Steam Spy: You don’t know Sergey Galyonkin | SMTG

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.

Source: Steam Spy: You don’t know Sergey Galyonkin | SMTG

My 2015

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:

Books

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 This was written in 2014, I think, so I wonder if it’ll be out of date by the time Quarto releases it in 2016?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!

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Media

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!

Geographical
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…

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Consultancy

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.

Media Training

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.

Mark Hamill!

Photography

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!

Games

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
Twotails

Unannounced Game Project 2
TBA

Unannounced Game Project 3
TBA

Unannounced Game Project 4
TBA

Unannounced Game Project 5
TBA

And that’s it! Five years of fulltime freelance writing under my belt. My god. How long can I keep this up?

My Frankengame of 2015: Gleanings From The Morass

 

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!

soma

Brain: Soma

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.

downwell

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!

witcher

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.

westerado

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…

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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.

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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.

hand of fate

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. 

metamorphabet

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.

bloodbowl

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.

cities

Appendix: Citybuilders

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.

Leftover limbs

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…

 

Why I understand the fears of British jews.

 

The papers are reporting that Britain is more antisemitic than it’s been for a long time. They’re also reporting that both Jewish celebrities and everyday folk are thinking about leaving Britain. As a Jew, I understand their fear. As a bad, atheist, secular Jew, I understand why they want to move to Israel but think it’s a mad decision.

Few of my British friends seem to be taking it seriously, which increases my empathy. They seem to treat it as just some media personalities and subset of Jews being hysterical, that it couldn’t happen in their Britain. It’s true that the exodus to Israel has been going on since before Israel was founded, and that it’s increased in the last ten years. But there is a real fear, based on real events. And your concept of Britain is irrelevant to the Britain that’s out there.

Now, I grew up with the IRA and have a very limited experience of terrorism. I remember bombings in Manchester when I was a kid. I used to stay a day a week with my dad, who lived in a flat on top of the Arndale centre. We used to get woken up at nights, regularly, to be told we needed to evacuate because of a bomb threat. That stopped when the IRA blew up the city centre, and the Arndale flats with it. My dad was moved out to another flat, because where he used to live looked like the below.

The Manchester Arndale, after the 1996 bombing.

Now, I’m not going to say that the IRA were ‘better’ terrorists than the Al Quaeda and ISIS-inspired jihadists. But the majority of the IRA’s fighters had an aim beyond simple bloodthirstiness – they wanted Northern Ireland to be reunited with the rest of the country. There was an aim beyond their terror, which is why they gave warnings. It might have been confused, but there was a feeling that their destruction was of infrastructure to inconvenience the Brits, terror to change minds, and to target the security forces they felt were colluding in their suppression.

By contrast, the aim with the current brand of Jihadis does just seem to be terror, to kill as many people as possible – and, in particular, to kill Jews on the side. Look at these graphs of antisemitic violence rising worldwide even as violent crime declines generally. Even in supposedly-enlightened Canada antisemitic crimes trebled, with the majority of perpetrators identifying as Muslim.

Targeting an ethnic group for an association with a state or movement is problematic – both in terms of the jihadis targeting Jews over Israel, and Westerners targeting muslims over terrorism. It doesn’t, currently, feel like satisfying the jihadis’ current demands – by pulling out of the Middle East and stopping supporting Israel militarily – will be enough to stop these people but rather that this feels to them like a long-form war between the Islamic states and the West. Which means this is probably going to get worse.

So I get why Jews might be scared. And I think Orthodox Jews or synagogue-going Jews in particular probably feel they’re exposed, because they’re easy to identity, from their garb or on the synagogue steps, whilst the terrorists can blend in to Britain’s wonderful multicultural streets. I can see they might want to move to a country where they’re the majority and the terrorists will stand out. 

And, of course, Jew’s history of persecution is infamous. Jews who stayed around – in Egypt, in Israel under the Seleucids and Romans, in the Rhineland during the First Crusade, in 12th century York, across Europe during the Black Death, in 15th century Spain, in 16th century Portugal, in the 17th century Papal States, in 18th Century Russia, in the 19th century Middle East and Africa, in 1920s Turkey, in 1930s Germany – tended to end up dead. As those polls show, we’re not that far along. The Enlightenment is skin-deep in the areas of the world it touched, and that’s not much of the world. Any Jew who knows his or her history has to agree that, irrespective of how wonderful and tolerant you think the country’s culture appears to be, it’s sane to watch for the same signs again. And to be ready to flee.

Despite that, personally, I don’t think Israel is a particularly great place to move to. The chance of its major cities getting blasted off the face of the Earth is a bit too high for my liking. The state of Israel, partly through the making of despicable right-wing political manipulators like Benjamin Netanyahu, has chosen to be aggressive and nasty to every state next to it for too long, and allowed its population to contravene UN resolutions (especially on settlement building) again and again. America has helped with that, by not tying its military funding of Israel to the country enforcing international law. Now Israel is the bugbear of many states in the world, including almost all its neighbours.

No, if I was a scared jew, I’d move to New York. Tolerant, with totally Jewish neighbourhoods, too far for most Islamic extremists (who, let’s face it, are mostly European or Middle Eastern) to pay for the plane ticket, and the country as a whole has a philosemitic policy, perhaps as a hang-up from the victory in the Second World War (which is nowadays sold as a humanitarian war, even if that was never the intent of the Allies.) If we look at that anti-semitism article again, America is the only place where anti-semitism hasn’t risen.

I’m thankful that, as a secular, atheist Jew, I don’t particularly stand out in public, except when I self-identify in blogs like this. (I’ll admit that I held off posting this for a month, because of fear). For that reason, I’m not thinking of moving yet. But I’ll certainly keep watching.

My FrankenGame of the Year

Banner-Saga-Snake

I liked a lot of games this year, and played far more games than I usually do. Yet, save for review, I didn’t find myself playing a single game a whole lot (blame buying a flat / moving flat / having a baby) and only finished a handful – perhaps only The Banner Saga, Transistor, and Shadows of Mordor. Others I played a whole lot – Dragon Age: Inquisition, Dark Souls II, South Park: The Stick of Truth – but wouldn’t put in a top list. Some were great – Out There, Infested Planet, Abyss Odyssey, Nidhogg, Xenonauts – but I don’t have the urge to put them in.

I’m guessing that’s because none of the games really engaged with me. It’s been a long year. Buying a flat, moving house, having a baby. So it’s likely I’ve forgotten some things I love. Some games I love need more work – Chaos Reborn, Prison Architect, Crypt of the Necrodancer. Others – like the Talos Principle, Elite: Dangerous, Wasteland 2, Jazzpunk, Alien: Isolation, Gorogoa, Quadriga, Bayonetta 2 and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter – I haven’t got around to yet. But, hey, this is the internet; I’ll just edit them in later when I do.

However, I did love the mechanics from a lot of games, so using lightning, corpse parts and the rotting, repugnant remains of an overstretched metaphor, I’m going to stitch together my own monster, my game of the year. These are the bits of the games this year I loved the best.

80days

 

Brain: 80 Days

The decision matrices for this game are pretty simple – it’s essentially a choose-your-own adventure game with branching pathways. But the writing (by Meg Jaynath) is so perfectly on point that it brings the entire game up to a new level.

The game takes the classic Phileas Fogg story, and gives it a sharp-toothed reinterpretation. You play Passepartout, who explores the limitless world of Victoriana for his master, the indolent Fogg, buying and selling rare items to maintain their funds, bribing their way onto faster transport, and keeping his master buffed and polished. The twist is that the world isn’t the familiar Victorian hegemony, but something more steampunky and much less stable – everywhere you look inventions are ramping up the tools of war.

80 Days is smart, always well-researched and creates a believable world entirely through description and interaction. I’d love to see more games in this setting and more stories by Meg.

Spare Part: Sunless Sea. Not done by any means and the mechanics often get in the way of the story, but similarly great writing.

Spare Part: Blood & Laurels. A procedurally-generated text adventure set in ancient Rome. Lovely; I wish I’d played more of it.

wolfamongus

Heart: The Wolf Among Us

I’ve not always got on with Telltale’s series – neither Sam And Max, Back To The Future nor The Walking Dead connected with me the way that they did with everyone else. For me, the clunky interfaces and barely-working systems got in the way.

Yet with The Wolf Among Us I can forgive everything. The game has such as serious sense of style – from the grim smoking wander of Bigby in the title screen to the genuinely-divided path that runs through it. It had its weak moments – that scandalously short second chapter, the whimpering end – but overall it recreated Willingham’s Fables characters with affection and panache.

Spare Part: The Banner Saga. An original setting, a dark twisty story and annoying combat mechanics. And, no, I couldn’t keep poor Egil alive.

transistor

Hands: Transistor

Supergiant’s Bastion follow-up was probably underappreciated due to its visual similarity – saturated isometric combat. But the mix-and-match weapon and buffs system. Each of your weapons has two sockets, and there are passive slots too, and any weapon can go into any of those sockets – weapon, socket, or passive – producing a different form. The way that excessive damage knocked your most powerful weapon out of action meant that you were forced to mix up your styles all the time. Smart and well thought-through.

Spare part: Hearthstone. Should I hate you, Blizzard? You so carefully manipulate our emotions and brains, use such generic concepts (and let’s face it, you plagiarised Games Workshop relentlessly for your two biggest games), but put such charm into the design that we forgive you. And then you do something like Hearthstone, bringing CCGs to the masses. It’s not quite pay-to-win but for evenly-matched players, the willingness to buy cards or sink time to get cards can make a difference – that is, you can get better by investment without improving skill.

shadowsofmordor

Danglies: Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor

Disclaimer: I have done PR and consultancy work for Warner Bros. I like SOM and dislike some of Warner’s other games independently of that. But because of that conflict of interest I’m not going to talk too positively about SOM, but just point you at the Nemesis mechanic and invite you to admire the character it brings to this game’s world. I’d say it’s the mechanic that we’ll see most copied in upcoming games.

Spare part: Luftrausers. The part-combination mechanic is perfectly placed in this morsel-sized Vlambeer product, allowing you to create a hundred different plane types, each behaving differently.

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Skin: Destiny

It might just be World of Halocraft, but Destiny has a moreish snackiness to it that manages to get you playing for hours on end. Never mind that the AI enemies are artificially tough and that they rely more on disorientation and damage buffs to increase difficulty. Never mind that the PvP is pretty much Killzone’s, but without the balance that implies.

What matters is those vistas. They tell you that the wide-eyed 70s dream of science – the bearded voice of Carl Sagan creating homilies about new worlds – the utopian geothermal tidal energy towers floating in methane gas giant seas drawing power from the tug of ancient dead suns – haven’t gone away and that man can still be naive and hope, outside of NASA’s careful PR outreach programs.

Spare Part: Assassins Creed: Unity. I suspect it’s down to the jadedness of the press with the series’ endless plot and over-familiar mechanics that this game’s artistry has been so underappreciated. Seriously beautiful. I find myself just standing on street corners, watching 18th century France pootle by, from republicans to thieves wandering off with church crosses to ruffians burning books. Though the quoted stat is that it took an artist 5000 hours to recreate Notre Dame perfectly, it’s the iridescent inside of Saint Chapelle that must be seen. (Disclaimer: I have done consultancy work for Ubisoft).

roundabout

Dress Sense: Roundabout.

The game itself is an utterly throwaway (if tough) action-puzzler but what a strange, effective use of whimsy and ’70s era B-movie the missions are. The combination of great writing, a silly conceit and amateur actors make for something utterly unique. I can’t stand to play much of it, but I wish I could.

Spare Part: Cosmonautica. Funky music, a really lovely side-on ship interface, even in combat, and great design across the board. It’s sad that the trading system is pretty dull, as is the combat and almost everything else – save for the style. Watch Chasing Carrots – when they find a mechanic that works, they’ll make something amazing.

Spare Part: The Sailor’s Dream. Simogo are the most interesting developers out there. Year Walk was clunky and obtuse, but scarily effective and effectively scary. Device 6 nicely sent me round the bend. And The Sailor’s Dream continues their tradition of defying convention, with a game that’s almost entirely atmosphere and timing.

thiswarofmine

Guts: This War of Mine

Not an original game – the Rebuild series has done almost exactly this before, amongst other zombie sims – but to set this team-survival sim amidst a war was a good touch. The fragility of your team, the randomisation of your neighbourhood and the permadeath combine for grimly-compelling stories.

Spare part: Neo Scavenger. Exactly what I said above, but with the added bonus that it has the most horrifically-realistic combat I’ve experienced in a turn-based game. The way that a fight turns from something like Hugh Grant and Colin Firth’s slapping match in Bridget Jones to one man stomping another unconscious man to death…

endless

The Game That My Monster Would Play: Endless Legend

Amplitude Studios demonstrated with Endless Space that they had style; they took the 4X space game and made a pretty good. But both of their games this year have been stunning reworkings of existing genres, with Dungeon of the Endless making a grim pixel-art tower defense roguelike and Endless Legend easily beating any recent Civilization game for style, panache and even storytelling. The hugely asymmetric factions and faction story quests (even in multiplayer) are an inspiration to me; we’ll surely see them cropping up in every RTS and 4X around.

 

Why our child won’t have my name.

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So, we’re having a child. In less than a month. And it won’t have my name. There are many rational reasons why this is, but the main one, to get out of the way, is that the presumption a child should take the father’s name is nonsense on stilts. Tradition is never a good argument.

On top of that, there’s good feminist reasons for he/she/it (damn the lack of an acceptable gender neutral) to have my partner’s name – to balance out the long history of mankind where children didn’t have women’s names and women were excluded from society, seen just as vectors for men’s seed, treated as chattel and the property of their husbands.

Of course, there’s no reason it should have anything like my name, or even a standard human name. “Conventional names define a person’s past: ancestry, ethnicity, nationality, religion.” FM-2030 said “I am not who I was ten years ago and certainly not who I will be in twenty years.” I’d rather our child escaped the shackles of tradition, though she can opt in later, should she so wish.

Tradition is only local: surnames were mononymous in most areas of the world at one time, then became bynames, to distinguish people. In Prestatyn, where my grandma lived, the surnames were so similar that it was still normal to call people that way – she used to call them Jones the Butcher, Jones the Taxi, and Jones the Baker. Outside of there, I’m sure Jones of Prestatyn wouldn’t be unknown.

Though I was open to the child not having either of our names, we’re sadly not as enlightened as FM-2030. It’s probably going to have a first name that reflects something of its heritage, and it will take its mother’s surname. I was also open to the child being given just a first name, then choosing its own surname at the age of majority; we may just emphasise that it can change its own name whenever it wants.

Practically though, the child is in the medium and long run more likely to grow up with its mother, so it should have her name. There’s a higher chance of me dying and a higher chance of it staying with her if we split up (which we’re not planning to, but it’s wise to be rational). Even for day-to-day aspects, the child is initially dependent on her, so more likely to be travelling with her around the country and world.

There’s also the aesthetic qualities of our actual names. My surname is batshit hard to spell. I’ve gradually got tired of spelling it out and typing it out every day. My partner’s name is as interesting and not an absolute pisser to spell. And it’s much easier to make puns or references with her name – Dain – and the middle names which I’m trying so hard to slip in like Duné or Ironfoot.

The final quality for decision-making is core; respect. The woman carries the baby, and suffers huge pain and terrible damage. All the support I can give is nothing in comparison to what she has to go through so we can have a child.

In Flight: London, 5 a.m.

Streets bare of anything but the orange glow of emergency lighting. Stretched black shadows of key workers (coffee shops, fast food joints) waiting thin and angular at bus-stops. Miles of normally pounded pavement getting a brief respite save for the endlessly-walking homeless and solitary drunks, wearing spirals and curlicues into its surface.

London at 5 a.m. is a different city.

Flowers in the dark

Streets bare of anything but the orange glow of emergency lighting. Stretched black shadows of key workers (coffee shops, fast food joints) waiting thin and angular at bus-stops. Miles of normally pounded pavement getting a brief respite save for the endlessly-walking homeless and solitary drunks, wearing spirals and curlicues into its surface.

London at 5 a.m. is a different city.

It’s a city that’s perfectly balanced in transition. They say a modern city never sleeps. While that might be true of cabbies, who are probably the unhappy few saying that, 5 a.m. is definitely the time at which London settles in its restless insomnia, in which it shuts its eyelids and lets the cleaning fluids have a few seconds of desperate reparation.

The driver of my blacked-out van doesn’t proffer a name. He’s young, Machinist-thin, with uncut brown hair long at temples and back, a growth of stubble that might be called a moustache, but looks more like a receding away of flesh than an outreaching of hair. He is utterly silent as we drive over the flyovers between the aggressively-huddled towers of Westway. The radio blares utterly generic Capital music, insomniacs calling into say that, yes, they can’t sleep either, and that while they stare dry-eyed at the ceiling, the knowledge that someone else is up and awake and communicatible, that someone else suffers as they do, is a tacit comfort, .

There is no talk of dawn yet. The sky is the blue-grey of powdered gypsum as we drive, out over the wastes of Westfield. The air in the van smells of soap and sweet and something more sickly and unwelcome. I think it might be me.

Beneath the van, the tarmac roars endlessly. A soft thump-thump-thump talks of roadworks and Britain’s ad-hoc attitude to pipe-laying. Where in Islington and Kings Cross the workers were awake at the Greengrocer, the Fishmongers, the unhallowed platforms of the station-cathedrals, here the suburbs are still asleep. Only toilet windows betray the dark, talking nervously of nightlights and scared children. A solitary petrol station attendant yawns his way towards the shift’s end without the expected armed robbery.

As we head to the quarter hour, I’ve crossed the whole city and my diver has taken some abstruse private route to the airport, whipping me through Acton, seemingly still dead since the Martians passed through. The radio plays generic-o-pop, mingling electronic high tones with multi-tracked balanced singers and trance beats. Still this town sleeps. One optimistic man trudges up the station steps to join a waiting, confused cluster. In the supermarkets, the lights are on, pumping out power to save on security guards.

My skin is sore and dry from so little sleep and perhaps from the light of the laptop. As we pass Chiswick, my hands ache and ache. I rub them together and they make a noise like sheets of paper hissing across each other. The other vehicles around at this time all seem to be dark and polarised like me, with dim figures sat in the back. 5 a.m. is for cabbies it seems. Even at this time of the morning, empty roads, an idiot still feels the imperative to aggressively cut-up the other cars. Whence a rush at this dead time, in this dead city?

At Brentford / Hammersmith, the tower blocks are lit. This is Monday, 5.20 and there are already tie-clad workers sitting, male and unmoving, in the windows of the tower blocks we fly by, already giving up their lives to the sucking screens. A gust of steam sits above the Glaxo building frozen like a cloud.

The gray is clocking out now, turning the shift over more fully to the blue, which is hazily pulling itself together under gray’s stern tutelage. We are on the M4 now and the roadside signs, which once pointed to far-off Bath and Winchester and other pilgrim routes, now advertise Heston services, with runic incantations telling us that the great demon M&S BK COSTA may be summoned here. We pass our first breakdown of the morning, slowly being winched onto a ponderously-flashing truck.

Off the motorway, down past prefabs and roundabouts. This no-man’s land holds caravan parks and fields. Sleeping truckers grumble and mutter in their parkway lay-bys, thousands of miles from home, ten feet from a real suburban bed. Dark ponies and horses are foraging on the fields opposite the trucks and the semi-detached houses.

We pause at lights. My lips are dry, and my face cracks a yawn. My driver strokes the fluff abandoned by the receding of his flesh and sucks his lips. His suit looks thin and cheap and I wonder how he keeps warm. Billboards float by, then more ponies, their heads down amidst cherry blossom and graffitoed sheds and long car parks filled with identical cars, any colour so long as it’s not fun. On the right, a pointy-nosed private jet dreams of growing into another Concorde beneath a WWII derrick hosting a radar dish.

A squeeze between two affectionate bollards and we’re here. The Terminal. Plastic and metal and concrete and barbed wire and endlessly routed paths and instructions everywhere. We stop and smile goodbye. He wishes me a good trip; I wish him a good day. Inside, I doubt day will suit him.