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.
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 This was written in 2014, I think, so I wonder if it’ll be out of date by the time Quarto releases it in 2016?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!
I did a few articles about Global Development for the Graun. I now know about Global Development, kind of.
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.
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.
Unannounced Game Project 1
Unannounced Game Project 2
Unannounced Game Project 3
Unannounced Game Project 4
Unannounced Game Project 5
And that’s it! Five years of fulltime freelance writing under my belt. My god. How long can I keep this up?
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.”
Source: Generation Proc – Maximum PC
Last year I did a Frankengames of 2014, picking the best bits of many games to make a Game of the Year, mainly because nothing individually took my fancy. But this year has been ridiculous, with every week bringing out amazing new games. Here’s a stupid statistic; there are 282 pages of games on Steam. Roughly 125 of those are from 2015. What an insane year.
Given that figure, it’s not surprising that there were tons of games that most of the press didn’t notice, or simply didn’t have time to play, or had forgotten about because they were on Early Access. Of the latter, Crypt of the Necrodancer, Prison Architect and Kerbal Space Program made it onto too few GOTY lists, yet they were superb genre-busters. Dying Light was forgotten when MGSV came along. Strange games like Tengami, Apotheon, Mushroom 11, 868-Hack, N++ and Citizens of Earth appeared and disappeared on PC… and no-one noticed. Meanwhile, Darkest Dungeon got a ton of hype… and featured on exactly no GOTY lists, as everyone rapidly stopped enjoying its sadistic, troubling structures. What an odd bloody year.
For me, it wasn’t a great year. Sure, standouts like The Witcher III and MGSV came along – but the smaller games which normally carry me between the flagship titles didn’t do the job for me. So again, I’m scraping together the corpse-parts of a hundred games to make my ideal game – my perfect monster!
I don’t typically like horror games and the justification for Soma’s monsters worked in universe, but still felt a bit silly compared with how smart and interesting many of the game’s scenarios were. I suspect that the developers noticed that too, as they stripped out the monsters in almost all of the game’s better puzzles – presumably because the challenges were hard enough without having to dodge things that don’t like you looking at them.
Soma takes what could have been a System Shock pastiche at the bottom of the ocean and turns it into something very special, by repeatedly building up its arguments about the value of different types of life, human and otherwise. It’s probably the smartest written game of the year.
Starting in the modern day, in an experimental brain-scanning lab? Interrogating a virtual copy of a security officer in an a virtual environment, doing just enough to keep him? Having a protagonist strong enough to finish the project, but not smart enough to understand – despite having it explained repeatedly – what the consequences of doing this are leads to several believably bleak moments, that really make you feel the horror of the situation better than any of the twisted monsters.
Spare part: Her Story. By contrast, Her Story was the smartest conceit, planning and the smartest, most accessible structure – I just didn’t think it was that fun or interactive. YMMV.
Spare part: Infinifactory. Zachtronics does keep making the same amazing logic game, but it gets better every time. This one was funny, dark and impossibly tough on my baby-brain.
Fancy Haircut: Downwell
Downwell was an extremely-simple pixel shooter shifted to a vertical plane that was punishingly hard. It’s my Overhyped Game of the Year. I can’t believe anyone wasted many words on it – but then some people have a short attention span and have their critical faculties elided by repetitive randomised reward mechanics (see also, more crudely: Candy Crush.) If you find this exciting, just go and play Super Meat Boy on Vita and remind yourself what a well-made Fucking Hard game is like.
Spare part: Undertale. Undertale comes a close second for a game that received lots of hype from influencers (indie devs and press) but which just wasn’t much fun for me. I suspect that’s because I can’t stand JRPGs (apart from Lost Odyssey), don’t have nostalgia for the old-school variants thereof, and I didn’t have the time to push through my distaste. But I could see the humour here, as far as I got into it.
Spare part: Axiom Verge. A great metroidvania title – but riffing on a familiar formula so directly shouldn’t win you awards. Gamble!
Heart: The Witcher III: Wild Hunt
Obviously, this year The Witcher III was by far the best traditional game of the year, easily beating out Fallout 3++, that unfinished Metal Gear sandbox that just borrowed mechanics from every other game, and that Cthulhu Dark Souls mod where they forgot the script (Bloodbath? Bondbourne? Buggerbognor?) It combined combat where player skill and planning could counterbalance a punishing monster levelling curve, some really wonderfully-scripted scenarios that could be approached at any point, and a beautiful drawn, mapped and animated world.
Disclaimer: it was also the only game I got a credit on this year, for consultancy, which is super-unusual, but despite putting in a ton of time on it before release, it’s the game I’ve played most this year and find myself returning to.
Spare part: Dying Light. A nice, big open world that was a joy to explore in single or multiplayer. Such a huge step up from the Dead Island games.
Spare part: Metal Gear Solid V. Huge, odd and boring in many ways, but it has some wonderful sandbox set-ups for lovers of stealth and killing.
Spare part: Bloodborne. Dark Souls dolled up in Cthulhu gladrags, but by far the best combat of the year, with its transforming weaponry. Terrifyingly tough.
Tongue: Westerado: Double-barrelled
Westerado was a solid Legend of Zelda-like, with a nice Western twist, save for one thing; at any time, during any conversation, you can pull your gun on someone. You don’t shoot it (though of course you can), but you can just point it at them, or even cock it. It’s a mechanic that’s followed through smartly throughout the game, accompanied by a less-important – hats-as-lives gimmick, which lets you shoot other people’s hats off and catch them on your head.
Different characters react in different ways – sometimes crying, sometimes pulling their own guns, and sometimes just asking you to go on and shoot them. In this cartoon Wild West, it’s a mechanic begging to be be rustled.
Spare part: Hard West. The serious wound turning into a boon mechanic works wonderfully in this XCOM-style game and needs stealing.
Spare part: Duskers. Both this and last year’s Deadnauts are abandoned spaceship exploration sims, which riff off horror movies really well, using an extremely-mediated control system and interference to generate terror. It works.
Spare part: Mushroom 11. An original, unique flowing/erasing movement mechanic that wasn’t matched in originality by the story, look or enemies.
Spare part: Crypt of the Necrodancer. Comfortably the best rhythm-roguelike there has ever been. Amazingly replayability and style. My rhythm’s so bad, I have to play as the Bard…
Funny bone: Ryan North’s To Be Or Not To Be.
Games have not done funny well – the last outrageously-funny one I encountered was Time Gentlemen, Please, and the developers seem intent on not doing funny games again. But this choose-your-adventure by Ryan North (of Dinosaur Comic fame) is a hilarious reworking of Hamlet where you get to be Hamlet, Ophelia, Hamlet Sr. (briefly) or even Ryan North, the author. It’s very well made, written and has a great, natural comedic voice.
Skin: Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture
My experience was pretty ruined by ignorance of the run button, but this was a uniquely beautiful recreation of a good-sized area of English countryside. I’d happily walk around it again in VR, without the floating story orbs. The story was good, the acting solid Radio 4, and the music was superb – it was just a bit of a linear plod, like Dear Esther.
Frankenstein: Hand of Fate
(Best antagonist, obv!) I had to check if Hand of Fate was released this year, but I’m in the clear. This was simultaneously the best digital card game of the year, and had the best antagonist, the wonderfully animated and scripted dealer.
As you play the card game, and he turns cards, shuffles with magic, and stares at you over his face-drape, he rarely repeats anything, even several hours in. He radiates menace, through both threats and flattery, before settling down to a guardedly-avuncular manner. He initially pretends to take his losses lightly, but his tone changes as you keep playing. Sure his accent slips occasionally, but it just improves the otherworldly air.
Without him, this was a good card game mingled with a weak Xbox 360 era combat game you could easily cheese. With him, it became a battle of wills.
Frank Jr.: Metamorphabet
That is, the best game I played with my child. Beating out the Toca Boca games, which I love but which are getting slightly formulaic, Vectorpark’s latest Thing has been filling a hole in life since the last IGF. My child, at 14 months, is quite happy tapping on the screen and morphing letters into all sorts of other things. The amount of labour that Patrick Smith has put into every element is absurd – there’s a guitar, for example, that appears on just one screen for a few seconds, but which has been programmed to have working strings.
Spare part: Toca Band. Just an amazingly tuneful, characterful and intelligible music generator, with a really catchy tune and beautiful, weird animation.
Tentacles: Blood Bowl 2
Yes, I have a problem. This was just a very good conversion of a tabletop Fantasy American Football game I played as a child, which I love. This made it accessible and I keep meaning to go back to it.
Spare part: Vermintide. Left4Dead with Skaven. I need to play much, much more of this game.
In other words, the genre that is most in need of a kick up the arse. Endless Legend has shown 4X games where they need to go (something Beyond Earth studiously ignored), but citybuilders have been damned by the ancient heritage of the Sim City games, which promised ever deeper simulation with the same level of feature creep obsession as Football Manager. Cities: Skylines was a perfectly pretty sim (even if that tilt-shift trick is going to get old soon) and it’s amazing that a small team made it, but imaginative or interesting it wasn’t. See also Banished, which concealed a tiny array of building options behind a high difficulty, and the recent Anno games.
Spare part: Racing. Racing games have been so stagnant and dull for so many years that I’m amazed that they keep selling. It’s probably the only mainstream genre that pretends to aim for pure simulation, and can just sell itself on more shinies each time. I find the DLC, advertising-saturated, bimboid Forza games particularly egregious.
The apparently best games I didn’t give a chance because we have a baby are Lovers in A Dangerous Spacetime, Rocket League, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, Regency Solitaire, Splatoon, Super Mario Maker, Invisible Inc, Life is Strange, Tales from the Borderlands, Until Dawn, Xenoblade Chronicles X, Minecraft: Story Mode… One day I’ll get to try them…