In the run up to Critical Distance’s annual end of year podcast I was under instruction to shrink it by whatever means necessary. No one was in the mood for another 7-9 hours recording session and as the date came closer I was in no mood to edit one. I cut down the events list by merging items and collectively we knocked off most of the inconsequential stuff. As for games, I culled the full list of releases I keep throughout the year and decided for us to only talk about the top 13 most talked about games. In the end, that idea got shelved and before recording we inserted games we felt we could talk about into the events list and took it from there.
I still have that top 13 most talked about or rather critically written about games of 2013 and thought, as an exercise, might as well release it with some observations and musings on their place and the direction of the conversation in general. And because I’ll end up saying it later, so might as well address it now, this is from my particular vantage point as a Critical Distance editor who is often (though jokingly) called the librarian of games criticism. It comes from my (as much as possible) bird’s eye view. It comes from my refreshed memory in our overview of the year in criticism. And from my seeming to have little worth other than position as an archivist.
That out of the way, I asked and exactly one person responded, so we’re doing this from most talked about to least talked about rather than chronological order. Also, I’m going to be referencing general numerical positioning. I didn’t do a hard count and don’t really care. Understand that and take my approximations for what they’re worth.
This should surprise absolutely no one. More digital ink has been spilled on from what I can gather, having not yet played it and generally kept myself in the dark until the 11th hour of 2013, was an absolute mess of a game. I have a word document about 5 pages long of nothing but links I have to get to at some point. But despite all of the talk, nearly every single piece was about one of two aspects. The racism and the shooting.
I don’t find fault with talking about either aspect, especially with how prominent they are in the game, but like with all things that are true and real to life as represented in art, they were focused on en mass to the exclusion of every other consideration the game might have. An odd state of affairs.
People say art doesn’t move my generation anymore. Movies were show in the 1920s that caused people to burn down theaters. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring sparked a riot in 1913 before the performance had ended. Venom and Eternity caused riots at the Cannes Film Festival in 1952. For good or ill, the rage engendered by this game proves otherwise. Pity it seems like it was for the wrong reasons.
As almost a direct counter, in second place we have a 4-person freshman indie game from The Fullbright Company. Which, by the way, also had the broadest range of approaches and topics of any game on this list. From tone, to teenage verisimilitude, to LGBT story authenticity, to form, to tropes, to design, to industry speculation, to posts about a light bulb and one about an ornamental duck. This game has writing about whatever you could want about. And yet I still feel like there are some things still yet to be said.
That’s a critical success story. However, since I’m comparing. Gone Home is about the halfway to three-fifths mark compared to Bioshock Infinite’s list of links.
Grand Theft Auto V
I blame its position on the game’s late in the year release date. Don’t get me wrong, this was talked about. It’s right behind Gone Home in volume. As uniform as most of the criticism of GTA5 is, there is a bit of variety to what is being talked about. There are even some (not many) dissenters from the critical consensus. That’s more of a win than Bioshock Infinite can claim.
Most of the writing concerns that overall feel of the game rather than specific story points of elements that games of this type used to get. And that’s from people who liked it. Even the general public seemed unable to grasp what they had on their hands.
Yeah, I got nothing else.
The Last of Us
Another AAA combat heavy game near the top of most discussed games of year, say it isn’t so. The Last of Us is interesting because despite coming out in a time of year where it was virtually unopposed, the criticism didn’t flood in like a cresting wave. The bump at the beginning was small and then there was a constant trickle.
And unlike other games, The Last of Us doesn’t really have any central theme to all of the criticism. Nothing that really gives and idea of where people were with this game. You either loved it or were just meh about it. No one seemed to really hated it. Those who didn’t like it, just couldn’t get all that bothered by it.
It also means that thanks to the constant trickle of discussion I was forced to continually think about the game over the course of the year and not just give it up when I wanted to move on to other things.
This game would be higher if I counted all the writing about it in 2012 thanks to some really ill conceived comments executive producer Ron Rosenberg. A lot of the posts were about finally passing judgments in light of his comments and that scene. A lot more were about the game as a reboot in general, waxing nostalgic over the series as a whole and the update the franchise has received.
We knew the type of posts this game was going to get and it was only a matter of whether or not the thumbs would be up or down.
I did a double take when I saw how much there was on Papers, Please. If I want to talk trends in the writing about it, then nearly every piece uses the same two examples from early on in the game. I was beginning to wonder if anyone made it past day 7. There were a large number of small narratives both one off and continuing throughout the game’s 30 day running time and everyone focused on the sex trafficker and the husband and wife duo. They are adequate examples for understanding the basics of what the game is trying to accomplish, but in using them exclusively it seems few people were willing to go more in depth about the specifics of what the game was saying. The details were lost for a focus on the overall.
Two words: online service. Yes, we saw a small handful of posts talking about design of this or that, but the writing was all about the poor online infrastructure and EA going “nuh-uh.”
This game got more words before it was released than it did afterwards. And it was all about the art. The artist himself didn’t help the game’s case any. After all the who-ha I had actually forgotten this had come out this year. The mainstream press apparently liked it, but I don’t remember it having much sticking power. People didn’t talk about it, people didn’t write about it. It was on store shelves and everybody shut up about it.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf
Blame twitter for this one. On release the game got little to no posts upon release, but the constant twitter barrage about this game meant someone was going to take notice sooner or later. In fact, most of the writing was about the community fostered by the game rather than anything structural about the game itself. From digital slave markets to two person plays.
I checked out, because the town is so personal to each player and if you aren’t invested in the idea by playing, it’s difficult to get invested at all.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
Kris asked me if we really did get a lot of pieces on this. To be honest we did, relatively. But it was in the middle of the drop off. It started right after Tomb Raider. Previously, I could scoop out links by the handful before, now it really becomes a wishy washy number game. Brothers got some posts about it, one here, two there, skip a couple a weeks and another one comes in. A lot of the discussion was on podcasts. Most of it about the design or the game’s development history. I think there was a post about the gender politics and then I wrote a thing on its camera. There’s a lot to discuss, but I don’t think people are willing to write single element pieces anymore. That’s really what this type of game is, a game that sort of needs to be talked about regarding the execution of its elements.
Saints Row IV
Yeah this was pretty out of nowhere for everyone. I saw it behind closed doors at PAX East and I thought it looked fun, but smart I didn’t see coming. Though most of the chat came over twitter with people expressing just that surprise at the title. Writing on it was rather scarce in comparison to its AAA brethren. Maybe satire is ruined if you explain the joke or maybe most just didn’t want to say anything. The lack of content on this one is rather head scratching to me. Not as many comparison pieces between it and GTA5 as I thought there would be. A least not in posts and articles.
Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs
Haven’t played it, haven’t read the pieces to prevent spoilers. From scanning, most look at the game from its outgrowth of Frictional Games and The Chinese Room’s past work.
And now we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel. I don’t mean in quality, I mean in quantity. I chose Remember Me because I could remember the pieces written about it off the top of my head. Honestly, if I double checked I could put half a dozen different games with just as many posts written about them in this spot. After Remember Me the drop off is complete. As a whole, few games from 2013 really got talked about at all. Some got a post here or a post there. Maybe some were lucky like Remember Me and got enough for a full hand count. Critical discourse was mired for most of the year. Unless the game was on this list, it didn’t really get its day in court.
It’s not sad that Bioshock Infinite was far and away the most talked about game. What’s sad was how repetitious it all was. A lot of people talk about how we have to get a plurality of voices into the conversation for new perspectives. In putting that to the test, all those voices chose to say the same thing anyway.
I’m not going to claim that writing about one game precludes a critic’s ability to write about another as well. Not as an absolute. But it didn’t help. I have never seen such a drop off like this in the half decade I’ve been doing this. I look at the totality of my massive release list and wonder about how so many games got so little writing about them, so little thought, so little variety, everything in lock step.
Then I think about all the energy wasted on pissing arguments that no one can remember. I had a little spiel ready if anyone asked me why certain discussions weren’t represented in the year end round up. There were 3-4 massive ones throughout the year and almost without exception I consider every single one of them a gaggle of poorly conceived, poorly argued and poorly written posts that a month later no one remembered. And guess what, I was right. Not a peep about any of them.
I look back on that and on this and I shake my head. It’s not universal, but still I am a little angry at the plurality of it all. The land grab is over, welcome to the Kansas homestead burnings. I chose the number 13 as a thing because of the year and I could barely fill the list.
Maybe 2013 really was that weak a year.
Honorable substitutes (games that could have swapped for Remember Me): Kentucky Route Zero, Beyond: Two Souls, The Swapper, The Stanley Parable.