Monday, December 31, 2012

25 Games of 2012: Part Two (20-16)

Contents: [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5]

20. Lim (Merritt Kopas)

Merritt Kopas is one of the most exciting voices in videogames that I’ve discovered this year. Not only does she write amazing and insightful essays, but she created one of the most effortlessly meaningful games I’ve played this year. (Edit: The Nightmare Mode piece I originally linked here was actually by Porpentine, not Kopas. Apologies to both for the misattribution.)
Lim is a simple game that beautifully conveys its message through how it feels to play. By sliding this cube through a series of rooms, you sharply (and violently) feel the compromises Kopas and countless others have to make in their daily lives and the social exclusion they feel when they dare to be themselves.
A simple mechanic: other squares will ram you violently and refuse to let you pass unless you fit in. To fit in you hold down a button to change colours. When you do this,  the camera zooms in on you, bringing fake-you under ever-increasing scrutiny as you try to fit in. Hold it down for two long and the screen starts to shudder, like the real you is trapped inside fake-you, banging on the walls and trying to get out. Eventually you let go—you have to let go—and the squares start attacking you again in a violent barrage. The juttering of the screen and the thudding sound are nauseating. 
Then there is the beauty of being pushed out of the world itself, playing into an aesthetic of the glitch to send home such a powerful, powerful message.
When I say that Lim conveys its message effortlessly, I don’t mean that I think Kopas put no effort into the game. On the contrary, I think she has poured her everything into this. Rather, as a player, there was no barrier between me and what the game wanted to say to me. A marvellous, intimate game; a work of art; a must-play. Kopas is certainly a developer and a writer to keep an eye on in the future.
At The Border House, Zoya has a far more detailed breakdown of why Lim is such an incredible achievement. RockPaperShotgun also featured it and wrote a few paragraphs about it. Cameron Kunzelman also wrote a post about both Lim and Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia. On that note, Anthropy’s Dys4ia is an absolutely incredible game that will only take five minutes of your time. The only reason it doesn’t have its own place on this list is because I am a terrible person and only played it yesterday. But it is phenomenal and you really must play it. Dan Golding does it more justice at Crikey where he named it Game of the Year

19. Pocket Planes (Nimblebit)

I was one of those people that really liked Tiny Tower. Sure, I understand why you wouldn’t, but the slow-burn gameplay, the way I gradually built up this tower in real-time was something I found incredibly rewarding—without ever spending a cent on the game’s microtransactions. 
Pocket Planes follows a very similar formula as Tiny Tower, but with the added attraction of actually having things to do and some kind of creative input into the network you develop. Every Tiny Tower player has a narrow skyscraper full of random shops. In Pocket Planes, however, each player is going to start in a different corner of the world, will purchase different airports, will set up different trade routes. The same slow-burn, impossible-to-fail gameplay remains, but has been rendered much more compelling and customisable.
I loved watching my network slowly spread from Australia’s east coast back west across Asia and Europe to London. Sadly, I stopped playing before I crossed the Atlantic to New York, but zooming out and looking at the network I had constructed felt like a real achievement. 
Pocket Plane’s most frustrating aspect was its flat, non-circular world. You couldn’t travel from Australia to LA! The Pacific Ocean just hits a wall. Though, this just made the other side of the world so much more exotic, so much more attractive.
J.P. Grant, who wrote a great analysis of Tiny Tower last year, wrote an excellent breakdown of Pocket Planes at Gamers With Jobs.  Ryan Kuo wrote at Kill Screen about how the game demonstrates the importance of being bored in videogames. Gus Mastrapa makes a valid critique of the game at Unwinnable taking issue with the inability to set up automated routes in the game and wanting a button that presses itself. And also at Unwinnable, I wrote a “Pocket Treasures" article about how I enjoyed Pocket Planes as a kind of world exploration but felt unattached to its citizens.  

18. Borderlands 2 (Gearbox)

All I wanted from Borderlands 2 was more of the same, and that’s what I got. People like to complain about Borderlands’s carrot-on-a-stick grinding and disposable, capitalist weapons; they lament the lack of a ‘point’ to the motions you go through when everything you are rewarded with will be thrown out for the next marginally shinier thing in five minutes. But what such critiques miss is that the process of grinding can be fun in and of itself. The goals and their rewards are meaningless in Borderlands 2, but they’re also not the point. The motions themselves, the process, is what is enjoyable about Borderlands 2.
The pleasure of Borderlands is that its infinite weapons are more than a gimmick. Each feels slightly different, and each requires a slightly different approach to how you play. The rest of the game is practically meaningless. What kind of enemies you are facing, what environment you are facing them in, the reason you are facing them. It is all irrelevant. It’s all just an excuse to see how this weapon feels in relation to that weapon. It isn’t enough to just read the stats and see which has the highest number. It depends on the scope, the speed of the bullets, the look and sound, the recoil. 
This was the pleasure of the first game, and perfectly carries over to the sequel. Borderlands 2 adds a far more diverse range of possible attributes to weapon, keeping that persistent feel of experimentation all the fresher. All the guns simply just feel a bit weightier, too. Characters are more customisable; there are more kinds of enemies that must be approached in different ways; there are more locales and secrets. Borderlands 2 is a textbook sequel: more of what was good of the predecessor, refined. 
And then there is Borderlands 2’s story, which isn’t really refined so much as rubbed in the mud. The game shows an absolute disregard for its story as though, like most games, it has to go out of its way to tell you how much it doesn’t care about its story. But then this becomes a weird kind of playing chicken with the player, where both game and player try to care less about the story than the other until the player loses simply from the sheer amount of time they’ve invested about it. I wrote about this weird phenomena. So did Lana Polansky. It never really succeeds as a parody, nor does it succeed as a good story. It just works as a story that breaks you, and that is something.
Though, there is still the pervasive casual sexism throughout the game. Sometimes it seems self-aware (like when you fire an artillery cannon at some misogynist’s house) but mostly this just comes across as the game trying to find an excuse for its behaviour. Then, of course, there was the “Girlfriend Mode” fiasco before the game even released (that really should not have been a fiasco at all, if Gearbox had just apologised for poorly chosen words). I was one of the hot-headed people during that drama. I regret foolishly saying I was going to boycott the game, but I don’t regret being angry over an AAA developer stubbornly refusing to apologise over some casual sexism. 
Surprisingly, perhaps, there has been plenty of good writing about Borderlands 2. Apart from the (at times) fruitful discussion during the Girlfriend Mode thing (see above link for those articles), and the articles about the weird storytelling, I wrote about the unique way guns are used in FPSes to convey our character to us. Patricia Hernandez looks at the game’s blatant consumerism. And at The Wall Street Journal, Yannick Lejacq looks at how irony functions in Borderlands 2—or perhaps how it doesn’t.

17. Trials: Evolution (RedLynx)

I never played Trials HD when it came out. I was never a fan of motorbikes, or of racing games, so it didn’t really look like my kind of thing. It wasn’t until various friends started getting hyped the Trials: Evolution that I realised this wasn’t a racing game, it was Super Meat Boy on wheels, and that is exactly a game for me.
Trials: Evolution is a precision platformer. It’s about being in exactly the right position in exactly the right place at exactly the right speed so as to be in the next position 0.0001 seconds sooner. What’s so refreshing about the Trials games, I think, is that the language of a dirt bike (accelerate, break, lean forward, lean back) is an entirely new vocabulary for platforming (opposed to the usual walk, run, jump, jump higher). The need to focus on exactly where your rider’s body weight is in relation to their bike creates this really intimate bodily connection between player and character and controller. 
When you screw up, you know exactly what you did wrong. When you make a jump that should be impossible, maybe bunny hoping onto a protruding pipe just large enough for your rear wheel, then flipping forward to land with both wheels perfectly on a downhill ramp, it feels like the greatest achievement of your life. 
I’ll always have a soft spot for twitchy games that require that real intimate understanding of the controller in my hands. Games like Geometry Wars, Super Meat Boy, Ziggurat. When I am able to get good at these games (or even just ‘capable’) I feel like my flesh has merged with the technology, like I understand it just that little bit better. Tilting my weight just that little bit forward or back with the left stick, tapping the right trigger to throttle the engine just enough, has brought me closer to my 360 controller than any other game.
For an idea of the kind of precision that Trials: Evolution demands, here is a video of Jason Killingsworth (twitch gaming extraodinare) completing one of the game’s Extreme difficulty levels. Note the images in the bottom right corner that show the replay viewer exactly how much he was pressing each button on the controller. Watch. Learn. Simon Parkin wrote about the phenomenally unique “Gigatrack” course. And Mark Serrels compares Trials: Evolution to rock climbing.

16. Spaceteam (Henry Smith)

In September this year, I went on my first international press trip. I flew to Montreal, at the publisher’s expense, and spent two days playing two much anticipated AAA titles. Since I was in town (and since it took me about 30 hours of airplanes and airports each way to get there) I spent a few more days of my own time just checking the place out. Neither of the games I was paid to see are on this list. But while in town, I went to the Mount Royal Game Society monthly meet-up. There I was introduced to former Bioware programmer Henry Smith and his local multiplayer iOS game Spaceteam. The loud bar was the perfect place for a game that requires two people to co-operatively yell over the top of each other.
Spaceteam is a simple idea magnificently realised. Two to four players, each with their own iOS device, have to obey the computer’s written commands: pulling levers, turning dials, flicking switches. The trick is that the commands you receive probably apply to a control panel on another player’s screen. So each player is frantically telling the others what to do while, simultaneously, trying to listen to those other player’s yelled commands. 
It’s a strong central idea, but what makes the game are the little touches. The tongue-twisting dial names (“Flushflux” almost actually made me cry with frustration after having to say it ten times); the need to wipe away dripping slime or grab on to panels that have popped out of their holdings. The game demands you look after so many things at one time, leaving you exhausted by the time you inevitably get consumed by an exploding star. 
We’re currently going through a re-birth of local multiplayer games, it seems—visible both through the re-introduction of split screen multiplayer in various shooters this year, as well as the Sportsfriend kickstarter. But unlike Johann Sebastian Joust or its ilk, finding people to play Spaceteam with is a breeze. Every other person has an iOS device, and the game itself is free (but seriously, buy a 99c upgrade and give Henry some money). 
I wrote a more thorough review of Spaceteam for Unwinnable, which includes this cliffhanger video of Helen and I playing a typically intense game.

Contents: [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5]

Sunday, December 30, 2012

25 Games of 2012: Part One (25-21)

Contents: [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5]

GOTY lists! As therapeutic as they are meaningless. On one hand, ranking individual artworks against each other to decide which is better and which is worse is exactly not what criticism is meant to do. On the other hand, looking back over a year of games and trying to summarise why the games that stood out for me did stand out for me is a really interesting and enjoyable writing exercise. It’s a chance to be reflective, to get away from the pressure of having to rush on to talk about the next new release.
The last couple of years now I have written Top 20 lists (this year it has ballooned to a Top 25) of my favourite games of the previous year. But more than just a list of titles next to numbers, I like to spend some time writing about each game, why I care about it and why it has stuck with me. So over the course of this week I will be posting my top 25 games of the year five games at a time so I can spend some time talking about each of them.
The numbers, meanwhile, shouldn’t be read as saying one game is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than the others. All the games on the following list are exceptional, and many other exceptional games came out this year that are not on this list. Instead, all the ranking represents is the amount that game has resonated with me and stuck with me.
As with previous years, I’ve tried to link to a few memorable articles written about each game, as well as anything I wrote myself. These are far from exhaustive lists, though, and I would love it if you could comment with any other relevant articles that I may have missed.
It’s a bit of cliché to say that this year has been a huge year for videogames, but it’s also entirely true. For the first six months, though, I don’t think I played a single AAA release that really stood out. It was the downloadable titles (especially on Playstation Network and iOS) that stuck with me this year. It wasn’t that there were no good AAA releases; it’s more that the big franchises that did have releases this year were franchises I have no investment in, like Mass Effect. This did give me a chance to catch up on all the 2011 games I never got around to last year, however: Saints Row 3, Rayman Origins, Driver: San Francisco, Dead Island (unfortunately). 
Things changed slightly in the second half of the year, when a few more interesting games were released, and I discovered a few games that had slipped under my radar from earlier in the year. Still, in the 25 games that I’ve chosen to highlight as standout moments of my past year, only four of those are tradition AAA games, and this is something I’m really excited about. Not because AAA is stagnating or dying or anything like that, but because of the strengthening ecology of alternative strands of game development that are maturing around AAA. Sure, ‘indie’ (in its various strands) has been around for quite some time now, but it’s no longer a case of a rare indie/handheld game being able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the big AAA games. Now it’s a few AAA games that are able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the far more worthwhile indie and handheld games.
But enough rambling. On with Part One of the list!

25. Sound Shapes (Queasy Games)

I’ve always had a soft spot for games that visualise music. As someone who loves listening to music but has absolutely no intellectual understanding of what is happening in the music I enjoy, games like Sound Shapes are excellent because they convey music in a language I understand: games. I can see the things making the sounds on the screen. I can see how they are working together to create a beat and a rhythm. Sound Shapes is particularly interesting to me as it is based on one of the few instruments I actually understand: the Tenori-On. 
All platforming games have an unseen grid mapped over them (or perhaps sitting underneath them). We use this grid to mentally comprehend if Mario is going to make the jump or if he can just sprint right over the gap. In Sound Shapes, this grid also determines pitch and timing. Objects closer to the top of the screen make a higher-pitch note than those close to the bottom. Those to the left of the screen make a sound earlier than those on the right. As I move my little ball avatar across each world, I can see the song coming to life around me.
While most of the stages are entirely acceptable ‘music’, it is Beck’s “Cities” level that succeeds best as a song. As you progress through the dead city, the song works its way through an intro, a first verse, a chorus, a bridge, a second verse, another chorus, and an outro. Even the lyrics fit into the world of the level through platforms that take things very literally. It is the first time I’ve ever not been able to get a videogame level out of my head for days.
However, the very feature that should’ve boosted Sound Shapes’s longevity, it’s custom level creator, is its weakest point. The editor is fiddly, requiring you to choose what sound effects you want before you are able to preview what they sound like. A few good songs have been made, but in the weeks after the game’s release, there was little being shared other than Mario and Final Fantasy covers. I have yet to play the game on my Vita, though, so perhaps the touch screen makes things a bit better. Still, once I had played through the pre-packaged stages a few times each (and Beck’s stages a few times more), I found little reason to return to the game.
I wrote about the living dead cities of Beck’s “Cities” level for Unwinnable’s theme week on cities. Kirk Hamilton also wrote a bit about the same level (it really is the game’s highlight) at Kotaku

24. Angry Birds: Star Wars (Rovio)

It’s cool to hate Angry Birds if you’re a slightly older, ‘real’ gamer. It’s everything that’s wrong with our industry. IOS game with micro-transactions, gameplay based largely on luck, endless iterations of the same ideas instead of a complete overhaul, utterly ruthless saturation of merchandise. People see kids wearing Angry Birds t-shirts, holding Angry Birds toys, eating Angry Birds-themed birthday cakes, and they are aghast that Angry Birds to these kids is what Mario was to them twenty years ago.
Of course, this is just like complaining that the music Kids These Days listen to is terrible compared to the stuff you listened to when you were a kid, and it completely misses what is unique and enjoyable and excellent about Angry Birds. It misses that the fact Angry Birds is so easy to play makes it accessible to an incredibly wide range of players who otherwise might never try to play videogames. It misses the fact that not every game has to be based on skill, accessible only to an auteur elite, and that luck-based gameplay can be incredibly satisfying in its own right. It misses the fact that each incremental iteration of the Angry Birds franchise has both refined and advanced the base formula in really interesting ways.
Angry Birds: Star Wars takes the best of the original Angry Birds and the planetoid-slingshotting of Angry Birds: Space and adds a range of entirely new, Star Wars-inspired skills to create a range of new challenges. It is these skills that make Angry Birds: Star Wars is the best realised Angry Birds to date, and well worth the one dollar asking price. Obi-wan's force push, Luke's lightsaber, Han's laser—each is more interesting than any bird's skill in the previous games.
I wrote about Angry Birds: Star Wars for my “Pocket Treasures” column at Unwinnable, musing on how the two franchises don’t really come together so much as Angry Birds completely subsumes Star Wars.

23. Spelunky HD (Mossmouth)

We got off on the wrong foot, Spelunky and I. Now that it was out on Xbox Live Arcade, I was so excited to play and master this game that I had heard so much about it. As someone who typically loves simple yet difficult games like Super Meat Boy or Geometry Wars, I thought Spelunky would be exactly my kind of game. But when I finally played it, it just seemed unfair. How could I master a game that kept changing the playing field on me?
It’s a bit of a taboo to tell someone they played a game wrong (not that that stopped me). But, truly, there is a wrong way to play nearly every videogame. Sure, play any game however you want, but don’t blame the game when you don’t find it enjoyable. Certainly, when I first started playing Spelunky, I was playing it wrong. When I finally learned how to play it correctly, my experience improved considerably. Initially, when I was wanting to approach it like Super Meat Boy, I was hoping to master Spelunky in a way that would mean I could play it with my eyes closed. But this is impossible in Spelunky. The game is capable of screwing you over in all kinds of ways that have nothing to do with your motor skills.
Then I read this piece by Jason Killingsworth and it all made sense. Spelunky isn’t Super Meat Boy; it’s poker. What you have to learn to master in Spelunky is the ability to improvise and cope with the hand you are dealt. Spelunky isn’t about winning or losing. It is about doing the best you can possibly do with this hand, and then dying.
Spelunky was an important reminder to me that how I want to play a game is not necessarily the ‘right’ way. Once I was willing to give a little, once I was willing to meet the game on its terms, I found the bombastic, slapstick comedy I had heard others praise. My deaths no longer felt like a bastard game laughing at me, but a game laughing with me at the unfortunate tribulations of my character. This is permadeath at its funniest. 
Apart from Jason’s great essay, my two favourite articles about Spelunky were both at Unwinnable this year. Gus Mastrapa talks about Spelunky as an acquired taste akin to olives (my own experience seems to say this is an apt metaphor). Meanwhile, Chris Dahlen’s kid keeps sacrificing the babysitter.

22. Cool Pizza (Secret Library)

Cool Pizza is a simple and suave iOS game that drips with style. The slick visuals are full of life, as much in the animations that are bulging with life between their two frames as in the colour palette of black, white, and fluro yellow and pink. For perhaps the first time ever, the tilt controls feel perfectly right, used as they are to tilt a skateboard left and right as your skater chic protagonist just kind of dangles with a “whatever man” apathy. And then you jump and suddenly the skateboard is in her hands and she is unleashing a salvo of hits on monsters that look like rub-on tattoos. 
The gameplay is heavily inspired by Sega’s classic Space Harrier, but is far from a simple clone. The most obvious difference is that your skater is effected by gravity. Keeping her airborne requires you to keep taking out enemies, and a multiplier is added for every monster taken out without touching the ground. 
It’s a simple game that is simply a pleasure to play. The only disappointment is that the game ends rather abruptly, cancelling any desire I have to try to top the leaderboards. With a finite number of enemies in a game, I know from my first missed multiplier that I won’t get a high score, so I give up. If Secret Library were to make an update for an endless play mode, I would probably still be playing Cool Pizza regularly. As it stands, though, I thoroughly enjoyed the time we spent together for a while.
I reviewed Cool Pizza for Unwinnable, and mused over how the game really struck some kind of 90s nostalgic chord for me (and probably an 80s nostalgic chord for those a bit older than me.) 

21. Knytt Underground (Nifflas)

Most people have their Game of the Year lists up in time for Christmas. Personally, I’ve always preferred putting my list up in the first week of January. Really, this is mostly because I am lazy and really don’t want to be writing out a Game of the Year list before Christmas, but it also allows me to catch any games released in December that I might have missed. Nifflas’s Knytt Underground is one such game. This wasn’t immediately obvious, though. I had probably played for a good few hours before I realised just how hooked I was.
Just like Knytt and Knytt Stories before it, Knytt Underground is all about exploration. It is a metroidvania game in the way the world is a series of screens (or rooms) that slowly fill in a grid like map as you explore the world. Though, instead of allowing the world to open up organically in the traditional metroidvania way of finding power-ups and using them to access previously inaccessible pathways (something Knytt Stories did), Knytt Underground makes the curious choice to split the game into chapters, each one resetting the world with a character with different skills.
The first chapter has you play Mi, a sprite capable of climbing vertical walls. In the second chapter you play as a bouncy ball—incapable of climbing, but able to bounce far higher than Mi can jump. These two chapters are really just tutorials to get you accustomed to each character’s skill set before the game really opens up in the third chapter, where you play as Mi, who can now transform into the bouncy ball with a tap of a button. 
And it is about this point, at the start of the third chapter, that you realise you are hooked on this game. It’s at this point that the entire world is suddenly open to you and you don’t know where to go so you go everywhere and before you know it you have discovered over 1000 separate rooms with plenty more to go.
Knytt Underground is all about exploration, but it is not just about exploring a geographical world. You are also exploring for a reason to be here. There is no great info dump telling you how this world functions or what your purpose is. Just like the labyrinthian map, Mi’s purpose becomes clear gradually as you explore the world. So too does the tensions between the worlds various fractions, living in impossible towns spread throughout the world. Underlining the entire game is an exploration of the tension between rational skepticism and ideological faith. The game seems to play as Nifflas’s own back-and-forward musings on the subject as characters explore the strengths and dangers of each. 
The simple exploration is, at times, marred by overly fiddly platforming. This is often needed when trying to reach a hidden item or room. Some challenges take up several rooms, having you climb up a ledge and then transform into a ball in mid-air then land on a blue-plant to shoot horizontally across two screens to land on a yellow plant that will shoot you straight up another three screens. It is well-designed and challenging platforming, but it often seems completely out of place in a game that is otherwise an incredibly slow-burn of just wandering around a world and getting to know it.
One element that must be mentioned about Knytt Underground (but which almost doesn’t need to be mentioned at all) is the lavish, photographic backgrounds. Instead of flat, pixellated backgrounds, Knytt Underground’s world is a silhouette against realistic photographic images of flowers, fruits, mushrooms, trees, clocks. It’s a distinct, surreal, and fascinating stylistic choice and really gives the game a distinct character. An excellent little touch, on the Vita at least, is the ability to make the plants in this background shake by swiping the rear-touchscreen. Sometimes you will do this on purpose, but often it is an accident as your rear-fingers are just trying to find a place to rest, causing a kind of organic rustling of the bushes. It adds little to the game, perhaps, but it is great little flourish and an excellent use of the rear-touchscreen.
You never quite feel like you know what you are doing in Knytt Underground. At least, I don’t yet. I feel like I am perpetually lost and just fortuitously stumbling across the right person or the right item or the right quest. But it is a beautiful and intoxicating world—one I am entirely happy to be lost in.

Contents: [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5]

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

November Writing


And so ends the last of my insanely-over-the-top-frantic-and-busy-months-of-writing. The last few months have seen me take on a truly unsustainable amount of work, and I have at last decided to take a break. I have pressed pause on all my regular columns for the month of December and am not actively searching out more freelancing gigs from any outlet until the new year. I've also handed in the edits for my PhD's confirmation paper, which means no more desperate writing for my PhD until the new year, either. Which, in all, means no more writing for me for this year! Which means a whole heap of reading! This is very exciting!

But that is the month ahead. The month just passed still saw a ridiculous amount of writing, so here be the writing that I did done in November.

First and foremost is, of course, Killing is Harmless, which launched two weeks ago on 21 November. If you are reading this then you probably already know about it so I won't bore you on details again. The book has already sold more copies in a fortnight than I expected it to sell in a year, and is slowly edging towards 1000 sales (about two days ago it was over 850). It has also sparked a whole heap of interesting reviews and discussions about videogame criticism, which is always excellent. In the next month we are working on both updating the text to remove many of the pesky titles that snuck into the first edition, and we will also be releasing a version native to Kindle for all of those asking for it. After that, we will hopefully start looking at how to get a print version up. Also, as part of Killing is Harmless, I compiled a "Critical Compilation" of articles about Spec Ops: The Line, which is both in the book and up for free at Critical Distance.

I was also part of an uncannily similar project this past month called Five Out Of Ten, founded by Alan Williamson. Five Out Of Ten is an independent magazine where five authors contribute two articles each to a compilation. Readers then pay for the compilation and the writers split the profits evenly. It's another great movement to get game critics actually paid for their work and it's really exciting to be a part of it with some really great writers. For my part, I contributed an article about how I consume videogame worlds as I walk across them for the "New Horizons" theme, and my deeply personal "Character Building" article that was first published in the Intimacy issue of Kill Screen. "Character Building" is perhaps the most personal thing I've ever written, and it is equal parts exciting and terrifying for it to now be available in a more accessible digital compilation. Still, I'm happy for it to be part of such a fine compilation.

My "Sum of Parts" column at Gameranx this month was about the surprisingly great Binary Domain. I certainly didn't expect the intellectual hammering this game offered me when I started playing it. Now, it has to be one of my top games of the year. My four articles about it kind of split into two two-part sub-series. My first article looked at the theme of discrimination in the game, and how the robots are othered and treated much like many minorities in the real world. I followed this up with a look at how the later parts of the game introduce the idea of posthumanism as a way to problematise and counter such othering. Then I turned to some of the game's "gimmick" mechanics and look at what they actually contribute to the experience. Thirdly, then, I look at the game's trust system, and how the game uses it to make the player feel excluded from the group in the later parts of the game. And, related to this, the last part looks at the voice-recognition and command mechanics and how these evolve in really interesting ways throughout the game.

At Unwinnable, I wrote an article about Borderlands 2 and how its irreverent storytelling broke me. This was my second article about Borderlands 2 at Unwinnable (after last month's look at guns and characters). I was as surprised as anyone that I got two articles out of that game. I also wrote three "Pocket Treasures" articles throughout the month. I looked at word/strategy game Letterpress, bizarre franchise conglomerate Angry Birds: Star Wars, and super phenomenal shout-at-your-friends Spaceteam. Seriously, go get Spaceteam.

At Games On Net I have two "You Know What I Love" columns in November. The first was about violent videogames being reflective about videogame violence—something I think can be done without being hypocritical. The second looked at game endings that actually end, which was more an opportunity to rant about how franchises ruin stories.

This month I managed to procure a Playstation Vita, much to my surprise. It is a pretty special console with some truly mesmerising games. I haven't had much time to write about Gravity Rush yet, but I used the Vita's ability to take screenshots to post some photos and musings on this blog earlier this month. Now I am playing Persona 4: Golden (my first Persona game!) and it is something special that I will undoubtedly have opinions about in the new year.

I only have the one article in print to talk about this month. In issue E248 of Edge, I conduct a studio profile of Melbourne developers Firemonkeys, a hybrid studio of Firemint (responsible for FlightControl and Real Racing) and IronMonkey (responsible for many EA Mobile games). This is one of those weird moments where I do 'actual journalism' and I am pretty pleased with the result.

I also presented an academic paper at CODE - A Media, Games & Art Conference this month. It was a really great conference with some fascinating papers. I spoke about "Dinosaur Comics as Ergodic Literature", riffing off Espen Aarseth's (super vague) idea of "non-trivial effort" and N Katherine Hayles's focus on the materiality of a text to look at how webcomics generally and Dinosaur Comics specifically foster a particularly 'playful' engagement from their readers that can't be understood as 'simply' reading a comic on a screen. For instance, this XKCD comic. I don't know what will come of this paper but if it ends up published anywhere, I'll be sure to let you all know.

And finally for both this month and the year, I have an article up at The Newstatesman about where to find good writing about videogames. It's a response to a piece that ruffled a few feathers a week or so ago that asked why we are still so bad at talking about videogames. Some people were angry that the initial piece hadn't come looking for us, but I saw it more as us being too hard to find. So it seemed like a great opportunity to expose some of the great stuff that is out there. The vast majority of the links in this article are things written this year. Truly, it's been a really great year to be writing about videogames, and just the small sample that is this article goes to show that.

In that vein, while I won't be writing much over the next month, I will probably still maintain my tumblr Brendan Shared A Link where I keep track of articles (mostly games related) that I read and think are awesome. With the amount of reading I have to catch up on this month, I expect I will be posting there quite a lot.

And that is that. After Christmas I will do my yearly five-part top twenty games posts that I've done the last two years, but apart from that, this is all the writing you can expect from me this year. It's been a pretty intense three or four months. Thanks for coming along and reading my rambles!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Killing is Harmless: Some Reviews

In the last couple of days, three really interesting reviews of Killing is Harmless have appeared on the internet. Each in its own way rightly points out that the approach of criticism I use in Killing is Harmless is not the be-all-and-end-all approach to videogame criticism. In response, I want to write a post that states just why I think this kind of 'personal experience' criticism is worth doing and just what it achieves, but I've decided not to rush that and maybe wait a few days before I do it so I don't just come across as some slighted artist complaining that you just don't get me, man. Instead, for now, I'll just point you to the reviews, recommend you read them, and make some really small remark about each of them:

First and foremost, good friend, talented developer, and intimidating intellect Darius Kazemi's review rightly notes that Killing is Harmless doesn't discuss the game so much as my experience of the game. Darius brilliantly highlights the shortcomings of my approach—what it can't do—and the conversation in the comments has been incredible.

Tristan Damen makes a similar observation in his review. Though Damen goes so far to say that Killing is Harmless isn't criticism of the "game itself" so much as a discussion of my own experiences. I guess my rebuttal of this would be that criticism of 'games themselves' isn't what I'm interested in doing. The game-as-played is certainly the area I am interested in. But that can wait for another post.

At Medium Difficulty Bq Roth's review also rightly notes all the things Killing is Harmless doesn't do. Roth notes throughout the review that I said multiple times before the book's release that I wasn't attempting to do these things in the first place, but I guess it is still valid to note what it doesn't (and can't do). Roth also discusses the press's fixation with the book's length to make some telling observations about our confidence about the state of the medium (the medium of game criticism, that is, not the medium of games). I think this fixation came from my own regular tweeting about the number of words I had written, as well as my reluctance to actually call it a 'book'. Regardless, his observations on this are interesting.

At This Cage Is Worms, Cameron Kunzelman has written a really great analysis of the book, too. Of particular interest is how he scrutinises my far too casual and flippant references to mental illnesses.

I have more opinions on all of these, and I will write more about them in the coming weeks, but for now I just want to flag them as all totally worth your time to read.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Killing is Harmless: A Correction

This post serves as a correction to a factual error I make towards the end of Killing is Harmless. The book will soon be updated with a footnote that links to this article (along with a couple dozen fixed typos thanks to the amazing support of some of my readers!). This post contains spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line and, if it is possible for a piece of criticism to have spoilers, for Killing is Harmless. I recommend reading Killing is Harmless before you read this post, if you are going to read it at all.

So I made a simple error as to how one of the endings plays out. Interestingly, what I have written in Killing is Harmless is exactly what I thought happened, and in my memory it is still exactly how I remember it happening. It's as though my memory has pushed out the real events and inserted something more palatable—not unlike Walker does throughout the game, really.

I have written in the book that the first time I played, I let Konrad count to five, and he shot before I made any choice. After this, I said that, somehow, Konrad still died. This, it has been pointed out to me, is not what happens. What actually happens if you don't make a choice before Konrad gets to five, is that he does indeed shoot and kill Walker, playing out the same ending as if the player makes Walker shoot himself.

So what did I do that made me misunderstand it so? As I write in the book, I was not ready to make a choice. Konrad was counting so fast. He was up to "THREE" before I was even starting to think about what to do. So, what must have happened was that I just freaked out and pulled the trigger, scared as I was of what would happen if he got to "FIVE". So I shot Konrad, I refused to acknowledge what I did, and the game continued.

In the book—in my memory—what I have said is that at this point I was still refusing to make a choice; I was still denying my own responsibility. This is still what I was doing when I shot him and then suppressed the memory, to be sure, but more than this, I was also being a coward. Clearly, I was denying my own denial by not accepting what I had done. Like, I truly believed that I had not shot Konrad. Even after a couple of readers emailed me to tell me I was wrong, I had to go back and play this chapter again before I believed them. In my head, my memory is still that I didn't fire.

So I don't believe this changes my interpretation of the game at all. Rather, I think it is fascinating that my memory warped the events of the game much as Walker's mind warps the events he went through.

Perhaps the only insight I missed making was that some players, when Konrad started talking, just put the controller down and wait for Konrad to make the shot. It's not so much a continued refusal to make any more choices, as I read it, but a refusal to continue playing. Just as killing yourself at this point is accepting responsibility for your own choices, allowing Konrad to kill you is making the choice to no longer play the game. Each option includes the player accepting something about themselves, and each in its own way ends with Walker's death.

So that is a factual mistake I made in Killing is Harmless. My description of my experience is still accurate, but I think it is important to note that that is not how that choice actually plays out. But how fascinating is it that, as a narrator of this book, I have become as unreliable in the retelling of some experiences as Walker himself? I think that is incredible.

Thank you again, everyone, for your support of the book. It has been an incredible success and I can never repay such kindness.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Killing is Harmless is out!

Killing is Harmless's cover illustration, by Daniel Purvis
It's out! Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line is out! You can buy it! You can follow this very link to Stolen Projects where you will see it and be able to buy it. An previously announced, we have decided to use a "pay what you want" model. You can purchase the .pdf and .epub versions together in a zip for a minimum price of $2.99. If you think it is worth more than that, you are welcome to pay a little bit more. Obviously, whatever you decide to pay, I will be greatly, greatly appreciative. 
I'm really, really excited for you to finally be able to read this. The attention that this project has received from both the gaming press and players alike has been really humbling and, if I am to be completely honest, terrifying. I really hope the actual product meets everybody's expectation.
Creating this has been an insane journey. I truly did not appreciate how much work I was getting myself into when I started it. But it's all been worth it and I am really, really proud of the final product. This is a book! It has an ISBN number! That is insane!
In that vein, there is an acknowledgements page in the book that thanks a lot of people, but I really do need to thank Daniel Purvis again for the incredibly hard work he has put in to turn my overwhelming Word doc into this book. The last few days he has put in a huge effort to ensure this would be out on time. That illustration up there is the front cover that Daniel created specifically for the front cover. I love it so much. I think it really speaks to that breaking down of actual and virtual violence that The Line comments on so succinctly, and which I examine throughout Killing is Harmless.
I won't waste your time with this post telling you all over again just what Killing is Harmless is. You can read up about it in the original announcement if you missed it. If you buy the book, thank you! If you read it, I would love to hear your thoughts. You can comment on this post, you can email me at, or you can give me a shout on Twitter. Negative or positive, I'd love to hear what you think.
Thank you again to everyone who has shown their support during this process. I really hope it meets your expectations.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Update: Killing is Harmless

Thought I should write a quick update about Killing is Harmless. I don't have anything particularly new to say about it that wasn't in the initial announcement, but I can assure you that we are still on track to have it out this Wednesday 21, 2012. So that is great!

Since writing that announcement, Killing is Harmless has, much to my surprise, received a moderate amount of press attention, thanks largely to an entirely unexpected article on PC Gamer. Word of it has also made its way to a few forums around the internet, and NeoGAF has had a moderately interesting discussion (for a forum thread) around the game and the idea of long-form games criticism.

Most exciting for me personally, L. Rhodes from CultureRamp asked if he could interview me about the project. We spoke about military shooters, self-reflexive virtual violence, long-form criticism, and other things in an interview that you can read here. I was really humbled to be asked to do this interview as CultureRamp post phenomenally insightful articles and metacriticism, such as this superb series from earlier this year on the broader state of writing about games.

I don't have a link to an exact page you will be able to buy Killing Is Harmless from yet, but keep an eye on this blog or my Twitter feed and you'll surely see something. I can say, though, that we will almost definitely probably be selling it through Gumroad as it was the simplest storefront we could find, and also one of the only ones that didn't use PayPal. I know a lot of people don't like using PayPal, so I really wanted to avoid going through them if we can. Also, PayPal apparently puts insane fees on every sale, especially those in a foreign currency, so that would've been gross.

Perhaps most exciting about using Gumroad, purely selfishly at least, is that is has a "pay what you want" option, much like the Humble Indie Bundles and the such. So we will be enabling that for Killing is Harmless. You can still get it for as little as $2.99, of course, but if for some crazy reason you feel like giving us more money, you are now able to do that as well!

And that's really all the news on the project at the moment. Dan is slaving away at the cover illustration; I have just completed a final proofread to flush out those pesky typos. All that's left is to put it together and get the store set up so y'all can get your hands and eyes on it. Stay tuned!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Gravity Rush: Some Pictures and Thoughts

This last week I procured a PS Vita. Perhaps the two most exciting things about the console I've discovered thus far are a) the fact you can take screenshots with a simple two-button combo, and b) Gravity Rush. I'm really, really enjoying Gravity Rush. It's like a combination of VVVVVV and a hypothetical version of inFamous that isn't terrible. I really enjoy just falling around its fantastical Steampunkish-but-not-terrible world. But most of all, I just really like how it looks. So in lieu of having anything of length to write or say about it, I thought I would just share some of my screenshots and say a few words about why I think it is great. (Hopefully this embedded imgur album thing works. I really didn't want to go pasting every single image through Blogger's godawful interface).

(Also, Gravity Rush's music is really great, too. But Kirk Hamilton is perhaps better suited to tell you about that.)

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Announcing "Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line"

[UPDATE: The book is now out and you can buy a package with both .pdf and .epub formats here for a minimum price of $2.99. Kindle and print versions to hopefully be announced in coming weeks. You can also read the first section of the book for free on Kotaku AU.]

As you might already know, I have been working on a ‘thing’ for the last few months to do with Yager’s Spec Ops: The Line. It is a very long thing, coming in at about 50,000 words. For the longest time I had no idea just what it was that I was creating, and I had no idea just what I was going to do with it. Well, now I'm finally at a confident enough place with it that I think I can replace the word 'thing' when I talk about it to 'book'. Because, really, that is what it is. I have written a book about Spec Ops: The Line
I have talked a little bit about the fact it exists on Twitter, referring to it as my “Big Spec Ops Thing”. Well now I am in a position to formally announce what Big Spec Ops Thing is, when it will be out, and how you will be able to obtain a copy of it. I am excited to finally be able to tell you about this, and I want to go into some detail about just what this is and why I have done it. But if all you want is the straight up details of when and where you can get it, there is a TL;DR version at the bottom of this post. 

So what is it actually called?
First things first: that name. As attached as I have grown to Big Spec Ops Things, I have chosen to title the book Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line. “Killing is Harmless” is an appropriation of one of the loading screen messages later in the game that states, in part, “To kill for entertainment is harmless.” I considered using this whole quote as my title, but it was just a bit clumsy, and there are other meanings in “Killing is Harmless” as a phrase that I think are more applicable to what I am writing. So this name is both an allusion to something from the game and my own interpretations, so I think it is a good name.

What even is it?
I never did find a more succinct (or less wanky) phrase for what this is I have actually written other than “a close, critical reading.” That is exactly what it is. When I finished playing The Line, I was left with a whole heap of questions. These questions the game left me with were largely to do with the nature of virtual acts of violence, but also some further questions to do with Western interventionism and wars conducted via proxies. Killing is Harmless is, in part, an attempt to find some answers to these questions but, primarily, it is an exploration into just how The Line came to make me ask these questions in the first place.
While with most other games I could perhaps sum up their themes and how they conveyed them in a thousand words or so, I found this to be impossible with The Line. I think this is largely to do with the unique way that The Line is structured. Most videogames have narratives that work in a kind of looping fashion, going in complete circles one after the other, and you can talk about any of one of these loops in relative isolation. The Line, meanwhile, is one long, slow, gradual arc, and it is truly difficult to talk about any single bit of it without talking about all of it. 
So to analyse The Line, then, I needed to analyse all of The Line, from the opening menu screen to the end of the final epilogue. I needed to look at every single little bit of the game from start to finish to see how it all goes together in such a way to make me ask the questions I asked. So that is what I have done. 
After an introductory Foreword, the book is split into sections that align with the game’s sections (a prologue, fifteen chapters, and an epilogue). Each section talks through that stage, describing and analysing in equal part. I look at what the characters say, what the environment looks like, what music is playing, what the player does and is made to do, and the relationship between all of these. It is a close reading of the game, an act of interpretation that looks at the game much like you could look at a book or a film, and it tries to understand how it conveys what it conveys to me.
Also, as an appendix, I have compiled a “Critical Compilation” of articles, interviews, blogs, and video essays that other people have created to discuss The Line. All up, I have about forty links to a really vast variety of viewpoints and opinions and takes on the game. I’ve done this so that my particularly long take on the game doesn’t get crowned as some kind of be-all-and-end-all authoritative reading of the game. A lot of people didn’t get out of the game what I got out of it, and I think this is important to acknowledge. This critical compilation is also going to find itself a home on Critical Distance, accessible to all, and regularly updated as more people write more things about the game in the future.
Most importantly, if I want people to read 50,000 words about a game, those words better look pretty damn nice. This has to be a book, not just a really long article. Thus, I am super excited to announce that I have Daniel Purvis helping me design and format my words into a product that is going to be really special. Daniel is the editor of JumpButton Magazine (having recently taken over from Drew Taylor), regularly illustrates Dan Golding’s column in Hyper Magazine, and has produced all kinds of crazy and awesome illustrations for Kill Screen and other places in the past (check out some of his stuff here). In addition to doing all the design stuff for the book that I am utterly incapable of doing, Daniel will also be designing a unique illustration for the book’s cover. So I’m really excited about that, and I am stoked to have someone on board who can make the quality of the finished product really reflect how much time and commitment I put into writing the words. Hopefully it will be something that people want to own as much as they want to read.

That’s insane. Why would you do such a thing?
Ideally, I hope that others who found the game to be so powerfully evocative might be able to get some insight into just how it was so. Further, I hope that those that disliked the game might find some answers as to just why others did find it powerful. Further still, I think good videogame criticism should be able to describe to someone who has not played a certain game just what that game meant to those that did play it. Hopefully Killing is Harmless will be able to communicate to those that are interested in The Line but never wish to play it themselves just why other people found it so engaging.
But more than that, on perhaps a slightly more meta level, I’m hoping to show that a single videogame can be so critically rich as to warrant such a prolonged interrogation. I want to show that one videogame has enough happening in it to warrant 50,000 words of analysis. As videogame criticism comes into its own, related to but distinct from games journalism, I think it is important to explore new avenues and methods of being a videogame critic. Not just new ways to ‘do’ games criticism, but new ways to distribute it to a readership. This project is such an exploration. 
I believe long-form videogame criticism is a valid form of writing and one that an audience exists for. Certainly, too many words about a single game can become long-winded and self-indulgent and repetitive and utterly meaningless. But if it is done correctly, it can also allow for the most magical of insights that a smaller article just can’t grasp. Look at Tim Roger’s must-read 12,000 word analysis of Earthbound, for instance. Some of the insights it makes are absolutely stunning, and could not be made in a shorter article.
I also believe that videogame criticism does not always have to cling on parasitically to games journalism outlets. I believe that games criticism is slowly coming into maturity to a point where it is worth trying to distribute works of criticism independently from journalism. So by writing this long-form piece on a single game and distributing it beyond the normal channels of game journalism magazines/websites, I’m hoping that maybe (maybe) this book can help games criticism find its own feet a little bit. 
So those are the main reasons I am doing this: because The Line deserves it; to validate long-form games criticism; to help mature games criticism as its own form.

Cool story. So when and where can I get it?
We are looking to sell Killing is Harmless through Daniel’s website as part of his new publishing company, Stolen Projects. I don’t have a URL for you yet but watch this space. We will be selling it as a straight up PDF (no DRM or any of that stuff) that will look equally slick on your desktop or your tablet. Going forward, we’ll hopefully look into selling it through other venues like Amazon or Apple, but for now the PDF will be the way to go. In the near future, we are hoping to also release a limited edition print run, but that is all up just dreams at the moment.
As for when you can buy it, the official release date we have set for ourselves is Wednesday 14 November. So that is less that two weeks away! Exciting! And kind of terrifying!

[Update: Due to unforeseen circumstances, the release date has been pushed back a week to Wednesday 21 November. I'm terribly, terribly sorry to have to do this, but it was necessary to ensure the quality of the final product. Ultimately, I had completely underestimated the amount of work that goes into creating a book (turns out it takes quite a lot). So absolutely definitely, the ebook will be released on Wednesday 21 November. Again, my sincerest apologies for the delay.]

How Much Will It Cost?
We’ve decided on the price of $4.99, with an introductory price for the first month of $2.99. Hopefully this will be cheap enough to get people interested in actually paying for it, but not so cheap as to devalue the work. I believe videogame criticism is valuable, and videogame critics deserve to be paid for the work they do. So hopefully this introductory price is a good way to balance out this belief with the internet’s sense of entitlement for getting everything really cheap. Ultimately, I think the quality (never mind the sheer quantity) of the work in addition to Daniel’s fine design work makes this a more than acceptable price. 
From each sale, a percentage will go into hosting the shop on Daniel’s website, a percentage will go to Daniel for his work as designer, and the rest goes to me. In many ways, this is an experiment to see just how viable it is to write long-form criticism about games. If this sells well, it is certainly something I will happily explore doing again in the future.

TL;DR Version
Killing is Harmless is a digital book that performs a close, critical reading of Spec Ops: The Line. You can buy it on Wednesday November 14 Wednesday November 21 for a special introductory price of $2.99. Day One DLC is TBA. Get excited.

So I’m really excited about this, not just because of the amount of time I’ve spent working on it, but because I am cautiously optimistic that this could maybe be a turning point for the kind of writing I do about videogames. Maybe. I guess I’ll find out on November 14.

[Update: Lots of people on Twitter have asked me about the possibility of the book being released on other platforms in the future. I can't confirm anything yet, but we are exploring both Kindle and print as other platforms that we really want to make Killing is Harmless available on. So after we release the PDF, we will be looking at that, but I can't yet say if that will certainly be happening. Hopefully it will.]

Friday, November 2, 2012

October Writing

(I don't actually talk about Binary Domain in this post but I played it this month and it is awesome so there you go.)

It's getting a bit cliché to start these monthly writing summary posts with a comment about how fast the month has gone but my god how is it already November? I thought October was going to be a slower month than the previous two, but I was sorely mistaken. Still, I may have nearly killed myself in the process, but I wrote a few things this past month I was really exceptionally proud of. So that is okay.

First, the regular gigs.

At Unwinnable I wrote quite a few pieces this past month. For my Pocket Treasures column, looking at iOS games, I started with a review of Cool Pizza. This is perhaps the first time I fell in love with a game that I first heard about through a press release. It's really something special, which makes it all the sadder that it ends far too prematurely. I also looked back at Pix'n Love Rush, which was one of my first iOS loves, and a game I was reminded about recently when playing Rayman Jungle Run. And the third Pocket Treasures for the month was a look at Shadegrown Games's first release Starbloom. Shadegrown Games is Matthew Burns's indie team, and I really love what they do in the realm of music-based gameplay. I'm really looking forward to see what they do in the future.

Still at Unwinnable I had two non-Pocket Treasures posts this month. Firstly I looked at guns in Borderlands 2, and the way simply choosing what gun 'feels' right changes your identity in the game as both a player and a character. I am still playing a ridiculous amount of Borderlands 2. It's exactly the kind of grind that I love, despite all the terribly problematic sexist humour which I really wish wasn't there. I forget who said it on Twitter, but games really have to stop trying so hard to look like they aren't trying hard.

And my last piece for the month at Unwinnable is not about videogames at all, but about my grandfather who passed away last week. It was not something I intended to write, but the words just came out, and Unwinnable were kind enough to post it. As an aside, I think it is a testament to just what a special site Unwinnable is that I can post something utterly unrelated to videogames but still 'cultural' and that it does not jar at all. I think that is really special and invaluable, that we have a site that talks about games but which doesn't always have to talk about games.

Okay, so at Games On Net I had three editions of You Know What I Love? this month. Firstly I got a bit emo and looked at dying in FTL and DayZ and tried to draw out what effect ultimate death has on the way I live my life. Then I looked at nostalgia in Retro City Rampage. I don't think this piece quite gets to the heart of what I wanted to say, but ultimately I am sick of 'nostalgia' being dismissed as the antonym of 'innovation', because it isn't. And finally I looked at Carmageddon's Pinball Mode and how it breaks the game in great ways. I'm kind of embarrassed to say I am still playing the iOS version of Carmageddon, and even more embarrassed to say I am still enjoying it. But seriously, this happened and it was great:

Ahem. Moving on. At Gameranx this month my A Sum Of Parts column looked at Halo Reach, perhaps my favourite game in the Halo series (but not by much). To start with I looked at the juxtaposition of the game's character customisation screen and the opening cut scene and how this conveys the game's overall sense of tragedy. This is a thing I've wanted to write about for ages, and I'm glad I was finally able to do it. Next I looked at the game's pacing that has you take two steps backwards for every step forward. I then looked at how the game frames its story with the natural world itself, directing the player's eyes and feet in nuanced, elegant ways. Lastly I looked at how the broader Halo universe has a story that it refuses to 'tell' its players, instead demanding fans come to it through actively researching this universe.

And that is all I had online, I think. But I had a pretty epic month in print, too. In Edge E247 (with Metal Gear Rising on the cover), I have a "Things" column looking in great detail at Rage's Wingstick, and how it brings together the pleasures of throwing a boomerang, firing a precise headshot, and sticking a plasma grenade all at once. As an aside here, if you have an iPad, the digital version of Edge is absolutely phenomenal. Not a mere pdf of the magazine, the digital version adds a whole lot of beautiful but not forced interactivity that feels really great. It feels like a 'digital magazine' should feel. So if you can't be bothered waiting for Edge to make it to Australia or you don't want to pay the high import costs, I recommend this greatly.

In issue 209 of PC Powerplay (with Dishonoured on the cover) I have previews of both Assassin's Creed III and Far Cry 3 from last month's trip to Montreal. Similarly, I also wrote about both these games for issue 230 of Hyper. Since Assassin's Creed III was being reviewed in the same issue, I didn't write a preview of it so much as a character bio of Connor and how the team are trying to bring his interesting ethnicity into the story in a natural, not terrible way. It truly sounded really fascinating when I spoke to Alex Hutchinson in Canada, but the reviews I'm reading of the full game suggest they didn't quite succeed. Alas.

My Far Cry III piece for Hyper (which, may I add, is also on the magazine's cover omg) is not a straight-up preview but an 'experiential' preview, where I simply narrate my time with the game. I wrote it as a series of postcards (as to write the entire three hours I spent with the game would take up the entire magazine, I'm sure). It is still very much a preview, with all the problems and Doritos-baggage that come along with being a preview, but it was really interesting to try to write it in a more interesting style than a straight up features list. Really, you can't mess around with the preview model too much, but it was still really fun to do.

I also ended up with two reviews in this issue of Hyper for Retro City Rampage (eh) and The Unfinished Swan (OMG PLAY IT). So the cover story and four articles all up in that issue. That is a little bit exciting.

Aaaaaaaand I think that is all I wrote this month. Big Spec Ops Thing is still on its way, I promise. Exciting things are happening with it, and I plan to write an announcement post about it tomorrow to let you know what is going on and when it will be out. Short answer is soon. It's all very exciting.

And in the academic world, I had my confirmation milestone for my PhD two days ago. It was nerve-racking and traumatic but I was "confirmed with minor edits" which is really exciting and means I am a few changes to a Word document away from being a confirmed PhD candidate. So that is exciting!

Also, I have a tumblr now that I am using to share and archive games criticism/journalism/other that I think is well worth reading. You can find that here if you are interested in that, which you should be.

But ultimately, the most important thing to happen to me this past month was this.

Monday, October 1, 2012

September Writing

Phew. What a month. September was a little bit hectic.

It started with my first overseas press trip. With less that a week's notice, I was heading to Montreal to play Far Cry 3 and Assassin's Creed 3. That was... an experience. Montreal is a phenomenally beautiful city, and it turns out I know quite a lot of awesome people who live there. I have extensive previews coming up in future issues of Hyper and PC Powerplay for those two games, so I won't say too much about them here for now.

Then, not long after I got back was 2012's Freeplay Games Festival. It was a really, really great festival this year, and I wrote some of my thoughts about it for The Conversation. I also had a couple of speaking commitments for this year's festival, which was exciting and scaring. During the weekend conference, I chaired a panel about game jam cultures. Earlier in the week, on Tuesday, I was on a panel at a Re:Play session (events run by both Freeplay and ACMI) called "Postcards From Imaginary Worlds" with Christy Dena and Ben McKenzie, and chaired by Dan Golding. We spoke about all different kinds of engagements with virtual worlds, and I spoke at length about Towards Dawn. I really enjoyed both talks, and they had fairly positive responses, so that is great. When video or audio of them go online, I'll link them here and you can decide for yourself. Also, before the festival started, I was interviewed on Freeplay's website quickly.

Speaking of Freeplay. There was an amazing student game on display there called Ann & Beanie. It is about five minutes long and absolutely beautiful. I strongly recommend you play it.

At Games On Net this month I have two "You Know What I Love?" columns. In one I got all romantic and talked about dawn and dusk. In the other I talk about chunky guns.

At Unwinnable I only wrote three pieces this month. I wrote "Pocket Treasures" columns about the games Tasty Fish and Bitless, both of which I really enjoyed. Then, for Unwinnable's September theme week (this month on 'Space') I wrote about the subjective ways we perceive reality in Inception, Spec Ops: The Line, and Mark of the Ninja. I've been reading a lot of phenomenology for my PhD lately. Does it show?

My "A Sum of Parts" column at Gameranx in September was all about my 2012 GOTY-thus-far, Ziggurat. I've had something of a Ziggurat renaissance these past few months and have formed an even deeper appreciation of it than I previously had. It was still a challenge, though, to write four different articles about an iOS game, but I'm happy with what I was able to say. Firstly I wrote about the pleasure unique to touchscreen games of watching your own thumbs dance across the screen, doing things your mind can't comprehend. Next I wrote about the way Ziggurat deals with repetition through its constantly progressing narrative. Third, I discussed one of the worst feelings I've ever experienced in gaming, which is the realisation that I have just been too greedy and impatient. And finally, I wrote about Ziggurat's unique control scheme that brings together old and new game design conventions.

And that's the only writing I have online this month, I think. I've also been busy writing academically, though. Last week I submitted my first ever scholarly book chapter to an anthology. It was called "'You really are you, right?': Cybernetic Memory and the Construction of the Posthuman Self in Videogames." It's all about Final Fantasy VII and the complex way Cloud's actual identity is constructed on memories that are kind of his but also kind of not his (through the way he watches Zack and then acts the way he interprets Zack). Then I tie this relationship of Cloud and Zack back to the way the player identifies with Cloud, and the complex network of memories going on there. I'm really happy with it! And, knowing academic publishing, maybe you can read it in a year! I should also thank Cameron Kunzelman for giving me some really great edits on this one.

But the vast majority of my time this month (asides from international press trips and week-long videogame festivals) has been taken up by my PhD's confirmation paper. I have to write a 20,000 word paper talking about what I am going to talk about in my thesis, pretty much. It's been really tough but also really rewarding, as it's forced me to really find the vocabulary I need to say what it is I want to say. So that has been intense and something else I wrote... but you'll probably never read it, sorry. But I wrote it, damn it!

And those last two things are there to pretty much act as my excuse for not having my Spec Ops: The Line 40,000 word close critical reading out yet. After this week, October should be 'relatively' quite for me, and I'm really hoping to get this out by the end of the month. Several people have been awesome enough to give up some time to do some edits for me and give me some feedback, and once I assimilate all that into it, do a final proofread, and get it formatted, it should be ready to go. So hopefully, other deadlines willing, that will be out by the end of this month. My apologies it has taken so long.

And that is what I have been doing in September.

Stepping Down

Several months ago, a Borderlands 2 developer called a new game mode that strives to make the game more accessible 'girlfriend mode'. It wasn't the official name of the mode, just one developer's off-the-cuff remark in the middle of an interview.

When this happened, I reacted angrily on Twitter (as many did), and I tweeted that I would no longer buy Borderlands 2. Considering that yesterday I bought Borderlands 2, perhaps I need to admit that I may have over-reacted.

Casual sexism should, of course, always be called out. Consistent, unthinking reinforcing of gendered power relations (such as the notion that it is 'girlfriends' who will most need this mode, not 'partners') that are most pervasive in society and which need attention drawn to them each and every time. (As always, The Border House went through this superbly).

But perhaps my casual slacktivism was no better, my off-the-cuff boycott no better than some developer's off-the-cuff casual sexism.

Or perhaps I just lack commitment and really like Borderlands, and perhaps that just makes me part of the problem.

Or perhaps I should just think about the things I say online for a few seconds before I say them.

Probably some combination of all of these.

So calling the mode 'girlfriend mode', even unofficially, was a blatant example of casual sexism, subjacating women within videogame culture as second-class citizens. I'm really disappointed that rather than apologise for the poor word choice, Gearbox stubbornly insisted the developer "wasn't a sexist". Whether or not the developer is a 'sexist' is beside the fact that he said something sexist.

But, really, me not playing the game isn't going to change that. And I think I perhaps overreacted to what was casually sexist, berating when perhaps a calmer and more accessible conversation (maybe a 'boyfriend mode' conversation about privilege lolol) could've taken place. At the end of the day, not playing Borderlands 2 isn't going to make our culture any less hostile or uninviting to females, but calling out casual and blatant sexism whenever we see it will.

So I'm not angry I added my voice to the many others who were (and are) pissed off, and I would not at all begrudge any one who still decides not to purchase Borderlands 2 over this. But in this specific instance I've decided to go back on my word to not purchase the game, and it seemed worthy of a blog post before someone digs up the old tweet where I claimed I would not buy it and rubbed it in my face.

So now that that is said and done, I can head back over to Twitter and complain about how Borderlands 2's inventory system is somehow worse than Borderlands.

EDIT: So this post actually sparked a really great Twitter conversation about authorial intent and other things that you can read on Storify, here: