Welcome back readers.
We’re back from break, and ready to kick off a new year of outstanding crit with a double-wide issue to catch us up. Hope everyone found some kind of rest over the interregnum.
This week’s around-the-site update: our Year-In-Review is live, courtesy of Kris’ peerless efforts. There was lots of excellent writing for us to recap from the span of 2022, so please do check it out!
This Week in Videogame Blogging is a roundup highlighting the most important critical writing on games from the past seven days.
Working at Play
This week we open with a selection of industry-level topics, from labour organization, to the workification of games, to the tracing of far too many rays.
- Sounding Board: No New Graphics! – No Escape
Alvin Meatman asks who the increasingly unsustainable “Big Graphics” industry is actually for.
- Not the backlog! | Thinkings
B reckons that backlogs are an ahistorical effort to turn leisure into labour.
- Labores Ludos Gignit! – No Escape
Kaile Hultner chats with Game Workers of Southern California about unionization, attendee outreach, and direct action at the Keighleys.
“For the second year in a row, while celebrities, media and industry executives gathered inside the Microsoft Theater in Downtown Los Angeles, CA, to celebrate the so-called “best” the video game industry had to offer, another narrative coalesced outside. Theirs was a narrative that nobody, not even “voice of the industry” Geoff Keighley himself, could completely silence. Microsoft Theater staff tried to get them to move to a “free speech zone.” The Game Awards security tried to keep their pins from entering the theater. LAPD tried to get them to leave. And through it all, no matter what, the Game Workers of Southern California stood in front of the industry and proudly proclaimed: Labor Creates Games!“
Not by a Longshot
We’re at about the point after the release of a longform prestige game that the real crunchy critical meditations start to make the rounds. Here are three that I dug for the latest God of War.
- God of War Ragnarök: great dad game, hellish mom game | Polygon
Maddy Myers finds no motherly agency in a game where the dads have it all.
- SNOWBLIND | DEEP HELL
Bryn Gelbart unspools the technical and artistic contradictions behind God of War: Ragnarok‘s one-take design.
- One Shot Isn’t Enough | Bullet Points Monthly
Phillip Russell finds God of War: Ragnarok‘s one-shot cinematography to be torn between conflicting perspectives.
“I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off. In a way, I felt as if I was playing a videogame about Kratos playing a videogame. From how characters communicate with one another outside of the main storyline’s scenes to the sheer lack of urgency reflected in the narrative design, given the apocalyptic implications of the story, it all just comes off a bit strange. The culprit of this dissonance seems to be the very aspect that was foundational to the experience laid out in Ragnarök’s 2018 predecessor, God of War: the one-shot camera.”
A Grammar of the Gremlin
A lot of this week’s categories have a common theme in productive contradictions. Here, those contradictions emerge between the creepy and the cute, the transgressive and the normative, represented sometimes-but-not-always by the archetype of the gremlin.
- Going Gremlin Mode | Unwinnable
Emma Kostopolus contemplates the horrors of the cute and the known in Bugsnax.
- Some Thoughts on Nintendo’s Pikmin: A Brutally Cute Strategy Adventure – Aguas’ Points
Luis Aguasvivas peers into the darkness lurking beneath Pikmin‘s cutesy exterior.
- Gremlin Girl Energy | Unwinnable
Phoenix Simms describes the Gremlin Girl as an indulgent and resistive, partially reclaimed, entirely complicated trope and explores its intersections with games and wider geek culture over the years.
“There’s something to be said about how Greta, despite being a fairly insulting, low-hanging fruit of a character, can open up discussions about how femininity in geek spaces and beyond is performed.”
Games for Girls
We’ve got two selections this week centered on a single focal point in the Games for Girls movement of the 1990s: Barbie Fashion Designer.
- Building Digital Dream Houses | ROMchip
Sara Simon, Carly A. Kocurek, and Leilasadat Mirghaderi chat with producer Jesyca Durchin about the challenges of bringing about Barbie Fashion Designer, making creative computing accessible for young girls, and more.
- An Ode to the Video Game Barbie Fashion Designer | Harper’s Bazaar
Mary Kenney looks back at an early inflection point in the Games for Girls movement of the 90s, and how its commercial success challenges stereotypes and assumptions the industry continues to hold dear today.
“Pop culture, even now (looking at you, Stranger Things), tells us over and over that video games are the realm of boys, and only a few girls—the ones who are different, “not like other girls”—play games at all. But the evidence tells us another story.”
In Media Rez
Here’s another productive contradiction, if you will, between games and other media forms, both analog and digital.
- Exploring crafting games and storytelling traditions with ‘A Mending’ | GamesHub
Stephanie Harkin explores the long history of partnership between textile crafts and storytelling.
- The Strange History of Photo CD Games | CD-ROM Journal
Misty De Méo navigates the technical and artistic history of a long-forgotten branch on the tree of interactive multimedia.
“No matter how limited Portfolio CD was, it didn’t stop people from trying to create more complex discs. Portfolio CD was used to distribute a variety of commercial products around the world. Many, like the Philips releases, were simple educational discs, which accepted the limitations of the format in exchange for a simple way to distribute high-quality images. Others were a bit more creative; in Japan, there was an entire cottage industry of commercial Portfolio CD discs which consisted of digital photo books and magazines, some of which distributed art instead of just photos. And, yes, there were a very limited number of games.”
Next up we have a series of meditations on games and their intersections with revolutionary politics.
- The Discontents: Umurangi Generation, Spoiled Part Six – No Escape
Kaile Hultner caps off their tour of their 2020 game of the year.
- NORCO and the Death of Society | Gamers with Glasses
Yaouchu Bi asks what comes after–after NORCO, after individualism, after disillusionment.
- The Warden Game  | Arcade Idea
Art Maybury plays a game of prison reform by a prisoner of some notoriety.
“I keep using the word “satire,” but it is perhaps instead an earnest attempt to map out realistic hypothetical actions and thoughts of someone who doesn’t think like you, who is in a position you’re not, and who is effectively your opponent in life whose moves beg predicting — or even, in showing them your map, maybe routing their future actions and thoughts.”
Here we’ve got two meditations on offbeat games from a common era, each leaving a lasting legacy in their own distinct ways.
- The Eerie, Influential Afterlife of ‘Ecco the Dolphin’ | The Ringer
M.D. Rodrigues chats with designer Ed Annunziata about Ecco the Dolphin‘s enduring and offbeat cultural legacy.
- romancing saga 1 (sfc) thoughts
Kastel explores the expressive affordances of a genre-defying role-playing game.
“while the game may be hostile to newcomers, it is never hostile toward your identity or preferred expression in gameplay and story. after overcoming the hurdle of not getting it for hours, i never felt like i encountered something totally jarring to my own gameplay style and roleplaying preferences. instead, i just thought the game adapted to my thinking and i jived with its sense of humor.”
Coming up now, a trio of meditations on different structures and framings of play, replay, interactivity, and choice.
- The Paradox of Abstract Time in Historical Video Games | Play the Past
Gilles Roy discusses the implications when games afford the ability to not just play history, but replay it indefinitely.
- this post was supposed to be about john thyer’s Buried Flower | cohost
saori uses visual novels and non-diegetic interactions to discuss instances when the only winning move is not to play.
- Power Without Control In Pentiment | Unwinnable
Ruth Cassidy evaluates what makes choices powerful–and unpredictable–in Pentiment.
“As hardship hits Tassing, it becomes harder to play Andreas any way other than carefully. This isn’t the same as trying to pick neutral options – there are no neutral options, people will still die – but the smallest choices are weighed down by greater responsibility. His outsized influence ripples outwards, like a rock thrown in a pond, occasionally just bludgeoning a fish.”
Returning explicitly to that theme of productive contradictions, our next three picks place pairs of games in critical comparison.
- The Last of Us Part 2 Is Not My REAL Dad Game — God of War: Ragnarök Is | Kat (Pixel a Day)
Kat tells a tale of two dad games–and why one ultimately lands better than the other.
- Dwarf Fortress and Rimworld tell radically different stories | Game Developer
Gita Jackson contrasts design and storytelling approaches in the colony sim genre.
- How Portal 2 Stole Half-Life 2’s Valor | cohost
Jeremy Signor speculates on how maybe, just maybe, Portal 2 was Half-Life 3 all along.
“Suddenly, Portal was at the vanguard, but endured by cannibalizing many of the features of Half-Life as a whole. But in doing so, in taking on the bulk of AAA, fleshing out a story, and inserting cutscene walls stopping the action, Portal 2 becomes something else. It’s no longer the compact, breezy experience that made Portal the phenomenon it was. Instead, it became the replacement for Half-Life 2 at a time when its story was still incomplete. Now, people still draw memes from the first game and not so much the second.”
These next two selections draw upon legacies of family, both good and not-so-good.
- The Dreamcast and Hypersensitivity: A Neurodivergent Christmas | Sidequest
Michelle Caldeira reminisces on her association of the Sega Dreamcast with Christmas time (honestly same).
- Asian Enough | Into The Spine
Tessa Kaur reflects on the fraught family dynamics at play in Life Is Strange: True Colors.
“Alex’s mother, dying in her hospital bed, told her not to cry and to take care of her father and older brother. It seems she internalized this as a desire to help people, but I questioned how much of that was conditioning. I shuddered at the injustice of it — injustice I saw mirrored in generations of my own family. I saw a Chinese woman being told to stuff down her own emotions and center her life around grown men fully capable of taking care of themselves.”
Setting the Stage
In this productive contradiction, games are situated in relation to other popular cultures of genre and literature.
- 35 years later, Final Fantasy’s love of Shakespeare is its secret to success | Inverse
Willa Rowe does an all-bard run of the Final Fantasy series.
- Sands That Set Planets Apart | Unwinnable
Saniya Ahmed reflects on how Sable offers something a bit different from the Orientalist desert planets that have long dominated western science fiction.
“The lack of life-sustaining water, the stillness of barren deserts, and monumental rock formations create an alien aesthetic, but the planet forms an identity when you add people or ruins of civilizations. Sable created its own identity with a brown-skinned main character where the objective of collecting masks is a meaningful aspect of meeting Midden locals, the magical floating ability pushes for further exploration, and her Gliding journey is about self-discovery. Along with the environment, this premise makes a world of a difference in how the alien desert is portrayed.”
Games from the Year
This is the closest section I have in this issue to a “Game of the Year,” but naturally I’m not quite playing it straight, with a short selection of articles that say a little more about their respective games.
- ‘Elden Ring’ is undeniably Game of the Year — and that’s a problem | Inverse
Jen Glennon dwells on the fact that 2022’s widely-acknowledged game of the year can never and will never be for everybody.
- Games of 2022: Betrayal at Club Low was the best examination of the weird world of working | Eurogamer.net
Alexis Ong profiles a chaotic sketch of the capital grind.
- Games of 2022: Signalis was the best reminder of what matters | Eurogamer.net
Sam Greer offers a loving look back at what might be the best horror game to come around in a very long time.
“I can be propped up by self-determination all I want but there truly is no dousing the part of me that lives for love. Signalis, for all its unending horrors, stirred up the romantic in me.”
And I thought the Tapwave Zodiac was weird.
- Who remembers the Panasonic Jungle? | cohost
Victoria Rose excavates a most peculiar artifact.
“For a very brief period in late 2010, Panasonic decided enough time had passed since they were dabbling in games as a 3DO licensee, and it was time to announce a handheld supposedly designed for playing MMOs on the go.”
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