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. After a brief Thanksgiving reprieve, we’re back with what could be the final Roundup of the year. This week, we’re taking a peek back at the last few weeks of our critics’ writing, including a few unique looks at the games of the decade, an essay on the phony “realism” of Call of Duty, an emotional interview with Hideo Kojima, and much more!
It’s December, which means it’s time to start celebrating the games of the year. But this isn’t just any December. It’s the last month of the 2010s, which means alongside the usual GOTY discussions, everyone’s also talking about the decade that was. For Kotaku, Heather Alexandra took a chronological look back at some of the games that probably won’t be topping everyone’s best of the decade lists but that certainly deserve more love than they got in their time. That’s right, it’s a guided trip through the most underrated games of the 2010s featuring unfairly spurned sequels (BioShock 2, Dragon Age II), ignored originals (Sleeping Dogs, Remember Me, Binary Domain), and a few wildly inventive indies (Echo, Virginia).
And for his decade-in-review contribution to Kotaku, Joshua Rivera aimed not to isolate the greatest games or the most underrated or the most influential—but rather, to tell the story of gaming in the 2010s through just five titles (plus one more to, as he puts it, “carry us into the next 10 years.”) The astute tell-all tale Joshua put together spans from Minecraft, a phenomenon that ushered in an obsession with “unstructured play” and served as the cultural gateway into gaming and online communities for a new generation, through Mass Effect 3, a game that should have been a grand finale but became emblematic of rampant fan privilege and toxicity, and ultimately to Depression Quest, Zoe Quinn’s game about mental illness that began is an important entry into a nascent personal-narrative-game movement and, tragically, found itself at the center of the GamerGate harassment campaign that laid the framework for so much of the miserable, era-defining culture war we’re currently living through.
Contrary to what the discourse may lead you to believe, there are still new games coming out this year, like Piranha Studios’ MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries. Thankfully, noted mecha scholar Austin Walker is here to review this new installment in the beloved but long-dormant series. The game nails the weight and sensation of piloting a twenty-ton death machine, Austin says, but it’s everything around those tactile pleasures—particularly the simulation and strategy aspects that have always been so central to MechWarrior—that ended up falling flat.
Just before our little Thanksgiving break, two of our members delivered pieces centered on two of the season’s biggest releases. First up was Nick Capozzoli and his op-ed on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s paradoxical insistence on its own “realism.” As he breaks down a number of scenes from throughout its campaign, Nick paints the portrait of a game that seems to desperately want its gritty, grim portrayal of war to be taken seriously but also can’t tear itself from its jingoism and familiar, contrived set pieces. The result is a game that ultimately defeats its own purported ambitions. “Only lip service gets paid to regrets,” Nick writes. “That’s true to military life, perhaps. But Modern Warfare also believes, stridently and without reservation, in the heroism of its protagonists, no matter if they sometimes grouse a little about the things they’re asked to do. And how heroic is it, really, to exist completely beyond the grasp of guilt?”
Around the same time and in the wake of Death Stranding’s release, Circle founder Harold Goldberg published an interview with Hideo Kojima. The two get into surprisingly personal territory, with Kojima opening up about the loneliness and depression of his youth, which helped to color Death Stranding’s themes of isolation. The legendary game director also speaks about his parents and the heartbreaking role of his mother during the creation of his new studio and game. Harold summed up the interconnectedness of all this and the way it reflects Kojima’s career beautifully as he wrote: “From Metal Gear to Death Stranding, the DNA of a Kojima game involves confrontations with disquietude and suffering without rendering hope inaccessible. Death Stranding—and the careful, touching way it deals with family, communication, and connections to life and death—is his most fully-realized version of that yet.”
Over on the Critics Circle site, Circle intern and Pokémon mega-fan Isaac Espinosa took us through his impressions of the series’ newest installments, Sword and Shield. While he loved the new monster designs and the way the game handled the long-held tradition of facing down opponents at Pokémon gyms—by turning the battles into massive sporting events—Isaac was majorly let down by the games’ story, which mostly stepped away from the world-threatening drama of so many past games and downplayed the player in a big way. “Plenty of people play Pokemon for the story alone,” he said, “so it’s unfortunate that that story often feels disjointed and uneven, with plot points messily thrown together at the end.”
And finally, also on the Critics Circle site, senior intern Kimari Rennis shared her thoughts on Plants Vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville, the latest third-person shooter entry in EA’s whimsical Plants vs. Zombies series. This is a series that’s very near to Kimari’s heart, so you know it means a lot when she expresses some disappointment in the way EA is trying to integrate a bit of that Fortnite seasonal updating strategy, along with all the currencies and exclusive bits and bobs that come with it, into the game. Thankfully, she notes, none of these things have much of an impact on competitive play, which is a welcome change from its microtransaction-riddled predecessor.
From Beyond The Circle
Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that Riot Games, maker of League of Legends, has agreed to a settlement in the class action lawsuit brought against it by two employees who accused the studio of gender-based discrimination and maintaining a toxic “men-first” environment. As part of that settlement, every woman who worked at Riot between November 2014 and the date of the settlement will be entitled to payment from a $10 million fund, with the actual amount of each payout varying depending on the employee’s length of employment and full-time or contractor status. The agreement, which must still be approved by the courts, marks a major victory in the lengthy struggle to change Riot’s corporate culture and a bit of justice for the women who endured working their.
The story of Riot’s culture of discrimination and harassment exploded into the public consciousness with Cecilia D’Anastasio’s tremendous award-winning expose on the company. Cecilia announced last week she is leaving Kotaku and, in January, will start work at Wired. This makes her yet another super-talented, high-profile departure from the turbulent media company now known as G/O Media. In her goodbye post, she made it clear that the transformation the company has undergone ever since its sale to a private equity firm played a part, no matter how small, in the decision, noting that “among the first things our new private equity bosses did was dissolve the investigative unit I was a part of.” Needless to say, that dissolution is yet another sad blow to what was a vibrant, impactful bastion of investigatory reporting that, as the Riot story goes to show, has led to real, proven, positive change in the world. Thankfully, we can rest assured knowing Cecilia will undoubtedly continue reporting brilliant, important stories at Wired.
That’ll do 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.