A videogames critical reader, by Liz Ryerson

All the best reading, digested.

Still not satiated with the amount of games writing that there is out there? Liz Ryerson also responded to my piece on videogames journalism with a reading list. I'm putting it up here for your enjoyment. Thanks Liz:

First and foremost there is writing by insiders in the video game industry that directly criticises its practices as a whole. The classic article "The Scratchware Manifesto", written in 2000 by an anonymous group of game developers, is still very much relevant today, and required reading. Here is the original piece with an introduction by indie game designer/critic Anna Anthrophy.

This is a video lecture from Jonathan Blow (creator of the game Braid), and not writing, but it is very helpful for understanding the thinking and philosophy - the "best practices" that are driving the game industry today:

This earlier lecture by Jon Blow outlines the fundamental conflicts - what is often called "ludo-narrative dissonance", at the heart of storytelling in games:

Also in that vein, Tim Rogers's piece "Who killed videogames?" is a wonderful insider account of what goes on behind closed doors at social gaming companies.

 

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On the other end, this article by David Kanaga (who's done the audio in recent indie games like Dyad and Proteus) takes a more academic tone and asserts that meaning is something which arises from a the interaction of the player and the game, not imposed from above by its creator (as implied by Jonathan Blow):

http://wombflashforest.blogspot.com/2012/06/played-meaning-concerning-spiritual-in.html

He also has writing on audio in games on the same blog that is very much worth reading. This short article asserts that the strangeness and feeling of displacement (in horror games, in particular), are what games are uniquely suited towards exploring:

http://voorface.wordpress.com/2011/06/20/unspoken-strangenesses/

Both of these articles eschew the sort of concrete insider details to talk about how games feel to the player, which I think is an extremely valuable theme to emphasise and I hope to see more of this writing.

Stephen Murphy (of Space Funeral fame) has written a few paragraphs that summarise this idea:

http://harmonyzone.org/Other.html

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Also in the vein of feeling - continuing on from the "New Games Journalism" trend of pieces that revolve around personal experiences with games. There are several of these kind of articles around (though there's a gap in my knowledge here so please enlighten me), but this recent one by Patricia Hernandez on RPS about how Fallout 2 awakened her to rebellion against the traditional gender roles her parents imposed on her is good:

http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2012/11/23/gaming-made-me-fallout-2/

I also wrote a short, slightly abstract piece for Wolfenstein 3D's 20th anniversary (yes this is the first of several vanity links to my own writing) that talks about the effect that game, and videogames in general, have had on my life, past and present:

http://midnightresistance.co.uk/articles/wolfenstein-jubil%C3%A4um

And, of course, there's Tim Rogers's fairly well-known old article about Super Mario Bros 3 that is probably the archetype for every one of these articles that have come since:

http://archive.insertcredit.com/features/lifenonwarp/index.html

 

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Another emerging theme of games writing is detailed analysis about the moment-to-moment design of game worlds - or "level design". There isn't a ton of this sort of writing out there, but I think is extremely valuable in understanding the sorts of mechanisms games communicate to the player through their moment-to-moment design. Robert Yang does a good job of outlining what he believes makes good writing on level design here (and includes links to some great articles by Anna Anthropy, an old, detailed piece on Thief 3 by Kierron Gillen, and some things I've written about Wolfenstein 3D level design):

http://www.blog.radiator.debacle.us/2012/04/what-makes-good-writing-on-level-design.html

and also has an excellent detailed analysis of one Thief 1 mission here:

http://www.blog.radiator.debacle.us/2012/07/thief-1s-assassins-and-environmental.html

 

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From here, there's general writing that looks critically at different aspects of individual games as a whole. The semi-defunct blog MU-Foundation (maintained by J Chastain) has several different articles on specific games that are worth reading, but these two look to artifacts of the past (Maniac Mansion and the Atari ST game Captain Blood) for an alternative to current game design.

http://mu-foundation.blogspot.com/2011/11/maniac-mansion.html

http://mu-foundation.blogspot.com/2011/11/captain-blood-atari-st.html

Speaking of current game design, this recent article on Modern Warfare 2 reveals the game's ultimate failure to in any way comment on warfare in the way that it purports to do:

http://nightmaremode.net/2012/11/call-of-duty-6-modern-warfare-2-ass2ass-gif-23274/

I'm sure at least some of your readers have heard of Action Button Dot Net (run by Tim Rogers). I do sense a strong tendency of this site to make interesting little bits and pieces of a particular game look like grand, profound statements, and the articles articles are often rambling as hell. Still, the Action-Button Manifesto contains a ton of valuable insights about a big pile of different games, and has definitely shaped the way I see games as a whole:

http://www.actionbutton.net/?p=385

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Also worthy of mentioning is the (mostly untold) history of different fan modding scenes. Robert Yang's three-part piece "A People's History of the FPS" outlines the history of FPS modding communities and their decline:

http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2012/09/19/a-peoples-history-of-the-fps-part-1-the-wad/

http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2012/09/20/a-peoples-history-part-2-the-mod/

http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2012/09/21/a-peoples-history-of-the-fps-part-3-the-postmod/

Anna Anthropy's book "Rise of the Videogame Zinesters" (link: http://www.amazon.com/Rise-Videogame-Zinesters-Drop-outs-Housewives/dp/1609803728) is a great resource for talk about DIY game communities and how to get started making a game of your own, but her site has a recommended list of mods for the game ZZT that's also worth checking out:

http://www.auntiepixelante.com/?p=443

Porpentine (who posts on the website freeindiegam.es and RPS) makes a good case for the accessibility of the program Twine for Interactive Fiction games:

http://nightmaremode.net/2012/11/creation-under-capitalism-23422/

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In this last section I'll link to some of my own thoughts on (what I view as) the destructive nature of the culture around videogames. Much shameless plugging lies ahead, so be warned.

Many people have since written manifesto type pieces to emulate the Scratchware Manifesto. I labored a long time over a lengthy, over-italicised one in this vein called "The Language of Videogames" that is more than a bit over-earnest but I still think has a lot of insights on why games occupy the cultural place they do right now:

http://ellaguro.blogspot.com/2011/09/language-of-videogames.html

This review of the recent indie game Hotline Miami is primarily an attack on games critics for unquestionably extolling the virtues of what I call "stupid games", and also the relationship between gamers and violent games:

http://midnightresistance.co.uk/articles/monster-within

For examples of what I'm talking about in the article, see Tom Bissell's piece on Spec Ops: The Line

http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/8157257/line-explores-reasons-why-play-shooter-games

or Brenden Keogh's recent book "Killing Is Harmless", also about Spec Ops: The Line 

http://stolenprojects.com/

Which is excellently reviewed here, by the way.

In my review of Indie Game: The Movie I'm trying to take on what I see as the inherently self-congratulatory nature of much of the so-called "indie scene":

http://midnightresistance.co.uk/articles/indie-game-movie-review

The last article I'll link to is sort of a peculiar, fractured piece that is only partially about games, but makes the (not as often explored) assertion that the endless pursuit of a fantasy of total, perfect immersion within a game ("The Holodeck") is really the pursuit of totalitarianism:

http://ellaguro.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-puzzle-world.html

PS. No, really, finally, this essay about Second Life by Jenn Frank: http://infinitelives.net/downloards/all_the_spaces.pdf

Liz Ryerson can be found on Twitter on @ellaguro and her email is liz dot ryerson at gmail. She would love to hear from you, provided you are not a spam bot and you don't send her any rape threats."

Jonathan Blow's Braid.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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