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The Working Out: A Brief Introduction to Puzzle Design

Note: The following article spoils puzzle solutions for these games: Baba Is You, Braid, Broken Age, Cogs, Contradiction: Spot the Liar!, Death Squared, Deponia, Gabriel Knight 3, Genesis Noir, King's Quest, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Nancy Drew: Stay Tuned for Danger, Opus Magnum, A Plague Tale: Innocence, Portal 1 and 2, Q.U.B.E 2, Resident Evil 2 (2019), Slayaway Camp, The Turing Test, Unravel, and The Witness.

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Video games still have a reputation as unyielding assaults of action and violence. Yet, as people who play games, we know that even mainstream titles aren't all kicking down doors and mulching enemies with chainguns. They often involve a lot of sitting around and thinking because puzzles are a mainstay of the format. You can't "get" video games without getting puzzles. But like so many other elements of the medium, you can read endlessly about puzzles without understanding how they tick. So, what makes a satisfying puzzle? For that matter, what makes a puzzle?

Defining Puzzles

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Like "art" or "game", "puzzle" has a lot of definitions in circulation with no method for determining a definitive one. However, we can find a definition that works for our purposes by looking for commonalities between the things we refer to as "puzzles". I'd argue that most players identify puzzles as challenges that significantly test their reasoning. This would be true of a gameplay section in which the player is working out how to escape their home on a space station, how to transit an orb to a receptacle, or which of a subject's statements contradict each other. It's the working out that makes a puzzle a puzzle.

The Skills Puzzles Test

In puzzles, players employ an IF-THEN mode of thinking. "If I have a screwdriver, then I can unscrew the grate", "If I freeze the orb in time, then I can store up momentum in it", "If the interviewee was at their parent's home at the time in question, then they can't also have been at the market". This approach to problems employs inductive reasoning, in which we generalise from our previous experiences. For example, if we saw a mirror deflect a beam of light at a 45-degree angle before, we can safely assume another mirror will do the same. We also use deductive reasoning, in which we apply general knowledge to specific challenges. For example, if you know how a mirror deflects light and where each mirror in the room is situated, you can work out how to route the light from the source to the receiver.

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This is not to say that puzzles only involve logical thinking and speculation. Many also test observation. Formulating an exit plan from the space station in Broken Age requires working out that you could use your screwdriver to open the vent. Yet, to do that, you must spot the vent in the first place. A Plague Tale: Innocence has many puzzles that task you with hitting a ring to loosen a chain, but that ring's location isn't always obvious.

Puzzles also often test your powers of memorisation and recall. A head for saving and retrieving information can help you when patterns from one puzzle game appear in another. There are popular tropes of the genre, like the weighted seesaw conundrum or the panel on which each switch inverts some combination of the other switches. Exact designs differ, but all puzzles of these types implement some of the same logic. Even a sense of when and how puzzle games will try to trick you, regardless of mechanics, can be learned. Specific games will also teach you the functions of mechanical entities, as well as techniques that will be indispensable during your quest, which you must mentally save and load. Rewards in puzzle games don't have to be resources or aesthetic feedback; they can be knowledge to use going ahead. Many puzzles are interlinked and cannot be randomly reordered within their game; they are scenes in a directed journey of extracting and applying information.

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In the time-travel game Braid, certain items will remain in your hand even when you reverse time, and certain pits are too deep to climb back out of. In an early level, you learn that if you jump into a chasm with a valuable in it, collect the item, and then reverse time, you can be standing back where you started with the object you need. This is of use in future stages. In Q.U.B.E. 2, green panels let you spawn moveable cubes, and orange panels let you extrude platforms from walls. An essential technique in the game is spawning a green block in front of one of those orange panels, and then pulling the orange panel out of the wall to push the green block across the floor. You cannot place these tutorial levels from Braid or Q.U.B.E. 2 after those in which we apply their techniques. Alone, these dynamics from Braid and Q.U.B.E. might sound trivial to record and remember, but when the player is constantly juggling concepts, and under cognitive strain, memorisation and recall take effort. Some puzzles are also large enough that you can't keep all of them on screen at once. So, you must remember at least some of what's outside the frame.

Reasoning, observation, memorisation, and recall are easier to apply when we aren't distracted or pressured by threats. Therefore, the puzzle games that really want to grill our logic and imagination mostly don't involve enemies that can chase us down or a target to race against. They often have no explicit fail state, and in the case that they do, won't set us back far upon a loss. No punishment or minimal punishments for failure also mean that we have less trouble with our work being spontaneously erased, which is always annoying. Re-doing a hand-eye coordination challenge after we've just done it can still be taxing; every headshot requires accuracy, every jump requires timing. With a puzzle, once you know the solution, the challenge is nullified, so immediately repeating a puzzle, or part of one, feels like busy work.

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Conversely, games that want to integrate time limits or combat into puzzles can survive by not placing too much strain on the player's reasoning, observation, etc. Working out what blocks to swap in a match-three grid or the procedure for a puzzle boss in an action-adventure game would be straightforward if you didn't also need to dodge attacks or fret about the clock. However, with those constraints involved, a little cognitive challenge can go a long way.

Good Puzzle Mechanics

So, what constitutes a successful puzzle mechanic? Why do some ideas fade into the wallpaper while others stick in your head? In short, objects and abilities in puzzle games have a high potential when they can interact with a wide range of other objects and abilities in many different fashions. Having mechanics that can synergise with others in countless distinct ways makes a game's design elegant and uncluttered while freeing the designer up to create a wide diversity of experiences. This is true of game mechanics in general. But there are also reasons to make highly adaptable play elements that pertain specifically to the puzzle genre.

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For one, it adds to the mystery of the puzzle. If a cube's only use is to weigh down pressure plates, then we can perform dumb pattern recognition every time we encounter one. If you see a block, all you have to do is find the switch it goes on; a rote kind of square peg goes in the square hole logic. However, if a cube can depress a plate, deflect a ball of plasma, block oncoming fire, knock down a turret, act as a platform, or move through a portal, we can't assume the function of any one cube. We must work out the purpose of each cube on a case-by-case basis. To identify this principle in a different genre, note that in many block puzzle games, any tile can stack on or against any other. Therefore, there are numerous shapes you can build out the board in, some useful, some not so useful. Not every object needs dizzying depth, but memorable mechanics and ones with longevity usually have it.

Another good reason to make entities in puzzles flexible is to reduce the amount of tutorialising the game has to do. A lot of games want us to be clear on the functions of the verbs we're using. But if an object or ability only has a few purposes, the designer will teach us how to use it and quickly exhaust all its possible interactions with other elements. Then, they will have to introduce another in its place, again doing the necessary bootstrapping. That object will also get burned up fast, and then the game must do more education as it introduces another. The player is spending more time in Mechanics 101 and less time in advanced applications of those mechanics. The items and powers in puzzle games are more liable to this kind of exhaustion than those in action games because, again, game feel and hand-eye coordination have longevity that logic problems don't. The items and powers in action games depend more on the former concepts, while those in puzzle games are weighted towards the latter.

Finally, a puzzle game could want components with high interactive potential because we would be able to make many revelatory discoveries about those components. Those discoveries are what we love about plenty of puzzles. Slayaway Camp is a sliding maze game in which you can only move in straight lines and only stop once you hit an object or character. The goal in each level is to collide with every one of your "victims", killing them, and removing them from the map, before escaping to the exit tile. Stage 5 teaches us that when we murder an NPC standing adjacent to another, that witness NPC will run away from the victim, in the direction they are facing, until they hit something solid.

Yellow Arrow: Direction in which we can move to kill a camper. Red Arrow: Direction the witness will flee in response.
Yellow Arrow: Direction in which we can move to kill a camper. Red Arrow: Direction the witness will flee in response.

That rule means that you can force enemies to flee to a certain square and then use them as a buffer to align yourself with places in the level you might otherwise be unable to reach. You can use them to build out the maze. This technique wouldn't be possible if the NPCs only interacted with you and not with each other. Plus, you wouldn't get that little moment of confusion upon seeing you have no exit and feeling like a genius when you figure out how to open one up.

In the puzzle game Death Squared, you control both a red and blue robot and must move them to their respective goals. Level 16 of the game is a multi-storey environment in which the blue bot can stand on red blocks, and the red robot can stand on blue blocks, but not vice-versa. Despite the fact that the red bot falls through the red blocks, you must get it to the other side of a gap with red blocks in it.

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Each bot can also stand on a button of their colour to activate an elevator elsewhere in the level.

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Blue starts the level in a basement area, cut off from red, but by getting red to stand on a button, we can lift blue up to be just below red. We then get blue to stand on the red bridge and use them to ferry red across the chasm.

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This puzzle is only possible if the bots work in conjunction with the buttons and lifts, can stack atop each other comfortably, and if they have unique relationships with the coloured blocks. If you take away any of those possible interactions, the puzzle, and the pleasant moments of realisation are lost.

The lack of depth in traditional point-and-click puzzle games is likely one reason that they were overtaken by other types of puzzle experiences. If there's only one use for the developer fluid or the yellow petal, they tend to feel flatter and less fully realised than, say, the ability to search words in a database or the power to copy yourself, which can find many more applications. There is one other reason that you might want mechanics that have lots of points of contact with each other, but that's a topic for later.

Good Puzzle Design

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In addition to mechanics offering a wide variety of options, the levels or puzzles themselves must also do, for the same reasons: you want player experience to be varied, to make solutions non-obvious so that players have to think hard, to avoid having to introduce new concepts constantly, and to facilitate pleasant realisations. Mechanical design and level design are inseparable. A caveat, however: "Aha" moments are generally less common in games that place a stronger emphasis on action than working out. Revelations are also rarer in casual puzzle games, which are meant to be more accessible and relaxing than they are confrontational.

As in all games, the quantity of dynamics between elements must be balanced against limitations in what the player can do. Audiences and critics often see it as a virtue when an experience lets the player find multiple solutions to the same problem. When games have alternative routes through a level, allow us to select characters with distinct abilities, or let us choose whether we hack, stealth, or shoot our way around a problem, we tend to say that's inherently good. More valid options heighten player expression and accommodate players with different abilities. They also strengthen the sense of agency, the capacity for experimentation, replayability, and potentially, realism.

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Puzzles break this common design wisdom as they frequently only allow one correct solution to a problem while remaining gratifying for audiences. There is a single path through most of the panels in The Witness. There's only one "win" state for the mechanisms in the original Myst. In Critical Mass, you can't insert new blocks anywhere in the grid; you can only stack them atop the current layers. By boxing us in, puzzles force us to focus on a goal.

Cogs is a collection of sliding tile puzzles, and some of those tiles have gears on them. The objective is to move the gears into the proper position to transfer the rotational force from a cog on one side of the board to a cog on the other. If we could drop these components in many different positions and still transfer that rotation, we wouldn't have to think as acutely when we place them. It's because we have to build a specific machine that we consider every cog's role in the overall mechanism. Or take the riddles in Nancy Drew: Stay Tuned for Danger. We must input our answers to these riddles as text, and every one of them is a closed question: a query with one correct answer. When the clerk says, "The more you make, the more you leave behind", we can only answer "Footsteps". When she asks, "What is full of holes but holds water?" she will only accept the response "Sponge". If these were questions with many correct answers like "Name a US president" or "What's your favourite flower?", you'd need to think about it a bit, but there are so many valid responses you could afford to be lazy. When the game is less flexible towards you, you must bend further towards it to meet your target.

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This isn't to say that puzzles can't account for different skill levels between audiences or produce new experiences for returning players. However, the puzzle genre leans into it less than others. When puzzle games do cater to these interests, they are also less likely than other games to do it by offering a platter of diverse solutions to challenges. Although, there are exceptions in block puzzle games or systems construction games like Mini Metro, Bridge Constructor, or the Zachtronics library. As discussed, block puzzle games can get by making you think fast instead of hard, and systems construction games have characteristics that only some of their peers want to replicate. For example, Mini Metro doesn't have an explicit success condition which most puzzles are meant to have. However, just because you can't find many correct answers for one puzzle also does not mean that there aren't a lot of approaches available. On the contrary, good puzzles are often baffling because you could try many different actions, even if only one or two will work.

Categorising Puzzles

Drilling down a little further, we can divide puzzles (or at least sections of puzzles) into two categories. Our first category is puzzles in which we don't understand the relationship between the involved entities, and the challenge is in figuring it out. We'll call these Relationship Puzzles. Relationship Puzzles are common in adventure games and in tutorial areas of other puzzler types. Examples include deducing that you can foil the fire-breathing dragon by throwing a bucket of water at it or working out, unprompted, that the lines you draw on panels must always separate black and white dots.

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The other category is puzzles in which we understand the relationships between the gameplay entities but are unsure about the configuration they should exist it. We'll call these Configuration Puzzles. This one takes a minute to wrap your head around because you'd think that if we know the rules a system abides by, it should be a breeze to arrange the parts of that system to meet any goal. However, that's not necessarily true. In Sokoban games, you can use your avatar to push a crate one square in any direction unless a push would cause it to intersect with another crate. By moving crates, you must clear yourself a route to the exit. The rules are incredibly minimalist, but working from those rules to a solution can still be a nightmare. Or there's a puzzle in Professor Layton and the Unwound Future in which we must find the working pen in a set of four. We are given the rules to select the correct pen, e.g. "All pens currently have the wrong colour caps" or "The working pen is to the left of the one that should have the green cap.". However, we have to do some hard graft to get from abstract guides to a specific idea of which pen is the answer.

It is also possible for a single puzzle to be a Relationship Puzzle and a Configuration Puzzle. For example, in the Resident Evil 2 remake, there's a puzzle in which you must transfer liquids between vials and fill one beaker to a target level. The catch is that when you pour the chemical from one container to another, you must move all of it into that second container, and not just some. Completing this puzzle involves figuring out how the vial machine operates and divining your objective from the clues, but also concluding what vials you must switch liquids between in what order. Genesis Noir contains a section in which you're destined to make a breakthrough advancement using a particle accelerator. You do this by turning knobs on various pieces of equipment to change a monitor's graphical output, trying to recreate an image drawn on a blackboard. However, you aren't taught that's the objective or how the controls affect the output.

Good Puzzle Solutions

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Whatever kind of puzzle the designer is producing, they need to come up with a satisfying solution for it, not an arbitrary one. For the remainder of the article, we're going to put block and casual puzzle games back in the drawer and keep our mind on puzzles in which designers are trying to generate "aha" moments. Broadly speaking, players enjoy it when solutions follow rules that they can reasonably identify. In Configuration Puzzles, objects and powers should generally function as they have previously. What acts as a rope in one level should generally not become a solid wall in the next. In Relationship Puzzles, you should be able to intuit the function of objects and powers reasonably. "The numbers on this notepad are codes to a safe" qualifies, "I have to spray a cat with a hose to make a fake moustache" does not.

Intrinsically rewarding puzzles also usually force us to change our perspective on something to reach the correct conclusion. Maybe that chewing gum that you previously saw as a piece of candy, you now consider as an adhesive, or you might realise that the objective of a section is not to carry the item across the stream. It's to place the item on a platform in the middle of the stream, swim across, and retrieve it from the other side. Many of the well-received puzzles in contemporary games also lure you into an incorrect solution by appealing to your current perspective. This creates the starkest contrast between your "Before" and "After" viewpoint on a puzzle or mechanic.

For example, in Coldwood's Unravel, you play a character made of yarn who leaves a trail of string behind them when they walk. You can grapple objects towards you with this thread. In the game's Sea stage, you pass below a couple of beams and come upon a grappleable hatch hinged at the top; the goal is to pass through this hatch. The intuitive solution is to grab the door, pull it open, and then run through, but if you're the one holding the door open, moving towards it will close it.

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The solution comes when you realise that you can wrap your yarn around objects in the environment to change which direction the thread pulls in. If you tie your string onto the door, then pass up over that log at the top and run back towards the door, you create a pulley system which can open the hatch as you proceed in its direction.

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In Bulkhead's The Turing Test, we must power locks to make progress. We can do this either by inserting a power cube into them or firing power orbs into them. Our gun allows us to sap or insert power orbs at range. Level 1-7 runs in a loop and starts us on the ground floor in front of a locked door. Near this locked door is a power cube.

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On the other side of the locked door is another door kept open by a power orb, then a staircase up to the exit, which has another lock.

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From this raised platform by the exit, you can also see the starting door and its lock.

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So, there are three locks but only two keys. How do we get all three doors open? The revelation comes in realising that cubes and orbs aren't equivalent. That orb can be reused and so isn't "expended" when inserted into a door. The solution is to insert the cube into the first door, collect the power orb from behind it, and then switch the orb for the cube in the first lock.

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Then, you place the cube in the second lock and run up the stairs.

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Now, you can use your gun to collect the orb from the first lock and shoot it into the third lock, opening the exit.

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Returning to Q.U.B.E. 2, by the late game, you've learned not only that trick to push cubes we discussed earlier. You've also taken on board that you can light green blocks on fire and use orange blocks to slide them across the floor. You can even transfer fire from one item to another. In one puzzle, you have a green block generator and an orange block generator facing a door. You also have a means to set a block alight, but each block can only burn for a limited time. Your objective is to crash a burning block into the door.

Yellow Arrow: Direction in which the orange panel pulls out. Red Arrow: Resultant direction of green block.
Yellow Arrow: Direction in which the orange panel pulls out. Red Arrow: Resultant direction of green block.
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The problem is, if you set that green cube alight and then push it towards the door, the fire goes out before it reaches the door.

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The false perception we must let go of to succeed is that we need one cube to make it all the way across the floor. We actually need to spawn a cube and push it halfway. Then, we can spawn a second cube, light that one, and push it towards the first cube. That second cube will transfer its flame to the first cube, as well as its momentum, and the first cube will be able to make it to the door, aflame.

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I've simplified this solution a little for clarity, but this is the gist.

How Puzzles Mislead

We know that these games facilitate ample perspective shifts by letting the involved items interact in many different ways, but how do games bait us into false solutions? A ubiquitous technique is to make wrong solutions the easiest to implement, and the right one take more steps. In Q.U.B.E. 2, pushing one block towards the door was easier than orchestrating this more complex mechanism for transferring fire from one cube to another. In The Turing Test, the simplest approach was to open the first lock, and then forget about it and just worry about the last two, but a more complex conception of how the three locks are connected is required to resolve the puzzle.

A closely related concept is that players often find it unintuitive to move backwards to advance; it feels like the opposite of progress. Designers can exploit that. In The Turing Test, we see that concept employed as the designer requires the player to re-lock some doors before they can unlock them again. In Unravel, the player had to move away from the door before they could approach it again.

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You can also mislead the player through visual and auditory presentation. In Unravel, the door was right in front of Yarny, while the beam you needed to use was out of their direct line of sight. In The Turing Test, after you pass through the first two doors, the orb you need to unlock the first and third door will then be out of sight, and potentially, out of mind. Players also come to games with mental shortcuts they've adopted from outside, like "You can't move a key at range" or "If you want to get to a goal, you should move towards it". These puzzles exploit those assumptions.

A designer can also have you use the same mechanic in the same manner up to a certain point, so you, often unconsciously, assume that mechanic must always be used that way. You'd previously used one burning cube for each fire door, so you might not speculate that there's another method. You'd not encountered puzzles before where you could use the same orb to open doors on different levels, so why would it be possible this time? Devious puzzle designers can even create a puzzle with a solution the player has already used but still have it stump them. They often give us time to forget approaches we've previously employed, make us use different approaches before returning to the former technique, or create a new spatial or narrative context around the same problem.

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Zach Barth's alchemical puzzle game, Opus Magnum, has a habit of introducing new components only to quickly swipe them off the table. Because we have a lot of intervening puzzles in between first transmuting lead into gold and doing it on another occasion, we can forget something simple like the need for salt to catalyse the reaction. Arvi Teikari's Baba Is You is a puzzle game in which you can push together blocks with different words on them to change the rules of the game. For example, we could create the sentence "Rock is Push" to let us push rocks around or "Flag is Win" so that we win if we reach the flag. Touching the flag is the typical win condition, but in Stage 1-5, we create the phrase "Baba is Win" to skip the middle man and complete the level without reaching the goal. In Stage 3-9, we are meant to implement the same technique, creating the phrases "Baba is Rock" and "Rock is Win" to make ourselves the goal object. It's the same idea, but because there have been two intervening worlds, flipping through a small Rolodex of mechanics, it's difficult to recognise the solution, at first. Further confusion may be created by the reframing of the problem, having us write "Rock Is Win" instead of "Baba Is Win", even if we are the rock.

This is the secret final reason that it's useful for gameplay entities to be able to interact with many others in many ways. It allows for a barrage of different gameplay dynamics between a concept making its debut and being used again, allowing the player time to forget an item or ability's earlier functions.

Conclusion

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Keep in mind this is just a cursory overview of puzzles, and there's much more to say on the subject. When you break them down, the solutions to the puzzles I mentioned in Unravel, The Turing Test, and Q.U.B.E. 2 are simple. Still, any substantial puzzle can be split into smaller parts, and the player will segment them when solving. A puzzle probably won't be challenging if it relies on the player just taking many steps and if those steps are similar to the ones they've made before. What makes a puzzle demanding is when they force us to change their methodology for each step substantially. Thus, we shift our perspective on the world just that little bit. Thanks for reading.

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Capra: Autonomous Cars in Neo Cab

Note: The following article makes brief mentions of sexual assault. It also contains moderate spoilers for Neo Cab.

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For a long time, the automated car has felt so close to becoming a reality, yet so far. On the one hand, we're flush with personal AI assistants and image recognition algorithms. Our factories have been automated for decades, and our phones can use adaptive computer code to erase objects from photos. With these advances, it feels like the driverless automobile is running late. Nonetheless, it's not arrived, and we've been told it's "Just around the corner" since at least 2015, which has cemented the technology as the quintessential example of Silicon Valley overpromising. So, what will it take to transport us to the world of AI taxi drivers? And what might life look like for the everyday worker if we get there? Chance Agency's 2019 game, Neo Cab, has thorough answers.

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Neo Cab's protagonist, Lina, is caught in the crossfire of the AI revolution. She is a former employee of the shrewd megacorp Capra, which, in a previous life, operated as an Uberish ride-hailing service. The second Capra rolled out its automated taxis, it spontaneously fired all its drivers. Lina now eeks out a living in the near-future city of Los Ojos, driving for Neo Cab. Her new employer is a lesser economic competitor offering the boutique experience of a taxi with a flesh and blood operator inside. Even as we touch down on Neo Cab's backstory, the game is challenging our preconceptions about automation.

Common sense dictates that if we want to stem the tide of automation, then we need more people in jobs. Yet, some companies use human labour to accrue the capital to implement a computerised workforce. This creates a paradox in which getting more people into certain jobs can mean their work will be taken by AI in the long term. In Los Ojos, that bait-and-switch occurred under Capra; in our world, Uber and Amazon look eager to do something similar. Still, it's obviously not a shortage of cash keeping tech empires from rolling out the driverless car. So, let's talk about the real barriers.

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One issue is that even if you invent the self-driving car, or whatever other technology, that doesn't necessarily mean it will be ubiquitous. A lot of our tech now is controlled by relatively few puppeteers due to being tied up in intellectual property law. In Neo Cab, Lina's job exists because there is one company that was able to patent a driverless car system, and every other taxi firm has to try and drive without it. Although, that is one more company than has developed a reliable self-driving car in our time.

As Neo Cab teaches us, we aren't being shunted from a manually-operated society to an automated one overnight. Some tasks it's more straightforward for a computer to perform than others. The game doesn't expound on what makes a task "easier" or "harder" for an AI, but the general trend is that automation does well in predictable environments that aren't going to throw a lot of curveballs at it. Almost all of those environments are tightly controlled for the sake of making them fit the narrow-minded AI. Think factory floors, video game rulesets, etc. But in messy, organic systems where the rules and contexts are constantly changing, computers flounder. Much of the driving done in the world happens in those chaotic contexts.

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An autonomous car in flat lighting on a well-maintained road with no weather visibility problems has nothing to fear. But if it's snowing, street signs are damaged, pedestrians appear in dappled lighting, the vehicle has to negotiate with other motorists, or if you run into any number of edge cases, a self-driving car's senses can fail it. Advocates for driverless cars are quick to say that only the outliers trip up this tech, but if you can't account for outliers, you can't account for real streets.

Getting a bundle of electronics to understand human dialogue and respond appropriately is probably harder. Sentence construction is devilishly complicated, with words morphing their meaning as they are placed within different grammatical and semantic holders. Cues for tone and meaning are subtle and inconsistent, as is body language. And you have to pull from complexly interlocking knowledge bases every time you form an opinion and express what you think. The current work in conversational AI is at once breathtaking and far short of the real thing. What's more, the appropriate margin for error varies between tasks. If a computer program can't identify a flower species from a photograph, that's not the end of the world. If it can't work out which shape in the road is a child, you're in big trouble.

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AI's hike to absolute competence is slow, and the most obvious conclusion to draw from that is that some jobs are getting automated before others. In Neo Cab, "taxi driver" is an occupation that digital minds can slip into easily but something like "quantum statistician" is beyond their capabilities. Less immediately evident is that when some tasks can be automated, the pressure on workers to perform non-automatable tasks, and the standard at which they're expected to perform those tasks, dramatically increases.

In isolation, Lina's driving skills and car are no longer profitable assets. It's only the "authenticity" of manually driving a car and her social skills that she can sell to a consumer. That means that her job hinges more than ever on her ability to converse with customers in a manner they appreciate. Not every client cares about cross-seat patter; some are happy enough to lounge back and play on their phone, or can recognise Lina as a person just trying to get by. But from the rest, there is more push to conform to their idealised image of a big city cabbie. To some, that means a folksy streetwise caricature; to others, she's an object of fascination like a zoo animal; to others still, she's a punching back they can say and do whatever they want to. Neo Cab suggests that as people have become more used to interacting with computers to meet their everyday needs, their social skills have atrophied. They have forgotten how to speak to service workers, although there are some people who have never known.

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And if Lina doesn't play into her customers' expectations, she might be left without an income and without a home. She exists in that precarity partly because of how the taxi industry was run even pre-Capra. Firms in the Uber model don't have formal hiring or firing processes, and while other jobs might review an employee once every few months or once a year, gig work employees are rated after every job. It is that much faster to eject them from their post, and individual customers have a direct position of power over them. Throwing employees overboard strips no skin off the nose of the platforms because of the simplicity of recruiting new workers and the abundance of their labour.

Furthermore, gig work employees are operating on razor-thin margins. Many gig work companies are effective at extracting value from their workers because they've figured out how to make them pay for their own tools. A traditional taxi driver didn't have to fork out for their fuel, but a ride-hail driver like Lina does. And with that drain on our income, missing one or two fees a night could be the difference between breaking even and operating at a loss. Then you have to factor in spontaneous interruptions like customers changing the pick-up point or police pulling you over.

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As we juggle Lina's fuel and accommodation expenses, we experience that the problem for the gig worker is not just a consistently low standard of living. It's also that their financial conditions are subject to fluctuations. The number or length of rides we might be offered each night is fluid, and fuel prices yo-yo based on the markets or where in the city we find ourselves. Neo Cab could be harsher in forcing you to balance your books, but it effectively communicates the dreadful uncertainty of gig work. It also conveys that when you are making scraps, savings aren't just a safety net but also offer some freedom and dignity. When you're not starving for cash, you can afford to be pickier about which riders you pick up or how much disrespect you take from them. But even freedom is relative, and with the fickleness of the job, you must save some money in case of a sudden famine of work.

There's the sense in Neo Cab that Lina's occupation might not exist for much longer. Maybe, just for now, the human touch is enough to build a taxi business on, but it's a speciality interest, and all the little gaps in the market are getting filled in by the megacorps. The irony is that Lina can't sell many of her customers an authentic conversation anyway. It's not that you never say something true to a passenger or can't ever stand up for yourself when they're trying to push your boundaries. However, you'll find many prompts for which you know your earnest response might be disappointing for the rider, and you have to decide whether to zhoosh up the truth for a superior "customer experience". Some customers can't buy an authentic conversation because they're so rude that you'd never be speaking to them if they hadn't paid.

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Most public-facing writing on driverless cars is either about its technological or economic aspects. There's not nearly as much ink spilt on the dimension Neo Cab is covering: the interpersonal impacts. Even when trying to understand how autonomous vehicles enter our world, we have to be conscious of the social component. This is not comfortable to think about, but you're probably never going to reach 0 deaths from driverless cars. Even if you coded the perfect motorist, pedestrians could put drivers in circumstances where they have no choice but to collide with someone. It's why researchers are asking questions like, "If it came to it, should a self-driving car hit three adults or one child?" or "Is it better to kill two people violating traffic laws or one innocent?".

Therefore, you won't get autonomous cars on the road just by raising capital and enhancing their brains. An essential step in the process is normalising deaths by driverless car. In our age, manually driven cars are associated with rigorous safety checks, while the autonomous car still feels fairly dangerous and liable to lose control. In Neo Cab's future, the autonomous vehicle has been improved to the point where the human-driven car now claims more lives. Accordingly, the stigmas associated with each mode of transportation have flipped.

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Of course, just because Capra's driverless cars are safer than their non-autonomous competitors doesn't mean they're as safe as they could or should be. And what makes this world scarily believable is that, for many countries, it's not a stretch to think they'd accept hundreds or even thousands of deaths a year from self-driving cars because they already tolerate an equivalent quantity of deaths from other sources. Lack of medical care and regular car crashes are enormous killers worldwide. In the US specifically, thousands die of gun deaths every year. The line between the world now and a world which embraces the driverless car isn't the green light for random, inescapable violence. That already exists. What must happen is the normalisation of a new type of violence. Although, I do suspect that high-regulation, low-violent crimes regions, like Western Europe or Japan, would demand a high standard for autonomous automobile safety.

Given that over 46,000 people die from vehicular collisions every year in the US, a less dangerous mode of transportation could do monumental good. The citizens in Neo Cab are well aware of the benefits, with many taking to the picket line in support of a ban on manual cars. It's a ban that, predictably, has the backing of Capra. Capra churns out tearful media about the human cost of manually-driven automobiles and even fakes grassroots support for their corporation among pro-autonomous protestors. Yet, as a taxi driver ourself, we know what it would mean to lose our manual car. Neo Cab depicts a distasteful catch-22 that we may have to stomach one day. You can stick up against big business and keep the drivers on the economic ropes from getting fired, or you can reduce the number of road deaths. But you can't do both. Capitalism will have its blood one way or another.

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While a fictional company, Capra's legal meddling has them following in the footsteps of Uber. Uber wrote the book for the Silicon Valley taxi industry, and it had to change the law to do it. When the company first mosied into cities, it was somewhere from a legally grey entity to an outright criminal organisation.[1] To quote one Uber executive, "We're just fucking illegal". You had an unregulated taxi firm that did not extend employee rights to their drivers, and one of the reasons the field was regulated beforehand was for customer safety.[2] States can identify licensed taxis in the case that the driver decides to kidnap or assault a passenger, but Uber didn't have to report to the state.

If you want to look into it, there was this wild period in which Uber tried to sabotage law enforcement's investigations into it with ghost cars and held secret behind-the-scenes meetings with world leaders.[2] But there are two particular areas of this history that Neo Cab riffs on. Firstly, in Neo Cab, sometimes you have to pick between following the law and providing a worse taxi service or bending the rules and potentially getting ticketed. Ride-hail drivers face that exact dilemma today. But in addition, when Uber was still establishing itself, it was instructing its drivers to keep working even as the police were fining and towing drivers. Those workers also had to choose between what was profitable and what was legal.[1]

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Secondly, sometimes Lina's interactions during her shift threaten to spill over into violence. A few times, I wondered if saying the wrong thing to a customer might trigger a physical response from them. Lina is a woman of colour driving around a city alone at night. Uber was banned from London, England, for failing to report sexual assaults in their vehicles and for performing lax background checks, among other incompetencies. According to their records, in 2020 alone, there were 998 sexual assaults reported in Uber vehicles.

Other times, Lina and her customers are caught in crowds of activists that become so ferocious there's a possibility of someone getting hurt. Like Capra, Uber extorted their legal rights through exploiting tragedy and throwing their weight behind protests that endangered workers. While taxi drivers worldwide protested willfully in favour of their livelihood, Uber encouraged their employees to attend counterprotests. Assaults against their drivers became a recurring problem, with some even being murdered.[3]

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When then-CEO, Travis Kalanick, was warned that violent far-right agitators had entered the ranks of the anti-Uber protestors and that he should withdraw his own workers, he responded that this turn of events would be favourable for Uber. In his words, "violence guarantees success". Talking about the issue more generally, one manager commented, "We'll keep the violence narrative going for a few more days before offering a solution".[3] The sordid details of Uber's rise mostly came to light after Neo Cab released. Still, in retrospect, the game underestimated how much of a moral void Silicon Valley is.[2]

There are still a few starstruck techno-optimists who think we can automate our way out of crisis. Neo Cab is a dystopian rejoinder to that view. It depicts the driverless car as being ushered in by a new wave of corporate opinion-laundering and as displacing and increasing pressures on already desperate workers. Even then, it edits out the most disgusting tendencies of the industries it satirises. In a lot of ways, it feels like a mercy that the self-driving car is still science fiction. Thanks for reading.

Notes

  1. Today in Focus: The Uber files: the unicorn (part 1) by Michael Safi, Johana Bhuiyan, and Paul Lewis (July 11, 2022), The Guardian.
  2. Uber broke laws, duped police and secretly lobbied governments, leak reveals by Harry Davies, Simon Goodley, Felicity Lawrence, Paul Lewis, and Lisa O'Carroll (July 11, 2022), The Guardian.
  3. 'Violence guarantees success': how Uber exploited taxi protests by Felicity Lawrence and Jon Henley (July 10, 2022), The Guardian.

All other sources linked at relevant points in the article.

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Interview: Trace "Peace Egg" Evans, Phasmophobia Speedrunner

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Phasmophobia is a ghost-hunting horror that became a cult hit following its launch in late 2020. For this Halloween season, I spoke to one of its most loyal followers and former Giant Bomb mod, Trace Evans.

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Gamer_152: What's your name? Who are you? What do you want?

PeaceEgg: I'm Trace, Peace Egg on the Internet. I'm a streamer and speedrunner who's best known for being part of the team that has run Phasmophobia at several marathons, including Summer Games Done Quick, and I want to keep speedrunning and entertaining more people with co-op horror games like Phasmo. Or, in more spirit box-friendly terms, "ATTACK."

G_152: Phasmophobia is a very unique game. What drew you to it as a title to speedrun?

PE: It was a bit of happenstance along the course of a few months. I had friends who were really into Phasmophobia very early on, and I watched a lot and played a little with them. At some point, FlannelKat and I decided to start trying to play on our own in more regular sessions, and we started bringing other folks in. B0nd07 was a mainstay, but we kept struggling to find a consistent fourth player and kept trying to reach out to folks in our social circles to join us.

After several months of wrangling, we convinced Brossentia to join us for some investigations with another friend, Fyzzu. Brossentia and Fyzzu are both mainstays in the world of bad video games, and Brossentia's extremely well-known as a part of the awful block or silly block at most GDQs. He's been a part of Games Done Quick practically since its inception.

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Long story short, Brossentia fell in love with Phasmophobia, and when we casually mentioned there were speedrun leaderboards for it online, we all started buzzing over the idea of taking the game to GDQ. Practising speedruns only increased that fervour: It was a fun way to take all the ghost knowledge Phasmo requires at an expert level and apply additional pressures trying to complete an investigation and get out. It not only made us better players, it made any successful and fast investigations all that more satisfying.

G_152: After all that time with the game, is it still scary in places or are you just running through those houses with nerves of steel?

PE: Largely, I'm pretty steeled now that I've run a couple hundred hours in Phasmophobia. A lot of the early scares don't quite hit in the same way they might have when things were somewhat unknown still, like how the ghost would lash out. That said, there's still plenty of emergent moments where ghosts appear right next to you or walk through the dark at you, and while they're not tremendously scary on their own compared to the more elaborate events, they become these emergent moments in the right circumstances that make me jump or pause a beat in fear.

It's kind of Phasmo's biggest strength to me: It doesn't rely heavily on huge jump scares so much as dread and being unnerving in moments where the player feels weak or out of control. This especially feels true with the new asylum map, where so much of the map feels hostile and unnerving. It's all just walls, barricades, a known ghost, and some window dressing, but it's tempered enough in its presentation that when everything lines up, it creates those rare moments where it's a new scary experience, even with all the time I've spent around the game.

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G_152: So, what separates a good Phasmo run from a bad one? What skills is the game testing?

PE: The biggest things Phasmo's testing with a good run is how quickly you can recognise signs of the ghost, identify its main room, and keep moving forward with testing to deduce what you're dealing with. A lot of newer players will just wander around a house using tools at random until they get evidence or see the most obvious of ghost signs, and usually, that's what leads to hunts and death.

The key, in my opinion, is keeping eyes and ears open for signs of disturbance, following up on those, and using quick tools like EMF readers and UV lights to determine where the ghost is. Once you have the room figured out, evidence that takes longer, like writing books and DOTS, can be placed down, and at that point, the real deduction begins. Even at a high level, unless the ghost gives you everything you need quickly, you're having to consider whether pieces of evidence are still viable constantly, if there's any behaviours synonymous with a certain type of ghost, and on top of that, monitor if the ghost has decided to change rooms on a whim. Has it been too long for a ghost to run through DOTS? Are other quicker evidences not happening, or could they be missed due to a lack of activity or awareness? Is the ghost acting more or less aggressive than expected?

The fastest runs will put the ghost in a room near the entrance, and with decent investigative skills, give evidence very, very quickly across all the maps. Barring that, you're putting these skills to use to minimise the time in a house as much as possible, and it becomes a high-speed mystery.

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G_152: You're clearly spinning a lot of plates at once. Do you have any advice for newcomers interested in Phasmo speedrunning?

PE: With all those plates, I think the biggest advice I could give newbies is this: Don't be afraid to just leave. So many people fresh to the game feel like they have to stay in the investigation, that they have to definitively figure out the ghost, but if you're not sure or things are getting uncomfortable, get out of there. Take a guess. It's better to leave with your stuff and be wrong about the ghost than to stay in the house, be killed by the ghost, and find out you were right. So often, I see players struggling to afford items, and it's because they keep overstaying their welcome during investigations and get caught in a bad spot.

When I started off trying to play solo, I'd begin on Amateur difficulty. That gives a five-minute grace period before the ghost can hunt. I'd use those five minutes to learn as much as I could, and if time expired and things weren't looking good, or I was still clueless, I'd leave. Eventually, experience and bravery picked up, and I'd have enough evidence in those five minutes to feel much more confident that I could complete the job. Either way, I wasn't getting killed and had money to spare as a result.

G_152: That makes sense. Last but not least, do you have a favourite ghost?

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PE: I'm a big fan of the ghosts that give satisfying unique evidence (mimics notwithstanding), so anything in that regard. Specifically, the obake's rare six-finger handprint is one of my favourites, and getting easy-to-detect fingerprints everywhere is nice. I also enjoy the deogen since it has a chance to give a unique spirit box response and will charge at players from anywhere at the speed of light, only to slow down when it's in their face. It's a great ghost to show off bravery.

___

If you want to see Peace Egg run Phasmophobia, you can check out his regular streams on his Twitch channel or watch him participate with the GDQ team at Summer Games Done Quick 2022. Thanks for reading.

4 Comments

The Real Deal: videogamedunkey and Misunderstanding Games

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Around the end of September, YouTube comedian and critic Jason "videogamedunkey" Gastrow uploaded a ten-minute video announcing that he and his wife, Leah Gastrow, would be starting a new indie game publisher: Big Mode.[1] At first blush, that might sound like an issue that impacts a limited community far from us. However, Dunkey is an entertainer and critic with over seven million subscribers and upwards of three and a half billion views on his channel. In his proportional reach, he's the modern equivalent of the editor-in-chief for one of those big 90s gaming magazines. Big Mode is games criticism news full stop, and Gastrow's views reflect and inform many of those in the gaming community. So, it's worth paying attention to this video.

Before I say anything else, I want to put out there that I'm writing this post in the interest of genuine criticism, not to hurt or offend anyone. I'm here because, given Dunkey's influence, I think it's beneficial to talk about misunderstandings and behaviour I see in his pitch and his other videos. Gastrow says that when you buy a game today, it's like buying a loot crate. There are so many subpar products coming out that we're drowning in them, and you're probably going to get saddled with some junk. However, his channel has been where "real" games fans go to find the cream of the crop, and Gastrow feels like he plays almost every game that releases. Because he has spent years drawing attention to stellar indie titles like Spelunky, Enter the Gungeon, and Hollow Knight, he is positioned to pick the best of the best and deliver them to audiences. Big Mode will guarantee success by selecting only the most passionate developers and using Gastrow's expertise on which ideas "always work" in games and which ideas "never work".[1]

Dunkey is undeniably enthusiastic, but to start deconstructing these arguments, I don't think customers spin a roulette wheel when they buy a game. Online stores use customer ranks to float the most popular cargo to the surface, and even casual gamers pick their poison based on experience, word of mouth, and known brands. Those methods are imperfect, but they do inform purchasing decisions. And the enthusiast will shape their choices through reviews, forums, and other sources. Part of Dunkey's argument here is that he's helped players avoid randomly blundering into miserable games using his videos, and he's right. Although, his claim that his channel is the one-stop shop for serious gamers is absurdly over-inflated, and I don't think that Gastrow is the guy who put a lot of the indie games he references on the map. No one person did.

He's discounting the voices of other critics and community members, and not for the first time. Furthermore, many of the indie games he mentioned here he featured weeks or months after they first emerged. Day one reviews had beat him to the punch, and plenty of these titles picked up goodwill in gaming discussion spaces long before Gastrow spoke out about them. I'll give him serious credit for Celeste for which he posted a release day review, but Neon White had almost a fortnight of hype behind it before Dunkey uploaded his video.[2] His pieces for Duck Game, Hollow Knight, and Undertale[3] all came out more than a month after these games had seen the light of day. There's a gap of nearly a year between Rocket League's release and Dunkey's coverage of it, for Enter the Gungeon, nearly two years, and for Spelunky, about two and a half.[4]

Not that his work didn't raise the profile of these games (again, this guy gets millions of views per item), and I don't think these pauses between release and review are failures. I think criticism needs more attempts to reassess older games with new eyes and essays where writers have given time for their opinions to percolate. Dunkey has said as much before.[5] But if that's your approach, then you're going to be a smaller part of the effort to bring attention to games, especially when you factor in all the pre-release impressions that follow around media that's appeared at expos or gotten publicity from platform holders. Many of these videos also aren't reviews but compilations of funny things that happened to Dunkey during play. That's not an inferior media format to criticism but is categorically not the same thing.

And I have to say, the games he talks about are mostly not that obscure. There are exceptions like Furi and Monolith. But as indie software goes, Hades, Cuphead, SUPERHOT, Neon White, Untitled Goose Game; these are well-known names.[1] In one video, he describes Alan Wake as being this incredibly niche material that no one played.[6] Again, that's great for the entertainment he wants to make; he's speaking to a broad audience and aims to give them the games they have the highest chance of enjoying. Those are going to be the heavy hitters. But if you're starting from square one in games publishing, it's not likely that you're about to be pitched the next Hades or Enter the Gungeon. There are very few of those fish compared to the total sea of indie games. You need to have an eye for more subtlely promising titles, and that's just not what Dunkey's channel is about.

I believe him that he feels like he's selecting his starlets from almost every game that auditions, but that belief suggests he doesn't understand the mind-boggling number of games that get published. Over 10,000 were added to Steam last year alone, itch.io has taken on board more than 600,000 since it went online in 2013. Then there are all the games that get pitched but not picked up or get console-only releases or only show up in specialist development spaces. No one, not even the most ardent industry watchers, is playing almost every game that launches. In many videos, Dunkey heaps disdain on the kinds of titles that would be probable candidates for the average indie publisher. He looks down on Lawnmowing Simulator,[7] he hates the encounter design in turn-based combat games, he implies that anything made in the Unity Engine is shoddy, he calls the graphics of Neon White "crude",[2] he thinks that Undertale doesn't look very good,[3] and he said that the only pleasing part of this year's Wholesome Direct was when his wife (the co-head of the publisher) called it the "Loathesome Direct".[6]

It's also unclear to me how Dunkey thinks you find the value of a game. He describes the best reviews as "entirely subjective", but in the next sentence says reviews should also incorporate an objective element.[5] It's also much harder to look at a game in development or worse, the pitch stage, and correctly assess its potential than it is to opine on whether people will find a game engaging post-development. For most of their production cycle, games are broken, and their features only partially implemented.

I suspect that it's Gastrow's knowledge that he may not be sizing up final products that motivates his talk of "ideas". But we often place too much emphasis on fundamental ideas and overlook the colossal importance of their execution. Having an intriguing idea behind your game can certainly draw attention to it. Return of the Obra Dinn stuck in a lot of people's heads because of that premise of being an insurance company investigator on an empty ship that drifts back to port. I added Silicon Dreams to my wishlist mostly because I was taken with the notion of an android interrogation platform.

But it's not that certain ideas "always" work or "never" work. What an idea contributes to a game depends on how the developer treats it. You can actually see Dunkey acknowledging the importance of the context around concepts in previous videos. For example, when he praised Super Mario Galaxy, he said that the restrictive movement of the game might sound like a flaw, but that it becomes a positive through how it forces you to interact with the level design. He gave kudos to Banjo Kazooie because of the thematic cohesion between its characters and items.[8] In his review of Kirby and the Forgotten Lands, he states that Kirby's tweeness could be overwhelming, but that by placing him in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, Nintendo takes the edge off.

Speaking for my own opinions, you can see how a lot of the same ideas are copied from game to game, like "risk-reward", "hint systems", or "talent trees". But one game can take on those ideas and sink, and another can swim. And if you've got a title pushing the boundaries of the medium, as is common in the indie arena, it's going to work with ideas that have rarely or never been tested. So, how do you know if they "always" or "never" land? And we haven't even talked about technical implementation, which can fall apart at countless levels, regardless of the ideas that comprise the design.

Dunkey has stated that the problem with some mediocre AAA games is that they're "cash grabs",[1] so avoiding get-rich-quick schemes could be a viable direction for his publisher. Still, we must be conscious that, by definition, all commercial games are made to make money, whatever other goals they may pursue. I don't think that's a healthy basis for the production of art. Yet, it is true that there's a fiscal force driving not just consumer games that turn out terrible, but those that turn out brilliant, and every product in between. Dunkey does have that other thought about what might jeopardise a game's quality: not working with passionate and creative enough people.[1] Working with talented people certainly puts you on the course to publishing laudable games. However, when he goes on to talk about "weak games" and "spam" after that, it suggests that when art falls short of expectations, it's because the people behind it weren't talented enough or didn't fully apply themselves.[1]

A lack of passion is not usually a problem for developers. A lot of people like video games, and in our digitised age, many people have gotten good at using the computer. Moreover, if there's anything the last few years of articles about conditions in the industry should have taught us, it's that game dev is rough. Hours are often long, with layoffs commonplace and sudden. Devs can be left unable to see their families or having to repeatedly uproot them to find new work. Industry burnout is the norm for a reason. You can earn the same money with less stress and higher job security in other white-collar professions. So, if you're toiling away, brow sweating, in the video game mines, it's probably because you care deeply about the work.

Even annualised franchises that Gastrow is understandably frustrated with are developed by incredibly talented people. You can't turn out a presentable AAA game in a very tight window without developers who are experts in their field. The problem there has more to do with resource allocation. Not all developers don't get the time they need to mature their game. A talented developer without enough money ends up in a similar position. You can have a master sculptor, but if the marble budget runs out before their work is done, they won't create a magnum opus. And most of the games that fall on their face aren't entries in annualised franchises. Sometimes a title does crash and burn because the people working on it don't have the knowledge or experience they need. Every developer has to start somewhere. Yet, in many cases, we just have different tastes from the developers. And first-hand records of work in games dev uncover complex interlocking factors that prevent many devs with skill, money, time, and dedication from achieving their visions. Jason Schreier's exposes on big-ticket failures like Anthem and Mass Effect: Andromeda have been particularly illuminating in this area.

It's interesting because Dunkey has repeatedly used Andromeda as a prime specimen of the modern industry letting fans down. He's also called out Anthem before. Yet, the inside stories of what went wrong at Bioware, and other studios that fell from grace, don't have much to do with a lack of passion or an attempt to underproduce SDKs for quick cash. They're stories of failures of management, differences in creative vision, and clogs in the production pipeline as much as anything else.

Digital interactive entertainment is not just the result of a programmer's programming or an artist's modelling. These are collective labour efforts, and so live and die on effective communication within companies, smart organisation and budgeting, and realistic timetabling as much as ideas or devotion. It's not sexy stuff, but it's how the sausage is made. And again, much of this information comes to us from the traditional games writers that Dunkey dismisses.[5]

Due to game development's interpersonal, financial, and production aspects, the job of the publisher becomes not just to get the word out about games based on great ideas, but to practically operate a business and production outfit, facilitate connections between people, and/or provide advice. That's besides the PR, community management, QA, porting, localisation, and merchandising that they might have to do. Critiquing games doesn't inherently teach you to perform any of these tasks. The list of services two sentences back isn't mine. That comes straight from the Big Mode site, so why doesn't Dunkey's video describe how he's qualified to perform these jobs? It also stands out as a red flag that that list does not contain "marketing": one of the essential functions of the publisher.

There's an old problem of gamers thinking that because they have strong opinions about games and even some knowledge of the medium, they know how to escort a game from conception to storefront. Yet, in the same way that being able to deconstruct the charm of a film doesn't make you Stephen Spielberg, knowing that Ratchet & Clank is more polished than Psychonauts doesn't mean that you understand the mathematics of its lighting. Being able to tell[5] why a platforming section in Crash Bandicoot is unfair doesn't mean that you know what expertise to allocate a studio to brush up their level design. Being able to point out that it's grating when the characters in Xenoblade keep repeating the same lines doesn't mean you'd know how to jot up a budget for it.

And taken as a whole, Dunkey's videos suggest that he's confused about how a lot of the industry works. It's not just his pronouncements about the quality of games. The "Unity is a bad game engine" line has become a bit of a cliche in misunderstanding game dev. Unity is inappropriate for games aiming to be technical powerhouses, and sure, some Unity games lack polish. However, many other projects running on the engine have knocked it out of the park, so it can't be an inherently low-grade tool. Gastrow uses Untitled Goose Game, Hollow Knight, Cuphead, and Ori and the Will o' the Wisps as examples of quality indie games and they were all made in Unity.[1]

He claimed a while back that Microsoft would imminently triple the price of Game Pass,[7] which they didn't. He made the audacious statement that "everyone knows" Microsoft doesn't spend money on the Xbox LIVE servers or perform upkeep on them. He accused Blizzard of running "a scam" because the matchmaking times in their Overwatch 2 beta were long. He says that LA Noire was the big breakthrough in facial animation, and he's correct that it was a landmark technological achievement. Still, the sharpening of motion capture and human animation in general was a gradual process with a lot of hands in it that went well beyond the games industry. There wasn't one breakthrough.

He explained that the reason a lot of video games are substandard now is that developers use "recycled" tech from years ago.[7] We could spend a lot of time picking this point apart, but he doesn't provide a source for this claim, nor can I tell that it's based on anything. Suffice it to say that the software tools used to make games are mostly updated on a regular basis, while even consoles years old (like the Switch) still support quality experiences. This is an especially puzzling comment given that Dunkey believes that there are games for the N64[8] and PS1 that stand as titanic accomplishments in the medium to this day.

Lacking in-depth knowledge about software development is not a disadvantage if you just want to give your impressions on games, an ambition Dunkey fulfils with flair. It is a problem if you want to comment on the gears of the industry, which Dunkey also does, and it could be a death sentence if you're running a publisher. One of the reasons that Big Mode feels like such a weird fit for Gastrow is that while he describes the company as a "harmonious continuation" of his YouTube channel, that channel is not about viewing games from an industry perspective.[1] It was always premised on this idea that Dunkey was a guy experiencing video games the way any regular player does, giving it a contagious relatability for his audience.

Another reason that Big Mode is an odd fit is that while the job of publisher has you trying to connect together people from the industry, critical space, and community, Dunkey has spent a lot of time insulting those people. I think I should mention that this is part of his comedic style and that he has shown genuine thanks for his fans, but all the same, he's attacked video game critics as a class of professionals and even demeaned specific reviewers in a video back in 2017.[5] There's this telling moment when he references then-IGN editor Kallie Plagge by saying, "this guy is being paid to write dumb shit". And at the time, Plagge noted that Dunkey didn't seem to be aware that she was a woman. You might think that this could shake someone's confidence in their knowledge of games criticism. Yet, in a 2019 follow-up video, Dunkey characterises Plagge's comment as "an embarassing meltdown".[9]

Another one of the tweets he declares part of that "meltdown" was IGN editor, Chloi Rad, saying that it can be scary to be a full-time freelancer and be called out in front of millions of people, as some writers were by Dunkey. She then says that she hopes those people don't get bullied.[9] Gastrow makes it clear in his 2017 video that he believes not just that reviewers are mistaken in their critical methodology but that they're literally burying the truth because of the economic pressure publishers place on them.[5] In an appearance on the H3H3 Podcast, Gastrow told Ethan and Hila Klein that he'd tried to focus on systemic issues in games criticism rather than laying into the critics themselves, but the video does publicly pillory individuals. Even on that podcast, Dunkey said, "game critics suck". Gastrow thinks that critics being reliant on access to games from publishers, and publishers advertising on review sites, creates a conflict of interest.[5] It's therefore unclear how he thinks Big Mode being, in his words, a continuation of his YouTube channel, wouldn't create a worse conflict of interest.

He describes the video game community as "stupid and inconsistent" people who made poor purchasing decisions, and chides them for not having the historical knowledge of the medium he does.[7][9] He claims that they have become so conditioned to seeing bugs and glitches that they don't even perceive them anymore, but he does. He says in his E3 2022 video, "fuck everyone" who was involved in organising the event and states that Twitch streamers don't play games and only pretended to care about them at the expo.[6] He also has this hair-trigger for saying "fuck you" to developers who make a game that disappoints him, like those at Ubisoft and Bungie. In his Big Mode video, he boasted how "developer-friendly" their contracts are,[1] but three days earlier posted a video where he complained that eliminating crunch at Rockstar will cause far greater delays for Grand Theft Auto VI. And it doesn't get much better from here.

In a couple of early videos on Dunkey's channel, he calls women who play League of Legends "stupid bimbos" and various specific female gamers he encounters "bitches".[10] In 2015, Dunkey, a white guy, came out with a Red Read Redemption rap in which he repeatedly uses the n-word (no link to that for obvious reasons, but you can find it). He's said the r-word in multiple videos (also no link due to community rules) and constantly used gendered insults to describe female characters. That Spelunky video and one of the League videos I mentioned have him making jokes about being violent to women.[4][10] During one livestream, he repeatedly used a homophobic slur before saying "fuck Twitch" and calling it a "pussy-ass website" for disallowing use of hate speech (community rules). In 2015, he was temporarily suspended from League of Legends for saying the following to a player who he thought was performing poorly:

"You are a fucking worthless braindead scumfuck bastard pile of trash mental dickface that should be gunned down in the street like the degenerate you are".[11]

For some social context, "degenerate" is an old eugenics term for people who "pollute" the gene pool. In the eugenicist's mind, this included mentally disabled individuals who many believed should be killed. Such targets were, for example, mass-murdered by the Nazis. So, when Dunkey rants about how a "mental" "degenerate" should be shot dead in the street, that carries some historical baggage. I'm not saying here that anyone should be defined solely by their worst moments in the past or that Dunkey is a Nazi or that people can't change. Gastrow has also phased out most of his hate speech. That being said, he's never publicly apologised for it or for his many instances of degrading other people in the gaming space. He was doing it as recently as this summer. And when pressed on his behaviour in League of Legends, he defended it, blaming the toxicity in the community on League's gameplay and saying:

"I can understand being banned for cheating, or going AFK...or feeding on purpose, but talking shit to some guy that is a total dumbass? What is this, fucking pussy ass baby preschool time?".[11]

He also argued that as he gave Riot so much publicity, he should receive special treatment in the moderation process. There's that conflict of interests again.[11] Not only would it seem that Dunkey can't help but alienate many of the people who he now needs help from as a publisher, but abuse by people in positions of power and demographic discrimination are two of the most deep-set injustices in the games industry. Meanwhile, much of the community remains rife with toxicity, a lot of it similarly targeted at women and people of colour. With that in mind, and all these examples on the slate, is this the guy who you'd want running communications or managing the community for your studio, either from a business or ethical perspective? Would you want him interacting with your female colleagues or employees who have mental illnesses? It also feels less than equitable for anyone he's going to hire that he says he and his wife "are not just the face of the company. We are the company".[1]

I don't believe Dunkey is entering into this publishing venture in bad faith. But when you lay his videos end to end, I think you discover a paranoid and combative perception of the gaming space that is very popular and very damaging. There's a lot of examples in these videos of Dunkey talking about who in games is legitimate and genuine and who is illegitimate and faking their positions. In his publisher announcement video, he says his channel is "for gamers that actually play and care about video games", he's speaking to "the real deal gamers out there", he's calling for "the people who really care out there in the gaming industry", and he distinguishes bad games from "true games".[1] In other videos, he believes critics are scared to say anything "real", while he isn't, or says that one critic "hates this shit" as he gives mixed impressions of New Super Mario Bros., while Dunkey undeniably loves games.[5] When critics provide counter-arguments on Twitter, he doesn't frame that as legitimate criticism but a public tantrum.[9]

He claims that Twitch streamers are lying that they play or care about games and that Blizzard is trying to "scam" people with Overwatch 2. There's an insinuation that Microsoft is trying to trick people by claiming Xbox LIVE is a quality service when "we all know" they don't perform server maintenance. Other people don't know about all the glitches in entertainment software, but Gastrow does. There are all these developers out there who aren't as passionate or talented as they could be and so are liable to be treated by gamers as less legitimate. Maybe they're the reason games are bad. If you look at the comments on Gastrow's videos and their ratings, you can his audience eats these statements up.

There are actually a lot of points that Dunkey and many other people in the gaming community make that I agree with. I think they're basically right that language in popular game reviews is too homogenous and that we have a richer experience with the medium for revisiting the classics. I believe that a lot of bad games do come out, and feel that same frustration when playing a title that doesn't pass the bar. I do think that economic interests compromise the technical stability and originality of plenty of games, and that new AAA games are overpriced. I sometimes also get annoyed seeing such titles hit the top of the charts while more creative and well-behaved games languish in obscurity. There's also nothing wrong with being disappointed that critics are not helping you sort through the mountain of games that come out as well as you'd hoped.

Yet, the causes of catastrophic disasters and long-running systemic issues in the games industry are complex. In part, because video game development is complex, and because the business is notoriously opaque. Structural issues like managers compromising the quality of games or profit motives degrading the robustness of the medium also constitute one corner of sophisticated, deep-set hierarchical and economic problems that affect our whole world. That doesn't mean they can never be understood or overcome, but it does mean that there's a lot of relevant information we don't have access to and that there are no easy answers or quick fixes for what ails gaming.

But what if there was a more accessible explanation for these crises in games that made their production, and failures in production, simple to understand? And what if the problems, instead of being systemic and intangible, were transformed into people you could identify? Maybe you could even target those people to solve the problems, or at least, vent your frustrations. What if developers or publishers, rather than contending with an incredibly challenging and complex job and being subject to abrasive material forces, just didn't care enough about games or weren't talented enough or didn't know what ideas make good games because they're not huge fans like us?

Maybe those games sell in spite of criticism, not because we have different palettes or because people can see a game as flawed but worth playing. Maybe they sell because gamers are stupid and inconsistent and don't know the classics and can't tell when a title is full of bugs. And because critics are being dishonest with you. It's not that they have different interpretations of games or views about how review scales should work than you. Instead, it's that they're out of touch, don't understand the games, secretly don't like games, or are being paid under the table. So, they provide misleading but positive endorsements for bad games, and the solution becomes for all of us real gamers to set the record straight for the industry and writers.

This mode of thinking tends to be catnip for insecure, angry young men. It can be difficult to accept that there are people with opinions that are different from yours but as valid as yours, or maybe that they've even worked out more than you have. But you can avoid this problem of having to contend with other peoples' views in good faith by declaring them inauthentic. You are the real gamer; they are the fake. And that "fakeness" of other gamers or their active intent to deceive us becomes a fixation for some people. For plenty, these traits of insincerity or duplicity are seen as unvirtuous aspects of their personality that justify abuse.

I'm not saying that Jason Gastrow tells you to go off and harass people on the internet or that he is spreading far-right ideology or speculating about why he says what he says. But this false conception of illegitimate devs, critics, and community members ruining games does not give you a sturdy starting point from which to debug the industry. And by combining it with baseless attacks on these people in front of a large audience, Dunkey opens the door to wide-scale harassment. He puts fuel in the engine of people who'll commit more severe abuse. A key concept in gaming's reactionary hate movement has been that prominent marginalised people and those fighting for equitable treatment in games don't really care about the medium. They are "fake gamers" that are aiming to erase the "real gamers" and "push an agenda". They "hate this shit", they're "writing dumb shit", we know they "don't play games". Therefore, standing up for games and gaming means purging those people from our social groups.

Consider the parallels between Dunkey saying "Fuck Ubsioft" or "Fuck Bungie" because they created games he didn't enjoy and gamers taking to the web in droves to scarify studio staff. There's a link between him normalising attacks on critics, spreading panic about "fake gamers", and publicly insulting Kallie Plagge in 2017 and 2019, and the hate comments she received in 2020. Plagge was abused, often using sexist language, for giving a tepid review of Cyberpunk 2077. A recurring argument in the mouths of her harassers was that she didn't really play Cyberpunk or like games. Even in Plagge's descriptions of her mistreatment at IGN, in which she talks about her contributions being seen as less than male editors', there's that spectre of the fake gamer who isn't as passionate as the real ones.

The bad news of this article is that there are no quick fixes for problems in the games industry like just identifying the fake gamers or working out which are the effective ideas and which are the terrible ideas. It's also that there's a lot of misunderstanding and abuse out there. But the good news of this article is that we're not surrounded on all sides by enemies and liars. Most critics, developers, and community members are in the same boat as us in that they're people who share an authentic and constructive love of the medium and have its best interests at heart. If we are to affect how games are made and talked about, it would seem to be rallying around those common values, rather than pushing each other away, that will give us the most collective power with which to effect change. Thanks for reading.

Sources

  1. My Indie Game Publishing Company by Jason Gastrow (September 22, 2022), YouTube.
  2. Neon White (dunkview) by Jason Gastrow (June 29, 2022), YouTube.
  3. Dundertale by Jason Gastrow (October 24, 2015), YouTube.
  4. Spedunky by Jason Gastrow (January 3, 2015), YouTube.
  5. Game Critics by Jason Gastrow (July 8, 2017), YouTube.
  6. Dunkey's Anti E3 2022 by Jason Gastrow (June 18, 2022), YouTube.
  7. Video Game Pricing by Jason Gastrow (August 15, 2021), YouTube.
  8. Banjo Kazooie (dunkview) by Jason Gastrow (December 15, 2015), YouTube.
  9. Game Critics (Part 2) by Jason Gastrow (July 29, 2019), YouTube.
  10. League of Legends: Guide to Girls by Jason Gastrow (August 22, 2011), YouTube.
  11. I'm Done with League of Legends by Jason Gastrow (September 12, 2015), YouTube.

All other sources linked at relevant points in the article.

29 Comments

Being Watched II: Surveillance in Telling Lies

Note: The following article contains major spoilers for Telling Lies and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and minor spoilers for Her Story. This article briefly references 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 www.samaritans.org.

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In the same way that police might raid a home, ejecting clothes from all the drawers, overturning every piece of furniture, Her Story is a game about police ransacking a woman's history. Right or wrong, in their interrogation of Hannah Smith, they attempt to leave no aspect of her life unexamined, to allow no stone to go unturned. And you know what? It almost feels quaint. Extended, high-pressure grilling by law enforcement can be a stressful experience, even one that reinforces trauma. Still, Hannah, Her Story's protagonist, exercises her ability to lie, to evade, and eventually, to call for a lawyer. If she wanted, she could even give a no-comment interview.

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We observe the game's world through a camera, the most reliable narrator many of us can imagine. However, most of the setting falls outside the frame of this surveillance medium, which allows this suspect to construct falsehoods for the police. The limitations of the fixed camera interview in this game represent an opacity real law enforcement has long wished to do away with. Sam Barlow's follow-up to Her Story, Telling Lies, at least partially depicts how the state has pushed those boundaries.

Developed by Drowning Mermaid and released in 2019, Telling Lies has us play Karen Douglas, an FBI agent leafing through a database of videos she swiped from the NSA. The videos detail the conversations of undercover FBI informant, David Smith, as he infiltrates a group of environmental activists. As Karen, we search our ill-begotten library with a privacy-conscious operating system called CastleOS. Castle operates much like the browser from Her Story. We can type a search term into it and receive back video clips which contain the phrase we typed in. By listening out for keywords in those videos and plugging them back into the database, we can grasp towards an understanding of the case.

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The footage that we voyeuristically browse is filmed through spy cameras installed in the corners of unassuming apartments, a clapped-out old van, and a cosy houseboat. It's also ripped from online video chats in which the non-spy parties have no knowledge that they're being filmed. The surveillants do not consider any moment too private or too sacred to fall outside their purview. In fact, for David, the closer he can get, the better.

The operation David is working on is called Project Green Dagger, and the FBI is conducting it in the interests of the fossil fuel firm Prosperen. Prosperen has been building a controversial gas pipeline but fears retaliation from the activist group Green Storm, which has been known to vandalise the property of environmentally-destructive companies. Michael Campbell, David's handler at the FBI, calls them "American jihadists". To close the distance to Green Storm, the FBI gives David the pseudonymous surname Jones and pairs him with another informant, Simon MacMillan, to creep into an activist group distantly related to Green Storm.

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The plan to tap into that secondary cell is for David to start a relationship with Ava Martin, a mixed-race nineteen-year-old in the group. The informant wins over her team with his rugged charisma, frustrated rejection of moderate protest methods, provision of his van for transport, and by outing Simon as a serial infiltrator of left-wing organisations. But David has left behind a family to take this job, straining his relationship with his wife, Emma, and daughter, Alba. To complicate matters, he falls in love with Ava and will eventually leave her pregnant with his baby.

David incessantly urges the other members of the organising group to adopt more extreme tactics. At a festival of activists, including members of Green Storm, he tries to recruit accomplices to a fake plot to blow up a bridge. This is the bridge that would deliver construction vehicles to the site of Prosperen's pipeline. To his disappointment, no one takes the bait. With his behaviour increasingly erratic and his agitation bearing no fruit, the FBI pulls David from the operation, leaving Ava with a partner who suddenly disappeared and a newborn baby to raise alone. They also send armed police to raid Ava's apartment.

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When he wasn't wooing one of his targets and trying to coax activists into property destruction, David used camgirl Maxine Williams as a living diary. He eventually got too pushy in his conversations with Max, prompting her to reveal that she records all of her sessions. She threatens to expose him, and David counters by scaring Max with the legal repercussions of blackmailing an FBI agent. This clash comes to a head when Smith shows up at Max's apartment with a gun and demands she deletes the evidence. Max, one step ahead, manages to shoot him in the leg and have him arrested. When David's fraternisation with a sex worker reaches the public's attention, he loses Emma, who also begins keeping Alba at arm's length from him. Having burned Ava, David also cannot see her again or meet his new daughter. Reflecting on the damage he's caused in this investigation, and throughout his life, David commits a suicide bombing on the Prosperen pipeline. It is one last attempt at a redemptive act: ironically performing the demolition he'd been assigned to prevent.

Telling Lies serves as a rebuttal to anyone who thinks all games are primarily defined by their mechanics. The mode of interaction in Telling Lies is the spitting image of Her Story's. However, it is narratively and visually divorced from Barlow's previous project. Her Story's shots are all taken far from its subject. They are static, washed out, and blurry with 90s VHS distortion. The game's cinematography and post-processing say that we are distant from the person we want to examine, that we have a limited perspective on her world, and that very little about her is clear. Telling Lies's visual aesthetics are the mirror opposite. Its colours are warm, its cameras are frequently carried through houses and driven around blocks by their operators, and we get right up in the faces of the subjects. Before we've even torn the wrapping off of Telling Lies, its cinematic styling says that this footage is far more intimate than what we saw last time around and that we will get the chance to see events from every angle.

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In our panoptic view of Telling Lie's events, we see how real surveillance evolved between the era in Her Story (the mid-90s) and this new age (the 10s). If you read my article on Barlow's previous game, you'll remember me saying that if there were cameras in Hannah's home and her parents' attic and every other place the critical plot points hit, there'd be no ambiguity in its history. The investigator's knowledge would be total. In Telling Lies, there are recording devices in every one of its key locations, and that infiltration has just the repercussions we'd expect. The incursion of investigators into our phones, our tablets, and our laptops was ultimately them inserting themselves into every private space we have. It's an elegant solution to the problem of suspects lying or going quiet when interacting with your investigators: you just turn the machines they tell all their secrets to into the detectives.

Truth be told, concealing a camera in every bevel and nook means that Telling Lies is not nearly as engaging a mystery as Her Story was. There's an insufficient volume of unknown in which your imagination and deduction skills can run wild. With the ambiguities and misunderstandings that unknown would create gone, the game also can't cartwheel through as many perspective shifts as its predecessor. You're less often speculating about the narrative and more often listening to the confirmed version of events.

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If there is one revelation during Telling Lies that rewired how I thought about the archive, it was David's death. The tragedy of David's suicide back propagates through his timeline to make the plot not just a story of a man building his tower of lies higher and more rickety with each day. It's the story of what led a person to lose it all and think he was better off dead than alive. It's a similar contextualisation to the one in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, the horror on which Sam Barlow made his name. At the start of Shattered Memories, we see an image on a camcorder: the protagonist, Harry Mason, smiles during an impromptu photo opportunity with his daughter. However, the Harry we play is estranged from his family and spends the game futilely attempting to return to the image on the camera. At the end of Shattered Memories, it turns out that Harry is long gone; he is only a memory made real by the supernatural effects of Silent Hill.

Harry and David exist at the time of their games only in the tapes or on the hard drives that captured their lives. Barlow suggests that the surveillance of us gives us a haunting immortality. That we could be talking, singing, or screaming on a government server or family camera long after we stop doing so in the physical world. That in an era where recording is so pervasive, our image may no longer be our own. And make no mistake, that capture of us is happening on a massive scale. Besides the ubiquitous use of CCTV in public spaces and corporate online surveillance, the NSA tracks the phone numbers involved in almost every call made in the US, and has the power to access the contents of phone conversations, emails, Facebook posts, instant messages, and internet histories of Americans. The UK's GCHQ has tapped the fibre optic cables that carry phone and internet traffic into and out of the UK, giving them a window on all the same classes of data the NSA has. The GCHQ shares its findings with its American counterpart.

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Police forces routinely obtain warrants that allow them free reign over peoples' most private data. You may believe you're safe from the intrusion because you're not under investigation. Yet, US law enforcement can request citizen data in bulk if they are looking for a specific individual in the crowd. Amazon has also forwarded police footage from Ring doorbells without a warrant or the owners' permission. In the UK, the current version of the Investigatory Powers Bill, the brainchild of former Prime Minister Theresa May, makes it legal for police to hack into citizens' devices and view their browsing history.

That unrestricted surveillance is scary enough, but also consider that the information age has allowed authorities scarily efficient tools to access, sort, and collate that data. I wish that Telling Lies simulated that command over the products of surveillance because, as it is, it undersells the threat. The clunky, uncooperative interface of Her Story is appropriate to its era and institution. You're beating some sense into a well-worn database from 1994 kept by a single police department. Yet, Telling Lies features software from 2015, and it's somehow more archaic than Her Story's. You can still only pull up five files at a time, but now you can't jump to any point in a clip. The program drops you into the video wherever your search string shows up. To watch a chunk of footage from the start, you must manually rewind it to the beginning. On a fucking laptop.

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You can give Telling Lies's depiction of tech a certain amount of leeway in that while you possess the NSA's data, you don't have the same laboratories they do. But even a bog standard computer can randomly access a video file. By stating that they sometimes can't, the game downplays the uncomfortable possibility of anyone with our data being able to breeze through it to learn whatever they want about us.

Unlucky for intelligence agencies, personal computers can't capture every conversation a person has, and even in developed countries, most people have only owned one for a couple of decades tops. Law enforcement has long required surveillance methods for conversations held away from the gaze of the webcam or the ear of the microphone. This remains especially true for their monitoring of activist or terror groups. Such enclaves often take pains to conceal themselves and frequently only conduct planning in private. That's where spies come in.

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Telling Lies is the story of an FBI agent infiltrating a peaceful circle of environmental protestors on behalf of a fossil fuel company, trying to encourage them towards terrorism, and seducing and impregnating one of them. If you think that's ridiculous, I have some bad news. In fact, there are so many instances of one of the above happening that I can't do justice to their legacy here. However, a crash course on the pattern has to start with COINTELPRO, the secret FBI program that ran from 1956 to 1971. The stated objective of COINTELPRO was to surveil, harass, discredit, and sabotage a number of mostly left-wing grassroots political waves. Their targets included racial equality, anti-war, feminist, and environmentalist movements, among others.[1]

The Bureau bugged Martin Luther King's phone and hotel rooms, spied on him using informants, and then sent him a letter telling him he had been disgraced and should commit suicide. The FBI and Chicago police had a mole spy on black rights leader Fred Hampton, then sent officers to his home who assassinated him at the age of 21. Here are some further Bureau operations as reported by The Intercept:

"An FBI informant in the radical political organization Weather Underground took part in the bombing of a Cincinnati public school. A prominent member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War — and FBI informant — pushed for "shooting and bombing," and his advocacy apparently did indeed lead to a bombing and a bomb threat. An FBI informant in Seattle drove a young black man named Larry Ward to a real estate office that engaged in housing discrimination and encouraged him to place a bomb there; the police were waiting and killed Ward. Thirteen Black Panthers were accused of a plot to blow up the Statue of Liberty after receiving 60 sticks of dynamite from an FBI informant".

In an extraordinary number of instances, FBI informants encouraged activists to conduct shootings and bombings, even supplying them with the explosives to do so. To quote the congressional committee that investigated COINTELPRO:

"Many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that [...] The Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association".[1]

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COINTELPRO is long dead, but many of its methods live on. In 2012, an FBI informant using the name Shaquille Azir pursued four angry young anarchists who dreamed big about vandalism and destruction, but ultimately just sat around getting stoned and failing to do their chores. After repeatedly encouraging them to back up their words with action, Azir fed them an FBI scheme to blow up a bridge, funded the exploit, and travelled with them to carry out the act. Although, the detonator Azir supplied was a fake.

In 2017, peaceful protestors attempted to stop the company Energy Transfer Partners from constructing an oil pipeline adjacent to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. In response, EFP hired the firm TigerSwan to surveil the protestors. TigerSwan worked with the FBI and other government entities, placing informants inside protest camps and produced a report equating the activists to jihadist insurgents. The police kept up a sustained physical assault against the protestors. In Minnesota, the energy firm Enbridge paid police to surveil and arrest demonstrators opposing their oil pipeline.

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By 2007, the US government had labelled eco-terrorism as the foremost domestic terror threat. But terrorist acts in the name of ecology have never been common, nor had they ever killed anyone in the states. In that year, FBI informant Zoe Elizabeth Voss seduced ecological activist Eric McDavid and implored him and his friends to carry out a bombing. Voss's testimony is the only source that the C4 attack was McDavid's plan, and she and the FBI provided the group with the materials and bomb recipe to conduct the plot. The agency rigged the cabin and van used during the attempted attack with cameras and microphones. When McDavid went to trial, the FBI withheld 2,500 pages of evidence on the case and denied that Voss had engaged in romantic interactions with McDavid. McDavid was sentenced to 20 years in prison, but the court released him when the buried FBI files, including those detailing the romantic missives, came to light.

The FBI may foil some quantity of legitimate terrorist conspiracies. Still, in other situations, the terror plots they prevent are ones that they invented, or largely enabled, in the first place. Although, as far as we know, it's unusual for an FBI informant to start an intimate relationship with a subject. If there's a law enforcement organisation more closely associated with forming partnerships with the surveilled, it's the UK's Metropolitan Police. Between 1968 and 2010 (if not later), the Met embedded spies in over 1,000 activist groups, the large majority of them left-wing. From the 60s onwards, those spies were dispatched by the force's Special Demonstration Squad. In 2008, they shut down the SDS, with one senior officer opining the squad had "lost their moral compass", yet Met infiltrations continued. More than twenty Metropolitan Police spies have started relationships under their false identities. In at least three incidents, male informants had children with female targets without them knowing they were police sent to monitor them.[2]

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When the news came out about these officers' undercover status, their victims naturally felt an enormous sense of betrayal. That dynamic is not unique to these victims of spying; betrayal is inherent to this mode of surveillance. That's what Telling Lies is capturing in David and Ava's relationship. If your form of intrusion involves tricking people into thinking you are their ally, or maybe more, when you're part of a group meant to scrutinise or declaw the movements they care about, you have to abuse their trust. This is one of the dimensions I was talking about in my last article when I said that surveillance is never non-invasive. And it's doubly invasive when the encroaching party turns out to be violent. Hopefully, you can see the links between the specific FBI actions I've discussed and the plot of Telling Lies.

I'm not mentioning the violence alongside the surveillance to confuse the two. I'm connecting the two because, as we see in the real-world examples, surveillance by law enforcement has historically been a precursor to them assaulting people or otherwise taking morally dubious actions. The game paints a grisly portrait of this concept in David's surveillance of Ava leading to a police raid on her apartment. American police raids on people of colour often turn deadly. Then there's David marching into Max's apartment high and mighty and holding her at gunpoint. Institutions don't collect information for the sake of it; they build profiles and data sets in order to carry out some action based on them. In that sense too, it's impossible to disconnect the passive aspects of surveillance from the action it inevitably opens the door to.

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We do not know how many informants work for law enforcement today. In 2017, The Intercept reported that the FBI wrangled no less than 15,000. In the same year, the Bureau set their sights on a new group to infiltrate and disrupt: "Black Identity Extremists". It's a nebulous term, but FBI documents describe the group being motivated by "perceptions of police brutality against African Americans" and say their activities very likely flared up after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. They're describing Black Lives Matter.

Against the limitless resources and indifference to human rights that law enforcement often wields, we can feel powerless. If there is any agency to be found in our crisis, it's in the knowledge and tools that protect our privacy, like Karen's CastleOS, and it's in raising red flags. The point of surveillance is to create records, so as the surveillance of states and companies expands, so too does the volume and depth of the evidence of their operations. Fossil fuel companies and law enforcement agencies are building ever-larger troves of evidence of their illegal and immoral behaviour.

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That evidence can be turned back against them by whistleblowers, pulling the sheet off of malicious spy operations and governments' domestic acts of violence. It's a risky endeavour, one that has ruined the lives of many people, but it's how a lot of the information I've repeated in this essay was acquired. There's never been an informant who disrupted fossil fuel infrastructure as David Smith did. Still, his tearful confession video is similar to a phone call made by UK cop Mark Kennedy.[2]

Kennedy spent seven years infiltrating climate groups. He started sexual relationships with ten women while in this position, occasionally calling back to a wife and two children at home. He informed to the police on these protest groups even as he faced first-hand lessons in how the cops would mistreat protestors. According to Kennedy, there was a case in which he attended a "climate camp" where he helped conspire to trespass at a nearby power plant. He then tipped off the law enforcement, who arrived to beat a woman in the legs with batons before grievously injuring him. In 2009, he secretly recorded activists as he aided in the scheme to occupy a coal plant, providing them transport with his van, before again sicking officers on them.[3]

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At the end of his career, Kennedy, voice faltering, called one of his surveillance targets: a climate scientist and ecological activist, to confess his duplicity. What he didn't know was that activist was surveilling him right back, recording his call. When the news of Kennedy's subterfuge reached the world, the Met pretended he was an aberrant data point, fundamentally not representational of police procedures. But that recording was the start of the exposure of the network of UK spy cops.[2] In the final scene of Telling Lies, Karen uploads every video in her possession to a WikiLeaks-style whistleblower site as riot cops raid her building. She takes the stairs up onto the roof and stares out at the sunrise, witnessing the promise of a bright new day. Thanks for reading.

Further Reading

The FBI has a history of targeting black activists. That's still true today by Mike German (June 26, 2020), The Guardian.

Notes

  1. COINTELPRO by Nadine Frederique (July 21, 2016), Britannica.
  2. Secrets and lies: untangling the UK 'spy cops' scandal by Paul Lewis and Rob Evans (October 28, 2020), The Guardian.
  3. How a Married Undercover Cop Having Sex With Activists Killed a Climate Movement by Geoff Dembicki (January 18, 2022), Vice.

All other sources linked at relevant points in article.

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Being Watched I: Surveillance in Her Story

Note: This article contains major spoilers for Her Story and Telling Lies and minor spoilers for Rashomon.

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As a rule, surveillance is invasive. It doesn't feel like it should be because surveillance is observation, and what could be more passive than sitting and watching? Yet, the activity typically involves inserting yourself into a social context you were not invited into. For example, using security cameras to force yourself into a workplace or onto a high street, or corraling subjects into a location like a police station or a security checkpoint. You then extract information that targets haven't chosen to communicate or only surrender under duress. Surveillance hoovers up information as personal as where a person has been, what they're carrying, who they've talked to, what they were saying, and anything else you could log with a recording device. There's a reason that being watched feels like someone's eyes drilling into you.

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You're probably reading this from an ostensibly free and democratic country. It is worth considering that it is also probably the case that in your country, the state and private interests routinely record the actions of individuals without their express consent or the decision of the community. Surveillance is almost always thrust upon us. At its extreme, it involves someone interrogating us about the most intimate aspects of our lives or having an undercover spy gather dirt on us. 2015's Her Story and 2019's Telling Lies detail these violations, respectively. Both directed by Sam Barlow, these are also games in which characters try to turn surveillance systems back against the surveiller.

A camera has a definite limit to what it can capture; its dominion stops at the edge of the frame, outside of which it's unable to say anything about the world. Yet, that doesn't mean that when a person or event falls within the frame, we perceive them or it accurately. By obscuring everything beyond its boundary, the camera allows for fiction to be constructed within it. This is neatly summarised in one shot from Telling Lies featuring the character of Max. Max is a camgirl who we first see posing on a plush purple bed flanked by lamps draped in coloured fabric, but this isn't a bedroom. Late in the timeline, Max pulls the camera back from her extravagant furniture to reveal it's a set constructed against one wall of a basement. Outside that fantasy of soft violet, there is a blinding white, undecorated reality. But Max doesn't need to worry about her viewers recoiling from the unsexy truth because she knows where the frame ends. She only needs to worry about what they see inside it.

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However, once we've seen outside the frame, we can't recognise anything within it the same. When we subsequently watch scenes of Max sitting on her sheets, sweet-talking customers, we cannot view her as a woman making an honest, romantic connection in her bedroom; we see an actor on a set. To reframe is to recontextualise, and none of Barlow's characters embodies that idea better than Her Story's Hannah. Max is intoxicating a bunch of thirsty guys on the internet, but Hannah is going to do something more dangerous with the camera. She's going to deceive law enforcement.

Hannah Smith arrives at a police station in Portsmouth on 18th June 1994 to report her husband, Simon Smith, missing. Soon, it will transpire that Simon is dead and Hannah is the prime suspect in his murder. Beyond that, there's no linear or conclusive plot for Her Story because the game does not have a fixed order in which its scenes occur or a definitive canon. We play a shadow of a protagonist who has elbowed their way into a database of police interviews with Hannah. At least, it always looks like Hannah is the one in the interviews. Our only method of navigating the database is a search engine. On each search, we receive the first five files whose transcript contains the word we've typed into the text field. So, if I type in "parents", I get five videos in which the word "parents" is spoken. We progress by listening to testimony and learning names, places, and other proper nouns which pertain to the investigation, then seeking them out in the files.

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Although we don't experience Her Story in chronological order, over its run, Hannah does relay a narrative you can fit to a timeline. After initially protesting her innocence, she describes an identical twin sister called Eve, who may be filling in for her in some interviews. According to her or them, when the sisters were born, a midwife named Florence delivered them. Florence lived in the house opposite Hannah's parents and had seen her husband leave for war. The couple agreed to have a child on his return, but they would never get the chance because he died in action. When Hannah's mother gave birth, it was to twins, but one of them appeared to be stillborn. Florence quickly removed the second child, Eve, leaving their Mum with only Hannah. Unbeknownst to her mother, Eve was still alive.

Florence raised Eve as her own but passed on during her adopted daughter's childhood. Hannah took Eve into her household, where the twins began living a double life under Hannah's identity, a charade they'd keep up well into adulthood without their parents catching on. While one went out into the world, the other would hide in the attic. In their antics, they became obsessed with the story of Rapunzel: the fairy tale in which the blonde princess is trapped in a tower but lets down a rope of her hair for a fair knight to climb. Then, the spiteful Mother Godel cuts off Rapunzel's hair, and the knight plunges to his death.

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Eventually, Hannah fell in love with Simon, a glazier who specialises in mirrors. They moved into his family's house, separating the sisters for the first time, which was emotionally agonising for Eve. When Simon and Hannah tried for a baby, Hannah miscarried, and a doctor declared her infertile. Meanwhile, Eve started her own life, disguising herself with a blonde wig, and Simon found her singing at a local bar. The two began an affair, leading to Eve becoming pregnant with a girl she'd later name Sarah. With one twin pregnant and the other apparently unable to conceive, they could no longer pass for each other. Yet, Hannah remained unaware of the affair. The two came clean to Simon, who appeared unconcerned with the contrived tryst he'd found himself in.

When Eve revealed the affair to Hannah, the two had a falling out and Eve drove to Glasgow to get away from the couple. Always the worse motorist of the two, Eve got into a minor car accident in the city, but under the Hannah persona. On Hannah and Simon's eleventh anniversary, Hannah approached Simon, using Eve's wig to disguise herself as her sister. Thinking she was Eve, Simon professed his love to her, gifting her a mirror. Hannah smashed the mirror in a fit of rage and waved a shard of it about in an attempt to scare Simon off. Instead, she slit his throat. When Eve returned to the house, the two agreed to cover up the crime. Hannah went to the police, saying that she didn't know the whereabouts of her husband, with an alibi for his killing: she was in Glasgow at the time of his disappearance. Eve and Hannah believed this excuse, along with Hannah's cooperativeness with the investigation, would exonerate her. At least, that's her story.

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Because players uncover footage through word association, each experiences a unique zig-zag through the database. A traditional film can be edited by a creator conscious of pacing and the optimal distribution of information. In Her Story, that role is taken on by your search engine in all its pseudo-random fallibility. The rhythm and novelty of the game suffer for it. I'd sometimes find myself so close to a revelation I could smell it, only to have the excitement extinguished by a bucket of videos re-confirming information I already knew.

Despite its shortcomings, Her Story's search system empowers it to do something no other game did before. It combines its navigation tools with its single-camera cinematography to pull off Max's recontextualisation trick multiple times. It's common for popular fiction to include twists and turns. Still, most storytelling spends more time adding onto what it's already told us than changing our perspective on what we've discovered. When absorbing a story, we expect A to happen, then B, then C, and so on. But Hannah's history is amorphous. We learn of new events, but A is liable not to stay A; it turns into B, and then C, and then D before our very eyes.

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For example, near the start of the game, I learned that the police found blonde, synthetic hairs at the murder scene. That evidence suggested to me that Hannah tried to disguise herself when she killed Simon. But then I learned about the existence of Helen, a blonde bartender Simon was infatuated with. Suddenly, I thought there was a strong possibility that she was the culprit, not Hannah. Then, I decided that Helen was a cover identity for Eve, who had been wearing a blonde wig. This pegged Eve as the perpetrator until I heard from her that Hannah was wearing her wig at the time of Simon's murder.

I'll give you another example. Upon seeing the first clip, I did not know whether or not Hannah offed her husband. Then, I learned about her jealousy of Helen and heard about an incident in her childhood in which she held Eve's head underwater. In one excerpt from an interview, Hannah sings a song about one sister killing another, and suddenly, it seemed more likely that I was staring down a murderer. Then, I discovered that it was actually Eve singing the song, that Eve was envious of Hannah's relationship with Simon, and that their parents died of fungus poisoning when Eve was in the house, even though her father was a mushroom expert. After that, it felt much more likely that Eve was the villain, before my perspective switched once more upon Eve telling the camera that Hannah swung the blade that killed her husband.

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You can access scenes late in the game's chronology from the start, but you can't spoil it as we'd conventionally think of spoiling. Because, at the beginning of the game, we don't have the necessary context to interpret those final scenes. Her Story makes certainty shortlived, and Rashomon-style eschews the idea of a fixed history. That might seem like an act it can't keep up forever because, eventually, a player has to have viewed all of the clips and composed the entire timeline. Yet, while you can watch more videos to build a fuller picture of Hannah's version of events, that same process can erode trust in Hannah.

At times, she appears to slip up and forget she's meant to have a sister before correcting herself. And Hannah's account is incredibly far-fetched. Eve's adoptive mother managed to kidnap a child from the hospital and raise it as her own without anyone stepping in. She happened to bring up Eve in the house opposite her identical twin. Then Eve and Hannah lived a double life so successfully that Hannah's parents didn't notice that their daughter kept swapping out for a clone or that a girl was living in their attic for years. The twins also manage to live out the plot of Rapunzel after being obsessed with it as children: The dark-haired woman takes the light-haired woman's locks and murders the man smitten with her. Eve(?) ends her last interview by labelling everything she told the police as "just stories". Her ostensible confessions feel like a continuation of her childhood obsession with fairy tales.

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But if this story is a fabrication, is that deliberate on Hannah's part, or does she have an alternate personality? Was there ever an Eve, and if so, did Hannah drown her? And if Hannah's story is inaccurate, then what bits of it? And what about the evidence for Hannah's version of events? Simon appeared to be murdered when "Eve" was in Glasgow. There was another set of prints besides Hannah's at the scene. We can see Eve has a tattoo Hannah doesn't. And there are counterarguments to these points and counterarguments to those counterarguments, and so on. However, there is no version of events in which Hannah doesn't manipulate the viewer and create significant confusion about the case.

One constant in the game is a reflection of the viewer in the in-world PC monitor. Their image becomes more pronounced in the moments after they dig up vital information. The game is wall-to-wall mirror metaphors, to the point it gets patronising. Hannah calls Eve her "reflection", her husband is a mirror-maker killed with a shard of one of his creations, Hannah and Eve's names are palindromes, the time-waster on the computer is called "Mirror Game", etc.

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These references foreshadow the viewer character being ripped from the drama on screen: exhaust the database, and you'll find out that you've been playing a present-day Sarah, Eve's (or Hannah's) daughter. But the mention of mirrors also speaks to the interaction between you and the videos. There is not an airtight wall between the audience and the footage. After all, people perform surveillance so that anyone accessing the collected data can assimilate it into their understanding of the world. Some part of the data becomes part of you. But then we also process future data based on what data we've already read, and that material we've read can be unreliable. A general lack of context or outright duplicity on Hannah's part warps how we see the other clips in the database, potentially leading to a cascade of misunderstandings.

The term "video evidence" has become synonymous with incontrovertible proof in legal cases. It's the detail inherent in the medium that makes it ubiquitous in modern surveillance. In Her Story, the police attempt to drag a suspect's marriage, sex life, work, travel, home, family and childhood kicking and screaming in front of the probing gaze of the all-seeing camera. But still, Her Story's filthy CRT remains an imperfect mirror of reality. Literally and via the game's graphics, it shows that we project onto film as much as we study from it. And it's all because of where the monitor ends.

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If we could see into Hannah and Eve's attic as they grew up or the Smith home at the time of the murder, there'd be no open questions, but the whole database is a camera pointed at a woman in one of two interview rooms. That leaves the rest of the world as a big, fat question mark, and that's why Her Story works as a mystery game. This myopia is also what allows Hannah to tell such colourful stories about her life. We have very little world to check them against. The game does not preclude the possibility of more expansive surveillance or of attaining objectively accurate information from footage. What it does is suggest both that the video evidence the state leverages against a person can be misleading and also that the limitations of surveillance might be limitations of the state. Thanks for reading.

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Spirit Board: Spiritfarer and End of Life Care

Note: The following article contains major spoilers for Spiritfarer.

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Video games are no strangers to death. In fact, death might rear its morbid head here more than in any other medium. Because games are for people, agents in gameplay systems get anthropomorphised. When those agents are removed from the play space, it's intuitive to narratively contextualise it as them dying because death is when people are removed from the world. And many video games are action empowerment fantasies. To decide whether someone lives or dies is the most control you can have over them: the ultimate empowerment fantasy. That control applies not just to enemies but also to the helpless we may be meant to save. There is nothing wrong with empowerment fantasies, but two of the purposes that art serves are to depict the real world and guide us in our lives. And you can't always describe death as a fate we can evade or pull innocents from the path of because eventually, we must all meet it head-on.

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In many historical mythologies, the dead were accompanied to the afterlife by escorts: "Psychopomps". Think Anubis in Ancient Egypt or Charon for the Greeks. That these characters recur so frequently in unconnected religions reflects a common desire for company in our final moments. In Thunder Lotus's 2020 game Spiritfairer, Charon hangs up his robe and lays down his paddle. He bequeaths his ship to our fresh-faced protagonist, Stella. Stella perceives spirits ready to make their journey to the end as animals, usually with some human features, and each arrives with a different personality and life story.

There's Summer the snake, the former fossil fuel suit turned spiritualist who reveres inner peace and self-reflection. There's the big-hearted Atul who loves nothing better in the world than feeding his friends and lending them a webbed hand. There's the erudite owl Gustav who goes weak at the knees appreciating a fine piece of art, and many more. Stella wants to be more than a ferryman to these deceased. She intends to house these passengers, feed them, listen to them, and help them resolve their unfinished business before delivering them to an ambiguous future behind "the Everdoor". You pursue these ambitions through fetch quests, crafting, resource gathering, or now and then, just giving people space. In co-op mode, the accompanying player can become Daffodil, the fluffy feline who sticks at Stella's side through thick and thin.

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While Spiritfairer costumes itself as fantasy, there's nothing fictional about the type of care it depicts. Stella's mothering of her crew is something happening on hospital wards and in hospice beds in the real world every day. There's a hallucinatory sequence in the game's back half where we learn Stella works on one such ward, but Spiritfairer doesn't need that scene. If a metaphor lands, you don't have to explain it. And though Thunder Lotus romanticises its subject matter, their work's emotional component is solidly realised.

Spiritfairer can facilitate altruism where many other systemically-driven games can't because it dares to not make the player character the centre of the universe. Giving to others is definitionally providing them objects or services when you won't receive anything of equal value in return. However, games that have us step into a hero's shoes are also often games that try to ply us with rewards, especially material rewards, equivalent to the work we perform. Defeat the crazed PMC leader and steal his epic SMG, save the town and have a local cross your palm with gold. Even the easygoing Animal Crossing: New Horizons makes donating presents impossible because every time you hand a fuzzy sweater or an antique table to an adorable villager, they pass something back. That's not gifting, that's trading, and there are totally different social connotations between gifting and trading. The gap between the two is the gap between kindness and business.

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Honestly, this retributive dynamic pops up all over media. A lot of action has traditionally promised its protagonist "save the world, get the girl," or else, the main character has a good chance of earning money or being elevated to legend in their community by performing some valorous deed. Romances often reward the main character with their dream partner if they commit to brave acts that prove the extent of their love. Spiritfairer's universe is not so reciprocal.

When you organise a meeting between Astrid and her ex, you do not receive 500XP. When you discover Jackie's favourite food, he does not pay for you to set up a zipline on your ship. In this title, care is not an activity that helps you achieve your objective; it is your objective. In this hobby, we're often used to wearing personal attributes like a level and stats that we expect other characters to help us upgrade. Stella doesn't have those metrics embedded in her. Nor does she own an extensive equipment set. So, the designers don't have to think about bumping up those figures and dropping loot every time she finishes a job.

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Some quests reward resources, but many don't, especially those you complete for your passengers. If you can keep a soul on board the ship content, they'll occasionally throw you a token of their appreciation. However, they're not doing it in direct response to you completing any one goal, so it doesn't come across as transactional. When the animals do give you a substantial reward, they don't opt for the coldly utilitarian but something sentimental or experiential. Maybe it's a crayon drawing or a lesson in woodworking.

One gentle touch that vividly realises your connections to the crew is the hugging. If you've not cuddled one of your passengers in a while, you can walk up to them, press a button to hold them, and have their "happiness" variable increase. It's not difficult to hug someone, but that's not the point. The verb is written into the game because it can bring you close to the characters and make them feel wanted, challenge be damned. Spiritfairer also shows that it thinks highly of these embraces by giving every character a distinct and detailed hug animation, a choice which further helps pin down how they vibe with other people. The jovial Atul wraps his arms around us in a bear hug while the excitable child Stanley throws himself at our torso. Alice is loving but needs plenty of support and leans on us as she holds us. Daria, who lives in a hallucinatory demi-dream, sinks into our grasp. Honestly, I could write one of these for every character.

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Spiritfairer also shifts our gaze from nourishing meals and warm beds to expand our definition of care. We typically take "care" to entail giving an ear to peoples' pain and putting food on their plate, and as discussed, you do do that. We also take care of livestock and tend gardens which mirrors Stella's nurturing of her tenants. But there's something more than that going on. Manufactured goods are indispensable to our mission; a character might request glass ornaments in their quarters, or you may need alloys to expand the land on which they can live. Therefore, forging and glassworking become as important to giving someone a home as cooking them stew or proffering life advice. Even when you're preparing meals, you need to farm for ingredients. To construct buildings, including bedrooms, you need to mine minerals and chop wood. The game opines that a carer can be a sympathetic friend or a cook, but they could also be a lumberjack, a blacksmith, or an angler.

With its reverence for manual labour and practical products, you might expect Spiritfairer to fall into the trap of dismissing service workers, artists, emotional labourers, and people unable to work. Nothing could be further from the case. Not only does it show Stella's companionship to be integral to the wellbeing of the dying, but lodgers like the elderly Beverly or the hospitalised Daria can't contribute labour. Yet, the game considers them no less worthy of love. Then you have non-manual workers such as the teacher Elena or the critic Gustav whose jobs it treats as just as legitimate as anyone else's. Gustav, it also notes, is productive in his writings and respectable in that he has a profound appreciation for art: creation by other people.

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Unfortunately, the game's conceptions of labour and its consequences get it into trouble in a couple of other ways. Spiritfairer calculates the happiness of a passenger by adding up a list of negative and positive mood modifiers. A negative modifier might be having been bullied by a neighbour, while a positive modifier could be having just eaten their favourite food. What's atypical about this system is that you won't always be able to control what modifiers are applied to a character. Sometimes a spirit receives a haircut to their joy because of a messy breakup or the loud banging of another passenger, and there's nothing you can do to change that.

Most games let you determine everything about a character under your supervision because control means empowerment. However, an independent person needs their own highs and lows that aren't all about you. In the real world, sometimes you can't cheer up a friend, no matter how much you want to, and Spiritfairer internalises that. Where this system comes off the rails is it doesn't lend its modifiers the correct weights for the life events they embody. A character might suffer a tragic loss and tell you they're torn apart inside, but you can hug them, throw them some popcorn, and their stat sheet will report they're walking on cloud nine. You'd also think these characters' imminent demises might bug them a little more than they do. Their impending deaths don't get a mood modifier associated with them at all. It's not that you can't remain content while comprehending your own mortality, but it should realistically be a bummer for some of the characters some of the time, right?

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There's a juxtaposing oversight in the mechanics. As you set out in your career as a psychopomp, you supervise a small tribe that request goods you can cobble together with few materials. So, you're spending a little time gathering and processing resources every day and plenty of time on completing characters' mainline quests, thereby advancing their narrative arcs and indulging in authentic interactions with them. But as the game sails ahead, your ship takes on more wayward souls, and your projects require materials that take more steps to manufacture.

In the early days, you might fell some trees, cut the wood from them into planks, and then hammer those planks into a home. But deep into the game, you might have the shipwright slap a new prow on your vessel so you can sail to an island with a new type of ore. Then, you mine that ore, smelt it into ingots, and press those ingots into sheet metal, and that sheet could easily be one of three components you need to craft a single building or decoration. You're spending less time by any one character's side and more time guiding other passengers or off in the foundry smashing rocks. It's not a de facto flaw to have your characters become distanced like this. The problem is that this piece of media is about empathy but seems oblivious to the impacts of neglecting a relationship. Your animals will be ecstatic, even if you spend all day working yourself to the bone, then show up in the evening to hastily toss them a dinner and make brief physical contact.

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By the time you're done with a spirit, you'll be able to recite the same two or three prebaked lines they throw out every time you extend them a meal or a hug. A friend can temporarily fade into a box-ticking exercise, merging into the ship's machinery. Without a more personal link to your dependents, feeding coal into a furnace becomes only aesthetically distinguishable from feeding pizza to an eagle.

It's a shame because the setting and the story quests are otherwise humanising and poignant. Your passengers have left their life on land but have not yet docked with death, and similarly, you spend extensive periods sailing the ocean, unmoored between origin and destination. This sojourn before passing also provides characters with the ideal interim in which to study their life. The ritual of rowing characters to the Everdoor, in particular, aids retrospection.

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The home stretches for the characters are analogous to funerals, but in Spiritfairer, it's the dying who give the eulogy. They are in a unique and knowledgeable position: it's only after they have lived all their life that they or anyone else can summarise it and extract lessons from it as a whole. The glossy waters beneath the Everdoor provide a literal reflection to match the metaphysical one, and Stella hugs every voyager before they pass through the portal. This final embrace not only reinforces Stella's caring nature but shows how people can find a human connection in dying and being supported in that transition.

After an animal leaves, a constellation forms in the stars representing them, and we usually get a platforming section that extends up into the night sky. On those platforms, we see murals snatched from key moments in their biography. There's an insinuation that in passing their memories to Stella (whose name and hat shape represent the stars), they have found a form of immortality. I developed a couple of rituals of my own out of respect for crew members. If I knew their favourite meals, I'd feed them to them before I said goodbye. I'd procrastinate before taking them to the Everdoor because I didn't want to lose them.

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You might think that with fifteen different spirits to comfort and transport that you'd begin to see patterns develop in their stories. Yet, no two of them lived the same life, so no two of them die the same. The variance between the characters is a reminder that death does not discriminate; it comes for the single, the partnered, the compassionate, the selfish, the manual labourer, the thinker. It comes for us all. It also allows the game to communicate a range of lessons about death and make plenty of excruciatingly accurate observations about peoples' final days.

The demise of Gwen was the first, and for me, one of the saddest. She shows you the ropes of play, like seafaring and weaving. So, when she passed away, I kept seeing her in the starting islands she acquainted me with, the loom she taught me how to craft with, and plenty of other places. The game is right: people who've died seep into places and objects. Gwen's exit feels like an appropriately wounding loss, given that she was an old friend of Stella.

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Then there's Atul, another fixture of Stella's family life who lights up any room he enters with his hearty laugh and gregarious demeanour. Atul takes a nice long stay in your lodgings, and then one night, spontaneously disappears, leaving behind the same flower all the other characters do when they die. His story gets at that how, when you become used to someone's presence, it feels like they'll be around forever, and when they do leave, it doesn't seem real. Atul's journey also feels deliberately inconclusive and drives home the point that sometimes there's no indication that a person is going to die, nor does everyone receive the dignity of a burial. We don't always get the chance to say goodbye because, all too often, people just drift off.

As Stanley is a dying child, his subplot could feel emotionally manipulative. However, the game avoids any cheapness by making the psychology of a child factor into how he processes death. As you paddle him to the Everdoor, there are moments where he thinks his end must be his fault, regrets the times he acted out, and strains to tell Stella that he attempted to behave. It's heartbreaking because there's no way you could make him fully understand that his death is not a punishment for his actions and that he was a wonderful person. It could be difficult enough for an adult to grasp these concepts, but Stanley is a kid; he doesn't have the mental toolkit for this. That makes him all the more amazing when he finds a silver lining at the last second.

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Bruce and Mickey arrive late in the day when you might assume you can overcome any tragedy, no matter how sorrowful, but these two challenge you in a new way. The duo are hard-nosed thieves, which the script sometimes spins with a corny West Side Story cadence, and it is fun to tag along for their last big score, but they are genuinely horrible too. They steal from whoever they want, threaten us if we don't bring them meals to their taste, bark orders, and bully every other passenger on the ship, dragging down their mood. With the game's bittersweet optimism, you might assume that these lifelong criminals will see the error of their ways and reform before they travel to the Everdoor, but when the time comes, they don't indicate one shred of remorse.

Being assholes is all Bruce and Mickey have ever known; it's how they've survived. They don't believe in change, and you're not going to undo a lifetime of selfishness in the scant days before they expire. I've never encountered a test like this in a video game before: we are asked to care for people who don't and won't care for anyone else. While I don't think Bruce and Mickey's comfort should come at the expense of other visitors, in the end, I did feel that they deserved a proper send-off.

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While those thieves were unable to get on the straight and narrow, Summer has the opposite problem. She made her income ransacking the Earth and pumping its veins full of poison. She tries to atone for those sins and reconcile with the demons of her past, but she can't. Some people go to their graves unable to make peace with who they've been in life. Summer is one of them.

The elderly Alice also falls apart at the eleventh hour. It's common for characters to request services or a change of accommodation from us, so when Alice started doing that, it didn't ring alarm bells for me. It's also not rare for characters to enter a slump from which they later emerge. Alice was my first contact with a spirit who didn't. Initially, she asked me to move her bedroom to the bottom floor so it was easier for her to get about; then she started losing her memory; then she needed me to hold her arm as we went to the deck and back every day. She never recovered from that. Her mind and body give out on her, and that's how she goes because that's how a lot of people go. Almost all the main characters in the game end up dead, but Alice is the only one who physically feels like she's dying.

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Two of Spiritfairer's most closely-held beliefs about death are that there's not necessarily justice in it and that not everyone accepts it. Sometimes characters are able to tie up their loose ends before leaving, like Gwen, who squares away her estate, or Buck, who earns the title of Master Adventurer at Crow's End Inc. You can also get a Beverly, who has experienced both pain and pleasure in her life but doesn't have a conflict to be resolved. Yet, for every contented consciousness, there's an Atul, Summer, Stanley, or Alice. Not only can you not always brighten a friend's mood, but you can't always make sure the world does right by them either.

Spiritfairer gets grim, and games that want to drag you into the pits of despair frequently make their worlds as hostile as possible. Yet, when characters are subject to constant attacks, they do not have the safety net to be emotionally vulnerable. It's in that emotional vulnerability that people can spill their guts and come face to face with their darkest feelings. In Spiritfairer, there's at least as much happiness to be found as there is anguish. Still, by providing emotional nourishment, Stella gives people a supportive environment in which to unravel their pain and in which to have someone recognise and soothe it.

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Contrary to what you might expect, it's a more solemn game for having a more forgiving world. And while your crew don't always get what they deserve, they do all get seen. When we find them on land, they are a bundle of robes with a pair of eyes peeking out. Yet, when we bring them aboard Stella's ship, they take on a unique and lovingly crafted character design that acknowledges who they are inside, from the curious owl to the stubborn bull. Even if they can disappear into the ship's gears and pistons along the way, every passenger gets two arms around them in the end. I hope that when my time comes, I have someone like Stella around to give me that love. Thanks for reading.

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Korok Seeds: Meaningful Play in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Note: The following article contains moderate spoilers for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

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We tend to be more attached to the things we create rather than the things we're given. They say you enjoy the meal you prepare yourself over the one you're served. People who practice art, woodwork, or gardening see value in the objects they brought to life with their own two hands. Our affinity for the products of our work can explain the recent movement of games which emphasise player-created objectives and items over those simply assigned to the user.

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Crafting systems exploded in popularity among developers in the 2010s and star in varied and acclaimed gameplay experiences like The Witcher 3, Far Cry 5, Subnautica, and ARK: Survival Evolved. And some games empower us to construct the mechanisms or buildings we'd like to see in the world, such as Rust or Besiege. Entertainment software is also increasingly enabling players to pick their goals, from the survival and engineering games above to titles like Outer Wilds, Stardew Valley, Dark Souls, and plenty of others.

But you may notice patterns in how the above games incorporate player creation. We can divide the titles into two camps:

  1. Those that tightly restrict what the player gets to make or set. These are usually architected for a general audience (e.g. The Witcher or Far Cry).
  2. Games that allow the player a lot of freedom but are inscrutable to plenty of audiences because they are ruthlessly demanding (e.g. Rust or Outer Wilds).
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Video game systems tend to be highly complex, especially in multi-faceted genres like survival, MMORPGs, and action-adventures. If the player is to fix their own goals and manufacture their own inventory, they need to take on part of the designer's traditional role. That entails understanding those complex systems, which comes with a high cognitive load. Developers of such titles can avoid overwhelming the player with that complexity by allocating them items and goals, as opposed to forcing the player to work out what resources and objectives it would be enjoyable and efficacious to pursue.

Before 2017, The Legend of Zelda series was the picture of designer-directed play. It was sherpaing players up a linear trail of quests, often dragging them into dungeons where carefully placed prize boxes decided which goodies they'd next get their paws on. The landmark progress gates in the campaigns were locks that audiences had to open with specific items: items only awarded at the conclusion of mainline missions. 2017's Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild starts by giving you the low-down on some of its rules. And once you make it beyond its doorstep, you might expect to encounter the numbered dungeons and explicit instructions of old. Instead, Nintendo abandons you in a sprawling, open garden with just that smidgen of advice to guide you.

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You know that you must gear up to defeat the monstrous Ganon and recover orbs from holy shrines to enhance your stats, but you are left to figure out where those shrines are and what other items may aid you. You soon learn that you can improve your chances against the villain by rehabilitating the four "Divine Beasts", but no one hands you a map of Hyrule, let alone draws on the nests of these demigods. Over the following hours, you'll earn a couple of pieces of equipment from mainline quests. Besides those, your success at all challenges rests on your skills, knowledge, and the items you have discovered and crafted on your travels.

Breath of the Wild is perhaps the game of the last few years to catapult user-created goals and a heavy emphasis on player-made tools into the mainstream. While BotW is liable to be intimidating to a casual audience, it's nowhere near as burdensome on them as an ARK or Outer Wilds. Breath of the Wild manages a balance of approachability and room for audience creation unrivalled in the medium. Its purposeful side-tasks also constitute a stunning counter-punch to the rest of the open-world genre.

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Time and time again, I see games with huge possibility spaces that are less than the sum of their parts. Games where I know I can climb more towers, liberate more strongholds, or guard more VIPs, but in which I recognise those activities won't produce any rewards that feel necessary for my future successes. AAA games want to court big audiences to make big bank, but in a wide enough sample of gamers, you'll find a lot of different tastes for how often you repeat tasks, types of chores, and the length of the experience.

The go-to solution has long been including both compulsory and optional objectives, allowing the player to jigsaw together the game they want. The snag is that if the game is to remain accessible, the rewards from the mainline jobs have to be considerable enough that the player can complete the game using them without any fretful struggle. That means that if the side objectives also offer substantial rewards, the player who invests more time in the game may find themselves overpowered for the difficulty they're playing on. The designers can shrink the prizes for completing optional tasks to subvert that issue, but who wants to be underpaid for their work?

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In plenty of cases, I also don't feel excited about running on the same hamster wheels indefinitely. Marketers and some gamers place quantity of content on a pedestal. However, I think many of us feel that a plurality of options in a game is pointless if you're not motivated to engage with them. Breath of the Wild provides that motivation, towards and through its self-guided play, but also via consistently useful rewards. The systems it uses to get us exploring and fabricating often aren't unique to this title. Still, its execution of them and its thoughtful intersection of its mechanics allow Nintendo to deliver a meaningful experience.

Let's get a little friendlier with Breath of the Wild by looking at how it makes loot worthwhile to collect without causing a hyperinflation of our power. Enemies always pack a punch; you're typically only a few hits from death, even with some extra hearts under your belt. And the cliffs you need to climb and plains you need to trek across are often a drain on your stamina meter. In certain climates, you need to protect yourself against searing hot or freezing cold, and when sneaking up on or evading some creatures, you benefit from a stealth or speed boost. Further, various enemies come at you with elemental claws drawn.

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Lengthening your heart and stamina meters with orbs sharpens your combat prowess or improves your endurance when clambering or running, but that process is slow and has limited returns. For example, you can exchange four orbs for one heart container, but it's typical that collecting one orb requires finding a shrine and then completing about three puzzles inside it. And outside of health and stamina, you don't have upgradable stats. There's no "Cold Resistance" to boost if you want to brave the biting blizzards of the Hebra Mountains. If your sword doesn't strike a Hylix hard enough, you can't solve that problem by dumping points into "Attack".

Some advantages, like reinforced defence or increased warmth, you can earn from clothing, but it can take a long time to obtain that layer of protection. Even when you have it, each garment will only convey a slight advantage in one area. You will never find a set that lets you climb faster and insulates against electric shocks. There's no outfit you can coordinate to receive ninja-silent stealth and invulnerability against sweltering heat. When you cannot wholly rely on your clothing or permanent stats to support you, you must turn to the only other source possible: your consumables.

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Meals and potions can recover your stamina and temporarily increase your maximum health, stamina, elemental resistances, speed, quietness, attack, or defence. Even weapons and shields are consumables. Once they reach their capacity for dealing and absorbing hits, they shatter in a blaze of light. Arguably, Breath of the Wild employs the much-reviled "durability" mechanic, and yet, it doesn't seem to offend users in this adventure the way it has in so many others. Some gamers don't mind their equipment wearing down with use. Still, when players do become frustrated with it, it's often because durability systems ask for micromanagement from the player. They also dig resource sinks without providing emotional or material rewards for filling those sinks.

There's not a lot of strategy or depth in preventing your gear from failing; you're just checking whether a number is approaching 0. And when your work tools give out, you may have to interrupt enjoyable hunts or quests to do the fantasy equivalent of renewing your driving license. Not exactly thrilling stuff. Where players reasonably expect to be able to spend the resources they earned and find some new empowerment from it, repairing equipment has always been an unrewarding transaction that just gives you back the items you already won.

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This revolutionary Zelda does things a little differently. Firstly, when your items shatter, they deliver a critical hit and knock back an enemy: a consolation that takes the edge off of losing a weighty club or a hardy shield. Your implement disintegrating doesn't need to be a cause for disappointment; it can lead to a celebratory burst of gratification. Secondly, you can never fix your weapons or shields; you can only find replacements for those that break. So, you'll never spend any significant chunk of change on the same equipment you already own. All your rupees go to new items. Crucially, you can't buy weapons or shields from shops. You can sometimes find elixirs and food among their wares, but these can be a struggle to seek out and only come in limited amounts and types, meaning you have to go out and find or make these things yourself. The play gives you more purpose in the world and a sense of self-investment in the items you use.

Another classic video game problem that BotW solves is players stockpiling goods. You have limited inventory space, and weapons, food, and drinks of the same type generally do not stack. This inhibits you from making one run in which you hoard all the Royal Shields or Stamina Elixirs you need and then never returning to the task of fetching them. Hunts stay varied, and most items remain valuable because you must periodically collect more of them. By association, most monsters and areas long remain worth engaging. Note also that you have different inventories for weapons, shields, and edibles. You can't, say, forgo meal prep to make more room for more swords. So, the developers can keep you filling out each area of your field kit at regular intervals.

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You can pay for increases in the size of each inventory pocket, but these are modest and provide a reason to try your hand at another task. If you solve the Koroks' ambient puzzles, you can win their seeds which you can exchange for more room in your pack. You'll observe that you can't buy your way into more inventory space by performing a non-Korok task. So, these environmental riddles aren't interchangeable with other jobs and merit unique attention.

While we're on the topic of stocking your inventory, we can recognise that some merchants will sell you ingredients for your cooking. Yet, they have a humble variety of products on offer, only carry a handful of the valuable items, and exhibit lengthy pauses before resupplying. The net result is that you won't be able to buy everything you need for a single recipe from the market, and what you do purchase acts as a starter pack. You're probably more likely to go out and fetch the constituents of a meal if you've already got one-third of them rather than if you've got none. You can buy bundles of arrows directly from traders, but again, this is an invitation to gather assets rather than an alternative to doing so. If you're holding arrows, you're halfway to an attack method, but you'll need a bow.

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Some quests give you everything you need for a single dinner and even tell you what foods to combine to make it. However, you can only complete a quest once, and therefore, only earn its rewards once. Thus, these kitchen missions function as lessons that likely make you more likely to saute, boil, and BBQ in the future because now you know what meat and veg you require to sizzle up something special. The need to uncover new recipes also keeps you invading buildings and reading books. It's surprising how many games have diegetic text documents that don't use them to impart information useful in the play. To obtain the armaments or ingredients we've discussed, you may need to battle fearsome enemies, weather adverse temperatures, or step silently. Therefore, you have another reason to prepare and loot items and another application for them.

Of course, because you're foraging or crafting your supplies instead of paying vendors for them, BotW can't tax your income as many other releases in its field do. When developers don't regularly garnish player salaries, they can risk their audiences making runaway profits and dominating their opposition. This title avoids overpowering Link via an abundance of expensive items for players to empty their wallets on. Particularly practical for the economy is the Akkala Tech Lab, which offers high-cost consumables suited for squaring off against some of the most lethal enemies, creating a potentially infinite money sink.

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Floating pricy items to stop players from overstuffing their bank accounts can introduce new complications. If a high price tag is balanced against cutting effectiveness, players can become overpowered and incentivised towards repetitive behaviour. All they need to do is grind for cash, and soon they'll be walking out of the store with equipment meant for someone far beyond their level of progression. Yet, setting the power level of expensive items low means players can feel short-changed and as though their investments are disrespected. BotW subverts these extremes by starting the player with a very modest capacity for damage and defence, meaning that comparatively powerful new items don't put Link over the edge and make him a one-man army.

Users being so liable to take damage could make the game prohibitively difficult for many. However, BotW offsets your fragility with a low cost for dying, the ability to warp away from any encounter, and ready access to the basics you'll need for combat and exploration. Shields, weapons, and resources are plentiful; you just need to do the work of finding and collecting the right ones. Note also that this is not a pure numbers game; if this was an RPG where Link and Hyrule's monsters bashed statistics to statistics, muscular equipment would be essential. But Breath of the Wild uses this very Dark Souls logic where it has some leeway to let you get walloped hard because fights rely on your hand-eye coordination and not just automation. If you can dodge out of the way of a nasty lunge or uppercut, it's not unreasonable for the game to leave you with insufficient food or armour to take a volley of injuries.

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Nintendo also often makes items valuable and prevents them from becoming too beneficial by designing them to be incomparable. The implements you can collect are not necessarily better or worse than each other but different in function. As ever, items become purposeful when they have purposeful applications. Make one weapon strictly superior to another, and the player will only wield the higher-ranking one. Make one weapon preferable in some circumstances and the other preferable in different situations, and the player will have a reason to seek out and retain both. So, what different purposes does Breath of the Wild find for its items?

It relies on the classic game design paradigm of finding elemental niches for items to fill. For example, the Iceblade and Flameblade don't relate in terms of a strict hierarchy; the former is devastating against fire enemies, and the latter against ice. The same applies for all other equipment with a natural effect. But even if a developer has different accessories conveying different elemental advantages, those commodities may still operate by the same mechanics. Whether you're carrying a Flame Staff to melt Wyerds or finding Zap doesn't even scuff a Mudraker, you're still interacting with monsters under the marquee of type-matching systems. It's a similar story if you're using your own elemental resistances to block their attacks. What changes between using your poison resistance and ground resistance is not the structures you're playing with; it's the types placed into those structures. Breath of the Wild's tools don't just employ elemental damage dynamics but hook into all sorts of other systems and status effects to radically expand their potential applications.

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An electrical attack is not just "for water enemies"; it makes a character drop what they're holding. Ice isn't just painful for fiery foes to tolerate; it freezes anyone who has the misfortune to come into contact with it. Fire simultaneously damages and disables, boomerangs will return when thrown, long-handled weapons allow you to attack at a distance, hammers send objects flying, and some spears and swords sail further when hurled. That you can throw melee weapons gives them another function past prodding baddies. You can ignite wooden weapons, and any blazing weapons do more than lend another dimension to the combat. They allow you to clear thorns to clear your path, melt items and enemies out of ice blocks, uncover nooks hidden behind foliage, generate updrafts you can glide on, break open crates without exhausting your weapon's durability, or light fires to cook or sleep by. Bladed weapons can fell trees for lumber, and Korok Leaves can propel rafts across water.

Some bows may fire faster or further than others or shoot multiple arrows simultaneously, and the different arrow types mean any bow can be used to generate any elemental effect. Weapons can be one-handed or two-handed, which is really three different properties in one. It determines their speed, their knockback, and whether you can hold them alongside a shield. Then you have unique unicorn weapons like the Windcleaver, which can literally blow an opponent off their feet or the Master Sword, which doesn't break at all, recharging when exhausted and growing more powerful in and around Hyrule Castle. Chu-Chu Jellies unleash blasts of elemental energy when you shoot them with arrows, and elements will turn Blue Jelly into other forms of jelly, giving a further purpose to fire, ice, and electric items. Even ineffectual weapons have their place because when foes like Keese and Undead go down in one hit, you probably don't want to waste the big guns on them. It's much more economical to swat them away with a rusty claymore or wooden club. They're your medieval rolled-up newspapers.

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In another action-adventure, an axe or a mushroom might become vendor trash because you have superior alternatives. In Breath of the Wild, the non-hierarchical positioning of the items means they retain their distinct utilities. There's nothing wrong with some vendor trash, but when that's most of what you're picking up, it can feel like you're effectively collecting the same object over and over, just reskinned. Some games have armouries that approach the systemic flexibility of Breath of the Wild's, but I'm not sure I know another that matches it. And when other games allow their weapons the range of properties that this 2017 Zelda does, they usually come with walls of stats to consider. This information rush can be repulsive to the casual player and runs counter to the minimalist aesthetics that encase a title like BotW. Hyrule avoids shipping items with arm-length stat cards through a union of reservedness and simplicity.

Loquacious UI tooltips are typically necessary because many of the variables RPG items possess exist on a sliding scale. That is, you might have a game where the damage your rifle can do ranges from 0-1,000 and could stop at any number in between. So, for the player to make actionable comparisons between guns, the firearms all have to report their precise damage values. Repeat for every other number that goes into the weapon, from fire rate to magazine size to sell value. In BotW, many attributes of weapons are boolean rather than granular. That is, a weapon is never 7.6 long or 9.1 long; it's just long or short. A weapon either returns when thrown or it doesn't; it can't return 50% or 33%.

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Zelda's implements also don't possess many exceptional traits simultaneously. You won't find a weapon that freezes enemies, and has high durability, and can be thrown further than others, and increases your attack. So, Zelda can get by with short weapon descriptions that only appear when you dive into a menu. In many cases, those descriptions only need mention when a weapon property deviates from an assumed default, and otherwise, don't need to state that property. Beyond those descriptions, the UI slaps a name and maybe an icon on a tool and leaves it at that. This minimalist approach reduces visual clutter and makes the weapon systems easy to understand overall. That means it's easier to pick an implement you want to retrieve.

In some cases, this game can introduce more types of armour and elixirs than its competition because it considers more of the values in its systems up for debate. In most games where you walk a player avatar around a world, metrics like sprint velocity, climbing speed, stealthiness, or swim speed are fixed. BotW opens up new avenues for its items by making these variable figures that the player can modify with the right clothes or consumables. There are greens that will temporarily reduce the noise you make when you move, armour that ups your swim speed, etc. The design further finds applications for its items by having environmental factors contextualise their operation.

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Igniting red barrels causes explosions that burn nearby enemies, but you can also spread fire to monsters by torching grass. You can shock them by placing metallic items near them during lightning storms or having electricity carry through a body of water. If there's a cliff nearby, you might be able to send an assailant flying off of it. Of course, they can turn the same effects back on you. You may also notice how rain extinguishes fires and makes rocks too slippery to climb or how you can use shields to surf down inclines. And then there's nighttime during which the Undead spawn, but if you have the Dark Link set, you will also benefit from a bump to your speed while the Sun is down.

Remember, more applications for items means more reasons for the player to seek out or manufacture them. You can even use some ingredients as bait to catch animals which become ingredients themselves. This complex network of relationships between entities and environments could baffle and irritate the average player. However, Nintendo, ever-aware of the user experience, makes mechanics intuitive by having them mimic real-world interactions. Plenty of games have arbitrary rules like "Bald Bull will spontaneously throw a left hook" or "If you roll a 7, it activates the Robber". "Axes cut down trees" or "Fire melts ice" are not original arbitrary rules participants must learn to play the game but principles from the outside world they're already familiar with.

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As you may have already realised, giving the player lots of types of items to collect doesn't necessarily mean giving them variation in the tasks that award those items. It's not uncommon to see a game with a zoo of resource-based upgrade trees and crafting systems in which you win all your resources through combat. That flatness in item-gathering isn't objectively sloppy game design. Still, it is refreshing to see an action-adventure in which you have many different tasks to produce various valuables. Appropriating equipment and ingredients in Breath of the Wild can involve combat. Yet, it might also mean sneaking up on skittish critters, hunting wildlife that will flee upon being struck, baiting animals, solving puzzles, blasting open rocks, devising clear routes to climb walls, and employing your powers of observation.

We're not under any doubt by now that BotW has numerous pegs to fill countless holes. But all those holes and pegs need to live somewhere. Hyrule must be vast to accommodate them, but given that items are small and Hyrule is big, the designers are now asking you to retrieve needles from a haystack. In addition to objects and creatures, there are still those sacred shrines to track down, and we need to find a bunch of them. The obvious solution would be for the studio to mark what we need on our maps, but that doesn't make for much of a game. It negates any puzzle element by revealing the solution out of the gate and denies any exploration by setting a direct line to our target.

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BotW splits the difference between painting a target on the location of objects and leaving us totally in the dark. Players can locate shrines, creatures, monsters, treasure chests, and items using a radar. The player may select one entity at a time, and if it's nearby, the radar will tell them they're facing it and roughly how close they are, but nothing else. The person holding the joycons plays Marco Polo with the dungeon entrance, deer, or whatever else they're looking for. The radar is only for homing in on an item once you're relatively close, though. To get within the ballpark of these entities, you need to siphon rumours from the NPC gossip mill, or, as long as you're not locating a shrine, you can check the compendium in your magic phone. Because you're picking what your scanner detects, you're explicitly setting a goal.

To get an entry in your phone for an organism or object, or to detect it with your sensors, you first need to take a picture of it. You also can't know where a location listed in your compendium is until you've: A. Visited it, and B. Climbed the tower for its region. So, a functioning radar and an informative encyclopaedia can both carry sentimental value as the products of your hard work. In a Ubisoft game, reaching an observation point to unlock more map is usually a predictable exercise in platforming. BotW shocks the idea back to life by making you struggle a path through tar pits, goblin-filled castles, and more, to reach the skyscrapers. Each tower is not just unique in its construction as a climbing wall but also in the mechanics you have to contend with to reach its apex. Additionally, as you search for one place or item, you're bound to run into other interests in the world. It's one of those concepts that has made it into plenty of open-world titles, but few have as many meaningful encounters out in their environments as BotW. In other works, you typically don't have the reasons to explore nearly as much, so you're not going to make the same volume of discoveries.

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There is one more reason that Breath of the Wild's activities feel so purposeful, and it's nothing like anything we've discussed so far. It's standard practice for developers of open-world excursions to pack every square inch of them with a problem to solve. By comparison, Breath of the Wild lets its problems breathe. Hyrule is a land of empty, open space, with points of interest situated relatively far apart. You're not overstimulated by discovering another trinket or task in every cloister, so when you do find a job or item of worth, it's something to cherish.

Breath of the Wild's philosophy in which you're making more instead of having it dumped in your lap is consonant with a broader vision Nintendo had for this game. In almost every Zelda, there's a comfortingly predictable narrative to fall back on: Ganon kidnaps Zelda, Link defeats Ganon, Link saves Hyrule. Every facet of Breath of the Wild is inseparable from its future in which the opposite happened. Ganon emerged victorious and destroyed Hyrule. This spirit of the fallen nation swallows the new design. With most of the towns in the kingdom reduced to dust, there's not a broad enough infrastructure and economy to sell Link everything he needs and direct him to the next dungeon every time. So, he must take it upon himself to create what's missing. He won't find wall-to-wall monsters and treasure chests because most of them were wiped away in the tide of a demon's wrath. So, he must make do with what he has.

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Where Zelda was once cooled in the climate of western fantasy, Breath of the Wild is a warm wind blowing in from the east. The series sheds the constant rousing action of European and US media for the discipline and slow burn of traditional Japanese storytelling. It's not Peter Jackson; it's Kurosawa. And in the dead space between its unassuming villages, in the serene vacuum of its endless plains, we learn that if a hero isn't given the means to achieve their destiny, they can still find empowerment in creating it. Thanks for reading.

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Field Report: Halo Infinite Nine Months In

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Wherever you think the blame lies, Halo Infinite has had a rough time of it. After a much-publicised delay, this living shooter burst onto the scene in late 2021 with original, balanced, and energising action at its core. Yet, it also attracted vocal criticism for its technical instability, copious network latency, and impoverishment of features and unlockables. A particular weak spot was its shallow box of cosmetics. Enthusiasts sucked the Battle Pass dry long before the end of the first season, and then they lost interest in the game or kept playing but firmly demanded more from 343 in future updates. Battle Passes ended up with this short shelf life because the studio almost doubled the length of seasons and bulked up the XP rewards. Increasing players' experience salary was necessary because the game was originally stingy when distributing points.

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A tectonic shift has taken place in multiplayer gaming. Where fans once played purely for the immediate joy of the competition, they now have their hearts set on a continuous stream of persistent prizes for their efforts. I generally think you'll be happier if you appreciate a game for what it is in the here and now instead of getting too hung up on the next bauble. It's also worth remembering that filling out wardrobes of armour only has so much utility when you're limited to one piece of clothing per body part. Yet, I can't tell players that they're wrong for expecting greater output from a game for their input. Public-facing unlocks are virtual fashion and badges of honour. They're also little "well done"s from the designers, and in Season One, you soon stopped hearing those "well done"s.

It's not a huge surprise that this eighth mainline Halo struggled to retain players throughout its first season. When its open beta activated in November, 103,000 Steam users flocked to it daily, but the following month, only half that number were playing. By April, the end of the kick-off season, that figure had plummeted to 5,000. Now, the Steam numbers can't tell the whole story; Microsoft positions Halo as an Xbox game first and foremost. Even on the PC, you don't have to boot Infinite through Steam; you can use the dedicated Xbox app. Microsoft also doesn't release exact player figures for their platforms. However, the Xbox website reveals that by April, Infinite had fallen to being the sixteenth most-played game on its US consoles just behind Rocket League, a game from 2015.

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It was around April that I began encountering teams with people of wildly different skill levels in the game; a common sign of diminishing player bases. When audiences shrink, matchmaking algorithms have fewer players of equal capability to work with. So, they start roping in participants who don't quite match the requirements to make up the numbers. Keep in mind, Halo is free-to-play, and is a live service game meant to keep its party going for years on end.

Aware of growing unrest among players, the hands at 343 have rallied to revamp and refine their game. And they've seen some success, washing Infinite clean of many of its glitches. Players can now enter Big Team Battles reliably, and the game no longer locks up during BTB matches. It shouldn't have taken seven weeks for the fix to come in, but the gametype ultimately got repaired. There are fewer visual hiccups, and the program almost never crashes to the dashboard. Search times feel generally lower, and when players can slip into a skirmish faster, teams don't have to rely on messy bots for as long.

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Still, the errors haven't been fully purged, and sometimes waiting to hook a match still tests my patience. Ping appears to have decreased, but players continue to report lag. I've noticed some of it in my own stand-offs. This is infuriating during melee scuffles and in Tactical Slayer where the difference between gaining or giving up a point is your timing. When you start the program, it still takes an eternity to load your Challenges and avatar. That's a drag when the Challenges you are assigned often determine what playlists you must queue for. Infinite usually opens not with you jumping feet-first into hell but with a trip to the virtual waiting room as you wait for the backend to get itself dressed.

Yet, what most angered the fandom coming out of Season One was that the long wait for the Co-op Campaign only dragged on. After announcing that the feature wouldn't be bundled with the game at launch, 343 said it was targeting March, the start of Season Two, for its addition. Then, when Season One got extended, the new bookmarked date became early May. The studio blew right past May and now expects to hand over online Co-Op in late August and the local version of the mode sometime after October.

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I didn't think the multiplayer Campaign was the most grievous omission from Infinite because the story mode was underbaked to begin with. But Co-op Campaign matters to a lot of people. It doesn't help that the operation on the Zeta installation feels designed to be tackled by squads that the players can't form. Most Halo vehicles, like the Warthog, are intended for soldiers acting in synchronicity, and the Forsaken bases are often a slog to tackle alone. However, multiple infiltrators could secure all the objectives in them within a reasonable timeframe. The season inflation also meant that Forge went from a potential release month of June to a soft ship date of November. Although, now 343 are only saying that we'll see a beta for Forge in Season Three, so expect the full mode to drop significantly far into 2023.

With 343's plan of action spotty, communication from them counts for a lot, but the quality of that communication resists cursory summary. Sometimes, the company seems to be on top of keeping its followers informed. They've been exhaustively documenting the gameplay tweaks for Season Two, posted deep dives into their matchmaking and cheat-busting logic, and maintaining a public list of known issues and workarounds. Yet, other times, we've been met with an uneasy silence on the state of Infinite. Creative Director Joe Staten declared a project roadmap would drop in January, but it did not materialise until late April and the developers failed to publish the big update on Infinite within the month it was promised. Certain players feel that responding to potholes in the game with a lack of transparency is adding insult to injury. On this issue, community manager Brian Jarrard wrote, "We understand the community is simply out of patience and frankly, I think understandably tired of words".

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One of my optimistic hopes for the first couple of seasons was that the developers might rethink the Challenge system. Currently, these goals incentivise playing gametypes you hate and taking tactical decisions that sandbag you or your team. Another improvement I was looking for was the level cap being removed from Battle Passes, giving you some meta-reward for playing past Level 100. Unfortunately, we've received no such rectifications. On the sunnier side, 343 has been slashing prices for paid cosmetics. And with Season Two, we've gotten a fresh Battle Pass, two new maps, and a couple of original gametypes. This Pass includes some free credits you can spend in the store. This isn't the trick Fortnite pulls where it awards you about half the currency you need to buy an item, hoping you'll purchase the rest. Halo Infinite will provide you with enough cash to nab a whole cosmetics bundle.

The first gametype introduced in Season Two was Last Spartan Standing, which many people have branded the Halo battle royale. Although, it breaks various definitions of the genre. You won't get 100 Master Chiefs parachuting onto an island. The player capacity for a match is 12, and you don't go down in one kill either; you have a pool of lives. While loot does drop around the map, it's now all armour abilities instead of weapons. You start with a humble/crappy Disruptor, but as you rack up kills and assists, you trade in your peashooters for something with a little more oomph.

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Arguably, other battle royales have a criminal flaw in that instead of forcing you to throw yourself into the frying pan of combat, they reward you for sitting back and letting players pick each other off. Last Spartan Standing makes cowardly play impractical by tying loadout to score. If you're not slaying from the moment the match starts, then you could find yourself bringing a Magnum to a Commando fight. You can also improve your equipment via XP orbs that drop from eliminated players. They can accelerate you up the ranks, but only if you suspend your movement and shooting for a few seconds. Matches are full of meaningful risk-reward choices in which you must decide whether it's worth getting into a boxing match for the chance at higher survivability.

Unfortunately, when 343 pushed this mode into the hoppers, low connection speeds were rampant, and bugs reverberated throughout the game as a whole. Sometimes you wouldn't be able to collect XP spheres, Challenge progress would fail to register, guns jammed, announcer barks repeated, and grenade animations looped many times over. Randomly dropping power weapons onto maps without marking them also caused unfair imbalances in player firepower, and initially, everyone was consigned to playing on the spaceship graveyard map Breaker.

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Breaker offers a unique sight: UNSC vessels ripped open and thrown away like crisp packets. However, its brown monochrome is oppressively drab, and it quickly outwore its welcome, given that it isn't a fraction as spacious as the maps of other battle royales. Remember, this level was designed to accommodate no more than 12 players. Soon enough, though, the glitches got the boot, and the engineers at 343 expanded LSS so that you could play it on any BTB map. Still, the whole debacle left me thinking that you might want to wait a few weeks after a landmark update before engaging Infinite again.

The worse news is that LSS also lets players down the same way that Lone Wolves does: a crucial factor in your kills and deaths is where other players happen to be in relation to you, but you don't have any control over their positioning. It's not unusual to find yourself stuck between two Spartans with no escape route or managing to get the drop on an opponent by sheer happenstance. The issue is not nearly as prevalent in team gametypes in which fewer players on the map are enemies, and you have protectors you can coordinate with. That coordination is more vital in Infinite than in any other Halo due to the speed with which players can mow each other down. The paper-like fragility of any one warrior encourages them to watch each other's backs, but in a free-for-all format like this one, that can't happen.

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Sometimes, you also spend the first few minutes of a game looking for competitors and finding no one. Without kills, you don't have the opportunity to upgrade your weapons, and other players overtake you. Matches like to end in anti-climax, ejecting a text popup telling you to quit rather than displaying a score. LSS is also uneasy bedfellows with the Challenge system, as you must wait for everyone to finish the match before you can bank your progress towards the next milestone. When you can only have four active Challenges at a time, it means that the most efficient method for playing the game involves yet more sitting around doing nothing.

Infinite's foray into battle royale isn't a total write-off; it still pulls you in with that seductive possibility that you can always climb the rankings just that bit higher. And kills and deaths matter all the more when lives are an expendable resource. But not every FPS is configured to work in this format. With more robust and well-maintained alternatives like Apex Legends or Call of Duty: Warzone, LSS becomes surplus to requirements. I'm left wishing 343 spent more time fixing up the modes they already have rather than introducing a big new one that only gets halfway to achieving its goals.

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We did also see the return of King of the Hill, which is still plenty of madcap fun but requires little explanation. The unexpected hero of the new season is Land Grab. At first, this capture the points mode might appear to be a rote tweak of Strongholds, but a small change in rules can make a big difference in play. Its matches begin with the UI outlining three zones both teams will try to control. When they secure one, it disappears. Only once all those volumes are removed from the map does the computer spawn more, this time in different and unpredictable locations. The first team to secure 11 areas wins.

The reactive nature of Land Grab means that forethought and planning have less of a place here than they do in Strongholds. The priority is on quick thinking and improvisation. A single map can tease out innumerable different strategies because the hotspots on that map are in constant flux. The volatile demands of the play are constantly pulling on the cohesion of your team, begging you to split even the most tight-knit group to cope with unexpected new objective layouts. However, the mode avoids the random chaos of LSS or Lone Wolves by marking territory locations long before they spawn.

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You can play Land Grab and a bushel of other modes on the new map Catalyst. For Catalyst, there is no such thing as too many entrances into one area. It balances that access against a jumble of columns and ramps, which rewards the spatially aware player by letting them break line of sight at the first sign of danger. At least, that's what happens if you're on the outskirts of the environment. The setting attempts to occasionally bait you into the open by dispensing a power-up on or near a long and exposed ground-level walkway.

Another concourse bridges the upper floor, providing an express line to the enemy base. The downside of taking that shortcut is that you walk a tightrope on which you become an easy target for anyone in the opposite HQ. Visually, Catalyst is a Forerunner facility gently daubed with foliage. Its metal ramps, neat automatic doors, and coat of moss summon nostalgia for the installation interiors from Halo: Combat Evolved and Guardian, a memorable map from Halo 3.

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So, TL;DR, should you play Halo Infinite? Well, if you aren't, it depends on why you're not already doing so. For me, entertaining shooter play is about the guns feeling weighty without being immovable, there always being plenty of tactical options available, and those options being distinct and meaningful. If that's what you're looking for, that's still Halo Infinite, and the game remains familiar enough to be recognisable without resting on its laurels. If you were scared off by Infinite's technical teething pains, know that it's over the worst of them. But if it's a deal-breaker to wait through long matchmaking queues or encounter some imbalanced playlists, I can't recommend going into business with Infinite. Furthermore, if you were waiting for an overhaul of the Challenge or Battle Pass systems or for Halo to fully stock its feature set, keep waiting.

I hate to point it out, but this isn't the first time we've been left twisting in the wind by 343 Industries. I say this as someone who thought Halo 4 was an acute tuning of the series' multiplayer and who was a loud defender of Halo 5, wearing out my disc well into its old age. Yet, I remember looking at Halo 4 in 2012 and thinking, "this is technically well-produced, but 343 hasn't found its voice yet". I remember in 2014 when The Master Chief Collection shambled on for weeks without a functioning multiplayer. I remember in 2020 when 343 announced that they were delaying Infinite for a year because it still wasn't up to scratch. I remember in 2021 when the game launched, and they said that stable networking and classic modes were still in the pipeline. Now, it's mid-2022, and there's still no definite date when the developer will close on their promises.

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At the risk of plagiarising Jeff Gerstmann, now and then, I stand back from all the booming grenades and ear-splitting rifle fire and remember this is Halo. Flagship console games don't exist today the way they did when the Pillar of Autumn took its maiden voyage in 2001. Platform holders are dividing their eggs between a greater quantity of baskets. They're attempting to cater to more audiences, and therefore, more wallets than ever. But the Master Chief is still the closest thing Microsoft has to a mascot. Whether you're a series veteran or someone who just knows they like shooting targets on a computer, Halo is meant to be the game you can boot up on your Xbox to feel elated and dazzled and in awe of the system's technical power. This is the first product that perhaps the most famous software company in the world wants you to see when you walk through its platform's door. It is made by an expert team with more than a decade of experience, and nine months in, it's still meandering and sputtering and hesitating its way towards being a finished package.

Watching Infinite's awkward growth spurts, I get the sense that 343 is spread too thin. I'm not sure there's a game that is expected to be as many things to as many different people as Halo. That is partly because the series has grown countless heads over the years. In an age when most new shooter games have no Campaign component, many players fondly remember blasting their way through Winter Contingency or The Ark with friends, and they want Halo Infinite to house a story mode to compete with that. They expect that mode to amaze them whether they play it with one person or four, in split-screen or online.

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Many others want Halo to incorporate not just the classic multiplayer but also the ability to edit maps for that mode with no modding experience. Others want it to have a built-in video editor. More still wish to see the Halo that pioneered Firefight and a dev team that was always forthcoming with fans. At the same time, modern video game story modes implement vast open worlds teeming with optional content, and Halo is expected to keep up with them. Then there's popular PvP play which increasingly rests on battle royales, snappy, immediate action, and new content every few months. That's a lot to ask of one studio. Possibly more than any one studio knows how to answer to.

To meet these lofty expectations, 343 had to take the series apart, but the better part of a year later, still hasn't finished putting it back together. Like most projects that shoot for the Moon, Infinite is coming together piece by piece, month by month, and maybe one day, all its components will find their place, and the Halo fans want will emerge. But that day is not today. I'm not confident it even falls within this year. Thanks for reading.

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The Constant: Genesis Noir and Cosmic Narratives

Note: This article contains major spoilers for Genesis Noir and specifically discusses the Astronomy Update version of the game.

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"Perhaps there is nothing new, in the end of all our beginnings, and the bison will be there, waiting for us".

-William Gibson, Dead Man Sings

The topics of cosmology, physics, and chemistry cut to the core of who we are, at least in a material sense. They charismatically detail the origin of everything we've ever seen or will see and may even hold the clues to our ultimate fates. Yet, as fundamental as these topics are to us and the reality we inhabit, they are often regarded as passionless and technical, disconnected from the human experience. Genesis Noir is a point-and-click adventure showing where the physics of the universe and the anthropological intermingle.

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We study Genesis Noir from under the wide-brimmed hat of No Man. No Man is the forlorn occupant of a clock tower which holds its head high above an insomniac urban sprawl. In his professional life, he hawks watches, but his leisure time is a haze of bubbling alcohol and jazz lounges. This salesman is infatuated with the voluptuous singer Miss Mass, but when he drops by her apartment one night for a sexual liaison, he finds her bandmate, Golden Boy, there. Golden Boy fires a handgun at Miss Mass, and the big bang explodes out of its barrel. Time slows, and No Man sees all of history laid out in front of him, from the pistol on the right side of the room to his lover on the left. He delves into the timeline, watching the universe from its initial cooling after the big bang right past humanity's departure from Earth.

Each chapter of Genesis Noir kicks off with a brief introduction to a concept from physics and continues into an interactive sequence that lets you see, hear, and feel that concept. It couches those sequences within No Man's larger story of heartache and heroism. For example, the first level, Seeding, begins with a crash course on the universe's drastic drop in temperature 10-37 seconds after its birth. This cooling occurred unevenly, baking hotter regions of the universe that would fizz with stars and galaxies and cold spots that would remain mostly void.

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The game symbolises the priming of the universe through No Man planting seeds and configuring the resonances of various fields as if tuning a radio. Among other activities, he also prunes a tree, amputating some potential futures so that others might grow. However, this gardening doesn't just stand in for the balancing of the universe's energy levels. It's also a dramatisation of No Man hatching a plan to save Miss Mass. He witnesses Golden Boy spin a loose spring from his watch into a black hole and devises his own use for the black holes.

The second chapter, Starstruck, is frontloaded with a description of light elements condensing into the first stars and gas giants. It claims that the cores of gas giants are "failed stars", which is not quite correct but sets the table for a metaphor. In the stage proper, No Man follows a breadcrumb trail of matter into a gargantuan gas planet where he finds Golden Boy. He also flashes back in time to see Miss Mass perform in front of an audience. So, the narrative strongly hints that Golden Boy is a failed star, and Miss Mass is a successfully formed star. After all, she does have a lot of mass, and you need that for stellar formation. That Miss Mass professionally leapfrogged Golden Boy might be the cause of his jealousy of her, giving us a motive for his crime. The saxophonist may also have sought to kill her because he held a grudge after No Man was able to win Miss Mass's heart when he couldn't.

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Most media speaking on science is either educational or rock-hard science-fiction. Genesis Noir is an outlier in that it pores through cosmological textbooks but relays their contents to us in a jumbled milieu of clattering chords and characters that fall and morph from one frame into the next. Besides the chapter titles and the opening text crawls, there are no words in most of the levels, making this a sensory collage. It's less like a lecture on astrophysics and more like an improvisational jazz piece about it. It outright states its subtext, and when a piece of media does that, it can drain the subtlety out of itself, leaving it a dry and lifeless exercise. However, Genesis Noir ends up with a uniquely hypnotising mystique through its enigmatic plot and subtlety in how its analogies present in its fiction.

The overall framing device in its fiction is a bit wonky; it's unclear how the creation of the universe threatens mass. Sometimes the game also passes off unproven speculations as truths or at least doesn't call attention to the fact that they're not part of the accepted science. This is true, for example, when the opening says that there are higher dimensions we can't perceive, or when, in its third act, it introduces bubble theory which posits multiple other universes beyond our own. There is no empirical evidence supporting either claim.

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However, Genesis Noir is more scientifically rigorous than most pop culture works, and its choice of protagonist resounds with its subject matter. The watch salesman, the man who lives behind a clock, is himself a time traveller. He is "No Man" in that he does not represent a single person from history: he exists outside of the history of our species, and his name is also quite close to "Nomad"; he is a wanderer in the spacetime continuum. Note that his local hangout is "The Hopper", a reference to painter Edward Hopper, but also to No Man's propensity to "hop" through time. See also the rabbits he will later find in a research facility. A time traveller is a necessary escort for a story which aims to capture a history billions of years longer than any human life.

The transitory nature of No Man informs his character. Our galactic gumshoe is repeatedly jolted back to moments of romance and pain in his relationship with Miss Mass. In this time-hopping, he is not purposefully seeking out his destination. He is dragged into the darkest recesses of his mind against his will, dangling in mid-air or swaying through a drunken stupor. Memory is a form of time travel, and grief keeps people returning to the same times and places. Often, No Man will see his past self replicated many times over in front of him as he not only enters Miss Mass's home or drinks at her lounge but observes himself doing so. And he will observe himself observing himself, and observe himself observing himself observing himself, and so on.

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Mass has a gravitational pull, and No Man is adrift via the attractive force Miss Mass exerts on him. This is particularly well-demonstrated in the chapter Orbiting, as multiple No Mans fall into a black hole (an area of concentrated mass) with the femme fatale at the centre. As more No Mans drop below its event horizon, it grows in size, adding his mass to its mass, amplifying its pull. As No Man commits himself to his relationship with and the memory of his lover, she takes up a larger portion of his being. This increases her influence on him, causing him to commit further, and creating a feedback loop, as any black hole, regularly fed, will. The chapter, Collision, explores the probable hypothesis that a planet called Theia impacted the Earth's surface 4.5 billion years ago, slanting our world onto its 23-degree axial tilt and ejecting the rock that would consolidate into the Moon. It compares Miss Mass's effect on No Man to this planetary car crash.

While Miss Mass is inescapable, Golden Boy is elusive. Our foil represents the mathematics that catapulted the universe into existence and continue to determine its structures. We can infer this from Golden Boy bringing matter into being, us seeing his face in the stars, and him playing in the "Divine Jazz Section" alongside Miss Mass. His mathematical role is also present in his connection to the golden ratio. To refresh your memory, the golden ratio is a ratio of approximately 1 to 1.618033. In other words, it appears when one number is 1.618 times larger or smaller than another. It is often referenced as part of a series in which each number is 1.618 times larger or smaller than the previous. These sequences can be purely abstract but may also encode anything from the sizes of shapes to the frequencies of sounds.

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The rectangles above, for example, follow the golden ratio in that the "a" section is bigger than the "b" section by a factor of 1.618. The golden ratio is sometimes called "the divine proportion" (like Golden Boy's Divine Jazz Section) and exists in various natural and human-made phenomena. In actuality, a lot of purported "golden ratio" objects don't have quite the required proportions. Still, there are plenty of real approximations of the pattern, for example, in Salvador Dali's Sacrament of the Last Supper or in the "golden" spirals of pine cones. In the real world, as in jazz, the notes are sometimes a few notches off the mark.

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In Genesis Noir, Golden Boy takes the name of the mathematical refrain, and the golden spiral is present in his coif. While most objects in the game appear in black and white, those important to its cosmology or play are often coloured gold, including the watch springs No Man is collecting, which also follow the golden spiral. We can see the golden spiral in the antlers of a stag and the face paint of a hunter. A sunflower we light up in Seeding also references it.

As we see in the chapter Surveil, Golden Boy is a musician composing the universe. There's a logic to it: maths underpins the universe in its constants, in the formulas for resolving physical interactions, and in the numbers representing physical quantities of objects like temperature and volume. Maths is also the bedrock of music: its time signatures, its tempo, the frequency of each note, etc. Like Golden Boy, maths is everywhere, and yet you can't grab ahold of it. It is intangible, even if it exists in everything tangible.

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In Golden Boy's arithmetic symphony, the golden ratio is his harmonic motif: the signature he leaves on everything from plants to animals. It is not necessarily the game saying everything revolves around this particular quantity. Remember, it tends to be highly interpretive. However, it is Genesis Noir describing the recursion of mathematical patterns throughout our universe.

So far, we have discussed material and symbolic dynamics between maths, astrophysics, and Genesis Noir's fantastical characters. However, Genesis Noir begins its crawl towards detailing the literal and societal impact of the cosmos with the levels Reflection and Hunt, in which the elements forged in stars coalesce in Earth's oceans to form life. That life evolves into the stag and the Hunter that tracks it. As we can see from her cave paintings, the Hunter considers the stag culturally dear to her, even as she slays it and its chemicals return to the Earth. In the game's final level, Exodus, the Hunter narrates herself lying under the night sky. In the stars, she sees her ancestors and the stag and bison she slew.

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Hunt and Exodus remind us that space was part of the ambient nature early humans experienced. Space is everything above the nighttime horizon. It was a feature of the scenery for many ancient people as much as mountains or rivers. In some cases, more so. Countless societies drew symbols out of the stars they saw, and the Hunter's identification of her ancestors in the sky echoes the interpretations of plenty of ancient civilisations. Plato wrote that a good soul goes back to its "companion star" when its body dies. The Skidi Pawnee thought that they descended from the stars.

The chapter Gather sees No Man galavant through early civilisation and includes snapshots of the pyramids at Giza and the eruption of Vesuvius. While the stage doesn't make any particular allusions to archaic religion, the Egyptians believed that their Pharaohs could join with stars in the northern sky after death, and the Romans inherited the Ancient Greek astronomy. The Greeks thought their Gods created the constellations as lessons to humanity.

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The level Reveal peers over the shoulder of an ancient priest as he tethers together points in the sky into new shapes. He exercises humanity's penchant for pareidolia: the propensity to see patterns in random data. What's particularly insightful about this section is that after each phase of astrologising, we zoom out and see the civilisation around the Priest is a little more fleshed out. His fellow worshippers construct a henge and huddle together in groups as the stars are connected. It's as though knitting these blisters of light into heroes and beasts is also threading together people. The interface for weaving together the stars is much like Reflection's UI for uniting atoms as organic molecules. The metaphor is that creating constellations is constructive to life.

In the chapter Voyage, we see a darker side of astrophysics's intrusion into our day-to-day. A particle collider on Mars creates a black hole in Earth's periphery, forcing humans to evacuate. To be clear, the developers are imagining things particle accelerators could do in the future. There's no reason to believe that one of these machines could currently suck the planet into oblivion. Still, humanity may face existential threats from outside our atmosphere. We could one day be subject to a catastrophic meteor impact, and climate collapse stands to leave us exceptionally vulnerable to heat from the Sun.

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Moreover, with spacecraft as our vehicles, astrophysics would become our concern the same way that everyday physics concerns us when driving a car. And as a road becomes your surroundings when in an automobile, the humans that leave Earth find space their new backdrop. However, I think the level that best marries the cosmological to a human experience is Thaw. Thaw plays out in a feudal Japanese winter. It starts with the observation that the seasons are a product of our planet's axial tilt. When one side of the Earth leans towards the Sun, and the other away from it, one face spends a lot more time in the heat than its opposite. So, whether it's hot or cold outside, sunny or snowing, whether life is hibernating for the winter or up and active, and even what we've depicted in art is down to something as astronomical as the angular positioning of Earth.

During the course of Thaw, No Man fetches an ancient Ronin the accoutrements necessary for a tea ceremony. The steamy drink provides a welcome respite from the chill outside. When an inferior accidentally shatters the Ronin's cup of tea, he draws his blade on him. Probably because in the barren winter, a hot beverage is a precious comfort. So, the collision of the Earth with another planet 4.5 billion years ago can play a role in one man trying to kill another in the relative now. When No Man mends the warrior's vessel, he does so with the gold forged in a star. Cosmology can't get much more personal than that.

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While such ideas about the dilution of space into human culture are engrossing, and as smooth-flowing and vibrant Genesis Noir's audiovisuals can be, its interactive delivery of these ideas can be faulty. Sometimes No Man resists your input like a fish trying to free itself from your hook. On paper, you have the most open environment possible: the vacuum of space. Yet, the game places down all these guard rails for you to bump up against, creating an inappropriate narrowness of movement. Other systems fail too.

Reveal is ostensibly about creating constellations in accordance with the values of your culture. But the mechanics don't let you project shapes onto the stars. Instead, you have to divine an objectively correct gallery of forms, finding the constellations rather than free-hand drawing them. The play does not support the personal and subjective notions present in the activity. This is an egregious error because Reveal is a chapter essential to Genesis Noir's central argument: that humans paper over mysteries with their experience and imagination, and that the legends they create to describe the unknown become indelible epigrams on the slate of history. The game formulates this concept with a few different phrasings, but here's an excerpt from the prologue that encapsulates it:

"Imagination embodies the dark unknown in myth. [...] A world emerges wrapped in unfamiliar forms. Your mind transforms the wisps of preternatural smoke into bodies and steel and concrete. Your experience reshapes this world and makes this form eternal".

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An understanding of astrophysics is unobtainable for the Hunter. Still, she does have a conception of her family history and the game she hunts, so she imposes a legend of ancestors, stag, and bison on the heavens. The Priest doesn't know what a star looks like up close but is familiar with lyres and wedding rings, and so sews them from stars, his fellow storytellers dreaming up lore for each constellation. The Ronin doesn't carry in his head a theory of thermodynamics but can see the outlines of people in the fronds of steam from his tea.

In the chapter Improvisations, No Man collaborates with a cellist on a jazz piece. The Musician can't understand his creative partner's true form as a force on the universe but recognises that universal force as artistic inspiration. In Collision, No Man aids an experimental physicist operating a particle accelerator. With his help, she makes a scientific breakthrough. His assistance seals the legend of a time traveller. A future civilisation erects a gold statue in his image, protectively watching down over their space station. Others have their own idea of who No Man is: the Ancestral Spirit or the Eternal Demon. Even the use of the terms "Genesis" and "Exodus" in this story hint at Christianity or religion being attempts to cohere a mysterious universe into something comprehensible. Imagination embodies the dark unknown in myth.

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There are four myth-makers the game returns to over its runtime: the Hunter, the Ronin, the Musician, and the Scientist. Holy Trinity-style, they also constitute a single character. In the chapter Singularity, No Man finally enacts his gambit to stop the murder of Miss Mass. Golden Boy faded into the wallpaper a while ago, but by using his watch springs to create a garden of black holes, No Man hopes to pull in the entire universe. He is abusing the mathematics of the cosmos to end it in a "big crunch" before it can impact his love. What No Man doesn't realise is that astrophysicists discarded the big crunch as a plausible end for the universe long ago; his gravity trap isn't going to work.

As he prepares to suck Earth into a black hole, an androgynous white being emerges from a gateway to a futuristic city and tells him to stop what he's doing. This person then splits into four figures: the Hunter, the Ronin, the Musician, and the Scientist. Behind them, the colour spectrum stretches out, with each person shaded in a single hue. Just as white light is a combination of every wavelength of light, this alien: The Constant, is an individual, but is also a combination of these four characters.

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The Constant traps No Man in a black hole, an inescapable prison where he is forced to meditate on his actions. The black hole evaporates, as they all eventually do without a steady supply of new mass, but it takes the protagonist's arm with it. When No Man meets The Constant again, his anger at them quickly sublimates into love. He explains his predicament to the alien, complete with his discovery that he can't save Miss Mass. However, through The Constant, he again, experiences the lives of the people he's met and dances in perfect synchronicity with each of them. The dance number includes the following lyrics:

"Hold me and choose,

Choose to be free,

Free from all else,

Embraced by We".

At the start of the chapter Exodus, each character gets a turn to speak, and the end of one character's monologue becomes the start of the next's. The final line of that passage about the "dark unknown in myth" is "You give it a name. You call it The Constant". The Constant is the chain of myths about the universe which carry from generation to generation across our species. Their name is a statement that they are as persistent and indestructible a part of the universe as its mathematical constants, such as the speed of light or the golden ratio. This character flushes space with passionate tones in an otherwise trichromic reality and is the first person we hear speak out loud.

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The expressive magic of this composite character is a metaphor for love: they are a rainbow in a black and white world, and you don't feel like you've heard anyone's voice until you've heard theirs. No Man's love of The Constant is of a deeper sort than his lust for Miss Mass. He is not magnetised to them by a base physical infatuation but by a conscious human interest. The Constant's high-resolution existence and their teleportation onto the scene are also symbolic of their transcendental nature. The Constant is more than any one place and time in the universe, and through their inclusion of people from across the aeons, they emit a vibrancy you won't find during any one era. No Man's attachment to The Constant, his appreciation for the collective meaning found in the cosmos, prevents him from destroying Earth. While that initially results in him resenting the continuum of stories told about the universe, and the people who told them, he quickly finds himself falling for those tales and those people.

There's another read on No Man's name we've not discussed yet. In John Donne's 1624 book, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, he writes that "no man is an island". It's one of the most famous lines in poetry. With it, Donne was saying that no person is walled off from the rest of the world. We are all threads in a social fabric. No Man begins his arc isolated, and like the protagonist in Devotions, he hears the bell toll for him. Like Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, Genesis Noir is about confronting death and embracing something larger than yourself. For Donne, that was God, and for No Man, that is The Constant.

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As romantic as No Man and The Constant's union is, we need a quick reality check. See, the game talks a lot about myth, but the further it travels down the timeline, the less that the characters seem to be mythmaking or even remembering the stories of old. The cellist makes abstract compositions as opposed to cosmic fiction, and the physicist, in particular, stands as the antithesis of fictionalising the universe. Sometimes, scientists have ended up imagining when they meant to describe and have consciously created myths to help us intuit facts about reality. Think about Einstein stating God doesn't play dice or George Gamow describing the nature of the atom as a "liquid drop".

However, mythologising was only the prevailing method for interpreting the universe up to a certain point in history. We then switched to a philosophy which was able to decode many unknowns. Even when it couldn't explain certain observations, it said that it didn't know the answer or that it only knew the answer down to a certain level of accuracy rather than making up a story. This mode of thinking, the scientific method, at least partially negated the need for tall tales. So maybe mythmaking and its products aren't as constant as the game makes them sound. Instead of an eternal loyalty to legend, we are left with a divide between at least some of the current crop of humans and those in the pre-scientific world.

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Genesis Noir's opening argues that we need myths because there are unanswerable questions about the universe. For example, "what caused the big bang?" or "what are the natures of higher dimensions?". But how would you prove that we can't answer these questions? History is full of predictions about the stifling limits of science that now look ridiculous.

Philosopher of science Auguste Comte thought we would never be able to tell the composition of stars. Einstein thought we would never split the atom. Astronomer Simon Newcomb believed his field was reaching the end of its development in the late 19th century. All of these men were wrong. And that doesn't guarantee that all the blanks in science will eventually be filled in, but it should give us some pause before we start puffing out our chest and talking confidently about "the unknowable". Genesis Noir is a myth about how the Big Bang started, but that myth might one day be unnecessary to board up a hole in our understanding.

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No Man faces his own intimidating decisions about what to leave behind and what to carry into the future. Not long before our terminus, in the chapter Exodus, a tract describes the "Penrose process". The Penrose process is a hypothetical technique for accelerating spaceships. The craft drops a section of itself into a black hole, and the remaining portion of the vehicle receives a speed boost in return. Moving on from a person is not just breaking from them; it's also leaving a chunk of yourself behind. No Man's journey has already taken a toll on him; he has one less arm than when he started. But by sacrificing a portion of himself, he may finally be able to rocket out of Miss Mass's orbit and regain his life.

Exodus is a chapter about potentially exiting the universe for another one, and Exodus is the second book of the Bible; it would have us leaving Genesis (Noir). But as No Man's universe revolves around Miss Mass, this stage also contains an analogy for him moving on from his attachment and grief. The Constant enables him to travel back in time and either court Miss Mass again or turn his back on her. As it's likely that Golden Boy killed Mass partly because of his jealousy of No Man, shunning Mass could save her life. But it's a catch-22: not only will the protagonist recoiling from Miss Mass erase their whirlwind romance; it also means that No Man will never meet The Constant.

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In a story about leaving a dead partner, there is no conclusively happy ending, but the one in which No Man joins hands with his alien lover feels considerably less lonely. It's the difference between intimacy with four people and intimacy with none. In the scene in which No Man returns to The Constant after leaving the black hole, they levitate a patch of flowers to fill in for his lost arm for just a moment. It's the loose possibility that The Constant could replace what No Man has lost and make him whole again. As The Constant's song says, choosing them will make him free.

I've already voiced some of my doubts about Genesis Noir's argument for the endurance of myth. Still, I do think the game is correct that a lot of what has happened and is happening in the universe is difficult or impossible to picture. That being the case, visualisations of the universe's mathematical jazz are vitally important. Art like Genesis Noir can put a face to the faceless and give a voice to the golden silence.

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Its writers are further correct that humans always told and still tell narratives about the universe. A narrative doesn't have to be fiction; there are true stories, and we can identify a lineage of humans spinning yarns about the cosmos that they believe to be fact. Even if few us now think our soul will return to its companion star or that we can glimpse warriors in the sky, we can still remember the sacred myths of history. We are connected to ancient people by the very human acts of storytelling and trying to decipher the reality before us, and in that connection, there is something worth loving. Thanks for reading.

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