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About


I'm a writer, long time Xbox/Nintendo/PC gamer with a keen interest in the stealth, strategy, indie, psychological horror and RPG genres.

I'm better known by my poetry, creative writing and occasional cultural reviews over at White Coffee Magazine.

When not writing for other places, I blog here.

I have an MA in Creative Writing: Poetry from the UEA, and currently live in Scotland.
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The illustrious Erik Kain over at Forbes wrote an interesting piece yesterday about the 'decidedly mixed' reviews currently coming out for Quantic Dream's new interactive film/game 'Beyond: Two Souls'. I've had a good read of both the praise and criticism and one of the more sticky area's reviewers are trying to get their teeth around is the games level of interactivity. As a big fan of 'Fahrenheit' (Quantic's first title) and currently ambling my way through 'Heavy Rain', with some experience of 'Shenmue' and 'The Walking Dead' as well as a love for 'Gravity Bone' and 'Thirty Flights of Loving' I thought I'd offer a more broad outlook on the relationships between interactivity and gaming.



But let's look at what some reviewers out there are saying about 'Beyond', shall we?

'I think these sorts of titles exist in a dimension between games, books and films, and it’s something we really need more of. Making them too easy sort of defeats the purpose of interactivity, and I wish there were more choices I actually knew I was making.'
     ~ Paul Tassi, Forbes.

'It’s just plain boring. Like a sociopath, 'Beyond: Two Souls' knows how to act like it has a heart, while providing nothing of the emotional depth required to connect with an audience.'
     ~ Jim Sterling, Destructoid.

'Same depth of emotion as great works from the mediums of film and literature.'
     ~ Mark Langshaw, Digital Spy.

‘Made me feel too much like a passive participant, which made “playing” it a very confusing and unrewarding experience [...] never before have I felt like such a passive participant in a video game, my choices and actions merely icing on a dense, multi-layered cake. Playing Beyond is a memorable experience, yes, but a good video game it is not.’
     ~ Lucy O'Brien, IGN.

'Cage’s quotes are often sneered at and derided as the lamentations of an arrogant and misguided creator who yearns to be a filmmaker. In truth, though, he’s a true visionary; someone who believes in the power of games and of interactivity.'
     ~ GamesTM.

'Whether or not it was intended as such, I think it’s an excellent way to make combat feel organically tense. Rather than simply breezing through every fight unscathed like a superhuman, you’ll take your share of blows along the way.'
     ~ Josh Harmon, EGM.

Marmite much? But what we can see from these isolated quotes is just how controversial the level of interactivity in 'Beyond' is. Stephanie Carmichael over at GamesBeat claims that 'the controls and gameplay are tiresome, and can be difficult to manage (or boring), but they're of little consequence compared to the well-written story, the depth of the characters, and the empathy you feel towards them' whilst other reviewers wish the gameplay had been taken out completely, but without that level of interactivity wouldn't 'Beyond' just become a CGI film? Well, yes, but also no - it's complicated:

'It’s disappointingly unadaptable.'
     ~ Lucy O'Brien, IGN.

'Unless you’re truly awful at it, though, there won’t be any negative impact on your story. Even if you “lose,” there are no fail states—the game just adapts to the outcome of the fight [...] Everything is very context sensitive, and there are usually only a handful of ways to resolve any scenario. You can’t, for instance, simply possess or choke out anyone you encounter—only explicitly marked targets.'
     ~ Josh Harmon, EGM.

If there 'are no fail states', and if Lucy is right about 'Beyond's' 'unadaptability', then whether or not you're interacting with the story makes no difference. If you 'win' the fight without actually pressing the buttons in order to 'win' then what's the point? But, and this is a big 'but' - when you're deluded into believing that in order to win you must press the buttons correctly, then I'll be damned if you don't find yourself trying to get it perfect first time. The belief that your actions could have an effect on the story or on the character encourages you to play along. Only when this deception is revealed does it start to irk the player. I had a similar experience on 'Heavy Rain' during a section where you find yourself chasing a man through a supermarket. I messed almost everything up, but the game seemed to hold my hand, and it ruined that experience for me. The masochist within me was shouting 'PUNISH ME! PUNISH ME FOR MY CRAP HANDLING OF THE PS3 CONTROLLER' but no, apparently not. 'Heavy Rain' would rather cuddle me to sleep than give me the physical pounding I so relished.



This raises another issue; that of interactivity without progress or pressure. Whilst preparing a cup of coffee or juggling with fruit might reveal a small aspect of a character in 'Heavy Rain', to be encouraged to perform that same action again later makes it repetitive and unrewarding. Does making coffee and walking around the garden in the morning instead of working and washing up impact the main storyline in any way? If these actions are there to tell me about the character I'm controlling then couldn't the sequences be a little more revealing? Whilst these small interactions serve as interesting activities during long conversations, making discussions appear a little more natural are they anything more than play-pretend? I don't remember the interactions in 'Fahrenheit' being so banal - the smaller interactions such as learning to play the guitar or boxing seemed to reveal a significant amount about the character I found myself controlling at the time. Perseverance, courage, leaderships skills - as opposed to the ability to use a coffee machine, or the ability to open a fridge... the application of this 'interactivity' is very important.



The opening section of 'Fahrenheit' is easily the best sequence of the game. The pressure of having to clean up a murder while the cops close in puts the player in a very similar situation to Lucas. Panic, confusion, desperation. Then, when the roles switch and you find yourself in control of the two detectives you see a difference in approach; walking leisurely around the scene of the crime, examining, extracting information from witnesses. You find yourself in a quandary - do you help Lucas, or the investigation? These kinds of interactions are plot-affecting so any kind of interaction here is engaging, the other successful kind of interaction is the emotional which works only if the player is invested in the games characters. Which takes us back to...

''Beyond: Two Souls' knows how to act like it has a heart, while providing nothing of the emotional depth required to connect with an audience.'
     ~ Jim Sterling, Destructoid.



Which conjures up the notorious and hilarious 'Press X to 'Jason!'' from 'Heavy Rain', as well as Ethan's cliche 'fall from grace'; from rich architect to hopeless father in a few short sections. I spent most of the early section laughing rather than empathizing, which has somewhat tainted my experiences with Ethan further down the line. Without this engagement the character reveals his artificiality, the less human he becomes the less important the choices or actions we make are - he becomes a puppet, and we become aware that we are playing a game rather than suspending disbelief. The more this occurs the less the player cares about interacting with the game.

This is not always true of course - the smaller moments in 'Fahrenheit' like pottering around the flat putting the washing on and playing with the stereo was a welcome break from the intense button-flicking action moments, but if a game can't hit the right balance between intrigue and interaction then any degree of immersion falls flat. 'Gravity Bone' and 'Thirty Flights' had plot information plastered all over the walls - every interaction appeared significant and the player was aware of that. Whilst it may have strained the minds of some, it positively piqued the interest of others. Perhaps, 'Beyond's' Blockbuster-y plot is simply boring those gamers that want something with a little more edge - those bits they don't empathize with, the conversations and interactions they're not interested in make them want to put down the controller.

Games are about balance, and balance is subjective. In a game where explosions aren't going off every five minutes to distract the player perhaps this balance is harder to achieve. As the saying goes; one persons meaningful interaction is another persons meaningless thumb movement.

How we interact with objects/people in a video game defines what kind of video game that is. Quantic are rocking the boat with interactive films as it's a genre that hasn't yet found it's footing, all they need is a good solid print and they'll be on the right track but it doesn't look like they've hit soft ground yet.








[TIP: DESTRUCTOID is a pain when you're used to Wordpress - read this in all it's pleasantness here.]

With it's cover based combat, over-the-shoulder camera antics and butch male characters I'd initially forgive you for confusing Yager Devlopment's Spec Ops: The Line with Epic Games' Gears of War but the similarities between the two series end there. Spec Ops' is Gears of War all grown up, it's the daddy-game, injecting into the modern mainstream shooter an edgy storyline that grabs you by the ears and shoves you neck-deep into the sand.



Flashforward - hurtling through the air firing a minigun, helicopters, sandstorms, windows smashing, you hit another helicopter. Fade out. Flashback - to the beginning, three American soldiers arriving at the outskirts of a war-torn sand-worn Dubai, their mission? Locate Colonel Konrad (if he's still alive), gather any survivors and radio for extraction, but (as always) it's not quite as simple as that...

Spec Ops plays like any other mainstream FPS shooter though shares structural similarities with cover-based shooters like Gears of War and Kane and Lynch. Battling your way through Dubai you encounter wave upon wave of enemies, from close range shotgun wielders to long-range laser snipers and assault classes in-between; it's nothing an FPS player isn't already used to. We're treated to the occasional orchestrated scene (using a turret to clear the platform opposite of enemies, allowing your colleagues to move forward, etc) and in order to progress to the next area the current area must (usually) be clear of enemy units. Sound standard enough for you? Well, that's kind of the point...



I distinctly remember being forced down a tight corridor full of dead rotting corpses quite early into the game. The protagonist comments on the amount of bodies and whether the 33rd could have really done all this. But wait a minute, I was thinking, didn't we (me as the protagonist, and my team) just gun down a huge amount of forces in that room back there, and now you're commenting on this small amount of death in front of you? Through events such as this, Spec Ops seeks to highlight the hypocrisy of modern FPS' like Call of Duty; criticising fish-in-a-barrel gameplay mechanics, hyperbolic storylines and simplistic use of us-versus-them narratives.

The narrative begins to pick up pace as you find yourself gunning down American forces in an attempt to find out what really happened to Konrad and the 33rd. The politics of war-torn Dubai complicates as the CIA appears and I soon found myself struggling to identify friend from foe. Choices are made, more soldiers are killed, then it happens. There's no way round it (I tried), and what happens simply has to happen - the horror of it appears in hindsight; that you were the one in control at the time, and that you (your protagonist) will have to live with the consequence of his actions.



The gung-ho continues, albeit with a darker edge, at times the games seems so unsettling that you may feel inclined to put down the controller and turn the console off. As the horrors of war mount and as more and more soldiers fall to rhythm of your rifle you begin to dislocate, separate, feel alienated from that in front of you. Move, fire, kill, move, fire, kill. Every step forwards feels like another step back. The glory of war, of salvation, fails to appear.

My friends who recommended Spec Ops to me argued that it's a game that should not be judged by it's gameplay, but by it's plot and the plots relationship to the gameplay. That seems a fair assessment. However, though Spec Ops' writing is far above most mainstream titles if you've read Conrad's Heart of Darkness or seen Coppolla's Apocalypse Now you'll be a little unsurprised by the message lurking beneath Spec Ops' narrative. Whilst no events are ripped wholesale from either the book or the film, certain scenes and the general tone of the game will appear very familiar (and I'd argue the only 'real, conceptual' differences appear in the final scenes of the game) and I found myself hard-pressed to finish the game due to guessing the ending.



In conclusion,while Spec Ops does a fantastic job of subverting the modern mainstream RPS genre it sacrifices gameplay for a narrative that has already seen significant use in other circles. Though this sacrifice manipulates the player into a position that emphasises the message of the plot, and thereby essentially forgives the sometimes mundane experience of running and gunning, my previous knowledge of Apocalypse Now and Heart of Darkness spoilt the overall effect for me.

I wish I could have experienced this game fresh, without knowledge of the media that influenced it. I can imagine this game having a profound effect on the minds of the numbed Call of Duty players out there.

Give us more of this, please. Just a little more originality.
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'The game puts forth a friendly, inviting facade that when pulled back reveals an unforgiving gameplay system meant only for gamers with either a lot of previous experience in the genre or an infinite amount of patience.'

Overall: 6/10 Okay.

~ Neilie Johnson (IGN), Settlers 7: Paths to a Kingdom Review

________________________

No Neilie, it's not okay.

It would be okay if Neilie had made a big deal out of the terrible DRM that shipped with the game but it only gets a mention towards the end as the 'final thumbs down' - so the connectivity issues are not the crux of the argument.

So, let's dissect Neilie's criticisms:


Everest-like learning curve.
________________________

RTS games are hard. They're meant to be hard. The idea is that in order to succeed everything must be managed - both on a micro and macro level. Where buildings are placed, where units are sent, where roads are built; all of these have significant impacts on the outcome of the game. A player might choose to emphasise one building over another in order to produce a certain unit/item/product that would put them at an advantage over their opponent. Neilie recognises this; 'Real-time strategy games aren't for the mentally lazy. Winning them takes patience, skill, a talent for relating causes and effects, and the ability to recognize the interconnectivity of multiple complex systems,' but it seems like Settlers was just that little to complicated for him.

Of course, this cannot apologise for an 'Everest-like learning curve' but, if you've played a Settlers game - or even just seen it running on a computer - then you've probably got an idea as to how it works. Buildings are connected by roads, roads have storehouse intermittently, carriers transport goods from one storehouse to another - from wheat farm to mill, from mill to bakery. One of the key strategies of the game, then, is road and building placement. From what I can remember this is emphasised in the Single Player campaign and, if you just sit back and watch the game unfold you'd understand the mechanics rather quickly.

It does not have an 'Everest-like learning curve'.



The cards are stacked against you, both in terms of game mechanics and map design.
________________________

Whether you like this or not is a matter of opinion, though Neilie makes out in the review that it makes the game unplayable; 'you'll play this mission over and over again, trying to win by using the game's mechanics and in the end you'll give up and win by ignoring them' except that Neilie overlooks one thing - you can't win by ignoring the game mechanics - you can't just transcend the system (unless you cheat, or smash up your computer in anger and that's not really 'winning' now is it?), you have to play by the games rules but those rules are open to interpretation.

So the game says you need gold coins to get soldiers but there's no gold on the map, an RTS player would think 'well, how else do I get gold? Oh wait, isn't there that thing called 'trade'? Yes, 'trade'. 'Trade' sounds like something that might make me some money, so, how do I do that...' Settlers has trade, though a great deal of players seem to forget about that, treating the game like it's Halo Wars or something...

The idea here is that you have to be both flexible and stable - moving to a new region gives you the benefit of additional resources but it also puts you in potential danger. As more and more of the map is taken over by your forces you begin to suffer from over-expansion; the distance between two areas makes it difficult for resources to travel quickly. Armies move slower. The finite nature of the resources adds to the difficulty, forcing you to expand into new territories to get the resources you need.

It's difficult, yes, but this is an RTS game, and this is a clever mechanic. Every move out has to be considered from a strategic perspective - new roads have to be built and previous buildings may have to be destroyed and re-arranged. It gets you thinking, the blood flowing, and injects a real sense of tension into the game.


It's seemingly impossible to control what the people in your society are doing.
________________________

This is Settlers. I don't think you have ever had the ability to directly control the people in the game. It's all about roads, production, and building placement.


There's no way to click a worker and make him go.
________________________

Go home, Neilie, you are drunk.




Disconnects between box art and game art.
________________________

Best. Criticism. Of. A. Game. Ever. 'It doesn't look like the concept art on the front'. Ever played Final Fantasy? The game doesn't even look like the game, which sounds confusing because it is. I'll always remember the first time I started up FFVII, 'wow! Look at the graphics! Wow! Amazing,' but it's a cutscene, and the game started and there I was in a big patch of green hexagons. Great.


Disconnects between graphics and gameplay.
________________________

Neilie liked the graphics at least, and I certainly have no complaints, though the disconnect doesn't exist.



Gold reserves accrue at an agonizingly slow pace.[/b]

As previously mentioned there are other ways, you just have to look hard enough.


Simple, right? Not even.
________________________

No, it's not simple, but if it were simple it wouldn't be worth playing. If you want to play a simple RTS go play Halo Wars because Settlers is in the Master league of RTS games - it's up there with your Starcraft's and Crusader Kings. If you want to build a big army and push it into the enemy until they're all dead then you're in the wrong place.


But NeoVALIS, Settlers 7: Paths to a Kingdom is an old game now, why bother?
________________________

Okay, so I might have added the one above in myself - but it's a question I want to tackle.

When games come out that contain DRM that renders the game virtually unplayable, this makes people angry. That's understandable. You might have had to go outside to buy the game, and we all know that going outside is for losers - you had to reduce yourself to loser status to go to the shop and spend your well earned money on a game that you cannot play. Maybe you think to yourself, 'if only I'd waited a few weeks or so - the game would be patched, the servers would be much quieter and I could play it as much as I'd like,' it would also probably be cheaper: such is the odd economy of videogames.

DRM is a pain. It is unhelpful, it damages the games' fanbase, it restricts the players ability to actually play the game and, ultimately, it punishes the wrong people [DEAR MICROSOFT - IT IS NOT THE WAY TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM OF PIRACY]. So we all go out an troll the game - give it bad reviews on Amazon, on Metacritic - wherever we can. The game is unplayable, we can't play it, it was sold to us today to play, this is unfair (and it is). The critics score of the game slowly gets dragged down by the weight of public dissatisfaction and people begin actively avoiding the game.

Great, cool - but what happens when things actually start working? When suddenly the DRM doesn't affect gameplay? The thing is, you don't notice it. It disappears entirely. If it's done perfectly it works, ish. The things is the game is left with its poor review on Metacritic and Amazon, people don't realise that the game actually works now and everyone's view of it is tarnished. A game that could have gone down in history as one of the finest games in history now has no chance to redeem itself. It has been killed off by a combination of DRM and public reactions. 

PLAY SETTLERS 7. IT'S GOOD NOW!








Developers can't please everyone, but that doesn't stop them from trying and, in doing so, they often seem to alienate their original fanbase.

Take the new Thief. In a recent video at E3, Stephanie Roy says 'now it's a good mix of action' and shows off the addition of a new ability called 'focus', he also says; 'how you want to play this game... the game will adapt to your style' and that 'you feel really powerful'.



Am I alone in that I don't want to be really powerful? That I don't necessarily want a game to 'adapt to my style'? We're assured by Roy that the inclusion of 'focus' is more than just a gimmick but, at least at the moment, it looks pretty damn gimmicky alright...

Thief for me was never about action, it was in fact about the complete opposite. I spent most of my time in Thief: The Dark ages standing still, crouched in corners or pressed up against the algae seeping from the walls. I spent hours pouring over the maps in my inventory in a futile attempt to understand just where on earth I'd ended up and what I was meant to be doing. The fact of the matter was if you engaged in any kind of action other than silent blackjacking, rope climbing, torch extinguishing and the occasional throwing of an object to distract a guard then you probably died. Lots.



Yet in the E3 gameplay video we see the player take down at least three guards before becoming a human kebab and that's just not Thief. That's Dishonored, or the new Splinter Cell games, it's more modern Assassin's Creed than the old stealth game I remember...[/left]
[left]
If I wanted to march into a room and prove 'I'm da boss' by taking everyone out in a series of cool, sharp, swift keystrokes and button presses then I'd buy Call of Duty. Hell, I'd even buy any of the new Splinter Cell games; that series that moved so swiftly from the heights of methodological stealth to that of a point-and-click action movie. The way in which Thief should be played is in the name; quietly, silent, ghostly, it has more in common with psychological horror than blockbuster action. You can't have your cake and eat it too.

That's not to say that action and stealth cannot work well, Dishonored is a brilliant hybrid of the two genres combining fast-paced action with methodical stealth to create what might well become the modern stealth game. However, I ended up approaching Dishonored in the same way I would a puzzle-platformer: observe, note movements, and then in this case blink/manoeuvre behind the enemy and give him 'a bit of leverage' from behind. Dump the body somewhere no-one would find it, and move on to the next section.

I never felt this way with Thief. There were no 'sections' there was just a maze of catacombs and a crap map, you had your trusty blackjack and a sword thicker than your arm that your character could barely swing. Your footsteps sounded like sledgehammers on metal underfoot and even drunk Benny was a force to be reckoned with.



And now that's all gone. Maybe even gone for good. To be replaced with a Hollywood-esque Farmville experience injecting a false sense of pride into the 'gamer' - a man or woman who's skill is equal to the number of clicks of their mouse.

RIP Thief, I'll miss you.