Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Sum of Writing

Here is another writing update to keep this blog kicking.

This past month I started a new column at Gameranx called "A Sum of Parts" where I am spending an entire month and four articles dissecting and examining a single game. The point of it is not necessarily to say something more profound about the game as a whole, but to draw more attention to the 'bits' that make that whole work. To get things rolling this month I started with Driver: San Francisco. There is so much I wanted (and still want) to say about this fabulous game that it was a privilege to have the chance to get those thoughts down somewhere.

To start with, I flipped my old Unwinnable piece to say that not only are videogame worlds dreamlike, but dreamworlds are gamelike, and I discussed how Tanner always constructs goals for himself that he can only achieve through less efficient means. Second, I looked at one of Driver SF's more interesting and bizarre missions: the second-person challenge where you are following the car you are controlling, and looked at what that says about the player-character relationship. Third, I looked at the reoccurring motif in the game of the media influencing Tanner's thoughts and the design of the game, most noticeably through the phrase "Eyes on the city". And, finally, I looked at what Janet H Murray called "actively creating belief". I think it is a really powerful concept for understand how videogames are interpreted more broadly, and I tried to explore it through the ways both Tanner and the player convince themselves that Tanner's dreamworld is 'real'.

So that's it for Driver SF writing from me for a while. If you have been reading that series, I'd love to hear your feedback, be it positive or negative. Anything you would like to see me do differently with future games?

In other writing, a couple of pieces I have floating around the quaint old world of print media have found their way online. There's this review of Lone Survivor from PC Powerplay, and this studio profile of Supergiant Games (of Bastion fame) from Edge that I wrote after visiting the studio during GDC.

In addition to that, my regular Unwinnable writing (including this article about playing with TVs) is still happening, as is my "You Know What I Love?" column at Games On Net (this month I wrote about diegetic HUDS and songs).

Finally, if you follow me on Twitter, you may be aware that I have been enamoured by a certain Spec Ops: The Line game, and you might be wondering why I haven't written anything about it yet. The Line is one of those games that speaks so well for itself, as a critic I am not too sure what else there is to say about it. Sure, I could write an article about what it means to be able to see Walker's face reflected on a targeting computer, but you already know what it means. It's not because the game is blunt with its message; it is because the game is so good at saying exactly what it is trying to say, so what do you need me for? So, that is why I am yet to write any articles about it. The most interesting articles about The Line have, in fact, been the pieces that are highly negative of the game, because they are saying something the game isn't saying (even if I disagree with the vast majority of them). So writing positive criticism of the game and its themes has been a challenge for me. There is just so much to say but nothing that the game didn't say for itself.

So instead of writing an article or two exploring The Line's already well explored themes, I am experimenting with writing a much longer... thing. I am doing what I am tentatively calling "a critical reading" of The Line where I am writing my way through the game, chapter by chapter, scene by scene (I even more tentatively thought about calling it "embedded New Games Journalism but yeah, no). It isn't simply a walkthrough and it isn't simply lip-service fan-fiction (Christ, I hope it isn't, at least). Instead, it is starting with the themes that the game is exploring, and going through the game with a pair of tweezers and a magnifying glass to look at how everything in the game contributes to that theme. I'm not writing about what The Line means (though that is certainly a part of it) so much as how it means.

It's going to be long; I'm currently averaging about 2000 words a chapter. Too long for an article, or even a series of articles. Instead, I am planning on putting it together as an e-book and perhaps selling it online for a few dollars a piece. Maybe through MagNation or something similar. I don't know the first thing about doing this, but we'll see how it goes. And, if it is successful, critical readings of games (or whatever I decide to call this) might be something I do more often in the future. We'll see! But yes, that is where all my The Line writing is going, and hopefully you can expect to see that surface towards the end of this month. Hopefully. In the meantime, I will still be around the internet, doing what I do.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Haps

Well, it's been a while since I have posted anything here at Critical Damage so I feel like I should post a quick update as to what I have been up to around the internet and beyond.

Firstly, I imagine you saw my somewhat emotional blog post from about a month ago about videogame culture's (videogame cultures' is perhaps more accurate, I guess) rape culture and sexism. It... got a little bit of attention. I started this blog in 2009. About half of the 80,000 page views I've had since then are on that post. For those playing at home, that means that post has had nearly 40,000 views. So yeah. A little bit of attention.

I've been meaning to post a follow-up to it. Mostly I want to write about how utterly naive I was when I posted it, thinking that it wouldn't cause such a commotion. I want to write about how so many female writers had already made the exact points I made in that post and have been making it for years (and have made them far more succinctly) yet it took a straight white guy to say something to really cause a shitstorm. I want to write about how the privileged misogynerds that disagreed with me went to lengths to prove the faults in my post, whereas when a woman writes something the same commenters go to lengths to prove the faults with them as people. No one sent me death or rape threats. No one designed a game where players can bash me up. I want to write about how the response to my piece and the relative decency of it just goes to show the inequality in videogame culture and the privilege I have as a male to talk about such things. A privilege that many others among us, those most affected by this shit, don't have.

Hopefully there will be a chance to write that article in the near future, but the first post was so utterly draining (physically and mentally) that I just haven't been able to yet. Still, it's been really good to see the discussions of inequality and rape culture and the such in videogames persist since the Hitman: Absolution trailer. Which is not to try to claim I started it. Many others wrote things before me, alongside me, and after me. But it definitely feels like we are reaching some kind of critical mass in this discussion. Some kind of tipping point. At least, I really hope so.

Beyond that, I've been really busy with writing elsewhere on the internet. I have three regular writing commitments now. At Games On Net, my "You Know What I Love?" column continues fortnightly. Which, uh, I would be linking to here but the most recent Games On Net redesign seems to have destroyed all my URLS. Hrmm. Well, you'll have to believe me they are there. Meanwhile, over at Unwinnable (which is fast becoming my favourite website for consistently strong videogame criticism) I am writing weekly pieces. Often these are iOS review-things under the column heading "Pocket Treasures", but sometimes they are other musings. And, starting this week, I have another weekly column over at Gameranx called "A Sum Of Parts". Here I am spending each month looking very specifically at several themes/elements of a specific game. I'm really excited to have the opportunity to spend an extended period of time (and word space) on elements of a single game, rather than doing a quick, general overview of the game. I'm starting the column off this month with Driver: San Francisco which, having just finished my second playthrough, is fast becoming one of my favourite games of all time. You really need to play it.

With these three regular pieces, I feel like I've made some kind of transition of late from videogame 'journalist' to 'critic'. It's a pretty blurred like and the two terms overlap pretty dramatically, but I feel like I have finally found a balance where I can primarily just write meaningful things about games without focusing on whats relevant to 'news', and that makes me happy. I still do write some pieces that would perhaps fit better under the category of 'journalism' than 'criticism' (such as a profile and interview I have with Jonathan Blow in the August issue of Hyper magazine), and some pieces that really straddle the two (like this piece for Edge magazine about Journey, Proteus, and Dear Esther), but by and large I feel like my focus is now squarely on producing videogame criticism. Whatever that is.

Which is largely probably because of the PhD I started at the beginning of this year, but have yet to really speak about here. I won't go into too much detail here, but ultimately I am concerned with forwarding a videogame phenomenology (or ontology, or aesthetics, or whatever term I decide I like next month) that can help construct a more robust academic videogame criticism. As literature has literature studies and film has film studies, I want videogames to have videogame studies. A field focused on the study of videogame texts and their meanings. I want videogame criticism to be a thing, more of a thing than it already is, and I guess my non-academic work is reflecting that.

And finally, you should go and grab a copy of issue 7 of the zine Ctrl+Alt+Defeat. I have an article in there about Just Cause 2 as my 'comfort game', but the reason you should pick it up is to read Kris Ligman's superb article about Skyrim and hoarding. It is a magnificent piece of New Games Journalism with an immaculate blend of personal story and game description. So much New Games Journalism gets this balance wrong and ends up saying nothing at all; Kris manages to get it perfect and says something meaningful and special about both the game and her personal experience. I really can't recommend it enough. You can look at the issue in your browser here, but I strongly recommend going here, registering, and just grabbing a free PDF (or paying some money for a print copy if you really feel like it).

So that is where I am at with things presently. I don't always update this blog when I publish articles elsewhere, but that is something I should get back into the habit of doing. Though I do have this poorly formatted page of all my writing that I try to keep up to date. I also always link to my work on Twitter, if that is something you use. So yes. Those are the haps.