Welcome back, readers.
First off, here’s a thread detailing local orgs you can donate to in India, which is dealing with an unprecedented surge in Covid cases. Check it out if you can.
I will limit my own editorializing leading into this week’s issue, other than to take a moment to extend my gratitude to the writers who fight to be in these spaces (when they shouldn’t have to) for as long as they do (when they shouldn’t have to), as well as to those who ultimately have to leave the harm and toxicity that marks gaming behind (when they shouldn’t have to). Your work is literally what gives us purpose at Critical Distance, and it’s my personal desire to continue to highlight different voices, boost underrepresented writing, and be a small part of making gaming a better, more inclusive space for everyone.
This Week in Videogame Blogging is a roundup highlighting the most important critical writing on games from the past seven days.
Punks, The Planet, and the Paths We’re On
Ok hear me out. Our first section isn’t about one single “thing”. Cyberpunk is part of it, but not all of it. Likewise, ecocriticism is part of it, but not the whole thing. Instead, I might suggest reading these pieces as a series, in the order presented, as a collective walk through the bleak futures we’re accustomed to in speculative fiction, the contemporary crises that inform that bleakness, and the out-of-the-box ideas that point the way toward brighter futures.
- Game Pile: Syndicate Wars | press.exe
Talen Lee revisits Syndicate‘s less-loved sequel, finding a lot of charm in its systems and personality, even if the whole package is a little clunkier than the original.
- Nier: Automata and The Future of Planet Earth — Gamers with Glasses
Christian Haines considers Nier: Automata as a post-anthropocene game.
- Enough cyberpunk—it’s solarpunk’s time to shine | PC Gamer
Alexis Ong turns to a less pessimistic, less aesthetically-mined vision of the future, and to some of the indie developers bringing it to life.
“Perhaps the problem isn’t that solarpunk isn’t suited to mainstream perception of video games—the problem, then, is that we simply haven’t fully realized how angry we should be about our current planetary predicament.”
Let’s do another somewhat abstract series, but this time, it spans three sections! First, we’ve got two articles looking at social play, its structures, and some of its failings, both in online games and offline sports.
- Playing the Long Game – Final Fantasy XI | PixPen
Sam Howitt has a suprisingly lonely time in a yesteryear MMO built around cooperation.
- What We Talk About When We Talk About Gendered Sports | Fanbyte
Natalie Weiner alludes to the contemporary crises faced by trans kids in sports by situating them in a much broader and older framework of institutional sexism and division in sport at every level.
“Fighting to make sure every child has access to any sport they would want to play no matter their gender, race, class or sexuality is a crucial battle that has only become more urgent in recent months. Understanding that battle means lauding women who play baseball and football in America in spite of the enormous barriers to entry for them is an easy win, if you’re a generally progressive-minded person (and, for all but the most red-pilled, if you’re not).”
Next, we continue the social theme, but with a stronger focus on the virtual spaces that expand our ability to connect, to explore, and to organize.
- ‘In the game, I knew myself as Hannah’: the trans gamers finding freedom on Roblox | The Guardian
Tom Faber talks to the trans players taking to safer online and gaming spaces to find and understand their true selves.
- How Animal Crossing became a place of protest in China and Hong Kong | Eurogamer.net
Lu-Hai Liang details the history and ways in which liberatory activism in Hong Kong makes use of digital platforms and spaces.
“In Hong Kong, both the political idea of disappearance, in how locals fear the loss of language, political identity and cultural heritage, and in 2020, the disappearance of public spaces to protest, due to coronavirus restrictions, meant the digital realm became an avenue for sites and modes of protest.”
Finally, let’s take a look at media, messages, transmedia storytelling, and cross-media adaptations.
- Bring on the ARGs for TV | Unwinnable
Olivia Popp looks at how alternate reality games may be poised for a comeback in a time where participatory, virtual spaces for fans to interact are of heightened importance.
- The Mortal Kombat Movie Rules, Actually | VICE
Cameron Kunzelman makes sense of how the new Mortal Kombat film makes sense of thirty years of lore, violence, spectacle, and character-building.
“When Cole is revealed to be the descendant of Scorpion, or when his family sees him kill a four-armed troll creature and they don’t really react at all to it, I take the swelling music at face value and lean into whatever emotions the film is asking me to give over to it. Liu Kang summons a dragon of pure flame as the ultimate revenge for the killing of Kung Lao, and I think “yes, this is appropriate, and I am happy for him.” I am not turning my brain off. This is not some kind of happy refuge from the other, more stressful world. I’ve been introduced to an engine that operates on heightened principles of mythical proportions and told to keep up or be left behind, and I’ve decided that I’d rather keep up and go on what I hope will be a long journey of sequels ahead.”
Our next two featured articles this week deal with the textures, sensations, and implications at play when we talk about weapons and combat in games.
- THEY’LL LEAVE YOUR BRAINS ALL OVER THE PLACE – DEEP HELL
Skeleton tracks the trajectory of firearms in games towards fetishization, finding an apex in BLACK where the verisimilitude of the gun porn produces an ironic sense of abstraction that papers over the consequences, implications, and raw jingoism at play in this game and all games like it.
- Auto-Battle Is the Best Version of Combat in the New ‘NieR Replicant’ | VICE
Dia Lacina finds that the secret to appreciating the spectacle in overly-technical action games is in ceding some of the control.
“The longer I kept the Auto-Battle system toggled on, the more I realized that the actual nuts and bolts of fighting in Nier aren’t what’s interesting. And the more I think about it, there are very few games outside of the original Xbox Ninja Gaiden where the act of pressing individual buttons is all that meaningful.”
Eluding Tidy Categorization
Here we’ve got two experiential distillations of two games that are difficult to sum up, either defying easy genre categorization or taking a few systems and running so far with them that any succinct summary is too reductive to capture the experience.
- Gambling Apocalypse: Kaiji is unlike any game I’ve ever played | Vidyasaur
Vidyasaur finds out just how deep a rock-scissors-paper betting game can go in terms of simulation, atmosphere, and worldbuilding.
- Disco Elysium impressions: Weirdness as benefit – I Need Diverse Games
Tauriq Moosa describes Disco Elysium‘s indescribable, convoluted charm.
“I have described it, using various phrases like “open world” and “role-playing” but it is difficult to say that’s what it “is”. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know who would like it. Disco Elysium does itself no favours if it wanted to be popular by leaning heavily into the weird. I myself adore its weirdness, its confidence in itself in wanting to tell a story and give us a thoroughly, deeply developed world that is willing to reveal itself to the player if the player gives it the time.”
Part of a Series
Sometimes a good critique needs to be unpacked across several games in a series. Here are four fine standouts each looking at a bigger picture.
- BioWare is wrong, Dragon Age doesn’t need to replace its disabled protagonist | Eurogamer.net
Stacey Henley remarks upon how pivoting away from the Inquisitor in Dragon Age 4 leaves that character’s arc underdeveloped and deprives the series and medium of some much-needed disabled representation.
- Monster Hunter’s Colonialism Reveals the Shallowness of its World – Uppercut
Hirun Cryer observes that from World to Rise, Monster Hunter is ultimately doing colonialism again, just from different angles. I’ve seen this writer in a bunch of places lately and it’s all been killer work!
- The Emily Is Away trilogy makes DMing your crush into a doomed game | Polygon
Maddy Myers thinks through heartbreak and heteronormativity as they play out in a text-adventure package emulating the look and feel of early-2000s AIM.
- Thank You Danganronpa, For Giving Me a Firsthand Lesson in Masochism | Paste
Waverly chronicles the emotional roller coaster of indulging in–and suffering through–the Danganronpa series.
“I think with a lot of games that are full of problems we could look on them from afar and say, “Well, we should just ignore that game because it’s a pile of garbage.” But that would assume we consume media in a very linear fashion and that we only experience media we don’t want to be critical of. It’s probably more worthwhile to discuss how impossible it is to find the perfect media, and the emotions that emerge along the way.”
Play by Numbers
Here we’ve got a pair of critical reviews, both on recent tentpole releases, both of which underwhelmed the reviewers as a consequence of their roteness.
- War Machine | Bullet Points Monthly
Khee Hoon Chan comes away from Outriders having found it to be a mechanically rote and predictable outcome of a reliably jingoistic genre and industry.
- Returnal Sticks to the Middle and Ends Up Nowhere Because of It | Paste
Dia Lacina comes away with nothing to hold onto in Housemarque’s pivot to prestige and away from the things that made them special in the first place.
“This is a game that feels like something planned in 2018 to be a Big Game, from the inspired-by Alien: Covenant art direction to the limpid Rogue-like hook. It has God of War, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, even a little Destiny 2 DNA. In all fairness, it was probably a wise business decision. This game is going to sell. And for the most part all signs from the preview coverage seem to point to it being critically well-received. But I’ll come right out and say not only was it a mistake, it points to a serious misunderstanding and cynicism that’s not just prevalent in this industry, but deepening.”
Next up, two personal pieces about how the arcs of our lives inform our relationships with the media we consume, whether it be celerbrated children’s classics or actual-play podcasts.
- Killing Our Gods: The Shape of Faith – Uppercut
Grace Benfell unpacks the spiritual themes at play in Friends at the Table‘s fourth season, Twilight Mirage.
- Heart Container: 22 Years Later, I Am Still Todd Snap – Uppercut
Jessica Howard muses on the intergenerational appeal of Pokemon, and how there’s just as much joy in passing on the legacy as there is in revelling in your own childhood experiences.
“In New Pokemon Snap, the series is no longer about Todd. Sure, he has a history, further ambitions, and undeniably still holds a place in it. But at the center of the story are the children beginning their journeys–and he finds so much joy in watching them do so.”
This week we’re closing off with an interactive essay!
- On Rose-Golden Pond: Paradise Killer by aeta
Caroline Delbert pens an interactive, Ink-powered essay about Paradise Killer and perfection. Love seeing this kind of stuff.
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Have you read, seen, heard or otherwise experienced something new that made you think about games differently? Send it in!