This week, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us picks from Kris Ligman on topics including the inaccuracy of "brown shooters," and why gameplay must die.
It's time for This Week in Video Game Criticism! So let's get right into it.
Medal of Honor and the War Game
Writing in his regular Critical Intel column, Robert Rath laments the "brown shooter" cliché that has taken over the military action genre.
"The tragedy of the grey-brown palate is that it doesn't reflect reality. Speaking as someone who grew up in Hawaii and has hiked World War II battlefields around the Pacific, I can tell you for a fact that Saipan isn't a dim jungle under a faded denim sky.Pearl Harbor doesn't have grey water capped with red-shot clouds. The men who hit the beaches at Normandy and Guadalcanal didn't see the battle through an antique camera lens, they saw the horror and, yes, sometimes the beauty too, through eyes as sharp and color-sensitive as ours.The antique film aesthetic is fundamentally incompatible with games as a medium for one simple reason: In a movie we're watching history, but in games we're there. Private Ryan's motif assumes that the audience is an observer, but in games, we're a participant."
"As Corvo landed his final blink, all I could feel was a thrill. Not so much of reaching my summit, but instead of conquering the night, of conquering my skills. A sense of control that came with doing whatever I wanted: the city was mine. But as I looked around from above, everything under me looked empty and unpopulated.I thought about the kingdom under the tyranny of the lord regent, I thought of the great whale beasts that we killed to fuel our everyday conveniences—both things that I never really got to see in the game. I'm more acquainted with the rats of Dunwall, with the books of Dunwall than its actual everyday citizens."
Up a Creek with Assassin's Creed III
Dr. B of Not Your Mama's Gamer (while caveating that she is still going through the game) criticizes some problematic racial and narrative implications in Assassin's Creed III's choice to start the player out not playing the biracial Connor Kenway, but his white father Haytham:
"Ubisoft pulled a bait and switch, it promised us (ok me…but it is all about me, right?) one thing and then proceeded to deliver us something else. With all of this Haytham in my face and in the construction of Connor as an assassin, he (Connor) becomes less of the Native American badass and more of the assassin who harnesses/overcomes/incorporates his savage side to do what all of his great white ancestors have done. Kill Templars (and anyone doing their bidding) rather than a man on a mission to right the wrongs that have been committed against his people (despite his own connection to them via bloodline).And then, right before I started this post it struck me. I know why Haytham just sticks in my craw! He is the personification of the infamous letter of authenticity that precedes every slave narrative. Yes, I recognize that Connor is neither African (American) nor a slave, but the feeling is still the same.Connor, as Ratonhnhaké:ton, is unworthy of being an assassin. He is tainted. He can only be an assassin (and avenge the deaths of his Native people?) as Connor Kenway, the son of a white man and not the son of a Native American woman. While Ubisoft tries to play up his Native heritage he is another instance of the great White savior coming in to save/avenge the lowly savage."
"Binary Domain is one of those deceptively smart games that I initially ignored as just-another-shooter. When I finally played it recently, however, I was surprised to find a plethora of subtle and nuanced things happening alongside the absurd action and archetypal characters. Binary Domain wants to tell you about class struggles, about climate change, about Japanese nationalism and insularism, about posthumanism, and most of all, about discrimination and othering."
Let's Do the Time Warp Again!
This was a good week for retrospectives on older and/or overlooked titles. Let's have a look.
Over on Unwinnable, Tanner Higgin muses on Red Dead Redemption's location between space and ideology:
"I think of RDR as meditation on the American politics of space and territory. With keen attentiveness to what the U.S. and Mexico border region landscape signifies historically and culturally, RDR reveals itself to be not only about exploration and the achievement of a pastoral individualistic ideal, but the human cost required to maintain that myth."
"Months before I played Dark Souls I came across a long list of the things players should finish up at the end of their first playthrough. Fight optional bosses, farm humanity, collect and upgrade weapons, kindle bonfires. Trade for useful items, level up covenants. And last of all, quite simply: kill everyone."
"If we understand gameplay as something that a challenge is a crucial part of, then none of these moments features any gameplay. You just walk, or swim, or ride a horse, but that's it. You cannot die. You don't make choices that have any long term consequences. No skill is involved.There is no gameplay.In other words, certain things worth remembering from certain video games are not what these video games are all about.That's fucked up.
But also great.
Because it means we still don't understand video games. And if love them so much already, imagine what will happen when one day we will actually understand them."
"Games are defined by their verbs. Borderlands 2 is a shoot, loot, and level sort of game: you shoot enemies, loot guns, and level yourself up. None of these are funny verbs. They're all deadly serious. Tokyo Jungle, meanwhile, has you eating, marking, mating, and dying. These are comedic verbs in part because of their rarity, and in part because of how much they defy video game logic."
"When we criticize games like Persona or games like Dragon Age, which structure personal relationships into levels and sliders, delineating clear methods to gain benefits from these relationships, is it wholly because they reduce complex interactions into something too simplistic, or something inhumane? Let's be real, I think many of us would have trouble abstaining from looking at the numbers if we could actually see them in real life judging by how important useless statistics like how many friends we have on Facebook are to us."
"The game itself is not an art, but a well-played match becomes a work of participatory art. We see that sentiment dimly reflected in the Western concern with sportsmanship; likewise in our preoccupation with cheating. The bombastic and epochal tone of NFL Films' narrative shorts may be our society's most glaring illustration of the artistry of a match, but even the prosaic institutions of the sports page, the chess transcription, or the video game speedrun all testify to our implicit conviction that, under the proper conditions, play can become a work of art."
"In Primordia, I really wanted to make a female character whose primary characteristic in the player's eyes isn't her femininity; at the same time — having two young daughters and caring a lot about role models — I wanted to have a character who reflects the kind of tough, professional women who have made such a difference in my own life."
Meanwhile, the Dear Ada blog, in which writers from all backgrounds as gamers, designers and critics write open letters to Ada Lovelace, the world's first programmer, is still going strong with a new entry from "White Mouse", a female AAA developer caught between complicity in corporate attitudes and the risks posed by entering indie waters. Great, heartfelt read.
The Shame Game
In a guest piece for Kotaku, Samuel Sattin discusses overcoming a sense of shame associated with the 'gamer' label:
"I used to be ashamed of my love for video games because, in short, I was ashamed of myself. It wasn't the medium that was the problem. It was me who couldn't see beyond the slipshod cloud of my youth, and the superficial relationships I thought would gain me footing if I decided to lie about myself.I needed to grow up to appreciate, and yes, critique video games, not the other way around. The truth is that video games represent a cutting edge of creativity, whether for good or bad, and there's a lot to be missed by those refusing to offer them the seriousness they are going to deserve."
"You must keep in mind that everyone who is more experienced than you are is always wrong. Doing games journalism is not a want, it is a need. You have suffered in silence too long, praying quietly at the altar of your living room console while all of these boring jerks do all this work in the industry.How have you let them ruin everything for so long? Why have you deprived them of the change engine fueling your single voice? Rise now, tell them what's broken and how to fix it. You can make, like, two bucks a word telling people how to fix things. Didn't you know that?[...]You must root out corruption wherever you find it. Don't stand for it. Everyone but you accepts junkets, bribes and freebies. This is just how the games industry is, and you don't even have to work in it to know that. You're just that special. And if you've been at this for a long time, like a year or something, that's when you get really good at calling people out on their shit. Think about it: One day they're names on your most favorite website, the next they've got a lot of explaining to do. They're accountable to you. That's part of your job."
No one is spared when Alexander gets her rant on. Not even the children.
You Can't Stop the Signal, Mal
Here's a blog-of-interest via the good folks at Rock, Paper, Shotgun: The Ninth Life, a collaborative blog chronicling three friends' permadeath adventures through their entire PC games library.
And here's a very important bit of signal-boosting: The Border House is looking for writers! GET. OVER. THERE. RIGHT. NOW.
…I said NOW. I'll wait here. Go on.
As always, Critical Distance depends upon link submissions from our reader base every week to keep This Week in Video Game Criticism going strong. Don't wait for us to discover your blog or your best friend's article– send it into us, over Twitter or our email submissions form! Your contributions make TWIVGC stronger and stronger with every passing roundup. So, we're like a reverse Peter Molyneux game, in a way.
Lastly but not leastly, Alan Williamson has posted this month's Blogs of the Round Table theme – "Origins." Head on over to Alan's post to learn how to get involved!