I’m almost fully recovered after a pleasant GDC, and feeling energised and inspired. This has been a particularly good week in videogame blogging. In part that’s due to the thrilling discussions coming out of an annual event that brings so many smart people into conversation with one another, but by no means is the event dominating discussions, with some thoughtful pieces published on topics such as how games change as we grow up, how the history of folklore affects fictional worldbuilding, and the social structures of online piracy.
From adolescence to adulthood
Although ideas of games “growing up” or “maturing as a medium” have long-since become clichéd, the conversation itself is developing in surprising ways. These pieces are strengthened by intertwining the design of games with the personal development of their players and creators.
Todd Harper examines the successes and failures in queer inclusivity in the localisation of Fire Emblem Fates, with some surprising insights into the adult children of the game’s heterosexual couplings.
- Why I Adore ‘Manhunt’, the Quintessential Video Game Nasty (Content warning: descriptions of extreme violence)
Ed Smith considers how his enjoyment of Rockstar’s least affected festival of violence has changed from adolescence to adulthood.
- Firewatch shows that yes, you can make games for grown-ups (Video, no captions. Content warning: spoilers for Firewatch, Gone Home, and Cibele)
Heather Alexandra discusses adolescence and adulthood in games storytelling, with a critical eye on the endings of recent narrative-driven indie titles.
- Developer Profile: Clarissa Darling
Todd Mitchell highlights the use of zinester game vignettes to illustrate adolescent problems in Clarissa Explains It All
“As Clarissa became a young adult, game development eventually gave way to her fledgling writing career, disappearing for good early in the final season. Though game dev was not always crucial to the plot, its presence in the show served to introduce young viewers to a practice much less common and much less accessible at the time. In addition, Clarissa’s use of design to explore difficult issues and explain her perspective to those around her demonstrated initiative toward aspirations the real-world game industry still grapples with today.”
In the wake of the big annual networking marathon, this week there were some critical reflections on the discourse and power dynamics of GDC
- The peculiar future of videogame history
Eric Fredner calls out the technological determinism of how games history is portrayed in developers’ talks
- Why I’m boycotting GDC
Mattie Brice discusses activist labour
- Here’s How We Failed Women at GDC 2016
Elizabeth Sampat discusses the predictability of sexism
- A Dancer’s Thoughts On Microsoft’s GDC Party
Essential reading on how we might talk about problematic entertainment at industry events without harming the women whose labour is being critiqued.
“Often times when we are hired for private events, we become the “other”. We don’t know anyone there outside of the other performers. We are expected to show up and do our best to entertain the crowd. Sometimes, the people who hire us miss the mark completely and are a terrible judge of their audience and we end up entertaining for people who would rather us not be there. It happens, and it happens often. “
From the valley to the tower
Two pieces on the spaces of games this week took very different approaches, with Owen Vince bringing architectural history to bear while Grayson Davis considers the performativity of lifestyle as a kind of placemaking.
- Rain, House, Eternity: Presence and Expression in Game Architecture
Owen Vince offers some insights from the phenomenology of architecture to read Rain, House, Eternity
- Stardew Valley
Grayson Davis describes the arcadian utopia portrayed in Stardew Valley
“Busy work occupies so much of our lives that, as we grow older, we often become skeptical of games that seem to offer nothing but. Stardew Valley is a game about the small tasks of life, of watering plants, going to the store, checking your mail, and opening letters. But there is a difference between arbitrary busy work and the work that make up the projects of our lives. Important work builds on itself, and busywork just passes time.”
This tough new MMOFPS has people discussing the cruelty of online multiplayer environments at their most brutal (content warning: descriptions of abuse and violence).
- The Division might be the glossiest Skinner box ever created
William Hughes argues at the A.V. Club that The Division is as manipulative and cynical as every other MMO.
- The Small Moments That Make ‘The Division’ Worthwhile
Mike Perna at GameChurch takes in the dramatic environmental storytelling, finding enjoyment in its darkness.
- Being harassed in The Division‘s Dark Zone
Brad Gallaway describes how The Division‘s gritty approach to PvP facilitates a rather disturbing form of harassment
“It’s one thing to take a headshot in PVP or lose a match here and there, but it’s something else altogether to have someone watching over your shoulder the entire time you’re playing, arbitrarily stopping your progress and verbally taunting you.”
From torrents to terror
Some familiar moral quandaries were turned on their heads this week, with unexpected approaches to piracy, politics and psychology.
- The People Who Upload Torrents
Patrick Klepek interviews some of the individuals who upload games for torrenting, to understand the reasoning and skill behind the process.
- Multiplayer VR Experiences Need to Worry About Harassment Right Fucking Now
Damion Schubert summarises an argument made by many in the VR space at GDC; that efforts to reduce harassment need to begin before launch.
- The Politics of ‘Pandemic – Legacy’
Jorge Albor reveals how Pandemic: Legacy is structured to demonstrate how a global politics shaped by fear benefits the consolidation of power in fewer hands.
- Empathy and Video Games
We often ask whether games can increase empathy, but we rarely question whether this is even helpful. Alex Layne complicates the conversation about the value of feeling for somebody else in pain.
“I can’t on one hand say that cartoon-ish games decrease shadenfreude while saying it’s junk science that violent games decrease empathy. I think the problem is in the equivocating empathy with sensitivity. You can be desensitized to a media portrayal of violence or gruesome imagery but still feel empathy in a real situation.”
If you’ve played Undertale, you know that two of its main strengths are its characters and its morality. Two pieces this week considered these issues, reaching very different conclusions (content warning: spoilers for Undertale).
- The Dark Side of Pacifism in ‘Undertale’
Nick Dinicola criticises the morality of Undertale‘s Pacifist ending
Problem Machine outlines what Undertale does using character comedy to enrich its portrayal of the consequences of violence.
“Despite containing no blood or explicit violence, this weird indie RPG gets closer to the truth of violence than any other game I’ve seen. The reality of violence is that someone who was there isn’t there any more, that the world becomes deader and quieter because you’ve fundamentally broken a part of it that worked before…”
From legend to lore (narrativity)
Some investigations into the narrative traditions that inspired many of the tropes familiar to games provided fascinating insights into how the structure of a game’s systems relate to the narrative structure of folk tales.
- Chasing real-life golems in the Prague ghetto
Robert Rath travels to Prague to uncover the origins of the golem myth that has inspired so many videogame enemies
- Of Eldrazi And Elder Ones
Joey DiZoglio examines the ludo-narrative of Eldritch lore recently incorporated into a competitive card game
- Moon Hunters and the Philosophy of Modular Storytelling
Sophie Weeks draws parallels between the “fires in the desert” approach to interactive fiction, and the oral traditions from which many of Moon Hunters‘s motifs originally sprang.
“The retelling of stories that is central to oral tradition allows for endless permutations on a theme. And it’s arguable that writing as a technology has pushed us away from plural understanding because while oral history depends on the memory as well as the temperament of the teller, written texts have a single, determined message. Moon Hunters, with its elliptical storytelling and commitment to complicating simple narrative, seeks to undo the “one way of seeing the world,” just as it rejects “one way to play the game.”
Far Cry Primal
Ubisoft’s cave man romp is inspiring some fascinating deep dives into the early history of human society (content warning: spoilers for Far Cry Primal).
- Far Cry Primal (video: no captions)
John Harney interviews the linguists behind the constructed languages used in Far Cry Primal, discussing the theory and practice of language construction and reconstruction, and the role of games in public engagement for academia.
- Feminist Gaming Matters
Jay Castello critiques the Eurocentric reading of prehistoric humanity that Far Cry Primal relies upon.
“There’s less to be said for the vaguely “Mesolithic” Izila, because their characterisation hinges less on historical cues. (The Mesolithic era is commonly thought to have begun in the Levant – part of the Middle East – which does further the idea of them being “others” to the presumed white player, though.) The implications of the Udam and their clear Neanderthal coding is more troubling. How many conquests have been justified on the idea that the local population are not only dangerous and taboo (the Udam are repeatedly reported to be cannibals), but literally as a lesser species? Rather than subjugating other humans, Europeans justified themselves as coming up against “barbarians” and “savages.” This is the same justification given to the player and their European based characters in their colonialist romp through Far Cry Primal.”
A quick plug before we wrap up: you might be interested in supporting the latest Feminist Frequency project, on ordinary women in history. More details at Seed & Spark.
And that’s all for this week. As always, you can support Critical Distance with financial contributions (Patreon, Paypal) or link recommendations (twitter, email).