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

What It Means to be Indie

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

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

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

Trauma, Transcendence and Mental Illness

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

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

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

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

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

Mapping Out Our History

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

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

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

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

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

Battlefield Hard Sell

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics as Usual

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

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

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

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

Whose Category is it Anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring on Jupiter and Mars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God Games

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

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

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

In many ways, it is a very paranoid game.

By Land or By Sea

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

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

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

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

Did Someone Mention Formalism

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

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

And yes, she has examples.

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

Whose House Are You Haunting Tonight

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

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

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

This is The End, Beautiful Friend

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

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

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

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

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

Form and Content

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

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

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

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

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

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

Design Notes

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

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

I Don’t Know How to Categorize This

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

GDC

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

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

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

Signal Boost

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

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

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

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

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

Hello there! I’m Cameron Kunzelman and after a long hiatus from doing this particular job I am back to deliver you some criticism about games that was released over the past week. I’m all about the content, so here it is!

Design Time (That’s A Rhyme)

Meg Jayanth shared some insights into 8o Days’ narrative design at this past week’s Game Developers Conference, focusing on ways to make players uncertain about their decisions and how good or bad those decisions might be.

Erin Robinson, creator of Gravity Ghost, also spoke at GDC and shared some of the starts and stops in the development of that game.

Also at GDC, This War of Mine head writer Pawel Micechowski spoke about designing new kinds of “survival” in the face of players who are trained to think of characters as resources to be used.

Mohini Dutta writes about designing for the Other at First Person Scholar, calling into question the ways that designers think of themselves in position to players and parsing out the ethical ramifications of that split.

Anna Anthropy focuses on Fire Emblem as a case study for understanding how to design a player-centered experience from the ground up.

Emotions?! IN MY GAMES?! Oh, ok, cool.

Kent Sheely hones in on some contemporary games and the way that they can be thought of as machines to foster self-care.

Kate Cox presents us with a life spent playing games and the emotional resonances that those games had then and now in her “Life, Love, and Labyrinths: Why I Play Videogames.”

In a slightly different direction, Melody Meows works through the thought process about how one enjoys something that is “problematic.”

Games Culture and…the Horse It Rode In On? I Don’t Know.

Maddy Myers takes a deep personal dive into the image and concept of the “cool gamer girlfriend” and the cultural expectations surrounding her. She writes:

There is no narrative about a girl who shows up to play games and turns out to be kind of okay at them, and then she makes platonic friends who see her as a person, and then she goes home alone. My mediocrity became a huge disappointment for men that I didn’t know in gaming spaces. It was a disappointment for me, too, and it still makes me extra-nervous. Every time I show up and play games in public somewhere, in some male-dominated space, there is some stupid part of me that wants to win beyond all my wildest dreams … even though it’s impossible, especially when people are staring at you. I do okay, sometimes. That’s the most I’ve ever been able to hope to achieve: being okay at games, sometimes.

Wendi Sierra thinks through the very concept of gamer culture itself, understanding it not as a broad culture but rather as a strange confederation of many different communities.

The #1ReasonToBe panel at this week’s GDC was a powerful recounting of women’s experiences working on the game industry and this writeup is excellent.

Katie Chironis writes about her experiences developing Elsinore and continually answering questions about why a character is black. Her answer is simple: why shouldn’t she be?

Looking Really Close At Games I Mean Getting SO Close Up

Alex Pieschel provides an extensive and amazing piece on Final Fantasy 7‘s debug room.

Heather Alexandra writes about her personal experiences with Dragonball Z and Xenoverse‘s character creator.

Carolyn Petit explains the finitude and pain of time built into Majora’s Mask and Jake Muncy reads Wind Waker as a response to the Zelda franchise itself.

Reid McCarter finds République to be an uncanny diagnosis of our particular time and place.

Jess Joho plays Stasis and finds the game’s portrayal of street harassment to be uncannily accurate in a number of ways.

Other Stuff I Thought Was Great This Week

Joe Donnelly writes about addiction as a tone-setting concept in various games.

Brian Crimmins thinks we should probably quit worrying about hour counts and just play games on their own terms.

Jason Scott spoke at GDC about how we need to preserve games history in the present rather than years after the fact.

A panel of developers at GDC pointed out the ageism of the game development industry and offered several ways to address it from both sides of the relation.

The End of the Show (and some LINKS!)

That’s This Week In Videogame Blogging for…this…week? Thanks so much for reading.

In a moment of excellent signal boosting, be sure to check out the relaunch of BoingBoing’s videogame blog, Offworld, in the next few days. We think it is going to be excellent.

If you see a piece of writing you love (and it is about videogames), be sure to submit it to us to us on Twitter or by email. On Twitter, please tag any links for the Blogs of the Round Table or This Month in Let’s Plays with #BorT or #LetsPlayCD respectively. German or French submissions are in high demand as well.

Critical Distance is funded completely by its readership! If you like what you see and want to support what we do, consider pledging to our Patreon.

 

Hello, readers; I’m new here. When I’m at something where I don’t know anyone, I either stand around alone masking my nervousness with a carefully-cultivated air of solitary mystery, or I rush over to the nearest person with puppyish enthusiasm and talk about what I hope are mutual interests. Today I will choose the latter. Put down those chips, approachable stranger, and listen to me ramble eagerly about This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Our Mutual Hobby Involves Pushing Buttons to Perform Actions

Let’s begin with the intricacies of mechanics and controls. As part of Kill Screen’s week on the first PlayStation, David Shimomura explores the semiotics of the design behind the PlayStation’s controller. Shimomura writes that what Teiyu Goto, the designer of the original controller “didn’t realize was that while he had ultimate reign of the symbols themselves he did not have ultimate sanction over the meanings that others would draw from them.” Shimomura also looks at the cultural context of the buttons and how they did and didn’t translate to American audiences.

Relatedly, over at Paste, Katherine Cross discusses the button-pressing we love to hate, the quick-time event,or QTE (which I just realized you could pronounce as “cutie;” has anyone done that?). Looking beyond Call of Duty’s cringe-worthy “Press F to Pay Respects,” Cross considers QTEs in a more far-reaching and generous light:

Simply put, at their best, quick time events are meant to blur the line between cinematic and gameplay to maintain the involvement of the player. They can be seen as a form of experiential integration designed to simulate involvement in a particular moment of the avatar’s story. The input device, be it a keyboard, controller, a mouse, or a mobile phone, is used to its fullest extent to provide some kind of sensation that simulates what you see on screen[…]

But this simulation of physical sensation is, of course, an ideal which many QTEs spectacularly fail to reach, often simply reducing QTEs to basic reflex challenges.

Speaking of physical sensations, over on her blog Mattie Brice looks poetically and thought-provokingly at how our physical bodies are present or not when we play games. She believes that the body is marginalized in play in favor of being seen as “one large controller,” and she protests that “[o]ur bodies are the site of play, where meaning occurs, willing or not.” From this she draws broader political conclusions, such as:

There is a resistance because bodies are complicated. Incorporating subject(ivitie)s decentralizes the game object and forces designers and critics to ponder the infinite relationships bodies can have with an experience. Controllers in particular throttle the ways bodies can be recognized in the design, and is probably the main agent in the absence of body subjectivity in critique. It is impossible to know how another’s bodily reaction will be to an experience, and that exactitude is only necessary for products that promise it. That class critique is also underrepresented might hint as to why these sorts of connections are rarely traversed outside of particular, minoritized niches. Right on the surface, the lack of awareness of bodies assumes a typical body, most definitely excluding those who don’t have it and their experiences.

Stepping away from the buttons we push to what those buttons do in a game, L. Rhodes takes a look at the interactions in Gone Home from a mechanics point of view, exploring how the controls, or “terms of interaction,” given their basis in first-person shooter mechanics, require a familiarity that may not entirely serve the game. Far-removed from the “is this really a game?” argument the internet enjoys over Gone Home and other exploration games, this article suggests that:

Gone Home really only requires you to move around the house, clicking on items to examine and move them. I see no reason why the terms of interaction shouldn’t be more limited.

Among other things, that would make the game more accessible, both to videogame novices and to players with physical disabilities.

Lastly, Lulu Blue takes a look at Monster Hunter‘s mechanics in a positive light. The article recounts a particularly thrilling experience, concluding that “[t]hat moment wouldn’t have came to exist without every layer of complexity crafted into the game. So many moving parts also means there’s just as much space for creative, unexpected solutions.”

Perhaps We Both Enjoy Roleplaying Games?

Games can let us be new people or explore different parts of ourselves. Heather O at FemHype looks at the relationship between videogames, daily stress, and PTSD, exploring the role that simulated combat has played in her life as a disabled veteran. She links to several studies on this topic that are sure to be interesting to anyone who thinks about the ramifications of games as oftentimes-violent roleplaying experiences.

Looking at roleplay from a personality-focused perspective, an article over at Big Fat Phoenix asks if how we roleplay can change who we are. The author considers how their own relationship to roleplaying in games has changed over the years and what it reveals about their personality and morals, especially as they age.

If you make games in which you’d like people to roleplay, Extra Credits made a video about it this week! They look at how to encourage roleplay and how to make it meaningful in your game’s world, and, as always, they do it through energetic cartoons.

Do You Have Thoughts About the Videogames Industry?

Over at The Guardian, Ian G. Williams revisits the issue of crunch in game development and how it has and hasn’t changed since the infamous “EA spouse” post of 10 years ago. Williams points out that, according to surveys, the average age of people working in game development hasn’t changed much, and this perpetually youthful and oftentimes exploitable workforce might contribute to the industry’s work/life balance issues.

On Gamasutra, Laralyn McWilliams addresses this age question in her blog post on turning 50 (a belated happy birthday, Ms. McWilliams). Like Williams’ article, she highlights the toll game development takes on people in the industry’s personal lives, and she importantly notes, “Keep in mind that passion isn’t synonymous with crunch. Managers who conflate those two ideas are taking advantage of us.” She also looks at how change in the industry affects its culture.

In a broader look at change, Owen Grieve highlights capitalism’s influence on changes in the games industry and what it means for the “gamer” identity. This exhaustive and far-reaching exploration covers creators, players, journalists, and the myriad forces that bring us to where we are today and where we might go in the future. Here’s a snapshot of one of the many topics he covers:

But now, more than 30 years later, and in spite of the mainstream cultural acceptance of games in general, the majority of people are still put off by the kind of wilful (sic) masochism of traditional videogames. There’s a huge amount of commerical (sic) and cultural potential in exploring alternative game concepts. […]

But along with the celebration of acceptance and diversity, it does also create a wrinkle of frustration for some of us who grew up with traditional games: As more and more generations of people grow up surrounded by games, shouldn’t the market for ‘games for gamers’ become stronger and more stable?

Regarding the changing face of journalism, Rob Fearon considers what Rock Paper Shotgun’s recent Peter Molyneux interview says about creators interacting with the media and the future of games journalism. Among his many points are:

There’s so many people in games now with so much to say, so much of worth and use but they don’t fit within the system. They don’t have organised PR, they don’t do press tours and in many, many cases, you won’t find them locked in a room at an event showing off their videogames to the press because that is still a privilege reserved for the few (as good as some indies are at reaching out and playing the game). We can’t keep on going as we always have done and expect the new blood to fit in with us and the old ways, we need to accommodate them somehow. Reach out to them for their words.

Let’s Discuss Gender and Sexuality

To return to Kill Screen, this week Chris Priestman unpacked the development of Lara Croft alongside the changing face of feminism in the ’90s. I was surprised to learn how the intent of her creator was affected by cultural and political forces to create the paradigmatic figure we all know today.

Speaking of figures (do you see what I did there?), over at Kotaku Patricia Hernandez takes an in-depth look at breast physics. Part history, part exploration of tech, the article contains tips for developers and fascinating insights into why so many of them get breast physics wrong. (Content warning: nudity.)

On the player side of things, Sarah Nixon looks at a recent controversy in the Hearthstone circuit surrounding the gender identity of a top player. She points out “a deep rooted problem with sexism in these, and other gaming communities, that is making these communities intolerable for female players – particularly successful female players.”

Along the same lines, at Feministing, Katherine Cross explores the ramifications of the claim that recent threats again Brianna Wu were… just a joke? (Content warning: violent and transphobic language cited in the article.) Cross looks at other internet “stunts” and asks about their intentions and impact on their targets, most of whom are not in on the “joke.”

Finally, GayGamer’s Mitch Alexander held an interview with Todd Harper about his Twine game Upon Reflection, which explores, as Harper says, “three moments in my life where I was dealing with the relationship between my body, which doesn’t match what mainstream culture (gay or not) says is ‘desirable,’ and having sex as a gay man.” The interview also covers Twine as a tool for marginalized creators and the function of empathy in games.

Let’s Talk about Race

On her website, N.K. Jemisin writes eloquently about making race matter in art, including in videogames, beyond simple nods to diversity. She discusses Vivienne in Dragon Age: Inquisition, pointing out that, “Vivienne is affiliated with many groups but few of them seem to have contributed anything to who she’s become. She’s the only playable black woman seen in the entire trilogy of games so far, and she is cultureless, rootless, and quintessentially raceless.”

This article dovetails with an article over at Kill Screen about race in Treachery in Beatdown City. The article points out that “[o]n the off-chance a game happens to portray a character as non-white, they are typically presented as ethnic cliches, rather than actual human beings with real issues and complex lives,” and it examines how Treachery attempted to address this.

And just as I was telling you this, Mattie Brice published a passionate response to recent discussions about race in games. She dismisses the idea of surface diversity as “progress” for which people should be grateful, instead demanding

Why, exactly, must we deal with the breadcrumbs that corporations dole out? In a way, progress is not what we want, when we’re forced to play by someone else’s timetable. And even now, the progress we do have, would our forebears honestly nod and pat us on the shoulders, to commend us for this bold step forward for racial justice? Can’t we just give words to how fucked it is?

All the Things I Can’t Make a Suave Conversational Transition About

It looks like this party’s winding down, so here is a flurry of things I found interesting this week that I can’t sum up in a clever topic heading.

Here is a fascinating article by Jamie Taylor about history through the lens of games and play. The article looks at how games can embody history, their possibilities and constraints, and what this might mean to a wide range of disciples, including games, historians, and the academy at large.

Jorge Albor at Pop Matters looks at how anarchy is represented in Netrunner and how the game’s characters and mechanics allow for the exploration of various real-world anarchist strategies and ideals. This, like most writing about Netrunner, makes me want to play Netrunner, which is probably what you’re all doing later.

Finally, religion in games is a huge interest of mine, though they say you aren’t supposed to talk about it with people you’ve just met. Nevertheless, I would be remiss not to include this thoughtful and personal essay by Nathan Grayson about videogames’ role in the gradual loss of his Christian faith.

Oh, I See You’re Getting Your Coat

Thank you for reading! If there’s an article by you or someone else you’d like to bring to our consideration for This Week in Videogame Blogging, let us know over at Twitter with an @critdistance mention or via email.

Stay tuned for the newest roundups and prompts for our Blogs of the Round Table and This Month in Let’s Plays features. In the meantime, some signal-boosting: First Person Scholar has been publishing talks from the 2014 Queerness & Games Conference, and they’re all interesting and will make you either glad you went or, like me, lament that you couldn’t.

Did you know that Critical Distance is funded completely by our readership? If you like what we do and want to help us do more of it, please consider signing up for a small monthly donation on our Patreon.

Well, thanks for chatting, readers. Next time we meet we can peer at each other awkwardly before saying, “Oh, hey, didn’t we talk at that thing…?” We did! Where’s everyone headed after this?

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

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

Racefail

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

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

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

She’s Not Playing It Wrong

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

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

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

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

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

The Reason So Many Babies are Born in November

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

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

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

The Play’s the Thing

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

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

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

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

Design Notes

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

Ice-T Woodenly Mentioning Kotaku

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

Cats Though

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kris is out and about this week, which means that I get to spend this Valentine’s weekend with the person I care for most in all the world: you, dear reader. Let us savor this candle link dinner and talk about our feelings.

Our feelings on formalism, that is.

It’s This Week In Videogame Blogging.

No Godus or Kings

It’s been a rough week for 22 Cans. On Monday, Rock Paper Shotgun voiced doubt whether their current project, Godus, would ever be finished, which was followed on Wednesday by Eurogamer catching up with Bryan Henderson, winner of the life-changing prize from their previous title, Curiosity, and ultimately led to a very aggressive interview with studio head Peter Molyneux by John Walker.

Some saw this style as the necessary approach for dealing with the notably hard-to-pin-down Molyneux, others condemned the accusatory tone with which he was pilloried for ills of the crowdfunding environment at large. Daniel Joseph writes:

The people who need the least advocating for in games press are “consumers” who throw some money at vaporware.

The actual tough questions come after we think through the system that produces this kind of situation in the first place. Why do we tolerate the grey areas that Kickstarter operates in, in relation to its inherent ability to take advantage of consumer ignorance in such matters? Why do we talk about people who might be disappointed with a game they bought rather than the those who might be run out of a job by such a reckless boss?

Over on the German side of things, Marcus Dittmar also finds some harsh words for the interview.

Just Like the Movies

On Paste Magazine, Gita Jackson argues that developers pushing for a cinematic feel with 30 frames per second are ignoring the actual standards of cinematography, and the conversation surrounding them. With a side of other camera-related tropes.

Meanwhile, there’s a whole genre of moving image-based story telling that allows characters in the first-person perspective to have dirt and blood smeared on an invisible screen in front of their eyes. It is an accepted and even expected part of this form—it’s not a matter of degradation, but of how we as viewers and players are going to move on from this point.

In other film-related news, Carolyn Petit talks about the documentary Atari: Game Over covering the 1983 industry collapse and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the game that is, perhaps wrongly, given the blame for it. A movie about a movie-themed game then. Double whammy!

On Kill Screen, Andrew Yoder talks about Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia and how exploration tends to kill videogame spaces. Meanwhile, Zach Budgor examines perspective and movement in Metroid Prime, the first in a series of three articles devoted to the series. See also Metroid Prime 2 and sequels by Gareth Damian Martin and Metroid Prime 3 and loneliness by Levi Rubeck.

Histories

Cara Ellison’s visit to Marigold Bartlett and Christy Dena marks the end of her magnificent Embed With series, which will soon be available in ebook form, I understand.

Jess Joho on the feminine history of computing and how it is being overwritten.

On PopMatters, our own Eric Swain considers The Banner Saga‘s colloquial approach to lore, while G. Christopher Williams looks at Grand Theft Auto protagonists and their moral compasses over time.

Evan Narcisse talked to the most dedicated explorer of Shadow of the Colossus.

On Gamasutra, John Andersen remembers the late Shinya Nishigaki, developer of the Dreamcast games Blue Stinger and Illbleed.

Videogames!

Here’s Carolyn Petit looking at Average Maria Individual and Kentucky Route Zero as decentralizations of traditional protagonists, a feature which gels nicely with Lindsey Joyce’s recent article about Kentucky Route Zero, which argues that, in it, players take the role of director rather than assuming the position of any one actor on stage.

Positioned as director, the game requires your attention on several levels, since you try to understand both the characters you instruct and the narrative you orchestrate, as the story’s not-quite-omniscient narrator. On the one hand, you take on an over-the-shoulder perspective focused on character development and specificity, but on the other hand, there is the bird’s eye view of narrative totality […]

Speaking of Kentucky Route Zero, Magnus Hildebrandt has finished his guide to the cultural and literary references of Episode 3. It’s only available in German right now, but as for the earlier episodes, will be translated soon.

The first episode of Critical Switch is here, so why not listen to our own Zolani Stewart’s smooth voice expound Bernband. Not enough weird games for you? Stephen Beirne reads Kanoguti’s Walking as self-suggestive horror.

On that note: the dreadful architecture of NaissanceE.

On a lighter note: Amy Knepper sharing five co-op games that helped her marriage.

Moving on. Despite the duplicity of using time travel to more effectively fake interest, Todd Harper is vaguely optmistic about the direction of Life is Strange. Jed Pressgrove less so.

Metal Gear? Heather Alexandra about participating in the recursive training of Metal Gear Solid 2‘s Raiden by replaying and perfecting sections of the game. Meanwhile, Melody writes about the different attitudes towards sensual violence of Raiden and Mistral in Revengeance.

Dragon Age? On Girl From the Machine, Gaby writes about relationships and powerlessness in Dragon Age 2. Meanwhile, David Carlton applies Christopher Alexander’s framework from The Nature of Order to Dragon Age: Inquisition.

On the German side of things, Video Game Tourism has begun its monthly game club by examining The Binding of Isaac from various angles.

Industry

Laralyn McWilliams shares research on the practical benefits of diversifying your workforce.

Jason Schreier provides us with some absolutely nightmarish tales of videogame companies treating their employees like shit.

Love’s Labours Linked

That’s it for the latest This Week In Videogame Blogging, but we do hope to see you again next week. Until then, be sure to check out the theme for this month’s Blogs of the Round Table and our very first roundup of Let’s Plays.

Should you come across an interesting article in your travels, or even write one yourself, you can help us out tremendously by sending the link to us on Twitter or by email. On Twitter, please tag any links for the Blogs of the Round Table or This Month in Let’s Plays with #BorT or #LetsPlayCD respectively. German or French submissions are in high demand as well.

See you soon!

Critical Distance is funded completely by its readership! If you like what you see and want to support what we do, consider pledging to our Patreon.

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

Give Me That Old Time Country Formalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Difficulty Curve

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

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

And yet…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reaver Is Industry

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Game’s the Thing

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

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

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

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

Players and Played

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

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

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

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

The Nitty Gritty

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

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

You’ve Done Well to Get This Far

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

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

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

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Critical Distance is proud to present this special guest roundup by games writer and diversity advocate Jill Murray.

Hello fine readers! I’m Jill Murray, a writer you might remember from such games as Assassin’s Creed Liberation, and Your Shape Fitness Evolved: 2012. (Dry humour.) As a creator, my analytical process boils down to “can I use this to make something, and do I have to use it the way it was intended?” much as need might inspire you to uncork a wine bottle with your shoe. (It works! And you might make a mess, so the analogy is sound.)

All this to say, I’ll let trained professional critics handle burning critical issues that have sparked the fire of your debating spirits this week, and then give you a list of interesting links selected from first-person Jill, in This Week In Videogame Blogging! (I hear that with a lot of reverb, like when the Muppets announce Pigs in Space. Just me?)

The End is Near

Maddy Myers examined our penchant for romanticizing disaster. Douglas F. Warrick followed strategy games to the end of the world. Ian Bogost warned that algorithm worship puts us in a computational theocracy. And Matthew S. Burns stared into the desolate endgame universe of Lindsay Lohan’s The Price of Fame.

But it was Rami Ismail who gave the week its closing mic drop, with a healthy dose of bleak optimism for the present and future of games: “We’re in a creative industry. Of all people, we should know the way we get better isn’t through celebrating our successes, but by reflecting on our failures.”

So Relax and Make Something

Arcade Review #4 came out, with a gorgeous cover, and much toothsome writing on unconventional games and art.

Deep in her home laboratory, Mattie Brice infused wine with tea in an effort to get us to make playfully and play makefully:

I feel like, in an effort to expand the DIY philosophy, we need to see video games, board games, whatever, as few of many objects we play with, and it’s the play we’re after to design. So, I want to let people know there are more objects to create, and things that you might already create everyday.

Or Take Something Apart

Jon Bois discovered a means, within the rules of American football, to score an infinite number of points. Chris Wagar deconstructed stealth into 24 separate points. (All of them beginning with “guards.”) And Robert Yang broke down 3d video game lighting for us, from the functional to the evocative.

The “functional school” of game lighting… can be useful in my eyes but only so far as that gameplay is tactical violence, and when that violence can support evoking a mood. The rest of the time, some designers often seem content to light their spaces like a furniture catalog, or even leave it as a total after-thought.

But Remember, You’re Not Alone

Christopher G. Williams explained how it’s not easy being green, why he’s always blue, and what our selection of player tokens reveals about us. And Olivier Roeder drove the little silver car past Go, to recommend better board games for kids than Monopoly, as suggested by data.

Javy Gwaltney released a disability and gaming resource list. Thomas McMullan mulled over the everyday lives of videogame characters. Holly Green looked at the dark side of how peers, players and NPCs can influence behaviour in games and art, and S.R. Holiwell shared an expansive and deeply personal inspection “to talk about our experiences is to talk about the ghosts of feelings, because sometimes it’s worth keeping the spirit alive.”

And finally, with great sadness, Harold Goldberg said goodbye to developer and journalist Andrew Yoon, who passed away in a sudden accident this past week: “He was a force of nature yet he was kind and ardent. There was no one like him.”

All the Formalism We Promised and More

This section is by Senior Curator Kris Ligman, since it didn’t seem fair to dump all this inside baseball stuff onto a guest curator.

Developer Brianna Wu learned someone was driving to her house to kill her this week, but sure, let’s talk about formalism. There’s always something to be learned, at least about ourselves. As you’ll recall from last week’s roundup, this new round of discussion emerged when academic Frank Lantz wrote that he believes that formalist studies of games has a deserved place in the discourse and an adherence to it does not make him — or other academics — conservative gatekeepers.

Understandably frustrated with some of the language being thrown around, several writers continued the conversation this week. MIT post-doc and games professor Todd Harper breaks down the term ‘social capital’ and what it means when established scholars like Lantz and Ian Bogost weigh in on an issue like this:

Being in a tenured professorship — or even a non-tenured one — carries a degree of social capital simply by existing. If you’re at a big name university, it’s enhanced. Frank Lantz works at New York University, and just having its name on your business card opens doors for you. I know this to be true personally, as I was very fortunate to spend four years as an employee of MIT. That name opens doors for you because it’s got a history of respect behind it. There’s also the issue of academic pedigree. Who was your dissertation advisor, or who was on your committee. Who have you read? Who can you cite? Who’s on your speed dial if things get weird? Social capital.

[…]

Now: Lantz and Bogost have worked to earn their success. And they are people who produce interesting thinking, even if you disagree with them. But I think it’s important to understand that the debate that is so fractious right now is going on between people with big reserves of a very distinct social capital, and people who have struggled most of their lives to acquire what social capital they have. [But it] should come as little surprise that many of these [newer] voices come from groups — women, LGBTQ people, people of color — that have been traditionally been marginalized in society at large, and definitely in the overwhelmingly cishet white tech industry and the largely white and relatively affluent world of professional academics. So beyond having a stake in the rhetoric of what defines their work and their interests, they have a stake in having their voices recognized AT ALL when they have often been silenced in favor of others. Never mind the fact that gaming — particularly video gaming — has long been a bastion of racism, sexism, and hatred of queer people with significant class and SES-related problems (such as the cost of home PCs).

To put it bluntly, many of the people who take issue at the notion of “ludocentrism” (a term I use under duress, for ease of understanding) are not simply targeting what they see as a problematic rhetoric in the ontology of games. They take issue at what is perceived as a systemic silencing they’ve struggled with their whole lives, and of which this current situation is merely a symptom.

Or as Claris Cyarron puts it in slightly more brusque term, this is about a one-way demand for respect:

“Kiss the ring” is a great way to describe the bullshit seniority & respectability politics in games (hat tip to Austin Howe). I love it. I intend to use it all the time. Kiss that fucking ring, right now. Everyone in this field is expected to pay homage to game studies elders, to old-guard review sites, to big-name game designers of the 90’s. We don’t have a choice you see, they are the only ones who give us any credibility.

As Cyarron notes, one would be remiss in going this week without mentioning this formidable essay by Austin Howe, our own Zolani Stewart and others over on Haptic Feedback:

When, as a critic or analyst, you invest your time and capital in the definition of proper form, your analytical projects are always, necessarily, about the inclusion and exclusion of both people and ideas within a perceived community. Naming ludocentrist rhetorical analysis as a thing is similar to the ways in which some will harp about what is/n’t a game is a political move that intends to disassociate particular critics or methods of critique from a perceived community.

[…]

Formalists have done a pretty bad job engaging either with the work of my peers or my self, or respectfully engaging with us on a personal level. Debate, or healthy discussion, is not born of abortive dismissal of the approach of less recognized and poorer writers under the guise of calling us “smart” and “young,” and in no memorable instance have noted arguments between formalists and other groups served to increase the stature or recognition of either party involved. Given all this, these conversations have existed purely to punch down at these writers and their ideas, lest a significant challenge to the status quo be allowed to manifest. […] When talking down is not happening to me or my peers directly, it is also happening without a chance to respond. Frank Lantz’ recent blog post, discussing his views on formalism and largely disparaging narratological studies, didn’t even come to my attention till at least a week after it was published because it was not directed our way (or at least my way) by Lantz himself. […] He sloppily and carelessly reduces a diverse discussion into a polemic that only serves his narrow rhetoric. Lantz carries so little respect for my ideas and the ideas of my peers that he can’t bother to even speak to us about our ideas in our own contexts and terms. He didn’t even try.

Dispatches from Vienna

And now, selected readings from our German Correspondent, Joe Köller.

Various people are currently debating the usefulness of the word “gamer” (yes, we use that too) after Linda Breitlauch started a hashtag asking people to post pictures of themselves on Twitter to show what gamers look like. Marcus Dittmar argues that this is an attempt to combat long-dead stereotypes rather than address the current nastiness of self-described gamers, whereas Guddy covers the history of the word preceding current controversies to show that it might not yet be lost.

Elsewhere, Nina Kiel has started a column about sex games by talking about the gun dating-sim Gat Life, Helga Hansen compares two recent studies on the importance of representation in games, Sarah Geser wrote down a lot of her thoughts about Dragon Age: Inquisition, and Bernhard Runzheimer talks about playing first-person shooters as walking simulators.

~Fin~

Thank you for reading. As always we greatly value your contributions, and we encourage you to submit links to us via Twitter mention or our email.

Our new Blogs of the Round Table prompt will be up soon. In the meantime, there is still a little time to submit to our first This Month in Let’s Plays roundup!

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Greetings, Your Worship. I am Zachary J Alexander the First, and it is my humble pleasure to welcome you to the pages of This Week In Videogame Blogging in the Common Era Year of Twenty-Fifteen, on the Twenty-Fourth Day of January. I have scoured yon frontier for the most worthy Items, and present them unto you in recognition of our friendship. This shall be our most formal Roundup yet.

The Artist Formally Known As

Frank Lantz went back to the well on formalism. His argument is that mechanics can and should be formally discussed without painting people who do so as a conservative gatekeeper. Heather Alexandra responded with the argument that it’s not so easy to separate mechanics from anything else without implicit value judgements. Our own Cameron Kunzelman smoothed things over with a cake metaphor, and Frank Lantz shows up in the comments to elaborate. Oscar Strik shot back with a side of salad simile. Daniel Joseph then drew on some past arguments to add context to the whole formalism debate.

Now that this debate has been settled, no one will need to discuss formalism ever again! Let’s move on to a new topic, like are game screenshots art?

While we’re on the topic of weighty academic matters, Games Criticism dot org has a new collection of essays up from all sorts of people! On the other end of the spectrum, Abnormal Mapping collects a few small games and writes them up. Xanadu Engine is a tumblr dedicated entirely to Kentucky Route Zero. Elizabeth Simins has a Tumblr categorizing games by whether they can have queer relationships or not.

Stephen Beirne wants to walk all over “walking simulators” as a term for a certain genre of games, and go with “phantom rides”. Personally, I’d prefer “ghost riding”, but that might mean something else.

Actually, It’s About Historical Accuracy in Games

History Respawned hosts history professor David Andress to talk about the French Revolution and Assassin’s Creed: Unity. In the pages of The Escapist, Robert Rath addresses concerns that a game with dragons, demons, and elves is unrealistic in depicting a woman holding a sword.

Mary Lee Sauder goes into art history, and derives the term “gamerliness” based off the term “painterliness”:

If you’ve ever studied art, you may have heard of the term “painterliness” used to describe works of art that derive meaning from drawing attention to the fact that they are just paint on a canvas or clay molded by human hands. “Painterly” art doesn’t try to look realistic – instead, it uses its unique aspects as a constructed object to its advantage.

In more-recent history, Shmuplations has a backlog of older Japanese interviews with developers of classic games. They just launched a Patreon to help sponsor translating and preserving these old documents. Here’s a 2001 interview with the director of Rez. Over at Kill Screen, David Wolinsky digs into Grim Fandango’s Mexican folklore roots.

Rated M for Immature Content

(Content Warning for this whole section: Discusses rape, abortion, and that Hatred game)

Aoife Wilson says Hatred’s recent AO rating is useful publicity. G. Christopher Williams wonders how the South Park game got away with an M rating. Both of these incidents support Carolyn Petit’s arguments that games can deal with serious real-world problems, but probably shouldn’t:

They just participate in the longstanding video game tradition of victimizing women to easily generate an emotional response or to lend texture to their worlds and try to convince us that we are playing mature and serious games.

Fixing What’s Broke

Shonte Daniels discusses race in games through the lens of Spawn On Me’s #BlackLivesMatter gaming marathon. Adrienne Shaw discusses the outcomes of her research on representation in games, and addresses common criticisms of advocating for representation. The Guardian’s Kate Gray wants a little less representation for “boob physics”, or at least equal representation for ridiculous physics for male genitalia. Bikini Armor Battle Damage has come up with a handy chart showing how skewed armor for women characters in games can be, but Ayla Arthur has an essay on Medium with some suggestions for designing women characters in games without relying on tiny waists and power armor. Gaming as Women flips the conversation with three words that can change your tabletop game: “Is he hot”?

Before long, I was thinking of every male NPC in terms of their attractiveness. This may not seem like much, but it completely changed the way I viewed the men in the game. Jarl Wyrmval isn’t only a scheming political rival, but he was also dangerously handsome. Runthorn isn’t only self-important, he’s also attractive enough to charm people into believing in his delusions of grandeur. Nadric isn’t just bookish and awkward, he’s also ugly enough that the servants gave him the byname Gul. Rukkokainen isn’t just a skilled veteran and keen advisor, he’s the most eligible Tauthra bachelor in the province.

It occurs to me that this has never been true of any game I have played in. Even when I’ve played in games run by people who are sexually attracted to men, men are not described in terms of sex appeal.

And if you’re looking to up your own, personal representation, Gita Jackson has you covered with a Bayonetta Style Guide up on Paste.

Finally, to end on a light note: At PC Gamer, Richard Corbett distinguishes between what games call “quests”, and what games should just call “**** to do”.

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