After a week of taco trucks, it’s time to settle down and digest the meaty issues in games criticism.
A quick note before we continue: Critical Distance is just $40 away from the Patreon goal that allows us to stay afloat and commission guest features. If you benefit from what we do here, please consider pitching in or passing on the message to someone who can offer support.
How exactly do we keep getting these games that over-promise on their narrative only to deliver something that fails to do justice to its subject matter? Two critics offer explanations.
- Deus Ex: Mankind Divided | The Hub City Review
Matthew J. Theriault discusses the problems with allegorical storytelling and worldbuilding.
- ‘Real world issues’ in games like Deus Ex are there for marketing reasons, not for art | ZAM – The Largest Collection of Online Gaming Information
John Brindle gently but firmly suggests that the cynicism behind “Augs Lives Matter” is endemic to the industry’s current modus operandi.
Meanwhile, on the other side of games industry capital flows, Youtubers are concerned about censorship, and their viewers are concerned about manipulation.
- YouTubers Are Freaking Out About Money and ‘Censorship’
Patricia Hernandez reports on the outrage in the Youtuber community about advertiser-friendly content guidelines, and explains why the situation might not be as dire as some have stated.
- Blog – Games journalism isn’t corrupt, but Youtube has a problem. | bit-gamer.net
Rick Lane calls out the problems that the Youtube community has with money, PR, and the narrative of independence.
“Whether or not the perception of YouTubers as an ‘alternative’ is accurate, the rise of YouTube stars nonetheless offered an exciting new opportunity for gaming coverage, a chance for commentators to stand toe-to-toe with the larger publishers, able to stand apart from the rigorous marketing campaigns and PR-controlled messages that have stifled traditional journalism in recent years. Unfortunately, this hasn’t happened. Instead, YouTubers have become embroiled in levels of corruption that traditional games journalism has never come close to.”
An Empty Copy
Battlefield 1 is giving historically-inclined games critics plenty to chew on, while an interview with the creators of a games history landmark shines further light on the design trends that led to military shooters being the dominant mode of engagement with interactive stories.
- Myst connection: The rise, fall and resurrection of Cyan • Eurogamer.net
Jeffrey Matulef identifies in Myst’s history the roots of more recently emerging game genres — and offers explanations for why the wanderer-ponderer did not take off sooner.
- Gamasutra: Pascal Luban’s Blog – Battlefield 1 – When a game could change the perception of history
Pascal Luban raises the problem of player agency and narrative in relation to Battlefield’s portrayal of World War I
- My experience as a virtual war photographer in Battlefield 1 – Kill Screen (photo essay: no alt-text)
Gareth Damian Martin explores how reproductions of classic wartime images change meaning in the Battlefield game universe.
“Death of a Loyalist Militiaman, taken by Robert Capa in 1936, is an infamous image. Taken during his time covering the Spanish Civil War, it shows a man at the moment of death, suspended mid-fall, his arms thrown out from his body, his gun rolling from his hand. My shot somehow mirrors that image, and yet it could not be more distant. There is no death in this image, no suffering. Only the onset of a frictionless machine of warlike imagery. Rather than confirm my experiment in war photography my accidental re-staging of Capa’s famous work seemed to question it, undermine it. In comparison to his image, mine is unreal, without real risk or drama. It is an empty copy.”
Unhealthy relationships are discussed in this section — proceed with caution — in relation to the capture and control of lovers and companion animals.
- When games are written by straight men for straight men: the problem with Emily is Away [CW][TW][spoilers] | Go Make Me a Sandwich (content warning: abuse, rape)
wundergeek unpicks the deeply rooted rape culture tropes and assumptions in Emily is Away.
- Digimon Cyber Sleuth Is One Of The Best Games I’ve Played In 2016
Doc Burford highlights how the narrative systems of Pokemon and Digimon lend themselves toward very different statements about the nature of trainer-creature relationships.
“What sets Cyber Sleuth apart from Pokemon—and what ate up so much of my time—is the way it lets you digivolve and de-digivolve your mons. With Pokemon, evolution is a linear affair. Sometimes, you might have an evolution that requires more than just experience, like a stone that forces an evolution, but there’s not much to it beyond that. Cyber Sleuth has specific level requirements and routes. One mon involved around 15 different digivolutions and de-digivolutions to arrive at the mon I wanted.”
System Protection Layer
Social systems and psychological systems weave in and out of each other in these pieces on how games use their effects on us to tell stories.
- An Exploration of Emotional Abuse & Gaslighting in ‘Loved’ – FemHype (content warning: abuse)
Ann Ashford makes a compelling argument for interpreting this 2010 expressive platformer as a parable about the cycle of abuse.
- Perverted Sentimentality: An Analysis of UNDERTALE – YouTube (video: auto-captions)
Harris Bomberguy’s reading of the theme of unhealthy obsession in Undertale is gratifying and entertaining, making an argument that’s valuable to anyone who deals with the emotional loops of fandom.
- Shovel Knight and Nailing Nostalgia | Game Maker’s Toolkit – YouTube (video: full captions in multiple languages)
Mark Brown addresses game design that plays with the design systems of vintage games and the psychological systems of memory and cognitive bias.
- Gamasutra: Stanislav Costiuc’s Blog – Why Assassins Creed series isnt social stealth, and what to do about that?
Stanislav Costiuc does some solid analysis of Assassin’s Creed games’ relationships to society, systems and crowd psychology.
“[…] guards and allies are both entities above the system of crowds. So when you’re sending a group of allies to distract guards, you actually fully skip the interaction with the social layer and basically use a tool to directly disable the system protection layer. If there’s not a single civilian around, allies work just fine. But when you throw money, you actually disrupt the system itself. The crowd starts behaving in a socially unacceptable way, so the guards focus on them. This is the kind of tools that social stealth needs – that make parts of the system act in a socially unacceptable way to divert attention from you. “
Focusing more on social responses to games, the first two pieces in this section address how the social dynamics of tabletop play affect how a game’s systems actually function.
- A Thorough Look at Baldur’s Gate – YouTube (video: no captions)
Noah Caldwell-Gervais has dedicated two hours to one of the most-loved game series. Much like its subject, I haven’t found the time to finish this video, but the part I watched was a fascinating examination of how harsh, risk-based failure feels different with a human dm. I’m looking forward to watching the rest.
- Flash Point: Fire Rescue (2011) – Accessibility Teardown – Meeple Like Us
Michael Heron’s review of Flash Point: Fire Rescue (2011) provides a good introduction to the kind of issues that an accessibility-focused criticism can bring to light, not just looking at standalone issues such as game piece design, but accounting for how their merits and flaws intersect with the kind of interactions that the game’s ruleset encourages.
Then we turn to the broader social reception of games; in particular, public complaining and scaremongering.
- 1000 hours: why some Steam reviewers give negative reviews to games they’ve played forever | ZAM – The Largest Collection of Online Gaming Information
Luke Pullen shares the results of an informal ethnography of complainers.
- The World’s Most Dangerous Game: Pokémon’s Strange History with Moral Panics | VICE | United States
Lana Polansky gives a thorough overview of the toxic imaginaries about how Pokemon relate to the public sphere.
“”Satanists” became a boogeyman that could be blamed for all sorts of anxieties related to “family values,” crime, safety, class, and a whole network of other social and economic problems. Strangely enough, Pokémon soaked up some of the remnants of the Satanic panic too: in 2000, the Vatican released a statement vindicating the game, after rumors had begun to circulate that it had been deliberately designed to promote Satanism. Some of these rumors persist.“
Finally, I have a few cool things to tell you about, separate to the roundup:
- 9.9.99 Dream Bundle by Zoyander Street, Taylor Hidalgo, qube, alienmelon, Christa Lee, Pelicapp, nosferathoo, Vincent Kinian – itch.io
The anniversary of the 9.9.99 US launch of the Dreamcast is coming up this week, so I launched a themed bundle, including not just games but also music, VR, and writing.
- Immersion is easier than action
I published a piece on Memory Insufficient about VR documentary and games
- Gamasutra: Simon Carless’s Blog – Video Game Deep Cuts: Soda Machines & Steam Spy
Simon Carless offers his own take on the games blogging roundup
- Critical Distance Confab – The Spawn of History (audio: no transcript)
Our latest confab episode is up, featuring historian Bob Whitaker