[This post was written for RRoD, and appears there in a nicer font]

In my first piece about Red Dead Redemption I heaped on some praise about the random encounter system, and I justified it existing in a world where the narrative was to be assumed to be “gamey”. I did this because Red Dead Redemption is terrifically fun. It is, and remains a very good game for a multitude of reasons. I love it. I listen to the soundtrack when I drive to work, and I’m nagging my friends to play online with me. I would like you to remember that I think that after you’ve read what’s coming next.

As someone who is somewhat obsessed with the handling of narrative in games (it’s more or less all I talk about) it wasn’t going to take long for me to stop ignoring what I knew was clearly broken, and admit that there’s a fault in my dream Western game (it’s especially hard for me after the disappointment I was inevitably going to feel after Alan Wake, which I haven’t brought myself to write about yet – this is sort of my Obama Game). Perhaps “broken” is too strong a term. Maybe a better way of describing it would be that it’s like looking at your reflection in a broken mirror – the image is fractured into several pieces, each only showing a fraction of your reflection, and all the pieces combined still fail to create a coherent image. All the parts are there, they tessellate, and yet the whole they create is corrupted merely by the fragmentation. By that I mean Red Dead Redemption tries to create the image of the Complete Western Experience, it has all the parts from the source material, it’s fitted together rather well, and yet perhaps because of that the game fails to create a coherent universe. No great western has had all westerns in it, and Red Dead Redemption’s vacillation on this has undermined it overall.

I am by no means an expert on Western literature or film. I grew up on a healthy diet of westerns (as any kid should), later I read more authentic accounts of what life was like at the time from the men carving their living from the land, and as you’d expect the maturity of movies and books I was engaging in increased over time and now I have a taste for the western in all its variant forms. There’s majesty to the west, may it be subtle or awe inspiringly huge – there’s also a sparseness and a vastness that must remind you that you are but a speck of dirt in the scheme of things. There’s an isolation that inevitably makes all towns into stages for a play, and it is an utterly compelling land – where man is left entirely to his own devices, lawless and free and bound only by his moral chains. Examinations into that land and the men and women in it may never lose their appeal to me. It’s not surprising that from this rich well of ideas and this hot fire that forged America as we know it, that fiction of all kinds was created in its setting.

Over the course of the last century countless western movies have been made, and several sub-genres have emerged that reflect the prevailing mood of the time they were made. The classical western, optimized by the work of John Ford, concerned itself with telling a story against the backdrop of social and industrial change. The Iron Horse (John Ford’s 50th film, and arguably his best silent film) may be the first point of reference in RDR – establishing quickly (and not all that subtly) that it is a time of both social and economic change (1911 in the game, though it’s the mid 1800s for The Iron Horse). The message it batters you with is that central government isn’t liked by some people and not all these people are your stereotypical southerner – though I feel it’s not resolutely about this, but using it as a way of giving you a sense of place, unlike Ford, who I think made his films about society, or at least the lone man’s conflict within society and the larger themes extrapolated from that. The reason I think that is because these little rants about central government are used by whatever character you’re traveling to a mission with to remind you why you’re here, and as far as I’m concerned, like with driving conversations in GTA4, conversations handled in this somewhat throwaway manner are generally there to provide exposition and fail to provide anything else – no one meditated over a complex political issue while galloping a horse. Trotting, maybe.

To say RDR is basing itself off John Ford would be erroneous – it’s much too modern in aesthetic for that. Rather, I believe it takes its main narrative cue from the revisionist western. An era of western that is at once a nod to John Ford’s work and a move away from it, the revisionist western uses its setting (and sometimes biopic) not specifically tell a story of place, but of the psychology of the characters involved. Ford used his characters as puppets to tell the story of the world, but the revisionist movement inverted this, to use the West to tell the story of man. When you think of GTA4, it’s easy to see how a psychological revisionist western by Rockstar is almost a no-brainer. Of course it should be made, it’d be amazing. It’s a pity that they didn’t go all the way with this. I would be proclaiming this the best game ever made if they had decided that Red Dead Redemption would focus its sights on the likes of Tombstone, Lonesome Dove, Unforgiven, or Pat Garret and Billy The Kid (my own dream game would be to make something like Jeremiah Johnson, but it’d be a lonely, lonely, experience). What it did instead was cast the net so wide that loses all focus the moment you step off the trail that is the main story and, more irritatingly, sometimes while you’re on it.

I admire greatly their creation of a distilled west. The environments are huge, what I’m getting at is the inclusion of all the imaginable western tropes. I don’t mind a world full of that stuff – what I object to is when you overlay this with a narrative that ferries you around all of it. This is especially true in tone – certain western tropes just don’t go together, but to avoid hiding content they force you to give it all a visit – problematic when you force the brooding revisionist western to the top of the table, and then make me hang around with the “wacky” snake oil merchant, as it creates a dichotomy that breaks the mood. Another example is finding the lone girl in the wilderness yammering about god that you must find medicine for. She wouldn’t be out of place in the slightly trippy Seraphim Falls, or an acid western of the 70s, but here she sticks out like a sore thumb.

In GTA4 the issue with the narrative is that it negated what you did during your periods playing around getting up to no good. That argument is strangely mute here, as for some reason I have behaved myself very well in Red Dead Redemption – I have not been tempted to kill anyone for fun at all. The thing they share however is the main narrative still ignores what you have done, and it also decides who your character is for you. That’s fine for creating a cinematic experience, but perhaps a little jarring in an open-world game (especially one that is almost Fable-like in its RPG elements). As I said I have behaved myself as John Marston, but that’s only half of the issue. I am not compelled by the same forces John Marston is, so I may never engage with the character the way Rockstar wants me to. I have stated in the past that you do not have to “relate” to a character for a game to play well, and I still believe that. My most emotionally engaged moments in RDR have been times where I as a player was sucked into what the peripheral characters were feeling, not Marston (failing to save the rancher’s daughter first time still haunts me as a bizarrely poignant moment in my gaming career). The problem with my not sharing Marston’s motives has created a strange situation in my game. I am at a point where there is a fairly urgent need to get on with things in the story, but I am free to do what I want for now, knowing the story will hold off until I go to the quest marker. This means that I am now taking John on a flower-picking expedition across New Austin, while honing my rabbit-shooting skills. I am meant to be killing Bill Williamson, and ridding the state of a criminal and a thug so I can return to my beloved wife and child who I kept telling Bonnie (who I would rather settle down with) that I like so much. Instead I’ve spent an in-game month “doing stuff” and reading the paper. My John Marston is on a gap year, camping out in the wilderness like Henry David Thoreau “finding himself”.

There are also, and these are probably worse, moments where John Marston’s motives are different to mine. It’s an issue to do with a slightly janky concept of owenership when it comes to the horses (hitch it and it’s yours – you can’t hitch someone else’s horse for them), and Marston’s generally callous approach to all animal life. When hunting I thought it was generally the norm to respect what life you have taken, and respect the animal’s own deadly force. If anyone would appreciate that, I figured, it’d be John Marston, the educated outlaw – who would appreciate his allegorical relationship to hunted prey. Imagine my lack of surprise when skinning a massive cougar, he proclaims “What have you been eating?!” – about two steps away from Han Solo’s “And I thought they smelled bad………….on the outside!” Kerching: mood breaker. But thank you for reminding us all Sam Peckinpah liked blood. I’d like to see what John Marston does to a chicken for a laugh. For all this, however, I am willing to accept responsibility.

I would have played right through the story and then done it all again to get the rest the game has to offer, but it’s so very distracting, and the story, as I said, is a bit all over the place. The question is how much responsibility as a player do I take for my fractured experience? If they had created just the world with no set story, perhaps I could act out the Tombstone I wanted, but if I did anything else it would be entirely my fault. This way I can have a cinematic epic experience and do everything else without feeling like I’m writing my own interactive adventure book and playing it at the same time. I suppose that’s a good thing? Right?

I don’t need to talk too much on why I’m arguably a big idiot for liking the repetitive random encounters so much. I think we can agree that I love them in principle, and that they are still immensely fun for me at the moment, but there will a be a breaking point when I am tired of them because there are not enough of them. They do, however, mean that I will not got bored on a long trek (I am refusing to use fast travel), and probably never end up going to wherever I intend to go as I’ll have wandered off. I anticipate a weird moment in the future where I start the game again after a hiatus, stroll into Armadillo, and then be very comforted that Herbert Moon’s had his stuff stolen again.

I suppose the point I was driving to that I let myself get derailed from is that all these trends in western cinema developed over time. It moved in eras of film, from the silent film, to the beginning of the talkies, to the pulp westerns, to their revival with Stagecoach and the classical period of westerns, to the revisionist and spaghetti westerns to the brooding psychological westerns of today. What RDR fails to pick up on is that these are all products not only of the time they were set, but the time they were made. Thankfully Red Dead’s soundtrack is unshackled from past associations bar the odd (unavoidable) nod to Ennio Morricone, but the content of the game – while reflecting on the social change in 1911, does nothing to talk about what it means as a game (as art) to us today, but alas apes classic (and not so classic) movies to create a vague feeling of unease the moment you try to apply logic to Marston’s west. But, as I said at the top, for reasons I hope to explain in another post I love this game. I just wish I definitively knew why.

Mike Dunbar (Follow me on Twitter at MikeDunbar and for RRoD updates click here)

A quick note: if you can get a hold of a copy of the soundtrack (it’s probably on itunes – I wouldn’t know, don’t have a ipod) you should definitely consider getting it. It is my favourite game soundtrack of the year, maybe the best since Machinarium, and god knows before that – Michael Nyman’s score for Enemy Zero on the Saturn?

Also I would reccomend you read Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry as it’s myt favourite western novel, and for non-fiction Charles A. Siringo’s A Texas Cowboy. Warning: Not really that many gunfights.

So there I was, having just shot and killed half the Walton gang, busting through the flimsy doors of their desert hideout – about to rescue a rancher’s daughter from the loneliness of rapists and outlaws. I burst in like hell with legs, and see there’s still one man standing over her with a gun to her head. I waste a split-second aiming. Crack. Too slow. She’s dead. In rushes the father to cry by the side of his dead daughter, and for some reason I lose 200 honour points as if I shot her myself. I feel gutted. John Marston failed.

Then, about an hour later, I ride through the same bit of country and find that this grim show is staged again, just as it was before. This time I remember to use dead-eye, shoot the bastard, and (having already taken other jobs to get my honour back up where it was) I pick up an additional 200 points, and earn a new title and get a duster coat. And she lives. SCORE! John Marston rocks.

It’s got “redemption” in the title because you always get another chance. The clue is in your stats in the game menu: “World events encountered” then “Unique World Events Encountered”. The game is letting you know there’s only so much it can provide, but it will keep giving you those moments time and time again if you know where to look. I went back to that fort at Twin Rocks because I knew there might be a chance to save that rancher’s daughter – it took me an hour to want to do it all again but a combination of my engagement with the situation, and Rockstar’s incredible work in creating an atmosphere in a game, left me suitably haunted by my failure to save that girl last time, and compelled to ride the bloodstained road to redemption. I would like to discuss how Red Dead Redemption manages to maintain the atmosphere and majesty of The West (though by flitting oddly through all its permutations), and somehow blend an action experience with RPG elements that in a weird way feels “arcade”.

It’s a testament to the elegance of the design that an open world game like this can support emergent game play, the narrative of the story, and still retain a very ludic feel regarding your actions (its like everything you do you are doing for all three reasons). I know people will tire of the comparisons, but to quickly mention GTA4 – your actions in that game outside the story had little or no impact overall. The situations that it could have worked in didn’t really exploit their setting in a game. The phone calls that led to your driving your friends around and hanging out with them could have but the reward/punishment for succeeding/failing in these things is detached from the core experience. They make up a stat buried away in the menu that no one cares about because the reward is limited anyway. Free taxi rides? Roman? Why am I not interested? The clue’s in the title. Grand Theft Auto 4 let the burden of these situations rest in your conscience – not your stats. Red Dead Redemption does both – your penalty/reward for your performance is in the same pile as for every quest/story mission for the whole game: money, fame & honour. Side quests they are in name, but they’re not marginalized by where they benefit you.

"Why Johnny Ringo, you look like someone just walked all over your grave."

The way RDR splits up its content is key in the way it makes you care about what you’re doing, and also in how the world remains believable in its own fridge logic. Story quests are supplemented by a handful of mini-games; jobs (nightwatching or horse breaking); challenges (hunting, sharp-shooting, botany *cough* I mean survivalisim, and treasure hunting); strangers (with unique mo-capped, story-like cutscenes) who make up the traditional side-quest side of things; bounty missions which can be taken voluntarily or as a means of penance for your legal indiscretions; and finally, my favourites, the “random encounters”. When I say that, I am not simply referring to them in the strict RPG sense that they are an enemy, but much more curiously in the sense that they are occurrences that happened that for some reason keep repeating themselves in roughly the same place. They have little or no exposition, and are characteristically over in a few moments. Despite the story (which I’m enjoying, and I think has sturdy characterisation and the usual hallmarks of a Rockstar Game) my main emotional engagement with Red Dead is in these vignettes, these momentary shots of simulated spontaneity. They contribute to a whole world where the joy comes from it being a bit like the movie Groundhog Day – somehow a story and a narrative continue while the world repeats itself.

My obsession with the random encounters began in Armadillo – the first proper town you encounter in the game. Now so far in town I have had several encounters including being propositioned to a few duels, catching a few horse rustlers, catching a thief stealing from the cordial racist shopkeeper, getting horse-jacked, and saving a woman from a pack of wolves. My two favourite encounters, the ones I hang around outside the saloon or on the roof of the coach-house for, are somewhat more wild: Firstly, the moment four horsemen ride through town shooting rifles into the air dragging a kidnapped woman behind them through the dirt screaming “This is our town!!”, and secondly, the one that started my craze, a prostitute being attacked by a spurned man wielding a knife outside the saloon.

They captured my imagination, because – like with the hideout at Twin Rocks – I failed to act as decisively as I’d have liked. The first I encountered was the prostitute being stabbed. I heard the scream, saw the blue on my minimap (though I was standing right there), and for some reason I dicked around with the weapon-selection wheel, and decided I’d use the knife – because in my head that was potentially less fatal (I can’t speculate as to why I didn’t just punch him). By the time I selected knife and got close to him she was already dead. I then fatally stabbed him right after. A few moments pass while I bathe in my inadequacy as a person, then I sigh and loot the attacker’s body, and pay my respects to the departed. It is only minutes until the next encounter signified by yet another terrorised scream of a damsel in distress. On this occasion I had the great misfortune of standing in the middle of the road, and for suffering “gamer’s ego”. What is going on? And how can I be DIRECTLY INVOLVED?! This was not a blue-mark on my minimap, this woman was just a woman apparently. People were running scared into buildings. Any sane man would have done the same, but I apparently decided that John Marston is not a sane man. No, in fact John Marston finally gets his act together (after being trampled underfoot) as the posse are almost out of town and shoots one of them in the back, causing them to turn around and charge back into town. Then in the confusion he shoots several lawmen and has to evade capture. Then, apparently, John Marston has a bit of a cry about how he’s lost honour and goes to pick flowers for half an hour to calm down.

I didn’t know these things would occur over and over yet. The reason I headed back into Armadillo was because I thought there must be more things like this that could happen. I was right, as I listed earlier more things were on the cards, and thankfully – without me expecting so, I got my chance to save the prostitute. Walking by the saloon I found her being wrestled to the ground in the alleyway. I saw the flash of steel from the attacker’s knife and thought “We’re not messing about this time!” pulled whatever gun I had holstered (thankfully not a shotgun) and plugged him in the head. His knife flies from his grasp and lands a few feet away, harmlessly laying in a puddle. Then I am offered the thanks of the woman I saved, and she even gives me money. John Marston – you can be my hero baby.

It would take a few more attempts before the bandits dragging that woman would be stopped – primarily because I spent two encounters trying to shoot the rope like some hotshot. Eventually, from the balcony of the saloon, and once again by chance, I had the opportunity to swiftly kill them with my rifle. I was given thanks and honour. John Marston – doesn’t like women being dragged.

John Marston - doesn't mind men being dragged.

The reason these random encounters are much better than simply an enemy appearing is because you choose to get involved in them. They begin a story and let you apply narrative, and as many people have already been discussing, Red Dead Redemption is a game that makes great stories for gamers. In the last three paragraphs I told four stories of what I did in Red Dead, and each scenario offers dozens more variations on them. The shopkeeper’s thief for example – I killed him once. Then one time I hogtied him, and brought him back to the shopkeeper who started kicking him in the head. Then one time the shopkeeper said something racist before I could give him the prisoner, so I punched him in the head and chased him around town and hogtied him, freeing the robber. I got done on one account of abduction but sod it, it was worth it. Besides, the shopkeeper holds no grudges apparently.

So to restate my main point, Red Dead Redemption takes Rockstar’s emergent gameplay formula one step further by offering the player two things: One – the opportunity to make right our mistakes by letting us re-enact them (I would argue against it being a counter to engagement, as to play along you have to be immersed in their iteration of The West and drop your own preconceptions), and by increasing our own narrative experience of their emergent game play tools or props by granting them context – that is to say, offering us small “situations” – like the racist shop-keep’s thief – in the world rather than static things the GTA games use like stunt ramps. You may get a good crash off a stunt ramp, but you won’t get half as good a story of how you interacted with it as you will with the thief.

John Marston like’s Pina Colada, and getting caught in the rain.

Post Script: The “Red Dead” bit is because when it goes red you’re dead. I guess.

There’s a documentary currently in the works that is looking for funding through Kickstarter. It’s called Indie Game: The Movie. The makers sum it like this:

“Indie Game: The Movie is a feature documentary about video games, their creators and the craft. It examines independent game developers as a way to understand the medium and the theory behind video games. Throughout, the film focuses on the human side of the creative process, and the connections between game and game-maker.”

This is something I’m very interested in, and it’s the primary reason I read as many blogs and listen to as many podcasts as I do, so I was more than happy to help with a donation. They need $15,000 by July 20th, which is 11 days before my birthday – and they only have $4,800 now. So, as an early birthday present to me, why don’t you give them what you can? Think of it like this – $1 is less than a half of coke at the pub. $10 is the price of a book you may never read twice, and $30 is worth it for a DVD, being on the credits, and the general feeling of goodwill that you will have knowing you have supported the creative arts in a field you love. Did I mention they put you on the credits?

You can look at a sample of the film, and donate, here, and while the list of devs hasn’t been confirmed, they’ve won me over with Edmund McMillen from Team Meat.

You don’t have to stick to those milestone amounts, either. Just give what you can. Obviously save some money for food.



(I have copied this article over from where I wrote it for: RRoD)

The mod is a wonderful thing. It represents the best of the gaming community – creativity, a plucky spirit to bring new life to old games, and opportunities for people who want to learn more about game design to get involved without forcing them into an academic route or substantial financial commitment. Over the years there have been many engines, many ways to create the mod… and while the Unreal3 engine is getting very popular now there will always be one engine that, to me, seems to confound expectations and live on – and therefore will no doubt remain fond in our minds for years to come: The source engine.

Lucky, then, that the mods I’m going to talk about happen to be made in that engine too. I want to discuss three mods you’ve probably already played, and while you may have read pieces about them at the time they were released I have not seen one that discusses them all in relation to each other – and how they have achieved their individual goals against what they actually provide to the discourse on experimental game design. These mods (you may sigh): Dear Esther, Korsakovia, and Radiator. If you liked these mods then by all means read on and if you didn’t like them then by all means read on. I’m not here to change your mind, but let’s not dismiss them. And hey, I may even bring something new to the conversation.

Dear Esther…

“Dear Esther. I sometimes feel as if I’ve given birth to this island. Somewhere, between the longitude and latitude a split opened up and it beached remotely here. No matter how hard I correlate, it remains a singularity, an alpha point in my life that refuses all hypothesis. I return each time leaving fresh markers that I hope, in the full glare of my hopelessness, will have blossomed into fresh insight in the interim.”

These may be the first words you hear when you start a game of Dear Esther. They may not be. The basic mechanic of Dear Esther is walking around, looking at stuff, and setting off partially randomized audio from triggers in the environment. I full expect many of you already know about it, but for those who don’t it was part of a still on-going research project from Dan Pinchbeck and his mini-studio thechineseroom at Portsmouth University into experimental game design in the first person. Should you want to read Pinchbeck’s post-mortem of Dear Esther it is here. The experience for me playing the mod was despairing, somewhat haunting, quite beautiful, and affecting. I remember sitting, staring at the blank black screen at the end – the last strains of music long since silenced not knowing what to do next.

How was this accomplished? By realising two important things: Firstly; by realising humans are capable of pulling a lot out of ambiguity – seeing it as a mental game in itself and secondly; by realising a potential draw for a “game” is not entirely the story or rule-based system of reward, but the ability to inhabit a game-space. The ambiguity I am referring to is the 106 piece jigsaw puzzle that is the narration, and the jigsaw puzzle that is the world design – only these are unsolvable puzzles with contradictory pieces that don’t match the picture on the box. The argument about the game-space requires more explanation…

The term “game” is gradually becoming less important as we explore further territory in the games industry (or should that be interactive media industry?). It’s something we should recognize now, as we have known for years that a videogame as we see it is a blend of both narrative and ludology, and there are going to be times when projects are released in a typical videogame format that have very little ludology of a traditional sort. What Dear Esther offers is a narrative journey that could not be expressed the same way in any other medium. The interactivity of exploring the environment is key to its success, to it making you care. When I say game-space I am not referring simply to the “map”. I am referring to the combination of the graphical environment, and the all of the game’s systems. The AI, the cause and effect relationships, the physics, and boundaries you find – investigating and learning about these are important parts of your experience of a game. It happens with every game you play, to the point you forget you’re doing it. It is, perhaps, odd that a game with such a small amount of ludic agency would be the example that brings it up, but sometimes we commit ourselves so much to the idea of genre that when playing a first-person game we go through the same old check-list and think about the enemies AI to find cover or flank you, and we forget there are more subtle things that can provide an equally powerful experience. Dear Esther shows that, given the right atmosphere, being told to “Come back!” when you’re nearing the edge of the map and following the visual clue of a seagull flying, can be just as valid as chasing down the helicopter with the bad guys who’ve kidnapped the famous scientist you’ve got to save – despite producing different sensations in the player.

So Dear Esther was an experiment into reducing player agency to its bare minimum to see if narrative alone, presented in a 3D explorable environment presented in the first-person would be enough to create a meaningful artistic experience for an audience used to the more common tropes of the first-person genre. Reception was mixed – but then so is the gaming audience, and pro-tip: I don’t read comments in any kind of degenerative slang English. There was no way this was going to appeal to everyone, but if you’ve got this far you’ll probably agree that Dear Esther is at least a lesson in using the unreality of a videogame environment to enforce the ambiguity of reality in the narrative’s environment (the island – is it real, imagined, or merely metaphorical?). We can’t judge by looking at a videogame environment whether or not it’s meant to be a real place – it could just all of a sudden flicker into non-existence like The Matrix. There is no solid reality in games, and this is an example of how that has been used slightly to show developers that chasing after reality in games can sometimes be a fruitless exercise.

If Dear Esther did that slightly Korsakovia, the next mod by thechineseroom ran all the way with it.

Korsakovia…

“I am waiting to take delivery of a new set of eyes.”

Korsakovia is the story of Christopher, a psychiatric patient suffering from Korsakoff’s Syndrome. He believes he has survived the end of the world, and apparently in our world has blinded himself, punched a hole through his television, and set fire to his home, in an effort to pass over to the world of his delusions. As having Korsakoff’s means the patient loses the ability to form new memories and differentiate between reality and fiction (often supplanting their memories with fantasy) it would appear to be the perfect subject for a videogame of this nature.

Korsakovia was designed specifically to disorientate and disturb players not by merely having a chilling narrative (which it does, in spades) but to have mechanics that deliberately subverted what people expected from a first-person game, or “well made” QA passed game in general. Not that it was too buggy (perhaps in bits), but its treatment of the level design, visual effects, and sound design were used to make the distinction between the norms of a regular game level and the fabrication that is the protagonist’s delusional world which you inhabit. The videogame, again, is the perfect tool to provide this experience as unlike film, videogames are synthetic from the ground up. Because games are made in engines with underlying systems, it’s as though they exist independently in a nondescript universe of intangible natural law. This means that Christopher’s delusional world is, in terms of a game, just as real as any other in-game environment – which neatly carries over the message that Christopher’s world is just as real to him as any other world.

The game was criticized for some of the tools it implemented to make the player feel unease. People didn’t like the loud bursts of static (from the televisions, a recurring plot element) which punctuated some of the dialogue at ear-piercing volume. I do not mind it. It infuriated me while I was playing it, but it did its job – it could be argued that it’s meant to make you consider turning the volume down – as the story involves Christopher having needles jammed in his ears to “take away the excess noise”. The rest of the sound design is superb as well, terrifyingly so. Jessica Curry, who also provided the music for Dear Esther, deserves (and has probably won) an award for her work in Korsakovia.

The main way Korsakovia differs with Dear Esther is its approach to player agency. There are enemies (mostly to run away from in terror). There are obstacles to be smashed (which is slightly thematic), and platforms to be jumped – which is also thematic partially (the fragmentation of the world makes sense, but why do you need to ascend to a high place? That is never mentioned). The point is Korsakovia succeeds on not only giving people a place to explore, but a place for people to get frantically, terrifyingly, lost in while desperately searching for an exit. Its primary success is its approach to sound-design, and the approach to the unreality of simulated environments being thematically exploited. The final mod I want to talk about also exploits the unreality of videogame environments but with a different goal.

Radiator: Volume 1-1 Polaris & 1-2 Handle With Care…

“That’s not productive discourse!”

The Radiator Mod’s two releases to date, Polaris and Handle With Care, are probably my favourite in this line-up. Each for different reasons. They are the product of one man, Robert Yang – a college student in English Lit based in California. Before I go into detail I would like to discuss why I am personally inspired by these mods: they’re short-form, and episodic in nature. To anyone wanting to get into modding of an experimental nature (or any kind at all) it is worth reading Robert Yang’s manifesto on mod design (even if you don’t agree with all of it it’s useful to have around).

The short-form episode format is perfect for experimental mods. You can test out an idea, and because it’s short get a decent turnaround of people thinking and talking about it. The idea gets from your head to the screen quicker, and you don’t burn out dealing with a progressively more difficult to finish behemoth mod. That’s the pragmatic reason they’re better. To me they’re also great because they’re an experiment themselves in the short-story style of making games. Creating a poignant moment with the minimum of exposition. Creating an experience that doesn’t demand 40+ hours of your time but is still fulfilling. It’s an exercise in efficiency, or perhaps, purity.

In Polaris you are on a date that is being recollected by your avatar. You are in a small clearing in some woods with a guy who is sitting at a park bench staring up at the stars. He then guides you through astronomy 101 for the duration of the episode. There’s a strange tension about the situation. Why are you alone in the woods with this guy? There’s empty bottles everywhere. The only illumination is an eerie red light and the glow of an iPod playing acoustic guitar. As you’re gazing at the stars he suddenly and without announcement leaves. He has shown you how to find north using the stars, so perhaps you should follow him. Or, you could of course think “Sod that!” and go off on your own. Or, you could have already left before this. The mod would take you around 10-15 minutes to play. Its tone is contemplative, somewhat pessimistic, but I believe you can drag a morsel of hope of it. A morsel of experience. A morsel of life. It’s something I want to capture in my own games.

Polaris takes advantage of its nature as a videogame during the astronomy sections. Specifically the wildly spinning sky to “jumble” the stars between rounds not only looks quite good aesthetically, but it also serves the function of making the star finding more difficult without breaking the suspension of disbelief. The reason it gets away with it, again, is because of the mod’s brevity. There is no set up to this situation – this is more or less your first interaction with the world, and so this is setting the tone – not breaking it. What’s more you’re told it’s a memory leaving even greater room for interpretation. It’s the second part of the mod, however, that plays with reality much more.

Handle With Care, begins in the office of a marriage counselor. The man from the previous episode is sitting next to you. His name is Dylan. Your name is James. Your marriage it seems is in trouble – Dylan thinks you do not communicate, he has trouble speaking up, and you do not listen. You will never forget these three things as they are repeated almost constantly in the next section (I think it’s a good thing – though this is contentious). The next section sees you either as James, or a facet of James’ mind. You are in his brain. In his “Internal Repression Centre” to be exact. You work for his IRS. You enter a room full of shelves, each with crates in their individual places. There certain areas labeled: “Cancer, Dad’s”, “Funeral, Dad’s”, “Mother Naked”, “Nagging: constant”, “Final Exams, 2004”. A large screen shows you the view you had as James before, in the office. In an adjacent room crates are dropped one by one, and you are told which shelf to put them on (using battleship-like coordinates). If you put the crate in its corresponding place without breaking it then you have successfully repressed that memory. Technically as an IRS man you’ve done your job, yet why does the marriage counselor scold James? It would appear that by repressing your memories you cause James (who you work for, it must be assumed) to lash out, refusing to share his thoughts. If you break a crate it explodes – symbolic of you and James “letting it all out”. You are transported to an orange tinted flashback of the memory, and the counselor applauds James’ sharing. Yet you are failing in your job as an IRS man – the walls begin to crumble, and the room starts to flood.

When I played through it I repressed a couple of memories. Then, almost by my conscience I knew I was harming my character in the long run, and started smashing the crates. At the end, my letting it all out – choosing honesty over a marriage built on a lie caused Dylan to announce we’re getting a divorce. To whit my IRS man received a final crate “x9”. A crate with no slot. I smashed it, and left the room for a place with all my past memories, and each Dylan repeating that despite what we went through we had changed, and our marriage was irrecoverably doomed. I sort of felt glad that I had freed these two people from each other, offering them both the chance to live their lives.

If you repress all the memories Dylan says you’ll stay together, and attempt to weather the storm, as he loves you. I find that interesting, as people would no doubt have done the easier “smash the crates” ending first, so to see this afterwards brings a new context to your actions last time. Essentially I felt that the time prior, I must have broken that man’s heart.

I probably don’t need to explain how Handle With Care plays with unreality – it puts you not only into a metaphorical interpretation of a man’s memory centre in his brain, but into the memories themselves too. At the “endgame” it even lets you hover around the room where the ending occurred, along with the other memories to leisurely walk amongst them and pick them apart yourself, like a detective at a crime scene. This interactivity of wandering around is as if you’re allowing the audience of a film walk around the sets (in fact it’s probably a commentary on that, and an intentional break of the fourth wall, as the final scene is reminiscent of a movie set, with prefab walls, and electricity generators around the place). Putting you into this place of unreality is used very effectively to make Yang’s point on the morality of dealing with our past in the context of a relationship – and the responsibilities you have to yourself and other people. If he had aimed to retain reality, and left the action solely in the counselor’s office, with a text-box system of different conversation choices (or just repress & release) it would have been a boring, uneventful, and powerless game. The challenge that comes from stacking the boxes demonstrates the difficulty of repressing a memory, and maintaining a lie – being told it’s difficult is not as effective as accidentally smashing a box. Conversely being told it’s a release to let something off your chest is not the same as seeing the explosion, the colour, the shock and wonder of the memory, and the feeling that whatever you did was good. The conflict of the opposing sides of the argument are also not fleshed out as elegantly as the jarring visual dichotomy of seeing your actions produce devastation in your environment while making progress in the office and vice-versa.

Over the course of all these mods we have seen that videogames can be powerful tools of artistic expression. We have also seen why they need to stop clinging onto ludic tropes, and the desire to attain virtual realism – they’re not as effective. Currently the mods I have described have been lumped into an “arty mod” category, or if the community is generous they’re called “arty games”, with something of a derogatory but curious hiss. However, one corner of the internet seems to latch on to the idea that our current understandings of games (that they must be “fun”, that you must be able to “win” them, and that empowerment is the only worthy goal, and narrative has little or no place in games) are becoming outdated, and archaic. While I wouldn’t align myself to any particular “movement” and I think it’s better that, in acknowledgement of each other, we continue to each do our own thing, it is interesting to note this website (and accidental movement) that has kicked off: Notgames.

In vague agreement to ideas I have been having the community at Notgames seem to think we can do a lot more with our medium than is currently the industry standard. Perhaps it’s a little pretentious, but you don’t break new ground thinking with your feet on it.

Mike Dunbar (Follow me on Twitter at MikeDunbar and for RRoD updates click here)

Robert Yang has said that he was partially inspired by Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in terms of the subject matter and the presentation of the past memories. It is interesting, then, to see how their similarities produce different results in terms of the experience you have with them. The message I got from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was that it was rumination on what part of our identity our unwanted memories form, and whether we could be truly happy without them at all. Handle With Care’s message steps out of the theoretical and asks whether repressing our memories, and lying to ourselves (or attempting to) is ever an alternative to brutal cold honesty at all times. This, ironically, is because in the game you have less control than the characters in the film. You cannot destroy the memories. They are either in your head forever, or let out into the open to be examined. Either way you live with the consequence of their continued existence.

I also wrote a piece on Genre here that may be of interest to you.

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The mod is a wonderful thing. It represents the best of the gaming community – creativity, a plucky spirit to bring new life to old games, and giving opportunities to people who want to learn more about game design without forcing them into an academic route or substantial financial commitment. Over the years there have been many engines, many ways to create the mod… and while the Unreal3 engine is getting very popular now there will always be one engine that, to me, seems to confound expectations and live on – and therefore will no doubt remain fond in our minds for years to come: The source engine.

Lucky, then, that the mods I’m going to talk about happen to be made in that engine too. I want to discuss three mods you’ve probably already played, and while you may have read pieces about them at the time they were released I have not seen one that discusses them all in relation to each other – and how they have achieved their individual goals against what they actually provide to the discourse on experimental game design. These mods (you may sigh): Dear Esther, Korsakovia, and Radiator. If you liked these mods then by all means read on and if you didn’t like them then by all means read on. I’m not here to change your mind, but let’s not dismiss them. And hey, I may even bring something new to the conversation.

Dear Esther…

“Dear Esther. I sometimes feel as if I’ve given birth to this island. Somewhere, between the longitude and latitude a split opened up and it beached remotely here. No matter how hard I correlate, it remains a singularity, an alpha point in my life that refuses all hypothesis. I return each time leaving fresh markers that I hope, in the full glare of my hopelessness, will have blossomed into fresh insight in the interim.”

These may be the first words you hear when you start a game of Dear Esther. They may not be. The basic mechanic of Dear Esther is walking around, looking at stuff, and setting off partially randomized audio from triggers in the environment. I full expect many of you already know about it, but for those who don’t it was part of a still on-going research project from Dan Pinchbeck and his mini-studio thechineseroom at Portsmouth University into experimental game design in the first person. Should you want to read Pinchbeck’s post-mortem of Dear Esther it is here. The experience for me playing the mod was despairing, somewhat haunting, quite beautiful, and affecting. I remember sitting, staring at the blank black screen at the end – the last strains of music long since silenced not knowing what to do next.

How was this accomplished? By realising two important things: Firstly; by realising humans are capable of pulling a lot out of ambiguity – seeing it as a mental game in itself and secondly; by realising a potential draw for a “game” is not entirely the story or rule-based system of reward, but the ability to inhabit a game-space. The ambiguity I am referring to is the 106 piece jigsaw puzzle that is the narration, and the jigsaw puzzle that is the world design – only these are unsolvable puzzles with contradictory pieces that don’t match the picture on the box. The argument about the game-space requires more explanation…

The term “game” is gradually becoming less important as we explore further territory in the games industry (or should that be interactive media industry?). It’s something we should recognize now, as we have known for years that a videogame as we see it is a blend of both narrative and ludology, and there are going to be times when projects are released in a typical videogame format that have very little ludology of a traditional sort. What Dear Esther offers is a narrative journey that could not be expressed the same way in any other medium. The interactivity of exploring the environment is key to its success, to it making you care. When I say game-space I am not referring simply to the “map”. I am referring to the combination of the graphical environment, and the all of the game’s systems. The AI, the cause and effect relationships, the physics, and boundaries you find – investigating and learning about these are important parts of your experience of a game. It happens with every game you play, to the point you forget you’re doing it. It is, perhaps, odd that a game with such a small amount of ludic agency would be the example that brings it up, but sometimes we commit ourselves so much to the idea of genre that when playing a first-person game we go through the same old check-list and think about the enemies AI to find cover or flank you, and we forget there are more subtle things that can provide an equally powerful experience. Dear Esther shows that, given the right atmosphere, being told to “Come back!” when you’re nearing the edge of the map and following the visual clue of a seagull flying, can be just as valid as chasing down the helicopter with the bad guys who’ve kidnapped the famous scientist you’ve got to save – despite producing different sensations in the player.

So Dear Esther was an experiment into reducing player agency to its bare minimum to see if narrative alone, presented in a 3D explorable environment presented in the first-person would be enough to create a meaningful artistic experience for an audience used to the more common tropes of the first-person genre. Reception was mixed – but then so is the gaming audience, and pro-tip: I don’t read comments in any kind of degenerative slang English. There was no way this was going to appeal to everyone, but if you’ve got this far you’ll probably agree that Dear Esther is at least a lesson in using the unreality of a videogame environment to enforce the ambiguity of reality in the narrative’s environment (the island – is it real, imagined, or merely metaphorical?). We can’t judge by looking at a videogame environment whether or not it’s meant to be a real place – it could just all of a sudden flicker into non-existence like The Matrix. There is no solid reality in games, and this is an example of how that has been used slightly to show developers that chasing after reality in games can sometimes be a fruitless exercise.

If Dear Esther did that slightly Korsakovia, the next mod by thechineseroom ran all the way with it.

Korsakovia…

“I am waiting to take delivery of a new set of eyes.”

Korsakovia is the story of Christopher, a psychiatric patient suffering from Korsakoff’s Syndrome. He believes he has survived the end of the world, and apparently in our world has blinded himself, punched a hole through his television, and set fire to his home, in an effort to pass over to the world of his delusions. As having Korsakoff’s means the patient loses the ability to form new memories and differentiate between reality and fiction (often supplanting their memories with fantasy) it would appear to be the perfect subject for a videogame.

Korsakovia was designed specifically to disorientate and disturb players not by merely having a chilling narrative (which it does, in spades) but to have mechanics that deliberately subverted what people expected from a first-person game, or “well made” QA passed game in general. Not that it was too buggy (perhaps in bits), but its treatment of the level design, visual effects, and sound design were used to make the distinction between the norms of a regular game level and the fabrication that is the protagonist’s delusional world which you inhabit. The videogame, again, is the perfect tool to provide this experience as unlike film, videogames are synthetic from the ground up. Because games are made in engines with underlying systems, it’s as though they exist independently in a nondescript universe of intangible natural law. This means that Christopher’s delusional world is, in terms of a game, just as real as any other in-game environment – which neatly carries over the message that Christopher’s world is just as real to him as any other world.

The game was criticized for some of the tools it implemented to make the player feel unease. People didn’t like the loud bursts of static (from the televisions, a recurring plot element) which punctuated some of the dialogue at ear-piercing volume. I do not mind it. It infuriated me while I was playing it, but it did its job – it could be argued that it’s meant to make you consider turning the volume down – as the story involves Christopher having needles jammed in his ears to “take away the excess noise”. The rest of the sound design is superb as well, terrifyingly so. Jessica Curry, who also provided the music for Dear Esther, deserves (and has probably won) an award for her work in Korsakovia.

The main way Korsakovia differs with Dear Esther is its approach to player agency. There are enemies (mostly to run away from in terror). There are obstacles to be smashed (which is slightly thematic), and platforms to be jumped – which is also thematic partially (the fragmentation of the world makes sense, but why do you need to ascend to a high place? That is never mentioned). The point is Korsakovia succeeds on not only giving people a place to explore, but a place for people to get frantically, terrifyingly, lost in while desperately searching for an exit. Its primary success is its approach to sound-design, and the approach to the unreality of simulated environments being thematically exploited. The final mod I want to talk about also exploits the unreality of videogame environments but with a different goal.

Radiator: Volume 1-1 Polaris & 1-2 Handle With Care…

“That’s not productive discourse!”

The Radiator Mod’s two releases to date, Polaris and Handle With Care, are probably my favourite in this line-up. Each for different reasons. They are the product of one man, Robert Yang – a college student in English Lit based in California. Before I go into detail I would like to discuss why I am personally inspired by these mods: they’re short-form, and episodic in nature. To anyone wanting to get into modding of an experimental nature (or any kind at all) it is worth reading Robert Yang’s manifesto on mod design (even if you don’t agree with all of it it’s useful to have around).

The short-form episode format is perfect for experimental mods. You can test out an idea, and because it’s short get a decent turnaround of people thinking and talking about it. The idea gets from your head to the screen quicker, and you don’t burn out dealing with a progressively more difficult to finish behemoth mod. That’s the pragmatic reason they’re better. To me they’re also great because they’re an experiment themselves in the short-story style of making games. Creating a poignant moment with the minimum of exposition. Creating an experience that doesn’t demand 40+ hours of your time but is still fulfilling. It’s an exercise in efficiency, or perhaps, purity.

In Polaris you are on a date that is being recollected by your avatar. You are in a small clearing in some woods with a guy who is sitting at a park bench staring up at the stars. He then guides you through astronomy 101 for the duration of the episode. There’s a strange tension about the situation. Why are you alone in the woods with this guy? There’s empty bottles everywhere. The only illumination is an eerie red light and the glow of an iPod playing acoustic guitar. As you’re gazing at the stars he suddenly and without announcement leaves. He has shown you how to find north using the stars, so perhaps you should follow him. Or, you could of course think “Sod that!” and go off on your own. Or, you could have already left before this. The mod would take you around 10-15 minutes to play. Its tone is contemplative, somewhat pessimistic, but I believe you can drag a morsel of hope of it. A morsel of experience. A morsel of life. It’s something I want to capture in my own games.

Polaris takes advantage of its nature as a videogame during the astronomy sections. Specifically the wildly spinning sky to “jumble” the stars between rounds not only looks quite good aesthetically, but it also serves the function of making the star finding more difficult without breaking the suspension of disbelief. The reason it gets away with it, again, is because of the mod’s brevity. There is no set up to this situation – this is more or less your first interaction with the world, and so this is setting the tone – not breaking it. What’s more you’re told it’s a memory leaving even greater room for interpretation. It’s the second part of the mod, however, that plays with reality much more.

Handle With Care, begins in the office of a marriage counselor. The man from the previous episode is sitting next to you. His name is Dylan. Your name is James. Your marriage it seems is in trouble – Dylan thinks you do not communicate, he has trouble speaking up, and you do not listen. You will never forget these three things as they are repeated almost constantly in the next section (I think it’s a good thing – though this is contentious). The next section sees you either as James, or a facet of James’ mind. You are in his brain. In his “Internal Repression Centre” to be exact. You work for his IRS. You enter a room full of shelves, each with crates in their individual places. There certain areas labeled: “Cancer, Dad’s”, “Funeral, Dad’s”, “Mother Naked”, “Nagging: constant”, “Final Exams, 2004”. A large screen shows you the view you had as James before, in the office. In an adjacent room crates are dropped one by one, and you are told which shelf to put them on (using battleship-like coordinates). If you put the crate in its corresponding place without breaking it then you have successfully repressed that memory. Technically as an IRS man you’ve done your job, yet why does the marriage counselor scold James? It would appear that by repressing your memories you cause James (who you work for, it must be assumed) to lash out, refusing to share his thoughts. If you break a crate it explodes – symbolic of you and James “letting it all out”. You are transported to an orange tinted flashback of the memory, and the counselor applauds James’ sharing. Yet you are failing in your job as an IRS man – the walls begin to crumble, and the room starts to flood.

When I played through it I repressed a couple of memories. Then, almost by my conscience I knew I was harming my character in the long run, and started smashing the crates. At the end, my letting it all out – choosing honesty over a marriage built on a lie caused Dylan to announce we’re getting a divorce. To whit my IRS man received a final crate “x9”. A crate with no slot. I smashed it, and left the room for a place with all my past memories, and each Dylan repeating that despite what we went through we had changed, and our marriage was irrecoverably doomed. I sort of felt glad that I had freed these two people from each other, offering them both the chance to live their lives.

If you repress all the memories Dylan says you’ll stay together, and attempt to weather the storm, as he loves you. I find that interesting, as people would no doubt have done the easier “smash the crates” ending first, so to see this afterwards brings a new context to your actions last time. Essentially I felt that the time prior, I must have broken that man’s heart.

I probably don’t need to explain how Handle With Care plays with unreality – it puts you not only into a metaphorical interpretation of a man’s memory centre in his brain, but into the memories themselves too. At the “endgame” it even lets you hover around the room where the ending occurred, along with the other memories to leisurely walk amongst them and pick them apart yourself, like a detective at a crime scene. This interactivity of wandering around is as if you’re allowing the audience of the film walk the sets (in fact it’s probably a commentary on that, and an intentional break of the 4th wall, as the final scene is reminiscent of a movie set, with prefab walls, and electricity generators around the place). Putting you into this place of unreality is used very effectively to make Yang’s point on the morality of dealing with our past in the context of a relationship – and the responsibilities you have to yourself and other people. If he had aimed to retain reality, and left the action solely in the counselor’s office, with a text-box system of different conversation choices (or just repress & release) it would have been a boring, uneventful, and powerless game. The challenge that comes from stacking the boxes demonstrates the difficulty of repressing a memory, and maintaining a lie – being told it’s difficult is not as effective as accidentally smashing a box. Conversely being told it’s a release to let something off your chest is not the same as seeing the explosion, the colour, the shock and wonder of the memory, and the feeling that whatever you did was good. The conflict of the opposing sides of the argument are also not fleshed out as elegantly as the jarring visual dichotomy of seeing your actions produce devastation in your environment while making progress in the office and vice-versa.

Over the course of all these mods we have seen that videogames can be powerful tools of artistic expression. We have also seen why they need to stop clinging onto ludic tropes, and the desire to attain virtual realism – they’re not as effective. Currently the mods I have described have been lumped into an “arty mod” category, or if the community is generous they’re called “arty games”, with something of a derogatory but curious hiss. However, one corner of the internet seems to latch on to the idea that our current understandings of games (that they must be “fun”, that you must be able to “win” them, and that empowerment is the only worthy goal, and narrative has little or no place in games) are becoming outdated, and archaic. While I wouldn’t align myself to any particular “movement” and I think it’s better that, in acknowledgement of each other, we continue to each do our own thing, it is interesting to note this website (and accidental movement) that has kicked off: Notgames.

In vague agreement to ideas I have been having the community at Notgames seem to think we can do a lot more with our medium than is currently the industry standard. Perhaps it’s a little pretentious, but you don’t break new ground thinking with your feet on it.

Mike Dunbar (Follow me on Twitter at MikeDunbar and for RRoD updates click here)

Post-Script: Robert Yang has said that he was partially inspired by Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in terms of the subject matter and the presentation of the past memories. It is interesting, then, to see how their similarities produce different results in terms of the experience you have with them. The message I got from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was that it was rumination on what part of our identity our unwanted memories form, and whether we could be truly happy without them at all. Handle With Care’s message steps out of the theoretical and asks whether repressing our memories, and lying to ourselves (or attempting to) is ever an alternative to brutal cold honesty at all times. This, ironically, is because in the game you have less control than the characters in the film. You cannot destroy the memories. They are either in your head forever, or let out into the open to be examined. Either way you live with the consequence of their continued existence.

I also wrote a piece on Genre here that may be of interest to you.

Hey,

Just  a note to say that while I will continue to update this blog I am also the newest writer to join the team over at Nerd Fury.co.uk. It’ll be a good experience writing a weekly article on topical matters, but I will maintain this blog (with different material, I won’t repost what is on Nerd Fury here as I promised them I wouldn’t) with articles that perhaps are not totally appropriate or not as topical as it could be (expect a post upcoming here about Far Cry 2). I post this now to simply let you know there may be a lull between now and the next post as I have one article ready for them, and another in progress.

I’m also telling you, obviously, so you can see the site and I hope you’ll keep coming back once it’s up and running.

Mike

This is Twinsen from the planet Twinsun. In other news I've changed my name to Eurth.

I mentioned in a caption in the last article that David Gasman ruined some of my treasured childhood memories by voicing the lunatic Lucas Kane in Fahrenheit (Quantic Dream, 2005). The only reason that happened, though, was because he played a part in making them in the first place with his voice work for Twinsen in Little Big Adventure 2: Twinsen’s Odyssey (Adeline Software International, 1997). I was eleven when this game was released, I think I got a copy when I was 12 and it had been re-released by EA. At the time I was using a Pentium 166 MMX and the full motion video of this game, and the inviting 3D worlds blew my tiny little mind. What has made me so very fond of it, though, is its character. It’s a wonderful universe to get lost in, and I intend to in this blog post, in the hope you’ll dig it out, dust it down, and play it – or if you don’t have it, find it and take your first step into a wonderful new world. Also, and this is important, I’ve discovered the development of a fan-made Little Big Adventure Prequel!

Loading times were not that bad, but hardly helped by these two standing on the disc.


Relentless…

Twinsen’s career as a dress-wearing world saver began at the end of 1994 with Little Big Adventure (Adeline Software International). It was also released shortly after with the title Relentless: Twinsen’s Adventure. In his first outing Twinsen had to rescue his girlfriend Zoe from the clutches of the evil “FunFrock” –  a nasty wizard and dictator of Twinsun, and he must also save the goddess that lives in the planet’s core from said nasty wizard, as he wishes to kill her and steal all her power. The first game was completely in an isometric 3D perspective set entirely on the planet Twinsun. Alas the first game is rather hard to come by. It isn’t, repeat isn’t, classed as abandon-ware, but who exactly owns the rights to the franchise is somewhat tricky to decipher as Adeline Software International was officially dissolved in 2004.

Twinsen’s Odyssey…

My exposure to Little Big Adventure began with the sequel, and it supports the notion that in games – in contrast to movies and other media – sequels are often better than the originals. It also goes some way to furthering the idea that Ray Muzyka of Bioware spoke of only two days ago at GDC: “If you try to build a franchise around a single character, that can be a problem. If you build it around world, anything is possible.” Sure Twinsen is the star of these games, but the best thing about them is the wealth of characters you encounter. They were notable back in the 90s for being some of the only games in which every person you enoucntered had their own unique views, voice, and general character. Quite impressive compared to the mess that is the voice-work and NPC system of Oblivion, a game made 10 years later, that claims to be of incredible scope, where characters voices can change dramatically mid-conversation, and it can be difficult to tell people apart. When you add the fact that Little Big Adventure characters can often be walking sausages, and that they have more character and you won’t mistake them for any of the other sausages, it really stands as a testament to the brilliant design, and care that went into every detail.

LBA2: Who'd win in a fight? The cast of LBA2 or the cast of Grim Fandango? Both had cast "photos" like this.

Before I go on, I should mention this game’s great innovation: The behaviour system. By deciding what “mood” Twinsen is in, it affects what actions he is capable of, how he moves, and how he throws his magic ball/uses his weapon. This can have an affect on gameplay (the AI is also quite intelligent, LBA was one of the first games where guards would run to seek re-enforcements or sound the alarm instead of just attacking or chasing Twinsen) in terms of stealthy movements or solving puzzles. It’s main success is that it simplifies controls, which otherwise would have been convoluted.

The general tone of the LBA universe is quite light, but rich with variety, wonder, and an innocence that I think is the main reason I keep returning to it. To best set the scene you should watch the opening cinematic and beginning of LBA2 (from a “Let’s Play…”) below:

The game plays like a child’s daydream of adulthood, of adventure, and of wonder. With the mix of the fantastical and the familiar it recalls the bizarre things you would day dream innocently as a child. The mysteries of the universe are alluded to but not explicitly explained, and the most mundane things are just as mundane there. The game opens with your friend, a talking, flying, dinosaur crashing into your back garden. So you go to the pharmacy – a somewhat mysterious place for any kid, but in a boring sort of way. When you get there you find a woman (who is little ball with legs, incidentally) who can help you as she works for a wizard. When you get to her house, she’s doing the hoovering. There is a grounding in the things you observe in the world around you as a child running throughout the game. There’s a wonderful cinematic in a ferry where Twinsen gets imbroiled in the “I’ve made eye contact with another passenger – do they think I’m looking at them?” moment. It’s only short, but in this bizarre universe there are still moments like these for the character that children and adults can relate to. Innocence seems to be the by-word for LBA. There is combat, but it never feels malicious. Most of the laughs come from funny voices, or slapstick humour. And your willingness to experiment is rewarded – not by slapping you with a morality system, but by kindly forgetting your actions most of the time.

It could be argued that I’m taking it too far. Perhaps I am, but this is a game that is aimed at children, but I don’t feel is speaking down to them. It is, however, and I think quite intelligently, playing to their imaginations. As an early example of a game where free-roaming in a 3D environment was done well (the French have a way with breaking ground in 3D things if Isabelle was anything to go by) it found a way to reward a lot of the things your childhood mind could throw at it. Yeah, you could hump a cow. They knew you’d do that. If you went into the school and for some reason hit a child their big brother would meet you at the gates and box your head in, only fair. And if what game would provide you with a car for getting around, and not throw in a racing track? Not LBA2.

Not long ago I wrote an article in which I discuss GTA IV, and how in that game you’re being pulled in two directions – emergent (or dick-around) gameplay vs a linear mission structure. The beautiful thing about LBA2’s tone is that – due to the fact that the story is sufficiently lighter in its presentation (at one point all of the children from your home planet are stolen, but this is done quite elegantly, showing an empty school bereft of activity. An empty field where once lessons were taught -the actual kidnap being over in moments) you never really feel hurried. It is only later in the game where a cutscene of a moon that is hurtling toward Twinsun is shown (at random intervals) that you feel encouraged to get on with things. This isn’t enforced in the design, thankfully, as by this point you are on the planet Zeelich, and they’ve given you a casino to muck about in, complete with a Wheel of Fortune game hosted by a talking, monocled, crocodile. If that doesn’t scream “Mess around with me!” I don’t know what does.

I’ve always been interested in the idea that if you’re going to make a game you should know what sensations you want to encourage before you get started. Adeline, it seems, knew that they wanted to make an Adventure game here that was fun. Not just entertaining, or engaging, but specifically fun. That seems like a redundant thing to say, but I don’t think that fun is a prerequisite of game design – I said in the previous article that I enjoyed the opening of Fahrenheit, but I didn’t think hiding a dead body was fun. Stressful and exhilirating maybe but not giggly fun. It brings forth to mind the idea that games can have the same draw as a Fisherprice activity centre and that sometimes you can have fun without a forced narrative at all. That often doesn’t last when its done alone (Amanita Design’s The Pantry is more-or-less just that: A pantry where you can click on things on screen and see unexpected (though scripted) interactions take place. A fun distraction/experiment but you will tire of it after 5 minutes), but the LBA series takes that idea and runs with it in the context of a linear narrative adventure game. If there were no little distractions, easter eggs, secrets or whatever you call them,  then – partially due to the graphical limitations of the time – Twinsun might feel a bit lifeless. As it stands, and especially with LBA2, you get the feeling that every corner of every area has had something interesting put in it so you’re never just darting through thoughtlessly. In a genre that is known primarily for being one where the story is the main focus, the LBA series manages to spread its charm, wit, and personality, equally and thickly over every element of the game. From character design, voice-acting, animations, world design, and certainly not least its sound design.

The music of LBA is another big draw for me. I personally love it, and it fits perfectly with the tone of the game. Take the main theme of LBA2 (embedded below). Being of better sound quality than that of the first game, it captures the excitment, joy, and wonder of the adventure without sounding gamey. It’s not overly dramatic, fast, or grand sounding. Compare it with the music of Zelda, and you begin to understand that the music also supports the idea that the game is encouraging a feeling of innocence while playing. There is dramatic music when the situation calls for it, but the main theme is the aural stamp of the game. The mission statement as it were, and LBA’s mission is innocence, wonder, and fun.

It would disservice to not mention that LBA2 is supported in text and voices in several languages, with the ability to set the speech and text to different languages. I, myself, and I know of several others who have used this to supplement their learning of another language, and the game has a certain noteriety for it. I used it for my German exams at school in 2002 even.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the article there is a fan-made prequel in the works, and potentially a game set between the events of LBA1 and 2. These, I feel, deserve their own article that I’m preparing.

Mike Dunbar

P.S. Does anyone know where I can get the item-recieved inventory sound effect for my phone?

GET READY! (This article does contain spoilers… even if they are five years old)

This mentalist was voiced by David Gasman, who also voiced Twinsen from Little Big Adventure 2. This knowledge has ruined a treasured portion of my childhood.

Some time in November ’09 I browsed through XBLA’s collection, and found that in their Xbox Originals they had Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy if you’re American). Being as I was a bit excited for Heavy Rain (I don’t own a PS3 personally, but I’m hoping to get a go on a friend’s copy) it seemed natural for me to pick up one of Quantic Dream’s previous game and the prototype for their multiple narrative, contextual controls,  QTE action sequences, and cinematic storytelling. I also had an inkling (with the potential for discourse over what path to take, and given my past experiences with QTEs in games – and the way the person playing doesn’t get to actually see what’s going on) that it was a game best played in a group or at least with one other person. With this in mind my girlfriend and I have been playing this gradually, about 2 hours every three weeks since November. I feel as though I should share my experiences of the game, now that we’re finally at the end and until I can play Heavy Rain it might be useful to put down all the things I hope are fixed in its spiritual successor.

Hi, I’m David Cage… And I’m going to be all over this game.

Fahrenheit goes to great lengths early on to convince you that you’re not playing a game, or watching an interactive film, or any of the other boring ordinary things things you want to call. It’s a bit pretensious about this actually: If you select the opening tutorial a mo-capped model of David Cage, voiced by David Cage, explains to you that he is David Cage and that he’s the director of “A world where anything can happen.” That’s quite a bold claim. The general tone of the tutorial is that he wants you not to think of it as a game, but an interactive storytelling experience. Cage makes no secret of the fact in interviews he wants you to not think of his games as games either. Only they are games, really. Like Omikron – The Nomad Soul was a game (though a game with David Bowie in), and how Heavy Rain is still a game.

This is fine. Pride may be a deadly sin, but there are many good games out there that have the stamp of an auteur. Tim Schafer, Hideo Kojima, Peter Molyneux, Ken Levine – these are all auteurs of the gaming world, and each have more than a few ground-breaking titles under belts. The problems arise with Fahrenheit when David Cage decides not to make a game, but then doesn’t know what to make instead, or how to go about making it.

I move him with my thumbs…

As you will have seen from the tutorial the controls are pretty idiosyncratic. The analogue sticks control most everything, with context senstivity and on screen-prompts. Triggers are used in button mashing, or rhythm based minigames. The face keys are only used when interacting with the menus or with in-game computers. The bumpers, too, are largely ignored. As a system, standing alone from the context of the game’s narrative – as if to pitch it in a meeting – it sounds good. It’s simple. There’s not much for the player to learn, therefore it’s more accessible. Especially to those without prior gaming experience, who have no associations with more common control setups. You get the feeling that this is the audience the game was after. Especially when we consider the plotline.

Down the rabbit hole…

Fahrenheit was released in September 2005. For some reason since The Matrix was released in cinemas in 1999 there have been scores of movies, games, comics, tv shows and general media that have, in some way, tried to capture the spirit of that franchise. Mainly with bullet time and Kung-fu. Deus Ex (Ion Storm, 2000) had the black trenchcoats, the shootouts, and the conspiracy theories. The Christian Bale movie Equilibrium had the fighting, and gunplay and the stoic cold protagnoist. Recently the movie Wanted was still clawing after The Matrix associations with it’s bullet-time style effects and ludicrous gunplay (which I believe wasn’t even in the comic it was based on). I don’t know why this occurs still now, what with the two pale sequels being recognized as general downturn in quality, but I can sort of see why Quantic Dream may have been keen to throw it in a game released in ’05. Firstly, the game was in development from 2003. The films were still coming out. And they’re not actually that bad. More importantly, The Matrix was ubiqutous in western media at the time. You couldn’t move without it being homaged or parodied somewhere. Secondly, it’s just one of the many things Quantic Dream threw into a crowded plot, and given what he was trying to accomplish – spectacle, drama, and a character who attains godlike power, it was more or less the obvious route considering the general tone of Hollywood (remember this is a game that wants to have the “storytelling” of a movie) and the technical feat of accomplishing this with a fully motion captured game.

But as I say, that was just one of the many strands that exist in this game. David Cage has spoken in interviews that he spent a year writing a huge design doc for Fahrenheit, a bible for the fiction – for other writers to use, and a 2000 page script, with the view to releasing it as episodic content. Clearly what can be gleaned from that is the game was meant to be bigger. It unfortunately shows as you play it. Cage reveals that the mellower scenes in the apartments of the main characters are hangovers from the writing of the episodes (where you’d have more time to flesh out the characters) and while there are a unique and interesting part of the game,  the lack of exposition or development for them makes these somewhat hollow. They also, unfortunately, affect the pacing unfavourably. These are minor gripes, however, compared to the main issue – what kind of story is Cage trying to tell? And what kind of game is appropriate for it?

I was enthralled in this game’s opening. You watch a cinematic (with somewhat hammy noir dialogue alas) which leads you to a diner. Your character, Lucas Kane, is having some kind of fit in a bathroom stall, then he suddenly, in some kind of weird trance, stabs a man to death. The scene has impressive motion capture, and they certainly made an effort placing the cameras for the scene. The interesting part is the tense moment you take control of the scene. There’s a cop in the diner, and he’s probably going to want a wee soon, so you had better clean up the floor, hide the body, ditch the weapon, clean yourself, and get out of the diner. Oh, you’d better pay for your bill, too. There’s a split screen that kicks in really hyping up the tension, and this is the only game I’ve played where hiding a body isn’t as simple as picking it up and chucking it into a shadow. Bits of monologue trickle through as you perform each action, and you really get the feeling that you’ll be able to play this scene several ways. It’s a brilliant opening gambit. It is also, unfortunately, the best part of the game.

The problem is, the game has set itself up to be a crime thriller, with a slight case of paranormal. The next scene is you controlling the cops at the scene conducting inteviews and looking for evidence. The leap to paranormal happenings is sudden and great, with little time spent on building tension or mystery. That isn’t so much a problem at first. The crime element is still ongoing, and if it were those two things it wouldn’t be perfect – the ending would still be completely mental, unformed, and inchoesive,  but at least a lot of the guff would have been cut out. The problems lie in the “supplementary scenes”. There are a number of scenes in the game that, at first glance, take place for no real reason in the narrative, that feel like demos, which drag the plot off into needless territory that weakens it, and confuses the player as to what it’s trying to achieve. This isn’t helped at all by some of the characterisation, and what I hope are cinema tropes that have been thrown in for the sake of making some kind of “game homage to western cinema”. I fear that isn’t the case, but I’ll give Quantic Dream the benefit of the doubt on this until I can prove otherwise.

The Cops…

Two of this game’s sins are in its two detectives you control. Carla Vallenti and Tyler Miles work for the NYPD (this game is set in New York 2009 but for some reason all of the street cops are wearing uniforms that look more like Italian ones than NYPD. I wouldn’t normally be a stickler, but since they’re one of the most often portrayed forces in fiction, it’s somewhat jarring to see NYPD officers so unusually dressed) and they’re investigating the murder your other character, Lucas Kane, has just commited. They each represent an instance when the game went too far in a needless direction.

Tyler Miles is black. Nay, he’s not just black. He’s ridiculously black. Every time he walks into a room a funky beat starts playing. If you look around his home he ignores most of the objects, but declares that he wouldn’t sell his Motown records for all the money in the world. He says “Damn!”, can call his girlfriend “Baby” withoug sounding like a tosser, and he’s in love with his basketball. He’s a caricature of every black cop in a movie ever, and his existence as a main character weakens the strength of the plot. Almost to avoid a racism backlash they’ve given him a white girlfriend (though she also falls into the same pitfall as Carla, I’ll discuss shortly), but they needn’t have bothered, as it’s impossible to really care about him as he’s so underdeveloped. He also provides one of the most infuriating pointless action sequences in the game – a 1 on 1 basketball game you have with another cop over a wager that has nothing to do with the rest of the game. All of the sequences are tied together with the Mental Health mechanic (see tutorial) but I think its a lazy excuse for a scene if it can add nothing more to the game than a boost in a stat that had little impact on my experience of the game.

I mean come on:

Then there’s Carla Vallenti. She manages to avoid any racial stereotyping for having an Italian surname. As a character she is perhaps not as nuanced as you’d hope (no one is), but generally she’s okay. I suppose you could say that for a trained police officer with six years experience on the job who claims to have “seen it all” the fact she claims to be useless around gore, or the fact you can’t put her in a darkened room without having to literally breathe for her, is a bit suspect. Making her have weaknesses as profoundly at odds with her profession is a bit of a slap in the face for feminine law enforcement, but she ends up doing much worse for feminism. In this game all three of the protagonists take a shower. We only have to watch Carla’s. It’s overtly sexualised, and for no good reason (I won’t even get into the fact that last gen graphics mean there’s nothing particularly alluring about blocky pologon ladies). Then she has a natter with her gay neighbour about how awful she is with men, but wants a baby. As though no woman in any form of employment can possibly survive without wanting a man, a baby, and someone to hold their hand in the dark. Tyler’s girlfriend is also overtly sexualised. My girlfriend and I were a bit shocked to find that one of the unlockables is a video of her performing a dance for Tyler then culminates in a striptease that continues once she is naked. Add to that the sex minigame that you can initiate if, as Lucas, you convince your ex-girlfriend to stay over and you have to wonder what’s going through their minds at Quantic Dream. What is the game trying to be? Is it a police procedural? A 30something comedy drama? A raunchy bit of soft porn? The cracks from the change of format are beginning to show.

The choice of what scenes made it into the game, and how it was crafted into  a single game as opposed to a number of episodes seems to be an unhappy compromise on what could have been an interesting, if demanding, experiment. Cage has clearly been aware that he only has so much data he can fit into the game, and he was convinced that, perhaps to get the chance to make Heavy Rain, he needed to make a statement of intent with Fahrenheit. It is unfortunate, again, that a game built upon storytelling should have such a batshit mental plot. There was clearly a lot going on in this universe, the plots and subplots weaving all over the place but, like cutting through spaghetti with a knife, those strands have been delivered in a single mouthfull – loose, and incomplete. There are principle players who are only introduced in the final scenes who serve to be a poor Deus Ex Machina, which seems like poor management of assets when considering the pondorous and needless scenes in the gym, playing basketball, dancing with a girlfriend, two torturously dull stealth missions in your childhood at an army base, and generally not figuring out the cause of the murders. David Cage tried to show us you could make a game where the little moments were interesting. It is just a pity he did it with a story with too many big moments that were ignored.

Implementation…

If it seemed like the story didn’t know what it wanted to be, then it’s not suprising that the game’s mechanics themselves had a similar problem. Cage knew that he wanted the mechanics to be at one with the narrative. I respect his intention in this regard, but when the narrative is confused and frustrating, the mechanics are too. He had his control system, and he had his little moments, but it feels like he was still bound to gamey tropes. The bonus cards, the hidden “extra lives” both seem really at odds with any scene in which you encounter them. The girfriend and I took to doing a mock-celebratory “Yay!” every time we found a bonus card. I understand that there is a lot of unlockable content but since some of it is revealed only by your progress in the game, why not all of it? Why bother with such a mood breaking device? Minor quibbles compared to what you spend most of your time doing:

Quick… time… events.

As you can see in both the tutorial, and much more fairly and representatively in the basketball scene, the quick time events rely on you following on screen prompts with the analogue sticks. The prompts appear in the middle of the screen, obscuring your view to anything else. I couldn’t possibly be less engaged in the experience. It’s like presenting a case in court and being told that instead of making an arguement you just have to play a round of Tetris. Then when you finish the court case is magically over. I had to continually ask my girlfriend what had just happened specifically, and her response would always be “He just ran around a bit. Ducked and stuff.” Which to me sounds a lot like these sequences, while they technically took a lot of time in mo-cap and (in the making-of videos) lots of wire work, they are just tools to extend the playing time of a scene. Retreading a concept (he jumps out of the way) a ton of times for content (he jumps out of the way about ten times, and then it goes away for no reason).

The sequences involving the left and right triggers are a bit more tricky. Those, at least, are trying to synergise the actions and physicality of the player with the character. They are not always succesful (I really hate the breathing sequences – as there are other things to be doing at the same time and no one thinks to breathe, and the balancing one isn’t particularly engaging so much as it is distracting from what’s occuring on screen) but the ones requiring fast clicking of the left then right in turn do bring feelings of exhaustion to the fingers that make you feel the exhaustion of the character. Their weakness is that I broke my engagement time and time again by moving in my seat, positioning the controller in such a way as to use my arm muscles instead of the finger muscles to do that one thing.

I was suprised to find Carla didn't take the time at this crime scene to recreate the famous "stripping" Levis advert for us. Probably cut by the ESRB.

What the game excels at is the converstations. The collecting evidence, and remembering what you’d done. The beginning chapters where you’re dealing with having commited the murder, and trying not to raise suspicion as Lucas, and pursuing the killer as Carla and Tyler, are the most interesting parts of the game. My partner and I discussing the best course of action, while under the clock, provided us with the best experience. The QTE system more or less ruined our enjoyment of the latter half  as they become longer and less worthwhile (there is a one where the prompts are so slow there is really no point in it being there, a dog could do it), as did the plot going thoroughly off the rails. Carla having sex with an undead Lucas while declaring her love for him (even though in my game they met like three times), and the world being nearly taken over by the internet in the form of an old lady made no sense whatsoever, and I can only hope Heavy Rain hasn’t done anything near as mental with its storyline.

Here’s one of those Matrix moments I was on about. It’s fairly late in the game though:

I suppose I like the idea of this game. A game where you control all the characters. Shape a story around how they interact and what you decide to do. However, I think if that had been concentrated on, and the control scheme maybe not led down a path of QTE sequences, then the game would have been a better product. As it stands, Fahrenheit will always be known as the prototypre for Heavy Rain. The weird ancestor with the crazy stories who looks strange in all the old photos. It’s worth playing if you don’t have a PS3 and you’re considering a purchase for Heavy Rain, and it’s also worth playing as an experience in original game design. There’s only one man making them quite like this, and it’s certainly worth trying. I’ve been rather harsh in this blog about it, but it’s only because I wanted this game to be so much more, to deliver on its promise and potential, that I’m driven enough to write so much about it. That must tell you something.

If anything this game teaches you there is love after life.

Wait. That’s not right…

Mike Dunbar

This article written by Cage himself is also a useful read.

Well I’ve seen the power of the lightning storm,
I’ve seen the endless ears of corn,
I’ve seen the lakes at the break of day,
And that shit takes my breath away.

“Freedom Road” – The Divine Comedy

Garnet's Screenshot from the guide I didn't know about... doh.

Well, not visually. The game isn’t the prettiest, but then sometimes I look at it, and I see the massive destructible geometry and I know what it means. I see what it’s trying to be. And that does the job. The reason I’m bringing you another tale from Wurm Online so soon is because I don’t live in the PC Gamer village on the starter server anymore. It was a ghost town. The people living there (few) were not the villagers I went to join, they were the vultures picking at the resources left behind by a brave group of travellers who went to the Freedom Kingdom. To start afresh. Expand! And get away from the griefers on the free server!

When I discovered this, it made a lot of sense. Walking around the Golden Valley you start in you can see the scars on the countryside where people have raped the landscape. Patches of trees are all signposted “Only chop v. old and overaged trees!”. Some trees are fenced up, like in real life, to keep people out. The chat tabs are filled with people complaining of thieves, and chatter rings of their friends who have left for the Premium servers in the wake of the news that Rolf, the creator of the world, is merging the PvP premium accounts with the free places. If you’re on the wrong side of that division you may find the starter area even less appealing.

I took the plunge. Zephyr’s arse was a false idol. The place I was now headed wasn’t even built yet. It was only founded a week ago. The land it was in was much more dangerous than the one I had left. It was much more sparsely populated, and the creatures roaming the landscape were larger, and more mystical than the wolves of the Golden Valley. Here I could look forward to Lava Fiends, Giant Scorpions, and the obligatory Huge Spider. The best part: I was still the same low-levelled schmuck that couldn’t handle a fight before. Imagine Frodo without the ring, or his mates.

I approached the transporting portal stone that would send me to Freedom. It gave me the option to think it over. I ignored it. I wanted to get stuck in with the business of building a new village, and being there at a new beginning! The screen went dark. After a few moments I found myself, instead of looking into a wood at the top of a hill, at the shore of a beach. Looking at a huge mountain over the sea, surrounded by some more. It was quite a breathtaking change, and it hammered in that we would be stuck here. There were no working magic stones here. It’s a one way trip.

The first thing I felt compelled to document was a paddock FULL of unicorns. Frickin' unicorns.

I had a quick browse on the PC Gamer Village blog to be sure about where it was. I’ve since found a step by step guide, but at the time I just read the Lewis & Clark style account of how the Mayors pioneered the site for the town. The first thing they went to was a “Lake Colossus”. Fortunately there was a sign pointing down a road that said “TO LAKE COLOSSUS”. Handy. First impression was:

"Bloody hell, this road's long."

But that was naive. See, the road wasn’t long. It was endless. If the road hadn’t actually led somewhere I would have titled this “Road to Nowhere.” This is a screenshot taken some 15 minutes later:

"Bloody hell, this looks much the same!"

I then thought I should inquire over the Kindgom chat if anyone online was from the village I sought. They were, and they agreed to meet me when I arrived. That was a weight off. On this server PvP is permitted, so there was always the (somewhat slim) chance that I’d be killed on sight, and my body would be returned to the starting area, which was already about half an hour’s walk behind me. Onward I went:

I hope that was joke.

It was going fairly well. That said, I did spot the giant corpse of a young scorpion. I didn’t want to see a large one, or what killed it. I was too concerned with running away at this point to take a screenshot! THEN… literally out of nowhere (and the chat started buzzing with this) fog… occured. Instantenous fog. Then people started saying things like “I need to get out of the forest!” and “I saw my first champion skorp in the fog!” So that cheered me up a lot. It was just as this was occuring that I reached, after a long long hike, Lake Colossus. Unfortunately that made the chances of a decent picture of said lake slim:

There's a lake there. Somewhere.

Then I went the wrong way. There were two directions and the passages I read from the explorer’s journal weren’t too clear… in fact they got lost themselves and ended up somewhere called SILENT HILL. There was no way I was going somewhere called Silent Hill in this fog!! Besides, after that the journal peters out into being a description of how they killed several deer. No… I had to go back to chat. A chap named Prospero guided me back the right way, and so I started to head right where I went left at the lake.

Lost in the pirate fog.

Not so much Silent Hill, but more Alone in the Dark.

Yes, night was falling again. But I wasn’t scared of the dark, no, because some clever sods had captured a couple of Lava Fiends, and built fences around them! Like living art street lamps, the lava fiends moped in their little fence, and I wandered past, amazed at the effort required to do that.

As I walked along the shore, a road only 1 tile wide that seperated the lake from the mining alongside a great mountain, I spotted a causeway, and a Colossus. Surely not another Colossus of Zephyr?! Nope… the Colossus of the Lake of the Colossus, of course. Prospero asks me where I am. I tell him, and he asks me if I can see his boat. The “Mud Skipper”. I do see it! My spirits lift considerably, and finally I’m on a boat with a genuine PCG Village person, who’s taking me to the new village. I’m not alone. When we arrive some new folks emigrating from the old village are there as well. We are all inducted into the new village.

My little ferry trip.

This means I now officially am a villager! We all get to work immediately. The village is still in the planning stage, so there’s a lumberyard to build (I’m doing that at the moment, though there’s much left to do now and I expect to find someone else has finshed it by the time I get back). There’s already barracks, an HQ, temporary housing… a dock with some boats. A jaunty sign that says “PCG Pirates!”

All good fun. I had cut down a tree, made a bunch of planks (as had Prospero) and I was building the walls for the Lumberyard when all of a sudden the villager chat fires up with mention of a Giant Spider being loose in the village. I’m half afraid to die (I think I’ll spawn again in the village but I’m not 100%) but also very curious. There were about 5 of us in the village at this point, and I head down from the hill where I was working. There it is. A huge spider just sitting there in front of the HQ. A couple of the guys have shut themselves in a house getting ready to fight it, then it turns on muggins over here. Brilliant. I have to run away and jump in the lake to get it to leave me alone! After that we all surround it, and fight it next to a tree. Once it’s dead it gets buried, and we all agree it’s time to call it a night.

It’s fun living in a village!

Mike Dunbar

P.S. Yes, it was too stressful getting nearly killed by the spider to take any screens of that too. I must get my “war corrospondent” head on.

I'm the dumb pilgrim you've been hearin' for twenty days and smellin' for three.

I am tired. Tired, wet, malnourished, and I have no map or compass. I’m in a forest. It would be pitch black were it not for the light of the stars through the clouds and the light from a suspisiously pink moon. I am bereft of hope. I’ve been travelling for 3 days and 3 nights, lost on the moors. I’ve been literally foraging for my food, which has been nothing but lingonberries, and I’ve been drinking out of puddles. Just as my will to go on is at its lowest ebb and I’m going to give in to my fate at the claws of  the wolves stalking the hills,  I see something breaking through the trees: A silhouette. It’s an arse. It’s the massive arse of a huge statue – The Colossus of Zephyr.

“Finally.” I think to myself,  “Finally I am here. I’ve made it. My journey can finally begin.”


There, through the trees, a moon shone brightly.

There, through the trees, a moon shone brightly.

This, arguably, isn’t really how you’re meant to begin your journey on Wurm Online – a free, Java based, MMO by a Swedish dev team led by the enigmatic Rolf. And I did go through the tutorial motions. I spent some time in the starter town cutting wood, making kindling, setting a fire, doing some mining, and making planks of wood. Having done those things I was then told by the NPC that I might want to hang around the starter town for a bit and… yeah, do whatever I want.

So… I should explain how I ended up searching for the Arse of Zephyr.

I only heard about this game because I listened to a PC Gamer podcast yesterday afternoon. I was was doing what I’ve spent this week of holiday from work doing: Sitting at my PC wondering where I can go out this week, casually throwing blocks at the unfortunate “Grey Guy” from Sumotori Dreams. While asking eachother what they’ve been playing, Scottish Graham mentions this game Wurm Online. He explains that PC Gamer has its own villiage in the world, a nice little community in a strange game where you can live out a “Little House on the Prairie” life, but more importantly – every resource has to be made from scratch. Basically you’re a pioneer in a fantasy world with goblins and the like, only instead of the WoW thing of orchestrating raids and having that experience, you’re basically just trying to survive together with farms, blacksmiths, and other community projects. What makes it interesting is the politics that occur with your neighbours and neighbouring villages over resources and space, and the game’s strong suit – it’s use of destructible terrain (for mines, and tunnels!).

Graham then told an amusing story about the PC Gamer village. Another player in the game called Zephyr, who has been playing the game for years, had orchestrated a community project whereby dozens of people gave up their time and resources to build him a Colossus in the  middle of the village, on the top of a mountain. Graham has this to write on the PC Gamer Villiage blog:

Ah, Zephyr. God of the colossal statue, lord of all that is wonderful, his benevolent arse looms down on our little village like a smiling father. His statue’s arse, that is. Zephyr is, from what I have learnt in my first week of Wurm Online, a very powerful man. On the starting server, Golden Valley, he is the only person to ever have orchestrated the construction of a colossus, the giant statue that strides across the large mountain where the PCG village resides. Every morning when I emerge from my small wooden shack overlooking the western sea, I get a nice good view of that behind; hands firmly placed on hips, staring out across the lake in the east over Zephyr’s island villa.

The statue required “2000 clay”, and “2000 rock”. Landscaping, plinth-building, an entire infrastructure around the project, farms sat neglected, and other building works were put on hold for this superhuman effort, at the hands of a hilarious megalomanic. He’s not the Mayor, he’s not the King. He’s like some kind of fantasy land Don Corelone. I want to meet him.

So I knew what I’d do. Since my only prior experience of MMOs was City of Heroes (which I got tired of quite quickly) I’d join up, and then seek out the PC Gamer people, as we’d all (probably) have the PC Gamer Magazine/Podcast thing in common, and I had the info that there was a villiage out there near to the start that wasn’t openly hostile. But I didn’t know how to get there. I went to the villiage’s blog, and looked at a picture slideshow of directions. Sadly, due to the whole building/terrain mechanic, most of the landmarks in the pictures had gone. And also, I had no compass or map. So I had to bite the proverbial bullet (there’s no guns in the game) and Jeremiah Johnson it…

“Jeremiah, maybe you best go down to a town, get outta these mountains.”
“I’ve been to a town Del.”

There was a sundial that doubled as a compass in the starter town and I prayed it wasn’t just art. I head North. My character’s stamina and speed use depend highly on what terrain I’m traversing, so I try to stick to the roads at first, but I sharply realise that these twisting roads that fork off into settler’s cul de sacs are far too confusing to navigate and keep your direction. I decide to go as the crow flies. Alas, I decided this a bit too late, and was already horribly lost. The weird thing that Wurm Online manages, that Oblivion and other open world games haven’t (to me), was the genuine concern about being lost. It reminded me of a time on Exmoor when I was 10 and I got seperated from my family for an hour. A genuine fear crept over me. Then something awful happened.

It started to get dark.

I’d been told by that NPC to be careful of the dark. I’d strolled off into unsettled territory, but on the way there I’d come across the butchered corpses of wolves and mountain lions (now since this is an MMO there are emotes, and I have to say now that despite my fear I did “fart on the butchered corpse of the young mountain lion”). Whatever lay out there? Before I could find out I came across a fence. I followed it around, and found a stone-walled house. While looking back into the woods I had come a ginger-haired lady had approached me from behind, and said in a man’s voice (the default voice for all emotes) “HEY THERE!”. I was then told that the girl smiled at me. Meekly, and taken aback, I smiled in return. Then the event dialogue said that she was attempting to heal herself. “From what?” was my immediate thought, but before I could find out she had darted into her house and locked the door. Then I heard wolves.

I managed to get away without an encounter, but I was on edge. I kept going, but my nutrition had dropped to 30%, and I hadn’t drank any water since I started. It showed in my stamina. I was blundering slowly through the woods. I thought to get to some water.

Somehow on my journey I managed to walk to Centre Parks.

“Where you headed?”
“Same place you are, Jeremiah: hell, in the end.”

After a spot of bruise-enducing scree-running I was by the shore of a lake. There was an island in the middle, and on the opposite side I spotted a large statue. A colossus, if you will. I squeed in excitement (After that harrowing wolf thing and all) and confidently strode across the penisula feeling as though my troubles would all be over. Imagine my disappointment as I saw a sign infront of me. It read “Brohalla”. Brohalla? Where preppy frat-boy vikings go when they die? Fantastic. With a name like Brohalla I could only wonder what kind of reception I’d get, bedraggled and starving as I was (by this point the Lingonberry foraging was in full swing).  I didn’t get a chance to find out, however, as I was attacked by a goblin. A little goblin. I tried to fight it for a bit, but it got me dangerously low on health and there had been no combat tutorial, so I was learning as I went. I ran off and escaped the spooky git, but now I was hurt.

Finally, the sun rose. I was also at the coast. A mix of luck, and the general idea that the way I had been going was totally wrong, I followed the coast back up the way I’d come. Most of the day walking later (I endured another period of strolling off course on another goose-chase I thought was “home”), and I found myself near to starter territory. In a bay, and looking at a mountain. I had to take a chance. Though, by this point I was feeling the same delusion I did in real life on the Isle of Rum when I hiked across the island equally ill prepared (to last me the day I had only a litre of water, and a tin of sardines that I ate raw using two pens as chopsticks). I began to question why I was on this hike? Why don’t I press the X in the corner and end this torment? What would I even do when I got there? I couldn’t tell them this. I couldn’t say I spent TWO real life days looking for this place! I wouldn’t have to wait long to find out. After half an hour of walking what must have been North-east I climbed that mountain and found a sign. A wonderful sign. “PCG Fort”. Night fell, and the rain lashed down. The villiage must only be close. But what way?

Not South.

I am a massive tool.

PCG Villiage is sickeningly close to the starter town. It’s literally 10 minutes walk North from it. Up the big hill infront of you. I’d been following the directions on the site (Take the road WEST out of Glitterdale) and that was my problem. The problem is it’s down to the community out of the game to make the maps. I suppose that’s not a problem, really, though. It’s not like whatever force that created the earth left a map behind. This is how it’s meant to be. It’s the robust survival, and community, that gives this game its edge. It’s an MMO, it doesn’t need to cater for the single player.

I have no land to call my own, and seeds to plant if I did. My foraging days are long from over.

Upon my arrival in PCG Villiage I found one villiager asking if anyone could lend a hand as he was building his house. “Brilliant!” I thought. I’ll help him build his house, and he’ll help me, and tell me how to, build mine. That’s as far as I’ve got. But we had a chat, and I was told I was allowed to build in the villiage. So at least I have a home. The next challenge is building a house for myself, then I suppose, finding my niche in society.

“Hawk. Goin’ for the Musselshell. Take me a week’s ridin’, and he’ll be there in… hell, he’s there already.”

Mike Dunbar

(I’m not sure how many parts this will turn into, but they probably won’t be consecutive)

Alcatraz Harry: Hated you. What? Didn't you know that, in prison, if you go to the same place twice dogs eat your bollocks?

If I were an old man, which I’m not, I’d tell you what it was like in the early 80s. As it stands, I was born in July 1986. However, I was brought up playing a Sinclair ZX Spectrum (I believe it was this early exposure to prolonged flashing lights and awful sounds that has made me so incompatible with nightclubbing culture). Between the Spectrum, and the BBC computers at my school (it occured to a few friends and I that we could sneak into a classroom during dinner and play on the BBC without detection, this would have been in 1996  – so I was retro even then), I’ve had a feel for the ways of old gaming. Games that were programmed by men in their bedrooms in basic. Games that weren’t made with concerns like “What is the deomgraphic for this kind of thing?”. Essentially, before Tom Hanks changed it all in “Big” by becoming a one-man focus group (Note to self: That wasn’t real).

What I’m trying not to rake over again is that it’s widely accepted that games are easier now. Developers spend more time and resources (and I’m not passing comment negatively)  in making their game accessible with tutorials, on balancing, and with things like the AI Directors of Left For Dead 1& 2 and the currently in development Napoleon: Total War (their aim to give you a challenge, a good fight, not to absolutely paste you). Extended introduction sequences try to ram the game’s core concepts into some blurb at the start, which is something that, by repetition, we’ve almost stopped noticing – as though we expect in real life that as space-marines we will only be told how to fire a gun once we’ve arrived on whatever tiny rodent infested planet we’re headed to. Why is this?

We pay this little “immersion tax” at the start of  a new game because we know we’ll be a bit lost if we don’t. It seems a bit unneccessary but there are cheques and balances in play. See, if you suddenly find yourself met with a grenade throwing system that’s alien to you in the middle of your cookie-cutter WW2 shooter, you’re going to break immersion completely checking out the manual online, or the key bindings, and you may bemoan not being told how to do it sooner. Imagine playing Fallout 3 without the slightly tedious Vault chapter at the start? As irritating as it seems, you may have needed to escape your play pen, shoot that radroach, and beat up Butch to get the swing of things in the DC Wasteland.

Now 9 times out of 10 I want a game that introduces its concepts elegantly, unpatronisingly and, at its best, without me even noticing. Braid was masterful. Yes, nothing subtle about a bit of landscape with “PRESS SPACE TO JUMP” written on it, but do you remember the moment you learned that in this platformer there was no need to fear the leap of faith? There was no great fanfare about it. You simply fell, missed or hit some spikes. And survived either way, because the time reversal key appeared next to frozen-in-time-Tim. What didn’t occur was a pop up message that paused gameplay and yelled triumpantly “YOU CAN REVERSE TIME! HOW AWESOME IS THAT!?”.  That doesn’t mean Braid isn’t difficult. But it is forgiving. Sometimes, I’ve noticed, gamers don’t want to be forgiven.

Let’s talk about the 1s in 10s.

Spelunky:

Spelunky: See where it says "Game Over"? Yeah, get used to that.

And where better to begin than with a Roguelike? Let me just lay this one out: Derek Yu is a sadist. A wonderful sadist. Yes, Spelunky has a tutorial, but you’ll find quite early on that while the basic mechanics are demonstrated, nothing else is. This game is hard. Very hard. Death can come quickly, and with little explination. There is no debrief. You got killed by that moving block. Oh? You didn’t know it could move? You do now. BACK TO THE START. Why doesn’t this game make me want to stab things? The random level generation. The unbelievable sense of achievement when you accomplish something, and the knowledge that if you really want to take the risk you can hightail it out of that room and go to the next – though you may not be well equipped enough to survive.  It’s also full of charm. And clearly not every level is randomly generated, as I have chanced upon a crashed flying saucer at one point. There are new enemies, items, and all sorts revealing themselves gradually over time, and unlike most games it doesn’t require you to have actually progressed through the levels to do this. You will, of course, see new things as you do progress, but there’s enough hidden gems at each level to keep you coming back and slamming your head against the proverbial brick wall. You will die. A lot. Don’t kid yourself.

Sumotori Dreams:

Sumotori Dreams: It's not pretty, but then it's not even half a megabyte big.

Oh god this game is wonderful. Full of wonder. It sort of relies on your preconceptions of it to inform your judgement. If, like anyone who sees a game with two men in Sumo poses readying for a bout, you think this game is about fighting you are wrong. So very wrong. But you won’t care. It hates the player not because it is harshly difficult like Spelunky where progress is lost. It hates the player because there is practically no progress at all. It also can put you in unwinnable positions from the get-go, but much more importantly it just doesn’t want you to control it.

The fighters move like drunk toddlers. You control “Blue Guy”, but you would never know and in fact I didn’t for my first 5 bouts. It tells you the controls on the screen before every bout but not to help you, just to twist the knift a bit when you see how ineffective they are (you aren’t directly controlling him, so much as nudging him). This is intended, however, as the joy in this games comes from watching drunk ragdolls fall over, stumble into eachother, break things, attempt to get up, and trip eachother over. The physics ragdoll rigs are constantly in a battle to balance themselves from the moment movement occurs. Locomotion is actually a by-product of this, so technically it’s a physics masterpiece (especially when factoring in the size as well – 372kb). In essence, due to the spastic autonomous movement of the ragdolls,  it is a hilarious slapstick comedy game. The down key, once play commences, is a sit down key. What game has a sit down key?

The comedic nature of Sumotori Dreams isn’t lost on its creator, Peter Sotesz, clearly, as one of the arenas you can do battle in puts all four combatants at the top of a flight of stairs. Stairs they inevitably fall down. It also led me to pondering the amazing nature of a game that brings to the spotlight what other games take for granted: How hard is it for a robot sumo wrestler to climb bloody stairs?! Literally impossible. Sotesz’s angle on the site is “This is the game where beginners can beat hardcore players”. What he should have said is “This is the game where it doesn’t matter who wins, because it’s so incredibly funny to watch ragdolls fall over the littlest thing.”

VVVVVV:

VVVVVV: Nothing to do with voracious verbose vaudevillian villians/victors.

Back to games that hate you because they’re hard. VVVVVV, by Terry Cavanagh, is an 8-bit looking platformer, set in the most ridiculously health & safety defying space ship ever made. Another game where you will die more times than take a step. It’s got a soul, though, in that death doesn’t set you back too far. Your progress isn’t lost, and while there is a counter of your deaths I don’t think it negatively impacts things. It does hate you mind. There is a difficulty curve, yeah, but you have a one hit kill, and only one tool at your disposal: The ability to flip gravity. You have to navigate spiky tunnels aiming for small and/or moving platforms with a well timed gravity flip, and the chances of success first time are bloody slim. The good news is the lack of a load time, and the lack of a penalty for death make it horribly addictive, like running your tongue over a mouth ulcer.

I’ve chosen these three in particular because you can find free demos (or in the case of Spelunky the whole game) for free on the links provided. They’re all independent, also, which isn’t a coincidence. We’ve reached a time in gaming now where publishers are marketing for wider and wider audiences. This, I actually welcome. It’s about time the stigma of gaming was lifted, and hopefully us human beings will finally outnumber the leet-speaking weirdos ruining XBLA for everyone. But to cater to a wider audience you’re going to have to make concessions, and publishers understand that people have jobs, children, commitments. What we don’t have a lot of is time. So they need to make games that remind you how to play it while you’re playing it because they know not everyone can hammer it for 20 hours straight. They need to make games that gradually let you in so that inexperienced gamers can be included and so reviewers can say it’s appropriate for them to buy.

If gamers want to have an experience outside of this, it’s not the end of the world at all. There’s a renaissance happening right now. Brilliant experimental games are being released on the big platforms and given attention. Indie developers are getting genuine shots at the big time. In this month’s PC Gamer UK there is a 6 page article on Spelunky, and a two page review of VVVVVV you may want to peruse after you’re done here. So when people say games are getting easier, just remember, not all of them are. Some awesome games still hate you.

Mike Dunbar

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