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This week in Video Game Criticism: From the Krogan to revenge eating

This week, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us picks from Kris Ligman on topics including how Mass Effect's Krogan are analogous to white man's burden, and more.

Kris Ligman, Blogger

April 10, 2012

7 Min Read

[This week, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us picks from Kris Ligman on topics including how Mass Effect's Krogan are analogous to white man's burden, and more.] The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated. Welcome to another fantastic week of gaming commentary, criticism and insights! It's This Week in Video Game Criticism! We kick things off with an essay from Shay Pierce, the lone Omgpop employee holdout who made news this week by refusing to join his company's merger with social game giant Zynga:

"When an entity exists in an ecosystem, and acts within that ecosystem in a way that is short-sighted, behaving in a way that is actively destructive to the healthy functioning of that ecosystem and the other entities in it (including, in the long term, themselves) — yes, I believe that that is evil. And I believe that Zynga does exactly that."

Also blogging against the grain, Harold Goldberg takes the Smithsonian game art exhibit to task for groupsourcing its selections by popular vote. And Joel Goodwin parodies the lack of nuance games exhibit in trying to model complex human behavior, like parenthood. Meanwhile, Evan Narcisse digs deep into why representation and gamer culture matter to him personally in "Why I'm Worried About My Daughter's Video Game Future":

"It's not enough to just make a protagonist—or worse, a sidekick—black. Why? Because of the Hunger. The Hunger is the angry growling in the pit of a black nerd's soul that asks constantly, "where are we in the big picture?" It manifests differently for everybody. Nevertheless, I don't want to pass on The Hunger to my daughter. I want the video games of the future to make her feel welcome."

Two articles took an unusual approach to design criticism this week. First we have Tom Francis in his tribute to Proteus,

"a first-person exploration game in which the components of the music you hear depend on what you're standing near to. And the time of day, and what's going on in the rest of the music, and probably some other factors."

Meanwhile, Zach Alexander wonders if we can consider saving and saved games a part of the gameplay. Our good frenemy Eric Lockaby is at it with his latest installment of "How You Got Video Games Wrong," in which he explicates how the fundamentals of design (old media and new) go much deeper than we're used to discussing them. As the discussion on Mass Effect 3 plows onward, we're still seeing some noteworthy and original response articles popping up. Top marks this week go to Patricia Hernandez, who writes in Gameranx about the racial problem of the Krogan.

"[G]ames like Mass Effect indulge in a power fantasy related to control and influence. [...] To indulge on the power fantasy where we have utter control over other people's lives is to assume whiteness, typically male whiteness."

As Mass Effect conversations start to cool, however, discussions on Journey are still heating up. Simon Parkin kicks things off with a stellar interview with Journey auteur Jenova Chen. Meanwhile, referring to Chen's MFA thesis on "flow," Michael Abbott investigates whether Journey faithfully represents its underlying concepts. Ian Bogost also refers to Chen's thesis in his thoughtful analysis of the young developer's oeuvre, lending a structuralist perspective only he can:

"In videogames, it's far less common to see a creator's work evolve in this way. In part, this is because game makers tend to have less longevity than other sorts of artists. In part, it's because games are more highly industrialized even than film, and aesthetic headway is often curtailed by commercial necessity. And in part, it's because games are so tightly coupled to consumer electronics that technical progress outstrips aesthetic progress in the public imagination. […] Thatgamecompany's work thus offers us an unusual window into the creative evolution of a game maker, one in which the transition from green students to venerable artists took place before our very eyes over a short half-decade on a single and very public videogame platform."

Lastly, Jason Killingsworth has a theory on the source of Journey's aesthetic power: the jumping.

"Our real-world bodies are dense with fat, sinew and muscle. Gravity pins us down no less gingerly than André the Giant once flattened his poor opponents to the wrestling mat. When we step inside an avatar, however, the game doesn't just hand us a new suit of clothes, it hands us a new sense of physical weight, which the game's developer has licence to assign. Journey's pilgrim is covered in cloth robes, but its hard to imagine there being any flesh beneath that tunic. She's too light. The only weight she carries appears to be that of the fabric in which her spirit is wrapped. To play Journey is to feel like a soul freed of its corporeal baggage. Is it any wonder critics have hailed Journey as a religious experience? Jenova Chen and his colleagues at Thatgamecompany aim for transcendence and they do so by taking the word at face value. To transcend is simply to rise up, which is exactly what happens in Journey every time you press the X button."

But not every essay of the week was devoted to the aesthetic high points of the medium. Writing for KillScreen, Emily Flynn-Jones pays tribute to the unironic love of kusoge, or "shit games", which are games so functionally broken they have developed a cult fan following:

"Kusoge doesn't seem to be about bad taste or irony, but the experience of playing a truly terrible game. What I mean is that kusoge can be awesome—yes, in the "rad," "cool," and "amazing" sense, but also in the other. A really bad game can evoke genuine awe, a sense of "fearful wonderment," as it is defined. Awe is a pleasing combination of terror, dread, and astonishment; bad games are capable of provoking this feeling in a way that a so-called good game cannot match."

This fascination with badness is certainly at the center of a lot of internet memes, something which our own Ben Abraham observes this week as well when he profiles MLG fragvid parodies, whose over-the-top, "trashy" designs lampoon the hypermasculine, stoner "thug" culture of Major League Gaming. I am probably not explaining this well, so you had best go take a look for yourself. But Ben isn't the only one to indulge in a bit of weirdness this week, as evidenced by John Brindle's newest post on Metal Gear Solid 3 as analogous Pac-Man in a more literal sense, in which eating is a form of revenge:

"Imagine a game where the player character was a cannibal serial killer, escaped from a remote Appalachian penitentiary into a mountainous wilderness. The introductory areas see him happen upon a clutch of hippy campers and prey on them, horror movie style. But the game proper begins when he finds a survivalist compound. Right-wing nuts with hunting rifles patrol the woods, self-sufficient, smug and secure. Then and there, our Nietzschean hero decides that by whatever method – by trap, by snare, by spike pit, by strangling – he is going to kill and eat every single one of them. Not because he needs to, not because he is hungry, but because he is a terrible person and he wants to."

I'm not quite sure at what point I started down this Brindle-shaped rabbit hole, but it does sound like something for next year's Molyjam. Are we done? Whew, we're done. Is it me, or was this week a bit more depraved than usual? I'm going to assume it's a response to PAX East going on, because I hate to contemplate the alternative. See you all next week! As usual, we depend on your tweeted and emailed recommendations to make each TWIVGC the best it can possibly be, so keep them coming!

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