Thursday, 3 July 2014

Resident Evil: Bring Back Puzzles



Put a red gem into a stuffed tiger's eye to get a pistol. Set fire to a painting to find a jewel. Stick a coin in a fountain to retrieve a key.

These are the solutions to puzzles in Resident Evils 1 and 2. Lateral, weird, amusing, they're examples of twisted survival horror logic, where bizarre combinations of items are usually the way forward. Time was scary games thrived on this shit: Silent Hill, Clock Tower and Hellnight are all late-nineties examples of backwards horror conventions. But around 2000, and the launch of Resident Evil 3, things started to change. Abstraction gave way to concreteness. Confusion replaced confidence. Horror was cast aside in favour of action. Rather than daffy game logic, ostensible frightening games started to operate on more familiar, real-world terms. The central puzzle in RE3 is finding components to fix the engine of a tram car: fuse, oil, battery. Contrast that with RE2, where the rear exit of a police station is opened using electronic keys shaped like chess-pieces, and you see where survival horror was heading. It was changing, along with the rest of old-guard game genres at the start of the 21st century, into something more akin to an "experience". It was becoming slick, cohesive, uncomplicated. In this new hybrid brand of action-horror, tangled puzzle logic had no position. It'd just slow people down, make them frustrated. It had to go.


Which brings us to today, a time when game developers wouldn't know good horror if it jumped them from the back seat of a car. It's not that designers like Visceral or Frictional have forgotten about horror. It's that, in a blind rush to do something with the genre that's new, these guys have neglected everything save for monsters and combat. That's all horror is now. It's a weak mix of creatures and subversive mechanics. In Dead Space the enemies are all crazy arms. You have to - fnar fnar - shoot their limbs, not their bodies. In Amnesia, the monster has a wild face and you can't fight it at all. Slender, Outlast, Penumbra, Daylight - these games all trade on the same floor. As long as the creature looks weird (or distinctive enough to use in the promotional art) and the combat system is odd (odd enough that it'll draw a reaction from bored reviewers) the directors on these games seem satisfied. They've given up on horror as a quixotic ordeal. It's about what makes sense on a design document.

Pitch confusing puzzles to a publisher or focus group and sure, you'll get a negative (read: shortsighted) response. But put them in your game anyway and bang, you're scarier than everything else on the market. Because this is what horror is. Horror isn't safety or understanding - horror isn't about getting it. Horror is running through the woods not knowing what the Blair Witch looks like. Horror is turning a corner in the Overlook Hotel and coming face-to-face with two dead girls. Horror is the impossible milky innards of Ash, the surprise death of Father Karras. Horror is uncertainty, lack of agency, surprise. It's a puzzle where the solution is the last thing you'd expect, a mansion where guns are hidden in stuffed animals, a police station where the doors are unlocked with chess pieces.


It's about displacement, see? You take the player, put them in a seemingly banal environment, then flip that shit over. Think of the apartment block in Rosemary's Baby. It should be normal, but thanks to Polanski's low angles, and Cassavettes's always off kilter delivery, it doesn't feel right. Same goes for the mansion, or the RPD building. These are places players feel like they should recognise, but because the keys are all funny and the doors are all bolted by abstract locking systems, it's backwards - it's vaguely fucking wrong. Puzzles aren't important because they break up homogenous gameplay, or because they're a tip of the hat to point and click fans. They're fundamentally a part of horror because they pump, surreptitiously, misinformation into the player's mind. It's like listening to a pop song at three quarters speed. It isn't in your face - it isn't teasing you, smugly, that you can't kill the monster. It's benign. It's getting in your brain.


If you want to know where the horror really went...it wasn't shot out of the barrel of a machine-gun, via an over-the-shoulder perspective. It was delicately written out. It was filtered away by a bunch of developers who thought that wrongfooting people was what it meant to be scary. Horror games today are the equivalent of a jump scare - they're in your face, with their massive conceits, yelling "GOT YA!".  It's all for show. It's all ironed-out and deliberate. Real horror is strange and abortive - it's rough and non-sensical. If people want scary back, they need to start hiding more keys in more tigers.


Monday, 30 June 2014

Let me tell you about freelancing


I've seen a lot of posts from editors over the last week lamenting the state of game criticism, or positing ways that it needs to change. A lot of what they say is noble, well-meaning, but they always miss something out: for any of this to happen, people need to start opening their fucking wallets.

I can't tell you how many times I've had this email: "Hey Ed. I really like this idea, but unfortunately we don't have the budget for this right now." Sure. Fine. By all means, sites can spend their money on trips to E3, analysis of trailers of whatever the fuck. But it's a bit rich for the editors of said sites to then turn around and start rhapsodising about game crit being in a bad way. If it's better writing you want, you have to pay for it. Like anyone interested in games, I'd love to see more long-form features and analysis, more proper journalism. But I'm not in this just because it's a worthy cause. This is my job. I have rent to pay. If you don't have the budget for this kind of work, because you've spunked it all on travelling to where a PR said you should, then tough shit. You have to pay for change. You can't tear down the current status quo in the hope of rebuilding it on the back of good will. What we want - what we need - is for decent game criticism to become a viable business. And you, you editors who seem to want this change more than anything, you're the ones controlling the money, so start spending it on the right things. Your readers will read whatever you give them. Most of them are tired of the same old shit anyway - most of them have been playing games for years and can smell a bullshit story from a mile off. We all want to feel like games are of genuine cultural worth. Gamers want ammunition when it comes to the debate about games being art - they want something to pull out of their pocket when their peers or parents say playing games is a waste of time. So give it to them. Throw some money at the genuinely insightful freelancers who want to write 1500 words on why Splinter Cell is a post-9/11 masterpiece, or why Call of Duty is actually just horseshit. You want change, you want games to be more than they are? Then start fucking paying for it.

Or at least be polite. If someone pitches you an article that's researched, articulated and that they've spent a long time thinking about, reply to them, even if you don't want to run it. I know you editors are busy and it's fucking draining to go through and respond to every pitch, but guess what, if you don't keep these people on side, the quality of your output will never improve. Yeah, we're freelance game critics, but we still have SOME pride, and every time we spend weeks working up a good article idea, only to have it flat ignored, it fucking knocks our confidence. Do that to us enough times and soon you won't get any pitches. You'll fucking alienate the people that, ostensibly, you're trying to court. This is a two way street. You want to Change Game Journalism, we want to make some money so at the very least, let's talk. I'm gonna time myself to see how long it takes to write a rejection email: "Hey Ed. Thanks for emailing, but we're gonna pass on this one - thanks." 15 seconds. And when you do it, you won't have to reach for the shift button to put speech marks in. That's it. It might seem like a waste of your time, but one day, that person you ignored could come up with something that wins your site an award.

You're probably thinking that I'm some disgruntled fuck who can't get a gig, but no: I'm one of the less than one percent that manages to make a living out of freelance game criticism, and I'm grateful. I won't be going on holiday or nothing, and I never have more than a week's wages in the bank, but I'm surviving, just, which is more than a lot of talented writers - more talented than me - can say for themselves. I'm not writing this because I'm personally pissed off. I've just spotted an hypocrisy is all. Like I said, you can't complain about the state of game criticism and then turn people down because you don't "have the budget." If you legitimately do want change, cough the fuck up for it. Revolutions aren't free. You don't just blow the trains up, you have to pay to make them run on time. If I'm wrong, tell me. If I don't get the budgetary process or the pressures of editorial, let me know. That's a start at least, some fucking communication. And if it can't be done - if our New Wave of criticism isn't financially stable - then just say it. I'll go back to my old job, working on the construction site. I'll make ends meet, work on my novel in the evenings and ten other hopeful kids will take my place in this faltering so-called industry. If you're never gonna step up and fork out, because you're scared of losing traffic or alienating PRs, just say so. Don't um and ah. Don't blow hot and cold. If this truly is what you all want, then start fucking shelling out for it, because it's not going to happen otherwise. There's the ring. Get the fuck in it. We're ready to write for you and we need the money.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Don't vote UKIP - An email to my dad


I feel like I wasn't able to properly articulate myself on the phone the other night. So, I've spent a few days doing some research and fact-collecting and I think you should take the time to read these things over before going to the polls.

First, you asked me about the amount of government money that is spent on foreign aid compared to the amount spent on the NHS.

The DFID (Department for Internal Development) estimates that roughly £11 billion is spent annually by the British government on foreign aid. In its own report, the NHS states that, in the financial year 2012/2013, its budget was £105bn. You find can those statistics for yourself here and here

I also told you that the spending on foreign aid amounted to roughly 1.1 percent of the UK's total budget. That figure was wrong. It is actually, now, closer to 0.7 percent. 

You might also want to know how that foreign aid money is spent. Again, according to the DFID, 40 percent of it, around £2.1bn, is diverted to African nations. Some recent news stories regarding Africa:

A further 25 percent of foreign aid money is sent to Asia, which contains Syria. 150,000 people have now been killed as part of the country's civil war, with a further 2 million forced to leave their homes. If you think this isn't or shouldn't be Britain's problem, it's worth reading up on the 1948 Syrian civil war, which was sparked when Britain took self-interested political control of the country after World War 2. The events of that war and, by proxy, Britain's foreign policy, created deeper divisions between the Arab and Jewish indigenous populations. The current crisis is an aftershock of that.

As a rough estimate, the foreign aid budget, per British person, per year, is £200. If you want to take that money away from these people, go ahead, vote UKIP.

Your other concern was Britain's membership of the European Union and how that affects trade, immigration and the budget.

First the financial implications. Britain's largest industry is pharmaceuticals and chemicals, providing roughly 320,000 jobs and generating £53bn each year. 56 percent of all goods sold by this industry are to fellow EU nations, which thanks to European legislation, share common laws regarding the trade and marketing of prescription drugs. If Britain left the EU, and abandoned European law, it would have to individually negotiate deals with all of the 28 EU countries it deals with, an expensive process which would detrimental to the industry.

Membership of the EU also facilitates easier investments into Britain from member states. Collectively, the EU comprises around 500 million people, with a total GDP (gross domestic profit) of £10 trillion. Abandoning the Union would, again, complicate these investments and shrink the UK economy.

2013 survey of small and large businesses, conducted by the Confederation of British Industry, found that 78 percent of British business owners would prefer to remain as part of the European Union, due to these trade benefits. Also worth noting is that Britain's paid contribution to the EU, per year, is around £8bn, or less than half a percent of total GDP. That's £130 per person.

Bear in mind that Britain is a small, island nation, contributing less than 3 percent of the world's total GDP. Without the clout of the EU behind it, it has no basis to negotiate trade deals with major players such as China and the US. The Global Times, China's state newspaper, wrote in 2013"The Cameron administration should acknowledge that the UK is not a big power in the eyes of the Chinese. It is just an old European country apt for travel and study." Britain can't turn its back on the larger global powers. It is not The Empire any more. 

Baroness Shirley Williams, a former Lib Dem member of the House of Lords, puts it best:

"The shrinking of the vision will also shrink our ideas, our attitudes and the scale of our innovations. It would be the cautious move of a relatively elderly society deciding to abdicate from any major global role. The once-upon-a-time alternative to the EU, our relationship with America, is no longer the option that it might have been. Our most powerful ally is increasingly multicultural, rather than Anglo Saxon, and its major strategic interests lie predominantly in Asia.
"America's interest in us is as a leading member of the EU and that is the one option that gives us global influence. On the economic side, it is clear some international investors will think very hard about staying here should we leave the EU. That is because they see us as a bridge nation – the nation that bridges the Atlantic and acts as a launching pad into the EU single market. If we are not involved in the EU, the key investors in Japan, the US and, increasingly, China will not see us as the best place in which to base their industries."

As part of the EU, Britain also receives aid in the form of Structural Funds, money that is accumulated by member EU states and then awarded on a case-by-case basis. Over the next five years, England alone will receive over £6 billion in Structural Funds, Wales £2 billion, Scotland £795 million, and Northern Ireland £457 million. Leaving the EU would cost the country this money.

This is perhaps the best article to read on the financial implications of leaving Europe. It's based on a report published by a Eurosceptic think-tank called Open Europe.

Abandoning the EU altogether will not be a solution to any, let alone all of the Britain's problems. Instead, a lot of people advocate a process of renegotiation, whereby, things like restrictive EU agricultural laws, which increase the price of food, are opted out of. Britain can be part of the EU and enjoy the trade benefits without having to ascribe to all European laws. That, surely, is a worthy compromise. 

Now, immigration. A few statistics for you from "The In/Out Question," a book by Reuters editor and researcher Hugo Dixon:
- EU membership allows free emigration to other member states. There are 1 million British people living in Spain, 330,000 in France, 65,000 in Cyprus and a further 330,000 living in Ireland. If the UK abandoned the EU, and ejected immigrants from the country or closed its borders, it's likely a lot of these people - British emigrants - would likewise be sent back the Britain. Membership allows unbridled travel for tourists and emigres. That's an advantage.

- As for immigrants arriving from the EU, their "inactivity rate" - i.e. people who are unemployed, retired or otherwise not working - is 30 percent. That's compared to 43 percent, when looking at the native UK population. 32 percent of EU immigrants are university educated, compared to 21 percent of native Brits. The point being, a large amount of people arrive from the EU to work, not in menial roles specifically, but in engineering, medicine and other professions. Statistically, "we" are lazier than "them."

Here's another interesting report, based on a survey conducted by King's College London and the Royal Statistical society. It discounts a lot of public perceptions about crime, immigration, benefit payments, foreign aid and employment. The key finding, in regards to UKIP's manifesto, is:

"Some 31 percent of the population is thought to consist of recent immigrants, when the figure is actually 13 percent. Even including illegal immigrants, the figure is only about 15 percent. On the issue of ethnicity, black and Asian people are thought to make up 30 percent of the population, when the figure is closer to 11 percent."

Speaking  of the UKIP manifesto...

Here it is. Some key points it makes:

- "Green spaces should be protected - we oppose HS2, excessive housing development and wind farms." UKIP plans to axe tax subsidies for the construction of wind turbines, and revert to shale gas for the country's main energy supply. Considering global fuel and pollution crises, that seems like a bad idea. However, it's also worth noting that the Conservative government plans to do the same thing, as it believes the UK's wind farm quota has already been filled.

- "We need more police on the streets, cracking down on crime and anti-social behaviour." This is typical firebrand rhetoric which (see above) does not reflect the true situation, i.e., that crime is at an all time low. Worth watching is the documentary The House I Live In, which explains why aggressive, street-bust policing is not a long-term solution to crime.

- "Real decision-making should be given to local communities." David Cameron tried this with his "Big Society" idea, but it failed. People want big government, not isolated pockets, governing themselves. Government protects people and their rights. Communities don't.

- "Money should be used for local services, not the EU, foreign aid and foreign wars." Again, see above. The money spent on these things is minuscule and widely beneficial to both the UK and people in other countries, to whom this country owes a debt.


- "Immigrants must financially support themselves and their dependents for 5 years. This means private health insurance (except emergency medical care), private education and private housing - they should pay into the pot before they take out of it." This is essentially a surreptitious way of saying "no-one will be allowed in." Can you afford private health and education? Can I? Can my friends? No. UKIP is constructing legislation that will, in effect, prevent anybody from being able to afford emigrating to Britain.

- "Enrol unemployed welfare claimants onto community schemes or retraining workfare programmes." I've been unemployed. This won't help. It'll prevent people from looking for more meaningful work. Also, shouldn't these jobs - litter-picking, street-cleaning, so on - be available to people as full-time positions, with wages, benefits, etc? Why should people do this work if they aren't getting proper money for it? How does giving people a job, but still classifying them as unemployed, help to improve the unemployment situation?

- "Remove the UK from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights." The EU Court of Human Rights is one of the most rigid, progressive defense courts in the world. It protects the rights of women, the disabled and the wrongly accused. Britain is a moral country. It can't abandon this moral organisation.

- "Make welfare a safety net for the needy, not a bed for the lazy. Benefits only available to those who have lived here for over 5 years." Contrary to hysterical news reports, the majority of benefit money is claimed by pensioners, not fraudsters and not "the lazy." UKIP is a party that wants to punch down, to trample the most vulnerable members of British society in order to benefit the most privileged. It's acting in interest of itself and its members, not the body politic. 

- "No to political correctness." This is a vague policy that sounds like it was thought up by Alf Garnett. I don't want to have to listen to white people refer to my black or Asian friends using derogatory words, and to feel like that's acceptable. People should be made to feel guilty about racism, homophobia and sexism. Those things don't represent free-speech, in its noble form at least. They represent unchecked ignorance.

I hope you've read and digested all of this. I hope if you know anyone who is also considering voting UKIP, you'll forward it to them.

If you vote for UKIP, you're voting for Britain to become un-British. This is a nation that, politically, for the past 100 years, has been geared towards welfare, unbridled capitalism and inclusivity. The founding of the NHS. The deregulation of the stock exchange. Gay marriage laws. These are what define Britain's social and legislative make-up. UKIP would see the country become a shriveled, isolationist island nation, with no power or understanding of the global stage. It's a selfish party. It will not operate in the interests of the British people, let alone the rest of the world.

Please don't waste your vote.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014


"Look, in this day and age, you've got to be tooled up."

There is, absolutely, no excuse for ignorance. You can't turn on, tune in, drop out - you have the resources and it's your prerogative to use them.

Between now and the end of civilization, we, us humans, are in the age of the internet. The acquisition of knowledge is no longer dependent on library cards, learned parents or even schooling. For all intents and purposes anyone anywhere can discover and unpick any piece of information from recorded past and present. We can all know everything. We're the first generation to have access to prosthetic intelligence - even if we don't have a fact or opinion to hand, we can look it up, we can get it.

But are we creating a vacuum, a lineage of people who, granted access to all knowledge will in fact end up knowing nothing? Will the persistent and free availability of wisdom foster a populace that is not, in a true sense, wise? When something is benign, ubiquitous, merely just "there" it provokes lethargy and disinterest. People who born into wealth don't appreciate money as much as the pauper, who has worked his whole life to earn enough to buy a house. With information now available everywhere and at every hour of the day, it is no longer precious, no longer a rarity or a resource. There's no urgency in acquiring it. So will we bother?



Thursday, 3 April 2014

In an anxious state


No escape from this wretched state. No escape, it seems.

The goddamn anxiety. It starts as you might expect. Shortness of breath in crowded shopping centres. Inability to speak in front of large groups of people. And then it progresses. It peels back further into the mind until one day you're too nervous to even stand up and turn off the television set. You lie on the sofa, arms clasped around you, staring into the wall, hoping to God and Jesus that there won't be a knock on the door, that the phone won't ring. You become paralysis. Your mind locks down like a cell block at lights out. Sleep is your only distraction, but it's always rough. You sweat and shiver like the dying patriarch in a Victorian novel. When you wake up an hour later, you continue to lie on your side, eyes half-lidded, totally expressionless. "Maybe," you ask "I should take a walk outside." But your body doesn't answer. Any semblance of self is locked away now in a corner of the mind so tiny the muscles don't listen to it. The disease is in control. It's holding all the keys, pulling all the levers.

There must be some kind of way out of here.

Kill-stealing


It occurred to me while playing an online shooter that videogames have birthed the most reprehensible notion in the history of mainstream entertainment: kill-stealing. How in God and Jesus did we allow this to happen? No matter how frightening, bloody or well-dramatised a videogame murder could one day be, while we still conflate killing with winning, our beloved medium will never be artistically acceptable, and rightly so. In good fiction, the death of a person doesn't feel like a victory, either to the audience or other characters. Sonny Corleone, Omar Little, Desdemona. These deaths are detrimental, vicious, a tectonic change in the direction of narrative. But in online games, what we have are men and women arguing about killing in the same way they'd debate who'd deserves the larger half of a pizza. It's lower than trivial. It's plain ugly, like two sharks fighting over a length of intestine. The act of killing isn't about point-scoring or victory. It's about the very ugliest of human emotions, the lowest of low points. Since Space Invaders, videogames have instructed us that the more we kill, the closer we get to winning. And now we're at the zenith, where in our most popular games, people are fighting over who gets to be the murderer, as if chasing pennies scattered across the floor of an arcade. We haven't just made killing fun or spectacular - we've made it life-affirming. We've cultivated an audience of pure sadists, who kill for positive emotional feedback. At this point, even games like Spec Ops: The Line, where the more the character kills, the more insane he becomes, are not enough. On a ludic level, killing in Spec Ops is still the point of the game - it's still the one thing you have to do over and over in order to resolve the narrative, i.e. win. Compared to the symbiotic relationship between killing and winning that lies at the core of videogames, the decent writing and authorial intent in Spec Ops are ignorable. The pattern still repeats itself, in Spec Ops and elsewhere. What can be done?


Wednesday, 2 April 2014


Miasma. Bad air. You can't see it, but you can feel it entering your body each time you step outside.

Being a teenager in the early years of the 21st century was a very special thing to experience, secondary school and university even more so. Now, as an adult, nothing can come close to those short and busy years. There's no freedom or fancy anymore, no love or spontaneity or imagination. Life ends as soon as you become a grown-up. Deep in our hearts, we all know that this is the one chance we get - this is it. And still, we're expected to live up to obligations, expectations and responsibilities. Our lives, our one and only lives, are not meant to be joyful or recognised. We live merely to sustain; to provide; to do what we have to do. We live because there is nothing else to do. Nothing is great. Nothing is good. It's all just ok. And we keep going.

Perhaps I'm not thinking straight:  there is nothing more morose and self-absorbed than a man in the grips of a month-long depression. But what wouldn't you do to escape this hideousness? And I don't mean your day job, your marriage, your illness. I mean it all, every atom and cloud that comprises what we coin life. Given another option, some different reality, some alternate form of existing, would you take it? If to exist could mean more than just to live, if you were allowed to choose, for example, at birth, what kind of existence you'd prefer, what reality you'd like to live in, what sentient or unsentient being you'd like to be, is this what you would choose? I can't outline specific scenarios - like you, my imagination has crumpled over time under the brunt of proof that this, Earth, the Universe, is the sum total of everything. But try to envision another universe. Space and time but not as you know it. A life completely unfamiliar to you, unsampled by anything that has existed in our reality up to this point. Imagine it - something different, something good - and wonder whether here and now is what you want or merely what you have to make do with.

There is, of course, no escape. However much you might want to disappear you are trapped in your body, trapped in this universe by physical logic and laws that prohibit magic.

This is the illness talking. I used to see sparks strike every time I opened my eyes. Efficient, structured, discernible - the machinery of our universe was once, in my mind, the most wondrous thing. But now, just five years after I turned 18, it fills me with dread, dread that life, famine, misery, suffering, cruelty, all of it, is inescapable and that life is merely a prison.