An entire epoch of games criticism has come and gone in the time since this site first came into existence nearly 13 years ago. It’s difficult, now, to even access the emotional state we had back then, the optimism of unfettered possibilities stretching out before us.
Though Critical Distance emerged in the wake of the 2008-2009 housing crisis, games criticism wouldn’t fully experience the economic crunch for another few years — except then came the “pivot to video” curse, the repeated, compounding economic setbacks, Gamergate and the ensuing rise of far-right authoritarianism, and as if to drive the last nail in the coffin, Covid-19 came around and shattered what few surviving structures remained.
But Critical Distance is still here. Thanks to our supporters on Patreon, and the passionate journalists, critics, streamers, and scholars who continue to give us something to post about, we have outlived nearly all of our contemporaries to create one of the longest-running, lasting records not just of sites and pages related to games criticism but the contexts in which those conversations happened.
That last part is the most important, to me. The world in which we make our work, be it art or criticism or anything else, bears upon the contents in ways only posterity will fully reveal to us — something I suspect has become abundantly clear to everyone now finding their work fundamentally changed by these interesting times we’re in.
I approached this roundup as I like to imagine a historian would, picking out snapshots to create a composite image for anyone looking back at this document in a year’s or five years’ or 100 years’ time. What was on everyone’s minds in 2021? What signals can we pick out through the noise?
Despair, of course. Anger, frustration, exhaustion. But little spots of hope, too. And I have to focus on that feeling most of all. Because we, and you, are still here.
Zoyander Street and I worked together with Chris Lawrence to sift through a year’s worth of roundups and dozens of reader submissions, to compile roughly 100 of the best games criticism from 2021. It’s not exhaustive (no curated roundup could be!) but it’s my hope that you, too, will see the patterns through the noise, the little hints of a brighter tomorrow.
Let’s just get this one out of the way. Much digital ink was spilled this year on the subject of “wholesomeness” as either a genre or aesthetic, but two writers cut closest to the quick:
Bugsnax & Ooblets: Cute is What They Aim For – Uppercut
Ty Galiz-Rowe reflects on the distracting power of cuteness and wholesomeness in games, and warns against letting surface-level aesthetics obscure deeper critical tensions in how these games are written and who they are written for.
- AGAINST WHOLESOMENESS – DEEP HELL
Matteo Lupetti examines what wholesome games as a discourse erases and leaves out by situating them in a larger framework of meme apolitics, social algorithms, and pol(wh)ite liberal society:
The “apoliticism” of wholesome memes (like every “apoliticism”) and the pursuit of happiness and of concepts and institutions popularly connected with happiness (like the marriage) reinforces the status quo and convey conservative and traditional values supported by hegemonic capitalist cultures. “Happiness is used to redescribe social norms as social goods. We might even say that [black, queer and feminist] political movements have struggled against rather than for happiness” Sara Ahmed writes in The Promise of Happiness. […] This kind of “Hang in there!” optimism is so anti-radical that it’s even explicitly promoted by capitalist corporate systems.
2021 was also a year haunted by ghosts, real and metaphorical.
- The Haunting of r/wallstreetbets | Logically
Axel Hassen Taiari pulls at the intersecting threads of hauntology, meme culture, communal longing, and class struggle which inform and situate the GameStock saga:
Discussions solely framed around profit motives can’t retrace why people outside these communal walls cheered, chose to contribute, or even decided to become part of the community. Why do so many relate? One way to see it: our own groups are threatened or have already been destroyed by those recognizable voices. One group, in response, mounted counter-narratives. They turned digital, memetic formations and lost futures into weapons pointed outward. There is no joke here, regardless of the memes and shitposts involved: the material damage is as real as ghosts, or the stock market.
- We Need To Let Go Of Silent Hill 2 – Uppercut
Jessica Hill reflects on the ways in which our continuing rumination on Silent Hill 2 holds the wider genre back and poisons its attendant discourse.
- Silent Hill 2: Deconstructing Daddy | KRITIQAL
Oma Keeling reunites Silent Hill 2 with the feminist art and artists to which it owes inspiration.
- The Death of Adventure Games that Never Was – Vagrant Cursor
Clara Fernandez-Vara observes that genres in games almost never actually die, and that proclamations of their deaths more often reflect a reductive historical approach to games that favours popular trends and the North American market in particular.
- Killing Our Gods: Faith Remains in Final Fantasy X – Uppercut
Grace Benfell contemplates structure and sacrifice, community and cruelty, as she unpacks Spira’s complicated relationship with faith.
As much as FFX is about faith’s sacrifice, the things systems and people do to maintain belief, it is also about the point when faith shatters. Refreshingly, FFX’s pace is slow in this regard. There is not a single moment where Yuna’s belief breaks. […] Ultimately, that is what gives FFX its ferocious, echoing power. It knows that faith and its communities are malleable, that they can grow and shrink. It is when Yuna and her friends believe in each other, rather than Yevon, that the world begins to change.
- On Hades and Fatherhood | Sidequest
Nola Pfau reflects on Hades, and defying an abusive father (content warning for familial domestic abuse).
- Living with the Specter of Death: What Darkest Dungeon Tells Us About Stress — Endgame Sequences
Oluwatayo Adewole considers the nature of stress, in Darkest Dungeon and in contemporary living, observing the ways in which it is pervasive, personal, and unequal.
- 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.
As 2021 continued many of 2020’s sudden shifts to working and studying from home, and as wider industry trends take shape (for good and ill, as is the case of NFTs), several authors scented where the wind is going.
- Time loop games are evolving, and challenging a fantasy of perfection | Input
Jon Bailes takes note of the rising interest in time loop games such as The Forgotten City and Deathloop, and what they might say about the player who partakes.
- Video Games Are Leading the Return of the Y2K Aesthetic | Fanbyte
De’Angelo Epps breaks down the ins and outs of 2000-era visual design, the Black and Asian influences that inform it, and the games that carry on this stylistic legacy today.
- gaming, in kids’ own words | Culture Study
Anne Helen Petersen talks to, arguably, the foremost experts when it comes to kids, games, and screen time.
- Deadgames and Alivegames | Melodic Ambient
Melos Han-Tani predicts a widening gap between top-end, big name games designed largely around marketability and profit, where none of the developers is creatively engaged (Deadgames), and smaller-scale independent works which pursue an original artistic vision and where everyone involved is engaged (Alivegames).
- How trans women are finding safe spaces on Twitch and YouTube | Input
Jessica Lucas talks to a number of trans VTubers about the affordances–and complications–of using virtual avatars to stream.
It comes as no surprise that one of the most hotly-discussed releases of December 2020 would bleed over into the next year, and bleed Cyberpunk 2077 did. Beyond the titular hot mess, authors also took a look at the wider genre of cyberpunk and responses thereon.
- The Consensual Hallucination | Bullet Points Monthly
Astrid Anne Rose examines Cyberpunk 2077‘s juvenile, yet sanitized and ultimately hollow approach to sex, sexuality, and sex work.
- Spectacular | Bullet Points Monthly
Autumn Wright struggles with 2077 as a work of hollow spectacle.
- Other Flesh | Bullet Points Monthly
Molly Zara-Esther Bloch describes how 2077‘s ‘braindances’ are an uncritical and transmisogynistic echo of an already fraught cyberpunk trope caught up in colonial flesh tourism.
- Virtually Ideological: Neoliberalism, History and Resistance in the Video Games of 2020 | Jon Bailes
Jon Bailes examines what games such as Cyberpunk have to say–or shy away from saying–about how we understand, frame, and push against the ominous ideological landscapes of our contemporary experience.
- Goon Squads — Real Life
Vicky Osterweil breaks down how Cyberpunk 2077–and its marketing campaign–are emblematic of a longstanding approach by triple-A publishers to keep critical discourse in a circular, toothless holding pattern while weaponizing reactionary gamer toxicity to enforce an ongoing status quo of larger and larger games unambitious in all respects but profit motive.
[A] postmortem of Cyberpunk 2077’s moment can reveal what the hype cycle’s momentum works in part to disguise: how the symbiotic relationships between the bosses of game studios, the games press, and organized right-wing gamers shape the general orientation of the video-game economy — that is, how outside mobs of “fans” and “gamers” act as volunteer Pinkertons and scabs, goon squads disciplining both game developers and critics into keeping certain kinds of games at the center of the industry and the conversation. […] That’s how a Game Informer reviewer could get a life-threatening grand mal seizure from flashing lights in Cyberpunk, still give it a 9/10, and get mass harassed by fans anyway simply for talking about having the seizure.
- Horror Games Just Don’t Scare Me Like Cyberpunk Does | Fanbyte
Tauriq Moosa finds that the horror in cyberpunk stories is found in the relatability of the technological/existential purgatories they imagine upon their subjects.
- The Authenticity Of Trans Names, Punk Identities, Queer Heroism and Punching Cops In Extreme Meatpunks Forever: Bound By Ash (Season 2) | Video Game Choo Choo
Solon thinks through punk ideology and trans existence in piecing together how and why Extreme Meatpunks Forever continues to hit so hard and so right through its second season.
Though initially published in 2019, Disco Elysium‘s Final Cut release in 2021 again brought ZA/UM’s alt-history masterpiece into the critical spotlight. Although could you even say it ever really left?
- A Year Later, I Still Can’t Stop Thinking About Disco Elysium | Kotaku
Renata Price muses on Disco Elysium‘s slow overarching meditation on trauma–personal and collective–and the ways we move through it.
Trauma forever marks the body. PTSD rewires the brain and permanently elevates stress hormones. These elevated stress hormones can be passed to a child through the womb. We call this generational trauma.
Now, imagine what happens when a city bleeds.
- The Miracle Animal and the Pale Inside: Existential Thought in Disco Elysium – Haywire Magazine
Keith Gordon delves deeply into how Disco Elysium grapples with philosophical dread.
- I love what you mean to me: On Disco Elysium, Romance and Codependency – Digital Fantastic
Gabriel Elvery meditates on trauma, co-dependency, and being in love with an idealization.
With 2021’s release of Nier: Replicant ver 1.22, many were eager to take another look at the original game as well as Automata and the larger series in which Yoko Taro’s memorable characters find themselves.
- Tragedy of the Ancients | Bullet Points Monthly
Julie Muncy expands upon the song–and characters–which bind the wider Nier series together.
- The Dreadful Weight of Feeling Seen in Nier Replicant ver. 1.22 – Uppercut
Trevor Richardson unpacks the queer subjectivity of Nier‘s Emil and Kaine.
- Nier Replicant Still Portrays Queer Bodies with Brutal Honesty – Paste
Austin Jones looks for queer community in Nier‘s slow apocalypse.
- Nier Automata and The Queer Experience of Its Bushes | Gayming Magazine
Trevor Richardson traces the queer allegorical ramifications of those gods-damned bushes.
To the Metal
We here at Critical Distance are a motley crew of academics (current and lapsed) who believe games criticism is enhanced by understanding the material and interpersonal realities of gamescraft. So we’re thrilled to bring you this great assortment of historical deep dives and developer perspectives released in the past year.
- In Praise of Negative Space in Video Game Storytelling | Into The Spine
Raven Wu explains how less can sometimes be more when it comes to thoughtful narrative and artistic design.
- Freeplay 2021 keynote: a letter to 20-year-old Squinky – squinky.me
Squinky reflects on 15 years of making games, growth, identifying injustice, finding belonging, and putting it all together as a person and an artist.
- Xalavier Nelson Jr.: “El Paso, Elsewhere is my ultimate expression of vulnerability” | NME
Jake Tucker chats with Xalavier Nelson Jr. about artistic vulnerability, feeling seen as a creator, navigating creative spheres while Black, and making his dream game.
“I had this little voice outside of myself again say, ‘But you can’t do this. You’re Black, you’re familiar with the reality of AAA games. Even if you did have the option to write it, to direct, design it, you wouldn’t also be starring in it. You wouldn’t also have the opportunity to express yourself in these other ways. You wouldn’t be able to do it the way you wanted to. There are these people you’d have to answer to and these things you would have to do’.
“And this time I told the voice to go fuck itself.”
- In Praise of Messy Design | Kitfox Games
Tanya X. Short makes the case for games that include varied, numerous, and deep systems to excess.
- Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and Shape-Meaning Resonance | Marina Kittaka
Marina Kittaka explores how the shapes of objects in a game world inform the design language of the game and our perceptual experience of the world.
- How Should We Discuss Game Difficulty? – The Library
Queenie proposes that in considering difficulty as a monolith, we are less-well equipped to understand how difficulty relates to games as heterogeneous and modular systems, and how difficulty can often be at odds with those systems in certain games.
- morgan’s cool blog
Morgan Manginelli demystifies the notion that there can be a single authoritative or intended way to display graphics on retro gaming hardware.
- I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream | The Digital Antiquarian
Jimmy Maher tells the peculiar tale of a surreal sci-fi point-and-click horror game and a principal writer seemingly categorically opposed to the very medium.
“I wish it were darker and more ominous than that, but the scaldingly dopey truth is that I wanted to see if I could do it. Create a computer game better than anyone else had created a computer game. I’d never done it, and I was desirous of testing my mettle. It’s a great flaw with me. My only flaw, as those who have known me longest will casually attest.”
- Virtual Hydlide | Bad Game Hall of Fame
Cassidy takes on the popularly-assumed low point in the famously-misunderstood-outside-Japan adventure series.
- A Mind Forever Voyaging  – Arcade Idea
Art Maybury evaluates the foreboding prophecies of the apocalyptic IF work A Mind Forever Voyaging, as well as the limitations and lapses of such a work within an American midcentury liberal worldview. (Content warning: discussion of suicidality.)
- Quake Renaissance: a short history of 25 years of Quake modding | Rock Paper Shotgun
Robert Yang explores decades of community around Quake modding and its attendant quests for authenticity, inclusivity, and multiplicity.
- A Forensic Analysis of EarthBound‘s Deepest Secrets | Video Game History Foundation
Clyde Mandelin unearths a trove of secrets and unused content from Earthbound via recently recovered development files from the game’s chief North American localizer.
- 1980: MUD | 50 Years of Text Games
Aaron A. Reed delves into the design history of the original ancestor of contemporary MMOs, and explores how many of its features and mechanics–still reproduced today–emerged as responses to the puzzle of facilitating shared play in a shared world.
- The history of Snake: How the Nokia game defined a new era for the mobile industry | It’s Nice That
Ayla Angelos chronicles the design history and design legacy of mobile gaming’s first real killer app.
- In the ’80s, she was a video game pioneer. Today, no one can find her | Polygon
Patricia Hernandez documents how games history loses sight of the women who shaped its earliest and most pivotal moments.
Sex and Sensibility
Y’all got horny this year.
- Tits and Tiles: The NSFW History of Strip Mahjong | SUPERJUMP
Baxter chronicles the rise and fall–with many twists and turns along the way delving into innovation, regulation, and obscenity laws–of horny Mahjong arcade games in Japan.
- Enter The Data Dungeon: Sex Work & Digital Domination | Immerse
Lena Chen situates the goals of the online art installation/performance Play4UsNow in a digital landscape increasingly hostile to sex workers.
- 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.
- Pride Week: Disidentification and Lady Dimitrescu – Taking Pride in Queer Thirst | Eurogamer.net
Dr Lloyd (Meadhbh) Houston offers a disidentifying read of Resident Evil Village, contextualizing the queer desire that has catalyzed online around Lady D.
While this might seem like an open-and-shut case of lockdown lust finding a convenient outlet, before pre-emptively ruining this Pride Week take-over by consigning the world’s queer gamers to Horny Jail, I want to explore the possibility that there is something deeper at stake in their reaction, something intimately bound-up with the aesthetics and politics of both queerness and the Gothic as genre. In doing so, I want to explore what the fan reaction to characters like Lady Dimitrescu and games like Resident Evil Village more generally can tell us about the ways in which queer people relate and respond to (notionally) cis- and heteronormative media.
- What ‘Hades’ Can Teach Us About Ancient Greek Masculinity | WIRED
Autumn Wright subjects Hades to a close study of the Classical Greek cultural norms around masculinity, sociality, sexuality, and disability it alternately references, responds to, updates, or omits entirely.
- 2009: A Dating Sim Exodus | Freelansations
Tom James identifies 2009 as an endpoint for the era of Japanese dating sims, and studies what each of its three tentpole releases that year has to say about the genre as a whole.
- We Dwell in Possibility | The White Pube
Gabrielle de la Puente speculates on post-pandemic sexual catharsis via Robert Yang and Eleanor Davis’s We Dwell in Possibility.
With the sunsetting of Adobe’s Flash Player in the final hours of 2020, some spent part of their early 2021 paying respects to a real one.
- Tracing the Sprawling Roots of Flash Preservation | VICE
Khee Hoon Chan delves into the history of Flash, talks to some of its proponents and artists, and looks into the efforts to preserve and celebrate the form.
- Talk Transcript: The browser is a creative playground! – The Candybox Blog
Nathalie Lawhead discusses the webpage itself as a medium that supports both gameplay experiences and storytelling, and talks about how creators can get started making weird and cool art in this format.
There is more to videogames, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy. From marginalized developers to history teachers, these articles tackle what it is to bring the wider world into the context of games.
- Sable (Demo): The Trouble with a Timeless Desert – GlitchOut
Oma Keeling’s time with the demo for Sable is weighed down by an ahistorical Orientalism at the heart of the game’s whimsical indie aesthetics.
There’s no case to be made that that is irrelevant to Sable because it takes place on another world, in another time, because that’s where the tribespeople and Arabs are supposed to live to the western audience. They are supposed to not have history, to keep worship and tradition, either in ruins or in lavishness (indeed both), not because that is representative, but because dozens, hundreds of cultural products have created this ideal imagined truth about certain types of people. That they are outside of time.
- For Iraqis, War Is Not a Game – Foreign Policy
Ahmed Twaij unravels the fraught project of repackaging war crimes and Iraqi trauma for western entertainment.
- How a young Iraqi programmer tried to adapt Gilgamesh, the oldest surviving hero story | Eurogamer.net
Edwin Evans-Thirlwell profiles and interviews Auday Hussein about the challenges and motivations for adapting elements of the oldest, fragmentary surviving work of poetry and philosophy known to the modern world.
- Hitman 3 is the first game to get Argentina right, and hopefully not the last | Polygon
Diego Nicolás Argüello stresses the importance of research and fidelity in adapting Latin American cultures and locales.
- Pawse and Play – New Rules
Adefoyeke Ajao searches out Nigerian virtual spaces and games by getting in touch with the local makers around Lagos.
- Collections: Teaching Paradox, Europa Universalis IV, Part I: State of Play – A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry
Bret Devereaux, as part of a longer series towards understanding the historical theories behind Paradox games as a whole, unpacks Europa Universalis IV‘s state-centred approach to history.
The result is a game that plays as a love letter to state power. More state power is always better. And while that does fit with a particular vision of how states work […] the opportunity to stress the real and sometimes enormous human cost that attitude can cause is mostly lost here.
How do we navigate our participation in games when their very existence harms the planet? When they prop up dangerous ideologies and ruin the people who make them? When their stories showcase humanity at its worse? These aren’t easily-answered questions, but we asked them quite a bit in 2021. This section has a blanket content warning for discussion of racism, sexism, harassment, assault, and trauma.
- IT DOESN’T MATTER WHEN YOU KILL ALL THE CIVILIANS – RESTLESS DREAMS
Ed Smith questions the assumptions that underlie how we talk about the link between player and player character, and the idea that a game’s narrative has any bearing on a player’s morality.
- Why Video Games Need More “Very Special Episodes” – Uppercut
Najee Walker distinguishes between depicting racism and practicing anti-racism in games.
- IN THE LAND OF ENDLESS GREED | DEEP HELL
Kaile Hultner reflects on an industry, a community, a party unwilling to muster itself into solidarity, into accountability.
The night has dragged on, and there are still so many people here. Suddenly, you hear a scream. You turn around, and there is the partygoer you saw crying alone outside earlier. They are sitting on the floor in the middle of the party space, and they scream again. Nobody from the main group, in fact, nobody at all, comes to check on them, to see if they’re okay. They scream again. And a fourth time. By scream number five, you see their eyes searching the room. They lock eyes with yours, expectant. You panic. Should you help them? Nobody else seems particularly bothered. You really just got here, is it really your business? Then, they are looking elsewhere. You hear yourself exhaling. A new friend from the main group tells you not to worry about it. Drama.
- The Last of Us Has a Problem with Minority Trauma – Haywire Magazine
Shae De Pass takes Naughty Dog to task for its narrative fascination with Black death, and wonders about the course corrections future adaptations might hope to make.
- Launder Launder Launder, Win Win Win | Corporate Future Nightmare World
Brendan Vance, in a broad-ranging analysis and critique, discusses the mistreatment and misrepresentation of Nathalie Lawhead not just by their abusers, but by games media as a whole.
There aren’t that many differences between ‘buying a lottery ticket’ and ‘working with some journalist on a #metoo story calling out your very-famous abuser’. Yet here’s one important difference: Lotto companies print the odds of winning, while journalists simply lie.
- Duty Bound — Real Life
Nadine Smith shares a tale of how propaganda–in Call of Duty and elsewhere–works on more than just reactionaries.
- 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.
- White Protagonism and Imperial Pleasures in Game Design #DIGRA21 | meghna jayanth
Meghna Jayanth outlines the features of the colonialist-capitalist videogame–the default videogame in dominant western culture–and its protagonist, and challenges the audience to imagine more.
The fact that this cultural territory is so contested speaks to its value. It is important to resist the colonisation of video games BECAUSE of the increasing cultural dominance of the video game and SPECIFICALLY BECAUSE of how effective video games are as tools of cultural imperialism. We must not cede this space to dominant culture.
- 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.
- The Games Industry Is Truly Repellent | TheGamer
Stacey Henley speaks without pretension or obfuscation about the state of the industry, the abuse and rot it shelters at all levels, and the role that games press sites can play in pushing back against that rot.
- Passion Play — Real Life
Josh Tucker looks at how big brands–Nintendo among them–have transmuted promotion into product and their fans into a radicalized faithful, all in perpetual pursuit of profit.
While these communities have undoubtedly enhanced the monetary and entertainment value of various franchises, they have also sustained a disturbing new emotional climate that extends beyond fortifying the power and profitability of corporations. In conflating consumption with politics, the passion of fandom has been stoked into a reservoir of entitlement and, at its extremes, incipient violence.
- Los policías en los videojuegos: héroes virtuales o villanos reales | Shock (Spanish language article)
Julián Ramírez narrates the history of playable police in games, from Police Quest to Astral Chain, finding that even amidst increasingly “grey” narratives detailing corruption, individualistic heroism is ultimately still leveraged to uncritically rehabilitate the image of police in most contemporary titles.
A Better World is Possible
A rallying cry or a prayer, depending on your mood, but nevertheless there were plenty of writers this year who, far from giving into despair, see 2021 as a potential turning point toward a kinder, gentler world of games.
Malindy Hetfeld kicked off the year by asking whether 2020’s surge of support in Black Lives Matter has translated to material changes at studios. It’ll be interesting to see their 2021 report card. But we’re just getting started:
- 2020: Flickers of Apocalypse | fractals
Grace Benfell considers the original understanding of Apocalypse–one of revelation, not annihilation–and reflects on recent games that add to that understanding.
- Exploring Hybrid Gaming Cultures through Black Cyberfeminism | American Sociological Association
Kishonna L. Gray and Brigitte Perkins position Black Cyberfeminism as a corrective to dominant games scholarship which inadequately accounts for the intersections of physical and virtual spaces leveraged by Black gaming communities and players.
- Arts of the Possible: Time, Politics and Gaming’s Virtual Worlds | Cordite Poetry Review
Darshana Jayemanne discusses the possibilities and limitations (technical, artistic, commercial, political) of story machines and story worlds. (Disclosure: Darshana collaborates with Critical Distance on Keywords in Play.)
- Indie Bosses Are Still Bosses: Exploitation and Unionization at Small Game Studios | Game Workers of Southern California
Robin Tranch breaks down how exploitative labour structures and dynamics exist in smaller studios beyond the triple-A sphere, and how labour organization and unionization can help.
The fundamental principle of organizing is creating a “culture of care” — a network of structured bonds between employees where sharing experiences is no longer taboo. In my time as an organizer I’ve seen workers coordinate to build a culture of speaking out, to counsel survivors of harassment, and to get abusive employees fired. An injury to one is an injury to all, and with a little bit of organization workers can build their own systems to protect each other.
- Easy Game Development | Vextro
LeeRoy Lewin thinks through the industrial and cultural processes, standards, and norms that make everything–art, game development, existing–harder than it needs to be.
- Pride Week: Hunky Dads & Voxel Flags – Video Games and Our Queer Future | Eurogamer.net
Sharang Biswas identifies a real need and value for hopeful queer escapisms and utopias alongside stories that capture queer adversity and struggle, in games and in all media.
- How India’s shifting political climate is influencing local game development | GamesIndustry.biz
Khee Hoon Chan talks to Indian developers about the tensions of making historical and political games in a social and political climate of rising right-wing populism.
- Game Studies – Observant Play: Colonial Ideology in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Rachael Hutchinson documents what The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild‘s open world environment can reveal about contradictions in its narrative and design.
It was at this point that my carefully laid plans of merely observing and following instructions broke down. Intrigued by these two Lizalfos, I decided to watch them. I was not directly instructed to do this, but their odd behaviour prompted me to investigate. In my game, the two creatures never stopped dancing, regardless of whether it was day or night. After three day-night cycles they had not stopped to rest. This was different to all the other monsters in the game — Bokoblins and Moblins sleep at night, and the Lizalfos I had encountered so far took quick rests by lying down and blending into the background. The only time these two Lizalfos stopped dancing was when I paraglided down to the area. Directly approaching them, they ran to get their weapons and attacked. Running away, I noticed that the Lizalfos returned to the Durian fruit, put down their weapons and resumed dancing. […] [T]he environment in Faron tells us that the Lizalfos are not only sentient, but they practice religion, complete with statues and ritual offerings. This realization challenges the whole system of instruction that the game has emphasized up to this point.
- Interview: Úna-Minh Kavanagh On The Importance Of Among Us In Irish | TheGamer
Cian Maher chats with Úna-Minh Kavanagh about Among Us‘s recent Irish language update, its role in promoting Irish cultural visibility, and the possibilities for games as language teaching tools.
- Intricate Rituals and the Ties that Bind: Emotive Masculinity in Death Stranding – Haywire Magazine
Wyeth Leslie uncovers a fuller, richer portrait of men and masculinity in Death Stranding.
- Owning the Mask | Unwinnable
Phillip Russell finds a lot to love in Miles Morales, except that Black stories and Black-lead games are still the detour, still the side-attraction.
I want to hear about the unique struggles, successes, and discoveries that happen for Miles Morales, a Black boy who has been given incredible power. I want to know how Miles navigates being raised by a cop in a world where police brutality is ever-present but seldom commented upon. I want to know how Miles deals with the loss of his father, a Black man. I want to know how Miles works through being near-invincible in a world that obliterates Black bodies every day on an endless loop.
I want Miles to be able to say nigga.
I want Black stories to feel whole, to feel uncompromising and to take risks.
- What The Matrix Resurrections Really Says About Video Games | Kotaku
Carolyn Petit ponders the Matrix Resurrections‘s obvious–and not-so-obvious–meditations on revolutionary art, triple A games development, and transformative change.
- Umurangi Generation, Spoiled (Part 3) – No Escape
Kaile Hultner warns against taking Umurangi Generation‘s doomer narrative and extrapolating a doomer message for our own agency and activism.
Queering the Discourse
We’re here, we’re queer, we’re hyperfixating on your minor characters. Did you know fully three-fourths of Critical Distance’s curators are queer? We just keep Ben around for appearances.
- BIG QUEER WAR MACHINE | KRITIQAL
Cynan-Juniper Orton surveys how queer creators wrestle with questions of humanity and embodiment in interactive mech fiction.
- Dungeons, Dysphoria and Dys: Eternal Space Jail | Haywire Magazine
Tess Everman contemplates a dungeon crawler which, with come caveats, interrogates the experience of gender dysphoria beyond a binary framework.
- The State of The Representation: A manifesto for trans games criticism – Uppercut
Autumn Wright takes a critical look at how trans writers and critics are invoked, manipulated, and exploited in the name of maintaining an inclusive yet homogenized status quo in games crit spaces.
Without abandoning our positionality – and while maintaining that even our privileged identities can be our most salient ones – we have to write beyond the personal to write about the industry, because no matter who we are, the industry is made up of people who don’t look like us. Moreover, we are in need of critics that can navigate the fraught aims of seemingly progressive efforts to normalize us via assimilation. We are in need of a queer politic.
- I was a teenage transgender supersoldier | Polygon
Nat Steele writes about Halo, transness, Isabel Fall, putting on armor, taking it off.
Try as we might, there are always some articles that don’t fit neatly into any other category. And that’s how it should be! Let’s cap off our 2021 retrospective with some singularly delightful pieces.
- Mucking Out The Stables of Horse Games | The Indie Game Website
Hylke Langhout talks to developer and curator Alice Ruppert about creating a space for horse-focused games that reaches beyond the traditional barriers of shovelware-style development and gendered marketing.
- Getting physical with Virtual Realms | Eurogamer.net
Alexis Ong discusses the uncanny experience of a games/art exhibition in a time of fluctuating public health restrictions, and talks to its collaborators about the artistic, conceptual, and logistical challenges of creating and adapting their games for embodied exhibition.
- The Best New Pokemon Snap Pictures Are the Bad Ones | Fanbyte
Jay Castello ignores the scores in search of the perfect imperfect shots.
- How Tanking in Overwatch Has Helped Me Love My Giant Body – Uppercut
Brady Grabowski describes finding confidence and body positivity while running tank.
- Digital Distractions | Unwinnable
Yussef Cole documents how our temporal relationships with games–and our tolerance for all their filler–changes as we age, grow, and grasp our own finitude.
- Game Pile: Is Sonic the Hedgehog good? – press.exe
Talen Lee attempts the impossible: a methodological approach to understanding the Blue Blur’s sustained popularity.
That’s All, Folks
What use are games at a time like this, much less games criticism, or a site about games criticism? It’s easy to believe that we are firing our words off into the ether to disappear, unheard and unheeded, into the dark maw of lost history.
But as I said at the top of this post: we are still here. It’s a small thing, but sometimes it’s the only thing. I give the last word to Squinky, from their Freeplay keynote shared above:
So the world’s gone through this very traumatic event, and we’re not even completely out of it yet, and how can anyone think about videogames at a time like this? But then I thought about you, and all your excitement and energy and hope, and I remember what it felt like to know that you’re doing exactly the thing you’re meant to be doing with your life, and even getting paid to do it. I’m not gonna lie, I miss that feeling a lot. But I can’t go back to it – not in the same way, at least. I’m older now, and I’ve seen too much behind the metaphorical curtain. But I see glimpses of you in some of the young people I see getting started in games today, so I figured, maybe some of what I want to tell you will also be useful to them, and whoever else happens to be listening.
Thank you for accompanying us all throughout the year — thank you for your submissions, your comments, and your insights.
And here’s to a brighter 2022… for all of us.
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