Some things age badly – 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand is not one of them

This piece skips happily down the road with this piece, try and read them both if you have the time.

Everything ages and eventually slips into obscurity, such is life. My parents are getting older; my father’s once magnificent ginger moustache has been steadily greying for the last half decade and now resembles an ageing cathode ray television; still full of energy but not all the glorious colour of the past. It is still a pretty magnificent moustache though, all the same. My grandmother, in her mid-seventies, has recently moved from the home she shared with my late grandfather as it was simply too large for her to live in alone. Did she go straight to a nursing home, away from the bright lights of society and all its moustachioed inhabitants? No, of course not, she moved to a one bedroom ground floor flat on a cul-de-sac where a few of her friends already reside. Living there makes it easier for her to go dancing, play whist, console and inspire recently bereaved local residents, go walking in the country and partake in the numerous other activities she now fills her time with.

Ageing games, just like ageing people, shouldn’t be put out to pasture once they are perceived to be past their prime. Alliteration aside, I feel that as a community, we who play games are often too quick to become diverted by whatever shiny new distraction we are presented with. Granted, video games are inherently a form of entertainment driven by technology and its advancement, but there is a difference between embracing something and becoming preoccupied by it. Too much of this year, at least for me personally, has already been given over to speculation about, and more recently condemnation of, new consoles and their feature sets. I shan’t be buying a new console until I’ve mined everything I can from my current boxes, for there are many experiences I’ve yet to have. In six months time these quickly ageing games may seem damn near antiquated in comparison to the fireworks and gin martinis available on ‘the new consoles’, but they are still games that need playing. And besides, I’m sure someone cared about them once upon a time.

Not all of these games will be great I’m sure, and I’m fully expecting that some of the titles I’ve got my eye on will be time and again tiresome wastes of time. There’s Wet, Saw and Silent Hill: Homecoming that I assume will be nothing more than derivatives of more accomplished products. Alice: Madness Returns and Alpha Protocol that will more than likely be a tad unpolished and clumsy, but no less interesting for it. Then come the unnecessary and tired sequels; Assassin’s Creed III, Dead Space 3 and Fable III, all games that I imagine will prove the time-tested rule that everything becomes mundane if you keep doing it for long enough. Some games, however, will be good, very good. The laws of mathematics and science dictate that for every dung pile of terrible, or boring, or broken, or infuriating games, one saviour will rise through the swampy mess of mediocrity, floating on the sweet smells of levity and mixed metaphors to reinstill our collective faith in video games. Once such demigod is 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand. We got there in the end.

50 Cent BotS is at the most basic level a cover shooter that incorporates score-attack by way of a kill multiplier system. Kill a bad guy and you get some points. Shoot him in the head to get more points. Shoot another bad guy in the head and you get some points and all your points are multiplied by two. Shoot another bad guy in the head and you get some more points and all your points are multiplied by three. Shoot another guy – you get the idea. As long as you can keep shooting guys in the head quickly enough – or setting them on fire, or blowing them up, or stabbing them to death – you’ll keep earning points for our 50. And he does love those points. Like any successful entrepreneur he is constantly pushing himself, the surest road to success, and uses his accumulated points to assess his productivity and ongoing social relevance. I wasn’t very good at boosting his ego and consistently scored mediocre bronze scores; something I felt really hit him hard. He seemed to always be angry, as if by us underachieving we were somehow failing altogether, even though we were mowing down all the greedy and evil A-rabs who stole his money and blowing up all the H-elicopters that helped them do it.

Though maybe it was this very anger that helped him forge ever forwards, through the tyranny and deceit that surrounded him. The game opens with 50 being double crossed and robbed, something so despicable I had to punch a wall for five minutes after I’d witnessed it, and left for dead (a bit, anyway) on the roadside. After this unforgivable affront to his person 50 vows to clean the world of the morally bankrupt, swearing there and then that anyone who employs lies to deceive good people will be smite by his hand in the very spot they stand. Surprisingly, every single non-G Unit character 50 subsequently meets along his upstanding crusade decides to not heed his warning, attempting to double-cross the good man at every turn.

He sees through these ploys instantly on every occasion, though often plays along with the deception until the villain sees fit to reveal themselves, even going as far as feigning surprise when the truth becomes apparent. He is never, I must stress, actually taken by surprise; 50 is far too intelligent for that to happen. It is his straight and true attitude to the events that unfold around him that I see as BotS’s strongest element. In 50 we are presented with a no-nonsense lead who simply wants what has been stolen from him; a rare example of unselfish motivation in the action genre, which is usually played from the perspective of a thief (Uncharted, Tomb Raider), morally-questionable invading soldier (CoD, SpecOps: TL, Battlefield) or general bastard-type (most other shooters).

The game’s other strengths are many and numerous. The camaraderie between 50 and his numerous G Unit brethren is touching and sweet; they help each other open doors, climb walls and constantly offer each other advice; “grab that loot, 50”, and support; “you hit that sweet jump 50, how lovely was that”. The pace is also something that should be applauded, as BotS is a rollercoaster ride in the truest of senses. The entire game can be bested in about six hours, though that isn’t for a lack of content, just a testament to how quick and smooth the action within is presented. Rooms full of bad guys can be cleared quickly thanks to the fluid controls, powerful weaponry and beautifully implemented bullet-time-like feature, lending the game a euphoric, ballet of death and explosions quality, the like of which is rarely as satisfying as seen here. Finally, the decision to end the game with a car chase, arguably the weakest element of the entire experience, is strikingly original and sees developer Swordfish Studios embracing the left field like few studios before them.

50 Cent: BotS, then, is one of those rarest of games; a title that at first glance appears as shallow as the water covering one’s eyeball, though slowly morphs into a deep and often poignant experience. The messages it sends about morality, honesty and personal integrity are almost unique in a genre of video games that is usually content with solely wallowing in the glorification of violence. The brotherly love between 50 and his comrades could easily be translated into a feel-good summer blockbuster or gushing novel, its pitch is that perfect. And the action, oh the action, I think it plays better than Gears of War – any of them.

What strikes me the most is that I could easily have missed out on all of this had I been solely focusing on the cavalcade of new games released since 2009. Simply put; I’m glad I took a chance on this ageing title. That I enjoyed it so much fills me with anticipation at the long list of games I am yet to play before I retire my current consoles. Older things can sometimes be tiresome and awkward to enjoy, like cheese, waterbeds and stale cereal. Other times they can be as enjoyable, if not more so, as they day they were created, like cheese, relationships and fine, fine wine.

Everything ages and eventually slips into obscurity, though only if we let it happen. My grandma’s life has irrevocably changed with the passing of her husband, just as my dad’s moustache has irrevocably changed with the passing of time. They are both still fantastic things in their own right though, and both my grandma and father still treasure what they have. As things get older their value often increases dramatically, allowing us to not only reappraise them, but also place newer things within a more grounded context. Fifty years is a long time to be married. Twenty years is a long time to sport a moustache, regardless of its colour. As things age they become beautiful, valuable and sometimes, as with our memories of my grandad, and to a lesser extent 50 Cent BotS, timeless things to be treasured above all other trinkets.

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I locked my girlfriend in the cellar until she watched Doctor Who. She’s out now & I think we’ll live happily ever after

I don’t know about the rest of the world but I really, really like the resurrected Doctor Who. I find its mischievous, upbeat and sometimes irreverent tone utterly infectious. It is episodic entertainment working perfectly within the constraints of its format. Each episode is a fantastical adventure fraught with danger and intrigue that almost always stands up to scrutiny on its own merits. Yet, throughout these isolated tales small, tantalising clues as to the larger, currently incomprehensible overarching story are sown. I know this is basic television writing and am not suggesting that Doctor Who has revolutionised the structure of plotting over many hours. What I am saying, though, is that these clues and symbols, whether they be recurring phrases or momentary glimpses into the unknown, always, without fail, coalesce into the most satisfying season finales I’ve ever witnessed.

Gushing over, let us get to the problem with Doctor Who. In my professional life working in post production I find myself invariably surrounded by the good Doctor. From his earliest adventures outsmarting men wearing bed sheets and tinfoil, through his days as a private military contractor in Wales, the shitty Eighties where even he wasn’t very entertaining, right up to today where we see him fighting men wearing CG bed sheets and CG tinfoil. All this exposure has led to unhealthy episodes of mania where I am unable to control my consumption, often staying late into the night in the office to re-watch serials whilst simultaneously creating collages of Jon Pertwee’s utterly beautiful hair.

I do this not for selfish reasons, quite the opposite, I do it for my girlfriend. I know, simply know, that old, or classic as it is professionally known, Doctor Who will be of no interest to her, my lovely, wonderful, beautiful partner. Christ, some of them are a stretch even for me and I genuinely like the stuff. The pacing can be terribly ponderous, especially in the Sixties, and a decent level of suspension of disbelief is necessary to enjoy a lot of the lower-budget aspects of the show. I’m big enough to not try and force this onto her, however much I’d to curl up with her under Tom Baker’s scarf and live happily ever after. I’m not big enough, though, to never watch the new stuff with her, even if she thinks she doesn’t like it.

My friend recently bought a flat and last weekend invited us around to test out her newly purchased garden furniture. Everything was going swimmingly until the recently broadcast Broadchurch was mentioned. “I really don’t like David Tennant” said my friend, scrunching her face up so completely until it resembled a potato after being thrown at a wall. “His ratty little face upsets me” she continued, oblivious to her current lack of facial beauty. “I fully agree with you, his little body is silly; his torso is so slight, he just can’t be very manly” piped up my girlfriend helpfully. Well, with that I embarked upon a courageous defence of Mr. Tennant, hitting all the bases I could in the fifteen seconds I had before gang-obliteration. Shakespearean acting chops, perfect Doctor balancing levity and dark brooding like no other, beardy narcissism in the aforementioned Broadchurch, cheeky hijinks in Casanova. I felt as though I’d defended his honour admirably, though it was all for nought. They simply didn’t see the merit in the great man’s talents; I had been bested by x chromosomes and sheer ignorance.

Undeterred, I sat my girlfriend down, partly as punishment for disagreeing with me, partly as a life lesson, and forced her to watch ‘Rose’, the first episode of the new run of Doctor Who. There I was, bouncing on the sofa in time to the running music which makes up about eighty-five percent of the episode, while my lovely partner was sitting stony-faced beside me, clearly having the time of her life. She persevered though, and slowly opened herself up to Doctor Who’s brand of rather particular, cheesy levity. First it was the wordplay and terrible Dad-jokes, then came the slapstick, and finally, last night, she was taken by the drama. In a harrowing episode which sees a previously deceased father saved from his fate only to create the most horrible of paradoxes, which kills the Doctor might I add, and then re-kill himself to set things straight, the tension in my living room was palpable. She smiled, she laughed, she gasped, and I’d go as far as saying she loved Doctor Who for the first time.

Such is the power of perfectly-written-Saturday-night-light-sci-fi. All I need do now is keep bombarding her with episodes until anything that remained of her own personality is gone and she is merely a female version of myself. For that is the real joy of a relationship, no?


Nathan Drake makes all the games, so I don’t need to play any more for a while

Tomb Raider is the best Uncharted game I’ve played since the time I played that Uncharted 2, back when I still played Playstation. I began neglecting the Sony made machine once I purchased an Xbox 360 and realised that dreadfully slow network features and a clumsy interface were not problems with all modern consoles, just the one I’d bought out of the gate. Needless to say then, Tomb Raider: Uncharted Adventures is probably even better because I don’t have to turn on a Playstation to play it at all.

Another thing I don’t have to do is play as Nathan Drake, a second boon for the game. I don’t have to listen to him, or see him, or make him jump on things or even throw him from great heights down gaping chasms because I find him insufferable. Young Lara Croft is a fantastic stand in for Nathan Drake because she isn’t anything like him. He’s a constant annoyance and she, well, she is just a little timid and bland.

I did used to like Nathan though, back before he careened around the world every couple of hours because he has no attention span whatsoever now. There was a time when he was happy to run around an island for hours on end, climbing up the same kinds of walls and playing in streams, back when he was fun to be around and not simply a self-obsessed narcissist. But he became a celebrity and now I can’t stand him and his incessant attention seeking.

Look at his chosen cover artwork for instance. The first time around he was perfectly happy to look like a male model vaulting over a rock; understated athleticism with a hint of brooding purpose. The second go around and he changes completely, evidently not satisfied with looking anywhere near the everyman he purports to be. Gone is the conservatism of his intention, this time Nathan Drake wants you to look at him and his daring, his foolhardy greatness and unfazed cool, anything as long as everyone is looking right at him and nothing else. Yes, he is hanging precariously from a train over one of my favourite chasms, but he is merely using the train, the snow, the dropped gun and that long, long fall that could await him to focus our eye on him. Try looking at one of these things for a second and you are inexorably drawn towards Drake, your every thought focusing on his predicament. HOW will he climb back into the train? WHAT will he do without his weapon? WHY has he removed it from its holster and proceeded to drop it in the first place? IS he at all cold in the snow wearing only a stylish v-neck for protection? Every part of this image’s mise en scene is cynically positioned to make us think entirely about Nathan Drake and his pitiful, attention seeking ways.

The worst part of this sordid aspect of his person is that he never actually posed for this photograph in the first place. He mocked the whole thing up on a green screen in the garage conversion he’d recently had done for him. If you look at the original image you can clearly see he is not grabbing the train at all, he is barely tickling it in fact. He wasn’t holding anything, simply standing on one leg, specifically his right one, and sticking his arm in the air for the photographer. The rest, as they say, was done in post. Nathan Drake isn’t your friend; he is a fame and money hungry liar who will stoop to any level of deceit to feed his addiction for gawping applause and the ever powerful American dollar.

Young Lara Croft on the other hand is as uncynical as they come. Barely out of high school, she is clearly out of her depth when it comes to daring international archaeology, therefore making her a believable, relatable and, most importantly, empathetic character. After being shipwrecked on a strange and dangerous island she must learn to survive using only her wits, a bow, a pistol, a shotgun, an assault rifle, a climbing axe and a number of nifty dodge and evade manoeuvres. As well as dealing with such a paltry and impotent arsenal, Lara must also overcome her instinctive aversion to killing her fellow man and the island’s fauna if she, or more accurately the player, wishes to survive.

For as much as this is a touching story about Lara Croft and her difficult journey into adulthood, the game itself does nothing to allow this young woman to blossom on her own. Neglect the controller for a second for whatever reason; to fix a drink, smoke a cigarette or stretch one’s legs and you will likely have left Lara to a terrible fate. You see, the game is fervently against her having any means of sustaining her own life without the guiding hand of the player and is, in short, far too protective of her child-like innocence. That isn’t to say that Tomb Raider is Lara’s tearful mother, unwilling to let her fly the nest and forget all about her, no. It is her aged neighbour who splits his time between fantasising about all the ways he would ‘teach that girl a lesson’ and pleasuring himself whilst wearing wire-wool mittens. At almost any point throughout her adventure Lara can find herself dead, usually through impalement, in an instant, as if the left field itself has sprung out from behind a tree and thrust the rod of happenstance firmly through her. If Lara isn’t climbing, jumping or shooting she is most likely careening down a hill or through the air right towards a sharp protrusion, and DAMN YOU player if you aren’t concentrating while she does this, because she will happily, happily, let herself be poked full of holes.

There are a couple of instances throughout the game where Lara is covered from head to toe in blood after concluding a particularly gruesome bout of woman on man sparring. Considering the leering nature and rabid frequency of her instant impalements, I have to assume that the developers would have much rather she were covered in a different, though no less nauseating bodily fluid.

Which brings us to the unavoidable conclusion; Nathan Drake makes all the games. Not necessarily singlehandedly, but he oversees the entire operation to be sure. When not starring in them himself he is creating others that are just different enough to keep people interested, though not too unfamiliar as to have people forgetting about him altogether. Drake is very similar to Ben Affleck before he started starring in his directorial efforts; a suit I’m sure Drake will be more than happy to follow when the time is right. Possibly with an Assassin’s Creed style expansion game that incorporates ideas from a similar, though less fruitful or satisfying project. Like thus:

Just like Ben, some of the projects Nathan works on behind the scenes far surpass those he has seen his face plastered across, others, like The Town and Nathan Drake presents: Tomb Raider are very enjoyable yet serviceable continuations of a well-worn groove. That is all well and good for Sir Affleck who has currently directed only three films since Gone Baby Gone in 2007. Sir Nathaniel Drake on the other hand makes hundreds of games a year and it is he we can thank for homogenising videogames to the point of self-parody.

Tomb Raider is essentially Uncharted in disguise. Lara Croft’s touching journey from adolescence to womanhood through the valley of the personal strife is, pause, adolescent male power fantasy torture-porny nonsense in disguise. Telling this origin story because ‘it needs to be heard’ is attempting to justify making a video game in the first instance and nothing more, again pause, in disguise.

After all that bile I must admit that I liked Tomb Raider quite a lot. And therein lies the problem. Nathan Drake has convinced the world, and vicariously me, that for them to be fun, all games must play like his. Just as I didn’t play Uncharted Three, I can’t see myself jumping on Lara any time soon for fear of not enjoying it as much as the first time. I am therefore going to lock myself away from the evil Nathan Drake and Sons Co. and their vile videogames, all the videogames remember, and sweat it out until something changes or we all destroy the World. Not quite sure which one will, or even should, happen first.

*As a side note, Nathan Drake did not have anything to do with the development of Flower. That is why it is the best game ever made.


The Failure of ‘Damnation’ with Lead Designer Jacob Minkoff

Damnation met with unanimous derision upon its release in 2009 and then disappeared, its only achievement it being one of the worst critically received games for a decade. The product of first time developer Blue Omega, Damnation was to be a revolutionary combination of fast and hard gun-play, vehicular combat and traversal and sprawling, organic level design. Its story would sidestep cliché by reimagining the American civil war as a conflict driven by steam and not gunpowder, where airships, mechs and giant tanks were common sights. History and fantasy would collide in a maelstrom of bullets, acrobatics and heroism resulting in a game quite unlike anything that had come before it. Almost everything the team set out to achieve with Damnation was realised, though often in only the most tenuous of ways. The game was universally criticised for being awkward and stilted, visually bland, incoherent and half-finished. I spoke to Lead Designer Jacob Minkoff in an attempt to discover why Damnation showed so much promise, yet failed to deliver on all but the most basic of levels.

“Games are, I firmly believe, the hardest possible type of media one can work in” Jacob told me on a cold November morning. “There’s a formula to making a good story, and every time you watch a film it plays out the same way – but there is no formula to making ‘fun’.” Indeed, even the most linear of games is a collection of systems that all play important roles, where the failures of one often conspicuously hinder the others. Damnation was not to be a simple linear game though; Jacob’s design documents peg it as the ‘next step in the evolution of the shooter’. Damnation was intended to be something very special.

Damnation germinated from a hybrid first/third person action game entered into the first Make Something Unreal competition in 2004. While it did not win, production was continued with a full retail release as the ultimate goal. Aspirations were high within the team and their plans for the game were suitably lofty. Its ace up the sleeve was to be its gigantic levels. Rather than follow generally accepted design conventions and create locales from smaller, more self-contained segments, the team wanted Damnation’s locations to be huge and open, so the player could clearly see where they had come from and where they were headed. Ambitious claims that the player would be able to see ‘3 hours of game play stretching out before and behind them’ are astounding in their audacity; especially at a time when shooters were still dragging players through courtyards connected by hallways and corridors.

Before and behind didn’t just mean horizontally, either, as many of Damnation’s locations would also open up vertical space to the player. Buildings and terrain were to be more than window dressing; they were important tactical tools that could be utilised by the innovative player to their advantage. A rooftop could provide the perfect vantage point until the player is spotted and the advanced enemy AI begins flanking manoeuvres. Suddenly this advantage becomes nothing more than a place of momentary respite until the player is forced to flee for their lives, leaping through gunfire to an adjacent window, across the fifth floor of a building and then down to the street via a flagpole. Blue Omega was aiming high with Damnation; they wanted to create huge battlefields that player and adversary alike could traverse any way they saw fit. They were seeking to create both organic locations and enemies, throw the player into the mix and watch the emergent game play spiral out of control in the most fantastic of ways. Things did eventually spiral, though no one, especially the player, benefited in the least.

“When we started we just didn’t consider the possibility that we could fail” explained Jacob, rationalising his team’s high expectations. “Please note that I say that with a certain amount of pride. There is no room for self doubt in the creation of any great work.” He does, though, concede that “Damnation was a product of a green team that didn’t really know what they were doing. It was my first professional game development project; the same was true of many members of the core team.” It seems that Blue Omega’s hefty aspirations, some which bordered on the ridiculous at times, were borne out of their inexperience rather than any tested and proven experience. With this in mind, sound bites like ‘hundreds of animation per character’ and ‘the most detailed AI routines yet seen’ cease sounding like possibly attainable goals, and become hyperbolic and fantastical.

The eagerness of the team also led them to overlook the huge challenge set by the new console hardware they were developing for. “We were on the cusp of a new generation and we learned lessons that have since become common knowledge in game development.” In trying to expand upon Damnation so dramatically whilst working with new hardware Blue Omega tried to accomplish too much too soon. “Making a sprawling (theoretically) AAA game on console and PC was simply too much for us to handle”, Jacob told me regretfully. This problem was only exacerbated by the decision to outsource large portions of the game and maintaining an uncommonly small in-house team. The strategy was originally intended to afford this core team the greatest level of flexibility and allow them to adapt throughout development, though as Jacob revealed to me, this simply was not the case in practice. “Outsourcing was a problem, you need the time, experience and budget to turn on a dime – to throw out what you’ve made and try something else quickly, and within constraints. We did not have the resources or knowledge to do that at Blue Omega.”

This ironic inflexibility, borne out of inexperience and outsourcing, led to the game’s woefully protracted development cycle. Few games command four years to make and when they do finally see release this time is usually justified by high levels of polish and production value. This was the opposite case for Damnation. The longer it stayed in development the more out of touch and less impressive it became. Level architecture, AI, textures, animations, movement, physics, audio mixing, sound effects, dialogue, cut scenes, acting, weapons and general common sense all had their merits eroded over the years it took Damnation to gestate. ‘The most detailed AI routines yet seen’ devolved into enemies standing in place until the player came within twenty feet and activated them; considering levels were hundreds of feet long, wide and often high, this left a huge margin for error. Entire enemy encounters could be circumvented with only a sniper rifle and steady aim as foes were picked off one at a time, all elements of challenge, tension or believability falling away to reveal Damnation’s hollow interior. This is not simply me being cruel and using the most egregious errors; every mechanic, design decision and art asset suffers the same terrible, crushing, worst-case-scenario fate, nothing holds up as it should.

While the game showed so much promise and its team so much enthusiasm, its ultimate downfall was to be sealed by entities that care little for either. “In the end, you usually run out of time or money. With Damnation, we ran out of both. One of the primary reasons why you see so much architectural re-use is because it was cheaper to pay for a re-texture than all new geometry. It also took less time to do so, giving us more hope of us meeting our release date.”

I find it terribly sad that Damnation was a failure. The aspirations of the team were noble, and can still be seen peeking through the murk at times. While far from the organic lived-in locations they were intended to be, the levels are still undeniably impressive. Towering cliffs, precarious buildings and death-defying leaps all do exist, they are simply not particularly attractive, inspiring or mechanically fluid enough to be awe inspiring. The AI is rather terrible, though sometimes shows hints of how good the game could have been had the enemies been more intelligent. The aforementioned architecture reuse really hurts what could have been strikingly diverse locations, though the game is still varied enough to be bearable. That is what I find so frustrating with Damnation; it could have been a great game had the team been more experienced, focused and time-efficient. Jacob sees the silver lining; however, “Many games never ship at all because the investment to make the game simply pass console certification would be prohibitive. That it shipped at all is a triumph for Damnation’s team.”

His positivity likely emanates from where Damnation took him next and where he was able to take its fundamental concepts. After the game’s completion Jacob moved to Naughty Dog and designed some of the most memorable sections of the Uncharted sequels. There he was finally able to realise his ambitions for Damnation thanks to an experienced team and appropriate resources. That the similar, yet vastly superior, first Uncharted game was in development at the same time as Damnation, and saw release two years earlier to critical acclaim, is an irony that is not lost on Jacob. Instead of wallowing in the past, however, he is looking toward the future and still building upon his first game’s auspicious past. “Everyone has to learn somewhere. I learned on Damnation.”


Ghettoisation in Video Game Communities

I think blaming the aggressive and offensive minority within the gaming community can only get us so far. Yes, these people bring shame on the medium and it is terrible. Things are said that have no place in any form of group entertainment, though I truthfully doubt this will ever cease completely. Diminish, I hope so, but disappear, not a chance. Competition breeds aggression; we see this at sports games where violence, racism and intolerance still conspicuously occur. The perpetrators of these hate crimes are often identified and dealt with by the legal system, a consequence sorely missing from games and the internet on the whole.

The removal of repercussions, I feel, is the single biggest factor that allows these abhorrent practices to continue at such a level. If the anonymity were removed, even without consequences, I think we’d see a dramatic decrease in offensive chatter. Br0heim69 might reconsider calling Al3xVanc3 an ‘undesirable woman of the night who should perform fellatio on me now’ in the spur of the moment if he knew that everyone could see or hear it as; Leigh Harrison (lives in London, aged 23) called Stephanie Walker (lives in Birmingham, aged 29) an ‘undesirable woman of the night who should perform fellatio on me now’. Take that one step further and log, at a system level, everything typed and spoken by the player in a game. Have these records available when grievances are raised and use them as evidence against offenders. Lists of online handles are useless unless they are attached to something more tangible and meaningful; the people behind them. This would be more difficult to adapt outside of the closed, console realm but it would be a start.

This is only part of the problem, however. These people do tarnish the rest of the game playing community, though I think an equally large part of the issue is not with the people who play games but the people who don’t. They are, in many ways, often as dismissive as Mr. Sexism or Mrs. Racism are in Halo, if significantly less offensive. Some don’t understand games or the people who play them and often simply don’t want to. Games are becoming more widely accepted as a legitimate cultural endeavour but they are still considered a minority art form and dismissed by many. The problem with any minority is that if successful integration doesn’t occur ghettoisation will often take hold. Communities become even more insular as lines of communication break down with those around them. Customs and traditions become more important to the community in placing themselves within the wider world and cease to simply differentiate them as a group and instead begin to define them.

We see this behaviour in many of the most competitive genres of games. The concept of ‘paying one’s dues’ before you are truly accepted into a community created around an entertainment product is completely ridiculous, though this clearly occurs. We saw this mentality of ‘otherness’ earlier in the year with Aris Bakhtanians’ comments regarding the fighting game community. A figurehead of the scene for over a decade, he understandably offended many when he defended the use of questionable language and behaviour; “[the] racial stuff and sexist stuff... those are jokes and if you were really a member of the fighting game community, you would know that.” This aptly addresses the underlying psychology of a ghettoised community. Cultures and practices are held as defining traits that an outsider ‘simply wouldn’t understand’. They have come to symbolise what sets this community apart from those around it, regardless of their propriety within the wider community.

As these customs become more entrenched within a segregated community their importance intensifies. Bakhtanians later discussed, in his apology, his fear of the homogenisation of what he sees as fighting game traditions through the implementation of more ordered, controlled professional leagues. “[These] leagues ... have intent to censor the community to make it more accessible. I think the sink or swim mentality is something that defined our culture, and if that succeeds it removes something which has been important to help create some of the best fighting game players of our time.” Again, we see the active distancing of the marginalised and, interestingly, the affirmation that the customs not only hold up the community but now also shape the individual members therein.

This apology is no such thing; it is instead the self-imposed segregate attempting to rationalise his hateful conduct as legitimate cultural signifiers. His cherished fighting game community was never recognised by wider society and so closed its doors, doubling down on aspects of the culture in an attempt to justify its ‘otherness’. It is this that I was driving at earlier; cultural misunderstanding begets more cultural misunderstanding.

While games are still widely considered culturally inferior we will never be without social extremism. The overused stereotypes associated with people who enjoy games won’t go away as long as people like Bakhtanians are still around proving them to be accurate. He and his ilk are hopefully already experiencing their twilight years. Just as social, cultural and religious barriers can break down over generations, so too can those separating games from other widely enjoyed cultural commodities. The ghettoised communities, the self-styled ‘keepers of heritage’ don’t help this transition, though I think they will ultimately fall by the wayside. In them we can see how isolation leads to self-imposed isolation and hopefully recognise that this does not make us stronger as a common community built around a shared passion. We will be part of a minority culture for a little while longer, it is up to us what state our community is in when the rest of the world is ready come and find us.


Silent Hill: Revelation highlights the series' ongoing problems

I talk about the bad parts of Silent Hill games and a bit about the films. Sorry.

Silent Hill: Revelation appears to have little understanding of what made its source material compelling enough to warrant a cinematic adaptation in the first place. While the first film was far from perfect, it at least captured the forlorn isolation that pervades the best entries in the series. These games tormented players with haunting sights and, more effectively, sounds, to create locations steeped in atmosphere that were deeply unsettling. For a time.

The first two games are quite rightly widely recognised as landmark titles both within the horror genre and video games as a medium. They both feature broken, guilt ridden protagonists descending through a hell all of their own design, populated by antagonistic manifestations of their deepest fears. Failings and inadequacies are turned back on these characters as they are forced to physically assault their own inner turmoil. The forlorn nature of the lonely, often completely empty town collides with moments of visceral terror, often only the very hint of which can be found, and then all falls quiet again. This silence, though, was often more unsettling than the violence that punctuated it.

The first film captured this atmosphere admirably. The streets of Silent Hill still seemed confusing and dangerous even though we were now viewers and not participants. The slowly building tension was present; anything could be hiding in the fog, though this time I couldn’t simply run away from what I found. After the sharp shocks we were always returned to the streets, to the heart of Silent Hill’s power over both player and viewer.

That film ultimately falls apart once it forgets this, as atmosphere is thrown out in favour of confrontations with sexy nurses and Pyramid Head. Both are signifiers from the games but, crucially, each is devoid of context here. It was the intrinsic link between a character and their tormentors that made the first two games so frightening. The thought that Silent Hill could delve deep within an individual, find their dirtiest fantasies and most shameful secrets and then make the character confront them is horrific. Murderous, disfigured medical practitioners are scary, but knowing that they exist as an explicit result of the player character’s sexual preoccupations is infinitely more disturbing. That the character is forced to dispatch their own fears makes the first games, especially SH2, uniquely intimate horror experiences.

Silent Hill 3 is where things began to slip. The original game featured enemies created from the subconscious of both the protagonist and antagonist and by SH3 being a direct sequel to its progenitor it was duty bound to do the same. This diluted the personal torment that was so effective in SH2 and pared back the emotional resonance seen in that game. What remains are manifestations that are less focused and ultimately less rewarding to interact with, appearing more carnival sideshow than charnel house torment. Aspects of the previous games collide with one another at this point and galvanise the direction of the series thereafter. Silent Hill 3 ushers in the end of disparate tales being told to the backdrop of the town and instead the story of the town itself becomes the series’ prominent focus.

The games after SH3 attempt to weave increasingly complex and contrived plots that somehow link the protagonist to the town, its past and inhabitants. Silent Hill ceases to exist as a purgatory for lost souls to confront themselves in. Later games busy themselves with filling in parts of the town’s history and the events in and around the first and third entries which have, over time, become the main focus of the series’ mythology. Cults, evil deities, Immaculate Conception and sacrifices take over where the series, after SH2, should have continued its exploration of self-destruction, depression and psychosis.

In following the plot of the third game, Silent Hill: Revelation is doomed to wallow in the needless torrents of ancillary information necessary for it to be coherent. While the first game, and by extension film, were steeped in the aforementioned mystic trappings, they were kept at a more manageable level. By deciding to continue with this, once-resolved, conflict, the sequels become intrinsically linked to hokey conspiracies and outplayed cultish nonsense. The mystery that once made Silent Hill such a compelling and frightening place is stripped away by increasingly heavy-handed applications of history and exposition. Both game and film feature long, utterly needless, monologues explaining exactly why Silent Hill has become such a cursed place. Built on an ancient Indian burial ground? Really.

The film commits another disservice to the series by homogenising its antagonists even more than its forebear. While this had begun to some extent in the games by SH3, Revelation throws away any sense of propriety when it comes to monsters. Nurses and Pyramid Head, as I said earlier, have become the defacto figureheads for the entire series and appear to be obligatory inclusions at this point. The rest of the cast of creatures, however, appear to have been designed with only the loosest of connection to either the lead characters or the traditions of the series. A single Lying Creature, a spider mannequin, a naked Nemesis lookalike and a Carrie Anne Moss Cenobite. The designs are incongruous and belittle the notion of one’s fears made flesh. They show that Revelation, more so than even the original film, is simply an excuse to throw together mildly shocking scenes of violence with opportunistic jump scares and call it a day.

The first two Silent Hill games displayed commendable levels of reverence to the worlds and differing mythologies they existed in and around. After that the series lost its way as it expanded needlessly upon these very foundations and attempted to rationalise the mystery through hackneyed plot contrivances. SH2 is so effective at unsettling the player precisely because they have very little grasp of what is and is not real around them. Revelation’s biggest failure is that it continues to commit the sins of the father. Disparate aspects of almost every game in the series thus far are thrown together with little care for the source material. The film is cinematic reconstituted meat; different parts of the series melted down and squeezed together to create something that resembles the original, but could never be mistaken for it. The biggest shame here is that the same, too, can be said of almost every entry in the series over the past decade*.

Oh, and there aren’t any revelations in Silent Hill: Revelation. Not one.

*Shattered Memories was a bold and fantastically realised psychological thriller and I really like it.

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Public Investment in Games is too Similar to Lending to a Friend

With friends like these…

Early November saw the unlikely continuation of a long running saga as another, less surprising one, entered its dark middle chapter. Earlier this year 38 Studios, founded by baseball player Curt Schilling, folded only a few months after the release of its first game, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. At the time the studio was also still in production of an MMO tentatively titled Copernicus. In 2010 38 Studios agreed a $75 million loan from the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation (EDC) to “relocate to Rhode Island, complete production of […] Copernicus, and to capitalize the company’s growth and expansion in Rhode Island.” In short, the State of Rhode Island would fund the remainder of development, presumably with the intention of creating jobs and ultimately reaping the financial benefits associated with a community of successful professionals in the form of tax revenue. This, evidently, did not play out the way any of the parties involved would have liked.

A couple of weeks ago I stopped renting with friends. Over five years have passed since I first partook in this practice, partly because I was a student then and you just don’t live alone but mainly because I couldn’t afford any other option. Apart from my first year of university I’ve been pretty good with managing my cash flow; the same can’t always be said for my cohabitants. There has been a few times where I have found myself lending friends money, always with the proviso that it is paid back promptly, so they can make their rent or bills. The sums aren’t huge, a couple of hundred here and there, and I trust these people. What harm can helping someone out really do?

I find worrying parallels between this and EDC vs. 38 Studios. I sought no financial gain from my transactions, granted, but the general though behind these decisions are very similar; lend someone some money to continue making a living. If my friends default on rent and bills they eventually lose their home and job, likewise, 38 runs out of money and everyone, eventually, loses their job.

The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men

The accusations made by the EDC are plentiful; I will attempt to summarise. 38 Studios, its lawyers, numerous advisory bodies and selected employees of the EDC knew or should have known that not all of the $75m loan would reach the coffers of the developer after fees, safeguards and extraneous costs were deducted. The actual amount was much lower at around $50m, though the projections for Copernicus’ completion supplied to the EDC were all based on a full $75m investment. The projections also didn’t take into account any of the cost of moving the company from Massachusetts to Rhode Island. This, according to the EDC’s allegations, was projected to run to $5m but eventually cost over double that initial figure. Furthermore, projections didn’t take into account annual repayments on the loan that would total $1.125m. Taking all of these unaccounted costs into consideration the EDC concludes, that “38 Studios’ own financial projections showed that the company would run out of cash in 2012 and actually have a negative cash flow in 2012 of $8,868,987. Even excluding [conservative] relocation expenses, that cash flow would be negative $3,868,987.”

I am reminded of the time my more financially soluble housemate and I sat across from the stony faced recipient of our aid. “Make sure you take enough to pay off all your debts” I said, “it’s no use taking too little and ending up behind again in a month’s time.” While this may sound unflinchingly selfless it was also an act of pragmatism. I am often too nice for my own good while my co-financier, on the other hand, is a hard man when pressed. We both saw the need to rectify our friend’s financial shortfall, though he only the once. It was my role to bring the disparate parties together for the good of the whole; thus I found the words “take more money from us it helps” falling from my mouth.

38 studios weren’t in the enviable position that my friend found himself in. They and others who brokered the deal were, if the EDC’s allegations are to be believed, fully aware of the loan’s funding shortfall yet sought to use it as a means to secure further investment. An email selected by the EDC from Mark C. Lamarre of placement agent Wells Fargo to Jennifer MacLean, CEO of 38 Studios, is purported to prove this accusation. “The email notes the “[o]bvious but important conclusion is that completing the EDC low-cost financing adds material value to current shareholders [primarily Schilling] . . . .” Lamarre was thereby recommending that 38 Studios accept the loan from the EDC even with the shortfall. Lamarre’s email also states that “[w]e have discussed with you the benefits of ‘safety’ in raising equity near-term versus not doing so.” Lamarre was referring to the fact that trying to raise equity in the near term was safer than waiting until the funds received from the EDC were exhausted before raising additional funds.”

This, if proved to be true, goes a long way to explaining why vital financial figures were so misleading. It appears 38 were convinced Copernicus could attract further investment deeper into development and took the EDC loan to tide them over until that occurred. It had struggled up until then to secure anything meaningful and the loan would buy them significant development time to improve their offering to other investors. Furthermore it, and less importantly Reckoning, would be sizeable successes, injecting more capital into the studio within two years. All of these factors feature within the claims made by the EDC, along with the consequences of events playing out differently.

Things falling apart

It appears that 38’s blind conviction is to be blamed where the EDC is concerned. The management’s biggest mistake was their unwavering belief in a product. Curt Schilling wanted to make an MMO regardless of the business sense that made for a first time developer and the huge financial implications of its failure. While any creative industry needs driven individuals who are unafraid of challenges, those same people need to operate within both the realms of financial responsibility and, more crucially, the law. However, while Schilling’s name is indeed mentioned within the claims, others are referenced conspicuously more often. The various financial advisory companies, and individuals directly linked to investment and capital generation, are present heavily throughout. Wells Fargo, for instance, allegedly obtained an extra $500,000 payment in undisclosed fees. Parties under the employ of the EDC itself sought to disregard evidence from a prominent RI political figure that discredited and even directly warned against the loan. Various testimonials were altered to be more favourable toward the deal and its approval. All of the above counts are simply the accusations of the EDC at this point; none have been answered by the defendants yet. If proved true, though, they paint a picture where the naivety of Schilling was thoroughly taken advantage of in the name of personal gain. While it is he who has borne the brunt of criticism from within the gaming community, the court papers point more certainly at the brokers of the failed investment. Whether he was party to the doctored projections to simply facilitate the continuation of work on Copernicus, or for more insidious motives, we cannot be sure yet. What is clear is that the deal, and the period thereafter, was littered with bad decisions, ones which ultimately cost good people their jobs.

My friend was lucky enough to never lose his job, though like 38 Studios his financial shortcomings certainly cost him dearly. The money he was lent, the sum that was supposed to make him solvent, was repaid in due course and all was well for a time. A couple of weeks later bills started to be paid late and eventually months would pass between me receiving remuneration for my paying of them. Words were exchanged and promises were made, though their impact was lessened the more times they were uttered. The final indignity came on the morning we moved out and he assured the rest of the house his rent arrears were all paid off. That payment, like many of his rent cheques it transpired, had been late by over a month, though now everything had been “taken care of.” He moved back in with his parents and we learned later that so had his money.

A matter of trust

For all the accusations that make up the EDC’s ninety four page document, everything boils down to a couple of lines near the end. They simply, and understandably, sought that 38 and the other defendants would show “due regard to the interests of the EDC” and “refrain from abusing [its] confidence by obtaining any advantage for themselves or any third party” and to, ultimately, “be loyal to the EDC.” These three simple assumptions not only encapsulate the entire case but also highlight how these events came to pass in the first place.

I trusted my friend until the very end, lending him money and letting him skip responsibilities because I trusted that he would eventually make good. I wanted to see the best for him and in being so lenient could have simply made matters worse. He didn’t have to manage his money strictly because if he ran out I would help him. I saw him as a victim of circumstance, he, I now feel, saw me as a soft touch who couldn’t say no. If the allegations are proven to be accurate, it will be clear that the EDC took everyone involved at their word and ended up in much the same place as I did. If information is withheld, whether it be a friend overspending every month or a $25m funding deficit, the financer behind any deal will be oblivious of the terrible choices they are making.

Video games are a very unpredictable investment prospect for anyone, let alone a group of volunteers acting almost entirely on good faith. It is doubtful the outcome of the case will satisfy most of the parties involved and almost certainly be of little solace to the former employees of 38 studios. What should be gained from this is the knowledge that financial backing for video games simply can’t come from bodies representing the public interest at this point in time. The sums of money involved are too large, the decision makers too removed from the industry and the risk of failure too perilously real. The EDC almost certainly set out with good intention for both Rhode Island and 38 Studios. Sadly, good intentions can only get you so far.


Windows Phone is great. Unless you like playing compelling games

Batman owns a Windows Phone. So do I. I saw him last week and he told me of his disappointment at the lack of good games for him to play. He does like being able to turn his Xbox on with his phone, though.

“Batman has the Lumia 900” said Shauna the sales assistant “its Batman’s phone”. “What will he do if I buy it then?” I asked churlishly “surely I’d get in the way of, nay hinder, his important work?” “It has the logo on the back, that’s all”. “Then I definitely don’t want it” I said “I imagined Batman would have a more exciting phone, I’ll just take the regular one please.” This was how my adventure with a Windows Phone began. How I embarked down a road I, and seemingly very few people, had travelled before. A journey that was set to be thrilling and fascinating in equal parts; one that would almost certainly be as full of games as it was excitement and the unknown. It had Xbox Live on it after all.

The thought of seeing my avatar on my phone whenever I wanted set my heart a flutter. Being able to pour over all of my achievements and show them to my friends in real life also appealed to me tremendously. There had been countless social occasions where I had been just dying to show off my gaming prowess to new acquaintances, though without the evidence I had declined lest I be labelled a fraud. With my Live profile in hand I would no longer be that guy in the corner at parties, no, I would be centre stage, basking in the adoration I would inevitably receive, chest bursting with pride being flanked by beautiful and envious people. The Windows Phone had already completed me and I had yet to play a single game.

Minesweeper. That perennial of any true gamer’s collection was my first foray into post-millennial mobile entertainment. Not only had it seen a stunningly minimalist graphical update, think the beautiful offspring of Lumines and Picross, but it had also been gifted with achievements. Modern games are, after all, less about playing the game in hand and more about playing the game of playing the game; the meta game as it is often called. Achievements are awarded for completing challenges in Minesweeper, such as playing a single game of it, and the player is then awarded points for being a diligent participant. The more Minesweeper one plays the more points can be earned and so the actual act of playing became secondary to my quest for more points. Being able to earn achievements while away from my Xbox was a revelation, it didn’t matter that what I was playing was as old as time or that the game clock was hugely obtrusive; I was levelling up and the progress was comforting.

Knowing that I didn’t actually have to actually like the games that I played was tremendously liberating. I commute almost every day but having to worry about quality could easily have eaten into my playing time. Instead, all I had to do was look for Live certified games to know that my enjoyment was guaranteed, however tangential that enjoyment proved to be. The breadth of titles and mechanics was astounding. There was a game where you had to roll things across platforms into holes. Great. Another where platforms had to be moved to get something into a hole, this one looked a bit like Limbo to boot. Even better. I found another where you have to direct oil with platforms to get it from one hole to the next. Shrieks of “Holy diversity, Batman”, or something along those lines, have been heard echoing around the Batcave recently, I’m sure.

Cavities aren’t the only preoccupation of Windows Phone games though, oh no. Not every title was comfortable exploring the dark recesses of the human psyche, some aimed for levity, reminding me of the unbridled joy to be found in unpretentious entertainment. Tiki Towers tasked me with building platforms out of bamboo and coconuts (how delightfully quaint), so cheeky monkeys could reach deliciously ripe bananas floating in the air. It mattered not that the game featured little to no bona fide Tiki sculpture; its charm was down right infectious. Besides, Monkey Mechanics or Banana and Bamboo Building don’t really convey the same breezy personality.

Similarly, while I cannot fault the noble intentions of the developer, growing monkey malnutrition is a real issue that needs more exposure, the limitations of a small touch screen interface cannot be ignored, however minor their impact upon my enjoyment. The titular towers are constructed by dragging bamboo trusses with a finger. This functions admirably when building simple structures but becomes imprecise when the monkeys demand more complex assistance. Adding to a tower can often end in precarious results as unsafe appendages are constructed accidentally, rather than the sturdy Babel-esque monument of intention. I found myself spending vital time deconstructing and rebuilding unforeseen errors while my monkeys withered and died. One particularly fateful level saw five generations of the same family expire, 37 monkeys in total, and led me to cease playing forever. While Tiki Towers was outwardly frivolous it carried with it an important message; mobile games are often unsuited to their platform, though if players are bribed with achievement points they will often persevere for longer than they otherwise would have.

As a side note; my final and most meaningful gripe is that the game features imagery resembling the Statue of Liberty from Planet of the Apes. Tiki Towers clearly features monkeys, simians that are not featured in the film or any of its sequels. As such, this anachronism is an unforgivable and lazy way of repurposing a well known cultural image.

After putting up with less than stellar titles for the sake of vapid showboating I decided to run an experiment. My hypothesis was thus; Microsoft happily grants Live status to, in my opinion, sub par games therefore independent efforts must be even less worthy of my attention. Most of my findings vindicated my initial thoughts, especially one game where I had to burrow a tractor underground in search of watches and rocks. The premise and goals were arbitrary and silly but it was the unresponsive controls that killed the experience. Movement was floaty and imprecise and led me to ditch my tractor underground and dig myself out by hand. As it happens I came across a couple of old Timex jobbies and sold them for a tidy profit, so the endeavour was not a complete loss.

I reinvested these precious pennies into what emerged as my overall, and possibly only, winner in this quest to uncover a Legitimately Compelling Windows Phone Game. CastleMine is not thematically ambitions, nor is it mechanically diverse. It is, however, singular in its game play intentions, focused and incredibly well suited to a small screen. It is a tower defence game with hints of Dungeon Keeper and a surprisingly robust skill progression system. Instead of playing out on either a set path or blank canvas, players must dig a single tunnel into a play area measuring only five squares across. As the tunnel extends downwards it unleashes waves of enemies that must be dispatched with the player’s fortifications. These weapons can be upgraded and assisted by buff towers that grant bonuses and improve chances of survival. At the end of each level the player gains experience based on their success, allowing them to invest in permanent upgrades to towers, resource collection, survivability and a number of other ancillary abilities.

While nothing CastleMine offers sounds particularly inspired on paper, its solid execution and well managed difficulty curve made it my go to title whenever I was out. The upgrade system provides a tangible reason to continue playing what is a relatively repetitive style of game, without resorting to introducing new features every couple of levels as so many mobile games do. Unlike the Live achievements which value perseverance over any real skill, CastleMine rewards players for their successes with a means to further improve their game, not simple trinkets. The game also embraces the touch screen fully and works to both its strengths and weaknesses, eliminating the need for precise or speedy inputs and allowing the player to feel in control at all times. It is for these reasons that I appreciate it and have spent countless hours on the train enjoying its simple yet refined mechanics.

There still aren’t many truly good mobile games available. There are even less on Windows Phone. Microsoft appears to have missed the point in putting Xbox Live into a mobile phone. Yes, I can access my profile, achievements, messages and all that other stuff I never use when I’m sat at home, what I can’t do is play many good games, the one thing I most closely associate with the Xbox brand. Developing for a touch screen needs arguably more thought than developing for a controller. Input needs to be simple and responsive and this should be reflected within the mechanics of a title. Building a tower so a monkey can reach a banana is a great (?) pitch for a game until the finished product mechanically prevents me from easily accomplishing the simple goal. Giving me five achievement points won’t divert my attention away from bad controls, but it might in time spoil my confidence in Microsoft’s attempts at quality control. Windows Phone gaming is largely a ghetto at the moment. Good curation and promotion on merit, rather than publisher ties, is the best way to improve the social standing of the service, not sugar-coating the creative poverty like a bad politician.