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 critics keep on making Marios and observe a particularly dismaying moment for Mario Maker 2’s community. Plus, Stranger Things crosses over with retro computers and Five Nights at Freddy’s gets scarier than ever in VR.
Our critics’ adventures in Mario making continued this week, as Ebenezer Samuel reviewed Nintendo’s new level-creation kit for The Daily News. For Eb, this sequel is the total package, building on the strong foundation of the original Super Mario Maker with robust, smart additions. He pinpoints the detailed creation tutorial as an especially worthwhile update that should help ease players into creation. “Video game design can be intimidating, but Yamamura’s lessons make it somewhat digestible,” he wrote.
And in other Mario Maker news, Jordan Minor took a look at two separate, strange stories emerging from the game’s community and rightfully pointed out an especially disappointing narrative they paint. First up, there’s the fact that burger chain Wendy’s has fully embraced the game, creating and promoting a suite of fast-food-themed levels. Then, there’s Nintendo’s continued issue with GrandPOOBear, a popular speedrunner and streamer who’s best known for playing Mario Maker and various uber-difficult Mario mods. Back in 2016, Nintendo deleted every single one of GranPOOBear’s stages in the original Mario Maker without explanation, prompting plenty of bewilderment, disappointment, and recognition that Nintendo has some serious community management problems. And now, the publisher is doing it again in Mario Maker 2. Jordan notes that this is especially upsetting when you consider a well known creator who’s done a lot to build up this game’s community is getting treated this way while Mario Maker is being used by social-media-obsessed fast food companies as just another promotional tool.
Meanwhile, over at Polygon, Samit Sarkar reported on a much more elaborate, aesthetically cohesive promotional crossover, one between Microsoft and Netflix’s Stranger Things. To promote the third season of the ’80s-obsessed TV show, Microsoft published a little game built around a simplified recreation of Windows 1.0, the company’s first operating system with a graphical interface, which was released in 1985—the same year during which the latest batch of Stranger Things episodes take place. Except, there’s something not quite right about this virtual vintage computer, and as you poke around, things start to go in some, ahem, strange directions. “Is it basically a giant retro ad for one of Netflix’s biggest shows of 2019? Yes. But as marketing tie-ins go, it’s a well-executed one—and fun, to boot,” Samit wrote.
And the spooks don’t end there. Circle intern Isaac Espinosa got into some virtual reality nightmares with Five Nights At Freddy’s VR. Isaac points out that this specialized installment in the surprisingly long-lived series gets a little meta, as it takes the original games and several new modes and depicts them as a VR experience developed by the in-game entertainment company whose robots have been assaulting players for years. It’s a “fantastic VR game,” Isaac writes, and one that feels right at home in the medium’s immersive confines. “The series, since it began, has lived on creating an isolating and intense environment for players. Recreating that experience in virtual reality turns Five Nights at Freddy’s into a full-on nightmare that must be played hands-on.”
Finally, we’ll end this portion of the week’s Roundup by quickly checking in with our ongoing summer games journalism program at the Bx Start game space. This week, the class was treated to a special visit from broadcaster Arda Ocal, who spoke about careers in the esports industry. As you can see (above), Rudy Blanco, DreamYard Project’s director of Entrepreneurship and Gaming, shared a great photo taken by our Imad Khan, the Critics Circle member who is teaching the course with educator Stefanelli Romano. Thanks, Arda!
From Beyond The Circle
The medieval combat game Mordhau has been one of the year’s surprise hits, but its creators found themselves embroiled in serious controversy when two developers said—and later, after a rightful outcry, retracted—that the game would be getting an option to turn off the existence of non-white and non-male characters. This news came after reports of the game’s community being overrun by rampant racism and sexism, which is what prompted the developers to propose such a feature, not understanding that it would merely be a means of empowering the hateful masses their game has drawn. The debacle inspired a fantastic essay on Waypoint by Dante Douglas, who places it in the context of the popular claim of “historical accuracy” as a justification for inaccurately removing people of color from medieval settings, creating a whitewashed vision of the middle ages that has been appropriated and celebrated by white supremacists for decades. Mordhau is just the latest game fall into this trend. For instance, Circle member Elizabeth Ballou recently wrote an excellent Twitter thread breaking down why The Witcher’s fantastical Poland, which some violently vocal fans claim needs to be lily white to be accurate (despite the game also featuring elves and magic and monsters), should be more diverse if it actually wants to be “historically accurate”:
Leaping from combating racism in games to fighting ageism in games, this past week saw the release of the 2019 50 Over 50 list assembled by industry veteran and former IGDA executive director Kate Edwards. She conceived the list as a way to push back on what she sees as ageism in the games industry, which, like many other tech-focused fields, has a tendency to attract and celebrate mostly young workers. More than 250 people from around the world voted and nominated over 100 candidates, which were then whittled down to the impressive final list of 50 developers and industry movers.
Despite being one of the most foundational elements of game design, we don’t discuss the psychological effects of games very often. And when we do, it’s almost always in a completely negative context—whether games elicit violent reactions or how loot boxes and loot-based games exploit operant conditioning. So it’s refreshing to see an article like this one from Astrid Johnson, who wondered why, in real-life and in our virtual videogame lives, returning home after a long time away “feels both comforting and yet somehow new.” To answer that question, Astrid spoke with Jenny Saucerman, a game developer and instructional designer who also has a degree in psychology. The resulting conversation is an interesting one, walking through three distinct psychological effects that likely contribute to this sensation, whether we’re flopping down on our good old couch after a vacation or unloading our overflowing spoils into our Whiterun home after hours upon hours of adventuring in Skyrim…or even Blades.
Finally, a heartfelt congratulations to former Critics Circle member Chris Plante, who is now editor in chief of Polygon. He’ll be editing the site from Austin, which where he’s lived for a few years now. Plante is not only a fine editor; he’s a thoughtful, empathetic human who brings a deep knowledge of culture beyond games to his writing, yes, but also to the staff he oversees.
That’s it for this week’s Roundup. Thank you for reading, and we’ll see you next week!
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.