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 look back at a poignant game that sneaked in at the tail end of 2019, as well as the last 10 years of Brendon Chung’s brilliant Blendo Games. Plus a few interesting reports from the Consumer Electronics Show and more!
Released in the last days of 2019, just as most critics moved on from new releases and into celebratory best-of-the-year mode, Krillbite Studio launched a decidedly uncelebratory game in the form of Mosaic, a narrative game about a cold world of never-ending work and assessment. Christopher Byrd reviewed Mosaic for The Washington Post, applauding the game’s appropriately drab, minimalist look and commentary on a society obsessed with work and efficiency. It’s just the delivery of that commentary—“too straightforward,” Christopher writes—that lets it down.
Over on Kotaku, Heather Alexandra kicked off the year with a decade retrospective of a different sort, taking this opportunity to mark the 10th anniversary of Brendon Chung’s one-person studio Blendo Games. Under the Blendo banner, Chung has created a series of acclaimed experiments, from the bite-sized first-person narratives of Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving to the code-based hacking of Quadrilateral Cowboy. And in this appreciation, Heather breaks down each of those releases, drawing out what makes them special, quietly subversive games about games and the narratives they tell.
Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, the start of the new year means the start of yet another Consumer Electronics Show, and while the gaming industry has mostly pulled away from CES over the years, PC gaming companies have brought a few interesting toys to this year’s expo. CES veteran Dan Ackerman is at the show and got his hands on one of these super-neat pieces of kit: the Alienware UFO. It’s just a concept piece for now, but it’s essentially a Switch for PC gaming, a Windows-based handheld complete with dockability and slide-on controllers. With all the attention it’s been getting at the show, maybe this nifty gadget will make it to market someday.
Mike Andronico was also on hand at CES, and he reported back with a story about a far less fun and far more terrifying product revealed at the show, Samsung’s NEON project. As Mike tells it, these are AI built to look like, act, and be used as digital humans, screen-bound avatars explicitly designed to replace people in any number of jobs. “In the near future, one will be able to license or subscribe to a NEON as a service representative, a financial adviser, a healthcare provider or a concierge,” reads a Samsung press release. “Over time, NEONs will work as TV anchors, spokespeople, or movie actors; or they can simply be companions and friends.” Nope. Nothing dystopic and terrible about that!
From Beyond The Circle
The drive to unionize the games industry reached its loudest peak last year, with high-profile union leaders and even Bernie Sanders speaking out about the need for game-company employees to organize and protect their rights. This week, Vice reported that the Communications Workers of America, a union representing approximately 700,000 media and tech workers across the country, is leading a campaign to unionize employees of tech and games companies. Called the Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE, naturally), it was the result of collaboration between the CWA and the grassroots Game Workers Unite organization. Emma Kinema, who co-founded Game Workers Unite, is also acting as one of CODE’s lead organizers.
And speaking of workers’ rights, Anya van Wagtendonk, writing for The Washington Post, gave readers a look into the young, unregulated world of performance-capture actors. She paints an image of a wild new performance art, where actors find joy in the freedom and experimentation they’re allowed but must also confront legal gray areas, poor management and pay, and even a disregard for traditional production safety measures. Things are getting better, though, according to her sources.
Finally, we point you to a piece of game-related short fiction published in this week’s edition of the The New Yorker called “Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.” It’s a story about identity and family meeting the endless possibilities of games for both immersion and isolation, told using the framing of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and its unique setting. And its largely autobiographical, informed by author Jamil Jan Kochai’s father’s life in Afghanistan during the Soviet–Afghan War (the real-life historical backdrop for the military opera of Metal Gear Solid V) and his own experiences playing this game and others, where the “heroes” are so often tasked with gunning down men who look just like his father. Kochai talked more about this dissonance and how it inspired not only the plot and themes of this particular story but also the alienating second-person perspective with which it was told in an illuminating interview about the piece on The New Yorker website.
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