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This Week In Video Game Criticism: From counter-terrorism to  Dear Esther
This Week In Video Game Criticism: From counter-terrorism to Dear Esther
August 28, 2012 | By Kris Ligman

August 28, 2012 | By Kris Ligman
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More: Console/PC, Design



This week, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us picks from Kris Ligman on topics including Dear Esther's many biblical allusions, modern counter-terrorism games, and more.

Just the facts today, ma'am. It's time for This Week in Video Game Criticism.

Let's start at the scene of the crime – war crimes, that is, where Ken Hannahs muses at Gameranx about the ludonarrative dissonance of modern "counter-terrorism" games actually performing the many acts one is supposed to be ideologically opposing:
"Perhaps this is what living in a post-9/11 world is for Americans. Perhaps modern military tactics have become so clandestine as to have become impossible to discern from the very thing we are fighting against. These are our military heroes in videogames: men who break international law with the same flippancy that you might jaywalk or loiter.

Flash to E3 and watch as Sam Fisher rips information out of people before slamming his blade into their necks. Go back to Modern Warfare 2 and listen as the general tells you that 'You will lose a bit of yourself, but you will save countless lives.' What we're talking about here is brutality in the name of the nebulous demigod of democracy, beset by evilness all over the world. We're inundated constantly with the message that anti-terrorism is fought by terrorism and torture."
Elsewhere, Michael "Cid Highwind" Abbott takes a step back to remark on how Sleeping Dogs catches players in the act of dissociation. Ryan Gan of Sidequesting accuses Assassin's Creed: Revelations of acting in bad faith in regards to its mechanics, and Eric Schwarz wonders where a promising young game like Star Wars: The Old Republic went wrong (as he tells it, it came from a lot of places).

This AAA stuff is for the birds, you might tell yourself. Don't worry, partner, I got you covered this week. First we have Patricia Hernandez of Kotaku giving us the insider details of Indiecade finalist Analogue: A Hate Story. Joel "Harbourmaster" Goodwin gives us the good, the bad and the ugly of Nicolau Chaud's Polymorphous Perversity. And then Ben Milton offers this first-rate tour of the Biblical allusions in Dear Esther's island:
"This journey through the caves is marked by three falls, a parallel to Christ's three falls on the Via Dolorosa, or Way of Suffering, which leads to Golgotha. Further symbolism is found at the bottom of a pool in the caves, where Roman coins are scattered, an allusion to the story in which Christ draws a Roman coin from the mouth of a fish to pay the tax, saying, 'Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's,' an apparent response to the tension between rationality and transcendence witnessed before in the game. The player also plunges into and re-emerges from water three times within the caves. The sacrament of baptism, as well as its death/rebirth symbolism come to mind.

The fall into the caves has gravely injured the narrator's leg, breaking the femur, and the last leg of the journey is make in excruciating pain, up the side of the mount to the aerial. Like Christ's accent to the top of Golgotha, the narrator knows that he will die once he reaches the summit. However, in doing so he in some way realizes that his suffering was not in vain, that it came from a place, not of coincidence but of overwhelming purpose."
In a different register, Alex Pieschel's ventured back to Cart Life and what makes the little game so interesting:
"A friend saw me playing Cart Life the other day and compared it to Clerks after a few seconds of observation. It's absurd, but almost perfect. Cart Life is a grittier Clerks, realized in interactive form.

Except it's entirely different. Clerks also focuses on the mundane, but Cart Life's is an active, frenetic kind of banality. Cart Life doesn't stop at boring. It understands that the mundane can be both exhilarating and boring at the same time. Working Melanie's coffee stand is exciting because of the feverish pace and relentless progression of time, but it's boring because game actions are interpreted as multi-tiered processes.

Cart Life, unlike every other game ever, doesn't believe a single keystroke adequately represents a significant action. The act of pouring a cup of coffee is broken down into its component mental and physical parts: 1) Remember what the customer ordered. 2) Make small talk. 3) Make correct change. An intense empathy emerges from these methodical motions, and it's a specific kind of empathy that can only emerge from a game.

You get to the point where you repeat a task so many times that it's muscle memory, like breathing, and you could probably still improve, but your improvement would be negligible. You've plateaued, and this thing you keep doing everyday may not be the most important or impressive thing in the world, but at least you're performing some discernible service, fitting into society in some way, fulfilling some expectation, maybe improving someone's day, and while you're doing it at least, you forget about other important things and feel like everything might be ok and some things could even be beautiful."
And you should definitely read Simon Parkin's piece in Hookshot about the refreshing note of difference that is Papo & Yo. You should also read his long-form review of the same.

Lastly on the topic of smaller alternatives to AAA, Craig Stern is after a more practical question, namely: can we methodically arrive at a universal definition for the indie game?

Enough on the games themselves; what about the folks who make them tick? Alan Williamson of Nightmare Mode says "entitled" isn't the word you're looking for to describe gamers; Adam Ruch of Kotaku Australia believes "elite" isn't fitting either:
"In reality, the elitist notion of a pure, hardcore games culture is a fantasy. There is no such thing as a video game culture hermetically sealed-off from the rest of the world. Of course there are concentrations, where or when individuals focus on some things over others, but cultures do not exist in Tupperware containers sitting neatly organised on shelves.

By being a gamer, I do not stop being a man, a university lecturer, a mediocre sports fan, an American, an immigrant, a husband, a son, a musician. I am not a one-dimensional creature that is composed entirely of, and sustained by, video games. I am not defined by gaming and only gaming.

That anyone should want to be is morbid.

That anyone should demand it of anyone else is evil."
Leigh Alexander contends that the onus is on game journalists to demand a better games industry. Mattie Brice, meanwhile, laments another of gaming and game criticism's gatekeepers – money:
"The worth of my writing and advocacy is constantly augmented by my relationship to money. In order to keep up with critical conversation, I must constantly buy games. And not the cheaper ones, but the sixty dollar hits that many of my peers get for free. I feel compelled to constantly add to the sprawling Steam library and Kickstarter backing lists.

Despite the growing debt, I have to get a new TV for my consoles, buy a gaming rig, and consider obtaining one of the latest handhelds. And for what? Gaming criticism, the one bastion for minority writers in games media, isn't seen as valuable enough writing to pay."
You may have heard about the recently announced documentary about the still-building game news website Polygon, which basically rubbed the entire internet the wrong way. Rock, Paper, Shotgun's John Walker, writing in his own blog, calmly (or at least, with fewer expletives than in the previous link) explains why this happened.

Josh Bycer defines what he means by a "gamer tax," and Kotaku music man Kirk Hamilton humorously attempts to predict the plot of Halo 4 based on its tracklisting – and in doing so reveals the sort of paint-by-numbers framework we've come to expect out of sci-fi action franchises.

Let me leave you with one for the road, before we hit it back to the station. Call it a long goodbye. It's this eloquent piece on New Games Journalism from Richard Clark's "Navel Gaming" column at Unwinnable:
"In exegesis, which means to 'lead out of,' the reader diligently examines every aspect of a text in order to discern the actual intended meaning. The reader then applies the actual meaning of that text to his or her own personal life, whether it is instruction, a type of life philosophy, or some kind of biblical warning. Eisegesis, on the other hand, means to "lead into" and refers to the reckless appropriation of a biblical text to one's own assumptions and whims.

Practiced readers will recognize this as a helpful distinction for reading any text; it is better to get something out of a text than it is to read something into a text, particularly when that text is meant to be an infallible guide to life, the universe and everything. Even when a text is mere entertainment or art that implies a subjective response on the part of the consumer (and videogames certainly fall into this category), simply reading into that artifact whatever meaning I like is self-serving.

[…]

Personally-skewed games writing doesn't have to be that way. Paramount to writing any kind of good personal essay is the necessity of absolute honesty on the part of the writer. The reader needs to be able to trust the writer, or else the piece becomes a deceptive and useless hypothetical. The ironic nature of the personal essay is that through the sharing of a subjective experience, the reader stumbles across some form of objective truth. This may not happen if the writer is lying or stretching the truth, and it will not happen if the reader discovers or senses the lie."
And that's a wrap. Not sure if I'd call it case closed – the beauty of this place is that every week something new turns up. Got something good you want to bring to our attention? Be sure to tweet or email it to us. A game's alibi might depend on it!


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