Enraptured

Enraptured

bioshock

Dive in.

It was September 2007. I was 21 and studying in Edinburgh. My student loan had just come in and like a good, fiscally responsible student, I went out and bought an Xbox 360 with it. Don’t look at me like that! It was my birthday present to myself!

I’m writing this a day after the launch of the PlayStation 4 in the UK. Despite my warning, and the complete lack of worthwhile games, a lot of people went out and bought one. I feel sorry for them in a way (I feel more sorry for their wallets), because a ‘next-generation’ console deserves a true next-generation game to play on it. For the Xbox 360, that was arguably Gears of War, but if you bought one at launch you were stuck with the awful Perfect Dark Zero – cf. the PS4’s Killzone: Shadow Fall.

My Xbox came with BioShock. I hooked the console up to my 14″ portable TV and squinted at the dashboard for a good five minutes, before my dad came to visit for my birthday. He was not impressed with my purchase, especially since there was now nothing for him to buy me.

I turned on the new Xbox. Our necks craned forward, desperately trying to bridge the gap between our eyes and the screen. It was like watching lurid digital soup.

“Do you want a new TV for your birthday?”

One trip to Tesco later – this took hours, as those who have travelled from Southside to Corstorphine on a Saturday will appreciate – and we had a shiny new 26″ HDTV. We fired up BioShock and enjoyed the opening cinematics. The player character bobbed on the surface of the ocean while a plane’s fuselage burned around him. I waited for the cutscene to end so I could start playing. But the cutscene had ended. That’s what the game actually looked like.

At times, BioShock feels less a game, more a tour through an alternate history museum. It’s impossible to separate Rapture as an environment from the game. Those damp ruins feel claustrophobic, but also logical; immaculately detailed and then destroyed before you arrive on the scene. It’s impossible to go back to the brown and grey corridors of older games once you’ve visited this sunken city, and no game since has been able to emulate its world-building (especially not its sequel, BioShock Infinite, which felt so fake and unreal).

So I chose Rapture. I strapped myself into a bathysphere and submerged myself, with a couple of cans of Carlsberg and an inflatable chair shaped like the genie from Aladdin, spending weeks exploring this haunted place. I was in an unhappy relationship at the time, so Rapture provided a perfect place to go where I didn’t have to worry about all that shit. Yet rather than taking the traditional game role, an activity with an absence of thought and an emphasis on muscle memory, BioShock gave me things to think about besides which weapon and plasmids to use.

It had a real story: interesting, twisting, meandering story with an outrageous (but just about plausible) twist in the middle, that forever changed the words “would you kindly?” Beyond the obvious critique of objectivism – Ed Smith wrote a great piece for Five out of Ten #4 about this, by the way – there was a critique of all the games I’d grown up with, and my attitude towards them. These games were content to blindly follow a model that hadn’t changed much since the late Eighties: one with basic rules, objectives and tropes. BioShock’s stroke of genius was to ask: why do we do what we’re told in games, and what does it say about us as players that we don’t question it?

Of course, none of this blog is telling you anything new. There has been more written about BioShock than I would care to read. It’s the game that spawned a thousand blogs, the game for which Clint Hocking coined the term “ludonarrative dissonance”. But on a personal level, it got me thinking about games. I’d written some terrible freelance ‘reviews’ in high school – long since purged from GameFAQs – but BioShock made me want to write about games because they were worth writing about, not because it was something to pass the time.

I had to write to get the thoughts out of my head and codified, to make sense of what I had played. I joined the student newspaper, encouraged by my friend John Herrman (now at Buzzfeed). I made some of my best friends there. I graduated. Started a blog (you are here). Launched a magazine. And here we are today. Six years that have passed so quickly, and with so much more to do.

For me, BioShock is not just a game changer. It’s a life changer: a turning point that gave me a whole new perspective on life, like when I first read Nineteen Eighty Four or heard my first Bad Religion album. I can divide my life into pre-BioShock and post-BioShock, separated by a moment when my prolonged adolescence of playing videogames gave way to trying to understand videogames instead.

The exciting part is that there is so much understanding left to do.

Ridiculous Phishing: Computer Security for Complete Novices

Ridiculous Phishing: Computer Security for Complete Novices

Let’s make your computer less crap.

A couple of years ago, a friend was having computer trouble and asked for advice. As I thought about the best way to go about this, I thought: “you know what would be really great? I’ll write a big guide for Split Screen and then everyone can benefit from it!”

Then I got a commission or two for the New Statesman, founded Five out of Ten and put everything else on hold. Today, I read that there’s a massive security hole in Chrome that will reveal your saved passwords to anyone who has access to your browser. Well, this has gone too far, folks. It’s time… for a massive computing security guide.

Brief background: I used to work in IT support and dealt with a lot of requests on basic security problems. My philosophy is that it’s never the fault of the user, always the computer, and that computers are here to make our lives easier without us having to learn their intimate details. While computers have improved their inherent security, many breaches are due to social engineering: phishing and other such schemes that persuade the user to hand over their data.

Don’t assume that because you are an unimportant person, you are less of a target: phishers and hackers prey on the easy and vulnerable targets, not the big ones. The good news is that drastically overhauling your security is relatively straightforward, and hopefully you’ll enjoy the additional peace of mind.

This guide aims to achieve two things: tighten up any problems that may exist on your system, and lessen your chances of being a victim of a scam. There is one caveat here: although I’ll try to keep things free of jargon, some of these things are irreducibly complex. The golden rule is that you should never do anything on a computer that you don’t understand. Don’t just take my advice: read around the topics and understand why I’m giving the advice. That’s what will really make your computing experience a lot more safe and enjoyable.

2015 update: it is now the future. I’ve revised this feature with more up-to-date information on everything from operating systems to the best software for the job. In some places, I’ve left the old information and explicitly added new stuff you can see how my processes have changed.

Back up your data

time-machine

Please back up your data. Buy a cheap external hard drive and use the tools built-in to OS X or Windows. Follow a guide online. There’s no excuse. If you aren’t regularly backing up your computer then you may as well not bother with the rest of this.

I keep three backups of my Mac: I run a Time Machine backup to an external drive every day or two (or on the hour if I’m working on Five out of Ten), I update a bootable clone of my internal drive every fortnight with SuperDuper, and I have an offsite backup on a work server to guard against data loss from theft or fire, which runs on a monthly basis. It is highly unlikely that your workplace offers such a backup service for free, so instead consider a service like Backblaze or Crashplan. These both run in the background automatically, and allow remote file access from mobile devices or the service website if you’ve forgotten to save something into your Dropbox.

Dropbox, OneDrive, and Google Drive are not really backup solutions. They are fantastic for sharing files across multiple computers, but they can’t cover everything – all your photos, music, application settings – and it would take a really long time to download your stuff. They’re also not designed to work that way, and trying to be a smartass by symlinking your Home folder or iTunes Library into Dropbox is a recipe for disaster.

One other thing to mention that isn’t quite so obvious: moving photos and videos onto an external hard drive is not the same as backing them up. Backups need to be redundant, i.e. there needs to be more than one copy of each file. In an ideal world, a backup drive should be moved to another location, like a family member’s house or your drawer in work, in case of theft or fire. That’s not always practical, but worth considering.

There’s a simple test if your backup solution is up to snuff: if I took your computer and threw it into a lake, and you could claim a new one for free on your insurance, would you lose anything? If you just reacted with an expression of horror, then your backup solution is not good enough.

Up to date

software-update

If you’re using Windows XP, Vista, OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion or earlier, then your operating system is officially past its best-before date. Microsoft are still offering security fixes for Vista, but Windows XP is now a serious liability. Apple only officially support the most recent version of the operating system, but in practice, they also support the previous version. At the time of writing, that’s 10.10 Yosemite and 10.9 Mavericks.

Windows users should upgrade to 8.1. I’ve had it since release and would now rather use Windows 8 than Windows 7, although of course I’d rather use OS X than either of them.

Mac users should upgrade to 10.10 now through the Mac App Store. OS X 10.10 works on anything that will run 10.8, and if your Mac doesn’t support 10.8, buy yourself a new one. You deserve it! Alternatively, download Ubuntu which is a free and easy-to-use Linux distribution. If you’re using a six year-old Mac then you’re probably not using it for any heavy lifting, anyway.

It’s not just the operating system you should consider. Microsoft Office, Adobe Reader, all those other applications whose bouncing update boxes you ignore – get them up-to-date as well. Most apps have a ‘Check for Updates’ option hidden somewhere in their menus. Set your computer to install updates automatically where possible.

Really old versions of Office, Adobe Acrobat etc. will no longer receive security updates and are a serious liability. You should consider buying the new versions or replacing them with open-source software, or a cheaper alternative.

Do I need anti-virus software?

Windows- Yep. Microsoft provide their own free tools – included with Windows 8, called Security Essentials for 7 and Vista – that will do the job. I used to recommend AVG Anti-Virus but found its protection was over-zealous and it crashed a lot of games. You should also install the free Malwarebytes anti-malware scanner.

OS X- Personally, I don’t, and it would be hypocritical to tell you to install something that’s not running on my Mac. But I don’t run such software because I only download things from reputable sources, anti-virus software creates an unacceptable performance hit on my Mac, and the risk of getting something dodgy is undoubtedly lower than Windows (unless you’ve torrented the Mac version of Adobe Creative Suite; then you’ve got it coming). If you’re not confident in your abilities, Sophos Anti-Virus is free and I’ve used this on work machines for years without problems.

Linux – I wouldn’t bother. With anti-virus, I mean – I think Linux is cool.

We really want to focus on keeping dodgy files off our computers in the first place, not on catching viruses that arrive there. Anti-virus software is a safety net, but you don’t need a safety net if you don’t jump off a building in the first place.

Are those ‘Clean my PC’ tools any good?

They are almost universally terrible, and some like MacKeeper are malware in themselves. Applications that promise to boost performance by removing crap just don’t work. When it comes to registry cleaners etc. it’s better to err on the side of caution. There are only two applications I would ever recommend:

For PC, CCleaner (that’s ‘CrapCleaner’) is good for removing temporary files and clearing garbage out of the registry. It uses a light touch. Don’t download the Mac version, because I don’t know if it is any good and there’s a better alternative.

For Mac, Cocktail is a graphical front end for some UNIX command line tools, with a few other nice features. I run it every couple of weeks and it does a great job. I wouldn’t touch anything else.

Sort out your passwords

1password

Allow me to peer into my crystal ball for a second:

“You have one password for every website. It’s the name of a pet, family member or childhood hero, plus the year you were born, with the odd capital letter and exclamation mark”.

Did I get it right? Passwords are problematic because they are hard to remember and you’re meant to use a unique one for every website. So people use the same password all the time, or they use weak passwords anyone can remember, or they have a monitor covered in Post-It notes with passwords written on them. None of these things are acceptable:

  • If I can read your password, you’re obviously compromised
  • If your password is easy to guess, you may as well not have one
  • If you use the same password for everything, you’re putting a lot of trust in the company holding the password.

I already wrote a guide on how to make a password. Read that and then come back. I’ll assume you now have one very secure ‘master password’, which we will use for any site you’ll need to access frequently: Facebook, webmail, Apple ID, that sort of thing. Change those passwords now, making sure each site has its unique mini-password in the middle. Only change those you use all the time: it makes to change accounts like Google, Facebook, Apple ID, Microsoft, Twitter and Dropbox in this way.

What might surprise you is that I only know a handful of passwords: one to login to my computer, my Google account, Dropbox, and the master password to unlock the database that holds the rest. People seem to assume that I enjoy memorising random strings of characters, like it would be a really interesting hobby or something.

We don’t need to remember most of our passwords. We will always need to remember some of them, but we can take advantage of computers to reduce our reliance on memory. I store everything from Amazon and Paypal to generic site logons in a database managed by the wonderful 1Password. When you need a password for a new site, it’ll generate one for you and remember it. When you need your credit card details, or a software license, it’ll store those too. It will warn you if a website has been compromised through a security issue and prompt you to change your password. 1Password has plugins for every major browser and will automatically fill passwords with a keyboard shortcut. Use the 30-day trial and see what you think. I think it’s one of the best applications I have ever used, and the customer support is excellent.

Password managers like 1Password, and my previous free pick KeePassX, securely generate new, random passwords on demand. My Amazon password looks like an unrecognisable mess of letters, numbers and symbols. I don’t need to see it, because I just paste it in from 1Password. You can also use it for those ‘security questions’, which turns your mother’s maiden name into the title of an alien overlord.

Naturally, your database password needs to be extremely strong and unique: try a website like the Strong Password Generator to create one.

Multi-factor authentication

google-auth

By now most of your passwords are unique 25-character behemoths stored in an encrypted database, and no one can crack them. I asked you to use your master password for frequently-accessed sites. Only the most inept websites would store passwords in plaintext and most are ‘hashed’ to create a semi-scrambled string, but because your passwords are all subtly different, so are the hashes. If your Twitter account gets hacked, it’s unlikely your password for Google will be compromised.

What if you think you’re typing your password into Facebook, but it’s actually an impostor site who then gets free reign over your account? This is a classic phishing scam, where you’re fooled into providing details. We need a way of stopping people from getting into our accounts, even if they know the password. There’s a solution to this and it’s called multi-factor authentication (often called two-factor or TFA).

You may already have this without knowing: banks often give out security keyfobs which generate authentication codes. You can’t get into the bank account without both your password and the fob, so it’s much more difficult for your account to be compromised. Multi-factor authentication comprises something you know (a password), something you have (a fob or key generator) and something you are (biometrics). For web services, an easy solution is turn our mobile phone into a fob. Google Authenticator is a free app for iOS and Android phones that can be used to secure your Google, Dropbox, Microsoft, Facebook, Tumblr and Evernote accounts. (2015 update: I moved to Authy so I can access my authentication tokens on my iPad, but Google Authenticator is still fine). It should be straightforward to enable TFA through security settings, and adding the account to Google Authenticator is as simple as scanning a QR code with your phone’s camera.

For services that don’t support Google Authenticator: Twitter supports TFA over text messages and through their own app (it’s more painful than others, but at least it works), Apple send push notifications to an iOS device, PayPal can use SMS instead of a proprietary keyfob, and Steam Guard sends a one-time authentication code to your email address if you’re accessing a Steam account from a new computer.

One downside is that you’ll need your phone on hand to access these sites, although many have a ‘remember me’ function for your main trusted computers. Services that offer two-factor authentication also provide backup codes, which you can print out or save as a PDF in Dropbox or Google Drive for emergency access. Keep these secure, too!

There is no reason not setting up multi-factor authentication: it’s very little hassle after the initial setup and provides a great defence against would-be phishing attempts.

Locking down your computer with full-disk encryption

filevault1

It’s all well and good securing your computer about outside threats, but there’s always the risk of physical theft. There’s no point setting up TFA on your Gmail account if there’s no password on your laptop: anyone can then log in, access your Gmail through a desktop client and reset all of your passwords. So we need a strong password for our computer – see earlier – and a password-protected screen saver that engages automatically. If your family and friends use your computer, give them individual accounts with no administrator access and never share your password with them.

Even with a password-protected account, a thief could remove your hard drive and plug it into another computer to access the data. On-the-fly disk encryption is the way to prevent such an attack, but it used to be very slow and clunky to use. Things have improved considerably: OS X 10.8 comes with Filevault 2, which encrypts the entire hard drive in the background. Even if you tried Filevault before and didn’t like it, the new version is very secure and the performance hit on a modern processor is negligible. Don’t forget to also encrypt your Time Machine backups and external drives. This means you won’t be able to use those drives with another computer unless you have access to the encryption key.

Windows 7 and 8 users have built-in drive encryption called Bitlocker, which is probably very good, but limited to the ‘Pro’ versions of those operating systems because Microsoft are arseholes like that. If your data is valuable, it is worth investing in the upgrade. In fact, if you hold confidential information such as customer or employee details, it’s probably required by law.

Bonus tip: if you’re selling or dumping an old computer, you need to erase your personal data. Enlist the help of a tech-savvy friend to “zero out” the disk (literally writing zeroes over the entire contents of the drive) and install a clean operating system, or remove the hard drive and smash it to bits with a sledgehammer. There’s no joke here. That’s exactly what you should do.

Secure your web browser

padlock

The web browser is your main gateway to the internet and a major attack vector. As discussed earlier, you should keep it up to date: all modern web browsers do so automatically, but if you use Firefox you should check this because auto-updating was introduced relatively recently. If your computer doesn’t support the latest web browsers, you need to upgrade it as soon as possible. It’s a massive security risk.

Here are a few tips and tricks:

Disable Adobe Flash. Not only is it a drain on your battery life, processing resources and the source of every annoying advert you’ve ever seen, but it’s also a security liability. Various ‘Click to Flash’ browser extensions are available which allow you to load Flash on-demand, and this happens automatically in Safari with OS X 10.9 and later. Better yet, uninstall Flash completely and use Google Chrome if you really need Flash, as it includes an automatically updated version.

Force websites to use HTTPS. This encrypts your communications with websites, and most major sites support it automatically nowadays. The Electronic Frontier Foundation have a free plugin for Firefox and Chrome that you should consider installing.

Check that the websites you visit, especially online stores and places you’re entering credit card details, have valid SSL certificates and never use those who do not. This means your traffic is properly encrypted. Look for a green box, shield or padlock in the address bar.

Don’t store your passwords in a web browser. Of course, you’ll now be using an encrypted database for all your passwords and would have no need of such a facility, but with the aforementioned Chrome security hole in the news it’s worth repeating. Firefox also stores your passwords like this, and theoretically Safari will encrypt them from OS X 10.9, but why take the risk? Likewise with ‘autofill’ functionality, I don’t really trust browsers with such information. I vastly prefer a password manager such as 1Password to in-browser solutions.

Epilogue

Computers are complicated. They are very, very complicated, and there’s no shame in not understanding their inner workings. It’s taken me a lifetime of amateur enthusiasm and 4–5 years of professional experience to get a basic grasp of these things. You don’t need to be an IT expert to make your computing experience more secure: you just need to do absolutely everything I tell you.

That was a joke to see if you remembered the introduction – this thing got a lot longer than I expected. IT support is as much about educating users as helping them, so if you really want to improve your computer skills, a little learning will go a long way.

Good luck!

The World’s End

The World’s End

Now that I’ve Sobered Up…

Dec 16, 2014: I’ve had 507 days since publishing this pseudo-review to mull over The World’s End and I’ve finally pin-pointed the exact reason why the film failed for me: Complete lack of motive.

Why are the gang continuing with this stupid pub crawl in the middle of an alien attack? Why is Nick Frost’s character continuing to be with Simon Pegg’s asshole character? Why is this film just not clicking for me?

The World’s End lacked a killer idea. Browsing Netflix the other night I stumbled upon the very killer idea in another movie:

Grabbers

Genius! The gang must keep drinking to keep their blood-alcohol level high enough to not be detected by the aliens. The gang must stick together because there’s alien imposters everywhere.

Now I haven’t watched Grabbers mainly because I’ve got what I needed to make this a proper review. I’ll just pretend that the blood-alcohol detection is a key plot point explained by Nick Frost in the same way that I pretend Cloverfield is a prequel to Pacific Rim.

Finally. Resolution.

This film remains the worst of the Cornetto Trilogy.


 Time Gentlemen, Please.

Jul 27, 2013: Flashback to the gang’s legendary pub crawl in Newton Haven starting in the First Post and ending in the World’s End. Repetition establishes that this is an important event in the life of the Simon Pegg character. Simon Pegg character sets up goal to reunite old gang and repeat the pub crawl, culminating finally in the World’s End.

TITLE CARD: The World’s End

Simon Pegg character meets Eddie Marsan character who is a middle aged man in a business. Simon Pegg character repeats old story of the gang’s pub crawl and extends invitation to join the old gang’s attempt at repeating the legendary pub crawl. Eddie Marsan character asks about Nick Frost character. Eddie Marsan character reluctantly agrees to join.

Simon Pegg character meets Martin Freeman character who is a middle aged man in a business. Simon Pegg character repeats old story of the gang’s pub crawl and extends invitation to join the old gang’s attempt at repeating the legendary pub crawl. Martin Freeman character asks about Nick Frost character. Martin Freeman character reluctantly agrees to join.

Simon Pegg character meets Paddy Considine character who is a middle aged man in a business. Simon Pegg character repeats old story of the gang’s pub crawl and extends invitation to join the old gang’s attempt at repeating the legendary pub crawl. Paddy Considine character asks about Nick Frost character. Paddy Considine character  reluctantly agrees to join.

Simon Pegg character meets Nick Frost character who is a middle aged man in a business. Simon Pegg character repeats old story of the gang’s pub crawl and extends invitation to join the old gang’s attempt at repeating the legendary pub crawl. Nick Frost character asks about Nick Frost character’s past. Nick Frost character declines but later reluctantly agrees to join.

The old gang begin their legendary pub crawl. Jokes in pub. Drinks in pub. Move to next pub. Jokes in pub. Drinks in pub. Move to next pub.

Suggestion of sinister plot. Introduction of sinister plot through fight scene accompanied by driving music and onscreen visual effects. Jokes in pub. Drinks in pub. Move to next pub.

fight fight fight swish camera driving music fight fight fight swish camera driving music fight fight fight swish camera driving music fight fight fight swish camera driving music fight fight fight swish camera driving music fight fight fight swish camera driving music fight fight fight swish camera driving music jokes in pub drinks in pub move to next pub fight fight fight swish camera driving music fight fight fight swish camera driving music fight fight fight swish camera driving music  exposition fight fight fight swish camera driving music fight fight fight swish camera driving music fight fight fight swish camera driving music fight fight fight swish camera driving music fight fight fight swish camera driving music fight fight fight swish camera driving music fight fight fight swish camera driving music fight fight fight swish camera driving music  loads of enemies loads of enemies loads of enemies loads of enemies loads of enemies loads of enemies loads of enemies loads of enemies loads of enemies loads of enemies loads of enemies loads of enemies death of character no one cares loads of enemies jokes in pub drinks in pub move to next pub loads of enemies loads of enemies running running running running running running running loads of enemies loads of enemies loads of enemies loads of enemies loads of enemies loads of enemies loads of enemies loads of enemies loads of enemies loads of enemies loads of enemies character development loads of enemies loads of enemies loads of enemies loads of enemies loads of enemies loads of enemies loads of enemies running running jokes in pub drinks in pub move to next pub running running running running running running fight fight fight throwaway romance swish camera driving music fight fight fight swish camera driving music fight fight fight swish camera driving music fight fight fight swish camera driving music  exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition jokes in pub drinks in pub move to next pub exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition pathetic attempt at character exploration exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition a mint Cornetto wrapper is seen briefly on screen and audience applaudes at old memories of repeated jokes of legendary films exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition exposition of ending.

A New Leaf

A New Leaf

Turning over.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf is the latest entry in Nintendo’s life simulator series, and people can’t stop talking about it. Austin Walker wrote about New Leaf and race for the New Statesman, while Jeremy Parish has talked about nostalgia at USGamer, not to mention all the tweeting. If you haven’t muted #acnl on Twitter by now, you’re a braver soul than I. Read more →

Man of Steel

Man of Steel

Coming out of retirement.

There’s a secret review hidden within Man of Steel itself. It takes place in the scene where Superman is staring back in wonder as a fuel explosion ripples up the side of a building, the flames lighting the shards of glass and casting shadows across the splintered concrete, when all of a sudden General Zod runs up and punches Superman right in the side of the head.

Superman is played by me, the spectacle plays itself and General Zod is played by the idiot screenplay. Read more →

Medium Difficulties

Medium Difficulties

reflecting-reality

Originally published 12th June, 2013 on Critical Hits

I have spent the past eight months building a company. I didn’t even realise until I was listening to a podcast interview with Chris Dahlen by Eric Brasure, about the founding of Kill Screen. Five out of Ten started as a fun indie publication, but it quickly became a brand. Suddenly I needed a workflow. Design consistency. A style guide. A mantra! All kinds of scarily serious stuff I just hadn’t thought about when I started work on the first issue. At Split Screen I had friends and fans; now there are customers, employees, responsibilities.

Read more →

The Girl Who Wasn’t There

The Girl Who Wasn’t There

 

She’s behind you.

“The smartest companion ever”, said the BioShock Infinite reviews. Irrational Games enlisted the brightest real intelligences to create the brightest artificial one, Elizabeth. “She’s smarter than an octopus holding the brains of eight dolphins”, said an internal memo I just made up. Allies in videogames tend to be comically bad (Daikatana, Halo‘s drivers), unmemorable (Halo‘s marines), or really very good because you’re Half-Life 2 and do everything right (Alyx Vance, Half-Life 2). With Elizabeth, comparisons were being made to the aforementioned Alyx. I expected a buddy who knew how to pull off a headshot, while helping me unravel the plot. Instead, Elizabeth is the girl who is always there, and yet, never is.

Mechanically speaking, Infinite is more vertical than most shooters. Player-character Booker DeWitt can boost onto hooks and skyrails throughout the city of Columbia with some dubious magnetic explanation. Elizabeth (at the player’s instruction) can tear open holes to alternate dimensions. While many shooters rely on the player manipulating enemies – exploiting their AI to funnel them into corridors, flushing them out with grenades – Infinite relies on the player manipulating the environment. Yet for all the advanced AI supposedly under the hood, Elizabeth spends most of her time following Booker like a lost puppy, or usually just hiding in a corner. After thirty years of videogames, we’ve computationally solved half the problem of hide and seek.

I expected Elizabeth to help me in these fights: to open tears of her own accord, to shoot lightning out of her fingertips or something. Through the course of the game, she shows no hesitation to use violence – except when we’re meant to be shooting instead of watching the story unfold, and she ducks behind a crate. You won’t even remember she’s there until you run out of bullets and she throws over a rifle. But that’s no more intelligent than a game highlighting your ammunition counter in red when you reach your last magazine.

The true hallmark of an intelligent companion, according to Bill Coberly in Issue 1 of Five out of Ten, is one who responds organically rather than with canned lines. Instead of picking a sentence and following a branching conversation to a conclusion like Mass Effect, we would instead communicate to these agents with natural speech. As the experimental game Facade shows, often hilariously, we’re a way off from that yet. The only real alternative to that is a system of tripwires, where crossing an invisible line triggers some dialogue or a reaction. This is exactly what happens in Infinite, and much of the incidental story doesn’t occur without paying literal attention to Elizabeth, staring into her face constantly like a particularly awkward Skype conversation. Elizabeth is a character without agency, while Alyx knew how to open a door.

I was never convinced by the relationship between Booker and Elizabeth. Having a first-person game where the protagonist has a speaking role doesn’t really work, unless you’re playing as a cartoon character like Duke Nukem. I believe that Booker is meant to be more than a cartoon character, even if his usual day’s body count wouldn’t be out of place in an 80s action movie. Whenever he speaks to Elizabeth, it reminds me that I am not him, but doesn’t explain why I’m being made to believe I am him. Or at least, an approximation of him with a camera for a face, but that doesn’t match the box art in the way it did for the first BioShock. Part of the problem is that we don’t know Booker’s backstory, and unlike other soldiers like Master Chief and Marcus Fenix, his matters to the story. This is necessitated by the fact that Infinite has little interesting to say that doesn’t rely on twists and cryptic endings. But still, every time he says something, I don’t understand why. I don’t want to know more… I just find it irritating. Portal 2 portrayed a relationship far more convincingly than Infinite, and that relationship was between a silent protagonist and an artificial intelligence embedded in a potato.

We move from one environment to the next, Elizabeth admiring the architecture while I rummage through a bin for some RPG ammo, then hiding behind the bin when I get in a fight. Unlike the original BioShock, which told a lot of the story of Rapture’s downfall through its environment, Columbia is a society still clinging on to itself and populated with characters. The voxophones you find littering Columbia have stories to share, but this also highlights that the characters themselves have nothing to say. Compare this with Deus Ex, a game that’s now thirteen years old, where you could end up discussing Descartes with a homeless guy in a sewer and even the rats chewed on Shakespeare plays.

What I find really interesting about Infinite is that I actually wanted more things to shoot. BioShock was an exploratory adventure, broken up with irksome battles. Its sequel is a really hollow and unconvincing place: far from the “living, breathing world” nonsense people spouted about GTA IV, Columbia is a cardboard cartoon as light and ephemeral as the nonexistent ground on which it stands. With no conversations to be had, no wonder you end up killing most of the people. Still, what a pretty place in which to kill them.

Darkstalkers Resurrection

Darkstalkers Resurrection

darkstalkers resurrection

It doesn’t suck.

One day, tired of a life spent endlessly redrawing the same characters from Street Fighter, an artist at Capcom decided to doodle something different. Ryu became a vampire throwing bat fireballs, Chun-Li a busty and lusty demon, Zangief a big old Siberian Sasquatch. “Wait a second,” said the artist’s manager, looming over their shoulder. “This just might work- and to think, I came over here to fire you!” And lo, Darkstalkers was born. At least, I think that’s what happened, but I can’t back that up with any hard evidence.

Darkstalkers Resurrection inexplicably omits the first game in the series, including only remastered versions of Night Warriors and Darkstalkers 3 aka Vampire Savior. Night Warriors is an arcade curio: although it introduced innovations like air blocking, dashes and chain combos which were exciting at the time, it feels dated and is unlikely to hold your appeal for long. Rest assured, if you’re a Night Warriors fan, this is a superior conversion. Vampire Savior, on the other hand, is a more enticing prospect: as a child, I remember reading about the impressive Sega Saturn conversion (the Playstation edition was a bit of a disservice) and weeping at the cost of an import copy. Years later, with a cheaper price point and considerably more pocket money, it’s time to exhume one of Capcom’s forgotten classics.

Vampire Savior achieves a speed and relentlessness that surpasses most fighters. Don’t be fooled by the first choice the game presents you, because it was meant to be played at ‘Turbo’ speed. It’s all about flow: chaining attacks through Light-Medium-Heavy, your fingers tapping out arpeggios of pain on the controller; cancelling attacks into specials and supers; leaping up after losing a round when the game barely pauses long enough for Scooby Doo’s Cerberean cousin to bark “FIGHT!” It encourages aggressive followups with a system that allows combatants to recover health by retreating. Only Street Fighter 3: Third Strike comes close to feeling this right, so mechanically finessed. Yet despite the deceptive accessibility of a game that has optional automatic blocking, the tutorials are just as impenetrable as a fighter like Blazblue, showing there is true depth beneath the cartoon exterior. Tutorials are aimed at experienced players rather than newcomers, but the basics are easy to grasp.

My opening paragraph was admittedly facetious: although Morrigan plays like a Ryu clone and Victor is a reanimated Zangief, there’s enough diversity and personality in the character design to make up for the generic moves. Bulleta (BB Hood in the West… why do Capcom always change the names?) is Red Riding Hood with a basket full of land mines and Uzis, Lord Raptor is basically Iron Maiden mascot Eddie, Anakaris is a pharaoh whose signature move encases you in a sarcophagus. There is a rich sense of humour, a welcome departure from Street Fighter’s po-faced canon as gallons of comicbook blood spill onto the floor while the faux surround sound feels like the speakers are in orbit around your head. It’s an exceptional fighter that can still draw a crowd.

With arcade conversions, you often know what you’re getting into before you start: a target audience of dedicated fans, unlockable concept art and movies to sate a collector’s appetite, an online cabal of obsessive ex-professionals who will pulverise you in seconds. Darkstalkers fans have suffered adultered imitations for far too long, but Vampire Savior’s timeless appeal will ensure new admirers as well. Some corpses should stay dead, but this resurrection is a welcome one.

Originally posted on Square Go.

Only Evolutions

Only Evolutions

only-evolutions

The revolution will never be televised.

The Playstation 4 was announced earlier this week and, would you believe it, the new console is a more powerful Playstation 3 with extra bits. Industry reception ranged from excitement to disdain for it being more of the same. What Sony needed to show, cried the detractors, was something revolutionary, not underpowered PC hardware in presently ethereal packaging. But such complaints seem misguided to me: home consoles have never been revolutionary. New consoles are only evolutions.

Console gaming has always been underpowered: the Sega Master System (1985) had a Zilog Z80 processor, just like the ZX Spectrum (1980). The Sega Mega Drive (1989) used the Z80 as an coprocessor – which allowed it to play Master System games – and its Motorola 68000 was also the main processor of the Apple Macintosh, a computer released in 1984. Older underpowered PC hardware: sound familiar?

The Mega Drive and Super Nintendo couldn’t hope to match the best arcade games of the day. Home conversions of arcade games were watered-down until practically homeopathic: the Mega Drive conversion of Virtua Racing required an extra co-processor on the cartridge just to make it run. The Saturn turned vivid 3D worlds into shuddering cardboard boxes, while the Playstation couldn’t even manage a proper version of Street Fighter Alpha 2. It was only with the decline of the arcade that manufacturers moved away from dedicated hardware in favour of cheaper, console and PC-based boards.

Consoles have always offered blunted cutting-edge technology at affordable prices. Clearly it’s about more than just raw horsepower or dedicated players would all just buy beefy PCs: consoles rarely require manual software updates or extensive tech support, plug into the biggest and best monitor in your home, have great support for multiple players in one room, and enjoy years of support from game developers. The new Tomb Raider will play (barely) on high-end PC hardware from late 2006, but it’ll also run on an Xbox 360 from 2005. Which was the larger investment in 2006? Arguments about hardware specs are just a boring pissing contest.

What would a real revolution in gaming look like? The Nintendo Wii’s code name of ‘Revolution’ now sounds naïve and arrogant. Perhaps we should have seen the warning signs when the console first launched: alongside the brilliant Wii Sports was Zelda: Twilight Princess, a port of a Gamecube title that replaced pressing the A button with flailing your limbs (and made Link right-handed, which is just wrong). The most critically acclaimed Wii games are those that conform to existing genres: Super Mario Galaxy would have been just as enjoyable on a Playstation or Xbox. Nintendo’s new console, the Wii U, comes with a traditional ‘Pro’ controller and a gamepad that is more like a Game Boy than a revolution. The Wii now seems more a passing craze than a fundamental shift in how we play games, a point emphasised by the poor commercial reception of Playstation Move and limp staying power of Xbox Kinect. Wii U’s retail sales are dire. This revolution is no longer being televised.

One thing that really has changed is mobile gaming. Smartphones combine a digital camera, games console, mp3 player, PDA, computer, and apparently some people even use them for telecommunications. These enhancements are still evolutionary, but mobile phones have changed from offering Snake to Solid Snake and are a viable alternative to consoles. Yet as I’ve said before, there’s a reason I still carry a digital SLR and there’s still a good case to be made for dedicated portable consoles. The real question – from a financial perspective, if not an artistic one – is whether enough people are still interested in portables to sustain the market. I’m not so sure about that. My problem with the PSP and now PSVita is that they try to crush big screen experiences into a tiny frame, like sticking a panoramic landscape into a locket. Portable consoles need small, novel portable games: that is where iOS and Android really succeed.

Something has shifted in the games industry, but it isn’t the technological progress of the hardware. The relationship between player and game has changed: everyone is up to date on the news and everyone is a pundit. I can still remember reading about the Dreamcast unveiling in Sega Saturn Magazine, trying to animate the screenshots within my mind. Modern videogames are much more mainstream and popular than in 1999: console launches are headline news, not relegated to the technology pages. Consequently our relationship with them has matured, even if the games themselves still have a lot of growing up to do.

It’s wrong to expect the games of 2013 to enflame our passions like those of 1993, when we were young and falling in love with the medium for the first time. Now we’ve been in a twenty year relationship with games: most things are really enjoyable and once or twice a year there’s an event that reminds you why you fell in love in the first place. That’s not a relationship in crisis; that’s healthy! Players in dire need of something to rekindle that spark are in the danger zone. Their expectations are unrealistic. They’re going to have an affair with board games.

Videogames and their players don’t need a revolution. They need a reality check. They need a marriage counsellor.

Not Buying

Not Buying

pile-of-shame

Cease fire.

It started off, as sadly most of my bright ideas do, with a joke on Twitter. I’ve been playing Halo 4 in level-sized chunks since Christmas and had completed another stage of the campaign. I looked at the pile of games under the television: Dishonored, Binary Domain, Dark Souls. My brother got me Uncharted 3 as a gift and I haven’t even started Uncharted 2 yet.

I’ve been doing this for years: picking up ’bargains’ that I never end up playing for one reason for another. As much as I love collecting, I’m really a collector of experiences rather than shiny boxes. I suspect many of you will be guilty of the same reckless spending. Bargains aren’t bargains if you don’t actually use the product.

Buying games I want to play, but won’t for at least a year (Ni No Kuni, Metal Gear Rising, Bioshock Infinite) is unsustainable and unnecessary, not to mention ridiculous. Great games will still be great games a year from now, and if not they weren’t worth buying in the first place.

So this year I’m not going to buy any games: no new or pre-owned console games, no Steam sales, not even iPhone games. It’s time for me to stop ’finishing’ games and start enjoying them again.

pile-of-shame-long

The Talking Dead

The Talking Dead

Episode 16

Alan & Craig perform a complete audio autopsy on The 2012 Screenie Game of the Year winner The Walking Dead. Then they take an axe to its head

RSS Feed iTunes Zune

Right Click Here and ‘Save As’ to Download!

(A 42-minute reanimated corpse with 38.9Mb of brains)

The Screenies 2012

The Screenies 2012

Alice: Madness Returns

Alice: Madness Returns

fronter

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop”.

I respected American McGee before playing any of his games. My introduction was probably the same as yours: a weird name that appeared before weird games such as American McGee’s Alice, American McGee Presents: Bad Day L.A. and American McGee’s Grimm.

My formal introduction came during his interview on an episode of GFW Radio (listen here). I was charmed. He discusses his id software past, Shanghai-based Spicy Horse present and the then future work of episodic Grimm, a game by his own admission that puts Art and Story before Gameplay.

I went in to Alice: Madness Returns wanting to like it. And indeed there is much to like and a handful of moments to love.

The opening section is more Wizard of Oz than Alice in Wonderland. We open with Alice – poor demented girl – in Rutledge Asylum presumably incarcerated for her fantastical tales of tea parties gone awry. London is grey with soot and filth milling about town running their errands. Bulbous faces and contorted bodies, these Victorian peasants have more character than some of the story’s major players.

And then, just like Dorothy, Alice is stolen from the monochrome city and catapulted into a Technicolor Wonderland.

The richness of this first Wonderland encounter comes from bold, bright colours and bold, bright ideas: Giant marbles are in fact imprisoned slugs trapped in spheres; blossomed lilies gesture you inward before gobbling you up; Giant stone sculptures to Alice tower over with weeping waterfalls that turn crimson and gore as the damage to Wonderland, and American McGee’s signature style, is revealed.

Another moment of colour and wonder comes from the Card Castles in the Sky level. Platforms and pathways constructed from giant playing cards flying in and out of sequence in the clouds. A simple concept, set to a light, blippy soundscape, creates a sense of sky platforming that taps into memories of the red flying hat from Super Mario 64.

Sadly these moments are too brief and are lost in levels that are too long. By the time I made it to end of a chapter I was more relieved than anything else. This is particularly disappointing considering the refreshing speed with which the play mechanics are introduced in the first sections.

Now I could have regulated my own play a little better- no-one forced me to play to the end of a level. But similarly there is no guidance afforded other than “keep moving forward until you bounce out of a level and into a cutscene”. The dynamic, even when punctuated by brief flirtations with innovation, is relatively flat.

Now bouncing into a cutscene is an incentive when the story is good. For all its strong art direction Madness Returns tells a very weak story in a very drawn out fashion.

Alice is sort of rescuing Wonderland which I think is mentally linked to her well-being and every now and then we visit the death of her family in a burning house which probably reflects the burning cathedral train thing that makes the odd appearance but these audio diaries don’t seem relevant to any of that and– wait why am I staging a play underwater again?

Madness Returns‘ order is definitely Art, Gameplay and then, a long way behind, Story.

At its core there is a simple yet surprisingly engaging combat system. Basic moves and a variety of basic enemies don’t sound appealing but Spicy Horse does well to mix the combinations and conditions to keep combat entertaining. It’s undoubtedly better than Lollipop Chainsaw but it’s similarly straightforward fare. But again the combat suffers from sheer repetition required to fill those long, long levels.

Buried in a chamber and hidden off to the side in the Queen of Hearts castle is a stone carving of Raz from Psychonauts. Alice: Madness Returns is no Psychonauts. It wasn’t trying to be anything on that scale. I’m hopeful for Spicy Horse’s future though. They have potential and are building up to bigger and better things. I respect that.

Risk and Reward: A Tale of Two Radios

Risk and Reward: A Tale of Two Radios

 

Is challenge the spice of life?

It’s a new year, and that means one thing: another massive pile of games that I mostly bought myself in the Christmas sales. This includes games I’ve had on the radar for a while like XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Mark of the Ninja, but also those that fall into the “Why not?” category like the reissue of Sega’s teenage rebellion simulator, Jet Set Radio.

I never got into Jet Set Radio on the Dreamcast. At the time, I blamed the challenge on my underdeveloped motor skills. Playing it now as a 26-year-old man at the peak of my mental and physical dexterity, the truth becomes clear: it’s just plain hard. Unresponsive controls, dodgy collision detection, floaty physics, unforgiving mechanics. I encountered a GAME OVER screen twice during the game’s tutorial, for crying out loud! “Why not?”, I previously asked myself, but now I find myself asking “Why bother?”.

JSR isn’t a challenging game in the modern sense of requiring skill to succeed. It is challenging in the old, ‘Nintendo Hard’ sense (warning: that’s a link to TV Tropes), where every aspect of the environment and your abilities conspire against you in what I like to call “two-dimensional Hobbesian nightmares”. In a Nintendo Hard game, you’re a character who can jump three feet in a world of four foot chasms. Unlike Super Hexagon or Spelunky, where completing a difficult section brings a sense of satisfaction and elation (if only for a few seconds), Nintendo Hard games reward difficult tasks with even more difficult tasks.

battletoads

As our gaming piles of shame grow ever larger, whether literally or digitally, Nintendo Hard games are no longer necessary. When you could only afford one game a year, it made sense for that game to require a significant investment of time and skill- ‘fairness’ was an insignificant factor. When there are loads of cheap games available, they need to be more respectful of our time. Fewer players than ever are actually finishing games, and in the case of Mass Effect 3 that’s just the main quest. When I heard Borderlands 2 had a 58-hour campaign, I was no longer interested, because I hate not finishing things.

Some people relish the overwhelming challenge of a difficult game, but I think they’re in the minority. The problem with extremely difficult games is that they risk a lot for a potential payoff. If you rise to the vertical difficulty curve of Super Hexagon, you’ll love it; but if you never master the required skills you won’t enjoy it at all, not even a little. That’s less of a problem when the game costs less than a quid, but I have a copy of Ninja Gaiden II that I received as a gift and I just don’t have the skills or stamina to finish it (sorry, Paul!). The howls of anguish about the mistranslated claims of an easier difficulty setting in Dark Souls II are misguided: what’s the problem when those who relish the challenge can continue to enjoy it, while mere gaming tourists can enjoy the ride? Why is letting more people experience the full game as a bad thing? I love playing Bayonetta and Halo on the hardest difficulty, but I’d never insist on the removal of the easiest settings. Critics have lauded the ‘Ironman’ option in XCOM that makes one’s decisions (read: mistakes) in the game permanent, but it’s still optional.

xcom

The racing classic Burnout 3 emphasised “risk and reward”. Driving in the wrong lane, weaving out of incoming traffic or performing drifts increased a boost bar that gave the player a racing advantage. The third game also allows racers to ‘takedown’ rivals by crashing into them to increase their boost multiplier. The challenge is not to stay out of harm’s way, but to actively put yourself in harm’s way. It could be as easy or difficult as you wanted it to be, with the caveat that greater feats of bravado were required to win in later races.

Challenging games need to establish a link between risk and reward to succeed. The reward need be nothing more than a rush of endorphins, but there must be something to make you want to continue. This is where a Nintendo Hard game fails in the modern era: it’s risk with no reward except more risks and a single congratulatory image at the end of the game for your trouble.

congrats

To find an alternative to the Nintendo Hard mechanics of Jet Set Radio, you need look no further than its sequel, Jet Set Radio Future. Future isn’t much of a challenge at all: in fact, the biggest challenge would be trying to fail. Rather than the timed challenges of the original game, it offers a more laid-back experience where players are free to explore at their leisure. This transforms the game from one where we curse at its mechanical failings into one where they simply don’t matter as much.

If mastering Jet Set Radio Future is like learning to ride a bike, JSR was like your cycling instructor kicking you in the face every time you wobbled off-balance. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that it’s called Future as it foreshadowed a development style that is now commonplace: it’s a drawn-out, inclusive and friendly game, rather than the arcade-inspired bursts of challenge that characterise the original. One consequence is that Future is a much longer game than JSR, because more content is required to keep the player interested in the absence of challenge. Without the rose-tinted glasses of Dreamcast nostalgia, I feel confident in saying that Jet Set Radio isn’t very good, and if you gave most people both games they’d prefer the sequel.

Most people don’t play games on Hard. Most people don’t like melodic death metal. Most people don’t eat really hot curries. For aficionados of the spicier things in life, the moderate can seem bland by comparison: but if you believe that only challenging games can truly entertain, you’re ignoring games like Journey, To The Moon, Jet Set Radio Future, Rez. A gaming diet heavy on challenge can still be lacking in flavour.


This article was written for January’s ‘Blogs of the Round Table’ feature at Critical Distance.

The Colour of Videogames (Boxes)

The Colour of Videogames (Boxes)

The_Colours_of_Videogames_Fronter

Blue Rhymes with Orange.

The-Colours-of-Videogames

And yet another reason to love Portal.