Happy Sunday, readers.
Things happened this week in games. Some really, icky, bad things. Typically I leave some space at the top here to reflect on some of these things and maybe connect them to the week’s selection of writing, but if some company somewhere, hypothetically speaking, did something particularly gross with the specific aim of generating publicity, I’d be hard-pressed to play along and indulge them with a link. You follow?
If you haven’t checked it out already, Dan Solberg recently penned an excellent Critical Compilation on The Stanley Parable. Also, Capsule Crit just released a double-sized issue dedicated to fan fiction! You absolutely owe it to yourself to check it out.
This Week in Videogame Blogging is a roundup highlighting the most important critical writing on games from the past seven days.
Labour of Love
In an article so on-point and badass I’m putting it in its own section, Vicky Osterweil takes stock of the culture of labour abuse in games production and connects it to the broader organization of our means of production and consumption. Unionize, absolutely unionize, but the work doesn’t stop there, and Osterweil absolutely knows this and makes sure you do, too.
- All Work and All Play — Real Life
Vicky Osterweil absolutely drop-kicks the mic and extends the conversation on labour in games beyond the limited (but still absolutely fucking necessary!) question of unionization.
“The gamer and the developer work in a cyclical process of mutual exploitation and alienation, deepening the ideological hold of current capitalist relations of production while buying Paris pied-à-terres for executives like Bobby Kotick. Unionization will be one of the tools to break out of this cycle, but alone it will not be enough.”
Push Back on Pushback
In her writings on intersectional feminism, Sara Ahmed identifies a catch-22 with the practice of the feminist killjoy: “you become the problem because you notice a problem.” Inconvenient criticism of a game–especially criticism written about and/or authored by marginalized voices–seems especially prone to triggering an avalanche of “Well, actually” reply guys disgorged from the fetid orifice of Mount Gamer™. But the fact is, games sometimes (more than sometimes, really) have shitty representational politics, and we can stand to do better. Today’s pair of featured authors know this all too well.
- What It’s Like To Write About Race And Video Games | Kotaku
Gita Jackson reflects on how little of her games writing is actually about race, as well as the garbage outrage often hurled at women and POC Noticing Things in Games, and responds with far, far more empathy and class than her detractors deserve.
- Catherine: Full Body Reported to Be ‘Adjusting’ Its Transphobia After Backlash—But Is It Enough? | Daily Dot
Ana Valens positions Catherine‘s transphobia–and the efforts of its localization team to make the game less awful–as an important teachable moment to hold developers accountable and empower queer communities beyond our own backyards (content notification: transphobia).
“So while it’s good that Western critics are demanding Atlus do better, Americans and Europeans must still use their anger and outrage responsibly by raising the voices of Japan’s queer gaming community. It’s these critics that can enact real change in Japan, as a Japanese developer may be willing to accept flaws with their work or make changes to their stories if Japanese gamers refuse to purchase a game with transphobic content.”
Games have invested an awful lot of narrative energy in imagining the future over the decades. Infuriatingly, they tend to be simultaneously very wrong and very right in their predictions. What I mean by that statement is that games often correctly forecast the movements of the sociopolitical structures presently posturing to devour us all, but present those movements by way of artificial mechanical constraints that can limit our capacity to imagine positive solutions to the apocalypses we revel in for entertainment. Three writers this week gaze into the palantir to make sense of what is coming, and what isn’t.
- The Idea of a “Good Ending” Is One of the Bleakest Parts of ‘Metro Exodus’ – Waypoint
Cameron Kunzelman uses Metro Exodus as an opportunity to propose that we need to leave moral binaries behind in order to think productively about meaningfully better futures.
- How the Front Mission Series Anticipated, Then Fell Behind, a Dark Future – Waypoint
Kyle Thompson presents an extensive overview of the Front Mission mecha series while bemoaning its failure to keep pace over the years with, for lack of a better descriptor, the bullshit of our present sociopolitical moment.
- And Besides, This Isn’t My Sword – Timber Owls
Lilly repositions Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (no, I can’t fucking spell that word without looking it up) as an increasingly dead-on prophecy of our contemporary crypto-libertarian hellscape, to which Raiden is largely complicit without the guidance of that “beautiful Brazilian bastard”, Sam.
“While MGS4 was a far more sombre game, dealing with Snake at the end of his life fighting a war he had no choice but to fight, Revengeance is (as the incredible subtitle implies) near-infamously bombastic in the same way that many of PlatinumGames’ other developed titles are. This switch in tone works extremely well in its favor – while MGS4 used Snake to question the legitimacy of heroic war narratives, Revengeance is focused heavily on the question of violence itself in a video-game context.”
Wood and Metal
In our accelerating era of digital distribution, always-online, and, ugh, live services, it’s easy to forget that games are made out of stuff. I don’t just mean cabinets and coltan, but also the very material conditions of their development and production. Two authors this week engage in archaeology and art criticism, respectively, to unearth secrets of how games are, and how they come to be.
- Pac-Man: The Untold Story of How We Really Played The Game – Retro Bitch
Cat DeSpira presents an extremely thorough and rewarding deep dive into the material history of the Pac-Man arcade cabinet.
- Let’s Place: Object Without Filling – Haywire Magazine
Daria Kalugina reflects on artifice and artistry in the incomplete spaces of game production.
“As a whole, Everything is a container, filled with every object imagined. As a single in-game thing, it is a surface, hollow and flickering.”
Narrative-driven games can be highly suspect object texts for studying personal relationships. They often place their characters in environments wildly alien to our present status quo, and the mechanical conceits that make a game a game can further interfere with character arcs and consequences. Sometimes, however, games can demonstrate awareness of the ways in which they are compromised, and in doing so can produce illuminating results, as two writers this week discuss.
- Family Dynamics and the Disappointing Adult in JRPGs | Unwinnable
Malindy Hetfeld asks what it means to be a teenager–immaturity, vulnerability, and all–in game worlds where the entire social order is warped or upended entirely.
- YOU CAN’T GET THERE BY DRIVING – DEEP HELL
Skeleton reflects on the folly of trying to game relationships–or trust narrative frameworks that suggest we can.
“I’d like to think the meaning behind DEEP-HELL dot com is that the only thing videogames can teach you is bad things, and here it is again. ESB is a game that tells you there’s a right combination of words and social affectations to become friends with anyone, and then pulls a Funny Games right before the end and tells you: it’ll work on everyone but the people you desire most.”
Part and parcel with the understanding that games in no way exist “outside” their often late-capitalist conditions of production, some of our most fundamental (and therefore overlooked) conceits of game design belie the ideological frameworks that birth them. That last sentence very nearly went up it’s own ass, so suffice to say that hegemonic power fantasies are kind of weird and fucked up if you stop to think about them. Two authors this week do exactly that.
- How games whitewash Nazism, and the responsibility developers have to history | GamesIndustry.biz
Hadyn Taylor, via Sebastian Schulz and Jörg Friedrich, traces the fascist roots of some of gaming’s favourite power fantasy tropes.
- Monster Hunter World Can’t Envision That Maybe Hunters are the Baddies | Paste
Dia Lacina marvels at Monster Hunter World as a game that fails to leverage the considerable attention it affords to ecosystems to any meaningful critical end whatsoever
“Rather than a muddled, murky Diet Colonialism Fantasy of exploration, World could be a game that requires players to maintain that balance. Hunt too many of one species, and the systems that choreograph the cross-species interactions between monsters in the middle of a hunt suddenly bring the real world implications of environmental stewardship to the fore. Allowing players to impact the ecology of The New World visually, or systemically in ways that alter gameplay, would go a long way to preventing Monster Hunter World from undercutting itself.”
While I will freely admit that I don’t know a whole lot about it, esports is definitely a Thing–it commands a lot of viewers and dollars, and like any other major institution in gaming, I want to see it associated with more diverse representation. Two authors this week explore the expansion–as well as setbacks–faced by esports athletes beyond white guys in the west.
- Not to Be Underestimated: The Rise of Esports in the Middle East | Fanbyte
Mostafa Hossam documents the growth–as well as challenges–experienced by esports players and teams in the Middle East and North Africa.
- The Rise And Fall Of The Frag Dolls, A Group That Blazed Trails For Women In Gaming | Kotaku
Elizabeth Ballou asks difficult questions about a pioneering all-women esports team who nonetheless have left a void in the industry with their dissolution.
“In the mid-2000s, I was just entering my teens, and I was painfully aware of the difference between my own gawky body and the cool, polished allure of the Frag Dolls. They are not like me, I remember thinking, and the thought stung. Did I need to have that kind of beauty to make up for my unfeminine obsession with games?”
Just for Fun
Reading this article made me miss playing Destiny. “Treads Upon Stars” is a more interesting, more evocative name for a gun than “Wingman,” and you will find that I have not deviated from this position over the years. Also, this entire paragraph just happened and I can never undo it.
- Apex Legends Weapons Ranked by How Well I Can Remember Their Names | Fanbyte
What’s in a name? As Steven Strom illuminates, sometimes literally nothing. Possibly even less than nothing. I’m now wondering cynically if there’s a gun in the game that’s just called “gun”.
“It’s a sea of pseudo-military acronyms that don’t actually mean anything. Honestly, though, they’re so forgettable that I’ve begun to find it endearing.”
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Have you read, seen, heard or otherwise experienced something new that made you think about games differently? Send it in!