After a troubling set of weeks, it seems a lot of games critics are thinking about how escapism is more than it appears on the surface. A major theme of this week’s blogging is how games can provide a sense of release from the crushing unpredictability of life, and can even be part of how we heal and overcome adversity. Perhaps this roundup, late though it is, can provide you some relief too.
Who are you now?
Discussions about the player-character relationship have moved beyond the simple idea that we identify with an avatar, with more critics looking at how games construct an experience of inhabiting an identity.
- The Long Dark: the Last Lonely Days of the Quantified Self | Play The Past
Gilles Roy delves into the database of the soul, in a fascinating piece on creating an identity within new technocultural systems.
- ‘Doom’ Is Not a Title, It’s a Name | PopMatters
Nick Dinicola examines the simple yet effective characterisation of Doom Guy.
- A Proceduralist View on Diversity in Games by G. Smith | Journal of Games Criticism
A new issue of the Journal of Games Criticism is out. It’s all worth taking a look at, but to select one example: in this article, Gillian Smith argues that designers creating procedural systems (e.g. for character design) cannot assume that a lack of direct authorial control leads to a lack of prejudice or bias.
“Humans who author procedural systems of playable identity are creating systems that lack empathy. These systems can only interact on the basis of what they have been “told” to understand, whether they have been hard-coded with responses, learned from interacting with others, looked at large corpuses of information for design ideas, or been imbued with a social understanding through painstaking hand-authoring of social theories. A socially responsible and aware approach to game design thus requires consideration of social issues at every stage of creating the software.”
How does that make you feel?
These pieces look directly at how games can soothe players’ pain. Keep an eye out for content warnings on these, as some contain descriptions of experiences that you might find triggering or distressing.
- Six Games that Celebrate Grace | Gamechurch.com
The Gamechurch Writers give us a themed roundup of games that prompts me to think about standard questions about game dynamics in a different light.
- Animal Crossing Saved My Life | Women Write About Comics
Rosie Knight shares a personal story about regaining a sense of safety and ownership by caring for a game world. Content warning: graphic descriptions of intimate partner violence.
- The Desert and the Valley: Games As Refuge | Deorbital
Dante Douglas discusses how games can heal by offering forgiveness.
- Stories from Dark Souls and Journey, or “How Chirping Helped My Anxiety” | Not Your Mama’s Gamer
Jynx Boyne talks about how positive multiplayer experiences can use limited communication to counteract the anxiety-inducing nature of online interaction with strangers. Content warning: descriptions of panic attacks.
- A Return to the World of Warcraft, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Farm the Gold Not Your Mama’s Gamer
Alisha Karabinus argues for the therapeutic satisfaction of virtual work in a less punishing economy.
“So many of us here have written about games as crisis management, about coping with tragedy and anxiety and mental health, and maybe that too is why representation seems so important to us. If games exist to take us somewhere else, to offer a bit of control we might not otherwise have, wouldn’t it be lovely if we had a little more control there, too?”
What do you remember?
Looking at the darkness in American and European history, these pieces examine games in conversation with traumatic cultural memories.
- History Respawned: Call of Duty: Black Ops 1 and 2 – YouTube (video, captions)
Bob Whitaker discusses the history of American secret services with two experts.
- Inside Recapitulates the Horrors of the Holocaust | The Hub City Review
Matthew J. Theriault praises the effective use of intertextual references to Schindler’s List in this game from the creators of Limbo.
“Inside is nothing short of the Schindler’s List of video games. It is, is anything, more effective in conveying the horrors of the holocaust. Whereas Spielberg’s opus was from the perspective of an outsider, Inside gives an insider perspective of persecution. Whereas one can sympathize with Schindler, simultaneously regretting he’d not done more while uplifted for all the good he did do, there is nothing uplifting in the least to Inside. It looks unflinchingly at the worst atrocity ever perpetrated, forcing the player to empathize with those who’d experienced such firsthand, and offers no consolation for the severity of such evils.”
What does this tell you?
Another major theme this week is inventive narrative strategies, with some people finding new ways to tell stories with interactive media; and others critiquing the tropes and structures of old.
- Fatherhood isn’t the shortcut to emotional complexity games wish it was • Eurogamer.net
Nathan Ditum critiques the shallow narratives of dad games.
- Asemblance is a fresh spin on memory and narrative from some ex-Bungie devs • Eurogamer.net
Christian Donlan praises some new trends in storytelling that create experiences that unfold slowly, carefully and collaboratively.
- Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse | Something in the Direction of Exhibition
Vincent K. provides an unusual perspective on how systems can play a role in narrative.
- Gamasutra: David Pittman’s Blog – Everything I Need to Know About Writing Video Games I Learned From Pro Wrestling
David Pittman makes a surprisingly compelling argument in favour of flimsy storytelling. He also affirms that critical thinking can arise because you enjoy something, not just in spite of it.
“What I take away from wrestling’s occasionally astounding incohesion is that it doesn’t really matter. As a creative artist, I can take a hard turn and my audience will follow along if they’re on board with what I’m doing. The player and the viewer come to be entertained, and it’s always better to surprise them than to bore them. If they poke holes in the construction or logic of a scene later, at least I’ll know it comes from a place of passion instead of disdain.”
That’s all for this week! Please do keep sending in recommendations, they help a great deal. Critical Distance is a community-supported organisation, and as such we rely on your donations. If you’re able to spend a couple of dollars a month to keep us going, I would really appreciate that.