September 20, 2011 5:00 PM | Eric Caoili
[This week, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us picks from Ben Abraham on topics including why Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine is a feminist game of the year contendor, an apology for RPGs, and more.]
Welcome to another instalment of This Week In Video Game Criticism, and what a week it's been. I can't remember the last time we've had so many great pieces all crammed into the one week. Where do we begin?
Our last entry went out before September 11 really kicked off the remembrance of that fateful day, so perhaps we'll start with Mitch Krpata's contribution for Joystick Division in which he explains 'Why Gears of War is the Quintessential 9/11 Game':
"I'm sure Cliff Bleszinski and company would be the first to argue that Gears has nothing to do with September 11, and that's their right as creators. But it's our right as the audience to find our own meaning in the work. Ever since I first played Gears of War almost five years ago, it has struck me as a game that could not have existed without 9/11. Something like it, maybe, but not this game, with its unusual and potent mix of fear, uncertainty, and powerlessness."
Krpata also wrote this week for his own blog Insult Swordfighting about the conditions behind much video game writing (which is going to affect the kind of writing produced) in a piece titled 'Working in the sweatshop'.
You've heard by now about the phenomenon that is the 'Horse_ebooks' twitter account, right? Well using it as an example of cult online communities, Leigh Alexander writing for Gamasutra examines a game-related spin-off of that account in ''f
Michael Abbott at The Brainy Gamer says 'Games Aren't Clocks', and argues for a more holistic approach to video games that can account for the affects of their design beyond simply the rules and mechanics.
Brady Nash at the How Curious blog takes some time to respond to G. Christopher Williams' essay of a few weeks ago, applying reader response theory to video games.
At the 'Powered by Hate' tumblr blog, Jeff Gunzler writes about why Warhammer 40,000 Space Marine is a 'Most Surprisingly Feminist Game of the Year Contender'
In last week's TWIVGB Kris wrote about Eric Lockaby's review of Deliverance for 3DS; in her overworked and delirious state (I'm a bad boss), she didn't realise that, while fiction, the review was meant to be confused as fact. When she found out, she was understandably upset at finding out she's been fooled, but wondered about what it said about game reviews in general or the nature of games themselves:
"That's the balance to be struck with writing any sort of humor piece–what the hell is too high- or low-profile to be funny anymore? In a TWIVGB full of articles on post-9/11 war games and fetishization, the tone of the game Lockaby was writing about didn't even seem out of place. Maybe that's the full scope of the joke David's getting at: are we so jaded to turning anything–high art, low art, macabre, political, social, psychosexual–into a videogame that parodic descriptions of using a game stylus as a phallus to symbolically molest women seem a bit disgusting but at the end of the day, par for the course?"
Chris Johnson at RobotGeek writes about "Why The Deus Ex Narrative Ultimately Fails: A Political Critique". It's good stuff, and something I think I was picking up on as I played, but wasn't able to articulate:
"This dystopian future, especially in Human Revolution, may be aesthetically similar to Blade Runner, but it's obvious a corollary is present day global politics (especially in the United States). Unfortunately, the cause (and thereby the solution) to this web-like problem is never pointed at the source. Rather, in a move that feels very co-opted by the media-power at large, fingers are pointed at shadowy conspiracy theories like the Illuminati rather than at actual, present day, corporate CEOs. It's almost as if corporate power was enough to buy off the game developers, who went as far as to hint at the problems – enough so that reasonable people could draw a logical conclusion bearing to life – and then deflected and effaced the issues by creating a supernatural god-like cause to explain these events; in other words, pure fiction."
This week Simon Parkin wrote about his experiences with the Call of Duty convention for Eurogamer. It's top stuff and conveys the very real 'out of place' feeling that Parkin had at the conference. Do go read 'COD XP: The Bug and the Windscreen':
"There are other fan events based around single games, of course; both QuakeCon and BlizzCon command significant attendance. But COD: XP is not an event requested by the fans. Rather, it's an endlessly lavish production put on for their benefit by a company eager to… to give something back? Eager to humanise themselves? Eager to soften core gamer perception of a company best known for its dead-eyed annual franchise updates, high-price DLC, and the stewardship of arch non-gamer Bobby Kotick, effortlessly the most disliked CEO by gamers thanks to his apparent disdain toward them? COD: XP is, let's say, a smart way to both give back to the community that makes it wealthy and to counter a series of setbacks and unpopular decisions made in and around Modern Warfare."
And speaking of military-themed shooters, at Slate Michael Thomsen asks 'Why aren't there any civilians in military video games?' (Thanks to Kill Screen for the tip-off):
"By removing civilians from the picture, developers like Bach are trying to reap the benefits of a real-life setting without grappling with the reality of collateral damage. In sparing themselves the challenge of making their games deeper and more involving, they're the ones holding back the medium. While video games have come a long way since Mega Man, Battlefield 3's sanitized environment suggests that players are still limited to the same two basic actions: running around and shooting."
Scott Juster at Experience Points analyzes Soulja Boy's experience with Braid, and like a good anthropologist takes his Soulja Boy's experiences quite seriously, uncovering some real insight into how people play.
Michelle Young at Kill Screen has a great piece on the video game representations of the walled city of Kowloon this week. Being a real place, the depictions of Kowloon varied from reasonable likeness to unrealistic depiction. In this week's entry to his regular column for the Futurismic blog, Jonathan McCalmont talks about discussions of video game "realism" and just how much of a specific standard, and absurdly skewed one at that, realism actually is:
"The fact that people can meaningfully talk about Crysis being both more authentic than other games and a completely fantastical action romp featuring magical powers suggests that realism is not exactly an unproblematic concept. In fact, this is a column about why we should just stop using that word entirely when other words are far more useful."
The Second Person Shooter blog is one we've known and loved for a while here at Critical Distance, so it's pleasing to see that the crew are back at it – this week Kent Sutherland talks about 'Playing God' and the limits of what he was allowed to pick-up-and-play as a child:
"When I grew up, some games were off-limits. Diablo was a no, because Satan was right there in the title. Grand Theft Auto was also disallowed when my parents caught me mowing down police officers and lines of Elvis impersonators with a machine gun. Mortal Kombat was banned for obvious reasons—you can rip out a man's ribs and them stab them through his eyes—but even Golden Eye was mysteriously "lost" one day after a particularly hilarious match of only shooting each other in the knee caps. I can understand the logic behind all of these decisions, but I've always been confused about why I wasn't allowed to play The Sims."
And similarly, blog-mate Laura Michet looks at Portal 2 and 'The Power of Pettiness', drawing parallels between the two entries in that series and the first two Alien films:
"To me, Portal 1 was very much like these films. Two female characters dueling to the deadly death on terms unlimited by the fact that they are ladyfolk? The antagonist is an inhuman freak? The protagonist strengthened by her humanity (in this case, by the fact that the player identifies very, very closely with her)? Sounds an awful lot like Alien to me.
Portal 2 changes the tone of its central relationship by stripping some of that dignity away. Glados insults Chell constantly in ways intended to be understood as cattily "female": calling Chell overweight, insulting her appearance, and so on. She seems to believe that gendered insults will be the most effective against this mute, implacable enemy, and tries a variety of them. And even though these jokes are, cheap and awful, they're fantastic."
Andrew VandenBossche at Mammon Machine entreats us with, 'Spoil Me Rotten' – making an important point about the difference between the spoiler itself and the thing being spoilt:
"To read a spoiler is a nasty experience. It feel like being cheated. Yet spoilers are also a lie—they're a wikipedia summary at best. And seriously, who would compare the experience of reading something they liked to the experience of reading the summation on the Internet? To have any sense of the value of writing or any artistic craft we've got to believe that the way a story is told is infinitely more important that the paragraph that restates the major plot points."
And last, but certainly not least, for this week is Mattie Brice at the Alternate Ending blog making an 'Apology for RPGs' in the form of a long meditation on the nature of the genre.
"What is and isn't an RPG is beside the point, it's how a game appropriates the cultural understanding of what an RPG is. Video games have been using character progression through stats and experience points, a strong sense of story, and tactical strategy to draw what they can from the genre, but the heart isn't there. What we really have are action games, interactive fiction, and shooters that use the tropes developed from tabletop RPGs. There is very little role-playing to be had; rather, you are given an extremely limited amount of 'roles' to 'choose' from."
As always, we rely on the charitable donations of good and interesting games writing, blogging, and criticism via twitter and email.