Welcome back! I’m filled with determination after spending three days running a small exhibit of games, talking with artists who are more familiar with work in other mediums about some of the things that make this form critically interesting. I did most of the reading for this round-up sat in that public gallery space, feeling soothed by the ambient sounds that were mixing together from different digital environments.
“The feeling of efficacy”
How do resilience, progression and success really feel meaningful in games that allow you to revisit your actions and continually try and try again? These pieces offer new answers to a question that seems to be returned to rather often in games criticism.
- There Is No Coming of Age in Oxenfree | PopMatters
Nick Dinicola argues that by challenging a narrative form that normally presents character development as forgone conclusions, adolescence and adulthood are radically reimagined in this survival horror adventure.
- Jolly Determination: Dark Souls, Undertale & Player Motivation | Medium
Yussef Cole demonstrates how difficulty can be addressed as part of a game’s narrative and aesthetic ethos.
- Health 101 with Professor Yoshi’s Island | Gamasutra Blogs
Christopher Gile shows that health mechanics can be examined as statements about our responsibility to ourselves and to others.
“In Yoshi’s Island healing isn’t forgiveness so much as it is redemption. It is making up for mistakes though extra effort. By making the player have to earn it the emotional payoff is much higher and that is what makes this system in Yoshi’s Island so satisfying. Every mistakes results in a nice mini-arc of failure, struggle, and redemption.”
“The necessary unfamiliarity”
History plays a greater role in this week’s selections than any of the round-ups I have done so far. Perhaps we are in a bit of a historical moment for games writing, with critics going beyond the rote reiteration of events of the past, instead approaching history as a way of complicating simplistic ideas about games as cultural objects. First, these pieces consider the history of games as spatial experiences.
- Japanese Environmentalism, Shinto, & The Legend of Zelda | FemHype
Kathryn of FemHype complicates the simplistic East vs. West juxtaposition that is used to discuss JRPGs, in an extremely valuable primer on Japanese religious history.
- Controllers Control Everything | Game Maker’s Toolkit (video)
The latest Game Maker’s Toolkit is a highly polished review of the impact of game controllers on design over 30 years of history, with a glance at the future with VR motion controllers.
Critical writing on one of the most-discussed game franchises can still surprise you. The pieces below are absolutely worth your attention, regardless of whether or not you have played any of the Fallout games.
- Fallout 3 Is Garbage, And Here’s Why | YouTube (video)
This 90-minute long dissection of Fallout 3 is well-edited, funny, and insightful. It takes up a large amount of time without wasting a moment, making a well-reasoned argument with implications that stretch beyond the Fallout series to the historical changes to AAA computer RPGs as a whole.
- Fallout 4 and the Sublime
Justin Keever gets at larger issues about how we talk about the pleasure of traversal and spatial experience in games in this piece on the merits of Fallout 4.
“When Franklin accusatorily [sic] claims that the latest Fallout is “less cerebral” than the systems-focused isometric games, he accidentally gets at something interesting: the appeal of Bethesda’s latest lies beneath theme and strictly intellectual engagement. The appeal of the new Fallout lies in pure emotional response, the recasting of a negative tension as pure pleasure. It is sublime.”
“This dawning Epoch”
Addressing hell, apocalypse and darkness in historical perspectives on history, these three pieces fit remarkably well together, providing a useful study of how grittiness can be placed into a larger history of literary and aesthetic forms.
- This dawning Epoch, this age of reason — Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs and the fin de siècle | The Ontological Geek
Adrian Froschauer traces the historical philosophies underpinning Victorian Gothic fiction.
- The Depleted World: how Dark Souls 3 comes to terms with being a sequel | ZAM
Bruno Dias examines Dark Souls as a portrayal of a medieval world that has exhausted its resources.
- Visions of hell: Dark Souls’s cultural heritage | Kill Screen
Gareth Damian Martin goes deep into the precedence in the European romantic tradition for the vision of humanity’s decline articulated in Dark Souls.
“Friedrich’s Wanderer is generally thought to represent introspection and a sense of the uncertain future that faces each of us. That Dark Souls 3 might remake the image with a deathless hollow at its center perhaps carries a sense of irony—the future in question being only an endless cycle of death after death, the metaphysical plane of peace and salvation remaining forever distant and unknown.”
The Battlefield 1 trailer has inspired a great deal of discussion about the wisdom of setting an amoral, high-octane game in a war that is defined in popular imagination by sadness and reverence. I imagine that after this title has been released, it will be a good subject for a critical compilation to comprehensively cover all of the pieces written on it. However, here I want to be more selective. I think that the two links below bring rare expertise to the fore and complexly imagine how historical reality and game design might be brought face to face.
- Battlefield 1 Historical Trailer Analysis | THE GREAT WAR Special (video)
This moment by moment reading of the costume, mise-en-scene and landscapes by a WWI expert is startling in its level of detail and in what it reveals about the kinds of narratives about the war that the trailer seems to hint at.
- Battlefield 1 and the problems of making a game out of World War I | Alphr
Despite the title, the strength of this piece is that it doesn’t limit its scope to a simplistic moral inquiry into the propriety of a bombastic videogame representation of WWI, but interviews academic historians to bring out informed perspectives on how the conflict dynamics of WWI might play out in the specific context of a neverending multiplayer online conflict between large teams of antagonists.
“Remember when I told you that I preferred civilized conversations”
Building in part on the Battlefield 1 controversy, these pieces address violence and history. For me, a particular strength — although this is by no means their sole focus — is that they challenge the whiteness of the dominant historical narratives that act as benchmarks for whether or not a subject is valid material for action-oriented mayhem.
- Exploitation is not Awareness | Medium
Amr Al-Aaser calls out the denial and defensiveness at work in games industry discussions about violence, rape and racism.
- Crackdown’s cartoon police state feels more real in 2016 · To The Bitter End | The A.V. Club
Toussaint Egan argues that the violence of this 2007 game feels darkly familiar in a post-Black Lives Matter discursive landscape.
“In the years since its release, Crackdown has veered eerily from the escapist confines of speculative fantasy to skirt all too closely to the increasingly militaristic law-enforcement procedures of our present day.”
“If only you could talk to these creatures”
These meta-conversations about games criticism itself come to bear on how we consider the discussion about violence and history in games.
- Doom: Infamous ‘talk to the monsters’ review was on the right side of history
Ed Smith sets the record straight on a key moment of games criticism’s timeline.
- Re-edited episode of Games Critique as POC, Ep. #3 – Why I Need Diverse Games. (Audio)
In Games Critique as POC, Tauriq Moosa, Kat Cross, Austin Walker and Tanya D talk about their intellectual, stylistic and institutional approaches to games criticism.
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