Hello there! I’m Katie, and I’m doing Critical Distance duty today. We have a great selection of reads this week, so get comfortable and make yourself a cup of hot chocolate. (Hot chocolate is an excellent accompaniment to games criticism, and I should know; I’ve had three cups of it while compiling this list.)

On to the latest edition of This Week in Videogame Blogging, then.

We’ll start with an intense interview piece, courtesy of Rock Paper Shotgun. In the first of a new series called ‘Level With Me, Dan Pinchbeck’, modder Robert Yang chats with the aforementioned Pinchbeck, who’s currently working on a reboot of his 2008 Source mod Dear Esther; Pinchbeck especially has some interesting ideas on whether “lazy” narrative really needs to be “saved”. The discussion later shifts focus to the design of a Portal 2 map, a collaborative project between Yang and Pinchbeck. This is the first of a seven-parter – Stick to the end of this series, and you’ll get to download and play the map that they’re putting together!

Blogging at The Machination, Jack McNamee suggests that the stories of 1001 Nights may have been an early example of gamification:

Princess Shahrazad finds herself married to King Shahriyar, who takes one bride every night and cuts their heads off in the morning. Thinking quickly, she invents Gamification, doing in one night what would take the rest of the world thousands of years to rediscover. 1001 Arabian Nights – the collection of stories she tells to the king keep herself alive – is made of wheels within wheels. Instead of tasks, though, it’s wheels are made of stories.

Following a previous piece on sexism in Arkham City (which we linked last week), Film Crit Hulk has now posted a great follow-up, addressing the criticism his first piece received. Read on for his thoughts on why realism, freedom of speech, and context do not necessarily excuse the sexist language used in the game.

The ever-excellent Kirk Hamilton, writing for Kotaku, imagines what it would be like if buying a book was like buying a game, in the process making some great commentary on the inconsistent marketing decisions made when publicising games. It’s so true! Just consider if you had to face this dilemma every time you bought a book:

Hmm, it’s been a month and I still can’t decide: Should I pre-order through Amazon, or through Barnes & Noble? It looks like Amazon gets a special bonus of a foreword from the author… that would be pretty cool to read. Oh, but Barnes & Noble has a special bonus chapter in the book itself, which folds seamlessly into the narrative. Hmm. I remember preordering from Barnes & Noble once and when I went to get the book, they didn’t have it.

In another neat example of games criticism featuring in a more general-audience publication, Hayley Tsukayama interviews Irrational Games’ Ken Levine for the Washington Post. It’s an intelligent discussion about the politics of Bioshock Infinite’s world in relation to that of real world events, particularly the Occupy movement.

‘Off Book’ is a PBS arts-focused web series that in this episode takes a look at videogames. It features comment from a healthy blend of games designers, journalists, and academics, and is worth a watch.

Meanwhile, Dan Cox at Digital Ephemera looks at the concept of “asymmetrical knowledge” in tragic stories. Cox writes,

If “audience member who knows that the big fall is coming, but doesn’t know when” then there is not a symmetry between what the character knows and what the audience knows. The audience knows more than the character. In books, plays and film, this is what builds dramatic tension. The audience is watching “the slow-motion train wreck” about to happen and is transfixed by their sheer curiosity of how the situation will resolve. Will the character escape their fate (made manifest by their flaw) or not? Can Oedipus escape the Oracle’s prophecy?

Cox goes on to examine asymmetrical knowledge in games, a significantly less linear medium than plays and film, with some interesting discussion of how in-game achievements can alter the narrative’s tension.

At the Brindle Brothers blog, John Brindle looks at the way that physics has been replicated in touchscreen phones’ operating systems, and how the tiny touches of physics simulation supports the verisimilitude of the virtual. He says, “This facsimile of physics lends a material weight to immaterial. It exists in part to meet the demands of the new and still not completely intuitive gestural vocabulary which smartphones and pads have introduced.”

The Brainy Gamer’s Michael Abbott, in ‘Little Nuggets of Truth’, discusses an IndieCade speech on the nature of creating puzzles, delivered by Jonathan Blow and Marc ten Bosch:

So, how do you design good puzzles? By not trying to make hard puzzles, say Blow and Bosch. Not even by trying to make good puzzles. “Look for the truth and illustrate it with a puzzle.” The point of the puzzle is to show some truth, and the designer must know what that truth is in the context of his or her game. “Eliminate anything that is not about that truth.”

In an opinion piece at Gamasutra, Richard Fine writes about the role of music in shaping a gaming experience, more so than many other factors of a game. With my own recent re-immersion in the soundtracks of Darwinia and VVVVVV, both of which Fine namedrops, this is a topic that hit home with me. As he says, “Music is, I think, the only thing you could use if you needed to set my mood in 30 seconds. And if you picked the right music, you’d be guaranteed success.”

In a great piece that sits on the margin of games criticism and games criticism criticism, David Lake at his blog, Meditations on First Gaming Philosophy, discusses the player character’s place in Kieron Gillen’s concept of New Games Journalism:

In terms of a game’s narrative, the PC is the entity that kills the monsters, returns the princess to the castle, but also who rampages into innocent villagers’ houses, stealing their possessions and then high-tailing it to the nearest dungeon. The PC is the catastrophic effect the human player has upon the game world. This is in contrast to the Main Character, the in-lore hero who we control. The Main Character is the one reacted to in cutscenes, who never commits any of the ridiculous acts us players have them during gameplay. Where the Main Character is the game’s official report of a hero, the Player Character is the reality.

At the new and well-written blog Ambient Challenge, Lee Kelly annotates his playthrough of Metro 2033 in ‘Learning Russian’, looking in particular at the game’s unique handling of post-apocalyptica, and how his own gameplay decisions strengthened the story. He says,

Had I set the game to its lowest difficulty settings, I could have just gunned down the man and his comrades with no trouble. I probably wouldn’t have been skulking around in the first place. It would have also completely undermined the story, which would have continued insisting that Artyom was in danger despite evidence to the contrary. It was only by genuinely pushing my limits that the game could deliver on its narrative and thematic intents, but a lot of people just don’t want that kind of challenge. An attempt to make Metro 2033 more accessible to a casual audience would inevitably just prevent it from succeeding on its own terms.

Critical Missive’s Eric Schwartz examines the automation of player skill in game design, in response to a recent Gamasutra feature (found here). For instance, in the case of auto-aim, Eric says, “Shooters on consoles can still be fun and complex games, but taking out the aiming reduces skill involved and cheapens the play experience.”

And now for what was likely the most talked-about event of the gaming world this week: Blizzard’s controversial decision to end this year’s Blizzcon with a video of Cannibal Corpse’s singer using homophobic language to describe his hatred of World of Warcraft‘s Alliance faction. Gaygamer.net has coverage of this speech, including an uncensored version of the expletive-riddled video.

This prompted Denis Farr to write a very brave, personal piece about his own experiences with homophobia over at his blog Vorpal Bunny Ranch, where he explains why such language cannot be excused as “just words”. He says:

Because, if you think I am oversensitive, I dearly hope you never go through a fraction of what I have. Otherwise, you might find that your skin isn’t so much thick, as it has been largely untested. I am still here. I have been suicidal, but I am still here, ready to raise a middle finger, yell, and demand that I not be subhuman.

Following the feedback of Farr, as well as numerous other players, Blizzard issued an apology, and it’s a notable apology in that the company takes responsibility and does not try to shift blame. Bravo, Blizzard.

And finally, in light of the controversy shadowing Simon Parkin’s Uncharted 3 review, Critical Distance is pleased to present the following: a review of a loofah.

That’s it for this week. If you have any great links to share, you probably know where to find us by now (and if you don’t, that’s at both Twitter and via email). Thanks for reading!