The Sunday Papers

Sundays are for learning how to dad. Does it involve reading some of the week’s best writing about games?

  • Emily short wrote about the challenge of including personality stats in interactive fiction, and the different ways you can approach them. Interesting and useful:
  • As I’ve mentioned here before a few times, I’m working on a project for Choice of Games, and it’s once again brought me up against a challenge I’ve run into a few times before when writing for Fallen London and to some extent with Versu. As mental shorthand, I’ve come to think of this as “the check-or-set problem,” though really it should maybe be the check-set-or-gate problem. It is as follows:

    When you’re writing in a choice-based medium backed with stats – so ChoiceScript, StoryNexus, Undum, Ren’Py, possibly a hand-rolled Twine system, or inklewriter if you choose to use variables extensively – you have to decide how to treat choices that relate to personality stats.

  • Kate Gray returned to the Guardian to write about what videogames get wrong about love and sex.
  • Video games, a relatively new medium, are still struggling to get the ingredients right. They have, by their very nature, tended to gamify love and this has led to a goal-centric understanding. What, exactly, could function as a win state in the game of love? Sex. Obviously.

  • Giant Bomb continue to feature guest writers, and this week it’s the lovely Rob Zacny’s turn. He writes about the state of strategy games. I’ve been listening to the Three Moves Ahead and Idle Weekend podcasts recently, which means I have Rob’s voice in my head more than my own inner monologue now. If you’d like to be the same way, you might also want to try this supplementary Giant Bomb podcast to the above.
  • Here’s what worries me: In all of 2015, I can think of maybe one major, new strategy game that made any impression on me at all. That was Total War: Attila. City management games are kind of their own weird little subgenre, but let’s go ahead and add Cities: Skylines to the list.

  • At Electron Dance, Joel Goodwin continues his tour of where previously covered developers are now.
  • There’s good news for the Broughphiles amongst us – or perhaps we’re BroughBros, yeah, that sounds like a label which is gonna work. “I have been working too, making a new game called Imbroglio, which I’ll hopefully get out within a couple of months. It’s a big small game, a tight roguelike in the vein of Zaga and 868 but with a lot more options – different characters, item builds, that kind of thing. It’s been my main thing since late 2014 with prototypes going back well before that so, yeah, long project.”

  • At Digitiser2000, Mr. Biffo continues to entertain, this week writing about gaming: the only society that makes sense. A rare opinion.
  • But in a world that I feel increasingly detached from, I feel closer to gaming than ever. In the years when I wasn’t writing as Mr Biffo, I knew something was missing from my life – and it was this.

  • I have not finished reading this article, and it is not about games, but it’s worthy of inclusion for the first couple of paragraphs alone. In Search of Alternatives by Kate Robinson.
  • It was the summer of 2013, and I was engrossed in an online essay extolling Severus Snape as the greatest example of female heroism in the Harry Potter series. While acknowledging Snape’s obvious maleness, the author insisted he was infused with symbolic femininity, among other things, demonstrated by Snape’s preference for potions over “phallic” wands.

    While seemingly trivial, the argument made sense within the context of fandom. Concerned posts and essays proliferated about whether the popularity of white male characters was holding back the socially transformative potential of fan culture, prompting an outpouring of pieces from fans arguing their favorite characters had hidden subversive qualities — that superficially white and male characters were actually coded as queer or feminine, or even as people of color.

  • Have you heard? Newsletters are the new Twitter accounts, or whatever. I subscribe to about two dozen, and the best at the moment is hautepop’s Disturbances. It’s about dust.
  • “Thus, the appearance of the dust enhances Bodie’s air of authenticity, while dissuading visitors from the reality that many of these artifacts were actually arranged by the Park staff In fact, part of the power of the policy of arrested decay is to naturalize itself, even for Bodie’s staff: because they are currently prohibited from moving or arranging artifacts or from disturbing dust, many Bodie staff members assume that this was always the case and do not realize that, though the artifacts are original to Bodie, much of what they and the visitors view was arranged by previous staff members.”

  • But of course you should be spending all your time watching daily trucking videos. Adam and I are.

I have read all your hot takes and music this week is still Beyonce’s Formation.

58 Comments

  1. BooleanBob says:

    A bit patronising to refer to Mr. Biffo as ‘entertaining’, I reckon? I mean yes, there’s the posts about nightmarish album covers and Mr T’s bin collection, but in the post in question (and many others on the site) he’s baring his heart and soul for all to see.

  2. Reejun says:

    >In the popular dating sim genre, a staple of Japanese gaming culture since the 1980s, you give gifts and attention and churn away at raising statistics like “Charm” and “Charisma” until you get the girl of your virtual dreams.

    It seems common that Westerners have the impression that systems along the lines of Tokimeki Memorial are the norm for Japan’s romance games, but they’re actually a bit rare. The dominant form is the novel game: just a branching story without stats (and the branching isn’t even required).

    • Logeres says:

      Dating sims along the lines of Tokimeki Memorial actually used to be the dominant form of this genre until ca. 20-15 years ago. I guess western popular culture just never overhauled their perception.

  3. kwyjibo says:

    GQ did a feature length article on an American video game addiction camp.

    link to gq.com

    Made me think of the commenters at the Fallout 4 DLC thread who spent 200 hours playing a game they didn’t like – link to rockpapershotgun.com

    • misterT0AST says:

      Not to be too grumpy, but that reads an awful lot like a plain and simple advertisement for the camp.

    • apoballo says:

      I attended this camp/program last year and the article is a pretty fair deception of the program and people there. In my personal opinion their laser focus on addiction is not ideal but they do no harm and have had a positive impact on many people, myself included. I am neither a spokesman nor exactly a success case but ama if you wish.

      • kwyjibo says:

        How bad did it get before you enrolled?

        Do you think your case was due to the games themselves, or were games just your failsafe crutch when everything else went to shit?

        • apoballo says:

          Failing out of college and not being able to find a job was what got me there. A large part of it for me was a vicious cycle of using gaming to avoid and soothe anxieties, which in turn eventually worsened the problems which led to more gaming etc. In terms of the games themselves, most are designed to make you spend as much time with them as possible along with dopamine reward systems (leveling, random loot etc), which make them all too easy to abuse as I was doing. A little of both I guess.

  4. Wulfram says:

    I’d question the desirability of “personality stats”. They tend to mean taking control of the character’s personality from the player. And they tend to enforce “consistency”, when I think the most interesting character moments come from inconsistency

    I prefer Reputation stats that are about how the world sees your character, not how your character acts.

    • Baines says:

      It depends.

      Players can and will be inconsistent, not for the story or the character that they are playing, but rather simply because the players themselves find advantage in inconsistency. At that point, they aren’t playing the character, they are gaming a gaming.

      We accept that a horror game might allow the protagonist to fight and kill the monsters. We accept that an action shooter might not allow the protagonist to talk out a ceasefire with the enemy. We accept that a skill-based game might only allow you to take a certain path if you have a high enough hacking skill. So should we necessarily deny when a game tries to allow for multiple possibilities and then gates some of those possibilities behind the personality of the character that the player is allegedly trying to play? Just because the game lets you choose between being an outgoing politician or a shy librarian doesn’t automatically mean that the shy librarian should then be allowed to give the same passionate speech to the outside mob of hundreds of people.

      Even presenting the option, if it stands out as a specific choice to be made, can put ideas in the player’s head that otherwise might not have occurred. If your game allows the player to jump into any fireplace, that is fine. But when your game only presents the choice of daringly jumping into a specific fireplace, you’ve just told the player that there is something special about that fireplace, and jumping into it will give the player something. It might be progress, or a clue to progress, or just a potentially entertaining death scene, but the player now expects it to exist. (This is similar to games that allow players to kill most npcs, but makes quest npcs unkillable. Simply making those specific npcs unkillable tells the player which npcs are quest npcs.)

      • Wulfram says:

        Well, the shy librarian probably won’t have the charisma or whatever of the outgoing politician, and I’m OK with that.

        But I’d rather the player wants to game the system be able to do that and the player who wants to roleplay an inconsistent character be able to do that than to have both unable to do that.

        I’m willing to accept limitations based on personality if there’s a greater distance between player and character – like Crusader Kings, say, where even your current King is basically another piece on the board. Or if the character is largely predefined and the creation of the authors. But if the character is the player’s creation then I’d rather the game designers trust the player’s interpretation of them rather than trying to force their view of consistency on them.

        • Baines says:

          I was thinking more that the shy librarian, being shy, might not see giving the speech to be a viable option. Perhaps they wouldn’t even see the possibility, or perhaps they would be incapable of performing the act. This would be regardless of the character’s stats like charisma or skills like oration. It is a matter of personality, fear, and other such matters.

          You could twist things around to justify the situation with stat or ability checks, but by that point you are really just trying to find a more palatable label for the situation. Such as not liking it being a personality check, so you treat it as charisma, or oration, or introduce a new totally-not-personality measure of “Gregariousness” or “Unflappability” or whatever.

  5. Mario Figueiredo says:

    I share a lot of the same frustration and anger as Mr. Biffo. But so a lot of other people. A whole lot of other people. The vast majority in fact. — You are not alone, Mr. Biffo.

    But to assume the gamming community has something to offer, is a bit too disingenuous and formulates much of the same type of vanity or pretentiousness that we despise and feel frustrated and angry about. We are much of the same bunch of self-important, arrogant and pretensions fools and we create within the gamming community similar types of insincere and attention-grabbing idols that we shower with unlearned praise while making sure inequality of treatment between the haves and haves not isn’t going to change within or influence a change outside.

    But it is also the argument for escapism that should worry Mr. Biffo. This idea that you can just go and hide from the outside world, when in fact you are not. Games and their community don’t offer any form of escape. If anything that could even a clear demonstration of the terrible trend that to flee a decaying society we find refuge in entertainment… which is just the best way to speed the decaying process.

    No. Not games. The community generally sucks, like any community made of vast numbers with different ways of life and different experiences. And the ecosystem sucks, for it is too marred by unwarranted idolisation and the same type of media madness that gives birth to pink magazines or celebrities shows in the world he is trying to escape.

  6. Anthile says:

    Sundays are for mourning the death of a beloved writer (and philosopher, and linguist…): Umberto Eco.
    I don’t think he ever wrote about video games but I imagine his works on semiotics are at least somewhat influential to the medium.

    Also: link to jowett.web.cern.ch

    • Chorltonwheelie says:

      Foucault’s Pendulum, the greatest shaggy dog story ever told, should be required reading for devs intent on storytelling depth without hubris (I’m looking at you Bioshock).

      • Llewyn says:

        Foucault’s Pendulum, in English, should be required reading for everyone. It’s the perfect example of marrying an adventure story with intellectualism, and William Weaver’s deft translation is itself a far higher quality of writing than most authors can dream of achieving.

    • FrumiousBandersnatch says:

      He wrote a book about Interactivity and Art – not mentioning video games though, as far as i can tell.

    • cpt_freakout says:

      I love that he put so much attention to pop culture, I mean his generation usually did, but it’s funny how there’s still so much reticence to see something valuable in the ‘low’.

  7. Brinx says:

    I always liked the way Baldur’s Gate 2 handeled its romances, although it started this trend.

    1. The romance paths were not about sex. The Viconia romance for instance was, if played the ‘non-evil’ way about redemption. Since there were no sex scenes (Because of engine limitations it was more like “Let’s go to bed” -> Fade to black.), the romances were more about an underlying theme than anything else.

    2. My favorite moment in every video game romance is the moment you actually are presented with the option to have sex with Aerie for the first time and if you follow through with it she breaks up the relationship because it’s going too fast. It presents the player with a consequence that entirely unexpected and makes it clear that BG2 puts its romantic focus on the ride and not on sex. (Pun not intended.) In the end even this romance ending is a relatable and realistic conclusion to what happened before.

    Baldur’s Gate 2 is not without fault with regard to what the article describes, but at least to me it remains the game that handeled video game romances the best way up to this day.

    • Zekiel says:

      I do feel like the Baldur’s Gate romances were a bit into the “romance-as-therapy” thing that Bioware often uses (Jack in ME2 being an especially egregious example). But they were definitely less formulaic than the later ones.

      I always have a soft spot for the Planescape Torment “romances” – quote marks since they weren’t really what you think of as romances. Basically you got to have a couple of (non-exclusive) romantic interactions with Annah and Fall-From-Grace, but there is no real ending to either romance – they essentially get interrupted by the events of the main plot. That always felt quite realistic to me!

  8. Rizlar says:

    That Kate Robinson article is a bit weird and sad. Did they really not know what unions were? Does noone in the US see racial discrimination as being underwritten by class issues?

    Not sure if the connections hold up but it reads as if the ‘invasively psychoanalytic and confessional’ cultural analysis and stuff like Donald Trump’s racist, genocidal hate-speech both come from people in the US being dissatisfied with the ruling ideology of unfettered capitalism, yet not understanding enough about the issues.

    Whether or not this is the case it’s fascinating to see the US grapple with the concept of socialism after so many decades of absence. #feelthebern

    • Ayslia says:

      Only 20 states even require economics education in high school. So no, I’m really not surprised she didn’t know what a ‘union’ was supposed to be.

      That being said, I’m really skeptical of the view that fixing capitalism will solve racism. It would definitely improve the status of Blacks and other non-whites, but… the most ‘socialist’ America’s ever been was during the Great Depression and the post-war period, and many of those policies actually *worsened* the status of blacks. Racism and capitalism are two distinct problems. We need to work on both.

      As for the view that criticizing the media is just a waste of time… I’ll say this. I have a 13 year old cousin who lives in Algeria- an incredibly homogeneous nation. When I visited, she asked me, “Do you know any black people?” I said, “Yes, of course.” She said, “What are they like?” I said, “They’re normal people?” She said, “But in American movies they’re always bad people who don’t study.”

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      zapatapon says:

      This article made me feel very uncomfortable – it reads like the awkward profession of faith of a newborn socialist (“powerful revelation” and all).

      The argument about the gained wisdom of analyzing in terms of political and economical power and systems, rather than in terms of individuals, culture, self-introspection or guilt/redemption schemes, is very jarringly at odds with the form of the essay — itself rife with religious (shame and anxiety swept away by the “revelation”) and self-improvement tropes. Ingrained ways of thinking are hard to get rid of indeed.

      “Socialism provides a more consistent and effective way to realize the values I held as a self-identified liberal”: one the saddest sentences I’ve been given to read recently, which I’m sure would have made the delight of Umberto Eco.

  9. draglikepull says:

    I’m not sure that video games will ever do a very good job of representing romance through game mechanics. Game mechanics always come down to math, but trying to represent a relationship mathematically feels hollow and fails to capture the things that we actually find interesting about romance.

    A big part of the problem is that a player has to be able to “win” in a game, but treating the gap between two people as something that can be bridged simply by saying the correct things is reductive and unsatisfying. A lot of what makes romance work is the mysterious spark that you sometimes feel towards another person. But one thing that’s really important that games just don’t/can’t model, is that the other person *also* has to feel that spark for it to work. Most people will be attracted to plenty of people who aren’t attracted back, but that doesn’t work in a game because it doesn’t lend itself to a clear, consistent system of rules that a player can learn and manipulate to achieve their desired end state.

    The closest games can come to showing romance, I think, is to copy the things that films and novels do. It’s not something that really works as a set of math-y systems.

    • Michael Fogg says:

      I prefer a situation where games depict an existing relationship between characters, instead of making a the girl (or boy) a trophy, plus a cringeworthy sex scene. For a example in an old favourite of mine, the action-adventure Dark Earth (an unfairly forgotten classic, by the way) your protagonist Arkhan has a girlfriend named Cali, in the first scene of the game you wake up in bed next to her and can have a little chat before you’re off to work. Then throughout the game you provide aid to each other, you can come back to her and talk about the progress of your quest, sometimes she has an item for you that she scavenged etc. At times you need to save her from some trouble but she also saves your skin, so she’s not just your regular damsel (in one memorable sequence you break her out of jail and then you both escape the city with her pretending to be a guard escorting you as prisoner). Really, one of the most memorable character pairings I can think off, I wish more devs would go this way instead of the standard Hollywood-esque ‘love interest’ storytelling trope.

  10. Melody says:

    Just to add a couple of, IMO, interesting reads.

    The first sane (and intelligent) critical article I’ve read about The Witness
    link to ludo.mwclarkson.com
    (Then again, the bar was set quite low by some of the initial reactions. But that’s a good piece in its own right)

    A reading of Final Fantasy X as a story about generational conflict, and how it uses subtlety and unsubtlety.
    link to videogamesoftheoppressed.wordpress.com

    • Geebs says:

      Thank you! You’re right, that is the first article about The Witness’ themes that didn’t either make a bad assumption and run with it, or gush embarrassingly about Blow-the-man while ignoring his work.

      Not sure I agree with the general hate-on for James Burke, though. I reckon the point of his piece there is less “scientism” and more to argue that art doesn’t so much hold the mirror up to nature as the selfie stick.

    • Rumpelstiltskin says:

      Do you mean “critical” as “not happy with”? Because that Witness article didn’t seem like that to me.

      • Rizlar says:

        I believe they meant critical as in critique.

        That FFX article is great as well!

    • Ayslia says:

      Interesting essay on The Witness- first one I’ve seen that engages more with the puzzles than with the audio-recordings & island as expressions of Blow’s intended themes.

      I’m curious if you’ve read this piece, by Liz Ryerson? link to thenewinquiry.com

      I think Ryerson occasionally reads things into The Witness that aren’t there, but I still found it thought-provoking.

      • Melody says:

        I hadn’t! Even though Lyz is pretty much my favourite writer when it comes to games.
        Thanks for pointing it out!

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        yhancik says:

        Liz’ piece on The Witness was the best thing I read last week. If not this month.

  11. DrollRemark says:

    Does noone in the US see racial discrimination as being underwritten by class issues?

    I would say it’s more the other way around, personally.

  12. Runty McTall says:

    If I understood that opening correctly, many congratulations Graham!

    If not, erm, congratulations for something not related to the impending birth of your first child :)

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      Graham Smith says:

      You read it right – thanks!

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      Skabooga says:

      Yayyy!!! Glad to see the Hivemind has sprouted another bud!

    • Zekiel says:

      Well done Graham! All the best with the thrilling and exhausting learning process!

    • bill says:

      Congratulations Graham!

      Don’t waste time trying to learn how to Dad in advance, you need to pick it up as you go along.
      Instead, morning sickness allowing, use your remaining free time to do all the things you always wanted to do but won’t be able to do for the next 10 years… like going travelling.

  13. Frings says:

    Thank you so much for that link to Allie Knight’s YouTube channel! I didn’t know how much I needed that in my life until her channel’s introduction video started playing.

    • Frings says:

      I’d also like to recommend this link to allieknight.com video from her website – gorgeous shots from her trips.

      I was holding myself back from purchasing ATS… After finding these videos, I’m not sure whether I want to purchase it even more or if I’m plenty satisfied.

  14. Sunjammer says:

    I know it’s a real strong example of fridging, but the last game I played that I felt got romance “right” was The Darkness. It’s a genuinely heartbreaking game with an ending that still makes me think.

    All in all I didn’t really feel that sex/romance article. Lots of games approach sex very differently and I don’t think her examples were very good, even outdated.

  15. PancakeWizard says:

    What, exactly, could function as a win state in the game of love? Sex. Obviously.

    Baldur’s Gate 2 never existed in new game politics, apparently. Most of the time I’ve seen sex as a reward in games is when the games are either gratuitous or sexually driven by design. It seems wrong to single these out as ‘just not getting it’, as that’s like saying hardcore porn is missing the romance plotline. It’s titillation, not romance.

    The only thing that comes close to what Kate Gray levels at the medium is Bioware romances in ME and DA, but they get a free pass apparently!

    The article is rather circular and feels more than a little like some free coverage for Cibele.

    Frankly, I’d rather see some more asexuality options in games. Bioware RPGs are very much be nice = jump my bones, and then being backed into a corner so you can’t decline without offending someone.

  16. Wowbagger says:

    If you find an effective way of learning how to Dad please let me know, not allowing my child to accidentally kill himself is my metric so far.

  17. Unsheep says:

    Rob Zacny’s comments annoyed me a bit.

    No new major strategy game ?! well that’s what being a niche means. There are few *major* ones around because strategy games are not as popular as certain other genres (see link to statista.com).

    Some genres are inherently more popular with the mainstream and, speaking generally, the more complex, slow-paced and time-consuming a game is the less popular it will be with the mainstream.

    Furthermore, the [supposed] lack of innovation in strategy games does not explain their comparatively low popularity since the more popular genres are *themselves* not innovative.

    For example the most popular shooter today, Counter-Strike, is essentially a mod of a 16-year-old game. Not to mention games like Skyrim and Fifa 16, which are very similar to games we’ve already played before. How’s that for innovation.

    So ‘innovation’ has nothing to do with mainstream popularity. Its a myth.

    I also feel that Rob Zacny is only speaking for the mainstream, people who are not genuinely interested in strategy games beyond a superficial level, and is ignoring those who are supporting and keeping this genre alive. What actual strategy gamers today want in their games is not necessarily what the mainstream wants.

    Much of what he says is highly subjective as well, if he didn’t find that many interesting strategy games to play in 2015 that’s fair enough. To each his own. Although personally I found plenty of good strategy games to play in 2015.

    Love & Sex in video games is as interesting as romance in an action movie; it only gets in the way of me killing stuff with swords and guns.

    • SpiceTheCat says:

      I don’t quite follow. Is your premise that Rob Zacny isn’t a real strategy game fan? What would he have to have played to be able to comment as an actual strategy gamer?

      Also, the article didn’t say “no good strategy games”. It said “no new major strategy games”, and made the general point that the major franchises are treading water and the interesting new stuff is coming from smaller non-traditional studios. Is there a particular counter-example you have in mind?

    • bill says:

      “Much of what he says is highly subjective as well”

      Er… everything he says is totally subjective. That’s the point.

      Strategy Gaming may be a bit niche, but it still has a handful of big titles every year. They may not all be on the scale of a CoD game, but games like GalCiv etc.. are pretty big.
      What he’s saying is that there are big strategy games and innovative strategy games, but the two don’t intersect very much.

      I’d heard Endless Legend was a big strategy game with a new vibe, but I haven’t played it myself.

  18. RaunakS says:

    I rediscovered the History Respawned youtube channel this week – it’s a show where historians consider historical video games. The channel was created by Bob Whitaker, a history PhD and professor from Texas, and in recent weeks he has been tackling Civilization 5.

    They talked about ancient Chinese religion and culture in the first episode and about Confucian influence in the Chinese state, the importance of the Han Dynasty and its fall, and some comments on how we talk about history and how the historian is connected to his or her facts (and the developer to his or her game) in the second. Have a watch- it’s fascinating, almost lecture room stuff:

    Part 1: link to youtube.com
    Part 2: link to youtube.com

    • skyorrichegg says:

      Weirdly enough I believe it was a Rock Paper Shotgun Sunday Paper back in 2013 that led to me subscribing to History Respawned back when that channel was first created.

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    Herring says:

    Learning how to dad for me was reading loads of books, mucking up implementing stuff that seemed ambiguous, being petrified nothing seemed to be going like the books said and finally being relieved that everything turned out ok. Mostly.

    And now I have two sources of friend-XP on HOTS so it was all worth it.

  20. HERP DERP NANOMACHINES says:

    Video game communities are the worst.

  21. HERP DERP NANOMACHINES says:

    Wow that Jacobin article is embarrassing.

    “Socialists care deeply about racism and sexism — they just take a materialist approach to these issues.” LOL how convenien that they can rely on useless ideology to ignore problems.

    “While language, symbolism, psychology, and individual agency shape political and economic processes, they fail to explain the root causes of injustice, oppression, and inequality.” LOL the author admitted they are clueless about politics, but I’m supposed to trust that they have read all of the books on psychology to know how it failed to explain anything? Yeah fucking right.

    “Emphasizing agency is supposed to be more nuanced than focusing on institutions or structures. But it often results in an excessive optimism about “dialogue” and “raising awareness”” Wow, nice scare quotes, the author really does seem like a conservative reactionary if she thinks people talking about social oppression is always as useless as debates about erotic fanfiction. This is a laughably disingenuous and shameful position to take in the inforamation age, the author herself admitted that she learned things online. I guess only she is allowed to “raise awareness”? Fucking hypocrite.