We’re back. We never exactly went away, but now we’re here, fully, renewed breath in our lungs. It’s time to sound the bells. It’s Sunday afternoon. It’s time for This Week in Videogame Blogging.
Critical Distance’s audience can roughly be split into two halves: games bloggers, critics and scholars to one side, and game developers of various stripes on the other. It’s my belief that these two have more in common than even they may think. With that in mind, I’d like to start off this week’s roundup with some recommendations tailored particularly to devs, although anyone design-minded will benefit from them.
We start with Kill Screen, where several of its writers have devoted an entire week to the subject of game genres — in particular, where generic conventions may be going in the near future.
Games are not shoes, says Chris Bateman, who argues that Steam’s recent change to allow devs to set their own prices will not result in some catastrophic zero-sum game. And over on Unwinnable, we have the free-spirited Gus Mastrapa offering two highly exploratory concepts for the future of massively multiplayer online games.
Mirror’s Edge and Tomb Raider scribe Rhianna Pratchett turned up in the forums of The Escapist this week to share a bit of her experience writing for games. Meanwhile on Medium, Aevee Bee makes a case for ‘small writing’ and interstitial worldbuilding moments in games.
There are many ways we can challenge norms of play. Here, a collection of writers share their experiences playing against the grain, either in opposition to industrial logic or narrative conventions.
GayGamer and Border House alum Denis Farr muses on the limited impact of certain decisions in Dragon Age and The Witcher, and concludes that isn’t so much about a player’s character changing the world as deciding where they stand:
These are games that are built on decisions, and people seem disappointed when the decisions do not lend themselves to larger changes that carry over from game to game, or even from decision to decision in the same game sometimes. But, if we allow ourselves to inhabit the characters that would make such a decision, it does allow for a narrative to be constructed. These types of games are a collaboration of the players’ imaginations and reasons with the story being told.
Mark Filipowich has me at his opening line, in describing one game’s romp through peak videogame absurdity: “If somebody were to make a game out of that one twitter bot that proposes random situations (@AndNowImagine) the result would look something like Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII.”
A Mind Forever Voyaging author Dylan Holmes spent the last year fighting the tide of the release cycle to instead work on his backlog.
Meanwhile, UK-based writer Leigh Harrison lauds The Bureau: XCOM Declassified for subverting a particular trend of modern shooters:
The Bureau should be celebrated for its bravery in swimming against the current of accepted videogame design. It fearlessly deconstructs the prevailing notion that videogames must not only constantly strive to look better, but also appear more naturalistic as the medium and its technology advances. As The Bureau progresses, it subtly strips away the layers of peripheral aesthetics normally seen as a necessity in modern games, until at its end it is visually little more than a VR mission from Metal Gear Solid; an experience completely defined by its mechanics alone, uninterested in anything threatening to overcomplicate the purity of its experience.
Half-Assing on the Holodeck
Ben Kuchera’s well intentioned, if perhaps poorly executed opinion piece on Gender Swap, a two-person VR simulation in which players briefly experience ‘inhabiting’ one another’s body, has garnered a bit of criticism.
You haven’t had to experience with how people treat that body. You haven’t felt pressure to change based on the expectations of having that body. The bodies we are born with force us to have experiences which are outside our control. These experiences shape us as people and who we are in our minds is not so easily separated from them. You can put on the headset and look at a mirror, but you have no idea what life the body’s owner will return to when you take the headsets off.
Or, as Jessica Janiuk sums it up in an opinion piece on Polygon (as part of a larger discussion of the therapeutic potential of games):
Here’s another example of how to understand this [gender dysphoria]. Imagine you slipped on an Oculus Rift, and in that virtual world you existed as a person that was not your gender in the real world. You’d look down and see a body that didn’t feel like yours. Your voice wouldn’t sound the way you’d like to express yourself. In some cases the sexual options available to your character don’t match your sexual feelings.
Now imagine you’d never be able to remove that VR helmet again.
Redshirt developer Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris weighs in as well, further challenging Gender Swap and similar VR exercises for proposing easy solutions to complicated problems:
The point is, this stuff is difficult, and complicated, and to think of it any other way does a disservice to how deeply ingrained and nuanced these issues are.
Perhaps there is some utility to this kind of VR experiment, but I feel like wider culture better representing and listening to minorities is a far better offering, which works to serve minorities and everyone else alike, rather than experiences which are specifically for people on those relevant axes of privilege.
In her post, Khandaker-Kokoris also links to her recent TEDxEastEnd talk on ‘One Weird Old Trick to End Sexism and Racism,’ which I cannot recommend highly enough.
A Rape in Cyberspace
(This section bears a CONTENT WARNING for discussion of rape, assault and harassment.)
On RE:roll, Angus Morrison conducts (rather, attempts) an anthropological study of DayZ, only to find that the deck is stacked against him — and, indeed, he’s not immune to the game’s psychological effects.
Elsewhere, avid DayZ player Kim Correa shares a traumatic experience in the game (TW: rape) and muses on the point at which the game’s sociopathy stops being harmless.
And back on Kill Screen, Matt Albrecht describes his recent visit to a showing of If You Can Get to Buffalo, an adaptation of Julian Dibbell’s 1993 “A Rape in Cyberspace,” and likewise asks where the line is drawn online.
(End content warning section.)
Crawling Toward Sunlight
Where the “Microrevolutions” section above paints ways for games and players to resist convention, this section offers up possible solutions for developers to counteract toxicity from the production side.
On GayGamer, Mitch Alexander adeptly challenges arguments that equivocate male and female objectification under a straight male gaze and explores what might developers do to “queer” the male gaze.
Go Make Me a Sandwich’s wundergeek observes the challenges of, and proposes a possible solution for, satirizing the straight male gaze in videogame art when game art is already frequently ridiculous.
Finally, Desktop Dungeons developer Rodain Joubert shares how his team chose to approach non-sexualized women avatars and rectify gender disparities for their game.
Within Four Walls
Even if we happen to be the most radical of indies, consumerism and corporate culture remains a fact of life for many in games. These pieces take a peek inside studio culture — or muse about PR from afar.
Toward the latter, Mat Jones of Oh No! Videogames wants to remind us (yet again) that Pac-Man is Back, but questions whether he was actually inside us all along, deteriorating with the rest of our internal organs.
Towards the former, Polygon offers up two features from within studio development. The first: the last years of BioShock developer Irrational Games, as told via Chris Plante. The second: a brisk post-mortem of Activision’s Singularity, as told by developer Keith Fuller: “This wasn’t development, it was triage. We had to save who we could and bayonet the dying, and we had no time left to do either with any subtlety.”
On the lighter side, The Escapist’s Greg Tito offers an interesting peek inside Civilization 5 studio Firaxis Games and a difference in player strategy which seemingly nearly tore the studio in half.
It Starts With Us
In the years since I started writing Critical Distance, I don’t believe I was at all opaque in my curatorial approach. However, this last week has brought a lot into sharp focus once again, including the reminder that, now and then, we need to reaffirm our goals and priorities.
In this case, however, I believe those goals are summed up best by independent critic and C-D contributor Lana Polansky, who, in acknowledging the shortcomings of crowdfunding, maintains a call to openly and consistently signal-boost the kind of work we want to see:
I’m going to make it a general policy to amplify voices in criticism or development or whatever else who deserve that amplification, not because of who they are but because of what they’ve said or made. This is my general policy anyway, but before right now I hadn’t fully declared and applied it. No more amplifying those who are already topical or popular just because doing so may, in some abstract way, be career-advancing. Fuck career advancement. Fuck trying to “make it.”
In the spirit of Ms. Polansky’s words, here is a selection of writing from the last week that I believe, though it may not fit easily into any of the cubbyholes of games blogging, is important and worth viewing.
First: on Gamers with Jobs, Alex Martinez shares a personal story of two formative experiences from his childhood — namely, the video game rental store in his neighborhood, and the LA Riots which ravaged it in 1992.
On Kill Screen, Rich Shivener profiles MIT’s recent QUILTBAG Jam organized by Todd Harper, and in particular the LIM-like Label Gear Solid — a game that is, by design, unbeatable:
In Label Gear Solid, it’s impossible to go unnoticed. In fact, the Suens admit there’s no way to win the game. […] Every time you run into another square, labels physically obscure the screen, until you give up, possibly at the point where you can’t see anything. It takes the idea of label-making to absurdity. On Twitter, one player told the brothers it’s a “cruel world.” Ten seconds into the game, you might feel the same way.
On Paste, Cara Ellison profiles Deirdra Kiai, developer of Dominique Pamplemousse in: “It’s All Over Once the Fat Lady Sings!” — which is presently up for four Independent Game Festival awards.
Porpentine’s weekly roundups of free independent games on Rock, Paper, Shotgun is, as ever, a valuable resource.
Lastly, I would be remiss in failing to mention Starseed Observatory, a compilation of analysis, criticism and discussion focused on Droqen’s Starseed Pilgrim.
Dispatches from Vienna
Our German-language correspondent Joe Koeller has hooked us up with the latest from the German language games blogging scene.
On her personal blog, Valentina Hirsch chats feeling ownership over games as medium. Meanwhile, at Polyneux (arguably the best name for a games blog we’ve seen this week), mayaku talks about deserted servers in World of Warcraft.
Gratitude and Departures
However, I want my thanks to extend much further this week, to the many (nearly 150) patrons who have already contributed to our new Patreon. Your support allows us not only to remain open and ad-free for the foreseeable but will also us to finally go forward with our many community-building projects, which will include a wiki, archive, job board for writers, and much more besides. Do you want to see more podcasts like our recent one on Black History Month? So do we. And with your help, we can make that happen.
A last point: while I will be scarce on the site for the next two weekends due to the Game Developers Conference, if you are in San Francisco during that time, I am giving two talks you may wish to attend!
On Sunday the 16th, I (along with quite a few other members of the C-D team) will be presenting at Critical Proximity, our sibling conference headed up by Zoya Street. Then, on Thursday the 20th, I will be speaking at Lost Levels, a GDC-adjacent “unconference” organized by Robert Yang. Neither event requires a GDC pass to attend, so I hope to see many of you there! Please check out Critical Proximity’s and Lost Levels’ respective websites for more.
That’s all from me this week. So, from all of us at Critical Distance, thank you again for all your patronage and support. You’ll be seeing more from us soon!