This week, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us picks from Kris Ligman on topics ranging from an Ovid's Metamorphoses of ragdoll physics to the recurring themes in the games of The Chinese Room.
Nasty, Brutish and Short
Robert Rath, famous for his Critical Intel column, appears to have found a new home at Playboy, discussing Call of Duty consultant P.W. Singer's very FPS-inspired novel Ghost Fleet:
Ghost Fleet is what Call of Duty would be like if it put on a tie and went to Capitol Hill.
And that's exactly what Singer is doing. The defense establishment has taken keen interest in the book, leading him to make the rounds in Washington. [...] The government wants to explore the real-world lessons from Ghost Fleet, with particular focus on how it can avoid the security vulnerabilities the U.S. Navy falls prey to in the novel.
At Science News, Rachel Ehrenberg shares a brief yet fascinating article on Diplomacy the tabletop-turned-online game, which researchers have taken to in order to measure human behavior and 'tells' precipitating the game's characteristic acts of betrayal. While the results are nothing too grand -- the researchers found their model could predict when one player was about to betray another 57% of the time -- it's a first tentative toe being dipped into an exciting field of behavioral study in games.
At Offworld, Daniel Starkey speaks bracingly about his childhood living in poverty, in which theft -- including piracy of computer games -- was one of few avenues open for impoverished youth looking to acquire cultural capital:
Poverty is often cyclical because it traps its victims in intellectual dead zones. We know that without stimulation, without challenge, the mind, like the belly, starves.
I don't pirate games anymore, and I don't support pirating games if you can afford to buy them. But when I needed it, piracy gave me hope.
Meanwhile, The Guardian has published a teaser for Simon Parkin's upcoming book, Death by Video Game, in which he explores the multiple factors behind highly sensationalized cases of players dying after long playing binges. You can preorder a copy of your own on The Guardian's web store.
We Were Here
At FemHype, Rem calls for more nuanced representation of asexuality in games. Meanwhile, in Aevee Bee's ZEAL magazine, developer and games educator Robert Yang muses on the way we model bodies in games, in which their dynamism (or possibly, embodiment) is frequently overlooked:
Animations are essentially flipbooks; when we flip through the individual pages or frames quickly, we create the illusion of motion. Computer animation helps automate this process by taking human-authored "keyframe" poses and generating the "in-between" frames, or even entire animation sequences through motion capture. Then game engines loop through these sequences of poses to transform bodies along predictable trajectories. When you walk in a game, you're basically looping over those same 2 choreographed steps over and over.
What's totally missing is a logic of transformation. When do our bodies change, and why?
(Content Warning: Yang's article includes some discussion of sexual topics -- and a few gifs which might be considered unsafe for work.)
At Fusion, Patrick Hogan pays a visit to some of the abandoned virtual colleges left over from the Second Life hype train. It's strangely nostalgic -- I actually had a class on Second Life back when I was studying for my bachelors -- and that dovetails nicely with our next article, from C.T. Casberg at GameChurch. Commenting on the upcoming Final Fantasy VII remake, Casberg cautions that nostalgia can be a sort of intellectual and spiritual trap:
[C.S. Lewis] writes that other budding loves work much the same way. "In this department of life, as in every other, thrills come at the beginning and do not last. The sort of thrill a boy has at the first idea of flying will not go on when he has joined the R.A.F. and is really learning to fly. The thrill you feel on first seeing some delightful place dies away when you really go on to live there."
If I may put it in more relevant terms, the thrill you feel the first time you fly the Highwind or breed a Gold Chocobo will not last on subsequent playthroughs. [...] If you go out to McDonald's and no other restaurant because you want to preserve your fond memories of getting a Happy Meal, you'll miss out on good cuisine. Games are the same way.
At Gamasutra, Bryant Francis has a write-up of an interesting panel held among several games writers at the Writers Guild of America, focused on the trials and tribulations of writing for big budget games. The entire article is full of gems, but this anecdote from Ratchet and Clank writer T.J. Fixman seems to encapsulate a lot:
"I wrote this joke, where Ratchet and Clank are in a ship together and the designers wanted them to fall asleep so they could wake up in a new environment," he explained. "So this gas comes out, Ratchet goes, 'ah cryosleep gas, I'm not gonna fall asleep!' And of course he falls asleep. And Clank says 'oh it's good that gas doesn't work on robots!' and a boxing glove pops out and knocks him out."
"[Others on the development team] just started peppering me with, 'Why is this funny? What Is the joke? Where does this fall in the hero's journey? Is this the save the cat moment?' I'm wide-eyed and going 'I thought, I thought it was funny I'm so sorry.' That's what I realized, as a game writer, you think you have this freedom, but you don't. There are so many constraints and so many moving pieces, and from then on out I was hyper-aware that any time you write anything in a script, that changes the game for 20 different departments."
In the wake of the release of Everyone's Gone to the Rapture, Javy Gwaltney goes back and looks at The Chinese Room's previous two releases, Dear Esther and A Machine for Pigs:
Both A Machine For Pigs and Dear Esther are games that could be described as bleak and no one who's played them would probably bat an eye. However, it's interesting that both share a narrative structure usually associated with more optimistic stories. We go on a journey, descending into a literal underground, commonly a symbol of hell and the nastiness that lurks within ourselves, and then take flight at the end of the game, a literal uplifting of each game's protagonist.
Taking a different tack, Heather Alexandra looks back at the game which formalized the Quick Time Event (QTE), Shenmue (video), and how the game actually deploys the mechanic with a level of nuance and meaning we don't tend to talk about when we dismiss QTEs as poor design.
Field of View
Unwinnable has reprinted a piece by Jill Scharr, in which she examines a recent trend in games to present a young female companion as a 'moral compass' for the male protagonist, and how the second season of Telltale's The Walking Dead bucks this trend.
Elsewhere, in the latest Memory Insufficient, Zoya Street dips his toe into the small but burgeoning field of idle games, or "games that you don't play":
Most idle games invite (but do not require) a small amount of interaction once a day or so: players log in, harvest a resource, invest that resource in something that will boost yield, and then log out again -- but by design, all idle games will run with no player action whatsoever. The difference between optimisation and total inaction is not whether or not you reach a particular target, but how quickly: and as with all online games, designers carefully balance the game so that the pace of player progress is predictable and controlled.
Street doesn't mention the game by name in his piece, but if you want an example of a recent wildly successful "idle game," have a look at Neko Atsume!
Dispatches from Vienna
It's been a while, so let's catch up with our German correspondent Joe Köller!
At Superlevel, Daniel Ziegener reports back his impressions from the most recent Gamescom. Meanwhile, his colleague Nina Kiel was in attendance at Respawn, one of the periphery events surrounding Gamescom, and has brought back her report as well. You should also be sure to catch the latest entries of her column on sex games, including Cobra Club and Hot Date (Content Warning: some images may be unsafe for work).
"Speaking of rad Ninas," Joe tells me, Nina Kremser has composed an excellent primer on Let's Plays and participatory culture for Paidia. And writing for her own blog, Valentina Hirsch covers the German Film Museum's (currently running!) exhibition on Film and Games.
And Then There Was Silence
Anyway, that's all I have for you this week! Thank you to the many, many people who sent in their recommendations over Twitter and email -- please keep it up! We very much rely on these submissions, in addition to our own website crawling and research.
Lastly, and as always: Critical Distance is proud to be supported by you, our readers! If you like what you see and want to help us continue this and our other ongoing features, consider contributing a small monthly donation to our Patreon!
See you next week!