Critical Distance is for Game Developers Too

“Game criticism has nothing to teach game developers.”

This is a sentiment I’ve heard frequently from devs in the eight years I’ve been writing about games. It’s not universally-held, of course — many devs find tremendous value in criticism and higher-end analysis; many others began as critics or continue to write alongside developing games — but I understand where it’s coming from. Most of the work we feature on these pages, after all, is not geared toward bug reports or suggesting practical improvements. It’s more abstract than that: how a game’s systems do or do not support its themes; whether a game challenges expectations or conventions; the intersections of game and human consciousness. I really, truly do not blame developers for being dismissive toward this kind of esoterica, especially if they’re of a CS background. I just wish I could encourage them not to dismiss all critical games writing out of hand just because some of it turns them off.

It was with this thought in mind that I paid a visit to the University of Southern California’s Interactive Media and Games Division this past Wednesday. I’m an alum of USC myself, though of a different major in IMGD’s overarching School of Cinematic Arts, and I had asked professors Richard Lemarchand (of Naughty Dog fame) and Sam Roberts (of IndieCade) for a few minutes to speak to their graduate Interactive Media Seminar. My topic: what Critical Distance does, and how I believe it can help them both as students and as developers.

My presentation (the last-minute slides for which you can check out here) was meant to run about 30 minutes. Instead, we ended up taking up the full two hours. I had brought in a few video clips to punctuate my slides, namely Chris Franklin’s video essay on Saints Row IV and kitsch and Heather Alexandra’s minicrit on going “out of bounds” in Final Fantasy XV, and I could not have expected how well the students would respond to these. Heather’s, in particular, seemed to light a fire in the whole classroom. You can give it a quick watch for yourself below — it’s only about 7 minutes long.

I had nearly not included this clip in the presentation because I was concerned students would find it too abstract, even pretentious (although I don’t feel “pretentious” is a word to describe Heather’s work at all). Nothing could be further from their reaction. They latched onto its ideas with enthusiasm, particularly Heather’s argument that games — specifically triple-A games — buckle under the stress of maintaining their own illusions. We ended up spending a good 30 minutes just discussing the video and the students’ experiences in everything from big-budget games to esports to experimental VR. I’ve delivered a lot of presentations and guest lectures, and rarely have I seen a class so engaged as they were from seven minutes of a JRPG dude clipping through walls.

Heather’s video, of course, has been featured here before, as part of our May 2015 This Month in Let’s Plays roundup. It’s one of simply countless mind-expanding essays, video or otherwise, of a kind we’ve showcased, week in and week out, for almost eight years. Be it our Let’s Play series, This Week in Videogame Blogging, our Blogs of the Round Table feature for new and budding writers, or our new souped-up search engine, there is way more to Critical Distance than stodgy academics or tiresome articles on ludonarrative dissonance. (Overplayed as the term is, I should point out Clint Hocking coined it while he was in the middle of directing Far Cry 2). Whether you’re an aspiring indie or a triple-A vet, a student or a professor, our resources are here for you.

That’s why our current fundraising push is so important. At our higher funding levels, we’ll be able to produce more features that are tailor-made for your needs, as well as continue the critical archival work that ensures that yesterday’s and today’s seminal works are preserved for posterity. I am fortunate that Heather Alexandra’s video was still online when I went to screen it — another example I wanted to feature, Kill Screen’s interactive review of Infinity Blade, is now completely nonfunctional due to years of changes with the site’s layout and infrastructure. This kind of link rot is the number one thing we’re focused on eliminating under Senior Curator Zoyander Street’s leadership.

At the end of my presentation at USC, a student asked what I wanted to see more of on Critical Distance’s pages. I gave some pithy answers — I really like Frictional’s SOMA — but the true answer is: everything. I want to see more of everything, and I want to see Critical Distance lead a long, healthy life. We are the oldest and best at what we do, and with your help, we’ll be able to keep doing it.

So pledge to our Patreon today, but more than that — tell someone you know about it! Tell an indie dev, tell your favorite BioWare writer, tell that level design guy you know at Insomniac. Our digests on Gamasutra are tailored toward developers, but there is so much more we can do to support that audience — and everyone else.

Kris Ligman
Former Senior Curator and current Financial Officer of Critical Distance