The Sunday Papers

Sundays are for football, whether watching it or controlling it in the Football Manager 2016 beta. Before the pitch claims us, let’s round up the week’s best games writing.

  • John Sharp has been co-chair of Indiecade for the last six years, helping to plan and diversify the indie games conference’s talks. He wrote this past week about the challenge of building sustainable diversity, and why he no longer feels conferences are a method of doing so:
  • Asking someone to speak at an event is asking for a lot more than just the hour of time on stage. There are the opportunity costs of setting aside work in order to prepare a talk, and of course the financial outlay to travel, find lodging and purchase food. Within academia, it is assumed that speakers will cover their own travel expenses and conference admission, sometimes with the support of grants, university funding and similar resources. But within marginalized communities of gamemakers, outside the academic and game development ecosystems, it is unfair to assume everyone can afford to take on the opportunity costs and financial burden of attending a conference. Even with the free conference pass given to most speakers, travel, lodging and food can easily eat up $1,000 or more for a weekend event. Over the last couple of years, IndieCade has made efforts to provide some financial assistance to conference speakers who need it, but it has been a token gesture at best, as we’ve only been able to cover a portion of the speaker expenses relating to travel, lodging and meals. I’m proud that we have made this effort, and applaud that IndieCade supported my co-chairs and I in trying, but it just hasn’t been enough.

  • At The New Republic, Kevin Nguyen writes about why Hideo Kojima is the Jonathan Franzen of videogames. Which, yeah, I’d click on.
  • But in many specific moments, The Phantom Pain feels like a fruitless exercise in game design maximalism. One of the game’s most important moments—an outbreak at your offshore base—involves scrolling through a list of hundreds of members of personnel and filing them into quarantine, which might be fun if you were expecting Metal Gear to be a human resources simulator from hell.

  • Thomas McMullan recently wrote three articles about horror for Alphr, on internal fears, Alien Isolation and, quoted below, an interview with Jordan Thomas.

    As proud as I am of some of my work, I do feel like I’m constantly wanting to find a way to ask the player to engage in introspection. When I was younger I was very bound to genre, and now it’s more the terror of context. It’s the horror of what is our world is going to look like 50 years from now based on our actual choices. I guess my circle has expanded. The more that something resembles a great 90s horror movie, the less it can scare me now. Some of that is down to overexposure, and some of that is when I think of the experience of people less privileged in the world, I feel a new kind of empathetic fear. I can’t help but want to grapple with that instead of recycling the same old tropes.

  • Over at the Guardian, Keith Stuart argues that games aren’t about power, but about agency. I like seeing this kind of talk in more mainstream spaces.
  • So game machines are specifically built to present us with symbols of control – buttons, touchpads, interfaces – it’s just that here, the symbols really do work. On top of this, games are vast input/reaction systems – you do something in a game and the world responds. Better yet, almost everything that happens on screen is reliant on the agency of the player. This is base level satisfaction – a deeply ingrained, primal need is being answered. Even if you have control over nothing else in your life, if you switch on a games console and start playing a game, every single element of that experience is designed to simulate agency. It almost doesn’t matter if the narrative is about power, it’s agency that you’ve already won.

  • At Games Radar, they’ve put up a feature from Edge Magazine about the making of the spider in Limbo. Love this kind of detail.
  • Any other game developer would have instinctively turned the spider into a boss battle. But Jensen’s aversion to videogame clichés meant the struggle between the boy and the spider couldn’t fall back on glowing-orange weak spots or giant blinking eyeballs that beg to be bombarded with sharp projectiles. How was this small boy ever going to outwit a monster several times his size? The initial concept involved hunting down three pieces of gooey, sticky fruit in the tree’s branches that the boy could shake to the ground below and trap the spider in. A far more grisly solution would prevail.

  • At Vice, Matt Lees writes about why you shouldn’t play Subterfuge with friends. This a lesson that everyone I know has already learned, as they will not play the game with me. The scars of Neptune’s Pride still burn. I am surprised, however, that no one seems keen to call this bad design – even though, in my experience, these games lack punch when played with strangers.
  • Trust remains the name of the game, but trust remains impossible: Subterfuge is a game with only one winner, and there’s nothing more dangerous than being in the lead. Imagine the Blue Shell from Mario Kart, except that it sneaks up behind you over a matter of days, doesn’t make a sound while doing so, and when it’s too late to avoid it you finally realise that the Blue Shell is a handful of friends you thought you could trust, repeatedly stabbing you to death with knives. Fuck. Don’t do it. Just play Mario Kart. Live a good life.

  • Sticking with Vice for a second, Leigh Alexander has written about The Phantom Pain, finding parallels between its design and its development. Always read Leigh on Metal Gear.
  • The resulting game is about the Militaires Sans Frontières, a scrappy solo mercenary group that ultimately takes the name “Diamond Dogs”. As staff abuses allegedly went on behind Konami’s curtain of silence, each mission in MGS V was given its own individual credits sequence, including each person who worked on the episode, as if to address the industry’s on-going tendency to attribute massive projects to single individuals – a particular issue with Metal Gear Solid titles, where Kojima’s name is given an unprecedented primacy (even in this article).

  • Emily Short has finished her annual round-up of the IFComp submissions, including reviews and a list of her favourites. If you want things to play this weekend, go here.
  • To my mind this is unambiguously the best year IF Comp has ever seen. There are more entries, and of higher average quality. More games made it into my top tier, and in my view those are all solid competitors with the winners from past years. The bottom end was better too. There were some games that I found hard to recommend currently, but thought could be made pretty enjoyable with a bit more polish. I gave no 1s this year, and even the games that didn’t ultimately work very well for me clearly had something going for them. I didn’t identify anything that I considered outright trolling of the judges, or where I thought the author just hadn’t cared to do a good job.

  • Over at Zam, Tyler Colp writes about the challenge of talking about difficulty, using Undertale’s pacifist route as a recent example. I agree about Undertale, though not necessarily about difficulties exclusion from discussion in general.
  • While it would be ridiculous to expect all games to be cakewalks for the purpose of mass-appeal, the pressure to not speak up about the issue on a game-by-game basis seems similarly outlandish. It goes back to the arcades, where skill was measured and boasted by high scores. All that mattered in those games were how good you were at them. That competitive culture still exists today. Say a game is too hard and you’re told that it’s not that hard, that you should just keep trying, or worse, that the game is not meant for you. In most game reviews, you see difficulty mentioned briefly, as a pro or a con, or not mentioned at all. It rarely appears as a criticism connected to the entire experience of the game. Unlike every other aspect of games we regularly discuss, it’s strangely left out, devalued, treated like it doesn’t matter.

  • At Electron Dance, Joel Goodwin has written a three-part series on the Talos Principle, seeded throughout with quotes from writers Jonas Kyratzes and Tom Jubert. Joel’s ideas are always worth reading and they’re joined here by interesting development insight.
  • “I got involved because Davor Tomanic, the level designer, enjoyed The Swapper,” explains Jubert. “They basically said to me, ‘Can you do something like that, but with more robots and interactivity.’ The guys at Croteam weren’t interested in just bringing someone onboard who could write a solid story. It was their ambition to produce something which could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the classic sci-fi oeuvre.”

    But where did co-writer Kyratzes enter the story? Kyratzes had written a short science fiction point-and-click adventure in 2003 about artificial sentience called The Infinite Ocean. After being encouraged to give it an overhaul, it was re-released in 2010 to much praise. Jubert, a graduate of philosophy, found it irresistible and wrote a two-part essay on its themes and implications. They debated a little in the comments of the piece.

I need to start keeping a playlist of songs included in The Sunday Papers, because I struggle each week to remember what I have and have not yet linked. I do not think I have yet mentioned Chvrches latest album. Leave A Trace is good, but I think Clearest Blue is the best.

47 Comments

  1. GernauMorat says:

    Franzen and Kojima – Well, neither are good writers, and both are hugely pretentious

  2. widowfactory says:

    Great article here by Rich Santon reflecting on the documentary ‘From bedrooms to billions’

    link to eurogamer.net

  3. Cargo Cult says:

    If you’re having a lovely, cheerful Sunday – alleviate all that with The Last Man, a short-ish film from the art director behind Moon.

    I expect the budget was non-existent. It’s essentially a ’70s-tinged British cross between S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Fallout, which is precisely why I’m posting it here.

    (I had nothing whatsoever to do with its production; I’m attempting to alleviate its criminally low view count.)

  4. SuicideKing says:

    Video games aren’t about power – they’re about agency
    I really liked this article. And I think this extends to computers and software in general: We’re used to being in control, and in this age of “cloud” computing, most companies are interested in yanking that control from us.

    • SuicideKing says:

      Damn it, closed with /cite instead of /bockquote.

    • Robert Post's Child says:

      I’ve been saying this for years: what most people dismiss as power fantasies in games is really just the desire for a recognizable level of agency. You do a thing, something changes. No one cares about saving the world; everyone wants to be able to influence how things play out, to have a direct level of personal efficacy. Something that’s often felt to be lacking irl.

      • Robert Post's Child says:

        Can’t read the article the moment but glad that’s finally being addressed (by someone who isn’t just ranting into the ether in a blog post like me).

      • Merus says:

        I wonder how far you could parody this: say, have a choice between a green or blue vehicle, which is immediately destroyed by bad guys and you’re forced to take the ‘real’ vehicle on the box cover. Except that the vehicle you didn’t take keeps turning up (which you can optionally mess with), and people keep commiserating over that blown-up vehicle, and they make you a green/blue scarf, and the knock-on effects of this arbitrary and pointless decision keep turning up in unexpected ways.

      • Wulfram says:

        I care about saving the world. I mean, I don’t want/need it in every game, but its fun.

      • draglikepull says:

        “No one cares about saving the world; everyone wants to be able to influence how things play out, to have a direct level of personal efficacy.”

        I don’t really think this is true. I think a pretty substantial portion of the market for a game like Mass Effect would be very disappointed if the central plot of the next game was just about saving a bunch of outposts from attacks by minor space pirate groups. The big threat that ties things together matters for a lot of players.

        (As an aside, this is actually part of what I love about The Banner Saga. It’s a game where you’re just trying to get by under difficult circumstances, where things often go wrong and the best outcome is sometimes just the least bad one. But lots of people found that frustrating and prefer RPGs where you’re heroes who rise to power to vanquish evil.)

        • Koozer says:

          “I think a pretty substantial portion of the market for a game like Mass Effect would be very disappointed if the central plot of the next game was just about saving a bunch of outposts from attacks by minor space pirate groups.”

          *coughmasseffect2cough*

          • draglikepull says:

            In Mass Effect 2 you play as a Chosen One helping to advance a fight against an enemy that threatens to wipe out all intelligent life in the galaxy.

        • Turkey says:

          I would so play Mass Effect if it was just space cop simulator. Macguffins and ancient prophecies are the worst.

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        Andy_Panthro says:

        Would Bioshock be a good example of this? It’s certainly a power fantasy, you gain basically supernatural powers as you progress and you can’t die. However you have no agency at all, for plot reasons (which never felt as clever to me as the intention was).

    • aoanla says:

      I liked the article too, and I’m pretty sure it’s actually true of all games, not just “video games”.

    • Geebs says:

      Interactivity is more important than agency IMO. I don’t care whether a game railroads me into a particular plot (as long as it’s well written) but there needs to be something I can play with.

      • Robert Post's Child says:

        That’s kind of what I meant by agency, though. Where you can interact with something, you by definition are enacting some sort of change. The game is demonstrably responding to your efforts.

        I dunno. This can get into the weeds pretty quickly and there’s lots of room for exceptions, but it’s worth thinking about, I think.

  5. Metalfish says:

    Rick dangerous for goths! But yeah, the spider was pretty metal.

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    FhnuZoag says:

    I know the irony of telling the writer that Undertale isn’t that hard, but really Undertale is not that hard!

    GAMEPLAY SPOILER:

    The point behind the difficulty of Undertale pacifist mode is that it creates the temptation for the player to deviate from it and also the satisfaction that derives from triumphing ‘despite the odds’. But the difficulty in Undertale is generally speaking entirely not a matter of direct skill – the difficulty there is actually almost totally *fake*.

    An early, difficult seeming boss literally aims purposefully to miss you once your hp goes below a certain level. Another lets you skip the fight after 3 attempts. A third decreases in difficulty each time you die. Others save your progress in the fight, restoring you too full health when you fail. Despite having a measly 20 hp, you can fill up your inventory with 8*2*15 = 240 hp worth of healing, which will last you about 50 turns of being attacked and failing to dodge by most bosses. And as a pacifist most of the harder fights progress even if you spend the turn healing.

    The sense in which Undertale is hard is that it generally comes down to reading the social situation behind a ‘fight’. It’s realising that a monster doesn’t want to kill. It’s realising that ‘……’ is a different response to ‘…’. It’s noticing that you can run away. It’s understanding the importance of branded product placement to mass market commercial television.

    • Wulfram says:

      Making pacifist playthroughs easy trivialises them. I get annoyed at stealth games for this – oh, hey I can trivially and safely make enemies unconscious, it’s even usually quieter. People who choose to use lethal force must just be jerks, since you can solve everything more easy without it.

      • Wulfram says:

        This wasn’t actually intended to be a direct reply.

      • Koozer says:

        I feel like this would be easily solved if the target of a non-lethal takedown would wake up 10 minutes later and go running for the alarm.

        • Koozer says:

          I’m now imagining a Hitman game in which muffled shouting and banging can be heard from locked freezers, if anyone is close enough to hear.

          • brgillespie says:

            Amusingly, the “non-lethal” methods of incapacitating enemies are typically still dangerous as fuck. In MGSV Phantom Pain, you’re firing tranquilizer darts at the faces of bad guys, or beating them unconscious, or applying blood chokes that render them incapacitated, or firing rubber bullets at their exposed eyeballs… all things that easily kill folks in real life.

            I can separate the realism from the videogame, I just find the idea silly.

        • Turkey says:

          They did that in NOLF 2. It was pretty annoying.

          • Turkey says:

            Oh, and in Commandos 2. You had to tie and gag the guards after you’d knock them unconscious. They had like a muffled scream radius, so if a soldier walked nearby, he could hear the guy and untie him.

          • LionsPhil says:

            Yeah, although at least you could disarm them.

            “A greedy capitalist spy stole my weapon!”

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            FhnuZoag says:

            It’s an awesome mechanic in Invisible Inc, though.

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          Andy_Panthro says:

          This does happen in MGS5, enemies will get back up and sound the alarm, with the time depending on how you stun an enemy or put them to sleep.

    • Kitsunin says:

      This is 100% true. It took some effort, but even my mother was able to get through Undertale. And she got hopelessly stuck against the friggin’ water monster in Amnesia.

    • Shazbut says:

      While his general point is interesting, Undertale seems like the worst game to choose as an example. It’s control of difficulty is masterful and ties in entirely with both the direct narrative but the underlying themes of it. It’s also, as you say, not even that hard on the pacifist route and can be made easier through making an effort to acquire healing items, etc. I feel like the author of the article didn’t want to spend enough time trying to beat it because there are too many other games to try, but you can’t fault something for that.

  7. Orix says:

    I really didn’t like the Talos Principle. It just felt like one big, empty puzzle book. On the face of it, that makes sense for a first-person puzzler, but my god it made the game boring. Give me a scripted and linear experience like Portal, Quantum Conundrum or Magrunner any day of the week.

    I had a bit of ramble about such in a review I wrote (link to noisybark.squarespace.com), but considering how much I love the genre of first-person puzzling, The Talos Principle was probably the first game of that ilk that I actually didn’t like…

    • Kitsunin says:

      The Talos Principle was the first First-person puzzler I did like. Yeah, even Portal I feel pretty lukewarm about. It mostly comes down to how it was never bogged down by difficulties putting a solution into practice (Quantum Conundrum sometimes…oh my lord) and there were always other challenges to take a peek at if one solution was evading you. And then the narrative behind all that was actually…really fantastically good?! In a puzzler! What?!

  8. aoanla says:

    I liked the “Difficulty in Games” article, but I think the comparison between gaming skill wrt games and literacy wrt books is worthy of a bit more investigation.

    One difference is that most books don’t particularly desire to be inaccessible – the low bar is that you can read the language the book is written in, and are a member of the culture of the writer. When Classics are reprinted in an era when the cultural cues they were written for are no longer relevant, we tend to stick various prefaces and endnotes onto them to give context to the reader – we want them to still be accessible, so we “lower the difficulty” of the book back to what it would have been for a reader of the time, by embedding a lot of hints into the text.

    Now, there’s a subgenre of writing, ergodic literature, which explicitly reverses this – it tries to make the reader work for their experience, by (for example) placing chapters in an unhelpful or random order, or introducing multiple layers of metaphor or cryptic connections between seemingly unrelated streams in the same work. Literacy in the context of ergodic writing by, say, Pynchon or Ballard, seems more like the kind of literacy you are talking about wrt “intentionally difficult games”.

  9. anHorse says:

    “the Jonathan Franzen of videogames”
    A bit shit but widely advertised?

  10. gabrielonuris says:

    That hyped love about Kojima that everyone seems to have with him kind of awake a feeling of scorn in me; not with Kojima himself, but with the lousy fanboyism. It’s like the game was made by him alone, totally ignoring everyone else who works at Kojima Productions and Konami. Ok, the guy has some pretty odd and beautiful ideas, but he doesn’t work alone.

    He is the opposite of Peter Molyneux, in an industry where it seems that all comes down to one person alone, as if that one person is the only one in a whole company working on said game. And come on, Kojima isn’t even the best at it, when you have writers like Amy Hennig for instance, who helped to create the Legacy of Kain series and we rarely hear her name on gaming press.

  11. lomaxgnome says:

    The imagery of the spider in Limbo is so good it manages to hide the fact that the rest of the game is absolutely awful.

  12. Scurra says:

    Has the person writing about Subterfuge never played the board game Diplomacy? (Or, better, still, the board game Intrigue, which contains all the same hellish friendship-shattering backstabbery potential but distilled into an hour.)
    But it sounds like pretty much the same thing, although I grant you that the introduction of timing systems probably adds something to the experience.

    • Hedgeclipper says:

      or even Risk? Played that with brothers and wives not long ago for the first time in years and the first thing they did is gang up and wipe me out….

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      FhnuZoag says:

      Stuff like this and Neptune’s Pride are infinitely more horrible because of the way they fit in with and consume your daily life.

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        kfix says:

        OMG yes, I spent three months going slowly mad playing Neptune’s Pride, waking up at odd hours and frantically checking for new fleets on the radar, composing and deleting long diplomatic emails, despairing as an ally’s betrayal becomes obvious…..

        I hate and love that game in so many ways. I can’t even imagine playing it with people I know and like.

  13. kwyjibo says:

    This week, ESPN shut down Grantland, doubling down on live sports paid for by mouth breathing morons at the expense of insightful reporting paid for by no one.

    Here’s a quick list of some of its games writing. They’re all worth your time. If you read one piece, make it the Spec Ops one.

    Tom Bissell on Spec Ops – link to grantland.com
    Tom Bissell on GTA V – link to grantland.com
    Mike Powell on a Mo-cap Action Hero – link to grantland.com
    Emily Yoshia on Myst – link to grantland.com

  14. LuNatic says:

    Thesis: Agency IS power.