A critical game, a video essay with limited narration, and in-depth interview pieces – this was a week of experimentation in games criticism, and this week’s roundup is all the richer for it.
We start with two pieces of criticism that use unusual methods to get their point across.
- Something Something Soup Something – Home (game: browser-based, subtitled dialogue)
This week we received a critical game project! Stefano Gualeni’s web-based restaurant simulator uses food as a metaphor for some other discomforts that arise when new technologies put us at a distance from the people we rely upon.
- Where Flesh Meets Steel | Precocious Ragamuffin (video: no subtitles)
Written and edited by Ayk Iano, this video involves some narration, but its most novel points are communicated visually, through imagery captured from Deus Ex: Mankind Divided edited together to emphasize metaphors of fallen humanity and ascendant technology.
There is a rich selection of writing on gaming scenes and professional networks this week, including pieces that look at how marginalised people are affected by conditions on games-related platforms.
- Two weekends in Boston showed two very different competitive gaming scenes | Kotaku
Maddy Myers gives a vivid description of the contrasting scenes that surround Super Smash Bros. and League of Legends.
- Making Games in Tehran: A massive market, disconnected | GamesIndustry.biz
Brie Code sheds light on the significant barriers that prevent game developers in Iran from receiving resources from abroad, releasing games internationally, or travelling to major events.
- How ‘The Secret World’ Role-Playing Community Became Too Real – Waypoint
Cass Marshall shares personal experience in a little-understood yet crucial role as unofficial content creator for an MMO.
- The Cam Girls Who Also Stream on Twitch | Kotaku
Merritt Kopas interviews women who work in front of webcams, and makes some remarkable observations about which social spaces involve more trolling, and which kinds of work are more respected.
“Despite the stigma directed at sex workers, Morbid feels that camming is more accepted than streaming as ‘real work’, maybe because there’s an offline analogue–you’re a “digital stripper”, as she puts it. Streaming is a newer practice and doesn’t have the same kind of equivalent. The idea of playing games while other people watch, much less making money from it, is still a very strange idea for some.”
Psychological approaches to games writing continue to be a strong point this week, as three writers look at how games, and the culture around games, affect people emotionally.
- Fixing overwork isn’t easy, but it’s the best investment we can make – Polygon
Keith Fuller views crunch as a health problem, and the discourses supporting it as justifications for abuse.
- Games aren’t always fair, the magic lies in making you think they are – Polygon
Jennifer Scheurle outlines some design tricks that are commonly used by game developers.
- Hellblade’s design captures the trauma of loss | Kotaku
Heather Alexandra’s take on the much-discussed Hellblade shifts focus away from the objectification of paranoid delusions, toward the fundamental psychological injury that caused them – loss.
“Boiling down mental illness to a Campbellian Hero’s Journey fails to provide the nuance required to say anything conclusive. Is the rot on Senua’s arm a representation of her growing self-doubt? Is it a bruise left by her abusive father? It is a literal mark of shame from the gods? It ends up being all of these things, because Hellblade shies away from anything too definitive.”
Specific game mechanics and design strategies are addressed in these four pieces, which consider what players do, and how the constraints of player action came about over the course of games history.
- Should You Pull? – First Person Scholar
Christina M. Spiker puts “gacha” mechanics – random-chance prize boxes that cost money to unlock – in their historical context.
- What Makes a Good Detective Game? | Game Maker’s Toolkit – YouTube (video: auto-captions)
Mark Brown identifies a number of key challenges that protagonists undergo in detective fiction, and looks across games history for examples of mechanics that give players a satisfying experience of those challenges.
- Radiator Blog: On “Tacoma” by The Fullbright Company
Robert Yang compares Tacoma to Sleep No More, evaluating the difficulties translating immersive theatre into videogame form.
- Here’s How to Ruin a City – Waypoint
Cameron Kunzelman offers two different models of player failure, arguing that simulation games ought to provoke us to think about the bigger picture.
“Where does failure rest, here? At what moment does one fail at Skylines, and more importantly, what is the critical difference between failure here and failure in any of those death-and-learning action games that I mentioned at the beginning? Game culture doesn’t praise games like Cities: Skylines for their ability to discipline us into learning the systems of urban planning through failure and the brutal time cost of failing and starting again.”
These three pieces combine narrative with space, to look at how games tell stories about places through the design of environments.
- Opened World: Complacent Politics – Haywire Magazine
Miguel Penabella looks at the actions taken by the protagonist of Assassin’s Creed: Liberation to critique its approach to slavery as a socio-economic system as well as a historical crime.
- The making of System Shock 2’s best level • Eurogamer.net
Rick Lane interviews developers from Irrational to uncover how level design was used to communicate theme and facilitate narrative structure.
- Reexamining the American Road Trip in Kentucky Route Zero
Patrick Larose argues that Kentucky Route Zero challenges the structure of the road trip story, by focusing on spaces ordinarily considered empty, peripheral, or transitory.
“Kentucky Route Zero reminds us that those real, wide-open spaces that arch out along the interstate are tangible and covered in scars. Places that we would push out of our mind and glaze over because it would be more convenient for the oppressors if we would forget about the victims buried beneath the surface. “
Don’t forget to check out this month’s Blogs of the Round Table callout on “Oceans” — write a piece inspired by the writing prompt, and you’ll automatically have it featured in the month’s roundup.
Critical Distance is community-supported. Our readers support us from as little as one dollar a month. Would you consider joining them?
Have you read, seen, heard or otherwise experienced something new that made you think about games differently? Send it in!