The State of Play

The State of Play

Title: The State of Play
Editors: Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Seven Stories Press
Pages: 256

This guest review is written by John D. Moore (@johndmoore5 on Twitter).

The State of Play is a collection of sixteen diverse essays on a variety of topics related to contemporary video game culture written by game creators, journalists, and academics. The collection comes from Seven Stories Press, a company that has demonstrated a dedication to publishing interesting and new kinds of books about video games in the last few years, including anna anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters and The State of Play editors Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson’s own Minecraft. The essays consist of some previously published material as well as pieces original to or adapted for this volume. This is not a video game culture primer; while each essay does an adequate to great job of describing the particular corner of video game culture it explores, a basic familiarity with games and the popular discourse surrounding them is necessary to keep the reader from feeling disoriented.

The book is prefaced by a short introduction written by the editors that argues for its own necessity in the current climate of video game culture. The editors propose the term “post-escapism” for our present moment, pointing to a paradigm shift for independent game production and video game criticism symbolized by – if not initiated by – the miserable advent of Gamergate. As such, it explicitly announces its progressive stance against an oppositional conservative “side.” The majority of the essays have a definite progressive political slant, dealing primarily with race, gender, and sex. Not every piece is so politically conscious, such as level designer David Johnston’s rich account of his approach to designing CounterStrike maps and the tensions between level design and real-world architecture. Curiously, the introduction does not make reference to this or other pieces that fit this loose classification, and that lack of framing is disappointing. It does provide for their place obliquely by linking progressive politics to a progressive approach in writing about games as cultural objects that matter and are subject to the same scrutiny as other media.

There are as many approaches to writing as there are contributors in this volume. anna anthropy’s essay “Love, Twine, and the End of the World” is characteristically playful and borrows the format of a choose-your-own-adventure book, sometimes even inviting the reader-player to exit the book and take action elsewhere, advancing her cause for games as a powerful medium of self-expression. In “A Game I Had to Make,” Zoe Quinn writes of her experiences surrounding the development, release, and reception of her Depression Quest in an intimate and challenging second-person perspective, stylistically reminiscent of the text of her game. Cara Ellison and Brendon Keogh share a meandering correspondence about the meaning of violence and its dominance in contemporary video games, trying on frames like colonialism. History professor William Knoblauch offers a wide-reaching analysis of apocalyptic scenarios in games from the late Cold War to the present.

In one of the book’s finest pieces, Anita Sarkeesian and Katherine Cross describe their separate and varied stories of online harassment, putting them together to expose their common threads of misogyny that are, in turn, pervasive in mainstream video games and video game culture, dehumanizing and objectifying real women as non-player characters. Sarkeesian includes a harrowing sample of the threats she received. It is a vivid and accessible chapter that succeeds in succinctly delivering many of the main points of Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency project and I’d nominate it as required reading for anyone involved in video games.

With no thematic divisions, there is no clear structural logic to the book’s presentation, though some of the juxtapositions provide provocative or synergistic effects when read together. Evan Narcisse’s “The Natural: The Parameters of the Afro,” an exploration of black representation in games, pairs very neatly with Hussein Ibrahim’s “What It Feels Like to Play the Bad Guy,” about playing first-person shooters where the only in-game people who look like the author are presented as enemies and the representations of his culture are often ludicrously inaccurate. Together, these issues connect to the next essay by Quinn in a way that opens up broader questions about embodied experiences. Other essays, especially toward the end of the collection, seem arranged at random.

In these pages, it is unfortunately rare to see an acknowledgement of the specific regional discourse the writers are talking about, even as Japanese companies (which are admittedly multinational, with major global presences) are routinely referenced. An exception is in one of the standout pieces of the collection, in which merritt kopas examines the intersection of sex, games, consumerism, and culture, arguing that the intertwining of these themes in mainstream game productions is a reflection of our society’s misogynistic and problematic relationship to sex. While she acknowledges that her discussion might be applicable in some areas to other cultures, she emphasizes that her focus is on her own American context. This statement stands in contrast to the introduction, which identifies the mainstream game industry as historically preoccupied with the “young, white, Western male” from its genesis. That of course applies to what would generally be termed the Western video game market since the late 1980s, but it seems to dodge the problem of other major markets, or at the very least the Japanese market. Oli Wikander, a professor of Religious Studies, offers a strong exception, examining Western theology and Gnosticism in 1990s Japanese role-playing games. It’s an excellent piece, but its position at the back of the volume seems to speak to its outsider status.

The book would have benefited from more careful editing on both macro and micro scales. There are a few more instances of awkward grammar and spelling mistakes than I’m accustomed to seeing. In addition, only a handful of the pieces cite their sources, which is disappointing. Predictably, those who cite are among the small handful of academics in the collection.

On a related note, my biggest complaint about the book is its lack of contextualization. At least three essays were originally written for their authors’ blogs, and I think it would strengthen the book to contextualize these articles as such. Short introductions preface each piece, but they mainly serve to specify the topic of the essay. This book was published in 2015, so it is mildly confusing when Ian Bogost’s piece on the fantastic stupidity of Flappy Bird and video games at large, originally posted at The Atlantic, refers to “last summer” but means the summer of 2013. The nature of blogging tends to produce writing that is very reactive to its moment and the broader online ecosystem of blogging. These repurposed bog posts are all fine pieces by themselves, but their transition between media calls for some more compensation than the book provides. Another example would be Dan Golding’s fine specimen of rhetoric “The End of Gamers,” originally a 2014 Tumblr post, in which Golding opts to not delve into the events commonly credited for spearheading Gamergate, deeming it not worthy of consideration. Given the priorities of his post, this makes sense on Tumblr. The nature of a print anthology, however, would almost certainly benefits from a stronger historicization either in the text or in footnotes, especially if it aspires to continued relevance.

While the collection’s lack of an absolute unifying coherence is arguably a weakness, it is simultaneously a strength. The diversity of content allows for a wide range of examples of different ways people are approaching video games. The collection and availability of the pieces that were originally published online in a physical book has great value, preserving them from the vicissitudes of ephemeral news cycles. To give an example, in researching this review I discovered that Shanahan’s essay has disappeared from its original home on the Internet. While it remains available elsewhere online for the time being, it would be a shame if it were ever lost to the Internet’s ever-growing cemetery of failed servers and expired domains.

The book’s inclusion of essays on so many varied subjects from so many different angles inspires an excitement concerning the existence of new possibilities and fresh approaches that even this wide-reaching collection cannot accommodate. The collection’s title, The State of Play, suggests a sort of crystallization of all the current discourse surrounding games. I would love to see something like this turn into a series, chronicling these conversations as they continue to evolve in coming years.

The State of Play is strongly recommended for any reader with an interest in the current culture of video games and how we talk about them. Each individual essay could provide, at minimum, a jumping-off point for a spirited discussion on a major topic in contemporary video game culture. Indeed, I can imagine this volume providing the backbone for a unit in a college course. To that end, it’s worth noting that Seven Stories Press offers (free examination copies of its titles to professors.

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John D. Moore is an M.A. student in the Department of East Asian Languages & Literatures at the University of Oregon researching Japanese anime in general and Mobile Suit Gundam in particular. He is also a filmmaker and hobbyist developer of several dozen freeware video games, including Caverns of Khron and ExpandoScape.

You Died: The Dark Souls Companion

You Died

Title: You Died: The Dark Souls Companion
Authors: Keza MacDonald and Jason Killingsworth
Illustrators: Paul Canavan and Angus Dick
Publication Year: 2016
Publisher: BackPage
Pages: 333

This guest review is written by Ryan Nock.

I came to You Died: The Dark Souls Companion as a casual fan of the Japanese video game series Dark Souls (and its sister Bloodborne), and I was expecting the text to explore the craft, the development, and the secrets of the games. It’s not quite that book, though, and devotes its attention to the game’s fandom rather than its creation.

The Souls series is infamous for its difficulty, and you’ll see the words “YOU DIED” flash on the screen dozens of times as you learn how to play. The most casual encounters with enemies can kill your character repeatedly until you get into the groove and learn the dangers of the world and the attack patterns of the undead and other monsters that roam it. While you’re connected online, other players can scrawl notes from a limited set of available words to offer hints, and you can call on help from other players, but they cannot speak to you. Moreover, those same players can “invade” your game and try to kill you.

While yes, this is challenging, it has created an interesting sense of community, as players all struggling at the same time to survive the game and solve its mysteries. That community, which expanded from the video game to the internet and even into the real world, is the focus of You Died.

The authors, Keza MacDonald and Jason Killingsworth, are both game journalists who had early access to games in the Souls series and were early popularizers of them in the West. Through this book (which doesn’t have a table of contents), they recount the history of how the precursor game Demon’s Souls came to the West through imports and fan translations, how its popularity led to the enthusiastic reception of the eventual release of Dark Souls, and how the fanbase proselytized the game firmly into the sphere of gaming pop culture icons.

Today, myriad YouTube channels highlight hidden bits of lore and showcase the skills of expert players, and the authors document some of the most famous examples of each. They seem to be trying to craft a sort of historical record of the game community, with whole chapters devoted to the time a Twitch stream crowd-sourced playing Dark Souls, or how one YouTube celeb got in hot water for collating insights into the gameworld’s mysteries without providing proper attribution to the messageboard community where that information was first posted.

Unfortunately, You Died is not adequately comprehensive as a reference, and as a documentary piece it doesn’t remain engaging all the way through. The presentation is a tad dry and perhaps a bit overlong; and, for a book about a video game, it’s a shame the only art is a series of black-and-white line drawings. I wonder if I, as a casual fan, am not the target audience. The authors assume the reader has beaten Dark Souls, and every once in a while I found passages of the book rather self-congratulatory, like the twelve pages detailing how one author got a 100% completion achievement. Rather than a unified book with a coherent through-line that builds to a satisfying conclusion, You Died is better read as a series of articles, which makes sense considering the pedigrees of the authors.

Still, there’s plenty to like. Entertaining vignettes recall how a couple bonded through co-op play, and how trickster players subvert the “invasion” mechanic to goof around and give rewards to would-be enemies who play along with their shenanigans. The chapters I found most interesting were the ones about the actual craft of the games – a biography of and excerpted interview with the series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki, recollections of the translators who localized the games and the British voice actors who gave gravitas to a mournful story about a world where nothing can truly die, and musings of other game designers on what lessons they’ve learned from the Souls series.

One early and appealing chapter quotes from a long email chain that bounced back and forth among game reviewers who got advance copies of Dark Souls before it was released in the West. The reader is invited to witness their shared amusement and frustration as they work through the game, share tips with each other, and brag about their successes.

For my taste, there’s a bit too much on the community around the game – a still-active community one can easily learn about with some web searches – and not enough behind-the-scenes information. Dark Souls has a setting you have to dig your teeth into in order to really appreciate the game’s plot. Today, it’s easy for someone new to the franchise to hit up a wiki and have all the secrets revealed, and I wish this book had cared more about the unrolling of revelations in the games – the lovely “aha!” moments that cause pieces of the puzzle to fit together.

Also, the focus is almost wholly on Westerners, with scant attention paid to the fans in Japan or the other designers – artists, programmers, composers – who are all Japanese. What inspired these developers to create a setting so firmly rooted in a medieval and Renaissance European aesthetic? All the authors offer the reader is a few paragraphs on Miyazaki’s interest in Western fantasy, and I lament that the topic was not explored in more detail.

By chance, shortly before reading You Died, I finished another book about a pop culture phenomenon with a large community centered on unraveling mysteries. In 1979, the British artist Kit Williams buried a bejeweled golden rabbit and published Masquerade, an illustrated, riddle-filled book that served as a treasure map. In 1982 the rabbit was found, and in 1983 Bamber Gascoigne (a name which will be familiar to players of Bloodborne) released Quest for the Golden Hare. The book served as both a thriller, deftly portraying a cast of characters trying to locate the rabbit, and as an oral history of William’s creation of the puzzle and of the phenomenon of Masqueraders around the world trying to crack the code he’d crafted. Perhaps unfairly, I ended up comparing the two books, and I found Quest for the Golden Hare more compellingly written, though this could be a result of different journalistic styles separated by thirty years – or because I’m not exceptionally engrossed in the Souls franchise.

You Died certainly has its moments, and as a celebration of a fandom it has the potential to inspire appreciation within the community of people who love the game. Its content could have been tightened and condensed, however, and I think it would have been improved by a stronger focus on its Japanese origins rather than just its reception in the West.

You Died: The Dark Souls Companion is available on Kindle and in print.

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Ryan Nock is a writer and tabletop game designer at EN Publishing and product line director of ZEITGEIST: The Gears of Revolution and War of the Burning Sky, two adventure series for Dungeons & Dragons and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.