This Week I Read: interpreting media and presenting criticism

Remember a few weeks ago (or longer if you’re reading this in the future, which is much more likely then reading it as I’m typing) I accounted the Warren Spector “Where is our Ebert?” controversy? Last week I found my way to Mammon Machine’s take on the subject. They wrote about why Spector got under a lot of people’s skin. In essence, if I’m reading MM correctly, Spector pointed to a crowd of furtive creators and telling them they should put a little effort into doing what they’re already doing.

Two things. First, I make it a habit of researching what it is I want to write about, ensuring my take won’t be redundant. Ultimately, I write what I want to read but can’t find. For Spector to step up to the bat and not at least check that what he was calling for is already an on-going pursuit, it smacked of snobbery. Had he paid heed to the fruits of a cursory Google search he could have better identified the problem weighing him down. Earlier I said it misses the point to indicate Critical Distance as a source for games critique already out there, since “out there” is admittedly gated behind the pursuit of the field and not within the mainstream sphere. These two aren’t contradictory: had Spector identified Critical Distance and the wellsprings of energy devoted to building the critical landscape, he could have formed his stance to better reflect reality (or, if researching changed his mind, given up).

Second, what I decided to take away from Spector’s piece was a desire to be more legible for readers not already on the inside. A grain of truth lies within these calls for mainstream coverage, although ironically Spector’s cry to action was very American-centric and rang of imperialism – citing the New York Times as the platform to be alienates as an Irishman. Still, because I like to talk about philosophy and that, my own writing tends towards the technical, and I’d like to wean myself off that. I also like to write because I like to share, but what good is it if my work is illegible.

I like Mammon Machine’s writing because often they explains in clear language their exact contention. For example, here’s another where they contrast two opinion pieces and weigh why one is of greater cultural worth than the other. Personally I wasn’t terribly fond of either piece and I think MM is being a bit too generous to Todd Harper’s take, but the underlying point is grand.

One day I’ll write something on why I liked Final Fantasy XIII and 13-2. There’s not enough critique about the latter, that I’ve seen.

Dragon’s Crown released, and amid glowing reviews some took to criticising the singular thing that has been haunting the game throughout its development cycle: its problematic attitude towards women. A lot of people got upset that other people were upset. Janine Hawkins’ breakdown of why it’s ok to criticise Dragon’s Crown for this is a good bookmark for any backlash to feminism in games criticism. It’s silly we need to justify disliking sexism but there you go. Many readers consider it a zero sum game – you can’t like Dragon’s Crown if it has some questionable attributes – whereas the reality of how anybody enjoys media is much more nuanced. It’s quite possible to like its systems while hating its narrative, for instance.

On that gist, Feminist Frequency’s third Tropes vs Women: Damsels in Distress video came out, which discusses reversals and ‘parodies’ of the trope. Worth a watch for those new to the field.

And Rob Fahey on pulling out the thumbs and taking responsibility for cultural toxicity. Hear, hear.

Back on to The Castle Doctrine, Carolyn Petit expressed how deplorable she finds its message, judging from what we know about it. So far I’ve written about one problem I have with the game but my objections are many more still. This piece mirrors a good chunk of my own attitude. The wilful ignorance TCD tosses towards the topic it discusses place it in a very precarious position narratively. Courting a moral and political issue while removing factors of class and race from the narrative characterizes the game as presenting a slanted, irresponsible and irrelevant message.

Contrast TCD with We Must Tell The Emperor, as described by Jeremy Antly. Determinism draws the relationship between your mechanics and the player. TCD hems the player in with arbitrary authorial limitations whereas The Emperor impinges by mechanical interpretations of historical and military context. The closing sentence expresses something of TCD, I believe.

The Swapper sounds like a super interesting game from an ontological point of view, so Mat Jones’ wee account of its mechanical system was a joy to read. If what he says about the puzzle design is true, it looks like The Swapper is extending the question of ontological constraints into self-perception of ability, and perception of environment. I’m assuming it will all be about perceiving the environment and yourself (ie. your avatar) in increasingly evolving ways, which sounds to me like a journey of philosophical maturing. So yeah, I’m looking forward to that.

That’s almost everything – I just want to end with two things.

Boobjam is a gamejam where everyone ‘gets together’ and each makes a game about their experiences with breasts, with the intent to demystify and reclaim women’s bodies from mainstream sexualizing norms. (As it happens, on the day it was announced we watched Calendar Girls.) I’m curious to see how this will be achieved via videogames – I wouldn’t have thought it would be a wholly appropriate medium – but it’s a great idea nonetheless.

Lastly is this – a database for game criticisms. It’s like he heard me! Love it, looking forward to seeing it develop.

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