From the question of what’s wrong with games criticism, to critical writing on games that ask what’s wrong with us, this week brings us a bumper crop of original, inventive work. It’s not easy to keep up with it all, but we have you covered.
A couple of key issues in games criticism were discussed this week on Youtube and on games sites such as Waypoint. First, the genre classification of games inspired by Dark Souls, and in connection to that, the current status of the Roguelike genre.
- Do We Need a Soulslike Genre? | Game Maker’s Toolkit – YouTube (video: auto captions)
Mark Brown’s latest video has generated some useful discussion about genre and the creative process.
- Making Souls-Like A Genre Might Actually End Up Hurting it – Waypoint
Bruno Dias has countered that exploring the creative possibilities of a particular set of design principles takes time, and often does have positive outcomes eventually even if it coalesces into a genre that superficially seems like little more than mimetic callbacks to a nostalgic classic.
Other issues brought up this week include the use of Twitter threads instead of blog posts, and the reputation and personality of the individual journalist.
Darius Kazemi’s project to turn Twitter threads into blog posts might be useful to those of us who often find it easier to rant in 140-character chunks than plan out a “proper” piece of writing. It also might uncomfortably reveal the flaws in Twitter threads as a form of critical expression.
- 10 Years Ago, I Almost Got Someone Fired While Reporting a Story – Waypoint
Patrick Klepek generously shares a story about learning how to manage relationships with sources as a journalist.
- Game Criticism Had Problems Long Before Dunkey Made a Video About It – Waypoint
Patrick Klepek sympathetically summarises the affair surrounding the complaints about games criticism made by popular Youtuber Dunkey.
“I’d argue Dunkey sells some of these websites (and their readers) short. When I worked at Kotaku, for instance, plenty of people were able to freely differentiate between the writers, usually because said writers were assigned specific beats and games, which means people checking out articles related to those games often developed a relationship with that author. If there was a Dark Souls post on Kotaku in the last few years, chances are it was from me. If someone was writing about a new JRPG, quite often Jason Schreier’s name was attached.”
Discussions of how games make us relate to systems of labour and power came up this week, with some optimistic observations about the capacity of games to give players a different view on how they respond to the world around them.
- “Games are the largest provider of critical thinking education in the world” | GamesIndustry.biz
Matthew Handrahan reports on some evangelising from Develop Conference that should strike a chord with many readers here.
- 6 Ways Games Can Teach Resistance – Waypoint
Tanya X. Short gives a practical overview of how games can allow or encourage players to engage critically with systems.
- This Game Will Make You Rethink Your Soul-Sucking Office Job – Waypoint
Janine Hawkins plays a Pippin Barr game, and reflects on the dopamine hits generated by what David Graeber termed “bullshit jobs” (https://web.archive.org/web/20130820010534/strikemag.org/bullshit-jobs/)
“Tying your self worth to the material value you produce for someone else is a bad way to live your life. But as much as I may consciously know that, as much as I may repeat it to myself… It still feels good to fill that document, to click that prompt, to send that email. To churn out those most recognizable work units. It still feels good, even when it means absolutely nothing.”
Moving on from games criticism to games creation, these three articles prompt readers to look critically at the techniques and contexts that allow things to be made the way they are.
- Gamasutra: Alvaro Salvagno’s Blog – Making one player videogames.
Alvaro Salvagno introduces some insightful readings of duration as part of the aesthetic of a game’s design, and describes a project that explores games with a deliberately constrained “life space”.
- Radiator Blog: Bevels in video games
I’m a huge fan of Robert Yang’s semiotic readings of game development techniques, and this latest one is particularly good.
- Who Else Makes Videogames? Considering Informal Development Practices | Brendan Keogh
Brendan Keogh introduces the idea of “informal game development” as an umbrella term to describe the permeable membrane of the games industry.
“Rather than a specific method or gap in knowledge that could be perfectly filled, what I think this points to is a perspective from which to ask what else is happening in terms of videogame development that will always allude quantitive work. And not just ‘over there’ beyond ‘the videogame industry’. As Push Me Pull You shows, these actors and practices are intimately connected with what constitutes the contemporary, regional videogame industry in this real messy tangle.”
Looking at boundaries between the technical and the natural, these three pieces of writing suggest that we treat things that seem like mere technicalities as important parts of creative expression.
- The Paratext of Video Games – First Person Scholar
Steven Harvie looks at the expressive boundaries that separate the fiction within a game from other facets of the software as well as from the world outside.
- Gamasutra: Karin E Skoog’s Blog – theHunter: Call of the Wild – Designing Believable, Simulated Animal AI
Karin E Skoog’s post goes into detail about how research into animal behaviour affected the design and setting of a game about hunting.
- These Surreal ‘Magic: The Gathering’ Cards Were Made by a Robot – Waypoint
Cameron Kunzelman finds abstract, emotional expression in the work of a bot.
“Magic: The Gathering is a game that often depends on feel: Does this spell feel red? Does this art feel like it fits this card? Does countering someone’s spell feel bad? Wallace’s art bot captures this core pillar of the Magic game. It understands, and reflects, the feeling of a card. And that’s wonderful.”
Turning now to critical examinations of game content, this week has brought rich discussion of mental health and games.
- Wolfenstein: The New Order Is About More Than Defeating the Nazis – YouTube (video: auto captions)
Hamish Black explains how cinematography and narrative techniques make the new Wolfenstein a dreamlike exploration of a vulnerable mental state.
- What We Do in the Darkness – First Person Scholar (Spoilers for The Light)
Katherine Cross analyses femininity and trauma in The Light, arguing that light and darkness are used as metaphors for PTSD and sisterhood.
- Tackling Depression in Persona 5 | Elite Review (Spoilers for Persona 5)
Evan Conley examines lessons about activity, self-care, and mental health in one story arc of Persona 5.
- Why comparing technology to drugs isn’t simply a question of addiction – PC & Tech Authority
Greg Wadley provokes us to consider games not as addictive, but as psychoactive.
” it is problematic to label a technology itself as addictive, since only some users are affected to that extent. If the defining characteristic of a psychoactive drug is the ability to alter mood, does this suggest a more useful way to compare drugs with technology? It might, because many recent digital technologies can change users’ mood, including games, phones and social media, online video, and virtual reality. This is also true of “old media” such as television and recorded music, which new mobile platforms make available anytime and anywhere. “
Two pieces highlight ways that people are excluded from gaming, either through national boundaries or through gendered cultural norms.
- Making game development global again | GamesIndustry.biz
Will Freeman interviews developers affected by immigration restrictions.
- Princess Debut and The Essence of Feminine Game Design
Alex Roberts, perhaps controversially, defines “feminine game design” with reference to Princess Debut in contrast to Elite Beat Agents.
“What makes Princess Debut feminine, though, is not its pink menus, delicate soundtrack, or shoujo manga-inspired character designs. Rather, those external aesthetics are genuinely representative of an internal structure that whose priorities and techniques are expressly feminine […] My working definition of feminine game design is this: design that intentionally evokes feelings of grace and harmony, often through qualitative and relational incentives.”
Romantic relationships provided fertile ground for discussions about psychological pain in games this week.
- The $5,000 decision to get rid of my past – Polygon
Ben Kuchera tells the story of how he lost, or relinquished, his games collection.
- “Wolfenstein: The New Order’s Train Car Test,” by Ed Smith – Bullet Points Monthly
Ed Smith argues that by hastening the timing of an on-screen relationship’s consummation, sex is portrayed as not a reward, but a moment of vulnerability.
- Nina Freeman’s Games Really Get Millennial Romance – Waypoint (Spoilers for Cibele and Lost Memories Dot Net)
Kate Gray praises work that explores the confusion, desire, and pain of teen sexual exploration.
- In Tragedy, ‘Life Is Strange’ Finds Freedom for the People Who Need It Most – Waypoint (Spoilers for Life is Strange)
Cameron Kunzelman looks at another game about adolescent girls, and finds the promise of renewal in its broken world.
“Patricia Hernandez has argued that this limited, shorter ending after the storm might be a punishment for our selfish choice. Max chooses Chloe and damns everyone else. But I think it’s more poignant, or more utopian, than that. The catastrophic choice frees these two. There are no more stepdads, no more boyfriend-wannabees, no more investment possibilities in Arcadia Bay.”
Another key storytelling issue that came up this week was the intersection between world building and character building, with ample reference to literary criticism.
- Shenmue | Something in the Direction of Exhibition (Spoilers for Shenmue)
Vincent K’s essay on Shenmue takes the awkwardness of the game at face value, and examines what it means for magic and the mundane to exist side by side.
- On Characters and World-Building: Interrogating the Intersection of Game and Story in The Expanse – Not Your Mama’s Gamer
Bianca Batti looks at the lessons that novels and games can learn from one another regarding rich worldbuilding and sympathetic characters.
“The Expanse—the world that began as a game, became a book series, was adapted into a television show, and is now, in fact, in a sort of full-circle move, being turned into a board game—opens up this conversation, I think, by revealing that the feedback between the forms, between games and literature, is not simply a straight line from literature to games but is, perhaps, more of a network, a multi-connected conversation between the vast array of mediums and forms that we engage with every day.”
Going deeper into the construction of game worlds, these two pieces look at open-world games that eschew gamey tropes, in order to make players pay a different kind of attention.
- Breath of the Wild: The Best Game Ever – YouTube (video: auto-captions)
Cool Ghosts argue that Breath of the Wild demonstrates that the gamey goal of mastery is at odds with the worldbuilding goal of awe and wonder – and that Breath of the Wild navigates that dichotomy with remarkable aplomb.
- An apology to Final Fantasy XII | ZAM – The Largest Collection of Online Gaming Information
Nate Ewert-Krocker finds in FFXII the roots of a shifting game design philosophy that is perhaps now bearing fruit – the notion that game worlds don’t need to exist purely to reward the player.
“FFXII has a variety of beautiful environments, from wide-open plains to networks of narrow caves, but it does not care whether or not you poke your nose into every dead end and cul-de-sac.”
Interaction remains key to other aspects of games’ creative expression, as these two pieces attest.
- Gamasutra: Thomas Grip’s Blog – The Illusion of an Analog World
Thomas Grip articulates a desire for more ambiguity in choice mechanics, using the analog-digital dichotomy as a metaphor for different ways of perceiving input.
- Mercy me: in praise of gaming’s greatest healer • Eurogamer.net
Edwin Evans-Thirlwell discusses the design strengths of an Overwatch character often targeted for sexist abuse.
“the brilliance of Mercy is that her healing capacities are anything but expressive of some demure gender-normative passivity, a question of throwing down auras and waiting for the team’s heavy hitters to drop by. Rather, they unite with her eccentric movement abilities to create a high level playstyle that is, I think, unprecedented in shooters”
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