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This Week in Video Game Criticism: Revolutionary Assassins and Phil Fish
This Week in Video Game Criticism: Revolutionary Assassins and Phil Fish
June 23, 2014 | By Kris Ligman

June 23, 2014 | By Kris Ligman
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More: Console/PC, Indie, Design, Production, Business/Marketing



This week, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us picks from Kris Ligman on topics ranging from the historical case for playable women in Assassin's Creed to everyone's opinion on Phil Fish.

All that Fantasy Jazz

At Game Crit Chats, Kaitlin Tremblay and Javy Gwaltney hold a conversation on the unexpected staying power of Fire Emblem Awakening, and in particular, their fondness for its seemingly endless rabbit holes of character dynamics.

At The Appendix, Alex Golub traces how the word 'mana' went from a word with a specific meaning in many Polynesian languages to be adopted as the default term for magical energy in fantasy games and novels.

Lastly, on her own site Infinite Lives, Jenn Frank has been playing Tomodachi Life and finds herself reflecting not just on the imperfect simulation it offers, about recollections in general, and people, and family.

Liberty, Equality, Unity

In his regular column at The Escapist, Robert Rath takes a look at Assassin's Creed: Unity and tracks why, for multiple reasons, relegating women to NPCs in a game set during the French Revolution betrays the spirit of its time period, where women frequently formed the front ranks of political upheaval:

I find it particularly inappropriate in the French Revolutionary period, when women made a concerted effort for representation only to be marginalized and even killed by the government they'd helped bring to power. Though I'm certain Unity's campaign will shed some light on these issues, I worry Ubisoft will tell the story without hearing the lesson. Simply put, we should be able to play as a woman in Assassin's Creed: Unity because playing as a woman is in itself a revolutionary act.

At Go Make Me A Sandwich, meanwhile, wundergeek has doodled an entertaining series of illustrations for why developing playable women in games is so difficult. My favorite is definitely: "Female pixels can only be harvested from special flowers that grow on the moon."

Not too long ago, Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes vs Women in Games series tackled the narrative device of "fridging," whereby important figures in a character's life (usually women) are killed off to catalyze the character's development. At Ontological Geek, Bill Coberly grabs hold of the concept and takes a particular look at fridging in the context of Baldur's Gate 2, where it treats the death of two characters, one man and one woman, very differently.

Speaking of Anita Sarkeesian, the first in the next leg of her games-oriented Feminist Frequency videos, "Women as Background Decoration" has gone live. In it, she particularly challenges the repeated portrayal of women as sex workers to be used and discarded. (Content warning: apart from the scenes of sexual violence Sarkeesian warns for, I should note that some of the video's language regarding sex work is poorly chosen and ends up, consciously or not, communicating the idea that sex work is inherently demeaning or lacks agency. Hopefully the second part of this arc will address this criticism.)

At Game Design Reviews, Krystian Majewski also responds to the video. While not rejecting Sarkeesian's criticisms of sexism, he takes exception to her assertion that depictions of violence against sex workers in games are "worse" than in other media because of interactivity:

If the argument was true, the opposite should also be true. Games ought to teach more effectively. Games ought to makes us more virtuous by portraying morally positive themes. Games ought to convey stories in an even more gripping way. Games ought to make art even artier.

However, this argument never seems to be made. Even in the Games for Change movement, the understanding is that games need to be specifically designed for tease out the positive effects. Meanwhile the negative influence seem to be always there whether intended or not.

To end this section on a warmer note, in The New Yorker we find Simon Parkin recounting what is, to the best of my understanding, the most complete telling to date of the origin of same-sex relationships in The Sims.

Big Fish

In this widely circulated video, Ian Danskin advances the argument that the highly visible negativity directed at Fez developer Phil Fish stems largely from a system of internet celebrity, in which Fish's public statements are only part of the equation.

Problem Attic developer Liz Ryerson directly responds to Danskin's video as being too charitable toward the primary actors involved, instead asserting that there is a pervasive background noise of masculine entitlement which undergirds the behavior of love-to-hate-them indies like Fish or Jonathan Blow -- and it is part and parcel with the increased commercialization of the indie scene:

[Danskin's video], in its inert, smug navel-gazing, merely reflects back the entitlement of the indie world. in the end it offers no particularly controversial or new insights about celebrity culture, but creates a sense of being a relevant and no-holds-barred commentary to those who are intimately aware of the subject matter. it attempts to exonerate Phil Fish to a lot of the young white dudes who are involved in the indie game community and probably want to identify with Fish. [...] but this sudden well of empathy seems to dry up once it's applied to an outsider like [Anita] Sarkeesian.

In a similar vein though leading to a much different artery, at Eurogamer Richard Cobbett characterizes the recent outcries regarding Mojang's attempts to regulate player servers as conflicting with the personable public image of its founder:

We routinely call Markus Persson "Notch" and for that and other reasons, he can't help but feel 'one of us' in a way that no other developer right now can claim - the guy who initially faced Bethesda's guns over the name "Scrolls" by suggesting the two companies fight it out in Quake 3, dropped plans to work with the Oculus Rift due to fears of what Facebook might to do it [...] The same Notch talking about EULAs and lawyers doesn't fit that playful narrative. It's like being threatened with a restraining order by your teddy bear.

The End is Extremely Effin' Nigh

The somewhat-anonymous Greg has updated his tumblr praising the tone of Stoic's The Banner Saga, which he perceives as ignoring the tendency for games to create right and "fair" systems and instead present players with a world in which they will ultimately die. The wonder of the game, as he describes it, is in pressing on despite this.

On a similar bent, on Normally Rascal Stephen Beirne takes to the Dark Souls series again, this time borrowing from German philosopher Nietzsche to describe the game's "optimistic" existentialism:

[D]eath is ubiquitous but it is also deflated as a barrier and as an existential burden. It is no longer the final hurdle of one's life, now it is merely a condition of one's continuing living that you may accept. I have to admit, putting it like that doesn't make it sound so different to death in real life, except for the point that 'one's continued living' in reality remains a point of mystery for those bewildered with existential dread. So I stress: in Dark Souls, death is simply another thing you can do. While all else in Lordran is ruined by decay, you have transcended death as a barrier to worldly life.

It's Systems All the Way Down

Taking off from the spiritual themes hinted at by Beirne, we transition to Albert Hwang's most recent piece for Ontological Geek. You need to offer something very compelling about BioShock Infinite to get into C-D's pages these days, but this analysis of the game's baptism imagery from a rigorous theological perspective does the trick. (It should go without saying, but heavy spoilers abound.)

Meanwhile, as Hwang engages with baptism-as-system in BSI's narrative, PopMatters' Nick Dinicola criticizes Watch_Dogs' failure to actually incorporate hacking as a real system engaged by its protagonist.

Wizards and Glass

At Eurogamer, our own Alan Williamson pays tribute to the original Unreal.

Edge has continued to produce some great retrospectives of late, and this week they have a charming feature via Daniel Robson on Keita Takahashi, an artist who came from outside of the game scene and, through Namco, produced one of its most idiosyncratic titles: Katamari Damacy.

Edge has also continued to post excerpts from Simon Parkin's An Illustrated History of 151 Videogames, and we just couldn't pass up this chapter where he traces the history of the Sega Saturn.

On the subject of books, SPACE/OFF co-developer Anna Anthropy is publishing the complete text of interviews which thread through her most recent book, ZZT, about Tim Sweeny's eponymous MS-DOS title. Here is the first of those interviews, with designer Alexis Janson.

Oh, and you know who else have a book? Kaitlin Tremblay and Alan Williamson have a book. You can get it.

You know who doesn't yet have a book, but wrote about E3 as being a series of ghost cheese sandwiches? That's right, Cara Ellison.

And the Rest, They Say, is...

Thanks for reading! Remember that we are only half the site we could be without your submissions, so please keep sending us your recommendations by mentioning us on Twitter or dropping us a line over email.

And hey, we know this sort of self-promotion gets tiresome, but we really do depend on your help to keep Critical Distance chugging along. So if you like these roundups please consider becoming a Patron!


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Comments


Kyle Redd
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"Apart from the scenes of sexual violence Sarkeesian warns for, I should note that some of the video's language regarding sex work is poorly chosen and ends up, consciously or not, communicating the idea that sex work is inherently demeaning or lacks agency."

Based on statements she has made in her past videos, which includes comparing high school sexuality to pedophilia, it's a safe bet that this is exactly the message Sarkeesian intended to convey. I certainly don't think anyone could interpret any of her beliefs as reflecting a sex-positive mindset.


As a personal aside: It is a great relief to me to see that there may actually be someone at Gamasutra - maybe the lone individual in the entirety of the greater gaming media - who cares about sex workers in a way that does not involve "saving" them from their chosen profession.

Theresa Catalano
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I totally agree with you! I was happy to read that little disclaimer from someone at Gama Sutra. Sarkeesian, for all her supposed feminism, says a lot of things that make me feel very uncomfortable.


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