This week’s critical writing on games sheds light on the different cultural contexts that influence how games are received – from the problems that arise when showing art games in commercial environments, to how we can process our painful history through interactive media.
Two critics reconsider the discourse that has been generated around particular retro games.
- Everything but the Clouds | Vimeo (video: captions)
Patrick LeMieux has investigated Super Mario Clouds, discovering that there is some misdirection at work in the artist’s statements about how the ROM hack was achieved, and gives some ideas about how that might change the way we interpret the piece.
- Bird Week | Something in the Direction of Exhibition
Vincent K. pulls back towards the end of this examination of an old game, and considers how design and discourse seem to have made little progress when it comes to naturism and competition in games.
“By offering us an alternate image that privileges harmony above struggle, the game throws into question the latter understanding and compels us to acknowledge how such understandings are informed by the context in which they were first created.”
The difficulty of creating healthy contexts for artistic appreciation of games has been a topic of discussion this week.
- my post “Day of the Devs” observations about how people view/treat art games and their creators
Nathalie Lawhead shared her experiences from DoubleFine’s indie showcase, and reflects on the need for spaces that encourage audiences to be respectful and open to artistic expression.
- Exhibiting Difficult Games
Matheson Marcault responded to this with some concrete lessons learned from organising Now Play This at Somerset House.
Three writers look at the aesthetic and social impact of design techniques used in virtual spaces in which a player-avatar can wander.
- Second Life Still Has 600,000 Regular Users – The Atlantic
Leslie Jamison interviews users of this virtual world, which is evidently neither gone nor forgotten – and demonstrates the role its utopian mission still plays in people’s lives.
- Radiator Blog: Level With Me: Dear Esther (2012), complete!
Robert Yang has concluded a series of video analyses of Dear Esther’s level design, and complicates commonly-held assumptions about the kinds of agency it grants the player.
- Opened World: The Remains of the Day – Haywire Magazine
Miguel Penabella focuses on a common environmental cue, used in Fallout 4 to particularly great effect – skeletons!
“Fallout 4 carries an air of melancholy by juxtaposing the gritty post-apocalyptic setting with the mundane scenarios these skeletons convey.”
The New Colossus
The latest Wolfenstein game continues to generate discussion – this week, writers are particularly interested in the body.
- Wolfenstein: The New Colossus (Review/Analysis) – Humanity Through Absurdity – YouTube (video: auto-captions)
Hamish Black praises the way the new Wolfenstein game builds the protagonist’s character and considers multiple ways that his mind and body are affected by the events he endures.
- Wolfenstein 2 and Mending Broken Things | Brendan Keogh
Brendan Keogh’s take also highlights the body, and seems to see this game as a text that pays witness to cultural pain.
“Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus is about the ultimate fragility of two types of bodies that underpin Western values: the male adult and the liberal state. Each is a conceptual object that we expect to function perfectly—right up to the moment that they break down completely when confronted with something they were never built to deal with. The New Colossus is interested in what it would take for either of these to fall apart.”
In more writing that looks at gaming’s relationship to the history and contemporary state of racism, three pieces consider games that portray the past.
- The All Too Prescient Assassin in ‘Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate’ – PopMatters
Nick Dinicola looks back at the 2015 entry in the Assassin’s Creed lineage, and is surprised by how well it anticipates the particular expressions of authoritarianism that the US is currently experiencing.
- “War is Hella Fun in Call of Duty: WWII,” by Astrid B – Bullet Points Monthly
Astrid B quotes filmmaker Francois Truffaut in a reflection on the problematic narrative of a ‘hero’s war’.
- Cuphead and the Racist Spectre of Fleischer Art | Unwinnable
Yussef Cole explains the historical context of the style of animation Studio MBHR are recreating, and argues that it would be more productive for contemporary creators to confront and challenge that history, rather than whitewashing it.
“Instead of stripping the burnt black cork from the minstrel and presenting a clean white face, while still singing like Calloway or Armstrong or Waller, modern media that seeks to borrow from America’s conflicted past should do so in a way that reckons with what that past tells us about ourselves.”
What binds everything
These four pieces look at open-world, tabletop, and live-action game dynamics; three of them, with a particular focus on how they can be used to challenge white supremacy or patriarchal behaviours.
- Video games and improv are made for each other • Eurogamer.net
Simon Best compares open world games to improv theater, with particular reference to Ghost Recon Wildlands and the writing of Viola Spolin.
- How ‘Authentic Relating’ Made Vulnerability a Movement – The Atlantic
Taylor Prewitt reports on a new live action game design movement based in Austin, Texas.
- The Board Soul – Fuck Colonialism | Unwinnable
Jeremy Signor critiques a selection of board games that portray the settlement and exploitation of foreign lands in a manner that reproduces problematic imperialist ideologies.
- It Takes More Than a ‘Tolerance’ Mechanic to Make an Anti-Colonial RPG – Waypoint
Dia Lacina critiques one particular board game that seems to try to mitigate its collusion in this kind of ideology, and looks at the literary origins of some of its representation problems.
“Lead designer and co-founder Carlos Gómez Quintana has said his interest in the Mexica derives from an early encounter with Gary Jennings’ Aztec, a flawed text rife with noble savagery. This is really what binds everything in Dragons Conquer America together.”
- Episode 51 – Red Angel – Critical Distance
Eric Swain brought us a new podcast episode.
- Do Games Have A Visual Language Problem? – Waypoint
The latest Critical Distance digest for Waypoint focuses on visual literacy.
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Have you read, seen, heard or otherwise experienced something new that made you think about games differently? Send it in!