Author Archives: Kris Ligman

About Kris Ligman

Senior curator for Critical Distance.

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.’

August 2nd

August 2nd, 2015 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on August 2nd)

Good morning, Sunday readers! I think it’s morning. Yes? Technically. Like my cat I have lost all sense of time except dawn and dusk.

But enough of my crepuscular hunting patterns, it’s time for This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Academic Rigor

Skepchick’s Rebecca Watson parses the data (video) on a recently released study, which suggested that men who harass women in online games tend to be unskilled players. Watson’s conclusion? It’s a little more complicated than that, and could certainly benefit from a larger, more nuanced dataset.

Elsewhere, the newest issue of Game Studies has just been released. Choice picks: Nicholas Taylor, Chris Kampe and Kristina Bell tackle identification and The Walking Dead and Krista Bonello Rutter Giappone pokes at humor in classic LucasArts adventure games.

Game Studies has also released a call for papers on intersections of games and warfare for its upcoming special issue. Games scholars, take note!

You’re Tearing Me Apart, Lisa!

Here’s a game genre we don’t see much discussion on: real-life room escape games, and tips for designing your own. It’s a simple concept open to a great deal of innovation and seems to be a burgeoning field, especially in China! As the article’s author, Adam Clare, puts so succinctly: “Don’t underestimate the determination of people to leave a room.”

Elsewhere, however, Luke Pullen makes a case for why sometimes, staying put is the better option, rather than braving the nearest ‘great outdoors':

It’s all very well to speak disparagingly of escapism, with the (completely accurate) implication that there is a grand world out there to be explored if only you could put down the controller and confront your fears. But what happens when you feel that meatspace actively rejects you? When the physical environment is so relentlessly hostile — physically, psychologically, economically — falling into oneself is easy.

Not all games are attractive for their sublime vistas, however. The infamous hallway central to Konami’s pulled P.T. demo game, for example, is memorable for other reasons — enough that lone developer Farhan Qureshi went and remade it top-to-bottom in the Unity engine, in a bid to preserve its legacy.

And Errant Signal’s Chris Franklin brings us full circle (hah) in this section, in his dissection of The Magic Circle (video). Here, Franklin has a look at The Magic Circle as being less “a game about games” and more “a game about game developers,” and in particular how its thematic through-line of challenging designer constraints is undercut by the game’s post-story ‘build mode.’

Beyond ‘Cool Japan’

George Weidman has put together an admirable analysis (video) attempting to iron out some of the confusion surrounding Shenmue 3‘s Kickstarter and the game’s financial relationship with publisher/partner Sony. If your eyes start to glaze over halfway in… well, that’s exactly Weidman’s point: Shenmue 3‘s PR handling is an obtuse mess, he argues, a combination of underpreparedness, language awkwardness, and poor transparency.

At Kill Screen, Savannah Tanbusch explores why so few games are set within Japan’s Meiji era, a period of Westernization and sociopolitical unrest. One upcoming game set in that period that Tanbusch highlights, and which I’m personally looking forward to: Dai Gyakuten Saiban, a prequel to the Ace Attorney series (and one which hopefully will see a Western release).

At Ludus Novus, Gregory Avery-Weir muses on how popular ‘cat gathering sim’ Neko Atsume is itself a little bit catlike:

[N]othing happens when you’re paying attention to it. There’s no juicy reward, no timers counting down. You have to close the app and return in order to see if cats have shown up. It doesn’t even issue push notifications to let you know when something happens. You must remember the game and choose to check on it to see any progress […] It’s almost shocking how little the game pushes itself on you.

At Normally Rascal, Stephen Beirne pauses to reflect on the contemplative patience of Metal Gear Solid‘s codec calls:

If we want to be sensible we could say it’s just a videogame thing. It could easily be like Dark Souls where the ‘real’ gameworld keeps ticking while we browse our menus, so players always stand the chance of being mobbed while they’re trying on new shoes. That works well within the cosmology of Dark Souls and we accept it. Metal Gear Solid is quite un-Dark Souls cosmologically, however, so if we say everything freezes just so players don’t fume when Snake gets gunned down during another bloody mandatory codec call, that’s fine and grand. But since MGS is a romantic game, let’s ourselves be romantic for a minute in considering what role the codec plays, what functions it fulfils, and what knowledge it imparts.

Relevant to the above, at Starts With a Fish, Rik Davnall ruminates on the etymology of the term “world” (literally: “age of man”) and how certain games, Japanese and not, dilate time as part of their internal realities.

Lorem Ipsum

Looking for a great critical video series to crowdfund, one which is already producing factual, incisive work? Not Your Mama’s Gamer’s Invisibility Blues is in the final week of their project’s Kickstarter, and they’ve just released a fantastic ‘proof of concept’ video on the type of analysis we can expect out of the video series.

(I’m sure this section header is not referring to anything in particular.)

Last One Out, Get the Lights

Remember that you can always send in your own recommendations by email or by mentioning us on Twitter! And yes, you are welcome to submit your own work, or even better, the work of a colleague who might be too shy to do so themselves!

We’ve wrapped up our July Blogs of the Round Table theme, so please have a look at what our community has written! Our August prompt will be headed your way soon.

Many thanks to everyone who sent us a pitch for a Critical Compilation or Spotlight! The submission window is now closed. The advisory board and I will be going through all pitches and announcing the first commissioned features soon.

And finally, as always: Critical Distance is able to take the time to gather, curate and produce these features thanks to readers like you. If you enjoy what you see, consider contributing to our Patreon! We’d really appreciate it.

Until next time, a– no, go to sleep, kitty, dawn isn’t for another three hours, let me live

July 26th

July 26th, 2015 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on July 26th)

Ah, July’s all but over. It seems like just yesterday my neighbors were popping firecrackers on our drought-parched lawns… no, wait, they’re still going, nevermind.

Anyway. My neighbors’ dubious fire safety standards aside, let’s get right to it with a brand, sparkling new This Week in Videogame Blogging!

At the Crossroads

The good folks at Medievalists have shared coverage of a recent conference talk by University of Leeds PhD candidate Victoria Leeds, concerning the overlap between the medieval/quasi-medieval imagery of games like Skyrim and their embrace by white nationalists.

Meanwhile, History Respawned co-host John Harney speaks with Boston University’s Dr. Renata Keller on Tropico 5 (video) and the backdrop of US, Cuban and Caribbean politics which inform the game. And in painting a portrait of Middle-Eastern gamers enamored with American military shooters, Offworld’s Maxwell Neely-Cohen muses on the gulf between real war and its refactoring as entertainment:

It’s a strange contradiction. Militaries, governments, and armed groups recognize the power of the medium, and throw money into it, when the very medium could be limiting their ability to mobilize force and attract willing participants.

‘Keep Your Politics Out of My Games’

At Kill Screen, Matt Margini offers up an enjoyable scathing review of prepackaged nostalgia blockbuster Pixels, criticizing its regressive sexual politics and male nerd aggrandizement:

This is not a movie that builds up to the revelation that these slob-nerds who ruled the ‘cade in 1982 — Sandler, James, plus Josh Gad and Peter Dinklage — ought to rule the world in 2015. Let me reiterate: Kevin James is already President. There is no persecution. There is almost no opposition from the camp of “traditional masculinity,” save some disgruntled barks […] Almost the entire movie is a seamless, uninterrupted handjob for the small group of chubby (sic) white men whose skillset is demanded by the aliens. Everything revolves around them, everything confirms their worldview, and everything rewards them.

A short-but-sweet piece, in Gamasutra’s Member Blogs Nicholas Lovell points out how a particular mechanic in Fallout Shelter reinforces cultural attitudes about women in combat. Likewise, Kotaku UK’s Nathan Ditum notes certain continuities between EA developer remarks on the inclusion of women players in FIFA 16 and systemic sexist attitudes:

EA has clearly taken pains not just to include women’s football, but to do it well. There is a sense both in Channon’s fraught rhetoric (“If we don’t get it right…”) and in the predictable hostility triggered by the announcement trailer itself that extra scrutiny will be applied to the women’s game in FIFA 16. It can’t just be there, it has to be beyond obvious reproach. The standard, in other words, is higher for women than for men — men belong in this world, and women are new, optional arrivals.

(Content Warning: both of the above articles include some cisnormative language.)

Design Notes

At Eurogamer, Christian Donlan looks to Her Story and another recent independent title, Lifeline, for the personal relationships they build with their players. Meanwhile, at Paste, Mark R. Johnson has elected to mark the 35th anniversary of Rogue with a lucid explanation of the roguelike genre and its modern descendants.

Here’s a three-hit combo from Gamasutra’s developer blogs, the first from game composer Winifred Phillips who wonders if it can really be argued that all players are musicians — and points to a few titles where they at least come close. With an eye to gameplay, Matthew Jenkin asks his fellow developers if, in seeking to address a ‘bad’ player behavior (like save scumming or “turtling”), they aren’t in fact creating a worse problem. And lastly, Deus Ex designer and amiable uncle-type Warren Spector has made his Gamasutra Expert Blog debut with a friendly ramble on why Telltale’s games may not meet his definition of “game,” but they’re no less magic.

There’s a China Doll in the Bullpen

Developer Richard Rouse III argues that both game developers and games journalists fetishize the practice of crunch, to dangerous effect:

In the worst cases our tendency to fetishize and brag about overwork allows teams to be exploited by predatory management practices, like unscoped feature creep or substantial changes in direction without adding time or budget to the project. Obviously overwork to make up for bad planning should (and often is) seen as a failure. But that overwork is partly made possible by our industry’s acceptance of overtime as “what it takes.” […] Once you start thinking that way, people will take advantage of it.

At The New Inquiry, Bea Malsky looks to how casual games such as Kim Kardashian: Hollywood and Diner Dash teach the player to view often-invisible “women’s work” as real labor under capitalism:

When Silvia Federici wrote Wages against Housework, she wasn’t calling for hourly wages for housewives as an end in itself, and this is key — she wanted recognition of housework as labor specifically to bring it into the realm of things that can be refused and revolted against. To radically reorganize affection, love, and care in the labor market is no simple task, and Diner Dash and Kim Kardashian: Hollywood certainly offer no solutions. What they do offer is a first suggestion, incredible in its existence on a mass-market scale: to make affective labor count, to think critically about our fraught relationships with our work, and to playfully reimagine what might be.

And back on Gamasutra’s blogs, industry veteran Robert Fearon warns against the frequent revisionist history implicit in “doom-mongering” about an imminent industry crash:

The history of selling videogames is a history ignored, it’s a story written in the now by those successful in selling videogames.

We’re screwed, sure. That’s not because selling videogames in 2015 is screwed it’s because selling anything in any year is screwed and really hard. Rising above that is hard and always will be because the landscape is always shifting.

The Hashtag That Shall Not Be Named

Ian Danskin — who previously released this well-traveled video on the cult of ‘hatedom’ around developer Phil Fish — has released a new, six-part video series attempting to pin down some of the interleaving cultural forces boiling beneath the harassment of Anita Sarkeesian and many other women and people of color (Content Warning: some ableist commentary in part 3, as well as discussion of sexist and racist harassment and slurs).

An Arkham Knight to Remember

At As Houses, Leigh Harrison laments a recent patch for The Witcher 3, small as it may appear, which undercuts some of the game’s important motifs.

In a similar vein, Giant Bomb’s Austin Walker despairs the depopulated city streets of Batman: Arkham Knight, arguing that the urban throngs of these superhero narratives are central to their themes:

[S]uperheroes symbolically fill the gaps that we fear that our infrastructure, no matter how well designed and managed, cannot. They save us from burning buildings, they protect our museums, they pull us from floods, they prevent the power plant from exploding, they stop ricocheting bullets from killing innocents, they help troubled kids to get out of shitty life situations. Superheroes sometimes even emerge directly from these anxieties — from the violence or infrastructural failure. […] [T]his is why I want to see Gotham alive with people and culture and museums and parties and schools and celebrations and life. Because superhero stories make the most sense to me when the promises of their cities are made clear. The promise is vital, and [developer] Rocksteady’s Gotham promises nothing.

PopMatters Moving Pixels’ Jorge Albor echoes the sentiment, contending that without an active Gotham City, its drama seems unmoored:

Gotham is burning [in] Arkham Knight, but what kindles its fires? Batman protects “Gotham’s money” from Two-face and his gang, but from where does that money flow? The Penguin smuggles in guns, but to what end? Chinatown is a major landmark, but a city devoid of citizens is a city without its defining racial politics. Bruce Wayne warns Poison Ivy that without her help, every plant in the city will die, but where are Gotham’s parks? […] What is Gotham city? It is a simplified movie set and I am a tired actor.

Tune in Next Time, Same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel…

Readers, want to know a (badly kept) secret? These roundups are at their best when we receive submissions and recommendations from you! If you’ve written, vlogged, or podcasted something interesting, or have come across something in that vein you think would fit on these pages, drop us a line by email or by mentioning us on Twitter!

There is still a little time left to submit to July’s Blogs of the Round Table prompt, “Pure Fun,” and our This Month in Let’s Plays feature too!

Oh! And remember: August 1st is the deadline to submit your pitches for Critical Compilations and Spotlights. That’s this Saturday!

Critical Distance is proud to be funded entirely by its readership. If you enjoy these features and want to support more like them, please consider pledging to our Patreon!

July 19th

July 19th, 2015 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on July 19th)

Readers, how has your week been treating you? Because I watched all of Steven Universe, and now, I am full of emotions.

Enough about me, though. Let’s get this fusion dance started, combining your gem and mine to form This Week in Videogame Blogging!

The Great Balloon Fight in the Sky

The past week saw the untimely passing of Nintendo president and CEO Satoru Iwata, a celebrated game developer as well as an industry leader. It would be impossible to collect all the various written, visual and auditory tributes that have emerged in response to this news, but here are a few highlights you shouldn’t miss.

First, Gamasutra wisely took the opportunity to repost the video from Iwata’s frequently-quoted “Heart of a Gamer” speech, delivered as a keynote at the 2005 Game Developers Conference. Additionally, Gamasutra’s Christian Nutt took an extended dive through past interviews and articles on the man, coming away with an enriched understanding of Iwata’s personal and professional philosophy.

Iwata’s long-time friend and Earthbound developer Shigesato Itoi also posted an emotional eulogy noting his passing, an unofficial translation of which you can find here provided by Yomuka’s Lindsay. And lastly (but certainly not least), Videodame’s Sara Clemens rounds up various fanart and animated tributes commemorating Iwata and his work. Bring tissues.

Light Fades

On her personal blog, games critic cum history professor Maggie Greene shares a eulogy of another sort — that for the ephemeral pieces of games writing that have been irretrievably lost, including some of personal significance. “There is no JSTOR of old games writing,” notes. And maybe there should be.

‘My Medium is Light’

Buck up — we’ve got plenty more to read through yet this Sunday, and much of it is optimistic. At Kill Screen, Tim Mulkerin draws parallels between videogames and photography’s struggle for legitimacy within the art world, concluding:

Rather than blast games for attempting to emulate film, we should realize that the imitation of an established medium, regardless of the perceived success with which this is done, is a vital step for any new medium to take as it carves its own space and earns the respect it deserves.

Or, in short: growing pains. Likewise, in a continuation on his series of essays for Videogame Tourism on in-game photography, Eron Rauch also looks to precedents laid out in the art world:

To understand that virtual photography is used in so many different ways by so many different people is important because it ties directly into the entire history of photography. After all, the history of photography is primarily a story of exceptions, mutants, technological quirks, mistakes, and hybrids. 100 years ago most people, museums, and artists didn’t even consider any photography art. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the first commercial galleries showing photography started up, and even then color photography was considered anything but valid! The various tensions around virtual and screenshot imagery […] seems like just one more step along the road of photography’s fraught story.

That Ever-Important Choice

While echoing an older article on the subject, PC Gamer’s Jody Macgregor argues that, rather than presenting big narrative choices, Telltale’s games can be seen as responding to and in some cases inverting the themes of their source properties (with a quick caution for spoilers):

The comic book The Walking Dead is based on is overt about its theme. At the end of issue 24 Rick Grimes delivers a speech making it very plain, saying “we already are savages” and then, shouting over a two-page spread, “WE ARE THE WALKING DEAD.” It’s classic Man Is The Real Monster stuff, fitting for a grim series where survivors betray each other constantly. Telltale’s game gives you the option of choosing a different interpretation. Lee doesn’t have to become hardened by being forced to make hard decisions; he can maintain his belief in human nature and then pass that on to Clem. He dies no matter what, but whether he dies with words of warning or compassion on his lips — whether this is a story about hope or fear — is up to you.

At his development blog, designer and educator Robert Yang takes a close look at Klei’s Invisible Inc. and how the game diverges from other offerings of the stealth genre:

In a way, Invisible Inc. is one of the few video games about global warming. Here, failure is not a state, because that would be too easy. Instead, failure is the slow glacial process of watching your loved ones drown. You can always lose more. Unlike every other stealth game, slow and patient observation usually means slowly suffocating death here.

The Grab Bag

You know I try to organize these as neatly as possible, but well — sometimes pieces are each so uniquely marvelous they can only stand beside other marvelous pieces.

Take Gita Jackson’s latest column at Paste, in which she discusses how the costuming of Dishonored acts subtly as a form of worldbuilding. Elsewhere, Rebekah Valentine and Michael “Sparky” Clarkson have concluded a six-part letter series on GameCube RPG Baten Kaitos. And on Gamasutra’s Member Blogs, Dave Voyles has been blogging his progress in ripping SegaCD classic Night Trap to play in HTML5.

Also on Gamasutra, Wai Yen Tang shares the results to a follow-up of a 2013 study on reactions to feminine voices in online first-person shooter matches. Take the evolutionary psych stuff with a huge grain of salt and go straight down to the numbers instead.

Lastly and certainly not related to any of the above, hey, there’s a Stephen Colbert Twine game now. It’s amazing.

That’s a Wrap

Thanks for reading! As always, we appreciate your recommendations by email and Twitter mention — so please keep sending them in!

There is still time to get involved in July’s Blogs of the Round Table theme, “Pure Fun.” And if you’re of a critical Let’s Playing mind, be sure to submit something to our This Month in Let’s Plays roundup!

We’re still accepting pitches for features as well! Your deadline is August 1st, so please send those in soon!

Critical Distance is funded completely by its readership. If you enjoy features like these and want to help us continue to grow, consider pledging to our Patreon!

July 12th

July 12th, 2015 | Posted by Kris Ligman in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on July 12th)

Another short one for you this week, folks. But I promise you that every one of these is a prime cut. Let’s dive right in: it’s This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Too Hard to Animate

(Content Warning: the articles in this section discuss topics including mental illness, homophobia and suicide.)

At Link Saves Zelda, Kelly Flatley expresses disappointment with recent developer comments on the upcoming Rise of the Tomb Raider, which has seemingly shied away from depicting its protagonist’s PTSD:

My point here is that this development team had the groundwork laid out for them from a previous game, a comic series and a novel to make Lara Croft a character that brings to light the fact that we can suffer from these disorders yet still come out on top, still be powerful, humanistic characters with depth and agency. […] Ignoring that Lara Croft suffers from such a condition in Rise of the Tomb Raider is something that I think is only being done due to a reluctance to tackle such a delicate issue.

Switching gears to representations of sexuality, the recent revelation that the latest installment of the Fire Emblem roleplaying games includes what has been called magical gay conversion therapy has inspired heated discussion. And while there are some debates about the accuracy of the translations being referenced, what is more at issue here is how members of the press have talked about the game and its alleged context as a Japanese cultural product. From games scholar Todd Harper:

So we should back off from aggressive critique of something, because [it’s from] Japan? No. If they’re gonna sell this in the US, it’s an issue, and frankly discussing it now, while the game is still being localized for its 2016 release, is the time to bring it up. Localization is the time when this stuff could change for US audiences, when Nintendo could be truly global in scope and recognize that the morality of their audiences abroad might not be the same, and might require a different approach. I say this because if the situation were reversed, there’d be every expectation that a US content creator would change their content for the global market. Why is Japan immune somehow?

It should be noted (as Harper does elsewhere in his piece) that US exported games do indeed often tailor their content for international audiences, so what is being proposed here is in no way unreasonable — at least, no more unreasonable than the localization hoops countless games go through already.

Meanwhile, developer Damion Schubert responds to the assertion that criticizing this aspect of the game boils down to imposing a Western set of values:

The problem isn’t that this feature mirrors Western Conversion Therapy. It’s that Western Conversion Therapy has shown us how wretched and abusive the idea [is] that gay is something that is broken, and needs to be fixed. This is a dangerous idea that feeds directly into the epidemic of suicide that plagues LGBT youth. […] [I]t behooves game developers who actually claim to give a shit about the issue to be much more careful about the stories they tell.

Keeping the lens on Nintendo, in the latest issue of Memory Insufficient Ness Io Kain highlights how seemingly innocuous reinforcement of gendered norms in Nintendo games like Animal Crossing: New Leaf can actually replicate the day-to-day microaggressions Kain experiences:

Ordinarily, creating an avatar and dressing it as you wish is a pretty cool aspect of video games for transgender people. You say you’re a woman or a man and the game treats you accordingly with no qualms or qualifications. Many trans authors like Katherine Cross and Jessica Janiuk have written extensively about how powerful video games have been in helping them become comfortable with their genders. However, the eerie similarity of the comments Animal Crossing characters make about gender to real-life daily dismissals of trans identities cheapens this. These comments force the idea that gender is a rigidly structured concept, and this is harmful for all kinds of people, especially people who, like me, don’t necessarily identify as one binary gender or another.

We already feel like the world wasn’t built for us. Video games offer the promise of a world that is built for you, no matter who you are, and Animal Crossing puts special emphasis on this. But it fails to deliver on that promise.

(End content warning section.)

Truth to Power

(Content Warning: the articles in this section deal with sexism, abuse and harassment.)

Let’s shift gears here to talking about how some recent games have resonated positively with players. At Go Make Me A Sandwich, wundergeek looks to how Dontnod’s Life is Strange handles sexist power dynamics and bullying:

[Life is Strange] portrays sexism as a reality of navigating the world as a woman without ever shying away from the terrible emotional damage that that reality creates. […] Max, as the protagonist, finds herself the lone woman in an office full of powerful men who are demanding that she tell the truth about what happened, while also clearly conveying the subtext that doing so is clearly against Max’s own best interests. Which is some powerful shit, right there.

Elsewhere, foremost interactive fiction author Emily Short shares some extended ruminations on Her Story, some of it about the game’s roots in Gothic literature, but chiefly about how its themes of duality and self-presentation is personally meaningful to her as a developer and academic:

So what truth did I see in all this? I think: the social mutability of self, which is something that everyone inevitably experiences. It has been especially present in my life the past few years. I travel more and have increasingly non-overlapping social circles […] [I]t’s really really hard not to feel like there’s some way that I am different. As though I turn into someone else in the moment that I’m recognized, and both the before and the after person are uncomfortable and not me.

(End content warning section.)

Constructing Narrative

At Virtual Narrative, Justin Keever performs a heady analysis of Desert Golfing, concluding it’s more conventional than it at first appears.

Meanwhile, at Kill Screen, Hieu Chau takes a look at the videogames that have been made based on pro wrestling and contends that most of them have missed the point:

Professional wrestling isn’t about showing who the stronger competitor is. Fundamentally speaking, it’s about putting on a good show for an audience through a wrestler’s specific skill set [and to] document drama, put on a spectacle for the audience and develop a character within the ring.

[…] What makes other sports simulators work is that, like the actual sport they are based on, results aren’t pre-determined in order to progress stories or characters, and the major moments within a match — the ones that get an audience really fired up — aren’t planned in advance in order to get spectators to react the way they want. […] Wrestlers, on the other hand, absolutely need to engage with the audience, because it feeds into their characters and into their overall psychologies.

Lastly, Oxford Magazine — a publication oriented around the American South — has a great feature on Pac-Man world champion (and King of Kong ‘heel’) Billy Mitchell. David Ramsey’s accessible writing is a fantastic illustration of just how relevant non-games-specific publications are to talking about games. For example:

The game’s four ghosts, charged with tracking down and “killing” Ms. Pac-Man, are hopelessly overmatched. Mitchell taunts and teases his pursuers, leading them into harmless circles, grouping them together and pulling them apart with such exact command that it almost seems that some flaw in the wiring has given his joystick direct control of the bad guys.

Golfing legend Bobby Jones famously said of the young Jack Nicklaus, “He plays a game with which I am not familiar.” Ms. Pac-Man is my favorite video game. I am a well-above-average player, I have at certain times in my life obsessively devoted so many hours to it that I played out scenarios in my sleep, and I have observed hundreds of people play the game. I have never seen anyone play like this.

“See?” Mitchell says, fluidly guiding Ms. Pac-Man through the maze. “Absolute control. I’ve eliminated the mad (sic), scattering chase. That’s probably how they intended the game to be played, running around out of control. But that’s not how I play.”

Can’t Stop the Signal

I leave you with a bit of signal boosting for this great project in need of your support, brought to you by the folks at Not Your Mama’s Gamer. Samantha Blackmon and her crew are gearing up to produce a video series on race and representation in games — a vastly underserved subject and one that the NYMG’s crew is well qualified to tackle.

Footer Business

Thank you once again for reading! As always, we welcome your recommendations by email or by mentioning us on Twitter.

Did you know we’ve opened a call for feature pitches? We’ve opened a call for feature pitches! If you’ve enjoyed our past Critical Compilations and Spotlights, this is an excellent opportunity to lend your own curatorial hand and share something you’re passionate about.

Also: we’re compiling a new list of games-related and -adjacent publications which welcome unsolicited queries. If you help run such a site, get in touch with us so we can add you!

The July Blogs of the Round Table is still taking your submissions as well, and don’t forget to send any interesting critical Let’s Plays our way for our This Month in Let’s Plays roundups!

“Gee, Critical Distance sure has a lot going on lately,” you’re no doubt saying. It’s true! All of these projects are due to the ongoing support from our fantastic readers. If you like what you see and want to help us bring about even more great regular features, consider pledging a small monthly donation through our Patreon!

Call for Feature Pitches

July 7th, 2015 | Posted by Kris Ligman in Announcement: - (Comments Off on Call for Feature Pitches)

Hey folks! After some delays, we’re excited to reopen our call for pitches for two of our popular recurring features: Spotlights and Critical Compilations!

Spotlights focus on particular writers, themes, or aspects of design, such as Hamish Todd’s guest feature on level design analysis. Critical Compilations are specific to particular titles and seek to cover the breadth of critical blogging, vlogging, podcasting, etc about their subject, such as Rollin Bishop’s compilation on Dragon Age II.

As a reminder, these are paid features, not volunteer submissions. Accepted pitches will be paid a flat rate upon publication and our feature spots are open to all writers, whether you’ve contributed to Critical Distance in the past or not. Those interested in pitching for one of these two formats are encouraged to submit their pitches by email.

The deadline for pitches is August 1st. All submissions will be reviewed by our senior curator and our advisory board, after which accepted authors will be contacted via email.

These features are made possible thanks to our generous Patreon supporters! If you want to help fund this and future features at Critical Distance, consider signing up for a small monthly donation!

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!

Did you know we have a Facebook page too? We totally do, and you should totally Like it.

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!