There wasn’t a whole lot whirring out of the videogame criticism engine this week, but don’t call it getting by on scraps, these delectable morsels are more than satisfying enough.
Contents within presented without filler.
Welcome to This Week in Videogame Blogging!
Rise (and fall) of the Tomb Raider
Carolyn Petit reviews Rise of the Tomb Raider for Feminist Frequency (video), finding it less sadistic in its treatment of Lara Croft’s tribulations, but well short of providing the meaningful psychological context seemingly promised in the original teaser. What’s more, while admiring the sublimity of the game’s environments, Petit notes Rise of the Tomb Raider forces the player to de-emphasize the aesthetic, reducing environments from sublime to a mere container of player plunders.
Petit addresses the backlash to her review in a follow-up on her Tumblr:
Some readers–those, for instance, who attack less-than-glowing reviews of highly anticipated games that haven’t even been released yet and that they haven’t yet had a chance to play–aren’t interested in actual criticism. They are interested in being told that their emotional investment in a particular game, their anticipation of it, the sense of greatness that they have already imbued this particular entertainment product with, are all justified, that the game they have yet to play is indeed going to be fucking awesome.
Fallout 4, Plausibility and Witchcraft
In contrast, Kill Screen’s Reid McCarter discusses the role of Dogmeat in Fallout 4 as a measure to “keep the player grounded amongst the immensity of Fallout 4’s environments”:
Games like Fallout 4—games with sprawling worlds, in which the player decides when, or if, to take part in specific story beats—differ from the directed narratives of media like film and books. Unlike the carefully selected sentences and exactingly shot scenes that form these narratives, an open world videogame is scattershot in its presentation. Because the player is given freedom to explore the environment in the order and manner they choose, the game’s director can’t ensure that they see everything of importance.
Over at FemHype, Melissa finds legitimate qualms with Fallout 4’s reliance on the heteronormative:
Here’s the thing, though: Fallout 4 isn’t real life … That’s because Fallout 4 is a video game set in a fictional apocalypse based off an American 1950s vision of the future. If they can implement rocket cars and nuclear shelters that can sustain people for hundreds of years, I’m pretty sure they can manage a nonbinary or gay trans person who has a child with their partner …
(FemHype recently bumped its call for reader support, by the way.)
“Video games have to be plausible if you want to suspend disbelief” – at least, that’s what Stanford postdoctoral fellow Sebastian Alvarado remarks to The Guardian’s Will Freeman:
Developers are constantly trying to motivate players in a level by giving their actions purpose and meaning. Scientists have been doing the same to build logic around the natural world – and we’ve done so for centuries. Our team has an edge because our scientific expertise is only matched by a shared passion for science fiction trivia.
While back at FemHype, Josephine Maria looks at witches in Skyrim and Dragon Age, exploring the way folklore is employed as media additive, drawing on the historical to overturn our assumptions or keeling under the weight of archetypal assumptions:
Skyrim draws heavily on witch folklore for its cast of magic users who are women, though they exist primarily in side quests and as faceless antagonists. An issue with any open world game produced on the AAA level is that deadlines and the sheer size of the game leave many elements feeling either too formulaic or unsatisfactorily explored.
“War Has Changed”
Jack Muncy’s write-up of Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 for Wired discusses the annual shooter’s “brutal body horror” in a convoluted plot that awkwardly toes the line between cookie-cutter science fiction and cutting-edge real-world technology: “Meanwhile, Darpa is experimenting with everything from exoskeletons to the sort of fantastical, bio-integrated tech featured in Black Ops III.”
Over at Unwinnable, James Murff finds Black Ops 3’s departure from binary plot constraints of old a welcome change:
This plot setup allows Call of Duty to explore themes of human augmentation, mental breakdown, the nature of sentience and even the afterlife. While it doesn’t approach them as intelligently as a cyberpunk novel such as Neuromancer or Snow Crash, it’s far smarter and more strange than a Call of Duty game has any right being.
Politics as Usual
Not Your Mama’s Gamer details an anonymous reader’s two-part account of sexism while working at a major game studio:
I was told that I’d get ahead in the company by sleeping my way to the top, and it turned out that rejecting at least one advance definitely affected my ability to get ahead. Additionally, I had to deal with receiving inappropriate comments, and, afraid of being flagged as unprofessional, I silently dealt with the fact that an ex-boyfriend working in the same office told me he counted how many times a day he passed my desk without me seeing him. In the end, I felt lucky that I didn’t have to deal with inappropriate touching or overt demands.
At Gamasutra, Chris Baker took the year’s biggest videogame copyright ruling to task, examining the impact of the U.S. Copyright Office’s new ruling on copyright restrictions in games:
Of course, the elephant in the room is that jailbreaking consoles and circumventing game authentication is commonplace nowadays. People are doing it all the time for purposes of entertainment, research, education, and art projects. But anyone worried about the legal (and ethical) questions surrounding this has had to refrain from doing so. This was particularly true for museums and libraries.
Over at FemHype, author Rachel W. talks identity and inclusivity in Read Only Memories:
Read Only Memories is a celebration of diversity and features many LGBTQIA+ characters. You work with a detective who is your sister’s ex-girlfriend, two street punks are hinted as being boyfriends, and a character who flaunts a big moustache and a beard uses she/her pronouns. Every character’s sexual and gender identity is not made completely obvious and, more importantly, it does not define their character.
A Grand Design
Let’s talk design, and what better a perspective to hear it from than a designers? Keezy Young, writing for Remeshed, takes a look at the design of eight female characters and what makes them standout:
If a character wears heavy makeup and silks and coiffed hair, maybe it’s that they value their appearance, or are in a position where their looks are important to maintain authority or popularity. If they’re covered in scars and nicked armor, it tells you that they’re probably battle-hardened, and used to close combat fighting. When you start mix-and-matching design attributes, you can get some really interesting subtext—a warrior with scars and nicked armor who also carefully applies makeup and wears a nice silk scarf, for instance, is someone I want to find more about. Why do they care about their appearance even on the battlefield? Were they always a warrior, or did they have a different background? Is there someone they want to impress or look nice for?
Guess what’s out? Unwinnable Weekly issue 69, continuing a series profiling Unreal developer grants in “Revving the Engine: Planet Alpha 31”:
There are many sources that inspired the visuals of Planet Alpha 31 — from ancient Greek architecture to the vintage look of Star Trek, Alien and Aliens to the amazing futuristic design found in cities like Singapore to space photography — we live in an amazing world with no shortage of inspiring sights.
Elsewhere, Ross Keniston falls for a new character in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate – Evie Frye – what with her “bad-assery” and clear familial dominance within the brother-sister dynamic Syndicate employs.
Heading over to U.S. Gamer, Jeremy Parish interviewed Mega Man mastermind and Comcept President Keiji Inafune, picking his brain on the Tokyo Games Show and Mighty No. 9; while at Pop Optiq Seth Shepard profiles Nina Freeman’s catalog of “vignette games.”
Over at Gamasutra, Josh Bycer talks challenges of asymmetrical balance in artificial intelligence; specifically, what designers get right and wrong about designing AI that is beatable without being disadvantaged and competitive without being overpowered.
But it’s not just the AI, the mere act of playing a game can be challenging to the non-initiated, as written by Radical Helmet for Plus 10 to Fire Resist:
As people who’ve been playing videogames for a good chunk of our lives, it’s easy for us to forget just how intimidating they can be for outsiders. I’m not talking the subject matter, either (although that can be a problem), but just the fundamental act of playing a game. The modern controller has two clickable analog sticks, four face buttons, four triggers at least, a d-pad and extra buttons for functions like pausing or bringing up a home menu, and the modern game routinely expects you to take advantage of most if not all of these features. Trying to get these people to play a PC game isn’t much easier, and just serves to remind us that these devices weren’t actually invented to play videogames, and that we’ve essentially had to hack the existing setup to make it work.
Oh, did you know that Carl Sagan, who would have been 81 on Nov. 9, dabbled in game design? Here’s Alex Wawro discussing “a rough design document” Sagan developed for a videogame version of his novel Contact (which was also adapted as a criminally underrated movie -ed).
And congrats to Brendan Keogh who released his finished PhD thesis online, which is “about videogames, what bodies do with them, and what they do with bodies.”
While short, I hope you found this week’s selection uncovered gems that may have otherwise flown under your radar.
That’s what we’re here for.
As always, your submissions keep the Critical Distance gears grinding, so hit us up on Twitter or email, or both if that’s your style.
As you’ve probably noticed, C-D is completely ad-free, so we encourage our readers to support us on Patreon, Recurrency or even with one-time payments via PayPal.
And if you’re already a patron, please, for the sake of the new senior curator we’re currently recruiting, keep up the support!