Future-proofing Critical Distance

criticaldistance_kotrt_newI was speaking with one of my favorite game critics the other night. He told me, wistfully, of how proud he was of his most popular article to date, and how he wished he could take credit for it — but he couldn’t, because he’d face untold harassment.

This is sadly common. Every writer I’ve known who has signed their name to a deeply personal piece of writing — especially if it’s an account of the harm they’ve experienced in life — has faced no end of online abuse for doing so. They also seem to get pigeonholed, shut out from being known for any of their other contributions to become, instead, that one who wrote that one thing. The latter might be natural of how we process microcelebrity within our incredibly niche sphere of writing but it’s unfortunate and frankly awful all the same, and taken together with the former, it poses huge risks and endless disappointment for writers no matter if they sign their work or don’t.

(This is not, I should add, some impassioned defense of “confessional writing” or whatever semi-pejorative you wish to drum up. My stance at Critical Distance has always been that we welcome all kinds of critical games writing and commentary, which is great, because what we receive each week is always richly diverse. This here is decrying the fact we can’t seem to talk about assault, sexism, racism, harassment and so on without the writers inviting those same things upon their head, as though the universe decided it must prove a point.

Anyway,)

I wanted to tell this critic friend that “some day things will be better.” That some day we will grow out of fouling up comments sections and hurling abuse over social media. But I doubted it would happen within the lifetime of this present games crit ecosystem of ours.

Meanwhile, we’ve all seen what the ephemeral nature of the web does to the critical writing that already exists. Check out all the 404s this (quite well intended and lovely) Twitter bot has drudged up, just by going through Critical Distance’s archives. A former colleague of mine, Mark Filipowich, blogged recently about this as well. The longer C-D goes on, the worse this problem is going to get.

At that moment I imagined my critic friend’s work not only never seeing proper attribution, but evaporating into the digital ether when the site which hosts it dies, or moves, or revamps. Not only was it all but certain we wouldn’t be around in time to see a web readership that could treat his brave words with the respect they deserved, it was a pretty sure thing even the words themselves won’t outlast us.

It’s been proposed a few times now that Critical Distance create some sort of anthology, and I’ve always been a little resistant to the idea. Obtaining the rights would be such a headache, I told people. Organizing, doing the layouts, motivating volunteers, going through the endless debates of how long and which pieces and do we want to do a print version… It’s hard enough to do that sort of thing without distraction; it’s an unimaginable drain on your energy when you have a full-time job on top of that.

But this needs to happen. I’m convinced of this now. We need to do something to preserve some of this writing before it vanishes.

And there are other projects Critical Distance needs to get a move on as well: more Critical Compilations (we welcome your pitches!), an updated search engine, more foreign language coverage, new podcasts, cross referenced tagging system, resources for new writers. These are all things we’ve discussed (and continue to work on) behind the scenes, but it’s slow going. We’re a completely volunteer outfit, most of us work, and all of us find our free time in short supply.

There’ve been suggestions for how to help remedy that too, of course. I’m not going to launch into proposals for those today, but they should sound familiar: tip jar buttons, subscriptions, funding drives, etc. Frankly I’m a leery of asking for money until I send out the remaining backer rewards for my GDC trip — those are still coming, I promise — so don’t expect to see C-D rattling a coin jar in your face in the immediate future, but still. This is something we need to address, if we’re going to be able to commit the human resources to seeing these projects happen.

Please note this is not saying Critical Distance is in jeopardy of shutting down. Ben and I have enough worked out between us that we’re pretty sure we can sustain the site for quite a while. I’m talking about expansions only here. Mind you, I think some of them are pretty necessary — post tagging and the anthology in particular. Especially the anthology. If we even print one copy and bury it in a time capsule somewhere, I want this work to survive. It’s the least we owe these writers.

(No, I am not actually suggesting we print out a single copy and bury it somewhere.)

So, there you have it. Someway, somehow, this is a thing I want to see happen. When Ben handed Critical Distance off to me in 2011 I was mostly concerned with just following on the path already set out ahead of me. Now I have worked on the site nearly as long as Ben has — hard as that is to imagine for me, still — and it feels like it’s time for the site to start growing up. After all, it’s here to outlive us both.

Animal Crossing QR Code Geekery, Part 2

While I cast about for the time to work on some more of my own designs, I thought I’d share a few of the outfits I’ve been enjoying from other ACNL creators.

You can click on each image to be sent to the source page for the full set of QR codes and more of the artist’s work. Which you should do, by the way.

Utena Tenjou and Anthy Himemiya’s outfits from Revolutionary Girl Utena
(found via Anne Lee)

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Rapunzel from Tangled

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Shingeki no Kyojin uniforms HECK YEAH

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*Mute’s hanbok and *Hyun-ae’s school uniform from Analogue: A Hate Story
(found via Christine Love)

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School uniforms from Persona 3 and Persona 4

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Various traditional East Asian attire (mostly kimono and hanbok) and riffs thereon

by Hiyoko (found via Anne Lee):

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by merongcrossing:

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by yaenomuteki (warning: some designs on the blog might be considered a bit risque):

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found via newleaf-fashion:

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(attribution needed)

from cocoa82551:

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Other outfits and costumes

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For all your grimdark roleplaying needs

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Animal Crossing QR Code Geekery, Part 1

Quick post, and the first of several, I hope. If you’ve been reading me on Twitter you know that I am a teensy bit obsessed with Animal Crossing: New Leaf. I’ve been happily designing little outfits for my mayor since I discovered the option to do so, and now that I’ve unlocked the QR Printer at Able Sisters, well!

So, in honor of Tron Day, have a bit of Tron Couture, plus a Sailor Moon fuku and a (completely unisex!) TNG Starfleet miniskirt.

“Tron Couture”
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Sailor Moon serafuku
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Unisex Starfleet Miniskirt (Command, TNG)
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Also, if you’re looking for more ACNL QR designs, I highly recommend the stuff Anne Lee has been curating! I’m currently wearing one of the summer yukata featured here.

So, Gamasutra

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When I went to GDC in March I gave myself an ultimatum: I needed to find a job while I was there, or I would surely die.

Hyperbole aside, I really did need a new job. I’d been a moderator at a kids’ game for over three years, and although I’d been promoted twice, the time commitment versus the pay was terrible, and every shift left me feeling emotionally wrecked. The kids were terrible. Though my immediate superior and the coworkers I interacted with most were great, everyone else was a nightmare. And did I mention the pay?

It’s funny. I don’t consider myself particularly money-obsessed. I laugh at people who are. Look how frivolous you’re acting. But as a professor of mine might say, money is a game that’s very hard to quit playing. I had gone to GDC on others’ dime and unless I wanted to be faced with the same situation year after year, I had to improve my own take. Just a bit of breathing room would be fine. Nothing special. Just enough to live without constant anxiety attacks would be nice.

I didn’t, incidentally, come away from GDC with a job. I stopped by the career pavilion once, saw the lines of desperate fresh-faced college grads queuing at every booth, and turned around. I’m still using all the wasted resumes I printed as scratch paper.

The first few days back at home were demoralizing. I had had a great time, and met plenty of wonderful people, and Terry Cavanagh even borrowed my eyepatch. But I’d surely squandered all the hard-earned money everyone had given me through the GoFundMe campaign. I was a failure. I’d be working at this kid’s game until the studio went belly-up, which was probably soon, because for as much as I liked my manager I can’t at all sugarcoat how terribly the thing was run from the top down. I was preparing to ask my surrogate family if I could move back in with them.

Then about a week later, this happened.

I’m happy to report that I’ve been able to leave my moderation job and work solely for Gamasutra. It took a few weeks to get everything ironed out — at one point I was working 13 hour days working both jobs at once — but now things are laid back and happy and for the first time in my life, I don’t feel like a hostage to my employer. I don’t have to worry about not making rent in a given month because I’m too sick to work one day out of seven. I don’t have to drive myself ragged for a few extra cents worth of overtime.

There are other perks too. Psychological benefits mostly — and I don’t mean in the cheap corporate sense, but the actual good the Gamasutra job seems to be doing for my emotional health. I’m not used to a work environment I look forward to coming into each day, as I do with Gama. I’m not used to all these foreign concepts like supportive coworkers and weekends off.

I know, this is the sort of stuff a lot of white collar folks take for granted. It’s no doubt becoming increasingly uncommon, though, and I will never let go of how freaking privileged I am to have a job right now, to say nothing of one I actually enjoy. I’m not here to brag. Just express my thanks.

Thanks, everyone, who sent me to GDC. I accomplished what I set out to do and more, not in the way I expected to, but totally sideways and weird and much more gratifying, in the end.

Also, I highly recommend having an editor with the same first name as you, as it allows one to say things like “Yeah, Kris is a great editor.” No, that will never stop entertaining me. If I wasn’t easily amused I wouldn’t be such a Twitter addict.

(Finally: yes, I know I still owe plenty of people donor rewards, and yes, they’re coming! Now that I’m finally adjusting to the rhythm of the Gama job, I expect I can follow up on these things soon. In the meantime, there are always photos of my cat.)

So, GDC

I have met half the internet. It is all real. All of it.

Because if you can’t save yourself, how in the hell are you gonna save somebody else?

I’ve never been a big fan of male Commander Shepard for various reasons. He’s just not pretty enough! But if RuPaul’s Drag Race and Drag U have taught me anything, it’s there is no such thing as a face so homely a bit of contouring couldn’t help. You know what RuPaul would say to Mass Effect‘s character editor?

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And thus RuPaul Charles Shepard was born.

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Covergirl! Put that bass in your walk.

Covergirl! Put that bass in your walk.

If you want a RuPaul Shepard of your very own, here’s the Mass Effect 3 character ID: 111.17F.GGE.151.IHN.WBE.5H1.841.WH8.G98.223.6

I’m a big fan of your private tragedy

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Anyone can tell you that ambient dialogue is often a high point of exploring some of these big RPGs out there nowadays. BioWare is habitually the go-to for this, although I find some of the conversations you can listen in on in Obsidian and Bethesda games just as pleasurable. If my finances ever do a 180 and I find myself in a position to pick up Dishonored, I’ll likely say the same about it as well.

But (arguably) stealth games like Dishonored, Alpha Protocol and the like take a rather explicit and perverse pleasure in voyeurism. Listening in on people’s unguarded moments is just what those games are for, inasmuch as they are ‘for’ anything. It’s not quite the case in something like a Mass Effect or Elder Scrolls, where supposedly some manner of upholding social norms ought to be honored. Unless I’m playing as a thief in, say, Skyrim, or I’m going through one of the rare missions in among the whole Dragon Effect pantheon which accommodates and rewards stealth (the “Arrival” DLC for Mass Effect 2 for example, though the chapter’s resolution is otherwise so frustrating I usually just don’t bother installing it), being an eavesdropper tends to make me feel even more morally transgressive than if I just walked right up and knifed the poor chatty bastards.

Yet I can’t help it.

Lately I’ve been replaying Mass Effect 3, my first time in doing so since putting the franchise to bed after the whole tedious ending controversy last year. I’m revisiting it now so that I can be up to speed for the upcoming “Citadel” DLC, which sounds like a gigantic BioWare fanwank if ever it existed, and damned but I’m still a sucker for that anyway. What I’m noticing are principally two things:

1) They foreground the “unacceptable” original downer ending more than I ever remembered. Characters are constantly reminding you that you need to reevaluate what a “positive resolution” looks like. My favorite illustration of this came from an exchange on the Normandy right after you pick up (ahem) Garrus. Lightly paraphrased:

“When turians go to war, if even a single soldier survives, we say that it was worth it. But humans want to save everyone.”

But everyone and their mom has written about the game’s ending at this point, so I won’t launch into another essay on that. I just find it perfectly encapsulates what I’ve felt about the game from the start.

2) The Citadel is like a sandbox of tragedy porn.

Now, this is nothing new for the franchise either: Mass Effect 2 flirted heavily with representations of a post-9/11 security-obsessed society, and also memorably poked fun at its incompetence. But the Citadel of Mass Effect 3 is a bottomless pit of anxiety, grief, and diasporic despair. The relatively privileged folks of the Presidium worry about the ethics of war profiteering, but the refugees of Dock E24 walk around in a daze, huddle around photo-filled walls of the dead and missing, languish on the stretchers of emergency triages.

In some ways it feels like Mass Effect did its 9/11 motif in reverse order: first it described the security theater in a “war on terror” world, then it scaled back to the imagery of tragedy we collectively recall as inspiring all that rhetoric.

Dock E24 is my favorite location on the Citadel. It’s depressing. It’s raw. It feels hopeless. But then you wander around for a bit. You see a batarian wrapping his arm around a sobbing human companion, where just a couple years ago these two species were (and to a large extent still are) at each other’s throats. You find Garrus arranging for supplies for his people’s wounded. And you see a lost human girl who’s wandered up to a C-Sec information desk because she doesn’t know where else to go.

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This is my favorite set of ambient interactions in the entire game. I found out yesterday they were written by Ann Lemay, which figures, because she’s brilliant. Here you have a turian C-Sec officer, every grizzled cop archetype in the book, finding himself at a loss trying to help a recently orphaned, and fairly naive, human teenager who has crawled her way into his heart (whether he appreciates it or not).

It’s so tender and sweet, and perfectly sums up what I love about the Citadel writing for Mass Effect 3: even these relationships which exist in the backdrop of this entire cataclysmic event are still developing, precious things. It reminds me how little Shepard actually matters. Oh sure, she’s the one who’s asked to pull the switch at the end, but she’s hardly the only one with a life going on. If anything, I find it tremendously reassuring that other people’s lives in this big squishy sci-fi universe don’t begin and end where the player’s path intersects theirs.

(This is something I adore about Jacob too, by the way. He has adventures of his own; he doesn’t need Shepard to start and stop him like an automaton. But I’ve grown to accept that virtually no one in the universe likes Jacob except me. Siiiigh.)

The inverse of this all is, well, why am I so enthusiastic to discover other characters have their own arcs, the bulk of which I will never get to see? Why should I cheer for the C-Sec officer and the lost girl, instead of feeling ashamed that I’m continually racing my Shepard back and forth behind them to hear more snippets of their conversation? The poor girl lost her parents, and my heart can only swell for the beautiful friendship I’m seeing (rather, hearing) develop. If these talking heads were cognizant of their surroundings they’d start yelling at Shepard for being some kind of a weird pervert.

But that’s the particular cognitive dissonance of these games, I suppose. (Not ludonarrative dissonance, I should add, which is a term so many critics get so desperately wrong I’ve all but banned its inclusion in TWIVGB– but more on that in another post.) These are games where engaging in social systems (dialogue, diplomacy, compromise) are at least as significant a series feature as all the runny-shooty stuff, but transgressing some of those unspoken systems –namely, what not to ask, and where not to listen in– largely gets a free pass. These are games about interacting with people, but we’re never exactly punished if our interactions are more in line with those of a sociopath. (See also: Kim Moss’s post on BioWare’s romantic Nice Guy syndrome.)

So I feel left in this awkward moral limbo, as a consumer who eats up the private melodramas these incidental dialogues shoot forth into the ether, but also as someone interested in seeing how games can reflect or deconstruct real-world systems. It didn’t take me more than a half-second to lavish some excited praise for Ann’s work over Twitter, and I do not believe this praise is anything but well-deserved –these little moments can often be what really sells a fan on a game, and rightly so, I think– but it strikes me as a little funny that I should latch onto this set of ambient dialogue, of everything in Ann’s considerable portfolio. Thank you for writing a great moment of private loss and desperation! I loved eavesdropping on it!

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Yeah. Well, it could be argued this is what a lot entertainment boils down to: looking in on the lives of others. But games are unique in the way they make us an active participant in that process. Or another way of putting it is: linear media assumes our curiosity, while interactive media invites it, and (generally, but not always) rewards it. The interesting thing is when you map that invitation to curiosity onto social structures that are designed to discourage too much interest– like what we learn or don’t learn about other people.

It’s definitely not a situation unique to BioWare’s games in any way –hell, this probably goes back to Night Trap, if not much, much earlier– but certainly something that’s been turning around in my head recently, what with replaying ME3 as well as Dragon Age: Origins earlier this month. It’s also something I’ve been thinking about with respect to the game I’ve been writing, Stargazer Pavilion… but more on that another time.

Anyway, it should be said I am definitely looking forward to the “Citadel” DLC on March 5th, and inasmuch as I don’t believe AAA games are the be-all and end-all of what games can be or are, I adore the richness of Mass Effect‘s world, and I admire all the work that has gone into making it that rich. Especially the little things. I daresay it’s always been about them.

A note about my GoFundMe drive

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I’ve made the decision to shut down my GoFundMe drive by February 13th (coincidentally, also Jason’s birthday).

We have had a really successful run, certainly raising far more than I ever expected– at present the drive sits at a total of $2,547.00, over $800 more than our original target. And that’s amazing! I really want to thank everyone again for all your support, and I’m starting work on all the rewards very soon.

Donors who paid for the Caturday tier or above are already receiving their rewards, with a minimum of one new Jason photo posted to Facebook and Twitter every Saturday. Which, well, I would probably do anyway, but this way I take extra care to make them well-lit and interesting. (I’m still confined by the fact my only camera is my phone and it sucks for this purpose, but barring doing another funding drive to buy a proper camera, well…)

Donors of the Cat Tracks level and above: unfortunately, Jason seems to clam up whenever I turn a mic on her, so I’m looking into alternatives. Right now I am thinking of small videos using Twitter’s new Vine service, which may or may not involve mewing. I’ll be contacting Cat Tracks+ donors by email soon to get in touch with you about this.

And as for the single Cat Games level donor, David Carlton (who has been an amazing source of support throughout this, providing feedback and signalboosting as well as his generous donation), your incredibly deep, dare I say profound, Twine game is also coming soon!

Again, I’m just completely floored by the amount of support that everyone has shown. If you were still planning to donate, or increase your current donation, you will have until February 13th to do so. Otherwise, I’ll be seeing many of you this March in San Francisco!

Well played, Internet.

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That’s it. The Internet is officially over. We can all go home now.

Gone Funded Me

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So, this was a thing.

I was expecting, by today, to be doing a blog post in which I urgently requested my readers to take some time out of their day to look over my GoFundMe page and consider kicking in a dollar or two toward my trip to GDC, which in addition to being something of a game journo/dev Mecca also offers a pretty big career opportunity for me, as an MMO community lead wanting to work on Some Game Other Than The One For Which I Currently Work. I was expecting to get maybe 50 dollars or, at best, barely squeak by with enough donations to cover the wages I would lose out during my days on the road… I certainly wasn’t expecting to completely meet our funding target in less than 24 hours, or for the outpouring of support from friends and colleagues even after that to help improve the quality of the trip, work off Jason’s vet bills and make the conditions under which I work and try to make time for Critical Distance a little bit easier to bear. The last couple days have been nothing short of stunning and the words do not exist to adequately express my gratitude.

So I’ll try large fonts.

THANK YOU!

Critical Distance alum and very generous supporter David Carlton has written up a post making his case for why it would be nice if we can continue to see donations come in on the funding drive. The trip will likely be more expensive than I’ve budgeted and there are a lot of outstanding financial issues beyond the scope of the conference in March for which I would deeply appreciate the helping hand.

Recently I was denied for food stamps. This was the second time that I’ve applied and been rejected, and neither query was made as a spur-of-the-moment thing. My student loan repayment bills are starting to come in. My insurance has rejected every claim to help me cover desperately needed medical costs and recently I was hit with yet another large charge for unmade payments to one of my care providers. No matter how I run the numbers or how much I tighten my belt (and it’s quite tight- I’m averaging three days between solid meals and for as much as I could probably do with some dieting, that isn’t how steady weight loss works), I am just not earning the money I need to be making if I want to keep living in my current place, receiving the care and paying for the medication I need to keep functioning… far less run a volunteer operation like Critical Distance on the side. I’ve been looking into moving up to the San Francisco Bay Area for a while now but though I have a few friends up there with whom I’ve discussed getting a place together nothing has yet gelled, and even if it did, I couldn’t afford the moving costs. It’s really about as stuck in a rut as it’s possible to get.

I’m not by any means asking to be lifted wholesale out of my present situation and exonerated from all responsibility, financial or otherwise. I believe in hard work (I think you’ll find most people do) and in climbing out of whatever pit into which I’ve dug myself. Even sharing the details of my current hardship goes against everything I was brought up to believe was appropriate: talking about money is gauche, talking about not having it is humiliating, and so on and so forth. It was difficult to set up something like a funding drive. In fact, not even 12 hours prior to posting it I was having a backroom panic about needing to quit C-D, leave my current social circles, and, as these things go when one has a mental illness, take more drastic actions with myself… So the fact that we made our funding target so quickly only shows me that a great many people –friends, colleagues, readers, even total strangers– already sympathize with what I’m going through and know that this isn’t the equivalent of asking for a handout. And for that, I am extremely grateful.

Any support I receive from here on out is definitely a bonus, much-needed and deeply welcome, and if you will take the time to consider sending a little bit of cash my way on top of the amount that has already been raised I can promise you that it will be put to good use. I am thankful to all the support you have given me so far, whether in the form of a donation or sharing the link or just offering your moral support. It has all been wonderful. And I can’t wait to meet so many of you in March.

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