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Critical Distance: This Week in Videogame Blogging #13

The representation of autism in games.

Critical Distance is proud to bring to The New Statesman a weekly digest of its popular This Week in Videogame Blogging feature, which promotes the best, often little-known, incisive criticism and cultural commentary on interactive media. This week, we share letters between two game-playing brothers separated by a prison sentence, as well as the first in a new video series from Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency.

At Wizard of Radical, Ray Porreca has embarked on a touching letter series on childhood memories of videogames with his incarcerated brother.

World Autism Awareness Day occurred this past week, and at Polygon Joe Parlock surveys several games depicting autistic characters, finding most of them wanting. Going a step further, at Vice, Jake Tucker (who like Parlock is on the autism spectrum himself) relates how L.A. Noire inadvertently created a player-character who seems to share his disability.

Anita Sarkeesian's Feminist Frequency has launched the first in a new series highlighting positive, strong, and unique representations of women in games, which is certainly worth a look.

At Video Game Researcher, Wai Yen Tang has drawn up an interesting condensation of several research studies seeking to identify the (manifold) reasons women are not equally represented in STEM fields and game development. Coming at it from a player and industry perspective, Tegiminis responds to the assertion that women "naturally" prefer different games than men, arguing that to treat the push for better representation in the core market as "cultural colonialism" is, at the very least, misguided:

The framing of our new conversation on games as cultural colonialism is appalling on just about every level. Asking for games to mature in their treatment of women and minorities is, and it's comically absurd that this even needs to be said, not colonialism. […] This isn't colonialism, it's maturation. Games aren't being colonized because everybody who is saying these things was already here.

At his development blog, independent designer and games instructor Robert Yang goes into the development process of his game Stick Shift, in which the player participates in erotically stimulating... well, exactly what it says on the tin. It's a fascinating exploration of both social-political metaphor and alien phenomenology, considering that, as Yang says, "this is arousal on the car's terms."

At Hopes and Fears, Joe Bernardi details the lasting impact of Dogma 99, a Scandinavian LARP scene aimed at reducing the artifice and barrier for entry to live action roleplay.

Lastly, at the ever-delightful Offworld, the equally delightful Katherine Cross reviews Gravity Ghost, a small and accessible game best played by letting go:

I stopped trying to tightly control my orbit and instead relaxed into the gravity of the little planet that I'd been fighting this whole time. I stopped seeing Iona as a superheroine battling against an impossible power and yielded to it instead, embodying her trust and turning her into a ghostly moon swinging in the arms of a larger force. [...] There was no hurry, no clock to beat but my own. I'd find a way, gravity would find a way. Ultimately, the solution was simple: I had to stop treating Gravity Ghost like every other game I'd played.

There is much more available in this week’s full roundup at Critical Distance! Tune in again next week and be sure to follow us on Twitter @critdistance for all the latest and greatest games writing from around the web.

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism