DON’T BE A DICK: In an astounding act of bravery and solidarity, actress Charisma Carpenter (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel) spoke out against abusive practices of tv auteur, Joss Whedon, in support of Justice League actor, Ray Fisher. Andrew and D. Bethel have a thoughtful discussion of autership, specifically as it relates to the realm of nerds and geeks.
A BOOK CLUB [ , ] FOR ALL INTENTS AND PURPOSES: In a rare moment where Andrew and Dan’s reading habits align, they spend this episode discussing Chris Kohler‘s addition to the Boss Fight Books line, focusing on Square Enix’s (simply Squaresoft at the time of the game’s initial publication) Final Fantasy V. The first half has the hosts discussing the game itself, while the second half talks about the BFB line and written gaming criticism.
SNAP JUDGMENT: With the third Avengers movie becoming a new bank everybody is putting their money into, D. and Andrew finally sit down to talk about the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe capstone event. Be warned that this episode CONTAINS SPOILERS for the movie.
BATTLETECHNICALITIES: When the new Battletech game decided to include gender-neutral pronouns in its character generation, some corners of the internet got very angry, prompting everything from complaints on Reddit to a negative review campaign on Steam. D. Bethel and Andrew talk about this trend against inclusion in gaming and how this loud minority could be quieted.
As mentioned in the episode, watch Waypoint’s Austin Walker and Rob Zacny go in-depth with the character customization in Battletech:
WEEK IN GEEK: Andrew dives into “the German Stranger Things” as he watches the first three episodes of the Netflix series, Dark, while D. Bethel gets lost in an RPG-tinged clicker game called Almost a Hero by Bee Square Games.
WEEK IN GEEK: Both Andrew and D. Bethel saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi so––
THE LAST HOT TAKE: They bring in original Star Wars fan and friend of the show, Jason Tudor, to talk about Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the talk around the movie, and what it means for the franchise SPOILER ALERT––SIGNIFICANT PLOT POINTS ARE DISCUSSED; BE SURE TO WATCH THE MOVIE BEFORE LISTENING.
Mass Effect: Andromeda stands as one of the most derided games of this generation. It’s to the point that Bioware said publicly that it’s no longer supporting it a mere five months after the game’s release. While I think the game is, indeed, very different from the previous Mass Effect games and, without a doubt, needed a few more drafts with the script, it was by no means a terrible game. If separated from the Mass Effect context––and when considered with all of its animation/texture/gameplay patches––it suffers from the deadliest of video game diseases: it ended up being a game that was just “fine.” Nothing stellar, nothing terrible, things that make it forgettable in the sea of games to get either quite excited about or quite angry about.
Though I may be biased because I enjoyed the game (aware of all of its flaws), I think Park’s ostensible defense of the game makes a very strong point not only about Mass Effect: Andromeda, but also about criticism in general. For those participating in the conversation around video games, both professional and amateur (though this line is blurring more than ever), a general agreement seems to be that to be “critical” means to look for what’s bad and point it out. I’ll grant some leeway because a lot of professional critics are playing these games during abbreviated periods for review purposes, so the bad stuff stands out even more. With a game like Mass Effect: Andromeda, it has the added burden of being a new entry in a highly venerated video game series, so expectations for the game were set a bit higher than other games. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have qualities worth discussing, remembering, and celebrating, and part of that, at least as Park argues, is because of gaming criticism’s relative youth:
We don’t yet have a critical structure that supports or fosters an appreciation of the misapplication of game language that causes “messiness.” And this is a major problem.
With that in mind, there is a trend away from more traditional reviews into a more personal or culturally critical look at a game. These are more critic-friendly because they don’t really need to be ready by the game’s release (although such timeliness is beneficial for SEO purposes), and such investigations allow the critic to step back from the game and take a more holistic approach to judging a game. Whether Mass Effect: Andromeda deserves or will even get that chance is up to history. At the very least, I hope future games––be they new installments in venerated franchises or new IPs––get the chance to be examined with a genuinely critical eye rather than just a score disguised as a conversation.
Instead of an article, this is an episode from the generally fantastic critical podcast, Bullet Points, where (at least) three games journalists record their thoughts of a video game they all played to write about and talk about for their website. Each episode is accompanied by articles written by the contributors and they’re always very thoughtful and insightful.
This episode, where they look back on Epic Games’ Gears of War (the first installment), is an absolute disaster in the best possible way. In the hour-and-a-quarter episode, they spend about fifteen minutes total discussing the game and, instead, slam critical views together like rams over a ewe. The conversation devolves into an argument about how to read the game, critically. One wants to look at the mechanics and render judgment based on those while another wants to look at the game’s place in a historical context. And, in this conversation, the twain never meet.
Throughout the entire fight, I found myself talking out loud as I listened while walking my dog one morning, hoping my mediation would travel through my headphones, up the RSS feed, and back through time so they could actually realize what it was they were fighting about. While it seemed like they were disagreeing about the quality of the game, the discourse on display was actually a fundamental lack of understanding when it comes to critical analysis. There is no one thing called “analysis” and that’s what everybody does. We have developed different ways to look at the same thing––be it Deconstructionism, Structuralism, Formalism, Feminism, Marxism, and so on. Look at something like Catcher in the Rye through a Structuralist lens will give you a very different argument than if you looked at it through a Feminist lens. And that’s okay. They all coexist. However, the static that can be caused by the lack of agreement on which one to use while looking at a text can lead to an actual halt to discourse and then nothing gets done, as is the case on this podcast episode.
The clashing ideologies between the two journalists was basically a fight between New Criticism vs. New Historicism, but the entire episode propels along a single question that, in itself, is quite interesting: can dumb texts be worth talking about critically? Also, can texts still be important when authorial intent is ignorant, dubious, or manufactured? I’d like to hear the podcast where they discuss that. Maybe more would get done.
WEEK IN GEEK: Andrew plays catch-up after the Guestcast by letting us know about his time with the indie game, Turmoil, as well as discussing his experience with Alton Brown’s live show, Eat Your Science, while Dan talks about reboots and his hesitancy going into the first two issues of DC Comics’ new series, The Wild Storm.
MASS REJECTS: As Andrew reported, the new Bioware game, Mass Effect Andromeda, has met with a lot of criticism. However, said criticism is all over the map. Dan and Andrew get deep talking about expectations, Mass Effect, fandoms, and video games as cultural expressions. WARNING: the hosts get a little worked up.
I have always had too many hobbies, especially when I was younger. Like a lot of people, some of these fell away for awhile, some of them I picked back up for nostalgic reasons or with a new appreciation. Some have been left behind. For me, one passion remained constant throughout (aside from writing). With comic books, I stopped reading them for over a decade. Sure, there was the occasional trade paperback here and graphic novel there, but there was a long time where I checked out of the culture and community for good (until I was drawn back in, pardon the pun). With regard to other nerdy passions, I started playing music rather late and I basically stopped drawing for a long time before starting up my first webcomic in 2007.
But my oldest nerdy pastime––one that never went away––has been playing video games. I’ve always kept in touch, I’ve always had an ear to the discourse, and I’ve always followed the developments. It’s strange, then, that I never really thought about video games critically until relatively recently. Until I started using the tools I was practicing as a college student and graduate student, I never really absorbed games as statements on (or of a) culture.
However, there were a few times when I played a game and recognized that there was something more here, even if I couldn’t put my finger on it. Metal Gear Solid was one (as was Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater after it). Another was Shadow of the Colossus. There was also Red Dead Redemption. When Red Dead was released, my excitement was tempered with shock because as a fan of its predecessor, the Playstation 2 game Red Dead Revolver, I had no idea that it garnered enough attention to warrant a sequel––not from the fans nor from the industry. But I greeted it with anticipation and my reaction to it was on par with most people who played it––I loved it.
It felt big and cinematic, the story felt important, but what it was trying to say eluded me if only because I wasn’t thinking about that with regard to games. More importantly, I wasn’t quite sure about how to analyze a text like this. My instinct when it comes to fiction is to be enveloped by its tone and characters. Though I had become more critically aware of movies and books (what with my English degrees), such skepticism never leapt the barrier into video games.
Now, as a neophyte pop culture critic, I would like to analyze this medium but worry if I could do so as objectively as I would like. It is one of those “special” games to me, a pane in a stained-glass assemblage that is my personality, nostalgia, and taste. Furthermore, so much time has passed since its release that I wonder––with all the developments in the technology and expectations––if I could go back to it without some immediate deconstruction of my love for what made this game great in 2010.
Furthermore, most of the conversation around the game has been cultural rather than critical. Most discussion I come across is done by those who love it like I do, so the talk is mostly about how it has become “the game of its generation” or how video games can have impactful, cinematic storytelling while also being good games. While I don’t disagree with those sentiments, I haven’t found any real conversation around the game that delves deeper than a nigh dilettantish affection for the game, so I let more time pass and the possibility of actually developing a thesis around it slip away.
And then I found the brilliant podcast, Bullet Points. In a way, linking to Jess Joho’s article is a slightly veiled excuse to gush about the Bullet Points podcast and its long-form criticism companion site, Bullet Points Monthly. The core of Bullet Points is the trio of critics Ed Smith, Reid McCarter, and Patrick Lindsey who all write freelance for a variety of different culture sites. Their monthly episodes bring in assorted guests (such as Joho) and, together, approach video games new and old with an intelligent, skeptical scalpel that makes for an engaging listen. Each episode focuses on one game (ostensibly their focus is games with shooting mechanics, hence the title) that they all play and come to the recording session with their individual critical takeaways from the experience. Bullet Points Monthly contains articles written by the hosts with one guest contributor to hone their experiences into deft and penetrative articles about the game to be discussed on the upcoming podcast episode.
Back to Red Dead Redemption, their talk about the game (Episode 24 of the podcast) immediately gave me what I was looking for, which also pointed to article Joho wrote for the discussion and is also a perfect example of what I hoped to see in the discussions about this game––an incisive dissection of what this game means:
Red Dead Redemption doesn’t just portray a revisionist western story. The game itself plays like it’s a revisionist western cowboy on a quest to erase the past misdeeds of its genre—only to perpetuate those same misdeeds under the guise of revisionism or redemption.
It gave me a place to start, critically, with which I can go back to the game without the worry of being dragged down by old controls or distracted by out-of-date graphics. A lot of times their discussions touch on cinematic criticism or literary criticism but never as a crutch. Instead, they are citing those critical fields as peers to the texts being discussed on the podcast, which is exactly a tenet Andrew and I yearn to do on this very website with a similar general theoretical approach. If Bullet Points continues to do more writing and discussion like this, then I am even more excited for not only what other games they turn their attention toward, but also what I will have to say about games in the future, because it’s one of the first times in a while where I’ve been inspired to go play a game with a critical eye. It’s as if hearing them do it––and do it so well––finally gave my brain the permission to hop the fence and give this thing called video game criticism more of a shot than before.
Canon has been an undercurrent of a lot of what Andrew and I talk about on the podcast lately, though not necessarily whether it’s good or bad, necessary or fanciful. There is no doubt that canonizing properties has been a long-standing tradition for a variety of reasons: first, a continuity helps keep future iterations and sequels in line so that the thematic or tonal essence of a property is preserved; second, that universal structure helps to also solidify, as Mike Chen notes, “the backbone of a community” as well. This has been put to the test in the last decade.
From the dissolution of the Star Wars Extended Universe by Disney to the increasingly interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe, canonicity has become an important talking point in the nerdy-geeky world in some form or another. Both Marvel and DC, in their comics divisions, are struggling with it; it’s hard to decide whether the best move is to honor the canon established by including the upwards of seventy years of existing stories (for some) or to start anew and revised in a clean cut with the hopes of attracting new readers to old characters made relevant once more. Either way, our tendency towards canon development fosters in readers a deep attachment to the characters and their stories. While the emotional importance of canon among fans is undeniable, and is something that Mike Chen paints with affection in his article, he touches on what I think is the more damaging––and therefore more pertinent––side of canonicity: gatekeeping.
I am on the verge of arguing that gatekeeping mentalities are at the heart of the problems that are tearing the nerd world––and, by proxy, popular culture––apart. As these properties and franchises expand outward from the once niche pocket of fandom to greater cultural acceptance (something we all wanted in the first place), it is admittedly hard for some fans to accept that people that have only watched the Marvel movies can call themselves fans of Marvel.
But here’s a fact: they are.
But so many of us try to keep people like them out. Post-2005 Doctor Who fans. Fans who discovered Star Wars with the prequels. Abrams’ Star Trek fans. Mario fans whose first game was Super Mario Sunshine. For some fans, any of these people should have their fandom challenged and tested by their own twisted metric, but it means nothing. As much as we would like to––and as much as we already assume to––have ownership over the properties we have built the core of our personalities around, we simply do not. Passion and fervor, while important for the survival of a fiction, are not authors of it nor the metric for deciding who gets to like it. We cannot decide who gets to love movies, games, cartoons, comics, and television shows. Besides, what good does keeping people out do? If anything, Chen argues that it could even damage our identity within a culture:
[G]eeks often discover their passions while searching for some form of acceptance. With geek culture exploding into the mainstream over the past decade, it often becomes less about ‘are you a fan?’ and more about ‘how much of a fan are you?’ But fandom—the enjoyment of creativity and art—shouldn’t be placed on some finite metric to be analyzed and judged, as long as it’s being expressed positively.
Being a fan of the Marvel comics is not the same as being a mason, nor should it be, with tests to administer and rituals to memorize. They are meant to be enjoyed; again, what good does it do to actively damage a person’s enjoyment of something you or I enjoy so much? Instead, we need to look at things like canon as what it is: fiction. And fiction is meant to be fun. I don’t know about you, but even if someone comes to a fiction later than me or for different reasons than me, if we’re all enjoying it then it’s elevating not only the culture as a whole but, if I were to be honest, also my enjoyment of it.
Week In Geek: Metal Gear Solid by Ashly & Anthony Burch
Part of my goal as an academic-slash-nerdy-stuff enthusiast is to be a person that helps build the bridge between those two tentpoles that, as time moves forward, seem to be pushed further apart. In truth, criticism evolved as a genre from the world of popular culture. Without going too deep into the history of literary criticism, what academics view as critical writing––examining texts through specific lenses and discussing the positive and negative results of such investigations––was birthed by popular thinkers arguing back and forth in newspapers, mostly people like Samuel Johnson and Matthew Arnold yelling at other people. What criticism brings to its readers––and why it should be much more present in popular culture––is new ways to look at familiar things. You can agree with them or disagree, that’s fine; in critical discourse, if you disagree, you respond with your own critical analysis.
Criticism operates on the assumption that there is no one right way to read a text, so for people who have concrete definitions they’ve crafted or inherited about what a specific movie means or what a certain writer of a comic book is trying to say and they don’t want to budge because they know they’re right, then the critical investigation can’t move forward because a conversation can’t be had.
This is what is happening in the world of video game criticism right now, especially with the entire fracas that formed around Anita Sarkeesian’s videos and GamerGate’s reaction to them (among other sundry instances). Could Sarkeesian maybe have had more tact or been less forward in her presentation of her analysis? Sure. Because of that, did she deserve the response she got? Absolutely not. She was engaging in a critical discussion to not necessarily change the games we love but to bring these readings of the medium to the table for developers and players to use them as they will.
In their book for Boss Fight Books, Metal Gear Solid, the Burch siblings do an admirable job bringing critical investigation to a popular audience. As I mentioned in Episode 117 – Five Minutes to Funny, their approach was unorthodox for me who is more used to “classical” critical prose––i.e., very academic, argumentative, essayistic format––but it actually worked quite well. In more traditional co-written criticism (or most collaboratively written works, for that matter), no effort is made to distinguish between the contributions of each writer. In Metal Gear Solid (their book), the chapters are divided into sections with headings of either “Ashly” or “Anthony” to let the reader know who is speaking. This is ultimately effective for a few reasons. First, there is a slight difference in age between the two and the difference is enough to be notable; specifically, their initial comprehension of the game and what it was trying to do provides interesting juxtapositions. Second, and more importantly, the gender difference yielded very different reactions to the game and how it impacted their lives overall both in their youths and as adults, which would be lost or depersonalized if they had to neutralize the more dialectical (not a transcribed dialogue) format.
With that in mind, their book brings a lot of interesting aspects of the game to light that should be discussed, but usually aren’t. The standout for me is the excellent analysis of characters and their arcs––and the missed opportunities therein (their section on Otacon is outstanding)––which balances the “it’s complex stuff for the time” and “it’s really not as progressive as it appears to be” arguments fairly. This balance is a source of the schism in the greater video game culture; too many people don’t realize that you can criticize a game and still love it, which is exactly what the Burches do. They point out issues within Metal Gear Solid that, in a modern environment, can seem backwards and sometimes unforgivable. Snake, to a teenager or child (as Anthony and Ashly were, respectively, when they first played the game), is an uncompromising badass; however, upon reflection, it is clear he is a bully and sadist, especially to women. Meryl is presented as a tough woman who is every bit a soldier as the men on Shadow Moses Island, but with the way the camera, Snake, and the gameplay treat her, she is woefully underserved by the game that otherwise wants to present her as a progressive take on female characters in video games. A lot of this comes down to the apparent conflict within the series creator, Hideo Kojima, himself. I’ll quote here what I read aloud in the episode:
There are two Hideo Kojimas.
One Kojima injects every Metal Gear Solid game with earnest if overbearing discussions of nuclear disarmament, the morality of genetic experimentation, the nature of warfare, and the difference between patriotism and terrorism.
The other Kojima lets you call Rose in Metal Gear Solid 4 and shake your SIXAXIS controller to make her boobs jiggle (21-22).
Part of accepting Metal Gear Solid as an artistic entry is to accept that, yes, it is thematically earnest and powerful and its characters are remarkably well-rounded, but for every two steps forward it––as a game and as a series––takes at least one step back. But that is also the nature of art. If any thing was perfect, there would be nothing to talk about.
Another fascinating aspect the book investigates is how Kojima openly and freely manipulates the relationship between the player and Solid Snake, arguing that Kojima willingly draws Snake and the player together at times and forcibly separates them at other times for a purposeful, emotional, and narrative purpose. It opened up a through-line for critical investigation into games as power fantasies, so that the conversation doesn’t just stop at “video games are power fantasies.” The Burches delve into how Kojima uses that fact to both make the player feel powerful (like most games do) and also use that trope to make the player feel detached, weak, and helpless. If anything, for both the criticism and the praise, the book showed me the art that goes into game design and how mindful Kojima is with his games despite his own severely problematic flaws as a creative.
For all the good that this book does at managing the intersection between criticism and popular culture, it is clear they have the events of GamerGate on their minds, which is smart considering that a co-author is female and, by the virtue of that simple fact, she, her brother, and the book are automatically painted with targets. Their apology takes the form of the concluding chapter, titled “The End?”, in which Ashly takes the lead with a passioned defense that, I would argue, comes dangerously close to diminishing the very poignant and important arguments she and her brother make in the book to that point:
So, Anthony and I shit on Metal Gear Solid for about half of this book. If you’re a fan of MGS1, you might be kind of pissed. But despite the amount of acid we spit at the game and its various baffling choices, despite the inordinately long cutscenes, the convoluted plot, and the awkward dialogue, we do love this game (159).
This is problematic because 1. they surely don’t “shit on Metal Gear Solid” at all. They critically engage with it and because they are able to do that with detailed and thorough arguments it 2. proves, beyond any reasonable doubt, that they love the game. In that instant, this concluding chapter felt a bit reductive and unnecessary. What’s impressive is that despite being couched in a chapter-long ass-covering thesis, Ashly does an admirable job teaching not only what criticism is, but why it’s important for the industry as well as for fans:
[W]hen we hear a complaint…about a game we love, we have to stop that little seed of defensiveness from spilling over into anger. We have to recognize that a critic’s concern doesn’t say anything about us, and it doesn’t make us wrong for liking the game. We’re all on the same team, and we’re all just trying to make this medium the best it can be. For everyone (161-2).
This chapter was an eye-opening moment for me as a reader, gamer, and wannabe critic, perhaps because I audibly scoffed when I read this chapter, saying something akin to, “You didn’t have to do this, catering to those people.” The D. Bethel that said that was Professor Bethel, the academic, the person whose workplace and occupation don’t have to apologize––among colleagues at least––for challenging arguments. In fact, they are expected.
However, in the pop culture nerd world that Podcast Co-Host, Comicker, and Website Curator (and straight white male) D. Bethel operates, you have to do this, especially if you’re a woman or minority. And while it’s atrocious and insulting that anybody would have to write this chapter, it shows why this book is successful at building that bridge I longingly want to help construct.
I want more good, challenging gaming criticism. I want to buy books of it. And though some exist and continue to get published, such a desire may be self-defeating in the end. If we’re looking to bridge that gap between pop and academic cultures, it won’t be through book stores. Instead, it is happening online in the form of podcasts and videos and, occasionally, articles. However, if we’re looking to make this a two-way connection, from the halls of academia to reddit and back again, in order to legitimize games as critical texts in the eyes of PhDs, books should be made as well as journals and panels at conferences. The Burches’ Metal Gear Solid definitely offers the academic handshake toward the people who love and care and talk about video games on the internet with confident airs and cries for legitimacy. I just hope pop culture is willing to accept and return it.