Myst + Fez + Swedish Folklore = Year Walk.

You find yourself standing outside a cabin. It is 1894 and you are deep in the heart of the Swedish countryside. The cold sting of the winter wind hits your face as you make your way through a strange and mysterious forest. In the distance, an old windmill croaks and creaks. Snowflakes drift downward, illuminated by fleeting bits of light. Strange objects litter the landscape – a wooden box, sealed by a combination lock and covered in carved shapes and symbols; an ancient waystone bringing a message from a civilization which has long since passed from the world, trees marked with crude drawings. Welcome to Simogo Games’ Year Walk.

Year Walk is a 2D, first person adventure game which explores the Swedish tradition of the same name. As the game’s opening text crawl explains, Year Walking was an old tradition in which a person would venture out at midnight on New Year’s Day, following a day-long fast. The legend held that if you walked to the local church, you would be granted a glimpse into your future – but not before encountering trials and temptations from the spirits which inhabit the woods.

The gameplay in “Year Walk” will feel familiar to anyone who grew up enjoying first-person adventure games like Myst. You explore the area, discovering which items and objects you can interact with and trying to figure out how each relates to the other. Many of the puzzles used a logic that reminded me of some of the puzzle solving in Fez – decrypting codes and pictograms, paying attention to tiny background details which reveal patterns, and discovering the multiple ways in which ways the environment can be manipulated. And it is in that manipulation that Year Walk really shines. As an iOS game, it takes advantage of the platform in a way few games have. I hesitate to spoil any of the moments of discovery, but I’ll make a comparison that hopefully will make sense to some.

If you’ve ever had the chance to read “House of Leaves,” I would say that it’s not much of a stretch to say that what it does for books, is what “Year Walk” does for games. Much of “House of Leaves” relies on forcing the reader to manipulate the physical book in order to read the story – flipping it around, holding it to a mirror, dissecting hidden codes within the text. Also like “House of Leaves,” “Year Walk” is terrifying at parts and atmospheric throughout. There were maybe a half-dozen points in this game where the game caused me to shudder and jump back in my seat.

And of course, “House of Leaves” is filled with hundreds of footnotes which provide a sort of parallel narrative to the main story. While “Year Walk” doesn’t have foot notes, what it does have is a companion app.

The “Year Walk Companion” is a free app which, on its surface, serves as a sort of codex for the various Swedish folk tales referenced throughout the game. You learn about the Mylings (the souls of infants left to die in the cold) and the Brook Horse (a water spirit that takes the form of a strange horse in a suit), but you will also get hints and clues that help you progress. And, again, I hesitate to say more than this, but you need to play this game with the companion app. I played with the app on my iPhone and the game on my iPad and… well, I’ll leave it there, but suffice to say, Simogo is doing some incredible work.

Visually the game is gorgeous – filled with imagery that is equal parts beautiful and disturbing. Most, but not all of the game is 2D – occasionally you will find a 3D rendered objects which you can – and must – manipulate in all manner of creative ways. And then there’s the sound design. The score is heavily inspired by Elephant and Castle, an album by Swedish musicians Matti Bye and Mattias Olsson, the game’s score is a mix of dark circus music and ethereal Swedish folk tunes, and the crunch of snow under the player’s feet, mixed with howling Nordic winds creates a wonderfully immersive atmosphere. Playing the game with headphones is a necessity – puzzles take full advantage of using the right and left audio channels to give subtle hints.

I feel like I’m ranting here, but the things this game did just completely blew me away. I enjoyed, but never quite “got” Fez; most of that game felt too distant. I feel like this is my Fez and I think the thing that sets it apart the most is the narrative. At its core, “Year Walk” is a love story, and easily one of the most beautiful and emotional experiences I’ve ever had in a game. This is a game you should experience knowing as little as possible, and I fear I have already said to much. But just go, go get this game. Find a comfortable chair and settle in for one of the most interesting gaming experiences this year.

And when you’re done, we HAVE to talk about the mind blowing ending.

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Myst + Fez + Swedish Folklore = Year Walk.

You find yourself standing outside a cabin. It is 1894 and you are deep in the heart of the Swedish countryside. The cold sting of the winter wind hits your face as you make your way through a strange and mysterious forest. In the distance, an old windmill croaks and creaks. Snowflakes drift downward, illuminated by fleeting bits of light. Strange objects litter the landscape – a wooden box, sealed by a combination lock and covered in carved shapes and symbols; an ancient waystone bringing a message from a civilization which has long since passed from the world, trees marked with crude drawings. Welcome to Simogo Games’ Year Walk.

Year Walk is a 2D, first person adventure game which explores the Swedish tradition of the same name. As the game’s opening text crawl explains, Year Walking was an old tradition in which a person would venture out at midnight on New Year’s Day, following a day-long fast. The legend held that if you walked to the local church, you would be granted a glimpse into your future – but not before encountering trials and temptations from the spirits which inhabit the woods.

The gameplay in “Year Walk” will feel familiar to anyone who grew up enjoying first-person adventure games like Myst. You explore the area, discovering which items and objects you can interact with and trying to figure out how each relates to the other. Many of the puzzles used a logic that reminded me of some of the puzzle solving in Fez – decrypting codes and pictograms, paying attention to tiny background details which reveal patterns, and discovering the multiple ways in which ways the environment can be manipulated. And it is in that manipulation that Year Walk really shines. As an iOS game, it takes advantage of the platform in a way few games have. I hesitate to spoil any of the moments of discovery, but I’ll make a comparison that hopefully will make sense to some.

If you’ve ever had the chance to read “House of Leaves,” I would say that it’s not much of a stretch to say that what it does for books, is what “Year Walk” does for games. Much of “House of Leaves” relies on forcing the reader to manipulate the physical book in order to read the story – flipping it around, holding it to a mirror, dissecting hidden codes within the text. Also like “House of Leaves,” “Year Walk” is terrifying at parts and atmospheric throughout. There were maybe a half-dozen points in this game where the game caused me to shudder and jump back in my seat.

And of course, “House of Leaves” is filled with hundreds of footnotes which provide a sort of parallel narrative to the main story. While “Year Walk” doesn’t have foot notes, what it does have is a companion app.

The “Year Walk Companion” is a free app which, on its surface, serves as a sort of codex for the various Swedish folk tales referenced throughout the game. You learn about the Mylings (the souls of infants left to die in the cold) and the Brook Horse (a water spirit that takes the form of a strange horse in a suit), but you will also get hints and clues that help you progress. And, again, I hesitate to say more than this, but you need to play this game with the companion app. I played with the app on my iPhone and the game on my iPad and… well, I’ll leave it there, but suffice to say, Simogo is doing some incredible work.

Visually the game is gorgeous – filled with imagery that is equal parts beautiful and disturbing. Most, but not all of the game is 2D – occasionally you will find a 3D rendered objects which you can – and must – manipulate in all manner of creative ways. And then there’s the sound design. The score is heavily inspired by Elephant and Castle, an album by Swedish musicians Matti Bye and Mattias Olsson, the game’s score is a mix of dark circus music and ethereal Swedish folk tunes, and the crunch of snow under the player’s feet, mixed with howling Nordic winds creates a wonderfully immersive atmosphere. Playing the game with headphones is a necessity – puzzles take full advantage of using the right and left audio channels to give subtle hints.

I feel like I’m ranting here, but the things this game did just completely blew me away. I enjoyed, but never quite “got” Fez; most of that game felt too distant. I feel like this is my Fez and I think the thing that sets it apart the most is the narrative. At its core, “Year Walk” is a love story, and easily one of the most beautiful and emotional experiences I’ve ever had in a game. This is a game you should experience knowing as little as possible, and I fear I have already said to much. But just go, go get this game. Find a comfortable chair and settle in for one of the most interesting gaming experiences this year.

And when you’re done, we HAVE to talk about the mind blowing ending.

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Torso-gate and how game marketing hurts acceptance of games

I published this on my personal blog earlier, but wanted to put it here as well.

The Entertainment Software Association reports that the average “frequent game purchaser” in the United States is 35. They also claim that just under half of gamers are women. Video games are a multibillion dollar entertainment industry and a medium that’s about as mainstream as anything else in our popular culture. And so, I have to ask myself, why is it that I often feel the need to qualify my interest in games in a way that I would never think of having to do with movies or television.

Between the conversations about violence in media that arose out of the Newtown tragedy and a really fascinating discussion taking place among some online circles about the role of women in games, and the tech industry as a whole, I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately. And then yesterday, some news broke that seemed to take all of these discussions and crystallize them in a way that I felt that I needed to write something to address this.

You see, in an attempt to market the sequel to a moderately successful zombie game called Dead Island, a game publisher announced a “collector’s edition” bundle with what might be the most crass and offensive item I’ve ever seen offered for sale – a plastic statuette of a dismembered, bikini-clad torso of a woman replete with comically large breasts and bloody, bone-protruding limb stumps. Classy stuff, right?

Now, I could go into why this is a terrible move from a marketing/PR perspective, but I would like to think that most people wouldn’t need an explanation as to why this isn’t really what you want associated with your brand. And yet this item, which must have made it through countless approvals and boardroom meetings, exists. Unsurprisingly, this caused a bit of a firestorm and many more talented than me have already written about this specific incident in detail. But, this brings me back to my original dilemma – why do I, as a consumer of entertainment content enjoyed by millions, feel so embarrassed by it, so often? And, the only thing I can conclude is that the public face of games, the one that my friends, my co-workers, my family see most often, is the marketing materials.

All of this is sort of taking place around movie awards season, and I want to use two Best Picture nominees as examples here. On one hand, we have Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a brutally violent revenge fantasy that probably stands next to all but the most extreme video games in its depictions of human brutality; on the other Michael Haneke’s Amour, a deeply serious drama which spends 90 minutes exploring the emotional depths of sickness and death. And yet, these two films, whose content, themes and presentation could hardly be more different, are being celebrated together in one of the most watched public events of the year. I would feel entirely comfortable discussing either of these films with a colleague, a friend, a loved one, without needing to qualify anything about my feelings, like I often feel I must do with games.

And here’s the sad part, the breadth of interesting, poignant content in games is rapidly increasing. I would venture to say that I had just as many meaningful moments with games over the past few years s I have with films or television. But, for those who aren’t “gamers,” all they see is lowest common denominator. Imagine if the only movies ever advertised, covered in the press, or otherwise exposed to audiences who don’t visit art house theaters were Michael Bay films and Adam Sandler comedies? This is where games are right now.

Even those games which have something to say often hide those themes in their marketing for one reason or another. Take my most anticipated game of 2013, Bioshock Infinite. Its predecessor, simply named Bioshock, managed to take the framework of a violent action game and turn it into a commentary on free will and as brutal a refutation of libertarianism and objectivism as I’ve seen in any media. Bioshock Infinite promises to tackle American exceptionalism, religious freedom and racial intolerance in much the same way. And what did marketers decide would be the best cover for the game? An image of a man in an action hero pose, with a shotgun and a burning flag.

In the independent games space, there are countless games exploring important and challenging themes. I’d suggest that anyone should download and play Jason Rohrer’s Passage, a game that takes, at most 5 minutes to play. Without spoiling it, the game manages to tackle life, love, sacrifice and death with a poignancy and economy of narrative that simply wouldn’t be possible in a non-interactive format. And not all of these games need to tackle some deep issue, but can just be interesting in their own right - I’m currently playing through an episodic game called Kentucky Route Zero which combines the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the films of David Lynch, and American folk music into one of the most sublime experiences I’ve had in any medium.

The fact of the matter is that games, and the people who play them, are growing up. I’d like to believe that game creators are looking to do so as well. Yes, there will always be testosterone fueled teenagers to market to, and I can’t deny that they are attractive to companies looking to hit the bottom line. But, it’s also now up to the games industry to realize that there’s this whole other group of us who want to share why gaming can be great with friends and family without feeling embarrassed by the content. And more than that, I’d love to be able to share my love of games with my future children and feel like they’re not going to be exposed to an industry where marketing a bloody, sexualized torso is considered a rational business decision.

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Some thoughts on Sandy Hook and violence in games

Last week's tragic shooting in Connecticut has, not surprisingly, reopened the debate on gun control, mental health care, and violence in modern popular culture. There are, of course, those who will scapegoat videogames and use them as a conveniently simple excuse for an all too complicated issue. And the extremely vocal gaming community will respond with the fact that there's no measurable link between games and a predisposition to commit horrible acts of violence. Tonight, the NRA put out its response to calls for gun control by saying that they are willing to talk, but only if we also review the effects of video games - incorrectly equating the tools which actually kill to entertainment with no clear link to real world violence. That said, as our entire country (and the world) looks inward to attempt to salvage some good from this awful tragedy, it would be shortsighted for gamers to merely refuse to look at our hobby, which, whether we like it or not, is overwhelmingly focused on acts of violence.

I'll be the first to say that I enjoy the feeling of pulling a trigger in a game; I get a visceral thrill from fighting my way through a battlefield, nailing a perfect headshot, and generally living out the kind of action movie fantasy that I'll never get to - or luckily, have to - experience in real life.That said, it's time for gamers to really start to take a look at what else games can do beyond violence and killing - not for the sake of "the children," or to placate the Fox News commentators who point to games as a reason for real world violence - but instead for the sake of its development as an entertainment medium.

Whenever I hear people talk about what a landmark in gaming Half Life 2 was, I think back to my time with that game and a single issue that always bothered me. I have no qualms saying it's one of the best games ever made for what it did for graphics, physics, and immersion in a world, but I've always had a hard time reconciling this highly detailed world filled with rich characters with the fact that Gordon's only means of interacting with the environment is by pulling the trigger. Standing around in cutscenes, with no way to interact other than to fire bullets at my allies never sat right with me. It's always felt like there was something missing.

Games like Call of Duty, arguably, aspire for even less than Half Life, with their focus purely being on shooting and a fetishistic take on military hardware. Now, I'm not saying this doesn't have its place, though for my part, I feel as if I've lost interest in that style of game. But, what games need, especially from a PR perspective, is a sense of balance. Violence is an amazing narrative device when used correctly - but so is romance, comedy, rich dialogue. It's just that violence is the easiest of those things to pull off in a game given current technology - not to mention it's easier to build a game on mechanics that have come before it which are already familiar to both gamers and developers.

I this transition is already beginning to take place and gamers should champion it. It began with indie games that have become the medium's equivalent of art house cinema, but it's becoming a bit more common. The mainstream success of Telltale's Walking Dead could easily be looked back upon as a turning point for games. Just think about it, one of the most popular and acclaimed games of the past year is centered around protecting and setting a good example for an 8 year old girl. Sure, it has violence and gore, but they're only used when needed to move the plot along - far more of the game is focused around small, human moments. We need more of this, and I hope we get it - it's the best defense against the argument that games are only about violence and death. In the wake of the awful event in Sandy Hook, the image that gamers present to the outside world shouldn't be a soldier with an assault rifle, but Lee comforting and protecting Clementine from the horrors that plague her world.

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MacBeth + Hitchcock + Bioshock = Sleep No More

The reason I play video games isn't to master the mechanics or chase a high score. For me, the most important thing a game can do is give me a chance to experience something I'd never be able to in real life and to immerse me in a world that's at once completely believable and unbelievable. And so, with that, I want to share with the Giantbomb community my experience last night which managed to both top and video game experience I've ever had, while also opening my mind to new ways that games could draw players into a story. That experience was a show in New York City called "Sleep No More".

So what is "Sleep No More?" In short, it's a retelling of MacBeth mixed with Hitchcock and film noir, told mostly without words in a six story 1940s era hotel with more than 100 rooms. Guests are dropped off, sometimes in small groups, sometimes alone, by an elevator operator on various floors. They are given white masks that cover the entire face and instructed not to talk. In the words of the elevator operator as he pushed me out of the door, "This is an experience to be had alone. Things are not always what they seem, and fortune favors the bold."

Wandering off of the elevator, I found myself in a dark hallway, with little understanding of where I am or where to go. But then, I heard soft music. Following it, the hallway opened into a huge hotel ballroom where 20 or so people were dancing an intricately choreographed waltz. A young waitress walked around passing out drinks and a pair of dancers began flirting with each other. But then, the lights cut out and the music turned dark. Suddenly the young waitress was in the center of the room, illuminated by a spot light. She begins an intense, writhing dance and before our eyes, rips out her hair to reveal that she is bald and transforms from an innocent servant girl into some sort of snake like monster. This is one of MacBeth's three witches.

This was one of the less strange things I saw last night. Other highlights include

  • A woman eating raw human hearts only to then spit out a silver ring and give it to an audience member. She then began singing an old jazz song in a man's voice.
  • Stumbling into a bedroom to find Lady MacBeth greeting MacBeth as he returns from battle and both of them naked, making love before she tries to convince him to kill the king.
  • Spending time in a detective's office, reading the case files that were inside his desk when the detective comes in, motions for me to come with him. I follow him into a back room covered in black and white photos, with a work bench in the back. He opens a drawer and inside is a dead bird which he begins dissecting with tweezers.
  • Finding a graveyard and the ruins of a bombed out church with a man beating his head against a statue.
  • Discovering the witch's hut, which in this version is a ruined nightclub. This turned into a crazy techno music orgy with strobe lights and lasers where a naked man put on a bulls's head, two naked witches made out with each other, and then a bloody, dead baby was paraded around the room.

So, what does this have to do with games? Well, for one, the total freedom to see things, while still giving enough subtle clues to get you to where the action is. And then, being able to see all of these non-linear pieces and letting them form the narrative for me. I'm still sure that I only got maybe 70% of the story, but it just makes me want to go again. The thing was like being in Bioshock's Rapture for the first time, but without the combat but the same amount of fear. I would love to see this experience replicated in a game - a fully detailed, open environment with a non-combat focused story and enough clues to let the player figure out what's going on without making it feel like they were led by the hand.

Also, its just an amazing experience, if you can get down with weird and artsy. It's maybe the most unique thing I've ever been a part of.

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Blogging My Novel

Dear reader,​

I find that the hardest part of any writing​ is figuring out that perfect first sentence. And so, I'll dispense with any pretense and just say that this is my attempt to tell a story. I've had an idea for both a world and a story kicking around for some months now and have made countless aborted attempts to get it off the ground.

I recently found myself doing a good bit of reading about Charles Dickens. I've never been much of a Dickens fan to be quite honest, but if I took one thing away, it was the idea that serialized writing has perks for both the reader and the writer. The reader gets digestible morsels of story that leave them waiting for more - and the author gets a chance to get feedback as he weaves a story. And it makes him beholden to his readers to finish the damn thing.

​And so, I have decided that blogging this book as I write it might be for the best. To that extent, I'd like to take advantage of this format and open myself to constructive criticism. Outside of some creative writing exercises in school, this marks my first real attempt to write fiction. There will be rough edges - do not hesitate to comment and let me know what you think. This blog is to be a work in progress.

​As for the story itself, something you should know going in. This will be a fantasy story, but not the type with dragons and knights and epic quests for glory; although, those things did exist in this world long before our story is set. This is, instead, a story about a fantasy world that has lost all that, a world that's "had to grow up" and finds itself looking, well, curiously like ours.

​Lastly, my guiding principle in all of this will be to write the book that I've always wanted to read and, to steal a quote from Elmore Leonard, to "leave out the parts the people skip."

And, with that, I hope you will enjoy the story I have to tell.

- ​Nick

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So I'm Writing A Novel - Update 3: Writer's Block

So last time I wrote one of these, I was around 14,000 words into my book. Now, I've been travelling/working at my actual job like crazy for the past few weeks. That translates to not having a ton of time to write. So at this moment, I'm hovering at just south of 15,000 words... now granted, I went back and revised and removed some sections I wasn't thrilled with. But even still, my progress has slowed pretty significantly. I'm trying my best not to let that get me down.

Either way, I know where I want my story to go, but I'm having issues finding a way to connect where I am now to where it needs to wind up. On top of that, I'm second guessing some of my previous work. It's all a bit frustrating. I figured that maybe writing this would force me to put it out there and maybe get me some level of motivation. I just wish it was coming as easily as it was before.

Anyway, as usual, the book can be read in my Google Doc here.

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So I'm Writing A Novel Update2 : Dealing With Exposition

As I blogged last week, I'm trying to tackled the project of writing my first novel. I've decided that blogging about this here might be a helpful way to keep me motivated. I'm not really writing this with the goal of having it be a commercial success, so I'm happy to let the community watch my progress, add comments, or just read it as I continue to write and revise.

When I wrote last week, I'd just managed to break 11,000 words. Today I'm at just over 14,000. I've also gone back and revised a bit of my first chapter, shortening it so that the action starts a bit earlier.

My current challenge is dealing with exposition. This is a fantasy world and I want to provide logic to the magical elements that I'm introducing. I'm also introducing characters whose job it is to pass on hidden knowledge. I'm trying to balance action with exposition, and trying to couch that exposition into conversations. I'd love to get some people's takes on how that's going - is it interesting?

Anyway, I'm happy to continue blogging and giving updates if the community wants to track my progress.

As always, the novel can be read in a live Google Doc here.

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Commitment Or "I've finally decided to write a novel. "

One of my greatest regrets about myself is my inability to tackle long-term projects. Just about the only extracurricular I've ever committed to was learning to play guitar, and even that I'm only so-so at. Well, over the past year, I've had this idea kicking around in my head for a story. It started with a question- why are fantasy worlds technologically stagnant? Magic - why develop medicine if you have a healing spell, for instance. And then, what would happen then if Middle Earth or the Forgotten Realms or any traditional fantasy setting went through an industrial revolution? Eventually the idea took form and I was able to sketch out a plot and characters and such. It was almost like half remembering a tv show or a book that I read but didn't remember all of the details of.

A couple weeks back, I decided that I was going to challenge myself to just sit down and write the damn thing. If I could hammer out a few pages a week, I'd be on a good schedule. As of today, I've just cracked 11,000 words. Now, my research tells me that I'm still about 90,000 words short of the length of the average first novel. But it's a start.

It's funny, really, because as I'm writing, it's like I can watch this world crystallize and take form in my head. I'm starting to hear and see these characters as if they were real. It's a strange feeling, and really gratifying.

I'm writing the thing in a live Google doc for now. I'd happily invite the community to check on my progress, invite critiques, or just read along. I have no dreams of quitting my job to become the next Stephen King, but if I can say to myself that I finished a novel, that something from my mind now exists on paper for others to enjoy, then I'll be satisfied. If it's any good, maybe I'll throw it up as an e-Book, who knows, but the important thing is writing it.

The book in progress is located here. I'd gladly accept comments (and encouragement if it's any good) from the Giant Bomb community.

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On the Problems of Outrage and Entitlement

So, I'll start this with a (probably mangled) quote from Louis CK, "Everything is awesome and nobody is happy."

When I look at people on Reddit getting up in arms over DLC, DRM, and certain Bioware writers, it seems like every week there's a different cause to get behind and grab our pitchforks to be mad about.

Do I think that sometimes companies take advantage of consumers? Sure, they do and that's not cool. But I'm also well aware that running a business is hard and expensive and making games is really complicated. Sure, they cost a decent amount of money, but that's because dozens if not hundreds of developers, artists and support staff are needed to put together a game.

I guess what bothers me though is that there's a feeling that you're entitled that games be exactly what you want and this pervasive attitude that gaming is always in some sort of decline and it was always better "back in the day."

I mean, we live in a world where thousands of awesome games are available for download at pretty affordable prices, where practically every month a AAA game or two comes out that is at least good if not great while a really cool indie scene has taken root and is allowing for some amazing expressions of creativity.

To pull an example from another medium, I think Two and a Half Men is a terrible TV show and it really sucks that Jon Cryer keeps getting awards and CBS is throwing their money behind it. But that doesn't mean I don't think we're living in a golden age of TV with Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, etc.

Sure, it would be nice if every game included everything we wanted at all times, but you know what, I'm willing to bet that if you played Mass Effect 3 and didn't know about the DLC controversy or the uproar about the gaming preferences of one of the writers, you'd probably at the very least say "Hey, that was kind of fun and worth my time."

This might be a bit of a rambling rant, but I just want people to keep it all in perspective - we're living in a really fun and interesting time for games, and yeah, games are a big business and sometimes businesses have to make decisions that piss off people, but that doesn't mean that it's all going to shit.

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