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This Week in Video Game Criticism: Moving Beyond Sanity Meters

This Week in Video Game Criticism: Moving Beyond Sanity Meters

February 23, 2015 | By Kris Ligman




This week, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us picks from Kris Ligman on topics ranging from the gulf between players and representation to modeling mental health in a more sophisticated way than sanity meters.

Racefail

We start with Kill Screen founder and PBS Game/Show host Jamin Warren, who in the show's most recent episode tackles several of the extant issues of race representation in games. As Warren argues, people of color are still dramatically underrepresented in games, and what representation does exist often falls into stereotypes and tokenism.

Back on Warren's home turf on Kill Screen, contributor Will Partin provides a good companion piece for the above video, going into further detail regarding BioWare's Dragon Age and Mass Effect series and their failure to engage with (human) race issues in a non-abstracted way.

Cutting to the heart of the issue, over on Kotaku Evan Narcisse hosts a roundtable with an all-star panel consisting of Austin Walker, Shawn Alexander Allen, TJ Thomas and Catt Small, discussing the shortcomings of black representation in games from their own vantage points, issues which extend much further than (but certainly includes) diversity among developers.

She's Not Playing It Wrong

Responding to the Kotaku roundtable, Samantha Blackmon of Not Your Mama's Gamer reflects on her recent experience playing Life is Strange and how her experience as a black woman subconsciously inflected how she treated the game's authority figures. This dovetails nicely with a recent essay by Shawn Trautman, on overcoming the myth that there is a 'right' way to play a game:

Based on my experience with the game, the oft-lamented "giant fetch quest at the end" criticism [of Wind Waker] makes absolutely no sense. There is no giant fetch quest at the end for me, and there didn't have to be for you, either. But here's the twist: that criticism is still valid. If someone didn't know that the Triforce shards could be gotten earlier, or they didn't know that they would be important later, I suppose I could do what's been done to me and say their criticisms are wrong because it's their "own fault": they made that annoying fetch quest happen by waiting. But the truth is the game is just as much to blame for not signposting these things well, and "blame" isn't really the point, anyway. If a person plays a game the only way they know how, and the way that makes the most sense for them, their experiences are valid. Categorically. Full stop.

Elsewhere, as part of Aevee Bee's always-splendid ZEAL e-zine, Joshua Trevett offers up a compelling essay on cs_gonehome, a mod which places Counter-Strike combat within the domestic space of Fullbright Company's Gone Home. We soon find out that it's more than a cheap gimmick:

[Counter-Strike] is a game about guns. CS loves guns. Conversely, cs_gonehome feels as though it's fearful of guns. That's because in three broad ways, cs_gonehome plays quite differently from Counter-Strike on a typical map.

And, over on 99 Percent Invisible, Roman Mars chronicles the demise of EA's misbegotten Sims Online, and in doing so reflects on the challenges of games preservation to capture the essence of multiplayer and social games.

The Reason So Many Babies are Born in November

As Valentine's Day covered the Earth in its rose-petaled grip last Saturday, the thoughts of many writers turned to... well, you know. You can consider most of these links not safe for work, just to be on the safe side.

For example, Damion Schubert took a look at -- don't giggle -- a masturbation rhythm game titled Cock Hero. Meanwhile, following another (perhaps classier) thread of erotica, Emily Short surveys recent trends in the sphere of adult interactive fiction ("choose your own erotica"), much of it written by and for women and queer authors.

And naturally, the singular and sensual Cara Ellison has devoted the most recent entry of her S.EXE column over on Rock, Paper, Shotgun to... a search for good platonic male-female friendships in games, coming upon the LucasArts classic Full Throttle. You didn't expect that, did you? Ms. Ellison will not be boxed in!

The Play's the Thing

On As Houses, Leigh Harrison attempts to pin down just what it is about Far Cry 2 which has made it a classic:

It's a game in which your main objective is to shoot things, but also a game which wants you to question the validity of its own existence and those of its contemporaries. It makes you feel insignificant and weak in a genre built upon power, forcing you into the arms of dangerous strangers to make up some of the deficit. [...] Your final betrayal is the game's way of making sure you're listening when it tells you for the last time that war is horrible, that it corrupts and eventually makes liars and thieves - or corpses - of us all. In the end, the only source of true conviction is the game itself.

Meanwhile, on Play the Past, Gilles Roy looks to the strong Greek mythological aesthetic of Apotheon and contends that there's something about it which perfectly suits its gameplay:

The action hero of the video game resembles, in many ways, the action hero of Greek mythology: typically masculine, bereft of psychology, projected into a universe of vivid happenings, quasi-immortal, yet in a perpetual state of existential threat, fighting for redemption. Perched between life and death, the mythical hero exists as an "immovable centre", a bridge between immortals and mortals, story and audience, game and player.

Design Notes

Hamish Todd, who wrote our excellent Level Design Analysis Spotlight, here does a deep dive on a particular room design in the first Doom. Elsewhere, George Weidman shares his enthusiasm for the Resident Evil REmake, and in particular analyzes just what makes it so splendid to play.

Don't miss Critical Switch, a mini-podcast in which Austin Howe and our own Zolani Stewart trade off hosting duties each episode to tackle a particular short subject. In this episode, Howe explores how party size in Japanese role-playing games can take on a symbolic and narrative meaning.

On PopMatters' Moving Pixels, Scott Juster wonders why death, such a mainstay of the Game of Thrones television show, is treated so inflexibly in Telltale's game adaptation. And over on Virtual Narrative, Justin Keever and Miguel Penabella exchange a letter series on Max Payne 3 and discuss how, in a subtle way, it seems to tap the fourth wall just as the first game did:

Max Payne 3 is perhaps best explained as the residual effect of that cognizance [of the first game]. Loosed from Remedy's penchant for ludicrousness and absorbed by neo-Rockstar's proclivity towards straight-faced drama, Max Payne is finally imprisoned in a world that's less parodic than it is abjectly cruel. Max Payne 3's São Paulo is a world of puppeteers, where the poor and desperate fall victim to the whims of the rich and petty in the name of microscopic gains in power – a world of deep systemic corruption whose agents permeate every level of society, like sickly veins extending from a diseased heart. Self-determination is a myth, a falsity for all but the affluent and empowered.

[...]

We didn't pay for Max, we paid for an avatar – a puppet with the capability of violence, without the means to protest the things we make them do. But the nebulous "they" that Max refers to doesn't simply mean the player.

In a striking essay, Jeroen D. Stout identifies what we might call a 'Frankenstein moment': when the systems of a game coalesce with the game's fiction to reveal the finely tuned yet awful implications of the player's actions. Given that Stout refers to Alpha Centauri for much of the article, this pairs well with a recent essay by Civilization 4 lead designer Soren Johnson -- which we also featured on these pages -- on system design deviating from developer intent.

Robert Rath paints a picture on the difference between 'realism' and 'truth' in war-themed games -- and how for as many games are about warfare, few seem to have much to say. Meanwhile, on Paste, Austin Walker bemoans the lazy design and ableism inherent in the ubiquitous 'sanity meter' of horror games, while also looking to more recent titles like Darkest Dungeon to explore how they might offer a more nuanced, culturally responsible representation of mental illness:

Every adventurer starts with an empty stress meter and a few quirks, both positive and negative. These quirks represent a wide range of characteristics, from personal preferences to physical capabilities, from special knowledge to (yes) psychological diagnoses. But mental health isn’t treated as more or less important (or pathological) than other personal traits.

[...]

[One quirk is called] "Guilty Conscience." The mouseover text says that [the character] "bears the crushing guilt of deeds real and imagined." I slide the mouse cursor over this long list of red words and sigh. "I don't even know if 'Guilty Conscience' has a real effect," I say, "but it sounds bad."

The critique Darkest Dungeon is making is of critique of me, and of the culture that taught me to read words like "crushing guilt" and wonder if it has a "real" effect on a person.

Writing for Reverse Shot, Brendan Keogh muses on how sports games simultaneously deploy immediacy (a feeling of inhabiting the game) and hypermediacy (a feeling of witnessing the game as a televised event). In response, Higher Level Gamer's Nick Hanford advances another question: does hypermediacy (or remediation, as he refers to it) really holds water in games over time, and is it the most interesting aesthetic feedback loop going on between games and television?

Remediation works really well when we're looking at the design of sports games and how they are marketed as new experiences, but I wonder what happens when players start their hundredth or two-hundredth contest in these games.

[...]

What I'm more intrigued by is how remediation can be opened up and understood as flowing in both directions. Television has certainly impacted the design of games, but games have also affected the ways that sports are televised. The late-1990's saw the introduction of the Skycam for American football broadcasts that provided a videogame-like, bird's-eye view of the game. While not directly related to the presentation of sports, this year EA started filming NFL rookies' reactions to their in-game statistical representations. Along with that, sports journalists and game companies have pushed the official simulations of championship games for a few years now. If we have these specific instances of change flowing from game to television, I wonder how the experience of games also changes the experience of television.

Closing Time

Thanks for reading! As always, we value your contributions and hope that you'll take the time to send us a link -- your own of someone else's -- for inclusion on these pages, either by Twitter mention or email!

A little signal-boosting: the most recent issue of academic journal Game Studies has gone live with six new articles for your perusal.

Critical Distance is funded completely by its readership! If you like what you see and want to help us advance our current and upcoming features and other exciting projects, consider signing up for a small monthly donation on our Patreon! We really do depend on you.

See you next week!



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