book-club

Book Club

book-club

2200 words. 17 magazines. Welcome to Book Club.

Magazines! Remember those? From the early years of Mean Machines to PC Gamer and EDGE in more recent times, magazines have always been a part of my gaming life. I love them, and I want people to make more. It seems fitting to finally publish this article, which I started writing in 2012 (!), off the back of Critical Proximity.

Games magazines aren’t limited to the elite publishing houses any more: just as the Internet has democratised other media, magazines can also be designed and published anywhere, by anyone. With that in mind, here’s a look at some titles at the forefront of the digital publishing revolution. As you may know, I think good writing is worth paying for, so I would encourage you to buy lots of these zines and find some new favourites. I’ve focused on my personal favourites, so get in touch if you think you’ve been overlooked.

The magazine scene is evolving all the time: new paid publications have been added, while others have ceased to be. I’m not sure if I’ll keep this piece updated or let it vegetate for another two years – I should probably add some pictures – but either way, I hope to add lots of magazines to the main section and not ‘In Memoriam’.

Without further ado…

EDGE

Print magazines aren’t irrelevant yet: the problem with the proliferation of games websites is that there’s a huge signal to noise ratio, especially in terms of news and content that I just don’t care about. What really interests me are features and interviews from people who can invest time and effort into the research. Sometimes it’s good to read things that wouldn’t normally pique your interest for a little intellectual diversity: this is where a publication like EDGE or Custom PC succeeds where websites haven’t caught up, or perhaps can’t catch up. That’s the nature of choice vs curation.

EDGE is one of the most iPad-friendly games magazines: it’s a proper native app rather than a mere PDF, offering interactive 3D models, text that flows beautifully from page to page, video clips and external links. The digital version isn’t just cheaper and more convenient than traditional print; it’s also a more enjoyable read. I love getting a push notification when a new issue has been automatically downloaded and is ready to read (shame they’re 350mb each, though).

EDGE may have its faults – its reviews are a love-em-or-hate-em-thing, abstract and old-fashioned at times, and their lack of inline writer credits is a shame – but if it’s a dinosaur, it’s one you’d definitely photograph on a trip around Jurassic Park.

Kill Screen

Kill Screen has been around for a while, although it was recently only available as a printed magazine. New issues are now available digitally, complementing their expanding infrequent online features and news reporting – the latter of dubious worth. I don’t know how often they release a new issue (I did check, honest), but they seem increasingly sporadic.

It’s clearly designed to be read as a printed magazine: the double-page art spreads are cruelly chopped in half by an tablet’s screen. This wouldn’t be a problem if the ePUB versions were satisfactory, but Kill Screen relies heavily on its design to complement the articles. The writing is of the longform culture variety rather than explicit videogame criticism. Depending on your stance, that’s either ‘pretentious’ or a breath of fresh air. Naturally, I lean towards the latter.

If anything was worth reading in print, it would be this, but at £17 an issue (including shipping time of 3–5 weeks) it’s a little pricey for non-US readers. The digital version is still worth a look, though.

Scroll

Scroll is “a magazine about the coolness of video games” edited by Ray Barnholt. Barnholt handles both the writing and design: the former is off the beaten track, focusing on retro videogames of the late 80s and early 90s. The latter is frankly stunning, arguably more of a treat than the writing.

I love the uniqueness and attention to detail of Scroll. It goes to exciting places – at the time of writing, the current issue focuses on WARP, the late Kenji Eno’s game development studio. Again, it’s probably better experienced in print than PDF, but if you could see my buckling bookshelf you’d understand why I go for the digital versions!

Five out of Ten

Let’s face it – Five out of Ten is the elephant in the room here. You were waiting for me to mention it. I know I was.

Where do I start? FooT has been around for a year and a half now, and I think the results speak for themselves: seven great issues from some of my favourite writers, a lot of satisfied customers, even an award nod. One unique aspect is that profits are split between all of our contributors. The magazine will continue to evolve – I have a couple of tricks up my sleeve for the year to come – while not straying from the original vision of writing what we want to read, because we can.

Are we succeeding? I’ll let you be the judge of that.

The Arcade Review

The Arcade Review is a brand-new publication from Zolani Stewart and Alex Pieschel, focusing on experimental games. The first issue is a promising one, with an eclectic selection of features from cool people like Lana Polansky and a cover that’s like a beautiful space lava lamp.

It’s early days for The Arcade Review, so I’ll just say that I think it’s really neat and will have a long, bright future ahead.

Dreamcast Worlds

I reviewed Dreamcast Worlds for Issue 5 of Five out of Ten, and I haven’t changed my mind. Here’s what I wrote:

Dreamcast Worlds: A Design History is Zoya Street’s first book, expanding his master’s thesis work on Skies of Arcadia to include Phantasy Star Online and Shenmue. Regular readers of Five out of Ten will know I’m a fan of all things Sega, and it’s a real treat to have these classic games covered in so much depth.

A ‘design history’ is a history not just of games as mechanical objects, but also as the product of cultural context, the people who make them and the societies they create. Street’s introduction to the Dreamcast is packed with original insights and titbits gathered through interview. It’s clear that the author understands Japanese corporate culture, although it is a little heartbreaking to learn the console was canned immediately after launch in the USA and Europe.

Dreamcast Worlds is well-researched, timely and fascinating. Although a little dry and analytical, which fails to convey Street’s obvious passion for the subject, it remains mercilessly free of academic jargon. It feels like an important book: the kind you regret buying in ePub form instead of a physical copy, the kind you’ll dip into again and again.

Memory Insufficient

Memory Insufficient is another publication from Zoya Street, but this one is available for free. It’s a regularly published games history e-zine that goes where no others dare to tread, tackling histories of gender and diversity, imperialism, disabilities and even ecology.

Even I hadn’t contributed to this (you may not be aware of this, but all games journalism is actually produced by twenty people writing under pseudonyms), and even if it wasn’t free, and even if you had too many magazines to read, it would still be worth making time for this intelligent and fascinating publication.

Killing is Harmless

Brendan Keogh is a freelance games journalist, PhD student and good friend of mine. Somehow, in a prolific year by anyone’s standards, he managed to write a 50,000 word book about Spec Ops: The Line called Killing is Harmless.

The Line was one of the most thought-provoking and important games of 2012: a scattering of my thoughts can be found at Square Go. Rather than considering The Line as a whole work from a distance, Keogh attempts a closed reading of the game: he plays through the game, narrating chapter by chapter on his thoughts and gradually pulling in different themes. This is both a strength and weakness: you wouldn’t want to read Killing is Harmless without having finished this game, but this also removes much of the enjoyment from reading the earliest chapters of the book. Like a slow-burning videogame introduction, you’ll want to skip ahead to the action.

As criticism it doesn’t always hit the mark, sometimes reaching for meaning in desperation, but as a concept it is truly exciting. Hopefully the launch of Press Select, with Brendan’s publishing company with fellow writer Dan Golding, will mean this is just the start of such works. An auspicious beginning.

It’s Just a Game

It’s Just a Game is a magazine curated by Elizabeth Simins. Here’s my review from Book Club in Five out of Ten:

Delightfully lo-fi and idiosyncratic, It’s Just a Game is a real zine: a lovingly crafted anthology of unorthodox games writing and charming faux advertisements.

Despite the eclectic selection of authors, it’s a surprisingly consistent collection of ideas: most essays are deeply personal, continuing the trail of soul-bearing blazed by Reaction and Bit Creature, if lacking the righteous anger of the former and the sheer panache of the latter. As the title suggests, games are not just games for these writers, illustrated as they tackle the thorny zeitgeists of sexism and bigotry in modern videogame culture.

It’s Just a Game is a unique publication, confident in its own identity. It’s not trying to be the next Kill Screen. It’s just a charming read that will brighten up your bookshelf – no mean feat for a black and white zine.

Flushed

Flushed “Volume 1, Number 2” is an e-zine by Samantha Allen, Lana Polansky and Elizabeth Simins, the three horseriders of the toilet-gaming apocalpyse. Like all great trips to the toilet, it is unflinching – it’s not safe for work, but with contributors such as the aforemented editors, Kaitlin Tremblay, Soha El-Sabaawi and Darius Kazemi on board, it’s very much safe for home.

Funny and flippant in a way that’s similarly as appealing as It’s Just A Game, Flushed is a quirky little publication that made me laugh and smile. Read on location, but don’t bring your laptop into the bathroom to play the games. That’s just weird.

Ghosts in the Machine

Ghosts in the Machine is a short story anthology edited by Lana Polansky and Brendan Keogh, featuring a story by yours truly that at least one friend of mine really liked. Maybe you’ll like it too! There’s only one way to find out.

Seriously though, this was a great project to be involved in and I’m in the company of some very talented writers. If you like fiction and want something a little different, this is well worth your time.

One Day at a Time

Alright, I’ll admit it – I have not read One Day at a Time, but since I’ve never read a bad piece by Richard Moss, this seems like a safe bet. The fact it’s about Football Manager makes it even more intriguing. I have just purchased my copy. You should too.

Heart Container

Heart Container is a real zine: limited supply, only available in print, with an emphasis on heart. The editor, Albertine Watson, has assured me that the second issue is definitely coming out soon and I’ll finally be able get my hands on a copy. Until that point, I’ll just run on the assumption that it is very good.

I know you shouldn’t judge a magazine by its cover, but since that’s all I’ve got to go on right now, the cover is very nice.

Unwinnable Weekly

Our friends over at Unwinnable just launched a Kickstarter for a weekly selection of some of the best and brightest in independent games writing. I’m in. Are you?

In Memoriam

Here, we honour our fallen comrades.

Continue

I liked Continue, especially the design and emphasis on features, but unfortunately it’s on hiatus right now. In many respects it is the digital reincarnation of an old print magazine. This means that it’s a straight-up PDF like Kill Screen, but more than that, it also has a ‘news stream’ that is out of date by the time you’ve read it.

Having said that, once you get into the features Continue offers more depth than most printed magazines. They don’t only cover videogames, including articles about alternate reality gaming and board games as well. The design is of a consistently high standard.

The best way to get a fourth issue is to go and buy the previous ones. They’ve got a Year One pack for a discounted price.

Haywire Magazine

In the time it took to write this piece, Haywire went from a digital magazine to a ‘regular’ blog. While I’ll miss downloading the magazine, I (more than most) understand the effort that goes into producing such a magazine, and I’m glad that Joe Köller is keeping the spirit alive through regular blog posts. Haywire’s whole heap of nominations for the Games Journalism Prize says more about the publication than I ever could.

ctrl+alt+defeat

After eight issues it seems that ctrl+alt+defeat has, well, been defeated. But since it’s a free publication with a selection of luminary contributors, it won’t do any harm to skim through the old issues. Similar to old issues of Haywire, it’s got that lo-fi ziney crunch to it that I quite like as a contrast to the slickness of a major publication.

critdistance

Time To Pay

critdistance

This site wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Critical Distance. Neither would Five out of Ten and scores of other writers’ careers. When you’re a blogger of little consequence, it’s difficult to gather an audience for your work. You publish a blog, no one reads it, and you repeat this for a couple of years, but nobody cares. Kris Ligman cared though – enough to feature our writing in This Week in Videogame Blogging, enough to make us feel that we weren’t completely redundant. That feeling that you actually matter, even if it’s only to a few people for a little while, is hard to forget.

Now it’s time to return the favour. Critical Distance has just launched a Patreon page, and it’s off to a terrific start, but we all need to throw our weight behind this campaign and support the site. I’ve been working as a volunteer with Kris and the rest of the Critical Distance team for a couple of years now – but I won’t be asking for any money from this – and am delighted to be able to financially support a site that means so much to me.

I have issues with Patreon as a mechanism for funding journalism (that’s another story for another day), but Critical Distance isn’t a blog. It’s a curated archive, a vital resource to ensure that important writing is acknowledged and preserved. When you think of it as an institution like the British Museum or National Trust, then you can see that the Patreon model makes perfect sense. You can’t support such an endeavour with advertising revenue or a paywall, and your retweets and platitudes are sadly not enough.

Please help us grow Critical Distance into the community resource it deserves to be by supporting this worthy cause.

critical-hits

Closure

critical-hits

Farewell, Critical Hits.

I founded my Critical Hits blog just over two years ago, shortly after I moved to Oxford. I wanted to write about the banal things in my life as a way of letting friends know what I was up to. In retrospect, this was a terrible idea for several reasons.

Firstly, not even my friends are interested in the mundane minutiae of my life. I’ve got Facebook, email and text messages for that. Blogging – at least the way I’d set it up – was a one-way process, so even though I was writing about my life, I was still growing apart from people because I didn’t know what was going on in their life.

Secondly, I already had a website called Split Screen. (You are here.) The original rationale for Critical Hits was that Split Screen was for the ‘serious’ stuff, that is, my videogame and technology writing (hey you, in the back! Stop laughing!).

Now that I spend a lot of my creative energies on Five out of Ten that doesn’t leave a lot of room for writing elsewhere. The only thing worse than not updating one website is not updating two. So something has to give, and that thing is Critical Hits. I am proud of my wee blog: it was the vehicle that got me freelance writing work at the New Statesman, which helped me boost my career and make some friends. It was a place for crap poetry and musings about life. It was a place to just be me, without the trappings of someone else’s unuttered expectations.

But lately I’ve been thinking: why can’t Split Screen be about those things instead? Just because Craig and I founded a technology blog doesn’t mean we have to keep it that way. It’s our site, and we can do whatever the hell we like! It deserves the ability to grow and change, just like our minds. Like whenever the Reality Check column fizzled out after a year, I won’t mourn the passing of Critical Hits: it has served its purpose and can now go off to the big backup server in the sky.

What about Split Screen then, you ask? That’s another story for another day.


Preserved for all eternity, here are my favourite pieces from Critical Hits:

Old Wounds – April 2, 2012

Brothers – June 15, 2012

Ouroboros – July 21, 2012

Fiddling – August 29, 2012 (republished as The Sun’s interview with violinist Nicola Benedetti was a masterclass in sexism in the New Statesman)

Medium Difficulties – June 12, 2013

reflecting-reality

Medium Difficulties

reflecting-reality

Originally published 12th June, 2013 on Critical Hits

I have spent the past eight months building a company. I didn’t even realise until I was listening to a podcast interview with Chris Dahlen by Eric Brasure, about the founding of Kill Screen. Five out of Ten started as a fun indie publication, but it quickly became a brand. Suddenly I needed a workflow. Design consistency. A style guide. A mantra! All kinds of scarily serious stuff I just hadn’t thought about when I started work on the first issue. At Split Screen I had friends and fans; now there are customers, employees, responsibilities.

Continue reading

brothers

Brothers

brothers

Originally published 15th June, 2012 on Critical Hits

Last weekend I was at Download Festival: three days of mud and music in the English countryside. While I was really excited to see some of my favourite bands including Metallica, Megadeth and Rise Against, I was more excited to spend some quality time with my brothers.

We have always been the best of friends. It took me a long time to realise that. When I was growing up, I didn’t have many friends and lived on the opposite site of town to my schoolmates, due to a primary school decision that is too boring to elaborate upon.  I spent free time with my brothers Paul and Daniel, joined by Mark in 1993. We spent evenings, weekends and long summers together. We made ‘tents’ by attaching tea towels to kitchen chairs, played football and cycled in the back garden until the grass was churned into mud, adventured beyond the garden hedge and into the dark territory of neighbours’ property. The Wicked Witch threatened to burst our football if it came over her fence again, but she was no match for me scrambling over that fence and back before her dog started barking.

My fondest memories of summer were at a caravan site in Millisle, which will make anyone from Northern Ireland laugh. It was a coastal site and we were right by the sea: we would leave in the morning and build sandcastles until the tide threatened to sweep them away, coming in for dinner with our necks burned raw from the sun- except for Daniel. Somehow he always tanned and was spared the sticky agony of a hot summer evening with only a bottle of after sun for comfort.

We found a small rocky outcrop near the beach. We called it ‘The Island’. It became our little fortress for skimming stones and defending from other groups of children. At low tide, we’d explore the rock pools and newly revealed beaches. One time, Paul and I went much further than our parents would have allowed. The rocks stretched out infinitely in those days, and I just climbed and climbed, leaving my younger brother in my wake. He’d jump over gaps that I just walked over. We surveyed uncharted, unknowable worlds.

The tide started to come in, faster than I had anticipated. We watched as the path disappeared around us, frantically heading for home as we walked over slick seaweed and wet rocks. We were both really worried: Paul visibly so, but I just pretended that we were going to be alright. I don’t know if he remembers it, but I’ll never forget that day. I thought we were going to die, and after that day I was even more fiercely protective of all my brothers- unless I was the one beating them up, of course.

Those times have gone. Now I live away from ‘home’ and I only see my family at Christmas, or if I’m lucky, a cheeky break in the summer. My brothers have all grown up- two are in great relationships and have jobs, while Mark is going to university in the autumn. I’ve gone from being the big brother to the shortest of us all. We all have different lives, and although I want to spend time with my family, it feels wrong to demand too much of theirs. I am an interloper, appearing up to dish out platitudes and criticisms before fucking off to Oxford again. I hope they don’t see it that way; I am not trying to be that guy. I am just playing the big brother, even if I no longer need to.

Last winter I missed out on two of my favourite bands, In Flames and Dream Theater, in the space of a fortnight. I was devastated! Determined to not miss another opportunity, I started looking into festivals, since I’d never been to one. Download was pretty much the perfect line up, including Soundgarden’s first UK gig in fifteen years and Black Sabbath reforming. I know I haven’t talked about the music, but trust me: it was fantastic in the literal sense of the word. I persuaded my family to go, which really wasn’t that difficult at all. Paul and his girlfriend Ashlin were up for going, as was Mark who always has inexplicable bottomless cash reserves.

Daniel was harder to persuade, but offering him a short term interest-free loan for the concert tickets was a good enticement. I know Daniel’s girlfriend was unhappy that he decided to go to Download, so if she reads this I feel the need to explain. It is a deeply selfish reason, but I really needed us all to be there. It was important to me, and I would have paid for his ticket if that’s what needed to be done. I’ve felt a disconnect over the past few years that I just couldn’t stand any more: I missed the good old days, those friendships I relied on.

Download was the best way to get everyone away and spend some quality time together. Listening to a band is ten times better when your friends are singing along beside you. Freezing in a sleeping bag on a wet Saturday morning is tolerable when your brother is hilariously stuffing his face with banana sandwiches for breakfast. Good nights become unforgettable ones when you’re inexplicably laughing at Titanic quotes and drinking cheap beer by torchlight. You’re not dredging up old memories: you’re making new ones to complement the old.

As well as arranging the Download trip, I wrote to my brothers as part of the ‘25 Letters‘ project. I was scared, because I didn’t know what responses I would receive or if they would just laugh at the idea, but when I read their replies I was so proud of them and the friendships we still had. Reading those letters, I realised those bonds were unbreakable. I am fortunate enough to have close friends in my life, but my brothers will always be the best of them.

I feel sorry for people who don’t have brothers or sisters: you’ll never know what you’ve missed. I feel even more sorry for people who don’t have strong relationships with their siblings. What a waste.

Not everyone is lucky to have led as privileged a life as mine, but when I think about it, my brothers are the greatest privilege of all.

old-wounds

Old Wounds

old-wounds

Originally published 2nd April, 2012 on Critical Hits

This is me finishing the Edinburgh Half Marathon last May, in a respectable 1hr 42mins. Witness a man bruised and exhausted, but not defeated. Prior to the race, I’d been suffering from a mild knee injury: a nagging ache after a couple of kilometres that had emerged over the past fortnight. I rested up and didn’t run the week before the marathon, hoping I’d recover in time. 

Within the first ten minutes of the race,  I could feel the dull ache returning: not so bad that I had to stop, just that I knew it would be bad when I stopped. I was so excited that I blanked out the discomfort and kept on running. You know when people say “the atmosphere was electric”? I know what they mean now. A sea of bobbing heads, a multicoloured flood spilling across the city streets. I’ll never forget the surge of adrenaline I felt as we crossed the start line, and I’ll never forget the feeling of accomplishment at the end.

Post-race, I felt rough- but nothing unexpected, considering. My running buddy Andy and I went for a celebratory burger and then I chilled at home for a few hours. I left my flat to visit a friend, and that’s when I realised I couldn’t walk.

My knee was locked. It did not bend the way knees do. I scuttled down three flights of uneven Edinburgh stairs like an exhausted crab, side to side, then hobbled up the road. I was fucking broken. I had the next day off work and couldn’t walk either. Luckily, I quite happen to enjoy playing computer games, so that counted as rehabilitation.

I hoped that my knee would just heal as it had always done, but it did not. When I tried to run again, the pain became agonising within five minutes. I worked in retail at the time and so I was always on my feet; perhaps it demanded a level of rest my lifestyle didn’t support. People who know me know I love walking everywhere, and knees are pretty much essential for walking.

I went to a physiotherapist, who diagnosed a weak left quadriceps. I was given a hilarious set of exercises to perform and recover (or perhaps just embarrass), which I carried out diligently. I stopped running and started cross training because it was less stressful on the joint. I joined a gym in Oxford and lift hundreds of kilograms with my quads several times a week, swimming and gyming, cycling to and from work. Nothing worked.

That dull ache is there, whether I’m sitting down at this desk right now or even trying to sleep, punishing me for being stupid enough to run on an injury. It wasn’t like I poured petrol between two cans in front of a lit gas stove, though. Was I wrong to think my body would be stronger than this?

I worry it’ll never heal. Yesterday was a beautiful Spring morning; I wanted to run through it so badly, but instead I walked to the gym and pushed levers on a strange contraption instead. Later, I walked through the university parks and watched processions of joggers. How I envied their supple limbs, their carefree gait.

It’s often said that you shouldn’t run away from your problems. I can’t run away from this. I can’t run at all.

ouroboros

Ouroboros

ouroboros

Originally published 21st July, 2012 on Critical Hits

I only realised recently how dependent my writing is on mood. I’m writing this on a beach in Spain and the words flow more readily than the crashing waves. Time and its associated commitments are frozen: the only impediment to writing here is the dull ache working its way down my arm and into my left hand.

There is no work here, only ‘play’. Play is important whether you’re a child or an adult; it is a recalibration of the mind, and I think after the events of the past few months that my mind is in dire need of recalibration. Lately, I’ve really struggled to write. The well of ideas has run dry. I come home from work and I just feel exhausted; I want to give up the pretence of being a writer and just get on with my day job in peace.

Yet it’s not as simple as that. I need to write. It is my thought process. If I can’t write, I can’t think, and if I can’t think then I can’t function. That’s not melodrama: that’s the truth.

It seems that my best writing comes from some sort of mental tension. Reviewing a game you’re ambivalent towards is a slow exercise in torture; it took me a long time to write the short story ‘Supercollider’ (now available in the anthology Ghosts in the Machine) because I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. It is probably no coincidence that I have the best conversations with other writers: we’re prone to introspection, and oversharing. I wonder if excessive introspection also stems from mental health problems, which thankfully I have largely avoided, but others I know have not. Still, your heart is right there in the words. While I am not Nick, the protagonist of Supercollider, his words are mine- something a friend recognised as she read the first draft.

I think that, in order to advance as a writer beyond the mundane features and pun-packed reviews, I really need to conquer my own cognitions. When I go to write in a state of tension, my mind is like a coiled snake. If writing is a projection of thought, then writing in the wrong frame of mind is like poking that snake with a stick. So you say yourself: fuck you, snake! I’m better than you and I’m better than writer’s block!

You write, but it doesn’t work. You try to channel the angry snake’s sentiments into your writing but it becomes an ouroboros, eating itself. That’s great, because you get a journal entry out of it, but it’s not the stuff of which long-term success is made.

Remember when you kept a journal or diary, but now you don’t any more? I still keep a journal. You’re reading it.

screenies2013_banner_alt

The Screenies 2013

screenies2013_banner_alt

They’re back.

How do you write about the best games of the year when you haven’t played them all – or you didn’t buy any? That’s easy: you just write about your favourites. These are ours. Welcome to the fourth annual Screenies!

After last year’s globe-trotting, special effects-laden video feature, we’ve had to work with a limited graphic design budget for this year’s awards. We’ve still done a great job of conveying the prestige and impeccable quality of The Screenies.


Worst decision of the year

Craig: The most disappointing moment of the year occurs several times in The Cave, the adventure game from Ron Gilbert working alongside Tim Schafer’s Double Fine. Considering the calibre of creative minds it’s difficult to comprehend how The Cave is so poorly structured.

screenies-cave

You pick three explorers from a choice of seven (first problem- we’ll get to this later) to usher through a magical cave that grants their deepest wishes in the evil genie way and not the blue, pop-culture spouting friendly genie way. The cave has a voice which makes a lot of bad jokes which I think were purposefully meant to be bad so on that front that’s a success I suppose.

Each explorer has a unique level to solve with generic levels interlarded throughout to form the award winningly dreadful structure:

 

The_Cave_Structure

 

Playing all seven unique levels (blue boxes) therefore requires three separate playthroughs due to only shepherding three of the seven characters in a single playthrough. All those generic white boxes are hence visited three times with the final jaunt repeating two of the unique levels to boot.

The Cave is an adventure game of the puzzle solving variety. Static puzzles, in general, do not improve the second or third time they are solved. Unique levels do not become more unique upon their second viewing.

With the exception of the Time Traveller’s Museum which used a novel time-shifting mechanic to really interesting and fun effect, every other puzzle is grindingly mediocre. Repeated they become offensively so.

The three character concept was meant to bring balance to the Force adventure game, not destroy it. Independent characters elegantly bypasses the typical traipsing back and forth across locations and load screens in order to flip a switch way over there to open the door way over here.

Sadly however the trio of explorers are rarely deployed other than to hold switches (locking them in position) or to hold down a pressure plate (again locking them in position). Might as well have had to crates for companions with funny hats. Paint a heart on the side of them and boom we’re partying like it’s 2008.

But then as a final jab in the eyes, The Cave has a good and bad ending hidden in the final Gift Shop Reprise which involves disobeying an implied order three times or not. I only realised this because an achievement flashed up proclaiming I had “failed”.

Achieving the good ending for me then would involve playing the entire game, with multiple repeating levels for three times, for a second time. I just don’t have the time to waste on a game so hell-bent on wasting mine.

 

 


 

Indie game of the year

Alan: 2013 was the year when ‘indie’ ceased to mean anything. Like in the music industry, indie used to be the mark of a product without a mainstream publisher, but Steam Greenlight and phone app stores make this an increasing irrelevance. Are you still an indie if you’ve raised a million dollars on Kickstarter? Are Double Fine the Green Day of the games industry? As usual, I am a lot more interested in games than dull semantics.

Depression Quest is a game that places you inside the mind of someone suffering from depression. Its power comes from its subversion of the videogame’s idea of choice and agency: what conveys the reality of the illness better than striking out options in a selection window so that you’re aware of them, but they remain unavailable to you?

The fizzing static and Isaac Schankler’s subtle soundtrack put you into a state of mental fuzziness and unease, where every difficult decision leads to dreading another difficult decision. It’s not fun; it’s exhausting. It’s an education. It’s a great use of Twine besides hyperlink-riddled poetry. While no one game could cover the totality of depression, Depression Quest convincingly portrays some of it, and that is a worthwhile endeavour.

Depression Quest is free to play on the website, but I paid for it and you should too.



 

Most stylish game of the year

Craig: I studied Physics with Music at university. As a degree it was nonsense to the extent it doesn’t exist anymore. But for me it was both left- and right-brain bliss. This year Antichamber brought a similar head-buzzing euphoria.

While Q.U.B.E. (reviewed here) walked in the shadow of Portal and Quantum Conundrum tripped itself trying to replicate Portal, Antichamber is a first person puzzler that surpasses Portal in creating an intricate, impossible world that delights at each nonsensical turn. Its playfulness in tricking the senses with non-Euclidean structures and lateral puzzle solving is so expertly judged.  The Stanley Parable (early mod review here) plays a similar trick but in a purposefully brash and a loud mouthed style.

Style. That’s the word. Antichamber is the most stylish game of the year.

Sparse white walls splashed with vibrant, bright colours alternating between crisp natural soundscapes and an ambient moodscape that builds. It’s a work of digital art.

I’m using very effusive language, I know, but I’m happy to do so because the game itself is so understated. I’ll let you search for a gameplay video yourself, and instead I’ll throw up a comparison to French magician Yann Frisch’s take on the classic cups and balls. It’s the same wordless magic I found in Antichamber.

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iPhone game of the year

Alan: Ridiculous Fishing is “a tale of redemption”, but that has two meanings. The game’s story is The Old Man and The Sea with rocket launchers, but there’s also the behind-the-scenes story of Vlambeer’s redemption, detailed in this article at Polygon. It’s great to see Ridiculous Fishing finally released, but even better that it’s a great game.

It’s really three games in one: your lure paradoxically avoids every fish on the way down, thrusting down to catch the most exotic fish, but once one takes the bait it becomes a battle to collect as many as possible before your rod reaches the surface, spilling your catch into the air, and Billy whips out a shotgun to blast them apart for cash. Each new fishing hole brings increasingly preposterous fish and weapons until your lure spits saw blades and has a toaster dangling from the line to avoid accidental bicatch.

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In a year when microtransactions ruined console games such as Forza Motorsport 5 just like they’ve tarnished mobile, it’s great to see developers who still believe in the purity of a game as a finished and uncomprised work. Ridiculous Fishing provides the best of all mobile games: an endless game that can be completed; unlockable equipment unburdened by microtransactions; a game that’s as long as the Mariana Trench yet short enough to play on the toilet.

 


 

iPad game of the year

Alan:868-HACK is really special, but I couldn’t for the life of me tell you why,” writes Brendan Keogh in issue #5 of Five out of Ten. Michael Brough’s hacking roguelike/procedural death labyrinth is simple to describe – it’s a computer grid gauntlet populated with viruses that a player must overcome through strategy and guile – but somehow inscrutable. It’s not enough to unthinkingly dash through each room, as you’ll be eliminated by a daemon or glitch in seconds. You must continually ask yourself: what’s going on here? Why am I dead? Again?

I came to appreciate procedural death labyrinths a little more this year. Derek Yu’s Spelunky has a similar goal to 868-HACK: to force a player to learn its systems, rather than relying on luck or muscle memory. Procedural generation allows for a different kind of skill than the games of old. Rather than learning patterns of platforms, we must now learn patterns of behaviour. Rather than the linear corridors of a first person shooter’s campaign, think of the unpredictable arenas of multiplayer.

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The learning curve is steep, but the rewards are sweet. Yet completing 868-HACK is not the same as mastering it, as each new game unlocks different programs to utilise in strategies. For everything you figure out, there’s something new to learn. If you were alienated by Brough’s bizarre puzzler Corrypt, this is much more worthy of your time. It is clever and compelling, even when you are wiped out for the fifth time in a row.

868-HACK is really special, but I couldn’t for the life of me tell you why.

 


Craig's 'Best Game of Last Year of the Year' Award

Craig: The nice thing about reviewing a game a year after its release is that all the obvious points have already been made. Hopefully.

I imagine in other reviews – on other sites admittedly so banish that thought from your mind for the time being – you’ll find many, many words expounding on XCOM’s cleanly designed interface and smooth introduction of tactical elements. It sits wonderfully alongside Civilisation IV in the “Just One More Go” brainwashing cult.

The reason why I enjoyed it so much will now be written in small font in order to save myself some self-respect: XCOM makes me feel like a badass.

XCOM

It’s shameful really. It’s wholly generic sci-fi: generic invading aliens against Earth’s secret (and generic) military organisation.

I shouldn’t get as pumped up picking my squad (I blame the music), I shouldn’t devote so much time naming them (I blame myself for writing family trees) and I shouldn’t then become so attached to my alpha team that I’ll repeat missions not because I failed them but because I know I could do better.

My alpha team could do better and that soft, acrylic Earth deserved better.

In short it’s a turn-based tactical squaddy shooter and it’s totally badass.

 


Game of the Year Runner Up

Alan: Animal Crossing: New Leaf offers a holiday any time you want. Escape from the banality of your daily grind to a town filled with friendship and fishing, where money grows on trees and dinosaur fossils are buried in the soil. A place where the only jobs are the ones we concoct for ourselves, where materialism is so rampant that it loses all meaning. If the ultimate aim of The Sims is to create an exaggerated microcosm of life, then Animal Crossing aims for utopia instead.

After years of iterative sequels that didn’t add much to the Animal Crossing formula, New Leaf’s title can be taken literally. It feels like the way the game was always meant to be, with the online connectivity and sheer portability of the 3DS providing a holiday destination you can share with your friends and carry in your pocket. It takes advantage of the 3DS’s Streetpass and online functionality to bring a world of villages together in a way its DS and Gamecube predecessors never could.

Unlike The Sims, time in Animal Crossing passes in your absence. You’re a mayor, not a god, and the game gives back only to those who will put in the hours. That’s why it is so essential that the game is on a handheld console: untethered from a TV, free to pause at any time by closing the 3DS, you can visit your village whenever you like rather than whenever you’re in the living room and have two free hours.

I haven’t played New Leaf since Pokémon X was released, but I hope to return to Oinktown soon. In a remarkable year for the 3DS, when its status shifted from ‘compelling’ to ‘essential’, New Leaf is a standout title.


Game of the Year

Alan: At the inaugural Screenies, I made a mistake. I voted with my head for Mass Effect 2 as Game of the Year, but my heart belonged to Bayonetta. Voting head over heart is disingenuous; the games that truly matter are the ones that capture our hearts. You need to use both! There has been a change in thinking recently, where ‘Game of the Year’ lists have been populated with indie releases like Gone Home that are more meaningful than merely technically impressive (I loved Gone Home, it just didn’t make this shortlist).

So it’s time to vote with both my head and heart this time: my Game of the Year for 2013 is Spelunky.

“Wait a minute! That game came out in 2012!” I hear you cry. While Spelunky was originally released for free a few years ago, and its HD remaster reached the Xbox 360 last year, it’s only with its appearance on the PC, PS3 and Vita that Spelunky’s true brilliance was revealed – for me, at least.

Spelunky is a hard game. It’s not uncommon to die on the first stage, even with twenty hours of experience under your belt. I died 167 times on the PC version before defeating Olmec, and I’ve never faced him again. While it’s possible to learn your way through the game with trial and a lot of error, it’s more enjoyable and much quicker to learn through Lets Play videos. That’s where the Daily Challenge comes in.

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2013 was the year of the ‘indie’, but also the year of the broadcast. Streaming services like Twitch became more popular than ever. It’s no coincidence that the PlayStation 4 has streaming functionality built-in: every game can be watched by someone else, every personal moment can be shared online until it is utterly impersonal. An endless sea of digital memories, shared to everyone, mattering to no one.

Spelunky’s Daily Challenge, however, gives meaning to random streaming – and meaning to the game’s innate randomness. Every day, all players get one attempt at the same level. Once the Spelunky Explorers Club was founded, dedicated to sharing YouTube replays of Daily Challenges, things got really interesting. Players narrated their strategies as they played. I’d watch a couple and then see if I could avoid the mistakes of others. You were able to share in the same drama and challenges as other players without feeling like you’d had an unlucky roll of the die (no pun intended), because you’d seen them achieve what seemed impossible. It was fitting that when I first saw Olmec sink into the lava without the macroblocking artifacts of YouTube, it was on a Daily Challenge level.

Like 868-HACK, Spelunky is a game about systems. It’s a perfect balance of equipment, enemies and generated levels that lends itself to wonder and head-shaking hilarity. It’s often cruel, and has a wicked sense of humour, but is rarely unfair – Spelunky aficionados use the term YASD, for ‘Yet Another Stupid Death’, and after a few games you’ll understand why. Like chess, you need to think a few moves ahead to anticipate the reactions of monsters and traps. It’s not possible to predict everything, even if you’re a Spelunky grandmaster, but there’s a consistent logic to it. It wouldn’t really work unless it was a masterpiece of algorithms, rules and variables. Not all of these are explicitly quantified: you just know they’re in place, holding the universe together.

Twenty hours of play later, the City of Gold is still undiscovered; and in the bowels of Hell, King Yama’s Throne is unconquered. I’m still playing Spelunky. I should probably play something else.

The heart wants what the heart wants.


Relive the glory of years gone by:

The Screenies 2012 (video feature)
The Screenies 2011
The Screenies 2010

not-buying-shame

Not Buying – The Results

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An attempt to avoid buying games: a post-mortem

Back in February, I decided to stop buying new games for the rest of the year. This had… mixed results. At the time I wrote that I had Dishonored, Binary Domain and Dark Souls all sitting unplayed under my television, and well…

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They’re still there! I caved and bought BioShock Infinite on the week of release so that the story wasn’t ruined for me; but unfortunately, BioShock Infinite’s story ruins itself. I also bought a 3DS because I really wanted one. But that’s it! (Almost!) I received a few games as gifts over the year – at a low point my girlfriend gifted me Ridiculous Fishing, either out of sympathy of because she was sick of hearing about it. I made a list of every game I would have bought, but didn’t. Here are the results:

Didn’t Buy:

Grand Theft Auto V, Rayman Legends, The Witcher 2 (it was in a Steam sale), Papers Please, Gone Home, The Last of Us, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Tomb Raider, Far Cry 3, Brothers, Fire Emblem: Awakening, Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, The Stanley Parable.

Bought:

BioShock Infinite, Nintendo 3DS with Mario Kart 7, Super Mario 3D Land, Tetris (Virtual Console), Pokémon X, Antichamber, Redshirt, La-Mulana.

Was Gifted:

Animal Crossing: New Leaf, Spelunky, Shelter, Metal Gear Legacy, Outlast, Amnesia: Machine for Pigs.

iOS games that don’t count (even though I said they did in the original article):

Year Walk, Device6, rymdkapsel, 868-HACK, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (oh come on, they brought back Hidden Palace Zone!)


So the real question is: did it work? Was I able to clear a few games off the Pile of Shame, or is my life destined to repeat itself like a nightmare sitcom? Here are all the games I completed – or at least, played to the point of resignation – this year:

Halo 4, Uncharted 2, Uncharted 3, L.A. Noire, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, Nier, Zack and Wiki, Forza Motorsport 4, 868-HACK, Animal Crossing: New Leaf (sorry, Isabelle), Mario Kart 7, To The Moon, Dungeons of Dredmor, Thomas Was Alone, Antichamber (I lack the intelligence to finish it).

I’m currently playing Spelunky, Metal Gear Solid, Pokémon X, Super Mario 3D Land and Sonic and All Stars Racing Transformed. Not a bad effort, but the positives were more than just saving some money and having less guilt about my material possessions. Last year, I felt like I was ploughing through games just to ‘finish’ them: Vanquish is still in the Pile of Shame because I want to give it another playthrough on Hard, for example. I was reviewing a lot of games at the time, which didn’t help, and it started to feel like a box-ticking exercise. Instead, Uncharted 2 was a delight. I wouldn’t trade those fifty hours of Nier for any other game. It took several months of playing Spelunky to understand what made it so great.

I feel like I’ve finally escaped the hype cycle. It’s not that I no longer get excited for new games, just that my expectations are tempered by the realisation that I don’t need to play The Last of Us right now. If it’s great, it’ll be great in a year or two. And if it’s no longer great, that’s just as interesting. I think this distancing is increasingly necessary for good criticism.

In the next few days, I’ve got an exciting article being published on a mainstream gaming site about a game that was released in 1996. Thoughts take time to formulate, especially when they’re about our new favourite games. That’s why little of merit is written during a game’s launch week. Critics should to strive to free themselves from the expensive shackles of chasing the gaming zeitgeist. There are so many stories yet to be told about games that we overlooked and under-examined.

So I have decided… to continue the exercise. I’ve already talked about not buying an Xbox One or PS4, albeit for slightly different reasons. I still have so many games left to play, and I’m so excited about being able to play them and write about them, that it just doesn’t make sense to buy more. Perhaps the real question is, as you stare at that ever-increasing pile of games in your Steam library or next to the TV… when will you join me?