Decisive Book Reviews
The Study of Play
As you’ve seen over the past couple weeks we are going through a changing of the guard here at First Person Scholar. At this point many of the founding editors have either graduated from their programs, or are in the midst of doing so. For myself, I am in the final stages of my dissertation and so I too am moving on. And it’s high time that I did so. It’s not that I’ve grown tired of FPS—far from it in fact, as evidenced by the many thank-yous below! But at the same time the role of an editor-in-chief should be to bring a direction and destination to a publication and I think the longevity and success of a site like FPS will be measured by the range of people at its helm, the multitude of directions it goes in, and the variety of destinations it seeks to arrive at. What I’d like to do in this post is to briefly reflect on my time here at FPS and then formally introduce the team of people who will be taking FPS in those new directions, towards new destinations.
In fact, if there’s anything I regret from my tenure as review editor, it’s not going far enough to promote different perspectives. I wish I had dedicated more time to pursuing a wider diversity of reviewers, and, especially in the early days of FPS, I regret pushing reviewers to hit that formal, authoritative tone instead of pursuing their own voice and position. It’s to that end, in fact, that I’ve been very grateful for the review model pioneered by Elise Vist, as I think it really draws out the multitude of approaches that can be brought to bear on long-form criticism, asking what a given work meant to the reviewer’s research, to the field, the classroom, and to the reviewer personally. These are questions worth asking. Most of all, though, I regret not stepping further out of the academic field in terms of the books themselves. I’m proud of how multidisciplinary the reviews are—we’ve got reviews about ethnography and sociology, genre and gender, games for health and game culture. There’s some edging towards criticism outside of academia, but not enough. Further, I would have liked more reviews on things that blur the line of engagements with games entirely: gamebooks, game art books, longform criticism like Leigh Alexander’s Lo-Fi Let’s Plays. Chris will have his own vision of where the Book Reviews will go, but these are my own roads not traveled.
I have no idea where the field is going, but I can say where I’d like it to go in general terms. I hope to see a further focus on two concepts in particular, subjectivity and complexity. Subjectivity is important for the obvious reason that videogames are played by humans. A critical methodology that ignores subjectivity is, in my view, missing an important piece of the puzzle. As Stephanie Jennings puts it, “the critic’s subjectivity, experiences of playing a game, and even personal identity are… part of the game text under analysis.” The idea that objectivity is desirable or even remotely possible in criticism is, in my view, absurd. Sure, we can discuss the formal characteristics of a thing, but the characteristics we choose to examine and how we interpret them is going to depend on the person. Luckily, I think we’re at the point where the push for objectivity is disappearing and more or less confined to the comments sections for AAA game reviews. Still, the examination of subjectivities is something I’d like to keep seeing.
Bloodborne follows a similar mechanic; by selecting the notebook in your inventory, you can scrawl a note and send it out into other players’ universes, where it can be rated “fine” or “foul” according to how helpful (or amusing) players who stumble across the missive find it. There’s something moving about this process, like a note in a bottle sent out across other dimensions, little gestures of kindness and goodwill in the decaying and endlessly hostile environment. Hunters sending little vials of hope across the cosmos; tiny pearls of help. A colleague of mine, Braydon Beaulieu, wrote a few notes in Bloodborne that were not about strategy, but self-care. Little reminders of kindness in the bleakness. In response to this, I wrote a poem, my own little wish for gentleness.
The Arkham games reveal the most palimpsestual qualities of Origins’ Gotham are tied up with the Gotham of Arkham City. While the concept of the palimpsest derived from textual analysis places importance on that which has been erased from a manuscript document to make space for new writing, in critiquing contemporary cultural objects we can think in terms of layering as well as erasure to focus on the theoretical implications of adding new tiers of meaning to form novel products over on top of relevant qualities that pre-exist in the transmedia assemblage. Asylum’s world was largely limited and matched the player’s linear progression through the game’s narrative. Players are allowed to visit one part of the game map at a time, and a heavy emphasis is placed upon indoor environments. Open movement through the exterior areas of Arkham Island is mainly used to go from building to building, with only sidelining points of interest. In Arkham City, however, the focus shifts from the inside to the outside, as the game is filled with side missions and enemies to face all over the map, as well as some missions involving trails of clues from point to point in the city, or chases that ask the player to traverse great distances over a limited period of time.
In-game screenshots are by no means a new phenomenon; publishers have long used the techniques of live-action photography to capture scenes of their video games for use as advertising materials. So too have gamers had the opportunity to take screenshots during play for later reflection and sharing. The photo editor mode in TLOUR is unique in that it does not require technological literacy, such as modding or coding, to operate this feature. A player does not need specialized skills beyond the ability to play the game in order to take photos. This democratization of game photography may be another commercial impetus, a means of Naughty Dog to get more people creating promotional content for their game, but it also enables a new means of play and self-expression.
Most danmaku games share certain commonalities: a number of stages, each of which has a boss at the end, and all bullet patterns in danmaku games can be readily broken down into three core archetypes. Firstly, the “fixed” bullet pattern: in this case an enemy spawns, fires a set pattern of bullets (say, a stream at a 135 degree angle and a second stream at a 225 degree angle, if we take the top of the screen to be 0 degrees), and then leaves the play area. The second is the “random” bullet pattern: these are created by enemies who fire a semi-random stream of bullets in a particular direction. The third is the “aimed” bullet pattern: in this final case the bullets fired by an enemy are aimed specifically at the player’s current location (or the enemy fires a wider bullet pattern whose “centre” is aimed at the player), and is therefore different on each playthrough based on the player’s location. Examples of all three (random, fixed, and aimed) can be seen in the diagram below, taken from the danmaku game Score Rush.