Second Meditation

Yeah, that was a hiatus. Time for a Second Meditation and it’s the biggest piece I’ve done written yet. The inspiration for this manifesto/rant came from reading a back-and-forth debate on the nature of New Games Journalism over a year ago. It occurred to me that neither side of the debate really grasped what NGJ was. Following this train of thought, I came to the conclusion that Kieron Gillen might not have known either. Fast forward a year and the Sony “Michael” advertising campaign has me a-thinking. That foetus of a NGJ rant is now a full-formed gaming philosophy theory. Like the first, this meditation is long and rambling, it tries to touch upon as many different features of the Theory as possible. In the end it reads more like a manifesto. Ho-hum!

The Existence of the Player Character

On this blog I’ve tried to ask questions that claw at the essential subject matter of games. From what we should properly understand as an RPG to what a definition of aesthetic beauty might be in relation to interactive art. Big questions, too much big to answer in the confines of a humble blog. But before we should even deal with them, there is one deeper question that needs to be asked (if not answered). The question is central to games writing; I argue that New Games Journalism should be properly understood as a mass positing of this question, holding it up as the most vital of all. The question is simply this: who(or what) is this phenomenon, the Player Character?

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Be Somewhere

When I was a child, there was always a computer in the house. I grew up with an interest in games, however most of the games my parents owned were violent; DOOMs and Quakes which I was permitted to watch being played but never to play myself. They wanted me to grow up some more before I was allowed to shoot demons in the face. However, I wasn’t banished from the computer entirely; whenever there was some free education game with a box of cereal or something small and non-violent I could play along. I want to tell you of the first ever virtual worlds I was allowed to explore. It’s not a story I’ve ever told anyone, but in me, and maybe in you, it may remind of that original, childlike wonder that all games had when we were young.

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Supertheory of Supereverything

Okay, here goes nothing. Games can tell stories, they can elicit responses, emotions, they can give us all sorts of experiences. There is no doubt games can include art and often do, but what about the games design itself, how does that manage to be artistic? How can the mechanics of a game themselves affect us, how can interactivity itself be used to affect us? Everyone has their own answer to this question, as far as I can see here is where we need to found a new (well, fairly new) discipline. The answer to those questions isn’t simple; the answer is an entire new field of study, an entire new subject to research. All games designers are always answering this question in their own way, there are whole disciplines actually contained in this larger one. While books have been written on the subject and it’s the theme of countless blogs, I’ve yet to see a truly compelling account of the new field of study as a whole. Setting aside theories on how to actually make games that can affect us, what are the different tools we have available, at the most abstract? What paradigms can we work within? I’ve come up with a list of things only games can do, the classic examples of what we can do with interactive media. There may well be some I’ve missed (hopefully!), though it is intended to be as all-encompassing as possible. Here we go!

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Making Computer Games Is Easy

Well, not really. Obviously the process of actually making a real game is laboriously difficult and beset with more problems than you could ever presuppose (which is sort of the point), so difficult that any project of any size will find it hard to ever estimate how long their game will take to make. If we are talking man hours to actual end content making games is ludicrously difficult.

So maybe we can say finishing a game is hard, but actually making one? As in, getting out a tech demo/general proof of concept and letting it evolve? Now that, well that isn’t that hard. Getting the basic skeleton out of a game – if we are talking about indie games (and right now I’d like to) then we are probably looking at a clever variation on an old gaming trope. “Mario-but-with…” is the standard, and everyone knows how to make Mario. Actually getting your Mario+Variation to be a fun, challenging game (or a game that elicits an emotional response or -gasp! both) is trickier but experience has shown us its a manageable task. Hundreds of these things come out every year, all of varying quality, but with a little application any small team can release their own Mario-with-a-quirk game. Maybe we’ll never know the blood, sweat and tears that went into making all these little gems, but we can observe that right now the indie scene is damn good at producing them.

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Designing Computer Games Is Hard

Snarky gaming article commenters are total bastards. I’m one of the worst bastards. Designing games is really, really hard! I encourage anyone that has ever ruthlessly criticised a game to actually sit down and plan step-by-step a game they think would be better, on any level. Its fucking difficult, we are such bastards to constantly deride these people (not that we should ever stop).

I’m in the midst of designing my first real game now (and by that I mean the first game I’ll finish), and even with heavy expectations I’m finding myself shocked at every step how fucking difficult it is. I can sum up the problem (or the demonic host of problems) designers face in one, ugly word:


Every single step of games design, and I mean EVERY step is a pain compromise. Any actual designers will be nodding their heads sagely at this point, I’m sure. Here is the problem folks, here is the reason All Games Are Shit ™:

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Beauty in Games

The New York skyline, The Grand Canyon, Mt Fuji, The Alps, The Acropolis, Cueva de los Cristales, The undergrowth of The Amazon Rainforest, Delphi (or the mountain path that leads to it!), the Tomb of Tutankhamun.

What do these places have in common? They are stunning to experience. More than that they are exciting – sheer drops, cliff-faces, dangerous dark passages, precarious paths   nature or architecture it its most brutal and constricting it is often at its most beautiful. This places excite the senses, spark the imagination, leave us with a sense of wonder. It follows that these are the most exciting settings for games too, right?

Well, no, not really. Not at all, to be honest,  the opposite tends to be the case. These sorts of locations are probably the most common in games, for obvious reasons. A restrictive environment that channels the player through a certain path but is still beautiful has always been the ideal choice for games designers. We’ve seen these sorts of settings time and time again – narrow passages, precarious mountain paths. Apart from when they are really, REALLY pretty (see Uncharted 2) these settings no longer excite us. A good explanation would be that this is just because they are so common   gotten used to pyramids and cliffs and tiny, ornate passages. They were fun the first time but now? We focus on whatever is meant to be going ON in these locations (normally dealing with whatever is trying to kill us – and generally killing it back). I have another explanation for why these settings are so impressive in real life – and in film, yet not in games.

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Loving Fable II

These words were written just after the release of Fable II on these shores, I was knee-deep in the game and full of wonder – Far Cry 2 had just proved a disapointment and then out of nowhere this strange console RPG changed all my premonitions on the future of the genre.

You’ve travelled far, fought off packs of bandits, beetles and all sorts of nasties, and have the scars to show it. Weary from travel dirtied with grime and blood, you haul your battered hero down the last stretch of road to Oakfield. You blink your eyes, the dreary, grey palette of the bandit-ridden road so suddenly replaced by sparkling green, yellow and blue. Emerald grass glistens in the noon sun, a windmill spins happily in the distance against a clear blue sky. Merry cottages with golden thatch sit at the feet of tidy patches of farmland. Villages tend to chickens at their pens, modest stalls adorn the worn roads. You spy a pub on the other side of the bustling river. A man with at thick west-country accent waves a warm hello to you as you stand, in awe.
“Wow” you may well stop to think, “These people have it so much better off than me”

You may even stop to think, why are you questing on like this anyway, risking life and limb, fighting hordes of generic baddies, putting your own personal safety (and good looks) at risk? Wouldn’t it just be perfect to settle down in Oakfield, buy a farm, get a wife, and spend the rest of your days earning a modest lumberjack’s wage? It’d make a change, wouldn’t it?

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March 2019
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