This week saw some social media drama in the games criticism sphere, as Georgia Tech Professor Ian Bogost invoked the pantomime conflict that is Ludology vs. Narratology. Beyond that discussion, it’s been a busy week for quality writing, with a lot of people taking on the topics of death, memory and identity.
Discoursed to death
The responses to Bogost’s article primarily centered on the shifting goals of game designers.
- Video Games Are Better Without Stories – The Atlantic
Ian Bogost’s somewhat predictable essay about What Remains of Edith Finch provoked a lot of reaction, primarily on Twitter.
- Gamasutra: Tom Battey’s Blog – Videogames Can, Do & Should Tell Stories
Among the longer-form responses to the piece, Tom Battey’s is one of the more useful starter guides to the kind of written and playable material that can introduce a person to games as a narrative form.
- Video Games Don’t Have a Choice But to Tell Stories – Waypoint
Patrick Klepek’s response argues that whether or not games are efficient at telling stories isn’t really the point.
- What Remains of Edith Finch review | ZAM – The Largest Collection of Online Gaming Information
Kris Ligman enjoyed the sincerity and straightforwardness of the spatial narratives in the game that provoked this discussion.
“There is something charmingly outdated in how What Remains of Edith Finch plays itself completely straight — right down to its narrated diary entries and blinking red beacons — that makes the whole game feel like a time capsule, a callback to a not-so-distant past when we believed non-violent first-person games were fertile ground for gameplay innovation, instead of just another genre that had been discoursed to death.”
The metadiscourse wasn’t limited to this old rhetorical battle, with some critics examining other issues regarding how we think about games.
- Radiator Blog: A survey of video game manifestos
Robert Yang shares some examples of clear statements of intent by artists working with games.
- Picture in a Frame – amr al-aaser – Medium
Amr Al-Aaser raises problems with genre terms that are built on mimicking existing games.
“This speaks to the problem with the term Metroidvania. By positioning particular games as the blueprint, the term has limited the ideas of what constitutes a legitimate approach and erased alternatives. It doesn’t allow space to deviate from those ideas, or allow games to be understood on their own terms.”
Discussions on how spaces function in games returned this week, intersecting with some particularly morose topics that seem to have been on people’s minds.
- On Endings: What Games Are, and What They Could Be – Not Your Mama’s Gamer
Alisha Karabinus reflects on some player responses to the difficulty of walking way from a fictional world.
- Gamasutra: John Scott Tynes’s Blog – VR Cinematic Storytelling, Part One: Composition
John Scott Tynes shares some useful information about how basic cinematography techniques adapt to VR.
- Proc. Gen. and Pleasant Land | Sir You Are Being Hunted | Heterotopias
Robert Seddon has a darkly humorous point to make about the uncanny village of Leafy Dreading.
- Bastion: Thermodynamics, Entropy, and the Physics of Fantasy | Sunset Over Ithaca
Chris Lombardo dips into how fanciful physics have a particular place in videogame narrative.
“as a thought experiment, it’s quite interesting. If we could draw energy from… somewhere else, what would its limits be? How much would we be able to increase local entropy? How much could be changed about our existence if we could reverse the direction of entropy—an underlying physical factor in things like aging, decay, and death?”
The announcement of the latest Call of Duty game has people talking about history, while others have been thinking about time and memory in relation to the body.
- You Can Thank ‘Call of Duty’ for Everything You Love (and Hate) about Modern Shooters | GQ
Reid McCarter’s essay on the legacy of Call of Duty highlights some often-neglected aesthetic themes that the series established early on, including its concern for theatricality and the sense that the player is “taking part” in history.
- US video games focus on historical accuracy | USA News | Al Jazeera
This report from the mainstream press about history and militarism in games manages to cover a surprising amount of nuance in a short space of time
- Destructive Tumbleweeds and WereBeavers – First Person Scholar
Brandon Rogers considers the impact of time spent playing on the body of the player, and in turn, on their performance in the game.
- “The Erotic Death Drive of Nier: Automata,” by Julie Muncy – Bullet Points Monthly
In this remarkable essay, Julie Muncy finds a queerness in the alternative temporality of robot life.
“Automata‘s death drive takes on an odd metaphorical resonance. It becomes, in essence, a sort of queerness—a means of rejecting the values of heterosexual reproduction, principle among them the emphasis it places on the future. For Adam, 2B, 9S, and the whole of artificial life that wars over the earth, there is no future. In the absence of that hope, new possibilities emerge.”
Survival, death, and killing remain important topics for games criticism, with a particular interest this week on how killing is justified in games’ narratives.
- Outlast 2 And The Realism Of Survival Horror Motivation – Musings of a Mario Minion
In this short article, the minimalism of survival horror games’ design is considered in relation to Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken.
- Everything but the Problem of Evil
Daniel Motley wonders where is the sickness and death in Everything’s affirmation of interconnectedness.
- Trashbang — Officer Benny and Characterisation in Stealth
Benny the bartender’s banter in Thief II becomes an entrypoint into a bigger discussion here about the portrayal of NPCs and the justifications for murder.
- Ghosts | Problem Machine
problemmachine calls out a trend in game storytelling for identifying with the undead in order to neutralise the act of killing.
“We, as players, occupy these border characters, avatars of the boundary separating life from death, and fight to bring peace – even if it’s the peace of a shared grave. We are recontextualized from a murderous opponent into a kind of shaman, helping long-restless spirits find peace at last.”
We got a few articles this week on the gaming of human, and also non-human, relationships.
- Trump Is the New Insult on Playgrounds – The Daily Beast
Gaby del Valle uses children’s play as a lens on politics and culture, observing changes to the narrative of “cops and robbers” chase games.
- Hate the Player — Real Life
Dorothy R. Santos addresses gamification by examining a game about sexual harassment.
- We Need More Games Where Animals Don’t Just Die or Carry Us Around – Waypoint
Cameron Kunzelman introduces us to existing and in-development games that consider the perspective of animals as rounded characters.
- Protocol Three | Gamers With Jobs
ccesarano examines different ways of making robots emotionally relatable, arguing that being true to their nature as machines actually leads to a stronger connection.
“Respawn Entertainment humanized BT by very subtly reinterpreting human thoughts and reactions in a way that a machine would perceive them. Over on Eurogamer, James Bartholomeau suggests that BT asking Cooper to trust him further humanizes the machine. I agree with him, but only from the perspective of the player and Cooper. If we recontextualize BT, his words and actions still make sense as a machine.”
Finally, these pieces consider how game mechanics affect the player experience and the narrative portrayal of non-player characters.
- The Lady Sidekick – Tropes vs. Women in Video Games – YouTube
The final Tropes vs. Women video synthesises representation issues covered in the previous videos with game design conceits put in place to gatekeep players’ progress.
- ‘Flower, Sun, and Rain’ Represents the Punk Rock of Video Games – Guide to Games – VICE Video
Austin Walker celebrates a game that, he argues, is mean to the player.
- Kingdom and Player Attention – YouTube (video: captions auto-generated)
Joe Koller considers density of activity as a design aesthetic.
- The Two Moments That Make Planescape: Torment A Masterpiece
Heather Alexandra highlights the use of experience points systems for narrative expression.
“Torment also uses experience points and statistics to form a coherent value systems. Certain actions yield more experience. It’s one thing to clear some cranial rats out of the sewers but another thing altogether to spend hours learning about your companion’s religion. Which you might have helped create in a past life. Knowledge and wisdom are incredibly important in Planescape Torment and you often gain more experience for learning a new fact than completing a fetch quest.”
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