Never fear! This Week in Videogame Blogging is here!

Let’s kick off this Sunday with a quick jaunt back to a piece we unfortunately overlooked from October, where SpecsandHeadphones turns those specs on the characterization of several women characters in videogames–that is, not their appearances, but what is actually written into their backstories, revealed through their creators, and told through their personalities.

Coming back to our offerings for this last week of November, let’s start with Jerry Bonner’s recent tribute to BioShock, suggesting that it’s ruined him for other first-person shooters:

Could it also be that I find the whole “dudebro” culture that these games engender to be a repugnant blight upon the hobby I love so dearly? Abso-fucking-loutely. I’ve played competitive sports all my life, yet never found myself comfortable with the locker room hazing and ass-slapping that seems to go hand in hand with playing those sports. I didn’t play so I could cast dispersions on the new guy’s mother or to duct tape his scrotum to his thigh. I played for the love of the goddamn game. Period. The “dudebros” and patently racist adolescents that populate these virtual, FPS arenas serve as a harsh reminder of that nonsense, so I’ll take a pass, thank you very much. […] [BioShock‘s] Rapture truly seemed like a living, breathing, fully-realized world. Hell, even though it was clearly unraveling at the seams, if I somehow acquired a one-way ticket to that damned, underwater metropolis I would have jumped at the chance to go.

Katy Meyers, writing for Play the Past, might have a reason for BioShock‘s lasting appeal as a compelling aesthetic and narrative experience. In “Anthropology of Social Behavior in BioShock“, Meyers outlines the audio, visual and behavioral cues that lend Rapture that “living, breathing” quality.

And try as I might, everything just seems to be coming up dragons lately! You folks really like your Skyrim. First we have Kirk Hamilton, arguing that the ambient world of “the province of Skyrim is much more compelling than the game, Skyrim.” Nick Simberg is more provocative in his wording, contending that the procedural quest generation of Skyrim places the game more in the realm of Facebook and other casual games. Where is Peter Molydeux‘s “cascore” when you need him?

Next on the long, scaly tail of Skyrim blogging, Joel Haddock criticizes the nondialectical way Skyrim forces violent conflict resolution:

For a few glorious seconds, Skyrim teased me with the potential to do something so few games do. Yet, shortly after, it showed me that it was, after all, merely a tease. I suppose Bethesda scripted near-death opponents to act in such a fashion to provide a little extra flavor to the already-rich world, but I feel they missed an opportunity in having it mean nothing.

In a similar vein, Craig Lager, posting on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, opines that many games, including Skyrim, have some way to go in overcoming their ludonarrative dissonance–in this case, the friction between reductive combat systems and the larger sociopolitical worlds these games claim to inhabit. And while Lager notes that Skyrim appears more finessed than many others in this regards, he does add:

Of course […] you still get the stupid things like guards telling you to be careful around the mages guild even though you, in fact, run it, or that you can still be a murderous psychopath yet still invited to save the world. So, while still flawed and stories aren’t particularly branching – there’s progress there, especially when it’s part of such a massive, gorgeous, freeform (and admittedly buggy) world.

I am also particularly fond of his conclusion:

If the next five years of big-title gaming development can focus on closing that disparity of what we want to do in a world and what developers can afford to let us do, rather than pushing technology to add complexity to raw assets, we can end up with environments that are more interactive, manipulable, intelligent and alive, rather than just prettier.

Moving on from the dragon’s den, we arrive on the sandy shores of the modern first-person shooter once more, first with John Walker’s cutting critique of Modern Warfare 3 as an “un-game” and Brendan Keogh’s (in this editor’s opinion) provocative rebuttal:

So this is what I ask of you, and of all videogame critics and players alike: stop using “freedom” as a metric for a game’s quality or, even worse, for a game’s gameness. Every game is a dance between player and code, but that doesn’t mean the player always gets to lead. A game that leads the player can be just as meaningful, significant, intelligent, stimulating or exhilarating as a game that lets the player do whatever they wish (within the games confines). The player is not the centre of the equation, and neither is the game. It’s the interrelationship between the player and the game that matters most.

Meanwhile, the Brindle Brothers have a more intense interrogation of the FPS genre, especially how “first person” and “shooter” have become synonymous and how we might decouple the genre’s current set of conditions.

Over on Gameranx, Brendan Keogh–huh? Brendan?! Quit being so prolific!–describes Audiosurf‘s ability to capture the “feeling” of music. And while we’re on the subject of Brendan’s highly overactive set of fingers, you may want to check out his Games on Net tribute to Qwae, his enduring game persona alter-ego.

Furthermore, thematically expounding upon Keogh’s “Qwae” piece, David Lake offers up a consideration on the distinctions between Player Character and Main Character–in particular asking “who is the PC?” in games where the answer is at best abstract:

The problem of who the PC is only deepens when we consider the myriad ways the player can interact with the game. […] Who is the PC in a God Game? While this is something openly toyed with in Black & White, the question is ambiguous in The Sims. Maxis seem to have completely removed it from the equation by saying the Player Character is you, the player, playing with this box of toys. The question then falls to what type of play are you likely to be partaking in? (The answer most likely the sadistic torturing of hapless Sims in their underpants with a prison of dangerously cheap gas ovens).

Much more difficult is who the Player Character is in games which operate on a number of gameplay paradigms, such as Dwarf Fortress. There is no direct relation to an in-game character like in a Total War game (where the PC could conceivably be a series of monarchs, or perhaps even a nation’s guiding spirit). With an interface so abstract as to represent nothing in particular within the gameworld, the PC in Dwarf Fortress would again be more directly identified with the human playing the game, an unsatisfactory answer. An analysis of who the PC is here reveals what a strange game Dwarf Fortress really is. It is a game without an aim, without an ending, where failure is held up as the purpose of play.

And as we wind down here with this week’s roundup of links, a moment’s introspection may be valuable. It’s easy to forget, writing in the position that we do, that we are at times a fairly isolated community using a highly specialized vocabulary to speak from a perspective those outside our little ludodecahedron might often find impenetrable, as Leigh Alexander wrote in Edge this past week. Of course, it may be that all of us professional game critics don’t actually know what we’re doing.

Lastly, a word of thanks to Richard Terrell, who has kindly notified us that his critical glossary of game design terms has now been compiled as a PDF, as has the first four years of his Critical Gaming blog. Ta muchly, Richard!

That’s all for this roundup! Remember, you can submit your own links for Critical Distance via Twitter or email— I look forward to reading them (after… you know… finals are done with). Tune in next week, same Crit time, same Crit channel!