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This Week in Video Game Criticism: A weird trick to fix games
This week, our partnership with game criticism site <a href="http://www.critical-distance.com/">Critical Distance</a> brings us picks from Kris Ligman on topics including the future of game genres and the perils of 'easy solutions.'
March 10, 2014
10 Min Read
This week, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us picks from Kris Ligman on topics including the future of game genres and the perils of 'easy solutions.' Dev Tools Critical Distance's audience can roughly be split into two halves: games bloggers, critics and scholars to one side, and game developers of various stripes on the other. It's my belief that these two have more in common than even they may think. With that in mind, I'd like to start off this week's roundup with some recommendations tailored particularly to devs, although anyone design-minded will benefit from them. We start with Kill Screen, where several of its writers have devoted an entire week to the subject of game genres -- in particular, where generic conventions may be going in the near future. Games are not shoes, says Chris Bateman, who argues that Steam's recent change to allow devs to set their own prices will not result in some catastrophic zero-sum game. And over on Unwinnable, we have the free-spirited Gus Mastrapa offering two highly exploratory concepts for the future of massively multiplayer online games. Mirror's Edge and Tomb Raider scribe Rhianna Pratchett turned up in the forums of The Escapist this week to share a bit of her experience writing for games. Meanwhile on Medium, Aevee Bee makes a case for 'small writing' and interstitial worldbuilding moments in games. Microrevolutions There are many ways we can challenge norms of play. Here, a collection of writers share their experiences playing against the grain, either in opposition to industrial logic or narrative conventions. GayGamer and Border House alum Denis Farr muses on the limited impact of certain decisions in Dragon Age and The Witcher, and concludes that isn't so much about a player's character changing the world as deciding where they stand:
These are games that are built on decisions, and people seem disappointed when the decisions do not lend themselves to larger changes that carry over from game to game, or even from decision to decision in the same game sometimes. But, if we allow ourselves to inhabit the characters that would make such a decision, it does allow for a narrative to be constructed. These types of games are a collaboration of the players' imaginations and reasons with the story being told.
Mark Filipowich has me at his opening line, in describing one game's romp through peak videogame absurdity: "If somebody were to make a game out of that one twitter bot that proposes random situations (@AndNowImagine) the result would look something like Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII." A Mind Forever Voyaging author Dylan Holmes spent the last year fighting the tide of the release cycle to instead work on his backlog. Meanwhile, UK-based writer Leigh Harrison lauds The Bureau: XCOM Declassified for subverting a particular trend of modern shooters:
The Bureau should be celebrated for its bravery in swimming against the current of accepted videogame design. It fearlessly deconstructs the prevailing notion that videogames must not only constantly strive to look better, but also appear more naturalistic as the medium and its technology advances. As The Bureau progresses, it subtly strips away the layers of peripheral aesthetics normally seen as a necessity in modern games, until at its end it is visually little more than a VR mission from Metal Gear Solid; an experience completely defined by its mechanics alone, uninterested in anything threatening to overcomplicate the purity of its experience.
Half-Assing on the Holodeck Ben Kuchera's well intentioned, if perhaps poorly executed opinion piece on Gender Swap, a two-person VR simulation in which players briefly experience 'inhabiting' one another's body, has garnered a bit of criticism. Rose & Time developer Sophie Houlden outlines over the course of two articles what Gender Swap (and its too-eager embrace by cisgender writers) fails to account for:
You haven't had to experience with how people treat that body. You haven't felt pressure to change based on the expectations of having that body. The bodies we are born with force us to have experiences which are outside our control. These experiences shape us as people and who we are in our minds is not so easily separated from them. You can put on the headset and look at a mirror, but you have no idea what life the body's owner will return to when you take the headsets off.
Or, as Jessica Janiuk sums it up in an opinion piece on Polygon (as part of a larger discussion of the therapeutic potential of games):
Here's another example of how to understand this [gender dysphoria]. Imagine you slipped on an Oculus Rift, and in that virtual world you existed as a person that was not your gender in the real world. You'd look down and see a body that didn't feel like yours. Your voice wouldn't sound the way you'd like to express yourself. In some cases the sexual options available to your character don't match your sexual feelings. Now imagine you'd never be able to remove that VR helmet again.
Redshirt developer Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris weighs in as well, further challenging Gender Swap and similar VR exercises for proposing easy solutions to complicated problems:
The point is, this stuff is difficult, and complicated, and to think of it any other way does a disservice to how deeply ingrained and nuanced these issues are. Perhaps there is some utility to this kind of VR experiment, but I feel like wider culture better representing and listening to minorities is a far better offering, which works to serve minorities and everyone else alike, rather than experiences which are specifically for people on those relevant axes of privilege.
In her post, Khandaker-Kokoris also links to her recent TEDxEastEnd talk on 'One Weird Old Trick to End Sexism and Racism,' which I cannot recommend highly enough. A Rape in Cyberspace (This section bears a CONTENT WARNING for discussion of rape, assault and harassment.) On RE:roll, Angus Morrison conducts (rather, attempts) an anthropological study of DayZ, only to find that the deck is stacked against him -- and, indeed, he's not immune to the game's psychological effects. Elsewhere, avid DayZ player Kim Correa shares a traumatic experience in the game (TW: rape) and muses on the point at which the game's sociopathy stops being harmless. And back on Kill Screen, Matt Albrecht describes his recent visit to a showing of If You Can Get to Buffalo, an adaptation of Julian Dibbell's 1993 "A Rape in Cyberspace," and likewise asks where the line is drawn online. (End content warning section.) Crawling Toward Sunlight Where the "Microrevolutions" section above paints ways for games and players to resist convention, this section offers up possible solutions for developers to counteract toxicity from the production side. On GayGamer, Mitch Alexander adeptly challenges arguments that equivocate male and female objectification under a straight male gaze and explores what might developers do to "queer" the male gaze. Go Make Me a Sandwich's wundergeek observes the challenges of, and proposes a possible solution for, satirizing the straight male gaze in videogame art when game art is already frequently ridiculous. Finally, Desktop Dungeons developer Rodain Joubert shares how his team chose to approach non-sexualized women avatars and rectify gender disparities for their game. Within Four Walls Even if we happen to be the most radical of indies, consumerism and corporate culture remains a fact of life for many in games. These pieces take a peek inside studio culture -- or muse about PR from afar. Toward the latter, Mat Jones of Oh No! Videogames wants to remind us (yet again) that Pac-Man is Back, but questions whether he was actually inside us all along, deteriorating with the rest of our internal organs. Towards the former, Polygon offers up two features from within studio development. The first: the last years of BioShock developer Irrational Games, as told via Chris Plante. The second: a brisk post-mortem of Activision's Singularity, as told by developer Keith Fuller: "This wasn't development, it was triage. We had to save who we could and bayonet the dying, and we had no time left to do either with any subtlety." On the lighter side, The Escapist's Greg Tito offers an interesting peek inside Civilization 5 studio Firaxis Games and a difference in player strategy which seemingly nearly tore the studio in half. It Starts With Us Critical Distance contributor Lana Polansky, in acknowledging the shortcomings of crowdfunding, maintains a call to openly and consistently signal-boost the kind of work we want to see:
I'm going to make it a general policy to amplify voices in criticism or development or whatever else who deserve that amplification, not because of who they are but because of what they've said or made. This is my general policy anyway, but before right now I hadn't fully declared and applied it. No more amplifying those who are already topical or popular just because doing so may, in some abstract way, be career-advancing. Fuck career advancement. Fuck trying to "make it."
In the spirit of Ms. Polansky's words, here is a selection of writing from the last week that, though it may not fit easily into any of the cubbyholes of games blogging, is worth viewing. First: on Gamers with Jobs, Alex Martinez shares a personal story of two formative experiences from his childhood -- namely, the video game rental store in his neighborhood, and the LA Riots which ravaged it in 1992. On Kill Screen, Rich Shivener profiles MIT's recent QUILTBAG Jam organized by Todd Harper, and in particular the LIM-like Label Gear Solid -- a game that is, by design, unbeatable:
In Label Gear Solid, it's impossible to go unnoticed. In fact, the Suens admit there's no way to win the game. [...] Every time you run into another square, labels physically obscure the screen, until you give up, possibly at the point where you can't see anything. It takes the idea of label-making to absurdity. On Twitter, one player told the brothers it's a "cruel world." Ten seconds into the game, you might feel the same way.
On Paste, Cara Ellison profiles Deirdra Kiai, developer of Dominique Pamplemousse in: "It's All Over Once the Fat Lady Sings!" -- which is presently up for four Independent Game Festival awards. Porpentine's weekly roundups of free independent games on Rock, Paper, Shotgun is, as ever, a valuable resource. Lastly, I would be remiss in failing to mention Starseed Observatory, a compilation of analysis, criticism and discussion focused on Droqen's Starseed Pilgrim. Dispatches from Vienna Our German-language correspondent Joe Koeller has hooked us up with the latest from the German language games blogging scene. On her personal blog, Valentina Hirsch chats feeling ownership over games as medium. Meanwhile, at Polyneux (arguably the best name for a games blog we've seen this week), mayaku talks about deserted servers in World of Warcraft. That's it from us this week! Many thanks to all those who submit recommendations through email or by Twitter mention. You are, as always, incredibly invaluable to what we do here. If you haven't yet, please consider paying a visit to our new Patreon page. Your support allows us not only to remain open and ad-free for the foreseeable but will also us to finally go forward with our many community-building projects. Lastly: there are several events that Critical Distance's team will be taking part in during and around next week's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Be sure to check out Lost Levels, a GDC-adjacent "unconference" where Ben Abraham and I will both be delivering talks, as well as Friday's microtalks, featuring Critical Distance contributor Lana Polansky. We look forward to seeing you there!
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