Author Archives: Kris Ligman

Senior Editor for Critical Distance. Newsie for Gamasutra. Opinions expressed here are unfortunately my own.

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On catching fire in the upper atmosphere


I marched with the Writers Guild in 2007.

The WGA, as you might remember, was striking over unfair credit and compensation practices in the television industry, in particular with respect to web media, which at the time was only just getting going in earnest. There was a huge furor about it. Rallies in downtown Los Angeles. Charity benefits. Thinkpiece after thinkpiece.

I wasn’t a member of the WGA and at that point in my education at UCLA’s film school, I didn’t have any plans to join it. I was already writing a thesis on game audiences by then (“oh Kris,” my professors said at the time, “who would ever watch someone else play a game?”), but even among the more screenwriting-inclined of my class, there wasn’t much interest in attending the marches. I only found like-minded classmates among the graduate division, who thought of me as a child, rather understandably.

Still, I went. I marched, I chanted. I took a friend to one of the charity benefits. I have a button.

The marches did next to nothing for the WGA’s membership. When the strike ended, the terms were barely different than they were before. But it drove two things home for me:

1. There is a tremendous cultural inertia that denigrates the work of writers, in any media, such that writers themselves will joke about being worthless and accepting terrible terms (which they ended up doing).

2. The old media dinosaurs may be on their way out, but that doesn’t benefit our current stock of creatives — we’re the generation caught in the middle, and even if a few get lucky, most won’t.

Samantha Allen — whom I admire greatly — wrote a post tonight calling writers like us “comets.” We burn brightly, but quickly; our light is the result of brutal conditions which may create our best work, but will ultimately destroy us.

I can say only that I don’t feel very destroyed. Not even, dare I say, curtailed. What has happened in the last 48 hours or so has come at the end of a long internal debate and discussion with a therapist, and in the end, if this is destruction, I chose it.

I could have retracted the statements I tweeted in anger, but I didn’t and I won’t. I might believe some of it was poorly worded, and I can agree it no doubt hurt individuals who might otherwise have ranked among my peers. It’s even possible that in the midst of my anger I’ve cast all this in a far more dire light than was needed, and by doing so some of my former colleagues may feel betrayed or alienated. I can acknowledge all of this, mourn the fallout for it and still hold fast to the truth at the crux of what I said: that this industry favors the old guard even as it lays dying, and I won’t feel sorry for myself for not managing to cling to its side any longer.

I am going to stop using my main Twitter account as an all-purpose feed and focus it toward game-related things only. It has a decent following and I’d like to use that to continue to reach people. My personal thoughts and stuff related to my creative writing projects I’ll take to a different account.

(I’ve gone ahead and followed most of the individuals with whom I had a friendly rapport on @KrisLigman, so I’d be honored if you followed the new account if you happen to notice it. But it’s not obligatory.)

This will also not affect Critical Distance, for which I will remain senior curator until I feel like I’m not doing an adequate job anymore. When that happens, barring some unforeseen catastrophe I’ll commit myself to properly finding and training a replacement. We’ll also work out what to do with the Patreon, if it’s still going by then.

I am proud of the outpouring of support for struggling writers that has happened in the last two days and as much as I can I will keep signal-boosting it. However, it’s like I said on Twitter, and as many others have said before or since: the bottom of Patreon is going to fall out eventually, and what will be there to catch our fall, who knows.

I think, if we want to be smart about our situation, we need to think of ourselves less like comets and more like meteorites: we have survived entering a hostile atmosphere — not unscathed, but intact enough to reach the earth — and now we have landed. Perhaps not gently, but we’re here and the gravity is probably enough to keep us grounded. What now? How do we survive this world that just tore most of who we are into dust and a brief spot of light?

What I am saying is that it might be prudent to think of contingencies for that post-industry, post-Patreon world. Not because we’re somehow morally required to (how that would work I don’t know, but more than one conservative politician seems to believe it), but because if history is any indicator, no one else will. We’re already “moochers” and “unnecessary people” just by dint of being broke and writers, so what is next for us, besides coming up with our own solution? By that I mean, something more fulfilling than diving headlong into some minimum wage job and leaving our urge to write and discuss behind us forever.

I suck at utopianism so I don’t know what that better world would look like. What I do know is that I’ve fallen, burned up and crashed, but I’m still here. Which is more than I might’ve expected, after all that bother. And it’s a good place to start.

About abusive friendships

From MOCA's Art in the Streets exhibit (2011). Photo credit: yours truly.

From MOCA’s Art in the Streets exhibit (2011). Photo credit: yours truly.

There is a name I can’t speak.

It burns and contorts my tongue when I think of it. This guy. Formerly my friend. Nowadays, if I name him at all, it’s as ‘my abuser.’

I mute his name on all my social media, I’ve delisted his sites from my RSS reader, I close pages where his work appears. Even seeing his initials, sometimes, produces the sensation of cold wrought iron fingers closing around my throat.

I don’t know how to describe these reactions except as a form of PTSD. When I’m reminded he exists, I start to shut down mentally, emotionally, physically. I can’t do my work or, on the weekends, like I’m trying to do now, read articles for Critical Distance. Sometimes I find more than half an hour has passed with me staring into space, breathing minimally, recollections and self-judgments rattling around in my skull.

The worst of it is that, cornered into confessing my pain to someone, I can’t not say his name, even given the inevitable fallout. I have to identify him to close confidants, explain what he did to my head, why I refuse to read about him or link to articles with him. Again and again, one on one in these furtive dark alleys of Tweetdeck DMs or emails, because I’m too fucking afraid of the reprisal if I just said his name, out for everyone to see.

Because he’s a man, and I am not.

Because even if I had friends to support me it would create “drama.”

Because reliving what he did to me for a few hours or days out of a week is better than reliving it every single day of my life until I give up and quit the field, as I’ve seen happen to so many other people.

Because flinching and shutting down for a while is not as terrifying as the thought of publicly telling off a big site for linking to the work of a toxic misogynist and his us-versus-them diatribes.

Because I keep hoping that to deny the problem my attention is the same as denying oxygen to a fire.

Because I want to believe that I’m bigger than him, that what little good I’ve done in my life-to-date is more than he will make out of his campaigns of toxicity.

Because it’s fucking videogames.

Because I just want it to go away.

I’ve had friendships turn sour on the internet before. This is the first one who, upon being told that I didn’t see things exactly his way, told me that I was his enemy and worse, The Enemy, the leader of an opposing faction in some war he believes he’s fighting.

‘That’s how a child thinks,’ I thought to myself when things first fell apart. But children even at their cruelest don’t have the capacity for that deft sort of manipulation to twist a knife just so in a person’s head, like he did with me. I’m honestly scared of him — and I’m mortified whenever I see he’s been given a platform.

But if I spoke up I would be causing drama, I would be in the wrong. Even in the very best case it would involve having to see my abuser’s name again, and again, more than I ever wanted.

Cripes, I’ve avoided giving any identifying details about him here at all and I’m still terrified that he’ll find and comment on this, or send me an email, or launch a renewed campaign against me. But for as scared as I am I’m exhausted from dancing around the bare and simple fact that I have a scar. The fact that it’s not in a place where anyone can see doesn’t mean it hurts any less.

(They say the best revenge is living well and that’s all that I’ve tried to do. It’s what I’ll keep doing after I push ‘publish’ on this. All this is, all it’s been for, is to try to cleave away some of this dead tissue and move on.)

Hey Kris watcha watchin’

So I’m back at my old moderator job. I’m not complaining because it’s better than being homeless, but even my manager will admit it’s very monotonous work that leads quickly to eyestrain and thoughts of despair.

I’ve coped with this in several ways in the past, including audiobooks and Star Trek. Lately, I’ve been on a horror bent. Netflix has a lot of decent stuff streaming right now and since people ask me for recs sometimes, I thought I might as well note them all down somewhere.

So here’s the stuff I recommend in Netflix’s horror section.

(Necessary caveat: I’m on a US IP and have no way of knowing which of these are available in other regions, or if they’ll be removed at a later date.)


1. The Hellraiser series

This has some very strong entries and a few weak ones. They’re well known enough that I’ll just let you search them on your own. Chronologically, it’s best to watch 1-4 in order and then stop, forever, but personally my ranking goes: 1, 7, 3, 2, 5, 4, 9, 8. I also recommend reading Barker’s original novella.

(Another note of interest for game aficionados: the designer of the original puzzlebox featured in these films is Philip Lemarchand, the DJ stage name of Uncharted designer Richard Lemarchand and FEZ designer Phil Fish. I predict a themed concert in the duo’s future.)


2. Ravenous

I described this on Twitter as “Brokeback Mountain with cannibals” and despite all protests no one was able to dispute this. Take one part bad Civil War-era drama, one part appropriated Native American mythology, and a whole heaping dose of homoeroticism. Not really scary but it gets a bit intense and also, cannibalism as a metaphor for gay sex, I am surprised how okay with this I am.


3. Let the Right One In

Swedish vampire film involving an immortal non-binary vampire child and the little boy who loves them. Depressing, twisted, gorgeous.

(The original version of this blurb asserted Elly is a trans girl, and while that’s one valid reading, revisiting the film has me think Elly is intended as gender-fluid/non-binary.)


4. Pontypool

A metaphor on cultural imperialism disguised cleverly as one very smart zombie movie. The crew of a remote Canadian radio station are beset by a deadly virus: the English language.

I promise it’s much scarier than I’m making it sound. The climax is really weak but most of everything to either side of that is pretty amazing.

…Except for the scene with the singers in brown face. That was not amazing.


5. Silent House

Netflix hosts the American remake, though also has the original Uruguayan version (above) available as a disc rental. The main conceit of this film is that it is shot to look like one continuous take, watching a young woman be terrorized by extradimensional weirdness in real time. Of course, there’s A Twist, and I need to mention that this film (and the original) require a trigger warning for child sexual abuse.


6. The Caller

A simple premise exquisitely executed: a woman moves into a new apartment and discovers her phone is connected to the same line several decades in the past, when the unit was occupied by a sinister old woman… who likes to call a lot and be generally menacing.


7. House of the Devil

Ti West’s only good film? Maybe. I haven’t seen everything of his, but of everything I have seen, this is the only film of his I even remotely enjoy. The attraction of this film is the lengths it goes to to recreate a period feel right down to the grain of the film stock, and the results are fantastic, though it gets a bit conventional at the end.


8. YellowBrickRoad

Now we get into the part of the list where the recommendations get a bit funky and idiosyncratic, either because they’re a slow burn or because they start off strong and crash headlong into a wall in the third act. This film is sort of both. It has an amazingly atmospheric build and some legitimately uncomfortable sound work that deserves some praise, but the ending is just dreadful, ugh, I don’t even want to think about it. Maybe just stop after it gets too weird, and pretend everyone here just died of exposure instead.


9. Absentia

This is another slow burn without many scares but wins for sustained tension. The performances are well-drawn and I don’t think I’ve ever seen an indie horror with such pathos from its cast. Double points for drawing on slightly more unconventional source material.


10. The Corridor

One of my favorites, honestly, even if I can’t really say why. Like Absentia the performances are very strong, at least in some places. In others… it gets really campy. BUT, it isn’t very often that I can get honestly interested in the feelings of sad white cis dudes and the sort of underlying coming-of-age narrative to this is really captivating, although it does so by way of a bit of ableism (sigh). Nevertheless, a few good scare moments and a very unconventional supernatural (extraterrestrial) conceit.


11. The Blair Witch Project

Blair Witch did not invent found footage horror and it certainly isn’t the best example of the genre, especially 15 years after the hype’s worn off. However, there are still a couple clever touches in this to reward the attentive film nerd (especially while wearing headphones) such that I encourage you to give it a try, since it’s streaming anyway.


12. The Bleeding House

A door-to-door salesman who is probably the devil shows up at a family’s house to methodically drain them all of blood. Not gore porn, very nice psychological bent to it, and probably of interest if you like the tone of Hannibal.


13. Grave Encounters

Both the original and its sequel are currently streaming on Netflix in the US and they are both above-average found footage horror films. The first one is a fine example of the genre with a film crew being done in by their hubris (as is required by cosmic law), and the second one earns some points for film nerd geekery, although it breaks a few rules and is generally weaker over all. However, the opening to Grave Encounters 2 remains my favorite way to start a sequel pretty much ever and should be looked at in admiration.


14. V/H/S

This and its sequel are great examples of horror anthologies done in a found footage style. Trigger warnings for sexual assault, rape, non-consensual videotaping of sex, and implied fetus harvesting. And Ti West warning for Ti West in the middle chapter.

The sequel is not as good, but has a couple choice chapters. It also doubles down on the misogynistic body horror, so uh, view with discretion.

(I wish more of these recommendations didn’t also come with these huge caveats.)


15. Cabin in the Woods and Resolution

I rank Cabin in the Woods last here because it’s kind of a gimme, but if you haven’t seen it yet it’s at least worth a watch. Not a brilliant deconstruction of the genre and not above some sexist male gaze bullshit but the denouement deserves way more examination than it’s received.

I pair this with Resolution because all the critics did and because it’s sort of like Cabin‘s inverse: where Cabin was too transparent, Resolution is too opaque. Of the two, Resolution requires a bit more attention to parse and is a bit of a higher-order deconstruction in that it doesn’t ultimately seem interested in the viewer’s catharsis… which, ah, is part of the ‘monster’ embedded in the film. Like Blair Witch, Resolution s worth it for the film nerdery alone.


Honorable Mention: The People Under the Stairs

I consider this squarely in the comedy category — not even dark comedy, just regular comedy using the trappings of the horror genre, a la Addams Family. However, this list is looking white as hell, and if this film portrays the horror of anything very well, it’s that there is nothing scarier than white people.

(Bonus points, of course, for casting Ed and Nadine Hurley as the villains in question. Wait, you have seen Twin Peaks, right? This was why Netflix was invented.)

Beyond ‘Ace’ Attorney: (sort of) my talk from 2014’s Lost Levels


What follows is a best effort reproduction of the off-the-cuff talk I gave at Lost Levels this past March. I had a draft of some sort prepared in advance, then threw it out at the last minute. This will necessarily be different from both the prepared text and the delivered version, but the gist of it remains intact.

I think Phoenix Wright is an ace attorney.

This is a double-entendre, and admittedly, not an especially clever one. “Ace” is short for asexual, you see, so it follows that in addition to being known as the primary protagonist of Ace Attorney, mainly for being a good lawyer, we can argue for Phoenix Wright as being ace in the other sense — a cutesy bit of wordplay without much substance behind it. Or is there?

Here is the thing: I’m asexual. It took me the majority of my life to arrive at this conclusion, largely because I had no idea what being asexual actually meant, or how I could be one. Please name me an openly asexual character in film or television who is not a) a non-human character, b) aimed at children, or c) evil. I’m sure there are a few that exist somewhere, but they’re a rare bird, especially next to the surfeit of examples we have for hetero, bi and gay characters.

Part of the problem is that asexuality is defined by not doing a thing. And not just not doing the thing, but having no desire to do the thing, which makes it different than having a character who is, say, celibate, or in possession of a low libido. In fact, if there’s anything that irritates me more than not having good examples of asexual characters to refer to, it’s for people to conflate “asexual” with “chaste” and point to examples of relationships where the issue of physical intimacy is shot down, but not for lack of desire. (See: Shepard and Samara in Mass Effect.) And if there’s anything that irritates me more than that, it’s the assumption that sexuality is inextricably tied with romantic attraction, so asexual people can’t possibly have emotional relationships which play out as romances.


Enter: Phoenix Wright. Phoenix cares deeply about several people in his life, but the games never pair him off with everyone, except in a single flashback case where he’s in a relationship with a woman (and it’s strongly implied to be chaste). The series even goes so far as to give him a daughter, but it goes yet further by making her adopted, and when asked when he’s going to find his daughter “a new mommy” he repeatedly laughs off the idea.

So here we have a character that the franchise is going well out of its way to have him fulfill this particular social role of parenthood, without any of the other heteronormative trappings that tend to accompany it. He wouldn’t be alone, but let’s go further: he’s made uncomfortable by kissing (AA5 DLC case), he denies up and down any sort of adult relationship with Maya (AA2) while risking his life for her (AA3), and of the two people he gets closest to professing something like love to (his mentor Mia; his friend Edgeworth), one gets retroactively paired off (Mia with Diego Armando), and the other is… apparently going on dates with Phoenix to his daughter’s magic shows (AA5 case 5), despite the two of them clearly living very separate lives on opposite sides of the city.

So what do we make of this? For me, when I look at all of this together, I see a guy who is a lot like myself: someone with strong emotional bonds with people which might even be interpreted as romantic, but for whom physical acts of affection either don’t occur to him (see: Dahlia/Iris, and if you want to stretch things, Maya) or upset him (see: Orla, and yes I know she’s an orca).

Is it compelling, incontrovertible proof? No. And I don’t expect this to either have crossed the series writers’ minds or be something Capcom will ever weigh in on one way or another. It doesn’t really matter to me how a character like Phoenix Wright is ‘intended’ — his portrayal is at least ambiguous enough that I was able to read into him something that I could recognize, and for me that is a rare, precious thing.

I’ve written before how it was only through fandom that I finally managed to articulate how it felt to be asexual. I still think fanworks are a great resource for exploring all these things that published media don’t or won’t address, but I’m glad that for the Ace Attorney games, at least, I don’t need to resort to fanfiction to find a character whose actions make sense to me.

This all makes me wonder what we can do to better explore asexuality in games — through characters, sure, but perhaps through gameplay as well. I asked the Lost Levels crowd for a few ideas (a passing hippie suggested “become a higher being” as one solution), but I wonder what all you out there think, as well. Are there asexual characters (who aren’t anthropomorphic animals or cartoonish villains) we can point to in games? How would we handle asexual romance? Or just being asexual, when there are no quick routes to its representation? I think all the work that has been done by queer devs in the last few years points the way, but I can’t say for certain where I, at least, should be going from here.

(Except to write cute fanfic of Phoenix and Edgeworth holding hands, but that was always going to be forthcoming…)

We who are about to die salute you


I just suffered my first real ‘bad end’ in X-COM: Enemy Unknown/Within. Brainwashed comm operators sabotaged my base and, having just come off a string of terror missions leaving most of my top-ranked soldiers KIA and my high-end MECs in for repairs, I didn’t stand much of a chance against the ensuing alien horde. So it goes.

Starting off on a fresh file with the Enemy Within expansion appears to have been a big mistake, as there are a lot of balance issues and weird staggering of events that make it difficult to proceed conservatively, even if I felt like it. As it is, I’m playing chiefly to have something to play. There are few enough games that can be played one-handed (my dominant hand is still, unfortunately, too injured to do much more than press Enter occasionally), and fewer still that don’t seem to fall into the trough of either puzzle games or sims, and better the devil that you know, I guess.

Still, something’s been rolling around in my head since I read Michael Lutz’s piece on First-Person Scholar about “replay value” as a quality of performance art. In it, Lutz suggests that the reason Spelunky expresses (that ol’ canard) “replayability” for him is not just the emergent dungeon design, but the particulars of its interlocking parts.

A scholar specializing in drama and performance art, [Peggy] Phelan has influentially argued that “performance becomes itself through disappearance”. According to Phelan, performance’s chief attribute is its ephemerality, its execution in a particular way, by particular actors, in a present moment that can never be reproduced […]

I replay Spelunky not simply because it has varied or hidden content, but because the experience of losing unexpectedly and then restarting is so fundamental to the play experience. Now in addition to the first encounter with the ghost, the ghosts of many, many dead Spelunkers figuratively crowd the peripheries of my gameplay. The satisfaction of a successful run is nonexistent without the memory of the myriad failures that precede it, and even the smallest achievement is followed, inevitably, by another parade of deaths -– but the specter of future accomplishment has already been conjured.

I’d like to dispense with the idea of “future accomplishment” here — I only include the end of the quote so as not to change Lutz’s meaning — and focus, really, on the performance of loss. Because I like the idea of playing through doomed scenarios, not in anticipation of some 11th hour Hollywood cliche, but to see it all crumble as well it must.

Too dark? I don’t know. I remain convinced that a major issue many people had with the original Mass Effect 3 ending was that you couldn’t really save the day. Not how you wanted. Not how the series had set you up to believe you could. And I actually rather liked that the game pulled the rug out from underneath you like that. It changed the rules and made every win state horribly unacceptable. Love it. Give me more.

Another game I managed to play recently was Will O’Neill’s Actual Sunlight. It’s a damned triggering game and I needed a lot of self-care afterwards because — spoiler — the protagonist almost surely kills himself at the end, no matter what you do. But I suppose I’m glad I played it because that’s the point of the game, to reveal in the harshest terms the raw brutality of this man’s depression. Or, as someone suggested to me when I discussed it with them afterwards:

I feel like [Actual Sunlight] is a game about using the hopelessness of the worst case scenario to make the possibility of hope more apparent.

You can’t “win” Actual Sunlight. You can only participate in a doomed situation. If I replayed the base defense mission in Enemy Within a hundred times I’d probably get no closer to completing it, simply by virtue of how poorly equipped my remaining units are (the same way Evan, we might say, was not adequately equipped to combat his suicidality). No, it’s not about the “specter of future accomplishment” here, not within the context of these units or these representations. It’s more about that certain poetic catharsis gained from bringing something to the only end available to us.

Put another way, my Enemy Within squad, my Commander Shepard, and Actual Sunlight‘s protagonist are each headed toward death (unless you take the interpretation that Evan doesn’t die at the end — not a reading I hold to, personally), but the particulars of getting there make up the actual performance. The real disappearing act, you could say.

(See also: Lee’s demise in The Walking Dead; most samurai films; nearly any classic arcade game; Super Hexagon except for a few skilled individuals.)

Game Developers Carnivale


It is Saturday, the day following the close of this year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. A few weeks ago, I believed I would be coming here to desperately look for a job (again) while possibly drinking myself to death. Instead, I had a great time spent mainly in the company of other people, gave a couple talks, ate some good meals, and had some overpriced cocktails. A great week by any measure.

As was pointed out to me in the last few days, GDC is in a curious position among all our yearly games-focused industry events. There is a lot of homosocial hugging and tenderness I’m not accustomed to seeing out of either studio bro-culture or consumer bro-culture. There was a ‘living exhibit’ where you could play Doom deathmatches with John Romero himself, and yet more people seemed interested in attending the talk he gave with wife Brenda Romero (Train, Wizardry), Richard Lemarchand and Warren Spector about transitioning from game dev to pedagogy.

That’s not to say that there isn’t an oppressive musk of masculinity over much of GDC — the lack of diversity in the Indie Games Summit is a particular sore point this year — but it was great to feel at least mostly at ease and among friends at any given point during the conference, even if it meant I was mostly off in my own corner. I have spent so much of the last five months feeling isolated and forced to bottle up emotions under a guise of ‘professionalism’ till it all exploded, violently and messily, from behind my ribs. To feel loved and appreciated — and to see love and appreciation going on all around me — was exactly what I needed.

There is just so much hugging, though. I think I said as much to Ben at one point. “Gosh, there’s so much hugging,” I told him.

“It’s because this is the one time out of the year when a lot of us see each other,” Ben explained. “It’s kind of a reunion.”

It is, really. It’s also catharsis and ritual. It felt like coming home.

So, because I don’t want to go days or weeks before writing a lot of this down like I did last time, here are my favorite moments from this year’s GDC.

  1. Critical Proximity: The first-ever games criticism conference showed us all that this is a diverse field and that there is an equally widespread interest in talking about it. Organizer Zoya Street projected an event of maybe 30 people — instead we had over 200 attendees and hundreds more tuning in via our Twitch livestream.

    When I spoke and thanked everyone for supporting our Patreon, the applause I got was unexpected and touching in ways I can’t adequately put into words. Everything about Critical Proximity was the culmination of many wonderful things.

  2. Michael Abbott makes a surprise appearance at his own dinner. Each GDC for a number of years now, Michael Abbott (The Brainy Gamer) has organized a large dinner of fellow critics and cool people in the field. This year, he had to step away from co-organizing the event due to issues affecting his health, and he was unsure whether he could even attend. It was unfortunate, but it was even more important for Michael to look after his health, so while a Brainy Gamer dinner without the Brainy Gamer seemed a little bit improper, we went ahead. Then, after most of us had already been seated and were chatting away, there he was.

    As a relative newcomer to this scene (I didn’t appear online as a games critic till 2008 and didn’t get involved in Critical Distance till 2011), it’s at times hard for me to appreciate just how significant some of these early players of our current games criticism circles really are. Witnessing everyone drop their forks and knives to applaud Michael’s arrival — something I took part in — was incredibly moving, and just drew into even sharper focus how meaningfully some of us have touched each other’s lives.

  3. Deirdra Kiai’s microtalk at the #1reasontobe panel. Deirdra (hereafter: Squinky) was one of the first individuals to make me feel like coming out as non-binary would be okay. They’re a role model for me in a number of ways — including dress sense, which I cannot hope to emulate. For their #1reason talk, in which they articulated the intense feelings of placelessness, invisibility, and anonymity felt from not falling within the gender binary (either emotionally or physically) was deeply resonant for me. It is the first time a conference talk has brought me to tears — actually, the first time any public speech of any kind has done so. And I’m so grateful for that.

    Sidebar: Squinky’s game, Dominique Pamplemousse in: “It’s All Over Once the Fat Lady Sings!” was up for four Independent Games Festival awards this year. It didn’t win any, which I’m sort of bummed about, but Squinky’s take on the situation is on point: visibility when you are any kind of minority (sexual, racial, etc) invites untold harassment and other abuse. It shouldn’t be that way, and with any luck one day we’ll be better than this, but I understand their feeling of relief for not having won. I attended the IGF awards and when Dom-Pam came up I was the only one in my entire section who cheered — and I got dirty glares for my trouble. Even acknowledging the game’s existence, much less singing its praises (pun intended), was asking to be ostracized. But no amount of sick gamerbros can stop me from being elated that this game exists and was in the running for the same awards as other, more grandiose titles.

  4. Kate Craig thanks her wife during Fullbright Company’s Game Developers Choice Awards acceptance speech. If there is one single moment from this year’s GDC that sums up recent sea changes in games development, it is this one. In amongst the IGF and Game Dev Choice Awards’s near relentless parade of straight white cis men, Ms. Craig stood up on the stage with the other core developers of Gone Home — which had just won an award for ‘Best Debut’ — neatly and succinctly interjected with ‘I would like to thank my wife.’

    That’s it. The cheers that followed (again, not from my section of the audience, despite my best efforts) indicated that the message had been sent, loud and clear.

  5. Naomi Clark’s talk at Lost Levels. I missed witnessing this one in person, but thanks to the power of smartphones and social media, now everyone can enjoy the game dev wisdom of Ric Chivo.

    Pay particular attention to the businesswoman behind Clark who starts taking notes (in apparent earnestness) at one point.

  6. Stickers! Buttons! Postcards! True to my word, I gave out roughly two sets of Night Vale scout buttons this last week, as well as several iron-on patches. I totally did not anticipate the cool things I would receive in return! Lana Polansky gave me a great set of origami paper, while Miguel Sternberg (he of They Bleed Pixels) gave me this amazing (legitimately licensed!) sticker set of Hello Kitty as Sadako from The Ring. JUST LOOK AT IT!
    And of course, there are the artisanal postcards designed by Maddox (Mr. Joyboy):
    And selfie stickers from Christine Love’s Interstellar Selfie Station:
  7. Richard Lemarchand and Phil Fish using their DJ set to speak to each other through music. These two have been a feature of the Venus Patrol/Wild Rumpus parties at GDC for years now, but this was the first year it felt like I could get a raw, clear sense of the two’s personalities through their setlist.

    Tagteaming at the turntable, their music selections spoke about generational differences and hard times and mutual respect, and would it surprise you to know there was hugging at the end? There was hugging at the end.

  8. I was able to walk into a drug store and buy a magazine containing my byline. As primarily a web-based writer, I still get a weird little thrill at seeing my name in print. It so happened that the new issue of Official Xbox Magazine, for which I wrote a retrospective on Saints Row IV, hit the stands the same week as GDC.

    (I was tempted to buy another copy to send to my mother, but I’m still afraid of having to explain what a ‘dildo bat’ is.)

  9. Unwinnable House. This is my second year staying at the Unwinnable House, a bifurcated three-story building about 20 minutes from the conference center with beds, too few power outlets, and at least one exploding toilet. Utilities mishaps aside, as populated as the house is by radicals, punks, suits and Australians, there’s really never a dull moment at any hour of the day or night.

    This year’s defining moment: playing Assault Android Cactus with Richard Terrell. He’s really good, by the way.

  10. Getting mistaken for Kris Graft at a party. I had no idea this was such an easy mistake to make, but I suppose with enough alcohol and general amounts of cluelessness anything is possible.

When I booked my flight for GDC, I was thinking of this as being kind of a last hurrah. I was out of Gamasutra, the chances of securing a press pass again seemed slim, and the odds of getting any sort of work at all were getting thinner all the time. Instead, it feels like I got exactly what I needed to get a second wind. I’m still painfully introverted — as are the vast majority of GDC attendees, I expect — but I’m definitely reenergized, which is quite possibly a first, coming from a week spent around people.

I miss my cat, though.

GDC, Critical Distance, scout badges, etc


A few items.

I will be at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco again this year. It’s next week, so if you needed to make travel arrangements based on that piece of information… um. Oops. I’ll try to remind folks earlier next time.

Additionally, I will be giving two talks adjacent to the conference this year. The first will be at Critical Proximity, the very first games criticism and games studies conference being organized by Zoya Street. My talk will be on Critical Distance’s curation policy and will briefly touch upon some of the stuff that’s happened recently (which I’ll get into below). The other talk will be at Lost Levels and is just a small, casual thing about exploring asexuality in games. Please check the events’ websites for more info.

If you’re going to be around and happen to spot me (I made my haircut very easy to recognize this year), come say hi. I have little ‘bits of flair’ (mainly Night Vale scout buttons but also a few iron-on game patches and other things) that I’m giving away, just for fun.

Next thing. You can now help fund Critical Distance through Patreon. We’ve already raised enough to bring me on as senior curator full-time, and I really cannot thank everyone enough for making that happen. Everything we raise from here on out will go toward accelerating the expansion projects I outlined a few months ago, plus a few more I have up our sleeves.

One of the first orders of business will be the wiki, because we already have a wiki guy (hi Erik) and the whole thing is basically ready, we just haven’t had the opportunity to launch it. So keep an eye out for that.

Finally: I’m no longer doing news for Gamasutra. This relates to the previous point about doing Critical Distance full-time. I’m still doing freelance gigs and you’ll be seeing one of my first big print features in Official Xbox Magazine soon, but please refer to Gama’s official contact page about getting things onto that site.

(And yes, I know it still lists me as a news editor on that page, but I’m sure they’ll get to that at some point.)

These last few months have been really rocky which is the main reason I’ve been negligent about updating the blog. I’m really excited about the new direction my life’s taken lately and I hope to have more to share with you all soon.

The tools of my craft


When I was 22, I woke up one morning with a pinched nerve in my right shoulder. My entire arm was numb and unresponsive to all commands from my brain.

A bit of flexing and exercising (led by an anaesthesiologist friend) returned control of my arm to me within 20 minutes, but up until that time every nightmare scenario I could imagine played through my mind. How could I take notes for class? How could I handle camera equipment? How could I type or sign my name or — and this was most devastating of all — draw?

I’m in envy of the ambidextrous. I can’t even use a mouse with my left hand without something in my brain coming unscrewed. Since this incident, I’ve had fits of trying to train my off hand to do the work of its sibling, with only modest success. When the Major folded origami cranes with her left hand in Stand Alone Complex (above), I was driven to emulate, and now I’m a damn champ. But a lot of things — typing with any proficiency, and especially art — completely elude my left hand, and probably always will.

Fast-forward to the present year. I’ve been experiencing soreness in my right hand since at least September. I kept meaning to go to a doctor, but you know how it is, working an 8-5. I told myself I’d get the time to recuperate after GDC Next, when I had a week’s vacation lined up. If I came home from vacation still experiencing stiffness and pain, I could look into scheduling a doctor’s appointment then.

The next week I was laid off.

Now… I could rant a bit about getting laid off from Gama. That the job I was so excited about would terminate mere months after I started it. I look back at the post I wrote shortly after accepting the position and cringe at all the naive optimism on display. But my editor has been endlessly supportive, the dismissal is not a reflection of the quality of work I was performing, and as you might have guessed, I am writing all of this, painstakingly, with one hand, so I really don’t want to belabor the issue past its due.

But do you have any idea how much writing you do when searching for a job?

Part of it was my fault. A lot of late-night livetweeting of TV shows and origami — still my go-to hobby when nervous or depressed. But a large part of it were the job apps, filing with recruiter sites, searching for housing and researching unemployment, and so on. Here and there I defaulted back to doing visual art to take my mind off things, but that only exacerbated the level of injury. Somehow, without planning to, I was right back to living out those nightmare scenarios I’d entertained in college.

And then today, after a nasty flare-up while out on errands, and wrenching it badly on the bus on the way home, I found I couldn’t use my right hand at all. At least, not without tremendous pain and discomfort.

It’s two days before Christmas, so seeing a doctor is right out. I don’t know if I can afford one anyway. With some of my donor rewards still outstanding from the crowdfunding I did to get to GDC — you know, the trip that was supposed to help me get a new job, and succeeded at just that; too bad the job only lasted a few months — I’m strongly against the idea of asking for help from my online friends and peers. I write this here just to get across the particular pain and frustration of losing the one meaningful tool I have for making a living, at a time when I need it most.

If I believed in higher powers, I would take this as a sign that I had deeply offended one. Chopping off my hand would be a mercy at this point, next to having the thing hang uselessly at my side like this.

I can’t get any work done but I can do this.



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