This is my first post as the new Senior Curator! It’s been an absolute delight to start the role on such a strong week. While a lot of the active discussion has been about The Witness, I’m going to start this roundup with some excellent pieces on other topics that are worthy of your attention.
Observing through lenses
Developer-oriented analytical writing goes from strength to strength. Edwin Evans-Thirlwell explored spatiality and movement in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, highlighting some of the exemplary design choices that made it influential.
“[…] as freeing as it feels, the Prince’s moveset is all about serving the needs of the space rather than vice versa. It might allow you to defy gravity, but it’s designed to permit the elegant solution of problems within a rigorously mapped environment, rather than in order to be exploratory and transgressive.”
Jerome Bodin shed light on “navigation nodes”, an aspect of spatial design that will be instructive to anyone working on or writing about 3D first-person games. Mark Brown analysed how enemy design and level design came together in Doom (video) to create interesting problems that players solve through skilful use of space. Deanna van Buren built on the example of The Witness to advocate for the role of trained architects in game development. We’ll be looking at The Witness in more detail at the end of this roundup.
Beyond 3D game design, Joel Couture provided a guide to communicating through visual language, theme and puzzles, and Anjin Anhut published a super helpful guide on how to talk about art style.
Gazing in wonder
Chris Priestman gave a beautifully-written account of one of my favourite topics: inactivity.
“There’s a satisfaction to be derived in comparing our own motionless to the busyness of the world around us—to be the silence among the noise. This dichotomy can help us meditate on the glory of that singular moment.”
Hamish Grace offered a detailed overview of Brutalism, an architectural style that has been increasingly significant in games of late. For many, this style inspires awe and wonder at the majesty of concrete. PopMatters published a fascinating cinematic analysis of Kojima’s cut scenes, and how the meticulous, lingering gaze of his early work has been replaced by a faster-paced, minimalist single-shot approach.
Viewing in perspective
It’s often said that games allow us to walk in somebody else’s shoes, but what if the shoes don’t quite fit? It’s enlightening to hear from somebody who has directly experienced the situation a title purports to simulate. Reflecting on his past work as a journalist in a communist regime, Zach Hines argued that newspaper simulator the Westport Independent portrays a naive view of self-censorship.
“Even a good-hearted person can end up on the wrong the side of a repressive agenda, and yet still believe they are right. It’s too bad that The Westport Independent is far too blunt to carry this point home.”
Former US Marine Chris Casberg praised and problematised fantasy revolutionary violence in Just Cause 3. Jay Barnson used his memories of playing Go and learning AI to put the news of a Go-playing AI in perspective.
[Content warning: racism and harassment] Tanner Higgin shared an article published in FibreCulture exploring the racial semiotics of 4chan raids on Habbo Hotel and World of Warcraft.
“[…] trolling more generally oscillates between harassment, lulz, and protest/intervention, creating controversy not just between troll and trolled, but between trolls. I would go as far as to say that all trolling has a version of politics; even those trolls who claim to do it just for fun have a stake in protecting that fun. It’s what’s behind the fun, or what’s truly at stake, that’s of more interest.”
Oscar Strik examined the way that depictions of racism often end up using fictional settings to depoliticise the subject matter, by separating it from the systems of oppression we participate in outside of fictional settings. The piece is itself something of a roundup of excellent writing on the topic, citing Sidney Fussell, Yusef Cole and Tanya D among others. Definitely worth checking out. [End content warning] Finally, Daycia Harley was interviewed on competitive Smash Bros and inclusivity at tournaments.
Challenging the assumption that every relationship simulation has to be romantic, Lena LeRay leaned into the discomfort of role-playing relationships that feel incongruent with her graysexuality in Emily is Away and Cibele, and used it as a lens for better understanding what enables us to relate to a story.
“[…] love stories are generally regarded as universal and exploring the relationship between two people is a natural direction to take for a piece of interactive fiction that revolves around instant messenger conversation. But there are so many other ways of addressing intimacy and relationships between two people.”
In another take on the power of non-romantic love, Sloane Cee shared a postmortem of a debut project that offers a compassionate approach to a trans coming out story.
As always, some developers’ attempts at representation leave much to be desired. Andrea Ritsu played Atari’s Pridefest and found no mention of LGBTQ rights whatsoever: Pride is portrayed instead as a celebration of rainbow-coloured joy, put in place to revive a stagnating economy. Todd Harper also gave a no-holds-barred criticism of Pridefest‘s erasure, stereotyping and depiction of pink-washed gentrification, while still defending the symbolic pleasures it may offer players.
In Capitalism, games, and diversity work, CK Jong discussed how advocacy bends to economic conditions:
“We feel pressured to justify ourselves in terms of how capitalism values us, not as complex, fallible human beings, but as potential profit, as untapped markets, as innovators, as positive PR, as productivity, as a more “dynamic” workforce.”
Nathan Altice discussed the Pico-8 with an eye toward the social forces that turn a technology into a thriving platform. Meanwhile, back in the fictional realm, Austin Howe put JRPG landscapes in a socio-economic context.
Gaming’s labyrinthine quest for institutional recognition seems to go on forever, and it can lead to some uncomfortable places. On the positive side, an avant-garde art blog covered a French festival featuring games as well as some remarkable digital art installations (part one | part two)
“One of the interesting phenomenons about game[s] is that techniques and experiments that were pioneered by artists, users and hackers feed into the R&D labs. And vice-versa, with innovations about interfaces, control systems and interactions bouncing back and forth between these two worlds and eventually seeping into mainstream consumption and culture.”
However, the notion that games have “arrived” at some promised land of artistic credibility can be toxic, as argued by Ed Smith in a well-crafted, acerbic takedown of some of the simplistic reasoning that is often applied to defend a product’s status as Important Art. A post on the blog for Concordia University’s TAG centre problematised the much-celebrated announcement of USC’s new publishing initiative which aims to provide credibility to artistic projects.
Beyond the institutional politics of art and academia, Rick Lane talked to developers about the things they cannot talk about, in a piece on industry’s overwrought use of non-disclosure agreements.
Witnessing the Genius
At last, we can turn our attention to the biggest topic of the week, Jonathan Blow’s much-anticipated island of mystifying puzzles. While much of the coverage has been effluent in its praise, some of the most interesting reviews have been frank about how it can frustrate, irritate and even enrage. Heather Alexandra’s review highlighted The Witness‘s arrogance as well as its charm.
“[…] you can almost feel how impressed with itself The Witness is. Like a giggling child sitting right over your shoulder, The Witness perches itself to watch and judge everything that you do.”
In a forthright piece that takes no prisoners, Lulu Blue captured what makes The Witness so galling.
“Perhaps it is clever that the island in the witness more closely resembles a mini-golf course than an earnest place. It carries with it all of the deep capitalist ennui and shallow tourism of places and cultures you might expect.”
“Did you know that everything’s connected? Did you know that if you slowed down and truly observed your surroundings you might notice details you otherwise missed? Did you know that kid in college who became insufferable when they read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? If not, do you want to? Play The Witness.”
Finally, Darius Kazemi’s interactive review of The Witness is affectionate and illuminating; a lovely thing to observe and ponder.
That’s all for this week! Make sure you check out the latest call for entries to Blogs of the Round Table; writing for BoRT could be a great way of making sure that your senpai notices you. If you spot a piece that should be included in This Week in Videogame Blogging, send it along via Twitter mention or email.