This week there has been an upswing in articles about mental health and gaming, in no small part because of an excellent series run by Not Your Mama’s Gamer. I’m very glad to see this conversation gaining traction, and it sits well next to another emerging theme: well-rounded player-character development.
This does mean that there is a substantial amount of potentially triggering content. I’ve tried to arrange it so that the pieces most likely to be distressing to some readers are at the bottom of this roundup, and I’ll let you know when we’ve reached that section so that you can choose whether or not to keep reading past that point.
Since not everybody will read past that line, I’ll say here what I would normally say in the conclusion. Thanks so much to everybody who has submitted articles for consideration this week over Twitter and email. I was delighted to get so many submissions from people. Please do make sure that you write “TWIVGB” in your tweets, even if addressed to @critdistance, so that the link will automatically be sent to my reading list. Finally, Critical Distance is community-supported, so please consider becoming a sponsor on Patreon: details here.
For sale: soul, excellent condition, dark
I keep trying to not include so many pieces on Dark Souls or Bloodborne. I worry that it’s getting to be a bit much, particularly for anybody who just isn’t that into them. However, the Souls games have become more than just another set of objects to study — they have become containers for a bewildering array of interlocking cultural, literary and designerly questions. The pieces below all reflect on how these kinds of literary canons function, and what they give to our understanding of games.
- The Dark Souls of Idea Channel Episodes | PBS Digital Studios (video, subtitled)
Idea Channel considers what it means for a title to become a cultural touchstone, with fascinating references to Kafka and Borges.
- I came to Dark Souls so late that it’s basically like going to Disneyland | Eurogamer.net
Christian Donlan examines how a title so central now to game design canon feels different to play now than it did years ago.
- The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone Story Discussion (ENDING SPOILERS!) | YouTube (video, subtitled)
George Weidemann examines what it means to expand the Faustian bargain into a philosophy of player agency that prioritises free will.
- The Weird Science of Bloodborne | The Ontological Geek (Spoilers for Bloodborne)
Adam Krantz looks into Victorian horror themes and the relationship between science and religion.
“Through its role in atrocities like colonialism, ‘scientific’ racism, nuclear weapons, and environmental pollution, science has gone from revealing horrifying truths about the universe to perpetrating them. Bloodborne first links this explicitly to its Victorian setting, referencing breaches of medical ethics closely associated with that period in the popular imagination. Victorian doctors infected children and prisoners with diseases like syphilis, gonorrhea, and the plague to study their effects. Similarly, in Old Yharnam, the Healing Church infected people with ashen blood disease, then burned the neighborhood as the plague spread out of control.”
Space for rent in speculative reality
While the pieces above look at history in relation to literature, these next three look at history in relation to place, and in particular, imagining different possibilities for how places are represented and constructed.
- The Manhole | Ludiphilia
Richard Moss interviews the creators of Myst in preparation for the book project he is crowdfunding at the moment.
- Around the World in 18 Games | +10 to Fire Resist
Jay takes us on a grand tour of games that portray lands beyond the US without simply using them as warzones.
- Big Data: Endgame of Virtual History | Play The Past
Gilles Roy argues that studying games could help historians to talk about what might have been — not just through speculation, but through use of existing “big data” on real-world events.
“Perhaps the best example of gaming culture’s cross-fertilization with historical research is the burgeoning field of counterfactual thinking in academia and popular fiction, in which games and simulations play a leading role.”
Wanted: well-rounded character, experience required
(spoilers for Kentucky Route Zero, Firewatch and Uncharted 4)
Returning to a more literary angle, character development is being explored as a key part of game narrative, signalling a marked shift from the RPG silent protagonist to player-characters with complex inner worlds, that we come to understand more as we play with them.
- What Makes Kentucky Route Zero’s Dialogue So Good? | Rock, Paper, Shotgun
Alex Wiltshire applies a few different lenses, examining writing style, game design, technology and even graphic design.
- Critical Compilation – Firewatch | Minding Games
Ava Avane Dawn has put together a beautiful essay that draws on a detailed list of links to other writing.
“Too many writers try to make games about something – loss, existentialism, the apocalypse, abuse, childhood – instead of about someone. Firewatch is a videogame about its character and for that it stands out.”
- A Trick of the Light: Uncharted 4 and the Search for Greatness | Gamechurch.com
Richard Clark picks up the topic of meaningless drudgery in his reading of Nathan Drake’s motivations and pleasures.
- Uncharted 4 Solves The Series’ Identity Crisis | Kotaku
Evan Narcisse argues that Nathan Drake has finally made sense of himself.
“Uncharted 4 doesn’t feel like it wants for any kind of explanation. The game harbors a brutal honesty about the space between self-image and reality. Nathan Drake is not just a euphemistically nomenclatured ‘treasure hunter’ in this installment. He is, in his own words, a thief.”
Pest control service: bugbears, creeps and toxicity
(Content warning: addiction, abuse, mental illness)
Following that step towards the existential, we head into the troubled waters of the psyche. This section carries a trigger warning for addiction, abuse and mental illness. Please take care of yourself when wading in.
First, the relatively positive subject of the kinds of satisfaction and peace that games can offer us — tinged with the poignant awareness that some of the things that make games feel so calming are the very same things that can make them dangerous when we are emotionally vulnerable.
- ‘One Finger Death Punch’ and the Zen of Combat | PopMatters
Nick Dinicola talks about the meditative focus on action over aesthetic.
- Press B, Close Loop | Gamers With Jobs
JR Ralls compellingly describes why farming mechanics feel so satisfying when the rest of life feels endlessly frustrating.
- When Proteus Was the Only Place I Wanted to Be – Indie Haven
Simon Rankin remembers how the comfort and peace of Proteus got him through a hard time.
“the moment I stopped caring about games was when I allowed the first piece of myself to fall away. The pleasant distractions that each of us enjoys — whether it’s video games, books, or something else — are more than just our pastimes of choice. They form a small, but vital part of who we are. If we lose that, who have we become?”
Looking more closely at that darker side of how we respond to gaming’s endorphin loops, these pieces address addiction, violent obsession, and sexual assault.
- Gaming, Gamers, and Health – Not Your Mama’s Gamer
Alex Layne considers health and addiction in connection with gaming.
- Dangerous Obsession and Gaming – Not Your Mama’s Gamer
Alex Layne brings mental health to bear in making sense of the irrational threats faced by people who work in games.
- Bravely Default, Chobits, and the Lack of Consent – Not Your Mama’s Gamer
Jynx Boyne describes some painful ways that fictional objectification of women connects to assault and trauma in the rest of life.
- Games And The Rest Of My Life | ?? Play/Paws
Drawing on ideas about meditation in a very different way to Nick Dinicola’s article above, Melody Meows talks about the deeper dissatisfactions of temporary pleasures.
“Kabat-Zinn argues that all ineffective coping mechanisms are addictive. Addictions can (and often do) go unrecognized or underestimated, especially when the behavior they produce is considered normal or socially acceptable or even desirable. But in the long term, inappropriate coping strategies increase our stress levels and do not help us face our lives’ problems effectively.”