Critical Distance End of Year Spetacular

The last month have been a very special sort of self-inflicted hell. For some unearthly reason I think last year was so much easier to get everything done. On a whim last year I decided to revive the CDC podcast with an end of year retrospective and pull off the first ever This Year In Video Game Blogging without telling anybody. Both ended up being stealth projects that took a lot of people by surprised, none more so than my editor in chief at the time Ben Abraham. Was I going to make it an annual thing? Well I don’t remember, but it hardly matters because I did it anyway.

I started getting ready near the beginning of December to make things easier on myself, to spread out the work and so forth. I don’t know what happened, but at the end of the month I ended up with strained eyeballs and a desperate dive for the finish line and actually did worse. Last year’s post didn’t need as much editing as this years all mainly because my brain, fingers and eyes were not on the same page half the time. The podcast editing ended up taking the same amount of time as last year even though I dedicated not to go to the same extreme lengths of editing and cleaning up as I did before. I cringe in certain parts at things I could have fixed has I gone for it. But of course being my sophomoric effort and the end of year projects they somehow got so much bigger. From 4 hours of audio to edit into a 3 and a half hour podcast to 6 hours of audio to edit into a 5 hour podcast. From typing up a round up of 60 links I typed up a round up of 79 links.

Scheduling the podcast recording session for two days before Christmas wasn’t the brightest idea on my part, especially since it was the day before Christmas for those of our friends across the International Dateline. But it was literally the only time I could get everyone to show up. I knew I was lucky last year asking Ben, Kirk and Denis out of the blue if they’d be free in a handful of days to record a podcast. I suppose it was a bit much to ask everyone who worked at Critical-Distance to come on. It was six people, one beyond the limit of what I think is a controllable conversation. Though it was fun finally getting to talk to Kris and Katie, come back soon ladies. Also, I like to have fun with the podcast titles and I channeled my inner brony for this one.

Though who knows, with these relaxed standards I might be able to do a podcast more frequently. What a concept!

As much as a slog as it was to get through the podcast, the real challenge is TYIVGB. It’s like TWIVGB except on an order of magnitude the likes of which you haven’t seen before. With TWIVGB you generally have between 20 and 35 links to curate and nearly all of them get in. Depending on that week’s editor your mileage may vary. With TYIVGB I have 937 links pre reader suggestions to cull (much more apt a word) through. Thank Inspector Space-Time that I wasn’t doing this stealth like and had an editorial staff willing to help me. I first went through all the TWIVGBs myself and culled the list down to around 300 potential links. Then I split them up and shipped off a piece each to a different editor. After Christmas Ian, Kris, Ben and myself got on Skype and we worked through all the yes’s to cut them down as well. Ben cut out all the No’s at the very beginning of the process so we could get through them faster. After we finished culling all the yes’s he had to go and I pulled up the deleted no’s and pulled out links I thought deserved a second look. I saved quite a few links that did end up in the final copy. Just goes to show how subjective the whole process is, especially when you only have a partial list. Also, thank you to those of you who submitted suggestions. I only asked for a line or two explaining why you thought a particular pieces was the best from the year, some of you did that, but some of you wrote essays. Good lord.

By the 4th culling process we still had near 100 links, so we went down the list again chipping away at things that we didn’t need. We cut off the fat where ever we could. We were looking for posts that could fill requirements of showcases authors, subjects, games, theories, discussions, but mostly for pieces that could pull double and triple duty. For every link we got to keep there were at least 1 it pained somebody to cut. I don’t know what it was about this year but last year’s TYIVGB was 60 links out of 995 and this year it was 79 out of 937. Kris and I came up with a few theories for this. Don’t know how right any of them might be. The next day I was ordering up all the links into a working outline so it would all flow nicely. After I got everything sorted into the big categories I had to bring in Kris because I need an editor to challenge me if I’m being an idiot. It took us 40 minutes to get everything nicely order. I have no idea how long it would have taken by myself. Probably all evening. We chopped out a few more links during this process.

I could go into detail over some of the stories we had during this process. Or how our views were vastly different. Or gush over the reception (which I think I’ll do anyway, thank you all for your kind words and excitement.) Haven’t seen anyone take issue with it this year, I’d like to think that’s because I was more open about the process and those of you following me on twitter saw the anguish I was putting myself through. Even yesterday’s tweets alone could stand as an example at that was only about the writing process. Anyway, back to what I was saying. I could go on into detail, but instead I want to use this post to highlight some personal favorites that got cut for one reason or another. Mostly because I was aiming for last year’s 60 and couldn’t even do that. So here we go:

This three-part creative writing piece in the style of Hunter S. Thompson tracking down Ash in the world of Pokemon is an absolute scream for me. I haven’t read a whole lot of Thompson, but there is just something about the Gonzo style journalism I find spellbinding. The fact it also reveals what an ugly world this would be if it did exist is a bonus. Of course we don’t have the space for such a piece on a game that wasn’t talked about much and while a lot of fun didn’t say much critically that we haven’t heard a dozen times before.

This is another Bitmob piece that shouldn’t surprise anyone that I like it. It had me at gothic horror. No one else seemed as tickled with it as I was and ultimately it didn’t cover any representation ground, but it is still a good piece that brings up some neat ideas. Neat ideas are great for a weekly inclusion, but not a yearly one. That became a thing, we started calling things week (with an E) pieces as in they are good for the week, but not for the year. Nothing we had was a weak (with an A) piece.

This Character Done Right  at the Border House struck a cord with me. Though it’s about a game I haven’t played that is several years old now, just seeing such and in depth analysis of a character that doesn’t fit the normal Star Wars mold is enough to make one stop and take notice. It was also written by Quinnae, which we unfortunately couldn’t find a worthy year end piece by here. She does good work.

Eric Swartz was a writer we wanted to highlight very much. Not only was he very prolific this year, but he is an excellent long form theorist. He wrote some of the best essays on UI design and structural design of the year. So this piece was in there for quite a while, but had almost nothing to do with the rest of his body of work. It was in there as a place holder because we couldn’t find the bloody link for the essay of his that to me was a shoe in. It took a few hours, but the right essay of his finally got put in. Also, this piece focused on the Smithsonian exhibit that while that got some attention it wasn’t a whole lot.

This next one was a user suggested piece that I hadn’t read before. It is a powerful piece about real Afghanistan and Iraq vets using video games to help combat PTSD. To me it didn’t say much about something in video games from this year like the author’s Call of Juarez piece which got included, but it needs attention so I’m showing it off here.

Last year we had a section dedicated to Print Criticism and Video Essays. While there were books, there wasn’t a Extra Lives nor was it Kill Screen’s inaugural year. You should be picking up the issues to the magazine however. And there weren’t enough video essays to justify having a section all to themselves. So I went through the big essayists to see which of their works was worth highlighting. Extra Credits got three great videos in, but here are two I wished I had space to go in. Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Art is not the Opposite of Fun. I feel that latter one, especially, needs to be linked again.

Ok, this one caused some real contention among editors, by which I mean Kris and myself. I really liked it as a think piece of who we become in video games even those where you can play as anyone you want. Kris saw a lot of problems with it that I didn’t get. In rereading it I find some of her issues with it valid and others unsubstantiated. I will admit I really liked it when it came out, but the shine had worn off over the year. It’s still a great piece just not yearly material.

This is another Kirk Hamilton piece that actually was the excuse for other pieces getting cut because they were too similar and this one did it best. In the end the satire of treating a work in another medium like it was a video game while entertaining doesn’t merit inclusion all by itself. We love satire and we included satire, but we didn’t need it. Plus we were going to sound like Kirk Hamilton fanboys after a while.

The Brindle Brothers are excellent writers new to the scene of video game criticism and we wanted to highlight their efforts. We had this and their Red Dead Redemption piece in the list until we started our final cuttings. I eventually determined that their RDR was just better and we had other pieces looking at first person shooters covering not exactly the same territory, but close enough. You can’t always get what you want.

This Frictional Games blog post really hurt us all to cut. We were making excuses and shuffling things around trying to find a way to keep it in after every culling round. Every single editor liked this piece. It quote Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher and Battleship Potemkin within a paragraph, how could you not like it? Eventually I had bring the ax down myself. It’s a great piece of writing in looking at video game formalism by developers who know how to tell a story in games, but it was indulgent of us. We knew the writing was on the wall for this piece (no pun intended). It wasn’t part of the conversation and it tragically wasn’t remembered on its own merit either. But I’m showing it off now, because dammit this is my blog.

I feel like I have to apologize to Matthew Burns for not including this piece, because its just so good. But ultimately it felt like something from last year and was following up on a conversation from 2010. It’s one of those January pieces that got lost in the transition. A few of us were wary since it seems to go into games as art territory. It was also a reader suggestion, so consider this my penance for that and allow me to show it off here.

Finally, this was another pieces that was painful to cut. In fact it has the distinction of being the very last piece of writing we cut. It made it all the way up to setting up the outline. It is a superb piece. One of the best written of the year about the second men of Final Fantasy. So, why did we cut it in the end? Because criticism doesn’t exist in a vacuum. By itself it’s a wonderful and would have gone in no question, but it was surrounded by Kirk and Leigh’s letter series, and by Tom Bissell’s essays and the writing people did on more relevant games and subjects. Against all that it just didn’t stack up and stood out as a bump in the flow. It sounds like I’m down on it, but really it is so good. It made the weekly roundup and would have made a monthly round up without a problem or a quarterly one without breaking a sweat, but you have to have higher standards when curating for a year round-up.

I hope people take this in the way it was intended as an extras list for pieces that didn’t quite make it. They deserve your attention, but they were the last tiny pieces of fat that got chopped off on the cutting board. The same thing happened last year, where for many different reason I had to leave off writing I personally loved. Critical-Distance could not create any sort of objective list of best criticism of the year, but we can damn well try. Pieces I like got left out and some pieces I didn’t particularly care for got in, because I can appreciate things beyond my tastes and understand their importance and/or quality. Our preferences will come into play no doubt, but we also have to be willing to put them aside for the work we are doing.

I hope you enjoyed the podcast and TYIVGB and if you haven’t got around to them yet, what are you waiting for?

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