E3 2014: Sony

Up until Sony’s conference there had been some reasonably fun presentations for day zero, but I wouldn’t call any one of the conferences phenomenal. With that being the case I was relying on Sony to present something amazing, and they didn’t disappoint. There was a small part of me that thought that I was being too harsh on Microsoft and some of the other companies for not showcasing many original games or having too little gameplay, but Sony once again demonstrated that it’s possible to be a huge company while still taking risks and having a range of games at your conference.

I am down for some video game art time.

Things opened big with Destiny which from what people have said pre-expo could be a superb game. A kind of Borderlands but with a bent further towards epic sci-fi and a set of weapons that control like something out of Halo, and that’s more than enough to sell me. The Order: 1886 has me cautiously eager to learn more, using a setting that’s not just the typical video game backdrop, and utilising a slow, creeping pace and atmosphere. My only criticism would be the section shown felt a little too controlled and fixed. The debut of Entwined was the first point in this conference in which Sony really showed they weren’t afraid to do something a bit brave and out there. The game was visually engrossing, the gameplay looked satisfying, I like the experimental nature of the premise behind it, and it was an indie title being played right there on the stage.

In similarly charming fashion Little Big Planet 3 managed to melt my heart, presenting more of its delightful handicraft art style but also tapping into something smart with its new characters. Each of the four players having specific powers which must be used in specific places for the whole team to advance creates this co-operative and friendly dynamic which feels like it suits the irresistibly optimistic attitude of Little Big Planet only too well. Then there was Far Cry 4 which I was worried might just be a moderate iteration on Far Cry 3, but at a glance it actually looks like something from a completely different franchise. The demo’s rocky mountain ranges were a long way from the verdant jungles of the third game, and there was a greater focus on bombastic action with the game now incorporating flying attack vehicles, a wingsuit, knives to the face, and highly aggressive elephants.

Oh Tim Schafer, you scamp, you.

A remastered version of Grim Fandango was announced, and despite me wishing that it was coming to more platforms, it’s wonderful that it’s being done at all. Few games deserve a remake as much as Tim Schafer’s skeleton-centric comedy. Following that was a trailer for Suda 51’s new project which I was honestly expecting a little more from. The live-action humans with life counters, health bars, and other video game bric-a-brac suggest Let It Die uses a game within a game concept which could be cool, but considering how uniquely stylised Grasshopper Manufacture’s work usually is, seeing such bog standard video game tropes as men with shotguns skulking through filthy corridors and numbers popping out of people’s heads is a bit boring.

That lull was quickly over though, with the announcement of Thatgamecompany’s Abzu. The feel and tone of their trailer evoked a sense of relaxation and wonder that you don’t get from many games. The indie train kept chugging with the highly ambitious No Man’s Sky which almost seems too good to be true. We keep being told about the exploration and procedural generation aspects of the game without an insight into how it actually plays, and it becomes hard to believe that such a tiny development team who have encountered major production troubles could build something with so much content and longevity. Still, we’ll see how that all shakes out. Whatever the case, the sense of that universe being so open and boundless is compelling and there’s a huge part of me that just wants to jump right in to fly some spaceships, discover some planets, and get my name attached to some dinosaurs.

Apparently these video game things are pretty popular.

Sony still seem to be making pretty intelligent decisions about how you can stream games out from your PS4, both throughout your home and onto the internet. From my perspective being able to upload your gameplay footage from your console to YouTube is a pretty big deal, even if it’s far from how you’d ideally do things from a video production standpoint. I also enjoyed the montages of all the indie stuff coming to Sony's platforms and it looks like the Playstation has some enjoyable F2P titles coming to it like War Thunder and Planetside 2, but it must be said their “free-to-play means free-to-play” claim is obviously a bit misleading. There are apparently over 100 new games coming to Vita as well now, but that statement did little to convince me that Sony weren’t way more concerned about the PS4 than its handheld comrade. Many of those 100 titles may be low key games no one really cares about or ports of games which already exist for other systems, and if that’s not the case it begs the question why there weren’t more Vita exclusive titles on display. However, I am coming round to the idea that maybe it’s enough for the Vita to provide a portable home for full console content.

Mortal Kombat X showed that even as desensitised to violence as we are, NetherRealm can still create the kind of bone-crunching gore that makes you recoil from the screen, and with the quality of MK9 I’m excited for whatever they do in this new instalment. Unfortunately, while Sony had many of the best moments of any of the conferences this time around, they also had the single worst. Given that both Microsoft this year and Sony last year did away with boring speeches about movie and television on their consoles, dedicating time to doing precisely that in this conference felt like a step backwards. Worse yet, this happened just minutes after it was declared the conference was “all about the games”, and with so many video games to show it was baffling to see them dedicate that much time to something like the Ratchet & Clank movie.

Gotham is big.

The Metal Gear Solid 5 trailer was cinematically well made, in spite of it being a little on the lengthy side, and I had hoped the conference was going to end on some gameplay or something a bit less predictable than an Uncharted 4 reveal, but it was a fine place to leave things. What really made me perk up near the end of the briefing was Batman: Arkham Knight. With Gotham as the current setting of the games, greater efforts could have gone into making a city more alive and populated than Arkham, but once again the world and combat look masterfully realised and I still love Scarecrow as a villain. It was also cool to see the player be able to summon the Batmobile at a whim and go jetting off through the concrete jungle, although it’ll be interesting to feel how it controls and see how they reconcile the power of this formidable car-tank with the naturally less destructive hand-to-hand combat. However it goes down, it looks exciting, and I’m sure I’ll be happily doing that thing where you can leap out of the dark knight’s iconic vehicle into an immediate glide as many times as humanly possible.

Overall Sony provided the kind of conference I wanted to see at E3, showing a diversity of games, the majority of which I’m excited to hear more about, and carrying a respect for the people both making and playing what they release. It’s easy to be cynical about E3 and every year plenty of gamers voice how underwhelmed they are by the event, but for me this kind of briefing is what it’s all about.

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E3 2014: EA & Ubisoft

As the two third-party developers of the conference lineup EA and Ubisoft frequently end up retreading much of the same territory from first-party conferences by showing the same games both there and in their own briefings. To their credit, this year they managed to ensure their big titles had a presence in their own conferences and the console manufacturer conferences without too much needless recycling, and they avoided drowning audiences in Kinect demos and wheeling out upsettingly unenthused celebrities as has been a problem in recent years. The similarities end at a point however. Neither EA nor Ubisoft were blowing any minds, and they both had their slumps, but the Ubisoft conference had much more vibrancy and energy to it, while it felt like EA had far more hollow promises and not a lot to show for all the hype they were attempting to build.

Football is feelings.

Everyone’s press conferences are constructed to some degree around careful PR strategy and manipulation of the audience, but EA’s event was a constant assault of exaggerations. We were told that NHL 15 changes “almost everything”, that PGA Tour 15 is “golf without limits”, that Criterion’s new racing game lets players “Go anywhere” and “Make any experience they want”, while the presser as a whole used the word “emotion” a silly number of times without ever managing or in many cases even trying to tie it to anything tangible. The more you hear people talk like this without being able to back up their claims, the less credible they seem, and the more it feels like these companies think they can dazzle you by throwing out a bunch of buzzwords with nothing behind them. In many cases the presentations were primarily videos of developers talking about how good the games they are making are going to be. I mean they weren’t going to show you any games, they’re not ready yet, but they must be good because these devs went to a mountain and these guys love car crashes and are riding in a helicopter. Sadly, even the Mirror’s Edge 2 segment veered heavily into this territory. They were able to show some skillfully crafted animation, but the bits of the video that weren’t developer conjecture were melee combat and the fighting is not the bit of Mirror’s Edge we want to see more of.

Aside from that, The Sims 4 looks decent although not much of a step up from The Sims 3, it’s kind of terrifying see EA simulate a dead martial arts hero and use him as a marketing prop for the new UFC game, and I liked when golf was happening over a battleship. The conference had a solid closer in the form of Battlefield: Hardline, even if it wasn’t anything that was going to make you jump out of your seat. The game looked a lot like Battlefield as it is now, but from what was shown recontextualising the gameplay in a cops & robbers scenario and providing more opportunities for crazy city-based destruction stands to present some exciting multiplayer experiences. It was actually a pleasant surprise to hear them launch the beta right at the end of the show, it would have been even better if doing so hadn’t completely wrecked their servers.

A miracle is a celebrity presenter at an E3 press conference who seems like they actually want to be there.

After the events of EA the Ubisoft conference was a step upwards for day zero, but it had its stumbling blocks. Aisha Tyler was one of the best speakers we saw on a stage today, she’s genuinely passionate about games, and it’s amazing to see a huge game company put a black woman front and centre to represent them, that’s a rare occurrence. Sometimes that enthusiasm was hard to take as genuine and not some part of a script though, and while there were no gags as howlingly bad as “#Girlwood” this year, things were brought down a little by some pretty lame jokes about weed, erections, and shitting yourself, along with a number of awkward asides that didn’t quite hit their mark.

Looking to the games themselves, the antagonist for Far Cry 4 looks intriguing, hopefully we’ll get more of him in 4 than we got of Vaas in 3, although thinking about that maybe there just wasn’t that much to Vaas as a character. Considering how dumb and plastic it was the Just Dance 2015 segment was surprisingly inoffensive, perhaps because I couldn’t keep myself from tapping along with both Pharrell’s Happy and Lady Gaga’s Applause. Shape Up also looks to be adding a decent dash of light-hearted fun to the fitness game genre, and I even warmed a little to Assassin’s Creed: Unity despite it being clearer than ever that they’re really not doing that much to set the game apart from previous entries in the series. The most interesting part of the conference for me however was The Crew. Remembering how open and willing they were to show off its features last year I’m a little surprised we didn’t see something more representative of the gameplay as a whole, but the idea of getting together some friends and gliding through that picturesque scenery is deeply appealing to me, and it’s a game coming out in 2014. After the impressions from the show floor during the previous E3 I also kept expecting someone to come on and say that they’ve fixed the poor handling since last year because word is they actually have.

Given the total lack of gameplay, I am weirdly intrigued.

There was a trailer for The Division which was fairly engrossing in itself, but that most likely does not depict the true tone of the game. On the flip side there was Valiant Hearts: The Great War which we were shown no gameplay of, but given the angle of the trailer that sorrowful, sombre reflection on World War I might well be what we see in the final product. The briefing concluded with some gameplay from Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Siege which didn’t look significantly different from any other Tom Clancy squad-based shooter out there to me but maybe I’m just not well-versed enough in the franchise. And that was Ubisoft. They didn’t have a great number of games, but I have to give them kudos for giving each game a sizeable chunk of stage time, and maybe it’s the lowered expectations from the EA conference, but I thought it went okay overall.

P.S. Mr. Caffeine, wherever you are, whatever you are doing, I am thinking of you.

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E3 2014: Microsoft

The question of “Who won E3?” can be unproductive and fuel some of the worst ideas about how games criticism should work, but during E3 2013 it became impossible to ignore that Sony garnered huge favour from fans and commentators alike for what was essentially kicking Microsoft’s ass, and things haven’t been much better for MS in the console market with the PS4 significantly outselling the Xbox One. The Kinect and its media features are or at least were a big part of the experience that the One was focused around providing, but they’ve not been the beguiling draw that Microsoft seemed to be banking on, and MS have been beaten in no small way by the opposing games console manufacturer simply focusing more on games. How exactly to conduct this conference was no doubt a difficult decision for Microsoft. Trying to push motion control, media streaming, and similar aspects of the console during this press conference would have meant further alienating gamers who were already leaning away from what they were trying to offer, but not including them as part of the briefing would mean potentially shunning some of the major features they were trying to build their console on. They made the right decision however, and it was a bold move.

A slightly different conference.

The conference this year was wall-to-wall controller-based video games with not a simulated living room or ESPN logo in sight. It was an impressive choice that made the event a more enjoyable experience and showed some respect for their audience. I remain on the fence about the conference as a whole though. Microsoft had plenty of titles to show off and gave more attention to indie games than we’ve seen in most previous years, but much of their presentation felt very safe and a lot more could have been done to show their commitment to smaller developers and the independent gaming scene. I’m sure a lot of people would consider that an unreasonable expectation for a company as big as Microsoft at a trade show like E3, and maybe it is, but they’re a company who have a lot to prove to their potential customers in a world where people are starting to question what the big reason for buying next-gen consoles is meant to be, and for as much as you can say “That’s just how the console industry is”, Sony thrashed Microsoft last year partly by doing what many people say can’t be done.

The point at which MS’s hard slant towards traditional blockbusters and away from smaller, more original games was best exemplified for me was a little after the halfway point in the conference when they smashed a large number of relatively interesting indie games into a montage that was only about four minutes long. It didn’t exactly scream that they cared about any of those games, but fortunately there were some more uplifting displays of indie alliance in the form of the gorgeous Oni and the Blind Forest, and the haunting Inside. I just wish we could have seen some of these indie titles actually being played.

If you're going to do a pre-rendered trailer do it in style.

It was towards the end that the conference began to display a particular lack of any kind of gameplay being put on show, indie or otherwise. The new Platinum Games project probably suffered most from this, with their games being so much about the feel and flow of the fights. It worked a little better for Crackdown however. I loved its neon-soaked Tron-like setting and if what you can do in the game is anything like what the trailer showed they’re onto a real winner. In a larger sense it was nice to see some of the games depart from the continual cycle of brown grittiness that it’s easy for these conferences to fall into and add a dash of colour to the proceedings, from the spell-slinging combat of Dragon Age: Inquisition to the saturated wastelands of Sunset Overdrive. It was a similar story with the new Dead Rising 3 content which broke from the mold of the base game in a wonderful Saints Row-style way, and for Project Spark and Fable: Legends, although I do think for both of those games we need to see a little more to truly be able to judge. Combat has never been the best part of Fable and I wonder how engaging it can really be to set up enemies and then sit by and watch as other players and AI perform the real combat. Likewise, the premise of Project Spark and some of the tools it offers make me deeply interested, I just wonder what it feels like to play and how varied you can make your levels in that game. As a side note the Project Spark trailer really didn’t need to include Conker who felt like a woefully outdated piece of tacked-on content.

Moving on, the announcement of a Tomb Raider 2 was nothing but good news, and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, while obviously not providing any revolution in the world of FPS games, is looking much more intriguing than Call of Duty: Ghosts did this time last year. It’s gone from “We have a dog” to “We have a good-looking futuristic metropolis and a host of new technologies for you to use in battles”. I’m a little sceptical of The Division which is doing some fantastic work in the GUI department but needs to do a little more for me to prove it’s not just a typical third-person shooter with a smart interface, and while Assassin’s Creed: Unity has found an amazingly good fit for its chaotic, building-climbing antics in the French Revolution, it could also just boil down to being a repeat of everything from every other Assassin’s Creed, especially when you’re not playing multiplayer.

Halo's vistas continue to be beautiful.

Finally, as a Halo fan I’m compelled to talk about what 343 had going on. It’s cool to see the whole Halo trilogy and Halo 4 on one disc, especially when they could have chosen to eek it out and rerelease all these games separately, I can’t get over how wonderful all those Halo 2 environments look with a fresh coat of polish on them, and it’s a smart decision to have all the levels in that game unlocked from the beginning. My biggest hang-up is that I’d like some reassurance that the new Halo that’s coming is going to be something that mixes up the formula a little. If they’ve got Halo 5 running at 60 FPS in 1080p, great, but a game needs more than that, and their unveiling of the Halo 5 multiplayer wasn’t an unveiling at all. Hopefully there’ll also be a way into that Halo 5 beta that doesn’t require buying the Master Chief Collection.

All in all, I’m not sure Microsoft did an amazing job. It still feels like the One is having trouble getting off the ground within an acceptable timeframe as so many of the big games coming are being consigned to 2015, and there’s little detailed information on many of the games they showed, but their presentation was promising, boasting more potential reasons for players to make the jump to next gen and showing that Microsoft are prepared to go an extra step if it really means getting gamers on their side.

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Back in the Captain's Chair

A familiar sight.

FTL is nothing if not a unique beast. When trying to classify it under any existing category “strategy” or “roguelike” are the best fits, but the game is far from characteristic of these genres. Perhaps more than being defined by any traditional gameplay template, FTL is defined by the common sci-fi themes it attempts to translate into video game form, the sense of being the captain of a lone and solitary ship in the blankness of space and venturing into the unknown to find unusual alien races, innocents in trouble, fantastic technologies, and unforeseen dangers.

There is a sense of control that comes with commanding your crew, and a feeling of empowerment after upgrading your ship with a particularly useful bit of kit and seeing it in action. FTL hinted at the idea that there was much more to be done with procedurally-generated loot-driven games than just producing dungeon crawlers, and at least in my experience it was one of the games most adept at creating emergent narratives. I wanted to tell those stories of how I managed to rack up seven different crew members aboard my vessel, picking them up from remote alien colonies, or how my ship went down in a blaze of glory trying to fight off the rebel fleet. Personally though I found a lot of the flaws of other roguelikes were present in FTL and that the game didn’t have the longevity of many other games of its species.

Glitches in the System

I guess I didn't find enough guns.

How far you get in the game is largely a product of how lucky you are with the opportunities you get to pick up new crew and ship parts, and how lucky you are in which lethal dangers you just happen to avoid. That’s kind of the thing about venturing into the unknown, there’s only so much you can plan for it when you don’t know what’s coming, and you lack some degree of agency in what happens to you. That goes double when we’re talking about strategy games as opposed to action games.

In something like Spelunky or The Binding of Isaac, even when haven’t gotten anything like the items you wanted during your run there’s still the chance that through your own skills in hand-eye coordination, risk estimation, spacial awareness, etc. you can make it through. Even in many other strategy games, the depth and variety of options often means that the tactical thinker can play off the enemy’s weaknesses and overcome any opposition. FTL however is more about butting equipment against equipment and seeing who comes out on top. Sometimes this is an invigorating experience as you see your lasers, drones, or whatever else you may have bolted onto your hull blazing through the enemy’s defences and wreaking havoc with their systems, but it also means that there’s only so much you can actually do to decide the outcome of a battle. This is a particular problem when the game can be so punishing, especially during the final sector. There is also only so much the game can do in the way of variation.

The pre-determined nature of FTL shows.

Procedural generation and high difficulty, both traits which FTL possesses, are capable of lending games replayability, and FTL is obviously going for the replayability angle. However, specific story scenarios, also something FTL is full of, generally don’t lend as much replayability and so you end up with a clash of components in the game. The allure of jumping back in to see how far you can get and what kind of situations you’ll encounter invites you to keep hitting "Restart", but there’s only so many times you can see the exact same events in different configurations and it still feel like something new. These aspects also undermine the idea of it really being the unknown you’re venturing into and diminish how emergent the narratives feel. I don’t believe lack of replayability in a game is by default a bad thing, but it was a major influence in how exactly I interacted with FTL in comparison to other games. It’s not just the story though, the combat in FTL easily becomes repetitive, and that might be a genuine problem. The fight system is far from derivative and yet is fantastically easy to pick up as a new player, but part of the reason it was so easy to get a handle on was that it isn’t particularly deep.

When you are in a pinch, battles can get frantic and tense as you rush to put out fires and repair your ship, all the while still trying to hold your own against some marauding pirate vessel or overzealous law-enforcement. A lot of what attacking other ships boils down to however is just aiming at a ship section or two and letting your vessel fire away, maybe changing your target once or twice during the battle. I had so many skirmishes which just consisted of locking on to the enemy shield unit, waiting for my ship to finish wailing on it, collecting my scrap, and leaving. Very fun in the short term, but its not a particularly enduring way to conduct combat. You could argue that perhaps the game could be appreciated as a more passive form of engagement, a fun little program you mess with while the other half of your brain concentrates on listening to a podcast or half-watching a TV show, and some of the time it can be that, but this argument is weakened by the fact that even on “Easy” there is always a point at which the game demands a high level of focus and involvement from the player. FTL Advanced Edition however represents at least a small resurgence for the game, presenting itself as the “definitive” FTL and being offered free to existing players.

Retrofitting

The Lanius appear.

You should know that Advanced Edition doesn’t aim to change any of those aspects of the first game I just talked about, they’re too deeply ingrained in what FTL is. Instead its goals are to expand the content of the original and add a few new features to the game which let you subvert and twist some of the existing rules of play in interesting new ways. There’s a few new events sprinkled throughout the sectors but the stand-out moments of the update come courtesy of the Abandoned Sectors and the species that inhabits them, the Lanius. The Lanius are a technologically-focused people with ships to match. Their vessels are modelled like chrome insects with sleek metal wings stretching out from their fortified hulls, and while like all the races, they can be a useful ally at times, the Lanius are appropriately cold and creepy. Not only are they metal people piloting metal ships in an inhospitable part of the universe, but they are also able to survive without oxygen and drain air from any room they’re stood in. They’re just part of how you can begin to play with those gameplay systems in odd ways.

Some of the other new changes you can make to your ship, besides dropping in a suffocating organic robot, include adding a mind control room, building in hacking facilities, or getting a clone bay. The mind control is exactly what it sounds like, allowing you to distract some poor shmuck on the opposing ship from their assigned task and making them attack the room they’re in. Hacking does something a little different depending on which room of the opposing ship you target with it, but it generally makes ship components do the opposite of what they’re supposed to or stops them functioning for a limited time. For example, you can hack your enemy’s shield unit to make it slowly sap the ship’s shields instead of power them, or hack their medbay to make it hurt crew instead of heal them. You can even hack their hacking module to stop them hacking you.

All is fair in space-fairing and war.

Then there’s the clone bay, which acts as a replacement for your medbay. Obviously, with your medbay gone there’s no readily available treatment for your crew should they become hurt, but if they die the clone bay can resurrect them and will restore just a tiny amount of health to them with each jump. In classic sci-fi fashion the clone bay is too good to be true however. Seeing defeated characters pop back to life in the blink of an eye makes you feel like you’ve cheated death, but each clone comes back with less experience in each station than their predecessor. This isn’t a problem early on, but later into the game it means that if you can’t keep your crew alive you still end up paying a price as valuable extra boosts for certain stations go down the drain. Of course, none of these new tools constitute a complete trump card either. While you can use hacking or clones to try and mess with your enemies, many ships are capable of doing the same to you.

You should keep in mind that these are just the main modifications which you can add to your space-faring vessel, there are plenty of cool new weapons and some other equipment as well like cannons which have a slower cooldown with each firing or AoE guns, and it feels like the developers have made some genuinely creative and fun additions. These new parts successfully adapt more classic sci-fi tropes into gameplay form, and while no one part of your ship is going to be the be-all and end-all in combat, the new ship parts allow you to play with the mechanics in a way that feels like you’re getting one over on the enemy. There are also some other new rules for the gameplay which improve the experience. To mention just a couple, firing at a room on an enemy ship can stun those inside that room, and it’s now possible to save which stations your crew are currently assigned to and hit the “Enter” key later to see them all satisfyingly snap back to their places after they’ve been scrambled.

What's old is new again.

More than any of the new features in themselves however, what’s given me the most enjoyment is just having an excuse to go back and experience all the best things about FTL all over again. Eventually I know I’ll get bored with the game and the sheen of it all will fade just like it did the first time around, but FTL Advanced Edition has been a reminder that one the best things about expansion packs, DLC, and updates is that they’re often not just presenting new something in and of themselves, but that they also offer the chance to once again interact with those fundamental aspects of the game that we enjoyed so much in the first place. Thanks for reading.

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Another Set of Eyes

As news stories in the gaming world go, one of the world’s wealthiest tech companies laying down $2 billion to buy up the most popular crowdfunded piece of gaming tech in existence is a pretty big deal. It’s an event which exists at the intersection of worries about big business, the nature of crowdfunding, and not just virtual reality as it relates to video games but the place VR is going to take in modern life as a whole. The Oculus Rift has been a remarkable piece of tech, not just because it is a virtual reality headset, we’ve had virtual reality headsets for a while now, but because it appears to be a virtual reality headset done right. Considering this device didn’t come from an Apple or a Microsoft it’s astonishing how polished, technically sound, and free of flaws the Rift has grown to be in such a short time.

Cyberspace

A familiar sight by this point.

The appeal of a good VR headset is immediately apparent, it’s summed up in that one word which keeps coming back again and again, “immersion”, and unlike a lot of new developments in game design and technology, we can apply the benefits of the VR to existing games. This isn’t like a more powerful console which we may have to see games heavily remade for, or a new design or programming technique which could only be applied to games we make in the future, virtual reality has the potential to change the experience we can have with existing games and breathe new life into old titles. That said, I think there are few ideas or technologies which you can just bolt onto any game and expect to have purely positive effects, and I don’t think the Rift is an exception to that. There’s a lot of learning to still be done with the technology and it’s likely that among other issues, games which include a lot of motion and action may be harder to play and more disorienting on the Rift than with regular TVs and monitors, that games with involved keyboard controls may only be capable of being played by those who can touch type, and that as the player now effectively has their face jammed right up against the monitor, that traditional GUI design doesn’t transfer to the Rift perfectly. All that aside though, it’s hard to deny the appeal of the Rift when just thinking about various games we like being used in conjunction with it is exciting.

It also represents a new frontier in game development. We don’t entirely know what having a high quality commercially available VR headset is going to mean for gaming, but that’s part of the beauty of it. Let me be clear, I’m sceptical of the idea that VR is “the future” of video games. While it could certainly be a big part of it, I have the same worries about future games being made for VR that I have with it being applied to existing games, and it may be that constant use of something like the Rift in video games would be a sensory overload. There’s probably something to be said for being able to sit back in a chair with some distance between yourself and the screen when playing. While it stands to benefit many different types of games, it also seems that the Rift has more to offer games in which we closely inhabit a single character’s body, like first-person or third-person games, than those in which we take a more disembodied or detached view, like games with top-down or side-on cameras.

I believe VR is its own experience, not simply a "video games but better".

Along similar lines I can’t agree with the idea that has been commonly spread in science-fiction, that VR is one step on the road to video games' ultimate goal of creating Matrix-like full-body immersion experiences. That’s not a criticism of sci-fi which uses this premise, but there have been people who’ve taken it as more than fiction. There’s a reason why people continue to play sports games even when they’re capable of going outside and playing real sports, or why every game doesn’t just have a first-person camera. Video games are not simply there to be approximations of real activities, this is part of that whole realism = good quality fallacy. Video games are there to engage the player through whatever means they can and while realism is one tool in the box for them to use, it’s far from the only one. It’s also hard not to wonder whether there could be some degree of dissonance created by situations in which players can see their arms, legs, or other parts of their body in-game, but are also aware that these are not their own appendages, especially when these body parts are moving. Despite all this, the possibilities and room for discovery in the field of VR games are still deeply appealing. One major potential advantage of something like the Rift is that just dropping someone into a virtual environment may be enough. Projects like Undercurrent or the rollercoaster demo suggest that VR could bring more room for and engagement from creative works primarily centred on us just experiencing worlds, regardless of if there’s any gameplay involved.

The Buyout

Just as it’s easy to see why people love the Rift though, it’s also easy to see why this Facebook buyout has rustled so many jimmies. Oculus were that cool underground indie band that everyone liked and then a man from the big record label showed up with a briefcase full of money and now they’ve “sold out”. Facebook more than most companies seems to have a way of bringing out people's distrust and paranoia. They’re a massive, impersonal corporation that knows who you are, who your friends are, what you do in your life, where you’ve been, and what you enjoy. They then use you as a kind of marketing tool or commodity, promising the opportunity to interact with you as a means to attract your friends and family to the site and make more money. Some people also just dislike Facebook due to their personal experiences with what other people have posted on the site. These aren’t necessarily rational reasons to oppose this acquisition or even to dislike Facebook, but I think these factors create a lot of stigma around the company for a lot of people.

There is something a bit dystopian about Facebook buying the company with the big eyeball logo.

On a slightly more tangible level there’s also a worry about how Facebook might infect the Rift as a platform. There’s speculation that they could make it more closed-off and controlled, add intrusive Facebook integration or adverts, or do any number of other things which could jeopardise the technology for developers and gamers. Not that I think there’s zero chance that these could become problems for the Rift in the future, but these are issues that have already been addressed by Facebook and Oculus. Facebook have declared their intention of maintaining a very hands-off ownership of Oculus, and between them and Oculus founder Palmer Luckey it has been confirmed that the Rift is going to continue being developed independently from Facebook, and that Facebook will not integrate their branding, advertising, or technology into the Rift. Is there some degree of possibility that these companies could go back on these statements? Sure, but I don’t think Oculus are any less trustworthy now than they were before and this does actually seem to be all on the level. For all the negative things that have been done to games and technology in the name of big business, many of the positive advancements in these areas have hinged on the involvement of large and business-oriented companies like Facebook, and as unintuitive as it may seem, Facebook might be the good guys on this occasion.

The idea we had of this huge new part of gaming coming from a tiny company with a Kickstarter was a romantic one, but the reality is that huge hardware rollouts don’t come from companies like this, at least not on their own. Oculus may have had $91 million to their name, but for a certain kind of project that is a small sum of money; there are individual video games that have cost more than that to make. It’s not yet been fully determined where their freshly acquired $2 billion is going to go (that’s about £1.2 billion for us in the UK incidentally), but as Luckey and a number of others have said the money they’ve received from Facebook gives them the potential to release better hardware on a larger scale, and the financial security that money provides means that Oculus are primed to make decisions which are less about just scraping together as much funding as possible and more about providing a good product. The recent announcement of Sony’s Morpheus VR headset also means that even in a worse case scenario, we’re not looking at a monopoly forming in the virtual reality market.

Obviously, there's some possibility this Facebook acquisition is just a VR simulation you're experiencing.

Of course, even if everything works out fine this is not a matter entirely free from complications. Anyone who has or will support the Oculus Rift is also supporting Facebook and there are some valid reasons to be adverse to that. Facebook’s long history of failures to properly protect their users’ privacy is no secret, and supporting Facebook also indirectly supports various disreputable game developers who use them as a platform; studios who have popularised and are making gargantuan sums of money from some of the worst practises in modern game design: bad microtransactions, exploitation of people unfamiliar with the medium, shameless plagiarism, and designing games with a primary focus on them manipulating people into spending their money rather than being engaging.

So yes, I can understand if you’re upset with or worried about the Facebook acquisition in a number of ways. I’ve also not been the biggest fan of some of the things Facebook and those using Facebook have done in the past. But a lot of the backlash over this business deal doesn’t seem to have come from an informed perspective and actually looking at what the parties involved have said, it’s been a knee-jerk series of “Big social media corporation is bad” rants and that doesn’t help anyone. Personally, while I want to reiterate that I don’t think VR is the be-all and end-all for the future of gaming, I’m still excited and optimistic about the direction of this technology, and I think the Oculus Rift still represents a large and positive part of this area of the medium. Thanks for reading.

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Crowdsourced

On March 1st, after 16 days and almost 8 hours of continuous play, Twitch finally beat Pokémon. At least, Pokémon Red Version. At the time of writing players are making their way through Pokémon Crystal, and I’d be a little surprised if the channel didn’t just take things all the way and play through every generation of the games eventually. It’s been a bizarre, exciting ride, not least of which because it’s been the exact opposite kind of content that Twitch and services like it have traditionally nurtured. Generally video game livestreams either pull crowds by showcasing players who are particularly skilled at a game, by featuring players we enjoy as people, or both. Whatever angle they’re going for, the focus is almost always on a small group of players or more commonly a single player. By their nature, all of these streams are also about watching someone else compete at a game. Twitch Plays Pokémon turned all of this on its head.

Something out of the ordinary.

It took an experience meant to be about passive observation and turned it into one about active participation, and took entertainment that would have normally been centred on a single exceptional person or small group of exceptional people, and made it about over 60,000 normal, everyday gamers. In fact, TPP even shirked a lot of the traditional conventions we associate with games full stop. The basic idea of the player character just reacting to the inputs we give it was thrown out the window. In this game your actions as an individual are drowned out in the sea of commands the rest of the players contribute. Not only do you lack a serious degree of control over the player character, but it’s often hard to see the exact effect your input had on the game at all. It makes the whole thing a wonderfully weird experience.

Audience Participation

The stream was billed as a “social experiment”, and arguably we did learn something from it, but it really became more of a fun activity in itself and a social and cultural touchstone for people than anything else. It had its own in-jokes, like the religion that built up around Omanyte and the Helix Fossil, and its own notable events, like that occasion when a succession of valuable Pokémon got released all at once. And while the viewing figures for TPP were trumped by professional gaming streams on a few occasions, it had a kind of consistent popularity which outlasted a lot of the content around it, as people tuned in at all hours of the day, every day of the adventure to check in on the progress of the game and play along themselves. Many people were regular players, returning to the game on a frequent basis for its entire duration.

Praise Helix.

TPP is the kind of phenomenon which shows that rarely are you able to manufacture or predict what will “go viral”. Nobody saw Twitch Plays Pokémon coming, it’s so unusual that it’s unlikely that anyone would have created it assured that it would be the next great success, but none the less here it is. There have been other channels that have tried to pick up and run with the idea, and maybe they’ll see some attention in the future, but streams like Twitch Plays Final Fantasy just haven’t gotten off the ground, because while they may be based around the same concept and using a similar game, they don’t have that same social buzz which exists around TPP. Of course, just because the game was important to people and was in some ways taken very seriously doesn’t mean that it also wasn’t capable of being very silly.

The light-heartedness and the humour of Twitch Plays Pokémon comes from seeing people stumble over themselves and struggle with what should be very basic tasks. Not that playing through the entirely of Pokémon Red is something you can do in your sleep, but walking your character in a straight line or selecting a simple menu option are actions we can all easily perform without a second thought. So to see the player character constantly failing to carry out these simple tasks without opening the Pokédex seven consecutive times or walking up and down the same set of stairs for fifteen minutes has an almost Mr. Beanish comedic quality to it. Anywhere which included a lot of ledges, staircases, or mazes became a particular problem for players, as just one wrong step here or there could represent a significant setback. The Team Rocket base was probably the most nightmarish of all these areas, prompting an unlikely intervention by the creator of the stream to change the rules of the game itself, adding the “Anarchy/Democracy” system.

Anarchy

Aimless wandering, it's what people want.

The Democracy Mode allows the body of players to vote for the next input, instead of the game executing every individual button press given to it. Fascinatingly, while this would have almost certainly allowed the players a huge advantage in the game, Twitch deliberately opted to keep the game in Anarchy Mode for about 99% of the remaining time. Probably because the anarchy made the game what it was. The madness of it all is what we were there for in the first place, and when the players managed to make progress and eventually even beat the game under these restrictions it was all the more amazing. Perhaps praising the players of TPP overall for beating the game is inaccurate however. In classic internet fashion plenty of people were there to have a little fun throwing a wrench into the works, trying to actively impede progress, and advancement through the game was often the result of some portion of cooperative players managing to assert themselves over these troublesome players, as opposed to everyone working as a collective team. However, that’s not to say progress was always down to direct coordination between those cooperative users either.

Again, with so many people inputting commands at the same time and the enormous lag between input and response, it was just about impossible to have proper control over the game, even if everyone had been trying to work together. You might know that the player character needs to move up on the screen to get one step closer to Lavender Town, but you can’t know every move that’s going to be made between now and twenty seconds from now, so you can only really point the Pokémon Trainer in the general direction they need to go, or prime them with a certain command and hope it’s still relevant when it’s going to be executed. When things worked, perhaps it wasn’t always a case of people putting in the right inputs, but the right inputs just happening to line up at the right time by chance.

Best of luck to everyone playing in beating the future games.

Still, hammering away at that game, shifting that character bit by bit towards the end took a lot of diligence, and at its conclusion there was a surprising amount of teamwork between the players. One of the reasons it was such a joy to watch Twitch take on the Elite Four was not just because it was the culmination of all the work put into the game, but also because in those final moments the players were more in-sync and cooperative than they had been at just about any other time. Of course there were outliers still trying to cause difficulty for everyone else, but on the whole when those guys knew they had to press A, boy did they come together to press A. In many ways Twitch Plays Pokémon is not just silly and enjoyable and weird and what’s in right now, it’s a miniaturised version of human behaviour on the internet in general. It’s chaotic, it’s unorganised, and it’s full of people trying to make things harder for everyone else, but it’s captivating, and in it there are still people able to come together and work together to do things that are impressive and unexpected. Thanks for reading.

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On the Shoulders of Giants

Now we’ve all had some time to digest Titanfall post-beta I think it’s fair to say that it’s a game that’s got a lot going for it and has made a big impression. The question has been raised here and there whether Titanfall could be the next Call of Duty, but I think this kind of thinking shows a misunderstanding about what Titanfall is trying to be, that is unless you want a definition of “The next Call of Duty” that’s incredibly vague. The CoD games from 4 onwards hold the place in gaming history they do because they helped pioneer and cement so many of the popular conventions for modern competitive shooters and even modern multiplayer games in general, popularising perk systems, progression systems, modern military thematics, and more. Titanfall is not a game trying to do something so revolutionary, it’s a game trying to take ideas from currently popular multiplayer FPSs like Call of Duty, Battlefield, and even a bit of Halo, and alter and build on top of many of the ideas that made them work to accentuate their best features.

Everyone enjoys a good war robot.

One of the things that most defines Titanfall is the aspect of itself it places its primary focus on, especially in its outward presentation. CoD sells itself as having a focus on modern military warfare and the experience of being a soldier in such conflicts; Battlefield’s focus is on you being part of an enormous, frantic battlefield; Titanfall however, doesn’t claim upfront to be about a setting or large-scale experience, but instead about a single, ultimate piece of military equipment. It shows us a hulking machine of war fitted with all the game’s most impressive weapons and says “This is our centrepiece”. Of course all shooters have their power weapons and most have their more iconic vehicles, but they usually aren’t as strong a driving force of the gameplay as they are here, and I think this is a big part of what makes the game so empowering.

The Tools of War

In most games getting the high end weapons or vehicles is somewhat uncommon or only happens after a certain amount of work. There will only be a few jets or tanks on a map to go around, we will have to get a certain amount of kills before we can receive a killstreak reward, etc. and this is perfectly logical. Rewards don’t seem as special if you’re constantly receiving them, and weaponry doesn’t give you as much of an advantage over your opponent if it’s likely someone on the other team is in possession of the same weapon, but Titanfall makes a trade-off. Getting a Titan may not be rare or be the gleeful culmination of a few minutes of particularly skilful play, and you may find that the opposition have some legitimate defences against it, but it makes you feel like a badass when you can spend so much time with the most powerful equipment in the game on a very regular basis.

You want that sweet Titan power.

Notice that binding all those high power features up in the Titans doesn’t just make them feel formidable to pilot, it also gives the experience of piloting them more depth than the experience of wielding a high-powered weapon or driving a vehicle in most other shooters. Weapons and vehicles in FPSs or TPSs usually only have one or two exclusive player actions associated with them: firing and sometimes being able to perform a secondary fire. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with this, it can be perfect for the roles these weapons and vehicles occupy in these other games, but to see the kind of depth in controlling a vehicle you do in Titanfall is still welcome and exciting. When you pilot a Titan you’re not just dealing with a couple of weapons, instead you have your main gun, your rockets, your shield, your dash ability, you can grab incoming projectiles, you can release those projectiles, you can eject to have the Titan AI take over, and so on. There’s a lot to manage here and a lot of choices for how you tackle a conflict at any one time. Your tactical options are further expanded by the way the game lets you customise the loadout of your Titans. All this makes it so that there’s as many or more ways to take on combat while in a vehicle as there are if you’re a regular soldier, and that’s atypical for a game like this. The gap of just two minutes between losing one Titan and getting another also keeps the game moving at a rapid pace, guarantees that you get regular use of the Titans, and ensures that losing a Titan isn’t a devastating experience. Obviously there’s a lot of excitement in the way you deploy your mechanical warrior into combat as well, especially when you can use a falling Titan to crush an opponent.

However, while they may be similar in terms of depth, the differences between being a plain old pilot and being in a Titan make the game feel like its being played on two different but closely connected levels at the same time. One is the world of these enormous mechs, slow and bulky, but able to indiscriminately wreak havoc on whatever’s in their path, often dramatically clashing with each other while everyone else scurries around below. The other is the soldiers who may not wield the terrifying power of the Titans, but can move into places and navigate the map in a way the Titans can’t, and experience a more fast-paced and twitchy version of the game. Some precise balancing and clever design choices mean that while the Titans can do a lot more damage, you never feel completely helpless against them as a soldier. Anyone in one of these mechs knows they can potentially blow you away in a single shot, but if you’re playing intelligently you can avoid direct confrontation with them, or exploit their lack of manoeuvrability and firing speed to your advantage. It can feel a bit like trying to gun down a brick wall firing against one of these monstrous machines, but destroying one of them as a regular soldier is a real David and Goliath moment.

The Trimmings

Among the other interesting mechanics here, the AI on the maps are a strong addition. They provide some extra fodder for you to chew through in combat and in terms of the difficulty of taking on an opponent and the reward you get from defeating them, they fill the gap between a full-blown player and nothing at all. The Burn Cards also help spice up things. Usually when you unlock some kind of reward that will give you a combat advantage in a game like this, a new scope or armour ability for example, you can only be given the reward once, and as you make your way through the progression system, especially into the later game, useful rewards can be few and far between. As disposable powers-ups the Burn Cards allow a steady stream of new rewards that can constantly be renewed, and they come with some of that same sense of gratifying surprise we get from acquiring new cards in actual trading card games.

The best of luck to Respawn with what they've created.

And when everything’s over the “Epilogue” allows for a steady wind-down of the match that seeing a hard declaration of “Victory” or “Defeat” and then being chucked out to the lobby doesn’t. In my eyes it serves as more of a grace to the losing team than the winning team, but it’s enjoyable from either side. If you’re on the defeated team, evacuating successfully allows a sense of a minor victory even if your team didn’t win the game, and the Epilogue makes you feel like your ultimate fate in a match is more of a result of how well you personally played. While if you’re on the winning team, killing players attempting to evacuate or even halting their evacuation entirely can serve as the icing on the victory cake. The way all of this comes together is really important as well. The dueling Titans, the maps swarming with AI, the dynamic skyboxes, and everything else collectively create the impression of a chaotic, noisy warzone where it feels like an actual battle is taking place. Overall, It’s hard to tell exactly how much longevity or popularity Titanfall will have when it properly releases, but in here there’s definitely a fun, exciting, and smartly designed game. Thanks for reading.

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The Nature of Proteus

Summer.

You know what’s kind of cool? The 2013 game Proteus. For those who have never journeyed through the bizarre world that is Proteus, the game falls mechanically within that “first-person experiencer” niche. It gives you nothing more than the ability to walk around and control a first-person camera, and is really just about soaking in the environment you’re presented with. The whole game looks like a 3D realisation of an Atari 2600 game where blossoms are enormous squares that drop from jagged-edged trees, and frogs are vague, green clumps of pixels that bound away as you approach. Underlying all of this is an electronic soundtrack that casts the island in a quirky, other-worldly light, and a symphony of hums and chimes that are closely synchronised with the flora and fauna of your surroundings. There’s a tone almost like an 8-bit gong that sounds as wind rustles through the trees, while the swarms of insects flying about ring with wavering synths. The game’s sights and sounds create a bizarre and potent atmosphere. It’s about experiencing a wholly natural environment, but through a powerfully synthetic lens.

The instinctive thing to do is to lump Proteus in with games like Gone Home, Dear Esther, The Stanley Parable, and so on, and that’s not entirely bad practise, but there’s a lot of fundamental differences between these games that we ignore if we just try to group them by their mechanics. It seems like a particularly bad idea because the lack of traditional “gamey” components in these games is in part there to let their other elements take a more primary role. These other games are heavily narrative-driven, while Proteus is not, and for the most part it’s not trying to evoke the same tone either. In all honesty, while I know a lot of people have given Proteus very high praise, I think in comparison to these games Proteus just doesn’t have much meat on its bones, and so fails to stack up to them. The game provides some wonder and delight as you move around its island marvelling at all the little discoveries you make, but at least the first three quarters of the game feel rather shallow. It may utilise the same simple mechanics as the aforementioned games, but those other games use their simple mechanics as a means to explore something deeper.

Autumn.

The Stanley Parable boils itself down to mainly being “Choose a door”, but this is what lets it explore the concept of choice in games in the clearest and purest way. Dear Esther just lets you walk around an island, but at the same time an explicit story is being told, the environment is bound to the emotional state of the protagonist, and the island is even established fairly early on as a metaphor for the protagonist himself. Gone Home has you simply wander around a house, but uses the objects and writing that house’s residents have placed there as a means to explore that family and where they’ve gone in their lives. In Proteus you’re walking around this space, but there’s little context, meaning, or depth beyond anything you find apart from “this is kind of cool and fun”, and not that there’s anything wrong with that in itself, but I think it leaves the game feeling a bit lacking in places, especially because of the deliberately low detail of its graphics, and because it was released in a year when we also saw hits like The Stanley Parable and Gone Home. You can try to build your own story out of the few landmarks you find around the island, but even then the game gives you few pieces with which to do so and there’s little thematic consistency between them and the rest of the world. Then there’s the issue that the game costs £7 for something that’s about 45 minutes with little replay value, and the fact that the season-changing mechanic isn’t entirely obvious and requires you repeatedly and slowly returning to the same point on the island without any kind of map. None of this makes me fully dislike the game, but it does make it difficult for me to see it as a truly great game.

All this being said, there was one thing that really struck me playing back through Proteus that I didn’t feel as much the first time, and I don’t think it’s been given enough credit for. A lot of people seem to have looked upon Proteus as a light, lively, and relaxing game, and for the majority of its time it is, but again, Proteus very much has “nature” as one of its driving themes, and nature isn’t just about life and vibrancy, it can be brutal, and eventually all things must die. You start to see a hint of where the game is going during its autumn section as the trees begin to shed their leaves, the animals across the island become fewer, and the buzzing insects of summer now lay dying on the ground, but in many ways the island is still pretty and pleasant to explore. Then you see the change to winter and it’s a big shift.

Winter.

In this last quarter of the game most of the trees are gnarled and bare, the clouds hang low in the sky, snow has buried the grass, there’s not a living animal in sight, and the sound takes on a ghostly edge. Eventually even you have to leave the island, with your drifting off into the sky indicating that perhaps your time was up too. Proteus doesn’t paint its winter as an entirely grim thing, there are still some slightly playful synths here and there, a chance to briefly peek at the sun if you can get above the clouds, and some areas bathed in an orange-pink sunset, but the game leaves you with the reminder that all animals and plants are mortal and that all things eventually meet their end. The ability to then start the game over from scratch with a new procedurally-generated environment creates a kind of "circle of life" story for the island. This is one of the things I will remember most about Proteus. Thanks for reading.

Start the Conversation

"But It's Not A Game"

Over the past few years an increase in the number of developers experimenting with what games can be and what they can include has lead to us seeing more and more interactive experiences that don’t fit into the traditional box for what we consider games. Recent attention given to titles like Gone Home and The Stanley Parable has prompted a certain portion of the gaming community to try and take those games down a peg or state that they don’t really belong in game discussion spaces by declaring that they’re not actually games.

There has been some criticism towards people calling experiences like these "games".

Scepticism over whether certain “games” really are games isn’t new territory for the medium, management sims and sandbox programs for example have traditionally been known for blurring the definition of the word, but the new generation of maybe-games is less like what we’ve traditionally called games than ever, and while something like Gone Home might once have had to exist as a 2D Flash project or a rudimentary 3D title downloadable only from an obscure developer site, we’re now seeing higher-production, more fully fleshed-out products in this style getting released on respected digital distribution platforms, and receiving the kind of attention from games critics and the gaming community that once would have been reserved exclusively for a narrower set of entertainment experiences. This has inevitably led to the “It’s not a game” discussions becoming more widespread than ever. Sometimes they are valuable discussions, but most of the time they’re unproductive and at least start with a lot of misunderstandings about the topic.

To deal with the easiest part first, even if something is not a game or lacks game-like elements that’s not a valid criticism. I understand that not all people are attempting to use this discussion point to try and demonstrate something negative about certain entertainment, but some people are, and it doesn’t make sense. Sure, game mechanics, challenges, goals, etc. are all things that we know can engage us, but then we also know from mediums like television and music that visuals, sound, and stories are equally capable of entertaining us even without any gameplay alongside them, leaving the idea that a game must be bad if it doesn’t include enough gameplay to be a non-argument. You might as well conclude that movies must be bad because they don’t include game mechanics, or that music is bad because it doesn’t include visuals, or that books are bad because they don’t include sound. From here though, it gets a little more complicated.

To the Dictionary

Is this a game? It depends.

A lot of us have this vague concept in our head of what makes up a game and we can easily look at something like Thirty Flights of Loving or Dear Esther and claim that they’re not games, even construct arguments why they’re not, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot if we can’t decide what a "game" is to begin with. Laying out a proper definition of that word is something that people have been trying to do since long before the invention of video games, and there is no one definition of "game".

I’d recommend checking out the Definitions section of the Games page on Wikipedia if you’re interested in going further down this route (don’t worry, it’s all properly sourced), but some common criteria included in definitions of games are that they must have rules, have goals, have metrics of success, be participated in for enjoyment, include play, be non-productive, have conflict, or include competition. Obviously, this is a pretty nebulous term that can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and you’ll find that even some entertainment that is already widely accepted as constituting a game may not fit these boxes. For example, we might call Portal or Lumines games, but they don’t really contain any competition. Spec Ops: The Line is a game, but it often tries to make itself deliberately unenjoyable. Some people play competitive games to make money, while puzzle games like Phylo help organisations in the real world with academic problems. This would seem to disqualify both of these types of games as non-productive, and yet we would still think of them as games. Then you have the fact that the definition of “Play” gets just about as ambiguous as the definition of "game". This can go on for a while.

It's not as simple as just declaring it "Not a game".

"Game" being such an amorphous blob usually isn’t a problem and all these competing definitions don’t mean that we can’t use the word "game" or have solid, formal definitions to refer to in discussions, but there are a few implications of the lack of a single, concrete "game" concept that we should keep in mind. Firstly and most importantly, it means that challenging whether something is a game is more of a semantic argument than the meaningful assessment of the work’s contents than it often seems to be taken as. Secondly, it means you can’t just show up to places and start telling people they’re wrong for calling something a game that you wouldn’t necessarily call a game, or demonstrate that one product isn’t actually a game, and expect it to be taken as gospel. With so many varied definitions out there, that’s just not going to fly. But okay, let’s say that we looked at it and agreed that Gone Home, Dear Esther, The Stanley Parable, and all these other contested “games” don’t qualify as games, or only partially qualify as games. Even if that was the case I still don’t think referring to them as games would necessarily be a bad idea.

Usually It Doesn’t Matter

There’s not a widely-accepted name or categorisation for these supposed non-games apart from “games”. In fact even in this blog post I’ve struggled with what to call them. If these things aren’t part of the medium we call games, then what medium or mediums are they a part of? What name do we use to refer to them? We need a term or terms for products like these that is universally understood, easily repeatable, and doesn’t sound clunky. In the past interactive experiences that don’t constitute games have been called “interactive fiction”, “sandboxes”, “puzzles”, “toys”, “programs”, or just “experiences”, and some of these identifiers fit okay, but many of them have issues, many apply to only a small number of things we need to label, you can’t just force words on people, and "game" still remains one of the best terms we have for referring to these things. Everyone immediately knows what you mean by "the game", it’s a widely accepted term, it’s sharp, it fits smoothly into a sentence, and to be honest there’s only so many times you can talk about “the experience” before you need another word. Regardless of whether you feel that SimCity or Dys4ia are games, referring to them as games is often a matter of practicality or necessity.

Should this be discussed in a gaming space?

However, even if the word is useful, it still doesn’t make sense to cover what aren’t games in places dedicated to games, right? I mean we don’t do this with other mediums, and for good reason. Film publications wouldn’t just start putting out restaurant reviews, and book websites would have to make a pretty huge exception to start discussing the latest Gears of War. So if hypothetically what we have aren’t games, why should we place them alongside actual games? Well for one thing, there’s far more crossover between these hypothetical non-games and games than there is between, for example, movies and books. Okay, the non-games may lack explicit goals or challenges or whatever else, but they’re still computer programs with the purpose of acting as art or entertainment that make use of formal interaction mechanics. Some also have more “gamey” elements like scoring, resource management, interactive storytelling, and so on. The people who discuss, play, and make games already have an interest in entertainment that includes the aforementioned things, a rather specific one that wouldn’t really be supported by the enthusiasts of anything else out there, and for that reason it makes sense for games enthusiasts to discuss these kinds of works, and game creators to work on projects like these. The fact that these experiences are sold in games stores like Steam also feeds into and off of their relevance to people who play games.

If we don’t run things like this, what’s the alternative? If these supposed non-games are still to be recognised they’d have to be either picked up by some other media community like music or television fans/creators which we know would never happen and would only be a worse fit than what we have now, or there’d have to be a rising community of retailers, critics, and sites dedicated solely to the Depression Quests and Proteuses of the world, which again, is unrealistic and downright crazy. Even if the kind of experiences we’re talking about are not games, when we treat them as games it means people can share, enjoy, and criticise these works that would otherwise go ignored. But then for some that’s the point, isn’t it?

Exclusivity

"Real games".

I believe that a certain portion of this “It’s not a game” discussion has come from a genuine attempt at being constructive, but we all know much of it has been an effort to try and invalidate games that don’t conform to certain individuals’ personal tastes. At one point people started trying to establish an in-group elitism among members of the gaming community by arguing that certain people were “Real gamers” or “True gamers”, while others weren’t, and now the same kind of people are trying to establish elitism in our entertainment by declaring what are and are not “Real games”. We can see discussion after discussion where some people believe they can use “It’s not a game” as a loophole dismissal of whatever games they don’t like in place of actual constructive criticism. But of course that doesn’t work.

The “Is this a game?” debates are a bit like the “Are games art?” debates. Important in the right context, but some of the time they’re just about people trying to elevate the games they like to a higher level, and even when the debates are sincerely conducted, they often break down because people don’t define what they mean, and are left unaware that they’re arguing semantics. Usually when “Is this a game?” is a relevant question, what it’s really being used to determine is whether something is valid in the space it’s being presented in and what the qualities of it are, but these are questions we can ask and think about directly, and I believe that’s often more productive than getting bogged down in the ambiguity and multitudinous definitions of the word "game". Thanks for reading.

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My Top Ten Games of 2013

Note: The following post contains spoilers for all games listed.

I’m a broke-ass man and consequently I never have the opportunity to play all the big new releases in any given year, so I’m not going to pretend to be able to weigh up all the great games released in 2013, instead as GoTY is always a personal event, I’m going to do something a bit more personal with this list. So in no particular order, here are my top 10 games I played for the first time in 2013.

The Walking Dead

Despite being draped in a cartoonish art style and taking place in a zombie-ravaged wasteland that seems fantastical and alien to us, The Walking Dead is in many ways a very down-to-Earth and relatable game. The characters may not be rendered with stunningly realistic textures or rigged with mind-blowingly life-like animations, but in every sentence they speak and every reaction to the world around them they seem human to the core, and that’s what makes it so difficult to see them suffer.

The Walking Dead is able to make us sympathise with characters even when they’re not doing the right thing, show how us how it’s easy to make poor decisions even when you’re trying to do good, and demonstrate that simple endeavours can quickly become muddied with inter-group politics and unforeseen circumstances. Ultimately, it’s a game that teaches that it’s easy to be cold-hearted and judgemental when we’re looking in from an outside perspective, but when we’re the ones making the decisions, it’s a very different case.

Grand Theft Auto V

With so many developers over the past generation trying their hand at creating open-world games and putting so many different spins on the basic concept, it’s impressive that Rockstar can still create a very straight-up-and-down crime sandbox like GTA V and have it stand out as distinctively as it does. Not only is GTA V’s map crazily expansive, but it’s impressive just how much of it is dominated by the city of Los Santos, an urban jungle so large I still don’t know my way around most of it even after spending countless hours driving its streets. None of it feels compromised by its size either, with every little inch of that urban sprawl furnished with its own unique buildings and decorations. The game is teeming with tasks and challenges for the dedicated player and the use of three different interlocking character storylines adds a further dash of choice and layering to the way you experience it. Even the Online mode, which I have rather mixed feelings about, has provided me with some some gratifying moments.

Bioshock Infinite

After finishing Bioshock Infinite it was hard for me to look back at the game the same way I did when I first rocketed into the sunny skies of Columbia, but that’s one of the truly special things about it. There’s this great sense that you really are going on a journey as the environments, tone, and the characters hit these stark changes as the story progresses. Elizabeth’s story arc is heart-breakingly tragic, taking a girl who romanticises the outside world she’s never known and revealing to her that world she idealises is actually harsh and deterministic. She starts off as someone full of wonder and optimism, but endures revolution, torture, indoctrination, and eventually having to kill her only friend. Of course that would be nothing if we didn’t feel so much empathy towards her, a merit of the game that is owed to the talented animation, writing, and voice work behind it. I’ve seen the gameplay of Infinite garner some flack, but while it may not be on par with the most delicately designed FPSs, the shooting remains solid and the inclusion of the Skyhook and the Vapors really help spice up the fights. The experience of Infinite is one that’s stuck closely with me and has refused to leave my head long after I’ve finished the game.

The Stanley Parable

The Stanley Parable is such an unusual piece of media that sometimes it’s hard to know how to fully assess it, but one of my favourite qualities of it is that you can indulge in it on two levels. If you want to enjoy The Stanley Parable as an adventure in atypical humor and a playful back-and-forth between you and its God-like narrator, you can, and if you want to enjoy it as a multi-faceted exploration of the way games handle player agency and the flaws of choices as they’re presented in the medium, you can absolutely do that as well. Even having played the Source mod on which the game is based first, I was tickled and enthralled by the bizarre escapades of Stanley.

Hotline Miami

There’s a track on Hotline Miami’s OST called “Crystals”. It’s fun and trippy but has an odd air of seriousness about it. At about the 45 second mark the quick, synthetic blips of the track are joined by these longer, darker tones that if you weren’t paying attention, you might not notice the first time round. For me, this is oddly representative of Hotline Miami itself. What initially seems like a fairly standard video game killing spree pulls back to reveal something more bizarre and critical of the player than it first lets on. The gameplay and audio-visual experience are the real crowning jewels however.

It’s one of those games in which the levels are a constant chain of moments where you’re slowly scoping out the rooms ahead and then bringing your speed and precision together to try and drop your enemies in the blink of an eye. Hotline is made both tense and thrilling by there often being a split-second between getting the drop on some unsuspecting mobster and ending up splattered over the brightly-coloured carpet. Not only does the game have one of the best soundtracks out there, but its top-down view, surreal fever of colours, and highly-pixelated bloodbaths are entrancing and yet make you feel oddly detached from the violence. My biggest disappointment with Hotline Miami is simply that there wasn’t more of it, because it’s such a captivating game.

The Sims 3

I’ve always found something compelling about The Sims, from the slow trickle of simple tasks the game constantly feeds you, to the way that it remains a comparatively true reflection of the lives we live every day without getting boring. I was ready for The Sims 3 to be a light incrementation on The Sims 2 with no substantial changes, and at first glance that may be what The Sims 3 looks like, but while the game isn’t by any means a full reworking for the series, it does come with a number of smart alterations to the traditional formula which make it a joy to play. The new array of traits you can give your characters during the creation process make them feel like more of an individual, both as a person and in gameplay; the “moodlets” add some variety to the mix and make the daily experiences of your Sim feel more true-to-life; and the ability to switch instantaneously between the individual lots and a larger view of the town gives the whole experience a gratifying seamlessness. This third installation in the series has kept me once again glued to my computer screen, savouring every minute with my virtual families.

Thomas Was Alone

We’re all familiar with science-fiction tales of programmers accidentally creating artificial intelligence which gets out of their control and pursues its own motives. These are almost always narratives about malevolent and genius computer programs who are hostile to their human progenitors, but Thomas Was Alone has a bit of a different take. What if instead of being insidious masterminds, the first AI were more like our own children: innocent but loveable? The game paints a very pure picture of a group of friends coming together to overcome adversity and each others shortcomings by showing us a delightful cast of characters and a series of puzzles which have us stack them together and use them to help each other reach places they’d otherwise never be able to go. This is all delivered to us in the trappings of a minimalist cyberspace which leaves the game wonderfully encapsulating the idea of being beautiful through simplicity.

Injustice: Gods Among Us

One of the biggest strengths of Injustice is not in what it does do, as much as what it doesn’t do. What could have easily been Mortal Kombat with DC characters in it instead turned out to be a fresh and exciting fighting title in its own right. The mechanics are finely tuned and have all the depth you would expect of a NetherRealm game, but never feel convoluted or impenetrable to people like me who aren’t going to invest a couple of hundred hours to master all the tactics and their execution. The stage destruction, transitions, and special moves make it one of the most brilliantly over-the-top fighting games ever committed to disc, and overall the huge respect NetherRealm had for the game they were creating shines through clearly.

Spec Ops: The Line

I love an upbeat, positive Game of the Year list, but it’s impossible to talk about Spec Ops: The Line without talking about its critique of a certain type of game. I’m not “Too Cool for CoD”, I’m not going to claim I don’t enjoy Battlefield, but there is something that does bother me about modern military shooters. I think there’s something to be questioned in the way games treat violence and war in general, but it becomes particularly uncomfortable for me when games turn the kind of wars people are fighting and dying in today into objects of shallow enjoyment. The Line addresses that completely.

It’s not a fun game to play, but then it couldn’t be, not if it wanted to avoid the pitfalls of the same games its criticising and the ideas it’s subverting. It’s plain throughout that there’s something thoroughly wrong in what you’re doing and that showing up to a foreign country and just trying to shoot your way to a safer, more stable world doesn’t work, is not pleasant, and does not make you a hero. For taking what was otherwise destined to be a bargain bin FPS and turning it into something altogether more meaningful, YAGER deserve some serious kudos.

Gone Home

Homes are naturally very personal places and Gone Home is very much a game about people, giving us snapshots of moments both important and trivial of all the characters involved to build an intimate picture of one family’s lives. A lot of the game seems to be about regressing us to a younger state and bringing out the emotions that accompanied that time in our own lives. The house feels enormous and creepy without our family there with us, the classic VHS tapes and games littered around the residence evoke a gleeful nostalgia, there’s a pleasing familiarity in Samantha’s teenage punk rock phase, and there’s a touching relatability in the tale of her finding young love.

The sections involving Sam and Lonnie are written with particular care; they could have easily been made one-dimensional characters defined by their sexual orientation, but instead the game treats them as fully formed human-beings. It doesn’t present them as simply being in a “gay relationship”, but instead displays their relationship as one exactly like any other, with all the same emotions and little moments of growth, but just happening to be between two women. Together they face serious difficulty, not just because they’re homosexual, but also because that’s the nature of relationships. Gone Home hit so hard with me because it talks to you like a human being, about human beings.

And those are the games I most loved in 2013. Honourable mentions go to Antichamber, Cookie Clicker, Dear Esther, Depression Quest, and Don’t Starve. Here’s to hoping 2014 will be as good as 2013. Thanks for reading.

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