E3 2019: The Rest

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It became obvious about halfway through the run of press conferences this year that if the publishers were banishing gameplay demos from their briefings, then audiences were going to have to do more of their own spelunking to know what the games would look like in action. What I hadn't realised at the time was how much digging the average user would have to do to find the videos of those games running. First off, there's no way to tell beforehand which games had demos on the show floor and which didn't. Once you did know, finding demo footage was often easier said than done. Gamespot look to have been the outlet with the most laborious coverage of the expo, but Homer Rabara's show floor camera is long gone and is one of the E3 traditions I miss most.

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There's only Gamespot's main stage left which between breaks, developer interviews, impressions, and hands-on playthroughs, put out over twenty-four hours of live reporting over the course of the event. But I can't find a schedule for those streams posted anywhere. They clipped out a few segments and re-posted them as discrete videos, but it's only in the week following E3 that they're getting around to uploading a significant number of them, so finding news and previews of games during and directly after the event meant scrubbing through a day's worth of Gamespot footage. IGN have arguably organised their look in the event better, but they've also been selective in which titles they discussed, did much less live broadcasting, and a lot of their coverage didn't release until the doors were closed on the L.A. convention centre for another year. Some developers directly posted footage for audience appraisal on their dedicated YouTube channels, but if you don't know who had playthroughs to show off, the best you can do to find those videos is type "E3 demos" into the search box and rummage through the clutter.

It's unusual because, in our age of high bandwidth social media interactions, all the news and entertainment you want is supposedly available at the click of a button, but at E3, that's not so true. The former delivery mechanism that companies had for demos: the press conferences, has fallen away, and there's not the infrastructure there to replace it. From the publisher perspective, this is a potential setback because modern video game marketing is about cutting out the middleman and delivering snapshots of your products directly to the consumer. Conceivably, they could do that with the demos; Ubisoft did put out a sampler of Rollerball Champions during the event. However, in reality, the builds for those playthroughs likely have a lot of company secrets lurking under the hood, and so developers don't want to put them in the hands of crafty hackers who could disassemble them. They also typically break or show ugly blemishes if the player wanders from a specific pre-defined path. Companies, therefore, have a vested interest in giving us the next best thing: footage of those demos and discussions from creators about their contents. However, they appear to be having some trouble with the pipeline for that content.

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Nintendo solved this one years ago, providing not just a press conference every year but then having it lead on to a multi-day stream that showcases their upcoming work. Ubisoft tried to follow suit this time around, but their E3 event came and went without most gamers being any the wiser. While day one of the Nintendo Treehouse garnered 3.7 million viewers, the same day of Ubisoft's livecast earned them only 98,000 viewers; that's 3% of the attention. Ubisoft also managed to cut off the start of their demo of Rollerball Champions, one of only two titles from their conference that I cared for this year. It's a shame because everyone deserves to see the short film they made with Ice T on gamer etiquette, and they were the one publisher I've seen with a sign language interpreter. Of course, even if every company had the equivalent of a Nintendo Treehouse, we also want more impartial commentary on the contents of the show.

E3 themselves partially stepped up to the plate on that one, teaming up with Geoff Keighley for the "E3 Colosseum", a stage presentation which had a host of big industry names talking about what's coming next from them. However, the Colosseum was intended less as a gallery of new gaming experiences and more as a GDC-like platform for talking about current and coming trends in the medium. It's something I appreciate in its own right; it was conscious that we can't see the future of the industry as a set of isolated products and need to view it as a set of broader plans and patterns. Of course, that format is prone to allowing developers to promise the Moon with less of an emphasis than ever on proof of their ability to deliver. A low point for the Colosseum was the chat between Elon Musk and Todd Howard: The two found only tiny patches of common ground between their respective fields and Musk sounded like he'd taken more than the recommended dose of Nyquil before sitting down. He kept muttering that the whole universe could be some higher power's video game without any justification for or elaboration on this view, and when someone from the audience challenged him on it, he was stymied. Eventually, Todd Howard broke the silence by blurting out "42", a pandering joke that didn't make any sense in context.

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The Colosseum interview I would advise people watch was Keighley talking to Will Wright. Wright is currently working on a highly ambitious system which lets users enter memories into a computer program and have it build a map of who they are through the connection of those memories. Maps will apparently include desires and phobias. "Proxi" also aims to tap into unconscious thought patterns and simulate interactions between the mapee and other personalities living, dead, and fictional. I think it's worth listening to Wright not because I'm convinced he can deliver on this revolutionary piece of tech but because, ven as a science fiction concept, it's interesting. But I digress: If there is an effective way to get your demos out at E3, it's likely the multi-pronged attack we saw Remedy and Paradox use with Control and Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines 2, respectively. They demoed the games for press while also sending out footage of them, and it meant those videos were some of the fastest to find.

Control is fond of extreme closeups on faces that don't animate with all the articulation they should. However, I love the building it's set in shifting and responding to your actions, as well as the experience's objectives that have you maintaining and repairing the structure. It's a reflection of organisations and buildings as living, breathing entities. On a more visceral note, the telekinesis in this game reminds me of Dead Space 2's, and I love the chromatic aberration effect when you kill enemies. I also need you to know that the demo included the phrase "Cleanse the Merry Go-Round Horse Object of Power". Control is one to watch, as is Bloodlines 2.

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Vampire: The Masquerade is a tabletop game about exchanges of social power. It's about subservience, whipping others into line, and bids for leadership. In it, relationships are only useful to the extent they benefit you, and other nightwalkers may turn the tables on you the instant it becomes convenient. It all came through in the Bloodlines 2 demo which provided violent, diplomatic, and intimidating options for completing a mission, and also allowed you to try and swindle your quest-giver over. Additionally, it had that speedy location-hopping that you sometimes see in tabletop RPGs. The aim was not to go into one roomy dungeon and clear out all the enemies; it was to follow the leads from one location to another like a noir detective. What Bloodlines 2 can be which a tabletop RPG can't is affectingly lonely. The quest we saw was set in that 3 a.m. period when there are only stragglers on the street.

If you want another E3 game in which charisma can be a weapon, look no further than Griftlands, Klei's new deck-building roguelike. While some RPG video games allow you to smooth talk your way to your success, speech options often feel like a way to skip over gameplay rather than a form of play in its own right. Armed combat will be rendered with extensive depth and complexity, but speechcraft typically consists of pressing the "Do convincing" button. Klei's sci-fi is a rare attempt to systemise dialogue.

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Griftlands was just one of over sixty video games previewed at the Indie Games Showcase, a presentation put on by Kinda Funny external to the expo, but none the less, during it. When E3 booth space is expensive, and indie games are not the money makers that their AAA cousins are, they are at risk of getting sidelined at an expo like this, and so I savour events like the Indie Games Showcase. Many of the titles I'm most excited from E3 are those smaller experiments that don't have to play it safe when the big budget franchises do. Rawmen, a culinary competitive arena game was one of the most delightfully colourful offerings at the show this year, graphically comparable to Splatoon and Donut County. The Gardens Between finds artistic focus by cutting each environment down to a single mountain, many of which are composed of enormous, floating versions of everyday objects. Its environments represent everyday activities not by simulating the settings where those activities are conducted but by building abstract environments out of objects related to those activities. The title released summer last year but is now receiving a Switch port.

At the same time, I'm not sure the jocular nature of the Kinda Funny presenters matched the solemn tone of many of these passion projects, and the Indie Games Showcase is a perfect example of how hard it is to take in all the games at E3 in the runtime of the show. Ultimately, that's probably a good thing as it means there's plenty to discover and mull over even long after day three, but it also means that one publication is unlikely to be able to rattle off thoughts on them all. We're often reliant on more specialist websites to keep us informed on indie development, but when you can see more than sixty such games in one fifty minute block, they likely don't have the resources to speak about every one of them. I certainly can't.

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Another returning presentation keeping the indie fire alive was the PC Gaming Show. The weirdest slot of which was dedicated to Shenmue III. I'm attracted to games simulating everyday activities like moths move to light, but Shenmue III has this odd mix of mechanical realism but fantastical narrative and aesthetics. It makes whole minigames out of the mundane but then uses kung-fu B-movie story, dialogue, and voice acting. And if you thought the faces in Control looked doofy, you should see the absolute mannequins that populate Shenmue III's world. I wonder if the Yakuza series is currently doing what Shenmue wishes it, was providing a Japanese slice of life intermingled with moments of masculine action. My favourite moment from the PC Gaming Show was the debut of Planet Zoo, a spiritual successor to Zoo Tycoon from the studio behind Planet Coaster. In seperately-released footage, Frontier Developments showed the game full of detail and customisation options and described genetic inheritance between the animals and their young. This isn't just tech porn; these are advancements which can increase the believability of and our connection to the animals. While many management games have us disregard the feelings of others for the sake of profit, Planet Zoo's creators say that the wellbeing of the creatures will be the most important metric in the game, and it also looks to allow players to not just entertain guests but also educate them.

And then, of course, there was Devolver's press conference. It's gone from simply being a parody stage show into a full-on sci-fi with a narrative trajectory. I don't think the other actors this year were as masterful as Mahria Zook as Nina Struthers and the conference has lost some of its satirical edge. It's difficult to figure how Struthers holds a senior position at the publisher while also being at the whims of a marketing director, but it does the opportunistic ruthlessness of the entertainment industry. The show this year also talked about the expo as a site for overpromising and overdosing your audience on purchasing intent. But even the people who weren't revelling in the commentary and theatrics of Devolver's show still loved the Devolver Bootleg. We have been drowning in throwbacks to classic retro games for years, but like it not, a significant part of the medium's history is also cheap clones of those games. The Devolver Bootleg is, at last, a salute to that history, a homage to games made off the grid from a company a little off the grid.

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My eye was also caught by Blair Witch, a horror from Bloober Team, the minds behind Layers of Fear and Observer. In a market of jumpscare rides, it's always satisfying to find more psychological horror, and I think Bloober made the right call architecting an original story rather than trying to lift copiously from the existing films. The narratives in movies are written to suit the storytelling mechanisms of the medium, but often don't adapt to games well because most games tell stories differently and don't have space for thick tomes of narrative. Another smart addition to the game is your dog, Bullet. Games have trouble directing players to checkpoints without forcing them to stare at minimaps or potentially immersion-breaking waypoint markers, but Blair Witch has the dog run off in the direction of objectives so that you can give chase, providing a more mechanical highlighting of goals. What I'd like to see from Blair Witch going ahead is more substantial environmental or story curiosities, as we became used to in Bloober's previous games. Before we leave indie games behind, I also have to give props to Nintendo for doing a whole indie day. As inept as that company has sometimes been when it comes to interacting with their audience over the internet, there's very little that they weren't on top of at this E3.

Sometimes it's nice to get away from the big-budget industry so that you don't have to try and unravel the controversies of the major studios. EA had one around the time of the expo this year, Bethesda had one, and now CD Projekt Red have one. To advertise their new ray tracing system, NVIDIA used a screenshot from Cyberpunk 2077 which included a transphobic in-game poster. The poster is an advert for an energy drink which uses a sexualised portrait of a femme-presenting person with a penis and the words "Mix It Up". It's a bigoted piece of art in that it dehumanises a trans human being by presenting them as a sexual object and making a cheap joke about their body. Artist on the poster, Kasia Redesiuk, explains it as a product of both the casualness with which denizens of the Cyberpunk universe modify themselves physically and a commentary on the willingness of the corporations in that world to commodify human bodies. But the question arises "What makes this a commentary on objectification and not just a replication of the same exploitation of trans people those evil corporations stand for?". CD Projekt Red has not given an adequate answer.

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If we're to give an informed analysis of Cyberpunk 2077 as a game, then we can't take imagery such as this in isolation. I wouldn't hold my breath that the satire Redesiuk describes is present in the game, but it's not impossible that through its writing, it will talk critically about this style of degrading advertisement. This is one more reason why it's vital that we see Cyberpunk 2077 closing on that promise of political polemics rather than just being an empowerment fantasy set in a politically unpleasant place to live, but for now, that promise of commentary is all talk. Arguably, there is nothing that could excuse the inclusion of the "Mix It Up" ad spot in the game as it sensationalises oversexualisation of trans people, but even with a more charitable read, it's presenting the target of anti-capitalist, pro-trans criticism without any of the criticism itself. And by ripping this image out of the game and using it to sell software and video cards, NVIDIA and Projekt Red are already commodifying trans people for profit. The goal of the salesperson typically overrides the intentions of the artist, and in huge studios, separate creators often don't act with a singular purpose.

Marvel's Avengers was a different kind of worrying. The Square Enix conference closed with twenty minutes of hyping up the game without the speakers pinning down what the title was going to play like, so you'd assume that they weren't quite ready to talk shop. Confusingly, however, they were taking interviews and providing demos where they got into the specifics of the game. Many games have multiple different classes and characters to play, but we're used to them being tweaks on the same fundamental physics set. To hear that the combat and movement models between each of the Avengers is unique is promising. However, I think it's going to be a big deal for players not to be able to have two of the same hero in a party at one time. You can't have two Thors or two Hulks in one co-op session which feels like telling a D&D party that they're only allowed a single tank or a single caster. I also see a lot of people asking how Black Widow, the most maligned of Marvel's dynamic team, would be fun to play, and it's a little baffling to me. Video games have spent about four decades getting down satisfying shooting and melee combat; I think the Marvel character that fights through shooting and melee combat is going to be okay.

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But there was one AAA game that only sounded better for being discussed outside the press conferences: Doom Eternal. While the marketing for the game primarily plays it as brainless gore, the folks at Id have been describing it as thoughtful violence. We don't always admit that that concept exists, and even as dyed-in-the-wool video game fanatics, we can confuse the aesthetics of a game for the character of its play. Doom is an in-your-face metal album cover brought to life, but the way the devs are talking about it, Eternal is also a mentally challenging feat of resource management and ordering your actions. Id also seem well aware that the endgame of Doom (2016) started to drag a little and are taking active steps to stop Eternal ending up in the same ditch.

A lot of the chat surrounding E3 this year has been about how little there was to be excited about and the downsizing of the expo with the disappearance of godly forces like Sony. To be sure, the publishers, for various reasons, did not come to the press conferences with their A game. However, I've tried to record everything that was E3 2019, attempting to mop up every little interview and demo, and after that, it doesn't feel like there was a drought of announcements, it feels like there were games for days. You just need to step back from the major briefings and do a little digging. Hopefully, in years to come, the companies involved can give us a more efficient shovel for that digging. Thanks for reading.

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E3 2019: Nintendo

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Nintendo is the originator for the technique of spreading your announcements throughout the year and lubricating their distribution to the audience through live but accessible video streams. For the fans, it's meant no more arduous year-long waits for Nintendo news, and if there was a game they weren't hot on, it was easier to avoid it. A built-in flaw of the press conference format is you have to chew your way through the husk of monotonous games to get to the sweet fruit of the titles that you enjoy. With the Nintendo Directs, you could instead skip over the broadcasts that didn't suit your preferences and only tune back in when there were titles worth seeing.

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Nintendo had had a lot of success with this format which sorted games into their own dedicated boxes, and they roughly based their E3 2018 briefing on this formula. That show had sundry new titles nestled around the edges, but the meat of it was an extra-large serving of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. It alienated fans who weren't followers of Nintendo's signature fighting series, and even for players like me, who hold a degree of interest of it, it was a bit much. It felt like you needed to be a veritable Smash devotee to finish out the forty minutes without your mind drifting, and arguably, this was an inappropriate style for E3 because the expectations for streams at the expo aren't just set by other Directs during the year, but also by different press conferences. We tune in to see a tapestry of announcements and not one experience that hogs the whole frame. Nintendo appeared to take that to heart this Tuesday as their 2019 briefing was an assorted parade of fresh-faced entertainment items.

The masters of ceremonies this year were Yoshiaki Koizumi, the Deputy General Manager of Nintendo Entertainment Planning & Development Division, Shinja Takahashi, the General Manager of the EP&D Division, and the relatively green President of Nintendo of America, Doug Bowser. Taking over presenting duties from former N.o.A. President, Reggie Fils-Aime, they had big shoes to fill. Reggie's role was one of an upright businessman who was unafraid of letting audiences in on his nerdy homelife and was bizarrely affable in his peculiarity. Koizumi, Takahashi, and Bowser don't have the same command; they never looked as comfortable as Fils-Aime did in those moments where they were letting loose. However, I have to give it to Koizumi: he exudes calmness and politeness. Even when he's telling you that the company has to push back the release date of the next Animal Crossing, it feels respectful. What's more, Takahashi has this effect where when he smiles, I want to smile.

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This was also a stream in which the Japanese foundation of the company was highly visible. Historically, Nintendo has handled western stylisation effortlessly, and Nintendo of America has been a titan in the industry. They've also not always let the waters of their Japanese releases mingle with those of their American output, and for all of these reasons, it can be easy to forget that they were an East Asian company before they were anything else. But this year saw high concentrations of anime aesthetics and dialogue in Trials of Mana, Collection of Mana, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Daemon X Machina, Contra: Rogue Corps, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles: Remastered Edition, Dragon Quest Builders 2, Astral Chian, and the modestly named Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age: Definitive Edition. It was potently Japanese. The most exceptional of that lot may be Contra: Rogue Corps, a rare Konami product from a company that has all but checked out of the games industry.

On a few occasions, I wondered if Nintendo's mission of carrying the torch for retro and long-running games series was getting them into some trouble. While hosting and publishing games with one foot in the past has made Nintendo the kings of nostalgia, there are a few works that are better left as part of history. It may be that media like The Dark Crystal and No More Heroes are more entertaining as memories than modern sequels, and on the back of the winning Resident Evil 2 remake, I'm not sure the Resident Evil 5 and 6 remasters compare well. The abandoned house setting of their trailer would send chills down your spine if you were there in person, but 5 and 6 were, contrarily, the Resident Evil games known for stripping back the horror mechanics in favour of more placating action. And sometimes it's the process of the adaptation which warps the game: Contra: Rogue Corps twists the 2D into the 3D, but when it does, it tarnishes it with this grotty visual quality. I'm also surprised that Nintendo is still commissioning Mario & Sonic at the Olympics entries. Whatever the fun factor of the new edition, it's weird to see one two generations on from the Wii on a non-Olympic year.

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But then Nintendo also brought titles that made the old new again, and these more than made up for their misses. The developer is often accused of squeezing nostalgia out of their audience with lazy recycling of existing experiences, and there's a shred of truth to that accusation. However, this press conference was also full of examples of how Nintendo is increasingly reviving games not by printing carbon copies of them but by remoulding them. Perhaps the prime example of this was Link's Awakening. There are not many people who'll tell you that Link's Awakening was their favourite Zelda and its re-release could have been a dull affair if Nintendo had been uninspired enough to bring it back with the original art style. Instead, they did something much smarter. Our attachment to any retro game is affected by when we played it and the view of that game that has developed in the collective consciousness over time. The best memories of Link's Awakening are nostalgic ones, and so rather than just trying to replicate the art of the original, Nintendo recast the game with an appearance that invokes nostalgia, using a tilt-shifted perspective that calls to mind the toys and miniatures of our youth.

With Cadence of Hyrule, Nintendo and Brace Yourself take Crypt of the Necrodancer, a game inspired by early fantasy romps like The Legend of Zelda, and bring the concept full-circle to build a Zelda game on top of that interpretation. Cadence of Hyrule suggests that what looked like a one-shot rhythm game could be an endlessly adaptable format because there have been so many grid-based combat games with killer soundtracks. And while Cadence may not match the genre of the original Zelda, it works with its strengths. By making Koji Kondo's rousing score and the satisfying sensation of Link's sword cleaving through an enemy its bedrock, it incorporates key elements of the series rather than simply using them to wallpaper over an unrelated box of mechanics like many spin-off games.

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Animal Crossing: New Horizons is not going to rewrite the book on Animal Crossing, but it does rethink a fundamental assumption of the series. These games are about existing somewhere that feels like home, and while previous instalments were about finding that home, New Horizons is about creating it. It's a reunification of the dynamics of Animal Crossing as it reels Happy Home Designer's increased emphasis on customisation and Pocket Camp's objective of attracting animals to your town back into the series proper. Through it, we can better understand why Nintendo's games usually don't stray too far from essential templates. In familiarity, there is comfort, and due to them being a company so heartfully invested in games which bring people comfort, Nintendo makes familiarity their best friend.

The original Luigi's Mansion was as unique as it was because, while many other games accept an established core mechanic and fiddle with the framework around it, Luigi's Mansion's primary action of vacuuming was without equivalents. The title was also a fascinatingly specific fusion of two pieces of media that you wouldn't expect to touch in a million years: Mario and Ghostbusters. What I love about the trailer for Luigi's Mansion 3 is that it lulls you into thinking that it's using grounded, common sense additions to its current gameplay before unleashing the absolute absurdity that is Gooigi. It's almost going through the motions with mechanics like a grapple and a non-lethal burst attack, and then the creators reveal a green slime clone of Luigi who cannot be killed through conventional methods. It's one more pillar of Ghostbusters represented in the series, they have their own Slimer now, and our gooey companion sits at this crossroad of traits that tend to make characters popular on social media. He's a surreal twist on a famous character we have nostalgia for using endearingly dumb wordplay. What I'm saying is that Gooigi is this year's Bowsette.

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Where Ubisoft had a stretch during their conference in which they only managed to announce one game in thirty minutes, Nintendo discussed plans for a whopping thirty-three in a snug forty-minute slot. And you'd think that given that, they would have had less time for showing the games in-action, but on the contrary, they reserved a smaller space for pre-rendered trailers and developer speeches than other companies, and so were able to fit in more gameplay footage. It read as a dedication to the actual games over the glitzy spin that so many other firms coat their experiences in. That Nintendo could fire off this unceasing volley of new games and updates despite already having expended announcements on heavy hitters like Super Mario Maker 2 and Pokémon Sword and Shield is supremely impressive. If the publisher can keep up this pace year on year, they've got nothing to worry about. Thanks for reading.

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E3 2019: Ubisoft

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It used to be that Ubisoft was seen as an also-ran that spent too long on awkward humour and cheap motion controls games, but then, in 2017, they hit a stride, and have spent the past couple of years putting out a surprisingly joyous showcase of games. Low expectations were a factor in our positive reception of its press conferences, but they managed to keep up a better momentum in them than in shows previous, and with announcements like Mario + Rabbids, Beyond Good & Evil 2, Trials Rising, and Assassin's Creed: Odyssey, its pressers had their moments. This year, those moments thinned to a trickle. The conference contained not one but two musical performances this time, and in the first thirty minutes, they managed to announce only one video game. While there have been companies this year compressing their announcements as tightly as possible to fit everything they can into a sixty to ninety-minute presentation, Ubisoft looked to be deliberately burning time.

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Video games on television are a running joke; they look like crude, out-of-touch representations of the real thing because even when television creators have familiarity with the medium, with the amount of time a video game is going to appear on-screen, it's not worth the hefty cost of making it look polished and fully-featured. Even in a programme like E4 sitcom Dead Pixels which is all about a group of gamers, the video game at its heart looks empty and unfinished. This is because the show's subject matter is only going to apply for a limited audience, and so its budget is scant, and a realistic UI and mechanics in its game wouldn't be relevant to the storytelling.

So, there's a gap in the art form for a programme that can depict video games with some authenticity, a programme like, perhaps, Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet. It makes sense that if Mythic Quest wants to be a comedy about a games studio, then its producers bringing in a developer like Ubisoft will get them a believable fake game and maybe some insight into the development process itself. I just don't think the first look at it was funny. I can attribute some of that to me having a distaste for It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia; I understand that the characters in it are amoral people, but the script never seems to be able to wring that out into jokes, and Mythic Quest had a similar problem. However, the other half of this is that I don't understand who Ian Grimm is meant to be parodying. Who is the egotistic video game director who has used their marketing to advertise themselves? I can only think of David Cage in this regard, and he's not the Silicon Valley type that Grimm is. My impression thus far is that the show is going for low-hanging comedic fruit with video game novelty.

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In games service news, UPlay+ enters the subscription platform arena at the bottom of the ranks. At a fee of $15 per month, its money-to-content ratio doesn't stack up against the competition. You can get EA Access for a third of the price, and while PlayStation Now is $5 more than UPlay+, you get a plentiful 600+ video games with it which Ubisoft, being a single publisher, can't begin to match. But the company that really ate Ubisoft's lunch was Microsoft because, for the same price as UPlay+, you can get access to the full Microsoft Game Pass library on PC and console, and get a subscription to Xbox LIVE Gold. I'd hazard a guess that when Ubisoft put its deal together, they didn't know Microsoft had Game Pass Ultimate coming down the pipeline. And the experience of UPlay+ is going to be deeply affected by the design and production philosophy at Ubisoft.

This year, the company had such thematically diverse games as Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Quarantine, Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Siege, Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Breakpoint, Tom Clancy's Elite Squad, and Tom Clancy's The Division 2. The studio that was once known for copying-pasting whole mechanical sets between open-world games is fast emerging as a company with a different kind of homogeneity in its body of work. It's not just that all these modern military games are playing in the same pool of hypermasculine paramilitary confrontation, it's also that video games have already worn that genre to threads. Ubisoft's close crossbreeding between its games means that a service like UPlay+ is a more restricted experience when compared to the competition, in addition to that lack of variation potentially being a source of boredom for people buying Ubisoft games individually.

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Having all these titles about military conflicts laying about the place also increases the relevance of recent Ubisoft assurances that its games don't convey political messages. They claim that their products present political conflicts but then let the player decide who to sympathise with within them, emphasising that no political disagreement is black and white. But, of course, Ubisoft decides how its games portray real-world world political factions, who the bad guys are, whose perspective we get to follow, and what actions we're rewarded for taking. Games like Far Cry 5 and The Division aren't opportunities to equally explore both sides of an issue and to decide whose mast we nail our colours to; they have clearly identified enemies and one mode of interaction: attack. And honestly, having a black and white moral dichotomy is sometimes okay.

Maybe don't suggest that sanitation workers in NYC are an atavistic scourge that needs to be eradicated, as The Division does, but consider the recent Wolfenstein games. In them, there's no hemming and hawing about whether literal Nazis belong on the business end of a high calibre rifle or not: Wolfenstein knows its position and neither its developer nor its publisher are scared of stating it, but the spokespeople of Ubisoft sound ashamed that their games might have a viewpoint to espouse. Obviously, once a stance gets any more divisive than "Nazis must die" it could chip away at your market share, so they're not going to take the risk. What really galls me is Ubisoft telling us that its games are more mature for supposedly refusing to advocate for specific political opinions. That for having media with no principles and less of a voice, they deserve praise. The issue is no longer that Ubisoft insists its games are apolitical, but it's about as ridiculous. They'll embed you into an armed militia about to storm The Pentagon to execute a horde of faceless goons and then tell you they're not taking a side in that DLC.

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There were some items at the conference that weren't Tier 1 operator fantasies. Gods and Monsters felt like the natural product of Ubisoft flirting with mythological creatures in the recent Assassin's Creed games. With it, they no longer have to pour in the legendary monsters in moderation; they can unleash a flood of them. But the game was their closer, and it was too flimsy to lean on for that purpose. There's no sense of prestige in ending with a game like Gods and Monsters if we can't fathom how it's going to play. With its enclosed arena, neon trails, and fictional sports antics, Rollerball Champions reminds me of the similarly electrifying Rocket League. We could honestly do with more video games about fake sports; there's a lot of untapped possibilities there, and you can see where Rollerball Champions would derive its tension from: An athlete zooming down the course, ball in hand, praying they can score that basket before the competitor feet behind catches up and steals the ball. I just hope there are more player actions than lateral movement, throwing, and tackling opponents, or it might be difficult to derive competitive depth from it.

And now, the big one: Watch Dogs Legion. Watch_Dogs 2 took an action-adventure that lacked personality and captivating world-building, and gave it a lick of paint and a boost of adrenaline. Hacker collective DeadSec were reworked to be goofy and yet brimming with contagious enthusiasm. The tone was largely generated by the dorky yet driven characters in the spotlight, but Legion doesn't think of characters in the same terms. In Legion, you can enlist any citizen from its post-Brexit London into your gang, and it's those recruits who make up the character list. However, this flavour of procedurally-generated character and story doesn't have a good track record. When the writers can't know who the people in the hotseats are going to be at any one point in the plot, it's unlikely they can write a story suited to those characters which sees them undergo meaningful arcs. For the same reason, it's also hard to believe the DeadSec members will be able to engage in nuanced interaction with each other. My attachment to these vigilantes was further strained by their hokey imitations of east end London accents. It's one of those silly idiosyncracies of the industry that a company can model a detailed, believable recreation of the Thames south bank but can't get basic modes of speech right. I don't know why you can't just hire a voice actor from the location your game is set in.

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On the plus side, Watch Dogs Legion was an extended gameplay demo at a time when conferences are giving up on the format. Additionally, the concept of a future in which government is unable or unwilling to do its job and aid the citizens, and the leaders' roles are now being filled in by previously fringe extremists is only too reflective of the UK's current political hellscape. But what's as interesting as Legion's perception of the nation is its exploration of how a movement might reverse authoritarian possession of a country. In Watch_Dogs 2, the ultimate purpose of the missions was not to strongarm your ideological opponents into submission as in so many other action games, the goal was to uncover the truth of the celebrities, politicians, and corporations that ruled near-future San Francisco, and let the people do what they will with that information. Legion tasks us with similar goals and introduces the next logical step on that staircase.

In its dystopian capital, the people already know the conditions are dire, but the battle against the extremists running the city doesn't begin with getting on your phone and hacking into some data centres, it starts with convincing potential allies that your cause is righteous and that your agents get results. And because any of those agents can die, there are stakes and an acknowledgement of the cost of revolution that are rare in a single-player video game campaign. This is consummate with the darker attitude of this entry in comparison to the vibrant Watch_Dogs 2, and the backdrop of London couldn't be chosen better. The stocky historical buildings retrofitted with LCD screens and neon lights effectively convey the sense of dismal futuristic authoritarianism, but London also carries famous seeds of punk culture which make Legion's resistance group feel right at home. As with all these games, I need to see more Legion to criticise it from a wholly informed position, but the difference between it and the other games at Ubisoft's show is that I want to see more of it.

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Publishers caring more about updates to existing games over sequels is stemming the flow of flashy, attention-grabbing announcements this year, but I also think that Ubisoft's conference is indicative of another broad trend. With a new console generation dawning a year and a half from now, publishers are going to want to put their golden eggs in the basket of the PS5 and Xbox Two, and fewer of them in the hamper of the present generation. The current machines, Switch aside, are winding down, but Ubisoft and friends can't talk about what the glorious new age of games looks like because the next Microsoft console has no final name and one game announced for it, and Sony hasn't officially announced its upcoming system. Other companies are dealing with it better than Ubisoft, but you can understand how we've been left floating in an announcements airlock with them, drifting between eighth and ninth gen with little but Watch Dogs and all these Tom Clancy games to keep us company. Thanks for reading.

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E3 2019: Bethesda

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The controversy surrounding Bethesda and the tactics which the conference used to respond it were immeasurably more interesting than the games on show. After putting out a clunker like Fallout 76, there's nothing you can say or not say that will make things alright. You can't be seen ignoring that mess or your audience won't think you're listening but acknowledging it only draws attention to that hurricane of garbage. That being said, the latter is the lesser of two bad options. Tell your audience that you realised you ruined one piece of work and they'll remember that you made a mistake, but don't tell them you ruined it, and you're sending the message that you're willfully ignorant about your failures and so will continue to make them in your future work.

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So we got a nod from Todd Howard to the embarrassing string of controversies burdening Fallout's survival adventure. But it was a brief apology that was then spun into a moment of positivity as Howard made a dubious claim about 76 having the "best" game community, and the studio representatives later announcing features that feel like too little too late. Which is predictable: Fallout 76 will only have so many resources allocated to it and is too far down the track of its development cycle to be rescued at this point. For what's it's worth, players are getting a free new mainline quest staffed with NPCs, but it's wild that an RPG from one of the industry's top publishers would have to announce "Dialogue trees" and "Choices and consequences" as enticing features in 2019.

And characters aren't a defacto boon to your experience. If you want an engaging game, then you need to write characters to be engaging. You must show them full of motivation, personality, and social connections. We got no impression of who the new Fallout 76 residents are or what the story they feature in is about. Additionally, they came across as robotic. The introduction of NPCs also leads Bethesda back to the earlier questions of how you incorporate an explicit narrative or scripted conversations into a co-operative multiplayer game without the two clashing. This isn't Bethesda's only mea culpa, however. They're also adding a battle royale mode, Nuclear Winter. It feels like the least inspired method you could use to try and resuscitate your unconscious project, especially because the gunplay was never what made Fallout tick.

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But the fleeting "sorry" and the updates were only two prongs of the strategy that Bethesda used to reconnect with their audience after the unpleasantness of the last year. Another prong was placing the most voracious of fans in the front row which every company does now, but whether by deliberate planning or pure circumstance, Bethesda had the most disruptive audience members I've heard at one of these shows. I'm happy for those fans that they can get that pumped about E3, but as a viewer, it continues to be irritating, and there were points at which speakers had to stop talking because the crowd was shouting over them. It's hard to see how Bethesda would continue to see that as a professional environment. But the relentlessly upbeat response of the crowd meant that the publisher could announce any small consolation for Fallout 76 fans and still broadcast people screaming approval for it.

The final weapon in the company's arsenal was a handful of videos of Bethesda employees and fans talking about their experiences with Bethesda's games. They described getting into Bethesda products as children, finding likeminded people through them, and even overcoming mental and physical illness via them. One person identified themselves as a member of the LGBT community, another, the daughter of refugees from the Vietnam War. I saw these interstitials enrage both the more sociopolitically-minded and the less so. For that second group, the videos were frustrating because while they were playing, it meant that more press conference time was going by without reveals, but for the first group, the clips were a manipulative attempt by Bethesda to trick their audience into thinking a corporation was their friend. And I don't disagree with that read, but that second group's dissatisfaction with Bethesda sometimes spilt over into vitriol against the people who appeared in the spots, and I don't think that's fair.

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The videos serve to push back against those angriest at the publisher who view the recent debacle with an "us vs. them" mentality which pits gamers against games developers. These testimonial clips attempt to argue that instead, the two groups are one and the same, to the point that the opening ended with groups of people using the phrase "We are all Bethesda". And if Bethesda is you then buying into the studio means fulfilling your own identity, and the company can't be your enemy, because how could your enemy be yourself? This is, of course, disingenuous on the part of Bethesda as an economic entity. What happens within the publisher is fundamentally decided by people who hold a financial stake in it and those individuals are going to sail it into whatever sea makes them profit, not whichever one leads to the most visible LGBT representation or helps people manage their depression best.

There's been a general movement by gaming companies to present their medium as the great unifier of people, but their implication of unification often involves the erasure of the conflicts between various social categories. When the people who head the companies exploit workers and purposefully disservice customers, they're not unified with them, and when irate consumers send death threats to developers because their toy wasn't shiny enough, they're not unified with them. There are ways we might be able to erode those divides, but that's not what Bethesda's marketing serves to do here. What it does is try to place a smokescreen over the differences to suggest that the developers in the trenches, an electrician who goes home at night to play some Elder Scrolls Online, and an executive who mines hundreds of millions of dollars from the publisher are all in it together.

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Such marketing also suggests that commodities manufactured by private firms provide social cohesion, mental health treatment, and other such vital services. While they may deliver some limited support in these areas, for a price, such benefits are ultimately only provided by professional medical schemes, housing, and other utilities that you can't get from video games. In fact, the whole system of private financial interest has served to hinder access to those services. So you've got the economic class who make their fortune by exploiting the average person then using the face of the common citizen as a mask to enable further profiteering, and that understandably got some peoples' hackles up. Finally, the statements Bethesda made here served to conceal and permit the abuse of developers. Seen through these videos, it's not that there was a wave of deserved criticism and then a wave of predatory, harassing behaviour, it's all just "feedback" which "sometimes challenges [them]".

Where I think our conversation needs to become more nuanced is that it needs to recognise the above while also recognising that the people who served as mouthpieces for Bethesda still had authentic and valid experiences with the medium. It's counter-productive to say we stand by non-white people, labour workers, and women, and then when we see those people pop up on screen, to tell them to shut up or that it's ridiculous that they might have used a video game as a crutch when struggling with a psychological disorder. These customers and employees may be speaking in service of Bethesda, but we can recognise that developers can help line an organisation's pockets while still ultimately lacking power within it and being exploited by the system around them, and we can do the same with for the other participants in this PR exercise. These people and their experiences are not illegitimate because they were used to profiteering ends; they are legitimate experiences used for illegitimate means.

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While we're getting all class conscious, let's also make mention of the racial representation in Deathloop. This wasn't just an expansion pack with a black protagonist or a AAA game where one person in a group of three was black; this was a new AAA title where two of the main characters are black and one of them a woman. And while the industry still has miles to go on race, we should stop and acknowledge that one of the most beloved speakers at this E3 was Ikumi Nakamura, an Asian woman. Presenters like Nakamura are proof that you can be an energetic oddball on stage and still do it without making the audience uncomfortable. But I also understand that it's nerve-wracking to get up in a theatre in front of thousands and talk when your job is not in communications, so I'm not here to knock every programmer and artist in front of a camera at E3.

I've spent relatively little time talking about the announcements at the conference here, but that's in part because a lot of them are dismally unremarkable. News on Elder Scrolls Online and Elder Scrolls Legends was only ever going to appeal to niche communities. I've actually not heard much at all on Elder Scrolls Legends since 2017, but as it's not received the negative press Artefact has and it's still up after two years, you've got to believe it's at least getting by. The joke in the Rage 2 trailer was about five years out of date and that Commander Keen mobile game can only have fallen out of some parallel Earth timeline.

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The publisher's reprieves were in Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot, Wolfenstein: Youngblood, and Doom Eternal, bloody animalistic killfests that skip the filler and go straight for the jugular. At the moment, that's what Bethesda has the highest hit rate with. The wackiness of Rage 2 wasn't amusing people, the mobile releases don't please many core fans, and even with its the enchanting world-building and exploration, Fallout 4 had its fair share of shortcomings. But with the heavy metal brutality of Doom and the cathartic carnage of recent Wolfenstein games, it's felt like the studios behind Bethesda's games were at the top of their class, so why not pursue this game style further? Notice that like the new Battlefield V content, Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot allows players to get behind the trigger of a Nazi gun, but without the same problematic implications, because you're not firing from the perspective of a Nazi, but someone hijacking their hardware. Also, look at how the traversal mechanics Id are introducing to Doom reinforce the series' current strengths. Doom (2016) was about staying on the move and never slowing down, drawing circuits across the maps as you tore your way through alien hordes. It only becomes easier and more enjoyable to play that way when you can dash, swing, and climb over obstacles that might break that circuit.

What I will say for Bethesda is that there have been years where they've had a lot less to show than they did Sunday night. But look at the identity crisis on display here. Bethesda's recent breakthroughs in the shooter genre have been about unapologetic, edgy aesthetics and their conferences have often matched. It's not been sweet indie curiosities; it's been Andrew WK telling you that you "better get ready to die". But now Bethesda has a lot to apologise for, and in 2019, every company wants to look progressive, which means applying a welcoming, gentle hand. Consequently, this E3, Bethesda presented themselves as a fluffy, understanding organisation, but also the guys telling you to "Go to hell" and letting you make demons explode with blasts from your energy rifle. Representation of the vulnerable should be constant, but the company would do better not to play the good Samaritan next year to such people next year. They should focus on what they excel at because we are not all Bethesda. Thanks for reading.

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E3 2019: Microsoft

Note: The following article contains spoilers for The LEGO Movie, Halo: Combat Evolved, and Halo 3.

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There was something mildly irritating lurking in the back of my head as I came away from Microsoft last year. It's not that their conference was in any way a disaster; in fact, it had a lot of high points, but I didn't feel that buzz that most people seemed to on the back of their presser. For me, their presentations were marred by declarations that Microsoft was courting profound and diverse experiences when the ones they were showing were mostly the tried and tested empowerment fantasies that gaming has always relied on. There's nothing wrong with creating some meaty, heroic action games, and there's nothing wrong with trying to expand the boundaries of the medium and make something unique. However, when you try to sell the former as the latter, it comes across as a company with the safety of billions of dollars behind them posing as the vulnerable individuals and smaller studios that risk their livelihoods to advance the medium. That rubs me the wrong way. The tone this year felt more honest, and the press conference was better for it: Spencer wasn't claiming that the next DmC or Crackdown was going to reach across boundaries of cultures and nations to unite humanity. He was claiming that we could discover, acquire, and achieve in games to create personal histories with this media that we can be proud of.

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The show opened with a trailer for Outer Wilds, which, along with Bleeding Edge, Rage 2, Wasteland 3, and Borderlands 3, is a member of a new subgenre of game. There are few films that have been more influential on the medium than Mad Max, but that series is a little self-serious for the run-and-gun madness of most computer games. Borderlands took the Mad Max skin, cartoonified it, and in some areas, added a splash of colour, to give us a post-apocalyptic aesthetic more in line with traditional video game attitudes. Now, goofy-looking scrap worlds with bright plumage are a whole art movement in games. But more gorgeous than any of the Borderlands-likes was Ori and the Will of the Wisps; it's not easy to make your game look unsettling and alluring at the same time. Big spiders are still a creepy enemy because they're one of the few unseating creatures we come into contact with in our everyday life. Minecraft: Dungeons is fascinating if for no other reason than where it fits into Minecraft as a franchise. It used to be that when your media product hit big, you churned out all the sequels and merchandise you could, but the Minecraft series was an early example of a game achieving stardom and siphoning that success into more updates for the core game instead of spinning itself out into a lot of new products. Still, Fortnite has taught a generation of kids what loot is, so it's hard to imagine Minecraft: Dungeons not doing gangbusters.

We had another glance at Jedi: Fallen Order and I've seen community members compare it to Uncharted, but something Uncharted excelled at was blurring the line between play and cutscenes, and that line feels drawn so thick with Fallen Order. The Blair Witch game, we don't have enough info on to make a call on, but I hope it's not just a rebranded Outlast and I would say that you could never evoke the air of the original Blair Witch in the modern age. There was so much mystery around the film when it came out that it felt to viewers like a piece of found footage whereas now Blair Witch is a worldwide franchise and doesn't carry the same eeriness with it. That doesn't mean a Blair Witch game is going to be worse than that film, but it does mean that it has to do something different to appear as anomalous. The best case scenario might be that it plays more with concepts of recording and replaying.

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And then there was Cyberpunk 2077. I'm floored by the environmental design in this game every time I see it; it's a glowing neon slap in the face, but what I'm looking for now is a little more backup on CD Projekt Red's statement from last year that this is a political game. When there are so many studios treating explicit politics as a mark of shame, this studio leaned in, but I'd like to see that manifest in the game, or at least, I'd like to see more texture to that world. Emerging from its chrysalis of a tabletop roleplaying game, Cyberpunk 2077 has the potential to enliven its setting with the complex social dynamics that its appearance would suggest, but it's not apparent that those dynamics are extant here. However, the trailer suggested that the protagonist could carry out missions that were personally motivated to rather than just acquiring one from a random NPC. Also, I don't know what this means, but it is weird that Microsoft could show a guy getting his arms cut off and neck impaled but had to censor swearing.

Cyberpunk 2077's spot ended with both virtual and flesh cameos from Keanu Reeves, and I'm not above taking this as an opportunity to say that I'm loving the Keanu resurgence right now. He was the scientifically perfect balance of absurd to cool for the show, and it feels spiritually correct that big budget cyberpunk has looped all the way around to return Neo to us. Thinking about it, Microsoft had a lot of likeable people on stage this year from Reeves to Tim Schafer to Sarah Bond. It was a deft move to shift gears down from Cyberpunk 2077 to the fluffy indie adventure Spiritfairer. If you can't outdo your previous game, why not follow it with a different kind of game? Which I suppose is also the logic in transitioning from Spiritfairer to Battletoads, but Battletoads feels like such a relic of the 90s. I'm not entirely sure why Sonic is loathed for his outdated badittude while the Battletoads get a pass for the same, but I'd attribute part of it to the Battletoads having quit while they were ahead. Now they're back for some reason.

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Overall, I have to commend Microsoft for being better on smaller games this year than they were for the last couple. We saw more indie titles on stage, and you can't ignore how much of a get Double Fine is for them. They showed us that it's not all machismo and megatextures: there's some heart and soul in their lineup. The new Xbox Game Pass sounds like a great deal, although I'm also highly wary of any service that keeps us from owning our games. Despite the speech that Spencer made about us finding "our" games, for material purposes, the Game Pass games aren't ours. I feel the same way about the new Xbox cloud service, although, it is worth noting that Sony and Microsoft have a potential leg up on Google in this department. Even after two streams on it, we don't know a lot about the pricing and games available on the Stadia service, but the PlayStation Now and Xbox One libraries are known quantities, and we can be confident that both Microsoft and Sony have rich game collections going into the future.

The climate is right for the new Microsoft Flight Sim. Steam is full of successful games that are technical and dry but create a steady sense of productivity. Flight Sim scratches the same itch that Bus Simulator or Planet Coaster do. The Wasteland 3 trailer was a reminder that video game humour is often unfunny because subtlety and referencing the real world are not traditionally virtues in the medium. But also, you have to remember that adverts are generally unfunny. They're going for big, obvious jokes and characters because they need to grab attention from people who often aren't there to actively offer it. LEGO Star Wars: Starwalker Saga will hopefully be a pleasurable time for kids and brings the popular LEGO games full circle, but I can't help but feel that we are drowning in Star Wars at the moment. If you get a treat all the time, it stops feeling like a treat.

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12 Minutes is an example of a game that shows really well in a bitesize slot. It has a name and loop that combine to make it immediately apparent to the audience how it plays while laying out a compelling concept. The male voice actor in that trailer was stiff as a board, and I'm not sure that the overhead camera enables us to connect with these characters any better, but this is an Annapurna game, and so far, I don't think they've made a bet on a developer that didn't pay out. Way to the Woods looks adorable; it's one of those games where every frame is its own beautiful photograph. It has the undeniable charm of a Donut County with the lonely survivalist imagery of a Tokyo Jungle.

It's noteworthy that Microsoft ran the preview for Way to the Woods back-to-back with a concept trailer for Gears 5 and had the game about deer come out as more human than the game about humans. I remain baffled by the idea that Gears' triumph was in affecting players with emotional anguish rather than giving a sense of weight and power as it pioneered the cover shooter. I also don't understand the strategy of having a Gears 5 multiplayer demo that takes place long after the conference has ended. It's in the vein of EA's post-conference tournaments, but those always led seamlessly on from the show proper to guarantee maximum viewer figures instead of relying on people tuning out and then awkwardly back in part way between the Microsoft and Bethesda conference.

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I've talked a lot about the fallacy of thinking of games as wholly rooted in a piece of software, and how they're also fundamentally made by the peripherals we use to play them, so the new Xbox One controllers look to be transformative. You can see how developing controllers for the typical professional has taught Microsoft more about peripheral customisation and that they applied those lessons to working on controllers for the disabled. Conversely, you can see that working on controllers for the disabled has also taught them more about making input hardware for the mainstream. In both cases, customisation is an asset; there's no one player, so it doesn't make sense that there be just one controller.

Forza Horizon 4: LEGO Speed Champions looks fun. It's taking inspiration from the Forza 3 Hot Wheels expansion before it which in turn felt like it took leaves from Burnout Paradise's Big Surf Island and Toy Cars DLC. There is some irony in Playground Games taking a toy that is about customising and building original creations and using its aesthetic to sell you prebuilt, non-modifiable cars and tracks. The LEGO Movie's Everything is Awesome backs the trailer, but in the film, that's the uninspired mass-manufactured pop song that the protagonist clings to before he's learned to be creative instead of following everyone else's lead in his construction. You see this happen with the LEGO branding a lot.

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It feels like we barely got clear of the last FromSoftware game before another one appeared in the viewfinder, but then Elden Ring is probably at least a year out. The aspect that's turning heads is George R.R. Martin's attachment to the project, but the industry has had multiple forays into plastering big names from literature and film onto games, and it's never provided a guarantee that those creators will have a transformatively positive impact on a project. Think of Homefront and Jonathan Millius or F.E.A.R. 3 and John Carpenter.

And lastly, there's Project Scarlett. I think games have typically put the horse before the cart in often worshipping the tech alone without analysing whether it's being used to realise inspired visual art. However, if Microsoft can take the most powerful console on the market and quadruple its performance by late 2020, that's pretty mind-blowing. And by blending RAM into SSD storage, we're fast approaching an age when turning on your machine could feel more like turning on your monitor and opening a program will feel like pulling up a minimised window. Yet, to make it appear to the crowd as more than a tech spec, you have to show your hardware making good on your promises, and Microsoft got only halfway there.

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That Halo Infinite in-engine trailer looked pretty, but it didn't look four times as pretty as an Xbox One X game, especially considering that the environment was very enclosed. Worse, it just wasn't a confident closer or a trailer that gives me any faith in Halo Infinite. It's been almost four years since Halo 5, and we got a vague preview of the Infinite engine last year; it's time for something more. I suspect that this scene with the Chief's rescue is the working version of a cutscene from the final game; you can spot the moment when the pilot will ask the Chief to look up and down to calibrate inversion. But it doesn't tell you what the title will be as a shooter, it feels distant from the tone and themes of the series so far, and barely follows on from the cliffhanger at the end of 5. And god, I can't believe we're meant to be going back to a Halo. They had a whole trilogy to tell stories about the Halo arrays, and we've already seen what a broken version of them looked like in two different games. The trajectory of the series had been towards new ground, and that always felt like the right call.

Microsoft's conference was undulating in quality. You could see a promising young game one minute and then immediately be saddled with a complete dud, but then right around the corner find something ridiculous and fun. I like that lack of predictability and that improvement in variation. Overall, I come away from this show feeling good, Microsoft has a continued tendency to eschew communicative gameplay demos for the jumbled editing of video game adverts. This stems in part from their persona as the E3 presenter with the most games to show, more games than I can write about here. If they have a demo, they can put it on the floor or release footage outside the conference; their priority during the show is for you to simply know that each game exists, and to pack all those games into roughly one-hundred minutes, they can't linger on any of them. It's a recipe for volume of announcements over confirmation that what they're announcing is up to scratch. That's not necessarily a problem in itself, but only if we can see more demonstrative proof of those game's quality elsewhere in the expo. The press conferences can no longer be viewed as so self-contained when the companies are so reliant on their biggest fans connecting their dots for them. Thanks for reading.

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E3 2019: EA Play

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I'm still not convinced by the notion that E3 is dying, at least, not in the immediate. It makes perfect sense that when modern social media allows you to beam trailers and gameplay directly to customers all year round, that you're no longer reliant on a one-off expo where you woo the established press to do it for you. However, there are some things you can't do with games over the internet, that you need your audience to be there in person for. Live demos, tournaments, panels, and speeches all fall under that umbrella, and you're seeing more of all of them scheduled for E3 2019. This isn't death for E3 as much as metamorphosis. Along the same lines, while you don't need a physical event to put out press releases on your games, you can hype up streamers and incentivise them to make videos about your games by inviting them to one. Plus, there's still enough buzz around E3 for even companies with independent marketing events to hitch their wagons to the expo. This is why we have the Comic-Con-style E3 panels, the multiple Nintendo tournaments, and EA Play.

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EA Play is Electronic Arts unshackling themselves from E3 and stretching their legs. No longer do they have to work within a limited press conference slot and fixed booth space, and they don't have to erect their kiosks within scenery and atmosphere that someone else set up. But you might think that they'd wield that control to get behind a powerful new lineup of games for 2019 and 2020. That's not how it shook out. At Play, we saw Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, Madden NFL 20, and FIFA 20, but no announcements of anything we didn't know about before, and more time was gobbled up by games released long ago like Battlefield V and Apex Legends. Sims 4, which capped off the event, is a title EA released five years ago. There is a logic here: the industry is more about "games as a service" than ever and doesn't need additional space to promote new releases but does need it to advertise the next batch of content they'll be feeding into their current lineup. And when game announcements aren't something that you require the public to be physically there to receive, it makes sense that you'd focus more on the games that you can give them hands-on time with: the ones that are already roaming in the wild.

But you also have to consider the context around this particular live programme. EA had nothing but scraps on the slate for the rest of 2019 and wasn't announcing anything new. The "Coming Soon" section of their website features only four items, and two of those are their perfunctory annual sports products. I don't mean this to be a statement on the health of EA who look to be financially rosy-cheeked, but there's still something fishy here. Either they're going through an uncharacteristic deadzone of releases, they've ejected a panoply of announcements into other peoples' press conferences and their own post-Play promotions, or EA think the money is going to be in supporting a smaller pool of high-profit AAA games rather than making sure there's always another release on the calendar for next month. Time will tell.

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For now, an E3 presence that included fewer new games and more patch notes didn't make for compelling viewing. Eeking out their news briefing over the course of three hours while trying to match the energy levels of peppy YouTubers made for a show with a chill pace that had these sudden jolts in which presenters begin yelling at the audience or trying to urge them to applause. And the event could neither plug original projects nor expand on the updates for those already on hard-drives. It contrasted poorly with the Nintendo tournaments that streamed the same day because while EA did a lot of telling, Nintendo was busy showing.

We also have to address the ridiculous Battlefield V controversy that occurred just before the event. EA uploaded a trailer announcing that you'd be able to play an evil WWII axis powers soldier who dresses like a fascist, executes allies, and even has the name of a Nazi. At its best, this was distasteful, at its worse, it was letting people who fantasise about being Nazis see a gargantuan force in the industry pandering to their tastes. So people were upset, and EA responded by changing the name of the soldier and insisting they weren't a Nazi, just a soldier fighting for the Germans in this World War II FPS. They also stated that there are no political statements in their shooter about the actual war that was fought for the political control of Europe. A Nazi by any other name is still a Nazi, and their statement on apoliticism read like a parody of the current attitudes of AAA games.

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I've not felt comfortable with what EA and DICE have been doing with their historical titles of late, but the fetishism over armaments and battle during this EA Play felt particularly unsavoury as we were only two days out from the D-Day Anniversary. On a less consequential but still perplexing note, I don't know how you hold an event where you promise that you've been listening to fans and will be introducing a new Pacific Island map to the game and then not make it Wake Island, the Pacific Island setting everyone wants in every Battlefield. Another low point for the stream was the big reveal of Jedi: Fallen Order which looks painfully generic in its design. I hold out some hope that there's a Soulslite combat system lurking under the hood and that that's what the presenters were talking about when they discussed intentionality in the play, but it's otherwise a by-the-numbers action-adventure, not that different from the Star Wars game you could have made fifteen years ago. It's a shame to see a company like Respawn that has been a generator for new artistic and mechanical concepts in AAA games be reduced to telling you about their intention to "Honor the brand" rather than do something creative.

But there were a few nuggets of gold mixed into the silt. I wish we could have heard more about the map changes to Apex Legends, but Respawn's vision of a new hero looks to add some fresh flavour to the battle royale setup. It makes sense that running a class-based battle royale, you have many more opportunities to alter individual player experiences than in a PUBG or a Fortnite. There are already multiplayer games where you can defend yourself by setting down barricades, but I'm not sure I've seen any where you can tether those barricades together in freeform patterns a la The Talos Principle. Of course, additional power to block off entry points to buildings could allow you a little too much comfort in any one of your chosen strongholds, but it might be that that's a motive for Respawn redesigning the map. They need to make sure there's an Apex Legends that prevents players from sealing off whole corners of the level while still letting Wattson use her area control powers.

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Lastly, there was the glimpse we got at The Sims 4: Island Living, the successor to Sims 2: Castaway and Sims 3: Island Paradise. The Sims's content model remains exploitative, and I don't trust Island Living to acknowledge the roots of the aesthetic it wears. Media often whitewashes bamboo huts, flower necklaces, and volcano spirits as being part of an unplaceable "island vibe", but we know where they come from: They're interpretations of Polynesian culture. It's at least some small consolation that, on stage, Maxis's devs acknowledged this and discussed speaking to people who lived in Polynesia to get a basis for the game's style. The studio will also be releasing LGBTQ+ content for the game. The support for pride is inextricable from EA's financial interests, but that update at least comes free when private interests too often claim to be on the side of minorities and then try to force them to buy their way to the product which supposedly conveys respect for them. Lastly, the expansion will finally be addressing that unusual invisible wall that has often existed between sims and natural bodies of water, and will contain a reactive environment which draws attention to the effects of human pollution. I can get behind all of that.

But I do have to note that even when EA made my face light up this year, it was never from showcasing indie games. Even in 2018, the publisher put aside a slot at their conference to let a developer speak about the process of creating something personal and out of the ordinary, but this year all we got was a video covering three indie games released after EA Play that was a starved three minutes long. If the new E3 is more about games as services than one-off releases, then where does that leave independent creators? Because they don't lay down pipelines that deliver new characters, maps, and modes every few months. Their games are released in a fire-and-forget fashion but are often more focused, expressive, and cohesive for it. It's easy to forget how vulnerable these creators are when a slew of indie games hit Steam every year, but a lot of them are still starving artists who live or die on promotion. But people with a vision aren't going to sell you more lootboxes or expansion packs, so what's the point, right? Thanks for reading.

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Hype Train: E3 and Broken Promises

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While E3 is always a time for excitement and speculation, it's also a time for more scepticism and questioning than we usually do. The expo might look like video game Christmas to those of us with a passion for the medium, from the perspective of the people who fund the conferences and booths, it's an advertising platform. We wouldn't take commercials for dishwasher tablets or home insurance at face value, but we seem far more comfortable in uncritically accepting the claims of enormous tech companies at gaming's premier marketing event. This would be an issue at the best of times, but I think that turning a rational eye towards the expo is vital specifically now, given that we're experiencing an epidemic of video games that were oversold and underdelivered.

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Audiences have been getting disappointed in computer games from the first days that workers started wheeling cabinets into arcades, but we've hit somewhat of a fever pitch with it, trapped in an endless cycle of fans buying into the hype, getting burned, and then going right back for seconds. And E3 has been instrumental in perpetuating that cycle. We had a generation of overpromising with motion control games, and we've seen the infamous Peter Molyneux speeches, Ubisoft demos, and that one Bioshock Infinite playthrough which provoked so much outrage. However, the last few E3s have promoted disappointments with greater density than those previous, and we've gotten behind many of those lacklustre games with more enthusiasm than we did with most Molyneux or Ubisoft items. Just look at Anthem, Days Gone, Fallout 76, Mass Effect Andromeda, No Man's Sky, Sea of Thieves, or Star Wars Battlefront II.

None of these games was different in person than it was on the stage because the developers who worked on them were purposefully trying to deceive us; they were different because E3 is not the objective window into upcoming titles that we often treat it as. You might be thinking that an E3 demo is more reliable than a home insurance advert because in an E3 walkthrough, a human being shows you a proof of the product in action, and in the case of floor demos, impartial experts can evaluate those products. But forget demos for a second because a pre-rendered trailer seems enough for people to start forming conceptions of what a video game is, even when we know those trailers don't employ game footage or assets. In fact, a pre-rendered E3 bumper is what people began staking their excitement for Anthem on, and we all know how that turned out. And when we do get playthroughs, either live or pre-recorded, they're often not the litmus tests we treat them as.

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In the most extreme circumstances, we make up promises that were never part of the demos and then become frustrated when studios don't fulfil them. Look at the No Man's Sky demonstration or the gameplay trailer for the original Cuphead. In them, we saw vertical slices of titles and then imagined everything that would sit around those slices either based on what we'd ideally like to have seen in the experience or the features that other games in their genres offered. We assumed that No Man's Sky would have a more extensive mechanical framework around the exploratory play and that Cuphead would have regular side-scrolling stages in addition to boss fights, but "assumed" is the operative word there. Neither of those were facts about these games when they debuted at E3. Misconceptions about the industry also skew how we absorb these demos.

For one, gamers tend to believe that games come to a polished and feature-complete state much faster than they do. On the contrary, these projects often remain broken until teams are practically at the finishing line of development. A public-facing build for a AAA game still six months, a year, or even longer out from release is a rarity because those games aren't in a publically presentable state at that point. This is why E3 demos need to be "built" in many instances; scripting, AI routines, animation, and environmental elements may not be in place at the time and so have to be made up. Of course, if someone is developing these aspects of the game separate from the main dev cycle, what they're making doesn't represent the content of the game build that the dev team is working with. And even if they did let the public get a sneak peek of the raw build behind their company walls, that wouldn't be representative of the final game either because, again, it's unfinished.

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The pressure for developers and publishers to fabricate the working elements of the games is only increasing with these recent high profile controversies. Audiences are hot on the scent of substandard play experiences (such as the ones you'll find in a game still being manufactured) and are only too quick to punish when they root them out. It gives developers at E3 a stronger incentive to patch over the cracks in their game, even when they can't guarantee those patches will be in the .exe we'll get twelve months down the line. This is also why, despite CD Projekt Red possessing a floor-ready demo for Cyberpunk 2077 at E3 2018, they chose to show it behind closed doors, rationally afraid of the scrutinous gaze of the end user.

And even when the games aren't scripted, their on-stage players are. It's not viable to build expansive, dynamic, and functioning E3 demos so developers create more of an amusement park attraction where stewards can't wander off-track for fear of the audience seeing behind the curtain. Even knowing this, we tend to imagine what would happen if they slipped down that alleyway or used different items in a fight, but those abilities frequently aren't extant in the demo we're watching, only suggested. Then, putting aside features, you can also find plenty of disagreement between the graphics and performance of E3 demos and those of the games as they appear in stores. Software engineers perform optimisation during the later days of the development process which means they're often unlikely to be done with it by the time of their E3 presentation, and they optimise many games for consoles over PC. It's one reason you see all those glossy roads and that rich ambient lighting in E3 demos but not in the games as they ship. And even if there is a port of the game which is true to the all-singing, all-dancing E3 incarnation, that doesn't mean it'll be the port that your platform of choice receives.

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Another faulty perception which has caused a lot of damage is that game dev involves simply blueprinting what you want your game to look like and then building from that blueprint. In reality, game dev always entails working out what a game should be and can be during the course of the production. For any single feature in a game, a creator may discover that implementing it would break so much of their game that it's not viable for them to do it with the resources at their disposal. Sometimes they discover major design flaws with that feature that would take an egregious amount of time to iron out, or sometimes they can implement the feature, but it turns out not to be as fun as they thought it would be. For all these reasons and more, developers sometimes can't slide every feature down the production pipeline that they wanted to when they first demoed their title. As the creative director of Edith Finch told us last year:

"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".

In other circumstances, studios find that the story, art, or mechanics have the potential to be pushed in a direction they didn't conceive of before and so pursue that direction. A lot of E3 demos are made before that cutting down and changing of course is complete, and both the length of time it takes to get a game on its feet and the ever-changing nature of titles in gestation means that demos produced months or years out from release have to be statements of intent rather than product samples. Speaking to People Make Games about his overinflated promises, Peter Molyneux said that the features he announced for his experiences were always what his team planned to implement, and it was a lack of practical possibility rather than honesty that meant they ended up on the cutting room floor. It's been the same story for studios the world over.

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Yet another recurring issue is that you often get to see a game loop once or a few times at a venue like E3 because that's the amount of demo they could churn out and because time slots during press conferences are very skinny. However, in real life, we need hours to explore the longevity of a core loop and see all the ways a game can iterate on it. Sea of Thieves demoed well when the players at the Microsoft conference took their ship to the open waves a single time and came back with their well-earned spoils. It was only when people got their hands on the finished project that they discovered that the game didn't deviate wildly from that loop in the demo and that it was a largely homogenous experience.

Maybe I'm preaching to the choir a little here, but if you're still not convinced overhype is a problem with severe implications, think about the appearance of Fallout 76 at E3. I don't think it's hyperbolic to call Fallout 76 one of the most impactfully disappointing items in video game history, but when it debuted at E3 2018, people were banging on the walls with excitement. It was seen as a glorious return to form for a Bethesda who'd spent the last two or three E3s giving the impression they didn't care. Some journalists raised their eyebrows at the game, asking how Fallout's trademark storytelling fit into a multiplayer format or how persistent settlements could exist on servers where people may build on the same spot or nuke other players' camps. But the community accepted that they were getting a new Fallout that would play a little more like The Long Dark or Terraria than previous entries and was smitten with that mental image. The real 76 was starved for content and story, put little thought into how to unite players, was repetitive, contained minimal endgame, and remained, technically speaking, on fire.

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Even worse, think about Anthem. It might not have been a letdown to the extent that Fallout 76 was, but it was another profound disappointment from Bioware. Yet, not only did it appear as a more seamless and objective-rich game when we saw it at E3 2018, we now know from Jason Shreir's exposé on the game's development that when it demoed at E3 2017, it hadn't even entered production. The "mission" that we saw at the EA conference that year was fabricated whole cloth for the purpose of having something to show the public. And if Fallout 76 or Anthem could make such convincing showings while being such shoddy games, how can we trust any game demo is going to be accurate to the eventual experience? When we look at a game at this expo or any other, how will we know if we're staring at the next Anthem or Fallout 76?

The games community is going to keep getting ripped off if it continues to accept the promises of these companies without a pinch of salt. However angry you might get at developers, publishers, or console manufacturers for not backing up their promises, if we keep blindly accepting those promises year on year, nothing is going to change. Constructive criticism is essential, but getting impotently mad every time we're sold a bill of goods is not a practical series of steps for avoiding disappointment in the future. Turning to events like E3 with a sceptical eye is. It doesn't help that yearly expos like E3 are not designed for us to retread them. You tune in for the show, you get jazzed up to buy some products, and then you put it behind you, but when we don't revisit the expos of previous years and see how the presentations from them stacked up in comparison to what we got, we forget all the times they've done us wrong. What's more, with companies like EA and Sony forgoing E3 to take greater control over the stage for their games, they're going to take greater control over the presentation of them. That means it's going to become easier for them to project a dishonest image of them.

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Given all this, you might ask what the point of E3 is if its depictions of games can be so unreliable, but I think that there is a healthy way to get excited over E3 demos. We can approach them knowing that it's a gamble to invest in their promises, but I wouldn't blame anyone who wanted to take that gamble as long as they're conscious of the high risk at this point in time. It's also valid to feel joy when you see what the intentions of developers are for the games that they're working on. It's just also important to remember that the executives at the top of the pyramid have a financial incentive to mislead and the workers below them often don't have much more of an idea how their game will look on release than we do. So, as we head into another expo, don't be hopeless, but do think twice about what any company is showing you. Thanks for reading.

Further Reading

The Real Stories Behind E3's Glossy Game Demos by Patrick Klepek (June 10, 2016), Kotaku.

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All Kolechians Must Be Searched: Political Action in Papers, Please

Note: This article contains major spoilers for Papers, Please and discussion of transphobic behaviour.

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While most media can only opine on morality and present their text as ambivalent to audience opinions, the interactive nature of video games means that they can ask their audience moral questions and respond to their answers within the text. However, even games that incessantly quiz us on our ethics must make statements of their own about what helpful and productive behaviour entails. They make moral pronouncements through the questions they ask us and the consequences for the answers we give. If a game asks us whether we want to use violent or diplomatic methods to solve a problem and has both approaches be just as effective, it's making a statement that, for practical purposes, the two are interchangeable. If a game asks whether we want to trade freedom for safety, we take that trade, and it ultimately results in more damage done, it's taking a stance against trying to swap freedom for security.

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Remember, games can pose moral questions even when they don't have a moral choice system. They may ask us which of their characters deserves help the most or which deserves to live and die, even if there are no "Good" and "Evil" meters scoring us on those decisions. Video games also end up taking moral stands even when the player has little sway in the plot. A linear war game where you shoot your way through a terrorist army to save the day is making statements about the practicality of brute force military might in exacting political change, and a game where we can't alter the ending through our actions takes the position that some events are inevitable. Through showing how our behaviour can result in positive or negative outcomes, games implicitly explain how good and bad things happen in the world. From the perspective of most games, good or bad gets done because that's what the protagonist decides to do. They say that ethical and unethical events occur because there are individuals in the world who possess an extraordinary amount of power and exercise that power either in a morally constructive or destructive way.

In a variation of this setup, some games have good and bad factions that we may ally ourselves with and suggest that whether moral or immoral things happen is down to who the powerful individual or individuals choose to side with and the values those groups represent. While these may seem like contrivances created to justify gameplay systems or heroic narratives, these ethical positions map cleanly onto the mainstream discussions surrounding politics in the west. When election season rolls around, politicians, pundits, and even some teachers tell us that all we need to do to live in a fair, just society is to to make sure that the person with the power, be that a president, prime minister, MP, whatever, is someone with the right values who'll make the right choices for us. Electoral campaigns similarly emphasise the importance of putting the right faction in control of the government through promoting a specific political party. In both video games and electoral politics, there is also an assumption that people can affect the world in whatever way they choose to. We can pick the red dialogue option or the blue one, any candidate can work with the people or against them. If you accept that premise then you intrinsically reach another conclusion: If someone is performing ethical actions then it's because they're a good person and if what they're doing is unethical then it's because they're a bad person. Whether they're ripping families apart or getting life-saving medicine to the dying, it's a personal decision that reflects only on who they are. Papers, Please shows us the flaw in this reasoning and presents us with situations in which this mode of thinking is borderline useless.

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Papers, Please is a 2013 "dystopian document thriller" developed by Lucas Pope. In it, we work as a passport inspector for the fictional authoritarian nation of Arstotzka. The gameplay loop involves the people visiting or settling in Arstotzka presenting us their passports and accompanying documents and us checking them against a set of rules that changes from one in-game day to another. If the subject's documentation complies by all the rules, we must accept them into the country; otherwise, we must reject them. However, some people transiting through the checkpoint may also reveal apparent personal hardships to us, hoping that we'll bend the rules for them. Maybe they've queued for hours for their assessment or their spouse is on the other side of the border. The first two times in a day that we stamp "approved" when we have should have stamped "denied", or "denied" when it should have been "approved", we receive a stern warning. After that, any further rule infractions result in our pay being docked, with the financial penalty increasing as our mistakes pile up.

At the end of the day, we earn a pay packet based on how many people we processed, how many punishments we incurred, and sometimes bonuses or sneaky bribes. We need to maintain a constant cash flow because, if we run dry, we may have to go without food and heat, causing our family to fall ill. At worst, sick family members will die, or we'll come up short on our rent and will lose our job and our home. The protagonist losing their home, having all four family members die, or having the authorities discover that they've been running illegal activities at the border all qualify as loss states.

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A video game is a potentially informative platform on which to learn about authoritarian societies because both games and such societies tend to involve operating under stringent and extensive rulesets. Your position as a worker for the Arstotzkan Ministry of Admission also gives you a rare vantage point from which you can witness the human cost of the country's despotism. From within Arstotzka, you might never see the countless hungry refugees, citizens, and immigrants that the state gladly turns its back on; a common component of oppression is the erasure of the oppressed by the oppressor. However, from the outside, what's going on behind the iron curtain of the Arstotzkan outskirts is likely a mystery. Sitting on the country's outline with one foot inside and outside of the tyrannical state, we can see both the apathetic mechanism of state policy and the human stories of the people ravaged by it.

The aesthetics of the game work to express this contrast between life inside and outside of Arstotzka, as well as the unreconcilable division that the nation's border policy creates. The checkpoint we work at is built into a wall separating the districts of East and West Grestin, drawing parallels to The Berlin Wall, the divide between East and West Germany. The checkpoint is where we spend 99% of our time, and neither the western nor the eastern side is cheerful. They're both drawn in dismal grey and fall under the solemn watch of armed guards, but there is an immediately apparent difference between the two. The left West Grestin side is overcrowded, full of a long line of people huddling together in the cold, while the right East Grestin side is open and spacious. It's suggestive of Arstotzka having slightly more freedom and breathing room than the outside world, even if life there is still harsh. Your booth existing on the wall separating the two halves symbolises your position as the liaison between these worlds, making you part of that excluding force.

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The graphic and audio design are also reflective of a fetish for bureaucracy that has penetrated every layer of life in Arstotzka. Our labour time is spent staring at M.o.A. documents and listening to the chirps of the scanner, the thunk of the stamp, and the blare of the loudspeaker. During ending scenes, the text unfurls to the cacophonous bashing of a typewriter, suggesting our fate is being recorded for government records. All of this is to underscore the inhumanity of the country's protocols of admission. When we're following the rules, we're marooning members of families on either side of the border, barring entry for journalists, turning people away for being trans, accepting a sex trafficker into the country, detaining someone who claims they're just trying to smuggle medicine in, and so on. Even when you process a person without doing any direct wrong, you're helping maintain a status quo that seals people into poverty or puts them to death if they're as much as thinking about disloyalty. In a number of the endings, Arstotzka is happy to subject you to that penalty too.

The country doesn't even have an internally consistent morality or ruleset; the Ministry of Admission is playing catch-up to their mistakes on a daily basis. When you first take the job as passport inspector, they don't have systems to check for contraband or to allow diplomats or refugees entry. They have to introduce all these facilities slowly, over a period of days, and by the time they put them in place, you know that it's likely you've already let through countless people with weapons strapped to them or ejected all sorts of asylum seekers. Here, Arstotzka fails to enact ethical safeguards at the border because they've not yet succeeded at their technological and methodological implementation, but they're capable of other types of failure as well. During one incident, a terror attack from the neighbouring Kolechia prompts Arstotzka to begin searching all Kolechians coming into the country, which triggers an outcry, and they immediately reverse their policy. On another day, thieves breach an M.o.A. document-printing facility, and nab the plates from it, releasing whole new species of forged passports and other documents into the wild.

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What's more, the government's solution of continually adding new rules to account for the system's blind spots is like trying to keep a ship from sinking by bandaging the leaks. More documents and standards may theoretically allow you to account for more types of immigrants and travellers, but when you have more measures by which you must judge the people who pass through the checkpoint, you're more prone to making mistakes and must take more time to process each person. The chameleon skin of the checkpoint's protocols also makes it clear just how arbitrary your job is. There are no popular ethical frameworks which don't include some consistency as a feature. We may discover more about morality over time, but if punching someone in the face is wrong on Monday, then without any change of context, it should be wrong on Tuesday. Therefore, any accurate legal implementation of such morality should not see any serious revisions, especially not in a short space of time, but the protocols Arstotzka has you abide by are in constant flux. Even if you were just out for your own self-interest, nailing your colours to the state's mast seems like a terrible idea when they're abysmal at reliably working out what they need to do to attain their goals.

In fact, if you want to go all the way in analysing how arbitrary and unfair this system is, and we do, consider that you don't know whether any of the documents that fall under your gaze are accurate or not. We know that there are plenty of phoney passports, entry permits, ID cards, and so on out there, and we also know the M.o.A. is prone to blunders and implicitly admits flaws in their system. So it's plausible that some of the documents that we dub valid are very convincing fakes and that some of those that we'd mark invalid are incorrect only because the country that produced them bungled the printing process. In the situations in which we have to check documents against the Arstotzkan internal records, it's also possible that the country's databases are incorrect. This is how little enforcing the law in this nation has to do with morality or reality, and while Arstotzka may be fictional, this is where countries that fall in that trifecta of secretive, failing, and authoritarian typically end up. But when the punishment for stepping out of line is so crippling, it doesn't matter what's true or what's ethical; it just matters what will get you in trouble.

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As Papers, Please is about a country which has a blind bureaucracy in place of an ethical code, it makes sense that we can achieve a thorough understanding of it by being a bureaucrat. But if we want to act morally within that position then we have to duck under that red tape, and the game has a scheme for letting us do so while still keeping the ruleset intact. All games have rules, but they don't necessarily enforce all rules equally. We can categorise any rule in a game as a "strict rule" or a "loose rule". Strict rules are those which are impossible to break without hitting a fail state. For example, most games with a health value have it so that if that value reaches 0, they'll reset us to an earlier checkpoint, and games never intentionally let us phase through the level boundaries. Loose rules, on the other hand, you can break, and when you do, it doesn't incur a fail state but does trigger a penalty. Running into the spikes in Sonic makes us drop our rings, turning off Animal Crossing without saving gets us a lecture from Resetti next time we turn it on, etc.

In Papers, Please, the strict rules are that we can't give the state an obvious reason to imprison or fire us. They will fire us for the crime of our whole family dying, by the way. The loose rules are anything currently in play in the in-game rulebook, with the penalty for breaking them being financial penalisation, at least after our first couple of deviations each day. For this reason, we have some leeway with which to break the protocols of the Ministry of Admission, and it is vital that the game lets us do this. If it were to implement the border protocol as a set of strict rules then it would end up taking the same position as the shady authoritarians who lord their power over you, suggesting that discriminating against people crossing the border and perpetrating injustice is non-negotiable, it's just what you have to do to get by. Papers, Please rightfully says no; there are at least some circumstances in which you can push back against even an iron-fisted government's wishes, and by the moral logic that we discussed at the top of this essay, you might ask why we wouldn't always do that.

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You can roleplay the jackboot in Papers, Please; make the deliberately deleterious decision every time. However, if you want to be the hero, then by the logic of that individualist ethics, and most video games with moral choices, all you need to do is consistently pick the "good guy" decision. In this game, that often means believing in people over documents: Taking in the desperate pleas of the human in front of you as opposed to falling back on the M.o.A's heartless people filter. The problem is, you cannot always act on that belief. What you consider ethical is going to depend on who you think deserves entry into Arstotzka. You might think that prohibition of anyone's passage over the East Grestin border is indefensible and that there should be free movement of all people across it. Alternatively, you may not believe that you should give everyone a place in Arstotzka. Maybe you think that certain outsiders could be a threat to the citizenry or that people should earn their place. You want to select immigrants and visitors on a case-by-case basis, although probably not by the same measuring sticks that Arstotzka currently uses.

Either way, you have little power to act on those precepts because the penalties for your moral decisions clashing against the state's are too high for you to accept or reject people based on your ethical standards consistently. You literally cannot afford what it would cost to defy your employers again and again. If you made it your choice who passes over the border, you'd also quickly get your ability to make such judgements revoked by your bosses, and even if that weren't true, you don't have the information at your disposal that you'd require to run a case-by-case system. As discussed earlier, there's no guarantee that any of the papers that pass in front of you accurately report the details they claim to, and even if they did, they give you a very limited window into who these potential entrants are.

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What we would need to make informed moral decisions about who should be let in and who shouldn't be is their health, their family history, whether they're part of a marginalised demographic, how much money they have, what their history of violence is if any, whether they're fleeing persecution. What we get is the flat and mostly irrelevant details of their names, their appearance, their date of birth, what gender their state assigned them, etc. Unavoidably, we do learn what states ruled over them, but information about whether and how those states are abusive comes in drabs when you're living in Arstotzka. Additionally, whether someone has gotten their papers in order or not doesn't have anything to do with how much they need work, citizenship, or visitation rights in your nation. After discovering that you can't act ethically through the M.o.A, you might want to take a principled stand by abandoning it: labelling it broken beyond repair and refusing to participate. But that option almost always kills your family and won't assure justice prevails. In the endings where your superiors drag you away from the job, your departure is a minor nuisance to the officials who go on to place another border officer in your old shoes. Take, for example, ending 9 of 20.

A recurring irritant for Arstotzka is a rebel group by the name of The Order of the EZIC Star. You can raise the barrier for their agents and put down your foot when their political enemies try to cross, but the most selfless sacrifice you can make for them comes on Day 23 at the checkpoint. On that day, EZIC asks you to assassinate a man in red as he carries criminalising information on The Order that could compromise them. The EZIC representative tells you that you will receive the death penalty for murdering the man, but promises to take care of your family after you die. In the most crushing of the game's endings, you shoot the man hoping it will help EZIC bring the revolution, the government puts you on death row, and EZIC slips a letter under your cell door. They tell you that the inspector who has replaced you won't co-operate with them, for reasons that are obvious to us, having felt the motivation that inspectors are given to play it by the book. This forces EZIC to cease operations in Arstotzka meaning that not only is there not going to be a revolution; you're going to die for nothing. This ending confirms that if you do attempt to get forcibly removed from your position, not only are they going to trade you out for someone else, your replacement is likely to be more obedient, only making the M.o.A. more effectively oppressive.

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The idea that doing what's morally right is just about making the most ethical decision assumes that you have the ability to realise that decision in the first place and the idea that the right person for the job is someone with the best values presumes a system through which they can enact their values. Neither are the case for any of us who have relatively little power within a political system, which is most of us. Maybe it shouldn't be that surprising that a large swath of video games look at worlds from a position of influence: most popular video games are empowerment fantasy games. We have exceptional control over the unfolding of conflicts and politics in these games because they are about finding liberation through having a high degree of agency; one that you'll find as a theme park director or an elite soldier. However, by placing you in that seat of power, these games fail to prescribe a path to ethical politics for the common person or anyone trapped in a byzantine web of rules.

Authoritarian societies are smart enough to build their systems of labour, law, and money to resist individualistic do-gooders to the maximum extent possible. They're well aware that someone might want to make the ethical decision to disobey or overthrow the state, so they catch those troublemakers in traps which discourage and block efforts to do exactly that. If your freedom or economic livelihood is contingent on acting as the state pleases, you can't easily disobey them and probably won't want to. While plenty of other media that stroke their beard on the topic of morality say that bad things are done by bad people and good things by good people, Papers, Please says there are political structures in which your actions have little to do with what you believe to be right. If someone else can gain control over you, they can decide your behaviour for you, and so your actions are not a reflection of your personal morality. It's the same oppressive circumstances which give us a need for revolutionary tools that keep those tools from us.

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This is not just useful information to have in contemporary politics but also reminds us of something we must keep in mind when looking back on authoritarian societies. There were people in them who were happy to tread all over the common or vulnerable citizens the second they were handed the license to do so, and there are people who watched evil take power and did nothing, but it's also not as simple as everyone in an authoritarian country subscribing to that authoritarian ideology. The Cold War wasn't a dispute between the west and countries where everyone believed in Lenin or Mao's theories. Many of the people in those countries were victims of those dictators themselves but still perpetuated their politics because they were prisoners of their political systems. The reason that dictators have to implement oppressive systems, to begin with, is because they're well aware that many citizens under them won't share their aims. And while we often want to divide people along a line of "oppressed" and "oppressor", and indeed in many situations, it is appropriate to do so, Papers, Please finds a shockingly common historical scenario in which we are both simultaneously. This is possible because, within the game, we are part of a tiered hierarchy.

Authoritarian elites like the ones at the head of Arstotzka know they cannot subjugate the masses by hand. As we discover in our position as a passport inspector, even running a tiny corner of their system takes a lot of work. So, they delegate responsibility to citizens below them and through the hierarchy provide a reason for those citizens to take that responsibility seriously: every rung of the ladder oppresses the one below. To the people whose passports you reject, you're the oppressor, but from your perspective, the managers who whip you into line are the tyrants. Above those officials, there are likely more servants of the state checking that they're doing their duty, and a chain of command will wind all the way back to the top of the government. Every link in that chain, whether they believe they're doing something ethical or not, always has the pressure of persecution from above and the threat of plummeting down to the societal category below.

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The refugees, estranged family members, and generally desperate humans who wander through the border are not just subjects for us to enact the government's will on, they're reminders of the position we could be in if we don't stick to the script. It's worth noting that popular politics and player empowerment games with moral choices often have no answer as to how someone might successfully flip that script. When we only honour the empowered player's decisions and not the decisions of characters beyond the player, we suggest that the ethical decisions of powerful individuals are absolute. And when we have a political discourse that only focuses on the achievements or failures of those in power, we suggest that the general populace hold no political sway. Neither of these impressions is correct, and many people with only marginal power can act against the powerful if they work collectively.

In Papers, Please, you can break the loose rules to carry a few more oppressed people over the border, but there will always be more people to help than opportunities to lend a hand to them. However, if you can break the rules in a way that aids the people who'd destroy the whole system of rules, you might be able to help everyone. There is a way to work with The Order to overthrow the Arstotzkan state; you just can't do it too loudly. You must allow their agents passage while barring their enemies, not reveal your involvement with EZIC to your bosses, and stay your hand when the man in the red appears. Do all this, and on Day 31, rebels make a dramatic entrance, neutralise the border guards, and blow up the wall, allowing the people who you'd have otherwise processed as an inspector to come flooding through. This is basically what you have to do if your game contains a stand-in for the Berlin Wall: at some point, someone has to tear it down. A screen of text then tells us that the government has been overthrown, ushering in a new state. Besides it being uplifting to see a positive future for Arstotzka after coming to believe that there was no chance of my character escaping from their meticulously documented hell, it was also illustrative of Papers, Please's position on the border's function in an authoritarian state. The government slipping from power after the collapse of the border system reflects a view that it was the MoA's ability to choose who could exist in Arsstotzka that perpetuated the authoritarian rule. That in being able to turn away reporters and minorities and only keep those who they deemed loyal or at least harmless to the state, their dictatorship stood firm. The checkpoints don't just keep people out; they keep out the sources of personal liberty too.

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Before we get too carried away, we should note that there are political schools of thought that would make credible objections to Papers, Please's depiction of how an authoritarian state gets toppled. I'm not going to evaluate them in all their complexity here, but it's worth keeping in mind that there are people who would say that keeping your head down and failing to take an explicit stand against authoritarianism perpetuates the ideology rather than combats it. You could make the argument that you can't just wait for someone outside to liberate you; that you have to do it yourself. There are also plenty of commentators who'd say that working from inside the system is never going to dissolve it and that Papers, Please cuts some corners to make a government official colluding with rebel forces look a lot more possible than it was in real authoritarian countries. There are other commentators still who'd say that Papers, Please is still not collectivist enough in its depiction of revolution. I believe many of these criticisms to be relevant, but whether you take them to be valid or not, we can come away from Papers, Please with the belief that if working within a system only provides you with unethical options (e.g. Discriminate against people at the border crossing or let your family starve to death) then you need a different system.

Despite being a stunningly politically-charged game, a considerable portion of Papers, Please's audience is not the people who are typically looking for social commentary in their games, and the title doesn't usually attract that common and dismissive criticism that "political" games do, that it's trying to "force" a worldview upon us. I'd wager this is because a large portion of the gaming community views games only as political when they're acting in proximity to modern social justice issues, whether that's by explicitly communicating a feminist message or just having a black main character. By contrast, no small portion of the Papers, Please fandom seems happy to roleplay the Arstotzkan officials, safe in the belief that the game doesn't instruct on modern day politics. The Russian and Eastern-European dictatorships of the 20th-century are often so distant from us in time and place that we treat them as though they're fiction. The citizens and soldiers of these countries are so frequently depicted as overblown movie villains, whether in western propaganda or works of entertainment, that they often appear just like any other recurring "bad guy" faction from novels or film. Bloodthirsty communists are consigned to the same box of cheap go-to enemies for action media as zombies and killer robots, and when given such framing appear just as phoney. We also have a generation of people alive now who didn't live through the Cold War, and so, for them, their main reference point for the events of it are media on them, factual or otherwise. I'm one of those people.

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But if we're to honour the historically oppressed and not repeat history, then we have to remain aware that the poverty, state violence, and discrimination depicted in Papers, Please are not part of some mythical fantasy world but are what millions of people who lived under dictators endured. It's also worth noting that the treatment of people at the East Grestin border can't be viewed as entirely distinct from the practices at the borders of many modern countries, even if the game doesn't directly draw that link. To forward one comparison, at the Arstotzkan border, there are essential conceptions of male and female appearances. In the case that a person's appearance isn't adequately masculine or feminine enough for the officials, the rules compel you to take a photograph of that person's naked body and then allow or deny them based on whether their bodies match cisnormative concepts of gender. I.e. The rules say you must reject people whose gender on their passport is "female" but who have a penis and you must do the same for people whose passport says "male" but have a clitoris.

It's invasive and transphobic to the extent that we might say that this could only happen somewhere like the Soviet Union but many modern-day airports have long used backscatter scanners to allow officials to take nude photographs of complete strangers and Arstotzka's policy on trans people is not that different from the United States'. There, the TSA decide whether a person is male or female based purely on sight and have their scanner compare that person's body to that of a cisgender man or woman. If the scanner detects a mismatch, it raises an alarm. In 2015, The National Center for Transgender Equality found that "Forty-three percent of those who went through airport security in the past year experienced at least one problem related to their gender identity or expression" and trans people have been sharing countless horror stories about their treatment at the hands of border control officers online. The United States has also recently been in hot water for, as Arstotzka does, using overzealous and inhumane forms of arrest and detention at the border.

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Similar mistreatment of refugees has been recorded in the UK in Australia with humanitarian violations such as that of the Yarl's Wood, Tripoli, Nauru (note: link contains graphic description of suicide), and mainland Australia detention centres. And just as we saw in early game Arstotzka, a lot of countries don't care to have a robust refugee program that accounts for the number of people on the planet displaced from their home. We're also all familiar with the "random searches" at airports which depend on racial profiling, a lot like Arstotzka's shortlived personal invasion of Kolechians. It should be said that the people who perpetuate those neglectful and oppressive policies in the modern world aren't usually forced into it that same way that the Arstotzkans are. In Papers, Please you're conducting forced labour, but if you're someone who writes or implements modern border policy, you've probably taken that job by choice. However, the point is that issues with border policing and immigration protocol are not about good or bad individual actors as much as they are about the toxicity of the whole system.

More broadly, we often talk about how our societies encourage good behaviour by punishing criminals with jail or fines, but there's not as much education on how the systems that surround us could incentivise negative actions, for example, by creating a culture of profiling or making people financially dependent on unethical organisations. Papers, Please is all about those incentives and in a sea of declarations that morality is about the actions of powerful individuals, Papers, Please is a game looking at what it's to be a citizen with only nominal power. It says that doing what's ethical isn't always about choosing the right option within a system because some systems don't have a "right option", and some problems are systemic, necessitating a transformation of the system. By the same token, whether a person is "good" or "bad" doesn't matter nearly as much as what morality the system they're working under pressures them to implement. Thanks for reading.

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Into the Wild Blue Yonder: Sonic Generations and the Sonic Series

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Debates about the quality of the Sonic series always follow a script: Someone makes the observation that the 2D Sonic games were fun, but the 3D ones are some combination of boring and obnoxious. Responses then typically come in the form of a large crowd agreeing, some people saying that the early 3D Sonics were decent, and some others saying that Sonic was never fun. There is also a community out there who are passionately in love with modern Sonic, but they're not that well-represented in general gaming discussion spaces. Most of us agree that the games after Sonic Adventure 2 are too childish and janky to be worth our time, but the consensus on that issue can sometimes lure us into thinking that there's more agreement on the overall series than there is. This degree of division over the games is one that you can see Sega tying itself in knots to try and reconcile. Even if you put aside the relatively small number of Sonic players who never enjoyed the series, you've got an audience who loves 2D platforming and hates the gimmicks and chirpy anthropomorphs of the current 3D Sonic. You've then got an audience of bleeding-heart modern Sonic fans who want every new game to be following up on the cinematic and mechanical qualities of Sonic Adventure, and it's derivatives. Finally, you've got a lot of the potential audience somewhere between the two poles.

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Deep down, the cause of this division is that Sonic is and always was a novelty. By that, I don't mean that Sonic was created to be a shallow toy; I mean that he and his games were always designed to be novel. Mario was a throwback to retro Disney figures and other characters from the early-mid 20th century. That the characters Nintendo based Mario on lingered in the public consciousness for decades suggested that they had a timelessness to them that would also keep Nintendo's mascot from weathering over the years. So, Mario feels just as classic in this day and age as he did in the 1980s. But Sega designed its spiky blue rodent during the 90s as an up-to-the-second alternative to Nintendo's platformer protagonist. Because Sonic was invented specifically for the early 1990s, he's always going to feel stuck there, and yet because being cool and cutting edge is part of his character, Sega is always fruitlessly trying to drag him away from that point of origin. This is as true technologically as in the character of Sonic.

When Mario transitioned into 3D, Nintendo's nostalgic outlook had them developing the new Mario games to stay true to the roots of the series instead of trying to capitalise on every new feature that the latest technology allowed. The electronic limitations of the Nintendo 64 also helped keep it humble. Mario 64 begins with a short voice-acted speech, the environments and movement are 3D, and Mario has a few new jumps, items, and enemies to frolic about with, but the game is more of a Mario with a Z-axis than a new species of game featuring the same character. But Sega was concerned with making Sonic as modern as possible and using him to sell the Dreamcast on the point of raw technological prowess. That's a big part of why Sonic is so fast and so modernised in the first place: he's meant to represent that his console, in comparison to the competition, is fully up to date and has formidable processing speed. So when it came to turning Sonic 3D, Sega took advantage of all the latest developments in video game tech to bring us a more filmic mascot platformer with plenty of cutscenes, new forms of play, a wide cast of voiced characters, and a detailed open-world city, at least, by the standards of 1998. After all, "Sega does what Nintendon't". While Mario has maintained minimal speech and emotional expression, an attribute that works for kids and adults alike, Sega, in flaunting its technological tailfeathers, pinned Sonic and friends down to a certain style of speech and actions that aren't going to appeal to everyone. Mario's mechanics also turned out to be far more adaptable to 3D play.

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I want to dispel a popular myth: Sonic was never just holding right and watching the game play itself. That may be the image of Sonic that burned itself into your head because, for many, the unbridled sprints through loops and over bottomless pits were the most iconic events in the games, but even the first act of Green Hill Zone in Sonic 1 was more textured than that. In all 2D Sonic stages, you need to slow down and take your time if you want the maximum rings and power-ups, and by as soon as the second zone, having one foot on the brakes becomes mandatory. Levels reverse direction, try to bait you into spikes and robots, and force you to stand and wait while platforms float into place, all of which means you have to slow down now and then. This is why you often hear people say that speed is your reward for completing the more leisurely-paced sections instead of just saying "Sonic is about speed".

Because the games house so many level segments with more relaxed pacing, whether you enjoy Sonic has a lot to do with whether you find its more deliberate platforming fun. It's also influenced by how you react to the levels' stomach-lurching shifts between wind-in-your-hair rollercoaster moments and measured precision movement. Even if you connected with both in the 2D games, the series' 3D makeover amplified the issues of both. Sonic's propensity to dash across the screen at a moment's notice and his uncomfortably floaty jump are aspects you can just about control in 2D, but trying to accommodate them with an extra axis of movement involved often makes Sonic feel slippery and unwieldy.

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For this reason, 3D Sonic often squeezes potentially spacious environments down to linear corridors because having the levels be wide open and movement be omnidirectional makes it awkward to navigate at speed. It's also probably why few of the games after Sonic Adventure 2 had explorable hub worlds or let you turn Sonic on a dime. It's as though Sonic wants to be a 3D experience because that's what's been in since the late 90s, but it keeps cutting back on 3D gameplay elements because it's aware of the unfortunate hindrance they are on the early 90s high-speed stylings of the series. We then have to contend with the fact that even for what they were, these 3D games were often under-developed with physics and level geometry falling out from under you when you needed them most. I wonder if this is because, knowing that Sonic was no longer taken seriously by most AAA fans, Sega began pushing Sonic games out of the door as cheaply as possible, hoping to hook the people who'd buy it for the name and characters alone.

The publisher habitually threw back to the genesis of the franchise to reclaim the alienated early Sonic fanbase. You saw this with homages like Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I and II, Sonic Mania, Sonic Advance 1-3, Sonic Rush, and Sonic Rush Adventure. Sega also originally conceived of Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) as a tip of the hat to old school Sonic, but not only did the studio frequently fail to hit the spot with these retro revival projects; its dependency on them was its own red flag. The company continually gnawing at the leash of 3D Sonic to escape back to its halcyon days suggested that, on some level, it knew Sonic's best years were long behind him, and it was the sighing and groaning over titles like Sonic 4 that rekindled the debate over whether Sonic was ever fun. What's contemporary for one generation is the subject of nostalgia for the next, and while we reminisce over the good old days, we also develop past them. It's for these reasons that Sonic is stuck at an intersection. It's a series that was designed to be up to the minute but is grounded in dated cultural and design concepts, and so, can't help taking longing glances back over its shoulder, aware of the other Sonic it can never square itself with.

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Sega has never acknowledged the gulf between the eras of Sonic games and the diverse expectations of its fans as directly as it did in Sonic Generations. Released in 2011, on the 20th anniversary of the franchise, Generations takes place across nine worlds, each representing one of the mainline Sonic games from 1991's Sonic the Hedgehog up to 2010's Sonic Colors. Each world has two acts: one played entirely in classic 2D and one that flips between 2D and 3D action. The former stages are played as the rounder, more child-like Sonic of yore, while we enter the latter in the body of modern Sonic, complete with his cocky grin and Goku haircut. The level select screen is also a separate micro-stage which enshrines each Sonic game as a setpiece. Those setpieces start off eggshell white, but as 2D and 3D Sonic complete the stages related to them, vivid hues return to their faces. The implication is that it's only with the Sonic of the past and the Sonic of the present that the full magic of the series comes alive. There's a good chance you disagree.

Generations' experiment in reuniting Sonic's two major audiences is one that would never be repeated and was arguably doomed to fail. But let's not be too cynical; the game was a rare response to many of the common criticisms of the series. Veteran Sonic fans hated Sonic's plucky, technicolour sidekicks, so Generations trots them out for the opening and closing cutscenes but otherwise pushes them into the background. Knowing that many spurned ex-fans felt that Sonic should have stuck to 2D, Sega gives you that alternate history version of titles like Sonic Heroes and Sonic Unleashed where you can play a portion of them in side-scroll view. You can also revisit early 3D Sonic with the more obedient camera and directional controls of later 3D games. The phrase "Green Hill Zone is the best part of every Sonic" had been echoing off the walls of the internet for a long time, so Generations aims to find the Green Hill Zone of every Sonic release and have that be the only bit you play. Its 3D interpretation of the first Sonic 1 world and its revamp of Sonic Adventure 2's City Escape are two of the best Sonic levels ever produced.

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However, this format is fertiliser for a fresh crop of issues. It might offer a taster of every variation of Sonic you could want, but when stages whiz by at lightning speed, the kind of Sonic that you're showing up for might only be a sliver of the experience as a whole. A lot of the development time and resources for Sonic Generations were probably consumed producing assets for nine different Sonic games at once which likely meant that the dev team couldn't spend as much time building levels, which I'd bet is why there are only two stages per world. This also means that Generations risks being a couple of afternoons of play sold at full AAA price. The designers can't eliminate these problems, but they do make some decisions which mitigate them. In addition to the two main acts, each world has five 2D challenge acts, and five 3D challenge acts. In them, you run back through a portion of the level with a new goal, ability, or hazard added. These bonus sections have you collecting a target number of rings, strong-arming your way through extra enemies, racing the computer, and much more.

Instead of presenting stages that have one or two routes through them but that the player will devour in a few minutes, Generations uses surprisingly lengthy and layered environments because it wants you to keep passing through the game's revolving door and dashing back into those levels. In a lighter version of the level design philosophy that Hitman (2016) would use five years later, Sega offers few stages with more play as opposed to more stages with little play. Sonic feels at its smoothest when you can achieve near-uninterrupted runs through its levels, but you can't do that without some substantial knowledge of their layout and hazards. These challenges let you learn the zones and re-experience your favourites without the platforming becoming stale and while letting you continue to make marked progress.

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Generations even demonstrates that 3D Sonic brought in a mechanic that would have been a godsend to have back in the retro days. Something that I've never enjoyed in the side-on Sonic games was squashing enemies. In Mario, you get this quick hop on and off of foes, but Sonic wants you to be able to cover long distances with its jump which is why that jump is so floaty and feels ill-suited for landing on anything directly in front of you. Trying to hit targets with that leap would have been downright impossible in three dimensions, and so, from Sonic Adventure onwards, the games included a homing attack. It does wonders for the flow of these experiences; you spend less time having to slow down and participate in the boring precision platforming. You can, instead, speed up to a group of enemies, homing attack between all of them, touch down, and keep on running. In Generations, not only can you use this move in the 3D sections, but when those 3D levels compress back down to 2D, they keep the homing attack in play. It allows for more fluidity than the 2D Sonic games ever had.

Unfortunately, even Generations' positives draw attention to its negatives and call back to the splits in the fanbase. Some players are going to want to talk to Amy and Silver and all those characters and not just see them pose against the scenery like theme park mascots. And as cringeworthy as modern Sonic's chums can be, it's also hard not to feel that the developers miss a trick by having the original Sonic characters meet their current versions and then doing nothing with it. There's a lot of possibility in there for Sega to playfully explore how those characters have grown and changed over time, and it doesn't take advantage of that. Perhaps, again, because of the enormous production burden developing the base levels takes up. Although, in one cutscene, modern Tails does look out at the monochromatic Green Hill Zone and say "It's like something sucked all the life and colour out of it" which is an unintentional but pretty on-point commentary on where the series went.

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And even though Generations has something for you no matter what kind of fan you are, by the same token, anyone who's just there for the side scroller Sonic has to suffer through the behind-the-back play, and anyone who wants the full polygonal Sonic has to grit their teeth through the classic sections. At least when you buy a Sonic Colors or a Sonic Rush, you can guarantee it's the flavour of experience you're after from top to bottom, but that logic doesn't apply here which is likely why Sega didn't make another game like this. And fundamentally, the concept of a throwback Sonic is in conflict with what 21st-century Sonic is.

By the time Generations came out, this was an annualised franchise, and one that wasn't too concerned with stitching the mechanics and graphics of one game to the next. Mario is a series that took pains to stay close to home and whip up the same swirls of iconography and feelings every time, but by 2011, there was no codified theming or look to Sonic. There was a different hedgehog with a different gimmick for every year on the calendar. In 2005, we got to fire guns in a Sonic game; in 2008, Sonic was a werewolf; in 2009, Sonic was a retelling of the Legend of King Arthur for some reason. It was the logical endgame of creating a series based on novelty: there was a rejection of continuity, a franchise amnesia, which allowed Sonic to be contorted into whatever was cool that year rather than the developers making any attempt to stay true to an essential Sonic. And the longer you continue that strategy, the less of an essential Sonic there is.

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One edge this lent to the company was that if a year's given Sonic flopped, they could shrug it off. They didn't have to marry themselves to the ideas in it and even if fans felt they'd been hoodwinked, they knew there'd be a totally unrelated Sonic along the following year. Annualised franchises generally lean in this direction, although few to no games are as fond of reinventing themselves as Sonic. By dredging up the many incarnations of Sonic from over its history and laying them end to end, Generations counteracts this strategy. Series retrospectives can be flattering if the works involved have cleared a bar of quality year after year, but in the case of Sonic Generations, the prolonged flashback sequence is a reminder of just how far the series fell and prevents the franchise distancing itself from blotches on its record such as Sonic 06 and Sonic Unleashed. There is no way for me to exaggerate how gross this game's Crisis City level looks.

Generations also reminds you of all the reasons why players may have rage quit out of the Sonics of the past. In both the prior games and this one, sometimes blindly hurling yourself off the right side of a platform is the optimal or only correct move and other times it will get you killed. Sometimes a homing attack fails to lock on, and you fall to your doom; sometimes you dash into a wall and the physics bug out, causing you to fly off the level. Sometimes pressing jump on an incline also flicks you off of the track. Sometimes holding right is just what speedrunning involves and sometimes it will lead you right into a spike trap or a robot. Sometimes those enemies shoot you from off-screen or start an attack while you're in the middle of a jump and you just have to take the hit.

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Sometimes I think that we're a little too harsh on old Sonic, but no, the games actually care this little about the player. That the 3D levels keep reverting back to 2D also suggests the designers know that the side-on play is Sonic in a superior form. Maybe you wouldn't notice every metaphorical creaky floorboard and leaky pipe in each stage, but the challenge system has you scanning and rescanning every inch of every level to learn where all the jank is. Hitman maps benefit from lengthy inspection because they're built with depth and integrity in mind, but you don't want to invite that degree of scrutiny if your environments don't have the same longevity, stability, and reward for player experimentation.

And finally, because Sonic is powered by novelty, it's excruciatingly hard for a developer to fit all its historical gimmicks into one package. We have to remember that every Sonic had a different approach to storytelling from the environmentalist bent of Colors to the medieval fantasy of Secret Rings to the Final Fantasy-like presentation of Sonic 06. Their settings were also given character through their hub worlds; indispensable nexuses that tied their environments together. Video game retrospectives have almost always involve jamming a bunch of executables onto a disc and having very little crosstalk between them. Sonic Generations was being pioneering by having reimagined levels from previous games all lead off of a purpose-built hub world and run within a contiguous and original narrative context, but in doing so, it overrided the original core environments and narrative shells which are so important to the 3D Sonics.

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We must also acknowledge the daunting task Sega had of honouring all the different forms Sonic has taken as a play experience over the years. Rising to that challenge involves not only splicing in the standard Sonic mechanics like spin dashing and acceleration pads, but also incorporating the team formations from Sonic Heroes, the werewolf transformations from Sonic Unleashed, the swordplay from the Wii Sonic games, and the wisps from Sonic Colors. I'm not going to say a game couldn't combine all these elements in some way, but I'm reticent to make a statement on it because it's such uncharted territory. The developers do make it a little easier for themselves by excluding the Wii Sonic games from this anthology, as well as Shadow the Hedgehog. However, Sega is still forced to mechanically prune the games left to the extent that they're giving you the opening stage from the title where Sonic famously morphs into a werehog without the bit where he turns into a werehog. It's like shipping a version of Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg without any eggs in it. It makes it all the weirder when you reach the final world, Sonic Colors, and it does have some of the unique wisp mechanics from the original experience, as well as a colour palette that's drastically more saturated than that of the other environments.

At a certain point, implementing mechanics for an anthology of modern Sonic levels doesn't make production sense in the same way that implementing all the assets is a drain on the studio. Imagine adding one-off mechanics and characters and crafting whole new cutscenes for all six 3D Sonic games featured here when you've only dedicated two stages to each of them. Generations probably couldn't be a more expansive retrospective on the series for the same reason that the series it focuses on often comes up short: The expectations for AAA games pulled way out in front of what Sonic was capable of on an annual basis.

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We can also aim valid criticism at Generations' technique of compiling Sonic experiences from over the years by using individual levels as vertical slices of those games. It's that method which means that Generations only ends up being a salute to those levels instead of to the games in their entirety, and there is a difference. No matter how fun you think Seaside Hill is, you can't reduce Sonic Heroes down to that one stage any more than you can compress Taxi Driver down to the scene with the mirror or whittle Sgt. Pepper's down to Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. And how richly the studio recreates the core mechanics affects how true to the old Sonic games these levels can be because level design is always a response to what the player character is and is not capable of.

For a better example of a game that celebrates a series' history, and makes a little go a long way, I'd point to Super Mario Maker. The comparison between that and Sonic Generations isn't wholly fair; Mario Maker came out four years later, and consequently, was always going to have more content and higher production values. However, there were conceptual choices that Nintendo made with its game that cast it as a loving portrait of its respective series with a long shelf life. Sega could have made some of those same choices with its series retrospective. Firstly, Mario having more codified artistic and mechanical styles meant that its retrospective had more consistency, and it using minimalist stories meant that its creators didn't have to develop lavish new cutscenes to honour that series. Secondly, Mario Maker managed to stop its developers spreading their labour and resources too thin, or leaving the game too short, because it had the players create the levels instead of the studio. Thirdly, the customisable element of Mario Maker means that even when players are coming to the experience with different desires and expectations, they can still find levels that will fulfil them. And lastly, by focusing purely on the 2D Marios, Nintendo made sure that they presented one style of Mario game perfectly instead of unveiling more than one style in a half-baked form. Mario was both better primed for anthologising than Sonic, and the anthology that was created was more conscious of its limits and how to work around them.

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But for all the disagreements Sonic and Mario have had over what a mascot platformer or a series retrospective should be, there is one thing that their retrospective games do agree on. It's that when looking back over a series, rose-tinted glasses can be a development strategy. Picture-perfect snapshots of a game from twenty or thirty years ago can invoke nostalgia and serve an invaluable purpose by archiving the medium even as it marches forward, but our bar of quality for games changes over time, and so there's room for games that don't just replicate but reimagine. While copying older games to modern systems can preserve the literal reality of them, revising those games can preserve the feelings we had when we first played them. That revision can happen in the form of letting players create harder and more varied levels as in Mario Maker, or it can be about fixing up the physics and cherry-picking which stages to bring back, as in Sonic Generations. Unfortunately, it's where Sonic Generations doesn't make changes as much as it where it does that show the benefit of anachronistic retrospectives. Generations has a main character optimised for fast, heedless movement but often punishes you for indulging in it, and by charting the arc of the Sonic series over time, it only becomes clearer how it's spoiled over the years and how disposable each entry has been for Sega. Thanks for reading.

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Mind the Gap: Mini Metro and Complexity

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A common perception about gameplay systems is that their complexity is a product of how many moving parts they have. Even if you feel that a simple game can be engaging and that there are plenty of boring complex games, you may also describe mechanically minimalist games as simple and games packed with mechanical levers and pulleys as complex. But there is another way to look at it. In Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman's 2003 game design book Rules of Play, the authors explore the question of what makes a system complex. They devise a thought experiment in which there are two office buildings, each with mail that needs delivering to the opposite building, and tell us that we must program a system that has the messengers deliver those items as efficiently as possible. There's only really one answer, and it's a simple one: we have a messenger take mail from building A, run it across to building B, pick up the mail at building B, carry it back to building A, repeat infinitely.

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But then Salen and Zimmerman shake things up. In a second iteration of their thought experiment, they have us design a courier network with ten messengers who must service fifty buildings. The loss condition is that any one building will be waiting too long for its post. Those buildings are not equally spaced apart either, and we can't guarantee that they're all sending the same volume of mail. We could tackle the problem by trying to portion out one messenger for every five buildings, but then our system wouldn't account for there being greater distances between some buildings than others, wouldn't adapt to some buildings sending more letters and parcels than others, and couldn't get mail from one side of the city to the other. If we want fast delivery over long distances and the ability to process the letters in bulk, we should build new features into the system like having our workers meet up to exchange letters, maybe we should get them to visit certain buildings more regularly than others, or we could have the routes of the couriers overlap.

Notice that in the move from two buildings to fifty buildings, nothing changed about the rules of the scenario. The goal is still to deliver letters promptly, and buildings, messengers, and letters function exactly as they did in the earlier version of the experiment. However, when the writers scaled up the problem, we had to do more than scale up the solution to meet it. The new system we blueprinted was not just the previous one with more moving parts; it had to have entirely new features, which is Salen and Zimmerman's point. Echoing the view of journalist Jeremy Campbell, the authors say it's these emergent, interacting features which make a system complex.

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This knowledge is relevant for us as people who play games because it allows us to identify complex gameplay systems, but it has particular relevance for those of us who play strategy titles, management sims, and puzzle games. In most action games and some puzzle or strategy games, we interact only with pre-built systems, but there are plenty of experiences in the management, puzzle, and tactics genres that have us designing our own systems to solve problems. The systems we build in these games all break down into either physical systems, abstract systems, or a mixture of the two. For example, the transport lines in Cities in Motion, the factories in Satisfactory, and the physical structures of Bridge Constructor all qualify as physical systems. But the timetables for the inmates in Prison Architect, the programming for our processor in TIS-100, and the trade economy in Stellaris are all examples of abstract systems.

We can think of systems construction games as a discrete genre and may wish to further split it into subgenres based on whether the games have us constructing physical or abstract systems. Within these genres, and in every systems construction game I've mentioned so far, we can architect the kind of complex systems Salen and Zimmerman describe in their book. In Bridge Constructor, we can weld together individual beams to make a support that takes more load than those beams could hold individually because the girders work together to distribute weight; that's an example of complexity in a physical system. In TIS-100, you might change the kind of operation one code module does based on the input it gets from another module; that's an example of complexity in an abstract system. But there's one game, more than any other, that Salen and Zimmerman's thought experiment reminds me of.

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2015's Mini Metro is a minimalist puzzle strategy game from Dinosaur Polo Club. If you take our courier thought experiment and you replace the buildings with stations, the messengers with trains, and the letters with passengers, you've more or less got Mini Metro. There are various ways it differs from the game in Rules of Play, however.

1. Just as different letters may be addressed to different buildings in the delivery thought experiment, in Mini Metro, different passengers want to reach different stations. However, to keep the challenge from being positively headache-inducing, Dinosaur Polo Club makes it so that passengers often don't need to arrive at a single station on the map, we just need to shuttle them to a certain type of station. We must deposit triangular passengers at triangular stations, circular passengers belong at circular stations, and so on.

2. Mini Metro has an explicit scoring scheme. Passengers will spawn at stations over time, and every passenger delivered to their destination merits you one point.

3. Mini Metro also has a more complex loss condition. If a station ever ends up with seven or more passengers on it, a timer will start counting down and will keep elapsing as long as the station is over its limit. If that timer reaches zero, the session is over.

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4. Our trains/messengers can't move wherever they want. They can only travel along lines we've laid down, and we have a limited number of lines.

5. Mini Metro adds more stations over time, and at fixed intervals, awards you more trains, as well as the opportunity to create more routes for those trains, tunnels which let your burrow your lines under bodies of water, and other features.

As is common in the format, games of Mini Metro start simple and increase in complexity as they go. To understand how we get to those complexities, we have to remember that, in games, we tend not just to have goals but also subgoals. So, in Planetside, the goal might be to out-kill the opposing team, but a subgoal of that would be making sure we're reloading regularly. In Amnesia: The Dark Descent, our goal might be to escape the stage intact, but setting ourselves the subgoal of not running out of lantern fuel would be a way to help us do that.

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In Mini Metro, our goals are to deliver eager citygoers to their destinations and to ensure that stations don't collapse under the weight of commuters. If we want to carry out those tasks efficiently, we should set ourselves the subgoals of making sure that each station has a train regularly passing through it and that carriages don't become full. Typically, when we lose, it's because of a failure to achieve one or both of these subgoals. If stations are not constantly evacuated of passengers, they back up, which triggers the game over timer, and if stations are overcrowded, you're likely to find that even when trains arrive at them, those trains will fill to bursting. When trains are at capacity, they won't be able to pick up passengers from stations which only makes the problem worse. The complexities we ingrain in our system must be designed to keep us on top of these two subgoals. So what emergent features do we build into our system as the scenario scales up and why?

1. Loops. When your train reaches the last station on the line, the line should pipe them back around to the first terminal again. With a loop in place, the distance any one train must travel to reach any one station is the length of the line; without a loop, a train may have to journey as far as two lengths of the line to reach the same station again. With a loop, the next station a train reaches will always be the one it's neglected for the longest; without a loop, it's possible that the next station a train reaches is one it's recently visited.

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2. Stations shared between lines. Just as we can have the messengers trade post, we can have our trains trade passengers at stations. It is particularly important that we build this capability into our system because of the existence of unique stations. Sometimes only one instance of a certain station type will spawn on the map, but passengers who wish to reach that station will pop up all over the city. As it would be disastrously inefficient to stretch all our lines across the metropolis to transport people to every unique station, our only choice is to pass passengers from lines without that unique station onto a route or routes that have it. Handing off passengers from one line to another can also be a way to get commuters from a line without a square station to one that can accommodate them. As square stations are rarer than circular and triangular ones, you'll occasionally need to do this.

Often, the optimal solution is to have all your stations converge on a single point that you can use as a hub. Where possible, you want that transfer station to be in the centre of the map so that you're not stretching lines beyond their limits to reach it, and ideally, you want the station they meet at to be a square. In a perfect world, lines might connect at a unique station, the rarest type, but those tend to pop up closer to the edges of the map precisely to stop you doing this.

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3. Alternating station types on a line. This strategy is best explained with an example. Imagine that we have a line that runs through three circular stations in a row. A station will never produce a passenger the same shape as it. Why would a triangular passenger, for example, try to hitch a ride at a triangular station? They're already at their destination. We can know, based on this rule, that our three circular stations will only output triangular, square, and unique-shaped passengers. A train moving along this line may pick up some square, triangular, and unique passengers at the first station, which it won't drop off at the second station as the passengers don't match the station shape. At the second station, it may pick up more of the same, which it can't drop off at the third station because that's still not a triangle, square, or unique.

Our train is liable to exit this chain of three stations stuffed wall-to-wall with passengers, violating our subgoal of retaining open space in carriages. By comparison, imagine our locomotive went through a circle station, then a triangle station, then a square station, in that order. Any triangular or square passengers picked up at the first station would be deposited at the second or third station, and any square passengers picked up at the second station would also be dropped off at the third station. On average, our train will exit the second route setup with far more passenger slots left in it than if it had gone through the first. So, we alternate station types wherever we can.

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4. Non-overlapping lines. This one is about as easy to grasp as they come. If railroads overlap then when a train travels across that overlap, it will slow down. You don't want carriages taking longer to reach stations than they have to.

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Knowing these strategies, there's a couple of interesting observations we can make. Firstly, Mini Metro explicitly teaches us its rules and what tools we can use to build systems in it but challenges us by having us figure out what complexities we should implement in those systems to get ahead. Most systems construction games use this general scheme. To return to our earlier examples, Bridge Constructor lets us erect beams but doesn't tell us that we can cluster beams in certain patterns to better reinforce our bridges. TIS-100 teaches us about how to implement input, output, and conditional functions, but doesn't tell us how we might use them together to process data between modules.

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The second observation we can make about Mini Metro is that not only can we bring components of our system together to create complexities, we can combine those complexities to make new complexities. To reiterate some of our strategies, we want non-overlapping lines, loops, and our routes to converge on a square station. We can put the above aims together to create an ideal pattern for our rail network: It should look like the petals of a flower growing off of a square station in the centre of the map. Now that we know this strategy, Mini Metro would appear to be solved. In fact, through this mindset, all systems construction games could be beaten by learning the correct complexities to implement and putting them into practice. I'm not going to say it's wrong for a game to reward that approach, but if the challenge of a game is only to uncover and memorise a set of strategies, then it's limiting its depth and longevity.

Many games develop their difficulty over time by teaching us a lot of ideal actions and tactics to use but making it difficult, or in certain situations, non-advantageous to execute on them. In a systems construction game, this means the design putting up a lot of walls in our way when we try to embed the complexities in our systems that we want to. Let's run back down our list of strategies and look at how the game can sabotage each one.

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1. Loops. When we have a lot of solid ground to work on, running a loop across it is highly doable, but often we have to route our networks across bodies of water. Every time we do this and include a loop in the line, we use at least two tunnels: one for the train to go out over the river or sea and another for it to make the return journey. Tunnels are in short supply, so you have to ration them, meaning you often don't have enough of them to complete circuits across bodies of water and must resort to non-looping lines.

2. Stations shared between lines. The risk you run by implementing this strategy is that those cross-line stations buckle under the pressure of extra passengers. They not only have to accommodate all the regular commuters that show up at any spot on the map, they then have all these additional travellers crammed into them as those people disembark from one line and wait for the train to appear on another. The strategy in which we connect all lines to a single station is a countermeasure which aims to keep this potential overflow of passengers contained. This is a more attainable goal if we can use the "interchange" power-up on that shared station, increasing its capacity and the speed at which it can load and unload passengers, a move which will have all lines moving faster. Still, sometimes that powerup doesn't spawn, and there's no way to eliminate the pressure on shared stations entirely.

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3. Alternating station types on a line. The game can make it hard or impossible to use this strategy by spawning a lot of circle stations in close proximity to each other. You can't run your metro through a square or triangle if there are no squares or triangles nearby.

4. Non-overlapping lines. If a designer is smart, they can make it so that rolling with one strategy prevents us from implementing another.

Choice is a critical element of meaningful play, and in Mini Metro, we frequently have to make choices about the layout of our rail networks. If you're looping lines, overlapping them, and having them connect back to the same hubs then, at some point, you're likely going to run one line across another as they encroach on each other's space. The game dumping a cluster of circles in one area also nudges you to twist your lines into pretzels searching for other shapes to thread in between those circles. In both cases, you will see a slowdown of your trains as tracks run across tracks.

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When the game trips us up with these tricks, we can't think of our objective as just being to build the "correct" features into our system; the play has been lent depth through us often having to decide when implementing a feature is worth it and when it's not. We may also have to choose which complexities we prioritise. There are trade-offs, calculations we must make about which are the best tactics, and there is risk/reward based on which strategies we choose. All strategy games must have these elements if they want players to keep thinking of original solutions to problems and coming back to play. For maximum depth, they must have us not just devising a complex strategy or system for the whole experience, but revising it on a per-level or per-session basis.

Before we leave this topic behind, let's dispel a few misconceptions about complexity in games. Firstly, complexity does not equal depth. Under Salen and Zimmerman's specific definition of complexity, this means that just because a system might have emergent features in it or a game may push us to implement such features in our games, that doesn't guarantee that those features are going to be meaningful to us. The dynamics in our Mini Metro subway are meaningful to us because they're each unique and have a clear and substantial effect on the larger game state, but when features of a system are too similar, or their impacts are nebulous, the player is going to struggle to care about them. Additionally, if the player can succeed without paying attention to many of the elements in a system, what the design has is not depth but clutter. Secondly, there's this little bit of logic:

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Premise 1: Our video game is themed around a real-world system that's complex.

Premise 2: Our video game or a system within it is complex.

Conclusion: Our video game is an accurate simulation of that real-world system and its complexities.

The problem with this line of thought is that while you might be right that both these systems are complex, the complexities in system A are not necessarily the same ones as in system B. So, in our Mini Metro example, our subways are complicated, real rail systems are complicated, but that doesn't mean that they're complicated in the same manner or to the same extent. For one thing, in Mini Metro, the tube map you're building is identical in layout to the railway it represents, but in the real world, stations and train lines aren't laid out in the same patterns they are on maps. Those maps are orthogonal diagrams designed not to be geographically accurate but to make transit systems easy to navigate for commuters. Compare the London tube map to this engineers' diagram. You can wrap your head around the orthogonal map far more easily than the engineers' diagram. There are countless other differences, including real rail networks generally having more lines or the engineering of trains and tracks being a factor in efficiency.

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Lastly, it's important to keep in mind that when analysing a game or any system, that we don't have to use Salen and Zimmerman's definition of complexity. The researchers say that complexity can be identified not by whether a system has a multitude of moving parts but by a system evolving interacting features to cope with a problem. However, there are plenty of other conceptions of "complexity". In certain contexts, we might define it as a system having a large collection of elements, or having many properties that an observer can see, or something else entirely. In situations where terms have multiple definitions, there's often a tendency to try and discover which one is the "real" one, but I think this often erodes our descriptive ability rather than improves it. There are myriad meanings of "complexity", and we can use different lenses on the games we analyse at different times to achieve different insights.

To recap, Rules of Play claims that when problems are scaled up, we can't absentmindedly scale up our solutions to meet them. Instead, we have to add new interlocking features to our systems, and at the point we do, we can call our system "complex". This is relevant both in the context of the systems which make up games and the systems that we sometimes build to play them. The systems we construct can be physical or abstract, but the games typically run us through three steps: 1. The designers tell us what elements we can build into our systems, 2. We learn for ourselves what complexities we can build into them, 3. The game tries to disrupt our implementation of those complexities. However, just because a game system is complex does not mean it is realistic or deep. Nor do we have to adopt Salen and Zimmerman's concept of "complexity" in any given scenario. Thanks for reading.

Sources

1. Salen, K. & Zimmerman, E. (2004). Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. MIT Press (p. 152-154).

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