This week I have enjoyed a wealth of fine criticism concerning the relationship between games and the recent past as authors explore “retro” trends in titles new and old. Great writing is also being done on the nature and role of criticism itself, both in terms of diversity as well as reconciling seemingly unreadable games. Mental illness, morality and corporate banality also appear as themes of interest tackled by talented writers, and I was excited as well to see authors investigating motherhood, a theme in games all-too-often defined by absence rather than inclusion. Finally, plenty of valuable insights are on display from players and designers alike in indie games of all shapes. This Week in Videogame Blogging is a roundup highlighting the most important critical writing on games from the past seven days.
Five pieces this week reflect on innovations, problems, and quirks of a medium with such a strong fixation on an imagined retro past.
- ‘Dragon Quest XI’ Is A Blockbuster Game That Doesn’t Deliver – Waypoint
Cameron Kunzleman argues that the latest Dragon Quest is stuck in the past in all the worst ways.
- The Messenger is modern retro done right – Eurogamer
Christian Donlan dwells on his relationship to retro gaming, the problems with modern games that try to recapture that moment in time, and the ways in which The Messenger subverts his expectations past and present.
- A Retro Grand Theft Auto Would Now Be Set In The Year 2002 | Kotaku
Luke Plunkett wrestles with the uncomfortable epiphany that a new Grand Theft Auto game set in the past could now take place after the turn of the millennium.
- Shenmue and the blissful boredom of being young • Eurogamer.net
Oli Welsh maps his experiences with Shenmue onto the wide-eyed possibilities and banal constraints of youth.
- Kingdom Hearts is Disney at its strangest, darkest—and most moving | A.V. Club
Julie Muncy charts how Kingdom Hearts, no longer able to make bank on crossover wish-fulfillment alone, has grown up.
“Kingdom Hearts’ crossover excess isn’t strange anymore; it’s passé. And as pop culture collisions have only become more commonplace, Kingdom Hearts has moved beyond the novelty of its premise and spent the last decade, give or take, losing its goddamn mind.”
Two articles this week examine the critical process itself in games writing, to very different and valuable ends.
- On criticism and reviews – I Need Diverse Games
Tauriq Moosa makes the case that games criticism in general, and reviews in particular, should embrace cultural context and promote diversity of not only opinions, but authors and audiences.
- Trampoline Terror | Something in the Direction of Exhibition
Vincent K. performs a critical analysis of his own process of critical analysis when confronted with a game that seemly stymies all attempts at cohesive interpretation.
“The various parts of Trampoline Terrror’s design may not conflict with one another, but they never agree with each other, either. The sum of those parts (if we can say they sum into anything at all), is a world in which everything (including you and your actions) is incidental, but you’re never quite sure of what, if anything, they’re incidental to.”
A pair of articles this week look at moral binaries and fallacies in games, respectively.
- Metro 2033, “Goodness,” and Systems of Morality – Grace In The Machine
Jacob Benfell grapples with Metro 2033 as a game that reproduces binary moral choices common to the medium, but deliberately obfuscates those choices in small moments of survival.
- ReCore: The Error in Misreading Dystopia – ZEAL – Medium
Michael Prihoda proposes that ReCore‘s most interesting and productive failures are not as a blockbuster video game, but as a work of dystopia that offers insightful critiques of animal treatment, consumption, and ecology, but takes humanity’s renewal after its fall to be a foregone conclusion.
“If you dig under the layers of sand Joule sometimes endlessly has to dash across in what seems to become more Lawrence of Arabia than extraplanetary terraforming expedition at times, what remains are some haunting connections between the game’s premise, its conduct, and our current sociopolitical, cultural moment.”
Two developers this week offer their insights on design themes and distribution.
- [Devlog] Patriah in Overview | Prophets & Players
Dawn Davis offers developer insights on how her game Patriah explores womanhood and agency.
- Gamasutra: Vladimir Slav’s Blog – Scam Key Requests on Steam: Who Hides Behind Fake Emails
Vladimir Slav interviews scammers who try to coax free keys for his games out of him, and receives some fascinating and detailed replies.
“I have plenty of reasons to enjoy releasing new games. I am sure you can relate to most of them: anticipation of warm reception, fan excitement, monetary gain. But one rather unconventional thing is my anticipation of scam emails.”
Two articles this week provide practical advice on design choices.
- Gamasutra: Doc Burford’s Blog – Postmortem – Arbitrary Metric’s Paratopic
Doc Burford documents the practical choices that went into designing itch.io hit Paratopic, as well as offering pragmatic, accessible advice for other aspiring indie developers.
- Gamasutra: Tom Hermans’s Blog – How to make a good puzzle – An explorable explanation
Tom Herman offers some practical pointers for successful puzzle design in games–complete with interactive examples along the way.
“I’ve split my tips into three categories: Presentation, how puzzles are displayed to the solver, Elegancy, how a puzzle should be set up to make it comfy to solve, and Aspiration, how a puzzle (or puzzle game, specifically) can become something special.”
Cogs in the Machine
A couple of articles this week look at intersections between blockbuster games and the corporate environments that produce them.
- I Hate My Video Game Boss – Waypoint
Rob Zacny feels the weight of corporate banality as he explores the simulation of the work environment of an athlete in F1 2018.
- “All Their Engines,” by Tara Hillegeist – Bullet Points Monthly
Tara Hillegeist critiques the rhetoric of the game engine as a calculated erasure of the individuals and collaborators that build, mod, and play games, demystifying id software’s reputation as a community-friendly studio in favour of a less glamorous, more corporate interpretation.
“DOOM, as an engineered, architectural object, is far closer in execution to Brutalist artwork—simple, communicative, designed to make the impact of its environment upon it and the personality of those who put it to use immediately visible by reflecting what we do to it back at us.”
Mental Illness, Ghosts, and Trauma
Two authors, looking at very different games, make connections between depictions of mental illness, trauma, and the supernatural.
- Notes on Perfectly Ordinary Ghosts: Shadow on a Pale Wall | Sufficiently Human
Lana Polansky explores intersections of trauma, gothic horror, and Emily Dickinson in Perfectly Ordinary Ghosts, a work of interactive fiction produced in Twine by Victoria Smith and Madeleine Mackenzie
- hellblade: senua’s sacrifice | malvasia bianca
David Carlton reconciles the difficulties inherent to portraying mental illness in a setting of fantasy with his desire to see more and varied representations of characters who experience mental illness in games.
“Because there’s another interpretation for what Senua is hearing and seeing: that she’s in contact with the supernatural. And my default when confronted with the fantastical in art is to accept those fantastical elements at face value, even when they’re mixed in with non-fantastic elements.”
Two writers this week examine the roles of mothers in games.
- The Sims Doesn’t Allow Teen Pregnancy, But Players Keep Making It Happen | Kotaku
Gita Jackson documents the recent trend in The Sims 4 community of modding the game to allow for teen pregnancy, reflecting on how the game reproduces the difficulties of teenage parenthood, as well as the varied responses from players to the phenomenon.
- Helpful Moms and Rakuen | Unwinnable
Caroline Delbert responds to the recent buzz around God of War‘s examination of fatherhood with a critique of the absense of mothers in games, pointing to Rakuen as a positive example of representation for an under-represented demographic.
“I didn’t realize how absent moms were from all the games I’ve seen since EarthBound until I played Rakuen. Laura Shigihara’s sweet, moving game isn’t really an RPG at all, but it has the same feel as EarthBound.”
Players and Play
Four authors this week reflect on their play experiences with different games.
- What’s The Quickest You’ve Bailed On A Game? | Kotaku
Stephen Totilo writes candidly of his tendency to leave games incomplete or unplayed, makes connections to changing life circumstances, and speculates about wider trends in player completion.
- Sunless Skies Rewards Imagination | Unwinnable
Khee Hoon Chan contemplates how procedural, cyclical, and roguelike design elements give meaning to narrative and consequence in Sunless Skies.
- Donut County, A Game About Being A Bottomless Hole, Is Fun But Somehow Shallow – Kotaku
Nathan Grayson reflects on how trending indie title Donut County flirts with the beginnings of critique of gentrification and gamification, but leaves him wanting more.
- The Very Weird, Charming ‘Donut County’ Does A Lot With Very Little – Waypoint
Danielle Riendeau finds a lot to love in Donut County, interpreting the desire it instills in the player for more of itself as a hallmark of successful game design.
“Donut County could’ve easily had a few more of those increasingly complex puzzles. By the time you’re really combining skills learned from earlier stages, you’re in the final third and barreling towards the end. But what’s here is so finely tuned and fun to poke around at that it’d be hard not to want a tiny bit more.”
Critical Distance is community-supported. Our readers support us from as little as one dollar a month. Would you consider joining them?
Have you read, seen, heard or otherwise experienced something new that made you think about games differently? Send it in!