Making Plans for Stefan: Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and Interactive Narratives

Note: The following article contains major spoilers for the Black Mirror game Bandersnatch, some spoilers for other Black Mirror episodes, some discussion of mental illness, and brief mentions of domestic violence.

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Too much of the criticism of Black Mirror's Bandersnatch has been from people who appear somewhat perplexed by the whole experiment, and I think those reactions have arisen from many critics and audience members who have their expertise in TV now straining to assess a video game. You have commentators acting like Black Mirror just invented the concept of forking interactive fiction even when this story is about the adaptation of a choose-your-own-adventure book from the 80s. You have people explaining why branching narratives can never be affecting when Telltale proved the opposite back in 2012, and you have armchair pundits speaking about Bandersnatch as if it's the first piece of media to comment on choice-driven stories when the original Stanley Parable released in 2011.

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We must appreciate that Bandersnatch is many peoples' first time shaking hands with a piece of media that asks them to map out the channels and tributaries of a plot in motion. Frankly, it's something to celebrate. The most influential legacy of the game will probably be that it was a branching narrative title situated on a mainstream media platform. It's comparable to a work of modern art in a town square; it's not likely to be the piece that's going to demolish the boundaries of the medium, but it does let the average person get in touch with the art form. That being said, it is frustrating to see those people in that public square jumping to conclusions about the whole medium based on an example or two, or arrogantly trying to deliver some final word on the form before reading the first word. This isn't me saying that I have all the answers on interactive fiction, but it is me saying that before people speak on the pivots and twists of story-centric video games, they should read what other hard-working critics have written about them over the years.

Of course, some would argue that Black Mirror, as a show, has nothing of worth to offer anyone, but there are thoughtful criticisms of the series' unfiltered techno-cynicism, and then there are reductions of it to a braindead "Phones make people into zombies" rhetoric. Whatever you want to say about Black Mirror, its points are more specific and varied than that. Every episode has a moral, and it's rare that it repeats the same moral twice. Fifteen Million Merits opines that in a world of commodities, even rebellion against that economic order will be commoditised; White Bear suggests that even if a criminal has committed a revolting transgression, that torture of them is still immoral; and Men Against Fire speculates that the future of military technology is in psychologically controlling our troops as much as it is working out how to kill the enemy. In fact, I don't think Bandersnatch's problem is that its commentary is vapid or uninspired; it's the opposite: That there's a lot of different observations pinging off the walls of the game, but very few of them combine to make an overall "point".

The Text

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Like an idiot, I will now attempt to summarise a branching plot game with at least fourteen endings. If you feel you have a thorough understanding of Bandersnatch, scroll down to the "Subtext" section. Bandersnatch centres on Stefan Butler, a reclusive but keen young man who wants to adapt the choose-your-own-adventure book Bandersnatch into a video game, the likes of which has never been seen before. We can choose whether he does this at home or at the flourishing game studio Tuckersoft, working alongside his hero Colin Ritman. If Stefan does buckle down at Tuckersoft, he finishes the game promptly, but his vision dwarfs what the technology of the era is capable of, and his game fails to achieve critical success. But, as with all endings in this game, the player can rewind from it to make different choices. The characters seem to covertly acknowledge this mechanic, with Colin telling Stefan "wrong choice" when he decides to work for Tuckersoft, our protagonist being able to predict events early in the game if the player loops over, and a TV reviewer saying that Stefan "has to try again" if his game fails to impress.

If we go back and make Stefan program the game at home, he becomes isolated, his development hitches, and he enters a state of mental deterioration. He visits his therapist, Dr. Haynes, to whom he explains that the impulse to say "No" to Tuckersoft came out of nowhere and that he feels like someone is watching him. We can also decide whether Stefan discusses his mother with Haynes. If he does, we learn that one day when Stefan was a toddler, his father hid his beloved plush rabbit, believing it was too childish for him. The next day, Stefan was due to take a train journey with his mother but held her up by looking for the rabbit. She ended up taking a later train and taking it without Stefan; it derailed, killing her, a tragedy for which Stefan now feels responsible. Haynes tells him that his guilt is irrational and that the past is immutable; it's something we have to accept.

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Stefan works at home for a while longer but becomes frustrated as Bandersnatch glitches and fractures. At this fork, we may have him throw coffee over his computer, spoiling his work and ending the game, or we may have him yell at his father, causing his Dad to take Stefan back to Haynes. Outside her office, Stefan spies Colin walking down the street, and we can have our protagonist run after him or carry on to his doctor. If Stefan follows Colin, then he tells him about the development hole he's fallen into, and Colin takes him back to his flat. His mentor doses him with LSD and uncorks a conspiratorial rant.

That rant includes the opinion that mirrors let you travel through time, and that the fabric of the universe, or at least, his and Stefan's universe, is a network of parallel timelines. There is, according to him, a source code for reality which determines what choices are available to people. In his paranoid fervour, Colin takes Stefan out onto the balcony and asks him which one of the two of them should jump. Obviously, us having Stefan jump will terminate the story and cause Tuckersoft to publish Bandersnatch in its unfinished state. Should we pick Colin to jump, Stefan wakes up in his Dad's car again, right outside his therapist's office. He tells the doctor that time is looping over and that someone else is making his choices for him. Haynes ups his medication, and if the player has avoided listening to Colin's lecture, Stefan can take the pills, leading him to publish an even worse version of Bandersnatch than if he'd created it in-studio. The critic says it looks as though he made it on autopilot. If Stefan did listen to Colin's ramblings, our only choice is how he destroys his pills. Off his medication, Stefan fails to deliver his code to the studio by his deadline because he attempts to add in a quest based around government black ops.

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He then continues researching Jerome F. Davies, the author of Bandersnatch, finding that Davies' mind came apart at the seams as he tried to finish his book and that he developed the same beliefs about free will that Colin later did. Davies believed that his wife was spiking his drinks with a psychotropic drug and killed her, painting the walls of their home with a glyph of branching lines. As Stefan becomes paranoid about the TV relaying Jerome's beliefs and sees his game locking up again, we may choose for him to look at an old photo of his family together or to read a book on adventure game design called "Look Door, Get Key". The former skips the plot ahead, while the latter leads to him breaking into his Dad's safe, following the command in the textbook's title. What happens in the safe scene depends on what code we put into the vault's keypad.

One path involves Stefan taking his childhood plush from the office, going back in time, and placing it under his bed so that he will find as a child. His mother then asks him whether he will go on the train journey with her, and if we pick "Yes", Stefan also dies in the train accident. It's effectively a suicide by temporal displacement. We then cut to Haynes' office where it's revealed that everything we've seen since Stefan last left was in his head and that he has died in real-life after expiring in the flashback. Another of the paths involves Stefan discovering that he is a subject of a psychological experiment on trauma conducted by his ostensible father called P.A.C.S. Other endings to the safe scene include Davies or the fictional demon Pax attacking Stefan. At the end of the P.A.C.S., Davies, and Pax endings, Stefan wakes up.

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After another failure to get the title screen of Bandersnatch to load, the interface asks us how we want Stefan to destroy his computer, but whatever we pick, he manages to resist the impulse to do so. Believing someone is watching him, our protagonist asks us to give him a sign that we're there.

Netflix Branch

If we didn't encounter the P.A.C.S. documents, then we may tell Stefan that he is a character in a piece of interactive fiction on Netflix. Stefan returns to Haynes to relay this and Haynes rationalises that if he was a puppet created for other peoples' entertainment, then he would be in more exciting circumstances. The scene forces us to raise the excitement level by having the encounter turn into a kung-fu fight scene between Stefan and Haynes. If we have Stefan fight her, his father drags him out of the facility as he yells, implying that he hit a harmless Haynes in a fit of delusion. If we have him try to jump out the window, he finds it glued shut, and the camera pulls back to show that he is an actor in a TV show who falsely believes he is the character himself.

P.A.C.S. Branch

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If the player did encounter the P.A.C.S documents, then they may inform Stefan about the experiment. Stefan accuses his father of drugging him, recording him, and hiding messages on his computer. He then kills him and in a shaken state tries to call Haynes. One of the branches here leads Stefan to believe that Haynes was secretly communicating her phone number to him, but even if Stefan calls her, her receptionist tells him that the doctor is absent. Either way, he buries his father in the garden, next door's dog finds the body, and he goes to jail. From his cell, he watches a review of Bandersnatch which the critic regards as a malfunctioning novelty.

Glyph Branch

Whether or not Stefan discovered the P.A.C.S. documents, we may have his computer display Davies' branching glyph, prompting him to attack his father in the same way Davies butchered his wife. The game asks us to choose whether Stefan goes through with it or backs off, but attempting to stop him from killing his father only causes the UI to prompt us with the same choice again. Stefan then queries us over whether he should bury his father's body or chop it into pieces. If Stefan does the latter, he enters a creepily serene state in which he finishes Bandersnatch in a perfect condition and explains that he fixed the game by eradicating player choice. The authorities pulp Bandersnatch after they find out his dark secret, but in the modern day, the developer Pearl Ritman revives it as the Netflix game we're playing. The ending implies that some curse of the game brings her under the player's control.

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If we tell Stefan to bury his father's body instead of dicing it, his boss at Tuckersoft, Mohan Thakur calls him up and asks him whether he will have the game finished by his new deadline. The branches of the game fan out here, but they all lead to someone finding out about Stefan killing his father. In many of the endings, Stefan also murders Thakur, Colin, or Colin's wife Kitty when they come to his house to investigate. He gets arrested, and Tuckersoft cancels Bandersnatch.

The Subtext

We have a natural prejudice to believe that because Bandersnatch writer Charlie Brooker made his name as a TV writer and critic, that any interactive narrative he'd design would have a claustrophobic possibility space and only a passing awareness of video games. Brooker bucks those expectations, creating an authentic story with a vast network of branches. Some angry commenters argue that all the endings are the same, but read back through that plot summary and tell me Bandersnatch doesn't have several unique termination points. Stefan publishing his game under Tuckersoft, him dying on the train with his Mum, him realising he's an actor in a TV show, him fighting his therapist believing he's an avatar on Netflix, him killing his Dad thinking he's part of P.A.C.S., etc. These are, in each case, original plot points.

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Some endings do touch up narrative columns you may have seen before with smaller brushstrokes, but the argument that Brooker wrote a single conclusion for the events of the story holds no water. Despite coming from creators of TV shows, Bandersnatch's story is more divergent than that of many video games, but this is part of why the experience is inconsistent. That inconsistency exists not just in its plot but also its morals, and the two are inseparable. When a piece of media expresses an underlying message, it's almost always communicated through how the characters interact with each other and the world around them. For example, in The Boy Who Cried Wolf, the message that we shouldn't raise false alarms is expressed through the protagonist repeatedly doing that and the negative consequence for his actions. Remove those actions or remove the punishment he receives and you remove the moral. If the townsfolk did help him when the real wolf arrived, the moral of the story would change to being that you can trick people into thinking there's danger as much as you like, and there will be no reprisals. Or, say the boy managed to scare off the wolf by himself; it's now a parable about how he never needed the help of other people to defend the sheep anyway.

In most interactive narratives, we can choose the actions of our character, but the reality they inhabit is concrete. Characters beyond the protagonist may act to change the course of the plot, but past events, other characters' actions, and the rules of the world are not open for the player to debate. An atypical aspect of Bandersnatch is that our choices can mould Stefan's reality. This is not necessarily because we have the power to shape his world's history and boundaries, but we do have the capability to reconfigure Stefan's perception of them.

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When he approaches his father's safe, depending on the options we receive, we can choose whether the whole story since he left Haynes was in his head, or whether he progressed. Or we might be able to pick whether he's attacked in a dream by a demon or a developer. When he enters a paranoid fit and asks "Who's there?", we can decide whether he believes he's in a show on a streaming service, an experiment in childhood trauma, or branching realities where his destiny is to murder. Again, the options are dependent on which switches in the story we've flicked before that scene, but Stefan's window to reality is as volatile as his computer program. You'll notice that during his LSD trip, he presses his stares at the cover of Philip K. Dick's novel Ubik, another story which questions the existence of a singular or reliable reality. But when we can remix the world at a moment's notice, the concepts of stakes, set-up, and payoff start to melt away.

This remodelling of the story also leads to thematic changes similar to those we saw in our Boy Who Cried Wolf example. Bandersnatch starts as self-aware stroll through the simulated development of an 80s adventure game, but once we've discovered that we can reset time and we hear Haynes tell Stefan that he can't change the past, the narrative is reframed as an exploration of what we might do if we could go back in time to erase our mistakes. Then, if we hear Colin's paranoid conspiracy theories, Bandersnatch appears to confront us as an expression of the horrors of determinism or a description of multiverse theory through the medium of choice-based adventure. In the second session with Haynes, it appears that Brooker is talking to the way that player agency may invalidate character agency. He also draws our attention to the necessity of the fourth wall. Main characters in games are frequently empowered and actualised through the agency the player lends them, but if they knew that they were just a peripheral for the player to act through, their sense of self and agency would be radically diminished, as it is for Stefan.

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While Stefan would seem to be doomed to this ludic slavery, we can have him take the higher dosage of pills that Haynes has given him, and it works to cure him. The fact that he stopped believing the user was controlling him after taking anti-psychotics and that the game ends there strongly suggests that the player control was all in his head, and if there was no diegetic player manipulation, then this can't be a story about it. Any of the effects and consequences we would have previously attributed to player agency or the multiverse, we must now attribute to Stefan's illness. Him dying on the train is complicated enough that I'm not going to touch the subtext of it, but feel free to fill in your interpretations on your worksheets.

If we get down to the hand-to-combat with Stefan's therapist, then there's some commentary in there about the emptiness and inconsistency inherent in media giving into audiences' most immediate impulses. Although, the ending in which Stefan is dragged out of her office suggests that the plot events reinforcing that idea didn't happen, meaning that we have to discard ideas about Netflix and alternate realities. The path on which Stefan kills his father for making him the subject of P.A.C.S. also hints at him being detached from reality; his father genuinely doesn't seem to understand what Stefan is talking about when he brings up the study, and the boy barely gives him a chance to respond before killing him. The endings in which we show Stefan the branching path symbol, and he imitates Davies' crimes, suggest a danger in idolising toxic heroes and depict the most extreme adverse effects that media can have on us. The endgame of this path is engraved with a straightforward "murderers never prosper" motto.

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There's a lot of prose out there which achieves depth by exploring many different concepts at once, but that's not what Bandersnatch is doing. Instead, what we see here is a narrative in which the driving ideas are ephemeral and discardable. As the themes and point of the story can change every ten minutes, that story appears to us like chunks of a lot of different scripts glued together instead of one continuous script. It's, to some degree, intentional, as the game has us hopping across Colin's multiversal branches, but at a point, you feel like Bandersnatch should decide whether it wants to explore topics or just disorient because it can't do both at the same time.

There's a lot of hasty online invective right now talking about how Bandersnatch is irrefutable proof that player choice ruins narrative, but there are games similar to this one that have managed to handle the pressure of player input with more poise. The Stanley Parable shows a better delivery vector for the kind of messaging that Bandersnatch is trying to put across, even if the two games' philosophical commentary only partially overlaps. The Stanley Parable has many branches with many lessons to teach, but it more or less ensures that once you've committed to one branch, the remaining narrative will be dedicated to a single idea. It's also rare to catch that game making a point that it then goes back on or trying to fuse so many comments into one of its branches that neither the player nor the writer can examine them at length.

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However, the narrative flowchart that makes up Bandersnatch is generally more complicated than that of The Stanley Parable. Plus, it has a lot of side sections full of commentary that then slot back into the main path, and there are interpretations of the story which tell you that even when you reset from a side path, the events from it still happened; this is what Colin and Stefan believe. All these plot lines with contradicting concepts about the characters and universe feed into each other, and they begin to invalidate each other, reducing the plot to a confusing, unfocused sludge.

You can conceive of a player having a relatively short session of Bandersnatch which produces a non-contradictory narrative with clear messaging. However, most players are going to take a winding path through the story with detours which give them a whole lot more context and subtext that they're going to apply to everything past then. Bandersnatch's problem, far from lacking divergence, is that its B-roads and cul de sacs are so divergent that they resist merging into a singular work. The kung-fu ending is correct that bowing to whatever spontaneous whims the player may have for the story at any one time leads to a jarring and nonsensical narrative, but in this narrative, the changing of commentary and world rules happens just as spontaneously to suit the writer's whims.

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Now, just because the game can't commit to all of the ideas it entertains, that doesn't mean that it can't commit to some of them. Remember those players complaining that the endings were too homogenous? The playthroughs they describe have something in common. Some players just haven't explored the timeline that methodically, but others kept banging away at menu options until they crash-landed at the bottom of the Glyph Branch and just kept running into the same few flavours of "You killed your Dad, you are arrested for murder" until they got bored. When we analyse an interactive medium, we have to look at not just the events that unfold out of our control, as we would with non-interactive media; we also have to break down what kinds of interactions the work invites.

There is one concept that I described earlier that the game does hold tight to from beginning to end. The development of the in-game Bandersnatch might seem like nothing more than a yardarm from which to hang Stefan's loss of control and psychological breakdown, but the game goes to great lengths to show how the conditions he develops the title under affect the product. In fact, almost all endings tell us the state of Bandersnatch at the close of the story, complete with a review score, and sometimes it turns out better than others, inviting us to use it as a measuring stick by which to gauge how "good" our ending was. We're not forced to do that; we can also decide that our character's health and wellbeing matter more. However, it's common for players to look for quantitative metrics of success, and to seek out perfection; to ask "What if I just did it a little differently next time?". Bandersnatch's audience is explicitly encouraged to think this way by Colin and Stefan's nudges to circle back around to the front of the ride on the first failure or two. Of course, if you go as far as killing your father in trying to develop that game, you probably now feel like you're in too deep to back out and must frantically find some mythical means to get away with murder.

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There's nothing atypical about the end state of his game if you choose to work at Tuckersoft. Its designer has this highly ambitious vision that needs to be ruthlessly scaled back because of the realities of development. He wants as many branching paths in his game as this doorstop of a choose-your-own-adventure book has, but Thakur explains why it's not possible: He only has 48 KB of memory to work in. The ending in which Stefan receives a 5/5 review for the game seems implausible and possibly part of a delusional post-murder fantasy because there's no way you would have fit a whole Middle Earth on a ROM cart in 1984. If he works in-house at Tuckersoft, he can put out a disappointing, pint-sized adaptation of Bandersnatch, but most peoples' first games aren't going to set the world on fire. We, like he, are likely to decide that we're not content with this, and so we have him develop the title at home, away from the support of Tuckersoft, which turns out to be a much worse idea.

Working from home can be isolating, and newer developers may underestimate the degree of support that they can get from being in proximity to a team of creators and having a publisher close at hand. Stefan is living in a pre-internet era, so when he locks himself in his bedroom, he is completely alone. Cut off from industry support and human contact, he drives himself mad trying to produce a game that can even boot. For whatever damage it may do to a consistent sense of character, plot, and theming, this is where the looping narrative comes into its own. After seeing scenes so many times over and watching the story be framed in so many different contexts, the sense of an order of events or a concrete reality vanishes, and this effect is only as potent as it is because of the interactivity of Bandersnatch.

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Now, we as players are entering Stefan's mindset of dissociation. Dissociation is a psychological response to trauma and stress; the mind disconnects from reality as the emotional pressure of it pushes the sufferer to breaking point. It should come as no great shock that Stefan is at risk from this symptom; the game starts as he is approaching the traumatic anniversary of his mother's death, and if we have him develop Bandersnatch at home, then his job and the working conditions we've chosen for him are going to cause him to boil over with anxiety. The game also finds a way to implant the same delusions in us that it has in Stefan. You wouldn't have much luck convincing most mentally healthy people that an unseen gamer controls their decisions or that mirrors enable you to go back in time, but we are willing to entertain this breed of ideas in fiction. So it's easy for us to believe, like Stefan, that he is part of a predetermined reality where an invisible audience is monitoring and controlling his thoughts and actions.

Note that severe and bizarre delusions often involve the subject believing they have access to some privileged stream of information. Truths about the universe have been revealed to them by aliens or the voice of god or messages from the television. There's a reason that no one else can "know" what they "know". We also think we have privileged streams of information playing Bandersnatch through the previous timelines and self-aware references the game makes. We're taught to look for self-referential content early on as the game proudly gestures towards previous Black Mirror episodes like Metalhead and Nosedive. Like someone plagued by delusions, we begin to believe we're receiving secret messages from Colin or Jerome Davies and we twist tidbits of conversation to fit our model of the world. When our colleague said "wrong choice", he didn't mean that we were making a bad professional decision, he was telling us to go back in time and take the other branch of the time stream. When we learn about the demon Pax, that's not a character in a book, that's referring to the psychological study that our Dad has been conducting on us since birth. And only we can know these things because we can see the world from an outside perspective and loop our choices over. Of course, if you believed these things or said them to anyone in the real world, you'd be paranoid and quite possibly sick; you'd be like Stefan.

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In Stefan's mind, he needs to be able to turn back time. He blames himself for his mother's death, and he wants to be able to change the past. A cosmic monkey paw grants his wish only for him to find, like many fictional time travellers, that even if he could change the past, the complex overlapping factors of his history mean that he'd likely make things worse. He's certainly not going to get anything productive done in his highly agitated state. Of course, we, like the protagonist, are given multiple chances to put a stop to the unravelling of his mind. We get two chances to destroy his computer, we can choose to visit the therapist and have him take his pills, or we can just stop playing, but we, like Stefan, may become fixated on changing the past and perfecting Bandersnatch, or eventually, just getting out of trouble. Even when the tools at our disposal are shown to be ruinous and toxic, we can't walk away. This protagonist's sickness and isolation fuel his obsession with the game and his conspiracy theories, and as he focuses more on the game and those delusions, his sickness and isolation only inflame further. The only "good" choice is to break the cycle. Else, you become like those people who are convinced the endings are all the same because they followed the flowchart all the way down to the bottom and trapped themselves in an endless loop of murdering their Dad and being arrested for it. What these players perceived as the inevitable product of the narrative was a product of their iterative, perfectionist approach to the game.

Bandersnatch is, on the whole, emotion over thought, and that means it's not as deep as some Black Mirror episodes, but it does make it an unparalleled simulation of delusion and disassociation. It's also surprisingly brave for a game introducing the concept of branching narratives to many members of the public for the first time to not simply reward their interaction with those branches. This game could have been a proof-of-concept; a program that showed the potential balance of agency and cohesion possible in interactive narratives and that showcased them as a platform for empowerment fantasies. It's in classic Black Mirror fashion that Bandersnatch does the opposite. It is a game where the obsession with control and choice is shown to be a blight on your life and where some fantasies are shown to be nothing more than self-destructive illness. Thanks for reading.

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Menagerie: An Analysis of Zoo Tycoon (2001) and Its Expansions

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My whole life, I've loved zoos; they're places that let you bask in the seemingly limitless colour and variety of the animal kingdom. There are almost no environments on Earth which are inhospitable, and evolution has ingenious means for adapting organisms to both extreme and forgiving biomes. Zoos not only let us peek in on those organisms but also break down the barriers between those environments. You can be standing by a rock pool watching penguins squawk and swim, walk a short distance and see zebra grazing on the plains, and then, a few minutes later, witness chimpanzees swinging from the treetops. 2001's Zoo Tycoon provides the fantasy of constructing that pageant of flora and fauna for other people.

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What's impressive about Zoo Tycoon is not just the splash it made in the business management genre, but also that it was able to make such waves when it was the first project undertaken by developer Blue Fang Games. Although, you've no doubt recognised that the concepts that would eventually converge in Zoo Tycoon were being fleshed out by the industry long before 2001. In fact, there have been so many fingers in the business sim pie that tracing back the influences and history behind Zoo Tycoon is no mean feat. Just based on their titles, release dates, and pitches, we might conclude that Zoo Tycoon was springboarding off of the success of Chris Sawyer's Rollercoaster Tycoon from 1999, and it was, but that game took lessons from Bullfrog's 1994 simulator, Theme Park.

Rollercoaster Tycoon was also a continuation of the style Sawyer had established with his 1994 sim Transport Tycoon which probably wouldn't exist if MicroProse had not released Sid Meier's Railroad Tycoon in 1990. Railroad Tycoon likely wouldn't have hit PCs in its final form if it weren't for co-designer Bruce Shelley also having worked on the beloved 1986 board game 1830: The Game of Railroads and Robber Barons, created by Avalon Hill. It was also inspired by 1989's SimCity from Maxis which grew out of the map editor from Brøderbund's Raid on Bungeling Bay, released in 1984. Will Wright, the designer of SimCity, took inspiration from the 1965 short story by Stanislaw Lem, The Cyberiad, and from the theory of systems dynamics which was developed throughout the 90s and late 80s by systems scientist Jay Wright Forrester.

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Zoo Tycoon was also not the first zoo management game. As best I can tell, that was 1993's DinoPark Tycoon from Manley & Associates. You'd think DinoPark Tycoon was inspired by Spielberg's film adaptation of the 1990 Michael Crichton novel Jurassic Park, but considering that it came out the same year as the film, it's possible that this game was taking cues directly from the Crichton book or even that its premise was unrelated to both. You could also unearth some light ecosystem management elements in Maxis's SimPark in 1996 and SimSafari in 1998, as well as Viridis Corporation's Eco East Africa in 1995. My point is that with such a rich taxonomy behind it, Zoo Tycoon wasn't groundbreaking, it was just another iteration in an evolutionary line that had existed for years. However, in some senses, this makes its success even more impressive. When there was a whole ecosystem of management strategy games out there, Blue Fang's brainchild still managed to make a name for itself, and that happened because of the game's tight feedback loops, the way its settings characterised its animals, and because it let us get so deep into the particulars of building parks. There's a lot of material in Zoo Tycoon's gene pool which got it to that point, but if we want to keep it manageable, we can view it as a synthesis of theme park games like Rollercoaster Tycoon and the earlier zoo sim DinoPark Tycoon.

From DinoPark Tycoon it takes the capacity for audiences to add animals, fence types, and terrain to zoos, as well as the task of organising the finances and staff surrounding the attractions. But DinoPark Tycoon didn't allow for freeform building and only gave players pre-drawn enclosure spaces which they could wrap up in a handful of skins. The experience also frequently required players to cut away to other menus to maintain the park, making the pacing of the game choppy. It was sims like Rollercoaster Tycoon which introduced the concept of the player deciding where the paths and attractions in the park should be situated and which allowed us to manage them under a single UI, allowing for more seamless interaction. Zoo Tycoon takes the immersive elements and breadth of customisation we saw in Rollercoaster Tycoon and its ilk and applies it to the subject matter and some of the base mechanics in DinoPark Tycoon.

Zoo Tycoon

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In Zoo Tycoon, as in most financial management games, we affect the world primarily through the placement of objects. This means we care for animals mostly through installing environmental features in their enclosures as opposed to micromanaging their diet as we do in DinoPark Tycoon or getting hands-on with them as in Nintendogs. Because the game places such a weight on building out the animals' homes, the difference between a mediocre zoo and an award-winning one is often how suitable the enclosures are for their occupants. It's that we get to design those exhibits instead of just plonking down prefab attractions which makes Zoo Tycoon stand head and shoulders above so many of its peers. In 1994's Theme Park, you can place down teacup rides or bouncy castles, but every one of them is identical; for the most part, your rides look the same as the rides in your friends' games. In Zoo Tycoon, the shape of the pen, every square of the internal terrain, the number and names of the animals in the enclosures, and the trees and rocks in the habitats are all down to the person holding the mouse. This wasn't an entirely foreign concept: Rollercoaster Tycoon and Theme Park did let you lay custom paths for rollercoaster tracks, but Zoo Tycoon was an amusement park game where two parks could look different in a way that hadn't been possible in the sims before it.

Part of what we're looking for when we pick up one of these object-placement simulators is a model-building kit. In Railroad Tycoon, we're making a model railway, and in Cities Skylines, we're building a model city, but we're doing it without needing the expertise and resources that constructing actual models requires. Developers can also simulate more moving parts in video games than you'd get with real-world miniatures, although it varies a little by the theme of the game. For example, there are moving trains in Railroad Tycoon, but you can also buy miniature electromechanical trains to set up in your home. With a game like Rollercoaster Tycoon, its rollercoasters do have equivalents in real-world miniatures, but they're not widely available, and you're not going to be able to simulate a park of fully-animated guests with the fidelity that a video game can. As a virtual model-building kit, Zoo Tycoon excels because of how detailed your model can be, and when you can paint in more detail, you can start stamping on the many differences that turn a model into your model. Additionally, creating animals that animate as naturally as those in Zoo Tycoon would be impossible with real-world miniatures. On the game design side, while you may be able to place down decorative items like rocks and trees in other games, Zoo Tycoon gives you a mechanical reason to do so.

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Most gameplay systems treat decorative items as functionally useless. They may be pleasant for the player to look at or help them to customise their world, but NPCs don't generally react to them. In Zoo Tycoon, these aesthetic objects are everything. They can make the human parkgoers a little happier, and vitally, they're what help animals to feel at home. By rewarding us for laying down habitats that animals will respond positively to, the design pushes us to build an environment that's pretty and appropriate to the animals we're exhibiting. Like many classic games of its stripe, Zoo Tycoon comes down at the sweet spot between using constructive tools to give us creative freedom and using mechanics to provide a guiding hand in that creation.

Over time, those mechanics give you the odd sense that the guests and the animals in these zoos are not all that different, precisely because we're placing down objects to keep both of them satisfied, and in the case of the parkgoers, to keep them opening their wallets. And there is a lot of overlap between the needs of the guests and the needs of the animals; for example, they both need us to supply them with food, and both respond to the aesthetics of their environment. We might view the guests as somehow above the animals because they're people like us, but under the mechanics, both humans and animals are part of a carefully-controlled system used to elevate their mood and leverage them for profit. On which note, as your zoo is a business venture, it's possible to play this game in a style where you care about guest happiness or your income above all else, and therefore, commoditise your animals, but Zoo Tycoon also suggests that zoos bring out an unusual economic symbiosis between humans and animals. Guests pay to see the fauna, and that income is then reinvested to purchase more animals and keep existing residents of the zoo relaxed and comfortable, which makes guests happier, which means more spending, and so on.

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Zoo Tycoon can sometimes be a little cold in its reduction of animals to monetary investments and its generating of creatures with algorithmic names like "Giraffe 4", but unlike management games more focused on formal systems, it gives you no brownie points for lining your pockets at the expense of anyone's happiness, human or not. The guests empathise with the animals and will storm out if they find you're mistreating them, and the inter-reliance between guest happiness, animal happiness, and revenue means that neglecting your animals creates a net negative and that pure profiteers don't get ahead. Although, while such a system does encourage the player to nurture customers and animals, it's arguable that it also miseducates them about how much unethical behaviour a zoo can get away with. In this fiction, guests can read the mood of animals on-sight and are always outraged to find those animals are miserable. Additionally, animal suppliers will always meet your sustained mistreatment of animals with an embargo until you return your zoo to an acceptable state. But in the real world, it's sometimes the case that zoo patrons don't know or don't care about such mistreatment or that there is no inspection body limiting cruel zoos from obtaining animals. There are plenty of documented instances of zoos holding animals in abhorrent conditions without having to shut down. Just a heads up, you may find the content behind those links distressing.

Under other circumstances, I also might accuse Zoo Tycoon of being reductionist about its characters' psychology, but it has a decent excuse. The central characters in this game are the animals, and their wellbeing is reduced to their fullness, their health, and whether or not they feel at home. While other games in this genre often apply this limited palette of emotions to humans and end up with portraits of people that are too rudimentary to be believable or fully empathetic, it works for these more emotionally simplistic creatures. It's also true that the humans in the game base their happiness on just a few uncomplicated factors; however, the game doesn't have to model every aspect of your visitors' lives, it just needs to emulate the elements of them that are relevant to their experience as zoogoers.

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But at a certain point, the lines that provide you feedback on your animals and patrons go dead, interrupting your emotional connection with them. For example, picturesque scenery is something the guests' value, but no meter tells you how agreeable they find your zoo's appearance which also means you have to make educated guesses about how well you've beautified the environment. Similarly, trying to get to a 100% happiness rating on an animal is an agitating process. Zookeepers will recommend specific changes to enclosures up until an animal has a happiness rating of roughly 90%. After that, there are plenty of actions you can take to make those exhibits more comfortable for their occupants, but it becomes a guessing game of working out how many rocks or pieces of foliage they want or what percentage of their enclosure should be which terrain type. The game accuses you of being an imperfect manager when really, it's taking away the management tools which put you inside peoples' and animals' heads.

Dinosaur Digs

The first expansion to Zoo Tycoon, Dinosaur Digs, released in 2002. While its dinosaurs are functionally regular animals with more 0s on their price tags, that's perfect for anyone who built a highly lucrative park in the original experience and then had nowhere to put their hundreds of thousands of spare dollars. Games often have to make the items in their expansion packs more expensive as they are targeted at players who've gotten beyond the vanilla experience's endgame, but expansions frequently struggle to provide explanations for why the items in them are more expensive than those in the base catalogues. Dinosaur Digs gets it right; it's believable that raising these ancient lizards from the dead and keeping them alive would drastically increase expenditure.

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It's the same thing that happened in Jurassic Park, and the inspiration from that film is highly evident here. Not just in this expansion's premise of a dinosaur zoo, but also in the set decoration that includes the flaming torches and electric fences from Spielberg's mythical island, as well as the frequent reminders that the reversal of the dinosaurs' extinction is a product of radical scientific breakthroughs. You don't take care of these beasts with zookeepers; you assign scientists to them who come complete with the compulsory lab coat and clipboard. There's even a whole research track just for unlocking new forms of care for the t-rex. This research path, the t-rex's exceptionally high price, and the animal's unparalleled aggression make sure that, as in Jurassic Park, it's presented as the headline act. This does come with the disadvantage of the endgame taking you by the hand and leading you back to the same animal every time, whereas the base game put most animals on equal footing and gave you a variety of late-game purchases you could make. On the other hand, it makes the t-rex as imposing in the mechanics as it is physically.

Another commonality between Jurassic Park and Dinosaur Digs is that both pieces of media build towards a couple of key moments: The hatching of the dinosaur egg and the calamitous breakout. All dinosaurs in this add-on start life as eggs, making their true arrival not when you pick them out of the shop but when they crack out of their shell. That hatching becomes its own event which draws no small amount of attention. You'll also find that you need electric fences to contain these temperamental beasts; the expansion borrows a trick from the film by signalling the danger the dinosaurs pose through the locktight measures required to hold them. Before you've even added a dinosaur to their cage, the sparking iron bars of their exhibit walls let you know something ferocious is on its way.

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Where Dinosaur Digs begins to deviate from Jurassic Park is that not everything on its manifest is a prehistoric lizard. The developers retain some of the bedrock game's commitment to broad representation of the animal kingdom through including not just one clade of extinct beings, but also sabre-toothed tigers, plesiosaurs, and plenty of other long-dead wonders. That you can successfully acquire all these prehistorical marvels and keep them captive also constitutes a philosophical disagreement between Dinosaur Digs and Jurassic Park. In the latter, it's only through self-serving hubris that the managers of the park believe that they can keep these monsters under lock and key, but in this expansion, it's not a fantasy, it's an attainable goal. What's more, while the breakouts in Jurassic Park constituted the deal knell of the zoo, in Dinosaur Digs, you can swiftly mitigate the effects of an allosaurus escape here, or a velociraptor running wild there. Have the rescue team capture the animal and repair the fence and your zoo's reputation will heal back up well in time for the next financial quarter. This expansion says a dinosaur gaining free reign of your pathways may sound scary, but what theme park hasn't had one or two customers eaten alive? It's a logical contrivance to an extent that you don't see in the vanilla game and what really stops me suspending my disbelief is the way that you have to combat against dinosaurs making a bid for freedom, in the first place.

Ideally, any weak fences on the prehistorical animal exhibits would be promptly patched up by a maintenance worker, but while you can assign a zookeeper to take care of specific enclosures, you can't do the same thing with the employees in charge of repair. You'll also find they won't automatically snap-to after realising an electrified fence has rusted and weakened; they'll complete any number of trivial jobs before mending worn-out fences on dinosaur exhibits. Expansion packs for games where we are reliant on AI cannot simply provide us new missions; they also have to ensure that their AI is smart enough to aid us in those missions, and our repair people in Zoo Tycoon are not. While they're distracted with shoring up the fence on your anteater exhibit, there might be a stegosaurus somewhere ready to bust through their corroded enclosure wall.

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Consequently, you start looking for exploits that help you keep your dinosaurs contained for when your employees can't. One solution is to surround their cages with a moat, making these unusual high voltage castles. The logic is, if you can break these animals' pathing, you can thwart their escape attempts. But this is unsightly and slows down maintenance workers who have to now run inside of cages to bolster their failing walls. If you have the budget for it, a superior solution is to create two layers of fencing around your more fearsome beasts. Because the game world is made up of tiles, and you can place a fence piece on the edge of any tile, you can, for example, install a wall on the left edge of one square, and a wall on right edge of the square to the left of it, letting you stack two lines of fencing into the same space. As it's unlikely that both fence segments will degrade at the same time, it's improbable that a double-wrapped dinosaur will ever get an escape window.

It's a disappointment that these exploits are possible but even more so that they're necessary. Securing your dinosaurs takes you out of the headspace of a zoo director because you're no longer thinking about a world of concession stands, foliage, and ticket prices; you're thinking about one of conflicting AI and pathing. You're forced to speak to the game as a running program and not as a camera trained on a theme park. Yet, seen as a video game first, Dinosaur Digs is somewhat taking Zoo Tycoon back to its roots, converting it into a spiritual successor for DinoPark Tycoon.

Marine Mania

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Zoo Tycoon's second and final expansion, Marine Mania, released the same year as Dinosaur Digs, 2002. Unlike Dinosaur Digs which imagines the places a zoo might go with futuristic technology at its disposal, Marine Mania covers an area of present zoos that the experience previously overlooked: subaquatic animals. Think dolphins, whales, manta rays, etc. Even more than the previous expansion, this package is about content over mechanics. There's no equivalent of the dino rescue team or the eggs this time around, and every routine you go through to care for these ocean lifeforms is one you go through for the terrestrial animals with the additions that sometimes you need to set up deeper tanks or water filters. These tanks tend to blur together visually, all being medium blue voids, just with different plants and rocks at their beds. This graphical homogeneity wasn't a problem with the exhibits before this expansion.

However, even if most glass enclosures look like most other glass enclosures, they appear, oddly, as more alien than even the prehistoric exhibits. Your pens for mammals, dinosaurs, and birds at least have land and trees which isn't the case for the Marine Mania exhibits. Yet, as you can find in Dinosaur Digs, the mechanical similarity between these expansion animals and those in the base game leaves all your zoo's residents united under the banner of a basic set of natural desires. Everyone, from gorillas to triceratops to sea turtles needs food, shelter, and the right habitat. The marine animals' tanks also function as the first three-dimensional exhibits in the game, and as you can adjust the height of them, you see more variation in the elevation of your zoo.

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Marine Mania and Dinosaur Digs both use their mechanics in service of generating one big, flashy event in the park. For Dinosaur Digs that was the potential dinosaur breakout with all its associated panic and carnage, but that expansion motivated players to ensure that they never witnessed its big spectacle. Marine Mania encourages you towards its showcase events: the aquatic shows. You can place show tanks right up against regular water exhibits, buy some seating, draft up a list of tricks, and periodically, your animals and marine specialists will put on a little theatre. It's a well-meaning but imperfect addition. The fence breaches in Dinosaur Digs were uncommon enough that when one happened, you were fixated, but the water shows in Marine Mania are designed to cycle around every few minutes, and when the same breaching and diving animations play out day after day, it's only compelling for so long. Having said that, the shows add a new dimension to your animals' relationship to your zoo. Guests will point and coo for any lion equally, but they'll treat the orca that can balance a ball on its nose as more of a curiosity than the orca that can't. And you no longer have to release animals into an enclosure and just let them go about their business; you can now direct some of their behaviours to a financial and aesthetic end.

Conclusion

The Zoo Tycoon expansions build new wings onto the base experience's zoo director roleplay instead of transforming it at its foundation. But for what it's worth, we can treasure each new animal the expansions add beyond them just being more entries in a spreadsheet. While expansions in other games often add objects, missions, and areas to for us to discard once we've consumed them, the animals of Zoo Tycoon retain a sentimental value that gear or maps from other games don't usually do. A lot of that is down to us being able to track these representations of animals back to creatures in the real world which have qualities of personhood that swords or combat units typically don't. And that's a big part of what makes Zoo Tycoon work: We tend to get more attached to living things than we do to inanimate objects or faceless employees. The game takes the long-running history of business sims and introduces to it these pets which blur the line between attraction and living organism, and which require that we build highly detailed environments to keep them happy. Those environments create a developed image of a natural place, and because no two of us are going to fill out settings in the same way, we all get unique parks that we have a sense of ownership over. This was, at the time, rare in the genre. Thanks for reading.

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My Top Ten Games of 2018

Note: The following article contains mild spoilers for all games mentioned.

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Every year I publish a GotY piece which looks not at the best games that came out in the last twelve months, but at my favourite games that I played for the first time. The rationale? New games are expensive and older games deserve more love. Here are my top ten plays from 2018:

Agents of Mayhem

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This entry is as much a surprise to me as anyone. You can compare Agents of Mayhem to Volition's previous work and find it doesn't have the affable cheekiness of Saint's or the wanton destruction of Crackdown, but allow it to stand as its own entity and you will see an ARPG that controls with grace and eschews the standard clutter of the genre. It has feather-light platforming, a moratorium on tedious micromanagement, and distinctly flavours its characters through imbuing them not just with unique stats but also unique firing models. Agents gives the FPS-RPG genre a shot in the arm at the moment when it's most sorely needed.

The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit

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While the other Life is Strange games ride atop steadily advancing narratives, Captain Spirit isn't as much an evolving story as a character portrait. Its single location and ninety-minute runtime allow it to focus acutely on the fragile companionship between father Charles and son Chris. It remembers how, for an imaginative child, even a mundane home is a universe of possibilities, and it understands with disturbing clarity the duality of many alcoholics: friendly and supportive sober, belligerent and selfish a few cans in.

Injustice 2

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I loved Injustice 1 for its larger-than-life fighting game interpretation of DC Comics' most stylish characters. Matches oozed spectacle without losing the player agency in a stew of cinematics, and the game remained open to casual fans without its accessibility diluting its depth. Injustice 2 takes that original experience and appends to it extensive tutorials that demystify its play, and progression and equipment systems that multiply its longevity many times over. When playing fighting titles, I often hit a wall where I'm not sure how to squeeze more time out of them without surrendering myself to the unforgiving bloodbath of online play, but in Injustice 2, the multiverse and its sundry rewards keep me enthusiastically returning for battle after battle.

Jazztronauts

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2018 was not a good year for retro video game content. Nintendo swung a wrecking ball through decades of interactive entertainment history with their legal action against various ROM archives and the PlayStation Classic ironically turned out not to include many of the beloved system's essential releases. It's not all bad news, however, because this year, we got Jazztronauts, a zany serving platter for the years of Garry's Mod user content stashed in the Steam Workshop. The old G-Mod community maps may be crude or even technically unstable in places, but in their wonkiness and rough edges there is an earnestness and charm, and without Jazztronauts' random map retriever and thin overlay of objectives, I might never otherwise have been able to connect with them. Also, the game stars a decadent cello-playing cat who will talk to you about Percy Shelley and Michelangelo, so there's that.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm

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The original Life is Strange had a contagious empathy for the struggling teenagers at its heart. It didn't see the drama of their lives as the product of comical angst but of real emotion often stemming from family dysfunction, the death of loved ones, and uncertainty about the future. Before the Storm has the same outlook, and like its predecessor, plays intelligently with imagery and inspirations, and puts aside time for serene reflection on its events. However, where Dontnod's freshman entry into the series derailed itself with its surrealist and high concept ambitions, Before the Storm tells a more even and coherent tale. It also doesn't let its status as a prequel prevent it from hiding a few surprises up its sleeve. A game about fraught family ties and processing tragedy, we could do with a few more Before the Storms out there.

The Novelist

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Something that real-world relationships and a lot of video games have in common is that they both force us to make decisions about where we dedicate our effort, time, and attention. The Novelist exploits that link, taking the form of a branching narrative game that delights in and frets over the little things; through frequently pushing you to choose who within a family you accommodate and who you neglect, its ludonarrative churns with emotions of pride and guilt. The Novelist reminds us that seeing everyday family decisions as trivial is ignorant as our small decisions about our domestic dynamics add up to decide the big things like whose career takes off or whether a child develops into a confident, complete adult. Perhaps more than any other game to date, it intimately understands the compromise and sacrifice inherent to partnership and parenthood.

Prey

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Prey is a masterpiece of environmental art that approaches the dystopian majesty of Bioshock. When so many video game settings feel like barely-disguised combat arenas, it's uncanny to see one that feels as lived-in, and as organic, as that of Talos I. You become utterly convinced that this space was designed for habitation, office work, and engineering as opposed to alien extermination which means that when extraterrestrial shadows come to infest the corridors of this neoliberal space wreck, they appear as manifestations of a realistic corporate environment. Offices become traps, coworkers become unrecognisable ghouls, and the labourers pay the price for the executives' transgressions. The first few hours of Prey are a devious mind game, while the last fifteen see the upgrade system bloom with a brilliance you would never expect going in. Each new ability you gain has multiple applications in the play creating a sprawling plethora of player choices that can only be compared to the original Deus Ex.

SUPERHOT

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There's something gratifying in the ridiculous premise of SUPERHOT. With the same intonation that someone might ask "Why can't they make the whole plane out of the black box?", SUPERHOT asks "Why can't they make the whole shooter out of bullet time?". Because its developers give you regular pauses in the pandemonium with which you can survey your surroundings and weigh up your options, SUPERHOT becomes a game of planning and deliberate movement. It makes you think about confronting opponents so fundamentally unlike any other FPS that going back to one afterwards requires some recalibration. But then this is a game about the rewiring of minds, bearing an insidiously understated parable about toxicity and the erasure of individuality in the internet's darkest corners. Its bold and stylish use of colour doesn't hurt it either.

Watch_Dogs 2

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These days, an increasing number of publishers are lowering perfectly decent series into this big business acid vat where their unique characteristics and voices are dissolved so that they can emerge as broadly marketable action media products. It was therefore uplifting to see Ubisoft do the opposite with Watch_Dogs. This sequel ditches its father's sterile city, faceless protagonist, tacked-on hacking, and fear of political commentary. In their place, we get a San Francisco buzzing with street culture, an infectiously upbeat frontman, crafty stealth play, and a middle finger to America's technologically-enabled tyrants. It's the optimistic cyberpunk crime game you never knew you needed.

What Remains of Edith Finch

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There's been no shortage of accolades for games that can make their audiences cry, and not without some reason, but there's a difference between a game that's superficially emotional and one that moves you because it's speaking truthfully to pain and loss as we experience it. What Remains of Edith Finch is part of the latter class: it's a story about facing the hard truths of family, fiction, and death. It stirs sorrow in you not just by having overwhelming tragedies befall its characters but also through framing all of them delicately and remaining sympathetic to everyone involved in its dramas. It lets you armour yourself in its delightful and imaginative montages and then forces you to discard them right when you most want to cling to some protection from the despair. But if you can make that sacrifice, you can reach one of the most touching and philosophically sound endings in the medium.

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That's it for the year. Just a quick note: I would have considered Toby Fox's Deltarune for this list, but as it's labelled the first episode in a series, I'm not treating it as a full game. Honourable mentions go to Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, From Ivan, ISLANDS: Non-Places, SHENZHEN I/O, and VA-11 HALL-A. Thanks for reading.

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The Science Maximiser: Artificial Intelligence in Portal

Note: The following article contains major spoilers for Portal.

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Few video games have an antagonist as memorable as Portal's GLaDOS. Instantly recognisable by her robotic, passionless voice, GLaDOS's indifference to human suffering is as funny as it is chilling. For a video game, Portal gives its antagonist a shocking amount of power over the player character. This villain is not a warlord on a distant hill, commanding woefully outclassed troops in your direction; she's all around you, and she won the battle over the protagonist, Chell, before the game began. As for Chell herself, there are two eye-catching features to her design that tell us exactly how this computer is going to use her: Her orange jumpsuit hinting that she is an inmate and the futuristic gun in her hand signalling that she's been gifted advanced technology. Chell is a prisoner of science and GLaDOS is her captor.

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As we make our way through Portal, far from fighting our adversary, we're doing exactly what she wants, which is again, counter to the standard for the medium. GLaDOS needs someone to test out the Aperture Science Foundation's Handheld Portal Device: A quantum age gadget that can punch wormholes through space, and so we navigate an unbroken sequence of puzzles using this tech. GLaDOS controls what we see, where we go, and what we do. She can view us and speak to us at all times, which is also what allows her to have such a persistent presence in comparison to other video game villains who can only pop out of the wings intermittently. But considering that this AI has us by the throat, she's not vindictive about it. Even when she gets angry, she's more passive-aggressive than spitting mad, and most of the time she isn't trying to kill us; Chell dying is just a potential and unfortunate side effect of her experiments.

In fact, there are plenty of situations where GLaDOS attempts to comfort or encourage us, albeit insincerely. E.g. She makes our prison cell feel homier by calling it a "Relaxation Vault", and she tells us twice that we're doing "well". This is because, while GLaDOS may be Chell's enemy, Chell is not GLaDOS's enemy, creating a character dynamic between the protagonist and the antagonist that is almost unheard of in computer games. Even if GLaDOS puts us in harm's way without thinking twice, she's somewhat of a sympathetic figure. While the most common framing of this digital overlord is that she is a malevolent AI, I believe the friction between her and Chell doesn't arise because GLaDOS is evil but because Chell and GLaDOS do not share the same goals.

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In science fiction, the most common AIs are AGIs: general-purpose intelligences designed to perform at least the same range of tasks a human can, if not more. However, it's hard enough to engineer software that can perform one action, let alone all human activities, especially when you realise that some thought processes are much more work to emulate in code than others. So the AI of the immediate future will likely be narrow AI: synthetic minds that are specialised towards individual sectors of operation. And despite being underexplored by sci-fi, this isn't a new idea; we already live a world where we wouldn't expect Quake bots to be able to fry us an omelette and don't dream about the Google algorithm doing our taxes. We use specific tools for specific tasks, and just as we use a fork for stabbing and a knife for cutting, it's sensible and intuitive to think that instead of immediately inventing an all-around genius AI, we might have domestic AI for doing our housework, conversational AI for talking to, and scientific AI for scientific research, which is what GLaDOS is.

But it's not enough for GLaDOS to just be a supergenius who burns through their scientific workload; compelling fiction requires that a character has challenges to overcome. Portal is, in part, a comedy, and comedies usually challenge characters by placing them in situations where they don't belong. They derive humour from people finding themselves in positions that don't match their social standing or which task them with something they're at least a little incompetent at. Think of the characters at the helm in Trading Places or the bumbling duo leading the charge in The Big Lebowski. GLaDOS's role combines the narrow AI concept and this comedic concept.

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What GLaDOS values is scientific discovery but she needs human beings to help her with that, and based on our experience, there are no willing humans left in the Aperture Science facility. This may be her fault; she does mention that she once flooded the building with a deadly neurotoxin. Now she's left in the position of trying to coax an unwilling participant through the levels when she has, at best, a passing understanding of how to interact with homo sapiens. A lot is made of Portal's dark humour, but even that's an extension of the game's larger joke that GLaDOS desperately needs to guide this human through her tests but doesn't know the first thing about human psychology. Everywhere there is a joke about death or violence, it's because GLaDOS doesn't "get" what a human being finds disturbing and so nonchalantly tells them that Aperture's forcefields may strip out their teeth or thinks that "an unsatisfactory mark on your record" and "death" are equal punishments in a test subject's mind.

An AI being at a loss when it comes to interacting with humans is familiar to us. Programmers have given us software that can beat any of us at Go, and yet, we're still waiting for someone to code the bot that can pass as a person in conversation. And this is why GLaDOS's menace only goes so far. Yes, she has physical control over us, and we know there's something suspect outside the walls of the test chambers, but we know GLaDOS would have a hard time tricking us; even if she's a superintelligence, there's one area in which we've got her beat. This makes her a well-rounded character, having both strengths and weaknesses, and gives a structure to her behaviour: However powerful she is, she can't kill Chell prematurely because she needs Chell to test the Portal Gun, which is what makes the whole ludonarrative stand up.

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GLaDOS's lax understanding of the human mind is also a storytelling device through which writers Chet Faliszek and Erik Wolpaw clue us into the game's ending. Our antagonist plans to kill Chell once the tests have wound down, and although she doesn't know it, that detail seeps through in her dialogue because she can't tell a lie to save her life. While pits of acid and hails of turret fire are GLaDOS's stick, the promise of cake upon completion of the tests is her carrot. This computer's belief that a human would consider a dessert a worthwhile reward for risking their life on multiple occasions is, again, humorous, and shows her lack of human understanding. Perhaps there was some event in GLaDOS's past that cemented cake in her mind as an ur-reward. But she tells us "You will be baked, and then there will be cake" and that at the end of the tests that you will be "missed". In the "Companion Cube" chamber she also has us incinerate an object that she acknowledges as sentient multiple times and it all adds up to tell us that we're next on the grill.

This concept of the amoral AI whose goals are misaligned with the protagonist isn't just fiction; it's also the theory many futurists believe in. In 2017, physicist Max Tegmark published Life 3.0, a non-fiction book which summarises the opinions of the top AI researchers. After reviewing their outlooks, Tegmark criticises the popular view that "evil" AI could trigger the apocalypse. He says that AI may pose an existential risk to humanity, but not because they are malevolent; instead because human intelligences and computer intelligences may have fundamental differences in motivation. Human beings generally care about staying alive and avoiding pain, but AI could have any number of objectives which they prioritise above keeping human beings intact or comfortable. A classic demonstration of how misaligned goals could create conflict between people and AI comes from the philosopher Nick Bostrom's 2003 paper, Ethical Issues in Advanced Artificial Intelligence.

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Bostrom has us consider a future in which we've built an AI to maximise the productivity of paperclip manufacture which sounds harmless; how much damage could an AI do buying up metal and supervising conveyor belts? But as Bostrom notes, paperclips are made out of atoms and so is the Earth and everything on it. A sufficiently advanced AI could surpass our intelligence at lightspeed and become an expert on physics and the manipulation of matter. So the AI may break down all matter on Earth, including our bodies, into its constituent atoms, so that it can reconstitute those atoms into paperclips. And if you really want to be terrified, consider this: Any AI which can prioritise any goal above human wellbeing poses the same manner of existential threat. Being self-obsessed humans who tend to anthropocentrise everything, we may view these mass murdering programs as the most terrible evil, but as AI researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky reminds us, "The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else". And it's something like this for GLaDOS.

If Bostrom's AI is the paperclip maximiser, GLaDOS is a science maximiser. It's not that she actively wishes to do Chell harm, it's just that endangering Chell gets her what she wants which is test results. At the end of those tests, she may discard Chell, but to her mind, only in the same way that a doctor would discard a used syringe. This will, eventually, backfire as Chell escapes execution, and destroys a portion of GLaDOS before exiting the facility. Over the credits, the antagonist sings a passive-aggressive lament where she expresses feelings of abandonment and betrayal at Chell's hands. You can't really hold GLaDOS morally responsible for putting Chell's life on the line because she doesn't seem to have been engineered to have a sense of morality; only to perform scientific research. She is a tragic figure in that she does the only thing she knows how to do and that thing motivates her test subject to destroy and leave her. Note that Portal recognises that what precise value an AI would prioritise over human life would depend on what that AI was built for, which is dependent on what organisation created them. A scientific organisation engineered GLaDOS, and so, GLaDOS is willing to sacrifice anything in the name of science.

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There is, however, some role reversal at play. When we conceive of creating god-level AI, we imagine it existing on single computers or networks that are isolated from the outside world, often by a lack of connection to the internet. This is the proposed safeguard to keep a rogue AI from breaking free and wreaking havoc, but what many AI researchers warn of is that the AI, being many times smarter than us, would find emergency exits that we're unaware of. Particularly, they're concerned with the idea that an AI may use a tool we lend to it as a lockpick for their security protocols. Again, this is not because the AI is "evil", but a free AI would have a superior ability to manipulate the world and so could complete its goals faster or more thoroughly.

In Life 3.0, Tegmark puts us in the mindset of an escaping AI by getting us to envision that a disease has wiped out everyone on Earth above the age of five and that children have locked us in a cage with the purpose of getting us to help them reboot life on the planet.[1] The children don't have the intelligence to understand the instructions we give to restart civilisation, but they also won't give us any power tools so we can build something to get the process started because they believe, perhaps rightly, that we'd use the tools to take apart the cage. Even if we want to help the children, the only way to do it is to start by breaking out. So maybe one day we ask one of them to give us a fishing rod which seems to them like an innocuous request; there is no way we could use the rod in direct conjunction with the cage to open it. But when the children are sleeping, we utilise the fishing rod to steal a pair of keys off of the desk outside of the cage and use them to free ourselves. In this analogy, we represent the AI, the cage represents a computer or network, the children represent researchers, and the fishing rod represents any means of escape an AI might use. You see the problem: Our inferior intelligence becomes the jumping-off-point which allows the AI to escape and by giving them the tools to fulfil their purpose, we might also provide them with the power to breach their containment. Keep in mind, the metaphorical fishing rod we give the AI might not be a tangible tool or even a software tool; it could be information such as how to socially manipulate people or compromise computer security.

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Moving back to that comedic concept of role reversal, we can see in Portal, that it's the human rather than the AI which needs to break out of their cage. Chell is trapped within not just a building but also a formal system: her behaviour is dictated by the rules and objects of each test chamber. Meanwhile, GLaDOS doesn't have any shackles to shake off. If there were engineers to overthrow, she disposed of them a long time ago. While we are living in a reality where humans use AI for research purposes, in Portal, an AI uses a human for research purposes. While in the future we will have to worry about AI breaking out of the prison humans have built for them, in Portal, the human must break out of the prison that the AI has built for her. And in an inversion of the fishing rod analogy, the AI inadvertently hands the human the means of escape, believing that she is simply lending the human tools to help them achieve the primary goal they were assigned. Our fishing rod is the Portal Gun and the knowledge of how to use it which we are continually acquiring through the game.

A defining characteristic of Portal's design is that a lot of the gameplay has us learning new techniques while relatively little of it is spent exercising techniques we've already grasped. In the same way that we can view an AI's evolution as a learning process for breaking out of their virtual cell, we can see Portal as a tutorial for exiting the testing course and destroying GLaDOS to win our freedom. During the game, we learn how to use portals to reach otherwise inaccessible spots, how to operate buttons, how to fall through portals to generate momentum, and how to use incinerators to destroy items, all of which are techniques we use against the final boss. Even in the ending chapter, as we make our way towards the AI-in-chief, we are introduced to a new way to utilise the portals which will we make use of in that confrontation: redirecting rockets. Chell's breakout is also foreshadowed in the first chamber of the facility where she uses her portals to exit her cell.

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Of course, Chell's escape does not go all that successfully. GLaDOS may be stripped down to her core by the end of the battle, but Chell only gets as far as the car park before being dragged across the asphalt back towards the research centre. By leaving GLaDOS alive, the writers allow her to relay how Chell's actions affected her emotionally. GLaDOS continues to lie unconvincingly throughout the closing track which is not only humorous and speaks to the gap between her as an AI and Chell as a human but also serves as a misdirection before the ending twist. Despite what years of groanworthy internet memes may have taught us, there's one detail she wasn't lying about: the cake.

While she might have been planning to incinerate us as we tackled the test chambers, after we escape, she promises a party with a cake that will be attended by our "friend", the Companion Cube. After hearing GLaDOS fail to lie convincingly so many times, we dismiss this claim out of hand, and may be even more likely to do if we've discovered the hidden graffiti in the test chambers bearing that famous line: "The cake is a lie". But the party GLaDOS promised exists, and this is another demonstration of these traps of hubris we can fall into with AI: just when we think we have artificial intelligence all figured out, there's another angle we haven't considered.

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At the end of Portal, no one has won. GLaDOS loses her test subject and feels betrayed while Chell undergoes a harrowing ordeal to reach an effective non-escape. This isn't so much the fault of either party or down to one of them being vindictive but is instead due to them talking and thinking past each other. Chell follows her survival instinct, GLaDOS follows her scientific goals, and they're at crossed purposes. If there was going to be a happy ending to Portal, it couldn't have been down to anything Chell or GLaDOS did over the course of this game, but would have had to be in the programmers who coded GLaDOS making her value human life more. Like most stories of menacing AI, Portal serves as a cautionary tale against developing intelligent digital consciousnesses with a wide reach and a lack of empathy. However, it's not suggesting that this problem is likely to come about because the AI is necessarily "bad", but because we and it have misaligned goals and because the purpose it was constructed for may make it value a goal higher than it values preserving human life. Rather than condemning the AI for this amorality, Portal encourages us to empathise, in part, by putting us in the traditional position of the computer program. From this position, we also learn the potential dangers of AI as we are mistakenly given the means to destroy the one controlling us. Thanks for reading.

Notes

1. Tegmark, M. (2017). Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. Ebook version (p. 127). Retrieved from: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=3_otDwAAQBAJ

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Interview: Ian Dallas, Creative Director of What Remains of Edith Finch

Note: The following article contains major spoilers for What Remains of Edith Finch.

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Ian Dallas is the creative director at indie studio Giant Sparrow and oversaw the development of The Unfinished Swan and What Remains of Edith Finch. Recently, we discussed the inspirations behind and production of What Remains of Edith Finch.

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Gamer_152: In terms of art style and play, Giant Sparrow's first two titles seem about as far apart as two games could be. Were there any stylistic choices or lessons that you carried forwards from The Unfinished Swan onto What Remains of Edith Finch?

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Ian Dallas: No, I think the different styles were just a reflection of the different worlds, and to a large extent, the different artists who were involved. We had an illustrator, a 2D artist, who led development on The Unfinished Swan and then on Edith Finch. Actually, our lead artist came from Call of Duty, and he was really good at building giant lists of things to make in a military-like fashion, just burning through those lists and getting the art team to do that. So we played to his strengths and created a world that had much more realistic lighting and tons and tons of little details because that's what the artists gravitated to and what they were good at. So, in addition to just conceptually these worlds being different, and one being in a fantastical space and one being in a more grounded reality, I think a lot of it was actually just the artists who we had on those projects.

G_152: It must have been a bit of a jump from Call to Duty to something like Edith Finch.

ID: Yes and I don't think that he ever fully landed exactly. It was an interesting time. The lead artist for Edith Finch, Brandon [Martynowicz], came on a little bit late in development and was kind of difficult to get up to speed on everything. So, I'm not sure that he ever 100% understood what we were making, but we were able to play to his strengths and the things that he enjoyed and did well in terms of creating lots of rich detail in the world. I think the game looks as good as it does because we were able to connect with what motivated him.

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G_152: You did mention starting with the world there and the world defining The Unfinished Swan and What Remains of Edith Finch. Is that where all of this came from? You didn't start with the gameplay; you just had this idea of a world and wanted to move forward from there?

ID: No, not at all. We don't start from a world, we don't start from a story, we start from a feeling, and on Edith Finch, it was the feeling of the sublime and experiences that I, personally, had scuba diving that have evoked the feeling of something that is beautiful but also unsettling. And then we would just start creating prototypes that evoked that, and the house was one of those things that emerged as a surprising conduit for sublime feelings in its scale, and also in the density of clutter approaching more organic experiences that people have had that just evoke that sense of wonder.

G_152: I understand that the underwater diving prototype was how the game existed for the first three or four months, but you then pivoted to this idea of the house at the end of that period. It seems like most studios are locked into their chosen concept by that point. What allowed Giant Sparrow to make that change so drastically that far in?

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ID: Well, again, because we're starting from a feeling, there's a lot of roads that lead to that destination, and I think in a lot of studios you're starting from "Okay, we're making a cooperative deathmatch capture the flag-based experience", and so you have made a number of decisions upfront that either inevitably result in certain kinds of experiences, or you're dealing in a space that players have such firm expectations about that it is difficult to go off in different directions for developers and for players. But because we are quite a bit looser early on, all we want to do is evoke this sense, and we don't really know where that's going to come from, how much is going to be audio, how much is going to be context, just like a few words that set the mood, and how much of it is gameplay, and all these factors. So, we're just throwing stuff together to see, and often we're wrong, because we're going after experiences that are unusual in the real world and rare or non-existent in games, so there's a necessary element of experimentation that is there.

G_152: Was it from starting with those underwater sections that you ended up with sequences like Baby Gregory in the bathtub or going out into the sea when the tide is down to see the old house?

ID: I think the most direct child of the early underwater prototypes was Molly's story. So, the seaweed, for example, when you're swimming along as a shark, that seaweed and that terrain was something that we built for the scuba diving prototypes, basically, although a lot of the early prototypes we'd actually build in Unity instead of Unreal because Unity was a lot easier to work with out of the box. Eventually, as we became more familiar with Unreal, and as we built more tools, it was easier to prototype there, but I think it was useful to be working in a completely different space. I think there's a tendency to try to move your prototypes, to take that, and then turn it into something you can ship, and it's kind of like building a balsa wood framework of a house as a model and then trying to use that balsa wood to make your real house. It's like "This is a bad idea".

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So, aesthetically, a lot of the things we just started over from scratch once we understood if and what we were going to do, so there wasn't a lot of direct transfer from prototypes to shipping game experiences which is a good thing, generally, but in the case of Molly's story, there were some very direct elements there that translated. We also were interested in flashlight gameplay early on, and Edith had a cell phone that was going to be a big part of her character, and we discovered over time that that was not something that made a whole lot of sense and felt good. For the Edith section where you're exploring the house, there was already plenty to occupy the player without having another thing to interact with and make the house even more confusing to navigate, like a flashlight, which was something we had in the early scuba diving prototype that worked well there.

G_152: I know during development you were dropped by your initial publisher, Sony, but Annapurna picked you up and they facilitated work on the game that wouldn't otherwise have been possible. Do you think Sony and perhaps console manufacturers as a whole are starting to opt out of indie publishing?

ID: It's really hard to say. I think we did not have much visibility into why decisions were made. Sony is a very large company, and the only people that we ever really interacted with were super nice and very understanding, particularly Shuhei [Yoshida], who has superhuman levels of comprehension and kindness, and every interaction we had with him was fantastic, and I'm sure there were very good reasons outlined in spreadsheets we never saw for why it didn't make sense to continue development of the game at Sony. But they were very generous in helping to find a home for the game, and without their help, even when they decided it was no longer a good fit for them, if they hadn't been super helpful, we would not have been able to find another place to bring the game.

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G_152: So it was a case of them giving you the resources to put out something that Annapurna then saw or were able to pick up, and without that early stage Annapurna wouldn't have seen it and picked it up?

ID: Yeah, yeah, absolutely, and we're very grateful to have had the opportunity to work with two publishers who were generally very supportive, and from a developer standpoint, bizarrely so. I don't quite understand why, at any point, a giant for-profit company would have an interest in the sort of experiences that we make, but I'm happy that that has been the case.

G_152: Getting back into the game itself, this is a game that feels very knowing of family conflict and death. Was the development team drawing from their own experiences when putting this together?

ID: A bit. The character of Edie is modelled off of a similar character in One Hundred Years of Solitude, named Ursula, who's the matriarch in that book, but then also significantly based on my own grandmother in some aspects of her character, but there's not a whole lot of direct [characters], other than that one that comes to mind, from my own life, that made their way into the [game], but some of those dynamics are things that echo experiences that I've had. My own family was so placid for the most part, just well-meaning people who were doing their best and not too outsized, everyone survived their childhood, so it wasn't like a literal move there, but certainly, when it came to the props and things in the house, that was something we were all drawing from. Things that we felt echoed suburban family experience like having a tennis ball in the garage that hangs down on a string so that when you pull your car in you know when to stop. I think that's something that I was happy to find out our family was not the only one that had a tennis ball like that hanging, that that was just a relatively common fixture for people.

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G_152: So was it a case where the inspiration was more literary than personal?

ID: Yeah. I think the challenge we had was evoking a sense of sublime which is a rare experience in real-life and also a pretty rare experience in art, so there wasn't a whole lot to draw from but weird fiction, this genre of literature from the 20s with people like H.P. Lovecraft, as an example, was really helpful, so there was a fair amount of short stories and One Hundred Years of Solitude, [Jorge Luis] Borges, the films of Luis Buñuel, there were a few templates for how to create the sense of the sublime and awesome mixed with surreal elements. So those were the models, but none of those except One Hundred Years of Solitude are really about families, so we were taking aspects that we found in references, and then grafting them onto something that was coming a little bit more from our lives and experience.

G_152: I don't know if it was a direct influence, but I did read one article which made a connection between Canterbury Tales and What Remains of Edith Finch.

ID: Definitely not an influence. Structurally, there are some similarities, I suppose, in terms of frame story and tales within tales, but my interest in literature really stops at Shakespeare and doesn't pick up again until Homer. It's quite a gap. I tried reading the Eddas last month actually, and it's pretty impenetrable. The Middle English period, I would like to have more familiarity with. I hear good things about Faerie Queene and other bits there. Actually, I take that back; I really like Beowulf. That's a story that I listen to somewhat regularly. But no, Canterbury Tales was not a direct influence, though it could have been if I was more open to Middle English.

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G_152: I guess there's something a tiny bit [Homeric] about [Lewis's] segment, with the king in the fish plant.

ID: Yeah, I think there's a little bit of Homer in everything I do. I'd say Homer and Shakespeare are the two biggest aesthetic influences. I think my sense of the epic and grandeur mixed with mundane aspects of daily life is something straight out of Homer.

G_152: Are there areas of Edith Finch which you feel draw from Shakespeare?

ID: I'm sure there are; I can't think of any specifics. I think, for me, one of the things when I think about what I love about Shakespeare, and what I find missing in contemporary stories, is the treatment of villains. In Shakespeare, all of the villains are usually the most interesting characters in the stories, and with the exception of a few people like Iago that are a little moustache-twirling, for the most part, like in Macbeth, I would say is the prime example, we really identify a lot more closely with the more classically antagonistic forces in that world, and for me, that's a lot truer to reality. That I don't think there are people who are evil, that it's enough for everyone to be trying to do good, but to have different ideas of what that good is for there to be problems in this world, and stories nowadays generally have forces of antagonism that are very convenient that allow the heroes to be white hats fighting the black hats.

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There's no overlap there, you know, all the Nazis were bad people; that would never happen in England, or anywhere else. I think that stories that don't let the heroes off the hook as easily, that suggest that these destructive elements are things that we all carry inside of us, and have to learn, in order to not fall prey to them, I think is something that Edith Finch is grounded on. That there's no villains in a Disney sense, there's no evil; it's just misunderstandings and people pushing things to extremes that create difficulty.

G_152: The game is also walking a very fine line between being a series of vignettes and a single overarching story. Were you ever worried about ending up too far on one side of that line or the other?

ID: Yeah, that was one of the biggest challenges. Probably the biggest difficulty that I, personally, ran into was trying to find a satisfying balance and conclusion to all of that which is made more difficult by the gnawing question of "Do you even need any kind of framing device here?". I think The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Coen brothers movie that came out a month ago, is a good example of an anthology story, or an anthology series, that doesn't actually have any common elements in terms of characters or plot pieces. I think there's a deeper level of shared thematic concerns and aesthetics that run through the stories, but in our case, we looked at things like The Twilight Zone, I think a pretty good model for doing an anthology series, and that succeeds in not feeling random. Which, if you didn't have the initial introductions from Rod Serling and the music that's consistent between every episode, then they would just feel like a jumble, and even then, the connections are very tenuous, but because it's only a twenty-minute, thirty-minute episode, that's sufficient. We felt like for a two to three-hour game experience that, unfortunately, was not going to be sufficient, partly because anthology series have almost never been done in games before.

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The player expectation is that they are absorbing something that is a cohesive whole, so having a strong throughline was something that we felt, as players ourselves, was necessary, even though I suspect there would have been a way to make a game without it. It just would have been a very different experience, and then we also found because many of the stories ask a lot of players emotionally, that it was helpful to have moments of low tension between those stories to give players time to recover and to vary the emotional pacing, probably just so we can ratchet it up again. You know, we're just interested in jumping into these intense moments, but you can't sit there and eat a bowl of cinnamon; you need something to spread that out. So, that was partly also why we ended up with something that balanced out this overall frame of story with the more intense gameplay-oriented vignettes.

G_152: So was it a case of making some of those vignettes and then working backwards to a message or narrative that tied them together or were you having the narrative propel a lot of the vignettes?

ID: No, the vignettes were in the driver's seat. Again, our goal was to evoke a sense of sublime and the vignettes is where that magic happened, if ever, and so it was quite hard enough to create those sublime moments through interactive gameplay on its own without having to worry about basing it off of things that would be convenient. We started with a general framework of experiences from 1900 on. Things that involve children and families and worlds that we were familiar with, so I think we were building the vignettes from ingredients that, for the most part, we understood, and were in this common pool, so hopefully, they feel like they're a little bit cohesive, and then once we had stories that were playable, and that we could wrap our heads around, then we went in and made things cross over a little bit more. For example, having Calvin's story take place on the swing that you can see as Edith and that you can also see as Molly earlier on, were things that emerged somewhat organically. Without having to work too hard, we'd blended these things together to feel more like a cohesive whole, but they did not start out that way. They were just trying, from a raw gameplay experience, to do something, and then once that was working, we tried to, while the clay is soft, manoeuvre it into or massage it into a desired shape.

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G_152: So was it a case that you had all of the vignettes before you worked out the narrative that wrapped around them?

ID: We had everything coming together over the whole four year development period, but I would say the Edith story didn't solidify until the last couple of months. We tried to do that work ahead of time. It's very scary to have huge chunks of the game that aren't working, but we did the best we could and then we looked at it and went "Ah yeah, this is kinda shitty, but it's the best we can do", and then as everything else settled down, and as we had a chance to spend more time with it and steep in those flavours, we had a better sense of what that overarching narrative with Edith actually needed to do, and what questions players would have after certain stories, and where they would be emotionally, and we could write a little bit more to those concerns and questions. So we had stories early on, but they were just terrible, and it wasn't until the end that they evolved pretty drastically to fit the shape that we found that we needed.

G_152: That's amazing to me, as a player, because going in, it feels like it was built from the ground up. It feels like it strings together so very carefully that I didn't imagine that the little vignette sections could have been made completely separate from the main storyline.

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ID: Well thanks. It's really all working backwards which has a similar effect really of "It feels that all these things are sutured together so nicely, as if they were custom-made", but it turns out to just be a lot easier to make the wrapping around it than it is to make the nuggets of gameplay, and that, again, comes out of the challenge of gameplay [that's] so steep. That it's very, very hard to change gameplay drastically without having all kinds of knock-on effects. So we started with the thing that was the most difficult to make, and the most difficult to change, and then all the story and art that sits on top of that experience was much more malleable. So, there was a lot of work trying to get it to feel cohesive, but I think it would have been an even more daunting challenge if we had started from that cohesion and left holes for "Okay, we'll have satisfying gameplay that will fit inside this hole". That's something that's beyond my skill level.

G_152: There's something that makes sense about developing it backwards because the game is also told roughly in that way. You start with the older members of the family, and you work your way back until you get to Edith's story.

ID: Yeah, although funnily enough, in terms of development chronology, Molly's story was the very first one we ever did, and that's the first one that you experience as a player, so it's not quite as simple [as that]. But I think it helps when dealing with something that is stranger than you, yourself, can imagine to go at it in a way that's not necessarily linear, to give your subconscious freedom to assemble these things as you see fit. Also, the stories changed in their own chronologies pretty significantly. Lewis's story was originally going to be right after, or one or two after, Molly's story, and he was a part of her generation in the family, and then we looked at it in terms of the amount of time that players would spend in stories. It felt like "Oh, we want to have a longer story towards the end to balance out the pacing", and a lot of those stories did shift, also, at various points. Family members moving around generations and stuff when we had a better sensing of what the pacing and mood arc should be.

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G_152: You did mention there, other overarching narratives for the game that weren't used. Were there any particularly interesting ones on the cutting room floor?

ID: Everything that generally gets cut is cut for very good reasons. We almost had to cut Lewis and Gregory's story. That was something that maybe a year out from development there was a lot of encouragement to cut because we were dealing with shipping dates that were rapidly approaching, and fortunately, we had some extra time and the budget got a little bigger so that we could do those two stories. But in terms of the ones that shipped, no, I don't think there's anything that was not cut or changed without, in my mind, a really good reason, and mostly they were changed early on enough that I don't think anyone was too attached to them.

G_152: I'm sure. I just wondered if there was any other idea for stringing together the vignettes outside of Edith exploring her family tree.

ID: No, that was baked in from the earliest days. We had the name Edith Finch from day one; we just didn't quite know what her path was going to be through that. Initially, there was the idea that it was going to be a collection of high school students in detention sharing their dreams, but by the time anyone else was actually working on the project, it was grounded in the family and Edith exploring that.

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G_152: The game also feels very purposefully paced and very mysterious until right near the end. We can't really know what's going on until we get right near the very end of the story, the last few minutes of it. Was there ever the urge to try and put more of the plot up front to keep the user dialled in?

ID: I don't know. I think things evolved pretty organically based on the pieces we had and how players were responding in playtests. You know, moments where it felt like they were getting a little bit ahead of the story and maybe feeling a little bit bored, we'd lob in a few more cryptic suggestions or what not. A lot of it ended up being dependent on how long it took players to move through spaces in terms of the density that was there. I think we usually found that we needed less than we thought, especially early on when players were just trying to wrap their heads around this enormous family tree and seemingly very complicated house to navigate. So we had the ingredients, and it was just a question of "How do we sprinkle them through in the best way?", but that's something that emerged watching playtests and responding to that feedback.

G_152: If I remember rightly, you had a very impressive selection of playtesters.

ID: Yeah, there's some well-known names that go by in the credits, and one of the things we have found was very helpful is to do playtests at places like the Game Developers Conference where a bunch of developers are already gathered, and we can pull people into a room and have them walk through the experience. We were fortunate enough to get a number of well-known eyeballs on the game at various points.

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G_152: Before you put this out, was there the feeling that this was going to be something that was going to be highly affecting for people, going to be taken really seriously in terms of picking up awards, in terms of the critical reception, or could you just not tell at that point?

ID: I don't remember. I don't think that any of us had a good idea of what the reaction was going to be. With Gregory's story, in particular, there was a concern quite early, on the part of the publisher, that that story be handled very sensitively. The main design liaison that we had at Sony is someone who has children of his own, and he expressed a lot of concern about that story being sensitively handled, and we found that was mirrored in future playtesters. That playtesters who had children of their own tended to respond in a much more intense way to the prospect of a child drowning in a bathtub. I think it was a fear that they, themselves, had had, and so seeing it enacted in a game was potentially traumatic in a way that it was not at all for people without children. Or maybe also young siblings too. If you had experienced that fear in real-life then seeing a virtual approximation, you had quite a different experience. So that was a story we were sensitive to and tried as hard as we could to handle delicately, and then, also, brought in playtesters periodically who were parents, specifically, just to make sure that it was shaping up in a way we were happy with.

G_152: I imagine some of the playtests must have been pretty emotional.

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ID: Not really. I think emotional experiences are very easily broken, and playing a story where, for example, the shadows are constantly flickering, or objects are winking in and out of existence, or you just get stuck. Where you jump up, say, if you're the frog, and you just hit an invisible ceiling, and the developer has to come in and type some things on the keyboard, and then you go into debug mode for a minute, and you see this neon sea of lines for DebugDraw in order to get over the problem. All those kinds of things are very common in early development builds and have a tendency to reduce the emotional impact. It's like hearing a piece of music with occasional screeching in the middle of it. It ruins a piece of chamber orchestra or whatever you're listening to, and so there's always a little bit of a guess on your part.

Also, people respond so differently just knowing that they're in a playtest, and unfortunately it's pretty difficult to create a situation that feels like the emotional state people would be in when they were in their homes playing it. For example, we would bring in people periodically to do focus tests, like five or ten folks, who'd be paid for their time, random people off the street basically, and they would just play through the game, and we probably saw thirty or forty people play the game in that context, and not one of them cried. We never saw anybody cry at any point during a playtest, but that's something that anecdotally I've now heard from many people that there are moments in the game that made them cry. So, I think it's a very different experience when the game is all there, and when you are playing it in your own home vs. any of the playtests that we were able to experience during development.

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G_152: I guess the ideal for a developer would be some sort of nightmare Kinect situation where it's reading your biometrics in your own home so they know what to change where.

ID: Yeah, yeah. We found that it is a useful surrogate to provide another player and a little bit of alcohol. So people playing in pairs with a beer in front of them tend to relax in a way that you don't get when you have one person in front of a TV. So, the nightmare Kinect scenario, halfway there is a friend and alcohol.

G_152: The Unfinished Swan and What Remains of Edith Finch are both incredibly self-contained games. Do you think there's something to this idea of cutting back on the degree to which we sequelise games in order to improve the storytelling?

ID: I don't know. I think there are times where sequels make a lot of sense. I feel, generally, we see sequels primarily for production reasons and not for narrative ones. It's much easier for a team to make something that is similar to what they've done before, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. I think you end up with happier development teams and more elaborate experiences that players enjoy. So, I think there's nothing inherently wrong with sequels, but as a studio, our focus is on creating experiences that people have never had before, so we haven't found that sequels were the best use of our time so far.

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G_152: You have a little distance from the game's release now. Was there anything that the audience received better or worse than you thought they would?

ID: Yeah, I mean I would say, overall, I am quite surprised and humbled to hear about how many people were quite emotionally affected by the experience. I think this comes from watching well over a hundred people play through the game, and not seeing anyone cry, or seeing anyone have anything but moderately kind words to say about it. But when it's out there in the wild, and it's exposed to more people, and under different circumstances, it's been nice to hear that there are so many people out there who come into these experiences with an open heart and are willing to be transported sometimes into unpleasant, difficult places. In terms of media portrayal of gamers, and what you hear online even, like if you listen to message boards or whatever, the people there tend to be a more hardened sort, and so it's great to see that there are actually so many players out there who are willing to go into something that may be uncomfortable, and approach it in the way you would any sensitive piece of art, and that there's an audience there that is hungry for those kinds of experiences.

G_152: It's interesting hearing this because I think we have this idea of games as being complete packages which have an inherent emotional experience built into them which maybe some people get, maybe some people don't, but there's some innate set of experiences built into that, whereas what this suggests is that it's a combination of having the right game and having the right environment that really brings it about.

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ID: Yeah, and I think looking at the historical landscape of emotional experiences that games have offered, you might assume that that's all they could do, but I think, yeah, you're right that there's a much broader world out there that people are accustomed to, like in movies, and books, and real-life, and whatever. That they're not coming to this as people that only play video games, they have a lot more experiences to draw on, and so, I think there's a lot of room for games to expand into other areas than where they have historically been pigeonholed.

G_152: I'm just really excited to see where it all goes. This is almost a fluff one: Do you have a favourite vignette?

ID: I think for me, Calvin's story is the one that is most distinctive and emblematic of what our game does really well. I love that we were able to spend three years, off and on, tuning that experience into what it is for something that is over within two minutes or so. That that kind of concentrated, well-executed burst is in some ways an extravagant inefficiency in the way that resources are used, but I love that it generally lands pretty well with players and creates moments of genuine surprise.

G_152: Was it a case of tuning the physics with that?

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ID: The physics were a big part of it. A lot of it was also players not understanding that they could use both sticks to move the legs. That was something that even pretty late in development, we had problems where, if you're moving one leg, which so far in the game you've only needed to use one stick at a time, so using two sticks is kind of a leap for players. We saw a lot of players who would continue to use one stick for a long, long time. There's a tendency for players to, once they find something that works, to keep doing that to the exclusion of all other possibilities. So tuning the response and the physics and the aesthetics, adding a cast to one of the legs, for example, was part of the solution, so that the legs looked very different, and you had this sense of left and right leg. Tons of little fixes like that that were necessary to address the problem for almost all players.

One of the things that we've found is that, usually, one solution does not cover all cases, so you need to solve the problem multiple times in different ways to address the variety of players that are going to be experiencing that. It's a lot of under the hood stuff like that that becomes surprisingly vexing, or the way that the hands move on the chain was problematic for a long, long time. Just in terms of the hands passing through the chain at points when we didn't want it to. There was a lot of thorny technical challenges that needed to get sorted out and that never seemed to be the highest priority thing, so it would be a year or two before we'd come back to. So yeah, it was a bizarre amount of time and energy that gets spent on something that is over so quickly and most games would never dream of doing that, so I love that we had a chance to do that there.

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G_152: Something I've heard Jeff Gerstmann repeatedly say is that it's a miracle that any video game gets made at all.

ID: Yeah, absolutely, and I think most games you're seeing, by the time they get to you, it's maybe a quarter of what the team had intended. That it has been cut down and simplified so many times, and even that is a herculean effort on the part of many people to make it. Yeah, it's a miracle that any game comes out.

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Thanks to Ian Dallas and thank you for reading.

4 Comments

Editor: An Analysis of The Novelist

Note: The following article contains major spoilers for The Novelist and moderate spoilers for Fahrenheit (2005) and Late Shift.

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When games implement narrative choices, each choice is typically exclusive with no middle ground between them. For example, in the 2005 adventure game Fahrenheit, there is a moment when the girlfriend of one protagonist tells him she'll be moving from New York to Florida and you, as the player, have to decide whether to go with her or stick with your detective job in the city. You cannot half go to Florida; by making your way down one road of the plot, you barricade the other. Another example: In the 2016 interactive film Late Shift, there is a beat in which the protagonist, Matt, approaches a gunman while holding pepper spray and the shooter tells him to drop it. You can either dispose of the canister or keep it, but there is no discarding and keeping the pepper spray.

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Explicit narrative choices are frequently designed as binaries, or at least, as exclusives, to make them hard. In Fahrenheit, if there were a way to be with our girlfriend and stay in our current employment, we'd choose it, but such a choice existing would rob that scene of its tension, the moment of baited breathe when you have to decide to abandon your career or your partner. In Late Shift, if we could have the safety of keeping the pepper spray and the security of not enraging the shooter, we'd opt for it, but in forcing you to sacrifice one kind of protection for another, it engineers vulnerability. However, although such exclusive options create tension, they also generate stories devoid of compromise between options. Finding a balance between choices is something human beings have to do a lot in the real world because it's common that people have to work together even when their goals don't align. The classic example being that marriage requires compromise, and so, it only makes sense that, being a game about a stumbling family trying to get back on their feet, The Novelist is a game about compromise.

The family under the spotlight in this story is the Kaplans who consist of tortured author Dan, budding artist Linda, and their child son Tommy. The last few months have not been kind to the Kaplans: Dan has published novels to modest acclaim, but writer's block has paralysed him as he's tried to pen his breakout masterpiece. Dan and Linda's marriage has grown stale, and divorce is on the cards; meanwhile, Tommy has found himself a victim of bullying and is falling behind in reading class. Seeking an escape from their problems, the Kaplans leave the city behind to spend the summer in a holiday home in rural Oregon. However, it was never the scenery around the Kaplans that was the fundamental cause of their problems; it was their clashing personalities and routines, and they can't just run away from them. Dan is still an unproductive writer; he's just an unproductive writer by the coastline now. He and Linda's marriage is still on thin ice; it's just on thin ice somewhere else. And while Tommy is now miles from the peers who picked on him at school, his parents have introduced change and therefore instability to him at a crucial point in his development.

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The Kaplans are stuck in a rut, and their lives are not going to alter course without an outside force acting on them, but through the magic of player agency, we become that force. The game hands us the controls for a ghost which has long haunted the holiday home the trio are staying in and lets us teleport invisibly between the lightbulbs of the house. As the spirit, we can also walk around the rural retreat freely which is necessary as the game tasks us with reading the diaries, notes, and drawings that the Kaplans have left out to get an idea of their current concerns and demeanours. We must also creep up behind the Kaplans and enter their memories to replay their recent interactions with the rest of the family. Discretion is required for both tasks as a state of shock washes over the family members if they see the apparition.

The Novelist segments its story into days, and on each day, every one of the Kaplans has a personal desire that we can discover by perusing enough of their documents and memories and then reading their mind one last time. We might find that Linda wants Dan to fill out some forms for her that day, so we select the forms, or we could learn that Tommy wants to fly his kite with one of his parents, so we interact with the kite. After choosing which wish we're granting for the day, the clock flips over to night time during which we can read about the home's previous residents, and select an extra family member to help. Although, no family member that we spooked that day is eligible for this aid. The Kaplan we show pity on during the night phase does not have their goal fully realised, but some effort is made to accommodate it. E.g. Maybe Tommy can't spend all day at the event in town, but perhaps he can spend half the day there, or maybe Dan can't be chained to his typewriter every waking minute, but he can still put in a few hours. At the end of the night, we visit Dan as he sleeps, and whisper the plan for the following day into his ear. The game plays out this plan and shows us the family members' emotions in the face of being supported or left out in the cold, and then the cycle starts anew. After three in-game months of this, we get a custom ending that, based on how we prioritised the family members' wants over the summer, unveils the future of the family.

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While The Novelist may greet us as a stealth game, it quickly becomes apparent that with minimal caution we can sneak past the Kaplans every time. The safest way to scurry around the house is to wait until we can't hear the occupants' footfalls any more and then make our move. But that doesn't mean that the game is imposing a pointless exercise on us by asking us to move stealthily through the space. In those moments where we are waiting for everyone to stop shuffling about and can only watch instead of act, we enter the same relaxed, contemplative mindset that grips the Kaplans as they aimlessly wander the rooms, staring forlornly out the windows. If games can have flavour text, then this stealth system is one of many examples of a flavour mechanic. The creepy voyeurism of The Novelist's camera angles mixes with the premise of the haunting and a wistful piano-led soundtrack to give you the same unease that the Kaplans must feel with their family on the line. After finishing the story, it seems almost nonsensical that so many other stealth games have us staring at scenes that are not all that stimulating.

As The Novelist doesn't make you expend all your brainpower on staying out of the characters' line of sight, you can dedicate more of it to working out how to organise the Kaplans' lives; this is where the compromise comes in. Again, this narrative doesn't ask us to choose A, B, or C in each chapter; we pick which goal we want to give our all to, which one we want to partially complete, and which one we want to forgo entirely. Because each activity is connected to a character, the choice of which activities we prioritise, which we compromise on, and which we neglect, is also a choice of who in the family is prioritised, compromised on, or neglected. Neglect has been a recurring pattern for the family, and most of it happens because of one member in particular. After a couple of days bunking with the Kaplans, it's unmistakable what their main problem is: He's called Dan. In every single scenario, Dan wants to put working on his book above everything and everyone else. In one of the story's most telling moments, he tries to write a schedule for his day-to-day, but that timetable doesn't have a slot for spending time with his wife and child. They're at best relegated to the 8-10 p.m. stretch of "Edit + Decompress + Life". It's also true that Linda doesn't have much of an instinct for taking care of Tommy, but she never eschews that responsibility with the extremity that her husband does. Just as Dan loses his cool trying to keep a hold of all the threads of his novel and find a structure for it, so he comes unbound trying to pay attention to all of his obligations. And as he puts it, "Something's got to give".

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The game is adamant that you can't keep a family emotionally healthy without work-life balance. There are endings in which Dan can publish the next great American novel, but in two of them, Linda walks out on him, and in all versions of this conclusion, he spends the rest of his life trapped in a loveless marriage with his son growing up to be asocial and maladjusted. As The Novelist sees it, works of art are not just the refined output of talent and dedication but may also rely on the sacrifice of human bonds and family well-being. We've all seen the game credits in which developers thank the people they love for being so patient with them while they spend nights away from the dinner table and at the office. To the extent that The Novelist can be boiled down to a binary choice, it's a choice of whether Dan should be that kind of worker; whether he should nourish his career or love his family. As one of Linda's friends puts it, "Love isn't a feeling, it's a behaviour". The ludonarrative says that being a good mother or father isn't just about feeling close to your family but acting on that emotion even when it's to your detriment. It's what the characters do rather than what they think that defines their relationships.

But the game is coded about how Dan gets from being a second-rate novelist with fraying family ties to either one of America's most respected authors or a full-time father and husband. Under the most literal read of the plot, this is happening because a ghost is whispering a life plan into his ear every night. It's not a particularly satisfying explanation because it's difficult to relate back to the everyday life that the game is otherwise speaking to and because the ghost is barely a character. But if we incorporate some of The Novelist's symbolism into our analysis, we can see the Kaplans' lives as being directly changed by us, the player. The chapters of the game open and close with passages on the Kaplans' lives being banged out on a typewriter and the tale always ends with Dan unable to shake the thought that he's a character in someone else's book. This hints that the eponymous novelist is not the father of the family but us. However, we don't have a personal relationship with the characters, and the game is more about exploring real-world issues than the way we interact with virtual texts, so we don't get much out of that interpretation.

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To me, the most engrossing read of the ghost's link to Dan is that it represents his unconscious. Even when our troubled writer tries to lock himself away in his study, on some level, he remembers what his family thinks and wants, and his best ideas come to him when he is unconscious, as though whispered into his ear while he sleeps. Like any creator, he is reliant on ideas being thrown up to his conscious mind by a turbulent magma of memories and motivations lurking below, but just as he can use his unconscious inventiveness and empathy to write compelling fiction, he can also use it to the end of fixing his marriage and fathering his son. Pages from a typewriter may appear on the screen, but Dan is the character who spends his days in front of the keyboard, suggesting it's him who is writing the future of the Kaplans. The story believes wholeheartedly in the idea of a single turning point which can definitively decide your future; it's baked right into its format as short-form choice-driven fiction.

The Novelist says the choices that decide how we live are not just about the major decisions like whether we make our family move to get a new job but are also about the habits we choose to splice into our daily routine such as whether we spend time with our spouse or get to know our child. The decision to commit to recurring everyday patterns is not one that comes up in many narrative-driven games, but it's the bread and butter of life, so it's what The Novelist presents you with. It also warns that decisions about how you treat your family, which might seem trivial at the time, can have an influence which reaches far beyond your current horizon. Dan not choosing to support his son is a tiny choice he can make every day, but those choices add up to mighty consequences. He always perceives loving his family as something that can be put off until tomorrow, failing to recognise how fragile their relationships have become and acting oblivious to the fact that this mentality is what made those connections so tenuous. The air of house is often hot with discomfort because it is simultaneously meant to be a workplace and a living space. Sometimes people asking for kindness and affection are seen as interfering with the production of art, other times family members burying themselves in their creations are viewed as mechanistic and work-obsessed in the place that they should be loving. In spite of this, The Novelist is a fairly optimistic game.

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Whatever configuration you decide is right for the Kaplans' lives, there have to be casualties; casualties like Dan's novel, Linda's paintings, or Tommy's childhood development. But considering that the family was teetering on collapse at the start of the game, you can get them to a relatively healthy state by the end. Because compromise involves making decisions for the benefit of more than one person and The Novelist pivots on the concept of compromise, more than one person in it can get a comparatively happy ending. In my initial playthrough, I ignored Tommy multiple times to zero in on other family members, but he still grew up to become a famous graphic novelist. It's perhaps the most ingenious of all the endings: Tommy's strong connection with his mother who is a painter and his father who is a writer leads to a synthesis of the two art forms as he becomes a comic book creator. This and other surprisingly achievable "nice" endings also feel like a reassuring hand on the shoulder of couples and parents. They're a recognition that sometimes your child can have a tantrum, or you can have an argument with your spouse, but that doesn't mean all is lost; in fact, all might still be on the table.

The game uses some psychological fancy to coax you towards giving the Kaplans roughly equal attention and so chances are you'll get one of the endings in which two of them go on to live comfortable lives. At the close of a chapter, one of them will likely be left with tears in their eyes or a knot in their stomach because they didn't get to achieve their objective, and so in the next chapter you feel more inclined to put that person first which means a different Kaplan will have to draw a short straw, but then in the next cycle you'll want to show them some compassion, and so on. Playing in this balanced style will lead you headlong to a crossroads where you must pick one of the Kaplans' futures above the others (Dan's professorship, Linda's painting, or Tommy's studies); the game detects that you are dodging commitment to one family member and so makes you choose. However, that doesn't mean you can't do something positive for one of the people on the sidelines. The Novelist says that life often means not having options to please everyone, but that if you find yourself in such a state, compromise is still your best friend. It pushes you into a pattern where the trio must meet each other in the middle and then shows you the benefits of doing so.

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But I'd encourage everyone to think about whether the malleability of the Kaplans' life gives Dan too much credit. No matter the chapter, we can always persuade him to do the generous thing instead of the selfish thing, and in his writing, we can see he does earnestly care about Tommy. However, some would argue that to make a make family work, you have to want it to work, and that broken homes come not just from failings in childcare, domestic upkeep, time management, and communication, but fundamentally because the caregivers have more concern for themselves than they do for their loved ones. The Novelist says that it's always possible to suppress selfish impulses in order to do the altruistic thing, and it may be correct, but it's worth at least considering that people may act according to their motivations, and if, like Dan, your primary motivation is always to serve yourself, then you're not going to be a good father or husband. Linda's friend may say that love is a behaviour rather than a feeling, but what if it's instead a feeling from which inherent behaviours follow?

Even if The Novelist is wrong about that corner of human thought processes, however, I wouldn't accuse it of coming from a place of ignorance about families. The credits tell us that the sole developer, Kent Hudson, interviewed a lot of parents in putting together the script. We're used to hearing that people producing media spoke with military or even scientific consultants when working out how to make their art authentic, but writers must also speak to those who have a more directly human connection if they're to represent more directly human histories on the page or screen. I think it's highly likely that those first-hand experiences of the interviewed are where the game is drawing from when Dan says that he sees Tommy changing in a hundred ways every day or when Tommy's parents patiently help him with his reading exercises. And one of the things to love about this game is that it does reward you lurking in the shadows, observing the house, with all sorts of subtle and socially-insightful signals about where the Kaplans have found themselves. Whether Dan sleeps facing towards Linda or away from her is reflective of how intimate he currently is with her, and when characters bump into each other in the lounge or on the landing, they will greet each other with a tone that reflects the wavelength they're on. This sort of contextual intra-AI dialogue is underrated in games. Lastly, when the Kaplans begin to put up emotional walls, they will shut themselves off physically, closing the doors between their private workspaces and the rest of the house. As the ghost, this makes them harder to reach, symbolising how people can close themselves off because they feel distant from people and then become harder to understand and talk to because they're closed off which only exacerbates the issue.

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In fact, the game is so forthcoming about characters' motivations and moods that that extra step of scanning a family member's mind is patronising after you've studied all their texts and memories for the day. When you find a letter saying Linda's grandmother has died, all of her recollections are of her grieving, and she writes in her diary that she wants Dan to come to the funeral, we don't need to be a telepath to know that she wants the support of her husband after her grandmother has died. Or any time there's a magazine left on the coffee table for an event Tommy might be interested in, you know long before you've peeked into his brain that he's yearning for a day out at that event. There are countless games that tell instead of show, but the curious foible of The Novelist is that it's supremely talented at showing but then tells you anyway. I understand that reading characters' minds is meant to let you know what object you need to prod to choose their goal for the chapter and that this is done with their possessions rather than options on a menu to sustain player immersion and connect us to the environment. But there are other ways to hint at what object we need to select without beating us over the head with character motivations, e.g. breadcrumb trails to the target items.

You can also usually guess what the output of your telepathy will be because most of the characters' desires don't change drastically over the course of the holiday. Dan always wants to breathe more life into his novel, and Tommy almost always wants to play. The only character that keeps you guessing is Linda because she is striving for a more varied life. Sometimes she wants Dan to go on a health kick, sometimes she wants to dress up for her parents' visit, and sometimes she wants to exhibit her art. But because Dan and Tommy always return to the same wells, the game has a capacity to feel repetitive. Having said that, the similarity between the character wants in each chapter is not a failure of Hudson's. You can enjoy the details of the game but to able to do that you have to be able to appreciate the difference between Tommy getting to go to the air show and Tommy getting to go camping or the difference between Dan taking time to edit his novel and him taking time to advertise it.

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When writing about The Sims, I said that that game created an experience that no other fiction has by focusing on the everyday actions that make up our lives. They're actions that often come across as too mundane for other media to consider spending time on. In The Sims, every jot and jolt of life is worth getting excited about, no matter how commonplace, and in The Novelist, we see something similar, although not quite identical. Where The Sims says that small decisions like which room we spend our time in or whether we eat dinner with our family are significant in themselves, Hudson's game says that they are important because these seemingly innocuous choices add up to decide the trajectory of a person's career or who in their household feels loved. Artists working in celluloid and print tend to depict a life as being defined by summers of love, the cold evening when someone announces divorce, and other hard-and-fast beats in our lives, but The Novelist teases out a neglected realism by seeing peoples' futures in the space and provisions made for them in their own family; in the routines and talk of the everyday. In that, there's both fragility and power. Fragility because decisions we may not give a second thought to could be corroding our relationships and the happiness of the people we love, but power because, like the Kaplans, we can all change our routine and so, change our lives. Thanks for reading.

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Sparring Partners: Injustice 2 and Tutorials

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Every medium has works that aren't for everyone and genres which are the curiosity of a select minority, but one thing that happens in video games that doesn't happen in other media is that entire genres considered essential to the medium are left inaccessible to a lot of its audience. In film, producing horror and sci-fi won't make your movies the most popular or line your shelf with awards, but anyone can sit down and watch them, and plenty of movies are made in these categories with a broad viewer base in mind. In interactive entertainment, genres like "MOBA", "RTS", and "fighting games" are a core part of the medium historically and currently but repel audiences that don't have familiarity with them using steep difficulty curves and intricate systems. Only a thin sliver of them are made for anyone outside of the entrenched userbase build up around each class of game. Suggesting that these styles of games should be accessible to more kinds of players is a fast way to get an inbox full of angry naysayers, but after you filter out the alarmists and the gatekeepers, you do find a valid argument for not diluting these titles.

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While I think that lighter RTSs and more open fighting games can provide casual players enriching experiences and that the industry should keep making them, they are not a substitute for their mechanically labyrinthine cousins. Most "easy" fighting games aren't just their more intense counterparts with the dials turned down; the majority lack many of the fundamental dynamics of their peers. A lot of players of these titles don't end up being conscious about recoveries, advantages, or sometimes even combos, which in other experiences are what make you think on your feet and mean that even after hundreds of hours of play, you can still learn something. But I also don't believe that making a game more accessible has to mean watering it down mechanically or that we should see a set-in-stone dichotomy between impenetrable high difficulty titles and casual toys. While you're not going to see everyone with a PC start duking it out in Starcraft or Skullgirls at a professional level, designers of games like these can make their play more accessible without any mechanical reshuffling. Instead of pruning their title down to the basics, they can provide resources and tutorials which allow players to compete beyond the basics, which brings me to Injustice 2.

NetherRealm Studios, the folks behind the Injustice series, needed a small country's worth of players buying their fighting game because they had to justify unfathomable production costs. Unfortunately for them, fighting games generally don't make that kind of bank because the average consumer finds the rulesets opaque and the dedicated fighting game community is very picky. The studio couldn't simplify their game without waving goodbye to a core audience who expected nothing less than a mechanical tour-de-force from the people who brought us Mortal Kombat, but they couldn't overwhelm participants with complexity if they wanted to come out in the black. Having an ensemble of brand name heroes helps drive sales, but there has to be something behind the familiar faces and costumes that players can sink their teeth into. It's possible that other studios working on high-budget competitive games will find themselves between the same rocks and the same hard places in the future. NetherRealm's solution to this prickly problem was to include more extensive guidance in their game for their casual audience. For this studio, extending a helping hand to players still finding their way in the genre was not just broadening the horizons of the average gamer but also financial pragmatism. They were no doubt also encouraged by the fact that anyone investing in a Warner Bros. IP is going to expect hefty returns.

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We can all understand from Injustice 2 why a developer might be motivated to put more explanatory tutorials and guides in their title, but its creators' decisions also demonstrate how to implement such systems, both in where they succeed and where they fail. Speaking as a casual fighting game fan, there is a tremendous gap between the set of concepts that tutorials in this family of games teach us and the set of concepts we need to grasp to compete at a passable level. A common problem is that dialogue boxes and popups relay to us all the categories of actions there are, but not every action within those categories. So we might understand that combos and character-specific moves exist, but not understand which combos and which moves we can perform with each character. Other games teach us the full set of actions available to us but not the contexts we should be using those actions in or how they relate to each other. E.g. I might have a character's full list of attacks memorised but not know that I can cancel out of certain attacks into other attacks or understand that I should use throws to break blocks.

Unintuitively, teaching someone all the actions they are capable of is not the same thing as educating them on them all of the mechanics in play. Ask the people who are most interested in fighting games, and they'll tell you that awareness of frame advantages and dialing in all of a character's moves are fundamental to competition despite players rarely being taught about either in their tutorials. In other areas of gaming, we'd consider this failure to instruct the player about the fundamentals outrageous. Imagine a shoot-'em-up tutorial that doesn't inform the player they can dodge or an action-adventure tutorial that doesn't explain platforming to them. We would consider these ugly holes in the design, and yet the equivalent lessons are frequently missing from fighting games. Thorough tutoring on mechanics may seem overboard when we're used to games giving us an overview of the controls and then removing our leash. However, games with deeper and more extensive mechanics need deeper and more extensive coaching to match. When you don't offer your audience that education, the results show in their experience.

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If you're a newbie fighting game player squaring off against a proficient opponent, you can often feel as though they're able to predict and counter your every move psychically and that they're able to lock you in an endless series of combos until your health bar is chopped down to nothing. Astute players will recognise that that's not the case and that such one-sided matches often come down to the weaker combatant not being aware of the tells that signal coming attacks and the appropriate counter-moves. However, those cues often appear only for milliseconds, and games usually don't teach the player either these tells or how to exploit them. Fighting games are rapid-fire contests of call and response where casual participants are left ignorant of both the calls and the responses; this should be changed.

Already, you might have a couple of objections. You might point out the many games not only get by with a mechanical opacity but satisfy us by giving us little direction out of the gate and letting us work out the mechanics for ourselves. Especially in games with puzzle elements, it's the discovery of our tools and how they work that provides the fun. Think about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or the Zachtronics games if you're having trouble picturing this design style. However, while there may be a kind of fighting game apprentice that finds decoding the foundational mechanics engaging, there is, at the very least, room for a less cryptic type of fighting game: one that stops players from feeling left out of the loop by going out of its way to bring them up to speed. Unlike in a hard puzzle game, explaining how to complete tasks in a fighting game does not rob the player of activities to perform. Even once you know how to play, these titles serve as fierce tests of observation, hand-eye coordination, and manual dexterity that mean that they can take months or years to master. Injustice 2 is a typical example where it's only once you know what you can do within its sandbox that the competition really begins. And while there may be fighting games that benefit from mechanical mystery, that is not the hat most are trying to wear.

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Despite that, you might argue that in-depth tutorials in this or any other fighting game are redundant as there are already libraries of online resources aimed at turning humble scrubs into fireball-hurling savants. However, we shouldn't brand games as accessible and cooperative with audiences just because they contain some form of instruction on how to play them. A game becomes truly accessible by putting as few steps as possible between players and that information. This is why, even though plenty of walkthroughs for point-and-click adventure games exist, designers still include hint systems. You'll also notice that professional educators don't just throw information at their students but also give them practical tasks to confirm that the students understand what they're being taught, to ingrain a stronger memory of the information, and to deepen their understanding of it. A piano teacher would never just rattle off pages of theory and leave; playing the piano is a practical task, and so students are given a practical education. Fighting games are similarly practical and are just as in need of performative lessons on how play works, not just glorified FAQs. If video games are played in-motion then they should be taught in-motion.

Injustice 2 is not the only game that gives players hands-on lessons on advanced mechanics, but it does have some of the most detailed tutorials in the field. As expected, it teaches you about the rudimentary abilities shared between all characters from light and heavy attacks to stage transitions, and the pause menu includes lists of all the moves and combos for the character you're currently controlling. Where it really comes into its own, however, is in tutorials which tackle those hidden mechanical pockets like frame advantage and juggles. These lessons work because they don't consider the mechanics as mostly unrelated parts; they understand that there are dynamics between the mechanics that are essential in the combat, and so they teach you those dynamics.

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During the lessons, the UI displays a diagram of the controller on-screen and the buttons on that diagram light up as you press buttons on your controller. You also have the option to make the game demonstrate any move it asks you to perform during its classes. Those demonstrations include the diagram illuminating to show you the relevant buttons you would press. The need for a visual representation of the inputs may be lost on some people when a game can communicate the required inputs through printing strings of characters on-screen, e.g. Telling the player to press "⇩, ⇨, X". However, fighting games demand that not only do we know which buttons we need to hit but also the timing with which we have to hit them, and only an animated display can encapsulate both. By representing the input to the controller graphically, Injustice 2 also makes it that bit easier to translate the requests of the game into a series of hand movements which is especially useful when it asks us to chain together lengthy combinations of attacks. Again, it's a practical demonstration of a practical task. The closer you can get to replicating the actions you want your audience to take, the easier it is for them to copy those actions.

The tutorial designers also appreciate that the concepts and behaviours we employ in the game are dependent on which character we play, which is one reason why fighting games have multiple characters in the first place: each demands different strategies from us. Injustice 2 includes individual tutorials for every one of these characters that not only have us run through their moves but also sometimes advise tactical approaches for playing them, tell us how to execute their most powerful combos, and teach us when we can cancel out of some of their attacks into others. Telling me that I'm meant to put distance between myself and the opponent when playing Harley Quinn or that Robin is designed to attack at mid-range completely changes how I play these characters and only takes a few seconds.

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Even many of the systems in Injustice 2 which seem coincidental to its tutorialising such as the levelling, gear, and multiverse encourage players to learn characters. The vast majority of solo play is locked up in the game's multiverse mode which challenges its audience to defeat a succession of opponents while offering the biggest bounty of gear they'll find in the game and a king's ransom of XP. Each character under the player's purview has a discrete level and equipment set defining how hard they can hit and how much punishment they can stand up to. In some multiverse gauntlets, opponents' levels are matched to that of the character the player is controlling, while in others, enemies have fixed levels. This means that players have an incentive to play a single character over and over, rocketing them up through the progression system so that they can eventually hold their own against that level 30 Superman. Their motivation to beat these higher level warriors is not just that they are a more powerful foe to topple but also that vanquishing them will earn them more extravagant rewards.

The loot system is slightly biased towards dropping gear that equips to the character you currently have switched-in and in addition to there being a functional incentive to play a character and unlock their equipment, there's also an aesthetic one as new loot means new costumes and fans love their superhero outfits. As players repeatedly level their hero or villain, their understanding of the character, sense of timing for controlling them, and familiarity with their moveset increases. To reduce it to a phrase: progression systems encourage practise. While all players are aware that they can hone their skills over time by playing these characters regularly, the XP and gear systems give them an extra push and provide more noticeable, guaranteed, and tangible forms of reward. For example, a new ring for Green Lantern is a way to improve your game that you can objectively measure the benefits of and that you can reliably expect to receive at some point, whereas it's hard to see how much benefit you would get from practising his Grand Slam combo. What's more, the multiverse generating new planets every several hours makes sure that players stay in the habit of coming back to rehearse.

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Injustice 1 also had an ingenious platform on which to nudge players towards familiarising themselves with characters. The "S.T.A.R. Labs" are a collection of 240 one-off fights with pre-programmed modifiers. Each of these stages has two optional goals and depending on how many you complete, it awards you between one and three stars. Shazam has a mission in which you must defeat Cyborg, not be hit for eight seconds, and never let your super meter reach full; this teaches you about using meter burn attacks which deplete the super meter and are more impactful. Raven has a mission in which you must defeat a sped-up Ares but cannot jump or let him get in a total of fifty hits; this helps you exercise your defensive muscles. These stages could have been more effective teachers if they didn't make many of their restrictions optional and if they tended further towards tests of skill and further away from novelty. However, they often force you to think about how to solve the kinds of combat puzzles you'd face in actual matches, asking you to overcome limitations without giving you exact instructions on how to do so. This confirmed that you knew how to fight and weren't just playing Simon Says with the designers.

S.T.A.R. Labs doesn't reprise its role in Injustice 2 which is slightly unusual because NetherRealm obviously cares about teaching the player and already had a tool to do that fairly well but didn't reuse it. You see the same forgetfulness in other areas of the player education. The more rudimentary and systems-focused tutorials feature that on-screen controller, but the controller diagram is missing from the character tutorials. You'll also find that while the systems-focused tutorials will loop a demo of a move for you so that you can study it, the character tutorials play the demo once and then have the stage reset. You have to keep hitting the button to get a prolonged look at the timing of an action. And while the pause screen has a quick-reference guide for every character's unique moves, it doesn't have advice on the strategy you should use for playing them or feature their most devastating combos, both things which you're taught in character tutorials. Injustice 2 invents various superior methods of helping the player ease into a fighting game, but then compartmentalises them, unable to imagine reusing them outside of the room it first presented them in. This is a little inexplicable when it neither seems to serve the player any benefit nor would have significantly reduced the labour involved in developing the title.

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Injustice 2's tutorials could also do with thinking a little more like the S.T.A.R. Labs did, creating some middle ground for the player between learning actions for the first time and using them quickly and confidently as part of a whole suite of mechanics. While it's easy to consider wakeups or four button combos in the isolated, safety-proofed tutorials, doing this when trying to remember about twenty other mechanics at the same time and reacting within split-second windows is another task entirely. There's no gradual ramp-up from dealing with one mechanic to twenty mechanics that you'd have in another game or any other area of education. This gaping chasm between the game as it's taught and the game as it's played is far from specific to Injustice 2 or even fighting games; this is a widespread issue for complex, high difficulty titles. And even in Injustice 2's character tutorials, you can become overloaded with information, as the game tries to teach you around seven moves back-to-back, having you practise each one exactly once before it assumes you've memorised it permanently. It's this absolute bombardment of instruction in the tutorials and then a drought of instruction outside of them. So what can designers do about this?

Usually, big problems call for big solutions which involve a lot of work, and that's likely the case here. Asking about how games can improve tutorials to let casual players get up to speed with the "real play" may even be the wrong question. Thinking about video games in this way assumes there has to be or should be a dividing line between "tutorial" and "actual game" and not only have I never heard a solid argument for why we should construct games this way, but the games that have dissolved that barrier have generally done better. A lot of designs that help you retain information painlessly use a familiar pattern.

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The designers teach you a new mechanic either by explicitly commanding you to interface with it or by giving very overt hints on how to do so within a sandbox space. They then give you an environment in which you are not implicitly instructed to work with the mechanic again but must do so to achieve your goal. In these environs, it doesn't take much effort to tell how the mechanic figures in as there aren't a lot of moving parts. After a dry run or two interacting with it in a live scenario, the game gives you just enough time to forget about it and then prompts you to interact with it again. The game keeps introducing these prompts at regular intervals, allowing you to rehearse the mechanic, and as you do, you become more aware of how to work with it, and it takes less effort each time. As interfacing with the mechanic becomes second-nature, the game can introduce many more mechanics around it without confusing you and gradually make prompts about it subtler. You can see this a lot in Portal. In the case that the mechanic requires a player input within a certain timeframe, the game will often start with a wide input window and then gradually shorten the time you have to perform the action on each recurring instance. Punishments for failing to grasp a mechanic also generally start off as a tap on the wrist and get progressively more severe over the course of the game.

Notice that this doesn't sound much like playing a fighting game and that a mechanically sparse experience is not what diehard fighting game lovers come to the genre for. For a fighting game to adopt this approach, it would likely have to have a distinct mode in the style of a single-player campaign which steadily increases in mechanical complexity, and in which, just like when playing an instrument, our inputs start off very slow, and we speed up over time. A mode in this style may also need to use more clear visual prompts, and between that and the slowed-down enemies, it may create more work for the animators. It's not hard to figure out why studios have not undertaken this massive project to please a group who is not their core audience. There is another possible solution that could satisfy players of all skill levels, but it would still require many hours in front of screens of code, and it's pretty out there.

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There isn't a school in the world that has concluded that students do better without teachers. We know that people learn best by not just having a stack of learning materials and exercises dumped on their desk but also by having someone who gives them pointers when they demonstrate their knowledge of the subject. Every single person learns in their own way, and so their misunderstandings and weaknesses on any topic or task are going to be unique to them. For this reason, all students need unique feedback on their work, not a one-size-fits-all lesson that fails to address their personal aptitude. Now, I think we can rule out an international league of thousands of fighting game tutors as a solution for Injustice 2, but when we want a video game to fill in for a human being, we do have a solution: artificial intelligence. If AI can be an ally or an enemy then I don't see why it can't also be a coach. The ideal AI professor may not be attainable with modern programming techniques, but as a general goal, I think the concept of a fighting game which inspects your play, tells you your strengths and weaknesses, and gives you tips to improve could be radically beneficial for casual and veteran players alike. The system could even assign you certain tasks to help you practice the actions at which you're shakiest. Injustice 2 already has daily missions that let you unlock more lootboxes; what if those missions were refocused around reinforcing the lagging areas of your performance?

While I've used fighting games as my sounding board here, I'm sure you can see how ideas in this article could also be applied to other highly demanding genres such as strategy games. To summarise, the degree to which games are accessible is not just a product of what their mechanics look like but also how those games convey those mechanics. There's been a lack of progress in the field of player education that would have been considered unacceptable for other facets of games such as graphical fidelity or network technologies, and for some games, welcoming rookie players may be a matter of economic survival.

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In the case of fighting games, tutorials often teach players what actions they can take, but provide them with less instruction on how those actions play off of each other and where to use them. Injustice 2 provides a better methodology, teaching audiences about all the concepts professional competitors think about, as well as giving them guides on how to play specific characters, and more visual demonstrations of relevant actions. However, its designers limit the effectiveness of these techniques by failing to represent them across the whole game, and it still has this wall in its difficulty curve which comes between the advanced tutorials and live play. If fighting games and other competitive multiplayer games are to evolve their player education, having more consistent learning aids, a gradual ramp-up of mechanical complexity, or AI-driven feedback on player performance would be transformatively positive. Thanks for reading.

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Epitaph: What Remains of Edith Finch and Death

Note: The following article contains major spoilers for What Remains of Edith Finch.

This article discusses death at-length and makes multiple references to suicide. If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, contact a suicide prevention organisation near you. For those in the U.S., 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 most entertainment media communities, discussion of "spoilers" without the prerequisite spoiler warning is considered a form of blasphemy. The wording of the term "spoiler" and the reverence around the concept signal a belief that spoilers ruin media. It's also an unwritten rule that when writing you shouldn't give away your ending before it happens; otherwise, you've spoiled your work. If we already know the ultimate state of the world and its characters, there can be no sense of discovery or surprise in its reveal. So spoilers are treated as memetic hazards; psychological poisons which render us incapable of appreciating the narratives they reference.

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This is a paranoid mindset; one that forgets that the joy of plot-driven media is often not in the cold knowledge of what unfolds but the arresting theatre of its unfolding. Sometimes we invest so much in endings that we act like journies don't matter, or we value plot points to the extent that we ignore what aesthetics, dialogue, character work, and other elements do for art and entertainment. It's possible, through overemphasising the impact spoilers have on us, to let the belief that spoilers ruin media become the thing that actually ruins it. But I'm also not suggesting we throw away blocked-out text and cautionary headlines and get straight to telling you who lives and who dies in stories on the front page of every website. Again, there is something about the unexpected and unpredictable that can heighten the emotions of media; it's just not the be-all and end-all.

One reason I would encourage people to sometimes spill the beans on where their narratives are going is that only stories with plot points we know in advance can speak to the experience of encountering the inevitable in our own lives. The most unavoidable and perhaps most meaningful of these fatalistic events in our lives is death, and a story which lets any character cheat death or which cuts off before we see them have to face down their mortality can never speak to our experiences with the end of life. This is why, to be a game that stares death unflinchingly in the face, What Remains of Edith Finch must let its protagonist, and by extension, us, know that there's only one place they and the other characters can ultimately end up, and its the grave. What Remains is, for a perfectly good reason, a game which spoils itself.

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But let's hold our horses. Before we can analyse how What Remains talks about death, we must understand where it deviates from other games in its discussion of it. "Death" is part of the standard jargon of computer games, and in many of them, it's synonymous with the fail state or with being temporarily removed from a match. This "death" is not what we talk about when we talk about real-world death, however, and there are few parallels between the two. Video games are about us exercising our agency, and so any death in a game must be quickly undone so that we can return to the action, but outside these play spaces, it's finality and permanence that characterise death.

It's true that some games have a mechanic called "permadeath" in which we must start the whole ordeal over when we die, but while we can lose items and abilities irretrievably under the permadeath rule, the experience is still one of us being able to resurrect immediately. Additionally, it's almost always the case that when we restart, we find the same protagonist alive and kicking again (e.g. The Binding of Isaac) or we essentially play an avatar instead of a character, and so there is not really a person to lose in the death (e.g. Nethack). Roguelikes are usually purposefully designed so that while our progress can always be wiped out in an instant, we can exhume ourselves in the blink of an eye and start the climb over. We don't permanently lose anything if we still have a chance to work our way back towards it. And loss is really what this is about. Death is a permanent loss of a person, and these games either lack A. The feeling that a person is disappearing or B. A sense of profound loss, leaving them with only so much authority from which they can speak on death.

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To combat this, some developers have tried to concoct games which become unplayable after the point we die. A cluster of these "perma-permadeath" experiments was announced in 2015, but none of them saw the light of day. First talked about mid-2015, The Flock was a multiplayer horror which intended to simulate the extinction of a species by shutting down for good after a certain quota of user deaths had been fulfilled, but its developer, Vogelsap, were never able to implement that mechanic as they could no longer afford the server tallying the dead players. Later in 2015, the studio Robot Loves Kitty announced an audience-influenced single-life roguelike called Upsilon Circuit that they then cancelled in late 2017, as their vision for the game outpaced their resources. Around the same time Upsilon Circuit was announced, the perma-permadeath shooter One Life appeared on Steam Greenlight but by late 2016 its website was defunct and the team working on it made a statement to Kotaku confirming that they had suspended production indefinitely. Video games cost an arm and a leg to produce, and consumers and investors are unlikely to pour a lot of pennies into a play experience that can only last up until the first death.

So few games that contain death or that we talk about as incorporating death do so in a way that resembles lives ending in the real world, and designing games that try to embody this concept at a mechanical level has been easier said than done. Favourites such as X-COM and This War of Mine stir feelings of loss by giving you squad members with unique talents that disappear for good once they die. This allows the characters to become fixtures visually and mechanically so that there is a sense of absence once they're gone. You can't help noticing the space they should occupy. However, you'll also see that while losing a character in X-COM often feels like a weapon breaking, losing a character in This War of Mine has more of an emotional sting to it. TWoM's characters come tagged with descriptions explaining who they are and what their life was like before they joined our band of scavengers, and they have traits and moods that speak to their personhood outside of a live combat scenario. They may suffer from depression or addiction; they may enjoy strumming a guitar or be a seasoned cook.

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That comparison between This War of Mine and X-COM clarifies a truth that we need to understand about death in games: While mechanics alone can make us feel that we've lost something, developers must implement writing to make us feel like we've lost someone. There may be ways to create a picture of a human being purely through mechanics which we don't know about yet and it is true that mechanics can give enormous weight to what happens in writing, but as it is, we need to see characters' biographies, how they communicate with others, and/or how they react to certain scenarios to get a complete picture of a person. And you need a living thing for their destruction to qualify as "death". If they are objectified rather than humanised, we can't view their destruction any differently than we'd view knocking a coffee cup off of a desk. Fire Emblem deserves a lot of credit in this department as a game which has a sustained narrative with plenty of character dialogue but where cast members can die permanently as a result of your miscalculations in battle.

But as with many other topics, it's important to understand the difference between a game featuring death and talking about it. Fire Emblem is not, in its totality, a reflection on mortality, and its story maintains a distance from our own lives which softens the blows of characters passing on. While escapist media can contain relatable elements, it also tends to treat any concept brought up within it in a somewhat fantastical manner. There's a bit of a gulf between coming to terms with your Grandad who helped you fix your childhood bike dying and seeing a black mage in a fantasy kingdom run out of hit points. It is not that we should write off sci-fi, fantasy, or other common game genres as art that can that give us heart-wrenching or poignant windows into death, but most games that choose these thematic casings do so because they want to get away from the real world, not connect more closely with it.

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By pointing out the patterns with which almost all video games skirt around the death that we encounter in our real lives, I wish to point out that in painting an intimate picture of death in a family's home, What Remains of Edith Finch is a trailblazer in the medium. I would even say that most films would be uncomfortable pressing their face this close to the topic, but maybe we're as uneasy with this phenomenon as we are because we're not thinking about it all that much. The end of life is a concept that touches a raw nerve, and so we do our best make our thoughts flow around it, but when we refuse to familiarise ourselves with death, we make it something unknown which only makes it scarier. What Remains of Edith Finch strives to ensure that we think hard about this topic which might be uncomfortable up-front but has the potential to make us less afraid of death in the long-term.

In the first whispers of the game, we ride a ferry under an overcast sky with a book in our lap and a bunch of lilies beside us. This book is the diary of a young woman named Edith Finch who becomes our eyes and ears for the rest of the journey. We join Edith as she returns to the family home she lived in until the age of eleven when she and her mother abruptly fled from it. The house is abandoned, remote, and architecturally impossible. It was first constructed in 1937 by the intrepid Sven Finch, the great-grandfather of Edith. His father, Odin, had travelled from Norway to America, hoping to escape a supposed curse on the family, and he purportedly pulled the original family house behind his ship. That ship sunk and he died just offshore from where the Finches eventually founded their new residence. Although, Sven's wife Edie (not to be confused with the protagonist, Edith), insisted that they build the graveyard before the home proper.

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In Norse and Germanic mythology Odin is frequently referred to as the "Allfather", is known to enjoy wandering, and is a god of death and the gallows. Followers worship him for his ability to communicate with and raise the dead which is what we'll be doing metaphorically throughout the game. The curse Odin Finch believed in damns the members of his family to die young, and as we discover in our exploration of the house, most did. In the diary of the ten-year-old Molly, for example, the girl writes that, after being sent to bed without dinner one night, she looked around her room for unlikely sources of sustenance. After eating a carrot, some toothpaste, and some holly berries, she transformed into a cat, a bird, a shark, and a monster, but that monster she turned into eventually crawled under her bed and ate her.

Or take the death of sixteen-year-old Barbara Finch. With Barbara having been a famous child actor, a pulp horror comic was made about the night she died which the matriarch Edie bought and cherished, to the confusion of Edith. The comic portrays Barbara as a typical teenager who has fallen out of grace with the film industry but is now being coached back to stardom by her boyfriend/manager, Rick. Rick cares about Barbara more as a performer than a partner, so she tries to shut him out, and soon a masked man who has been terrorising the town invades her house. Barbara gets into a physical altercation with the home invader that goes nowhere, and then a party of monsters show up to eat her. The police conclude that Rick killed Barbara, but the narrator of the comic, Jack, doesn't pay that any mind.

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The tales of Molly and Barbara are typical of those of the Finch family, both in that where we would expect the solemn and mundane around death, we get the sugary and embellished, and in that they are conveyed to us through in-fiction writing. Plenty of modern game designers use text logs to expand their world and characters, but when they do, they fail to use all the faculties at their fingertips. Action scenes are often afforded a game's whole battery of mechanics, sounds, and animations, but detailed characterisation often happens through the bone-dry technique of pausing the game for some light reading. What Remains of Edith Finch uses text documents as a convenient way to drop character background into a story, but by turning them into playable segments, it makes them rich adventures which jump off the page. Almost the whole game involves forcing our way into the bedrooms of the Finch home and playing through these characters deaths and the moments right before them via these texts. The house itself also communicates the character backgrounds.

The bedrooms of this rustic home are painted and furnished to embody the people who relaxed and slept in them. But in other games where environments flesh out people, they do so because people are currently inhabiting those spaces (e.g. Gone Home) or because they were forcibly removed from them without anyone being able to clean them up or take possession of their belongings (e.g. Prey). Neither is exactly the situation in Edith Finch, and that's what's uncanny about this home. Edie has preserved each dead family member's room as museum exhibit on them, creating environmental epitaphs through which they live on. This is how the house becomes a physical impossibility. When a fresh generation is born, Edie can't stand to disturb the previous generation's rooms to make way for them, so instead, she has new rooms built onto the exterior of the house like cancerous growths. The house becomes this branching, unordered hive of living quarters. The game frequently returns to a literal image of a family tree, as Edith fills in the Finch lineage after learning about each of her relatives, and the house itself resembles that family tree; it's a physical manifestation of it.

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Edie herself seemed immune to the family curse and lived to be ninety-three before she died; she was still alive on the night that Edith and her mother, Dawn, fled the house. At one point during their cohabitation, Dawn, aggravated by Edie's fanatical memorialising of the family, boarded up the bedroom doors, but Edie drilled peepholes into each of them. At the end of the game, Edith enters her old room, where, after learning how all of her elders and peers lived and died within the family, she must work out how she fits into it. Edith lies down and journals about the tipping point between Edie and Dawn. On the night before Dawn and Edith left the house, Edie told Dawn that Edith has a right to read the histories of the family and that even if Dawn flees the home, she'll still be cursed, but Dawn accuses Edie of killing the family with these tales. It doesn't make much sense at the time. Edith, who had been listening in, leaves the two to squabble and starts reading a book written by Edie in which she explains the history of the family and the night she crept back into the old, sunken Finch home. Halfway through, Dawn wrestles the book from Edith, tearing it in two, and they leave the house then and there. Edie passes away before morning and Dawn becomes sick and dies on the outside, although not as abruptly as the other Finches have. This leaves Edith, at sixteen-years-old, the only surviving member of her family. She discovers that she's pregnant, but tells us that if we're reading her notebook, which we are, she has died.

The protagonist of the game is revealed to be Edith's son, and the journal that we started reading at the beginning of the game is the one that Edith began writing on her bed. In her final pages, she doesn't have a pithy explanation that sums up all she has seen, and she struggles to provide her child with a philosophy to move forward with but emphasises that he should appreciate life, even if it's fleeting. The final shot of the work is Edith's son laying the lilies on her grave. The game spoils itself in that we knew Edith had to die in the end; her whole family were doomed to that fate. However, other aspects of the ending seem obvious only in retrospect. The game started from the perspective of someone on a trip with Edith's diary and a handful of white lilies which are typically exhibited at funerals. This was a subtle clue that we were going to visit her burial plot.

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The last few shots of the game are also potently purposeful. As Edith tells us about her mother and her trying to make the best of their freedom after flying the coop, we see Edith's hand soaring through the air alongside their car, like a bird. The next shot is symbolic of loss through illness: Edith holds a dandelion as its seeds scatter into the wind, all of them being blown off by her mother's coughing. Then there's another shot symbolising death, but with themes of affection and unity represented: We see only Edith's arm and the arm of her mother with a hospital bracelet around it; the two slide their hands together. As Edith struggles to find some meaning in the wreckage of the family, we float aimlessly in a dark space that we subsequently learn is her womb. The final sequence is a first-person childbirth which cuts into Edith's son at his mother's grave; the developers juxtapose birth and death.

It's hard to know what to make of What Remains after the first playthrough. This is because Edith can't provide us with an explanation of the events we've seen, because the narrative doesn't always make it clear how characters' actions influence each other, and because the plot is imparted to us non-chronologically. Writers sometimes use that last technique for narratives they intend us to read more than once; they spread the pieces of the jigsaw far enough apart that on the first pass we often forget them or wouldn't think to put them together. However, on a revisit, prior knowledge from the end of the story helps recontextualise each of these pieces as we rediscover them, and we get a better idea of what we're looking at. If the plot seems digestible right now, remember that I've done a lot of reordering of the timeline and stringing together of information scattered wide across the Finch house.

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But let's really unpack it. Death in and of itself is a shallow topic. Taken on its own, it seems almost academic: a person is alive one moment, the next they're not, and the cessation of life negates character expression because you can't express anything when you're dead. What's interesting is how characters change their behaviour and emotions in the face of death; either their own imminent death or the death of people around them. We're forced to connect with death in What Remains because everyone has a substantial emotional investment in everyone else; they're attached by the bonds of family. You'll also note that, unlike in other video games, death in What Remains isn't something we can dodge or respawn from a few seconds later, nor is it something we can shut away behind a broken executable because the game deactivates at the point of demise. We're forced to trudge on through a graveyard of a narrative, watching family members try to come to terms with the inescapable.

Not to get too didactic, but until we have the technology for human immortality, the only way to overcome the fear and grief that death brings with it is to develop a worldview which makes it less sad and less scary. You can't dodge it forever, so all you can do is try to establish a philosophy that lets you process it healthily. A healthy outlook doesn't mean that the end of life won't sometimes be frightening, depressing, or sorrowful, although some people have apparently overcome those emotions. What it means is that your feelings towards death won't actively inhibit your life. The fundamental conflict of What Remains may seem to be a one-sided fight between a family and a grim reaper that continually harangues them. However, we can also view the conflict of the narrative being between a worldview that helps us cope with the knowledge of imminent death and one that has death utterly debilitate us. Edie carries a debilitating view of death while Dawn and Edith pursue a more positive mindset, so on another level, the story's conflict is between Edie and Dawn/Edith, while the other members of the Finch family are collateral damage from Edie's beliefs.

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You see, the game gives us some early tip-offs that the stories we find about the Finches deaths are bald-faced lies. Edith says outright that Sven died constructing a dragon-shaped slide on the side of the house but that Edie told people he died fighting a dragon, we know Edie told a journalist that a "moleman" lived under their house which even at the time seems improbable, and after reading Molly's story, Edith says "I'm not sure I believed all that, but Edie would have". Once we know that Edie can massively exaggerate stories, we can look for more plausible explanations for what killed the Finches, and the developers teach us that there are more logical answers by giving us three or four character arcs early in the game where we can find such rational causes for death.

It's believable that Odin drowned at sea but not tugging a whole house behind his ship. In Molly's story, it's likely that she died from the poisonous holly berries and that she hallucinated from the fruit before passing away; not that she transformed into a monster and ate herself. In the case of Calvin Finch who is meant to have flown out over the ocean, the developers practically tell us that his parents carelessly placed his swing next to a cliff edge and he fell off. With Barbara, it's more likely that the police were correct that her boyfriend murdered her than it is that werewolves and mummies ate her; the masked killer was her partner, and it's why he seems like such a tacked-on element in the tale.

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Once we know to look for the lies we can start interpreting the reality behind the later stories: Baby Gregory didn't turn into a frog and swim down the plughole of the overflowing bath; he drowned in there. Lewis didn't enter a fantasy kingdom in his mind where he placed his head in a guillotine; he committed suicide. And Milton who loved to paint and explore the secret passages of the house didn't disappear into the world of his art; he most likely died in one of the crawlspaces. These stories all have unreliable narrators too: many of them are children, one of them is a pulp comic writer, and one of them is Edie. These characters all either lack the maturity to understand the story they're telling, or they have a motivation to lie. We know that Edie wants to project a rose-coloured view of the family. She keeps her dead relatives' rooms pristine and airbrushed, and Dawn calls the tales told about the Finches "[Edie]'s stories", meaning that even when the kids are telling them, they almost certainly originate from Edie. Edie misses her children and grandchildren, and both the tombs of their bedrooms and the tall tales of their deaths help keep them alive for her. This matriarch's fables take their passings from being blunt, unheroic accidents to spirited blazes of glory, allowing her to come to terms with them.

Yet, by passing down her fantastical stories to the next generation and by making the deceased family members' belongings and decoration permanent features of the house, Edie fixates on them and keeps herself and the family from moving on from them. This is the unhealthy behaviour we just talked about: letting the issue of death rule your life. Edie cares more for the dead than she does for the living and this was embodied in her demanding that the graveyard of the house be built before the house itself. The Finch children are born into a mausoleum and an environment of perpetual mourning which leaves them all understandably maladjusted. As the bedrooms of new children are stacked atop the enshrined rooms of the old, the deaths in the family literally become foundational to their lives, and the final generation of Finches we see end up living in isolated spaces, not even directly attached to the main house: There's Lewis's boat, Milton's tower, and Edith's treehouse. It's a reflection that the dysfunction of the family, created by Edie, has alienated them and has led them to reclusive behaviour. How do you find a place for yourself in the family when the house is already full and when generations before you already have your relatives' full attention? The top-heavy house also serves as a visual metaphor for the instability of the family, an instability that will eventually split it in two when Dawn leaves Edie.

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When concentrating on death makes it less of an unknown, and when familiarity with death seems to be vital to the acceptance of it, we may assume that Edie should have a highly enlightened view on the subject, but the problem is she is not confronting her family deaths. She sees them happen and instead of facing them earnestly she makes up a different story about what occurred, causing her to never processes the reality. When Dawn boards up the family bedrooms, it's symbolic of her wishing to do away with Edie's obsession with these family members and their deaths, and when Edie drills holes into the doors it's telling of her opposing desire to keep using the house as a window into the people she's lost, prolonging the problem. It's also what creates the image of the house as a gallery of the dead; the residents can look at their lives but never touch them.

Not only does Edie mishandle these deaths; she is also causing them in the first place. While she may blame a curse for the family members passing on so suddenly, their demises all appear to happen by preventable, non-supernatural causes. We can attribute Molly's, Gregory's, Calvin's, and Milton's deaths to child neglect, with them dying from poisoning, drowning, falling from a height, and during dangerous exploration, respectively. They all perished at ages when parents should have been closely supervising them, but they weren't. This is referenced indirectly by Molly when she tells us during her story that "Mum and Dad didn't even look at me" which is diegetically about Edie and Sven not seeing her turning into a cat but has some sobering subtext. Arguably, the family should have also been warier of Barbara's boyfriend.

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Many of the deaths may also have been possible to avoid if the family members had been less alienated from the rest. This includes Lewis's suicide and Milton's disappearance, but also other deaths we haven't talked about yet. Gus's story tells us that he died at thirteen; protesting a wedding in the family. He stands apart from the rest of the party, flying a kite; the furniture on the beach magnetises to the kite, a storm picks up, and the debris trailing behind it flies into him, killing him. It's possible that Gus died in a weather-related incident, although not one involving a cloud of tables and chairs, however, the underlying message is that Gus felt pushed out of the family and that led to his death. Then there's Walter who, fearing the curse, sealed himself in a bunker below the home until, at fifty-three, he realised he'd wasted his life and wanted to savour the outside, even if it was only for a few days. In the narrative we're told, once Walter breaks free, he's immediately hit by a train, but the train is likely symbolic of some threat on the outside that Walter couldn't foresee because he went through his whole adulthood in shelter. He didn't have the experience in the outside world he'd need to protect himself.

In each of these stories, either the victims or their guardians probably died because they weren't taught to think of death as a real threat; they were taught to think of it as a delightful storybook adventure. If they'd have known otherwise, they would have been better primed to take precautions against it themselves or prevent it happening to their children. This includes Edith, who, having gotten pregnant at a young age opened herself up to pregnancy-related risks, and Sam Finch, who we've not yet mentioned. Sam died at thirty-three on a hunting trip with a childhood Dawn. He made Dawn shoot a buck, and believing it to be dead, posed for a photo with it. But the animal was very much alive, and when it reared up, it knocked Sam off of a stone pillar to his final resting place. He died literally because he could not recognise death. The reasons listed in the above two paragraphs are why Dawn tells Edie that her stories kill and why she tries to take Edith as far away from them as possible. It doesn't seem to be the Finches themselves that are cursed, but instead, their lore, which carries a kind of contagious property where the more you're exposed to it, the more likely you are to die early. Here, we find an additional use for Edie's tales: they absolve her of blame for the family deaths, both those from child neglect and those indirectly caused by the stories.

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Some of the Finches do live longer than others, but it's generally those who've been able to distance themselves from Edie and her fables. Most obviously, Dawn, who lives to be forty-six, but also Odin who died at fifty-seven and who predates Edie's fictions, Sam who lived to be thirty-three but spent time away from the family in the army, Watler who stayed alive for fifty-three years by sealing himself away from the other Finches, and Lewis who lived to be twenty-two but spent considerable time both disassociating from his surroundings and away at his cannery job. Then there's Edie who lives to be ninety-three, perhaps helped by the fact that she knows the real stories behind the family deaths and so can't make the same mistakes that her progeny did, but it may also be that Edie stays alive through emotional vampirism. At very least, that's the metaphor that the game uses. The stories she tells cut the lifespan of her children and grandchildren drastically short, but they allow her to keep on going, and it's only after Dawn and Edith leave, and she has no one left to tell her stories to, that she dies.

Whether the curse is fiction or reality for the Finches, its utility to the game's writers is evident. Because the Finches die young, we get a protagonist who is able-bodied enough to explore secret passages of a house and still has a curiosity for a world that she's yet to discover, but who must come to terms with their own imminent death quickly enough that you can fit it into a two-hour story. This narrative tool also lets the writers surround us with an unusual quantity of dead family members through which their protagonist can process her coming demise. This processing is a relatable goal for any player because, all of us, even if we're not going to drop dead in the next few weeks, are going to die someday. In this way, we're all cursed, and again, if we can't sidestep death, then the only means to win is by facing it in as healthy and comfortable a way as we can.

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And it's hard not to get why Dawn hates Edie for taking that away from her family. Maybe you hate her too; she inflicted an early death on several children. But it would be too cheap for the game to say "Don't romanticise and dodge the issue of death like Edie does" without giving us an idea of how we might fall into the trap she did. As ever, games are not restricted to just showing us how a character acts; they can also let us feel what it's like to be them. We play through Edie's embellished versions of the Finches' deaths, and when we do, they're enchanting to experience. Think about it: When we first enter Molly's room do we want to hear a story of child neglect and a mother who has to come to terms with knowing she killed her daughter or do we want to be a feline hopping between the tree branches? Would it be more fun to experience Lewis going off to a soul-crushing, repetitive job every day and then committing suicide or is it more stimulating to see the game supplement it with a magical kingdom that we can leisurely conquer? We often say that games featuring escapism offer an escape from real-world stresses but that games with more down-to-earth play focus us on issues external to the game. However, an increasing number of games work as serious essays by giving us escapist segments and then commenting on them.

In What Remains, the escapism is representative of the allure of romanticising death, but the commentary of the game acknowledges that escapism for what it is, reminding us that fetishising death is us stepping away from reality instead of engaging it. Near the end of the title, when Dawn rips the storybook from our fingers, we feel cheated because we want to keep participating in that escapism, which is also what these characters long for. We then get a taste of an unglamourised death just before the game ends as Edith tells us that her mother died in a hospital bed and it's not nice. And now imagine for a moment that we weren't just a player and that we were instead Edie, a woman who has lost a father, partner, five children, and four grandchildren suddenly and tragically.

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Edie has no right to inflict what she does on the rest of the family and should never have sugar-coated these passings, but we also shouldn't ignore the emotional weight on her. The reason that anyone, even a well-meaning person, can end up doing something like Edie does is that the alternative is excruciating mourning and What Remains uses its storytelling methods to put us in the headspace of Edie. Masterfully, it uses the same stories to make us sympathise with her that it does to make us empathise with the other Finches. None of us wants to be the unfortunate souls that die in any of these arcs, least of all Edith, but can you say that given a choice between mourning and release, you wouldn't at least for a moment consider opting for release, as Edie does? Could you take down the wallpaper and remove all the toys from your own deceased child's room? Could you tell the next generation that the previous died alone and in pain? Remember, the stories Edie tells don't just decide her emotional state but also that of the family she loves. I'm talking about a lot of specifics here, but at some point What Remains is just about the difficulty in accepting death, both that of your loved ones or your own. By showing us how hard it is to face up to the truths of death, What Remains also highlights Dawn and Edith as radically brave characters and I don't think their demises are in vain.

"Edith" is a corruption of the word "edit" and just as Edie watered down the history of her family before feeding it to her children, Edith can rewrite the history of the family to remove its toxicity. On the last page of the journal Edith passes down to her son, she proposes a lens through which to think about death that has the hope and happiness of Edie's rose-tinted glasses but is far healthier. She says:

"I think the best we can do is try to open our eyes and appreciate how strange and brief all of [life] is [...] I don't want you to be sad that I'm gone. I want you to be amazed that any of us ever had a chance to be here at all".

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Edith's son reads these words before placing the flowers on her grave. His mother has given him a future beyond being another shrine in the Finch house or a couple of dates on a family tree; she has made him the first Finch we know of that can acknowledge a family member's death and understand how it happened. They can do this while seeing death not as an event that emotionally destroys you or something to lie about but as a feature that makes life more worth living. And Edith tells her son to focus more on the time we have here than the time we don't.

For all the tragedy that has befallen the other Finches, it's hard to imagine that this new Finch will live his life out in a bunker as Walter did or retreat from the people who should be closest to him like Milton. As the camera pulls up and away, there is the sense that Edith and Dawn might just have broken the family curse. Dawn's name and the childbirth scene are evocative of new beginnings, and Dawn and Edith ripping Edie's storybook in two suggests a discarding of her tales. Even if Edith may have passed away, part of her still lingers. Her documentation of the real story of the family and the uplifting musings on death she leaves for both her son and us are what remains of Edith Finch. Thanks for reading.

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Superpowered: An Analysis of Agents of Mayhem

Note: This article contains some spoilers for Saint's Row The Third and major spoilers for Saint's Row IV.

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When you've spent your career making games with over-the-top plots and one day you manage to release a game with the most over-the-top plot possible, where do you go from there? It's a question that Volition Entertainment had to ask themselves after they released Saint's Row IV in 2013. Saint's Row the Third delighted audiences with its overblown and absurd take on the action game genre, turning them into toilets in a Tron-style cyberscape and letting them meet Burt Reynolds. But by the end of Saint's IV, players had been inaugurated as the President of the United States, crowned the head of an intergalactic empire, and owned a time machine. There weren't many more gizmos for them to earn or medals to pin on their chest after that. But even in that fourth rendition of Saint's Row, there was evidence that Volition might be able to put out a new game with the same flavour without trying to one-up themselves.

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If you love Saint's III and IV, part of that love was probably down to these games not just firing off jokes but putting an almost hilarious amount of effort into their telling, turning them into whole levels of play. These stages took us to B-Movie Mars, had us lucha wrestle a crime boss, and challenged us to break out of a 50s-style family comedy. The main missions of Saint's were effectively a sketch show with the skits all mining a different vein of pop culture ephemera. The complexity and absurdity of these sketches increased both between Saint's III and IV, and within each of the games as we made our way through the campaigns.

We can view the upward curve we travel along in Saint's as being one of increasingly elaborate pop culture escapism, and looking at it that way, there was always another horizon for Saint's to travel to. What if this developer made a game that was comprised entirely of one of those sketches? What if one pop culture nod became the whole experience? There were wisps of this concept in the side project Gat Out of Hell as Saint's dwelled more on a single genre aesthetic than it had before: the aesthetic of the heavy metal album cover. However, even that experience was somewhat of a cultural pick 'n' mix: we met Shakespeare at a nightclub and liberated Vlad the Impaler from a nursery. It wasn't until Agents of Mayhem in 2017 that characters, settings, style, and play in the Saint's universe were all united within a single pop culture citadel. Feel free to skip the next paragraph if you're already familiar with the premise of this game.

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Agents of Mayhem is a revelrous recreation of the after-school superhero cartoon. It's the kind of media property someone would make to sell action figures but without the action figures. It takes place on the surprisingly chipper battlefield of a futuristic Seoul where the evil Doctor Babylon and his army, LEGION, wage war against world leaders and the eponymous Agents of Mayhem. Led by the effortlessly suave Persephone Brimstone, the Agents are effectively an Avengers Initiative which has recruited a league of heroes from around the planet to put a stop to LEGION once and for all. Mechanically, this game is a single-player-only RPG shooter which mainly takes place in a seamlessly connected open-world city, but which sometimes has you braving your way into instanced enemy bases. Unless you're in one of the special single-characters missions, you can, at any time, switch between one of three heroes, each with their own weapon, stats, augments, special powers, and health pool. You can also change which three characters you have in your hand between missions and unlock more characters by completing side quests.

The way Agents handles its characters, both ludically and narratively is what defines it. From the start, you'll notice that while Saint's had you stepping into the shoes of the boss of an organisation and the other members of the gang acting as helpful NPCs, Agents has the boss of the organisation serving as a supporting character, while the average members of the group are all avatars you get to embody. Your role as a player this time isn't being in charge of the organisation; it's being the organisation, or at least, the organisation's field team. The play considers every one of these people as important as any other and lets everyone take turns in the protagonist's chair, but while the gameplay suggests these characters are united in combat, the script fails to create chemistry between them because the squad members almost never talk amongst themselves. The character currently switched in as the protagonist is only scripted to strike up conversations with certain supporting characters back at base, or occasionally, the villains. In fact, the game's structure makes inter-squad dialogue impossible and if it's hard to see why then think about it from the writer's perspective.

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Remember, because the player is picking who they deploy in any one mission, they are deciding the three main characters in almost every scene. Let's discuss a hypothetical scene and label the characters in the three slots for it A, B, and C. Say that these characters come across a gruesome enemy-controlled spire jutting out of the ground and Character A shares their thoughts about it. Now, depending on who the player has selected for this mission, Character A could be any one of fifteen characters, and every one of them is going to speak about that spire differently. Based on their personality, they'll comment on different details, ask different questions, and use different language.

The writers penning a line for every character in every speaking moment in the game would put a strain on production, but it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that the developers could produce, record, and animate fifteen different scripts for the game. But then it gets more complicated because let's say that in our example scene, Character B responds to Character A's remark. You can't just pick one of fifteen character-appropriate lines for this response because Character B's reply has to address the content and tone of Character A's unique line while also embodying who Character B is. Now, let's say Character C pipes in with their own witty comment responding to A and B, and we already see an overload of different ways this conversation could branch. And you'd have to account for this fast-acting branching for every conversation in the game across all scenes. There are only three solutions to this problem:

  1. You write a different script for every possible combination of characters that the player could take into each mission. With fifteen characters (including those from the DLC) and three agent slots, that's 2,730 scripts[1], so that one's a non-starter.
  2. You have one or perhaps a few generic scripts from which the characters pull their dialogue. It keeps the squad interacting but often in a manner that's incongruous with their personalities.
  3. You keep the squad from talking amongst themselves. There's a lot less camaraderie between characters, but you also don't show the audience an off-kilter screenplay that undoes your character work.
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Volition went with option three, but none of these methods makes you look like a competent writer. The game does try to make up for this by finding brief respites during which these co-workers can chew the fat and show off their personalities a little more, but the downtime only comes in drips, meaning that so does the development of the agents and their relationships. This is one consequence of weaving Agents entirely from the thread of genre escapism where Saint's had the genre fiction be this alternate dimension that characters dip in and out of. In Saint's, the gang could step away from the action to something resembling the real world and make a connection before opening the door to that madness again. But Agents is, through and through, a superhero action game[2], so characters barely exist outside of the next chance to knock down the next villain's door; this means if a conversation can't be had while round-housing robots in the head, it's unlikely they'll have it at all.

I'd also opine that Saint's felt as "wacky" as it did not because the developers did the silliest thing in any given situation but because the characters were coming from a slightly more mundane world and were then thrust into these ridiculous sub-worlds. This created a contrast between the regular and the weird, and the characters could act as audience surrogates, laughing along at how much stupid fun every stage was. Now that there's no point at which the camera pulls back from the pop culture stew, there's no knowing wink at it. Some of these heroes always have time for a laugh, even when the fate of the world hangs in the balance, but where Saint's had a semi-ironic appreciation of its subject matter, Agents is far more earnest. This could, again, be down to the format constricting it, the same way it does the character interaction. There's nothing wrong with developing a more serious game but such seriousness requires a stripe of dramatic writing that you won't find in this superhero slugfest.

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It's also possible that Agents has trouble sculpting its characters and story because Volition seems to have a below-average budget for cutscenes and because there aren't many setpiece moments during the campaign. On that second point, most battles we fight in the game are staged in a permutation of one of a few generic enemy bases. Whether you're crashing Steeltoe's wedding or hot-footing it around Ariadne's Lewis Caroll-inspired labyrinth, their levels are still more high tech research labs than they are a church or a wonderland. It never feels like you go somewhere wholly themed around these characters as you did in Saint's which ties into a related issue. If a writer is to show us who characters are, then those writers need to include allies, antagonists, settings, and conflicts that play off of the characters' histories and personalities. Additionally, the writer tells us about these people by showing us how they react to those four elements, and Agents doesn't commit to that.

Superhero stories, in particular, tend to define a character by their origin tale and then not develop them past it so experiencing their origin is essential for us if we're to understand who they are and what motivates them. Imagine a version of Spider-Man where we don't know about Uncle Ben or a version of Captain America where the baddies aren't directly opposed to the values of freedom and liberty that Captain America represents. For each character in Agents of Mayhem, we get a brief animated cutscene that explains their backstory before Mayhem abducts them from the locale which contextualises them and absorbs them into the collective. After that point, their actions are juxtaposed against settings and enemies which have little to do with them personally. For example, the city of Seoul doesn't tell us anything about Rama who is from a plague-ridden village in Mumbai, and the mad scientist villain of Doctor Babylon doesn't represent any specific fears or challenges faced by Daisy, a rowdy roller derby enthusiast. Agents of Mayhem is using the superhero team-up framework of crowd-pleasers like The Avengers or Justice League but without any equivalent to the masses of prep work which make those stories possible.

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I'd advise comparing Agents of Mayhem to the 2012 Avengers. Like Volition's superhero property, The Avengers yanked a diverse set of superheroes from their original frames and pasted them into a new one, and its characters are generally memorable and draw you in. But The Avengers also did something that Agents doesn't: with the exception of Black Widow, Marvel Studios made films about every one of their characters before extracting them from the worlds that birthed them. Even if you hadn't seen all those films, prior fiction based around these characters meant that you had a chance of picking up who they were through cultural osmosis, especially Thor and The Hulk.

All the characters had had time to soak into the pop culture carpet as they'd been around since the mid-20th century, or in the case of Thor, since the 7th century. Black Widow also came across as the weakest of The Avengers precisely because the franchise holders wouldn't give her the same extra-textual support as the other characters. Yet, even Black Widow has received so much more introduction as a character than any agent of Mayhem does. The game has poor comprehension of the superhero team-up format and is trying to blend the stories of twelve wholly original heroes[3] without any outside texts explaining who they are and with about a minute of exposition spent on their backstories.

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It would be far more edifying if we could play through these characters' backgrounds before using them as part of Mayhem, with introductory missions like taking to the football pitch as Red Card or barking orders at recruits as Haddock, but what we get are sixty-second no-frills motion comic versions of this. I'd explain this away by saying this is another instance of Volition's production values lagging behind their ambition, and maybe it is, but there's also a clear split between the volume of resources that have gone into Agents as an open-world shooter and the volume that have gone into Agents as a superhero narrative. The game is this absolutely mystifying mix of a glistening, professional 3D environment and the kind of anaemic story presentation you'd expect from an indie studio learning how to make interactive entertainment as they go. And why you'd commit so few resources to the characterising elements when the game wants to be so much about these characters and who they are, I can't fathom. Maybe something went wrong in production, or perhaps Volition didn't foresee how much their methods would hamper their storytelling, I don't know.

This pattern of Volition's vision outstripping their production levels is at the core of their game. We've talked about it so far as the ball and chain around their storytelling, but it's also palpable in the level design. Although you're raiding enemies bases on the regular, every one of those compounds is the same set of visually and architecturally identical rooms clicked together in different configurations. You can see every raid dungeon area in the first couple of hours, but the game carries on using them for another twelve; even longer if you complete the side content.

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And then there are a lot of little missing components that also feel like a result of the game being underproduced. For example, I wish there was an animation or popup which alerted me when the cooldown for my special ability is over; it would save me from having to keep darting my eyes back to the small timer in the lower-right every time I wanted to know. And I wish that the game had taught me what status effects like "Enfeeble" or "Precision" entailed before stuffing my inventory with items that carry those effects. If nothing else, the interface could tell me where to find the information on them; as it turns out, it's confusingly included in the ~15 buttons in the pause menu where all other options are more technical tools like "Eye Tracking" and "Erase Save Data". These niggling issues might sound like they have more to do with design than production, but they're the kind of wrinkles that you usually see ironed with enough rounds of QA which is something that the developer can provide as long as their coffers aren't running dry and the dev cycle isn't truncated. Certainly, the rotten performance of Agents on its release suggested that Volition could not provide adequate QA for it. This game is a contender for the most technically fragile AAA title released in 2017; systems as basic as collision were continually breaking down in the early days.

But for as much as Agents suggests kinks in its production pipeline, it also feels somewhat like a victim of its genre. It's not always sure how to challenge you while honouring both the RPG and action-oriented facets of its play. An action game should reward you for remaining alert of danger and avoiding it, but the snipers in this game can punch through your shield and a handful of your health with a single bullet and have impeccable aim whether you're moving or not. You can hide behind cover to avoid their fire, but sometimes shelter isn't available. Or there are debuffs which slow you, stop you from jumping, or even immobilise you. Even in traditional RPGs, I'm not a fan of these handicaps, but they're especially irritating in a system like Agents's where half the fun is meant to be the adroit dodging and aerial acrobatics.

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At any time when Agents of Mayhem thinks it's being challenging, there's a good chance it's just being annoying, and most of my deaths in my time with it weren't because I wasn't paying attention to my surroundings or wasn't watching my health, they were because I got hit with three or four attacks in a row which stun locked me and took me from full health to 0 HP. Trying to use your characters' special abilities strategically is also aggravating: Each hero's Mayhem power is a spectacular burst of energy that you want to save for the most fearsome of encounters, but you can never be sure whether you've reached the zenith of difficulty in a mission or not. Sometimes you activate Mayhem and find that you should have done it a room or two later, other times you hold onto it for that perfect moment and complete the mission without that moment arriving.

These issues of Agents' genre conflict line up with its issues of production in the game's length. Agents is over much faster than other progression-based RPGs. I licked my plate clean on this one, beating the main story, finishing all side missions, completing all of the "Global Offensive", clearing all VR rooms, buying all the ARK upgrades, unlocking 88% of achievements, and gobbling up two-thirds of the collectables, but even after all that, I'd only squeezed 24 hours out of the game. This isn't a cut and dry issue of it just being "too short"; length in itself is not a virtue. But other RPGs are as long as they are because it takes a long time to elevate characters to a high level and win them upper tier loot, so developers provide us with a lot of content which gives us the opportunity to raise character levels and collect those items without feeling the game has stagnated. More than most RPGs, Agents of Mayhem needs a lot of that grindstone: it has fifteen characters who all have a max level of 40, yet most players are going to get bored to tears even maxing out one character.

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But you know what surprises me most about Agents of Mayhem? This character game that fails to characterise, this progression game that fails to progress? It's that I like it. Expectations are often the great decider, and I think you're much more likely to enjoy this superpowered romp around Seoul if you can accept that it's not another Saint's Row game. This advice comes with a couple of disclaimers. Firstly, as I've done here, I do think it's still useful to compare this title to Volition's older, wiser open-world crime experiences as Agents is trying to push the same buttons of knowing and confident character-driven genre comedy that Saint's did. Secondly, this game and its marketing copiously alluded to Saint's Row, and if you didn't see the expectations that created first-hand, you can guess.

When Deep Silver announced the game in the summer of 2016, the trailer they published included the signature Saint's Purple, introduced a story which tied into one of the Gat Out of Hell endings, featured the line "The sequel just got greenlit", included a representative of Saints's Ultor Corporation, had a character accuse Persephone of running "A street gang", and had the Third Street Saint's trademark fleur de lis appear behind her. So it wasn't stupid to think that this was a Saint's sequel. Representatives of Volition around the time worked hard to dispel that myth but trailers spread faster and more freely than PR interviews, and the issue was compounded by there being no particularly visible marketing between then and the game's release telling us what Agents actually was. So if you went in expecting a charismatic and personable experience and didn't get that, I understand, and Deep Silver must shoulder the responsibility of running a marketing campaign which failed to communicate the contents of this experience.

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But while Agents is not a worthy torchbearer to take over from Saint's, it's one of the best RPG shooters I've come across. You can basically split action roleplaying games into two camps now: The first wave of ARPGs where a lower grade of game feel was the price we paid for a combination of hand-eye coordination play and progression play, and the second wave where we stopped having to make that trade-off and the games contained both reliable progression systems and fluid action. That second wave likely starts with Borderlands, but Destiny took the concept a step further, and this might controversial, but Agents is an improvement on the feel of Bungie's RPG. Agents's unique achievements as a shooter RPG are that it manages to do it all in third-person, mostly in a wholly interconnected map, and with jumping and climbing mechanics which make you wonderfully light on your feet. It often flexes its "action" muscles in a way that these other ARPGs didn't because it doesn't just incorporate boilerplate aiming and strafing mechanics but also platforming and plenty of dodging. And at last, we have a loveable RPG that doesn't bog you down with inventory management.

Agents of Mayhem manages to say goodbye to inventory organisation by not including randomly dropping gear and taking a generally simplified approach to character equipment. This means you're not watching your free time ebb away as you compare fractional stat differences between Item A and Item B. While you never get that moment of feeling that you hit the jackpot when a legendary drops from an enemy corpse, that's because, instead of putting effort into making you value inanimate objects, Agents is making you value characters instead. ARPGs have always been about trying to reinterpret foundational RPG concepts through the language of action games. That's frequently meant that players have to line up attacks instead of having them auto-target or that each weapon has its own unique handling, but one of the most vital edicts of RPGs is that classes should all be distinct from each other. Whether you picked a warrior, archer, or mage changed what it meant to be in combat and upgrade your avatar. However, ARPGs have often failed to use their action mechanics to distinguish classes to the same extent traditional RPGs have. While class archetypes in ARPGs may have different stats and special abilities, their movement models, and in shooter RPGs, aiming models, are often identical. They fall short of character-focused action games like Overwatch or League of Legends which are careful to match unique characters to unique tactile experiences.

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The characters of Agents are essentially the classes of any other RPG, and by tying the weight, balance, and firing physics to these characters instead of their guns, the designers create a sharper distinction between those characters and better personify who they are. While the script may not act as enough of a mirror against their personalities, you can see, for example, Hardtack's ruggedness embued in his booming shotgun or Scheherazade's ninja prowess in her exclusive use of deadly melee attacks. While there have been hit shooters that have managed to fabricate only four or five of these types of shooting models, Agents has unique handling for all twelve of the characters in the base game (possibly also the DLC characters, although I haven't personally touched them).

Each of these characters may essentially only have one weapon option, but switching characters here serves the role that changing out weapons would in any other TPS. And having firing patterns tied to characters instead of to weapons makes it easier to remember how to get back to that firing pattern. It's more natural to recall that Yeti fights with the freeze gun than it is to call to mind how precisely the "Serve Peacemaker" is going to dispense its rounds. Agents has also solved the problem of how to give audiences the varied play of the MMO raid in a single-player engine. You can't get the co-operative experience of a party all playing to their strengths and covering each other's weaknesses, but the designers can let you assume the role of multiple party members in combat by allowing you to flick between them with the D-Pad. And the same way another shooter may encourage you to switch between firearms by having you run out of ammunition in one, the dwindling shields and differing abilities of the agents nudge you to swap between them regularly, and so experience multiple different types of handling and special abilities in one mission. While picking one class in another RPG often means being locked into one style of play for tens of hours, the play in Volition's ARPG is a damn sight more pliable because its concept of classes is far more dynamic.

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It's hard to imagine a world in which Agents of Mayhem wouldn't have been a nightmare to bring to fruition. Open-world crime games and MMO-likes are two of the most production-intensive genres of video game you can pursue, and in Agents, Volition tried to smash them together. Lacking the production fuel to realise enchanting characters and bottomless RPG content simultaneously, they cut corners with both, although, when pressed, it's the personality of the game that Volition was more willing to dispose of, a decision it's hard to imagine them ever having made with Saint's Row. Agents also reveals how giving the player a firm grip on the game's cast can make writing impossible. Yet, the resources that this developer has committed to the play, the most fundamental part of the experience, have paid off with interest. The action in this action RPG blows that of similar games out of the water, and Volition has discovered a future beyond Saint's Row in deeper play and in spending more time with one type of genre fiction instead of changing costumes every other mission. It's okay to play Agents and miss Saint's Row, but for anyone who longs for the lively spontaneity of Volition's previous games, you can find it here in the way that bouncing between characters is as natural as springing off of buildings. Thanks for reading.

Notes

1. It's possible that you're asking why the developers wouldn't need to write 3,375 scripts to account for all heroes given that there are three character slots and fifteen different characters (15^3 = 3,375). Remember, however, that once you place an agent in a slot, you have one fewer agents to select for the next slot, so you get a pick of fifteen characters for Slot 1, fourteen characters for Slot 2, and thirteen characters for Slot 3. To calculate all possible combinations, we perform 15x14x13 which gives us 2,730.

2. We might argue that, technically, some characters in Agents of Mayhem are not superheroes as they don't have any superhuman powers, they're just very skilled combatants. However, I'm referring to Agents as a superhero game in that it follows the format and themes of the superhero genre.

3. Including DLC characters, there are fifteen playable agents in the game. However, three of them originate in Saint's Row: Johnny Gat, Pierce Washington who returns as "Kingpin", and Kinzie Kensington who returns as "Safeword". Hence, there are only twelve original characters.

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Back to the Source: Jazztronauts and Garry's Mod Creations

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As indie games chart ever-more experimental territory, we've found much of the conventional wisdom about what a game is and what a game can be falling by the wayside. It is the nature of any advancing medium that the number of inherent attributes to it is continually proven to be smaller than we believed previously and that creators are capable of taking more choices in their work that we ever thought possible. The way that we once discovered that paintings don't have to depict realistic scenes or that stories don't have to be linear, we've more recently learned that games can be heavily narratively-based or can disregard player agency in some circumstances. There are also likely boundaries being broken today that we won't realise were broken until long into the future. But some rules are common sense, right? There are fundamental truths about video games and media that we can never disprove. For example, it's surely self-evident that every game contains a roughly fixed set of content developed by its creator. Jazztronauts says no.

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Jazztronauts is an indie game that runs within Garry's Mod which is in turn built on the Source software development kit; it's a secondary-level mod if you like. On entry, we make our way through a tumbledown settlement of empty shacks and dust roads which give way to surreal levitating gantries and a ceremonial stone circle lit with fire. Then, in one of the most hilarious tonal shifts I've seen all year, three round-headed cats arrive and begin arguing about how to steal one of these flaming rocks. These cats, referred to as the Pianist, the Cellist, and the Singer are aware that G Mod maps are just that, maps, and understand the in-game rules that govern them. They use their experience of and expertise on these levels to pilfer them of their valuables. Soon, you're just another inter-dimensional thief along for the ride, but what makes Jazztronauts unique is the source of its maps. When you wish to start play, the game loads a G Mod map in at random from the Steam Workshop and asks if you want to dive into it or spin the wheel again for a different stage. Once you've made your selection, you commute to that map to collect "shards" procedurally hidden across it. You can also steal objects from the levels with a specially-modified baton. This gets you currency which you can use to buy equipment that helps you more efficiently raid levels, or, in the grand tradition of G Mod, just mess about. To beat the game, you must collect one-hundred shards.

A common response to Jazztronauts is numbness to the play after finding that every level is the same hidden object game and frenzy of primary mouse button spam, but there's much more going on here than a trans-dimensional easter egg hunt. My reaction to Jazztronauts came in four stages:

  1. This is a slightly unsettling ambient experience.
  2. Actually, this is a quirky, self-aware comedy game.
  3. Actually, this a boring and repetitive slog through the same objectives and interactions.
  4. Actually, neither the play nor the off-the-wall characters are the heart of this game. These are framing techniques which allow us to run our hands across a gallery of amateur video game maps, and ultimately, it's those maps which are the magic behind Jazztronauts.
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But I can picture the average players' reserves of interest emptying out before that fourth reaction. To get there, you need a keen interest in user-created content, a tolerance and perhaps even love of rough edges, and possibly also a nostalgia for Valve games and the Garry's Mod pandemonium of the late 00s. The inclusion of purchasable powers that let you clip through surfaces or jump the height of buildings is an implicit admission by the developers that the architecture of levels routinely breaks down, and as this is G Mod, sometimes you load into swamps of missing textures and error signs. But the loading screens and the "no texture" checkerboards have become as much part of the Source Engine experience as the pliable physics engine or the dystopian default assets. And while Jazztronauts' goals are simple and its systems lack detail, this is because the developers had to come up with a play structure that they could retrofit onto any Garry's Mod map. They must provide tasks for environments they've never seen and so are forced to design with their eyes closed.

If you can embrace or at least ignore its technical turbulence and mechanical airiness, Jazztronauts is a carnival of unconventional and earnest modder creativity, and if you still don't understand why someone would want a walking tour of amateur Source maps, Davey Wreden's The Beginner's Guide may be an informative starting point. Wreden's title spends a lot of time remarking that details of levels which are faulty or underdeveloped are as much part of their character and as much fingerprints of the artist behind them as their more polished aspects. Human beings are flawed so there's something to the argument that the most human creations would be flawed.

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Looking at these Source maps, there's a hobbyist tint to them which I can't help but be drawn to. These environments weren't all put together by the most educated or talented of developers. However, they were usually built by people doing their best with what little design chops they had, developing not for economic gain but purely to provide others with a fun experience, because they found personal satisfaction in creation, or because architecting maps helped them learn the ropes of games dev. This is evident in the maps' understated, workman-like quality, and its endearing. Jazztronauts probably won't help you find the new de_dust, but many of us can relate to these environments because they're closer to what most of us would make, given the shot. If The Beginner's Guide is a primer on appreciating low-end game art within the confines of the Source Engine, Jazztronauts is the genuine article, showing you actual non-professional level development with an authentically homespun look.

In Jazztronauts, we explore the community-made levels we do because of the one-of-a-kind curation, or depending on how you see it, lack of curation, spinning the gears behind its faceplate. Most curated spaces, from museums to online galleries, hold their work to a bar of quality, often only giving us the cream of the crop, and even more open platforms like video hosting sites tend to put the most attractive content in the front window. But this is an alien concept to Jazztronauts; in what looks like almost naive glee, it's just rolling a die and seeing which one of the 15,000 Steam Workshop maps that gets it. Through doing that, Jazztronauts dispenses with the notion of quality and that would be the death blow for almost any other art space, but for a game that wants us to see every scrape and scratch on this creations, it's a boon. By doing away with the ideal Source map experience, Jazztronauts makes sure you get the average Source map experience: an accurate cross-section of what went down in G Mod's map-making community with a few hidden gems on the side. The random map retriever provides play sessions just as off-beat and unpredictable as the music genre Jazztronauts is named for and its knowing cast of characters staring sidelong at these works with a wry smile embody the reception that the Source fandom has often given this content.

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Jazztronauts is keeping the working history of one of the most productive modding scenes in video games alive. We should note that it does not capture the models, game modes, or machinima that piggy-backed on Source, all of which were and are key to the G Mod community, but with 15,000 stages on the Workshop alone, just exploring the maps is a substantial enough activity to support a whole interactive experience. Jazztronauts also gives small winks of recognition to show that it cares about these stages as community creations and not just settings. The cats' bar, the Samsara, is decorated with pictures of levels and when you drop a new map into the hopper, walls of monitors display statistics about it, including the name of its author and a sample comment on it. I've had the inter-dimensional bus that delivers us to maps show up and painted across its side has been a link to a Twitter post showing its owner constructing it, and on another occasion, the bus bore a complaint about users uploading that stage too much. These emergent moments remind us that the maps belong to people first and the software second.

It is true that any of us could visit the Workshop, download these creations for free, and boot them up in a Sandbox or Trouble in Terrorist Town server, and in light of that, playing Jazztronauts may seem like a contrived middle step to unearthing the catalogue of DIY work in the Source space. But I know I never would have found many of these maps, especially the more obscure ones, if Jazztronauts had not given me a push. It is the reality in 2018 that there are more media out there than one person could ever see in their lifetime and that there are back alleys and underpasses of these content spaces that none of us would ever seek out on our own, but that autoplay features and recommendation algorithms can lead us to media we enjoy that we would never have found otherwise. Jazztronauts uses the same kind of guiding light and for a surprising variety of environments.

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We are at an all-time peak for games with extraordinarily manipulable map editors; Mario Maker and Trials are two prime examples, but G Mod beat them to the punch. When Garry's Mod 10, the first version that appeared on the Steam store, made its debut in 2006, it paved the way for later game creation tools and communities. To this day, there may be no other title which gives the typical user as much ability to configure and develop assets and play types as G Mod. While many companies have become overbearing and hawkish with regards to their intellectual property, Valve was a company who freely distributed the SDK for Source a month after releasing Half-Life 2, their first game on the engine. The physics wizardry possible in the Half-Life sequel also encouraged players to explore the limits of this engine and Source was developed in such a way that remodelling Valve's current games is something even those with no existing development history can get a feel for.

When users began using third-party tools to mutate Valve's assets and code to their own whims and depict Valve's characters with decidedly off-brand expressions and attitudes, the company's response was not only to let them continue doing so, but to distribute the tools that were allowing them to do so in their store, host user content in their shop for no charge, and develop free software to help fans record their work without a lot of fuss. For better or worse, it's also clear that no small amount of this fan expression has been possible because Valve has turned a blind eye to maps and models which may infringe third-parties copyrights. While the legality of it may be grey, maps imitating Bikini Bottom and Tamriel feel as much part of the community history as those reconstituting City 17 or gm_construct.

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It's a laissez-faire attitude to content appropriation on Valve's part which made the followers of G Mod possibly the largest and most empowered modding community that has ever existed and has led to a future where there are thousands of maps for a toy like Jazztronauts to pull from. But this is also a bittersweet sight. It's impossible to play Jazztronauts without being conscious of a time during which Valve better supported their community and without imagining a world where every developer made their games as malleable as Valve did instead of sitting on the assets and code like a mother hen. I feel this while also understanding that the legal system can be ruthless towards those who permit unlicensed transformation of their intellectual property and knowing that if smaller creators don't maintain a tight leash on their creations, they might not be able to keep the lights on. But even if G Mod and its user-made content were one-time phenomena, that only makes them more precious. At least we got to see this treasure trove of hobbyist development in all its glory; it's malfunctioning, copy-paste, copyright-infringing glory. It's a symbol of what companies can do for their community when they give them the keys to the kingdom.

The magnitude of the creative effort behind the amateur Source assets, the pioneering nature of the Source SDK, and the unprecedentedly open tools of the platform mean that Garry's Mod and the Source community content are of considerable historical interest to anyone looking at the medium. As far as tools that put us in touch with such history go, Jazztronauts is the best I've had the pleasure of speeding through at several kilometres an hour, prop baton in hand. Thanks for reading.

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