Welcome back, and welcome to a new year, readers. We missed you last week, but we’re making up for lost time with a double-sized issue for your reading pleasure.
A couple things to begin. First, Black Lives don’t cease to Matter when the US Government swaps out its churlishly fascist executive branch for a neoliberal pharmakon replacement while retaining most of the same legislative and judicial enablers of systemic white supremacy. Please continue to seek out ways to support Black causes.
Around the site, it’s been a little bit now, but right before Christmas we published our final Critical Compilation of the year, this time featuring Cian Maher covering The Witcher 3. I sincerely cannot think of an author with more sheer ethos on this subject. Check it out!
This Week in Videogame Blogging is a roundup highlighting the most important critical writing on games from the past seven days.
Technically, out first three selections all examine the industry as a whole in some way. But I’ve elected to present our first inclusion standalone, lest its urgent and specific point risk being averaged out in a broader discussion. This one’s up front for a reason.
- why are the lives of those that spoke up so worthless to you, but you so readily protect the abusers? (commenting on everything) – The Candybox Blog
Nathalie Lawhead identifies a current of insularity in games journalism that shies away from the inconventient tension of calling out damaging abuse within its ranks (content notification for rape, abuse, harrassment, discussion of suicide, and, well, people ignoring these things).
“I listened to how I’m putting people on the spot, how I’m basically not worth that support, how Kotaku was in their right to do this, how it’s a “complicated issue”, how “both sides tried their best”… nothing. There was no help. It’s clear that I’m alone in this. It’s also clear that all the professed support and “I believe you’s” are too much performative allyship.”
Drowning in Discourse
It’s a tiring time to be a writer, a critic, who works with games. Hell, it’s a tiring time just to exist in these spaces, as both of our next featured writers attest. And yes, I am well aware it’s a tiring time to be alive period. But I hope that doesn’t stop us from doing some soul-searching about what we want the spaces we occupy to look like, as these writers have done here.
- Art Tickles: Emotionally Over Budget – Haywire Magazine
Taylor Hidalgo wonders if a love of games is sustainable when the communities around them–play communities, critical communities, and otherwise–are so reliably and recurringly hostile and caustic.
- Cyberpunk 2077 and the already broken media landscape – I Need Diverse Games
Tauriq Moosa takes inventory of all the obstructions, difficulties, and threats reviewers and critics face in simply trying to do their jobs, let alone elevate the discourse around games.
“I don’t know the solution, but blaming game critics and journalists (two different things, please), for corporate manipulation in an environment where we have lost the barrier between corporate spin and eager consumer, is misplaced, dangerous and, frankly, quite horrid. We must sort it out but it will be a long discussion. Those of us at the bottom have little power, however.”
Each of these next four pieces, varied as they are in length, scope, theme, and content, is concerned in some way with design–how games, how systems, how worlds are put together, for better or worse. Some really great insights here!
- Treatmills, or, Hades, Roguelites, and Gacha Games | Melodic Ambient 2
Melos Han-Tani draws parallels between the addictive, forever-game properties of roguelites and gacha games, coining a term–treatmill–to describe the overlap.
- RUINS OF MEMORY – DEEP HELL
Ario Barzan considers our long cultural flirtation with the idea, the aesthetic, the architecture of the medieval, its distortion, its misremembrance, and what all that has to say about the From Software games generally, and particularly Demon’s Souls and its own distorted, misremembering remake.
- Spirits in a Material World: The Touch of Clubhouse Games – Uppercut
Grace Benfell situates the materiality of Clubhouse Games in the forgetfully-material, often ideologially-fraught wider industry.
- you are capable of writing better horror stories | GB ‘Doc’ Burford
GB Burford assesses the horror genre–in games and elsewhere–as over-reliant on tropes that rob the genre of its essential constituents–uncertainty, attention, and emotion.
“So. If I have played a video game where a character feels guilty about some shit or sad about a dead loved one, and the supernatural horror is an extended metaphor for this grief or guilt or whatever… what does your game have to offer me? I’ve already seen The Ritual. That one had a really cool looking monster. I’ve already played Amnesia and Layers of Fear.”
Next up, four very cool glimpses into the past await–one pair of games from the 80’s, the other from the 2000’s. Threading these pieces together is an emphasis on how systems, genres, design priorities, and franchises have aged, developed, and evolved over the ensuing years.
- Lode Runner | The Digital Antiquarian
Jimmy Maher delves into the history, design, and influence of Lode Runner, positioning it at an elegant crossroads of the then-emerging puzzle and platform genres.
- Meownster Hunter – Kimimi The Game-Eating She-Monster
Kimimi looks back at a PSP-era Monster Hunter spinoff developed by. . . hold on, wait, From Software??
- Robotron 2084  – Arcade Idea
Arcade Idea reports back from the robotocalypse 64 years early (or is it 102?), meditating on Robotron‘s slightly reactionary bent and its ironic thesis against mechanical progression (plain-text version available here).
- Disc Diving: Medal of Honor Frontline | Cole Writes Words
Cole Henry returns to a PS2-era entry in the Medal of Honor series with a conteporary perspective, recognizing both the exaggerated jingoism of its era and the enduring success of its technical art direction.
“Yes, it is fundamentally uncritical of the American war machine but through its mission structure, sound design, and look, it becomes a portrayal of war as a sort of heightened dreamscape through hell and neverending violence.”
I’ll admit: sociality is a somewhat loose way to group these next five articles together. But each of them, nonetheless, loops back around to ideas about community, about shared spaces, shared play, or even the negative echoes signalled by their absensce. They look alternately at virtual worlds, material worlds, and the liminal boundaries in-between.
- Tom Nook, Capitalist or Comrade? | Loading…
Emma Vossen searches out what is really going on in the online discourse that alternately lionizes or vilifies Animal Crossing’s Tom Nook, and finds that the true takeaway might be the game’s raw power to bring people together to discuss radical economic reform.
- My Journey to Solitude: Loneliness and Virtual Fatigue in The Elder Scrolls — Gamers with Glasses
Nathan Schmidt recounts the ways in which The Elder Scrolls games have always been so isolating.
- Thousand Threads: Only Connect – Uppercut
Emily Price contemplates a game world which purports to remember your actions, when the primary language of interaction with that world–violence–proves itself so insubstantial in the end.
- Puyo Puyo Tetris 2 Is a Reminder of How We Maintain our Relationships | Paste
Waverly muses on the structure that multiplayer games provide in the building of life-long relationships.
- Signs of the Sojourner: Mapping the Distance Between Words – Uppercut
Axel Hassen Taiari digs into how Signs of the Sojourner–a deck-building game on the face of things–succeeds as a possibility space for less-quantifiable conversations, understandings, and connections amongst its characters.
“It’s the kind of setup less thoughtful designers would recklessly drive into the ground, leading to another troublesome re-inscription of colonial Otherness. Signs of the Sojourner instead blurs artificial boundaries, and veers toward something deeper: an on-going play with change, relationships, languages, and memories.”
The Year We Lost
Even if many of us played a lot more games this past year, the near-complete dissolution of linear time brings its own challenges to any effort at recapping what we played. None of these inclusions are “best of” lists. In fact, none of them is even actually a list. But each, in their way, summarizes a specific mood of the year.
- 2021 HORRORSCOPE | itch.io
There have been a lot of best-of-2020 lists. Skeleton’s zine isn’t exactly that. But I do think it’s worth your time.
- I Played Over 100 games this Year and This is What I Learned | Unwinnable
Kris Ligman decided 2020 was as good a year as any to take down their Steam backlog, and having done so with with a sturdy methodology and adaptable heuristics, they’ve got some interesting data points to report from the experience (Curator’s note/disclosure: Kris was the second senior curator/hokage/theytriarch for Critical Distance, and current financial director).
- Virtually Ideological: Neoliberalism, History and Resistance in the Video Games of 2020 | Jon Bailes
Jon Bailes examines what some of the popular games of 2020 have to say–or shy away from saying–about how we understand, frame, and push against the ominous ideological landscapes of our conteporary experience.
“Cyberpunk 2077’s critique of capitalism is oddly dated and in play folds back into celebration of its own seedy ramifications. It dabbles in issues of current significance, but stops short of exploring a future that projects from the neoliberalism we now know. Mostly it seeks refuge in talking points of late 20th century, when there was comfort in lamenting neoliberal inequality and excess, safe in the knowledge that nothing could be done about it. Its quaintly xenophobic depiction of Japanese techno-corporatocracy feels toothless against our Silicon Valley libertarianism and social media culture wars.”
When it comes to organizing the selections each week, there are innumerabe possible configurations. Here I’ve elected to bring together two disparate pieces which, while both touching in some way on queerness, also involve the close dialogic of emotional intimacy we form with the games we play.
- The Last of Us Part II: Surviving Your Own Apocalypse – Uppercut
Alma Roda-Gil comes to The Last of Us Part II expecting to relate to one set of characters and themes and in practice is drawn to another set entirely.
- Dungeons, Dysphoria and Dys: Eternal Space Jail | Haywire Magazine
Tess Everman contemplates a dungeon crawler which, with some caveats, interrogates the experience of gender dysphoria beyond a binary framework.
“I can have a discussion with a few friends over what being dysphoric as bigender means. I can give a long tangent of my feelings as if reciting a monologue, finding clues as to which petty little thing, which pretzel stick, set me off. But the fact remains that there are no words to describe the void or distress that is being within the wrong gender or body. And that unexplainable sensation is great as a level design idea. You can’t talk about it, so you translate that emptiness and make it into a claustrophobic dungeon with monsters blockading your path. You show players what it’s like to explore that never-ending looming of gloom. If the game never expressly voices its own metaphor, maybe that’s appropriate, because dysphoria often feels voiceless.”
Stories, Characters, Endings Not Yet Written
Our next section of six pieces examines narrative structure, design, and worldbuilding elements in games along a number of axes. Some fresh perspectives here on established critical faves!
- Afterparty is the best representation of what missing self-esteem can do to your life | Eurogamer.net
Malindy Hetfeld revisits Afterparty and finds that none of its endings offer a wholly satisfying resolution for either of its protagonists.
- 2020 Was Hopefully the Cusp of the Overdue Momification of Games | Fanbyte
Natalie Flores explores the possibiliy that games like TLOU2, Hades, and Tell Me Why have laid the groundwork to make 2021 the year of the Mom Game.
- We Never Asked For This – We Just Want A New Deus Ex | TheGamer
Bella Blondeau looks back at Deus Ex, and Mankind Divided in particular, from the perspective of 2020’s cyberpunk discourse and looks for the ending not yet written.
- Memento Mori, and the Aesthetics of Paradise Killer | Saturshot
Ruth Cassidy asks what’s going on with All Of These Skulls just hanging out in Paradise Killer.
- Killing Our Gods: The Reflection of the Divine Feminine in Super Mario Galaxy | Uppercut
Grace Benfell considers Rosalina’s parallels to the Heavenly Mother in Mormon theology.
- Déjà Vu on the Ishimura | Kim Bellwoods
Kim Bellwoods chronicles Isaac Clarke as a character with no agency, no choice, no freedom, until he’s left the Dead Space games and their narrative and mechanical contrivances behind him.
“He’s never left directionless for more than a few moments. Various people know what he should do, are always telling him where to go, leading him through corridors and vents and the vacuum of space like he’s a dog playing fetch. He follows the glowing line on the ground, because that’s what a worker has to do to make it, no matter how much it hurts.”
This has been a long issue! How about three pieces for our closing section, with tons of variety and creativity between them?
- Eat Your Games: Going Under’s Jobwich | Sidequest
Madison Butler evaluates the workhorse healing item in Going Under. . . and then shares the real-life crafting recipe.
- 10 Dizain Poems for the 10mg Collection — KRITIQAL
Nate Kiernan presents ten short poems drawing upon the games of the 10mg Collection.
- Winter’s Wind | Unwinnable
Autumn Wright weighs endings, Outer Wilds, and the universe at the precipice of 2020. This could have also gone in the previous section, but I dunno man, this just feels right for our final closer.
“But something remains after Timberhearth. Post-everything, a sky, not quite still, silently posits even such grand conclusions as the heat death of the universe are not ends unto themselves. Everything ends, everything returns, everything stays. In this, a lovely death, we can try again, try again, try again.
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Have you read, seen, heard or otherwise experienced something new that made you think about games differently? Send it in!