• "There’s still a smell of bullshit to almost every videogame story I read, even as it’s advanced to a very high level being in The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. To me it derives from this politeness about the thing that’s experienced. In literary criticism there are really cutting deconstructions of things that are inadequate—Nabokov talking about what a fraud and charlatan Faulkner was—but there’s this really intelligent, but painfully milquetoast, quality to the way we appreciate games. It’s a reflection of how partially engaged we are with each one. We consider games primarily as ideas, rather than actual evolving relationships that we’ve had over time." Yeah, that. I enjoyed this discussion: I'm pretty sure you don't have to finish games to review them. Then again: I also think writing about games six months after they came out is way more interesting than trying to hammer through something to fit into a review cycle.
  • Oooh, the Shruthi got an upgrade: not just white PCBs, but an interesting new filter board. Seriously tempted by one of these.

This year, my Games of the Year got rolled into Kill Screen’s end-of-year countdown. It’s a fine list.

Kill Screen have also put up the individual participants ballot, and you can read mine here. I also wrote some notes about the list of ten:

Here’s my secret: I’m shamelessly mainstream. When I get home from a day at a desk, designing or programming, I like to play games on my sofa. And so: lots of major console releases there, from the advanced hiking simulator that is Skyrim to the elaborate team sport (disguised as a military shooter) that is Battlefield 3. It’s not all AAA-ware, though. The fact that games like Bastion and From Dust saw release on major platforms makes me enormously happy, and they deserve their place.

What binds all these titles together? Perhaps it’s just about wonderful worlds to escape to. Wonderful for their aesthetics: the cold mountains of Tamriel; the endless greyboxes of decades of Aperture Science; the silhouetted landscapes of Outland; the spectacular 17th century Mars of Jamestown; the steely glowing cyberpunk of Frozen Synapse; the rich, detailed decay of Arkham City.

Flip that around, though, because they’re also wonderful systems to get lost in: Skyrim‘s bottomless, endlessly free systems; the careful addition of gels to the Portal formula; the binary-coloured bullet-hell of Outland; the marvellous Vaunt mechanic in Jamestown; the perfection of turn-based (and play-by-mail) strategy in Frozen Synapse; the bottomless gadget-belt and inventive environment of Arkham City. At heart, I’m an escapist, and I escape into beautiful worlds and deep mechanics equally.

Ten was hard to pick, and I wanted to represent some potentially overlooked gems (oh, Outland) as well as some obviously great mainstream games. Two games slipped off the list for me: Deus Ex: Human Revolution just slipped off, but was a surprisingly lovely way to spend the middle part of the year, and Crysis (in its re-released, updated downloadable XBox and PSN port) wasn’t eligible for inclusion as it was a remake. It was, however, definitely one of the ten best games I played last year, and the Games on Demand version is worth your time, if only for the bottomless tropical sandbox of fun it offers in its early stages.

Go read my list, and, indeed, the whole Kill Screen feature.

My latest Game Design of Everyday Things column is now up at Kill Screen. It’s about the relevance of landscape gardening to game design.

We talk a lot about the influence of architecture on game design. Indeed, it’s something Kill Screen asked me about in the original formulations for this column. We can all see the influence on games of a medium in which geometric form and structure is used to influence behavior and manipulate the movement of people through space. It feels like there’s an obvious comparison between architecture and the design of three-dimensional game levels.

But I think landscape gardening is perhaps a much more interesting comparison point for the structure of game spaces, and one that is oft-neglected.

Landscape architecture shapes the behavior and intent of its observers without walls or markers. Instead, it focuses on surprise and delight: as your eye follows the gentle slope of a path down to a lake, it should feel like you discovered this. It feels like a coincidence of marvellous proportions, a secret that you discovered, that the eye is led so gracefully. In fact, it’s a carefully designed experience.

Also, it’s been illustrated by Trip Carroll with an illustration of John Marston in front of Broadway Tower, which is really quite something.

Anyhow: rather pleased with this. You can read the full column at Kill Screen.

  • "Winning and losing are only defined in their relation to us. Their meaning doesn’t come from an abstract ideal that is buried in the rules of the game, but from our experiences in life, such as witnessing war; or watching Garry Kasparov’s erratic behavior during his matches with Deep Blue; or having once won the emotionally fractured heart of the blonde from class, only to have it crumble in my hands. A game like chess is meaningful because it comments on our wider view on culture—not because placing pieces in a certain position leads to an endgame." On the battle between the logic of systems and the illogic of meanings. Useful food for thought right now.
  • "It’s hard to believe that there was a time when any of these weren’t conventional wisdom, but there was such a time. Unix combines more obvious-in-retrospect engineering design choices than anything else I’ve seen or am likely to see in my lifetime.

    It is impossible — absolutely impossible — to overstate the debt my profession owes to Dennis Ritchie. I’ve been living in a world he helped invent for over thirty years."

  • List of all 58 fonts now in iOS, mainly for reference. (Although, eesh, Zapfino AND Papyrus? Really?)
  • Critical, critical, to the world we live in today.
  • "And all this time I can’t help thinking that this was because I’m working with games. If I was a fimmaker, this is issue would never crop up. But games have to constantly defend their status as a way of creative expression. When creating games, you are by default suspected of either selling out or producing nothing of value what so ever. Or both." Seriously, Vimeo need to sort this out: it's embarrassing, and contrary to the messages they send out.
  • "I wanted to talk about the Occupy $CITY movement here (in fact, that’s where this post started); a protest movement that is not about the event, or the movement through the city, or even the disruption per se. It is protest as part of the fabric of the city; a constant questioning and reassessment of a conversation with both the fabric of the city physically, economically and politically; taking the concept of Wall St and Main St and making it suddenly concrete, forcing a conversation to take place."
  • "If this doesn’t seem like a big issue imagine the state of cinema if film students were only able to study films made in the last two decades? Or if English Literature students no longer have the ability to examine the works of Shakespeare or Twain? What might be lost?" Seriously, companies: stop turning servers off. Processor power is cheap.
  • "Q: I don't imagine that a design meeting with Takahashi is a typical PowerPoint affair.

    A: He has singlehandedly invented the animated GIF as the design spec. It's fucking hilarious." Animated GIF as design spec. Superb. (And: nice interview with Stuart Butterfield about Glitch).

Everyday Gaming

15 August 2011

My latest Game Design of Everyday Things column is now live at Kill Screen. It’s about games and the “everyday”:

This column is nominally about looking at the relationship between design and games. But, in its title that riffs on Don Norman’s most famous book, I’d argue that the “Everyday” is as important as the D-word. After all, design is not really something most people engage with actively, either as connoisseurs or as critics. Most often, it is something people engage with without knowing it’s there. “Design,” it turns out, is usually the answer to the question we so rarely ask of the products we use everyday: “What made this good?”

Read the whole article at Kill Screen.

  • "Certainly as delivered through mobile devices, contemporary AR imposes significant limits on your ability to derive information from the flow of streetlife. It’s not just the “I must look like a dork” implications of walking down the street with a mobile held visor-like before you, though those are surely present and significant. It’s that the city is already trying to tell you things, most of which are likely to be highly, even existentially salient to your experience of place. I can’t help but think that what you’re being offered through the tunnel vision of AR is starkly impoverished by comparison — and that’s even before we entertain the very high likelihood of that information’s being inaccurate, outdated, or commercial or otherwise exploitative in nature."
  • GameMaker-like tool for OSX and Windows – that outputs Flash games, built out of Flixel and Box2D. Niiice.
  • "Cole Phelps has no health bar, no ammo count, and no inventory. He doesn't write journal entries, and has no safe house or property. He doesn't eat, doesn't sleep, doesn't smoke or drink or sleep around or go out with his friends. I have seen nothing of his wife and children, his passions, his hates or his desires. He walks into a crime scene and barks his introductions like a dog, rude and abrasive; petulant and bullying. He carries himself like a child playing dress-up, weak-chinned, pale, and aimlessly angry. Cole Phelps is kind of a prick.

    But when I look at what's going on around him, I can't really blame him. What to make of this Truman Show-esque existence, this vast, toothless city? If I were trapped in such a purgatorial nightmare, I'd probably behave badly, too." This is good, and expresses in poetic and critical terms one of the many reasons I just don't care about LA Noire.

  • "I have this colleague of mine who is an avid rock climber, and I’m trying to get him to play GIRP. He says that what I’m saying is like, “I’ve come up with this new formula of crack that’s ultra-addictive; why don’t you try this new crack I’ve cooked up?”" Wait, Bennett GIRP/QWOP Foddy was in *Cut Copy*?! Awesome.
  • "…another Monorail Society Exclusive!" The decision, you might have guessed, is turning down a monorail. Does sound great, though, and easy material for writing alternate-pasts.
  • "Unlike the movies that influence it, LA Noire takes place in a world where editing hasn't been invented yet." Really good writing from Tom Chick; this was perhaps my favourite quotation. I genuinely wonder how many people playing this game have never played a "proper" adventure game – be it an old Sierra point-and-click, or something from the Phoenix Wright/Hotel Dusk school. Chick's line about the matchbook is exactly the thing adventure gamers got fed up with in the *late nineteen-eighties*. We don't need the bad parts of Sierra coming back to haunt is.