Category Archives: Game Ponderings

Proteus: The Great Chorus

He fades out on the ride home. It is later than he thought and the bus is crowded, but he is alone. His mind drifts from the dirty jokes of the boys opposite, from the immobilising sweetness of a girl’s perfume, from the condensation on the windows, and the wet streets repeating behind them, and comes to rest in the emptiness of the sky.

There is the sensation of rolling, a gentle, undulating motion, but nothing more. Time passes. He snaps back into consciousness, and finds his jaw is going.

At home he closes his curtains, turns on his computer. The whir as the machine readies itself unnerves him; he sees images of gears and cogs, arcane machinery receding into dark depths. He feels pulled down into the hallucination; the picture morphs, melts; suddenly he is travelling through the pathways of his own brain, an electrical current sparking along synapses, burning them up as it passes, coiled hairs crackling over a bonfire in the night.

He shakes his head. He should try to sleep soon, though he knows it is not time yet. Now is that hard stretch of time when existence has a physical form, when its dimensions can be felt, its choking weight, stretching dull and blank into an interminable future. There is too much existence.

He decides to play a videogame. He has not been playing games recently — their guns, their machismo, their endless, hollow grind, has begun to feel inane to him — but now, drained yet awake, his mind floating back from a distant place, he has a need to play.

What he plays is a game called Proteus. It is a short game about music and exploration, a cool breeze, a digital world he knows will envelop him — and he needs to be enveloped, before the voice that is beginning to rise back behind his thoughts, the cold voice he had heard so stark and fundamental last night, has a chance to take hold.

He clicks the icon for Proteus. He goes in.

He awakes in water. An island stretches from the mist before him. It is pixelated, pastoral. He wades to the shore, hearing only the sound of the water. It is a clear, pure sound, majestic in its totality.

On land a song begins to build in his ears. Everything in this world has its own tune — the trees, the clouds, the Earth itself. He stands and lets the island’s chorus wash over him.


He makes his way inland. Up from the shore he finds a small creature resting amongst the flowers. Startled by his approaching figure, the creature springs away into the undergrowth: Bip, bop, boop.

He stops by a tree. Blossom falls to the ground. He finds it is almost sensuous, how the blossom falls, how delicately it lands upon the grass. It has that way about it, he thinks, the acceptance, the loss of resistance.

He continues on. There are no people on the island, no objectives. Only an ever-changing symphony of meadows, flowers, rocks, sea and sky.

He finds a path and follows it. The path leads him up a mountain. He stands at the summit and watches cloud banks roll in beneath him. The clouds nestle into the contours of the land, blanketing the world in a soft-hued fog. Peaks jut from the clouds in the distance. The wind whistles about him.

The sun begins to set. Light retreats from the world, leaving the sky cool and dark and alone. Stars come out. The moon rises.

He walks to a cliff top above a little cove and follows it round, watching the moonlight on the waves below. He descends through dense woods, feeling solitary yet protected. Eventually the woods open out onto a beach, quiet in the night air. There are rain clouds. The rain falls across the ocean. He listens to the raindrops as they patter into the sea.


The sky clears. He stands under a canopy of leaves, branches groaning in the dark, waves lapping the shore. He looks out, far away, over the horizon. There is a peace to the land. The softness of the night carries him away, draws his thoughts back to a night very different to this one. To last night …

He remembers the anxiety in the club, waiting to come up. How the faux leather seats in the booth had been sticky, how they had smelt of beer. He remembers looking at the faces of the people he was with, faces he knew but did not know, and feeling that they were on the other side of a great chasm, a silent expanse he could not cross.

The dance floor had been filled with beautiful people. He had looked at them and wondered where they came from, what force propelled them, how they could glide through life so effortlessly, the thing that held him down passing over them unnoticed.

On the edge of the dance floor a girl had spoken and he had turned around, but the girl had not been speaking to him, and he had felt a chill, and he had known then that he was not going to get high.

But then later, at the bar, after the first rush had taken him, he had felt like liquid, felt smooth, like he was washing away, and he had decided it would be OK. The bartender had had one iris darker than the other and he had joked with him, how the gin was the bad gin not the good gin, and he had said next time a water, his jaw going a little, and the bartender had smiled because he knew, and everything had been fine, had smudged nicely.

But a few minutes later the wave had already broken, and he had found himself in a cubicle, his back to the door, listening for bouncers, reaching for his key. He had looked down and seen the urine on the floor, had felt the cold you often feel in toilets, and he had realised that all barriers had been destroyed.

He had been naked, alone, alert to the truth, to the realisation he could not escape from. He always felt it, usually dull, hidden just out of sight, but now it was right before him. A kind of dread, a loathing of life. Nothing was enough. All would die; all would cease to be.

In his altered state the everyday aspects of his personality had been stripped from him, and all that was left was the singular truth: he had no home in reality. Life was cold, chaotic, and utterly repugnant in its ordinariness, its blatant mundanity.

So he had done then what he always did, which was to run. He had drowned the realisation in alcohol, burned it with chemicals, trying to obliterate it, and everything else along with it. He had forced himself into the rush, charging headlong down a corridor between the stars. Smoke and lasers and twisting nothing, thrashing nothing. Faster. Coming, arriving, dancing. Lost. A bassline, a light shining through his beer bottle, a moment of tranquillity, of silence — then faster, powder, keys, drink; faster and faster, arriving, arriving; I do not know where I belong; arriving, faster, faster; I am lost; I am lost.

And then just blackness.

In Proteus, the first light climbs lazily from its slumber behind the world, and a new day begins.

He sets off to roam the valleys of spring. Wind buffets the trees. Insects chirp in the bush. A ring of trumpet-like flowers sway and honk in the dawn. When he gets close the flowers yelp and dart back into the ground.

He walks on and on.


Seasons whirl. Summer arrives. Toadstools grow in the valleys, bees hum beneath the trees. The air is thick with the chatter of life, voluminous and swollen. The sun blazes down. He looks up and feels the sun’s embrace, feels how it is boundless, yet indifferent also.

The sky turns coral, then magenta, then amethyst. An owl glides through the night, settling noiselessly in a distant tree. A shooting star streaks across the firmament above, aflame for one precious moment, then is gone.

Autumn is sombre, reposeful. The oranges and reds deepen. He watches a single tree for many minutes, its branches a silhouette against the sky, its leaves falling with an elegiac beauty. The tree’s lament, the waiting ground, the mournful arc of the moon overhead, swells something within him, and tears come to his eyes.

He heads down to the ocean once more. Always he is drawn to the sea. As he stands there a silence builds in his ears. It is not a silence of the world, but rather behind the world. It is a silence, he realises, within himself.

Then comes the hard, crystalline charm of winter. Snow draws the world in, mutes its sounds. Everything is close, celestial, sacred. He walks across the transformed land and out onto the frozen sea, and snowflakes fall from the heavens.


The snowflakes fall and fall. They fall past his eyes, through his body; they touch nothing; they fall forever. He walks into the snowflakes and he listens to the music emanating from all manifested things — and to the silence behind them, the silence from which the notes are born.

The notes and the silence. They go together, he sees. The music is not just the notes, but the silence also. Two sides forming with their union a great and impenetrable song — a song of cycles, of death and rebirth, of flux. It is a song of awareness. A song of return.

And a voice within himself begins to harmonise. It is the same voice from last night, though it is no longer twisted in fear, unable to face reality. It is his own voice. And now it is singing with the voices all about it, another refrain in the multitudinous ballad that is nonetheless composed around a singular theme. The music forms into words.

Wake up, the world sings. Wake up.

The snowflakes fall. He walks through them, and upwards, into the emptiness of the sky.

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A Gaming Education: Empire: Total War

The young soldier stands before the older man’s tent. His face is flecked with dirt, his clothes stained, ragged. His figure is that of a boy, but his eyes are weary beyond their years. Though fatigued, on the point on collapse, he manages to snap off a salute worthy of the parade ground to his commanding officer.

The older man smiles to him brightly.

“Yes, sonny?”

“General, I return from Fort Niagara. Our regiment was … decimated. The enemy’s numbers are far greater than you anticipated.”

“I see.”

“I rode night and day to bring you this news. An army is being amassed against us. They can be no more than a few hours march from this position.”

The older man sits in thought, the freshly polished buttons on his tunic glinting in the morning sun.

“Well,” he says after some time, “do you think we should try that diplomacy thing?”


“You know, I could offer them, what was it? … Oh yes, access to our military?”

“I’m not sure that would be wise, sir.”

“Right, right, of course not. A state gift, then?”

“It may be a little late for–“

But even as the young soldier speaks, a cry is heard across camp. A scout runs to the older man’s side, salutes.

“Enemy forces have been spotted in the woodlands to our East, sir. And cavalry are advancing upon our Western flank. What are your orders?”

The older man scratches his beard. “Right, okay. I’ve got this. Lieutenant, take these men. No, sorry, I meant the men with the muskets. Where are the men with the muskets? Ah, yes, here they are. So take them, and — are you listening carefully? — turn them sideways. No, not that sideways. The other sideways. Starboard. Oh, that’s ships, isn’t it? Ere the rising of the sun. As the crow flies. Yes, that’s it.

“Now, take these guys — who are these guys? Doesn’t matter. Take them and stand them next to the musket men. Sort of next to, but also sort of in the middle of. Perfect.

“Right, now let’s get our cavalry and place them behind this building and forget about them for the rest of the battle. And tell those men … I don’t know what to tell those men. Tell them to hold steady. And to about-face. And present arms. And present legs.

“You know, actually, scrap all that. Get everyone here. Yeah, everyone. Gather round, chaps. Okay, new plan. I want you all to go kill that man in the red hat. His hat is stupid. And I want it. Kill that man and bring me his hat. And when you’re done, pick another man, and kill him. Rinse, repeat. Bish, bash, bosh. Battle will be over in no time. Then back home to raise and lower taxes randomly, build half a fishery and declare war on ourselves. Go Team … Who are we again? Whatever. Go us!”

As the troops begin moving out, the young soldier looks back at his commanding officer.

“Well, general, I suppose this is goodbye.”

The older man looks down at the boy. “You know, I have no idea why you all keep calling me that. I run a cake shop in Aberystwyth.”

“Still, sir,” says the young soldier. “You command, and we obey.”

“How odd. Anyway, looks like you’d better be off. Don’t want you to get left behind. See you later, maybe.”

“Yes, sir. Maybe.”

And the young soldier marches away. The older man sits by his tent, wondering vaguely when they’ll let him play with some ships, but mostly just dreaming of cake.

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My friend Alex is trying to get me to buy Diablo III. He’s been trying to get me to buy Diablo III every moment that has passed since it was released.

“Have you bought it yet?”


“How about now?”

“Still no.”

“You never buy it. Just buy it!”

It’s June, and the world is going mad for Diablo III. The latest magnum opus from Blizzard, creators of World of Warcraft (Blizzard get more than one magnum opus), Diablo III is hot news. Twitter is awash with games journalists discussing it. My friend Steve is up to Inferno difficulty already. Quintin Smith has written a great piece on Eurogamer about why the game only truly comes alive on Hardcore mode, where you get one life, and if you die you have to start again from the beginning. Quintin Smith is the definition of “hardcore”.

I want to be a games journalist, but worry I haven’t played enough games. I need to get involved in this, the gaming event of the year.

Problem is, Diablo III retails for £44.99. My part-time bar job secures me roughly £500 a month, £370 of which goes straight on rent. After food, drink, travel, and phone contract, there’s very little left over for videogames — even magna opera from the creators of World of Warcraft.

So when my friend Alex tries to get me to buy Diablo III, I simply sigh, and change the subject. I don’t buy Diablo III. This is not the story of Diablo III.


“What the hell are we going to play then?”

I’m sat in my room. It’s an uncharacteristically sunny day, and prismatic rays of light are filtering through my blinds. I shield my monitor with my hand, the better to see my instant messenger conversation with Alex.

“You pick,” I say.

No beat. “Age of Empires II.”

Age of Empires II was Alex’s favourite game as a kid. At university, he used to quote barks from the people in the game every opportunity he got. “Gold, please,” he’d say if he wanted to borrow money. If he won at something: “It’s good to be king.” That was just one of his things.

He doesn’t do that any more, though. Neither of us owns Age of Empires II anyway — Alex lost his copy; I never owned it, because I want to be a games journalist but I haven’t played enough games. It’s just another old joke, a way of reminding ourselves of happier times.

Alex doesn’t have a job. He was doing this soulless HR thing at a soulless bank, but then the company cut the role because they’d spent too much money on cocaine and hookers for their executives. They told him if he wanted to stay with them he had to go on the phones in one of their soulless call centres. So he walked out. He’s my hero because of that, but I also appreciate it’s made him pretty unhappy.

I still have my job, at the soulless pub, so I’m unhappy for different reasons. And I’m unhappy because I want to be a games journalist, but I haven’t played enough games, and I don’t write enough about the ones I have played. The months of languor are turning into years, and my ambitions are dissolving like ethereal dreams, fractured by the morning light.

We’re stuck waiting for something to happen, never moving forwards, never doing anything new.

“Fuck it,” I say. “Let’s play Tribes: Ascend.”


Tribes: Ascend is a new game. It’s research. A multiplayer shooter about fluidity of movement and precision attacks, Rich Stanton gave it 10/10 in his review on Eurogamer, and Rab Florence has been calling it one of the best games on PC. Sweetest of all, though, it’s free-to-play. Even I can afford free-to-play.

We click the launchers on our respective desktops. My launcher tells me it needs to update the client before I can play. Alex says a swearword over Skype. I guess his has told him the same.

We wait.

“How many megabytes has yours downloaded?”

“78. You?”

“Hah. 93.”

The client updates, then the new client says it needs to download the latest patch files to bring the game up to date. We both say swearwords over Skype.

Alex asks how many megabytes mine has downloaded. I lie and say a high number. Alex says a number higher than that. I think he’s lying. The Skype call loses quality because of the strain on the connection, and our voices take on a metallic, robotic sound.

“I need your clothes, your boots and your motorcycle,” Alex says.

“I know now why you cry, but it is something I can never do.”


“The lava bit, dude. Learn your history.”

We try to play megabytes-downloaded top trumps again, but so many files have downloaded we’re not sure we’re on the same one. So we play file-version top trumps instead. Alex’s file version is like Mine is like 1.0.1145.08.9. We’re not sure which is better.

After another sixteen hours of this, the downloads whirr to a halt, and the “Play” button glows orange. We’re in.


I called Tribes: Ascend a multiplayer shooter before, but it could just as truthfully be called a multiplayer mover. It places as much emphasis on traversing the terrain as it does on fragging players. The stompy robots (or men in robot armour, I’m never sure) that you control are painfully slow on foot. But holding the spacebar allows you to begin sliding frictionlessly, or “skiing”, along the ground. You build momentum down hills, and maintain it on flats. Then hitting the right-mouse-button engages your jetpack, boosting you into the air, keeping up your speed.

The game therefore becomes a test of your ability to ride the landscape, carving lines into and out of the pockmarked arenas, skiing down hills, boosting over lips, arcing your descent back into the downward curve of a slope, faster and faster, like some kind of robotic ballerina.

And you share the stage with 31 other dancers. And half of them need to die. The weapons you carry are mostly of the grenade and rocket varieties, meaning they have their own arcing trajectories, and explode on timers or upon impact. Getting a kill generally involves watching the line an enemy is taking, at hundreds of km/h, then firing off a rocket ahead of them to intersect with their line. All the while dodging and leaping and feinting to avoid their projectiles.

That’s the plan, anyway. Our first match doesn’t end up like that.

We’re both playing Pathfinders — the fastest, but also most lightly armoured, class — and the bigger boys keep swatting us away like gnats.

We’re not building any momentum. We’re getting stuck in craters, trudging up slopes then being blown apart before we reach the top. We’re using our jetpacks in the wrong places, draining energy so it’s not there when we need it. I keep checking the scoreboard, increasingly despondent at our dire performance.

One red player in particular is going to town on us. An enormous Doombringer, with a chain cannon spitting death at thousands of rounds a minute, he’s standing tall in the centre of the map, blasting us apart again and again. He looks like he’s bought the best equipment via microtransactions.

“That guy is a prick,” Alex says.

“Yeah, I hate that prick.”

“LOLLL n00bs,” he types to us over in-game chat, after squashing us both for the tenth time.

The game finishes with Alex third from bottom on the scoreboard, and me second from bottom. The guy in last place only logged on a few minutes ago. Over on the red team, Doombringer Prick is top of the server.

The next games go no better. If anything, we get worse. The afternoon wears on. My room begins to get gloomy. I’ve got work again tomorrow.

Alex sighs. “Videogames are shit.”

I don’t say anything.

We’re on the post-match analysis page, a purgatorial screen awash with statistics breaking down exactly how abysmally we just performed. It’s clear we’re not playing our class properly. Pathfinders should be about mobility, nipping in and out of fights, chasing down targets, staying clear of head-on battles. We know that. But we’re not doing it.

“What was your top speed?” Alex asks.

But I don’t feel like playing top trumps. It’s one of our old things, and not funny any more. We used to have lots of things, silly little in-jokes that were great precisely because they were so dumb. But we never come up with new ones these days. We just rehash the old ones again and again, wringing the last vestiges of colour from them until they’re dead and grey.


Recently I wrote an essay about a game I liked, and it got republished on a big website, and a lot of people said really nice things about it. The essay was full of zen-like insights into the nature of reality, about how to find inner peace, how this game had taught me to be a better person.

But it was all lies. I know nothing of inner peace. In truth I’ve been utterly depressed since writing that essay, certain that I’ll never write anything good again, that all these people now following my work are going to be disappointed when they realise I’ve tricked them, that I have nothing worthwhile to say.

All the old jokes Alex and I keep telling, the top trumps, the way we always suggest Age of Empires II to play together, we do it for one reason: to avoid facing the truth.

So I decide to face the truth.

I’m 27. Half a decade or so older than most starting games journalists. For years I’ve been putting weird stories about games up on my blog, because I’m scared of the rejection of trying to get them published. I’m unhappy. I’ve probably not got what it takes to make it as a freelancer. I’ve got no idea what’s going to happen to me in the future. And I suck at Tribes: Ascend.

I face all that. I don’t do what I usually do, which is wish it wasn’t true. I just allow it to be. Stare directly into the eyes of the beast. It takes a lot of effort.

But simultaneously it removes a burden. Fuck it. There’s no point arguing with what has already happened. That just keeps you shackled to the past, repeating the same mistakes.

“Let’s play again,” I say.


It’s the Sulfur Cove level, with the spaceship hovering above the battlefield. I start skiing. Not even trying to get kills, Just enjoying the freedom of movement. I go up and down, up and down. Faster and faster. I see the lip coming towards me, and engage my jetpack, and then I’m launching into the stratosphere, gliding down gracefully onto the deck of the spaceship. I can see the whole level splayed out below me.


Alex looks up. “You bad boy. How did you get up there?”

He abandons his doomed firefight and starts skiing round, trying to build the speed to reach me. He keeps almost making it, but not having the momentum, and falling short. One attempt he’s inches from the barrel of my gun, close enough to touch, then he drops comically, Wile E. Coyote style, back to earth. He’s laughing. We’re both laughing.

And that’s when I realise the thing that has been strangling me for so long, the dark veil draped over everything, separating me from everyone, has gone. That’s when I realise I’m free.

The rest of the match, we dick around. A guy on the red team is called BernieTheBusMan, and we follow him like fanboys, cheering each time he kills us. When Doombringer Prick interrupts our fun with his chain cannon, we boo him.

“What do you reckon he looks like in real life?”

“I don’t know, but to be fair you’ve got to give it to him, being able to kill us both with one hand permanently stuffed in his mega-bag of Cheesy Wotsits.”

“And the other fondling his balls.”


Next match, I invent a new thing.

I’m skiing super fast, hoping to beat Alex come the post-match top speed analysis, and my momentum plows me into a hornets’ nest of enemies. Red icons everywhere, maybe fifteen in total, all swarming and buzzing, out for that fatal sting.

“Uh oh,” Alex says, spotting me from his safe perch.

But I feel strange. Like Neo facing down Agent Smith at the end of The Matrix. I’m not going to run any more.

I stop thinking. All becomes fluid. I leap, land, leap again. Rocket towards three of them. Twist. Leap. Rocket, rocket. Switch to shotgun, finish one, back to rocket. Leap. Rocket. Dodge. Rocket. Rocket.

I shotgun one between the eyes, and land. I reload, scan my surroundings. I’m alone.

“Haha. Bobby-the-Berserker,” Alex says.

“Yeah, well, fuck em. Fuck em where they live.”

And there it is. Fuck em where they live. It becomes our new thing. Alex tries to say it later, but gets it wrong, and says, “Fuck them at home.” So then our new thing becomes being street in the most middle-class way possible. “Fuck them at their nan’s house,” we’re saying before long.

That same match we get revenge on Doombringer Prick. He’s got loads of armour, but he’s slow, and can’t jump far. He doesn’t intimidate us any more.

I zip past him and unload my shotgun. Alex places a nice rocket at his feet. We boost way up, away from his danger zone, and Alex angles another cheeky rocket in. I’m past the zenith of my jump, coming down fast. I grasp my shotgun as I plummet towards him.

KA-THUNK. Both barrels to the face. I sweep right through him. The speed is exhilarating. He’s blasted out of the game, probably right off the internet. Somewhere, in some darkened basement room, a man has just spilt Monster energy drink all down himself.

“Cheesy Wotsits everywhere,” Alex remarks.


It gets late. We decide to call it a night. We log out of the game, but stay idling on Skype, as is our wont.

“Videogames are cool,” Alex says.

“Yeah, sometimes they are.”

“You haven’t written anything on your blog for a while, have you?”

“No.” I pause, swallow. “I’ve been thinking … I might take a break from it all. Just for a bit. It’s sort of ruining my life. I think I put too much pressure on myself.”

“Yeah, badly!” Alex says, as if he’s been waiting for me to admit that for a long time. “We all like what you write, but that’s not why we like you. Just chill for a bit, go easy on yourself. Then if it’s meant to come, it’ll come.”

And he’s right. If it’s meant to come, it’ll come. Uphill struggles will only wear you out. Just like in Tribes, the best you can do is learn to ride the terrain. Find an easy route, build some momentum, then you can start to tackle the harder slopes. And before you know it you’ll be soaring into that sliver of timeless time, the eternal now, where everything is open, and glorious, and you laugh for the sheer joy of it.


A month passes. Once again I find myself on Skype with Alex, just idling, as is our wont. I tell him I’m thinking about writing a little something about our time with Tribes: Ascend. Something short and breezy.

“Do it,” Alex says. “Just make sure you talk a lot about when I was top of the server.”

“Of course.”

“And don’t exaggerate about the time you fucked those three reds where they lived.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

“Good,” Alex says. “Now, let’s get back to Diablo III.”

Because I’ve found the money. You always do, when it matters. The money wasn’t the problem, anyway; it was my fear of moving forwards.

Alex logs into the game. And I follow him, into a future filled with uncertainty and strife. For the first time in ages, I feel ready to confront it.


Filed under Game Ponderings, Ramblings

A Gaming Education: Gamer Mom

I’m coming back from the shops with Dad. The sun is shining, and I’m carrying two shopping bags in each hand to show Dad how strong I am. I’m trying to tell him about the things I love. I’m twelve. What I love is collecting Warhammer.

“I’m collecting Space Marines at the moment, Dad. Space Marines are these super warriors. They’re over seven feet tall, and they’ve got two hearts, in case one gets damaged, and they protect the Emperor, who almost died, but kind of got put into cryo-stasis before he died so now he’s not really alive, but the Space Marines protect him anyway, they protect all of humanity, Dad, because it’s their sworn duty. They’re very noble like that.”

I risk a glance up. Dad isn’t listening. I change tack.

“But Space Marines are kind of boring. I’m thinking of collecting Imperial Guard next. They’re friends with the Space Marines, but they’re a lot more believable. You’d like the Imperial Guard — they’re regular soldiers, and they have all these tanks and heavy ordnance, and they beat enemies because there are so many of them. The Space Marines are elite and each chapter only has a thousand Space Marines in, but there are loads and loads of Imperial Guard, and they all look different depending what planet they’re from. And, Dad, there are these new ones that have just come out and they look like English soldiers from … was it one hundred years ago? When English soldiers wore red and fought in Rorke’s Drift. Like when we watched Zulu together. They’re really cool, Dad.”

“I see,” Dad says. We walk on in silence a while, then I ask him about football, so we have something to talk about….

This recollection will not, I’m sure, be unfamiliar to many of you who play videogames. Ours is a niche hobby, and anyone passionate about it will likely know the pain of trying to explain our passion to others, to bring the people we care about into our worlds, to be understood, to be accepted.

Gamer Mom is an indie adventure game about just such difficulties. In it you play as a woman trying to convince her sullen daughter and work-stressed husband to join her in a game of World of Warcraft. You navigate conversational routes, at times trying subtlety to intrigue your family, at others engaging them in small talk to bring them back on your side. Sometimes you get carried away in your exuberance and leap out of your chair. There are many poignant moments when you wait for a positive response. And wait. And wait.

It is a simple game to play, with a nice script, and a touching, sketched art style that perfectly captures the exasperation of the daughter, the bewilderment of the husband, the woman’s quiet, aching loneliness. The game only lasts a minute or so, and requires no specialist knowledge to play. You should definitely all give it a go.

From a technical viewpoint, Gamer Mom is dazzling, both a coherent argument for the merits of the indie production route, and for the strengths of the medium in general. In struggling to find ways to interest your family, meeting walls of anger, amusement and indifference at every turn, you-the-player are made to understand and empathise with the plight of you-the-character. You’re not viewing this woman’s world from the outside, you’re experiencing it from within, actually living it. You feel for the woman because you have been made to walk a mile in her shoes. This is something games do better than any other form of art.

And it’s the kind of personal, heartfelt game that only really the independent sphere of game design seems able to foster. When a title costs sixty-bazillion bucks to make, and will bankrupt the studio if it doesn’t make back those costs, no one involved can afford to take risks. You figure out what your audience is most likely to spend their money on, and then you give it to them, in a slick, polished, loud, gauche package. This keeps studios afloat. It doesn’t, however, produce much of worth.

Because worth precisely is taking risks. It’s telling a story that is important to only you, that makes you squirm, that burns inside you and thumps on your chest to get out. What is worthwhile today, and always has been worthwhile, is having something to say. And having something to say is risky. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be exciting.

So the Gamer Moms of the world are vitally important. Kids can think of something to say, knock a cheap game together, then whack it up on the internet for everyone in the world to play, to judge, to hopefully connect with.

And I connected with Gamer Mom hard. It reminded me of similar conversations I’ve had in my past — and still, sadly, have today –, trying and failing to reconcile my internal world with the external world of my family and friends. Gamers will likely be familiar with this. But I think it’s more universal than that. We all, at times, find it difficult to connect with others, to show people what we are like inside, to be known, to be appreciated for who we truly are.

And here we come to the aspect of Gamer Mom that interests me the most, though I debated whether to discuss it here out of fears of handling it wrong, being insensitive. I think it is worth saying though.

Mordechai Buckman, the writer and designer of the game, has Asperger’s Syndrome. His website is a strange and beautiful marvel, a bizarrely ordered (by which I mean it is very ordered, only in a way that feels bizarre to my mind) collection of thoughts, transcripts of IM conversations about love, musings on game design, journal entries, self-therapy sessions. It is a highly personal attempt to understand life by someone our society deems to suffer from a “disorder”, though to my eyes appears to be getting along just as well as the rest of us.

Discovering the personality of the creative force behind Gamer Mom, the game starts to make sense in a new light. The nerdy hobby, the disconnect between the woman and her family, the bursts of excitement, the way a dialogue has to be intellectually plotted out, rather than instinctively navigated — this is a game that allows us the opportunity to live, for a short time, as an autistic person.

What a blast. How vital. I’ve seen some commenters arguing that the protagonist of Gamer Mom is entirely unsympathetic, that in ignoring her husband’s desire to work to support the family, in steamrolling over her daughter’s likes in favour of her own, it is she who is the villain, she who needs to adjust her priorities to allow for a happy home life.

This is, I think, missing the point. Mordechai never claims the woman is right or wrong — nor does he claim having Asperger’s is right or wrong. Simply that this is how he really is, these are obstacles he struggles with. Devoid of judgement, the game is honest and heartfelt, and I find it so beautiful because of this.

Gamer Mom tells me what someone else on this planet is like. It allows me to connect with them, two different minds sharing something across the ether, something that brings us closer, reminds us that the canvas of our lives is shared, and it is but the print scrawled across the canvas that changes.

In a letter written to a girl he had feelings for, bravely reposted on his website, Mordechai compares his attempts to understand people without Asperger’s as like trying to relate to “the behaviors of some (albeit intelligent) alien species.”

Well a lesson for all of us, taught to me by Mordechai’s wonderful game, is that even alien species share common ground. We have to exist in the same universe together, and how much more lovely that can be when we accept the divergences and asymmetry we find, when we respect it all has the same right to exist. This gives us a new perspective on others, and a new perspective on ourselves.

Gamer Mom is one of the most important indies produced this year. It is a call for games to hold meaning, to be genuine, to say something. Did I mention, rather exuberantly, that you should PLAY IT RIGHT NOW?


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Over the Precipice: An Essay on Journey

There’s this speech that always chokes me up, given to a graduating class at Kenyon College in America, by the writer David Foster Wallace. It’s a beautiful speech, infused with a kind of honest optimism that is less hope for the world to be a certain way, and more determination to see the world as it truly is, to see the terror and splendour that shines forth from every small moment of existence — every lonely evening at the supermarket, every petty encounter with motorists on the drive home from work.

That Wallace, three years after the speech was given, succumbed to the demons of depression he had battled his whole adult life, killing himself in 2008, in no way invalidates his message. Rather, it charges it with even more urgency, even more pathos. There are dark times ahead for all of us, he seems to say — work hard to love and to feel, while you still can.

Anyway, Wallace opened his speech with a joke about fish, and it’s this joke I’d like pilfer now, respectfully, as an opening for this essay.

There are these two young fish, so the joke goes, just swimming along, slacking off. They see an older fish in the distance, swimming towards them from the opposite direction. As the older fish passes, he waves his fin at the youngsters and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” The two young fish swim on a way, in silence, then finally one turns to the other and says, “What the hell is ‘water’?”

Now, that is a philosophical joke, which means partly that it’s not funny, but also that its profundity is revealed gradually, the deeper you consider it. The point is that, while it is easy for us to see water for what it is — as outsiders looking in — for the fish it is always there, and thus very hard to be aware of.

This is a message worth keeping in mind when thinking about Journey, the latest release from Thatgamecompany, developers of the zen-like Cloud, Flow and Flower. Journey is a remarkable videogame, a work of art that commentators across the spectrum of gaming have found much to ponder within.

For me, Journey is about the only thing that art worth any goddamn can ever be about, which is what it is we’re all doing here. Journey is about truth, about base reality, about this experience of being itself we so often ignore. It is a call to look around us and remember that, as David Foster Wallace puts it: “This is water. This is water.”

We humans like to think we’re pretty hot shit. We stand, like the figure in that screenshot up there, overlooking our kingdoms, lords of all we survey. We are intellectual beings, gods on Earth; we have split the atom, put man on the moon, invented squeezable jam. We have mastered chaos.

And yet we trudge onwards under a shadow. There is a great shape towering over us, and it is brought closer with every step. We are on a fixed path, ushered forwards, and there can be no escape. We stand upon a precipice, waiting for the moment we will be tipped off. And then … Who knows? For all our nuclear reactors and space shuttles and tubed-jams, we have no clue what will happen when we take the final fall. Our arrogance is really a mask for fear, for the truth of our situation, which is that we are but insignificant flames, blazing once in an endless void, soon to be extinguished forever.

There is, certainly, a sense of this evident within Journey. Its tale of an enigmatic robed figure travelling through a vast desert towards a distant mountain can be read as a treatise on death, a declaration of the inconsequentiality of man’s power and knowledge when measured against the vastness of the cosmos. We are tiny specks scuttling across a universe that feels nothing but cold indifference to our plight. We are alone, and we will all die.

The thing is, while Journey might present us with these facts, the conclusions it arrives at are far from nihilistic. In the vigour and exuberance engendered through traversing its undulating sands, you feel not despair at your insignificance, but liberation. The treatise on death is transformed into a treatise on life. And not life as opposed to death, but life including death.

Because the real truth of our situation is not that we are standing on a precipice, waiting to fall, but that we are falling already, and haven’t yet hit the ground. Rather than peering down into a dark unknown, we are actually in this dark unknown right now. The dark unknown is, at our most fundamental level, us.

It hardly matters that we don’t know what will happen when we die, because we don’t even know what will happen when we live. We don’t even know what we mean when we say “know”.

“The Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”

These wry, wise old words come from the first lines of the Tao Te Ching, a screed regarding the Tao, or hidden flow, of the universe. It’s telling that the lines, among the most penetrating — and most quoted — in philosophical discourse, comprise a negative statement — telling us what is not, rather than what is. In much of Taoist (and subsequent Zen) thought, the assumption is that awareness of base reality — and thus liberation, enlightenment — is not something that can be intellectually arrived at, but a fundamental truth of existence that we simply have to stop trying to attain, and remember is here, right now, for us all to experience.

We don’t often think like this in the West. Our busy, fearful, left-hemisphere dominated minds have a hard time relinquishing control and placing faith in a more natural, less forced intelligence. A Zen master would remind us that a finger pointing to the moon is not the moon, while our great thinkers tie themselves in knots wanting written instructions how to look from the finger to the moon, how eyes switch targets, how light is converted into electro-chemical impulses, and how that happens, and how that happens.

We believe it is possible to “know” everything, and we do so erroneously. For what we mean by “knowing” is really just grouping, ordering, filing away. To know a thing is to delineate it, to demarcate its boundaries, its opposites, to cut it away from the rest of the world so it may be observed. In doing so we build complex maps of the relationships between things, yet we say nothing of the things themselves. You cannot demarcate that which has no opposite. To try is to confuse the map with the territory.

I still remember this faux intellectual punk I used to know, who once sneered, “Everyone gets so soppy about love, without realising it’s just a chemical reaction in the brain that means nothing.” The kid thought that because he could classify love, he could explain it away! He didn’t recognise that the whole universe is a chemical reaction — if viewed through the framework of chemistry. Love, or fear, anxiety, joy, are what chemistry feels like from the inside. We are a chemical reaction experiencing itself! To borrow again from the Tao Te Ching, “Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders.”

This isn’t, however, to say that the Western mind is worse at perceiving truth than the Eastern mind. For where our intellectual discourse fails, our art provides answers. Art is a way of presenting truth as honestly as possible, a kind of meditation — both in the creation and the contemplation — that allows us to see deeply into things as they really are. Whether staring at a lapis lazuli pendant from ancient Mesopotamia, vibrant with preternatural colour, or feeling a creeping dread at the hellish rabbit visions conjured onto film by David Lynch, or exploring the simulated realms of a modern videogame, art lets us step back and refocus on what is, reminds us of the incomprehensibility of this teeming mass of reality blossoming each moment around us, and within us.

And when we do so we are transformed. We no longer bustle along the forest path, eyes down, heads busy with What Jason Said Yesterday, or Why Sarah is Such a Cow — but instead look up, and remember that we are, at this very moment, in paradise, and we better appreciate it now, before it is gone for good.

This is what Journey does for me. It is, I think, an antidote to the suffering we feel when we misjudge our place on Earth. Sometimes we trudge up dunes, and the going is tough. Sometimes we surf and sail downhill, and we feel borne on the wind. Such is life.

There is a mountain towering over us, the engulfing light at its peak drawing closer with each step. But this mountain need not be a spectre. It can instead be a warden — a lighthouse guiding us home, waiting patiently for our return. We soar up its slopes, our hearts glad. We are tiny, we are empty, we know nothing — and how very beautiful that ultimate truth is. For when we are empty of ourselves we can let everything else in, and it is then when we find our real selves, not apart from the universe, but a part of it, growing out of it, growing back into it.

And we are far from alone. Look at all these other travellers around us, pilgrims on the same journey. When we meet others in Journey, we no longer care about measuring them, comparing them, judging them. We don’t wish to manipulate them, nor do we fear being manipulated by them. We see them for who they truly are, empty as well, and we can enjoy simply existing with them, being with them, as we once did as children in that half-forgotten world of dreams we used to inhabit.

There we stand, together, on the precipice of all things — two tiny hearts beating in unison against the drone of an endless cosmos. What is there to do but sing? So we sing.

And, somewhere down there, over the precipice of all things, the endless cosmos sings back.


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A Gaming Education: Tomb Raider: Anniversary

Come close, let me tell you a secret. No, not the one about what I did with the carrot and the hand cream. Or the one about what I did with the toothbrush and the hand cream. Or the one about what I did with the fully-poseable Incredible Hulk action-figure and the hand cream. How do you know so much about my undergraduate Chemistry thesis exploring the effects of hand cream on household objects anyway?

This secret is darker, more shameful, than such nonsense. Before last week, I had never played a Tomb Raider game. GASP and/or SHOCK, with appropriate measures of HORROR. I know.

Actually, there’s two caveats to this: in 1996 I did watch my neighbour play the first game for half an hour or so — hazy memories of underground pits and Lara Croft being eaten by wolves; then a few years ago I beat a boss-fight my friend was stuck on in a Tomb Raider she had for her Wii. Apart from those toe-dips though, nothing.

I should have dived in earlier. If Tomb Raider: Anniversary, a Crystal-Dynamics-developed reimagining of the original adventure, is anything to go by, tomb raiding is a blast. Slow, thoughtful puzzling is the order of the day here, with that ungainly “combat” malarkey relegated to brief staccatos of action that enliven play without *cough Uncharted* bogging down the *cough Uncharted* flow. See how I bogged down the flow of that sentence by referencing a game whose primary failing was its reliance on repetitive combat that bogged down its flow? That’s what they pay me the big bucks for.

Tomb Raider: Anniversary, then, mostly has the self-assurance to present you with its buried temples and lost cities, then sit back and let you scuttle all over them at your leisure. If Uncharted is the young seductress, sleek and sexy and eager to please, Tomb Raider is the middle-aged divorcee down the street, well aware of her talents, lying there patiently as you build the confidence to … ransack her catacombs. Then, just when you think you’ve got it figured out, you have to fight a T-Rex. Ain’t that always the way?

The drawback to this veteran’s approach, however, is a move-set that feels clunky and counter-intuitive when contrasted with the context-sensitive fluidity of today’s videogame sirens. We’ve moved away from games designed with pre-determined, inflexible animations that layer over level geometry; watching Lara have to jump to her full height, with arms outstretched, before she can grab the ledge just above her on her descent is antiquated and laughable.

Lara’s famous bouncy bazoombas look silly these days as well, though to be fair to the old gal there is something iconic about her appearance. She’s more archetype than stereotype, really, and she doesn’t make me cringe with embarrassment as so many female games protagonists do. Perhaps because she stays mercifully silent during much of the game. (Oh Christ. Not that I’m implying my idea of a good woman is one who shuts the hell up. No. She should also be good at cooking, and … like … tapestry, and … long multiplication, and getting DVDs off those central rings in their cases, and stuff. Banter LOL.)

I like Tomb Raider: Anniversary. I like how lonely and even wistful it often is. Put it down to the age of the underlying template, but it reminds me of the emptiness videogames embodied when they first made the transition to three dimensions. There were no crowd scenes back then, no waves of voice-acted enemies or chatty cohorts. Your experience came down to wandering wondrous yet abandoned worlds, solving puzzles left by — whom? –, marvelling at the bittersweet, yugen-like emotions these solitary adventures conjured within you.

Yes, Indiana Jones rip-off starring big-titted bimbo as Zen satori instigator. I really can do that with anything. It’s a talent.

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A Gaming Education: Bulletstorm

Stuffy intellectual types periodically point to the naming systems employed by popular videogames as being evidence of their lack of artistic worth — asserting that no cultural artifact of any value would refer to itself by a moniker as gauche and tawdry as “Assassinatortron Reckoning: The Juxtaposition“, “Corpse-Humper 4: Tea Bags at Dawn“, or “World of Tanks”.

Well, ladies and ladies-with-penises, as a counter-argument to such blanket dismissals of our beloved industry, I present you with Bulletstorm. How could a name of such lithe, velvety texture, of such evocativacity (yeah it’s a word) represent anything other than a work of pure, transcendent splendour?

I mean, look at it. Bulletstorm. A storm of bullets. While playing this paean to the destructive capabilities of man, bullets will literally hail down upon you. Other bullets will zigzag across the sky in bullet-shaped lightning forks. Bullets will clog up your gutter and start leaking through that weak point in your ceiling that you always meant to get a man out to look at but never did. The bottoms of your jeans will soak up bullets as you walk, and your ankles will be all bullety for the rest of the day. Your cat will dart in through the cat flap, shaking bullets from her whiskers, and spend the next two hours treading bullet-prints across your quilt and that hand-penned letter to your childhood sweetheart you were writing.

Then, one morning, in a Kafka-esque twist, you will awaken to find you have become a bullet. Your family will disown you. The world will be repulsed by you. Your father will load you into a giant rifle and fire you into the sky, for you to fall back, in some distant land, as an unnoticed fragment in another player’s bulletstorm, thus illuminating the circulatory and melancholic nature of existence.

Videogames, man. Videogames!

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A Gaming Education: Batman: Arkham City

"Shit, I left the hob on."

I’ve noticed videogame articles containing bullet points are a lot more likely to get commissioned on big sites these days, perhaps because the editors of places like GamesRadar recognise that the repetition of stark black holes boring through the fabric of reality draws the attention of readers towards the inescapable futility of our existence, reminds us that nothingness rests at the base of our experience, and that, far from fearing it, we should embrace this Taoistic interpretation of zero as the root of our creativity and love.

As such, I’m going to adopt the approach for this Gaming Education about Batman: Arkham City, and maybe GamesRadar will pay me the £15 and loss of all journalistic dignity that they bestow upon their other writers. Huzzah!

Here are some memento moris explaining why Arkham City is a game to keep you playing through many a Dark Knight. Which is a pun, which Gamesradar will enjoy, perhaps because they’re cunts. To the bullet-point cave! (that one wasn’t as good):

  • Batman: Arkham City provides a searing and heartfelt glimpse into the life of an average goon. They don’t have it easy, those goons. For they must stand on very dirty street corners, warming their hands against tragically clichéd trash-can fires, muttering the same string of oddly informative explanations of the evil plans of their super-criminal masters. And then, just when they’re tiring of the exposition, and wondering if they could maybe start talking about something useful, like where to find a good greengrocer’s in a city that is literally a prison, some caped bastard swoops down from the shadows and uppercuts them in the goolies. The poor lambs.
  • Arkham City is loved by girls, such as my friend Grace. She says she likes “flying around the city and whatnot” — which is endearing, because as every comic book geek knows, Batman doesn’t actually possess the power of flight, but rather employs squadrons of tiny RC helicopters hidden in his boots to give him the illusion of flight. Girls, huh? Trying to muscle in on our hobbies but always getting it wrong. Though maybe I’m just cross because Grace completed the game and I keep getting killed by goons while searching for the remote for my helicopter-boots.
  • Most importantly, Arkham City is a good game because it lets you punch people really hard in the face. Punching people in the face is what videogames are for. You always want to punch people in the face in real life, but you’re not allowed. Like the time in a maths lesson when the teacher hadn’t turned up yet and Josh McMuscles (I changed his name) got me in a headlock because his parents hadn’t bought him a car yet, and my cheeks turned beetroot, and my spots became even more visible than usual, and all the girls stared at me with this mixture of pity and revulsion, which is a look I’ve become so familiar with in the years since. If that maths lesson had been set inside Arkham City, I could have punched Josh right in his stupid, classically-attractive face, maybe breaking a couple of those perfect teeth, before grappling up to a gargoyle on the ceiling and brooding darkly as I watched as pandemonium ensued below. That wasn’t the best way to end that sentence, but try saying “pandemonium” without saying “ensued” right afterwards. An impossibility.

Well, then. If GamesRadar has taught me anything (it hasn’t), it’s that videogame articles shouldn’t outstay their welcome. The audience-surveys conducted by GamesRadar suggest readers tire of bullet points after the third bullet point, returning to their usual pursuits of homophobia and banging their heads repeatedly against walls, trees, sparrows and babies’ prams, looking to comprehend the world through the only method of interaction they understand. So on that note, I’m outtie. Fingers crossed for the call-up from GamesRadar, eh?


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Crysis 2: A Supposedly Fun Game You’ll Never Play Again

Videogames, despite the wishes of many who make and play them, are plodding out of their Dark Ages. Fast becoming the dominant entertainment medium of the century, with strange specimens at their antipodes hinting they could one day become a powerful — whisper it — artistic medium, they can no longer afford to wallow in quagmires of accumulated pigswill and faeces. So to speak.

The role of the games critic (and, okay, amateur blogger) today feels akin to that of the Victorian physician, moving away from guesswork and superstition, struggling assiduously towards a scientific understanding of the form. No more the medieval critic-priests trudging behind their gods, espousing arcane edicts about “gameplay” and “graphics”, burning unbelievers who dare to question dogmatic axioms such as “games must be fun”. These days, we can truly employ critical thinking, build new lexicons, favour empirical evidence, as we dissect our subjects, delicately prod the flaps and tubes…. All in pursuit of an answer to the question of what this creature called the “videogame” actually is.

And just as Sir Frederick Treves had his Elephant Man, we too may look towards the abominations and the monstrosities within the field to help put our study into perspective. But, unlike Treves, our monsters are sleek and charming to behold. It is beneath, at their cores, where the gnarled tumours lie….


Poor old Crysis 2. It didn’t deserve an introduction like that. It tried sshhow hard to be ghoodsh. Hell, my praise was close to effusive when I wrote about it last. But … Man, something about it has been irking me more and more of late. I’ve been returning to it, on and off, in the year since finishing its Hollywood-blockbuster campaign, playing a level here, a fire-fight there, scribbling frenzied notes late into the night … unsure why a dumb shooting game was fascinating me so, but prepared to follow my nose to the malodorous truths my subconscious was sniffing out. So to speak.

Here’s why Crysis 2 is a fun game that nonetheless harms the industry, an emblem that speaks so strongly of why gaming is fucked right now: You see, Crysis 2 confuses the skin with the soul.

But first, history.

Crytek is a German-Turkish developer based in Frankfurt, a relatively young studio. They first came to prominence with Far Cry in 2004, a technically-dazzling shooter playing out on a lavish tropical-island setting. It is perhaps telling, though, that before the game’s release Crytek had already garnered attention for demonstrations of the engine Far Cry would run on.

The game really was stunning to look at. Its lush vegetation, lapping waters and long draw-distance set a new standard for real-time visuals. But it was also a mechanistically-rich game, with large levels and plenty of wriggle-room for completing objectives. Flora wasn’t just for admiring, it also concealed you from enemies, who would call for reinforcements if they spotted you, and work together to take you down. The muscular power of the CryEngine chugging away beneath its hood was utilised to create a more resonant experience for players.

Crytek’s next game, and spiritual successor to Far Cry, was Crysis, released in 2007. Selling the rights to Far Cry to Ubisoft, who went on to make the intriguing but flawed Far Cry 2 (hope you’re not getting confused), allowed Crytek to focus on a new IP, one that took the strengths of their first game and turned everything up to eleven.

Crysis was a beast. A PC-only title that barely ran on machines players owned at the time, it was the last great weapon in the graphical arms-race of those years. These days the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 are old and creaking, and most developers will release cross-platform titles whose PC ports can be played with decidedly modest rigs — but five years ago Crysis was a badge of honour for hardcore PC gamers. You’d invite friends round to prove the PC was the true format to rule them all, and your friends would sit slack-jawed as trees splintered and fell from hails of bullets, buildings were reduced to rubble with grenade blasts, and ferns yielded and swayed from your passing figure.

Again, though, this graphical cock-brandishing worked to engender a deep and enthralling experience. Crysis‘s story of nanosuited warriors battling alien invaders may have been dumb, the characters stereotypes, but the sub-surface systems these narrative non-starters were draped over were complex, and rewarding to explore.

And here we arrive at the point. Gaming isn’t a storytelling medium, though it encompasses aspects of storytelling. It isn’t a spectator medium, like listening to music or admiring art, though it may contain beautiful music and artwork. The videogame is rather a model, a simulated world to play with, and play within.

Sometimes we play to be relaxed, sometimes to be entertained; other times we want intellectual stimulation, or emotional enlightenment — but play is always the key. You would think that as the games industry matures it would be looking for more effective ways to evoke these sensations, richer models to provide more nuance to the play.

Crytek would disagree. Their goal when designing the sequel to Crysis was accessibility; a product not just for the PC elite, but one that would run on the Xbox, with its meagre 512 MB of memory. Sacrifices in vision were necessary. This is understandable, even laudable, but the aspects of their vision Crytek deemed inconsequential enough to drop speak volumes of their changing priorities.

Crysis 2 is bombastic. There’s a bit in the first Crysis when, right in the middle of a pitched tank battle across a serene valley, the screen begins to shake, and the mountain in the distance crumbles apart, revealing an alien structure buried beneath it. Narratively, it’s standard sci-fi pulp, but experiencing it is quite the thing.

Crysis 2 makes a game out of that moment. Aliens have invaded New York, and  … no, that’s it. Crysis 2 is Michael Bay if Michael Bay was a videogame and not quite so much of a cock. Shit hits the fan, the fan blows up, the shit blows up, reality itself blows up, and you’re wading through the middle, haemorrhaging bullets and making solipsistic statements about the self. So to speak.

And it still looks incredible. The latest version of the CryEngine has gorgeous lighting and particle effects, all that neat stuff that gets tech-heads hot under the collar. Comparing static screenshots, this console-optimised sequel more than holds its own against its predecessor. The sacrifices, then, have been made elsewhere.

The most obvious casualty is scope. Where Far Cry and Crysis offered wide sandboxes to frolic within, Crysis 2 presents linear levels that sweep you between set-pieces that are dazzling yet unrewarding. When multiple options for progression are presented, they are signposted loud and clear. YOU CAN SNIPE ON THIS ROOFTOP, OR TRY SNEAKING THROUGH THE SEWERS HERE. Level design forces you ever-onwards, impatient for the next opportunity to blow its cinematic-load (so to speak), worried of losing your attention if it lets you stop to think.

The intelligence of the enemies is woeful as well. They flank you less, harry you less, and often become bugged and simply pivot on the spot, safe for you to pick off at your leisure. And the environments are less interactive, with the destructible buildings and trees and pots and fences of the first game replaced with an inert world that, after the initial sensory-thrills have abated, feels decidedly restrictive.

What Crysis 2 attempts — namely a deafening, smothering firework-display — it achieves. It is an assault on the senses. But Crytek can do more than this — have done more than this — and it is a shame to see the nuance of their earlier games abandoned in pursuit of loud theatrics.

And it isn’t just Crytek. Although the fringes of the industry are awash right now with developers experimenting with the form, producing rich and complex models, mainstream gaming is in a state of atrophy. The market is saturated with the same dumb corridor shooters, only with better wallpaper on the walls, more lumpy gravel under foot. Top tier studios who repeatedly confuse the skin with the soul.

And yet ultimate blame shouldn’t rest with the studios. Lobotomised publishers who have no sense of the worth of a thing beyond its financial value will always exist. But it is us, as gamers and critics, who feed them.

We demand parallax occlusion mapping, and realistic shadows with variable penumbra, and full DirectX 11 support. (This was, interestingly, many gamers’ issue with Crysis 2. At release, the PC version didn’t support the latest DirectX library, which in layman’s terms means some of the brick-walls didn’t look as weather-eroded as they could have done. Everything wrong with the game was because of an over-focus on visual splendour, and gamers complained because it wasn’t visually-splendid enough. Figures.)

We send the message that, above all else, we want our games to sparkle — and we are rewarded in kind. But that apparent need for sparkle, it doesn’t define us. The voice within that is desirous of more polygons, more filters, more power (the voice that persuaded me to download the DX11 patch when it later arrived) is the same loud voice that wants the ice cream factory at the pizza restaurant, the spending spree, the drugs, the excitement. The childish voice that wants, wants, wants — wants for the sake of wanting, wants, I don’t know, death, maybe … an end to the dread and despair that sits at the base of our spines.

Artists shouldn’t kowtow to this voice. That’s the job of pimps and pornographers and marketing executives. Because the childish voice cannot be satiated, its primary essence is in fact insatiability. The role of the artist should be to lead us back from this brink.

There is another voice, you see. One quieter, less pressing, but purer, more pellucid. It is not older than the childish voice, but younger, reaching back to before birth. It is inquisitive but not desperate. It doesn’t shout “Give me that”, but asks “What is this?”, and it waits for an answer. It is the voice that questions what we’re doing here, where we’ve been, where we’re going — the voice that sees us not as separate but together, a people who would be better helping rather than hurting one another.

This is the voice that art addresses.


Crytek are not a highbrow developer; their aims were never those of high art. But within the field of the atavistic predator-prey simulator (and, hell, the enduring popularity of these games, and literature like Call of the Wild, proves our bourgeois society has not shaken off its animalistic roots) they were always innovative. It is sad to see them reigning in this ambition in an attempt to emulate the lurid and insipid beasts choking the lifeblood from the form. I’d like to see Crytek shout less, to forget the plastic surgery and focus on working out where their soul lies. That’s the future of the industry.


Filed under Game Ponderings, Ramblings

A Gaming Education: Mass Effect

“Erm,” I text to my friend, eruditely. “I think I have the hots for that blue alien who got pooed out of the sentient plant in Mass Effect.”

How embarrassing. And not just because I got mixed up with characters, and actually meant the blue alien I found down the mine, not the one excreted by the killer triffid. It’s embarrassing because falling in love with an imaginary alien creature from a roleplaying videogame set in a sci-fi universe … Well, does that sentence even need completing? It’s self-evident: falling in love with imaginary aliens is axiomatically Not Cool.

But I’m totally cool! I’ve got a cool hat, I’ve got yellow boxer-shorts with red robots on. I’ve got Dolly Parton on my Spotify playlist. Hats and robot undies and Dolly Parton are axiomatically more cool than loving blue aliens is not cool.

And besides, Liara isn’t just some blue alien. She’s different. Come, let me take you on a journey through love, loss and upgradeable ammo types…

Mass Effect is a series of sci-fi action roleplaying games featuring squad-based combat, developed by BioWare. Sheesh, genre definitions, eh? Us gamers can be boring at times. Basically the series aims to combine games where you chat to people and fiddle with your inventory with games where you shoot dudes in the face. The first game was a bit dull but occasionally thrilling. The second was tighter, but dropped some of the roleplaying complexity for more streamlined shooting-of-dudes-faces. The third is out ANY TIME NOW OH GOD HYPE HYPE.

No, this is not an article of hype, but of measured criticism. For Mass Effect has some deep flaws, the most fascinating of which for me concern the way it presents its narrative. I find these flaws emblematic not just of storytelling issues in BioWare games, but within Western RPGs in general. My experience with Liara is interesting because it is, conversely, one of the few examples I can cite of the genre truly arousing my emotions.

Here’s the issue, as I see it. The designers of Western RPGs confuse narrative density with narrative depth. All the writing time is spent amassing lore — piling up mountains of data on myriad invented species, on byzantine wars and political shifts and treaties, on companies, alliances, councils and organisations. Then the act of turning the data into emotion — of telling the story — seems almost an afterthought. The data gets vomited right into your face, through codex entries and utterly flat dialogue, and you’re expected to wipe it off, pick through the chunks, then assemble it into something meaningful yourself.

RPG fans, inevitably, will disagree with me. But they’re the sorts of people who read videogame tie-in novels and write Babylon 5 fan fiction on the internet. As the ever-insightful Tom Bissell notes:

“Asking an expository-lore-loving gamer whether there should be expository lore in a game … is like asking an alcoholic if he’d like a drink. (He would.)”

To be clear, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the sorts of people who write Babylon 5 fan fiction. I am a man sitting in robot-festooned underwear about to explain how he fell in love with an imaginary blue alien. I judge no one.

What I am saying is that satiating a very niche market’s desire for reams of invented data is not the same thing as telling a story. That background lore is important, of course. But only to the designers. It’s the leg-work the designers should be doing to ensure they know their world inside out. And then their job is to go away and decide what to tell the player, what to hint at, what to leave mysterious.

Because the truth is that a game — or a novel or a film — is not the story. It is the source document. The story comes alive in the audience’s mind. The source document is the magical spell that can conjure up the story. As such it needs to be crafted with care.

Or to use another metaphor, it is like composing a song. A musician isn’t judged on their ability to cram as many varied notes as possible into a piece, they’re judged on how they discriminate — on choosing the right notes at the right times, in order to evoke an emotional response from the listener.

The lore of an RPG is like the scale a musician plays within. It is the sum total of the raw material to work with, but it is not the song itself.

So it was that in Mass Effect I didn’t much care that Liara was an asari, or that she was Matriarch Benezia’s daughter — who was sort of a baddie but was being mind-controlled by the other baddie so it wasn’t really her fault. The fact I found Liara in the Artemis Tau cluster, researching a long-extinct species on a mining site on Therum, was neither here nor there. I didn’t even remember that, I used the Mass Effect wiki to read up on it just now. My brain has this weird thing where it instantly forgets information that isn’t beautiful or meaningful.

What I cared about with Liara was that she was socially awkward.

After she joined my crew I found her in the medical bay of my ship when I was exploring between missions. I started talking to her. She told me how her previous job had been solitary, how she liked that because sometimes she just needed to get away from other people.

You and me both, I thought.

Then she accidentally let slip that she found me (I’m Commander Shepard by the way, humanity’s last hope for … rescuing the Smurfs from Skeletor or some shit) fascinating. She got all flustered trying to explain what she’d meant. She made it worse. Her eyes went big, she stammered, looked away.

And she had me. What can I say? I find embarrassment sexy. Probably because it means we’ll have plenty of common ground.

Over the remainder of the game Liara and I grew closer, became intimate. I’d trudge through repetitive missions, force myself to engage with a fiction that didn’t interest me, learn which type of ammo to slot into my combat rifle, solely so that when I got back to my ship there would be new dialogue options available with my blue alien in the medical bay.

I’d grow frustrated when she had nothing new to say, get worried something might happen to her when she was part of my squad for missions, find myself excited by words from her that sounded loaded with double-meaning.

One time she told me about the mating rituals of her species. Love-making for the asari was a deep and spiritual event, forming a “connection that transcends the physical universe.” I wondered what our wedding song would be. Into the Mystic, probably. I wanted to rock her gypsy soul.

Then, the night before the game’s climactic battle, Liara came to visit me in my quarters. I chose dialogue options in the affirmative, and she and Shepard had sex. It was a tasteful cut-scene. The kind of thing you wouldn’t mind your kids watching in a PG film.

So why do I feel awkward writing this? Why would I have squirmed if someone had walked in at any of the times I was pursuing Liara?

We’re drawn to romance in fiction. Scriptwriters may learn to ensure love scenes reveal more about the characters, are integral to the plot (something BioWare should work on), but that’s not the reason Hollywood producers will rarely green-light a script without a romantic sub-plot.

Human beings are lonely animals looking for a way home. We spend our days as solitary ships tossed on a violent sea. But forming a connection with another — or watching a film about it happening to someone else, or playing a game simulating it — momentarily reminds us that we’re not little ships at all, that at the root of our consciousness we are the waves themselves, and the shared ocean stretching ceaselessly below.

Maybe it’s the interaction involved in a videogame that unnerves us. Isn’t wooing a pretend woman who responds to my input a little like … well … owning a robotic sex-doll or something?

Except the romance in Mass Effect has nothing to do with sexual gratification. I wasn’t flirting with Liara so I could see her polygonal breasts. I was thrilled by the feeling of a connection. Liara may have been pretend, but the people who created her are real. The voice-actor, the designers, writers, animators … The magical spell they used may have been in the shape of a blue alien, but the emotion they conjured was entirely real.

I’m playing Mass Effect 2 at the moment. The early events of its narrative force Shepard apart from his old crew. I have a new ship now, a new mission. Mass Effect 2 found save files from the first Mass Effect on my hard drive, so it remembers the decisions I made in that game. When I enter my quarters now, nestled among the model spaceships, data terminals and mission-critical dossiers, sits a framed photograph of Liara. Looking at it I feel a sense of loss, as, I believe, does Shepard.

We’re cool with games that simulate the orgiastic joy of combat, the satisfaction of silent take-downs, the horror of mutilated corpses. Why do we still feel so uncomfortable enacting a simulation of two people connecting with one another?


Filed under Game Ponderings