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The Year In Video Game Criticism: A Look Back At 2010

Game criticism site Critical Distance brings us a roundup of links from throughout 2010 with topics including reflections on games criticism and close looks at the medium's most memorable titles.

Eric Swain, Blogger

January 6, 2011

11 Min Read

[This week, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us a roundup of links from throughout 2010 compiled by Eric Swain, with topics including reflections on games criticism and close looks at the medium's most memorable titles, and more.] 2010 has been one hell of a productive year for game criticism and writing. In our first full year of the This Week In Video Game Criticism feature, Ian and Eric decided to look through them all and cull from the 995 links the greatest written, most memorable and best representative writings over the last year. So here we present them to you in the first ever This Year In Video Game Blogging. Print Before we get on to the Internet entries, I think we should point out the print entries from this year. Tom Bissell's book, Extra Lives, from earlier this year is the longest and probably best written piece of game criticism and definitely worth the read. Also, the newly minted magazine Kill Screen has recently released its third issue. Buy it. It's a bunch of great writers writing great stuff in a well-produced magazine. Plus, our Editor Ben made it into the latest issue. Critical Video Game Blogging Much of the writing from this year focused on specific titles, both from this year and previous. Some took a look at the game as a whole, some at specific elements or characters. First off we had the epic four-part RedLetterMedia-esque critique of Heavy Rain by Daniel Weissenberger at GameCritics completely eviscerating the inconsistencies, plot holes and other flaws of the game's story. Denis Farr at the Border House, meanwhile, took a closer look at the character Madison Paige and the general failure and her offensiveness as a character: "While I would love to say all these things were put forth to make the audience aware of what females may face in a world where their sexuality is seen as a commodity, Madison is never fully enough developed to allow such a statement. Paired with the way she is treated in both plot and camera, she is a character I would warn off many people I know just because of the constant triggers with which she is faced." I give the last word on Heavy Rain this year to Julian "rabbit" Murdoch of Gamers with Jobs who said: "A year from now, when the initial bloom is off the rose of this game, and we poke holes at its flaws, I believe designers will look back at these three things and say, "Those were craftsman at the top of their game." I have to agree. John Marston is generally held to be one of the better characters of 2010. Michael "Sparky" Clarkson back in June looked at 'The 'real' John Marston.' Mike Dunbar at Chronoludic wrote the first of four eventual parts about the western influences of Red Dead Redemption. It is an extensive piece looking at the thematic and set piece similarities to The Wild Bunch. And then there was Michael Abbott's little emergent story about a certain racist shopkeeper in "I'm your huckleberry." Earlier this year Jorge Albor on the Experience Points blog, wrote about the politics of Mass Effect, by comparing the fictional problems to the real world tragedies and politics that inspired them. The Quarian as refugees, the Salarian as Nazi scientists, and culture clash between races. Luke Halliwell on his personal blog goes into detail the problems and poor decisions that led up to the failure of the MMO All Points Bulletin. It is an extensive three-part write up that is as much a cautionary tale as it is fact. Kateri on her blog Falling Awkwardly, writes some superbly well written and thought through pieces on Morrowind this year, by picking apart and straitening out some of the most complex lore a video game can have. She went deep into the metaphysics and dug down to the point where reality, both in and out of the game twists, breaks and reconstructs itself. Quarter Down had a great piece of satire this year by Josh Harmon about 'Bioshock 2's multiplayer as an Avant-Garde Masterpiece,' though given the material it is hard not to see the multiplayer as a genuine critique of Objectivism in and of itself. Critical Distance's own Ian Miles Cheong at Hellmode half a year ago wrote about Uncharted 1 and 2 saying, "Dude Raider he is not." It's a well-written piece of all the positives the game has to offer. Kirk Hamilton wrote 'Fisher Fest' over at GamerMelodico, a hilarious expose about the enemy barks in Splinter Cell: Conviction. Worth a read and a couple of laughs. Our contributor Eric Swain wrote about "The Milieu of inFamous" and the lengths it went to be a missed opportunity. He also wrote defending the Gears of War series as a prime example of ludonarrative dissonance instead of resonance. One of the most well imagined and well-explained critiques/theories of the year has its own site, 'Squall is Dead', explaining the few Lynchian aspects of Final Fantasy VIII in the context of the whole. Joshua Casteel wrote one of the most moving pieces of the year at the Point Magazine. From his point of view as a former Abu Ghraib prison guard and a real modern warfare veteran, he writes his take and experience on Modern Warfare 2. A gripping piece of writing that doesn't pull any puches. In August, Yakuza investigative reporter Jake Adelstein sat down with three real life Yakuza bosses to discuss the how accurate they felt Yakuza 3 was to their real life. Turns out, it's pretty on the mark. Greg Purcell at The Supercollider used the XBLA game 'Toy Soldiers' as a jumping off point to explore the ideologically rich viewpoint all war games use and those attitude's reminiscent of WWI songwriters and reporters. Design Blogging While many works focused on game elements such as character, theme or the feel others looked to a game's design. Some went really in depth into single games or a single aspect of a game, while others focused on the general concepts on a genre. Justin Keverne wrote a powerhouse series of level design criticism, Groping the Map. His first one looked at Pauper's Drop from Bioshock 2 as the game's turning point. Then he focused on Liberty Island, the first level of Deus Ex, and the intricacies foreshadowed this opening level. He also managed to get halfway through his exploration of the Life of the Party level from Thief 2. All three links have an index for all the posts relating to those levels. Nels Anderson at the Above 49 blog answered the question 'Why Are So Many Indie Darlings 2D Platformers?' It is a piece I still refer back to. In addition, Michael Abbott discusses a fact that has come to his attention in his latest RPG class. A majority of his students were defeated by Ultima IV's design and he wonders if the game is now completely unplayable by a modern audience. Our history is important and it may be that we can no longer experience some of it for ourselves. L.B. Jeffries in his column at PopMatters wrote how most games are variations on Groundhog Day and how we as players mirror the philosophical journey Phil Connors experienced in every game we play. Lastly, there is L.B.'s final post 'On Design-Centric Game Criticism'; a perfect bookend for his entire career as a game critic and almost-academic. Culture Blogging There is more to gaming than just the games. An art form can only be as advanced as the culture surrounding it. To examine the effects art has on people, you have to look at the people as well. Back in February, Matthew Wasteland wrote a short piece 'The New Debate on Games as Ert' satirizing the whole debate, which by that time was well worn. Who knew it would be prophetic as well. Because later in the year Ebert reaffirmed his declaration games cannot be art and Eric Swain at The Game Critique wrote about the importance it is to have these debates by going through the arduous process of cataloging every response to Ebert's renewed declaration that he could find. They're still coming in. Probably one of the two most important pieces written about game journalism this year is AJ Glasser's 'No Cheering in the press box' and other rules games journalism needs.' Required reading for aspiring games journalists and developers alike. The other one is Chris Hecker's 'Me and the Wii', in which he talked about the danger and pain caused by disinformation and manipulative headlines. Early in the year, Grayson Davis at Bleeps and Bloops revealed the outdated, insufficient and frankly overused ways of discussing a video game's graphics and how they really don't say what we mean anymore. And probably never did. Our own editor, Ben Abraham declared, 'Replayabilty' is NOT a word, so stop using it idiot!' It is a word that should be cut from our collective vocabulary. But more importantly, late in December he wrote 'Rhetorical Questions' about our need for more persuasive writing in our criticism. Chris Dahlen wrote the 'Just Another World' series at his save the Robot blog. I'll let him explain: "Now, a "believable world" can mean a lot of things. Lore-heavy RPG franchises build worlds, but so do tiny indie titles. Canabalt has a world, even though we just see a sliver of it. But either way, worldbuilding is important-and not many people are talking about it. How do you pull one off? What are the best practices and tricks of the trade? Should worlds obey a strict, error-free canon, or can they be mythical and malleable? How do we get our heads around this gigantic and nebulous and yet totally important undertaking?" Annie Wright wrote for GamerMelodico 'The Zombie Apocalypse is the New American Dream.' A great deal of our culture, including that of geek and gamer culture, has become fascinated by zombies and surviving a world inhabited by them. She explored in depth the reasoning why. Alex Raymond wrote on her blog, While !Finished, one of the first posts of the year, about why the things we critique are not just entertainment, why it is important to point out all their problems, and the moment this clicked with her. It may be an April Fools Day post, but 'A Matter of Resources' is one of the year's best satires. It's about the difficulty and lack of resources towards creating male characters in video games. According to developers, "We just didn't have the resources to put Mario in New Princess Peach Wii. I mean, he doesn't wear a skirt, he has two legs and pants. Both legs have to act independently and that is thousands of lines of code!" What's even better is that it continues on in the comments. Jeff Green wrote a rant about the Spike VGAs. It's an eloquent write up of everything everybody wanted to say about that travesty. It is the go to post on the subject. Video Essays Not all of the best criticism was found in the written word. Ever since Yahtzee started Zero Punctuation the video essay has become an increasingly popular form. Several new shows started this year and others came into their own. The GameOverthinker did a number of great videos throughout the year. The standouts being 'Who's Your Daddy Mega Man?' exploring the genesis of one of gaming's icons. 'I Heart Bayonetta' is Bob Chipman's character analysis and explanation of why he thinks she is a well defined, sexualized being. TheGameLocker started his series of YouTube videos entitled 'Games Worth Remembering.' He released the first three of a four-part essay on Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. They are long, but like the game they take their time and let the atmosphere that accompanies his points sink in. Check out his other videos in his channel. And finally the Extra Credits people had a great inaugural half-year at The Escapist. They explore Kratos' character and his decent into parody as the God of War trilogy continued. They talked about meaningful choices where the asking can enrich your life. They explained how games, solely through their mechanics could explore themes and tell a more powerful story than cutscenes are presently capable of. Plus you will never think of Missile Command the same way again. Finally, they show the net positive that sexual diversity can have in video games. It's been a great year for video game writing, and Ian and I have both had a blast going back over it all. It was not an easy job. Several of our favorites ended up on the cutting room floor during the vetting process. We tried to get those post that are still referenced, those that left some sort of mark, those that had great writing or arguments, or those that captured the zeitgeist of the blogosphere around a topic. We start off another year next week, as always thanks for reading. Keep sending in those suggestions to @critdistance on twitter, and have a Happy New Year!

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