This Week I Read: Fatherhood, not-a-game games

My bookmarks folder in Chrome reads “This week I read”. It dawned on me that its a much better name for these things I do than “Week in review”, since I’m not really reviewing the week or even posting articles from the week. It’s also a lot looser and informal, which suits me fine. So I’ve decided to retcon these posts with the new name.

Turns out I read an awful lot of stuff that I liked, so to get through it I’ll have to do each individual article a disservice and be briefer than usual with my comments. Beginning with Sidney Fussell’s article on subjectivity and feminist lenses of critique, especially with regards to reviews. I’ve written about this area in the past – both on epistemology in the field of criticism and on ubiquity of the male gaze. It needs to be said again and again, unfortunately, until complaints such as those levied against Polygon’s Dragon’s Crown review become a thing of the past.

Sande Chen’s piece on connecting to her Nigerian heritage through game development made me wish I could think of a way to talk about Ireland or Irishness through this bloody medium. The Irish industry is so dainty and disconnected from areas I prefer to cover as a critic, favouring wee mobile games over narrative journeys. I generalize, I know. That being said, a hangman game could just as easily be made for the Irish language, so I must lack the imagination. One day I’ll think of something.

Over on Paste Magazine, Maddy Meyers wrote about her inability to connect with themes of fatherhood in The Last of Us and BioShock Infinite. It instantly reminded me of A Mother in Festerwood, which is a great game and you should play it. I have a whole thing I want to write about these three games; for now I will say that the systems in TLOU and BSI prioritize player-character to the detriment of either’s narrative. TLOU suffers for pretending to be survivalist-themed but systematically minimizing human existence to that which involves combat, triggered dialogue and cutscenes. BSI adheres to objectifying game design and AAA empowerment conventions to an astonishing degree. A Mother in Festerwood, however, drafts tension by pitting player agency against child autonomy – something both Ellie and Elizabeth lacked. Elizabeth couldn’t even scavenge without player permission.

Or it could be the difference between fatherhood and motherhood in games.

Moving on to Susan Arendt’s blog, which I pored over for her tips for freelancers. Each of those are worth attending for those in the field, but I’m going to link to her stance on whether or not you should write for free. Her answer is: if the platform itself warrants your attention. “Exposure” is the go-to excuse not to pay one’s contributors, but with over-saturation of the field the value of any given ounce of exposure shrinks to nothing. Similarly, a lot of the time your exposure is eclipsed by the site’s dominance – will anybody refer to your BigGameWriting.com article by your name or by calling it “that BigGamewriting piece”? Personally, I find it much easier to remember publications than an individual’s name, which is something I’d like to work on.

Twitter was abuzz over this controversial piece by Syl on MMO Gypsy about personal games. (If anybody can let me know how to better credit Syl other than linking to twitter, please do.) Too many people snobbishly belittled the author, towering their own fame as cause not to entertain discussion. There’s something weird afoot there – for all the claims that the subject is unworthy, the fact that there’s a furore every time it’s broached suggests there’s a lot more passion in validating something personal as a game than is let on.

In my case, I get annoyed when someone tries to describe a game as not-a-game by virtue of its straying from the medium’s typical conventions and comfort zones as a manner of dismissing it. I wonder what motivates them to make a distinction – are they trying to gatekeep the medium? Demarcate what deserves their time? Satisfy their bias, as Syl suggests? More than the application of labels and definitions, it’s this downplaying and diminishing of the game that gets to me. At this point in time, I float somewhere between considering them as games, gasp, or simply not caring what form somebody else considers them. Does calling Choice: Texas not-a-game change anything about it? Does it alter what it does for or to the audience? In terms of the game at hand, it doesn’t quite affect me as a player – I’ll enjoy it or not, regardless.

In terms of circulating discourse, though, it matters a whole bunch. I think there is something important about what is a game and what is not a game in the public sphere. People get caught up in concepts because within them are value statements. An online bully is rebuked for considering it “just a game” and “not real” – it’s not just a game, it is real! We cop that by calling it a game, the bully’s downplaying his actions and their repercussions. So when it comes to something made in Twine, why would it be important to us that it is a game? Is it because there’s something inside of being a game that’s important to the message or the mode, or is it because we’re sick of people trying to box it away out of the field of discourse and we want to give them the finger? I’m on board in the latter case. But I think there’s something to the discussion of “what is a game” outside of the formalists vs zinesters frame haunting it, which is why I’d like to share this write-up and the comments by Naomi Clark.

On to another controversial topic, I loved Robert Yang’s article on ludonarrative dissonance and Bioshock Infinite. I interpreted it as supporting the concept of LD while decrying the state of games criticism, although I’m aware others have interpreted it far differently. Justin Keverne tells me Yang has gone off against LD in the past, of which I admit total ignorance. I have Opinions about LD but I’ll spare you them for now – I’m already afraid I’ll be convicted as a formalist for the last few paragraphs. At any rate, I really enjoyed Yang’s blog. “Bird-igniting pants-ghosts” is my new favourite phrase.

Concerning John Brindle’s explanation of mechanics, I tend a bit towards unit operations as a tool for critical examination.

Mammon Machine’s likening of dialogue to exploration resonates with me. Few and far between are the games that consider dialogue as anything other than a means to an end. I get the feeling that dialogue terrifies many designers, as if it’s considered too ‘un-game’ from an action perspective. This is why I love games like Analoge and Hotel Dusk that treat human interaction (even fictionalized) as enjoyable and organic to design.

I have to say, I side with Mattie Brice’s interpretation of TLOU as a potential criticism of dadification in games. It belongs behind a spoiler warning so I won’t get into it beyond saying the Edge interview with its creators left me wondering how this interpretation wasn’t intentional.

Games

While everyone was talking about Gone Home this past while, I discovered the hard way that my laptop can’t run it. Instead I picked up Minerva’s Den and instantly found it to be ten thousand times more enjoyable than Infinite. Haven’t been playing many more games than that, though, so take this as my recommendation to go play BioShock 2 and its DLC.

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