Last time on video game industry, Microsoft put on a "gameplay reveal" for the Xbox Series X which contained neither any long-form gameplay nor that many Series X games. This lapse in marketing meant their arch-rivals Sony were now looking to be top dog. The purveyors of the PlayStation boasted floor-shaking announcements and a more extensive diversity of titles. But as hoped, Microsoft's earlier event was just a false start. With their Xbox Games Showcase, the wizards behind Windows were able to provide a more lingering glimpse of the experiences they'll be shipping this holiday. It was a promising sneak peek with the publisher displaying both respect for the customer's wallet and an appreciation of the limitless possibilities for games beyond traditional blockbusters. Here are some of the moments that stood out to me.
More than two years on from the shooter's announcement, and with its release just a couple of junctions away, it was high time we saw Halo Infinite in motion. The section that 343 Industries demoed was an animated homage to Halo: Combat Evolved's sophomore mission. It was the series returning to the same well one too many times for me. Combat Evolved was about exploring a Forerunner ringworld, Halo 2 was about discovering there were more arrays just like the one from the previous story, and Halo 3 delivered us to a reboot of the same setting. Halo Wars 2 returned players to the Ark and Installation from Halo 3 and Halo: The Master Collection was a literal remake of previous entries. There's so much fan service in this epic that it's having nostalgia trips about its nostalgia trips. Halo 5 felt like the series' most significant departure from the established conventions; it was where 343 stopped acting as a repeater for Bungie and became their own transmitter. So, it feels like they're limiting themselves to snap back to such familiar territory.
But Halo is a lot like pizza: even when it's okay, it's great. Having been conditioned to associate the animations of each weapon with the feel of them, Halo's timeless gunplay blasted through the screen at me. The pistol recoiling as it unloads into a Grunt, the shotgun sending Brutes hurtling backwards, it's all like watching someone pop bubble wrap or peel the film off of a new phone. There's not many series that could get away, in 2020, with imitating what they were doing in 2001, but Halo's art and game design are just that enduring. And outfitting the Master Chief with a grapple hook, Halo joins Call of Duty, Doom, and Titanfall in promoting vertical traversal.
When evolving graphical technologies enabled developers to expand the borders of levels, sprint mechanics were necessary to let players speed along the X and Z axes on the new scale. A grapple allows a user to do the same on the Y-axis; it's a relief from all those times we've seen a clifftop we know we want to get to and have spent our time winding around the plateau, trying to find a way up. It also takes some pressure off of the level designers: if they want to put the player on higher ground, they no longer have to craft a series of gradual inclines for them to get there, they can rely on the player to hoist themselves up. The flip side is that a grapple makes it easier for the player to reach areas of the stage that would otherwise be off-limits to them. I wonder if Halo will be able to make players sweat to retrieve skulls when they can web sling through a level.
Not that Infinite is just Halo 1 with abseiling. You wouldn't think it from this footage, but in peripheral statements, the developers say that the game will encourage free exploration of levels and offer up optional objectives. It will include a light upgrade system, allow free participation in its multiplayer, and act as a platform for multiple campaigns as opposed to containing one single-player journey. A lone slot on an ersatz E3 show doesn't lend itself to exhibiting such big-picture creative choices, but they're out there. The decision to make Infinite a campaign container makes a lot of sense. It may well explain why this isn't "Halo 6" and why the story we saw is closer to a sequel for Halo Wars 2 than a sequel for Halo 5. The creators can do more than conclude the trilogy; they can tell stories about whatever they want. From a production standpoint, the studio won't have to make a whole new Halo from the ground up every time it wants to introduce a new campaign mode; it can work within the toolset it has already built. Cheaper for it, more Halo for us.
Value for money is one of the chief weapons in Microsoft's arsenal as it heads into the ninth generation. It's cemented in the Xbox Game Pass which is not just an eye-popping deal for anyone searching for new play experiences; it's also a bridge between the current stable of hardware and the next. When a new console launches, you typically have to burn a whole wad of cash on the physical device, only to start building a new console library from scratch. In today's prices, those games weigh in at £50/$60 per unit, and launch gems are few and far between. With Game Pass, you can pay £8/$10 on top of the console price, and have access to over 100 pieces of software. Many of those items will be new, and many of those new items will be genuinely desirable experiences rather than time fillers to get us a year or two down the line when the quality levels out. We're a long way from a clunker like Ryse: Son of Rome being an integral entry on the launch slate and we may see a faster console adoption rate for the next generation because its library has received this jump start.
The Game Pass selection includes not just systemically-grounded games, but also some artsy, character-focused recreation like Dontnod's Tell Me Why and INT./NIGHT's As Dusk Falls. I would be interested to know what sets Tell Me Why apart from the Life is Strange series. From what we've seen, both are dramas taken from the perspectives of young people where supernatural phenomena act as metaphors for emotional struggles. Often, coming to terms with trauma. Dontnod's plot work has sometimes been choppy, but it's evident in every one of their narratives that they love their characters. Their stories are unabashed in their sentimentality and manage to hit an inspiring balance between celebrating emotional ties between people and acknowledging the dark tragedies that too often shatter young lives.
As Dusk Falls evokes a similar tone to much of Dontnod's catalogue, but its use of cardboard cutout characters in 3D, dynamic environments is uncanny. When its characters are in shock, they also tend to look more gormless than surprised. On the more kinetic end of things, we have Psychonauts 2 which was looking graphically juicier back in late 2018 when the first trailer hit. The platformer Double Fine flaunted is missing a certain spark. I can jump on platforms; I can punch monsters, but what else? Then again, maybe what the Psychonauts community want is a surrealist platformer that plays like it's still 2005.
A game like Tetris Effect Connected is more my speed. The two recent popular Tetris releases were made to light up very different parts of the player's brain. Tetris Effect was a responsive and impassioned audiovisual odyssey. Best played in a dark room or through a VR headset, it pulsed and chirped at the touch. Tetris 99 uses hobby-grade graphics but capitalises on the snappy D-Pad of the Switch to let you play as the most formidable Tetris combatant you can be. I don't expect the directional arrows on the Series X controller to be as light, but the idea of a game that brings together the beauty of Tetris Effect and the sport of Tetris 99 gets me hyped.
The Gunk is worth a mention if for no other reason than it being oddly pleasing to say "The Gunk". The Gunk is one of those games that relies not only on high fidelity graphics or only on prepossessing art direction but realises one through the other. The Gunk creates an alien atmosphere by wiring the aesthetics of the natural to synthetic chemistry. In The Gunk, we see bioluminescent fungi and pustules, along with foreboding, swampy flora and fauna. The Gunk.
But for the most original use of that ferocious engine under the Series X's hood, look no further than The Medium. Bloober Team's new horror uses that 12 TFLOPS GPU to render two overlapping realities on-screen simultaneously. There have been games that have allowed us to switch between two worlds or see elements of another world in the one we're exploring. However, there's no more vivid visual metaphor for the player character being able to perceive another reality than a whole viewport on it taking up half the screen. Both the settings in The Medium were exquisitely detailed in their desiccation, with the game adopting Observer's environmental theme of homes that resist occupation. The cap on the show was a trailer for a new Fable. It's something I thought I wanted, but now that it's here, I wonder if Fable's repertoire of slapstick and fart jokes will hold up.
Overall, I still would have liked to see more gameplay from Microsoft, considering we're now months out from the launch of many of these games, but I'm also deeply impressed with the depth and variety of games that the publisher showed. Over the lastcouple of E3s, I lamented that Microsoft was giving the cold shoulder to indie games and more experimental projects. As Game Pass has grown in prestige, more sub-AAA and serious games have gotten a seat at the table again. I'll absolutely devour that new Halo when it launches, but even better, in its adolescence, the Series X will also see a story of two troubling siblings trying to process their childhood, a boy exploring the zany minds of strangers, a colourful, pounding new block puzzle challenge, a chance to skirt the line between two suffocating realities, and yes, even The Gunk. Thanks for reading.
Note: The links and blocked-out text in this article contain descriptions of physical and sexual harassment. These acts are deliberately not described in the plaintext.
If the climate were different, I'd use a surrogate E3 article like this to jot down my thoughts on the games Ubisoft will be pushing into stores over the next year. Given the recent news from within the company, I think a more helpful use of this space would be to reflect on how we talk about the games industry's work environments and how we relate to products developed in those environments. We need to talk about these topics because discussions about the creation of video games are riddled with double standards.
All of us agree that there are instances in which a game's development history is inextricable from its identity. Which studio built a game, what labour force and budget they deployed, which engine they used, whether any superstar creatives were on deck, if the studio localised their title from another region. These are just some of the details that we believe tell us what a game is. However, if you start bringing up abusive practices and discriminatory structures at studios, a lot of fans will flip to treating the conditions of development as distant from the identity of the game. I have to ask if the attitudes of management and the culture of a company are irrelevant to the medium, then why do care who makes games?
Another thing I've never understood: There's a divide between which ethical issues are meant to matter to us as players and which aren't. You won't ruffle many feathers by saying that developers have a responsibility to take care of their customers, and are misserving them when they pollute an experience with unregulated lootboxes, aggressive microtransactions, and invasive DRM. But suggest that studios have a duty to protect and respect the workers under their wings and you'll receive no small number of excuses for why that can't happen. The sorting algorithm of this selective outrage is not arbitrary. The behaviours which receive universal criticism are those which affect the consumers of games, while the more divisive issues are the ones that primarily affect the workers making games.
This cold attitude towards developers creates lopsided priorities where tiny wrinkles in a title's netcode can mean everything. However, whether talented women were allowed into positions where they could best shape the game is outside the scope of the conversation. It's a mode of criticism where an overpriced season pass is a travesty but developers barely getting to see their families for months on end is the acceptable cost of doing business.
There's no justifying this thinking. Who works on a project, how they work on it, and what the ethics of the industry are are relevant to games and development studios, and we shouldn't tune this information out when it becomes uncomfortable. That being the case, when a company like Ubisoft talks about the games that they're releasing over the coming quarters, but doesn't address the abusive conditions those titles were crafted in, they're not giving us the full picture of those games. In this particular example, the company in question declared that they recorded their replacement E3 show before the recent upheaval at their offices and that's why they couldn't use the stream to confront the accusations of abuse. However, we're talking about a company that owns €3.6 billion in assets. If they wanted to push their livestream back a few days to slap an introduction onto it, they have that power. They made a conscious choice to do otherwise.
For my part, I don't want to downplay the severity of the damage Ubisoft did by talking around it. Let's be clear: If Ubisoft or we turn a blind eye to the behaviour within those walls, then we're knowingly ignoring allegations of a manager strangling a woman, of another raping a woman, of a third forcibly intoxicating his employees and ranting that a female colleague should be "passed around" by her co-workers. There are plenty more sickening accounts of misconduct within that firm, and if you can't empathise with victimisation as painful as this, I'm not sure there's anything I could say that would make you care about a developer.
Perhaps you believe that we should reserve judgement on each case until it's been investigated sufficiently. Yet, a point that Ubisoft whistleblowers are circling is that the company systemically discourages and sabotages research into apparent abuses, or doesn't act on the evidence they dredge up. Ubisoft's HR department was, for a period, run by a co-founder of the company who was also the wife of one of the accused abusers. According to the testimonials in Libération, human resources already knew about more than half of the cases that whistleblowers thrust into the media spotlight, but that knowledge didn't translate into action. The HR team's neglect led to one of their own identifying the department as "the silencing wing of Ubisoft". Various outlets have quoted employees at the studio expressing that they felt they shouldn't report management harming them because of their harassers held senior positions or because they knew previous reports had fallen on deaf ears.
It's a story that echoes through every industry, and if you care about the truth, you should be pushing everyone to pay attention to employee complaints. Instead, I see people simultaneously calling the accounts of harassment hearsay, while also curtailing discussion about investigating those testimonies. Put those two positions together, and you get the opinion "I don't know whether leaders at Ubisoft have hurt other people, and let's keep it that way".
I struggle to believe that you see the volume of smoke that is rising from that company without a fire. If there's a ghost of a chance that abuse is happening in a workplace, none of us can argue that it should go unaddressed, and at Ubisoft, there have been over 100 reports of harassment filed to the HR department. The developer agrees that something's rotten in their management style and has promised sweeping reforms to its processing of harassment claims. However, its system for cleaning out abusive employees failed its workforce time, and time again, so there's reason to be sceptical that it can change.
The company's silence during its flagship live stream of the year further raises doubts about its commitment to reform. You wouldn't expect a corporation that can't pay lip service to an internal restructuring, in the most public of arenas, to be capable of that restructuring. And make no mistake, company image was a particular focus for Ubisoft during this show. Not only did it gild the stream with shots of smiling employees and clean, well-equipped offices; in its profiles on Level Artist, Amanda Mundt, and Production Manager, Anamaria Musca, Ubisoft was selling an idea of what it's like to work for it.
Plenty of other corporations film worker portraits and their purposes are unambiguous. For hires in the making, they signal that the firm would be an environment that provides creative fulfilment and freedom. For prospective consumers, these adverts reassure them that when they buy from the company, they're helping to empower workers. They also suggest that the product or service customers receive will be of a higher quality because passionate and caring hands made it. But we know that these segments were papering over a darker side of Ubisoft.
I'm not saying that the featured developers and other workers at the studio haven't experienced happiness in their jobs. What I am saying is that if it weren't for labourers waving a red flag very recently, these rose-tinted self-plugs would be our prevailing idea of what life is like for a Ubisoft developer. Management was happy to create that illusion while repeatedly ignoring complaints of sexual assault and mistreatment from the mouths of their workers. Now is an excellent time to think about how many other companies have made cosy little snapshots of life under their management, and how little those tell us when a company like Ubisoft can hide an ethically compromised culture behind them.
The toxic influence of Ubisoft and similar companies is even relevant to a few of the games in development at the studio. Watch_Dogs is a series critical of private interests in the computing sector exploiting inequality and allowing the powerful to prey on the average person. Watch_Dogs Legion was made at a tech corporation branch where exactly that happened. If we can believe Hyper Scape's trailer, it is, bizarrely, an action game from the same company more sympathetic to Silicon Valley. It suggests that a video game producer can provide all the escape you need from the slings and arrows of the offline world and maybe even the tools to fight back against them. The reality is that the industry is making a lot of its employees lives worse, with little recourse. This causes Hyper Scape's techno-capitalist optimism to fall short, and means it's overhyping Ubisoft's potential to cure an ailing social climate.
Knowledge of the nature of these games and the work environment they were manufactured in adds not just to our general understanding of the medium and industry. It is also necessary for us to make informed decisions about who and what in the industry we're supporting, whether that support is drawing attention to products or supplying money to their owners. We deserve to know if spending our income on a commodity would reinforce sexist and abusive company practices. Not that it's as simple as us needing to boycott or oppose Ubisoft because the company is 100% toxic.
Marketing efforts frame brands as singular entities with a consistent set of values from top to bottom, but this is never the reality for any sizeable firm because all of them are staffed by a variety of individuals, each with their own experiences and goals. In this instance, there is no sole "Ubisoft": Ubisoft is a collection of people, some of whom are abusers or who perpetuate a system of inequality, some of whom are abuse victims or who suffer from that system, and some of whom will be bystanders. Titles like Watch_Dogs Legion and Assassin's Creed Vallhalla represent the work of bad actors, but also of the people who've laboured under them and come out the other side.
To make matters more complicated, we have to transact with studios as if they were singular economic entities. There's no way to praise, promote, and purchase the work of the average Ubisoft developer without also supporting probable abusers. Likewise, if you choose not to give Ubisoft your speech or cash because of their terrible history on harassment issues and treatment of female employees, you also keep your aid from those very same workers and opt-out of helping their creations bloom. Not that consumerism is the only way to support employees, but there is a catch 22 here.
"Fixing" the industry or even making ethical choices about how we interact with it is never going to be easy, and it's never going to be straightforward. However, we can't act responsibly towards video game businesses if we deny that they harbour problems outside of those which directly harm customers. E3 earned itself the nickname "Gamer Christmas", but we're all adults. We can't act like software is built by elves and delivered in Santa's sleigh; it's laboured on by human beings in a social environment. Work environments typically harbour imbalances of power which lend themselves towards biases and mistreatment by those higher on the social ladder, targeted at those on lower rungs. And games are not gifts wrapped in ribbon; they are, economically speaking, products, and so, are tangled up in company politics, marketing campaigns, and transactional decisions. If you're not acknowledging these aspects of the industry, you're not acknowledging the reality of the medium. Thanks for reading.
Note: The following article contains major spoilers for Observer.
Stories set in fictional worlds provide a type of exploration that those positioned in the real-world never can. A different universe means different cultures, technologies, and histories. While the societies and timelines of sci-fi and fantasy fiction are never as storied as the real thing, there's enough of them out there that we could get lost in them forever. When a new genre fiction series kicks off, pop culture nerds expect a deep pool of lore to dive into, and we approach new entries in popular series eager to see how creators utilise existing details and build on what we know. But I'd argue that sometimes creators can get more out of ignoring this hunger in their audience than they can out of feeding it.
Observer is a game with an elaborate backstory of killer disease, worldwide nuclear conflict, and economic apartheid. Far from being superfluous bonus content, this history explains everything about the power dynamics, environments, and lifestyles you'll find in its fallen Poland. Yet, the developer, Bloober Team, does not provide any "lore dumps" clarifying those events. There's no tourist's guide to the inhospitable metropolis we walk, and you won't find any conversation branches where characters expel an anthropology lesson on Observer's society. While you can compile a passing understanding of this future from articles, emails, and interviews, even an intrepid investigator spends a lot of time missing that context, and many players will pass through the game's exit without it.
Observer doesn't divulge every detail of its universe because it is more interested in how its characters subjectively experience its world. We all have lore: our possessions, our daily routines, and the degree of power we have are products of our surrounding cultures, politics, and economies, both historically and presently. But we aren't born with history books that explain those factors to us; it's often only through hindsight that we can put a finger on the key movers which architected the society and surroundings we occupy today. Many people don't care to study the background for the reality they live in, and for those who do, the road to understanding is a long one and will always have some missing slabs.
Even when you've journeyed down that road, what we experience first and foremost is not an academic report on our world, but a raw feel of it. No one wakes up in the morning to a text scroll about the swinging pendulum of history; we open our eyes ready to shower and picturing our breakfast. When you walk into a town square, even if you know the history of that square, the sensory experience you have is not just of that history. It's also of the hardness of the pavement under you, the weathering on the buildings, the clouds in the sky, and so on. This is how Observer presents its universe to us, at least, for the best portions of the game.
Bloober Team's dystopian sci-fi takes place in Kraków, in the year 2084. Between now and then, a combination of a war (The Great Decimation) and a disease (the nanophage) has left Earth in tatters. That war ended with the Chiron Corporation taking the throne at the head of the Polish government. We see the aftermath from the perspective of Daniel Lazarski, an observer: a unique police unit that can read the mind of anyone with an augmented brain. One rain-soaked night, he receives a pained and cryptic call from his estranged son, Adam. The caller I.D. reads "Leon Grabinski", a name foreign to Lazarski; he traces this communication to a run-down apartment complex. When he enters, the building goes into lockdown, preventing anyone from leaving and cutting all internet connections. In Grabinski's home, Lazarski finds a headless, unidentifiable corpse, an encrypted drive, and emails regarding a smuggler with the initials "H.N.".
"H.N." is Helena Nowak, a Chiron workhorse who wastes away in the flats with her ex-con, drug dealer husband, Amir. Neighbours tell us that they are an argumentative couple and that one night she stormed out. When Lazarski enters their home, he finds Amir at death's door, haemorrhaging a torrent of blood. The lacerations on his body match those of the victim in Grabinski's living room and keep Amir mute. Instead of speaking, Amir consents to one of the observer's "neural interrogations" through which we learn about his life and relationship, but he bleeds out before Lazarski can extract any information pertinent to the case. Our protagonist also finds Helena, dead, inside a tattoo parlour. While it is a legal offence to "neurally interrogate" the deceased, Daniel manages to do it to Helena by disabling his safety constraints. In the woman's memories, Lazarski learns that a competing employer was paying her under the table to smuggle data out of Chiron. She ran from her apartment that night, not because of a fight with Amir, but because she believed the pitiless corporation had hunted her down.
You'll notice that, up to this point, we don't witness the events of the plot in real-time. We arrive after the flame has burned out, and invest plenty of elbow grease sifting through the ashes. We've spent at least three-quarters of an hour in the nameless flats before we find Amir, and we scan every cubic inch of he and his partner's home before we find Helena. For Observer, the setting is not just the stage for the horror: it is the horror. The game wants us to stew in the location before it gives us any answers to its mysteries so that we can get a sense of what it must be like to scrape together a life here. We quickly learn that it would be a depressing and squalid one.
Inside the apartments, holograms of sickly green almost disguise the chipped wood and peeling plaster, but more than anything else, these projections give the surfaces a strobing, synthetic edge which makes you feel like a spider crawling across a circuit board. Despite the constant presence of a janitor and his maintenance drone, you could believe the place was abandoned. Wires and pipes go exposed, insects skitter across damp concrete, and later we will find a basement-level that is practically a dungeon. So many rooms are lit only by the harsh glare of a Chiron Inc. monitor: comfort and decoration are luxuries out of the reach of a Class C Pole.
It's because these are people's homes that this environment is remorselessly bleak. Horror is full of settings that are actively hostile towards their occupants from utilitarian space stations to spooky forests. Still, if you found yourself in one of those locations, you could, hypothetically, leave. No one wants to spend a night in a haunted house, but if you escape, you still have the refuge of home to look forward to. For this social stratum, there is no cleanly swept lobby to welcome you in, no plush sofa to fall back onto, you can only ever wake up and go to bed in a tesselated stack of rotting hovels.
It is common for a horror to manifest its central theme in the form of a creature or person: zombies representing death, vampires representing disease, and so on. But it is also possible for the environment itself to be a vessel for those fears. Video games are uniquely primed to host those vessels, as they are the only media form which asks us to move through spaces. Observer's levels bake its horror theme into the aesthetics of the world more than into any living thing, and its theme is living in poverty. I wouldn't bet on residents like Helena or Amir being able to find a reprieve from that poverty either. If you don't have money to spend on a liveable apartment, you won't have the disposable income to go out and sink into food, leisure, and shopping.
Through the eyes of Lazarski, we get a feeling of the lead weight around the citizens' ankles as we start knocking on doors, hunting for leads. Some characters do not answer the knock, others openly state that they are shut-ins, and most are paranoid about the possibility of stepping into the hall and their airways filling with the nanophage. As understanding a tone as Lazarski adopts, it probably doesn't help that now there's a cop breathing down their necks as well. There are even rumours that Chiron, who Lasarski works for as a state officer, sets fire to buildings contaminated with the nanophage or drags away sufferers in the night to do unspeakable things to them.
If you keep your ear to the ground, you will learn that Chiron sorts citizens into districts based on their salaries. The lowest of these income brackets is Class C, which encompasses 90% of Polish citizens. These people didn't just end up in these flats because they were dumped there like debris on the currents; Chiron put them there. And the lockdown mechanism that has them under its thumb is part of a security measure in the country's low-income apartments. These deadbolts were installed on the back of the nanophage epidemic in hopes of better containing the virus in the future. The government's solution to an outbreak is to trap the vulnerable in with it, so homes of the poor exist as potential charnel houses. As it turns out, the nanophage has not reached these apartments, and we don't find hard evidence that Chiron incinerates live citizens. However, that risk and the terror it creates still isolates these people: as small and filthy as their flats are, they will not risk leaving them for fear of the wolf at the door.
All we see of most characters is a single corner of their face. They're squished into a framey video feed nested in an impenetrable apartment entrance. Observer wants us to feel isolated, and sure enough, these locked doors cut us off from most of the characters: physical distance becomes social distance. It is appropriate that the caretaker of the apartments is Janus, named for the Roman god of gateways. We also experience a little of the residents' claustrophobia because we're sealed in with them, like canned sardines. Level designers typically make in-game areas roomier than their real-world counterparts. Game controls often aren't up to the task of letting us perform the smaller, slighter movements through the world that we do in real-life, so the environments compensate by accomodating big, bounding motions. For a third-person game, more space also means room to swing the camera about in, and for an action game, it means the ability to dodge and reposition.
As a first-person game with little action, Observer doesn't have to bow to traditional level design requirements. These homes lack elbow room, encouraging the player to empathise with Poland's downtrodden. It's a reminder of how constraining cheap homes can be to their renters. The game also makes use of mazes, and in some environments, will teleport us backwards, making this location feel inescapable. And it matters that we can't leave. The conventional wisdom of video game worldbuilding is that the more places a player can visit, the more they can comprehend the world overall, and the more vividly you depict the characters, the more those figures resonate with the audience. But it's impossible to imagine this high-budget design philosophy working for Observer. If we enjoyed a free reign of Kraków and could put a face to every voice we hear, it would dilute the stir craziness and dehumanisation inherent in Observer's setting.
The seclusion that we feel in this structure is innate to this world as a whole. After the coronavirus crisis, we know the insulating nature of a pandemic, and the people in Observer have experienced one even more pernicious than COVID-19. On top of that, the war split the planet into a circus of protectionist, nationalist factions. One of Chiron's proudest military projects is a wall they have built along Poland's south-east border. The state is patting itself on the back for cutting off the rest of Europe. There is also a hint that the conditions of citizens' homes and the partitions between members of the public have had a grievous strain on their mental health and relationships. We find parents shouting at children, a loner desperate for outside contact, men ready to unload a salvo of anger at anything that moves, and a housewife who's so friendly that she immediately arouses suspicion.
Amir and Helena are the game's prime example of how poverty can stress a partnership. Helena has to work double-shifts at Chiron to make ends meet and becomes incensed at Amir for not picking up the financial slack. Amir is angry that Helena calls him lazy when, as he sees it, no one will hire him because of his criminal record. A lot of people would want to lecture Amir about his drug dealing and tell him to become a more upstanding citizen. However, we see his profession is a means for him to survive in a society where the average person can barely put bread on the table, and that, in prison, drugs were his only relief from torturous accommodations. I think anyone would be tempted to do what Amir does, given the circumstances.
The game's conceit of trapping us in this complex could prevent us from following these characters into other locations that have defined their lives, and so, limit the game's ability to characterise where it matters. But this is where the neural interrogation comes in. When Lazarski connects to someone's brain, he doesn't just receive a sterile output of their mental library; he enters a delirious dream environment which encapsulates their memories and the emotions connected with those memories. Architecturally, these spaces are close to or identical to the real locations they represent, but what fills them is purely psychic. The objective quality of these memories is the lifeblood of Lazarski's investigation, but it's the subjective element that disturbs us and grinds us down, just as it does for these characters.
In Amir's mind, we find prison setpieces grafted onto the apartment building. Inside his home stands a wall of tally marks; outside, iron bars block thoroughfares, and televisions flicker with stock footage of corrections facilities. Eventually, we return to the cell where the justice system held him, which is little more than a concrete closet. All of this symbolises that even after serving his sentence, the jail stays with Amir, and that the state released him from one prison into another. In one scene, we see him eating what he describes as "slop", in apparent solitary confinement. One of Helena's memories suggests this was actually a meal she served him, implying that the quality of food in his poverty is about the same as it was in prison.
In Helena's mind, the Chiron workplace is a twisting labyrinth of desks with faceless shadows rushing between them. Employees work at a breakneck pace, and Helena is caught in the rat race. Her memories also contain stealth sequences in which she is stalked by drones and an augmented brute with one torch eye. These segments are expressive of her paranoia about Chiron snooping out her smuggling. In another chapter, we see Helena's sinks filled with dirty pots, her cupboards full of tentacles, and a pile of laundry under a Chiron workstation. She returns home many times in quick succession dwarfed on both sides by rows of washing machines. Daily, she delivers herself from the looping drudgery of paid work to the looping drudgery of domestic work. Most upsetting, Helena tends to a television set that chuckles when she's holding it but cries when she's far; it eventually breaks. Could Helena and Amir have lost a child in this building?
A reason activities like homecare, childcare, office work, or serving a prison term can chip away at our mental health is because many of us find them monotonous. Given that most media never wants to be boring, it often chooses not to capture that everyday strain. However, you can do it without losing your audience by using interpretative environments, as Observer does. During neural interrogations, we see slithering snakes, monsters flailing from housewares, and dancers spasming in greyscale. They provide a more detailed emotional reality than you could get by just showing someone shoulder-deep in a washing machine or spacing out on a metal bunk bed. Additionally, the overstimulating blare of these mental environments embodies the stress of life below a living wage. The walls of harsh noise, the television that cries like a baby, and the pulses of buffeting wind are exhausting. Written art tends to encode metaphor more densely than audiovisual art, but a semi-truthful setting like you can find in these hapless cyberpunks' heads can help redress that balance.
When plumbing the depths of victims' and suspects' memories, Daniel will sometimes hear people address him by name or encounter the voices of other people supplanted by his voice or those of his family members. It serves as a shorthand for Daniel sympathising with these tenants; when he exhumes their memories, he glimpses parts of his life in them. Eventually, even the physical apartment block becomes an interpretive environment as we see gore and viscera draped over it. This tells us that it is a living place, but also one of gruesome violence.
However, it's a little before this happens that the game's attention starts to wander. The story becomes less about the symptoms of destitution and more about speculative concepts like body modification and werewolves. It becomes less about who is living in this dwelling and more about Daniel, and his son, Adam. The game shunts its focus away from the people that our societies consider disposable in favour of cataloguing the concerns of a police officer and a corporate programmer. In doing so, it's arguably guilty of ignoring the vulnerable, the same way Chiron does. For what it's worth, throughout these sections, Observer still treats its environments as projector screens for imagery relating to inhumane treatment. While the Class C tenement is a dreadful place to be stuck, we later enter a Chiron building, and it doesn't look remotely designed for humans to occupy. It's all metallic hallways, no furniture, and emergency signage. The victims that have been dragged there are painfully surrendering to the nanophage. It's in this steel labyrinth that we decide the course of Daniel's life from here on out.
As Observer has progressed, Daniel's ability to delineate between fiction and fact has wavered, and glitching hallucinations have terrorised him. By the end, we learn that his son, Adam, was a Chiron employee, and while on their payroll, was developing a process for uploading a human mind into a computer. When he left the corporation, he also left his research behind, as well as a digital copy of himself. With time, that copy evolved. The computerised Adam was looking for a way to break the original Adam's research out of Chiron.
He employed Helena to smuggle this data out, and killed her, Amir, and another man he collaborated with so that his work couldn't leak back to the company. With this A.I. on the warpath, the original Adam set loose a virus to delete him, only for Chiron's Adam to kill the organic Adam. Knowing it would be inevitable that the malware would find him, the synthetic Adam prepared to jump ship from the computer networks into a secure storage device. As a cop investigating highly sensitive cases, Lazarski's mind is disconnected from the world's systems: a digital fortress. It was the A.I. Adam that called Daniel at the start of the game and lured him to the apartments. It was then him that sent a signal from Chiron that caused the building to seal up, and him that eventually baited his father to his location in the heart of Chiron.
When Daniel finds this virtual Adam, Adam offers him the chance to "merge" their minds. If we reject the merger, Adam says that he cannot join with someone who does not consent to it, but that he can hijack their physical form. He transfers himself into Lazarski's body and Lazarski's mind into a maintenance drone. Lazarski jumps from there into the body of Janus, the janitor, and leaps onto Adam. As the lockdown lifts, the police arrive to see a man assaulting an officer, and kill that man, not realising it's Daniel. If Daniel accepts the fusion, then we find that it's not so much a combination of their minds, as Adam getting motor control while forcing our protagonist into the back seat. In an ironic play on the game's title, Daniel watches powerlessly as a sociopathic A.I. pilots his body out of the apartments.
While it comes unwound about halfway through, in this ending, the game returns to putting feeling before formality. In Adam's copy's initial phone call, he tells us to remember that we "are not in control". But the line is easily forgotten and doesn't seem to ring true. As Daniel, we have player agency, and our choices do appear to edge us closer to relieving the lockdown and solving these murders. It's not until we're in the gelid pit of the Chiron servers that we realise that all our influential actions, an A.I. tricked us into taking.
What the people in these apartments starve for is freedom. As the impoverished, they don't get to choose that they're stuck inside, don't get to pick the conditions of their homes, and don't have control over their country. They have to jump when wardens or employers say "jump", and assume lines of work based on desperation rather than desire. Thanks to the nanophage and their bioaugments, a lot of them don't even have control over their bodies. Through Daniel Lazarski, we also experience what it's like to lose control. He stops being able to trust his senses and have a say in what he sees or where he goes. He does everything that a computer has planned for him to do, and during the closing, when we still think we have a vote over our future, we discover that we are fated to lose bodily autonomy. Observer teaches us what it's like to be poor not because it has tomes of information about what a penniless background looks like, but because, at a sensory level, it's about what it's like to have everything taken from you. Thanks for reading.
I don't usually go in for debates about who "won" a console generation or "won" E3. If two good games consoles come out, then it seems pointlessly pessimistic to say that one has failed just because another has succeeded a little more. But we can find insight in comparison. Game companies don't make decisions in a vacuum; they react to each other. And when a technology or experience falls down, we can turn to its competition for examples of how it might have better achieved its goals. So, as far as I'm concerned, you can't discuss Sony's introduction of the PlayStation 5 separate from Microsoft's showcasing of the Xbox Series X.
Back during E3 2014, Microsoft arrived with an "all about the games" ethos. After years of longwinded speeches and awkward tech demos, the Head of Xbox prized the company on skipping the rigamarole and cutting straight to ninety minutes of entertainment software. It was just what I wanted from an E3 stage show, and largely, what I still do now. Over the following years, the need for transparent, games-focused briefings only increased. We saw releases like No Man's Sky, Fallout 76, and Mass Effect Andromeda where audiences thought they were getting one product and were dismayed when they got something entirely different. Not that any studio knows what their final build will look like until the home stretch of development, but the issue of content confusion wasn't going to be solved by less demonstration of the games.
Yet, the amount of play shown at E3 has been on the decline for the last two or three years, and for a period, Microsoft regressed from a software-only approach to indulge in long-form hardware porn. There are constructive applications of high-end tech in the medium. Some genuinely beautiful and rich worlds have been brought to life through ferocious GPUs and bottomless RAM. However, Microsoft pored over these electronics with a fetishism which suggested that putting more transistors on a chip or finding new heat dissipation methods is an end instead of a means. And if you feel the same way, cool.
It's valid to appreciate engineering for its own sake and to see games as a means to spotlight the power of your hardware. But a lot of us are looking at it from the other end of the scope. In my mind, just having a wealth of polygons or a colossal draw distance is only so compelling in itself. The goal is to use that potential to realise smart and well-implemented design, art, and writing. Somebody telling me that they're going to have great games because they have a cutting-edge console is like telling me that they're going to make a great movie because they have an expensive camera.
We can be generous to Microsoft and say that by building state of the art hardware, it hypothetically enables developers to achieve stunning visions at the AAA echelon. Not only is it nice to have more lavishly-produced conventional action games; we've also seen realistic graphics used to spark artistically acclaimed experiences. Sony did this with break-through titles like Horizon: Zero Dawn or God of War (2018). We can also understand that Microsoft might have wanted to beat the crowds in raising awareness of their console, but that marketing is tough when launch day is a blip on the horizon. If your machine is still in the oven, you won't be able to show professional-grade games running on it, so, it's rational that you'd just flip through the raw specs.
But when it came time to show the games for the system, Microsoft came down with a case of stage fright. The Series X gameplay reveal from early May wasn't a gameplay reveal. There were some gameplay supercuts, a lot of cinematics which did not reflect the interactive nature of these titles, and a general scarcity of details. But where were the developers with logo t-shirts playing in-game puzzles, missions, or levels from beginning to end? The headline act was Assassin's Creed Valhalla which we'd already seen same few morsels of the day before. And considering the increasing range of art styles, gameplay structures, and subject matter in PC games, most of these Series X projects weren't pushing the relative boat out.
I don't want to be a doomsayer here. It's not unusual for a new machine to launch with a flimsy catalogue. The install base for existing consoles starts off much larger than the install base of newly-released consoles. That means that there's often comparatively little revenue in forging new games exclusively for the next generation. So, you work your magic cross-platform or just on the older set of platforms. And it often takes time for developers to feel out new hardware and learn to converse efficiently with it.
So, I could forgive Microsoft on those counts, but you have to ask, given that Halo is their flagship series, how do you have an Xbox gameplay reveal without Halo Infinite? It's intended to hit during the launch window. Moreover, there were no exclusives. And worse, it feels like the ridiculous endpoint of taking live play out of publisher presentations that "gameplay reveals" don't necessarily contain any gameplay now. Those PC games Microsoft is competing against often have hours of taster videos behind them for anyone who wants to know what they're getting into. I can't reliably tell you from the sixty-minute sizzle reel what most of those Series X games will be like to play.
Software is going to be integral for the Series X because there's only so much of a leg over it'll have on hardware. Both the Series X and the PS5 use eight-core AMD Zen 2 CPUs, SSDs, AMD graphics cards capable of ray tracing and displaying 4K at 60FPS, and they each have 16GB of GDDR6 RAM. It's true that the Series X has about 200GB more internal storage than the PS5, a roughly 1.75 teraflop lead on the GPU, and 2.4 more GHz on its CPU. But we don't know what it'll say on the price tags, and the two computers are still roughly comparable.
This is why Sony's approach of trying to woo us with more than ray tracing and high-speed memory is the way to go. In the PS5 reveal, the console manufacturer was also surprisingly adept at avoiding a wet launch lineup and over-reliance on action. I don't want to create the impression that there was no vaguery around games on that stream or that there wasn't a fair few non-gameplay trailers, because there were. I also don't want to suggest that there weren't some number of games there playing on masculine power fantasies because that's what titles like Gran Turismo 7, Deathloop, and Hitman 3 represent. Which is fine, by the way. I've spent thousands of hours with my virtual hands wrapped around grips and steering wheels.
What I mean is that Sony's presentation was less homogenous, and had more gameplay. And proper labelling made all the difference. When Microsoft called what was basically another Inside Xbox their "gameplay reveal", they created the impression that they had a lot more wares on their stall than they did. The peddlers of the PlayStation didn't fall into the same trap.
Sony's decision to open the curtains on GTA V, a game already released for two generations of consoles, didn't give that impression. It made people think that the company was starving for appealing new creations, but that wasn't the case. Maybe Rockstar's crime game simply got the vanguard slot because nothing gathers people around a screen like the words "Grand Theft Auto". The moment when things really picked up was with Ratchet & Clank: A Rift Apart which had a devilishly clever application of modern hardware. The game wasn't just plying us with higher-res textures or more particles; it was showing that if you have plenty of memory and lightning-fast loading, then you can seamlessly transport a character between environments. And character is going to be one of our keywords here because this PS5 reveal had more of it than I've seen the Series X ever having.
In addition to showing games more concerned with traditional shooting and driving fare, we saw Sony hark back to the days of the PS1 with some whimsical mascot titles. See Ratchet & Clank, Sackboy: A Big Adventure, Bugsnax, and others. Then there were the bleeding heart experimental works like Stray, Goodbye Volcano High, and Solar Ash. These come on the back of a history of Sony seeking out games like Flower or Noby Noby Boy that might do something unusual or even touching with the medium.
Any one game today may use harsh or soft aesthetics, might be narrative-led or gameplay-led, cares about perfecting an existing formula or is trying something totally out of the box. There are large audiences for all those approaches, and as such, any modern console must have a seat for every one. Sony also showed us plenty of new games that blur the line between AAA blockbuster and artsy darling. We mentioned a couple of the games that went there earlier: Horizon: Zero Dawn and God of War (2018). They're continuing that trend on the PS5 through titles like Ghostwire: Tokyo, Returnal, and Horizon: Forbidden West.
It's not that the Microsoft streams were better for those who wanted to talk computer components and that the Sony streams were there for those who wanted to see some creative flair. Instead, I think Sony served both camps better than Microsoft, and they did it by placing a clear dividing line between the arena in which they were going to talk about hardware and the one in which they were going to talk about software. If you wanted to get down to the nitty-gritty of the PS5's copper and silicon, you didn't have to make do with one segment in a feature-length show or see the specs offered up as red meat for a baying crowd. The Road to PS5 lecture was a dedicated and classy one-hour presentation on the PS5 as a piece of digital tech, presented by its systems architect. If that didn't float your boat, then you could watch the PS5 reveal stream and only get the player perspective. With these distinct channels and the platform's fledgeling library, Sony is attacking on all sorts of fronts that Microsoft are not. Or, at least, that Microsoft won't tell us they are.
Of course, there was one controversial decision we discovered during the PS5 briefing. Comments about the console's appearance include plenty of light ribbing, but also somegenuinecriticismofugliness. Before we go into what the console did look like, let's note that its design is a world apart from the PS5 devkit plastered over the internet. That cryptid first appeared in a Sony patent, and later, a photograph of the same found its way online, with journalists who had witnessed the console first-hand verifying its authenticity. A lot of publications were suggesting that this alien monstrosity might be the finished version of Sony's next console, and a number of gamers took it as gospel, feeling that they'd got the inside scoop because they'd scanned the leaks.
But companies regularly file patents containing outlandish diagrams that don'tend up reflecting any product on store shelves. And devkits aren't necessarily designed to look pretty to end-users; many are simply practical containers for system hardware. If these console shells looked like they were made to provide maximum airflow without any regard for aesthetics, that's because they were. The PS5 devkit was not meant for display in a home entertainment setup; it was designed for engineers to be able to stack them without them overheating.
The consumer PS5 is a lot less H.R. Giger, but has still been branded as aesthetically offensive, which is interesting because no one part of its visual design is that daring. The running gag is that it looks a network router, which is accurate, but given that we're already comfortable neighbouring our routers with other home electronics, why should that be a bad fit for the PS5? And if black or white are the standard-issue camouflage of domestic media cuboids, what makes the PS5's paint job stand out so much? I think it's a combination of shock at it being something new and different and a reaction to the contrast between its colour and form factor. The console is shaped like a router but is not uniformly black or white. It has an unassuming dark middle section, but also white covers that curve out, away from it. Designers use diagonal lines and heavy contrast to make things bold and eye-catching, which the PS5 certainly is, but that's not what everyone wants from a box that's meant to sit quietly under their TV.
It's indicative of why most consoles are faceless black monoliths. Electronics manufacturers can't make too many assumptions about how a buyer has a decorated their home. So, instead of trying to match the room the item will be displayed in, the corporations behind Blu-Ray players, set-top boxes, and consoles aim to make them blend into the background and fit a generic "functional" look. But I like that the PS5 is a bit of a statement piece. Gamers are always ragging on consoles for being bland black cuboids, so here's one that isn't. Here's one that, like its games library, is trying to exude personality.
Look, I'm sure that the Xbox Series X will be fertile ground for some great games. The Xbox One was a killer console, the original Xbox was at least fine, and once they got past the horrendous technical muddles of the Xbox 360, it was also huge fun. And I have a lot of faith in the people who make games on all major platforms to keep bringing us experiences crafted with love and talent. But in a world where even mid to low-end PCs are exerting pressure on consoles, I'm straining to see any reason to buy the Xbox Series X around launch. That is, any reason apart from "Halo will be on it". And even that game appears so opaque at the moment.
The Series X is coming out this holiday season, but it's June now, and we have only the foggiest idea of what it looks like in action. During the machine's gameplay reveal, the Head of Xbox Partnerships told us there are hundreds of games coming to the system in 2021, but they're conspicuous by their absence. And many of the titles Microsoft are gesturing to, its suggesting are relatively predictable action blockbusters. Sony showed another way it can be done, with more transparency, more range, and more inventiveness in its games. Even if you want your AAA experiences to be nothing more than fun, we should be able to see those games having fun with themselves. That's what you got from the PS5 reveal, as well as an arsenal of more artistically ambitious projects. But the race isn't over yet. Microsoft will be back with another Series X preview in July, and let's hope they'll bring the big guns. They're going to need them. Thanks for reading.
Note: The following article contains major spoilers for Control.It also explores childhood trauma and suicide. If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, contact a suicide prevention organisation near you. For those in the US, you can reach the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or find them online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org. If you are in the UK, you can call The Samaritans on 116123 or visit their website at samaritans.org.
"You're travelling through another dimension,
A dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind,
It is the middle ground between light and shadow,
Between science and superstition,
And it lies between the pit of one's fears and the summit of one's knowledge,
You are now travelling through a dimension of imagination".
-Jordan Peele, The Twilight Zone
"To the superficial observer, it will appear like madness".
- Carl Jung, The Red Book
No matter how vast your fictional world and how intricate its lore, a sublime narrative isn't just an exploration of a setting but also the minds of the characters within that setting. That means their personalities and their modus operandi, but also the formative events in their lives, the objects and people they consider essential to their identity, and their unresolved pains. Of course, these characteristics don't just exist within individuals; in our cultures and communities, we have collective values, traumas, and memories. Smart fiction like Control makes time for both the mental preoccupations of individuals and those of society at large.
Control is a 2019 weird fiction game from Remedy Entertainment that follows Jesse Faden, a 28-year-old woman with a head full of unanswered questions and a quivering unease in the pit of her stomach. Jesse grew up with her brother, Dylan, in the suburb of Ordinary, Wisconsin. There, they and other children played with a supernatural projector; one that could open pocket dimensions corresponding to any inserted slide. It was all fun and games until the kids found a humanoid mammal living in one of the projector worlds. Some of them drank the milk of that creature and turned into simian monsters. The adults of Ordinary intervened, Jesse wished that these adults would disappear, and they did. Then a mysterious organisation skidded into town and attempted to seize Jesse, Dylan, and the projector by force.
The young Jesse burnt all of the slides, save one, and while she escaped these would-be captors, her brother did not. Since this incident, Jesse has been in psychic contact with a being called Polaris. As an adult, she visited a psychiatrist to help her process her experience in Ordinary but left unconvinced by the therapist's insistence that the accident was all in her head. Later, she discovered the name of the secret consortium that kidnapped her brother: the Federal Bureau of Control. Led by Polaris, Jesse visits their concealed New York headquarters: the Oldest House.
In Control's universe, the stigmas and cultural associations that humanity attaches to objects can result in those items manifesting special powers. The Bureau studies this phenomenon and contains these objects which they call "Altered Items" or "Objects of Power". To give an example of the effect, the Ordinary projector can open pocket dimensions because, metaphorically, we see projectors as machines that open windows to other places. In Korea, there is a popular myth that leaving a fan on for too long will cause anyone in the same room with it to perish. In line with this, the Bureau has recovered a fan that does exactly that.
An extradimensional entity called the "Board" guides the Bureau in their acquisition of and research on these objects. The Board exists in the "Astral Plane": a space which connects the different dimensions and bestows these objects their extranormal powers. It overlaps with various regions of the Oldest House and hosts the pocket realities Jesse visited as a child. When our protagonist enters the Bureau's paranormal fortress, she finds it in crisis. A malevolent force: the Hiss, has traversed from the Astral Plane into the building. The Hiss possesses FBC employees, turning some of them into aberrant soldiers and leaving others suspended in mid-air, reciting a hivemind speech.
The Director of the Bureau of Control is whoever wields an Object of Power called the Service Weapon. Amidst the chaos, Bureau Director, Zachariah Trench, has committed suicide with the weapon, and when Jesse picks it up, she becomes the new Director. Jesse's mission is twofold: Restore control of the Oldest House to the FBC and follow the scent trail of her brother. To scrub the stain of the Hiss from the HQ, Jesse "binds" dangerous Objects of Power, neutralising them and appropriating their effects. If Jesse binds an item that can levitate, she gains the power to levitate. If she binds an object that can shield itself with stone, she can shield herself with stone. And so on.
Along the way, she ingratiates herself with the heads of the several departments, and eventually, finds the prison which swallowed her brother. Dylan, in his current state, is the only person who can psychologically resist the Hiss but spends most of his time submitting to it, describing it as pleasurable to "say the words". Jesse also discovers that her therapist's incorrect assessment of her memories was part of a Bureau cover-up of the Ordinary "Altered World Event".
Up to this point in the narrative, the Bureau workers who've been able to keep the Hiss at bay have done it using a force from the Astral Plane called "Hedron resonance". We learn that researchers have opened a portal to the Astral Plane within the Oldest House using the projector and the one surviving slide, and it's through that tunnel that both the Hiss and the Hedron resonance trickled into the building. Following Polaris's nose and after the Bureau's missing head of research, Casper Darling, Jesse confronts the source of the Hedron resonance: Hedron, who turns out to be the same entity as Polaris.
The Hiss overtakes Hedron, and we learn that Director Trench was the Hiss's patient zero. A solitary leader, Trench kept his infection to himself, and the Hiss exploited his isolation to convince him that Hedron was a toxic agent in the Oldest House. Trench spread this antagonist throughout the building to rid it of Hedron. Back in the present, Jesse journies to the Astral Plane via the projector, and inside, confronts Dylan and cures him of the Hiss, at which point he falls into a coma. From there, Jesse restates her intention to lead the FBC and fumigate the Oldest House.
While Control's internal mythos is elaborate, most of its inspiration comes from a single source: psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Jung was the founder of analytical psychology, and Control is a particular fan of his concept of the collective unconscious. Jung believed that there was a bank of symbols and associations for those symbols that permeated all humans' psyches. For example, the dragon representing our dark side, or the maiden representing purity and desire. He believed that these unconscious archetypes help explain our thoughts and actions. The FBC cite Jung, and his ideas, by name, and the Oldest House contains a couple of departments labelled after concepts Jung studied: parapsychology and synchronicity.
But where Jung's collective unconscious is highly abstract, describes ancient tropes, and exists beyond any individual culture, Control's collective unconscious is related to tangible objects, and deals in contemporary and culturally-specific associations with them. For example, the "fan death" fan we mentioned which is tethered to electronic age Korean culture, or there's the telekinetic floppy disk which stores nuclear launch codes, representing a Cold War mindset. It's also important to keep in mind that Jung's theory of the collective unconscious and his other theories that we'll discuss here are not scientific, as he did not develop them through the scientific method. Reader of Social Sciences, Raya A. Jones, writes:
"Jung's hypotheses must be taken on faith. Believers see the evidence everywhere, and seem to understand the task of empirical research as a matter of compiling catalogues of instances. It is not the logic of scientific discovery".
Even the existence of an unconscious as Jung or Freud thought of it has little sway among scientists of the mind. For the founding fathers of psychology, the unconscious is the sealed attic of the brain; what's inside can never be directly observed. This, they say, is why we must explore the unconscious indirectly: through dreams, or for Jung, specifically, through dialoguing with imagined personifications of it. David B. Feldman, a Professor of Counselling Psychology, explains the problem with this theory:
"It's impossible to scientifically test. As a general rule, scientists consider something true only when it can be meaningfully observed or measured. The unconscious mind, by definition, can't be. After all, its central feature is that it's completely inaccessible".
If we take Control literally, we could say that it is reinforcing pseudoscientific ideas of the unconscious and the law of attraction: the irrational belief that if you meditate on something or want something to happen enough, it will happen. The game's concrete skyscraper is full of busybodies in lab coats researching what is, in truth, not up for rational examination. However, if we take Control to be interpretive of its subject matter, we can identify it as tapping into something that's all around us but that we often don't dwell on. Jung's ideas might not be facts, but he does provide some broad rails along which we can explore the contents of our brains, as long as we remember that they are vague guides and not scientific models.
Control reminds us that contrary to common sense, objects aren't just physical parts. They are also the series of psychological associations we have with them, and those mental connotations can be powerful, sometimes more affecting than the pragmatic function of the object. The fan is just a fan unless you believe that it's a ticking time bomb waiting to kill you, then it has much more emotional push on you. A fridge is just a fridge unless your late child plastered their drawings all over it, then it may become a focus of obsession. As Casper Darling puts it:
"There is something unique in us, in our dreams, in the conceptual reality we power with our minds".
Just as the paranormal effects of the Altered Items address the unconscious semantics of them, the speaking style of the Board also acknowledges the background associations we have with many concepts. The Board is capable of saying two words at the same time, and those words will always both be relevant to what it's trying to convey or will have related meanings, even if they're not synonyms. See these sentences:
"The Hiss/Spread is searching for Transmissions/Speakers to Corrupt/Chaos. [...] You must Stop/Shut Up them".
"You have seen the Foundation/Base of the Building/Tree. The House grew there/here/everywhere. [...] We have a socket/door there".
Notice how concepts like the Hiss and spreading, or sockets and doors go arm in arm. The Board also seems to have a unique insight into the hidden in its awareness of Control's existence as a video game. For example:
"Certain Resources/Loot can be Constructed/Crafted into Mods/Forms [...] at Control Points/Menus".
"You are Authority/Chosen One. The Bureau/Game needs you".
The Hiss's looping prayer suggests that their speech, is too, rooted in the unconscious. Much of this mind's diction sounds not like the premeditated, ordered rhetoric that we usually deliver, but as though it comes from somewhere more muddled, bringing secret truths. For example:
"Leave your insides by the door. Push the fingers through the surface into the wet. You've always been the new you. You don't want this to be true".
The Hiss also mentions a more explicit connection to that subliminal compartment in the back of our minds:
"We stand around you while you dream. You can almost hear our words but you forget".
Director Trench suggests a similar unconscious origin for the Hiss:
"It started as a distant whisper, like something you hear in a dream".
You're probably familiar with the psychoanalytic belief that dreams are a window to the unconscious. Well, the Astral Plane is an anteroom to our reality that Bureau agents have accessed in their sleep. It is the point of origin for the subtextual power of the Altered Items, and the Hiss: the voices of the unconscious. It's a place where there is no distinction made between the objective and the subjective. Casper Darling says that peoples' thoughts litter the Astral Plane and that "it is with our minds that we enter and experience it". He also compares the dimension to an iceberg. Any first-year psychology student will remember that educators have often used an iceberg to illustrate Freud's theory of the mind with the unconscious represented by the bulk of the ice hidden underwater. The only safe conclusion is that the Astral Plane is a metaphor for the unconscious.
When Darling's team first discovered the Astral Plane, they believed that it was a purely psychological space. They had a rude awakening when a black fog from the plane hitched a ride back to our reality in an explorer's head. It then killed the agent. The dark cloud is a common metaphor for depression, and at the time this incident occurred, the FBC called these entities "Astral Fugues". They shared their name with dissociative fugues, a form of amnesiac psychological disorder.
Here, the game reinforces that it would be naive to see the unconscious or what goes on in our head as irrelevant to the physical world. The contents of peoples' minds can hurt them through emotion or mental illness, even killing them or the people around them. A few times during the game, Jesse comes under attack by Astral Fugues, having to contend with these blots on the mind. Darling also speculates that people may be a reflection or projection of the paranatural power that derives from the Astral Plane, speaking to the idea of the unconscious moulding us.
Every inch of the Oldest House, which is in constant convergence with the Astral Plane, has been touched by the psychological or unconscious. Despite him being dead, afterimages of Trench flash through the corridors like memories engraved in its concrete. The word "trench" invokes a deep, murky environment, much like the unconscious is said to be. The crafting items have names that cast them as intangible and cognitive like "Remote Thought" or "Ritual Impulse". Jesse can transform her Service Weapon into whatever firearm she needs with her willpower alone. We are initially pointed towards the Director's office, and later, led through the building's underbelly via Ahti, a janitor who seems to know all too much for his job title. And just look at the FBC's documentation. Its administrators redact an almost comic amount of information under the bureaucratic shroud of chunky black marker pen. Reading these reports is like listening to someone recount a half-remembered dream or otherwise access a part of their mind where much of the data is invisible to them. In the materials of lower clearance, the Bureau keeps the Hiss a secret. It's only those who study the Astral Plane (or unconscious) and its products that learn of that toxic soup on the brain's back burner.
The Oldest House also has an architecture that arguably brings to mind the psyche. This interpretation might be a bit of stretch for some but stay with me here. Across the headquarters, we see inverted, usually black pyramids hanging from the ceiling. They not only resemble the Board, but they look like a dark thought hanging over an otherwise untroubled mind. They also resemble the pointed base of the "consciousness" iceberg as textbooks often depict it. The Oldest House grew in a brutalist style, one which uses unpainted, unadorned blocks of concrete. But the game loves projecting coloured tints onto these slabs, most commonly a red glare that appears when the Hiss spawn in. The projection of tinges onto plain concrete is analogous to humanity projecting meanings onto the blank slates of the Altered Items. This projection effect has personal relevance to Jesse due to the role a projector played in her childhood; more on that in a bit.
We can also see that the environment, which at first appears stable and unyielding in its flat concrete surfaces, is highly malleable. Jesse uses telekinesis to rip hunks of material from the towering columns and sprawling floors of the Oldest House and wield it as weaponry. Stray projectiles flung about in combat also demolish this geometry, and the building will voluntarily shift in its skin to allow us passage, or in reflex to us clearing out the Hiss. There is one other place besides the Oldest House that we visit during the story: the Oceanview Motel & Casino. As Trench observes, it "operates on dream-logic": It is forever sunset there, and we find no exits, nor any other people. Doors open and close by themselves, and room contents change spontaneously. As in the unconscious, many rooms in the motel are permanently locked to us. Like Jesse's mind or any mind, Control's environments, that at first appear fixed, are actually relatively plastic and reactive, especially when we tame their shadows.
Like Jung, Control doesn't see the unconscious or psyche as a strictly positive or negative force. Sometimes guidance and a sense of reassurance emerge from the Astral Plane, as is the case with Polaris or the echoes of Trench. The same is true for black rock, a material the Bureau mine from the Astral Plane which can block the Hiss resonance. The Hiss, however, shows the darker side of the unconscious, especially the collective unconscious. It personifies collective modes of thinking. Those occupied by the Hiss cannot think independently, and so, lack individual free will. They all speak the same ideas, and until awoken, they exist in a catatonic state. As Dylan tells us, it can be pleasurable to submit to that collectivist mode of thought, but ultimately, the game depicts this infectious groupthink as dangerous, casting the Hiss as enemies.
Alternately, we may see the Hiss as "the shadow". In Jungian psychology, every person has a "shadow": a persona made up of undesirable traits that they're often not conscious of. We may naturally want to reject or to ignore these aspects of ourselves, but the more we do so, the more the shadow grows, with adverse consequences for our mental wellbeing. A person cannot become a fully-developed individual until they have achieved awareness of the shadow and assimilated it into their overall identity. At this point, we can no longer be ruled by it. Jungians say we can heighten our perception of the shadow through exercises that put us in touch with our unconscious.
The poor souls who have submitted to the Hiss have their self suppressed, and as the Hiss, attack others and wreak havoc. In its chant, the Hiss says:
"You gave us the permission in your regulations. We wait in the stains. [...] We build you till nothing remains".
The Bureau uses Hedron resonance to distance themselves from the Hiss, but this is not a solution: any exterminator must confront it at the source. One problem for this interpretation is that it's the banishment of the Hiss rather than integration with it that ultimately heals Jesse and the Bureau. But, remember, there's no reason to stick too literally to what Jung thinks about the mind; we can use "the shadow" as a general stand-in for our troubling but less obvious mental aspects. Where the personal element comes into this is in Trench and Jesse's interactions with the Astral Plane, and its products, which represent their relationships with these obscured thoughts and feelings.
Zachariah Trench's experiences are comparable to those of someone with schizophrenia. Most people can't hear anything in the Astral Plane, but when Trench tagged along on an early expedition, he heard a voice: the fledgeling murmurs of the Hiss. Doctors examined him and couldn't find anything out of order with the Director, but his mind was already compromised. It's reminiscent of people not believing those who have a mental illness because their experiences are invisible. Trench begins hearing voices and becomes paranoid that everyone is scheming against him. Already believing that a leader doesn't seek support from others, Trench withdraws from the people who might help him with his Hiss infection, which makes his suicide almost inevitable.
Jesse has her own psychological torment to process. Her troubles with the Astral Plane start with the projector. As she and Dylan were able to use it in their youth to open portals to other worlds, it signifies childhood escapism to them. But then there's an accident in the woods, Jesse vanishes the adults of Ordinary, authorities attempt to take Jesse and Dylan into their custody, and they separate these siblings. It's practically an analogy for child services assuming responsibility for children and splitting them up when their guardians go missing. It's at this point that Jesse burns the projector because this is the moment when she loses that childlike ability to play in imaginary spaces. These lingering juvenile traumas can act like thermite in the mind of an adult and can be highly formative on their personality.
Jesse's therapist tells her to forget about the fate of her brother and the people who stole him from her. However, trauma isn't like an arrow in flight; we can't just dodge out of the way of it; we must confront it. Jesse aims to take control back from her pain, from these mysteries, and from the Bureau, at the Oldest House. From a more Jungian perspective, Jesse can only achieve individuation once she has ventured deep into the unconscious, and the unconscious is to be found in the Oldest House. She is led there by another unconscious force: Polaris, an instinct in her head which draws her forwards. Polaris, of course, being the name for the North Star which has been used by navigators since ancient times. However, we should note that it is more Freudian than Jungian that the answer to Jesse's troubles lies in her childhood.
At the Bureau, Jesse can sink into the unconscious and purge harmful unconscious elements, killing off the Hiss or shadow. Crucially, when she fights the dangerous and unconsciously-charged OOPs, she does not destroy them. She "binds" them, absorbing their powers in the same way Jung advises that we assimilate our shadow into our larger self. The "possess" power allows her to do the same thing with weakened Hiss. For a few seconds, at least. There is even a side mission called Self-Reflection in which Jesse must enter a mirror world and fight a shadow version of herself before she can bind the mirror with the dark Jesse inside it. Unlike Trench, Jesse makes sure to communicate with a support network about The Hiss, which allows her a fighting chance against these psychological demons.
Jesse returns to the formative experience in her youth through the building. This is mirrored in her repeatedly coming back to the spot where the Bureau began their occupation of the Oldest House: the Oceanview Motel. She explores these spaces of the unconscious and grapples with manifestations of it, she accesses Bureau materials, and she speaks to people with first-hand Altered Item experience. As a result, she gradually comes to understand what happened when she was a kid, how certain mental forces threaten her, and how to shield herself from them. She even receives a direct connection to the unconscious in the form of the "Hotline" OOP: a red telephone that the Board can ring. She also reunites with her brother, learns what she and Dylan's niche in the world is, and returns to a fragment of her childhood: the projector.
Unfortunately, the game has a limited imagination when it comes to the subtextual associations we apply to objects like that projector. Most of the anomalous properties that the OOPs exhibit come down to irregular movement: the Dead Letters and Carousel Horse dash around at lightning speed, the old TV floats, the Floppy Disk is telekinetic. This is because traversal is a fundamental building block of action-adventure gameplay and Control is an action-adventure game. There are relatively few OOPs, and the ones we do encounter are muzzled in what they can say about our associations with the inanimate. These Altered Items conform to the mechanics, instead of the mechanics meeting with them as equal partners.
We may also conclude that Control doesn't do justice to its subject matter because, while you can understand how thorns in the collective unconscious might prick these characters, almost none of the Altered Items Jesse binds has personal meaning to her. Depending on your taste, it may be enough that Jesse is exploring interesting phenomena, but you might ask why she's fighting an extradimensional traffic light or a teleporting flamingo when those fights don't represent any specific character struggle of her's. None the less, the story sets Jesse up for the final confrontation by giving it a lofty presence in the plotline. We get enough mysteries solved to feel satisfied, but the writers stay verklempt on a couple of burning questions, holding our interest.
Before we galavant off to find Hedron, we visit a dump to which the FBC has shipped the entire excavated location of the projector incident. Jesse literally returns to the site of her trauma. Then, we exchange punches with the Hiss in a scale replica of Ordinary. In this scene, we see Jesse's childhood home reduced to splinters in a battle between her and the unconscious, or between her and the forces of the FBC. In the game's final mission, Take Control, the Hiss breaks through Jesse's defences and traps her in a depressing contortion of the world. The colours are desaturated, and Jesse is busted down to office assistant, running endless menial chores for the Bureau. It's an analogy for how the organisation has, in some manner, controlled her all along. She also finds the delusional Trench in this reality and is trapped in the same negative headspace he was. However, she can still find empowerment in herself: Jesse loses the intern's uniform when she picks up the Service Weapon on Trench's desk. It's at this point that our protagonist can turn off the projector, bringing some closure to her childhood disturbance. Then, she finds Dylan in the Astral Plane, suspended underneath the inverted pyramid of the Board. The unconscious weighs heavy over him, but Jesse soothes his mind.
Tragically, the ending itself doesn't resolve any of Jesse's burgeoning issues. That resolution is important not just for Jesse's character arc but also for the game's lesson on how integral the unconscious, familiar objects, and our past are in our lives. Our Director's problems come from the Astral Plane or unconscious, and she grows as a person through the game by tackling the products of the Astral Plane. If the game is to follow through with this line of reasoning, then when Jesse sees the resolution of her psychic pains, we should also see her vanquish these unconscious monsters and join with her shadow. But in its closing hour, the game swerves hard to avoid closure.
It makes sense that Jesse quells the Hiss, the negative aspects of the mind, through journeying into the Astral Plane, but in her closing statements, there is an aching lack of conclusion. When a protagonist makes a wrap-up speech, it is typically to summarise how their experience has shaped them and what has changed over the course of the story. Control writes its closing monologue in this fashion, but ironically ends up communicating that very little has progressed. After Jesse cleanses Dylan of the Hiss, he falls into a coma, so we don't get to see any change in his lifestyle or personality or any shift in Jesse's relationship to him. Jesse vows to continue her work as Director, but this hardly counts as development given that she has been Director for almost the whole game. Jesse asserts that she will conquer the Hiss, but that's been the constant goal.
This story is about Jesse trying to reconnect with her past so that she may learn more about her family and history. If she can do this, she stands a chance at dulling the psychic stinging that has lingered through her life thus far. By shrugging off the chains of the Hiss, the Bureau, and her shadow, she can take control of her life. At the same time, this woman is a saviour figure, casting out ghouls from beyond the veil, and accepting the shadows of the Bureau into her. The tension of the narrative hinges on whether she can fulfil her obligations to herself and this organisation, but the ending fails to say that she does or does not, only that she may see the resolution of these problems at some hypothetical future date. An ambiguous ending can work on the back of nuanced character portraits, but that's not what Control is. While we gain a rich knowledge of the world throughout this narrative, Jesse's struggle within it produces only scant clarification of who she is.
I suspect that Control's ending lacks as much resolution as it does because Remedy wants to keep the story open to continuation through downloadable content. However, to describe any process, you must specify its objectives and goals, otherwise, it lacks purpose. Control depicts a confrontation with the unconscious, cultural, and traumatic, but not the benefits it could yield. Ending aside, Remedy's weird fiction thriller finds radical originality through basing its world in the conceptual rather than the literal. By doing so, it also reminds us that the psychological can be just as real, affecting, and dangerous as the material, whether it comes from a person or a collective psyche. Yet, in that acknowledgement is also the power to transform our minds. Thanks for reading.
When we talk about media, we throw the term "aesthetic" around like confetti. We might praise the "aesthetics" of a film, say something matches our "aesthetic", or even use "aesthetic" as an adjective. In video game discussion, in particular, we're no strangers to the word, and we have a deeply ingrained idea of what aesthetics mean to games. In mainstream discussion of the medium, "aesthetics" refer to the visual and perhaps also auditory aspects of a title. We take aesthetics to be the wrapper for the "core" content of the experience, and that core is the mechanics. In this mode of thought, the aesthetics or sights and sounds of the game are skin deep, but the gameplay is the heart. In my experience, video game fanatics also often take these aesthetics to set the tone of a game while they see the play as existing independent of tone.
It feels like second-nature to slice games into aesthetics and core. However, it's far from how the enthusiasts of other artforms (I'm using the broadest possible definition of art here) discuss the objects of their interest. For example, when we look at the film Titanic, we don't say that it has aesthetic elements that put across feelings of love and sadness and then other underlying elements working separately from those emotions. We say that everything, from the cinematography to the music to the acting, is functioning in unison, producing that overall emotional aesthetic of romance and sorrow. Or, in sculpture, we don't talk about what the look of Rodin's The Thinker conveys and then start describing some more essential element of it. The statue expresses emotions and themes of intellect, strength, and tension, as well as showing the skill of the artist, and it does that through its shape and composition. There's no deeper non-emotional, non-thematic layer which is more important to the work; sculptures speak to their audience on an emotional and thematic level.
Observing that all of a piece of media's faculties build towards a certain emotional or thematic totality has served the analysis of those artforms pretty well. It's why we talk about impressionist painting, brutalist sculpture, gothic prose, Victorian architecture, punk fashion, R&B music, or beat poetry. Take away any of these terms, and our ability to describe creative works would decline sharply. Yet, in games, we're often not used to deploying holistic descriptors.
Non-video game creative works can have emotionally, thematically, or culturally conflicting elements. It's also true that any of them may experiment with combining different aesthetics. However, we still recognise the aesthetics as soaking all the way through these works, and we notice that the elements interact with each other. We rarely suggest that there's a wrapper-core dichotomy at play there. In fact, if aspects of a piece of art or entertainment are conflicting or merging, then it's proof that they do not exist independent of each other.
The word "aesthetic" also has numerous definitions, but in the above examples, the term refers to the general styling of a work; the aesthetic components are anything that creates the experience for the audience interacting with the work. Change the aesthetic, and you change the experience. You'll notice that while a lot of art uses an overall identifier of its style or genre, we often define games only by their playstyle or even by isolated mechanical aspects. E.g. "Strategy" or "first-person shooter".
These name tags pin down some of the formal characteristics of the play but don't say anything about the setting, sound, characters, narrative, structure, or other considerations which give a game its unique flavour. Various sites, critics, and fans have somewhat acknowledged those missing pieces, and so, occasionally, we describe games as having a theme or aesthetic genre alongside their mechanical genre. Maybe you're playing a medieval strategy game or a WWII FPS. This way of describing titles provides some good insight into their content, but it still leaves a lot out and reflects a mindset that places a hard dividing line between play and audiovisual styling.
Comparing video games to other art, this might, at first, seem to be the only sensible way to talk about the format because it's not like these other creative media. For plays, films, TV, photography, graffiti, music, and countless other forms, we use the term "aesthetic" to describe visual and/or sonic traits, but video games also have an interactive component. So, why not emphasise that by saying that they have audiovisual aesthetics, and then, mechanics which exist in addition to those aesthetics? But look a little closer, and you'll see that these other artforms have also developed facets that didn't match what we'd traditionally called aesthetics. Yet, we have still accepted their unique modes of expression as aesthetic.
For example, theatre predates films, and in theatre, we can say that the settings, costumes, scripting, lighting, acting style, and scoring all constitute part of the aesthetic. Film took this formulation and then added cinematography and editing to the mix. But instead of us saying that films have aesthetic elements, and cinematography and editing, which exist as extra non-aesthetic elements, we accept cinematography and editing as part of the aesthetic. Or there's colour television which added a spark that black and white TV didn't have: the tones of the rainbow. Of course, black and white TV had its own aesthetics: the film aesthetics we discovered above, but we don't then think of black and white TV as the old black and white film aesthetics married to colour; the colour is part of the aesthetic. Because, again, we use the term aesthetic to refer to any stylistic capacity, even if it's one we haven't seen in art before.
We can never fully uncouple the new elements that these forms of media introduced from their more traditional aesthetic carriages. You can't talk about "editing" and "cinematography" entirely independent of the still image. Films may be composed of still photos, but how motion works between those frames and how you edit sequences of images together decides how those images are perceived. Conversely, you can't talk about how to cut or move through a shot without talking about the pictures that make it up. When we watch a film, we draw part of our aesthetic impression from the still images and another part from style with which those images are brought into motion. In the example of colour TV, there's no reflecting on the role of the colour without considering the underlying objects and characters that colour fills in.
The components of video games often intermingle to similar ends. We can try and segregate gameplay and audiovisual aesthetic, but there are as many examples of them contextualising each other as there are video games. Think about Ice Climber's graphical and auditory elements that depict hiking up a mountain, and then think about its gameplay which is about vertical platforming, and how the two reinforce each other. See Warhammer: End Times - Vermintide, a game that mechanically has us fighting throngs of enemies at once, and visually and sonically frames those enemies as rats: creatures that come in swarms. Its gameplay context makes sense for its audiovisual context, and that audiovisual context makes sense for that gameplay context. Remember Kerbal Space Program, a title which appears to us as being about rocketry and contraptions comically spinning out of control and runs on gameplay about experiments in physics and engineering. Consider how the play in PaRappa the Rapper changes speed with the music. This mode of thinking even works for a mostly abstract game like Rez which mechanically deploys rows of enemies that you can destroy in one hit and visually sets off a burst of light when you do, creating an aesthetic of business and intensity. We could do this all day.
And the effect goes the other way. There are examples like Resident Evil 6 whose horror trappings suggest a harrowing, disempowering experience, but whose play abandons the anxiety-inducing mechanics of former Residents Evil for more conventionally empowering shooting. And we've all played games that tell us there's some cataclysmic issue that we must resolve ASAP, but that encourage us to be anything but urgent. Maybe you need to save the kingdom, the planet, or the damsel from some imminent danger. But a surfeit of side quests, collectables, and bonus challenges mean that moving slowly and having the protagonist act like they don't care about the impending danger is the optimal technique. I find gamers are generally less receptive to the idea that mechanics and audiovisuals might be working against each other rather than with each other, but it bears thinking about.
Games convey their play states through graphics and sound. Without what you can see and hear, there is no mechanical interaction for the player, and there are always decisions to be made about what images and sound are appropriate for announcing the systemic information. In that sense, visuals and audio can never live separately from gameplay; the stylisation of the audiovisuals affects how we take in the gameplay and vice-versa. Similarly, if "narrative" is our word for a series of events told in order, then gameplay intrinsically creates narratives.
Given what we've discussed here, there's a lot of worth in seeing the gameplay as an aesthetic element itself. This is not my idea; it's been around in academic game circles for a long time, but if we follow the lead of other art theory, and see the aesthetic as anything that brings about an experience in the audience, then mechanics are also aesthetic. This is not just semantics: when we see gameplay as having an aesthetic, it encourages us to approach it with the broader lenses that we use to analyse other art. We don't just have to put play in a box of "cover shooter" or "flight sim" or whatever other genre labels might apply. We can also look at gameplay and ask questions like:
How much is it about challenge, and how much is it just about the feel of our actions?
How much is it about skill or luck, or is it about neither?
What behaviour does the game encourage?
Is it about winning, or is it about just seeing how far we can get?
What talents is it testing?
And if we understand games as wholes and not just configurations of non-interacting parts, then we can also describe the games in their totality as having an aesthetic instead of just trying to define a gameplay aesthetic and an audiovisual one. We can fire off questions like:
What activities does the game depict?
How much is the game about realism and how much is it about escapism?
What's its pacing?
How much is it about immediate gratification and how much is it about a long-term appeal?
Is it about iterating on what we've experienced before or continuously moving into new experiences?
How much do we, as players, determine the experience and how much do the developers get to decide it?
Does the game provide a feeling of sociability or a sense of solitude?
What perspective does the game work from?
How does the player relate to the world, if there is one?
How varied is the range of experiences in the game?
Where is it like other games and where is it different?
Is it made up of tightly-defined "sessions" or does the play flow more continguously than that?
How does it frame its challenges?
How does the game transport us from one challenge to another?
Many of these lenses that we apply to overall aesthetic, we can also apply specifically to the gameplay aesthetic. There are countless more questions we can ask to determine the nature of a game, and some of the above questions we already ask in typical conversations about the medium, but many of them we don't, and many of them, we should ask more. Questions about realism or randomness are as efficient or more efficient than phrases like "stealth game" or "management sim" in communicating what a title is like to experience. I also do not believe that we should see the audiovisual as frivolous in comparison to the mechanical.
Most of the great works of art only use sights, sounds, or a combination, e.g. Da Vinci's Mona Lisa or Beethoven's 5th Symphony or Michelangelo's Pieta or Spielberg's Schindler's List. Yet, these media are held in high esteem because what we see and what we hear can be incredibly powerful. And again, gameplay is almost always conveyed through sights and sounds. This is not to say that you should view any game as the graphical equivalent of the Mona Lisa or the sonic equivalent of Beethoven's 5th; but it is to say that we should challenge the idea that graphics, music, and sound effects are just pretty fluff while play is some magic ingredient which adds the meaning or the fun or whatever central theme or emotion.
To make it clear how this method of analysis might work in practice, I'll apply some of the above questions to a few games and provide the answers, as I see them. We'll use Ubisoft's 2013 hit Rayman Legends as our first guinea pig.
How does it frame its challenges? / What perspective does the game work from? / How much is the game about realism and how much is it about escapism?
Ubisoft uses a cartoonish style for the title. That style is present in not just the visual art, but also in the loose, slapstick movement and cardboard enemies. We can also see it in the whimsical character designs and music, and the final levels of each world which set platforming to songs.
Does the game provide a feeling of sociability or a sense of solitude? / How does the player relate to the world, if there is one?
While we can play the game as a multiplayer title, even in the single-player, it themes the enemies as invaders or predators in natural worlds and its collectables as happy little creatures. This means we're always close to a smiling face. It also creates a social dynamic of conservation and guardianship between ourselves and these lands.
What's its pacing? / How much do we, as players, determine the experience and how much do the developers get to decide it?
Players may decide to skip collectables and breeze through levels, or keep an eagle eye out for them, setting a deliberate pace. But either way, Legends is generally eager to keep up the flow of movement, with that flow figuring into its upbeat and zany nature.
Is it made up of tightly-defined "sessions" or does the play flow more continguously than that?
Legends divides itself into levels which make up worlds. Each world is a self-contained tale instead of there being a singular narrative which glues them all together.
What behaviour does the game encourage? / What talents is it testing? / Where is it like other games and where is it different?
While it asks for the hand-eye co-ordination skills that many other platformers do, the abundance of and emphasis on collectables means that exploration is going to be key for most players.
So, while we might traditionally refer to Rayman Legends as a cartoon platformer, now we can talk about it with a range of new aesthetics identifiers:
It's collectable and exploration-focused.
It's laid back about realism.
It allows for a lot of player choice in the ordering of challenges.
It's about helping out people and environments.
Hopefully, you can see how every one of those elements defines it as much as it being a "cartoon" game or a "platformer", and it's apparent how we can describe the title better by adding onto those aesthetic identifiers. You'll also notice that the answers to many of the questions we can ask overlap. In addition, I hope it's obvious how we can explain more about the game when we look for commonalities between various facets of it and think about how those facets refract through each other.
We'll put a couple more games under the microscope to help this idea sink in. Subject number two: Atari's Paperboy.
How much is the game about realism and how much is it about escapism? / Where is it like other games and where is it different?
In comparison to more fantastical games, Atari's Paperboy is emulating a real-world task with a silly twist.
Is it about iterating on what we've experienced before or continuously moving into new experiences?
As it's taking on the aesthetic of making a paper round, it's a very iterative experience with you playing the same routes on multiple in-game days.
What's its pacing? / What talents is it testing?
The pacing is fairly rapid, but Paperboy involves a lot of purposeful management of speed to balance haste against accuracy.
To break that down, it's:
Somewhat fast, but with variable pacing.
Testing accuracy and management of speed.
And a third example: Bullfrog's Syndicate. Here, we're going to generate a single description of the game's aesthetics from overlapping many of the above questions. This will show how we might move from bullet points to a whole passage describing a title:
What activities does the game depict? / What behaviour does the game encourage? / What talents is it testing? / What's its pacing? / Where is it like other games and where is it different? / What behaviour does the game encourage? / How does it frame its challenges? / What perspective does the game work from? / How does the player relate to the world, if there is one?
Syndicate is a turn-based strategy game, but most other turn-based strategy games just cast us as military commanders, where Syndicate's premise is one of running a for-profit corporation which treats workers as commodities. So, it has deployment sections which move relatively slowly and have us act tactically. However, the game is also about working out the ideal tax rates to bring in the maximum revenue without inciting rebellion. Plus, it has us controlling our workers' bodies by deciding how they're augmented, and unlike in similar games, the objective is not always to eradicate all enemies. It's often to protect or retrieve an asset.
A few more words of caution before I go: We need to keep in mind that aesthetics may change between the modes of a game. You can see how an FPS with a campaign mode, multiplayer mode, and wave-based survival mode would provide three different experiences, even if they all come in the one binary executable. What we call different modes or settings are, under many definitions, different games. We may (emphasis on may), therefore, define each mode as having a different aesthetic. Additionally, I'm not saying that we should throw away most traditional genre classifications. What I am saying is that those naming conventions are only some of the useful tools we have for describing what a game is, and that regularly, they don't tap into what describes a game best. Equally, we have to remember that holistic classifications of a game's aesthetic may not be an option when some aesthetic elements clash with others.
To summarise, if game studies do what other media studies do and view any part of a game that communicates ideas and feelings as "aesthetic", we can use "aesthetic" as not just a term for the visual and auditory, but also as articulating what it's like to play a game. Additionally, compartmentalising the play of games and their other attributes is somewhat arbitrary when we see that play is always communicated through graphics and sound. With that in mind, it often makes sense to view all the components of games as acting towards larger patterns and goals instead of each existing in an impenetrable bubble.
It doesn't work for every game; some mash together a story, play, sights and audio that don't gel, but describing that incongruity can also help us learn a lot about the game. This holistic aesthetics is something I've applied in my previous writing here, and I'm going to use it going forwards. Next time you play a game, I'd encourage you to ask some of the questions I laid out earlier in this article or come up with questions of your own. Often, learning the right things just means asking the right questions. Thanks for reading.
I love the discussion of games that happens around the holiday season as it's an opportunity to wax lyrical about the titles we're most passionate for and overflow with positivity about what we've played. Every year, I produce a GotY list that I select not from the games that came out in the previous twelve months, but from the games that I played for the first time in the year. In purely alphabetical order, here are my top ten of 2019:
2064: Read Only Memories
When trying to move an audience, it's easy to fall into the trap of writing in extremes. To be consumed by cynicism or enveloped in optimism, or to create characters that are just one walking personality trait. 2064 is a cyberpunk tale speaking to themes of late capitalism, social discrimination, and the difficulties in determining self-identity, but never does it paint its narratives in black and white. Turing is a charming character to explore AI through not because they're an omniscient god or a blank slate, but because they're just one step short of understanding human behaviour. The world lends itself credibility not by depicting a status quo that's explicitly villainous but one that's casually oppressive. 2064 is a game that doesn't shy away from the terrifying issues of our times, and yet, never says that dystopian circumstances mean that we can't find some colour, some love, and some hope as we fight for our personhood or just try to pay the rent.
While non-interactive media is purely about what its creators can bring to the table, video games have a unique power to value audience contributions. ART SQOOL is so much about what you can and want to do as opposed to what the game thinks would be a worthwhile exercise. This is largely because its formal assessments of your work carry little meaning, but in freeing us of objective goals, ART SQOOL lets us unleash our inner doodler without fear of judgment. Its primitive tools may only allow us to scribble out squiggly lines and apply shallow colour palettes, but even the crudest scrawling can be a masterpiece to us when we can take complete ownership over that art.
I don't have a high tolerance for games that have me going through the same motions numerous times before I can progress, so when I stick with one, it's usually a title that's going above and beyond to cooperate with me. It's usually a game like Celeste. Celeste's protagonist is buoyant but responsive to input; her signature dash provides an injection of adrenaline but also demands precise aiming as it covers so much air in the blink of an eye. The play's expectations of you are high, but it's rarely unfair; it uses organic indicators on Madeline and the environment to succinctly convey the current game state without a single intrusive counter or meter. Celeste also challenges the stylistic etiquette of the extreme difficulty video game. Instead of matching unforgiving play to harsh visuals and music, Celeste's endearing pixel art and toe-tapping electronica make for an altogether softer landing because the game is about nurturing you more than it is intimidating you.
Donut County fixing its camera in place allows it to compose the contents of every frame with the care of a well-trained jeweller. Each level is an adorable shot of rural life for its curious anthropomorphic villagers, and the game is a gallery of these dioramas. Our role is to tear all of them to shreds like the filthy little racoons we are. Donut County provides the simple pleasure of introducing a little frenzy to someone's everyday, and a lack of delay between us collecting items and seeing our ability to collect grow means the empowerment within is immediate. It's also acutely aware that an acquisitive attitude might make life harder for the critters around you. Donut County gives us the chance to see a crocodile's patio furniture disappear into a gaping pit and then empathise with that crocodile, and isn't that all we've ever really wanted from video games?
If you play a lot of AAA fare, you'll be used to screens that are dizzyingly busy with colour and shape, even when it stops the systems interfacing clearly with you, and you will have been buried under perfunctory mechanics that bloat and unfocus play. Now, more than ever, is a perfect time for video games to embrace minimalism, and there has been no better ambassador for the movement than Mini Metro. By removing all but the vital mechanical and artistic elements, Mini Metro ensures that every tiny piece that remains speaks volumes and matters in the grander scheme. It also makes the frequently insurmountable RTS genre, approachable. Its challenge comes not from trying to juggle an encyclopaedia of mechanics at once, but through managing an expansive network of components that follow just a handful of rules. The result is a compelling atmosphere that the developers refer to as "chaotic zen". Add to that that Mini Metro is just a wonderful tool for procedurally generating abstract art and music, and you have one of the best management experiences of the last few years.
In trying to piece together the shattered, non-linear fragments of Paratopic, I was reminded of my reaction to Virginia in 2017. Both games are narrative puzzles that burrow their way deeper and deeper into your consciousness as you solve them. In the case of Paratopic, that's royally unsettling because it has the muted perspective and time slippage of a bad dream. It's a disaster watched from behind filthy glass, with us helpless to stop the characters beyond from their slow roll towards a cliff edge. It leaves us grasping for some fleeting moment of understanding in an inscrutable world and trying to attain some semblance of connection even in an environment of alienation. Nobody should have to live in Paratopic's stratified, copacetic reality, but I think we already do.
In many ways, it feels like Pokémon GO is realising the dream that Jane McGonigal had of popular games motivating us to make self-improvements. It's always felt like polished player empowerment games have existed in one realm, and health games and educational tools have existed in another. Pokémon GO is the long-sought synthesis of the two, as the game rewards us for staying active and exploring the real world using the time-tested collection mechanics and character design of one of the most gripping RPG series ever produced. Niantic's augmented reality experience is a wondrous hidden world layered under our own, which can take even the most mundane city street and fill it with fantastical monsters and caches of useful resources. Pokémon GO made me more active, more curious about my local area, and had me uncovering places I never knew existed. From finding rare starters in a local square to staring over my shoulder wondering who just sniped a gym from me, Pokémon GO was a jubilant experience.
Tetris is one of the most enduring works of interactive entertainment ever developed. In thirty-five years, it hasn't aged a day. It still combines the constructive tension and destructive release of building and knocking down a Jenga tower with the spacial satisfaction of organising your cupboards. Tetris is about being rewarded for putting everything in its right place. This incarnation conceptualises this system not as an elaborate toy or even a sport like previous editions, but as a full sensory experience. With bold environments, glittering particle effects, and reactive sound design, Tetris Effect draws parallels between this block-stacking puzzle and everything from meditation to oceans to jazz concerts. It's planted firmly in the fork between the real and abstract, and anywhere you can find euphoria and flow, Tetris Effect goes.
Titanfall 2 is the philosophical opposite of Mini Metro. There are many cogs inside its casing, but each serves a deliberate purpose and is cut to precisely the perfect shape to slot into every other. The campaign doesn't outstay its welcome, and its multiplayer is a breathtaking balancing act. It incorporates meticulous customisation systems and earthshaking weapons while keeping competitive ground level. Titanfall 2 is the FPS that finally cracks the problem of how to frequently give everyone the rocket launcher and still not lend them an unfair advantage. Through and through, the designers stir the pot so that the play never stagnates. That happens via them switching you between pilot and Titan modes, instituting stage-specific mechanics, providing plenty of tributaries through levels, and setting out smaller AI mobs to fight in between duking with players. It's a joy sprinting to keep up with this shooter that's always on the move.
What Yakuza 0's environments lack in roominess, they make up for in density of activities. Its seedy Tokyo districts may be cramped, but their narrow, clogged arteries reflect their roles as prisons for Kiryu and Majima, two scraps of meat in the claws of the capricious yakuza. In other open-world romps, a pageantry of minigames can make the design seem distracted, but here, it allows us to indulge in Sotenbori and Kamarocho as the bustling entertainment capitals they are. This game has both some of the most chilling drama and uproarious comedy I've encountered this year. Chapters generally comprise full narrative arcs as opposed to just dragging out a larger framing device for the play. And while other games often try to milk laughs from raising pre-approved "funny" topics or being as loud as humanly possible, Yakuza 0 puts in the work to construct dedicated and hysterical sitcom scenes. It's audacious but never desperate, and the script knows how to imitate western "cool guy" vocabulary in the most delightfully goofy way possible.
And that's all of it. Honourable mentions go to Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, Destiny 2, Forza Horizon 3, GNOG, Stories Untold, and Year Walk. I hope you had a great year and wish you the best 2020 possible. Thanks for reading.
JRPGs are typically adventures that pit us against evil forces trying to obliterate or ruin whole realms. Yet, the way these games have often had us interact with those realms is by culling their wildlife and looting their natural resources. It's been par for the course that even when cast as heroes, we carry out behaviour similar to that of the villains: we degrade the health of the world to make ourselves more powerful, and we thrive on an antagonistic relationship to the land. The original Pokémon went some way to fixing that problem. It didn't entirely solve it: it's still a game where your first response to fauna is often to hurt it rather than avoid or nurture it and where your relationship to your pets is ultimately one of control. However, it is a title that lets you fight with the natural creatures of the world rather than just against them, and in its writing, values a harmonious and companionate connection to the ecosystem. The jolly townspeople and aspirational figures of Pokémon Red and Blue respect their animals and shower them with love, while Team Rocket, the villains, hurt and objectify living things for power and profit.
This might all sound academic, but it's because the Pokémon can be brought on board as allies and not just defeated and disposed of that we get the series' trademark collection mechanics, charm, and unique mode of battle. In short, the core Pokémon games were revolutionary because they changed how players related to the setting of a JRPG, including its plants and animals. So, it's in that tradition that 2016's Pokémon GO comprises a massive rethink of what it means to explore and interact with an in-game environment. Playing video games with navigable spaces has always involved a strange marriage of staying stationary and mapping entire worlds. We sit on our sofas while riding across entire continents or flying spaceships through whole galactic systems. For better or for worse, the domains we explore exist only on a screen, and we move through them with just our digits which can make these environments and our procession through them feel less real. A skyscraper we stand in front of in a video game doesn't convey the same sense of presence and tangibility as one we face in our city centre.
Virtual reality systems are the prevailing attempt to change that, but despite large-scale open worlds being explosively popular in non-VR titles, relatively few of them exist in virtual reality games. Such experiences prefer to fill out enclosed, tightly controlled spaces. There's also a disparity between how real VR worlds feel to look at and how real it feels to move about them: we don't use our legs to get from A to B in cyberspace, except in the case of tiny scale VR games. In anything approaching spacious environments, teleporting from place to place became the norm as a preventative measure against motion sickness, and in many cases, to deal with issues of the play space being smaller than the virtual space. Lastly, whatever suspension of disbelief we may achieve in virtual surroundings, VR or not, we know that their worlds are not the real world.
Top minds are hard at work trying to untangle these knots in the fabric of VR, but there's a line of reasoning that would say trying to overcome all these issues by building elaborate realities inside computers is a moot effort when we already have a world that feels 100% true-to-life: the physical world. There is an environment with distant borders, full of concrete locations, that we recognise as reality, and that we move around realistically every day because it's the one outside our front doors, so why not set a game there? We talk about virtual reality as being on the bleeding edge of total-immersion video games, but maybe we should consider augmented reality another candidate. For the uninitiated, the phrase "augmented reality" refers to technologies that take our world and add virtual elements to it through an interface that displays some mixture of two.
Microsoft used their Hololens headset to make webpages and diagrams, among other elements, appear in the space around users. Minecraft Earth is an augmented reality phone game which lets any player use their camera to see persistent community-created art pieces overlaid on the real world. In the case of Niantic Labs' Pokémon GO, we view a map of the real world that shows our current location and the locations of pokémon, as well as gyms and pokéstops. We can catch pokémon to populate our collection, battle them in gyms, and gain more supplies to do both from pokéstops.
For the first time in history, we have video games in which we're moving through physical environments with our physical bodies, and that's a milestone. While the emphasis of existing entertainment software projects has been on inventing new realities wholecloth, augmented reality games provide the possibility of many other realities layered over our own. Everything that exists in the real world exists when you're exploring an ARG, but the purpose of certain elements may be changed, or their importance may be heightened. Other fictional entities may also accompany them. Like virtual reality and traditional screen-based media, augmented reality has its upsides and downsides; both of which come through in Pokémon GO. "Go" is an operative word here; our mode of motion through the world is fundamental to how the game is designed and how it feels to play.
The original Pokémon games subsisted on strategic challenge and resource organisation, but GO asks the player to walk about without bumping into anything which requires some effort and concentration. Additionally, the game places us outdoors and sometimes also in social scenarios, so we might not be in a headspace where we want to delve deep into inventory management and tactical approaches. We tend to be more comfortable sorting through acquisitions and movesets in the cosiness of our homes than we do while out weathering the elements, and as Pokémon GO is about staying on the move, it doesn't want to nail us down to one spot for too long with involved tasks. For all of these reasons, its mechanics are more streamlined and require less conscious thought to work with than those of its JRPG colleagues.
This might make GO sound like a less exciting game than those handheld console titles it's based on, but this is a new kind of entertainment, and we can't assess it precisely like the experiences of old. Niantic's game places less weighting on tests of timing, accuracy, and tactics than a classical video game because just the act of ambulating around brings pleasure. Like athletic motion control games such as Your Shape or Ring Fit Adventure, the exercise we get from playing GO has our bodies release endorphins for a physical high, meaning the experience doesn't need to rely as much on mental stimulation. You'll also notice that the designers sort the game's tasks so that we can perform the mechanically lighter ones on the go, but we can carry out those that ask for more consideration when we have a chance to sit down and ruminate on our decisions. You contest territory and catch new creatures while plodding the streets, but you can transfer excess Pokémon, toss unneeded items, and exchange gifts with friends at any time. Despite being a game that takes place in an environment where you often aren't in the mood to stop and think, it doesn't have to be ruthlessly simplistic.
Some games look at the activity of going somewhere and see getting to the destination as the point, but certain games, like Pokémon GO, also see worth in the act of the going itself. You more commonly find this attitude in games which try to make movement feel freeing such as Sunset Overdrive or Star Fox. However, these types of games still rarely ply you with rewards just for advancing from one spot to another. GO is particularly sensitive to this idea of awarding journies and that's apparent through the systems dispensing candy and letting you hatch eggs as you step, as well as dropping bonus items at the end of a week based on how many kilometres you covered. Many towns and cities also have pokéstops and gyms to stumble across on every other block. Most open-world games pay out valuable items when you solve a problem at a specific location, or at least when you reach that location. In Go, you are given prizes simply for wandering; whatever destination you pick is a correct one. In another game, it might feel patronising to be handed a gift for some aimless traipsing about, but given the pedestrian basis of GO, it takes, at minimum, modest effort to reach a location without taking a vehicle and so those rewards feel merited. It's also necessary for the systems to be flexible about where they reward us for going because not every location in our stomping grounds is eminently accessible from every other. Sometimes we end up on a main road that doesn't have many side roads forking off of it. Sometimes a trail may be blocked.
The program also incentivises walking through preventing you from collecting new items or battling in gyms from a moving vehicle. This helps preserve the tone of the mainline games: The continents in the Pokémon JRPGs are without cars, and that leaves them as natural havens with undisturbed wildlife. It means that when we proceed across them, we feel more like a hiker or an adventurer than a taxi driver trying to hit all the points on their route. Going without automobiles also creates a sense of childlike exploration. In an ARG specifically, the chassis and windows of a vehicle could confine you from the outside environment and Pokémon is very much about being outdoors, so in GO, anything with wheels is discouraged.
The title also attaches us to the destinations we reach through different methods than conventional video games. Most games have to do a lot of inventive world-building and plaster up many striking art assets to invest us in a setting, but Niantic's games have the advantage of placing us into a world where the landmarks already have meaning to us. We have some familiarity with the churches, sculptures, public service buildings, and other spots which make up our towns and cities, and many of them have played starring roles in our lives or the lives of people we know. And just as our experience of the real world can add value to these meta elements, the objects and concepts in the game can change our perception of the locations it utilises.
It's easy to live in a town for a good portion of your life and never know all of its streets, squares, and parks. We tend to follow invisible lines through our cities that take us to our job, our local, our friends', our doctors, and generally a limited set of places we chose based on their utility to us. We often consider any other routes off the map and can fail to explore whole corners or boroughs of our homes. This can have the effect of making our surroundings feel smaller than they are. Some of us take holidays to the other side of the planet before we tread the alleys and parks right under our noses. Conversely, in video games, we often want to jam our camera into every nook and cranny and feel a yearning to explore as the mood takes us. Pokémon GO puts you in touch with where you live by encouraging you to march further afield and visit pokéstops, gyms, and spawn points that you won't find on your regular routes and won't always be in the main hubs of your villages or metropolises. It can make moderately sized locations feel big, and big locations feel gigantic. Especially because, again, you explore them on foot.
The game can also make your regular commutes and errands feel that bit less mundane through altering your viewpoint on your surroundings. You're not just in a car park or at the post office, maybe you're sneaking up on a Burmy or facing down a Team Valor stronghold. Video games often come in the evening or on the weekend, after we can put the tedious trips, chores, and work of the day behind us, but a game like Pokémon GO isn't just a leisurely pocket of escapism from the everyday. Instead, it inserts itself into your everyday. It actively takes pedestrian parts of your life and tries to make them more fun. This is possible because Pokémon GO takes place in the same world that your non-leisure tasks do.
If you wanted to talk up augmented reality games, you could say that the strengths of an ARG come down to it playing out in a realistic environment, as well as being positively transformative on the physical world and our interactions with that world. But if you wanted to go in on the weaknesses of augmented reality, you could say that its issue is that developers lack total control over the structure and features of its map. Sometimes aspects of the physical world and its functions for non-gaming purposes butt up against the ideal conditions for a piece of entertainment software.
That describes a broad range of problems, but a prominent obstacle here is that if you are going to use the tangible world as the foundation for your game map and you want your game to be widely playable, then you have to craft environments on the scale of entire continents. It's an obvious no-go to try that with human level designers, but Niantic has used a combination of algorithms, porting data from an older game, and crowd-sourcing to approximate appropriate placement of pokéstops, gyms, and spawn points across Earth. However, we must remember that Niantic was a company that took flight within the walls of Google, and many of its employees previously worked on Google Earth and Google Maps. The studio lifted the original map for GO directly from Google Maps. Another company, without that experience with and direct access to the world's most famous navigation software, would find a global AR rollout far more of an uphill struggle, if not impossible. And as successful as GO is, Niantic's best efforts haven't always resulted in fair map design. At least when you work in traditional or VR titles, you know everyone is playing in the same setting and so an environmental change affects one player roughly the same way it will another. Not so in an ARG.
Since the game's maiden voyage, Niantic has been fielding complaints of it encouraging trainers to galavant around graveyards and to cause a nuisance both on and near private property. To address this, the studio shuffled around some stops and added warnings against trespassing, but in mid-2019, eventually had to settle a lawsuit over augmented reality loitering. After being challenged by some frustrated neighbours of Pokémon GO players, Niantic began honouring petitions to remove gyms or stops close to private residences. They also conceded to lock the gyms in some parks outside of park hours and to spread out Pokémon spawn points to discourage players congregating in one area. It shouldn't be surprising that some people wanted an ARG developer to find a middle ground between satiating users and pleasing everyone else around them. Players of other kinds of video games wouldn't need to accommodate non-players in the same way as they venture through dedicated gaming spaces cut off from the real world. The real world serves mixed purposes between an ARG playground and many other functions which means it's hard to avoid compromising on freedoms in the ARGs to achieve equitable use of the space.
Another issue with operating a large-scale augmented reality game is that when you can't manually place every interactable, you have to use a rule of thumb to work out where to install them. And you can only base that heuristic on available map data for a zone. Ergo, Niantic uses public landmarks to situate gyms and stops. This means that if you don't have a lot of public landmarks around you, then you don't have as many chances to battle and accrue items. Landmarks are generally human-made, and humans have more incentive and capability to make more of them and maintain extensive databases of them in wealthier locations.
Because of this, players in larger, metropolitan areas have greater access to in-game resources than those living in smaller, rural areas, for the same reasons that people in the city generally have better access to services and products than those in the countryside. More developed public transport infrastructure in urban areas also gives players there an advantage when it comes to travelling to the most opportune patches for Pokémon, and some prize critters just don't spawn all that often outside large towns and cities. To their credit, Niantic started to realise this around autumn 2019 and pledged to increase stop and gym density in rural and suburban areas. Later, in December, they declared that they'd be normalising Pokémon spawns internationally. However, some of these changes have yet to come in, and it's hard not to imagine city life always carrying a certain advantage.
This inconsistency between habitable areas also means that GO doesn't systemise the world with the degree of detail that you might find in a conventional video game. If we were designing a standard RPG, we might decide that players can heal up in churches and buy their character new garments at clothes shops. Such functional detail is essential for making a world feel alive and lived-in. The mainline Pokémon titles have working medical centres, mini-marts, casinos, bike paths, safari parks, and more. But play an ARG in a modern commercial district, and you might not see a church for a good mile. Or if you're someone tapping away at your mobile in a little village in Devon, you won't encounter a clothing store on every corner. So, in the interest of making sure you can find in-game services wherever you are, Pokémon GO is exceptionally broad in how it systemises locations. It might gamify a church or a clothing store, but the mechanics don't care that they're churches or clothing stores. It basically recognises two kinds of real-world location: significant landmark and very significant landmark, which get assigned as pokéstops and gyms, respectively.
It creates a ludic landscape where the mechanical function of areas often has nothing to do with their real-world functions or aesthetics. The play fails to realise the world because a bodega can have the same utility as a park gate, which leads me onto my biggest gripe with Pokémon GO. For an article about a real-world Pokémon game, we've not talked much about how the Pokémon fit into the world, and that's because they don't really. Natural environments, whether they're countryside, rivers, tundras, deserts, or wherever else are defined, in part, by the wildlife that inhabits in them. You can't have ant hills without ants, farms without livestock, or forests without trees.
By the same token, where animals, plants, and fungi live is a key characteristic of them, and their attributes are products of their adaptation to those environments. Fish have tails instead of legs so they can swim through bodies of water and would seem out of place on a motorway off-ramp. Cacti have a thick, hardy skin because they need to retain as much moisture as possible in an arid climate, so they don't belong in temperate fields. The Pokémon RPGs create believable, natural environments by generally matching wildlife to location. You can find Geodude, the boulder pokémon, in the mountains; Wingull, the seagull pokémon, near the shore; Klink, the gears pokémon, in a lab.
Pokémon GO doesn't find the same verisimilitude between organisms and habitats. In it, you can find the fish on the off-ramp, the cactus in the field, or a penguin at the bank. Spawns may be weighted towards certain weather conditions, proximity to water, or times of day. For example, you might be more likely to find Pollywag, the tadpole pokémon, after a rainstorm; Remoraid, a fish pokémon, near the sea; or Hoothoot, an owl pokémon, at night. But it's also not unusual to discover them under the opposite conditions. There are pokémon consigned to individual regions of the world like Farfetch'd to Asia or Tropius to Africa, but they're few in number and still not limited to appearing in certain kinds of landscape. Tropius could pop up in a rainforest, but it could also be standing in a supermarket aisle.
The pokémon in Pokémon GO feel unsuitably represented because they don't appear in their natural habitats and the game doesn't feel like it does justice to the parts of the real world it systemises. This is due to the pokémon spawns too rarely taking into account the nature of those spaces. In fact, when you can find a Skitty on one side of your town or another, or a Caterpie no matter if you're sitting in your flat or in the woods, the sense that these are unique locations diminishes. Your entire home area can easily devolve into a monospace. However, the game would struggle to localise the spawns of pokémon for the same reason that it would have difficulty lending representative gameplay properties to landmarks.
Players need most resources in the game to be available nearby for them to get a rich play experience, but many trainers aren't going to live near to certain geographical features, and so wouldn't be able to obtain certain animals. A part of me wants a Pokémon GO that makes me put on wellingtons and wander down to some wetlands to find Wooper, or hop on a bus into a city centre to catch Pidove, but if those were the requirements for capturing pokémon, what would a citizen of a landlocked country do when it came time to collect a saltwater creature like Mantine? How would a resident of Moscow capture Numel, the camel pokémon? This issue, in some severity, extends to all Pokémon GO players as no one lives close to every type of biome at once.
Games as a medium are constantly expanding the horizons of their worlds, and in making their map the planet Earth, ARGs have pushed the scale of virtual environments further than anyone has forced them before. When you do that you can get a game like Pokémon GO, which refashions our towns and cities into grounds for boundless hiking and exploration. It's a title that says that wherever you are, your normally humdrum world can be one of adventure and fantastical creatures. However, the planet is a map big enough that conventional level design on it becomes impossible. All the architects are left with is algorithmic generalisations about the functions and nature of the objects we live around, the locations we live in, and the imaginary elements it adds to them.
Balancing areas in video games means making sure those areas are all roughly equal in terms of what they offer the player, but Earth has enormous disparities between regions. They vary significantly in their ecology and construction, so any game that is basing its features on real-world elements is going to end up with some incongruity between its zones. Pokémon GO is trying to provide a shared environmental experience for people who don't share environments, and the only way it can use the same language to describe these diverse localities is to be thoroughly vague in its descriptions of them. The same issue is going to plague any ARG attempting to model the world and rolling out on an international scale. This format of game is also likely to run into GO's issue of trying to keep its players from obstructing and disrupting the civilians of the everyday world.
But I'm not going to stop playing Niantic's pride and joy. By basing itself in the physical world, Pokémon GO is a mesmeric example of ARGs' power to make us feel fully present in a tangible game world that has immediate value to us. It also shows how experiences in this format can then heighten the value of our surroundings through making the monuments and buildings we know sources of items that have worth to us. It's taken me to new places and shown me a side of where I live that I've never known, and that's an exceptional achievement for any piece of entertainment. Thanks for reading.
With all the tacky, semi-functional Sonic games that Sega has put out over the last couple of decades, it feels like a given that the Sonic cart racers would be second-rate cash-ins. In comparison to other genres, cart racers are less creative spaces and more ready-made wireframes for studios to paper mache over. What distinguishes them is less often the play and tone, and more often the branding. With lean mechanical profiles and intuitive goals, cart racers are also a good target for more casual and younger audiences in games. They're for both long-time gamers and people who don't want to waste their time learning about complex crafting systems or mastering simultaneous use of the sticks just to spend an evening with some cheerful characters. This is not an inherently bad thing, but take the muddled and often rushed mechanics of the previous Sonics and combine them with a format that is often more about obligation than originality, and you won't give your audience a lot of hope for the final product.
However, Sonic is not just a series known for its slippery hold on quality, but also a long line of inexplicable writing and design quirks. In this case, the unforeseeable twist is that the Sonic cart racers feel smoother and less conflicted than the mainline 3D Sonics. I'm mainly going to talk about the second Sonic driving title: All-Stars Racing Transformed, as it contains most of the mechanics of the first game, and a whole lot more. There's long been a self-contradiction at the heart of this series where the movement model and the play are optimised for speed and blind leaps forward, but the level design frequently demands precision and caution. It's not that you don't slow down in Sonic games, it's that when you do, measured movement often feels skiddy and disagreeable. A physics model made to launch you through vertical loops at a hundred miles an hour is unlikely to be your preferred tool for closing small gaps between individual enemies and platforms.
All-Star Racing adopts the high-velocity physics of the Sonic platformers, but instead of interrupting that whirlwind sprinting every few metres with spikes, pits, and robots, it lets the movement flow with a contiguous track that runs throughout the level. Imagine these same courses with a brick wall to dodge every other second, and you can understand why a conventional Sonic stage can feel so choppy in its pacing. The looping nature of a race track also means that you never have to slow down to double back on yourself, and because there are no precision sections, the designers don't have to moderate your acceleration. Like in other Sonic games, your player character is engineered for constant movement into new space, but unlike in them, there's always more space to move into.
It's also likely that All-Stars Racing was a more manageable development project than any other Sonic game. The trademark hyperspeed of the mainline games means that there are sections of their levels that developers may spend days or weeks sculpting that the player blows through in a matter of seconds. It's an unusually inefficient form of level production for an annualised franchise. However, in All-Stars Racing, levels might fly past your window quickly, but never that quickly. Plus, the multiple laps on each track mean that in a single race, the same section of level can be recycled twice over where a conventional Sonic might need to make an environment twice or three times as long instead.
Like Sonic Generations, the game is also elevated by the fact that the developers can apply many different modes of play to the same stages. When they want the player to have a new experience, they don't have to stretch their resources thin by creating another level; they can drop them back into the same level with an elimination event, a drift challenge, a time trial, or something else entirely. And enemies can behave remarkably different from any one of these races to the next. We sometimes lure ourselves into a pattern of believing that more variety in entertainment software only comes with more content, especially because a lot of companies producing that content would like us to believe that's the case. However, there are plenty of other ways to change up a player's experience which don't involve simply introducing new missions, dialogue, or assets, and when a dev team can find alternatives to doing that, they can spend more time focused on the fundamentals.
Don't get me wrong, the blue blur's casual racer has its fair share of downer moments. It doesn't sidestep the generic fate of other games in this format, and if you're playing on a higher difficulty, it's hard to predict when a well-aimed projectile will send you careening off-course and ruin the whole race for you. The degree of challenge is also inconsistent between modes. It's easier for a developer to find the perfect waterline for their difficulty when they're looking at two levels in a game that operate on the same ruleset because an enemy or a spike pit in one stage will figure into the play in the same way it will in another. When levels work on different rulesets, it can be tougher to judge the precise effect of any one element in the level in comparison to its effects in other modes. This is especially true when they're going to see a range of different skillsets across their players. For example, some drivers are better at drifting than aiming items, but for others, it's the opposite, so it's hard to come up with "normal" difficulty races and drift courses that are correctly balanced for all of them. It's likely these reasons that mean the difficulty graph of All-Stars Racing Transformed looks like a craggy mountain range.
Lastly, the title is trying to integrate three different kinds of vehicle into its play simultaneously, where a standard racing game would usually only try to incorporate one. And those three steering models don't all deliver the same amount of gratification. They remind me a lot of The Crew 2 which also had events where players would swap between cars, planes, and boats, but in which racing on water just felt like a more sluggish version of racing on land. God help you if you lose your momentum while boating through All-Stars Racing Transformed.
But I'm all about games with matching parts, and in All-Stars Racing Transformed, the big ideas do come together. Where it feels like other Sonic games have been trying to work out how to get a race car to perform parkour, All-Stars Racing has a race car drive down a racecourse. Where previous Sonic games often had ambition beyond the people, money, and time at their back, All-Stars Racing reflects a production capability proportional to the vision behind it. It also responds to one of the most pressing concerns of old-school Sonic fans. There's always been some consternation from the Sonic old guard over Sega abandoning them for a younger audience with different priorities. People who'd known Sonic as a jumble of minimalist 2D platforming increasingly found it a rolling tide of entry-exclusive novelties and childish but vibrant characters. Sega got away from their roots and being into Sonic no longer required just intuiting when to run and jump, but now knowing what the Death Egg was and having some connection to Big the Cat and Silver the Hedgehog. I'm not making a value judgement on that here, but those who'd followed Sonic from the start were less than pleased with this development.
Against all the odds, these cart racers, using a format typically aimed at families and casual gamers, are the most dedicated homages to the console and arcade days of Sega in any Sonic game. You can burn rubber through a temple from Shinobi or take to cobblestone streets as Gilius Thunderhead from Golden Axe. Developer Sumo Digital showed their Skies of Arcadia track to SoA creators Shuntaro Tanaka and Rieko Kodama, and they became overwhelmed with emotion. The studio put so much blood, sweat, and tears into realising locations and drivers that will mean something to only a sliver of Sonic's target audience, and that's how you know it came from people passionate about classic Sega. Not that I doubt plenty of modern Sonic developers get a twinkle in their eye when they think back to Gunstar Heroes on the Genesis, but they're typically unallowed to express that kind of feeling. At most, Sonic can be referential to Sonic; at worst, he must always be putting distance between himself and his point of origin in service of the brand.
We've talked about the consistencies in the design and the respect for classic Sega, but I know what people come to a Sonic game to see: bewildering absurdity, and don't worry, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed has that too. Perhaps most famously, in its inclusion of former NASCAR driver Danica Patrick; you have a real-world sports personality kicking it alongside zany cartoon hedgehogs. Of course, all the characters in All-Stars Racing have cheeky quips like "Gotta go fast" or "Too slow", so the developers were forced to shoehorn in some manufactured Patrick catchphrases like "No black flag here" or "There's the rub" as if she was an after-school cartoon character. Patrick designed her own car for the game, one which is essentially a Hot Wheels toy and is called, I kid you not, "the Danicar". Additionally, she appeared in one of Archie Comics' Sonic graphic novels to promote All-Stars Racing Transformed. It's not unlike when David Beckham showed up on that episode of Sesame Street but more like if Beckham was also one of the puppets.
But it's not just Patrick making a bizarre cameo in this game. The inclusion of Wreck-It-Ralph means that there's a universe where B.D. Joe from Crazy Taxi and Ulala from Space Channel 5 have met a Disney character. As the outlet Poison Mushroom notes, Sega has published reputable Disney games in the past, so the companies aren't worlds apart. Still, nothing can take away from how weird it is to have a cartoonified John C. Reily appear in a Sonic title. The PC version also lets players race as Team Fortress 2 characters, roll around in an oversized football as "Football Manager" who Sega has weirdly conceptualised as a single character, or play as Rome II: Total War's murderous general, Willemus. Again, all ripping up the asphalt alongside harmless childhood companions like Amy Rose and Shadow.
Nintendo created giddy and joyful recombinations of their games through plucking characters from different series and pitting them against each other in releases like Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart 8. Pretenders like PlayStation All-Stars and Sonic All-Stars Racing use the same technique but with more jarring results. Because, while Nintendo almost always designs their characters in the same soft, caricatured art style, other companies tend to freewheel between realistic and abstract character styles that don't fit side by side. But the weirdest is yet to come.
You may be familiar with the YouTube gaming show Yogscast. Charity-funding DLC lets you play as YouTuber Simon Lane in All-Stars Racing Transformed, but the game only acknowledges him as "Yogscast". Imagine if they added Brad Shoemaker to the roster, but the developers only ever acknowledged him as "Giant Bomb"; that's about what happened. You're probably noticing by this point that many of the characters in this game got there because of a collaboration between Sega and outside parties. Generally, the character selection in All-Stars Racing Transformed has more to do with finding fan favourites than it does with sticking to a theme. On which note, there was a minor fan campaign to make Sega include NiGHTS from Nights into Dreams in Sonic Racing. It used the name "Don't Forget NiGHTS", and sure enough, All-Stars Racing Transformed does open its doors to the dream warrior, even if it wasn't solely as a response to that community effort. The disturbing part is that, unlike the other characters, NiGHTS doesn't drive a vehicle. In a monstrous display of body horror that could have been ripped right out of Hellraiser, NiGHTS has been morphed into the shape of a car, and she's driven by a "Nightopian".
Finally, if you truly do not value your free time, you can unlock "AGES", a combination of three classic pieces of technology from Sega games into one "character". On land, AGES takes the form of one of the cars from Daytona USA, but put it into the water, and it reshapes into a huge, mobile Dreamcast controller. Take to the air, and it becomes the real fighter jet, the F-14 Tomcat, a reference to arcade classic After Burner. The existence of the F-14 is why there's a disclaimer on the game's initial loading screen which tells the player that it was not supported by any arms manufacturer just in case you thought Lockheed Martin was taking that sweet animated hedgehog money. Although, this game's blue shell is the "Drone", so if you've ever dreamed of droning Tails, this is the product for you.
With the weird characters also come a few odd maps. All-Star Racing Transformed has its own Rainbow Road doppelganger: Galactic Parade; it also has Temple Trouble, a level where you crest a hill, and a giant, terrifying monkey head stares over the horizon at you. My favourite twist in the game comes right at the end. Every track is based around a game like Samba de Amigo or Jet Set Radio, but the final one you unlock is attributed to "Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed". In an unapologetic act of self-reference, Sega made the final boss postmodernism. After you beat that course, you get a credit sequence which sweeps over some of the locations from the game and includes a picture-in-picture which shows you the exact same camera shots overlayed on themselves. It's a wild choice.
Roughly half of what I've talked about in this article is trivia. It's not the most consequential content in any game, but it's fascinating in its confusion, and it's made me realise why I compulsively come back to this series. I keep dropping in on my old pal Sonic because I want a game that delivers on that promise of velocity and unhindered movement through colourful locales. Because I wish that Sonic's level and enemy design accommodated that desire for speed as well as the level and enemy design in All-Stars Racing Transformed does. But I also can't quit Sonic because no other series makes baffling left-field decisions the same way Sega's flagship platformer does. A lot of games have misjudged writing or identity crises, but from its tone-deaf use of characters to its one-off gimmicks, few other games fall apart as curiously and eccentrically as Sonic does. Thanks for reading.
Note: The following article contains major spoilers for Battlefield 1 and Halo: Reach.
During World War I, the United Kingdom lost almost 800,000 men on the battlefield, many of them little older than boys, and that was just a sliver of the total killings. Between direct casualties, civilians who starved or died of disease under rationing, the Armenian genocide, and other fatalities, 16.5 million died in the war. Almost 50 million more died from 1918-1919 in the epidemic of Spanish Flu spread via the bodies of soldiers travelling the globe. Those who lived were left with hellish memories and often even trauma, with 70 million personnel worldwide seeing combat. Yet, when the 100th anniversary of the war rolled around, Britain found itself in the unusual position of not remembering this conflict with the stark clarity you'd expect given the number of headstones at the end of it. 70 million people were disappearing into a memory hole.
The majority of the UK population don't spend their time wandering down the corridors of history, and in education, media, and memorials, World War I had become overshadowed by World War II. Think about how many WWI films there are in comparison to WWII films or how much you learned about each in school. One reason for this collective fog around The Great War is that it ended twenty-one years before the Second World War started. By 2014, no one from the First World War was alive, while a number of people from the Second World War still were. Of those that had died in the latter conflict, their deaths were more recent. Not only were there more veterans around with first-hand accounts of the Second World War, but as that tragedy was closer to us on history's timeline, it had a more direct impact on modern politics, and so, we often treated it as more relevant.
For creators of video games and action films, the above motivation and a couple of others shepherded them away from WWI and towards its older brother. WWII had more evolved firearms and tanks which could make for more seismic action scenes, and in video games, wouldn't jam in the player's hands or stall the pace of a battle. It was also less of a challenge to write a sense of purpose into World War II scenes. The prime movers of World War I are not easily explained or emotionally invested in; they're domino chains of alliances and enmities spread across 20th century Europe, few of which are going to have personal meaning to anyone today. But in WWII, we can all get behind the military's intention of defeating a clearly-defined evil: Nazis. Of course, the aims of the war were more complex than the allies wanting to stop genocidal imperialists. Still, the event lends itself to being presented as a good vs. evil showdown as opposed to the almost bureaucratic exercise of the First World War. Video games, in particular, have traditionally looked for enemies that users will identify as foes on-sight and can kill guilt-free. Nazis fit neatly into that role.
At the centenary, the 100 year anniversary of WWI, the British government attempted to resurface memories of the fast-fading tragedy. They had pledged tens of millions to the remembrance of the war and its combatants. Media had a weighty responsibility in this memorialising. It had to make the public internalise the suffering of an international massacre in a way that they were not currently doing. Its duty was to realise and detail a forgotten sacrifice of millions and give a voice to millions more who lost their children and partners to the carnage. The BBC, for their part, produced 2,500 hours of TV, film, and radio on the topic. Outside the Tower of London, an art installation represented every British and colonial serviceman taken in WWI with a ceramic poppy, and perhaps the most famous filmic contribution to the anniversary was Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old. Jackson's editors took nearly 100 hours of World War I footage, cut it down, colourised it, and accompanied it with readings of letters from the soldiers. So, what did the games industry give? During the 2014-2018 period, three prominent games dealt with the conflict.
The first of these was Ubisoft's Valiant Hearts: The Great War in 2014. It was an adventure game that sometimes cartoonified a grisly, depressing event, but it put aside plenty of time to give a human voice to the characters and show that people on the front lines were connected to loved ones back home. It was laden with educational text and needless to say, it does not end happily. Ubisoft also inserted some missions set in World War I into 2015's Assassin's Creed Syndicate. In them, we swat away blitz planes, sabotage German spies terrorising London, and get to meet Winston Churchill. The level is about satisfying play rather than commemoration; it takes opportunities to empathise with war victims and instead makes them about your reflexes and smarts. That being said, it doesn't feel like there's a moment where it trivialises the deaths of anyone.
But Valiant Hearts had a modest audience, and the wartime missions in Syndicate comprise a single family of sidequests. There was only one mainstream game solely dedicated to the war, and it was 2016's Battlefield 1, a full-length triple AAA game inviting players to relive the bloodshed of the 1910s. It's a title that reminds us of the forgotten theatres and evolving armaments of the conflict, but unfortunately, also fetishises and glorifies it. When EA revealed the game, they did so in a smash cut trailer of all the most searing gunfire and explosion they had on hand and varnished it with a warbling club remix of Seven Nation Army. When DICE General Manager, Patrick Bach, described the title at E3 2016, he talked only about how destructible the environment was and how formidable the vehicles. He touted the game with the phrase "All-out war has never felt so epic". Following the conference, a multiplayer match of the game was commentated over as an exciting sport rather than a real, historical event where men saw their friends die gruesomely in front of them.
In my experience, the gaming community was reticent to accept criticism of EA and DICE's framing in this presentation. I saw a lot of people saying that the multiplayer was always going to be pure empowerment fantasy, but that we should focus on the assumedly more reverent single-player. I still don't understand why we were meant to ignore the exploitation of large-scale death ripped from the history books in the multiplayer. It's as much a depiction of the war as anything else in the package, and an expectation that it wouldn't honour the conflict wasn't the same thing as a free pass for it do so. Our earliest glimpses at the single-player also didn't suggest that it would be much better, but as people pointed out at the time, marketing often sensationalises and filters out the sizzle of games while ignoring their emotional grounding. Remember EA's "This is the New Shit" trailer for Dragon Age: Origins? It was reasonable to withhold judgement of the campaign in the moment, but when the time came to judge, DICE didn't meet the loftiest of expectations.
Battlefield 1 uses an anthology format where, much like in a horror anthology, the discrete nature of each story means characters can be killed off quickly without sabotaging the plot of later chapters. That's an indispensable tool when writing about military engagements, and the game needs to use multiple narratives for its remembrance as a war fought on a continental scale could never be summed up with a single soldier's journey. As the game divides up its story, so will we, as we describe each section in order.
Intro: Storm of Steel
This opening sequence features German units beating back the 369th Infantry across wartorn France. We play the 369th, which was a black regiment, and in the run-up to release of Battlefield 1, this brought out fervent racism in some corners of the gaming community. A select group of gamers claimed that the appearance of African-Americans in World War I was ahistorical despite the "Harlem Hellfighters" being a real infantry made up of African-Americans. Others thought black people were over-represented in the game, despite the 369th only showing up for ten to fifteen minutes, but being the troops that saw the most action in the real war. As with other controversies involving women and minorities in historical games, these detractors' reactions were not based on the facts but on a general feeling of who belonged where. In this case, a sense that all of western history before a vague cut-off date was white and male or should be depicted as such, but as Storm of Steel shows, that's inaccurate. We'll return to that point in Chapter 5.
This intro is Battlefield 1 at its best, and that's down to it borrowing a page from Halo: Reach. The Battle of Reach is the most famous defeat of the fictional UNSC, Halo's "good guys". Bungie made the fight feel ultimately unwinnable by ending the campaign with a mission where you're met with infinite waves of bloodthirsty enemies, and once you die, the story is over for good. Storm of Steel chains together a sequence of these permadeath fights, and at the end of each one, displays a name and dates of service. It puts you in the mindset of someone who continues to keep a finger on the trigger even when death is certain, and when you do die, it's not a typical "video game death". There's no respawn, and you're not immediately prompted to start the game over with the same character; like true death, it's irreversible.
Chapter 1: Through Mud and Blood
The first full chapter is all about the tank and follows Daniel Edwards, the newest operator in a Mark V crew who are providing the big guns at the Battle of Cambrai. I understand the narrative utility of the tank. Survival in the war was predicated on soldiers' ability to communicate and strategise as a unit, and they were bonded by that cooperation. This machine is an easy way to push characters into a situation in which they must unify and make it clear to the audience what working together consists of. However, in this chapter, you never feel like you're controlling one soldier in the crew that must march to the beat of the others. Instead, it feels as though you take hold of every squad member at once, with the power to fire either gun, turn the tank, or repair it on a dime. And you go from the anxious vulnerability of that permadeath lead-in to rolling around in 29 tonnes of metal, armed with two booming cannons and four reliable machine guns. Battlefield 1 immediately abandons modelling the fragility of young men on the front lines to emulate the machinery of the time.
If you're going to speak on one technology that emerged from the First World War, you're right to choose the tank. It's a product of the then-recent industrial revolution, it intractably altered warfare, and it struck terror into troops on both sides. This stage also gets it right that the tank and plenty of other WWI implements were constantly breaking down. The chapter is a lot of your vehicle stopping and starting, and the shelling you take means that you have to repair Black Bess here to full constitution now and then which you can't do while treading mud. However, the fact that you can sit stationary, hold left bumper, and watch the landship heal from a smoking wreck to factory condition in about twenty seconds glosses over how arduous the repair job often was. You only become fully aware of the cost of the tank's instability near the end of the mission.
The Mark V goes belly up, leading Edwards to infiltrate three German camps to steal spark plugs for its engine. There's also a surprisingly beautiful moment where the tank is on the edge of caving in, and the characters' only hope is to send a carrier pigeon back to their allies with you controlling the bird. It's much more interesting than shooting your way out. The ending of the level also has a lot of potential, but a combination of too few cutscenes and a lack of humanising gameplay stops it short of being the gut punch it could be. After all that self-endangerment to procure the spark plugs, the tank survives for a single struggle over a small French village and then blows up anyway. An enemy soldier shoots one of your fellow crew members in the head which sounds sad, but the game doesn't even blink. You don't see the other characters' reactions, and inexplicably, the two surviving members of the crew literally walk off into the sunset. It's the game saying "Let's both agree to ignore that dead body and maybe we can tack a happy ending onto this thing".
Chapter 2: Friends in High Places
While Through Mud and Blood at least had the bones of a tearful war story, Friends in High Places feels plucked from a shelf of boy's own adventure books. In it, we play rapscallion Clyde Blackburn who steals the plane and identity of George Rackham, a son of the Earl of Windsor. With Rackham's co-pilot, Wilson, in tow, Blackburn goes on an aerial killing spree. The problems with the repair mechanic from the tank sections are only intensified when you're slouching in the cockpit of the prop plane. How you fully repair a plane in mid-air is beyond me, and you're not even required to stop to do it. You don't feel like a soldier with their life on the line; you feel like a wrathful dragon.
The chapter follows the same structure as the previous: we get a menacing vehicle, we lose it, and then it's returned to us for an eruptive finale. For Blackburn, that loss consists of having his plane shot down over no man's land where DICE impressively models an environment that both looks exactly like an artist's depiction of hell and yet is also completely believable. You drag Wilson through this inferno back to Rackham who prepares to court marshal you. The comedown from the giddy delirium of the blue skies combat to Blackburn internalising that he's a liar and a cheat is genuinely sobering.
But then, as Blackburn's handcuffed to a ship in London, a storm of blitz planes rolls in, and as there's only one man for the job, we're right back in the dogfights again. Blackburn and Wilson crash land on a zeppelin and then our dashing hero runs across some scaffolding inside before commandeering its flak gun which he uses to ignite two other airships. The blimp he's standing on blows up, and he and Wilson jump into the River Thames. Blackburn ends the chapter by hinting that his version of events might be embellished, which of course it was. A soldier couldn't run over an intricate series of beams inside a balloon, and no blimp exploded outside the Houses of Parliament. The question isn't if Blackburn is lying; it's how much he is. It being plausible that none of this story happened is a testament to how far the game has gotten from following the history after just one full chapter. Friends in High Places couldn't care less about the lived experience of real soldiers; it just wants to use The Great War as a pretence for some Jack Sparrow-grade hijinks.
Chapter 3: Avanti Savoia!
We come back down to Earth when Italian veteran Luca Vincenzo Cocchiola tells his daughter the story of his service with the Arditi in the Dolomite Mountains. While the first two chapters represent the new vehicles The Great War produced, this one represents a new kind of soldier birthed from the war: the shock trooper. You do have a signature piece of equipment in this level, and it's your armour, but unlike the Mark V and the plane, this casing doesn't lend you any new abilities; it just increases your resistance to incoming bullets. Although, this protective clothing might be an anachronism. The Italian "Companies of Death" used armour, but I've not been able to find sources which peg it as an item of the Arditi's uniform. At any rate, Avanti Savoia! marks Battlefield 1's transition from technologically-enabled combat to conventional shooter play. The chapter starts as a slightly augmented on-foot FPS, and this time, when you lose your equipment, you don't see it again. Luca reaches a bottleneck where he must abandon his cumbersome plating and leave it in the dirt.
This level wins back some of the vulnerability that we saw in the opening. There's no shielding yourself with your tank chassis or flying away from a volley of rounds. If red hot gunfire soars your way, you have to take the hit, and even your defence against those shots is eventually downgraded. There's a harsh difficulty spike in here where, without your shining armour, you must face three brutal enemy offensives. First, you come to an area where imperial troops take the higher ground, and you have not much but sandbags and a tiny shack for cover. Next, you reach a wall of German emplacements where artillery gets the chance to shell you in open space, and troops can paint you into the corners of cramped trenches. Finally, you face the problem of enemies taking proximity and higher ground simultaneously, as you attempt to flush Germans from a fort on a hilltop. A couple of them even have their own armour.
But this difficulty spike supersizes the game's thematic issues. When you're losing more health to oncoming fire, you're spending more time hunkered behind walls waiting for it to recharge. It's a mechanic popularised, again, by Halo, but the Halo games were about being a literal supersoldier in power armour from the 26th century, and Battlefield tries to use mechanics created for that purpose to characterise a regular human pinned down by assault rifles and mortar rounds in 1918. While, in one way, you're exposed because a single misstep could lead you into the path of the bullet that kills you, in another way, you're invincible thanks to the recharging health, and infinite respawns. You might not notice that that was the case, but the strenuous difficulty means you're continually invoking those mechanics.
Once Storm of Steel has shown you what accurate death in a game would look like, there's no going back, and combat where you're popping back from the afterlife every few minutes doesn't feel like A Bridge Too Far, it feels like Groundhog Day. Not to mention, all these chapters cast you as a lone soldier for whom gunning down hundreds is all in a day's work. It breaks the illusion of the people in these squads being dependent on each other to live and further dissolves the idea that you're sensitive to the opposing armies. The ending, at least, plays out in the right key. Luca finds the brother he'd been searching for the whole chapter, Matteo, dead on the mountainside. The story closes suddenly, but that feels true to the shock and unpredictability that often came during the war, and unlike Through Mud and Blood, Avanti Savoia! gives us just enough time to see the anguish in the protagonist before it fades out.
Chapter 4: The Runner
The Runner completes Battlefield 1's transformation into a pure shooting gallery. It's not representing anything particularly new about the way war was fought after 1914, it's just the story of one soldier at that time. There are a few seconds at the start where we unload some ship cannons at a shoreline to shade in the last segment of Battlefield's land-air-sea trifecta, and there's a brief moment where we can fast-track through a village on horseback, but 95% of this level is us and a rifle. It also gets us thinking further afield in considering where World War I was fought and who by. There is a tendency among the UK public to reduce the whole conflict to battle by the British, Germans, and sometimes French in western Europe. But Avanti Savoia! expands our scope a little by having us play in Italy where one of the bloodiest struggles of the war took place, then The Runner pushes it a little further with an Australian man shooting his way through Gallipoli. Chapter 5 will lengthen our telescope to the Middle-East where we will play an Arab woman.
For now, let's keep our mind on legendary sharpshooter, Frederick Bishop, and his flustered apprentice, Jack Foster. Foster shows up out of the blue one day and is a little too bumbling to belong in this story, but effectively smuggles himself into The British Empire's fight against The Ottoman Empire, with Bishop acting as his reluctant protector. After an initial trench run that puts you directly in the line of cannon fire, the game rapidly descends from the difficulty spike we shot up in Avanti Savoia! An abundance of shotguns, plenty of alternate routes to skirt around enemies, and more breathing room in many areas made this a far easier level than the last. It gives it a lightness that's, again, detached from the terror that this war wrought and takes some wind out of the ending. When you can breeze through the level, you see Foster go from hopeless greenhorn to hardened warrior in the space of about thirty minutes, and it feels forced. By the end, the boy has learned to defend himself, but as Bishop is away capturing a fort from the Ottomans, he suffers what's likely a mortal wound, and a missile bombardment blows up the ship Foster is aboard.
Chapter 5: Nothing is Written
While we've seen new technologies and tactics figuring into the war in the previous episodes, Nothing is Written gives a short speech on how historical leaders provided a beacon for troops to rally around. Our first assault happens from the perspective of T.E. Lawrence, the real British Army officer famous for liaising with the rebels of the Arab Revolt. Taken together, chapter 4 and 5 collectively shine a light on how complex the web of alliances during WWI was.
When the Australians attempt to wrest land from The Ottoman Empire, it might seem like classical colonial encroachment into a non-white nation. That's because it is. However, it's not as simple as there just being an oppressive society over here and an oppressed society over there. Because, while The British Empire was attempting to keep down The Ottomans, The Ottomans had conquered Arab land long ago and were persecuting the descendants of its natives. Furthermore, while The British Empire would generally persecute non-white people, in this case, they had a bigger fish to fry, and so, formed a partnership with the men and women of the Arab uprising to knock The Ottoman Empire off balance.
We play most of the level from behind the eyes of Zara Ghufran, a fictional student of Lawrence and one of the nomadic Bedouin people. She's a rare example of a playable Middle-Eastern woman who wasn't spat out of a character editor. She represents the last demographic a lot of Brits would associate with WWI, but there were Arab women who fought in this war, and every one of them was just as much a soldier as each of the European, American, or Oceanic troops. If all things were equal, you might expect Ghufran's existence to have triggered the same amount of bellyaching we got after we learned that the Harlem Hellfighters would appear in this game or that there would be women in the WWII-themed Battlefield V. But despite gaming reactionaries insisting that it's them and not the progressives who know the content of the games best, it seems that pushback against women and people of colour in the medium is far more about what's marketed than what the games contain.
It's only natural that the chapter which features the greatest power imbalance between allies and enemies has to go last: you put your hardest level at the end of a game. The might of the Ottomans means that the Arabs have to retaliate with cunning strategy rather than just a bigger stick; that manifests in stealth becoming all but mandatory. The game always dangled the option to go in quiet in front of you, but the sheer quantity of imperial soldiers, the new mortar and sniper units, and the introduction of a silenced pistol mean that you'd now be a fool not to. And because you're spending time waiting for enemies to move into position and tracking marching routes, this level avoids the blink-and-miss-it pacing of The Runner.
Given that this is a war story, it feels like a foregone conclusion that it has to end in a field of corpses, but that's not where Battlefield 1 rests its head. The prestige of the level has Ghufran throwing mines, grenades, and whatever else she can get her hands on at an armoured train as mortars pelt the town around her. If you can relieve that train of all its health points, it goes up in a frenzy of fireballs. The story ends not in a whimper but a bang, and that moment right there tells you everything you need to know about Battlefield 1's priorities. The game has some inclination towards honouring the dead of The Great War, but when asked whether that matters more than the series' conventional pageantry of violence, it says "no" every time. Don't get me wrong, the destruction of the train and many other moments in this shooter look gorgeous, but this is the time of trench warfare; gorgeous shouldn't come into it.
I can commend the stage for its epilogue text which tells us that the British reneged on their promise of Arab independence and that this conflict was part of the longrunning military campaign of the UK to extract oil from the Middle-East. These are both facts that make the British highly uncomfortable because they draw attention to not just historical imperialism on the part of our nation, but also modern imperialism. We can say we left the empire behind, but if we're still battling for oil in foreign countries, we're still pursuing imperialist methods and goals. However, most of the game's hard-hitting observations eek in through the text drops because there's little pathos in the play and cutscenes.
After you beat the game, you unlock a goodbye video; it includes a montage of the most action-packed beats of Battlefield 1 accompanied by a speech about how these soldiers will never be forgotten. It's ironic when Battlefield 1 so transparently doesn't care to remember what the First World War was. There is also, of course, the multiplayer where you can open a canister of mustard gas on an enemy soldier, rack up a cache of points, and then get shot in the head by someone with dog tags that say "SkullKillah420". Any memorial service would be lucky to have the same. In the month that followed the game's release, EA advertised it through some truly tasteless jokes. For example, one of their GIFs used an in-game depiction of a World War I soldier being burned to death along with the caption "When you're too hot for the club". Or there was Peter Moore's quip that "Trench warfare requires specialty equipment and clothing. Thus is born the Battlefield 1 onsie[sic], with pockets for melee weapons and Doritos".
EA apologised for some of these statements. However, they do match this pattern of Battlefield 1 aiming to please a conventional gamer demographic above thinking about the humanity of WWI veterans. EA's press conference at E3 2017 featured a compilation of streamers giving thrilled reactions to in-game deaths of servicemen. It's amazing how there was no real change in tone between this presentation and the one on FIFA that followed. You would have thought WWI was escapist competition in the same sense a football match is. In one way, the centenary asked more respect for the victims of WWI than there had been in a long time. In another way, the size of the gap between 1918 and 2016 allowed EA and DICE to sensationalise the war without being told it was "too soon". If you want to make a game roughly set in the recent Afghan or Iraqi Wars, you at least change the name of the country you pick, and you don't try to depict any specific battles and political actors. However, when the war you're covering is long enough ago, there's this unwritten rule that it's fair to make a shooting gallery out of it.
The difference between memorialising and entertaining is that memorials are for those lost, and entertainment is for the audience. I want to return to that Peter Jackson documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, because it's exemplary of how to choose the latter option over the former. In that film, the only speech comes from the writings of the soldiers, and that means that never does the director say something in the film for their own sake or the sake of the viewer. Everything spoken is what the soldiers of the war wanted to say. Battlefield 1, on the other hand, can be seen continually showboating for the audience. I don't think any of the problems with the game stem from a deliberate attempt by the developers to disrespect those who fought and suffered in the war it covers. From the way they talk, they always intended to develop a work that would honour the combatants, but they make creative choice after creative choice in the interests of the player and not of the wounded and dead.
They use systems developed for empowerment fantasies to depict what's meant to be a harrowing and dispiriting experience, and I don't believe that a minute of wistful introduction and conclusion around thirty minutes of neck-slashing and machine-gun fire make for a respectful piece of media. To a film like They Shall Not Grow Old, The Great War is a disease that killed 6 million, all of them people like you or I. It says the event immortalises the soldiers who participated; hence the title of the documentary and their vivid depiction through its colourisation. But it also shows that immortalisation is haunting when you hear the horrors they were subject to. For Battlefield 1, The First World War is a container for picturesque vistas and the most sumptuous explosions possible. Maybe some soldiers died along the way, but those deaths just helped all-out war feel more epic. Thanks for reading.