Why I don’t play free to play games
I don’t play free to play games because I don’t think they’re fun. The goals of a successful free to play game run counter to the goals of a good game in my eyes, and plopping a shop inside a video game makes dramatic, catastrophic changes to the very structure and design of the game.
I wanted to put my thoughts on free to play out there, and dive in a little deeper than “haha have you seen how long it takes to dig some dirt in Dungeon Keeper for Android haha aren’t free to play games crap”.
I want to explore why free to play actually does not work. Except that it does because King and Zynga and Supercell are still making millions of dollars a day. So I’ll just have to say why it doesn’t work specifically for me.
So let’s start with pace. All games move at their own pace. It’s like the tempo of a song, or how a Jim Jarmusch movie feels different to a Jim Cameron movie.
In games, good pace means introducing new concepts and toys for the gamer to play with, and constantly moving you between different types of gameplay so you don’t get bored.
One good example is Mario Galaxy. Every level has something different to play with, and some ideas are never repeated. Uncharted 2 also has brilliant pacing, in the way it jumps from shootouts to set pieces to cutscenes to exploration bits so frequently. And in mobile games, there’s Ridiculous Fishing. It might look a bit like a F2P game with the shop and the repetitive gameplay, but it wouldn’t work as a free game because you move through stuff (like lures, guns, and environments) so quickly.

Free to play games have bad pacing. Everything is intentionally slowed down so that you don’t get through content too quickly, and so that some gamers will pay to speed up proceedings.
A lot of the time it’s just painfully obvious, as you get literal timers that spread out the gameplay, and ask you to pay to expedite them. But it can also mean having hundreds of near identical chores to do, or an economy where it’s slow to make money, or repetitive stuff that gets boring so you’ll want to skip through it.
We know that good pacing is poison to free to play. Punch Quest absolutely failed as a free game because it was just too generous, and let players unlock cool moves too quickly. In the end, Rocketcat upped the price of everything by about six times to make people pay.
The developer told me that you really want to intentionally hobble the pace of your game “so it preys on people’s impatience”. That sounds like fun.
Like pacing, balance (or difficulty), is another important aspect of making games. Make a game too easy and it’s a boring no-stakes cakewalk. Make it too hard and you risk players smashing their console with an axe. But you can have hard games, like Spelunky and Dark Souls, because you know that the developers have at least made the game fair and balanced, and that making a tough game was their intention.

We would never think of a free to play game as being hard like Dark Souls, but they do tip their balance in the favour of being too difficult, so that they can sell you - or, at least, the less skilled players - potions, revivals, ammo, nitros, better guns, faster cars, power ups, boosts, level skips, and puzzle hints.
King famously uses a crazy difficulty spike to weed out players who will pay to win, and players who won’t. Tales of Phantasia is a SNES game that was recently re-released as free for iOS, and the game is more difficult and has fewer save points on mobile, because Namco wants to sell revives and potions.
When you get stuck in a difficult paid game, you know that you’re not skilled enough and need more practice or need to try a different type of gameplay to get better items. If you get stuck in a free to play game, it’s hard not to immediately question the developer’s motive and wonder if it’s just hard simply so you’ll pay for more ammo or a faster car or a pair of pants that are impervious to fire.
Which brings us to another point, which is the way that free to play changes the relationship between player and developer.
When you buy a paid game, whether that’s a £2 iOS game or a £50 PS4 game, the developer basically has one goal: to make you like the game. Like it so much that you’ll recommend it to friends, keep it in your collection, and buy DLC and sequels. And to make games journalists write hyperbolic previews and bump up the Metacritic score.
Whether or not they achieve that goal is up for debate, but at least its a noble ambition. And at least they sod off and let you play after the transaction has been made.
When you download a free to play game, the developer must now sit on your shoulder and whisper “pay pay pay” into your ear. Every interaction, mechanic, and screen must be expressly designed to convert scroungers into payers.
Dodging these psychological tricks and identifying ways that the game has been hobbled and engineered to encourage spending is exhausting. I play hundreds of freemium and payium games for my job, and it’s such a relief to load a game that I paid for and to live in the knowledge that everything has been designed to be fun, or challenging, or rewarding, or anything other than monetising.

Free to play games are also restricted to certain types of experience, just by their very nature. The most notable is the length of a game: a free to play game must be extremely or even infinitely long or people won’t spend.
Most people don’t start paying until they’ve played a F 2P game for a week, so in our impending future where all games are free, short weekend-long experiences like Portal, Gone Home, Tomb Raider, Bioshock Infinite, Machinarium, Heavy Rain, and Half Life 2 will no longer exist.
Free to play games can’t have endings. An ending is the absolute worst idea for a free to play game. Why put a stop to people paying? We cannot possibly resolve a plot, wrap up a character arc, or let players leave a world on a satisfying end note. You must stay here until you run out of money or die.
Free to play games have to put you on a treadmill and keep content coming forever. Though, remember, the content must be spread out so you’ll pay to expedite it, so boring that you’ll pay to skip it, and so difficult that you’ll pay to win at it.
Plus, making original, unique content is expensive and risky, so it’s just the same stuff over and over again, but with different numbers and names and words, all dredged up from some creatively bankrupt algorithm or spreadsheet.
So I guess the answer to all this is to pay some money in free to play games, right? Of course these games are dull and repetitive and needlessly difficult and slovenly paced if you’re not spending any money. Developers need to make a profit from free games, so it’s obvious that they would be crippled to encourage you to spend money. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, after all.

But that doesn’t work. There’s no button in any free to play game that says pay £5 to make this game good. No button that says pay £5 to restore the balance, hasten the pace, and give the game a satisfying ending.
You’re left to self regulate. You have to buy the bullets and health packs that you think you need to make the game properly balanced. You have to pay your way through the boring quests to make the game move at a satisfying pace. But don’t go overboard, or you’ll make the game too easy and too fast, which not only bankrupts you and not only ruins the experience, but reveals the game to be nothing more than an endless checklist of pointless chores.
Difficulty balance and game pace are two of the hardest things for a developer to get right, and they are always heavily scrutinised in game reviews. I trust Nintendo and Naughty Dog and From Software and Derek Yu to put in the years of research and play testing to get this right. I don’t trust me to regulate my own gameplay. I can barely regulate my own diet. I am an idiot.
And it never ends, of course. As soon as your week long Clash of Clans shield comes down you spend your £69.99 cache of donuts in The Simpsons: Tapped Out, it just goes back to the same old game again. The same treadmill, the same broken pace, the same hobbled balance. To keep a game fair and finely paced is not only a practically impossible balancing act, it’s a m assive financial investment.
So what does the future hold for free to play? I’m clearly in the minority here, because no matter how many tweets and talks and articles you see decrying free to play games as greedy, broken, joyless money traps, developers are still making millions by releasing free to play games.
Which is a shame, for me at least. Because while the average joe seems to find enjoyment from Clash of Clans and Candy Crush Saga and Real Racing 3, I don’t. I want games that are designed for maximum enjoyment over maximum monetisation. Games that have endings, short games, hard games that are hard because hard games are fun, games I can trust and relax with, game that don’t cause me to make financial decisions every few minutes, games that aren’t filled with psychological tricks, games that fall outside of genres that are known to monetise well.

So for me, the future is worrying. I know there will be console and PC gamers reading who feel largely isolated from all this, and think this just relates to crappy iPhone and Facebook games I don’t play anyway, but mobile has a nasty habit of predicting where games as a whole end will end up going next. The microtransactions screen in Xbox One’s Forza 5, for example, is identical to the IAP screens in a thousand iOS games. That’s the tip of the iceberg.
There are respectful, sensible, non-destructive ways to do f2p. Like selling hats in Team Fortress 2 or DOTA (just an aesthetic thing that doesn’t touch the mechanics or structure of the game), having you buy actual content like chapters in Ghost Trick on iOS, or paying to change your play style in Firaxis’ Haunted Hollow. And maybe there’s an interesting way of having a game built around paying for stuff that doesn’t make me want to vomit.
But those are few and far between, simply because they don’t make as much money as making a game crap so people will pay to make it less crap. As someone who truly loves a good game, i just hope that this is a future, and not the future. The death of the paid-for game would be very sad indeed.

Why I don’t play free to play games

I don’t play free to play games because I don’t think they’re fun. The goals of a successful free to play game run counter to the goals of a good game in my eyes, and plopping a shop inside a video game makes dramatic, catastrophic changes to the very structure and design of the game.

I wanted to put my thoughts on free to play out there, and dive in a little deeper than “haha have you seen how long it takes to dig some dirt in Dungeon Keeper for Android haha aren’t free to play games crap”.

I want to explore why free to play actually does not work. Except that it does because King and Zynga and Supercell are still making millions of dollars a day. So I’ll just have to say why it doesn’t work specifically for me.

So let’s start with pace. All games move at their own pace. It’s like the tempo of a song, or how a Jim Jarmusch movie feels different to a Jim Cameron movie.

In games, good pace means introducing new concepts and toys for the gamer to play with, and constantly moving you between different types of gameplay so you don’t get bored.

One good example is Mario Galaxy. Every level has something different to play with, and some ideas are never repeated. Uncharted 2 also has brilliant pacing, in the way it jumps from shootouts to set pieces to cutscenes to exploration bits so frequently. And in mobile games, there’s Ridiculous Fishing. It might look a bit like a F2P game with the shop and the repetitive gameplay, but it wouldn’t work as a free game because you move through stuff (like lures, guns, and environments) so quickly.

image

Free to play games have bad pacing. Everything is intentionally slowed down so that you don’t get through content too quickly, and so that some gamers will pay to speed up proceedings.

A lot of the time it’s just painfully obvious, as you get literal timers that spread out the gameplay, and ask you to pay to expedite them. But it can also mean having hundreds of near identical chores to do, or an economy where it’s slow to make money, or repetitive stuff that gets boring so you’ll want to skip through it.

We know that good pacing is poison to free to play. Punch Quest absolutely failed as a free game because it was just too generous, and let players unlock cool moves too quickly. In the end, Rocketcat upped the price of everything by about six times to make people pay.

The developer told me that you really want to intentionally hobble the pace of your game “so it preys on people’s impatience”. That sounds like fun.

Like pacing, balance (or difficulty), is another important aspect of making games. Make a game too easy and it’s a boring no-stakes cakewalk. Make it too hard and you risk players smashing their console with an axe. But you can have hard games, like Spelunky and Dark Souls, because you know that the developers have at least made the game fair and balanced, and that making a tough game was their intention.

image

We would never think of a free to play game as being hard like Dark Souls, but they do tip their balance in the favour of being too difficult, so that they can sell you - or, at least, the less skilled players - potions, revivals, ammo, nitros, better guns, faster cars, power ups, boosts, level skips, and puzzle hints.

King famously uses a crazy difficulty spike to weed out players who will pay to win, and players who won’t. Tales of Phantasia is a SNES game that was recently re-released as free for iOS, and the game is more difficult and has fewer save points on mobile, because Namco wants to sell revives and potions.

When you get stuck in a difficult paid game, you know that you’re not skilled enough and need more practice or need to try a different type of gameplay to get better items. If you get stuck in a free to play game, it’s hard not to immediately question the developer’s motive and wonder if it’s just hard simply so you’ll pay for more ammo or a faster car or a pair of pants that are impervious to fire.

Which brings us to another point, which is the way that free to play changes the relationship between player and developer.

When you buy a paid game, whether that’s a £2 iOS game or a £50 PS4 game, the developer basically has one goal: to make you like the game. Like it so much that you’ll recommend it to friends, keep it in your collection, and buy DLC and sequels. And to make games journalists write hyperbolic previews and bump up the Metacritic score.

Whether or not they achieve that goal is up for debate, but at least its a noble ambition. And at least they sod off and let you play after the transaction has been made.

When you download a free to play game, the developer must now sit on your shoulder and whisper “pay pay pay” into your ear. Every interaction, mechanic, and screen must be expressly designed to convert scroungers into payers.

Dodging these psychological tricks and identifying ways that the game has been hobbled and engineered to encourage spending is exhausting. I play hundreds of freemium and payium games for my job, and it’s such a relief to load a game that I paid for and to live in the knowledge that everything has been designed to be fun, or challenging, or rewarding, or anything other than monetising.

image

Free to play games are also restricted to certain types of experience, just by their very nature. The most notable is the length of a game: a free to play game must be extremely or even infinitely long or people won’t spend.

Most people don’t start paying until they’ve played a F 2P game for a week, so in our impending future where all games are free, short weekend-long experiences like Portal, Gone Home, Tomb Raider, Bioshock Infinite, Machinarium, Heavy Rain, and Half Life 2 will no longer exist.

Free to play games can’t have endings. An ending is the absolute worst idea for a free to play game. Why put a stop to people paying? We cannot possibly resolve a plot, wrap up a character arc, or let players leave a world on a satisfying end note. You must stay here until you run out of money or die.

Free to play games have to put you on a treadmill and keep content coming forever. Though, remember, the content must be spread out so you’ll pay to expedite it, so boring that you’ll pay to skip it, and so difficult that you’ll pay to win at it.

Plus, making original, unique content is expensive and risky, so it’s just the same stuff over and over again, but with different numbers and names and words, all dredged up from some creatively bankrupt algorithm or spreadsheet.

So I guess the answer to all this is to pay some money in free to play games, right? Of course these games are dull and repetitive and needlessly difficult and slovenly paced if you’re not spending any money. Developers need to make a profit from free games, so it’s obvious that they would be crippled to encourage you to spend money. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, after all.

image

But that doesn’t work. There’s no button in any free to play game that says pay £5 to make this game good. No button that says pay £5 to restore the balance, hasten the pace, and give the game a satisfying ending.

You’re left to self regulate. You have to buy the bullets and health packs that you think you need to make the game properly balanced. You have to pay your way through the boring quests to make the game move at a satisfying pace. But don’t go overboard, or you’ll make the game too easy and too fast, which not only bankrupts you and not only ruins the experience, but reveals the game to be nothing more than an endless checklist of pointless chores.

Difficulty balance and game pace are two of the hardest things for a developer to get right, and they are always heavily scrutinised in game reviews. I trust Nintendo and Naughty Dog and From Software and Derek Yu to put in the years of research and play testing to get this right. I don’t trust me to regulate my own gameplay. I can barely regulate my own diet. I am an idiot.

And it never ends, of course. As soon as your week long Clash of Clans shield comes down you spend your £69.99 cache of donuts in The Simpsons: Tapped Out, it just goes back to the same old game again. The same treadmill, the same broken pace, the same hobbled balance. To keep a game fair and finely paced is not only a practically impossible balancing act, it’s a m assive financial investment.

So what does the future hold for free to play? I’m clearly in the minority here, because no matter how many tweets and talks and articles you see decrying free to play games as greedy, broken, joyless money traps, developers are still making millions by releasing free to play games.

Which is a shame, for me at least. Because while the average joe seems to find enjoyment from Clash of Clans and Candy Crush Saga and Real Racing 3, I don’t. I want games that are designed for maximum enjoyment over maximum monetisation. Games that have endings, short games, hard games that are hard because hard games are fun, games I can trust and relax with, game that don’t cause me to make financial decisions every few minutes, games that aren’t filled with psychological tricks, games that fall outside of genres that are known to monetise well.

image

So for me, the future is worrying. I know there will be console and PC gamers reading who feel largely isolated from all this, and think this just relates to crappy iPhone and Facebook games I don’t play anyway, but mobile has a nasty habit of predicting where games as a whole end will end up going next. The microtransactions screen in Xbox One’s Forza 5, for example, is identical to the IAP screens in a thousand iOS games. That’s the tip of the iceberg.

There are respectful, sensible, non-destructive ways to do f2p. Like selling hats in Team Fortress 2 or DOTA (just an aesthetic thing that doesn’t touch the mechanics or structure of the game), having you buy actual content like chapters in Ghost Trick on iOS, or paying to change your play style in Firaxis’ Haunted Hollow. And maybe there’s an interesting way of having a game built around paying for stuff that doesn’t make me want to vomit.

But those are few and far between, simply because they don’t make as much money as making a game crap so people will pay to make it less crap. As someone who truly loves a good game, i just hope that this is a future, and not the future. The death of the paid-for game would be very sad indeed.

( | Comments)

This never happens in Assassin’s Creed

I wish it would. Assassin’s Creed is built on the idea that you can do incredible, elegant, fluid, and free-flowing assassinations. That’s what the trailers show. That’s the plan. It never works.

Either it’s because of a dodgy camera or thick AI or the crazy convoluted controls but what you imagine in your head - a slick movie-style string of expert kills - is very different than what actually happens in the game - stumbling into a wall and then getting stabbed in the arse.

Anyway, I actually pulled off something halfway awesome in the pirates one. Something that could be in a CGI trailer or a TV advert or my mind when I’m standing in the queue to buy the game.

() | Comments
Games I almost missed in 2013

I did pretty well this year. Every January I tell myself that I’m going to play every eventful and talked about game that comes out, but somehow end up with a long list of games I completely missed - and will probably never play.

But in 2013, I did well. I played huge console games like Last of Us, Tomb Raider, GTA V, and Bioshock. Handheld fare like Tearaway and Fire Emblem. Indie tat like Gone Home, Papers Please, and Stanley Parable. Apps like Ridiculous Fishing.

But I still missed stuff. Looking over the Game of the Year lists from some of my favourite sites reveals a hidden world of stuff on Steam and things that passed me by on PSN. So I played a bunch over the Christmas break:

Brothers: A Tale of Two SonsAugust - Xbox Live Arcade, PS3 Store, PC

Brothers is a simple fairytale about two sons who set off into a world of giants, trolls, and flying hamster things to retrieve some magical life juice for their dying father.

You play as both brothers at once - moving the older with the left stick and the younger with the right, and using the left and right shoulder buttons to make the two sons interact with props.

It’s pretty weird, and you never get terribly proficient at it, but it sets up some clever little puzzles. It starts with the basics - one brother gives the other a boost to climb up to a ledge - but quickly spirals out into all sorts of ingenious and inventive brainteasers.

The game really comes into its own by the end - don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything - when it uses the mechanics of the game to tell its story in a very effective way. It’s simple, sure, but Brothers does more to weave story with gameplay in the last ten minutes than most console blockbusters can manage in an entire game.

It’s also breathtakingly beautiful. And each section of the game - the short three hour story takes place over all four seasons - is more gorgeous than the last. Seriously, wait until you get to the snow.



AntichamberJanuary - PC

This first-person puzzle game also tries to mix a story in with its mechanics, but it just comes off feeling a bit goofy. You might find that you need to walk slowly over a bridge to stop it falling down, and then you’ll get a message that’s like “You’ll miss things if you rush through life”. See? Goofy.

I also wasn’t crazy about the actual puzzles. For starters, the game takes pride in messing with you. Rooms change position as you explore, floors materialise out of thin air, and the rules are not always universal. It’s like a maze where the walls can move and it’s actually a Japanese game show and everyone’s watching and laughing at you.

Also, while I appreciate that Antichamber lets you wander off and explore multiple puzzles at once, that freedom makes things even more tricky. Mixing a Metroidvania game - where certain areas are impossible to reach with your current tools - with complicated logic-bending puzzles can have you not knowing if you can physically complete the conundrum at hand yet.

I get that this is Antichamber’s thing. It’s out to screw with your brain and isn’t trying to construct an airtight set of rules. But I just found the whole thing a bit exhausting. Then I got to a bit where I needed to press the middle mouse button but I don’t have a middle mouse button so I quit.



The SwapperMay - PC

The Swapper is a puzzle platformer about a little gangly astronaut man who can make four clones of himself using a magic gun. He’ll use his spare selves to solve lots of tricky puzzles and bypass obstacles on some ghostly quiet space station.

Unlike Antichamber, The Swapper is not trying to screw you over. It has a clear set of rules: 1) You can’t make clones in areas of blue light. 2) You can’t take control of a clone who is in an area of red light. 3) You can’t do either in purple light.

The puzzles are small, self-contained rooms. You never stumble across a puzzle that you can’t solve yet. The map is crystal clear. Generous checkpoints and fast travel ports cut out backtracking. It simply lets you get on with the task at hand: solving puzzles.

It could, now that I think about it, work as a series of levels accessed from a menu, like Stealth Inc. or something. But I like the streamlined Metroidvania approach, and exploring the enormous space station (especially the silent space walks).

It also has a story but it’s complete nonsense. The writing is overwrought, I have no intention of reading lore off terminals, and there are talking rocks that spout off such meaningless drivel that they make Braid’s famously pretentious books sound down-to-earth.

All in all, I like this game. I love a good puzzle - especially a hard puzzle that feels genuinely satisfying to solve - but only when the rules are clear and the mechanics are fair.



Toki Tori 2+April - Wii U eShop, PC, Mac

Toki Tori does not hold your hand. At least, not overtly. Instead, it subtly leads you along the right path with puzzles that teach you the rules of the game without literally teaching you the rule of the game with a boring old tutorial.

Eventually you’ll have figured out all the complicated mechanics of this crazy clockwork world. Frogs eat purple dudes, and then spit out bubbles when you butt stomp. Birds are attracted to your whistle. Cut grass grows back when wet. Bats kill you.

You’ll then realise that this is actually a Metroidvania type game with multiple paths and interlocking rooms. Only, instead of unlocking a Varia suit or being able to turn into a bit of mist, you just learn more about the structure of the game’s rules and can therefore solve puzzles that seemed impossible or obtuse before.

It’s very clever. I ended up completing the whole thing - which means hunting down loads of shards - just because the puzzles were challenging and the game didn’t take me for an absolute moron.



140October - PC, Mac

I don’t think this game ended up on any game of the year lists, but I stumbled upon it in my travels. It’s a fun little platformer where the world moves in choreograph to the thumping background music.

Nothing too special. Nothing too revolutionary. But a nice little game and a welcome reprieve from all these brain-twisting puzzles I’ve been solving.



Kentucky Route ZeroJanuary, May - PC, Mac, Linux

Kentucky Route Zero is beautiful. The stark black silhouettes, the lanky characters with their exaggerated animations, the way each scene is dressed like a theatre set.  It looks 2D but then the camera impossibly swoops round to reveal a deep 3D world. It’s got a terrific vibe. A soulful atmosphere.

And the storytelling is intriguing. Instead of making life and death decisions like The Walking Dead, you’re just shaping the subtle intricacies of Conway’s character. Few decisions have any tangible effect. It doesn’t matter if you name your dog Blue or Homer. You’re just making the character and story you want to hear. I like that.

But the actual gameplay stuff is pretty rotten. This is a slow, plodding, crawling creep of a game. It’s frequently boring - I nearly bailed on Act II after yo-yoing between office floors on some crap protracted fetch quest. The beautiful art can obscure your view and hide important paths.

It’s an interesting experience - a sort of trippy, poetic, floaty road trip novel that was worth investigating. But I can’t see myself returning for Act III. Sorry Blue.



ProteusJanuary - PC, Mac, Linux, PS3 Store, PSVita Store

Look, I’m not one of those knuckle-dragging, blood-thirsty, Neanderthals who reckons a game is not a game unless you can kerb stomp nazis and shoot a propane tank in mid-air, in slow motion. But I’m also not going to pretend that I felt anything other than confusion and boredom playing Proteus in order to make me sound cultured and sophisticated.

It’s a quaint first-person explore ‘em up on an island that looks like a screensaver or a child’s painting or a C64 game’s loading screen. You wander about, looking at frogs (I assume. Like all ultra low-fi games, there’s a lot of guess work) and stumbling across pointless huts and generally wondering what to do.

It might not be a game in any real sense of the word but I still played it like a game. I found a pattern - circles of stones seemed to have some effect on you, whether that’s fast-tracking the game’s day-night cycle or making the stars go all screwy - and then replicated it by seeking out more stone circles.

Games are all just predictable computer programs, after all. They have been designed and they have rules and patterns and even if they try to break them, like Antichamber, or hide them, like Proteus, they’re there, bubbling under the surface. Even procedurally generated games work from blueprints and recipes.

I don’t know where I’m going with this. It was going well and now I’ve screwed it up. Oh well, I’m glad people got something out of this game, but it didn’t do much for me.

Bring on 2014.

Games I almost missed in 2013

I did pretty well this year. Every January I tell myself that I’m going to play every eventful and talked about game that comes out, but somehow end up with a long list of games I completely missed - and will probably never play.

But in 2013, I did well. I played huge console games like Last of Us, Tomb Raider, GTA V, and Bioshock. Handheld fare like Tearaway and Fire Emblem. Indie tat like Gone Home, Papers Please, and Stanley Parable. Apps like Ridiculous Fishing.

But I still missed stuff. Looking over the Game of the Year lists from some of my favourite sites reveals a hidden world of stuff on Steam and things that passed me by on PSN. So I played a bunch over the Christmas break:

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
August - Xbox Live Arcade, PS3 Store, PC

Brothers is a simple fairytale about two sons who set off into a world of giants, trolls, and flying hamster things to retrieve some magical life juice for their dying father.

You play as both brothers at once - moving the older with the left stick and the younger with the right, and using the left and right shoulder buttons to make the two sons interact with props.

It’s pretty weird, and you never get terribly proficient at it, but it sets up some clever little puzzles. It starts with the basics - one brother gives the other a boost to climb up to a ledge - but quickly spirals out into all sorts of ingenious and inventive brainteasers.

The game really comes into its own by the end - don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything - when it uses the mechanics of the game to tell its story in a very effective way. It’s simple, sure, but Brothers does more to weave story with gameplay in the last ten minutes than most console blockbusters can manage in an entire game.

It’s also breathtakingly beautiful. And each section of the game - the short three hour story takes place over all four seasons - is more gorgeous than the last. Seriously, wait until you get to the snow.

Antichamber

Antichamber
January - PC

This first-person puzzle game also tries to mix a story in with its mechanics, but it just comes off feeling a bit goofy. You might find that you need to walk slowly over a bridge to stop it falling down, and then you’ll get a message that’s like “You’ll miss things if you rush through life”. See? Goofy.

I also wasn’t crazy about the actual puzzles. For starters, the game takes pride in messing with you. Rooms change position as you explore, floors materialise out of thin air, and the rules are not always universal. It’s like a maze where the walls can move and it’s actually a Japanese game show and everyone’s watching and laughing at you.

Also, while I appreciate that Antichamber lets you wander off and explore multiple puzzles at once, that freedom makes things even more tricky. Mixing a Metroidvania game - where certain areas are impossible to reach with your current tools - with complicated logic-bending puzzles can have you not knowing if you can physically complete the conundrum at hand yet.

I get that this is Antichamber’s thing. It’s out to screw with your brain and isn’t trying to construct an airtight set of rules. But I just found the whole thing a bit exhausting. Then I got to a bit where I needed to press the middle mouse button but I don’t have a middle mouse button so I quit.

The Swapper

The Swapper
May - PC

The Swapper is a puzzle platformer about a little gangly astronaut man who can make four clones of himself using a magic gun. He’ll use his spare selves to solve lots of tricky puzzles and bypass obstacles on some ghostly quiet space station.

Unlike Antichamber, The Swapper is not trying to screw you over. It has a clear set of rules: 1) You can’t make clones in areas of blue light. 2) You can’t take control of a clone who is in an area of red light. 3) You can’t do either in purple light.

The puzzles are small, self-contained rooms. You never stumble across a puzzle that you can’t solve yet. The map is crystal clear. Generous checkpoints and fast travel ports cut out backtracking. It simply lets you get on with the task at hand: solving puzzles.

It could, now that I think about it, work as a series of levels accessed from a menu, like Stealth Inc. or something. But I like the streamlined Metroidvania approach, and exploring the enormous space station (especially the silent space walks).

It also has a story but it’s complete nonsense. The writing is overwrought, I have no intention of reading lore off terminals, and there are talking rocks that spout off such meaningless drivel that they make Braid’s famously pretentious books sound down-to-earth.

All in all, I like this game. I love a good puzzle - especially a hard puzzle that feels genuinely satisfying to solve - but only when the rules are clear and the mechanics are fair.

Toki Tori 2

Toki Tori 2+
April - Wii U eShop, PC, Mac

Toki Tori does not hold your hand. At least, not overtly. Instead, it subtly leads you along the right path with puzzles that teach you the rules of the game without literally teaching you the rule of the game with a boring old tutorial.

Eventually you’ll have figured out all the complicated mechanics of this crazy clockwork world. Frogs eat purple dudes, and then spit out bubbles when you butt stomp. Birds are attracted to your whistle. Cut grass grows back when wet. Bats kill you.

You’ll then realise that this is actually a Metroidvania type game with multiple paths and interlocking rooms. Only, instead of unlocking a Varia suit or being able to turn into a bit of mist, you just learn more about the structure of the game’s rules and can therefore solve puzzles that seemed impossible or obtuse before.

It’s very clever. I ended up completing the whole thing - which means hunting down loads of shards - just because the puzzles were challenging and the game didn’t take me for an absolute moron.

140

140
October - PC, Mac

I don’t think this game ended up on any game of the year lists, but I stumbled upon it in my travels. It’s a fun little platformer where the world moves in choreograph to the thumping background music.

Nothing too special. Nothing too revolutionary. But a nice little game and a welcome reprieve from all these brain-twisting puzzles I’ve been solving.

Kentucky Route Zero

Kentucky Route Zero
January, May - PC, Mac, Linux

Kentucky Route Zero is beautiful. The stark black silhouettes, the lanky characters with their exaggerated animations, the way each scene is dressed like a theatre set. It looks 2D but then the camera impossibly swoops round to reveal a deep 3D world. It’s got a terrific vibe. A soulful atmosphere.

And the storytelling is intriguing. Instead of making life and death decisions like The Walking Dead, you’re just shaping the subtle intricacies of Conway’s character. Few decisions have any tangible effect. It doesn’t matter if you name your dog Blue or Homer. You’re just making the character and story you want to hear. I like that.

But the actual gameplay stuff is pretty rotten. This is a slow, plodding, crawling creep of a game. It’s frequently boring - I nearly bailed on Act II after yo-yoing between office floors on some crap protracted fetch quest. The beautiful art can obscure your view and hide important paths.

It’s an interesting experience - a sort of trippy, poetic, floaty road trip novel that was worth investigating. But I can’t see myself returning for Act III. Sorry Blue.

Proteus

Proteus
January - PC, Mac, Linux, PS3 Store, PSVita Store

Look, I’m not one of those knuckle-dragging, blood-thirsty, Neanderthals who reckons a game is not a game unless you can kerb stomp nazis and shoot a propane tank in mid-air, in slow motion. But I’m also not going to pretend that I felt anything other than confusion and boredom playing Proteus in order to make me sound cultured and sophisticated.

It’s a quaint first-person explore ‘em up on an island that looks like a screensaver or a child’s painting or a C64 game’s loading screen. You wander about, looking at frogs (I assume. Like all ultra low-fi games, there’s a lot of guess work) and stumbling across pointless huts and generally wondering what to do.

It might not be a game in any real sense of the word but I still played it like a game. I found a pattern - circles of stones seemed to have some effect on you, whether that’s fast-tracking the game’s day-night cycle or making the stars go all screwy - and then replicated it by seeking out more stone circles.

Games are all just predictable computer programs, after all. They have been designed and they have rules and patterns and even if they try to break them, like Antichamber, or hide them, like Proteus, they’re there, bubbling under the surface. Even procedurally generated games work from blueprints and recipes.

I don’t know where I’m going with this. It was going well and now I’ve screwed it up. Oh well, I’m glad people got something out of this game, but it didn’t do much for me.

Bring on 2014.

( | Comments)
How I use workflows on Editorial for iPad to speed up boring tasks
I am obsessed with an iPad app.
It’s called Editorial, and what seems like a typical document editor hides a powerful programming backbone that lets you make little workflows to automate and speed up your life.
A simple example might be a workflow that lets you select a word mid writing, and then search for it on Wikipedia to get more details. That might save you a couple seconds a day. But that’s just the tip of the ice berg.
I have manufactured some seriously complicated tools to speed up a lot of the brain dead and repetitive tasks I have to do at Pocket Gamer. Making these workflows is actually quite addictive they’re a thrill everytime I use them and shave seconds or minutes off my day.
So, I wanted to try and explain some of the workflows I use to try and convince you that this is cool and maybe the app for you. You will, of course, need to want to type long articles on an iPad, which isn’t for everyone.
“Add details”
This one does a few things for me, but the main benefit is being able to automatically add a link to a game on the App Store.
For this workflow, I highlight the game’s name and hit Add Details. The first thing it does is it Googles the game’s name, plus “app store site:itunes.apple.com/”. Often, the link to the game on the App Store is the first result.
Editorial has lots of powerful tools in its workflows, but you can always just run a bit of programming language Python to do almost anything you want. So this code runs a Google search and returns the URL of the first result.
It then shows me what URL it found. If it’s not the right one, I’ve got a button that opens the App Store, so I can just find it manually, come back to Editorial, and paste it.
Whatever the case, it then uses find and replace to strip it down to just the App ID and wraps Pocket Gamer’s affiliate code around it.
“Insert price”
We always put prices in stories at PG, and we always use the same layout: pounds / dollars. But it’s often an arduous task to do the conversion.
This workflow lets me enter a price and then spits out the correct conversion. So if I type in £12.99 it gives me £12.99 / $17.99. Handy.
This one uses a little Python, too, and I’ve given it a table of UK prices and a table of US prices. When I give it a UK price tag it finds that price’s position in the UK table and then spits out the value at the same index on the US table.
“Search PG”
Another thing I do all damn day is load Pocket Gamer and search for a game name so I can link a mention of a game to its review.
This one’s simple - it takes the name of the game that I’ve highlighted, replaces the spaces with + signs and then puts that on the end of PG’s search URL (http://www.pocketgamer.co.uk/latest.asp?srch=). It does this in Editorial’s built-in web browser so I don’t get kicked out to Safari.
After I’ve copied the URL of the review and come back to the document, I hit “Paste PG” link and it pastes the URL. But first I need to strip out some garbage text to make the URL clean.
The tough bit is getting rid of the “&srch=super+hexagon”, for example, at the end. You can’t use find and replace - the text changes every time. And you can’t extract a range of characters - it depends on the length of the game name.
Luckily, there’s something called Regular Expressions which lets you find all sorts of things in text. So “.*(?=&srch)” lets me find everything after and including “&search”.
I don’t know much about RegEx - but I do know you can find almost anything you need with a little creative Googling, and there’s a crappy but useful and free iOS app called RegExTester for trying out your RegEx “code(?)” quickly.
“Upload image”
This one’s pretty obvious. It uses some Python script to let me pick an image from my Camera Roll, resizes it to PG’s claustrophobic 450 pixel wide article width, uploads it to PG’s server, and then inserts the correct HTML into my story.
I wanted to come up with a way to speed up naming images, though. In the end, this workflow asks for an Alt Text (often the name of the game), and then makes it lower case, replaces spaces with hyphens, and uses that, and the document name, for the image name.
So if the document is called New Releases Sep 6 and the alt text is Pivvot, it uses new-releases-sep-6-pivvot.jpg as the name. I can, of course, edit the image name before it goes if needed. It’s a little time saver, but comes in handy.
“Submit to Pocket Gamer”
Finally, this is the button I press every time I finish an article.
So Editorial uses markdown, which is a cool way to write HTML code without having to write out the tags. You simply write your article, and use simple punctuation for formatting (like double asterisks either side of a word for bold), and then hit convert to spit out HTML.
Pocket Gamer doesn’t like some of the HTML tags Markdown uses, so after it has converted to the code it does a quick find and replace to turn paragraph tags into line break tags and converts curly quotes into straight ones.
Then it opens the PG backend in the browser, and I paste my HTML code into the article making machine. Boom. God I am a terrible nerd.

How I use workflows on Editorial for iPad to speed up boring tasks

I am obsessed with an iPad app.

It’s called Editorial, and what seems like a typical document editor hides a powerful programming backbone that lets you make little workflows to automate and speed up your life.

A simple example might be a workflow that lets you select a word mid writing, and then search for it on Wikipedia to get more details. That might save you a couple seconds a day. But that’s just the tip of the ice berg.

I have manufactured some seriously complicated tools to speed up a lot of the brain dead and repetitive tasks I have to do at Pocket Gamer. Making these workflows is actually quite addictive they’re a thrill everytime I use them and shave seconds or minutes off my day.

So, I wanted to try and explain some of the workflows I use to try and convince you that this is cool and maybe the app for you. You will, of course, need to want to type long articles on an iPad, which isn’t for everyone.

“Add details”

This one does a few things for me, but the main benefit is being able to automatically add a link to a game on the App Store.

For this workflow, I highlight the game’s name and hit Add Details. The first thing it does is it Googles the game’s name, plus “app store site:itunes.apple.com/”. Often, the link to the game on the App Store is the first result.

Editorial has lots of powerful tools in its workflows, but you can always just run a bit of programming language Python to do almost anything you want. So this code runs a Google search and returns the URL of the first result.

It then shows me what URL it found. If it’s not the right one, I’ve got a button that opens the App Store, so I can just find it manually, come back to Editorial, and paste it.

Whatever the case, it then uses find and replace to strip it down to just the App ID and wraps Pocket Gamer’s affiliate code around it.

“Insert price”

We always put prices in stories at PG, and we always use the same layout: pounds / dollars. But it’s often an arduous task to do the conversion.

This workflow lets me enter a price and then spits out the correct conversion. So if I type in £12.99 it gives me £12.99 / $17.99. Handy.

This one uses a little Python, too, and I’ve given it a table of UK prices and a table of US prices. When I give it a UK price tag it finds that price’s position in the UK table and then spits out the value at the same index on the US table.

“Search PG”

Another thing I do all damn day is load Pocket Gamer and search for a game name so I can link a mention of a game to its review.

This one’s simple - it takes the name of the game that I’ve highlighted, replaces the spaces with + signs and then puts that on the end of PG’s search URL (http://www.pocketgamer.co.uk/latest.asp?srch=). It does this in Editorial’s built-in web browser so I don’t get kicked out to Safari.

After I’ve copied the URL of the review and come back to the document, I hit “Paste PG” link and it pastes the URL. But first I need to strip out some garbage text to make the URL clean.

The tough bit is getting rid of the “&srch=super+hexagon”, for example, at the end. You can’t use find and replace - the text changes every time. And you can’t extract a range of characters - it depends on the length of the game name.

Luckily, there’s something called Regular Expressions which lets you find all sorts of things in text. So “.*(?=&srch)” lets me find everything after and including “&search”.

I don’t know much about RegEx - but I do know you can find almost anything you need with a little creative Googling, and there’s a crappy but useful and free iOS app called RegExTester for trying out your RegEx “code(?)” quickly.

“Upload image”

This one’s pretty obvious. It uses some Python script to let me pick an image from my Camera Roll, resizes it to PG’s claustrophobic 450 pixel wide article width, uploads it to PG’s server, and then inserts the correct HTML into my story.

I wanted to come up with a way to speed up naming images, though. In the end, this workflow asks for an Alt Text (often the name of the game), and then makes it lower case, replaces spaces with hyphens, and uses that, and the document name, for the image name.

So if the document is called New Releases Sep 6 and the alt text is Pivvot, it uses new-releases-sep-6-pivvot.jpg as the name. I can, of course, edit the image name before it goes if needed. It’s a little time saver, but comes in handy.

“Submit to Pocket Gamer”

Finally, this is the button I press every time I finish an article.

So Editorial uses markdown, which is a cool way to write HTML code without having to write out the tags. You simply write your article, and use simple punctuation for formatting (like double asterisks either side of a word for bold), and then hit convert to spit out HTML.

Pocket Gamer doesn’t like some of the HTML tags Markdown uses, so after it has converted to the code it does a quick find and replace to turn paragraph tags into line break tags and converts curly quotes into straight ones.

Then it opens the PG backend in the browser, and I paste my HTML code into the article making machine. Boom. God I am a terrible nerd.

( | Comments)

Hiatus

My black-and-white, point-and-click film noir detective point and click adventure City of Angels has been on hiatus for a while now. I forgot to tell anyone. Sorry.

I haven’t given up on the game. I will make it one day. But I came to the conclusion that I just don’t have the experience to make it everything I want it to be, right now.

It is, in many ways, my dream game. And to rush it out as my first ever, slapdash, naive project could spoil that. So I’ve decided to work my way up to it, with smaller projects.

You learn a lot when you make a game, you know? For example, I showed CoA off waaay too early, and felt enormous pressure to work on it ever since. Deciding to put it in a drawer was like taking a huge weight off my shoulders. So yeah, that’s lesson one.

But also more general, practical things about planning and building engines, and working with memory. Stuff you just literally don’t know about until you release something.

So I’m working on some smaller projects. Little iOS games. I bought my Apple dev license the other day. That’s exciting. I’m making stuff that might get done in this century. Stuff I won’t tell you about until it’s damn well nearly done.

Apologies if you’re disappointed. Just know that it will be done one day. And it will be better than Duke Nukem Forever.

( | Comments)
City of AngelsI’m making a game. So yeah, that happened.It’s called City of Angels, and it’s a detective adventure game inspired by film noir, police procedurals and pulp detective novels. A point and click that’s equal parts The Maltese Falcon, Dragnet and The Big Sleep.You play as an ex-Chicago cop who escapes to the west coast and turns LAPD detective. Working out of homicide, he gets landed with a string of young, dead, girls and is determined to put their killers behind bars.It’s dressed up in the guise of the old LucasArts adventure games that I binged on in my youth, but don’t expect your traditional logic puzzles and item combination head scratchers. Instead, you’ll need to follow clues, examine evidence, interview witnesses and “work the case”, as they say in The Naked City.It’s really fun to make, and research. It’s inspired by many noir films and pulp books, and the city is based heavily on the real LA of 1948 - I’m using thousands of reference photos to make the buildings and props as real as possible. It’s not LA Noire - I don’t have 100 employees and 7 years - but I’m pleased with its authenticity. There’s loads more that I’d like to talk about, but we’ll have plenty of time to chat before the game launches sometime next year. So I’ll leave you with a FAQ that answers all the questions I get everytime I post a screenshot on Twitter:When’s it coming out?I’m aiming for spring 2013. I’ve laid a lot of the coding and artistic groundwork for the game, but now it’s a case of drawing, writing and designing the bulk of the game.What language/engine/editor are you using?I’m using Adventure Game Studio. It’s an editor and scripting language that has all the tools to make an old school point and click. Two AGS games you might have played are Gemini Rue and Resonance.What platforms will it be on?The only platform I can promise is Windows, as AGS only outputs games for PC. I’d love to make it for Mac, iPhone and iPad, but I’ll have to wait for the AGS community to finish up their ports.Are you doing the art/design/coding/music/writing?Yes. I plan to do everything. I may have to get some outside help to do music, but at the moment I hope to be able to make it all by myself.

City of Angels

I’m making a game. So yeah, that happened.

It’s called City of Angels, and it’s a detective adventure game inspired by film noir, police procedurals and pulp detective novels. A point and click that’s equal parts The Maltese Falcon, Dragnet and The Big Sleep.

You play as an ex-Chicago cop who escapes to the west coast and turns LAPD detective. Working out of homicide, he gets landed with a string of young, dead, girls and is determined to put their killers behind bars.

It’s dressed up in the guise of the old LucasArts adventure games that I binged on in my youth, but don’t expect your traditional logic puzzles and item combination head scratchers. Instead, you’ll need to follow clues, examine evidence, interview witnesses and “work the case”, as they say in The Naked City.

It’s really fun to make, and research. It’s inspired by many noir films and pulp books, and the city is based heavily on the real LA of 1948 - I’m using thousands of reference photos to make the buildings and props as real as possible. It’s not LA Noire - I don’t have 100 employees and 7 years - but I’m pleased with its authenticity.

There’s loads more that I’d like to talk about, but we’ll have plenty of time to chat before the game launches sometime next year. So I’ll leave you with a FAQ that answers all the questions I get everytime I post a screenshot on Twitter:

When’s it coming out?
I’m aiming for spring 2013. I’ve laid a lot of the coding and artistic groundwork for the game, but now it’s a case of drawing, writing and designing the bulk of the game.

What language/engine/editor are you using?
I’m using Adventure Game Studio. It’s an editor and scripting language that has all the tools to make an old school point and click. Two AGS games you might have played are Gemini Rue and Resonance.

What platforms will it be on?
The only platform I can promise is Windows, as AGS only outputs games for PC. I’d love to make it for Mac, iPhone and iPad, but I’ll have to wait for the AGS community to finish up their ports.

Are you doing the art/design/coding/music/writing?
Yes. I plan to do everything. I may have to get some outside help to do music, but at the moment I hope to be able to make it all by myself.

( | Comments)
Perception is Reality - Thoughts on Fez
Fez is a delight. It’s clever, imaginative, and super cute. It’s quite obviously a labour of love, and at 800 Microsoft space bucks its an easy recommendation. But something about it leaves me a little cold, and I just don’t love Fez as much as I hoped I would.
Now that I’ve completed the game - completed completed, with all 64 cubes, all the hearts and the artefacts and the achievements and the rooms - I think I’ve figured out why it doesn’t quite fit together.
Fez’s theme is perception. You see that in the way you can stitch together objects that are far apart in 3D just by lining them up in 2D. You see that in the way some of the mashmallow characters discount the idea of a third dimension, and the way one villager says - a little too on the nose, perhaps - that “perception is reality”. 
Heck, even the title screen is an optical illusion, that can be perceived from two different directions.
Which is all very cool. It’s an interesting theme, and one that games are almost uniquelly eqipped to explore. The way you can play with space and dimensions and geometry is in the exclusive domain of video games - outside of M.C. Escher paintings.
But the problem is that Fez only scratches the surface of this theme in its actual gameplay. The idea of switching between 3D and 2D, and making a new reality out of perception is only tentatively approached, and very rarely embraced. 
Many of the puzzles can be solved by simply jamming on the right or left trigger a couple of times until the platforms line up and the solution or pathway presents itself. In fact, this side of the game only offers up a handful of real, bonafide puzzles (you can find them in areas where you can manually spin bits of scenery with big, lurching pivot points).
Other than these few and fleeting examples, Fez is just so rarely surprising or inventive. I can’t remember a single instance where I felt like a genius for figuring out the solution (the mark of a well constructed puzzle, in my opinion), and I found myself plodding through my first runthrough with ease.
We know that this gameplay mechanic can do more. The escher-esque PSP brain-stumper Echochrome has a similar idea, and managed to be both super smart and maddeningly difficult. Also on PSP, the painfully underappreciated Crush will often leave you spinning the world around for 20 minutes while you coax out a solution. Super Paper Mario was a let down, but had plenty of clever ideas, regardless.
Instead, Fez’s real focus is on cryptic puzzles and other goofy nonsense. QR codes, alternative alphabets, clocks that chime in time with your Xbox, codes delivered through rumbles in your controller, secret button combinations, a code you had to translate into binary and ASCII. Ciphers, codes, combinations, and impossible secrets.
Some of this stuff is great fun. Fez features the first ever QR code that I managed to scan without hating myself. I have reams of notes where I jotted down shapes and patterns and symbols and pictures. This, it turns out, is where the real creativity lies. This is where you feel like a genius when you figure it out, and feel like a failure when you have to beg Twitter to dole out a clue.
But that’s not really the point of the game, is it? This stuff feels like hidden bonus content, designed to excite and enamour the sorts of people who are on the frontline of figuring out ARGs and secret ciphers. Gamers who get off on codes, while us Neanderthals stare at a page of symbols for five minutes before giving up and heading to GameFAQs. 
Don’t get me wrong, I think some of this stuff is fascinating. Read Sinan Kubba and Kyle Orland’s article on the intrepid band of code-crackers who figured out Fez’s “final” puzzle. It’s a thrilling read, as these smart-alecs figure out that a hard-to-find book must be read in three dimensions, as sentences snake through adjacent pages. Whoever figured that out must have felt amazing.
But, that wasn’t the experience for most of us. For most of us, it was slack-jawed, gooey-brained bemusement. 
Only, those cryptic puzzles represent the very core of Fez. Ignore those - ignore most of the anti-cubes and give up on owls, numbers, symbols, Tetris icons, bells, telescopes and tuning forks - and you end up with a very basic, very rudimentary puzzle platformer.
Like, imagine if Braid’s time-travelling mechanic never evolved past the first level. It never got more sophisticated or ingenious, and you never got the ring or the shadowy doppleganger. Instead, you plodded through the game using the same basic idea over and over again, and the real thought was put into the super secret stars.
No. Braid is almost the opposite of Fez. Jon Blow concentrated on the thing that all players were going to experience, and the thing that tied in to the game’s overarching theme: time. He spun this idea a thousand different ways, to make puzzles about time travel, and the speed of motion, and turning back the clock. The stars? Just a added bonus, for intrepid puzzle solvers.
In the end, I wish Phil Fish spent more time on the actual 2D/3D, perception-led puzzle platforming. That’s what the game was marketed as, that’s what the free Trial sells you on, that’s what the narrative theme is all about. But that never gets any smarter, and never gets any deeper. Obviously, most of that five year development process was spent on QR codes, clocks, codes and ciphers.

Perception is Reality - Thoughts on Fez

Fez is a delight. It’s clever, imaginative, and super cute. It’s quite obviously a labour of love, and at 800 Microsoft space bucks its an easy recommendation. But something about it leaves me a little cold, and I just don’t love Fez as much as I hoped I would.

Now that I’ve completed the game - completed completed, with all 64 cubes, all the hearts and the artefacts and the achievements and the rooms - I think I’ve figured out why it doesn’t quite fit together.

Fez’s theme is perception. You see that in the way you can stitch together objects that are far apart in 3D just by lining them up in 2D. You see that in the way some of the mashmallow characters discount the idea of a third dimension, and the way one villager says - a little too on the nose, perhaps - that “perception is reality”. 

Heck, even the title screen is an optical illusion, that can be perceived from two different directions.

Which is all very cool. It’s an interesting theme, and one that games are almost uniquelly eqipped to explore. The way you can play with space and dimensions and geometry is in the exclusive domain of video games - outside of M.C. Escher paintings.

But the problem is that Fez only scratches the surface of this theme in its actual gameplay. The idea of switching between 3D and 2D, and making a new reality out of perception is only tentatively approached, and very rarely embraced. 

Many of the puzzles can be solved by simply jamming on the right or left trigger a couple of times until the platforms line up and the solution or pathway presents itself. In fact, this side of the game only offers up a handful of real, bonafide puzzles (you can find them in areas where you can manually spin bits of scenery with big, lurching pivot points).

Other than these few and fleeting examples, Fez is just so rarely surprising or inventive. I can’t remember a single instance where I felt like a genius for figuring out the solution (the mark of a well constructed puzzle, in my opinion), and I found myself plodding through my first runthrough with ease.

We know that this gameplay mechanic can do more. The escher-esque PSP brain-stumper Echochrome has a similar idea, and managed to be both super smart and maddeningly difficult. Also on PSP, the painfully underappreciated Crush will often leave you spinning the world around for 20 minutes while you coax out a solution. Super Paper Mario was a let down, but had plenty of clever ideas, regardless.

Instead, Fez’s real focus is on cryptic puzzles and other goofy nonsense. QR codes, alternative alphabets, clocks that chime in time with your Xbox, codes delivered through rumbles in your controller, secret button combinations, a code you had to translate into binary and ASCII. Ciphers, codes, combinations, and impossible secrets.

Some of this stuff is great fun. Fez features the first ever QR code that I managed to scan without hating myself. I have reams of notes where I jotted down shapes and patterns and symbols and pictures. This, it turns out, is where the real creativity lies. This is where you feel like a genius when you figure it out, and feel like a failure when you have to beg Twitter to dole out a clue.

But that’s not really the point of the game, is it? This stuff feels like hidden bonus content, designed to excite and enamour the sorts of people who are on the frontline of figuring out ARGs and secret ciphers. Gamers who get off on codes, while us Neanderthals stare at a page of symbols for five minutes before giving up and heading to GameFAQs. 

Don’t get me wrong, I think some of this stuff is fascinating. Read Sinan Kubba and Kyle Orland’s article on the intrepid band of code-crackers who figured out Fez’s “final” puzzle. It’s a thrilling read, as these smart-alecs figure out that a hard-to-find book must be read in three dimensions, as sentences snake through adjacent pages. Whoever figured that out must have felt amazing.

But, that wasn’t the experience for most of us. For most of us, it was slack-jawed, gooey-brained bemusement. 

Only, those cryptic puzzles represent the very core of Fez. Ignore those - ignore most of the anti-cubes and give up on owls, numbers, symbols, Tetris icons, bells, telescopes and tuning forks - and you end up with a very basic, very rudimentary puzzle platformer.

Like, imagine if Braid’s time-travelling mechanic never evolved past the first level. It never got more sophisticated or ingenious, and you never got the ring or the shadowy doppleganger. Instead, you plodded through the game using the same basic idea over and over again, and the real thought was put into the super secret stars.

No. Braid is almost the opposite of Fez. Jon Blow concentrated on the thing that all players were going to experience, and the thing that tied in to the game’s overarching theme: time. He spun this idea a thousand different ways, to make puzzles about time travel, and the speed of motion, and turning back the clock. The stars? Just a added bonus, for intrepid puzzle solvers.

In the end, I wish Phil Fish spent more time on the actual 2D/3D, perception-led puzzle platforming. That’s what the game was marketed as, that’s what the free Trial sells you on, that’s what the narrative theme is all about. But that never gets any smarter, and never gets any deeper. Obviously, most of that five year development process was spent on QR codes, clocks, codes and ciphers.

( | Comments)
Climbing games - Assassin’s Creed: Revelation’s Hagia Sophia
A series about history, architecture, climbing and movement
In the fourth Assassin’s Creed game, Ubisoft wanted to mash together the stories of Altair - the stoic third Crusade neck-stabber - and Ezio - the affable Renaissance-era neck-stabber - into one intersecting tale.
So what better place to forge that connection than the crossroads of the world: Constantinople? A place that straddles Europe and Asia, connects East to West and has been home to Christians and Muslims throughout its turbulent history. The symbolism is so obvious it almost drips from your television.
No building quite characterises Constantinople’s stormy history and cross-cultural shift like the crown of the city, the Hagia Sophia. This extravagant domed basilica replaced two earlier churches, got hit by its fair share of earthquakes and hopped from Christian church to Islamic mosque. It’s like Constantinople in microcosm.
The building was originally a Byzantine (the Eastern half of the massive Roman Empire) church, and built by the decree of Roman Emperor Justinian I. But despite it being one of the most ambitious projects around - a dome-upon-dome construction, with a massive central apex that wouldn’t be bested for almost 1,000 years - it was completed in just five years.
In 537, half a decade after construction started, the Hagia Sophia was built. But despite some marvellous Roman engineering, that rushed job would prove to be the Sophia’s downfall. Literally. Huge chunks of the building fell off in proceeding earthquakes forcing bits to be rebuilt every few hundred years. Eventually, four large buttresses had to be added for stability.
In 1453, the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople put an end to the Byzantine empire and Mehmet the Conqueror turned the magnificent crown of the city into an Islamic mosque. 60-odd years later and here we are - in 1511 as aging (and bearded) assassin Ezio Auditore. And in true Assassin’s Creed style, it would be wrong not to have a scramble around its architecture and to scale that prized dome.
It’s not the most satisfying climb in the Ezio trilogy, I have to admit. That’s mostly because despite the dome’s magnificence — rising 210 feet above the floor, and with a monstrous diameter of 110 feet — it’s still rather squat and surrounded by a messy jumble of tiny roofs at different heights and a handful of poky mini-domes.
It’s tall enough to give a panoramic view of the entire city and the Sea of Marmara (which splits modern-day Turkey between Europe and Asia) and it might be the largest cathedral in the world when Ezio visits, but it’s more about complicated architecture and the load-bearing engineering than soaring view points. It takes less than half a minute for Ezio to reach the absolute peak of its spire.
If you want a taller view you’ll have to scale the four minarets that flank the mosque. These are tall, free-standing spires with onion-shaped crowns, representing a trademark of Islamic architecture.
They give you a nice view of the Hagia Sophia. The ones in tight orbit around the mosque give you a birds-eye view of the interesting roof-top architecture. The two further away give you a complete front profile of the building, unobstructed by buildings.
Anachronistically, in 1511 there would only be two towers by Sophia. The other two date from the Murad III period of the 1600s - over a hundred years after Ezio’s adventure. The towers are also subtly asymmetrical (having being built in different eras), but Creed’s quartet of spires are identical. Well, other than the fact that two have an Animus shard at the top, and another is a map-synchronising lookout point.
Ubisoft script writer Darvy McDevitt admits that the Assassin’s Creed team tweaks history at times. “We put four because we thought that this was the iconic image of the Hagia Sophia,” he said in an interview. However, they didn’t leap forward 100 years and add the neighboring Blue Mosque. A crumbling Roman hippodrome still lives near the Sophia’s base.
While you can quickly scale the Sophia’s dome and perch Ezio atop its crescent moon spire, you’ll still need to be a master of Assassin’s Creed’s platforming tricks and Revelation’s unique hook blade to earn the achievement (or trophy) “Spider Assassin”. This is awarded for climbing from the ground to the pinnacle in less than 25 seconds.
There’s a rhythm to Creed’s movement. Just like how registering the flow of a battle and pressing attack in time with Ezio’s swordplay will unlock combos, you need to get a feel for the rhythm and flow of his movements when scampering up a wall or bounding across rooftops to move most quickly.
Take climbing upwards. Ezio gets a hook blade in this game which lets him reach out and grasp out-of-reach handholds - a slight tweak on the grasp system from earlier games. He can use this to leap up a vertical wall, and if you tap the leap button the moment he secures a grasp you can fire Ezio up again towards the next handhold.
Get the timing wrong and Ezio will put his hook away and grab on with both hands, slowing you down. Get it right, though, and he can dart from outcropping to outcropping like a gorilla in a tree, literally jumping up entire buildings in seconds - and easily grabbing the Hagia Sophia’s achievement.
Just like fighting, feeling the flow is often more about audio than visual signals. You’ll do much better if you listen for that telltale noise of metal hook striking stone, and tapping the button in time. A perfect climb will sound like a perfect drum beat.
The hook blade comes in handy for horizontal jumps, too. If your jump is too short and you’re about to fall, hitting B can make Ezio lunge out and save his life with a last-minute grap. But don’t become over-reliant on it: if Ezio was able to make a clean jump, hitting B will instead make him grab onto the side, forcing you to lose valuable seconds as he pulls himself up. It’s all about risk and reward.
Making good use of the hook blade requires you to learn the intricacies of Ezio’s movements, and get a grasp on the exact abilities of this Renaissance assassin. Knowing how far he can jump and when best to use the hook will give you the edge in rooftop chases, and earn you this tough achievement.
You can go inside the Hagia Sophia, allowing you to see the holy props and intricate mosaics, and how that magnificent dome looks from the inside. But you’ll need to find a whole bunch of collectible objects to get the key - so a blog for another day, perhaps?
You can also purchase it for a whopping 60,000 Akçe. But this blog series is about climbing great buildings, certainly not buying them.

Climbing games - Assassin’s Creed: Revelation’s Hagia Sophia

A series about history, architecture, climbing and movement

In the fourth Assassin’s Creed game, Ubisoft wanted to mash together the stories of Altair - the stoic third Crusade neck-stabber - and Ezio - the affable Renaissance-era neck-stabber - into one intersecting tale.

So what better place to forge that connection than the crossroads of the world: Constantinople? A place that straddles Europe and Asia, connects East to West and has been home to Christians and Muslims throughout its turbulent history. The symbolism is so obvious it almost drips from your television.

No building quite characterises Constantinople’s stormy history and cross-cultural shift like the crown of the city, the Hagia Sophia. This extravagant domed basilica replaced two earlier churches, got hit by its fair share of earthquakes and hopped from Christian church to Islamic mosque. It’s like Constantinople in microcosm.

The building was originally a Byzantine (the Eastern half of the massive Roman Empire) church, and built by the decree of Roman Emperor Justinian I. But despite it being one of the most ambitious projects around - a dome-upon-dome construction, with a massive central apex that wouldn’t be bested for almost 1,000 years - it was completed in just five years.

In 537, half a decade after construction started, the Hagia Sophia was built. But despite some marvellous Roman engineering, that rushed job would prove to be the Sophia’s downfall. Literally. Huge chunks of the building fell off in proceeding earthquakes forcing bits to be rebuilt every few hundred years. Eventually, four large buttresses had to be added for stability.

In 1453, the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople put an end to the Byzantine empire and Mehmet the Conqueror turned the magnificent crown of the city into an Islamic mosque. 60-odd years later and here we are - in 1511 as aging (and bearded) assassin Ezio Auditore. And in true Assassin’s Creed style, it would be wrong not to have a scramble around its architecture and to scale that prized dome.

It’s not the most satisfying climb in the Ezio trilogy, I have to admit. That’s mostly because despite the dome’s magnificence — rising 210 feet above the floor, and with a monstrous diameter of 110 feet — it’s still rather squat and surrounded by a messy jumble of tiny roofs at different heights and a handful of poky mini-domes.

It’s tall enough to give a panoramic view of the entire city and the Sea of Marmara (which splits modern-day Turkey between Europe and Asia) and it might be the largest cathedral in the world when Ezio visits, but it’s more about complicated architecture and the load-bearing engineering than soaring view points. It takes less than half a minute for Ezio to reach the absolute peak of its spire.

If you want a taller view you’ll have to scale the four minarets that flank the mosque. These are tall, free-standing spires with onion-shaped crowns, representing a trademark of Islamic architecture.

They give you a nice view of the Hagia Sophia. The ones in tight orbit around the mosque give you a birds-eye view of the interesting roof-top architecture. The two further away give you a complete front profile of the building, unobstructed by buildings.

Anachronistically, in 1511 there would only be two towers by Sophia. The other two date from the Murad III period of the 1600s - over a hundred years after Ezio’s adventure. The towers are also subtly asymmetrical (having being built in different eras), but Creed’s quartet of spires are identical. Well, other than the fact that two have an Animus shard at the top, and another is a map-synchronising lookout point.

Ubisoft script writer Darvy McDevitt admits that the Assassin’s Creed team tweaks history at times. “We put four because we thought that this was the iconic image of the Hagia Sophia,” he said in an interview. However, they didn’t leap forward 100 years and add the neighboring Blue Mosque. A crumbling Roman hippodrome still lives near the Sophia’s base.

While you can quickly scale the Sophia’s dome and perch Ezio atop its crescent moon spire, you’ll still need to be a master of Assassin’s Creed’s platforming tricks and Revelation’s unique hook blade to earn the achievement (or trophy) “Spider Assassin”. This is awarded for climbing from the ground to the pinnacle in less than 25 seconds.

There’s a rhythm to Creed’s movement. Just like how registering the flow of a battle and pressing attack in time with Ezio’s swordplay will unlock combos, you need to get a feel for the rhythm and flow of his movements when scampering up a wall or bounding across rooftops to move most quickly.

Take climbing upwards. Ezio gets a hook blade in this game which lets him reach out and grasp out-of-reach handholds - a slight tweak on the grasp system from earlier games. He can use this to leap up a vertical wall, and if you tap the leap button the moment he secures a grasp you can fire Ezio up again towards the next handhold.

Get the timing wrong and Ezio will put his hook away and grab on with both hands, slowing you down. Get it right, though, and he can dart from outcropping to outcropping like a gorilla in a tree, literally jumping up entire buildings in seconds - and easily grabbing the Hagia Sophia’s achievement.

Just like fighting, feeling the flow is often more about audio than visual signals. You’ll do much better if you listen for that telltale noise of metal hook striking stone, and tapping the button in time. A perfect climb will sound like a perfect drum beat.

The hook blade comes in handy for horizontal jumps, too. If your jump is too short and you’re about to fall, hitting B can make Ezio lunge out and save his life with a last-minute grap. But don’t become over-reliant on it: if Ezio was able to make a clean jump, hitting B will instead make him grab onto the side, forcing you to lose valuable seconds as he pulls himself up. It’s all about risk and reward.

Making good use of the hook blade requires you to learn the intricacies of Ezio’s movements, and get a grasp on the exact abilities of this Renaissance assassin. Knowing how far he can jump and when best to use the hook will give you the edge in rooftop chases, and earn you this tough achievement.

You can go inside the Hagia Sophia, allowing you to see the holy props and intricate mosaics, and how that magnificent dome looks from the inside. But you’ll need to find a whole bunch of collectible objects to get the key - so a blog for another day, perhaps?

You can also purchase it for a whopping 60,000 Akçe. But this blog series is about climbing great buildings, certainly not buying them.

( | Comments)
L.A. Noire - Can I do some detective work now, please?Unlike Rockstar’s previous period-perfect epics - Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption - Aussie dev Team Bondi wants to feel like a real person. With a real personality, and not just a psychopath. And, more importantly, with a real job, and not just “psychopath”.They turn you into LAPD detective Cole Phelps, a war hero with a sharp suit, a fedora and a stick up his arse. And to make you feel like a detective you spend more time fingering matchstick cases and bellowing at dirty rotten liars than you do shooting guys. Though you do shoot a lot of guys.L.A. Noire certainly makes you feel like an interrogator. The game’s biggest draw, the reason for its half-decade development period and the biggest god-damn bulletpoint on the box is the fact that you grill witnesses, suspects, leads and random neighbours with a truth-seeking line of questions that’d make Phoenix Wright blush.But Noire never made me feel like a detective. The critical other side of the coin that gives you the ammunition - talking point evidence and lie-debunking proof - for your interrogations. I felt more like an overzealous lackey who’d follow in Phelps’ literal footsteps, bagging up his evidence and polishing his shoes, but never doing the police work I so wanted to do.Phelps would always be the one to dispense advice on the case at hand. “We should check out the husband,” he might declare, before the husband is added to my list of suspects. He’d read a matchbook and say “24 Sunset Blvd, we should visit them”, before the address automatically got added to my list of locations, and a dot magically appeared on the city map.I very rarely got to make any substantial decisions in the actual gumshoe investigation work. I’d parade around the crime scene until I stumbled over an object that made the controller vibrate.  Cole would then say out loud whether or not the item is useful. If it was, it was added to my list of clues, formed a question for a specific witness or a location was added my map.The only time you’d really have to engage your brain and think like a detective (outside of the excellent interrogation scenes) is when you’re greeted with a ledger or a list of names or a list of addresses, and you have to guide Phelp’s hovering finger to the right place. Take too long, and Cole will just tell you the answer anyway.But how can a game make you feel like a real detective - who does proper investigative work and follows leads - without making the game impossibly difficult or too open for interpretation? Enter: The Shivah.Shivah is a painfully short but exceptionally well made point and click from indie dev Wadjet Eye Games. You play Russell Stone - a dejected Rabbi who’s wracked with guilt when he finds out that a member of his old congregation, who he shunned years ago, has been murdered. To ease his remorse he decides to play at being a copper, and see if he can’t figure out the case himself.The game treats you like an intelligent human being, and also treats you like a wannabe cop. There’s no in-game journal where Rabbi Stone automatically jots down pertinent information: you have to play the game with a paper and pen (or an iPad jotter app called Penultimate) in front of you to decide what’s worth remembering, all by yourself. Like a big boy.So first of all, I need to find out where this murdered dude lived. I dust off my computer and use the search. To stop your searches for “Jack Lauder” sprawling off into millions of useless results (about 4,380,000 of them, says Google), the game invents a smaller, closed network for the local Jewish community called Ravnet. I plug in Lauder’s name, and his contact details appear. It puts his apartment on my map.Later, after questioning his widowed wife, I end up at his old workplace. I work my way into his computer by guessing his password (I picked it up from his wife - her mother’s maiden name - and wrote it down because I thought it might be important). I go through his emails, sort through spam and start looking for interesting conversations. I spot a suspicious email but it doesn’t - thankfully enough - throw a pop-up message on the screen that says PERSON OF INTEREST ADDED: ETHAN G. So I write it down.Ethan G. Hm, in another email, Jack’s wife talks about meeting the Goldwaters. I try “Ethan Goldwater” in the Ravnet search. Zilch. Later, I see a picture of some old buddies of Jack, and it mentions an E. Goldberg. I plug Ethan Goldberg into Ravnet. Bingo. I find out that he’s been killed too, and it gives me more questions, leads and opportunities. It mentions a bar, and its added to my map.Obviously, the game has to automatically put new locations on my map. I wish I could have an entire city, and actually ride the subway or take a cab to investigate possible locations of interest, just like I’ve been investigating potentially interesting names and events. Like a real cop. But that’s impossible - the rag tag bunch of indie game makers at Wadjet Eye have neither the budget nor time to render an entire New York city map for me to visit.Rockstar does, of course. It has, like five times (two Liberty Cities, Vice City, San Andreas and Los Angeles). It seemed perfect - a dream game was forming in my mind. At the time, I said to my friend Phil in an instant message (good old Gmail, saving years-old chat logs):
me: so you’ll be reading people’s letters and jotting down names [to investigate later]
i actually wish it had more than that
like, addresses
when you find an address, you actually gotta figure out how to get there
heck, just make it in Liberty City
that would be the most insane game ever
if you’re like a noir detective dude in a twilight liberty city
taking the subway
anyway
Phil: yeha
me: lets talk about games that exist outside of my mind
Putting aside my crazy prophetic visions of a detective-style GTA game, I feel like L.A. Noire’s beautiful post-war Los Angeles is hazardously wasted. Like Mafia II’s cardboard cut-out Empire City, Rockstar’s take on LA is a pointless landscape that acts like a time-filling buffer to spread apart the crime scenes and suspects. As the game wraps up, you can just press a button to skip car journeys altogether.It would be been incredible to spot an address on the back of a matchbook cover, and then pull out the map (since when did Rockstar games stop coming with physical maps in the box? Those were great), find the streets and then drive there. Literally drive there, and chat to the patrons. Ambitious, but possible.I wish L.A. Noire was more like The Shivah. Obviously, computers weren’t around in 1940s, but being able to loot hall of records for names, or use microfiche news archives to investigate older events would have made me feel more like the gumshoe I was expecting to be.There are, admittedly, some small bits of bonafide detective work in L.A. Noire. Following a killer’s cryptic clues around LA was a highlight. Plus, sometimes you got to decide which location to go to first - and you might completely bypass an entire area.They were memorable moments, and that was when the game felt like I was actually an active participant, outside of a gun battle or a witness grilling. Otherwise, there’s no real need to pay attention to the clues and follow the leads in front of you. Most of the time, I’d idly follow the paper trail without taking it in at all, because it was so effortless to do so, and then quickly do my homework on the case before an interrogation.L.A. Noire does a lot right. It has a gripping storyline, incredible (incredible!) technology and  meticulous attention to detail. Plus, putting conversations before gunfights is incredibly daring, and should be massively applauded. (Although, under Rockstar’s remit as the multi-million selling industry innovator, it’s about damn time).But it also has its flaws. The story was hammy and hamfisted, the riveting plotlines had disappointing ends and the interrogation scenes would sometimes be way too ambiguous.But, beyond all that - L.A. Noire had the potential to be one of those “dream games”, that sort of incredible idea for a game that you’ve been dreaming of since you were a kid (A GTA game where you can go in every single building! An earthquake survival game! A safari game!).
I’ve been wishing for a real open world detective adventure where you have to actually solve clues, follow leads and interrogate witnesses since I was a kid. When I played The Shivah, and realised it could actually be done in a believable and interactive manner, it just made me even more hopeful for a big budget, open world edition.It seems my dream hasn’t been fulfilled just yet.

L.A. Noire - Can I do some detective work now, please?

Unlike Rockstar’s previous period-perfect epics - Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption - Aussie dev Team Bondi wants to feel like a real person. With a real personality, and not just a psychopath. And, more importantly, with a real job, and not just “psychopath”.

They turn you into LAPD detective Cole Phelps, a war hero with a sharp suit, a fedora and a stick up his arse. And to make you feel like a detective you spend more time fingering matchstick cases and bellowing at dirty rotten liars than you do shooting guys. Though you do shoot a lot of guys.

L.A. Noire certainly makes you feel like an interrogator. The game’s biggest draw, the reason for its half-decade development period and the biggest god-damn bulletpoint on the box is the fact that you grill witnesses, suspects, leads and random neighbours with a truth-seeking line of questions that’d make Phoenix Wright blush.

But Noire never made me feel like a detective. The critical other side of the coin that gives you the ammunition - talking point evidence and lie-debunking proof - for your interrogations. I felt more like an overzealous lackey who’d follow in Phelps’ literal footsteps, bagging up his evidence and polishing his shoes, but never doing the police work I so wanted to do.

Phelps would always be the one to dispense advice on the case at hand. “We should check out the husband,” he might declare, before the husband is added to my list of suspects. He’d read a matchbook and say “24 Sunset Blvd, we should visit them”, before the address automatically got added to my list of locations, and a dot magically appeared on the city map.

I very rarely got to make any substantial decisions in the actual gumshoe investigation work. I’d parade around the crime scene until I stumbled over an object that made the controller vibrate.  Cole would then say out loud whether or not the item is useful. If it was, it was added to my list of clues, formed a question for a specific witness or a location was added my map.

The only time you’d really have to engage your brain and think like a detective (outside of the excellent interrogation scenes) is when you’re greeted with a ledger or a list of names or a list of addresses, and you have to guide Phelp’s hovering finger to the right place. Take too long, and Cole will just tell you the answer anyway.

But how can a game make you feel like a real detective - who does proper investigative work and follows leads - without making the game impossibly difficult or too open for interpretation? Enter: The Shivah.

Shivah is a painfully short but exceptionally well made point and click from indie dev Wadjet Eye Games. You play Russell Stone - a dejected Rabbi who’s wracked with guilt when he finds out that a member of his old congregation, who he shunned years ago, has been murdered. To ease his remorse he decides to play at being a copper, and see if he can’t figure out the case himself.

The game treats you like an intelligent human being, and also treats you like a wannabe cop. There’s no in-game journal where Rabbi Stone automatically jots down pertinent information: you have to play the game with a paper and pen (or an iPad jotter app called Penultimate) in front of you to decide what’s worth remembering, all by yourself. Like a big boy.

So first of all, I need to find out where this murdered dude lived. I dust off my computer and use the search. To stop your searches for “Jack Lauder” sprawling off into millions of useless results (about 4,380,000 of them, says Google), the game invents a smaller, closed network for the local Jewish community called Ravnet. I plug in Lauder’s name, and his contact details appear. It puts his apartment on my map.

Later, after questioning his widowed wife, I end up at his old workplace. I work my way into his computer by guessing his password (I picked it up from his wife - her mother’s maiden name - and wrote it down because I thought it might be important). I go through his emails, sort through spam and start looking for interesting conversations. I spot a suspicious email but it doesn’t - thankfully enough - throw a pop-up message on the screen that says PERSON OF INTEREST ADDED: ETHAN G. So I write it down.

Ethan G. Hm, in another email, Jack’s wife talks about meeting the Goldwaters. I try “Ethan Goldwater” in the Ravnet search. Zilch. Later, I see a picture of some old buddies of Jack, and it mentions an E. Goldberg. I plug Ethan Goldberg into Ravnet. Bingo. I find out that he’s been killed too, and it gives me more questions, leads and opportunities. It mentions a bar, and its added to my map.

Obviously, the game has to automatically put new locations on my map. I wish I could have an entire city, and actually ride the subway or take a cab to investigate possible locations of interest, just like I’ve been investigating potentially interesting names and events. Like a real cop. But that’s impossible - the rag tag bunch of indie game makers at Wadjet Eye have neither the budget nor time to render an entire New York city map for me to visit.

Rockstar does, of course. It has, like five times (two Liberty Cities, Vice City, San Andreas and Los Angeles). It seemed perfect - a dream game was forming in my mind. At the time, I said to my friend Phil in an instant message (good old Gmail, saving years-old chat logs):

  • me: so you’ll be reading people’s letters and jotting down names [to investigate later]
  • i actually wish it had more than that
  • like, addresses
  • when you find an address, you actually gotta figure out how to get there
  • heck, just make it in Liberty City
  • that would be the most insane game ever
  • if you’re like a noir detective dude in a twilight liberty city
  • taking the subway
  • anyway
  • Phil: yeha
  • me: lets talk about games that exist outside of my mind


Putting aside my crazy prophetic visions of a detective-style GTA game, I feel like L.A. Noire’s beautiful post-war Los Angeles is hazardously wasted. Like Mafia II’s cardboard cut-out Empire City, Rockstar’s take on LA is a pointless landscape that acts like a time-filling buffer to spread apart the crime scenes and suspects. As the game wraps up, you can just press a button to skip car journeys altogether.

It would be been incredible to spot an address on the back of a matchbook cover, and then pull out the map (since when did Rockstar games stop coming with physical maps in the box? Those were great), find the streets and then drive there. Literally drive there, and chat to the patrons. Ambitious, but possible.

I wish L.A. Noire was more like The Shivah. Obviously, computers weren’t around in 1940s, but being able to loot hall of records for names, or use microfiche news archives to investigate older events would have made me feel more like the gumshoe I was expecting to be.

There are, admittedly, some small bits of bonafide detective work in L.A. Noire. Following a killer’s cryptic clues around LA was a highlight. Plus, sometimes you got to decide which location to go to first - and you might completely bypass an entire area.

They were memorable moments, and that was when the game felt like I was actually an active participant, outside of a gun battle or a witness grilling. Otherwise, there’s no real need to pay attention to the clues and follow the leads in front of you. Most of the time, I’d idly follow the paper trail without taking it in at all, because it was so effortless to do so, and then quickly do my homework on the case before an interrogation.

L.A. Noire does a lot right. It has a gripping storyline, incredible (incredible!) technology and  meticulous attention to detail. Plus, putting conversations before gunfights is incredibly daring, and should be massively applauded. (Although, under Rockstar’s remit as the multi-million selling industry innovator, it’s about damn time).

But it also has its flaws. The story was hammy and hamfisted, the riveting plotlines had disappointing ends and the interrogation scenes would sometimes be way too ambiguous.

But, beyond all that - L.A. Noire had the potential to be one of those “dream games”, that sort of incredible idea for a game that you’ve been dreaming of since you were a kid (A GTA game where you can go in every single building! An earthquake survival game! A safari game!).

I’ve been wishing for a real open world detective adventure where you have to actually solve clues, follow leads and interrogate witnesses since I was a kid. When I played The Shivah, and realised it could actually be done in a believable and interactive manner, it just made me even more hopeful for a big budget, open world edition.

It seems my dream hasn’t been fulfilled just yet.

( | Comments)
Investigated: Are ‘fangames’ legal?Imagine that you’ve just spent the last eight years of your life toiling away at a tribute to your favourite game series. You’ve fashioned an exhaustive and comprehensive remake of your most loved game, drawing and coding its 20 characters and 100 stages from scratch.And then, imagine just days after your labour of love hits the internet, packaged as a free PC download for other like-minded fans to enjoy, the owner of the original game serves you with a cease and desist letter, telling you in no uncertain terms, to pull your decade-long magnum opus from the web, or face the consequences.That was the crushing story for Spanish coder “Bomber Link”, whose Herculean tribute to Streets of Rage got shut down by Sega’s legal team in April, just days after the eight-year project hit BitTorrent and Rapidshare. But it’s a familiar story to many fans who have had their tributes, remakes and unofficial sequels quashed by game publishers.Read more at Wired UK

Investigated: Are ‘fangames’ legal?

Imagine that you’ve just spent the last eight years of your life toiling away at a tribute to your favourite game series. You’ve fashioned an exhaustive and comprehensive remake of your most loved game, drawing and coding its 20 characters and 100 stages from scratch.

And then, imagine just days after your labour of love hits the internet, packaged as a free PC download for other like-minded fans to enjoy, the owner of the original game serves you with a cease and desist letter, telling you in no uncertain terms, to pull your decade-long magnum opus from the web, or face the consequences.

That was the crushing story for Spanish coder “Bomber Link”, whose Herculean tribute to Streets of Rage got shut down by Sega’s legal team in April, just days after the eight-year project hit BitTorrent and Rapidshare. But it’s a familiar story to many fans who have had their tributes, remakes and unofficial sequels quashed by game publishers.

Read more at Wired UK

( | Comments)