The Media Men

Don Mattrick presents: Logos.

When it comes to video game press conferences I think people have the tendency to get overly-cynical. The bars get set incredibly high, people want the core gamer to be catered to at all times, it’s easy to be myopic about these things, and there is a certain satisfaction in complaining, and so every year I think we see a fair bit of melodrama surrounding the big three. That being said, I think one of the defining things about the Xbox One reveal has been that while there may be a certain amount of unhealthy cynicism going around, reactions that would be far too negative if they were in response to most other conferences, feel largely justified here.

A Balancing Act

When we tune in to these events we expect a certain amount of time to be put aside for demos of motion control games that we’re probably never going to play, and segments of sporty talk about how you can use the sports app to fill your sports box with the latest sports sports. With the variety of people using consoles today, we can’t expect every second of every conference to cater to our own personal tastes. I’m somewhat playing devil’s advocate here, but maybe there’s a certain amount of give and take that has to happen with these things. Even if that is the case though, Microsoft seemed to be much less about the giving and much more about the taking.

It was crystal clear throughout the conference just what Microsoft wants their new console to be; an all-in-one home media centre that acts as a combined games console, cable box, stereo, and more. It’s an ambitious goal, and yet one that in many ways is playing it safe. We sometimes see things in the games industry that seem difficult to pull off because the ideas are so new and untested, and while Microsoft are bringing some new ideas to the table, they seem more interested in taking existing ideas and cramming them all into their system. It’s a strategy that will pay out very well if they can pull it off, but one that also risks them entering the next generation as a kind of “Jack of all trades, master of none”.

This conference could have been so much more.

Additionally, while some gamers have a tendency to overestimate how much their personal approval affects products, it must also be acknowledged that Microsoft have to walk a fine line here, between pleasing the more traditional gaming audience and reaching for a new audience of casual gamers, families, and similar folk. Nintendo's press conferences are a great example of how you can target a large new audience, while still presenting plenty for die-hard video game fans. Microsoft’s show felt nothing like Nintendo's, and there is a possibility that in trying to reach out and please everyone at the same time, companies can end up simultaneously alienating their loyal fans and failing to net a large enough new audience, eventually finding they have a smaller consumer base than they did when they started. The question has to be asked here, exactly how appropriate is it to invite the gaming press and millions of other gamers to watch your presentation, when the majority of it is going to be anything but games?

The Message

Press conferences and the talk that follows them are largely about communicating information though, and while the widespread criticism that there was too much sports and TV talk and not enough games is both important and valid, one angle I’m seeing getting much less coverage from people is what exactly Microsoft have communicated over the past few days. Whatever they want to be communicating, the message to me has seemed clear; that video games are worth less of their time than ever, that they care about a theoretical fandom of the Xbox as an all-round media centre more than they care about us, the loyal base of customers that already exist for them, and that they’re still fine sidelining independent developers as long as they’ve got the big corporations on their side.

Sir, the sergeant requests one tummy rub, ASAP.

What Microsoft have showed us of the Xbox One contrasts poorly with Sony’s Playstation 4 reveal. I gave the PS4 some degree of flack for not being backwards compatible, but at least Sony were offering some sort of alternative to stream games from older platforms. I’ve also strongly criticised Sony for playing it so safe with many of the games they’ve showed, but at least they were showing games. I don’t think Sony were fully catering to the gaming audience, but you went away from their conference seeing that they were invested in providing us, the core audience, with games, and in working with developers across the board. Microsoft seemed to not give a fuck about much of the core audience and dev community because they wanted to show off their fun new media options and tout some tech demos from the big developers. I’m still mind-boggled that their closer was Infinity Ward showing that they had motion captured a dog and now have more realistic dogs in Call of Duty. We give a lot of light ribbing in the face of these presentations, but this is something that deserves to be outright mocked.

The Omni-Box

Perhaps more dangerous for Microsoft as a company is the point that has been raised by some that the Xbox One may conceptually be a poor idea. The success of this device as an all-round media machine relies on a theoretical group of people who are involved enough in home entertainment to want a box that will stream TV and films, play music, make phone calls, etc. but somehow haven’t got devices to do this already, or can’t find better devices for the job than the Xbox One. There also seems to be this big assumption that in the age of high tech TVs, smart phones, tablets, and PCs, that people actually want to do all these things via a box connected to their TV. Even the base idea of having a device that plays TV through your TV is somewhat ridiculous.

There's a possibility that this is not the powerful strategy Microsoft think it is.

I’m willing to admit that in some ways the Xbox One’s snap mode is mind-blowing, and I’m sure there is some real potential in its media-centric features. I use my Xbox 360 to stream content on a semi-regular basis, and I don’t think many of us can make entirely reliable concrete predictions about where this thing is going, but some serious questions should at least be asked about the applications of this device when Microsoft are throwing so many of their eggs in one basket, and when this console is going to have such a long lifecycle. How often do you simultaneously want a game running and media being streamed? How much do these media features really have to offer someone outside the U.S.? Who thinks the preferred device for making phone calls is their television? Couldn’t the media features here be more conveniently provided by smart TVs and other devices in the coming years? I remember back to the PS3’s old tagline of “It only does everything”, and the way I used to think it was just silly, because the idea of one machine that truly does everything is a myth.

In terms of the presentation we saw, I think what happened was that Microsoft wanted to push really hard on the media angle out of the gate to make it clear that they were more focused on non-video game mediums than ever, and perhaps because they thought that most of the video game content would be more appropriate for E3, a video game conference. But it’s clear that this console is going in a direction that not everyone is going to agree with. I’m sure that whatever the state of the Xbox One overall, we’ll see developers producing some truly stunning games for it, but the path Microsoft have taken is one that I’ve seen far too much of the video game industry take in recent years. It’s one where they have so much potential to create something mind-blowing and are squandering it, and right now the early Xbox One details are the best argument I’ve seen for getting a PS4. Thanks for reading.


Perpetually Connected

I don’t like always-on DRM. I know that’s not a particularly original opinion, but as much as this point gets made, always-on DRM has remained a significant element of the games industry, and people both inside the industry, and more surprisingly, outside of it are still defending the practise with some very poor reasoning.

The most common argument for always-on DRM is that everyone has all their gadgets constantly connected to the internet these days so why does it matter? We have wi-fi in our homes, and high speed internet connections have been widely available for years, so if everything else is always-online, why shouldn’t our games be? The problem is these ideas don’t line up with reality. When we as individuals are constantly connected to the internet and have lots of other people around us who are, it’s easy to project that idea out to the general public and think that’s how it is for everyone, without looking objectively at the situation.

The Connectivity Barrier

Getting precise figures on how many people have internet access is difficult, but a survey from the George Washington University in 2010 concluded 29% of people in the U.S. didn’t have internet access in their homes. Granted, if you don’t have an internet connection in your home you’re less likely to be the kind of person that plays video games, but already we can see the always-on myth dispelled, and companies making their games unplayable to almost a third of people doesn’t exactly seem like a good place to start. However, even when people do have some kind of connection, it may be unreliable, work via phones, not be able to support multiple devices at the same time, etc.

Obligatory picture of something networky.

In 2012 the FCC reported that 119 million people in the U.S. are without access to high speed internet, that is an internet connection with a minimum of a 4 Mbps download speed, and a 1 Mbps upload speed. 19 million of these people just don’t live in an area that supports broadband internet. All you have to do is bring up DRM on online forums and see that even among people clearly committed to video games, there are plenty of anecdotes of how they’ve been in living situations where they just couldn’t get a reliable internet connection. There are plenty of regions around the world, especially rural ones, where there’s no option to be always-on, and there are plenty of people who even with high speed broadband can’t guarantee a connection that’s entirely fault-free, I was in that position for years.

Despite being the country where many of these “Everyone is perpetually connected” arguments come from, and the western country that is the primary target of most video games, the U.S. has actually been shown in the past to be lagging surprisingly far behind many other countries when it comes to providing proper internet access, and there are many countries even worse off. If you’re travelling or away from home you often can’t guarantee an internet connection either. Then there’s the problem that many ISPs place download caps on connections. If you’re one of the people in this situation you could well be dissuaded or limited from playing your always-on games.

There always seem to be a large number of people who expect certain aspects of the world to move forwards at a speed that is unrealistic. There are people who think print media is dead and that discless consoles are going to appear in a flash, and from a similar mentality comes the idea that we’re already living in an age where everything owned by everyone is connected to the internet at all times. It would be wonderful if we were living in this perfect world, but that’s just not the case.


The problems don’t stop at home though, and you probably know what’s coming next. Games that rely on large numbers of interconnected servers to run have had a history of network trouble at launch, but always-on games specifically have faced a couple of recent events that have seriously called into question the ability of even the biggest companies in the industry to support these systems. It's been so done to death I know you don't need me to explain what was wrong with the SimCity launch, but the fact that wrapped up in it was possibly the biggest advocator of DRM in the industry is especially damning.

Never forget.

The Diablo III situation also reflected very poorly on always-on DRM advocates, not just because even a large company couldn’t provide customers the product they bought for such a long period of time, but because Blizzard specifically should have been the last people to have server trouble. They’re the guys who run Starcraft II, a game with a hugely dedicated online community, and World of Warcraft, an MMORPG that’s supported a player base of upwards of 10 million, but even these networking geniuses were chillingly susceptible to network issues.

Heck, remember the Playstation 3 crisis from 2011? Despite Sony being one of the biggest competitors in the games industry, it didn’t stop the 77 million users of the Playstation Network being forced offline for about a month due to a cyber-attack. Imagine if that had been the DRM servers for a game or games. These are just a few examples of where things have gone very wrong in recent history, but we know that there are constantly hiccups happening with the servers for various different games all the time. Again, I wish we lived in a world where companies would always manage to keep their game servers online for everything, and maybe one day we will, but right now we’re not. In some ways this inevitability of server-side issues is worse than many users having connection issues on their end. It’s one thing to sell a product that a lot of people know they can’t use, and another to sell one that users justifiably think they can use but then breaks on them. I think that’s the point where it’s not over-the-top to start talking about breaches of consumer rights.

We also know that these DRM servers can’t last forever. There have been plenty of technological systems seriously hurt by a lack of planning ahead, and we’ve seen multiplayer servers for even relatively young games shut down. In five, ten, or twenty years how many DRM servers can companies guarantee will be running? Not only would it be very disappointing to have your games one day stop working, but if we have a number of prominent games come out now which use always-on DRM and those servers go out, that is going to have a seriously negative impact on the “retro gaming” scene in the future and is very bad for the preservation of our medium.

Empty Advantages

Some have tried to argue that having customers be always-online is beneficial to them because it more readily provides them with useful services. This was the position of id Software employee Tim Willits who used the example of players being able to receive updates without rebooting their game to try and demonstrate the advantages of always-on, but I can’t see any sense in this argument. For those who genuinely want the advantages of being online and are able to connect to the internet, they can have their game always connected to the internet regardless of whether it contains always-on DRM or not.

The DRM doesn’t help those who want those online features be any more online, all it does is exclude those who can’t or actively don’t want to maintain that kind of connection. In fact the default state of many, if not most games these days, is to go online by default, but run offline if an online option isn’t available. Why would you actively go against what customers want and can accommodate, to provide no advantages to the people who have chosen to use your online services? Willits also implied something I’ve seen said more than once, that it’s only a “few” people who object to always-on DRM, but we know that’s not the case. I’m not trying to beat up on Willits specifically here, but I think his points paint a good example of the bad ideas that often get thrown around by always-on supporters.

The Debate

For as critical as I am of always-on DRM, it is at least an attempt to tackle a more serious issue that is a problem for the games industry. I don’t want to start a debate on the ethics of piracy, but I think we can all agree on one thing; that there are a significant number of people out there who obtain games through piracy instead of paying for them, and that a significant amount of money that would otherwise go to the people who make and release games is lost that way. Being people who quite like playing video games this is a problem for us.

Here thar be customer relationship difficulties.

It’s sometimes said in these debates that companies have the right to put DRM in their games and prevent piracy, but that’s often a kind of non-sequitur argument, very few are arguing that companies don’t have the right to do that. As I said earlier we may start reaching rights issues when always-on DRM prevents purchased games from being playable, but even if a company is working clearly within their legal rights, that doesn’t mean that the products they’re making are any better.

There’s a constructive debate to be had about how anti-piracy measures we may not like could be a good idea if it leads to companies being able to take more risks and put more money into their games. These debates are difficult, because being able to provide objective figures for these discussions seems like an almost impossible task, however, no one should be under the impression that this kind of DRM doesn’t negatively impact and provide major barriers to entry for some consumers. We must also remember that requiring a constant internet connection is far from the only way to combat piracy.

Always-on DRM is a technology which shuts many gamers out from games, makes things harder for certain end users, and potentially leads to purchased games being unplayable for periods of time and given a finite lifespan. A poor argument is often made against DRM; that because it doesn’t prevent piracy entirely, that there’s no point in it, but it doesn’t need to prevent piracy to be useful, it just needs to limit it. However, this limitation has often meant that pirates get a superior product, while loyal customers are punished. If always-on DRM is to be justified I think you need a hell of a good argument.

The Good News

We may seem doomed to just be delivered an increasing and endless number of titles that require us to be constantly wired-in as time goes on, but there is a brighter side to all of this. We can remember that despite there being a major issue with some games using always-on DRM, that a huge number of companies still just don’t use this technology in their products. We all know that the companies really pushing this technology are a small number of players in the industry who have quite a lot of power. However, even a couple of these companies have started to back off and admitted that DRM is not a viable solution to piracy.

A promising sign to us all.

While I don’t think they ever got the credit they deserved for it, in 2011 Ubisoft, who had up to that point been including always-on DRM in all their PC titles, stopped using always-on DRM in their games entirely, citing the fan outcry against the practise as the reason. Even EA labels president Frank Gibeau has come out and said DRM is a “failed dead-end strategy” and declared “it's not a viable strategy for the gaming business”.

These could just be empty words. Blizzard denounced DRM in 2010, only to go on to create the Diablo III disaster. From what Gibeau said about SimCity it may also be that EA will increasingly try to make games online-centric so they act as their own form of always-on DRM, similar to the way they tried to push online passes by cramming a bunch of multiplayer modes into games. Still, it shows that even a company like EA no longer want to be affiliated with this kind of technology. I think that’s especially shown through in how much they’ve recently tried to distance themselves from accusations that they forced always-on DRM into SimCity.

I sincerely hope that in the future we can see companies find a way retain profits without hurting their loyal customers, and for now if you disagree with the use of DRM, keep making noise about it, because despite what some have said, it’s obviously making at least some difference. Thanks for reading.



When we discuss game genres, most of the arguments seem to involve working out how to properly sort certain games into the right boxes; arguments like “What is an RPG?” or “Is this game Survival Horror?” seem to be some pervasive versions of this, but I think we have far bigger problems on our hands when it comes to looking at genres. Defining genres and properly sorting works into them is an important and sometimes difficult part of talking about games, and problems with doing so plague all media. Just go into a CD store and watch them try to work out where the dividing line between “Pop” and “Rock” comes. However, games in particular seem to have found an odd collection of genres that are to some degree arbitrary, and in many ways unhelpful. It’s not just that it’s occasionally hard to sort the right games into the right boxes, but more worryingly I think our system of boxes is flawed to begin with.

The Flaws

"Puzzle games"

For starters, sometimes games are very specifically sorted into certain genres or sub-genres, but far too often vastly different games will be declared part of the same category. To give an example, the undoubtedly niche "Rogue-Likes" get their own genre/sub-genre, but Portal and Tetris are said to both be part of the same “Puzzle” genre. Similarly, “First-Person shooters” and “Third-Person Shooters” are considered major genres in their own right, despite being essentially the same idea with different camera angles, and yet very different experiences like Mass Effect and Final Fantasy are both lumped together as “RPGs”.

If you look to other mediums like television or books, genre classifications focus on the overall experience the TV programmes/books/whatever else provide; there’s horror, romance, drama, etc. Like any genre classification, they’re vague descriptors, but they aim to treat the work as a whole to effectively give their potential audience some idea of what they’re going to get out of it. Whereas many game genres zero in on a mechanic or handful of mechanics as though they define the entire experience, and attempt to paint a full picture of a game using them.

This is what creates a large part of the aforementioned grouping problem, because even if say, Vanquish and Splinter Cell feel like very different experiences, merely by sharing the same mechanic or two they both earn the title of “Third-Person Shooter”. The idea that the non-central mechanics, narratives, and aesthetics may need to be taken into account to properly sort games often goes out the window. Imagine if movie genres were defined by a single collection of cinematic techniques, or book genres were defined by vague plot structures. It seems crazy, and yet it’s basically what we’re doing with a lot of games.

Games just seem to be less effective in the way they define genres than other mediums.

We have alleviated this problem to some degree by putting together different genre terms and including aesthetic descriptors to give ourselves terminology like “Modern Military FPS” or “Cartoon Puzzle Platformer”, and I think this has done a lot of good, but these are far from altogether solving the above problems, a lot of the time these terms don’t get used, and slamming together different words like this seems an inelegant solution that could present other issues. All in all, the fact that we try to stack multiple descriptors on top of each other in this way highlights that the base terms that we use to describe games don’t do their job properly.

Game genre names also aren’t very descriptive in a lot of cases. You know what you’re getting with, say, a “First-Person Shooter”, but a “Shoot ‘em Up”? That doesn’t really describe what’s going on in that genre as opposed to any other genre where using guns plays a big part. Why are there “Role-Playing Games” when you play a role in just about every game? And why are only a small fraction of the games where we go on adventures called “Adventure Games”? We can also see that while other mediums have genre names that sum their works up in one or two words, video game genres have names long enough that we have to start using acronyms for them before we even start adding extra descriptors.

The Effects

Now you may be thinking at this point that bad genre classifications aren’t really a big problem, and in some areas they’re not. You can easily argue that we all know what these genre terms mean, even if they’re poorly named, and that even if these terms don’t give us much information about the overall content of the games, we’ll find that stuff out soon enough anyway because we like to dig deeper into games. And yes, this is largely true, but I don’t think any problem should be just waved away, and as I see it there are larger issues than this. Perhaps there’s something to be said about how our fuzzy collection of genres may reflect that we don’t have an incredibly evolved vocabulary for talking about games, and that current genres may cause problems with sorting games on websites, but what I want to talk about are two other rather major problems that have the tendency to be easily overlooked.

I think we have an issue of inaccessibility on our hands.

Firstly, while we, the kind of people who browse video game websites, have few issues understanding the contents of games, bad genre classifications really don’t help people outside the medium, people new to the medium, or people who don’t play a lot of games. There are already way too many barriers facing people who want to play any video game that isn’t on a phone, tablet, or Facebook, so we should definitely be trying to stay away from unnecessarily enforcing more. Seriously, think about how much talking you’d have to do to explain to people what each genre title means.

This is where I think the act of smashing together jargon to be more specific about game genres largely falls down. Throwing around terms like “MMOFPS” or “Fantasy Action RPG” only makes it harder and more intimidating for people who don’t play games to find games they do want to play. Even for those who only buy two or three games a year, I seriously doubt they all know what this terminology means, and when the basic terms you’re using to describe your medium are often confusing and excluding, I think it’s inarguable that something’s gone wrong. If you’d never read a piece of fiction in your life, you’d still have a pretty good idea of what you were getting from an “Action” or “Drama” story, but with video games you probably wouldn’t know what exactly makes a game “Real-Time Strategy”.

The second issue is that I think that the way we classify games by genre alters our perception of games. It’s very easy to see the genre of a game as being the fundamental thing defining it, and accurately describing the experience as a whole, but under the current system of genres we have that’s just not the case.

Now, I wouldn't dream of saying we should just throw away terms like "Shooter" or "Hack-and-Slash". When used correctly these are effective descriptors of fundamental parts of games, we need them. However, I still think we can come up with better terminology for what games provide us at a basic level, and better ways of thinking about what defines games overall. Obviously a big change is not going to come any time soon, but I still think it’s interesting and useful to look at how genres could change, and to think about what make a game what it is.

Possible Alternatives

There may be better systems out there.

While I’m not sure they’re not the first people to come up with it, I think the BAFTAs have a pretty good system for summarising and categorising games. As opposed to most other video game awards which sort games by traditional video game genres, the BAFTA awards for video games essentially use four genres; action, strategy, family, and sports/fitness. I’m going to discard those last two genres at this point, because as we’ll see any games from them can essentially fit into the other two genres, and they only really exist as part of the BAFTAs due to the fact that they target audiences that most other games traditionally just don’t. So let’s take a look at action and strategy.

We often think of “Action Games” as being any game full of guns and explosions, and “Strategy” games as being any real-time or turn-based strategy game. However, from the context of game mechanics, action games can be seen as those games which test hand-eye co-ordination, reflexes, timing, spatial awareness, and so on. Most current action-adventure games, shooters, fighting games, rhythm games, sports games, and racing games would qualify as action games. Strategy games are those games which require tactical thinking and problem-solving skills, they generally move slower and require deeper thought than action games. RTS and TBS games would be examples of strategy games, but so would many puzzle games, adventure games, management sims and some RPGs.

If we define games as being either “Action” or “Strategy” we’re obviously being less specific about the central mechanics of games in our genre definitions, but this system is simpler than what we have, more descriptive of the experience we get from a game’s mechanics as a whole, can be more easily understood by outside parties, and better describes the differences between many games that are currently being inconveniently lumped into the same genres. Of course there are a lot of games that won’t fit straight into the action or strategy categories because they contain elements of both, but they can be described as action-strategy games. Many action RPGs qualify for this category. I’ve slotted some games into the table below to give an idea of how this system works, but if we wanted to go one further and be more accurate with our descriptions, we could even plot these games on a spectrum that runs from action to strategy.

There’s a problem though. While a system like this cuts to the core of what we get out of gameplay, even at a basic level we can’t define a game a game simply by its gameplay mechanics, and that was one of the exact things I criticised the current genre categories for doing. We know games are more than just the sum of their mechanics. For example, we could call both Starcraft and Fallout strategy games with a degree of action, and that definition wouldn’t be wrong, but anyone who’s seen those games knows one is much more about the strategy of battle, overcoming opponents, and tactical warfare, while the other is about exploring a world, meeting characters, and progressing through a story in your own way. The kind of system shown above just can’t account for this, but maybe there’s something that can.

In December of 2010 The Escapist showed off what they called their genre wheel, a wheel around which we could plot all existing games and game genres, but that uses two different aspects of a game to define it. Across the Y axis of the wheel is the same action/strategy categorisation from above, but across the X axis, The Escapist include a spectrum that runs from exploration to conflict. On the exploration end we can see games that are about exploring worlds, stories, pieces of music, vehicles, and tools. While on the conflict end are games about facing off against opponents, however, I think it makes more sense to use the conflict category to describe games about competition, and overcoming challenges.

There is an issue with the wheel structure; it doesn’t really allow us to consider games that may fall right in the middle of these four categories, even if there’s not many of them, but for those purposes you can just turn the wheel into a graph or table as I’ve done below.

Adding a second dimension to the classification system makes it somewhat harder to sort things, so you may not agree with the way I’ve arranged all the games here, and that’s fine, but the point is that with a system like this the bad lumping together of games simply based on their gameplay is easily solved, with games that may have previously been erroneously classed as being similar now sitting at very different ends of the spectrum.

Under a system like this basic genre titles could change from running along the lines of “RPG” and “Brawler” to something like “Action-Conflict” or “Strategy-Exploration”, and honestly this is the best system I’ve seen. In some ways The Escapist example is sadly less notable than the BAFTA one, because while I believe it’s a better system, if it was only utilised on The Escapist it wouldn’t be a big part of games coverage, but even they don’t seem to really use it. However, we can clearly see the advantages a genre classification system like this provides; it’s straightforward, treats games as a whole, and it’s easy to see someone unfamiliar with games picking up new games with these kinds of genre names on them. Thanks for reading.


The Playstation 4 Event- Part 2: The Games

Last time, I talked about the hardware and services that the PS4 promises to provide us. My feelings were mixed, but I liked a lot of what they showed. However, the features of the console itself were not the subject of the majority of the briefing, the games were. Again, I don’t wish to seem needlessly cynical here, but this is where most of my issues with the event are. In the moment, a fair bit of what was shown on screen was pretty exciting, but the more I think about it, the more worried I am by the implications of what Sony presented.

A lot of Sony's games were graphically amazing, but there's much more to creating a new console library than that.

A new console is in many ways a new beginning, it’s a window in which companies have the opportunity to express great creativity, and take advantage of the new tools they’re being provided to create something different, it’s the literal starting point of a new wave of games. It’s times like these where developers should have the chance to bring a console new IPs, experimental games, and fresh takes on old IPs. At Sony’s presentation, I just don’t think we saw a whole lot of this, and even when we did, a lot of the presentation was more concerned with trailers than talking about actual gameplay. You’d think at a video game conference people would be more worried about the actual game part.

The New

Let’s start by taking a look at games that weren’t part of existing franchises. There was Knack, which seems like it could have a lot of potential, but we have very little idea what it is outside of the basic story. There’s Drive Club, a racing game with progression mechanics where the presentation basically consisted of “the graphics on the cars look real nice”. The Witness is shaping up very nicely, and I’ll give more credit to that one than most, but I still don’t feel like I know what it is as a game. Then there was Destiny which I’m very excited for, but again, the information on it is still very vague, and all Bungie could really bring to the conference was slightly more in-engine footage.

Even when it seemed like there was going to be a new announcement, it just didn’t happen. The big speech about the government infringing on the rights of citizens and real-world threats just turned out to be pre-amble for a CGI trailer for Infamous, which far from being about politically controversial behaviour, was about a guy shooting fireballs. Square Enix’s reveal of a “New IP” was actually a trailer for a game which we know nothing about, set in the Dragon’s Dogma universe, and it was felt necessary to have a big hype speech from Blizzard to announce what turned out to be a Diablo III port. It wasn’t just the games that were worrying either, but the tech demos.

Tech Demos

Impressive, just not what it was billed as.

When David Cage took to the stage and began talking about the evolution of movies into a powerful storytelling medium, I was genuinely engrossed, but I just don’t buy his line that the thing holding us back from seeing characters that are human and relatable in games is that they don’t have 30,000 polygons. Visually, Quantic Dream’s demo looked amazing, which only makes me wonder why it was framed as a narrative thing, rather than a graphical thing. There is also the unfortunate matter that in the past Quantic's presentations haven't necessarily been reflective of the final product.

Media Molecule’s demonstration of Playstation Move sculptures was impressive, but I still doubt the Move controller is that easy to use for that kind of task. Their subsequent demo was essentially just a demonstration of Wii Music, a game released in 2008, while their dancing characters, which were somewhat charming, were essentially being controlled by nothing more than players moving the Move back and forth.

A New Beginning?

Guys, again, I’m not trying to be pessimistic here, but we need to be realistic, otherwise we’re just setting ourselves up for greater disappointment in the long term. We need to think, “What games did Sony show that we know enough about to make some kind of judgement on, that looked like they were actually doing something worthy of a new console?”. Sony’s promises were that they were revolutionising gaming, that they were bringing something truly new to the table, that they were giving all new tools to developers, and that they were building something worthy of the Playstation legacy. If this is true, why aren’t we seeing something more than first-person shooter #439, a prettier Forza, an RPG with swords in it, another Infamous, and so on?

This Sony presentation scares me, because in it I see a large part of what continually worries me about the games industry as a whole. I’m not one of these people who thought that the games industry was all sunshine, sparkles, and originality 20 years ago, then everything changed, or that Sony is alone in these problems, but what I worry is that Sony’s conference reflected an increasing unease with the act of presenting new ideas. That as the stakes rise and investments in development projects get larger, that there are fewer games taking real risks, and that instead companies are opting to recreate a lot of what currently exists, with a few common features and nicer graphics bolted on. This doesn’t feel like stagnation, but it certainly doesn’t feel like a revolution, or the birth of something new.

I wish we could have seen more presentations with the spirit of Watch_Dogs.

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned Watch_Dogs yet, but that’s kind of the point. Sure, not everything can be as amazing as Watch_Dogs was, that demo was phenomenal, but if Sony recognise how amazing it was, why weren’t there more people there to do what Watch_Dogs did? The demo of that game wasn’t just impressive because of the graphics, it wasn’t amazing because it was part of a big existing franchise, and it wasn’t even enthralling because of the way it used the features of the Playstation 4. The Watch_Dogs demo was as good as it was because it actually managed to show a game that had an original and exciting world, and original and exciting gameplay. It wasn’t Ubisoft showing a trailer for a game, or talking about the technology behind the game, it was them showing the actual game, an original game, with a focus on the gameplay. How many other times did that happen at that conference?

I understand that this is all pre-E3 and that there will be much more to come, but it can’t be ignored that this is the event that Sony created to represent the Playstation 4, to put in peoples’ heads an idea of what this console will be, and if this is how they choose to represent their games library, that’s worrying. It’s often mentioned when people criticise the games libraries of new consoles, that consoles rarely have fantastic launch line-ups in general, and this is true, but surely that’s something to criticise in itself, and this isn’t just an issue of quality, but perhaps worse, an issue of originality.

Duder, It’s Over

Your move, Microsoft.

I only judge what they showed so harshly because I know Sony can do spectacular things, there are some amazing features in that console itself, and I want to see the same quality in its games library. Hopefully we’ll see even better from them later this year. As a side note, I see people saying that Microsoft will have to put in a lot of effort to outclass Sony, and while I agree, I think we’re going to see something more special from Microsoft than just a better or worse PS4.

As more features and services become viable on consoles, the console manufacturers have not just the ability to try and outdo each other, but also provide something different than their competition. In many ways I think the optimal thing for the next generation would be if our consoles provided us the widest range of services and features available, both being brilliant in their own ways. Thanks for reading.

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The Playstation 4 Event- Part 1: Hardware and Services

Around these parts there seems to be a good deal of positivity surrounding the Playstation 4 reveal, and that’s great to see. When the gaming community can be so unnecessarily pessimistic and focus too much on the negative, it’s promising that people can still stand up and say “This is something we can really be happy about”. I wish I could feel the same way, I want to, but I find my feelings on the conference far more mixed. I’m not even sure if I can say that it was good overall.

There was some great stuff here, but I may have more criticisms of the event than most.

Don’t get me wrong, I thought there was some really cool stuff there, and it can get grating seeing the people who just want something to complain about unreasonably beat Sony into the ground, especially when one of the primary complaints has been “We didn’t see the casing for the PS4 so Sony’s event was shit”. I also understand that, despite the number of people who seem to forget this, media briefings like this one are not just there to make sure I am personally satisfied. There are many different people in the audience to try and appeal to, as well as the press, and many of these events are there for the benefit of the company hosting them, and the companies in tow.

All this being said, I think we’re in danger of dismissing any criticism of the Playstation 4 reveal event as “Snarky cynicism”. I also worry that to some extent we’ve become so used to press conferences being 50% motion control demos and content that we just don’t care about, that we’re willing to give praise to anything that doesn’t do that by default. That’s not to say that anyone’s enjoyment of the event was somehow “invalid”, but I find that it’s when I pull out and see the bigger picture that I feel a little soured about what happened there, so let’s take a look at it.


I’m slightly surprised that such a big deal was made about the hardware of the Playstation 4. Not because I think it lacks quality in any way, but more because there are still a lot of things we don't know about it. None the less, even if we can’t take them as 100% representative of the power of the console, the graphics in the demos were very impressive. If it looks this good now, I can’t imagine what things will be like a few years down the line when companies have really gotten good at building games on this hardware. I do however, fall on the side of the argument that thinks the lack of backwards compatibility in the PS4 is a bad thing.

Backwards Compatibility

Ability to run Playstation 3 games was sadly not one of the impressive hardware features of the Playstation 4.

In leaving backwards compatibility out of the console, Sony create three issues. Firstly, it means that users have to switch from one console to another if they want to play their PS3 games, not exactly great in the age of convenience. This issue is only likely to be made worse if the user owns a set-top box, DVD player, or other consoles, as many do, as there are limited ports on a TV, and limited plug sockets in a home. For too many consumers, changing back to your PS3 for whatever purpose may require more than your daily recommended allowance of fiddling with cables.

Secondly, in the past, buying a console has given you the access to not just the library of one console, but two consoles, from day one. For those who hadn’t played the classic games for the GameCube, they could play them with a Wii, for those who hadn’t experienced the games on the Xbox, they could play them with an Xbox 360. This is not the case for the PS4. For anyone who does not own a PS3, they’ll be able to stream PS3 games with a PS4, but I seriously doubt that we’ll see every PS3 game on there from launch, at a price as cheap as a disc copy. This makes it seem like a major step backwards.

I believe there's more worth in being able to play PS3 games on a PS4 than some are acknowledging.

Lastly, this kind of thing is very bad for the preservation of our medium. It’s not something that a lot of people talk about, but if you have the time I really recommend checking out The Game Overthinker’s video on this. In short, other mediums like books and movies have seen a large amount of their important work lost because nobody really cared enough about it to properly preserve them at the time, and consequently we’ve lost huge chunks of these art forms. We’ve started to see the same thing happen to video games. The medium is still pretty young, but already arcade machines are dying, games for older consoles are becoming harder to get a hold of, and I’m worried that people won’t care about the abandonment of the hardware to play PS3 games until it’s too late.

Sony haven’t had the greatest history with making their games from one console work on another console, but that doesn’t mean this is an impossible task for them. If you can make PS3 games compatible with the PS Vita, then you can surely make them compatible with the PS4, even if there are some difficulties involved in doing so. Heck, surely it says something that Nintendo, a company often mocked for being technologically behind can easily handle backwards compatibility when Sony cannot. I understand that backwards compatibility is likely to raise the price of the PS4, but even if people don’t want to pay for it, there’s nothing to stop Sony putting out two versions of the console; one that’s backwards compatible and one that’s not.

The Controller

So it turns out that leaked image was basically spot-on.

One big question that’s hung over all of the next-gen consoles is where exactly they go next with motion controls, touch devices, and general doodads that have helped bring a more casual audience to video games in the past, especially in the wake of the Wii U. It was rather surprising to see Sony unveil a stereo camera and a new controller with a built-in touchpad, but then not show off any of their functionality. I’d have assumed that they just wanted to keep away from the more “casual” stuff, but then they did have that entire section for the Move. It’s not the biggest disappointment, but it does leave a lot of questions open over how they’re going to use that touchpad in a way that’s better or different from what the Wii U is doing, and suggests it’s not a focal point of their system.

One thing they did show off and I really liked though was the share button. When we first started hearing rumours of it, it seemed like a silly idea, but Sony may have actually hit on something pretty damn special here. Social media is of course important to companies because it turns a large chunk of their audience into their own marketing team who works for free, and is actually enthused to do so. That’s a pretty powerful tool to have. Despite this, one big problem is that many of us don’t care to share everything to Facebook or Twitter or whatever else for the sake of it, and I don’t know about you, but I generally find the way they try to implement social networking features into consoles and games often feels out-of-place and unintuitive.

Nice feature Sony.

However, there has been a thriving world of online video and other content, made by complete amateurs, that has both captured the attention of many gamers, and has genuinely helped boost the popularity of games. This is what the share button taps into. How effective and useful that button will be is dependent on how well its implemented, but I’m excited about the potential for one of those times where companies and gamers can mutually benefit each other in a way they both enjoy. Sony have found a way to approach social media that’s much more intelligent than the usual tactic of just duct taping a “Share on Facebook” button to everything.

Other Services

The Vita connectivity, pre-loading, and instant resume, all look like great features. They’re clever and creative uses of the system I just wasn’t expecting. I’m not sure I’m so into the integration of profiles that depict you more as a real person though. I get that they're there to make you feel more connected to your friends and because, well, social media again, but for those who are into games and communicating about games over the internet, there’s a reason we often use aliases and avatars. I’m not entirely sure being able to jack other peoples’ games and complete things for them is fair either, and could involve some serious latency issues, but being able to view other peoples’ games as they play looks like it could be an enjoyable experience. For now, thanks for reading, and next time I'll be talking about the games of the event.

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A Cryptic Heist

Thirty Flights of Loving is certainly an unusual beast. Under other circumstances I’d tell you that if you haven’t played a game like this, you should stop reading right now and go experience it for yourself, but I’m not sure you can just go and tell anyone interested in video games that it will be worth it for them to spend £3.99 on something that can be easily completed in under 15 minutes. I find it hard to gauge how much Thirty Flights is worth, I’m not sure actually playing through it is a positive experience, I’m not even entirely sure what happens in it, and yet I still like what it does.

These gentlemen are saying something by saying nothing.

With its random and sudden jump-cuts, non-linear narrative, out-of-context scenes, and commitment not to use any dialogue or GUI elements to tell its story, the game is inevitably very confusing, and is undoubtedly meant to be. I feel like it’s the kind of game that despite doing some important things, would sadly never make it past regular QA testing, because it feels that it’s less about the experience you have playing it in the moment, and more about what you gain from reflecting, analysing, and speculating on it afterwards.

While many stories in games may fall apart the more you think about them, Thirty Flights seems built largely for the exact purpose of you picking it apart, and so like with any piece of art or entertainment that requires you to really think about it to fully enjoy it, it seems a necessity to go away and digest the game before you can say you’ve really experienced it. I should probably point out that I use terms like “game” and “playing” loosely, as Thirty Flights is stuck in that same weird space as something like The Stanley Parable (which I would encourage everyone interested in stories in games to play), where it’s not a game, but there’s not really a phrase for what it is beyond something very awful-sounding like “Interactive narrative-based software”.

In many ways it feels like Thirty Flights has less investment in entertaining you, and more in providing a lesson or thought exercise based around storytelling in games. For one thing it shows us how games can benefit from telling parts of their stories through environments and events rather than dialogue. I feel many games don’t take this idea as far as it could be taken, and their storytelling suffers for it. It also shows that sometimes you can say more by saying less. The game rarely spells things out, instead making its own story a kind of puzzle where the player has to pay attention and really analyse what’s occurred to work out what just happened, or fill in the gaps in the story with their own imagination.

I'm still trying to figure out what air pressure has to do with all this.

The more something asks for work on the part of its audience for them to enjoy it, the fewer people it becomes accessible to, but it can become all the more enjoyable for those who are willing to put in that work. Asking the audience to figure out large parts of the story for themselves has a number of benefits; as the game commentary notes, you get a sense of satisfaction from solving these little puzzles, and it feels good to know that a game respects your intelligence enough to trust you with solving them. On top of that though, it also lets you become the storyteller to some degree; when you apply your own meaning to the story, and when you fill in the gaps in your own way, you end up creating a unique experience for yourself, and a version of the events that feels very personal to you. This also makes it only more interesting to swap stories of the game with others.

The kind of ambiguous tale that Thirty Flights tells overall isn’t necessarily better than the types of stories you can find in other games, but by the way it isolates a few storytelling concepts and plays them out in a sort of sandbox case, it highlights the value of these concepts and shows what they can bring to a game. For me, it also raises the question that if games are meant to be so focused around the player working for their reward, why don’t more games apply this philosophy to their narratives?


The Biggest Events of 2012

With the games industry evolving so rapidly and the World Wide Web at our finger tips, it seems that it’s increasingly not just the video games themselves that have relevance to the gaming community and those covering the medium. The discussions and events surrounding the games industry are becoming ever-more relevant and important. We’re used to trade shows, award shows, and game releases, but beyond that there are a greater and greater number of unique events that rock the industry and get us talking every year. Let’s take a look back at the biggest of these events over the past year.

Industry Veterans Depart

The Bioware founders were just two of the major figures that left the industry this year.

If you’d told me at the start of 2012 that the Bioware Doctors, Cliff Bleszinski, and Peter Molyneux would all leave their jobs this year, I would have said you were crazy. It must be admitted that the biggest names in the industry aren’t always the biggest names due to their contributions, but often largely because they've promoted themselves well as public figures, but none the less these are people who’ve done a lot for video games, and the fact that they made their exits all in the same year is rather shocking.

For Molyneux this might be just what he needed; rather than sitting at Lionshead and making Fable and Kinect games until the end of time, he now has his own indie studio through which he can channel his insane and ambitious ideas. What this means for Bleszinski and the Doctors still remains to be seen though, and with Muzyka and Zeschuk specifically, it looks as though they could be making a permanent retirement from the games industry. Now serves as a great time to remember their work in the industry and lament their departures.

Companies on Fire

This was a notable year for companies going belly-up.

Undoubtedly, one of the most memorable events this year was the collapse of 38 Studios, not necessarily because they were the most famous company, but more because of quite how spectacular their downfall was. This development studio founded by a former Boston Red Sox pitcher borrowed $75 million from the state of Rhode Island, ran into trouble when their MMO Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning which needed to sell at least 3 million copies only sold 1.2 million, couldn’t properly pay their loan back, laid off their employees, had their possessions auctioned off, and is now facing a lawsuit. It’s been a bizarre train wreck of events.

Meanwhile, the once publishing Behemoth THQ progressed shakily through the year and just weeks ago filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy. A buyer was found for their assets, but the original force that was THQ is essentially out of commission. UK games retail also saw a dramatic hit with long-time king of dedicated games retail Game entering a severe financial rough-patch, and eventually announcing that they were going into administration, ironically on the same day major tax breaks for the UK games industry were also announced. They were bought up by company-sounding company OpCapita, but not before they had to close over 270 stores across the country.

Kickstarter Rises

Kickstarter has become the face of the new wave of crowdfunding.

Kickstarter has been a bit of a double-edged sword. I didn’t think it was the divine and revolutionary addition to the games industry some heralded it as to begin with, but at this point it’s become a little bit of a joke. The accessibility of Kickstarter means that anyone can jump in and ask for funding for their project, regardless of who they are or what their project is, but that’s kind of the problem.

The low bar for entry has meant that concepts that seem ill-conceived or projects where it’s unclear whether the creator can execute properly on their ideas have not become uncommon, and that potentially anyone could run off with the money from their project at any time. Even many of the more popular video game projects on the site over the year have come under considerable scrutiny from the gaming community. On top of this, it was only about a week after Kickstarter reached the height of its fame before games journalism outlets started complaining of having their inboxes filled out with spam about the latest Kickstarter projects, and forums started becoming a dumping ground for solicitations of money for projects right, left, and centre.

Despite what problems it may have had though, it’s played host to some interesting ideas, and helped provide millions of pounds of funding for various video games and video game-related undertakings. When Tim Schafer and Double Fine started receiving donations for their Kickstarter, seeing the donation figure climb through the hundreds of thousands was amazing, and it has been promising seeing the strong backing for other projects like Obsidian’s Project Eternity, 22 Cans’ Godus, Frontier Developments’ Elite: Dangerous, and inXile’s Wasteland 2. Even if you remain sceptical of their final quality, it also remains impressive how much projects like Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, Gaymercon, or the Ouya have been able to raise.

Mass Effect 3’s Ending

There have been few to no fan outcries in video games as big as the one over Mass Effect 3.

If any subject was talked to death this year, it was probably this one. Within days of the first players completing Mass Effect 3, online forums became awash with hundreds of very similar threads about why the ending was so bad. A lack of closure, a self-contradicting plot, a lack of attention to detail, a lack of variation in the endings, a lack of choices in the endings, a lack of recognition of the choices that were made throughout the series, major plotholes, and a deus ex machina were just some of the issues the outpouring of criticism against the game dealt with.

Different fans handled the situation differently; many were angry, many let their anger towards the game turn into an unreasonably hostile attack on Bioware, some thought the ending was good, others politely requested that Bioware change the ending, or even sent them baked goods to try and encourage them to do so. The question was even raised over whether Bioware altering the game’s conclusion would compromise their artistic integrity. In some ways the bar was set impossibly high for Mass Effect 3, and fans did seem to get a little too obsessed with the ending when there was a whole other ~34 hours of that game to reflect on, but it can’t be denied that they had a point.

To their credit, Bioware did release a revised version of the ending for free, but it wasn’t perfect, and nothing could undo the negative experience people had to begin with. There was a positive side to all this negativity though; this reaction was a clear indicator that we had come to expect a kind of quality from a video game story unlike anything that had been seen before, and that despite what some might tell you, a narrative in this medium can matter deeply to people. Right now Mass Effect 3’s conclusion is probably the last thing we want to hear about, but it might just be a major landmark on the road to seeing video games evolve into a truly powerful storytelling medium.

Women in Games

This subject is touchy enough that I'm a bit nervous even mentioning it.

From top to bottom the issue of women in games and the games industry was repeatedly raised this year. Within the industry itself the appropriateness of booth babes at trade shows was called into question, and the #1reasonwhy Twitter hashtag acted as a means for men and women alike to speak out against the discrimination of female developers. On a level closer to the games themselves, the Hitman: Absolution trailer threw up questions about the possible fetishisation of violence and where, how, and to what degree sexualised women belong in games. Further discussions of gender politics ensued surrounding the treatment of Lara Croft in the new Tomb Raider, and the comments one developer made about how players will want to “protect her”.

Even bigger than any of these though, was feminist pop culture critic Anita Sarkeesian’s announcement of her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series, and with that came what continues to be one of the saddest parts of this whole debate: The way the gaming community are treating gender issues in games and the people talking about them. Worries about the gaming community’s treatment of women also arose when professional fighting game player Aris Bakhtanians sexually harassed a female team-mate live on-air and then attempted to play it off by claiming such behaviour was part of the fighting game culture.

Whether you agree or disagree with the critics of the games industry, the kind of abuse, attacks, and harassment that befell Sarkeesian and others like her can’t be defended. This is still a difficult and very controversial issue, but hopefully, this is all part of us working towards a games industry that is more inclusive and welcoming for both the people in it, and its audience.

Duder, It’s Over

Besides the aforementioned, other notable events of the year include Doritogate, The War Z case, Activision advertising Call of Duty using Oliver North, EA using the Medal of Honor site to link to real gun manufacturers, GaymerCon, the Ouya, the continuing rise of indie games, and the uproar over the Mass Effect 3 launch DLC.

One of the less fortunate trends consistent throughout this past year has been the departure of major companies and figures in the industry, but if there’s one real positive trend that can be identified it’s efforts towards the maturing of video games as a medium, and people really caring about the health of games and the games industry more than ever before. People are taking steps to try and ensure our medium is an inclusive one, not an exclusive one, and that both the industry and its audience are holding the narratives in certain games up to the same standard they would a TV show, film, or book.

Thanks for reading and see you all in 2013.


My Top Five Games of 2012... Sort Of

For a long while I was thinking that I couldn’t do one of these Game of the Year dealies for 2012. Being a Broke-Ass Student™ I usually end up playing most AAA games a year or so after they are originally released, meaning that I haven’t actually played many of the biggest games of 2012. Then I remembered this is a masturbatory exercise entirely based around my personal experiences of games over the year, and that as this isn’t going to be directly comparable to anyone else’s experience of games over the past 12 months, I didn’t have to let a trivial thing like when the games came out define my 2012 picks for games of the year.

The following are my top five picks for games that I have played in 2012, but didn’t necessarily come out in 2012. For a game to have been eligible for my list, I must have played it for a significant amount of time, and must have first played it since the start of this year. I’ve listed my picks in vague order of quality from which I least enjoyed to which I most enjoyed, but it’s not strictly ranked. You can find all my nominees in the tag below:

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, Bastion, Battlefield 3, Bulletstorm, Castle Crashers, Critical Mass, Dante’s Inferno, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Ezmuze+ 2.0, Faerie Solitaire, Fez, FTL: Faster Than Light, Halo 4, Jamestown, Lone Survivor, Mass Effect 3, Midnight Club II, Minecraft, Nation Red, Penny Arcade Adventures: On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness- Episode One, Post Apocalyptic Mayhem, Prototype, Q.U.B.E, Rage, Rayman Origins, Red Faction Armageddon, Rock Band Blitz, Rock of Ages, Saint’s Row: The Third, Shadows of the Damned, Sid Meier’s Civilization V, Super Monday Night Combat, Terraria, The Binding of Isaac, Toki Tori, Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, Waves, Wizorb

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Adam Jensen, emotionless aug at the helm of Human Revolution.

A lot of developers talk a big game about how much choice there is to be found in their title, and how in it the same job can be done with a variety of tools, and challenges can be tackled with a range of approaches, but very few games live up to that promise to the extent Deus Ex: Human Revolution does. In all honesty I’m not the biggest fan of stealth combat, and I felt taking down the enemies of Human Revolution was too often a boring experience, involving a lot camping in one spot until guards came off of alert or energy recharged, but despite this, there was always the sense that the way you approached the hurdles the game set in your way was your decision. Hacking, stealth, non-lethal takedown, lethal takedown, and social skills were all potential means of solving the problems of Human Revolution.

Perhaps what resonated even more with me though was the world the game presented. The sleek visual design and subdued sounds of Human Revolution helped build an environment which felt soulless but enthralling, and it was refreshing to see a cyberpunk backdrop for the world, and a story with one foot in real-world issues. Human Revolution’s narrative dealt with subjects both interesting and important to us as a species; what bioaugmentation could mean for us, how it could be exploited, how the media can control public perception, issues of wealth disparity, and more. In its best moments Deus Ex: Human Revolution was unique, liberating, and thought-provoking.

Mass Effect 3

Mass Effect 3 is a truly affecting story about the final days of our galaxy.

While its ending was probably one of the most crushingly disappointing things I’ve experienced in a video game, it’s a shame that it came to define the game, because, ending aside, Mass Effect 3 was a great RPG. It’s easy to get fixated on the bad things we didn’t expect, and take for granted the quality components that we’ve come to expect of the games, but standing back and analysing it, there are still no other games out there that have handled player choice like Mass Effect has, and so few games with narratives as compelling and rich as those of this Bioware RPG franchise. This stayed true right up to the end.

Throughout the series, the experience I had with the games felt unique to me, and it was hard not to become engrossed in the world and develop a sincere attachment to the characters. The way I and my friends can play this same game and have a completely different journey with it, or the way decisions I made in another game five years ago can affect the fate of a universe in this game today are just two examples of where Mass Effect 3 blows me away. The ending may have been abysmal, and the multiplayer might not have stood up, but Mass Effect 3 is a largely fitting conclusion to a ground-breaking trilogy that has a lot to teach anyone aiming to create truly emotional experiences in video games.

Sid Meier’s Civilization V

Civilization V stands among the best strategy games ever.

Many games, films, or books take place on a grand scale, but the Civilization series goes above almost every other in this regard. The events that you witness, control, and influence in the games don’t just happen on a global scale, but across all of human history, making your path through a single game of Civ feel truly epic.

Other games may let you take on the role of a spaceship captain in an intergalactic conflict, or commander of an army in a world war, but nothing is quite the same as the Civilization experience of taking a group of people from being a small tribe of barbarians in 4,000 B.C. through to being a sprawling and advanced society in the 21 century. Along the way, everything you encounter, from the world leaders, to the various technologies, to the world wonders, make Civilisation feel like one big love letter to human history.

Civ V manages to once again deliver all of this alongside the series’ notorious addictiveness. It’s remarkable how all the disparate mechanics of the game manage to come together to keep giving you small goals to strive towards, and small rewards for your work, in such perfect quantities, with such perfect timing. The major changes that the game makes to systems like culture, unit placement, and the UI, are also all welcome additions. A game of Civilization V is always enjoyable, and as much as it gets said, it really does keep you playing long into the night with that “One more turn” mentality.

Halo 4

The stoic protagonist of this brilliantly fulfilling FPS.

I was pretty confident going into Halo 4 that 343 had produced at least a competent recreation of the previous Halo games, but quite how far they managed to go in creating a gripping new Halo game was very impressive. I wish they had distanced themselves a little further from other popular FPSs when thinking about new mechanics, and there is a special pocket of disappointment in my heart for Spartan Ops, but not only does Halo 4 get what the series is about, down to the precise feel and timing of the weapons, but it’s obvious from the moment that you pick it up that the series has benefitted from having a new set of hands on it.

At its core the Halo formula remains as satisfying as ever, and on top of that, 343 managed to drastically improve the progression system, make the multiplayer fairer, give the guns more of a kick, make the gameplay more action-packed, and go to a place with the story more ambitious than anywhere Bungie went. The game also manages to disprove the claim that has been by a number of industry higher-ups recently, that this generation of consoles has reached its technical limitations; both the art design and the technical quality of the game’s graphics are up to a very high standard, presenting some beautiful landscapes and gorgeous environments.

Halo 4 is a fantastic continuation of an excellent series, that is not content to rest on the franchise’s laurels, and instead feels like the product of some serious talent and effort. Hopefully this is just the tip of the iceberg for this new generation for Halo.

Saint’s Row: The Third

Saint's Row: The Third is a game about mayhem.

Over its first two instalments the Saint’s Row series was one that I found consistently underwhelming. It’s not that they were poorly put together, but they came across to me as a series that aped the successful formula of Grand Theft Auto, but could neither do anything particularly original with it, nor ever quite execute on it with the level of quality that Rockstar did. Saint’s Row: The Third changed that, presenting us with not only a game that was very well-crafted, but that benefited incredibly from having its own distinctive sense of self-identity.

Saint’s Row: The Third is beautifully insane and full of character. From fighting soldiers in a tank as you’re falling through the air thousands of feet above the city, to getting plastic surgery to sneak onto an aircraft carrier, it’s the creativity with which the game is able to produce its brilliant nonsense that makes it so special.

The characters occupying these scenarios (particularly the protagonist) only server to enhance them, acting as a conduit for the player’s attitude by acknowledging that what’s happening is batshit crazy, but jumping in and having fun with it none the less. The game is very confident in what it does and feels greatly empowering in the way it lets you give a huge “Fuck you” to not just the enemies of the game world, but the laws of reality and the notions of subtlety and sensibleness. Saint’s Row: The Third is over-the-top, exciting, stylish, and my biggest criticism of it is simply that there wasn’t more of what made that main story so great.

Duder, It’s Over

And I guess that’s me done for this year. If you have read through all or part of my self-indulgent rambling, I thank you very much, and I hope you’ve all had as enjoyable a year with games as I have. Here’s hoping to a great 2013.


The Man in Green Power Armour

Note: The following post contains spoilers for the entirety of the Halo series, including the ending of Halo 4. You have been warned.

So, the Halo 4 story has a lot of problems. The Chief still isn’t the deepest or most expressive character, the story doesn’t always do a great job of explaining itself, the plot-dump midway through from the Librarian feels a little inelegant and like a lot to take in at once, the Didact feels a little too Saturday morning cartoon villain for my tastes, and given that that Halo 1-3 was largely focused around stopping the Human-Covenant War, the almost immediate return of the Covenant in 4 feels like a bit of a cop-out. That being said, I think in many parts of the internet, there’s been a lack of focus on the strengths of Halo 4’s story, and how the events of Halo 4, if used correctly, really have the potential to positively shape the coming games.

The Stoic Hero

The Master Chief is powerful, recognisable, but not particularly emotive.

The obvious problem that has existed with the Master Chief as a character is the same one that has plagued many video game characters over the years, and indeed seems to be representative of a traditional problem with game narratives on the whole; It’s empowering to be the Chief, he comes across as a badass, he’s an iconic figure, but he goes through basically no character development, and has no real depth or personality beyond being a strong, silent killing machine. This often gives him a rather epic feel, but doesn’t make him particularly interesting to follow as a person.

Now, that’s not to say you can’t tell interesting stories about an emotionally devoid soldier, you can, but I think the best ways to do that involve exploring the origins and implications of the character being such a thing, and portraying it in at least a somewhat negative light, and that’s never been something the games have been particularly interested in. The Chief’s origins have remained rather untouched by the games, while the fact that the Chief is lacking humanity and solely purposed for war is something that the games have either shown an outright indifference to, or shown in a positive light as they build up the Chief’s “badass” image.

Outside of problems with the character of the Chief himself, the circumstances he finds himself in always seem to turn out a little too perfect for him. We’ve seen things slightly shaken up before, with him temporarily losing Cortana at the end of Halo 2, or ending up drifting through space at the end of Halo 3, but neither of these seemed like things that bothered him all that much. A character has to go through both triumph and turmoil to make their journey meaningful, and it seems that the Chief has gotten far more of one of these than the other. In fact, when the Chief doesn’t care about much in the world but getting his missions done, it’s hard for the writers to really create any situation in which it feels like he’s experiencing something negative.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Halo, and I feel a strong attachment to the Chief, but let’s be realistic, he’s not the best video game character ever. Halo 4 however, starts to show at least a glimmer of change, and a slight promise of some of the deep-rooted problems with the Chief being solved. A large part of this can be seen in the opening of the game, a scene in which a UNSC official starts to interrogate Catherine Halsey, creator of the Spartans, on the program which created the Chief and the Spartans like him.

Green and Blue

It's no longer as simple as the Spartans just being the heroes.

History is often remembered as being a lot simpler and a lot more black-and-white than was actually the reality, and this is certainly shown to be the case with the Spartan program. While the Spartans are remembered as heroes and the tools by which the Human-Covenant War was ended, their origins were actually far more questionable, with them having been originally developed as a means to try and quell a human civil war. Here, for the first time we see a kind of moral ambiguity that just hasn’t reared its head in the Halo games to date.

We also see a Halo story which starts to suggest that maybe the emotional detachment of the Chief and Spartans like him, from other human beings, is a bad thing, in fact the officer interrogating Halsey points out that it’s downright sociopathic. After putting these elements into play I wish the game as a whole touched on them a little more, but with the way it’s been set up, I’d be surprised if we didn’t come back to them in later instalments.

When we return to the Master Chief and Cortana, the two are more or less the same people we’ve always known, but at the start of Halo 4’s second mission we see them both start to change as we learn of Cortana’s rampancy, and her inevitable death. This is by no means the first time Cortana has been in peril; after her aforementioned loss to the Gravemind at the conclusion of the second game, the Chief set out to save Cortana, believing she could play a vital role in stopping the Human-Covenant War. There the Chief proved to be right and was successful in his mission, but Halo 4 does something clever by presenting almost the same situation, only turned on its head.

Once again, Cortana is in danger, and once again, against the judgement of someone in some ways superior to himself (Cortana herself), the Chief refuses to accept defeat and insists on saving her, but the situation surrounding him is entirely different. This isn’t presented as an act of good faith and judgement on the Chief’s part, but instead appears somewhat futile. He starts bumping up against the hard rules of the Halo universe, and when Cortana is telling you you’re wrong about something, then there’s not a whole lot of chance you’re right.

The Chief’s Loss

In losing one character, 343 may be able to transform another.

At the conclusion of Halo 4, the Chief doesn’t end up with anything close to his previous idealised victories. He manages to stop the Didact, but for the first time in a Halo game, the Chief’s success comes at a significant cost to him. This time there’s bad with the good, and the Chief isn't just proven wrong about being able to save the person he worked so hard to help, but in the end it’s not even up to him whether she’s saved or not. He is disempowered, and far from coming out of the struggle with everything intact, he’s left in just about the worse position possible, as he’s lost the only other person he’s ever really had any strong connection with.

Not only does this give us a moment to see the Chief briefly display the kind of emotion that we never usually see from him, but more importantly post-Cortana’s death something she said still weighs heavily on his mind; that he may be more of a machine than a man. This is the same point that was touched on in the opening when the officer discussed the sociopathic tendencies of the Spartans, and throughout the game, as the rampant computer program Cortana ironically appeared more emotive than the human she was tied to, the Chief.

It’s all really going to depend how 343 play this over the next game or two, but if done right, this worry in Chief’s head could be the catalyst for a journey in which he and the characters around him explore his lack of emotion as a negative aspect of his character, and if handled especially well could lead to the transformation of the Chief into someone more human. The legendary ending seems to mirror this idea, as the last moment we see of the game involves us literally being shown a small part of the human Chief under the armour for the first time.

Duder, It’s Over

In all honestly, I’m not entirely convinced that 343 can make all the changes necessary to turn the Chief into a compelling character, and I understand that the worries of many people that the death of Cortana may lead to less emotive characters in the series and not more, but if they can pull this off correctly, the events of Halo 4 might be just what the series needed. Either way, as critical as I can get, I still believe the Halo canon is interesting, and I still have great fun with the games. Thanks for reading, and here’s hoping that 343 will do right with the upcoming instalments.


Gamers, Stop Helping PETA

Often, when I feel that an issue has been covered before by someone much smarter and more articulate than me, and when I’ve already said just about everything I want to say about something in online discussion areas, I refrain from blogging about that thing. However, given the subject matter in this case, I think it’s important to get the word out about this in any way possible.

PETA's Black and White parody.

For those of you who don’t yet know, animal rights activists PETA have recently released a flash RPG they’re calling Pokémon: Black & Blue. In it you take on the role of a team of Pokémon fighting back against their cruel masters who resemble animal testers, circus ring leaders, and other potential threats to animal welfare. Already, plenty of gaming and news outlets are reporting on PETA’s new publicity project and already, gamers across the board seem to be getting up in arms about this.

Once again we’re all falling into PETA’s trap and this has to stop. Two things must be understood here; firstly, PETA are an organisation who should not be receiving any kind of promotion, unless it comes with the very strong message that they should be avoided at all costs, and secondly, PETA’s marketing campaigns are designed to trick people into promoting them, often through outright deception.

In case you’re not familiar with the history or internal workings of PETA, I implore you to look into them. In fact, if you can find it there’s a great episode of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit on them, but for now I think this infographic will do. If nothing else, the one thing you need to know about PETA is that the so-called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals kill the vast majority of animals which actually come into their care, but a scary number of people just aren’t aware of this fact, and support the organisation thinking they’re genuinely helping animals. What’s more, every time money goes to PETA because someone is trying to help animal rights, that’s a donation that doesn’t go to the other charities that are genuinely trying to aid animals and not doing what PETA does.

Controversy is how PETA's marketing works and we're helping them.

Unfortunately, while PETA may have highly flawed ideologies and disturbing behaviours, they also have a lot of advertising power, with a marketing budget of over 30 million dollars. This makes them frighteningly effective at marketing, and they have found a very effective technique for maintaining and spreading awareness of themselves; raising controversy. Their campaigns in the past which have involved such activities as locking naked women in cages, depicting women who’ve been beaten and bruised during sex, or comparing the slaughtering of chickens to the holocaust are a clear sign that they’re looking for their message to be carried by controversy. They know the best way to get people saying their name is through shocking imagery and questionable content.

Unluckily for us, they seem to have latched onto the fact that one of the easiest groups to stir up outrage with is gamers. We’re a group of people who are able to spread our opinions quickly and effectively, given how connected we are to the world wide web, many of us are very forward with our opinions, and many of us aren’t calm and rational when confronted with something we don’t like, but instead immature and angry beyond reason.

We've fallen for this too many times already.

This isn’t the first time PETA have tried to raise awareness through gamer outrage, and it won’t be the last. In fact, this is the fifth time this has happened. There have been four flash games PETA have released before now that have either used a beloved game as a jumping-off point for their message, or have directly attacked that game, and every time this has happened the gaming community has raised hell over it. PETA continue targeting gamers specifically because they know they get exactly the reaction they want that way, and every time one of us flips out and starts yelling about PETA, that’s more publicity for them. That’s more publicity for the organisation that is putting thousands of animals to death using the donations of unknowing supporters who think they’re doing good.

By all means, talk about PETA, but when you do, don't just spread their name about and discuss their marketing materials, that’s exactly the kind of thing that’s helping them thrive. When you talk about PETA, show that these campaigns are a ploy for attention, inform people just how fucked up they really are as an organisation, and donate to and/or raise awareness for genuinely helpful animal-based charities that PETA is hamstringing like the World Wildlife Fund, the ASPCA, or the NSPCA. That’s how to really hurt PETA. Thanks for reading.