Merry Christmas! As you probably know, I write these in advance – it’s a couple weeks before Christmas right now, and I’m thinking about the year that’s been. This time last year, I’d recently finished my Masters, where I wrote 40,000 words on religion and Dark Souls. Now I’m coming up on my 350th article for the blog (next Wednesday). I target a thousand words an article, so we can say it’s 350,000 words, but some of them end up a bit longer – the real number is nearly 400,000. And half of that is about video games. In some ways, the Masters feels a lot less substantial than some of what I get to do here. I was always frustrated by the pace of academic work: video games are such a new and burgeoning area of study, but there I was spending a whole year on one single game. Meanwhile, for the blog I’ve covered 85 games over four years, including a terrifying 32,000 words on Wolfenstein: New Order and New Colossus. Plus, by publishing here, my work is available to everyone. And – let’s just go into that for a second, actually.
So here’s my little screed on the academic publishing thing. Typically, academics don’t see profits from any of the journals that they publish their work in. Neither do the academics who do peer review. That’s bullshit. Academic publishing is a business, like any other. If you can’t afford to pay the people doing work for you, you don’t deserve to have a business. The other thing is that if you pay taxes, as a private individual, part of that will go towards funding university research. You don’t get to see the results of that research. Everybody in your country is paying researchers to lock up their findings behind paywalls. This one’s a bit of a limited argument, when you get into it – do you really want to be limiting knowledge by nationality? – but I think there is a legitimate question about how universities are serving the communities that fund their work. I’m pretty proud that my own academic output (such as it is) has been open-access. It’s not that you necessarily want to read about Arkham Asylum (5.2, p27) or Orwell, but you ought to be able to get it if you want it.
Anyway, point is, I think I’m happy here for now. I move faster, I get more done, and it’s available to the public. I wanted to cast my eyes backwards for a minute though. It’s been four years since I started here. That’s a great plateau from which to look back down the mountain. Some of my earlier posts I’m not really proud of (although, as I’ve said, it’s all ultimately part of the process). And then some hold up pretty well. As my Christmas gift to me, let’s have a look back at some of the best from the past four years. Merry Christmas, friends.
2016 – Kingdom: Levels of Narrative
This early article from 2016 looks at Kingdom, the side-scrolling city-builder where you gainfully resist your encroaching death for as long as humanly possible. I narrowed in on one little detail – how the coins move between different levels of the narrative – and I’m really proud of it. It’s the kind of close detail that I think is at the core of these articles. By and large I’m dealing with these games a long time after they came out, so all the basic review stuff is pretty much covered. You can google the game and find out whether it’s fun or boring or whether it has bad voice acting or whatever else. So that’s not really what I offer here. I try and zero in on specific details, and pull in some of that English Lit background, talk about some of the narrative theory stuff that you might not see anywhere else. This article ticked all those boxes.
Ah, 2017. Weird year. This article fills all of those same basic boxes as the previous one: it’s English Lit-y, and it’s focused on small details. In this instance, it’s pushing more towards thematic concerns – the article looks at the historical relationship between whaling and slavery in literature (and in other video games, even), and just sort of notes the way in which AC:IV blasts right past that history. No point just bagging it for the sake of bagging it though – it’s also an opportunity to learn more about what the history is, so that you can appreciate it a bit more when it does show up. It’s also an opportunity to dig into some of the narrative nuances of major video games. Obviously AC:IV has a very specific position within the video game ecosystem, if you like. There’s already a lot of chat about that broader ecosystem. It’s a Ubisoft title, it’s from when they were really starting to ramp up production and churn games out annually. There’s a bigger conversation there about crunch and the studio system and the video game market and all of it. And that’s all fine, but again, it’s just not my angle. Other people deal with the politics and economics and everything else around how it was created. I do narrative. I deal with texts.
Oh, this one’s interesting. Again, there’s the same basic set of logics as in the previous years. A straight narrative take on a triple-A game, focusing in on a relatively minor detail, and largely ignoring all the industry problems that other people have already discussed. This is also where I start getting a little more deliberate with some of the things that I’m talking about. It’s pretty obvious, for instance, that the Arkham games hyper-sexualise their women. That’s a pretty clear trend. However, given that premise, I think it’s kinda interesting to zero in on Batgirl, who’s not really sexualised in the same way. It’s not about saying oh, you know, actually it’s not sexist because of this one character – it’s more about taking the general premise of sexism in the Arkham games, and then pulling out some of the nuanced little subtleties in how that actually takes place. It’s mapping the terrain in a more detailed way than just going ‘thing bad’. It makes us think more critically about our criticism. Is Arkham Knight sexist? Yeah, definitely. But there are wrinkles to it. There are complications and subtleties that we can miss if we’re being simple-minded in our approach. That’s an interesting space to operate in. I did the same thing with Modern Warfare earlier this year, actually – anyway.
And this is where we’re up to, I suppose. Things started to take form a little more this year. I’ve always had a plan for the theology side of the blog, but this half has always been pretty ad hoc. It’s just whatever I’ve been playing recently. This year, however, I started to coagulate around specific projects. The first little series was Shadow of War at the end of 2018, which I talked about for pretty much a couple months straight. And then we had Wolfenstein. I wrote a shitload about it in the weeks leading up to my wedding, and, uhh, then sort of had a convenient queue of posts for the next six months. Looking back I might have done it differently – I could have scattered them more consciously, like I’m doing with the current Call of Duty project – but that’s learning, I suppose.
But now I’ve got a bit more of a structure. There are big series that I’ll undertake, and I’ll just do two or three posts here and there, and we’ll quietly move through a set. It’s still in a different space to the theology side – we’re doing Calvin over there, and we’ve been doing Calvin since September, and we’re going to keep doing Calvin until we’ve talked about the whole damn thing, with maybe a couple asides to talk about current stuff if anything comes up. Over here, things are a little more chill. People tend to duck in and out for one post or another, when they see a game that they like – so the continuity between posts isn’t as important. Call of Duty has made up ten of the 21 posts since we started with Modern Warfare 2 at the end of July, and I think that’s a healthy balance. More of an internal development, I guess, developing how I structure the flow of articles, but there you go. Wolfenstein was the first big project organised along those lines, and it’s easily some of the work that I’m proudest of to date.
It’s nice to get a chance to reflect on all of this. This year has been difficult, what with the move and the new country and all the rest of it. I’m looking forward to 2020. There’s some good stuff coming up. Call of Duty: WWII starts in February, Black Ops II next week. Other little bits in between. Oh, and Calvin, on the other side. Fucking Calvin. Merry Christmas, friends. Here’s to the days to come.