Darksiders II isn’t sure whether the Internet exists or not. Sorry, it does.

We hurt the ones we love the most, so I'm giving Darksiders II another kicking; this time because of its silly collectibles and how it treats them with no respect.

In an entirely unintentional turn of events, I have an addendum to my previous piece about Darksiders II being too long for its own good. I of course appreciate any and all irony surrounding this occurrence, even if the below is not explicitly a continuation of that subject.

There is a ‘wholly optional’ dungeon within DS II called the Soul Arbiter’s Maze, which is essentially a wave-based survival mode wherein the player is tasked with besting an increasingly deadly collection of the game’s foes. What is interesting about the area, like much of the game’s core design, is its juxtaposition of videogame ideas old and new.

While the Soul Arbiter’s lair may be called a maze in name, it doesn’t really resemble the continuous, labyrinthine construct of one’s imagination. It is instead a series of discrete, spatially conservative rooms with four ever-present exits. The player must fight and defeat each room’s group of enemies and then choose a direction of progression from the four points of the compass. This being a videogame, there is a set pattern which must be followed in order that the player is able to progress, lest they be doomed to wander in circles forever.

These very specific directions of course, this being a videogame, are only obtained by the diligent player who consistently scours the rest of the game world for the possibility of well-hidden treasures. I don’t want to sound self-flagellating - it’s nothing to be too proud of really - but some of the clues I found were only sourced after unnecessarily scrutinous levels of exploration. There are twenty such pieces of information, in the form of scrolls, all of which are found in very arbitrary - Arbiter-ary, if you will - ways. Ten of them show you the way out, while the others lead you to hidden treasure. I’d assume that any player entering into this type of repetitive event is after the treasure as well, so you essentially need all twenty to feel like you’ve achieved anything, really.

An emphasis on innumerable collectibles is a pretty modern aspect of videogames, as is - within the applicable genres - the survival mode. They elongate the play experience and imbue games with significantly longer lifespans than could otherwise be expected. Players spend more time interacting with these games, whether that be to discover hidden items or fend of dangerous hoards for a couple of hours. Both options are more economical than traditionally making a game longer, with the former easily slotting into areas designed to accommodate them and the latter allowing relatively small levels be reused an infinite number of times. In this sense, DS II’s Soul Arbiter’s Maze is archetypal on both accounts.

Incongruity, I feel though, again arises from the two ideals of DS II: it attempting to be both modern and referential to the past at the same time. The Maze, while a valid idea to add an extra something to the game, simply doesn’t take into account the way information dissemination has changed since the days of Simon’s Quest, abstract logic and Nintendo Power guides.

The scrolls are scattered throughout over half of the game, leaving a massive scope for their possible hiding places. They can literally be anywhere, which makes finding them more a thing of luck than deduction, thus adding a profound sense of hopelessness to the task. My own hunt threw up seventeen of the scrolls by the end of the game, which is useless in a task as binary as this; the nature of the Maze dictates the player must have all of them to successfully navigate it to its conclusion. This, in my opinion, is the type of unforgiving design which was much more common in the eighties and nineties. It’s a level of harsh “you need to really earn this” design not often seen today, essentially negating all my efforts until the trial is full fully complete. Having already spent time collecting the scrolls I wasn’t about to simply skip out the dungeon altogether, nor was I about to revisit every possible location to re-scour them. I was forced to venture outside of the game to acquire a full set of directions from the Internet. I think that’s a bit of a shame really.

It’s necessary, though, because the design of this challenge is so out of step with how games are - or maybe more accurately, can be - played nowadays. The scrolls don’t act as typical items within the game world that the player must physically collect, as one would a key or other doodad. They are merely pieces of information the game notes down upon their discovery so they can be used later. In this sense they aren’t theoretically constrained by the boundaries of the game at all, therefore players have the option to bypass them entirely and simply seek out their contents by other, more efficient means. This has always been the case, granted, though in the past this type of information was passed on through word of mouth and the print-based walkthrough; two methods of transmission with significantly shorter reaches than the ‘information superhighway’.

Today discussion of games is instantaneous, with players able to gather together to share information whenever they choose. Smart design needs to take this into account and adapt itself to reflect our ability to take anything not nailed down out of a game and blow it all around the world. The Maze is another example of how DS II seemingly understands the disparate aspects of its mechanical design, yet fails to decide how they can all be brought together into one congruous whole. The collectibles are there, the survival mode is there, the compelling hidden items are all there, but it’s entirely superfluous when the mechanics driving the challenge can be circumvented because the information necessary to succeed isn’t inherently tied into the game itself.

DS II is full of niggling little occurrences where parts just never seem to stop chafing, and the Maze is just another example of the difficulties associated with the game’s ‘checklist approach’ to design. I’ve always been of the mind that the two Darksiders strove to be greater than the sum of their parts; grabbing bits of games that worked well and wrapping them all up in that lovely Heavy Metal­-inspired aesthetic. And I do think that they are better in practice than they sound on paper; I just wish all those parts could be arranged in a smoother way. As small a part of the game as the Soul Arbiter’s Maze is, it’s disheartening that aspects of its challenge can be entirely bypassed because of some rough design and incompatible ideas. Darksiders II, as I keep discovering, frustrates because - like the cocksure teenager inside all of us - it wants to do so many things while never fully understanding all of them. I think that’s a bit of a shame really, even if it is endearing as anything.

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Darksiders II is almost fourteen times as long as Beowulf (starring Ray Winstone)

In trying to be grander in scale than its predecessor, Darksiders II pushes its mechanics to breaking point and forces players to repeat themselves more often than is desirable.

Achieving a feat as lofty as saving humanity from oblivion should be difficult. It should be long, unforgiving, testing, exhausting: all those things we want a hero to overcome when realising their towering goals. Epic poetry is full of tales of daring men and women descending into the underworld or embarking on a perilous journey for the sake of something very important. These are characters used to getting things done, even if it takes them many years to actually accomplish their goals. As Valerie Valdes pointed out a while back and others have further explored since, games have been modelling themselves after the epics for some time. Darksiders II very much aspires to reach these same heights of dizzying heroism, and like a mythological journey around the Grecian peninsula - by way of Hades, of course - is really, really, really long for its efforts.

This bracing tale of chivalry focuses on Horseman of the Apocalypse and spiritual caretaker, Death, as he convolutedly attempts to free his brother War from endless punishment. You see: War was tricked into prematurely bringing about the apocalypse, an act which itself was at the mercy of another series of convoluted whims; collectively known as the plot of Darksiders the Original. Like true adventuring types, the Brothers Horsemen throw themselves into their questing like proper good ‘uns and seemingly only accept the very longest of trials. To this effect, most of Death’s perilous exploits take him through a lengthy series of dungeons, with opportunities for talking and shopping strung in between. The majority of the game, then, sees the player running Death around giant buildings filled with enemies and videogame puzzles; the ones that use pressure plates, switches and plenty of metal gates. These obstacles are regularly reconfigured and amended as new tools become available to the player, though no number of elaborate guises can make a lever anything but a lever, or the challenge anything more than getting to and then pulling that lever.

I like both of the Darksiders games on the whole, especially their early parts. They are giddy celebrations of videogame history, regularly providing players with little references to things they may have enjoyed in the past. What’s better though, is that if you don’t recognise a particular reference for whatever reason, the games aren’t going to jump on you, quivering violently, like a clearly enthusiastic fan of videogames might be inclined to do. “WHAT?!?! You never played Ocarinaz? You certainly aren’t a real player of videogames in my book.” they could quite easily say but never do. Instead they always seem more interested in creating chunky, colourful and pulpy fun: the type of sci-fi/fantasy one associates with the eighties, all boobs and giant axes and eroticised two-headed dragons (with boobs).

A quick tot up is in order I reckon, and thus far we seem to have three important bits of information in our possession:

i - Death is on a quest, which is really long - for effect.

ii - There is frequent repetition of (sometimes) barely distinguishable activities to be had everywhere.

iii - It’s all a bit schlocky, in a Conan the Barbarian (1982) way.

Three things (!). Great, we can continue.

It’s really strange, then, that amidst all of this beautifully dumb collaging of cool stuff - and I still mean that in a genuinely complimentary way - there is this need for the games to slavishly adhere to a hackneyed method of unfurling their generous progressions. The entire flow of DS II is, unfortunately, predicated on the questing for impossibly powerful items which have been either lost or discarded behind a series of tests, all conveniently set up to challenge the player’s skill and/or cunning. These tests regularly come in threes as well, which is warmingly quaint at first, what with the wafting airborne saccharine of so many Crash Bandicoot and Mario 64 memories. It’s use is pervasive though, and as such begins to really upset once you’re on challenge two of three only to be told you’ll need to conquer three further challenges to complete the original challenge (which is really only a third of the actual challenge (which is itself only a section of the game as a whole, which is really the real challenge and has been all along)).

Hyperbole aside though, this overreliance on quaint, rigid formality does meaningfully detract from the player’s experience, or at least it did mine. In creating and adhering to such a patterned structure, DS II strips itself of any spatial surprises and essentially signposts its intentions to the player at all times. There is no mystery shrouding any of the dungeons; there can’t be because they all unfold in the same a-to-b-to-c-to-boss fashion. This robs the experience of any tension, leaving DS II an adventure that is strangely devoid of any sense of discovery. While you might not know where you are in a dungeon, you know roughly how far you are through it. Every one is structured in the same way: a central hall with two or three areas leading off it, each with its own little challenges. As long as you take notice of how many doors you’ve been through you know how much of the dungeon you’ve left to tackle. It’s all dishearteningly uniform.

Further to this, the omnipresent structuralism constantly highlights the repetitive nature of DS II’s gameplay elements and the game’s overreliance on reconfiguring them over introducing new ones. This is most noticeable when interacting with the puzzle aspects, most of which boil down to flipping a switch to open a door. Over the course of the game these switches are placed farther from the player and behind added layers of busywork, however, with only a handful of possible combinations of these limited interactions available, the game rarely manages to create something challenging or unexpected. Much of the time it’s a simple case of instantly knowing how to accomplish a task, with the real test being the patient execution of the discrete steps involved.

The further into the game one gets, the greater the feeling becomes that everything is being artificially drawn out for the sake of maintaining the hallowed (bloated) dungeon configuration. Ultimately, it’s in this combination of uncomplicated-yet-fussy puzzle design and the dogged pursuit of structural homogeneity where DS II is the most unappealing. It is, after all, meant to be a game about being powerful in that very particular eighties sense, whereas much of it feels like drudgery and - I’m sorry to say it - going through the motions. Later dungeons are rife with the stop-and-start of forced combat; where you’ll enter a room and suddenly be set upon by adversaries while the doors all lock up tight to prevent your escape. These too, are clearly signalled to the player beforehand, as if the game were at its proudest during moments of padding-by-combat and puzzle repetition.

There’s not a paucity of interactions available to the player throughout DS II; it’s a game with enough ideas, both borrowed and created anew, to give the player a compelling experience. The problem, though, is that it wants dearly to be a journey on the same scale as the epics, while all the time paying homage to the games its developers most admire. DS II unfortunately uses the latter to achieve the former: calling back the most tired design conventions as an easy referential/reverential way of elongating a game that really doesn’t benefit from the added bulk. In creating a lengthy experience the game simply forces its mechanics too far; reusing them until they are long past their best, unable to surprise or excite the player. Games are too expensive to be filled to the brim with good ideas and endless new mechanics; it’s a terrible shame to see Darksiders II’s - wherever they may hail from - spread as thinly as they are for the sake of delusions of, and allusions to, grandeur.

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(Over) analysing The Bureau: XCOM Declassified’s chest-high walls (to within an inch of their lives)

I’ve done a close reading of the chest-high walls in The Bureau: XCOM Declassified and I’m happy to report that I think they could be a meditation on the tangible benefits of improved graphics. Furthermore, I reckon their implementation also questions if our lust to achieve increased verisimilitude between real and digital worlds is misguided.

In some of the Metal Gear games the player can take part in extracurricular virtual reality simulations. These largely take on the form of challenges, where the player is to focus entirely on their grasp of and prowess with game mechanics, unhindered by the troubles of setting, story, and the like. These VR excursions, in the guise of computerised training programmes, strip away all of these ‘distractions’ and stick the player-character in a glowing, geometric world made of cubes. In doing so, it could be said that the games are making a statement about where the real importance - the heart, if you were - of videogames truly lies. That while videogames are forced to inhabit the trappings of cinema, theatre and literature to attain wider cultural acceptance, the actual hallmark of the medium is, has and always will be the simple pleasures of the player moving things on a screen, and not some highfaluting screen moving the player. Pah.

Pleasure, gained from dicking about in a virtual place, is often seen as too basic a human response to be taken seriously, the mechanics used to elicit it too mechanical, so there’s always been a tendency for videogames to pile things on top of those cubes. Indeed, games like Donkey Kong Land always felt somewhat imprecise, precisely because of the incongruity between a platform’s geometric collision and the fancy graphics slapped in front of it. This was especially problematic when just making a jump, as many platform edges actually started a few pixels back from where their lavish foliage or rock textures would have you believe.

By the end of the SNES and Megadrive era games played on a two-dimensional plane were ridiculously detailed, rarely resembling the primitive menagerie of floating Euclidean elements that they’d previously been. Three dimensions soon put a stop to these artistic strides though (ha!), and videogames were once again forced to curtail their aesthetic aspirations. An early Playstation title like Jumping Flash! is a good example of these constraints playing out. The visuals are relatively rudimentary as to facilitate the game’s ambitious vision of a sprawling 3D platform game, where levels are vast both horizontally and vertically. A prettier game could have been made, but then the mechanical design would have had to be scaled down, a sacrifice the development team clearly didn’t feel comfortable making.

Visuals normally play second fiddle to gameplay when an either/or situation is forced at the birthing of new technologies, except when highlighting new visual capabilities is the raison d’être of a particular title. For examples, see FantaVision, Knack and That Dinosaur Demo.

Once technologies have become established and developers are comfortable in working with them, we see visual fidelity, vibrancy and detail usually increase steadily until that technology is superseded, be that by new console hardware or some meaningful software revision. Generally speaking, the best visual treatments are achieved by the later inhabitants of one of these technological cycles. This is, of course, purely in an objective, technology-focused sense and in no way equates better technology with higher levels of visual artistry, though clearly: the bigger the palette the more options available to the skilled painter. This trend can be seen explicitly throughout the Playstation 3 games of Naughty Dog, with all but one of their four games being lauded as having simply the best visuals the console could possibly ever produce.

It’s refreshing, then, that The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, a game released in the final months of a console generation, appears to have shrugged off this trend of exponential visual improvement, favouring instead a good old fashioned focus on vidyagaming gameplaying play. It’s a fitting end to this particular technology cycle; effectively closing the generation with a meditation on the tangible benefits of improved graphics, questioning if increased verisimilitude between real and digital worlds actually does give us anything of worth.

The Bureau is a tactical squad-based cover shooter, where the player, inhabiting Agent William Carter, leads a team of three through various battles against an alien invasion force in the early 1960s. Carter is controlled in a very familiar third-person action game way; able to run, take cover behind chest-high walls and jump down - but not up - small ledges. The tactical aspects of the game take shape when Carter s-l-o-w-s down time and issues commands to his two compatriots. Their abilities are a mixed bag of offensive, defensive and buff-type specials, and a well-managed team can quite easily take down huge enemies if abilities are combined effectively. Much of the game, then, is spent huddling Carter behind a wall and issuing commands while everything continues slowly around you. Mechanically it’s fine: Carter and his team gently unlock new abilities to add to the old tactical arsenal, and receiving a ‘COMBO KILL’ award for being tactically proficient is somewhat gratifying. Them walls though; they are the most important part of the whole thing.

That picture, the one just over there, is a shot from the first proper mission in the game. It’s set in small town America and is full of postcard-level nostalgic sincerity. One of the characters even comments on how unfortunate it is that an alien invasion came to pass on Homecoming parade day. Aw shucks.

What is interesting about these beginning parts of the game is their utter banality. They follow their genre template slavishly, giving the player their requisite collection of hidey-walls - without which the game, mechanically speaking, wouldn’t work at all - and then attempting to build a somewhat believable setting around them. In our example we’ve got some hay bales, a car and a parade float all lined up, very unnaturally, at orderly angles to one another. Almost every cover-surface - let’s agree to just call them walls - in this and all the other areas of the game which necessitate them, are at either ninety or forty-five degree angles to one another. This means that the urban areas are usually filled with lots of barricades, cars, wooden crates and trucks, as the level designers try in vain to build mechanically viable, yet real world-congruent combat arenas. There’s one early skirmish set in an impossibly large geometric garden. It’s filled with a symmetrical layout of walls that play wonderfully in terms of playing the game, but look rather awkward when imagining the garden existing in real life. To further exemplify this dissonance, once this area is conquered you turn a corner and enter another garden, this one populated by terraces at varying elevations, all unnecessary stairs and vantage points. It’s as if the garden was expressly designed with the distant possibility of it some day playing host to a pitched battle between man and machine-inhabiting alien invader.

It’s nothing new though, and ever sine that Gears of War popularised (though by no means invented) the modern cover shooter, designers have been trying to organically fit their walls into levels the best they can. It’s all a bit like that Donkey Kong game I pointedly mentioned earlier, the one about beautifying the hard surfaces of gameplay with lashings of pretty textures. REMEMBER that bit: it’s important for later.

The Bureau does something fascinating with its walls the further into the game you go. In the Homecoming parade level - just after the above picture was taken actually - you’re first introduced to alien walls. They are essentially grey, metallic sheets that are ‘grown’ by your extraterrestrial adversaries and can sprout up on the battlefield at any given moment, without any need for further narrative or formal justification. The game initially implements them as a means of reusing areas for new combat scenarios; you get to one end of a battlefield and suddenly enemies saunter up behind you with a new set of cover, ultimately double dipping the area and elongating its usefulness. I, though, think the game is saying a lot more with these alien walls than might, at first, be obvious.

As the game progresses these new walls pop up - pun intended - more and more frequently. Later levels often begin in an urban or rural setting, only to quickly burrow underground into caverns lined, floored, roofed and chock full of alien walls to hide behind. Later still, missions take place entirely in alien space stations, completely circumventing the cloying quaintness of the earlier sepia-tinged levels and their awkward gameplay versus aesthetics juxtapositions.

As you can see in this final picture, in moving the game’s events out of recognisable locales, the designers no longer need to worry about making the placement of cover feel natural. If anything, it’s in their interest to do the exact opposite, these being alien installations after all. It’s in these final levels where the game fully casts off the shackles of modern design conventions and effectively says “bugger it, what’s the point in titting about trying to make this look convincing; it NEVER WILL.” The funny gardens from the beginning are recreated with alien walls, and suddenly make perfect sense in this new, gameplay-only focused paradigm. The awkwardness of contextualising its level design is gone by the end of the game: The Bureau is liberated by simply shunning Videogames’ need to look like something other than a simple, honest challenge.

The Bureau should be celebrated for its bravery in swimming against the current of accepted videogame design. It fearlessly deconstructs the prevailing notion that videogames must not only constantly strive to look better, but also appear more naturalistic as the medium and its technology advances. As The Bureau progresses, it subtly strips away the layers of peripheral aesthetics normally seen as a necessity in modern games, until at its end it is visually little more than a VR mission from Metal Gear Solid; an experience completely defined by its mechanics alone, uninterested in anything threatening to overcomplicate the purity of its experience.

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, then, is an example of formalist purpose not oft seen from videogame designers, especially ones working in big budget, triple-a development. In stripping away its visual niceties, the game is bringing into stark focus its creators’ opinions on where the true creative importance of a videogame lies. It is a searing polemic against the spiralling costs of making these types games: an argument that pretty-yet-functionless graphics are a waste of money, and one no doubt inspired by the game’s own years of difficult development.

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I want to be stereotyped/ I want to be classified: This week I like microtransactions in my games on my phone

Those words right at the top there are the opening lyrics of Suburban Home, a song by punk band Descendents .In many ways it’s the archetypal eighties Californian hardcore/punk track; a biley swipe at the status quo emanating from a group of disaffected young people. They don’t like the stagnation of consumption-driven Middle America. They don’t like society’s attempts to constrain them. They don’t like talking frankly and often prefer the shield of sarcasm to carry their sentiments.

This type of anarchic protest runs through every era of American punk. I tend find it a little more interesting, however, as bands get older and begin to reflect upon their once-youthful selves. Instead of outright dismissal, we’re often witness to more thoughtful examination. This can go anywhere from simply exploring topics in a more objective manner, to harshly critiquing one’s very attitudes as a youngster. It’s this spirit of weary self-reflexivity that finds me compelled to re-evaluate them ‘orrible money-grabbing phone/browser games and wot I fink of them.

Last time I delved into the grubby subject I was on message, as it were, spouting off about their insidiousness and cruel ability to separate us from our money. I spun it as a little story in an attempt to make it a bit more engaging for the reader, going as far as personifying SimCity Social (SCS) as a cackling business type, though I’m not sure if it entirely worked. I was almost certainly drinking heavily at the time, which undoubtedly made me more susceptible to the game’s revenue generating practices. Being drunk made me reckless and impatient and SCS was more than willing to take my money. To be fair though, so were the supermarkets and off licences that kept me suitably lubricated along the way. All told I ended up spending about fifty quid in a week on SCS, although that doesn’t cover any of the booze that facilitated the whole episode.

It’s this interaction between helplessness and power that I’ve always found fascinating when it comes to these types of games. As Jamie Madigan discussed on The Psychology of Video Games - and I attempted to convey in my own way - games like SCS are constantly playing with us psychologically, trying to see if we’re in a state to give them some money. While this time I’m looking at flavour of the year match three puzzle games, many of his SCS observations still hold true.

Typical freemium puzzle games mete out rewards and mechanical additions in a very rhythmic pattern; spiralling outward from a dense and stimulating early-game into an increasingly dilated cycle of repetition. It is within these early experiences, full of overwhelming progression and explosions of confetti and fanfares, where a sense of false-power is created. We’re winning - constantly, it would seem - and so we inevitably begin to feel a certain superiority over what we’re playing. We are given free power-ups which make the game even easier, then introduced to a means of purchasing them for ourselves. At this point we don’t need them of course; we’re just too good at the game for that.

We’re all aware of what comes next, for it seems that anyone with access to the internet has, at some point, dabbled with the bit of the old free-to-play (F2P). Difficulty begins to rise as if from nowhere and success starts to occur less frequently. We’re offered those tempting power-ups again, the ones we wouldn’t have thought about using a little while back. We run into the problem of failing so many times that we aren’t even allowed to play for a couple of hours, unless we invest some dollar. We’ve been had. Our sense of power was simply us being gently indoctrinated by the game, our successes all preordained and artificial. I understand that none of these observations are groundbreaking or revelatory - they are frequently fielded criticisms - but I’m not convinced that this narrative is really the only way we can frame our discussions of F2P puzzle experiences.

Common thought often attempts to redress the power/vulnerability balance by highlighting the generosity fallacy discussed above to show a game’s true intentions. This enables a widespread dismissal of freemium puzzle titles as meritless money guzzlers, bereft of any redeeming qualities. It’s this perceived dishonesty within the games that appears to irk the people who identify most closely with Traditional Video Games (TVG). (TVG meaning products that are purchased and played in traditional and ‘legitimate’ ways on a home computer or console, you know, proper video games.) It’s why the games press rarely discusses them beyond purely fiscal terms, except when lambasting their evilness, though the King candy-trademarking debacle is ridiculous. It’s why I feel cheap and dirty when I’m playing one on the tube, constantly telling myself that I’m ‘researching’, and not simply lowering myself to the same level as my fellow Candy Crush Saga (CCS)-playing commuters. At least the ones the mountains of bad press would have me believe are being unwittingly exploited.

Knowing something is wrong and still going along with it doesn’t alleviate the sins of going along with it in the first place; it’s arguably worse. However, just like that gleaming ‘one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist’ chestnut, I think there’s scope to entirely reposition freemium puzzle games - especially the match three variety - as examples of how stimulating gameplay experiences are being created out of these much-maligned practices. As it stands at the minute, I find much of the discourse surrounding them needlessly inflammatory, and just a bit condescending towards the millions of people who happily play them.

Therefore:

I’d like to posit that, instead of implementing the looming shadow of microtransactions to gouge players of cash, developers are simply using the threat of having to pay for something as a means of heightening tension within their otherwise risk-free games.

A radical stance to take, I know, but remember; I’m not necessarily saying that it’s true in every case, simply that it’s another way of looking at things.

While advantages and extra lives can be paid for, it’s valid to argue that these are simply options to be given to the impatient player - ala car packs in a racing game - and not something designed to take advantage of our frustration and momentary lapses in self control. Money is clearly made through the sale of these things, but I think it’s okay to question whether this is simply a circumstantial by-product of systems designed to introduce danger, and not a long-con cash grab.

Last week Mary Hamilton highlighted the rather derogatory terms flung about the person of Dungeon Keeper for the iOS. Apparently it’s not even a game because it’s got more in common with a phone game than the old ones for the compewter. An instance like this goes some way to showing how disquietingly insular TVG-espousing individuals can often be. They were once crudely caricatured as fat and ‘orrible crusty man-babies, though now I feel it would be more pertinent - though no less reductive - to boil them down (for the sake of this discussion only) to a group of stubborn old Yorkshiremen bemoaning the very passing of time itself.

I understand that F2P microtransaction payment models are still a bit foreign to the business of video games as they stand today. Since we stopped going to arcades and paying piecemeal for our experiences we’ve become accustomed to purchasing large products for relatively large sums of money. That doesn’t necessarily mean that alternative types of experiences, paid for in alternative ways, are wrong; they are simply different. The widespread dismissal of an other is a terribly dangerous practice, something the video game community as a whole would be best to steer well clear of. Having a look at the vitriolic responses to Ellie Gibson daring to get behind CCS, however, shows just how earnestly people are willing to defend their ideals, regardless of how exclusionary they prove to be.

I’m not suggesting that the business model would be a valid option for All Of The Video Games, or in fact, that it is even sustainable as it currently stands. Furthermore, I can’t argue with the notion that spending money on F2P games is very easy. I’ve done it myself. All I would say, though, is that a little more rational thought would be welcome when we’re discussing new ways to play and pay for games. Some examples, to go back to SCS, do overstate their attempts to make money, but that’s generally to their own detriment and not their players’. Players - even casual ones - aren’t idiots: if what they are playing isn’t enjoyable enough to counterbalance the waiting, or the repetition, or the actual money they are spending on it, then they will simply - as happened with SCS - stop playing. Besides, the way microtransactions are implemented in management-style F2P games is vastly different to their puzzle-based counterparts. Once you strip away the waiting or expediting-through-cash in the former, you are left with almost nothing resembling traditional (or otherwise) gameplay. The latter category fares much better; still providing a limited number of fully-functional gameplay instances per day to the non-paying player. To dilute any conversation about a good (or bad) F2P game by simply calling them evil - or worse, non-games - is to do a disservice to all video games and many discussions waiting to begin.

Them microtransactions in Candy Crush Saga can be a bit of a bugger, I’ll agree. But for many people they aren’t an issue, whether they choose to spend their money or not. I shan’t personally be playing any more match three puzzle games on the tube. That isn’t because I’m morally appalled by the way they make money, nor am I outraged at their (insidiously) addictive nature. It’s because I’ve always found them to get repetitive after a while, and besides, they’re just a bit too fiddly to play while standing up.

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Rogue Cookie Legacy (Clicker): Baking something out of nothing

I’ve installed an automatic mouse clicker on my work computer. I know it’s an irresponsible - and probably contract breaching - way to utilise the company bandwidth, but desperate times and all that. This reckless devotion is paying off though, and as of today I’ve baked over 25,000,000,000,000,000 (twenty-five quadrillion) cookies. Isn’t that lovely?

Cookie Clicker, to back this up a little, is a browser game about baking cookies. To begin with you do this by clicking a big cookie, which is equal parts instantly rewarding, repetitive and entirely what you’d expect from something called Cookie Clicker (CC henceforth). After a hundred clicks, however, the game offers to click for you once every five seconds in exchange for all one hundred of your cookies. You of course accept this offer, go and do something else for ten minutes and come back to find a fresh pile of cookies sitting inside your computer. That’s it really: this initial transaction is repeated indefinitely with exponentially increasing investments.

CC is the embodiment of the old ‘speculate to accumulate’ pep talk. All you do is (i) wait for cookies to be made; (ii) buy more upgrades to produce cookies quicker; (iii) go back to (i). As your cookie baking capacity increases nothing changes; you’re still not actually doing anything and simply watching a number slowly increase as you stare at a screen. But, crucially, that number keeps getting bigger (!). As our understanding of psychology proves: the only thing better than a number slowly increasing automatically is a bigger number slowly increasing automatically. Enjoyment, you see, is directly proportionate to the number of simultaneously increasing digits the player interacts with. So in CC’s case, the game becomes increasingly more fun the longer you dedicate yourself to it.

It doesn’t, of course, because that would necessitate that the experience was fun to begin with. It isn’t. What is happening within CC is the rather compelling creation of utter compulsion. We’re driven to continue interacting with the game because it constantly rewards us through its implementation of interconnected and tangled counting systems. On the most basic level, as described above, you amass cookies by spending them on upgrade buildings that create more cookies at a faster rate, making their Cookies per Second (CpS) threshold increase. Each of the ten categories of upgrade building can themselves be upgraded, which further increase their CpS capacity. At certain milestones (ten of a building, 1,000,000 cookies baked etc.), the player is awarded achievements, which feed into another metric, milk (what else?). Milk is a discrete and mysterious substance that buffs your combined CpS count, so the more milk you have the more cookies you are able to bake. Of course, the only way to increase any of these statistics is to spend your banked cookies. This creates a powerful feedback loop, compelling the player to forever look to the future of their cookie production abilities, carefully considering where their edible currency would be best spent.

These agonising decisions don’t really matter; as you can’t fail in CC, simply stop playing. The experience isn’t complicated or in any way challenging. It is only about waiting for a while, clicking on a few boxes and then waiting some more. It doesn’t even matter which boxes you click on, because as long as you have enough patience to withstand the repetition, you’ll eventually be able to click on the ones you missed later on.

It’s mindless in the way that micro transaction-filled Facebook or Phone Games are, just without that insidious side. It’s Cow Clicker without the damning statement to make. It’s something pointlessly engrossing to have running in the background of your day because a big number rolling around on a computer screen is fun to look at, especially when you can make that number get bigger with increasing speed. It is, though, beautifully compelling and elegantly simplistic all the same. It’s beautiful game design. If the cows told us that our games were becoming hollow, the cookies simply point out how empty our heads may also be becoming.

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Rogue Legacy, while being more identifiable as a (aherm) ‘proper game’ and certainly more mechanically robust, nonetheless implements many of the same tactics as Cookie Clicker. Its premise is simple: you are an adventuring prince or princess attempting to conquer a mysterious castle. You do this in a two-dimensional fashion, slashing, jumping and magicing your way through the rooms of the imposing structure. Your main aim is to amass a small fortune of gold, which is gathered from your adversaries’ corpses, treasure chests and things you smash up along the way. Simple really: it’s an oft-visited design well that’s been drunk from many times during video game’s tortured history. Except that it’s dead hard at the beginning and impossible to beat in a conventional sense. And that’s where it becomes a bit like Cookie Clicker.

Instead of a linear progression of levels, the castle is immediately open to the player in its entirety. The deeper into the castle you travel, the more powerful and deadly the inhabitants become and the less chance you have of surviving a fight with them. On my first attempt - because of this absurd difficulty - I lasted a couple of rooms and then woofed it trying to jump over some spikes. Dead.

Whereas most games would throw me back to the beginning of the level, because there are no levels-proper in RL, I was instead invited to choose a successor to my original adventurer. I was then asked to invest my plundered gold into a couple of upgrades that, I was assured by statistics, would improve my chances next time. Back into the castle I went, this time with a lady who could shoot axes at people. I made it about five rooms that time.

RL continues like this, as far as I can tell, for the rest of the game. Every time you enter the castle, whose layout changes every time unless you pay gold to retain a pleasing one, your singular aim is to stay alive as long as possible. Through longer runs you inevitably bag greater sums of gold. You aren’t able to keep much of your unspent loot after you are dead, so there is a constant drive to secure and then spend as much as possible. Each upgraded run usually sees you getting a little further into the castle, a little more aware of enemy patterns and a little bit wealthier upon your death.

After a while you’re killing early enemies with a single hit, almost sprinting through challenges that were once taxing. While the layout of the castle changes with each go around, the building blocks that it is created out of don’t; they are simply shuffled around. This allows the game to be both labyrinthine and familiar at all times. As you increase your abilities - both within the game and your mastery of its mechanics - you gently outpace the difficulty of early areas, trouncing all comers and finding it all a bit blasé at a point. You’ll eventually run out of easy targets and have to travel to tougher parts of the castle, where enemies are much stronger and your survival is once again a thing of fragility and not certainty. You’ll essentially find yourself back at the beginning, even though you’ve been progressing - very slowly - for hours. Victory is transient in Rogue Legacy, only the slow grind is ever-present.

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Both Cookie Clicker and Rogue Legacy depend heavily on their ability to make repeated actions consistently rewarding. Each game does this through systems that rest heavily on (our) widely held western ideals: those of capitalism and individual effort being rewarded by financial success. They excel in being compelling - arguably addictive - because they embody and distil the economic ideology behind many of their players’ lives. Through their harnessing of these engrained ideologies both of these games incubate and foster the notion that dedication and personal investment breeds success.

Even though Rogue Legacy is in essence an action game, it is more-so a testament to our changing desires in video game design. We are no longer content with mastering a game’s controls, systems and enemies; we need to - in a very western, capitalistic way - feel as if we ‘own’ our experience and so dominate it. Both Cookie Clicker and Rogue Legacy highlight this; we don’t want to win any longer; we want to invest, upgrade and eventually overcome, not simply just beat a game in a fair fight.

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Internet Piracy: We’re all making the next Assassin’s Creed

Your friend and mine, helpful games-centric internet man Stephen Totilo, kindly invited us into the heady world of games design think tanks last week. In his fascinating post he details the many questions asked of him by the good people at Ubisoft, specifically with regard to his opinions of Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag, pirates and the continued evolution of the series.

I might be a bit naive here, but I always thought that video games were made by dead smart people with a flair for both creativity and technology. It appears I was only half right though, and they are in fact merely dead smart people with a flair for technology, with the creativity part coming from anyone they can rope into giving them a bit of guidance. That’s a bit unfair really; it would be more accurate to call them too creative if anything, their ideas formulated and then quickly flung at a whiteboard like so much airborne faecal matter. It’s then up to you, dear members of the think tank, to decide which bits stick and which slide lethargically down the glossy surface of development, onto the carpet tiles of ‘maybe next time/glad we didn’t bother to code that bit’.

I recognise the need to understand how players interact with your game, what parts they enjoy and how they envisage a series like this continuing on into the future. After all, only a foolish individual would deliberately offer up something they knew no one liked. At the same time though, should the players of the sixth AC game really need to be asked if they enjoy stealth gameplay? “Excuse me young sir/madam, I understand you’re in the market for a stealth-action game, correct? Well, have I got a treat in store for you then. Wot we’re going to do this time is take all that stealth nonsense out - we heard from our think tank that no one actually likes that part - and this time you’ll just run around hitting young children in the face with bits of wood. It’s the natural next step in our lauded ‘franchise’.”

Other questions are a bit ridiculous for other reasons. One section asks for opinions of every new weapon featured in the game. Another, questions the minutiae of each individual gameplay mechanic that is - and ever has been (let’s face it, I don’t think anything has ever been fully removed) - featured in the series. Again, I appreciate the value of these sorts of opinions, but you’d think the game had never been play tested, such is the absurd specificity of some of the questions. “Did you like the various ways you can assassinate people in this game about assassinating people? Remember, it features all the methods of assassination you’ve been using for years, so if you say no we’ll be quite upset that you didn’t mention something earlier.”

It’s not really a case of AC IV never being play tested though, is it? What we have here, which is exactly why I’ve been sarcastically dropping the words think and tank into sentences, is an egregious case of design by committee. It appears that certain individuals within Ubisoft are so eager for us to keep giving them money (who’d have thunk it?) that they are willing to let the mindless whims of the game playing public dictate the series’ future trajectory. Questions like “how did you find it embodying a Master Assassin (in this heavily assassin-based series)?” galvanises this air of desperation and creative bankruptcy. “Please. Please. Whatever you want us to do we’ll do it. Just please keep buying these assassin games. We’ll even take out all the assassin bits if it turns out you all prefer pirates. Or we could keep the assassin-pirate things and just change the name. Would that be better?”

This is a dangerous road to embark down. By all means tighten up your mechanics, AI routines, pathfinding, geometry, modelling: anything really, as long as things improve. Take bits out, mix bits together, have more of this and a little less of that. But please, don’t ask people “which three ‘chapters’ of our game did you enjoy the most?” and then just do them again next time with a slightly different pirate-to-assassin ratio.

Consumers generally only know what they want from a product - if Ubisoft want to treat AC as such then I’ll happily oblige - in relation to other products. A little feedback on your current thing can always be useful, but delving to the sordid depths of ‘the mortar’, ‘the ram’ and, oh my, ‘the fire barrels’ is getting dangerously close to letting the inmates run the asylum. I haven’t got a clue how I’d design an open world pirate-assassin/assassin-pirate game for good reason: I’m not a game designer. If you asked me though, I’d tell you that I’d like the next Assassins Creed game to be a comedic romp; an off-brand version of the anti-institutional racism yarn Blazing Saddles. It’s a great idea in my head, influenced as it is by other artistic endeavours, but it probably wouldn’t work as a video game.

That’s the point really: nothing great can ever be produced without a singular driving vision. I’m not suggesting that people who harbour these don’t work for Ubisoft; I’m sure they’re toiling away, being ignored by those heading up the think tank. By asking everyone who played a game to effectively decide upon the direction of the next, you inevitably risk spreading yourself too thinly attempting to please as many people as possible. Take on general feedback, by all means, but when it gets to the point where you’re asking about everything from the individual weapons, right up to core tenets of the series, it might be best to just throw everything away and let your developers start again. I reckon they’d thank you and make a pretty good game to boot.

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Ten games released this year (2013) wot I disliked the least

As it’s the week before I go home for Christmas and work is a bit slow, I thought it acceptable to collate together ten (10) games I played that were released this year and rank them in order of which I liked the most/disliked the least. Two things: I appear to have only actually played ten (10) games that were released this year so it was more a case of ordering them rather than actually narrowing down a right big list. AND I didn’t truly enjoy most of these in the conventional sense of the word, but taking into consideration the previous sentence I’ve not really got much more to work with.

X - Thomas Was Alone

I got this little doozy for free with the ol’ PS Plus subscription that keeps insisting on renewing itself without my consent. While I’ve owned the same PS3 since it came out in 2007 I’ve ended up using the Xbox a lot more over recent years, so many of my free games go unplayed for a considerable stretch. Part of this, I think, is because the HDD in that launch PS3 is only 60GB, which isn’t very helpful if one likes playing more than two games at a time. Anyway, I played TWA for about ten minutes and was instantly charmed by every aspect of it. The pretty and colourful blocky characters are heart warming, as is the slightly forlorn narration. I’d like to play it a bit longer before I make any more judgements though, that’s why it occupies this position.

IX - Remember Me

Remember Me isn’t a very enjoyable game. The only redeeming quality it has is squandered on all the other bad ideas it insists upon throwing at the player, resulting in a rather upsetting experience. A few early locations look truly beautiful, its setting and overall concept is interesting and exciting and the whole project was clearly inspired at some early stage. It doesn’t play badly either; it’s just really, really normal and that doesn’t do anything for me these days. Combat is serviceable, enemies are bleurgh challenging and level design is linear and boring to look at. Remember Me is the perfect mid-tier game, it’s just nowhere near as entertaining as the B-grade magic of Binary Domain.

VIII - Saints Row IV

I reckon Saints Row IV is lovely. It’s a lovely video game made by people who truly enjoy making video games. I also think that it’s a bit of a boring one when you actually get down to playing the story. For a long while I was almost exclusively pursuing the side activities with mind to complete every single one of them. I did this in no time and then went on to collecting the 1255 orbs like them from Crackdown. I got all of those as well and felt a little dirty and pathetic after doing so; I’d just spent fifteen (15) hours of my life collecting things for no justifiable reason. It was fun, however, so it at least says something about SR IV when it’s cooking on gas and letting you fly, and jump, and run around like a maniac.

The rest of the game - the actual game it could be argued - is dead boring. While I was messing around being a compulsive collector I was able to upgrade a load of skills and guns to ‘customise my experience’. Many of the story tasks, as I learned countless times to my dismay, don’t really care about any of this and instead regularly lock off powers and many, many of your guns. This, combined with lifeless, repetitive and right tiresome objectives, slowly wore down my enjoyment and turned the game proper into an ‘orrible slog. This came as a surprise to me as I never enjoy ancillary objectives more than the main game, especially in Saints Rows of the past. The freedom you are given while roaming the open world is regularly undermined by the arbitrary whims of the story missions, and that just didn’t sit well with me, hence it ending up as my third least favourite game released this year that I played.

VII - Grand Theft Auto V

Before this came out I was steadfast in my insistence that I didn’t care about GTA V one jot. As is usually the case with massive titles, my resolve weakened about a week before it came out and so I decided to order it from the Amazon after all. There really is something powerful around the video game zeitgeist; that crushing need to play a game as soon as possible, even if you aren’t planning on talking about it to anyone else. As it transpired many people had also ordered it from the Amazon and so Royal Mail found it rather difficult to get all their deliveries made that day. This resulted in me standing in the rain chain-smoking fags, staring longingly at red vans and postmen like some grownup orphan who never gave up hope of finding his lost parents. I played Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City instead and eventually received my GTA a number of days late.

GTA V is a really impressive condensation of the mundanities of all our lives. It is a game set in a wonderful representation of the modern world and its beauty and detail are really rather impressive. Like SR IV it’s really boring as well. Once I got over the scale of the world and had driven around for a decent time I started tiring of the repetitive and archaic mission design. In the end GTA V is, for me anyway, a more mechanically sound GTA III and almost nothing more. Everything about the game is really great except the playing of the story, which I just found to be dull for the most part. As with every GTA I’ve ever played I’ve had to take a long break, though I’ll likely go back and finish it next year.

VI - DmC: Devil May Cry

I don’t like the other Devil May Cry games because they are too hard. I played this one on easy and had a very enjoyable time, all told. It’s sometimes funny, sometimes ‘wow’ and only a little bit frustrating. The beginning is uninspired and the end is uninspired but the middle is absolutely fantastic. The upside down world, the TV ident and the slow-motion-jumping-chase are three of the most memorable bits of art direction/level design I’ve encountered this year. It’s a shame that the last third of the game is so boring and drab with its ‘caverns and corridors’ approach, because that really soured me on the whole experience.

I tend to button bash a bit too much, but DmC made me want to learn as much as my feeble hands could manage, so I ended up enjoying the combat quite a bit, even on that pathetically low difficulty. Also, my good friend Martin did QA on this and features as one of the first people to be seen in the video next to the credits. His mum was dead happy when I pointed that out and he showed her.

V - Bioshock Infinite

I got bored of the first Bioshock because it’s pretty boring and that map is one of the worst I’ve ever encountered. The linear nature of it and the voice-over-the-radio-telling-you-where-to-go constantly reminded me of Red Faction; it’s something I just couldn’t shake and it soured the entire experience. Egg on my face, however, as it seems that Bioshock is one of them ‘pivotal moment’ games, and as someone wot writes about video games I feel a bit foolish for only having played about three hours of it.

Infinite, from what I can gather, is like Bioshock but in the sky. Its general mechanics are almost identical except now you can also zip around on wires - albeit about five times in total - and you have a weak little girl at your side who is actually pretty strong when it comes to throwing you guns and making things out of thin air.

The game is a fitting encapsulation of the latter days of this console generation in many ways. It is iteration down to a t in terms of mechanics, storytelling conventions, character interactions and presentation. It’s also a shallow game when you look at it with any scrutiny: while it attempts to tackle big, important (escalating) themes like racism, destiny and multiverse theory it is always more interested in being a game where you shoot lots of people. Whether this is the case because most people are stupid (there were a lot of ‘explaining the ending’ videos created) and would get tired and bored with a more contemplative pace, I don’t know, but Infinite undermined itself by being too long, repetitive and just a bit silly.

I though the ending was hilarious, ‘btw’, and have created a game about Orson Welles inspired by their combined bravado.

IV - The Last of Us

Just like the game above (but below on this list) I got right sick of playing The Last of Us. This might be an intentional thing to bring the player in line with the characters’ emotional states, but it could also just be a symptom of audience expectations of a modern blockbuster video game.

What I do think it did well was creating a great sense of desperation and vulnerability, at least for the first few hours. Early on the game makes it perfectly clear that you are but a man with a child in a very unfriendly world that will kill you in a second if you try and be a hero. Because of this you spend most of your time skulking around and sneaking past as many enemies as possible. My favourite part of the entire thing finds you emerging into a train station filled with things that can kill you if they hear you even a little bit. The theatre of conflict-avoidance is all shadowy and filled with stuff you can throw to distract these blind adversaries, so you must make your way very slowly and very quietly through this 50 metre long space. While it would take one a matter of seconds to traverse such an area under normal circumstances, the pressing imperative to go unnoticed means this becomes a stressful and harrowing experience, not unlike the wardrobe scene in the original Halloween. It’s dead effective and shows the exemplary pace and sense of dread the early parts of the game are steeped in.

As you progress ever further into the ‘adventure’ so too does your character, Joel, and he goes from being right fragile and believable to a world weary man-tank within the space of a few hours. This all happens through a completely unnecessary upgrade system that governs player stats and weapons. I understand that in this brave modern age, games need to have countless hooks to keep players playing, but I found this constantly increasing proficiency to distract from the more important human aspect of the story. By allowing - almost obliging - Joel to improve over time the game must compensate by increasing its difficulty, lest it lose all sense of danger or challenge. Thus, we encounter more and more enemies, more gun combat and more boredom as the game continues. What begins as a tense sneak through the decimated landscape of contemporary humanity, devolves into lots of shooting at men with slightly longer beards, and it is for this reason why I don’t like The Last of Us as much as I wish I did.

III - Tomb Raider

Have you played an Uncharted game? Yes? Good, you know exactly how Tomb Raider conducts itself then. I initially thought this was a bad thing, but having played a few other Triple A games this year I’m going to go back on my word. TR is genuinely really fun. It has everything you’d expect from this sort of game - an Uncharted one - except the guns feel more precise and thus rewarding to shoot. The game’s quasi open world also adds a bit of variety to the proceedings, allowing you to nip back to most areas and look for collectibles (I got them all, again), kill animals and even raid a few simple puzzle-based tombs as well.

I didn’t like all the unsexy ‘look at Our Lara while she dies with something inside her’ bits that pop up when you don’t do what the game wants you to do, and these are clearly the game’s weakest element. The story as well, while it is somewhat empowering for the character, was a bit flat and predictable, and there are many, many allusions to Lara getting raped or men planning on raping her just before she breaks their little heads open or mashes their willy up a bit.

Besides all the nastiness it’s a perfectly serviceable entry into the Uncharted series, and probably the best thing that could have been done with the license at the present time. It’s ultimately uninspired, but I found it significantly more entertaining than the other games I’ve also called uninspired in this list.

II - Papers Please

Papers Please is one of them ‘real life is horrible’ simulation games that have become all popular in recent years. Taking on the role of a border crossing administrator, you have to check migrants’ papers (please) and make sure that they are eligible to enter your dystopian Eastern Bloc nation. As with reality, there are only so many hours within which to work so you are forced to balance processing people quickly and maintaining high standards.

The game is depressing, stressful and demoralising and it completely succeeds within its chosen genre in making you appreciate your own pathetic existence a little bit more. It is in no way fun to play and for this I commend it. Every one of the previous titles in this list attempts to be fun to some extent, and each of them (with the exception of TWA and TR) failed in this to different degrees and for different reasons. PP doesn’t fall at the fun hurdle because it never tries to be anything but a chore.

It is mechanically simple, yet varied enough to never become boring. Its strict timescale means it never ceases to be a harrowing experience, which is further exacerbated by the dual responsibilities of keeping your family alive and protecting the people within your grey, concrete borders. It’s number two because it dares to be different and isn’t as horribly patronising as Cart Life.

I - Flower

Flower is the best game ever made.

It was released this year on the PS Vita - I don’t own one - so I can comfortably stick this at the top of my list. I love Flower above all other video games because it is the most beautiful, life-affirming, charming, hippy-nonsense-filled and downright lovely thing ever produced.

You play as the wind and fly around fields, plains and urban streets bringing the colour of nature to these lifeless landscapes. Read that sentence again. Yes, Flower is lovely. You fly by holding a button and tilting the controller - sorry Vita - around; once you get used to it you’ll be quickly soaring into the Heavens, swooping through tall grass and pulling air-doughnuts.

It’s a stunningly beautiful game, the music is wonderful and its conservationist message, while very, very obvious is pointed and important. The game is still available on the PS3 and now it’s on the Vita and PS4 as well. If things keep going like this Flower could easily be released on every Sony platform until we either destroy the planet with our dirty fossil fuel fuelled greed, or all return to nature and have no more need for digital entertainment products.

Flower is the best game ever made.

There we are. Some were good, some were boring, some were silly and some were only on there because I didn’t play enough games released this year. They were all video games though, and I cast my opinionated eye over all ten (10) of them and then said wot I think. That’s all you can really expect from anyone in the end. Merry Christmas.

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Leaving LOVEFiLM: who, what, when, where, why & how

I used to rent video games through the post from this company called LoveFilm (they stylise it LOVEFiLM which really dicks around with the spellchecker, though so does LoveFilm as a single word to be fair). They decided to stop lending me video games so I decided to stop giving them money each month; a pretty fair compromise was reached. Today I received a series of questions attempting to ascertain exactly why I took this decision. As a conscientious member of society, I of course chose to oblige and answered all of their questions to the best of my ability.

By question two their curiosity had ramped up considerably and they approached the topic of my absconsion head on. I do feel in retrospect that they peaked a bit early with this one. The flow of the survey would have benefited if this had come closer to the end.

This is a ridiculous question.

This one, however, really got my creative juices flowing.

I had to choke back tears of guilt by the last question.

It struck me how insignificant LoveFilm had been in the bigger picture of my life; that I might have meant the world to them, but for me they were simply one of a pool of video streaming services that I used and discarded at will. Looking at all the ticked boxes made me feel dirty and monstrous, like I’d kept them all in my cellar for twenty years, abusing them daily for my singular pleasure and to maintain the facade that I am, in fact, still in control of myself.

So goodbye LoveFilm; you were once my prized possession, now you mean less than nothing to me. That unlocked door you dragged yourself through to reach ‘freedom’? That wasn’t left open by accident, I kept you for years why would I suddenly become careless? Enjoy your hard won ‘freedom’ LoveFilm, I’m sure you’ll be fine without me.

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First one in, last one out: Think before you drink, or at least before saying something silly

I’m the first to admit that I can become a little acerbic when I’m writing whilst drinking. I’m not like that in company, in fact quite the opposite. In recent years I’ve become somewhat Russell Brandian in my public inebriation; full of gesticulation, pithy anecdotes and enthusiasm. This goes doubly if I’m meeting people for the first time. It isn’t something I do willingly, that would be a little bit pathetic really, no, it’s my way of getting by in situations that would otherwise make me feel a little self-conscious. The drinking certainly helps as well. It, as I’m sure it does for many people, loosens me up, imbues me with greatly inflated self-confidence and - people might beg to differ - makes me funnier. That’s only when I’m in company though; when I have to be courteous and charming and very happy. When I’m by myself and half drunk, writing, as I like to do, I become more realistic, cynical and just a little bit bitter.

It’s stupid and short-sighted of me to insist upon writing in this state, primarily because it doesn’t accurately represent my true feelings and opinions, but also because I’m a torturously slow and clumsy typist when I’ve had a few. A week or so ago it took me a good hour to concoct this monstrosity calling out new consoles as being bad things. I do stand by what was written, at least to a certain extent, but take massive umbrage at how it was written because, well, it’s a bit silly.

My overriding point was always that launch games for a newly released console rarely play to the machine’s full potential. That has been the case throughout the (recent) history of the medium and can be witnessed today. The reasons for this are primarily based in issues of technology and time, two things I’m not particularly qualified to talk about. Suffice it to say that these games aren’t bad, simply that they will be almost certainly surpassed as the people who make them become more adept at working with the technology that drives them.

That was it really; not a particularly stunning or intelligent observation to make. I was drinking though, so I thought I was breaking down taboos and saying something few people are willing to admit to. See, that surge of self-confidence was truly working a treat for me.

The other thing I was channelling, though not very clearly, is that I don’t think I’m ready to move on yet. While I seemingly don’t like anything these days, I still have a fair few games to play before I throw my current consoles out of the window. When I rushed out and bought my PS3 I was mesmerised by graphical fidelity and not much else; I mustn’t have cared about other things improving as long as they looked prettier in their creative stasis. I don’t think like that today, so I’ll be using the time between now and truly new experiences emerging to polish off the games I’ve missed along the way. There’s a couple, so I should be well stocked for six months or so.

I am a little more bitter and cynical than I was in 2007; I think that just comes naturally as we all get a tad older. I may be that way about video games specifically, because I’ve had the same boxes sat on my desk for so long, pumping titles at me with - generally speaking - gently decreasing returns of amazement, excitement and enjoyment. Maybe I’m not the curmudgeonly figure my drunken mind would have me believe. Maybe, just maybe, instead of moaning about how little things have changed since I was seventeen (they have, quite a bit), I’d be better served by looking forward to how things will change, now we finally have the boxes that can power these new experiences.

Or maybe I should just stop getting pissed up and kidding myself that I can write drunk. Probably not, but drinking or no drinking, I’ll try and remember the lights when I’m finally done playing with these old boxes.

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The problem with the new things

(4x4) (And away we go)

As people who obviously like technology, the games-playing public are at a disadvantage. They will instinctively gravitate to a new device regardless of its merits or otherwise. This is, generally, all right. These are the people who blaze trails; create ‘memes’; own the newest, shit, iteration of a phone; or are guinea pigs when a game needs to raise funds and QA at the same time. In essence, these people are both pioneers and, quite often, mindless idiots.

I’m not having unfounded beef here, though; don’t you worry. In the year of our Lord two thousand and seven I was witness to Motorstorm. It instantly changed my opinion to the - then - new consoles. I rushed out and purchased a Playstation 3 (Three) almost - but not quite - the same day. After that I was FUCKING disappointed. And significantly poorer.

I didn’t even buy Motorstorm because I heard from the very same friend that it was lacking in content. I played Call of Duty III, Resistance and Fight Night instead. Looking back they were all enjoyable experiences, but what really stands out is that they were all things I’d played before, but with better visuals and presentation. I'd been robbed through a doctrine.

Video games don’t get better the more beautiful they look, nor do they improve with their mechanical trivialities. New consoles obfuscate the discussion we need to have about video game development. As we currently exist, more care needs to be taken about rabid industry fandom; lest it degenerates into a self-flagellating mess.

Most video games - populous, contemporary ones, at least - perpetuate the notion that bigger is better. Our new console brothers are contributing to the notion of bigger/faster/better. Where does that leave art or storytelling? Technology alone cannot inspire greatness: it can only assist in its rise.

Video games are shit: prove me wrong; (give me another Flower).

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