Worried about the future? Pull up a chair! This week features writing on fear and the economy in games such as Night in the Woods and Prey.
The thrill of reaching an audience
- The Personal-Essay Boom Is Over – The New Yorker
Jia Tolentino finds economic and cultural reasons for the rise and fall of a writing style that once made a huge impact on games criticism. She doesn’t specifically mention games, but it’s a topic I’ve been wondering about for a while with regard to our field.
For some writers, these essays led to better-paying work. But for many the thrill of reaching an audience had to suffice. And placing a delicate part of your life in the hands of strangers didn’t always turn out to be so thrilling. Personal essays cry out for identification and connection; what their authors often got was distancing and shame.
In two pieces on agency and interaction, critics ask who has control and what players are compelled to do with the challenges they face in games.
- “Prey and the Failure of ‘Play Your Way’ Games,” by Jess Joho – Bullet Points Monthly
Jess Joho argues that it’s not enough to provide a lot of different play options: designers have to motivate and reward exploration.
- Like Slow Disappearing | vextro
leeroy lewin extends the conversation about passivity in games to include horror scenarios with persistent enemies.
Control and tempo of play isn’t dictated by what the player necessarily wants, it’s a matter of being in constant avoidance. Rhythm is determined by whatever chases; a player must cede control over the space, in a way that other genres or styles rarely, if ever, require someone to do.
New ideas are emerging about the management and organization of gaming communities, through game design and through systems of moderation.
- Fighting games are getting simpler, and that’s a good thing – Polygon
David Cabrera reports on a design trend, and argues that there should be a more diverse range of games available for competitors and beginners alike.
- Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Judged? – First Person Scholar
John S. Ehrett argues that using big data for governance makes people less likely to invest themselves personally in upholding social norms.
While anti-harassment solutions based on “big data” and machine learning might be increasingly popular, today’s MOBA designers should weigh carefully the Tribunal’s unique advantage: providing a forum within which community norms evolve organically in socially responsible directions. That lesson is worth remembering.
Live in the friction
Looking more specifically at inclusivity in gaming communities, this week three pieces identified strategies and successes in accessible and inclusive gaming.
- Latin American representation in games is getting better — but it’s far from perfect | ZAM – The Largest Collection of Online Gaming Information
Cole Tomashot identifies some small successes in Latinx representation.
- Gamasutra: Ian Hamilton’s Blog – The rapidly changing landscape of accessibility for blind gamers
Ian Hamilton presents some surprising data on the current status of games that can be played using screenreaders.
- The Millions : Dragons Are for White Kids with Money: On the Friction of Geekdom and Race – The Millions
Daniel Jose Ruiz talks about racial erasure in geek culture, and the precarious social graces of tabletop roleplaying as a black nerd.
As people of color, we cannot enforce strictures of racial or cultural credibility through something as simple as our goddamn hobbies, and as geeks, we cannot tacitly accept that being geeky means embracing a rejection of racial or ethnic identity, or allowing others to dictate that non-white cultures are non-normative. In short, we need to live in the friction.
Misremembered American dream
This week’s writing on narrative in games often had a particular focus on the political implications of storytelling.
- Queer Glitches and the Outlaws of Meaning – New Normative
Rogan Louwrens picks up some threads on narrative, temporality, and performativity in games and in life.
- It’s time for cyberpunk games to remember how to be punk | PC Gamer
Jody Macgregor argues that cyberpunk must be more than just an aesthetic; it should be about people’s resistance to power structures.
- Blizzard Says Overwatch Wasn’t Meant To Be Political, But It’s Not That Simple
Cecilia D’Anastasio interviews Jeff Kaplan, and critiques the notion that simply because speech is commercial it is necessarily apolitical.
- Night in the Woods and the Lies of Nostalgia :: Paste (Spoilers for Night in the Woods)
Dante Douglas examines Possum Springs’s depressed Americana and draws out what lessons can be learned from the narrative’s compassionate treatment of small-town darkness.
[W]e all know why Possum Springs dried up. It was never because the jobs left. It was because the job-givers couldn’t move on. The wealthy were afraid of giving up wealth, the town stayed transfixed on the past, on an ideal of a misremembered American dream.
At the end of everything
Four writers related their understanding of game narratives to specific mental states that games and other media can generate.
- Janet Murray on why some players and critics still cannot tolerate narrative in games – First Person Scholar
Janet Murray relates resistance to narrative analysis to Natasha Schull’s notion of the “machine zone”.
- Costs | Problem Machine
problemmachine proposes game design aesthetics that reflect entropy and decay.
- I’m Scared of Everything Now | Unwinnable
David Shimomura discusses the disturbing ontological implications of mimics in Prey.
- Searching for Faith During a ‘Night in the Woods’ – Waypoint (spoilers for Night in the Woods)
Shonte Daniels explores the narrative themes of belief, belonging, and sacrifice.
The game’s official tagline is “At the end of everything, hold onto anything.” Possum Springs is a troubled town, but what keeps it together is the human need to hold on to something, whether it be otherworldly or mundane. The world—and the town—is changing, in ways that are out of anyone’s control. When Mae returns to her hometown, it’s already started.
Imaginary Omaha Beach
Putting games into a longer history of media and art, these three pieces examine the significance of the times and places that games come from.
- Musings on Life and Culture from the Contemplative Mind Behind Doshin the Giant | Minus World (video, with subtitles)
The latest Toco Toco documentary short uses time and place to show how Kazutoshi Iida’s practice as a game creator fits into a local arts historical context. The whole series is absolutely worth checking out.
- A Limited History of Castle Infinity | GamesIndustry.biz
Kim Belair interviews developers and recounts her own memories of an early online space for children.
- ‘Call of Duty: WWII’ Seems Like Yet Another Hollywood Take on World War II – Waypoint
Robert Rath locates the roots of WWII nostalgia and aesthetics in Spielberg movies.
It’s meant to remind viewers of another time—not a time when the world was at war, but when it was largely at peace. These sounds, visuals, and themes aren’t so much a return to Normandy itself but of the imaginary Omaha Beach of Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and the copycat game genre it spawned.
Already stripped of free time
Three critics looked at games in relation to business and international economics.
- Valve is not your friend, and Steam is not healthy for gaming – Polygon
Tim Colwill links issues with Valve to the broader problems with the sharing economy.
- The Bootleg Amiibo Business is Booming | Kotaku
Heather Alexandra reports on a cottage industry arising out of the intersection between open source technology and proprietary IP.
- Cuba: Where underground arcades, secret networks and piracy are a way of life – Polygon
Polygon has a big, multi-part feature on Cuba out this week. It’s impressive, in-depth, and offers surprising ways of thinking about how the games industry relates to the state.
In spending a week wandering the streets of Havana and its suburbs on the hunt for Cuba’s video gaming generation, I kept stumbling across this sort of low-tech meets high-tech fabulism. It gave my short stay in Cuba, already stripped of free time, time to think, time to relax, a sense of almost magic realism.
Finally, these three pieces offer some insights into the visuality of games, with some tips on how to build visual literacy skills.
- my friend pokey — Output Lag
Pokey talks about the material and semiotic significance of flatgames
- ‘Final Fantasy XV’ Is Surprisingly Good at Teaching Photography – Waypoint
Dia Lacina shares some very helpful tips for learning about visual composition, reflecting on Prompto’s hit-and-miss efforts.
- An Ornament in the Void | Prey | Heterotopias
Gareth Damian Martin compares science fiction architectural approaches to technology.
While the greebled Death Star might, for all its qualities, remain a generalized blob of tech and ornament, Talos I becomes, over the player’s time in its halls, a nuanced balance of visual ambition and literalized technology. It is liveable, understandable, even historical, and when the game lets us drift out into space and orbit its every surface and room as if we were debug testers, outside the bounds of the map, it becomes conceivable as a single architectural object.
- A reading list on trans representation in games – Critical Distance
This week I published another Agony Auncle column – get in touch if you have any questions you’d like Critical Distance’s advice on!
- Episode 45 – Documentary Delight – Critical Distance
Eric Swain’s latest podcast episode is a chat about the documentary Gaming in Color.
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