Thursday, 21 August 2014

My Personal Games of 2013: Saints Row 4

A intergalactic gangsta power fantasy set in a virtual world is not necessarily the sort of game where I particularly expected to find well developed and sympathetic characters, but thats what Saints Row 4 is and that's exactly what you will find.

I found SR4 was a game that respected my time like few others, it's willingness to build upon what went before while exploiting and playing with my expectations about gameplay mechanics and character archetypes means barely a moment is wasted. Instead what you do, and those you do it with is put firmly in the spotlight. Its near fanatical the old adage of “show, don't tell”.

For me the easiest way to explain why it's worth looking past Saints Row's surface and paying attention to how smart some of it's design decisions are is to look at its relationship with music. While the GTA series was certainly the first to pioneer the idea of in game radio stations SR4's 'thing' has always been that music isn't just something you hear as a player but part of the world that the characters also have a relationship with.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

My Personal Games of 2013: Gone Home

Sometimes it is easy for me to forget what a young medium video games are. That what will still define many of the best games of this generation will not be how they push the boundary of what is possible, but how smartly they work within its constraints.

I initially bounced off Gone Home, perhaps because I went in with expectations that it would be the former rather than the latter. Games still struggle to provide worlds which feel inhabited, a issue Gone Home handily sidesteps by creating a contriving a setting conveniently empty of both humans and the most of the clutter we bring with us.

My Personal Games of 2013: Why am i doing this again?

I am not unaware that writing a list such as this more than a few months late and after a near two year gap may seem more than a little silly.

In my defence the draft versions of these posts were written in February, it just took me this long to get my act together and edit them into a state where I was happy to present them to an audience.
They serve as further reference points in my journey to challenge myself to critically think about the games I love, and my attempts to become better at explaining that thinking. They are little dots on the map left behind as I make my way forward, Important as much for the insights they give others to my trajectory as those they give me.

Anyway without further ado onto the first of my games of 2013, Gone Home

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Reference Points

If ever you find yourself lost, one of the most sensible things you can remember (apart from which mushrooms you really should not eat) is that it's incredibly important to find a point of reference. Game designers have known this for a long time, look up in most well constructed open worlds and it is not unusual to find a tower looming in the near distance. Landmarks helps lend a sense of context and purpose to exploration that can otherwise be missing.

Unfortunately this is a principle I haven't paid enough attention to as I work on this blog.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Life, Liberty, and Civilization: Part 3

While the expansionist philosophy's importance to both Civ and America's character shouldn't be underestimated, its not the only theme represented in the series.

For perhaps Civ's biggest contribution to gaming history, and biggest innovation was..... innovation.
Resembling a family tree of science, the Tech Tree concept helped to presented a world of dynamic change, driven by scientific progress and above all player choice.

Although the Tech tree concept existed before its creator Sid Meier adopted it there's a strong argument that Civ was responsible for popularising the mechanic. Years later after the series had become hugely successful Meier would famously say that any game should be
'A series of meaningful choices'
A quote which perfectly sums up the Tech Tree's appeal. You were constantly moving forward dramatically changing the balance of the world with your every choice.

Science is the lens through which all history is viewed in Civ. Human ingenuity channelled through science is seen as transcendent force advancing man ever forward, in the narrative of human history what once was impossible always (one day)becomes the possible. These themes of choice, the transcendental ability of science, and the power of rational thought can be traced back to the philosophies of the Enlightenment movement. These principals were the foundation of the world view of some of the most prominent of America’s founding fathers and would help shape their actions and choice in the time surrounding that great nation's birth. In particular Benjamin Franklin & Thomas Jefferson espoused it's ideas, and their influence helped weave those values into both the declaration of independence and the American constitution.

So if the players progress Tech Tree is a journey of enlightenment, where does it the end? To put it simply, the stars are your destination.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Life, Liberty, and Civilization: Part 2

Finding the real meaning of any work of art is a notoriously difficult thing, and it certainly not easy with a game like Civilization which isn't overt about it's messages instead it relies upon allowing its mechanics to resonate with its players and allow its meaning as Thomas Jefferson might have put it 225 years earlier 'self evident'. The concept of self-evident truth is universal, but in all its forms & variations it remains incredibly elusive next to impossible to reproduce, rationally de-construct or describe, but its something that games have always been very good at.

This is Civ's implicit promise to the gamer, 'play me' it says 'and it will all become clear' 'this is how the world works' 'this is how a civilisation must be'. A player is expected to gradually come to see this truth, and that anyone who does not understand and accept it is fated to fail, for their civilisation will not 'stand the test of time'. Its a message that is driven home every step of the way as a player advances into the future.

All men are created equal 

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Life, Liberty, and Civilization

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”

That sentence begins what is undeniably one of the most important documents of western civilisation. But while I doubt those words can ever resonate with me as they can with anyone born in the land of their origin, the promise implicit within them still has the power to speak to me across the expanses of time and the Atlantic ocean. They expound to me a sense of a shared human experience, and a faith in the potential of every individual. They are in a very real way the heart of the American ideal.

In particular when I look at those words I see the great paradox of western democracy, born from the essence of two philosophies who's ongoing conflict has helped define modern life.
I'm going to talk about that paradox, the slippery nature of truth, how history makes some more equal than others, and the enduring power of hope. But mostly I am going to talk about a how a video game helped me understand these ideas. How it began a series of games which has for over 20 years remained approachable and bipartisan, while providing ongoing conversation over what the ascendancy of western democracy means. I'm going to talk about Civilization.