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.