Tag Archives: Game criticism

Criticism and Habits: My Fear of Never Alone

Every Wednesday in high school I went out to do community service that the campus ministry of my Catholic high school facilitated. We would go to nursing homes, care facilities, and homeless shelters, work for a few hours, and return to the comforts of our middle class homes. Every year there would be service trips to different parts of the US, Mexico, and some other places. I went on a few of them: one to West Virginia, the other to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

We went, worked for a few days, listened to and learned from the people living there, and came back to our lives in suburban Massachusetts. I won’t deny that these were formative experiences for me, but how I have viewed those experiences have drastically changed as I’ve gotten older.

I have a tattoo on my back shoulder that uses several objects from Oglala Lakota culture. I’ve thought about mitigating my dislike of it with another tattoo that reads “19 year old white guys don’t understand cultural appropriation,” but there is a part of me that remembers and misses the high schooler that put it together. He was generous in more accepted ways, offering up his time to work in different places. But he was also naive and ignorant of the things he was doing (and, generally, still is).

When I got the tattoo it was to remember to continue community service. Seven years later, I see it as a reminder that the closeness that I felt during that work was not a closeness to the actual community, but a false connection that developed out of the power I had to pick up whenever I wanted to. There were others that would stay in these places for years on end, engaging with the issues and joys of the community. There were even more that couldn’t leave. I was more of an empathetic tourist. Most of the feelings I had ended when I got on the plane or van to return.

This is why I’m afraid of Never Alone, a game made in conjunction with the Iñupiat people of Alaska and Northwestern Canada. It follows the story of Nuna, who has gone out from her village to restore order that a terrible man and forces of nature have disrupted. You can switch characters with your companion, a white fox, to solve platform puzzles and work with the spirits that inhabit the lands. Gameplay is paired with collectible documentary clips, known in-game as cultural insights, that explain various aspects of Iñupiat culture. If you want to know more about the game, Eurogamer published an excellent review of it that ignored the slight mechanical issues others had harped on.

OK. I’m not very afraid of Never Alone, but I’m afraid of myself playing it.

I’m afraid that Never Alone is like that weeklong trip I took to Pine Ridge. I feel like I’ve done a few hours of work and have gone back to my comforts, but I’m not sure about what comes next – if anything. I fear that like the tattoo that I have, I, or other players, will quickly allow the experience of this game to be reduced down to objects that we can easily pick up and examine, removed from their context. I fear that other players will look at it and boil down the Iñupiat to scrimshaw and caribou-skin clothes. I fear this because I’ve personally done it before, albeit with different experiences and outcomes.

I fear that the game facilitates it, with its dissected and separated cultural insights. I fear that the relationship to nature is something that could be taken holistically so quickly and so easily that players might make lazy assumptions. Since the game is manifested as a fantasy, I fear that any struggle we see of the game is one that is tied to nature and not understood as possible products of various systems of dominance. All but one of the cultural insights is a discussion of positive aspects of Iñupiat life (the one exclusion being a discussion of a climate change seemingly without cause). These are the first things that my own brand of criticism puts forth.

This fear is a double-edged sword though. While it might highlight everything that could go wrong, it also shields me from experiencing much of the joy that is in this game. Sure, I still felt the thrill of conquering the challenges when the degree of difficulty ramped up towards the end. I found pleasure in the narrator regularly speaking over my actions in Iñupiat. The visuals made me feel like the world I was put into was alive.

However, these things quickly dissipated once I moved from experiencing them to thinking about the game as a range of experiences.

I don’t mean this to come across as a woe-is-me narrative. Instead, I hope that critics can use it as a note of caution. We will occasionally be forced away from things because of our histories or our understandings. I honestly don’t know what to think about Never Alone, but it feels like my distance has diminished celebration in favor of worry.

And that is what is so fucked up about this. I have to take a step back and get metacritical about this experience because I have an inability to see it as anything positive or productive. My criticality is so housed in negative or contested readings that it is impossible to just go along with what is happening.

I’ve honed a critical practice that is based on noticing the lack of difference to the point that I can’t recognize where to celebrate its existence. In my previous experiences I let an understanding of difference turn to appropriation. I fear that empathy can too easily turn to sympathy or even pity. I don’t doubt the sincerity of the makers of Never Alone, but I know the power of the player in negotiating the meaning and significance of the games they play. For some, only messages of power and hope flow through this game. For me, I only see the pitfalls that these experiences could foster.

This projection of myself into the work is something that critics need to be aware of when interpreting their experiences. Several writers have talked about subjective criticism as of late, and important in this work will be a deeper understanding of how we interact with games and how we project our own critical screens upon them. The critical lenses that we have built up are part of those subjectivities, but a bit more difficult to parse out. They don’t necessarily shape our experiences directly, but shape how we see and discuss those experiences – how we incorporate them into our lives.

There is a point in Never Alone where the aurora borealis above a village turn into ghoulish sprites that will engulf your character. They move around in patterns, their arms open, trying to catch you. Looking back on my experience with the game, these seem like a manifestation of my critical screens. They consume me and take me away from the text, driving me into past experiences. They circulate around certain objects and ideas, programmed to latch onto them. For me, fear of certain things has cast its arms wide, making it more likely that I’ll fall into that frame of mind. The project from here is not working to avoid them, but to find those fallen into less often. Neglecting certain critical screens has led me astray before. It’s impossible to solve this issue, but it may be possible to mitigate its effects.

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A Hook to Grapple With: Transcending Environments with Vertical Accessibility

This E3 is the first time that I’ve paid close attention to the whole spectacle. I’ve only been playing games on a console for a few years now and didn’t really understand how watching game trailers could be exciting. I still don’t really comprehend all of it, but I have come to understand that trailers and early gameplay footage don’t necessarily mean that anything put forth will come to fruition. Cynicism seems to be the name of the game at E3.

I say this to start because I’m declaring something stupid that I nonetheless believe to be true: 2014 is the year of the grappling hook. Grappling hooks were featured in three games shown off at E3 – Battlefield: Hardline, Rainbow Six: Siege, and Far Cry 4. When we put these together with games like Assassin’s Creed, Titanfall, and Infamous: Second Son, which offer (super)natural or biomechanical grappling hooks on the player-character, it seems somewhat obvious that there is a distinct move towards increasing the vertical openness of games. This is not necessarily a new thrust but simply what I think is an increase in the frequency of AAA games attempting to use verticality as a means to create ‘depth’ or be ‘innovative’ or whatever buzzword works.

To start this discussion of verticality, I would like to first turn to how it has been dealt with in another medium – film. Kristen Whissel wrote an article in the early 2000s about how CGI had increased the use of vertical shots in films throughout the 1990s and how that enforced traditional notions of space and power. She writes,

[This article] approaches digitally enhanced verticality as a mode of cinematic representation designed to exploit to an unprecedented degree the visual pleasures of power and powerlessness. Precisely because verticality automatically implies the intersection of two opposed forces – gravity and the force required to overcome it – it is an ideal technique for visualizing power. Verticality thereby facilitates a rather literal naturalization of culture in which the operation and effects of (social, economic, military) power are mapped onto the laws of space and time.

This is a critical argument that can be readily attached to many games without alteration. The loss of vertical power in games like Sportsfriends or Super Smash Bros. equates to loss of life and loss of power within the games. Fall off of a ledge and one must struggle to return to their seat of power or be lost to failure. Miss one of the ladders in that flooding puzzle in Half-Life 2 and you probably will have to start everything over again.

Important to note is that Whissel is dealing with a medium that doesn’t have interaction in conjunction with visual space. For many of the games that I have mentioned already, the power of verticality is not just tied to the space that characters inhabit, but to the abilities of those characters. This is how characters are established as heroes, with their capability to inhabit and embody the power that comes with their access to vertical expanses. It’s how games establish differences between the player character and NPCs. Simply, it’s how the player character transcends their environment. Every Assassin’s Creed hero has been able to scale buildings and reach vantage points that are unavailable to their enemies. This seems to be the case as well with Far Cry 4’s use of the grappling hook (and their gyrocopter), in addition to Watch Dogs’ Aiden Pearce being able to inhabit vantage points well above his enemies through ctOS cameras. It probably isn’t a coincidence that all of those are Ubisoft games.

When we’re talking about these games, we aren’t discussing a struggle to obtain or maintain the power that comes with vertical ability. Instead, we are dealing with a constant that can be accessed by the player. Whissel also writes, “Since extreme forms of vertical movement inevitably involve a violation of physical laws (which often reassert themselves), vertically oriented bodies and narratives provide the ideal form for abstracting power and representing the struggles of the emergent against the dominant – a concept neatly conveyed by the title Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow [the only thing neat about the film].”

Sky Captain, as far as I remember, featured a large number of technological advances that allowed its characters to overcome the environment. Blimps, planes and Angelina Jolie’s eye patch put technology as the only way of attaining and keeping power. These technologies put the characters above their environment, soaring even above the Empire State Building. Here is where the shift in verticality becomes even more interesting. Accessing vertical power is not in the buildings or environment themselves, but in the individual’s ability to climb above that environment. In the early 2000s I remember playing a ton of the Half-Life mod Day of Defeat, a multiplayer FPS set in WWII (the trend at the time). I bring this up because there was always a vertical sense to the maps in this game. I particularly remember maps like Avalanche (a European town square) and Charlie (a D-Day recreation) having vertical spaces that were solely environmental, made of buildings, churches, hills, bunkers, and other natural or man-made structures. These maps allowed for the same kind of accessibility and depth that a grappling hook promises, but entrenched that power into the map instead of placing it solely in the hands of the player.

That isn’t to say that the new AAA games I have mentioned have abandoned environmental verticality. I’ve played a bit of the Hardline beta and there are still plenty of places where a person can obtain and make use of vantage points (and helicopters are still available to both sides of the engagement). Assassin’s Creed games have always used the environment to create tactical advantages, even if only a few characters can use them. However, the point that I’m trying to make here is that environmental verticality seems to no longer be enough for AAA games. Accessible space for all players is being replaced with buy-in options like the grappling hook. Yes, there’s some private property/public space argument here, but I’m unable to fully convey it (hopefully someone else will?).

Why is it that we even desire highly individualized spaces? Battlefield and Call of Duty have been using ‘levolution’ or whatever other terrible word they came up with in their last few iterations. Even Nintendo’s new shooter Splatoon (by far the most interesting shooter to come out of E3 this year) is looking to individualize the map space in a new way, even though it’s mostly horizontal space in that instance. I think part of it is developer’s trying to embrace player creativity and get away from top-down gameplay, freeing up a player’s ability to interact and change their environment. It’s side-stepping world-building and instead merely extending the world, putting the burden of the actual building the life of the world onto the players.

However, I think these sorts of moves are also due to a bit of a shift in how marketers and PR people use words like immersion and depth. Instead of creating these senses by building worlds that reflect a social or cultural period, immersion and depth are measured in how a player interacts with the world. Bioshock and its sequels put the player in worlds that were crafted and conveyed a certain culture. Gone Home contextualized the player through the world it built (see Jill Scharr’s article in Unwinnable Weekly #2 for an excellent article on that world). These games created depth and immersion from the ground-up. These sorts of worlds seem like they would exist even when I turned off the console.

Instead of immersion and depth being used in relation to the world itself, these words seem to be more attached to the interaction between the world and the player. I don’t recall how often immersion and deep were used in relation to the games that I’ve focused on in this article. However, I did recently write on Watch Dogs and the tying of that game to the tag of ‘deep.’ These are not worlds that are deep themselves; they are hollow repetitions of building and character models. Instead the possibilities of depth and immersive quality are being wrapped up in a player’s ability to alter the environment.

I’m certain that there is enough linguistic space available for both of these kinds of immersion/depths to exist (and as this essay shows a new ‘verticality’ is probably also needed). New critical vocabulary doesn’t seem to have been at the top of the list for marketers and PR departments in the past several years, sticking to stalwarts like interactivity and revolutionary instead of stepping out of their conservative lexicon. Perhaps words like ‘plastic’ or ‘malleable’ would be better suited to describe the environments of Watch Dogs or Battlefield than deep or interactive.

Lofty practices generally come with lofty rhetoric, particularly in an industry that promises to revolutionize gameplay every time a new product gets announced. Something that criticism can do is bring that rhetoric back down to earth and put it in line with what the product actually presents to its consumer. An attention to language and crafting a critical vocabulary is one possible avenue for doing this, as we are not tied to the buzzword glossaries that come down from on high before game presentation. Until we do create a more robust vocabulary, we are merely grappling onto the helicopters of PR departments and letting them fly us in whatever direction they please.

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“But that doesn’t mean anger isn’t valuable”: Notes on Critical Proximity 2014

“I think that we need to do more to come into productive conversation with each other, rather than just talking about each other. Many of us had a vaguely similar kind of education – probably too many of us, to be honest. At university I was trained to write about people, rather than writing with them. That’s how essays work: you read up on your topics in journals and books, and then pour short summaries of each prior work into a self-aggradising historiography that only exists to prove that your work is new and unique in some way. It’s the rubric: you have to shit on other people in order to get ahead.”

            – Zoya Street, “Reaching Criticity”

I would have liked to get this post out a few days earlier, but I think the work-induced ruminating and marinating isn’t all that bad. For those of you who don’t know, Critical Proximity (CP) was a conference put together by Zoya and others to discuss the state of the art, what games criticism might have been/be/become. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend, but since they’re considerate people, there was a Twitch stream available to the public and the videos and transcripts of talks have been archived. This is a lengthy post because I want to treat each of the talks individually, there was just too much of value happening there not to. I start with a short essay on the collective conference and then offer individual responses to the talks that have transcripts posted alongside them.

Unfortunately, this is a solo act, but CP itself wasn’t. Why put on a conference about games criticism? Why take this proposed solitary act – criticism – and craft a collectivity out of it? Well, to put it bluntly, without that collective, there aren’t many of us doing this work, and if there are still people doing it, the knowledge produced isn’t anywhere near what has been produced. I’ll talk about this a bit more when I specifically discuss Zoya’s talk, but I would like to note that I know that I’m definitely not writing this post if there isn’t some sense of collective within games criticism. Honestly, I don’t know how seriously I would be taking games at this point in my life if not for that collective of authors and ideas.

The big, over-arching issue that I’d like to talk about in this intro is the audiences of the conference (Sorry, I’m a one-trick pony). As I was watching the talks and looking at the Twitter feed (search #CritProx for some great, short responses to talks) there was a sense that everyone was talking to a slightly different audience. Why is this?

Well, to start with, everyone who sees themselves as being part of this thing has a pretty different background. We’ve studied different things, had different experiences inside and outside of games, and have different expectations of criticism (among other differences). This isn’t a bad thing, but it is an added complication. While Kirk Hamilton and Gaines Hubbell talked about audiences very briefly, I never got a sense of what the audience of CP was, or what the proposed audiences of games criticism for each talk were. Yes, there was this immediate audience – those that showed up to the conference or those tuning into the Twitch stream – but it feels like only looking at that audience would be doing CP a disservice.

Of course, there’s the audience that the name pokes some fun at. CP became something of a pre-conference to the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC). I’m not certain how that happened or how the conference was organized, so I’m unsure of how strong the tie is there, but let’s run with it for a second. It has been central to this generation/movement/period of games criticism to at least purport a utility to games design and development. We’re writing because we love video games and we want to see them get “better” in the broadest sense. We see criticism as a possible vehicle for this. We hope that developers read our work and think about issues like representation, consumerism, player experience and a whole host of other issues. It is a hope and not a reality for the majority of us and I think many are alright with that being the case. We’re just not OK with sitting on the sidelines when it comes to games.

However, many have talked about this before, so how about we expand the audience even more? CP wasn’t about persuading a developer, writer, journalist, designer, etc. Many of the talks might have been addressed to these individual groups, but this wasn’t an individual thrust, it was a collective one. Who was the audience of CP? I think it might be easier to ask: Who wasn’t the audience of CP? For me, CP was saying to everyone who would listen – and there were a good number of people listening – games critics exist, games criticism is a thing, and we’re going to be here whether you care or not. No, that’s too toned down for CP. It was really, we’re going to keep writing and fuck off if you don’t think we should be taken seriously or if you don’t think this knowledge is valuable. It was an amplified and indirect response to those calling for Lester Bangses, Roger Eberts, and Pauline Kaels of games criticism. It highlighted our own celebrities, yes, but also rejected the ideal of that kind of celebrity in its own way.

However, it didn’t come with the stench of trying to legitimate itself. There was no sense of adolescence at CP like in so many other areas of games discourse. There was no mention of the Citizen Game of Video Kanes nor was anyone upset that people might not be listening. What we saw were a group of people who let go of the legitimacy of games argument a long time ago, freeing them up to discuss games themselves. It was a group of people that were hungry for more, of course, but not dependent on it. At the very least, it was refreshing. Much more than that, though, it was empowering. It was a call to action and an invitation. CP said, “Let’s go out and critique games and make games and critique each other. If you’re interested we’ll be here, come over whenever you want to.”

Responses to Individual Talks

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