I'm Nathan Hardisty, an author, ex-editorial writer for Platformnation.com, ex-games writer at Screenjabber. I now write for a variety of sites on the internet while still updating both my DTOID blog and my regular blog, which can be found below.
I am currently writing for Flixist.com
Also I'm incredibly pretentious about video-games so beware. I might just hipsterblow your minds.
Oh, my, I'm back. Oh look at that. I'm not dead! After all my exams. I'm alive. Nice. Okay. See you all in three years!
Actually, let's talk about Gunpoint.
Okay so I wrote about Gunpoint around five of your Earth years ago. Mr. Handsome (Tom Francis) actually put up a nice little quote from my little write-up on to the actual Gunpoint site. See you can actually see 'Blogossus' on a goddamn game's site oh my god how cool etc. etc. oh my etc. etc. I'm going to print screen this etc. etc.
Okay. So that was, like, five Earth years ago or something. Not entirely exactly but, well, to be in the same column of the likes of RPS and Eurogamer is, like, pretty darn hot. But, well, let's actually get on with the actual 'game' thing.
I wrote that thing in light of an earlier build of Gunpoint that I played oh so long ago. I've pretty much played it, I believe, since the very earliest build. To see it evolve and change and shift and just become this thing that hit Top Sellers on Steam, got some perfect 9s and 10s within a few weeks of The Last of Us and, just to nail it, release with the best goddamn special edition in the history of goddamn special editions, it's all a bit, well, mental. Tom Francis has always been one of the greatest game writers but, with Gunpoint, he becomes one of the greatest game writers. Heh. See what I mean? On top of that he's a pretty slick programmer and he doesn't afraid of actually doing something interesting.
I realize that I haven't yet written about BioShock Infinite on, well, anywhere. I did tweet a little about it and yet after many weeks I still feel somewhat similar. After all of the meta-commentary analysis, narrative dissections and game design critiques, I still quite adore Infinite. It truly is a symphony of video-gamedom and, yet, I still feel a slight disconnect. It is still a game about shooting people in the face over and over again, even while it tackles broader issues and blasts narrative design of video-games out of the water. It's spectacular and yet I would call Gunpoint, in all of its three hour festivities, my game of the year thus far.
Why do I think this? Because what Gunpoint does is do what all great games do. Exceptional video-games, to me at least, are those which give you all of the tools and playthings in order for you to design an experience. There's been a lot of backlash against gamer journalist lingo like 'ludonarrative dissonance' and 'emergent gameplay', but the extravagant vernacular is no less spectacular in applying it to Gunpoint. Gunpoint literally has an achievement called 'Acknowledged Ludonarrative Dissonance', I've never been a fan of the whole 'achievements' thing but it's my favorite thing of that thing ever ever. So much so that I'd use the words 'thing' and 'ever' twice in order to express my liking of it.
Gunpoint doesn't really care about its narrative. That's not to say that it casts it aside, but it pretty much has a 'Skip to the interaction stuff' button in every conversation. The conversations themselves are downright hilarious and, I say this with scornful jealousy, stupidly well written. I did not skip a single conversation because of the absolute quality of the story, and yet the very notion of being able to skip any of them and just get to the gameplay is probably one of the greatest game design choices ever. I know that games have had 'skip cutscene' buttons for decades, and yet just being able to dive straight in, with zero context, and be still fully invested in every mission is absolutely remarkable.
The gameplay itself has you rewiring things. I can rewire a button to a door so that, if I time it right, it can smack them unconscious in the face. I can rewire elevators to squash people, I can rewire trap doors so that everybody falls down at once and I can rewire a camera so that it fires a guard's gun so that he shoots his best friend as soon as I just slide into its view. There are so many possibilities to play around with that you can create strings of stories that just 'emerge' out of the game. I haven't even gotten to the movement system yet.
You have super trousers. With a little click you can lunge at your foes and then punch them in the face. You can launch them out of windows, you can crawl on the ceiling and then dive on them like some horrible monster and you can even just goddamn dive around like goddamn Spider-Man except goddamn good. Gunpoint does a better job at making you feel like a badass more than any other game I've played this year. If empowerment fantasy is your thing, then Gunpoint has that. There's even moments, nay entire levels in which your punching and lunging doesn't work. You have to plan, dive and use your wits. You know, that thing in video-games usually reserved for press trigger to shoot? You gotta use that. There are levels in which you have to plan, jump around the officer complexes that are rigged with your entrappings, lure the guards and manipulate their movements to absolute satisfaction. Gunpoint makes you feel genuinely smart about your accomplishments and seems to encourage no-kills runthroughs and all kinds of awesome procedural gaming business. Heck, even holding a man at, TITLE MENTION, 'Gunpoint' is absolutely thrilling. The game actively encourages just holding that gun, but discourages the shooting of it. Games don't often make the very presence of a gun exciting or genuinely mood-changing, because they're about as abundant as, well, molecular bonds and shit. With Gunpoint, guns have so much meaning and that is just hot.
This is why Gunpoint is the best game I've played this year thus far. It lets me play it. I know that sounds cheap and Polygon-ish but, heh heh, I genuinely adore playing every single second of the game. I enjoy planning out my tactics, skulking about darkened corridors and then capitalizing on my own smart movements. Gunpoint has such systems that allow you to pretty much invent your own playstyle. There is also a gadget that allows you to kick doors into people's faces. For that reason alone it is just. Yes. Yes. Yes. It also has one of the coolest soundtracks of the year made by the likes of Ryan Ike, John Robert Matz and Francisco Cerda.
So I said that it was "Probably the most exciting piece of game design in a long, long time", apparently. I take that back. It is the most exciting piece of game design in a long, long time. Gunpoint, in honesty, does not trump Infinite in the whole 'narrative' department, but some of its funnies are honestly more worthwhile than entire stretches of Ken Levine's supposed magnum opus. Gunpoint, however, has the leg up on any video-game released this year so far in that it is purely player driven. It is an absolute delight to play and a wonderful reminder of why video-games are the greatest entertainment venture that this little blue planet has to offer.
10/10 editorz choic goty eward
+ gud game, dat soundtrack
+ funny game
+ you can kick people in the face with doors
+ you can kick people in the face with doors
- [obligatory negative point]
You can buy Gunpoint on Tom Francis' website, where he will get more monies. Or you can buy it on Steam for 'convenience' or whatever reasoning. Either way, it is cheap and incredible and buy the special+ editions because look at them goddamnit.
Trimalchio is a tragicomedy, which is neither tragic nor omedy, about a young playwright drafted in to adapt The Great Gatsby. While dodging visions of a mysterious past he finds himself slowly sinking into the mind of F Scott Fitzgerald.
I’ve been working on Trimalchio, the idea, for more than two years. I’ve been writing and editing for the last year. In the last two weeks I’ve gone through about five drafts? Maybe more? What you should know, however, is I am probably one of the worst proofreaders in existence. Some folks helped craft this thing, with special thanks to Laurens Steel (who designed the cover art too), but it’s otherwise my first solo venture. I’ve written two novels before this bit they’re both either too boring or too good (note: good means awful) to go public.
If you’re wondering about a lot of the stuff that happens in the ruddy thing, and what it’s primarily based on, then do read Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda (a compilation of the love letters that the [eventual] Fitzgeralds sent to each other). That and, well, The Great Gatsby if you haven’t already. Wait, you haven’t? Oh my! Shame on you!
Trimalchio is available for FREE online:
Click here for the PDF, right-click and ‘save as’ to download.
(I will be adding Kindle/ePub/iBooks links in the future)
If you have any thoughts on it then feel free to tweet me them @Nathardisty or email me firstname.lastname@example.org or owl mail or whatever. If there’s any errors then do tell me them or, and I encourage this, attach them to a brick and throw it at my face.
I've released three books on video-games thus far as part of my Up, Down, Left, Right series. Volume Four is more about video-game communities than video-games themselves, though it specifically uses Spec Ops: The Line as an instrument to explore community reaction and relationships. It's pretty $w@tacular and all that.
I said I'd release this back in December but things happened and then some stuff and now, surprise, it's finally out and tings. It's currently only available on PDF but I'll get ePub/Kindle out by the end of next week.
I throw a grenade and watch it slowly tumble behind the concrete block. I reload my pistol as the lens flare blinds my vision. Ragdolls erupt seemingly from the ground and block out the sun's rays so I can see again. I blind fire a little until I'm out of ammo. I rush out to hit a man in the face. We fight a little bit but he is no match. The adrenalin's aftertaste skips throughout my polygon veins as I pick up the leftovers of the fight. Guns, ammunition and grenades. I toy with the idea of using the riot shield before I finally hear my name being shouted.
(Instead of Weapon of Choice, here's some thoughts on player-character design)
I've been thinking a lot lately about player characters and names. Booker DeWitt (BioShock Infinite), Nathan Hale (Resistance), Niko Bellic (Grand Theft Auto IV); these are the names that are shouted over the gunfire. Usually it's a "Nate" or a "Niko" or something to that effect. Naming and cataloging reveal a lot about the human brain, which named itself, and our need to have 'names' to begin with. It's interesting to scan across the bestsellers list and see 'John Green', 'J.K Rowling' and 'Dan Brown' among others. These are names with 'bite', with some kind of inherent linguistic appeal. You wouldn't want to buy a book from 'Aaron Finger-Smith' at first glance, but maybe 'Oscar Dotes' or 'John Hamilton' or 'Nathan Hardisty' hint hint.
Names in games have often, for me at least, represented the barrier between player and video-game. The basic universal gaming philosophy is that player protagonists should be vessels for the experience, that the entire experience should be molded around the player. If the game has emotional content and that emotional stuff doesn't resonate with the player then the designer, in theory, has failed. The Walking Dead has players being put into the shoes of an African-American history professor in a bid to save a young girl's life. If you aren't on the same emotional page as Lee Everett during the journey then the cut-scenes and arduous story moments are going to have zero effect on you.
I'm not here to talk about how races or religion can interfere with the process of player application, in which the player applies themselves to their avatar, but I am here to talk about the broader 'name'. With the likes of Skyrim and Fallout you can choose your name but none of the NPCs will refer to it during dialogue choices. It seems more of a way to organize your save game files than holding any game-world use. When a player character does have a name then it adds another layer of barrier between the player and the world, in theory, because if someone calls me "Jack" then I don't have that immediate connection with the world. In short, I have to be taken out of it and remember I'm playing a game rather than being a part of it.
The psychology of immersion has probably been well-essayed by much more competent people than I but I do feel there's some worthwhile bottom-feeder commentary to be said. When the NPCs in Uncharted start calling me 'Nathan' or 'Nate' then it's incredibly personal for me. I'm literally being called to do this or that and it feels incredibly inclusive as a result. I'm immersed in the experience and it's not jarring at all, even when there's cut-scenes and stuff going on I do feel like I'm being referred to personally. It gets a little bit weird considering I don't actually have a voice in the game, I can't imagine Nathan Drake having a Yorkshire accent to begin with, but my name being used does amplify my connection with the interactive play, especially when it is pure interaction such as a gunfight.
Maybe it's why you'll find I look quite favorably on the Uncharted series. Yes, the game has you spout one-liners about snapping men's necks without any need to acknowledge that you're a goddamn mass murderer. Uncharted 2's final boss actually asks you (or is it me) "Just how many people have you killed today?" and in Uncharted 3 there's a moment where Sully asks just exactly why Drake carries on. These moments, to me at least, seem like a brief indication that the universe is self-conscious and, as a result, I feel like I'm playing within the gels holding the fiction together; being both within and without. Uncharted's 'cinematic' qualities, for the most part, are used on top of interactive elements rather than have the interactive elements coming secondary to a 'cinematic' purpose. Strong examples of this being the climbing sections and the 'collapsing building' in Uncharted 2. You're still able to interact even as the camera pans around and does fancy things. All the while you're being called 'Nathan' or 'Nate', with the occasional 'Drake', and the personal connection to the game is something worth talking about.
If a player-character has your name do you feel more connected to the gameworld as a result? It's honestly kind of difficult to try and extend your consciousness on to these avatars given the explicit separation. You're usually sat in front of a screen tapping buttons. Bringing the user to the height of aesthetic experience is incredibly hard to do in any medium but perhaps video-games have some intrinsic qualities which make the transition easier. They're interactive for a start and the usual root design of all of them is some kind of 'journey'. The player is asked to progress through a level with all sorts of objective markers, mission task lists and quest items.
This is why I'm strongly against trying to delve into a player character's 'psychology' unless it extends to the player. In L.A. Noire there's a moment in which you attempt to question a suspect and, given the systems of interaction, you end up calling a woman a "lying bitch" and shouting at her. You never properly slip into the skin of Cole Phelps given you don't know his motivations or the words he is about to say and so player responsibility is arguably less apparent. The game also (spoilers) has an entire section in which Cole has a random affair, which the game informs you of after it has been discovered by the other NPCs. This makes it incredibly difficult to think that the game actually cares about your actions when it fundamentally sidelines them in favor of telling a story. Heavy Rain (also spoilers) is another example when the player's agency is utterly dis-respected, with the the Shelby 'typewriter' scene where the player can interact and then later is shown to display how he is the Origami killer; a root betrayal of that trust between player and game. (/spoilers over).
I wonder then if the likes of Fallout and Skyrim nail it. Without a name for the player character you are essentially a blank slate who interacts with a world that refers to you by a simple title like 'The Courier' or 'Dragonborn'. It makes sense to try and build a sense of 'player identity' through their actions rather than pre-determined elements. Video-games don't have any awareness of the player's existence before they sit down to play the game. The Walking Dead doesn't ask you for you height, religion, race, sex, gender, genital(s) size(s), photos of your body and your fingerprints. It just plays. If 'assumptions' about the player hurt player applicability then why is it that I'm fine with being called 'Nathan' in a video-game but not fine with having an assumed relationship with a wife? Is it wrong to say I think Red Dead Redemption has zero respect for the player's role in the narrative when I myself laud how wonderful the Uncharted series is, when the series itself relies heavily on pre-determined relationships to push its story.
It might be the explicit nature of the cut-scenes in Red Dead and the writing styles that push that game into a game that characterizes the player as an author of the story's progress but an observer of the story's process. By that I mean a gunfight achieves one of Marston's objectives, but Marston is the one to talk and actually get the benefits of that gunfight in the story. None of the NPCs tell me about how amazing it is to be friends with me, they just talk about how grateful they are for having a friend like Marston after all they've done together. Dan Houser, Rockstar Games writer, in my opinion has never been a 'natural' video-game storyteller whereas Naughty Dog's Amy Hennig, in my opinion, gets the self-conscious aspects that a video-game inherently carries. The relationships are pre-determined but they're not forced. You're called a name that isn't yours, unless it actually is in my case, but you feel connected to these characters because the game knows it's a game and compensates for the fact that you can't spend five years getting to know someone to then shoot people in the face alongside them. It's the only way to make sure it doesn't delve into the 'Outsider' way of telling game narrative, when a hero like Gordon Freeman or The Courier come into the world and (for the most part) meet new people at the same time as the player does. Neither 'Insider' nor 'Outsider' are the 'right' way to tell video-game stories by the way.
Names mean a lot and I don't think this collection of thoughts can properly express the psychological connection we have with video-games. In a lot of cases gaming is a lot like writing. You are authoring an experience alongside your chosen guidelines. There's sometimes that same 'feeling', writers might agree, when you're fully immersed in the world. I do however think that when a player character shares your name then there's a sense of comfortably shared identity. Player identity, in my opinion, is probably the most crucial part of video-game design; it is the basis of all interactivity.
When people talk about weapons having 'weight' in video-games I always think of BioShock's wrench. From the minute Atlas said with his Irish laden lips "Pick up a crowbar or something." I knew that there was something afoot. Not only was there a poke at Half-Life mythology (which we covered last week) but there was just something about it. Atlas never directs you to actually pick up the wrench and, in some sense, it's one of the smallest chances of free choice that are offered by the game. I'm trying not to spoil it because it's close to Infinite's release and I think a lot of people will be playing the beast for the first time.
The wrench works so well because it feels like a wrench. Swipes do take a degree of time, especially without the added gene tonic bonuses, and the thudding squash of flesh when the metal hits the Splicers always feels realistically satisfying. When you manage to thud a splicer's head as he's about to pounce on you, that's when BioShock really excels in its construction of tension and atmosphere. The wrench adds this layer of rebellion to it, like you're some laborer in Russia during the 1930s and you're bashing Russia into a brighter future with the Communist rhetoric blaring above. Although that vision's in stark contrast to the Randian rants of Andrew Ryan that spill out of the tannoys throughout Rapture.
The wrench does feel just completely fitting of the game. I was always disappointed with BioShock 2's melee weapon, the drill, because it (puntended) never had the right impact. It always felt the slightest bit 'empty' in how you were able to spin it up a little and then smack people. You never tore through bodies, largely thanks to the limited capability of the engine and hardware stuffs, and it never had the same thud that the original wrench had. When you swiped a Splicer with your drill in BioShock 2 there was a degree of lethargy in it but also lacking of that special punch that the wrench gives. Like the jumping mechanics in Super Meat Boy, the timing of the swipes was nailed just perfectly with the wrench.
Around a year ago I completed BioShock on normal difficulty using only the Wrench and plasmids at hand. Now I want to complete it on Survivor difficulty, no Vita Chambers, no tonics, no plasmids and Wrench only. Adding this rule to the game, I feel, is a lot like going Permadeath in Far Cry 2. It really does bring out the best in the video-game and also shows exactly what kind of special feels that the power of interactivity has to offer when combined with degrees of player freedom. I would not do this if sequel's drill was in the original BioShock, it just feels 'repetitive' to me.
The wrench seems fine-tuned to any combat situation. There's tonics to make stealth attacks practically kill Splicers in one, there's a tonic to freeze enemies upon hitting them and there's even a tonic that drastically increases your damage output to make you a one man killing machine. In BioShock there's no 'Swiper no swiping!', there's a freedom to mix up the tonics, plasmids and weaponry per encounter to advance throughout the game in an exciting manner.
More important to the very 'feel' of the wrench, in my opinion, is the idle animations. When not swiped for long, Jack will turn it over in his hands. There's even a metal 'clunk' when he does this. When you've got the winter wrench tonic attached then the frozen wrench still 'clinks' against his other palm. It gives an added sense of weight to the object and perhaps shows off that Jack is ready for action, ready to be the deliverer of pain.
In short, this tool of bludgeoning gives BioShock even more of its mechanical identity. The plasmids, Tommy Gun and steampunk-esque arsenal all give a sense of 'weight' and harsh grit to the world and the wrench embodies this similar sensation of solidness. The wrench, above any other weapon in the game, allows the player to touch the world... with an instrument... to the face. Bloodily.
Video-games are too obsessed with weaponry. I understand guns give that 'instant feedback' which is utterly crucial to tactile experiences but interactivity for a good amount of time has always resided in the tunnel vision of the blood-soaked industry. With that in mind I'd like to explore some choice examples of weapons that work beyond shooting people in the face. If this industry is going to build itself around weapons then the least we can do is find elements that are at the very least interesting or shape an experience in unique ways.
Half-Life 2 is an indisputable modern classic. I've written on it before from how it cursed me for years and how I do believe it's the most 'competent' first-person shooter ever made. I still replay it every once in a while just to capture that very unique feel. One of the main criticisms lobbied at Half-Life in general is the lacking of mechanical identical. BioShock has its plasmids, Fallout 3 has its V.A.T.S and even Call of Duty has a very 'modern' approach to its arsenal. Half-Life, as a franchise, has carbines and alien guns and other apparatuses that really don't give it a 'distinct' identity when it comes to its mechanics. When I think of playing Half-Life 2 I instantly think of playing the game but not how the game plays. This is why the shotgun is so crucial to Half-Life 2, more than the gravity gun in my opinion. It truly is more unique than a simple physics firing wotsit.
The shotgun (full name: Combine SPAS-12) in Half-Life 2 is given to you by Father Grigori in the Ravenholm section of the game and it, on the surface, functions like any other video-game shotgun. Push one button to shoot. The twist comes in its alternate fire that spews out two shots instead of one. This can be used to instantly ice certain fools or blow up barrels. One pellet is enough for certain enemies, such as barnacles, but others take more than two. It really depends on what distance you're working at. During boss battles and other heavy sequences you start to realize there's an intricate system to the shotgun. It has its own economy.
The economy of the shotgun is as follows: the chamber can hold up to six pellets at the time. This means there's a need to conserve and also add up, within seconds, the root value of what exactly your next button press results in. This table might help:
What you're constantly having to weigh up is how to maximize the pellets in your shotgun at any given moment. The shotgun has an economy within itself that really separates it from a lot of the weapons in the game. The sub-machine gun, pistol and magnum etc. don't carry the same 'power' as the shotgun. The magnum arguably has the closest economy to the shotgun, and it too usually kills all enemy types in one button press (one bullet), but it doesn't have an alternate fire like the shotgun does.
Now obviously I haven't considered the nature of the 'reload' and this effect drastically changes the internal economy. Having six shots gives you more options than having five for instance but being able to reload quickly gives the shotgun a unique quality in Half-Life 2 thanks to its alternate fire. Let's say you're fighting two big enemy types in the game and each takes around two shots to disperse but you're only carrying three shots in the chamber. This mean you can weaken them both with single shots and eventually killing at least one of them, or you can alternate fire and single shot another to at least take one away. With the added 'reload' there's now a multiple of possibilities and a layer of urgency thanks to this internal economy. Do you reload one more pellet just to alternate fire both enemies and vanquish them? Do you alternate fire and rush to cover to reload? Do you instantly rush to cover? You can interrupt reloading too which mixes everything up further. This entire system that orbits the shotgun is further deepened when you consider the various contexts that Half-Life 2 can put you in. Under water, open-spaces and other environments can all add or subtract urgency. Urgency can further be molded by manipulating resources in the environment or by the player his/herself; imagine having low-health in a room full of health items versus having low-health in a room without health items. Both scenarios play out drastically differently to one another.
The value of the shotgun I'm writing about here does seem somewhat 'too heavy', but that's largely because a lot of this design is sub-conscious. All of those 'ripple' effects such as ammo supply, the environment, health items, enemy types and others are all entangled with the shotgun's internal system. The internal and the external marry to bring about a gameplay experience aka. 'a firefight'.
Obviously the shotgun isn't your exclusive choice in Half-Life 2. You usually want to minimize input while maximizing output; using the least amount of ammo possible, conserving as much health as possible etc. The shogun's economy enriches this gameplay equation and its aesthetics are the cherry sweetener. The 'feel' of the weapon is felt with every reload, every pump and every shot/alternate shot. The weight is felt in both the recoil and in the second delays between reloads and shots.
The shotgun isn't just engineered with a rather simple but intricate economy but also designed to be pleasing to both the ears and hands. Valve really do nail the mathematical and artistic principles of their weapons and, for me at least, the shotgun is my weapon of choice.