Losing My Edge

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Edge turned 20 recently, that could have been the impetus to review our relationship, but in all honesty I’d checked out years ago. I’d been living a lie. A mistaken belief that buying it and piling it round the house meant it was the same … it wasn’t. It’s impossible to not draw an analogy with marriage, my relationship with Edge is one of the longest I’ve ever had, longer than my actual marriage and relationship with my children. I’ll even lie, and say it was all great. It wasn’t.

If you asked if I was an Edge reader, I’d still say yes.

It had started so loftily, a recommendation, from a hipster peer, who looked down his nose at me as I was a ‘mere’ console gamer. He was a PC snob, my god, was he a PC snob. Edge, similarly looked down it’s nose at me and I let it.

In fairness, Edge helped me understand more about game design, about the medium itself, and let me listen in on conversations with the best game devs in the world. There were lots of good times.

However, Edge was also the arrogant ‘know it all’, the name dropper, the ‘too quick to quote’ and worst of all an arbiter of taste. Edge 10s are hateful and self indulgent. This conceit was clear in its benchmark, Famitsu. Impenetrable and mythical to Western readers, Edge filled a void that didn’t need to be filled. Edge became a smart arse.

The emergence of metacritic, made the single opinion, irrelevant. Edge fell into the meatgrinder, where only the outliers get noticed. Second rate click baiters trump editorial credibility. The snake eats itself. A symptom of an industry lost, even Edge couldn’t shine a light.

I remember the point when they lost me, the issue number is irrelevant. A piece on BioShock Infinite was simply a description of an E3 video (that turned out to be an elaborate bull shot anyway), it was shallow and vacuous. It served no point. Once I’d realised, the covers with the Ad funded UV spot varnish, the obvious platform bias (witness the recent U-Turn on Xbox One from demon to contender) and the self indulgent wallowing in self importance stuck in the craw.

This bile belies what Edge gave me, a fundamental toolkit for critical evaluation, but at what price? Can my opinions ever be my own, or has 16 years of Edge readership stolen my unique perspective? Maybe I never had one? And just thought I did. How very meta.

All in, it’s time for a trial separation. Honestly, it’s not you. It’s me.

The Art of the Pure Video Game

Pac-Man Forever

Somewhere along the way Video Games started to miss the point. They veered away from the ‘true north’ of Video Gaming and became entrenched in a AAA Focus Tested mire. Dripping in consensus and banality. Driven by commercial viability and green-lit by passionless executive teams who haven’t played a game for 20 years. The suits decide which games you play. The suits don’t know about games, that much is clear.

The process, and associated costs, have led to feature creep, a need for iterative improvement, an endless pursuit of the ‘majority’. Most games have lost the essence of the game itself , and are little more that excessive semi-disguised corridors punctuated by fetch quests for non engaging NPCs. As games got bigger they have become less game-like and more cinematic/epic/engaging. All of these are simply band-aids over broken and tired game mechanics dressed up to pull in the audience. The publishers are pushing for a point of difference, and the developers are beholding to the whims of the committee.

Lost is the purity of the game-play experience, the game itself. It’s fading. The best games are built upon a core game mechanic, that can withstand innumerable replays. In fact these games get better the more you play them. The examples are countless: Trials Evolution, Pac Man Championship Edition DX and Minecraft are all textbook examples of games built around a single core premise. This premise is fun, logical, easy to learn and mastery elevates the game to new heights. These are the games built around core ‘arcade’ mechanics, that effectively tap into a compulsion loop to play one more time. The financial barrier to entry of the arcade has evaporated, meaning that restarts are free, potentially rendering the experience worthless. Not so, ‘pure’ video games drive a compulsion within the boundaries of the game paradigm. Minecraft’s mechanics and game world, present a world free of restriction, yet underpinned by simple core mechanics. This framework provides a playground for the gamer, leading to creations of immeasurable brilliance and scope.

Minecraft vs. Game Of Thrones

Minecraft vs. Game Of Thrones

The accolades for these games lie at the feet of the game designer and engineers, whose single-minded determination have created game experiences at once shallow, but with endless depths for those willing to endure with them. Trials Evolution has a brutal punitive game mechanic at its core that chastises and repeatedly bests those prepared to invest time to understand the underlying game logic.

In these cases, the game mechanic is clear. The shortcomings and failures are always attributable to the player. Never was the adage ‘A bad workman blames his tools’, more true. These games don’t need to hide behind smoke and mirrors, marketing, USPs and Bullshots. Their intentions are perfectly apparent, driven by inherent purity. The issue therefore, is, can a game concept actually sell games in 2013? Maybe you should ask Notch that question.

The Great Kinect Hoax

In September 1969 a rumour started to circulate that Paul McCartney had died, replaced by an imposter. A pale imitation of the former or exact replicant? Within the hugely passionate Beatles audience, this was treated with suspicion and curiosity in equal measure. The rumour refused to go away as there was enough of a kernel of truth/curiosity/morbidity in something that seemed impossible. The tale has it that in 1967 Paul had died in a car crash. Fans scoured Beatles albums for references and clues trying to uncover the truth, a 1960’s comparison to the code-cracking Redditors of 2012. The Beatles press editor refuted the rumours. Could such an incredible feat have been pulled off in plain sight of a global audience?

In 2009 Microsoft, the Keyser Söze of the technology world, introduced Kinect to the world with an astonishing display of smoke andmirrors. Promises were made and ideas spread that would never materialise, this was the death of Kinect before the introduction of the imposter that would go on to commercial release. This was the greatest trick Microsoft ever pulled, convincing the world that the potential of Kinect existed. For Microsoft, unlike Paul, the car crash came after the idea died.

But how can this be true? Kinect claimed the Guinness World Record of being the “fastest selling consumer electronics device” be selling 8 million units in 60 days.  posthumously it will become apparent that the great Kinect Hoax of 2010 sold consumers on a promise that could never be fulfilled.

What’s more frustrating? That the promise of Kinect was never realised, or that as consumers we were lied to.

The most damning evidence is the Milo and Kate demo. The demo presented a brave new vision of game interaction, that was the reason I bought Kinect. In hindsight it was a scripted sham, never to be realised. Having lived with Kinect, watching it now feels like an obvious pantomime. In short it was a lie. Kinect is a lie.

What we were offered were a series of shovelware titles that were stillborn, unresponsive and in many cases simply didn’t work. Never has there been a platform with such a dire software catalogue that remained on the market. The average score for all Kinect titles is 64% veering between Dance Central at 86% and Fighters Uncaged at 32%. As it turned out Kinect was ill-suited to pretty much all input schemes. The best ideas utilised in the launch titles have never been matched.

The best Kinect game? Easy. Happy Action Theatre from Double Fine. Aimed at Pre-Schoolers: the only example of exciting emergent gameplay mechanics by recreating the kind of cheap parlour tricks usually reserved for exhibits in ‘futurist’ Science Museums. Even now, three years after the E3 announce developers still cannot make Kinect work: Steel Batallion is a stunning example of how incapable Kinect is as control input and has a Metacritic of 39%. Kinect software simply isn’t improving after three years. A clear indication that Kinect is fundamentally flawed.

Living with Kinect (as a non game input device) is like having a petulant toddler controlling your console, one that doesn’t listen, is impossible to control and returns results and commands that have no bearing on the original input. It make simple tasks utterly exasperating. Microsoft’s insistence on pushing forward with Kinect is a clear illustration of foolhardy reliance upon segmentation data and lifestyle surveys.

Kinect is flatlining. Its time to pull the plug.

Television vs. Video Games. Fight!

<BELL RINGS>

“In the red corner weighting in at 110lbs is the TV, undisputed champion of the sitting room since 1954, the darling of countless billions who have succumbed to its simple soporific charms. In the blue corner, the nimble upstart, the Video Game console, weighing in at 8lbs, rocking thumbs since the late 70s, but claiming their first world crown in 1985. The object of parental dismay ever since, and a font of moral panics. TV has been repeatedly bested by the youngster over the years but now is the time for TV to fight back! …”

This fight is far from over and the title bout takes place each year in January in Las Vegas at CES. Las Vegas is more than gin soaked gamblers, lamenting their losses in gaudy palaces of deceit. It’s the battle arena for global consumer electronics giants to fire salvos at each other. Each device is slimmer, faster and more innovative than the next. Want a 4mm thin TV? You got it. A fridge that can chill a can of coke in five minutes flat? Waterproof Smartphone. No problem.

CES is significant as its there that SMART TV is publicly racing ahead. Adoption is yet to reach a tipping point, but the migration is clearly apparent and for the console manufacturers, SMART TV is a spectre that cannot be ignored. App Stores on the device allied with intuitive inputs, motion control, gesture control and voice recognition are all present in the latest TVs. The ‘Killer App’ of Kinect just got pulled into the host, Kinect and the 360 now look like a counterintuitive double act. They’re starting to resemble clutter in the early stages of obsolescence.

It used to be the case that a games console provided entertainment that the TV could not, this hegemony went unchecked for decades as screen manufacturers stood idly by watching Nintendo, SEGA and Sony make a killing, delivering visceral content through adopted hosts. By the time the Xbox came along the stranglehold was vice like and the need for a console to deliver games was unassailable. They were untouchable.

The Wii arrived. Dragging with it new input methods and consumers, who were the exact intersect of the TV/Gaming audience. The lines became blurred primarily as the consumers (primarily) didn’t care which device was delivering the experience. The Wii UI aped TV channels, and recalled an aged CRT screen. The shark had been jumped. The console was invisible. Then the single most seismic event ever to hit gaming came along. The equivalent of the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. The App Store.

In hindsight the Wii’s achievements will be all but forgotten, seen as an anomaly, an old model based on hackneyed technology allied with unique ideas.  The App Store opened the wallets of the non gaming ABC1 audience. The iPhone was a trojan horse, silver bullet and a vial of poison all wrapped into one. The games industry is still reeling from its impact. Its clear many will never get up from the suckerpunch.

The App Store explosion legitimized short form content delivery to the mainstream, and awakened every device manufacturer, to the fact they would to become a digital storefront. Many wastefully spent billions in an effort to mimic Apple, few succeeded. In 2012, It’s all about the audience. Samsung and LG command huge global audiences, engaging with them daily. They provide the warm blanket, the reassuring voice and the window on the world. TV is second only to the mobile phone as the ultimate ‘personal’ device. People love TV. Watch as they place them on walls, pushing family portraits to one side. Placed on an altar for the worship of false prophets.

TV as a concept crushes the Video Game a billion times. Video Games are niche. TV is Simon Cowell. TV is a huge metal fist in a velvet glove, the host will defeat the parasite, and the content will migrate into the TV. The consumer has ceased to care. Fanboys are a niche that are no longer the target of the console manufacturers attention.  The irony is that the console manufacturers are driving convergence, with motion control and the drive to turn Xbox LIVE into a ‘entertainment destination’, thereby quickening the infection. The 360 has mutated from a core gaming platform to a set-top box in an aim to capture the lapsed Wii audience. The problem? This audience has already made the jump to mobile and tablet, and they’re not coming back.

To the console manufacturers who think this won’t happen, I have one word. Kodak.

Video Games consoles are laid on the canvas bleary eyed, as the referee stands over them counting …

< … 7, 8, 9 … Its time to throw in the towel … >

Skyrim: A Digital Arcadia?

99% of Game Worlds are cookie cutter. Built quickly and cheaply like Sitcom sets, window dressing to surround rehashed character models. It simply serves to fill the screen and provide a backdrop for fake up-rezzed screenshots. Gaming icons are always characters. Mario, Lara, Sonic, all of whom are entirely one-dimensional. It used to be the case that Rockstar were the only ones who could create truly engaging Game Worlds shot through with personality. L.A Noire however, felt wooden and the real star of that game was the facial animation, the irony that the setting was a city of fake locations is not lost on me. Even when the setting is close to being deceptive (namely: engaging enough to draw the location into the narrative as much as the characters) it will never be perfect. Draw distances, environmental effects and texture loading will always shatter the fourth wall.

So the question is: What can push a game world to be compelling AND convincing?

The addition of the populace often serves to further shatter the illusion. There are never enough NPCs to make a street feel truly crowded, their behaviour isn’t natural and their presence underlines the deceit of the scene. Assassin’s Creed is beautiful, atmospheric and well populated but still obviously shallow. A forgery of reality.  As a player there will always be a willing suspension of disbelief, but when you turn off the host, the game dies. In Assassin’s Creed there is a sense the scene simply pauses, the Animus narrative provides a believable context. The Player can switch the scene off as easily as Desmond can.

Skyrim is wholly different. It breathes. It lives. It haunts when you are away. It has a Game World driven by ambition, a bravery illustrated by a dev team with no fear of depth and scope. Memories of Skyrim are augmented by the brain ‘filling in’, Skyrim acts like an optical illusion, where the failings and missing details are sketched in by the brain, leaving recollections of time in Skyrim closer to memories of actual events than engagement with a virtual world. Skyrim is both compulsive and deceptive. Rachmandram & Rachmandram noted in 2005:

Filling in is probably a manifestation of what we call surface interpolation, an ability that has evolved to compute representations of continuous surfaces and contours that occur in the natural world–even ones that are sometimes partly occluded (for example, a cat seen behind a picket fence looks like one whole cat, not like a cat sliced up).

Skyrim continuously plays tricks on us, where clipped character models, collapsing textures and falling mammoths, are all obliterated from the memory on recollection. The ‘filling in’ continues long after Skyrim has been left. Skyrim stimulates a continual suspension of disbelief, that prompts feelings of loss when away from the game. In game it fuels a wanderlust like no other.

The setting frames the adversaries of the dragons perfectly, and places them in a believable context that underlines their presence and menace. Skyrim evokes sensations first, a feeling of cold at the Throat of the World or a feeling of weariness when travelling from town to town. It evokes physical sensations, that as a player is almost impossible to reconcile. The one-two punch is complete as it delivers Emotion second, a moment of fearful terror at a Dragons arrival that elicits a response to  flee. These are ‘moments’, not gameplay experience.

Skyrim creates a landscape filled with danger, challenge and malevolence. Never before has isolation felt so comforting.

First the cold, then the fear ...

The People vs. Saints Row: The Third

The Schlock and Awe of Saints Row: The Third

Warning: Contains Spoilers

Saints Row: The Third is a chaotic mess.

Fuelled by bad jokes, misogyny, clichés,  and puerile humour. The game is fugly, with character models that look like a 360 launch title, pop-up at every stage, clipping, characters getting stuck in walls, frequent game-breaking crashes. It’s almost as if the game never made it through THQ quality assurance. It’s hard to gauge what the dev team were thinking …

Who is the target audience? We can only presume its adolescent Middle American kids amped up on Mountain Dew.

Its schlock and horror all the way. Surely the Dev Team (all of whom are grown men) are ashamed of themselves? Saints Row: The Third is a symptom of a global entertainment industry that has spent three decades emptying the pockets of men aged 18-35. Never before has an industry pursued a section of the core demographic with such vampiric zeal. Its proven very lucrative, resulting in a multi billion dollar honey pot.

Saints Row: The Third is the epitome of Give The People What They Want™.  Henry Louis Mencken called it in the line “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.” (The Chicago Tribune , September 19, 1926)  Switch American for Western, and its equally valid.

As an Intelligent Gamer™ its hard to reconcile finding pleasure in a cookie cutter open world, that steals from GTA and Crackdown so shamelessly. The GTA comparison is lazy and hackneyed, Saints Row: The Third is a bombastic theft of Crackdown’s pace and core mechanics augmented with gaudy outfits and dildos.

This is the game that asks you to attack an Airliner, fall out the back in a tank, engage in a mid-air tank battle, crash land in a chemical plant thereby releasing toxic fumes which results in the inevitable Zombie infestation. A call to Mayors office results in being asked to wipe out the infected by Burt Reynolds, Burt-fucking-Reynolds. Wait a minute. Did this game just become genius?

Burt-fucking-Reynolds

This is the game, that in the mission ‘http://deckers.die&#8217; pitches the protagonist as a hopping toilet in a game world ripped from Tron, flipping to text adventure, a pastiche of the tank battle from the Atari 2600 game ‘Combat’, punctuated by a fake error screen and a final battle that evokes Japanese mecha titles. In a single mission Volition has created a knowing intelligent polished collage of video game culture, supremely playable and exceptionally clever. It’s at this point if you wonder if there were two competing Dev. teams. Are they really the same team who created the Gimp Pony race segment?

Saints Row: The Third is a video game made for the Daily Mail, to demonize, deride and promote. It’s a game aimed at the increasingly entrenched core gamer (most likely in his room at his moms house), it’s the reaction to the earnest nature of Rockstar’s output, an attempt to recreate WarioWare for the post pubescent. It’s a game made by a schizophrenic dev team who were so keen to shock that they diluted the core pillars of the game to a frameless shopping list in a hollow game world without life or verve. Saints Row: The Third is also a highly accomplished third person shooter, with robust key mechanics, responsive vehicle controls and some astonishing set pieces, sadly populated by characters who are loveless and unsympathetic. Its morality is highly questionable, and in places unnecessary.

Volition cast their net of references so wide, with  a hope of hitting the buttons of the target, they frequently miss the mark. On rare occasions they nail it. They would do well to focus on these moments. Alcoholics call them ‘moments of clarity’. Volition have the potential to make an exceptional Saints Row, underpinned by intelligence and surreal humour, the puerile media baiting tactics are holding them back. Only then can the franchise step out of the shadows of its peers.

If Volition follow the current path, it’s simply a race to the bottom

Who shot Kinect? … How ‘The Gunstringer’ went awry

‘The Gunstringer’ infuriates, dissapoints and charms all at the same time. A difficult feat to achieve.

As the poster boy for the only valid pure Kinect mature experience, ‘The Gunstringer’ is the mature breakout hit on the platform that wasn’t.  The fundamental issue for Twisted Pixel was outside of their control, Kinect. Kinect artificially restricts the freedom given to game designers by a control pad. Microsoft would claim this as an oxymoron, as freedom was a central pillar of the Kinect experience.

Ironically, giving freedom to gamers has tied the hands of game designers.

The best Kinect games take gesture based input, or control schemes based upon familiar actions. Finesse and accuracy aren’t fundamental to Kinect (yet); and as such a game based upon aiming and shooting was always going to struggle. Even so, in ‘The Gunstringer’  the reticule is astonishingly forgiving, a little like playing CoD with a bazooka where every enemy is the size of a barn. The most imprecise gesture summons a rewarding lock on. The main problem? It feels hollow and unrewarding. Leaning  from cover is a flick of the left wrist. Is this immersion? Nah. The basics of this game would have improved a thousandfold on a controller. Twisted Pixel nailed the 2D platformer (Ms Splosion Man) with precise, infuriating level design that was punative and rewarding all at once. At no point do you ever feel frustrated by the controller input, just your ability. At every point ‘The Gunstringer’ feels like shadow boxing the Stay-Puft man. However, it’s nowhere near as amazing as that sounds.

‘The Gunstringer’ shines in terms of characterisation;  the premise of  a demented marionette hellbent on revenge is impossible to resist. Sadly, the gameworld is inconsistent. In a world based on the bizarre, its still a mish mash with some levels looking like they were ripped straight out of Little Big Planet, some created from a splash of Monty Python, and then within the game universe itself;  a lack of internal consistency, that manifests in oversized kitchen cutlery and water made from hand-sewn blankets. Its not odd or eclectic … it just feels half baked. Breaking the fourth wall is, simultaneously, the games greatest achievement and folly.

The game feels as though its been stretched to justify a packaged release. Originally slated as an XBLA title the game morphed into a packaged title, its painfully apparent in sections such as a steamboat ride where only the left hand is utilised, or the endless waves of paper enemies who explode into confetti in a dark cardboard environment. The latter feeling so sparse on content that it felt like the scenery would fall over at any moment to reveal the developers sniggering in the background drinking tea. Publisher pressure feels like it influenced the game design for the worse. The reason is simple, ‘mainstream’ Kinect games don’t buy XBLA titles, to broaden the games reach it had to be on a disc. This is incongruous as all of Twisted Pixel’s previous titles had been digital only.

As a digital developer at the vanguard, a packaged release felt like betrayal.

‘The Gunstringer’ feels like the kernel of the right game, botched and rerubbbed then released on the wrong platform for the wrong motives. And that’s a real shame.