Sometimes I get nostalgic for the era of “personal writing on games”, “confessional critical essays”, or “gonzo games journalism”. A few years ago, it seemed like the best way to start writing critically about games was to tell personal stories about how they had affected you. While it’s not disappeared entirely, that style of writing has waned in popularity lately. I can think of a lot of good reasons why that happened – for one thing, the environment got much more hostile for the minoritized writers who were doing the most interesting things with this form – but I worry sometimes that we lost an opportunity to further develop personal writing on games into a complex craft in its own right.
This week’s writing on videogames made me feel a bit more optimistic about it, with lots of discussion about how games connect with our personal lives and social contexts. These pieces teach us as much about media in general as they do about the particular games they discuss. On top of that, we have some great pieces of writing about the history of game design, and the impact of soundscapes and custom controllers.
A visual novel about girls playing baseball has captured attention this week, with two beautiful reviews praising its writing.
- Girls fall in love over baseball in one of the year’s secret gems – Polygon
Allegra Frank’s review highlights representation issues that hint at a generational divide in expectations for stories about queerness in games.
- In A Year Of Great Games, A Small One Called Butterfly Soup Stands Out
Patricia Hernandez echoes similar sentiments about the generation gap in experiences of queer media, from a more wistful perspective.
“My only complaint, if you could even call it that, is vague sadness that this didn’t exist back when I was still wrestling with my own sexuality as a teen. Alas. I’m so happy stuff like this exists now.”
Touch and sound have a significant yet often overlooked impact on gameplay experience: two articles this week address that.
- To Really Appreciate Red Dead Redemption, Listen To It Closely
GB Burford describes some sound techniques used in Red Dead Redemption and other games, such as Half Life 2 and Thief, that sell their experiences through sound.
- The Quest To Make A Better Video Game Controller
Kirk Hamilton gives a thorough examination of the recent design trends in custom controllers, and interviews some of the people behind these niche products.
“Video game controllers have actually followed a similar trajectory. Some specific goals are a little different—I don’t think most controller manufacturers are striving for musical-instrument-levels of complexity—but their big-picture approach is similar. Slowly but surely, game controllers add more buttons, each of which theoretically allows for more flexible and expressive play.”
Instead of chaos
Looking at the history of interactions in digital and physical spaces, these three articles give us insights into how our own physical actions could be part of the text of a game.
- How AM2R and Samus Returns remade Metroid 2 | Game Maker’s Toolkit – YouTube
Mark Brown analyses the design strategies used in AM2R and Samus Returns to modernise the player experience of Metroid 2.
- How Dishonored: Death of the Outsider makes rats of us all * Eurogamer.net
Gareth Damian Martin cites urban historian Robert Sullivan’s book Rats in his reading of the architectural design of Arkane’s latest release.
- A Football Spiral Universe: What 17776 and David O’Reilly’s Everything tell us about art | ZAM – The Largest Collection of Online Gaming Information
Eron Rauch discusses art historical techniques for reading works that lack polish.
“Instead of focusing on how it was just a badly made webpage, I just kind of let 17776 be what it was. I let it wash over me and set up its own expectations. And instead of chaos, I found the presentation that made this oddball story come alive […]”
Coming to light
Giving thought to narrative structure, two critics both, in slightly different ways, consider how games can show that the stories they tell are not objective records of fictional events, but subjective interpretations made by characters in the world.
- Can Games Handle Multiple Perspectives? | Cagey Videos – YouTube (video: auto-captions)
Kevin John here looks as “perspective” as different playable characters’ competing interests and motivations, finding many games unable to let the player role-play antagonists.
- Sovrn Container
Holly Nielsen praises the Dragon Age series for its representation of historiography, or how understandings of the past change depending on the conditions of the present.
“[H]istory in Dragon Age is not an easy-to-digest list of events, it is constantly changing, as it is in our own world. Those who might decry new information coming to light, or our common understanding being challenged as a re-writing of history – as a negative act of betraying canon – fail to understand that history by its very nature is written.”
Cross and come into conflict
These three articles connect games to our personal and social worlds, making compelling arguments for the importance of “meta-textuality” – readings of games that are not just about what’s included in them, but also about what happens around them.
- Night in the Woods – ZEAL – Medium (Comic strip: may not be compatible with text-to-speech)
slimgiltsoul illustrates the gaping hole in Mae’s universe, and the difficulty of connecting with others.
- The Real Dark Souls Was Finding the Right Community to Help Me Beat It – Waypoint
Cameron Kunzelman describes his experience of learning how to enjoy Dark Souls with the guidance of supportive fans, concluding that the game could not exist as it does in the cultural imagination without these kind of communities, whose emotional and tactical support significantly alters the experience of play.
- Trans Link – Lillian Everette – Medium
Lillian Everette argues that claiming videogame characters as trans is a subversive “metatextual” act of claiming autonomy over media space. She discusses not just Link, but also Samus from Metroid and Gwyndolin from Dark Souls.
“Queering as an act doesn’t have to be intentional. Queering is a remark on social standards. […] Cross and you come into conflict with me and mine. The trans women own this now. She is our icon, the patron goddess of the dejected, the stalwart, the beautiful. The earned feminine over the given.”
- Heterotopias 003 by Heterotopias
There is a new issue of Heterotopias zine! Already three issues in, this is a well-loved publication that is definitely worth checking out.
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Have you read, seen, heard or otherwise experienced something new that made you think about games differently? Send it in!