This list started as a thread on Twitter, but I ended up liking the selection enough that I wanted to preserve it somewhere more accessible and somewhere where people wouldn’t have to subject themselves to Twitter… which is much more in the spirit of the list. I made an effort to not overly rely on “big” online publications in videogames with this list, and also highlight what I feel is important work about often overlooked or against the grain topics being done on personal sites and blogs. In many cases the first wave of videogame blogging (which I was not around for and apparently carried the kind of cursedly epic bacon good sir type moniker of “The Brainysphere(!)” oh 2008!) is associated with things like a kind of fussy connoisseurism around game design abstractions like “mechanics,” obsession with definitions and resulting value judgements and constant relitigating of a certain commercial canon familiar to white male gamers of a certain age and economic class re: what is “best” or “a classic,” and you can see how a lot of the guys associated with this loose network filtered into the major publication sites and sometimes game studies academia.
I’m less interested in the kind of writing going on here… like people who really enjoy golden retrievers I respect their right to exist but it is nothing but boring to me. I’m more into what personal blogs offer in terms of structure, over both sites like Polygon, Kotaku, Waypoint &c and the phenomenon of “discourse” on social media platforms (sometimes these two things seem to be sides of the same self-sustaining coin… or, less charitably, the mouth and ass of an ouroboros). I think this interest has been renewed recently over both reflection on great blogs past (like Mark Fisher’s, recently transformed into an 800-page anthology) and increasing dissatisfaction with how the structure of twitter or facebook determines the shape of criticism and discussions, and how these platforms deliberately cultivate types of engagement that will lead to hit counts and ad views, rather than any real concern for creating a writing or art or music or whatever friendly online ecosystem.
Taking the discussion and promotion of our work away from primarily ad-supported platforms that are increasingly prescriptive (and simultaneously increasingly vague) about what you can do on them and how, and instead moving to a more open ended and lightweight internet free of trackers, unruly comment sections, character limits and standardized profile pages carves out a space for writing that can be personal, experimental, indulgent, introspective, on and on… it also gives a context where, through webrings, networks of citation, roundups and link sections, we can tie together these personal sites and determine the scale and goals of our own communities. It may sound utopian from a perspective of twitter realism, and, it’s sadly true I have still not deleted my facebook account either, but if we don’t give it a shot 0% of any of these potential benefits will come about, so...
In this spirit, here are my videogame blogging highlights from 2018:
Brendan Vance – Super Plumber Odysseus: This piece was from the very beginning of 2018 and I found myself coming back to it several times throughout the year. Watch out for spikes! 2018 was definitely a year of Nintendo intensifying its already crazy copyright landlord antics in the midst of new issues around how we talk about IP and value, like asset flipping, fanworks, and streaming.
Michael McMaster – Against Introspection: This piece was written for Manifesto Jam and evokes an entirely new category of writing, speculative games criticism. In imagining how the international videogame community would attempt to cease producing self-referential videogames, the drawbacks of “videogames about videogames” and why we so often default to this paradigm, despite the broad potential of the form, become evident.
Phil Salvador – Secret Writer’s Society, the best way to swear at children in 1998: Salvador’s blog The Obscuritory has always done an excellent job of covering the beat of relatively unknown amateur, educational and weird CD-ROM titles. This post was a particular highlight for me this year because it involves some hilariously crass synthetic vocals and another RTMark software prank mystery.
Stephen Gillmurphy – 7 bubsys of the world: Blogging back and forth with Stephen was the reason I started writing online in the way I do now… it’s also the reason I started dating him. It’s hard to pick one piece of his this year that’s the best, so I recommend scrolling through a few. This one synthesizes a few of his ideas about punk aesthetic, fangames, IP, and the state of the market for videogames, so it’s a good starter. It also contains the most powerful sentence in videogame criticism 2018: “If ET really did destroy the industry it would be the best videogame ever made.”
Jason Scott – Some Very Entertaining Plastic, Emulated at the Archive: The little plastic LCD games which I most strongly associate with waiting at the dentists’ office in the mid-90s are an interesting edge-case when talking about what makes a videogame. They seem more like a representation of the idea of a videogame and yet you are using buttons to influence the movement of objects on a sort of screen with particular goals… it just seems like no one wants to talk about them. Maybe game studies will begin filling this gap soon, in the meantime they’re now emulateable on archive.org and this blog post is an interesting overview of how they work.
Ashley at Timber Owls – Japan is a Place on Earth: This piece hopefully will open more discussion on how, even now, western game media and criticism still tends to fall back on certain paradigms of Japan as conservative, naïve, perverse or just “weird, lol” in terms of how they frame games and genres associated with Japan. It’s a shadow hanging over a lot of games criticism that needs to be exorcised in 2019.
Lane LaBelle – Fear of Missing Out: Growing Up with Feminine Games: With retrospective treatments of girly games you seem to have two options, the typical mockery they were received with or total reclamation, but this piece deals with the ambivalence that can come from nostalgia for these games which present grown up femininity as an exciting fantasy, and growing up to struggle with the reality of enacting a gender paradigm you don’t fully identify with.
Lana Polansky – Worse than Scabs: Gamer Rage as Anti-Union Violence: There were a lot of pieces on labour abuse and the growing drive for unionization in the games industry this year, but I think Lana’s is easily the most grounded, thorough, and incisive of these in how it connects many disparate issues from the past few years and incorporates them into a big picture of why it seems so particularly hard for videogame companies to treat their workers right.
Richard Moss – How Bad Crediting Hurts the Game Industry and Muddles History: Similarly to Lana’s piece, I like how this piece doesn’t just stop at one perspective on or problem with videogame crediting, but consults a lot of sources and types of instances where crediting was ambiguous or neglected. Giving proper credit is obviously not just about personal gratification and career paths (though those are certainly good reasons), but also help us to better understand the history and production of videogames.
Leeroy Lewin – “Access”: Microsoft released an “accessible” Xbox controller this year, making accessibility a hot topic, but this piece is, I think rightly, sceptical of seeing accessibility as a specific set of issues with a corresponding set of solutions. Instead, thinking about access can allow us to reconsider what we value and consider authentic in videogames to begin with.
Deidre Coyle – The Encarta MindMaze Witch: I am a sucker for anything about the CD-ROM encyclopaedia set Encarta, which I feel is a vastly under-theorized influence on 90s computer aesthetics. There is so much more to be written about it, but the weird witch character which appears in the accompanying trivia game is as good a place as any to start.
Sophia Foster-Dimino – Single Player as Local Co-Op: A lovely comic illustrating the adaptive ways people have been sharing single player games, which often aren’t foreseen by game developers or discussed in game studies. I would love to see more of this!
Paleotronic – Confessions of a Disk Cracker: The Secrets of 4am: This in-depth interview with a prodigious old-school copy protection cracker cuts right to the chase with “Why did you choose to start aggressively de-protecting, archiving and re-distributing Apple II software?”
Lana Polansky – Notes on Gone Vroom: Running Over an Indie Darling: Just a brief review of a jokey game jam game, but also so much more. Bargaining for seriousness and cultural clout can simultaneously lead to a type of alienation which I think define a lot of “indie darlings.”
Supper Mario Broth – The Search for “Big Yoshi”: I don’t think anyone actually knows who the current lone curator of Nintendo fact blog Supper Mario Broth is, but they are definitely one of the most influential online presences of the year, and a master of obscure material research, as shown here.
Unhaunting at Timber Owls – The House Always Wins: This piece succinctly challenges the discourses of rationality and/or inevitability that surround the gambling-like mechanics in popular “gacha” mobile phone games, another genre which does not get much critical attention beyond the ongoing back and forth over whether they count as true gambling or not.
Vicky Osterweil – Well Played: An extremely pertinent question, which I don’t think is considered or answered often enough, is what kind of subject are videogames cultivating and creating when they’re made for us to play? This piece proposes some very well-observed possibilities.
Leeroy Lewin – What does the Soul Look Like?: In light of Deltarune’s release, this piece revisits the meta-narrative of resistant videogames like Undertale, and explores what they reveal about our relationship to videogames as a form.
Leeroy Lewin – One More Time, For the Road (Against Chrono Trigger): Another Leeroy Lewin piece, I know, but these long form pieces are so good and always ask such interesting questions, I couldn’t pick just one. This one deals with the interlinked issues of what aesthetic arguments time travel as a plot device makes, and why Chrono Trigger is a nostalgia-tinged “classic.”
For those keeping score at home, my humble list only has overlap with the Critical Distance Year in Review Post on 4 pieces (Worse than Scabs, Super Plumber Odysseus, Single Player as Local Co-op, and Richard Moss on game credits) but who’s counting? ;-)