Offworld Monday roundup: Empathy, criticism and being filthy in the shower

This roundup is a new, regular Monday item here on Offworld, a special satellite transmission designed to highlight our favorite Offworld stories, wonderful trends, and the stories from elsewhere in the galaxy that got us talking.

We're such big fans of Sam Barlow's Her Story; we've been interested in it since I did this interview with Barlow back around the time Offworld launched. The game's seen some backlash from the worst sort of people for all the best sort of reasons: Its familiar computer-search interface means anyone can play it, you're just supposed to, like, read and listen instead of, like, shoot things, and, worst of all, it's a game about a woman.

I think one of the biggest problems there is in the conversation around games these days is that nobody is allowed not to like something, or to be critical of it. That's a problem in general on the internet, of course, but I think it's amplified through (shudder) "geek culture", where people often identify very strongly and very personally with media franchises. Any critique is "hating on", "slamming" or "disrespecting", and we can't have nuanced conversations about important things like, I dunno, sexism or racism in our media because everyone is so loath to hear what they perceive as "hate", so infuriated at the supposed "creative censorship" that they think is going to take place when people even gently critique something.

This is especially frustrating for people like us who believe discussion is the best way to love something, that critique is respect, and that just because you're saying something like "dang this game is really, really super white and I want to talk about that", it doesn't mean you think the game is garbage and should be edited to your specifications and that people who like it should feel guilty and that everything in the world needs to be tailored explicitly toward your comfort.


Laura really loved playing Her Story, thinks it's a brilliant game, and would like to play it again. But a conversation she had with one of our mutual friends piqued her interest in writing about whether its storycraft leaned on a harmful trope. Read that feature here; there is a spoiler warning before the spoilers begin, so just stop there if you'd like. I'm really proud to have Laura building Offworld with me, and this piece is a great example of why: She models how to love something and still feel conflicted about some aspect of it, to talk about that conflict without diminishing affection for the larger work.

I was surprised at some of the response, though. Even folks I would have expected to be joyfully participating in this larger conversation we're having about nuance in criticism responded via social media and in comments to let us know that Laura's article was "wrong" because there are multiple theories of the story, and another one may be more correct. Without spoiling anything, there's definitely some ambiguity to the story, and those variant possibilities act as a plot device. Even if one theory is ultimately a red herring, it's still being used, and it still deserves to be examined. Anyway, super proud of Laura, and to be a place that publishes work where we can have interesting and complicated discussions about media, even ones without a "right answer".

On a related note, if Her Story is your first acquaintance with Sam Barlow's work, or if you just know him from the awesome Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, you must play his groundbreaking, classic work of interactive fiction, Aisle.


In other Offworld features, Laura digs through the noise and pomp of San Diego Comic-Con to find ten genuinely-neat bits of news for comics fans at a time when the comics themselves often get overshadowed by big budget entertainment franchise announcements.

We know you've been just aching inside because there's only so far one can read back from our home page at, but clicking "more" (or bookmarking this link will now allow you to read back our last 50 (!!) features.

Ever since the Final Fantasy VII remake was announced, there's been a lot of social media dialogue on how the remake, which looks vivid and serious, would handle the game's odder and more colorful notes—in particular, a classic sequence where Cloud has to crossdress, mostly for comedic effect. Sarah Nyberg explores the issue for us, offering a personal reflection on her own complex memories of the scene, and some tools for folks to better understand and discuss this type of sequence (it helps to understand who, and what issue, is actually the butt of the joke, she writes).

Offworld Games

We've got two works by Loren Schmidt (Star Guard) this week: A unique and fascinating "moth generator" they made with artist Katie Rose Pipkin, and the Lynchian "red-hued glitch dream" Strawberry Cubes.


Thanks to Steven Lavelle's Shower Game, you might never feel clean again. And just in time for Season 2 of Bojack Horseman, here is a game about being a horse (who functions as a bank robber). As a reminder, our Play It Now tag takes you straight to quick, free (or donation-based) games you can play instantly in your browser with no friction or special skillz, so it's a good perma-bookmark to save for your lunch breaks and idle moments.

Transmissions from Elsewhere

Designer and critic Mattie Brice looks at ways she might implement game design sensibilities to help with the often confusing and complicated power dynamics of kinky group play parties. It's always exciting to see game design principles enter the event and performance space, and this is an area where I think it must be particularly under-utilised.

Not games

In this genuinely-fascinating interview, Jon Ronson decides to try to get to know the widely-loathed inflammatory talking-head Katie Hopkins. His work lately often sees him attempting earnestly to empathize with people society has decided are beyond deserving it, like psychopaths, or people who say racist things on Twitter and are then pilloried.

I like Ronson's work a lot, and this isn't only because he actually wrote back to a "thanks for your book" email that I wrote him last year (this is impressive because I, an exponentially less-famous and less-relevant writer, can't be bothered to answer most of my emails). It reminds me of when Louis Theroux goes to someplace like the Westboro Baptist Church to search for some humanity in the people there— this type of journalism is as interesting to me because of my own thoughts and reactions as it is because of the journalist's. It's interesting to notice my own temptation to want to remove someone's humanity, because they've done something I find loathsome.

I think Ronson has gotten some criticism for his book on public shaming; I've often seen floating around on social media the accusation that he felt too sorry for the public figures who said the stupid things and received consequences for them, and not sorry enough for the marginalized folks who are systemically harmed when powerful people casually say stupid things. Although that is a valid criticism, I don't really get that from his work—when he speaks to people like Justine Sacco or Katie Hopkins I never get the sense that he thinks what they said or did was unimportant or okay. I think he just wants to use examples like Sacco's to talk about humanity and forgiveness. Just to talk about it, and I'm drawn toward that approach as a media critic who often does want to just talk about things without being accused of taking a position or desiring some material outcome or redress from the creative works I'm talking about.

The main thing I disagree with when I read Ronson's book on public shaming is his categorization of "mob justice"—I think that conceptualization of internet-punishment implies an organization that isn't present. There's a major tenet of Twitter that only starts to dawn on you once you manage volume at scale, and it's that most people have no idea that to you they are just one of potentially-infinite identical voices. That's why when you tell a joke, you'll get 20 variations on the same "helpful addition" to your joke (mostly if you are a woman, because women can't tell jokes on Twitter without men helping them).

These people do not realize they are a "mob". They each think they are special, and that they are having a wonderful one to one conversation with the figures they follow. When I try to tell people on Twitter their presumed intimacy is inappropriate, or that they're just one of a hundred people trying to perform the same not especially unique behavior, they're almost offended, they feel rejected, why use social media if you don't want to be social, Ms. Alexander?

Or the reverse: They actually assume their comment won't be read, that the person is too remote, that this is a safe and generally harmless way for them to vent something at you. In my experience being targeted by the little keyboard-lords of GamerGate, the latter is true more often than not: These are not often people gloating over someone whose power they believe they have stolen; they are people who feel inherently powerless, throwing tiny stones at someone they assume cannot feel them anyway.

I do worry that Ronson's ambiguous characterization of "mobs" doesn't account for this principle, and as such risks grouping actual highly-organized harassment campaigns—which do happen on social media, and which mostly target marginalized people—into the same category of befuddling retaliatory "justice."

Anyway. I still think the Katie Hopkins interview is super interesting work; you could argue it's sort of irresponsible to try to empathize with a person whose opinions basically constitute hate speech, but the picture of the person that results is so sad, so deeply pitiful, that all it does, for me, is deflate her hatred, take its power away, reveal it for the flailing it is.