Monthly Archives: March 2013

‘My Dinner with Andre’ and the art of conversation

Mydinnerwithandre‘My Dinner with Andre’ is a really strange film.  The first I’d heard of it was in an episode of Community which heavily referenced it.  But it turns out that the film is a bit of a cult classic.  I watched it.  I liked it.  And I still have no idea why.  Andre was an insufferable character, and while his friend (played by Wallace Shawn) had the facial expressions of a man who almost couldn’t believe what he was hearing, in reality I’d like to think I would’ve stood up and given Andre a good beating.  There was something there though, something sincere that captured the brilliance of human communication and the intricacies of how we relate to one another.  Even though I had no direct agency in either character I was curious of the stories and views both characters were putting forward.

It is part of the human condition that we are inquisitive.  The Doctor from the long running British sci-fi series  ‘Doctor Who’ often says that the brilliance of the human race is that we are curious and determined to survive and explore.  Whether it be learnings of economics, the arts, science, space exploration or even eaves dropping on the personal conversations of people on public transport, we are confronted every day with the opportunity to learn and grow.  Conversations are a key part of this – a likely reason My Dinner With Andre is more classic than curio.

So while I sat there contemplating why the 1981 film was oddly compelling, I started to think about the role of conversations in a video game.  After all if a film, entirely spectatorial, can be driven entirely by the course of an almost two hour conversation, why can’t video games?  Conversations within the confines of video games are almost always devices to either drive the narrative forward or to point the player in the direction of their next mission or objective.  What if conversation was the game and what if your character grew by watching and listening to people on the world, rather than by killing.

There are games that have tried it.  L.A Noire tried to incorporate elements of body language to inform interrogations, but its simple representation of human emotion left a lot to be desired.  Both Assassin’s Creed and Mass Effect have used eavesdropping as a direct tool for gaining information to complete or obtain new missions, but it was just the equivalent of an arrow to the next point of interest on the map.  So it is true that developers are continuing to figure out ways to better incorporate the intricacies of human communication into game design.  The problem is that this heightened sense of awareness about others (not the protagonist or antagonist) in videogames is being shoe-horned into worlds and game mechanics that are not built for it.  So what we end up with is a one-way street.

It is the natural evolution of video game that the way that characters interact within the confines of video games will advance and improve.  It will, like it has consistently since video games came to be, help to give the player a greater sense of agency and interest in the world.  And with that it will make for better games.  Whether we will ever see human communication or our inquisitive nature explored and represented in a video game remains to be seen.  I challenge developers to make the video game equivalent of My Dinner With Andre, because it could very well be the best game ever made.


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Need for Speed Most Wanted – Analog Boy in a Digital World

NFSMWVitaNeed for Speed Most Wanted (Vita) Review – The RX Bandits summed it up really in the title of their song ‘Analog Boy’.  I like single-player video game experiences.  I don’t think co-op makes everything better.  And I haven’t held an Xbox Live Gold Account for a number of years.  Sometimes I feel like I am being left behind by a world so focused on multiplayer that it forgets how things used to be.

Need for Speed: Most Wanted is a multiplayer game wrapped up in a single player game package.  The semblance of a single player game is there, building up your reputation to take on the ten most wanted cars in the city with a view to becoming number one.  And it is undeniably fun while you’re doing that.  But throughout the entire experience I felt I was missing something both by not having anyone on my friends list playing the damn thing and by opting to not actively participate in multiplayer. In short, what single player was there was fun, but it felt like it was the candy case on the delicious chocolate held within.

The draw of Need for Speed: Most Wanted is pretty simple.  The pure driving pleasure created by developer Criterion is second to none in video games.  Speeding around the city feels as I imagine it should, and there is nothing more exciting than flying around the city in a  Koenigsegg Agera R with an army of police cars in hot pursuit.  It is easy to waste an hour speeding around the city with no objective just because it is easily accessible and a whole stack of fun.  Which is just the problem.  The races in the game, outside of the ten most wanted races, feel a bit by the numbers and generally unexciting particularly compared to the adrenaline fuelled cop chases.  There can be some tense moments in some of the races, but there is no mistaking the feeling that the races just exist as a mechanism to earn yourself the right to race against the most wanted cars by accumulating ‘Speed Points’.  That is if you’re not playing multiplayer and earning these points by beating ‘autolog’ records set by your friends.  So while single-player only folk will get something from the game, there is no escaping that the game feels like it has been built from the ground up for people with a lot of online friends also playing the game.


Don’t let me put you off of the game, particularly if you are a Vita owner looking to bolster your collection.  The Vita version is at worst a technical accomplishment and at best a game that will live in your Vita due to its perfect pick up and play nature.  Either way Most Wanted is one of the most impressive games on Sony’s struggling handheld and one that, particularly if you can pick it up on the cheap, will give you hours of entertainment – particularly if you can look past its flaws and that fact that it is at its core a multiplayer focused high-score table.

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A-Monster Hunting We Will Go…

Whereas Sir Gaulian is content to just get stuck into his sports games nowadays, I’ve been getting more and more into the gaming scene recently. Over the past six months I’ve bought an unprecedented four games (X-COM, ZombiU, New Super Mario Bros. and Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate) on day one at full price, which is something I haven’t done since the days of the Dreamcast. Yes, the gaming bug has firmly gotten a hold of me again.

The thing is though, back in those halcyon Dreamcast days I had all the time in the world to play my new purchases in between the odd lecture and a bit of student boozing. Now university is a dim and distant memory, and most of my spare time is taken up by, you know, responsible adult things. And I have to go to WORK! I know, rubbish isn’t it?

In your FACE, monster. Yeah, you heard.

In your FACE, monster. Yeah, you heard.

Still, it’s the Easter weekend now (hurrah!), so what better way to relax than by  loading up Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate for the first time and hacking at a few dinosaur things for an afternoon? It’s my first foray into the Monster Hunter world, but from what I’ve seen of it, it looks very similar to Phantasy Star Online on the Dreamcast. I loved PSO, and that game also marked the first and last time I played an online RPG. It’ll be interesting to see who the online RPG has changed over the past ten or so years…

Anyway, if you’re at a loose end and feel like laying the smack down on a few fantasy monsters together, look me up: my Wii U username is Merriweather and my Monster Hunter guild name is Lucius.

Happy Easter everyone!


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Everyone underestimated the power of the Playstation


I think that everyone underestimated Sony in its entry to the console market before the Playstation hit.  But oh how we were all wrong.  Looking back at the mid 90’s when the Playstation was released, I remember the fanfare.  The kids at school talking about the absolutely mediocre Kileak: The Blood like it was the second coming of Jesus (Happy Easter all) and the lines at Playstation demo stations in retail stores pointed to something special.  Of course for the most part Nintendo kept its foot in the door by putting out some stellar releases for its systems in 1995 and beyond.  But for the most part it was all about the new kid on the block.  And Sony knew it.  All of the advertising for the Playstation painted a picture of a company that knew it was its war to lose.  The 90’s attitude that characterised the 16-bit era was replaced with a cool, edgy and confident campaign in the same vain as Sony’s market-leading products, the Walkman and the Trinitron.

Sony was a company used to winning.

Do Not Underestimate the CD Power of the PlaystationThe Ultimate CD Games system…The Ultimate Games, Sony brashly claimed in its pamphlet.  But I don’t even think Sony were ready for the phenomenon that the Playstation would become.

Sony became synonymous with gaming over its reign with both the Playstation and its successor.  Brochures like the one below drove people the the new brand, driven by both Sony’s reputation as one of the world’s most reliable electronics brands, and its focus on the technological ‘wonders’ of its new system.  I’ve spoken before about how I was taken aback by Sony’s crazy new controller , but for the most part I was drawn to what Sony was bringing to the market.  It wasn’t a simple case of showing the 4-symbols now synonymous with the Playstation.  Sony had to build that trust, build an image of a reputable video game company and most of all, overthrow Nintendo and Sega as the king of the console hill.


And it was people like me that, and I hate to spoil the story, put Sony at the top.  Sony’s ‘mature’ new console hit at exactly the right time for me – a young lad entering his teenage years who desperately wanted to grow up.  For Sony the ‘cutting edge’ market was ripe for the picking, with the games market entering a new stage of maturity, particularly with games aimed at a young-adult market.  DOOM doesn’t know it, but it is probably a big factor in Sony’s success, opening up the mature gap in the market for Sony to drive its Playstation right into.  And drive it did.

Of course Sony’s dominance is in no small part due to amazing support by both second and third-party developers.  But in a serendipitous combination of market demands and Sony’s predisposition to marketing its products as technical masterpieces, the Playstation found its home in the hearts and minds of a the gaming population, shipping (according a wikipedia) a total of 102.49 million units throughout its life.  And its the loyal amongst these people that Sony will be hoping to drive its success in the next generation.  Given I’ve kept this brochure until now, I think we can reliably say I will be contributing to that success.


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Why Always Online is a Huge Mistake for Microsoft

I wouldn’t normally comment on the media circus surrounding the next generation of consoles – because to be honest I don’t really care that much – but some news from the Microsoft camp late last week got me all hot under the collar. The all-but-confirmed news that the Xbox 720 (or ‘Durango’ or whatever they decide to call it) will be ‘always online’ had me staring at my web browser in dumbfounded amazement.

I love this artist's impression of the Xbox 720 controller. Sadly I couldn't find the source of the image, but whoever you are. WELL DONE.

I love this artist’s impression of the Xbox 720 controller. Sadly I couldn’t find the source of the image, but whoever you are. WELL DONE.

Although it hasn’t been officially confirmed, this ‘always online’ business means that it’s highly likely that if your next-gen Xbox isn’t connected to the internet, you simply won’t be able to play any games, as you’ll need to be connected so that the Microsoft servers can verify that the game you’re playing is genuine and not a pirate copy. It also seems to indicate that any games you buy might be tied to your Xbox Live account, which means that second-hand games won’t work.

This still hasn’t been officially confirmed by Microsoft of course: the ‘always online’ rumour seems now to be genuine, but we still don’t know whether Microsoft will go the whole hog and restrict the content you’re ‘allowed’ to use. However, it does seem like they’re heading down a dark alley of not-goodness.

The disastrous launches of Diablo III and SimCity have proven that forcing players to connect to a potentially creaky server just to play the game is a not good idea, so to base a whole console around this concept seems to be asking for trouble. What if the network goes down, as happened after the PlayStation Network was hacked? What if your internet connection goes down? What if you’re moving house and can’t get connected for a month? What if you live in a rural area with limited or no broadband? In any of these cases will your shiny new next-gen Xbox be reduced to the status of an expensive under-TV ornament?

Likewise, effectively ‘banning’ the sale of second-hand games by making them unplayable seems foolhardy in the extreme. The thinking seems to be that publishers and manufacturers are ‘losing’ sales every time someone buys a second-hand game, when this is clearly not the case. I buy second-hand games, but I also buy new ones when something particularly special catches my eye. If I couldn’t buy those second-hand games because they wouldn’t work, I wouldn’t just buy the new equivalent – I couldn’t afford it for a start. In the end, players just wouldn’t be able to play as wide a range of games as they do now, which is bad news for everyone.

Second-hand games are an easy way to get into a series: you might buy the first couple of Assassin’s Creed games, for example, which gets you into the series enough to buy the third game new when it comes out. Or you might borrow a game from a friend and like it enough to buy the sequel. If Microsoft decides that games have to be tied to a single Xbox account, both of those options disappear.

Then there’s the potential impact on games stores: in the UK, a huge chunk of GAME’s sales are derived from the second-hand market, so without that they’ll more than likely go under. Again.

It seems even more bizarre that Microsoft might go down this route when Sony have confirmed that the PlayStation 4 WON’T restrict secondhand content or require an internet connection. In light of this, it would be absolute madness if Microsoft decided to restrict what their users could play, and I for one would veer towards purchasing a PlayStation 4 for this very reason.

Although, to be honest, I’m pretty happy with my Wii U and my enormous backlog of games for now, thanks very much.


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There is more than one way to kill a Dirk the Daring

DirkSkeletonDragon’s Lair is kind of retarded.  Not retarded as in ‘that Downton Abbey show is retarded how good it is’ type, but the ‘i can’t even talk to you anymore you’re speaking like a retard’ type.  I know I shouldn’t use that term, and apologies in advance, but it is seriously the only way I can think to describe Dragon’s Lair.

Now I don’t entirely hate Dirk the Daring.  I love the awesome hand-drawn art style, and the classic clumsy knight fights off badass dragon thing.  It is endearing.  And he is honestly a character that I could see fitting in a really good Wayforward Technologies side scrolling action platformer.  With talented animators and good level design, Dirk the Daring could make a mighty fine hero.  Or at least no worse than Earthworm Jim.

It would at least be the best Dirk the Daring 2D side scroller by default though right?  Wrong.  Dirk the Daring has in fact been the star of his own side scroller on, of all things, the Game Boy.  It isn’t surprising really, given that developers were always in the habit of bringing entirely different experiences of big boy consoles to the system.  But what is surprising is that it is far, far, FAR better than its namesake.

Dragon’s Lair: The Legend on Game Boy, rather than a very pretty game of memory like the original, was a 2D  platformer where Dirk the Daring needs to collect the parts of a shattered life stone to resurrect Princess Daphne.  Whatever, it serves its purpose.

Dragons Lair the Legend Scr

What I’m not telling you is that a substantial part of the game takes place on a mine cart.  And you need to collect things on it.  That require jumping.

Of course there is good reason for the fact that the game is basically a protracted mine-cart level.  The game, developed by Motivetime Limited (who also happened to develop the under-appreciated Dr Franken), is actually a reworked version of the early ZX Spectrum  game “Roller Coaster” which was released in 1985, which unsurprisingly featured a guy riding a Roller Coaster.  Funny that.


Obviously there is nothing wholly original about Dragon’s Lair: The Legend on Game Boy.  But it does achieve what the original Dragon’s Lair didn’t – that is present a game that is difficult because it requires skill and precision, not because you had a temporarily memory lapse, farted or sneezed.  I want to earn Dirk the Daring’s death dammit!  For what it’s worth though there is nothing else like it on the Game Boy, and while it will drive you up the wall in its (some could argue unreasonable) difficulty, once it gets its hooks into you it will keep you going for about as long as you can bear staring at the pea-soup green screen.

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Riddler spotted in Walthamstow

My co-podcaster Ian (see spotted this little oddity on his travels round Walthamstow. It seems the Riddler has escaped Arkham once again and has been leaving trophies a bit further afield than Gotham… Sadly, Ian didn’t have his batsuit with him, so he was unable to scan the trophy using detective vision.



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