Some Favorites

24 Dec

I have done a lot of writing this past year, but I can assure you that I have done even more reading. There is a small but ever-growing community of brilliant, challenging, interesting videogame writers out there, and I take the responsibility of reading their work very seriously.

As I’ve said elsewhere, my view of games, criticism, art and writing has changed immensely over the past year. This is almost entirely due to the work of the forty or so writers out there whom I admire, the people in this site’s and Gamer Melodico’s blogrolls.

I was recently a guest on Critical Distance‘s year-end Critical Distance Confab podcast. (I’ll of course link to that once they’re done editing it and it’s posted.) CD is a very cool site that coallates and shares the best games writing each week. So naturally, we spent the first half of the show talking about our favorite games writing of the year, and it occurred to me as we talked that I should put together a list of some of the articles I most enjoyed.

So, I did. In no particular order, here are ten articles that I found particularly interesting, challenging, convincing or inspiring.

“Nice Guys, Stressed Ladies
and The Curious Ways They Play Video Games”

by Leigh Alexander

Leigh is one of my very favorite games writers, and this kind of piece is why. In it, she takes a look at the human side of gaming and attempts to find a reason why people play compulsive button-clickers like Farmville (and why she, in turn, finds Harvest Moon so compelling). So many among the critical community dismiss Farmville as a game, but this article reminded me why I should never dismiss the people who play it.

She balks at admitting that her status as a “total FarmVille addict,” as she describes it, is a reaction to the sense of helplessness she feels in the exposed world of social networking – but I suspect I might have hit on something by the way she can’t meet my eyes.

“Just Another World—The Last Airbender and The Wire”
by Chris Dahlen

Chris took some time out of his busy schedule to write a blog series on world-building, and I’m so glad he did. I liked every article in the series, but this one, about two of my very favorite shows, stood out. I think that his points about building a world with internal consistency and a difficult-to-quantify richness would be well taken by any game designer (or storyteller) out there.

Avatar’s world is rich, but never complex – and that’s what I like about it. And here’s the thing: thinking about Avatar, or Star Wars, or a bunch of my other favorite works, has made me think that simple is good. Give me a world, but give me a good guy and a bad guy. Keep the details in a shoebox until I really need to see them.

“The Sensationalist: A Melodramatic Fantasy”
By Scott Juster

Scott is one half of the Bay Area duo behind the thoughtful blog Experience Points, and along with his co-writer Jorge Albor, Scott writes a whole lot of interesting, classically-based critiques of games. The two of them also record a great regular podcast and are generally really nice dudes. Scott’s piece about how the music of Final Fantasy VII informs the drama (or melodrama) of the game really raised questions for me about the different ways that music related to games in the era of text, and how that has not necessarily changed for the better now that most games have fully voice-acted, recorded dialogue.

Final Fantasy VII’s story is melodramatic in the best way. Time is often cruel towards games; graphics, game mechanics, and storytelling devices are easily worn down over the years. By crafting a musical version of its story, Final Fantasy VII uses melodrama to insulate it from the ravages of time.

“Groundhobbit Day”
by Jason Killingsworth

I’m all for cross-medium analysis of games, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie/game comparison that made me smile and nod quite like Jason’s “Start Press” column at Paste about Demon’s Souls. Comparing that game’s live-fight-die-live-again model to the Bill Murray exestential comedy Groundhog Day is certainly one of the more inspired comparisons of the year, and perfectly captures what makes both the game and the movie compelling.

I’ll leave you with one final snatch of Phil Connor dialogue from Groundhog Day that could nearly be attributed to my Demon’s Souls protagonist: “I have been stabbed, shot, poisoned, frozen, hung, electrocuted and burned. I am an immortal.”

“Backlash”
by Michael Abbott

Michael usually reserves his space for critical talk of games and the people who make them. He very rarely turns his lens upon online culture or “gamer” culture, but when he does, it’s always with a relentlessly observant, clear-minded approach. So I really appreciated his response to a comment brouhaha that errupted at G4 over Abbie Heppe’s controversial 2-star review of Metroid: Other M. What is particularly interesting is that the review was controversial simply because it decided to take an actual critical look at the game, rather than simply offer a bullet-pointed product review.

The point is that, all too often, the greatest resistance to thinking critically about games comes not from academics, luddites, or old-school critics like Roger Ebert. The most vocal resistance comes from gamers.

“Hills and Lines: Final Fantasy XIII”
by Simon Ferrari

One of the more challenging pieces I read this year, Simon’s take on Final Fantasy XIII was fantastically valuable for me. Simon is part of a contingent of game academics at Georgia Tech, and along with Ian Bogost and Bobby Schweitzer wrote the new book “Newsgames,” which I have not yet read but I am all but certain is very interesting stuff indeed. I didn’t really care for Final Fantasy XIII myself, and seeing it through the eyes of another person—particularly a brilliant thinker who sees geometry where I see monotony—was very helpful for me as a critic and writer.

Final Fantasy XIII is not a story about two worlds, Pulse and Cocoon, standing in opposition. It’s a process of blindly ascending hills, hills carefully placed one after the other in a line to make sure that the climber always has what she needs to make it to the top of the next in sequence. And I can tell you, as someone who lived most of his life in the foothills of Appalachia, that Final Fantasy XIII is as good as climbing hills gets.

“The New Debate on Games as Ert”
By Matthew Wasteland

I love Matthew’s dry, analytical style, particularly when he uses it to voice to his own unique comedic sensibilities. And so Magical Wasteland is one of my favorite blogs, the rare online space where a spare visual aesthetic combines with the writer’s understated style to create a cohesive reading experience. I just never get the sense that he’s wasting my time. So as he does so regularly, Matthew’s take on the “games as art” debate subtily lampoons the discussion itself in hilarious fashion. Though it is my wish for that particular debate to die a thousand deaths, I hope that the eggcorns “ert” and “fon” stay around for a good long while.

It is well understood that ert is important and a big deal. Many people pay respect to ert– and as such, if games became ert, then respect would be paid to games. This means we could talk about what we do in good company by saying “oh, I make video games,” and our interlocutors would respond “oh, yes, games– they are a kind of ert, aren’t they?”

“Grand Thefts”
by Tom Bissell

Actually, the name of this article as it ran in The Guardian was “Video Games: The Addiction.” But seeing as how it is actually the final chapter of Tom’s excellent book “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter” (and I also get the sense that that article title and top paragraph were inserted by someone with a pageview-grabbing agenda), I’ll always think of it as “Grand Thefts,” its title in Bissell’s book. Anyway, what more can be said about this piece without forcing us to permenantly retire the words “searing”, “intense” or “cocaine”? A fine example of how, when in the hands of a skilled writer, personal accounts of game-playing can stand alone as gripping nonfiction.

There are times when I think GTA IV is the most colossal creative achievement of the last 25 years, times when I think of it as an unsurpassable example of what games can do, and times when I think of it as misguided and a failure. No matter what I think about GTA IV, or however I am currently regarding it, my throat gets a little drier, my head a little heavier, and I know I am also thinking about cocaine.

“‘No Cheering in the Press Box’
and Other Rules Games Journalism Needs”

by AJ Glasser

The quality, ethics and general state of games journalism has been the subject of much discussion this year. As, I suppose, it probably has been for a few years. I generally find myself uninterested in the discussion, if only because so much of it seems to revolve around tearing down the work of others. Do your own work, I say. But of all the pieces I read on the topic, I most enjoyed AJ Glasser’s GamePro editorial “No Cheering in the Press Box.” AJ is writing from the inside, and so she is able to take a merciless look at the bad behavior of many games journalists, as well as the big game publishers’ demand for and reinforcement of that behavior. In the piece, she calls upon games writers to rise above their fandom and behave like professionals, to stop letting game publishers dictate the rules of coverage.

For the games industry, this is a self-destructive cycle that begins when journalists behave like an audience because they’re filling the dual role of professional and fan. Because journalists behave that way, developers treat them that way at press events with bigger and bigger spectacles each year. The developers pander to us so much that they train us to clap even when we don’t like the game we just saw. And by clapping when we don’t like something and then returning to our desks to write scathing previews of whatever the developers just showed us, we’re being dishonest — the exact opposite of what a journalist should be.

Kill Screen #1: The No Fun Issue”
by Various Authors

This last one is cheating but whatever. The first issue of Kill Screen (Issue #0) showed what was possible when great writers teamed up with tough print editorial and beautiful design, but the second issue was where they really blew things up. As I read it, I was just beside myself—Jenn Frank’s piece about the character of the year, John Teti’s exhaustively researched and epically told tale of the New York pinball ban, Gus Mastrapa’s achingly personal tale of floating away in Everquest, Matthew Burns’ forehead-slappingly obvious (but entirely new-feeling) thoughts on competitive multiplayer… I’d never seen a collection of game writing like it. And at the end of this grueling collection of difficult and well-written essays about trials and suffering, Zack Handlen brought the whole thing home with a final piece that was just way too good to spoil.

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