Thanks for checking in for another round-up of the week’s videogame blogging! Once again, there’s a chunk of potentially triggering material at the bottom of this post, so in case you choose not to venture into those depths, I will promptly issue the reminders that would usually live in the concluding paragraph. Critical Distance is community supported, with our readership providing financial contributions and recommendations of writing we should be checking out. We’re very grateful for any help you can offer us!
This week’s writing exemplifies how discussions about the interrelationship between interaction and narrative cannot simply be boiled down to the question of “ludonarrative dissonance.” Here we have three pieces in one week that address interaction from the perspective of narrative pacing.
- Quantum Break is better TV than videogame | Kill Screen
Reid McCarter observes that Quantum Break is actually faster paced as a TV show, offering less excitement in moments that ought to be more action-packed.
- Storytelling Engines: The Story Arc Has Ended and Yet the Game Keeps Going | PopMatters
Eric Swain argues that emergent story arcs struggle to hew to the same pacing as the larger journey that the player takes from novice to mastery.
- Failure and rebirth in Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter | Kill Screen
Levi Rubeck presents a lesson in the aesthetic use of high-friction game design.
“By removing the safety net of unlimited saves and transforming the “grind” from a necessary evil into a ludological metaphor for the player’s uphill battle to the surface, Dragon Quarter puts the player in the same viscerally anxious emotional state as the characters.”
It seems we’re witnessing a remarkable critical engagement with the oft-cited conceptualization of perfect user experience as balance between frustration and boredom.
- Flow – Minicrit | YouTube (video: captions are auto-generated)
Heather Alexandra delves into the zen-like state of game engagement
- Adventures of Lolo | Something in the Direction of Exhibition
Vincent K. addresses flow in this review of a vintage game
- Design and the Broken Game | First Person Scholar
Matthew Schwager complicates the notion of flow by analysing a game that seems to not fit its bipolar system.
“Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow” is often conceptualized as opposite ends of a spectrum; they are non-overlapping experiences due to the inverse relationship of the variables (“skill” and “challenge”) involved. But, I found that Shelter made anxiety and boredom set in simultaneously—I did not have the skills to intuit where I was supposed to go and what I was supposed to accomplish, and so anxiety was running fiercely in my blood. However, once I scaled my attention up from the diegetic level of the game, I found myself, strangely enough, bored at the exact same time, for the simple reason that I knew a higher level of skill would not have altered anything about my experience.”
Writers from various fields of expertise are taking a fresh look at not just educational games, but more broadly, the role of play in developing familiarity with a subject.
- Harnessing the Power of Video Games for Journalism | Nieman Storyboard
Rose Eveleth explores the facilities and limitations of games as a medium for communicating news
- How Democracy 3 is Simulating African Politics | ZAM
John Brindle shares a deep dive on an exemplary news game explicitly designed to educate the electorate
- The Minecraft Generation – The New York Times
Clive Thompson provides essential reading on Minecraft, childhood and the heritage of block structures as educational play
“[…]it doesn’t really feel like a game. It’s more like a destination, a technical tool, a cultural scene, or all three put together: a place where kids engineer complex machines, shoot videos of their escapades that they post on YouTube, make art and set up servers, online versions of the game where they can hang out with friends.”
In some design thinking that runs on more traditional lines, the architectural planning of spaces and movement come into play in two different ways this week.
- Game Maker’s Toolkit – How (and why) Spelunky makes its own levels | YouTube (Video: captions are auto-generated)
Game Maker’s Toolkit shares some insights into procedural level design gleaned from the new book on Spelunky
- Maps to the Stars (of development) | Gamasutra blogs
In what is legitimately one of the most exciting things I’ve seen all week, John Szczepaniak shares the office layouts he gathered during his oral histories of Japanese games
With the release of Dark Souls 3 this week, a title seems has leapt instantly to a place in the canon of video game design history. Much of the writing on Dark Souls 3 reflects this. Pieces of writing that would ordinarily boil down to a list of features and flaws, have instead answered more challenging questions about title’s significance. As it happens, this comes in the same week as a couple of provocative pieces on canonicity in other contexts.
- American Journal of Play 8.2 – The Ludologist
Jesper Juul links out to the latest issue of the American Journal of Play 8.2
- Final Fantasy VII’s Legacy Gets Everything About Final Fantasy VII Wrong :: Games :: Features :: Paste
Harry Mackin offers a well-reasoned argument about the contribution of Final Fantasy VII to gaming’s canon.
- Rejecting the Now, “More Light: Media Art from Atlanta” at Eyedrum
Dan Weiskopf gives an overview and critique of a fascinating exhibition of new media art in Atlanta, Georgia.
“This tale, I think, goes some distance towards explaining why so much new media art is mired in nostalgic reverie, despite its patina of geekish futurism. Cultural history suggests that “the look of now” tends to age badly. This is no less true in technology than in fashion and hairstyles. Any new style or medium runs the risk of being obsolete tomorrow, discarded and bulldozed under”
Dark Souls 3
- Dark Souls 3 review – the grandiose end to an unmatched trilogy | Technology | The Guardian
Simon Parkin addresses Dark Souls III as a text carrying the heavy weight of video games canon on its back
- Dark Souls 3: The Kotaku Review
Patrick Klepek sees Dark Souls III as a refinement of its predecessors and a fitting end to a cornerstone of game design canon
- Dark Souls III: Super Dark Souls World | Kill Screen
Chris Breault praises the inventive re-orientation of elements from the previous games in the series.
Emily Short and other experts on game narrative have really been spoiling us lately, with excellent pieces week after week on how games tell stories and how stories can be playful.
- Beyond Branching: Quality-Based, Salience-Based, and Waypoint Narrative Structures | Emily Short’s Interactive Storytelling
Emily Short provides an indispensable crash course in interactive narrative structures
- An Examination of Leitmotifs and Their Use to Shape Narrative in UNDERTALE – Part 2 of 2
Jason Yu completes a two-part catalogue of all the leitmotifs in Undertale
- The Division and Kicking the Narrative Can | this cage is worms
Cameron Kunzelman poses a tricky question about MMO narrative design
- What Do You Want? Romance Visual Novels Cater to Your Desires | remeshed.com
Sophie Weeks discovers the pleasures and charms of otome games
“In The Canterbury Tales, the rapist knight in The Wife of Bath’s Tale is sentenced to death unless he can find the answer to a riddle: “What do women want?” And it’s only when he both learns the answer—autonomy, that which he has denied to his victim—and puts it into practice that he gets his happy ending. Women want to choose. And in learning about our own desires through choice-making games, we discover what works and doesn’t work for us. “
Heroism is complicated nowadays, with protagonists in a number of titles having the deal with the consequences of moral dilemmas in which somebody is guaranteed to get hurt.
- Feminism, Ethics, and The Culture of War | Not Your Mama’s Gamer
Ashley J. Velázquez addresses how This War of Mine challenges the player to think about morality in more complex terms than just don’t be evil.
- Story Beats: Bastion | YouTube (Video: transcript provided in the description)
This episode of Story Beats covers the power of games to inspire guilt in players.
- Xeno-Colonialism | Unwinnable
David Shimomura anticipates interesting moral conundrums in the forthcoming Mass Effect game.
- They Will Remember Your Sins: ‘The Descendant’ | Gamechurch.comGamechurch.com
April-Lyn Caouette addresses error and absolution in games with reference to The Descendant
“Video games have taught me that you can always solve a problem with enough tries, or solve it a little more quickly or efficiently. That’s what extra lives or infinite continues are for. But in the world of The Descendant, there are no second chances.”
Content warning from here on: discussions of online harassment and abuse.
The conflicts over cultural dominance in games have received new treatment this week, including design choices from an MMO developer that might challenge players to see things from somebody else’s perspective.
- This horrifying and newly trendy online-harassment tactic is ruining careers | The Washington Post
Caitlin Dewey provides a useful insight into the latest shift in focus for online reactionary harassers
- The Mess That Came After Nintendo Fired An Employee
Patrick Klepek writes about the dicomfiting state of discourse in the middle of a culture war
- Video Games and the Gaze: What Does it Mean to See/Play and Be Seen/Played? | Not Your Mama’s Gamer
Bianca Batti responds to the latest episode of Tropes vs Women in Video Games
“I think that it’s important to note that Mulvey was writing about these things in 1975, and I think it’s really easy to apply theories like that of the male gaze in ahistorical and essentialist ways. So something I’ve been thinking about is how it is we might more effectively historicize the male gaze—how might we situate it in the contemporary moment, how might we broaden the conversation, how might we contexualize, complicate, and problematize the idea of the male gaze, especially within the specific context of video games?”
- Why my videogame chooses your character’s race and gender for you | Garry Newman | Opinion | The Guardian
Garry Newman discusses the response from players about the latest changes to their avatars
- Did Rust just become the first transgender MMO? | Kill Screen
Michelle Ehrhardt draws the parallel between Rust’s coercive gender assignment and the lived experience of transgender people.
Finally, the construction of social spaces in and around games is being discussed, with specific reference to how we value the labour of people and machines that work to create a sense of togetherness.
- A Brief History of Bots | YouTube
This fantastic Super BunnyHop episode covers the role of automated players in the development of online gaming
- Sandstorms, Segregation, And Other Challenges Of Running A Women’s Video Game Convention In Saudi Arabia
Nathan Grayson interviews the founder of a Saudi women-only gaming convention
- Professional Fake Nerd Girl | Maddy Myers
Maddy Myers explores emotional labour, authenticity and the politics of sex work shaming in games.
“Meanwhile, women also face social pressure to distance themselves from sex work because Madonna and Whore are the only categories available to them. You’re either a Woman In Games or a Booth Babe, and that’s it! Rather than questioning the division, women just hurry to cast themselves in the Madonna category, which is a lot easier to do if you’re only surrounded by other Madonna types.”