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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Keepers of the Copyright

If you’ve had your eyes on the internet over the past few weeks, you’ve probably noticed that not all is well in the kingdom of YouTube. The site has a thriving community of people who post and earn money from video reviews, let’s plays, and other content which combines video game footage with their own personal commentary, but these people are now having their videos hit with copyright claims from companies on a massive scale in what many are seeing as unfair and damaging attacks on content creators. It’s been excellent to see so much awareness being drawn to what I think is an issue that really needs it, but I still believe there’s more room to voice the details and implications of the whole situation, so let’s start from the beginning.

The Networks

One of the most recognisable examples of an MCN.

Caught up in the middle of this chaos are the groups known as MCNs or Multi-Channel Networks. For years YouTube users have been able to partner with YouTube and monetise their videos by attaching Google ads to them, but MCNs offer those looking to monetise their content a little bit more. They essentially sell themselves as managers for YouTubers, promising to help users grow their channels and provide other benefits in exchange for a cut of the user’s ad revenue, and so many of the YouTube channels producing video game content today exist under MCNs. MCNs have, or in some ways had, a secondary job though. When a video uploaded by a user under an MCN violated a copyright, they weren’t directly called up for it by YouTube like other users, instead the MCN was held accountable for that violation, and it was their job to police and handle the users under them breaking copyright. Recently however, something changed. The channels under MCNs were split up into two groups: managed partners and affiliate partners.

Managed partners are treated exactly as channels under MCNs always were, with the networks being responsible for managing their co-operation with copyright law, but the affiliate partners are fair game for YouTube to directly slam copyright claims down on, just like anyone else monetising their videos. Following the split, YouTube’s Content ID system kicked into gear and detecting copyrighted video game footage and sound in thousands of affiliate partners’ videos started handing out copyright claims right, left, and centre. The popular theory is that the split that triggered all this came about because the MCNs weren’t actually doing their job when it came to preventing the channels under them breaching copyright and so this was YouTube’s solution.

Implications

The really scary thing is that while this change has brought a flood of unfair copyright claims along in a short space of time, really all that’s happening here is affiliate partners are having to deal with what everybody monetising their videos independently have been dealing with for much longer. Even more worryingly, all of this is happening in the context of the much larger ongoing battle between smaller content creators, consumers, and distributors on the internet, and many of the larger companies who could potentially restrict their freedoms. What’s happened on YouTube sets a disturbing precedent for the way content creators can be treated online and shows that even somewhere as powerful and previously free from this kind of meddling as YouTube still isn’t safe.

There are some grey areas, but even then it's pretty loose.

To be fair, there can be some grey areas when it comes to video game copyrights. I do think there’s a fair argument to be had over whether copyright claims should be made against videos that only consist of cutscenes without any kind of commentary, or videos that just feature extremely linear, pre-scripted game sections like the quick-time events of Heavy Rain, again, providing there is no commentary. However, before any hard claims can be made against even those kinds of videos, there should need to be a discussion that includes both the big companies and the smaller content creators, and it should have to culminate in a clear explanation of why YouTube are making the decisions they are. In reality, we’ve seen neither of those things happen, and here we’re not just talking about cutscene compilations and the like, we’re talking about videos that are clearly transformative works and are providing commentary and criticism over gameplay, but are being called up based on as little as 5 seconds of footage or sound being taken from a copyrighted source. This is just not okay. I’ve heard plenty of arguments that the Fair Use policies that have traditionally protected this kind of content are murky territory and that Google can legally do what they want with their own privately owned website, and both of those things are true, but even if this is all 100% legal, that doesn’t dispel the criticisms that by YouTube running this way a poor service is being provided and that the nature of game criticism and entertainment on the internet is being damaged.

A Broken System

Computer algorithms aren’t nearly advanced enough to make judgements about whether copyright claims are reasonable or not and are no substitute for real human beings. In the worst cases we’ve seen people being flagged for copyright infringement even when they’ve owned the rights to the flagged material or have had permission to use it, and people who weren’t the rights holders having been able to make false claims on videos. Whenever someone does get called up for violation the system assumes them guilty until proven innocent and in instances where people do have a chance of getting their videos reinstated, they may have to wait lengthy periods of time to be processed, during which they can earn no revenue from their flagged content. Users are also subject to monetisation reviews which run into the same problems, with the slight difference that it’s not just videos they can’t make revenue from while they’re being checked, but their entire channel.

Over on the other side of these scuffles the people and groups making claims of copyrighted content being used in videos can be given 100% of the revenue from them. This means it actually benefits the big companies to have a broken system that disadvantages YouTube’s users and that even when someone goes to the hard work of making a video, for example, forty minutes long, just a few seconds of a cinematic here or a soundtrack there can mean that all their hard work will go to profiting some sort of external entity. But wait, it gets worse. Because it’s affiliate partners and independent users being struck with this stuff instead of managed partners, it means many of the more established and financially secure video game YouTubers out there are fine, while it’s really the little guys who are getting screwed. Keep in mind that YouTube is a source of income for these people and for some YouTubers is part of the way they’re putting food on their tables in the evenings.

Things on YouTube are bad, but I think some people are misplacing the blame.

Don’t get me wrong, working out who is to blame here isn’t simple. While there are many companies that I’m sure are happy to be able to make claims on thousands of videos and profit from them, there are also content creators who have said they’ve not actively tried to initiate any content claims and don’t want their content claimed, but have found it happening anyway. Copyright law is also written in such a way that if companies don’t make claims on every infringement on their work, it can weaken their position in future copyright disputes, so you end up with copyright claims like these essentially being made in self-defence even if the people they’re claiming against aren’t actually a direct threat. It might seem like the obvious answer to blame YouTube themselves for building a shoddy system, but while I do think they’ve handled this situation poorly, it’s probably impossible for them to moderate all the content on the site by hand, and their actions are likely in part to do with the possibility that they could be sued for hosting copyrighted content again if they’re not vigilant about taking action against anything that has the vague possibility of being used against them in court.

Jumping Ship

It’s easy to think of YouTube as “just one site”, but when they basically hold a monopoly over the video hosting game and 1 in 7 people on the planet visit YouTube every month, that means what happens on that site affects a hell of a lot of content producers and creators, and can set a standard. There’s been a fair bit of chatter about how those who host their content on YouTube can just move to a different service or how someone will come up with a website to rival YouTube, and while those are both valid points, those solutions are fraught with more problems than are being acknowledged. When you have those numbers of people visiting YouTube to begin with and when YouTube is where everyone is watching these personalities, content creators risk splitting their fanbase, dropping considerable numbers of viewers, and limiting their discoverability by jumping to another platform.

There’s also nothing else exactly like YouTube out there at the moment, so when people start hosting their videos elsewhere they lose the features and tools that YouTube provides its content creators and audience. For example, the most commonly recommended site for games-focused YouTubers to move to right now seems to be Twitch, but that doesn’t really make sense as Twitch doesn’t support direct video uploads and most of the people interested purely in streaming games seem to be there already. Even if content producers did manage to get onto a new video hosting site with everything they needed and as many viewers and as much discoverability as they got on YouTube, how is this new site going to properly check all its videos for copyrighted content when YouTube couldn’t? And what’s to stop it having to put its boot down on its users because it’s scared of being sued or shut down like so many other online hosting services?

Changing Things

This continues to be broken.

There’s no quick-fix solution for this problem, but a lot of this comes back to the point that copyright law, especially in the U.S., desperately needs reform. The laws on copyright come from a different time when things like video games and Let’s Plays and digital distribution didn’t exist, and are not equipped to deal with the modern realities of media. They encourage companies to be far too severe in what they make copyright claims against, and the “Fair Use” laws which have been there to guard those who want to create transformative works have always been a nebulous and too often flimsy means of protection for freedom of speech and expression.

Honestly, I’m not holding my breath that things are going to get any better without some serious legal changes, but if they do it’ll happen when people displeased with what’s happening on YouTube start jumping to other sites and when video hosting sites that can genuinely rival YouTube start to spring up. And hey, maybe there’s some chance that if enough of us kick up a fuss about the way that content creators are being treated, some of these companies somewhere along the line will start paying attention. Thanks for reading.

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The Top Ten Game Series of the Generation

2013 is winding down and with the release of the Xbox One and Playstation 4, the seventh generation of video game consoles has come to a close. Given that, now seems an opportune time to reflect on the best games from the last eight years. The following list consists of my favourite titles released between late 2005 and late 2013, grouped by franchise, and listed alphabetically, so without further ado:

Assassin's Creed

In open-world romps like Assassin's Creed, it's not just our weapons and the environmental objects we can interact with that are important, but also the way we move through the world; Assassin's Creed manages to instil a feeling of liberation by letting us move up and over the buildings that would act as hard barriers in many other games. The houses, shops, and churches around us all manage to retain a surprising amount of realism despite being so deeply integrated into the gameplay, and there's this wonderful flow to the way we can leap from handhold to handhold or bound from rooftop to rooftop to traverse the city. Scaling a large building feels like overcoming something greater than yourself and I found these activities all the more enjoyable in the picturesque Renaissance Italy of Assassin's Creed II and Brotherhood.

In other stealth games getting caught means game over, but in Assassins' Creed it's often where another level of fun begins. The pursuits in the game not only allow you another out even if you do get spotted, but become this source of kinetic action in themselves. In general your abilities to slip out of the sight of guards in the blink of an eye or discreetly take out an important target with a sly wristblade in the side make you feel like you're outwitting people at every turn. I also have a soft spot for the multiplayer, which blurs the line between player and AI and lets you overthrow your opponents by hiding in plain sight. In short, it's no wonder that Assassin's Creed has been such an influential name.

Batman: Arkham

Usually I can’t help but roll my eyes at games that are trying to be “Grim and gritty”, but in the context of Batman it works. I find it hard to put my finger on exactly why the Arkham games are able to pull it off when so many others aren’t, but maybe it has something to do with how well they’re able to execute on that aesthetic choice and the fact that they don’t just want to present a brooding protagonist and grey-filtered visuals, but also a wonderfully crafted pseudo-gothic world filled with dark but unique characters. However, the Arkham games bring with them not just the beloved heroes, villains, and look of the Batman franchise, but also manage to subvert the classic blunder of so many licensed games out there by making you really feel like you’re playing as Batman, as opposed to it just feeling like you’re playing a generic action-adventure game skinned for the Batman franchise.

Not entirely unlike Assassin's Creed, the stealth sections are often not about making you feel underpowered in comparison to enemies, but instead the forgiving difficulty and reactions of the enemies in the Arkham titles make you feel like a force to be reckoned with as you pick off frightened miscreants one by one. The more direct melee combat comes with its own unmistakable sense of rhythm, impact, and a beautiful simplicity which thoroughly embraces the concept of being easy to learn but hard to master. Then there’s Batman’s utility belt of gadgets which fit uncannily well into the challenges the game lays out for you, and Arkham City’s fluid and exhilarating city traversal. All of this comes together to make Arkham Asylum and Arkham City not just two of the best licensed games I’ve played, but two of my favourite action-adventure games out there.

Bioshock

I’ve already gushed about Bioshock recently, but there’s no way I could leave it off this list. Often video game creators draw from a fairly limited pool of influences. We’ve all seen the enormous number of games just based around sports, the military, Tolkienesque fantasy, action sci-fi, and similar concepts, and there’s nothing wrong with any of these things in themselves, but sometimes games need to step beyond this pattern of repetition. Irrational incorporate a lot of classic action movie and video game tropes into Bioshock’s worlds, but manage to do something rather magical by blending them with more unconventional influences for video games like objectivist philosophy, class politics, U.S. history, and quantum physics. They then manage to put these worlds across with a level of realisation and clarity matched by few other games out there.

In some ways it feels difficult to talk about the entire Bioshock franchise as one series because while there are obvious common threads running through all three games, Infinite feels so different from Bioshock 1 and 2. The original Bioshock drops us into a creeping, dingy place where exploration of the environments is also coupled with the discovery of the characters that shaped the world we’re moving through. We discover this epic story of a fallen dystopia and the curious madmen who made it the way it is. Infinite on the other hand is much more upfront about how the city we see came to be, and instead of being cold and inhuman is more about using characters that we care about and empathise with to affect a reaction. What looks like the fairly simple story of a city’s downfall eventually spirals to such an insane and unsettling place, you never would have seen it coming. I have huge respect for those games.

Geometry Wars

Geometry Wars is a game that no matter how many times I’ve experienced before, I can still go back and play it again and again because it’s just so compelling. It represents a kind of clash of eras, taking the simple mechanics and distilled fun of an arcade game and pairing it with 21st century gaming’s modern graphics and capacity for hundreds of entities existing in play at a time. Its neon-tinted visuals, pulsing music, and colourful firework animations make it an aesthetic delight, and the combination of vulnerability and power the gameplay presents makes it constantly exciting. As games progress you get a strong sensation of the intensity being steadily ramped up, with play becoming increasingly chaotic and your score multiplier growing ever-larger until you eventually meet your climactic end. I can never get enough Geometry Wars.

Grand Theft Auto

I realise that Grand Theft Auto IV being my first proper venture into the open-world crime genre makes me a little late to the party, but that among other reasons makes the title rather special for me. In more recent times however, it’s Grand Theft Auto V that’s had my attention, with its generally sunnier demeanour and ridiculously large scale. GTA’s writing isn’t mind-blowing, but there’s something engaging about many of its characters, be they a European immigrant disillusioned with the American dream or a rural U.S. psychopath discovering the existence of a friend he presumed dead. As with any great sandbox game, you can lose hour after hour to just roaming the world and playing with the toys it gives you, and there’s a great air of freedom in just jumping in your car, driving wherever you want, and laying waste to whatever catches your eye.

Halo

I have a real affinity for all of the Halo games, but I consider Halo 3 the high point of the series, and it’s the game that sealed my obsession with the franchise. I love the way the weapons feel, I love the level design, and I love the way the games provide a careful balance of gunplay, melee combat, and use of grenades. In the campaign and firefight modes the varied enemy types mean that combat doesn’t just come down to aiming for the head on a conventional human model and squeezing the trigger, and in general the games are able to provide encounters that are meatier and contain just a little more room for players to defend themselves and counter-attack than you find in many other modern shooters.

Graphically, the Halo series is vibrant and full of life, with each of the three factions in the games having a pleasingly defined look. Halo 4 and Reach could have stood to be a little more ambitious, but the new mechanics and features brought to the series over the past generation have had me hooked, and I have to give Halo 3: ODST a special nod for stepping out and doing something a bit different. Oh, and the soundtracks on those games are still fantastic.

Mass Effect

Mass Effect is a series with some major flaws. Among other things, it’s fairly mediocre as a third-person shooter, moral choices are often very black-and-white, and the finale of the trilogy is far from perfect, but I think it says something about how brilliantly done much of the games are that they’re able to get past these serious issues to be overall amazing experiences. Characters are imaginative and likeable in a way that we rarely see in games, and the whole thing works in no small part because missions are not just about plot advancement and gameplay, but getting to know the characters, where they come from, and what made them the people we see today.

The story and lore of the Mass Effect universe have been brought into being with real care and thought, and the games do a great job of making it feel like your choices have weight and meaning. I know that I’m not the only one who will have fond memories of the Normandy crew for a long time to come.

Portal

I remember the first time I saw Portal’s central mechanic in action. For a moment I was confused, I couldn’t properly process what had just happened, and then it clicked and I’ve been amazed with everything that Portal is ever since. The original Portal is a perfect demonstration that budgets and resources alone are far from defining the quality of a game. It’s short on content, reuses assets all over the place, and is 99% voiced by one person, and yet through clever design decisions and fantastically skilled execution manages to make sure none of that has a negative impact on the game. Portal 2 manages to build expertly on top of the groundwork the first game laid, expanding out the gameplay concepts, the diversity of environments, and the story of Aperture in a really engaging way.

One of the smartest things the series does is instead of trying to pave over an organic world with mechanics and components that come across as oddly “gamey” like so many other titles, it sets itself in a controlled and human-designed environment to make its obvious gameyness feel right at home. Within that environment there’s still nothing quite like linking two points in space with your Portal Gun and bending that bit of magic to your advantage. The Portal games are unique, hilarious, beautifully animated, wonderfully voice acted, and have puzzle design bordering on perfection.

Rock Band

I feel like many people have taken Rock Band to be one of those games that’s a fun party activity, but generally don’t hold the series in high regard the same way they might with more traditional video games. For me, whether played solo or with other people, Rock Band is brilliant fun. It’s easy to forget how conceptually crazy Rock Band first was or how far it’s come from its relatively humble roots, but that basic idea of taking the Guitar Hero formula and broadening it to include a full band was an excellent and ambitious notion. Harmonix proved themselves capable of going above and beyond expectations, with the games not only executing on their original ideas with minimal faults, but also playing host to some killer soundtracks, offering thousands of pieces of downloadable content, and eventually providing support for actual instruments.

A good rhythm game allows us to feel that our actions are intertwined with the music in a way we can’t otherwise get short of playing an actual instrument. Rock Band’s plastic imitations may not have the complexity and freedom of the real thing, but they’ve provided an exciting and approachable way to interact with music I’d probably never otherwise be able to and introduced me to plenty of great songs and artists. For that I can only heap appreciation on Harmonix.

The Walking Dead

In the journey of games progressing to become a medium capable of affecting wider and deeper emotions, The Walking Dead has to be a serious milestone. I don’t think I can explain what’s so powerful about the game better than I already did in my review, but it’s not hard to see why so many people have named The Walking Dead as the first video game to make them cry. It understands human emotion, how to evoke emotional responses, and carefully balance positive moments against negative ones to get the most out of every little minute you spend playing.

Major decisions and their outcomes are often hard to deal with. You end up hurting those around you even if you didn’t mean to or couldn’t avoid doing so, and the most important choices are often made under pressure, with no clear course of action to find a good solution to your problem. There’s this interesting duality where The Walking Dead simultaneously manages to make it feel like you’re at the mercy of this uncaring and brutal universe, and yet that your choices are influential and affecting in the larger scheme of things. I’ve played almost no other games that hold as much emotional weight as The Walking Dead and that makes it a very meaningful game for me.

Thanks for reading.

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Ascension in the Count of 5...

Warning: The following post contains some spoilers for Bioshock and major spoilers for Bioshock Infinite.

Rapture

Somewhere beyond the sea.

I’ve said it before, but I think there’s a common misconception that a sequel staying true to its roots means it just replicating the same locations, characters, story, etc. of the original, and I think the path of the Bioshock series demonstrates perfectly where this kind of thinking falls down. Despite the success of the first game, the general consensus on Bioshock 2, at least at the time of release, was that the game was a bit of a disappointment and just didn’t stand up to Bioshock 1. From one perspective this might not make a lot of sense, given that Bioshock 2 took the locations, monsters, and other features that everyone loved in the original and produced a more polished version of the overall package, but we need to escape the mindset that games can just be defined as galleries of content, and instead remember that presenting content is only a means to the larger goal of giving the player some kind of experience.

Bioshock 1 wasn’t just enjoyable because it contained Rapture and Splicers and Big Daddies and all those wonderful things, but also because we were discovering those things for the first time, uncovering what Rapture was, and putting together the pieces to work out how it had gotten the way it had. In this sense there was only ever a limited amount that Bioshock 2’s return to Rapture could offer us. While the game laid out new environments to explore and added some new story, we’d already discovered the large majority of the history of the city, we knew what it was like to explore Rapture, we’d already grappled with the legendary figures behind it, and we'd already become one of its monsters. There was another problem though.

We won’t go too deep into this, but for various reasons one of the most effective tools video games have to tell stories are their environments, and through their environments games can give us a sense of a real, breathing world in a way that other media often can’t. Many of the games with the best stories and worlds out there are those that make heavy use of their environment as a means of storytelling, and this was something the original Bioshock did fantastically. Not only could you find discarded items on the ground, messages scrawled on the walls, and similar environmental features adding backstory and helping flesh out the city, but there was something a little more than that.

Rapture, Ryan, and his colleagues felt inseparable.

Rapture itself was very clearly the product of the actions and beliefs of the people who worked on it, and it felt in no small way intertwined with those characters. For example, the ADAM and the Little Sisters were the mark that Brigid Tenenbaum left on the city, the deformed corpses and general horror hospital feel of the Medical Pavilion felt closely tied to J.S. Steinman, the whole city and the way it was shaped was in a larger sense the result of Andrew Ryan’s endeavours and warped philosophies, and so on. Bioshock 2 brings back some of this “The environment and monsters reflect the characters” idea, but not nearly to the extent 1 did, and with that city being so closely linked to those characters we’d already got to know in the first game, it felt that to some degree 2 was a cheap switch-out of characters and plot rather than an experience with its own strong and self-contained identity the way 1 was.

Now I’m not saying Bioshock 2 was a bad game, I believe it was a good game that contained some great character and level design, a welcome refinement of the original gameplay, and an atmosphere that many games even today can’t rival, but at the same time I see it fairly regularly said that Bioshock 2’s problem was that it followed in the footsteps of a game as incredible as Bioshock 1, and I don’t believe that’s anywhere near the full story. Irrational prove in Bioshock Infinite that it was always possible to make a follow-up to Bioshock 1 which successfully carried on the spirit and level of quality of the original game, and then some.

Columbia

As with the original Bioshock, a significant part of the appeal of Infinite is in discovering and exploring a new and fantastical pocket of civilisation, and seeing the way the flawed socio-political ideas of the visionaries behind it bring it down. Infinite perhaps doesn’t go quite as far as the original in attempting to reflect its characters in its environments, but it still makes considerable use of this idea as a means to tie its world together and it pulls it off excellently. The hyper-patriotic, racist, and pious beliefs of Comstock are deeply ingrained in the people of Columbia, its landmarks, and even its architecture; the history of Slate and Booker is played out in the exhibits of Columbia’s history museum; the way the Vox Populi shattered the city is reflected in the desolate streets and distant gunshots of some of the later environments, etc.

Columbia is an incredibly compelling world.

It should be said that despite wandering into socio-political territory, none of the political statements the game makes are particularly profound. We all know that subjugation of people based on their race is wrong, as is violent rebellion to the point where you’re putting guns to children’s heads, but the first third or so of the game does at least help remind us of something important about U.S. history. I think there’s sometimes a tendency to over-romanticise or over-idealise the early days of the United States and the foundations on which the country was built. The founding fathers were amazing people who did amazing things, and the principles of freedom and equality they laid out deserve repeated praise and celebration, but we always need to remember that while the early United States extended freedom, prosperity, and liberty to many people, this was done in part by reinforcing systems which took all freedom, prosperity, and liberty from others. We’re all aware that slavery existed, but I think this can be an area of cognitive dissonance for people and when the history of racial politics has had a knock-on effect on today’s societies as deep as it has, I think there’s inherent worth in any media that highlights those issues. These aspects of the game however still feel secondary to Infinite’s real crowning jewel, the story of Booker and Elizabeth.

One of the great strengths of the original Bioshock was that sense of isolation created by having no tangible allies and many of the more major characters being sealed away behind windows or on the other end of intercoms until their final moments. Bioshock Infinite however engages with the opposite end of the spectrum, pushing emotional buttons both positive and negative by making sure we constantly have an ally at our side through the story. The existence of two properly fleshed out characters at the forefront of the game also helps make the story more textured, giving the sense of a narrative happening on two closely related levels at the same time. One is the larger scale tale of what’s happening to Columbia, while the other is the more personal journey of Booker and Elizabeth. Bioshock 1 certainly had plot points that involved the protagonist, but the main character of the game was never focused on with the depth and detail that Infinite goes after with its two main characters.

Downfall

Despite being in many ways a brighter and livelier game than Bioshock 1 and 2, Infinite is for me the darkest of the three, because while the first two Bioshocks are grim and murky experiences from the start, Infinite gives us something sunny and optimistic to cling onto to begin with and then takes it away. In terms of aesthetics, while Rapture is broken and decimated from the get-go, Columbia starts as a heavenly, vibrant place, and so it’s impacting when it that goes through a period of chaos and ends up as a desolate and ruined city. However, even the fallen Columbia seems like a relatively happy place in comparison to the version of the future we stumble into in Comstock House and then the deliberately bizarre and disorienting concluding section of the game.

Things really go from bad to worse as you head through the game.

The gameplay takes a similar bent. While exploring the gritty, ruthless Rapture in Bioshock 1 and 2 was more about scrappy combat, dodging security systems, and planning for future encounters, the liveliness and chaos of Columbia comes through in the more straightforward, on-the-fly, “actiony” combat of Infinite. Again, things change slightly for Comstock House where the uncomfortable nature of the place and the mindless conformity of people within is mirrored in the way we must tensely sneak past the Boys of Silence or risk being swarmed by the Lunatics. At the end of the game our player agency is almost stripped entirely as Elizabeth takes the intellectual lead and Booker is revealed to be a kind of helpless pawn in the universe.

When it comes to that personal story of Booker and Elizabeth, there’s a stark contrast between the Elizabeth Booker rescues from the tower near the start of the game and the Elizabeths we see near the end. The most obvious route that Irrational could have gone down with the character was to make her someone who we became empathetic towards and attached to and then just kill her off, but they manage to take things in a more fascinating and probably more affecting direction than that. More interesting than just seeing her killed by some evil dictator is seeing her become an evil dictator. In the Elizabeth-ruled future, Bioshock’s classic environmental storytelling shines through once again, showing just how extreme an effect Elizabeth’s torture and indoctrination had on her and providing a steadily-paced build-up that allows us to explore the new Elizabeth as a character before we actually meet her.

Maybe it’s a mentality picked up from the way that so many other video games work, but it feels like we should be able to save the Elizabeth in that timeline, when in the end we just can’t, and that’s crushing. Even when Booker manages to go back and save the earlier Elizabeth, it feels like a sombre victory rather than a triumphant one, and eventually she has to turn against Booker anyway. Again, the game finds something more interesting than just killing Elizabeth in having her kill you. I find something disturbing about seeing the lively, optimistic woman from the start of the game who gleefully ran and danced her way around that beach become the disillusioned torture victim at the end of the game. All in all, that’s definitely one of Infinite’s greatest achievements.

Good luck to Irrational with whatever's next.

There’s so much more to say about Bioshock Infinite, but this is long enough already. Levine and co. managed to create something smart, exciting, and generally phenomenal in that game and it stands up as one of the best titles of 2013. It’s hard to see exactly where Irrational go from here, but whatever they do I’m sure it will be amazing. Thanks for reading.

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Nuts and Bolts

Whenever new information about the relative advantages or disadvantages of a games console come to light, two things inevitably happen: 1. Fanboys and fangirls adopt this information as ammunition for the ongoing mud-slinging matches over who supports the best consumer product, and 2. Some people assume that the general discussion or all discussion of that new information is only relevant to those pointless console wars. A similar thing also happens when we learn of major technical differences between systems and games. Any in-depth discussion of technical disparities does get dominated by dyed-in-the-wool hardware fanatics, but this also leads some people to believe that the only people that discussion and information are relevant to are those with an intense interest in hardware alone.

I think we’ve seen all of these occurrences in the recent discussion of the hardware disparities between the Xbox One and PS4. I won’t go into details, but on the off-chance you’ve not heard, launch games for the Xbox One are running at a lower resolution than launch games for the PS4, and the Xbox One can’t move data in and out of RAM as fast as the PS4. I know that’s a bit of a reductionist explanation, but the specifics aren’t important here, and there are places where you can look this up yourself if you want to. The upshot is that for many, especially those who are really into their hardware, this has been a big deal. As is ever the case with console discussion, much of it has ranged from slightly misguided debate to outright insanity, but while I can’t quite bring myself to get fully caught up in that conversation, I also can’t bring myself to reject it entirely.

The Importance of Hardware

Sometimes it's important to discuss the technical side.

Not everyone discussing these topics is a console fanboy. I think there are plenty of rational, level-headed people talking about console hardware, and sometimes hardware and graphics are just the special interest people happen to harbour. For most of us video games are about much more than that, but if that’s what gets someone excited about video games then great, I’m not going to tell anyone that the thing they subjectively value is wrong. In fact when these discussions get really in-depth I think it’s cool to see people nerd out about something they’re passionate about, and explore the fact that consumer electronics are more complex than we often give them credit for. While far too many of these discussions have been fuelled by meaningless console politics, when they’re conducted correctly they can only teach us more about games and game hardware and help us provide constructive criticism of them.

It’s common to hear some variation on the sentiment that “The hardware itself doesn’t matter, what really matters are the games”, and while I agree with that to a large extent, I think this thinking sometimes ignores that games can only do as much as the hardware they’re running on allows them to do. The sights, sounds, and everything else we experience when we play games happen in a direct sense because of program code and data interfacing with a specific set of hardware, and so hardware with a certain degree of power and certain capabilities is and always has been important. New hardware isn’t the be-all and end-all for those trying to push the boundaries of games at this point, and I’ll come back to that, but a fresh box of parts can still open up the potential for more realistic graphics, more complex AI, larger worlds, fewer and quicker loading screens, and so on. Given this fact it seems perfectly relevant to discuss exactly how much larger that scale can get, or how much more complex that AI can be on new consoles. So yes, the games matter, but the hardware itself matters because it’s essential to those games.

Red Herring

All that being said however, I conform to the basic opinion that too much attention is being given to the hardware specs and graphical capabilities of the new consoles. While being interested largely or solely in graphics is one thing, there are many of us who love games as a whole, and yet get way too caught up in discussions about pixel counts or DDR3 vs. DDR5 as if they’re the life force of a video game. Most of us here have this general idea in our heads that what you do with your graphics matters more than how much raw power you have behind your graphics engine, and yet in gaming discussion spaces the number of conversations about art styles and visual design still pales in comparison to the number of discussions about maximum resolutions and system requirements. Similarly, the ratio of discussions about hardware specifics like memory size and CPU power to serious discussions about game design, writing, and other factors doesn’t seem to line up to how important each of these factors actually are in making a good game.

As much stock as people might put in hardware, it's not usually what makes a console their favourite.

This all seems particularly silly because looking back at the history of games consoles we can see that it’s not been the raw power of the hardware that’s decided which consoles the majority of people buy or hold in high regard. Look at the way that the Nintendo DS trounced the PSP, or the way that the PS2 won out over the more powerful Xbox, or the way the NES steamrolled the Master System. Of course not everyone is going to agree with every one of these examples, but anyone who has been part of video games for a significant amount of time is likely to remember an instance when their favourite console just wasn’t the most powerful one on the market.

Another problem with these arguments rests in the fact that hardware alone has never been the sole decider of how a game performs, even on a technical level. Developers having a feel for how to build and optimise for the console they’re working on plays a major role too, and they get better at this over time. This is why we can see games as graphically disparate as Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 3 both running on the NES, or Amped 3 and Halo 4 both running on the Xbox 360. So while we can have many relevant discussions about the technical side of upcoming systems, these discussions can never produce a single exact answer to how well-executed the technical aspects of future games on that hardware will be.

It should be noted that this hardware obsession isn’t just perpetuated by the gaming community. For years we’ve had a lot of the industry, including the console manufacturers themselves, telling us that tech specs are a lot more important than they actually are. When E3 conferences are about showing off the flashiest games possible and games are marketed so heavily on how real they look and how detailed the visuals are, it’s no surprise we’ve ended up where we have.

Decay

Among other things, it’s important for us to remember that hardware power is becoming less and less relevant to video games. I stand by what I said about hardware having relevance and being able to open up new potential in certain areas for games, but on the whole, new hardware isn’t giving us what it once did and we’re getting diminishing returns as we go on. The most obvious department this is happening in is graphics, for reasons probably best explained in this image (source):

That image is a little off because there’s a fair few wasted polygons in that model, and this particular picture also doesn’t take into account the good that high quality shaders, animation, etc. can do, but I still think the message comes through. As the level of detail on which graphical improvements are being made increases, our ability to tell the difference between these incremental improvements weakens, and these diminishing returns are happening in more than just the graphical department.

For example, there was a time when video games being able to display a very limited number of objects on screen at once meant that there were fundamental limitations on what games could do in terms of gameplay. Even a graphically simplistic Geometry Wars wouldn’t have been possible on certain very early retro systems because they just could not support that many bullets and enemies being held in memory and being updated at once. When hardware advanced to be able to cope with storing and processing more at a time, it opened up a lot of new possibilities for designers. Gameplay systems expanded to accommodate more moving parts. But now, when we’re talking about expanding memory or processing power, it’s rarely for fundamental gameplay changes. It’s so we can play the same games, but with more players than before, or on a larger map, or with slightly smarter AI.

New hardware can't bring the change it once did.

For another example think about the way that the new hardware of the Playstation/Nintendo 64 era meant that 3D gameplay was now possible where it wasn’t before. Without that advancement, games like Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Metal Gear Solid couldn’t have existed. Now however, there is nothing as big as the 3D graphics barrier to surpass. Overall, these really major restrictions have been overcome and every new set of hardware is about overcoming less and less serious limitations every time, meaning that just having more powerful hardware is becoming less relevant and valuable to us every time. You could hypothesise that there are obstacles that we haven’t yet found that we need more powerful machines to overcome, but even under this mindset you can’t actually name any major gameplay advantage that will be granted to consoles through more powerful hardware.

Of course, new consoles don’t have to be sold on more powerful hardware alone. They can also offer unconventional hardware or other features and services we can’t get elsewhere, and we’ve seen plenty of this in recent years in the form of online multiplayer services, motion controls, and consoles trying to develop themselves into all-in-one media boxes. However, not all of this is as relevant to us as it might sound at first. While the worth of services like Xbox LIVE and PSN is obvious, they and their development don’t require new consoles; motion controls have facilitated many light-hearted casual games, but for 99% of the games we play they haven’t changed things dramatically; and while services like Netflix and Hulu on consoles can be really cool, they’re still not about enhancing the games themselves in any way. There are other newer features such as live streaming or social media environments in which to view friends’ gaming achievements, but while I think these features have some potential, they're not advancing things in any radical way, and they still seem to be more about systems surrounding games than the games themselves.

The Reality

To be clear, I’m not suggesting for a second that originality in games is dependent on fancy new hardware. There are so many places for video games to go that they haven’t gone before, but I think new console hardware has less and less to do with games getting to those places. In fact, while console manufacturers are predictably eager to tell us about how every new console is a revolution for the industry, in practical terms the costs of developing for higher-end hardware almost always mean that developers can afford fewer risks and less experimentation when taking full advantage of these systems. It might look fine on paper to point to a new console and talk about how its bigger memory and faster processing will allow developers greater freedom than ever before, but when the more original games we’re seeing now can usually run on cheaper, lower-end systems, and are frequently independently-developed, while AAA games are having to play it increasingly safe, that marketing pitch just doesn’t fly for anyone paying attention.

This isn’t me angling for you to be all doom and gloom here. The fact that so many technical hurdles standing in the way of games have been overcome is a positive, and I’m not saying we can’t get excited about new consoles and better graphics and all those things, but I think it also benefits us to take stock of what exactly new hardware means and what raw technical power brings us in terms of the bigger picture, lest we end up like the people who can’t see beyond arguments about screen resolution and DDR versions. Thanks for reading.

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Green Hills and Running Shoes

Recently, we received the latest chapter of Sega’s high speed rodent-based platforming series in the form of Sonic Lost World, and the reception has been less than favourable. A relative few say they’re enjoying the game, while many see it as yet another failed Sonic title, and some others are just finding it below expectations. It’s been said plenty of times before, but I think it bears repeating that you’re probably not doing yourself any favours if you’re getting hyped up for a new Sonic release as some sort of return to form for the franchise, and then getting disappointed when it doesn’t live up to those expectations. We’ve seen multiple occasions on which Sonic has been doing pretty poorly for itself, but developers or fans have pointed to a new Sonic game on the horizon, speculating or proclaiming that it will return the series to the old school roots everyone loved, then when the game has actually rolled around it’s just not been that impressive. That’s not to say that there haven’t been some promising-looking Sonic games that have turned out well, but there have also been many that haven’t, and this idea of Sonic just reverting itself to its classic 90s state overnight is a bit of a pipe dream.

Personally, I think I’ve been a bigger fan of the post-90s Sonic than most. For example, I have a special place in my heart for Sonic Heroes as a ridiculously upbeat and colourful experience, and as insane as it may seem I even enjoyed Shadow the Hedgehog at the time. However, it’s clear that Sega have struggled with trying to bring the blue blur into the age of modern gaming, and that Sonic simply doesn’t command the respect he once did.

A Bygone Era

Sonic's place in the industry has changed drastically since his inception.

In a way Sonic’s decline felt almost inevitable. Sonic himself, with his extreme speed and flippant attitude, was unmistakably a product of the 90s, and Sega’s exact place within the 90s games industry. As a character, Sonic doesn’t just embody the lightning-fast pace of much of series’ gameplay, but was also meant to be a reflection of exactly how fast Sega’s consoles were, or more to the point, how much faster they were than Nintendo’s. Sonic’s attitude matches an era when Sega weren’t afraid of directly calling out the competition, and they needed a masthead for their fierce involvement in the console market. His hip, edgy image was both one of his keys to success and one reason for his waning popularity in more recent years.

It’s easy to see how among the kids who made up the large majority of gamers at the time, Sonic’s trendy and in-your-face attitude seemed much more appealing than the gentler, family-oriented Mario, but in an age where Sonic isn’t the face of a shiny new console and the 90s are long dead, it seems natural that Sonic is not as relevant as he once was. Sega have tried to jazz up the series, reinventing their spiny speedball as a werewolf, giving him a sword, pairing him with a dark and brooding counterpart, but it’s all come as a bit of a reflection that Sonic has never had the almost Disney-like timeless quality of Mario. Similarly, while Mario’s dialogue and stories have remained largely minimalist, Sonic has taken on a more fleshed-out approach to story that’s not gone down well. Going from a very light approach to narrative, to a deeper and fuller one, can be a very dividing thing for audiences. Sometimes characters turn out to be not who we thought they were or who we want them to be, and it becomes all the harder to ignore bad writing when it thrusts itself into view more frequently and intrusively. A lot of video games have rather bland stories and characters, but Sonic and his surrounding cast are often outright irritating. I have a suspicion that this may be because Sonic is still being written for kids, and that we’re just not the target audience. Either way though, the potential problems with the games run deeper than this.

Building for Speed

It’s been asked before whether Sonic was genuinely that good in the first place or whether we’re just looking at it through rose-tinted glasses. Some have made the statement that Sonic only ever consisted of holding right and occasionally pressing A, and that it never had that much depth or variation. To some degree I think the version of old school Sonic in many peoples’ heads doesn’t quite fit the reality; across the board we have a tendency to idealise the games we are nostalgic for. It all starts to get very subjective at this point though. Not only would we all have a different experience with those games if we went back to them today, but for fans to form a collective consensus on how well those games hold up would require us replaying them on a scale that probably isn’t going to happen.

Classic Sonic was more than just Green Hill Zone.

What I can say is that you don’t have to spend long with the original Sonic games to see that they were more than just constantly running to the right and periodically hitting a single button. You might not think that if you just played the first couple of acts of Sonic 1’s Green Hill Zone, and it is true that the games have you frequently zooming around levels with little control, but they’re also full of legitimate platforming sections, with the first Sonic in particular requiring quite no small amount of precision platform jumping once you’ve gotten beyond the opening levels. Pressing right and A simply wouldn’t get you from the beginning to the end of a Sonic game, and in a lot of situations would be just as useless as it would in any other platformer. Of course, that doesn’t mean the argument can’t be made that Sonic relies too much on sections where you’re given little or no control, or that it doesn’t have other potential problems.

Personally, I think 2D Sonic is usually at its best when it’s falling back on moments of high velocity traversal with little player input, and is often at its worse when it’s asking for slow and exact movements. The controls are always at least serviceable for regular platforming sections, but not much more than that. This might well be one of the reasons that Sonic 2 onwards contain more periods of high momentum and fewer precision-based sections than 1. You see, while Sonic’s speed can be exhilarating, it does give the developers a few problems. It’s very difficult for example, to build a jump that gives players a lot of lift and distance when they’re going fast, but is controlled and precise when they’re going slow or launching from a standing point. When the designers move a player very quickly through a level it’s also hard for the player to A. Get a good read of what’s on-screen, and B. React quickly, accurately, and precisely to upcoming obstacles, which essentially leaves Sonic with three modes to operate in: Players not going very fast, players going fast but there being little challenge, or players going fast but being given next to no time to react to obstacles put in their way. Due to the huge difference between Sonic’s top speed and bottom speed, and the way you’re meant to gradually build up to maximum speed, hitting obstacles or otherwise coming to a stop also breaks the pacing in Sonic in a way it just doesn’t in other games.

I believe whether 2D or 3D, some, if not most of the problems we’ve seen surrounding the Sonic games have been caught up in these aspects of their design. Still, while the old school Sonic isn’t perfect, it is in my opinion still fun, and sometimes those moments of simply running to the right and pressing A are enough. However, a lot of people feel that Sonic began to fall apart after it made its transition into the three-dimensional, and the series’ use of speed may have played a major factor in that.

Gotta go fast and in a straight line.

Again, the faster you have Sonic move, the less precise the control is going to be, and while that’s not as much of a problem in the 2D games where you’re just running either left or right, the multi-directional nature of moving a character in 3D space means that something more precise is often required for 3D games. It’s difficult for the designers to create a Sonic that moves slowly and carefully enough to let you properly navigate a full 3D environment, but that accelerates fast enough so that you can quickly go from standing still to moving at high speeds. These control issues give the designers greater impetus to make the 3D Sonic a more tightly guided experience, and provide you with less freedom of movement than in other 3D platformers. You can see this in the way that the more open levels of Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2 were phased out for the games to be focused solely around the rollercoaster-style level design we saw from Sonic Heroes onwards. Again, my opinion is that the 3D Sonic’s best bits are often the more tightly guided sections, but sometimes the precise platforming in the 3D games has been even less desirable than in the 2D, and it’s not hard to see where fans may have been soured by these gameplay experiences.

A Division

There was generally more understanding for Sonic when it was still trying to find its feet in the three-dimensional world, but at a certain point Sega stopped getting the benefit of the doubt. It also didn’t help them that Nintendo managed to basically master the 3D platformer overnight with Super Mario 64. In fact, Nintendo’s general knack for creating great 3D games out-of-the-gate was uncanny. Of course, Sega have no doubt noticed the prevailing message that’s come from many Sonic fans over the past decade or so, that people want a return to the classic 2D Sonic, but this looks to be easier said than done. There have been some attempts to break from the 3D formula in the last few years, but quality and commitment to this idea has wavered. Sonic the Hedgehog 4 was an honest-to-God attempt to make a new game in the style of the classic Sonic, but while it might have looked great on paper, for many, the physics, controls, and level design just weren’t up to snuff, and Sega obviously weren’t optimistic enough about it to put out more than two “episodes”, the second of which was very poorly received. Sonic Generations and Sonic Lost World tried to pay homage to the beloved 2D Sonic through heavy use of 2D platforming sections, but still insisted on clinging to their 3D gameplay for much of the time.

You might well ask that with so many people wanting the old school 2D Sonic and Sega obviously being willing to produce it up to a point, why don’t they just go the whole hog with it? There are a few different theories you can throw out there for this one, but from the sales figures we can see that as much as we may gripe about the decline of Sonic, there is still a pretty large audience for current Sonic games. Most 3D Sonic games sell over 1 or 2 million copies, and even the often derided Sonic Unleashed sold 2.48 million units. This paints the picture that, in part, Sonic might be getting made for a different, newer audience, and that’s why a lot of Sonic isn’t gelling with us. Sega obviously still place worth in the more traditional Sonic fans, but right now appear to be tackling the demanding task of trying to find a pleasing middle-ground for everyone between the newer, sleeker Sonic of the modern era, and the classic retro Sonic that other fans have been crying out for.

There's still something to enjoy here.

This franchise would be much easier to deal with if Sonic was just good or just bad, but for many of us there’s been an inconsistency in the quality of the games which has made it more complicated. Some elements of Sonic are fun, others aren’t so much. Some Sonic games look like they could represent a true upturn for the series, others turn out to be junk. With a grating modern image, a new audience to cater to, and a host of potential gameplay issues, it’s hard to see Sonic ever rising from the ashes in the way we want him to, but Sega’s speed freak might not be a complete write-off. The way I see it, getting our hopes up for future Sonic titles might be a dicey proposition, but that doesn’t mean that we should rule out the possibility that once in a while the series might produce a pleasant surprise. On a personal level, I do think there’s something to be enjoyed in the 3D Sonic, and Sega have proven themselves capable of releasing some at least reasonably fun games when they can get things right. Thanks for reading.

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Anarchy, Insanity, and Pliers

Note: The following blog post contains spoilers for a good portion of Grand Theft Auto V.

Among GTA V’s colourful cast of characters Trevor seems to have become a bit of a fan favourite, and it’s easy to see why. It’s fascinating to watch his psychotic and unhinged behaviour and interactions, but it’s his ability to at times think rationally and take control of situations that make him especially dangerous, and while his penchant for violence and taste for crime set him up in many ways the perfect fit for a GTA protagonist, there’s also an interesting line of separation between him and the other two protagonists. It’s easy to group Michael and Trevor together due to their history, but at his core there’s something fundamentally different about Trevor.

The San Andreas Psychopath

The way that the game unveils each of its characters is very carefully planned.

The way we’re introduced to Trevor is key in establishing this difference, right down to the fact that he’s the last character the game turns its spotlight to. The game opens by putting us in the shoes of Franklin as we see him and the people around him trying to get by in Los Santos’s poorest neighbourhood, dreaming of wealth and luxury. The immediate switch we then make to Michael not only highlights the wealth disparity between the two characters, but also shows that despite him living the kind of life that Franklin and most of Los Santos idolise, it hasn’t made him happy. His family seem simply spoilt and self-entitled from having such ready access to all that money. With these two characters representing the two ends of the wealth spectrum it might not seem like there’s room for a third kind of character, but Trevor manages to be that character, openly saying that he’s opted about of the modern, consumerist society entirely. The partition between the characters only becomes clearer when we look at their sanity in relation to the world around them.

Franklin is a character trying to stay alive and keep a level head as the people around him attempt to pull him into dangerous and ill-advised criminal work, while Michael has settled into fairly regular family life, but with a wife and children who are loud, erratic, and lost in their own little realities. These are straight men lost in a crazy world, Trevor by comparison is a crazy man invading a straight world. His introduction takes us from the civilised and ordered city to a ragged dog-eat-dog desert that is reflective of his own attitude. While it takes a little time to get a feel for Franklin and Michael’s personalities and the basics of their lives, there is far less ambiguity with Trevor. His aggressive up-front nature means that he’s going to make it known exactly what he’s about from the get-go, and we’re immediately shown the way he delights in brutal violence and murder, lacks empathy, and uses fear to control both his friends and enemies. The other people living out in Sandy Shores are hardly normal, but they’re nothing compared to Trevor.

In fact, while Franklin and Michael are your pretty standard GTA characters, Trevor feels like your standard GTA player. Even at their most reckless, it’s hard to imagine Michael or Franklin driving into oncoming traffic just for kicks, or kidnapping a prostitute and driving her into the ocean for the fun of it, but these are absolutely things that Trevor would do. This distance and isolation is also made clear by the way that throughout Trevor’s introductory segment you are prevented from switching back to Franklin or Michael. Those two get on with their own activities in the background as we get a clear idea of the circumstances of Trevor’s life, and so by the time the three characters’ paths converge we’re familiar enough with Trevor to know the destructive kind of effect he’s going to have on their lives. It becomes a story of this horrible man crawling out of the desert to inject a large dose of anarchy into the world of the other two protagonists. Franklin and Michael struggle to stay out of the crime game to begin with, but it’s Trevor that acts as the catalyst to start pushing them down the path into many of their boldest acts of criminality.

We're all familiar with just how off-the-rails Trevor is.

You could almost frame Trevor as the spirit of Grand Theft Auto. He wants to do what he wants to do unbound by the restrictions of the world, and a lot of the time what he wants to do is get into car crashes, drive-bys, and heists just for the sheer fun of it. As memorable as Trevor’s big, crazy moments are however, he wouldn’t be nearly as interesting a character if he was on all the time. Rockstar know that without quieter, subtler moments he wouldn’t seem human, and his effect would be largely diminished, as it ends up being with many hyper-destructive action game characters. Occasionally Trevor will even act subdued and reserved as part of a mind game he plays to intimidate other characters, and our expectation of him being explosive and uncaring often makes it funny when out of nowhere he shows deep affection for certain people and things. His frequent lack of restraint and regard for other people also mean that he’s regularly making the snide jokes and speaking the truths that other characters won’t, at least the truths as they appear from his perspective, and ultimately, he would be devoid of meaningful motivation if he didn’t care about people like Michael and Brad on some level.

At a point, Trevor’s psychosis makes him a liability to himself, as he becomes obsessed with Michael, a man who he also hates deeply, and despite being very vocal about not wanting money or recognition, he performs a long succession of major heists and thefts in a desperate attempt to relive his glory days, his treasured memories apparently being those where he was threatening people with firearms and running from the police. When what you enjoy is sprinting head-long into danger and destruction, it’s only a matter of time before you land yourself in some serious trouble. Trevor is a consistently enjoyable character, but to take this down a slightly different path, there is one scene with Trevor that particular attention has been paid to.

Torture

To say that the torture scene isn’t at least a little controversial would be inaccurate, but it’s more complicated than that. I don’t want to go into every nook and cranny of the objections to this scene, but this isn’t the same wide-scale “Ban GTA, save the children” controversy of Jack Thompson’s days. That’s not to say all of the objections to the game are valid, there’s a worrying lack of acknowledgement out there for the fact that the game is obviously trying to portray torture as a negative thing, but I am firmly behind the statement that this scene makes the game especially unsuitable for minors. It’s kind of crazy that it’s become a bit of an expectation that so many teens and kids are going to end up playing Grand Theft Auto without a parent looking in and asking “Is this really something my son/daughter should be experiencing?”

Without a character as twisted as this, the torture scene would not have been possible.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with the torture scene in principle. Really, I have to praise Rockstar for attempting to tackle the topic seriously. They were trying to shock and unsettle, but unlike the large majority of games depicting something potentially controversial, they were doing so in a manner that had meaning behind it and was positive for video games as a medium. Obviously, one of the reasons we don’t usually empathise with characters being the victims of violence in games is because we’ve become desensitised, not just by video games but also other media, however, our reasons go beyond this. Subjects are often dehumanised, or we get to spend no time with them before we put a bullet through their head, the surrounding circumstances can seem unrealistic, or their suffering and death is never communicated to us in any detail. Not that I think there’s an inherent problem with any of that, but the torture scene allows us a rare moment where we can clearly recognise suffering and get the very direct sense that we’re causing that suffering. It’s an approach to violence that’s far removed from other instances across gaming where identical soldiers just spurt red goo and fall down.

The fan reaction to the scene has been mixed, with some saying they were left shocked and uncomfortable, while others said they didn’t find it impacting at all. When I played the scene it was a disconcerting experience, but I think it was executed on far from perfectly, and that maybe GTA V was the wrong game for this kind of moment. One thing that took the edge off for me and probably quite a few other people was that it wasn’t a million miles removed from the brutish, insane acts that Trevor was committing outside of the torture anyway. I don’t think anything he did elsewhere was as gruesome as taking a pair of pliers to a man’s teeth, but this the torture scene only feels like it goes so far when it comes from a man who is first shown to us curb-stomping a biker to death.

The mission also has a little, dare I say it, ludonarrative dissonance. The moral of the story is meant to be that torture doesn’t give you reliable information, and from a story perspective this kind of works out, but within the context of the gameplay you do actually get what you need to identify a valid target and be told that your mission was completed as successfully as any other. On top of this, it’s just bizarre that Trevor of all people is the one who becomes the voice of morality in this situation. I can understand why he takes up that role given the structure of the mission, I can see how it makes Trevor more fucked up that he tortured someone knowing that it was pointless, and I don’t think Trevor as a character was trying to be particularly moral. Still, none of this changes the fact that you can see the authorial intent behind the scene to deliver a serious ethical message, and you can see the mouthpiece for that message is someone as wildly unethical as Trevor.

GTA V may falter a bit in this attempt at serious commentary, but Trevor remains compelling.

I understand that to a certain degree these are going to be views shared by me and a limited number of people, but I also think that we’ve gotten so used to video game stories lacking any real meaning, that when a situation like the GTA V torture scene comes along and we see a game genuinely trying to make an important statement, we throw praise its way almost blind to execution. So while I can commend what Rockstar for the message they were putting out there, and I think they got somewhere, I just wasn’t feeling the torture mission in all the right ways. Still, Trevor is a great character and Grand Theft Auto V is a great game. Thanks for reading.

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A Salute to The Sims

Nobody is exactly a stranger to The Sims. We’re all familiar with the concept behind the series and many of us have played the games before, yet I don’t think The Sims has ever quite gotten the recognition it deserves from “core gamers”. Games are entering a time where they’re being more closely scrutinised as a medium than ever before, and a lot of the people, me included, are lamenting that games on the whole don’t feel human or relatable enough. People are also trying to work out how to make video games that appeal to a wider audience without just dumbing them down or leaving them without substance. These are issues we’re still figuring out in 2013, and yet The Sims, the first edition of which was released in 2000, is human, deals with relatable situations, and appeals to a wider audience. I’m not trying to say The Sims was necessarily revolutionary, a lot of the tricks it employs to achieve its results only work within the framework of its “life simulator” design, but I still think the game itself and the effect it’s had is pretty mind-blowing.

Firestorms and the Toilet Game

Unique games often come from odd places.

It was an odd collection of events and experiences which inspired Will Wright to design the original Sims. Obviously the Sim series as a whole played no small part in influencing the game, and particularly important were those games where more detailed simulation of individual people had been required, like SimAnt and SimCopter. This series started with SimCity back in 1989, which was in turn inspired by the work Wright had done on his first game, a top-down helicopter shoot-‘em-up called Raid on Bungeling Bay. Wright said that it was having more fun building the cities for the game maps, than actually playing the game itself, which helped fuel the creation of SimCity. Among his more unusual influences however were his love of architecture (particularly a lengthy 1977 architecture book called A Pattern of Language), his wide range of academic interests, and Wright’s loss of his home. The inquisitive designer was one of the first victims of the 1991 firestorm in Oakland, California. His family home burned down and his possessions were destroyed, but following this he began thinking about people, their needs, and their material goods, once saying:

“I started to wonder about all the things we have and how we purchased them for a reason. Why do we need x or y or z? Why do we think something will make me happier? It almost came down to Maslow’s pyramid of needs.”

And so the idea for The Sims seeded itself in Wright’s mind. At first it was poorly received by his business associates, fellow developers, and focus groups, with the “virtual dollhouse” angle alienating creators, publishers, and players of video games alike. The concept apparently became a bit of a joke within Maxis, earning itself the label “The Toilet Game”, i.e. the game where you could make virtual characters go to the toilet. The Sims did not receive the official go-ahead, and so Wright took a spare tools programmer that Maxis were thinking of firing, and worked with him on a prototype for the game in secret. After producing a rough draft of what The Sims would eventually be, Wright was finally allowed to take the game into development, and despite prior adversity managed to design the best-selling PC game of all time, selling over 16 million units. The expansion packs then sold 6 million more copies, and when The Sims’s record was finally usurped, it was by The Sims 2 which sold over 20 million units. Even without counting expansion packs and spin-offs, The Sims games have collectively sold upwards of 46 million, an impressive figure.

Playing God

There's something undeniably engrossing about this life simulator.

We know that when designing games, making things a means towards success or a metric of success makes players value them, but The Sims is able to do something very clever by making those means and metrics players’ characters’ moods, their physical and emotional needs, their relationships with others, their income, and so on. This technique makes The Sims feel familiar and relevant to us in an interesting way. Whoever you are, whatever you do, you can see a mirror of your life played out in The Sims in a fashion that you’re just not going to get with any other piece of media, because unlike other fiction The Sims is committed to not just investing us in the most exciting parts of a person’s life, but their life in its entirety. Every meal, every shower, every bathroom break, every time they go to work, every time they go to sleep. In it we see not quite the glamorous fantastical version of life portrayed in movies and books, but something a bit closer to what life is like for everyone in the real world.

This however, would be impossible if not backed up with good gameplay. The Sims is one of those fantastically designed games which despite being a sandbox with little plan from the designers on the path players take, is still able to use a careful web of interconnected systems to provide a steady and balanced stream of goals and tasks. Similar to the way Civilisation is infamous for letting players fall into the trap of repeatedly taking “Just one more turn”, The Sims is constantly providing you with a series of valuable short-term goals that seem quick and easy to attain, which when stacked together make longer-term goals surprisingly achievable. When you see your Sim is tired it feels so easy to put them to bed to refill that energy bar, then once they wake up and they’re hungry it feels so easy to give them breakfast, then to make them go to the bathroom, then shower, then go to work, and before you know it you’ve not only spent another hour on The Sims, but maybe your Sim is one step closer to that big promotion. In some ways this isn’t so far from how any video game works, but the whole thing stands up as a great example of the way games can take even fairly mundane things and make them interesting through proper use of gameplay.

As a content creation tool, The Sims is a bit amazing.

The fact that The Sims is about the everyday doesn’t prevent it from being an empowerment fantasy either. One of the appealing things about the series is that it gives us a greater degree of control and agency over aspects of a person’s life than we often have within our own lives. Just as many action games allow us to experience wars, battles, and fights with far less pain and difficulty than we would in reality, The Sims allows us to quickly, painlessly, and with far from insurmountable odds fulfil fantasies of making large circles of new friends, taking up high-paying jobs, getting married, having children, and so on. Players can witness all of the ups and downs of life in a way that is engaging, but because this is all happening within a video game, be detached enough that it’s more manageable, less stressful, and can always be walked away from. The Sims also satiates the small god complex in every one of us. The ability to make people speak, eat, sleep, wake, walk, live, die, etc. at the click of a button makes us feel powerful. On top of this, despite the original game being released when it was, The Sims has retained more robust tools for creation and customisation than many games today. Few other games let you put such time, effort, and meticulous detail into creating environments and characters.

Aggressive Expansion

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about The Sims without talking about the towering offering of expansion packs that have surged forth from EA and Maxis over the years. This seemingly endless parade of add-ons and extras slowly became the subject of mockery, and while I believe there are problems with the way EA and Maxis are handling add-ons for the games, I think the popular opinion on them misses the mark by a fair bit. I don’t believe that The Sims should be admonished for playing host to a huge number of expansion and “Stuff” packs. In fact, I think the series should be applauded for it. If we’re going to celebrate that a game like Rock Band can offer players thousands of downloadable tracks, or that games like Little Big Planet and Animal Crossing can give people the chance to download masses of user-created content, then doesn’t it seem a bit hypocritical to laugh at The Sims for allowing players access to thousands of pieces of new content to add to their games? That’s not to say that there wasn’t and isn’t still a slightly extortionate element to the many expansion packs out there, but I don’t think it’s because of their sheer number.

The Sims expansions are a slightly mixed blessing.

Like a lot of add-on content these days, I don’t believe the “Stuff Packs” are always reasonably priced. When EA were just releasing them on-disc for those who didn’t have the internet connection to download them, maybe it could be justified, but the pricing on the digital versions seems harder to defend. An even bigger problem than this however, is the way that deliberate holes are being left in the design of the games so that consumers can be sold a somewhat predictable set of expansions to fill them. With the first and to some degree second game, it was easy to understand why the expansion content was the way it was, but when the base Sims 3 was lacking such basic and established features as pets and most weather, only for them to be later released as part of expansions, that was something else entirely. There even seems to be a vague template in place to make sure that Maxis don’t have to get too creative with the new expansions, they just need to make sure they put out the party/nightlife expansion, the pets expansion, the holiday expansion, and so on. It’s a bit disheartening when you can predict with fairly high certainty the content of the expansion packs for The Sims 4.

Despite this, I do have to commend EA/Maxis for their dedication in giving people the ability to mod their games so heavily, starting long before the age of DLC. Of course they weren’t the only people in the expansion pack game, but the quantity of ways they offered users to upgrade their games, even in the early 2000s, was remarkable. If we refer to games like Borderlands and Fallout as the kings of DLC, I don’t think it’s over-the-top to regard The Sims as the king of expansion packs, at least in its heyday.

So that’s The Sims. An underdog game that is compelling, original, human, and resonates with a larger audience in a way it’s hard not to respect, even if it is a bit commoditised by this point. Thanks for reading.

Sources

Eurogamer- The History of The Sims by Dan Whitehead

Rock, Paper, Shotgun- Making Of: The Sims by Kieron Gillen

The Washington Post- Guys and Digital Dolls by Bob Thompson

Berkleyside- Will Wright inspired to make The Sims after losing a home by Tracey Taylor

TMCnet.com- The Sims Franchise Celebrates Its Fifth Anniversary and Continues to Break Records

Business Wire- Furry Phones and Pocket Pups: The Sims 2 Pets Goes Mobile

Venture Beat- EA’s The Sims Social has stolen millions of players from Zynga by Dean Takahashi

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Trouble at the Arcade

Ideally I’d be writing this after I’d already written a fair few other blogs about how the gaming community treat people and the excuses people make for acting abysmally on the internet, etc. but I guess things are going to happen when they’re going to happen and there’s not much you can do about it. We’ve reached the latest in a series of controversial issues involving Penny Arcade and on a larger scale the gaming and “geek” communities being potentially exclusionary to various different groups of people. Just a heads up, the following post is going to talk about rape, although not with any detail of the act itself. For those who haven’t heard the full story, below is a quick recap, but if you’ve been keeping up with the news feel free to skip over the next couple of paragraphs.

A Little Backstory

This probably wouldn't have been a serious problem if PA hadn't responded so poorly to the initial criticism.

In August 2010 Penny Arcade published a comic strip entitled “The Sixth Slave” in which a fictional RPG NPC begged the main character to help him, complaining that every night he was “Raped to sleep by the dickwolves”. This sparked upset from a number of people and criticisms of Penny Arcade began to spring up over the internet, but they were largely ignored and dismissed by Penny Arcade, mainly by artist Mike Krahulik. The complaints went on to be used as part of a gag in Penny Arcade’s next strip and the company then proceeded to sell a “Team Dickwolves” t-shirt. While some attacked Krahulik and Penny Arcade over this, many people on the other side of the debate attacked those who spoke out against Penny Arcade’s behaviour and applauded PA’s actions.

The t-shirts were eventually pulled from the Penny Arcade store, with Krahulik saying that while he didn’t think peoples’ negative opinions of the t-shirt were justified, that he could see it was upsetting people and he didn’t want that to be an issue at PAX. However, he later went on to draw a “Dickwolf” sketch on stage at the expo and publicly announce at one point that he’d be wearing his “Team Dickwolves” shirt to the convention. At the most recent PAX he voiced that it was a mistake for them to have pulled the shirts from their store, with Penny Arcade manager Robert Khoo agreeing, saying that they were trying to engage people with concerns and that they should no longer do it. After some further outrage over this, Krahulik retracted what he said and issued a lengthy apology. These are the main points of the story, but for a full version of the events with all the relevant links you can go here.

This is unfortunately not the only time Penny Arcade has garnered controversy along these lines, with questionable actions in the past including Krahulik promoting a game about schoolgirls getting “tentacle raped” on the Penny Arcade blog and making repeated transphobic remarks online before snubbing the people who attempted to criticise him for it. Unfortunately, even though Krahulik may have given what seems to be a very honest and heartfelt apology this time around that doesn’t mean that we can just put this whole “Dickwolves” incident to one side and forget about it. For one thing there are many people who were and still are defending Krahulik’s actions, and this definitely isn’t the first time or the last time references to sexual assault will be an issue in the video game space. In recent history Hotline Miami 2 and Tomb Raider have been scrutinised for the ways they’ve touched on it and we’re sadly still living in a time where the term “rape” is casually thrown around for fun on services like Xbox LIVE. I don’t think we just have a situation where people disagree over whether it’s okay to reference rape, but as is often the case with issues of exclusion and offence in the gaming community I think a large number of people aren’t on the same page about what the possible problems are to begin with.

The Damage

I sense a lack of understanding over this issue.

As Krahulik himself and many others have said his strip wasn’t making fun of rape victims, it depicted rape in a negative light, and both his comic and video games trivialise injury, shootings, murder, and similar content, so what’s the big deal here? Comments like these show up every time anyone tries to talk about rape in comedy, and I think they ignore that we aren’t just looking at a pattern of “The worse the thing is, the more the thing offends people”, but that instead people are often hurt more by the things that hit closer to home. In their lifetimes 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men will be raped, and you can’t begin to say the same thing about people being murdered or shot. So even if you’re not making a joke about rape victims themselves, when you start to talk about rape in a public setting you inevitably end up speaking to many people for whom rape is a very uncomfortable or even traumatic issue. Even for women who have never had to face rape themselves, with it remaining such a common crime many feel vulnerable and threatened by it. To quote game developer Christine Love’s blog on this topic:

“Maybe you can’t really relate to this, because rape is some sort of abstract concept to you, but to me, rape is what I have to worry about every time I walk home on my street late at night; or when I’m at parties with strangers; or if I ever decide to go on a date with a man. It’d be fucking nice if I didn’t have to think about it while I’m doing my job marketing my games at a convention, you know?”

A lot of people, including Krahulik, have painted this as a situation where those who objected to PA’s jokes just found them in poor taste or didn’t think they were funny, but this is much more than that. For some, content involving rape, especially when it’s put in a humorous context, is disturbing and at worst has the possibility of triggering flashbacks. That’s why a lot of the discussion over rape comes with those trigger warnings which so many people seem to enjoy making fun of. We have to remember that when Krahulik mocked the people who had a problem with Penny Arcade’s actions and when others attacked them, the targets of these jokes and insults were actual rape survivors, people who felt vulnerable to rape, and those who sympathised with them. If these are the individuals the gaming community think should be ignored, insulted, and ridiculed then something is very wrong here. This hasn’t just been a case of gamers disagreeing with these groups of people, but being actively aggressive towards them, not listening to them, or not acknowledging their harassment by other people in the gaming space.

The Public Space

Penny Arcade seemed unfortunately reluctant to engage the real criticisms.

Part of Krahulik’s response to all this was the fairly standard “If you don’t like it, don’t read it” which doesn’t work as an argument for a number of reasons, but one reason more specific to this case is that even if people weren’t reading the comic, they could still easily encounter the problematic content through his artwork and Penny Arcade’s t-shirts at PAX. Even pulling the t-shirts from the PA store only did so much good as people were already free to wear the shirts that had been distributed up to that point. Whether or not those sensitive to such content view Krahulik’s work, it also potentially contributes to rape culture, an accusation that people seem to be very quick to dismiss regardless of if they actually understand it.

Nobody is saying that people magically turned into rapists because of what Penny Arcade did, nor is it being said that many people don’t often see rape as the awful crime that it is, or that Krahulik actively advocates raping people. These were the arguments that Penny Arcade and many of their supporters depicted, and they are strawmen. What we do have is a consistent problem in society with victim blaming, cases of rape being swept under the rug, ignorance about rape, etc. When Penny Arcade make rape part of their jokes and Krahulik derides everyone who objects, they’re helping trivialise an issue that’s already not being taken seriously enough, and sending the message that it’s okay to brush aside those who feel hurt and threatened by these kinds of actions. As is often the case, the gaming community’s response to this incident is only indicative of a lot of the problems with peoples’ understanding of the issue and their stances on it to begin with. This whole thing is also particularly unsettling due to the community’s continual difficulties with listening to women who feel discriminated against or excluded in general.

Conventional Thinking

PAX is too important to ruin for people.

The kinds of issues we’ve seen in this Penny Arcade debacle shouldn’t be a problem anywhere, but it’s important that PAX specifically not become a place where people are scared to go either because they feel uncomfortable or because they feel they’re supporting a damaging element in the gaming/nerd community. PAX is meant to be about inclusion, it’s meant to be a place where people of all kinds from across the world can come together to enjoy games, comics, films, and more, and share these interests with others. The fact that PAX takes place in a physical space also means that discussions are far less riddled with the insults and general dickishness that is commonplace when we try to share our interests online, and when someone does do something wrong it’s far more easily policed. With their no booth babe policy, meticulous attention to the panels and booths, and other efforts, Penny Arcade have shown that they care about PAX being a safe space for people and that they have the power to make it so. If we’re not to lose a very important part of gaming and geek culture then PAX must continue to be a place where people feel comfortable, and Penny Arcade must ensure make sure they are a company that people feel they can support. As humble as they often are, Krahulik, Holkins, and the people who work alongside them have to face up to the fact that they have a very loud voice and are in a very prominent position, which gives them a huge responsibility to be careful about the ideas the spread.

I don’t think the Penny Arcade team are bad guys. From everything I’ve seen of them they’re good people doing good work across the board, so I find it hard to understand why they, particularly Krahulik, do things like this. These are people who were bullied as kids, so you’d think they would be the last people to grow up to bully adults. For now I think Krahulik has done all he can in issuing his apology, and it was actually quite touching to read. I genuinely believe that he and the company will make an effort not to hurt people in the future, but for some people the damage already been done, and many are worried that this whole snafu has been part of a pattern of hurtful and discriminatory actions by PA that won’t be broken.

What worries me more is that this is just a small part of the much larger problem of the gaming community becoming insular and exclusionary to numerous groups of people, and most don’t seem to have the empathy or rationality of Penny Arcade. There are all sorts of issues tied into this like misconceptions about free speech and discrimination that I didn’t have space for here, but they’re things I believe the gaming community desperately need to tackle, and I’m certain I’ll end up talking about them again. The first time this issue came around I defended Penny Arcade in a way that I shouldn’t have because I was ignorant about the issues, but we should always keep in mind that when minorities in our community tell us they feel unsafe and threatened it shouldn’t be one big race to see who can ignore them, make fun of them, and dismiss everything they’re saying the fastest. Even if we don’t end up agreeing with that they’re saying, we need to listen and we need to empathise because the alternative is us ending up with a community that is freakishly self-centred and where arseholes rule, and unfortunately that’s a lot of what I’ve seen following the “Dickwolves” controversy. Here’s hoping things get better and thanks for reading.

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The Struggles of the Indie Console

I think it’s fair to say at this point that the Ouya isn’t doing fantastically. Since its retail release a month ago, it’s received a justifiably cold reception from both critics and the gaming community, and achieved less than spectacular software sales. I want to address that here, although before we talk about the relevant criticisms of the system, I think it’s worth noting that not every argument pointed in the Ouya’s direction has been valid. In fact, a lot of the poorer criticisms brought against the Ouya seem to be the same flawed points that were used against the Wii U in the past.

The Bad Critique

If nothing else, it has to be acknowledged that the Ouya is on a unique quest.

Firstly, attempting direct comparison between the Ouya and the other consoles out there doesn’t really make sense. There are plenty of areas in which we can and should discuss how the Ouya levels up to other machines on the market, but attacking it because, for example, it’s not as powerful as Microsoft and Sony’s next consoles is missing the point. The Ouya may not have 8 gigs of RAM and an octuple-core CPU, but it’s also not meant to run brand new AAA games or cost customers hundreds of pounds to purchase. Condemn the Ouya for what it is by all means, but keep in mind that not all consoles are trying to be the same thing.

Secondly, there were people who were declaring the downfall of the Ouya from early on without solid evidence and reasoning. Many of the specific problems with the Ouya are things that were difficult to foresee, and if there’s anything that the Wii should have taught us, it’s that predicting the future of consoles is a lot harder than it looks on paper, especially when it comes to manufacturers trying out new things that nobody else has done. A surprising number of people also seem to have revelled in the idea of the Ouya crashing and burning. I think it’s a mixture of sadism over the failure of products or companies, and people wanting their opinions on the console being validated in a larger way. There are a lot of people, me included, that are coming at the Ouya from a different angle though. I want the Ouya to be good, and I think there’s potential in at least some of its ideas, so it’s especially disappointing to see it failing at what it’s trying to do.

The Goal

Games as a medium owe a lot to the explosion of the indie scene over the past several years. While the world of AAA has played it increasingly safe and the B-tier of games has arguably become a thing of the past, this surge of indie development has been a means for people to create and release games without having to be part of multi-million dollar companies, has allowed game makers more creative control, and has given us games that are on the whole more original, experimental, and niche than the games we’re seeing from the big developers and publishers. None of this would have been possible without the indie-friendly publication and distribution methods that have taken over PCs and mobile devices in recent times, but the console market has still remained very much in the hands of the people holding the money. The console manufacturers publish indie games on their systems, but only a limited number of indie games, and often with restrictive policies and costs imposed on those that they do. Xbox LIVE Indie Games exists for those who want to self-publish on consoles, but there are still various freedoms that aren’t granted to developers on that platform, and for a long time now Microsoft have been trying to pretend that XBLIG just doesn’t exist.

The Ouya had an inspiring plan to aid indie devs.

At least in theory, the Ouya could have been the machine to finally give indies control in the last place where they really lacked it, and bring a wave of open and creator-driven independent development to the console market, similar to the one that swept the PC and mobile devices. It was an ambitious goal, but a worthwhile one that made a significant number of people want to throw their support behind the system. There’s also something rather humble and underdog-like about the smaller companies in the industry and their endeavours to bring us great games in a world dominated by the AAA. In practical terms however, I think we forget how hard it is to build a games console.

The Faults

Even behemoths in the technology industry like Microsoft and Sony have to utilise expert engineers and make a loss on the hardware they’re selling to deliver it to gamers, and they’re far from invulnerable to serious slip ups when they do so. Just think back to the RROD fiasco. So the fact that the people behind the Ouya managed to manufacture and distribute it in the first place is kind of amazing, and the areas in which they ran into difficulties are understandable, even if they’re not excusable. On the physical end, powered down consoles have been turning themselves on, buttons have been sticking, control sticks are reported to have poor dead zones, controllers don’t have a “Start” button equivalent, many have criticised the feel of the controllers in general, and it’s been said that setting the console up can be a finicky business. A couple of these issues were meant to have been fixed between the Kickstarter release of the console and the retail release, but many report that the problems have persisted. On the OS end, users are finding that Ouya controllers have a significant lag on them compared to third-party controllers, that console interfaces slow down in places, that’s there is no multiplayer network on the console equivalent to Xbox LIVE or PSN, and that the console uses cluttered and impractical interfaces where all the games have just kind of been collected in a virtual pile and players have been giving the task of finding what they need in the resulting mess.

Then there are a series of problems not directly to do with the console experience, but that none the less remain worrying. Even when the Ouya was speeding its way to retailers there were Kickstarter backers who had yet to receive the consoles they’d paid for, additional controllers are being sold for half the price of the full console, and few games press outlets seem to be talking at any great length about the Ouya or its games. That last one is an especially big problem considering the Ouya is largely reliant on word of mouth for marketing, and because the marketing from the people actually behind the console has been shaky at best. If you’re wondering “What marketing?” that’s a certain portion of the problem to begin with, but their tagline for the console “Get Some” seems outdated and out of step with the tone many indie games are going for, as did their offer of a $13.37 (lol, get it guys? So leet) coupon to those who didn’t receive their console in time. A recent advert for the Ouya also depicts their potential audience as a grown man sat in his underpants, wallowing in his own vomit, getting ridiculously angry about video games. Ouya manufacturers Boxer8 pulled the ad, saying it was just an experiment, but the damage was already done. And yet, even this huge, worrying list of problems is still secondary the Ouya’s central issue, its games library.

Problems with both concept and execution are in abundance here.

Most of the notable titles on the system are games like Final Fantasy III, Canabalt HD, and You Don’t Know Jack that have already been released on other, more appealing systems, and ports of some games like Shadowgun have been said to run outright poorly. On top of this, there are next to no big name exclusives for the system and many of the games on there are just not particularly well-made. Scrolling through the games listing for the Ouya is a bit like browsing a second-rate store for iOS games, and this is no doubt due in part to the lax quality control on the platform. While there are a lot of good things about having such an open place for people to put their games, even something like Steam Greenlight takes quality control pretty seriously, and we’ve seen what’s happened to services like Xbox LIVE Indie Games when content has just gone unchecked. On the other hand, and I don’t intend this to sound mean, but you start to wonder how many games there’d be left on the Ouya if they were running a tighter ship.

The Future

Boker8 CEO Julie Uhrman assures us that things will pick up for the console once more people start buying it and more developers are attracted to it, but this logic runs on the assumptions that more people are going to buy and develop for the console. With a lack of good games and a boatload of other issues, what’s the incentive for people to buy the Ouya? And on the other end of the spectrum, if you’re a developer, what’s the incentive for you to release your game on the Ouya?

Boxer8 haven’t given any figures on what the install base for the console actually is, but we do know that on average only 8% of users who play free trials of Ouya games go on to buy the full games, and that only 27% of users who have bought the console have purchased a single game for it. I’m almost willing to give Ouya the benefit of the doubt and say that the 8% is not so abysmal, considering that developers on the console are obligated to offer free trials of all their games, and I don’t know what the average trial-to-purchase ratio actually is for a game, but that second number can’t be good. I’m always wary about making predictions for where consoles are going, but it seems to be a sizeable warning sign for developers when only about a quarter of people who have the console are even buying anything on it. In light of this, you’d want to think carefully about putting your game on it in any form, but making your title an exclusive for it seems like an outright suicide mission.

A machine in need.

Uhrman has said that the developers of Towerfall and Hidden in Plain Sight would object to the idea that you can’t make money on their platform, but these are a couple of the most successful games for the system, they don’t represent the average title. Some developers have even been reporting that they’ve only made a few hundred dollars on the Ouya. Boxer8 are no doubt aware of their problem, attempting to combat it with their “Free the Games” initiative, offering to fund dollar-for-dollar the same amount any game can raise on Kickstarter. The catch is that games must reach both their funding goal and a minimum of $50,000 to receive Boxer8’s cash boost. In addition, games must pledge themselves to being exclusive to the Ouya for six months, and that sticks even if the games do not reach their funding goal. Not only is this a problem because the Ouya is probably not the platform you want your game to be exclusive for, but it also seems to be in direct contradiction of the Ouya’s philosophy of being an open and free space for developers. Ironically, the “Free the Games” fund doesn’t leave games very free, unless they’re otherwise going to fail to reach funding, in which case there is a question about how much demand for those games there is anyway.

Whatever steps they’re taking, the true measure of the Ouya’s future is going to be its upcoming releases, and at present the release list is looking both rather barren and devoid of anything that recognisable. If there’s a way for the console to dig itself out of its current rut, it’s far from obvious and most likely incredibly difficult to pull off. The Ouya might well be trapped in an uncomfortable loop where games aren’t being made for it because gamers aren’t buying it, and gamers aren’t buying it because games aren’t being made for it. Thanks for reading.

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