Games critics are looking closely at messes at the moment – messes that are oddly beautiful, messes in which we get entangled through human relationships, as well as messes that threaten to engulf the world whole and destroy its vital ecosystems.
A beautiful mess
We start this week’s roundup with two articles that imply new frontiers for how to do games criticism: one through its method, and another through its proposed subversion of what it means to evaluate a game’s quality.
- Destiny 2: The Kotaku Review
Kirk Hamilton’s review of Destiny 2 is composed almost entirely of conversations that he has had about the game with friends who play together. It’s an intriguing approach that reveals how different aspects of the game’s design have affected people’s experiences.
- In defense of Mass Effect: Andromeda and other messy games – Polygon
Sophia Park argues for a critical appreciation of games that lack coherence but are brimming with ambition.
“I’d love to be behind the production of a beautiful mess of my own. Messy, interesting games are hotbeds of inspiration: I’d even say they’re why I make games. They inadvertently challenge what I think a game can be.”
Seeing things blow up
Looking at the present and past conditions in which games get made, these three pieces offer ideas about which kinds of games get to exist in the world and why.
- Why Video Games Cost So Much To Make | Kotaku
Jason Schreier offers some up-to-date numbers on game development budgets – a useful point of reference when looking at Kickstarters or thinking about how games at various scopes are made.
- Vision cones and street ball: how an obsession with hyperrealism has suffocated modern sports games | ZAM – The Largest Collection of Online Gaming Information
Zach Newcastle makes a remarkable argument here, tracing a sequence of events that begins with a single game mechanic and leads to a whole sub-genre of games being almost entirely eliminated.
- ‘LawBreakers’ Was a Throwback to an Era That Might Never Have Existed – Waypoint
Rob Zacny is prompted to think back over twenty years of first-person shooters and reexamine the myths of player skill that they propagated.
“[…F]or the most part we played in safe, non-competitive environments where the point was less about winning than it was about seeing things blow up in hilarious and unexpected ways. I suspect few of us were ever all that good at twitch shooters, but we were only occasionally confronted with that fact.”
A diseased garden
In writing on the toxicity of gamer cultures, these three articles link the symptoms to systemic causes, such as models of capitalism and the military-industrial-complex.
- A Call to Arms – First Person Scholar
John Sanders reviews Thomas Payne’s Playing War: Military Videogames After 9/11, arguing that it adeptly positions gamer culture in the wider political and historical context.
- Valve’s “Solution” to Review Bombing Ignores Steam’s Longstanding Problems – Waypoint (Content warning: harassment)
Patrick Klepek critiques Valve’s platform capitalism, and the false austerity that is used to justify a refusal to invest in fighting harassment and toxicity.
- Gaming YouTube must get its house in order | GamesIndustry.biz (Content warning: harassment)
Rob Fahey argues that the toxicity in the gaming community risks incurring the ire of Google, copyright holders, and advertisers – and speculates that Google might not tolerate its activities on Youtube much longer.
“YouTube, of course, doesn’t want to crack down on a flourishing part of its own ecosystem; but like a gardener who’ll pull out a beloved plant before it can spread a disease to the rest of the garden, Google’s executives will absolutely take the decision to raze the gaming sector rather than see its antics hammer down advertising revenues across the network.”
Illness in a vacuum
Four critics consider games and mental health, highlighting not only how games can heal but also how games portray mental illness.
- Quaking in my reboots | Playthroughline
Joannes Truyens revisits Quake, finding it more harsh than Doom or Wolfenstein, more about making an emotional impact than enabling player action.
- Undocumented Immigrants Describe Life Under DACA, and How Games Helped Them – Waypoint (Content warning: institutional abuse)
Patrick Klepek’s interviews highlight the role that games have played in helping people to cope with the isolation and fear that can come with life as an undocumented immigrant in the US.
- Video Games Saved My Life, Probably – Videodame (Content warning: mental illness)
Nath Kai gives a whistle-stop tour of games that have been vital supports during times of distress, quickly outlining what it was each game offered.
- What Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice gets wrong about mental illness – Polygon (Content warning: mental illness)
Dia Lacina takes issue with Hellblade’s portrayal of mental illness as a personal hero’s journey, rather than a state of being that is tightly entangled with social context.
“A person’s mental illness is inextricable from their social context. […] The closest we get to seeing Senua exist with other people is in flashbacks to conversations with Dillion or the trauma of her father’s extensive abuse. She never has to go to the store for milk.”
These two pieces look at how personal identity might change shape in relation to the kinds of lives we live on the internet.
- The New Flesh | Observer | Heterotopias
Zach Budgor compares Bloober Team’s Observer with the works of Kitty Horrorshow and Lilith Zone, as well as Cronenberg, analysing its visual and narrative expression of the theme of digital-physical convergence.
- Games Are Finally Getting The Part Of Me That Grew Up Online
Cecilia D’Anastasio discusses the nostalgic impact of chat games such as Mystic Messenger and Cibele, but goes beyond simply stating “it takes me back”, examining what, and who, it takes her back towards, giving us a close look at identity in games.
“It’s tempting, though, to limit our digital personae to avatars and social media accounts where we may be playing a character. Less crystallized for me was another identity: I was a very good listener over AOL Instant Messenger. Discerning friends’ moods […] was a sort of game, and winning meant knowing enough to help out.”
Harvesting the energies of hell
Serious moral consequences are considered in these pieces of writing, with a particular trend towards considerations of climate change, as stories are increasingly told from a pre-apocalyptic standpoint.
- Moral Discernment as a Game Mechanic | Emily Short’s Interactive Storytelling
Emily Short sets out a design goal for complex moral choices.
- 20 Years Later, the Hardest Losses in ‘Final Fantasy VII’ Have Changed – Waypoint
Cameron Kunzelman argues that Aeris is not the most important loss in Final Fantasy VII‘s story, and that 20 years later, in a world that seems more wracked with loss than ever, we should reconsider its narrative.
- Making Cheese in the Industrial Revolution | Unwinnable
Khee Hoon Chan praises Where the Goats Are for telling an environmentalist story by giving players something to lose.
- DOOM Is About Climate Change :: Games :: Features :: DOOM :: Paste
Dante Douglas argues that with its reboots, DOOM has taken on more narrative weight, and with it has built up a stronger allegory for the political and economic conditions in which we live.
“The profit drive of large corporations is often directly or indirectly a motive to look the other way on safety protocols, in the pursuit of higher profit flowing upwards. The UAC of 2016’s DOOM is an amplified caricature of this behavior […] as invested in “employee wellness” as it is in harvesting the energies of Hell for human usage.”
The porcelain bowl
Three critics look at spatial metaphors, and at least one also considers the material conditions behind game creation to think about how game spaces came to be as they are.
- Unraveling the traumatic interior spaces of Asemblance – Thumbsticks
Miguel Penabella draws out intertextual elements of Asemblance‘s narrative, examining connections with Solaris, Mulholland Drive, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, among others.
- Hiding in Plain Sight in Hello Neighbor | Gamechurch
Stephanie Skiles explores spatial metaphors, refiguring a tangled web of lies as a high-security mansion.
- Why Are Video Games Obsessed With Bathrooms? – Waypoint
Matt Margini’s introduction to a series of analyses of videogame toilets starts with Freud, but it doesn’t let the analysis end there, instead weaving together industry context with a rich study of iconography and the meaning of players’ interactions.
“They can be meaningful, poignant spaces to walk through, but they don’t engage the social self: you don’t feel nervous or comfortable, exposed or reposed, humiliated or relieved—or somewhere in the middle: just fine, maybe—on the cold of the porcelain bowl. You don’t see your face in the mirror. You don’t feel your body, in satisfaction or revolt.”
- Episode 49 – Heavy Eyed – Critical Distance
Eric Swain brought us another podcast episode this week – be sure to check it out for great comparative perspectives on games scenes.
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