This week, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us picks from Eric Swain from the entirety of 2014. From the year's biggest releases to social and cultural issues affecting games, let's see what had the critics talking!
We at Critical Distance have gone back over the last year and put together a compilation of what we feel best represents what has passed year. We compiled the most important, most memorable and most representative critical pieces of the year to give an idea of what 2014 was all about. Now, Critical Distance is proud to present the 2014 edition of This Year In Video Game Blogging!
Every year, we have a section devoted to pieces that focused on the community that surrounds our medium. This year, more than ever previously, such pieces dominated the conversation. The biggest events might have been directly addressed above, but it was only one in several interlocking pieces where critics tried to break with the status quo.
Based on an article he penned for Polygon from earlier this year, Tropes vs Women in Videogames producer Jonathan McIntosh produced the video "25 Invisible Benefits of Gaming While Male" for the Feminist Frequency's YouTube channel, getting 25 men of the videogame industry to label their privileges.
Anita Sarkeesian also released her two part dissection of the Background Decoration trope, which should be considered essential viewing. A content warning, however, for graphic violent imagery present in the videos.
At Paste, Cara Ellison explored the 17% figure in video games, a recurring number in media studies as the percentage at which men judge the gender ratio of men and women to be equal. Anything more than 17% and men start to perceive women as the majority of a given crowd.
Switching gears from gender to race representation, Jed Pressgrove hosted a conversation with Sidney Fussell on race in video games, focusing on the representation of blacks and their coded fantasy counterparts.
Shivam Bhatt tackled the Far Cry 4 cover art controversy using it to explain how South Asians are represented and treated.
At US Gamer, Daniel Starkey spoke with Doom developer John Romero and others to discuss the treatment of Native Americans in video game development. From Custer's Revenge to this year's Never Alone, Starkey said, they are "More Than Shamans and Savages."
On his blog Stay Classy, Todd Harper explained the dichotomy of The Subtle Knife: as a gay man, when does he want being gay to matter in a game? "Always," he said, and "never."
Samantha Allen -- in one of her final pieces of her games writing career -- expressed a disbelief in the so-called split between "short form, single author queer games or long form works that are developed by teams but weighed down by the trappings of dominate culture." She believes the gap can be closed -- and is already closing.
The subject of representation goes beyond the content of games, into the makeup of the industry itself. Jenn Frank wrote about The Rolodex and how the normal processes of business networking can be a self perpetuating system of exclusion if it isn't recognized and actively countered.
Responding to well-meaning but confounded readers, Leigh Alexander wrote a few Dos and Don'ts on combating online sexism.
Squinky, aka Deirdra Kiai, delivered an impassioned talk at this year's #1reasontobe panel at the Game Developers Conference, namely on the challenges of being gender non-binary in a highly gendered industry like video games. "Making games is easy. Belonging is hard," was the refrain of their talk, as republished here on Squinky's professional site.
Stacy Mason attended her first GDC this past March and found that she did learn a lot, just not what she was expecting. The game industry wants to have rock stars, she observed, but copies the worst aspect of other mediums in its quest for legitimacy.
Maddy Myers concluded her GDC experience with an epilogue and how the dominate culture seeks to discredit the work not already appreciated, both at industry social events and within the hiring process. Later in the year, Myers also held a talk at AlterCon about the myth of "objectivity" and the need for Gonzo Journalism.
Daniel Joseph argued that we must Let The Enthusiast Press Die for its stagnation, while Javy Gwaltney pointed out that while we may laugh at some of the coverage on mainstream game news sites, we should take it seriously for how it comes to represent games journalism to the rest of society.
Tadhg Kelly explored the brave new world of Patreonomics, in which more and more creators are turning to Patreon and other crowdfunding sites to make their livelihood. (Critical Distance is itself funded by its readership via Patreon, so we're part of this trend ourselves!)
Our own Lana Polansky worried about that if the legitimate anger from activism can be so easily twisted, so can the new form of support for the most in need. The anger is necessary in the face of little other support, yet can easily turn toxic and people against one another.
Along those lines, Critical Distance alumna Mattie Brice commented on how she and so many others are more than their pain, but often that is all that gets noticed for that is all that is marketable about minority writers.
Further demonstrating Polansky's point, Leigh Alexander wrote The Unearthing, a creative narrativization of the excavation of the ET cartridges in the New Mexico desert earlier this year. The event itself is less important compared to the mindset of the critic in this space, feeling constantly under siege.
Ian Danskin's video "This is Phil Fish" -- made prior to Fish's complete departure from the industry -- discussed the strange obsessive cult of celebrity concerning the titular figure and others like him.
Developer Liz Ryerson used the video as a jumping off point to talk about Indie Entitlement based on already outdated notions of what the indie community is -- and the harm these notions cause to those outside the "norm." Industry problems abound.
Mike Joffe at Videogames of the Oppressed brought up Conflict Minerals in Games. (Content warning: discussion of rape and sexual slavery.)
Back on Paste, Ian Williams and Austin Walker critiqued a recent Blizzard Entertainment recruitment video and how it subtly preyed upon the dreams and aspirations of new developers.
Also, Jared Rosen details GAME_JAM: How the Most Expensive Game Jam Crashed and Burned in a Single Day. The original article is lost to time, but it is archived for now through the Wayback Machine.
Actual ethical debates were brought up and ignored. For instance, Eurogamer's Simon Parkin asked "Are YouTubers breaking the law?" With prominent personalities doing advertorials and promotions for their subjects, this is a question we're bound to return to in the new year.
Claire Hosking explains the whole Grand Theft Auto V being pulled from Target shelves in Australia thing from the perspective of Australians, contrary to the mainly American outcry which has dominated the conversation.
Rami Ismail, developer and business guy at Vlambeer, explains how even in a world of code and systems, being English speaking is an enormous advantage in this world.
This also carries over to the field of criticism, as Memory Insufficient's Zoya Street dove into the Japanese video game criticism and brought back some translations and insights in these three pieces. The inaugural Critical Proximity -- organized by Zoya Street -- was held this year just ahead of GDC.
Joshua Comer was inspired by a number of the talks to examine "Criticism's Difficulty Settings." Meanwhile, Mike Joffe "Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Myriad and Nebulous Concepts None of Us Can Agree On."
Another digital based conference, Indie3, happened later this year, as a "counter-conference" to the AAA-focused E3. Cameron Kunzelman and Austin Walker wrote a Postscript for Paste on the floundering that happened in a space that didn't define up front what it was all about.
Speaking of conferences, "'Everyone Was There' And You Weren't" wrote Dan Cox, on the exclusionary rhetoric that gets thrown about at events like conferences and conventions. He wondered: if everyone was there, then are those who couldn't make it nobodies?
And we can't go without mentioning Cara Ellison's Embed With... series, in which she travels around the world visiting important names and faces in the field. Her visit to Paris-based, American ex-pat developers Katharine Neil and Harvey Smith is a great place to start.
Finally, you want objective game reviews? Here's a whole site of them. Be careful what you wish for.
Some criticism focuses on the specific instance, a single game or other work. Other pieces look to broader conceptions and understanding of both game design and criticism. Earlier this year, Stephen Beirne started off a grand conversation about capitalistic design in RPGs and whether it was inherent in leveling up.
Austin Walker responded that Beirne's assertions "sacrifice complexity for strategic power." He saw papered over cracks and wanted to explore them, while Zack Fair figured we should be careful with definitions and distinction regarding in game resources.
Our own Mark Filipowich explored the "Narrative and Abstraction of the Camera in Games." What we see is not literally there, but a representation of something we are meant to understand is there.
Austin C. Howe defended the notion of games about games as it he finds it severely reductive and ignored so much they actually have to say and denouncing them dangerously results in asserting that games exist in a vacuum.
Touching on the critical reception to Vlambeer's Luftrausers (with its Nazi-inflected aesthetics), Craig Stern took to task the saying "no interpretation is wrong." While it may not have been the case here, not all interpretations are valid, he said, especially those that discount and ignore the material in the actual work being discussed.
Brendan Vance delivered a one-two punch on our assumptions regarding games this year in "The Cult of the Peacock" and "Form and its Usurpers." The first article concerns design dogma while the latter focuses on the ideology of form and content divorced from their artistic roots.
Writing for Indie Haven, Joe Parlock asserted that the "What is a Game?" debate is not only pointless and annoying, but actively damaging to the medium at large.
At Videogame Tourism, Eron Rauch noted the echoes of history as the current rhetoric around the art revolution of indie games matches up so well with that of the Impressionists some hundred and fifty years prior.
Play the Past's Gilles Roy explored how strategy games are changing our understanding of popular history. The ludic rhetoric that gets used, he argued, alters perception of events and realities.
David Hayward of the YouTube channel Feral Vector took us for a walk in the countryside, a parable of space fascists caving each others heads in and, more broadly, the ridiculous seriousness with which the games press discuss games.
Speaking of video blogging, Errant Signal's Chris Franklin had several significant contributions this year, such as this piece where he related that the current deluge of new releases requires curation, not gatekeepers. In the end, he said, he wants more information from critics, not fewer games.
Our own Eric Swain began a new weekly feature series this year called Non Play Criticism, where he takes a piece of criticism from a different medium and pulls a lesson from it that can be used in video game criticism.
In the inaugural issue of the Journal of Games Criticism, Brendan Keogh wrote a long piece about the status of academia to games criticism, warned against the ivory tower and the need for the middle voices between enthusiast press and academia. In a response, Zoya Street had a few things to say about his take on the matter as well, invoking the term "The Cyborg Critic."
Critical Video Game Blogging
In the end, it all comes down to the games themselves. All the talk would be for naught without something to talk about, something to both channel ideas through and receive ideas from. It's not just about new games, but new conversations whether they be about new games or old ones.
It was a big year for Assassin's Creed. As the series has gone on, Jamie Patton noticed a disturbing trend in the games toward colonizing history by inserting our own modern values as if they were eternal and universal, erasing the struggles that actually went on.
In a series of six posts, our own Cameron Kunzelman made his way through the Assassin's Creed II trilogy, exploring various elements such as control, the interface, the city and the animus. Nick Dinicola looked at Assassin's Creed IV and the series' recent shift toward the creed of not just assassins but their competing templars and, presently, pirates. Dinicola described these warring ideologies as a propaganda battle of their philosophies.
In his Critical Intel column, Robert Rath made the historical case for women in Assassin's Creed: Unity, given their prominence during the French Revolution. At Paste, Justin Clark reflected on what it means for him and his school teacher mother to see "blackness flaunted with utmost dignity" in the trailer for the Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag - Freedom's Cry DLC.
Moving from one Ubisoft property to another, Errant Signal's Chris Franklin blasted Watch Dogs, while Austin Walker examined what it means to be an NPC in both Watch Dogs and Middle-Earth: Shadows of Mordor, especially when our only way to meaningful interact with them is violence. "I can't touch anyone," Austin lamented.
Carolyn Petit wanted Shadow of Mordor to let her enter the world of Tolkien, but instead she got a painful reminder that women are considered disposable and that violence asserts the status quo. At The Verge, Chris Plante called Shadow of Mordor "morally repulsive" for turning the player into a torturer and terrorist. And at Polygon, Alexa Ray Corriea published a huge feature on the history of The Lord of the Rings in video games.
From one strain of adaptation to another, Brendan Keogh had quite a list of notes on Alien: Isolation. Elsewhere, Cara Ellison had some choice words to the developers who made the graffiti in the game: "We're not idiots."
On Matter, Gone Home developer Steve Gaynor took part in The New York Review of Videogames to look at Alien: Isolation and The Evil Within as games that carry "the weight of their histories" with them as they try to balance nostalgia with novelty.
Edward Smith put forward Hideo Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro's PT as an example of how to make a horror game right. Instead of systematizing horror scenes, he said, let the world have understandable rules to never let the player gain their footing.
Telltale concluded two game series this year, The Wolf Among Us and the second season of The Walking Dead. Becky Chambers, formerly of The Mary Sue, reviewed the second chapter of The Wolf Among Us and examined how it uses a well-worn trope of 'mature games' -- the brothel house -- but does so with uncommon deftness.
At PopMatters, Jorge Albor asserted The Wolf Among Us takes a victim centric approach to storytelling. The character Narissa, in particular, is highlighted. Albor also looked at The Walking Dead Season Two Episode 3 and how it portrays toxic masculinity. In trying to assert dominance, he noted, the character Carver ends up seeding only destruction.
On Kill Screen, Carli Velocci explained she had a panic attack while playing The Walking Dead. Given what it's going for, she mused on whether that was a good thing.
War never changes. Neither does Call of Duty. Christ Priestman wondered: if Call of Duty can't do grief right, then who can? With an eye toward history, Andrew Dunn lamented Valiant Hearts' atonal treatment of the conflict of its subject matter, the first World War.
Ria Jenkins detailed the horrible content of the Chico Tape 4 collectable in Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes and how it undermines Paz's character to confirm the worst stereotypes about women. (Content warning: descriptions of sexual violence and gore.)
Looking at a more contemporary set of affairs, Mike Williams of US Gamer remarked that Life Imitates Art, looking at how the upcoming Battlefield: Hardline mediates the militarization of urban police departments. Kevin Nguyen at The Paris Review also noted how awful the game's timing is, both specifically and where we are as a culture.
Back with his Critical Intel column, Robert Rath observed that in all of games' portrayals of Nazi horrors, few get it as right as Wolfenstein: The New Order. Rath wrote that the game hits upon one very important truth, both then and now: "We see that survival, merely living life, is an act of resistance."
Border House editor Anna pointed out that Nintendo's attempt to make no social commentary with Tomodachi Life is social commentary. Todd Harper concurred, saying that "erasing your audience isn't fun." Patricia Hernandez of Kotaku made her Tomodachi Life "a little bit gayer" but struggled to get around the heteronormativity of the game to portray her friends within.
Bayonetta 2 also caused some discussion, with Maddy Myers seeing merit in Bayonetta as a sex positive figure that doesn't bend to anyone's gaze. On the other hand, Apple Cider Mage didn't feel a character like Bayonetta can fill that role until there is a plethora of other characters of all types. Todd Harper decided to take a week and write anything about Bayonetta 2 not having to do with the titular character's position either as sex empowerment fantasy or sexual object.
And at Failing Awkwardly, Kateri penned a nine-part survey of all the sexual partners one can have in The Witcher and how they are portrayed.
In another direction, our own Kris Ligman posted the notes from an extemporaneous talk delivered at Lost Levels on reading Phoenix Wright of the Ace Attorney series as an asexual character.
Jorge Albor saw his own experience with race reflecting in Dragon Age: Inquisition, while Patricia Hernandez saw a very different type of culturally-inflected experience in Papers, Please.
Mobile games also had a lot of focus this year. Gita Jackson wrote about Kim Kardashian's Hollywood and the stresses of fame which pervade the game. Jackson observed empathetically: "For Mrs. Kardashian West, however, this isn't a diversion. This is her life."
Threes! saw quite a few problems earlier this year, with the game's extensive clone taking the spotlight. Leigh Alexander penned a feature on the entire affair and one of the game's more successful clones, 2048. The developer, meanwhile, felt compelled to publish their emails entailing the entire design process to deflect accusations theirs was the clone in this situation.
There was a great deal of coverage on Flappy Bird, not all of it competently researched or presented. In a bid to counter this trend, developer and game design educator Robert Yang attempted to frame the Flappy Bird affair in its correct context. Also touching upon the game, Brendan Keogh lamented the constant push for innovation while ignoring a game that just manages to do something really, really well.
Multimedia editor at PopMatters, G. Christopher Williams, wrote a piece exploring what Simogo's Device 6 had to say about the player not as the "free man" a la The Prisoner, but as the "special man."
At Paste, Ansh Patel wrote about Kentucky Route Zero Episode III's Musical Centerpiece and how it exploits the relationship between player choice and the game's narrative.
Newcomer writer Melody Meows penned a wonderful three part essay on the themes of Supergiant's Transistor, including democracy and the tangibility of ideas. Claire Hosking looked at Transistor through the eyes of its city and the artists who formed it.
The mononymous Greg described his impression of hopelessness in The Banner Saga's indifferent world and asked: "Can Games Teach Us to Die?"
Interactive fiction luminary and Versu developer Emily Short had some things to say about Gone Home and the crutch of games telling their story through backstory. In a similarly literary vein, on Unwinnable Jill Scharr wondered if she is The Novelist, after trying to understand what the game has to say.
Writing for his blog The Animist, Alex Duncan used The Stanley Parable to look at metafiction and how treating the game as a dichotomy rather than approaching it holistically leaves something to be desired. Joshua Calixto penned a feature for Kill Screen about Super Smash Bros. Melee's staying power, its status among the fighting game community and how it became an albatross around its creator's neck.
Samantha Allen explained the Centipede's Dilemma with Mario Kart 8. There is so much nuance in playing video games nowadays, she contended, we don't even know how we do it.
Justin Keverne penned another large design analysis this year, this time a 12 part breakdown of the most recent Thief for Sneaky Bastards. The Starseed Observatory also launched this year, an entire site of criticism dedicated to droqen's Starseed Pilgrim, founded by Richard "KirbyKid" Terrell and Daniel Johnson.
Chay Close at Kill Screen reasoned every video game is a comedy, but only a very few are in on the joke.
Writing for Kotaku's UK branch, our own Zolani Stewart advanced the concept of Sonic Studies in order to isolate where, exactly, the little blue hedgehog started to go so wrong.
Austin Walker reviewed The Crew for Paste, seeing the America within as a postcard of the nation. He found some delight in the abstraction of the country, but soon it became apparent to him that The Crew's fantasy of accumulating power is not the Americanism he wanted to engage with.
Stephen Beirne found he had made a mistake in Spec Ops: The Line under pressure by a moment in the game's fiction. Comparing the game with BioShock Infinite, Beirne found that the moment left a far greater impact than BioShock Infinite's carnival throw because he could "point back to afterwards and see a ghost of myself living in it, so impassioned and alive as to be conceited of the absence of any alternative, so foolish and honest and gloriously mine."
Ansh Patel discovered that The Longest Journey's anti-climax broke something within him, but found he "had stumbled on something beautiful and deeply meaningful beyond anything I could comprehend then."
Finally, this year Javy Gwaltney was reminded of the drives he took alone in the night, and how Glitchhikers is the perfect recreation of that experience.
What was originally a scant few pieces of criticism stepping out from the aether of the internet has grown into a full fledge movement. Books and digital magazines are emerging to fill a long form space the web can't quite satisfy.
New video game book publisher BossFightBooks opened strong in its inaugural year, putting out two notable publications. First, Anna Anthropy's book on ZZT, focusing on the community aspect of this creative game.
Second, Darius Kazemi put his money where his mouth was and produced his own video game criticism book, on Jagged Alliance 2. Brendan Keogh wrote some thoughts on Kazemi's book, continuing the conversation from two years ago following the publishing of his own book on Spec Ops: The Line, titled Killing is Harmless.
Zoya Street also released a new book this year, Delay, looking at energy mechanics common in social and mobile games. His digital magazine, Memory Insufficient, also continued publishing into its second year. We highlight the Asian Histories issue in particular, because it led to e:>_, an e-zine designed "to create a richer, more nuanced understanding of the social histories of gaming in Asia."
Critical Distance's own Alan Williamson completed a second year with his Five out of Ten digital magazine. The zine has collected issues 6 through 10 in a Year Two bundle. Williamson has been quite busy this year, publishing a book with co-author Kaitlin Tremblay: Escape to Na Pali: A Journey to the Unreal about the PC classic Unreal.
Finally, we welcome two newcomers in the games e-zine space. The Arcade Review, headed by our own Zolani Stewart, had a great inaugural year focusing on small, strange and often overlooked games in criticism. Unwinnable also began publishing their digital magazine this year, Unwinnable Weekly. You can read their 0 issue for free.
Blogger of the Year
For this section, I cede the floor to Senior Curator Kris Ligman:
It has become customary in these end-of-the-year retrospectives to highlight the contributions of a particular writer, or writers, who helped define the year's critical discourse. In the past, the honor of "best blogger" has gone to a newcomer or standout writer who went from standing near the periphery of our reading of games writing to take center stage in an ongoing, ever-evolving critical discussion.
Each year, these breakout talents have helped to raise the discourse to new heights. Previous years' winners include Kirk Hamilton and Kate Cox (2011), Brendan Keogh (2012), and Liz Ryerson and Samantha Allen (2013).
This year, we are proud to name the remarkable Austin Walker as our Blogger of the Year. Austin's articles on the intersections of games, race and class were among of the most-shared in 2014, and it's very easy to see why. Even in this roundup, we've linked to a number of Austin's pieces.
In lucid, thoughtful language, Austin draws necessary but all too often overlooked connections in the powerplay of games and our larger society. One only has to look at his articles for Paste on The Crew and Watch Dogs to see why his writing has struck such a chord with so many readers. We congratulate Austin Walker on his many contributions to 2014's discourse on games and we look forward to his future work!
Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot
Imagine a box, wide and vast. We crisscrossed the box every which way. We found an edge and, with one hand on the wall, began to walk along it. We reached the corner and turned with it. And again. And again. After a long while, we had circled the inside of the box. Then we began the journey again.
Over and over we walked the perimeter of the box. Each journey took less and less time. Our stride grew as did we. Now we don't even move. We are stuck in place, as the walls push against us, constricting us. But we too push against the walls of the box. Not too long ago, it was only our arms that brushed against the sides. Now it is more and more of us. The walls will soon buckle and deform, then break down altogether. That is 2014. That is what we have striven to create with this document.
I thank all my colleagues at Critical Distance, both new and old. I thank my editors, both here and afar. And I thank readers like you. I'll see you next year. We will be resuming our regular weekly roundups the second week of January. In the meantime, don't forget to send in your suggestions for TWIVGB to our email or @ message us on Twitter. Critical Distance is proud to be completely community-sourced and funded. If you can, consider signing up for a small monthly donation. We really do depend on all of you. From all of us to all of you, we wish you a happy -- brighter -- New Year!
(Photo: Pete LaMotte.)