Abstract image evoking bird silhouette

Hello world. It has been a strange and wonderful week, both within videogame writing and criticism and without. But we are only interested in the within because it’s time for This Week In Videogames Blogging.

And here to lead the charge is an entertainingly sweary Kieron Gillen and John Walker at Rock Paper Shotgun arguing about Limbo, and whether or not the game is made from a ‘dickish’ design strategy. Gillen:

[Saying] “it’s your problem not the game’s,” is a silly argument. Of course it is. It’s like me saying you giving Magna Cum Laude 3% for its outrageous sexism was your problem, not the game’s. Something can be completely accomplished in what it’s trying to do and still be rejected, because the philosophy the object expresses is vile.

Strong stuff whether you agree with Gillen or Walker. Possessing a similar strength of conviction this week is Tom Bissell writing about iPad gaming ‘Beyond Angry Birds’ for Grantland, crystallising the differences between these types of ‘gamey-games’ and longer, larger, more spectacular console games:

Many of these pure games — less grandly known as “gamey games” — have little of the narrative ambition (or, to put it less kindly, bloat) typical to console games and, as a consequence, don’t bother trying to push the same emo-cognitive buttons. They get in your head, to be sure, but through different passageways. Another way of saying this is that console games do everything in their power to form a relationship with you, which can be great and rewarding and, just as often, aggravating and tedious. iPad games, on the other hand, are like someone you meet in a bar and find yourself screwing in the bathroom 10 minutes later. This is not a criticism.

Luke Miller explains for the reading masses at Australia’s independent online news outlet Crikey, “How Computer Games Became a Spectator Sport”. Probably most interesting perhaps as a demonstration of how a mainstream press outlet can write about games reasonably well:

Last month, 87,000 people watched the livestream of the grand final of the popular DreamHack Summer tournament, 5000 more than attended the 2010 NRL grand final in Sydney. While the television audience of more than 3.1 million for the rugby grand final dwarfs the audiences for any StarCraft II match, the 3.2 million registered players worldwide for the game suggest the potential viewership is not far behind the domestic competitions. The money involved so far is a fraction of that of professional sports, with the top 25 players earning on average $US48,000 in a year-long tournament circuit worth about $3 million.

Have you been keeping up with Electron Dance’s series called “Where We Came From”? I confess, I hadn’t. In this eighth instalment, Joel Goodwin discusses early LucasArts games in ‘Tomorrow’s Promise’.

Ian Bogost has had a remarkably prolific week, with two pieces exceedingly worth reading and discussing. The first is his Persuasive Games column for Gamasutra, which is essential reading for anyone interested in how designers, critics and players talk about games. It takes aim at a particular type of discussion of games that, to Bogost, feels proscriptive and is couched in problematic language surrounding normalcy and aberrance. It’s called ‘From Aberrance to Aesthetics’. Drop what you’re doing and go read it now.

And then when you’ve done that, go read the full comment by Frank Lantz way, way down the bottom of page which is perhaps equally important and timely. Here’s a short, powerful excerpt:

…it is never enough to apply the insights of neuroscience and behavioral psychology to the craft of making more powerful game experiences. We must invite our players into the tent, we must give *them* some of what *we* are smoking, we must recognize that every game, from the smallest Sudoku puzzle to the largest imaginary universe, is a trip into unlicensed neuroscience and irresponsible behavioral psychology, a Stanford prison experiment we run on the make-believe jail of our own consciousness. Because you can never, ever be simultaneously inside and outside of your own head, you can never, ever look into the past and the future at the same time, you can never, ever be here now, and that’s exactly what games allow you to do.

The second of Ian Bogost’s remarkably readable pieces from this week is on ‘Why Debates About Video Games Aren’t Really About Video Games’ for Kotaku, and you could certainly read the first piece in light of this. The crux of it is that:

The debate about newsgames’ value as speech turns out not to be a conflict between support and detraction but rather a conflict between the games themselves and the games as cogs in someone’s favorite discourse machine.

And while we’re at Kotaku, the site’s newest editor Kirk Hamilton lovingly skewers the character of Geralt from The Witcher 2, and looks at ‘The Videogame That Got Jazz So Right’. Well done Kirk. Weldokirk.

Matthew Gallant at The Quixotic Engineer has a remarkably descriptive mechanical analysis of Jamestown and the dramatic arcs its various mechanics bring out. Mechanics! Meaning! Together like one big happy family:

…the game’s lasting appeal rests in the strength of its peculiar Vaunt mechanic. When activated, Vaunt grants the player a seemingly arbitrary list of benefits: a brief bullet shield, followed by increased damage and a score multiplier for as long as the energy meter is kept filled. In practice, this mechanic gives Jamestown its own particular systematic rhythm of tension and respite. I’d like to use Vaunt to explore the idea that a game mechanic can have an inherent dramatic arc similar to those created by traditionally authored stories.

At the Throw The Looking Glass blog Paul Sztajer looks at ‘The Half-Cinderella’ riffing off a Kurt Vonnegut lecture looking at narrative arcs, and applies the same to videogame ‘ludonarratives’:

So what does your average game do with the Good/Ill Fortune ludonarrative graph? They, like the story of Cinderella, start somewhere between low to average on the scale, and then staircase upwards as the player gets better. And better. And better. And at some point the staircase becomes a Staircase to Heaven (sorry, couldn’t resist) as the player becomes God-like, and then they kill the other (notably more evil) God-like entity. And then the game ends. Midnight strikes and your gravity gun turns back into a pumpkin, but the player is long gone. Or the pumpkin can throw both people and objects around, making you more powerful than ever before.

Turning now to the PopMatters Moving Pixels blog, and a pair of posts to peruse this week – Kris Ligman talks Bastion and its attitude to death (or failure):

…the player gains an important lesson in mortality. But more than that, she is jerked into a sudden awareness of what we could most charitably call the game’s narrational safety net—and perhaps less charitably, its narrational leash. Death is possible in Bastion, but it is difficult to achieve. Even in the event that death does occur in an area, the Kid is merely warped back to Home Base and the bad end that he was just met with is excised as another of the old man’s tangents.

And G. Christopher Williams talks about how a particular mechanic in Catherine allows players to empathise with one character’s feelings towards time:

…the strength of these sequences in supporting the plot of the game aren’t merely representational.  The most clever thing about them is the way that they allow the player to not merely “get” what Vincent is going through but to put the player in a position to feel something quite akin to Vincent’s discomfort about what he is going through: a sense of the pressure of time itself.

K Cox of the Your Critic Is In Another Castle blog discusses the reactions to the vote on the appearance of FemShep in Mass Effect 3, in ‘O Commander, My Commander’ (and which also links to a great selection of other reactions to the game, for those interested):

One of the most remarkable things about this franchise to date has been the complete equality of both versions of Commander Shepard. The game, required to accommodate both characters, has been unable to go off the rails into hugely gendered territory in either direction.  When it comes to writing and to character animation, the existence of each Commander Shepard keeps the other in line.

Katie Williams at the Alive Tiny World blog found her gaming-self as a teen growing up in Malaysia. She says, “Moving to Malaysia transformed me from a kid who liked to play computer games occasionally to a full-on gamer – and I owe it to piracy.

Troy Goodfellow at the Flash of Steel blog has doubled-up with two entries to The National Character this week: The Mongol National Character and The Roman National Character. Wait, was Rome really a ‘nation’, or was it an Empire? Or is that part of the point?

Some Civ players would defend the overpowered [Praetorian] unit with the appeal to history, in general a weak argument against balance. The thinking was that Rome was special. Rome was different and huge. A modestly better swordsmen wouldn’t make the Romans the Romans. They need something big and amazing, appropriate for their empire. Where no Civilization game really tried to fit a faction to an historical model in any true sense, for many Civ 4 players, there was an expectation that if anyone should have an overpowered unit, it’s Rome.

The next post for this week is, well, really a series of short creative writing pieces about Far Cry 2 by Taylor Cocke at the Scoreless blog. Start with ‘Sunshine’ and then read all the stuff tagged ‘Far Cry 2’ in order. Players familiar with the game will find it uncannily evocative.

At the KillScreen daily blog Lana Polansky looks at ‘The Best of Both Worlds’ which somehow connects James Joyce’s Ulysses with Bayonetta, largely by way of comparing literary reception and game reception.

Finally, for our German-speaking readers, the German language website ‘Titel Magazine’ is trying to do something like what we do with TWIVBG for their German readers and the German games blogosphere. There is no shortage of non-English speakers interested in game criticism, clearly.