Tag Archives: A Gaming Education

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?”

“Sir?”

“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.

1 Comment

Filed under Game Ponderings

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?

4 Comments

Filed under Game Ponderings

A Gaming Education: Year Zero

By Chris Phillips

I considered renaming it. I was going to call the column “Educating Rita”, until I remembered my name isn’t Rita. Then I got excited that I could call it “Educating Peter”, before I remembered my name isn’t Peter, either. I get no breaks in this life!

Anyway, a change of name would mess up my post-tagging, and you know how seriously I take my search engine optimisation. Everything else, though, is evolving.

I started my Gaming Education series out of a sense of embarrassment for not having played enough games. I’ve long identified myself as a gamer, but for many years I wasn’t actually playing much. And looking back, even in my youth I tended to stick with a few favourite titles, loving the Mario 64s and Half Lifes, rarely venturing into the more obscure esoterica. This is like trying to be a film critic because you enjoyed watching The Shawshank Redemption and American Beauty. Embarrassing.

So the idea behind the Gaming Education was that I would start investigating all those games I should have known about, but didn’t. I’d post articles detailing my adventures, discussing a certain game-system here, telling a story there, basically having fun. But two years later, the reality is that this hasn’t really happened.

The problem is I don’t like just diving in. I’m a perfectionist, unable to send my work out into the world until I’ve drafted and redrafted and edited and polished, and it represents the best possible version of myself. This has its advantages, of course, but beneath it all sits a terrible fear. I fear not being respected, being “found out” as a bad writer. My sense of self is entwined within my work — I want articles I write to be seen as perfect because I want to be seen as perfect.

The energy needed to create such polished articles has meant that relatively few have been completed. Spending months on posts, I’ve had to choose my subjects carefully, discussing only issues I feel strongly about, usually picking games that will illustrate my arguments, rather than classics that will broaden my awareness.

And always, the fear is there. It is beginning to stifle me, choking the spontaneity and joy from my writing. I love creating the longer pieces, thinking through complex problems affecting the industry, telling meaningful stories — but it’s so tiring having no other outlets for my thoughts. I’ve become used to the deep depression I feel upon hitting that “Publish” button, aware of the myriad ways the article I’ve finished hasn’t achieved what I wanted it to, realising all that awaits me is another climb up that lonely mountain, amassing my thoughts, building yet one more tower from the sludge and slippery eels of my thoughts. It’s hard work, and too much of that gets boring.

The answer, then, is another style of writing — not replacing, but running parallel to the larger posts; writing where I just do, and learn through doing. Sketches, if you will, that don’t have to be perfect, that I can use to mess around with, to experiment with, to play. That’s what this blog is about, after all.

The polished pieces will still be coming. But now the long gaps between them will (hopefully) be filled with shorter, bite-sized posts that I’m going to have fun with. That’s the plan, any rate — but as this whole endeavour is supposed to pull me back from obsessive over-planning, I’d rather just start, and see what happens.

Publishing stuff on here always reminds me of diving into the sea as a kid. And I’m the boy on the pier going, “Yeah, gimme a minute! I just need to check the straps on my goggles again, and re-read the diving manual, and go over my arm and leg movements in my head.” That pretty much symbolises my whole life, in fact.

But sometimes you’ve just got to leap, inexperienced and ungainly, and not worry about getting a bit of water up your nose. Anyway, in that limbs-splayed belly-flop is contained all the elation of why kids jump into water in the first place. It’s about learning to love life, innit?

[Image courtesy of Chris Phillips. Used with permission.]

Leave a comment

Filed under 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?

19 Comments

Filed under Game Ponderings

A Gaming Education: Dungeons of Dredmor

The problem with writing about videogames is that sometimes you meet people to whom you have to explain that you write about videogames. Visiting my sister recently in London — a bizarre fantasy realm of rooftop-terrace bars and bohemian homes, where you’re never more than two metres from a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, and everyone has their own personal assistant, even personal assistants, which leads down an infinite regression that’s best not to think too hard about — I encountered just such an issue.

We were in my cousin’s underground bohemian kitchen, marble work surfaces awash with Latin American travel guides and bowls of rare Picholine olives, and a party began to happen. Not like the parties we have Up North, brimming with recreational drugs and regret, but one with home-made salsa and chit-chat.

After a glass of wine or two, the conversation turned to careers. One girl was a personal assistant at an influential banking firm. Another worked for a major publishing house, as a personal assistant. A third helped fundraise for a charity, though she confessed her personal assistant did most of the real work.

Heads turned towards me. Now I know you should never be ashamed of who you are, as Willem Dafoe tells the Oscar-nominated actor, sex-symbol and Yale PhD student James Franco in the film Spider-Man … but this was one tricky predicament I found myself in. Because the truth I wanted these Oyster-Card-toting, Sauvignon-swilling fashionistas to comprehend, was that when I went home I would be working on an article about Dungeons of Dredmor, a videogame literally about creating an axe-wielding fire mage and leading him down into catacombs to battle monsters in turn-based combat.

I shifted my feet around, and coughed. “I work in a pub,” I said.

Videogame designers worry about many things. How budding games journalists will validate their chosen profession to girls at sophisticated London parties does not, sadly, appear to be one of them. Fire mages are about as suitable a topic for light party conversation as DIY enemas. Probably worse actually, as you can’t make ice-breaking jokes about the time you had a fire mage.

I don’t blame the fashionistas. Everyone who writes about games, if they’re even remotely self-reflective, will have had nights when they’ve lain awake questioning their basic sanity. I could be spending my twenties pitching articles to the Guardian about links between Eastern philosophy and current theories on hemisphere-competition in the brain, or blogging about Terrence Malick films, or penning short stories about sophisticated personal assistants who leave their native London and fall in love with bearded northern writers. But instead I’m working on an article about Dungeons of Dredmor, a game, as I’ve said, literally about creating a fire mage and leading him down into catacombs to battle monsters in turn-based combat.

Identity plays a part in it. Gaming has contributed to my sense of self since childhood, and I owe it a lot. And critiquing something I enjoy, among like-minded individuals, is always pleasurable.

Yet there’s more to it than this. I may currently write within the milieu of videogames, but ultimately I don’t think it matters where you plant your flag. What matters is what you do on the terrain you’ve claimed.

Any subject can be fascinating, can yield truth, if explored deeply. It is as if all facts exist on the surface of a great sphere. Like … a grapefruit. And whichever point you choose to dig in, so long as you burrow down far enough, will eventually lead to a delicious core of truth, which is shared and constant.

Take Dungeons of Dredmor, for example. There’s lots I could say about it to my gaming friends — that it’s a colourful, exuberant dungeon-crawler; that the visual style pays homage to classic LucasArts adventures; that a rich vein of parody runs through the game, with motivation posters for the monsters “brought to you by Lord Dredmor”, and a recent patch that has given the little bats you fight the ability to occasionally shout the battlecry from Skyrim at you as they attack.

But keep digging, and you get to analysis that is, I think, more universal. Dungeons of Dredmor is a “roguelike” — a member of a sub-set of roleplaying game both ancient and staunchly uncommercial, focusing on the two key mechanics of procedural level generation, and permanent death.

Here’s what that means. In a roguelike you custom-build a unique character and set off to explore a unique environment, partially constructed by the computer to ensure its individuality. On your travels you encounter many obstacles, and when one finally gets the better of you — and it will — your character dies. Not dies like “goes back to the last checkpoint”. Not dies like “forces you to reload your save game”. Dies like oblivion.

And okay, these roguelikes are the product of inarguably nerdy minds. The characters you build will be fire mages, or hobbit archers, or cyber-punk ninjas. The environments will be medieval dungeons or ninja lairs. But the bodywork isn’t important. It’s what’s happening under the hood that matters.

You’re deep inside a dungeon, right? Creeping down a torch-lit corridor. You come to a door. No idea what’s on the other side. Could be piles of gold. Could be that enchanted breastplate you’ve heard about. Could be a fucking menagerie of mutant beasties, ready to jam their tentacles down your throat and rip your pantaloons off through your colon. And if it’s that last one — well it’s goodbye to brave Bertie the Barbarian, and goodbye to this funny world that’s become your home, your existence, for the last three hours. All vanishes into the black-lacquered mystery that is not ours to comprehend.

Yet what you feel, poised by this door, not knowing what’s coming next, is the thrill of living. The liberation of the present moment. You feel the conflicting tug of two of our most fundamental, primeval emotions — shared memories passed down to us from ancestors who huddled by dying fires and looked out into worlds wild and hostile and free. The very fabric of your DNA vibrates in recognition. You feel fear, and you feel curiosity.

This is a valuable experience. We’re a society that has lost its roots to the earth that grows us. We feel ourselves to be these mighty, immutable beings — protected from the brutalities of life by our central heating and our Sky+ boxes and the number of Likes on our Facebook status updates. We’re saturated with knowledge — what time the 97 bus arrives, how long Tesco ready-meals take in the microwave, the reasons Rihanna is so lusted-over (because her bland-yet-overt sexuality appeals to the aspirational model of symmetrical perfection shoved down our throats by companies who want us to buy more magazines and hygiene products, thanks for asking!)

But this sense of dominion over chaos, over nature, is misguided. We will all still die. Worms will pick out our eyeballs. And as our bodies decompose and our bones fall to dust, it’s going to matter not one jot whether the iPhones still clasped in our skeletal hands, their screens flickering out a backlit display to the rocks and lonely winds, broadcast the final message: “7 billion people like this status.”

And I lied before. Dungeons of Dredmor isn’t really a game about fire mages. It’s a game about facing the great unknown, and measuring yourself against it. It allows you to reconnect with the sense of wonder and terror felt from an existence where you don’t know what will happen next. And that’s pretty cool, I reckon.

Though if you meet any sophisticated personal assistants, just tell them it’s about Javier Bardem or something. It’ll be easier.

3 Comments

Filed under Game Ponderings

A Gaming Education: Limbo

Limbo is out now on PC. An opportune time, then, to buy it for my PlayStation 3.

It’s the controls, see. Apparently they’re rubbish with a keyboard, and I don’t have a joypad to plug in, so I had no choice but to brave the lawless wastes of the PlayStation Store (you basically just shout your credit card details at Sony now, and hope no thieves are listening) to get my hands on this lugubrious, elegiac puzzle-platformer from developers Playdead.

It was more bloody expensive than on Steam as well! Granted, not as much as the PC version and a PC joypad would have been, but still a full third as much again for the base game. Or … it was £9.99 rather than £6.99. Is that a third as much again? Seven into ten … carry the four … multiply out the brackets …

Maths is not my strong suit. But my point is you’ve gotta pay extra to play on console, and I have a sneaking suspicion this is because Sony demand tithes in return for access to their exclusive bummers’ club. Tithes and HUMAN SACRIFICE. Or just tithes.

Well, how interesting. I just Googled “tithes”, and the word literally means “tenths”, referring to the ten-percent contribution from earnings voluntarily paid to an organisation. So what would a tenth of … £9.99 divided by £6.99 be then? Or is it £6.99 times by a factor of one-tenth, plus the difference of £9.99 minus remainder two?

According to my calculations, Playdead have had to pay Sony … sixty billion to the power of n dollars to host their game on the PlayStation Network. Those poor souls.

BUT WHAT OF THE GAME ITSELF? I hear you cry. Yes we’re getting there. Enjoy the perambulation whydontcha? Rushing yourself to the grave, you are.

Welllllllllllllll. Although Limbo looks genetically formulated to tickle my fancy, I’m sad to report that my fancy remained decidedly untickled. No, incorrect. Limbo did tickle my fancy. It’s just every stimulation was accompanied by a forceful elbow to the balls.

This is a conflicted game. On the one hand, it wants to create an oppressive, lonely mood with its monochrome visuals and delicate ambient sounds, contrasting the vulnerability of the young boy you control against a bleak landscape, evoking an ethereal sense of an overwhelming, uncaring universe.

On the other hand, it enjoys dropping a banana peel beneath your feet and laughing as you break your back.

The challenges in Limbo are designed with a philosophy for completion you might term trial-and-error. I would term it the-developers-are-dicks.

Example: one room you have to traverse, filled with pressure pads. Some of the pads kill you if you stand on them, others kill you if you don’t stand on them. There’s no way to know which are which beforehand. You just have to barrel through, dying again and again, until you memorise the pattern.

This is essentially how you advance through most of the game. You watch your character being eviscerated, beheaded, crushed and impaled, by traps impossible to anticipate, and you restart and you restart, and gradually you make progress.

I can see why Playdead thought it would work. The idea of this mounting pile of deaths towering over you, draining any goodwill from the world, sounds like a clever way of ensuring the tone is engendered as much by the player’s actions as by the melancholic visuals and affecting ambient score.

That’s not how it plays though. For a start, the mocking nature of the traps feels distinctly personal, distinctly human, the cruel hands of the designers evident moving behind the scenes, destroying the illusion of a detached yet hostile land.

And for the deaths to mean anything they would have to hold consequence. In reality all that happens is you respawn at the start of the same screen and try again. While the reload time is annoyingly slow, and many puzzles require some labourious set-up before the actual obstacle is faced — pulling a crate up a slope and rushing up ladders as it slides back, say — the result is irritation, more than anything else. As a punishment from a brooding world perhaps set on the edge of Hell, irritation is hardly the most shocking of outcomes.

All of which is a shame, because under that irritation is a haunting, majestic game. The section known to veterans as That Fucking Spider Bit is one of the most terrifying, revolting, inspired moments in gaming. The vignette where you negotiate a deep pool by climbing across the corpses of dead children is shocking and powerful. The ambiguous minimalism of the story allows you to read just as much into it as you wish.

So it’s a pity to see the mournful tone bulldozed by a loud yet prosaic sense of frustration, a wave of anger that threatens to engulf all the subtleties the game works so hard to inspire.

By the hundredth time you see your boy torn apart on the blades of a buzzsaw positioned in exactly the wrong place, you start to wonder what you can have done to the designers in a past life to deserve this abuse.

Less Limbo, then, and more Purgatory. I hope I’ve worked off my sins come Playdead’s next release.

[To see the conflict at the heart of Limbo given voice by two of games journalism’s brightest rising stars, I recommend this post on the quaint Rock, Paper, Shotgun. That “Kieron” fellow sure swears a lot. Can’t see him making much headway as a videogame critic.]

6 Comments

Filed under Game Ponderings

A Gaming Education: The Stanley Parable

What are you doing exactly now? You’re … what? No, don’t do that. Put the ferret down. And the margarine. Urg.

Now, go and download this stunning modification of Half Life 2, called The Stanley Parable.

You’re doing that, are you? And as it downloads you want to know what a “modification of Half Life 2” means, because you’re new to gaming, having misspent your youth teaching domesticated mammals to believe it’s not butter?

Well fine. This paragraph was going to sparkle in true experiential, New Games Journalism style, but if you need to know, fine. In it’s simplest form a “mod” is where you take all the stuff that makes a game run, the art assets and the code for walking and opening doors and all the rest, and you modify it to produce a new experience. Mods are typically budding game designers’ first steps into the industry, and like all indie scenes with relatively fast prototyping speeds, what they lack in polish they more than make up for in imagination.

That’s certainly true of The Stanley Parable. And … What’s that? Oh, you’re playing already? No we’re still on the preamble here. I still need to … Dammit, come back!

Well whatever. I guess as you’ve completed it three times now you won’t mind me discussing the endings and talking about all the stuff that if you hadn’t played it would totally fucking ruin the enjoyment of discovering it for yourself. If that’s the case just nod your head.

Excellent. So how about that staircase, then? The way …

No, don’t worry. See this is the thing with writing. I love writing, I love reading, I love the whole set-up we’ve got going here. But there’s not much of a dialogue between us, is there? I know you weren’t really doing that with a ferret. It was a polecat. And any illusion of choice within this article is just that — all you truly get to decide is whether to continue reading or not.

But not so with videogames. Okay, the player’s input is fairly rudimentary, and the pathways designed in advance, but what a videogame offers in a basic yet tangible sense, elusive to so many other forms of artistic expression, is a conversation.

This is what The Stanley Parable is about. I won’t discuss spoilers, it wouldn’t be fair. But at its heart this mod is the most breathtakingly self-knowing celebration of everything an interactive medium can be — and a few things it cannot.

It is clever, but its appeal runs deeper than that. Beneath the deconstructionist stuff lies this undercurrent of claustrophobia, of dizziness, of — and I don’t say this lightly — existential dread.

Part of it reminded me of this lucid dream I had once, a time when I realised in my dream that I was dreaming. To begin with it was incredible, I was admiring leaves on a tree and the intricate patterns playing out on the walls of a wooden hallway, all constructs of my own brain. But soon this fear crept in — I was awake inside my head. How would I really wake up? What if I couldn’t? I had no mouth and yet I must scream.

A similar horror drips from the windowless, labyrinthine corridors of The Stanley Project. Playing it tightened my chest, caused my heart to beat faster, made me want to put on some loud and comforting pop song as soon as it was over.

It is worth braving though. And there’s also warmth, and humour, and storytelling prowess.

It’s important. Perhaps the most important game you’ll play this year. And you will play it, won’t you?

Just nod your head to agree.

4 Comments

Filed under Game Ponderings