January 3rd

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.

Industry Inaction

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.

“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.

“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.”

Elementary Particles

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!

“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.”

Retro Spectre

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.

“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.”

Come Together

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.

“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.

“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.”

Personal Play

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.

“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!

“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.”

Critical Chaser

This has been a long issue! How about three pieces for our closing section, with tons of variety and creativity between them?

“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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