This Week I Read: It’s OK to be a critic

There were a lot of things I read – so many that I started putting off writing this in the hope that the list would somehow shrink to a more manageable length. Which I know defeats the point of wanting to share things in the first place, but whist.

This was a week where Grand Theft Auto V launched so there’s a hell of a lot below to show for it. Much of it probably steps on each others toes, but I’ll try to avoid repeating myself. Otherwise, I came across quite many really interesting pieces on all sorts of titles that I may be short in my editorializing, if only to not put this off another day.

It just occurred to me that for all my bluster about spoilers, I’ve never consistently made an effort to disclaim articles I link here. For this post I’ll mark each article containing spoilers with an asterisk * – one for minor spoilers (eg. of gameplay segments or minor narrative beats) and two for larger plot details (eg. twists and plot beats). It goes without saying that most analytical pieces will have spoilers of the first category but sure there’s no harm in making sure you know.

Let’s start with this four-part comic by Elizabeth Simins over on Bygone Bureau about her relationship with the hobby over the years. I can’t remember if I shared this weeks ago when I first read it so you may have to put up with it being linked twice! While we’re at it, here’s a more recent comic by her related to Cards Against Humanity’s creator’s attitude towards PAX.

This piece on Elite Review* that talks about the relationship between camera work and player control in The Last Of Us (and Uncharted 1 & 3 to a lesser extent). I like how the way player movement slows in directions not aligned with player perspective – it’s a nuance that contributes very subtly to tonal consistency. It also enables the developer to cheat a bit: if you actively don’t want to look back when fleeing an enemy, the developer can stunt the enemy’s speed and practically allow you to get away while giving you a false impression of danger through audio. These types of cheats can be very important in maintaining pace in a game where player death only disrupts it.

From 2008, Justin Keverne’s piece over on Groping the Elephant** regarding worldbuilding in System Shock 2 centric to SHODAN, the antagonist. I love worldbuilding techniques that de-emphasise player importance, and this sounds like a well-crafted example. (I really need to play SS2.)

Hamish Todd broke down some level and puzzle design in Portal over on Rock Paper Shotgun*. He specifically latches on to the ‘fling’ mechanic and describes step-by-step how the player is educated in its nature and uses. I feel puzzle games – or, I should stipulate good puzzle games – are very clever in how they introduce mechanics and extend them over the game’s course. I don’t think there’s a single genre that couldn’t do with learning from puzzle design in this way. And speaking of puzzle design, be sure to linkhop to Ashley Davis’ Destructoid feature on forgotten gem Catrap.

This by Zachary Bricston on Haywire Magazine** has to be the best piece of games writing I’ve seen on Final Fantasy VIII. I’ve no idea about the cultural context surrounding its conception and development so this is all news to me, but it does fit in with my (vague) memories of the game’s themes and tonal shifting. Honestly, I was expecting the piece to be about how FFVIII gets pretty boring before long but this way is much better.

On Errant Signal, Chris Franklin wrote about ludonarrative dissonance, the phrase all the game critics love super much. His post prompted me to finally get my thumbs out on my own take on the term (self-plug 1). I won’t labour on, other than to say Franklin’s write-up is good and you should read it.

Last weekend saw PitchJam, a thing where a bunch of experienced editors got together and fielded advice on user-submitted pitches. It lead to some people sharing their own advice for freelancers, including Alan Williamson of Five out of Ten Magazine. It also lead to some waxing nostalgia on their experiences of the industry, so I’d like to share Brendan Keogh’s take over on Critical Damage because it is an enjoyable read.

GTAV released last week. Sexism was mentioned in a few reviews and a huge number of fans were very very upset over this. So there was a lot of discussion about why it’s OK to criticise games, with especial regard to GTA, because of this.

On Think Progress, Alyssa Rosenburg explains why she thinks it’s ideal for critics to highlight political (moral, cultural, etc.) problems in reviews if they feel it’s a point worth critiquing, and that to protest this does a disservice to the medium as an artform. On Gamasutra, Kris Graft criticized the hive mind mentality and fanboyism that drives the zeal behind such backlash, identifying it as a broader cultural problem.

Cameron Kunzleman wrote over on This Cage Is Worms that GTA fails as satire because it offers no critical lense. Instead it just retells mainstream impressions to their owners, and since they like what they’re hearing (because they already believe what they’re hearing) they bond to it and call it a sermon. It’s hard to imagine how GTA is satirical of sexism in a world where The Hawkeye Initiative exists, but sadly the values of the latter aren’t sellable on as large a scale as Rockstar would like.

Lana Polansky extrapolated much of the same idea, citing GTA’s infatuation with excessive consumption and capitalism. It’s the dominant cultural hegemony supersized for a gluttonous audience. And no, supersizing your burger doesn’t make it a parody-burger, it just makes it bigger.

Lastly, on Gameranx, I wrote against the defense of GTAV as being for a target demographic. It’s my blog, I’m allowed to promote my own work if I want to. In essence: hiding behind ‘the target demographic’suggests that it is OK to have a horrible message so long as it is enjoyed by appropriately horrible people.

I don’t have any games for ye this week I’m afraid, so instead I’ll share these two things. The sphere of games criticism is far, far too dominated by trends beyond all sense, prioritizing any writing on hyped games over interesting and insightful critique of less discussed titles. Over yonder on Real Talk: Video Games, Mattie Brice is rounding up a catalogue of games we think don’t get enough criticism or discussion. And over on Alternative Games Criticism, we’ll see the flip side of this – links to writings on non-hyped, non-trendy games. Give them a look as they develop.

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