pc gaming

XCOM: Enemy Within

In retrospect, waiting nearly a full year between getting my copy of XCOM: Enemy Within and actually playing it feels rather silly. I do think I know why I held out so long, though. The challenges of vanilla XCOM are well mapped, its enemies not so unknown any more – but the game is still about as difficult as reading a Thomas Pynchon novel translated into Latin. So the idea of an expansion introducing more moving parts, parts that I don’t know how to deal with, was frankly intimidating. But I shouldn’t have waited, because XCOMwith all of Enemy Within‘s additions is pretty much a perfect game. Yeah. Stick that on the front of your game box, Firaxis-of-18-months-ago. As an expansion, Enemy Within does everything right. Every new addition pushes and pulls at what was already there in the base game, and at the other new features. So, the introduction of collectible Meld capsules scattered across most levels, each of which expires after a set number of turns, encourages you to push forward and explore. But on the flip side, the squid-like ‘Seekers’ – with their ability to sneak up to your soldiers unseen, then reappear and strangle them with their horrifying mecha-tentacles – punish you for letting a single member of your squad get too far from their teammates. The missions themselves are a little more varied than the standard bug hunts of the original – including one memorable effort to stop a zombie-spawning infection at a boatyard that ended with the last survivor calling down an air strike on his own head. The smaller details get a little extra colour too, right down to the tiny posters on the walls of mission location, which help sell the idea that these are real, lived-in places torn apart by XCOM‘s cast of ETs. There are new customisation options for your individual soldiers too, including stat-boosting medals you can award for valiant conduct, plus some cosmetic tweaks. The latter is just a cupboard’s worth of helmet designs, some paint jobs for their armour and a handful of foreign languages, but it’s more than enough to cement each character’s personality. The big back-of-the-box selling point, though, is augmentation, which comes in two affront-to-God flavours. Cybernetics lets you saw off the arms and legs of your infantry to create hulking MECs, while Gene Mods use alien technology to transform them into super soldiers. Like the the Meld canisters and Seekers, MECs help to re-shape movement around XCOM’s battlefield. You can push them out in front to draw fire, while your infantry stays in the rear, but they can’t be relied on to soak up bullets without exploding. They’re basically tanks in any given WWII game, but with tiny yelling faces. There’s a nice mirror to the MEC in the aliens’ ‘Mechtoid’ unit, almost identical but for the swollen head of a Sectoid popping out, the Area 51-style greys that traditionally filled the role of early cannon fodder. Even non-iron-clad Sectoids can now lend a psychic hand to a Mechtoid pal, transforming it from healthpoint-endowed nuisance to a wall of utter mechanical bastardry, in a relationship reminiscent of TF2‘s classic Heavy/Medic romance. None of your units fill such an explicit support role, but having to pick off the vulnerable Sectoids hiding in the distance before you can make any dent in the Mechtoid barrelling through your squad is likely to give you some tactical ideas of your own. It probably wouldn’t be a revelation to anyone who hadn’t avoided Total War-style strategy games their whole life, but manoeuvring MECs into position then withdrawing when it gets too hot, with the cover of less iron-clad infantry? That leaves me feeling like the General Patton of alien invasions, the Sun Tzu of plasma rifles. Genetic modification, meanwhile, offer yet another way to further tweak and personalise that infantry. The original XCOM featured a bonsai tech tree of special abilities afforded by a character’s class. As a sniper rises through the ranks, for example, she can take a perk to expand her view of the battlefield, or to target and disable enemies’ weapons. The Gene Mods allow you hang extra baubles from that tree. So that same sniper might have the muscles in her legs modified so she can leap entire buildings in search of a good vantage point, or get her eyes augmented to improve her aim once she’s up there. Along with the medals and the languages and the paint jobs, GMs are another way to encourage you to build an attachment to individual soldiers. While these Captain America-a-likes are capable of superhuman feats on the battlefield, they’re still as fragile as the rest of their fleshy comrades – and they’re more of an investment. So, fair warning: when your favourite modded-up-to-the-literal-eyeballs Assault unit ceases to be, it’s going to sting. Holding up a dark mirror to these GM soldiers is EXALT, the terrorist cell which introduces human enemies to XCOM for the first time. Made up of alien sympathisers, EXALT is toying with a more the same gene tech as you but, based on their scaly skin and sickly glow, on a considerably more DIY basis. It’s a reminder of the dangers of playing with alien genes, and of the humanity being sacrificed on both figurative and chopping-off-your-men’s-limbs levels. In all senses, EXALT embody the ‘enemy within’ of the title. Unfortunately, EXALT don’t slot into the game’s mechanics quite as neatly as they do thematically.There’s no real explanation of how to deal with the gene-altering bastards, or what the repercussions of their attacks are, until a new menu pops up to further obfuscate XCOM‘s base management game. When the time comes to deploy your squad against EXALT, though, it’s thrilling. The missions provide a chance to throw down with a mirror image of your own squad which evolves throughout the game, like a genetically-modified version of Gary/Red/Blue/That Nob-end From Primary School You Named Your Rival in Pokémon After. Enemy Within might have been gathering […]

What I’m Playing: HEARTHSTONE

And so we return to my ongoing attempt to write about every game I play this year, a project which became quickly complicated by the realisation that I don’t play one game at a time. If I’ve recently mouthed off to you in a pub about something I’m playing and you fancied reading about it, fear not – there are another five or so half-written blogs just looking for a spare moment to polish and push out the door.For now, though, let’s talk about my great obsession of 2014 so far, the game that has made me thankful for sick days and waking up obscenely early at weekends. The game known, slightly awkwardly, as… A free-to-play collectible card game for PC, translating Magic: The Gathering from cardboard to silicon and populating it with the dwarves, orcs and anthropomorphic pandas of Blizzard’s Warcraft games, all relying on virtual packs of random cards bought with real money as its business model. Except for that bit about the pandas, Hearthstone sounds absolutely awful, doesn’t it? I mean, just look at this screenshot: I’m right there with you. Most of my teenage years were spent running away from the awkward flabby kid I was when they began, and from all the interests I’d built up. At age 15, I’d renounce fantasy as a genre to anyone who would listen. I’d cringe at any mention of Games Workshop. I’d hide the fact that I was reading comics or worse, insist that people called them ‘graphic novels’. At the time, I thought this was putting away childish things. But as I get older, and as my gut grows back to the size it was before I spent a summer replacing meals with milkshakes, I’ve come to terms with the nerd inside. After a few drinks, I’ll tell anyone who’ll listen about the latest goings-on in the Marvel Universe, or about my latest board game purchase that we’ve just got to try out. If I understood the message of The Lego Movie correctly, I think this self-acceptance is an important part of growing up. Honestly, though, fantasy is still something of a sticking point for me. The naff painted art, names like ‘Malfurion Stormrage’, every card faintly marked with the odour of sweat-starched band t-shirts, sporadic facial hair and dice with more than the usual number of faces. Hearthstone‘s fantasy trappings are more than a little off-putting. But actually playing it, I’ve been reminded that the defence mechanisms I spent those years building up are horrifically shallow, because the game underneath is excellent. Hearthstone is remarkably simple to play. Your objective is to chip down the heath of your opponent’s hero from 30 to 0, using the cards in your hand, before they do the same to you. You get three cards to start, and draw one each turn, and they split roughly into two types: Minions come with their own health and attack points, and can do damage to other minions or direct to the other player. Spells, meanwhile, might pluck a card from your opponent’s hand, or transform the fearsomely-statted minion who’s about to bite a huge chunk out of your health into a harmless sheep, or just freeze them on the spot for a turn. There are other types of cards, too, but minions and spells are your bread and butter: a handful of attacks, blocks and counters which mesh in all sorts of surprising ways. All the best minions have special abilities of their own. One of most common is Taunt, which means every non-spell attack has to be targeted at them – effectively blocking your opponent from causing damage where they really want to. Plenty have buffing abilities of some kind, healing their fellow minions, or boosting their attack value, or even granting them special abilities of their own. Put a healing-ability minion next to another with a respectable pool of hitpoints and Taunt, for example, and you’ve got a sponge that will mop up a few turn’s worth of damage. That’s just the beginning. Playing my first couple of dozen games online, and getting consistently annihilated, practically every new match saw some new combination that stopped me in my tracks, made me laugh at its audacity or mutter swearily to myself over its elegant bastardry. I remember the first time I saw an opponent throw an attack spell at one of their own minions. It was a Gurubashi Berserker, which gains three attack points every time it takes damage. By chipping away at the Berserker’s health one point at a time, then healing it back to full health, they were able to win the game in two brutal turns. Thing is, I’d forgotten how exciting it is to learn by mistakes. That moment where you realise you’ve made a small but vital error, that if only you’d played that second card before the first then victory would be yours, is almost as thrilling as successfully pulling off the perfect three-card combo. Hearthstone features unlockables, daily quests and all that lizard-brain stuff, but it doesn’t rely on them to get its hooks into you. There’s a tangible sense of getting better at the game, and even better, the rare feeling of ‘what if I tried…?’. I’ve hardly touched the deckbuilding, and my initial efforts have turned out to be nigh-unplayable, but I still find myself bombarded by ideas for how a card might work. Not just while I’m playing, either; I’ll be struck by inspiration on the tube, or in the shower, or sat on the loo. Eureka! It takes me back to when I started playing Spelunky, where perma-death meant every slip was a tiny, lethal lesson. Similarly, just by virtue of it being a multiplayer game, every decision you make in Hearthstone is irreversible. Luckily, each move is picked out with such clear lines – a little history of moves running down the left side of the screen, arrows to show what’s affecting what, skull icons to show when an attack will prove fatal – that […]

What I’m Playing: NIDHOGG

With January consumed by the Play Off tournament, a high-concept test of my ability to write about the same song over and over, I thought my next project should be something simpler. Welcome to What I’m Playing. Basically, I’m going to try and write a little something about every single game I spend any significant time playing this year. Starting with… Nidhogg is a competitive multiplayer combat game in miniature. Two opponents – let’s call them Left and Right – face off on a two-dimensional battlefield, each armed with a sword. Their goals are equal and opposite and brutally simple: get to the other side. See, a game of Nidhogg doesn’t rely on the abstractions of a gradually depleting health bar or a numerical score. It takes a single successful jab to off your opponent, and the only time you see how many times you ran your opponent through with your sword and how often you forgot about the conveyor belt floor and fell into the abyss is after each game is over. You just win, by being the first to make it through four screens and reach the endzone, or you lose. Fig. I: A Nidhogg match (Click to enlarge) While the game might not score you on kills, each one is vital. At any time, only one of the players can be pushing in their chosen direction, left or right towards victory. That player is the one who most recently dispatched their opponent, rewarded with a giant ‘GO!’ arrow in their colour. More than that, it takes three seconds to respawn: three long seconds during which the surviving player can flee unopposed towards the endzone. So with two evenly-matched players, the game’s rhythm is a constant push and pull: Left gains a couple of screens with a single well-timed stab, a three-second headstart and some outrageously lucky dodging, before Right stops them in their tracks with a thrown sword to the head. But Left respawns just in time to block Right’s exit, and the two engage in some cautious swordplay, thrust, parry, thrust, parry, neither giving an inch. At first glance, you might expect Nidhogg‘s closest relative to be something like Super Smash Bros, a 2D fighting game, but each game has the feel of an FPS Capture the Flag match, or even FIFA or Pro Evo. Strip away the combat, and it’s a game of football: midfield possession constantly changing hands, until eventually someone breaks free and makes a run for the goal, the constant respawns allowing you to play both offence and defence. The game features just four maps, all picked out in Messhoff’s distinctive jagged edges and pastel colours. Effectively, that’s three more, I’d argue, than the number of levels offered by any edition of Pro Evo. After consecutive hours of play, honestly, I did find myself wishing for a couple more (especially because, frankly: fuck the cloud level and its obfuscating colour scheme, which which requires to tilt your screen to just the right angle to discern your character from the background) but at the same time, I admire the decision. It feels like not like an admission of limitations, but a statement of intent.Nidhogg is precise as a surgeon’s scalpel, compact as a .zip file, and that runs all the way through the game. Its lo-fi visuals, which bring the two blocky duellists to life through evocative animation; the simplicity of its controls, which feel like a reaction to the convoluted finger-contorting button combos required by the likes of Street Fighter; and, yes, its four levels. In each level, the smallest geographical feature – a step, a gap, a patch of long swaying grass – becomes a hard-fought choke point to be fought over, death after death. Some screens will limit movement to a narrow tunnels, making sword-throwing and jumping over an opponent’s head impossible. The twice-damned cloud level features some admittedly nifty platforms that melt away if a player stands on them too long, perfect for luring your rival onto. And the doors. Sun Tzu could write a whole other book about this game’s doors. After a few hours with singleplayer, I was impressed by the elegance of Nidhogg. It’s a game which brilliantly evokes that action-movie moment where a gun drops to the floor and skids just out of reach and the two combatants wrestle to seize it back, made with the minimum of fuss and a watchmaker’s precision. Fig. II: Combat It was only after playing it with friends that I appreciated how messy it is. The handy gif above depicts a typical Nidhogg encounter. Seen one from one perspective, it’s a taut cat-and-mouse guessing game, each blade outmanoeuvring the other, until one player catches the other off guard and delivers the deathblow. From another… well, just look at it. The game is perfect slapstick, and playing Nidhogg post-pub, post-kebab, gathered round a laptop, really brings out its sense of humour. The overwrought Wilhelm screams and explosions of colour-coded juices that mark a player’s death, before they pop right back up again, Wile E. Coyote-style, for another duel. The discovery that you can keep someone impaled on the end of your sword, wiggling it up and down, as an increasingly unlikely quantity of vital fluid sprays out of them. The victory screen, which has the winning player running past a cheering crowd, before the phallic worm-dragon which gives the game its name swooshes across the screen and snaps them up in its jaws, the game sarcastically declaring WINNER. Whole games were won on the strength of one player laughing too hard to keep up. All my singleplayer training, the tactics and patient playstyle I’d developed, were quickly rendered obsolete against the power of someone spamming the crap out of the divekick for three, four, five games of winner stays on, before I finally think to raise my sword and – splat – bring its reign of terror to an end. I’m eager to improve, to strike a balance between chaos and nuance, but mostly […]

We Share Our Mother’s Healthpoints: Rogue Legacy

Rogue Legacy is currently available on Steam at the bargain price of £7.49, a discount of 40%. It’s the game I’ve played most this year, and here’s why: Family, eh? In Rogue Legacy, you play Sir Scorpio, the latest in a long line of knights, mages and barbarians on an inherited quest in a strange land… until the moment you die. Then you play Lady Chun Li, the latest in a long line of knights, mages, barbarians and undead bloodsuckers on an inherited quest in a land that, thanks to its randomly-generated levels, is strange all over again. The quest – to clear a castle full of ghouls and ghouls, plus five bosses – isn’t the only thing you inherit. The death of your predecessor grants you their long-coveted possessions, yes, but as their offspring you’re also prey to all the genes that brought them to a sticky end in the first place. As in life, so in Rogue Legacy. The former means any gold picked up by your predecessor on their run through the castle – picked up by smashing furniture, beating enemies and finding chests – and which powers the game’s hybrid level-up/shop system. The latter … well, it’s the game’s masterstroke. After dying, you pick one of three heirs, each with their own combination of class, spell, and traits. Traits are the kind of role-playing characteristics you don’t see in the Skyrims of this world: everything from colour blindness, which turns the screen monochrome, to OCD, which rewards you for smashing every box and barrel in sight, to congenital baldness, which … makes you bald. It’s silly good fun, but the variety this introduces also helps keep the game feeling fresh, and adds an extra layer of exploration. Discovering what hypochondria actually did in-game, for example, was a great laugh-out-loud moment. I won’t spoil it here. This is just one of the many ways Rogue Legacy draws you back in for one more go. The levels, shuffled afresh for each run, offer variety and plenty of one-off surprises: rooms with knife-throwing challenges, or histories of developer Cellar Door’s previous games. And then there are the upgrades. Remember that inherited gold I mentioned? Before the next game starts, you have the chance to spend it all on equipment, upgrades and unlocks. These can be incremental, like a shinier sword or an extra health point, or tangible game-changers. Buy the Air rune to gain the power of flight; unlock the Paladin class and you’ll be able to block enemy’s attacks. These post-death upgrades make Rogue Legacy the ultimate ‘one more try’ game, an endless cycle of explore/die/spend/explore/die/spend that cost me a good chunk of the summer. But this persistence also serves to undermine the power of permadeath. In other roguelikes, you build up a character and progress deeper and deeper into a randomised world, the odds stacked increasingly against you until finally you’re overwhelmed. There is a neat horror in that moment, the loss of invested time providing an analogue to the loss of life, which is also part of the fun. Here, all you really lose is the set of levels generated for you this time round, which you can keep for a penalty – and so each death is just fuel. Sometimes, I’d catch myself dashing a character against the rocks to grab one final chestful of gold, knowing they’ll die but also knowing it’ll give me enough to buy that next sweet upgrade. It’s never quite a grind though, even when the clunky keyboard controls make the game’s more bullet-hellish screens difficult to navigate, because all money gathered has to be spent before the next run starts, meaning you can’t stockpile resources. And while you’re playing, it’s never anything less than great fun. Still, it’s easy to come away from a two-hour binge – which, make no mistake, is how you’ll play Rogue Legacy – feeling a little empty. In the quieter moment of play, you can hear that little lizard voice at the back of your mind whispering ‘grab the money, die, buy the shiny things’. Sometimes, I didn’t feel like a hero so much as a prudent investor, putting away something for the kids’ future. Maybe that’s part of the point, though. I automatically looked at Rogue Legacy from the perspective of a child but it also has you playing the parent, in an endless loop of sacrifice and gain, unconditional love and selfish hunger. …Family, eh?

FTL: Misadventure Hero

FTL describes itself as a ‘a spaceship simulation real-time roguelike-like’. That’s kind of true, but not quite. It’s neither deep nor broad enough to be a spaceship simulator.Instead, it simulates a particular feeling, a particular moment – one you might be familiar with from sci-fi films and TV. Specifically, Star Trek. More specifically, the bit where Captain Kirk/Picard/Janeway is sat on the bridge, in their big comfy captain’s chair, as the crew buzzes around them desperately. More specifically, the bit where they shout “power down the shields, and put it all into the weapons” and the immortal response comes back: “Aye aye, captain”. Its closest kin in that respect is Football Manager or Champ Man or whatever it is the kids are playing these days. Both games let you live out a fantasy – you’re the manager of a football team, you’re the captain of a spaceship – and then picks and chooses the necessary elements to help your imagination get there. Just like all the best spaceships, FTL is cobbled together from disparate pieces. Its combat is a real-time strategy game with a very small canvas. Whenever it wants to give you something more complex, a moral decision or familiar sci-fi scenario, it becomes a simplified text adventure. Travelling between each point uses an interface taken straight from boardgames. From RPGs, it takes loot and an upgradeable, customisable ship. From roguelikes it nicks the randomised levels and heartbreaking perma-death. Despite all those moving parts, though, the result is something neatly simple. It doesn’t take long to learn how to control your three crew – just left-click to select, right-click to send them somewhere – or what the HUD means – typically eight or so different systems, from weapons to shields to oxygen, which you can put differing levels of power into, draining your reactor in the process. It’s all controlled from a top-down view of the ship, with each system getting its own room. Putting crew into rooms , and helps fix them if – when – they break down. Frankly, FTL isn’t very sexy – like Football Manager, the graphics are barely there, and the pausable action always stays a step removed – but that’s not important. Like all the best games, it’s a token, a tool, a lightning rod. Something your imagination can grab onto and start telling stories with. My favourite sci-fi TV series, predictably, is Firefly. More specifically, my favourite episode is Out of Gas – an episode split between flashbacks and a disastrous breakdown of the spaceship all the characters live on. More specifically, my favourite bit, my favourite moment, is the opening of that episode. The ship, floating adrift in space. Each of its room, stripped of their familiarity by the simple fact of being empty. Captain Malcolm Reynolds face down on the floor as the oxygen seeps out of the ship… Doomed. I said FTL is a simulator of the Star Trek bridge moment, but it’s a simulation of that moment too. Of making a bad decision, and condemning your whole crew to a drawn-out death – or an extremely quick one, depending on the size of guns your baddies are packing. Of being the last one alive, whispering apologies, as the fires spread and you can’t fix everything at once, and holding on futilely until the crack in your hull sucks out that last 1% of oxygen. FTL is mean, and that’s great. One of the tips, which are meted out sparsely, one per playthrough, just tells you ‘Dying is part of the fun’. And it is. As in fellow roguelike-like Spelunky, death is where most of the stories come from. And just like Spelunky, there’s the sense of a Rube Goldberg device that leads, inevitably, to your death. This then this – why didn’t I buy those missiles at the last store? – plus this – where’d the lights go? who’s behind that door? – leads to this –  why did I ever to help these poor, defenseless idiots? – and then you’re dead, a splat on the universe’s windscreen. And you take a moment to mourn the good ship Crushinator – and AJ Hager, your Engi who saved everyone’s asses that time – then flip on the wipers, clean off the mess, and start again. Or maybe you pull it back, praying you’ll make it to the next store and its valuable repair equipment, before you undergo another one of those misadventures. And you do, and suddenly your ship is all-powerful and it’s glorious, each new location handing you generous piles of scrap, the game’s currency, new weapons to bolt onto your hull, a new crew member of a species you’d never even encountered before… But more likely, you land in an electrical storm, next to the baddest pirate ship in the known universe, and it puts in those final hits to your hull. And, after you spent so long repairing everything, and healing your crew, and Captain Elnubnub just levelled up his repair ability, your ship falls back into those pieces its cobbled together from. That’s the nature of being randomised. Like the universe itself, it can be completely unfair. It took a dozen or so playthroughs (read: deaths) before I started to get the hang of the game. And then, just as I did, I got hit, again and again, with the same scenario – battling a rebel ship too close to a small sun, with solar flares . I must have died close to a dozen times, more or less consecutively playing that same scenario. A different ship maybe, but always getting torn apart by solar flares. And so I thought, well this is it, this is how it beats you. But I haven’t seen that scenario since. It’s just the way the deck gets shuffled, I suppose. Besides, if it all gets too much, you can switch over to Easy mode, which is more generous with scrap and combat’s a little more forgiving. It’s a good palette […]

Spelunky: An Oral History

Here you go: an oral history of my possibly-favourite-game-ever and definitely-most-written-about platformer Spelunky that tries to explain, through fictional interviews with the characters, everything you need to know about the game Spelunker #1 (professional adventurer): Putting the faded photo in my pocket, I squeezed the whip at my side, and thought of her one last time. That’s all it took to get me down here, beneath the surface of the world. Of course, it’s different for everyone. Now, shh. That statue’s a trap. You’ve got to time this just perfect–erkkk Spelunker #23: I’ve never seen another spelunker. No bodies, even. Not a soul. It’s almost as if – nah, that’d be impossible – as if there’re an infinite number of caverns down here. But damn me if those caverns ain’t full of good-lookin’ dames. Marion (damsel in distress): Just because this dress shows off my curves, doesn’t mean I’m not up on my feminism. And frankly, the gender politics are appalling. These fellas’ll use you as a shield as soon as rescue you. And then they expect a kiss? Don’t even get me started on the Parlours. Rudy (proprietor, Rudy’s Kissing Parlour): Look; I provide a service. A man like that, big adventures on his mind, sometimes he just needs a kiss, eh? Pancho (proprietor, Pancho’s Speciality Shop): It’s a dangerous business. But a man like me, knows how to specialise – capes, jetpacks, teleporters – there’s big money in it. Spelunker #72 (ex-adventurer, spending his retirement fused irrevocably into the scenery): …the time I got a teleporter? Ah, I remember it fondly. Course, I probably should’ve looked where I was going a little better. Ivan the Shopkeeper (proprietor, Ivan’s Armoury): One of the buggers shot me! It’s just not cricket; a man stocks a handy range of shotguns, down in the dark places, he shouldn’t have to expect this yobbery. Spelunker #99: By means we needn’t go into, I acquired a shotgun. Deep in the belly of the beast with a handful of boomstick. I was invincible. Those blasted spiders melted into red mist before me. Then some old bearded bloke with a grudge – and worse, a shotgun of his own – was waiting for me by the exit. The rest was bloody history. Jethro (professional tunnel man): Here I am, no-one to talk to, shovelling dirt. They’re off having adventures with a girl over one shoulder. They’re all addicts, if you ask me. Get what’s coming to ’em. Spelunker #118: They’ll tell you it’s all about greed. Don’t listen. The gold, jewels, that little number that ticks up somewhere in your head, that’s just window dressing. Why do so many of us do it? It’s about seeing new places. And they’re always new. People talk about travelling, broadening your horizons. Finding yourself? Try finding a bloody huge mutant psychic brain. Spelunker #199: This was it: just a giant stone head between me and the big time. I dispatched it quick enough, right into the lava. A door opened. Glory! Except… I forgot to leave a way out. Sigh. I’ll jump into the lava meself, then. Olmac (giant stone head): Ummmg. Spelunker #199: The afterlife turned out to be a lot of numbers carved into a rockface. And I wasn’t even the highest score.

For Tomorrow: ‘…But That Was [Yesterday]’

You probably already know this but: I spend a lot of time thinking about how games. A lot of that is why games are great, and how they could be better: intelligent, emotional, stretching the form. And when I’m doing this, I’m pretty much always reaching for examples, pinnacles of what I’m talking about, without falling back on the clichéd ‘games are so art’ examples. Passage (of which I’m not a huge huge fan, being honest with everyone, and which one commenter rightly called me out for using, in my Disney/Death Escapist article) and Braid (which is a wonderful game, but mostly for the mind-bending nature of the thing rather than any emotional response it provokes) and all that. ‘Literary’ is the word we’re going to use here, if that’s okay with you. I’m forever drumming my fingers on a desk and trying to summon the name of some game that does the whole literary thing. By which I mean: the fluent expression of real, muted human emotions which catch you and knock you over a bit so you have to take a minute to think. Books are best at it, in my experience, but it’s a response I always associate with games as well. Only, y’know, not any specific ones, because I’m rubbish. So this is a mental note: …But That Was [Yesterday] is the example I want to use from now on. Go and play it for yourself, I beg you, and then come back and tell me how silly I was to waste your time. Because I admit, [Yesterday] is a very particular pleasure. It draws pretty directly from Passage, being a game where you can only walk in one direction (and using that as a metaphor for time) but its closest relative, returning to the literature idea, is probably Dave Eggers’ You Shall Know Our Velocity. It’s similar to Eggers’ novel thematically: being about memories, and grieving and healing, and the relationship between the two and physical movement. Its flaws are familiar too: it’s showy, quite ‘difficult’, and exactly as pretentious-intellectual as the title suggests. But most importantly, it’s similar in the ways it transcends those flaws: a fragile beauty that summons those moments we were talking about earlier. The thing is that, most of the time, the game only requires you to press a single button (→), with little challenge to reflex or mental agility. Frankly, it drags a little at times. A typical 30 seconds goes like this: follow a prompt to press ←, stop pressing → or any other key for 5 seconds, wait for the obstacle to roll back, and then press → again for another 25 seconds. Boring, right? But two other things are going on in that half-minute. First, the game is so nicely presented that you can swallow doing nothing for a few seconds to take in the cartoon minimalism and listen to the breathy score. Second, the subtext. To take another look at that 30 seconds: a bark from your doggy companion brings you back into the moment, and while you’re catching your breath and remembering for just five seconds that life can be good, the black cloud of all those bad memories rolls back for a while and you can go on again. This is [Yesterday]‘s main trick, this single game mechanic turned into a big fat metaphor. And as it explores those memories, shows you just the slightest edge of them, it quivers with real human emotion. And if the art and the music have got you attuned properly, you might quiver too, a bit. And because it’s understated, because it’s a little bit clever and artsy like that girl you fancy from the coffeeshop, it might just tickle the right part of your brain and your senses and those pesky feelings. It worked for me. Finally, one of the clever little variations it pulls on that single-mechanic theme caught me just right and it managed to pull the breath from my lungs for a single, long moment. That literary sensation. And afterwards, I felt just a little bit clever and pleased with myself, like I was someone from a book or a good film or something. Maybe, if I wasn’t such a carved-out-of-rock troll of a human being, it might even have brought a tear or two.

Don’t Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story

…That’s not even one of my silly pop-quoting titles, by the way. That’s the genuine title of the game. Game being a word I have to use advisedly here. There’s not much of your traditional videogame about DTIPBIJAYS. There’s little player agency, no competition, no moving around and – to stereotype a little – no violence. So, if you’re one of those people who tends not to read my gaming posts, please don’t disregard this game. (I’m resisting the term ‘visual novel’ because it is both silly and possibly even more off-putting.) Equally, most game-orientated types, not much of what I’m about to tell you is going to tickle your usual pleasure zones. Both of you, stick with me. Because DTI— let’s just call it …Ain’t Your Story, mmkay? — looks like this: Right, let’s get this out of the way: Yes, this is a game where you just read dialogue for a couple of hours. It is illustrated in, not even anime, but manga style. It is not animated, in any sense that matters. It is essentially a soap opera revolving around the romantic life of a bunch of sixteen year old schoolkids. You’re placed as a new teacher who has fallen into the job; a self-doubter, both in his skills as a provider of education and the appropriateness of his dealings with the small group students in his charge. And people who know me personally might be able to see where I climbed onboard here. For those who don’t: today is my final day as a trainee teacher, working in the same school I grew up in. Ain’t Your Story feels particularly close to real life for me. It is, however, a sci-fi story: the game is set about ten years in the future, and it’s hinted that books are essentially obsolete. Students’ ever-increasing devotion to electronic distractions means the school you work at is offering you the power to monitor all of the students’ social networking interactions. You’re given access through the game’s menus to their various wall comments, profile pics and private messages. You have to spy on these kids’ interactions to advance the game, and it gets …unprofessional very quickly. In some cases, directly involving you. I don’t want to ruin what I consider to be the strongest plot-thread, scroll down to the big pastel-coloured blocks to get past the spoilers. In my many, many discussions on exactly what makes teacher/student relations so inappropriate this year, the point has been raised repeatedly that it’s not necessarily the age gap but rather the necessary hierarchy that exists. It’s an abuse of power. Never more so than you when your students’ private conversations are yours to read at your leisure. So, you know seduction is coming, long before it happens. Not through some fuzzy intuition – dread or excitement – but because you’ve seen the messages where one girl asked another for advice, and declared just how she is going to come onto you. The game doesn’t try to influence you morally, the character can bend both ways, but it is pretty fully horrifying. It ends in an awkward, clumsy attempt at a seduction, that just reminds you of the youthfulness of the character. But there’s temptation there too, mixed in with the pity and the shame, and it’s echoed in the teacher character’s narration. Well, quite. The writing isn’t exactly afraid to cut close to the bone, either. As the inevitable moral choice approaches, as she squeezes your hand and you gear up your rejection, there’s a bit of brilliantly uncomfortable honesty. I’m embarassed to say it, so I’ll just quote directly: “She smiles sweetly at me, getting ready to confess to me … with her short dress, with her surprisingly deep eyes, with her unsubtle flirting, with her delicate grip … I realise, in spite of myself, I’m becoming just a bit hard.” It’s not exactly the kind of thing you’d want to be caught playing this on a park bench. But it’s not explotaitive. It’s honest, for the character and the situation (it does help here, death of the author be damned, that the game is penned by a woman). And it helps sell the choice you have to make next: Will you or won’t you? (And me? What do you take me for? Some kind of pervert? But the truth is, saying no made me feel good. It made me feel like a real gentleman, of unwavering moral calibre. I can’t help feeling that’s kind of worse.) …So that’s Virtue #1: the Realism. The dialogue is convincing, down to the narration of your character’s mind, and the characters work. It quickly tangles you up in the small machinations of these peoples’ lives, and the plot is deeply compelling. The interactivity might be limited but most decisions had me squeezing my eyes tight and thinking, in a way that all the kill-the-puppy/save-the-orphan ‘moral choices’ that we’ve seen in every game for the last ten years have never managed. What separates it from being a slightly-interactive soap opera is Virtue #2: the Post-Modernisms. The metafiction, once you start to notice it, is everywhere. Which, given the concept, is probably inevitable. The game is presented as if on your character’s iPad-style device: the menu screens are neatly integrated alongside the students’ Facebook-esque social network. But there’s also 12Channel, a 4Chan riff which plays with and teases the game itself. Its first “lol porn” response (in a self-reflexive discussion about a slightly dodgy-looking visual novel) helps put any worries about the game at ease. It also justifies a little why a game ostensibly set in America is so Japanese-styled. Like the rest of the game, it’s just communicating in a way native to the geekier (sorry, otaku-ier) corners of the internet. This is a game, after all, which features at least one Belle Airing. The language of this culture leaks into even the spoken dialogue: expect a lot of lols, omgs, and desperate squinting whilst you backwards-engineer […]

ALEX’s Best Of 2010: A Pee-Pee Soaked Heckhole

[You have selected: Alex Spencer] Looking back at the end of a year, it’s always music that takes the lion’s share of attention. That’s because it’s easy to look back on a period soundtracked by a single album; it’s easy to hear a single so much it’s driven deep into your brain. (More or less the same way that books monopolise places: that beach where I finally read The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier & Klay. Train journeys and road trips easily become monuments to favourite reads, and re-reads… But that’s a story for another time.)Point is: Films, and especially games, don’t get the same treatment. That’s a lot to do with their inherent nature (similar to my conclusions after a Summer With No Games). They are, respectively, a quick burst/an extended period of sitting in a dark room. There’s not much to hold onto, memory-wise. Except: Solium Infernum was the soundtrack to my spring. For a good three months, it permeated the majority of my thoughts as I slipped off to sleep. It dominated living-room conversation (and so, like the album your neighbour constantly turns up to obnoxious volume, probably seeped into defining that period for the annoyed non-players in my house too). There are a lot of reasons for this. To help explain them, I should probably lay out exactly what Solium Infernum is. A multiplayer board game, except with computers and mice instead of dice and sunshine-faded cardboard. To look over someone’s shoulder, the game appears completely harmless. Just some pieces, dragged across a map, and a lot of numbers. Except that it’s a game about politics and in-fighting, which makes it even more fitting for the time it defines, probably. It’s a game set in Hell. Solium Infernum gives you very little story. It gives you a beginning, one familiar to any player versed in our cultural past, from Milton’s Paradise Lost to Dante’s L’Inferno; Gaiman’s Sandman to… er, Sandler’s Little Nicky. Over in Hell, Satan got bored, decided he was about due a holiday, and abdicated the throne. You’re cast as one of the many demon lords who’ve decided they’d like a piece of this pie for themselves.From there, you have to make it up yourself. Which you do in turns, slowly gathering resources, moving units, and threatening your fellow demons in an attempt to gather as much prestige as possible. So you advance across empty wastelands, take fortresses and monuments by force and carve up the Unholy Land between yourselves.It’s an incredibly slow game, especially when played with others. It relies on email, meaning the progress of a Solium Infernum game can be agonising. On a good day, you’ll get to play twenty evenly-spaced three-minute turns, in which you can perform two actions. More realistically, on a day where at least one player actually has a social life, it’s more like one turn the moment you wake up, fifty impatient checks of your email, and one in the early hours when the last player finally gets in and thinks to check their inbox. This can be absolutely agonising. It’s also the defining feature of the game. Because it undermines the rules of what a game is, in terms of time. Those twenty three-minute bursts replace one two-hour session. This moves it closer to the territory of pop music, the repetition that gets the listener hooked. And Solium Infernum is all hooks.Because, ultimately, the game relies on one universally appealing thing: the opportunity to screw your friends over in increasingly torturous way. Everything is carefully placed so you have to be – at best – mean, or – more likely – incredibly sneaky to win. This isn’t a game about battles: to get into a scrap with your neighbour, you have to initiate a Vendetta, either by provoking them with insults, or forcing them to provoke you by refusing your perfectly reasonable requests for half their resources. Which sounds very complex, and to certain extent it is. But quickly the desire to succeed drives you into the rhythm of covert diplomacy, dodgy deals, and mind-games. Not success as in winning, but as in scoring another hit. The moment that, in the game, you pull out of a deal, leave your ‘ally’ suddenly alone with four other rivals, and run off with all the equipment they lent you. The moment that, at your computer, you laugh maniacally until you catch yourself and think, am I actually evil? Which is unique, as far as I can tell: Milton might have used the epic form to create sympathy for the devil, but Solium Infernum borrows from the tradition of Theme Hospital to really force you into that pantomime-villain role. I’ve never been one for role-playing games: it all feels too much like silly play-acting, whether you’ve got a controller in your hand or are sitting round a table in a cloak. Solium Infernum pushes role-playing into your life. The game doesn’t really exist in those three-minute bursts. The game lives in the moments between: the scheming emails and texts, guessing at plans over a drink and, best of all, seeing the friend that you completely irreversibly screwed over last night weeping into his breakfast cereal.It’s not unreasonable to say that Solium Infernum made me a worse person for those three months. I’d suggest it gave me a harmless medium to enact my cruel pranks and be really hilariously mean to my friends. But, then again, that would imply Solium Infernum is totally harmless, wouldn’t it? About the author: Alex Spencer isn’t evil. Honest. Just ask his mom.He may have punted a kitten off a bridge that once,but there were mitigating circumstances. He bears thebadge of being the least cool person writing for thiswebsite right now not as a burden, but with pride.…Ooh, shiny badge!

Team Thought-ress

And so it is that another free weekend of Team Fortress 2 comes to an end. I haven’t spent as long as I might have wanted, due to the aforementioned birthday celebrations. My logical brain tells me this is probably a good thing. Meanwhile, my lower functions scream at the accursed social life.MUST. PLAY. MORE. TEE. EFF. TOO! I’m hooked. I’m hooked bad, in a way I haven’t been since my first experience with TF2 two Christmasses ago.* Is it the sweet, satisfyingly lumpy sensation of every successful kill? Well, yes. The giggle-inducing, pun-loving presentation? Definitely. The beautiful Pixar-cartoon design? Even though my non-gaming-friendly laptop appears to have knifed up the graphics in a back-alley, yes.It’s very much all of that. But why now?It’s the fault of… and, okay, appreciate this is a multiplayer deathmatch game about two teams called BLU and RED, killing each other, respawning, killing each other, with a cast of characters entirely made up of red/blue versions of various unbending stereotypes – German mad-scientist doctors, Australian huntsmen snipers, French gentlemen spies… it was the fault of Narrative. It all began with a mystifying comic put up online at the TF blog, which peeled back the curtain of the game, to show the (fictional) workings under each fight. TF2 has always done mini-narratives well: the basic premise puts your own small story (clocking up kills) in front of a backdrop of a larger story (capturing the control point). Simple but effective- the basis of most multiplayer shooters. More unique stuff like the game’s Domination feature- announcing a character who has killed you multiple times as your rival – and the natural class rivalries/symbioses that develop (the love between a hit-point-endowed Heavy and his Medic) build on that effectively, allowing you to sketch your own story on top of everything happening (and exploding) around you.I reckon, perhaps controversially,** that Achievements, flawed and artificial though they are, extend that. Team Fortress is probably as close to playing an MMO I’m ever going to come. It means a certain level of grinding for the newer, exciting-er weapons but, allowing you to put progress bars and reminders for achievements on the screen, there’s a constant sense of varied aims and slow improvement. In traditional narrative terms, character development. But this week was the first time it’s ever imposed such a big meta-narrative over the gameplay. First, making the narrative explicit with (admittedly nonsensical) backstory for the fight, and then setting up a direct war- between the rocket-jumping Soldier and explosive-wielding Scottish cyclops Demoman, all done in traditionally well-written, genuinely funny style over the Team Fortress blog. The winner would receive a special unlockable weapon.And that was it. I had to represent for my chosen side (the Soldiers, obv) so I re-installed TF2, fired up a game and jumped straight into the Soldier’s boots, where I loyally stayed for the duration. The thing being, while I probably would have started playing TF2 again this Christmas, nothing else would have got me this instantly attached. Watching my ‘War Contribution’ kill-counter slowly tick up, immediately booing at any Demomen I saw, furrowing my brow and making a mental note to throw as many rockets their way as possible (those damned Scots!) and striving to get better at that, TF2 temporarily took over my brain. I was logging on every chance I got, checking the War results like a football fan.There are some stats floating around on the internet somewhere*** tht show the spike TF2 sales take after each update, and it’s well deserved. There was a large internet backlash when Valve announced a Left4Dead2, rather than merely updating the first game for free, and TF2 is the reason. But I can’t see L4D updates pushing up the number of interested gamers the way these do- a lot of that is probably due to the more finite nature of level add-ons in an essentially linear game, and a lot to do with the clever way TF2 is marketed- take the Meet The… videos, individual works of genius. With every update, the attention to detail and sheer amount of jokes (under which a mythos is starting to quietly creep in) are astounding. The value-for-money feeling is as much reading the fake newspapers and comics and watching the videos, as it is the addition of weapons and maps. And it’s testament to Valve’s investment in new ways of storytelling. This is a game which doesn’t feature a single cutscene, but which has managed to build an atmosphere, if not a particularly necessary fiction.For all people talked about L4D telling a story in a new way with its graffiti and posters (and it did that reasonably well, but in a too-limited way), this is the ultimate showing-off of Valve’s confidence. Because they’re ace, and they understand gamers of all types- the whole spectrum of nerd- and they make computer games I buy 2 or 3 times. If you’re reading this and it’s still Sunday, then the game is still free and you can get it from Steam here. I leave you with the latest promo video, Meet The Spy. *In many ways, TF2 is as much a Christmas tradition as over-eating and kids’ films for me. First got the 360 Orange Box in the boxing-day sales and lost the rest of my Christmas holidays to it. I bought it again for some mystifying reason on PC, where it entirely failed to run until I received a new laptop last Christmas, and kissed farewell to any chances of leaving the house till New Year. And… well, here we are again. A lot of free time, a lot more work to do, and the temptation. Oh, the temptation. **Controversially because I know a lot of people- PC people especially, and me includedly- look down a bit on achievements as a cheap play-me-look-play-me grinding mechanic. Which they can certainly be, and I’m in no way endorsing the fact that sale page up there including “326 Steam Achievements!” amongst the game’s features. […]