Hope you’re keeping well and having an exciting Summer! I got to meet some of our regular readers this week at games academia’s big annual get-together. It was a great reminder of how insightful our supporters are, and how important it is to bridge the gaps between academia, game development and the wider community.
An estus a day
Health and survival systems are not just about game balance; they can determine the pace of movement and adjust the feeling of heightened drama that makes even narrative-focused games memorable.
- Walking Simulators are growing up and stepping out | ZAM – The Largest Collection of Online Gaming Information
Danielle Riendeau identifies some new trends in the mechanical design of narrative-forward games.
- How Games Do Health | Game Maker’s Toolkit – YouTube (video: auto-captions)
Mark Brown explores the relationship between character health systems and play dynamics, with a broad look at design change since the 1980s.
- Estus | Problem Machine
Problem Machine also looks at heath systems, focusing on Dark Souls.
“This may all seem like a fine detail, but the beloved balance of the game rests on the humble estus flask. Enemies can perform extremely high damage attacks that kill the player in just a few hits because the player always has a chance to recover to full: Thus, instead of the battle being one of attrition, where the player tries to keep the enemy from eroding their health, it becomes a tug-of-war, the player trying to keep their health above zero by creating opportunities to heal while evading the enemy attacks and still finding openings to attack their opponent and reduce their health to zero.”
The center and the margins
From the initial design framework to the remarkable process of finding exploits in a system, these pieces make some sense of the opaque work of making and breaking videogames.
- Routers Are the Pros Who Make Speedrunning Possible | VICE | United States
Matt Sayer shines a light on the neverending work of puzzling out the tricks and glitches used by some speedrunners.
- The Center Of All Things | Rami Ismail
Rami Ismail shares the framework he uses internally to discuss game design.
“The Intent is the essence statement, a short and clearly communicable statement that the team working on the game should agree on. It’s important to realize this statement does not have to be exhaustive, and should be considered more along the lines of an architectural parti – something that encompasses the big idea of the game. An essence statement is also not a pitch – it’s used internally. Where Ridiculous Fishing’s pitch was “a game about fishing with machineguns” – a pitch crafted to elicit laughter & interest, internally the goal was to “create a game with an infinite positive feedback loop” – an essence that was pleasant, comfortable and positive no matter the skill of the player.”
The uncomfortably intangible economies surrounding leisure are explored this week in a video about Sonic and a stellar essay on gamer identity.
- It’s Not Easy Being Blue – YouTube (video: auto-captions)
Innuendo Studios riffs about Sonic’s lack of identity, and how it relates to subjectivity in the social media age.
- Distraction, Consumption, Identity: The Neoliberal Language of Videogames | Sufficiently Human
Lana Polansky calls for mass resistance and coherent labor politics, as an alternative to the divergent identity organising that can so easily be absorbed into the leisure and consumption of games.
“The spectacular dimension of capitalism has a way of defanging and absorbing any form of resistance or dissent which fails to attack it on a mass, material level. All complaint is commoditized and itself converted into spectacle. The veneer of rebelliousness is retained to gratify us and make us feel like we’re all doing something other than intellectual self-love, but on some level we all must know that’s what we’re doing and we all resign ourselves to being partially satisfied with small bits of libidinal and moral pleasure.”
Space for humans
I’m excited by how the speculative reality of games can create a space for thinking about our responsibilities to the world around us not just in the present day, but also as we look ahead to the kind of futures we might be approaching.
- Beware the Magical Negro: On Tropes, Race, and Black Lives Matter – Not Your Mama’s Gamer
Samantha Blackmon gives an urgent review of recent events in the depiction of people of color in games, combining criticism of racist tropes with analysis of the recent “Augs lives matters” [sic] debacle.
- The archaeologists who are using No Man’s Sky as a dry-run for exploring actual space | ZAM – The Largest Collection of Online Gaming Information
Robert Rath discusses ethics with experts from academia in a piece that gives a fascinating taste of how gameplay changes when software is used for research rather than leisure.
“While in No Man’s Sky the team will have to engage in mining and resource-gathering in order to sustain the mission, Flick says real-life archaeologists would have to be satisfied with observing planets without changing the environment. This hope — to get what we need without affecting native species — is a major worry academics have about human space settlement. “If we were to pursue a need for materials, or space for humans, or simple greed, it’d destroy a lot of potential worlds. And that’s something I would want us to avoid.””
The “weird” corner
Looking even more closely at other realities, we reach the realm of surrealism and avant-garde art; but the politics of labor and capital are never far behind us.
- Towards an Art History for Videogames | Rhizome
Lana Polansky offers an alternative to the commonly-repeated stories about games history in this long read about art, commerce, and cultural production.
- Reverie and The Poetry of Process — Deorbital (Spoilers for Reverie)
Aleks Samoylov has written up an in-depth examination of the relationships between labor and surrealism that are evoked by this “dream job simulator”.
“Reverie is, in a sense, a multifaceted exploration of the conflict between expectations and reality, the tension between what a “dream” (in the broadest sense of the word) should be and what it actually is.”
Thanks so much for being a reader of Critical Distance. We are a community-supported organisation, and we are always grateful for your ideas and financial help. Even just a couple of dollars a month have a huge impact on our ability to keep going.