• What was it like working a Nintendo hotline in the 80s?

    First up, Melody Meows takes a stop at Haywire to write to/about Tomorrow Corporation's Little Inferno and Human Resource Machine. Meanwhile, Not Your Mama's Gamer regular, Bianca Batti, analyzes how mother and father figures are presented in games through the lens of Rise of the Tomb Raider.

    Writing for the A.V. Club, Annie Zaleski interviews former "play counselors" for Nintendo America who in the late 80's and 90's worked a hotline for struggling gamers.

    We would take the same call over and over and over again—or you would get stuck in one of those games, where you'd have to spend 10 minutes just trying to figure out where they were. […] And we didn't have any more information than the public did, except we had done our own research. It was very, very rare that we would get things that weren't available to the public. Everybody always thought we had these secrets or cheats or different things like that. The only thing we had—we had all the available information in front of us, or we had some amazing people who would literally hand-draw these maps.

    J.H. Grace describes the history and aesthetic of brutalist architecture on his dev blog, noting how games like the Assassin's Creed series and Kairo communicate with the harshly functional architecture.

    Lastly, over at Gamasutra, Katherine Cross argues that videogames more closely resemble opera than film based on 19th century composer Richard Wagner's vision of the "total work of art" that encapsulates emotion in the synthesis of many art forms. For Cross, play is how games express this idea:

    I'm on record as deeply disliking the unspecific nature of the word "gameplay" but in this case its capacious and slippery definition is actually quite helpful: everything that constitutes an interaction with the gaming environment is covered by "gameplay" here so far as I'm concerned. That vastness is our music.

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  • Why games need to stop letting everyone save the world

    This week, our partnership with Critical Distance brings us a look inside the cheerful pacifist adventure game Undertale as well as Life is Strange's final chapter.

    Kill Screen's Frances Chiem argues that the "gut punch" of futility in Life is Strange's conclusion is effective because it transcends genre cliches. Protagonist Max doesn't get to be the hero. As the title of Chiem's article succinctly argues, "We Need to Stop Letting Everyone Save the World."

    Writing for FemHype, the writer known as Nightmare takes on the staggeringly popular Undertale, "the RPG game where you don't have to destroy anyone." The game has become a hit for its charming characters and broad, inclusive representation, as well as its emphasis on pacifist resolutions, which Nightmare argues speaks especially to LGBT+ players.

    At Ludus Novus, Gregory Avery-Weir explains how Skyrim's city of Riften is doomed to perpetual crime and poverty because the thieves and thugs running it are "essential" in the game's code and therefore can't be removed:

    When games portray fictional worlds, they make implicit statements about the nature of the real world. By placing the Thieves Guild—one of the game's three major employers—in a corrupt town ruled by a coldhearted mead magnate, Skyrim makes a statement about criminals and morality. Criminals come from bad places, and there's nothing you can do to improve the situation.

    Bianca Batti of Not Your Mama's Gamer takes a look at women-driven horror games like Among the Sleep and Alien: Isolation and concludes that they, too, often 'hard code' their mother figures as either victims or monsters:

    In these two texts, motherhood becomes binaristically constructed between the two poles of good mothering and bad mothering, with no other options for maternal identity made available.

    Finally, speaking at a recent Queerness in Games Conference local event, Critical Distance's own Kris Ligman discusses Dark Souls and sex as an extended metaphor on the cultural gatekeeping of playing the 'right' games:

    It seems funny to me that even within my own social circles, frequently self-identified as progressive and inclusive, we police each other in this way. 'What do you mean you haven't played this critical darling indie game because you work two full-time jobs to keep a roof over your head, and even if you could play a game in your off hours your machine is too outdated to run it? What do you mean a game is too physically demanding for you, and you already can't afford to go to the doctor? What do you mean you're just not into that sort of game?'

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  • What makes someone a 'girl gamer'?

    This week, our partnership with Critical Distance brings us the Jonathan Franzen of videogames, "girl gamers", and new books about games!

    Fusion's Latoya Peterson begins her series "Girl Gamers" by exploring the conditions a person has to meet to earn the label.

    Writing for The New Republic, Kevin Nguyen argues to grant famed Metal Gear Solid auteur Hideo Kojima the dubious honor of being the Jonathan Franzen of videogames.

    Teddie at the always-excellent Fem Hype expresses frustration with the limited gender options in most character creation systems. For Teddie, establishing their hero's gender outside the constraints of a binary is necessary to feeling welcome in the experience.

    But the fact that some games have trans-friendly character creation goes a long way. I don't need sweeping plotlines about my [original character]'s gender – I'm happy with just some basic representation. A game that doesn't assume my character fits neatly into the gender binary, a character creation screen that gives me the option not to buy into that. If I want to conform to the gender binary, let it be on my own terms.

    I suspect that Alex Layne of the equally-excellent Not Your Mama's Gamer would agree, based on her own call for more complicated and comprehensive representation of human experiences

    One of the reasons I started this blog along with Sam [Blackmon] was because I was sick of not being considered a consumer in the eyes of the people who make the games, not being considered a real gamer by the community, and not seeing the types of games I like (ones with strong female protagonists that aren't sexualized) being given enough shelf space.

    Turning to analogue play, Jess Joho at Kill Screen pens a brief report of toy company Mattel, maker of Barbie and their new ad campaign boasting girls can "do anything." As Joho concludes,

    More than just empowering young girls, though, the commercial tells of the importance of uninhibited play for all children. By demonstrating just how powerful a simple role-playing game can be, Mattel is not only saying that girls matter, but also that play matters…

    Paste Magazine all-star Gita Jackson considers the formal storytelling of Crusader Kings, a famously complex historical simulator, describing its verisimilitude as unique in gaming's current landscape.

    Jeffrey Matulef on Eurogamer offers compelling praise for the romance subplots of Life is Strange, the adventure game about a time-travelling teen, particularly the one involving the socially incompetent Warren.

    We're so used to being Warren—strategizing what somebody wants to hear so that you can "win" a relationship—that we're seldom put in the other position of trying to minimize tension in an inherently tense situation.

    Jed Pressgrove appears in Paste to discuss the silliness of most bloody videogames in comparison with a few examples that treat bloodletting with an appropriate gravitas

    Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson have collected an all-star list of writers for a book of collected essays, The State of Play: Creators and Critics on Video Game Culture.

    If your interests skew more to the social sciences, Rachel Kowert and Thorsten Quandt have also edited a book of videogame essays called The Video Game Debate: Unravelling the Physical, Social, and Psychological Effects of Video Games.

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    Photo: ELLEN ROSE / ICKLENELLIEROSE ON YOUTUBE

  • How games are keeping traditional symphony orchestras in business

    This week, our partnership with Critical Distance brings us a look inside the videogame concerts helping to prop up symphony orchestras, as well as a player discovering her asexuality in Borderlands.

    First up: at Kill Screen, Jess Joho notes how videogames are keeping the symphony orchestra from obsolescence, with the recent The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses attracting twice the amount of concert-goers than the average classical symphony event:

    "I thought it was very beautiful," associate concert master Heidi Harris said to The Wall Street Journal. "I dislike videogames less now."

    It's a quote that perfectly captures the bipolar relationship orchestras have developed toward the medium that is almost single-handedly bringing it back from the brink of cultural and financial extinction. Having begun its first season three years ago, the videogame oriented content continues to make waves among the more, erm, "reserved" concertgoer crowd.

    […]

    Nashville Symphony vice president of artistic administration Larry Tucker admits: "I would not want to go through a season without it," seeing as attendees spend about $13,000 on action figures, posters, T-shirts and other souvenirs. While, "usually if you sell $2,000 or $3,000, it's a good night for a pops performance."

    At Vice Motherboard, Andrew Paul finally discovers Minecraft, venturing into the game's populous 2b2t server to discover an "unforgiving cyber-wasteland, a hellish, pixelated world where one wrong step will lead not only to my death, but to public shaming of my virtual ignorance, as well."

    On the other side of things, Jessica Curry, director and composer for Dear Esther developer The Chinese Room, explains why she is leaving the studio behind, due to a combination of a degenerative disease and toxicity in the games industry:

    On a personal level I look back at my huge contribution to the games that we've made and I have had to watch Dan get the credit time and time again. I've had journalists assuming I'm Dan's PA, I have been referenced as "Dan Pinchbeck's wife" in articles, publishers on first meeting have automatically assumed that my producer is my boss just because he's a man, one magazine would only feature Dan as Studio Head and wouldn't include me.

    When Dan has said "Jess is the brains of the operation" people have knowingly chuckled and cooed that it's nice of a husband to be so kind about his wife. I don't have enough paper to write down all of the indignities that I've faced.

    While the industry remains a hostile place for women, some players have found themselves represented in surprising places. On The Mary Sue, Nico W. how she discovered her sexuality through Borderlands 2:

    It was without a doubt one of the most enlightening experiences of my life, and as I read through story after story that could have all been written by me, I felt a weight lifting off my shoulders. I had been wrong—I wasn't broken—I was just asexual. It quite honestly changed my life.

    And I had a freakin' FPS to thank for it.

    Finally: the good folks at Not Your Mama's Gamer have released the first video in their new series on games, race and representation, Invisibility Blues. Take a look!

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    Header photo credit: Matt Le [via]

  • Wil Wheaton on voice acting and the virtues of therapy through Mario Kart

    Greetings, Offworlders! We're proud to team up with our friends at Critical Distance to bring you a special digest edition of their popular This Week in Videogame Blogging feature, showcasing games discussion from all around the web. This week, a therapist shares her successes getting through to young patients through Mario Kart, actor Wil Wheaton discusses a possible union strike by industry voice actors, and we explore Line Hollis's mixtape of games that break the fourth wall. — Leigh

    First up, at Ontological Geek, therapist Kim Shashoua shares a couple of experiences where videogames became an essential tool for reaching young people in group therapy:

    I finally thought, "screw it, I'm just going to talk about Mario Kart." I asked everyone who had played Mario Kart to raise their hands. The response was universal. Okay, already we had a better recognition rate. I asked about a time when they were doing great in the game, and if a friend had ever done something that left them feeling betrayed and angry. Their immediate answer: the blue shell. And there it was. A simple term we could use to parse the mire of childhood friendships.

    […]

    Instead of tearing up the floorboards and replacing all of our current analogies with gaming references, I suggest that we recognise video games as a font for cases where kids have already encountered (and often triumphed over) real-world issues. Mario Kart wasn't just a thing that those kids knew — it was a place where they felt anger and betrayal. It confronted them with the fact that their friends don't always support them. For those kids, a reference to Mario Kart was an acknowledgement of these complex experiences.

    At Playboy, Jake Muncy looks back on the critically-panned The Order: 1886 and attempts to salvage one of its few redeeming features:

    If major game scripts have rules, then rule one seems to be that something needs to explode in the first five minutes. [By contrast,] The Order's first level seems like an antidote to the hurried, restless pace of most mainstream action games. It's careful and deliberate in its pacing, attempting to draw the player into a world before they start blowing it up. […]

    There's something conspicuously like an idea there, shining through the rest of the game's mediocrity, and it's worthy of excavation and defense. It concerns the way we pace blockbuster, action-packed media, games and film alike, and it suggests that maybe, just maybe, it's okay to hit the brakes now and then.

    You may have heard murmurs this week about videogame voice actors potentially striking over issues of compensation and workplace safety. Actor Wil Wheaton has taken to his blog to share his own take, as a voice actor who voted in favor of a strike. While compensation is a major bone of contention, worth particular attention are his comments on safety conditions during motion capture:

    It can be dangerous work, especially when there are fights involved, so when we work in live action film or television, there is always a trained, qualified, professional stunt coordinator on set to ensure that nothing goes wrong and nobody gets hurt. The performers who work in those scenes [in game motion capture] should be afforded the same protection we get when we're on a traditional film or television set.

    Finally, a couple interesting game collections for you. At her own site, Line Hollis shares her latest 'MIXTAPE' curating several lesser-known games around a theme — in this case, games which break the fourth wall. Her list includes Milk, in which players break the boundaries of literal desktop windows, and Math Land, a game designed to crash from bugs.

    As a counterpoint to Hollis's mixtape the Group Show tumblr has rounded up a collection of games which, in the blog's own words, "try to translate our understanding of the natural to the technological word." While you might expect an entry like Maxis's SimPark to be found here, some others — like the Pokewalker, a pedometer-driven Tamogatchi-type device packaged with some of the recent Pokemon games — take us a little further afield.

    Want more? You can head on over to our site Critical Distance for the full version of this roundup, as well as original features, critical compilations on some of your favorite games, twice-monthly podcasts, and fabulous special prizes.*

    (*The special prizes are more cool things to read.)

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