Monthly Archives: October 2016

Video game-themed board games

I pitched an article on board games based on video games months and months ago, but it’s only just been published on Eurogamer. It turned out to be a much bigger undertaking than I thought.

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My confused face sums up XCOM The Board Game.

 

My initial idea was to do a round up of all of the video-game-themed board games on the market, but a bit of reasearch revealed that there are far more of them than I realised – the board game scene really has exploded in recent years. So I revised my goals, and instead decided to pick just a handful of the more well known ones. But even this proved tricky.

The trouble with board games is that you need a group of people to play them with, as well as someone who knows the rules, not to mention a full evening or two spare to play them thoroughly. As hyou’ll see in the article, fulfilling these criteria wasn’t always easy:

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I ended up reviewing three games in the end – XCOM, Street Fighter II and The Witcher – but there are plenty more that I could have done, like the Civilization and Portal board games. Hopefully I can cover them in a follow-up article…

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Spiffing Reads: Black Mirror, VR Harassment and Antisocial Karen

This week on Spiffing Reads, we start off with more analysis of the Nintendo Switch reveal trailer – but this time from a perspective of just making stuff up.

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Nintendo Switch’s best, most revealing meme is antisocial ‘Karen’ (Polygon)

This genuinely made me laugh out loud. In the Nintendo Switch trailer, one Internet wag dubbed the bob-haired lady who brings a Switch to a neighbour’s party as ‘Karen’, and since then a whole meme community has sprung up around her. “Oh shit, Karen brought her stupid Nintendo thing to the party again. We’re DRINKING, Karen. We’re having CONVERSATIONS.”

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Has a Black Mirror episode predicted the future of video games? (The Guardian)

I’ve never actually seen an episode of Black Mirror. Charlie Brooker’s opus sounds utterly fascinating, but even the very idea of some of the episodes just creeps me out. In the latest, a future AR game taps into the player’s darkest fears to present them with things they find utterly terrifying – but interestingly, a few games have already explored similar ideas. This lengthy article explores how games have tried to get to know their players, and there are some fascinating details that I had no idea about. It also made me even more determined to seek out the underrated Silent Hill: Shattered Memories for the Wii.

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My Summer Car is the most hardcore driving game yet (Eurogamer)

There seems to be a thriving market for hardcore, off-kilter drive ’em ups these days. After Spintires – a hugely popular game about driving old Russian trucks through mud very, very slowly – comes a game about constructing an old banger from spare parts and driving it through the Finnish countryside while drinking beer and flipping the bird at other drivers. I’m not sure it’s the kind of game I’d personally want to play, but I’m very glad that it exists in the world.

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VR Developers Add “Superpower” to Their Game to Fight Harassment (Kotaku UK)

This is something I hadn’t really considered until now – ‘online harassment’ can reach a whole new level in connected VR worlds. This is the story of how one woman had her first experience of VR totally ruined by someone who ‘groped’ her. Obviously the groping was only with virtual hands, but I can imagine how uncomfortable the experience must have been, especially as there is no way to physically defend yourself – apart from taking the VR headset off. I suspect this story is just the beginning, especially if social media moves into VR, as Facebook envisages…

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Review code, the ‘media’, YouTubers and all that shite (Tired Old Hack)

The story that Bethesda plans to hold back review code for games journalists until the very last minute was everywhere this week. As many have already pointed out, that restriction doesn’t seem to apply to YouTube ‘influencers’, who are receiving review code weeks in advance of release. This is an interesting take on the issue by industry veteran Chris Scullion, formerly of CVG.


Spiffing Reads is a regular feature where we pick out the best gaming articles of the week. If you’ve read anything interesting, please let us know in the comments.

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When is a game not a game?

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One game I forgot to mention in yesterday’s article on my rediscovery of mobile gaming was 999: The Novel – although it’s debatable whether it should be called a game at all.

I’ve been interested in trying out the games in the Zero Escape series for a while. Zero Time Dilemma, the third game, came out for the 3DS earlier this year to glowing reviews, and the second game, Virtue’s Last Reward, went on sale in the eShop at about the same time. I promptly snapped it up, but I wanted to start the series off at the beginning, with the clunkily titled 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors. Unfortunately, this DS game is fairly tricky to get hold of (and expensive, too), but I found out that there’s also an iOS version.

However, the iOS version is a bit different. The DS game is billed as a ‘visual novel adventure’, where you explore a sinking ship as part of a sadistic game organised by the mysterious Zero. At several points you have to solve puzzles to escape rooms, and every now and then you have to decide which door to take, with the story changing according to your choices.

The iOS game keeps all the same dialogue and door choices, but it completely strips out the puzzles – instead the screen just goes black and says something like “They were able to solve the puzzle and open the door”. So essentially, the whole ‘game’ is just clicking through dialogue and choosing one of two or three doors at about five points.

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I’m used to playing visual novels like the Ace Attorney series, where essentially you’re just looking for the right line of dialogue to proceed, or the right object to present. But as I discovered when writing this article about the J.B. Harold games, in Japan this series would more likely be considered as an ‘adventure game’. Over there, visual novels are pretty much what the name implies – novels with pictures, and very little in the way of interaction.

So 999: The Novel on iOS is a visual novel in the strict sense – writing and pictures and not much else. I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it at first.

Without any interaction other than the odd door choice, the writing is forced to hold up on its own – and quite often it comes across as a bit clunky. The storytelling has an unfortunate penchant for melodrama, and quite often characters will annoyingly repeat themselves, or parrot what someone else has just said. Frequently, people will launch into long and bizarre anecdotes that seemingly have little connection with anything else, like the time someone eagerly describes a series of crystal experiments. I also felt the loss of the puzzles – it felt like my agency had been taken away.

But having said that, I did start getting into it after a while. After getting my first ‘bad’ ending, I became curious as to how things would have turned out if I’d gone another way, and I found myself getting more and more into the story. Eventually, I saw all of the endings the game had to offer, including the so-called ‘true’ ending. The story gets more and more ludicrous as the game goes on, but the characters are likeable, and I enjoyed the rollercoaster ride of revelations.

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But is it really a game? I found myself pondering this after I’d finished it. The only interaction is limited to five or so choices, so calling it a ‘game’ is really pushing the definition. But then again, there is a metagame in the sense that working out which routes offer the better endings is part of the challenge. More to the point, it felt like a game thanks to the graphic style and, well, clunky dialogue, to be honest. Nothing tells you that you’re playing a game more than making apologies on behalf of the designers for lacklustre writing. It’s a sad fact that as gamers, we’re willing to overlook cheesy scripts because they’re pretty much the norm for our genre – just look at Uncharted. And just last night while playing Bayonetta 2, a critically lauded game, I found myself wilfully disregarding the dreadful acting of that irritating squirrel character, not to mention the sometimes painful script. Often, playing games feels like watching your own child act in a school play – you’re willing to forgive their lack of finesse just because you want them to succeed.

So yes, 999 doesn’t have the best script in the world, but at least it has an interesting story. And it just about qualifies as a game, in my opinion. But it did make me wonder what the minimum amount of interaction would be for a piece of digital entertainment to qualify as a game. If you only made one choice, would it still be a game? If all you were doing was tapping through dialogue without making any choices at all, would that still be a game?

I’d probably say ‘no’ for the above two options, but that also made me wonder what threshold 999: The Novel had to cross for it to become a game in my mind. Is five choices the minimum needed for it to feel like a game? What if it only had four choices? Or three?

My mind flies back to the legendary Advanced Lawnmower Simulator, an April Fool gag perpetrated by the editors of Your Sinclair. The ‘game’ involved holding down one button to make your character mow the lawn – and that was it. It elicited howls of laughter from the youthful me at the time.

But is it a game? Unequivocally, I’d say yes. But if something as simple as that can be considered a game, then surely anything could?

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From The Armchair: Getting Mobile

ArmchairOne consequence of getting sucked in by Pokemon Go is that I’ve ‘rediscovered’ mobile gaming, to an extent – just as Eurogamer predicted. Bar the odd game of Threes, I’d pretty much given up on mobile games before this summer, but the Pokemania earlier this year prompted me to see what else the App Store had to offer.

I’d been put off before by various scrounging free-to-play games that constantly needled me for money. Plants vs. Zombies 2 was a prime offender in this category. I absolutely adored the first game, but the sequel switched to free to play and consequently walled off the more interesting stuff behind microtransactions – a sure way to kill all the enjoyment. Pokemon Go, for its sins, also adopts the free-to-play model, but in a much more acceptable way – everything is available to everyone, but those who choose to pay can get it a little quicker. Still not as satisfying as a one-off fee, but a decent compromise.

Thank heavens, then, for Square Enix’s ‘Go’ series – not to be confused with Pokemon Go, which cheekily seems to have ripped off the ‘Go’ suffix. (The first in the series, Hitman Go, came out back in 2014, so it pre-dates Pokemon Go by at least 2 years. But I presume that it was too difficult to copyright the word ‘go’, as King found out when they tried to copyright the word ‘saga’, as in Candy Crush Saga.) Lara Croft Go and Hitman Go were recently bundled together and put on sale on the App Store, so I quickly snapped them up. One price, everything included – lovely.

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I’ve yet to play Hitman Go, but Lara Croft Go has been an absolute delight. I wasn’t sure how well Tomb Raider would translate to a slow-paced puzzle game, but it’s managed to keep the feel of the series intact while offering an interesting new style of gameplay. Each level gradually introduces a new puzzle element – salamanders that follow you around, for example, or torches that repel monsters – and these elements neatly combine and intertwine as the game goes on, so by the end there are some real head scratchers to solve. On the strength of this, I can’t wait to play through Hitman Go – and I’ll almost certainly pick up Deus Ex Go, the latest in the series.

I’ve also been playing Really Bad Chess, which I sought out on the strength of this recommendation. It’s free to play with adverts, but you can pay to get rid of them – again, a good compromise, and much better than locking away content for cash. The game itself is a very basic representation of chess, but with the twist that you have a seemingly random mix of pieces. For example, on my first game I found I had four queens, while the computer opponent had 5 knights.

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As a result of this simple change, the games are enjoyably chaotic, and it made me completely rethink how I approached the game. Interestingly, despite having four queens, I still lost that opening game – it turns out that having a phalanx of knights is awesome for defence if they’re arrayed together. The game also progresses pleasingly, just like Lara Croft Go – as your rank increases, the computer starts off with better and better pieces, while your own pieces get progressively worse.

If you’ve played any amazing mobile games recently, let me know!

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Spiffing Reads: Nintendo Switch, Tetris and Tomb Raider

It’s been a quiet week on the blog thanks to some crazy work schedules, but as always we’ve got a few Spiffing Reads for you. Of course, the big news this week was a certain console announcement…

Nintendo Switch Reveal – ALL EASTER EGGS, Analysis & Things Missed (IGN)

Everyone everywhere has been writing about the newly revealed Nintendo Switch – and I’ll post my own thoughts on it sometime soon. But my favourite bit of coverage was probably this in-depth video from IGN that digs as much info as it can out of the launch trailer. There are some interesting observations about the new Mario game… Also, it was great to hear a bit of White Denim on the trailer, Nintendo has good music taste!

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At home with Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft: ‘There was probably too much murder’ (The Guardian)

This article actually came out last week, but I missed it at the time – and it’s just too good not to share. The wonderful Ellie Gibson interviews Lara Croft for the 20th anniversary of Tomb Raider, and it’s bloody hilarious.

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Block ops: How everything fell into place for Tetris (Eurogamer)

Box Brown has written a graphic novel about the origin of Tetris, and it looks darn good. In fact, I’ve had this on pre-order for about six months, so I can’t wait to finally read it!


Spiffing Reads is a regular feature where we pick out the best gaming articles of the week. If you’ve read anything interesting, please let us know in the comments.

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Spiffing Reads: Westworld, Emotional AI and Self-Destructing Games

This week on Spiffing Reads, we look into a spooky AI future – and a forgotten past of suicidal game disks.

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The Video Game Horror Of Westworld (Kotaku UK)

The new HBO version of Westworld looks rather excellent. I was a big fan of the original film, and it seems like they’ve done a great job of expanding on the original concept – i.e. murderous robots with feelings. As this article points out, the series’ do-anything-you-like western theme park isn’t a million miles away from most video games – but what if the virtual characters you’re gunning down could think and feel? Which brings me on to…

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Video games where people matter? The strange future of emotional AI (The Guardian)

Several groups have been working on AI that responds emotionally – or at least a simulation of emotion. This excellent long read gives a taste of where we’ve been and where we’re going. What if all those civilians in GTA games had hopes, dreams and expressed genuine terror? Or, more scarily…

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Is our world a simulation? Why some scientists say it’s more likely than not (The Guardian)

…what if we actually are those video game citizens, but we just don’t know it? The idea that our universe is a huge simulation has been proposed numerous times before, but it’s unlikely to go away any time soon. For one thing, like the existence of god, it’s basically impossible to prove that it’s NOT true, even if it seems unlikely. More to the point, it would explain why all the physical laws in our universe slot together so nicely.

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The self-destructing game of 1986 (Polygon)

I found this utterly fascinating. Back in the eighties, someone wrote a game that gave you just one shot at finishing it – if you failed, the game essentially committed digital suicide, and wouldn’t let you play it ever again. It’s a fascinating concept, and I’m surprised no one has tried it again, especially in the current age of the indie renaissance. Suddenly, Dark Souls looks positively benign.


Spiffing Reads is a regular feature where we pick out the best gaming articles of the week. If you’ve read anything interesting, please let us know in the comments.

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Quick Offload: Forza Horizon 3 is a celebration, a eulogy

GTRXU1.jpgAustralia’s car industry is dying. As the gradual removal of tariffs kicked off by Prime Minister Hawke began to bite, and in more recent times fiscal prudence forcing Governments to question financial support, the car industry was at a cross-roads. And by the end of 2017 our once great car manufacturing sub-sector will be in Australian history’s rear-vision mirror. Toyota, Holden and Ford, all gone.

In short: neoliberalism and the laissez-faire hasn’t been kind to Australia’s car industry.

I was one of those people who questioned Government’s insistence on supporting an industry that was for all intents and purposes, uneconomic. And economic theory – nay economic sense – backs that assertion. Australia’s high wage costs, lack of economies of scale, cost of inputs and decline of sales of domestically-built vehicles all contributed to an industry that in aggregate couldn’t compete with cheap imports. So policymakers and industry cut their losses and pulled out of Australia. Rightly or wrongly Australia will no longer a car-producing nation.

Forza Horizon 3 and its Australian setting is a celebration of an industry – but more important a culture – that is a ghost of its former self. I’ve written before about how intertwined car culture is in Australia’s psyche and I’m convinced a lot of that is to do with just how unique it is. Yell “Brockie” from the footpath anywhere in Australia, much less my hometown of Adelaide, and it’ll undoubtedly be acknowledged with “yeah mate!” or “Legend!” from passersby. And flash a photo of his GTR-XU1 and it might induce convulsions.

But, like a lot of things in this great southern land, these things are all pretty much unknown to the rest of the world. The moment you step into the 2016 HSV Maloo GTS to ‘upgrading’ to a Holden Torana A9X it becomes clear that Horizon 3 pays homage, not just to our country’s natural beauty,  but its unique automotive scene too. A scene that – with the last Ford Falcon already rolling off the line in Geelong and the last Australian built Commodore due in 2017 – is at risk of disappearing altogether. And taking everything built around it, with it.

And its for this very reason I’m lamenting the loss of our automotive industry. Because while it may not be economic, cultural output seldom is. And Forza Horizon 3 makes it very clear that, above all else, our car culture is something we should value and cherish as uniquely Australia

 

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Quick Offloads are short posts when we need to get things off of our chests – or bonnets in this case – but don’t want to make a federal issue out of it.  But feel free to play armchair economist, neoliberal critic or rip-roaring union commie in the comments section. Or, y’know, just pay your respect to the Australian car industry, R.I.P.

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