2016 at Alternate Ending

Writing has been weird for me this past year. My decision to move to New York was a last attempt to find a place for myself in the field of games. I admit, I don’t really feel like I belong, or if there is a place for me. But I’ve put in so much effort, I felt like I needed to give it one more push before giving up. Interest in the written word about games, and well everything on the internet, is steadily dropping. Now a lot of people engage with video and streaming, some still with podcasts. I’m one of the fortunate few who makes any sort of money outside of mainstream publications and that has helped me explore avenues and alleys in games that few try since there is such little support. Now I’m deeper in organizing, stepping up in my role at IndieCade and doing project management for multiple indies. Come this next semester I will be adjuncting at both NYU and The New School, and by the end of the year, finished with my masters. I’m learning more and more about how much things aren’t solid or decided in games yet and the different forces that stand to gain by controlling the narrative of the discipline. It’s hard to say whether I will be ‘in games,’ but I guess my professional roots will always begin from them.

So here are the top 10 read posts of 2016, maybe it will reveal what people are most concerned about for 2017:

 

#10: “Remembering Monsters: Morinth

Current initiatives surrounding diversity in games focuses on making main characters more diverse for identification purposes. This is typically supposed to be a positive identification, that players will see themselves acting heroic and saving the day so, in effect, the world sees more people as capable. I see the value in this process, though I am aware of how much this is basically a palette swap, or the quality of storytelling doesn’t shift when new kinds of people are depicted in usual scenarios. Now that I’m teaching about games, I’m trying to find other ways to talk about representation in games outside of good and bad, particularly finding subtle or subliminal, possibly unintentional, forms of representation. Looking at Morinth from Mass Effect 2 was an attempt to look beyond the main character, deeper into what the game does to characters through choice architectures. We’re used to seeing characters as static representations, but really all things in games should be seen as the whole of everything choice architectures manifests of them. Maybe like Schrodinger’s cat, Morinth is both left dead on the whole of an Omega apartment and shambling towards you as a grunt banshee that you will gun down without much more thought. She can’t be either or, but both at the same time. As I become more interested in the save file as playful artifact, I wonder about the more complicated we can deal with characters, and see what systems of choices do to them, using that as our barometer for ‘representation’ rather than simply the character model put on the box.

 

#09: “Teaching Representation in Games

One of the first big things I did in 2016 was teach my first class at NYU’s Game Center last spring. It was a fun ride, I learned a lot from the experience and I feel like I exposed students to perspectives they wouldn’t readily encounter in both games and media studies spaces. My main angle was to rethink ‘representation;’ what does it mean to represent something or someone in a media context? Often I think people believe representation is just about accurately depicting people of different identities, but the juicy issues are located in how fraught identity is in the first place, and then the warped agendas of representation adds on top of that. It was more of a taster course, sampling some 20th century philosophy along with more mainstream games in order to get students thinking about the topic in a more complicated way than I think a lot of critics and developers currently do. It was mostly lecture-based the first time around and I plan on making it a little more interactive and project-orientated for this upcoming spring. Feel free to chat with me if you’re thinking on teaching about representation in games yourself!

 

#08: “New Difficulties

Those closer to me know that I have a secret affinity for strategy games, but I also have this strange perfectionism problem that never lets me complete them. There is something about moving pieces and the passage of time, cause and effect, that makes me want to create the perfect scenario. But it’s not perfecting the quantitative aspect of these games, rather the qualitative. I’m never in it for the perfect score, rather the perfect scenario. This was particularly true when I was playing Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest this year, where it was purposefully difficult to advance in the scenario-sense, with pairing up your characters, getting them to have children, and raising the kids to their full potential. It’s not the most innovative, but I can imagine future games that make the shaping of the story and its outcomes difficult or challenging with the end purely being about what it is you want out of the story rather than just winning battles or puzzles. Saves come up again in this piece, again in reference to BioWare games, especially considering their difficulty levels scale only in battle, not with conversations. I wonder if the problems with conventional difficulty is that it’s a tired tradition rather than getting rid of difficulty all together.

 

#07: “Amnesia: Memories & Metafictional Otome Games

As I mentioned in my games roundup, Amnesia is an interesting landmark for otome games, one that shows it’s a truly reflexive genre. While I feel creators like Christine Love are doing more interesting things in the realm of visual novels, otome are beginning to push against themselves, understanding the unique placement of being ‘for women’ in a world that is struggling with what to do about gender. Seeing that most of this is still mostly made in Japan and Korea and we have to wait for it to get translated over, I wonder when more people in English-speaking countries start putting out more heavy hitters when it comes to the genre. There are more coming out on Steam, especially with more queer content, so maybe 2017 will see a big wave of these games. I sure hope so!

 

#06: “Homo Ludens for the People

I’ve always been interested in bridging the gap between academic knowledge and the public. Despite what it looks like, I’m not an academic, at least not yet, but I understand academic language and tend to use it. Early in my writing career, this turned a lot of people off, and though I’ve come to improve how I integrate academic language into my work, it still can feel off-putting since a lot of academia assumed certain knowledges. It so happens that before 2016, I never really read any books on games, games design, or games studies. Given that I’m teaching about games now, I figured I should start reading the canonical texts so I can have better arguments than I currently do, and bolster my attempts to change or redirect the canon, or if anything, easily critique it. What surprised me going on this journey were the sentiments and arguments left out of the discourse I witness more and the political nature of what was plucked from these books and what was left behind. So I thought it was important for more people to have entry points into these texts, first by understanding how they relate to current discourse and then what is strangely left out of said conversations. The main example is the very first text in the canon, Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga, particularly extremely racist and orientalist perspective he used to structure his understanding of play. I got too busy and had to stop reading, but this will most definitely pick back up come summertime when I begin reading for my thesis.

 

#05: “Queerbaiting and Fan Futures

Games tend not to enter culture on its own, it runs parallel to other nerd interests like technology, comics, sci-fi/fantasy in general, and of course, anime. The end of the year saw Yuri!! On Ice sweep, at the very least, Japanese- and English-speaking countries and will most certainly encourage more content like it, that is, somewhat obscured homoromatic, and sometimes homoerotic, boys playing sports, which has been a bit of a thing already but really came out strong in Yuri. One of the strongest rifts in the fan community surrounding the show is the topic of queerbaiting, or rather, whether or not the main characters are actually gay or not because there is no evidence of homosexuality. The show uses the language of queerbaiting, or implying that characters could be queer but not coming out and saying it canonically, in order to tell a story about love between two men. The thing is, queerbaiting is usually used as a pejorative, that it would be better for queer people if shows were more straight-forward with if characters were queer or not, instead of trying to have their cake and eat it too by trying to placate queer- and open-minded people with those who would be offended by queer content. I’m really curious about the interventions fans make on media that don’t really represent them, especially when there’s scant queerbaiting. Take Overwatch for example, which I’ve never played but everyone I know who enjoys it views every character as gay, even when there was zero comment on anyone’s sexuality until the recent Tracer reveal. I hold the argument that fans are the best to represent themselves and hoping that companies with business interests are ever going to represent them well is backwards thinking. Instead, I’m curious about how to further involve fan-made content, especially when it comes to queering characters, into games or further integrating the shipped content and stuff that bubbles up from the fan communities that surround it.

 

#04: “Rethinking the Games Conference

Close to my heart, understanding how events like conferences can benefit communities will probably always exist in my life and work. I’ve been to, participated in, and organized an alarming amount of events in games despite having such a short career in it, so I feel like I know the experience inside-out. The good news is that there’s an ever-increasing amount of events about games that tie in artistic and activist bends that take place outside of San Francisco, LA, and New York City. We’re at a point where we can look critically at the progress of these events and assess whether or not they are serving their communities, especially those who are marginalized and don’t have access to professional spaces. I think 2017 will be the year of labor issues for all arms of the games world, and conferences shouldn’t be an exception. Many events rely on the free labor of volunteers and speakers in order to run, and while many of us don’t have a budget to run events on, we have to think of alternative ways of respecting labor instead of resigning to exploiting others for some sense of the greater good. I also want to be thinking about how to have people from many different disciplines and background in the same event without speaking past each other; newcomers, academics, and developers using similar languages while retaining high concepts from their field. I will be announcing a conference I’m organizing in NYC soon to test out some of these things, so look out for that!

 

#03: “Murder Mystery Writing as Design

If I had to sum up my thoughts on playing games in 2016, it would probably be about mystery as design paradigm, particularly murder mysteries. Many of the games I played this year were murder mysteries, and at the same time I’ve listened to friends and colleagues who still feel like narrative is undervalued in the games industry. There are few games as an adult I can say the narrative elements really captured me, especially in mainstream games. But the few that did were overwhelmingly murder mysteries, and I believe this is because the genre of murder mysteries are inherently playful. They are designed narratives used to manipulate the deductive-reasoning parts of readers’ brains, so it feels like a back-and-forth struggle between the book and the reader with who is going to win when the killer is revealed. Add more deliberate games elements to that and I think there’s a strong method of integrating narrative into design. I’m not first nor last person to say this, but: we really have to stop thinking of narrative as content that helps design, and instead understand that narrative is a facet of experience design as much as play is. I really encourage both writers and developers to further look into murder mystery techniques as a method of creating games that have narrative and play as indistinct as possible.

 

#02: “Why things aren’t changing

This was an article born out of frustration, and I guess it resonated with a lot of people. 2016 was miserable for a lot of reasons, but now seeing hate groups that moved from harassing women in games back in 2014 rise to political influence in 2016 was the most painful transformation to witness. I can’t help but feel a sort of ‘told you so’ about it all. Ultimately, people with power are trying to ignore the problem as much as possible hoping it will just pass. So are consumers, who are made to believe they can’t really change anything because they only see change happening in broad strokes. This is a damning piece without optimism for the industry, but I think I can do that because I mostly don’t subsist off the industry. I know others do, so there is a need for optimism about video games, but you have to call a spade a spade. Most games institutions prefer to quietly profit off toxic cultures than actively cultivate and help those who are targeted and marginalized. Until that changes, the industry will stay the same. Until our relationship with progress changes, we will see our world continue to enter deeper into plutocracy and fascism powered by the ill will of those who want to keep their social status away from an era of equality.

 

#01: “Why I’m Boycotting GDC

I’m not sure whether I should be surprised or not that this was the most read piece of mine. Much like the previous, this is a product of frustration, how powerful institutions continue forward by using marginalized people without a culture of respecting them. Maybe that’s just the nature of industry, to be the most efficient, at any cost. I hope GDC can fix its problems and create a better, more enlightening culture around it.

 

And that’s 2016! I’m hoping to actively seek out different kinds of interactive, playful experiences this coming year and have that spurn new thoughts about the medium and discipline. I think you’ll be seeing more about design and hopefully about the body. We’ll see what the year holds! Happy New Year to everyone, see you on the other side.

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Top 10 Fav Games of 2016

2016 has been quite the year. It was my first full year in NYC, which I’ve taken to quite well. I’ve been spreading out from video game culture and investigating the different ways play manifests in the world through multiple disciplines. It’s been pretty rough considering politics, and so maybe it’s apt to talk about the top 10 games that have left an impression on me this past year. Many of these weren’t released in 2016 but I only got around to them now. I now site many of these games in my conversations with students and people outside of games, and in general, I’m interested to see where games go in 2017. But without further ado, in alphabetical order, the games:

 

Amnesia: Memories

2016 was definitely the year of getting more into otome games, or let say, games targeted at women in general. I’m fascinated by what game development companies think women want and what design values come out of not designing for men or the general gamer audience entails. Whereas Hatoful Boyfriend is a more direct satire on the genre of otome dating sims, Amnesia is probably an unintentional but interesting critique. The game is set up pretty conventionally, where you’re an empty lady protagonist courted by men with boundary issues and you live out a supernatural slice of life tale and eventually fall in love. But the twists are plenty, for instance, True Ending routes being clear depictions of unhealthy romantic life choices while the Good Endings are realistic and promotes only what I can call sane ideas of how men should be treating women. It’s definitely subtle and could easily be the problematic fav of the bunch, but it’s worth looking into if you’re interested in some reflexivity in the genre.

 

Bad News

I still have a strong interest in performance and how it can be applied to games, so I was happy there were quite a few games with performance elements in them this past IndieCade. One of the ones I really liked was Bad News, a game where you come upon a dead body and need to find a next of kin in order to break the news. The characters and locale are generated and the performer is assisted by AI to act out the characters and have the relevant information to give to the player if they asked about it. You know how in text adventures, the computer will often reject the commands you put in because it doesn’t understand what you’re saying? This felt like a neat answer to that problem by having a performer be the main thing you interact with. It allowed the experience be supported by rules-based design but not limited. Interested to see more performance and AI stuff in the future!

 

The Danganronpa series

Danganronpa was one of those games I saw the title of floating around social media but never really got around to playing it.  I’ve been getting really into the mystery genre in VNs, so throwing in the death game element just made it perfect for me. I think it presents an interesting new way to do narrative in a mainstream context, and really pushed the idea of mystery game design for me. While the concept of narrative in games is contested, Danganronpa connected some thoughts on narrative design I’ve had and discussions about literary mystery genre in academic contexts. It was during my time playing these games I was convinced of a new video game form or at least genre of mystery VNs, which take the basic form and some conventions of visual novels but uses mystery to complicate the usual slice of life elements you get from them. One could say the Phoenix Wright series started this new genre which eventually evolved into the Danganronpa series.

 

Hamlet-Mobile

Moving to NYC means a lot more interactive theater is available to me, probably moreso than video games. They are kind of pricey so I haven’t been to much, but now that I’ve experienced Hamlet-Mobile and am getting some extra pocket change, I really need to start seeing some more. Hamlet-Mobile actually won best game design at IndieCade this year, a controversial but ultimately satisfying decision to help reconsider what design means for games. I was initially resistant to the piece when it was going through the jurying process because I’m familiar with interactive/immersive/whatever theater but little has yet really made me feel it was stretching the boundaries of what I saw as play. But when I experienced it for myself, I got it. My mind made an unexpected connection between the way Hamlet-Mobile was structured and material rules/design of video games. In short, there are many ‘rules’ or affordances that are not directly communicated to players but still shape their experience, like for instance, your character model will not pass through walls or whatnot. I realized that the kind of theater that Hamlet-Mobile was doing constructed a tight tunnel of experience through material rules much like video games, but at the same time, made me forget that I was ‘interacting.’ Very early on in the piece I stopped thinking ‘this is an experience’ and just experienced. And to do that without being gamey or using conventional attention loops really is worth noticing and thinking about.

 

Mini Metro

I am relatively new to public transportation systems, and they used to really intimidate me. The first subway I ever took was in NYC when I was a child and it was an awful experience, I didn’t remember it until recently and wondering why I kept a certain level of anxiety each time I rode the train (besides the fact that everyone on the subway are anxious about the subway). With that, I’ve come to understand I now have a ‘subway brain,’ or a part of me that is calculating my route and factoring in strategies for need to get where I’m going, which does give me more anxiety. Then I remembered seeing Mini Metro somewhere and for some reason decided it would be a great game to play while on the subway, since it doesn’t need an internet connection. Playing it occupied that subway brain of mine as it toiled on how to make fictional subway systems work. Though I’m trying to do a more Abramovic-like boredom exercise now whenever I’m riding the train, I would recommend it to anyone living in a big city that gets stressed out over the subway.

 

Mystic Messenger

There’s always that one game a year that I’m referring to everyone as an interesting experiment, and this year it’s Mystic Messenger. Whenever I make a reference to it in talks and lectures, half of the audience immediately goes to their phones to download it. I am super fascinated by the evolving presence of UI in the play experience, and this game struck me at where I’m weakest: texting with boys. I’ve played a lot of otome this year, and this stuck out to me the most because it used my natural habits of texting, email, and chatting to involve me emotionally into the story of the characters. The setting is very unconventional, a Line-like chatroom, and you learn about the others through this periphery method. But isn’t that true for how society works now anyway? How many people do you feel like you know well enough through Twitter, but the moment you meet them you realize you know nothing about their life? Also, the spontaneous calls from Korean boys always gave me a moment, especially when I had to answer in front of other people and explain the situation. I really hope this is iterated on and other artists take note on how we can use familiar interfaces to include more than just gamers into play.

 

Pokemon Moon/Sun

You know, I was very close to not picking up Pokemon this year. I’ve been fed up with the saminess and the PR around this generation seemed to be full of nostalgia. What began to tip me off that something was different were the leaks of very dark Pokedex entries. It was the first time I feel like a Pokemon game actively tried to court anyone above 12 years old, with more mature themes, while still at the edge, present. Finally, Pokemon mixes things up and tries new things, which points to a more interesting future for this legacy series. I played through it with Nuzlocke rules in place and it felt like a really challenging game that kept surprising me. I’m curious to see if the series takes more jumps in the future.

 

Stardew Valley

I believe the nostalgia wheel is turning to the kinds of video games I was playing when I was young and had too much time on my hands, evidenced by the strong impression made by Stardew Valley. Harvest Moon 64 was one of my early favorite games, and one of the only games my mother would watch me play. At the time I didn’t know anything of visual novels or dating games, genres I would come to love later in life; I dated farm girls before real life boys. The series ended up losing itself by just trying to produce a bunch of sequels and not really getting to the heart of why Harvest Moon was so good. In a way, Stardew Valley is a proper successor to Harvest Moon, in that there are some new things, and really affective flourishes, but it takes what I loved about those games and represented them in a 2016 context. I took a break from it and I’m itching to play it again, and I hope it inspires more like it. There aren’t enough games like this, which is a huge shame.

 

The Style Savvy series

2016 was definitely a year of me catching up on games I should have known about a long time ago but missed by chance. Style Savvy was such a case, a very cathartic and creative outlet for a time when I was more deeply exploring fashion. I have a lot of feelings surrounding ‘girl games’ and the contexts in which games aimed towards girls and women are forever pushed aside despite the fact that ‘boys games’ were used as a barometer to decide whether or not something was appropriate for gamers of all genders to play. There was something neat about many people publicly playing Style Savvy and related games like Happy Home Designer. The series made me think a lot about what style and taste mean in games, and how few games address the topic. Overall, the subjective experience is rarely played with, only preconstructed and handed to the player to consume. Can we as designers craft more experiences that revolve around personal expression or something so deeply ingrained like taste? Would be fun to see some progress on that front in 2017.

 

Zero Time Dilemma

Along with its prequel Virtue’s Last Stand, Zero Time Dilemma is one of the more interesting narrative experiences I’ve had in games in a while. It confirmed how much of a sucker I am for time travel and alternate dimension conceits, which I feel are particularly suited to video games but are hardly explored on a form level rather than just story flavoring. In these games you traverse the story through what looks like a narrative map which you might see while storyboarding or in the backend of Twine, story nodes connected so you can visualize the branching paths of the game. Parts of the path are blocked off until you do things in other paths and begin to piece the mystery together. I love the idea of exploring a situation from multiple angles by repeating time or changing some things but not others to see what happens. I’ve always wanted more Rashomon– or Memento-like games that really challenge players on a perspective level and play with time some more.

And there you have it! I’m excited to see weirder and more different games in 2017. Persona 5 and maybe the new Mass Effect are on my list. I’m interested in Death Stranding and I hope it is as weird as its trailers make it out to be. Having just gone through a Steam sale, maybe a new favorite will come out of games I’ve missed this year. Make sure to recommend new games to me!

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