My End Of 2020 Awards

Hey there folks, and welcome to My End of 2020 Awards, this year's contribution to my ongoing archive of video game acknowledgements. A few years back this was a multi-part extravaganza split across several days, with unique individual awards intended to recognise the best (and worst) attributes of everything I've played in the past twelve months. More recently, though, I've been favouring a more streamlined approach focusing only on my personal top ten titles, and this is the model I'll be adopting again for this year's awards.

Blogs of this kind usually preface the bulk of their content with a review of the year, but given how 2020 unfolded I think it's best not to indulge that expectation too much. For me personally, it's been a very tough year both inside and outside of the video game bubble - a year characterised by a global pandemic that has made my job in healthcare more demanding than it's ever been, and an increasing awareness of malpractice within the games industry that has forced me to ask some serious questions about ethical consumption of arguably my favourite entertainment medium. For this reason, video games haven't served their usual escapist purpose quite so effectively for me this year. A cursory glance at my record for 2020 puts me at twenty-three games beaten, coming in just below last year's total of twenty-four and slotting in above 2016's meagre twelve titles as my second least productive gaming year in recorded history. While that may sound like cause for disappointment, I'm actually pleasantly surprised that I was able to reach the credits of that many titles, what with 2020 being the year it was.

Before I get stuck into the top ten, I'd like to provide some insight on how this list was constructed. First, this list is not presented in any kind of ranked hierarchy. It's long felt disingenuous to me to try and organise these lists into any kind of order, since the games featured on them differ wildly and offer a variety of experiences that are rarely directly comparable to one another. Instead, I'll be presenting my top ten in alphabetical order. Second, this list is not restricted to games that released in this calendar year. I put these top tens together with the intention of providing a fair reflection of the experiences that I've had playing games over the past twelve months, and since my playing habits are vastly skewed in favour of older titles, it would be misrepresentative (not to mention downright impossible) to populate a full list with only 2020 releases.

With all of that said, it's time to reveal the ten games that defined my 2020:

Concrete Genie

Pixelopus / PlayStation 4 / 2019

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I went into Concrete Genie at the start of 2020 not really knowing what to expect. The game's rather vague promotional materials painted it as an experience that I thought might be comparable to Team ICO's output, exploring the developing relationships between protagonist Ash and the titular Genies that he brings to life with his enchanted brush. I fantasised about how this might feed into the gameplay and story, and all I could imagine was a game mechanically unlike anything else I could think of. By the end of the experience I realised that a lot of those expectations were misplaced - the Genies amount to little more than personified Metroidvania-style abilities that gate progress and provide access to hidden areas, resulting in a game that at its core doesn't feel all that different or revolutionary. But even so, I came away from Concrete Genie having fallen a little bit in love with it.

Ostensibly, Concrete Genie is a short adventure game with platforming, puzzle and light combat mechanics. But to describe it as such is to overlook one of its primary aspects - its fantastic painting mechanics, and how they provide a platform for creative expression. Rather than offering a complex toolset that might put off some players, Concrete Genie uses a catalogue of preset objects, tactile motion controls and sophisticated internal logic to ensure that the results of painting will always be mechanically rewarding and aesthetically pleasing, regardless of artistic ability. While the painting mechanics are used as a means to progress the story, and some puzzles do demand solutions in the form of painting specific objects in specific places, by and large the game doesn't railroad the player into doing things in any particular way. Almost every vertical surface in the town of Denska is a potential canvas, and I spent around half my play time painting on walls that weren't story-critical just for the fun of it, combining objects in new and different ways to bring life and colour back to every possible inch of the game world.

Even Concrete Genie's expressive painting mechanics are secondary to the main reason it makes this list, though - its story, which, although simple and far from revolutionary, really resonated with me. Taking on the role of Ash, a creative introvert bullied by his peers for his artistic leanings, brought back some of my more difficult memories of my own childhood. At school I was known as the kid with a black ring binder under his left arm and a ballpoint pen in his right hand, writing at every possible opportunity in lieu of socialising with his classmates. Consequently, I was easy pickings for multiple bullies in my year group, and my folder of scribblings was all too often the target of their attacks. That opening scene, where Ash's notebook is stolen and its contents scattered to the winds, hit me hard. As Concrete Genie's story unfolds, it becomes apparent that the kids targeting Ash have issues of their own that explain their cruel behaviour, another gut-punch reminder that brought back memories of the time in my early twenties when I found out one of those aforementioned bullies had taken his own life following a lengthy struggle with depression. I never made peace with most of my childhood aggressors, which made the game's slightly saccharine ending feel almost cathartic to me. Concrete Genie may not have been the experience I was hoping for, but that didn't prevent it from resonating with me in its own unique and unexpected way.

Dead Space

EA Redwood Shores / PlayStation 3 / 2008

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I've already written at length about why Dead Space deserves its spot on this list, so I'll try not to repeat myself too much here. To briefly summarise, Dead Space was an experience that I originally shared with an ex-girlfriend back in the spring of 2009, and which I've long considered to be "lost" to me as a result of the breakdown of that relationship. This year I managed to "reclaim" the game for myself, achieving my first full playthrough in over a decade over the course of two weeks in October. The new memories I was able to forge with it over that fortnight acted like a well-placed shot from a plasma cutter, severing it from association with that long-gone time in my life and allowing me to wrap the open wound in a fresh layer of context.

What I didn't go into great detail about in that blog was what made Dead Space worth attempting to reclaim in the first place. Even now, twelve years on from its original release, it stands as one of the finest examples of action horror to grace the medium. Using Resident Evil 4's seminal game design and over-the-shoulder perspective as a blueprint, Dead Space builds on those foundations with some truly novel and inspired concepts. The sci-fi setting permits the inclusion of a completely diegetic heads-up display, with health bars displayed on the characters' backs and ammo counts shown on the weapons themselves. The game also warrants praise for its enemy designs, all of which have weak points tied to their limbs to encourage a more varied approach to combat instead of relying solely on headshots - dubbed "strategic dismemberment" by the developers. Further depth and variety comes from the inclusion of stasis and kinesis abilities, which allow for enemies to be slowed down and attacked with environmental objects respectively, as well as playing into some simple environmental puzzle solving. All of this innovation is supported by an incredibly polished presentation, consisting of cohesive, believable visuals and some of the best audio direction in the medium.

One aspect of Dead Space that I feel doesn't get enough recognition is its story. While it seems like the franchise was intended to be a multimedia project from the outset, with comic books, animated films and novels expanding the universe long before any sign of a bona fide sequel, I feel confident saying that the original game stands strongly on its own. As with all the best examples of the genre, where the catalyst for the unspeakable bad thing has already happened prior to the protagonist's arrival, Dead Space starts in media res. Revealing the details of what happened on board the USG Ishimura through a drip-feed of audio diaries and text logs running parallel to their progress, Dead Space allows the player to slowly piece together past events as they navigate its dark corridors. Just as the gameplay slowly ramps up both in difficulty and tension, so too does the story ramp up to its climax - one which is, admittedly, slightly undermined by a disappointing final boss battle, but which has nevertheless secured Dead Space a spot on my list of all-time favourite games. I certainly won't be leaving it another eleven years before I revisit this again.

Final Fantasy VII Remake

Square-Enix / PlayStation 4 / 2020

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Final Fantasy VII Remake is a difficult game for me to write about. Coming from someone who previously penned over sixty thousand words about the original Final Fantasy VII across thirty-five blogs over four years, that may seem odd. But I think it's precisely because of the existence of Enduring Final Fantasy VII that the prospect of doing anything even remotely similar for this reimagining fills me with a palpable sense of dread. It's a game that deserves the very best that I can offer as a writer, not necessarily due to the quality of the game itself, but for the sake of what its existence represents. This trio of paragraphs will not attempt to be that tribute. Perhaps it will materialise somewhere down the line. Perhaps it will remain in gestation until the game's remaining instalments see the light of day. Perhaps it will never happen at all. But I can't put this game on this list without writing at least something about my experience with it.

At the end of its first chapter, I was completely on board with what I thought Final Fantasy VII Remake was trying to do. The game took me through a faithful recreation of the assault on Mako Reactor No.1, funnelled me through accurately-rendered three-dimensional versions of Midgar's iconic architecture, introduced me to the basics of a combat system that intelligently combined real-time action with turn-based strategy, and I loved every single second of it. Fifteen minutes into the second chapter, I was ready to get off the ride. I walked through the streets of Midgar at a painstakingly slow pace, triggered incidental dialogue as I passed generic-looking NPCs, endured an unscheduled early appearance by Sephiroth that seemed to serve no purpose beyond fetishising his rivalry with Cloud, and I hated every single second of it. This was my experience of playing Final Fantasy VII Remake in microcosm - moments of unbridled, nostalgia-fuelled bliss juxtaposed directly with moments of confused revulsion. Nowhere is this juxtaposition more evident than in the game's conclusion, which left me intensely conflicted and unsure whether to commend the developers for having the gall to hint at altering some of the original Final Fantasy VII's most significant story beats, or lambast them for completely missing the point of why those story beats exist in the first place.

Final Fantasy VII Remake is a game that I spent years convincing myself I wanted. It is also a game that I spent years convincing myself I didn't want. It is a game that was simultaneously destined to succeed and set up to fail, and it does both of those things spectacularly. I am at once excited and terrified to see where the project goes from here.

Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions

Square-Enix / PlayStation Portable / 2007

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Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions is a game that I thought I would never see the end of. Since receiving the game alongside a brand new PlayStation Portable for Christmas in 2007, I have attempted to play through it more times than I can remember, and each attempt has been scuppered or waylaid by something or other. I've burned out on its combat mechanics, lost my place in its labyrinthine story, lost crucial party members to its implementation of permadeath, hit insurmountable brick walls in the form of unbeatable battles immediately preceded by save prompts, and even lost dozens of hours of save data by accidentally snapping my PSP's proprietary memory card. With every failed attempt I would distance myself from the game, sometimes for years at a time, before feeling its inexorable pull and coming back for one more try. Such were the circumstances when I found myself bound by the urge to reboot the game on my PlayStation Vita back in the spring, a feeling accompanied by curiosity as I wondered what circumstances would conspire to halt my progress this time.

Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions does not make itself easy to love. As a port of a game originally released for the PlayStation in 1997, it is full of design choices that seemed questionably archaic in 2007 and are almost unforgivable in 2020. The aforementioned ability to soft-lock one's game by saving immediately before an unwinnable story mission is perhaps the most egregious example, but there are a wealth of minor aggravations too. My biggest personal bugbear was having to pick my units for each battle blindly, with no advance knowledge of the enemy units or terrain. This resulted in my first attempt at almost every story mission amounting to little more than reconnaissance, discovering enemies' jobs, equipment and positions on the map so that I could formulate a strategy and come back with a properly coordinated squad for the second attempt. The PSP version of the game is also plagued by chronic slowdown during combat animations, reducing an already methodically-paced process to even more of a crawl.

While many of these annoyances serve to artificially prolong the experience of playing Final Fantasy Tactics, they do nothing to diminish the core of that experience - namely the excellent mechanics and addictive character development that drive the heart of its combat encounters. By combining the isometric, turn-based strategy RPG gameplay of the Ogre Battle series with Final Fantasy's trademark Job system, The War of the Lions provides players with a highly customisable set of abilities that can be combined in some truly remarkable ways, potentially even stomping all over the game's intended difficulty curve with the right amount of forearmed knowledge. These systems complement one of the greatest stories to grace the genre, if not the medium altogether, mostly eschewing the fantastical trappings of most Japanese RPGs in favour of a much more grounded story exploring the death of a king and the resulting power struggle as several factions seek to fill the vacuum. Told from the perspectives of childhood friends Ramza Beoulve and Delita Heiral, it is a tale of betrayal, duplicity, deception and corruption, twisting and turning numerous times as it unfolds from beginning to end, and its Shakespearean atmosphere is heightened even further by The War of the Lions' updated translation. More than anything else, it is this captivating story that has kept me coming back to Final Fantasy Tactics time and again for the last thirteen years, and to finally have witnessed its conclusion is a more than fitting reason to include it on this year's list.

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver

Crystal Dynamics / PlayStation / 1999

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Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver is a game that feels like it's been in my backlog forever. I was first exposed to Raziel and the vampiric realm of Nosgoth a little over twenty years ago in the form of a cover feature and inclusion on a demo disc from the Official PlayStation Magazine some time in 1999. That playable demo (which took place in an environment that, as far as I can tell, did not make it into the final version of the game) must have left some residual impression upon me, although it would be a full decade before I would acquire a copy of the full game, and a further eleven years before I would play it through to completion.

Aesthetically Soul Reaver stands on a level comparable to the original PlayStation's very best, with its full-3D environments and detailed character models easily rivalling the likes of Metal Gear Solid or Vagrant Story. Where it surpasses its contemporaries, though, is in its technical proficiency. Soul Reaver was the first CD-based game of its kind to present its world seamlessly, with no visible load times interrupting gameplay, a phenomenal achievement considering the hardware of the time. Not only this, but each of its environments has two variants which can be shifted between on the fly, allowing the game to implement various mechanics reliant on moving between the spectral and material versions of the world, without the transition hindering the player or interrupting the game itself. These pioneering features make Soul Reaver feel technically impressive even twenty-one years and four generations of hardware removed from its original release.

While Soul Reaver's slightly clunky action-adventure gameplay and Metroidvania-style gated progression haven't aged brilliantly, its story does manage to leave a lasting impression even in 2020. In an age where so many story-centric video games shoot for a realistic presentation, Soul Reaver stands out by being more evocative of theatre. The voice actors deliver their dialogue with a dramatic theatricality rather than pursuing understated realism, and in the context of this Gothic fantasy setting, it's an approach that works wonderfully and feels almost refreshing by comparison. While I couldn't say for certain that Soul Reaver would impress the average player in 2020, it certainly did a lot that impressed me, and that's why it makes it onto this list.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D

Grezzo / 3DS / 2015

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Rounding out the trio of games that have taken me over ten years to beat is The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. Perhaps the most shameful gap in my history with the Zelda franchise, I have owned a copy of Majora's Mask in one form or another ever since 2004, when I acquired a preowned copy of the Zelda Collector's Edition alongside my brand new GameCube. While Ocarina of Time and subsequently The Wind Waker were games that I revisited numerous times over the next couple of years, I was unable to see past Majora's Mask's obvious differences to those two more conventional adventure titles. I struggled with the three-day time limit, grew frustrated with the lack of progress I was making, and felt uneasy due to its noticeably darker tone. Not dissimilar to my experiences with Final Fantasy Tactics, I attempted to play through it several times, each time making it a little further than the previous effort, before ultimately drifting away from it in favour of another more straightforward experience from a different title.

I don't think it is any coincidence that it was the 3DS version of Majora's Mask that got me over those humps and finally saw me through to the rolling credits at the game's end. On top of being nicer to look at and playable on the go, this remake brings with it a number of alterations and quality-of-life improvements designed to make the experience of playing Majora's Mask more intuitive and less impenetrable. The improved Bombers' Notebook in particular was a godsend, presenting all its information with a much greater degree of clarity than its original incarnation, and frequent tip-offs from the Bombers around Clock Town helped guide me towards side quests (and subsequently rewards) that I may never have found otherwise. Devout fans of the Nintendo 64 original don't seem to like the 3DS version very much on account of how many of these changes supposedly compromise the singular vision of the source material, but for me personally, I appreciate its efforts to make the experience more accessible.

As a Zelda game, Majora's Mask sits somewhere around the middle of my personal ranking of the franchise - a solid, if slightly short sequel to Ocarina of Time with some excellent dungeon designs and a cool mask-transformation gameplay gimmick. However, to judge Majora's Mask as a Zelda game is to miss the point somewhat. Majora's Mask's greatest strength undoubtedly lies in engaging with its very un-Zelda-like unique core mechanic - the three-day cycle. Meeting the inhabitants of Clock Town, observing their routines, getting to know them, becoming attached to them and fulfilling their requests and desires, only to ultimately undo all my hard work by playing the Song of Time and returning everything to square one - this was where Majora's Mask really spoke to me. By engaging with this core gameplay conceit, the game re-taught me an important lesson in mindfulness - to try and change the things I can, to accept the things I can't, and to recognise that my time is valuable and how I choose to spend it is important. In a year as totally bat-shit insane as 2020, that was a lesson I sorely needed reminding of at times, and Majora's Mask was the perfect game to do it. That's why it earns its spot on this list.

Marvel's Spider-Man

Insomniac / PlayStation 4 / 2018

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I've gone off the open-world genre a little bit recently. I think this is primarily down to the increasing homogeneity of the genre, a phenomenon I've seen dubbed 'Ubification' in honour of the publisher most associated with it. I'm sure everyone reading this knows the kinds of games I'm talking about - games with stupendously large open worlds covering hundreds of square kilometres, littered with towers to climb and enemy checkpoints to clear, mini-maps spattered with icons corresponding to hundreds of pointless collectibles and dozens of side-missions all adhering slavishly to the same half a dozen formulae. A cursory glance at my list of games beaten this year reveals that of the twenty-three titles I played, only two were open-world games - Just Cause 3, and Marvel's Spider-Man. While Rico Rodriguez's third outing didn't do much to mess with the now-established open world template, Insomniac's take on the web-slinging wonder broke from the mould in two crucial ways.

The first of those breaks with convention comes in the size of its game world. Spider-Man's rendition of Manhattan is definitely one of the smaller open world environments of the last generation, clocking in at around twelve square kilometres. This smaller map breeds familiarity in a way that larger open worlds simply can't, because players see more of the same streets and landmarks while they play, building a better mental picture of the game world's layout as they do. The smaller world is also populated with fewer collectibles, making the otherwise daunting task of collecting everything for a 100% run feel much more manageable.

The second, and perhaps more revolutionary, aspect of Spider-Man's open world is how the player moves through it. The web-swinging mechanics provide some of the fastest, most fluid, and most fun traversal I have ever experienced in an open-world game. And when it's fun to move through the world, the player has a reason not to fast-travel across it (often a necessity in larger open-world games). This, in turn, breeds more familiarity with the game world and provides more opportunities to stumble upon collectibles organically. This idea of organic discovery of points of interest is then further supplemented by the implementation of Spider-Sense, which marks points of interest within the game world instead of on the mini-map. All of these systems and design choices feed back into each other to create an experience where tracking down collectibles and taking on incidental side missions doesn't feel like simply ticking off items on a checklist, as it does in so many other games. It's this smart design philosophy which made Marvel's Spider-Man easily the best open-world game I've played this year, and more than worthy of inclusion in this blog.

Pokémon: Let's Go, Eevee!

Game Freak / Switch / 2018

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I've said several times over the years that these lists wouldn't be complete without including a Pokémon game of some description. This year's representative is Pokémon: Let's Go, Eevee!, the most recent reimagining of the franchise's first generation of games. Essentially a retread of Pokémon Yellow, Let's Go, Eevee! and its partner game (Let's Go, Pikachu!) seek to combine the series' traditional RPG framework with the motion-based catching mechanics of 2016's mobile sensation Pokémon GO. The end result is a game that is often laughably easy, but nonetheless very enjoyable to play through, particularly from the perspective of someone with over twenty years' experience as a Pokémon Trainer.

I will concede that a lot of the fun I had with Let's Go, Eevee! was derived from nostalgia. Pokémon Blue was my first dance with the franchise, and as a result the region of Kanto holds a very special place in my heart. To see it rendered in full 3D for the very first time, with wild Pokémon roaming the tall grass in real time, warmed the soul of my inner nine-year-old in a way I wasn't expecting. While the game posed next to no challenge for the duration of my playtime, I found that fact oddly comforting. Exploiting type match-ups has become so much like second nature to me that I played most of the game in a zen-like state, aware of the decisions I was making and how they were influencing what was happening on the screen, but not necessarily conscious of it. To put it more bluntly, playing Let's Go, Eevee! was, as kids much cooler than I might say, "a chill time".

2020 has been a very weird year to be a Pokémon fan. We saw the release of an Expansion Pass for Sword and Shield, the first time that mainline Pokémon games have been expanded with post-release DLC. Both The Isle of Armor and The Crown Tundra offer substantial chunks of content to supplement what was a disappointingly bare-bones core experience, but I'm still not sure they elevate Sword and Shield to the level of a complete package. I plan to replay Sword in 2021 with the Expansion Pass content integrated into the experience, and I'm hoping that doing so might improve my overall opinion of the game. However, there's a niggling thought at the back of my mind that getting the "complete experience" probably still won't be as enjoyable as this remake of a game I originally played over twenty years ago. Is that a sad indictment of the current state of the Pokémon franchise, or is it a testament to the simple fun of Let's Go, Eevee!? I guess I'll find out next year.

Super Mario 3D All-Stars

Nintendo / Switch / 2020

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I was never a Mario guy growing up. My first two consoles were Sega machines (a Master System II and a Mega Drive), so my formative gaming years were spent with Alex Kidd and Sonic the Hedgehog. When my parents replaced the Mega Drive with a PlayStation, my attention turned to Crash and Spyro, and subsequently to Jak and Daxter and Ratchet and Clank when we upgraded to the PlayStation 2. My first Nintendo home console was the aforementioned GameCube I bought in 2004, and by that point I was convincing myself I'd outgrown platformers and was playing action-adventure games and Japanese RPGs instead. Prior to this year, my only experiences of Mario in a platforming context were playing Super Mario 64 on the Wii's Virtual Console in 2015, and Super Mario Odyssey on the Switch in 2018. I enjoyed the former more than I was expecting to, and fell head over heels in love with the latter.

This year's announcement and release of Super Mario 3D All-Stars therefore seemed to me like an opportunity to plug a sizeable hole in my gaming history. I spent the back end of 2020 playing through the three featured games one after the other in chronological order, and having done so I can honestly say the collection represents some of the most fun I have ever had with 3D platformers. Revisiting 64 after a five-year hiatus and pursuing all 120 of its Power Stars this time around was a joy. Sunshine, a game that has proved divisive over the years, was a fun time for the most part, although the over-reliance on blue coins and some of the more fiendishly difficult late game challenges forced me to step away from it with 94 Shines collected. Galaxy was by far my favourite of the bunch though, combining the goal-based gameplay of its forebears with more linear level structures.

Do I feel that the timed exclusivity of this release is a bad thing? Absolutely. Nintendo taking the 'Disney vault' approach with this collection and halting its sale at the end of March to try and create a false sense of scarcity is not consumer-friendly. Is it a bare-bones collection that feels like it was slapped together with a minimal amount of effort? Again, absolutely. 64 deserves an N. Sane/Reignited Trilogy-style remake with Odyssey-level graphics and modern camera control options. Sunshine deserves fixes for the numerous bugs it originally shipped with. It's hard to say Galaxy deserves better since it looks fantastic and plays brilliantly, but the omission of Galaxy 2 feels like a sorely missed opportunity. Having all the games' original soundtracks included is a nice touch, but it feels like a bare minimum in terms of bonus content when comparable collections include things like concept art, developer commentaries and interviews. As a compilation put together in tribute to the franchise for its thirty-fifth anniversary, Super Mario 3D All-Stars feels sorely lacking. As three of the best 3D platformers ever made, though, it's impossible to deny their quality, or their place on this list.

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1+2

Vicarious Visions / PlayStation 4 / 2020

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Activision have been knocking it out of the park with their remakes in recent years. 2017's N. Sane Trilogy was a fantastic recreation of the first three Crash Bandicoot games. 2018's Reignited Trilogy gave the same treatment to Spyro the Dragon, my favourite of the two PlayStation mascot platformers. Last year's Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled not only delivered an incredible reimagining of my favourite kart racer of all time, but it did the unthinkable and actually improved on its core mechanics while offering a huge amount of bonus content in the form of unlockable skins, karts, and monthly Grand Prix events. This year, it's the turn of the Birdman to grace us with rebuilt versions of his first two PS1 outings.

I think it's fair to say I was apprehensive about THPS1+2 prior to release. While developers Vicarious Visions have a proven track record for delivering on these ground-up remakes with the aforementioned N. Sane Trilogy, the Tony Hawk series has a far more chequered past when it comes to this sort of thing (Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD, anyone?). Thankfully, my worries were totally unfounded. THPS1+2 completely nails the feel of classic Tony Hawk gameplay, dropping the player into faithfully-recreated versions of the first two games' levels and giving them two minutes to complete as many goals as possible. While the levels and goals are ripped wholesale from the series' PS1 iterations, the physics model and movesets feel much closer to those of PlayStation 2 instalments like Tony Hawk's Pro Skaters 3 and 4, incorporating mechanics like reverts, spine and hip transfers, and double-tap trick variations that weren't present in those first two games. While this may upset purists, I am ecstatic about it. I've long considered THPS4 to be the best game in the franchise from a gameplay standpoint, so to have this game line up so closely with its mechanics and physics model is a dream come true. I've been able to tap into my latent muscle memory and have been busting out huge totals in pursuit of the game's tough 'Platinum Score' challenges.

And the fantastic additions don't stop there. While the game includes the Career modes (dubbed "Tours" here) from both THPS1 and 2, it also offers over eight hundred challenges for players to complete, ranging from landing special tricks with certain skaters and nailing every gap in each level to racking up million-point combos and experimenting with the fully-featured Create-a-Park suite. There's also a robust Online mode and a Skate Shop filled with decks, grips, wheels and clothes to kit out your Create-a-Skater, all bought with currency that's earned for completing challenges in-game and (as of the time of writing, at least) can't be purchased via microtransactions. For the fourth year in a row, I can confidently say that Activision have published one of the best remakes I have ever had the privilege of playing.

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Those are my top ten, the games that defined this year for me and which, for better or worse, I will remember when I think back on this crazy time. But I feel it's important to acknowledge one more game before I close out this blog. A game which I only played a little of, but which has nonetheless remained a constant presence in my life for most of this year. And to tell you about it, I'm going to temporarily hand the blogging duties over to my girlfriend Alice:

Alice's Game of the Year - Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Nintendo / Switch / 2020

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"Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a game I never knew I needed but am so glad has come into existence, especially in the bizarre year that is 2020. Having played Animal Crossing: Wild World as a teen on my Nintendo DS I am familiar with the franchise. The Wild World game was my favourite DS game and the few other games I owned got little look in. As I grew up, the game lost the sparkle it once had. Until I met Dan I hadn’t played any video games since those mid teen days.

Gaming together with him and our friends with Mario Party games, Super Smash Bros. and other short games refuelled my love of the medium. Dan was generous enough to buy me a 3DS to relive my Animal Crossing days, with the game Animal Crossing: New Leaf. However after a few months I tired of it once more. Therefore I was a little sceptical when I saw a new game was entering the franchise to be released in 2020 on Nintendo Switch. Would I play it or would it be a total waste of money? Dan was amazing and took the chance because I’ve got to admit the advertisements and sneak peeks in the run-up did paint a picture that added extra sparkle and wonder to the same old framework.

For those that have never played this popular franchise the principle is you are a newcomer to a village and it is your job to pay off your mortgage to get increasingly larger houses by selling items you find around the settlement, collect and donate fossils, fish and bugs, and buy clothing and items for your home to personalise your little character's life. You are privileged enough to have some great neighbours in the form of animals such as cats, dogs, horses, chickens, hamsters, kangaroos, cows, ostriches, rhinos and sheep. Each of the residents has their own personality which fits into the categories of Snooty, Peppy, Normal, Jock, Sisterly, Smug and Cranky.

The principle of this game fits the previous model but this time you are venturing as an intrepid explorer on Tom Nook’s first island getaway. He hopes to set up a camp on a desert island and you and two animal pals are going to be his guinea pigs - pun intended. From humble beginnings of collecting fire wood and living in tents a community grows. Over the span of a couple of weeks (real time playing daily) you attain a maximum of 10 animal neighbours, two shops, a museum and a town hall. Now what, you may be asking? Well the fun of this game is it’s up to you, there is endless personalisation. From your character's appearance, to further growing and customising their home and changing the landscape of the humble island. In terms of the latter the possibilities have never been so user intuitive. You can now knock down cliffs and change the course of the rivers and ponds around the landscape. There is also the capacity to decorate the outdoors with furniture items which feels fresh to the canon. You can create personalised and handmade items from the materials you find around the island using recipes you can buy, find or are gifted.

The extra functionality has kept this game vivid and interesting to me throughout this year. The developers have come up with various updates to create seasonal events, items and activities too. Through this and watching the plant life change and days become shorter I feel a connection between the real and fictional worlds. This year when real life has been uncertain and stressful delving into this simpler and nostalgic one is something I didn’t know I needed. There have been very few days since the game's release that I haven’t played it and it now feels part of my daily routine to not only do my household chores but my Animal Crossing ones too. I have created a little island I love and still have plenty more I could do to further personalise and beautify its appearance. I have loyally created rapports with my fellow islanders of my island home ‘Beauville’. I even got Dan playing this beloved game of mine for a month or two (before he got bored of its slower pace of life). I believe Animal Crossing is a game of mindfulness, simplicity, and good values. Something you don’t receive in just any game. I would highly recommend New Horizons to any Nintendo Switch owners as a game I feel can not be rivalled for its style and iconic characters. Thank you Dan for letting me witter on about this game to you often and now on your blog too."

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So there you have it, a list of the ten games that defined my year, plus one extra from Alice for good measure. Here's hoping that 2021 will be full of equally memorable gaming experiences, and in more general terms, just a better year overall for everyone. Personally I have some pretty major plans for the new year, one of which is a commitment to putting out one blog on this site each month diving deep into one or more of the games that I've been playing. I had a lot of fun putting together last month's entry on Dead Space, and I'd like to try and do more of that going forward. I hope that everyone who reads this had the best holiday season possible, and wish you all a happy, prosperous and safe New Year. I'll be back in January with a blog of some description, but until then, take care and I'll see you around.

Daniel

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Make Us Whole Again: Reclaiming Dead Space

This is not a review. This is a reclamation.

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Last month I played Dead Space for the first time since the spring of 2009. It's a game that I have long held as one of my all-time favourites, a viscerally terrifying third-person action-horror title that pays homage to the likes of Ridley Scott's Alien while building upon the winning formula of the seminal Resident Evil 4. Dead Space is often the first game that comes to mind when I consider potential candidates for the ideal "Halloween game", that subset of thrillingly tense titles which are perfectly suited to revisit in the run-up to the spookiest holiday on the calendar. And yet, this is the first time I've returned to the USG Ishimura and stepped into the shoes of Isaac Clarke in over a decade. That reluctance to re-tread its dimly-lit corridors is a notion that I've battled with several times in recent years, and it has taken a not-insignificant summoning of strength on my part to overcome that fear - not of the game itself, but of the dormant memories that could still be attached to it.

To fully understand this story, we need to go back to the spring of 2009, when I was a fresh-faced, nineteen-year-old university student nearing the end of the first year of a degree in English Language and Literature. I was living in a communal flat on campus with fifteen other students, most of whom I didn't get on with. I was a hundred miles from home and missing my family and friends. All my time and energy were primarily focused on three things - the course I was studying, the video games I was playing, and the girl I was in a relationship with. Her name was Karen, we met at university, and after a fairly tumultuous first term, we ended up getting together in January of that year. When this tale begins we had been together for about three months and were still very much in the honeymoon period, spending as much time together as possible and sharing our interests with each other in the hope of finding more common ground on which to build the foundations of our relationship.

One evening in April, after a long day of lectures, seminars and assignments, I cocooned myself in my room with the intention of playing some video games. I'd just finished playing through the story of Grand Theft Auto IV's first DLC expansion, The Lost and Damned, and after scanning my shelf for something new to replace it, I settled on Dead Space. I'd been playing for maybe half an hour and was about halfway through its first chapter when I heard a knock at the door. It was Karen - fresh from her last seminar of the day, she'd come to ask me if I wanted to get some dinner with her. Her attention fell on my TV screen, which was showing Isaac's limbs being severed from his torso by a Necromorph (I'd forgotten to pause the game when I got up to answer the door). "What are you doing?" she asked, the tone of her voice betraying her curiosity. I told her, passing her the game case. Her eyes scanned the story synopsis on the back, and when she looked back up at me, she uttered five words I've not since forgotten:

"Can I watch you play?"

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Thus the ritual was born. Every evening for about a fortnight, when we'd finished our studies and eaten dinner, Karen would visit my room. I would boot up my Xbox 360 as she turned off all the lights and drew all the curtains, plunging the room into total darkness to set an appropriate mood. Then we would sit side-by-side on my bed, the duvet drawn up over our heads like a hood to limit our peripheral vision and focus our attention on the only remaining light source in the room - the 14-inch screen of my old standard-definition CRT television. She would lock her arms tightly around one of mine as I played, burying her head in my shoulder at every ominous sound cue, screaming and cursing at every jump-scare, pulling me this way and that as I desperately tried to draw a bead on rapidly-approaching enemies with the plasma cutter. Her presence beside me on those evenings elevated Dead Space to something beyond a mere video game - it became a shared experience for both of us, and one that would go on to become a pillar of our three-year relationship.

I should probably explain that Karen was not into video games at all - when we met, her only real exposure to the medium was the Wii at her parents' house, which was used pretty much exclusively to play the golf and bowling portions of Wii Sports. She was more into movies, action and horror movies in particular, with the aforementioned Alien being one of her favourites. Dead Space ended up serving as a bridge between my interests and hers - a combination of fantastic gameplay for me to engage with, and a tense sci-fi-themed horror story for her to get caught up in. Off the back of our playthrough Karen persuaded me to watch the first four Alien films with her over the summer, and despite not being much of a movie-watcher I ended up really enjoying them, particularly the first. When Dead Space's sequel was announced, it was Karen who brought the news to me rather than the other way around. Following our playthrough of Dead Space 2 shortly after its release in early 2011, I dedicated an entire blog post not to my thoughts of the game, but to a transcription of hers. To this day, that post is the only one of over four hundred entries on this blog signed with a name other than my own.

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My relationship with Karen ended in December 2011, just a few weeks short of what would have been our third anniversary as a couple. Looking back on it with this much distance, it's easy to see why - we both left university, moved back into our respective parents' houses, spent less and less time together, and ultimately grew apart in very different directions. She was the one who called time on things though, and for a long while I was devastated. It took a great many months, and the support of some truly incredible friends, to build myself back into a better headspace. Although we no longer speak (a decision I had to take for my own mental well-being shortly after the break-up) I bear her no ill will, and wish her every happiness and success in her life. Hopefully she would say the same of me.

Over the years I've been able to reclaim a lot of things that for a time I thought I'd never enjoy again as a result of their associations with that relationship. There were songs that reminded me of Karen that I couldn't bring myself to listen to. There were movies and TV shows that we'd watched together which no longer held any appeal. Even five years down the line, when one of my former teachers passed away and I returned to my university town for his funeral, every street I walked down and building I passed seemed haunted by spectres of our time together. But time has moved inexorably forward, and against all my insistent beliefs at the time, things did indeed get easier. I can listen to those songs again, watch those movies and TV shows, and although I no longer walk those streets, I can think back on a lot of my time in that university town without the ghost of that relationship looming over every thought.

Until last month, the experience of playing Dead Space stood as one of the last remaining bastions of that relationship. That may seem odd to you, and it certainly does to me - as I've said previously, video games were more my thing than they ever were Karen's, so it stands to reason they should be easier for me to reclaim. The reality of the situation has been very different, though. I suspect it's because Dead Space didn't exist for me before Karen - it was something we experienced for the first time together, meaning I had no memories of playing it that didn't involve her in some way. It also carries the burden of an unfulfilled promise in the form of the third game in the series, which we speculatively promised we would play together at some point in the future shortly after finishing the second. When Dead Space 3 did eventually see release in February 2013 I skipped over it, and have not played it to this day - a fact I could attribute to its lukewarm critical reception, but which actually stemmed from a desire not to dredge up that promise and the memories associated with it.

I have tried several times over the last few years to revisit Dead Space as a Halloween experience, but it has taken me until now to successfully make it past that initial wave of repressed memories and through the game in its entirety. Once I'd crested that wave, I was able to look past those old memories and start making new ones. In a word, it has been cathartic. Going forward, when I think of Dead Space, I will think of it as a game that wasn't as difficult as I remembered it being (turns out it's a lot easier to aim a weapon when someone isn't hanging off your arm). I will praise its innovative diegetic UI, its fantastic lighting engine and its peerless sound design. And I will lament the absolute bullshittery that is the aiming acceleration on the analog sticks in its two mandatory turret sections. I will be able to look back on it as much for the game it is now as for the experiences it has given me in the past. And hopefully that means it will be easier to revisit again in the future.

Replaying Dead Space has also helped to give me a frame of reference for how much I have achieved over the last decade. I am no longer the heartbroken, jobless graduate I was at the end of 2011. I have a job, one that involves taking care of other people (albeit indirectly), and for all the times I may complain about certain aspects of it, it is a job that I genuinely enjoy and believe that I am good at. I have a home, not in the sense of living under my parents' roof, but a collection of rooms, doors and windows that I can truly call mine (providing I keep up the mortgage repayments). I have my creativity, a passion I indulge through a handful of outlets including playing music and writing these blogs. And I am in another romantic relationship, one that I have been in for four-and-a-half years now and which has eclipsed every milestone I ever reached with Karen. My current girlfriend Alice is also not much into video games, but we have managed to find a few experiences to share - she is particularly fond of Telltale's The Walking Dead series and Dontnod's Life Is Strange. When I decided to replay Dead Space, I deliberately did not try to involve Alice in any way. Nevertheless, as we live together in a small flat, it was inevitable that she would end up witnessing some gameplay at some point. This worried me. How would she react to it? Would she, like Karen, see some appeal in it and ask to watch me play? Would my last valiant effort to reclaim this game fail as history repeated itself a decade later? But all that worry evaporated when she happened to see Isaac fall victim to one of the game's enemies, and she uttered five words I won't soon forget:

"Eww, that is so gross."

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Every piece of media is a time capsule. The entertainment that we engage with has a habit of wrapping its tendrils around almost any memory it can get within reach of, becoming inextricably intertwined with those events that most clearly define our lives. Dead Space was, is, and I suspect always will be a game that I associate with Karen and the time that we spent together, but revisiting it has served to prove that those formative memories don't have to be the only ones I associate with it. Thanks for reading folks. Take care, stay safe, and I'll see you around.

Daniel

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Currently playing - Super Mario Sunshine (NSw)

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Trashes to Ashes - Part Three

Welcome, gentlemen and players, to the third instalment of Trashes to Ashes, a serial blog following my player avatar through the Career mode of Cricket 19, starting at the bottom in club cricket and working all the way up to the most prestigious competition in the sport - the Ashes test series between England and Australia. For full details on the scope and aims of this series, be sure to check out the first post by following this link.

In this entry, we progress to the second round of fixtures in our first club cricket season. Can Aldbury continue on their winning streak, and will we be able to keep building on our opening performances by taking a few more wickets and scoring a few more runs? Read on to find out...

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Part Three - Old Friends and Close Calls

11th May, 2019

The line-ups for our second three-day game of the season
The line-ups for our second three-day game of the season

Today brought the start of our second three-day game of the season, a home fixture against Pitstone. Having beaten them in our Twenty20 meeting last week, I think most of the team were quietly confident about our chances. However, there was definitely a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the players as a result of the "captaincy coup" Dan Reece briefed me about on Thursday night. There's no real outright hostility towards Michael O'Brien (understandable, since questioning his authority would pretty much guarantee being dropped from the team), but there was a level of discomfort in the changing room this morning that I hadn't felt in previous games. We'd had a lot of rain through the week, meaning our pitch was in its usual state - soft, grassy, and a little waterlogged. The rain has also brought the temperature down, giving us a cooler, windier, more overcast backdrop for today's fixture. O'Brien went out to the middle to toss the coin, but he lost the toss and Pitstone put us in to bowl.

The difference in O'Brien's style of captaincy was very apparent to me, since he seemed to hold off from giving me a shot with the ball for as long as humanly possible. He eventually brought me on in the 47th over, with Pitstone having struggled to 163 runs at the cost of eight wickets. I found myself pitted against Alejandro Ethan, one of Pitstone's better bowlers, and quickly spotted he was moving across his stumps a lot to try and get the ball away on the on side. I spent the next few overs trying to trap him LBW, but despite a couple of good shouts, I was denied by the umpire and he managed to hang on to his wicket. My four-over spell was short and sweet, brought to an end not by O'Brien directly, but instead by Dan Reece, who managed to take the two remaining wickets in quick succession at the other end. I may not have taken a wicket, but conceded just six runs, preserving my impressive bowling economy. Pitstone ended up all out for 172 runs, with only Justin Slater managing a half-century thanks to his top-scoring 62. The pick of our players was definitely Benjamin English, who took four wickets for just 33 runs across his eleven overs.

With half a day's play remaining, the teams swapped and we began our first innings with the bat, looking to overtake Pitstone's 172. I was shocked to learn from Michael O'Brien that he'd moved me up the order to fifth, a promotion that I didn't feel I'd earned based on my first two innings, and which I suspect was made more to undermine Felix Caratelli by demoting him to a position below the unproven new guy. It wasn't long before I found myself taking to the middle, as an early collapse saw us lose our first three wickets for just 16 runs. O'Brien was down at the non-striker's end, and appeared rather frustrated by the top order's lacklustre performance. My mind conjured up memories of a story my dad used to tell me about the time Aldbury were all out for just 10 runs, by far the club's worst ever batting performance, and I began to wonder if this match would end up becoming my version of that story. Feeling a certain amount of weight on my shoulders from the responsibility of trying to steady the ship and prevent an embarrassing rout, I took my guard and prepared to face my first ball.

The first runs are always the hardest to score, in my opinion, so getting off the mark is never not a huge relief. My first runs today came from a full ball drifting down the leg side, which I was able to glance off my pads for a quick single. The following over, I pushed another full delivery back between mid-off and cover for four, scoring my first boundary for Aldbury and moving my score up to 5. I kept pushing the ball into gaps, taking singles and ticking up my total, while O'Brien consistently found the boundaries needed to push us towards a more respectable total. As I moved into double digits for the first time this season with a well-placed cover drive, I felt my confidence growing. Trying to keep my head level, I told myself that we still had plenty of time and there was no rush or pressure to score quickly.

I kept pushing the ball around the pitch, taking the odd single run and sometimes making it back for two, until Pitstone brought their spinners into their bowling attack. I tend to struggle against spin bowling, mainly because the slower speeds make it harder to time the ball well, and more effort is needed to get the ball away from the wicket and into the gaps. It was practically destined that the left-handed wrist spinner Caleb Simon would claim my scalp, and the inevitable happened as I tried to sweep a full, flighty delivery. I mistimed my shot, the ball straightened with its rotation as it pitched in line, and trapped me on my pad for an easy LBW decision for the umpire. I returned to the pavilion with 19 runs to my name, happy with my best score of the season, but frustrated for giving my wicket away so easily. I grabbed a quick shower back in the pavilion, then returned to the side of the pitch to watch the rest of the day's play.

12th May, 2019

We resumed play on Sunday on 174 runs, putting us marginally ahead of Pitstone with a handful of wickets remaining to try and improve that lead. We ended up lasting until just before lunch, with a score of 246 all out. O'Brien, to his credit, put in a phenomenal performance with the bat, scoring 150 of those 246 runs by himself and giving us a small lead of 74 runs going into the second innings. As much as I take issue with the underhanded way he secured the captaincy, there's no denying that he led by example in this innings and almost single-handedly dug us out of a potentially very deep hole.

Pitstone's second innings trajectory seemed to match their first pretty closely, as did O'Brien's captaincy in the field. Once again I came into the bowling attack later than I might have done under Dan's leadership, being given the ball in the 28th over with Pitstone on 111 runs and seven wickets down. With a lead of just 37 runs and only three wickets left to take, it seemed like we were on track to replicate our two-day result against Long Marston, but as luck would have it, Pitstone's lower order had other ideas and proved far more resilient than expected. My spell in this second innings lasted just five overs and much like my first innings performance, was cheap but unremarkable. The closest I came to a wicket in this innings was an appeal for caught behind against Caleb Simon, a wicket that perhaps I was a little too desperate to take in the name of revenge for my own dismissal - Phoenix Yates indicated that the ball I thought had carried through to his gloves was actually a bump ball, and I halted my appeal. O'Brien took me off and I didn't see the ball again for the rest of the innings.

Pitstone's last three wickets ended up earning the team a further 91 runs, putting them on a total of 202 and giving us a target of 129 to win the match. While again our opening batsmen struggled to get us off to a good start, O'Brien steadied the ship by coming in at number 3 and continuing where he left off in the first innings. Play closed today at 107 runs for 2 wickets, putting us just 22 runs away from victory and making the third day's play tomorrow feel like a mere formality.

13th May, 2019

As predicted, I needn't have bothered showing up today. O'Brien resumed play like there had been no overnight interruption and knocked out the remaining runs in just a few overs, securing Aldbury our second win in the three-day format so far this season. With today's play totalling less than twenty minutes, I think we spent more time setting everything up and then putting it all away than we did actually playing cricket. However, the time spent on both of those things pales in comparison to the amount of time we spent in the pub celebrating afterwards...

18th May, 2019

Some familiar names amongst the opposition for our player avatar
Some familiar names amongst the opposition for our player avatar

Our second one-day game of the season is a fixture I've been particularly looking forward to. We're hosting Mentmore, another of my dad's old teams, which means I'll hopefully be seeing a lot of folks that I haven't seen in years - I'm particularly keen to catch up with their captain Eli Sunny, their wicketkeeper Austin Downs, and their bowler Landon Birkett, whose wife would let me help her score when I used to come and watch my dad play in home games. Make no mistake though, I won't be pulling any punches by going easy on these guys. I'm not the only one who seems excited to play this week, either - I think Michael's performance last week has won over a lot of the doubters in the team, making the atmosphere in the changing room seem much more positive today.

O'Brien once again lost the toss, and Sunny decided to put us in to bat. I've always thought winning the toss at Aldbury must be an undesirable position to be in. Our pitch is invariably grassy and soft, and thus better suited to the bowling side, with today being no exception. However, a lot of the Aldbury players are used to those conditions, and so feel more comfortable batting here than others might. The opposition captain must therefore choose between trying to set a target on a pitch that favours the bowling side, or trying to take advantage of the conditions while putting us in to bat on a pitch we're familiar with. Bowling is probably the better choice, but it's definitely a bit of a catch twenty-two situation.

A well-placed square cut bisects the field and runs away for four
A well-placed square cut bisects the field and runs away for four

Once again O'Brien put me in the number five spot on the batting line-up, although thankfully I wasn't called upon quite as early as I was in last week's game. We were in the thirteenth over with 61 runs on the board when Abraham Peters managed to run himself out, signalling my turn to bat. O'Brien was initially my partner in the middle, but he almost immediately gave his wicket away LBW at the other end. Trying not to let it deter me, I pushed the ball through the covers to get off the mark. I'm not sure if it was a psychological thing, what with knowing half the players in the field, but I really struggled to keep my strike rate up initially. Thankfully Felix Caratelli held things up well at the other end, ticking the score over while I tried to find some rhythm, and eventually it came, its arrival heralded by a wonderful square cut that penetrated the inner circle of fielders and raced away to the boundary for four.

Felix and I continued to tick over the score, albeit probably not as quickly as we should have done given the limited overs format. I saw us into triple figures, bringing up the 100 for the team with another shot square of the wicket, and by the end of the 25th over Aldbury had accrued 104 runs for the loss of four wickets. Unfortunately, that was where my contribution to the innings ended. While trying to drive a full ball back towards the bowler Carlos Faulkner, I misread the line and feathered the ball through to the wicketkeeper with the finest of edges. I returned to the pavilion with 17 runs to my name, and with Aldbury looking in trouble. Mercifully, our wicketkeeper Phoenix Yates turned things around, putting in an incredible quick-fire innings and scoring 95 runs to land Aldbury on a total of 257 runs at the end of our fifty allotted overs, for the loss of eight wickets. In any context, that's a great score in one-day club cricket, but taking into account the pitch conditions and our very slow start, it wouldn't be unfair to call it miraculous.

Aldbury take a well-deserved drinks break in the field
Aldbury take a well-deserved drinks break in the field

Mentmore didn't seem particularly enthused about the prospect of chasing down a total of 258 to win on such a bowler-friendly pitch, and they got off to an unsurprisingly slow start. My own start came a little quicker than last week though, when O'Brien tossed me the ball in the 9th over with Mentmore on 31 for 2. My first spell lasted five overs and might be the tightest spell I've ever bowled. Two of those five overs were maidens and I only conceded a total of four runs from the other three. Most of my spell was spent bowling at none other than Carlos Faulkner, who appeared incredibly uncomfortable at the crease and whose wicket I was determined to take in order to avenge my own dismissal. Unfortunately, despite some tight and consistent bowling (and Faulkner's obvious discomfort), I wasn't able to force him into a critical error before O'Brien brought my first spell to an end.

My second spell, on the other hand, might be the most frustrating handful of overs I've ever bowled. I returned to the bowling attack in the 30th over with Mentmore on 122 runs, five wickets down, with Carlos Faulkner still at the crease and still looking uncomfortable despite accruing 41 runs. I set about trying to repeat the success of my first spell, but instead of the ball finding its way past Faulkner and into Phoenix's gloves, this time it seemed like the ball was being magnetically drawn to the edges of his bat. These edges would either drop just short of a potential catch, or else find a way through the gaps in the slip cordon and race away to the boundary for an undeserved four runs. It is intensely frustrating as a bowler to know that you're doing everything right, forcing the batsman to make errors, and yet he's still getting the better of you through little more than sheer dumb luck. Those four overs went for 19 runs, and again failed to bring a wicket, making this the second match in a row where I'd failed to claim a batsman's scalp - pretty disappointing given the excellent start I had to the season with eight wickets in my first three games.

At the end of my second spell, Mentmore were within 100 runs of their target. Thankfully some excellent late-game bowling from Tucker Lam (four wickets for 43 runs from his ten overs, including the dismissal of Carlos Faulkner on 90) prevented them from getting over the finish line. Mentmore's tail end capitulated in the 49th over with the team on 241 runs, just 17 away from a potential victory. The win, however slim it may have been, goes to us, and keeps us unbeaten in all formats going forward. It was a very close-fought thing, and sets the stage for what will hopefully be an equally enthralling contest when we meet again in our Twenty20 match next week.

25th May, 2019

The teams remain unchanged for this T20 rematch
The teams remain unchanged for this T20 rematch

Today saw us returning to the Aldbury Recreation Ground for the third week in a row, once again hosting Mentmore, albeit this time for a Twenty20 format game. Everyone on both sides seemed in pretty good spirits at the start of the day - since last week's contest had come right down to the wire, there was a general feeling in the air that anything could happen in today's game. In a repeat of the events of the previous week, Eli Sunny won the toss and put us in to bat first on what was a near-identical pitch. As it turns out, the similarities between last week's game and this wouldn't stop there.

In his continuing efforts to undermine Felix, O'Brien kept me at the number five spot, and once again he was my batting partner when our third wicket fell and I made my way into the middle to join him. We had made an impressive 55 runs off the first five overs, and looked set to post an easily-defended total. I added my name to the scorecard with my first shot, a well-timed leg glance that trickled down to fine leg for two runs. Knowing O'Brien to be in good form, and also aware of my own tendency to score slowly, I decided to focus on putting the ball into gaps and letting our captain do the heavy lifting at the other end. This strategy worked well for the next ten overs, seeing us first pass 100 runs for the team, then O'Brien making his half-century, and our partnership also reaching 50, all within the space of a few balls.

Kempster dispatches a short ball to the boundary with a well-timed pull shot
Kempster dispatches a short ball to the boundary with a well-timed pull shot

Unfortunately our luck turned in the 17th over, when O'Brien called for an unnecessary single to try and rotate the strike with two balls still to go in the over. Trusting his judgement, I set off on the twenty-two-yard dash, but the fielder at mid-off was up and on the ball in no time, and landed a direct hit on the stumps at the end O'Brien was running to. He returned to the pavilion with a score of 74, leaving the team four wickets down on 134 runs, and me facing the next delivery. This was when my luck ran out too - seeing the short ball early, I rocked onto my back foot and rolled my wrists into a pull shot, trying to clear the inner circle of fielders. Unfortunately I was on it a fraction too early and instead of making a beeline for the boundary, the ball dropped comfortably into the hands of the fielder at midwicket. In another eerie parallel of last week's match, I was leaving the field with a score of 17 runs.

Eli Sunny gets drawn into an LBW dismissal
Eli Sunny gets drawn into an LBW dismissal

Our final total for the innings was 165 runs at the cost of seven wickets - not a terrible total, but maybe fifteen or twenty runs short of what we might have hoped to be defending. Mentmore started a little better than they did last week, posting 67 runs in their first nine overs and leaving themselves in a good position moving into the game's final quarter. O'Brien passed me the ball at the start of the tenth over, with Eli Sunny on strike and his partnership with Levi Healy fast approaching 50. I managed to pin Eli back, bowling full and straight to force him into driving down the pitch and into the path of mid-off and mid-on. In the final ball of the over, I finally forced the error, luring him into misreading the line of the ball and trapping him LBW on the back foot while attempting to glance it off his pads. It felt bittersweet to dismiss a man who I spent so much time watching alongside my own dad years ago, but equally it felt like an "arrival" moment for me, as if I'd proven that I could hold my own against the big boys. It also brought an end to my dry spell following two matches without a wicket, and with a wicket-maiden no less - something that's almost unheard of in the T20 format.

Unfortunately that's about all there is to say about my bowling today. I came close to taking a second wicket in the third over, when the ball beat the bat and passed over the stumps, missing them by a matter of millimetres. My second and fourth overs were pretty expensive, pushing me up to a total of 17 runs conceded in my spell. Mentmore closed out their innings on 159 runs with six wickets lost, handing us the victory by a narrow margin of just six runs. Alan Fisher was the pick of our bowlers, taking two wickets for 27 runs in a well-deserved performance considering his slow start this season. At the close of play I made a point of seeking out Eli to wish him good luck for the rest of the season. He shook me warmly by the hand and said that from facing my bowling, he could tell I was my father's son. That single sentence beats any shot, any wicket, any promotion up the order, as my highlight of the season so far.

Career Stats to Date

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A pretty unremarkable trio of games for our player avatar this episode, as we failed to match our impressive bowling performances in the season's first round. Our scoring with the bat is definitely on the up, and although we're yet to break into the 20s I don't think it'll be long before we find some form and start making some more valuable knocks in future innings. I already have enough material in the can for the next instalment of Trashes to Ashes, which will cover our next three matches and should make its appearance at some point over the coming weekend. Until then, thanks very much for reading. Take care, stay safe, and I'll see you around.

Daniel

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Currently playing - Cricket 19 (PS4)

1 Comments

Trashes to Ashes - Part Two

Welcome, gentlemen and players, to the second instalment of Trashes to Ashes, a serial blog following my player avatar through the Career mode of Cricket 19, starting at the bottom in club cricket and working all the way up to the most prestigious competition in the sport - the Ashes test series between England and Australia. For full details on the scope and aims of this series, be sure to check out the first post by following this link.

Before kicking things off properly, I'd like to say a massive thank-you to everyone who left comments on last week's entry. It's a little surreal to think this weird little blog series might succeed in finding an audience, but your words of support and encouragement have strengthened my resolve to stick with this project and see how far I can take it.

In this week's blog, we make our debut in both the one-day and Twenty20 formats of the game, as our promising start to the season with Aldbury continues. Meanwhile, some political machinations off the pitch have some shock ramifications for the club's leadership going forward...

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Part Two - Consecutive Conquest and Unexpected Usurpation

27th April, 2019

Today saw the start of the one-day league, with our first fixture taking us to Long Marston. I knew they'd be looking to score some revenge after the comprehensive win we took over them in our three-day match last week, and so I was perhaps even more nervous going into this game than I was on my debut! I caught a lift with Dan Reece and we arrived at the ground just in time for the one-day captain, our wicketkeeper Phoenix Yates, to tell us that he'd lost the toss and Long Marston had put us in to bowl. It was a lot hotter than it had been the previous week, and since Long Marston have a full-time groundskeeper, the pitch was definitely going to favour the batting side. Feeling more nervous than I think I ever have before in my life, I grabbed my kit bag from Dan's car and headed for the changing rooms to throw on Aldbury's green-and-yellow one-day kit for the first time.

An easy caught-and-bowled opportunity
An easy caught-and-bowled opportunity

Long Marston lost a wicket early but managed to steady the ship enough to reach 32 runs by the end of the sixth over. Phoenix tossed me the ball and invited me to start a spell of bowling much earlier than I was expecting. I think part of it was down to my good start with the ball last week, but I also suspect there was a psychological aspect to his decision - the facing batsman was none other than Jose Wilkins, whose scalp I'd claimed in both innings of our three-day game. Unfortunately I wasn't able to replicate that performance by taking his wicket for a third time, but I did make a breakthrough in my second over bowling to Messiah Kingma. Putting down a slower, slightly shorter delivery, I managed to draw him into playing early and chipping the ball back towards me. Instinctively leaping to meet the ball, I secured the second wicket of the day, and Kingma returned to the pavilion with just 17 runs to his name. I stayed on for one more over before Phoenix took me off, replacing me with Benjamin English, who set about decimating Long Marston's middle order with ruthless efficiency.

Long Marston were six wickets down with 100 runs on the board when I returned to the fold in the twenty-second over for my second spell. I bowled a good line throughout, not giving much away but unfortunately unable to take a second wicket. Dominic Steyn, the man I'd managed to tempt into getting caught out at fine leg last week, was a little more savvy today, and even succeeded in finding the boundary at one point. Phoenix pulled me from the bowling attack after five tight but fruitless overs, leaving me with very economical figures of 1 wicket for 12 runs. Long Marston ended up making 158 runs in total, a surprisingly low score given the conditions. Steyn ended up top-scoring with 44 not out, while Benjamin English finished up with the day's best bowling figures - 3 wickets for 45 runs. With a very reachable target of 159 in place, we returned to the pavilion for lunch.

Phoenix told me just before the start of our innings that he was putting me up the order, and I'd be batting sixth while he moved into my number seven slot from the previous week. This was a shock to me, since I'd put in a very underwhelming performance with the bat in our last game and didn't feel I deserved the promotion, but the fact he'd given it to me made me feel determined to earn it. By the time I made my way out to the crease, Aldbury had ticked our score up to 118 runs at the cost of four wickets. Tom Baltus, one of our opening batsmen, was still at the crease with a very respectable score of 62. Unfortunately he gave his wicket away almost as soon as I arrived on the pitch, advancing down the wicket and missing the ball, leaving him open to an easy stumping and bringing Phoenix out to join me in the middle. We needed 41 runs to win, with five wickets in hand, and plenty of time on our side.

A well-placed cover drive gets us off the mark
A well-placed cover drive gets us off the mark

I opened my account with a drive through the covers for two runs, and repeated the shot two balls later to score two more, pushing me up past my embarrassing previous personal best of 3. Meanwhile, Phoenix started his innings in style at the other end, finding gaps in the field almost effortlessly and quickly pushing us up within reach of our total. In almost no time at all, I found myself facing the bowler with the teams' scores tied and a perfect opportunity to secure the win and earn some extra kudos. Alas, it was not to be. The bowler in question was Mitchell Leaning, the man I dismissed at the start of my tide-turning spell last week, and his field was in tight to stop us from taking an easy single to win the match. I tried to get the ball past them, but simply couldn't find the gap. Leaning completed an easy maiden, I finished up on 8 not out, and Phoenix hit the winning runs in the form of an enormous six off the first ball of the next over, leading us to victory by five wickets. It felt a little anti-climactic in the moment, almost like I'd bottled a really good chance, but in retrospect I think I did well to hold my nerve against such an aggressively-positioned field and not give my wicket away - something that will definitely help my batting average!

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4th May, 2019

The team line-ups for our first visit to Pitstone Green
The team line-ups for our first visit to Pitstone Green

I was surprised to get a call-up for the team's first Twenty20 match of the season. It's never really been my preferred format of the game, since I tend to score runs quite slowly and in a game where overs are so limited, that tends to be a liability. I guess Felix Caratelli must have seen some promise in me though, because he called me on Tuesday night to let me know I'd been selected for the first T20 of the season, an away game against Pitstone. Once again, I bundled my stuff into Dan's car and we made the short trip north to Pitstone village. It was another hot Saturday, albeit slightly more overcast than the previous week, and the pitch felt very hard underfoot. Imagine both mine and Dan's surprise, then, when Felix returned to the changing room to tell us that he'd won the coin toss and had put us in to bowl first. His rationale was that we'd done well chasing targets so far this season, so why mess with a winning formula?

My first over in T20 cricket wasn't one that I'll be looking back on fondly. I came on to bowl the third over with Pitstone on 10 runs without loss, and in those six balls allowed them to double their score. Jason Murray, one of their openers, hit the ball back over my head for four on two consecutive deliveries. That was pretty demoralising. It was also very damaging to my bowling economy, which prior to today's game was around 1.5 runs per over. I think Felix must have sensed my confidence dropping, because he came to have a chat with me at the end of the over and told me to take a break to get my head back in the game. It proved to be invaluable advice.

The umpire sends Jason Murray back to the pavilion for an early shower
The umpire sends Jason Murray back to the pavilion for an early shower

I returned to the bowling attack in the tenth over with Pitstone on 62 runs and one wicket down. Jason Murray was still at the crease, but he wouldn't be there for long. On the fourth ball of my returning over, I managed to trap him LBW on the back foot with a yorker dead in line with middle stump. I turned to face the umpire in appeal and felt the whole team joining in with me from every part of the pitch. After a moment's consideration, the umpire slowly raised his finger, and Jason Murray began his slow walk back to the pavilion. The third over brought a second wicket in the form of Ali Creswick, and my fourth and final over brought a third in the form of Luca Christie - both caught behind from thin outside edges off deliveries that could have been carbon copies of each other. These wickets didn't come cheaply, as I conceded 23 runs in the process, but the feeling of securing another three-wicket haul (not to mention the best bowling figures on the team!) was more than worth it.

Pitstone closed their innings on 159 runs with four wickets lost, setting us a target of 160 runs to win. Tom Baltus and his opening partner, the wonderfully named Declan Decker, saw us to that total in just fifteen overs and without giving their wickets away. Tom top-scored for the second match in a row with his unbeaten 88, while Declan backed that up with an equally impressive 64 not out. Their stellar performances secured us a ten-wicket victory - our third win of the season, and a continuation of our unbeaten run. It'll be interesting to see how long we can keep that going!

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9th May, 2019

I got an unexpected call this evening from Dan Reece asking me to meet him at the local pub for a chat. I arrived to find him nursing a half-pint of lager with a frustrated expression on his face, and he told me that he would no longer be captaining Aldbury in our three-day games. Not only that, but Phoenix and Felix had relinquished their respective one-day and T20 captaincies. I ordered myself a beer, sat down beside him, and listened as he explained everything to me.

In hindsight, it should have been obvious a guy with a moustache like that would end up being the villain
In hindsight, it should have been obvious a guy with a moustache like that would end up being the villain

There's a young guy on the team by the name of Michael O'Brien. He started playing this season, same as me, and also like me, he has familial connections with the team. Unlike me, however, his connections go beyond his old man being a former player, and extend to several members of his family being on the parish sports committee. The parish owns the field we play on, and thus while their sports committee isn't in direct control of what happens with the club, they can theoretically take our home ground away from us, and therefore they have a certain amount of leverage in various club matters. Apparently Michael wasn't happy about being left out of our first three-day game against Long Marston, so his family issued an ultimatum to the club chairman - if Michael wasn't given the team captaincy for all three match formats, Aldbury would no longer be able to play at the village recreation ground.

I honestly don't know how to feel about this. I played alongside Michael in the last two games and thought he was a pretty decent guy, but now I see him as manipulative and petulant. I was really looking forward to learning more about the sport under Dan's captaincy, but that's not going to happen now. I also really feel for Felix, who I know was hoping his prodigious T20 captaincy would help him get noticed by the county selectors at Middlesex. Unfortunately I think I'm just going to have to suck it up and deal with it, because taking a confrontational approach is a sure-fire way to get myself deselected, and since players can't change teams mid-season, that would mean no more cricket this summer. I guess we'll just have to wait and see what kind of impact this has on our performance going forward.

Career Stats to Date

Batting:

MatchesInningsRunsNOsHigh ScoreAverage4s6s
321118*11.0000

Bowling:

MatchesOversRunsWicketsAverageEconomySRBest InnsBest Match
328.05987.382.1121.0019-324-4

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Here ends the second episode of Trashes to Ashes. This one was a curious one to write, mainly because I had to find a narrative justification for the game randomly switching up the team's captains, something that can probably be put down to an innocuous bug or glitch. I recall nepotism being a minor issue at a handful of clubs I played against back when I played village cricket in real life, so it seemed like a plausible reason for the change to have happened. I also have to apologise for the lack of a career stat screenshot at the close of this week's blog - I wasn't quite as liberal with my use of the PS4's Share button this time around, so I ended up missing a capture for this particular stage of the season.

I'm off work next week so will try to push out an extra episode with the additional time I'll have. Will our good fortune with the ball continue, or will we hit a dry spell? And will we finally make our way into double figures with the bat? Join me next time on Trashes to Ashes to find out. Until then, thanks very much for reading. Take care, stay safe, and I'll see you around.

Daniel

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Currently playing - Cricket 19 (PS4)

4 Comments

Trashes to Ashes - Part One

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Welcome, gentlemen and players, to the inaugural instalment of Trashes to Ashes - a serial blog chronicling one man's progress through the trials and tribulations of Cricket 19's extensive Career mode. I've been playing a lot of Cricket 19 so far this summer, the latest offering from Big Ant Studios (the developers responsible for Don Bradman Cricket '14, and by extension one of this site's most iconic Quick Looks). It's done a fantastic job of filling the void left by an absence of sport on account of the coronavirus pandemic, allowing me to live out my boyhood dream of ascending from lowly village club cricket through domestic counties, overseas franchises, and ultimately an international call-up. Thanks to its full-featured editing suite, I was even able to customise the clubs featured at its lowest level, letting me relive the spirit of some classic match-ups from my teens and early twenties. The recent time I've spent with Cricket 19 has sparked a desire in me to do something creative, using my gameplay experience as a springboard. This blog series is the result.

I'll be starting a new career from scratch, creating a rookie player modelled in my own image, and attempting to guide him from English village cricket obscurity to the ultimate accolade for any cricketer - victory against rivals Australia in the series of test matches known as the Ashes. The goal is to put out roughly one of these blogs a week for as long as I remain invested in the game or until I earn that Ashes series win, whichever comes first. Each blog will catalogue the events of a number of matches in the career of my player avatar, taking the form of brief diary entries. Alongside on-pitch reports, I'll also be peppering in some creative role-play to attribute a more authentic narrative to both my character and his career progression. Please note that while I've created custom teams based on towns and villages local to me in real-life for the club portion of the career, all players apart from my avatar are generated randomly by the game itself and are therefore entirely fictitious. For anyone who's been following me long enough to remember my A Month in Skyrim blog series, I anticipate this project will pan out in a similar way, albeit with slightly less dragons and a few more LBWs.

Cricket is a baffling sport, governed by complex and sometimes contradictory laws. It is a sport where a match can last for five long days and still end in a draw. But it can also be a fascinating sport, be it as a psychological war of attrition between bowler and batsman in a gruelling test match, or as a thrilling spectacle in the form of a high-scoring Twenty20 match. I'm aware this content is incredibly unlikely to find an audience here on Giant Bomb, but as this series is first and foremost a passion project for me, I won't be too bothered if it goes unread. It just so happens that Cricket 19 is a video game, Giant Bomb is a website about video games, and I have something of a reputation here for embarking on ill-advised serial blogging endeavours, making this the most sensible (or, perhaps more accurately, the least ridiculous) space to share entries. However, I'll also be trying to make this series as accessible as possible, so that even if you don't know your leg stump from your silly point, it will hopefully still prove an entertaining read.

With all that said, I'm going to jump into the first part below. If you've read this far, I hope you'll consider joining rookie cricketer Daniel Kempster as he signs up with his local team in the village of Aldbury and makes an eventful club cricket debut.

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Part One - The Club Debut

1st April, 2019

Meet our player avatar! He's an all-round player with a focus on bowling
Meet our player avatar! He's an all-round player with a focus on bowling

Today I officially became a player at Aldbury Cricket Club. I've been coming down into this picturesque little village for years to watch my dad play, and now that I'm eighteen and can make the move up from youth level, I couldn't imagine playing anywhere else. I know this ground like the back of my hand, with its rickety old pavilion and single sun-bleached terrace. I know a few of the players, too - my dad may not play here any more, but a few of his old team mates are still around, and they feel like friendly uncles to me. Dan Reece, who captains the team in three-day matches, used to open the bowling with my dad back in the day, and he's already offered to take me under his wing and teach me a thing or two about turning my arm over.

Overall it's a much younger team than it used to be. Quite a few of the guys are around my age, and most already have one or two seasons under their belts. Felix Caratelli came to Aldbury last year and quickly established himself as a bit of a wunderkind with both the bat and the ball, earning himself the Twenty20 captaincy for this season. He's a talented all-rounder and I suspect there's going to be a bit of (hopefully healthy) rivalry between us as we jostle for position in the middle-order this year. Apparently some scouts from Middlesex are already eyeing him up, so this could well be his last season before he moves up to county level.

The local league season runs from the third week of April into August. Over the course of the season we'll be playing against my hometown of Tring and nearby Berkhamsted, as well as village teams from Long Marston, Pitstone, and Mentmore. I'm particularly looking forward to meeting Mentmore on the pitch, as that's another team my dad used to play for, and thus another team I have history with. There are three match types - two-innings games played across three days, fifty-over one-day matches, and Twenty20. We'll play each team three times, once in each format, and each match type has its own league, meaning there are three trophies up for grabs at the end of the season. Personally I'm most looking forward to playing the three-day games, partly because I'm a slow-and-steady kind of player, but also because I stand to learn a lot under Dan Reece's captaincy.

11th April, 2019

Warming up in the nets
Warming up in the nets

This evening I attended a pre-season nets session with a few of the other guys on the team. We met at Berkhamsted sports centre, a choice of venue that proved slightly awkward when we arrived to find several players from the town's own team using one of the other nets. Watching them practise was pretty intimidating, since for the first time I was able to get a feel of the standard we would be coming up against in the coming season. Still, it was nice to be able to spend some time with a few of the team regulars and get to know them a little better. I took a turn batting for about fifteen minutes and faced off against Alan Fisher, the pace bowler who took my dad's place in the line-up when he retired three years ago. He clean bowled me a couple of times as I initially struggled to find my rhythm, but after a few nervous minutes I started to see the ball a bit better and time my shots well.

After my stint of batting I pulled off my pads and gloves and started practising my bowling. Over the winter I put a lot of effort into varying my pace, in the hopes of deceiving batsmen into mistiming their shots with the occasional slower ball. In practice the net session didn't really seem to show off the fruits of that labour, since I wasn't able to draw any of my team mates into playing their shots early. Hopefully that strategy will come together more successfully on the pitch. When we were done practising, a few of us headed down into the town centre of Berkhamsted to grab a quick beer before heading home. We were joined by a couple of the Berkhamsted players from before, who turned out to be a lot less intimidating in the pub than they were in the nets. The whole evening left me feeling a little more confident in my own abilities, and eager for the season to get underway next week.

20th April, 2019

The line-ups for the first game of the season
The line-ups for the first game of the season

Today was the first match day of the season, and my club debut! I got a call from Dan Reece on Wednesday to tell me I'd been selected for the match, which saw us facing off against the village of Long Marston in a three-day game. Long Marston have one of the stronger sides in the league, and play at a ground that has been used for both youth county and minor county matches, so we knew going in that it was going to be an uphill struggle to get a result out of this one. Thankfully we were playing in Aldbury, which gave us the home advantage and levelled the playing field a little.

The first wicket of our club career!
The first wicket of our club career!

Dan won the toss and put us in to bowl first - a wise decision in my opinion, since Aldbury's pitch is usually pretty soft and grassy, favouring the bowler over the batsman. Putting Long Marston in to bat first meant that we could take advantage of the conditions, hopefully restricting them to a lower target which we could then try to move past in our first innings. Nine overs into the match, with Long Marston on 27 runs, Dan called me up and tossed me the ball, inviting me to bowl for Aldbury for the first time. It didn't take long for me to settle into a rhythm, and I was able to draw blood in just my second over when batsman Jose Wilkins deflected the ball onto his own stumps off the inside edge of his bat. It was pretty lucky as wickets go, but regardless of the circumstances, I managed to take my first wicket for Aldbury! Dan allowed me to bowl two more overs before taking me off so he could come on to bowl himself.

I returned to the attack in the twentieth over, with Long Marston on 62 runs and with three wickets down. This short spell only lasted two overs, both of which were maidens, before Dan took me off once again. I was initially perplexed by his decision to end my stint of bowling there when I'd been so successful at preventing the batsmen from scoring runs, but his decision was justified as the change signalled the start of Long Marston's collapse. By around 2:30pm on the first day Long Marston had capitulated, giving away their remaining wickets cheaply and only managing to post a total of 108 runs. Dan was the pick of our bowlers, taking three wickets at the cost of only 21 runs. After a short break, we returned to the pitch, this time to bat out our first innings. Dan had put me seventh in the batting order, serving as a buffer between a strong middle order and the weaker tail-end of our line up. While our other batsmen started looking to make a higher total than Long Marston's underwhelming 108, I passed the early overs of our innings by keeping score of the match from the pavilion.

An incredible diving catch sends us back to the pavilion
An incredible diving catch sends us back to the pavilion

Just before 5:30pm, we lost our fifth wicket and I made my way out to the middle of the pitch to make my batting debut for Aldbury. The team had thus far scored 176 runs, giving us a lead of 68 over Long Marston. I joined our wicket keeper Phoenix Yates at the crease, but he quickly gave his wicket away leaving us on 180 runs with six wickets down. Unfortunately, I wasn't far behind him. I managed to get off the mark with a well-timed drive shot on the off-side, penetrating the inner ring of fielders and buying me enough time to take two runs. Just a few balls later though, I gave my wicket away attempting the same shot against the bowling of Jax Guptill, but timing it just a little too early. Rather than running along the ground, the ball stayed aloft just long enough to reach the outstretched hand of Matteo Rogers at silly point. I began the slow walk back to the pavilion, my first innings for Aldbury lasting just nine balls and amounting to only three runs. The day's play finished not long after, with our team on 185 for 7 and commanding a lead of 78 runs going into the match's second day.

21st April 2019

We returned the next morning to resume our innings where we left off. Thankfully our last few batsmen were able to add quite a few more runs to the team's total, leaving us on 252 runs at the end of our innings and leading Long Marston's total by 144. Our top scorer was our number 4 batsman Abraham Peters, the only player from our team to make at least a half-century with his innings of 54 runs. We returned to the field after lunch, all of us hoping we could repeat our performance in the first innings and restrict Long Marston to an easy-to-reach total. Long Marston seemed equally keen to avoid that eventuality and came out strong, scoring 66 runs off the first thirteen overs of their second innings. Dan brought me on to bowl for a five-over spell and while I was able to restrict the flow of runs slightly, I wasn't able to create any wicket-taking chances. It looked as though Long Marston were set to stage a strong comeback.

That is, until I came on for my second spell.

Yates' catch to dismiss Leaning was the turning point in the innings
Yates' catch to dismiss Leaning was the turning point in the innings

Dan Reece tossed me the ball again for the thirty-eighth over, with Long Marston on 156 runs and only three wickets down. Jose Wilkins, whose wicket I had managed to take quite cheaply in the first innings, had just reached 50 and showed no signs of slowing down. With Long Marston in a strong position and the match slipping out of our grasp, I knew I had to pull something out of somewhere. My first over was a maiden, with no runs conceded. My second over began with the breakthrough that we'd been seeking, in no small part thanks to the variation in pace I'd been practising all winter. I put the ball up full to Mitchell Leaning who attempted to flash it through the covers, but clipped it with the inside edge. The ball missed his stumps and carried through to Phoenix Yates, who caught it one-handed while diving at full-stretch. It was a spectacular take, and the wicket lifted morale and helped to turn the tide in the overs to come.

Lam sets himself beneath the ball for an easy catch
Lam sets himself beneath the ball for an easy catch

Another breakthrough came in my next over as I was able to dismiss the danger man Jose Wilkins with another caught-behind. This one was far more pedestrian than the last, a thin outside edge that Yates barely had to move for, but it was arguably even more important given the form Wilkins was in. He was on 63 runs when his wicket fell and had looked likely to score even more. The fact I was able to dismiss him in both innings and claim my first "pair" was a nice little bonus, too. I was able to strike for a third and final in my fourth over, this time tempting lower-order batsman Dominic Steyn with a full ball on the leg side. He clipped the ball off his legs and into the air, straight down the throat of Tucker Lam who was fielding at fine leg. These three wickets in quick succession really helped turn the tide for us in this match, preventing Long Marston from getting too far ahead of us.

Dan took me off at the end of my fifth over with the damage firmly done. Long Marston's remaining wickets fell quickly, the team finishing on a total of 184 all out and leaving us with just 40 runs required to win the match. I finished up with bowling figures of 3 wickets for just 19 runs across the ten overs I bowled, a personal best that's probably going to take some beating. We took a short break before our top-order batsmen went out to score the runs we needed, posting 42 runs in just ten overs to secure an unlikely eight-wicket victory in our first game of the season! Even better still, since we managed to finish the game on the second day, I now have a free day tomorrow to celebrate!

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For my club cricket debut, I'm happy overall with how I played, but I do feel my performance was a bit inconsistent. I had a great match with the ball, taking four wickets across both innings and keeping my average, economy and strike rate all very low. On the other hand, I under-performed with the bat by giving my wicket away cheaply in our first innings, and didn't get a chance to make amends with a better performance in the second. Thankfully my low score didn't matter in the grand scheme of things, but there may well be games in the future where a good result is dependent on my scoring a respectable number of runs. Hopefully I can show some improvement in our next few fixtures.

Career Stats to Date

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Here ends the first instalment of Trashes to Ashes. I'll be back next week to cover the next handful of matches in our journey through Cricket 19's Career mode. Until then, thanks very much for reading. Take care, stay safe, and I hope to see you around.

Daniel

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Currently playing - Cricket 19 (PS4)

6 Comments

Ten Games I'd Like To Play This Year (2020 Edition)

We're now almost halfway through 2020. In the past five months I've beaten ten video games (and put an undisclosed amount of time into an eleventh). That's precisely halfway to my personal goal of twenty games beaten this year. This fact has got me asking the question: which ten games would I most like to clear from my backlog in the seven remaining months of the year? Inspired by these thoughts, I've shuffled through my Pile of Shame and picked ten titles that I think would be perfect candidates to devote my game time to between now and the end of the year. Here they all are, each with some brief thoughts explaining why they're high priority for me this year.

1. Bloodborne

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My current experience with FromSoftware's output is limited to Demon's Souls (which I enjoyed quite a bit) and Dark Souls (which I enjoyed quite a bit more). While the second and third Dark Souls games are both present in my backlog, the Gothic Victorian aesthetics of Bloodborne are more alluring for me right now. As somebody who approached both Demon's Souls and Dark Souls with very defensive character builds, I suspect it will be a challenge adapting to Bloodborne's apparent focus on more aggressive, high-risk, high-reward gameplay, but it's a challenge I am willing to rise to.

2. Control

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Received at the end of last year as a Christmas present from my family, Control appeals to me for a number of reasons. First off, it's developed by Remedy, the company responsible for one of my favourite action games ever in the form of Alan Wake. Second, I've seen multiple accounts comparing it to Second Sight, a sci-fi stealth-action game released on the PS2, Xbox and GameCube by Free Radical (better known as the TimeSplitters guys), which just so happens to be another of my favourite games ever. Those two factors combined have moved Control right to the top of my must-be-experienced list.

3. Final Fantasy XV

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I used to call myself a Final Fantasy fan, but I've allowed my interest in the series to lapse in recent years. I was still a big enough fan to pick up Final Fantasy XV on its release in November 2016, but apparently not enough of a fan to actually play the damn thing at any point between then and now. The recent release of Final Fantasy VII Remake has brought the franchise back to the forefront of my attention, and with it a fierce desire to play this fifteenth instalment and plug the most notable gap in my Final Fantasy knowledge. I also have all the DLC episodes and Royal Edition content to experience, so I anticipate this keeping me busy for a good chunk of time.

4. Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice

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I bought Hellblade at release primarily to support what developers Ninja Theory were attempting to accomplish with it. Partly their commitment to providing AAA-quality production values and story in smaller games at lower price points, which I think is a great way of bridging the ever-widening gulf between the AAA and indie spaces. Also their dedication to tackling the topic of mental illness in a well-researched, carefully-considered way. Hellblade is the kind of game I could completely lose myself in over a weekend. I just need an ideal weekend to present itself and give me the opportunity.

5. The Last Guardian

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Similar to Final Fantasy XV, The Last Guardian has been on my Pile of Shame since its 2016 release. And considering it's a spiritual successor to ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, two of my favourite games of all time, the fact I've sidelined it up until now seems almost criminal. I hope to put this negligence right at some point by spending some time with Trico between now and the end of 2020.

6. The Last of Us

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One of two Naughty Dog titles on this list, I've been spurred on to absorb more of their recent output since replaying the first three Uncharted games for my contribution to this year's Giant Bomb Community Endurance Run. I've owned The Last of Us in some form or another for about five years now, first as a pack-in with the slim PS3 I bought in 2015, and more recently the Remastered version on PS4 thanks to it being offered as a free game with PS Plus some months back. And yet, I've not taken the plunge and actually experienced it for myself. With the sequel just around the corner, there's surely no better time to check out the title heralded by so many as the best game of the last console generation.

7. Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver

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Soul Reaver is something of an outlier on this list, being significantly older than the other nine games I've chosen to feature. It's been on my radar ever since it made the front cover of the Official PlayStation Magazine here in the UK all the way back in 1999, and twenty years later, I still haven't played it to completion. I got around halfway through the game some years ago, but my playthrough was hindered by a scratched disc and despite subsequently picking it up digitally on the PlayStation Store, I've never returned to it. Putting it simply, this is my "now or never" game - if I don't make a point of playing it now, I'm not sure I ever will.

8. The Outer Worlds

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I have a lot of respect for Obsidian. I'm one of those people who considers Fallout: New Vegas to be superior to Fallout 3, primarily on account of its story and the way it tells it, and I liked Alpha Protocol in spite of its many flaws. So on hearing that the folks behind it were working on a spiritual successor with more of a sci-fi vibe, The Outer Worlds went pretty much straight to the top of my wishlist. After a failed attempt to get back into Fallout 4 earlier this year (a game that I'm now perfectly content to write off as one that I'll never play to completion), I'm keen to experience a first-person RPG done right before the year is out. From where I'm sitting, The Outer Worlds seems like the perfect candidate.

9. Transistor

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Supergiant's Bastion is one of my favourite action RPGs thanks to its tight gameplay, fantastic story delivery, and unforgettable score by composer Darren Korb. So naturally I was hyped for Transistor, a pseudo-sequel with a cyber-punk aesthetic and a more tactical approach to combat, as soon as pre-release info began to surface. Unfortunately I didn't own a PS4 at the time, so I had to pass up the opportunity to play the game at launch. I've since acquired a console and the game to play it on, but for reasons unknown I haven't bitten the bullet just yet. This is my commitment to doing so at some point in the next seven months.

10. Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

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As I outlined above in The Last of Us's entry, replaying the first three Uncharted games last month has left me eager to experience more of Naughty Dog's subsequent output. With Nathan Drake's adventure only three-quarters done at this point, it would be remiss of me not to see it through to its conclusion before the year closes out. Considering Uncharted 3 seems to put a nice bow on things, I'm curious (and not a little apprehensive) to find out how this coda builds on the original trilogy and continues Nate's story.

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There we have it - ten games I'd like to get to before we move into 2021. I realise that posting publicly about this sort of thing makes me accountable for where I go from here. To that end, I'll be looking to check in every now and then between now and the end of December to report on my progress. I hope everyone out there is doing well and staying safe. Take care folks, and I'll see you around.

Daniel

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Currently playing - Animal Crossing: New Horizons (NSw)

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Living Together, In Games And In Life

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Like a lot of other people on planet Earth, I've spent the last two months attempting to escape the predicaments of the real world by living out an alternative existence in the world of Animal Crossing: New Horizons. It's nice to have somewhere I can go for an hour or so each day and forget about the stresses of 2020 thus far. I can hang out with other residents without having to worry about social distancing. I can go out of my front door and explore the length and breadth of the island at my leisure. And, best of all, I get to share it with the most important person in my life - my girlfriend, Alice.

Alice is definitely a bigger Animal Crossing fan than I am. She tells me that she played the heck out of Wild World on the DS back in the day. When we got together, I bought her a 3DS so that she could play New Leaf. Now that New Horizons is here, she's been bitten by the Animal Crossing bug once again, and this time she's brought me along for the ride. It's been almost two months to the day since we both moved to the island of Beauville as part of Nook Inc.'s Deserted Island Getaway Package, and in that time our little island community has come a long way. And yes, I say "our" island community, because we're both playing the game on the same Switch.

Nintendo came under a lot of flack for their decision to limit players of New Horizons to one island per Switch, and part of me understands why. A lot of the appeal of Animal Crossing comes from crafting a new life in an idyllic fictional town, and New Horizons leans into that harder than any previous game in the series with its crafting mechanics and terraforming elements. For the first time in the series' history, it's possible to alter almost every aspect of the environment, from the topography of one's island to the locations of homes and amenities, right down to the other residents who call your Switch home. The imposition of a one-island-per-Switch limit means that for a lot of people, whose wants and needs won't necessarily align with others in their household, that level of customisation and control won't be an option.

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But sharing an island with Alice is one of the things I've appreciated most about New Horizons. To give you some wider context, just over six months ago, having been together for the best part of four years, Alice and I bought a flat and moved in together. That was a huge step, and one that required a great deal of cooperation and compromise from both of us. We've had to adjust to each other's quirks and habits, listen to each other's opinions, share out responsibilities, and work together to keep the place looking nice and feeling homely. It's been a challenge at times, but also incredibly rewarding.

That cohabiting experience has translated pretty seamlessly into sharing an island in New Horizons. Since unlocking the terraforming feature a few weeks ago, we've been working collaboratively to redesign Beauville in a way that suits both of us. And, much like moving in together, it has been an exercise in cooperation and compromise. We sat down together, came up with a plan for how we want the island to look and where to move things, and we're slowly working towards making that plan a reality by doing a little something each day. Unfortunately we're still slightly limited by the fact that Alice doesn't have access to the construction counter (I was the first to play the game, so apparently that responsibility lies solely with me as the island's first inhabitant), but we're still able to pool our funds and work together to transform our island into a paradise.

Even if there were more downsides to sharing an island, I think today would have made up for any potential negatives. Today, it has paid off in the best way possible. That's because today is Alice's birthday. A little over a week ago, when K.K. Slider was visiting, he told me he was going to be putting on a surprise birthday concert for her, and gave me the opportunity to write her a special birthday message. Today, she got that message as part of K.K.'s special birthday concert. When I got home from work this evening, she threw her arms around me and thanked me for my thoughtful words. Now, while I can't say for certain, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have been able to do that if we both had our own individual islands.

In the run-up to New Horizons' release, I remember suggesting to Alice that she should consider getting her own Switch so we didn't have to share. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I'm really glad we didn't go down that route. At a time when the world seems to be tearing itself apart, Animal Crossing has provided Alice and me with an opportunity to work together and become closer than ever before. That's pretty special, and in my opinion, worth sacrificing an extra save slot for.

Daniel

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Currently playing - Animal Crossing: New Horizons (NSW)

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Cities And Flower Girls - Some Scattered Thoughts On Final Fantasy VII Remake

I like Final Fantasy VII.

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To be honest, that statement probably goes without saying. FFVII played an integral part in how I earned my blogging crust on this website all those years ago, with my Enduring Final Fantasy VII series representing the biggest commitment I've made to any writing project I've ever pursued. That series, an epic undertaking that spanned thirty-five entries across almost four years, served as a deconstruction of what I love about Squaresoft's ground-breaking PS1 RPG, while trying to ascertain whether the game still has anything to offer a contemporary audience (my conclusion, in case you're wondering, is that it absolutely does). Consequently, the game has become inextricably tied to my presence on Giant Bomb. Hence, it will likely come as a surprise to no one that I'm currently playing through Final Fantasy VII Remake in my spare time.

I'm currently about twenty hours into FFVII Remake and have just started Chapter 10 (no spoilers for anything beyond the Wall Market sequence, please!). I'm deliberately going slowly, trying to play no more than an hour a day on average and savouring the experience in a way I don't often attempt with video games any more. Most of that time has been enjoyable. I'm not here to dissect the experience or pass judgement on the game as a whole, especially not when I still have (by all accounts) about half of its content left to experience. I will say that I really like the pseudo-turn-based combat mechanics and the additional layer of strategy and tactical depth they provide on top of the (largely intact) Materia system from the original game. I'm a bit torn on the changes made to the story thus far, with some additions (like the ones involving Biggs, Wedge and Jessie) feeling like justified bits of character building and others (like the mysterious Whispers) feeling tacked-on and unnecessary, but I'm trying to keep an open mind and am at least willing to stay on the ride and see where the rest of the journey leads.

What I want to talk about today are two things that have struck me as I've played through the first half of Final Fantasy VII Remake. The first of those things is the game's portrayal of Midgar. The second is its portrayal of Aerith. One of them I really like, and the other has me feeling a little conflicted. I'll leave you to guess which is which while I prepare the banner for the next section of this blog. I suppose this would also be a good opportunity to warn you all that while I won't be discussing any story events in great detail, some of the comments below may tip-toe into mild spoiler territory for anyone wishing to go into FFVII Remake completely fresh.

A Tale of Two Cities

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Final Fantasy VII Remake's rendition of the city of Midgar is astounding, of that there can be no doubt. It takes familiar places that have up until now existed only on a two-dimensional plane, and turns them into fully-navigable, three-dimensional environments. This augmentation is a powerful trigger for nostalgia, and is something that is noticeable right from the start of the game, with its retelling of the Sector 1 Mako reactor bombing mission synchronising almost perfectly with the opening of the original FFVII. The feeling of familiarity that this nostalgia elicits is then replaced with a child-like sense of wonder at the realisation that you can control the camera and experience these familiar places in a way that just wasn't possible previously.

This is to say nothing of the sense of scale that FFVII Remake manages to convey in its portrayal of Midgar. The first time this hit me was at the start of the game's third chapter, when Cloud disembarks the train in the Sector 7 slums with the rest of Avalanche. This is the first time the player is put in a position of control while under the plate, and my personal instinct was to immediately tilt the camera upward. Thankfully, I was not disappointed - the slums' skybox is dominated by the imposing darkness of the Sector 7 plate's underside, one of seven twisted masses of metal emerging from the city's central pillar that blot out almost all natural light. In the original game, we're told this plate is there, but due to technical limitations and the pre-rendered nature of the backgrounds, there are very few situations in which we're actually able to see it. In FFVII Remake, the plate above is a permanent imposition on the skyline, making it impossible to forget about its presence. This, in turn, feeds into the game's narrative by visually reinforcing the disparity between the "haves" up on the plate, and the "have-nots" in the slums below. Being able to see the plate so prominently at all times makes me feel the oppression that Avalanche are fighting against more acutely than I ever have while playing the original FFVII.

There is a feeling of unity to FFVII Remake's Midgar as well, a sense that this is indeed one giant city and not a mish-mash of maps joined by invisible corridors at each end. This is a problem evident in parts of the original FFVII, with pre-rendered backdrops often not syncing up directly with each other and leaving the player's mind to fill in the gaps in the journey that exist between the screens. Actually, it's probably unfair to call this a 'problem', since there's nothing inherently wrong with this approach. What I'm trying to articulate is that by modelling whole sections of Midgar that the player can navigate seamlessly, FFVII Remake cultivates the feeling of it being one big interconnected place. Based on the experience of playing through Chapters 8 and 9, I'm pretty sure it would be possible to travel from Aerith's church through the Sector 5 slums, via Wall Market, right through to the Sector 7 gate next to the children's park in Sector 6, and perhaps even beyond, all without ever encountering a loading screen or fade-to-black. Compare that to the original game, where you'd have to navigate about a dozen different individual screens and the transitions between them, and hopefully you'll see what I'm trying to get at.

Why then, if I am so ready to praise FFVII Remake's version of Midgar, do I still hesitate to brand it definitively superior to its pre-rendered PS1 counterpart? I think a big part of it is down to the game's wildly varying visual fidelity, something that has been the subject of much discussion since the game's release. In case you're not aware, Final Fantasy VII Remake's environments are filled with a lot of low-poly, poorly-textured objects hardly befitting a late-generation PS4 release. This is not an uncommon phenomenon with modern games, and the discourse around it is often hyperbolic, with comments comparing visuals to those from the PS2/Xbox/GameCube era. However, having witnessed FFVII Remake's graphical inconsistencies myself, it's difficult not to agree in this instance. For every gorgeous skybox or lovingly hand-crafted shop sign, there is a hexagonal medicine bottle or an apartment door seemingly devoid of textures. These discrepancies are made even more immersion-breaking by the presence of Cloud and his companions' exquisitely-detailed, wonderfully-animated character models, which seem almost out-of-place against the seemingly half-finished backdrops they explore.

Compare this to the original Final Fantasy VII and the situation is almost wholly reversed. FFVII is universally derided for its blocky overworld character models, but its static, pre-rendered environments are filled with little details that still impress me today and serve to make the world feel vibrant and alive. This high level of environmental detail is what I believe makes Midgar such a memorable location for those of us who first played FFVII all those years ago, essentially portraying the city as a character in its own right. Crucially, the quality of the presentation across Midgar's scores of pre-rendered backdrops is consistent, preserving a sense of place without ever questioning the player's suspension of disbelief or breaking their immersion. FFVII Remake may better nail the city's size and scale, but the fact it doesn't hold up to close scrutiny means it doesn't quite surpass its source material for me.

Not a Delicate Flower

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One area in which Final Fantasy VII Remake absolutely does exceed my expectations, though (at least up to the start of Chapter 10), is in its portrayal of Aerith Gainsborough. I'll be honest, one of my primary concerns going into the game was how it was going to handle its main cast. Through the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII and the Kingdom Hearts series, Tetsuya Nomura has demonstrated a worrying lack of awareness of who the characters he designs are supposed to be, and given his position as director of FFVII Remake, I was expecting that trend to continue. While most of FFVII's cast have suffered at his hands over the last two decades, I'd argue none have been warped beyond recognition to the extent that Aerith has. In almost all media post-FFVII, the flower girl from the slums has been portrayed as a pseudo-messianic figure - pure, chaste, her presence almost ethereal (literally ethereal, in the case of Advent Children). She smiles, she speaks softly, all the while seeming almost passive and subservient to the likes of Cloud and Zack.

If you've played Final Fantasy VII, you know this isn't Aerith. Aerith isn't a holier-than-thou embodiment of purity. She is cheeky, she breaks the rules, she answers back, and she's not afraid to call people out when they're being unreasonable. Aerith is also (for lack of a better word) spunky. She has a positive outlook on almost every situation, and that radiates outward as a positive influence on the people around her. While she does rely on Cloud to protect her early on, she's far from the archetypal damsel in distress, giving the impression that it's lack of experience rather than lack of ability that prevents her from holding her own against the likes of Reno and Rude. Later, she turns that archetype completely on its head by masterminding the plan to get into Don Corneo's mansion and rescue Tifa, all through cunning and ingenuity rather than sheer brute force.

Final Fantasy VII Remake gets this, it gets all this, and I honestly couldn't be happier. The last two chapters of the game have been my favourite parts to date, and a lot of that is down to spending them in the company of Aerith, getting to know her, and seeing her behave in a way befitting her, rather than some bastardised version of the character. This is epitomised in the scene from Chapter 8 where Cloud and Aerith escape from Reno at the church by fleeing across the rooftops. The pace of the game slows down very deliberately here, and there are no combat encounters. It's just Cloud and Aerith, carefully navigating the rooftops and getting to know each other as they do. Aerith is utterly adorable in this scene, gently poking fun at Cloud while also trying not to seem completely incompetent as she picks a route through the rusty scrap with him. It's so endearing to watch unfold and might be my favourite bit of character interaction in the game so far.

This is just one scene, to say nothing of the sequences that follow. Going to her house and meeting her mother Elmyra, exploring the Sector 5 slums and doing odd jobs together for the residents of the undercity, the entire reimagined Wall Market sequence - it has all been memorable, and Aerith has been instrumental in that. I may be misremembering this, as I haven't been able to find a source, but I have a vague recollection of reading something online, potentially an interview with Hironobu Sakaguchi, stating that Aerith's name is supposed to reflect the fact that she comes into Cloud's life like a breath of fresh air. That could be completely wrong, but that's how I've always interpreted it myself, and this incarnation of Aerith is the epitome of that idea. I honestly can't wait to spend more time with this character through the back half of Final Fantasy VII Remake, and into whatever comes next.

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That's going to do it for this blog. I'd be very interested to hear other players' thoughts on how the remake handles both Midgar and its returning characters (providing they avoid spoilers post-Chapter 9!). Perhaps one day in the far-flung future, when the Final Fantasy VII Remake project is complete, I'll be able to attempt a serial blog dissecting it and comparing it to its inspiration. Until then, I hope this little snippet will suffice. Thanks very much for reading folks. Take care, and I'll see you around.

Daniel

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII Remake (PS4)

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You Only Win When You're Swinging

Hey there folks. Just to clarify, this blog was originally posted on a different site in February 2020. In the interest of keeping all my games-focused writing in one place, I've decided to copy it over to my Giant Bomb blog.

I've spent the last few weeks playing through Marvel's Spider-Man on the PlayStation 4. As far as open-world action games go, it's up there as one of the very best I've played this generation. It may not boast the sweeping grandeur and epic scale of something like Horizon Zero Dawn; nor is it a sandbox of interwoven emergent gameplay systems akin to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Instead, what makes Marvel's Spider-Man so successful in my opinion is a quality that open-world video games have been lacking for the best part of a decade; a razor-sharp sense of focus. It's that quality that has inspired me to devote three weeks of game time to pursuing 100% completion across the base game and all three of its DLC packs, even shooting for the Platinum Trophy.

To anyone who's arrived here in the hope that I might dissect Marvel's Spider-Man from a story perspective, I'm sorry to disappoint you but that won't be the focus of this blog post. I simply don't have the necessary investment in Spider-Man's extensive mythos to judge the plot points of this game in the context of an average Spidey story, and I feel any attempt to analyse it on its own merits, isolated from the rest of Marvel's Spider-verse, would be a missed opportunity. For what it's worth, I enjoyed Spider-Man's story in the same way I might enjoy a big-budget popcorn flick. I was completely engrossed in the midst of the experience, but found it easy to detach from the story and its events when not playing. Instead of focusing on narrative, I want to dive deep on two very specific pieces of Spider-Man's game design, and how I believe they transform it into something far greater than just another bloated open-world action game full of towers to climb and map icons to investigate.

Friendly Neighbourhood

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It goes without saying that an open-world game is usually only as good as its open world, with the best examples of the genre taking place in some truly memorable game-spaces. Games like Grand Theft Auto III and The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind feature some of the most iconic open worlds the medium has to offer. Hours of gameplay spent in places like Liberty City and Vvardenfell has given me a knowledge of their geography comparable to that of my own hometown. Even now, almost two full decades since the release of those games, I feel confident that I could comfortably navigate my way around their respective game-worlds without needing to refer to a map.

Over the last decade or so, the number of open-world games being released has increased exponentially. That market saturation comes at a price, though, and that price is usually individuality. In a phenomenon that other critics have dubbed 'Ubification', after the publishers most associated with the template, almost every open-world game released in the last ten years is built on an identical foundation; enormous maps populated with nondescript cookie-cutter locations, separated by countless square miles of wilderness, connected by a network of roads and pathways, and punctuated by towers to climb, enemy outposts to clear, and almost infinite collectibles to pick up. This game design philosophy has reduced much of the open-world genre to homogeneous checklists of busywork, to the point where even distinct franchises start to feel identical to one another.

So what exactly makes GTA III's Liberty City and Morrowind's Vvardenfell so memorable compared to current-generation open worlds like Far Cry 4's Kyrat and Just Cause 3's Medici? My personal opinion is that their strength lies in their relatively small size. Smaller open worlds lend themselves better to memorisation in large part because there is less for the player to memorise, but I don't believe that's the only reason. It logically follows that in a smaller environment, with a limited number of routes between a smaller number of locations, the journeys the player makes in these games are going to repeat, and that repetition in turn breeds familiarity within the player's mind. Smaller open worlds also tend to be constructed in a much more bespoke manner, with unique landmarks and idiosyncratic road layouts that stick in the player's memory far more readily than the copy-paste towns and identical connecting highways of their larger counterparts.

Marvel's Spider-Man bucks the Ubification trend, instead opting for an open world much more akin to those from the turn of the millennium in terms of its size and construction. It confines the action to a scaled-down approximation of the island of Manhattan, providing the player with a relatively small game-world by modern open-world standards. It's also an environment packed with recognisable landmarks in the form of uniquely-shaped skyscrapers and other famous buildings, that serve to orientate the player within the game world. It's not perfect; given that almost all the gameplay happens above street-level, there's never really an opportunity to get to know the road layout of Spidey's Manhattan intimately. But after a few dozen hours in this digital recreation of the Big Apple, I feel like I have a good understanding of the city's geography and could comfortably navigate to any of the map's nine districts using only the skyline for reference.

Another advantage of smaller open worlds that I neglected to mention earlier is that their more compact size better lends them to objective-based scavenger hunts and scattered collectibles, usually because those objectives and collectibles are either fewer in number or their distribution is more concentrated (or, indeed, a combination of both). Spider-Man subscribes to this school of thought as well, keeping its backpack and landmark photo collectibles to respectable quantities of fifty-five and fifty respectively and packing them pretty densely into the map. It also keeps the quantity of side quests at a very modest level by contemporary open-world standards, introducing new objectives gradually and rarely exceeding a dozen unique instances of any given extra-curricular activity. Keeping the numbers low stops these distractions from feeling like boxes on an endless checklist, and in turn helps prevent the player from burning out.

Can He Swing From A Thread?

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But having a smaller, more concentrated open world is only half the battle. Developers have to give the player incentives to explore, and they have to make the act of traversing their world enjoyable in itself. This is something that I feel open-world developers really lost sight of for a while, with the problem being compounded by the trend of open-world games becoming increasingly vast. The larger a game-world is, the longer it's going to take to traverse, and the more time players are going to spend travelling between objectives. A lot of games try to mitigate this problem by introducing fast-travel options, allowing the player to bypass the down-time between missions by teleporting to their next objective, but personally I feel this amounts to developers cutting off their nose to spite their face. What is the point in building these huge open game-worlds and then actively encouraging players to avoid engaging with them in the most fundamental way?

​Marvel's Spider-Man navigates these potential pitfalls with aplomb, primarily because it features some of the most enjoyable moment-to-moment traversal ever seen in an open-world game. Spider-Man's web-swinging mechanic is consistently satisfying thanks to the pitch-perfect control scheme and the ease and speed with which it enables the player to move unimpeded through the game-world. Every minute I spent navigating Spider-Man's open world was an enjoyable experience simply by virtue of the fun I found in the basic act of swinging from a thread. By traversing the map in this way, I was able to deal with side missions and other distractions organically as and when I found them, rather than referring to lists of objectives and ticking them off one by one.

While the game does feature a fast-travel mechanic in the form of New York's famous subway, it's telling that I never once felt compelled to use it outside of one mandatory instance during a story mission and the four further times required to unlock one of the game's Trophies. Incidentally, I think it's worth recognising when a game is able to justify the existence of fast-travel within the context of its world as Spider-Man does, since it helps preserve a sense of immersion that would otherwise be shattered by teleporting halfway across the game-world for no good reason besides player convenience.

The way that Insomniac have incorporated "spider-sense" into exploration also deserves mention here. While mainly featured in the game's stealth sections to highlight enemy positions and other objectives, spider-sense can also be triggered at any time during traversal. Doing so will cause a sonar-like wave to emit from Spider-Man's current location, revealing the whereabouts of any nearby points of interest as icons on an overlay over the gameplay. This feature allows for seamless exploratory gameplay, eliminating the need for the player to check either the mini-map or the map menu to identify collectibles or side missions within their vicinity. This also plays into preserving the player's sense of immersion and encouraging them to encounter objectives organically rather than viewing them as a checklist in a pause menu.

Daniel

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII Remake (PS4)

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Thinking With Portals

Hey there folks. Just to clarify, this blog was originally posted on a different site in January 2020. In the interest of keeping all my games-focused writing in one place, I've decided to copy it over to my Giant Bomb blog.

The Portal Will Open in Three... Two... One...

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I'm not sure there's another video game whose first ninety seconds are as perfect as Portal's. Fading from black, the player is placed into the body of protagonist Chell and encounters the disembodied voice of GLaDOS for the first time. As the psychopathic AI delivers her opening monologue, the player has the opportunity to explore the confines of their cell, their ability to roam limited by glass walls fencing them in. Then, something incredible happens. GLaDOS's speech tails off with a countdown, and at the end of that countdown, a mysterious opening appears in one of the walls of Chell's cell. Approaching it, the player sees something seldom witnessed in a first-person game; their avatar. Not face-on, as one might see themselves in a mirror, but from the side and at a distance, like some sort of out-of-body experience. Curiosity gets the better of the player, so they step further forward, and pass through the opening. As they do so, they witness themselves stepping through the void in real time, and as they emerge on the other side, they find themselves on the outside of the cell looking in.

​This is the genius of Portal; in a little over a minute, it introduces the core conceit of its gameplay and reinforces the player's understanding by making their first interaction with it as memorable and meaningful as possible. This is no happy accident, but the product of intelligent game design. The developer commentary track, unlocked after beating the game for the first time, explains as much. The player's cell is rendered memorable by the inclusion of recognisable objects that act as visual anchors. The radio is playing an instrumental version of Still Alive to provide a constant audio anchor as well. The portals are positioned in such a way that the player will always see Chell's character model when looking through them. All of these design choices amount to a short segment of gameplay that teaches players how Portal operates on the most rudimentary level without the need for a conventional tutorial or any on-screen prompts.

This is especially important in Portal's case because its core mechanic is not a conventional one. In a first-person shooter, where the core mechanic is point-and-shoot, it's not unreasonable to assume that players will be familiar with that mechanic, because it's in a lot of games out there. There aren't many games out there that allow the player to defy the laws of physics by passing through wormholes connecting different points in space. By extension, it's therefore not unreasonable to assume that players might need familiarising with what is a pretty complex concept. By framing the player's first interaction with a portal in this very deliberate way, the developers are able to give players the basic understanding needed to engage with the game's other mechanics and solve the puzzles it presents to them. It is information conveyance at its very best, and that is why I hold the opening moments of Portal in such high regard.

Environmental information conveyance is a big part of Portal's design philosophy. The game communicates with the player through a language comprised of audio-visual cues that the player subconsciously learns to read as they play the game, even if they may not realise they're doing it. This is not an uncommon practice in game development; one of the best examples of this is red barrels, whose striking colour denotes explosive properties in almost every game in which they feature. Because Portal's core mechanic is so unique, it goes to follow that the language it uses is pretty unique as well. In another example taken from its developer commentary, Portal communicates points of interest to the player through shapes; objects which can be interacted with, or are important for solving puzzles, typically have rounder edges (not unlike the game's eponymous portals) to make them "pop" against its angular environments. The contrast between light-grey, concrete walls and darker, reflective metal ones teaches the player to recognise which surfaces can and cannot host portals. When it comes to "flinging", a late-game mechanic which involves using gravity to build up momentum and launch out of a portal across a gap, Portal educates players by placing a checker-board pattern on the ground in places where it needs to be employed. These constants help the player to associate mechanics with certain aspects of the environment, giving them at least some indication of what the solution will involve without ever explicitly spelling it out.

Aperture Science: We Do What We Must, Because We Can

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Portal's environments don't just relay information about the game's mechanics. They're also one of its most important tools when it comes to storytelling. Environmental storytelling is a technique largely unique to video games, where interactivity permits players to explore maps and extrapolate narrative threads from things like object placements. Valve have long been proficient in this kind of storytelling, and Portal is no exception. Although Chell's personal story is never really addressed in Portal, morsels of the wider story of Aperture Science are littered throughout the test chambers and backstage corridors that make up the Enrichment Center.

Perhaps the most well-known examples of this are the "Rat Man dens", a handful of hideouts tucked away in corners of the game's last few test chambers, with scribbled drawings and text adorning their walls. These dens represent a crack in the gleaming facade of the Enrichment Center, often being the player's first opportunity to get behind the scenes and see what the facility actually looks like beyond its clinical test chambers. While nothing in these locations advances the core story of Portal, their existence fleshes out the wider scope of the narrative by painting a picture of events transpiring outside of the player's perspective. In these instances, the scrawled warnings on the walls of the Rat Man dens also serve to foreshadow upcoming events in the story by alluding to GLaDOS's murderous and mendacious nature before it ever becomes apparent to the player through Chell's eyes.

The Rat Man dens are the most obvious example of environmental storytelling in Portal, but there are several more, and most of them much more subtle in their execution. One of my personal favourites is the projector screen that appears in the game's final stages, when the player is traversing several office environments on their way to confront GLaDOS. This simple prop, which cycles through about four slides on a loop, depicts Aperture Science as being in fierce competition with another scientific organisation, namely Half-Life's Black Mesa, for several government contracts. Not only that, but it shows that Black Mesa clearly has the upper hand in this regard, with their awarded contracts and funding far exceeding those of Aperture. It's the kind of thing that could easily be missed, but which adds so much flavour to the situation around the core story, as well as giving a glimpse of the connective tissue that ties Portal to the Half-Life universe.

One final example I'd like to highlight, and which I only really noticed through this most recent playthrough, is just how empty and abandoned the Enrichment Center feels. It's a fact that manifests itself through several facets of Portal; for instance, how the player never meets another human character for the duration of the game. It's also evident in the environmental design, though. On this playthrough, I fully appreciated the textures attached to the walls of the test chambers; clinically pristine at first glance, but under closer scrutiny, revealed to be crumbling at the edges. The water hazards that cover the floors of some chambers are not clean and clear, but murky and green, also suggestive of an environment gone to seed and not properly maintained. When the player makes it beyond the test chambers and into the bowels of the facility, the metal panels on the walls and floors are rusting. The environment artists went to incredible lengths to create this air of abandonment about every single aspect of Portal's visual style, and I feel they deserve nothing but the highest praise for doing such a fantastic job that I felt it without ever really noticing why until now.

Didn't We Have Some Fun, Though?

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But what of the story itself? The moment-to-moment events that unfold as the player makes their way through GLaDOS's fiendish labyrinth of challenges? In all honesty, I think it's okay. It justifies the gameplay well, and provides just enough of a motive for the player to tackle the antagonist that the final confrontation feels rewarding, but it is at its core a very simple story without too many unexpected twists or turns. Portal's story is elevated not by its content, but by its delivery. Environmental storytelling, information conveyance and gameplay are important parts of that delivery, but what ties it all together is its inimitable personality. Almost all of that personality belongs to GLaDOS, the sardonic AI communicating with Chell (and by extension, the player) from that aforementioned incredible opening to the game's equally memorable denouement.

For a significant portion of Portal, GLaDOS serves the role of narrator by being the player's guide through the Enrichment Center. The player may or may not trust her, but given she is the only character present besides themselves, and therefore the only perspective the player has on the unfolding action, they have no choice but to follow her instructions. As the player progresses through the test chambers, seeds of doubt begin to be sown, primarily through the environmental storytelling in the Rat Man dens I discussed previously, which start to call GLaDOS's reliability into question; if "the cake is a lie", can this AI really be trusted? This comes to a head at the end of the final test chamber, when GLaDOS attempts to incinerate Chell as a "reward" for completing her little game. In this moment, GLaDOS's role changes from mentor and narrator to primary antagonist, and the remainder of the game becomes about getting to her and putting her out of action. In a fantastic example of ludo-narrative concordance, this is also the point in the game at which the training wheels really come off and some of the established rules around portal placement and puzzle solving get re-written, mirroring Chell casting off the shackles of GLaDOS's control.

Let's be honest, though. GLaDOS isn't just memorable because she's a mentor figure who transforms into an antagonist. She's mainly memorable because she's very funny. There's a clever juxtaposition between her cool, robotic delivery and the darkly humorous content of her dialogue, which often results in jokes only truly landing when the player stops to think back on the meaning of what they've just heard. Credit is due to both the writers at Valve for imbuing a supercomputer with so much personality, and voice actress Ellen McLain for delivering her lines so brilliantly. In the age of "meme humour", it's easy to think back on Portal as just "the 'cake is a lie' game", but I think that to do so is a disservice to how legitimately funny Portal was, and indeed still is.

Daniel

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII Remake (PS4)

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