Career: Balloon Animal Modelling

You might as well have said: “I model balloon animals for a living and I’m really bad at it.

“When I was writing video games reviews I was aware that I was in a bit of a ghetto, effectively. And I thought: “Well, how do I get out of this?” If I met someone at a barbecue and said I reviewed computer games for a living they would look at me like I’d said: [wobbles lips with fingers] “Blibablibablibablibblibliber.” You might as well have said: “I model balloon animals for a living and I’m really bad at it.” – Charlie Brooker.

When I started in games media in the early 2000s, we honestly were treated as social pariahs by everyone – but especially by the mainstream media, who were still in their ‘games kill babies’ phase. I don’t think any of my Oxford peers understood why I was doing what I was doing, and my mother endlessly asked me if I wanted to retrain as a barrister. And I think it unlikely that any of my dear friends of that generation have ever read anything I’ve written about games.

And now so much has changed. It’s a whole new world.

Deathbed Recommendations

I had to go to the hospital a few weeks ago, so a doctor could put a camera up my urethra. There was a very small chance that what he found was going to be the death of me…

This was written in December, 2013, the month before Ari was conceived. I found it in a pile of drafts. It’s worth noting, since this, that I’ve had several more hospital experiences that threatened to be fatal. Luckily, none have.

I don’t know if this is just me.

I was getting morbid. I had to go to the hospital a few weeks ago, so a doctor could put a camera up my urethra. There was a very small chance that what he found was going to be the death of me. So, I went a bit Luzhin in the shower before the event, and started following consequence chains as far as I could.

I thought about freezing some sperm, because it’s likely that if the Docs find something bad, the remedy will remove my ability to reproduce. Then I thought about not getting to see any resulting children grow up. And thought about recording messages to them, and then a yearly message, so (like DeTamble in the Time Traveller’s Wife) I’d be with them, fresh, for each year of their life.

Then I got to thinking about how I’d do it. Genial, wise monologues straight to camera is hackneyed but works. And then I thought about what I’d say. I’d recommend my favourite philosophy, my favourite fiction, the strange old books I’ve happened across which will give that otherworldly edge: Lacfadio Hearn, Kipling, Laurence Sterne, Mikhail Bulgakov, Erskine Childers, Olaf Stapledon and so on. An education by proxy, skipping me, back to the formative years of each medium. I even thought about a few movies I’d recommend: The Princess Bride, Duck Soup, Groundhog Day, Fight Club, Yojimbo, and so on. Light themes but with rich philosophy behind it.

A Book, Spoiled
Yet. I couldn’t think of any games I could honestly say a child of mine should spend time on. Time that would be educative, entertaining and efficient. That irks me a bit. Spelunky? No, too wasteful of time. DOTA? Ditto and too repetitive. A shooting game? Hell, no. Planescape Torment? Good, but the interface is awful – you’re probably better off reading Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, the Ur-text for witty rogue worlds. Deus Ex? No, disappointing linearity – read SnowCrash. Mario? Repetitive, brand oriented… no.

(One thing positive I can say of many great games is that they teach you how to learn an imperfect ruleset rapidly. I think of the Reiner Knizia design ethos, which seems to consist of attempting to maximin incompatible-but-overlaid number sets, and I think that’s something valuable for realworld. But that’s something from these games in general, not from any individual game.)

What was wrong with all these games? Not one of them could I point to and say, unreservedly, that is a clean, good, efficient experience which also offers the open edges of a book. Risk of Rain is a perfect action-shooter, with the random drops comboing neatly to force different play styles on you – but I can’t say that I value the compulsion loop of an unlock-based game, especially not for a child, nor can I say that it’s improved me as a human being.

Moving Closer
Is there a game that combines the combined-toolset gameplay of Spelunky with a top-notch scripted experience that still allows the world to have the fuzzy edges a growing imagination needs? I suppose the nearest are Morrowind, Ultima 7, King of Dragon Pass.

An alternative is the Inform and Twine games, the old text adventures, like Violet and Slouching Towards Bedlam. These are near-to-perfection but they waste the player’s time with endless failstates and replays (something the otherwise-light Fable 2 is notable for avoiding). Unless they’re enjoying and learning anew from each failstate, you’re wasting their time. Horse Master is better, in that you carry on to an enjoyably strange ending, no matter what. But a bad text adventure is a short story, spoiled.

This year has seen a few games that have got closer, mingling that Inform experience with production values. Gone Home? Linear, but we’re getting there with the atmosphere, storyline and lack of failstate. Papers Please? Good – linearity concealed behind a clever, shifting toolset and political nous. The problem with these two, like Dear Esther, is that they’re just not all that much fun. The protean joy of the Stanley Parable might be the only modern game I could recommend.

I don’t think I’ve fallen out of love with games. I’ve just recognised that the other media are still superior in what I’d want my kid to input, especially for a peak quality experience.

Battleborn Review | Techradar

There’s a fine line between bravery and foolhardiness; Battleborn straddles it, legs akimbo. On the one hand, it’s made a good effort to mingle MOBA and shooter mechanics, mixing the team combat, creeps cooldown specials and in-match levelling of a MOBA with the fast pace and face-to-face combat of an FPS. On the other, it’s sacrificed much of the subtlety and variety of the MOBA in that transition.

Source: Battleborn Review | Techradar

Total War: Warhammer review – an intimidating blend of empire-building, strategy and high fantasy | Technology | The Guardian

Warhammer is a range of tabletop strategy games; Total War is a series of historical battle simulations. Combining the two should have produced a black hole of nerdiness so unapproachable it would crush all mortals. Strangely, however, this is probably the most accessible each game has been for years.

Source: Total War: Warhammer review – an intimidating blend of empire-building, strategy and high fantasy | Technology | The Guardian

Sense of Adventure: Dave Gilbert, Wadjet Eye Games and The Shivah

Real-world religions are oddly absent from games. Whether it’s through fear or complacency, the mainstream part of our industry careful sidesteps controversy. If religion enters at all, it’s used as in God of War or El Shaddai, as a theme to be mined. Similarly, the liberal bent of most indies means that religion isn’t a huge part of their lives and hence rarely enters into their games.

This article originally appeared on Edge Online, before that site disappeared into GamesRadar. I post it for archive purposes. I first wrote about the Shivah back in 2006.

Real-world religions are oddly absent from games. Whether it’s through fear or complacency, the mainstream part of our industry careful sidesteps controversy. If religion enters at all, it’s used as in God of War or El Shaddai, as a theme to be mined. Similarly, the liberal bent of most indies means that religion isn’t a huge part of their lives and hence rarely enters into their games.

When Dave Gilbert released The Shivah back in 2006, he dealt with religion head-on, and not in a crass way. His Rabbi Russell Stone is a believably bitter priest with a declining congregation, who stumbles into a nasty noir plot. Despite winning the 2006 Adventure Game Studio (AGS) competition, the nascent state of digital distribution and online media meant that the game wasn’t widely played back then.

Now, seven years on, Gilbert’s Wadjet Eye Games has released The Shiva: Kosher Edition, with improved graphics, music and voices, making the game feel like an unreleased LucasArts adventure title. We caught up with him to find out how the scene has changed since his first successful title.

The game isn’t long or complex, but it evokes ‘police procedural’ like nothing else.
The game isn’t long or complex, but it evokes ‘police procedural’ like nothing else.

“Success is relative.” Gilbert says. “I had no idea what I was doing back then, and my launch plan consisted of playing it once to make sure it worked, uploading it to a store server my brother-in-law set up, and then going to bed. Shockingly, this did not turn me into an overnight success story.”

Interestingly, despite the religious title (‘Shivah’ is the Jewish mourning period) Gilbert doesn’t think of the Shivah as a religious game. “It’s a murder mystery which happens to star a rabbi, and takes place in his world. So I didn’t shy from it so much as wanted to tell this specific story.  There’s no attempt to preach or convert or even teach anyone. In fact, despite being Jewish myself I got a LOT of facts wrong. For example, in the game Rabbi Stone is considering closing down the synagogue. In real life, there would be a whole board of people who would decide that kind of thing, and the rabbi wouldn’t be involved. So anyone looking to the Shivah as a way to learn about Jewish culture should probably look somewhere else.”

Indeed, he seems to have chosen a Rabbi as his lead because the characters in his previous game, Two of a Kind, were criticised as lacking motivation. “They were detectives, and it was their job, and that was it. So when I wanted to write another game, I wanted to create a detective (or detective-like character) who was really driven to get to the bottom of a mystery.”

Cart Life was built on a custom-modified AGS engine.
Cart Life was built on a custom-modified AGS engine.

In these days dominated by pixel art, it’s not unbelievable to see the pixel-heavy AGS games again rising to the surface. Richard Hofmeier’s IGF winning Cart Life is a heavily-modded AGS title, after all. “Tons of games are still being made with (AGS), and there are more commercial ventures than ever before. It also went open source a year ago, and significant headway has gone into making it cross-compatible. We used the iOS port to release an iOS version of Gemini Rue back in April, and the Shivah remake will also be on iOS.”

And Gilbert’s Wadjet Games is making a lot of AGS games, including the award-winning Blackwell series. “Back in the dark ages of 2006, it seemed like a ridiculous idea to make small point-and-click adventure games and earn a living at it. It still kind of is, but somehow we’ve made it work… I can’t say it’s always been easy, but I can’t think of many things that are as rewarding.”

“People have been saying “the adventure game is dead” for… twenty years, now? We’re not trying to do anything so lofty as to “bring the genre back” or whathaveyou. If people didn’t like adventure games in the first place, we wouldn’t be in business. We just make the games we want to play, and that seems to be enough.”

Total War: Warhammer – hands-on with all the factions | VG247

Knolek SunEater has really lived. He’s stood on mountaintops sucking up the lightning just because he could. He’s battled dragons and served the lords of Chaos since time immemorial. He’s twenty feet tall with six scaly limbs and electricity crackling from his eyes. He’s totally, totally what Warhammer Fantasy Battle is all about. But it turns out that all his history is no use if you send him charging on his own into the heart of a enemy Total War army. Against those odds, even Kholek Suneater turns and runs like a whipped hound.

Source: Total War: Warhammer – hands-on with all the factions | VG247

Merely Players: The Most Shakespearian Games | Kotaku

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream follows the adventures of some fairies, some peasant actors attempting to put on a romantic play that’s a bit like a rubbish Romeo & Juliet, some star-crossed aristocrats who all drink love potions, and, for some reason, Theseus and Hippolyta. That makes it a hodge-podge of Greek myth, contemporary satire, romantic farce, and Middle High German epic poetry. In contemporary lingo, it’s Shakespeare laying intercontinuity crossover on with a trowel.”

Source: Merely Players: The Most Shakespearian Games | Kotaku UK