On the edge of Ostrava there’s a sharp-sided hill. If you stood on it, you’d have a view over the old city, and you’d marvel at the number of smokestacks you saw. They’re all shapes and sizes and surround the old town centre like widely-spaced fence posts. If it was wintertime, you’d also marvel at how the hill you’re standing on is free of snow, while all around is white satin. Putting your hand on the ground, you’d find it oddly warm.
Like the old buildings and the smokestacks, this hill – called Ema – is a symbol of Ostrava’s inescapable past. It’s formed of the waste from the ironworks in the town’s centre. The last slag was dumped on Ema in 1993 and despite that 22-year gap, it’s still hot. Beneath the streets of Ostrava lies a massive anthracite deposit that made the area the ideal location for iron smelting, and which had been exploited for more than 200 years.
Five years after I first played it, Blow has let go and The Witness is out. There are now got 600+ puzzles and the world has been remodelled inch by inch. And this is the first time I’ve seen it since then. So how does the game live up to the goals of 2011’s Blow? And was it worth the extra $5.2 million he’s spent on it since then…? (Warning: contains mild spoilers).
Far Cry Primal isn’t, on this showing, a smart or an innovative game. It’s definitely more of the same with a new skin, much like Blood Dragon was, but without that expandalone’s cheesy humour. What it does have is a new old world to explore, a visceral proximity to its killings and an unusual, simple story to tell – man’s ascent from prey to predator, first-hand.
Fun! I’m doing a wheelie down a ruined high street at high speed, totally unable to tell where I’m going, while heavily armed North Koreans spray machine gun fire at me. This is the best motorcycle game I’ve ever played and it’s not a motorcycle game. I drop my iron steed out of the wheelie just in time to see my surviving teammate back into the road in front of me. I can’t avoid running him down and I don’t. As his body bump-bumps under my tyres, I berate him for not obeying the Green Cross Code. It’s fine though, as I revive him under heavy fire, get back onto my bike and speed off, ignoring him, the enemies, my other downed pals, and the mission.
You don’t know Sergey Galyonkin. His childhood in the Ukraine, his Olympic success, his life in Cyprus, his work behind the scenes at Wargaming. All this is of no interest to you – and why would it be? But what Sergey does in his spare time – a persona called Steam Spy – has developers hanging on his words and with good reason. Steam Spy has used loopholes in the Steam community system to drag hugely interesting and valuable game data out of the network, package it up smartly, and give it away for free.
When people I’ve not seen for a while ask me ‘what are you working on right now?’, I give them this kind of glassy look that says ‘how long do you have?’ It’s this kind of look:
This has been a hard, good year. Apart from coping with a new baby, I’ve probably worked for a wider range of media than ever before, and finally haven’t needed to chase work. Indeed, I’ve had to turn work down on occasion, or at least show a distinct lack of enthusiasm and raise my rates to put people off. That hasn’t always worked, so I’ve been *very* tired this year. What did I do this year? Ahaha. This:
Achtung: Cthulhu: Dark Tales from the Secret War A short story for a collection. It’s about Llandudno, Oswald Moseley, Alistair Crowley and is a bit of a farce, really. I must stop writing farces. You can buy it here.
100×100 The 100 most influential video games for a book that’s 100 lists of 100 things. This was written in 2014, I think, so I wonder if it’ll be out of date by the time Quarto releases it in 2016?
Design: The Whole Story Six chapters for a book about the history of design, published by Quarto. I covered subjects as diverse as the creation of disposable culture, military paraphernalia, and the internet revolution.
Unannounced Book Project 1 A book about the culture of Minecraft with Alec Meer. Has a publisher!
Unannounced Book Project 2 A book about videogames and philosophy with Jordan Erica Webber. Has a publisher!
There’s so much to list here that I don’t think I can be arsed including it all. So here are the highlights of the last year!
The magazine of the Royal Geographical society sent me to the former coal town of Ostrava in the Czech Republic to cover Europe’s biggest air show. Again, it’s fun writing outside of my comfort zone, but the piece reads unexpectedly well – I’ll be showing it off when it’s out in January… thanks to the editor Paul Presley for setting it up!
BBC Radio 5 – Let’s Talk About Tech We did two end of year’s discussion of video games for Radio 5 here and here. I’ve just relistened to the second one and it’s actually a damn good discussion, if messy at the end.
The New Statesman I did a simulation of the British political party manifestoes for this well-regarded left wing website. Lots of fun!
The Guardian I did a few articles about Global Development for the Graun. I now know about Global Development, kind of.
PC Gamer I think I may be one of PCG’s longest-running writers. Longest-writing runners? Whatever. This is my 14th year working for them. IIRC, my interview consisted of Kieron Gillen introducing me to Matt Pierce, the editor, as he was walking by. He asked, frowning, “what’s your favourite game?” I said System Shock. He stopped, shrugged, said, “Hired” and walked on. Cue 14 years.
Gamespot I did a couple of pieces for these guys, which completes my set of the huge games and tech media. I think I’ve written for every one that’s got a UK branch now, so I can turn them into a big robot or something.
Techradar / T3 I got back into doing hardware reviews and list features for these two tech sites, because the pay is good for the work needed. I can’t say it’s wonderfully enjoyable, but I do appreciate the income.
Max PC / PC Format PC Format, the first magazine that gave me a writing job, was closed this year. It had been on life support for ages, but because it supplied articles to Techradar and because it was incredibly easy to sell ads for, it kept going even as its sales dropped to unheard-of lows. However, as PC Format only had one remaining staff member at the end (the delightful Alan Dexter), it was incredibly cheap to produce – and he’s now moved onto Max PC, North America’s biggest PC magazine. So I’ve moved with him and are writing for them…
Three Moves Ahead Had a nice chat with Rob Zacny on this podcast about the superb Shadow of the Horned Rat, presaging Total War: Warhammer.
And tons more sites, like Expert Reviews, Kotaku, OXM…
I’ve done a lot of consultancy this year too, for a range of clients. Much of it was done through the amazing Martin Korda at Videogame Consulting. I owe Martin a huge amount, both personally and professionally – he’s been astoundingly supportive this last year.
Sadly, the only projects I’m not NDAed to the hilt about were The Witcher III: Wild Hunt and Woolfe: The Red Hood Diaries, but I do get to say this awesome sentence; “I worked on some of this year’s biggest games”. That’s pretty wonderful.
I also did media training for a bunch of developers, at the request of UKIE and PR firm Indigo Pearl. That’s where you help people get acclimatised to talking to the media, because otherwise we’ll just eat them up.
Seriously, lots of developers are terrified of talking to journalists or scared about being asked difficult questions. For these sessions, I run mock interviews that go substantially through their CV and their corporate history, pushing them harder and harder depending on how well they respond. My aim is to both put their mind at ease and ensured that they were prepared for the worst sort of questions they should face from the media, whatever their capability – including telling them the questions that they should just ignore.
Photography was ridiculous this year, even if it was only a minor part of my time. (I never push for more work because of discomfort over the colourblindness – I just take what comes.) I continued to manage the event photography for the Develop Conference, as well as Tandem Events other symposia. I also took pictures for several other clients, including Edge Magazine, Blizzard, Warner Bros and Pokemon.
The highlight though was taking photos of celebs like Mark Hamill, Gillian Anderson, Mark Strong, John Rhys Davies and Gary Oldman for the Star Citizen filming at Ealing Studios. Thank you to Gareth Williams for sorting that one out!
I’ve been working on five games this year, variously as a writer, narrative designer and designer,. I can’t really talk about any of them, but obviously it’s hugely exciting for me to be involved in them. I’m guessing that my developer chums won’t mind me mentioning that I’m doing this, but I’ll update the list below with studio names once I’ve checked in with the relevant devs.
A piece I did for Maximum Piece about how games have learned from art, music, and math—and how the world might learn from games.
“And on the third day, God made the world. And He saw that it was quite crummy. And He then looked at the other worlds that He’d made, and thought, “They suck a bit, too, infallible as I am.”
So He pondered for silent indefinites, as the void drifted tetchily on, waiting for time, space, gravity, bicycles, and all the other concomitants of virtue and vice. Eventually, He got a bit frustrated. “Balls to it all,” He thought, blasphemously. “handcrafting a universe is for losers. I’ll procedurally generate an infinity of them and just choose the best one.” And lo, that was the morning of the third day, and He saw that it was good. So He went and watched fractal zooms on Youtube for the rest of the week.”