Meewella | Fragments

The Life of P

Tag: gaming (page 1 of 5)

Unplayer One: What Remains of Edith Finch

Unplayer One is a recurring feature exploring games in way that should appeal to those who enjoy art irrespective of the medium.  Unlike other review posts, these are likely to contain major spoilers so, if you have any intention of playing the game in question, please do so before reading.

 

“If we lived forever, maybe we’d have time to understand things
But as it is, I think the best we can do is try to open our eyes
And appreciate how strange and brief all of this is.”

“Home” is a nebulous concept. We know that at some point we leave our childhood home and set out to create our own. That process can take years, even decades, because a home is more than just the four walls that surround us. Home includes people, a family, and I think of home less as a physical place than something attached to those people, irrespective of geographical distance. One of my favourite lines from Zach Braff’s Garden State followed the musing of being homesick for a place that no longer exists, “Maybe that’s all family really is. A group of people that miss the same imaginary place.”

In What Remains of Edith Finch (which just received the BAFTA for Best Game), following the death of her mother, a young woman returns to a familial home where the physical structure is inseparable from the people who inhabited it. The house was built by matriarch Edie Finch and her husband. The Finch family is believed to be cursed — understandably given their tendency toward unfortunate and untimely deaths — and Edie turns the bedrooms into perfectly preserved memorials to each deceased member of the family. As the family grew, rather than reusing old bedrooms, they simply added rooms to the house in a bizarre, ramshackle way. The first glimpse of the eerily imposing house seems unnatural and unsafe with its cancerous protrusions, but once inside it feels more like an obvious organic extension of its inhabitants.

As Edith explores the house, she recalls or discovers the tragic stories of her ancestors through narration. The game falls into a genre derisively described as “walking simulators”, a first person exploration of the house, with the ability to interact with various objects in order to access new areas, reminiscent of 2013’s Gone Home. The shrines to each family member trigger themed interactive vignettes that explore their deaths. It is these tales with their wild aesthetic shifts and merging of the tragic and the whimsical that are the heart of the game. It is a triumph of storytelling and colourful characterisation. Edith’s own plight is that she was denied this family history and connection to her past when her mother tried to abandon it. We are told that it was her mother, Dawn, who sealed off all the bedrooms in response to which an ageing Edie, who continued to view the stories of her cursed family as important, drilled peepholes into each one.

The house is cluttered in beautiful detail, all placed with careful intent as each individual’s paraphernalia forms part of the storytelling. Twins Calvin and Sam shared a room but, when Calvin died at 11 (obsessed with space and flight, he launches himself off a swing over a cliffside), his half of the room was roped off and became a mausoleum frozen in time whilst Sam continued to grow. One can only imagine the psychological impact of waking each day to this unavoidable, increasingly anachronistic reminder of his lost brother.

Former child star Barbara’s room demonstrates both pride in her success but also how that early success trapped and infantilised her. Her murder is told through the medium of an exploitative comicbook about the events narrated by a Crypt Keeper-like figure who takes perverse pleasure in the tale, no doubt reflective of the media frenzy following her death. One of the lighter vignettes features Edith’s artistic brother Milton, who simply disappeared. A flipbook left behind suggests an intention to disappear into his paintings in a nod to developer Giant Sparrow’s previous game, The Unfinished Swan, featuring its signature melody and visual style.

The most poignant sequence belongs to Edith’s brother, Lewis Finch. His day is filled with unrewarding work in a dark, drab cannery. You perform his routine task of slicing fish: reach, grab, move, slice, repeat. It’s boring and repetitive. Your mind starts to wonder, just like Lewis. He begins daydreaming, escaping a simple maze overlaid across a corner of the screen, which you navigate whilst continuing to chop fish with your other hand. Stop, and the fish start to pile up, obscuring your view. Over time, as Lewis’ fantasy becomes more elaborate, the overlaid game increases in visual fidelity and grows to take up more of the screen, until eventually you are performing the job purely by muscle memory. Dissatisfied Lewis imagines himself a heroic and benevolent king, adored by his subjects, with the control and recognition he cannot find in life. Ultimately he disassociates from reality entirely. This was widely regarded as the best level design of the past year, through how it visually and structurally mirrors the psychological process it represents, and how it resonates so strongly with an audience of gamers who recognise that desire for escapism.

Dawn takes the loss of Lewis particularly hard and resolves to leave the family home with her daughter. She conceals this intention from Edie until the night before she leaves, causing a rupturing argument. Edie’s own end shortly afterwards is unresolved, which forms a fitting lack of conclusion for the woman obsessed with the family curse and preserving memories. As Edith talks about her experiences after leaving, we discover that the narrated stories we have heard are the memoir that a pregnant Edith wrote for her unborn child after exploring the house and learning its secrets. Edith wishes her mother had shared these stories with her and believes it is important that her child knows the family’s history, in all its tragedy. Edith, it is implied, dies during complications in childbirth, but her son — now the last surviving Finch — receives her memoir and later returns to the house.

Although one can run away, severing those family ties is far harder. Edith realises this where Dawn could not. Human curiosity means that we are not simply fascinated by knowledge of from where we come but beholden to it, and that becomes the legacy we bestow upon those who follow — the stories we have lived and the stories we pass on.  What remains of Edith Finch? A child, and generations of history. That, and a sense of amazement that our brief lives are experienced at all.

“It’s a lot to ask, but I don’t want you to be sad that I’m gone.
I want you to be amazed that any of us ever had a chance to be here at all.”

Edith Finch

Unplayer One: Brothers

Unplayer One is a recurring feature exploring games in way that should appeal to those who enjoy art irrespective of the medium.  Unlike other review posts, these are likely to contain major spoilers so, if you have any intention of playing the game in question, please do so before reading.

Sitting in a car at traffic lights and discussing the nature of death with my cousin, whose mother had passed away a few days before, I found myself struggling to communicate an idea and instead explained it through my experience of the game Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. In an increasingly common trend, Brothers was developed by a small breakaway team within a larger developer, Starbreeze Studios, a Swedish studio known for violent first person action games. A thoughtful, beautifully colourful fantasy tale about two young boys was an unexpected offering.

The initial premise is somewhat trite: two boys must undertake a dangerous journey to obtain water from the Tree of Life in a distant land to cure their dying father. The control scheme is immediately frustrating, with one half of the gamepad (one analogue stick and one trigger) used for each brother, whom you move simultaneously. It takes most of the game before it starts to feel natural but by the end it is clear that it could not have been designed any other way. Recent ports have brought the game to mobile devices but I think a controller is required for the best experience.

The game has no intelligible dialogue but the brothers work cooperatively as they traverse the land and help others they meet along the way. They meet two trolls who turn out to be friendly creatures that the brothers reunite. Nature is routinely their chief adversary, through dangerous animals or treacherous terrain. The game’s prologue shows the younger brother, Naiee, in a boat with his mother during a storm in which she is swept away and drowns. As a result, Naiee has a phobia of water and is unable to swim. Crossing rivers requires his older brother’s help, climbing onto his back and being ferried across. The trauma is deeply-rooted.

Towards the end of the game the brothers fend off a giant spider, but not before she mortally wounds the older brother. Although they reach the Tree of Life together, by the time Naiee has scaled its branches to retrieve the water, his brother is dead. He grieves, burying his brother. His sluggish, pitiful movements are affecting, but moreso is the effect on the control scheme. Suddenly you are playing with half the controller, with a single hand, as if you have physically lost a limb. It is a perfect parallel to the overwhelming sense of loss as we grieve the death of a loved one, as if we have lost a part of ourselves. But the game is not yet over and has more to say. Naiee must still return to his father with the cure. The return journey is smooth until, nearing his village, a storm floods the surrounding land. Frozen by the edge of the water, he cannot reach his father without swimming. The boy reacts as he always does near water, pausing, the controller vibrating softly in his refusal to move on. The game offers no prompt, but the solution emerges organically — the absent elder brother’s unused half of the controller becomes the key as Naiee draws on him for strength to proceed. Using both halves of the controller (as you had when crossing water so many times before), Naiee forces himself on, overcoming his fear and saving his father’s life.

This, I explained in the car,  was my view of death. Irrespective of an afterlife, I find it difficult to view people as truly “gone” as long as we carry them with us. We often worry that the dead will be quickly forgotten but they continue to exist in our choices, our decisions and actions. In truth we only need to worry if they meant nothing to us at all, if they had no impact on us. Brothers was a perfect metaphor for this concept, and one that could not have been communicated so fully in any other medium. As a game, its control mechanics were not simply a way to tell a story but part of the tale itself.

In the West too frequently we shy away from discussing death, which leaves us ill-equipped to deal with the absolutely universal experience of grief, as well as our own mortality. Interactive art like Brothers can provide us with shared cultural touchstones and, as a result, better tools and vocabulary to explore these ideas.

Unplayer One: That Dragon, Cancer

In the past I have written sporadic game-related posts intended for non-gamers, highlighting new interactive experiences that push the medium forward beyond what most non-gamers consider it to be. Unplayer One will be a new recurring feature exploring games in way that should appeal to those who enjoy art irrespective of the medium.  Unlike other review posts, these are likely to contain major spoilers so, if you have any intention of playing the game in question, please do so before reading.

That Dragon, Cancer

That Dragon, Cancer was always going to be an emotional experience. The game was developed by a couple as part of their grieving process after losing their son to cancer at age five, following a long battle with cancer. The game received strong support through crowdfunding (notwithstanding some ill-conceived accusations that the designers were exploiting the loss of their son), with many backers having their own experiences losing children or those close to them. Told through a series of vignettes, That Dragon is as much about life – albeit life with a terminally ill child – as it is about loss. We share intimate family moments as well as difficult hospital trips. Grief is complex and the game will mean different things to different people: some will recognise familiar painful experiences but hopefully find solace in the shared experience; others will find it a way to explore one of the most harrowing positions in which a parent can find themselves. Although the proximity may vary, loss to cancer is a universal experience, more poignant at the start of this year with the deaths of David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Lemmy. In any case, I always find an increase in shared understanding to be positive result.

That Dragon, Cancer

The game uses stylised graphics and a mixture of the parents’ perspective and a floating camera that allows you to observe the family. The gameplay is limited, largely a point-and-click tour through a succession of scenes and narrated letters, but I want to highlight a few moments from the game that spoke to me in particular. When the news is broken that treatment has been unsuccessful, we are free to shift perspective between each of the parents and the medical staff, colouring the dialogue with their internal thoughts. The room, meanwhile, gradually fills with water, morphing into a flooded environment with a boat heading towards a lighthouse. The parents respond in very different ways, the mother relying on her faith as a vessel to carry her through, never giving up on a miracle, whilst the father, a realist slipping into despair,  is portrayed literally drowning beneath the surface. He can swim up but can’t drag himself out; the only way to proceed is by heading further into the deep.

That Dragon, Cancer

Simpler moments can be equally poignant, as reminders that life goes on for the family. As the children go to the hospital to spend time with their brother during treatment, one complains that he does not like missing school. The surprise revelation gives way to the realisation that what he really means is that he dislikes having to catch up after repeatedly missing classes. Many scenes comprise short sequences, repeatedly waking in a hospital room next to a bed, helping with small tasks, hours and days merging together. Whilst a game can offer only a fraction of the impact, there can be nothing as heartbreaking as having to experience one’s child in pain, crying incessantly but understandably, taking meagre comfort as sleep ceases their thrashing.

In one of these vignettes, I awoke in an empty hospital room with ten cards on surfaces around the room. Each could be read and held a short message to, or in memory of, a cancer victim. These were clearly messages from those who had helped fund the game. As I exited the room, my chest tightened as I saw looked out at the entire ward, completely filled with scores of these cards. Many were mundane, a few captured more poignant thoughts, but each was a real person, a real family left behind, a visual representation of a real loss. The gut punch came as I opened one card in which a parent had simply quoted a line from Puff the Magic Dragon, “Dragons live forever but not so little boys.”

That Dragon, Cancer

This War of Mine

This War of Mine

Did a movie ever make your feel remorseful? You can feel compassion and sadness and lots of other emotions watching a movie, but some emotions can only come from inside.

-Pawel Miechowski

In much the same way that important movies receive coverage directed at those not heavily invested in that medium, every year there are a handful of games that deserve attention even from those who may have zero intention of ever playing them. I actually played This War of Mine last year on PC, but it has just become considerably more accessible with new Android and iOS releases at a price of £4.99. It is a war game, but it is probably not what you imagine. Nor could it be more relevant in the midst of one of the worst refugee crises the world has experienced, marked by disheartening hostility and lack of empathy.

Typically one thinks of war games as a power fantasy, playing an army-of-one soldier charging into the fray with a hailstorm of bullets causing scant concern. Such games have their place as escapist entertainment, as do mindless action films. This War of Mine is, if anything, a disempowerment fantasy. As its tagline states: in war, not everyone is a soldier.

You are in charge of a group of civilians in an unidentified modern city under siege, tasked simply with survival. Sheltering in the husk of a house, you must leave this relative safety to forage for food and supplies. Survival is brutal: much of the time you will be hungry, sick, exhausted and depressed. And that’s before you set foot outside. With the right tools you can make your shelter more bearable, adding the creature comforts that strengthen the human psyche. But how far are you willing to go in order to achieve this?

This War of Mine

Looting abandoned stores is a relatively easy moral decision but others are likely to have beaten you there already. What about looting a house? An inhabited one? Does it make a difference if they clearly have more than they need? What if one of your friends is dying? What happens if you are confronted? The strength of the game’s morality comes not just from realism of these choices, but the fact the game doesn’t overtly mark out “good” and “bad” choices.

These are survival choices and, as much as anything, the question is what you can live with. Both characters and players may be haunted by their actions, discovering that their morality is more permeable than they might have believed. Ultimately, the game succeeds when it makes you feel bad about yourself, for a choice that seemed right in the moment. If I rationalise a theft on the basis that others robbed us last night, or that it was easy and otherwise it would just have been someone else, does it really make me less complicit if I take the medicine from the old man pressing me to leave?

This War of Mine

As lead writer Pawel Miechowski explained in a talk at GDC, that hollow feeling of regret is not something that can be conveyed by non-interactive media, where at best you can empathise with someone else’s sense of remorse. Although characters may become demoralised by actions they have taken, the judgment does not come from the game. “The only way for players to feel real remorse is if they judge themselves,” says Miechowski.

Why is a game like this crucial now? It’s less about countering the glorification of war, which might have been a greater concern a decade ago. Instead, it is fostering an appreciation that this is the reality from which millions of Syrian refugees have fled. When knee-jerk reactions result in snap judgments about middle class refugees or those with smartphones (which are not a sign of wealth), This War of Mine is a stark reminder that no one should have to live under the awful conditions imposed by war.

It’s not really fun. It probably won’t make you feel good about yourself. And I highly recommend it.

The Last Generation

Having joined the newly launched generation of videogame consoles by purchasing a PS4, and with a healthy crop of new games now announced, it seems like a good opportunity to look back at the games that changed the medium over the course of the past generation which spanned some eight years. Over that period gaming became a truly mainstream form of entertainment, aided in a large part by the Wii despite Nintendo’s inability to replicate its success. Many developers matured in their understanding of the unique experiences that games can offer by virtue of their interactivity. The games listed below are not necessarily the best games of the generation but ones that stand out as having brought something new to the table.

Wii Sports: The pack-in title for the Wii single-handedly won over an entire new audience to gaming and proved the concept of motion control. Unfortunately for the console, the game remained one of the best reasons to own a Wii throughout its lifetime.

Mirror's EdgeMirror’s Edge: A critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful new IP, its crisply minimalist visual style turned heads but its real talent lay in its exhilarating free-running that redefined the possibilities for freedom of movement in a first-person perspective. Surprisingly, few games managed to build on this at the time, but that sense of movement seems key to several early games in the new generation.

Heavy Rain: Quantic Dream’s approach to interactive storytelling came of age with this dark thriller that let players explore the results of choices they made for the characters in a story that could continue even if several of the protagonists perished. It was often mistaken for a series of quicktime events, but realising player agency in choosing to miss a button prompt to achieve a desired (rather than dictated) result was an important new trick.

Journey: An utterly beautiful slice of art in the abstract, Journey’s genius lies in its intentionally minimalist take on the multiplayer experience. Dynamically paired with a stranger as you play, your only ability to communicate is through movement and a single sung note. Yet traversing the world feels so much more fulfilling when shared by even that frail connection. The result both prevents others from breaking immersion and explores our shared humanity.

PortalPortal: Valve’s first-person platform puzzler came out of nowhere, delivering exceptional writing that raised an otherwise interesting game mechanic to another level entirely. Genuinely hilarious, the sequel’s scripting deserves to be studied for showing that comic timing and even physical comedy can be cleverly maintained without requiring the player to relinquish control of their character.

Bioshock: Bioshock is the other game to be prized for its writing above all else, this time in a more dramatic vein. Whilst the decaying art deco visual design of its world is beautiful, it is the Ayn Rand-inspired story that delivers a rare literary game.

Guitar Hero/Rock Band: Sure, the annualisation of rhythm games burned out the audience and those plastic instruments are now filling up closets and/or landfills, but Guitar Hero provided an entirely new way to experience the music you love, whilst Rock Band turned it into a social experience. There was no better party game this generation, in my opinion, and ultimately it led to Rocksmith which actually wants to teach you to play the guitar in the guise of a game.

The Last of UsUncharted 2/The Last of Us: Whilst most games in this list are those finding their own path, eschewing films as inspiration, Naughty Dog proved on two occasions that games should not turn their back on cinematic experiences entirely, because it can be done right.

Gears of War: Gears popularised the “cover shooter” which largely replaced standard First Person Shooter run and gun mechanics this generation with a new variant that required strategically sticking to cover to survive. It slowed the pace of twitch shooters allowing for greater tactical consideration. Of course this also led to entire worlds filled with convenient waist-high walls.

Brothers: A beautiful, low-budget fable about two brothers on a quest to save their dying father, Brothers proved that the very control mechanics of a game (in this case using one half of the gamepad for each of the boys) can be vital to its emotional impact. Brothers could be told as a story in a book or film format, but only by controlling the boys yourself does the final act produce its unforgettable sensation.

Dear Esther/Gone Home: There is rightly some debate over whether these “interactive experiences” truly amount to games but for now they fall within the gaming stable. They demonstrated new approaches to storytelling through the creation of a self-contained world, allowing the player to uncover details in the process of exploration.

FezBraid/Fez: Cerebral, artistic platform puzzle games, the ultimate lesson here was that there is a market for pretentiousness provided you are clever enough to justify it. Even if blockbuster titles and rising budgets do squeeze out mid-sized developers, the indie scene is alive and well and will continue to innovate and supply new ideas.

Left4Dead: I probably clocked more online multiplayer hours in this game than all others combined because of the invention of its AI Director which would dynamically choose to spawn the zombies and “special infected” that attacked, creating a different experience every time but maintaining a certain sense of rhythm. I have never so enjoyed snatching defeat from the jaws of victory as in its escape sequences.

The Walking Dead: Arguably Telltale’s Sam & Max outings should feature here as proving the concept of episodic gaming. But The Walking Dead is where the writing bar was raised so dramatically that everyone took notice. Telltale has proved it was no fluke with The Wolf Among Us, and in 2014 they will be managing four different episodic series.

Although it’s too early to look ahead another eight years, huge early sales figures for both Sony and Microsoft make it clear that the nay-saying regarding waning interest in consoles was unwarranted. Players have not abandoned them for portable devices. Some have queried whether the new generation will be the last of the console cycles, being replaced instead by iterative hardware or cloud-powered solutions. Whether or not there is widespread adoption of VR over the next several years will dictate much of this, as it could see a decline in the need to be sat in front of a large living room screen but would also make low-latency systems more essential than ever.

A Joke Too Far Cry

Last week I attended the Eurogamer Expo, for the third year running, and as always it was a blast between playing unreleased games on the show floor and the highly informative lectures by developers. Today a minor furore arose as some attacked Eurogamer’s decision to ban “booth babes” in future. The overreaction to this decision has prompted me to discuss a more unsettling experience I had this year.

The developer session for the forthcoming Far Cry 3, delivered by lead designer Jamie Kean, was an insightful exploration of the process behind creating the two island, jungle-covered world whilst providing visible landmarks to guide players and to make key locations seem like accidental discoveries. It was an intelligent look at the thought processes behind a game world that had clearly been crafted with considerable care.

It was a world away from the introduction Toby and I subsequently experienced at Far Cry 3’s booth on the show floor (which I should note was within the event’s “over 18” area). Approached by two reps while we looked at others playing, the conversation went something like this:

Rep 1: “So guys, this game is pretty dark.”
Rep 2: “Yeah, it’s dark. Have you heard about the rape?”
Rep 1: [enthusiastically] “Yes, have you been told about the rape?”
Toby: “Err… Jamie didn’t mention the rape.”
Rep 1: “Oh, that’s because Jamie’s a rapist.”
Me: “…right.”
Rep 2: [motioning towards our SLR cameras] “So are you guys press?”

Now, I have (sadly) come to expect a certain level of sexism as gaming conventions as the attendees are still predominantly male (even if the gaming audience is now almost half female). However I expected this largely to be confined to a few stands sporting the aforementioned scantily clad booth babes. The visibly uncomfortable girl draped over a poorly constructed Carmageddon car in front of the exhibition centre was hardly an attractive advertisement for the $74 billion industry. The girls with scannable QR codes printed on their hotpants certainly seemed a step too far (especially after a conversation with another developer who allegedly heard from one of the girls that the codes didn’t even scan properly).

What I certainly did not expect were uncomfortable rape jokes. There was nothing sinister about these guys: they were jovial and friendly. The “jokes” weren’t remotely funny but it is possible I am blowing this out of proportion. Yet Toby and I both felt very awkward and slightly bewildered as we left (without staying to try the game demo), moreso as this had all been delivered before they knew we were not members of the press. I want rape to be an issue the industry can tackle in a mature fashion, which it certainly cannot do whilst throwing around casual comments like this. I do recall the nudity in an early trailer for the game but I do not really know anything about the content to which they were referring. Perhaps the goal of these reps was merely shock value to make the game stand out from the dozens of others we had seen. Perhaps by me writing this piece at all they have succeeded. But frankly I feel that they seriously undermined the quality of the developer session which is otherwise how I would be discussing their game both here and in conversations with friends.

N.B. I had to run this post past Toby to ensure I was being fair. There were also plenty of great experiences at the Expo, of course, but I would rather not taint them by mentioning them in the same entry.

E3 2012

The Queen’s diamond jubilee could not have been better timed for two reasons. Firstly, it provided two days off work that lined up perfectly with the opening of the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo in LA, meaning I could watch all the live-streamed press conferences with friends. And secondly, the weather was rubbish so I did not even need to feel guilty about staying indoors. Rather than a continuous stream of gaming related posts this week, I thought it best to save my thoughts on the big announcements for a single post afterwards. Take a deep breath: this could be a long one.

The easiest way to tell what to expect from the Big Three (Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo) is by considering the drinking game rules for the conferences. This year one would drink every time:

  1. tacked-on, unnecessary use of Kinect/motion controls are announced;
  2. a celebrity clearly does not understand the game (s)he is promoting; or
  3. dubstep is heard (seriously, every other trailer?).

Rule 1 alone would have ruined the livers of those watching the Microsoft conference, although (perhaps in the wake of Skyrim) they are now pushing far subtler integration for core games, based primarily around voice rather than motion. In Splinter Cell: Blacklist, for example, the player can attract a guard’s attention by calling out to them, “hey you!” whilst it was suggested that Fifa 13 may penalise players for swearing on the pitch! The big announcement was Xbox SmartGlass, which allows smartphones and tablets to integrate with the Xbox. The most promising thing being that Microsoft is not trying to push this as a selling point for Windows Phone and Windows 8 tablets, but is supporting Android and iOS devices too. It is the smart move but not one I was sure they would make.

Sony, meanwhile, largely ignored the floundering Playstation Vita and instead focused on its strength in console exclusives. The Last of Us, Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic follow-up to the Uncharted trilogy is looking superb, with the player character aided by the young girl he is protecting (who now looks slightly less like Ellen Page than in the initial trailer). Rather than shooting away or being entirely passive like most companion AI, she instead helps out primarily when the player needs it, buying some extra breathing room. Meanwhile Quantic Dream’s awkwardly titled Beyond: Two Souls, using the motion capture and engine from the Kara tech demo, actually does star Ellen Page. The actual gameplay is up in the air, but it looks like a fast-paced supernatural adventure with a focus on subtle, realistic human interaction.

Nintendo had a lot to prove with the Wii U following a somewhat muted response to the console announcement last year. It became clear that they are serious about trying to win back core gamers and not merely courting the casual market they found with the Wii. However, despite a reasonable display of third party support and an exclusive zombie title ZombieU, it remains unclear why we should care. Its share price dropped following the somewhat lacklustre performance, wherein the most promising announcement was Lego City: Undercover, an open world GTA-style city in which the player solves crimes, along with the usual tongue-in-cheek Lego humour.

Interestingly, between Microsoft’s SmartGlass and Sony’s Vita integration with the PS3, both now have effective “tablet” support with the potential to undermine the uniqueness of the Wii U’s control system in the future. However, this could well be a blessing for Nintendo — if developers are able to incorporate similar functionality into all three, there is a greater incentive to support the Wii U with new titles where Wii support was often overlooked because of its radically different controls.

On to the big game announcements:

Watch Dogs from Ubisoft Montreal generated the biggest buzz, having been kept totally under wraps and debuting with both a trailer and gameplay. Think Matrix-style hackers with access to a glut of personal information on everyone, operating in an open world city by way of GTA and Deus Ex. It hints at a whole network of hackers collaborating to protect one another, though it is unclear whether this represents multiple protagonists, co-op or an MMOG. Big budget new IP in a world of sequels is always a welcome surprise.

Assassin’s Creed III appeared in pretty much every press conference and is looking great, despite my apathy towards Revelations, the last title in the series. The American Revolution setting freshens things up wonderfully and, although I had concerns about the open-world approach, climbing through the trees seems to make traversal as comfortable as in cities. Also: sailing ships.

Star Wars 1313 looks like it could be the remedy for those not enthused by recent titles in the franchise (and indeed, the franchise itself of late). Set on galactic hub Corsuscant during the original trilogy era it eschews the now-ubiquitous Jedi and lightsabers in favour of a mature bounty hunter tale. And using a tweaked version of the very latest Unreal 3 engine, it looks gorgeous.

Tomb Raider is a game Crystal Dynamics have earned the right to make. After paying their dues with a series of sequels faithful to the original games, Lara is now very much theirs, so they are rebooting the character with an origins story. And it looks brutal. Enough so that it has stirred some controversy as a result of the experiences through which she is put, but that is what forges her will to survive and we root for her throughout. Tycho at Penny Arcade rightly refers to both this and The Last of Us as fundamentally disempowerment fantasies.

Dishonored is the other big new IP, offering a surprising level of creative freedom in its assassination gameplay, set in a cyberpunk world courtesy of the designer of Half-Life 2’s City 17. The player has a large arsenal of Bioshock-style powers at his disposal in order to get the job done in a variety of ways. The debut trailer was great but the recent gameplay trailer left me slightly underwhelmed so I was glad to see much more polished demos on the show floor. Really the tagline alone is enough to win me over: revenge solves everything.

Halo 4 is, at first glance, much as one might expect. However it is clear that while maintaining its core, 343 Industries are keen to strike a new direction with the franchise they inherited from Bungie. In single player that means a new world inhabited by the Prometheans, with links to the Forerunners and new weaponry. Meanwhile multiplayer Spartan Ops offers new episodic, narrative co-op missions each month.

Those are what I took away, so over to you. Anything I missed? What was your game of the show?

Catherine

Today, with all it’s outmoded discussion of leap year proposals (cue an articulate rant from a friend of mine*), seems like a good day to mention Catherine. When I mention videogames on this site, I generally prefer to highlight the games that push the medium forward (okay, or sometimes hark back two decades). Catherine is certainly unique and a purely descriptive explanation — it is a story-driven tower-climbing action puzzle game — is largely useless. Really it is an exploration of fidelity. This is a bizarre game of parts that build up to a greater whole because of how each layer informs the others, moreso because, against a backdrop of games that rarely handle romantic or sexual relationships with any semblence of finesse, Catherine actually manages to be rather thought-provoking.

Protagonist Vincent is a pretty ineffectual chap in a long term relationship with a girl named Katherine, who is beginning to press him about their future and settling down. Vincent is seemingly content enough whiling away his life in a local bar that he would rather maintain the status quo than make any serious decisions about commitment. In the week we spend with Vincent, a chance encounter with a vivacious young blonde (conveniently named Catharine) leads to infidelity, leaving him wracked by powerful guilt-ridden nightmares.

Much of essential plot is conveyed through high-quality anime cut-scenes that instantly reveal the game’s Japanese heritage. Meanwhile the gameplay is split between narrative segments in a bar, where Vincent can converse with his friends, the other patrons and — by text message — with the two girls now in his life, and tower-climbing segments in Vincent’s nightmares.

The conversations you have in the bar — often including questions of morality and faithfulness — affect the story outcome, while some patrons are reflected in the “sheep” characters Vincent meets in his nightmares. These nightmare levels form the heart of the gameplay, scaling a tower of boxes by moving them around to create traversable paths and avoiding traps, while the bottom continually falls away beneath Vincent’s feet. It’s a simple concept but with surprising complexity and challenge at speed. The really interesting thing is that this very mechanic underscores the heart of the game’s narrative: the paralysis of indecision isn’t an option — to live, you have to keep moving forwards, and sure you might get hurt or make a mistake that sets you back, but you have to commit one way or another.

* I suspect that, beyond tradition, waiting for the man to propose was considered partly a way to test his commitment rather than simply “waiting until he was ready”. By extension the modern proposer perhaps ought to be the more commitment-phobic of the couple, irrespective of gender. Just a suggestion.

Another Fine Adventure

Happy commercialised love day, readers! Should you be acceding to social pressure and purchasing a token of affection for your significant other, I certainly hope it is one of these stunning heart-shaped cakes. By comparison anything else can only be considered failure.

Speaking of spending money on things you love, since its inception the crowd-sourced funding site Kickstarter has scaled up from small arts projects to a feature-length independent sci-fi film I helped fund called 95ers: Echoes, which has now released a trailer.

Last week the exponential growth continued when game developing legend Tim Schafer launched a Kickstarter project to fund a small, old-school point-and-click adventure game. Having co-designed the early classics of the genre, Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle, this swiftly captured fans’ imaginations and (more importantly) wallets, hitting the $400,000 target in around eight hours. A day later $1 million had been pledged. With 28 days to go, it looks on track at least to break $2 million.

While some hail this as a paradigm shift for the gaming industry, it really isn’t much more than it was for the music industry where veterans have used alternative internet funding in what artists like Amanda Palmer see as a return to the older patronage system. Pay-what-you-like sales, for example, allow major returns for those with established careers over which they have built up a fanbase, all typically within the label/studio system. It is certainly not available to everyone. But for accomplished auteurs, crowd-sourced funding represents a way to maintain creative control and integrity once you have garnered sufficient trust from fans.

Quintupling the funding goal brings its own risks. No longer is this a tiny $400K pet project; we’re already looking at a game with a budget two thirds the size of Schafer’s Grim Fandango, the best adventure game ever made (this is not opinion: it was a beautifully stylised hilarious noir romp through the Mexican Land of the Dead by way of Casablanca — even conceptually how can one top that?). The stakes have been raised by a not insubstantial measure. But they have my money, I’m invested and I really want them to succeed.

Nominal Holiday

I can never quite decide whether taking the three days off between Christmas and New Year really counts as a holiday. The resulting ten-day break is most welcome, naturally, but those who “work” in between (in office jobs, at any rate) impart wondrous tales of blessedly empty offices and extravagant two-hour lunches. On balance it is the futile attempt at catching up on a year’s worth of missed sleep that convinces me to take the time off.

It is a fair sign I have been working slightly too hard that, immediately upon stopping, I fell ill. An uncommon enough occurrence itself, this was some (chaotic) evil stomach bug that took about three days to kick, conveniently running right through Christmas. Between this and last year, I am considering blacklisting the holiday entirely. It is on notice.

Strangely what kept me going was a Skyrim fan’s efforts in porting all the short books contained within the game to ebook format. Loaded onto my tablet, I lay in bed reading the history, mythology and cautionary fables of an entirely fictional world to keep my mind occupied. The personal tale woven by the anonymously penned The Real Barenziah was a particular favourite, standing in sharp contrast to the official line in the Imperial approved Biography of Barenziah. And that is the perfect illustration of what makes the these games so special: that incredible level of detail in which the world is crafted. In each new Elder Scrolls game Bethesda will reproduce the books from previous entries while adding a host of new titles, now totalling some 13,500 pages of text that many (most?) players will never actually read.

Once recovered, I spent a pleasant few days catching up with friends in London and finally delving properly into Skyrim in the way I had expected a month ago (i.e. almost continuously). I saw in the New Year a few roads away at Adam’s new house, with a quick jaunt to Waterloo to watch the fantastic South Bank fireworks. There then followed the traditional struggle to return my sleeping habits to the socially accepted norm before returning to work. With moderate success.

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"Lack of imagination is an occupational hazard for an apex predator."

(CC) BY-NC 2005-2018 Priyan Meewella

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