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This Week in Video Game Criticism: Everybody Loves Garrus
This Week in Video Game Criticism: Everybody Loves Garrus
April 21, 2014 | By Kris Ligman




This week, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us picks from Kris Ligman on topics including the political agenda of Halo and why Garrus Vakarian is Mass Effect's most enduring character.

Safer Spaces

PAX East was held last weekend and we have not one but two articles from volunteers who worked at the event's (much criticized) Diversity Lounge. Royel Edwards came away from the experience cautiously optimistic, while Lexi Leigh offers some much-needed context to that miniature meme we had going around of showrunner Mike Krahulik ostensibly "taking over" the lounge. In all: the news is good, or at least better than expected, according to some who were there.

It's not all sunshine, however. The next few articles bear a content warning for rape, child abuse, and description of misogynistic and homophobic harassment.

Ria Jenkins laments the failure of the games press to adequately cover or criticize Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes' depiction of rape, not only of an adult woman but also an underaged boy. She includes a detailed description of the (now-infamous) audio log and wonders why UK regulatory board PEGI declined to even assign the game the "sexualized violence" label present in the American rating.

Kim Correa, whom we featured several weeks ago for her bracing account of a sexual assault experience in DayZ, has followed up with a report of some of the comments her post generated, and additionally connects her experience with Julian Dibbell's 1993 article "A Rape in Cyberspace," which has also been making the rounds lately (including here):

What strikes me most [about Dibbell's piece] is the willingness of the community to pull together, to work toward mending a problem and taking appropriate actions for what most everyone seems to have realized was an inappropriate action. "A Rape in Cyberspace" was first published more than twenty years ago. A concerned, thoughtful group of players banded together to make their online community a safer environment for everyone.

[...]

We are 20 years past the time "A Rape in Cyberspace" originally was published. And yet what I hear echo in every one of these comments, in all of these words, is the same phrase, over and over again: we haven't made progress. We've gone backward.

The subject of online abuse, and the normalization thereof, is also on the minds of Giant Bomb writer Patrick Klepek and game developer Zoe Quinn, who co-hosted an hour-long talk at PAX East on how users can start turning the tide of internet toxicity. Among the solutions they propose: speak up, refuse to tolerate, build positive experiences.

Likewise on The Escapist, Shamus Young lends an outsider's viewpoint on the positive outcome of the ill-fated GAME_JAM, in which developers were baited with sexist drama for the benefit of a reality show narrative:

One of the questions they asked Robin Arnott was, "Do you think you're at an advantage because you have a pretty lady on your team?" [...] Keep in mind the "pretty face" in question is Adriel Wallick, who left her job programming weather satellites so she could make quirky, experimental indie games. It's like having Neil Degrasse Tyson on your team at the science fair and having someone ask how having a "black guy" impacts your chances of winning. It's mind-bogglingly offensive.

[The participants] not only saw through the manipulation, they also correctly identified the only proper response, which is non-participation.

(End content warning section.)

Taking That Step

On Polygon, Emily Gera interviews Adam Bullied on writing storied, minority characters into Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City. Meanwhile, at Not Your Mama's Gamer, Phill Alexander has a detailed take on how Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption subverts the "noble savage" stereotype of its Native American characters.

On Medium, Sidney Fussell has furnished us with a stellar personal account on growing up isolated, nerdy and black -- and why, rather than an escape into 'apolitical' power fantasy, he found that games, too, need their race politics interrogated:

The image of black masculinity as criminal and terrifying, remarkably uniform across videogames and newsmedia, not only led to me questioning and resenting my own blackness, is part of the fear of black men that caused the desegregation anxieties which led to [school desegregation] programs like M to M shaping my entire childhood. How astonished my 14 year old self would've been to learn that video games, my bulwark against racism, borrowed the very same portrayals of black men on the nightly news that fed my distrust of "thuggish" black men.

So ask me again why I have to object, loudly and uncompromisingly, to problematic racist imagery in my favorite medium. Why I balk at the notion of "choosing" to be offended at something. Why I'm incensed when I'm told black people "aren't realistic" for a setting or race "doesn't matter" in designing heroes?--?being a minority means even your fantasies are regulated by white believability.

In Gamasutra's blogs section, Fragments of Him developer Mata Haggis also responds to that old canard that diversity "brings an agenda" to games, by pointing out (in a rather brilliant little analysis) how the likes of Halo harbors just as much of an agenda -- just an already hegemonic one.

It is a sign that our industry needs to mature, that the presence of any character outside of a standard heteronormative binary system (people who do not fit a modern stereotype of youthful, aggressively heterosexual vigour) is read as an 'agenda'. Master Chief fits the system, so he is not viewed as a political statement, but a gay protagonist is outside the norms of gaming lead characters, and so the game is likely to be assumed to be intentionally making a statement.

Design Notes

At Chic Pixel, Anne Lee interviews Ben Bateman, former localization editor for Aksys with credits including 999, Virtue's Last Reward and Sweet Fuse. Elsewhere, on Ontological Geek, Albert Hwang presents us with a staggeringly detailed survey of romance arcs in BioWare games, and suggests that perhaps BioWare could still learn from some of its early experiments in this area.

Speaking of BioWare, on Unwinnable Rowan Kaiser has shared an excerpt from his upcoming book Possibility Space, here detailing why beloved turian Garrus Vakarian is the moral heart and soul of Mass Effect.

The recently launched Kotaku UK has an interesting feature from Dave Owen on the aesthetic possibilities of drawing upon Middle-Eastern and Islamic art in games, not just for art, but also for mechanics. And on the subject of interesting geometries, Jamie Madigan has a piece up on Psychology of Games on the particular psychological process that leads us to anthropomorphize the rectangular characters of Thomas Was Alone.

At Mammon Machine, Aevee Bee observes that Fire Emblem: Awakening has so deemphasized the franchise's trademark permadeath mechanic as to make it nonfunctional. Meanwhile, over at Normally Rascal, Stephen Beirne criticizes the recent mainstream depictions of parenthood in games as essentially power fantasies, and wonders if instead there are other mechanics which can model the experience of caring for a child.

We don't usually run preview features in these roundups, so consider the inclusion of this SideQuesting article by Dalibor Dimovski as an indication of its quality: drawing on a terrifying experience within his own family, Dimovski describes how upcoming survival game This War of Mine -- about civilians caught in an armed conflict -- hit tremendously close to home.

On the subject of survival games, Iris Bull at Feminist Games has an academic analysis on the ways by which the verbs of Minecraft reinforce a highly masculine frontier fantasy. By contrast, Luke Pullen casts a spotlight on Unreal World, a survival game which chooses to depict a 'state of nature' quite different from the Hobbesian anarchy endemic to the genre.

Futures Past

As part of its Easter week of 'revival' articles, Edge has been running quite a few compelling retrospectives, with this article on the enduring legacy of Resident Evil 4 perhaps being the best of the lot:

No matter the tools you acquire (rocket launcher aside) it will always outmanoeuvre you, tightening its noose as effortlessly as a Robotron or Geometry Wars. Having drilled the same rules of engagement deep into your head over several games, it switches them with malicious glee: headshots trigger dangerous mutations, enemies hide their weak spots, paces quicken and slow to disrupt your tactics. It's as though Capcom had always meant to drag its feet a bit with earlier titles, encouraging just the right smidgeon of complacency to creep in before delivering its knockout blow -- and doing so, remarkably, without any apparent sacrifice.

At The AV Club, Anthony John Agnello offers up a thrilling analysis of Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening as atypically morally ambivalent, even nihilistic. Meanwhile, on Eurogamer, Simon Parkin again shows us his amazing skill to cast his interview subjects as empathetic without assigning judgments, in this post-mortem of the original BioShock revealing the office politics, interpersonal friction and long months of crunch leading up to its release.

Curios

At The Daily Dot, Samuel Lingle has an interesting story of how Swedish politicians have begun a tradition of competing in games of Starcraft ahead of national elections.

The Guardian Tech Weekly has posted a full-length edition of its most recent podcast, featuring an interview with Kieron Gillen on what has changed since he first coined the term 'New Games Journalism' in 2004.

And, back on Gamasutra's blogs, Lars Doucet has posted a piece that's sure to cause a commotion: discovering the formula to finding 'hidden gems' on Steam or the App Store.

Dispatches from Vienna

German-language correspondent Joe Koeller is back again with stand-out articles from the German-speaking games blogging community.

First up, Christian Alt comments on the Let's Play phenomenon, spectatorship, and the Roman Coliseum. Meanwhile, Nina Kiel has posted the listing to her upcoming book on gender in games, an abstract for which is available in English.

The German games festival A MAZE recently concluded in Berlin and Superlevel's Benjamin Filitz has returned with impressions from the event. And for the same publication, Sonja Wild has an interview with Marcel-Andre Casasola Merkle, developer of the iOS game Rules.

Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

That's it for this week! Thanks once again to everyone who sent in links via email or by Twitter mention. It's all for you, you know.

And hey: Critical Distance is kept afloat due to generous support from readers like you. If you like what we do and want to help us invoke ancient, nameless gods no one will be able to control, please consider signing up for a small monthly donation through our Patreon.


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