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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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit