By Matt Gerardi
Welcome back to The Roundup, the New York Videogame Critics Circle’s look at our members’ writing and news from around the world of videogames. In this installment, our writers fill us in on the legal battle between Epic and the app stores; Netflix’s new, disappointing game-history docuseries; Warner’s long-awaited game announcements; Geoff Keighley’s latest look behind the scenes at Valve; and a mixed bag of a Paper Mario game. Plus, the Circle’s founder talks about how we’ve been mentoring homeless students throughout the summer and pandemic.
The biggest story that’s unfolded since our last Roundup has to be the legal row between Epic Games and the owners of the two largest mobile app stores: Apple and Google. Epic, not happy with the 30 percent of all app-store-based transactions Apple and Google take from in-app purchases, decided to implement its own payment system in Fortnite to avoid the platform-holder fees, purposefully breaking the tech-companies’ rules and setting off a series of escalations and lawsuits. Samit Sarkar wrote a comprehensive explainer for Polygon that runs down every beat of this wild story and how the fight is affecting players and, potentially, developers.
Following documentary series about con-artist “zoo” owners, action figures, and everything in between, Netflix recently premiered High Score, a look back at figures both big and small from the history of videogames. Joshua Rivera wrote about the highs and lows of the series at The Verge, applauding its desire to highlight important, lesser-known creators from underrepresented communities but also rightfully calling out its unwillingness to confront the industry’s numerous institutional problems. “The series undermines the goodwill garnered by its focus on the marginalized,” he wrote, “glossing over the fact that they are notable in spite of an industry that actively excluded them.”
WB Games played a big part in Warner Bros.’ DC Fandome online event, revealing its slate of upcoming comics-based games. This includes two long-rumored projects: one, Gotham Knights, from WB Montreal and one, Suicide Squad, from Rocksteady, the celebrated studio behind the Arkham series. Sherri Smith covered both announcements and all the trailers and game footage to come out of the even. Of Knights, which appears to be a multiplayer live service game built around the open-world framework of the Arkham series (although it is explicitly not a continuation of it), Sherri notes that “the Arkham Freeflow Combat system is back” and it “proves that a game starring the Bat Family is long overdue.” Suicide Squad isn’t scheduled to launch until way out in 2022, but judging by the high-energy trailer, Sherri thinks it “looks like it will be much more fun that that horrible Suicide Squad movie.”
On the Circle site, Senior Intern Ronald Gordon gave us his review of Half-Life: Alyx – The Final Hours, Geoff Keighley’s behind-the-scenes look at the making of Valve’s first Half-Life game in nearly thirteen years. Keighley has been there to tell these stories about every other major Half-Life release. His latest report takes the form of an interactive app that includes traditional journalistic storytelling matched with puzzles and other interactive elements to go inside Valve’s struggle to figure out where Half-Life should go next. Ronald loved those interactive elements for the way they helped draw him in to the studio’s story and process, and he came away feeling that “Keighley’s masterful recounting of how Valve Software trudged through thirteen years of development made me really appreciate the time it takes to bring a good game to completion.”
Also on the Circle site, Senior Intern Isaac Espinosa shared some of his thoughts on Paper Mario: The Origami King. Isaac appreciated all the personality that went into Nintendo’s latest crafty Mario adventure—a lovable cast, reams of witty dialogue, beautiful visuals and music—but he wasn’t a fan of the game’s experimental, puzzle-like combat system. Still, he felt it was “a beautiful and emotional adventure all the way through” and “that the positives definitely outweigh the negatives.”
Circle founder Harold Goldberg also recently took to the Circle site to start chronicling the group’s mentoring efforts from throughout the pandemic. The shut down of schools and services during this difficult time has made the adverse situations of many New York City students that much more difficult. Through the Circle’s podcast with Reggie, we were able to raise funds to help us teach about games and writing to students living in shelters. Harold’s first dispatch recounts how difficult—but rewarding, of course—it’s been to make that work during times of shut downs and social distancing.
From Beyond The Circle
On the eve of the announcement of Rocksteady’s Suicide Squad project, The Guardian published a report detailing an alleged history of sexual harassment instead the studio. According to The Guardian, in November of 2018, 10 of the company’s 16 female employees (out of the 250 to 300 total employees, to give you an idea of how male-dominated the company is) signed a letter to studio management “accusing the studio of failing to prevent sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior in the office.” Rocksteady initially confirmed the existence of the letter to The Guardian, saying that it had taken these concerns seriously and spent the last two years implementing way to address them. Writer Kim MacAskill later published a video corroborating the details of the letter, as well as specific instances of misconduct, the studio’s failure to address it, and the alienation and “troublemaker” branding she felt was being forced on her for speaking out. Rocksteady later released a statement it claims was signed by eight of the 10 women involved in the original letter and who still work at the studio. It expresses support for the studio and its handling of the original letter, noting that the company took “immediate action” and implemented further efforts over the intervening two years.
The newest Call Of Duty installment was announced this week, and it’s already inspiring some great, rightfully concerned criticism. Black Ops Cold War, as it’s titled, is going back to the ’80s. It prominently features a photorealistic Ronald Reagan delivering the player orders to go on clandestine, war-crime operations to “save the free world.” That’s bad enough, but as Kotaku’s Ian Walker points out, the game’s adoption of far-right conspiracy theories and “learning from history” as central themes of its plot and marketing campaign is distressing—if not downright irresponsible given the role malicious conspiracy theories, not unlike those the game is utilizing, are playing in mobilizing very real hate and violence across the country. Regardless of creator intent, seeing these ideas in a massively popular work of fiction like Black Ops Cold War, where they’re presented not just as plausible but as calls to patriotic action, only serves to further mainstream these theories and embolden those who use them to oppress and harm others. And as Ian’s piece notes, this isn’t just us critics getting in a tizzy and prognosticating about the harms one videogame might do; believers in these conspiracy theories, who’ve had their entire views about social justice and marginalized people warped by them, are already celebrating this as a win and an opportunity to indoctrinate more people to far-right thinking, something online gaming communities have already proven way too good at doing. In short: This ain’t it, Activision.
On a happier note, we’re super proud to share that Harry Rabinowitz, a former Circle intern who also previously worked on indie hit Slay the Spire, has released “Flowers from the Lost”, a 40+ page adventure for the Quest pen-and-paper role-playing system. The story, which centers on strange happenings and shared dreams in a small village, is available for purchase on itch.io, and comes complete with lovely original illustrations and printable cards for items, characters, and monsters.
That’ll do it for this Roundup. Thank you for reading, and we’ll see you next soon.
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.