February 8th

I hope you’re hungry, because I have a banquet for you this time around. And no, I’m not letting you go until you clean your plate. It’s time for This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Give Me That Old Time Country Formalism

We are now in our third (or 783rd) week of what Chris Franklin adeptly describes as “The Debate That Never Took Place.” Watch that video before reading the rest of this section, as it provides an excellent breakdown of the ludology vs narratology ‘debate’ of the 90s and early 00s, the one which forms the basis of the current (waning?) discussion over formalism.* You may also want to check out our coverage in previous roundups here and here.

If the whole thing is still clear as mud, I would recommend Matthew Burns’s stab at the subject, using mathematics education as a helpful analogy.

With our baseline established, the next place we need to visit is Game Design Advance, home of Frank Lantz, who apologizes for the off-the-cuff nature of his original blog post which sparked this discussion:

I don’t want my ideas to provide cover or support to ignorance and aesthetic & cultural conservatism, and I don’t want to be associated with anti-progressive ideas. […] I don’t agree with those ideas, I wanted to distance myself from them, and I wanted to signal to other people who think like me that I think they should distance themselves likewise. I wanted to suggest that there could be a smart, progressive formalism that was diametrically opposed to the vulgar formalism polluting the current environment.

So, how’d that work out? I’ll tell you how it worked out. It was a colossal flop. I would say pretty much the opposite of what I wanted has happened. Somehow, I’ve managed to create a situation in which the battle lines that define the landscape of contemporary game discourse have been re-drawn with me on the wrong side. I botched it.

Lantz also attempts to better articulate his original position, to mixed reception. The comments are worth a read as well.

I cede the floor to Ian Bogost for the final word on the subject, in which he contends that, while this ‘debate’ may be without end, it can still be conducted respectfully:

In fact, it might be worse to pretend that we agree on the right, best, most pleasurable, or most aesthetically redeeming aspects of games (or anything) rather than to acknowledge that real differences in motivation, aesthetics, and political concern are at work.

[…]

Nobody wants to be accused of being part of the hegemon […] And sure, there are interlocutors who are dismissive in a manner that demands critique or even scorn. But that doesn’t make the very idea of such critiques detrimental or problematic, unless the purpose of the objection is to reframe the conversation around the my-favorite-formalism just mentioned. It also doesn’t mean the two “sides” must or even can find reconciliation! History is full of legitimate, unresolved intellectual and aesthetic disputes.

*Franklin’s video also provides the first clear, accurate and useful definition of ludonarrative dissonance I’ve seen in quite some time, so I highly recommend it. It also plays into the following section.

Difficulty Curve

Touching off of Lantz’s piece above, Soren Johnson grapples with (actual) ludonarrative dissonance as it crops up in game design:

[G]ames make us all fascists and communists; anarchists and tycoons; kleptocrats and ascetics, so we better hope that games are not as powerful as we once dreamed they might be.

And yet…

What makes our totalitarian game rules so slippery is that often the dynamics that emerge from these rules are actually at odds with the beliefs of their creators. For example, Will Wright, an atheist, began making Spore as a game about evolution but somehow eventually shipped a game about intelligent design. Monopoly started life as The Landlord’s Game, a board game meant to teach about the evils of capitalist landlords, who unfortunately ended up being a lot of fun to play. […] Civilization was supposed to be a game about history but — despite my best efforts — many of the lessons it taught were somehow the opposite of what I actually believe.

Parallel with this thread, Chris Bateman introduces three useful terms to perform some of the heavy lifting regularly (and improperly) handed over to “ludonarrative dissonance”: ruptures, or fragmentations of the modes of play; inelegance, or disunity between main and secondary systems; and perplexity, “the experience of re-learning what has already been learned differently, or learning under conditions of insufficient information.”

At Game Bias, Jed Pressgrove expounds upon Bateman’s third term, perplexity, and the examples he gives (differing controls, poor tutorials). Pressgrove muses on the popularization of tutorials versus older games, where unique control schemes and paper manuals were both far more ubiquitous.

Coming at it from the opposite end, videographer George Weidman also touches on perplexity versus convention, criticizing the other extreme: the standardization of control schemes and gameplay grammar which he feels has left a wide swath of contemporary, mainstream titles functionally indistinguishable from one another. Certainly not a unique sentiment, but one he illustrates exceptionally well through gameplay footage.

Also talking tutorials and design, Gamasutra’s Alex Wawro interviews developers including Brenda Romero and Soren Johnson on pedagogies of tutorial design, while Silver Grinding’s Devon, responding to our January Blogs of the Round Table theme, has reposted a piece from November creating a rough taxonomy of types of difficulty in games.

Finally, Amsel von Spreckelsen recently played the (much-maligned) Aliens: Colonial Marines on its easiest setting and discovered it becomes essentially a ‘walking simulator.’ Von Spreckelsen muses on what exactly that even means.

Reaver Is Industry

Switching gears from design to business, Kongregate CEO Emily Greer posted the slides and notes from her recent talk delivered at Casual Connect Europe, where she takes to task the very concept of ‘casual’ games and the stereotypes therein. In a similar vein, Brianna Wu goes into the playtesting process of Revolution 60 and her team’s decision to engage a non-core audience.

Reacting to this recent piece on USGamer, Rob Fearon disputes the idea that the console market is only now in freefall — rather, he says, this is the result of conditions many years in the making:

AAA gaming was and is a small part of all the videogames ever made, its domination of the enthusiast press, of mainstream discourse a necessary side effect of the need for big businesses to stay big. There are many great big box games but over the years so many more crushed by it, hampered by it, left abandoned by it. Over the course of the last generation, we’ve felt the rumbles but rarely managed to put two and two together that we’re not where we are now because budgets were unsustainable, we’re not where we are now because the manpower required to power the AAA machine is just too much, at least not entirely. We’re where we are now because this is where the quest for money led us and we were too distracted to notice the changes as they happened.

Riffing on Wertpol’s Presentable Liberty, Stephen Beirne argues that the current state of big box titles should be a call for self-awareness:

On [Assassin’s Creed:] Unity‘s release, many folks were more interested in lamenting ‘patch culture’ than in calling for labour unionization, despite the clue being in the title. As examples go, it is just one raindrop in a torrent. I have to indict myself in this too, because we are a culture bred to consume simply in order to fulfil ideals of consumerism. There’s no time to consider the human cost of our purchases; we must feast.

And on Paste, Austin Walker engages Jacobin’s Ian Williams in a letter series concerning Funk of Titans, how it divorces its Blaxploitation aesthetics from their historical context as amateur and counter cinema, and what a real equivalent to that context would look like in games.

The Game’s the Thing

At Kill Screen, Ewan Wilson compares David Braben and Ian Bell’s landmark 1984 space sim Elite to its modern iteration and finds a remarkably intact ideological throughline. By contrast, on Game Exhibition Vincent Kinian digs into Dust: An Elysian Tail and decides that, in its attempt to play to large, mythic themes, Dust fails to provide a lush or engaging setting.

On the recently launched FemHype, Jillian takes a multi-pronged approach to Skyrim‘s representations of women and is underwhelmed. She writes: “I came up short on the way women were portrayed. And that bothers the hell out of me for a title that purports to be the be-all, end-all of open world games.”

At Storycade, Amanda Wallace pens a compelling review of Porpentine’s most recent Twine game, With Those We Love Alive, which asks players to draw ‘sigils’ on their arms as part of its interaction. And on PopMatters Moving Pixels, Scott Juster suggests, in roughly so many words, that Shadow of Mordor is the Lord of the Rings game that Sauron would play.

Kotaku’s Patricia Hernandez provides an (and I use this word under duress) explainer for Five Nights at Freddy’s and the rabid fandom it has inspired. It’s actually pretty interesting stuff. Not everyone is so happy about it, though: David Szymanski gripes that feels the popularization of indie horror games, especially through Youtube, has created a glut of the same design elements.

Players and Played

At Abnormal Mapping, Matthew Marko returns to the well of Ocarina of Time and asks if, in Zelda‘s attempt to give players a ‘blank slate’ protagonist to project onto, it ends up leaving behind more compelling stories:

It’s no surprise that people have been demanding a Zelda-led game with increasing fervor in the years since. […] She exists to be the Luigi to your Mario, but unlike that duo, the power dynamics are never righted by people coming and giving us the Luigi’s Mansions and deft writing of the Mario & Luigi games to allow the space for the support role to shine. Zelda instead is eternally frustrated, just as Saria is frustrated, and the games are content to never even question whether, on that forest bridge, maybe the game should have stuck with Saria after that moment instead of following Link onto bigger and presumably better things.

At Not Your Mama’s Gamer, Ashley Barry praises Among the Sleep for flouting a certain horror genre convention. And at Vorpal Bunny Ranch, Denis Farr — a dual citizen of Germany and the United States — tries out Wolfenstein: The New Order to see if its depiction of Nazi Germany really is as textured as its hype suggests.

Brett Douville is co-teaching a course with Michael Abbott at Wabash College this semester and shares his and their students’ reactions to This War of Mine. And this academic article by Jaime Banks appearing in peer-reviewed journal First Monday appears to be a promising piece on the interplay between players and their avatars.

The Nitty Gritty

On Level Design, Mateusz Piaskiewicz has written an exceptionally meaty, long-form guide on 3D level design composition. A great read even for the layperson. And in Gamasutra’s blogs section, Emily Thomforde shares how her local library ran a modified version of the Global Game Jam geared toward children and teens.

Gamasutra has also been featuring some exciting post-partums by developers in the past week. Failbetter Games’ Alexis Kennedy has released the first two in a three-part series on the studio’s newest title, Sunless Sea. And Young Horses’ Phil Tibitoski has embarked on a charming series on the studio’s debut title, Octodad: Dadliest Catch.

You’ve Done Well to Get This Far

Thank you for reading! Remember, in addition to scanning hundreds of articles on our own each week, we gather a great deal of our best pieces through submissions by readers like you! If you find or make something you feel would do well on these pages, drop us a line or mention us on Twitter!

Room for dessert? Be sure to pick up the most recent issues of Memory Insufficient, Five Out of Ten, Unwinnable Weekly and Arcade Review! Gosh, so many…

Oh, and don’t forget to check out February’s Blogs of the Round Table prompt, “Buddy Systems“!

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