This week, I’m at Doc/Fest Sheffield, watching documentary films, trying out some exciting new VR projects, and listening to people talk about truthful storytelling in screen media. So far I’ve seen software allowing a holocaust survivor to keep answering people’s questions long after he passes on, a black British comedian fighting racism by dressing as a Roman centurion in central London, and a robot child asking to be “caressed” by its engineer-cum-caregiver. This odd menagerie is well matched by some strange, creative approaches to games criticism featured in this week’s roundup.

“The Wild West of technology”

Let’s start with some documentary video and writing from the world of games criticism.

“‘The positive thing you could say about it is that Lionhead had such a great history of innovation,’ said one source. ‘We’d already done experimental things with stuff like Kinect, with Journey, that proved we could pull off different ideas. ‘The other thing you could say is that Lionhead was the studio that Microsoft was willing to risk.’ “

“An open-world game is cluttered”

Peeling back the lid on non-stop, nonsensical action adventures, two games critics look at narratives that have fallen flat.

“There is no grace to an open-world game. An open-world game is cluttered. An open-world game is full of junk. An open-world game encourages players to think not in straight lines, but in jagged, rambling circles. This poisonous fixation players and game-makers have with size, exploration and “content” is the undoing of a game like Mirror’s Edge. The characters talk about “flow”; one of the missions is named “Be Like Water”. But without banks or conduits, water doesn’t run – a static pool, filled with stuff, Catalyst is less a river, more a pond, still and stagnant.”

“All these bodies work together”

Reflections on the relationships between humans and non-humans are always fascinating to me. Reading the pieces below, I find myself asking whether the humans are being made into machines. I had a different answer for every piece.

“I’ve been wondering if we might think of the controller, in the context of this game, as a conduit of assemblage, as the vessel through which assemblage is framed. Indeed, through the controller, the right and left thumbsticks, the right and left triggers, we move and act through the two brothers simultaneously, together. The controller, then, is a body—because “matter is an actor,” as Puar says—one that is tied to the bodies of the brothers and that is also tied to the body of the player, and through such connections all these bodies work together to act, to move through the game, to tell its story.”

“Their deepest nature”

Moving on from speculative relationships with technology, let’s ponder the uncertainty about game-mediated encounters in our relationships with each other.

” Monopoly and Tic-tac-toe are both played on paper, but that fact does not go far in defining the games.  Similarly, the fact that network games will be played with computers does nothing to describe their deepest nature.  It distracts us; we think that network games will feel something like what we’re writing now. They won’t. “


Discussions about Overwatch have turned into reflections on the relationship between players and the game’s developer, Blizzard. While the first two articles below look at Blizzard as an auteur, the final one challenges that, suggesting that it’s fans who make or break the developer’s character designs.

“it’s fans who are giving him this humanity, this interior life, and this resistance to trope type. It’s fans who have done the work to invest life and depth and emotion into the cardboard standup of Roadhog that Blizzard actually gave us. This is true of almost all of Overwatch‘s various characters, and I think that bears saying. Blizzard gave us pretty, colorful art of these characters in an interesting setting. But they didn’t give us people. Fans made that happen. We did that work. This needs recognizing.”

“Knack for subversion”

The phrase “age appropriate” still makes my inner teenager roll his eyes, but media experiences that are geared towards young people can have a major effect on how we make sense of ourselves and the world around us. Games are no exception, as these bloggers demonstrate.

“Lest we think that Fina’s knack for subversion come the game portraying her as naive, it should be stressed that she questions the distribution of power throughout the game. When brought before the evil Empress Teodora, she deems the wicked ruler unfitting and unable to responsibly wield the power of the elusive Moon Crystals. While the reductive read of this moment boils it down to a simple good versus evil dichotomy wherein the good, pure heroine chides the wicked villain, I believe it is more fitting and complete to place this action into the broader spectrum of Fina’s behavior. Fina’s personal fortitude is expressed time and time again in moments where she questions existing structure and politically powerful figures.”

“Rage is a means of survival”

Expanding on Heather Alexandra’s theme of resisting oppression, these pieces turn their lens towards the value of anger for marginalised people.

“In her essay “The Uses of Anger”, Audre Lorde describes anger a “a source of empowerment we must not fear to tap for energy rather than guilt.” Rage is a means of survival, and should be as acceptable an emotion joy or fear. These three women all use their rage as both survival and grief. Because of niggling ideas that Latinas and Black women are always angry, always strong and emotionally bulletproof, our anger is diminished and dismissed. But the truth is that our anger is complicated and multifaceted. No art form should avoid the portrayal of an angry woman, but they should consider the ways anger is tied to a myriad of emotions.”

That’s all for this week! Critical Distance is community supported. You can help us out by contributing recommendations and/or subscribing to us on Patreon.