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The Sunday Papers

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Sundays are for finally going to the climbing place you and your housemate keep saying you’ll check out. Probably. Here’s the best writing about video games from the past week.

Holly Gramazio has been writing a series on how to play games, and I’m ashamed I only just noticed. The fourth installment is about how to play with people who are better than you, namely through self-balancing games. It’s got me itching to try the meditative version of I Spy.

These orthogames have an intrinsic inaccessibility: they’re testing a skill, and if that skill is something you can’t do, then you can’t play. The job of a game designer in this situation, Shahriari says, is to make sure the game can be played by as many people as possible who can perform the key activities of the game. Anyone who is excluded from play shouldn’t be excluded by accident or thoughtlessness, but rather because the specific thing the game focuses on is something they don’t feel comfortable with or physically can’t perform.

Resident Eurogamer niceman Christian Donlan wrote about his Half-Life: Alyx optimism. I’m sort of on the same page, in that nothing has transported me to another world quite like VR spy-spoof Budget Cuts. I do wonder how much that had to do with the clever teleportation baked into its core, though.

The best VR makes the future seem very close and very distant at the same time. It’s wistful technology. It shows you stuff that you have not seen before – perhaps not the kinds of things you were expecting. It is playful in a very pure and unfussy way, but it needs all this space, all this fussiness of wires and sensors and doodads. It works as technology, but it does not work – not yet – as commerce. You go somewhere very special, and then you have to return to knocked-over lamps and a sofa that needs moving.

Also on Eurogamer, Edwin Evans-Thirlwell compared hiking in Death Stranding to walking in the Yorkshire Dales. Each of the many pieces I’ve now read about Death Stranding has pointed to some sort of paradox, in this case uplifting connection framed against abject misery. I am almost certainly never going to play this video game.

This is path-finding for the augmented reality era, translated but not entirely transformed. You are still reading the land, reading the intent of those who have already passed through, but rather than appraising patches of scuffed earth or silvery conduits of broken grass, you are following breadcrumb trails of emojis and dropped cargo. Paths plotted by other players flourish like ivy on your map screen, some cleaving crudely towards their destinations, others attempting to work with the contours, inching their way from opening to opening. The game even offers an equivalent for the clash between public and private land that shapes countryside paths like the Dales Way. In place of the landlord or sheriff, the game designer – hell-bent on showing you the sights, depositing obstacles to keep you on what is felt to be the most gratifying route.

There is internet beef about Ball Guy, an aggravating mascot from the new Pokemon game. I’ve never played a Pokemon game and don’t really care, but I did like Natalie Degraffinried’s Kotaku piece about breaking down Pokemon’s capitalist hellscape.

The capitalist hellscape of the Pokémon universe has led to branded balls being shamelessly peddled at large stadiums that are already dominating the economy of Galar as a single chairman reaps all the benefits. It’s more than a little strange. Why, in a world where Pokémon battles are commonplace, is there a need for a Poké Ball mascot, of all things? Surely it would make more branding sense to have a popular Pokémon in the role. Unless there was something threatening the lucrative ball business — something huge.

For EGM, Steven Nguyen Scaife chatted to the Pathologic 2 devs about how and why they made their game such a pain to play. If I ever play Pathologic, I’m pretty sure I’ll wind up toning down the assorted difficulty sliders, which they eventually added after loads of people asked for them. I’m an impatient fool who’s interested in Pathologic’s weirdness, but not its graft. Nothing wrong with that. Leave me alone. (Bonus Pathologic nonsense: Hbomberguy called out Brendy [RPS in peace] for not enjoying the sequel.)

And that subjectivity is ultimately what led Ice-Pick Lodge to relent. Golubeva drew a comparison to other mediums: “There are certain kinds of art that require skill, education, and so on to consume, like classical music that can be hard to appreciate if you know absolutely nothing of musical theory. Anyone with enough time and access to information can educate themselves to appreciate classical music better, but it may be physically impossible to improve one’s twitch skills or sense of time. And it’s not fair to just exclude people who can’t — like, it’s not right on a fundamental level. Which is why we decided to add difficulty sliders in the end. If the idea behind these settings is that all people are different and we can’t predict their level of skill, then it’s only natural to provide granular settings so that anyone could find the right combination.”

As reported in the Guardian, Go champion Lee Se-dol has retired from the game because DeepMind’s AI has become too good. I wonder if Se-dol’s perspective is an outlying one, or if we’re going to see a wave of pros retiring across various games as AI catches up with them. I do find placing importance in becoming the best game-playing entity rather than just the best human a bit bizarre, but maybe people that dedicate their lives to sport feel differently.

For Aeon, Scott Sayare waxed lyrical about axolotls.

In 1920, the British biologist Julian Huxley found that he could cause axolotls to metamorphose by feeding them bits of sheep thyroid. The Daily Mail declared that Huxley had discovered ‘The Elixir of Life’. Huxley’s younger brother, the writer Aldous, adopted the axolotl as a metaphor for mankind, its peculiar neoteny an emblem of our incompletion, our frustrated potentiality. A number of his literary contemporaries became neoteny-boosters.

Music this week is Dance Around The Room With Me by Ana Egge.

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Matt Cox

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Matt is the founding member of RPS's youth contingent. He's played more games of Dota than you've had hot dinners.

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