Matchstick Memories is another enthralling hybrid of different game concepts. A succession of grid-based puzzle concepts is linked with the gentle adventuring reminiscent of early text adventures, but with a more airy, contemplative feel. For a game with text and a few symbols, it manages to evoke moods through use of simple colour schemes, and little icons that you almost form a relationship with over time.
Like Gridland and A Dark Room, it’s a game that builds a convincing holistic experience out of building blocks you’d associate more with abstract game experiences. Human nature is to look for patterns and meanings in the most abstract shapes and colours, and with a little guidance a series of squares and symbols are more than enough to form a convincing and memorable narrative.
It’s made by CH Buckingham – here’s it’s page on itunes.
Thanks to Leigh Alexander’s fascinating interview with Doublespeak Games’s Michael Townsend I am now aware of his latest creation, called Gridland. Along with some of the thought processes behind it.
It’s one of a number of recent games that take the Match-3 formula, and twist it into something a little bit more meaningful. There’s another one I’ll be writing about in my next post. But I suppose if we think of Puzzle Quest’s battle system, but rather than playing a surreal puzzle game to score attack, Gridland actually makes the tiles both the resources in the game, and the actual embodiment of what will happen to the little stickman at the top of the screen. If we match stone or wood on the grid, he will pick up that resource and use it to expand his little civilisation. The game also has the superb twist that the same grid goes into a night-time nightmare mode of hack and slash battling.
And if it’s anything like Townsend’s previous game A Dark Room, which I really should have written about before (because it’s absolutely superb), there will be lots of other twists along the way. Like A Dark Room it is relentlessly and dangerously addictive. And I think the reason why is the way that every decision you take on the grid actually has a real affect in-game – it absolutely isn’t a time-waster in game terms, though clearly the game takes the form of a timewaster given the indelible connection to games like Bejewelled and Candy Crush. I suppose you could label this the anti-Candy Crush if one was a lazy hack :).
So there’s something indelibly elegant about the way this game is designed, and that beautiful elegance is something I treasure in games a lot more than plain ‘content’. There’s a connection to the games of Jason Rohrer and Jonathan Blow – the conviction that what we do in a game IS the message of the game, it isn’t just a meaningless platform for entertainment or content in a traditional way. You don’t just do things, things happen because of what you do. And the way that they happen is where the real heart of the thing is.
Oh, you should play the game!!!
The Evil Within does seem at face value to be a rather generic attempt to recreate the feel of Resident Evil for a next-gen audience, which is fine. But playing through the short demo at the EGX expo there does seem to be the beating heart of what could be a more offbeat experience. Typical, I suppose, of Shinji Mikami, who had a controlling hand in Resident Evil 4, Devil May Cry, Killer7 and God Hand.
Okay, wandering about dynamically light and dark areas with limited ammo and shuffling enemies to be knocked back, so far so good. But I was impressed by the open nature of the environments I encountered – part dream-sequence, part sense of dread, and part game-mechanic stealth sections. I’m intrigued to find out whether ‘The Evil Within’ suggests some sort of peculiar trip through aspects of the human psyche in the form of dream-like levels, with troubling dark imagery and bemusing symbolism throughout. Hopefully so.
I do think there’s a lot to be said for slow pacing in games. Wandering into a courtyard with a lit lantern, as the wind blows, with a sort of grainy indistinct look, and nothing really happening for minutes at a time, really gives you the space and the time to think for yourself and come up with your own internal monologue. So much more satisfying than the mainstream games that funnel you quickly from one experience to the next with barely a moment to catch your breath. I think you honestly need a brave creative vision to create a sense of emptiness within a game, and not have it pared down by groupthink pressure within a studio – that’s my theory anyway.
What frustrates me sometimes, with both mainstream gaming and mainstream cinema, is that its only the horror genre that seem to take any notice of the crucial importance of pacing to almost any experience. The problem with Call of Duty, for me, isn’t the content itself as I’m absolutely fine to play a good shooter, it is the absolute absence of any pacing. A slow section in a modern Call of Duty game is an entire stealth level where you knife people in the neck rather than shoot them in the face, but that’s really not what pacing means to me. It’s about letting the tension come out of the tone of the experience in the moment rather than turning the dial up to 11. It means letting the game breathe at times. And then letting the difference between each moment of the experience create the drama that we feel as players, operating almost as a montage of different tones and experiences to the way we respond and feel about the experience.
Um, I hope The Evil Within is a fine game. I was going to include a gameplay video on the post but the ones on Youtube seem to be a year old, and the game seems to look very different now.
I really enjoyed the previous much-underrated Sherlock Holmes game, The Testament Of Sherlock Holmes. Made by Ukraine’s Frogwarez, these Sherlock mysteries have a bit of a reputation of being a little bit janky and rough around the edges, and also a little bit on the casual side, existing somewhere between the graphic adventures and the hidden object game. Which is no bad thing, in my opinion. Some of the tricky puzzles in Testament absolutely defy the ‘casual’ description though. And the depiction of London is easily one of the best historical milieu I’ve seen outside of the Assassins Creed games. But more importantly I sense a genuine attempt to be true to the style and content of Conan Doyle’s characters and stories, and to make intelligent material that is genuinely rich and fascinating – sadly still something of a rarity in mainstream gaming.
So I’m excited to find that the new Sherlock game, Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments, at least during the demo I played, offers some further significant improvements on the formula. Movement around the scenes seems natural, where before it certainly seemed awkward and gamey. The graphics now look absolutely superb, from detailed evocative environments to some genuinely awesome character models that seem to live and breathe and more importantly respond to interrogation.
The improved mechanics also seem quite fascinating. One can pause, during a conversation, to just look closely at the person Holmes is speaking to, to take note of a cross on the necklace, or a style of clothing, which will unlock new dialogue options. Holmes has a ‘detective mode’ ostensibly lifted from the Batman games, but totally befitting the character – in this mode Holmes was able to detect the dust outline of an object removed from a murder scene.
What I hope to find is a genuine tapestry of rich content within what will doubtless be a fairly linear adventure game storyline. In a way I actually hope that the same slightly weird atmosphere from the previous Sherlock games is retained, because I quite enjoyed the light relief of playing a bizarre level as a detective dog, or engaging in some slightly absurd mini-game to achieve some menial task in-game. It’s the mix of the absurd and the grotesque and the intriguing that whets my appetite here.
It’s also interesting to consider the game’s place in our culture. It’s very easy to write off basically, along with other hidden object games and janky adventure games from Europe, as something that only hobbyists or Germans would like. I don’t expect the game will be written about much in the gaming media. But I think this style of guided adventuring is actually much closer to the narrative darlings like Gone Home and Amnesia than many care to admit, and I think maybe it’s closer to the cutting edge in interactive drama than any of David Cage’s games, for example. For that reason, I consider it a bit of an underdog and a cause to champion.
Assuming the full game is worthwhile, of course :).
Is Games Journalism Corrupt?
Probably, to some extent. Having worked as a journalist briefly earlier in my life, and having been put off the career for life, I think you could argue and I would agree that to some extent all journalism is corrupt. How journalism works, in part, is by its very nature open to corruption. Let’s look at both sides – the industry (or subject) itself, and the journalists who write about it.
The industry side wants to get good press. Either individuals within it, or the PR industry that represent them endlessly flirts with journalists to get positive notice in the media. That’s how the business works, and that goes for almost any subject in journalism. The industry feeds information to journalists, whose job it is to report that information – it is a deeply symbiotic relationship, and by its nature highly incestuous.
The journalistic side wants to be a successful press. It does that by being better than the rest – having the scoop, the exclusive information, the angle that nobody else has seen. To try and do this it needs to be on the inside – it needs to foster close relationships with those it is reporting on. Again this is by its nature deeply incestuous.
But it’s a little like arguments against democracy – okay it’s a flawed system, but what better alternative do you have?
The most common response to that question is to crave objectivity, but this is an utterly flawed desire, in my opinion. And in my experience, when people say they want objectivity, they really just want the brand of subjectivity that they agree with. I do think objectivity is an aspiration that many journalists would have at some stage, and hope to reflect to some extent. But I think any practising journalist would or should know that as soon as you start constructing words or sentences, you are subjectively filtering everything through your own experience and worldview.
At this point, you have to really separate games journalism into its constituent parts; news, reviews, and opinion.
First of all, objectivity in games news reporting. I think it’s something people say they want, but when they get it they realise they don’t want it at all. Go to any major gaming website and you can filter the content for news alone, and you will get a steady stream of dry reporting of release dates, pricing information, and the like. It exists. The reason nobody really looks at it too much is that it’s boring. Simple as that. That’s why Kotaku, and Rock Paper Shotgun, rather than gaming news sites, have found long-term success. Even where you find dry news reporting, it is often accompanied by a comments section with all sorts of wild subjective opinions voiced.
Does anyone really want news reporting that is strictly objective? So there is an equal amount of news and space on each and every game in the World? Regardless of reach, origin, interest, success? No. If you like Halo and Call of Duty, you want to read news about Halo and Call of Duty. And you don’t want to read about release dates alone, you want to read about fun stuff and stupid stuff and opinions – that’s why the blog-style sites dominate, because people like reading them. If you want the most objective reporting on a game, then check Wikipedia (and then consider its own issues with objectivity).
Some of the recent criticisms of news reporting focus on personal relationships between journalists and game devs not being disclosed – ie mentioning a game without saying that you’re friends with the person involved in making it. But it’s a complicated issue, partly for reasons I’ve already touched on (they rely on each other for information). But added to that is the format of many games websites – these blog-format light-hearted sites aren’t objective by nature, so really anything goes in principle. There’s an irony in asking for underpaid journalists, who by their nature need to be emotionally invested in the artform, to ignore their own enthusiasm in their writing.
The truth is that #gamergate proponents have spent a month searching for examples of genuine impropriety, and have come up with a very small handful of rather weak examples from the many many thousands of pieces published yearly on gaming websites. There are a couple of examples where an article needed slightly more clarity and disclosure. But that’s really a minor issue I think.
Objective reviews are an interesting topic. I think in the last decade mainstream thinking has completely changed on this issue. In the ‘old days’ games were reviewed like fridges or toasters, with some objective-seeming criteria like length, value for money, graphics etc. And then everyone kind of realised how utterly ludicrous that was – it was pretending to be objective, but was by it’s nature absurdly subjective. Because long games aren’t necessarily better, and value for money depends whether you like what you’re getting, and graphics are not just a measure of fidelity or detail. When reviews pretended they were objective, they were in a sense corrupt.
So these days reviews are more honest about their subjectivity, and run the gamut, from highly personal reactions to the content, to focus on gameplay alone, to consumer-oriented advice. In short, they function like reviews of anything in any medium. And are imperfect by nature. You just can’t say a review isn’t objective enough, because reviews aren’t objective. You can not like a review, but that’s just, like, your opinion.
Corruption, though. Here’s corruption. When the editor looks around the office for someone to review the new Halo game, who does he pick? The guy who loves Halo. I absolutely guarantee this happens again and again. Because who reads the reviews? People who love Halo, that’s who. And guess what, that Halo game will usually get a positive review. This is corruption on a much wider, more fundamental scale than anything to do with conflicts of interest, or even embargoes and advertiser pressure. But what can we do about it? Nothing.
I think there’s a mass confusion over what various journalists are or what they are employed to do from their critics, and often making this key error – writing an opinion piece on a game or gaming or gamers is not the same as writing a news story. It just isn’t. I can understand that the roles have become blurred in people’s eyes, but really there is still a clear distinction between an opinion piece and a factual piece of news.
So recently many gamers have become upset at being attacked as ‘gamers’ in opinion pieces, particularly because of a few rather barbed pieces of writing about the changing nature of games in recent times, the ‘gamers are dead’ controversy. First of all I think those articles are largely misinterpreted by their critics – saying ‘gamers are dead’ is an inflammatory sleight of hand that writers often use for all sorts of subjects. When you read that ‘the written word is dead’ or ‘politics is dead’ you take it with a pinch of salt, or risk getting worked up over a thing written to provoke.
If you don’t agree with an opinion, or feel that it is attacking you, or even feel that the writer is completely wrong, it absolutely does not have to matter in the slightest to anyone but you. And it certainly does not make that writer or set of writers corrupt. Argue right back, by all means. But you can’t really argue that it’s corrupt to allow someone else their opinion, however invalid you may consider it.
Now I do agree this goes both ways. I don’t think, for example, the opinions of critics of games journalism have really been allowed to play out and be challenged within the media itself. I think the media’s approach has been to simply baton down the hatches and try and ride out the criticism, which is a poor response because of the following…
So I think the misunderstanding of the various issues around games journalism has created a maelstrom of misinformed opinion, which over time has been engineered into a series of conspiracy theories. This is what happens when wilful ignorance of the reality is allowed to fester unchallenged, and it’s as true of 9/11 truthers as it is of #gamergate.
“There is organised corruption among games journalists.” says #gamergate. No there really isn’t. There’s just a natural level of corruption through human error and oversight, and it’s of a very different, and more disparate nature than you seem to think. It has nothing to do with Zoe Quinn, or rotten apples in the media, or malfeasance. It has everything to do with the way journalism operates, and the difference between the principles of journalistic ethics, and the reality of the way journalists operate day to day. Not just games journalists, but any journalists.
If you disagree with that, then prove it. There have been many false claims over the past month, and a couple that have very minor merit to prove any corruption at all among journalists. And those that do prove a minor conflict of interest, show no signs of being a widespread or organised campaign of such.
“Journalists organised a counter-campaign against #gamergate which is by its nature corrupt“. There’s no proof of this. There’s proof that journalists talk together at how best to tackle issues around ethics. Or indeed how best to respond to #gamergate. But that is not corruption, it is discussion.
What there really is is a widespread belief among journalists that what #gamergate broadly claims about journalistic ethics is basically wrong, ie factually incorrect. Journalists do not conspire against others, and if they do it is a conspiracy of broad agreement on a topic, rather than evil intent. The fact that nearly all journalists seem united on this issue either means that there’s a massive conspiracy to hide the truth, or that the #gamergate conspiracy theories are basically untrue.
The usual arguments against conspiracy theories do apply here. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and #gamergate has none. It has the idea that journalists speak to each other, and that journalists often write about what each other say and agree or disagree. But that is not evidence of a conspiracy, as it is entirely normal for such to be the case.
A Conspiracy of Politics?
There is this idea that what has actually occurred is a conspiracy to promote certain ideas and attitudes about games. Specifically the promotion of socially conscious ‘message games’ and feminist slants on gaming. Keep politics out of your journalism and our games, says #gamergate, as if that were ever possible.
I think this is tough to answer. I think there has been a broad campaign to support both of those causes. Because there is a broad consensus that they are worthy causes, and that we’re broadly all moving forward if we support them.
If you don’t like those causes, don’t read about them. If you feel that alternative causes are not given a fair platform, then don’t read that website. It’s not a conspiracy, it’s simply a change in the tone and atmosphere of some games journalism that you do not like. The #gamergate response is to call for an objectivity that cannot feasibly exist, and a cleaning out of the corruption that will always influence journalism as long as humans are involved in the process.
But this brings us back to ‘gamers are dead’ opinion pieces – is the problem that they’re basically right? The subculture that we used to know of as ‘gamers’ seem to have been slightly left behind by cultural shifts elsewhere in society, and even within the growing areas of gaming that the hardcore element tends to ignore. The problem is not that there is a conspiracy against gamers, but that those opinion pieces are essentially right – games have moved on and some in the traditional spaces have been rather left behind by the change.
The conspiracy, then, is that the world turns independently of our wishes, and we can’t stop it.
Virginia is probably the best game I sampled at a recent expo in London. It’s currently in development in London and Dublin by a developer called Variable State.
What is mise-en-scene in a first-person game? In Half-Life 2, it’s the ability to be an actor in a scene playing out, looking at what you choose and picking up on or ignoring the plot. In standard game stories, it’s the switch into a cut scene that explains the story largely without player agency. In Virginia, the story is often told through what I can only describe as first-person montage. That is, you look through the characters eyes, and you study and move through the environment to work out what is going on, but the drama, the beats of the story are told through jump cuts to the same first-person perspective in the next scene. It should be jarring, and it often is, but this is definitely a legitimate way to tell a game story. Thirty Flights Of Loving proved that.
This game begins on a tree-lined path, reminding one of the natural highs and simple beauty of Proteus, and then to the shrill sound of birds the scene cuts to lift doors opening to a vast open plan office. Juxtaposition. Presumably the path, the freedom of nature, was a dream, and this deadening office complex is the reality. From wearily holding up a bill or check in a cafe, then jumping to holding up a girl’s missing poster in the house of the anxious family. A flashback to an item found then triggers its examination later.
These are carefully considered snapshots of a story, a spare, dense left-field movie thriller, influences from David Lynch to Dennis Potter. There are quite a number of games about that involve exploration of an environment to reveal their storyline. This feels like a stark jolt to that system, a story told through the juxtaposition of these game spaces. I haven’t played a fresher feeling game in a long while. Unfortunately there is little information, and no videos or trailers to support that opinion. But here’s it’s website.
Bad Paper – an intriguing set of text choices played out in a browser, based around the collection of debt. You get to play as either the debtor or the collector, and you would think that it would be easier to empathise with the debtor, but in practice there’s a number of considerations to play out on either side of the equation. The game humanises a common issue and puts it into an emotional context, and makes the player think about the struggles and choices at hand.
You can play the game here. It was conceived (I believe) as a companion piece to this fantastic New York Times article on debt collection by Jake Halpern, and is an extract from an upcoming book of his called Bad Paper: Chasing Debt From Wall Street to the Underworld. Also worth noting the incredible hard-boiled photographs that accompany the text taken by photographer Jonno Rattman.
Originally an entry for the Gamma 256 event, a games festival organized by the Kokoromi games collective from Montreal, Passage and it’s creator Jason Rohrer have become poster-children for the games-as-art movement. Not bad for a game that always lasts exactly five minutes.
The game initially resembles a simple maze game – treasures are found within a scrolling maze. A female companion can be found near the start of the maze, but if she accompanies you it shuts off areas of the maze you cannot fit down together. But as the game progresses, your avatars change and the game’s action filters smoothly from the left to the right of the screen. At the end of the five minutes your little man has a bald head and eventually turns into a gravestone. By now the player probably realizes that the game is somehow some sort of metaphor for life.
Re-starting the game now gives the experience a new emphasis. The five minute life-timer means one cannot explore at leisure – each decision is at the expense of another. The female companion is gained at the expense of treasure. Exploration down the screen is at the expense of the discovery of new areas across it. Faced with these challenges, and with little actual guidance on which route to take, the game becomes a gentle exploration of topics like mortality, the gaining of knowledge and experience, the difficulties in making choices, and the possible downsides of companionship.
What is key is that the player’s experience is the meaning, and the choices in play communicate the themes of the game, not the art or sound assets, or a more traditional story structure. Passage has inspired a generation of game designers to find ways to use direct gameplay experiences to deliver the thematic content of a game, in very stark contrast to any other artistic medium. But politics aside, it’s a beautifully simple game that might inspire you to think about aspects of your own life.
Here’s a dark, mysterious, story-driven game. It’s at times wildly inventive, and totally other-worldly. It goes to places that games rarely reach. It manages to deliver a strong narrative experience without drawing comparisons with cinema – it is 100% a game, to be played and experienced by a gamer. There’s no concession here to other artforms. It’s also a Wii game, which guarantees it much less in terms of critical appraisal from the media. But this is no lesser light of gaming – it’s a vital, engrossing experience.
You know that feeling you get in empty spaces in games? When all you have in front of you is an empty room. You know that in part it’s a concession to what games do well and what they struggle with – having a room full of moving people acting ‘natural’ is a costly and difficult process for game-makers to ‘render’. So more often than not you’ll be going through a place that you might recognise from everyday life, but when it’s empty and different. It happens in Left 4 Dead between the zombie attacks. Or markedly in Resident Evil 4.
The feeling you get in these empty spaces is something that I think only exists in gaming. It’s a space where you might end up doing nothing but wandering about for minutes on end. You can’t recreate it in a book. It’s extremely rare in the cinema. It compares somehow to the art of Edward Hopper but there’s a feeling that Hopper catches a moment of rare beauty (or melancholy) in something everyday. Perhaps it compares a little to the empty spaces of sparse, empty jazz or trip-hop. But really it compares with everyday life – the four walls of your room, the open spaces of the streets, the shops, the places.
Shattered Memories fits this strange ‘feeling’ into a very clever structure. After a car crash you are lost in the ghostly town of Silent Hill in a snowstorm looking for your missing daughter (I’m a father, and I sometimes struggle for access to my daughter). The usual tension of a horror game exists, heightened by the very realistic feel of shining your torch about with the Wiimote as you move. And the areas you wander through in deathly silence, you are then often forced to re-evaluate in ‘dream’ mode when the town metamorphises into its nightmare version where perspectives and routes change to confuse you. A staircase that may have been a few steps up, turns into a nightmare endless staircase coming back down. There’s a bit of Alice In Wonderland here, mixed with a healthy dollop of Twin Peaks.
This structure is delivered through a series of enclosed flashbacks, occuring during a later ‘session’ with a therapist – they invite you to complete a series of questionnaires and psychological tests inbetween sections of the game, and you feel as if what you then experience during the Silent Hill sections is in some way a reflection of the choices you gave to the therapist. It’s a terrific puzzle-box of presentation, which leaves you wondering about every tiny detail that you experience and how it fits into the overall picture. You feel as if you’re somehow experiencing yourself, if that makes sense. The continual use of cameras, light, visual tricks, video-tape, obscured vision – as if the experience is somehow being continually filtered.
One of the first questions the therapist asks you, quite aggressively, is whether you’ve cheated on a partner. Uncomfortable questions about sex, relationships, values, expectations. I experienced the same feelings in-game that I have felt in real-life moments of therapy – am I being honest or saying what I think this therapist wants to hear? Am I playing games? (the answer to this, of course, is yes!).
So what I’m left with is a slightly unsettling feeling of ‘me’ being embodied somehow in a videogame. And it’s not a game with stock answers – there are a myriad of visual clues and strange phone messages and ghostly moments, and the fact that they don’t hang together all that well with each other into anything coherent is all the more… weird. The feeling I have in retrospect is that it’s a game that is more interested in poking into peculiar corners of my psyche than it was delivering a coherent survival-horror experience.
Reading that last section again, I say ‘corners’. Somehow the emotional feeling, in games like this, is indelibly linked to the visual sense of place. The sense of being in a place but it being imaginary. Alice through the looking glass. That really is Silent Hill’s schtick and it works. And the weird thing is, the things the therapist said to me – he was right. He had me to a tee. A videogame seemed to look right through my defences and found something of the real me.
Springing out of this blog, Radiator seems to be a series of short, freely downloadable, experimental games cum art-pieces that run as mods of Half-Life 2 (you need Episode 2).
The first is called Polaris, and is the short story of a quiet date where the narrator is taught to navigate by the stars in the sky. It’s a lovely little interactive idea, perfectly realised, that plays like nothing I’ve ever really played before. Which is great. Really memorable for a 5-minute piece.
The second, Handle With Care, is a little more ambitious, as a therapy session is transformed into the metaphor of a machine room where relationship-related gripes and problems are kept in storage. I like the more freeform nature of it though – it fits a better description of an explorable art-piece than the first game, which is essentially linear.