2016’s Games Read/Watchlist

I ran an impromptu Twitter poll the other day, asking my followers what were their favorite pieces of games writing & criticism of this year. I got a number of responses. They’re all good, so let’s list them down here off of Twitter for future reference. This listing is not complete at all, especially when avenues like Patreon and Medium have continued to flourish with a glut of great writing.

I’ve been thinking of throwing my hat back in the ring myself, having ceased games writing three years ago.

To be honest, I haven’t been able to pay as much attention to games writing as I wish I had, being so mentally dug into making Chambara happen, though I did discover the wonderful long-form videos of Noah Caldwell-Gervais, who is one of the smartest new cookies around. I think this was a good year for smart games writing.

Heather Robertson puts forward this long form critique of Fallout 3.

Jocelyn Kim suggests two videos and two essays. One by the amazing Mark Brown, who runs Game Maker’s Toolkit, one of the best new YouTube shows of the year, and another by Dan Floyd from Extra Credits.

There’s also a good article about the surrealist art roots of “walking sim” games, which goes back to stuff like derive, as well as Robert Yang’s piece on VR’s potential as a haven for queer & fringe artists. Its all good.

@Wirehead2501 suggests Enjoying It: Candy Crush & Capitalism, which seems to be in the same thematic vein as Games of Empire, which was a formative book for me on imperialist politics in games.

@20xxJester puts forward a Waypoint article (Waypoint’s fantastic, you should read their stuff) about a secret door in an MMO that could only be opened by players who reached an absurd level of experience. One player made it through, and the mystery of what’s behind that door remains only known by them. Wow. Mystery like that which arouses the imagination is stuff I live for.

@TheGreatDarkOne suggests Cara Ellison’s amazing article about this year’s Kentucky Route Zero episode and what it meant to her, as well as Jason Yu’s examination of the musical storytelling of Undertale.

Colin Horgan suggests this article about culture & gender as expressed in Final Fantasy XIII’s last episode, and these videos.

A longform video-examination of Bloodborne in relation to From Software’s other Soulsbourne games.

And Matthewmatosis’ longform analysis of Devil May Cry on a beat-by-beat level. Its a curious video and its interesting to see Resident Evil’s design approaches mutate into the action-game it ended up being.

Patrick Scarborough suggests this retrospective by Philip Kollar on WoW’s evolution from expansion-to-expansion.

Abhishek Biswas brings up The Game Design Forum, which has this series of “reverse-design” analyses which deconstruct JRPGs on a design level.

Mike Effenberger suggests this video by John Romero, where he plays through a level he built for Doom. Its a nice piece of creator commentary, and I love stuff like this.

@TacticalMullign suggests this haunting Waypoint piece about Dark Souls II and Walter Benjamin’s idea of historical teleology and a certain relativity to modernist narratives about “progress”.

While I was in Scotland two years ago, this video about Phil Fish and the impact of attention and notoriety made the rounds. @gayanimegirl suggests this video about Davey Wreden and The Beginner’s Guide by that same person.

@Warstub suggests Electron Dance’s video about The Witness, its curious structure and progression, and where it stands as JoBlow’s Bizarre Adventure. It goes into great detail about its pacing, with its aspirational goal of creating a meditative rhythm of play.

@OnyxOblivion suggests Patrick Klepek’s piece about the opaque systems that govern the “Poise” stat in Dark Souls 3.

@tfeatherson12 puts forward Jason Schrier’s review of Final Fantasy XV, which has a nice, nostalgic rhythm to it with considerations to the multiplicity of things people want out of a Final Fantasy game. I can’t wait to play it.

@StefanSterber1 appreciates Mark Brown’s Boss Key series on Zelda level design. Its a fun series since you get to see his ideas, theses, and language evolve as the series goes on.

That’s what I have from 2016. What are your favorite bits of criticism & writing?

I’m not a curator or critic by any means, but if you’re looking for good writing, you might want to consider checking out Critical Distance for more nuanced craft.

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Minecraft 1.0 Review

This is a piece that I wrote approximately a year ago on the release of Minecraft 1.0, the game has changed since then, but I believe this is one of the best things I’ve written about gaming yet. 

There’s a certain, magical sense of childlike wonder permeating throughout every moment of Minecraft that few of us have experienced since the cessation of our childhoods. It is a memory marked by the wondrous sense of innocence that we took for granted before our lives became inundated with the harried strife of reality, a memory of a time when every day brought with it a joyful new experience, a time when every nook and cranny of the enchanted world could have been a cave filled with forgotten treasure, a world where monsters lurked under the bed every night and we cried to our parents to protect us. For all of us, it has been decades since we last experienced that euphoric sense of novelty accompanying every moment of our existence, the very next morning becoming something we perpetually dread. Childhood has been lost forever to the insatiable maws of tomorrow, innocence is shattered forever while we desperately try to put together the shards, be it through our first breakup, our first job, or even the rite of passage of entering Elementary School.
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And thus is the beauty of Minecraft. It is through the simple joy of exploration through which a long-forgotten facet of our each of our individual histories is recalled to life. This is an incredible game recalling a time when everything was new and hope bled through our fantasies into reality. It thus goes without saying that this is not a game for the decade, but one for eternity.

Gameplay

In simplest terms, Minecraft is a sandbox/RPG in which every component of the gameworld can be modified by the player and used as a tool. The goal of the game’s RPG component is to collect resources and build structures during the day to survive the night, during which the monsters roam. This is an extremely open-ended style of play and the game’s infinite range of possibilities becomes immediately perceptible. There is a goal to Minecraft and there is a final boss and end sequence, but the game’s already open-ended main quest is easily eschewed when one realizes the creative potential the game’s construction system offers. In short, the player must collect arcane materials buried deep in the earth to create a portal to another dimension to slay the “Ender Dragon”. It’s a childlike set-up that could have been conceived in any number of Kindergarten recesses and perfectly appropriate for the imaginative nature of the game.

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What happens between the player’s initial spawn and the defeat of the Ender Dragon is totally up to the player. This freedom, shockingly enough, does not feel overwhelming, but liberating. Within moments, a single thought implants itself in the player’s mind: “I can do anything in this game!” Roaming the procedurally generated gameworld guided only by the built-in achievements guide is an exercise in glee. That cave over there? Grab a torch, let’s go spelunking in it! The grassy meadow over there? Go ahead, pick some flowers. The islands in the distance? Not a hard swim, I even see smoke rising from an NPC village there. All the resources you discover from deconstructing the gameworld can be used in the single most robust crafting system seen in gaming. Within minutes, the gameworld becomes a playset for your imagination, a kind of modern-day LEGO set. The trees, rocks and caves become the components for your tools, weapons, armor and houses, you begin to see the world around you differently.

That is until nightfall. Despite the joyously hyperactive imagination of the daytime, night in Minecraft is greatly reminiscent of a child’s dread of bedtime. The monsters of Minecraft are brutally persistent in their tenacity to chew on your brains, zombies will moan from unseen dark corners and skeletons will fire arrows at you from a distance. None of these enemies compare to the terrifying onslaught of the Creeper. A quadrupedal mass of wrinkled green skin, the Creeper is perpetually haunted by a sad, mournful frown. The most advisable thing to do when encountering one is to run the hell away. The Creeper can explode for an instant kill, causing the player to lose all progress, resources and equipment, respawning him at the game’s start. Watch out for these enemies, as they are terrifying to encounter. Night in Minecraft effectively becomes as horrific as enduring nights as a young child, the perpetual threat of monsters lurking inches below your mattress. Its a brutally haunting game to play and beautiful in the memories it evokes.

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A memory that will always stay with me originates from a few hours ago as I emerged from my safehouse prior to the break of dawn. Armed with a newly crafted stone sword, I beat down the zombies that were knocking at my door throughout the night and saw some cows and sheep across the strait on an island. I swam across the strait and slayed the animals for meat, wool and leather, the intent of weaving a warm jacket lurking in my mind. I heard an unfamiliar moan and raised my head to see, staring from about twenty feet away, a Creeper. I backed away, turned around, and made a break for it, sprinting as fast as I could go. I jumped into the strait and splashed my way across, thinking that the water would separate us because it could not swim. I emerged on the opposite bank and turned around, wading, already halfway across the river, was the Creeper. Terrified, I dashed away, fumbling over a hill, turning my head periodically to observe its progress as it quickly gained on me.

Not looking where I was going, I fell into a crevasse and injured myself. Looking up into the hole through which I fell, I saw that I rolled down about a hundred feet… losing the Creeper in the process… Wonderful… Getting back to the surface and back to the safehouse is going to be so much more of a bother. I lowered my head and saw, jutting out from the cobblestone of the mouth of an extensive system of interweaving caves and catacombs, a cache of glittering diamonds. Like in life, one downfall opens up a host of new opportunities. I picked up my pickaxe and set to work. When the diamonds were gone, I ventured deep into the cave system, eagerly seeking out an adventure.

Minecraft’s second game mode is called “Creative Mode”, and removes the constraints of hunger, experience, health, resources and gravity to allow the player to construct anything he can imagine freely. With the available mods and texture packs, incredible stuff can be done. Just look at some of the things the community has conceived.

Further proving the LEGO comparison: Minecraft has already been popping up in art and computer science classes all around the country. Its an exciting proposition with the potential to do a lot of good for society

Conclusion

If there is one game you purchase this year, let it be Minecraft. Minecraft touched my soul in a way that I never imagined possible after my tenth birthday. This is a pioneering game and the embodiment of the values of freedom upheld by computer hackers that have been drowned out since corporations began to encroach on the medium. Notch and Mojang have effectively captured lightning in a bottle: the childlike playfulness that drew us to gaming in the first place. As we became entrenched in shooter after shooter, fighting game after fighting game, we have forgotten the youthful joy we so desperately sought after. How fitting is it that the original wonder of childhood would manifest itself in a world that, much like our own, is procedurally generated, be it through science or the rule of God. Minecraft shines as a beacon of hope, not just for gaming, but for mankind. Play this game… and tremble.