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.

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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!

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July 5th

July 5th, 2015 | Posted by Mark Filipowich in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on July 5th)

To those to whom it applies, I hope you had a festive patriotic celebration day filled with controlled explosives and various grilled meats. Now that another Sunday has come, let’s all settle into our national pride with another This Week in Video Game Blogging!

Binders Full of Stories

Sam Barlow’s Her Story is the subject of a number of pieces this week. Kimberley Wallace’s interview with the creator about the process of creating it for Game Informer seems like a good place to start.

Over at Not Your Mama’s Gamer, Alisha Karabinus describes her own experience with the game’s many Layers of Identity and Meaning:

In any narrative experience touted as a detective game, players and potential players might make a few assumptions, the first being that they’ll be playing as a detective. Early on in Her Story, players who poke around the interface might discover this isn’t quite the case. Once that initial assumption was broken, I found myself questioning everything in the game, and I don’t just mean in terms of narrative. We’re supposed to question everything said in the interviews, I think, but very early on, I began to question things on wholly different levels.

Christian Donlan seems to agree, praising how the mystery story plays with its sequence of events:

[I]ts searchable, hypertextual jumbling of its own narrative feels unique and timely and eminently nickable. As does the fact that simply putting the story together is enough here: most of the play that takes place in Her Story happens in your own head as you reconstruct the events and try to interpret them.

Of course, praise for Her Story is not universal. Ed Smith argues that it follows detective fiction’s tradition of unrealistically romanticizing crime and criminals:

There is a crime being committed in Her Story, but it isn’t Hannah’s. It’s that of yet another crime fiction writer, conflating melodrama with found-footage, documentary, or any otherwise “real” aesthetic, and in doing so helping affirm the idea that society should lock up its criminals and throw away the key.

Give Peace a Chance

Rock, Paper, Shotgun writer Marsh Davis revisits Deus Ex: Human Revolutions to discuss how it and games in general promote an oxymoronic relationship to power (video), where the player both holds all the power but is framed as an oppressed person.

At Vorpal Bunny Ranch Dennis Farr seems to agree in his analysis of Marvel Heroes 2015. While Marvel has recently diversified its canon, games based on its universe still fail to accurately represent power dynamics:

Part of what seems to make the mutants, and the X-Men in particular, so appealing is their use of their powers and fighting a struggle that they always seem to surmount (not without casualties). This makes most games about them into a power fantasy, though the minority status is relegated to barks from enemies calling them less than human.

Writing for FemHype, Sheva believes that the constant use of violence stems from the association between violence and masculinity. The author argues that violent masculinity is at the core of how gamers define games:

Refusing to classify non-violent video games as video games is an act founded in masculine insecurity, and it not only discourages innovation in the medium, but also disqualifies innovative new games from inclusion in the medium.

Lastly, Michaël Samyn of Tale of Tales implores that violence begets violence in writing that violent videogames and violent culture are a self-perpetuating spiral that developers and players are all too willing to ignore:

I’m sure there’s enough studies that disprove the correlation between violent games and violent behavior to allow us to stick our heads in the sand and pretend that we’re not responsible, that we have no idea, that “Wow isn’t this a weird coincidence? There’s violent games and there’s violent gamers and the two are completely unrelated. What are the odds?”

Learning to Let Go

In response to the news that Tale of Tales will be leaving games Gita Jackson compares the studio’s departure with her search for a new apartment in her column for Paste. Although failing to land the perfect outcome is disappointing, sometimes success just isn’t in the cards:

Sometimes continuing to fight when you’re bloodied and broken isn’t about tenacity, but about your own ego. If Tale of Tales had plunged themselves even deeper into debt despite the commercial failure of Sunset, well, what would they have done? How would that have benefitted them? How would that have benefitted us, the people who participate in the culture they hoped to influence?

Meanwhile, Omar Elaasar explains his frustration with fetishizing difficulty. According to Elaasar, too many gamers treat accessibility as a failure:

Fugitive is not the problem. Mega Man is not the problem. Rather the problem lives in our expectation that everyone can, and should, be able to push past these frustrations and continue.

Rethinking Design

Simon Parkin’s interview with long time developer Keiji Inafune for Eurogamer covers a gamut of how Japanese and western developers have historically treated game design. Inafune’s experience with both gives him valuable insight into the strengths and limitations of both.

Over at Gamasutra, Raph Koster explores the ways that players use “compulsion loops some might term addictive” to meet an unfulfilled need in their everyday lives. Koster explores some of the ways developers can use these loops to the benefit, not the exploitation of their players’ psychology.

Writing for her blog, Alternate Ending, Mattie Brice shares her notes and conclusions on a game jam based on creating drinking games:

I was fascinated with the less mechanistic reasons we drink, like for getting to know each other. Games like Never Have I Ever also let people get to know each other, typically with things we wouldn’t readily admit. And that’s an aspect of our culture that I wished to prod, that we often use alcohol in order to be vulnerable, to admit and share things, or to do risky behavior. What kinds of games could we make around that?

If You Look Really Closely What Do You See?

Heather Alexandra did not expect to find much more in Arkham Knight than a goofy action game, yet it caused her to reflect deeply on her fear of death:

Arkham Knight speaks to me in a way I’d never imagine. I thought it was infertile ground. A bit of AAA shlock for me to enjoy. Beating up bad guys, enjoying a sweeping plot, zipping about Gotham. Bam! Pow! Biff! But it isn’t. It reminds me of everything that I fear the most.

Back at FemHype, Ashe Samuels takes a retrospective look at Spyro the Dragon and lauds how perfectly it captured her childhood imagination:

Rather than telling, the games shows you while you play: just like being a kid, the world little Spyro is in is enormous, mysterious, gorgeous, and dangerous all at once. It’s an effective and relatable visual narration that runs through the veins of this deceptively simple game

Lastly, David Shimomura pens a piece on the body politics of the Metal Gear Solid series for Kill Screen.

‘Murica

Vice writer Corey Milne disagrees that there are too many games about the Second World War, rather Video Games Have Sapped the Spirit Out of World War II by focusing too much on a few events from only a few perspectives,

But it needn’t be so, as there are multitudes of stories that have never received any attention. The role of Indian troops has never really been covered. We’ve never had to survive the Dunkirk evacuation. China’s retaliation against the Japanese is ripe for exploration, or you could even take the bold step to present the war through Axis eyes.

Stephen Beirne, meanwhile, argues for more nuance from game critics when discussing prejudice and representation. In looking at Irish Travellers, an indigenous ethnicity in Ireland that faces a number of institutional prejudices. For Beirne, the discussion loses something lose something when focusing purely on American perspectives and as critics we need to appreciate the complexity of intergroup relations.

&c &c

Clayton Purdom pens this excellent piece for Kill Screen about Cats, The Internet, and You with special focus on Catlateral Damage.

At Curbed, an architecture magazine, Alexandra Lange speaks with Neil McFarlane, director of games for Monument Valley developer, UsTwo about the architectural inspirations of the game. The article analyses the game’s design from an architect’s perspective, offering a rarely represented view of games:

When McFarland talks about the user experience of the game—no secrets, no time limit, no alternate routes, and no reading—he could also be talking about the user experience we seek in IRL places like museums, where missed galleries, pushy crowds and unclear paths also disrupt your concentration and enjoyment.

Finally, Hua Hsu reviews the lasting impact videogames have had on popular music in an article for The New Yorker.

Signal’s Lit

We encourage interactive fiction writers to take a look at the submission guidelines for Sub-Q, a new IF publication.

Also, B.R. Yeager has written a book of poetry focusing on violence in popular culture like videogames.

That’s All Folks

Thanks for reading! These roundups, as always, are made possible by the suggestions of our readers throughout the week, by our email or our Twitter account. We encourage you to send something in

Still haven’t quenched that games crit thirst? Lucky for you our podcast wizard Eric Swain has recently posted another minisode featuring Paste writer Imran Khan for your enjoyment.

There’s also a whole month’s worth of Let’s Plays curated by the inimitable Lindsey Joyce.

You could also take a look at the June Blogs of the Round Table roundup where we explored the topic Pets. Or if you’re looking for inspiration for your own blog, take a look at July’s topic, Pure Fun.

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

June 28th

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

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

What’s Old is Shenmue Again

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

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

It’s Business, Not Personal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ghost in the Machine

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

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

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

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

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

Sex, Exclusion and Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until Next Time

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

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

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

June 21st

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

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

Design Notes

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

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

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

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

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

Past is Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

Players Playing Play

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

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

Inversions

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

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

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

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

That’s All, Folks

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

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

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

June 14th

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

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

It’s (Still) Not About The Witcher 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving on:

There Will Probably Be Blood

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

Design Notes

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Beyond the ‘Single Story’

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

The Steam Refundpocalypse

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

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

I Don’t Know Where To Put This

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

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

[…]

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

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

End Notes

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

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

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

See you next week!

June 7th

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

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

The Things We Don’t Talk About Enough

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

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

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

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

Design Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Not About The Witcher 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virtual Bodies

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

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

Meatspace Bodies

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

Further Reading

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

Further Listening

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

Did I Forget Anything?

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

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

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

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

Be well!

May 31st

May 31st, 2015 | Posted by Joe Köller in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on May 31st)

You are in a maze of links, all alike. Obvious exits are Forward, Back and [x].

>n

You can’t go that way.

>i

You are carrying: a lantern, a blue keycard, a can of chainsaw fuel, a sense of existential dread and an indistinct scroll.

>read scroll

You need to unroll it first.

>unroll scroll, read scroll

It is signed by one Joe Köller. “The date is May 31st 2015,” it begins. “and this is This Week In Videogame Blogging!”

[press any button to continue]

An Ouroboros of Trouser Snakes

(Content warning: sexual discussion and imagery.)

Continuing his series of gay sex games, Robert Yang released the dick pic simulator Cobra Club this week, accompanied by an artist’s statement detailing his intentions to explore both the aesthetics of these images, and concerns over sharing them opposite the game’s fictional dating platform and twist ending.

Patricia Hernandez shared her own experience with the game, and many, many screenshots on Kotaku, while Todd Harper responded on his blog, arguing that the game may accurately represent the weirdness of taking one of these pictures, but that its inconsequential interactions with would-be matches fail to capture the inherent dread of sharing them.

[W]hat’s missing from Cobra Club that problematizes it as a “devastatingly honest” look at the relationship between dick pics and gay male identity is the dick pic as a measure of a person’s worth. At no point in the game is the player’s cock or pictures of said cock given any sort of real, qualitative evaluation. Every potential viewer engages it at the level of acceptance: “I asked for a dick, you gave me one. Thank you.” And there it ends.

What Is Love But A Second Hand Emoji

Last week saw an interesting triptych of mediations on the state of our medium.

First off, Gita Jackson took to Offworld to critique the abysmal state of games archival, noting that our failure to preserve “extends beyond just the games themselves and into our collective database of knowledge, criticism and practices within our field.”

The next day, Leigh Alexander described, among many other things, the personal effects of working in an industry more concerned with achieving legitimacy than with achieving permanence and stability: “Our ongoing memory crisis […] means we are all afraid to stop lest we be swept away and forgotten. If I were ever to stop, then five years from now, someone quite like me will not have known of me.”

Responding to both, but also responding to neither, Stephen Beirne examined his own reasons for writing about games, and whether we should even want to preserve them.

Sick Bio Warez

Writing for Gamasutra, Katherine Cross compares the systemization of morality in D&D, Pathfinder and Bioware games. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Sampat wrote a blog post about othering, fantasy racism and the evolution of the portrayal of the Qun across the Dragon Age series.

Written between 1937 and 1945, The Lord Of The Rings was actually the final story in a world Tolkien had been working on since 1917. His work was inevitably influenced by the end of Britain’s “Imperial Century” and the beginning of decolonization, which lead to waves of new immigration.

Over on Femhype, Jillian looks at some of the stereotypical writing and problematic comments (Content Warning: transphobia) that turned her off Sera in Dragon Age: Inquisition.

Gamesculture.biz

Exciting news broke last week when EA announced that women’s soccer would at last be included in the latest installment of their FIFA series. Mary Hamilton talked about the predictably terrible reactions to this absolutely minor effort at inclusion.

In Fifa 15, the last instalment of the franchise, there are more than 16,000 players. All of them are male. (Many of them are not as good at football as the women’s World Cup players.) There are 23 players in a World Cup squad. This suggests that approximately 1.7% of the players in Fifa 16 will be female.

Elsewhere, Megan Condis looked at the consequences of Rust‘s decision to randomly assign skin colors to its players. Chief among them “a definite uptick in overtly racist language.”

Time for some poetry. Take it away, Savannah Winter.

And Then There Were Videogames…

Chris Franklin looks at the mess that is Only If and is left wondering if an absurdist videogame (video) is even possible.

Claris Cyarron compares Rothko’s multiforms to the games Forska, A Cosmic Forest and Condor. Also in the latest Arcade Review, Eve Golden Woods compares Dan Olson’s Resist to James Joyce’s The Dead.

In case you’re curious what the kids are playing these days, you may want to check out David Wolinsky’s interview with a 13-year-old gamer in the latest issue of Unwinnable Weekly.

Holly Green shares her experience playing games with OCD.

Ultimata Ratio Regum developer Mark Johnson examined the advantages and disadvantages of unlocking additional content over time in roguelikes, arguing that it ultimately distracts from the intention of learning through failure.

Reminding us not to get carried away with our analogies, Amsel von Spreckelsen points out that Bloodborne is nothing like an abuser (Content Warning: discussion of abuse and domestic violence).

Kim Foale examines the tendency of both video- and boardgames to gloss over problematic aspects of history.

G. Christopher Williams has found the game design equivalent of trashy movies: making them play fast.

Making a different analogy than the usual film or book comparisons, Naomi Clark asks: Where is the Brie of videogames?

On The German Side of Things

Ally Auner has a recent radio interview she did on gender roles in games available online for listening.

Nina Kiel reviewed the LGBTQIA* documentary Gaming in Color.

Video Game Tourism’s latest monthly discussion covers Bloodborne and the Souls series. It includes an essay by myself, which I won’t link, but do check out Agata Goralczyk interpreting the games using Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus, and Robert Glashüttner’s contrary opinion to the games’ critical adoration.

Another One Bites De_Dust

That’s about it for this week folks! Until then, why not listen to the latest two episodes of our podcast? Blogs of the Round Table just wrapped up, but this month’s summary and the announcement of next month’s theme is going to be out soon.

If you have any interesting links for us, be sure to throw them at us on Twitter or by email. Please remember to tag any links meant for Blogs of the Round Table or This Month in Let’s Plays with #BorT or #LetsPlayCD. And don’t forget that we accept German and French submissions as well, and are always looking to expand to more languages if you know anybody who’d be interested in helping us out with that.

Oh, and did you know that I just started a weekly discussion group for reading seminal games criticism and critical theory? We are wetting our beaks with a bit of Wittgenstein this week. Why not join the fun!

Lastly, a reminder: Critical Distance is funded entirely by you, dear readers. If you appreciate our work, or have an interest helping with our own curatorial and preservation efforts, please consider pledging to our Patreon. My birthday is coming up soon, hint hint.

See you next week!

May 24th

May 24th, 2015 | Posted by Eric Swain in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on May 24th)

I haven’t done this in a while, so excuse me while I shake some of the rust off. Welcome to another round of This Week In Video Game Blogging!

The Look Back

Starting off today we take a look into the past.

Richard Moss wrote a feature at Polygon on the very first First Person Shooter, Maze Wars, talking with the people who were there. Meanwhile, Jeffery Matulef at Eurogamer, explores the legend behind the maybe government experiment, maybe not real arcade cabinet Polybius and those making a documentary about it.

Bryant Francis at Gamasutra asks, “Where in the world did the blockbuster educational games go?” Mostly it focuses on the companies that managed to balancing the earning with good, not-boring game design and what happened to those studios through the 90s.

And Richard Cobbett doesn’t go quite as far back to postulate exactly why Doom 3 doesn’t work both as a classic that its predecessors were or as a game of the trends of its time.

Meanwhile in a new Critical Switch episode, Austin C. Howe takes a look at another form of nostalgia, a longing for a past that never was, at what benefits such a goal could mean for games, as seen through the lens of Shovel Knight.

Additionally, Critical Switch hosted a guest episode by Devon looking at the JRPG genre and what underlies it beyond numbers and skills.

The Identity

Who are you? Who, who?

At Femhype, Shel Shepard wrote how representation matters through the example of Krem in Dragon Age: Inquisition and how it’s more than just being in the work, but being a convincing part of it.

Bianca Batti, writing for Not Your Mama’s Gamer, looks at Alien: Isolation and how it genders the player activity of inaction as female in deference to many other examples where such design and progression of abilities may not be accepted with a male character.

Kaitlin Tremblay writing for Dorkshelf talks about her choices in characters and classes in Borderlands she feels more comfortable with the non apologies hulking brutes than with the crafty Sirens.

Brendan Keogh typed up a version of a talk he gave at DiGRA, using Binary Domain as a launching platform to explore the concept of cyborgs and binaries established early on between hackers and the other in the video game communities.

And writer of the upcoming adventure game Herald, Roy van der Shilden reflects on the challenge of telling a story that is both universal and personal as well as about a person who is not him. He did a lot of research into the effects of colonization, struggling to find the voices of the colonized instead of the colonizer.

The Game Messages

What a game has to say for itself.

Mark Filipowich explores what he calls, “The Ludic Rashomon.” He went looking for examples in order to dissect the craft of a Rashomon story in video games and what they say about subjectivity.

At PopMatters, Jorge Albor looks at Bloodborne as a representative of our human want and need to learn from our mistakes. He also takes umbrage that reviewers should have warned “regular people” it wasn’t for them, wondering what that term is supposed to mean.

Eron Rauch continues his series “Bridging Worlds” at Videogame Tourism by comparing the veracity of the cultures in Ready Player One and Gone Home and how they represent their larger world.

Carolyn Petit on her tumblr, A Game of Me, explores the meaning behind keeping the two occupants of the apartment in Sunset separate. At first it seems a cheat to the potential message about class and race, but instead turns into a story of feeling intimacy.

The Critical Sphere

Self reflection in the face of discord.

Heather Alexandra expresses our current model of interaction as a critical community as a “Broken Discussion” and the main reason medium as a whole remains in arrested development.

As if to prove it true, Catherine Ashley at Girls on Games, comments on the controversy surrounding Arthur Gies’ review of The Witcher 3. One industry person calling the review “poisonous to the industry: to gamers, to game developers, to game journalists” all because it brings up ideas for consideration.

Meanwhile, Cara Ellison says goodbye to the “new wave” of games criticism, whatever that means. She doesn’t quite know, so she supposes a meaning and works from there. Goodbye, Cara, and good luck in your future endeavors.

The Culture

How gaming sees itself verses how it actually it.

Bob Mackey wrote “The People vs. ‘Nerd Culture’” for US Gamer. He uses Simon Pegg’s recent words about the co-opting of this demographic term to explore the insidious nature of “nerd” as a false identity in the present culture.

Holly Nielsen, at The Guardian, explains that the game industry does indeed have a dress code despite the more free wheeling image it likes to present and the pressure that invites to anyone outside of narrow ideas of masculine dress.

G. Christopher Williams at PopMatters says that what is missing in competitive video games in an inherent behavior of sportsmanship: “In a sense, League of Legends players lack good coaches, who step in to define the boundaries and etiquette of competition, not just how to play the game.”

The Grab Bag

And the rest…

We’ve heard the argument before how big Kickstarters take money away from indies and the numbers that prove that argument to be hyperbolic at best. However, Katie Chironis approaches the issue from a different angle, one we are just starting to see the effects of, how it may not be damaging directly, but how the big Kickstarters distorts how much it takes to make a game making it harder to the little projects that don’t have the institutional support.

Though, Rob Remakes counters that a lot of the problem of perception aren’t as big a problem as its made out to be because it’s always been there. If anything, Kickstarter has made the process the least opaque it has ever been. That, plus the view and use of Kickstarter is vastly different to the audience than it is to developers.

Responding to Dinofarm Games’ Blake Reynolds and their renouncing of pixel art, Brandon Sheffield explains why Necrosoft Games will not being abandoning the art style.

Anna Jenelius gives a primer entitled “Armor for Dummies and/or Game Developers” to explain logistically the major and minor problems with game armor.

And finally, Devin Vibert explains his awesome practice of creating music for the tabletop game sessions they just played over at Memory Insufficient.

The End Times

Thank you for stopping in for your weekly dose of game criticism. If you liked what you read, please consider supporting Critical Distance through our Patreon.

If you have any recommendations for the weekly round ups you can send them via our email or @ message us on Twitter.

Our Blogs of the Round Table feature is currently accepting submissions for its May prompt. And Lindsey Joyce is accepting recommendations for the monthly critical round-up of Let’s Plays.

Thank you and have a great Sunday!