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:
- At The New Republic, Kevin Nguyen writes about why Hideo Kojima is the Jonathan Franzen of videogames. Which, yeah, I'd click on.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
“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.