Criticism

I Conquered Zebes, and So Can You

I found the secret energy tank in Kraid’s room in Metroid by using two maps: one shows where every suit upgrade, missile upgrade, energy tank and boss room is, and the other is a complete detailed map of the Planet Zebes, including the location of every destructible block. Getting the energy tank is kind of a difficult maneuver in itself. Instinct tells you to fall into the acid, shoot the destructible block that hides the item with your beam weapon, then jump back onto the main platform, enter morph ball mode and roll into the newly-exposed crevice. But the angle you leave the platform at means you just miss the mark. The solution is to jump to the right once you have exposed the block, to the ledge of the room’s entrance, then enter morph ball mode, fall down and hold to the right so that you can slot in. All of this I discovered through Google, which directed me to a GameFAQs thread where other people have agonised over precisely the same problem.

This wasn’t possible back in 1986 when the game was released. You couldn’t outsource your problems like that, pulling solutions from the web’s vast pool of information. You had to consult vague strategy guides in magazines, ask for tips from friends and relatives, keep notebooks filled with passwords, encyclopedic notes, make crude maps with your own reference points. Back when I first got Metroid from the eShop I had planned to play the game this way, rejecting the easy answers from the internet and exploring the game entirely by myself, edging forward piece by piece, feeling my way through the darkness. Zebes is a bewildering, open-ended labyrinth, and demands to be treated as such.

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Archive, Criticism

ARCHIVE: Thank You For Communicating: On Exquisite Corpses

This was originally posted on tumblr on 11th May, 2015.


You can play Exquisite Corpses for free here.


Kent Sheely’s Exquisite Corpses reminds me of driving through Death Valley with my family a few years ago: for miles, the endless desert stretching far away, dotted only occasionally with a lone caravan, or shack, or signpost. It was a ruined place, and I felt like we were trespassing there.

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In Exquisite Corpses there are no shacks, but instead there are colossal glitched models from Team Fortress 2 that form the game’s scenery. They come from a previous piece by Sheely that goes by the same name:

“When the player’s character dies, the camera jumps to a freeze-frame of the killer. Sometimes the “killcam” glitches and ends up inside other players or objects, creating strange abstractions. I cut some of these images apart and reassembled them.”

They are images of frozen collapse, of the (cartoon) body at the moment of death, with the glitched angles emphasising this static liminality; between life and death, they are ersatz, uncanny. In the game, their place in the background and foreground transform them into monuments to entropy, reflecting the breakup that plays throughout the long drive.

A breakup is an attempt to move, both through the initial, awful moment of failure and then pastthe relationship and onto the next stage of your life. Here, we get the car driving through the landscape of failure, signifying movement as the two people in the relationship communicate their way through the end of their time as a couple. Except, all of this – the scenery, the communication, the driving – seems inadequate.

The dialogue itself is auto-generated, which means that the conversation never feels like a conversation. The language itself is distant in tone: lines like “I hope we’ll be able to talk through it” and “thank you for communicating how you felt” veer into an overly polite register that rings utterly false. Each line is disconnected from the wider dialogue, always reaching out to the others but never quite touching them in a way that feels authentic. It feels like an exquisite corpse.

An exquisite corpse is a piece of writing or art that has been composed by several contributors in sequence; one person starts writing or drawing, covers up a portion of their composition, then passes it on to another person to continue it. The result is surreal, discontinuous, pushing the boundaries of intelligibility even if it comes out technically sound. It is a challenge to coherency and narrative, a deliberate failure of communication between its participants.

So each breakup you drive through is a failure to communicate. And I say “each” because as the car comes to the end of the road it seamlessly goes back to the beginning of the same environment, with the same glitched models in the same places, but this time with a different autogenerated non-conversation. The player is – for as long as they choose to remain playing – trapped in the moment of this relationship’s failure, just as they are trapped in the road between the background and foreground scenery, just as the models of that scenery are trapped between life and death. The scenery and the dialogues are both liminalities, which is why they are both unrecognisable bastardizations of the things that come before and after them, moments that resemble neither life nor death.

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Archive, Criticism

ARCHIVE: Your Words Are Losing Structure: Brief Notes on The Falling Sun

This was originally posted on tumblr on 23rd February, 2015.


The Falling Sun is free and available on itch.io

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“There are times in life where you simply cannot win… where you have no choice but to accept your unpreventable, impending fate.” – Game description

Kingdaro’s The Falling Sun begins at the end of the world.* The player is given some Typing of the Dead-like word prompts to fulfil, but as soon as they do so the game collapses as the timer starts and a raging, dying sun comes closer and closer to the earth. You are implored to type the words at the bottom of the screen, but this does nothing to halt the world’s demise; the entire ludic element of the game serves no obvious “function”, inasmuch as it never intersects with the one other mechanic present and seems to have no relationship whatsoever with anything else in the game. It is a game built specifically around arresting as much agency from the player as possible.

This is something I talked about briefly in my last essay about Glitchhikers, in which I quotedBrendan Vance noting that the driving mechanics of Glitchhikers do not affect the way the outcome of the game. Instead, they exist to reflect the game’s themes of solitude versus solidarity with the wider universe. In The Falling Sun, the gameplay does not affect the outcome of the game either, but this in itself is what makes the game so interesting.

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ARCHIVE: Sonder on the Highway to Kiel

This was originally posted on tumblr on 2nd October, 2014.


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It’s 1am and I’m transporting 22 tonnes of peas across Western Europe for a large paycheck like a capitalist mercenary. I have the radio on, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra is player Mahler’s Second Symphony. My high-beams glint off of the tarmac and reveal my solitary condition – I check my mirrors and confirm that I am by myself on this German highway. I turn a shallow corner, and as I do the grassy bank on my right side recedes, unmasking the moon: bare, beacon-like. And I am alone.

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Of  Glitchhikers, Brendan Vance writes:

“We may use the keyboard to change lanes, to accelerate or decelerate, and to look out the side windows. These mechanics provide no ‘utility’ in the sense we typically associate with videogames. They do not advance the player towards victory or defeat, nor do they compel her to spend money via microtransactions.”

Indeed, for a game about driving, Glitchhikers places very little immediacy on its driving mechanics; it is impossible to crash the car, to steer off course, to stop, to ever endanger the act of driving. That’s not to say that the driving is an unimportant aspect of the game. Instead, as Vance also goes on to argue, its importance lies in its relation to the games wider concerns as expressed through the dialogues between the player and their strange, otherworldly passengers.

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ARCHIVE: Shot Aground: Intimate Perspective

This was originally posted on tumblr on 9th September, 2014.


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There are two perspectives of play in René Rother’s Shot Aground. In the first, the camera hangs high in the sky, looking down on the player as they navigate the planet – or perhaps moon, it is never explicitly stated – on which their ship has crash landed. From here the game feels Diablo-esque, inasmuch as it gives a sense of the immediate dangers surrounding the player but also denies context; the player sees themself and a small area around them but nothing more.

The game shifts to the second perspective whenever the player takes aim with their revolver. The camera swings down to perch just above the player’s right shoulder, arm extending outwards, a small blue line reaching just beyond the barrel of the gun to guide the player’s aim. In this perspective, the player can do two crucial things. The first is combat, which I will talk about a little later. The second is that the player can now look beyond the borders of the first perspective. They can take a longview of the dangers that face them on the way to the game’s end goal – a ship that can take them away from their current location.

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Combat, however, is the primary function of this second perspective. Since the player cannot move while aiming, there’s an element of risk in the very act of entering this stance. The player has to be confident that they’re far away enough from the enemy to not provoke them into drawing their own weapon, whilst also being close enough to be able to aim with confidence, to terminate with prejudice. Not only that, but both the enemies and the player can only take one bullet, which means that if the enemy does notice you, you are thrust into a confrontation that could be your last. This isn’t like, say, Gears of War, where you can duck back behind cover to regain your strength and have another try, or even a game like Doom where the health is plentiful and the fighting is a sustained affair. When the player and the enemy stand in front of each other in Shot Aground they are utterly vulnerable, naked for lack of protection, and the game takes on the air of a gentleman’s duel*. Any millisecond spent shifting aim is a millisecond of grace for the other combatant, which they may use to fire their deadly shot. The AI rarely misses a stock-still opponent, so the player must have faith in their aim, must pull the trigger with confidence even as they bite their lip. All tension is condensed into that split-second of decision-making, like a shot of whiskey – it’s over in a blink, but afterwards it sends a shiver down your spine.

The combat experience in Shot Aground works so differently to other games precisely because every fight works as its own microcosm of action; rather than thrusting the player into a firefight against a dozen enemies at once, each opponent is faced one-on-one. It is a surprisingly intimate game in this sense – staring down another person and sharing an acute outburst of the destructive impulse.

* – Or, in fitting with the Space Cowboy Jam theme, a Wild West shootout.

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Archive, Design, Games

ARCHIVE: Connecting post-mortem

This was originally posted on tumblr on 30th August, 2014.


1 – The theme

The part of “Connecting Worlds” that interested me the most was not necessarily “Worlds”, but “Connecting”. It suggests liminality, something that exists between worlds but is not a part of either.* So my game, then, would be about being between, about being in a constant state of connecting – connecting being a present tense verb, so the title in a way suggests that sustained liminality. From there it wasn’t a difficult leap to “airport”; travel is one of the most obvious and popular forms of the liminal that we can all recognise.

“Connected” also suggests a relationship, not just the actual connection itself but what that connection represents to each part. Naturally I went for a very literal definition of “relationship” and decided to make the game about communication between partners. Texting was the best way of displaying information about the relationship to the player in an interactive way, and continuing with the idea of liminalities, the phone can be seen as something facilitating the relationship between the player and Sam without being in the relationship. I mean, obviously. That would be weird otherwise.

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ARCHIVE: Time and Timelessness: ‘Mountain’ and ‘Durations’

This was originally posted on tumblr on July 11th, 2014.


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Cameron Kunzelman is right to say that:

‘there’s a desire to see Mountain as profound. It wants to cultivate that, with its poetry, with its random objects, with its sometimes-soaring spouts of music. I’ll come out and say it: There’s nothing special about this mountain. It is like every other mountain, and if we wanted, we could try to mine that normality for profundity.’

It’s definitely a game that both invites reading whilst resisting interpretation at the same time. No matter how much we try and explore Mountain, either by zooming out into space or by flipping the mountain to see its underside, it always calls us back to that view of the rotating giant, turning endlessly through the day and weather cycles; no matter how hard we try and find something meaningful within the game that answers some unasked question, we are unanswered. Sure, we canzoom out into space if we really want to, but what does the space mean? What does it tell us about the mountain? Nothing, of course. Its purpose is to decontextualise; it’s seriously just a mountain floating in space. So we abandon the search for profundity. The game’s musical flourishes and occasional pieces of on-screen text are fleeting and transient, but the mountain itself is constant.

We can, of course, save the game and turn it off, but that doesn’t make the mountain go away. It is still there, in the save file, waiting to be revisited. We gain no progress towards any kind of reward, so when we save the game, what progress exactly are we supposed to be preserving? I think Kunzelman answers this neatly also:

‘The mountain becomes about how I relate to that mountain and what it does to me, and most importantly, how long I can stand to witness it. It becomes a game of endurance. How much Mountain can you take before you close it in boredom?’

A game of endurance, yes, but I think moreso a game of time. Creator David O’Reilly states that‘[w]e as humans feel all big because we build great things but the fact is that mountains dwarf us.’ Not just spatially but temporally; they have outlasted and will continue to outlast almost everything else on Earth. And yet Mountain has an endpoint, supposedly after 50 hours of gameplay. This means it can be conquered, but not in the way that we are used to. ‘Beating’ Mountain requires no action on the part of the player. All that it asks of the player is time.In most games the movement of the player towards some kind of conclusion is predicated on interaction with the game world, and this comes to define the relationship between the player and that world – beat the final boss, complete the story, reach the highscore. Mountain, however does not define this relationship, and it falls to the player to come up with it, that is if the player decides that there is, should be, can be one at all.

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