Decisive Book Reviews
The Study of Play
In Episode 8 of the First Person Podcast we discuss Campo Santo’s debut game Firewatch. In this short episode Rob, Shawn, and Emma cover a ton of topics including: genres of horror, the cost vs time investment debate, what realistic depictions of romance in games look like, the game’s multiple endings, what games made us cry the most, and how Firewatch is like a short story in all the best ways possible. This episode is full of spoilers and we don’t recommend it if you are planning on playing Firewatch and haven’t got around to it yet. We do recommend that you go play Firewatch and experience its bomb voice acting first hand before you get back over here and listen to us because this game is definitely worth both your time and money.
Released in 2011 to near-unanimous critical acclaim, the action role-playing game Dark Souls was hailed by many as a return to old-school gaming principles that eschewed overly-detailed narrative exposition or player tutorials in favor of a trial-and-error design philosophy and strong risk-versus-reward approach to in-game deaths. Many critics praised the game’s ability to cultivate a type of psychological torment (but also potential for satisfaction) via its unforgiving gameplay, as echoed in Keza MacDonald’s original review of the game where she states “Dark Souls’s design is so consistently dark and twisted that it actually starts to encroach on your mental well-being after extended play” (McDonald, 2011). Despite the emphasis on what was seen as a return to older design principles, equal attention was paid to the game’s radically innovative approach to online multiplayer. Unlike many other online role-playing games that operate through persistent shared universes—or, games that create virtual spaces where dozens or even hundreds of individuals can interact with each other in real time—Dark Souls operates primarily through asynchronous, indirect, or highly-restricted player interactions, such as its famous anonymous user-generated notes posted throughout the world. Such a novel approach to online multiplayer was described by Kevin VonOrd as an “unusual and wonderful contradiction” insofar as Dark Souls makes players “feel remarkably alone in this frightening place, yet simultaneously part of a large multiverse where simply playing the game makes you part of a chorus of silent voices urging each other forward” (VonOrd, 2011). In this sense, Dark Souls achieved the almost paradoxical feat of creating a gamespace that is shared by many but individually experienced as a fragmented and desolate landscape.
I write this, Mr. Johnson, because your work resonates with me. I respect you and I think when you write, you aim for the same targets I do. On paper, Offworld Trading Company is exactly the type of game that sparked my interest in strategy games in the first place. It’s receiving some very positive press and has already sold over 100,000 copies. That’s great. I hope it does well for you. I won’t be buying it, though. It has to do with your company’s co-founder and president Brad Wardell. Wardell’s decision to associate with a group of people that have had demonstrable and undeniably negative effects on the gaming industry is something I have a lot of trouble with. While that group may adopt the language of platform holders to hold their harassment at arm’s length by calling it the work of “third-party trolls,” they still provided the platform for those abuses to be carried out and are unable (but more often unwilling) to take responsibility for that.
It was a huge encouragement to read Luca Morini’s wonderful article on play as the “bulwark of uselessness” on May 4th. Having a deep understanding of and appreciation for play is a crucial part of human culture and society, and as Luca notes the freedom to be playful–to enjoy things for their own sake–is often sacrificed on the altar of “usefulness”, leading not to the enhancement of human culture but to its diminishment. To echo Luca’s use of Huizinga: “The very existence of play continually confirms the supra-logical nature of the human situation…We play and know that we play, so we must be more than merely rational beings, because play is irrational.”
According to The Division, America is very, very sick. The nation is stricken with “Green Poison,” a fatal, highly contagious disease. New York City, ground zero for this devastating pandemic, has fallen into chaos and ruin. Quarantined survivors are forced to scavenge through the garbage bags and abandoned cars that fill the streets. They are trapped by their protectors, a Joint Task Force (JTF) comprised of police and military personnel that impose endless checkpoints, martial law, lethal measures in the event of non-compliance. Backed by agents from the secretive Strategic Homeland Division, the JTF exchanges near-constant gunfire with the violent groups that roam the crumbling city, killing at random. The Division is a portrait of America on the cusp of outright failure as a functioning state.
Almost two years ago, halfway through my doctoral course, I found myself in Finland at the “Critical Evaluation of Game Studies Seminar,” where, above all the “big names” in the field of Game Studies who spoke there (among which were Aarseth, Deterding, Juul, and Mäyrä), one thing was indelibly imprinted in my memory: Canadian sociologist Bart Simon’s characterisation of Game Studies as a true, undeniable “bulwark of uselessness”. As a customary “tank” player in MMOs, always relishing the role of defending my teammates in our small, unnecessary virtual struggles, the image stuck strongly.
Instead of examining a specific game on Episode 7 of the First Person Podcast we turn a eye, an upraised eyebrow, and a single tear towards Nintendo and its recent decisions. Four disapointed Nintendo fans look at the many controversies and rumours currently surrounding both Nintendo as a company as well as their current and upcoming games. In this episode we cover the Fire Emblem localization, Nintendo’s lack of reaction to GamerGate, Nintendo firing Alison Rapp, the launch and staying power of Miitomo, and the rumours about implementing a choice between male and female link in the new Zelda game. Beyond this will also discuss larger issues of localization, how sexuality is depicted in games, and wonder how many different varieties of “hard core” gamers we’ve encountered.