Picture, if you will, an empty street after a downpour, road and sidewalks dotted with little pristine mirrors of rainwater. Who, really, could resist breaking that calm perfection just to watch it ripple and splash around your foot? Well, if it wasn’t for the trials and tribulations of adult life at least. No doubt you’ve got somewhere to be, matters of grave importance to attend to, and no time to hop about and mess up your shoes. Not when you could avoid soggy legs by simulating that mesmerizing chain of action and reaction on your screen with Puddle, a physics platformer available for PC, WiiU, Xbox 360, PS3 and Vita.
Puddle‘s premise is as simple as it is bizarre: You play a godlike trickster with the power to distort the very fabric of reality and make a mockery of the laws of gravity, but for some reason you’ve also decided to A) limit yourself to tilting the entire world to the left or right ever so slightly and B) focus your attention entirely on moving a variety of liquids from A to B. Or at least such is my needlessly complicated rationalization of events, but I simply cannot skip an opportunity to introduce as the protagonist an assorted collection of fluids. Usually that’s what your enemies end up as: decorative splatter on some virtual wall.
The game’s arsenal ranges from simple water to oil, weed killer, fertilizer and a variety of fancy chemical solutions, and through your gentle nudges they’ll fuel one lengthy and complicated chain reaction spanning the entirety of Puddle. The simulation of liquids is nothing new to puzzle games at this point, particularly titles on tactile handheld devices such as iOs’ Where’s my Water? and, presumably, numerous similar games I am unaware of. Platformers have dealt in semiliquids before, Edmund McMillen for instance used them in Gish and Spewer (and arguably Binding of Isaac, for decorative purposes). Puddle combines elements of both by focusing, despite its countless switches and lasers, mostly on challenges of motion. It’s best defined as an indirect platformer, similar to WiiWare’s Fluidity but minus the jump button.
The goal, of course, is to conserve as much liquid as possible while navigating a variety of slopes, ramps and environmental hazards and despite the concessions of an entirely frictionless and hydrophobical environment, this is an arduous task at best. As bodies of water are wont to do, your little blob tends to spread out on even surfaces and it’s nigh impossible to work out the ideal timing for tilting the other way when part of your protagonist has yet to enter a turn, part of it is already hurtling towards the next obstacle and part of it is converging on itself in a corner. Apart from being imprecise, the indirect controls also require you to plan in advance, as you cannot respond immediately to new developments. This turns many levels into exercises in memorization, asking you to work out where to gather and where to reduce momentum in order to be ready for what’s just about to appear on screen.
None of this would really matter in a cheerful, simple game, but strangely this is not the tone Puddle adapts, pitching itself instead in introductory text boxes as a an intricate challenge, where only the tough need apply. The game does not require extreme precision mind, but it also seems to belittle you for less than immaculate results. Of its two difficulty settings, Normal and Impossible, only the latter awards actual medals as opposed to chocolate coins, while the former allows you to “Whine and Skip” a few levels over the course of the game.
If I don’t seem genuinely upset by this, it’s mostly because Puddle simply isn’t the game one would afford an abundance of emotion to begin with. It’s an entertaining little distraction, even occasionally charming in its presentation, but mostly it’s safe. Harmless. It passes time, fills space, kills hours. Momentarily sating but easily forgotten, it will not stick in mind one way or another. Ultimately, it’s just something of a dry experience.
A little while ago Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey and Isaac Schankler released Depression Quest, a little piece of interactive fiction covering the titular disorder that has since been running the indie circuit and generally been showered with praise for its smart writing and thoughtful depiction of mental health issues without “Woe is me!” drama.
The game puts you in the shoes of a depressed, but otherwise perfectly ordinary and largely undefined twentysomething with a nonspecific job, nondescript personal side-project and relatively specific significant other named Alex. Like most interactive fiction Depression Quest is based around a series of choices that sends you from one bit of text to the next, but the clever twist in this case is that the most desirable options – being the life of the party, setting ambitious goals and working hard to achieve them, eloquently telling your girlfriend how much you care about her or simply falling asleep – are greyed out to illustrate the motivation issues, lack of drive and general feeling of powerlessness and loss of control that come with severe depression.
The deeper your character sinks into depression the more options are taken away from you, until only the very worst remain, but what’s interesting is that it’s not necessarily a good idea to just pick the most sociable, upbeat or outgoing option currently available to you. They might improve your work performance or some relationship slightly, but also tend to drain your character’s spirit, which could lock other options down the line. Depression Quest encourages you to be conservative with what little motivation is left to you and use it at the right of times, even if it means being a little selfish to protect yourself.
I caught those vague hints before I sat down to play it and the result was that my first try ended up being awkward, but also very controlled and optimistic, probably the closest thing Depression Quest has to a “good” playthrough, even if that word sells the experience a bit short. That leaves me with a unique worry: I think I might have failed Depression Quest by doing well at it.
Let’s take a step back. If you’ve been here before you might already have noticed that I’m something of a pensive, brooding introvert, and self-deprecating to a fault. I’m probably not depressed, but the possibility is something I’ve contemplated before (like virtually any possibility), most recently when the arrival of 2013 somehow managed to throw me off track for weeks, and parts of Depression Quest feel a little uncomfortably familiar. Here’s how it introduces the protagonist, sans job/project/girlfriend description.
You are a mid-twenties human being. [...]
You are also dealing with motivation issues that sometimes make dealing with these things difficult. You feel like this is probably your fault, and on bad days can feel inwardly angry and down on yourself for being “lazy”, but you’re not quite sure how you can break out of it, or how other people deal with these feelings and seem so very functional.
You spend a lot of nights fixating on thinking about this, but never seem to do anything about it other than lose sleep.
Of course the game is being deliberately vague and including to speak to such maybe/maybe not cases as myself, but still, this is a little too accurate for my taste. Afternoons spent very pointedly doing nothing while beating yourself up over the fact. Nights spent rolling around restlessly, mind racing. Waking up hours before your alarm and not being able to go back to sleep. Telling somebody not to worry about you while half-faking a smile. I know all of this.
Despite narcissistic blog posts devoted to the subject, I still maintain that I’m not depressed, but that’s partly because there’s simply no definite, conclusive proof, no cannot-deny-this-one event to show that I am. Earlier in life I was unsure of how exactly a migraine differed from a regular old headache, then I suffered through one. Everything I had known so far was low, dull aches, constant but slight discomfort. This was searing, hot, pulsing needles of pain, like the inside of my skull being on fire (There was other fun stuff, too, like vomiting and severely blurred vision. Fortunately it has been a singular experience so far). This has probably changed my perception of such matters: If whatever it is I have leaves any room for doubt, it’s probably not the real deal anyway.
Perhaps that’s not the right way to look at it though. Perhaps these things exist in various shades of grey (not 50 though) and maybe whatever-it-is being no big issue doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. But then what am I to make of getting through Depression Quest so easily, the game that sent me down this line of thought again? It might have involved making choices I’d never consider for myself, like therapy and medication, but the overall “good” path felt familiar anyway. If I can do this well without help, certainly I don’t really need it. Is being equipped to deal with whatever-it-is not just as good as actually dealing with it?
After letting that first try sink in for a while, I felt guilty that I had not been entirely truthful with the game and went back to make some very poor, and some very realistic choices. The result was a downward spiral that, fortunately, felt far too bleak and gloomy to bear any relation to my actual experience facing those problems. I started clicking through things without reading. This was not me.
Depression Quest has given me a lot to mull for such a brief experience. I still don’t know what’s going on inside my head, but I know that I’m probably fine.
Recently freelance journalist Nate Thayer published an exchange between himself and Olga Khazan, editor at The Atlantic, the jist of which being that The Atlantic wanted Thayer to adapt a recent piece for publishing on their site. Normally this would be joyous news, but unfortunately they wanted him to do it for free, offering only “exposure” in exchange for his work (this being doubly confusing since The Atlantic, print edition, seems to have offered him no less than $125,000 for a series of six articles not so long ago). Naturally Thayer, who has to make a living writing journalism, declined this offer, but by going on to put it on his blog started something of a discussion on the work conditions of writing on the internet, and these are by nature endlessly interesting to me. I would like this to be a source of income eventually, and means contemplating whether the business structures I’m hoping to get into are in any way viable.
The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal responded to Thayer with a lengthy piece detailing why the site needs to rely on such scummy methods to stay in business. It’s an interesting read if you got the time, but if you don’t Alan Williamson kind of hit the nail on the head in summarizing it as “a tacit admission that ad-supported digital journalism isn’t sustainable”. Just from a purely idealistic perspective, ads aren’t the best basis for (games) journalism because this system means outlets are financially dependent on the very industry they should be policing, rather than the readers they are serving. The games industry is generally too fragmented to use that marketing muscle to enforce much of anything, and games writing is too fragmented to be conveniently bullied, but even if these conflicts of interest are solved with integrity, it would be better yet if they weren’t there in the first place.
But even from business perspective ads are less than ideal. A few days after Thayer’s piece, popular gaming site Destructoid revealed that as much as 50% of their readers block ads. Even if the site is still up and running for now, that’s a lot of money they (and most ad-supported sites) are missing out on. The question is, how do you go about lowering that number? I refrain from using Adblock on moral grounds, since in our current model lending them my attention for a few seconds is the way of paying for otherwise free content, but I can definitely see why others would use it. Ads are annoying, some obnoxiously so. They have the same basic problem as DRM in that they inconvenience those trying to support you, while those breaking the social contract get the superior experience. I’m not here to rail against ads though. I’m writing this because I feel a bit guilty.
Sorry guys, people are willing to do your job for free. Maybe not to the same standard but they’ll always be free press and accountability on the internet regardless of whether people are paid to do it.
My hobby is video gaming, reading about them on sites is a nice extra but nothing that I couldn’t do without.
I might seem like an arsehole but it’s the truth.
The thing is, none of the gaming websites need to exist. We have intelligent redditors and bloggers in the wild that are passionate about talking about video games that don’t need ad revenue; since they write about games as a hobby.
Some of the gaming journalists do a decent job, but I’m not going to lament their extinction either. There will always be passionate fans that will fill the gaming discussion void for free.
I’ve long been writing about games as a hobby. More recently I’ve started a magazine filled entirely by the unpaid contributions of other amateurs, which is quite a bit of effort even for enthusiast press. And despite my best intentions I might be making matters worse.
We might not be a big site, but there are many other gaming blogs out there, and between them they draw quite a lot of attention away from conventional gaming sites. Less traffic means even less ad revenue, so people writing for free are part of the reason sites can’t afford to pay their writers reasonably. At the same time, people writing for free are the reason The Atlantic and ilk are expecting the same from their writers. After all, when somebody is willing to “do your job for free”, it’s hard to explain why you should be paid for it.
Let me be very clear in saying that I don’t support this. I don’t support the death of big game sites (well, not most of them anyway), nor do I think that “accountability” and “free press” are things that should be left in the hands of hobbyists (even as a hobbyist). I don’t say this because I’d like big sites to stay around for me to land a paid gig on and I’m not saying it because I think a paycheck legitimizes your work. I’m saying it because I think good writing deserves to be rewarded, and because this is the only way to ensure quality. Hobbyists are passionate, sure, but that’s not quite the same as being financially obligated to deliver the good stuff. I’ve said earlier that I don’t think it’s ideal that games writing is financially dependent on the industry it covers, and as you might have guessed that means I’d like for the readers to step up and fund it themselves. And obviously they should be paying the ones offering the best service.
There’s a reason I’m not sorry about running an amateur magazine, even if it does indirectly make it harder for big sites to keep up their current business model. Here’s the thing about amateur writers: We’re readers too. It’s pretty much a prerequisite for the job, and most of us soak up writing like word sponges. If, under the current model, people with such a hunger, such an insatiable craving for words are your enemies and not your customers, it should be obvious something is going wrong and you will have to change.
I have three predictions for things you’ll see more often as people try to move away from relying entirely on ads, though they are in part based on things I’d like to see over things that seem most likely.
Subscriptions, Tip Jars, etc.
This one’s kind of obvious, basically any option that allows your readers to pay you directly. The benefit of a subscription model is that you can offer an actual incentive for people to support you through bonus content, instead of punishing the people indirectly supporting you with annoying ads. On the other hand, if you do have awesome bonus content, maybe making it available for everyone could draw more people to your site. A simple tip jar could work as well. Destructoid is considering the former option in response to its ad woes, Rock Paper Shotgun and Unwinnable use the latter.
Perhaps I’m uniquely attentive when it comes to these because it’s what Haywire does too, but .pdf magazines seem to be in vogue again. Kill Screen does one once every blue moon, Five out of Ten recently published their second issue, Continue continues to be a thing, even if their Kickstarter is going wrong (and I hate to be smug about my cynicism, but I called that one), Nintendo Force has yet to follow up on their inaugural issue, but will probably get to ride the Nintendo Power wave for quite a while. My own favorite punching bag Pure Nintendo still seems to turn a profit and I honestly couldn’t tell you why. The benefit of this model is that you get to sell an actual product. It’s more direct than paying for some service, people get a tangible something in exchange for their money and with some luck they like that something and will be back for more.
While Five out of Ten, Continue and Nintendo Force seem to be doing well enough offering only this, in my opinion it works best in supporting a traditional online presence. The free content on your site gives some impression of what readers can expect in the magazine while also building an audience and hopefully endearing your writers to them. Make the magazine exclusive content if you like, or a kind of prettied up collection of your best stories. Basically I could see this working as the equivalent of web cartoonists selling t-shirts or prints. And while we’re on that subject…
Print returns, with a twist
In a sense we inherited this whole ad issue from print media. There being no detailed metrics for how many people actually read ads in newspapers or magazines, agencies basically paid depending on their circulation, which is to say how many people they sold copies to. So for a long time it was good business to sell your newspaper for cheap in order to reach as many people as possible. Of course, that changed when the internet offered a way to get the news that wasn’t just cheap, but practically free. But one thing newspapers had achieved in the meantime is to condition society at large to consider print something cheap, something of little actual value that is meant to be discarded after (partial) use.
I think print is likely to return, but as the exact opposite of what it previously was: a luxury product. An expensive upgrade for people who want more than just the digital edition, the ultimate collector’s edition for word geeks like myself, who want something to put on their bookshelf. Kill Screen’s success suggests there is a market for it (and I am part of it). It shouldn’t be the only thing you offer, but as an optional upgrade for digital magazines it could well work.
All these ideas depend on the good will of readers, and while the previous comments from Reddit show that not everybody might value games writing enough to pay for it, I do believe that enough people are. Certainly the success of crowdfunding shows that people are willing to support good projects with money. Perhaps they only need a reminder that journalism is worth paying for, too.
I’m not rightly sure why I’ve been in such a terrible mood lately. At the time this thought has been numbed by loud noises and the comfort of inebriation, but I seem to be taking the turn of years rather personal this time. As if somewhere deep down I feel that the bell striking midnight marked my passing from an amateur to a failure, from generally keeping up with my studies to being irredeemably behind. Of course, that’s not how time works. A year is no singular entity any more than a day is. It’s a continuous stream of seconds, and even that simplifies matters for the ease of processing. Point being, the 31st of December is just one day out of many, and we’ve seen but a tiny bit of this newly named stream of days. Realistically, I have no reason to feel miserable. Yet I do. It bothers me how much this bothers me, which feeds right back into the loop.
It’s not very productive to wallow in the sentiment, so I’ve challenged myself to make sure I’ll feel more appreciative when looking back on this new year. For the remainder of 2013 I will send out one pitch per week, every Sunday. I’ve missed the first already, but I did send one last week and today. That should leave about 49, and by the end of it all I should have either have been accepted at least once, or gotten a pretty good idea of what not to do. It’s about time I showed more initiative, really. As much as I appreciate running Haywire (and the fact that it is still running pleases me to no end), it is another obligation that ultimately keeps me from writing, ironically. The time I spend editing the words of others helps me improve. That’s no assumption, I’ve seen the effects. But it might still be less productive than jotting down some words myself.
That’s my new Sunday ritual then: Be rejected, try again.
Does anybody here still feel like a hero? Spec Ops: The Line has seen no shortage of critical attention for exploring our own role in wargames, after all. Songs of praise have been sung for its lofty ambitions, its writing, the questions it raises about agency, and complicity. Many interesting things have been said in the wake of its release and many more are still being said, as writers explore the game in detail. None at such great length as Brendan Keogh, however, who decided to dedicate a full 50,000 words to the subject with Killing is Harmless – A critical reading of Spec Ops: The Line. Unfortunately all I can say of the book is that it’s neither the most insightful nor interesting analysis of the game, only the longest.
The intent of Killing is Harmless is to explore the significance of Spec Ops and offer a personal interpretation of its possible meanings by recounting its content in meticulous detail through Keogh’s own several playthroughs. But rather than examining only the aspects of Spec Ops that are meaningful, either on a personal level or for some specific interpretation, this piece is approaching the problem backwards, by listing absolutely everything in the game and then wondering how it might be significant. Sometimes this just leads to banal observations, at other times, especially with lyrics or distant references, Keogh ventures far into the speculative. Either way, everything must be analyzed.
So great is the need to find meaning in every detail that after identifying Mogwai’s Glasgow Mega-Snake as the background track for a certain shootout, he goes on to say “I can’t think of any specific significance this song adds to the scene [...]“. Admitting ignorance can be a valuable message. In a sense Killing is Harmless is about the uncertainty of Spec Ops, just as Spec Ops points to the questions we’ve neglected to ask about our entertainment for so long. But this, the observation that one specific thing seems to signify nothing in particular, does itself not add anything significant.
In trying to be as comprehensive as possible, Killing is Harmless touches on many subjects even if it has nothing interesting to say. Consider the following, said of a particular female civilian: ” [...] this woman is used in a problematic, gendered way.” Is there a way to use or portray women that is ungendered though, free of the markings of gender? Keogh touches on an academic subject here, but awkwardly breaks it down to bare minimum: Stereotypical gender roles are bad. Even if the intent is noble, this is hardly a thoughtful way to tackle the subject. Those involved in the field of Cultural Studies, where critical readings are generally placed, would prefer to speak of problematic representations, dominant and negotiated meanings or the articulation of stereotypes. Keogh goes on to lament that the game is worse off for the lack of strong female characters, without bothering to explain how exactly, and leaves it at that. It’s hard to see this is anything other than lip service, a statement thrown in because using the word ‘gender’ at least once lends the book some academic weight.
Admittedly, Keogh has his reasons for covering everything, since Killing is Harmless is written to serve even those that haven’t played the game. With technical limitations in mind, perhaps it’s fair to note that not everyone might even have access to the source material here, unlike novels or films. But is a book really ideal for the purpose of an introduction compared to, say, Let’s Plays? Certainly watching someone else play beats reading someone else recount the time he played. The dual structure of being at once personal and holistic just seems to create more trouble than it’s worth, as it pulls the book in two different directions. The more speculative, personal musings make more objective observations feel equally dubious, while worthwhile tangents are buried in a needlessly detailed list of firefights.
And there are interesting points in Killing is Harmless: the similarities between Spec Ops and BioShock, the recurring use of mannequins, the othering of foes. It’s a shame that these are scattered across the book. Even once-interesting observations are driven into the ground by its verbosity, like whether or not virtual killing is like real killing. The issue seems to come up every few pages, only for Keogh to conclude, again, that of course it’s not exactly the same, but maybe not that different either. But the next time a section of Spec Ops invites the subject, he brings it up once more.
In its introduction, Keogh names as the prime reason for writing Killing is Harmless his frustration at trying to approach Spec Ops: The Line from any one specific angle when everything about it was so obviously interconnected (as if this was true only of Spec Ops among all games). Fittingly, the results feel very much like the musings of an unhinged games writer disregarding more focused avenues to write his own mad dream of an analysis. Sometimes those restrictions serve a valuable purpose, and Killing is Harmless could definitely have benefited from more rigorous editorial oversight. The typos, the grammatical mistakes, the since-redacted major content error are no big infractions, but together with the repetitive structure they leave a very half-finished impression.
It’s harsh to suggest that the piece only retells the events of Spec Ops in such meticulous detail because Keogh was unable to write a proper synopsis, but he actually does a poor job of it the one time he tries. Allow me to quote.
“In The Line, the city of Dubai has been destroyed by the worst sandstorms ever seen by humankind. Before the storms intensified, US Army Colonel John Konrad volunteered his entire battalion – the 33rd – to aid in the evacuation of Dubai’s citizens. When ordered to leave the city as the storms intensified, Konrad disobeyed and stayed in Dubai. His men followed him, and the entire 33rd effectively defected from the US Army to assist the people of Dubai.”
How much shorter could this be without repeating “intensified”, the name of the city and the battalion? Let me try.
In The Line, the city of Dubai has been destroyed by the worst sandstorms in human history. Before the storms intensified, US Army Colonel John Konrad volunteered his entire 33rd battalion to evacuate the city. When ordered to leave, Konrad, along with his men, disobeyed to stay and assist the people of Dubai, defecting from the US Army.
I bring this up because large sections of the book could be similarly pruned without losing anything significant. Constantly mentioning enemy reinforcements that appear from somewhere serves to show that the game is repeating itself, for a while. Eventually it is just, in itself, repetitive.
Despite all this, I don’t want to condemn Killing is Harmless outright. I respect what it’s trying to do, and from a writing perspective it’s very interesting to see how it went wrong. There are some interesting observations about Spec Ops: The Line buried in this book, but most of those are available elsewhere, in bite-sized articles and features. At 30,000 or perhaps even 20,000 words, this could have been an interesting addition to the dialogue. At 50,000, it is primarily a bloated and poorly structured vanity affair.
In 2004, Kieron Gillen published his infamous New Games Journalism Manifesto, a call for critics to free themselves of rigid review patterns in favor of more varied, personalized critique. Gillen asked writers to see their work as “travel journalism from Imaginary Places”, a mission that should provide entertaining reports and stories even to those with no interest in the subject matter. At the time, I was in my early teens and had only just started to consume games journalism on a regular basis by following a certain German print magazine. It was my only source, infallible in its singularity, and could hardly have been further from Gillen’s vision.
In spirit of Teutonic thoroughness, German reviewers tend to examine games the way you would a car, by disassembling it and checking each individual cog. How does the experience system work? Are the factions balanced? How many guns and upgrades does it have? The result is no holistic assessment so much as a technical analysis, a breakdown of features. Imagine my surprise encountering Anglo-American critics who managed to catch the essence of a game in the same amount of space usually dedicated to extraneous details.
It was amazing to see how a different culture had managed to afford the subject far more enthralling efforts, and again I was captivated by the discovery. Over time, however, I noticed that even if English-speaking outlets paid more attention to brevity and wit, many of the basic issues of the German crusade for thoroughness were still there: entire paragraphs devoted to minutia, the focus on mechanics over their effects, the widespread view that games are merely a commercial product, not one of art and culture.
Perhaps you’re wondering why I speak of the strange customs of a foreign land. Even if its flaws can be traced to the industry as a whole, why should you care about the state of German games journalism? Because it is not only archaic, formulaic and obsessed with details, it’s also in trouble, and call me crazy but I think the trend is indicative of international outlets. In the period from 2004 until now, the biggest local videogame publications lost over half their readership. Sure, print is receding on the whole, but not at this rate. As the Audit Bureau of Circulations records, specialist periodicals on the whole only shrunk by about 20 percent in the same period, even those in fields that attract a similarly tech-savvy readership.
Admittedly, all these gaming publications saw a significant increase in web traffic during the same period, somewhere in the ballpark of 300 percent, but the same can be said for virtually any magazine with presence of mind to provide decent web content. And keep in mind that videogame websites tend to generate more traffic through community forums than through editorial content. The ever brilliant Christian Schmidt was among the first games journalists to speak out on this worrying trend in an article for Spiegel Online. As he rightly notes, the less than overwhelming growth in online traffic doesn’t make up for the steady loss of readers.
Even as their audience continues to grow, these publications have managed to lose readers. As games are moving from the fringes of society to its center, videogame magazines are strangely on their way out. Nevermind that they haven’t figured out how to reach the audiences of mobile games, handheld games, iOs games or browsergames, they’re actually losing their current audience. How? How can an industry face recession in a growing market?
When faced with the terrifying prospect of change, games journalism wrongly identified hardcore enthusiasts as their main audience and embarked on the arduous quest of meeting their inconsistent demands. But obsessive fans had just found another way to communicate through our very favorite mode of publication, the internet. The democratization of reviewing through a vote of majority on the likes of Amazon has caused much grief even for critics in far more established media like film, but few shared the demented plan game critics had: to compete. Rather than to try and differentiate themselves from the smelly hordes of novice writers through professionalism, they tried to beat them at their own game.
Now reviews had to be more thorough than detailed guides, because god forbid you neglect to mention something fans of the game care about. Now reviewers had to demonstrate a certain level of skill, because god forbid you were found uncovered as a poor player. Once readers noticed how desperately magazines were trying to cater to their tastes, they started to grow entitled. You might dismiss the outrage over unpopular review scores or the righteous indignation when a critic admits to not having finished the game as mere idiocy, but it’s also the result of a journalism too damn scared to be mean to its own audience. This stifling fear has started to get in the way of frank dialogue, as publications tread lightly rather than calling our community out on its bullshit.
At the same time, the need to claim intimacy by showing that they are gamers just like us has not exactly done wonders for the literacy of critics. Many reviewers really do hold no qualifications past a background in geek culture, and this can keep them from appreciating the full cultural and literary significance of more ambitious games. Few outlets can claim to have addressed, not just mentioned, the themes of Transhumanism in Deus Ex: Human Revolution or Objectivism in Bioshock. That a game like Spec Ops: The Line can achieve its lofty narrative goals of morality and cognitive dissonance only to lose marks for its defunct multiplayer is downright shameful.
These are exciting times to cover games. More people than ever before are inclined to listen to us instead of dismissing our contributions as the scribblings of lunatics obsessed with a children’s pastime. It will not do to forever mock these late arrivals and to ignore entire platforms over misguided elitism. It will not do to only serve a tiny fraction of our audience with reviews that can only be deciphered by the initiated.
When they defend their outdated practices, games journalists frequently try to make us sympathize with their plight, the fact that nobody reads reviews in this age of Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. It’s certainly true that the internet has seen a shift to shorter, visual formats, but to suggest that people have simply stopped consuming written content is an easy way to rationalize your own faults without really addressing them. People haven’t stopped reading. Our content is just not good enough.
There is so much more to critique than the rough assessment of quality you’ll find in score averages or user reviews and we shouldn’t be content to be just another voice in that chorus. We should strive to be opinion leaders. Industry watchdogs. Experts in gaming culture, and contemporary culture as a whole. We should be chasing the truth buried in corporate speak, hunting down the unlikely stories taking place in this industry and documenting the deeply personal interactions one can have with this medium.
Our field has plenty of reviewers. What it could use are more critics, more writers and more journalists.
On the back wall of Broken Rules humble abode, there’s a poster defining Chasing Aurora‘s aesthetic identity. Central on the white sheet, a Sierpinski triangle, playful geometry mirrored in the game’s Origami visuals. ‘Playful Flight’ reads one corner, backed by images of birds flapping their wings, caught in awkward landings or takeoffs. ‘Merciless Nature’ says the next, picturing that Romantic concept of the sublime, nature at its most beautiful and terrifying: Forest graveyards, foggy peaks and precarious ravines. The last is titled ‘Coming of Age’, a combination of the two themes. Birds perched on the edge, ready to leap. Their new project is similarly daring. And Yet It Moves threw you off that edge, locked in continuous freefall. Chasing Aurora hopes to make you soar.
“We wanted to create a game based on the dynamic of flight” says Broken Rules’ Martin Pichlmayr. “Early versions had the player jump off a cliff before sailing through the air. In a way, it’s a direct extension of And Yet It Moves“. But the game is more than a simple follow-up. Having grown from three men to eight in the wake of their big break, the team now has the means to pursue more ambitious goals and a new in-house engine to put them into practice. Consequently, Chasing Aurora is already looking to be a much more crisp and polished title than its predecessor, with clean visuals and compact gameplay.
Its recipe for the age-old dream of aviation is surprisingly simple. The thumbstick moves you through the 2D skies. Rhythmic button-mashing lets you control the pace of your wings, and thus your speed. Another button lets you dive, to descend quickly or break through strong currents, while a third is for grabbing and holding on to objects. It’s a simple, minimalistic system, but far more precise, direct and gratifying than the gimmicky twists and turns of And Yet It Moves.
Simple, however, does not mean the same thing as easy, and your winged avatar is tasked with nothing less than bringing light back to the world, a feat achieved by collecting shards and returning them to their place. Those might be hard to find, or just hard to reach. Or in the hands, claws or paws of other animals you’ll have to wrestle them from. With this emphasis on relatively peaceful exploration, Chasing Aurora feels reminiscent of the nature games of olden days, especially Sega’s classic Ecco the Dolphin.
The game breathes a distinct, halcyon spirit, from its vibrant tunes of rural chords and bells to the paper-playbook visuals. While still sharp and colorful, this style goes above and beyond tired pixellation, creating a captivating alpine dreamland. In fact, Chasing Aurora has been partially funded by the city of Vienna in an effort to showcase the beauty of Austria’s characteristic mountain range. Money well spent: Photography doesn’t do the visuals justice, but with rolling clouds and streaming winds it looks absolutely gorgeous in motion.
Much about Chasing Aurora is yet unclear. Its release is somewhat tied to the launch of Nintendo’s Wii U, and the existence of their new eShop. Other Platforms? To be announced. From its narrative to the particulars of the planned multiplayer, details remain to be seen, but Broken Rules has already cleared the biggest hurdle for its new title. Watching other people play, complaints do come up. About the lack of a map or other navigation aides. About the controls acting up. But those are voiced afterwards, never while playing, rapt in flying. Five minutes into my own session, I was navigating wind-swept caves, diving through clouds and jousting with other birds midair. Even at this early stage, Broken Rules has managed to make the act of motion fun.
Playful Flight. That’s one down, two to go.