Doki Doki Literature Club!

[Doki Doki Literature Club! is a game that deserves to not be spoiled. This blog will have lots of spoilers, so please don’t read it if you haven’t yet played the game. It’s free on Steam, so why not give it a try?]

The only things I knew about Doki Doki Literature Club! before playing it were that it looked like a hundred other dating sims on Steam and that it was “dark.” That was the word that kept coming up when people would talk about it, though they were (thankfully) careful not to say much else. “Dark” is a vague word that can mean many things, so I thought it might deal with more serious subjects than the normal, bubbly dating sims I’ve played. I was intrigued, and it is free on Steam, so I gave it a shot. Man, am I glad I did.

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“Dark” is an understatement, really. There are a couple of hints that your best friend, Sayori, is not as she seems, so when you, the player, show up at her house and she explains that she has been suffering from crippling depression for a long time, I was only partially surprised. Was this the darkness people spoke of? Maybe, but I doubted people would go so far as to caution people about a character who is depressed. From that, I correctly guessed that Sayori would probably attempt (and succeed at) suicide, which certainly fits the “dark” descriptor, especially given how dramatically it’s presented. The image of her body is shocking and in your face, and your character does not handle it very well.

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But that’s not the true darkness. When Monika breaks the fourth wall prior to the suicide, telling you to make sure that you save your game and things like that, I thought it was just a funny, quirky way of reminding you of certain game mechanics. But, no. She is alive and sentient and killing off the other girls to gain your attention. She starts with Sayori, convincing her to commit suicide, and of course it’s kind of my fault, because she confessed to being in love with me but I was trying to get with Yuri.

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So the game starts over with Sayori now gone completely, and what am I to do? I’m of course still shocked and confused by what happened, but I guess I should keep playing, right? So I do, and I keep trying to woo Yuri. Sweet, pretty Yuri. She is lovely, mysterious, shy and a little bit oh my god she is stabbing herself in the chest. Monika has gotten to her as well. And my character sits with her body for two days as cryptic, broken text scrolls continuously on the screen. Yes. This game truly is dark.

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I kept playing until it was just Monika and me, her staring into my eyes and explaining that when she gained consciousness and saw me through a small hole (my webcam, I would suppose), she fell in love and wanted to be a part of my world. It was oddly touching. Well, if you discount the fact that she murdered her friends to get the chance.

After I finished the game the first time, I ended up looking up a way to get the best ending and did just that, because I loved the game so much. It was dark, yes, but it did such a good job of leading the player through all of it, and repeated playthroughs yielded fun surprises. The girls’ poems make more sense when you know their backstories, and Monikas’ in particular are very revealing. The game is so successful at deceiving the player because it takes itself so seriously. That’s why it has to be free, too, because it really sells itself as a standard dating sim. The art, the music, the writing – it’s all legitimately solid and convincingly sincere. Better than many of the actual dating sims I’ve seen on Steam, in fact. So charging money for it would only guarantee that many people wouldn’t play it. A lot of people are too meek for dating sims as it is, so even if they hear that this game is “not what you’d expect,” they likely wouldn’t plunk down some money lest they end up playing a typical, bubbly, romance game. So even the pricing and marketing of this game is well thought out. If you watch the trailer, it doesn’t hint at anything sinister. There’s no creepy undertone or “but things aren’t as they seem” tagline. Nope. It’s just what you’d expect from a dating game filled with cute anime girls.

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And that’s why the twists are so effective, and why I loved this game so much. It is so unlike any game I’ve ever played. I want everyone I know to play it but recommending it is a tricky thing. The more I tell them to play it, even suggesting that it’s “not what they would expect,” the more I give away the potential for surprise. So I’ll just stay quiet and watch for openings. I’ll be patient and strategic and wait for a good time to strike. Just like Monika taught me.

Doki Doki (7)

Catching Up/Recently Played

One of the main reasons I started this blog was to track some of my thoughts about games I play, for my own benefit. Writing about games helps me retain memories of them, and I value having a record of my gaming experiences. I realized this back when I had a blog on the now defunct 1UP.com, because revisiting those blogs was always fun and sometimes insightful. I haven’t been doing that with this blog, because I’ve been using it to work out specific kinds of ideas that I encounter in games, in the hopes that they will allow me to use them in future projects/papers. But you know what? I want to get back into it. It’s fun, and me from ten years in the future wants it, so here is a giant thought-dump on some of the games I’ve played over the last few months. [I realize that people do read this blog on occasion, so I should say: Spoiler warning for plot-related beats]

Detroit: Become Human

It’s hard to dislike a game as beautiful as Detroit. And I wouldn’t say I dislike it, exactly. I liked it well enough. But when a developer puts so much money and time and effort into getting real actors and modelling/animating characters with such realism that some screenshots could easily fool people into thinking they were from a movie, the moments that seem to indicate poor or lazy development stand out a lot more. I appreciate David Cage and his team’s desire to create rich, realistic worlds and tell complex and challenging stories in them, but they always seem a little half-baked. Using androids as a parallel for issues of race and equality can be done. The obvious comparison is Blade Runner, since this game pulls a lot of its plot straight from that movie. But where Blade Runner makes Deckard’s personal journey the focus and all of the issues of equality, personhood, and discrimination subtle colorings that play out in tandem, Detroit puts all of those issues front and center, shoving them in your face scene after scene.

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If you had any doubt that this game was a retelling of the Civil Rights movement (with a dash of the Holocaust), Claire, the android on the main menu, shares a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and (separately) informs you that the city of Detroit was on the underground railroad, and in the game, androids have to ride in the back of the bus, they are rounded up into camps for elimination, they have to wear specific markings to identify themselves, they have no rights, they have their own underground railroad, they march in the face of police violence with their hands up, and more. This game tries very hard to be “high art,” and I want that so badly from new video games, but its lack of subtlety implies a belief that the audience is not smart enough to read into allegory or metaphor or allusion. So as a narrative adventure game, it’s beautiful and sometimes fun, if a bit clunky in places. As a piece of art, it’s shallow and disappointing.

Senran Kagura: Peach Beach Splash

Where do I even begin? This squad-based, water gun shooter would be a perfect example to illustrate how someone might actually enjoy something that is socially problematic. This game objectifies its characters unlike any game I’ve played. It’s not just that the plot requires them to all be in small bikinis, or the fact that you can dress them in lots of barely-there or see-thru outfits, or even that you can then pose them in those outfits in various states of undress and sexually suggestive poses. The most problematic thing is probably that one of the main gameplay moves is to humiliate a downed opponent by blasting her in the face, chest, or butt to blast her bikini off against her will. Actual naughty bits are blocked out, but it’s the fact that you’re forcibly undressing a defenseless girl that’s problematic.

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Having said all of that, I played the hell out of this game. I was honestly expecting to play for a few hours and get bored, but the shooting mechanics are solid, the various weapons require unique tactics that were fun to learn, and hopping/zipping around using the water jetpacks was a blast. I had planned on playing through the main story and then moving on, but I was having so much fun that I decided to get some of the trophies that went with upgrading your characters and weapons. Well, to upgrade those things you have to use duplicates of the collectable cards that you get after each match (or from the in-game shop). So as I began to grind for those, I started becoming obsessed with filling out my collection and getting new cards that would make me better/stronger/faster so that I could tackle the challenging tournament mode. In the end, I played way, way more of this game than I’d expected to. But I regret nothing, even if I do feel compelled to point out how problematic it is.

The Walking Dead: Seasons 1 & 2

I’d heard so much about “the Telltale formula” of storytelling that I had been wanting to play these games for a very long time. I played Telltale’s Back to the Future game some months back and wasn’t super impressed by its abundance of clunk and bugs, but I’d heard much, much better things about the TWD games. For the most part, I think they live up to the hype. They are still quite clunky in places, and some of the character/facial animations are distracting, but it does some interesting things with narrative, character, and choice. It’s not quite as revolutionary as I expected, because the core story is still the same for everyone, regardless of choices, but many of the choices were difficult to make and usually didn’t feel contrived.

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I will say that I was happy to be finished with them by the end, though. I have been prone to seasonal summer depression these last couple of years, and TWD games are very much like the show in that the characters move from one shitty, challenging event to another, with very little to celebrate. Having to make tough decisions that sometimes resulted in the deaths of characters I wanted to keep alive, or having the plot kill off characters for me, or never having a place that we could really dig in and set up like a home was getting to me. So I think these are important and useful games to look at for story, but man did they bum me out.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm

Life is Strange: Before the Storm also gave me a case of the feels, but in good way? Kind of? Within two minutes of starting the game and being reminded of the cringe-inducing lingo that the characters in this world use, I was unsure of how well this game would live up to the quality of its predecessor. That, and Chloe’s faux-punk attitude was so annoying. She was trying way too hard. But slowly, slowly the story began to flesh these characters out and make them multi-dimensional, just as the first game had, and by the last couple of chapters I found myself wiping my eyes more than I care to admit.

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I’m not pinning a first place ribbon on this game for subtlety, but it does character emotion and interaction far, far better than Detroit, so even though I knew Rachel Amber’s fate going in, I couldn’t help but mourn her fall in this story, especially when I found myself inadvertently flashing back to the scene where Chloe is bawling over Rachel’s make-shift grave in the first game. I went into this game with some serious skepticism, but it very much won me over by the end.

Undertale

Undertale is the kind of game I wish I’d discovered on my own. When I hear people repeatedly describe a game as “quirky” and “weird,” it loses much of that by the time I play it because I’m expecting it. One of the things that made EarthBound (a game Undertale is often compared to) so magical for me was that I went into it with almost no expectation. I went into Undertale knowing that it played with expectations and humor and combat, so I missed out on the fun surprise that would have come with discovering all of that for myself.

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Still, it was a fun game that did indeed do some interesting things that challenged gaming norms. Specifically, the fact that the game challenges you to actually not fight for the entirety of the game is great. I mean, technically you’re still engaging the enemies in combat and defeating them, but the language is not that of “attack” and “destroy,” which is a small but important distinction. There were some genuinely hilarious bits, too, and aside from the (purposely?) bloated end levels/scenes if you try for the “good” ending, it was a pretty brisk experience. Overall, I liked it.

God of War

Speaking of going into a game with expectations, I had very little interest in God of War until it was released and received universal and overwhelming praise. I had grown tired of the series by the third installment, and I was skeptical of the father-son thing. Over the years, Kratos became a parody of hyper-masculine bro-ness, and his son, to be honest, looked a bit like the son of a douche-y bro-dude with his baby scowl and faux-hawk. But with such all-encompassing love from every direction, I had to try the game out.

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I was glad I did, of course. There is a little of the “I’m a tough-guy dad!” “Well I’m a tough-guy son!” thing, but not exactly in a bad way. The game develops the characters at a slow and deliberate pace (until one section later in the game, where I learned the developers actually cut planned content that would have maintained the slower pace). Some of the backgrounds are bland, but most of the environments and characters are gorgeous. This was the first game I played with my TV’s HDR mode active, and it really made a difference. The color and particle effects are stunning. The character models are so detailed and make the characters lively and believable. I didn’t care for the combat at first, but once I got the hang of using Atreus I found it to be fun and challenging.

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My favorite part of the game, though, was the Valkyries. I liked the game enough to want to platinum it, so I ended up having to face all of them, and hoo boy. They were so much harder than the regular bosses in the core game, none of which I had to fight more than a few times on normal difficulty. And their design was amazing. I spent a lot of time taking a lot of screenshots of each of them, and even more time wondering how I would go about asking one of them on a date if I lived in their world. Just kidding. Mostly. But they are the best.

Far Cry 5

A lot of people seemed to be disappointed that Far Cry 5 didn’t go far enough with its political commentary, or that it didn’t take it seriously enough. But I think there was tons of social and political commentary, in both broad strokes and subtle environmental cues or side-quests. Could it have gone further? Sure. But given that the vast majority of mainstream games try to avoid this kind of thing, I applaud it.

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All of that aside, I found the game to be fun and I very much liked exploring the map and (usually) stealthing around with my bow, picking off cultists and sparing animals (when I could). The vehicles still mostly still handle poorly, but I can’t say I didn’t love being able to collect them, especially having an attack helicopter to zip around in (with my preferred partner, Jess Black, by my side). There was something seriously satisfying about unloading a volley of missiles and then spraying high caliber ammo on an installation of panicking cultists. I think I liked Far Cry 4 better in some ways, but I had a really good time with this entry as well.

The Stanley Parable

This is another game that I knew had something about it, so I wasn’t as pleasantly surprised as I could have been by its quirk and novelty. It’s not a pretty or deep game, but it was pretty funny and I like games that try to upend player expectations, and the whole point of this game is to do just that. So it was worth the 2-3 hours I spent with it.

I also played a lot of Doki Doki Literature Club! but I want to write a separate post about that. I’ll try and keep up with my thoughts from now on, but I do take my comprehensive exams for my PhD in August, soooooo my time will be more and more consumed by anxiety and guilt and less, sadly, by games and blogging.

How My Students Define “Gamer”

One my favorite activities to do with my students has been having them build profiles of people as a class. I ask them to close their eyes and picture a specific kind of person, and then they tell me the attributes they pictured. Because I use video games to teach many of my classes, I almost always have them build a profile of a “gamer.” I’m going into my sixth year of teaching first-year English and I’ve done this with most of my classes. It’s an easy activity and it requires little thought on the part of the student, so I always have great participation. The most interesting part is afterward, when we explore why we came up with this profile. I usually have a handful of video game ads ready to show, which demonstrate how the images we’re exposed to play a huge role in how we develop profiles. Guess who shows up in the vast majority of the ads? The person my students describe. The attributes that virtually every class gives are:

Male
White
Age 14-20
Middle class
Skinny
Nerdy
Blonde or brown hair

After asking them how they came up with the image in their mind, I show them statistics from the Entertainment Software Association that suggest their profile is a bit off, at least in terms of gender and age. A few years ago there were more women playing video games than men, but the most recent ESA report has women at 45%, which is still close enough to half to question why every student in every class has said that they picture a male. The average gamer is also 34 years old, so why do students see teenagers? To answer this (in part, at least), we look at old video game ads. Here are a few:

This usually prompts a great discussion about representation in media and how it dictates behavior and belief, but the reason that I’m writing this blog has little to do with that discussion. I am teaching high school students for the first time ever this summer, and I did this activity with them to talk about audience and purpose. When I asked the sophomores and juniors for their attributes of a “gamer,” their profile lined up very closely with the profile I almost always get from my college students: male, teenager, white, middle class, nerdy, etc. As I was writing my freshmen student’s attributes on the board, I began seeing surprising differences. One class gave an average age of 25-30, the other said 35. Both classes said upper class instead of middle class. I thought that was odd, too. They both said that a gamer would have a nice headset with a microphone and an expensive gamer chair. I knew something was weird at this point. How are these profiles so different from the others? They added that he (still male) would probably have facial hair and a lot of collectible stuff, like action figures and posters. When the second class shared these very specific things as well, I knew something was going on. These students all come from different schools and cities, and have only known each other for two weeks, so it’s not like they’ve subconsciously come to some kind of shared profile for what a gamer is.

You may have already guessed the source of their unique vision: Twitch. When I asked them why they all agreed that this is what a “gamer” was, they said it was what streamers looked like. The ones they watch are male, 25-35 years old, they have expensive headsets and mics, gaming chairs and swag, many of them have facial hair, and they all must be upper class because, as my students explained, they make millions of dollars and have nice stuff. This probably isn’t much of a revelation to some, but this is the first time that I’ve seen a shift in how “gamer” is defined by my students, and I would guess it’s not isolated to these two classes of students from different backgrounds. I can’t speak to Twitch’s longevity, but its current and recent success, paired with Fortnite’s broad appeal, makes me wonder if it is actively changing how a whole generation of people will view gamers. Sure, my students will probably reach a point where they realize that the successful streamers that they pictured are the rare exception and far from the rule (if they don’t already), but I will be interested to see how future classes define “gamer.” Who knows, maybe some of the other things on their lists, like gender and race, will change as well?

Guilt-Gaming and State of Decay 2

It’s summer once again, and once again I feel that strange mix of emotions that comes with being between semesters of work. It’s summer: my favorite season when I was a kid. It meant playing baseball or basketball or football every day, swimming, sleeping as late as I wanted and, of course, no school. That warm glow has never left me, and I still consider it my favorite season, one that I look forward to during the school year when papers are piling up and final deadlines grow ever nearer. I can play video games, read for fun, catch up on movies, sleep as late as I want, I tell myself near the end of every spring semester. And yes, I can do some of those things. But when you’re a woefully underpaid grad student who doesn’t have the privilege to teach over the summer, there is a lot of stress that comes with this particular season. Having to save much of the previous semester’s financial aid because you don’t get paid is probably the biggest, and while I was lucky enough to snag a short-term job this summer, I also take my PhD comprehensive exams in August, so this summer has been far from the carefree break that I so miss from my childhood.

I have, however, allowed myself lots of time for video games. Gorging yourself on games over a break can sometimes come with its own sense of guilt, though. Should I really be spending so much time on this? Shouldn’t I be doing something, I dunno, more productive? Are people secretly judging me? Or would they, if they knew how much I was actually gaming? Sometimes these kinds of thoughts are active and present in my mind, but often they sort of sit beneath the surface, manifesting themselves as just an odd sense of sadness or anxiety. And, while these feelings have been popping up as I’ve recently been playing games like God of War and Undertale, I didn’t really feel them when I was playing State of Decay 2.

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Credit: https://www.windowscentral.com/state-of-decay-2-review

The reason this was so surprising to me is that I have a lot of problems with State of Decay 2. Or, I should say, State of Decay 2 has a lot of problems. I didn’t play the first game, but the premise sounded like lots of fun and a close friend was going to be buying and playing it, so I figured I’d give it a shot. It is a shockingly ugly game. I’m not just talking about the design elements, I mean the textures, lighting, modelling, almost everything is very rough, which makes the fact that the game has lots of issues with bugs, loading, and pop-in that much more frustrating. I would have thought they were trading detailed graphics for smooth loading, but that is not the case. Character movements are janky, combat is spotty, and driving is horrendous. These issues are compounded when playing online, even with just two people. I found myself being attacked by invisible zombies, crashing my car into invisible walls, and getting my character stuck in the road beneath a vehicle, all after the gigantic 20Gb patch that was supposed to fix many of those issues — a patch which broke the single player game for me, not allowing me to play at all unless I’m invited to a multiplayer session. The game also feels very game-y, with zombies constantly spawning so that it never feels like a real world with real consequence to your in-game actions. Conveniently enough for the game, there just happens to be a zombie every fifteen yards or so, robbing players of the fear that comes with exploring the unknown, because you always know what to expect after you recognize the obvious patterns.

Yet I played. And played. And played. I finished a single player campaign and despite my many, many complaints, I won’t deny that I had fun doing it. Why? Why did I even keep playing after the first handful of glaring bugs? If I am prone to feeling guilt when playing games that I love, like Civilization Revolution, during the summer, why would I spend so much time playing a game that frustrates the hell out of me, and why did it feel so rewarding doing it?

I think the answer lies in a sense of accomplishment, of working toward something systematically and being good at it. The rewarding sense of skillfully executing a carefully planned campaign. There was a lot to do when I started playing. I needed to make my people happier, collect specific resources to keep them happy enough to stick around, find a new base, clear out plague hearts, recruit new people with skills that would allow me to build new facilities that my new base needed, find and claim useful outposts, help outside factions when I could, and more. It was a lot, but the challenge gave my mind a multi-layered problem to solve. I didn’t have that when playing God of War, Undertale, Life is Strange: Before the Storm, or even Civilization Revolution. When I think back, I had a very similar feeling with Stardew Valley. I began playing that game right in the middle of the fall semester, which was not a smart time to start a game that is known to steal lots of hours of lots of days. And I did indeed play a lot of it. Like, just as much time as I spent playing Breath of the Wild. But it didn’t feel like a waste of time or a guilty pursuit, despite having lots of work to do around my play sessions.

I suspect these two games have that in common. On the surface, they certainly seem like games that would add to stress and anxiety, because you have to think carefully about the future and make lots of important decisions that will affect that future. But for some reason it has the opposite effect. I won’t say that playing State of Decay 2 was calming, but it certainly kept some familiar real-world feelings of guilt and anxiety at bay. So, as much as I hated it, it was an interesting, enlightening, and dare I say ‘fun’ experience.

E3 2018 Wishlist

When I look back at my wishlist for 2017, I’m surprised by how many items were eventually announced (after E3, but still). Some of them were givens, sure, but I was surprised that Soulcalibur VI actually became a thing, and with Geralt in the mix, no less. Anyway, as I said in that blog, I love to speculate, even if some of my hopes end up being just that. With that in mind, I’m making a new list for this year, and some of the entries will, unfortunately be the same as they were last year.

Nintendo/Switch

Virtual Console (or, well, something like it)

This was on my list last year, but Nintendo recently announced that their online service, coming this fall, will be something of a subscription model, with access to a library of games included. Great! In theory! The problem is that the release library is very small compared to the wealth of games that were available with the Virtual Console. I’m all for some multiplayer Dr. Mario action, but I am really hoping Nintendo announces a steady release schedule for this service, or some kind of agreement with third parties to release individual games for purchase, even if it’s not called the “Virtual Console.” I love the mini consoles Nintendo has been releasing, but they are limited (in game selection and availability). So I want this, Nintendo. Please.

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Mother 3/ Brand new EarthBound game

I will put this on my list every year until we see one. Paula be casting Prayer all up in this.

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Credit: https://kotaku.com/seriously-nintendo-its-time-for-mother-3-1796533984

New Eternal Darkness game

Another repeat offender. I rambled on for too long last year about why I thought this was plausible, and it still might be, but I’m worried that Nintendo just doesn’t feel the need to produce adult horror games anymore. The original game was in development for the N64 and then ultimately released on the GameCube, when Nintendo was still semi-competing with Sony and Microsoft. Now, Nintendo seems content to do their own thing, which means a game like Eternal Darkness makes less and less sense as time goes on. But I still think it would be a great showcase for some of the Switch’s unique tech, like the HD rumble and infrared sensors. Oh well. I’ll keep my hopes high and expectations low for this one.

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New Smash Bros. characters

So it seems an absolute given that the new Smash game will be the highlight of Nintendo’s E3 video, but what about the roster? Given that each game is fundamentally the same in terms of gameplay and design, the roster is what I’m most curious about. Sure, I want a robust single player experience outside of the multiplayer brawling action (return of Subspace Emissary, plz), but when that iconic siren goes off and “A New Challenger Appears”? Hype. They will almost certainly play on that in their E3 video, but who beyond the Inklings from Splatoon will they announce? With previous characters like Snake, Bayonetta, Cloud, and Ryu, I don’t feel like anyone is outside the realm of possibility. So, aside from every dang previous character returning, who do I want to see? For one, Crash Bandicoot. I get a weird surge of nostalgic joy when rival mascots show up in Nintendo games, and it’s not totally ridiculous, given that the Crash trilogy will be making its way to the Switch in July. Halo‘s Master Chief also sounds like a stretch until you consider the cache it would give Microsoft with Nintendo and Smash fans, a potentially useful thing to have considering how far behind Sony they are in sales. I would also love to see Lara Croft, who also has a new game coming out in the fall. Two last mentions that would be incredible but are probably impossible: Mickey Mouse and Rey (Star Wars). Rey because, well, she is awesome. But Mickey Mouse strictly because it would be another iconic character that no one thought was possible to get for the game. Both of these are owned by Disney, though, and they are famously stingy with their characters, so I have no hope for those last two.

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Animal Crossing for Switch

My thoughts haven’t changed much on this. I was worried that the mobile AC game might give Nintendo an excuse to delay a proper console version, and with Smash Bros. being their big release for later this year, I’m still kind of worried that an Animal Crossing game won’t come anytime soon. Still, it would be nice to see an announcement at E3.

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Persona 5

Yes, I’ve already put well over 300 hours into the PS4 version, but I would buy a Switch port on day one, especially if they finally lift the restriction on taking screenshots. I’ve romanced Ann, Futaba, and Kawakami, but I’m keen to give a relationship with Makoto a shot. And Haru. And Tae. And Hif-okay, I can hear myself and I sound a little desperate, so let’s just move on.

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And that’s about it for Nintendo. I’m sure they’ll show more from the new Yoshi game, Metroid Prime 4, and maybe even the Pokémon game, but I’m only passively interested in those at this point. I’d like to see some fun new colors for the Joy-Cons, too, I guess. And an N64 Classic (though they might do the GameBoy first).

Sony/PS4

Most of what I’m looking forward to from Sony and third parties has already been announced, but it will be nice to see more from The Last of Us 2, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Days GoneSpider-man, and maybe Soulcalibur VI and Anthem. So what’s left in the way of surprises? Well I’d love to see…

Final Fantasy VII

They announced this a while ago, but there has been some behind-the-scenes drama (uh, of course, it’s Square) followed by nothing but silence, so I would be pretty hyped if they showed an extensive trailer and announced that the first episode was going to drop this fall. True, the original game is not among my favorites in the series, but they will likely address much of that game’s clunkiness with this remake. And it would be one of those “oh snap it actually happened” moments in game history, so I have my fingers crossed that we’ll finally see something.

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Until Dawn 2

This is a holdover from last year’s list, but it seems perhaps more likely this year, given that Supermassive Games has released a bunch of the other games that they had in the works. Those games were hit or miss, which I can’t deny makes me worry about a potential Until Dawn sequel, but who am I kidding? I would be super excited to see it announced at E3 and I would definitely buy it at release, especially if it had an optional VR mode.

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Chrono Trigger/Cross sequel

I know this is a one-in-a-million shot. I know. Last year I left it as a footnote because it’s probably an impossible dream. But! I want it so bad. So I’m going to put it here in an attempt to will it into existence. Let’s do it.

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Credit: https://www.goombastomp.com/looking-back-chrono-cross-divisive-impressive-successor/

Microsoft/Xbox One

I didn’t have a section dedicated to Microsoft last year, because their exclusives just haven’t really been all that exciting for me. But unless they’re late in the stages of working on their next-gen hardware, which I doubt because of the XB1 X, they need to come out with some cool and exciting games to make some ground in their battle with Sony. They can’t win this generation, but at this point in the cycle more people begin buying second consoles, so if they’ve haven’t gotten a Switch or upgraded to a PS4 Pro, there are plenty of people who would snag an XB1 if the right group of games enticed them. Games like…

Fable 4

Sure, Lionhead Studios closed down, but rumors have been swirling about a possible fourth game for, well, years. With Sony snagging many of the big RPG mainstays, it would be a smart move for MS to drop a big, beautiful RPG of their own. Hell, the original Knights of the Old Republic was one of the main reasons I bought an original Xbox in the first place. I didn’t really want one. I didn’t feel like I needed it, and it was expensive. But when I heard about an RPG set in the Star Wars universe, where I could choose to be Dark Side or Light Side, and I could romance characters… well, I was sold. And the Fable games have always been fun, colorful, and whimsical, so I welcome another.

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Credit: https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2018-01-17-sources-microsoft-plots-fable-return

New Perfect Dark game

These last couple of years have seen some strides, finally, for female video game, movie, and comic book characters. There are plenty of FPSs out there, but how many of them star a badass lady-spy like Joanna Dark? Rare and Microsoft flubbed Joanna’s star potential with Perfect Dark Zero, but if there was a time to redeem themselves and make a character that lived up to her original potential, it’s now.

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Credit: http://bbs.a9vg.com/thread-1051770-1-1.html

My Favorite Games of 2017

It’s not much of a stretch to say that 2017 was among the best in history for video game releases. Hell, if it weren’t for Chrono Trigger and EarthBound both releasing in 1995, this year might have been the (personal) best year in my nearly thirty years of gaming. I love revisiting the memories I’ve had with games at the end of each year, but this year was particularly fun. Here are my Favorite Fifteen™ of this year.

15. Cosmic Star Heroine

This was another game ‘in the vein of Chrono Trigger’ that ended up not being very much like Chrono Trigger, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun. It wasn’t deep, exactly, but it was easy to get into and had some fun characters and cute dialogue. I wouldn’t mind a steady flow of these kinds of simple, short, low-priced RPGs.

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14. Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp

I don’t normally care for mobile games, but come on: it’s freaking Animal Crossing. While I would have loved for a more fully featured AC game, I still spend at least an hour playing this game every single day. Plus, its lack of depth gives me hope that Nintendo is still planning on a heftier game for the Switch. But as it is, it’s still got some of that classic Animal Crossing magic. Now, instead of decorating my basement to look like a creepy murder-hole, I do it with my camper. See? Magic.

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13. Star Trek: Bridge Crew

Star Trek: Bridge Crew is like a slice of my dream Star Trek game, which would be a BioWare-esque RPG where you actually go through your last year at Starfleet Academy, graduate, get your first starship and then begin your journey through the stars. I don’t know that we’ll ever see that game, because it seems like licensing costs prevent publishers from having the will to throw enough money at a studio to do the series justice, but this game is an exciting enough sliver. Giving commands from the captain’s chair is exciting, but when you’re in a really tight spot and you jump to the engineer’s station to reroute power, then shove the helmsman aside to jump to warp, and end up back in the captain’s chair to drop shields and go stealth? Pretty awesome.

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12. Star Wars Battlefront II

I was a little upset by how the whole microtransaction debacle prevented reviewers from judging this game from an objective critical distance, but after playing it for a while I could see why they couldn’t. It’s not the money part of it that was constantly nagging at me, distracting me from the game, it was the progression system. I’m still playing it, and it’s still hard to be excited about unlocking things because I know it’s going to take forever and I’ll probably stop playing before I get all of the things that I want. That aside, I can’t deny that I love playing the game – it’s hard not to, being such a big Star Wars fan and being able to fly Darth Maul’s Scimitar over a Separatist battleship, hop around Tattooine as a jumptrooper, or just stand around and exist as Rey. The gameplay is frantic and fun, and I smile almost every single time I’m playing as a droid and I drop a turret, only to hear my character say “good luck, turret!”

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11. Mass Effect Andromeda

While this wasn’t the leap ahead for the series that I was hoping, it was more Mass Effect, which I will probably never complain about. Jumping from planet to planet, navigating relationships with smugglers, traders, and pirates, and (most importantly) wooing a certain spunky, blue teammate, made this adventure worthwhile. I’d have loved for a better villain and more engrossing plot, but I sincerely hope that BioWare doesn’t completely abandon the series. I mean, unless they go back to single-player Knights of the Old Republic games. A fair trade, I’d say.

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10. Everybody’s Golf

More like Everybody’s Gold, am I right? Eh? Eh? No one? Anyway, I was totally shocked by how much I liked this game. I seem to go through phases with sports games, where I buy a new game in each genre every three or four years and get really into it, so I was about due. For me, golf games have to feel right. If the wind doesn’t affect the ball in a realistic way, or my ball bounces oddly, or slopes don’t change the trajectory of the roll like they should, the game just feels wrong. Everybody’s Golf feels very right, though, and I found myself spending a lot of my dwindling mid-semester free time playing hole after hole, hoping to unlock more courses to play with my friend. Good times were had by all.

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9. What Remains of Edith Finch

Between this and Gone Home, I’m starting to think I just have a thing for walking around big, empty houses and looking through people’s drawers. But what drew me into Gone Home, in part, was the relative mundanity of the house. It was so normal that I found myself appreciating the care that went into making it look like a family had really lived there. In What Remains of Edith Finch I found myself appreciating the care that went into making it look like Tim Burton’s grandmother had once married Dr. Seuss’s grandfather and this is where that family lived. These games are all about detail, about how every bookshelf and stray magazine subtly contributes to the narrative, and this game in particular had so much color and quirk in its nooks and crannies. The overt nod to classic Tales from the Crypt comics also made me way more excited than it should have.

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8. Assassin’s Creed Origins

I don’t know that any game, Assassin’s Creed or otherwise, will give me the same kind of wave-breaking, swash-buckling, booty-plundering thrill that Black Flag did, but Origins was its own kind of special. Yes, the pyramids and deserts and landscapes were beautiful, and the combat was (eventually) satisfying. But what this game did better than any other in the series (that I’ve played) was make its characters seem human and make me care about them. I found myself so impressed by how Bayek changed his demeanor and tone depending on who he was talking to that I plan on writing more on it at some point, but for now I’ll just say that it made him so much more believable and memorable than any other lead character in the series (sorry, Evie, love). That made every mission and story beat that much more meaningful and worthwhile, and I hope they carry that lesson into future games.

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7. Emily is Away Too

Man. Emily is Away Too made me feel more feels in a shorter span than probably any game on this list. I spent a lot of time on AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) in my late teens, and a fair proportion of that time was spent flirting (very badly) with girls and wondering if they were flirting back. So this game was not only nostalgic in its interface, but it also did such a good job of capturing the kind of hesitant excitement that came with every winky emote or exchange of favorite bands. Where the first game, Emily is Away, took that and added a cruel twist, this game allows you to actually experience the joy of genuine connection, despite it being completely artificial. And I really loved that.

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6. Injustice 2

I played a lot of fighting games this year, but almost every single one disappointed me on some level. Injustice 2 was easily the exception, blowing away even its predecessor in depth, beauty, and fun. Every character was fun to play in this game, and for the first time in years I found myself looking forward to playing through each of their individual story/arcade modes. The main story mode was just as bizarre but immersive as the first game, but the cinematics were just gorgeous. Speaking of gorgeousness, the character models are stunning in this game, and I couldn’t stop taking screenshots of some of the many awesome characters, like Poison Ivy, Supergirl, and Scarecrow. I played many hours of this game and I still want to go back and play it as I write this. My only wish is that the next Injustice game brings DC’s Blackest Night storyline to the video game world. Zombie Batman versus Star Sapphire Wonder Woman? Yes. Please.

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5. Stardew Valley

“You have to play Stardew Valley,” my friend Tabitha said. Again. And again. For months. I’d put it off long enough, so its release on the Nintendo Switch (which is one reason I’m including it on this list, the other being that it was new to me in 2017) meant that I had run out of excuses. I downloaded it, and after a few hours of playing I thought “well, I guess it’s okay. I’m not sure what the fuss is about, though.” The fuss, Joey-from-a-few-months-ago, is what happens after those first few hours. Stardew Valley is not about the big moments, it’s not about a steady rise and fall of action and drama. It’s a slow, deliberate trek through a subtly touching and immersive town of weird, funny people who are both normal and completely odd. I spent over 170 hours playing Stardew Valley, and I don’t regret a minute of it.

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4. Resident Evil 7

As a Resident Evil fan from the very beginning, I’ve seen the series lose something about what made those first few games on the PlayStation special. I enjoyed Resident Evil 4 and 5, but both were a far cry from the cramped, claustrophobic mansion in the first Resident Evil or the empty and eerily quiet police station of its sequel. Resident Evil 7 captured that atmosphere again, and the fact that it did so in virtual reality is amazing. I wasn’t able to get past the nausea I experienced after the first twenty minutes or so (I didn’t try hard enough, honestly), so I didn’t get to experience it fully, but even without it I felt some of the same intimate terror that the early games evoked. I mentioned my odd penchant for big, old houses earlier, and the designers of this mansion did such a great job of giving each room its own unique brand of gross creepiness. Keeping the player in one general area makes developers put so much more care in the design of that space, and it almost always shows, as it does here. I know the game didn’t do as well financially as some had expected, but I hope that doesn’t dissuade Capcom from making future Resident Evil games in this same gloriously horrific vein.

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3. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Simple yet elegant is how I might sum up Breath of the Wild. One of the things I pay attention to in open world games is how dense and varied the topography and foliage is, and at first glance this game might seem to be lacking in that department. But after you start travelling the plains, gliding from mountains, scurrying along cliffs, you begin to see how smoothly everything flows together. That tree is there for a reason. That cluster of rocks is not there by chance. That half-buried statue means something. This Hyrule is not thick with action and activity. It is empty. Lonely. But it has so much life.

Add that to the simple but versatile combat, the beautiful art style, and the low-demand high-reward narrative, and Breath of the Wild ended up being my favorite Zelda game of all time.

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2. Horizon Zero Dawn

Like other games on this list, Horizon Zero Dawn surprised me by how good it was. When Sony used the game as their showpiece for E3 2016, I thought “huh. It looks okay, I guess. I mean, I don’t get why cavepeople are fighting robot dinosaurs, and that seems like a bit of a gimmick, but it looks pretty, I suppose.” Once again, Joey-from-the-past, you were wrong. Breath of the Wild’s open world was indeed beautiful and visually poetic, but Horizon’s world was also gorgeous and extravagantly rich with not only life, but hidden relics of a forgotten world. I love both worlds, but I found myself pausing and just looking a lot more often in this game. I probably spent at least a few hours in photo mode, and that’s no exaggeration. Every moonbeam breaking through lush bushes, glowing machine eye bearing down on me, haze of fog hanging over a thick forest, had me captivated.

It wasn’t just the visuals of this game that won my heart, though. The characters, Aloy especially, were nuanced and subtle, believable and human. The voice acting was top-notch, the sci-fi storytelling was superb, the pacing managed to feel brisk despite being an open world game, and holy hell was the combat satisfying. When I began the game I felt intimidated by how deadly the machines seemed, especially the larger ones, but once I got a handle on dodging and aiming, I began to crave the challenge of a particularly ferocious robo-dino (or dino-robo?). I couldn’t survive by blindly button-mashing or hacking-and-slashing like in some other action RPGs, I had to think about my surroundings, my enemies’ weakness, the tools I had on hand, and the best weapon for the job. It was a deep but not impenetrable combat system, and it’s a big part of why the game became progressively more enjoyable as I ventured into new areas filled with ever-deadly machines. But I’ve said enough, I think. I loved this game. A lot.

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1. Persona 5

Speaking of loving a game a lot, though, hot freaking damn did I love Persona 5. I wrote a whole blog about it not long ago, so I’ll try and keep this short, but this is the kind of game that only comes along once in a great while for me. A game that I think about at random points every few days, without even realizing I’m doing it. I spent something like 360 hours playing it to completion almost three times and yet I sometimes find myself wanting to start it up again. If Atlus releases the screenshot restriction on PS4, in fact, I will almost certainly play it again this coming summer. I love the art style, the fast-paced combat, the characters, the humor, the world… I’m rambling. I probably can’t say it better than I already have in my previous blog, but this game is truly special to me. It’s objectively an incredible game, but subjectively it scratched some internal itch for me that makes it one of my favorite games of all time. I’m a broken record, I know. But I really do love it to death.

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There are two games that don’t qualify for me, because even though Mario Kart 8 DX is new to the Switch, it’s not new to me, and while Final Fantasy XV is new to me, it’s not new to any platform that I played it on (and it was released in 2016). But I mention them because I played a whole lot of both of them in 2017, making it an even more magical year for me as far as video games go.

And I still haven’t played everything 2017 had to offer, unfortunately. I need to finish Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, I bought but haven’t gotten around to Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, Super Mario Odyssey, and South Park: The Fractured but Whole, and I really want to check out Doki Doki Literature Club! 2017, it seems, is the gift that keeps on giving, and I’m glad to have had the chance to take part in it.

If Video Games are Art, We Should Discuss Them as Such – Reviews vs Criticism

As a teacher (and student) of rhetoric and composition, I’m frequently thinking about how art and different kinds of media are presented to various audiences, and how those audiences react in turn. Given that I am also an avid gamer and have taught my first-year college students about rhetoric using video games, the subject of video game criticism comes up pretty often. It’s something I’ve thought about again and again, and a recent episode of IGN’s Game Scoop! podcast addressed some of the things that float around in my head.

At the heart of it, I believe that there is a distinction between a ‘review’ and criticism, and I think that the gaming community at large – on the Internet, anyway – suffers from a lack of clarity when it comes to the function of popular gaming site reviews. Further, I think that video games as an art form suffers from the popular public discourse around the medium centering around reviews and popular commentary, with a lack of criticism – or what some might call ‘high criticism,’ though that phrase always struck me as either self-important or dismissive.

Though my blog isn’t aimed at any particular audience, I wanted to share a transcript of the segment of Game Scoop! that centers on this issue and provide some of my own commentary on the discussion, and suggest some solutions for how we as a very broad – and admittedly loosely defined – community might move toward a more productive way of discussing games.

First, here is the transcript of this segment in its entirety, just in case you wanted to read it unfiltered and free of my thoughts before I dig into it. I did trim some repeated words and a few lines of comedic interjection, but otherwise this is unedited. It’s a long read, but I think it’s interesting throughout. This is episode 451, starting around 34:13:

Daemon Hatfield : (reading a listener’s email) “When you review a game, how much does the tie into real world issues factor in? i.e., making you think about current problems in society. I really like games that are not only insanely fun to play but also leave you thinking differently about the world you live in. Some recent examples are Horizon and Hellblade.”

Dan Stapleton: Yeah, any way a game affects you – it’s just like a movie. Like, if a movie has something to say, then it’s more about – it’s about more than just the events that are happening on the screen and whether the hero wins in the end. It’s got commentary, and that can have more effect on an audience than just nothing at all, just some throwaway plot about saving the day. It adds context and subtext. So I don’t want to say there’s a fixed amount that that’s going to affect things, but anything that can affect you as a gamer, as somebody experiencing a game or a movie or anything, you know, a song can be about something that’s not apparent too.

Sam Claiborn: Booties.

Dan Stapleton: For example. So that can factor into your review, absolutely.

Sam Claiborn: So he’s asking us about reviews, right? And I, you know, a couple of us here are probably English majors, like myself, I had a lot of classes where we studied criticism, and part of critiquing something is putting it in the context of its larger role in society and in its genre and in its, you know, everything that it does. So when I’m thinking about a game, I’m thinking about ‘how does this affect other games? How does it affect how I think about games, how does it affect all that,’ but Dan is a really good editor, and he says the one question we should be answering at IGN, for our reviews, is ‘is this fun?’ And that’s a different prospect, I think, than normal criticism. And so, sometimes when you read video game reviews, or especially movie reviews, and especially-especially book reviews, if you read those, that is criticism and it’s always looking at our time, what this means, and it’s trying to tie this work of art into that. And I think that’s important. That’s not necessarily what we do. I don’t think Dan’s gonna shoot that down if you turn in a review with that in it, but we’re definitely answering a different question here.

Dan Stapleton: Yeah, the priority is about the game itself, rather than-

Sam Claiborn: Like, you don’t demand that kind of critical aspect.

Dan Stapleton: No, I’m not going for literary analysis of the plot of a game, necessarily, unless, like in the sense of a very story-driven game, then yeah, there’s a lot of room for that.

Justin Davis: Yeah, as you said, Sam, this was a question specifically about the context of reviews, and so yeah, I don’t think anyone’s saying this game gets plus or minus one point because of its commentary on real world issues or its ability to influence my opinion on something that’s happening in the world. Outside of the context of reviews, I’m consistently disappointed by a lot of games shirking — a lot of game creators don’t seem very interested in their games, or try to run away from the responsibility that they have as artists for –

Sam Claiborn: Provoking controversy.

Justin Davis: Yeah, for putting something out in the world. You know, they kind of want to have their cake and eat it too, or just be like ‘hey, man, we’re just making our thing and we’re not really thinking about how it sits in the context of the world,’ and I’m like ‘man, you can’t’ – no other artistic medium gets to claim that kind of ignorance.

Dan Stapleton: Far Cry 5 has actually been called out for that a lot as, like, how far are they going to go toward maybe saying something about militias and cults in America?

Justin Davis: Yep. When obviously they’re saying a lot, but they want to say a lot without really answering to that in interviews or any sort of, I don’t know.

Sam Claiborn: Or they’ll include all that but they won’t touch on racial aspects at all because, you know, it could divide their audience or – divide their audience into people that say ‘I don’t want this talked about,’ no matter what their stance is, and people that do.

Daemon Hatfield: Yeah. You’ll find that indie developers are much more willing to talk about social issues in their games—

Dan Stapleton: Although, something like Metal Gear Solid is loaded with subtext, even though the story itself makes no sense.

Justin Davis: I mean, games have a stance. Metal Gear Solid has a stance and makes a statement and has opinions about, you know, the military-industrial complex and everything else, but then game makers seem unwilling to – you know, they stop short of the finish line in the way that I think creators in other mediums do often. And that’s not a universal, I’m making a blanket statement. Obviously there are a million exceptions, but generally speaking, I don’t think our medium and its creators go as far there as they should or could.

Daemon Hatfield: I think social commentary in games is still a fairly recent phenomenon, in the life-span of video games. There’s not a lot of social commentary in Pong or Super Mario Bros.

Dan Stapleton: Games that have story, some of those stories can opt to veer into having something to say. Most don’t.

Justin Davis: But even – Nintendo and Mario are some of the greatest games ever made, but how many times has Princess Zelda been kidnapped? Or Princess Peach been kidnapped and need to be rescued? Does that matter? Like, is that something that Nintendo-

Sam Claiborn: That’s what Brad [?] is talking about, right? You know what’s cool, is that when you mentioned that I was trying to think of the earliest game that I could think of with social commentary – Death Race is. That was the first controversial game, and that game is this – the setup is, you’re collecting points for just mowing down people. Running them over in a car. And, yes, it’s gratuitous violence, but now when you look at it it’s completely stupid. It’s, like, barely a car and you’re barely running over humans, because they’re just dots. But it came out in 1978, there’s a gas crisis, there’s car culture going crazy, and there’s Death Race, there’s all these kind of cultural things happening about cars killing people, and that’s kind of a cool thing, but at the same time people were like ‘hey, this is wrong that this game is taking the perspective that running people over for points is a good thing.’ And it seems really simple now, but that was the first game that I can think of where there was any discussion of that games impact on wider society and what it means, and how that’s evil.

Daemon Hatfield: Well, there was discussion about it, but I don’t think the game was making any sort of social commentary.

Sam Claiborn: Yeah, it’s hard to say. There are games-

Justin Davis: But it doesn’t always have to be intended. Even if they weren’t intending social commentary, by virtue of it existing and them having made something, they were making a statement and taking a stand.

Sam Claiborn: Or like Chiller. Is Chiller actually saying, this gore and this goofy stuff , like, is all – that’s kind of a bold statement to make.

Dan Stapleton: Postal is the same way.

Daemon Hatfield: I think it’s making a statement, but I think violence is offered as entertainment very, very often –

Sam Claiborn: It’s almost a self-parody, though.

Daemon Hatfield: It’s never bothered me. I’ve always been a big fan of violence in entertainment.

[…]

Justin Davis: Yeah, I mean, for me it’s not about moralizing or being the ‘moral police’ and saying this is too violent or too this or too whatever, it’s just creators owning up to some responsibility for what they made. Or at least just saying, ‘yeah, we wanted to make this super violent thing and here’s why we enjoy that aesthetic and that’s what did it for us.’ And that part’s missing sometimes, I think.

Daemon Hatfield: Yeah.

Dan Stapleton: A lot of people look at reviews that criticize or praise games for social commentary as the reviewer trying to police that, trying to either say ‘I didn’t like this so a game should never do that,’ or ‘I like this and all games should do it.’ Which isn’t really what a review sets out to do, it’s simply offering  an opinion, guidance on a game, and whether a developer chooses to take that advice or not is entirely up to them, and really, sales are gonna guide that more than anything that we are ever gonna say, so it’s – I think a lot of people worry about critics trying to impose a certain view, even though that’s not what they’re trying to do, they’re just offering an opinion, a perspective, just like any other.

Daemon Hatfield: Yeah, like we were saying, I think social commentary in games is starting to become more and more common, and there is a certain segment of the gaming community that’s calling for more of that. For my part, while I think that’s certainly fine, and I believe in a creator’s right – whatever kind of art they’re making, to make whatever they want to make – for my part, what I’m looking for is just good old fashioned escapist entertainment. I just want to play Mario + Rabbids. That’s what I’m looking for in my games.

The team says a lot of interesting things, but one of the lines that stood out the most to me, and is perhaps the primary motivation for this blog, is: “the one question we should be answering at IGN, for our reviews, is ‘is this fun?’ And that’s a different prospect, I think, than normal criticism.” I know I’m not saying anything new here, but video game review sites are by far the most popular venues for video game criticism, and their reviews treat video games as consumer products, not necessarily pieces of art or artful experiences (except when they conflate the two, as with reviews that praise Nier: Automata for its artistic statement, regardless of its lack of technical or mechanical finesse).

I’m going to generalize a bit, but the vocal gaming community seems at odds with itself. When it wants to feel mature about its chosen hobby, or when non-gaming media sites attack video games in the wake of a violent shooting, it is not shy about holding the medium up as art. But when it comes to the discourse surrounding games, it wants them to be treated as consumer products. Is it fun? Is it worth $60? Are reviewers going to ‘mess up’ the Metacritic score for my favorite game? Popular reviews are not based on the artistic merits of a game, the GameScoop!  crew points out here. Their function is to inform the public on a game’s merits, based in their personal tastes, so that the public might choose to purchase the game or pass on it.

For game criticism to be more like criticism of other art forms, it has to be less concerned with things like ‘value’ or how the audience might respond to commentary on social issues. An example of this would be the concept of ‘franchise fatigue.’ Franchise fatigue is certainly something to consider in a review of a video game as a consumer product: if a reviewer is tired of the series and it does little to excite them at this point in its life cycle, the consumer might well feel the same and might be glad to have been warned of the issue. But (depending on the angle), that should have very little to do with criticizing a game as art. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate comes to mind, because I have heard many podcasters and people on social media claim that they didn’t play it or they disregard it because it was just another Assassin’s Creed game. Consider that argument in criticism of other art forms. We celebrate refinement in other mediums, like film, where few critics would say something like ‘I don’t remember The Dark Knight because it was just another Batman movie,’ or even ‘I’m going to pass on Dunkirk. I think I’m all Christopher Nolan-ed out.’ On the contrary, we reward franchises and artists in film when they iterate and continually refine their craft. In video games, they are boring.

Sam says, at one point, “sometimes when you read video game reviews, or especially movie reviews, and especially-especially book reviews, if you read those, that is criticism and it’s always looking at our time, what this means, and it’s trying to tie this work of art into that. And I think that’s important. That’s not necessarily what we do.” What do you notice about the progression of emphasis in Sam’s claim? The ‘higher’ and more ‘artistic’ the medium, the more serious its critics seem to take it as art, and their criticism reflects that. Sure, there are sites for less ‘serious’ film and literature reviews, sites that function very much like popular game review sites. But I would agree with Sam that movie and book criticism tends to have a lot more in the way of looking at content either in isolation – not comparing it to other popular products for the audience’s sake – or considering it as a part of a larger conversation.

Why does this matter, though? Why do we need more critically minded consideration from games writers, especially if the majority of people seem to just want validation of their own tastes in the form of a numerical score from popular gaming sites? Well Justin hints at the reason when he says “a lot of game [developers] shirk … the responsibility that they have as artists for putting something out in the world. You know, they kind of want to have their cake and eat it too, or just be like ‘hey, man, we’re just making our thing and we’re not really thinking about how it sits in the context of the world,’ and I’m like ‘man, you can’t – no other artistic medium gets to claim that kind of ignorance.” By focusing on whether or not a game is ‘fun’ or ‘worth your money or time,’ popular reviews give this kind of behavior a pass. Art is powerful and in a great many ways it shapes how we view our world and ourselves in it. We learn a lot more than we’d like to admit from watching movies and television and playing video games, regardless of age. If we want games to be taken seriously as an art form, that’s something we have to be absolutely willing to accept. So our criticism of the art form should be unflinching in its own willingness to analyze how any given game does just that.

Dan brings up Far Cry 5 here, and I think it’s just one of several recent examples of games that say something about the world or culture in which it was produced. Unlike other art forms, video games tend to stay away from hot political or cultural topics, which is partially why many people are still hesitant to consider it an art form or, at the very least, a ‘mature’ art form. Ubisoft (Far Cry 5, South Park: The Fractured but Whole) and MachineGames (Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus) both seem willing to include culturally relevant material in their games, so by ignoring their commentary and sticking to whether or not the games are ‘fun,’ we devalue them as art, de-incentivize the developers from making more culturally relevant games, and lower the bar for what’s expected out of our own game criticism, making it a consumer review rather than an criticism of actual art.

I’m not saying that popular reviews are bad. I’m not saying rating things for consumers isn’t useful. What I am saying is that our community needs to mature in terms of what it expects of game reviews and associated games commentary. If video games are art, let their creators make artful statements. By making ridiculous claims like ‘keep your political commentary out of my games,’ you’re exposing yourself as a mere consumer and one who feels they should wield power over the artists that create the art that you insist is yours. It’s not. It’s theirs. Let them make their games about gender inequality, racial tension, societal collapse, capitalism, etc., and criticize it as art. Is it important? Is it new? Is it adding something meaningful to some relevant conversation? The more we think video game developers should bow to our wishes because we are the consumers that support them, the more we separate our art form from others, which is ultimately self-defeating.

(Featured photo from: https://www.dualshockers.com/wolfenstein-ii-the-new-colossus-2-review-ps4/)