Author Archive

Premature Evaluation: Garbage Day

Keen RPS readers will probably have noticed by now that nearly every Premature Evaluation I’ve written has contained a not-terribly-secret second article in the alt-text, wherein I make a tortuous segue from the subject of the game to some matter of personal fascination to me: ancient phallic statuary, freaky Renaissance paintings, the unluckiest pirate to slap his naked bum in front of a naval officer. That sort of thing. Writing these alt-texts and seeing them being discussed further in the comments, often in much more scholarly detail, has been a true professional highlight for me. So thanks for that. This week, since it’s my last ever alt-text, it’s only right that the subject should be one inspired, not by the game of the main article, but by RPS commenters themselves: after including a glib comment about Oliver Cromwell’s bloody campaign in Ireland in one of my previous captions, one RPS reader suggested that recent research had rather redeemed him - and this (along with Pip Warr’s extensive Cromwell-knowledge) prompted me to make my way through Tom Reilly’s impressive work of investigation “Cromwell: An Honourable Enemy” which seeks to completely overturn the prevailing narrative of Cromwell’s calumny in Ireland.

Each week Marsh Davies descends like a hungry urban gull upon the reeking heap of Early Access, hoping to yank free a tasty treat without choking on a crinkled Space Raiders packet. This week, he’s been stuck in Garbage Day, a game that is nominally about replaying the same looping time period, again and again, until you piece together the mystery and escape your temporal prison. In its current form, however, it’s no more than a colourful but cramped chaos sandbox, in which you can kill and maim cartoonish inhabitants of a highly-smashable town in the knowledge that any consequences will be reset as soon as the clock strikes midnight. But does its eternal present suggest a plan for reaching a less frivolous future?

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Premature Evaluation: Dark Nexus Arena

It’s a little weird that the MOBA, apart from most other competitive multiplayer genres, seeks to contextualise its sport-like bouts of combat with some sort of metanarrative, and weirder still that it’s more or less the same story every time: warriors gathered across time and space to a gladiatorial hyperdimension. Two of them even call it the same thing: the Nexus! It’s not like CounterStrike feels the need to suggest its special forces operatives are condemned to some sort of anti-terrorism limbo in which they play out their battles over and over again for the entertainment of capricious gods. Imagine trying to supply such a narrative for Rainbow Six: Siege, in which, peculiarly, neither side play as terrorists. Have these elite police units been tricked by some Illuminati-like puppetmasters into doing battle with themselves?

Each week Marsh Davies dons his power armour and plunges into the grimdarkness which is Early Access, coming back with any stories he can find and/or succumbing to the nightmarish seductions of the Warp. This week he’s been conscripted into F2P gladiatorial combat in Warhammer 40,000: Dark Nexus Arena, an action-oriented pseudo-MOBA moshpit.

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Premature Evaluation: Squad

It’s interesting hearing the barks ascribed to the insurgent soldiers in Squad. They have something of the deep-voiced glowering inflection we’ve come to expect from Western depictions of Islamic terror, but stop short of hysterical appeals to Allah or demands for the blood of the Great Satan. Such depictions of the enemy in popular culture always intrigue me, not because any particular group of people is obliged to be polite to another they consider their enemy, but because mischaracterising or misunderstanding the enemy is one of the greatest mistakes a nation can make - at least according to Sun Tzu.

Each week Marsh Davies is Oscar Mike to the FOB that is Early Access and tries to find at least one thing that isn’t FUBAR. This week he’s been taking on tangos in Squad, a large-scale military shooter which claims to be the spiritual successor to the Battlefield 2 mod Project Reality.

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Fail Forward: Call of Duty: Black Ops 3

Fail Forward is series of videos all about the bits of games which don’t quite work and why. In this episode, Marsh Davies discusses how Black Ops’ segue into sci-fi marks new mechanical innovation in the military shooter – and suggests how it could go even further.

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Premature Evaluation: Tempest

Blackbeard may be the more familiar household name, and bequeathed to us 90 percent of the archetypal pirate look, but it’s Francis Le Clerc to whom we can attribute the appearance of at least one appendage: the peg leg. Indeed, Peg Leg was his nickname (or in his native French, “Jambe de Bois”, and among the Spanish to whom he gave such considerable grief, “Pie de Palo”). Though injuries of this gravity were reasonably commonplace among sailors at the time, it wasn’t that usual for a pirate captain to persist in his career after the loss of a limb. But Le Clerc was a particularly persistent sort of bastard. It wasn’t until Le Clerc had lost his leg and the use of one of his arms while fighting the English, in fact, that his privateering really took off, not only devastating much of Cuba and Panama personally, but acting as a sort of angel investor for other pirates. In fact, he so totally ruined the then capital of Cuba, Santiago de Cuba, that it stopped being the capital altogether. But a feature that deserves to be even more emblematic of pirates than wooden prosthetics is the theme of betrayal, both of them and by them.

Each week, with his beard smouldering and black flag aflutter, Marsh Davies prowls the oceans of Early Access for plunder, slo(o)ping back to port with any stories he can find. This week he’s been further debasing the reputation of pirates on the low-fantasy high-seas of Tempest, a game of naval combat and light ship management.

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Premature Evaluation: Guardians of Orion

Though you wouldn’t necessarily expect realism from a game in which jetpacking clone soldiers do battle with a tag-team of robots and dinosaurs, Guardian’s big-name lizards are mostly creatures that co-existed at the end of the Cretacious period, rather than a best-of selected from across the dinosaurs’ 162-million-year stay on Earth. That said, the developers do find their imagination outstripping paleontological fact in the occasional creation of all new dinosaurs: one that resembles a rhino and another that can lasso the player with its tongue. But in some ways, the dinosaur mash-up is a longstanding paleontological tradition/hazard. Fake dinosaurs continue to plague the study, and though those fabricated wholesale are easy enough to identify with modern methods of analysis, it’s still sometimes hard to spot those that have been restructured or amended to create “new” species to further line the pockets of unscrupulous fossil dealers.

Each week Marsh Davies leaps from his dropship into the untamed primordial land of Early Access and unfeelingly obliterates the nascent species he finds. This week he’s turning dinosaurs to chum in Guardians of Orion, a co-op wave-survival shooter. It’s also a top-down game – which you wouldn’t necessarily guess from some of the footage used to advertise the game on its Steam Store page.

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Premature Evaluation: Sketch Tales

As any game with user-generated content, or even a mod scene, can attest: give someone the chance, and they’ll put a dick on it. Indeed, this may be some sort of universal truth. Dick-based vandalism has long been a favoured measure of casting shade on works of art, for example. Most recently one of Banksy’s murals sprouted a fresh peen, opening up (an entirely boring) debate as to whether a graffiti artist’s work could really be meaningfully vandalised.

Each week Marsh Davies turfs through the crude doodles of Early Access and comes back with any masterpieces-in-the-making he can find and/or amends his discoveries with an enthusiastically rendered dick or two. This week there is ample opportunity to append such appendages in Sketch Tales, a firstperson hack-n-slash in which you’re encouraged to re-draw and animate everything on the island you inhabit. I’m guessing the name “Tales from Penis Island” didn’t make it past Steam’s terms of service.

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Fail Forward: How Television Fails At Discussing Games

Fail Forward is normally a series of videos all about the bits of games which don’t quite work and why. But in this special episode, Marsh Davies talks about how the mainstream media tends to discuss games only in terms of their threat or their use – with a particular look at the BBC’s recent Make It Digital season, including programmes like the docudrama The Gamechangers and the science show Horizon.

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Premature Evaluation: The Political Machine 2016

As ugly as the democratic process can sometimes be, it still has one or two advantages over hereditary monarchy. After all, even the most craven and corrupt politician requires some sort of conniving wherewithal to get into power, though this far from guarantees that they will use it to any decent end. This said - and as The Political Machine suggests - the importance of money and mass-media in the States has eroded the need for any other credential, and with shitbubbles like Trump in the running, you have to wonder if the mixture of inherited wealth and empty celebrity he embodies really does much to set himself apart from the sort of high-born cretins who too frequently took the throne in centuries past.

Each week Marsh Davies unleashes a patriotic aquiline shriek and swoops upon the home of the brave that is Early Access, bringing freedom by way of cash-purchased endorsements and glib media-ready soundbites to all he meets. This week, these skills will hopefully propel him all the way to the White House in The Political Machine 2016 [Steam page], a timely update of the presidential campaign strategy game in which candidates scoot between states, bellowing platitudes to the credulous and smarming their way through interviews while doing everything to sabotage their opponents.

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Premature Evaluation: Cryptark

Cryptark’s title is a bit of etymological fun, as both syllables can mean the same thing. Presumably, the sense they are going for is an ark of the Noachian kind - a ship of biblical proportions, but one which, instead of containing animals two-by-two, has become a burial chamber for its unhappy inhabitants. But the meaning of “crypt” did not always assume it contained dead things - that’s as recent as the mid-18th century. Previously it meant a vault or cavern beneath the ground, bouncing back through Latin to the Greek, kryptos, meaning, simply, “hidden”.

Each week Marsh Davies attempts to retrieve some sort of thematically appropriate salvage metaphor from the Early Access game he’s been playing – which is perhaps too easy when the theme of that game IS salvage. But Cryptark is no stricken husk: it’s already proving to be a truly excellent roguelike shmup. In it, you’re dispatched to disable the security systems of derelict alien space-hulks so that they can be stripped for scrap, one after the other, until you locate the eponymous prize itself, a gigantic vessel chock-full of precious alien tech.

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Premature Evaluation: Noct

As with so many horror stories, Noct takes place at night. Hence “Noct”. But this association between the hours of darkness and the supernatural or simply monstrous has always seemed slightly weird to me. I mean, I *get it*: humans aren’t terribly good at night. We’re most vulnerable then. It makes sense that we would have cultural associations between nighttime and terrors beyond our control or understanding. But it does seem peculiar that we, the apex predator species on this planet, are so ill-adapted to an environment which is afflicted by darkness 50% of the time. Shouldn’t some branch of homo-whatevers have popped up with a tapetum lucidum, the reflective layer that cats have which bounces light passing the retina back onto the eye’s photo-receptors? Or, better still, simply not have the photoreceptors positioned so they point away from the lens of the eye - an elementary vertebrate mistake! I mean, come on. Uninstall backbone, noob.

Each week Marsh Davies reluctantly edges through the grey, dead land of Early Access and comes back with any stories he can find or otherwise gets ripped apart by centipedes. This week he’s been doing quite a lot of the latter in the post-apocalyptic Noct, a creepy top-down shooter, in which you play a succession of survivors attempting to follow a plan relayed to you by a distant radio operator.

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Premature Evaluation: Epsilon

I wonder: what percentage of hostage taking situations are successfully resolved for the hostage-takers? It’s a hard thing to Google, as the general assumption is, not unreasonably, that “successful” in this context means the hostages are released alive. The hostage-takers, however, need not survive at all. Indeed, while videogames tend to present this situation as one of near mechanical symmetry or at least balance, the forces of the state are, in reality, way OP. Sure, they have the difficulty of not wanting the hostages to expire amid the crossfire, but this is surely countered by the need of the state to confidently extinguish such threats without compromise, lest they be encouraged. The win-condition for the hostage-takers, meanwhile, is assuredly not when they have repulsed or killed an assault force; that is merely a reversion to the starting conditions, but with fewer resources and angrier opponents.

Each week Marsh Davies kicks down the door of Early Access and checks the corners for stories and/or blinds himself with his own flash grenade. But not this week, as flash grenades are not yet a working feature of the pre-alpha Epsilon, a tactical shooter in which you struggle to guide a team of exceptionally inert anti-terrorists using a mixture of pre-planned waypoints and firstperson action.

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Premature Evaluation: Angels Fall First

One of the emerging themes of these alt-texts appears to be how useless humans are at anticipating anything outside of their immediate experience - whether that’s preparing for a fringe weather event like a flash flood or appreciating the essential inhumanity of a non-biological super intelligence. It’s particularly true in science fiction, where we frequently find implausible projections of earth-bound 20th century life. I think I’ve quoted Solyaris’s drunken scientist before, as he complains how inward-looking humanity is in its pursuit of the stars: “We just want to extend the earth up to the cosmos's borders. We don't want any more worlds. Only a mirror to see our own in.” There’s nothing more emblematic of this than our inability to imagine space combat in anything other than direct analogies to 20th century naval and aerial warfare.

Each week Marsh Davies screeches out the airlock as part of a frontline assault upon the forces of Early Access and comes back with any stories he can find and/or makes no appreciable difference to the war effort whatsoever. This week he’s fodder for the 64-man battles of Angels Fall First, a promising indie alternative to the likes of Battlefront, with space combat to boot.

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Premature Evaluation: The Flame In The Flood

Considering how large floods figure in the early myths of nearly every culture on the planet, they have been a surprisingly unpopular trope in Western apocalyptic fiction during the course of the last century. Despite terrible floods ravaging parts of the third world during my life-time - I particularly recall the news footage from Bangladesh in the 80s and 90s - it has really taken the advent of personal documentation with mobile phones and YouTube, as was proliferate in the flooding of New Orleans and the Japanese tsunami, to really bring home the incredible human horror of such events. So much so that even Hollywood was able to look piteously upon the reefs of corpses revealed by the receding floodwaters of Thailand’s 2004 tsunami, and ask, “Gosh, but what if it had happened to white people?” - as in The Impossible, starring Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts. Maybe such films do good, in a cynical, roundabout and kinda racist way; maybe that “what if” is really the only way to engage a complacent Western audience in sympathy with people of another skin colour. But I’m not convinced. I tend to think films like The Impossible permit a kind of callow self-pity, allowing a privileged audience to dip into the suffering of another people and come out unscathed, while at the same time reinforcing the notion that the outside world is a place full of chaos and death.

Each week Marsh Davies paddles through the polluted torrent which is Early Access and comes back with any stories he can find, or otherwise tumbles overboard and lets himself sink beneath the surging water. This week he’s been fighting against the tide in The Flame In The Flood [official site], a survival game set in a drowned world, in which a girl and her dog paddle between islands looking for resources – then eventually fail to find them and die.

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Premature Evaluation: Hardland

Put on a mask in Hardland and you can pass undetected among the creatures it represents. Since this is clearly not a disguise that should really fool anybody, there’s something simultaneously slapstick and sinister about it, standing silently amid a herd of pigs with your own pig-hat, with its snub nose and inscrutable glassy eyes. Masks are creepy and weird - as pop-culture appears to be rediscovering with the likes of Hotline Miami, horse memes and True Detective. I feel they’re even weirder if you think about their gestation as a cultural artifact. Drawing or painting what we observe in the world, including faces, seems a too natural behaviour to evolve - but to go from that to creating a face that you can put over your own face is to take a big step into an entirely different realm of symbolism: a desire not only to represent the other but to transform yourself into it. Indeed, a large number of mask rituals across cultures hold the tradition that this is literally what occurs: that the wearers of masks aren’t merely performing a role, but have momentarily become the entity the mask represents.

Each week Marsh Davies gambols through the lush pastures of Early Access and comes back with any stories he can find and/or feeds some ham to a decapitated skeleton while dressed as a chicken. This week he’s been playing Hardland, an unusually gorgeous and imaginative ARPG set in a part-procedural bucolia of rolling hills and haunted forests.

Having no head, much less a stomach, it’s not wholly clear how the skeleton intends to eat the ham he’s begged me to fetch. But there he is, standing by the river in his oversized pauldrons, optimistically holding a saucepan, issuing dying wishes to passing chicken-headed men. As undying wishes go, though, to taste ham one last time is relatively benign and, the difficulties of his digestion aside, my part in this quest is trivial to fulfill. When I give him some ham, after several minutes of pelting round, waving my sword at pigs, the skeleton rewards me with a mask. A pig mask, in fact, which, much like the chicken mask I am currently wearing, successfully disguises me as the animal in question, allowing me to charm and, supposedly, command them, possibly in great numbers.

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Premature Evaluation: Valhalla Hills

Beer plays an important role in Valhalla Hills and it’s one of the more sophisticated technologies you can develop. Keep your militia well-supplied with booze and they receive a buff to their abilities in combat. This is in keeping with the stereotypical view of vikings as fighty piss-artists - but actually was against Odin’s advice. Among the god’s many sayings, quoted in the Poetic Edda, are a large number of warnings about beer, the pithiest of which is this: “No worse provision can [a man] carry with him than too deep a draught of ale.” Oh, okay, one more quote: “Be wariest of all with ale, with another's wife, and a third thing too, that knaves outwit thee never.” Quite so, Odin. But so many are his proclamations against excessive drunkenness (but not of drinking per se) that we can at least infer that it was a common enough problem. Latin accounts of Germanic tribes, which me might expect to be culturally similar to the vikings, certainly described them as hard drinkers. The Roman writer Cornelius Tacitus recounts with some alarm just how happy these shitfaced barbarians were to resolve disputes with bloodshed during the course of an evening’s revelry.

Each week Marsh Davies attempts to prove his valour beneath the baleful eye of the gods, venturing into the frigid wastes of Early Access and coming back with any sagas he can find. This week he’s been playing Valhalla Hills, a jolly village-building god-game with a Nordic theme.

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Premature Evaluation: Shoppe Keep

It’s a shame that Shoppe Keep reduces its encapsulation of fantasy commerce to frenetic makework - there’s loads and loads of interesting and eminently gamify-able elements to running a store. I’d like to see a game which used AI to explain/exploit customer psychology. In fairness to Shoppe Keep, there may be some AI-defined preference to what customers buy, but it is certainly hard to perceive and so impossible to manipulate in a meaningful way. There’s much more that could be done, for example, in charting the ways in which IKEA’s layout entraps and corrals its hapless consumer units. As anyone who has ever been swallowed by an IKEA hellmouth knows, it's a consumer experience so nightmarish as to constitute Sweden’s most significant act of international aggression since its war with Norway in 1814. It’s clearly also hugely successful in getting people to buy stuff they may or may not want - an effect that has been studied by academics at UCL.

Each week Marsh Davies peruses the scanty offerings of Early Access, stuffs anything halfway valuable down his trousers and legs it for the exit. This week, however, the tables have turned (or, at least, their percentage durability has decreased) as he plays Shoppe Keep [Steam page], a game about building up a retail enterprise in a medieval fantasy land.

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Premature Evaluation: Layers of Fear

Though you play an artist in Layers of Fear, most of the art hanging on your walls consists of a repeating number of famous paintings - perhaps the paintings that might pop up if you used the search terms “weirdest renaissance art”. But, eyerolls at the emo curation aside, some of the pieces are really very interesting indeed. Take Rembrandt’s Abduction of Ganymede, for instance (which, okay, in art terms is technically Baroque, but it comes at the very end of the larger social Renaissance that spanned the 14th and 17th centuries). It’s a peculiar piece about the politically charged myth in which Zeus falls in love with Ganymede, a dashing young shepherd and most beautiful of all mortals. As is Zeus’s rapey wont, he tansforms himself into an eagle, and carries Ganymede off to Olympus, where he makes him his cup-bearer. Other services may be inferred - indeed, it was commonly used as an emblem for ancient Greek pederasty and its social acceptance. The likes of Xenophon and Socrates may have asserted that Zeus loved Ganymede for his mind, but homoeroticism has nonetheless clung to the myth. And, for much of the Renaissance, this not-entirely-consenting relationship was presented with little apparent criticism: paintings presented Ganymede as unresisting, indeed, he is ascending to godliness. Zeus does make him immortal after all, so what’s to complain about?

Each week Marsh Davies lets fly at the blank canvas of Early Access and either returns with a masterpiece or ends up rocking back and forth in a corner eating Unity Asset Store crayons. This week he’s played Layers of Fear, a linear boo-scare walk-em-up set in the reassembling spooOOooky house of a maaAAaad painter.

I’m not sure a household needs more than one reproduction of The Abduction of Ganymede. It’s a fine work, sure, but I don’t want to be staring at a pissing toddler’s dangling bum while I’m having dinner, let alone every time I turn a corner in my home. But then, I’m not really sure of a lot of the other decorative choices that my character appears to have made here – the cupboard of black phlegm, the infinite library, the hell mirror, the Erik Satie levitation cellar, the room of bad chairs. Not even Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen would go so far as to daub “ABANDON HOPE WHILE YOU STILL CAN” above a doorway. It doesn’t even make sense, Laurence!

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Premature Evaluation: Universe Sandbox 2

Universe Sandbox 2 has some perfectly reasonable restrictions on what it is willing to simulate, but isn’t always clear about why it’s stopping you from doing something. I wanted to recreate the 0.1 fm wide black hole from Larry Niven’s 1973 story The Hole Man, for instance - and found the scale doesn’t descend that low. It’s not especially surprising that the game doesn’t model subatomic sizes, but getting the diameter below a couple of kilometres is also impossible and attempting to do so has this strange effect of deleting what you just typed and replacing it with the lowest number that the program will accept, and yet nonetheless changing a bunch of other stats that would be affected by a further reduction in diameter.

Each week Marsh Davies orbits the supermassive blackhole that is Early Access and comes back with any stories he can find or gets shredded to subatomic spaghetti as he tumbles towards a point of infinite mass. This week he has become death, destroyer of worlds, and really quite a lot of moons as well, in Universe Sandbox 2. Otherwise known as Universe Sandbox², if you’re the kind of terrible prick who insists on using Character Map to enforce your brand. Anyway, the game’s great.

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Premature Evaluation: Duskers

Duskers’ premise has the player investigating the disappearance of human life from the known universe. Hulks float through the emptiness of space with only the garbled fragments of old log entries as evidence for the existence of their crew. The game puts forward a few different possibilities for you to look into and eliminate, and these suggest an action that humankind takes which inadvertently precipitates its destruction: a nanotechnological experiment gone wrong, creating a grey goo that atomically disassembles human matter, or simply the use of a super weapon so devastating that the resultant chaos causes the rapid decline and extinction of the entire species. But, assuming that humanity survives to become a space-faring people at all, perhaps the larger existential threat is inaction.

Each week Marsh Davies pulls apart the fritzing hulks he discovers drifting through the lifeless void of Early Access and comes back with any stories he can find and/or accidentally flushes himself out of an airlock. This week he’s been tentatively probing Duskers, a space-set roguelike in which you remotely operate a crew of drones as they strip derelicts of resources and attempt to uncover the reason for the dramatic depopulation of the galaxy.

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