November 22nd

November 22nd, 2015 | Posted by Riley MacLeod in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on November 22nd)

Hello, readers! If you live in America, you might be in a small frenzy of making shopping lists and devising seating charts for your guests; if you don’t, you’re probably bored to tears hearing the rest of us worry about it. But if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that there sure was a lot going on This Week in Videogame Blogging!

It’s About Games Journalism

You may have seen Kotaku’s recent reveal that Ubisoft and Bethesda have blacklisted them. Over at Ars Technica, Kyle Orland responds, exploring the way games journalists and PR interact in a changing news landscape.

Today, the market for gaming information and opinions is far more fragmented. Kotaku remains a major outlet, but many players now get their gaming news and opinions directly from the publishers’ own blogs, from cult-of-personality YouTubers and Twitch streamers, or from a firehose of tidbits that they happen to see on Twitter or Facebook.

Similarly, Stephen Beirne explores the relationship between games journalists and designers in a writeup of his recent Eargoat talk about how games criticism is like cooking a roast chicken dinner.

People Who Need People

A lot of people sat down with a lot of other people this week. First, Critical Distance’s own Eric Swain had Cara Ellison on his podcast to discuss her recently published book Embed With.

At The Mary Sue, Emma Fissenden spoke with Ann Lemay, a current writer for Bioware, on the ins and outs of working with games narratives:

There’s a lot of iteration in our work. There’s a lot of having to let go of ideas you really wanted to run with, there’s trying to make something that needs to be in the game fit, and then there are the times when a plan comes together and you just giggle at yourself and hold your breath while hoping it won’t be need to be cut.

Keith Stuart chatted with Nina Freeman about her recent game Cibele:

Has [Nina] ever been concerned about the implications of putting herself out there so honestly? “Putting myself into these stories in a vulnerable way has definitely taken practice. I’m more and more comfortable with each project. I have learned to separate my present personal life from them, because it could be uncomfortable to feel like critics are talking about me when they talk about the game. Yes, they are talking about me, in a sense, but they are really talking about the character I created based on me. That distinction is important.”

Dean Takahashi at Venturebeat talked to Amy Hennig and Jade Raymond about Star Wars and story in games during the Montreal International Games Summit.

Lastly, at Kill Screen, Chris Priestman interviewed alt games creator Dylan Barry about his newest project, Uriel’s Chasm 2:

Barry didn’t realize that bringing these games to Steam would seemingly offend so many people. He saw in their reaction a familiar “religious behaviour,” as if he had walked into their temple and smashed their stone commandments, which laid out what games were and how they should be… It was for aspects such as this, along with its esoteric narrative and peculiar challenges, that Uriel’s Chasm was labeled “bundleware”… But Barry wore this label as a badge of honor. This is exactly what he was going for. “My aim was to potentially change a person’s life with something made for mass bundling,” he tells me. “I wanted to play right into the pigeon hole I’d been put in, then feel around for the walls, the limitations of exactly what could be achieved in that dark place.”

The Elephants in the Room

AAA is going strong this week, with the recent releases of both Fallout 4 and Rise of the Tomb Raider. At Gamasutra, Simon Parkin looked at the conflict between narrative and violence in games like Tomb Raider, noting how, for instance:

Nathan Drake becomes an unsettling blend of chirpy wise-cracker and insatiable murderer. This kind of observation has become so prevalent with regard to blockbuster games that even its mention in critical writing is now considered cliché.

Carolyn Petit responded to critiques of her Rise of the Tomb Raider review, expressing concern for how players:

[…] are interested in being told that their emotional investment in a particular game, their anticipation of it, the sense of greatness that they have already imbued this particular entertainment product with, are all justified, that the game they have yet to play is indeed going to be fucking awesome.

And at Remeshed, Cassidee Moser used Tomb Raider as a jumping off point to talk about how we portray mental illness in games, finding that “it’s sadly a rarity to see [mental illness] depicted well in media, thanks to various stigmas that have plagued conversations about this topic for decades. But, that doesn’t mean it cannot be found.”

Meanwhile, if Fallout 4 is still taking up most of your time, Zak McClendon praised the jankiness you love to hate over at Wired, boldly claiming:

[R]eviewers and players [are] calling out its creaky engine, poor companion AI, sub-par animation, and many other glitches and bugs. Some see this as a failure of Bethesda to get with the program and embrace modern-day AAA polish. I don’t. Each time a new release is as rough and buggy as those that came before, it shows Bethesda is focused on the right things.

And on a different note, Carli Velocci looks at how Fallout 4’s design grapples with and reimagines the city of Boston.

It’s the Little Things

Many writers went in depth on the bigger meaning of small nuances in games this week. At Not Your Mama’s Gamer, Alex Layne took a deep dive into the role of food in games (see also: Games and Food dot Tumblr –ed). On a similar note, Gita Jackson took to Hopes and Fears to examine furniture.

Several people took a fine-toothed comb to the role of characters in games as well. Sarah Warn asked what the addition of switchable protagonists can offer to diversity in games, finding that “while it’s clearly possible for a strong story, diversity, and switchable protagonists to co-exist, that needle must be threaded very carefully–and not every studio appears to be up to the challenge. At least not yet.”

Back at Kill Screen, Ed Smith worried about how children are presented as characters:

You encounter humanity in games not in people but through simpler, more tangible non-human vectors. You never speak to people, because people are complicated. Instead, you straightforwardly learn about people through architecture, diaries and robots, objects which can purport an essence of humanity but also be used to conveniently sidestep the pressures and expectations of writing and creating a believable human character.

Lauren Clinnick looked at bisexual representation in games, writing that “Being bisexual can feel like you’re a glitch in a game – unintended, invisible to some and annoying to others. A needless complication. Game developers and writers sometimes treat us like this too, intentionally or not.”

Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game

Several writers looked at the role of the player this week. Brendan Keogh imagines videogames without players:

Designed without a human player, the system would work perfectly, without hiccups, and much faster. While the computer can smash out thousands of decisions and act on them in a microsecond, the player has to drag their lumpy fleshy digits from one button to another and press it while also pushing on a thumbstick and thinking about what to do while also not being distracted by a barking dog or the afternoon sun glare on their television screen.

Mattie Brice provided her own counterpoint in her reflections on attending the NYU Game Center’s PRACTICE conference. She exhorts designers to “kill the player” through a self-proclaimed “treatise on dealing with fairness, consumer-player enculturation, and the propagation of imperialist values through the design of games” that runs the gamut of the conference’s conversations.

And Brock Wilbur looked inside himself to consider what it means to shoot virtual and real guns in today’s world:

I don’t think that the video games or even the guns are bad — they’re nothing more or less than beautifully consumer products made for a predominantly male audience — just that they may no longer be good for me. I can’t be alone there. I can’t be the only one starting to suspect that if he’s not a survivor, he’s something awfully close. I can’t be the only one starting to behave accordingly.

Last, Gita Jackson heads over to Paste to reflect on what her experience at Indiecade says about the sustainability of the industry, responding to the recent resignation of Indiecade coordinator John Sharp:

When I got back home, I emptied my backpack and dumped business cards on the floor. It wasn’t that I thought people weren’t happy to meet me or that I didn’t think genuine connections were being made. But I was also very aware that everyone at Indiecade was kind of there to make a sale. It’s the nature of the beast. You want to be an artist, but you have to eat.

And There You Have It

Hopefully this has given you a lot of food for thought (Get it? Ah, you get it…) If there’s something you’d like to see featured, let us know about it on Twitter or over email.

As always, Critical Distance is supported by the generosity of readers like you! If you’d like to help us out, you can make a donation at our Patreon or Recurrency. We also take donations through Paypal now!

November 15th

November 15th, 2015 | Posted by John Kilhefner in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on November 15th)

There wasn’t a whole lot whirring out of the videogame criticism engine this week, but don’t call it getting by on scraps, these delectable morsels are more than satisfying enough.

Contents within presented without filler.

Welcome to This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Rise (and fall) of the Tomb Raider

Carolyn Petit reviews Rise of the Tomb Raider for Feminist Frequency (video), finding it less sadistic in its treatment of Lara Croft’s tribulations, but well short of providing the meaningful psychological context seemingly promised in the original teaser. What’s more, while admiring the sublimity of the game’s environments, Petit notes Rise of the Tomb Raider forces the player to de-emphasize the aesthetic, reducing environments from sublime to a mere container of player plunders.

Petit addresses the backlash to her review in a follow-up on her Tumblr:

Some readers–those, for instance, who attack less-than-glowing reviews of highly anticipated games that haven’t even been released yet and that they haven’t yet had a chance to play–aren’t interested in actual criticism. They are interested in being told that their emotional investment in a particular game, their anticipation of it, the sense of greatness that they have already imbued this particular entertainment product with, are all justified, that the game they have yet to play is indeed going to be fucking awesome.

Fallout 4, Plausibility and Witchcraft 

In contrast, Kill Screen’s Reid McCarter discusses the role of Dogmeat in Fallout 4 as a measure to “keep the player grounded amongst the immensity of Fallout 4’s environments”:

Games like Fallout 4—games with sprawling worlds, in which the player decides when, or if, to take part in specific story beats—differ from the directed narratives of media like film and books. Unlike the carefully selected sentences and exactingly shot scenes that form these narratives, an open world videogame is scattershot in its presentation. Because the player is given freedom to explore the environment in the order and manner they choose, the game’s director can’t ensure that they see everything of importance.

Over at FemHype, Melissa finds legitimate qualms with Fallout 4’s reliance on the heteronormative:

Here’s the thing, though: Fallout 4 isn’t real life … That’s because Fallout 4 is a video game set in a fictional apocalypse based off an American 1950s vision of the future. If they can implement rocket cars and nuclear shelters that can sustain people for hundreds of years, I’m pretty sure they can manage a nonbinary or gay trans person who has a child with their partner …

(FemHype recently bumped its call for reader support, by the way.)

“Video games have to be plausible if you want to suspend disbelief” – at least, that’s what Stanford postdoctoral fellow Sebastian Alvarado remarks to The Guardian’s Will Freeman:

Developers are constantly trying to motivate players in a level by giving their actions purpose and meaning. Scientists have been doing the same to build logic around the natural world – and we’ve done so for centuries. Our team has an edge because our scientific expertise is only matched by a shared passion for science fiction trivia.

While back at FemHype, Josephine Maria looks at witches in Skyrim and Dragon Age, exploring the way folklore is employed as media additive, drawing on the historical to overturn our assumptions or keeling under the weight of archetypal assumptions:

Skyrim draws heavily on witch folklore for its cast of magic users who are women, though they exist primarily in side quests and as faceless antagonists. An issue with any open world game produced on the AAA level is that deadlines and the sheer size of the game leave many elements feeling either too formulaic or unsatisfactorily explored.

“War Has Changed”

Jack Muncy’s write-up of Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 for Wired discusses the annual shooter’s “brutal body horror” in a convoluted plot that awkwardly toes the line between cookie-cutter science fiction and cutting-edge real-world technology: “Meanwhile, Darpa is experimenting with everything from exoskeletons to the sort of fantastical, bio-integrated tech featured in Black Ops III.

Over at Unwinnable, James Murff finds Black Ops 3’s departure from binary plot constraints of old a welcome change:

This plot setup allows Call of Duty to explore themes of human augmentation, mental breakdown, the nature of sentience and even the afterlife. While it doesn’t approach them as intelligently as a cyberpunk novel such as Neuromancer or Snow Crash, it’s far smarter and more strange than a Call of Duty game has any right being.

Politics as Usual 

Not Your Mama’s Gamer details an anonymous reader’s two-part account of sexism while working at a major game studio:

I was told that I’d get ahead in the company by sleeping my way to the top, and it turned out that rejecting at least one advance definitely affected my ability to get ahead. Additionally, I had to deal with receiving inappropriate comments, and, afraid of being flagged as unprofessional, I silently dealt with the fact that an ex-boyfriend working in the same office told me he counted how many times a day he passed my desk without me seeing him. In the end, I felt lucky that I didn’t have to deal with inappropriate touching or overt demands.

At Gamasutra, Chris Baker took the year’s biggest videogame copyright ruling to task, examining the impact of the U.S. Copyright Office’s new ruling on copyright restrictions in games:

Of course, the elephant in the room is that jailbreaking consoles and circumventing game authentication is commonplace nowadays. People are doing it all the time for purposes of entertainment, research, education, and art projects. But anyone worried about the legal (and ethical) questions surrounding this has had to refrain from doing so. This was particularly true for museums and libraries.

Over at FemHype, author Rachel W. talks identity and inclusivity in Read Only Memories:

Read Only Memories is a celebration of diversity and features many LGBTQIA+ characters. You work with a detective who is your sister’s ex-girlfriend, two street punks are hinted as being boyfriends, and a character who flaunts a big moustache and a beard uses she/her pronouns. Every character’s sexual and gender identity is not made completely obvious and, more importantly, it does not define their character.

A Grand Design

Let’s talk design, and what better a perspective to hear it from than a designers? Keezy Young, writing for Remeshed, takes a look at the design of eight female characters and what makes them standout:

If a character wears heavy makeup and silks and coiffed hair, maybe it’s that they value their appearance, or are in a position where their looks are important to maintain authority or popularity. If they’re covered in scars and nicked armor, it tells you that they’re probably battle-hardened, and used to close combat fighting. When you start mix-and-matching design attributes, you can get some really interesting subtext—a warrior with scars and nicked armor who also carefully applies makeup and wears a nice silk scarf, for instance, is someone I want to find more about. Why do they care about their appearance even on the battlefield? Were they always a warrior, or did they have a different background? Is there someone they want to impress or look nice for?

Guess what’s out? Unwinnable Weekly issue 69, continuing a series profiling Unreal developer grants in “Revving the Engine: Planet Alpha 31”:

There are many sources that inspired the visuals of Planet Alpha 31 — from ancient Greek architecture to the vintage look of Star Trek, Alien and Aliens to the amazing futuristic design found in cities like Singapore to space photography — we live in an amazing world with no shortage of inspiring sights.

Elsewhere, Ross Keniston falls for a new character in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate – Evie Frye – what with her “bad-assery” and clear familial dominance within the brother-sister dynamic Syndicate employs.

Heading over to U.S. Gamer, Jeremy Parish interviewed Mega Man mastermind and Comcept President Keiji Inafune, picking his brain on the Tokyo Games Show and Mighty No. 9; while at Pop Optiq Seth Shepard profiles Nina Freeman’s catalog of “vignette games.”

Over at Gamasutra, Josh Bycer talks challenges of asymmetrical balance in artificial intelligence; specifically, what designers get right and wrong about designing AI that is beatable without being disadvantaged and competitive without being overpowered.

But it’s not just the AI, the mere act of playing a game can be challenging to the non-initiated, as written by Radical Helmet for Plus 10 to Fire Resist:

As people who’ve been playing videogames for a good chunk of our lives, it’s easy for us to forget just how intimidating they can be for outsiders. I’m not talking the subject matter, either (although that can be a problem), but just the fundamental act of playing a game. The modern controller has two clickable analog sticks, four face buttons, four triggers at least, a d-pad and extra buttons for functions like pausing or bringing up a home menu, and the modern game routinely expects you to take advantage of most if not all of these features. Trying to get these people to play a PC game isn’t much easier, and just serves to remind us that these devices weren’t actually invented to play videogames, and that we’ve essentially had to hack the existing setup to make it work.

Oh, did you know that Carl Sagan, who would have been 81 on Nov. 9, dabbled in game design? Here’s Alex Wawro discussing “a rough design document” Sagan developed for a videogame version of his novel Contact (which was also adapted as a criminally underrated movie -ed).

And congrats to Brendan Keogh who released his finished PhD thesis online, which is “about videogames, what bodies do with them, and what they do with bodies.”


While short, I hope you found this week’s selection uncovered gems that may have otherwise flown under your radar.

That’s what we’re here for.

As always, your submissions keep the Critical Distance gears grinding, so hit us up on Twitter or email, or both if that’s your style.

As you’ve probably noticed, C-D is completely ad-free, so we encourage our readers to support us on Patreon, Recurrency or even with one-time payments via PayPal.

And if you’re already a patron, please, for the sake of the new senior curator we’re currently recruiting, keep up the support!

November 8th

November 8th, 2015 | Posted by Joe Köller in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on November 8th)

Why hello there! Two, Three, Four…

Did you know that Persona 4: Dancing All Night was finally released in my part of the world this weekend? Step, step, spin!

Yet, ever your dutiful servant, my dear discerning reader, here I am taking a break from dance practice to provide you with the latest in games criticism.

It’s Time To Make History!

I mean, it’s This Week In Videogame Blogging!

Fever time!

All About the Benjamin Abrahams

Earlier this week, Kill Screen, one of the pioneers of crowd-funded games writing, launched a new Kickstarter to bring back their print magazine. On Twitter, talk among games writers turned to the site’s poor rates and the question of whether or not fair compensation had been factored into the budgeting for this new project. The conversation inspired a crowd-sourced spreadsheet of games writing outlets and their respective rates, which beautifully complements our own recently published list of contacts for new writers.

Unwinnable’s Stu Horvath added a detailed response to the discussion, connecting these issues to the horrors of a consolidated media landscape:

Writers no longer create stories, they develop clickable content. A solitary piece of content is almost valueless – who in their right mind would pay for 150 words summarizing a press release? – which allows media companies to buy them in bulk for cheap. As the threshold for advertising profitability continues to rise, the rate of pay for content producers necessarily shrinks in proportion, despite increased demand. […]

This is how our world ends, with advertisers paying tiny fractions of cents for people to visit stories no one wants to read, written by soul-crushed drones getting paid fractions of fractions of cents for their trouble. Eventually, one of those fractions will shrink so small that is ceases to exist. That is the heat death of the written word.

For more information on the subject of bad media practices, consider Anne Theriault’s recent article on the ethics of mining Twitter for private stories. If you want to learn more about the pressures of unsustainable piecework, you may be interested in Kathi Schönfelder’s German writeup of CHESTO – At the Checkout.

The Gender Agenda

Phil Hartup on the New Statesman criticizes developers’ attempts to justify sexualized outfits for female characters via lore:

At some point a developer should just admit that, as unfashionable and hackneyed as it is, they want attractive female characters in a game because they want their game to have attractive female characters in it. This admission would not bring the end of civilisation, it would not cause frogs to rain from the sky; it would just be honest.

Instead, we see developers choose to cook up these asinine justifications within the game, because they’d rather shred what little internal logic their game had than admit that an attractive female character was put into the game because they wanted one there.

On the flipside of things, Brian Cebulski provides us with a detailed writeup of (certain mainstream) videogames’ bonds with Hollywood masculinity.

On a more positive note, Riley MacLeod gives us a brief look at Naomi Clark’s Consentacle, Jake Muncy writes about the expressive power of Nina Freeman’s Cibele and Simone de Rochefort talks about Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate‘s portrayal of Evie Frye on the recently launched Remeshed.

On the German side of things, Rae Grimm looks at how the game industry is slowly beginning to cater to teenage girls, while Ally Auner chastises Fallout: Shelter for its gender stereotypes.

With Fallout 4 nearly upon us, Gamasutra’s Alex Wawro takes a look at the development history of the series.

“One of the biggest, and most visual bugs, was the car trunk bug,” says Urquhart, relating a Pratchett-esque tale of a trunk run amok.

Speaking of history, here is David Craddock interviewing a ROM hacker known as infidelity about their craft.

More interviews you say? Leigh Alexander recently spoke to Kitty Horrorshow, Tobias Unterhuber of Paidia talked to The Fullbright Company’s Karla Zimonja and Latoya Peterson interviewed rather a lot of people to look at some of the reasons why women make games (video).

Meanwhile, Vic Bassey talks about the development of Shelter 2, and Samantha Kalman and Liz England discuss The Beginner’s Guide.

Also: videogames

Writing about the final episode of Life is Strange, Ayla Arthur criticizes the game’s callous treatment of its queer characters (Content Warning: discussion of suicide). On Indie Haven, Simon Rankin writes about playing through the game together with a friend and how their relationship mirrors the central friendship of Max and Chloe.

Michael Lutz writes about his problems with Undertale and how it communicates its philosophy to players. Spoilers aplenty in the full article.

my biggest criticism of Undertale is that for a good portion of it to make sense you have to do the thing the game expressly does not want you to do; the implied player of the best ending just accepts things on blind faith and never questions or investigates the metaphysics of it all.

Kate Cox has written an extensive post about music in Dragon Age: Inquisition and how it is used to emphasize story points.

Naomi Alderman argues that games don’t have to teach us things to be worthwhile.

Here’s Leigh Alexander, again, this time talking about Twitch’s Bob Ross marathon.

Problem Machine looked at some of the issues with dialogue systems in a short post on talking simulators.

On Video Game Tourism, Eron Rauch is now at part seven of his exhaustive series on the MOBA genre, this time addressing how issues of spectacle affect professional play.

History Respawned is joined by Jeffrey Wasserstrom to discuss the Boxer uprising in connection to Bioshock Infinite (video).

Your Affection

That’s it for this week friends!

Thank you all so much for submitting interesting finds to us on Twitter or by email, it really makes our lives a lot easier and helps us make sure we don’t forget anything important besides.

If you want to help us out even more, please consider supporting us on Patreon. Our curation effort depends entirely on your generous support.

Last but not least, we are looking for a new senior curator! Head on over here to learn more about the position, and be sure to drop us a line if you’re interested.


November 1st

November 1st, 2015 | Posted by Mark Filipowich in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on November 1st)

Hello once again friends of games criticism. I hope that if you indulged in international cosplay-and-candy day that you had an extra special night with some extra special people, if your celebrations skewed less North American then I hope you enjoyed an extra special Saturday. Once again it is my pleasure to bring you a new edition of This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Shocking Bios

A number of writers remain intrigued by Bioshock Infinite and continue to write engaging pieces exploring it. Amsel von Spreckelsen pens one such piece focusing on Bioshock as “temperance fiction” like the 1956 film, Carousel (Content Warning: domestic violence, alcoholism, incest):

It is a fairly common mechanism of patriarchy that violence against women is framed as being bad, by and for the understanding of men, on the premise that ‘you wouldn’t want this to happen to your daughter,’ that a victim is ‘somebody’s daughter.’ Fundamentally what this says is that men can apparently only view women as an object in relation to a man, not as a person in their own right.

Gadgette’s gamer-in-chief, Emma Boyle, asks why feminine clothing is so polarised in games, using Bioshock Infinite as the prime example of how feminine sexuality is either neutral or monstrous with no compromise:

A fear of female sexuality runs throughout Bioshock Infinite; Elizabeth’s first outfit infantilises her; she’s locked away from the public who think of her as nothing more than a holy infant; her powers (which are supposed to reach their height after her first period) are seen as frightening. It’s significant, therefore, that after she kills, as she becomes a character who acts through violence, a cold self-assured woman determined to get revenge and exercise the full extent of her powers unrestricted, she changes into a more sexualised outfit. The game really seems to tie female sexuality and female power together. Elizabeth’s outfit is feminine throughout the game, but the femininity is used to either highlight her as harmless or a dangerous threat.

Games That Could Have Been

Chris Suellentrop of Kotaku looks back at articles from 2006 anticipating Spore and compares the hype to articles on No Man’s Sky that promise a similar intellectual revolution.

Instead of transforming the human race’s understanding of itself, or even our understanding of video games, Spore became the last game—at the moment, at least—that Will Wright ever designed. Alongside Howard Scott Warshaw’s E.T.Spore became a punchline, a game remembered only for being a letdown.

Konstantinos Dimopoulos on Gamasutra goes over the design notes for Kyttaro, the RPG he and a small team had been developing for over a year and will probably never be able to finish.

Friendship! (Friendship? Again?)

Two conference talks from the last week highlight some of the more nuanced problems in forming/maintaining game communities. Dietrich “Squinky” Squinkifer’s published talk from Indiecade 2015 illustrating how developing a game is ultimately for the people who it will speak to:

Like I said earlier, I make games for people, but making games for people doesn’t mean only giving them what they want. It means challenging them. It means expanding their idea of what a game can be. And not everyone’s going to understand, but some people will. And those people make it all worthwhile.

In a similar vein, our lead curator, Kris Ligman, transcribed their talk from QGCon discussing sex, Dark Souls and community gatekeeping. While I took their advice in the epigraph to not “take this too seriously” I still found enough gems that I couldn’t help but include it here:

It seems funny to me that even within my own social circles, frequently self-identified as progressive and inclusive, we police each other in this way. ‘What do you mean you haven’t played this critical darling indie game because you work two full-time jobs to keep a roof over your head, and even if you could play a game in your off hours your machine is too outdated to run it? What do you mean a game is too physically demanding for you, and you already can’t afford to go to the doctor? What do you mean you’re just not into that sort of game?’

Digital Architecture

Brian Crimmins at First-Person Scholar takes a look at Phantasy Star II’s dungeon and town layouts as narrative devices:

…when we analyze the game’s dungeon design, we see a series of shifts according to the narrative’s demands. These shifts complement the narrative, exploring new facets of the game’s themes and suggesting new developments where the narrative remains silent.

I wonder if Robert What would agree that videogame architecture is more about the expression of culture than a reflection of reality. His response to Deanna Van Buren’s piece on digital architecture from earlier this month suggests that he wants more games to appreciate the ideology that builds our buildings even before the blueprints are drawn:

Perhaps from a professional architect’s viewpoint games may not be up to Standard™, but then some people also wonder what role architects and their glittering technological visions have in the actual construction of edifices to modern hyper-capital

The Code Speaks

From Ludus Novus, Gregory Avery-Weir explains how Skyrim’s city of Riften is doomed to perpetual crime and poverty because the thieves and thugs running it are “essential” in the game’s code and therefore can’t be removed:

When games portray fictional worlds, they make implicit statements about the nature of the real world. By placing the Thieves Guild — one of the game’s three major employers — in a corrupt town ruled by a coldhearted mead magnate, Skyrim makes a statement about criminals and morality. Criminals come from bad places, and there’s nothing you can do to improve the situation.

Writing for FemHype, the writer known as Nightmare describes how the pacifist possibilities in Undertale make it such an inviting game, especially for the LGBT+ community.

Kill Screen’s Jess Joho is sceptical of the tech demo for Detroit: Become Human. Like many works with developer David Cage’s signature on it, Detroit seems as though its best ideas are lost in the game’s overall thematic clumsiness:

In the trailer to Detroit: Become Human, a half-assed allusion to slavery is attempted instead—I think? (I hope not, but I think so.) With the title’s uncomfortable juxtaposition of Detroit—a city known for its history of race riots and current race-related drug, education, and housing problems—and the tagline “Become Human,” coupled with the heavily implied metaphor to slavery, Quantic Dreams appear to be drawing unavoidable parallels.

Last word on this topic goes to Bianca Batti of Not Your Mama’s Gamer, who discusses mama’s in gaming. Batti argues that horror games like Among the Sleep and Alien: Isolation need to explore representations of motherhood outside a hard binary between victims and monsters:

In these two texts, motherhood becomes binaristically constructed between the two poles of good mothering and bad mothering, with no other options for maternal identity made available.

Championing Ordinary

Vincent Kinian writes on his blog, Game Exhibition, that more games need to explore “the minutia of ordinary life.” Kinian comes to this conclusion based on a review of Ihatovo Monogatari, a SNES adaptation of Kenji Miyazawa’s short stories.

Similarly, back on Kill Screen Frances Chiem argues that the “gut punch” of futility in Life is Strange’s conclusion is effective because Max doesn’t get to be the hero. As the title of Chiem’s article succinctly argues, “We Need to Stop Letting Everyone Save the World.”

Metal Gear Sordid

Writing for PopMatters, Scott Juster describes how, despite his best efforts while playing Metal Gear Solid V, he found himself falling into the exact military-industrial complex he had hoped to bring down:

By the time that I reached the third (!) set of credits, I had unwittingly participated in a series of events that was disturbingly similar to how the history of modern war, industrialism, and colonialism played out in our world.

Finally we return to FemHype, where Melissa has catalogued some of the fan art that reimagines the outfit of Quiet, the game’s notoriously underdressed sniper.

[Insert Closing Pun]

That’ll do it for me. Which is good, because after munching away at all this candy I think I’m hitting a sugar crash.

That doesn’t mean we’re finished here, though. Oh no. Keep a close eye in the next few days while I round up October’s Blogs of the Round Table and Lindsey Joyce wraps up a month of Let’s Plays and comes up with a theme for November’s BoRT.

If you’re feeling impatient, feel free to check out Eric Swain’s latest minisode, where he and Nick Dinicola talk about their favourite indie horror games.

All our projects at Critical Distance rely on suggestions and input from you, our community of readers, so please follow and keep in touch with us by email or through twitter. If you want to go an extra step to support us you can contribute monthly support to our Patreon or Recurrency to fund our existing and growing projects. If you aren’t able to make a monthly commitment we now also accept one-time donations through Paypal.

With that I think it’s time for me to sign off and start scouring my apartment for a vegetable to ease my chocolate-coated conscience.

October 25th

October 25th, 2015 | Posted by Mark Filipowich in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on October 25th)

Hello readers of games criticism! With Kris at Indiecade you may be wondering whether or not we can keep this ship afloat without them. That’s a great question! In response I’d like you to turn your attention away from how late this roundup is and get hyped for another This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Design Notes

Over at Gamasutra, Urbain Bruno explains how he and the rest of Fishing Cactus developed a narrative voice for their game, Epistory. Bruno’s article is brief but it’s a good case of a game deliberately playing with narrative convention:

We wanted to try and do something a bit more subtle and seamless: using a single voice that represents all the narration. We’ve tried to do this by presenting the story as a work-in-progress and showing the writer’s edits.

Also on Gamasutra, Pierre-Alaxandre Garneu interviews prolific analogue and digital game designer Richard Garfield.

Writing for The New Republic, Kevin Nguyen argues to grant famed Metal Gear Solid auteur Hideo Kojima the dubious honor of being the Jonathan Franzen of videogames. For Nguyen,

The seams are pretty obvious because Kojima is stitching together so many disparate elements; the word “overstuffed” comes to mind. (Not coincidentally, it’s a word that showed up repeatedly in reviews of [Franzen’s] Purity.)

Oh Girls Just Wanna Have [a greater presence in the fiction they engage with]

Fusion’s Latoya Peterson begins her series “Girl Gamers” by exploring the conditions a person has to meet to earn the label.

Teddie at the always-excellent Fem Hype expresses frustration with the limited gender options in most character creation systems. For Teddie, establishing their hero’s gender outside the constraints of a binary is necessary to feeling welcome in the experience:

But the fact that some games have trans-friendly character creation goes a long way. I don’t need sweeping plotlines about my [original character]’s gender—I’m happy with just some basic representation. A game that doesn’t assume my character fits neatly into the gender binary, a character creation screen that gives me the option not to buy into that. If I want to conform to the gender binary, let it be on my own terms.

I suspect that Alex Layne of the equally-excellent Not Your Mama’s Gamer would agree, based on her own call for more complicated and comprehensive representation of human experiences in games:

One of the reasons I started this blog along with Sam [Blackmon] was because I was sick of not being considered a consumer in the eyes of the people who make the games, not being considered a real gamer by the community, and not seeing the types of games I like (ones with strong female protagonists that aren’t sexualized) being given enough shelf space.

Turning to analogue play, Jess Joho at Kill Screen pens a brief report of toy company Mattel, maker of Barbie and their new ad campaign boasting girls can “do anything.” As Joho concludes,

More than just empowering young girls, though, the commercial tells of the importance of uninhibited play for all children. By demonstrating just how powerful a simple role-playing game can be, Mattel is not only saying that girls matter, but also that play matters…

Forms of Narrative

On her blog, TransGamer Thoughts, Heather Alexandra pokes fun at the structures of games stories while offering her own spin on how games communicate values and stories.

Paste Magazine all-star, Gita Jackson, considers the formal storytelling of Crusader Kings, describing its verisimilitude as unique in gaming’s current landscape:

Other games go so far out of their way to indicate that you’re winning that they become boring. It stops being fun to win when I know I’m close. Sometimes you just need one bite of a candy bar before you throw it away. Crusader Kings doesn’t tell you anything, doesn’t even really ask anything of you. Like the real world it is replicating, it just kicks you out the door.

As a guest on Haywire Magazine, Melody Meows investigates the blurry divide between human and machine in SOMA. A particularly glittery gem in an article filled with glittering gems:

The machine ends when there is no clear objective left to achieve. The human, as we have seen, begins with the excess: the reality of being left behind when the objective has been achieved and disappears. It’s the reality of being alive when there is nothing left to do, a reality in which the body remains in its irreducible, useless materiality.

Oh Mark, You and Your JRPGs

In a different light, Leeroy Lewin of Vextro Forever muses on the violent ideologies at the heart of JRPGs and wonders if there is an alternative mode of thinking about their systems. Here’s a long passage that I think captures a lot of what Lewin’s argues:

Role-playing games are a poison, but they are intoxicating. In a role-playing game, I’m quantifiably right. Everything hostile is determined evil. It is a moral imperative, and an ethical binary, to kill. These creatures are called monsters, it’s authored and determined for me what the interpretation of a monster is. A jrpg is so often intimately political and yet clearly destructive to nuanced politics of the interpersonal. And so I’ll tell myself, these monsters are abstractions, they’re trials, they measure a personal struggle. I’ll tell myself, if it was so willed to be, maybe the divinely right can exist. Divinity is captured, it’s real, in the fiber of a jrpg. Divinity is a tool of oppression, it always has been, and I’m not sure it can even be tentatively reclaimed.

A related thought comes from Vincent Kinian at Gaming Exhibition, who works out his own mixed feelings in a retrospective of one of his favourite JRPGs, Phantasy Star II, which he concludes stating, “It’s not enough to simply point out that there’s a problem. We have to remember what led us to the problem in the first place, something Phantasy Star II achieves beautifully.”

The most recent issue (66 for those keeping track) of Unwinnable features four essays of videogame criticism. It was a challenge picking a favorite but to keep with the heading, I’ll offer this paragraph from Rob Haines’s look back at The World Ends With You:

Empathy isn’t just an unintended side-effect of the Reapers’ Game, but a prerequisite for the emotional maturity Neku must attain before he – and his newfound friends – can bring the Game to its necessary conclusion. The Game acts as both a literal and symbolic purgatory through which he must pass to enter adulthood, but as the Game begins to unravel around him, he discovers its true purpose: to judge whether humankind deserves its continued existence. If the kid who wanted nothing to do with other people is now unable to prove their inherent worth to the godlike figures passing judgment, there may be no adulthood for him to return to.

Back in My Day

Two articles take on similar perspectives on nostalgia-driven design trends, especially in independent circles. FemHype’s June approves of yesteryear’s games and contemporary attempts to recapture their lost magic:

I’d be lying if I said nostalgia wasn’t a huge part of the allure for me. However, I think the retro gaming resurgence is due to much more than a collective yearning for the sanctuary of our simple childhoods. When I look at the unabashed joy of retro gamers, I think it’s due to stressing gaming as gaming first and foremost with no strings attached, and very little gimmicks.

Gaming Symmetry’s Alice Kojiro, while skeptical of retreading old ground for its own sake, lauds the imaginative potential early console games:

It’s not that the Bit Wars didn’t expand upon games and make them better, but because graphics were so much better, there were far fewer unknowns. It was those unknowns that made gaming back in the 8-bit era seem so magical.

The Low Bar

Jed Pressgrove appears in Paste to discuss the silliness of most bloody videogames in comparison with a few examples that treat bloodletting with an appropriate gravitas:

Depending on context, the sight of blood can activate different parts of the human condition or imagination. On the one hand, blood can bring us to real grips with our mortality. On the other, it can be feed a bloodlust or, more condescendingly, meet the lowest common denominator in emotional and visceral manipulation

Expressing a different but equally relevant frustration, Rob Fearon has had enough romanticizing the unpaid labor that goes into making videogames and would like us to start calling it what it is:

If staff are having to take loans out to survive the winter, not management sorting funding out to pay the staff (and a Kickstarter totes doesn’t count), this is broken and wrong. I’m sorry, there’s no two ways about this, it’s broken and wrong. I don’t get much further on it, yeah? Broken. Wrong.

Articles I Wanted to Add But Couldn’t Otherwise Fit Under a Common Theme

Jeffrey Matluf on Eurogamer offers compelling praise for the romance subplots of Life is Strange, particularly the one involving the socially incompetent Warren.

We’re so used to being Warren – strategizing what somebody wants to hear so that you can “win” a relationship – that we’re seldom put in the other position of trying to minimize tension in an inherently tense situation.

Our very own Riley MacLeod contributes to The Ontological Geek’s series on mental health in gaming with this article on Bioshock Infinite and traumatic feedback loops (Content warning: PTSD). MacLeod summarizes the struggle both the protagonist and villain suffer as a self-perpetuating cycle:

Neither Comstock nor Booker are good men. They’ve done terrible things, and they deal with their pasts by continuing to do terrible things, to other people and to themselves. For both of them, trauma and their responses become a feedback loop that gets harder and harder to break out of with each go around. Comstock’s dunk in the river and Booker’s seemingly straightforward mission are both the same, the lie we reach for in any struggle.

Zack Fair has 24 interconnected theses about The Beginner’s Guide that also doubles as a pretty good summary of what other writers have said about the game so far.

Cool People Doing Cool Things

The man behind Normally Rascal, Stephen Beirne, is putting together a list of critical games writing that explores race and ethnicity from a non-North American perspective. Check it out and consider helping Mr. Beirne fill this gap in our discourse.

Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson have collected an all-star list of writers for a book of collected essays, The State of Play: Creators and Critics on Video Game Culture.

If your interests skew more to the social sciences, Rachel Kowert and Thorsten Quandt have also edited a book of videogame essays called The Video Game Debate: Unravelling the Physical, Social, and Psychological Effects of Video Games.

Anyone looking for some extra-curricular reading is encouraged to take a look so long as they don’t re-open the videogame/video game debate.

Show Notes

Well, that’s about it for me. It’s still Sunday here but in the event that the world has continued to spin, let’s all just keep quiet the next time Kris is around and no one will be the wiser.

If you’re looking for more reading than be sure to take a look at our compilation of articles exploring Samus Aran curated by the lovely and intelligent Grayson Davis.

If you’re already through with that than be sure to pass along video recommendations to Lindsey Joyce for this month’s Critical Let’s Plays roundup using the hashtag #LetsPlayCD either on her twitter account or, if you’re feeling official, the official Critical Distance account.

If you’re gunning to get your own games criticism out there then take a look at this month’s Blogs of the Round Table where we welcome any piece on the subject of ‘Leadership.’

Alternatively, maybe you’re looking to pitch elsewhere on this worldwide web. Well you’re in luck because Critical Distance also has a growing resource page filled with online publications eagerly awaiting your pitches.

Wow. I’ll be honest with you readers. This week was a heck of a busy one, for us at Critical Distance and for the writers of games criticism all over. Between new features and commissioned compilations this has been a busy house!

If you like what we do around here and you want to be a part of our growth, any support you can offer to our Patreon or Recurrency would help us out immensely. If you aren’t able to commit to monthly support, we now also accept one-time donations through Paypal.

I would like to thank you all for reading and my cat for sitting in front of my monitor for only half of this writing process.

October 18th

October 18th, 2015 | Posted by John Kilhefner in This Week in Videogame Blogging: - (Comments Off on October 18th)

Is there really anything you look forward to more on a Sunday than our roundup? I think not. Welcome to This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Why Do You Keep Coming Back?

Over at Video Game Heart, Grayson Davis doesn’t find bad design in videogames to be all that bad:

Bad design isn’t always always without value. On the contrary, Mario Maker is an amazing tool. Much like listening to someone describe their dreams, the Mario Maker experience is a fragmented mess, […] So video game producers and art directors put them in their creations to draw on that shorthand.

Meanwhile, Tim Conkling makes a salient point of the perception of design:

The notion that design is intellectually relevant is uncontroversial. Nobody would ever seriously write off, for example, an Eames chair or a Gehry building; whether these objects fit some random definition of “art” is inconsequential to their perceived cultural value. But outside the industry, I don’t think that games are really understood as designed objects.

Kill Screen’s Jake Muncy reviews Undertale and confronts a moral dissonance between playing the game in a way that feels true to his own interpretation, finding his morality at the whims of the game’s mechanics itself. “Every boss fight was not a question of, ‘Do I want to kill this individual?'” he said. “It was a question of, ‘Can I solve this puzzle? Do I have the resources to survive long enough to deliver mercy before Game Over?'”

Quintin Smith believes videogames ought to borrow more from board games, while Filip Wiltgren ponders the differences between tabletop games and videogames.

Meanwhile, the latest edition of Unwinnable Weekly features Taylor Hidalgo yearning for the days of couch co-op gameplay:

If nothing else, simply having another set of eyes in the room changes the way I interpret myself. In a vacuum, we don’t question any aspect of ourselves. They’re just reflexive. With an audience, everything we take for granted comes screaming to the forefront, carrying with it aspects of our consciousness we were previously entirely unaware of.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain 

(Content Warning: spoilers.)

In “The Wolf in Snake’s Clothing: Metal Gear’s Twisted Hero,” Jeffrey Matulef discusses the unreliable narrator in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, which allows Snake to do “horrible and badass” things without being held accountable; and Matulef also questions whether the Metal Gear series can go on without Hideo Kojima.

Who Do You Think You Are?

At FemHype, Ashley Lynn’s interpretation of Assassin’s Creed’s Ezio leads to an exploration of how women are presented within Ezio’s world, and Nico W. reveals in The Mary Sue how she discovered her sexuality through Borderlands 2:

It was without a doubt one of the most enlightening experiences of my life, and as I read through story after story that could have all been written by me, I felt a weight lifting off my shoulders. I had been wrong—I wasn’t broken—I was just asexual. It quite honestly changed my life.

And I had a freakin’ FPS to thank for it…

But not everybody can see themselves revealed through games, as Kotaku’s Evan Narcisse explains how black hairstyles have become “visual shorthand” for a number of outlandish tropes:

‘See, our black character is spiritual. Or edgy. Or threatening. Threateningly edgy in a spiritual way. What’s that?! An Afro?! Boy, this black guy must really funny! Get ready to laugh at him, players!’ Look at a natural and what do you think? ‘Boy, that sure is… middle of the road.’

Not Your Mama’s Gamer continues putting out excellent content, as Alex Layne comments on a culture of entitlement and “participation medals” as facilitators of aggression, specifically against women in the gaming world:

Women don’t need participation medals. We fight every fucking day to gain an inch more at the table, to gain one more penny toward equal pay, to gain some semblance of control over our own bodies. We have never been entitled to the world, so we work for our medals.

Heads up: NYMG also introduced a new feature about race and representation — The Invisibility Blues — launched with this video.

Culture Shock

At The Guardian, Naomi Alderman talks about the importance of cultural education in videogames, and why it’s not cool to claim “intellectual superiority” for knowing nothing about video games:

But more aggravating even than this are the forums, summits, breakout sessions and seminars on ‘digital literature’ run by exceedingly well-meaning arts people who can talk for hours about what the future might be for storytelling in this new technological age – whether we might produce hyperlinked or interactive or multi-stranded novels and poems — without apparently noticing that video games exist. And they don’t just exist! They’re the most lucrative, fastest-growing medium of our age.

When it comes to games literacy, Ed Smith takes a stab at The Beginner’s Guide, where he states:

Compartmentalizing games into items with meanings, or aggrandizing them as pristine, not-for-touching rarities, smacks of fear, a kind of potted, exaggerated mock appreciation typical of somebody who has never felt anything genuine for artwork at all.

As for cultural appreciation, Jess Joho notes how videogames are keeping the symphony orchestra from obsolescence, with The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses attracting twice the amount of concert-goers than the average classical symphony event.

(Content Warning: Descriptions of racial discrimination and sexual abuse)

At Vice Motherboard, Andrew Paul finally discovers Minecraft, but while in the game’s 2b2t server, Paul enters an “… unforgiving cyber-wasteland, a hellish, pixelated world where one wrong step will lead not only to my death, but to public shaming of my virtual ignorance, as well.” And Go Make Me a Sandwich posted about “cringe-inducingly racist” games that actually find funding on Kickstarter. It’s not pretty.

Elsewhere, former developer turned pub owner Jon Blyth compares the games industry to the alcohol business:

Then there are the people who say Her Story, Gone Home and so on aren’t “games”. We’ve got that with Craft Beer – eye-rolling at the fizzy upstart, tutting at the genre-stretching novelty of a Chocolate Aniseed IPA, and wincing as the high price of craft beer collides hard with the preconception of craft brewers as privileged hipsters. Conservatism is ugly, whatever the size of the C. Let’s just all get drunk on whatever we enjoy and make out in the toilets.

Sadly, Jessica Curry, Director and Composer of The Chinese Room, explains why she is leaving the studio behind, due to a combination of a degenerative disease and toxicity in the games industry:

On a personal level I look back at my huge contribution to the games that we’ve made and I have had to watch Dan get the credit time and time again. I’ve had journalists assuming I’m Dan’s PA, I have been referenced as “Dan Pinchbeck’s wife” in articles, publishers on first meeting have automatically assumed that my producer is my boss just because he’s a man, one magazine would only feature Dan as Studio Head and wouldn’t include me. When Dan has said “Jess is the brains of the operation” people have knowingly chuckled and cooed that it’s nice of a husband to be so kind about his wife. I don’t have enough paper to write down all of the indignities that I’ve faced.

(End content warning section.)

From the Expert Blogs of Gamasutra, Shaun Leach discusses trust, accountability and the concept of creating a ”strong ownership model,” while over at Unwinnable Jeremiah Cheney contemplates the impact of voice acting on the games industry.

Creators need platforms to get their games into the hands of players, but as David Gallant is experiencing with his creation I Get This Call Every Day, that is difficult to do when the marketplace your game is on is in the midst of a collapse:

Unlike almost every other storefront I have used thus far, Desura decided to completely anonymize customer data … If I had access to those addresses, I could very easily migrate those customers over to Humble or and ensure that they retain access to their purchases and future updates. But I don’t.

Until We Meet Again

That’s it for this weekend’s roundup, but if you’re interested in unearthing a time capsule of games writing, check out this archive of GameZero, a zine which ran from 1992-96, edited by Bryan under the pseudonym R.I.P.

If you’re a writer currently looking for work, check out our Resources for Writers page, and please send us any articles, videos or podcasts through email or Twitter.

And remember, we’re funded by your generosity, so a monthly pledge through Patreon or Recurrency goes a long way to bringing you the best games writing on the web every week!

October 11th

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

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

The Beginner’s Guide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mirrors, Windows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dev Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

All Ashore Who’s Going Ashore

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

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

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

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

October 4th

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

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

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

I’ll Take My Steak Medium-Rare, Thanks

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

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

Down In the Nitty-Gritty

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

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

Beyond ‘Empathy’

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

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


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

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

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

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

The Map and the Territory

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

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

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

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

Breathe In, Breathe Out

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

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

Until Next Time

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

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

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

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

September 27th

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

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

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

This Funny Thing Called Curation

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

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

Industry Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

The SAG-AFTRA Strike

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

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

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

How We Relate to Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

War Has Changed, War Never Changes

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

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

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

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

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

September 20th

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

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

Making Marios

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get It in Writing

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

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

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

Design Notes

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

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

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

Keeping It 1800s

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


(The cheese wheels were in the kitchen.)

And The Rest, They Say, Is–

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

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

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

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