Monday, December 31, 2012

Why The Walking Dead is the Game of the Year 2012

I warn you, traveller, before you step any further in. This journey is not one to be undertaken quite lightly. There are spoilers ahead. I know that everybody wants to avoid them when talking about this game, but I have to use them for this take on it. I will try to make them as mild as possible, but I refuse to take any blame for you discovering things here that you really should have discovered there.

Ok? Do we understand each other? I am going to tell you things, and you are NOT going to complain if they are things you would rather not know. By now, there is absolutely no reason at all for you not to have become acquainted with the subject of my discourse, but there are events that transpire which you may have no idea of.

We need to talk about Kenny.

Redneck asshole

Kenny, not to put to fine a point on it, annoyed me. He wound me up. With his insistence that I back him up at all times, with his overtly aggressive position, and with his almost complete uselessness, I frequently hoped to be given choices that would just get this turd out of my face. Like, when we were trying to start that train. Dude just sat there in the driver's seat, but kept on saying "I don't know anything about trains." THEN WHY THE HELL ARE YOU ON IT? For fuck's sake, man, go sort your zombie kid out instead of letting Katjaa carry that can. Why must I do everything? I just fought off that undead bastard in that car to give your kid some sweets, and what do you do? Sit there looking confused by the train controls, despite having manuals and stuff to hand.

I get it, I really do, that Kenny had a bit of a big shock to his system in the third episode. But, you know what? He was getting on my last nerve long before then. His mistrust of the St. Johns turned out to be well founded, but it was originally based on nothing more than "I don't know these guys, so I don't want to like them."

I made the decision early on to not let anybody die if I could help it. Kenny, on the other hand, has some quite serious bloodlust. He actively pushes towards killing members of the group on more than one occassion, even going so far as to pull the brick trigger himself. I simply did not like the character. But I would always have tried to save him if he ever once got into anything resembling trouble. Even though all he could really do was obsess about getting onto a bloody boat, I was determined to keep him alive. I didn't mean to agree with him and leave that girl to the zombies, I actually tried to shoot the zombies around her, not realising that my decision was supposed to be kill her myself. So, I found it particularly aggrevating when he told the group that we only survived because of it.

Kenny is a prick. He is quite unlikeable, and he does some very unlikeable things. And that is what makes him so brilliant. And by extension, what makes The Walking Dead so brilliant.

Should the dead really start reanimating, it is a pretty safe bet that you will be stuck with some people that you would otherwise not choose to be spending time with. Carley knew who I was, and knew my history, but didn't care. Larry knew, and cared enough to use it as a threat. If Kenny knew, I can imagine he would not have let me anywhere near his truck even after I saved his kid's life.

That is what encapsulates the real genius of Telltale Game's masterpiece. It is the quality of the writing that shines through. I DON'T LIKE Kenny. They have created a character who is so well written that I genuinely wanted the chance to hit him, and welcomed it like a long lost friend when it came to me in episode 3. He got under my skin in a way that no other game character has ever managed to. Not even Dominic Santiago, who bought a tear to my eye when he shot his wife instead of HIS STUPID SELF, has managed to bug me to the levels that Kenny did.

I can forgive the bugs and glitches. That Katjaa was sat there for the majority of episode 3 cradling an invisible Duck may have impacted upon the atmosphere if I had allowed it to. I chose to just not notice. That certain characters randomly appeared and relocated a few times was nothing more than an unfortunate thing, and not any kind of gamebreaker. I didn't focus on the mechanical, and left it to the dramatic to carry the story. I was not let down in any way, in fact I was rewarded most handsomely.

Games have long been criticised for the lack of quality in their writing. Generally, it is for a good reason. Writers have tried to do movie and book tricks, which have almost all failed to translate. Telltale have actually managed to write a good game, by only using movie and book style writing where it would fit. The decision mechanic is a pristine example of great game writing. What I mean by game writing is to utilise the medium in a way that plays to its stengths. Like in Heavy Rain, where Jason goes missing. The sense of panic imbued by having Jason constantly on the periphery of your vision, but OH SO MANY PEOPLE getting in the way of you catching up to him. Or in Modern Warfare, where you are struggling to get out of the crashed helicopter. These are feelings that words can't replicate. Having a time limit in which to decide what to say bypasses a major drama-killer, and actually amplifies the drama of the situation.

The Walking Dead got me invested in it more than most games manage. Generally, I find story gets in the way of a good game. The very best games allow me to create my own story, rather than play a substandard Hollywood wannabe's. The Walking Dead walks a very fine line between the story that is told, and the story I get to tell. It does this by using real game writing to give me key moments of control, and then using good standard writing to move the story on. The person of Kenny may not have been entirely to my liking, but the believability of him certainly was. And that, more than anything, is why The Walking Dead is the best game released in 2012.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012


I had a dream the other night. It was of a gaming dystopia set in the near future. At first glance everything looked shiny and new, but scratch beneath the surface and you would find a games industry rife with greed, ineptitude and unhealthy relationships. A games industry where new consoles were rushed out the door requiring immediate patches, where renowned games designers would rely on the generosity of the public so they could make more money, where games with broken mechanics would be alarmingly common, where the quest for profit resulted in the annualisation of the uncreative, and an industry where journalists and publishers would accept their sickly dependence as status quo.

However I didn’t wake up for I was already awake. I asked myself “Where and when did it all go so hideously wrong?”

Last month (or three years ago if you are watching this on Dave) saw the release of Nintendo’s new console, the Wii Mini. Just kidding, although I did find it rather baffling that Nintendo would release a miniature version of their Wii console exclusively (albeit timed) at the same time as their world wide release of the console I really wanted to talk about, the Wii U. Fans queued, the press cooed and Iwata poo-pooed. Well two out of three ain’t bad.

Isiah Triforce Johnson was the first person in the world to start lining up for the Wii U, a full 27 days ahead of its release. The NYPD had to put a stop to this when Hurricane Sandy blew into town (however his space was kindly reserved for him for when he returned back when all was safe). Although he is quite clearly a little bit bonkers I must confess a modicum of admiration to someone who is that dedicated to one developer. Never again shall I throw the term ‘fanboy’ around in such a willy-nilly fashion.

Although the console has sold well thus far its reception has been somewhat mixed. Some people loved the ‘new’ technology, while others remained sceptical. Some developers leapt to its praise while Nintendo’s share price was taking a nose dive on the stock market. "This new controller really revolutionises the traditional pad”. “Nintendo Wii sucks”. It’s difficult to gauge just how good the Wii U is, or will be. As with any console it is only as strong as the games you get on it and if the Wii is anything to go by I’m not going to be holding my breath. However, I digress.

The real news about the Wii U was the Day-One Patch that accompanied it; a patch so large that many users shut their consoles off mid-download only to find that in doing so it crippled their machines. The patch was necessary because Nintendo shipped the consoles with missing functionality, one must assume to ensure they were in the stores in time for the holiday period. Nintendo president Satoru Iwata actually apologised for the fiasco, saying “I feel very sorry for the fact that purchasers of Wii U have to experience a network update which takes such a long time, and that there are the services which were not available at the hardware's launch.”

According to IGN he also said “I always and strictly tell Nintendo employees never to use the term 'success' to describe our own performance”. Personally I think not calling Nintendo’s day-one patch a success is a bit like not calling Nick Leeson an honest and cautious trader.

Nintendo must have known some time ago that their product was not consumer-ready, however such is the allure of getting your product out in time for Christmas they were prepared to take any flack heading their way and issue a monstrous patch via the www. Iwata comes out and says a half-hearted ‘Sorry’, all the while knowing it means sweet fuck all because a) they’ve got their product where they want it to be, and b) we, the public, are lapping it up. My main umbrage here is that all of this seems perfectly okay.

Thanks to the internet these patches have now seemingly become industry standard on every console.  I note with particular irreverence the frequency with which the PS3 is susceptible to these patches and the amount of time each one takes. The 360 is not immune either. I remember once watching Professor Brian Cox on The Wonders of the Universe explain with a sand pile and a sand castle how the second law of thermodynamics works; that entropy can never decrease. The games industry today has its own perverse equivalent: The First Law of Gaming Dynamics states that with time the number of patches you will need on your console will also increase. In some ways the fact that a fix can be sent down a wire to your house is a blessing, but it does mean that a developer/publisher can rush a broken product out safe in the knowledge that their profits won’t be dented in the process. There is a part of me that feels this is simply wrong.

Talking of broken products let’s not forget 22Cans’ “Curiosity”, a game (sorry, I meant social experiment) burdened with its own popularity. Apparently there were just too many of us curious cats enthusiastically tapping away at all of those little cubes. Peter Molyneux et al hideously underestimated the social side of the experiment, so much so that they had to shut the damned thing down while they put a more suitable server in place to cope with the demand. All of this did nothing to diminish my apathy towards what might actually be lurking within the belly of the cubed beast, however at least it wasn’t another fucking patch.

What has irked me since then was the announcement that Peter Molyneux’s next project would be a kickstarter to pay for his reinvention of Bullfrog’s 80’s classic “Populous”. Now for those of you who are unaware of what a kickstarter is think of it in terms of a charity. Basically you/me/the general public can donate money to these projects to help them fulfil their dreams. For this you might be eventually rewarded, or not (for example for a donation of $X you get a copy of the game when it’s released, or one of the characters/places is named after you, etc). I guess the original idea for them was to help new, small, independent developers realise their goals when more traditional publishing routes were either unavailable or unwanted. From this point of view kickstarters are a great idea.

However let’s not even begin to think of Peter Molyneux as anything like new, small or independent. Even the rotting corpse of Milo cannot detract us from one of the biggest names in the gaming world. He helped bring us Syndicate, Theme Park, Fable and of course Populous. He definitely isn’t what you might call unknown and untested. I cannot image him being short of a bob or two either. Regardless of his own personal fortunes (or lack thereof) it’s impossible to conceive the idea of him as being unable to find the resources to make this reinvention (read: remake) from happening. So why the hell is he asking for a kickstarter? Is this another one of his experiments? Is this just him being a bit greedy, relying on our good will and naivety to pay for his next game? Or is there some other tacit reason behind him asking for handouts? I’m not sure, and while I remain so I certainly won’t be handing over any of my spondoolies.

That said, I don’t want to label Molynuex as a bad man. Aloof maybe, but at least he is yet to start milking the proverbial cash cow by adopting another industry standard: annualising his video games. Can someone please tell me how these annual games releases are helping us in any way?

I’m not sure when it even started. The first one I can remember was FIFA, but a short trip to Wiki-land tells me that EA were doing it with NFL and PGA games three years or so earlier (I don’t remember buying an American Football game ever, and I’ve only ever bought one Tiger Woods PGA title, so I hereby forgive myself for not know that little bit of trivia). Back then it wasn’t such common practise, and there was a little je ne c’est pas about a shiny, new game which more accurately reflected your football team of choice. Of course I was a lot younger back then, less cynical and perhaps didn’t see them for what they really are: updates.

Can you seriously tell me that FIFA 13 is oh so different to FIFA 12? Is Black Ops 2 so drastically different to Modern Warfare 3? Is Medal of Honor 2 in any way, shape or form an improvement from Battlefield 3? What you are paying for here is another patch. You end up with essentially the same game you had before but with a new skin and perhaps a new game mode. FIFA 13 is just FIFA 12 but with updated teams, players and kits. Black Ops 2 is just Modern Warfare 3 with some new maps. I’d like to say Medal of Honor 2 is just Battlefield 3 but it isn’t even that. It’s just shit.

That a company releases the same game every year isn’t inherently annoying. What is preposterous is the fact you have to pay the full retail price for the privilege. Let’s not forget to add to this the cost of the season pass or premium membership which gives you access to even more maps. Usually this is the same cost as buying the game in the first place, essentially doubling the price. If you choose not to buy these extras good luck finding a game. Alternatively you could just hang on to your old game and hope that there are enough people out there who share you point of view, but there aren’t. Such is our want for all things new that it’s only a matter of time before yesterday’s video games boxes are used to carry home tonight’s fish and chips.

Having said all of this, at least those games work. The Black Ops 2 campaign was a huge pile of wank, but the multiplayer is just as strong as ever. I stopped playing Call of Duty for a couple of years while I engrossed myself into the world of Battlefield. Coming back took some adjustment, but I am actually enjoying it. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I prefer it to Battlefield and Bad Company; in fact I would say that different enough from each other to avoid direct comparison. I love the huge playing arenas proffered to us by EA and DICE. You get to drive tanks and helicopters. Games can go on for half an hour or so and teamwork is a lot more common. But then I just as much like the unadulterated kicks you get from Call of Duty. The smaller, twisty, maze-like maps that are more like a paint-ball park than real warfare. I like being able to customize my set up to just the way I want it. And as much as it pains me I like the prestige that comes with prestige. It’s not something I have achieved yet in Blops2, but I am edging closer.

Now take a couple of examples from other games I recently started playing: Lego Lord of the Rings and Magic the Gathering Duels of the Planeswalkers. Before I lay into these too much I feel I should say I have been a fan of both Magic and Lego for years. I don’t have anything against Wizards of the Coast and/or Tt per se. In fact how could I possibly think about disparaging anyone who has successfully wasted so much of my time? I have been addicted to the Lego games for a long time, to the point now where my son and I have completed (and I mean COMPLETED) Lego Batman 2 three times. I cannot tell you how much I was looking forward to LotR. I have also loved Magic the Gathering since I first started playing the trading card game back around the year 2000. I still have my original decks in the loft in my house. There was a group of four to six of us who would play every Sunday evening around one of our houses. Games would last for hours and would quite often be tense, but they were great times. I’m not even really sure why it all stopped.

Anyway I bought Lego Lord of the Rings and played through the campaign without too much fuss. It was all going so nicely until I started exploring the open world of Middle Earth to find the collectibles (the mithril and red bricks, characters, etc). To aid you in this quest you can go into the map and set up a marker, then when you return to the game you have a trail of opaque, blue Lego coins to follow. Only sometimes they will take you off in the wrong direction (and while this doesn’t sound like much I can guarantee it’s not something you want to happen in a game where you are already investing so much of your time trying to complete it). When it first happened I thought I was being stupid; the next time I thought I was going mad; the twentieth time made me start swearing at the TV. Now I’m not a particularly sweary person at home, in fact I cannot recall the last time I ever uttered a profanity whilst playing CoD or BF; and so please bear in mind Lego LotR is a game designed for kids.

This alone probably isn’t enough to warrant my wrath, but even when you do find what you are looking for Tt have made it needlessly difficult to actually get your hands on some of them. For some unknown reason they have managed to make the camera angles even worse in this game. They’ve also made jumping from platform to platform (particularly over water) more like a war of attrition than a test of skill. I’m all for making games a bit more difficult, but crappy camera angles and controls that don’t give you the right influence over your character are not the way to go about it.

It’s a similar story with Magic the Gathering. For the most part the game plays perfectly well, however there were a few occasions when the broken game mechanics really pissed me off. On one particular occasion I was in a four-way battle, playing with my favoured green deck against white, blue and another green. The game had been going for some time. The blue deck and other green deck had been killed off. It was me against whitey. He had a life total of over 500 as compared to my somewhat pathetic 15. All was not lost though, as I was able to summon some huge creatures which were getting +1/+1 for each forest I controlled. There were a lot of creatures on the playing field, to the point that there were too many creatures on the playing field for the targeting system to work properly. Things got so congested that I couldn’t tell if I was blocking the right creature or not. I was guessing and hoping that nothing was getting through my defences, and low and behold one of the buggers got through. I was so annoyed; not at myself but at the game for not giving me the control I need to play the game

When you are playing the four player game the screen can get really busy, so much so that it can become unplayable. As if that wasn’t bad enough shortly after this I found a bug in the game which meant I couldn’t stop playing the same game over and over again. I couldn’t quit or concede, and even when I finished the game it wouldn’t let me back to the campaign ladder. There was literally nothing I could do except delete the game and all of the Game Centre achievements that went with it. On the one hand I am glad it was only a demo version of the game, and that I hadn’t spent the full price finding out what a frustrating annoyance it was. Yet on the other had I am sad that my most recent endeavours into a beloved past could be met with this level of ineptitude.

Crappy consoles and crappy games, could it get any worse? Well let us not forget the debacle that is now lovingly called Doritosgate. For a while back in 2012 the games industry recoiled at the seemingly insidious and insipid relationship between the games press and PR companies. Accusations were flung around, there was a threat of legal action, more was said, less was said, and in the end a few companies held their hands up and said they would be more transparent. However the damage was already done and an industry already blemished with charges of corruption and bias found itself being tarred once again with its own brush.
For some reason the journalists took a lot of the flack for all of this (and they are certainly not blameless in the saga). Yet with so much the finger pointing going on I found it amazing that more phalanges weren’t being aimed at the practises of PR companies.

I know of one games website that has been pretty much shunned by one of the major publishers thanks to some negative press they took umbrage to. As a result this website doesn’t get invited to all the pre-release events any more, thus missing out on vital content that other websites are running. Less content will inevitably mean fewer hits. Fewer hits means your website isn’t as valuable for advertising, and thus your revenue and profits take a hit.

Is it any wonder that journalists are tempted by the need to suck up sometimes? Is it not just a little bit wrong that the people selling the games should hold so much power? Luckily I’m not in a position to have to make the moral choice between writing what I feel to be the truth and having to pay the bills. It’s not something I ever look forward to doing. This is one of the beauties of a blog; that a lot of the corporate, towing the line bullshit is removed from the equation. I just feel a bit sorry for the writers who got caught up in all of this while the profiteering back scratchers yet again get away with it.

Perhaps this is a dream after all. Perhaps I am asleep in a room somewhere, with my arm plugged into an intravenous drip as it pumps a sedative compound throughout my body. I’m not sure if this is a dream, or a dream within a dream, or a dream within a dream within a dream. The mission is the inception of the idea that things have to change. New consoles should not be released until they are ready, kickstarters are for those who really need them, broken games do not get released, if games are annualised then you don’t pay the normal, full RRP and where the actions of PR companies are transparent enough to give us more faith in what they do.

I don’t know who this idea needs to be aimed at yet. I’m hoping the compound will give us enough time to find the right person or, more likely, collection of people. Perhaps the people who really need to grasp the idea are us, the general public. Stand up and say enough is enough. Maybe as individuals we don’t have the strength to demand more from these companies, but as a collective we can have more say and ask for better. 

It's just an idea.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Wear something fancy...

Hotline Miami is a very scary game.

Not traditionally scary. It isn't a game filled with zombies, ghosts, or demons. All your enemies are human, or canine. They have no supernatural abilities, and are found in regular everyday locations. Nothing ever jumps out at you. There are no bizarre camera tricks or sound effects messing with your perceptions. There is really just the blood to worry about.

(A lot of blood. Bucketfuls of the stuff. Perhaps the most blood yet seen in a videogame. Or, if not, then certainly the most blood you have ever perceived in one.)

Nor is it a particularly scary story. Or even, for that matter, a particularly present one. We are walking down well-travelled pathways here. Our nameless protagonist receives a phone call, detailing a job at an address. We go there, we go in, and we kill everyone on the premises. We never know why, or even who, we are killing. We just know that they all must die at our hands. It's hardly Frankenstein. The sequences between the assignments are a touch odd, in a Travis Bickle way, but never overtly so. Narration is absent, and reason must be entirely inferred.

It is not even the atmosphere which is scary. To all intents and purposes you are playing an extremely stripped down version of Vice City. The garish neon-tinged colour scheme evokes the spirit of the 1980's as completely as Rockstar's classic does, albeit in a heavily stylised manner. The two-dimensional top-down view is that of some very blocky sprites. The blood that flows is a uniform red, and pixellated to the extent that you will wonder if you are playing a 10 year old mobile phone game. Graphically lacking in detail, it looks more like a kids cartoon than the brutal journey you will experience.

You can't even blame the music. You have to talk about the music, because it is SO FUCKING COOL, but it is primarily used to set the tempo of the game. The kind that overpowers the nonsense in between the levels due to its sheer brilliance, but becomes your own inner soundtrack so that you don't even notice it driving you when the action heats up.

None of these things are scary. All of these things combined are not even scary.

What IS scary, and what makes Hotline Miami such an unforgettable ride, is two little slices of genius design decision making.

The first is that you are, quite simply, fragile. A single bullet from a single foe will end you. Even an unarmed thug can take you out with one hit. If they hear you, they come looking for you. If they see you, they come at you. If they attack first, you die. No second chances, no health pickups, no messing about of any kind. Death is instant. Your only hope when they carry a gun is that they miss with their first shot. Thankfully, the enemies are just as susceptible to punishment as you are, and can be put down just as quickly. A single bullet generally does the trick, although you also might miss, and then face the realisation that the rest of them probably heard you and are already on their way and OHSHITHESNOTDEADYET. Suddenly, decision making is paramount, as it takes precious time to finish off a body that is downed but not out. Kicking them in the head, strangling them, beating their head repeatedly against the floor; they get it done, but leave you open to attack.

You have to be quick. You need to know, instinctively, how to tackle the room. To measure the odds, have a plan for what EXACTLY you need to do as soon as you open that door, because as soon as you do the next half a second determines if is they who die or you.

A lot of the time, it is you. Death is not only instant, it is inevitable. Hotline Miami asks an awful lot of you, and carries within it a hefty level of challenge. You will retry levels countless times, refining your approach with every press of the R key. Getting slightly closer to your goal with every attempt, until finally you are the only soul left alive.

At which point, moment of genius number two makes itself known. The music, which you were barely aware of, stops. Suddenly, everything is silent, all is still. You are done, everyone is dead, and all that is left is to vacate the premises. This involves walking past the scores of dead bodyguards that litter the floor. 

It's eerily quiet now.

Are they bodyguards? I'm not sure, I've never been told. They just seem as if they are. I don't even know if they are bad guys. The only certainty I can cling to is - "I did this. I killed them", and all because a phone call, which didn't even mention murder, told me to come here.

Hotline Miami is a very scary game. It is scary because it is insidious. The violence should be sickening. The aesthetic leans terrifyingly towards a celebration of murder, even going so far as to have you don an animal mask as you viciously assault identikit enemies over and over and over. Ostensibly, this is to endow you with abilities, but at the same time you feel that this is just because THAT IS WHAT PSYCHOS DO, HAHAHAH! The eerie calm after the storm gives you pause to reflect as you walk back past all those you slaughtered in their respective pools of blood, before the next tiny slice of cut-scene hints even more strongly that something just isn't right in this world. The world even twists ever so slightly as you walk, and everything external to your goal is indeterminate, as if it exists but is not worth you paying attention to.

It is probably as close as games have ever come to being a genuine "murder simulator", because it leaves no room to describe it as anything but. The bodycount is high, but it feels astronomical due to playing through each floor of each building countless times. The background nature of the story further erodes any moral high ground, and there are even questions to be asked before we can say it has a neutral morality. The counter argument is, of course, the extreme difficulty. There can be no doubt that, according to this game at least, murder is a dangerous and difficult career path.

Hotline Miami is a very scary game. It is also a very good one.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Why Borderlands 2 is the best game available right now.

Borderlands 2 is my main contender for Game of the Year. I also don't see this changing any time soon. It is, in fact, so good that it may also be my Game of Next Year. To quote internet parlance; "GOTY, ALL YEARS."

Why would this be? What is so special about Borderlands 2, which is little more than a refinement of the first title? Aren't I the guy who keeps on banging on about "Let's have less of the same old stuff, and try new things", who has nearly given up on AAA altogether because they are just about "Bigger, faster, more"?

Yes, I am that guy. I do prefer it when games try and steer themselves away from what everyone else is doing.

The important thing with Borderlands 2, though, is that the word they have concentrated on is "MORE". And, the way they have concentrated on it is to make it more of a game.

There are more locations. There are more guns. There are more characters, more missions, and there will no doubt be more DLC. This is all entirely predictable, expected, and clearly does more than enough to satisfy the marketing men at 2K.

What is not so predictable is when you see some blocky scenery that looks like it came from MineCraft. And, when you hit it like you do in MineCraft, it breaks. What it reveals is an area that is populated by Creepers, THE signature enemy from MineCraft. The exploding bastards from a completely different type of game are in Borderlands 2, and there is no reason for it. It is a hidden Easter Egg, one which you need to go off the beaten path to find. No hints as to its existence are found anywhere in the game itself, it is just there to BE there, and be fun.

It's a magical moment. It would have been even more magical if I had not already known about it, but I at least managed to not find out how to get to it. It was during a play session with a friend who knew which zone we needed to be in that we got to it, and we both searched for it whilst playing through the game in a normal fashion. Not achievement-hunting (there is no achievement for it), not grinding for loot, just having a laugh shooting countless mobs and picking up even countlesser guns.

I still hate these guys even when I can shoot them

It almost felt like the days before the internet, where you might have come across one of these instances in a game, but were far more likely to have heard about it from someone else. It is so well hidden, in fact, that people playing without the aid of the internet could quite easily play the entire game through multiple times and never find it.

It is just one of many references to other games buried away in Borderlands 2. Actually, it is more than just the games that Gearbox refer to. What they actually do is take a look at the parts of games that reach outside the confines of the screen, and incorporate them into their own universe. Hence, there is a robot called Jimmy Jenkins, who charges into battle without adequate planning beforehand. Claptrap smashes the 4th wall by revealing that his stash exists "for twinking items between your characters". Frequently, it is confident enough to remind you that you are not just playing a game, but that you are playing one of MANY games.

And why shouldn't it? Many games have, through the years, stepped outside of the boundaries they were created in and crossed into popular culture. Some are household names. It is more strange to think that a game world where nobody know who Mario is would be more believable than one where Mario adorns a shop window. Movies, books, TV, and even pop music videos all pay homage to the greats, and I love that games are finally getting the balls to do it as well.

This is evidence that our hobby is evolving. It is standing on its own two feet, and is prepared to look to itself for support as it takes steps forwards. It may be finally about to cast off the shackles imposed by trying to copy other artforms, and is ready to emerge with its own identity. Its own frame of reference, and its own history. Because, until games stop trying to be interactive versions of everything else, they will only ever be looked upon as inferior to everything else.

Games can do things that other entertainments can't. A film or book would struggle to convey the same emotional panic that Heavy Rain managed to when trying to catch up to Jason. Or would be less impactful than climbing out of the helicopter, barely able to move, before succumbing to your fate as Modern Warfare was. Those famous twists at the end of The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects? As great as they were, they did not hit me with the same kind of sledgehammer blow that the ending of Braid managed.

So, game developers everywhere; Would you kindly do more of this sort of thing?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Suddenly ... a genuine treat appeared.

It's not really fair to call To The Moon a game. Game is still a word that draws negative connotations. Critics dismiss games, as if they are somehow not worthy of having time spent upon them. They are automatically classified as throwaway entertainment, low brow diversions for the masses, and are not given the respect that they, at times, deserve. They can't possibly engage you, so the time worn comparison goes, to the same extent as a book does.

But then, this coin has two faces. To describe it as interactive fiction would mean that large chunks of gamers will simply refuse to give it a fair crack of the whip. They are put off by the lack of action, or the long passages where characters simply converse with each other. Games, they argue, are meant to be challenging. If I wanted a story I'd read a book.

Both arguments are, frankly, nonsensical. To The Moon is neither game nor interactive fiction, at exactly the same time as it is both. Traditional gameplay elements are present, in admittedly limited form, but the focus is absolutely upon telling the story.

And, what an exceptional story it is! A tale of regret, of hardship, and ultimately of love.

We are first introduced to Drs. Watts and Rosemary, two specialists in a rather extraordinary field. Utilising a special machine, they are able to enter the memories of a client, and alter them to fulfill any desire. They achieve this by finding links to earlier memories, and working backwards through the clients life until they are able to make a change that sticks. This then has the effect of altering the clients perception of their life. It is almost exactly halfway between Inception and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in its scope.

For client, read patient. The downside of this transformation is that the effort means that once the client has undergone the procedure, they have just enough time to wake up before dying, blissfully happy. It is for this reason that it is only ever done on people who are close to death.

Our patient is an old man called Johnny. His wish is to go to the moon. We don't know why, we just know that our task is to go through his life, in reverse, until we get to his childhood where we can implant that wish along with the desire to make it happen. And so, we embark upon a journey through his life, wherein we meet his deceased wife River, discover why his favourite food is pickled olives, and learn why River kept on making origami rabbits.

As we progress, we find ourselves having to infer most of the important details for ourselves. This game is brave enough to trust that we are able to decipher the clues and pick up on the cues. The subject matter that is breached could be quite hefty stuff indeed, but we never have to sit through any painful chunks of exposition. By the end of the experience, you remember it more for what it specifically didn't tell you than for what it did. One word, in particular, is notable for its complete abscence. In a medium which tends to treat its participants as imbeciles and thus bludgeons us with its points, this is an extremely welcome change of pace.

You see this lighthouse a lot. It is important!

It becomes one of those games where it is impossible to talk about what makes it so good, for fear of spoiling it for the next player. And, you will want to turn your friends into players. The 2D top-down 16-bit JRPG style presentation will be both tool and barrier in this regard, as some will happily jump on board where others will sneer at the apparent simplicity of the graphics. Thankfully, nobody will be put off by the music, which is deployed to devastating effect at key moments. Kan Gao is quite happy to manipulate our emotions, and it could all prove too much for some. Tears will almost certainly form, and may even leave your eyes before your 5 or so hours are up.

It plays us almost as much as we play it. Tension is frequently broken by jokes from Dr. Watts, who is clearly meant to be an everygeek. Dr. Rosemary is his more serious foil, and the interplay between the two is of the sort one would expect from colleagues who have worked together for a long time. The sense that they exist outside of the game space is tangible, and with their approaches to the job it feels very much like these are just two people having a trickier day at work than usual.

It is rare enough that games can be lauded for their story. Far too often the same old tropes are wheeled out, as if game stories are built in factories by randomly grabbing at the blocks that go past on the conveyor belt. When they do have a story to tell, it is often handled clumsily. To The Moon is not just an example of telling a story well, but also having a story that would live outside of its game. This would make for an entertaining movie.

Games that prioritise story have tried different approaches in the past. Heavy Rain turned as much as possible into an interactive element, whereas Dear Esther went to the extreme opposite end of the scale. Neither quite reached the heights that they were capable of, being too entrenched in their respective positions. To The Moon inhabits a curious space in the middle, where game like aspects are present, but only when they serve the purpose of the narrative. For the most part, interactions are limited to walking about with a few straightforward puzzles, and not even the few dialogue choices make any noticeable difference. There is no fail state at any point.

But to complain about any of that would be looking for problems when there is no need. What matters more than the individual parts is the sum, the overall experience itself. That is what Freebird Games has absolutely nailed, and that is why you should dive in and try it for yourself. This industry has challenged my reflexes for more than 30 years now, it is about time it started challenging my preconceptions too.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The great FIFA plea!

From the windows at the back of my house, the major facet of the view is a football pitch. It is quite the local focus at times, with days when two or three matches are played. Sometimes, when I look out, I see a practice session taking place. This proximity pleases me greatly, because I have a 5 year old son. Naturally, I would love it if he were to take an interest, and start to play football. It looks very much like he doesn't care, but he is only 5. There is time yet.

My daughter is not yet 3. She doesn't sit with me when I am watching a match on TV. But, she does like to stand on her blanket box and watch when there are matches taking place outside. I truly don't know if she really likes it, or if she would just do anything rather than go to bed. I strongly suspect it is the latter, but just in case I tend to let her get away with it for a while.

A girl who is interested in football might seem like an unusual thing to some. It isn't where I live. And this is not least because about half of the matches that I have seen played on that field have been played between two teams of female players. It is, in fact, the ground where Longhougton Rangers Ladies play their home matches.

So, my daughter is growing up in an environment where it is definitely the norm for girls to play football. She didn't really care so much during the Olympics, as she was generally in bed when the Team GB Ladies played their games, but in 4 years time this may be a different story. (Assuming, of course, that Team GB even enter the football in Rio!) By then, she may well have seen so much football on the local field that she not only wants to also watch on TV, but may even want to play for herself. Which is good, because she won't have to go too far at all.

And, as she gets older, she may even want to play football on one of the games consoles. So far, all she has ever bothered to play is Skylanders, but she does love grabbing the controller to switch them on. It is just a matter of time before she shows interest in other games as well. Her brother recently inherited his own copy of FIFA 09, which he is insistent on playing even though I actually bought FIFA 12. Since she adores her brother, I have no doubt that she will force her way into playing alongside him. Maybe they will argue over who gets to be Liverpool? (I can but hope, even though right now I question why I would want to inflict being an LFC supporter onto anybody at all, let alone two people I love.)

Sadly, what she won't be able to do is to play as a Ladies team. None of the FIFA games offer this option. This is despite the ever increasing popularity of the women's game, as well as the ever increasing amounts of females playing and buying games. For whatever reason, EA have done their internal maths and decided that the cost to implement women's football into the game would be more than they would expect to recoup.

Understandable? I thought so.

At first.

But then, I thought about it a little more. And I came to a somewhat obvious conclusion.

Dear EA Sports. You know that catcphrase you use? I think you need to stop using it.

"If it's in the game, it's in the game."

Oh dear. That desn't quite add up, really. Clearly, this is a sizeable aspect that is NOT in the game at all.

Please, EA, think about this. My daughter is already going to grow up in a world where she won't be treated the same as her brother will by many. She will be held to a different set of standards, because there is not full equality between the sexes as things stand. You show this yourselves, by simply not including females in any of your sports games. With a title that sees a new release every single year, often updating little but the playing rosters, what genuine reason is there to not push this boat out and see how many fish it catches?

Let's face it, the games industry in general could use the positive press. EA, you could especially benefit from having something positive to announce, to deflect at least a small part of the bile and hatred that the gaming community is oh so ready to throw your way.

I'll put it another way, shall I? I hereby promise to not buy another FIFA game UNTIL you include women's teams. I don't care how many litle marketing gimmicks you throw in along the way, such as making my team reflect the real version. Why the hell would I want to do that? The real version of my team is having a terrible time of things! At least my digital version can give West Brom the hammering that I was hoping to witness, thus leading to partial easing of the pain I feel when reading message boards today. My virtual team can play on, safe in the knowledge that Luis Suarez will be treated by the referees exactly they same as the other players are, and not as he is in the Premier League as if he is the actual father of all evil in the Universe. (A yellow card for waving an arm at the referee? REALLY? I'll bet £50 with ANYONE that Rooney and Terry get away with much worse before this month is out.)

Whereas, the game that does include women's teams, not only will I buy a copy on launch day, I will also buy another copy to gift to my sister. She doesn't even play games outside of fitness stuff on the Wii, but she does like football. She would NEVER buy it for herself, so you will demonstrably be gaining sales if you include this option. Take this to your accounts department, marketing teams, Mr. Riccitello, Mr. Moore, whoever you need to. Bank on this, because I am not alone. I am just one of many who wants to see this change.

The rest can be found in this petition. That's plenty for now, isn't it? And that is just from those of who actually talk about games on the internet. The vast majority of your FIFA buying fans don't. If you are ignoring this percentage of us, what about THEM?

I am aware that there is a tiny chance that some people reading this are not employed by EA. If you are one of those, then I would like to implore that you go and sign the petition yourself. Please? Ta, loves! And, spread the word.

My blog is small, and humble. It may not carry the weight of many of the big sites out there. But, it carries as much meaning as any other outlet, more so to me personally. This is a cause I am happy to champion. This is a challenge I am willing to share. Because, this is a development whose time has come. The Women's Football Gold Medal in the Olympics went to the US, which probably means that a new generation is ready to become fans. By not including women in the game ... well, you run the risk of being left behind by the first software house that does include them.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

More Olympic musings!

For the last hour now I have been replaying A01, the first level in TrackMania Nations Forever. At first, I wanted to beat the time required to win the Gold Medal. (25.87 seconds.) Then, I wanted to beat the time for the Author Medal. (25.54 seconds.) And now, having surpassed both of those marks, I want to get as close to 24.04 seconds, which is the current fastest time recorded on CyberScore. Eventually, should I beat that, I will attempt to do it in less time than the 23.92 seconds that sit atop the official Nadeo leaderboard, verified by linking to a downlodable ghost file for me to race against.

My time improves by one or two hundredths of a second at a time. It doesn't improve every time I race the track, but once in a while I hit the turns just SO. I take that first corner with the optimum tightness, which enables to not lose any speed, and then carry this through into the home straight. On the occassions that I do get everything right, it is electric. And the reason it is electric? Well ...

It is because those times are rare. Increasingly so as my times get faster. I am much more likely to not improve than I am to even match my previous best time, let alone beat it by any significant margin. My hour has consisted, mostly, of failure following failure. Each failure has not been a complete waste of time, however. Many times, I have learned from the failures. I can turn a run where I don't take the first corner properly into one where I can try an alternate approach on turn 2. I can see if letting go of the accelerator leads to an overall improvement anywhere on the track. In short, I am doing more than just playing this game. I am, not to put too fine a point on it, practicing. I am training.

I am dedicating myself to getting better at the game, for the sole purpose of being better at the game. I want that name at the top of the leaderboard to be mine. I want to hold the World Record for track A01 in TrackMania Nations Forever.

Over the last couple of weeks, you may have been aware of a bit of a shindig taking place in London. From all around the world, competitors arrived to test their skills against the very best in their respective fields. Sprinters, weightlifters, gymnasts, swimmers, cyclists, rowers; we really could spend the rest of the day listing disciplines in which events took place. These athletes have spent their entire lives improving, and the last few years training specifically to be at the peak of their performance when it matters. They all wanted to win Gold Medals, and hope to set World Records.

When looked at like that, one may well be inclined to ask "What is the difference?" between what I have been doing, admittedly for only the last hour, and what they have been doing for their whole life? Some of the races were decided by hundredths of a second. Well, some of my TrackMania scores are improvements of THOUSANDTHS of a second. So, even if it can't compare to the physical demands that the marvellous Mo Farah put in during his training, the mental focus required is surely somewhere close.

Of course, the Olympic games themselves are not just about the physical at any rate. There were several different Shooting events. Shooting! The very thing that videogames are most singularly synonymous with is an Olympic sport. Please, somebody; explain to me how different Olympic shooting is from Hitman: Sniper Challenge? In both, you take aim at a target in order to score the maximum amount of points inside a time limit. The sport and the game require practically identical skillsets, and practicing for either would be a simple case of doing the same thing over and over again. An injury would impact participants in either exactly the same way, too. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we might as well just make Olympic shooting into a virtual version of itself.

Think of the advantages with this. Not only would there be less chance of equipment failure, but we could also have a mixed event. The 2012 Olympics have already seen two absolutely major equality firsts, which is reason enough to celebrate. Not only were there female athletes from all competing nations for the first time in history, but the life-affirming sight of Oscar Pistorius running against able-bodied atheletes was truly inspirational, and certainly offered hope to many around the world. So, try to imagine how inspirational it would be to see an event where there is no segregation at all? Virtual Shooting, and by extension videogames, could offer this.

As we move towards an ever more integrated society, surely this could be seen as a way forwards? I know that many will sneer, with proclamations that videogames are "For kids" or "Played by couch potatoes". To which I would respond with "And, your point is ... ?", because it is 2012 and we just don't do that sort of thing anymore. And then, I would point them in the direction of YouTube to watch a StarCraft II player with his 300 APM and ask them to do the same. APM? That means "Actions Per Minute", and is a count of key presses and mouse clicks. I could possibly reach that count if I just randomly bashed away, but to assign meaning to each action? Put it this way; I would be happy if I could achieve 40 APM, and I have years of play behind me.

Who knows what is likely to happen? Barriers have been broken in the past, and it is reasonable to expect that they will be again. Videogames keep on getting more popular, and the lines between what is and what isn't a sport keep on getting more blurred. When ESPN cover League of Legends, albeit in an article, then there are signs that things are moving in the right direction.

The 2016 Olympic Games will take place in Rio, Brazil. There, we have a gameplaying community that is growing at an incredible rate. This not inconsiderable mass of potential players could easily provide the weight required to tip the balance. I am not saying that we need virtual versions of all sports, by the way, just that I think the idea that to include videogames in some capacity is surely an idea whose time has come?