Boxes and Arrows
I think I think like a programmer.
I take a very systematic approach to everything, because ultimately everything is a system. And every system can be described in terms of boxes and arrows. There’s a TED talk about How To Make Toast which explores this point brilliantly but it might as well have been called How To Make Toast & Also This Is A Schematic for Craig’s Thought Process. Read more →
Chapter 1: Foreshadowing
It all began in January 2014.
Like any grand opera the opening overture establishes the themes.
After downloading and launching The Simpsons: Tapped Out for the first time it proceeds to download a further update in a most curious manner:
Three minutes later:
Five minutes later:
In this way Tapped Out lays bare both its gaming philosophy and psychological ploys. The game is from beginning to end (scratch that- there is no end) a series of time-lapsed progress bars whose sole purpose in completing is to unlock more progress bars to complete. You build stuff to buy stuff to build more stuff by waiting for stuff.
Each tap on the screen counts off another wasted heartbeat as you retreat into a non-judgemental world free from challenge and threat. Slowly your immune system shuts down and soon your body atrophies into dust.
Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.
But we all know this. Everyone knew about this garbage back with Farmville. Swap out the Simpsons for dumb-looking pigs and YOLO we’re back in 2009.
What I didn’t realise was that all it took was the familiar yellow warmth of The Simpsons to break my resolve.
I’m rather enjoying Tapped Out. And I’ve been enjoying it for some time.
Chapter 2: Psychological Warfare
Freemium games exploit the same psychological effects as with gambling:
|Denomination effect||People are less likely to spend larger bills than their equivalent value in smaller bills e.g. spending ten £5 notes “feels” less than spending one £50.|
|IKEA effect||Consumers place a disproportionately high value on products they partially created.|
|Illusion of control||People feel a sense of control over outcomes that they demonstrably do not influence.|
|Planning fallacy||People tend to underestimate how much time will be needed to complete a future task.|
|Post-purchase rationalisation||Consumers who purchase an expensive product tend to overlook any faults/defects in order to justify their purchase.|
|Restraint bias||People tend to overestimate their ability to control impulsive behavior.|
|Time-saving bias||People tend to incorrectly estimate the time that could be saved/lost when modifying an aspect of a task.|
Tapped Out plays on the additional psychological hook of nostalgia. I loved the Simpsons. We all do, really. For me it’s a love so strong I still check out the new episodes every now and then. Every time I am disappointed.
The writing in Tapped Out is surprisingly funny and lovingly self-aware:
But that doesn’t stop them touting their exciting, new episodes:
I think I’ll live without knowing that answer.
Chapter 3: Purchasing the Competitive Edge
There are two currencies in Tapped Out:
- Dollars (standard currency). Earned by completing character tasks and standard building tasks. Used to purchase most content.
- Donuts (premium currency). Earned by levelling up by completing character missions. Used to purchase premium content. Can be purchased bulk for real world money.
Only fools spend real money on fake donuts to earn more fake dollars.
A Mystery Box has a chance of containing a premium item and costs 6 Donuts.
A Homer Buddha is guaranteed to contain a premium item and costs 15 Donuts.
I decided to buy a Homer Buddha…
WTF. My guaranteed premium item gets downgraded to a chance premium gift…
… which contains a bench.
Perfect. I’ll put it with my other bench.
Chapter 4: Chinese Water Torture
A classic freemium tactic is to reward daily play. If you don’t play daily you miss out on The Daily Play Reward! Oh no! The shame!
This is the easy way to earn a Mystery Box:
Want to see a Mystery Box become even more mysterious?:
Boom. Box inside a box. Mystery inside a mystery…
…containing another bench.
Truly I am wasting my time.
I’ll put it with the others.
Somehow I’ve kept playing and I’m now Level 13. Don’t quite remember how that happened.
Chapter 5: A Moment of Reflection
I’m trying to get to sleep and my phone starts vibrating and making noise.
It’s a late night in February. I’ve been “playing” for over a month now.
I remember the first few days. Building those first few buildings with only Homer and Lisa. Having to wait twenty minutes for what? A pointless word bubble and a task that takes an hour…
What garbage. I’m going back to sleep.
Chapter 6: A Moment of Shame
I don’t have any friends who play Tapped Out.
I don’t want my friends to know I play Tapped Out.
I don’t have any Tapped Out friends.
I need Tapped Out friends to unlock certain items.
Let’s see how social this game gets then.
I add half a dozen “friends” from a Tapped Out forum I joined. Some of them are nicer than others and visit my Springfield every day. Others are less responsive.
I can’t communicate to my new friends in any way. They are all bigger than me and have more stuff. I am building my Springfield to be pretty. They build theirs to be powerful.
Mass-building blue houses to farm as much dollar per square value as possible. How sad.
Chapter 7: A Moment Like Any Other
April. Three months into this passing fancy.
Stop mocking me.
Chapter 8: The Twilight Zone
A most interesting thing happened today. A glitch. A trip off the rails.
Tapped Out logged me into someone else’s game!
They have more stuff than me. And lots of premium characters and buildings.
I decide to leave them a message, the first and only time I communicated with another player. I write the message with bushes.
I started playing the Events (special themed missions that run over calendar events. These events introduce another time pressure and introduce a third type of currency to collect.
For the Easter event you collected coloured eggs.
Now the Egg Council Guy is my favourite Simpsons joke. Ever.
I wanted to win that Egg Council Guy. Badly.
Goddamn Johnny Fiestas. I WANT MY EGG COUNCIL GUY!
I WANT HIM NOW!
Chapter 10: Blacking Out
My memory goes foggy for the next few months.
I don’t even remember what this 1am wake up call was achieving. But I woke up and tapped my fake Springfield for a bit and went back to sleep. This was a week day and I had work in the morning.
Chapter 11: Stonecutters
It’s now July. Six months lost.
First television appearance of Egg Council Guy!
Chapter 12: Professional, high-level play
Need more dollar. Build more blue. More blue mean more dollar.
Chapter 13: Halloween
October. Nine month anniversary!
I <3 you, Tapped Out.
I know. I’m happy too.
Chapter 14: Christmas
Finger tips are numb.
My eyes hurt.
Final Chapter: 90 Days of Corn
Cletus’s Farm has a joke task to make Corn taking 90 days to complete.
So I started it expecting to draw a line under this whole mess…
…but that fact that I’m still playing…
…scares the hell out of me…
… I need to destroy my Springfield.
… I need to escape this prison.
… I need to uninstall Tapped Out.
Right after I finish this corn.
Dr John Long passed away last Sunday. He taught me German in high school, which sounds a little trivial, but his teaching had a big impact on my life.
As a naïve pupil, you dehumanise teachers a little. They become the prison officers of childhood as you wait for the euphoric release of the school bell. Dr Long wasn’t like that: he loved to teach, and I loved to learn. He was a reserved and humble man – I didn’t realise his full credentials until I read the notice on the school website, and they are impressive – but in the classroom, he fizzed with excitement. He’d put on accents when he read through Der Besuch and Andorra, go off on a tangent about Verfremdungseffekt and Brechtian theatre, agonise over what exactly Frikadellen were (he authoritatively described them as ‘rissoles’). He was often deep in thought: another former teacher described him as “by far the cleverest man that he had ever met”, and that sounds near enough the truth.
Although he displayed impressive levels of patience, like when someone in the GCSE German class asked what “die” meant, I remember one time he got really angry. A pupil asked if the day’s topic of discussion was going to be on the exam, and Dr Long was incandescent with rage: “you’re not here to pass an exam! You’re here to learn a language!” He was right, but more than that, in his classes you learned how to learn. Meaningful knowledge, that which we retain and cherish, comes from passion and understanding – it’s more than mere rote learning. Those German classes were a process of wisdom transference. Even a decade later, I can still read German and speak a little with colleagues, although my accent is pretty terrible. That’s not just mandatory state school training: that’s a gift.
I made two mistakes when I moved to Edinburgh: I ceased studying German, and I lost contact with the man who taught me. I’d bump into him every now and again when visiting Northern Ireland, but I should have kept in touch. I had always meant to write, as one always means to, until one day I received the news that he had suffered a stroke, and he never fully recovered from that. But this is not a mistake we need to learn for ourselves: just grab some crisp paper, your favourite pen, find a quiet place, and reach out to people. Reconnect with them before it’s too late. Letters are objects of surprising power.
I have many fond memories of Dr Long, from the way he’d edit your childish prose into a masterpiece of idiom (ein unvergessliches Erlebnis, as he would say); to the time he caught a friend and I smoking on the way to the bus station, smirked and said “Ich hab nichts gesehen”. Thank you for the knowledge, but thank you even more for the gift of learning. Not to be confused with the Gift of learning, German speakers.
One day I’ll finally visit Berlin, and I won’t need a phrase book. Ich freue mich schon darauf.
Split Screen is four years old, but this is a new start for us. We could not have made this site in 2010: we’ve taken all we learned from four years of blogging, two years of Five out of Ten and more to create the site we’ve always wanted.
Focusing on what matters: the old Split Screen was a blog about games and technology. The new site is about all the things that matter to us: videogames of course, but also music, cinema, literature and life. Whatever we feel like, really! We’ve also incorporated Alan’s old ‘Critical Hits’ blog (as featured on the New Statesman) into Split Screen.
All-new design powered by WordPress: fully responsive for mobile, beautiful typography, cruft-free. There are neat new features like image galleries (try clicking the image in the Monument Valley review!) It might seem like a lick of paint, but the old Joomla site was a large barrier in the way of getting things published. Special thanks to Alexander Haslam for helping us develop the new site – if you need some WordPress development, he comes highly recommended. Also, thanks to Marko Jung (Five out of Ten’s web developer) for providing his usual technical expertise.
We’ve still got a few things to fix – if you click on an author’s name it won’t show all their posts, and we want a better way to categorise our existing features. We’re working on it!
No comments: you can read the comments on old articles. But let’s be honest, comments are 90% spam and 9% shit. You are very much encouraged to chat to us on Twitter or send us an email!
Four years of writing, videos and podcasts: critically acclaimed series like Metacritique, Reality Check, Retrocity, features and reviews. We’ve chosen our favourites for old and new readers alike, but the new site was built for exploration and discovery. We’ve also taken Alan’s old features originally written for Nightmare Mode and brought them home.
The podcast returns: the 14th episode (or the first of a new era, if you like) is called ‘Phoenix’, and is coming very soon. It’s a double episode special about how games get remastered, remade and rebooted, followed by a bit of ‘inside baseball’ about what Split Screen is about. We’re changing up the podcast format and recording shorter, more frequent podcasts. You can listen right from the page or subscribe through your favourite podcast player.
Four years of old links and arcane video embeds: many of these are broken. Sorry! This is an unavoidable consequence of the move to WordPress. Please use the search bar to find older articles if they’re referenced in another.
No advertising: and we’ll always disclose if we receive any promotional or review material. Not that this is particularly likely.
Our mission: to write what we want, to make you laugh and think, to have the courage to make mistakes.
The Best Of Us
For a selection of our favourite things over the past four years, just choose ‘The Best of Us’ from the menu bar.
Five out of Ten is the magazine for people who love videogames and demand the best in independent writing, from the lovable folks who brought you Split Screen. We’ve been running it for almost two years with three principles:
We only publish great, original features: writing that is insightful, bold, and timeless. Our features combine personal experience with critical investigation: the thoughts that go beyond mere play. We take a ‘slow journalism’ approach: our work is considered and meaningful.
We have a proud history of publishing a wide range of voices and experiences, and we are actively committed to continuing to do so. Five out of Ten is dedicated to diversity: this includes promoting marginalised voices and ensuring that our writers approve of what we publish. All Five out of Ten pieces are edited collaboratively between the writers and editorial team to ensure finished articles are reflective of the author’s views.
We believe that good writing is worth paying for. Rather than paying a set fee for writing, we split the profits between an issue’s contributors. This means our writers share in the success of the magazine. We do not publish writing without financially compensating the author, and we don’t display external advertising or corporate sponsorship.
Our tenth issue is called ‘Heart’ and is out now. If you like what we’re doing on Split Screen, buy a copy of Five out of Ten – we get a little money and you get a lot of great writing. Everyone’s a winner!
2200 words. 17 magazines. Welcome to Book Club.
Magazines! Remember those? From the early years of Mean Machines to PC Gamer and EDGE in more recent times, magazines have always been a part of my gaming life. I love them, and I want people to make more. It seems fitting to finally publish this article, which I started writing in 2012 (!), off the back of Critical Proximity.
Games magazines aren’t limited to the elite publishing houses any more: just as the Internet has democratised other media, magazines can also be designed and published anywhere, by anyone. With that in mind, here’s a look at some titles at the forefront of the digital publishing revolution. As you may know, I think good writing is worth paying for, so I would encourage you to buy lots of these zines and find some new favourites. I’ve focused on my personal favourites, so get in touch if you think you’ve been overlooked.
The magazine scene is evolving all the time: new paid publications have been added, while others have ceased to be. I’m not sure if I’ll keep this piece updated or let it vegetate for another two years – I should probably add some pictures – but either way, I hope to add lots of magazines to the main section and not ‘In Memoriam’.
Without further ado…
Print magazines aren’t irrelevant yet: the problem with the proliferation of games websites is that there’s a huge signal to noise ratio, especially in terms of news and content that I just don’t care about. What really interests me are features and interviews from people who can invest time and effort into the research. Sometimes it’s good to read things that wouldn’t normally pique your interest for a little intellectual diversity: this is where a publication like EDGE or Custom PC succeeds where websites haven’t caught up, or perhaps can’t catch up. That’s the nature of choice vs curation.
EDGE is one of the most iPad-friendly games magazines: it’s a proper native app rather than a mere PDF, offering interactive 3D models, text that flows beautifully from page to page, video clips and external links. The digital version isn’t just cheaper and more convenient than traditional print; it’s also a more enjoyable read. I love getting a push notification when a new issue has been automatically downloaded and is ready to read (shame they’re 350mb each, though).
EDGE may have its faults – its reviews are a love-em-or-hate-em-thing, abstract and old-fashioned at times, and their lack of inline writer credits is a shame – but if it’s a dinosaur, it’s one you’d definitely photograph on a trip around Jurassic Park.
Kill Screen has been around for a while, although it was recently only available as a printed magazine. New issues are now available digitally, complementing their expanding infrequent online features and news reporting – the latter of dubious worth. I don’t know how often they release a new issue (I did check, honest), but they seem increasingly sporadic.
It’s clearly designed to be read as a printed magazine: the double-page art spreads are cruelly chopped in half by an tablet’s screen. This wouldn’t be a problem if the ePUB versions were satisfactory, but Kill Screen relies heavily on its design to complement the articles. The writing is of the longform culture variety rather than explicit videogame criticism. Depending on your stance, that’s either ‘pretentious’ or a breath of fresh air. Naturally, I lean towards the latter.
If anything was worth reading in print, it would be this, but at £17 an issue (including shipping time of 3–5 weeks) it’s a little pricey for non-US readers. The digital version is still worth a look, though.
Scroll is “a magazine about the coolness of video games” edited by Ray Barnholt. Barnholt handles both the writing and design: the former is off the beaten track, focusing on retro videogames of the late 80s and early 90s. The latter is frankly stunning, arguably more of a treat than the writing.
I love the uniqueness and attention to detail of Scroll. It goes to exciting places – at the time of writing, the current issue focuses on WARP, the late Kenji Eno’s game development studio. Again, it’s probably better experienced in print than PDF, but if you could see my buckling bookshelf you’d understand why I go for the digital versions!
Five out of Ten
Let’s face it – Five out of Ten is the elephant in the room here. You were waiting for me to mention it. I know I was.
Where do I start? FooT has been around for a year and a half now, and I think the results speak for themselves: seven great issues from some of my favourite writers, a lot of satisfied customers, even an award nod. One unique aspect is that profits are split between all of our contributors. The magazine will continue to evolve – I have a couple of tricks up my sleeve for the year to come – while not straying from the original vision of writing what we want to read, because we can.
Are we succeeding? I’ll let you be the judge of that.
The Arcade Review
The Arcade Review is a brand-new publication from Zolani Stewart and Alex Pieschel, focusing on experimental games. The first issue is a promising one, with an eclectic selection of features from cool people like Lana Polansky and a cover that’s like a beautiful space lava lamp.
It’s early days for The Arcade Review, so I’ll just say that I think it’s really neat and will have a long, bright future ahead.
I reviewed Dreamcast Worlds for Issue 5 of Five out of Ten, and I haven’t changed my mind. Here’s what I wrote:
Dreamcast Worlds: A Design History is Zoya Street’s first book, expanding his master’s thesis work on Skies of Arcadia to include Phantasy Star Online and Shenmue. Regular readers of Five out of Ten will know I’m a fan of all things Sega, and it’s a real treat to have these classic games covered in so much depth.
A ‘design history’ is a history not just of games as mechanical objects, but also as the product of cultural context, the people who make them and the societies they create. Street’s introduction to the Dreamcast is packed with original insights and titbits gathered through interview. It’s clear that the author understands Japanese corporate culture, although it is a little heartbreaking to learn the console was canned immediately after launch in the USA and Europe.
Dreamcast Worlds is well-researched, timely and fascinating. Although a little dry and analytical, which fails to convey Street’s obvious passion for the subject, it remains mercilessly free of academic jargon. It feels like an important book: the kind you regret buying in ePub form instead of a physical copy, the kind you’ll dip into again and again.
Memory Insufficient is another publication from Zoya Street, but this one is available for free. It’s a regularly published games history e-zine that goes where no others dare to tread, tackling histories of gender and diversity, imperialism, disabilities and even ecology.
Even I hadn’t contributed to this (you may not be aware of this, but all games journalism is actually produced by twenty people writing under pseudonyms), and even if it wasn’t free, and even if you had too many magazines to read, it would still be worth making time for this intelligent and fascinating publication.
Killing is Harmless
Brendan Keogh is a freelance games journalist, PhD student and good friend of mine. Somehow, in a prolific year by anyone’s standards, he managed to write a 50,000 word book about Spec Ops: The Line called Killing is Harmless.
The Line was one of the most thought-provoking and important games of 2012: a scattering of my thoughts can be found at Square Go. Rather than considering The Line as a whole work from a distance, Keogh attempts a closed reading of the game: he plays through the game, narrating chapter by chapter on his thoughts and gradually pulling in different themes. This is both a strength and weakness: you wouldn’t want to read Killing is Harmless without having finished this game, but this also removes much of the enjoyment from reading the earliest chapters of the book. Like a slow-burning videogame introduction, you’ll want to skip ahead to the action.
As criticism it doesn’t always hit the mark, sometimes reaching for meaning in desperation, but as a concept it is truly exciting. Hopefully the launch of Press Select, with Brendan’s publishing company with fellow writer Dan Golding, will mean this is just the start of such works. An auspicious beginning.
It’s Just a Game
It’s Just a Game is a magazine curated by Elizabeth Simins. Here’s my review from Book Club in Five out of Ten:
Delightfully lo-fi and idiosyncratic, It’s Just a Game is a real zine: a lovingly crafted anthology of unorthodox games writing and charming faux advertisements.
Despite the eclectic selection of authors, it’s a surprisingly consistent collection of ideas: most essays are deeply personal, continuing the trail of soul-bearing blazed by Reaction and Bit Creature, if lacking the righteous anger of the former and the sheer panache of the latter. As the title suggests, games are not just games for these writers, illustrated as they tackle the thorny zeitgeists of sexism and bigotry in modern videogame culture.
It’s Just a Game is a unique publication, confident in its own identity. It’s not trying to be the next Kill Screen. It’s just a charming read that will brighten up your bookshelf – no mean feat for a black and white zine.
Flushed “Volume 1, Number 2” is an e-zine by Samantha Allen, Lana Polansky and Elizabeth Simins, the three throneriders of the toilet-gaming apocalpyse. Like all great trips to the toilet, it is unflinching – it’s not safe for work, but with contributors such as the aforemented editors, Kaitlin Tremblay, Soha El-Sabaawi and Darius Kazemi on board, it’s very much safe for home.
Funny and flippant in a way that’s similarly as appealing as It’s Just A Game, Flushed is a quirky little publication that made me laugh and smile. Read on location, but don’t bring your laptop into the bathroom to play the games. That’s just weird.
Ghosts in the Machine
Ghosts in the Machine is a short story anthology edited by Lana Polansky and Brendan Keogh, featuring a story by yours truly that at least one friend of mine really liked. Maybe you’ll like it too! There’s only one way to find out.
Seriously though, this was a great project to be involved in and I’m in the company of some very talented writers. If you like fiction and want something a little different, this is well worth your time.
One Day at a Time
Alright, I’ll admit it – I have not read One Day at a Time, but since I’ve never read a bad piece by Richard Moss, this seems like a safe bet. The fact it’s about Football Manager makes it even more intriguing. I have just purchased my copy. You should too.
Heart Container is a real zine: limited supply, only available in print, with an emphasis on heart. The editor, Albertine Watson, has assured me that the second issue is definitely coming out soon and I’ll finally be able get my hands on a copy. Until that point, I’ll just run on the assumption that it is very good.
I know you shouldn’t judge a magazine by its cover, but since that’s all I’ve got to go on right now, the cover is very nice.
Here, we honour our fallen comrades.
I liked Continue, especially the design and emphasis on features, but unfortunately it’s on hiatus right now. In many respects it is the digital reincarnation of an old print magazine. This means that it’s a straight-up PDF like Kill Screen, but more than that, it also has a ‘news stream’ that is out of date by the time you’ve read it.
Having said that, once you get into the features Continue offers more depth than most printed magazines. They don’t only cover videogames, including articles about alternate reality gaming and board games as well. The design is of a consistently high standard.
The best way to get a fourth issue is to go and buy the previous ones. They’ve got a Year One pack for a discounted price.
In the time it took to write this piece, Haywire went from a digital magazine to a ‘regular’ blog. While I’ll miss downloading the magazine, I (more than most) understand the effort that goes into producing such a magazine, and I’m glad that Joe Köller is keeping the spirit alive through regular blog posts. Haywire’s whole heap of nominations for the Games Journalism Prize says more about the publication than I ever could.
After eight issues it seems that ctrl+alt+defeat has, well, been defeated. But since it’s a free publication with a selection of luminary contributors, it won’t do any harm to skim through the old issues. Similar to old issues of Haywire, it’s got that lo-fi ziney crunch to it that I quite like as a contrast to the slickness of a major publication.
This site wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Critical Distance. Neither would Five out of Ten and scores of other writers’ careers. When you’re a blogger of little consequence, it’s difficult to gather an audience for your work. You publish a blog, no one reads it, and you repeat this for a couple of years, but nobody cares. Kris Ligman cared though – enough to feature our writing in This Week in Videogame Blogging, enough to make us feel that we weren’t completely redundant. That feeling that you actually matter, even if it’s only to a few people for a little while, is hard to forget. Read more →
Farewell, Critical Hits.
I founded my Critical Hits blog just over two years ago, shortly after I moved to Oxford. I wanted to write about the banal things in my life as a way of letting friends know what I was up to. In retrospect, this was a terrible idea for several reasons.
Firstly, not even my friends are interested in the mundane minutiae of my life. I’ve got Facebook, email and text messages for that. Blogging – at least the way I’d set it up – was a one-way process, so even though I was writing about my life, I was still growing apart from people because I didn’t know what was going on in their life.
Secondly, I already had a website called Split Screen. (You are here.) The original rationale for Critical Hits was that Split Screen was for the ‘serious’ stuff, that is, my videogame and technology writing (hey you, in the back! Stop laughing!).
Now that I spend a lot of my creative energies on Five out of Ten that doesn’t leave a lot of room for writing elsewhere. The only thing worse than not updating one website is not updating two. So something has to give, and that thing is Critical Hits. I am proud of my wee blog: it was the vehicle that got me freelance writing work at the New Statesman, which helped me boost my career and make some friends. It was a place for crap poetry and musings about life. It was a place to just be me, without the trappings of someone else’s unuttered expectations.
But lately I’ve been thinking: why can’t Split Screen be about those things instead? Just because Craig and I founded a technology blog doesn’t mean we have to keep it that way. It’s our site, and we can do whatever the hell we like! It deserves the ability to grow and change, just like our minds. Like whenever the Reality Check column fizzled out after a year, I won’t mourn the passing of Critical Hits: it has served its purpose and can now go off to the big backup server in the sky.
What about Split Screen then, you ask? That’s another story for another day.
Preserved for all eternity, here are my favourite pieces from Critical Hits:
Old Wounds – April 2, 2012
Brothers – June 15, 2012
Ouroboros – July 21, 2012
Fiddling – August 29, 2012 (republished as The Sun’s interview with violinist Nicola Benedetti was a masterclass in sexism in the New Statesman)
Medium Difficulties – June 12, 2013
How do you write about the best games of the year when you haven’t played them all – or you didn’t buy any? That’s easy: you just write about your favourites. These are ours. Welcome to the fourth annual Screenies!
After last year’s globe-trotting, special effects-laden video feature, we’ve had to work with a limited graphic design budget for this year’s awards. We’ve still done a great job of conveying the prestige and impeccable quality of The Screenies.
Craig: The most disappointing moment of the year occurs several times in The Cave, the adventure game from Ron Gilbert working alongside Tim Schafer’s Double Fine. Considering the calibre of creative minds it’s difficult to comprehend how The Cave is so poorly structured.
You pick three explorers from a choice of seven (first problem- we’ll get to this later) to usher through a magical cave that grants their deepest wishes in the evil genie way and not the blue, pop-culture spouting friendly genie way. The cave has a voice which makes a lot of bad jokes which I think were purposefully meant to be bad so on that front that’s a success I suppose.
Each explorer has a unique level to solve with generic levels interlarded throughout to form the award winningly dreadful structure:
Playing all seven unique levels (blue boxes) therefore requires three separate playthroughs due to only shepherding three of the seven characters in a single playthrough. All those generic white boxes are hence visited three times with the final jaunt repeating two of the unique levels to boot.
The Cave is an adventure game of the puzzle solving variety. Static puzzles, in general, do not improve the second or third time they are solved. Unique levels do not become more unique upon their second viewing.
With the exception of the Time Traveller’s Museum which used a novel time-shifting mechanic to really interesting and fun effect, every other puzzle is grindingly mediocre. Repeated they become offensively so.
The three character concept was meant to bring balance to the Force adventure game, not destroy it. Independent characters elegantly bypasses the typical traipsing back and forth across locations and load screens in order to flip a switch way over there to open the door way over here.
Sadly however the trio of explorers are rarely deployed other than to hold switches (locking them in position) or to hold down a pressure plate (again locking them in position). Might as well have had to crates for companions with funny hats. Paint a heart on the side of them and boom we’re partying like it’s 2008.
But then as a final jab in the eyes, The Cave has a good and bad ending hidden in the final Gift Shop Reprise which involves disobeying an implied order three times or not. I only realised this because an achievement flashed up proclaiming I had “failed”.
Achieving the good ending for me then would involve playing the entire game, with multiple repeating levels for three times, for a second time. I just don’t have the time to waste on a game so hell-bent on wasting mine.
Alan: 2013 was the year when ‘indie’ ceased to mean anything. Like in the music industry, indie used to be the mark of a product without a mainstream publisher, but Steam Greenlight and phone app stores make this an increasing irrelevance. Are you still an indie if you’ve raised a million dollars on Kickstarter? Are Double Fine the Green Day of the games industry? As usual, I am a lot more interested in games than dull semantics.
Depression Quest is a game that places you inside the mind of someone suffering from depression. Its power comes from its subversion of the videogame’s idea of choice and agency: what conveys the reality of the illness better than striking out options in a selection window so that you’re aware of them, but they remain unavailable to you?
The fizzing static and Isaac Schankler’s subtle soundtrack put you into a state of mental fuzziness and unease, where every difficult decision leads to dreading another difficult decision. It’s not fun; it’s exhausting. It’s an education. It’s a great use of Twine besides hyperlink-riddled poetry. While no one game could cover the totality of depression, Depression Quest convincingly portrays some of it, and that is a worthwhile endeavour.
Depression Quest is free to play on the website, but I paid for it and you should too.
Craig: I studied Physics with Music at university. As a degree it was nonsense to the extent it doesn’t exist anymore. But for me it was both left- and right-brain bliss. This year Antichamber brought a similar head-buzzing euphoria.
While Q.U.B.E. (reviewed here) walked in the shadow of Portal and Quantum Conundrum tripped itself trying to replicate Portal, Antichamber is a first person puzzler that surpasses Portal in creating an intricate, impossible world that delights at each nonsensical turn. Its playfulness in tricking the senses with non-Euclidean structures and lateral puzzle solving is so expertly judged. The Stanley Parable (early mod review here) plays a similar trick but in a purposefully brash and a loud mouthed style.
Style. That’s the word. Antichamber is the most stylish game of the year.
Sparse white walls splashed with vibrant, bright colours alternating between crisp natural soundscapes and an ambient moodscape that builds. It’s a work of digital art.
I’m using very effusive language, I know, but I’m happy to do so because the game itself is so understated. I’ll let you search for a gameplay video yourself, and instead I’ll throw up a comparison to French magician Yann Frisch’s take on the classic cups and balls. It’s the same wordless magic I found in Antichamber.
Alan: Ridiculous Fishing is “a tale of redemption”, but that has two meanings. The game’s story is The Old Man and The Sea with rocket launchers, but there’s also the behind-the-scenes story of Vlambeer’s redemption, detailed in this article at Polygon. It’s great to see Ridiculous Fishing finally released, but even better that it’s a great game.
It’s really three games in one: your lure paradoxically avoids every fish on the way down, thrusting down to catch the most exotic fish, but once one takes the bait it becomes a battle to collect as many as possible before your rod reaches the surface, spilling your catch into the air, and Billy whips out a shotgun to blast them apart for cash. Each new fishing hole brings increasingly preposterous fish and weapons until your lure spits saw blades and has a toaster dangling from the line to avoid accidental bicatch.
In a year when microtransactions ruined console games such as Forza Motorsport 5 just like they’ve tarnished mobile, it’s great to see developers who still believe in the purity of a game as a finished and uncomprised work. Ridiculous Fishing provides the best of all mobile games: an endless game that can be completed; unlockable equipment unburdened by microtransactions; a game that’s as long as the Mariana Trench yet short enough to play on the toilet.
Alan: “868-HACK is really special, but I couldn’t for the life of me tell you why,” writes Brendan Keogh in issue #5 of Five out of Ten. Michael Brough’s hacking roguelike/procedural death labyrinth is simple to describe – it’s a computer grid gauntlet populated with viruses that a player must overcome through strategy and guile – but somehow inscrutable. It’s not enough to unthinkingly dash through each room, as you’ll be eliminated by a daemon or glitch in seconds. You must continually ask yourself: what’s going on here? Why am I dead? Again?
I came to appreciate procedural death labyrinths a little more this year. Derek Yu’s Spelunky has a similar goal to 868-HACK: to force a player to learn its systems, rather than relying on luck or muscle memory. Procedural generation allows for a different kind of skill than the games of old. Rather than learning patterns of platforms, we must now learn patterns of behaviour. Rather than the linear corridors of a first person shooter’s campaign, think of the unpredictable arenas of multiplayer.
The learning curve is steep, but the rewards are sweet. Yet completing 868-HACK is not the same as mastering it, as each new game unlocks different programs to utilise in strategies. For everything you figure out, there’s something new to learn. If you were alienated by Brough’s bizarre puzzler Corrypt, this is much more worthy of your time. It is clever and compelling, even when you are wiped out for the fifth time in a row.
868-HACK is really special, but I couldn’t for the life of me tell you why.
Craig: The nice thing about reviewing a game a year after its release is that all the obvious points have already been made. Hopefully.
I imagine in other reviews – on other sites admittedly so banish that thought from your mind for the time being – you’ll find many, many words expounding on XCOM’s cleanly designed interface and smooth introduction of tactical elements. It sits wonderfully alongside Civilisation IV in the “Just One More Go” brainwashing cult.
The reason why I enjoyed it so much will now be written in small font in order to save myself some self-respect: XCOM makes me feel like a badass.
It’s shameful really. It’s wholly generic sci-fi: generic invading aliens against Earth’s secret (and generic) military organisation.
I shouldn’t get as pumped up picking my squad (I blame the music), I shouldn’t devote so much time naming them (I blame myself for writing family trees) and I shouldn’t then become so attached to my alpha team that I’ll repeat missions not because I failed them but because I know I could do better.
My alpha team could do better and that soft, acrylic Earth deserved better.
In short it’s a turn-based tactical squaddy shooter and it’s totally badass.
Alan: Animal Crossing: New Leaf offers a holiday any time you want. Escape from the banality of your daily grind to a town filled with friendship and fishing, where money grows on trees and dinosaur fossils are buried in the soil. A place where the only jobs are the ones we concoct for ourselves, where materialism is so rampant that it loses all meaning. If the ultimate aim of The Sims is to create an exaggerated microcosm of life, then Animal Crossing aims for utopia instead.
After years of iterative sequels that didn’t add much to the Animal Crossing formula, New Leaf’s title can be taken literally. It feels like the way the game was always meant to be, with the online connectivity and sheer portability of the 3DS providing a holiday destination you can share with your friends and carry in your pocket. It takes advantage of the 3DS’s Streetpass and online functionality to bring a world of villages together in a way its DS and Gamecube predecessors never could.
Unlike The Sims, time in Animal Crossing passes in your absence. You’re a mayor, not a god, and the game gives back only to those who will put in the hours. That’s why it is so essential that the game is on a handheld console: untethered from a TV, free to pause at any time by closing the 3DS, you can visit your village whenever you like rather than whenever you’re in the living room and have two free hours.
I haven’t played New Leaf since Pokémon X was released, but I hope to return to Oinktown soon. In a remarkable year for the 3DS, when its status shifted from ‘compelling’ to ‘essential’, New Leaf is a standout title.
Alan: At the inaugural Screenies, I made a mistake. I voted with my head for Mass Effect 2 as Game of the Year, but my heart belonged to Bayonetta. Voting head over heart is disingenuous; the games that truly matter are the ones that capture our hearts. You need to use both! There has been a change in thinking recently, where ‘Game of the Year’ lists have been populated with indie releases like Gone Home that are more meaningful than merely technically impressive (I loved Gone Home, it just didn’t make this shortlist).
So it’s time to vote with both my head and heart this time: my Game of the Year for 2013 is Spelunky.
“Wait a minute! That game came out in 2012!” I hear you cry. While Spelunky was originally released for free a few years ago, and its HD remaster reached the Xbox 360 last year, it’s only with its appearance on the PC, PS3 and Vita that Spelunky’s true brilliance was revealed – for me, at least.
Spelunky is a hard game. It’s not uncommon to die on the first stage, even with twenty hours of experience under your belt. I died 167 times on the PC version before defeating Olmec, and I’ve never faced him again. While it’s possible to learn your way through the game with trial and a lot of error, it’s more enjoyable and much quicker to learn through Lets Play videos. That’s where the Daily Challenge comes in.
2013 was the year of the ‘indie’, but also the year of the broadcast. Streaming services like Twitch became more popular than ever. It’s no coincidence that the PlayStation 4 has streaming functionality built-in: every game can be watched by someone else, every personal moment can be shared online until it is utterly impersonal. An endless sea of digital memories, shared to everyone, mattering to no one.
Spelunky’s Daily Challenge, however, gives meaning to random streaming – and meaning to the game’s innate randomness. Every day, all players get one attempt at the same level. Once the Spelunky Explorers Club was founded, dedicated to sharing YouTube replays of Daily Challenges, things got really interesting. Players narrated their strategies as they played. I’d watch a couple and then see if I could avoid the mistakes of others. You were able to share in the same drama and challenges as other players without feeling like you’d had an unlucky roll of the die (no pun intended), because you’d seen them achieve what seemed impossible. It was fitting that when I first saw Olmec sink into the lava without the macroblocking artifacts of YouTube, it was on a Daily Challenge level.
Like 868-HACK, Spelunky is a game about systems. It’s a perfect balance of equipment, enemies and generated levels that lends itself to wonder and head-shaking hilarity. It’s often cruel, and has a wicked sense of humour, but is rarely unfair – Spelunky aficionados use the term YASD, for ‘Yet Another Stupid Death’, and after a few games you’ll understand why. Like chess, you need to think a few moves ahead to anticipate the reactions of monsters and traps. It’s not possible to predict everything, even if you’re a Spelunky grandmaster, but there’s a consistent logic to it. It wouldn’t really work unless it was a masterpiece of algorithms, rules and variables. Not all of these are explicitly quantified: you just know they’re in place, holding the universe together.
Twenty hours of play later, the City of Gold is still undiscovered; and in the bowels of Hell, King Yama’s Throne is unconquered. I’m still playing Spelunky. I should probably play something else.
The heart wants what the heart wants.
Relive the glory of years gone by:
An attempt to avoid buying games: a post-mortem
Back in February, I decided to stop buying new games for the rest of the year. This had… mixed results. At the time I wrote that I had Dishonored, Binary Domain and Dark Souls all sitting unplayed under my television, and well…
They’re still there! I caved and bought BioShock Infinite on the week of release so that the story wasn’t ruined for me; but unfortunately, BioShock Infinite’s story ruins itself. I also bought a 3DS because I really wanted one. But that’s it! (Almost!) I received a few games as gifts over the year – at a low point my girlfriend gifted me Ridiculous Fishing, either out of sympathy of because she was sick of hearing about it. I made a list of every game I would have bought, but didn’t. Here are the results:
Grand Theft Auto V, Rayman Legends, The Witcher 2 (it was in a Steam sale), Papers Please, Gone Home, The Last of Us, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Tomb Raider, Far Cry 3, Brothers, Fire Emblem: Awakening, Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, The Stanley Parable.
BioShock Infinite, Nintendo 3DS with Mario Kart 7, Super Mario 3D Land, Tetris (Virtual Console), Pokémon X, Antichamber, Redshirt, La-Mulana.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf, Spelunky, Shelter, Metal Gear Legacy, Outlast, Amnesia: Machine for Pigs.
iOS games that don’t count (even though I said they did in the original article):
Year Walk, Device6, rymdkapsel, 868-HACK, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (oh come on, they brought back Hidden Palace Zone!)
So the real question is: did it work? Was I able to clear a few games off the Pile of Shame, or is my life destined to repeat itself like a nightmare sitcom? Here are all the games I completed – or at least, played to the point of resignation – this year:
Halo 4, Uncharted 2, Uncharted 3, L.A. Noire, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, Nier, Zack and Wiki, Forza Motorsport 4, 868-HACK, Animal Crossing: New Leaf (sorry, Isabelle), Mario Kart 7, To The Moon, Dungeons of Dredmor, Thomas Was Alone, Antichamber (I lack the intelligence to finish it).
I’m currently playing Spelunky, Metal Gear Solid, Pokémon X, Super Mario 3D Land and Sonic and All Stars Racing Transformed. Not a bad effort, but the positives were more than just saving some money and having less guilt about my material possessions. Last year, I felt like I was ploughing through games just to ‘finish’ them: Vanquish is still in the Pile of Shame because I want to give it another playthrough on Hard, for example. I was reviewing a lot of games at the time, which didn’t help, and it started to feel like a box-ticking exercise. Instead, Uncharted 2 was a delight. I wouldn’t trade those fifty hours of Nier for any other game. It took several months of playing Spelunky to understand what made it so great.
I feel like I’ve finally escaped the hype cycle. It’s not that I no longer get excited for new games, just that my expectations are tempered by the realisation that I don’t need to play The Last of Us right now. If it’s great, it’ll be great in a year or two. And if it’s no longer great, that’s just as interesting. I think this distancing is increasingly necessary for good criticism.
In the next few days, I’ve got an exciting article being published on a mainstream gaming site about a game that was released in 1996. Thoughts take time to formulate, especially when they’re about our new favourite games. That’s why little of merit is written during a game’s launch week. Critics should to strive to free themselves from the expensive shackles of chasing the gaming zeitgeist. There are so many stories yet to be told about games that we overlooked and under-examined.
So I have decided… to continue the exercise. I’ve already talked about not buying an Xbox One or PS4, albeit for slightly different reasons. I still have so many games left to play, and I’m so excited about being able to play them and write about them, that it just doesn’t make sense to buy more. Perhaps the real question is, as you stare at that ever-increasing pile of games in your Steam library or next to the TV… when will you join me?
Thanks for writing your open letter to Oskar, ‘Virtuous Discourse’. It arrived in my news feed at an interesting time, as I’ve been thinking about the same things.
Last weekend I was in Edinburgh to catch up with old university friends. We had arranged a Christmas lunch for the Sunday afternoon. On Saturday evening, staying with a friend who was also attending the dinner, I lamented the shallowness of social media. I don’t mean Upworthy posts and Bitstrips; I mean the depth of communication itself. Our publicly-published lives constantly stream in front of us, on services that distort the meaning of ‘friends’ and ‘followers’. Facebook provided the infrastructure for us to organise a lunch, but it also made us feel closer as a group than we truly were. As I live in Oxford now, I don’t get to see those friends very often unless they’re in the area (or London). I didn’t know what was going on in most of my friends’ lives. The problem is that the ones still living in Edinburgh didn’t know, either.
Luckily, we solved this problem with a few drinks and a brief “what have you been up to?” roundtable discussion at lunch. Of course, it’s not through lack of caring that we lost contact: it’s a lack of active engagement. A decade ago, my friends and I would have exchanged phone numbers and letters when we finished university. I wouldn’t have necessarily written to everyone, or perhaps people would have moved on and never received the correspondence, but there would still be an active attempt at keeping in touch. Facebook is a passive model of engagement, a sort of ‘RSS for friendships’ where we comment, but don’t discuss. A recent report showed that 71% of Facebook users write status updates, but don’t actually submit them (that article is much creepier than the link suggests, by the way). So when you have a model of social content producers and consumers – think about people who have thousands of followers on Twitter compared to tens, who aren’t so different from newspaper columnists – is it any wonder that blogging feels like a one-way social transaction sometimes?
In 2012, I wrote a letter every day for a month. Friends and family, even relative strangers; I wrote to anyone who wanted a letter, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. Not everyone wrote back (nor did they have to!) but it was good for me to write, thoughtfully, about whatever crossed my mind. I like the idea of your ‘Republic of Bloggers’, and I think they really do have to be letters addressed to individuals. As I’ve found from running Blogs of the Round Table at Critical Distance, it’s not enough to merely provide a writing stimulus. Unfortunately, I don’t have any ideas on how to improve the discourse. This blog is just my way of conveying that I want to be a part of it; that you did not blog in vain; that “no other replies” is not the way things ought to be.
As I write, I’ve got a letter on my desk from a friend who has just moved to Spain. We’ve been friends since university, but I think this is the only truly meaningful correspondence we’ve ever had. Paradoxically, in a world where it’s never been easier to share your opinions and communicate with others, I feel that we need letters more than ever.
All the best,
It’s 1am and I should have been in bed hours ago, but hey! That’s what coffee is for. The curse of being a writer is that words form, and you must get them out of your head before you can sleep. So I figure it’s better to write this down at a computer now, rather than mashing it into an iPhone with bloodshot eyes at 2.30am.
Let me tell you a story. I wrote a weekly column for Split Screen called ‘Reality Check’. It became pretty popular: we went from 200 hits a piece to around 30k for the best ones. Feeling confident from the success of Reality Check, I thought “this is a good thing, as good as articles on commercial sites, and I should be getting paid for it!” So I contacted Keza MacDonald at IGN – I’m not about to slag off IGN by the way, I think their UK branch does an excellent job – and she said that, although she really liked the column, she didn’t have a budget for it. That was fine. Totally understandable response.
But what if I’d then gone on to say “alright then, you can have the column for free!” My work might have been published on IGN. It would have been great exposure for me as a writer: undoubtedly, I would have got more readers from IGN than Split Screen. And if I’d then said after a few columns that I’d like to get paid for this work, would IGN’s freelancing budget have expanded? Of course not. In fact, it probably would have decreased, since they were able to run the site for less money because my free writing filled a content gap.
So I got some exposure for my work. Yet here’s the thing: editors commission work on the strength of your pitch and your writing, not where that writing has been circulated. Case in point: I got commissioned for the New Statesman because of a piece I wrote on my personal blog, with a readership of around twenty people. What’s the value of exposure? You can’t feed yourself or pay the bills with exposure. The implied value of exposure is that you’ll ultimately be paid for your writing. But if you’re already writing for free, when exactly do you think you’ll be paid? For an editor under budget pressures – that’s all of them, in case you weren’t sure – your free writing is just what they need, but it does nothing for you.
If you’re working for free, and someone is profiting from your work, you’re diminishing the value of your work and your contemporaries. You make it more difficult for everyone to get work. You’re hurting the industry in which you want to get a career. It’s a short sighted, foolish and selfish thing to do.
Should you write for free on your own blog? Absolutely. That’s how you build a portfolio.
If you want to be a writer or journalist, will you need to hold down another job while you build such a portfolio? Probably.
Is it OK to write for free for a hobbyist site, or a non-profit organisation? I don’t see why not.
Writing for the love of it is a beautiful thing. I write for Five out of Ten because I enjoy it, not for the financial compensation – I just need to write. Whether it’s good or bad, this stuff needs to be written down (just not necessarily published!) But if I don’t get paid for a New Statesman piece, that sends a message to its other staff writers and freelancers: “your writing is not worth money, anyone can do it for free”. That’s not only untrue, but it means they can’t get paid – and if they don’t get paid, they can’t afford to write, and if they don’t write, we don’t get to read the lovely things they produce. Professional work deserves financial compensation, whether you need it or not. That’s the only model that is truly fair to writers.
We’re in the middle of a war, where great writing is measured in terms of hits and advertising revenue; where we expect journalism to be available for free, as if it is spontaneously generated rather than the product of considerable thought and experience. I don’t think that model is sustainable. It leads to a lot of big fish in a rapidly evaporating pond. If you agree with me, it’s time to start fighting.
Right, I’m off to bed.
P.S. The new Five out of Ten is on sale now. We’re not writing for free – we’re donating our commissions to charity!