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This Week In Video Game Criticism:  Portal 2  Tricks And Temporal Fluidity

This Week In Video Game Criticism: Portal 2 Tricks And Temporal Fluidity

May 5, 2011 | By Ben Abraham

May 5, 2011 | By Ben Abraham
More: Console/PC, Art

[This week, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us picks from Ben Abraham on the storytelling tricks in Portal 2 and how games use the concept of time to their advantage.]

Two weeks away and I feel like it's been a month! Thanks again to our fantastic contributors Kris and Ian, who both did a fantastic job. Also, thanks to everyone sending in recommendations via twitter and email, keep ‘em coming.

Let's get a couple of older pieces out of the way first: For the more theory minded, Robert "Radiator" Yang summarizes key points from Dan "Dear Esther" Pinchbeck's 2010 PhD dissertation that attempts to present, quote, a "unified field theory of FPS games". If you think that's an astonishingly ambitious task, you're probably right. But it seems like a reasonably solid attempt.

Gus Mastrapa asks ‘What do Portal 2, Watchmen and Citizen Kane Have In Common?' and in true journalistic fashion answers his own question:

"Part of what makes Citizen Kane such a revered film is the way that Orson Welles reached into his filmmaker's bag of tricks and used nearly every tool at his disposal to tell his story... I don't think Portal 2 quite leverages each and every tool that games have to offer... Much of the brilliance of Portal 2 is that it only uses the tricks it needs."

Speaking of Portal 2, Kirk Hamilton reviews said game for Paste Magazine, and while we don't normally link reviews, this one gets an exemption because it's more of a photo essay than your typical review. It's a hybrid review/criticism piece (and it's criticism in the positive sense) that tries to explain, via the metaphor of stacking dominos, what it's like to play Portal 2.

And what do you know, working on the piece itself taught Hamilton something about game design itself. It's a pretty singular game that also teaches through the reviewing process itself. He writes, "Interestingly enough, I actually learned a thing about design as I progressed. I was initially constructing the shapes from the beginning to the end, which meant that by the time I got twenty dominoes in, a single mistake could undo all the work that led up to it. In other words, I was unwittingly enforcing old-school game design upon myself, making a game with no checkpoints and a single life. Death resulted in starting all over again. It was stressful."

John Walker at Eurogamer has a neat retrospective of Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. He explains the game's unique situation thusly: "The Longest Journey is my favorite game. It's not the best game ever made. It's not the best-written, although it's up there. It certainly isn't the best example of an adventure game. But it's the game that most touched me " a game that literally changed my life."

At the Necessary Information blog, author Will discusses ‘Length as Storytelling' in the Persona RPG series. And at the Game Critics blog, Chris Green is pretty sure ‘The Kids Aren't Alright', in an examination of a couple of games that have used children prominently to elicit emotion: Heavy Rain, Limbo and the trailer to Dead Island.

Blogger K. Cox at the Your Critic Is In Another Castle blog takes some time out to meditate on the adventure game genre, and ends up discussing the difference between tag-based and folder-based sorting. At Gay Gamer, Denis Far looks at the Nintendo character of Birdo, and the discussions about the character's gender that have proliferated inside and out of games:

"Ultimately, Birdo is one of those strange occurrences in games history, where she started off as a seemingly throw-away character and has somehow become a mainstay whose gender is only questioned outside of Nintendo-proper. Therefore, while in game her trans identity is not really discussed, the evolution of her character in meta terms is much more telling. Particularly as it shows that no matter what, there are some rather ignorant people who will always insist she is a man dressed as a woman. The story of Birdo becomes a telling story of how trans people live in the public light."

At PopMatters this week G. Christopher Williams rewinds time to look at Jordan Mechner's critically lauded games based around the manipulation or organization of time. Williams starts with the assertion that, "As an artistic medium, the video game is unique in its ability to play with time" which seems like an oversimplification, but let's see where he goes with it. He mentions numerous examples in other media that also play with time, seemingly contrary to his assertion, from painting to cinema to literature.

He writes, "Video games, however, are rather uniquely suited to 'plays' with time. Unlike the static images in many of the visual arts or the comforting linearity of textual and cinematic narratives, games have always included temporal disruptions and events that are essentially "do overs".

And lastly, William French writing at Bitmob this week talks Buddhist sand mandalas and building things in Minecraft with the sole purpose of eventual destruction. The beginning of a productive series, we hope.

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