Jun 5 2007

PC Gamer Issue 177

I don’t know how many of you lot read the magazine I actually do the most work for, but I must insist that you all go out and pick up a copy of PC Gamer 177. It’s not for anything I’ve done, or for any particular exclusive or world-first review, but simply because it’s a embarrassingly good games magazine. Populist, silly, and intelligent – all in one garish plastic wrapper: what more do you want?

Tom Francis dissecting Crysis, Edwards on Bioshock, Gillen on A Bard’s Tale, Cobbett on how to recreate ’300′ in Medieval II, the accolade for the Battlestar Galactica mod for Freespace 2, Meer’s A-Z of videogame evil, the main screenshot in Graham Smith’s review of Overlord, Tim Stone’s effortless funny ‘Strafe Left’ cartoon, even – okay I did actually write something awesome – six pages from me on How Gamers Will Save The World.

They do this every month.


May 23 2007

Pac-Skull

I love this:

Linked from here, but I can’t find the original source.


May 22 2007

Explorable Apocalypse Instant Update

One of the things I’ve written about Stalker has just gone up with the rest of The Escapist’s Post-Apocalypse issue:

Few games are as bleak as GSC Game World’s S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. Then again, few games have appropriated the mythology, psychology and geography of the old Soviet Union, and fewer still have made intelligent use of both real-world disaster and obscure science fiction of the 20th century. Stalker’s first-person survival/horror themes exist in a space that is both real and grimly fantastical – a dimension of bending reality and of crumbling Soviet ruin.

Some peculiar choices for the illustration, but… okay, the whole issue is about gasmasks and burned skies. I guess they had to use that clip art of a disapproving middle-aged woman somewhere in there.

Also: robbed! Spanner wrote a piece about the game with the greatest name ever (lifted from a Harlan Ellison short) I HAVE NO MOUTH, AND I MUST SCREAM. Writing about that game has been on my ‘to do’ list of feature ideas for about five years. I can cross it off… for another five years, anyway.


May 22 2007

Stalk To The Monsters

I’m continuing to play Stalker. I intend to write some exciting things about the game, its themes, its “Zone Of Alienation”, and its relationship to science fictions past. I’m going to do a couple of different pieces in the next couple of months, both with a different focus. I’ll link them up here when they’re published.

Anyway, I’ve been playing through Stalker again from the beginning, patched up this time. It seems a little more solid, even down to the fights seeming less clumsy. You still can’t medipack crucial fallen NPCs, especially if they have a looped conversation tree, and you have to chat to them in their wounded state, squirming in agony as they text you information about Strelok. There are other bugs too, and I love them all equally.

What has struck me the second time around is that this is a game that really needs to be played a second time around. I saw plenty of interesting situations emerge last time thanks to the ‘life’ of the random NPCs and creatures, but this time many more interesting situations have arisen, and predicaments I found myself in the first time I played have simply not occurred.

The first fight in ‘Garbage’ for instance, was entirely skewed against the bandits this time, because a large group (at least six) of neutral stalkers came wandering through the area. I don’t think I saw a moving friendly group of that size in the entire first run through the game. These neutrals took out the entire bandit mob easily, and then went on to carve their way through the second group of bandits besieging the warehouse a little further across the map. All I had to do was shadow them and run along looting the bodies. Last time it had taken me several hours to get past the second group of bandits, so ruined was I by the first fight for the scrapheap. Later on a lone (and random) Duty soldier cleaned out a mob of bandits I was having trouble with by virtue of him being armoured up and having a decent assault rifle – things that are way beyond me at this stage.

I was chatting to Ste Curran at the weekend about exploration in games. His thought was that lots of games had learned the wrong lessons from Tomb Raider – and that’s why we were now stuck with so many tightly scripted linear action adventures with hot girls as the main character. What we should have got was games that were about exploring (raiding?) tombs or otherwise. Most of what the original Tomb Raider did was in the spirit of exploration, that seems to have been deliberately discarded by the games that followed.

I think Half-Life and Half-Life 2 have a similar legacy – their exploration is only really exploration by virtue of the designers being able to propel you forward continuously along their rail, which is another reason why FPS games become so bad when you get stuck. You need constant inertia, constant travel, to hide the fact that you can only really head in a single direction.

I wonder whether games like Stalker and Just Cause might help game designers relearn the love of creating modes of exploration, rather than creating carefully crafted linear sequences. No matter how beautiful and variable an arena area in Half-Life 2 or FEAR, I still get more excited about the singular, random things that I’ve managed to achieve in Stalker.

I’m sure there’ll be more on this exploration theme in the coming weeks. It’s really bugging me.

Random final thought: I’ve been criticised for “not understanding” Second Life on the basis that it should be treated as a communication tool, of the lineage of static chatrooms, IRC, and ICQ-style chat programs, rather than as anything like a “game”. It’s almost a fair criticism, but I think it arises from the fact that I write for a gaming audience, and have developed my writing to address them. I can’t recommend it to gamers, precisely because it is barely a game at all. Were I writing for a chat-client crowd (could that even be a distinct net-culture grouping?) then I think my angle and response might have been quite different.


May 16 2007

The Exploration Game

Clint Hocking was interviewed by Gamasutra, and he talked about exploration as an activity-in-itself within games:

Spatial exploration isn’t mandatory. It’s not required in any game. It’s a certain play style and a certain type of player who’s interested in playing in that way. There are ways to design to support that well and ways to do it badly. I think it’s pretty clear which games do it well. Grand Theft Auto, Oblivion, they make players who might not even be that kind of player become interested in the act of self-motivated exploration.

I sometimes wish it was mandatory. Exploring has has long been one of the most important things for me in gaming. Elite, Midwinter, Armourgeddon, Outcast – there’s been a history of games I’ve wanted to play just to wander around in their landscapes. I often play games just to see the architecture. I was a tourist in Everquest 2, and couldn’t play Dark Age Of Camelot because the buildings were too dull. The main reason I log into Second Life is to fly around looking at peculiar structures and half-finished castles in the sky. I would quite happily have played World Of Warcraft if it had been an empty landscape with nothing to do but wander around exploring. In fact, I would probably have enjoyed that even more. (It would be interesting to take WoW’s landscape and create a ‘living world’ mod, where it is simply a place populated with AI and basic ecosystems, rather than being the backdrop for sets of linear quests. It could be an alternative MMO world based on the same space. Blizzard themselves could do that – WoW as a pure trade sim, complete with cartography, trade routes, travel plans, etc.)

I think the reason I liked Oblivion was that I could just poke about in the woods and discover little shacks in the middle of nowhere. So few games offer that – Stalker does, to some extent, yet still I wish Stalker had been larger, emptier, and spookier. The number of baddies was still too high, and the ‘battle’ post-brain scorcher just didn’t interest me at all. I wanted to explore that enormous terrain at my leisure, not be hustled through under constant barrage.

One of the major disappointments of Eve Online, recently, was that “exploration” as an activity didn’t really love up to its name. There was much more genuine exploration when the galaxy was littered with random asteroids and dust clouds. I’d like more detail like that to have been burned into the world, whereas a semi-instanced system was created that lingered for a few days and then disappeared. If you did manage to find anything, then it was never really there, and therefore never really explored. One of the joys of Eve was finding interesting systems, or obscure things left over by the dev team – an unusual space station built into an asteroid, or two space stations around the same moon, for example. (Eve players will know what I’m blabbing about here, sorry…)

Anyway, I think Hocking is right, that exploration of many different kinds is an important concept for understanding games. But purely spatial exploration, the idea of just exploring for the hell of it, doesn’t seem to be well catered for. Perhaps we explorers are in a minority. But I know we’re out there (so to speak), and I recall vividly flying out to a pointless remote island during the early beta of Planetside, only to find another person stood there on the rock. He’d gone out there because he could, because it was there. There was no gaming reason to be out there, we had both just happened to want to see it, perhaps because we might have been the only people to do so.

Would anyone pay for a game that was created in the name of aimless wandering tourism? Could anything in a game world be interesting enough just to go and look at? I wonder what the minimum threshold of activity, the minimum amount of danger and challenge a virtual landscape has to offer to be considered a game?


May 11 2007

Tiger! Tiger!

Warren Ellis’ latest column regarding Second Life is worth reading. Ellis is capturing the true essence of this semi-gestated beast:

I start jumping to clubs. The Velvet, in Iron Fist, is empty. I find three miserable naked men in a sex club looking for a mistress to savage their little avatars. A vast vampire-themed club with not even the undead laying around. A space station that feels like it’s re-enacting the final days of Mir, all the service modules undocked and waiting to be deorbited. A massive replica of a STAR TREK Starfleet vessel with all hands missing, shipwrecked seven hundred meters up. A Zen temple chill-out zone with not a devotee to be seen. Again and again I teleport, like Gully Foyle in the last pages of THE STARS MY DESTINATION, and, for a while there I wish that I, like he, had bombs to scatter. But there’s no one here to receive them.


May 11 2007

Options Magic

So there I was cursing Windows Vista for demolishing the frame rate on Stalker. What had run adequately on this very same system was now unplayable – the only variable being the shiny new operating system. And so I began crude tactic I decided to play around with Stalker’s ‘advanced’ tab. ‘Advanced’ comes complete with many intriguing sliders like ‘grass density’ and ‘dog width’ (not really), and so changing lighting modes and texture qualities might, I imagined, earn me a few frames per second, and a playable experience.

The yard in which my Stalker stood travelled back and forth through years of videogame graphics, from the fastest, smoothest, crudest flatness of lightsource-free environments, to a ludicrously lavish no-frames per-second static image rendered at some frighteningly high resolution. Then, as if by magic, I set it back to what I assumed was close to the original settings, and Lo, it was running at a steady 40fps. I upped the resolution and some of the detail sliders: and there was no discernable drop in quality. It was as if had fixed a broken motor simply by shifting it back and forth into various inappropriate gears. It had resemble a clapped out Trabant, and now it was a purringly smooth sports sedan.

I used to pretend that I understood how PCs worked, but it’s clear that with each passing year they become more like some kind of complex biological system. Not a machine that you can peer into and understand, but a mass of ultra-sophisticated material that might as well be magic for all I can discern about the inner logic of its workings. PC games graphics options: I love you, you scare me.


May 10 2007

A Plate-Full

Have a read of Graham Smith’s adventures in Second Life:

The man I’m talking to has his equipment in full view, and I’m banking on him being able to help me. “Where do you get the cock and balls?” I ask again. He explains that they’re sold in stores around the world. I’m aware of that, but don’t know where any such stores are. Luckily, he then offers to sell me one. Or a pair. Or a set. I’m not sure. A plate-full, anyway.


May 3 2007

God Of War II

Well, I’m quite enjoying it. There’s something pleasingly believable about the Ancient Greek Gods theme for this kind of videogame. The original myths and tales were all artifice – all trials, tricks, traps and labyrinths – and so the linear puzzle/fight/action sequences somehow seem completely justified. It enables me to think: “sure, if there really were human-like super-beings ruling over the world why wouldn’t they set up the universe like a highly polished videogame?”

Also: brutal, brutal deaths.

EDIT: but yes, it has all the flaws of action adventures too, including set-pieces which are far too hard, so that you end up seeing them over and over and over and over and over…


Apr 28 2007

Rossignol Work Status 04/07

It’s been a while since I updated here with what I’m up to and what I’ve been working on. Since I’m doing some digital housekeeping – attempting to finish off old projects and start new ones – I thought it might be useful to do a quick sketch, if just to get my own head round it all.

Firstly there’s this blog. As long-term readers will know the Rossignol blog is a kind of notepad where I record things I’ve been looking at, and occasionally produce comment on them. I try to keep games-related stuff on here to a minimum, but there’s still enough for strangers to guess what my day-job might be. As a friend noted, the mix of games and politics means that this blog is about “wargames, and that war isn’t a game.” I sometimes think of it as a ‘research blog’, only I don’t think I’m researching anything in particular.

Most of my commercial writing is still being published in PC Gamer UK, which now has a website. Because parent company Future Publishing now republish most of their print materials online, much of my day-to-day scribbling will appear on this site. I probably won’t notice when it goes up, so I’m unlikely to link much of it on here.

My other regular print gig is in the recently redesigned PC Format, where I am once again producing a “weird science” column. This includes news on unusual info-tech, academic eccentricity, robotics, aviation, and any science outlandish enough to seem like science fiction.

I also write something games-related each week for the BBC Collective culture magazine. It’s fairly lightweight by comparison to most of my other games writing, but it’s pleasing to have something appearing in a mainstream outlet.

I’m also still writing a weekly column on Gamasutra. This is a more development-angled piece of writing, where I gently skirt around issues that concern the industry, poking them and cutting them up with mind-scissors. Yes, I am paid to read what developers are saying on their blogs and then add some of my own thoughts, or simply link to what I find interesting. That might change soon, we’ll see.

The other significant Rossignol project for 2007 is a book on videogames which will be published by DigitalCultureBooks. It contains some of my personal views about the value of gaming, and some ideas about the relationship between gamers and the games they play. I’ll have more details on this towards the end of the year, perhaps even a title.

In the meantime you’ll find me writing for the aforementioned folk, as well as The Escapist, Wired, Eurogamer, and even Dazed & Confused, where there’s a few hundred words about a book of conceptual skyscrapers in the latest issue. (Goodness, I’m in a magazine with Kate Moss naked on the cover.)

As always you can contact me directly via email on “jim at big-robot dot com”. (Editors and publishers should send me lavish proposals for highly paid writing opportunities, and mad scientists news of their unlikely exploits. Thanks!)