My Own 2015, and Some Good Stuff I Read

In 2015 I got married, moved interstate, completed a PhD, and started a new job. It has been a pretty full on year! Amidst all that, it doesn’t feel like I wrote all that much beyond my academic work. Yet, now that I am looking back at it, I actually wrote a fair bit! Mostly in the first half of the year since the last six months or so have seen me mostly devoured by my PhD thesis as I worked to finish it off.

In 2014’s version of this post, I remarked on both my own and other critics’ growing disillusionment with writing about games generally and the institution of ‘game journalism’ in particular. Especially in the wake of gamergate, many more critical writers began to realise those core outlets would never be an outlet that would truly support their writing. Some left writing about games entirely, while others began pitching their games writing to a broader, more general audience. I personally took the latter path. I all but gave up on pitching to core game journalism outlets in 2015, choosing instead to write for places that don’t focus on just games. Places such as OverlandReverse Shot, and ABC’s The Drum. Continue reading

The 20 Best Games I Played in 2015

For the last few years I have compiled a reflection on the top twenty games that I played in that year (2014, 2013, 2012, 2011). I do this partly because creating ranked lists is fun, and partly because it encourages me to remember games and experiences beyond the immediate past. Importantly, I deliberately ensure these lists are of games I played throughout that year, not games that were released that year. That a game came out in 2009 is no reason for it to not stand on its own against a 2015 game, unless you only measure games by a boring and particularly reductive measure of technological fidelity.

As usual, I am going to list twenty games this year. Last year, I decided to do away with numbered rankings. This year, I am doing numbers again mostly just because I feel pretty confident with the order I have placed them.  Continue reading

Videogames Without Players

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I made a Super Mario Maker level recently called “You Need Two POW Blocks” (7A92-0000-00EB-B2CB). It’s an autoscrolling level, so you can’t go back towards the beginning. At the end of a corridor is a door floating in the air, two grid cells up from the ground. The only way to enter this door is to place two POW blocks on the ground underneath it, one stacked on the other. The only POW blocks on the level, however, are back at the start, and you can only carry one at a time, and you can’t throw a POW block without destroying it. I made this level once I noticed that if a POW block or P-Switch falls on your head while you are already carrying one, it will bounce forward until it lands on the ground. If the player is very careful, they can move a falling POW block by headbutting it down the corridor, and thus end up with two POW blocks at the end of the stage.

mx9uuywThis is probably not a good level, in the sense that no one who has played the stage on Super Mario Maker’s online community is yet to actually complete it. It is frustrating and obtuse, and it is not entirely clear what you are meant to do. Indeed, no one has completed the last four levels I’ve uploaded. Each of them require fairly intricate and fiddly combinations of Super Mario World mechanics that the original game never actually required. On one stage you have to throw a red shell in the air, then do a spin-jump to catch the shell in mid-air and land on a piranha plant to spin-bounce over a canyon with the shell in hand. On that same stage you have to jump on a P-Switch in mid-air, and somehow get a POW block to the top of a beanstalk. Continue reading

A Play of Bodies: Read My PhD Thesis

The PhD thesis I have spent the last four years working on is now finished and available for anyone to read. It is about videogames, what bodies do with them, and what they do with bodies. It’s an accumulation of my thoughts and ideas over the past five years on what videogames are, how we engage with them, and how we might talk about how we engage with them.

I would like to think I’ve written it in a manner that a non-academic and even a non-gaming reader might get something out of it. At least, insofar as that is possible for a PhD thesis. The genre that is the PhD thesis requires a certain denseness as you both have to prove you read all the correct things and be defensive of your position. That inevitably means the writing isn’t the most exciting thing to read.

But despite that, I am really happy with how it turned out, and I truly believe there is some significant stuff in here for both videogame studies and videogame criticism. I am really excited for you to finally be able to read it!

If you don’t want to read the whole thing or if you are just generally curious to see a deadline, this is how the thesis is structured:

The Introduction accounts for the importances of considering the player-and-videogame as a single object of analysis, rather than distinguishing them into a player/game hierarchy.

Chapter One introduces a bunch of theory and argues that how the participatory nature of videogames does not render them immune to textual analysis.

Chapter Two tries to find a more complex way of thinking about how we engage with virtual worlds through actual bodies without any sort of reductive and idealist way of presuming the player just ignores the actual body that the construction of the virtual depends on. A case study of casual mobile games is looked at to do this.

Chapter Three performs a close, descriptive account of the various complex ways the learned player’s fingers become adapted to the gamepad controller (and how gamepad controllers become adapted to player fingers) to forward a notion of ’embodied literacy’. I do this to challenge the reductive notion that gestural controls like wii-motes or touchscreens are ‘more embodied’ than gamepads or keyboards.

Chapter Four makes the argument that ‘action’ is too reductively considered when we talk about videogames and that ‘looking’ and ‘listening’ are acting in their own right. To say a play ‘does nothing’ during a cut-scene greatly misunderstands how bodies engage with moving images. This chapter looks at and compares Audiosurf and Slave of God to do this.

Chapter Five is about temporality through the lens of character death. I look at the various ways character death is depicted as either permanent or impermanent and how this influences the player’s perception of temporality.

Chapter Six is a manifesto of sorts that is essentially saying that now that the previous chapters have challenged a bunch of ways we think about and evaluate videogames, this is what we can do now. Namely: we can account for and appreciate a much broader range of videogames that are obscured when we reductively and mechanistically think of videogames as simply digitalised non-digital games.

And that is what my thesis is about! Any of the chapters could be read on their own and would make some sort of sense, I think. But hopefully at least some of you are interested in reading the whole thing. If you do read it, do let me know what you think!

So I Accidentally Started A Misdirected Witch Hunt

So yesterday I got home from an incredible week at Indiecade and I sat down on the couch, super jetlagged, to catch up on my emails. One of them was a PR email about Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate that seemed really weird and self-congratulatory. I tweeted out a screenshot of it in this tweet.

I deliberately ensured the PR’s email address and name wasn’t visible in the screenshot so as to not send an angry mob their way in case the tweet blew up. I just wanted to say I thought this was a terrible way of advertising a game, but I know how detached PR usually is from a game’s actual development so I had no interest in some individual just doing their job getting a whole lot of hate over a poorly worded email. What was obscured in me doing this was the fact the email was sent from a third-party PR company, not Ubisoft’s internal PR. This wasn’t helped by my phrasing “Ubisoft’s PR” in my tweet, which was me trying to condense the phrase “PR sent on behalf of Ubisoft” into 140 characters.

The tweet got retweeted a whole bunch! Like, 200 times at last check. Then people pointed out that it reads like perhaps it is PR for the actress that the text seems to focus on, not for the game. Ubisoft then confirmed this to be true in a couple of tweets to me this morning.

So straight up: I screwed up! To be sure, I think it is entirely understandable that when a games journalist gets a press release about the most recent Assassin’s Creed, that it would be safe to assume that Ubisoft has signed off on that press release. But still, I was wrong and the wording of my tweet did not help things at all in the way it suggested this was sent by internal Ubisoft PR, so I truly apologise to anyone at Ubisoft PR who had to deal with any fallout from that.

So choices I made to deliberately ensure there would not be an angry online mob thing instead ensured the opposite occurred. My intent to just tweet “hey this thing is kind of crap” snowballed into a whole lot of people getting really angry at the wrong target. I guess I will just add this to the growing list of reasons why I increasingly feel that Twitter is not a useful place to have any sort of real conversation.

I apologise unreservedly.

On The Beginner’s Guide

I didn’t spend too much time with Davey Wreden’s previous game, The Stanley Parable. I felt like I got it pretty quickly. I did, however, spend quite a lot of time watching students play it and listening to game scholars talk about it. While thematically I found it pretty to-the-point (all choices and agency in videogame play is an illusion), it was quite spectacularly put together. Just really beautiful and clever environment design.

What I couldn’t stand about The Stanley Parable was most of what was said about that game. I have an issue with analyses (especially academic analyses) of games whose themes are incredibly obvious. Suffice to say, I could live the rest of my life without seeing another conference presentation on what The Stanley Parable says about choice or what Papers, Please says about ethics or what This War of Mine says about war. It’s not that I think any of these games are bad, but more that they are games that I guess I don’t think require any thematic analysis. It’s pretty obvious what they are doing! Analysing how they do these things is still worthy (the difficulty of desk space in Papers, Please, for instance) but simply pointing out that The Stanley Parable is about choice just seems… boring and easy. To stress: this isn’t a fault of the games themselves.

I would rather analyse games that aren’t so obviously about a specific thing. Perhaps this is why I end up writing more about blockbuster titles than indie or amateur titles despite the latter two almost always doing something far more interesting. Writing a critical analysis of a blockbuster title is more difficult and thus (for me, anyway) more rewarding.

So on the one hand, writing about Wreden’s second game, The Beginner’s Guide, seems like a pointless thing to do as the game pretty explicitly tells you what it is about. The Beginner’s Guide is games criticism so to analyse it would almost be an excruciatingly meta exercise. My three favourite essays on the game so far (Cameron Kunzelman, Laura Hudson, Cara Ellison) all kind of circle around this challenge in different ways (and each has far more interesting things to say about the game than I do). It is an incredibly meaty game for a game critic to latch onto, but I’m also wary that perhaps that is because it is just too obvious what it is doing and, thus, any further analysis might not even be necessary. Continue reading

On Super Mario Maker

I didn’t grow up with Super Mario. My experience of Mario games is for the most part fragmented and third-hand. A friend owned a copy of Super Mario All Stars so I would see the first few stages of each Mario over and over again every time I visited. In high school, when I was getting into emulators, I would load up the same games, play for five minutes sitting stiff-backed at a keyboard, then never play again. In the last couple of years, I played both Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario World to completion on my WiiU and felt like I finally understood why these games were significant beyond the fact that many of my peers played them as a child.

And despite my frustration with the narrowness of videogames’ accepted canon (“Oh wow you’ve never played Super Mario World before??”), these are important games. They’re elegant, clever, well designed, imaginative. They’re the kind of games that if I played them in the late 80s or early 90s I would have been absolutely captured by their charm and the way they suggest through hidden paths and invisible blocks the existence of countless mysteries to discover.

Most crucially is the movement. The “sticky friction” of Mario’s inertia that makes momentum so crucial and movement constantly fluctuating between frustrating and fluid. While other platformers see movement as just the baseline on which ‘real’ interactions are developed, the Mario games understand that movement itself (of fingers, of avatars) forms the base pleasure of videogame play.

It’s for this reason alone that Super Mario Maker works as well as it does. Outsourcing level design to players was always going to result in an overwhelmingly number of mediocre levels. But that’s okay, because each and every level give you a new environment to move Mario through and a constantly new environment to explore. Movement and exploration have kept Mario fresh for thirty years now, and Super Mario Maker taps into this. Continue reading

On Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

(I have avoided explicit spoilers through this essay, but I do mention moments from within the game and suggest themes and topics that emerge during play. If you are yet to play the game and would prefer to go in blind so that every little thing is a surprise, you probably shouldn’t read this.)

There is no denying it: the second of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain’s two chapters is an unfinished mess. The intent was clearly that after chapter one concludes what has until that point been the main plot (while leaving various other threads open), chapter two was intended to feel like a return to normality for Big Boss and his Diamond Dogs private military company. The intent was clearly to feel not like a story was progressing but like everyday life was just going on while this or that plot thread resolves itself. In reality, though, the progression of this second chapter is inconsistent and unsatisfactory. Majority of the missions are not new but repeats of earlier missions with harsher conditions; they feel like the kind of tasks you would unlock post-completion, which was perhaps the point. Plot progresses with occasional cutscenes rarely connected to any particular mission: you’ve played for long enough to see the next story bit. These story bits do not conclude, however, as the final mission that would conclude them never made it into the game. The ending we do get is one I found satisfying, but it has no connection to anything the player is doing at the time. It has no connection to anything the player has done at all, really, since the game’s prologue. Everything the player does in the game is ultimately pointless, a distraction. But, then again, perhaps that was the point. 

From the video that shows what would have happened in that final, abandoned mission, it seems Hideo Kojima’s ambitions got ahead of him. It would have required a massive new area to be created on top the game’s existing two huge environments and the immaculately detailed hospital of the prologue. It’s through chapter two—both what is present and what is absent—that the tensions between Kojima and Konami that ultimately led to Kojima leaving the company can be seen most clearly. Kojima wanted to make his epic bigger and bigger to an absurd and (from a capitalist perspective) irrational scale. Kojima wanted more time and money for a whole third chapter, if rumours are to be believed; Konami wanted this game to just hurry up and ship already. I can’t really be angry at either party for this.

Ultimately, I find The Phantom Pain’s unfinished state charming. This does not feel like a lazy sort of unfinished but an overly-ambitious sort of unfinished. It feels like a modern day equivalent of one of those huge cathedrals the architect was never really going to finish in their lifetime. I want to make comparisons to Wagner’s Ring Cycle or Hugo’s Les Misérables or Wyler’s Ben Hur. It’s a work that impresses through its sheer, intimidating size. By this I don’t just mean how big the map is (but this as well) or how many dozens of hours it takes to see the story through (but this as well). There is an audacious attention to detail in every single moment of The Phantom Pain that marks a confidently inefficient use of a production budget. I think this tweet of Matthew Yaeger about Quiet’s armpit and these tweets by Robert Yang about animations only appearing once in the game are great examples of this. Phantom Pain is wasteful in its enthusiasm, its inefficiency. It’s a heightened level of enthusiasm for itself that I can’t help but find infectious. The game is an incomplete mess, there is no denying it; but it is the very clear ambition that I find truly exciting. Continue reading

On Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture

I think it’s fair to call ‘walking sims’ a genre now. The term started as a snide quip towards those exploratory games where the player ‘does’ nothing (in lieu of any attempt to understand how the player actually does engage with said games), but it does adequately describe (mechanically, at least) a collection of works. I think this is an important point to start this post with as I think Chinese Room’s Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture was most impressive for me in the way it forwarded the walking sim genre into new territories.

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Chinese Room’s earlier game, Dear Esther, was an explicit attempt at mechanical minimalism. Dan Pinchbeck said in multiple interviews (including one with me for an Edge feature on walking games) that he wanted to remove as much gameplay as possible to see what the bare minimum requirement for an interesting engagement would be. So they threw out everything except looking, listening, and moving.

Dear Esther would find itself centre stage in the incredibly boring and reductive debates about just what counts as a videogame. This is something I found ironic as, for me, Dear Esther is an exercise in videogame formalism. It is an exploration of just how players meaningfully engage with videogames once you move beyond the marketing promises of surmountable challenges and consequential choices. It provides a space to explore and the means to explore it. It challenges narrow understandings of what counts as ‘interacting’ with a game, putting to the fore the interactions had with eyes-on-screens and ears-at-speakers.

(In one of my favourite essays of his, David Kanaga says:

We can move or play in videogames—not much more can be said definitely. I am interested in a formalism […] that builds from this premise, that regards this movement in much the same way that musical movement is regarded, which has meanings, but meanings which are unspeakable, which are living in the material itself, and which mean very little divorced from the context.

I think walking sims exemplify this. Especially Dear Esther with its strict commitment to walking, listening, and looking as the only possible engagements.)

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After and around the same time as Dear Esther you have Journey with its focus on graceful movement and companionship; Proteus with its musical and relaxing islands (a ‘sit’ button replaces the more typical ‘jump’ button); Gone Home provides a singular but intricate space to walk around, objects to handle in a more traditional style, and a clever play on horror conventions. No shortage of individual creators have created their own games that could also be classified as walking sims. Blockbuster games such as Alien: Isolation have included extended sequences where the player does nothing but walk and look and listen (and of course such sequences existed long before ‘walking sim’ was formalised as a name). The genre has come into its own to an extent that I feel comfortable calling it a genre. Continue reading

On Appreciating Final Fantasy XIII

I remember in the past how I felt the only correct response to “Are videogames ‘games’ or ‘stories’?” was “Yes”. That is, rejecting the false dichotomy of the question that implies videogames can only be one or the other. More recently, however, I feel like my answer to this question (if anyone still asked it) would be “No”. That is, still rejecting the false dichotomy of the question that implies videogames can only be one of the other, but also expressing my feeling that neither existing category of ‘game’ or ‘story’ is really capable of encompassing just what the videogame form is capable of. Each has come to feel like convenient ‘close enough’ categories in lieu of actually understanding the particular (but not necessarily unique) engagements we have with videogames.

This felt particularly vivid while playing through Final Fantasy XIII these past few months. On multiple occasions I went to write a tweet about just why I was enjoying this much-derided game so much (and enjoying it I certainly was). I wanted to say that it wasn’t because of the story that I was finding it so satisfying, but I knew that if I said that then people would instantly assume that I am enjoying it for mechanical and systemic reasons. But these weren’t necessarily the reason I was enjoying it either. Neither category of ‘game’ (in the traditional sense) or ‘story’ (in the strictest sense) could adequately function as a shorthand for what I was finding so satisfying about this game. Words that would more adequately fit would be rhythm, style, pace, audacity, flamboyance. None of these really stand on their own as shorthands in casual game discourse, though. For that we have game (gameplay/mechanics/systems/rules/etc) or story (narrative/character/themes/lore/etc) and that’s about it. Box one or box two.

Continue reading