Tag Archives: writing

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.

Visions of sugar plums

I’ve been having trouble sleeping.

There are a number of reasons for this. Chiefly: I still struggle at sticking to a mostly regular sleep schedule, so that one day I might turn in as soon as the sun tilts toward the horizon, and another I’ll stay up long enough to see the sunrise. Both such tendencies have their own motivators –depression and all-night FF7 binges, respectively– and a certain kitten-shaped constant who ensures that whenever I do decide to sleep, that is the time she’s most active.

There is another reason, in that whenever I do stretch out in bed I start thinking about setting again. Very particular settings: fortresses built into mountainsides with five compounds representing the five traditional elements; and the territory that fortress would oversee, and the taxes it would collect in exchange for protection from its militia. What is the attitude of the servant class within the fortress; are they from the region, or transplanted from the empire capital? How many are more loyal to the emperor than his son who manages this territory?

In other words, I’m writing again.

Or more precisely, preparing to write. I had another project in the pipelines for a while about war and aliens –you know, all-new literary territory– but after spending months neck deep in The Journey to the West and other Chinese and East Asian half historical/half mythological texts I decided the chances were slim of being able to suddenly change gears into some inverted Starship Troopers story. So, I gave in and went with the flow of my current interests.

(I’m making the SF project sound more banal than it is. It’s a narrative I believe in, or I wouldn’t have spent almost two years to date developing it. But SF is about politics and extrapolating from the present world’s circumstances, and right now I’d like some escapism.)

And since it’s that kind of fantasy novel, the sort about beds and the folks occupying them, the mind wanders to those before-and-after conversations that sound most authentic when you’re half-asleep when you come up with them. Except I then don’t sleep, largely because other things seep in: do I have time to think of frivolous things like novels when I’m not sure I’ll be able to afford rent next month? how will I ever find a way to sell off enough of this stuff to fund a move? how many of my books will I need to part with?

And then come the anxiety attacks, because my serotonin levels are low, and my new health insurance plan is very good at being expensive and little else, and then there’s the crippling debt I now face, and all the glib responses from well-meaning colleagues how it should be so easy to just pick up and go, change everything, choose life, get out of this country before the GOP turn it into a wasteland, did you hear Clint Eastwood got into an argument with an empty chair and lost?

So yes, fantasy novel, I choose thee. Of all the things giving me insomnia, you are the least unpleasant at the moment.

The other is Final Fantasy VII, which I mentioned I was replaying. That’s going well, except the problem with videogames for me at a time like this is their machine logic is precisely the opposite of what I need. Simon Parkin once wrote (and it’s still one of my favorite essays of his to date) that games (and especially JRPGs) “function how we want the real world to function”:

“Because, while the battles may be random, the war’s outcome is always predestined,” I continue. “You’re predestined to succeed. Just so long as you keep going. And jeez, that may be escapism or a gross oversimplification of the reality we live in, but isn’t that sense of… of justice the yearning of every human being? Are not JRPGs maps of perfect worlds where everything behaves how you expect it to.”

“Um…”

“Because, when your life turns to shit and people let you down, or when you study hard but still flunk your exams regardless, or when you work your ass off and your boss doesn’t notice…. Or, or even if he does but is too preoccupied with his own quests to congratulate you… I mean, that’s sort of a broken system. It certainly feels that way. That’s just not how things should be. JRPGs counter all that disappointment and unfairness with dependable justice. They reward you for your efforts with empirical, unflinching fairness. Work hard and you level up. Take the path that’s opened to you and persevere with it and you can save the world. You can fix the things that break…”

“Simon…”

“No, wait. They give you that power, sure. But more than that, they give you consistency. This world, and the people in it, do not. JRPGs are, well, er, I guess they’re sort of like heaven in that regard. Except with, like, improbably large swords and nuclear-grade hair gel.”

It’s one of my favorite heartbreaking little rambles in any piece of New Games Journalism to date, and 99% of the time, I agree with it.

Right now I just want all the numbers to go to hang themselves. I toil at leveling up these little masses of polygons, meeting all the necessary quotas to advance stats and limit breaks and fill out all the necessary check boxes on every unnecessary sidequest and the only persistent impression I get is that I’m fumbling to connect, that the virtual world on the other side of the screen isn’t ever going to come alive because of numbers or command combos. Its story is a dead thing unless you let the machinic part of it go. Otherwise it’s just… hell, it’s just Confucianism.

Because I really don’t want the world to be fair, just now. I want it to be extremely unfair in my favor. Not for very long; just to make it through the next month or two. That would be nice. FF7’s new PC version even accommodates that very kind of cheating, which throws Parkins’s “heaven” for a hell of a loop. Not that I could bring myself to partake in it if I did have the funds to spend juicing characters in a game I’d already beaten a half-dozen times. But I wouldn’t mind a Character Booster for my own life. Or even just something to let me sleep.