This Year In Video Game Blogging 2017. I have done so many of these post-mortems it’s getting to the point I feel like I may just be repeating myself. Yet, at the same time, I can’t help but look back at the project this year and think of how far I’ve come over the past 8 years. Eight years. Damn. A lot has changed over that time. I was still in college when I started doing this.
In 2010, I had an idea. Critical Distance does roundups for the best criticism featured during the week. It’s the end of the year, so why not translate the idea to the whole year. What was the best of the best of the year? What could possibly go wrong?
The entire process took about a week. I got help from a future fascist entomologist because I recognized that it was too much work to do by myself on a whim. We were on Skype continuously going through all of the TWIVGB roundups. Culling from the TWIVGBs would be the only part of the process that I would carry over into future years.
I foolishly thought that it would be like any other roundup, save for the fact that the standards for inclusion would be higher. It would be around 20 links, maybe 30 to allow for the fact that we are considering a full year and not a week. Yeah, that didn’t happen. It ended up more than twice that number when it was completely pared down. There is a limit to how high one could raise their standards and still cover everything you want covered.
The following year, I decided to solicit more input from the Critical Distance editorial staff, get more people involved. It was also an effort to subdivide the workload so I wouldn’t have to contend with it all by myself. I was not in the best of health at the end of the previous year, carried forward mostly by enthusiasm for the novelty of the project. Lot of things happened that I won’t get into now, but sufficed to say, I consider this the worst year end roundup I ever put together. I am not happy with it at all. Too many cooks and all that.
The lesson learned was that while you may want the work to be inclusive and solicit other people’s opinions and input, in the end, it needs a single person driving it, the auteur theory of curartion if you will allow me a blunt metaphor. I am sometimes uncomfortable with the authority this truth grants me, but it is necessary for the quality of the project to remain as high as I want it to be. Now, TYIVGB takes me an entire month to do.
It was also the first year we solicited submissions from our readership. In later years, this would cause headaches of its own sort, but it was a useful tool to expanding what we considered for inclusion and helped focus on what struck a chord with the community.
I’m not going to give the play-by-play for every year. Don’t worry. The 2012 TYIVGB is when I started writing these post-mortems anyway. But that was more like the methodology post than any the real digging introspection. I didn’t start doing that until next year’s post-mortem, 2013, and it’s around this time the concept behind TYIVGB began to shift. I’m reading my old post-mortems as I write this to remind myself where my head was at in regards to the project.
The original concept was a list of the best pieces of the year. If I had chucked some numbers in it could have been a full on listicle. Then it became about coverage. In 2013’s post-mortem I note this shift:
“We make the mistake with lists in thinking they are definitive, because so many are framed so poorly. Essentially TYIVGB is a Top X list without the numbers used to frame inclusion. In fact, the more I think about it I’m glad I never quite set the end of year roundup as a definitive list of only the BEST writing of the year. Curation is the art of saying something by virtue of what you include. The adjective I use far more in relation to it is ‘representative.’ I try to gather a large stable of links that together pain a picture of the year.”
TYIVGB became a project of needing to touch on every important point of the year as best as I could.
Of course, both quality of writing and broadness of scope are still part of the consideration that goes into the current roundup, but as with the shift that took place around 2012/2013, there has been a change in my mind in the thinking behind the roundups.
The longer I am a part of Critical Distance the more I understand about the art of curation. There is only so many times you can think you have it figured out only to discover you’ve reached another level of insight. This list is as much a piece of communicative art as any other. As such it needs a purpose. It needs a theme.
I’ve had low moments while doing this project. Some are just my brain calling me names for subjecting myself to this misery. Some come from outside sources, insulted that I would ever dare do such a project. But the worst was from 2013. Patricia Hernandez was kind enough to link it on Kotaku. One of the commenters had some scathing words. I fully quote it in the 2013 post-mortem. I had my say there. Now, some years later, reading it again, I feel like shit again, but more importantly I have a different view of the guy’s attitude. The guy (and I feel confidant in labeling him a guy) doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but he does hit upon a dissonance even if he can’t articulate it. As an outsider he felt something off about the end result and then completely misidentified what that off feeling was reaching for tired tropes of anti-intellectualism and proto-“ethics in games journalism” sentiment.
I like the work I did on the previous roundups. I like the choices I made for the roundups. I do go back an occasionally look at them and smile at correctly calling the pieces that did last the test of time. But it is the roundups themselves I feel fall flat.
Back then, they were mechanistic products that represented the ideology that born them. I thought of them as best of list and yeah the quality is high in the choices, but it shows no effort in comprehension of what the year was about. Later ones try to touch on everything important and feel like checklist of highlights. They felt like a “circle jerk” because, thanks to the ideology behind my process, it very well could have been. Just as the means of production will dictate the form of the final output, so does the process by which a roundup is created.
That was also the year that we realized that just because we knew how this whole project comes together, didn’t mean anybody else did. So, the following year we published the TYIVGB methodology post and in subsequent years I would amend it with “patch notes” as the process improved for the sake of my health and sanity. This year there were no such “patch notes.” It’s finally at the point where the process just works and doesn’t kill me. Though, I do attribute part of that to no longer doing the end of year podcast.
It was in that methodology post, in 2014, I began making the next shift in TYIVGB’s conception. Originally it was a best of list. From there it morphed into a comprehensive summery and then it would again change into a focused snapshot that would act as a synecdoche of that year in the critical games sphere. Putting the methodology out there forced me to really ask the question of what I wanted TYIVGB to be.
If you haven’t read the methodology post, well I’m going to be going through the process as a sort of outline for this post, so it isn’t completely necessary, though I do feel it is important to understand the base step-by-step process of my work.
Number of 2017 TWIVGB posts: 797
Number of unique reader suggestions: 131
Number of links in the final longlist: 222
Number of links in TYIVGB 217: 120
Largest TWIVGB month: July with 93
Shortest TWIVGB month: January with 42
Biggest single TWIVGB: Third week of July with 30
Shortest single TWIVGB: Second week of May with 8
For everyone’s information, the first thing I do is literally count of all the links just so I will have the above information available. At first, it was just so I could say how many links I went through in the roundup itself. Also, frankly, just a little bit of bragging. However, I later found it to be a great time planning tool.
I used to read everything that ended up in the roundups as they came out. It was something I just did and as a result, come the end of the year, I would have a memory of all that writing. I would be able to scan through the pieces, relying on my memory to do the heavy lifting. It sped up the process immensely. Last year, I stopped reading around July. This year I didn’t read any of it.
I had to read everything, every single word. I started Monday of the first full week of December and made it through a month a day over the course of two weeks. I stumbled a bit on the first weekend, but rallied and finished in time to take my birthday and Christmas off. This is the first time in 6 years I can say that.
Then the reader submissions came in on the 26th. We had some technical difficulties as all the Twitter recommendations were sent to one Google Doc and all the email suggestions sent to another. This is why I got rather panicky in the last few days running up to the submission deadline. I only saw 5 submissions and one of those was our test balloon to make sure the system worked. Once we figured that out, the next problem occurred when we copied over all of the links from one document to the other. There were over 330 links. I had three days to get through them. I nearly had a heart attack. It turned out that the email Google Doc was last year’s Google Doc and around 200 of those were from 2016. Cue relief.
I also want to mention that the call to video producers, specifically, to submit their work and the work of their friends for consideration went superbly well. The links in the Google doc are time stamped. You can see the instant change from article links to YouTube links from the day I posted the call. I learned of the existence of few more channels and at least one suggestion made it in to the final post. I look forward to digging deeper into those new to me channels.
I read through the lot in two days. Unfortunately, because of scheduling, my Skype call with editor-in-chief Zoya Street was going to happen just as I finished reading all the suggestions and compiling the ones I liked into the longlist. See this is a problem, because it usually takes me a full day to cut down what is an absurd number of links down to a manageable amount, closing in on the final tally. The process also allows me the time to look at the links again. Once a piece goes onto the longlist, I don’t look at it again. My judgment at the time is sufficient. However, I tend to forget what I put on the longlist and thus have to familiarize myself with all the candidates. I need to be able to quickly explain and if necessary defend any piece for its inclusion.
This call with the senior curator, as I’ve learned, is a super important part of the process. I cannot cut this down on my own. When you stare at a list of links long enough and understand the positive qualities of each one, you start getting mired in logical circles and end up accomplishing not much of anything. You become too invested in all of the links and don’t want to cut anything. The purpose of the call is to bring that outside perspective, that hasn’t been in the trenches with all this material for a month, and cut those final links. Also, we then sort the final list into an outline that’s ready to go.
I didn’t have time for any of that because we had scheduled the call for Thursday afternoon because Friday wasn’t free for what ends up being a rather long call. I only had a few hours before the call and I decided to spend that time roughly compiling all the links on similar topics together. So at least most of the outline work would be out of the way. Fun fact, I also had a “???” category for pieces where I had no clue how to categorize them. We’d end up discussing that as we parsed through the links.
The call went fine at first, but because most of the work was the initial culling, Zoya began succumbing to the justification problem I fall to and then we had no head curator to pull us out. When the head curator falls, what recourse is left? We adjured for the day and scheduled another call for Friday, a much shorter call. I had one hour.
I went to bed and the next morning got back to culling. The night’s sleep helped. Another 20 or so links down, but the best part of that was I knew which pieces I had questions about. We could dive right into being productive. I asked my questions, we debated the merits of not only the links themselves, but the direction certain portions of the roundup would go and what it would mean for the larger piece should this or that link remain or be removed.
For instance, you might notice a section on Ian Bogost’s piece about video games not need stories and how Ian’s piece is noticeable by its absence. We were looking for cuts and I asked if his initial pieces added anything by itself. We felt it did not. Ok that makes the consideration sound a lot simpler than it was, but you get what I mean.
On the other side of that coin was “Subnautica is Terrifying” by new YouTuber Ninox. I really liked it and held on for as long as possible to keep it in, but when it came down to the final stretch I was wary about unilaterally deciding it should go in. I explained this to Zoya and my paranoid concerns about including it. I liked it, he was a new YouTuber with virtually no subscribers or views and it wasn’t really on theme and he had his own personal storytelling like style of criticism and… Zoya just stopped me and said this sounded exactly like the type of work we want to highlight.
Even after all this time, or possibly because of the all the time I’ve been doing this, there comes an orthodoxy to my thinking. That “cliquish” mindset I was accused of by that Kotaku commenter still reigns somewhere in my mind. Ninox wasn’t established and as much as I like his work and want to spread his channel, I remained hesitant to do so here. It makes me wonder how many other choices were influenced by the author attached. It’s further complicated by the fact that in most casesI don’t know who them because I read in Instapaper and don’t check the byline until I’m typing and need to attribute the link.
It’s also why I’ve spent years running away labels, first from “definitive” and later from “best of.” Labels I cannot escape no matter how hard I try. I mentioned that we got a bunch of YouTube links from channels I had never seen or heard of before. Why does this video get in over any of them? Because it caught the curator’s eye, his personal taste? Is that fair?
I don’t know, but this question plagues me. Because it’s not just Ninox’s Subnautica video or even videos in general. It’s all of them. It comes down to the fundamental nature of such a project. Why choose anything over anything else?
Going all the way back to 2010, I can justify every single link I have ever included in TYIVGB. I cannot do the same for those left on the cutting room floor. Because I don’t remember them.
I run away from labels of “definitive” and “best” but I am ultimately canonizing what I choose. I smile when I look back and see how well I called what gets remembered. Do I have that right? Can anyone remember what isn’t allowed to be remembered? What isn’t preserved? What isn’t canonized?
There is a point in this project where I am forced to be cruel. I turn my heart to stone and click delete. Zoya can attest I apologized to each author as I deleted their entry.
My goal is to shoot for an under three digit count. That is never going to happen again. The saying goes that your writing is done when you can cut no more away. I think the same is true of TYIVGB. I still worry, because I don’t really know where that line is and where I’ve chosen to place that line may be too short.
Practically, 2016 was 107 links long, so I thought a count in the 120s was too high. But, thankfully, I looked up other years and found 2014 to be over 130. Precedent helps make decisions. It also perpetuates injustices.
So, we ordered the links into outline form, which includes not just categories, but also the order of the link’s individual appearances. Yes, there is thought put into that as well. Katherine Cross’ “The Art of the Real” was obvious introduction material given the roundup’s theme and Robert Yang’s “Against simpler times” had the absolute perfect final paragraph for the roundup, so much so I quoted it in full. Given what 2017 was about in broad terms and rise of modern fascism, love it or hate it, Wolfenstein II was the only choice for opening salvo. From there, it was a matter of having each subject lead into the next with whatever connection we could see.
Night in the Wood to Dream Daddy? One suburban game into another. Interactivity to VR? The final piece of the former category is about community regulations which lead into the first piece under VR which is about player consent. Prisons into Twitch? Ok that was a joke on my part given the nature of the Twitch articles.
There is something I tried to do for each and every category transition. It was more difficult in the long catalog of singular pieces headed under “Other 2017 Games” and “Older Games,” but I did the best I could. There is a connection between every single link, no matter how tenuous they may seem or, in fact, are. They do exist.
After that it was just a full day of writing. It’s a long, tedious process that has the complication of causing me worry that I’m becoming repetitive with the blurbs. A process made more arduous as I have to constantly stop writing and reread the pieces to makes sure I grab onto some essence that I can distill into just two or three lines. Some of the pieces I don’t have read much more than the introduction or conclusion to get the sense of what it’s about, some require a scanning of the whole thing for major points, some are super simple like the afore mentioned Robert Yang piece and some are so complex in their engagement with ideas that after fully reading it I still had no idea how to summarize them.
One example was the Chris Priestman’s “The Endless Light and Hunger of Cities in Games.” I remembered the part about the city being alive in Gravity Rush 2, but upon looking at it again it then continues on to become a survey of how cities are presented across several titles, engaging with the philosophies of modern living and how it affects our own thinking and rationalization about the world. How the hell do I condense that down? Another one was Daniel Joseph’s “Code of Conduct.” I knew it would pair well with “Valve is not your friend, and Steam is not healthy for gaming.” But unlike that one which was a straight examination of a single company’s behavior, Joseph’s piece was more about the concept of platforms themselves and what their very establishment means going forward both to the individual and society and again, how do I summarize something like that? Something that is more about ideas than a particular subject?
That’s at the far end of the complexity scale in creating the blurbs, but the explanation of what each piece is about is only one part of what I’m considering when writing them. I’m also thinking about other more basic things needed for each and every blurb. Yes, they have to explain what the piece is about, it also has to establish the piece’s stance, tone and approach in just the few words between attribution and explanation. Hence words like “writes,” “details,” “explains,” “explores,” etc. Each one denotes something different. Then there’s the fact I can’t have every one be [Name] [verb] [explanation]. That gets boring to read. I have to mix it up sometimes in different ways while still maintaining all the information it needs to deliver. But even more important, thanks to my new conception of TYIVGB as a whole, I have to do all of that in a way that ties the piece to the main theme, that the introduction established, in some way.
All of that, for every single blurb.
I guarantee I did not succeed.
Again, I want to apologize Zoya for the mess I handed you. At 2 am on December 31st, I legitimately thought it was good to go. I looked at the edits you made to just some of the blurbs and realized that was nowhere near the case. I feel like, to do justice to this feature, I need another day for editing. I just don’t know where it comes from.
Finally, the intro is something new for TYIVGB. Last year, I touched on the theme of the roundup as I saw it. It could charitably be called a setup. In the spirit of constant improvement, I wrote a more in depth introduction this year. Not just longer, but something more substantial. Maybe it was the year itself, but I could not let it pass without what I wrote being said. I felt that it was necessary to do justice to both the year and the work.
I knew what direction the feature would go as I was reading all the links in my initial foray through the weekly roundups. Viewed individually, there was nothing so starkly out there that it could not have easily slipped into the milieu of any other year. That, I think, says a lot about the awful consistency of so many evergreen topics. But when reading them, one after another after another for two weeks straight, you gain a different perspective.
All the little details in word choice, in stylistic affect, in the degree one pushes their point in piece after piece, create a composite that differentiates it from all the other years. It’s one aspect where the institutional memory granted by the same person doing it over a number of years is an overall positive. We’ve been saying everything is awful since at least 2013. Each year feels incumbent to top its predecessors.
As much as I had wanted these roundups first to be the best, then representative and now a snapshot, I feel something gets lost when paring down from the totality of all the writing. In a way, the introduction is to counteract that and properly put that discovered feeling back in.
It makes it easier to run away from those labels when I run towards a purpose. TYIVGB 2017 had a theme. It’s right there at the top. Were I to just simplify the theme to “defending truth, spreading wisdom” then sure, it would feel meaningless to individualize the year. But unlike 2015 or even 2016 where my framing was amateur and trite, I allowed the introduction to breath, to define what “defending truth, spreading wisdom” meant in the context of 2017.
I don’t know who it was, but I want to thank the person that sent in Katherine Cross’ piece. It’s only tangentially related to the world of games criticism, but I didn’t care. It was too perfect an encapsulation of the direction I wanted TYIVGB 2017 to be about.
If it wasn’t evident already, I think a lot about this. I could just not. I probably could get away with not thinking about it. I could slap it together in 3 days and be done. No one would call me on it and, if I’m being completely honest, I’m not sure anyone not looking behind the scenes would notice a change in quality. Make no mistake, there would be a drop in quality. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter if the thoughts one has about their work have an effect in any way for them to be meaningful. I like to think that having these thoughts held even in the back of one’s mind causes a care in appear in one’s efforts that improves the work.
Yet it doesn’t stop the worry. Maybe part of it is imposter syndrome and me constantly asking myself, “Who the hell am I to bring this judgment?” This is an abstract thought, because put me up against any of the naysayers that have come to me in the past and I can defend myself with my hard learned experience over their indignant guess work. But in the abstract, the question remains.
I am the only one doing this type work at the end of the year. More broadly, Critical Distance is the only entity doing this type of work at all. There were others that used to, but soon learned the awesome scale that the work entailed. Some folded under it, some pressed ahead. I hope Good Games Writing comes back some day. They may do things differently, but the more the better. Not just for the critical community as a whole or for the individual creators getting their work seen, but, selfishly, for my own piece of mind.
I don’t want to be THE authority. I’d rather be AN authority. I think I’ve put the time in for that small concession no matter what my brain tells me. In lieu of that, maybe I should at least be questioned about what I did. TYIVGB is as much a work as any other writing, yet, ironically, it goes uncriticized.
I don’t mean questions of “why didn’t my piece get in?” I’ve had those in the past and what can I do but ignore them. What I mean are challenges to my thinking, or broader choices I made examined in the light of what does exist. THE authority is bad enough. The Unquestioned authority, I think, goes against everything I tried to establish about 2017’s TYIVGB.
Honestly, there are times when I feel rather shocked that I’m still allowed to do this, which, in turn, leads to thoughts of ‘what would happen if I stopped doing it?’ Would someone pick up the torch and continue on? Would anyone else be able to or willing to put in the work if I did? Or is this project just intrinsically tied to me? Whether because of orthodox thinking (Eric’s always done it) or just that no one is willing to give up an entire month to accomplish it?
When we at Critical Distance discuss scheduling and resource allotments and all that other boring stuff that makes the wheels go round, so much of what I question is just taken as a given by everyone else. The fact that there would be an end of year round up, that it will be based on the TWIVGB roundups, that I’ll do it, that I’ll do it alone for the most part, that reader suggestions will be solicited, that my decisions on the longlist are law…so many things just taken for granted. I can’t help but think that’s because it’s a massive amount of work and everyone else is thankful that someone else is doing it.
That’s enough negativity for now. Despite my running thoughts it seems to be another big success, if how many times it had been shared around Twitter is any indication. I’m also wondering if it would be gauche to notify some of the people not as plugged in to the wider critical community and may not realize their work was included that they were included. Maybe they know and they’re privately happy. Not everyone constantly chatters on Twitter. Yeah, I think I’ll leave it be for now.
In short, I’ve reached a point of stability with the TYIVGB process. There were no big changes made to the methodology, style/structure of the post itself or the ideological concept behind the process from 2016. Just a practiced refinement so that none of it costs me my health. It used to take me days to recover. I was ready to do the next thing before the New Year’s ball dropped. I’m happy with where the feature is. Or at least that’s what I say now. That’s probably what I told myself after each of the other roundups. Who knows where my thinking will be in a few years time.