What a year it’s been!
Ordinarily Eric Swain would be leading our annual mega-roundup of the best of the best games criticism, analysis and commentary, but this year you have none other than Kris Ligman, former senior curator and current financial director, at the helm!
Since retiring from senior curatorship in 20*mumble* I’ve taken something of a back seat to the day-to-day goings-on at Critical Distance — meaning I was able to come to this year’s material with a fresh set of eyes. So much has changed since my time as senior curator! Sure, we’re still arguing over whether games are capital-A Art and reinventing the (totally fake) ludology-narratology “debates” for the umpteenth time, but I can say without reservation that this year’s writers are the most diverse, talented, and fearless bunch I’ve ever laid eyes on.
The works you see featured in This Year in Videogame Blogging have two main sources: our weekly roundups and submissions from you, the reader, sent in via Twitter and email. My curation process is essentially unchanged from how Eric handled TYIVGB in the past, though I would like to thank current senior curator Chris Lawrence in particular for their assistance with creating the longlist.
So without further ado, let’s tuck into this 2019 critical smorgasbord!
Labor and Unionization
In the last several years we’ve seen discussion of game workers’ rights gain critical mass in online discourses. The question of unionization took center stage at this year’s Game Developers Conference, as Dante Douglas reported for Vice Games (formerly Waypoint):
In contrast to the more overtly contentious events of GDC 2018, GDC 2019 felt more united, with a proliferation of pro-unionization materials throughout the event (including some brand-new Game Workers Unite zines) as well as the aforementioned scheduled panels. Speaking to Waypoint about the previous year, GWU organizer Emma Kinema referred to GDC 2018 as “the spark catching tinder.”
“The video game industry can’t go on like this,” Joshua Rivera wrote for Kotaku, describing the many problems facing today’s game workers, everything from the widely-recognized (and yet still widely-practiced) evils of crunch to health problems, PTSD, boom-and-bust hiring practices, and rampant inequality. Crunch was also on Tim Colwill’s mind at Polygon as one of the most tangible reasons to pursue unionization, while for the same publication Katie Chironis shared the developers’ side with her tale of frequent layoffs and precarious employment.
the indie game dev is internalising the industry. They’re crunching like they’re going to get fired, but they literally don’t have a job. They’ve embodied the industry themselves. It’s interesting to think about “how independent are they?”, if their method of creation is drawn from such a toxic industry? The industry model of creation dictates the type of games being created.
Indies, developer Xalavier Nelson, Jr. reminded us, face an uphill climb now that did not exist just a matter of years ago, such that even critical darlings struggle to stay afloat. Many this year also questioned the continued centrality of the Game Developers Conference, something Emily Rose compared with a sepulchre of the damned.
Also there’s a Twitter account about pettable dogs in games now, and as David Shimomura says, it might be making things worse? Everything is terrible and we’re still in the first section of this roundup, but hang in there, we’ll get through this together.
Broader Labor Concerns
Of course, labor and games goes beyond unionization. It also concerns who gets recognized and the underlying power structures of capitalism, as Yussef Cole wrote in Vice on the subject of dance emote appropriation in Fortnite:
Much of the discussion surrounding Epic’s appropriations is concerned with whether the lawsuits being brought by 2 Milly, Ribeiro, and others, are legally feasible; it centers the letter of the law, asking whether Epic is allowed to lift these dance moves. But this ignores the (at least) equally pertinent question of whether it should. This question cannot be adequately answered without squaring Epic’s behavior within a long history of mainstream white America stealing music and dance from black artists, decontextualizing their work, and repackaging it to make it more palatable (and thus, profitable) to white audiences.
“Invisible” labor was also on developer Robert Yang’s mind this year, when he visited an art gallery devoted to the works of Lucien Freud and reflected on the countless hours of specialized craftsmanship which go into digital skin. Elsewhere, Postyn Smith brought us an inside look into the “gamified” Amazon warehouse, where even idleness is captured into another form of work.
Everything old is new is old is new again; capitalism will always find a way to incorporate its criticisms into itself as decoration. Writing for Deorbital, Matthew Koester looked back on Crazy Taxi Tycoon and the recapitulation of progressive, pro-labor messaging to reinforce the same gig economy it critiques.
Sexism, Racism, and Abuse
Content Warning for This Section: Everything it says on the tin, as well as rape, online harassment, That Hashtag, and suicide.
We could hardly have a year in games without talking about endemic inequality in the industry. It even showed up in The New York Times! At Kotaku, Cecilia D’Anastasio followed up on her celebrated 2018 reporting on sexism and toxic work culture at Riot to reflect on how things have (or haven’t) changed:
Sources described mixed feelings about the sentiment. Two women said that management and employees’ focus on corporate-led and forward-looking change is erasing the hurt several employees have felt about their own sexist treatment at the company. Said one, “Part of leadership’s messaging has been that we need to move on. If the goal is to move on, then building all of this infrastructure for people coming in is absolutely effective at making it a better place for joining the company. That doesn’t erase the fact that there are still people there, named in lawsuits for blocking women’s promotions . . . Asking us to move on isn’t a fair thing to do if these things are still happening. That’s sweeping it under the rug.”
Recently, Riot Games reached a settlement in a suit on gendered pay discrimination, but the work is far from over.
In August, D’Anastasio also reported on two women coming forward to accuse Skyrim composer Jeremy Soule of sexual misconduct. Following this, similar allegations were leveled at independent developer Alec Holowka, best known as one-third of the core team behind Night in the Woods. Holowka took his own life several days later, raising difficult questions about the role of social media in bringing abusers to account. Neither Holowka’s suicide nor the allegations should be downplayed, something even Holowka’s own family has stressed, but developer Nathalie Lawhead — who was one of the individuals to come forward about Soule — strongly challenged the idea that responsibility lies with the accuser:
If I wanted to make money, I could put my work on Steam, and I would do better through that.
None of this is about money. The way I exist in this community was built fairly.
This is textbook “done right”. You have no place to invalidate this.
Which begs the question, what kind of behavior does our culture expect of survivors? Can you ever do it right? Can you please stop making this about us, and look at the abuser and just confront that? Can you please build a culture where abusers are de-platformed and safe rehabilitation is possible so abusers don’t cross a line that they cannot come back from?
Given #1: When we say that “everything is political,” we mean that everything is informed not just by the creator’s opinions but the full weight of the society in which those opinions are formed.
Given #2: This includes the mechanics and messages in games.
Take, for instance, 2017’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, which for all its (divisive) representation of mental illness still advances the idea that Senua’s suffering is the “price” for her gifts. As Grace in the Machine put it this past July:
Here, Dillion proposes that Senua’s suffering is Good Actually™. Without it, she could not find beauty like she can now. Her suffering allows her to become who she is. It allows her to become strong. She should accept it. And be grateful. This attitude towards suffering got a lot of mainstream attention with Game of Thrones’s final season, but it’s a fairly common trope in video games in general. Hellblade, though, operates as its nadir. It’s a game that wears the clothes of progressive politics, centering a strong female character, touting its research and care, but that uses the same worn story of trauma being equal to strength. To borrow a framework from Eva Zinck, Hellblade is exploitation without honesty.
Logic Mag’s Kevin T Baker had an even more timeless example: SimCity, and the libertarian politics which inform Will Wright’s so-called “realistic” city simulator. Or how about how political factions get modeled in historical games? That’s what Huntress X Thompson explored in her video on ahistorical anarchism in Paradox’s Victoria II (captioned).
(For that matter, Jeremiah McCall asked at the Journal of Geek Studies, how are we defining a “historical game,” and who is making that determination?)
The implicit politics in strategy games was also on the mind of Nikhil Murthy, developer of the upcoming 4x game Syphilisation (god, what a lovely name). Murthy asked us to consider the colonial mindset of games and what non-colonial or decolonial mechanics might look like:
The setting is, of course, of tremendous importance to the actual experience of the player however. Actually playing a game about decolonization will feel very different to the player than one that has them colonize. Context is incredibly important for these statements and just because a game has mechanics that can be mechanically equated to colonial mechanics, that does not in any way mean that it is colonial itself. There’s a big difference between looting a native culture for artifacts and reclaiming those same artifacts from a museum that obtained them through colonialism.
Murthy noted that even non-violent games to do with gardening can reproduce these colonial attitudes, a metaphor Sabine Harrer picked up and ran with in a talk for A.MAZE this year.
In talking about colonialism, we would be remiss in not mentioning the unbearable whiteness of games. Writing for Vice, Dante Douglas blasted the “fantasy” of all-white medieval games, while at Kotaku Joshua Rivera described the “Latinx void at the heart of video games” at a time when other entertainment media seem to be managing just fine (content warning: mass shooting mention). Gamer defensiveness is not helping matters, of course; Kotaku’s Gita Jackson noted she can’t even point out race issues in games without readers leaping to the assumption she must hate them:
If I hated video games, or thought they were all racist, I wouldn’t have a job writing about them. What would the point of that be, to wake up every day and make myself angry? I so much more enjoy doing something I love. For me, taking the time to take apart a piece of media is an act of love. Seeing that love confused for being offended leaves me at a loss.
“Well,” you might be saying, “at least representation of women in games is a solved problem.” Nope, sorry.
Rising Fascism and White Supremacy
Content Warning for This Section: Mass shootings, disturbing imagery, That Hashtag.
If it were ever possible to decouple gaming’s reactionary contingent from global white terrorism, March’s mosque shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand should put an end to that fantasy. At The Daily Dot, Ana Valens drew a line between the shooter’s manifesto and its foundations in online hate movements. Vicky Osterweil put into words what many have experienced in recent years, that “video game culture has become a safe space for fascist organizing.” Writing for industry-focused publication GI, James Kozanecki posited that community management needs to decisively step up to banish bad actors.
To paraphrase Rhianna Pratchett’s dad, a form can’t help taking the shape of its container. That’s the thesis behind Jacob Geller’s video for Polygon, in which he discusses the growing movement to design schools around the certainty of mass shootings (captioned). More abstractly, that’s also the argument Haydn Taylor made for GI while looking at games’ tendency to whitewash depictions of Nazis, and also Josh Tucker’s sentiments at The Outline: “No shit, video games are political. They’re conservative.”
Moreover, Natalie Flores argued for Paste, games don’t need us to defend them, “because they’re part of the problem“:
Videogames are ultimately eager to reflect and perpetuate the problems that lead to mass shootings. They don’t need to be wholeheartedly defended. And until this industry hires more people of color, allows them to lead in positions of power, and sees us as people whose stories have value, they don’t deserve it, either.
In “The Act of Looking,” Miguel Penabella explored the subtler ways fascism spreads through society, using Robert Yang’s The Tearoom and the history of homophobic oppression it invokes. And back over on Youtube, Jacob Geller drove the point home connecting current reactionary attitudes in games and the history of “degenerate art” (captioned).
Games as Envisioned Futures
This section goes out to all those cyberpunks out there fighting injustice and corruption every day of their lives.
At Deorbital, Eme Flores used Heaven Will Be Mine as a metaphor for different approaches to activism. Writing for Vice, Natalie Watson praised the anti-colonial themes of Falcon Age, which she described as a great story in want of a better game. At News Maven, Adrian Jawort drew a spotlight on When Rivers Were Trails, “an Indigenous take on The Oregon Trail.” Unwinnable’s ever-prolific Jeremy Signor wrote of reclaiming camp sexual stereotypes in Cho Aniki, and in a two-part feature Rebind’s Emily Rose explored both the ways in which indie games predicate themselves on queer trauma and how we move beyond it.
2019 also brought us stories of games bringing together communities, like Kimberly Koenig’s feature in Vice on a game library bringing together a neglected neighborhood, and Alexis Ong’s piece in Fanbyte on women’s esports leagues in Southeast Asia.
Let’s leave “realism” in 2019. In 2020, it’s all gonna be about whether a thing is “faithful” — to its source material, to the systems it purports to simulate, to the history it claims to represent.
At Game Studies, Sarah Stang argued that what we think of as meaningful interactivity often isn’t, actually. Over on Fanbyte, Virginia Paine took a look at the practice of foraging, both in and out of games, while at Vice Ian Boudreau shared a game about hospital management with his doctor father and discovered it’s a great means of understanding the United States’ healthcare industry:
As a non-expert, I often find myself imagining the healthcare system as a monolith. Perhaps nightmarishly complex, but still a single structure that encompasses everyone and everything involving healthcare in this country. This is a mistake. The “healthcare system” is more of an aggregation of systems operated by different stakeholders: providers, insurers, caregivers, specialists, policymakers, researchers, administrators, and countless others who all work for individual businesses or agencies. The complexity is not shared equally. In fact, for hospitals providing emergency medical care, it’s not that complicated at all. Project Hospital may use an extremely simplified “insurance” system to handle the financial aspect of its business simulation, sure, but that simple lemonade-stand business simulation is more or less how many American hospitals operate.
Red Dead Redemption 2 may have fallen out of favor as the topic du jour since its release in October 2018, but it still popped up in plenty of articles this year, and not just for the circumstances behind its creation. Developer Rockstar has framed its exploitative practices as all being in support of the game’s fine-grained “realism,” but what’s realistic about it, really? While Eirik Gumeny praised the story’s portrayal of living with a chronic illness, Lilly of Timber Owls took aim at the game’s fairly uncritical depiction of patent medicine as emblematic of Rockstar’s broader culture:
Like its predecessor, Red Dead 2 gives a wink and a nod to patent medicine’s harmful effects – cocaine gum comes with the descriptor “children love it!”, certain medicines have minor negative effects but nothing severe (they are, after all, magic) – but the game holds no serious, sustained criticism. By making them normal consumables Rockstar creates the implication that patent medicine was inherently not a bad thing, perhaps misguided by old-time beliefs and science, but by and large designed to try and help […] [T]he question often becomes “is it morally okay to enjoy this game knowing that it was made with exploitation?” not recognising that it is exactly the conditions under which it was produced that informs the worldview and the politics of the game itself. Rockstar creates worlds where the accumulation of Capital is the natural order of things, and personal choice trumps all other circumstances; if we’re to confront not only their company crunch culture, but the entire industry’s, we need to also interrogate the ideologies of the works that it creates to propagate it.
There’s another side to the “faithfulness” question — whether a game is or even can be faithful to the spirit of media that came before it. At Rebind, Mx. Medea questions whether horror games are actually any good at evoking horror, while at Fanbyte Avelene Perry argued that the world will never see a good Lord of the Rings game because the spirit of the books is at odds with the triple-A industry’s priorities. Responding to a glut of “satirical” visual novels which have come out recently, Kastel argued that much of what is being parodied in these games never existed in the first place, except as other parodies.
(Content Warning for the Following: Discussion of transphobia, ableism.)
“Faithfulness” was also a topic for discussion with the still-upcoming Cyberpunk 2077, which many find to be at odds with the transgressive spirit of the genre. Yaz Minsky argued that that’s not the case at all (video, autocaptions):
I think that the failings of this game’s promotional campaign are in fact an excellent chance to interrogate some of its source material. I think that if the game gives indications that it’s a regressive, macho power fantasy that treats trans people as an oddity, foregrounds a cultural perspective that is squarely within the mainstream, and ends up taking a privileged view of an oppressive world for the sake of escapism, well… It ends up being, unfortunately, pretty damn faithful to a lot of cyberpunk’s foundational texts.
This was another theme for 2019, and generally a positive one! Mark Brown, who has devoted several episodes of his popular Game Maker’s Toolkit video series to small, meaningful changes developers can make to accommodate players with disabilities, recently released a “year in review” video looking at how 50 titles released in the past year have fared (captioned) — and while few games completely stuck the landing, almost all the games Brown looked at had some sort of accessibility features.
On the meatspace side, Michael Heron of Meeple Like Us wrote on the virtues of accessible house rules for board games.
But “accessible,” like “realism,” can mean a number of things. In addition to accommodating players with disabilities, many writers raised the question of approachability in games. At Unwinnable, Malindy Hetfeld responded to the difficulty discourse around Sekiro to comment on the much larger issue of gatekeeping:
[T]he “skilled player” has become a type of target audience that makes them part of a group. You should feel played. You should feel played, your arm twisted, if you ever bought a gaming chair for real gamers, or felt the way to differentiate yourself from others was your skill at a product someone wanted to sell you. You got got.
“It’s about representation,” Hetfeld concluded, a theme that James McCoull continued at Haywire Magazine in talking about the “halfway representation” of characters who are only queer insofar as they’re universally attracted to the player. And at Sidequest, Melissa Brinks called for more games specifically for teenagers.
Games as Place
Virtual spaces are interesting, I say, deciding to launch into an abstract conversation on mental spatiality in the blandest way possible. But they are! As servers for online games continue to go offline and new games are increasingly defined by their social contexts, there’s something to be said about the hereness of games and how they mediate our relationships to the physical world.
Historianon’s Seva Kritskiy looked to The Return of the Obra Dinn as mass grave/epitaph, while on Youtube filmmaker Satchell Drakes used Night in the Woods as a foundation to explore oral histories of the working class towns that inspired it. And at Kotaku, Alexis Ong paid tribute to Japan’s legendary arcade, Anata no Warehouse, designed as a recreation of the Kowloon Walled City:
[The Walled City’s] reincarnation as a Japanese arcade was also a nod to its role as a place of community. Even today, Japanese people flock to arcades to escape from reality, or immerse themselves in larger-than-life experiences that can’t be had at home. On a mundane level, the arcade is still a place to hang out with friends, go on dates, or simply be alone. On a larger scale, it’s a refuge for both old and young who seek human connections in a digital world.
Much has been written on games exploring immigrant and diasporic experiences. For Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Vinicius Machado played Cook Your Way, a game in which the arcane, alienating system of international immigration is played out via a controller shaped like a stovetop.
Games can even have us longing for places that have never existed. At Kotaku, Alyse Knorr unpacked the particular draw of nostalgia in games, while at USGamer Alyse Stanley looked to Far Cry: New Dawn and the emergent trend of beautiful technicolor dystopias.
Who We Give Press To
We couldn’t get through this list without spending some time on self-reflection. Journalists and critics spend so much time writing about the state of their own industry, you’d think there’d be a website devoted to it. Like… a meta… critic… or something…
Ahem. One theme which popped up a lot this year was which games end up warranting our attention. Chris Franklin weighed it as the “opportunity cost” of covering a title in an algorithm- and metrics-driven environment (video, autocaptions). At The Daily Dot, Ana Valens blasted games journalism’s coverage of the Kentucky Fried Chicken dating sim as giving the franchise a truckload of free advertising, while largely ignoring games with adult content, and Unwinnable’s Stu Horvath grappled with the surprisingly polished tabletop system put out by Wendy’s (how did we enter a situation where two fast food chains released games this year??? make it stop). Quoth Stu:
Times have changed, but that loser outcast vibe continues to be a component of the mystique of RPGs as much as the idea of having played contributing to some fuzzy notion of nerd cred. With Feast of Legends, Wendy’s exploits both. A massive corporation embracing RPGs seems like a vindication of sorts for players of a certain age, and also it allows the corporation to climb up on the coattails of folks like Spielberg. “Hello, nerds, we were always with you, even if it didn’t seem like it.” This should be met with skepticism.
Even when a game is not transparently a marketing campaign for fried food, GB “Doc” Burford argued our priorities are skewed, favoring big-budget “prestige” games over polished systems. Carolyn Petit bemoaned the sameness of today’s game criticism, and at Deep Hell, Skeleton went one further and declared that Kieron Gillen’s New Games Journalism is essentially over:
It certainly doesn’t help that on platforms like Youtube the newest of the blank generations is recycling everything that’s been said before and saying it again. None of the outrageously long videos on a game as old as Metal Gear Solid 2 say anything that wasn’t said before. Has the pit been strip mined already? All of the precious metals dug out, or are we concerned with only the gold-standard.
Is it time to revisit what’s already been written about and what it means to us? Is there a place for criticism that is neither about the self nor about videogames designed as a product?
I can’t keep this dialogue out of my head lately. Everything we write has started to become about selling ourselves as the product. We’re defining a new history by what we mean to videogames, not what they mean to us.
History and Who Writes It
Here’s a thing: What was the Great Videogame Crash of 1983? It’s usually posed as an important moment in (commercial) games history, but LeeRoy Lewin argued: important for whom?
Here’s another thing: Where did the term “gamer” come from and who defined it? As Kate Willaert observed at A Critical Hit, our modern conception of “gamer” is mainly the product of advertising.
The question of what is game history and who gets to define it followed us throughout 2019. Seva Kritskiy contended that game history is alive and well — its preservation is another matter, and how do we decide which games should be preserved? Consider, as Khee Hoon Chan did for Polygon, that much of Earthbound‘s legacy as a cult classic is the result of emulation, a practice Nintendo has done all it can to crack down upon.
But there’s reason to be optimistic. In addition to Whitney Pow’s piece for Romchip on Danielle Bunten Berry and the search for “reparative game history,” Emilie M. Reed invited us to envision “Game-Gardening Ruderally,” and what “seeds” of game design will outlast the current triple-A boom. Back at Romchip, Mary Flanagan foresaw “a path to our futures” in which the study of games grows more diverse:
No longer do domination strategies feel satisfactory, or binary winner-take-all models of game play make sense. We need to be moving from binary oppositions and resource gorging to more complex, cooperative, radical models that will be required to reflect problem solving in a new age of drastic planetary conditions. Perhaps games themselves not only reflect, but help create, cultural conditions. If that is the case, the most important conditions that games model are not those of annihilation but rather reduction, simplicity, and cooperation.
Or, as Tara Hillegeist put it for Bullet Points Monthly:
Perhaps videogames are not vital to us because they help us live, but because we look at them and see something we can make use of as a tool to describe the circumstances in which we are now living.
It would not be This Year in Videogame Blogging without a section dedicated to this year’s most hotly-discussed releases. For the sake of my sanity and yours, let’s go chronologically!
Strictly speaking Bandersnatch came out at the end of December 2018, and also are we actually calling it a game? Whatever, nuclear option, everything is a game, your dog is a game, in 2020 we’re going to stop having this discussion.
That said, as Emily Short points out in her rich analysis, some of Bandersnatch‘s interactivity comes across amateurish — almost like a film director was discovering games for the first time! Lana Polansky (formerly of this very site) was likewise skeptical of this Black Mirror experiment in interactive storytelling, seeing it as part of a trend of erasing the real innovators who drove the art form.
Resident Evil 2: Remake
The first proper tentpole release of 2019 was Resident Evil 2: Remake. Heather Alexandra’s review for Kotaku continues to be some of the meatiest criticism about the game, even almost a year later.
Kingdom Hearts 3
Speaking of good reviews (a phrase you don’t hear on Critical Distance too often), Julie Muncy’s review for Vice ticks all the boxes by tackling a subject much larger than the game itself — namely, Disney’s stranglehold on copyright law, and how gosh dang weird it is that Kingdom Hearts even exists in the first place. But “biggest KH fans” accolades undeniably go to Vice Games, whose podcasts seriously unpacking the lore of the series are not for the faint of heart.
(Get it… heart… because Kingdom Hearts… I haven’t played any of these games, OK, I’m broke.)
I was actually surprised to learn this came out this year, but perhaps all the Wolfensteins are running together for me now. That’s a bone of contention for Ed Smith as well, who lamented that everything he saw in the game he had seen somewhere before. Likewise, Reid McCarter was unimpressed with the game, calling its protagonists “tourists” who have “come to France help stamp out the Nazi infestation like idealist gap year students.”
Fire Emblem: Three Houses
The Fire Emblem series has gone from near death to amazing resurgence in recent years, but it continues to drag its feet where queer representation is concerned. Though Three Houses has more queer romance than past installments, Todd Harper found the actual romances in context sort of wanting:
I’ve been teaching game design for almost ten years now, and in my game design classes, I tell my students that game design is the process of building an experience for the player. What a design team builds is, largely, a scaffold: an edifice that the player engages and has an experience with. You can’t control the player, and you can’t force them to do anything; the most you can do is convince or manipulate them, somehow, into doing things. A game is a space where players can create meaningful experiences for whatever value of “meaningful” is relevant to them.
In looking at romance options in games, we need to consider them from this angle: What experiences do they scaffold? What meaningful experiences for the player does the game allow or, more importantly, which ones does it foreclose?
At Paste, Dia Lacina refreshingly pointed out that the game itself questions the player’s ability to date their own students. So that’s a thing.
Control! Of the games that came out in 2019, this was the hardest for me to resist, and reading all these magnificent articles about it didn’t help matters. Carolyn Petit asked why a game so interested in the unconventional ultimately couches itself in a very conventional framework, while at Timber Owls Lilly took Control‘s extended poster metaphor to its natural conclusion:
The hole is, itself, part of the spectacle, a carefully constructed image of truth replacing the actual truth. Capitalism has, in adopting more of the society of control, assimilated counter-culture and rebellion into itself, “precorporating the subversive” as Mark Fisher put it in Capitalist Realism; “‘Alternative’ and ‘independent’ don’t designate something outside mainstream culture; rather, they are styles, in fact the dominant styles, within the mainstream.” In the 1976 Sidney Lumet movie Network an embittered news reporter lashes out at the establishment only to become its hottest commodity, his outrage already accomodated into the spectacle before he even expressed it.
The second Jesse enters the Bureau she’s immediately incorporated into it at the highest level, her search for answers rewarding her with total absorption into the faux-truth.
Untitled Goose Game
OK, now this one I have played, although I would never have expected the conversation to trend in the direction of the goose game is violent, actually. Between that and a certain piece in The Atlantic I won’t include here, you can feel the irritation in Melissa Brinks’s words when she writes “If We’re Going to Talk About Untitled Goose Game Then By God Let’s Talk About Untitled Goose Game“:
A game as abstract as Untitled Goose Game—even its title, because it presents itself as “untitled”—lends itself well to a multitude of readings. It’s functional; you’re given a sandbox and some mild directives but there is little to guide you beyond that. By virtue of its openness, its lack of speech, its unassuming title, it invites us to ask questions that may feel pretentious on first glance. […] But we don’t need a paragraph about a traumatic goose death or comparisons to ultraviolent games like Postal and Hatred to ask these questions.
In a lot of ways it feels like 2019 was Death Stranding‘s year; the rest of us were just visiting. Even before the game released, the critical world was awash in discussion, and that conversation only intensified when the game was in everyone’s hot little hands.
Let’s start with Kotaku, where again Heather Alexandra’s review is as much a critical tour de force as the game itself:
In practice, building structures and expanding pathways creates more camaraderie than contention. There’s no denying the strange narrative context underpinning it all?—we were, after all, extending from coast to coast in an effort to make America whole again?—but the effect of these mechanics is more romantic than unfortunate. Countless workers, united in the solidarity of their task, creating public and functional means to allow essential services to continue. The work mattered enough that players had each other’s backs and tended to the essential parts without prompting. Death Stranding waxes poetic about intertwining souls and bonds that last from one world to the next. If love, sadness or duty could move from the land of the living to the dead, then perhaps these feelings of pride and solidarity can shift from the digital to the actual. We made something; we helped each other. Video game or not, there’s a comfort in that. It turns out that being an Amazon worker in the apocalypse isn’t so bad when solidarity prevails.
Phew. Elsewhere, at Rebind, Emily Rose also touched on the protagonist Sam’s relatability as a gig worker in an arguably doomed world, while at Deep Hell Skeleton focused on how the game depicts the fragility of his very human body.
Some takes on Death Stranding were more ambivalent. At Gayming Magazine, Elizabeth Henges noted the game’s virulent thread of queerphobia, especially toward asexuals, while at Buzzfeed Steven Scaife took the long view to examine director Hideo Kojima’s cachet as a celebrated “auteur” and what that means, exactly:
With the label of “auteur” comes the characterization as a revolutionary, an uncompromising innovator, the only one who can cut through the focus-tested chaff. […] Yet even Martin Scorsese had to compromise to some degree. Although certainly no one but the great director would be trusted with a 3.5-hour mob epic whose leads are all over 70 years old and whose digital de-aging set the budget in the vicinity of a Marvel movie, Netflix was the only studio that would fund The Irishman. And despite how vocal Scorsese is about the theatrical experience, the streaming giant was again unable to reach an agreement with theater chains to get the thing a wide release.
Which is a long way of saying that it’s no small thing for Death Stranding to emerge in the seemingly uncompromised form it does.
At Polygon, Katherine Cross got granular with Heaven’s Vault and how it rewards repeat visits. Alastair Hadden offered an appropriately mystical and philosophical take on Disco Elysium, while Harry “Hbomberguy” Brewis made an emphatic case for Pathologic 2 and its predecessor (video, autocaptions).
Sekiro was the center of a great deal of discussion regarding difficulty (as alluded to above) but for articles tackling the game on its own terms, Chris Breault’s “The Unkind Faced Buddha” is definitive. Also at Bullet Points, Daniel Fries paid tribute to Red Candle Games’ Devotion, which was censored by the Chinese government and removed from sale earlier this year.
Deep Dives into Older Games
Fun fact: I initially tried to divide this section up into “sort of recent” and “way less recent” games, but then I realized that games that came out in the 90s are closer in age to Pac-Man than anything that came out on PC this year. And then I felt very, very old.
Final Fantasy VIII
With a remastered edition out this year to celebrate its 20th anniversary, several critics returned to the Final Fantasy VIII discourse mines. Of these, the most compelling came from Cameron Kunzelman at Vice, and from unhaunting at Timber Owls, who argued convincingly that the game is actually about trauma:
Importantly, almost none of them remember the orphanage at all, and while the game attributes these memory problems to the powerful creatures they summon feeding on their memories, there is also a thread of metaphor here that, to my knowledge, has not been the focus of much attention. Memory problems – along with identity problems, something all the party members struggle with to some extent, but Squall most of all – are a frequent consequence of traumatic experiences, and in particular, many popular anti-war narratives, like Catch-22 and Jacob’s Ladder, show memory issues as a symptom of PTSD.
It’s always Metal Gear O’Clock on the internet, but especially in light of Death Stranding‘s release, 2019 was a banner year for all things Snake. Heather Alexandra’s series of retrospectives is, of course, essential. At Fanbyte, Moira Hicks made the case that Metal Gear is a magical realist series.
At Deorbital, Ty Gale took a look at beloved indie Bastion and the “power fantasy” of recovery after devastation. Kimimi paid tribute to the fleshy horror of Atlantis in the first Tomb Raider, while Tyler Opal Wallowa looked back at the architecture of the original Half-Life.
Several writers dug deep into games history, with Virginia Paine fondly recalling her days with M.U.L.E. and Cat DeSpira taking us through the untold story of Pac-Man. Emily Short also brought us this wonderful deep dive on The Yellow Bowl, an early hypertext work from 1992.
Fanbyte produced some great retro pieces this year, such as Sarah Maria Griffin’s loving tribute to Earthbound, a game she will never finish, and K.A. Rose’s piece on NiGHTS and self-discovery.
Bee Gabriel has been going back through the Friends at the Table archives this year, and lauds the group’s approach to dramatic irony and Hieron. Elsewhere, Grace in the Machine struck up a letter series with Cole Henry on the aesthetics of cyclical history in Gears of War.
Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot…
2019 marks 10 years for us here at Critical Distance, and we could not be more thrilled to still be around and kicking after all this time. In the past year we published a whole fleet of new Critical Compilations, including:
- The Last of Us by Dan Parker
- God of War (2018) by Alon Lessel
- Bioshock Infinite by Dante Douglas
- The Stanley Parable by Dan Solberg
- The Mass Effect trilogy by Emma Kostopolus
- Assassin’s Creed II and Assassin’s Creed III by Gilles Roy
- Kentucky Route Zero by Nicholas O’Brien
We also brought aboard Connor Weightman to bulk up our coverage of video criticism. Keep an eye out for his new This Month in Videogame Vlogging feature!
There’s more to come, as we kick off 2020 with the return of our annual Blogger of the Year awards. You can expect to see more Critical Compilations and maybe some additional features headed your way, too!
In the meantime: stay warm (or cool, depending on your hemisphere) and may 2020 greet you as non-confrontationally as you wish.
Happy New Year from Critical Distance!
Disclosures: Kris Ligman used to write for Gamasutra, whose parent company runs the Game Developers Conference, as well as for ReadySet, the predecessor to Fanbyte. Lana Polansky and Cameron Kunzelman are former contributors to Critical Distance. None of these individuals or organizations were at all involved in the curation process.
Update 12/31/2019: The original version of this post erroneously referred to Nathalie Lawhead by the wrong gender. It has been corrected.