Mortal Kombat's Kung Jin.
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Critical Distance: This Week in Videogame Blogging #15

Introducing Mortal Kombat’s first openly gay character.

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 look at the writing behind notoriously difficult games Bloodborne and Dark Souls as well as Mortal Kombat’s first openly gay character, Kung Jin.

The critical excitement about Bloodborne is still in full force this week, as well as interest in its lineage of other devilishly hard games by From Software, Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. First up, Brad Gallaway writes about Bloodborne's storytelling, as does Reid McCarter. Meanwhile, Corey Milne departs from the newest entry to discuss place in Demon Souls and Dark Souls.

Mechanics and narrative have been another hot topic this week. Over at Pop Matters, G. Christopher Williams writes about narrative and storytelling in The Charnel House, pointing out the debt it owes to writers like John Barth and House of Leaves’s Mark Z. Danielewski. In a somewhat similar vein, Ben Chapman applies Stephen King's adage to avoid adverbs to video games, exploring the ways in which video game dialogue choices sometimes eschew nuance at the expense of more impacting and interesting moments.

At Offworld, Leigh Alexander picks up a similar thread to look at the effects of typography in Kentucky Route Zero. And Mattie Brice looks at interactivity in games and tarot through the lens of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, pointing out how comics' understanding of "closure":

[I]s the kind of interactivity that is shared by all mediums, where the piece requires imagination, for people to fill in themselves in the blanks knowingly or not. I’m starting to think that play is games’ version of closure, if it isn’t closure in and of itself.

Back at Offworld, Gita Jackson writes movingly about games and failure, musing: "I wonder how seeing yourself die -- because your avatar is you, in a sense -- changes how we see our failures in our own life."

Meanwhile, Nick Hanford at Higher Level Gamer writes about identity tourism and Never Alone, drawing connections between high school community service trips and the game's critical reception, raising important issues about how we engage with diversity in games. He writes:

I’m afraid that Never Alone is like that weeklong trip I took to Pine Ridge. I feel like I’ve done a few hours of work and have gone back to my comforts, but I’m not sure about what comes next-- if anything. I fear that like the tattoo that I have, I, or other players, will quickly allow the experience of this game to be reduced down to objects that we can easily pick up and examine, removed from their context. I fear that other players will look at it and boil down the Iñupiat to scrimshaw and caribou-skin clothes. I fear this because I’ve personally done it before, albeit with different experiences and outcomes.

Along similar lines, Todd Harper complicates the reveal that Kung Jin in Mortal Combat X is gay, asking questions about how representation in games is a complicated affair. He writes, "The point, though, is to keep trying. To acknowledge forward steps and course correct after backwards ones. To keep forward momentum going and not be satisfied."

At Vice, Soha Kareem writes about altgames, taking care to point out particular works by diverse creators, as well as the new forms of journalism surrounding them. There's also been some interesting writing about religion in games this week: Grayson at Video Game Heart writes about games' potential to encompass spirituality, and over at Game Church, Christopher Hutton provides a brief but comprehensive overview of the history of Christian videogames.

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. Critical Distance is a reader-supported publication. If you like what you see and want to help support this ongoing free content, consider pledging a small monthly donation to our Patreon.

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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser