Critical Distance: This Week in Videogame Blogging #5

Which Lord of the Rings game would Sauron play?

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Critical Distance is proud to bring to The New Statesman a new 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 discuss the tendency of games to impart moral lessons opposing the messages their designers intended, and on a related note, which Lord of the Rings game Sauron would most enjoy.

Civilization 4 developer Soren Johnson grapples with a problem many game developers face: game mechanics which teach lessons in direct opposition to what its designers wish to impart to players.

[G]ames make us all fascists and communists; anarchists and tycoons; kleptocrats and ascetics, so we better hope that games are not as powerful as we once dreamed they might be.

And yet…

What makes our totalitarian game rules so slippery is that often the dynamics that emerge from these rules are actually at odds with the beliefs of their creators. For example, Will Wright, an atheist, began making Spore as a game about evolution but somehow eventually shipped a game about intelligent design. Monopoly started life as The Landlord’s Game, a board game meant to teach about the evils of capitalist landlords, who unfortunately ended up being a lot of fun to play. […] Civilization was supposed to be a game about history but — despite my best efforts — many of the lessons it taught were somehow the opposite of what I actually believe.

On Paste, Austin Walker engages Jacobin’s Ian Williams in a letter series concerning Funk of Titans, how it divorces its Blaxploitation aesthetics from their historical context as amateur and counter cinema, and what a real equivalent to that context would look like in games.

And at Kill Screen, Ewan Wilson compares David Braben and Ian Bell’s landmark 1984 space sim Elite to its modern iteration and finds a remarkably intact ideological throughline. By contrast, on Game Exhibition Vincent Kinian digs into Dust: An Elysian Tail and decides that, in its attempt to play to large, mythic themes, Dust fails to provide a lush or engaging setting.

PopMatters Moving Pixels’ Scott Juster suggests, in roughly so many words, that Shadow of Mordor is the Lord of the Rings game that Sauron would play:

The game basically turned me into a Nazgûl. […] Finishing it necessitates enslaving and commanding an army of orcs to fight against other orcs. The Orc society is so large and decentralized that Talion becomes the most visible warlord on the field. Unlike the Orcs, who are clannish and fight among each other, Talion’s horde is single-minded and wholly obedient. This strategy is couched within the concept of “fighting fire with fire” against Sauron, but once you’re in the middle of an inferno, it’s hard to tell one flame from another. You say there’s a shadowy figure amassing power who has bent an army of murderous orcs to his will? The only solution must be to bend another army of murderous orcs to my will.

At Not Your Mama’s Gamer, Ashley Barry praises Among the Sleep for flouting a certain horror genre convention. Finally, at Vorpal Bunny Ranch, Denis Farr — a dual citizen of Germany and the United States — tries out Wolfenstein: The New Order to see if its depiction of Nazi Germany really is as textured as its hype suggests.

Room for dessert? Be sure to pick up the most recent issues of these game-focused e-zines: Memory Insufficient, Five Out of Ten, Unwinnable Weekly and Arcade Review!

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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