This Week In Video Game Criticism: From vulnerability fantasy to journalist drama
This week, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us picks from Kris Ligman on topics including the "vulnerability fantasy" offered by games like X-Com, last week's game journalist drama, and more.
Ahh, the most wonderful time of the year! Fall and/or spring is in the air, children are about to go door-to-door accosting their neighbors for sugary hand-outs, and the denizens of Twitter are trying to out-camp one another with (candy-)corny themed username switcheroos. So it can only be time for This Week in Video Game Criticism
, Halloween edition!
Let's start with some frightfully insightful
, which merits inclusion in this week's list if just by dint of being a game about a guy in a skull mask named Corvo, has continued to generate some interesting discussion pieces from around the web.
First, The Border House's Tami Baribeau responds to last week's featured piece by Becky Chambers
on the representation of women in the game, questioning whether its depictions of inequality aren't in fact a huge missed opportunity.
Next, Eric Schwarz argues that Dishonored
falters as a stealth game:
"Thief gave players a wide variety of tools, from flash bombs, to moss arrows, to grappling hooks, to climbing gloves, to water arrows, and more. Deus Ex didn't offer quite the same selection, but even it had the courtesy to offer non-lethal alternatives like the stun prod and gas grenades. Dishonored, even with its Blink power that lets players teleport around the environment quickly, feels like it's missing several critical stealth tools with its paltry poison bolts for the crossbow and the ever-popular stealth takedown. There is almost no evolution of stealth gameplay over the course of the game, which is a real shame when it's apparently the focus of the title."
Medium Difficulty's Kyle Parakenings, meanwhile, believes Dishonored represents a regression
in terms of design:
"I think the problem is in exactly the kind of nostalgia that's powering the success of all these Kickstarters. Yes, I miss Black Isle, Ion Storm Austin, and Looking Glass. No, I don't particularly want them back. They did some fantastic and innovative things when they were around, but shouldn't we be looking forward? As a loose community of fans and developers, when we focus so much on what's behind us, we're liable to trip over something. We end up with Dishonored. It's certainly a breath of fresh air compared to Gears and Max Payne 3, but it's really just as stale, only we forgot what it used to taste like."Red Dead Redemption
, the Western sandbox game from Rockstar that keeps on giving, is the subject of David Chandler's musings on modernity and the closing of the West
"Marston can't explore the true West because it's no longer there; all he has is the defined space set by digital parameters. By the architecture of the video game, the West in Red Dead Redemption is always closed, always confined to an invisible mass of data stored in a machine–a modern West indeed."
Indie darling The Unfinished Swan
released to positive reviews and critical discussion last week. Yannick "If An Interview's Worth Doing, It's Worth Doing Right" LeJacq sits down with Unfinished Swan creator Ian Dallas
to discuss the game's development and tone.
From there, head on over to GameChurch, where Jonah Stowe discusses The Unfinished Swan's treatment of the theme implied in its title
"Even in its conclusion, which carries with it a certain degree of ambiguity, The Unfinished Swan remains tenuously committed to being incomplete. And while the game includes some unlockable bonuses for locating various balloons that are scattered throughout the chapters, I'm convinced that the best way to honor the game is to purposefully avoid finding all of them. What The Unfinished Swan celebrates is that capacity of being human in which we strive to achieve a creative ideal. We all carry a sense of unattainable perfection; and our creative output will continually struggle with a dissatisfaction, with a frustration that we didn't get it quite right. Too often this sense can lead to unnecessary and incessant revision, and The Unfinished Swan offers itself as an appropriate corrective to this compulsion."
Moving away from game-specific pieces toward more overarching subjects, Rock, Paper, Shotgun's Jim Rossignol chats
about the role of fear and insurmountable odds in certain games:
"What's thrilling about X-Com is coming out on top when so much is against you. Half your men are in the infirmary, half in the grave. The rookies that make up the team seem hopeless, and half the world is in the grip of panic over the alien menace. And yet you still manage to come out on top. The worse things in a game can become, the better it feels when you beat it.
And then I wonder why I don't want to play more Dishonored. And I think the reason comes from Arkane's own admission that the game is a power fantasy. In some ways, games are better when they are – and this is a peculiar-sounding phrase – a vulnerability fantasy."
Over on his Brainy Gamer blog, Michael Abbott (whose Stan Bush
costume always wins first prize at the Wabash College costume ball) suggests we need a better critical vocabulary for games
"There's nothing wrong with words like 'emotional' or 'experience' per se. Most games do convey a 'world' and deliver "gameplay," but too often these terms function as generic placeholders. They communicate a vague sense of something richer, more vivid and complex. In a mush of overused terminology, they're essentially meaningless.
If we are to see games clearly, we must show how they are what they are. Part of that work is structural and systemic, and part of it sensual and aesthetic. We've made inroads to the first, but little progress with the second. We need more words. Different words. Better words. Finding them won't get us all the way there, but it's a good start."
Tevis Thompson appears to agree, in this guest editorial for Kotaku
on the subject of mystery, lasting impressions, and moments of wonder:
"Mystery is not just something in games. It responds to how we approach games, our attitude towards play. When my object is encounter not victory, surrender not sovereignty, awareness not oblivion. I am plunged into the very weirdness of virtual experience with my body intact and my whole nervous system alight.
What resonates as mystery for me will not be the same as for you. This is wonderful and necessary. Because mystery requires human transaction. It's not eternal and unchanging. The experience of mystery depends on time and place and person and context. Just as the experience of a game does.
We lack the vocabulary for videogame experiences. They are so strange and diverse and fugitive. But we must dare to reach beyond our grasp and wrestle with these experiences we can barely articulate. Mystery is a dialogue, and insatiable.
I hope games do not arrive soon. I hope we are not satisfied with what we have. I hope videogames push us into deeper contact with the world, and ourselves."
This is a theme Rock, Paper, Shotgun's Adam Smith touches upon as well
, in reflecting on the importance of a bit of abstraction in our representation. "I love games that tell a story and I love games that present a challenge and a threat," he writes, "but mostly I love games that give me some blocks and ask me to build."
Rob Lockhart recounts his visit to the Pinball Expo in Illinois
, accompanied with some thoughts on pinball's influence on digital games.
Patricia Hernandez has a great bit up on Kotaku about some of the stumbling blocks found at the intersection of games and activism
. Meanwhile, Jorge Albor conducts an interesting interview with Chris Worboys, developer of iBeg
, the game which lies at the center of Hernandez's article.
On the subject of independents, over on Pixels or Death, Joshua Dennison conducts an interview with Zach Gage
, about his new board game, Guts of Glory
I'm also pleased to note that Molleindustria's Paolo Pedercini has posted the slides and transcript
from his microtalk held at IndieCade earlier this month, for which Gage was also a participant, on the subject of games, subversion, and activism.
Molleindustria, as you probably well know, collected this year's IndieCade grand jury prize for their game Unmanned
, about a day in the life of a remote drone pilot. It's an interesting launching off point for this thought-provoking piece
brought to us by the good folks at Medium Difficulty: a response W's noteworthy "Call of Apathy
" essay, from the perspective of precisely the kind of active service drone pilot featured in Unmanned
"It wasn't until one particular mission, late in the summer, when a call was made to fire into a tree line by two Apache helicopters, that a light bulb went on. Everyone was so sure and so complacent that our target was hiding in the treeline that the order to fire was given without a second thought. As it turns out, he was indeed hiding in the treeline, but was using a large group of women and children to shield himself. After the Apaches fired, women with children in tow went scattering as fast as they could to the shelter of the mosque about a hundred yards away across an open field. Once we realized this, the firing stopped. However, I honestly don't know how many people were injured that morning. Maybe none at all. However, there was no mission report and all video data went to some classified server somewhere; nothing to see, nothing to confirm. This doesn't bother me as much as it raises questions about the status and effects of the future warfighter.
Am I the product of 20 years of desensitization? With the decrease in infantrymen and the increase in bomb-dropping drones, am I the model killer the military wants–or needs? It strikes me that the first generation to grow up not knowing a world without Call Of Duty or Battlefield is now coming of enlistment age, right as the military shifts to a digital battleground. If you were born when the original Mortal Kombat was released, you are now 19 years old — possibly a year into your first tour. If anyone wants to pay attention to the potential effects of game violence on human behavior, now is the time."
Desensitization is, to be sure, a recurring discussion point when it comes to games. It came up again for Unwinnable's Gus Mastrapa this week, as he reflects on real vs virtual violence
. [WARNING: graphic descriptions.]
Anjin Anhut of the aptly named How to Not Suck at Game Design
blog tackles feminine versus masculine signifiers as they tend to crop up in games. From more of the business end of inclusion politics, The Border House's Zoya describes the pervasiveness of a particular sort of upper-middle-class, white, heterosexual normativity
influencing game design.
You may have heard the news that a little site named Polygon finally launched last week. The centerpiece of its opening week offerings was definitely this well-researched article by Tracey Lien
on the state of game development in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the Digital Humanities quarterly has released a nice academic article by Kari Kraus and Rachel Donahue
on the role of player communities in game preservation.
For many, the biggest story (and most salient conversations) this week came in the form of what many have referred to as The Rab Florence Affair. This is a biggie, so I'll defer to Stuart Campbell's excellent breakdown of the events
if you are interested in the particulars.
The short version, however, goes like this:
- Rab Florence, writing for Eurogamer, posts condemning the PR-funded Games Media Awards and journalists perceived to be shilling for corporate interests.
- One of three journalists named in the piece, Lauren Wainwright of MCV, goes through her employer's legal department in order to ask for the removal of remarks from the article she considers libelous.
- Florence resigns from Eurogamer, claiming Wainwright and/or her employer threatened legal action to see the comments removed.
- Wainwright garners a torrent of negative comments on Twitter, including misogynistic insults and rape jokes. She locks her Twitter account.
- Many decry Wainwright's actions as censorship, while others defend the PR-funded events Florence criticizes as ethically defensible.
In the course of all this, a number of people have been busy weighing in with their thoughts on various aspects of Florence's article and the reactions to it. One of the most vocal
comes from Rock, Paper, Shotgun's John Walker:
"Critics are rarely good at taking criticism, but what's happening amongst many PRs and writers now is a Roman legion-style tortoise defence, as they loudly decry the piece without providing a glimmer of an argument opposing it, and hide behind their collective shields. The people who should be say, "Shit, good grief, look at how we come across" are instead saying, "He is a bad man!" and then sending each other reassuring tweets that the article is inaccurate (although failing to point out where) and calling Rab "bitter". It's sadly pathetic. And it's deeply concerning, about an industry that now not only believes itself not deserving of criticism, but that criticism is an outrage."
Jim Sterling references his own past mistakes as a journalist
"I feel that there is very little genuine corruption in this industry. As I've said before, our pathetic little lives just aren't interesting enough to justify the conspiracy theories that often occur. However, when people respond to light criticism about sketchy appearances by closing ranks in a defensive formation, all while hurling insults and condescension at their critics, they take mildly suspicious behavior and use it as fuel for conspiracy. You're enthusiasts. You're fans of games. You like getting little toys and bits of tat from publishers, and you love being unpaid advertisement for games if you truly believe in them. Don't be ashamed of that. Own it.
Or, if you ARE ashamed, maybe just don't fucking do it anymore."
Phil Hornshaw believes the Rab Florence Affair is a teachable moment for all involved
"There's not a lot to do in sitting around, complaining about the state of games journalism, but I also don't really get how members of the press can go, 'Oh, this again,' and pretend as if it's just another day of high school-esque drama that doesn't concern them. This is your industry, and the stupid [sic] actions of your colleagues don't exist in a vacuum. They affect the reputation of all of us, of the very idea of what we do. Whenever you see someone doing something that calls their objectivity and ethics into question, it should be a reaffirmation: 'This is not okay, and this is not what I do.' That is, if you're serious about this in any way, because those actions call the objectivity of all of us into question."
…Which in turn brings us back to John Walker, who followed up his original remarks with a second post
"When a journalist feels they have been misrepresented, even if this so-called misrepresentation has arisen from their having been directly quoted, the response should not be to demand it be removed. The response is to offer to write a response column, or to publish a response in any of the public outlets to which they have access. To do anything else is to be an enemy of journalism, deliberately stifling discussion, and going out of one's way to ensure further discussion is feared."
Gamasutra editor-at-large Leigh Alexander advocates for a more moderate view
"Whether awarding games or looking at our press, why do we still feel the need to be all things to all people? Geoff Keighley's work on Spike is mainstream pop culture in the most basic sense, but that doesn't mean it can't exist alongside other approaches to covering the game industry, other perspectives thereupon.
It's when we start trying to hold an incredibly diverse game industry and an incredibly diverse array of voices to the same uncompromising standards we run into problems — especially, as Florence points out, because the standards are still relatively little-understood in a rapidly-changing landscape."
Finally, in a guest post on John Walker's personal blog, Robert Florence himself comments on the whirlwind of the last few days
"I think [Lauren Wainwright] did one of the worst things one writer can do to another, but I don't think she's 'on the take.' And her actions since, supported by people who know better, have made her a focal point for a piece that was never about her. She has faced the ugly side of these internet dramas, where people dig into your past and highlight all your mistakes. She's faced nasty comments based on her sex and her looks, because that's what some corners of the internet do to women.
And it has to stop.
Because here's the thing. This story – my column, Lauren's reaction, Eurogamer's edit, my stepping down, the whole aftermath – is not about writers. It's about PR. It's about these marketing people who have a stranglehold over most of the industry, and control the narrative of the whole scene. They've even controlled the narrative of this disaster."
I would follow this with a glib "but who was phone??" in order to tie the theme back into this, but honestly, I believe Florence's words are chilling enough. So let's leave it at that.
Okay. One lighter note to end on. Just for you all, and completely for the holiday, here's some Slender-themed latte art
, courtesy of my handsome and talented predecessor, Ben Abraham.
Thanks for tuning in. Now for Carl Sagan's sake, go out and get some candy before the Snickers bars are all gone. Remember to send us your submissions for This Week in Video Game Criticism via Twitter
, and that there is still some time left to submit to this month's Blogs of the Round Table
. Stay safe out there, now!