The Roundup: The Real-World Intrigue Of Ingress’ Virtual War, The Trauma Of Making Mortal Kombat, And More!

By Matt Gerardi

Welcome back to The Roundup, the New York Videogame Critics Circle’s weekly look at our members’ writing and news from around the world of videogames. This week, our members bring you stories from the real-world frontlines of a videogame war and the bloody, traumatizing desks of NetherRealm Studios. Plus, a review of an impossibly complicated game that’s been 17 years in the making, an exhibition of artful VR experiences, and the joys of playing games “the wrong way.”

Before Niantic Labs briefly took over the world with Pokémon Go, the studio worked out its GPS-driven gaming concepts with Ingress. It didn’t have the explosive popularity of Pokémon (not much can, to be fair), but its complex game of sci-fi intrigue did inspire a global community of players willing to go to extreme lengths to succeed. Just how extreme? Allow Elizabeth Ballou to introduce you to Meng and her crew of Chinese Ingress experts as they share the story of their biggest mission ever. It’s a wild tale—full of real-world travel, grand strategy, and possible cyber-spycraft—that pulls back the curtain on how the game’s warring factions operate their worldwide networks.

Last week, we highlighted a few articles investigating some of the major downsides of Mortal Kombat 11, including allegations of exploitative and toxic workplace practices at developer NetherRealm Studios. This week, Joshua Rivera reported on another troubling wrinkle of working on these games: the psychological toll researching and crafting such graphic violence has on the artists who create it. He spoke with a member of the studio’s cinematics team who was responsible for helping to make the game’s gruesome fatalities. “Within a month” of starting that work, Joshua reports, the anonymous developer started having violent nightmares and was eventually diagnosed with PTSD. We often discuss the effect—or lack thereof—violent games have on their players, but this is an important look at the under-discussed question of the effect these products have on the workers who spend countless hours making them.

One of the great beauties of videogames is their flexibility. There may be an intended way for you to play, but they also create a framework for experimentation and expression. And more often than not, it’s way more enjoyable to find your own ways to solve problems or have fun. Stu Horvath made that point by breaking down his “incorrect” exploits in two different online shooters, the tedium of which melt away when he and his partners stick to what they really want out of them: gleeful violence and game-breaking goofs.

Gita Jackson found a similar spirit in Dwarf Fortress, a baffling and brilliant simulation game two brothers have been developing since 2002. Gita has been writing about her time with the game for a while now—all the hours spent chipping away at its unfathomable complexities and all the ways your campaign can go hilariously wrong—but this week, she published a dedicated review, working to sum up everything that makes this infamously dense, unpredictable game so special.

In the first of our two Tribeca Film Festival-related stories this week, Harold Goldberg ruminates on a handful of the artful VR experiences he took in at the Tribeca Immersive exhibition. All of these pieces sound fascinating, from the sensory-shattering war horrors of War Remains to the fragmented stop-motion nightmare of Gymnasia. Harold takes great care in breaking down the most ambitious of the group, The Collider and Where’s The Smoke, both of which augment virtual-reality displays with human interaction to take their effect even deeper.

And in other Tribeca news, we are pleased to share an exciting, heartwarming scene from the festival. Through the kindness of Tribeca and host Geoff Keighley, the Circle was able to bring a group of students from the DreamYard Preparatory School and the Bronx High School of Business to the opening-night talk featuring Hideo Kojima and actor Norman Reedus. Before he took the stage to talk about his upcoming game, Death Stranding, a Sony representative helped give the students the rare opportunity to briefly meet Kojima and even get a picture with him. It was a small gesture, but the kids were over the moon and have yet to stop buzzing about meeting the gaming legend.

From Beyond The Circle

The games press so often can’t see beyond its own demographics and misses out on stories about the people and passions that sit outside that bubble. So it’s great to see a piece like this one from Polygon’s Patricia Hernandez, taking readers into the social circles of school-age Fortnite players and illuminating the new kinds of pressures and bullying the game has facilitated. It used to be, Hernandez writes, that real-world clothes and belongings were the status symbols kids got ostracized for, but now, with students all playing this popular game together, your digital duds—many of which have to be bought with real-world money—are rife for judgment, too.

Speaking of Fornite, we recently discussed a complimentary pair of gaming stories that highlighted a huge problem with a major trend in game development: that live games, like Fortnite and an increasing percentage of releases from major publishers, are expected to receive constant updates, and if they don’t, they’re seen as failures. This week, PC Gamer published a great, all-encompassing op-ed arguing that this tension is “pushing the industry to a breaking point,” with studios hiring more and more temporary talent instead of full-time employees and grinding developers until they burn out and leave the industry for good. It is certainly a treacherous slope that will continue to have a profound effect on labor practices in the industry and on the homogenization of big-budget games.

The debate over loot boxes, an issue that goes hand-in-hand with live games, reached a new benchmark this week as Josh Hawley, the junior senator from Missouri, introduced legislation that would allow the Federal Trade Commission to enforce new rules restricting various microtransactions in games aimed at children. Brendan Sinclair of GamesIndustry.Biz wrote a thorough report on the proposed legislation and the kinds of exploitative designs it seeks to eliminate.

And finally, let’s follow up on one of the neatest NYC gaming stories of the year: Wonderville, Death By Audio Arcade’s new arcade bar in Brooklyn. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, Wonderville officially opened late last week, giving a new home to DBAA’s collection of custom-built indie arcade cabinets and a new hub of activity for the city’s vibrant game dev scene. The space currently has 16 games on display, including the beloved 10-player cult classic Killer Queen, and has lined up a slew of events to take place throughout May. You can see which games are available and what’s happening at Wonderville over on the arcade’s official website.

Matt Gerardi is a writer from New York, the former games editor at The A.V. Club, and a member of the New York Videogame Critics Circle.

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