• "This ghastly indie-art-game prose: it’s writing that tries to communicate ideas in the same way that game mechanics communicate ideas. Such writing offers allusions and suggestions, hints for the player to assemble, but it shies away from specifics or a through-line plot. Characters often go unnamed, or are named something thuddingly symbolic, or are Everyman. Theme is presented heavy-handedly (you wouldn’t want players to miss it!) and via the most cliché images. Expect frequent references to light and dark, cold and loneliness, broken hearts and shattered dreams. Memories may get a look in. Also death. It’s like reading a collage of the manuscripts sent to a high school poetry contest right after one of the students got in a fatal crash." Emily is right, and it's something I hate about certain games: just how *self-consciously* "indie" they are.
  • "While everyone else is going sleek and elegant and natural, Tiger is all experience points and loading screens and instant challenge pop-ups and club-tuning holodecks. Skate feels like skating, Fight Night feels like boxing, and Tiger feels like a game about golf." I don't like golf; I love computerised golf. I don't like Tiger; I love Links in all its forms, and before that, Leaderboard. This is a brilliant – if long – piece of writing on a short history of PC golf, and what's wrong with Tiger in this day and age. (Apart from, you know, the whole sex-addict thing).
  • "A decade or two ago I spent some days in a “study” in an old Oxford college: bed, desk, lamp, and a window with a view of the quadrangle; nothing else. It made an impression that hasn’t faded. Among other things, I made insane, immense progress on a difficult piece of writing at the front of my to-do list. Here’s a prediction: Geek fashion in particular and intellectual fashion in general will swing hard over: from cluttered to ascetic, from high to low entropy, from library to monastery." A few thoughts from Tim Bray – not all of which I agree with – on the changing geek aesthetic.
  • David Hellman releases hi-res assets of all the Braid artwork. It is beautiful, and am thinking about how best to use some of it on my desktop.

Favourite Games of 2008

24 December 2008

It’s the end of the year, and that means time for lists. My books and albums lists are forthcoming – hopefully tonight or tomorrow – but in the meantime, I thought I’d kick off with ten of my favourite games of the past year.

There’s lots missing here, mainly owing to the fact I haven’t finished a lot of recent titles or given them the time they’ve deserved. What this is, though, is a good summary of what the gaming year felt like to me; ten games I enjoyed a great deal, and that I would recommend in a heartbeat to anyone not sure where to begin with 2008.

And so, in no particular order:

Far Cry 2

(Xbox 360, PS3, PC)


I have written enough about this already, but suffice to say: it sunk its teeth into me, after the initial hump I couldn’t play anything else, and at the end, it left me unable to play anything else for a while. Spectacularly beautiful, too.




Trism began as an app for the jailbroken iPhone; it quickly made the transition to the official App Store platform when that opened up, and it has sold hundreds of thousands of dollars of copies since then, giving Demiforce a fantastic start to their company. And with good reason: it’s a great piece of game design, easy to learn, and hard to master. It also makes brilliant use of not only the iPhone’s capacitive touch screen, but also its tilt sensor. It’s a very pure puzzling experience, and I’ve already sunk many hours into it; it suits the pick-up/put-down rhythm of travel and play on-the-move idaelly. If you have an iPhone or iPod touch, this really is a no-brainer.

Geometry Wars Retro Evolved 2

(Xbox 360)


It’s still one of the best games on Live Arcade. It’s also still one of the best asynchronous multiplayer games you can play. Making your friends high scores the default high score table gives it a great competitive streak and really contextualises your performance: nothing’s more frustrating than having emailed a friend to say “hah, beat your high score” only to receive an response five minutes later informing you that the ball is firmly back in your court.

Adding variety to the original formula are the six game modes, slowly unlocked over time. They may all be variants on a theme, but they all still demand unique skills and become games in their own right: turning the Pacifism achievement from the first game into a mode in its own right was a great move.

Beautiful in high-def, easily explained to anyone who’s played a videogame in their life, it’s by turns accessible and challenging, and an essential purchase for new 360 players. Also, its social scoreboards give it great longevity, and prove what I already know: I’m nearly, but not quite, at the bottom of the pack when it comes to motor control. As long as I’m not last…


(Xbox 360)


If there’s a measures of Braid’s success, it’s not to be found in its sales or metacritic scores, but in the sheer volume of verbiage devoted to it in the blogs, forums, and magazines of the gaming world. Thousands of words, all expended on the game, on the hype, and on what the hell it all means.

It wouldn’t have got that discussion if it wasn’t in some way good, and it really is: beautiful, challenging, and proof of the things that only games can do. It embraces game-native storytelling, wrapping its meaning tightly around its mechanics, and tells its tale through challenging, timeless puzzles and David Hellman‘s incredible artwork.

Perhaps it is a little pretentious; perhaps the writing is weak. Regardless of those facts, it’s exciting to see a game like this getting such a major launch on a mainstream, living-room platform, and as an artefact to push forward the casual – as well as professional – criticism of games, it’s a great starting point.


(Xbox 360, PS3, PC)


I always forget how much I like racing games. GRID is a very, very fine take on the racer. It’s beautiful, it’s fast, and it’s totally stripped down. GRID demonstrated that Codemasters really understood what making a game “cinematic” might look like: you condense it down into tight, exciting drama. So races take place over two-to-five laps, and in that time the AI will give you as good a catfight as any “realistic” simulator might over an hour. The rewind-time mechanic, as well as being wonderful to watch, removes the traditional racing-game reliance on the “restart” option; giving the game a pre-credits race, not to mention an ongoing narrative of running a team only helps with the Days of Thunder feel. Mapping Le Mans to a twenty-four minute endurance race makes it both exciting and endurable.

And, of course, it’s very pretty and fast as hell. The open-wheel racing is some of the most exciting driving games have to offer, in particular. The drift tournaments are weak, but stick to the touring cars, touge and open-wheel and you’ve got a hell of a game. The icing on the cake is the beautiful, free-floating typography. Solid, and surprisingly good.

Grand Theft Auto IV

(Xbox 360, PS3, PC)

GTA IV screengrab

It’s on everybody else’s list, and I can’t really deny it: it’s a wonderful environment, and a staggering achievement. It’s not as smart as it likes, and it occasionally misfires but it delivers moments by the dozen. Shame the pacing of the islands feels wrong – after the majesty of Three Leaf Clover, being dumped in the New Jersey analogue is a bit underwhelming.

Also: multiplayer, with the right gang of people, is a total hoot. Whilst not the runaway online success that might have been hoped for, if you can get eight to sixteen friends online together, Cops and Crooks or Turf War will bring the fun pretty fast.

God of War: Chains of Olympus



Well, it came out this year in the UK. I played this sitting by a roaring log fire, having spent my days clambering around the Lake District. It is not the greatest game of the year by a long stretch. It is, however, a wonderfully crafted experience: short it may be, but it’s put together almost perfectly: fantastic environments that barely repeat, thrilling combat that’s not too difficult, and one of the most striking in-game sequences I’ve played this year. It helps that the lack of direct camera control translates perfectly to the single-stick PSP. On top of all that, it looks almost as good as the PS2 versions – it’s a remarkable feat of engineering. I had a lot of fun with this, and if you own Sony’s much-unloved portable, you owe yourself to play this.

Left 4 Dead

(Xbox 360, PC)


Gerard Way asked if it was any good, and the answer is yes, Gerard, it is. It’s bloody brilliant, although with the obvious caveat that it gets better with friends. Co-op gaming has slowly seen a slew of support and innovation in the past two to three years, and Left 4 Dead represents one particular pinnacle of that: an experience designed ground-up to be played not only co-operatively, but with real friends.

It’s not about team-mates, it’s about mates; how far would you go to save your friends from a Smoker? Quite far, as it turns out; I’ve noticed that in various pick-up groups, if I have to pick between someone I know in real life and someone I don’t, I’ll go with my friends first. To see such an unashamedly co-op experience – and one that could be described as reasonably hardcore if you hadn’t tried it – achieve such a level of mainstream success is very heartening. I put it down to the fact that Valve are such a talented gang of people, and so fastidious in their process. If you’ve not played through the director’s commentary, you owe it to yourself to do so, if only to understand that nothing in the final product is the result of chance.

Also: it’s great to see a game that puts the mechanic, indeed, the core technology, that really makes it – the AI – so far front-and-center. Personifying it as the AI Director was the stroke of genius that not only made players aware of it, but gave them someone to blame when they all died. Again.

World of Goo

(Mac, PC, Wii)


There are two reasons, I think, that World of Goo has captured a lot of people’s hearts this year. One is the game itself: the wonderful art; the delightful soundtrack; the just-one-more-go gameplay that carefully teaches you everything to know whilst keeping the challenge just high enough. But the other is the game’s mythology: 2D Boy, two guys working out of coffee shops for a year, giving up on the traditional industry to make the game they really wanted to. It’s the story we all wanted to believe in. The fact that both elements are so great is the real magic of World of Goo: risking it all, living the indie dream, really did lead to a wonderful game.


(Mac, PC, Linux)


I like this more than Rohrer’s previous Passage. It’s a small, simple game, available for most home desktop platforms (Windows/OSX/Linux), about “mania, melancholia, and the creative process”. To say any more is to rob it of its impact. Once I worked out what you have to do to progress, I played on with a huge lump in my throat. To be heartbroken by a game this slight, this simple, in its 100 square pixel area, is quite something, and Rohrer makes games like no-one else.

  • "This week’s 1UP FM is a fascinating round table/interview with Jonathan Blow, David Hellman, Rod Humble, and Sean Elliott and Nick Suttner from 1UP… If you’re at all interested in Braid, experimental game design, or the ethics of games you should go listen now." In the meantime, Ben Zeigler has provided some excellent annotation for us all.
  • "Over the last few years, there has been a big shift in power and success away from independent studios, and towards in-house, publisher-owned studios. This has been driven by several things, sound economic reasons, competitive reasons, and because the strong independent studios had done a good job at creating a slew of new IPs (which publishers were eager to snap up, as always). In my experience relatively few people in the games industry realise this… So, what’s next? What’s going to happen over the next 3-5 years?" Adam on the business of the games industry, and what's facing it next.

On Braid and Bullshit

07 September 2008

A quick note: this post is long, and it’s been a lot of work just to bring it down to some kind of coherent structure and size. It perhaps could have been better as a series of posts, but for now, this is the form it takes. I hope, despite the length, that you enjoy it. Shorter content is forthcoming…

I love Braid. It’s a remarkable game that I’m enjoying playing a lot; it’s a game I love to talk about to both gamers and non-gamers; and it’s a game that is always yielding up new insights and interpretations the more I play it. And most importantly, you have to do more than just talk: it’s a game that only really reveals itself through the act of play. Which is, you could say, how all games should be, but it’s still impressive how much Braid concentrates into its mechanics.

Because of the potential for insight it offers, there’s been a lot written about it since its release, and as the amount of writing on Braid grew, I realised that I was growing dissatisifed with much of it, and that I needed to articulate why.

The starting point for this post was a long, invovled forum thread on rllmuk about the story of Braid, which presented a long, coherent (if at times a little sketchy) interpretation of the game as being about the Atomic Bomb.

What frustrated me was the way the author of the post presented it. He began like so:

Braid is a story that focuses on the development and deployment of the atomic bomb, and the irreversible impact it had on all human conflicts thereafter. At the very same time, it deals with the very human story of a relationship breaking down due to one person’s obsessive need to control this power. Finally, at certain points, the perspective of the bomb creator as a child comes through.

As I said: it’s an interesting reading. The commenter has clearly taken a long, careful look at the game, and come to an interesting conclusion. But why does he have to frame it as a solid, single interpretation?

A few posts later, the rllmuk commenter admitted that the unsubtlety of his phrasing was deliberate:

It’s also the absolute proof, if ever such a thing was needed that something like Braid can be any number of things; stylistically, a homage to 2D platformers of old, the play on the hero/princess stories we’ve been sold any number of times over the years, the take on jealously and obsession… I presented my argument the way that I did because it’s the one angle that I don’t think has been commented on yet, and I’m of the opinion that there is sufficient evidence to support it.

This assuaged a lot of my fear – I think, if anything, he pressed on with his take on things even when his reasoning was sketchy precisely in order to illustrate the many ways the game can be read. All credit to him for that.

I’m still playing Braid, but the one thing I’m pretty convinced by is that it’s about more than one “thing”. There’s more than one sensical and valid reading of it, and it supports many that the author may not have originally intended.

(Beyond that, I’m also convinced of two things: firstly, that wherever the game itself takes place, the world “Tim” lives in is our world, not the world he platforms through, and secondly, that Tim plays videogames.)

I’m tired of games criticsm being so cut-and-dry; so focused on what things are about, rather than what they could mean. We’re not so blinkered in our criticism of any other medium, so why do we have to be like this with games? There’s a nice story, wrapped up in that RLLMUK thread – first I’m frustrated with the tone, but everything turns out alright in the end, as the author’s tone is revealed to be another kind of artifice.

Anyhow, like I said, it got me thinking about the way we currently criticise games.

Then, a few weeks ago, Jonathan Blow (who can unarguably be described as Braid’s “creator”) did an interview with the Onion AV Club, and for the first time, he said something that rubbed me the wrong way. Blow is obviously a smart chap, and he has a lot of excellent things to say about games, and what they can be. Until the release of Braid, a lot of this could only be seen as talk, but now he has a platform to stand on – the game itself, released into the world – and it’s exciting to see someone deliver on their promise of an attempt at change: the game espouses his points itself without any illustration.

But I kept returning to that interview, and the passages that rubbed me the wrong way, and I realised that lot of it was about the nature of criticism (not just games criticism, but criticism itself) and that I had to write about it now or lose it forever.

I don’t want this post to be a Fisking of Blow’s interview, because he says a lot of interesting things in it, and I agree with quite a few of them – but it’s the first time he’s said things that I disagree with at a very fundamental level. And it all began with this statement:

I was a double-major in Computer Science and English. And English at Berkeley, where I went to school, is very much creatively-driven. Basically, the entire bachelor’s degree in English is all about bullshitting. And Computer Science, which was my other major, was exactly the opposite of that. You had to know what you were doing, and you had to know what you were talking about.

This is not what I discovered throughout my degree in English literature (and I’m going to assume that by “English” Blow means the study of literature and its criticism, rather than “creative writing”, as it were). The one thing I learned pretty fast is that the last thing criticism is about is bullshitting. I got away with some heinous bullshit as a secondary school pupil, but believe me, my supervisors forced that out of me pretty fast, and I began to learn how to write my own criticism – rather than a condensation of that of others – that stands on its own and, crucially, shows that I know what I’m talking about.

What Blow is describing is a problem I’ve seen many times before, though: the difficulty of engaging with criticism.

Continue reading this post…