Welcome back, readers.
Once again from last week, here’s a thread detailing local orgs you can donate to in India, which is dealing with an unprecedented surge in Covid cases. Check it out if you can.
No major news around the site this week. Hope you’re taking care of yourself, playing something cool, and using the #TWIVGB hashtag if you write something you want to share with us!
This Week in Videogame Blogging is a roundup highlighting the most important critical writing on games from the past seven days.
Highs and Lows in Genre Fiction
We open this week with two meditations on science fiction games, looking alternately at thoughtful stoytelling possibilities (King) and regressive and harmful abstractions (Alvey) which present themselves in the genre.
- Returnal Is The Alien Prequel Prometheus Should Have Been | TheGamer
Jade King unearths some thoughtful sci-fi horror storytelling connections in Returnal.
- ‘Mass Effect 2: Overlord’ Should Have Stayed in 2010 | Waypoint
M. Wesley Alvey revisits a fraught Mass Effect 2 DLC which strips its key autistic character of his self-determination, pathologizes and dehumanizes his neuroatypicality, and places him in a false moral equivalency with his abusive brother.
“The Mass Effect series constructs a future for humanity full of telekinesis and faster-than-light travel, yet it is incapable of imagining a future where autistic people are treated with human respect and dignity. What happens to David Archer is a viscerally accurate portrayal of the real life abuse that many autistic people experience, stripped of any context and lacking the simple option for a full-throated condemnation.”
The Right Moment
Temporal context (which sounds way more sci-fi in my head than I intended; a carry-over from the previous section?) is the key concept that informs our next section in different ways across its three selections, as their respective authors situate the artistic, political, and thematic consequences of games in their specific time and place.
- 1988: P.R.E.S.T.A.V.B.A. | 50 Years of Text Games
Aaron A. Reed recounts the history of a Czechoslovakian satirical protest game made on the cusp of democratic revolution.
- Fresh takes on old favourites – Kimimi The Game-Eating She-Monster
Kimimi evaluates the Game Gear take on Ristar and the cross-generational context and developer talent which inform its artistic success.
- Jet Set Willy  – Arcade Idea
Art Maybury considers the technological and economic factors that make games a uniquely hospitable medium for the sequel, while also delving into the self-reflective thematic excursions one particular computer game affords itself through its status as a sequel.
“Maybe it’s just the overbearing power of marketing departments on the critical discourse, which has held strong for pretty much the entire existence of commercial video games. (You could also easily point to the same phenomenon in movie criticism to explain the past decade or so.) Maybe it’s that there’s not a widespread sense that “telling a story” is the primary function of a video game, so there’s less bias against grafting more story onto one that’s already come to a natural and unified end. The theory I gravitate towards most, though, is that it’s because video games are so tied to rapid technological advances.”
An Ecocritical Lens
Our next two selections take us to imagined worlds both fantastical and science fictional to better understand the precarity of the real-world ecosytems to which we remain indelibly bound.
- Observing Nature | In The Lobby
Cole Henry talks about nature photography, and what New Pokemon Snap has to offer to an increasingly eco-conscious world.
- In Other Waters (2020) | Imaginary Papers, Issue 6
Lisa Yin Han visits an alien ecosystem that makes a break from survival and colonialism in favour of weaving philosophical and allegorical truths about our relationship with the environment.
“So often, games set in extraterrestrial locales formulaically prompt players to terraform and commit simulated acts of violence to survive. In Other Waters makes a critical intervention, challenging the currently popular farming and survival game genres, which largely rely on extraction and colonization in their game mechanics.”
You Had to Be There
Digital tourism is the critical thread that unites this next section unpacking space and place in game worlds real and imagined.
- How the video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. inspired a wave of real-world Chernobyl tourists | The Verge
Darmon Richter talks to the real-life “stalkers” who make the trek across the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone featured in 2007’s S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
- PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds: Views To Die For – Jamie Dalzell
Jamie Dalzell presents a travelogue of Erangel, conveying the sense of space and place of PUBG‘s original map which helped to attract and retain millions.
“As an act of virtual tourism, then, Erangel has always been a tough sell. A heart has to break a little for the tourism operators left to that task, I think. Bend your imagination just a little, and you’ll spot them. The travel agents, that is, hunched over beige keyboards stuffed in the back corner of an equally derelict travel agency.”
Here we’ve got a grouping on storytelling, with a focus on how notes and journals alternately help or hinder broader worldbuilding projects in games.
- Resident Evil Village Makes Me Appreciate Games With Good Journals | Fanbyte
Natalie Flores surmises that journal entries are a powerful worldbuilding tool, just not so much in the new Resident Evil.
- Silent Stories: The Last of Us Part II’s Unusually Riveting Collectible Notes – Haywire Magazine
Jenyth Evans describes how The Last of Us Part II‘s in-game notes enrich its storytelling with multiplicity of perspective and allow room for player interpretation.
“Clustering Sofia’s drawing, her graffiti, and Boris’ trophy—all of which elicit a clear response from Ellie—at the beginning of Hillcrest lets the player know Ellie’s interest is piqued by the pair. But omitting a verbal reaction to nearly all of the later notes or the level environment invites the player to imagine her response and thoughts as she explores. The fact that Ellie continues to pick these memos up subtly suggests she, too, sees the connection between her own life and the lives in these notes. Is Ellie seeking out these scraps of paper because she senses in them the same echo of her own inner turmoil that we do? Does reading about Boris and Sofia deepen her commitment to this dark path, or deter her from it?”
Bodies are weird. The societies we live in are fraught with implicit and explicit rules about how they should present and perform, which in turn informs which kinds of bodies are seen and valued in pop culture and media. Body horror and biopunk serve as critical interventions to body normativity which guide our next selected pair of pieces in a broader conversation about the representation–and interrogation–of bodies.
- ¿Cuál es la gracia de Resident Evil dentro del género ‘biopunk’? | GamerFocus
Julián Ramírez delves into the biopunk genre, its embrace of our anxieties about our malleable bodies, and its realtionship to the Resident Evil series as a whole (Spanish-language article).
- Character Creators, Fatness, Gender, Body Horror, and Me | Sidequest
Oisin Kuhnke reflects on the critical affirmations of body horror and contrasts this to the restrictions and limitations prevalant in in-game character creators.
“I crave a sense of authorship in games. I’d love to tell my own story in someone else’s world. It makes me envious of those who make body horror. They get to figure things out about the body, but they also have to put an amount of labour into making the thing. Why can’t games give players the tools to do that experimentation?”
The Art of Play
Next up, a trio of pieces all investigate the relationships between, art, art-making, artful-meaning-making, and play. Each of these authors in their own ways extend this conversation beyond a singular focus on a game or games, instead fitting games into a larger framework of how they inform our creative selves.
- Rock Band Affirms the Liberating Power of Music | Paste
Grace Benfell re-learns how to play Rock Band, and in doing so re-learns how to listen to, and talk about, music.
- Returning to The Catacombs Of Solaris, perspective maze and nascent “artsport” | Rock Paper Shotgun
Emilie Reed takes a wander through The Catacombs of Solaris Revisited, touching upon uncertainty and play in art software and games alike (Disclosure: Emilie is a member of Critical Distance’s board of advisors, works on our Keywords in Play podcast series, and has organized game jams under our banner).
- The Art and Play of Collecting | Sidequest
Sara Davis delves into the aesthetics and psychology of collecting, cataloguing, and completing–in games and beyond.
“I’m making the unseen seen, I tell myself in the daytime, as I walk around my neighborhood and mentally match the bursting pink and white cherry blossoms with their striped and spotted gray bark. I’m doing this for the aesthetic, I tell myself at night, collecting and arranging pixels that will one day disappear as completely as this spring’s blossoms.”
This one was too lyrical to not be our sendoff for the week.
- This World and Everybody In It | Bullet Points Monthly
Reid McCarter takes notes on the world of Nier: Replicant.
“You look at: rough grey-blue skies the colour of choppy seas and rich green fields dotted with sheep baa-ing for their meat to explode out of them, another twinkling yellow star to put in your pocket. A guitar picks gentle metal notes over the palm-padding of soft drums, warm hands on stretched hide. Words are poison, but you collect them to turn their danger into malignant veins of cancer-black and blood red—spears to pierce the bodies of frantic ghost children capering like agitated monkeys in mountain meadows.”
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