great game writing

Great Game Writing of 2014 — May to August

by Jed Pressgrove

A few months ago, I talked about what I thought was great game writing from January to April in this spectacular year of 2014. Ergo, if I am to appear to be somewhat serious, I must also talk about great game articles from May to August and from September to December in this spectacular year of 2014. So here’s the May-to-August batch. Even though I wouldn’t call this post “curation,” the exercise has given me greater respect for those who do curate on a consistent basis. Rest assured, I do not see myself doing this in the stupendous year of 2015. Feel free to share any other great pieces or disagree with my choices.

Song of Storms, by Matt Rockefeller

This selection isn’t a curve ball; it’s just a comic that understands the power of writing more than most game articles. Largely overlooked by the game community, Matt Rockefeller’s drawing connects spontaneity with priority-driven thinking. Editor Sara Clemens deserves credit for publishing this masterpiece.

Kim Kardashian: Hollywood and the Price of Fame, by Gita Jackson

Not only does Jackson’s review of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood make other pieces on the subject look amateurish and opportunistic, it speaks to the potential of video games that Social Justice Warriors and Gamers often don’t bother to identify or debate. Jackson contrasts her personal experiences and observations with the object of the game to offer perspective on human experience, not a market-obsessed sermon. Her natural, thoughtful approach sets the bar higher for game criticism.

What Is a Racing Game? On Wave Race 64, by Zolani Stewart

Don’t let the question in the title fool you. Instead of setting genre parameters, Stewart uses his appreciation of beauty in Wave Race 64 to pinpoint the joy, the specialness, of racing itself. The piece’s exploration and celebration of the sublime are very much needed in a game community obsessed with darkness.

Game Review Drabbles, by Tevis Thompson

In all of these 100-word game reviews, Thompson treats reviews as one should — as art. Ironically (or maybe it’s not ironic), these short entries have more big ideas and big reactions than most “full-length” reviews. Even the quips challenge the reader to think, such as this line from the Mario Kart 8 review: “No wonder Luigi’s death stare has dominated discussions. What else is there to talk about?”

Proteus, by Indie Gamer Chick

I share this review on principle. Indie Gamer Chick’s no-holds-barred take on Proteus challenges the anti-criticism notion that “art games” are inherently special because they’re “different”: “And here I thought ALL games were a form of art.” Some Proteus fans cry, “Oh no she didn’t!” Oh yes, she did. (Indie Gamer Chick’s Goat Simulator review demonstrates similar conviction.)

From Lara Croft to Bayonetta: What Is a ‘Strong Female Character’?, by Ria Jenkins

I’ve heard many reasons why this article is “flawed,” including the notion that people covered this topic years ago. Yet Jenkins’ bluntness about the contrast behind Lara Croft’s bland marketing and Bayonetta “thrusting her vagina into the face of the player” makes an understated point about contemporary fear of sexuality.  There is no hint of disingenuous commentary from Jenkins, whose textual analysis demands self-examination: “Bayonetta makes the men in the game (and perhaps many of those playing) uncomfortable.”

Level 99 Capitalist, by Stephen Beirne

Beirne’s claims about RPGs functioning as consumerist fantasies can be endlessly debated as a polemic. On a simpler level, Beirne asks the RPG fan, such as myself, to consider the meaning behind the numbers and whether consumption is the primary theme of a given RPG. In this way, Beirne’s article acts as a guide for identifying the greater, wiser RPGs from those that merely give us more numbers.

How Game Forms Are Shaped by Their Environment, by Daniel Cook

Cook raises the question of how art is affected by economic circumstances. He then argues that games like Proteus and Gone Home haven’t established a niche due to a “sudden explosion of artistic appreciation within the human race.” Rather, they’ve established a niche due to a list of economic factors that Cook provides. Cook’s most provocative question relates to different degrees of economic success: “How do the developers, journalists, museums, critics or other middlemen benefit from promoting the works that they promote?” In short, this piece gives developers, critics, and gamers a theoretical framework for looking beyond the hype.

Killed at the Conference Table: Gaming’s Balancing Act Between Art & Product, by Mike Williams

With this piece and others (including this explanation of muted Twitch streams), Williams has established himself as the best game reporter in the business. “Killed at the Conference Table” is labeled an editorial, but that’s just modesty — Williams’ sense of fairness, balance, and depth is off the charts. If one is too shortsighted to define “game journalism” with a straight face, one should start reading Williams.

Awakening the Dead, by Marcus Mac Dhonnagáin

This article compares the universality of loss with how Fire Emblem characters appear “more meaningful than chess pieces.” Mac Dhonnagáin smartly frames his critique with a reminder about national privilege before dissecting Fire Emblem’s successes and failures with depicting soldiers as humans. His sober conclusion rejects player fixation on the inconvenience of permanent deaths of characters: “It’s all business as usual.”

Screw Your Walking Simulators, by Joel Goodwin

This examination of what games like Proteus are actually asking us to do is as playful as it is insightful. Goodwin, in his inimitable rambling style, suggests ditching “walking simulator” for “secret box games,” both for the latter’s more neutral tone and its more accurate description of the appeal behind Proteus and company. It’s very easy to get ugly about genre terminology, but Goodwin recognizes that genre debate is just a game.

Indie Entitlement, by Liz Ryerson

Ryerson has a gift for honestly addressing any given elephant in the room without pandering to a particular agenda. While it’s true Ryerson has clear political values, she doesn’t promote thought control or bandwagon causes with questions like “when most AAA games reflect hyper-imperialist values, why would more marginalized people want representation in them?” Ryerson constantly inquires about the logic of everyone’s motivations and demands.

Great Game Writing of 2014 – January to April

by Jed Pressgrove

Great game writing is already collected by some. My intention is to provide a different approach and give attention to overlooked work (though some of my selections are well known). For each of my 14 selections, I will explain why the writing is worthwhile and indicate if it has limitations. If you disagree with my selections or reasoning, please share your thoughts. If you feel I have overlooked an (ahem) overlooked piece, please share it and why you think it’s great.

Being Black and Nerdy, by Sidney Fussell

This is the first time game writing has sounded like Public Enemy. This piece would be ordinary if it were just personal and political. (I do cringe when a piece starts with images of tweets, but Fussell indicates he is aware of postmodern egotism.) “Being Black and Nerdy” is not a mere polemic; Fussell uses his experience to make the intersection between racial identity and games real. Ironically, this realness rejects the “Stand for anything” call in the final paragraph. A lot of game criticism stands for anything — for popularity, for power, for ego. Fussell’s criticism of race in games stands for something genuine and important.

Naked Design: When Narrative Strips Mechanics, by Ryan Perez

No matter what you think of him, Perez is one of the most challenging game critics out there. Here, he takes on the “It’s not a game” criticism directed toward games like Gone Home. Perez confronts the argument directly, identifies its flaws, and, finally, finds some common ground with the idea. This piece reveals that perhaps what we’re looking for in Gone Home is already a part of more mechanic-driven games. One might argue that Perez is biased toward mechanic-driven games, but his concerns about “naked design” are worth considering.

Broforce Early Access Review, by Nick Capozzoli

Only a shortsighted perspective would dismiss the critical value of game reviews. In this very good review, Capozzoli dissects language, questions content, and provides a historical framework (via Contra and action movies) that might make you grin. It takes a lot for long-form criticism to be as engaging as this energetic piece. I would also like to note that this review just beats Capozzoli’s The Castle Doctrine review, which was a bit tiring in the middle despite its great conclusion.

Cookie Clicker and Banana Bonanza, by Indie Gamer Chick

Some people might point to “The Indie Ego” as Indie Gamer Chick’s best article of 2014 thus far. But like I said above, it takes a lot for a long piece to compete with a great review. Indie Gamer Chick is one of the best at taking a review in unexpected, but readable, directions. She starts off discussing Banana Bananza, an Xbox Live Indie Games title whose cover features two women “suggestively wielding bananas like they were dildos.” She then shares that such “boob games” have brought a lot of attention to her site as well as the often overlooked XBLIG platform. From there, she learns from friends that Banana Bananza is a clone of Cookie Clicker, which she goes on to play and then defend in this review. Game criticism needs more humorous storytelling like this. I do wish this piece had more thoughts about why Cookie Clicker should be given more attention, though.

Gaming Is My Safe Space, by Jessica Janiuk

Female protagonists continue to generate debate in the gaming community. Janiuk doesn’t discuss the politics here; she simply shares how games with playable female characters have been a comfortable outlet for her as a trans woman. I’m not sure if this article would change anyone’s mind about representation in games, but Janiuk’s perspective is presented excellently and speaks to the power of avatars.

What Games Need?, by Ian Bogost

This daring transcription was the best thing that came out of the Critical Proximity conference. Bogost tackles three things that game criticism shouldn’t be about, though all three things are often on the game criticism agenda. Perhaps his most significant statement comes from the third point, a clear call against solipsism: “[T]he critic’s work is not oriented around the self, but around the other.” With this and other thoughts, Bogost will have you giving all criticism and the “game criticism community” a second glance. My only dispute is that perhaps technological progressivism has some merit, though I agree with Bogost’s general concern.

The Game I Played When I Was Scared to Death of Being Deported, by Patricia Hernandez

After nine paragraphs, this article has some brilliant analysis about Papers, Please and concludes that the game is a white power fantasy over the disenfranchised. In my view, Hernandez’s criticism of the game is original and challenges the status quo. My only issue with the article is that it needs more focus on Papers, Please’s fantasy and what it means for the gaming world. A big chunk of the piece is about Hernandez’s personal fear of being deported by America’s xenophobic power structure. While I understand why she incorporated her personal experience into the piece, I felt that her personal experience could have played a more powerful role with fewer words about it and more words about the limitations of Papers, Please. Personal experiences should inform criticism, but criticism, as Bogost argues, is primarily about the other, not the self.

Being a Woman in the Gaming World, by Sabriel

This piece is a little disjointed and could use a stronger conclusion, but it’s a great read because it provides a very well-rounded take on what it’s like to be a female gamer. In one of the more interesting paragraphs, Sabriel condemns harassment against Anita Sarkeesian while pointing out that the harassment does not prove Sarkeesian right. The article’s general significance is that Sabriel pays equal attention to the bad and good experiences that women might have in the gaming world. The overall opinion is critical and hopeful.

What Video Games Should Be Borrowing from Television, by Bryant Francis

Francis is one of the only critics who seems to care about the influence of television on video games. That alone makes this piece interesting, but the connections he draws between television and games elevate the article to another level. (Note: This piece beats the Guardian article “Why Gaming Needs Its Games of Thrones Moment” that was published today.) My one problem with this piece is that I believe Francis is too positive about this development — but more on that later (HINT HINT).

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 Is As Grotesque As It Aims to Be, by Nathaniel Ewert-Krocker

This review comes across as the definitive take on Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2. Ewert-Krocker acknowledges the intentions of the developers but focuses on their execution of ideas and how this can impact player perception of the game (nevermind the character of Dracula). The closing question is something every gamer should ask when playing a controversial title. One could suggest Ewert-Krocker is biased because of his love for the Castlevania series, but this review warns against blindly excusing flaws in light of intentions.

Narrative Choices in Virtue’s Last Reward, by Amanda Lange

As a developer, critic, academic, and, last but not least, player, Lange can switch hats in the middle of an article very eloquently — she has the talent of bridging the seemingly sizable gaps between us. This piece about the sometimes conflicting intentions of developers and gamers has Lange reaching across the aisle while not discrediting different viewpoints. Her position is as much about telling an original story as it is about satisfying the player’s need for choice.

A Straight Path to Success – The Brilliance of Linear Gaming, by Ryan Davies

A very straightforward, provocative article. Davies presents a populist argument in favor of linear gaming over open-world gaming. While one could dispute every part of this opinion, the casual confidence of Davies’ claims — such as drawing a line between The Last of Us and Super Mario Bros. — is entertaining and could inspire detailed counterarguments despite the simplicity of his case. (Just for the record, the guy’s not right about Indiana Jones vs. Uncharted.)

Missing Representation and Infamous: Second Son, by Reid McCarter

The implications of addressing reality in fiction is explored in this tightly written piece. The idea of “cultural cowardice” is especially compelling. While McCarter has a particular issue with Infamous: Second Son, he provides a critical framework that can be used to assess many games with “realistic” locales. A potential limitation of McCarter’s specific argument is the lack of a Native American viewpoint on the representation in Infamous: Second Son, but his analysis nonetheless raises valid questions about the use of real-world places in games.

Beyond: Two Souls – A Lesson on Internalized Patriarchy, by Kate Reynolds

A lot of game critics despise David Cage, so perhaps Beyond: Two Souls was doomed before it came out. Interestingly, Reynolds admits to expecting Beyond: Two Souls to be sexist, then finds herself sympathizing with the game’s protagonist before returning to a critical mode after she stopped playing. With this conflict between the personal and the critical, Reynolds provides a warning about the difference between expectations, personal experience, and criticism.