“The scariest stuff is like really really boring”: Night in the Woods

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Night in the Woods tells the most vital story of any game in 2017. We’re only halfway through the year, but I doubt very much that it will be bested in this regard. Find out why below the fold, but beware of spoilers if you haven’t played it yet, and plan to. I will be discussing how this very important game’s themes resonate all the way to its ending.

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Interesting Games of 2017: The Year So Far

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My goodness. It’s been awhile since I’ve done a non-silly post. The new job has kept me busy, and on top of that I have made a real push to catch up on games released in 2017, now that we have passed the year’s halfway point. This latter task has given me plenty to mull over, and while I’m not yet prepared to write longer critical thoughts on the games in question, I thought I would collect some “quick takes,” as a way of priming the pump.

I still have a substantial backlog of big releases from 2017. I have not yet played Nier: Automata (PlatinumGames, 2017), or RiME (Tequila Works, 2017). I’m making my way through Resident Evil 7: biohazard (Capcom, 2017) right now. And although I recently bought Prey (Arkane Studios, 2017), I’m afraid that my 2012-built PC might not run it smoothly, and have been putting off installing it.

I have, though, found the time to play over a dozen other games released in the past six months. Thoughts below are listed in order of the release date of the game. I’ll set up links in this page if and when I write fuller pieces on any of these games.

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Here on My Side of the Screen

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(I’m officially retiring my usual “Ian here” greeting, as, in the absence of student posts, there will be no one but me posting on this blog for the foreseeable future.)

Early in his book Pilgrim in the Microworld, a phenomenological account of videogame expertise that stands as landmark work of first-person game criticism, David Sudnow attempts to describe, to a presumably completely ignorant reader, the experience of playing Breakout (Atari, 1972). “There’s that world space over there, this one over here,” he writes, “and we traverse the wired gap with motions that make us nonetheless feel in a balanced extending touch with things.”[i]

Today, the term “wired gap” is archaic—we sit comfortably in the age of wireless game controllers. But the general logic of this gap, and how it is traversed, nonetheless persists. On the one side, we have the electronic world represented on the screen. On the other side, we have ourselves, cordoned off from the world of the game by virtue of being flesh-and-blood. If we act upon that other world from our side of the screen, it must be by virtue of some sort of electronic input device: keyboard and mouse, DualShock 4, Wii Remote, Jungle Beat bongo drum, what have you. Wired or not, the relationship we have with that world on the other side of the screen is necessarily mediated by technology: sever that particular link, and our involvement with it ceases.

Not all games follow this logic, however. In this post, I’ll be looking at three games, all of which came out around 2012–2014, that ask you to do more, as a player, than simply manipulate an electronic interface. These games have a different sort of contract with their player. They ask you agree to more wide-ranging sets of behaviors over on your side of the screen, which, by their very nature, cannot be regulated in strict procedural terms. These are games that re-map the points of contact between our fleshy, spacious realm and the realm of bits and pixels.

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Double Blind

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Ian here—

I’ve written about synesthetic interfaces before: that is, interfaces that perform a sensory substitution, translating the information normally associated with one sense modality into the phenomenal forms normally associated with another. In my previous work, I’ve usually focused on forms of nonhuman perception and certain modes of perceptual expertise. The release of Perception (The Deep End Games, 2017) yesterday, however, gives me an opportunity to dip into a new topic: disability.

Perception is a horror game about a blind woman exploring a haunted house. Unlike a game such as Papa Sangre (Somethin’ Else, 2010), however—an experiment in audio-only digital game design that has sadly been taken off of the iOS App Store as of this writing—Perception doesn’t court blind and other low-vision players. Rather than featuring robust, binaural sound localization simulation, Perception re-imagines the auditory perception of its blind protagonist Cassie as a kind of sonar vision, thrown up on the player’s screen in spooky, warbly monochrome.

This isn’t the first time games nominally about blindness have been served up to sighted players. In this post, I take up a comparative investigation of Perception alongside Beyond Eyes (Tiger and Squid / Team17 Digital Ltd, 2015), which drops the horror angle in favor of child-friendly, colorful adventure.

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A Hodology of Videogames: Proteus

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Ian here—

Welcome to the third of a series of posts I’ll be doing on hodological space in games. “Hodological space” refers to the space that humans inhabit: not a space made up of strict coordinates, but a thicket of preferred paths, affected by factors such as interest, distraction, fatigue, and urgency. It’s a term that originated in the writings of psychologist Kurt Lewin, and which traveled by way of Sartre into the realm of phenomenology.

If, as Jean-Luc Godard once famously said, all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun, than all you need to make a videogame is an island.

The island-game gave us Myst (Cyan, 1993), and it gave us last year’s The Witness (Thekla, Inc., 2016). It has also already made an appearance in this very series, with Miasmata (IonFX, 2012). But my favorite island game of all time might be Proteus (Ed Key and David Kanaga, 2013). And to really talk about what it gets right, we have to dip into issues of genre. So, buckle up: it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

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The Limits of Disempowerment

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Ian here—

For years, I didn’t know what to do with Anna Anthropy’s Realistic Female First-Person Shooter (2012).

It is, shall we say, a “minor Anthropy.” It’s not one of the games that she includes on her itch.io storefront. If you want to play it, you have to head over here. (It is, unfortunately, Windows-only, although Mac users should feel free to look at this video of the game in action on YouTube).

But despite its somewhat tossed-off status, it is a game I was serious considering including in my article on fumblecore games. There was just one problem: it seemed completely incompatible with my argument. So I swept it under the rug, but kept it in my memory, blinking in the back of my brain, challenging me, keeping me honest.

I think I’ve finally figured out what I want to say about it now, and it’s mostly thanks to the students in my “Frames, Claims, and Videogames” class. I didn’t even teach Realistic Female First-Person Shooter in that class. Instead, my thoughts began crystalizing as students reacted of Alyson Macdonald’s Twine game Female Experience Simulator (2013), one of the most contentious games we played in the course.

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A Hodology of Videogames: Miasmata

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Ian here—

Welcome to the second of a series of posts I’ll be doing on hodological space in games. “Hodological space” refers to the space that humans inhabit: not a space made up of strict coordinates, but a thicket of preferred paths, affected by factors such as interest, distraction, fatigue, and urgency. It’s a term that originated in the writings of psychologist Kurt Lewin, and which traveled by way of Sartre into the realm of phenomenology.

Up today: the survival simulation game Misasmata (IonFX, 2012). Accepted onto the Steam storefront in October 2012 as part of Valve’s second batch of games approved through the now-defunct Greenlight submission process, one of Miasmata‘s most notable traits was being on the leading edge of the “goodness, there are too many indie games than one could ever keep up with” moment we are currently in. Miasmata, though, is worth remembering for more than that. It also possesses a genuinely innovative movement system, one that, in its own weird way, serves as a nice counterpoint to the subject of my previous entry in this seriesThe Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo EDP, 2017).

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