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The Sunday Papers

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Sundays are for promising yourself you’ll devote some free time to a project, then inevitably reneging and playing yet more Assassin’s Creed. Or reading the best writing about video games from the past week (and beyond).

I said ‘ooh, that’s a good point’ aloud when I read this bit in Christian Donlan’s Eurogamer piece about the relationship between technology and nature in Zelda: Breath of the wild.

The suggestion, I guess, is that Zelda’s wildernesses have always been digital artefacts and its designers have always had to navigate this strange truth. And this plays out on several levels in Breath of the Wild. The constellations sketched out on the walls of the Shrines you visit look a lot like the golden paths of circuit boards. And those Shrines themselves, which seem to initially play into a classic fantasy divide – the world above is ragged and wild, but down here everything is smooth and sharp-edged and designed and crafted to be a perfect puzzle to delight for a few coherent minutes – ultimately hint at a deeper truth. The ultimate joke is that the wilderness above is equally designed, and equally solvable. There’s no mountain in this Zelda that doesn’t have an optimal path built into its tumbled rocks.

Also on Eurogamer, Emily Gera drew parallels between the Riot Grrrl movement and current initiatives to help young girls get into programming. I love that one of them is a summer camp that uses a storytelling game called Once Upon A Time to teach kids about the building blocks of stories. I’ve got a copy of that sitting behind me – it’s a great game being put to an even greater use.

As both a child of the 90s and someone who has spent the last decade in games journalism, it’s hard not to see a parallel between the Riot Grrrl of yesterday and the games and tech industry of today. Both punk and nerd kingdoms represent a counter to the tastes, views and expectations of the mainstream – a place where outcasts can find an alternative home and commune with those who share their interests. However, as women and other minority figures of the punk community came to realize, here too they were sidelined.

On Kotaku, Gita Jackson explained how the first episode of Life Is Strange 2 (for the most part) accurately reflects her own experiences of racism.

There isn’t an explicit antagonist in Life Is Strange 2, like there was in the first game, in which the main characters were trying to solve a murder. There’s just an air of unease. In my first go around at this episode, I was trying to put a finger on what made me so uncomfortable as I played it. I realized on my second playthrough that the actual antagonist, the force that the players are running from, is the constant spectre of racially motivated violence.

Also on Kotaku, Cecilia D’Anastasio informed me that unsavoury sections of the internet have started referring to people they find contemptible as NPCs. I’m particularly glad I saw this one. It’s the sort of thing I can see myself laughing off, not realising the idea stems from communities I find abhorrent or pausing to think about how shitty an accusation it really is.

What makes this marginal, stale meme built on edgelord logic worth half a thought is what the idea of an NPC speaks to. NPCs have no agency; NPCs don’t think for themselves; NPCs don’t perceive, process, or understand; NPCs arrive at the same worldview not because it’s authentic to their experiences, but automatically. As a descriptor, it suggests that those to whom it applies aren’t even human, but are rather, functionally, robots, or clusters of computer code. That this has resonated as widely as it has is funny, but also a little scary.

I somehow missed it, but Cameron Kunzelman’s Waypoint Postscript column from last week was particularly strong. Kunzelman talks about his desire for pessimistic games, antidotes to the comforting power fantasies that turn into anything but if you think about them too hard. The idea that nearly everything I do in video games is a hollow accomplishment haunts me too, sometimes.

The optimism of video games, the absolute blue skies dream world of them, is delivered through the absolute certainty that your fist, your bullet, or your sword is going to make the world more just, more right, more good than it was before.

And in my worst moments, my most unpleasant moments, I feel defeated by this fact. As Thacker puts it, “the pessimist can never live up to the political.” My being defeated defeats my belief that I can do anything at all against the steamroller of the cultural assumptions built into these stories we tell inside of the worlds built for us.

Music this week is Highway 9 by Barnaby Bright.

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Matt Cox

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Matt is the founding member of RPS's youth contingent. He's played more games of Dota than you've had hot dinners.

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