Jump Cutting in Virginia


A game in development - September 30, 2014

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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.

Playing with debt – Bad Paper


A newish game to play - September 29, 2014

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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.

Passage is a good game


August 7, 2010

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.

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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.

Empty Spaces – Silent Hill: Shattered Memories


March 10, 2010

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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.

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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.

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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.

Radiator is a good game


January 25, 2010

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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.

The Last Express is a good game


A game from the past - December 15, 2009

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Hey, I played a game and I can still remember the name of my character – that is unusual. I am Robert Cath, an American doctor on the run from the British police for my involvement in protecting an Irish terrorist from the authorities. As it turns out, this is a game that defies most expectations you might have from a videogame.

The Last Express is set on the Orient Express, speeding across Europe with a bunch of characters onboard. It starts with a murder, of course. Wandering through the carriages, you will pass the varous suspects as they go about their business onboard. An Austrian violinist and her dog. A German businessman. A family heading for a new home abroad, unsure of their future. An eloping lesbian couple. A Russian student. An ailing politician and his forlorn daughter. Some Serbian terrorists. A rich Persian.

You are invited to sit in the dining car and listen to the other diners. Conversations fade in and out, overlapping into each other like a Robert Altman film. Conversations flit from English to French to Russian to German – the melting pot that is Europe before the great war. Like Renoir’s Le Grande Illusion, this game is obsessed with class, or how class worked in the early part of the century. All is presented in an art-deco graphic style, part stylistic tableau – you really get the feeling of looking back through a window into a previous era.

An early part of the story is concerned with your interaction with a case of money and a decorated golden egg – pretty familiar sounding objects in adventure game terms, but I think it’s a good example of the way the game works. If you can distract the train guard while the Russian girl is out of her compartment at various points on the journey, you can steal the egg. But if you hide it in your compartment the Arabian’s servant will steal it after the concert recital and they will depart with it in Vienna. So you need to steal it before the end of the concert, but find a better hiding place. You need to find the case of gold to entice the German to remain on the train with a stash of guns – if not the Russian terrorists will kill you in Vienna. According to the creators there are seven different ways this scenario will play out – four end the game, and three continue it. It sounds a bit functional the way I’ve described it, but you actually get a feel for the way you have to gently manipulate the situation and time your decisions to avoid the pitfalls.

Did I mention you can rewind time and replay the journey? You can literally turn back the clock and replay the same time-frame – you might go to a different carriage and hear a totally different conversation shedding a different light on the situation. You are basically invited to come to an understanding through replaying the same segments of the game in a different way. It’s a brilliant conceit. From one section to the next you are left wondering, even if you feel fairly successful, that you could somehow have played it better if you just try again.

An evocative art style, an incredibly rich wall of sound, an interactive adventure with autonomous characters, a totally unique time system, and an authentic period piece with an affecting story. The game shoots straight into my top 10 favourite videogames of all-time. I can barely think of a game with more ambition, more artistic endeavour, more of a genuine commitment to interactive storytelling.

Flower is a good game


March 3, 2009

(Note: I’ve amalgamated two 2009 articles I wrote on this game into one)

Here’s a flight simulator with a real difference. Rather than coping with altitude dials and ailerons, you are the wind itself, pushing petals around picturesque open fields dotted with budding flowers awaiting your encouragement to bloom. Developer ThatGameCompany was previously responsible for Flow, one of the weirder offerings of recent years, but this game feels so much more of a perfectly formed and fuller experience.

Using four of the six axes of the PS3 controller, you will find yourself twisting and weaving your hands as you try to control the petals in the wind – it’s hardly the most comfortable control scheme, but it’s more than made up for by the relaxing no-fail atmosphere of the game. There’s a limit to how stressful a game about floating through grass fields can be.

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For a game that at face value might seem quite goalless and meandering, after a few minutes you start to learn the linear patterns that crop up in the game, and actually make the play much more goal-oriented than you might expect. To build up your petals you pass through flowers which then unfurl – unfurl certain flowers and further flowers and guided routes become available. You will often find that helpful ‘gusts’ kind of push you in the direction the game would like you to go, and you start to second-guess the patterns themselves. Flowers often appear in lines, challenging you to flow along them, others are deliberately random to challenge your pathfinding.

With blooming flowers comes transformation, the Okami-like nature-inspired bursts of colour that change grey fields into green, pollen-filled paradises. The game’s menu consists of sad-looking flowers on a window-sill, and levels are prefaced with depressing city scenery to counterpoint the simple naturalistic feel in-game. It may not win many awards for subtlety, but it carries the same sort of pleasing simplicity of a Miyazaki anime film or a wordless natural history documentary. If a little trite in message, this is at least a pleasant backdrop for one of the more memorably beautiful games of recent times. But it’s far from meandering – there is a clear and linear narrative to the game with a spectacular pay-off at the end.

The key to the joyful play is that you cannot fail as such. Miss a flower here and there and it usually won’t matter – if it does you can get it on a second pass of the area. Completists are encouraged, with hidden leaves for bonus flowers, giving each level a certain amount of replayability. But generally you are encouraged to float in the general direction of progress, and with that spirit you cannot go far wrong.

Some might argue that there is not enough game here, both in terms of game-time and in terms of the simplicity of the basic concept, but Flower only follows a modern trend of picturesque games focused mainly on pleasure and existence, and not on high-pressure action. There is a very pleasing sense of openness – the fields are full of empty gaps where grass simply grows, and it makes for a very refreshing to alternative to videogames’ standard obsession with having ever corner filled with ’stuff to do’.

Also notable is the use of colour – videogames are definitely starting to utilise the primacy of simple colour changes to great effect. While the FPS genre seems obsessed with ever-intimidating details of texture, games like De Blob, Mirror’s Edge and now Flower are flying the flag for clarity of design and effective use of simple pools of colour. These highly-stylised pallettes are starting to provide the true successors to the appealingly surreal sprites of early gaming.

Despite it’s naturalistic themes and smooth gameplay, Flower is more other-worldly than anything I’ve played so far this year. I’ve seen it compared to a poem, which is some achievement for a wordless environment. But it has the dream-like quality and lightness of touch that makes it something of a blank canvas for the player – how beautiful you find it, how you react to it, and more importantly how you choose to play it are entirely up to you. It’s an unforgettable journey, and is likely to be one of the finest games of this or any year.

The thing with Flower is, you’re essentially nothing within it but a notion. You look at flowers on a window sill, enter a kind of dream, and then blow petals about within it. You’ve barely touched the environment by the time you finish a level, yet you have transformed the environment. It’s a nice metaphor for our modern, godless lives – our insignificance tempered by our subtle mark on the environments that we have touched. Indeed, as a force that cannot touch but only blow, we still gain the power to transform a cityscape by the end of the game.

I respect the way the game designers have gone about this process. The game opens with a scene of a lonely flower on a window sill looking out over a bleak cityscape – the central conflict here never has to be explicitly indicated, it is inbuilt. But we aren’t playing an environmentalist, or a city planner – we are a part of nature itself.

When you play the game you aren’t always aware of where you will go or what you will do – the narrative of the game is as subtle and unforced as the progress of nature itself. Nature doesn’t know what it will do next, it doesn’t choose its progress from a dialogue tree or a strategic map – it just does what it does. The wind blows, flowers bloom, and things change in their own beautiful way. Looking back, progress in Flower is incredibly linear, and there’s really not much genuine choice in what you do – it’s wonderful that they made it seem so free when you play it. You never ever feel forced to head one way or the next.

The idea of replacing the city with green fields full of flowers is trite and totally unrealistic, and the game flirts with this sort of shallow interpretation. I don’t want the game dismissed as hippy chic. But I suppose the beauty of the game is that as a wordless, charming environment for play we are encouraged to make our own interpretations.

If you take the six levels as dreams, and the end-product as a sort of idealised vision rather than an obvious and projected reality, the game is much more of a temperate experience. The trophy for unlocking all the secret flowers and unlocking the green-field vision is called ‘Dream’. None of the fields you traverse ever betray the notion that this is any sort of reality. The game is a plaything for us to explore how we feel about a certain subject, a tension that touches all of our lives at one point.

It means as much or as little to us as we want – it never asks for our judgement, nor makes our conclusions for us.

Boy, Girl, Snake, Poop – Noby Noby Boy


March 3, 2009

What I love about Noby Noby Boy is that you can play it for an hour and still be wondering what you’re quite playing. It’s like nothing else, it’s totally crazy, and it’s great fun – what more can you ask for? But I think the bigger question it asks is ‘What is the difference between a toy and a game’ – this piece of entertainment really blurs those lines.

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So what do you do? You’re a multi-coloured snake/worm called BOY, but you control both your head and your bum with the dual sticks. Pull them apart from each other and you will stretch out – press the sticks and they will pop back. Eat some stuff and it will travel through your snake body, and be pooped out when you’re full. Eat a pear and a human, and sometimes a human with a pear-head comes out! Each time you stretch out, you gain points for length which can be transferred to GIRL, another snake-like creature who is wandering through space trying to discover new planets – this is done by a visit to the sun. You can visit these planets to find new zones to play in. Simple, right?

Well no, it’s actually incredibly hard to control your snake/noby/worm/boy to any degree of satisfaction at first. It’s a bit like playing the piano, because controlling your arse and your head at the same time is plain confusing. Of course you can just move your head and your arse will eventually be dragged around, but once you grow to a decent length you will cause havoc if you just allow your arse to swing around with momentum behind you.

But the difficulties of control are only side-issues in such a virtual playground. At first I just liked popping inside my BOY house and transporting to different zones on Earth – each one seems kind of random, and will have a slightly different colour scheme and things to see. One was full of chefs riding on bears, another had lots of crabs and weird red webby structures, another was full of footballs and basketballs, another had big swingy swings throwing everyone about. Each level is a flat Earth with some weird gravity going on, so you can push things off the edge or up into the air for kicks. I enjoyed biting the legs off big robots and seeing them trying to stay upright without them. I liked knocking people off the bikes and cars they were riding around on. I liked taking pigs for a ride – somehow pigs seem to like that more than any other animals. Actually you start to notice traits in all the things you meet – the chefs, for example, would be drawn over to me but would just stand and stare at me, whereas other people either run away, ignore me, or jump on for a ride.

So you start to realise that whether or not this is a game or a toy or neither, there is a lot going on in here. There’s a mad-hard control system, a huge bunch of AI controlled characters, a myriad of different zones to play in, and a vague metagame set in space. Also, if you want there are a bunch of trophies to discover if you need some extra motivation to just do stuff. What there is not is a bunch of clearly defined goals for how you are meant to behave – once you have undertaken the obligatory tutorial you’re really free to do whatever you like. Even if that’s essentially nothing.

One of the fundamental ‘rules’ of games is that you have an objective, a motivation to continue. But I’m not sure Noby Noby Boy really has that. You don’t really grow as a character, and you lack the ability to really change the world around you. There’s a small motivation to simply stretch, because you can ‘upload’ your stretched progress towards the GIRL character in space to help her reach new planets, and new zones to explore. But because stretching requires no skill whatsoever, it almost feels like a by-product of mucking about rather than a reason for playing.

It’s partly like some sort of dreadful interactive art exhibit, but yet it is totally unpretentious. As a game it is intentionally lacking in terms of progress, excitement, achievement, motivation – the designers knew this but yet they didn’t care, and it ends up brave, original and totally unforgettable for that. It’s almost a parody of what a game should be like – you can learn how to control your worm as much as you like, it certainly ain’t gonna get you anywhere. What it does well is the attention to detail – the in-game manual, for example, is absolutely wonderful, you can fly through it with a 2D snake, eat the words and poop them out, and it even turned into a mad upwards-scrolling colour cascade at one point and started making weird noises and playing the music from Metro-Cross I think.

It’s a game to be confounded by, and in a good way. There’s even a hidden achievement for exiting the game – ironic, because that’s really the only thing you can achieve here.