Hark! Is that Cupid in the distance, arrow at the ready to spread love to the Critical Distance readership? Nah, sorry. It’s just me again, dishing out a special Valentine’s Day edition of This Week in Videogame Blogging!

Baby, You Set My Heart on Fire(watch)

The hot topic of the week tends to be the newest game that gets the good old neurons zapping, and this week is no different. Many critics examined Campo Santo’s Firewatch, which released on February 9th.

So far, players are really digging Firewatch’s environments:

Katherine Cross explores the game’s ability to to make the same environment evoke different emotions, stating that “the same stand of trees can be sunny and inviting in one scene, and a milestone of terror in the next.”

ZAM’s review of Firewatch praises its naturalistic yet intuitive environmental design, and over at Eurogamer, Oli Welsh presents the game’s environment as a metaphor for nature itself.

Another aspect of the game that stands out to reviewers is its major characters, who make mistakes in spite of gaming’s history of successful video game protagonists.

Emily Short contrasts Firewatch’s main character to that of interactive novella The Fire Tower. Olivia White at Polygon discusses the player’s restricted agency that develops the protagonist, Henry’s, flawed character.

Dante Douglas sums this facet of the game up like this:

“Firewatch is a game about people who fuck up. They don’t think. They make mistakes. They regret things, and for once in a game, I don’t find it hamfisted or awkwardly written. It’s very real. It hurts to watch. I recommend it wholeheartedly.”

(Content warning: Since they deal with character development, these pieces reveal plot spoilers about Firewatch.)

Let’s Get Personal, Cutie

Video games feature a laundry list of major antagonist such as Bowser and Eggman, but many writers wrote about combatting their own instincts and issues in games this week.

Sometimes, the anxiety a game produces for you can be a challenge in itself. At Gamasutra, Sean May tells an anecdote related to a very shocking and very effective event in Pony Island. (Content warning: This piece features a spoiler for Pony Island.)

Steven Wright recounts the story of how Dark Souls helped him overcome the anxieties he had about his gaming abilities at ZAM.

On the other hand, when we play video games, sometimes the biggest obstacle is not overthinking things.

In his review of American Truck Simulator at ZAM, Mathew Kumar considers the game’s peacefulness one of its biggest strengths. Meanwhile, Matthew Weddig compares interpreting Kentucky Route Zero to meditation practices at Kill Screen.

Other writers discovered that the greatest hurdle a game can present is the problems we face in our life experiences.

Alisha Karabinus at Not Your Mama’s Gamer uses item collection in video games to cope with her and her family’s hoarding tendencies. At Popmatters, Boen Wang compares our notions of progress in video games to those in our own lives.

As part of the ZEAL project, Alyssa Kai narrates the story of her sister’s death and Super Monkey Ball 2. (Content warning: The previous link mentions addiction, suicide, and death.)

Errant Signal’s review of That Dragon, Cancer examines how its design motifs helps the game share the Green family’s retelling of an overwhelming tragedy (video, no captions available).

Valentine, You’re So Creative!

One of the most exciting parts about the games medium is what its consumers add to it via interpretations and creative works.

Ashley Barry explores the depth and creativity of the Star Wars roleplaying community on Second Life over at ZAM.

An Anthropologist’s Guide to Gayming features a piece about reparative readings of gaming in an LGBTQ context that posits, “many of us are trained to read for queer subtext even when it isn’t there, crafting our own, to use Sedgwick’s language, epistemologies—i.e. ways of knowing—from the closet.”

Honey, I Can’t Get Over Your Design Skills

There’s a lot that developers can do to tweak a game’s design to send a certain message to the player, such as adapting its plot.

Greg Johnson provides an overview of different types of narrative technique in gaming at Gamasutra. Meanwhile, Bianca Batti of Not Your Mama’s Gamer discusses Pony Island’s usage of metanarrative in quite the meta manner.

In the return of his Critical Intel column, Robert Rath talks with the creators of Rise of the Tomb Raider about creating authentic feeling fictional religions.

According to How To Not Suck at Game Design, most game stories exist in the first place thanks to romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich. (I’m referring to the movement, not how good he was at kissing.)

In other cases, developers integrate these expressions into the gameplay itself.

Over at Gamasutra, Arthur Canzi Zeferino demonstrates how Undertale’s combat reveals underlying character traits, while Nick Dinicola proposes that the puzzle design in The Witness has a lot to say about how we parse solutions.

The Gameosphere May Be Complicated, but Our Love Is Easy

Another trend in this week’s games writing was criticizing stubborn trends in the gaming industry that stave innovation:

Prioritizing money can limit the creative potential of gaming. On his website, Jim Sterling explains why GameTrailers closed so suddenly, which I think ties in well with Owen Vince’s review of Luxury Simulator, a game that exposes the whims of the upper class.

Additionally, the games industry and games themselves tend to stick to working in favor of privileged groups. Ashley J. Veláquez critiques the lack of racial diversity in video games, framed through a personal narrative. In a postmortem for his game Prune, Joel McDonald is refreshingly honest about the impact of privilege on his success as an indie developer.

And sometimes games just don’t break outside of certain creative parameters. Our former senior curator, Kris Ligman, can’t wait for Kanye West’s game Only One simply because it will provide an outsider’s perspective on how games should be. In another piece at ZAM, Final Fantasy IX is praised for both calling out and embracing the theatrical nature of games:

“When you step into the role of Zidane, or Vivi the Black Mage, or Princess Garnet, or any hero or heroine in any game, you are a player in a performance for which you are also the audience. Push the correct buttons and the performance proceeds smoothly. Fail, and there are no real consequences besides a poor show. These play-acting battles are FFIX’s way of winking and nodding at us, to let us know that it understands this fundamental truth about games.”

Hugs and Kisses

All right, I’ve had my fill of making bad Valentine’s Day jokes, so that’s a wrap for this week. If you like what you’re reading, we’d love it if you’d send us a tip at our Patreon, Recurrency, or Paypal. And if you see a piece about games that makes you think, “Woah! This should go on TWIVGB,” you can send them our way via Twitter or email. Finally, if you have any valentines for me, you can find my classroom mailbox at @LongLiveMelKing. You know, the snazzy one with Fluttershy on it?