How Game Criticism is like Cooking a Roast Chicken Dinner

Game Criticism Cooking Slide1


What follows is the rough script and a selection of the slides for a talk presented at the Eargoat 2 event, a meetup for creative types in the greater Dublin area, held on the 14th of November, 2015. This talk covers my opinions on game criticism as a creative medium and presents an overarching argument for criticism as a craft in and of itself, rather than merely a vassal of videogame development.

My work is community funded. If you like like what you see and wish to support me, please consider visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.
Continue reading

Advertisements

Thoughts on nearby covers

Thoughts on some covers - Alien Trilogy

This piece is community funded. If you enjoyed this article, please support my writing by visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron. 

One of my most vivid videogame-related childhood memories is this. In July of 1996, my brother, the middle one, had done our mam no favours by asking for a copy of Alien Trilogy for his birthday. Despite the game having launched four months earlier, which in modern terms would have made it a hundred years old by July, nowhere in our area had any copies in stock. By which I mean, none of the three local video rental shops had it in stock, because this was Ireland at a time when the commercial exchange of games was a novel quirk and not a viable business angle.

Packed into the car were we for a rare trip to The Tallaght Square, famous in our minds for reason number one of being the only remotely accessible shopping centre in the greater Dublin area at a time before Blanchardstown and Liffey Valley. Reason number two for its fame was that it was pyramidal, not square, and this for us, pre-internet, constituted a joke whose humour was always worth revisiting.

So it was immediately a bit of a journey just to find this game, and when we did recover a copy in The Square, it felt all the more of a treasure. I’m sure there were other errands on that trip but my memory tells me it was the only thing we came away with. My brothers and I passed the box around for the long drive home, poring over the manual and delighting in anticipation of what the box cover suggested, foreboding the Alien’s imminent pounce. Once at home we put it on and certainly thrilled in the experience, but now I suspect I didn’t enjoy it half as much I did its prelude.

Perhaps it’s because back then we had fewer games and an over-abundance of free time that we would so patiently gorge on a game’s extra material like aesthetes at an art museum. Now, as I have no lack of the former but absolute lack of the latter, I seldom consciously dwell on a game’s cover as intensely as I used to. While I still variably note my appreciation for or dislike of any given box art, I don’t study what I enjoy about it and savour the anticipation or place it in context, beyond exceptional circumstances. I miss that.

So, with my limited vocabulary, I’d like to take a spell to put that sort of mindfulness to a platoon of games stationed at hand beside me, them dust-coated sentries what have kept me company these past years of working and writing. Continue reading

Irish Travellers and American Blindspots

PAL testcard

This piece is community funded. If you enjoyed this article, please support my writing by visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron. 

I’ve written several times in the past on what it’s like to be Irish in the midst of the loose amalgamation that is the culture of videogames. I’ve tried to emphasise my surprise and suspicion that comes in hearing an Irish voice, an Irish character, in a game, and my delight in finding something I feel sincerely speaks to Irish narratives or identities.

What little cultural background I gave usually came in the form of brief anecdotes about how little we see Irish folk in games, which of course is proportionate to the country’s contribution in the grand scheme of the industry. Through negligence I withheld the more substantial context of the lack of presence of Irish identities in media beyond that of only videogames. Since today I’m writing about ethnicity and whiteness and representation, and I’m writing from a perspective that I’m increasingly learning is distinct from the bulk of my peers, this context is kind of necessary. Continue reading

Two Minute Game Crit – The Absence of Is


This video is community funded. To support my work and help me make more of these, please consider visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.

Transcript:

Hi this is Two Minute Game Crit, and I’m Stephen Beirne.

What can the act of dying tell us about the afterlife? This is the question underpinning The Absence of Is.

Spoilers, by the way.

You play as one of a team of researchers experimenting with recording the images that fill a mind as it edges towards death. The images come from your colleagues, and them locked in vats in the laboratory. It’s your job to sedate them right to the brink of death so your machines can do their thing.

When you play back the initial footage, it shows a kind of ‘life flashing before your eyes’, highly-symbolic near-death experience story. As the sessions go on, the visions veer farther and farther away from reality and become more abstract and hostile. Objects representing trauma – a door, a monument, a desolate home – recur as motifs and eventually consume each person’s mind.

So they all end up dead but even at that there’s a little trick going on here, because I think this game is actually more cynical than it lets on. It’s much more interested in themes of unknowability than themes of discovery.

Take its use of mechanics – you’ve to flick switches to alternately sedate or revive your teammates. It’s dreadfully cheesy and seems inconsistent with the game’s otherwise sombre tone. Like its just there to introduce the sense of challenge and a failstate.

But when you consider that the game‘s not interested in answering what seems to be the central question and instead leaves everyone else dead and you still no wiser for it until some unrealisable tomorrow, then the possibility of accidentally killing a colleague too early is valuable in highlighting the loss, and your inadequacy, when you hit the inevitable dead end.

It’s a framing device, and sure on a whole, The Absence of Is is framed rather oddly. It’s supposedly based on an unpublished novel of the same name written by one of the developers.

So players who want to look into the game’s underlying message have to pine after this inaccessible, perhaps non-existent source material. It puts them in basically the same place as the research team. Albeit, hopefully, a little bit more alive.

Two Minute Game Crit – The Games of Sophie Houlden

 

This video is community funded. To support my work and help me make more of these, please consider visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.

Transcript:

Hi, this is Two Minute Game Crit, and I’m Stephen Beirne

Happy International Women’s Day! To celebrate, we’re going to be looking at the games of a specific developer, Sophie Houlden.

Sophie’s a one-woman indie machine, carving out these absolutely gorgeous, beautifully designed games by the dozen. Let’s look at just three from her catalogue which I think lend you a good idea of what she’s about.

Sophie has made a ton of puzzle games, my favourite being BOXGAME. You move around the faces of a box and you have to trick the camera into giving you a new direction of gravity so you can kind of… fall the right way.

Sophie’s a wizard at designing these genius mechanics that are simple to grasp but hard to master. Where you intuit solutions by playing around rather than through planning.

It’s good, so, that she’s also an incredible animator.Even just moving your wan around in BOXGAME gives this sense of elegance in motion.

This is partly why I love TheLinearRPG. It’s a stripped down mock-up of a lot of modern RPGs. You run along the line to make the mechanics happen, meanwhile the story unfolds rather detachedly as a backdrop.

The crisp aesthetic is a veneer of polish over this skeletal frame, which can be interpreted as a mockery of design priorities in the industry. But, what fascinates me most this is how it uses abstraction of form to convey its point, given it’s not actually an RPG.

When she wants to, Sophie has some hand at spinning narrative through form, as is the case in Runcible Sky, with its hub-and-branches structure.

It focuses on inspiration in one’s mortal life and the disbelief of life after death. Each vignette is a snapshot of your wan’s past, and on viewing them, the final moments in her fading life slowly gain their substance.

“Runcible” is an inkblot word, it has no meaning other than what we infer from it. And likewise, we can search each vignette for some great authorial design, but maybe we’re better off taking what we got from them and accepting that as our meaning.

Sophie’s games are many and varied, you can find most them by visiting her site. The best are on her shop though so be sure to pick something up for just a few bob.