2014 has been a whirlwind of a year full of travelling and pumping out tens of thousands of words for my PhD. I certainly did not read as much as I have read in previous years, but a lot of what I did read left a great impact on me. Still, this caveat is my way of saying that you should not take this list as an absolute ‘Best of’ games writing of 2014 but just a list of games writing that made enough of an impact on me that I have remembered it to include on this list. You should certainly also keep an eye out for Critical Distance’s and Good Games Writing’s end-of-year lists for more great stuff that I’ve not included here.
David Sudnow – Pilgrim in the Microworld
People have been telling me for years to read David Sudnow’s book Ways of the Hand. In it, academic and jazz musician David Sudnow recounts the deeply embodied and phenomenological way the hands learn to play jazz music at the piano. It’s not only a terrific descriptive analysis of how jazz piano music functions, but of how consciousness is not the only way to know things. We know things in our hands, in our feet, in our mouth. It’s why we don’t have to consciously think just to walk down a footpath, and why a slightly too-large shoe that effectively makes your foot longer than your body knows it to be can trip you up with every step. Body knowledge!
This is, of course, incredibly relevant to videogame play. Especially the idea of hands learning and knowing fine motor skills. It’s an incredibly relevant book for thinking about how hands function in videogame play and videogame literacy. It inspired me to write my own academic article (forthcoming… hopefully) about what the hands know at the gamepad controller, the way you roll your thumb across buttons so as to press two adjacent buttons at the same time. Things like that. Halfway through a draft of this article, I thought maybe I should look at Sudnow’s second book, Pilgrim in the Microworld. Pilgrim in the Microworld, it turns out, is about videogames.
It does not offer the same close phenomenology as Ways of the Hand, but it is no less descriptive and insightful in its analysis of early videogame culture. Discovering this book, published in 1983, felt like finding a 1980s downtown arcade perfectly preserved under a glacier, complete with the un-ageing people who frequented the establishment. Pilgrim in the Microworld starts with Sudnow playing Missile Command at a friend’s house and being immediately enamoured by it, immediately wanting to understand what this weird thing is. He goes out and buys his own machine and becomes obsessed with Breakout!. He must get the perfect game, and he dissects the game, its development, its culture to get there.
What most strikes me about Pilgrim in the Microworld is how effortlessly Sudnow conducts himself when confronted with this new artform. He is excited, to be sure, but not carried away by that excitement in the way that too much writing about games, even today, is. He is not trying to defend videogames or glorify them. He is not trying to make sure some core gamer-identifying readership feels really righteous about their hobby. He is trying to understand this thing and he does it with this fidelity and nuance, as an utter outsider to the medium, that so few people even today are capable of. His ability to link videogames to pre-digital games, to television, to software engineering, to popular youth culture at the time, is just so remarkable in its effortlessness.
On top of this, it is just a really good, timely read. People often say Killing is Harmless is the first book about a single videogame, but Pilgrim in the Microworld is effectively an entire book dedicated to appreciating Breakout! written nearly thirty years earlier, and it is so marvellous.
Pilgrim in the Microworld is out of print, and Sudnow sadly died in 2008. I’m sure if you looked around the internet you might be able to find a pdf somewhere, though. I can’t recommend highly enough that you do this. Not only is it a significant and overlooked piece of videogame criticism history, it’s also just a very good book with observations as relevant today as they were two decades ago.
Samantha Allen – “Mario Kart 8 and the Centipede’s Dilemma”
I read Allen’s terrific piece about trying to teach a friend how to drift their kart while I was a) trying to write the above mentioned article draft about how fingers learn gamepads; and b) not long after having a similar experience with my partner and Mario Kart 8. Drifting in Mario Kart 8 is so difficult to explain to somebody, but so crucial to being able to not only play but to enjoy that game. It’s the kind of thing that you, eventually, just ‘get’. But just ‘getting’ something is not useful when you are trying to teach someone how to play a game. Finding vocabularies for this stuff is so important, and Allen does a phenomenal (and phenomenological!) job of drawing that out.
Austin Walker – “Real Human Beings: Shadow of Mordor, Watch Dogs and the New NPC”
This article is such a solid, solid piece of writing. ‘Personal’ writing around videogames, especially after New Games Journalism got way too popular, is often criticised for not just being ‘subjective’ but for not really talking about the game at all, instead using the game as an excuse for the author to talk about themselves. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and one I have certainly been guilty of myself (though, really, I’m not sure a piece of writing not being really about the game but instead using the game to talk about something else is necessarily a bad thing). Walker’s article is terrific because it threads together personal experiences of race in America with analysis of two games that, on the surface, seem utterly different. It takes a complicated topic, grounds it in relevant broader discourses, and wraps it all up in personal, located experience.
Anna Anthropy – ZZT
Videogames culture needs more histories. We know the dominant narrative of Spacewar! to Pong to Atari to Mario to PlayStation very well, but it’s a narrative that is very linear and which is very tidy at the risk of obscuring a whole lot of fascinating messiness.
Anthropy’s ZZT achieves this not by trying to write a ‘history of videogames’ narrative but instead focusing on a very specific history of a community that formed around a particular game in a particular time. When I read ZZT, I had this real sense that this was an important historical document. Here, on these pages, is the retelling of something that happened in videogame culture, recorded for the ages. That seems like something we need a lot more of.
I always found myself really impressed with how effortlessly Anthropy moves from the analytical to the nostalgic to the historical to the personal. She takes us from a personal anecdote to how she played ZZT as a kid to a finely detailed but still accessible detailings of how the game works (an invaluable setup for readers such as myself who have not even seen a screenshot of ZZT) to discussions of its code makeup to the communities that made this code do what they wanted it to do. It’s so grounded, so accessible, and so clear and, unsurprising for Anthropy, so grounded in a broader sense of culture and politics and not just Videogames as this thing disconnected from the rest of society. Easily the best book produced by Bossfight Books to date.
Darius Kazemi – Jagged Alliance 2
Look, it’s no Killing is Harmless but it is pretty good, I guess.
In seriousness, Kazemi’s attempt to find a different approach to longform game analysis as different as possible from my overly-interpretative textual analysis is a nice, easy read, and provides a solid ‘making of’ style analysis of Jagged Alliance 2. A lot like ZZT, it provides a valuable historical account of what this game is and why it exists. I wrote more about Kazemi’s book in relation to my own book here.
Maddy Myers – “’Troid Rage: Why Game Devs Should Watch Alien—and play Metroid—Again”
I missed this piece when it first came out, but went back and read it after I played Alien: Isolation and was trying to find writing about that game. This piece is not about that game, but is uncanny and almost prophetic in what it says Metroidvania games can learn from Alien and Ripley considering Isolation then proceeded to do many of these things. Reading this piece, I felt like I understood Isolation better, which is remarkable considering it predates the release of that game by a few months.
Maddy Myers – “Femme Doms of Videogames: Bayonetta Doesn’t Care If She’s Not Your Kink”
Bayonetta was never my kind of game, and so I have no interest in playing the sequel. What I did love about the first game, however, was all the interesting and intricate discussions that emerged around it that pointed towards that complex position of the player as both actor and viewer and how concepts like ‘the male gaze’ really struggle to encompass that hybridity. In this piece, Myers advances those discussions that started around the first Bayonetta and inevitably restarted with the second one. She covers a lot of ground and holds together a lot of threads while being neither reductive nor obtuse. It’s a really great piece of writing! I don’t personally feel so strongly about abolishing the idea of the male gaze completely, but it makes a very compelling case for thinking more critically about it as a concept. This is probably one of the few pieces from this year that I didn’t just ‘enjoy’ reading but from which I think I really learned something.
Michael McMaster – “On Formalism (re: Mountain; videogames; watching ice melt)”
McMaster is one of the developers of Push Me Pull You, all four of whom are smart and critical and engaged thinkers and creators. When everyone was struggling to figure out how to even approach the iOS game Mountain without feeling angry or cheated or pretentious, McMaster wrote this post about formalism that got right to the heart of things, explaining less why Mountain is or isn’t good, but where you even need to come from if you wish to even begin to understand it at all. It was a pretty crucial article for my own figuring out how I felt about Mountain.
Zoya Street – “Impossible, Impermissable, and Queer: Rules, norms and laws as theorised in Japanese games blogging”
Street is a really important historian and critic if only because he manages to tap into so many different histories and discourses that it is incredibly easy to ignore. I really liked this analysis he did of a conversation in the Japanese videogame blogging community not only because the content of those blogs, blocked off to most Western readers by the boundary of language, is valuable to a broader audience, but his analysis of those blog posts gives us a significant lens on how other cultures and languages are approaching videogames ontologically and, in turn, better help us to understand how our own language and culture is responsible for our own way of understanding videogames.
Zoya Street – Delay: Paying Attention to Energy Mechanics
Street also published a book this year. I proofread an earlier draft of Delay, and its title is a nod to an academic article of my own called “Paying Attention to Angry Birds” (shucks). Delay is important because it treats seriously a game element that it is too easy to just dismiss as exploitative and cheap: the energy mechanic of casual and social games. Casual and social games are so often dismissed because their moneymaking motivations are so transparent. I guess we prefer our corporate products to whisper sweet lies to us while they try to make a profit. I have a personal agenda in treating mobile and casual and social games seriously, understanding what they offer instead of just dismissing them outright simply because they are are anathema to core gamer and game design values and aesthetics. Street does the same here, closely analysing energy mechanics and understanding them rather than dismissing them, drawing together developer interviews and game analysis to do so. In a world where casual game design ideals and engagements are clearly visible in blockbuster games like Destiny, with its daily and weekly challenges and dripfeeding, paying attention to this stuff is incredibly important. We’re lucky we have Street.
Ian Williams and Austin Walker – “Working for the Love of the Game: The Problem with Blizzard’s Recruitment Video”
This article sort of serves as a follow up to Williams’s 2013 article at Jacobin about the games industry (you should read it) with more critique of how the games industry presents itself to both players and potential employees. The games industry’s (and the tech industry’s more broadly) obsession and mining of ‘passion’ is well-document, but always demands more scrutiny. Williams and Walker do a great job of it here in relation to a specific recruitment video offered by Blizzard. If you find this stuff interesting and can deal with something a bit more academic, I can’t recommend strongly enough that you read de Peuter and Dyer-Witheford’s Games of Empire.
Leigh Alexander – Life Hacks: A Netrunner Story
This article convinced me to try Netrunner and, perhaps more importantly, convinced me to stick with it through that steep, early learning curve. It’s still probably the best piece of writing that really captures the magic of Netrunner.
Adam Saltsman – VANQUISH RETROSPECTIVE
Hands down my favourite piece of writing about a videogame written in 2014. I love everything about this piece, not least of all its punkish existence on pastebin (I’ve archived a copy for my personal library because we cannot lose this piece). Saltsman’s exegesis on why Vanquish is such a good game feel like a Tim Rogers article, like something I would normally read on Insert Credit. It just rolls on and on and on and goes from the fine-grained to the broad to the historical to Speed Racer and back again. It’s just a remarkably concise and enjoyable piece of writing that so succinctly communicates why the author thinks this game is great. When developers write this well about videogames I get anxious about my own relevancy.
Geoff Keighley – The Final Hours of Titanfall
All I knew of Keighley before reading The Final Hours of Titanfall was some joke about Doritos and Mountain Dew and Halo, and some apparently terrible videogame award show that, despite being terrible, every American I follow on Twitter insists on watching every year. So I felt pretty bad when, reading this, I realised he is also a pretty good games journalist!
A very mainstream, industry, enthusiast games journalist, to be sure, but a good one! This book (well, ‘app’) uncritically relies on words like ‘gameplay’ and ‘immersion’ more regularly than I would usually like, and is sometimes positive about its object of study the way a studio-sanctioned Making Of documentary on a movie’s DVD release often is, in that way you’re not sure if you are just consuming a long ad or not. But despite this, Keighley tells the bizarre and fascinating story of Titanfall and, through it, the even more bizarre and fascinating story of Respawn studio, the phoenix studio of the Call of Duty creators after they fled Infinity Ward and Activision. I felt like I was given a lens onto triple-a game development that I so rarely have access to. Weird little things like how the developers spent a year trying to making Titanfall work in the Rachet & Clank engine, and how the ongoing lawsuit with Activision affected the studio’s culture. It’s so rare to really be able to comprehend and understand why a triple-a game is the way it is, so this book was greatly appreciated.
Cara Ellison – EMBED WITH GAMES
Ellison’s whole EMBED WITH GAMES project has been so great to read and so exciting to watch form. I love the way she focuses on people and, through those people, often manages to say something interesting about a particular group of people, or even a scene. I love how Ellison just embraces the subjective and the gonzo, and I love the insights it allows her to make. She shines the spotlight on some incredible people, some only previously known as obscure online celebrities, but many others not known at all. In each case, Ellison’s ability to render them as human is such an important jolt to how we think about games as things that people make.
Dan Golding – The End of Gamers
This blog post isn’t even called The Death of Gamers! Gamergate sure did revise some history! Anyway, one of the first posts that the Gamergate followers wilfully misread in order to feel slighted and righteous remains a really great and scathing breakdown of the problems with the ‘gamer’ label, how it was cultivated, and who it serves. Golding’s follow up post is also worth a read.
Dan Golding – Notes on Ubisoft’s Charlotte Corday
During the backlash towards Ubisoft when they foolishly claimed they didn’t have the resources to create playable women characters (and thus implying that everything they did have the resources for is more important than women), Golding wrote a tweet that was a particularly great burn. It got retweeted and retumbled thousands of times, so Golding elaborated on it with this post, which is also a great burn.
Dan Golding – A Short History of Video Games
Not really writing, but Golding was commissioned by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to create a four-part radio series on videogame history. I’ve only listened to the first two parts so far, but it does a great job of both telling the popular, dominant narrative, but also acknowledging that that is just one narrative, and talks to a lot of great people who really help to complicate things while also keeping it accessible to a broader, Radio National kind of audience. The Australian focus on the history is refreshing, too, but doesn’t prevent this from being worth a listen for international people as well.
All of David Kanaga’s blog posts
I got way into David Kanaga’s old blog posts early this year while reading them for PhD research. I wrote a primer about how to approach them here.
Liz Ryerson – “Indie Entitlement”
Ryerson continues to be one of the most valuable voices in videogames. She has this wonderful ability to be simultaneously polemic and nuanced, unforgiving and consolatory. I just really like her writing and really appreciate her voice, even (especially) when it challenges or counters my own thoughts. This post, in response to a video about Phil Fish and internet celebrities, breaks down the issues with mainstream ‘indie’ and its hegemonic tendencies.
Liz Ryerson – “on ‘queerness’ & making things for yourself”
Just another really great piece by Ryerson that is challenging and important. Particularly for me as I’ve previously used ‘queer games’ as a catchall phrase in places I probably shouldn’t have.
So that is some good writing that had an impact on me this year! Of course there was also the start of Unwinnable Weekly and The Arcade Review, both of which have been full of great and regular writing, independently published. And also a stack of important writers moving to Patreon like Lana Polansky, Mattie Brice, Merritt Kopas, Aevee Bee, and Cameron Kunzelman. All have written articles that I have enjoyed this year, and it is exciting to see them find ways to be supported beyond an enthusiast press that is more concerned with not losing a core readership of gross gamergaters than in actually supporting diverse voices. I think it’s telling that not one article I’ve mentioned in this post is published on a games-centric outlet. Here’s to next year continuing the trend of great writers looking to write about games for outlets beyond the traditional, outlets of ‘games journalism’ narrowly defined.