Selected samples of my games writing for publications including Polygon, Edge, Rock Paper Shotgun, PC Gamer, Vice and more.

Specialist subjects include roguelikes, immersive sims, turn-based tactics and card games, virtual reality, cyberpunk, and the games of Valve and Remedy Entertainment.

For more details, email me at alexjspencer@live.com.

 

FEATURES

VALVE TIME
As Half-Life returns at last, we take a rare step inside one of the industry’s most secretive companies
Edge

“We find ourselves visiting the Valve offices at a crucial point in the studio’s story. When we arrive it is preparing to do something it hasn’t done since 2007, a gap that spans a narrow majority of the company’s entire lifespan: release a game with the words ‘Half-Life’ in the title. It’s a huge moment for the studio, one that looked like it might never come – and it’s just a fraction of what is going on across the nine floors of Valve’s Bellevue headquarters.

This is the story of how Half-Life: Alyx came to be, and where the studio goes next.”

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THE FINAL DAYS OF NETRUNNER
What happens when your hobby is cancelled
Vice

“In one of a cluster of small industrial buildings just outside Roseville, Minnesota, something is happening for the very last time. On either side of an oversized table, under a bank of office-style fluorescents, two men sit compulsively shuffling the cards in their hands. A few dozen spectators crowd them, watching over their shoulders, while a set of cameras streams the game to the rest of the world.

This is the official world final of Android: Netrunner, the last one that will ever be held.”

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WHAT IS CYBERPUNK?
A brief history of the near future
Polygon

“Cyberpunk, and science fiction in general, can take ideas from the grey of modern life and turn up the contrast. The for-profit medicine system becomes 2077’s Trauma Team, a vital part of the gameplay demo’s first quest — equal parts paramedic and paramilitary, ready to kill in order to save the lives of paying customers.

That’s far from subtle, but these exaggerated futures can provide a helpful filter for examining our current political situation. Head to the cyberpunk subreddit and, as well as a wealth of fanart, you’ll find people sharing the latest incursions of cyberpunk into our reality, whether it’s police in AR headsets or a woman charging her bionic arm on the train.”

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PERSISTENCE & PERMADEATH:
Progression in Spelunky, Into the Breach and roguelikes
Rock Paper Shotgun

“Permadeath isn’t quite as permadeadly as it used to be. There are an increasing number of roguelikes, roguelites and other games with forms of permadeath that kill a character but leave traces of progression behind. Your character might be gone, but some of the updates and unlocks they accessed live on. Exactly how this persistence is implemented, though, varies from game to game.

Take Into the Breach, a recent and brilliant example of the form which not only included persistence between playthroughs but managed to weave it into the game’s story. Losing means the end of an entire timeline, as the last remnants of humanity are claimed by giant bugs. But you can send one of your mech pilots back in time, with their experience and skills intact, to try and save the world all over again.”

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THE MAKING OF CONTROL
How redefining the ‘Remedy game’ led the Finnish studio to reinvent itself
Edge

“Before Control, the Finnish studio had spent the best part of 20 years, from the original Max Payne through to Quantum Break, refining what a Remedy game looked like: action games with a narrative that led you through a string of tightly designed set-pieces. Games in which, as senior level designer Joonas Kruus puts it, “once you go past a sequence, you never return there.” Control totally changed that, dropping the player into an interconnected world inspired by the team’s love for the Dark Souls games.”

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THE 11 BEST GAMES ON PLAYSTATION VR
From immersive shooters to psychedelic Tetris and gothic fairytales, here are the virtual reality games you should be picking up

The Guardian

“The familiar game of high-speed block organisation, but enveloped in psychedelic visuals and sound. VR isn’t strictly necessary, but it wraps the game’s astonishing visuals – glittering forests, neon cityscapes, constellations of lights that move like whales – all around you, helping you sink into the trance-like state of concentration that gives the game its title. The cumulative effect is quite emotionally overwhelming. As a fringe benefit, if you turn out to be one of the players who reports crying at Tetris Effect, the headset will help hide your tears from anyone else in the room.”

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DIVING INTO HALF-LIFE: ALYX’S JAW-DROPPING ENDING WITH THE GAME’S WRITERS
Fandom

“In the final version of Half-Life: Alyx, as in the early plans the writers inherited, the G-Man awaits you inside the Vault. ‘Beyond that, what was gonna happen once you discovered it was the G-Man,’ says Wolpaw, ‘there was… nothing.’

The trio had two weeks to figure out the rest. The bulk of the story came relatively easy, they say. ‘But the ending was a big missing piece,’ Wolpaw says. ‘The whole thing hinges on the fact that you just basically let God out of prison, right? He needs to do something for you – and it’s got to be something good.’”

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NOW PLAYING: DISHONORED 2
In Dishonored 2’s Iron Mode, dead means dead
Official Xbox Magazine

“Omnipotent mascara-and-Morrissey fan The Outsider has returned my magical powers – including Blink, an ability that lets me teleport up to the rooftops, where I can safely scurry around. I make my way towards the objective, trying to avoid any shiny, dangerous distractions along the way. Like, for example, the five-storey Overseer Outpost on the far side of the plaza. I know from experience that the building is packed with zealots whose religious commandments don’t extend to not killing me. Alas, it’s also a deliciously tempting treasure trove of Runes, which can be used to upgrade my abilities.

Before you know it, I’m knee deep in Overseers. The battle empties my ammo reserves and nearly costs me my life, but I’m the last man standing – mostly because the rest all end up with their legs chopped off.”

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CLASSIC GAME: SPELUNKY
Stealing golden idols, and dodging the resulting boulders, in one of PlayStation’s most influential indie games
Official Playstation Magazine

“You die, but it was such fun you can’t help spinning the wheel one more time. This time, surely, there won’t be so many of those damned spiders. This time, maybe one of the shops will stock the jetpack that would’ve saved you from the spikes. This time, you won’t make the same mistake. Except, of course, you do.

That’s Spelunky: a machine which eats up all your greed and overconfidence, and spits out failure. A fedora-wearing one-armed bandit. We can’t wait for its recentlyannounced sequel to rob us of our spare time all over again.”

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TIME EXTEND: VIVA PIÑATA
How Rare got its groove back by balancing the two sides of its history
Edge

“Back in 2006, Rare found itself at a crossroads. The developer had spent the 1990s working with Nintendo, creating some of the SNES, Game Boy and N64’s most beloved titles. In 2002, though, it was acquired by Microsoft, becoming a first-party developer for its new game console. In the transition, some of Rare’s magic seemed to have been lost. None of the four games it developed in the intervening years were hits, critically or commercially, on anything like the scale of its Nintendo golden years.

As such, 2006’s Viva Piñata was positioned as a comeback for the studio. The game was aimed at a younger audience and was intended to be the beginning of a fully fledged franchise, complete with its own animated TV show. On these terms, the game was not the success it deserved to be – but it proved that the embers of that old Rare magic still burned bright.”

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REVIEWS

 

ZOMBIE ARMY 4: DEAD WAR
PC Gamer

“What’s your eighth favourite snack? You know, that one you’d never actively buy unless it was on a particularly aggressive offer but, when left alone with a packet, you’ll absent-mindedly eat until your fingers reach for the next and find only crumbs. I want you to picture it as clearly as possible. Now, imagine your cupboards are filled with it—and that’s what playing Zombie Army 4: Dead War feels like. Especially if the snack in question happens to be delicious braaains.”

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DESPERADOS III
Edge

“The series might have spent nearly 15 years dormant, but the timescales that Desperados III itself operates on are much, much smaller. Think more like a single second. The meow of a trained cat covering the sound of three revolvers being emptied, as a vial cracks against the floorboards and leaks suffocating swamp gas, the magically linked fates of your last two would-be witnesses cut short by the fall of an axe – with careful preparation and timing, a room full of guards can be cleared out within one beautifully choreographed second. And the gap between elegantly executed success and failure? That’s often smaller still.”

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FAR CRY NEW DAWN
Official Xbox Magazine

“Everywhere you look, flowers of scorching hot pink have bloomed into life. It’s a welcome splash of colour, helping to differentiate New Dawn from the glut of other post-apocalyptic options out there. There’s considerably less, however, that marks it apart from every other Far Cry game.”

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ASHEN
Edge

“Visually, Ashen doesn’t so much run with these concepts as sprint flat-out. While the premise and mechanics might be familiar, its graphical style is unlike anything else. This is obvious right from the character creator, as you notice the avatar you’re bringing to life has a smooth, mannequin-like surface where their face should be. It’s a striking artistic decision that works because this same minimalism applies across the entire game. The world is made up of beautifully uneven geometry. When light falls on the flat, polygonal surface of a wall or rock or piece of clothing, there is a chalky quality to it. You can almost feel the texture on your fingertips, like a smooth pebble picked out of a rocky beach. Paired with a muted and occasionally sickly colour palette, Ashen communicates the sense that this is a world covered in a thin layer of aesthetically pleasing dust, where light is a recent invention.”

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PREVIEWS

PLANET ZOO
Edge

“There’s a moment in our demo of Planet Zoo, the follow-up to Frontier Developments’ theme-park sim Planet Coaster, that captures perfectly the fantasy the studio is shooting for. The camera floats above the clouds, overseeing all creation, before plummeting with all the sudden gravity of a rollercoaster drop, into an enclosure filled with lions. Each member of this small pride roams around with convincing independence, one clambering down a slope to paddle around their player-constructed pool.

The camera pushes in further still, until we can pick out every strand of fur in their manes. What makes it truly remarkable is the scale, and the contrast between the bird’s- and worm’s-eye views.”

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TRIALS OF FIRE
PC Gamer

“Let’s shoo the elephant out of this room immediately: yes, any description of Trials of Fire is going to include both ‘roguelike’ and ‘deckbuilder’. And yes, that means I’m legally obliged to namedrop the game which sits atop this subgenre with all the weight of one of Hannibal’s pachyderm pals.

After half an hour with Trials of Fire, though, I was ready to wash the words ‘Slay’ and ‘Spire’ out of my mouth.”

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PHOENIX POINT
Edge

“As far as Gollop is concerned, though, neither the first X-COM or any of Firaxis’ reimaginings are the main influence on Phoenix Point. He points instead to The Dreamland Chronicles: Freedom Ridge – a game which was cancelled during development, resulting in the 2001 closure of Gollop’s Mythos Games studio.

‘Some of the ideas from Dreamland are actually in Phoenix Point,’ he says. ‘You could say that, from about 1999, I’ve been trying to find ways to evolve the big X-COM idea.'”

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CONAN EXILES
Official PlayStation Magazine

“There’s the ability to choose which god you worship, and, of course, the infamous ‘endowment’ slider which lets you decide, um, how much loin there is beneath your loincloth. Or not beneath, if you choose to play on a server with ‘full nudity’ settings.

Either way, you’ll start the game in a state of undress, left to die in the middle of a desert. At which point, the survival game mechanics kick in. As well as crafting clothes, you’ll need to make sure your barbarian gets enough to eat and drink, and ideally build yourself a home. This gives the game the immediate, satisfying loop that will be familiar to any players of Ark: Survival Evolved, Don’t Starve, or even Minecraft’s Survival mode.”

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MARVEL’S SPIDER-MAN
Edge

“The promise of inhabiting Spider-Man’s body – a long-limbed figure imbued with unlikely grace, tracing arabesques through the Manhattan skyline – is an easy sell. Filling the more earthbound shoes of Peter Parker, though, a man who is constantly behind on his rent and late to social occasions? That’s not so much amazing fantasy as it is lived experience.

But Insomniac Games is insistent about pushing Spidey’s all-too-human alter ego into the spotlight. This becomes apparent in the very first moments of the game, as Peter wakes up in his apartment and we pan across an assortment of characterful domestic items: abandoned takeaway cartons, Nerf darts, a homemade smart toaster and – of course – an empty savings jar.”

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Have any questions, or just want to send me praise about all these lovely words? Contact me via email on alexjspencer@live.com or find me on Twitter @alexjayspencer.