Are You There, God? It’s Me, John Marston

Spoiler Warning.

There are those times in games when the thematic or emotional climax of the narrative occurs before the end of the game, a bit like you’ve peaked too early. This is unfortunately a common affliction of open-world sandbox games: the freedom to tackle objectives in an order of your choosing can sometimes mean you hit the stirring, epic core of a game before you’ve tackled what is ostensibly “the end,” inverted commas. This happened to me in the mozzarella ninja epic Assassin’s Creed 2 when I found all the hidden Subject 16 glyphs before tackling the final series of quest missions. The frenetic, half-glimpsed video you unlock quite literally blew my mind. It was one of those moments when my jaw actually hung from mouth round about my pasty, white ankles; it was a truly revelatory moment, one that cut deep to the core of the narrative and said, this is the secret that reveals everything.

The Truth: Eve is a total babe.

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The Rise of the Role-Playing Shooter

If you’re not already quite excited about upcoming supernatural steampunk shooter Dishonored (American spelling, obvs), then you probably should be. With an interesting array of powers and some impressively open-ended design principles on display, the game could be a welcome antithesis to the current malaise of cookie-cutter Call of Duty clones. The Victorian-inspired aesthetic might feel a little Bioshock-heavy, but it’s still a much more fresh and inspired game world than the endless urban corridors that abound in modern shooters. Dishonored is also the latest in a long line of games looking for the sweet spot between the first person shooter and the role-playing game. Adding role-playing mechanics to other genres has been in vogue since the mighty Bioshock appeared on the scene, and Dishonored seems to be buying into the same design philosophy of experience points, skill trees and upgrades.

The utopian promise of combining the role-playing game and the shooter comes with it the hope that the frenetic intensity of first person combat will alleviate the migraine-inducing tedium of the grind that RPGs inevitably force you to endure. The seductive appeal of role-playing game mechanics is rooted in growing and building a character, but to qualify for the experience points necessary to level-up an RPG will routinely make you battle endless hordes of mice and weasels. If you combine the FPS and the RPG, however, the aforementioned grind is shooting dudes in the face, an activity that many games have proven is an intrinsically enjoyable experience. Furthermore, the role-playing elements can add depth to the shooting; one of the great joys of the excellent role-playing shooter Borderlands was how constantly upgrading your weapons and developing your powers became exhilaratingly addictive. Continue reading

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The 5 Most Bizarre Videogame Special Editions

The free market is premised upon the fundamental building blocks of supply and demand: if people want something, then the market must seek to cater for that want. This implacable capitalist logic comes undone, however, when you see a product that no-one in the entire universe could conceivably want. If, for example, you see a Kate Middleton commemorative porcelain bride doll for sale online, then the horror of witnessing such an atrocity is compounded when you realize its very existence is testament to the fact that somebody, somewhere, must be prepared to buy it. With videogame special editions, you can understand why a fervent acolyte of a particular franchise might shell out a little more for some extra bits of artwork or a figurine of the game’s main character. Sometimes, though, a special edition of a game is so perplexing that you can’t imagine even the most dedicated fanboy paying money (usually lots of it) for such lunacy.
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On Cheats and Cheating

Whatever happened to cheats in videogames? In the good old days, if you wanted a little helping hand while playing a game, it usually involved punching in a staggeringly complex sequence of buttons, and then suddenly you’d have unlimited ammo or red blood. Sometimes cheat codes unlocked hidden easter eggs (the original Mortal Kombat on the Mega Drive was famous for letting you input a cheat code unlocking all the censored fatalities), but more often than not it was like being bestowed with superhuman powers that meant you could carve through enemies without breaking a sweat. Not that anyone sweats whilst playing a game, it’s not that physically rigorous a pastime.

As a youngster inexperienced in playing games, cheats were often a godsend from developers, making games that were otherwise too challenging a little bit more manageable. There were many first person shooters that I simply wouldn’t have been able to finish if I couldn’t slap God mode on and invincibly tear through some of the more troublesome levels. Clip mode was another oft-used lifesaver, and the ability to zoom through walls like a phantom or float miles above the action like Superman got me out of some tight scrapes. The original Starcraft had some humourously-named cheat codes like “show me the money,” which gave you loads of resources, and my personal favourite: “there is no cow level,” which gave you instant victory.
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Show Me The Funny

Amidst all of brain-beguiling first person puzzler Portal 2’s many achievements, the greatest is perhaps that the game manages to be so damn funny. My playthrough of Valve’s 2011 masterpiece was rudely interrupted by some misguide hoodlums recently, so I’ve yet to see the end of the game, but what I had seen frequently brought me out in fits of convulsive laughter. This is in no small part due to the excellent vocal performance from Stephen Merchant, who brings an impeccable sense of comic timing to the bumbling chatterbot Wheatley, as well as from the welcome return of Ellen McLain as the sardonic, acerbic, vengeful GLaDOS.

Portal 2 is in fact an excellent example of the magic you get when great writing is given the privilege of great performance. The dialogue from Jay Pinkerton, Erik Wolpaw, and Chet Faliszek is sharp, punchy and peppered with the kind of zingy one-liners that make you splurt juice from your mouth mid-gulp because they’re so funny. In the mouths of McLain and Merchant, these lines gain an added dimension that means you rarely go through a level without having at least one genuine, hearty chuckle.

The gaming generation finally gets its Laurel & Hardy.

Humour is something that games seem to be attempting less and less these days, unless you count the infantile belches of games like Bulletstorm or the bleakly comic nihilism of the Grand Theft Auto series. Borderlands was a game that made me laugh, largely because Its tongue was placed knowingly in cheek, and the sequel looks like it’s retained that humorous tone. Apart from that, it’s hard to think of many games that have even attempted to be funny over the past few years.

Why so serious? Probably because getting laughs in a game usually requires hiring a writer, and for some reason that’s still not as much of a prerequisite as you’d expect in the industry. The Portal series are noted for employing actual writers to work on their games, often working closely with the gameplay developers, which seems to me integral if you’re trying to make a funny game. Comedy is largely about timing, and the level designers and gameplay testers will largely be responsible for pacing. This close working relationship between development team and writing team really shows in Portal 2, because sections of levels often feel like setups for jokes, build ups towards those moments when GLaDOS’ voice chirps robotically over the intercom and lays down another wry punchline. There is an excellent moment where you repeatedly bounce up and down through a hole in the high ceiling, and each time your head pokes through the hole at the apex of the bounce, Wheatley starts excitedly nattering about being attacked by a bird. As you fall down to the ground his voice trails off, but when you bounce back up again he’s much further through the story, clearly unaware that you are disappearing for large sections of his animated anecdote. It’s hard for me describe how that moment displays such a sublime melding of writing and design, so I’ll just say that I cried with laughter. Which is kind of true.

Portal 2 also graduated from the Fallout School of Comedy Signage.

To look for games as funny as Portal 2, you have to make a trip back to the sepia-tinged halcyon days when point-and-click games ruled the Earth. LucasArts held the comedy crown in those days; between the jauntily quick-witted whimsy of the Monkey Island games and the trippily surreal absurdist comedy of Sam & Max Hit The Road or Day of the Tentacle, LucasArts had the funny business on lockdown. One of the reasons these games were so funny was because they had insanely inventive (as in, the inventions of an insane person) premises that left plenty of scope for gags. The Monkey Island games are about a painfully inept wannabe pirate who gets locked in a battle with an undead Voodoo Pirate Captain. Sam & Max is about a dog and a psychotic rabbit working as private eyes. Day of the Tentacle is about a group of misfits who travel through time in interdimensional portaloos to stop a sentient mutated tentacle from taking over the world. I would love to meet the kind of people who can come up with these premises; working for LucasArts in the 90s must have been like going into a circus every morning.

It is probably easier for adventure games to be funnier than games in other genres because of their leisurely pace – you never have to kill anyone in any of the games I’ve just mentioned, nor can you ever die yourself. With the risk taken out like that, there’s more room for humour, and not having to murder anyone means that the games focus more on chatting to people and learning what they know. Usually all the conversations you have with people are just excuses for funny dialogue, but I’m totally fine with that, especially when that dialogue is written with the flair and wit of people like Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert. Like Portal 2, these games elevated great writing with great vocal performances: Dominic Armato’s cheerfully inane Guybrush Threepwood from the Monkey Island games is an old favourite, and Denny Delk’s disembodied skull Murray is a creation of comic genius we rarely see in videogames.

Comedy gold.

Speaking of skulls, and their occasional removal from bodies, not having to murder anyone probably helped to make these games funny. It’s harder for a game to crack a joke after you’ve killed a truckload of people, stumbling through a room of corpses makes comedy a little harder to swallow. The Hitman series is a rare exception to this rule, and the games often found humour in presenting you with darkly comic ways to carry out your murders. There’s a level in Hitman: Blood Money in which you can dress up as a clown to infiltrate a birthday party and murder the host, which displays the kind of bleakly funny sensibility you might find in a Coen Brothers film.

I’m not saying that games are funnier if you don’t have to kill everything that moves, but it certainly helps if the game is aiming to get some laughs. Portal 2 has the pacifist streak of adventure games running through it, and that’s probably what allows it to be so funny. So maybe gaming should set aside its combat gear and power armour every now and again to indulge in the occasional comic jaunt. God knows gamers could do with some cheering up; current release schedules are so humourless it’s like a My Chemical Romance concert out there. Maybe if every now and then we had a game that attempted to be charming and funny instead of psychotic and murderous, we might be a little less depressed all the time.

Cheer up, emu kid.

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Power To The People

If gamers are not necessarily famed for their eloquence, then the rest of the world certainly recognises the terrifying, earth-shattering passion gamers have for their art. In press releases and interviews developers will speak reverently of the “fans” or of the “community,” but often in hushed tones that betray a mixture of fear and gratitude towards the fanbase. For while it is the furious dedication of gamers that makes the success of a game possible, gamers are notoriously difficult to please, as the recent uproar about Mass Effect 3’s ending neatly illustrated.

It’s hard to think of a better example of the tortured relationship a game developer can have with the people who play – and ostensibly love and champion – their games. Since its debut in 2007, the Mass Effect franchise has achieved the rare feat of balancing critical acclaim with fan popularity, and online message boards have been filled with pantheons of praise to the trilogy’s strong writing, exciting gameplay and ambitious player-choice mechanics. But Mass Effect 3’s ending so disappointed the series’ party faithful that they mounted an epic (and unexpectedly philanthropic) campaign to get the ending altered. Continue reading

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There Is Nothing Left To News: The Weekly Round-Up

I haven’t done a news round-up for a while, but I was burgled recently, so have a little sympathy.

EA are the worst company in America, apparently

As far as accolades go, crowning a corporation the “worst company in America” seems a little harsh, but mega-publisher EA were bestowed the dubious honour by the readers of The Consumerist in an epic league-table of shittery. When did we get so mean? EA beat the Bank of America in the final round, and I’ve got to question the integrity of voters who thought that EA are worse than a bank. A bank? At least EA actually made money last year (zing). In response, the EA Senior Director of Corporate Communications John Reseburg came out and said that “British Petroleum, AIG, Philip Morris, and Halliburton are all relieved they weren’t nominated this year” (double zing). The entire idea of the award is patently stupid, but for what it’s worth I think EA have always had pretty top-drawer output, with some great franchises under their belt, and this kind of thing seems a little unfair. People must still be sore about the Mass Effect 3 ending. Speaking of… Continue reading

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