Design, Games

Two Years After Connecting

So it’s been two years since I made my first game, Connecting, with my friend Sandy Gardner. That doesn’t seem right to me – it feels like maybe a year at best – but it’s true. It’s not an anniversary I think anybody other than the pair of us would really want to commemorate, but I thought it would be nice to write something short about what the game tried to achieve, what my intentions and grander designs were with that prototype.

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Criticism

The War Came Down on Us Here: Domestic Space in Half-Life 2

‘O the crossbones of Galway,
The hollow grey houses,
The rubbish and sewage,
The grass-grown pier,
And the dredger grumbling
All night in the harbour:
The war came down on us here.’
– Louis MacNeice, ‘The Coming of War, Section VII’

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Driving along the coast in Half-Life 2 is my favourite part of the game. For me, it reinforces the biggest change between the game and its predecessor, which is scope. Half-Life takes place almost entirely within the confines of a single underground research facility, whereas the second spans a vast stretch of the world in which it’s set; going from City 17 to Eli’s bunker, through Ravenholm, along the coastal road to Nova Prospekt, then back to City 17 again. Half-Life is structured like an anabasis from Hell, whereas Half-Life 2 is more like the Odyssey, and it is during this driving section* that I feel this sense of voyage reaches the height of its power as the bombast of the section’s action set-pieces is punctuated by the quietude and solace of driving alone on the open road, waves crashing on the cliffsides below you.

The threat in this section comes from the outposts that Combine forces have established in houses along the coastal road, and this ties into what I think is the other big change between the two games. The spaces in Half-Life are largely industrial: you navigate elevators, air ducts, offices, processing plants, silos. These are present in parts of Half-Life 2 as well, but there are a lot of chapters where the setting is more domestic. There are the apartment blocks of City 17, the clustered houses of Ravenholm, and, along the coastal road of the driving section, a small handful of seaside cottages. Here, I want to focus on these latter houses, how they function in the coastal road section, and how they reflect the themes of the game spatially.

The first thing worth pointing out about these houses is that a good number of them can be skipped. I count fourteen houses, or clusters of houses on the road during the vehicle section. Of these, half required the player to get out of the buggy and interact with them (either as the setting of a fight with a small contingent of Combine forces or as a puzzle that has to be solved to let your buggy through) in order for the player to proceed along the critical path. The other half all contain enemies, loot, or both, but can easily be driven past without affecting the progress of the game in any appreciable way. Instead, these houses have a thematic relevance that grounds the narrative of the Half-Life world in these incidental architectures. Take, for instance, the second house you encounter in “Highway 17”.

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Criticism

Notes on Fallout: New Vegas

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If Fallout 3 is a game about spaces, then Fallout: New Vegas is a game about people.

This can be seen in the way that it informs the world design of both games. The Capital Wasteland of Fallout 3 is a vast, sprawling space with huge distances in between points of interest. The game wants the player to forge a relationship to the Capital Wasteland itself as they navigates its reaches. The Mojave Wasteland of New Vegas, on the other hand, is a lot smaller. There are several points of civilization in the wastes that are (almost) all connected by a singular road that loops around the map. In fact, this is how the game structures the first act of its main questline: you start in Goodsprings, head south to Primm, then the NCR outpost, then loop round and up to Novac, and finally New Vegas itself, all following the I-15/I-95. The distances between these pit-stops is shorter than the distance between any two locations in Fallout 3, especially without any train tunnel mazes to meander through, and there’s not much scenery in these interludes. It’s all wide, indistinct expanses of desert and the occasional valley. The Capital Wasteland always has the Washington Monument visible in the distance, drawing the player continually back to that frame of reference and forging a relationship between player and space. Not so in the Mojave.

What this does mean is that greater emphasis is put on the interactions that the player has with those pockets of civilization when they do reach them. The player is encouraged to stick around for a while and seek out all the Stuff that the developers have packed in. This is achieved through the quest design itself, which makes connections between settlements for the player to tap into. There are lots of side quests in New Vegas that simply entail bouncing between settlements to talk to different people.

Ranger Ghost in the NCR Mojave Outpost asks the player to go to Nipton to check out smoke coming from the town. When they get there, they find it has been sacked by the Legion, and Vulpes Inculta gives the player a separate quest to spread word of the Legion’s actions to strike fear into the NCR. Back at the Mojave Outpost, the player tells Ranger Ghost about Nipton, and in return get some dialogue explaining the significance of this event in terms of the conflict between the NCR and the Legion. They can also talk to Sergeant Kilborn in the Outpost to complete the quest given by Inculta.

These are quests that overlap, establish relationships between individuals, factions and locations, and also involve only travelling, observation and conversation in terms of gameplay. Rather than emphasising the movement of the player through the space of the Mojave itself, these quests ground the player in the geopolitics of the Mojave that they then become a part of. There are shades of this in Fallout 3, especially in the Broken Steel DLC, but they aren’t as well realised, nor are they as integral to the way that the game is structured as a whole.

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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: 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, Criticism

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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