This week, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us picks from Kris Ligman on topics ranging from the self-reflexivity of Davey Wreden's The Beginner's Guide to an analysis of the systems of Prison Architect.
The Beginner's Guide
Discussion on The Beginner's Guide, from The Stanley Parable co-creator Davey Wreden, has begun to trickle in. While most articles have focused on the game's narrative, some critics are less interested in the game's fiction and more interested in its structure. Brendan Keogh, for instance, praises how the game makes the player conscious of their act of playing:
The Beginner's Guide is a videogame about videogames, then, but not in a cloying you-are-the-monster way or a hey-remember-Mario way. It's a videogame about the act of engaging with a videogame, both through creation and consumption. It presumes a particular literacy in its audience to recognise certain glitch aesthetics and understand certain things about the Source engine, but this feels less elitist and more assuming the audience's intelligence. This videogame wants the player to be aware at all times they are exploring, unpacking, and ultimately ruining a videogame work as they trod all over it, and it wants the player to think about what it means to engage with a videogame (what the game engine does, what the player does, what certain mechanics and aesthetic choices do). The Beginner's Guide is a self-reflective exercise for Wreden, almost definitely. But it is also a self-reflective exercise for the player to think about their relationship with virtual spaces, and with the human beings who craft them.
Over on Offworld, Sidney Fussell points out that if videogames can manage to reboot Lara Croft beyond her male gaze roots, why have depictions of black men gone virtually unchanged in the past 20 years? In a similar vein, at Kill Screen, Will Partin takes to task Introversion Software's Prison Architect, concluding that while it is engaging enough as a game, it utterly fails as either simulation of or commentary upon its subject matter:
Every simulation, of course, is a simplification of the real-world system it models. The issue with Prison Architect is not that it fails to represent every aspect of prisons' complexity, but that the aspects it omits are among the most important for understanding why and how mass incarceration is the way it is. Perhaps this makes for a better game, but it's ludicrous to pretend that it makes for a worthwhile study of the 21st century American prison, which has much more to do with decades of punishing state and federal policies on incarceration than the variety of meals inmates are offered.
Here on Gamasutra, Dan Chamberlain looks back upon the homebrew community which built up around the Net Yaroze, one of the first publicly-available devkits. And at USGamer, Kat Bailey provides a feature on ex-pat developers living and working in the Japanese independent games industry.
Writing for his Game Design Advance blog, educator Frank Lantz shares some words of praise for Serpentes, a variant of the classic Snake with some notable changes to the formula:
Most action games involve a process where, over time, you internalize the behavior of the game's objects, how they move and interact. It's like you are learning a language, learning to associate the game's visual iconography with the underlying properties of the objects in the world. Guns do damage, keys open doors, skeletons are weak to magic, cassette tapes contain new wave songs. Playing a game means learning this language, the game's semiotic system, and then using it to assemble larger ideas and meanings.
In Serpentes this process is short-circuited. Instead of the solid, one-to-one relationship between symbol and meaning that we are used to, we have a chaotic system that circulates between a handful of symbols and a collection of properties that are endlessly re-assembled into new clusters. Instead of the familiar experience of repeated play in which the gameworld's grammar is burned deeper and deeper into our neural pathways, we find ourselves perpetually occupying the beginner's mind, thrown into a brand new world and struggling to learn its logic.
Meanwhile, fellow educator and developer Robert Yang -- who has become well known for publishing extensive design articles on each of his games -- contends that games exist in a cultural economy where playing is only one vector for engagement:
To "consume" a game, it is no longer necessary to play it. Rather, the most important thing about a game is that it exists, because that means you can think about it. (Or maybe, games don't even have to exist? Consider the endless press previews and unreleased games that engross so many people. These are purely hypothetical games that are often better than playing the actual finished product.)
The concept, and your explanation of that concept, and your audience's understanding of that concept, is your game.