Welcome back, readers.
I know it’s been a hard week for many folks in and approximate to the US. Those of us who enjoy the privilege of not having to constantly think about the murderously-racist enterprise of law enforcement in the West are having that constructed simulacrum of a reality rudely and necessarily shaken, while everyone else has already been on this level for a long time. Rather than editorializing further, I’ll direct you to Skeleton’s thoughts this week on how this immediate-yet-overdue-crisis factors into our weekly preoccupation with entertainment media.
I know that’s all kind of a downer but sometimes a downer is the necessary truth, you know? I appreciate y’all.
This Week in Videogame Blogging is a roundup highlighting the most important critical writing on games from the past seven days.
Update June 26th 2020: a previous edition of this issue featured an article the author of which has since been the subject of credible allegations of abuse. While Critical Distance has not generally revised its roundup lists in the past, we felt it was untenable to continue to platform the subject matter of the particular article, which included the author’s account of their interactions with people they had abused. Moving forward, the Critical Distance team will be meeting to discuss and codify a permanent set of best practices and policies to ensure that our platform listens to survivors and remains a safe and accessible space for their voices and their work.
We open this week with a pair of meditations on how the games we play, the entertainment we consume, in specific and in general, fit into our contemporary understandings of crisis.
- The Sims Is My ‘Last Normal Photo’ – VICE
Gita Jackson re-examines, re-processes the value of a virtual life when our material ones have gone off the rails.
- I SIT STILL WITH LIGHTNING FOR A HEAD – DEEP HELL
Skeleton interrogates the function, privilege, and consequence of escapism via entertainment media amid nation-wide demonstrations against state-sanctioned murder.
“Our escapism sits always ever present, ready to come to life when we need it. Often waiting to tell us that this is not how the system is designed to work. There are thousands of ways to run from confrontation. Videogames are not the problem. More of us need to start asking why the days need to be so long that they’re the only thing we can think of when we clock out. It’s very unfortunate that we just can’t run from anything.”
Those Who Fight Further
Bullet Points just wrapped up a month of incredible articles pulling at the seams of the recent Final Fantasy VII Remake. We’ve gathered them all here, just in case you missed any, for your reading pleasure.
- Fighting for Lost Causes | Bullet Points Monthly
Jon Bailes examines FFVIIR‘s largely unchanged revolutionary themes in 2020, finding that their increased gravity today ultimately says more about how little progress we’ve made in the interim.
- Nostalgia Animated | Bullet Points Monthly
Yussef Cole digs deep into what’s at stake in Remake‘s graphical overhauls, which offer both dazzling spectacles as well as doubled-down caricatures.
- Little Nuance | Bullet Points Monthly
Amanda Hudgins wrestles with the more dated and cartoonish hyperboles of Remake‘s ideological factions and characterizations.
- Degendering the Dress | Bullet Points Monthly
Autumn Wright faults Remake‘s Wall Market for an essentialist lack of imagination.
“Midgar is an excellent criticism of ’90s corporate America, and yet Wall Market represents the limits of the authors’ imagination. Humanity is only extended so far to those living under systemic oppression. In both the original Final Fantasy VII and its remake, Wall Market fails to subvert anything. The authors only pile on.”
A Tale of Stars and Wars, Eternally Retold
Uppercut released a pair of rad pieces this week on Star Wars games, including *checks notes* The Force Unleashed? Hell yeah.
- The Relatability of Star Wars: How Fallen Order Understands Finding Power in Powerlessness – Uppercut
Nicholas Straub posits that Star Wars is at its best when its focus is on individual, vulnerable, human struggle, as it is in Jedi: Fallen Order.
- Breaking the Cycle: How Star Wars: The Force Unleashed Imagines a New Masculinity for Force Users – Uppercut
Caitlin Galiz-Rowe comes out of nowhere with what is almost certainly the most interesting read on The Force Unleashed I’ve ever seen.
“This is a Star Wars property, so of course, Starkiller’s redemption arc has little to no textual nuance to it. He gets the chance to lead a rebellion with bad intentions, then pivots and helps the Rebel Alliance we see in the OG trilogy form. But more broadly, this is suggesting that there is room for a new kind of masculinity in this world, one that can have a violent past but that is given room to embrace emotions and attachments instead of pushing them away. It’s a pitch for restorative justice, an opportunity to accept mistakes and harm from your past and do work to try and fix things as best you can.”
Two more insightful articles this week on cool-and-rad indie title Umurangi Generation.
- Umurangi Generation and Bearing Witness | Jeremy Signor’s Games Initiative
Jeremy Signor looks at the role and function of graffiti in Umurangi Generation.
- What a video game about a futuristic Tauranga can tell us about our present | The Spinoff
Dan Taipua situates Umurangi Generation in relation to our contemporary experiences of existential crisis.
““Umurangi” is a poetic expression for red skies, and that’s exactly what Naphtali Faulkner saw last year as wildfires raged across New South Wales where he lives, destroying 18 million hectares of a bedrock continent, killing an estimated billion animals, and driving some species to the precipice of extinction. If we look closely at the world around us we can see the factors and influences that fanned those flames: a disregard for the facts of climate change, a ruling government that refused to properly resource firefighters, and a system of literal scorched earth policies. All those invisible factors that led to disaster become visible if we look close enough.”
A trio of retrospectives this week delve deeply into the titles of yesteryear… yesterdecade?
- Space Invaders  – Arcade Idea
Arcade Idea digs into the rhythm, the music, the pointlessness of Space Invaders.
- A Guided Tour Of The Manhattan Space Station | RE:BIND
Mx. Medea looks back at what is probably the most lavishly produced demo disc I have ever heard of.
- Spelunker (NES) | Bad Game Hall of Fame
Cassidy traces a trajectory from one of the most forward-thinking adventure platformers of the 8-bit microcomputing era to one of the most infamously frustrating Famicom games of the generation.
“There’s little in the way of elaborate platform puzzles or tricky timing to be mastered, and there are barely even any enemies to throw wrenches into the works. It really is just the very fundamentals of video game platforming on display here, but with a player character made to feel utterly unequipped to handle them.”
Games of Empire
I’ve borrowed the title of this book to introduce two articles which mediate on the ideological influence the largest (see: wealthiest) forces in the games industry bring to bear on popular narratives about what games are, where they came from, and what they mean.
- Midlife Crisis Optional: Pitfall II: Scene 2: “Good Game Design”
LeeRoy Lewin takes the long view, starting with the origin story of Activation, to work against canonical narratives of progress in the games industry.
- An Assassin’s Creed – Spencer Yan – Medium
Spencer Yan identifies a cynical mythologization of war and warriors running through virtually all of Ubisoft’s contemporary catalogue.
“Few other major contemporary creative forces — corporate or independent or anywhere in between, working in games or otherwise— have dedicated as much time, energy, and budget to portraying and exploring a certain kind of mythology of warfare as Ubisoft has done in recent years. Whether this is intentional, hell, self-aware even, is beyond the point: what matters is that Ubisoft’s broad canon of franchises demonstrates with startling clarity a remarkably singular and coherent thesis about warrior ideology and war as a state of mind: a framework not only for existentially justifying nations and societies, but individual lives as well.”
Both of the selections gathered here interrogate conceits or ideas that have become almost a given in popular circles of games critical discourse. What does the idea of an “empathy game” presume, and how is that idea fraught in discussions of the work of marginalized creators? How important is it really for the player to be “included” or “immersed” in a game world for that world to have meaning and an argument? You’ll have to read on to find out.
- Empathy and Its Alternatives: Deconstructing the Rhetoric of “Empathy” in Video Games | Communication, Culture and Critique | Oxford Academic
Bo Ruberg unpacks and breaks down the problems with the term “empathy game,” and looks forward to alternative frameworks.
- Radiator Blog: The powerful presence of non-presence in “Out For Delivery” by Yuxin Gao, Lillyan Ling, Gus Boehling
Robert Yang examines an interactive documentary that dispenses with the conceit of including the player in favour of telling its own honest story.
“Out For Delivery’s sympathetic construction relies on its honesty about boundaries and limits. There’s an important self-aware current of consent, where the workers speak to Yuxin on camera and joke about their international audience. There’s no sleek narrator who neatly ties together all the meaning for us, because everything speaks for itself. No one pretends we’re not there, but at the same time, no one pretends that our presence matters.”
Check out two short, specific meditations on game design, gathered here.
- Sometimes the best thing in a game is a pause • Eurogamer.net
Malindy Hetfeld savours the smallest, most fleeting moments amidst all the action.
- Boldly… Gone – How FTL & Pulsar tackle space rogue-likes in parallel | RE:BIND
Emily Rose compares two very different design approaches to “space game where you die a lot.”
“Despite ultimately being the same game from a conceptual standpoint, FTL and Pulsar set themselves apart by the niches they fill while capturing similar feelings of excitement and planning. One is a bite-sized roll-the-dice experience, and the other is a tabletop game given immersive sim form, but together they form a complimentary duet that runs the gamut of all the possible adventures amongst the stars, sans dogfights of course- but that’s what Elite: Dangerous or Privateer are for!”
Two pieces this week break down some of the affective dynamics between player and game, virtuality and materiality.
- Streets of Rage 4 and What it Means to Fight | Into The Spine
Cole Henry breaks down how Streets of Rage 4 arrives at a kind of play-feel that puts it in the same territory as The Raid 2.
- Games to Practice Self-Awareness and Mindfulness – Haywire Magazine
Ruby Hall takes inventory of the meditative, therapeutic applications of popular games large and small.
“People turn to video games as a source of entertainment—to engage with exciting stories, artful direction, and excellent music. However, have you ever thought about using games to practice mindfulness?”
We close out the week with two selections of art, as a treat.
- a painted response to 4 small. unsettling. games. – GlitchOut
Art on games by Oma Keeling.
- Towering – Videodame
A little bit of Firewatch poetry courtesy of Rachel Tanner.
“Place me in the ground like a bulb & wait
until spring. Wait until me.”
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Have you read, seen, heard or otherwise experienced something new that made you think about games differently? Send it in!