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.
There’s a reason I haven’t posted much not so often, or not at all, in the last few months and it’s down to a singular reason. This reason has sucked up more time than anything. I fully expect my impending exams to do the same thing, so don’t expect a massive HARDISTY BLOWOUT just yet.
As you know, I’m only eighteen years old. I’m doing my A-levels, the stuff you do the year before you gallivant off to university.
Here’s the reason I’ve been hiding in case I got too excited and jumpy up and downy about it. I’m a History boy, if that’s not apparent already, and I’ve wanted to study History at university for a good while now. I got a few offers back quite suddenly after my application but…
I also applied for Cambridge back in October out of trying to see if I could charm my way in. I had to write essays, extra questionnaires and read myself to death. I got an interview for the next month which went swimmingly well in which I discussed topics ranging from apocalyptic fiction birthed by the Black Death and Lyndon B Johnson’s penis. I kid you not. Since then I’ve been panicking, crying and pretty much dying in terms of motivation.
Today I received a letter from Churchill College, you apply to the university and to a college within, stating that they have given me an offer of A*AA.
Quite frankly, I’ve spent the day in locked-in disbelief, shock and a general ‘glass case full of emotions’.
This is why my time has been diverted to other areas, this is why I have spent so long just cursing at myself and generally being self-deprecating and this is why I have yet to really established any pattern or schedule of content.
But, yes, I did it.
Expect waxings to pick up after the exam period. Early February probably. But for now know that, well, 2013 has started for me in an incredible place.
Note: Yes, I disappeared for a millennium. Yes, I am back. Yes, things are hectic but hello!
About roughly one billion years ago I wrote one of the very first 'Game Critique Corners' on Assassin's Creed Brotherhood. Forgive the spellings, grammar and general 'young Hardisty' vibe that the piece carries, but I still think it makes a valid point about the Spike VGAs. Both in video-games themselves, from cut-scenes to voice talent to linearity, and the industry itself, from advertisements to merchandising, there has long been a thought that we are simply living in the shadow of cinema. The term 'cinematic' has practically been said about every video-game for the past decade, and it's this term that I think is now outdated. For a while the 'cinematic' influence was our stepladder to higher expression, and now I think it's happening. Now the teenage identity crisis is over. Now we have our own messages, themes, ideas and celebrities from Schafer to Newell. Now we have our own voice talent.
The above image is taken from the nominations for voice talent in the Spike TV VGAs, the largest 'gaming awards' thing. This thing has been ridiculed, dissected and been utterly despised by gamerkind since its inception. Because it's not for gamerkind. Gaming journalist personality Geoff Keighley has served as producer on the project for many years now and I can honestly say that, after so long, this is one giant leap in a good direction. Go look at how Journey is nominated for Game of the Year, how Emma Stone is the last 'celebrity' nominated for voice talent and how Spec Ops: The Line (a goddamn SHOOTER game that DESTROYS AND DEMONIZES ALL SHOOTERS) is nominated for something. More importantly how Nolan 'I am in everything and give stellar performances every single time but yet have yet to receive a fucking Spike VGA award' North is primed to get something for once, for Spec Ops as well.
This was the VGAs' voice nominees two years ago;
Look at that. Not a real video-game talent in sight. Just celebrity after celebrity after Rob Wiethoff after celebrity. You can imagine them sending letters and requests to agents to PLEASE ATTEND! PLEASE LET PEOPLE SEE VIDEO-GAMES ARE COOL! It's a compromise. One that, quite frankly, remains detestable but necessary. Video-games had to become popular to become widespread, to gain credibility. Celebrities was the fast track. Keep in mind I still think that talent like Gary Oldman and Wiethoff delivered INCREDIBLE performances in their respective games, but video-games have long tried to find their own mix of talent. Now we have our own A-listers and B-listers and so on and so forth.
We still have work to do, obviously. We still have celebrities helming the thing, we still have some stupid nominees (Assassin's Creed 3 for game of the year? Really?) and there's still the issue of some ridiculously warped categories like 'Character of the year' and 'Most anticipated game' and the general giant advertisement for next year's titles. Award shows shouldn't be trade shows, they should be separate.
But the voice talent nominated? Some of the nominees for some of the bigger awards being goddamn downloadable? Spec Ops: The Line being nominated?! A game that literally beats the shooting genre to death and calls it out on everything (my personal game of the year and the main topic for my next book).
A note: I'm terribly sorry. Truly I am. I'm juggling a lot in the air right now and I've decided to cut off regular gamey type stuff like this. All of this will be irregular postings on whatever I want. For now I'm moving over to film journalism, but will still finish my book series on video-games at some point.
This was written in an hour and it gets waxy and a little bit preachy. I apologize if it isn't up to the usual standards.
Black Mesa comes out in less than two days and we’re a month away from it being over five years since Gordon Freeman’s last formal outing. There’s a definite sting in the air as the anticipation of the continuation of the Half-Life saga begins to boil to a whimper. This is what I’m feeling. For a good while even at the slightest hint of their being Episode Three or Half-Life 3 there was a burst of emotion of almost child-like glee. For a good while there was genuine hope and a desire for Half-Life to continue. Half-Life is a part of our collective consciousness, especially when it comes to discussing Valve titles, and now it’s coming to over half a decade since the last title and I have decided that I would be okay to never see Gordon Freeman again.
Although we don’t see him anyway because he’s a mere avatar for the player to control and a further element of game developer commentary on the nature of the protagonist and linear video-game design. Or something.
I still delight in every new spring of Valve goodness. I’m currently looking forward to lapping up Counter-Strike: GO at some point this year, and I hope to finally head into Dota 2 at some point. I’ve relished the Team Fortress 2 updates and was stunned by the commentary, humour and bombastic artistic masterstroke that was Portal 2. I have a feeling that Valve feel themselves no longer defined by the ‘crowbar’ but by their wider franchises and genres that they dip their toes into. They have their fingers in many pies, delicious pies, and from Left 4 Dead to Portal there are heavy references and in-jokes about Half-Life and the mythical ‘Valve time’. I feel Valve are trying to build out an incredible, expanded universe of Half-Life to the point where everything around Freeman and company dissolves and we’re left with this giant pool of original and wide-stretching content.
The original Half-Life 2 took me over seven years to complete, so I’m no stranger to being patient with the franchise, and quite frankly I think it’s time to let go. It’s an elephant in the room with every Gabe Newell interview and every discussion involving Valve. There’s a definite crisis within gamerkind when we can’t shake the cloud of a franchise in the same sense that Hollywood or comic books or other mediums seem to do so effectively. Franchises and series and issues and heroes all wither and die eventually. I don’t think gamerkind it too overtly attached, emotionally entangled or even too immature to let go – it’s just we’ve never done this before – and we’ve never had a medium like this. Half-Life was birthed from the mixing pot of golden age shooters; the first title representing a dramatic almost monolithic shift into a new technological and engineered era of video-game design. To let go of such an important influence on the modern world, within popular culture and beyond, seems practically impossible. Half-Life fathered the modern shooter.
Mario, Zelda and so many more have outlasted the Freeman. BioShock and Fallout and too many series to mention will carry on to burn the gaming candle wick into the future. Series, heroes, icons and franchises are born every generation. Not as much as we’d like to think, I do believe the industry has a stifling and ‘choked’ attitude when it comes to original IP, but this might be due to the existence of the Half-Life colossus. The status quo of the video-game industry: retrofever. There’s always a sense of glee when something ‘retro’ or ‘familiar’ touches us in a video-game whether it’s a mechanic or a reference or an entire reborn franchise, there’s a tickle of our nostalgia. It’s becoming self-indulgent and I absolutely love that. Video-games are beginning to find their identity in this soulless corporate apocalypse that we call modern civilisation. It’s time to complete the final step.
It let go of Half-Life would mean that something else would take its place, or several new things. A capitalistic fever could sweep the industry as soon as Valve announces its crowbar cruiser as now dead and buried. A healthy spur of competition and for the spoils and riches to be devoured by the true victor: us. When such a massive void is left in the industry, something has to fill that power vacuum. There are so many smaller series and franchises and old age dogs like IO Interactive and Obsidian who could create something exciting and interesting to fill the space. It makes further sense to let go, because then we can become used to it. Then we can let Call of Duty die out, deny the Duke Nukem revival and finally allow the ‘Assassin’s Creed Trilogy‘ (not really a trilogy) to remain just that. A trilogy. Christopher Nolan showed almost great excitement to the fact that The Dark Knight Rises would finish the story, that there’d be an opportunity to finally complete something. Can you think of many video-game franchises that had a completely satisfying and perhaps emotionally tied conclusion? Halo 3 went ahead and ‘finished the fight’ and became Halo 4, Modern Warfare 3 ended the story that begin in the first but there’s already rumblings of Modern Warfare 4 and Gears Of War seems to still be ballooning itself up with add-ons and spin-offs and lovely diversions. Would it be nice if we just… let go, and what better way to show it than through Half-Life? I understand that sometimes a franchise can come back with full spirit (Fallout New Vegas and Deus Ex Human Revolution for example) but some things are left undisturbed. There’s not a common culture in video-game design of ‘finishing’ something. Ask yourself, honestly, how many video-games have you played in the last few years that actually had ‘good endings’? There’s a need to make cliffhangers and ambiguity the status quo, because the sequel and franchise leasing is what leads to the survival of developers and not a refinement of original ideas.
Half-Life 2 Episode Two ended in the most powerful way that I’ve ever seen a video-game do. It killed one of its main characters but eased up the stakes. Gordon and Alyx were heading towards the Borealis in the final push for humanity’s hope. For years we’ve imagined their journey, imagined the first blinks as we take our first steps out into the Arctic wastes and spy combine machinery. For years we’ve thought of the return of Barneyand Adrian Shepard and Judith and finding out what the G-man’s all about, what’s on the Borealis and answering everything and everything ourselves. Episode Two ended in the right kind of ambiguity, the kind that makes you believe. I am okay with never seeing Half-Life again because, this took me some time to realize, Valve created an ending engineered to make you want to stop the Combine. To make you want to continue. To make you realize that it was now all in on the Borealis.
I don’t think Valve can deliver on that. Not within an episode. I expect to find Half-Life return in a few years of time but, quite frankly this would sound blasphemous to my younger self, I’m become desensitized to the colossal hype surrounding it. I’d be happy to see it end, for Valve to finally let go of the crowbar and build new series, but I’m happy now. For it to end like this seems almost right for the franchise, because Valve already moved on a long time ago.
I sprint and land in spikes. The familiar screen stretches out once more. I am dead. Try again? Video-games since their very inception have championed ridiculous ideas around death. The near immortality guaranteed by a 'respawn system' removes all consequences from the player's hands. You are dispensable. Perhaps it's the missing ingredient missing from video-games as an artistic force? An ability to consider and contemplate death. It's utterly fascinating when the idea of a 'one life' is introduced into a video-game setting. The interactions, your approaches, your pace and your courage all feed into a singular playthrough. There is no turning back.
Permanent death in the modern video-game setting hasn't been championed as much as it was back in some of gaming's early days. There were 'rogue-likes' and 'dungeon crawlers' and a variety of genres that spun the idea of permanent death into the fabric of interaction. Since the beginning of gaming, however, the whole idea of 'death' within the interactive context is that (for most titles) death caries no consequence. It seems odd to me that we have to brand it, almost with a tickle of humour, as 'permanent death' (or permadeath) but the entire setting of the video-game medium probably demands this approach to the lexicon. There are a few modern titles that do embody permadeath: The Binding of Isaac by Edmund McMillen, introducing permadeath into Far Cry 2 arguably creates the most immersive video-game experience of all time and then there's Spelunky.
Derek Yu's Spelunky started out as a little freeware title that felt like an Indiana Jones dungeon crawler. I remember playing it for the first time and disliking it. Maybe it was the retro, pixelated aesthetic or the harshness of the game. It frustrated me heavily and so I decided never to return again. I later started reading up on the game and caught an article from Tom Francis in late 2009 (now available online) and rediscovered the game. I realized that my frustration at the video-game had been misdirected because I was actually ignoring my own failures. Spelunky is, at its very core, about failure.
It's an incredibly harsh, infuriating and maddening experience but never does it feel unfair. There are no glitches or lags in animation nor any control malfunctions, the action is all in your hands. The mistakes are yours alone. It becomes readily apparent a good way into the game that you're an idiot. You need to learn. Patience, courage, thoughtfulness and all the systems of the game. How much does a box of 12 bombs cost? Is it worth getting the damsel? These are questions that slowly bleed you into the world of Spelunky and after 100s of hours logged into the game I have a confession to make: I have never completed it.
The freeware version still sits on my computer. I have been inches away from the fabled 'City of Gold', I have had 8 hearts and a full inventory of luxuries and I've even defeated the final boss only to clumsily slip to my death. Death. Mistakes. Spelunky is about failure and it includes the art of death within the sphere of failure. Every decision you make has an impact on your survival; every item, damsel and fall from a ledge. It's thrilling to look down and not know where the ground is, to gulp when the ghost appears or when you're trapped with one heart with ghouls and ghastlies all around.[i]
The Xbox Live version of the game is largely unchanged, but there's subtle tweaks and graphical elevations that just bring the game to a stage unparalleled. The connection that you make with the game's world is made more merrier. The game has some wickedly absurd humour, you can now rescue 'pugs' instead of 'damsels' (or a 'mansel'), and there's a real weight of care carried to every level. It feels handcrafted in a way, and there's some subtle things that make the game that much sweeter. Even if you're playing as the same sex of a 'damsel' or a 'mansel' there's still a kiss to be had. There's no hornblowing for gay rights, it just happens. Kisses are kisses bro.
As you progress through the game, and I only got a twinge of this feeling with the freeware version, the value of your life increases. You gain items and inventory, obviously, but what makes the art of death truly artful is the value of an experience. I played for twenty minutes only to fall to my death and on that reset screen you just look back to that self-contained episode. You talk about your life. Not the game as a whole, not your kill/death ratio on Call of Duty nor how awesome it was to finally 'beat the boss'. There is a boss in Spelunky, but getting to him takes a literal lifetime.
I might as well state that Spelunky (XBLA) is my current game of the year thus far. It's a smart piece of interaction. Its randomized levels make every life feel like a life, unique, and the systems are all fair. The game is pure skill and patience. It requires dying. It requires learning. Most of all it requires us to learn a lesson, that 'getting to the boss' doesn't matter in the end. Spelunky, if anything, can be summed up as a tremendous effort in survival.
I will be writing on Spelunky in the near future with a focus on its aesthetic, some of its visual themes, its callbacks to the retro world of gaming and perhaps some other topics. It's a deep, enriching game and an incredible feet of both technical engineering and emotional construction.
30 years ago Ridley Scott changed the world. I genuinely believe Blade Runner was a watershed moment in cinema history and I have absolutely no experience in dissecting and theorizing as to why it is so monumentally powerful. All I can do is produce a 130-page fanwork, a labour of love, in an effort to express exactly why Blade Runner has twisted me into the person I am today.
I embarked on this project over two years ago. I’ve grown substantially as a writer and a journalist with this little project being a full display of my talent. I can talk about how I am horrible with my grammar, blasphemous with my spelling and poor with my sentence structure but I believe Tears to be the best work I have ever produced. It was all for Blade Runner and, more importantly, for the Blade Runner fans.
I do hope you enjoy my interpretations, my theories and dissections of context within Blade Runner. It was both a torture and a pleasure to produce and you can expect Blade Runner Week to kick off tonight with a full-on Review of the picture.