This week, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us picks from Mark Filipowich on topics ranging from video games' origins in the tabletop roleplaying scene to the cinematic techniques of John Ford and Naughty Dog.
Let’s start with a few pieces on how game design creates meaning through the senses. In part 3 of his ongoing series on lighting, Robert Yang discusses the particularities of lighting 3D games. The three-point lighting system often found in film and 2D games is a great standard most of the time, but, according to Yang, it can't be the standard in 3D spaces:
[developers] think their goal is to achieve great screenshots, and in film / photography / theater / 2D games that is an admirable goal. But as people working in 3D games, our actual goal is to craft some sort of navigable 3D space, experience, or system, and our lighting needs to be part of that context.
Over at Castle Couch, Oliver Bouchard describes how adventure games, Grim Fandango in particular, nurture the development of nostalgia with the design of their spaces.
By the time I was done, I knew the city and its many intricacies. I had exhausted every possible conversation option with all of the people that live there. I wandered around for hours solving puzzles without knowing how they would add to the main story. I was a resident like any other (although it’s possible I was the only one with a purpose). Suffice to say, I lived there.
In a similar vein, Miguel Penabella compares the similar cinematic and writing techniques in The Last of Us and the 1956 John Ford western, The Searchers.
Switching from sight to sound, our own Zolani Stewart hosts this week’s episode of Critical Switch and plays some of the background noises in Mirror’s Edge to illustrate how its sound effects ground the game’s setting and the avatar’s body.
Finally, Ashley Barry, describes the isolating silence that accompanies and deepens both Shadow of the Colossus and Journey.
Ben Gabriel responds to Ian Bogost's systems-centric contention that "Video Games are Better Without Characters" by arguing that characters are themselves systems. If this is a topic you'd like to dig a little deeper into, than I recommend taking a look at John Osborn's submission to April's BoRT, where he offered his own position on this subject.
Likewise, on PBS Game/Show, Jamin Warren discusses the ways that a player’s avatar and in-game behaviors influence the real world, specifically through race. Warren discusses the subject in light of Facepunch Studio’s recent decision to randomize avatar ethnicity in Rust.
Alisha Karabinus at Not Your Mama’s gamer also digs into the systems of representation in games by looking character diversity in the top selling games on the Xbox 360.
Finally, Heather Alexandra closes the topic for now in an article in Paste magazine. Alexandra argues that “Videogames Have a Pessimism Problem” that can only be solved by restoring a lost sense of heroism. Her diagnosis of the kinds of games published in the last decade doesn’t pull any punches:
Created works always reflect the times they are made in and we all contribute to the tone of our time. The American zeitgeist is dominated by hopelessness. How could it not be? Debt cripples our students, the people meant to protect and serve citizens are little more than militarized thugs and our politicians vote to restrict the rights of the marginalized. This hopelessness isn’t unique to America; there are problems everywhere. It’s global.
A Personal Look
At Sufficiently Human, our own Lana Polansky profiles the work of indie developer, Strangethink. Polansky describes the aesthetic commonalities from one game to the next. As Polansky summarizes,
Strangethink’s games have many aesthetic and conceptual calling cards. They’re all pink and blue and made in Unity. They’re all on some level preoccupied with player exploration of space, with designed, virtual space as architecture, and with architecture as guiding not just naked interaction but also the internal work of interpretation. They tend toward a tension between “magic”, the metaphysical and affective, and to the science of construction, the math of procedural generation.
Christopher Malmo interviews the creator of Bitcoin Mining Profit Calculator: Gaiden, Totally Not Satoshi for Motherboard. Their conversation covers their games, cryptocurrency and internet libertarianism.
Rachel Helps offers a brief overview of Taarradhin, a dating sim where the player’s objects of desire really don’t have a lot of interest in them:
The "true ending" only unlocks after you've seen the other endings, as if you, the player, needed to get your selfish romancing desires out of the way before you could start to care about the characters on a deeper level.
Johannes Koski, keeper of the blog Persona Matters, has been overwhelmed with work lately, but has nonetheless found some comfort in the Alarm Playing Game, Dreeps:
For a person labouring under intense stress and lacking free time, Dreeps offered a window to another world. I plucked away at my keyboard all day, and every hour or so I would check on how Ishida (my little android – you get to name it) was doing. It was walking down the long road, encountering hardships that I very much sympathised with. Sometimes Ishida needed to be picked up. Often I felt I needed picking up too.
Writing for Offworld, Aevee Bee describes the agency involved in controlling how her avatars make contact with others. Whether through dodging attacks or controlling the flow of a fighting game, Bee describes the pleasure and power in being the one who “controls the conditions of touch.”
Todd Harper uses Bee’s essay as a launching pad for one of his own. Harper discusses the bodies and movements in games that erase or diminish his own body, along with the ways he’s found to build himself in a game:
Perhaps because there is a strong note of aspiration. I didn’t make my Lady Boss to “reflect” me; I made her of something I wish I could be, and which was just close enough so that I could believe it wasn’t that far off.
Jillian from FemHype describes how games have influenced the perspectives on her body (content warning: discussion of eating disorders). Although games were there when she was too overwhelmed to socialize any other way, they kept their body standards:
In Second Life, the smaller and slimmer my avatar was, the more attention I’d receive. People (in this case, their avatars) would actually initiate verbal contact with the character I created—and it wasn’t to shame me! I was being acknowledged as a human being, which is kind of hilariously pitiful, since my assembled collection of pixels wasn’t human at all. At my lowest, I remember wishing that I, too, could be computer generated like the person-shaped avatar with decisions made by keystrokes.
Mothers and Babies
Bianca Batti discusses gender norms in the baby-protagonist of Among the Sleep. Batti details some of the changing gender expectations the community have brought to the character’s onesie along with the expectations involved in their actions and objectives.
Speaking of babies, Jillian from FemHype has written a very good essay about motherhood, magic, and the monstrous feminine trope in the Dragon Age series.
Strength in Design
The folks at Shut Up and Sit Down have taken Cards Against Humanity to task this week, detailing how its needless, immature, embarrassing and boring design makes it a poor ambassador to the growing board game community. From Paul Deen’s writeup:
In an age of greater awareness, where more and more people push for social change, this game is winking at you and telling you it’s okay to indulge those backward prejudices.
Chris Bateman pens the final chapter in his three-part retrospective of roleplaying and games history, which describes how the tabletop has shaped and reshaped the different ways players can expect to roleplay in various genres.
Stephen Beirne describes ascending an exceptionally long ladder in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater to a disembodied singer as a moment of game-breaking clarity, one with analogues in a pair of Sherlock Holmes-themed games.
… Snake Eater’s ladder is wonderful in being perhaps the most subtle act of media-bending in any Metal Gear Solid, but which acts its magic through channels which are perfectly ordinary in nature. We see the past, the future, we become absorbed in the moment at the same time as we sail high up above in adoration of its dramatic structure.
Finally, our own Eric Swain explains on PopMatters how The Charnel House Trilogy is designed to evoke a sense of theatricality,
We are both an actor going through a set of motions and audience watching the story play out before us. If you think about it, this is really true of any adventure game. Except instead of being incidental, here it is the central design focus.
Dispatches from Vienna
Courtesy of our German Correspondent Joe Köller, let's take a look at what's been happening in the German-language games blogosphere.
The A Maze Independent Games Festival took place in Berlin recently, and audio recordings of all talks are available online. Reporting on the triple A meetup that preceded it, Lisa Ludwing concludes that the German games industry isn't all that exciting.
Sebastian Standke has been interviewing Ludum Dare contestants for a series of 21 profile pieces. Also on Superlevel, Josefiene Pertosa translated the third part of Magnus Hildebrandt's comprehensive guide to the inspirations and cultural reference points of Kentucky Route Zero.
Oh, and there's an interview with the director of a Monkey Island theater production, which is the second most ridiculous idea I've ever heard.
Until Next Time
We’ve been a busy bunch here at Critical Distance, but that’s the way we like it. So if there’s a great piece of games criticism you come across that you’d like to see us feature please get in touch with us on Twitter using the appropriate hashtag or through email.
If you’re looking for more, though, don’t be discouraged, because our Lindsey Joyce has compiled a whole month’s worth of critical Let’s Plays for your viewing enjoyment. On top of that, guest editor Rollin Bishop has put together a critical compilation of a whole swath of articles on Dragon Age II.
Lastly, Critical Distance remains a community funded project and if you enjoy the projects we’re a part of please take a look at our Patreon page and consider contributing a small monthly donation. We'd really appreciate it!