Over on Facebook, I’ve been doing one of those 30 day challenges[1] – you know, where you get a topic every day and you need to provide a status update with your answer. Since I am neck deep in marking at the moment, I thought I’d use the fact I have a pile of stuff written for that to fill up this and next week’s blog entries. A bit of a cheat perhaps, but I think the topic is interesting and relevant to explaining why Epitaph is the way it is, and why I like the things I like.

This is broken up into two posts, mainly because the first half alone is about 3,000 words before I add anything to it. I thought I’d be able to do it as one post but it would have just been way too big for a blog.

Anyway, I hope you find it at least a little interesting – I’ve enjoyed doing it, and the discussions that it has prompted on my Facebook page have been very edifying.

If you want part two, it’s here.

* * *

Day 01 – the first video game you ever played.

I remember it well – my father had bought a ZX spectrum, and hooked it up to the living room TV. He loaded up Manic Miner, and I was hooked for the rest of my life. I still remember that we had to go shopping for groceries (or messages, as we said at the time – Scotland, you know) and he switched off the TV BUT THE MUSIC KEPT PLAYING! It was a strange experience at the time – the idea that the TV wasn’t the centre of the experience. I’m not going to say it was an epiphany or anything, but it’s a memory I have even to this day so it clearly did stick out. There it was, this little black and rubber box, and it was the thing in charge. The TV had a new boss. And in many ways, all that’s been happening since then is computing kicking TV’s backside over and over again.

Day 02 – Your favourite video game

Man, that’s a hard one. But I’m going to be Scientific and base it purely on the number of hours I have poured into it – and that by any measure is Civilization 4. I don’t know what the actual count in hours is, but Steam tells me that it’s been 188 hours since the last time my stats went missing. It was easily that again beforehand – for some reason all my play stats got erased a while ago. Even that is only a fraction of the true time I have spent playing it – this is the playtime I’ve racked up since buying it cheap in a Steam sale. I already had it for years back when we used to buy software in boxes. So much of my life has been poured into Civ IV that it’s genuinely a little scary. There’s something about Civ’s tactical and strategic depth and the design of its game mechanics that makes it a genuinely addictive experience.

Day 03 – Your least favourite video game.

It’s hard to say here – there are some candidates but I don’t want to mention them since they fit very neatly into some later categories. So I am going to slightly cheat and rant about a game that I *want* to like but can’t bring myself to do it – Dwarf Fortress.

I love everything about the idea of Dwarf Fortress, but it’s a game that has been designed by someone who hates fun, and seems to hate people even more. It’s horrendously simulationist, obtuse to the point of pathology, and willfully difficult to work with. If the same basic game idea had been put into the hands of someone who actually understood how to make a game, I would love it. As it is, I hate it as a very visible example of squandered potential. For context, check out some of the Kairosoft mobile games[2] – a radically different take on the same *kind* of thing, and they’re nothing short of joyful to play.

Day 04 – Your favourite video game series

Well, since I’ve already said Civilization and I hated Deus Ex 2, let’s go for MASS EFFECT.

I’m not sure how to really express how much I love Mass Effect. The first one was a little rough thanks to those fucking vehicle sections, but I found the story pretty absorbing. The second one however dialed everything up to 10 – I thought it was a much better story, with much better dialogue, combined with a much better game. I loved it to bits. It was the first game where the set piece battles ended with me slowly exhaling because I’d forgotten to breathe.

Then Mass Effect 3 – Jesus Christ. Everything got dialed up to 11 – I thought the first time through that ME 2 had a better game but a worse story, but the more I play ME3 the more I prefer it in both respects. It may be just because I played all three in sequence at once, but I didn’t even find the ending to be unsatisfying. For me, ME3 *was* the ending and it delivered in every single way. Sure, the extended ending improved it and smoothed out some of the ‘rough cuts’, but I can’t say I really found it all that jarring. It’s a sad day when we need everything spelled out.

God, I love Mass Effect. I’m even reading the novels! They’re… not terrible. That’s the best I can say about them. Mass Effect as a franchise really feels like a much more mature IP – there is so much depth there that you normally only find in worlds that are decades older.

If you don’t want any spoilers about Mass Effect generally, don’t click the video link on this one – it’s the start of Mass Effect 3 which was the most viscerally satisfying introduction I’ve ever had to a game.

Day 05 – Your favourite multiplayer game.

Well, I’m going to cheat like a bastard here and hawk my own in progress game. http://epitaphonline.co.uk/ might not be the best multiplayer game *yet*, but that’s certainly what I intend it to become over the years.

Day 06  – Your favourite level from a video game.

This is surprisingly hard to answer – I can’t think of many games that have levels as such any more, and those that do and did have never had anything genuinely stand-out that has remained with me. I can’t remember the last time I thought ‘that was an awesome level’ – I tend to take a more holistic view of games.

I did spend a bit of time thinking about it, and the best I can come up with is the second to last level of Dune 2 for the Atreides faction. Not because the level was especially good (the whole game is great), but because a combination of ropey AI (inevitable in those days) and subtle balancing problems meant that you could attain a pleasing equilibrium whereby you had sufficient turrets that you could take out any enemy before they could get within striking distance of the base. I always found it very satisfying to make a meta game whereby your job was to ensure enemies were dealt with as quickly as possible, ideally more quickly than your last attempt. It also served as a very satisfying screen-saver of sorts when I was doing other things.

It wasn’t possible in the very last mission alas, because the inclusion of Death Head missiles for the Harkonnen was a very real game changer. If you hung around then all that would happen is massive nukes getting all up in your nooks and crannies.

Day 07 – Least Favourite Level.

This probably isn’t my least favourite ever, but the Croc level from Batman: Arkham Asylum grates especially because it’s such a terrible mis-step in an otherwise tremendous game. The majority of the game is fantastic, and then it just steps in shit and drags you through it for 30 minutes. In terms of the delta between ‘previous’ and ‘current’ and ‘current’ and ‘next’, it’s the biggest I can recall. It’s horribly repetitive and not remotely challenging. Every time croc jumps up you just whack him with a batarang and away he goes while you wander through a sewer maze. You may as well be carrying a can of ‘Croc Repellent’ for all the interaction involved. As I say, it’s striking almost entirely because of how significant a departure in quality it is from the rest of the game. Only the boss fights in Deus Ex: Human Revolution really come close in terms of jarring incongruity with the rest of the game experience.

Day 08 – Your Favourite Ability.

Alas, I couldn’t find a video of this but it’s from an old game called Messiah by a publisher called, *I think* Shiny. It was a very flawed game, but still likable. You played a kind of demonic/angelic baby called Bob who can possess creatures around him. I like it for two reasons – one, you very rarely get to see a game whereby full grown adults kick a baby to death, and two – you could get a spear gun that let you spear enemies to the wall AND THEY’D STAY THERE for the rest of the game!

That was the best ability. Thank you Messiah, I had no idea until you came along that I had wanted to do that my whole life.

This isn’t the spear gun as such, but:

Day 09 – Your Favourite Boss Fight.

Easy for this – it’s GladOS in Portal. Portal is the single most satisfying gameplay experience from beginning to end. Its lack of replayability is the only thing that really stops it being my favourite game ever, but as a ‘once through’ experience it has no parallels. The short length and intensity of the final section means that there is a very pleasing ramping up of expectation as you enter the chamber and face off against your tormentor for the first time. And then, the battle itself is a perfect encapsulation of everything you learned up until that point – portal based puzzling under pressure whilst a mad robot desperately tries to get inside your head before you destroy all her key components. A beautiful end to a beautiful game.

Day 10 – Most Challenging level.

Well, for me that’s probably the fungus disease on brutal for the excellent Plague Inc mobile game. I have beat the game on all diseases and all levels, but I have it for two devices (Android and iOS) and the iOS one got updated with new diseases so I wanted to give it a go. Alas, I had completed it on Android (which hasn’t been updated yet, or hadn’t been the last time I checked) and if I wanted to play the new ones I had to beat the game again.

Fungus on normal continues to kick my ass, and the length of time that a single run through takes means that by the time you realise you’re not going to do it you’ve already dumped 20 minutes into the thing. It is a level that punishes impatience and is unforgiving of mistakes. Sadly, this level is the only *real* challenge in the game – while later diseases mix it up a fair bit they’re relatively easy to conquer. Fungus though – man.

Still a great game though.

Day 11 – The Game You’ve Spent the Most Time Playing

I already indicated that this is Civ 4, but since I didn’t look far enough ahead I’m going to have to come up with a different game. A reasonably close second to this is Fallout 3, which becomes an even closer second if you bundle in Fallout: New Vegas (which is basically the same game anyway – more a meaty expansion pack than anything else).

Fallout 3 is a game that is beautiful in how well it marries sandbox gameplay with a genuinely evocative atmosphere. The main quest line is kinda, well, okay – but there is so much to do in the Capital Wasteland that I have played it through from beginning to end (including DLC) maybe five or so times and I still don’t feel like I’ve seen everything. In my second to last play through I found a whole quest chain that I hadn’t seen before (the Oasis). Very few games have that much raw payload available to those who choose to explore.

While I tend to lump it and New Vegas into the same basic ‘game’ in my mind, Fallout 3 is the one where I can truly get immersed. New Vegas was perhaps a better *game*, but it never felt truly ‘real’. Everything is too neat. It doesn’t feel like a post apocalyptic setting and if there’s one thing that gets my plums pumping it’s the apocalypse and its aftermath. As a FB friend indicated, it feels more like a western. I do love me some westerns, but it’s not what I want from Fallout.

Regardless, those two together have a very strong claim on position two of ‘games spent the most time playing’

The other two reasonable candidates would be a certain MUD I used to admin for, and a certain MMO that we all know. Neither of those make interesting entries though, because they’re designed to be time sinks from which no sanity is supposed to escape. There’s nothing inherently amazing about either of these games extracting days and days of playtime because it’s in the grindy nature of such things to consume a man’s soul.

Day 12 – Hardest Game You’ve Ever Played.

This is a question that’s easy to answer, but harder to answer in a way that adds the necessary ‘but is still impeccably fair’. There are plenty of games that waggle their figurative dicks at people by making everything stupidly hard to do, but that’s easy. It’s so easy in fact that I consider it to be little more than a design flaw – people didn’t know how to balance a game and so they decided ‘fuck it, let’s just pretend we aimed it at teh hardcorez’

There were a few candidates for this, including the original X-Com, and a pile of roguelikes, but I decided in the end on FTL.

I haven’t really thrown myself at this enough to tell whether the end boss is actually *unfair* or whether I’m just shit (or indeed, both) but certainly in the play-throughs I have had I have felt that the game is difficult but that when I die in a fiery inferno it’s largely as a result of a failure in my own long or short term planning. And yet, I still died often. On the easiest level. It’s hard to blame the game for any of it though – it’s because I discounted risks, or badly prioritized actions, or whatever. There’s a lot of randomness in it, and sometimes that randomness *feels* unfair – but I tend to think it’s that kind of manageable randomness that is mostly down to you to control.

Unfortunately, while I liked it a lot there wasn’t enough meat in the game, at least at release day, for me to actually want to invest the time to truly master it. I thought it was a game with an excellent skeleton, but nothing there to really bite into. Maybe that’s changed? I did hope that they’d stuff it with DLC to really make the most of the theme, architecture and concept they had.

Day 13 – Favourite Story in a Computer Game.

Last year was something of a watershed in game narrative. You’re lucky to get one truly exceptional story in a year, and from 2012 I can think of three off the top of my head – Mass Effect 3, The Walking Dead, and Spec Ops: The Line. All three are good candidates for this, but I’m going to go with the latter purely because it’s probably the one that is most need of extra exposure.

For me, story in game is a completely unique thing – the fact that so many game writers act like they’re writing a movie is why so few games impress me on this score. Story in a game has to be a marriage of game mechanics and narrative – it can’t just be cutscene upon cutscene upon cutscene. I tend to skip through cutscenes if I’m not engaged in the story (Dead Rising 2 being perhaps the worst offender imaginable in this respect – boring cutscene followed by 20 seconds of loading followed by boring cutscene. Let me kill some fucking zombies and then maybe I’ll care about your fucking characters, god). It’s a mark of a good story if I not only watch the cutscenes but also explore any additional dialogue options I’m given. Deus Ex: Human Revolution was another game that managed to pull that off.

Some games though go a step beyond that, and start to butt their heads against the old classic question – ‘can a game be art?’. Portal was maybe the first game I ever played where I thought ‘everything in this is so beautifully interwoven that it’s a real candidate for games as art’. Spec Ops: The Line isn’t quite *that* sublime, but believe me when I say there’s a hell of a lot more to it than just a run of the mill shooter. In fact, since I wrote a whole blog post on that topic[3] you should go have a look and see why. The mechanics of the game actually underpin the story, and there is a whole level of meta in there regarding the relationship of the player to the character to the world. I know that sounds incredibly pretentious but I think it’s not only obvious with a little reflection but it’s so *obviously obvious* that it can’t be anything other than intentional. I tend to roll my eyes when people say things like ‘Oh yes, Moby Dick is clearly a metaphor for the fall of the Roman Empire, because of reasons’. I think you can justify anything if you don’t need to anchor it to actual facts, and when a set of correlations alone is all that is available to support an interpretation I lose my wood for it[4]. Spec Ops though feels like an artistic experience that is intelligently engineered by someone looking to have every aspect reinforce the core message.

Spec Ops is a game where you could reasonably write a thesis on the complex layering of its many lenses[5]. It’s simultaneously a commentary on violence in games, on violence in war, and on the slippery slope of decision making in stressful, life threatening situations. It’s a mark of a great story that it takes you seamlessly from one extreme of characterisation to another without any obvious disconnects along the way. Like Michael Douglas in the movie Falling Down[6], all you can do at the end is look on in bafflement as you ask ‘am I the bad guy? How did that happen?’.

There are those that would say that I’m laying too much praise on what is, in their view, ‘a simplistic, mediocre shooter’. Those people are wrong. They’ll argue that they’re not, but we know better. They have seen the face of God, and turned away instead to the darkness.

Shit, when did I get so religious about Spec Ops: The Line? That can’t be healthy.

Day 14 – Favourite scene or moment from a video game.

I used to play World of Warcraft. Like… a lot. As a game, it’s mostly a black hole from which no time is supposed to escape but for those who are willing to simply enjoy the world it has numerous qualities that make it appealing.

Probably the most striking of these was when the first expansion pack was released. It’s hard to imagine nowadays when the announcement of a WoW expansion pack is indistinguishable from a shitty April fool’s joke[7][8] but the first one was a truly watershed moment for the game. There was a palpable sense of excitement in the playerbase, and the day it was released they did a fantastic job in making the move from vanilla to Burning Crusade as epic as possible[9]. You ride over to the portal, see assembled masses planning an assault, and then you ride through it into…

It’s all so mundane now for WoW players, but the moment when you look over the steps for the first time and see the armies battling against legions of giant demons against a swirling alien sky of yellow and purple… that’s a gaming moment that has stuck with me for many years.

This was sadly the best video I could get of it (without resubbing and making my own) because WoW players insist on putting their own shitty music on top of any video they put on the Internet. It doesn’t capture anything of the real sense of the thing. In a very real sense – man, you had to be there.

Day 15 – Funniest moment.

It’s hard to think of one genuinely standout moment, save for one. I suspect the humour in it doesn’t stand up well to time and the general osmosis of pop culture that the Internet facilitates. The Internet is a wonderful thing, but it is responsible for two terrible atrocities – one is that intelligent discourse between people of different beliefs has, in public places, been replaced with incoherent shouting and allegations of fascism. The other is that it is filled to bursting with unfunny nerds who take what actual funny people have done and repeat it so often that it loses all its humour. I was a Monty Python fan before the Internet. Now I can’t even see a Monty Python sketch without cringing inwardly because they are all forever tainted. They have ceased to be. They are ex-funnymen[10]

There aren’t really many funny video games. There’s Portal, which is probably the funniest game I have played largely because holy shit I wasn’t expecting it to be funny. The dissonance lent the humour a piquancy that was, mmm num num num delicious. Portal 2 was funny too, but in a more ‘end of the pier’ kind of way. The humour in Portal was a delight because it was unexpected. Portal 2 made me laugh a few times, but it was all just… well, it was just you know. It was workaday. It was… BBC 1 rather than BBC 2. It was Denis Leary rather than Bill Hicks[11]. It was Dane Cook rather than Louis C.K[12].

Anyway, before these games there was Ron Gilbert. He looked upon the world of gaming and saw that it was good, but it wasn’t *quite* good enough. So he created a number of truly excellent point and click adventure games (ask your parents, kids[13]). One of these you will have certainly heard of – The Secret of Monkey Island. There’s a lot of genuine funny in there, but the scene that had me laughing the hardest as a young shaver of twelve years old was the fight in the governor’s mansion. Again, it was unexpected – and executed to perfection. Probably not funny now, but man it made me laugh so hard at the time. The payload of the joke for those who don’t know is that you have no control over this fight – it’s basically a cutscene which is executed as if it was being played from the interface. Buttons light up, actions get confirmed at the top, and in a stroke of self-referential genius it even takes a swing at the awkwardness of point and click adventure puzzles which basically need you to rub each verb against each object in the hope that it sparks.

* * *

That’s part one – you see how I started to become more and more talkative towards the end? Yeah, well – imagine that trend continues in the next half. Aren’t you glad I only did half of it today? Maybe you’re not glad at all. Maybe you wanted something more Epitaph shaped today. Maybe you are just here as a result of a badly directed search query[14]. I shouldn’t assume motivation from you. I’m sorry. Look, I hate to part on bad terms like this – can’t we just be friends?

Man, but what if you don’t want to forgive? I say ‘let’s be friends’ and you turn your back on me? I’d look like a right idiot! How dare you turn your back on me after such a nice gesture! Why, I oughta punch you right in the face [15].

[1] https://www.facebook.com/pages/30-Day-Video-Game-Challenge/160824607307526?fref=ts
[2] http://kairopark.jp/iphone/en/
[3] http://epitaph.imaginary-realities.com/wp/?p=676
[4] A good example of this is ‘The Lord of the Rings is really an allegory for World War 2’. JRR Tolkien himself rejected that interpretation, pointing out the difference between allegory and *applicability*
[5] Which it turns out someone has already done: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/16162864-killing-is-harmless
[6] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLmuF-0P4tk
[7] That’s all April Fool’s joke.
[8] Pandas? Haha, good one – I thought for a moment… holy shit, you’re serious?
[9] Of course, a lot of the impact was dulled by the chronic performance and playability problems that accompanied it. Day one of an WoW expansion is an unpleasant experience.
[10] I’m so sorry.
[11] Denis Leary of course having stolen a lot of his look, attitude and jokes from the much better Hicks: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=39e3KYAmXK4
[12] Louis CK is in my opinion the funniest comedian alive at the moment. Seriously, he’s *so good* that it’s unfair. Here’s a brief snippet of one of his routines: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J0rSXjVuJVg
[13] BTW kids, you shouldn’t be reading this. All those bad words you’ve read? Pretend that you didn’t. Go watch Spongebob Montana or whatever it is that you children do these days.
[14] ‘useful and powerful tips and advice, yet sensible achievements on your cv that will be eye catching when you from a shipping environment’.  That is an actual search string that brought someone here.  Whoever that mystery traveller was, I apologise if you try that search again and find yourself here ONCE MORE.
[15] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m9Wh66FXZJQ