‘big three’ of the genre: DotA 2, League of Legends and Heroes of the Storm.

Breathe In, Breathe Out

There were quite a few pieces this week on The Beginner’s Guide, the new title by The Stanley Parable creator Davey Wreden, but I am holding onto them until I play through it myself. I don’t usually do this — I’ve just come to accept spoilers go with the territory in this job — but I’ve tried my darnedest to follow the essays without knowing the content of the game and it’s proven fairly impossible (perhaps intentionally).

So! Until then, I leave you with this short, relaxing montage of empty videogame environments in the rain (video). Ahhh… So nice…

Until Next Time

Thank you to everyone who sent something in this week! These roundups are made better by your contributions. Remember, we welcome self-submissions, and also encourage you to submit on behalf of those who might be too shy to do so on their own! Hit us up in email or by mentioning us on Twitter.

The September edition of Blogs of the Round Table, covering the topic “Maps,” has now wrapped up and is ready for your reading. Be sure to check out October’s prompt as well, “Leadership“!

This past week also brought us a new podcast minisode, featuring Paste’s Gita Jackson. Be sure to have a listen!

Critical Distance is proud to be entirely funded by readers like you. If you enjoy our features, please consider pledging your support on Patreon or Recurrency!

September 27th

September 27th, 2015 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on September 27th)

It’s beginning to feel a lot like October, and you know what that means: IndieCade and Halloween are right around the corner, and then we have a whole boring month before the ceaseless ‘end of the year’ retrospectives which populate December.

Are you ready? I’m ready. Bring it on. And while you’re at it, bring on This Week in Videogame Blogging!

This Funny Thing Called Curation

At Gamasutra, Alex Handy has a look back at the Oakland, California-based Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment (MADE), which celebrates its fifth anniversary today. Meanwhile, at Paste, Javy Gwaltney pays tribute to Newgrounds, the turn-of-the-century flash games and animation portal which became one of the first mainstream ‘open platforms’ for independent games on the web.

Next, a couple interesting game collections for you. At her own site, Line Hollis shares her latest ‘MIXTAPE’ feature curating several lesser-known games around a theme — in this case, games which break the fourth wall. And the Group Show tumblr rounds up a collection of games (some unexpected) which, in the blog’s own words, “try to translate our understanding of the natural to the technological word.”

Industry Notes

At International Hobo, author and educator Chris Bateman has a look at what’s changed from the heyday of the forty hour benchmark of a game’s ‘replayability’:

The big money is no longer out to hold a player’s attention for forty hours, but to hold a player’s attention long enough to get the next game out, or to hold on to groups of players in the hope to pull in a few big spenders, or to hold the player’s attention throughout the year with events crafted to maintain appeal and bring back those who are slipping away into other games. Hobby players — those who commit to a game service over the long term — often play other games on the side, which is a tiny crumb of good news for indies making smaller games. Indeed, at the bottom of the market, there are perhaps greater opportunities for those who make games than ever before, but the lower market is competing for the scraps left over from the gorging behemoths above them, like crabs scuttling about for the tiny morsels that fall to the seabed after the giant sharks have fed.

At Playboy, Jake Muncy looks back on the critically-panned The Order: 1886 and attempts to salvage one of its few redeeming features:

There’s something conspicuously like an idea there, shining through the rest of the game’s mediocrity, and it’s worthy of excavation and defense. It concerns the way we pace blockbuster, action-packed media, games and film alike, and it suggests that maybe, just maybe, it’s okay to hit the brakes now and then.

At Kill Screen, Chris Priestman interviews Matthew Sisson on translating the fast-paced mobile party game Spaceteam into a workable card game. And at Eurogamer, Rich Stanton reflects that Simogo’s Year Walk, a game about visions of the future, perfectly suits the forward-looking but ‘cursed’ Wii U console, onto which the game has just been released.

Also, if you haven’t been following David H. Schroeder’s developer “memoirs” from the 1970s and 1980s, now is a good time to get caught up. This links to the latest entry, Part 2, with a link to Part 1 available in the post.

The SAG-AFTRA Strike

You may have heard murmurs this week about videogame voice actors potentially striking over issues of compensation and workplace safety. Game Informer’s Mike Futter does a serviceable job of breaking down the issues at hand, which, if nothing else, speak to industry-wide unfair conditions, above-the-line talent and below-the-line developers alike.

One of those above-the-line talents, Wil Wheaton, has taken to his blog to share his own take, as a voice actor who voted in favor of a strike. Worth particular attention are his comments on safety conditions during motion capture:

It can be dangerous work, especially when there are fights involved, so when we work in live action film or television, there is always a trained, qualified, professional stunt coordinator on set to ensure that nothing goes wrong and nobody gets hurt. The performers who work in those scenes [in game motion capture] should be afforded the same protection we get when we’re on a traditional film or television set.

How We Relate to Games

As part of Ontological Geek’s mental health month, therapist Kim Shashoua shares a couple of experiences where videogames became an essential tool for reaching young people in group therapy:

This borders on tautology, but for something to be meaningful to someone, it has to be relevant to them. The problem with most failed cookie-cutter presentations is that kids are told what matters to them. For groups to really work, they can be guided by a therapist, but they have to be led by kids.

Instead of tearing up the floorboards and replacing all of our current analogies with gaming references, I suggest that we recognise video games as a font for cases where kids have already encountered (and often triumphed over) real-world issues. Mario Kart wasn’t just a thing that those kids knew — it was a place where they felt anger and betrayal. It confronted them with the fact that their friends don’t always support them. For those kids, a reference to Mario Kart was an acknowledgement of these complex experiences.

And in the latest Unwinnable Weekly, Reid McCarter and Jed Pressgrove share an excellent letter series exploring how The Chinese Room’s Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture engages with the spiritual motif present in the title. I couldn’t hope to pullquote this one effectively, so I encourage you to pick up the issue for yourselves. It’s a good one, folks.

And lastly, back with Playboy, Jake Tucker praises the “primitive” first-person shooter Intruder for lending the genre an uncommon sense of (for lack of a better term) realism:

[C]ombat is a brutal, clumsy thing, defined by the terrible physicality of your characters; jumping up onto a railing will often lead to you slipping and falling to your death, while running around a corner can lead to you falling over and sliding across the floor. Explosives and bullets will, in addition to doing damage, knock you to the ground. It’s the first shooter I’ve played that’s managed to make me feel like the fleshy useless lump that I am.

War Has Changed, War Never Changes

Thank you for reading! As always we greatly value your submissions through email and Twitter, so please keep sending them in!

You have a little bit of time to submit for September’s Blogs of the Round Table (theme: “Maps”) and This Month in Let’s Plays as well.

Some signal-boosting: Kill Screen is looking for international writers in the Asia-Pacific region, including Australia, India and Japan. If this is you, consider checking them out!

And while I can’t say anything about it yet, we have an exciting announcement for you all on Monday! Stay tuned!

Critical Distance is proud to be funded entirely by its readership! If you like what you see and want to help fund our exciting roster of features, consider pledging a small monthly donation via Patreon! Those who donate a little more get a special thank-you from my cat each month, and no, I’m not kidding.

September 20th

September 20th, 2015 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on September 20th)

Welcome to another week of top shelf videogame criticism, analysis, and commentary! We have some strong offerings for you this week, so let’s get right into them. It’s This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Making Marios

It’s Super Mario Bros‘s 30th anniversary this month, and the folks at AV Club’s Gameological Society got together to share their most surreal experiences with the games.

This special occasion also saw the release of, and critical reception to, Nintendo’s descendent of its WarioWare quick-and-dirty game design software, Super Mario Maker. Last week we shared a design chat with Shigeru Miyamoto (video); this week, Michael Thomsen’s penned a negative review of the title for the Washington Post, which has drawn criticism from several corners.

At Stay Classy, games scholar Todd Harper argues that to expect professional sophistication from Super Mario Maker is to miss the point:

Mario Maker is an example of what Chaim Gingold called a “magic crayon.” It’s a simplistic tool that abstracts the many and varied layers, toolsets, and skillsets of level design into something that a person without access to those things can still use to produce a tangible outcome. The tradeoff is that, because the tools are abstractions, they are less powerful and often more time-intensive than the alternative, because you are often running up against the limitations of the abstracted toolset, among other things.


Lest this be read as bad, I think “magic crayon” toolsets are powerful because of their accessibility. Anna Anthropy’s work (such as Rise of the Videogame Zinesters) has discussed the power of democratizing game design and its ability to destabilize hegemonic game design norms. Magic crayons are often a necessary part of that because they make people feel like these goals are reachable.

Elsewhere, Carolyn Petit muses that what is missing from Mario Maker is a sense of continuity or a journey for the player:

You can share levels with other players, but those levels exist in isolation. Someone plays the level, and finishes it, and that’s it. You can’t create even a rudimentary world map to string, say, four or eight stages together, which I’d love to do. I want players to be able to design not just stages, but journeys for me to go on; the road to Bowser’s castle, the pleasant pathways and underground tunnels and flying fortresses that stand between me and King Koopa. I want to experiment with difficulty curves and figure out when and where to introduce new elements so that the places I create have a sense of identity.

This limitation has resulted in what Offworld’s Laura Hudson calls a “kitchen sink” approach to level design, frontloading levels with every toolbox asset and gimmick. She encourages designers to “slow your roll” because, as she puts it:

Unlike the original games, where each level was a link in a much longer chain that could build on ideas, teach new skills evolve over time, Super Mario Maker levels are elevator pitches where you have to get in, wow the crowd, and get out. You’re not writing a novel with distinct chapters, you’re scripting a one-act play that has to say everything it wants to say before the player reaches the flagpole.

At Kotaku, Patricia Hernandez argues that a main problem with quality control in Mario Maker is not just the weakness of its curation options, but how comparatively new players are to making games of their own:

[A]nyone can pick up a point-and-shoot or a camcorder and start making things right away. Some schools even teach kids about film and photography tools from an early age.

Game design is pretty esoteric by comparison. For many people, Mario Maker [will] likely be the first step toward achieving the same kind of knowledge proficiency in games. It may be a lot of people’s first camcorder, as it were.

This is a thread that games scholar Brendan Keogh has picked up on as well, reminding his readers that producing bad work is part of the process to creating good work:

Any time a platform goes any distance to democratise modes of production and/or distribution, it then gets mocked or criticised because more of the creations it allows are not very good: Ouya, Steam Greenlight, Twine, blogs, and now Super Mario Maker. But it always seemed weird to me as allowing a whole lot of Not Good creations is the whole point of such tools. If there were only good levels of Super Mario Maker, or if you had no chance of encountering a crap one, then the game would be doing a terrible job of democratising both the production and distribution of content.

Bad games are good. There should be more bad games. People should be encouraged to make bad games, and they should be encouraged to share those bad games with other people. Making bad creations is how you mature as a creator. This is true in any art form and while we have access to a band’s early demo tapes or an authors early drafts, we so rarely get to see a game developer’s early crap games or prototypes.

Lastly, for those interested in improving their Mario Maker design chops, Mark Brown offers up a short tutorial (video) drawing upon design principles of past Mario games to incorporate into your own levels. He also shares an example level of his own and the thought processes leading to his design decisions.

Get It in Writing

In researching subjects of early plastic surgery, Suzannah Biernoff has discovered that some World War 1-era medical photographs of the Gillies Archive — now in the public domain — served as the basis for certain enemy designs in BioShock. Which, for Biernoff, raises a few issues: “The problem with BioShock is that the splicers are based on identifiable individuals, who — if they were alive — would be entitled to sue for defamation or slander.”

At Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Tom Bennet has a feature on how Good Old Games (GOG) restores and revitalizes old titles for the digital distribution era. Meanwhile, at Paste, Luke Winkie goes into detail about how a collective of dedicated Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2 fans built out an ‘extended edition’ of the game using unfinished assets left on the game disc.

Salient to these discussions, Uninterpretative reminds readers that some forms of preservation elude emulation or written histories — in particular, games themselves as they exist in a cultural moment. And at The Mary Sue, Jessica Famularo reminds us of another field of frequently elided or forgotten histories: fan communities.

Design Notes

Social Media Collective brings us Aleena Chia’s recent conference talk (video) on the creative interplay between EVE Online developers CCP and its dedicated players.

Elsewhere, veteran developer Laralyn McWilliams writes extemporaneously on the difficulties of being recognized as a designer, a role that is not always well understood by colleagues. And at Game Design Advance, Frank Lantz — responding to a recent piece by our own Lana Polansky — acknowledges the fuzzy terminology in the seminal 2004 white paper which introduced MDA game design framework, agreeing it may be time to evolve some of its concepts. Remarks left by Jesper Juul and others in the comments are also worth reading.

Lastly on the subject of design, here is Kitfox’s Tanya Short together with a panel of other developers on their experiences designing procedurally generated games (video) such as Moon Hunters, Dwarf Fortress, Crypt of the Necrodancer and Darkest Dungeon.

Keeping It 1800s

At Gamasutra, Katherine Cross looks to culture shifts in the 19th century art scene, which saw Impressionists such as Gustave Caillebotte dismissed for his focus on working class individuals and everyday scenes, as being analogous to a current shift in games toward a wider range of subjects:

What set [Caillebotte] apart, and what made him an object of scorn in the elite French art world was that he took on a completely different subject. The eponymous Floor Scrapers were not Classical gods or heroes, nor emperors, nor a study of an elite family; they were ordinary workingmen who were literally hewing at modern Paris.


The rage that met Caillebotte’s use of anonymous working and middle class subjects in his art is quite analogous to that which still greets games which make people of color, the poor, the mentally ill, into their protagonists. […] In games we’re slowly, grudgingly moving from our own divinity figures — that of the grizzled (space) marine — to a variety of other, previously ignored characters.

19th century cultural products were also on the mind of J. Stephen Addcox at Kill Screen, who traces Sunless Sea‘s heritage in 19th century nautical literature, from Treasure Island to Edgar Allan Poe.


At GameChurch, M. Joshua Cauller revels in Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain‘s capacity to offer a different sort of power fantasy:

I’ve always wanted to play a game that let me love my enemies as Jesus might. MGSV becomes this enemy-converting power fantasy where I get to preserve the lives of my enemies, offer them a job, and promise to fight for them when they come under attack. We become allies.

And Jennifer Imago explores Aevee Bee’s We Know the Devil, commenting on how it speaks authentically as a trans narrative:

We, as players, experience along with [a protagonist] the confusion of having everything internal about yourself scream “girl” while body and externally-imposed identity firmly declare “Boy.” and nothing concrete, external, or proveable can be latched onto to validate the feeling of “girl.” We, as players, eventually experience her apotheosis — if we work for it.

(The article contains spoilers for several of the game’s endings.)


At Shut Up & Sit Down, Quintin Smith and Leigh Alexander chronicle their recent adventure with the Netrunner UK Nationals Tournament, in which Smith placed seventh. (Grats, Quinns!)

Elsewhere, at Videogame Tourism, Eron Rauch furnishes us with the third part in his ongoing series demystifying the MOBA genre, going into the basic team positions common across games such as DOTA2, League of Legends and Heroes of the Storm.

Lastly, Brendan Vance just had to go and bring Slavoj Zizek into things, suggesting that the surfeit of objects in open world games really add up to a paucity of experience:

The ‘open world’ is a mirror through which we can view, indirectly, the abject emptiness lying beyond our realm of experience. Within its reams upon reams of collectible things, we recognize and find comfort in the absence of any particular thing; we enact the ritual of collecting junk until there is no more junk to collect, at which time we discover triumphantly that we have succeeded in gathering the pure, distilled essence of nothing.

Incidentally, did I ever mention I was a notorious hoarder in Skyrim? Here’s my (quite salient) collection of hearts:


(The cheese wheels were in the kitchen.)

And The Rest, They Say, Is–

That’s it for this week! I hope you enjoyed reading as much as I did. And as always, if you have an interesting piece you think would look good on these pages, send it to us! We accept submissions through email and by mentioning us on Twitter.

The most recent Critical Distance Confab podcast is a whammy, including interviews with Robert Rath, Corey Milne and Javy Gwaltney, contributors on the new essay anthology Shooter, which you can pick up for yourself here.

We’re approaching the latter half of September (already?!) so here’s your regular reminder that you still have a little bit of time to contribute to this month’s Blogs of the Round Table, as well as This Month in Let’s Plays!

Critical Distance is proud to be completely funded by readers like you! If you like what you see and want to support our ongoing and upcoming features, consider pitching in a small monthly donation through our Patreon!

September 6th

September 6th, 2015 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on September 6th)

I keep writing and deleting these intros, which is telling me that perhaps I’m overdue for sleep. I just couldn’t tear my eyes away from all the fresh words of this week’s roundup! So let’s get right into it. It’s This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Bodies and Background

At The Mary Sue, the alliterative Maddy Myers invites us to talk about Hot Ryu, the fandom nickname given to an alternate costume for franchise mainstay Ryu in the upcoming Street Fighter V, and how his treatment differs from the sexual objectification we often associate with women characters:

When the “Hot Ryu” meme began, inspired by little more than Ryu’s new beard design, entries in the meme focused on personifying and humanizing Ryu. The people who participated in this meme did not zoom in on shots of Ryu’s muscles and post the word “abs” over and over, although many references to his physicality did occur; the crux of the meme was about Ryu participating in an imagined relationship with someone, in both a sexual and an emotional sense.


This presents a stark and deeply depressing contrast to how women in fighting games have been treated. […] the camera lingers on their backsides and cleavage during the slow-motion sequences of their intros, outros, and special attacks. The result is that the fandom is encouraged to comment about [upcoming female Street Fighter combatant] R. Mika’s looks [because] the camera dehumanizes her at every turn.

With the release of Metal Gear Solid 5, Eurogamer’s Aoife Wilson challenges series director Hideo Kojima’s previously-made comments that players will “feel ashamed” when they learn the plot reason for Quiet’s combat bikini and fishnet attire:

If the purpose of this scene and of Quiet’s character in general is to make commentary, perhaps some will say it is that women should be free to wear what they want into battle or anywhere else, but this actually isn’t the case with Quiet at all. She herself states she never wanted to be this way. She has this exposure forced upon her, and given a choice, it’s safe to assume she’d adopt more practical clothing. She needs to be naked to live now; she needs to be naked to earn a place in Kojima’s, and our, world.

(Obviously, the full article contains some spoilers for the game.)

Meanwhile, at Women Write About Comics, Claire Napier digs up some old profile information on pre-reboot Lara Croft, and what she finds betrays the profile authors’ interest in something other than realism:

The fact that there is a “canon” weight for Lara Croft which is within the realm of reality is not actually a bonus. It’s horrible. What does it add? A cue to begin objectifying her, exotifying the lightweight, demanding personal information as proof of your subject’s womanhood. When dealing with an illustration, a caricature, a digital model of an “idealised woman”, why try to apply real-world values to her entirely false frame? They won’t match up. They won’t allow comprehension of how this body would look if she were real.


No, it’s clear from the multiple instances of lowballed weight estimates available on Lara Croft profiles (110, 125) that the parties interested in discussing these weights have no clear understanding of what the numbers mean. If they did — they’d know they were wrong. The impossibility of fitting 34D breasts into size 8 shirts, the pointlessness of adhering to dress sizes if you can buy tailoring, the blatant falseness of Lara Croft being 100 lbs, five-foot-eight, 36 inches around the chest, and a worldclass rockface dangler/militia combatant/tarzan impersonator: these things speak to an ignorance of bodies, and the bitterly foolish choice to define them anyway.

Happily, as Napier notes, rebooted Lara Croft has not had so much attention paid to her proportions — outside of fan speculation, at least.

Systems and History

At Sufficiently Human, our own Lana Polansky offers as a more elegant alternative to ludonarrative dissonance the terms “coherence” and “incoherence,” describing the ways a game’s design succeeds or fails at reinforcing its themes:

Dissonance is a textual and tonal device. It’s also a sensibility, a kind of distinct affective response. It is not, in and of itself, a pejorative.


The issue [with incoherence] is not so much that these problems clash particularly noticeably in the moment of play in such a way that jars and therefore leaves an impression on the player. It’s that, under scrutiny, they don’t make any sense to what the game and its various elements are trying to accomplish. Like an unaddressed plot hole in an otherwise tidy-feeling television series, these things can go unremarked but as soon as they are reflected upon, we realize how quickly the game and its attendant statements dissolve into a pile of gibberish.

At Gamasutra, Katherine Cross refers to Polansky’s essay when she dissects the recent outcry over the “slave Tetris” minigame in Playing History 2 – Slave Trade:

The game was, at bottom, terribly incoherent. It mixed a serious topic with a sunny atmosphere and gamey elements that trivialized that topic rather than illuminated it. The Tetris minigame, further, has the stunning side effect of rendering the player complicit in creating one of the signature atrocities of the slave trade: heinously overcrowded ships. All as a smiling sea dragon looks on. [Studio CEO Simon] Egenfeldt-Nielsen strained to point out that the protagonist, the young slave you play as throughout the game, liberates himself over the course of the story; this is, undoubtedly, a good story to tell, but we return to the incoherence issue: the game’s portrayal of slavery is at war with its lesson about slavery’s unbearable atrociousness.

Conventional Wisdom

At Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Alex Wiltshire breaks a serious taboo and writes in defense of photorealism in games:

Now, I also love stylised games, because I love anything with considered and skilful art direction. And I’m arguing here that realism is also art directed. The judicious application of a little ambient occlusion here, depth of field there, and yes, even chromatic aberration. I think of those programmers, distilling reality with such care and attention, picking through their materials and applying them, just so. Their decisions and deep craft is worthy of deep appreciation.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture — a game designer Dan Pinchbeck has said emerged from wishing to create the most aesthetically exquisite game experience possible, for better or worse — has been on Ed Smith’s mind this week over at Playboy. He notes that, while the game falls short as a work of representation, “it attempts to capture at least one truth about country life, the small, incestuous dramas that emerge between people living close to each other, who have nothing better to do than spy on their neighbours.”

In continuing his series on design stagnation in adventure games, Ian Danskin points to a handful of mechanics in upcoming games (video) which may breathe fresh life into the genre. He notes:

The nice thing about experimentation is, even if the game is bad it doesn’t mean that the experiment was worthless. Did the mechanic work? Maybe someone else can make better use of it. Did the mechanic fail? Well, why did it fail? And is there a better way to accomplish what it was trying to accomplish? Questioning a long-standing tradition is almost always a net gain for game design. Even if the answer is ‘well, we shouldn’t have tried that,’ at least now you know something about the tradition.

It’s Dangerous to Go Alone

Back at Playboy, Javy Gwaltney has been thinking about games that we continue to play even when we’re not playing them:

“We should cut through the ice caves,” my girlfriend says suddenly. “We can kill a shopkeeper with one of the landmines and steal his stuff. We might nab a jetpack.”

“But what about Olmec? Won’t he be summoning his little bastard henchmen if we don’t start from the beginning?”

“Oh yeah. We could handle that if we got enough bombs along the way, maybe.”

We have a lot of discussions like this about Spelunky, often when we’re not even playing the game. Sometimes at dinner, sometimes when we’re walking the dog. It’s just there in the background of our lives as a constant battle we’re planning or waging together for riches and adventure. Spelunky is the best kind of game, the kind that you play even when the console is off and you’re working or kicked back in a chair trying to relax; it weasels its way into your brain, encouraging you to map out tactics and strategies to use in your next session.


It’s not enough to say that these are games that “stay with us.” More than simply dominating critical chatter, they represent just how deeply games are becoming entrenched in our lives. [They] bleed into our reality, refusing to let go of our attention, demanding to go on even when we’ve supposedly finished with them simply because they’re not done with us.

If you’re as struck as I am by the mental image of couples playing Spelunky together, I’d like to point you to Unwinnable, who have published an excerpt from Steven Messner’s article on a relationship strained by Animal Crossing, which I mentioned last week!

Call for Papers: Mechademia

The Mechademia academic conference (a sibling to the journal of the same name) has put out a Call for Papers for its upcoming conference on games and gender, to be held later this month in Minneapolis.

In the crosshairs of a narrowed, constructed male gaze, representations of women have indeed been predominately the sexualized subjects of extreme violence in gaming. […] This conference invites scholars, fans, and creators to consider the situation and respond with presentations as we expand the discursive field against the vast mediated (dis)information found on the web.

You can read the full CFP here. The deadline for submissions is September 11th, so now would be a good time to send something in! The conference organizers welcome in-person as well as remote video presentations.

(Hat tip to Eron Rauch for bringing this to our attention! If you have an upcoming publication or conference you’d like to share with our readers, please drop us a line!)

Footer Business

Thanks for reading! As always, if you have something you’d like to see featured on these pages — your own work or someone else’s — we welcome your submissions by email and Twitter!

It’s the first week of the month, which means that we have roundups for both This Month in Let’s Plays and Blogs of the Round Table for you! BoRT’s August theme of “Nostalgia” turned out to be our most popular to date, and our new prompt — “Maps” — is also proving to be quite popular!

That’s all for this week. We’ll see you soon, and in the meantime, stay frosty or toasty, as your hemisphere dictates.

August 30th

August 30th, 2015 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on August 30th)

Readers, do you know I’m sometimes mistaken for Australian? Don’t ask me why, with all the Zs and missing Us in my speech, but it happens.

Anyway, right now I rather wish I were an Aussie. It’s approximately “claw my eyes out” degrees with a side of wildfires here in the Northern Hemisphere, at 11pm as I write this. A change of season sounds quite nice.

Enough about the brain boiling into vapor inside my skull, though, let’s get to this week’s reading! It’s This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Of Play and Spectatorship

At Videogame Tourism, Eron Rauch is embarking on an exciting new series dedicated to demystifying Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas (MOBAs) and helping to explain their appeal as a spectator sport on a global stage.

Meanwhile, in discussing eSports’ grassroots cousin in the international fighting game community, Ian Danskin attempts to pin down (video) how an 14-year-old game like Super Mash Bros. Melee has garnered a fandom and competitive scene based around its players testing the limits of the game’s systems.

Of Lore and Character

At Literally Games, Michael Hancock offers a dense but engrossing piece comparing the lore of Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity with the philosophy of Schopenhauer and others. Heavy spoilers lie within, but here’s a taste:

[Eugene] Thacker’s discussion on Life doesn’t “solve” Pillars of Eternity or vice versa. Instead, I think they both illustrate how complicated our concept(s) of life can be, that it’s possible to conceive of ways of approaching life beyond black and white abundance and absence.

At PopMatters Moving Pixels, Jorge Albor admits he was left feeling a bit cold from The Chinese Room’s Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, in part because he felt no real sense of closure for its characters.

At The Mary Sue, Jessica Lachenal chats a bit about the significance of the quiet interludes (what we might refer to as “pillow shots” in film) in Life is Strange. Meanwhile, at Gamasutra, Katherine Cross has a look back at Life is Strange developer Dontnod’s premier title, Remember Me, and how its meticulously rendered villains fall short on the character detail necessary to make the player care:

There was precious little behind her, no conviction, no grand sense of ideology, scientific or political, that seemed to drive this indisputably powerful woman. You know who she is, where she is, but not why she is. She is sketched in such a way that should leave her far more compelling than a mere Gallic neo-Eichmann, pulling her assigned lever in this corporatist republic’s machinery of terror.

What most of the best villains elaborate or express in their characterization is a roadmap of thought that allows you to see how they became who they are. This need not be expressed in a tedious dump of expository back story, but rather simply showing (if not always telling) why these characters do what they do.

Embodied Horror

Sticking with Gamasutra for a moment, Alex Wawro has a front-page piece on the psychological toll that studying and rendering hyperreal violence (and other grotesqueries) can have on designers and animators working in the games industry (Content Warning: graphic violence).

Moving over to Not Your Mama’s Gamer, Samantha Blackmon questions why Fallout Shelter not only erases queerness, it also enforces some highly specific attitudes regarding pregnancy:

There was so much about the mechanics of this game that not only privileged heteronormativity but also reproduction. Only heterosexual sex is allowed, heterosexual sex always leads to both 100% happiness and an apparently viable pregnancy, and said pregnancy must be protected at all costs, even when there is a direct threat to the woman carrying the fetus. Um, wow. That is some very real shit right there.

Also in the vein of unfortunate implications, at Kill Screen, Zach Budgor and Jess Joho have a conversation on Supermassive’s ‘interactive horror movie’ Until Dawn and how it plays upon (and into) the gendered tropes and clichés of the slasher genre.

Past to Present

History Respawn’s Bob Whitaker engages with historian Matthew Gabriele in his latest episode (video). It’s nominally about Dragon Age Inquisition and The Witcher 3, but moreover, it’s a conversation on our pop cultural fascination with Europe’s Middle Ages.

On the subject of fantasy (and its broad Tolkienification in modern fantasy), Go Make Me a Sandwich’s wundergeek crunches the numbers on depictions of men, women and non-gendered characters in Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition source books. In short: better than before, but still a long way to go.

And talking about history from a coding perspective, The iBookGuy recently released an excellent presentation on the hardware limitations to render color on the Commodore 64 (video), and how game developers creatively worked around these constraints.

Back at Kill Screen, Dan Solberg recently paid a visit to Chicago’s Bit Bash indie game festival, and in particular looked at its layout as a work of gallery curation and sound design:

Although the games in this space had their own little external speakers, the house and electro pop booming from the stage assumed each game’s soundtrack save a few levels-peaking sound effects here and there. By overlaying the space with music, each game’s embedded audio may have been replaced, but it also afforded a consistent, party-centric tone that blended play sessions into as a more holistic festival experience rather than pockets of individual gaming instances. […] [T]he festival catered to a variety of gaming interests without having to go the “white cube” route of homogenized presentation.

Further Reading

Interested in more? The latest issue of Arcade Review, brought to you by our own Zolani Stewart and Lana Polansky, is now live for your consumption.

Unwinnable Weekly remains the most compelling weekly periodical in games, and this week’s cover story about a couple’s relationship strained by an unassuming Nintendo game is well worth the dive.

Finally, over at FemHype, Jillian has compiled a fantastic reading list of articles concerning diverse representation in games, including a few you may’ve missed on these pages!

Did We Leave Anything Out?

As always, we’re extremely grateful to all who send in their recommendations to us each week, whether by email, mentioning us on Twitter, or whispered into the ears of moths like Gandalf. They all make it to us eventually, and though we can never include everything, these roundups would not be half the resources they are without you!

An announcement! We have six new features heading your way soon — that’s right, six. At least. We had so many great submissions from our recent call for pitches, we just wanted to commission as many as we could! Stay tuned because we’ll be naming the first of these sooner than you think.

Other announcements! You still have a couple days to submit to this month’s Blogs of the Round Table and This Month in Let’s Plays! Be sure to use the respective hashtags #BoRT and #LetsPlayCD when submitting on Twitter.

Critical Distance is proudly funded entirely by readers like you! If you like what you see and want to help fund future features like the ones above, consider pledging a small monthly donation through Patreon!

August 16th

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

Where have all the flowers gone? And if your answer to that is anything but “Oklahoma!” we can never be friends. But that’s enough deep cut references out of me for one opener — let’s move ahead and get going with This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Nasty, Brutish and Short

Robert Rath, famous for his Critical Intel column, appears to have found a new home at Playboy, discussing Call of Duty consultant P.W. Singer’s very FPS-inspired novel Ghost Fleet:

Ghost Fleet is what Call of Duty would be like if it put on a tie and went to Capitol Hill.

And that’s exactly what Singer is doing. The defense establishment has taken keen interest in the book, leading him to make the rounds in Washington. […] The government wants to explore the real-world lessons from Ghost Fleet, with particular focus on how it can avoid the security vulnerabilities the U.S. Navy falls prey to in the novel.

At Science News, Rachel Ehrenberg shares a brief yet fascinating article on Diplomacy the tabletop-turned-online game, which researchers have taken to in order to measure human behavior and ‘tells’ precipitating the game’s characteristic acts of betrayal. While the results are nothing too grand — the researchers found their model could predict when one player was about to betray another 57% of the time — it’s a first tentative toe being dipped into an exciting field of behavioral study in games.

At Offworld, Daniel Starkey speaks bracingly about his childhood living in poverty, in which theft — including piracy of computer games — was one of few avenues open for impoverished youth looking to acquire cultural capital:

Poverty is often cyclical because it traps its victims in intellectual dead zones. We know that without stimulation, without challenge, the mind, like the belly, starves.

I don’t pirate games anymore, and I don’t support pirating games if you can afford to buy them. But when I needed it, piracy gave me hope.

Meanwhile, The Guardian has published a teaser for Simon Parkin’s upcoming book, Death by Video Game, in which he explores the multiple factors behind highly sensationalized cases of players dying after long playing binges. You can preorder a copy of your own on The Guardian’s web store.

We Were Here

At FemHype, Rem calls for more nuanced representation of asexuality in games. Meanwhile, in Aevee Bee’s ZEAL magazine, developer and games educator Robert Yang muses on the way we model bodies in games, in which their dynamism (or possibly, embodiment) is frequently overlooked:

Animations are essentially flipbooks; when we flip through the individual pages or frames quickly, we create the illusion of motion. Computer animation helps automate this process by taking human-authored “keyframe” poses and generating the “in-between” frames, or even entire animation sequences through motion capture. Then game engines loop through these sequences of poses to transform bodies along predictable trajectories. When you walk in a game, you’re basically looping over those same 2 choreographed steps over and over.

What’s totally missing is a logic of transformation. When do our bodies change, and why?

(Content Warning: Yang’s article includes some discussion of sexual topics — and a few gifs which might be considered unsafe for work.)

At Fusion, Patrick Hogan pays a visit to some of the abandoned virtual colleges left over from the Second Life hype train. It’s strangely nostalgic — I actually had a class on Second Life back when I was studying for my bachelors — and that dovetails nicely with our next article, from C.T. Casberg at GameChurch. Commenting on the upcoming Final Fantasy VII remake, Casberg cautions that nostalgia can be a sort of intellectual and spiritual trap:

[C.S. Lewis] writes that other budding loves work much the same way. “In this department of life, as in every other, thrills come at the beginning and do not last. The sort of thrill a boy has at the first idea of flying will not go on when he has joined the R.A.F. and is really learning to fly. The thrill you feel on first seeing some delightful place dies away when you really go on to live there.”

If I may put it in more relevant terms, the thrill you feel the first time you fly the Highwind or breed a Gold Chocobo will not last on subsequent playthroughs. […] If you go out to McDonald’s and no other restaurant because you want to preserve your fond memories of getting a Happy Meal, you’ll miss out on good cuisine. Games are the same way.

Design Notes

At Gamasutra, Bryant Francis has a write-up of an interesting panel held among several games writers at the Writers Guild of America, focused on the trials and tribulations of writing for big budget games. The entire article is full of gems, but this anecdote from Ratchet and Clank writer T.J. Fixman seems to encapsulate a lot:

“I wrote this joke, where Ratchet and Clank are in a ship together and the designers wanted them to fall asleep so they could wake up in a new environment,” he explained. “So this gas comes out, Ratchet goes, ‘ah cryosleep gas, I’m not gonna fall asleep!’ And of course he falls asleep. And Clank says ‘oh it’s good that gas doesn’t work on robots!’ and a boxing glove pops out and knocks him out.”

“[Others on the development team] just started peppering me with, ‘Why is this funny? What Is the joke? Where does this fall in the hero’s journey? Is this the save the cat moment?’ I’m wide-eyed and going ‘I thought, I thought it was funny I’m so sorry.’ That’s what I realized, as a game writer, you think you have this freedom, but you don’t. There are so many constraints and so many moving pieces, and from then on out I was hyper-aware that any time you write anything in a script, that changes the game for 20 different departments.”

In the wake of the release of Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture, Javy Gwaltney goes back and looks at The Chinese Room’s previous two releases, Dear Esther and A Machine for Pigs:

Both A Machine For Pigs and Dear Esther are games that could be described as bleak and no one who’s played them would probably bat an eye. However, it’s interesting that both share a narrative structure usually associated with more optimistic stories. We go on a journey, descending into a literal underground, commonly a symbol of hell and the nastiness that lurks within ourselves, and then take flight at the end of the game, a literal uplifting of each game’s protagonist.

Taking a different tack, Heather Alexandra looks back at the game which formalized the Quick Time Event (QTE), Shenmue (video), and how the game actually deploys the mechanic with a level of nuance and meaning we don’t tend to talk about when we dismiss QTEs as poor design.

Field of View

Unwinnable has reprinted a piece by Jill Scharr, in which she examines a recent trend in games to present a young female companion as a ‘moral compass’ for the male protagonist, and how the second season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead bucks this trend.

Elsewhere, in the latest Memory Insufficient, Zoya Street dips his toe into the small but burgeoning field of idle games, or “games that you don’t play”:

Most idle games invite (but do not require) a small amount of interaction once a day or so: players log in, harvest a resource, invest that resource in something that will boost yield, and then log out again — but by design, all idle games will run with no player action whatsoever. The difference between optimisation and total inaction is not whether or not you reach a particular target, but how quickly: and as with all online games, designers carefully balance the game so that the pace of player progress is predictable and controlled.

Street doesn’t mention the game by name in his piece, but if you want an example of a recent wildly successful “idle game,” have a look at Neko Atsume!

August Never Ends

I don’t want to linger on this one, for obvious reasons. This month has been stressful on many minoritized voices in games already. But, if there’s one piece I’d like to name, it’s this one: on the anniversary of the Hashtag That Must Not Be Named, Zoe Quinn has a look back at the ravages of the past year — but also her many projects since that time.

Dispatches from Vienna

It’s been a while, so let’s catch up with our German correspondent Joe Köller!

At Superlevel, Daniel Ziegener reports back his impressions from the most recent Gamescom. Meanwhile, his colleague Nina Kiel was in attendance at Respawn, one of the periphery events surrounding Gamescom, and has brought back her report as well. You should also be sure to catch the latest entries of her column on sex games, including Cobra Club and Hot Date (Content Warning: some images may be unsafe for work).

“Speaking of rad Ninas,” Joe tells me, Nina Kremser has composed an excellent primer on Let’s Plays and participatory culture for Paidia. And writing for her own blog, Valentina Hirsch covers the German Film Museum’s (currently running!) exhibition on Film and Games.

And Then There Was Silence

Oh my gosh, I swear I didn’t intend for that subheader to happen, it was just the Blind Guardian song that came on as I was writing this. Speaking of German geeks…

Anyway, that’s all I have for you this week! Thank you to the many, many people who sent in their recommendations over Twitter and email — please keep it up! We very much rely on these submissions, in addition to our own website crawling and research.

The August Blogs of the Round Table is still going strong, on the theme of “Nostalgia” — and it’s looking like a popular one, so if you’d like to get involved with #BoRT, now is a great time!

Lastly, and as always: Critical Distance is proud to be supported by you, our readers! If you like what you see and want to help us continue this and our other ongoing features, consider contributing a small monthly donation to our Patreon!

See you next week!

August 9th

August 9th, 2015 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on August 9th)

Ah, yeah, it’s getting to be that time of year. When the heat feels like a damp breath on the back of your neck and the cat is shedding enough fur to produce an entire extra cat.* There’s nothing for it except to stay hydrated — and take a long easy Sunday catching up on some reading. It’s This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Mirrors, Apertures, Doors

At Offworld, Leigh Alexander profiles &maybetheywontkillyou, a game in which players physically don a black hoodie and navigate a system of racist microagressions and capricious law enforcement.

Meanwhile, FemHype had a stand-out selection of writing this past week from three aptly alliterative authors. First, Sloane looks to Dontnod’s Life is Strange as a queer coming of age story. Next, Sylvia returns to Dragon Age II as a tale of immigrants and (resistance to) assimilation. Lastly, Sheva delivers the results of a recently conducted survey with more than 3,500 transgender and non-binary players on their experiences in a frequently hostile space.

A Host Image

Mark J. Nelson digs into the patent filing for Tapper, the 1983 arcade game. The document seems to veer from dense technical language to machine poetry:

[I]n my opinion, this exercise in describing gameplay through the lens of patent structure ends up being very interesting. It’s inadvertently carrying out a really detailed formalist analysis of the videogame, which sheds light on it from several angles. Especially interesting is that, while very detailed, it also has a strong push towards abstraction and generalization. The format requires it to remain at the level of prose description and diagrams, not the game’s source code or circuitboards. The need for a patent to describe a general invention rather than just a specific game contributes to this abstraction push, not least resulting in the excellent title, worth repeating: “Video game in which a host image repels ravenous images by serving filled vessels”.

At PopMatters Moving Pixels, Scott Juster has a look at the database structure of Her Story from a historical technological perspective and concludes the game “presents something that looks like the 1990s, but it only contains a small portion of the rules that governed that world.”

At Paste, Suriel Vazquez chronicles the (ongoing) push by a popular arcade to establish itself in a new community, amidst resistance from older residents and stereotypes concerning the arcade’s image and clientele. I have some issues with the delivery of this article — it could benefit quite a lot from including a bibliography at the end — but it does cast a spotlight on the fighting game community’s efforts to improve its image.

And shifting from real-world money matters to the digital, at Fiery Screens, Yussef Cole has been dispatching military deserters in The Witcher 3, noting how humans are, paradoxically, often the greatest source of cash for the game’s titular supernatural exterminator.

Against the Stream

Writing for her own website, Critical Distance’s own Lana Polansky writes lucidly on why the design philosophy of ‘flow’ acts as “a kind of ideological container”:

“Flow” evokes a certain set of aesthetics — minimalism is readily apparent, but so are certain articulations of soft futurism, New Age-y transcendentalism, and a variety of naturalistic modernist approaches. We think of water. We think of the cosmos. We think of pure mathematics. On the other hand, it works as basically synonymous for the kind of “escapism” offered in so many F2P games, and the kind of intense, aggressive focus (or “immersion”) demanded of many “core” AAA games. Flow works both as the desired affective experience for most games, as well as an aesthetic container. How fortuitous that it finds its root not in any specific heritage of art, but in psychology.

Fellow Critical Distance contributor Cameron Kunzelman expands on Polansky’s remarks in a response piece of his own, concluding:

[W]e need new models, new ways of thinking, and not just those that come into being through the measurement of response time and the amount of sweat a player produces when shooting enemies.

Responding to both posts, Heather Alexandra of Trans Gamer Thoughts offers her own take on the sort of vocabulary stalemate we find ourselves in, and lends this memorable paraphrase from the world of improv: “The Game says ‘Yes’. The Player says ‘And.'”

Links of Interest

At Normally Rascal, Stephen Beirne has compiled a list of Irish game developers, critics, websites and conventions, in a bid to highlight their contributions.

Speaking of Stephen Beirne, he appears in the latest issue of Five Out of Ten magazine is out now, which is now up for sale. Be sure to check out the newest Unwinnable Weekly too!

Good day, good day, good day

Thanks for reading! As always, Critical Distance would not be half the site it is without your links and recommendations, so please keep sending them in over email and by mentioning us on Twitter!

The August Blogs of the Round Table theme is here, focusing on nostalgia — a salient topic for the current month, if you’ve been waiting to contribute.

Also, a bit of signal-boosting: Ontological Geek has put out a call for articles for its upcoming theme month devoted to mental health in and around games.

If you enjoy these roundups as well as our other features, remember that we are reader-supported through Patreon and welcome your donation!

*Except our Australian contingent, for whom ‘Summer Valvemas’ is really just ‘Valvemas.’