Does the games industry get a free pass on free speech?

In 2019, Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney released a statement championing free speech after the controversial banning of Hong Kong-born Hearthstone player Blitzchung by Activision Blizzard, when the player shouted “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age” in a post-match interview. Sweeney said “Epic supports everyone’s right to express their views on politics and human rights.” in a tweet following the event. 

For those Fortnite players in the USA or the UK, those words will ring true – but for the millions of Chinese citizens who are under strict surveillance laws, where free speech is curtailed and freedom of religion results in mass detention – those words will seem rather hollow. Tim Sweeney may believe in championing the right to express views on politics and human rights, but the Chinese state – who, via Tencent own a 40% minority stake in Epic Games – do not. 

Activision Blizzard were quick to condemn the actions of Blitzchung at a major tournament after he was openly critical of the Chinese government, in much the same way that CD Project Red backtracked on the release of “controversial” Taiwanese game Devotion due to an in-game easter egg that satirizes the Chinese state leader Xi Xinping. The Chinese authorities are already using their growing financial power to exercise censorship on both the games people play and the comments they make whilst they play them – something contradictory to Sweeney’s statement declaring support for expressing ones views on politics and human rights freely. 

Now, as Israel and Palestine are on the eve of war in retaliation to the illegal ethnic displacement of Palestinians in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of the occupied Palestinian states – two games industry publications have pulled stories promoting charitable causes and practical ways to support oppressed Palestinians.

Both IGN and Game Informer posted features early last week that encouraged support of various Palestinian aid charities and campaigns. Soon after, both articles were removed from their respective websites. Fanbyte later reported that the decision to remove the IGN article was taken by its corporate parent company J2 Global, without consent of the editorial team. A later statement declaring that the publication didn’t wish to take sides was also posted without consent of the editorial team. It is as yet unknown why the Game Informer article was pulled.

The games industry has historically had a difficult relationship with politics – the age-old saying of “we don’t want politics in our games” still reverberates across much of the fanbase when there are calls for action against transphobia, anti-vaccine rhetoric, and war crimes. Unfortunately for those who want to keep politics out of their games, I have some bad news for you. Politics is alive and well in the games industry – and a pretty abhorrent politics at that.

Galvanised by fans under the supposed political sanitation of the games medium, the industry is under threat of losing its ability to be critical, exercise a free and independent press, and have free creative and political thought. Irrespective of the focus of the publication, journalists in Western democracies are free to express their opinions and beliefs, and to use their platform as journalists to share stories they believe are of value. In the same breath, those who develop games or play them professionally are of equal merit to use their platforms to speak out against inequality, express their views, and support causes.

We have a choice as fans, players, developers, and critics to condemn censorship in all forms – or to sit idly as corporate and financial power is exerted over those who wish to speak openly about injustices across the globe.

Tim Sweeney may stand boldly in support of freedom of expression – but many who sit shoulder to shoulder with him seek to undermine the rights of journalists and creatives to speak out. As Imran Khan at Gamebyte succinctly puts it – “When their ability to do that is forcibly taken away, we all suffer for it.”

Game Jamming Depression: Making sense of mental health through play

“What if we put those shitty motivational cat pictures on the back that say “hang in there” and “grab your dreams”” one of the students prompts me – I find it impossible to stifle a laugh and as a group we decide to oblige the request. Such is the way of a game jam – a cavalcade of bonkers ideas that might just work and a pressing deadline that often means the craziest idea that makes you all laugh is the one you end up forced to go ahead with. Game Jams have been a tool for innovation in industries for years, but their application in education stretches beyond the conventional and can help tackle wider social issues many of us struggle to talk about.

A number of students I work with have spoken to me about having issues with their mental health – whether it be family related, causing lateness, or a difficult period in their lives. The subject of mental health among young people has become a prescient one over recent years – and the issue of broaching it complicated (and something I was not entirely prepared for) . Young people must now contend with incredibly complex and immediate crises, and the accessibility of information and political mobilisation of our young people over issues like climate change has understandably nurtured a sense of hopelessness, fear, and anxiety.

As adults we are still navigating these deeply-rooted issues in our society, and with failing mental health provision in our country it has become more difficult than ever to seek help in a time of national unrest and uncertainty. With so many issues surrounding mental health among adults still unsolved, how can we empower our young people to turn anxiety and unhappiness into the power to change, and tackle these issues with an openness that our generation has only begun to realise?

Videogames have always been a great way of helping me make sense of the world and their cooperative and collaborative nature has on more than one occasion helped me through a difficult time. Similarly to this, I have always championed Game Jams as the ready-made platform for problem solving – whether you’re a game designer, entrepreneur, chef, or teacher, the game jam format celebrates creative thinking and ideation in a way that is often reckless fun and surprisingly helpful. Games and education have had a tumultuous relationship at best, and the present mainstream narrative would suggest that games do more to harm children than help them. Game Jams are a wonderful resource for challenging this stigma and showcasing some of the more productive elements of games and games design.

Prototyping solutions to tough questions can be an invaluable resource – especially if you have fun whilst doing it. If we can problem solve creative solutions to difficult game elements or work practices through a game jam – why can’t we game jam mental health?

When talking to a friend about how they feel, mental health advocates Time to Change recommend sitting side-by-side as opposed to opposite, or engaging in a fun activity together. These elements are often inherent in games and utilising them to help nurture discourse, improve emotional literacy, and provide a friend with comfort, can be hugely powerful. So with a short brief written with the aid of mental health and gaming gurus Gaming the Mind, eight boxes full of random resources, and three hours – I asked the students to “create a game that can be played in five minutes and could help a friend during a difficult time”. Here’s some of the games they came up with:

One. Word. Depression. is a game in which players take turns to create a sentence one word at a time, starting with “Today. I. Felt.”. This would lead to fantastically long-winded sentences about the anxiety of leaving inappropriate images open on the computer – but the notion of exploring feelings through words never left the heart of the game. When someone wants to explain to a friend how they’re feeling, maybe it helps just to say the word out loud, even if it is followed by profanity.

Let Them Out is a charades-style drawing game that pits players against each other to draw the best monster, with each monster corresponding to an emotion chosen from a deck of cards. One player places this card on their head and must closely examine the drawings of all other players to find the emotion hidden within the toothless grins and bulging eyes of the quickly-drawn creatures. The drawing with the best representation wins the card, appropriately backed with a cute cat picture and a motivational quote. Again, this was a great tool for improving emotional literacy – many students were at first unaware that the words written down were feelings at all. Also, the cathartic nature of drawing creepy monsters cannot go unmentioned.

These creative solutions are not only great tools for discussing your mental health with a friend – but the process of ideation and creation meant that the students were discovering a wider vocabulary and building a safe, inviting environment to question what makes them feel good, and how they would express when they don’t. Having played these games myself they are also a lot of fun, and a far cry from the stagnant image of the “educational game” we have come to think of. Far from it, they are innovative and creativity-driven solutions by a group of young people who are contending with issues I have yet to find a way to truly contend with – and all this with a brash openness that says yes to talking about how you feel, yes to help from a friend, and yes to shitty motivational cat pictures.

Videogame Takeaway Podcast Episode 4 – The Perfect Co-op Game

Here is episode 4 (apologies for the wait), where the three of us celebrate our love of co-op games; Marc’s fond experiences of Army of Two, Brandon’s desire for Takeshi’s Castle: The Game, and Lewis’ nostalgic PS2 playthroughs with his brother. To top it off we toast to our new futures, to episode 4, and to 4 player games with a soon-to-be standardised Videogame Takeaway Cava Break.

Spiderman: Far From Home – A Recurring Marvel Fever Dream That Echoes Insomniac’s PS4 Spiderman in All the Wrong Ways

The cinema has become somewhat a painful experience for me now – it serves as a final bastion of hope to save those superhero and otherwise blockbusters that I once swooned over. If the big screen, roaring audio and salty popcorn can’t save this film, then nothing can. So in keeping with this I figured my best chances of getting some real enjoyment out of Marvel Studios’ new Spiderman outing Far From Home, I put what little of my childhood still sacred on the line once more for another two hours or so of MCU fare.

Lets just say the five minutes of the film I enjoyed were made ever-more spectacular by my decision to watch the film in the cinema, and for that I suppose the visit was worth it (the popcorn wasn’t bad either). However, the other 124 minutes were like a fever dream; a shudder-inducing deja-vu; a recurring nightmare I had grown oh-so tired of. I had seen this film before – the locations may span the globe and there may be more costumes than you can shake a selfie-stick at but everything else is standard MCU drivel – mutton dressed as lamb; Green Goblin dressed as Mary Jane.

It’s clear to see that the successes of Insomniac’s recent Spidey outing were safely in the peripheral creative vision of Marvel Studios during production, and it’s such a shame that what inspiration does bleed through into the final film is either short-lived, misguided or misunderstood. The faithfully inspired, intuitive design choices and narrative beats of Insomniac’s Spiderman run through the DNA of the new film, and I only wish that the great moments were not so few, and this outing was not-so Far From Home for the webslinger.

I have jokingly referred to Far From Home as Iron Man 4 and I think that analogy, despite being in jest, is a rather accurate one. It speaks to a wider set of issues currently plaguing the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and is one of the reasons why I came away from the PS4 outing so stimulated, yet why I have little excitement for Crystal Dynamic’s upcoming Avengers game. The apparent homogeny of the now-10 year old universe is laid bare for all to see in Far From Home – a continued reliance of world-saving super tech and the not-so successful super tech of the main antagonist has been the recycled formula for many a superhero movie over the last decade. 16 year old Peter Parker houses a nano-tech spider suit in the bedroom at his Aunt’s house, and MJ has an oddly accurate understanding of holograms and drones for someone still in High School. Peter Parker has always been an ace student a cut above the rest, but he certainly wasn’t building his own suits using a hologram-laden secret Stark technology 3D printer onboard a Super Jet at the age of teen dramas and prom dates. Peter is a tinkerer, a meddler, making interesting gadgets from nothing and nerding out at his bedroom desk til sunrise. It is a part of his DNA, and is the strawberries to the cream of his Spiderman counterpart. It is a real shame to see this part of his personality lost in favour of something more flashy, and ultimately – easier.

When Peter’s identity is revealed to the world, an arsenal of futuristic trillion dollar technology at his disposal, and a slew of suits to fit every occasion – what happens to your friendly neighbourhood Spiderman? As the new leader of the Avengers and the supposed prodigy of Tony Stark, the convoluted web of the MCU and its reliance on superceeding science fiction technology has turned the Amazing Spiderman into the Invincible Iron Man. Parker’s internal struggles, his feelings of inadequacy and surmounting pressure to live up to expectation and follow in the footsteps of Uncle Ben’s wisdom, and the desire to protect those he loves through his anonymity are so far removed for the Spiderman that now graces the screen, his every mistake and misstep corrected by a tech empire and an army of fellow superheroes.

Far From Home is a jet-setting high school adventure film, and a slew of locations, new suits, enemies encountered and abstract Easter eggs serve as a fine distraction for a waining and unoriginal plot that spends more time setting up the future of Spiderman than it does concerning itself with who Spiderman is now. It borrows heavily from some fantastic set pieces and mechanics used in the PS4 outing (the shock web, the drones, the whirlwind that shoots Spidey into the air, the plethora of suits, and the Mysterio set-pieces that look all too familiar to some of the dream sequences in the PS4 version), but fails to be inspired by the wonderful story arcs built by Insomniac. It totes many of the fancy bells and whistles that made it enjoyable to play, but lacks the charm and resonance that formed such a memorable gaming experience.

Gone are the meaningful relationships Peter holds dear; the heartache of Aunt May’s humanitarian efforts destroyed when the reputation of its co-founder comes under scrutiny; the waxing and waining love affair of Peter and MJ, both young and adventurous but with a responsibility-led heart that always seeks to do the right thing – even when it may get in the way of their relationship. The mentor-turned villain Otto Octavius, a once revered scientific figure adored by Peter, now his mortal enemy and a reflection of his supposed failures as a friend and as a hero. These complex relationships manifest in a nuanced and organic way in Insomniac’s Spidey tale, your actions as both Peter and Spiderman pulling to and fro on the bonds that tie them. What the cinematic universe just cant seem to understand is that friendships and rivalries arent built up through Easter eggs, in-jokes, set-pieces and after credits scenes, but through dialogue, conflict, risk and sacrifice.

It is the seemingly go-to formula for MCU outings to concern themselves with set-up and foreshadowing for an unknown sequel than to focus on relationship building and meaningful exposition – and the reliance on this has been the downfall of many an attempted cinematic universe over the last few years. Warcraft, The Universal Monsters Universe, and Godzilla have all stumbled off the blocks for trying to jump the next four hurdles before clearing the first – something I feel the MCU has been saved from through the good graces of its licenses and the investment so many of us have made over the last decade.

Soon enough though the tangled and rushed web of easter eggs, comic relief, costumes and locations that has been thrown under the falling debris of monotony is bound to break, and I for one will gladly step out of the way and enjoy the the meticulously crafted thrill-ride of Insomniac’s Spiderman over the messy Iron Man sequel that sees Spiderman – and his legacy – thrown under the bus for the sake of five more years of lazy storytelling on the big screen.

Videogame Takeaway Podcast Episode 3 – The Cursed Combination of Films and Games

Join us for another episode of the Videogame Takeaway podcast, where for an hour or so we talk all things videogames. This time, on the subject of films that have become games and games that have become films, we discuss some of our favourites as well some infamous unmentionables. As well as this, we try our hand at selling our own adaptation, in the style of a classic Elevator Pitch. So whether you’re jogging, studying, chilling or cooking, come sit with us and have a yarn.

Video Game Takeaway Podcast Episode 2 – Something Old, New, Borrowed, Blue

In episode two of the (now titled) Video Game Takeaway Podcast we talk about the video games we’ve been playing over the last few weeks, all in the format of traditional wedding gifts – something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue. We don’t know what games the other has played and there is certainly a mixed bag of results so whether you’re chilling, running, working or walking, come join us for an hour or so of conversation on all things video games.

As Yet Untitled Gaming Podcast Episode 1 – E3 2019

This one has been a long time coming and something myself and Lewis have been working on for a while – its our first time doing this so please think of it as more of a Pilot episode. Remember how bad the first season of The Office US was? Things will get better I promise. As the great Foreigner once said – “IT’S GONNA TAKE A LITTLE TIIIME”.

We talk about this year’s E3 convention and all the lovely and not-so lovely games that graced the stage, including meat blob simulator Carrion, Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order’s doughy faces as well as John Berthnal’s good boi. I hope those that listen enjoy, we should have another one of these up in a couple weeks time, hopefully along with a title for the podcast and plenty more games to talk about – cheers!

If you’d like to share here’s the link to do so

Is I Am Mother a Prequel to Portal?

So last night I watched the new Netflix-exclusive, claustrophobic sci-fi thriller I Am Mother – the directorial debut for Grant Sputore and the first feature-length screenwriting outing for Michael Lloyd Green. Neither of the two creative headliners had made particular waves in the industry until the release of I Am Mother, but the script appeared on the Black List in 2016 – a list of the top-voted screenplays yet to be produced – and is currently sitting at a rather fresh 91% on Rotten Tomatoes. The script has been floating around for some time now and Netflix were quick to seize it when they realised it fits neatly into that tried and tested formula most recently exercised by 10 Cloverfield Lane.

As much as the film is a tightly-wound, engaging sci-fi thriller that touches on some prescient themes around what it means to be human, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had seen it all before – and I don’t just mean the film’s recycled formula. The character designs, their personalities, as well as the overarching narrative all bear a striking resemblance to Valve’s Portal series. I’m ready to be stood corrected and perhaps I just have Portal on the mind and it has clouded my judgement, but I am convinced of foul-play and hopefully I can convince you too. Be warned, there will be multiple spoilers here but if you don’t mind try and stay with me as I break down the slew of similarities between these two science fiction tales.

First off here are the synopses for both I Am Mother and Portal so as to not lead anyone with my own biases; I’ll then try to deconstruct where I feel the similarities lie throughout the film and you can make up your own minds whether or not these are intentional. First up, I Am Mother:

A teenage girl is raised underground by a kindly robot “Mother” — designed to repopulate the earth following the extinction of mankind. But their unique bond is threatened when an inexplicable stranger arrives with alarming news.

Next up, the synopses for Portal and Portal 2 respectively; I have inserted both here as they have a relevance which I will delve into later on:

A test subject wakes up in a scientific facility controlled by a sadistic artificial intelligence and must escape with the help of the only instrument she has–a gun that makes portals.

Many years after “Portal,” Chell reawakens at Aperture Science and tries to stop GLADoS once again with the help of Wheatley, who has his own plans for the historical facility.

Right off the bat, the film’s titular character Mother, the matriarchal droid that cares for the protagonist Daughter is conspicuously similar to the Portal series’ infamous antagonist GLaDOS. Both in design and demeanor the two characters display that over-bearing and claustrophobic motherly charm reminiscent of Carrie’s religious Mother and the robotic, yet unnervingly insidious tone for which GLAdOS is so infamous. Not to mention both characters are caretakers of a secret underground facility that nurtures a young woman for the supposed “greater good” of humanity. Factor in the overtly similar character designs (albeit Mother has an anthropomorphic body whereas GLAdOS is less so) and you have a recipe with more than a couple of similar tasting ingredients. Here’s a comparison of the two characters to try illustrate how similar their designs are:

This was the first comparison that I noticed, and as the story of I Am Mother progresses it became clearer to me that Portal’s GLAdOS was more than just an inspiration or passing nod to the series. I Am Mother begins in the aforementioned underground facility, where the viewer is to believe that humanity has been wiped from the face of the earth; nuclear war and a contagion that followed has caused the extinction of the human race, and Mother has been tasked with repopulating the Earth; starting with Daughter.

The first thirty minutes or so of the film serves to show how Mother nurtures Daughter throughout her childhood – educating her, playing games and generally carrying out the duties any Mother would. It is not until Daughter reaches adolescence that the film’s second act takes off, and the not-so caring side of Mother begins to show. After a mouse that Daughter finds is unceremoniously incinerated, Mother suggests that it is time to complete another seemingly regular examination – a test of Mother’s abilities as much as her “daughter’s”. Although dissimilar enough to Portal here not to turn too many heads, the overarching idea that the caretaker robot of a secret underground facility in which only one human lives – who is subjected to regular testing for the sake of its own merit – is a narrative thread pivotal to the relationship between Chell (Portal’s protagonist and the player-character) and GLAdOS.

Mother’s control over Daughter is tested when a stranger known only as The Drifter threatens to shatter the reality carefully orchestrated by the film’s leading robot; ultimately to the point where Daughter has no choice but to question everything she knows. Now, although the first entry in the Portal series does not see a third character brought into the mix, the second entry Portal 2 introduces Wheatley, a damaged artificially intelligent core that acts as the player’s sidekick/navigator – until its ulterior motives are laid bare in the game’s second act. Wheatley’s understanding of the true nature of the facility’s ins-and-outs allow the player to navigate environments not seen in the first title, and reveal another side to GLAdOS that completely changes how Chell (or the player) views the in-game world. Not dissimilar to the effect The Drifter has on Daughter; her opinion of the droids and access to the outside world have irreparably changed her perspective on the facility in which she now feels trapped. Admittedly, at this point the two plots deviate for a time, in which Portal 2 sees GLAdOS attached to a potato as Wheatley becomes the new all-seeing eye of the facility, building hamstrung tests for the player to navigate. However, the introduction of both characters happens at a similar turning point in the narrative, and sets up a final act that uses not only tellingly identical imagery and design, but concludes in a all-too congruous fashion.

The films final act sees Daughter escape Mother and the underground facility to discover that The Drifter – although truthful in her explanation that the world is not in fact stricken with contagion – was lying about the group of friends she was supposed to be holed up with in a nearby mining tunnel. Daughter is in fact the only survivor she knows of, and is living in a shipping container with a dog. In realising this, Daughter dashes through a series of corn fields camouflaging the facility to confront Mother one last time, in the hopes of nurturing her newborn “brother” – another embryo from the facility that has been artificially conceived. She is met by an army of similar droids who after focusing their laser sights on her, agree to let her pass when she insists of speaking to Mother.

The final sequence sees Daughter realise that the anthropomorphic form that Mother inhabits is but a vessel, and that she in fact spearheads the entire operation; a single consciousness that controls all the droids and machines on Earth. In a touching scene, Mother agrees to let Daughter raise the child on her own, and inherit the facility in order to repopulate Earth in her image.

Now, there are a number of points here – specifically relating to the film’s design and imagery – that are incredibly reminiscent of those used in Portal. First off, the outfit that Daughter wears in the final scenes – her overalls with the top half tied round her waist – is almost identical to that worn by Chell:

On top of this, in the final scene of Portal 2 the player sees Chell face an army of turrets who agree to let her pass, despite their red laser sights focused ready to fire:

In an endearing scene that sees GLAdOS empathise with the game’s protagonist in an unseen act of kindness, she is thrust from the facility into…you guessed it – cornfields. This may seem like a pedantic parallel to draw here but considering the other striking resemblances it is not a huge stretch to assume that the setting could have also been pulled straight from the video game series’ final act. Looking at other similarities in the imagery used by both Portal and I Am Mother, there are clear commonalities between the Portal series’ Ratman character and his den (only alluded to through a series of drawings) and the religious and portrait scribblings on the walls of The Drifter’s shipping container:

The as yet growing cornfields, technology that is not quite as new-age as Portal and Mother’s lack of sadistic pleasure in forcing test subjects to complete complex puzzles ad infinum suggest that perhaps this was intended to be a prequel to Portal rather than a direct copy. This would make a lot of sense as it is quite common for screenwriters to spitball ideas based on twisting pre-existing stories to their liking – Netflix’s Bright (although it did not have quite the same critical success…) was a musing on what the Lord of the Rings universe would look like in the modern day. This idea seems to ring true with a lot of what is presented in I Am Mother as much of what Mother is trying to do with the facility still seems very much in its infancy. It’s possible that as time passes and Mother becomes less tolerant of humans and their desire for trivial things like freedom, food and sleep, the mundane tests that Daughter is forced to complete begin to morph into something more insidious (and involving portals). The Drifter is a sign of things to come, as more subjects are cast out of the facility for not following orders, or simply descend into madness living inside the facility, just like Ratman in Portal. Either way, the similarities here are too prevalent to ignore, but as yet I have been unable to source a comment from either Sputore or Green on the “inspiration” that Portal has clearly given them.

Now, all these comparisons that I have made could be chalked down to the aesthetics being typical of the genre, especially the similar design of the facility as well as the robot itself – but when you consider the parallels that can be drawn from the personalities of the main characters, their actions and the setup of the plot, there are undeniable similarities that are difficult to un-see if you are a fan of the Portal series. The plot of I Am Mother is not something entirely new – recent efforts like 10 Cloverfield Lane, Panic Room, and Room all revolve around similar plot devices and setups, and the undeniable inspiration of science fiction films like 2001: A Space Odyssey is present in both the Portal series and I Am Mother. However, the narrative beats and timing of both of these stories seems far too similar to acknowledge as simply a trope or homage. Whether this was the intention of the screenwriter Michael Lloyd Green, or the work of Grant Sputore in his directorial vision for the film’s aesthetic – I’m hesitant to believe that the (albeit thrilling and enjoyable) science fiction tale of claustrophobia and motherhood is any less than inspired by Valve’s iconic Portal series.

Find out what I’ve been up to since this article with Year Here

The Good, the Bad, the Weird of E3 2019: Part One

So, the biggest week in gaming is over – and after announcements aplenty, many rumors quashed, surprises revealed, a console teased, and much less cringe than anyone expected, it comes to a crashing halt as we all begin to feel the comedown effects of a seven-day bender. Donkey Kong’s gone out to get more cans, Master Chief’s invited all the Grunts round, Todd Howard’s getting handsy and Keanu’s doing gun-karta with Doug Bowser in the garden. Its all gone a bit Pete Tong and all you want is for everyone to leave and to lie in bed with a Chinese takeaway and watch endless episodes of Shark Tank on Netflix. But I digress; the monolithic videogame expo has come to a close, and with that comes a nauseating onslaught of retrospectives, listicles, vlogs and reviews – here’s mine.

The largely corporate affair is laden – no, practically oozing – with the sweet syrupy delights of video game announcements galore, and it is oh-so easy to get caught up in the frenzy. So naturally despite my better judgement I watched on eagerly, the rose-tinted glasses sat firmly and proudly on my nose. With this in mind I’ve decided to stifle my excitement, my criticisms and my thoughts for a few days so I can mull over what I saw and hopefully scrape away some of the shiny veneer of E3’s marketing and give it to you straight – what Brandon likey, no likey, and what was just plain odd. Let’s kick it off with the good stuff.

Gears 5 Escape Mode

Not the first time this Grandpa’s smelled it and dealt it

This is a bit of an odd one but hear me out – Gears of War has been a mainstay on consoles for a good few years now, and despite its front-facing macho, gun-toting, violent appearance the series has some of the most enjoyable and innovative gameplay of the past two generations. Gears of War 2’s Horde Mode was an inventive, fast-paced PvE mode that was imitated the world over, and I think that the introduction of Gears 5’s escape mode will send similar reverberations around the industry. Creating PvE content that can rival the high stakes, quick-on-your-feet thinking and blistering pace of the series’ PvP modes is not easy – and for a while Horde Mode scratched that itch for many; but the introduction of booster cards and the like in Gears of War 4 is an often telltale sign that things are taking a turn towards the sourer end of the palette (here’s looking at you Halo 5) .

Destiny 2’s recent Gambit mode was a novel take on introducing PvP pacing into PvE play – and Gears 5’s Escape Mode seems like an interesting twist on this. Rather than running towards the threat, you’re running away from it – the noxious gas you just kindly deposited in the Swarm lair chasing you as you rush for the exit. Rather than actively trying to beat another team you’re trying to beat their score, which adds another deliciously competitive element into the mix. A host of new characters and the potential to create your own lairs makes this another content-rich mode that the team at Coalition can add to a growing roster of game variations. This was a surprise winner for me, and I think you can expect this to be a popular mode not just in Gears, but in other games that jump onto the rolling bandwagon of imitation once this releases.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

One of the new features allows you to customise your very own Wilson

It seems to become more difficult as years pass to find a game that is relaxing – most games seem to want all of my attention all of the time and if you’re not winning, you’re not having a good time. Thank the video game gods for Animal Crossing because I’ve spent countless dreamy hours on New Leaf fancifully picking apples, fishing up old boots and just having a real jolly time of it. New Horizons is exactly the kind of game where I can waste inordinate amounts of time saving in-game currency to buy a new television like a good Happy Home Designer, whilst simultaneously selling my own television because I can’t save real currency. The joys of video game escapism are truly at their finest in the wistful, care-free worlds of Animal Crossing – even Mr. Resetti is a sight for sore eyes in hard times.

New Horizons looks like an adorable Castaway, with palm trees galore, sprawling azure oceans and a “minimalist” home afforded to you by Tom Nook and his recently formed Nook Inc. As is normal in the Animal Crossing world, you are set the delightful tasks of building your home and making friends – a peaceful existence for which I can very much get on board. There’s been an Animal Crossing shaped hole in my heart since the fiddly days of the Nintendo DS stylus, and this revitalising move to the Switch is exactly what that void has been calling out for.


I’ve heard of government workers being called air-headed, but…

Now I’ve been following this game like it’s a Xenomorph on a motion scanner – with great unnerve and anticipation – and it looks set to deliver. Alan Wake was a true gem of the 360/PS3 generation and although I missed out on Quantum Break, Control looks set to push all of the same buttons that Alan Wake did and then some, going by whats been shown so far. It seems Remedy have learnt a lot about cinematic storytelling from their time making Quantum, and if there’s any testament to their prowess in delivering engaging combat mechanics it’s that they made a game where your best weapon is a flashlight.

The gleefully Lynch-esque sequence shown at E3 featuring the rambling Janitor peaked my interest in all the right ways, and the level of exploration and depth that Remedy are trying to pull off here inside the Brutalist architecture of its government building is sending all the right signals. Control looks set – in much the same way as Alan Wake – to show that the artistry of the video game medium comes not from how it can emulate film, television and the like (even if I do appreciate the nods to King, Lynch, and Serling), but in its unique ability to engage the player in a way that is impossible through any other artistic vehicle. Please don’t make me eat my words Remedy.

Gods and Monsters

“If I’m being honest Jo I thought the acid joke was quite funny, no need to get so angry”

As years have passed and Ubisoft title after Ubisoft title is thrown consumer’s way my love for sandbox games has fallen by the wayside, in no small part to their continued reliance on a tired, formulaic approach to open-world games. Realistic world-building takes centre-stage whilst enjoyable content and mission structure comes as an afterthought. Despite this, my appreciation for Ubisoft games – specifically the Assassins Creed series – has not faltered; the meticulous attention to detail in Ubisoft’s two most recent efforts – Origins and Odyssey – is unequivocally breathtaking. Their understanding of and tireless dedication to ancient history and mythology is second-to-none in the AAA space, and its high-time some of the devs at Ubisoft were given an opportunity to let this shine, away from the overcrowded hyper-realistic sandbox format.

Gods and Monsters is Ubi’s Breath of the Wild, and I’m okay with that. Horizon: Zero Dawn was an inspired title to say the least, as was Shadow of Mordor – but both games gave us much as they took stylistically and the industry is better for it. Hopefully the cartoon aesthetic, move to a less cutthroat space, and a fresh approach for the team will be the perfect remedy for what has been a downwards spiral (sorry) creatively for Ubisoft for some time now. Whatever Gods and Monsters becomes, they need to ensure that the gameplay innovations of Breath of the Wild are as much of an inspiration as its endearing art style – until then, my arms are wide open to see this new direction for Ubisoft take off.

The Outer Worlds

If only more conversations could end with “I’ve had enough of your nonsense. [Attack]”

I imagine that Obsidian are sick to death of hearing it by now and its white-hot tropical colour palette must have been a decided move to distance itself from the game everyone won’t stop comparing it to. So, in waxing lyrical about The Outer Worlds and out of respect to the developers I will do my utmost to refrain from referencing that game. I’ve chosen the screenshot above over the countless beautiful, interstellar vistas Obsidian have shown off over the past few months because I think it speaks to why so many people are excited for this game – myself included.

It looks like what Obsidian are going for here is complete role-playing freedom – perhaps not in the same way a Souls-like game has robust character creation, but more so that the narrative is molded by the player’s actions. Abilities and actions that can affect dialogue choices and narrative threads have always been conducive to the kind of games I like to play, and past experiences have shown that Obsidian know how to do this well. I like that the developers have taken a step into interplanetary science-fiction, but the benevolent corporate overlords shtick is getting a little tired. Nonetheless I have faith that a little bit of Obsidian magic will make this into a fully realised, engaging and tongue-in-cheek world that sets it apart from other similar titles out there. Look at that, I didn’t even have to mention Fallout: New Vegas.

12 Minutes

Terrifyingly tense 12 Minutes trailer takes 2 ticks to tell troubling tale of two tango teachers teasing treading trodden tracks to twist time in tall tenement tower test

New studio Nomada Interactive have likened their game to ” the dream-like suspense of THE SHINING with the claustrophobia of REAR WINDOW and the fragmented structure of MEMENTO”. Those are big claims and its going to be tough to silence critics, but the recent reveal trailer in Microsoft’s game-heavy press conference was a stand-out announcement, and has certainly been embedded in the minds of anyone who was watching last week.

Time-loop games seem to be remarkably popular at the moment considering the success of indie darling Minit and ex-Bioshock developers Mobius’ interplanetary folk tale Outer Wilds, and it seems to speak to a greater societal consensus at the moment; humankind seems hell-bent on repeating its past mistakes, and the powers that be seem all-too happy to let the world descend into chaos and oblivion without intervention. Games like 12 Minutes explore the notion of finding a solution in times of adversity and seemingly inevitable consequences, and I think that’s something many of us can get behind. Coupled with a decidedly eerie atmosphere, an intriguing narrative hook and scant on details, this game looks to tie neatly together elements of Heavy Rain’s crime storytelling, the tone of a PlayDead game and the claustrophobic puzzle-solving of flash games like Red/White Room. Colour me interested.

Honourable Mentions

Someone told me both of these deer are girls but I’m not sure if that’s two doe.

On top of the games that got the spotlight in this retrospective there are a few that didn’t get the star treatment, this is because I wanted to highlight the real standouts for me personally and avoid my more obvious excitement for other titles currently hitting the top of people’s wishlists. To those games that I’ve listed below, I love you just the same – here are some heartfelt words for those that didn’t make the cut:

  • Way to the Woods is a charming wee game with a humbling development story to boot – and as far as I’m concerned the more games without guns and where you can play as animals, the better off we all are.
  • What more can I say about Cyberpunk 2077 that hasn’t already been said? This game is numero uno for most anticipated game of the last few years and going by what has been shown so far that is no surprise – and with CDProjektRed’s dedication to crushing crunch that April 2020 release date doesn’t seem as far away as it could have.
  • No announcement at E3 this year made me quite as giddy as the Halo: Infinite trailer – I’m not sure if this was due to the excitement of new hardware in tow, or that darn Halo musical cue when the Pelican pilot wipes the glass to reveal Master Chief floating nonchalantly through space. Hopefully this is a return to form for the Halo series, and going by what they’ve said so far I have reason to believe it will be.
  • For the pure enjoyment I’m going to get from playing this game, Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout gets a special mention. The thought of 100 of those little guys running through a Total Wipeout-style assault course already has me giggling. For a Battle Royale it’s about as far away as you can get from a murderous cohort of high-schoolers, and that’s why its so brilliant – why has nobody made this game already?
  • Finally, the surprise game on the tip of everyone’s tongues post-E3; Watch Dogs: Legion. Set in a dystopian London and touting the ability to play as any NPC, this sequel is the game my 10 year old self dreamed of playing. Not shying away from the political satire was also a good call, Far Cry 5 and the Division 2 got rather muddled trying to sanitise their clearly political narratives – this game makes a much clearer statement.

With that, my romantic musings on the upcoming games I long to play comes to a bittersweet end. There are so many more I feel woebegone to not include but even for someone who wears their heart on their sleeve, the E3 soirée is over and I only have so much love to give. Although this year’s Conference showed off a slew of fantastic projects on the horizons, it had its fair share of unmentionables and missteps that I will dissect with great schadenfreude over the coming days. Expect a dismantling of Epic (again, I’m sorry) proportions as I unwind the not-so fruitful labours of this year’s biggest week in gaming.

Is There a Place for Iterative Titles in an All-Digital, Live Service Future?

With Sony announcing cross-generational online play for its new console, digital game sales dwarfing physical releases, and many major studios moving towards an evolving live-service model for their games, it begs the question – where does this leave games that still use an annual iterative model? Titles like FIFA and Madden have been a mainstay on the market for generations now, but with additional content, fixes and quality-of-life changes now expected pro bono for many games, what incentive is there for consumers to keep paying over the odds for what other games would consider a routine update?

The digital sales market is beginning to eclipse the physical games market, and this spells trouble for publishers like EA, who I think have survived off of the good graces of consumers for some time now. When their respective iterative sports titles inevitably make their way to the all-digital sphere, they lose the demystifying veil afforded by a shiny new physical release year on year. Eurogamer recently reported on EA’s lackluster announcement of new features heading FIFA 20’s way, and asked the question – why are we not seeing these updates in 19? In smashingly corportate talk for which EA have become true masters of, they argued that “Although we always make an effort to deliver a refined gameplay system, there are certain changes that become more difficult to address mid-cycle,”. Title updates and fixes are relatively common for these games, but when you compare the sort of content updates that free-to-play games like Fortnite or live-services like Rainbow Six: Seige receive on a regular basis, the argument that significant changes necessitate a new release begin to break down.

There seems to be a growing trend amongst publishers and developers to release seemingly “work-in-progress” games on the good graces that everything will be ironed out over time, with a shiny roadmap of new content (read: all the things they didn’t have time to finish/taken out to be sold as DLC). In doing this though, the evolving live-service model has become increasingly popular, and many games like Sea of Thieves and No Mans Sky have actually resurfaced and been re-reviewed to reflect the significant changes. Although I don’t prescribe to this model – at least in the sense of releasing an unfinished game with the promise of fixes later down the line – it has created an interesting dynamic in which regular, free content updates for games are becoming increasingly normalised, and the age of iterative titles and paid DLC seems to be coming to an end. Even single player games like Celeste and Dead Cells have received completely free updates to the games with an abundance of new content.

Considering that many of the games that follow the live-service model are completely free on release – with the hopes that consumers will spend on microtransactions or loot boxes down the line – there has to be a point at which consumers start to wonder why they’re paying £50 for a game that follows the same model as its free-to-play counterpart. Players can invest huge swathes of money into games like Fortnite and Rocket League with some confidence that their items and skins will remain intact as long as the game exists – but those who spend on FIFA points, Call of Duty Points and other similar in-game currencies can expect to lose out on their investments in a years time when the next iteration releases. These are significant in-game economies where real world investment can be on the line in some cases (EA actually offers FIFA points buy-ins for tournaments) all with the expectation that every player starts back at zero when the next version inevitably makes the rounds. Controversies surrounding gambiling in major AAA releases have been a main talking point within the industry for some time now, and governments are beginning to enact legislation to counteract this – but even still, I don’t know any roulette wheel that charges £50 just to sit at the table, and where your winnings are worthless the next time you spin the wheel.

Not only is there the risk of losing out when the next version of your favourite gambling simulator graces store shelves, but when the hardware you’re playing on becomes outdated, what happens to the investment you made on the game? I imagine a significant number of people bought Grand Theft Auto V twice – and at £50 a pop that’s a fairly sizeable investment. It seems Sony have anticipated a lengthy crossover period for next-gen with the announcement of cross-generational online play as well as full PS4 backwards compatibility for its new console, but at the promise of 4K visuals, 120 Hz, ray tracing and 3D Audio, I think you’ll be hard pushed to find someone with a PS5 who isn’t willing to shell out another £50 for an updated version of Red Dead Redemption 2. For series like FIFA and Call of Duty crossover titles are regular fare, so it should come as no surprise if they follow suit this time round. Will those who have invested in the PlayStation 5 version of FIFA 21 be able to play with those on the PlayStation 4 version or is cross-generational play limited only when using the backwards compatibility feature?

Ubisoft announced that they have no intentions to release a sequel to Rainbow Six: Siege but will instead see the game transition over to PlayStation 5 initially in its same state. In a recent interview, Brand Director Alexandre Remy said “The reason behind this is we don’t want to segregate our community between the different platforms. In an ideal world tomorrow, we’d love players from every platform to be able to play together. We are approaching next-gen with the same spirit.” It seems that this way of thinking is going to become much more common, especially with an increasingly fragmented hardware market – there are already two vastly different PlayStation and Xbox One models and if rumors are to be believed both Nintendo and Microsoft have two further consoles in development; likely a budget model and a pro model. Alexandre Remy’s statement was not a promise by any stretch, but it is reflective of a wider consensus that greater accessibility and a more relaxed position on cross-play is the natural progression for the industry and something that developers are acutely aware of. If Ubisoft are happy to let Rainbow Six: Siege slide into the next generation sequel-free and continue with regular updates, how will publishers like EA convince consumers that the next FIFA or Madden is a significant enough improvement? The Journey mode seems to have been put to bed, and as fun as the new street football mode looks, it’s not going to bring players back year after year.

Following Microsoft’s E3 Presser its clear that they see both streaming and subscription services as a future proofed delivery method for their first-party games. The promise of brand new releases – of which Microsoft promised 34 coming to its Game Pass service – seems incredibly enticing and certainly a model that most can get on board with in the Netflix and Spotify age. Playstation Now also looks set to become a much more robust service going into the next generation, and Nintendo already have a strong grasp on the digital market – although seem to still be finding their feet in regards to subscription services. EA Access is making its way to PlayStation 4 and has seen praise in its time on Xbox One and PC, so it’s clear that they aren’t blind to the changes in the industry – the logical next step is to start putting their flagship sports titles on the service as well but I’m unsure whether they’re willing to part with the steady annual revenue from each entry in the series.

Times are a changin’ and it seems more than ever that those who don’t follow suit are in real danger of being left in the dust; consumers expect continued support for their games in exchange for their time and money and it’s seems only inevitable that iterative titles will follow suit with this. Whether it be through a monthly subscription service or one-off payment with continued revenue streams secured through microtransactions, the model with which publishers release their iterative titles has become outdated. The question is, can the money-hungry execs at EA and Activision part with this annual cash-cow and commit the unspeakable act of giving something away for free?