It’s a quiet Sunday morning here at Critical Distance HQ. Ian is snoring on the couch. Ben is hooking up another espresso machine. Katie is having a bowl of muesli. And Eric is… probably off playing Driver: San Francisco again, if I know him.
As for me? I have some delicious new links for you, fresh from the oven. It’s This Week in Videogame Blogging!
First up, one of the big news stories for the week came from Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s John Walker, who brought us an exclusive interview with Ubisoft reps about the publisher’s decision to back away from always-on DRM. The interview is a worthy read all on its own, of course, but I would further recommend Walker’s post-interview reflections on the interview and why Ubisoft have gone the route they have.
On the subject of design I have a great twofer here for you from TWIVGB regulars Josh Bycer and Eric Schwarz. Bycer this week traces the practice of “negative game mechanics” –“mechanics whose purpose is to stop […] play”– from the arcades to the current social game boom. Meanwhile, Eric Schwarz traces the history of regenerating health in the first person shooter genre, and in doing so weighs the mechanic’s pros and cons:
I don’t think regenerating health is enough to “ruin” any game, and I don’t think that using it in the manner that is currently popular is a bad thing in every single instance, especially when your goal in designing a game is to create something for as wide an audience as possible. At the same time, health management is one of the most fundamental components of videogame design, and casting away the long-term component of it also saps a lot of interesting gameplay potential, not to mention also tends to sap the brand identity behind gameplay.
Max Lieberman talks about theology as system and game system as theology on the subject of The Binding of Isaac. On a more secular (and musical) note, Joshua Dennison writes about why he likens Proteus to free jazz.
More personally: Scott Juster, touching upon Michael Abbott’s “Why We JRPG“, reflects on his own return to the genre:
When faced with the slick AI director in Left 4 Dead, the accessible upgrade system in Diablo 3, or the emergent chaos in Far Cry 2, it’s easy to start to think about games as black boxes that export outcomes through a quasi-mystical process. The beauty of a good JRPG lies in its ability illustrate the direct consequences of your actions. Ambiguities are exchanged for clear statistics, dexterity traded for tactical thinking. Of course, it helps that Abbott uses Xenoblade: Chronicles as an example when praising the JRPG. As he and a growing number of writers argue, the game’s world and the characters in it are an extended metaphor for the central conflict. The once strong division between story and gameplay in JRPGs has become porous.
But if you really want to get personal, I cannot recommend highly enough this most recent piece by the wonderful Patricia Hernandez, who writes this week for Bit Creature on games and desire: “More and more, games embody eros, for they never let you arrive. They count on you wanting having to go farther and farther, on wanting to push yourself harder. Desire then easily becomes addiction.”
Also writing for Bit Creature, Drew Dixon criticizes the failure of game reviewers to look beyond the rubric:
It seems like game critics have been claiming for a long time now that games are not the best medium to tell stories and yet developers keep telling stories in their games and game critics keep pointing out when game narratives contradict their mechanics. And now with Papo & Yo, we have a game whose systems coincide with and add depth to its narrative structure and we can’t stop complaining about how it’s too easy.
Along those lines, we hear a lot about how to “fix” games journalism and criticism but VG Revolution’s Marc Price does us one better. He offers up some specifics which go beyond simply the journalists themselves:
The change starts with you [readers]. If you want to “fix” the games press, demand more. Promote the articles, people, and sites you like, and work hard to engage members of the press in a way that is constructive and rewarding for both parties. If you disagree with a review score, say why in a mature way. The process of reviewing a game doesn’t end when the review comes out and there is an opportunity for all of us to learn from each other. Don’t engage in “all-or-nothing” or “us versus them” arguments, and don’t give your time to articles that pander to you in an obvious attempt to get your eyes on them. If the audience moves, the incentive will, too.
Grayson Davis puts the brakes on to remind us that despite our aspirations, most games are not as smart or mature as we might wish they were (warning for ableist language):
Here we must be honest with ourselves. We must dispense with our kneejerk reactions and practiced arguments. There is no doubt that many smart and talented people make video games, and there is no doubt that many smart and talented people play video games. But there is a great deal of doubt in video games as a creative medium, even among great lovers of that medium. We can be diplomatic and say that video games have yet to reach their potential, whatever that might be. […] But we can also be more straightforward, and say that video games are often dumb, or at least juvenile, clutching awkwardly at some higher form.
Another subject of which we hear a great deal is sexism in gaming, both industrially and among players. Now Emily Matthew gives us sexism in gaming by the numbers, because I don’t know about you, but stats make me very happy. Or, well, depressed in this case, but moving on.
Unfortunately, the issue of sexism and the lived experience on the receiving end of it is not simply a topic to be swept under the rug, even if we might want to. Lana Polansky shares her thoughts on getting tired of holding her breath waiting for things to improve: “That may seem like an attack. This whole post might be seen as a passive-aggressive dig. But it’s not; it’s simply an account of my overgrown impatience.”
Meanwhile, writing lucidly for Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Cara Ellison relates a tale of playing Heroes of Newerth and getting buried under its own terrible community:
It’s a shame: S2 built this super-nice, really economical war machine […] just to have people come on and shout abuse at each other, hate on each other, and kick people until they never load up the game again and go and cry in the bath and tell themselves they are fat and unloveable and will never get a boyfriend because her skills are just not good enough in HoN. Pass the wine. I must have the wine! My life from now on will be a failure![…] [In] the history of the world, I have never heard a developer say that they want to make a gamer disconnect from the game as part of the experience, perhaps unless it was a horror game, but I think possibly 90% of the people who start this game actually disconnect fairly quickly and go and watch Morecambe and Wise for an hour to grow back their sense of humanity. I lie back and think of Scotland whilst people are lobbing around insults, but there are getting to be more and more people who are migrating to an online space that is heavily community moderated […] if you want to expand your player base, you make them feel comfortable, rewarded, and like you belong.
Scott Madin goes even bigger, addressing not simply games or incidents of sexual assaults at game devs’ parties but reminding us that sexism does not occur in a vacuum, nor does it end there, at PAX or anywhere else:
Ky’s assailant is the only case from that party, that we know of, where someone decided he was entitled not only to sexual gratification but to enforce his claim to that gratification with violence — and make no mistake, all sexual assault is violence — and that makes him a relatively egregious example. But that doesn’t make him an isolated, unconnected, free-floating Bad Person whose worldview, impulses, and actions come from nowhere and cannot be interrogated. His attitudes came from somewhere, and for every person like him who physically sexually assaults someone, there are dozens or hundreds who hold basically the same views, absorbed from basically the same sources, who “only” harass and intimidate and make gamer culture hostile to everyone who isn’t heterosexual, cisgender, white, able-bodied, and male.
Finally, here’s the kicker. If past incidents in gamer culture are any indicator […] there will be no lasting consequences. A few more people will be alienated from gamer culture, but the majority of gamers will brush it off, and continue to support the institutions that promote these attitudes. The gaming press — even the smart, progressive gaming press — will write about Penny Arcade and PAX and Gearbox and Mojang to talk about their press releases and upcoming games, and will not mention the kinds of things that happen under their various auspices. No lasting opprobrium will attach to any of their names, and the culture will not change. People, even smart, thoughtful, progressive people who understand rape culture and how it works, and work tirelessly to break down race, gender, and sexuality barriers in gamer culture, will keep attending PAX and buying games produced by developers with toxic, misogynist studio cultures. The overwhelming sense will be that yeah, that stuff was bad, but that’s all in the past.
On the subject of PAX Prime (and I apologize for the weak transition), I have just come across Robert Rath’s recommended reading roster for his recent Beyond Borders: Global Game Controversies panel held at the convention. There are some great reads in there.
I would be neglectful in my role as Senior TWIVGBer to fail to mention one of the other big news pieces of the week, which is Valve’s decision to implement a $100 application fee for their Steam Greenlight service. To say that this has led to some outcry among independent game developers would be a hell of an understatement. I refer you first and foremost to Jonas Kyratzes’s blog where he registers his outrage, not at Valve, but at the discussion among developers and bloggers which he says falls explicitly along class lines:
Some of us are poor. Poor isn’t like when you spent $100 at a bar last night and you decide to only spend $50 next time you go drinking. Poor isn’t when you can only afford to go to one convention this year instead of three. Poor isn’t when you can’t afford to get the newest iPad because you’ve been investing in your business. Poor is when you don’t know how you’ll pay the rent. Poor is when you stand in the supermarket trying not to have a nervous breakdown because all you can afford is the same shitty pasta you had yesterday and the day before. Poor is when you’ve got crushing debt because your parents never had the money to help you, because they worked their whole lives and got nothing for it.
Poor is when every cent you earn goes to buying you another day under a roof, not to a gamble disguised as an investment. Why don’t we have a hundred dollars from selling ten games? Because we need to live.
It is particularly offensive when this is seen as some kind of insufficient desire to struggle – or even as entitlement. We struggle more than you can imagine just to be here. That we have, despite our poverty, managed to make these games, is a fucking miracle. We started with less than nothing, and we have the entire system sitting on our backs. “Oh, do you think I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth?” comes the response. Yes. Yes you were. Compared to some of us, to many of us in fact. And it’s OK, everyone should live like you do, or even better. I don’t want you to feel guilty. But at least be aware of it.
This, meanwhile, is an even rawer, but still very worthwhile personal story I would also highly recommend.
Aiming for a middle ground, Ben of Ebony Fortress offers up a pretty even-handed assessment of the $100 fee and what some alternatives might be. Valve has stated that the Greenlight service is still being improved, so we’ll see what the future brings.
Before I send you on your way this week, a bit of worthy signal-boosting is in order.
First, the Game Accessibility Guidelines website: it’s great to see a subject like accessibility gaining the amount of traction that it has as of late, and while this website positions itself as a resource for developers, it’s also a very welcomed tool for talking about ability in the context of game design and discourse.
Next, lead narrative designer and writer at Lionhead Studios, Mark Llabres Hill, whose credits include the Fable series, helpfully wrote in letting us know he has a blog writing on the fields of his expertise. Which is a really, really cool thing to suddenly get in one’s inbox, I have to say. Do follow it.
Lastly and most egocentrically, Luke Rhodes of the up-and-coming Culture Ramp blog interviewed yours truly this week on the subject of game criticism, curation, and, of course, Critical Distance. For those of you who are interested in some insight into how these roundups get written each week, or just want to see me spew more than my regular weekly quota of words, this is the interview for you!
Ah, but the sun is getting high in the sky now, so I’ll send you all on your way till next week. Remember, we welcome any and all link recommendations by Twitter and email, and yes, we love shameless self promotion. As I’ve noted before, we rely profoundly on the submissions sent into us each week. So don’t wait to get discovered; contact us!
And remember that there is still time to participate in Alan Williamson’s Blogs of the Round Table as well!