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2011: The year in video game criticism

As we ease ourselves into the new year, our partnership with game criticism site <a href="http://www.critical-distance.com/">Critical Distance</a> brings us a retrospective from Eric Swain on 2011's best articles on video game criticism, design, and cultu

Eric Swain, Blogger

January 3, 2012

14 Min Read

[As we ease ourselves into the new year, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us a retrospective from Eric Swain on 2011's best articles on video game criticism, design, and culture.] Welcome to 2012! Here at Critical Distance, your regularly scheduled This Week In Video Game Criticism is taking a break to make way for our year-end retrospective. The editorial crew has been hard at work culling through the year's 937 links plus reader suggestions to bring you the best written, the most memorable, most important and most representative writings of 2011. Without further adieu, Critical Distance is proud to bring you This Year In Video Game Criticism. Critical Video Game Criticism Like last year, most of the focus of this year's writing was on the games themselves from this year and years past. The pieces ranged from looking at the title as a whole, just an aspect or connecting it to grander trends and themes within gamin as a while. First off is Kirk Hamilton and Leigh Alexander's 10-part Paste letter series on the classic Final Fantasy VII from the perspective of a newcomer and the nostalgia gamer. Later in the year when Kirk moved to Kotaku, so did the second letter series in four parts, this time on the original Deus Ex with Leigh and Kirk's newbie and old guard roles reversed. Also writing on Deus Ex was our own Katie Williams, looking at the game through the lens of our possible future and how in the end it made her fear for it. On the modern incarnation of the series, Kieron Gillen (who has since left Rock, Paper, Shotgun) observed that Deus Ex: Human Revolution is about DRM. Joel Goodwin, aka the Harbor Master, from Electron Dance wrote about don't take it personally, babe, it just ain't your story, calling it a look into The Glass Society. Meanwhile, Jonathan McCalmont at Futurismic also examined Christine Love's don't take it personally and its perspective of a future where privacy has become an archaic concept. Tevis Thompson wrote on Portal 2 and the varied concepts on point of view the game engenders in the player. Kirk Hamilton reviewed the game for Paste, expressing his feelings and understanding of the game the only way he could: using dominoes as visual aids. On the other hand, Micheal "Brainy Gamer" Abbott opined that the cracks are showing just a bit with Portal 2's story and game mechanics integration in comparison to the first because it takes a little too much time to get to its point. At MaximumPC, Nathan Grayson explored Bastion's multitextuality and how it succeeds where other games fail by presenting its differing meanings that exist in the game. Scott Juster on his Experience Points column on the PopMatters' Moving Pixels blog looked at how Catherine affected him personally by having the game's main message hit a little close to home. Speaking of close to home, editor-in-chief of Nightmare Mode, Patricia Hernandez, opened up to write about how she played Catherine as someone who related more than most to the protagonist's situation. Film Critic Hulk shifted gears to video games by turning the Hulk's eye on Batman: Arkham City and its propensity for the word 'bitch.' Hulk also wrote a follow up to a number of the criticisms the piece received. Kirk Hamilton popped up again to review L.A. Noire for Kill Screen and the strange position the game put him in with regards to his perception of the game's reality. Tom Bissell, meanwhile, attempted to isolate what L.A. Noire means for gaming in "Press X for Beer Bottle." At The Border House, Mattie Brice did a reading of mages in the Dragon Age franchise through the lens of The Fantasy Cyborg, the good, the bad and the mixed. Our own Kris Ligman also paid tribute to Dragon Age II, specifically its characters Isabela and Aveline and how they bring the game the game into a whole new light in "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsless Rogue." Switching from one end of the RPG spectrum to the other, we have Tom Bissell taking on Skyrim and the world it presents. Katie Williams, however, focused her analysis on the character creator and how she had to restart several times before she had a character she found acceptable in the fiction. Eurogamer had a piece by Rich Stanton looking at the two releases of Skyrim and Dark Souls, and how each in turn tells its stories. Meanwhile, Brendan Keogh chronicled his journey through Dark Souls, examining how it treats both grinding and its concept of time. At Nightmare Mode, Eric Swain responded to posts that took umbrage to his criticisms of Limbo and its empty atmosphere by declaring "The Text Says No: Why You Can't Interpret Limbo Anyway You Want." Also writing at Nightmare Mode, Swain looked at Heavenly Sword as an example of ludonarrative resonance. Coming off an episode on propaganda games, the Extra Credits crew set their eyes on Call of Juarez: The Cartel as a damning example of a game using its system dynamics and presentation to propagate lies and misinformation. Robert Rath on the Escapist also took umbrage with the game in light of the very real tragedy going on in Mexico and how the game can consequently be viewed as dangerous. Film Crit Hulk came back to games at Badass Digest to look at the evolution of the Modern Warfare series, declaring it "batshit." At The Boston Phoenix, Maddy Myers looked at the warrior women of Gears of War 3 and surreptitiously at the concept of woman in the Gears universe as a while. We revisit Tom Bissell for his commentary on Dead Island in "Video Games Killed the Video Game Star", a look at the game's problem with numbers. Newcomer Lee Kelly at Ambient Challenge wrote "Learning Russian" in an effort to explain his emotional investment and reaction to Metro 2033. For the last few months Joel Haddock has been busy with his 13-part (so far) series "Revisiting The Wasteland" on the original post-apocalyptic RPG, Wasteland, on his blog Spectacle Rock. Other newcomers, The Brindle Brothers, posted on Red Dead Redemption and how Rockstar shot itself in the foot by not paying as much attention to detail to their combat mechanics as they did the with Western setting they put the player in. Another huge series, this one could classify itself as a book on one man's roleplay in the slow real time strategy game Neptune's Pride and his inexorable descent into paranoid mess. The BBC surprised a few of us when Paul Mason posted a provocative piece on Hearts of Iron III and how he re-fought World War II only to lose as he tried to improve the outcome. New York Times writer Jonah Weiner gave us an expose on the creator of Dwarf Fortress, the game itself and the dedicated community of games that sprung up around its dense systems. Kill Screen ran a contender for the greatest review of all time with J. Nicholas Geist's interactive review of Infinity Blade using the form to further explain the play experience of the iOS gem. Jorge Albor wrote about the ethical conundrums of the iOS game Tiny Tower and how after 30 floors he wanted nothing more than to unmake what he had wrought. J.P. Grant of Infinite Lag also looked at Tiny Tower through the theory of Frederick W. Taylor on scientific management and how the player is driven to maximize efficiency. Leigh Alexander spotlighted her friend Ian Bogost and his two games that represent the diametrically opposite roads gaming can take and how of the two, his more despised effort, Cow Clicker, rose to infamy. Tim Rogers on the rebooted Insert Credit wrote "Who Killed Videogames: A Ghost Story" about the Sims Social. And finally, what better way to cap off our look at 2011 than to pay tribute to one of its more infamous releases? For this we turn to Jamin Warren's review of Duke Nukem Forever and what it meant for Kill Screen's review score policy. Design Blogging While many pieces focused on specific games others looked to design itself. Some went in depth into a single aspect of games, while others focused on overarching concepts. In the realm of theoretical games two stood out as something we really wished existed. First was Matthew Breit's conceptualizing if Groundhog Day was a game, its reception and its possible history as it became a part of gaming culture. The other was Nightmare Mode's Eric Lockaby fake review of Deliverance for the 3DS that tricked many of us into thinking it existed and many more of us disappointed that it didn't. And then there was Gregory Weir at Ludus Novus with his wonderfully hilarious satire piece asking "Why So Few Violent Games?" Kirk Battle aka. L.B. Jeffries returned this year after a long hiatus and gifted us with his three-part examination on MMOs and the future they are going to confront should they create their own internal judiciary. Talking of big projects, Troy Goodfellow of Flash of Steel completed his long running National Character project he started last year looking at how strategy games represent various countries. In episode 130 of his blog's podcast Three Moves Ahead he discusses the project and the issues inherent with such an undertaking. Looking at the representation of war in mainstream first-person shooters, Robert Yang on his Radiator blog declared that the modern FPS's picture of war is wrong and there lies a danger in what it conditions us into thinking. Robert Sample took us through the procedural logic of crime in video games. Elsewhere, Martin at We Are Two Squares examined "The Fascist Politics of the Infinite Respawn." Meanwhile, Chris DeLeon at Newsgames does an in depth analysis of an interactive anti-smoking campaign modeled on Breakout meant to procedurally represent the effects of smoking on people's lungs and the changes needed to get it right. Ian Bogost took a number of swings at game design this year. First on Gamasutra about certain arguments calling video games up till now an aberration and what they meant by it, to which Frank Lantz responded in the comments. Bogost then took his now infamous first salvos at gamification in the process of which coining the term "exploitationware" and calling it bullshit. At BrainyGamer, Micheal Abbott declared that games aren't clocks and that they demand evaluation on far more than their mechanics. Alan of Spit Screen wondered how we fell into such a despicable state of 'journalism' where the "vapid rubbish" of a game studio announcing they are going to "announce an announcement" is at all noteworthy. In November, Eric Schwarz of Critical Missive wrote that size isn't the only thing that matters in an analysis of the differences of open-world games and sandbox games. Anticipating the subsequent FFVII series, Tom Bissell and Simon Ferrari wrote their own letter series on video game criticism. Read the trading of wits between the author of Extra Lives and the co-author of Newsgames: Journalism at Play. Dan Cook of Lost Garden had his own things to say on the state of video game criticism in "A Blunt Critique of Game Criticism." It has been altered and edited many times since it was first published, but it still worth a look. Simon Ferrari, previously highlighted passing notes with Tom Bissell, delivered a new textbook standard (literally) with how to write a book about video games. Speaking of books, Richard Clark dug into one of 2011's more talked-about releases, Jane McGonigal's Reality is Broken, and highlighted several of its problems by stating "(Virtual) Reality is (Just As) Broken." Culture Blogging There is more to gaming than just the games. The art form is only as good as the culture that surrounds them and if this year was a sample we aren't in that great a place. Art is by people and effects people. To understand the games you have to look at the people surrounding them as well. I don't know how to approach this. I hate it will all my heart for what this debacle did to good people. There is no easy way to introduce it and yet it cannot, should not be ignored, lest it happen in our community again. Trigger Warnings for Rape, Slut Shaming, Death Threats and all the other bile that goes along with it. The Dickwolves Timeline. In response to the Free Play Panel, which has come to be known as That Panel, Ben Abraham wrote a feature piece on Gamasutra on Game Criticism, Women Critics and Challenging Sexism. Laura Parker and Tracey Lien wrote their own letter series in response to the panel and how they as women critics get ignored. Leigh Alexander stated that she was tired of being a woman in games and wants to know when she can just be a person in games. That is, a person who plays and writes about games without having to be solely identified by her adjective. Alex Raymond of the Border House responded to a piece on Edge that called for women to change their attitudes and be more open about their identity by stating that isn't always possible or advisable. She goes on that men have to change too and that male allies are a necessary part to things getting better. Drawing attention to how members of the industry perpetuate these same attitudes denying personal responsibility, Nicole Leffel wrote a memorable piece which struck a nerve with its Kotaku readership: "Passing the Buck in a Culture of Dismissal". And Tracey Lien of Zero Lights Seeds reminded us that "It's not just one joke, it's all the jokes." If Kirk Hamilton is the one great blogger of the year, Kate Cox is the other. In her three part series The Gamer's Gaze, she turns the media theory of the male gaze as a concept to how it applies to video games. Additionally, she wrote her Beyond the Girl Gamer series in 8 parts (so far) on "the role of women and girls as players, characters and participants in games and gamer culture." Extra Credits expanded their representation videos to look at "True Female Characters" and how biological differences and cultural differences aren't the same thing and that great characters are formed from the later. They also tackled "Race in Games" by looking not at well done non-white characters, but how a game can use racial interactions as a concept to inform and deepen the game's world and characters. Kris Ligman went to E3 and chronicled her trip as an expose of the show's increasing irrelevance. Patrick Holleman of The Game Design Forum went to a different event and chronicled his weekend in "Scenes from a Game Jam" that took place in Philadelphia. And finally we end somewhere quite close to where we began, back with Kirk Hamilton and his overview of Suparna Galaxy, the community driven satire project of the same name. A mass collaboration involving Kirk, Leigh Alexander, Sarah Elmaleh, Denis Farr and many others, it certainly shows what we can all do when too much bored talent gets together over social media. This has been an exhausting year overall. Despite that, or maybe because of it, we have had a great year of game writing both expansive and deep. Even beyond the numerous links we present to you here, there were many more that we each personally championed for, to say nothing of all the wonderful links from TWIVGCs past. But even though some links had to be cut, in the end we are all happy with the results. This is our best effort to capture the zeitgeist of the year's writing. Next Sunday we are back to work with all the new posts coming our way. Don't forget to submit any suggestions via email or via twitter @critdistance and also have a Happy New Year.

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