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The first game that Lewis ever played was "Horace Goes Skiing" on the ZX Spectrum. Yes, he's that old.

From The Armchair: Goodbye Airtight

ArmchairWhat ho, chums.

I’ve recently returned from the mayhem that is the Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts, and three days on I’m still not fully recovered from the madness, a stubborn cold being the legacy of my dalliance with chaos. Needless to say, video games have been my salve in times of snot-filled hopelessness, with Mass Effect 2 continuing to act like a soothing balm. Albeit a balm dotted with awkward alien love triangles.

What with my battles through the Glastonbury mud and my extended aimless wanderings in Mass Effect, there’s little to report on the home gaming front, and the fact that it’s actually sunny outside for once means that gaming has necessarily been pushed down the agenda. Nevertheless, I’ve been keeping a restless eye on the gaming news, and I was saddened to read today of the closure of Airtight Games, developer of the recently released Murdered: Soul Suspect.

Looking back through the list of games released by Airtight, it’s fair to say that none reached blockbuster heights. If anything I’d class them as the ‘flawed gem’ studio: they produced a series of highly original games, but their products often had rough edges or poor implementation that stopped them from becoming truly great. Murdered is a case in point: while their contemporaries were churning out first-person shooters, Airtight decided to make a unique point and click adventure where you control a detective’s ghost. A brilliant idea (as Eurogamer said, “it feels a lot like the best game Dario Argento never made”), but the final product received mixed reviews thanks to some crude and frustrating implementation.

Murdered-Logo

I have a big soft spot for Airtight’s first game, Dark Void. It received fairly scathing reviews when it was released, but I actually found it a lot of fun. It takes place in an alternative 1930s and is very reminiscent of one of my favourite childhood movies, The Rocketeer, featuring a square-jawed comic-book hero with a jetpack. At the time, Airtight were keen to promote the game’s ‘vertical cover system’ (a cover system… but vertical), but frankly this was just a gimmick. The real joy in the game was the variable scale – flying through huge canyons, engaging in dog fights with your jetpack, then dropping seamlessly into a building and carrying on the fight hand to hand. It was that same sense of seamless transition that everyone got excited about in the No Man’s Sky trailer, but this was in 2010.

Sadly this sense of variable scale was only present on a couple of levels, and the whole game was a bit of a mixed bag with some glaring bugs. The rushed ending indicated that the studio’s ambition had vastly outstripped their time and resources, but nevertheless it was a fun game that left me thinking how truly astonishing it could have been with a bit of polish. The perfect definition of a flawed gem

I’m sad to see Airtight go – there aren’t that many studios who can point to such a varied and original roster of games. But I fear that studios such as Airtight are a dying breed – with the launch of the next-gen systems, the market is polarising between mega-studios producing safe, triple A games with ever bigger teams and tiny indie studios turning out cheap, novel games. The mid-range market is disappearing, and I for one will be sad to see it go.

Dark Void

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That Was The E3 That Was

So, E3 is over for another year, and I can finally stop checking gaming websites for E3 updates every five minutes. Undoubtedly the biggest controversy of the show was Ubisoft’s terrible gaffe about Assassin’s Creed: Unity, but in terms of sheer headline grabbing, there was nothing to compare to last year’s PR war between Microsoft and Sony. In fact, it was surprising to see a new, humble side to Microsoft under the leadership of Phil Spencer, who credited the “amazing games” made by Nintendo and Sony.

One theme that stood out was delays – the gaming drought looks set to continue, as lots of big titles were pushed back to or revealed for 2015, leaving the Christmas 2014 line up looking fairly sparse. But on the plus side, there were some very exciting games unveiled, not least by Nintendo, who in my opinion came out of E3 in much better shape than Sony or Microsoft. Not only did they unveil a tantalising list of new games, many of them new IP, they followed up their slickly produced (and hilarious) 45-minute Digital Event with reveals of new games and information throughout the week via the Nintendo Treehouse YouTube channel. Plus they arguably caused the biggest buzz of the show with the reveal of a stunning new Zelda game for the Wii U.

The new Zelda on Wii U - Nintendo claims this is all in-game footage. Wow.

The new Zelda on Wii U – Nintendo claims this is all in-game footage. Wow.

Frankly, I wanted to rush out and buy all of the games in Nintendo’s line-up, not least Yoshi’s Woolly World, which had such kitten-in-a-teacup-playing-with-a-duckling-in-slippers levels of cuteness that I was practically welling up. (Let It Die this most definitely wasn’t, although that game gets kudos for having possibly the best name since Run Like Hell.) Other Nintendo highlights were Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker (need!), Super Smash Bros. Wii U (which looks better every time I see it), Splatoon (such a great idea for a competitive shooter) and Code Name: STEAM (which is a cross between XCOM and HP Lovecraft – sign me up now).

Yoshi's Woolly World - so cute it makes me want to throw up rainbows.

Yoshi’s Woolly World – so cute it makes me want to throw up rainbows.

Microsoft had a bit of a mixed bag of games by comparison. The announcement of Halo: The Master Chief Collection, which includes remasters of Haloes 1 to 4, didn’t exactly set my world alight, but that’s the big game MS are banking on this Christmas. I’ve only just got around to playing through Halo 4, so I’m not in any rush to play through the earlier games again… plus I definitely have a sense of diminishing returns with the Halo series, certainly in the single player campaigns, and I’ve long since given up on attempting to follow the labyrinthine plot.

By comparison, Sunset Overdrive looked a lot more fun, and Rise of the Tomb Raider is a game I’m really looking forward to. Scalebound, on the other hand, was a bit of an odd one: An Xbox One exclusive, it’s being developed by Platinum, whose games I adore, but the trailer left me stony faced. White-haired guy who looks a bit like Dante, giant fire-breathing dragon… all things we’ve seen a hundred times before. Ms. D was watching the trailer over my shoulder, and I asked her what she thought. “Looks just like a video game,” she concluded. “Just like any old video game.” Oooh, she can be cutting when she wants to be. Cutting but incisive.

Hold on, was that a giant enemy crab in the trailer? It’s clear that Sony don’t have the monopoly on them when it comes to E3 presentations…

Perhaps the highlight of Microsoft’s presentation was the indie reel, which I’d highly recommend you to watch. Sadly, the games flashed by far too quickly for my liking, but Ori and the Blind Forest looks stunning, and other stand outs include White Night, Below, Habitat and Lifeless Planet. But perhaps Cuphead is the game that stood out most for me, perhaps because it’s the one that’s most likely to give me nightmares with its evil Disney stylings.

Cuphead, like being sucked into a 1930s cartoon and FIGHTING FOR YOUR LIFE.

Cuphead, like being sucked into a 1930s cartoon and FIGHTING FOR YOUR LIFE.

Sony also had a bit of a mixed bag of games, although there were perhaps a few more I’d want to play than in the Microsoft presentation, not least of which is the promised remake of Grim Fandango. I missed out on the game first time around, so I’d love to play a shiny new version. Is it enough to persuade me to buy a PS4? No. But it’s certainly helping the decision.

If there’s one game I’d buy a PS4 for (or an Xbox One for that matter), it’s Batman: Arkham Knight, which looks simply stunning. The trailer featured in Sony’s presentation blew me away, and it’s perhaps the first game I’ve seen that really makes the most of the next-gen power at the developers’ disposal. “Look, the cut scenes are indistinguishable from the main game! Wowweeeeeeeeee!” says my inner child.

Otherwise, the game everyone was talking about after Sony’s show (even BBC News) was No Man’s Sky, which admittedly looks amazing (see trailer above), especially considering it’s an indie game made by a tiny team. The idea of being able to explore an effectively infinite game space stuffed with unique planets and animals sounds enticing, but I second the question voiced by Ms. D: “What do you do?” I imagine planet exploration could get dull fairly quickly as you catalogue yet another animal that’s only slightly different from the last one. I’ll reserve judgement on No Man’s Sky until I know a bit more about it.

Overall, the game of the show for me was undoubtedly Zelda: the new graphical style looks stunning, and the move towards an open world is a much-needed change for the series. Can’t wait for this one. Let’s watch the trailer again.

How about you? What were your highlights of E3?

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Why We Need Women In Video Games

As you may have read already, Ubisoft creative director Alex Amancio caused a bit of controversy at the E3 gaming conference by saying that there are no female assassins in the upcoming Assassin’s Creed: Unity because it would have been too much work to put them in. His exact words were:

“It’s double the animations, it’s double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets. Especially because we have customizable assassins. It was really a lot of extra production work. It’s not like we could cut our main character, so the only logical option, the only option we had, was to cut the female avatar.”

Understandably, quite a few people were upset by the idea that putting women into a game counts as ‘extra’ production work, and the gaming media leapt on the statement. Similar revelations emerged around another Ubisoft game, Far Cry 4. Ubisoft stepped up to clarify the original statement, and Amancio claimed his wording was a “slip up”. But the furore surrounding the issue shows how contentious it is.

Ubisoft had the resources to recreate 18th century Paris, but not to include female assassins...

Ubisoft had the resources to recreate 18th century Paris, but not to include female assassins…

Admittedly, some media outlets may be guilty of fanning the flames of outrage with this story, but the amount of comments that have been added to each post on the subject show that it’s a big deal. What’s interesting, however, is how neatly divided the comments have been between people who see the ‘slip up’ as indicative of the underlying sexism in games and people who declare it a ‘non-issue’ (example quote: “Why does everything have to turn out into a battle of human rights and equality these days?”).

It saddens me that so many people won’t even acknowledge that there is a problem with female under-representation in games – and indeed their misrepresentation. As I’ve written before, women have historically been an afterthought in gaming history, and when they do appear it’s more often than not with big boobs and short skirt – i.e. women viewed from a male perspective. Strong female characters like Ellie in The Last of Us and Jade in Beyond Good and Evil are the exceptions that prove the rule.

I can empathise with people who don’t think that this is an issue, because for them it probably isn’t an issue. Such commenters are overwhelmingly male, are more than likely to prefer playing male avatars to female avatars, and are more than happy to be served up with idealised visions of highly sexualised women. Despite shifts in the gaming demographic, the majority of gamers are still men, most games are still made by men, and many gamers probably don’t think twice about it. But maybe they should.

Imagine you’re a woman (if you are a woman, this will be easy). The vast majority of games – Watch Dogs, Wolfenstein, Grand Theft Auto, etc, etc – plonk you in charge of a man. The overwhelming message is: “these are toys for boys, women aren’t welcome”. You might feel alienated. Some men claim that they find it difficult to inhabit a female avatar – if that’s true, then imagine how female gamers feel. As Leon Hurtley said on Kotaku: “Thinking about the Assassin’s Creed news this morning made me realise that if I was a girl almost every game would be [alienating].”

Assassin's Creed: Liberation DID feature a female lead.

Assassin’s Creed: Liberation DID feature a female lead.

You could argue that if the majority of gamers are men, then companies are perfectly within their rights to target that majority. And this makes sense up to a certain point – but imagine if society was run like that. Governments that continually ignore the wishes of minorities don’t tend to last long.

But it’s not just that female characters are scarce in games: publishers actively discriminate against female leads. The developers of Remember Me told how they were turned away by publishers who said: “You can’t have a female character in games. It has to be a male character, simple as that.” As Dontnod creative director Jean-Maxime Moris says, with thinking like that, “there’s no way the medium’s going to mature”.

The gaming world is sexist, simple as that. The industry has been stuck in a protracted adolescence that it is struggling to shake off. Signs of maturity are emerging, particularly in some of the thoughtful work coming out of the indie scene, but it’s a slow process. We know the reasons for this: a (largely unfounded) perception that men don’t want to play as females; the perception by many (male) gamers that nothing needs to change; and the misfounded reasoning from some publishers that games with female characters don’t sell as well (somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny).

This thinking has to change. The relegation of women to second-class citizens in the gaming world is frankly embarrassing and, even worse, damaging. Think of all the children playing video games who will grow up thinking that it’s the norm to play as a man and that women always have secondary roles. Is that how we want women to be perceived?

So how can we fix this? Some people have floated the idea of publishers enforcing ‘quotas’ for female characters, but such positive discrimination smacks of tokenism. However, there does need to be a change in how developers approach the way they make games. I’d wager that much of the perceived sexism in games is unintentional – it just doesn’t occur to male-dominated design teams that they need to include women or, in the case of the Assassin’s Creed affair, it comes up as a secondary concern. An easy way to change this would be to circulate a simple checklist at the start of development:

  • What gender will the main character be?
  • Why?
  • Can we offer a choice of genders?
  • How would the female characters in our game be perceived by a woman?
  • Would our game pass the Bechdel test?

Not all games have to feature women, in the same way that not all films or TV shows have to feature men. In some cases featuring a single gender is appropriate to the story. But asking simple questions like those above would be a start towards setting the balance straight. We need more women in games because at the moment, half of our society gets short shrift in one of our biggest entertainment mediums.

Remember Me was rejected by publishers for featuring a female protagonist.

Remember Me was rejected by publishers for featuring a female protagonist.

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From The Armchair: E3 Hopes and Dreams

ArmchairWhat-ho, chums!

I’ve just returned from five glorious days in sun-kissed Sicily, and the shock of returning to the griminess of The Big Smoke has yet to soften, although some rare outbreaks of London sunshine are helping to alleviate the transition. As Ms. D and I were waiting for our flight home, I had a quick peek at my phone to check whether the internet was still there after five days of online abstinence on my part. I was glad to find the information superhighway in full working order, and I proceeded to flick through my usual gaming haunts for any exciting news.

“What are you looking at?” asked Ms. D.

“I’m reading about E3,” I replied.

“What’s E3?” she asked, quizzically.

“It’s… well…,” I began, struggling to explain the significance of the event, “It’s like the equivalent of the Oscars for video games, except there are no prizes.” She understandably looked confused. I tried again. “It’s a bit like Christmas for gamers. No, it’s bigger than Christmas!” She looked sceptical. I pressed on. “It’s when all the companies announce their latest games,” I said, simply. She seemed satisfied and went back to reading her book, although I wasn’t particularly satisfied with my explanation. It’s more than just gaming announcements – it’s the hype frenzy, the media circus, the heightened anticipation, the mud-slinging between the console giants, the spending of vast sums of money on glitz and celebrities. In short, it’s a lot of fun.

This year, E3 feels more important than ever. After the massive PR win by Sony at last year’s E3, expectations for high-profile clashes between Sony and Microsoft are high, and Nintendo are rumoured to have something special under wraps, with lots of speculation about the release of Mario NFC figurines and new software coming before Christmas. More than anything though, expectation is high because the gaming world is in a bit of a slump right now: the release schedule is like a desert at the moment, with little but the usual yearly instalments being lined up for Christmas. Of course, we’ve just been treated to the glorious Watch Dogs/Wolfenstein/Mario Kart 8 triumvirate of releases, but there’s not much else coming up on the calendar.

The Luigi Death Stare meme has had me in stitches: http://www.kotaku.co.uk/2014/06/04/best-luigi-death-stare-videos

The Luigi Death Stare meme has had me in stitches: http://www.kotaku.co.uk/2014/06/04/best-luigi-death-stare-videos

That’s probably a good thing for me at least: it’ll give me some time to plough through my backlog before the next wave of must-play games. But even so, I’m hoping for the announcement of new Zelda and Metroid games, and hopefully something new in the Fallout and Mass Effect worlds. I’d love a new XCOM too (although I’ve still yet to play through Enemy Within from last year), and I’m keen to see more of Bayonetta 2 and Mad Max.

In the meantime though, I can see Mario Kart 8 will be keeping me busy for months to come. It’s the first video game that Ms. D has gotten excited about in a long time, and it’s been a long, long time since I played a video game this fun. I’m also happily finding my way through The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, although Hyrule exploration has been temporarily put on hold due to the purchase of Batman Origins: Blackgate, which was on sale at 75% off on the eShop last week. It’s a fun little game that’s got me thoroughly hooked, although obviously it’s much slimmed down in comparison to its console cousin. The odd 2.5D graphics were a bit confusing at first, and the 2D map is utterly useless, but I love the Metroidvania gameplay. Definitely worth a pop for the price.

For the next week, however, I’ll be glued to the news feeds, lapping up all the latest gaming annoucements from E3. Let me know what games you’re looking forward to in the comments below.

Of course, the only downside to E3 is the animalistic whooping in the press conferences... come on guys, calm down.

Of course, the only downside to E3 is the animalistic whooping in the press conferences… come on guys, calm down.

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Online streaming: a step backwards?

lewispackwood:

A few of my thoughts on online streaming, as originally posted on 101 Films…

Originally posted on 101 Films You Should Have Seen:

Not long for this world?

Not long for this world?

I’ve finally given up on online streaming subscriptions. After many frustrations, this morning I cancelled my Amazon Prime Instant Video subscription with an exasperated sigh. I will explain why.

I was an early adopter and enthusiastic user of Lovefilm. I remember the dreadful old days, when trips to the local Blockbuster would usually end in disappointment because all of the decent films had been rented or the film I wanted to see was unavailable on their pitiful back catalogue. If I did find something to watch, I’d have to hand over the best part of a fiver before dashing back to the store within a day or two in order to avoid a late fee. The thought of the £10 fine I received once still rankles to this very day. So the emergence of a postal DVD rental service with no late fees and an…

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The magical video game art of Oliver Frey

The Fantasy Art of Oliver FreyI was browsing through a book shop the other day when I came across a volume that got my nostalgia glands throbbing from just one look at its cover. The Fantasy Art of Oliver Frey is a celebration of the artwork of one of the most famous individuals in the eighties computing scene, and I found myself rushing to the counter to purchase it in less time than it takes to boot a Commodore 64.

Oli Frey painted numerous covers for eighties computing magazines, including Crash and Zzzap!64, and I remember the excitement of seeing his artwork on newsagents shelves, hinting at the possibilities of what delights the games inside would hold. Frequently, of course, the artwork was much more exciting than the games themselves, but Oli’s covers showcased the enticing hidden world to be found in games, something intoxicating to a wide-eyed youngster.

Oliver Frey Amstrad CPC

Looking back at the above picture of giant Amstrad CPCs descending on an unknown planet, the disconnect between weedy eighties computers and a display of awesome power seems ludicrous. But I lapped up images like these at the time – they reflected my own excitement and the feeling that we gamers were at the cutting edge of technology. Even if it was an Amstrad.

Oliver Frey Crash Number 1Oli Frey’s most famous picture is probably this one – the cover of Crash issue one, in which a terrifying alien has Space Invaders for eyes. It didn’t really have anything to do with what was inside the magazine, it was just meant to be an exciting image that was vaguely game-related. This was a surprisingly common theme in early games magazines – often the cover wouldn’t necessarily relate directly to the content.

Oliver Frey King KongHere’s another famous Crash cover of King Kong munching on a Spectrum. Again, there was nothing about King Kong in the magazine, Oli just wanted to create a cool image. And I think you’ll agree he succeeded.

Oliver Frey ChristmasI love Oli’s detailed paintings for Christmas specials, which usually featured the magazine’s editorial team. A few years back, Retro Gamer commissioned Oli to paint a similar Christmas-themed cover for their magazine, and I believe he’s done a few of them since.

Oliver Frey LemmingsThis is one of my favourite of Oli’s paintings – his idea of what a realistic Lemmings would be like if it featured people. I think this image appeared on a SEGA magazine in the late eighties. I love the use of perspective, but it also captures what appealed to me about Oli’s work – there’s a dark undercurrent that made video games seem dangerous, forbidden and exciting, even if they were mostly blocky pixels shuffling around on a black screen.

It’s a shame the hand-painted magazine cover has died out: they’re so much more distinctive than highly polished modern covers. Hand-painted covers were still fairly common well into the nineties, and I remember TOTAL! used them quite often, but they gradually disappeared as digital artwork became easier to create.

Oliver Frey is still making art, and you can order some of his iconic images via his website: http://www.oliverfreyart.com/. I’d also recommend ordering The Fantasy Art of Oliver Frey if you have any love for retro gaming, it really is a wonderful trip down memory lane.

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From The Armchair: Love Hurts in Mass Effect

ArmchairWhat ho, chums!

It’s been fairly quiet in the gaming world over the past couple of weeks, no doubt because everyone is holding back announcements for the upcoming annual mayhem of E3 on 10th June. Add in the fact that I’ve been journeying around the untamed wilds of Scotland for the past few days, and it means that there is likewise little for me to report on the domestic gaming front. Although I can confirm that Scotland is very, very cold. Beautiful, but cold.

However, I did eventually manage to finish Gargoyle’s Quest after much gnashing of teeth and frustrating restarts, and I’m pleased to say it turned out to be a lot of fun after the initial shock at how difficult games used to be. I’ve also made a bit of headway on Castlevania, although that game is astonishingly hard even by retro standards – god knows how anyone ever finished it without a save game system. It is strangely addictive though – despite having my posterior handed to me on a regular basis by Frankenstein’s monster, I still find myself drawn back to the game like an addict to the needle.

Link: charming

Link: charming

I also treated myself to The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds: I’ve barely dipped my toe into the pastel-coloured waters of Hyrule, but it charmed me completely from the start. My face was set with a dreamy grin as I guided Link on his quest, quite different from the determined grimace that is a permanent fixture during my battles with Castlevania.

It’s actually been a bit of a games-buying bonanza over the past few weeks after months of abstinence: I’m eagerly awaiting my pre-ordered copy of Mario Kart 8, and I bought Halo 4 in order to finally get up to date with the series and continue my quest to finish all of the Halo games in coop with my good friend Mr Sutton. I’ve also been sorely tempted by Wolfenstein: The New Order and Watch Dogs, although I managed to resist the devil’s subtle whisperings of enticement in the end. But should I eventually succumb, it’s likely that I will be hurling my shilling in the direction of Wolfenstein rather than Watch Dogs: hunting ludicrous sci-fi Nazis is more up my street than GTA with mobile phones.

I did, however, hunt down and buy Mass Effect 3, such is my eager anticipation to see this series through to its conclusion. I’m currently hovering at around the 35-hour mark in Mass Effect 2, and I’m utterly enchanted by it: any of my spare time, of which there is sadly little, has been funnelled in the direction of this frankly quite remarkable game, which deservedly made it into the top five of our Most Agreeable Games of the Generation.

The difference between Mass Effect 2 and its prequel is astonishing: as I said in my review, the first game has a great story but is fatally flawed by repetitive sidequests and dull exploration. Yet the sequel manages to fix pretty much every single flaw in the original, and the satisfying complexity of the game world makes it a joy to seek out quests and study the lore of the Mass Effect universe.

However, I’ve spent most of my time recently trying to cop off with members of the crew.

Miranda: annoying

Miranda: annoying

‘Romance’ in Mass Effect is almost like a metagame in itself. The fact that your relationships from the previous game carry over into the sequel is a genius idea, and it adds weight to your awkward flirtations when you know that your decisions will carry over to the next game. Miranda is currently in a huff with me after I took Jack’s side in an argument, but I’m not particularly bothered as she’s frankly irritating (I’m sure I can’t be alone in thinking that). To be honest though, I’m surprised there hasn’t been an option to bed Jacob, such is the sexual tension whenever my male Shephard sidles into his quarters for a chat and leans suggestively against the desk.

All of this soap opera posturing is highly entertaining, but the depth of the game still amazes me: at numerous points you’re offered decisions that cause the game to continue in radically different ways, and it’s perhaps the only game I’ve played since Fallout 3 that offers such varied ways to continue the story. This will mean nothing to people who haven’t played the game, but I just found out that there’s even an option to recruit Morinth and see that relationship through to its inevitable conclusion. In that case, love really would hurt.

All of these choices, all of these consequences – I’m already contemplating a second playthrough to see how things might have worked out differently. At this rate, and with Mass Effect 3 waiting in the wings, I won’t need to buy any new games for at least another year.

Toodle-pip for now!

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