This Week In Video Game Criticism: From Harvest Moon assumptions to meaningful games
[This week, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us picks from Kris Ligman on topics like problematic assumptions underlying Harvest Moon, why it's impossible to make a meaningful game, and more.]
I’m back from E3 and boy are my arms tired!
…Just kidding. I live about a mile down the road from the convention center. Mainly the only thing still smarting after the expo is my faith in humanity, so thanks are due to Eric Swain for generously taking over the roundup last week! Let’s hit the links!
First, to follow on last week’s reference to the closing of 38 Studios, I offer you a different tale from the sidelines: that of 38 Spouse.
From the vaults of great genre design, neuroscientist Maral Tajerian brings us a new feature for Gamasutra on the neuroscience of survival horror. And Medium Difficulty co-editor Karl Parakenings puts these themes into practice with an essay on the difference between terror and horror, and how System Shock 2 pulls off the latter.
This week was a strong one for retrospectives in general, as was the case in the resurgence of discussion around Civilization II following this Reddit thread about a player’s single decade-long Civ 2 campaign. Experience Points’ Jorge Albor then took the whole thing further in his own interpretation:
“Do you see what I see? The simple hope that this same motivation drives change in real world systems, be they political or otherwise? Games don’t change the world, people do. And they do so by diving into systems that seem both at first glance fragile or haphazardly put together, but soon reveal themselves as immensely stable and immovable. I think it is fitting, then, that the leading suggestion in the comments at time of this posting demands the implementation of an incredibly time-consuming strategy, slowly changing the conditions of play until Lycerius can make a final move to achieve peace. The most enduring and deep-rooted homeostatic systems, be they digital or real, change most dramatically with the gradual persistence of collected individuals.”
Now that we’re all in a properly proceduralist frame of mind, allow me to direct your attention to David Kanaga’s recent essay on games, spirituality, and meaning-making:
“It’s not possible to make a meaningful game. Likewise, it’s not possible to make a meaningful song or picture or story. Meaning arises from our interactions with these forms, from how we play them. [...]
Games with a didactic quality like Jon Blow’s Braid can fool us into thinking that meaning is a thing that is being created and then handed down to us– the intensity of the implied value systems that come packaged in game designs are often mistaken for the meaning itself. Sometimes our perceived meanings line-up very neatly with what we’re told are a game’s intended meanings, and this can feel good, but such an effect is incidental rather than essential in any way.
It’s not possible to make a meaningful game, but all played games are meaningful. Meaning can be generated but not located. It’s a process rather than an object.”
Adding another layer of tasty nuance to this idea is the latest installment of Eric Lockaby’s “How You Got Videogames Wrong” series for Nightmare Mode, musing on games’ ability to train us to perceive consequence from scenarios where our agency is narrowly constrained:
“For Kevin, the consequence of Journey was that he is probably–and if so, quite wonderfully–a closet sociopath. Furthermore, the consequence was that–contrary to his everyday self, I assure you–Kevin had been trained by wave after wave of inconsequential games into needing strict guidance for comprehending consequence itself. I find this potential particularly disturbing. For it seems to me that implying agency while at the same time delimiting said agent’s scope of interpretation is a pretty nasty method of control, and one that mega-publishers and propagandists alike would just loooove to get their paws on.”
Also on the subject of process, a tip of the academic hat to Olly Skillman-Wilson, who has recently posted the full text of his BA thesis on games, process and meaning. ‘Grats, grad!
And a couple more philosophical pieces for you, on the nature of space and players’ interactions to virtual playspaces. The first from Matthew Schanuel is another deft reading of Journey, while the latter from Joel Jordon speaks of giving oneself over to the control of the environment, namely that of Dark Souls.
I would be in error if I neglected to mention some of the excellent commentary and discussion pieces which have come out in the last few days on E3, sexism, and gamer fan culture.
Let’s start with the more balanced. Gamasutra member blogs newcomer and Medium Difficulty veteran Heather Hale writes about the good, the bad, and the ridiculous portrayals of women at this year’s E3. Then fellow Medium Difficulty contributor Megan Townsend criticizing the very problematic assumptions underlying Harvest Moon: Boy and Girl:
“The boy version can build a farm, build relationships, get married, have a child, and continue on in the community. The girl version disappears after she gets married. She has an ending. There is no writing past that ending as marriage. Over. Done. I don’t get to continue as a woman. My goal is marriage.
To “write past the end” is to acknowledge that a female subject has a life and that human life cannot be so easily contained within a neat narrative arc and that life continues after a “happy ending”. I always appreciated Harvest Moon for allowing open gameplay; it matches the genre of the game itself as farm life, and life in general, is slow, creeping, and lived in tinier moments. The female character in Harvest Moon: Boy and Girl isn’t given any tiny moments, just the big moment of marriage and then, essentially, death.”
But this is where it gets heavy. The following section bears a trigger warning for discussion of rape, violence against women, and graphic imagery of the same.
Let’s start with Amanda Lange’s open letter to Lara Croft, reflecting on the 90s backlash to the character’s sexualized appearance in contrast to the recent “victim” reboot:
“In the early days, it was all about controlling you, as a doll for his amusement. “If I’m going to have to stare at an ass…” ha ha ha, yeah, you’ve heard that one before. But now? That’s not enough, apparently. Now you also need to be protected by that man. He needs to understand that you’re weak, and you need his toughness, his masculinity, his ability to Press X to Avoid Rape.
It wouldn’t be a woman, after all. It isn’t supposed to be a woman, holding that controller, someone who might want a hero to look up to. Someone who might want a glamorous world of adventure, or, even a struggle they could identify with. It’s obviously got to be a man. And the men that inherited your franchise were… well, they were stuck with, saddled with, this idea of a woman protagonist, and what more could they do? They had to hurt you because it was all they know how to do.”
Unwinnable’s Cara Ellison drives the point home further by casting the new Tomb Raider in the context of the industry that fostered it:
“Imagine that there is a whole AAA studio full of women developers making Uncharted. Maybe there is one guy, who has to make the tea, we don’t know. Anyway, mostly ladycakes. And they are making a game where Nathan Drake dies suggestively, where the camera gets attached to his toned butt a lot, that fetishizes his being impaled on things, or bumping into things, that has his O sound attached to a drown animation. Now imagine that most gamers are women, and that most of the gamers who will be playing this game are women, and that it is being marketed to women. That women whoop and cheer when Nathan sighs his little orgasmic groans and moans of pain on the screen at E3.
What in hell would that make dudes feel like? It would feel like a conspiracy, an assault on the most private of man sounds.
But imagine still that you live in a world where a man being hot is an invitation to women sexually assaulting him. And then you make a trailer for Uncharted where an extremely hot and oversexualized man is beaten and shot at and drowned and is almost raped. The all-women audience at E3 whoops and cheers.
I do not have to imagine that world. In my world it is quite real, and I’d thank everyone to stop pretending like games need that to control an audience like pack animals after a side of beef.”
…I don’t know, I think that’d actually make me want to play Uncharted. But moving on.
You most surely have heard about Anita Sarkeesian’s excellently promising Tropes vs Women in Games Kickstarter project, funding for which closed at over 26 times its original pledge target of $6000. You have also probably heard what gentlemen and scholars a bunch of young misogynists were toward the project and its founder. But if not, Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s John Walker has you covered: he’s deftly broken down the series of events and the arguments behind the attacks for your reference. And for further reading, Anjin Anhut’s list of the 14 most common defenses for misogyny in games is a required visit.
(End trigger warning section.)
Finally, kudos to Tim van Ingen for dropping us a line that the newest issue of the Eludamos Journal for Computer Game Culture is now live on the publication’s website. Go have a look, as there is a lot to sink your teeth into!
That’s all for now! Join me or someone suspiciously like me next Sunday for more of gaming’s best and brightest analysis, criticism and commentary! Remember to send in your links via Twitter or email, and yes we do encourage you to send in your own work, your friend’s, your cat’s, or whoever else is blogging a good blog about games this week. Without your support, we are only half a Critical Distance. A CRIT DIST, as it were. And that’s no fun at all.