My 2017 in games

It’s hard to write about pleasure in 2017 without acknowledging what that pleasure stands in contrast with. It’s no exaggeration to say that in my 36 years as a conscious human being I have never felt as unsure about the world I live in as now. It’s tempting to hang the gold medal for why this is on a single individual, but if all the world’s chaos, disenfranchisement and uncertainty could be chalked up to a single wealthy idiot with a direct line to vomit his vapid misanthropic poison into our heads, it would at least be something that could be managed with patience and a sense of humour. Instead, you-know-who has become a sort of symbolic hub about which spokes of other basic human evils revolve, amplifying a style of discourse and mistrust and faith in a fundamentally pessimistic weltanschauung that has been steadily building essentially since the internet became a household thing.

This was the year it became impossible to hold your ears and shut your eyes and la-la-la your way out of the realisation that humanity in the west has been steadily disconnecting from itself, that the worst aspects of free market economy and mass media driven consensus reality has divided people into fiercely adversarial communities, and that perhaps big budget entertainment and the way social media pushes the myth that we are all somehow the same people no matter where we are is a coat of slick corporate paint more suited to pushing product to a global market than it is to crafting global solidarity and a feeling of belonging with one another. This was the year the symptoms became so loud we must consider the root causes.

In other words, It’s been hard to play wonderful video games and not at the same time wonder if we aren’t simply entertaining ourselves into oblivion with myths of villains, heroes, progress and triumph against evil. On a more personal note, this was also the year I was diagnosed with a debilitating disease, one that I’m still learning to cope with.

It’s not been great.

These are the games that brought me comfort and joy this year, some viscerally, some intellectually, and one to the point of tears. They are in no particular order, and some are not even from this decade.

Super Mario Odyssey

I have really mixed feelings on this game. Overwhelmingly positive, but wistful still. It’s a beautiful 3D platformer that despite ambitions of accessibility is really playable only to players of 3D platformers, filled with nostalgic references that are tailored to the hearts of a very specific demographic of people, or even an age group of players. Compared to the open-faced friendliness of 3D World, Odyssey is a love letter to those that played Super Mario 64 or those that have been with the franchise since the 80s, to the point where some elements of the game lean on feelings of nostalgia that are blatantly irrelevant to newcomers. It’s a perfectly playing game, obscenely polished and brimming with attention to detail that tells you the people that worked on the game loved it dearly. But it’s also a game that feels like a letter goodbye. It is a game I played very carefully, very slowly, because I’m not sure there will be a lot more games like it, and especially not a lot of games that are so ebullient about how old they are, or so aware of the heartstrings of the players that more than anything wish themselves back to a different time.

X-Com 2: War of the Chosen

I didn’t like X-Com 2 very much. It was a buggy, bland looking game filled with design choices that actively made the game stressful to play, and sometimes simply unpleasant to play. I did finish the campaign but the idea of replaying on iron man or a higher difficulty was out of the question. This was a game that would routinely drop utterly insane bugs on you that all but necessitated save games as a safety net: No, purists, I’m not going to accept an enemy that teleports across the map and gets a melee kill in before three overwatch shots go off. When a game about judiciousness disregards the rules that allow you judgment, I’m out. The expansion fixes nearly all of this by turning the game into G.I. Joe action figure mayhem. By the midpoint of the game you are swimming in super-powered units wielding bizarre alien weaponry, you’ve gone down random-chance research paths that can significantly extend the shelf-life of outdated classes of weaponry, you’ll have significantly more units you care about because of a system of battle fatigue that keeps rotation high, and you’ll be egged on by memorable villains that genuinely seem to want to get you. If you didn’t love the original X-Com 2, I don’t blame you. But War of the Chosen is less an expansion pack and more an overhaul, and it made the game truly wonderful.

Star Wars: TIE Fighter

All this talk of The Last Jedi made me want to remember why I used to love the franchise so much, because right now it just feels like a bland merchandise machine. Clearly Star Wars was always a merch factory, but the quality of said merch seems to have dropped drastically, more concerned with maintaining the company line than expanding the universe and inspiring affection. I had to check myself to see if this was true, and the Star Wars game dearest to my heart was always TIE Fighter. A quick download from GOG later confirmed it. If you want to experience why Star Wars and in turn Lucasfilm Games were so beloved in the 90s, TIE Fighter is a hell of a reminder: This is DOS-era PC gaming given Nintendo-levels of TLC, with stellar presentation, immaculate understanding of the threshold from entertainment to simulation, coupled with an understanding of the franchise so confident it stands shoulder to shoulder with any movie, book or comic. TIE Fighter is to this day a great playing, great looking Star Wars game, filled with memorable and evocative moments that put any recent title to shame.

Thief 2

Thief 2 is like the car I got when I was a teenager and I’m still maintaining and tinkering with it, making sure it runs and plays beautifully. At this point it’s clear that it’s one of my top 5 favourite games of all time, and I’ve been eager to play it from the couch with a good TV and sound system. This year I’ve been working on building what I feel is the ultimate Steam Controller layout for Thief 2, replaying the game again and again to perfect it, and it’s been an absolute blast. The wonderful levels still hold up, the atmosphere of blocky polygons and perfect 3D audio hold up, the narrative holds up, and since it’s such a slow and steady game, it plays beautifully in pitch blackness on a 50" TV, just the way it played beautifully in pitch blackness on a CRT monitor when I was a kid. Thief 2 is masterclass immersive sim stealth gaming and every time I start it back up I’m instantly transported back to that time when games like these were even conceivable, and the mere act of sitting still in shadows listening for distant footsteps was enough to convince me I was committing a transgression. Thief 2 is timeless craft.

Tooth & Tail

Tooth & Tail has the best voice work I’ve heard all year, bar none. The fantastic soundtrack aside, the way these creatures bark made-up slavic at each other is so convincing it conveys the themes of the game just as well as the gorgeously hand-painted, hand-pixelled art. It’s a brilliantly clever rapid fire RTS with a vicious and strong theme of survival and starvation, an RTS with every core genre concept intact short of a tech tree that plays with so few buttons involved it would play perfectly with one Switch joy-con alone [insert begging for a Switch version here]. Tooth & Tail is just a blast to play, fun to look at, great to listen to, cheap to buy: There wasn’t a better RTS this year.

Observer

Rutger Hauer is the worst part of this game, and that should be saying a lot, because he’s Rutger Hauer and nothing Rutger Hauer is ever bad. Ageing, tired, not super-interested Hauer is your guide through a dystopian sci-fi nightmare of an adventure game that thrives on overwhelming density of image and screwing with your head. It is ugly, disturbing, sad, impressive, repulsive and fascinating as all hell. While some of the Blade Runner references are on the nose, the game quickly finds a voice of its own that is considerably crueller and meatier than the skylines of its inspiration, reminding me at times of that other amazing indie nightmare, Stasis. If you like your techno-dystopias with a healthy dose of body horror and mind-fuckery (the game has a blood-vision mode), Observer will keep you well fed.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2

The first game in this series had me beyond impressed with its world-building, its sense of scale and its harkening back to the single player MMO feel of Final Fantasy 12 (aka. the best one). Excellent storytelling, gorgeous music and the sheer enormity of its world made XC the first modern JRPG since the PS2 era to really capture my heart. Xenoblade Chronicles X on the Wii U is a sprawling masterpiece of exploration and scale but felt more like a spinoff than a sequel, so my hopes were high for XC2 to be a real return. I am approaching 200 hours in XC2 and I’m still not sure if it takes place in the same world as XC or not, because it doesn’t feel like I’m close to the end. This game _goes_. I don’t think anyone in the industry does scale the way Monolith does, and XC2 introduces worlds that are almost impossibly huge, and then makes them swim through a sea of billowy clouds. The story lacks the emotional core of XC, and many of the characters are too Anime to really care about, but the welcoming, beautiful enormity of its worlds keep me going back for just another run through those grassy hills. The combat system is a chaotic mess that takes dozens of hours to fully open up, the compass and map system is hot garbage, the way you unlock new weapons by essentially random chance is more often disappointing than anything else, yet all of these negatives pale when the game is taken in as a whole. Combatting deep depression, this is a game that falls over itself to show you wonder and keep you lost in its vastness of systems and sights, and I’m so grateful it exists.

Persona 5

Confession: I have never finished a Persona game. They just go on forever and often I feel their core narratives suffer when compared to the more intimate narratives of their individual characters. Persona at its best is the time spent with its characters, and while the combat systems and RPG mechanics are polished and satisfying on their own, the grinding of the RPG sections can come at a cost of the affection you have for the world. I was glued to Persona 5 for well over 150 hours, and the moment I decisively fell off it was after I had felt the basic story between my character and his friends had been concluded in favour of the bizarro world-threatening story propelling it all along. I reached a fight that tipped from hard to annoying, and decided I simply didn’t care all that much about how it all ended: The moments I had had with the other characters of the game made the experience worthwhile on their own, and so I let the game go with a clear conscience. It’s no Persona 4 — It’s too aloof and obsessed with appealing to angsty teen mentalities about how bad adults are — but it’s a hell of a great place to hang out.

Dead Cells

Dead Cells is a remarkable achievement in playability: Gorgeous presentation aside, Dead Cells plays better than I ever expected it to, with every run becoming a balletic mix of deliberate, brutally lethal combat and lightning quick platforming, through levels that skirt the precise limit separating the procedural from the hand made, giving you just enough familiarity to inspire confidence and enough of the unknown to where you’re still measured in your approach. Dead Cells played fantastically from its earliest release on Early Access, and it’s only been getting better and better. It’s been the perfect game for a breakfast run or a run before bed, a nice way to bookend a day, and I’m so glad it exists.

PREY

This game is perhaps the best realisation of the immersive sim created to date. A game that after a short preamble truly sets you free on its world, letting you craft your own play style among myriads of interesting systems and choices. This is visible in the small things, like its world-breaking stair-and-bridge-building goo gun, and in the bigger things, like how it leaves you with numerous goals to achieve with no true north as to which one of them is going to give you narrative progress or just a cool upgrade or more world to digest. The setting of Talos 1 is System Shock reimagined by the artists that built Dishonored, a gorgeous golden dream of steel and glass and leaves, and bizarre monsters that can feel truly alien to engage with (although they aren’t particularly frightening despite the game’s best attempts). I loved every moment of this game, I loved its twisted sense of freedom, its capacity for cruelty and empathy, its fatalistic world view, its way of designing a world where an air vent from one room to another isn’t clearly placed there just to fill a charter of “alternative paths” but because it belonged there. Prey is a modern classic, and well worth play and replay.

Splatoon 2

I don’t play games online almost as a rule. Other people are the worst, especially in a competitive environment, but somehow I’ve got more hours in Splatoon 1 and 2 than I can count. It’s just too much fun to be spoiled: a playground snow-fight madhouse of colour and energy that served as an exacting contrast to the bleakness the real world kept serving up daily. The motion controls for aiming are game-changers that it shocks me are not the standard in shooting games these days, they’re just that good. The presentation is peerlessly fun, the new maps are great, the old maps are great, the co-op Salmon Run is breathlessly intense and satisfying, and Nintendo’s steady trickle of new content keeps the sequel continuously fresh. I adore this game.

Breath of the Wild

Within 20 minutes of starting this game, I was getting emotional. I was stalking through a small forest on the game’s beginning area, The Great Plateau, hunting for wild boar. The game was quiet but for the rustling of leaves and wildlife, a setting sun visible through the softly moving canopy of leaves. In the real world, I was sitting indian-style in bed, my new Switch cradled in my lap, headphones on. I was in the middle of my first encounter with multiple sclerosis; Most of my left side was numb, standing left me off balance, and my fingers felt sluggish and unresponsive. I didn’t know what it was yet, and I was terrified. Using the motion controls I gently aimed my bow at the boar and let off. I hit it, but failed to make the lethal critical shot, and it bolted into the undergrowth. Swearing I got out from my hiding spot and simply started running after him trying to land more arrows as it darted to and fro into the distance. I was determined to hunt this boar so I could cook a recipe I’d found at a cabin nearby, but my bumbling pursuit had me running straight into a Moblin camp. I was delighted to see the Moblins focus their attentions on “helping me” take down the boar, and once they’d completed my hunt for me they went to go back to sleep, letting me quietly take the meat.

Breath of the Wild is just full of stories, and everyone’s stories seem different. My favourite moments of the game involved climbing. As kids, I think, we have a more natural relationship to the earth simply by being smaller. It is more natural for us to touch the world than it is to stride across it. Breath of the Wild reminded me of climbing trees, of pulling grass out of the dirt, of that good feeling bruises used to represent. My hours of scrambling up hills, cliffs and trees in this game lifted me out of darkness and actual fear. This game felt magical, alive and most of all, it felt like it wanted me well. This game wanted me to go out there and play. That first night with the game, climbing a tree in those woods to look at the horizon, I had a moment of just listening to the wind, the grass, and I could almost, just almost, feel that dirt under my fingernails again. That nostalgia was so overpowering I couldn’t hold back tears. Breath of the Wild is not just my game of the year, it’s the game of years. One of the best games I have ever played. It’s a genuine treasure.

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My cup runneth over!

We have got to be approaching peak video game soon. If anything, this year, last couple really, have felt like a reversal of fates for video game production quality altogether. In the past I've done a pretty good job of keeping up, but I am officially losing it right now. My backlog was full of awesome things to play to begin with, but now It's full on

No Caption Provided

Consider this post a letter of gratitude to the ridiculous level of quality games have attained. I am approaching 200 hours of Zelda (a game that just won't stop), I play Puyo Puyo Tetris so much I'm in full on Tetris dream state, I have 60 ish hours of Persona 5, I play impromptu Mario Kart 8 LAN parties when I go to coffee shops, and on top of that, here's my current backlog. Just looking at it makes me want to vomit in the happiest way imaginable.

  • Nier Automata
  • Nioh
  • Dark Souls 3 DLC
  • The Sexy Brutale
  • Resident Evil 7
  • Prey
  • Torment Tides of Numenera
  • Dawn of War 3
  • Sniper Elite 4
  • Stellaris Utopia

And even in my current Steam library, I've got things like Subnautica and Hitman updates, a half-played Watch Dogs 2, Rimworld is still a joy, I have pangs of remorse for not playing more Titanfall 2, and I've just signed up for the Quake Champions beta (because that's all Overwatch makes me want to play).

On top of this, as a developer, Unreal Engine 4 is really a ton of fun to use these days: How am I ever going to have time for both work, and games, and making music, and these amazing games, AND have a social life? I'm so screwed. We are all so screwed.

But seriously, all jokes aside, I've been a gamer since the mid 80s and I genuinely don't think there has ever been a better time to play video games, old and new. Hardware is amazing, controllers are amazing, the tech is amazing. What a time to be alive.

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Turning the page

A slight preface.. I've been playing games "seriously" for most of my life, and as I've matured I've built a mental list of game design itches that is fairly far reaching. I'm a "worrier". I always cared too much about things and I have an unfortunate habit of publishing things that cause people to feel like I'm overstepping. "Why don't you just let people enjoy the things they enjoy". "Who are you to say X". "Who are you to determine quality, or what's right".

Of course I'm not "anyone" to say any of these things. I never go into these topics from a high horse, and I don't expect to be agreed with. My reasons for posting is simply that keeping it bottled up drives me up the walls; I hope anyone taking the time to read (which I appreciate to no end) come at it from that perspective. I'd rather you think me a harmless crazy person than some video game nazi that, similarly, needs to be stomped out.

So with that out of the way, I'll talk about why I find The Last Of Us an almost intolerable playing experience. There'll be no story spoilers.

The Last Of Us has few good reasons to be a video game. It is a wall-to-wall technical masterpiece, with some of the most emotionally resonant game characters I've seen, and a spectacular sense of place. There's a timing to this game, a way with faces, and eyes. You believe these characters truly look at eachother.

But it is also a game in which characters pop through one another, display blatant disregard for mortal danger, and follow the script so slavishly that as a player you are often left in a dissonant space where your attempts to follow that same script tend to cause indifference at best and outright conflict at worst.

This is a game that will tug viciously at your heart strings with characters that feel grounded and real, only to show them glitch through eachoher, bumble uncaringly through an area that to you, the player, is incredibly dangerous to move through. You can't climb up that ladder before they have climbed up before you. You can't push that box anywhere but the exact correct spot - watch that box drift into the correct state as you approach it - so that the script can play out according to plan. They'll squat, infuriatingly, at the feet of enemies who will otherwise open fire on you as soon as they catch you breathing. The young girl you are asked to care for throws herself idiotically into the face of horrors at every seeming opportunity.

And then you are asked to let them into your heart again, in another beautifully produced dramatic scene.

This is a game where you have a listening mechanic for approaching areas full of enemies with some degree of omniscience. This same mechanic also, unfortunately, allows you to spot enemies spawning into place, often in preparation of a scripted, unavoidable ambush.

This is a game that will tell you to stay out of trouble where possible and employ stealth tactics to conserve resources, only to throw you into an area scripted to omit stealth as an option.

This is a game where you'll approach a door to open it, only to be faced with having to push the button 3 times, exactly, to open it in a completely rote diversion. A game where box-pushing or ladder-finding "puzzles" are insultingly telegraphed with yellow paint on relevant surfaces. The ghost of the concerned designer, haunting me throughout the otherwise beautifully crafted solidity of the game world, through gaping yellow cracks of blatant busywork.

This is a game where the act of playing it is uniquely in service of "turning the page". It's to suspenseful science fiction and horror what Call of Duty is to the big budget military action movie. And it has the same effect on me as a player; It makes me tune out. It makes me look at all the systems that are nothing but speed bumps to keep me busy. To keep me convinced that I'm taking part. In The Last Of Us, the mechanics are there because telling this story in game form required mechanics to justify that distinction.

There is virtually no challenge to this. Everyone who plays this game can - and with a modicum of effort, will - finish it. I read of the "clicker" enemies and how scary they were. Encountering them myself I was baffled; There is nothing unpredictable about these entities. They have a role, a "class" of enemy, and they conform to it completely. Paired with their seemingly nonexistent relationship with my AI partners, they devolved so rapidly in my mind I never even got to experience any kind of tension from them.

And so, after my first long session of The Last Of Us, I couldn't understand why this game wouldn't be better served as a Walking Dead style adventure game, where the mechanics could just fade away and let me enjoy the narrative. Instead I was forced to wade through this mire of "gameplay" that was actively preventing me from enjoying what was, I could tell, a fantastically told story.

As an aside, I'm also playing through Zombi U, taking my time. Whatever story is built into that game is completely incidental; An excuse for gameplay scenarios. There is more moment-to-moment tension and memorable "reality" to 30 minutes of Zombi U than there was in the entirety of my first few hours of The Last Of Us. I have stories of scrambling for control of an escalating crisis, of running for my life, of making the crucial mistake of thinking I could take control, the failing of my judgment. Zombi U never fudges its systems in favor of a scripted story; The systems, as far as the play experience, are the story.

Naughty Dog's games tend to be somewhat unique in this regard. Their games are clearly suffused with cinematic ambition, and in terms of their cinema I think they are making a complete fool of other, more obvious pretenders towards that goal; Naughty Dog are simply the best in the industry at this particular field of presentation.

But I'm'still waiting for the modern Naughty Dog title that feels truly confident as a video game. That doesn't feel like it's irritated with the narrative limitations that being a video game implies. Or that finally works out a way to overcome those limitations without simply not being a video game in the process. I'm certainly not the one to tell them how to do this, hell if I know the best approach. But I know this approach does practically nothing for me as a player of games.

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Stuff that bothered me about Bioshock Infinite

First of all, I have to say that I'm possibly the worst guy to give a new Bioshock game to. I had so much ludicrously fevered anticipation for the first Bioshock that actually paid off, that even the beautifully made sequel and its Minerva's Den DLC couldn't even come close. Infinite perhaps had impossible things to live up to for me.

I couldn't stop myself playing it. I literally sat down for a single sitting, 10 hours, one big beautiful generous session. When I stopped (actually the game bluescreened on me after the credits, which made me laugh), the sun was back up and the prospect of a workday was patently insane. I spent the rest of the day thinking about the game, its conclusion, and I got the gnawing sensation that while I'd certainly been dazzled, something was amiss.

I think Bioshock Infinite is an absolutely fantastic game. But it doesn't come close to the first Bioshock for me. The following post is going to be

spoilery

for both Bioshock and Infinite, though I'll try to keep the latter in vague terms. You've been warned.

The puzzle story (SPOILERS)

I'm not a fan of the puzzle film, or the puzzle book. The puzzle narrative. The one where all the way through, the elements are there for you to either piece together and get that burst of cathartic solution at the end, or the elements are there as traps for the narrator to spring on you; Ah-hah! Didn't see that coming did you! Bioshock Infinite is a narrative puzzle in a way that I found irritating. Not just at the very end, where they flip the table on the world and all the odd bits from the very beginning to the very end are set into system, but during the experience itself. The game simply will not stop screwing with you, and as a result, nothing in it feels consequential, or remotely real or immersive. It was Inception all over again. Eff that movie.

Bioshock was much subtler. Its twist paid off twofold. I'm not one of those that hated the latter third of the game, or felt it lost steam. For me Bioshock was a game about betrayal and family and belonging and I found the final revenge and ascent thoroughly satisfying. Infinite feels like Ken Levine is being smart. With every piece of immaculately crafted art, architecture, music, from the opening text to the conclusion, the game is clearly out to get you. As a result, I felt Columbia became utterly pointless. A museum of art to walk through and shoot dudes. The people in it? Could not care less. Infinite is one of the few games in which I never felt bad about accidentally killing civilians.

The game makes seriously shocking moves early on, confronting you with the hate and callousness that Columbia has (apparently) been built upon, especially when dealing with questions of bigotry and race, yet none of those topics wind up mattering a jot by the end of the game. It's "being political" because of the aesthetics of bringing up those politics, not because it really has anything to say about them. It's a real bummer

From about halfway in, I was regularly groaning at the story's willingness to not give a shit about itself. Characters come and go, are developed then discarded. Nothing felt connected, nothing felt real, and when the end came they might as well have cut to Booker waking up in bed. Which they sort of did anyway.

It's extra irritating to think of, when I remember the times when I was playing that I truly did care, and I truly did get chills, or feel a lump in my throat, and then at the very end all of those things seemed to just be "effects" in a story that would wind up erasing itself. I was left with the feeling that Infinite could have been a truly beautiful, evocative thing, had it only been less concerned with being so god damn smart.

I just don't think the payoff is worth the elaborate machinery that goes into preparing you for it. I would have taken a fantastic-yet-believable Columbia with a simpler story over this one, any day. It just never managed to get inside my head, or let me in. I was playing a video game from beginning to end.

The bland weaponry

So, taken as a pure video game, Infinite is a game about shooting men and women in the face. Besides the fantastic melee combat, none of the guns on offer felt much fun to use besides the carbine. I wound up playing the entire game using practically nothing but the carbine. I didn't upgrade any of the other weapons, because I didn't want to use them. The mid-to-long range nature of the majority of the shooting made the carbine the absolute obvious choice for me, scoring headshots from across the map, and, again like the previous games in the series, utterly useless iron sights are on offer. I never had a reason to use them, and I don't understand why the game has them.

It doesn't help that the vigors, the plasmid powers in Infinite, are just as obvious. There were several plasmids I saw little use for whatsoever, amounting to a cool effect that looked great the first time and then never had a reason to be there. Next to the Carbine, I spent the majority of the game using possession to deal with turrets and undertow to blow everyone else off ledges or yank them up close to casually shoot them in the head.

Perhaps I made a mistake, playing the game on medium difficulty? Could be. But the combat felt undercooked. Except for the few cases where skylines were involved.

Too few skylines

The single most fun mechanic in the game, for me, has to be the skylines. They are exhilarating to ride, satisfying to jump to and from, and it seemed like there were maybe 5 times during the game they were a real part of combat. They were always fun when they were around, but there were nowhere near enough of those times.

No vertigo

This is a city of skyscrapers and rollercoasters in the sky, yet the world is so cloudy and close you practically never get a sense of actual height or vertigo. You get to look UP at a lot of grand things but almost never down along them. It's a huge mistake. While Bioshock banked on the inherent oppression of the deep ocean, Infinite should have reveled in the precarious lethality of the high heavens. Instead it uses its scale to make even bigger golden statues and that's sort of it.

Sidequest design

I don't think it's a good idea, when your game is an almost entirely linear corridor, to have "side quests" that task you with backtracking most of the area you just went through. When you enter an area and find a locked chest, and then find the key for it just as you're about to leave, someone's asleep at their job.

Elizabeth not knowing when to shut up

This is a tiny thing, but it really happened way too often. I loved the dialog between Elizabeth and Booker. But I also loved finding the audio logs. So often I'd pick one up, hit the key to listen to it, and Elizabeth would immediately drone on over it about something. It made me miss both what Elizabeth said and what the log said, and I wound up simply not caring that much about the logs after a while. I really wish the script could afford itself to pause when my ears were clearly elsewhere.

So then...

I think Infinite is the kind of game that is almost too good for its own.. good. Everything it does well it does so exceedingly well, so friction free, that when moments of friction do show up they are disproportionately jarring. Contrasting with Bioshock, I'm left with the impression that Bioshock took me to a place, while Infinite wants to discuss what place is, and it just didn't tickle the same fancy. It didn't go far enough, yet it went too far. It wasn't "for me" so much.

But hell. 10 hours of engrossing shooting of heads from across the most lavishly beautiful horizons I've seen in a first person shooter for years is still about as good a deal as you're going to find. Anyone would be a fool not to play it.

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DuckTales! OH! NO!

Diamond is 2D.

Cake is 3D.

Scrooge is 2D.

Chest is 3D.

Ghost is 2D.

Knight is 3D.

Huey is 2D.

Cage is 3D.

Mine cart is 3D.

Background is 2D.

Background is 3D.

Scrooge is tiny.

Scrooge is huge.

Why the fuck is Scrooge always smiling? Why the fuck is he cute?

I'm glad this game is being made. I'm glad it's being made by WayForward. I'm glad Jake Kaufman, the God of Gods, is scoring it. I'm ecstatic about the voice work they secured. I'd be a rampaging fool not to buy it and support the idea of making this game.

But every bone in my aging, nostalgic, still-watches-DuckTales-and-still-replays-the-game-annually body is recoiling in disgust at how they are handling the art.

This game deserved proper, 2D, hand painted(erly) backgrounds in the style of the show. They had a chance to make the definitive DuckTales version, and instead they are making a sort of ugly accidental paper mario.

And they added a mine cart section. Yet they kept the god damn mother fucking respawning enemies. This game, from the demo I watched, from the trailer, from every screenshot, is wall to wall incoherence. Who's got the thinking cap on over there?

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The prophetic games press

So here’s a thing that’s been bothering me for a while.

PlayStation Vita sales struggling in Europe

Comparing Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft Black Friday Sales

Nintendo’s Wii U sales struggle

3DS sales struggle in recent weeks

My perception of this is probably somewhat skewed but I’ll talk about this anyway: I think for as long as I can remember, every system launch has been paired with a games press that is, it seems, real happy to be discussing hardware sales numbers. I cannot fathom why this information is of any value to consumers, and indeed if it isn’t actually detrimental.

The most recent pair of “ailing” products (they are not ailing) are the PlayStation Vita and the Wii U. System sales are one thing, but then we get into a lack of exclusives, or exclusives going multi-plat. I can’t help but think that any product fresh out of the gates will have a challenge ahead of it to build a user base, and that everyone involved in that product is taking a risk.

I think the games press is hurting the industry by reporting so gleefully on the failings of a platform.

It’s not even a particularly wide leap to make; If everybody says a system sells poorly or lacks value, then less people are going to invest in it. The relationship in terms of marketing is practically 1:1. It is, however, “marketing” over which the platform holder or their third parties hold little immediate agency. Building a user base is pretty tough business.

Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s perfectly laudable to report on the Wii U crashing, or Diablo 3′s connection problems and so forth. But reporting on those things are not directly counterproductive to solving those issues.

I’m torn. And maybe there just isn’t a good way around this.

I’m doing a lot of game development these days, and it takes a long, long time to finish something. I mean really finish. As in having something up to Nintendo scratch, and you just know it’s going to be fantastic for everyone who plays it. I’d even say you can’t realistically meet that goal unless the stars are perfect and you have some substantial savings. Then there’s the question about profitability.

Here’s my (possibly naive) business plan.

  1. Within a reasonable budget, make a game that encapsulates the essence of what I want to create (realizing that there will always be more things I want to do with it)
  2. Put it up for sale in a fun, stable state.
  3. View user comments and reviews.
  4. Spend income on updates to add content and fix any objective flaws.

This ties into another plan, which is to never do a title update simply for bug fixes. Every update should include a content update of some sort. This both to reward users for keeping up to date (with more than just bug fixes), but also to keep myself lean and mean (to myself).

If I got consistent press immediately after launch about how few features my game had, or how poorly it ran on device x, I’d likely have less sales, and less opportunity to rectify. The product would just die, and my reputation as a developer would be tarnished.

I guess I just believe a craftsman should be given the opportunity to redeem himself for his mistakes, and by reporting on ailing sales, I feel the games press is not affording the platform holders that opportunity. It looks like the games press meddling with fundamental platform marketing, and it stinks to see the apparently joyful way that information propagates through the media.

I think the press should at the very least be considerate of what they publish in terms of sales statistics, and consider the wider effects of such information elevated to such prominence. I’d expect something like Gamesindustry.biz to report on this stuff. I have no idea why Eurogamer or IGN believes the gaming consumer should give a fuck.

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KILL ALL ANIMALS

Anyone else feel the hunting aspect is a little overplayed in Far Cry 3? Like killing sharks for a new wallet wasn't ridiculous enough on the surface, there's something really off about a game that puts you on an island packed with endangered species and pretty much begs you to kill everything you see. You don't even get the logbook info about the animal until you've killed it. I shot a galapagos turtle in the face as it was trying to hide in its shell and i felt like shit for the rest of the session.

I've had tons of fun with FC3 (bluescreens repeatedly on my PC though, thanks Ubi!) but the economy elements seem pretty undercooked. Halfway into the game you don't need money anymore, so why loot anything? The only thing that's left for you is to murder all the animals to make bags of them. Weird.

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Wii U power implications

So I'm sort of bummed out by the focus on Wii U performance right now... I'm not religious about my games. I have invested heavily in almost every system on the market for the past decade. The general rule for me is that when a game shows up that I want to play, that's when I buy the system. For the XBOX it was Ninja Gaiden. PS2 it was GTA3. GameCube it was Metroid Prime, etc. I have no "loyalty" beyond the games. For instance I haven't picked up a Vita yet, simply because there isn't anything on there I want to play. Yet.

The same is true for the Wii U. To me, a system is not defined by its statistical potential, but by its gameplay reality. For instance, ZombiU (that name!) is what makes the Wii U desirable to me, NOT the prospect of "next gen". I think anyone who has been playing games on the PC for the past couple of years have been inhabiting the next gen for long enough to make that prospect pretty uninteresting.

I think the _actual_ issue with the Wii U is that while it's friendlier to ports than the Wii was, it's still unfriendly enough (again in terms of this nebulous "power") to mean by the next generation of PS3 and Xbox, the Wii U is again likely to receive substandard ports. If you're "into ports", or you only own one system and only ever plan to own one system, I suppose this is a real concern. Personally, I always thought the port game was the worst part of this generation. Nowhere near enough exclusives meant the PS3 and 360 were practically interchangeable, the only real reason my PS3 became my platform of choice was the horrendous noise on the 360. It's pretty sad to have a house with so many expensive bits of hardware and so much crossover the biggest difference is the shape of the case. I've really missed divergence.

As a gamer who doesn't play console games online, the single real issue with the Wii, to this day, remains rendering resolution. People like to slag on the Wii, but there are games on that system that are absolutely glorious, and would have been much, much nicer on an HD system. The gameplay was there, but the presentation was not. It's not even as if rendering at an HD resolution implies you need to spend more time on assets, as Dolphin emulator footage shows just how well Nintendo's original art holds up. So that was a real misstep on Nintendo's behalf. The Wii didn't have to be that shitty. While I understand why, it's pretty sad to hear all the "collecting dust" stories because they are so ungrateful. Donkey Kong Country Returns is the kind of game you simply do not see on competing platforms, and it's sad to see it so easily disregarded.

So with that out of the way, I'm simply excited about the Wii U just as I was excited about the Wii; It's something else. Watch dogs is most likely not going to see a Wii U release, and other ports built on legacy tech are equally unlikely to see Wii U ports worth our time. But when even Ubisoft can deliver a launch title like ZombiU that is weird enough and different enough to sell the system to skeptics, and Nintendo's dullard b-game (NSMBU) looks as ludicrously gorgeous at 60fps as it does, I just don't know how not to be at least interested in what the system is doing.

Nintendo are savants. They make the dumbest decisions in the business. There's a saying, "Nintendo always has to do one thing completely wrong". As far as I can see, their "one thing" this time was storage. The standard Wii U kit is the Xbox 360 Arcade of 2012; Why anyone would want what amounts to about 3 gigs of storage on their system is baffling. Even the deluxe kit at 32 gigs is, er, modest. Nintendo's claims that you can hook up an external HDD to augment this is just as false as their claim on the Wii that you could expand your memory with SD cards; External storage on Nintendo systems are hopeless third rate citizens. You'll have to copy stuff back and forth between your internal memory and external memory if you want to use it. It's incredible.

You'd almost think Nintendo users harbor a case of Stockholm syndrome now, with the amount of abuse they've seen from "Nofriendo". Nintendo's willingness to disappoint is uniquely brazen in today's consumer-oriented industry.

But the games are where it's at. Even the physically painful Metroid Other M was, at its core, pretty freaking sweet. I'm excited to see what the Wii U does the next couple of years. Simply because it's different.

56 Comments

That Halo 4 1-star review

I’m sort of a statistics idiot. I am endlessly fascinated by statistics, especially as a game developer, where they power everything from animation to scoring systems, but I also have a lot of love for what statistics can tell you about the world at a glance. It’s a comforting feeling to see reality described as a value.

Industry has long searched for reliable metrics on which to gauge success. The traditional metric is “how much did it sell and at what price versus our investment”, but this statistic is vividly dependent on time as a factor. How do you get a gauge of the success of a product when that product’s lifespan is considerable? The concept of the “indie darling” where a game turns out to be a success where little was expected is warm and fuzzy and fun to think about, but completely untenable as a reliable business model.

For analysts, prediction of success is a progressively sexy concept as investment increases. In video games, recently I was made aware of so-called “mock reviews”, a practice in which games journalists write game reviews for unfinished products for internal use by the publisher so as to predict how the game will score at final release, and, I assume, determine the marketing budget; as a game developer, how much real change can you introduce into a game at a point where the game is already “reviewable”?

Finally though, as a game is released, with the long tail of game sales these days, what determines success?

Unfortunately for everyone, consumer and industry, “success” is currently measured in the Metascore. It’s time for me to ramble.

Averages are wonderful in their need for reinterpretation. They are the most boring of statistics, existing only to get rudimentary ideas, remove edges, peaks and valleys. The average of a triangle’s vertices give you its midpoint; A representation of the triangle for certain, but what a pitiful representation. Such a representation only has value through interpretation and contextualization. Consider the average CPU use of an application. It might idle and do nothing, and it might burn every core you have, and so your average, out of context, is almost completely useless. You’ll be sat at that dull median, knowing even less than when you started. Averaging a system with lots of variation is, as far as I can tell, silly; The only thing you can measure is a tendency, and a tendency is not a precise value. The aggregate of a game would permanently be in the 80s or 70s. Only outlier games would diverge from this average

Video games media is about as score-driven as media comes. They are a natural fit for scoring, after all. In playing games, especially of yore, success is eminently quantifiable, and this quantification of reality and success is a big draw for a lot of gaming as a whole. It only makes sense, I suppose, to quantify the success of the game as a product as well.

It turns out, however, that scoring of this sort is a little too complicated for its own good; You might as well task yourself in reviewing a human being, what with all the warts and beauty a game can bring to the table. How would you score your friends, and how would they measure up?

The topic of game review scoring is a hot one. I suppose the basic argument is about what exactly a score means. Is it to determine whether the consumer should make a purchase or not? If so, why not adopt a binary metric such as the thumbs up/down of Ebert & Siskel? Is it to determine how the purchase stacks up to other purchases? At that point you are in the domain of averages, and you end up with lists sorted by score; For a long time The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was “the best game in the world”, which regardless of how you feel about that game is a patently ludicrous notion to anyone who have any interest in the full spectrum of experiences games can offer.

So the choice appears to be between simpler scoring – “good” or “bad”- and the more elaborate systems, often resulting in scores with decimals. While there are attempts at walking the middle ground between these two approaches, “guide” or “data”, these attempts seem to reduce scoring ranges in the faith that this implies legroom for error and as such should be less contentious. It’s a noble endeavor, but still a compromise rather than a solution to a problem that goes further than the individual scoring mechanic.

Recently, after reading Destructoid’s 10/10 (in actuality 100/100 counting decimals) review of Halo 4, I was struck by how offensive I found that scoring mechanic versus Giant Bomb’s range of 1-5 stars. The implication was, I felt, that even at 5/5 stars the broad strokes of the 5-star range meant there was implied room for flaw, whereas the 100/100 score was too precise to allow any doubt or reason, which are profoundly important to as subjective an art as video games. In a sense, the larger the range, the more I require the full range to be used, lest the values of that range boil away into a skewed average where none of it matters.

I couldn’t tell you when it happened, but at some point, video game scores became practically homogeneous. I’m not opposed to the idea that games themselves have become homogeneous; Look no further than the past decade’s love affair with the Modern Military Shooter, possibly the worst, blandest thing to happen to video games for as long as I have been playing them, though judging by the success of the genre that clearly puts me in the minority.

That games such as XCOM, a moderately simple turn based tactics game (a genre as common as oxygen in the 90s), can appear as rescuing angels of innovation in the year 2012 unfortunately speaks less to the merits of XCOM and more to the creative flatline of an industry where ballooning budgets and economic recession have put the fear of death into nary every publisher in town.

With such enormous budgets, yet so much fear, predicting success is, again, intensely attractive. If X is 100, and Y is like X, Y should be 100 as well, right? Let’s do another one of those Xes.

The answer, it appears, is to guard our investments with aggregate scores. I’m not inherently opposed to score aggregation. As a consumer, I find them highly useful. Rotten Tomatoes is a wonderful thing, probably one of my favorite sites today. It works mostly because film reviews work. While there are scoring systems in place for movies, Rotten Tomatoes does not average scores gathered but rather converts every score into a basic thumbs up or down, or fresh tomatoes vs rotten tomatoes. A gushing review or a middling-to-good review are both fresh; One does not skew the other. In the same sense, a vicious rage fest of a review versus a merely disappointed one count for the same.

The real crux of the problem with statitics and game reviews is publishers’ willingness to base their business off this skewed aggregate Metascore. I wasn’t shocked to hear Obsidian’s developers would not receive a bonus payout if Fallout New Vegas didn’t make 90% on Metacritic, but it didn’t make me any less furious, knowing the very first thing about averages and statistics.

Because averages are painfully sensitive to extreme values (the extremes of a data set is how you gauge the entirety of that data, were you to graph it for instance), so-called outliers will throw off entire ranges. Given 200 scores of 90, a single 10 might drag you down to 89 depending on your rounding. No bonus for you, developers! Why? Because a game reviewer dared have a vigorously divergent opinion.

Rotten Tomatoes have eliminated the outlier problem by normalizing the range into a set of binary values. In one fell swoop they have made a range that is intuitive to the viewer yet insensitive to the personality traits of scoring mechanisms or even reviewers themselves. The resulting percentile score is less a precise metric but rather the answer to a question: Out of how many reviewers, how many thought this movie was any good?

Metacritic instead embraces the whimsical granularity of the games press, adopting Destructoid’s to-me-problematic 100-point range, and as a result, outliers are a cause of great concern. The actual website is fine about it, presenting up front the highest scoring, the lowest scoring, and then someone from the mid range. As a consumer, looking through aggregated reviews, these are the ones I actually care about.

I am much more likely to read “bad” reviews of products simply because they tend to be the more impassioned. It is easier to disagree with a bad review than to disagree with a positive, though that might just be my personality that makes it so. Regardless, I look to outliers to gauge myself on that spectrum. Games are not as easily quantifiable as film; I’ve been burned much too many times on trusting the common consensus (Metal Gear Solid 4 is still the biggest piece of shit still in my collection, take that Metacritic average).

A range is only useful when every value on it has a meaning. Some outlets prize themselves on their willingness to apply the full range, while others take the more politically inoffensive approach of skewing the range towards the positive – everybody knows a game scored 6/10 is pure garbage, right? Combined with the games press’ love affair with granular statistics, this further devalues an average, as nobody seems capable of agreeing on what range they are operating, while quietly refusing to acknowledge their scores are being aggregated and used to drive the industry.

Sigh.

There are numerous further issues with Metacritic, such as their normalization of disparate ranges. For instance, a 1/5 translates to a 20/100, which is in conflict with sites that use the full 100-point range. I shudder to think how Metacritic would interpret a binary system.

Yet none of these issues with Metacritic as a platform would be affecting the industry if it hadn’t been for publisher analysts using the aggregate as a metric for success. Because it is not a metric for success. It is a statistical guesswork based on opinionated guesswork, normalized and processed and skewed by a conflicted press. It barely qualifies as statistics.

And so, Tom Chick’s 1/5 review of Halo 4, actually a good and informative read if a little personal, becomes controversial, with analysts and game developers up in arms about how he dares to write such “look-at-me journalism” (in the words of an enraged David Scott Jaffe) knowing the real-world “value” of the Metascore, or on the flipside, how Metacritic knowing the value of their metric dares include such outliers in their measurement.

For as long as Metacritic’s score average is taken so seriously and given such real-world implications, nobody wins. Not the press, not the developers, and certainly not the consumers.

60 Comments

Some new footage from my game

A VERY quick cut of random footage from some of the earliest levels, as we're in crunch for 1.0 :-)

New challenge for me is learning my way around proper video encoding. The colors and black levels are really wrong in this video, and I could not for the life of me figure out how to encode an h264 video that didn't come out oversaturated. How is comfy about this stuff I have no idea. As a programmer it feels like complete lunacy.

1 Comments