October 19th

Someone still loves you, Jakob Dylan. Not, you know, for “One Headlight” or anything. Just because someone has to.

Anyhow, readers — it’s the weekend after IndieCade and I’m back in the saddle. Let’s tuck in with This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Come On Back to the Five and Dime, IndieCade, IndieCade

Speaking of IndieCade, if you didn’t happen to attend, you missed out on some great talks!

Over on Gamasutra, Bryant Francis has an excellent write-up on a well-received panel led by Shawn Alexander Allen (Treachery in Beatdown City) on issues of racism in tech and game development.

Ian Bogost, he of the perpetual mic drop, spoke during IndieCade’s Sunday microtalks session titled “Why ______ Matters” and has generously posted the full text of his talk online. Here’s a sample, in which he deftly deconstructs the ‘specialness’ of games on the level of culture creation:

Whereas previously culture fought, won, and lost its battles at the scale of mass media — think of Madonna and Bart Simpson and Murphy Brown — now we do so in isolated pockets of niche media hobbyism. [Washington Post writer Alyssa] Rosenberg sees this as an unexpected victory. “Everyone can win the new culture wars,” she declares, because “all stories have a chance to be told.”

The problem with Rosenberg’s account is that fragmentation becomes Balkanization, which becomes recuperated into Libertarianism. Mutual hostility becomes “do what you want, just don’t foist it on me.” Pushed to its limits, all fandom becomes apartheid.

[…]

This state of affairs ought to chasten us. It ought to revise our understanding of the scope of the work before us.

For example: if you want to fight for diversity in games, then absolutely you should fight to broaden representation among players, creators, and characters.

But there’s another kind of diversity: the diversity of our interests and our dispositions, of the company we keep and the influences that inspire us, the people and the groups and the industries and the materials that we contact. It has to do with having dealings enough with the world such that it is no longer possible to be seen as a parochial backwater not even worth opposing let alone supporting.

We have become too comfortable here in games.

Lastly, Liz Ryerson has shared a revised version of her talk from the ‘Influences’ panel, in which she discusses the hard road to really waking up to what games can do and be:

this “new flesh” [from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome] is as another way of looking at digital devices as extension of our bodies – and embracing them as body parts we exercise full autonomy over. because if we don’t, we can easily fall under the order of strong, powerful cultural programming that favors the aims of corporate ideology and the military-industrial complex.

[…]

the problem with fighting back against the tide of all this powerful cultural programming is we’re often bad at envisioning and embracing this new flesh as a tool of progress amidst these vast corporate structures colonizing the internet. in his movie A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Zizek looks at the many apocalypse scenarios increasingly saturating popular media of the last ten years and asks: why is it so much easier for us to envision in the cultural consciousness a total apocalyptic collapse of society than it is to imagine a fairly minor-shift in our ways of understanding and constructing the reality of our situation?

the answer is that is the logical endpoint of the ideological path we’re following now. and there is something intensely painful about, in the midst of this, realizing our own bodily autonomy, and our ability to make even a subtle a shift in our understanding and construction of reality. it’s a struggle, and it involves experiencing a lot of pain.

Class is In Session

In Gamasutra’s Member Blogs, Felipe Pepe salutes the 40th anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons — which also marks the 40th anniversary of computer role-playing games based upon it.

Independent critic Lulu Blue has been replaying the original Kid Icarus lately and remarks that it seems to exist during a weird transition point in Nintendo’s 1980s design philosophy:

Maybe it wouldn’t be until Kirby’s Adventure that they’d finally let up and greenlight such a revolutionary idea such as “action game that isn’t prohibitively difficult”. While there were games like Dragon Quest before it, with similar staple ideas such as “a game anyone can beat****” they were often tacked on with a billion [contingency] asterisks that amounted to “a game anyone can beat by spending enough time repeating the same trivial task over and over again and smashing their head against a rock (and also pressing the A button in front of every rock)”. Kirby was maybe the first game of Nintendo fame to not have that gotcha, but regardless of whether it was, Kid Icarus was NOT that game.

Meanwhile, in the newest installment of History Respawned, Bob Whitaker sits down with history professor Michelle Brock, an expert on early demonology, to discuss the cultural and religious underpinnings of Blizzard’s Diablo franchise.

One Does Not Simply…

The new Middle-earth game, Shadow of Mordor, continues to inspire a lot of discussion.

On her personal blog, Carolyn Petit notes the game does poorly by its women characters, killing off many and damseling a woman warrior.

Over at Loser City, Jake Muncy digs deeper into the game’s innovative enemy AI system and how its potential is squandered on the narrative’s thematic contradictions:

[O]rcs don’t quite fit into the world Tolkien created. They don’t fit into the order of the world that Gandalf describes to Frodo, where mercy is absolutely right and redemption is always an option — however distant a one. Tolkien’s world is, after all, based irrevocably in his Catholic sensibilities; his non-Lord of the Rings contributions to the universe feature a benevolent creator God and make it clear that the wizards are maiar, essentially angels. It’s important that even Sauron chose to be evil, deliberately rejecting the goodness inherent in all creation.

Orcs are different. They’re evil simply by nature, inherently corrupted. In Tolkien’s rendering they have no culture and no language of their own. […] Orcs exist in a permanent state of exception, absolutely Other, nameless and killable in droves. They’re two-dimensional and infused with imported racist prejudice, given no depth in a world full of it.

[By contrast, Shadow of Mordor‘s] Nemesis system gives the orcs much-needed culture and depth. They have names, they make small talk. They have parties and feasts. They live in a constantly changing feudal society. […] Orcs are victimizers, but they’re also victimized, set in longstanding oppressive power structures.

[However, for] as much as the Nemesis System feels like a solution to the orc problem, it also reifies and even magnifies it. Orcs are still cannon fodder in the same way they’ve always been. It’s a bizarre double bind: our orcs are special unique snowflakes, now kill all of them.

Nuke It from Orbit, It’s the Only Way to B– Oh, I Already Used That One

Alien: Isolation is another game to see some sustained discussion in the last couple weeks, and it’s easy to see why.

Notorious list-maker Brendan Keogh shares his collected thoughts on the game and in particular, how it manages to show off far more raw personality than comparable big-budget games.

At Vice, Cara Ellison takes a few well-deserved potshots at Isolation‘s one major fumble with regards to its level design: the needlessly expository graffiti.

Meanwhile, at Polygon Danielle Riendeau has high praise for the game’s treatment of its protagonist, Amanda Ripley, as truly befitting the heroine template exemplified by Sigourney Weaver’s character in the Alien film series. And from a visual standpoint, PC Gamer’s Andy Kelly shares how the game stacks up next to the aesthetics of the original film in a side-by-side slideshow.

Finally, at Eurogamer, Jeffrey Matulef shares a bit of optimism that Alien: Isolation is but the latest in a broader trend in high-budget, first-person games (including The Last of Us and BioShock Infinite) to offer a more contemplative, sedate experience.

Listen and Believe

As we now enter our third month of the debacle that has come to be known as Gamergate (though in fact, it’s been going on since July or even earlier, for some of those affected), it’s important to keep the profile high and the dialogue open. With that in mind, like much of our Gamergate coverage, these links come with a General Content Warning for strong descriptions of harassment, stalking and slurs.

Let’s start with Brianna Wu, who became the third woman to be driven from her home in two months due to credible violent threats on her life. On XO Jane, she shares a first-person account of being targeted, including screencaps of threats sent to her.

Touching on Anita Sarkeesian’s recent XOXO talk (which this subsection also derives its title from), Damion Schubert has been busily collecting the stories from women from all “sides” of Gamergate, proponents as well as targets and others completely uninvolved, who nonetheless have been subject to harassment, doxxing and other attacks. On her tumblr, Secret Gamer Girl has also collated the experiences of many women targeted by the loosely-defined movement.

The Awl’s John Herrman takes a different approach, reprinting the comments and tweets from parents who have discovered their children are participants in Gamergate.

Also, on The Daily Beast, Arthur Chu (who has never actually written for Critical Distance, despite reports to the contrary) draws an astute comparison between Gamergate and the Disco Sucks “movement” of the 1970s. It’s all great, but here’s a sample:

Just look at the rhetoric used by angry 1970s rock fans to bash disco. It goes beyond just finding the music unpleasant, it invokes the rhetoric of legitimacy. Disco artists aren’t “real” musicians. They don’t play their instruments live, like rock guitar gods; it’s too “produced,” it’s too “studio,” it’s fake.

Moreover, guys who listen to disco are fake. They dress in expensive leisure suits and hang out at fancy clubs. They don’t get down in the dirt and tear it up like us hard-core, genuine, masculine fans. They’re not real men, and women like them for not being real men, which is unacceptable. […]

And there’s the aggrieved underdog stance, calling disco artists and producers “elitists,” spinning a narrative that rock was authentic music made by blue-collar kids in garages while disco was being “pushed on” America by corporate labels. (Are you kidding me? Led Zeppelin the hardscrabble underdogs vs. the Bee Gees? That’s as ridiculous as saying Call of Duty fans are oppressed compared to people who like indie text games about what it’s like to have depression.)

Gamergate reached the front page of The New York Times this week, due largely to a school shooting threat called in over a scheduled appearance by Anita Sarkeesian. With the NYT coverage, many game news outlets have come forward officially denouncing Gamergate. However, just ahead of this development, Jetta Rae DoubleCakes published this strongly-worded editorial at Ravishly which urges news writers to properly frame their Gamergate coverage, and it’s still relevant:

So eager [are some outlets] for that “big scoop” that they didn’t bother to look at what they were picking up. Or to check if it was toxic. […]

The willful ignorance of the media, both mainstream and “niche,” has fostered an antipathy without fear of reproach. […] And every second journalists sit there tapping their lip with their fingers, ahhhh I wish there was a word for people threatening to harm bystanders in public if their demands are not met, if only we’d gotten on this sooner—it emboldens the violence.

Soft Reset

It’s tough, but we have to keep moving. In light of some of the above links, and in particular Ian Bogost’s calls to diversify the critical and cultural landscape of games, let’s look at a few writers who are doing just that.

First, at Haptic Feedback, Austin C. Howe has a look at the recent wave of dismissiveness toward reflexive games (what he calls intertextual games; that is, games which comment upon or are “about” games) and concludes that by doing so we not only diminish these titles but risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Speaking of taking things one level above, here’s Stephen Beirne reviewing an interactive review of Dontnod’s ambitious but flawed title Remember Me.

And here’s a couple plucked from our own contributors. At Paste, Lana Polansky describes her recent venture into card gaming, in particular the simple 1965 game Nuclear War and its critique of the titular subject matter:

But one of the game’s best little touches is that, here, in state of war, there is a nonzero chance that everybody dies. When war is declared, it can’t be undeclared until the first player to launch a missile is knocked out of the game. That means genocide must effectively be committed before peace can resume—there is no going back. However, a losing player can go out by detonating all their playable nukes at once, and therefore has a chance to take out another player with them. There’s nothing in the game prohibiting every player from being taken out, losing their entire population. This means that, in all likelihood, you either end up with a pyrrhic victory or, quite literally, no one wins.

Also, our own Eric Swain is starting a project on his blog The Game Critique, aiming to start folding in criticism from other media forms as a means of diversifying how we approach games. Have a look.

Entering the Sublime

A couple hearty pieces for the road. At PopMatters Moving Pixels, Scott Juster takes a look at The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and the subtle ways it subverts player expectations.

Also from Scott Juster his long-time blog partner Jorge Albor, a brief podcast discussion on games and eating, from our gustatory traditions to our Soylent futures. Mmm.

And So I Send You Out Into the Night, Not, I Hope, Unarmed

That’s it for this week! As always, we value your contributions via Twitter mention and email.

There is still a bit of time to get involved in October’s Blogs of the Round Table. It’s a fun topic touching on Halloween, so I encourage you to give it a whirl!

Did you know we’re commissioning new features? Because we are! Head over here to learn more.

And a few more sites and resources to relax into your Sunday:

Arcade Review is a quarterly magazine edited by our contributors Zolani Stewart and Lana Polansky
Five Out of Ten, edited by our sysadmin overlord Alan Williamson, has just released its 10th (!) issue, “Heart.”
Memory Insufficient is a great free zine edited by Zoya Street.
Forest Ambassador is an important, free curated resource for small independent games, run by Merritt Kopas.

Did you know? Critical Distance is community funded by readers like you! If you like what you do and want to help us get our “BOTH SIDES” knuckle tats for when we get sent to Games Journalism Prison, please consider signing up for a small monthly donation!