Category Archive for ‘games’

2014 in Review

Posted on December 31st, 2014 in announcements, appearances, film and tv, games, news, reading, reviews, whisky deathmatch

New Year’s Eve, my friends, and you know what that means?  Yes, indeed, I am 40 years old today.  You would never think I used to be young.  Truly horrifyingly, this is my 6th yearly review post. I’ll have to have a review of my best yearly review posts one of these new year’s eves…

A YEAR IN BOOKSELLING – Again, in spite of all my complaints, I really can’t complain. Partly due to the ongoing success of Game of Thrones, I’m sure, The First Law books continue to chug along very, very nicely.  I had a short story in Martin and Dozois’ highly successful Rogues anthology in June.  Then Half a King came out in July and made no. 3 on the Sunday Times hardcover list, which matches the ranking of The Heroes way back in 2010 but at a much more competitive time of year.  I toured more extensively than I ever have before, with some 15 events in the UK, all of them pretty well attended, and I did a few bookshop events down the west coast of the US for the first time too and made it to Comic Con in San Diego, to Sicily, to Lucca, and a third visit to my old friends in Aviles, Spain.

A YEAR IN BOOK WRITING – The heavy touring schedule through July and August got in the way somewhat, but even so it was a good year in the writing department too, if a pretty demanding one.  I wrote the last quarter of Half the World, revised and edited it, then wrote a first draft of Half a War, and gave it a fair hammering this month to produce a second draft that I’m starting to get happy with.  I’ve a few more things to do and another pass through focusing on the secondary characters to get to a decent third draft which I can hand in to my editors mid January, but the book’s mostly there.  Seems like only yesterday I was pitching this series to publishers and now it’s nearly done…

BOOKS – I really am hardly reading at all these days, it’s a disgrace.  When I finish Half a War I desperately need to take my foot off the gas and start reading again, hoover up some ideas and inspiration, catch up on the truly massive backlog I’ve got sitting in tottering heaps all around me. But two things I read this year that I’d certainly recommend are Kameron Hurley’s God’s War, and Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation. Neither the kind of thing I write, particularly, but then who wants to piss where they eat…?

TV and FILM – Boy, the cinema has barely registered this year.  I think the only film I reviewed was Fury, which was OK but ultimately a gritty wrapper around a rather traditional, sentimental war movie.  Guardians of the Galaxy was good fun but I was a little underwhelmed after all the nerdgasms I’d seen about it – seemed like more of the Marvel same in the end, if with a few more laughs.  Gone Girl was a very well-made film but seemed a bit hamstrung by a really odd casting choice in Ben Affleck – the guy just comes across as too much of a likeable lunkhead and I felt they needed someone much darker and more dangerous to really balance the central relationship and make us unsure what was going on.  Rather than equally evil couple of bastards reap the whirlwind they sow for each other, we got mildly unpleasant idiot is totally screwed over by his psychopathic wife, and that’s a lot less interesting in all kinds of ways.  For me the TV standout was the searing climax of Breaking Bad, which has to be one of the greatest pieces of TV I’ve ever seen, about as close as you’ll get to a single 5 season story arc with novelistic coherence of theme and character.  Highly honourable mentions to a bloody, strange and gritty second season of Vikings and the punishing 3rd and 4th seasons of The Walking Dead after its slightly limited 2nd season.  Justified continues to be elevated way above its rather banal set-up by great script and acting in which every character overflows with Elmore Leonard-y detail.  Orphan Black was good largely thanks to its brilliant central multiple performance.  Suits is entertaining if a little lightweight.  The Good Wife continues to be highly watchable and always that little bit darker than you expect.  Arrow was enjoyable enough superhero hokum but fell short of its gritty ambitions.  Black Sails was enjoyable enough pirate hokum, good when it put to sea but too often foundering on land.  The 1st season of House of Cards was very strong, with a great mood and super central performances from Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, but I felt the 2nd season was a lot less believable.  Hell on Wheels sadly crashed off the rails for me in its 3rd season after an action-packed 2nd.

GAMES – Last year had some splendiferous stuff in the form of The Last of Us, Bioshock, Tomb Raider, Telltale’s Walking Dead etc. as developers pushed the last generation of consoles to their limits and stretched unused storytelling muscles while doing it.  This year began on a high with Dark Souls II, more ultra dark, ultra hard Japanese/Western hybrid roleplaying but with the difficulty softened just a little this time around.  Moving over to PS4, the results have been a little more pedestrian than last year.  Destiny was pretty and compelling and did give me a hell of a lot of gaming hours but ultimately was a slightly empty experience.  Diablo III I found rather by-the-yard-y.  Far Cry 4 good, but very much like Far Cry 3.  Which leaves Dragon Age: Inquisition as my personal game of the year.  One could criticise the gameplay, the voice acting, and the somewhat vanilla plot line, but the world, characters, detail and sense of immersion were top class.

WHISKY – Lack of time meant my planned Whisky Deathmatch: Islay Bloodfeud never happened.  Well, it happened in the sense that I drunk the whisky, I just didn’t get round to writing about it. In brief, though, bottles I’ve particularly enjoyed this year: Lagavulin 12yo cask strength (smashed in the face with a sack of burned lemons), Ardbeg Supernova 2014 (Ardbeg, only more so, and with a touch of sweetness to it), Laphroaig Triple Wood (salty medicinal goodness with a sherry-wood softening), Amrut Fusion (awesome whisky distilled in India from Scottish and Himalayan barley), Talisker 30yo cask strength (full fathom five thy father lies).

CONTROVERSIES – I noted last year that after 7 or 8 years in the business I’m getting less and less interested in the cyclical nature of genre commentary.  I’ve already expressed my opinion one way or another on most issues of note, and when they come up again, I find a world weary sigh gets across most of what I feel, an attitude reflected in my post on this year’s controversial Hugo Awards.  That’s part of the reason for the greatly reduced blog presence of late, though that’s also a function of the sheer amount of stuff I’ve got going on.  I’m finding twitter (@LordGrimdark) a better medium for general conversation, and I’m tending to use the blog only for more considerable announcements and reviews.  This relatively thin level of posting may well continue next year, because…

THE YEAR AHEAD – My, oh, my, but 2015 is shaping up to be a busy one. I’ve already got visits confirmed to Detroit in Jan, Australia in Feb, Dubai in March and St. Petersburg in April. I’ve got not one but TWO books coming out: Half the World in February and Half a War in July, the first time I’ve done a publishing schedule anything like so densely packed.  Since I toured in the UK and US only a few months back there probably won’t be a lot of events for Half the World, but expect another full-on tour in July for Half a War.  Writing-wise, I’m going to be kept fully busy until the end of February with edits and revision on Half a War, then I’ve got a few short stories to write to complete a collection which will hopefully come out some time in 2016.  It’s looking as if the main part of next year may be given over to some exciting non-book projects, of which more in due course, but I also need to lay the groundwork and do some thinking for another trilogy in the First Law world, although the publication of that looks like it will be some way off…

Happy new year, readers!

Dragon Age: Inquisition

Posted on December 21st, 2014 in games

I liked Dragon Age: Origins a lot when it came out way back in 2009.  I’d long been a fan of Bioware’s D&D based fantasy RPGs, especially Baldur’s Gate I and II.  Dragon Age seemed to introduce a new level of grittiness both moral and physical to the genre, with some interesting characters, dark themes, and tough moral choices.  I was pretty disappointed with Dragon Age II, though, which followed only a year and a half later.  The setting still worked and there were some good characters but it felt rushed, repetitive and decidedly un-epic.  I finished that review by saying, “I hope they do another, and do better with it, because the game world has great potential…”  So, three and a half later, have Bioware done better with Dragon Age: Inquisition?

In the midst of a civil war between wizards and templars, a giant explosion destroys the ineffectual leadership of Thedas (The Dragon Age Setting, believe it or not) and tears giant holes in the sky through which demons begin to pour.  But can a hastily instituted new Inquisition save the war-torn and politically fractured world from enemies without and within?

I guess you could say Baldur’s Gate had a pretty open world, but over time, with games like Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect, Bioware tended to move towards more limited, linear game worlds with the emphasis more on story and character interactions.  It’s Bethesda that have tended to do the truly huge and flexible open worlds with games like Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls, offering huge potential for exploration but less in the way of plot and personality.  Inquisition makes as good a fist as I’ve seen of trying to combine the two.

The world isn’t truly open – it offers maybe ten or so regions you can open up and explore, but each of them is pretty damn big and beautifully realised, much less artificially enclosed than the likes of Mass Effect, and with all kinds of side quests and collections to get lost in.  Then episodes in the central storyline will occasionally take you away to other areas for some specific purpose, even into the world of dreams or a possible future… You don’t get quite the magnificent vistas, varied light and weather, and freedom of Skyrim, but the world still feels massive.  And there’s just a lot more actual people in it.  In Skyrim you feel you face the world largely alone.  In Dragon Age you feel you’re part of a group of companions, but also of a wider society, and there’s a strong sense that your actions impact on the world and people.

The setting is a strong one with plenty of believable background, offering dark twists on fantasy staples.  Elves are fallen from past glories and enslaved.  Dwarves are fallen from past glories, embittered and isolationist.  Wizards are fallen from past glories and in constant peril of falling to demonic madness.  The nobility are self-interested backbiters, the church is hidebound and oppressive, their templars drug-addled zealots.  Inquisition gives you the chance to steer the fate of most of these groups, for better or worse, but few actions come without consequences…

Gameplay will take the form of a hell of a lot of running around and a fair bit of killing stuff.  Three classes, various skill trees and heaps of customisable weapons, armour, potions and accessories give you the option to tailor your approach to this in some detail.  You can control your character in real time and allow your sidekicks to follow their own script, or for particularly tough fights you can pause things and give out detailed orders before advancing time bit by bit.  There’s probably a fair bit of depth and complexity to all this but I must admit, playing on normal difficulty I never really needed to do much beyond the basic.  Even fighting the ten (magnificent) dragons which are the game’s most challenging additional content a few judicious potions were enough to get me through.

Still, Dragon Age is more about the story than the action and on that front it delivers admirably.  It’s not Skyrim-massive in terms of its sheer sprawling enormity, but it would be a bitter critic indeed who complained about the quantity of content.  After about 20 hours of solid play there was a prolonged sequence that made me feel like I’d just got through the prologue and, completing pretty much all the significant side quests, it took a full 100 hours to finish the game and my enthusiasm never really flagged. I’d even consider playing it again with a new character, which is truly rare for me these days.  Your nine companions are varied and well-realised, their off-hand interactions while you wander the wilderness often a real high point. You also have three advisors – military, spying and diplomacy – who can contribute to the cause via a strategic map of the world, and all have their own distinct personalities, concerns, and outlook on events.  Some of these folks are people we know well from the previous games, which only adds to the feeling of an ongoing, developing world.  There is a lot of depth and clever detail out there, and I encountered very few bugs or nonsensical bits of conversation.  The whole thing feels extremely polished and carefully thought through.

Criticisms?  Well, dialogue isn’t always supremely well written and the acting is a little patchy, with some characters way more entertaining than others, but that’s highly forgivable considering the sheer quantity of content.  Compared to Dragon Age 2 there’s vastly more range in the movement and expressions of the characters, as well as the way the conversations and cut scenes have been ‘directed’.  There are some sequences that fall a bit flat but also some great moments – even some you could call moving, and seeing a character you’ve customised and created yourself fully participating in the drama can be a real buzz.  Sometimes you’ll get a tight close-up of a face in a certain light with eerily convincing skin and plant-matter stirred by the wind in the background and the whole thing looks magnificent.  At other times expressions can seem a little off, delivery weirdly halting, and my character had a really peculiar, stiff-shouldered walk, a bit like John Wayne, which bugged me every time she walked into the war room.

If you were being harsh you might say dialogue options seemed a little limited.  Usually there’s a ‘nice’ response, an ‘arch’ response, and a ‘harsh’ response, and the harsh one just seems overly prickish and calculated to piss people off, giving you the feeling you’d have to be evil AND an idiot to pick that one.  One of the nice things about Mass Effect was it tended to give you the choice between Ruthless Hardass or Generous Paragon, both conceivably sensible for the mission.  In this version of Dragon Age I found it hard to be harsh without feeling like I was foiling my own aims – the choices more or less boiled down to lightly snarky hero or entirely unironic hero.  It didn’t feel quite so dark a world or a game as the first Dragon Age, either.  Origins served up lashings of slavery, betrayal, madness and apocalyptic pessimism which (no surprise) I rather liked.  This serving did feel rather more vanilla.  I never really doubted the heroes would prevail.

Still, overall I’d have to call it a massive success, much the best of the three Dragon Age games, with a vivid and vibrant world and characters, plenty of drama and oceans of content.  If you dislike the whole concept of long, involving fantasy RPGs you need not apply, but I’ve always liked em a lot, and there hasn’t been a better one since Skyrim.  Maybe before…


Posted on October 3rd, 2014 in games

Destiny! A revolution in gaming that will finally justify the new generation of consoles! That will seamlessly fuse the compelling plot of single player games with the freewheeling interactivity of multiplayer ones! That offers tense gunplay in vast open-worldy vistas with oceans of content and customisability to explore!

So I was led to believe, anyway.


Destiny is OK. Pretty good, even. But revolutionary it is notably not. In fact, rather than feeling like an ingenious combination of the best features of a load of lesser games to make an utterly new and more compelling whole, it feels like a combination of features rather cynically poached from a load of better games to make something calculated to be maximally commercial but lacking any real soul or personality of its own.

It’s a 1st person co-op gunplay game like Borderlands but with less guns and no wit.  It’s an open worldy multiplayer like GTA V but with a far smaller world and that a strangely sterile, empty one.  It’s a random-drop equipment-grinding role-playing game like Diablo but with no role to play and all the equipment’s the same.

It gets a little bit of what makes each of those games work, but doesn’t really excel anywhere.  The background and texture of the game is just woefully generic and bereft of humour.  Your character offers nil personality, not even a name. Non-player characters are little better. Single player campaign makes no real sense and doesn’t dovetail at all with the multiplayer (can one really imagine one is the sole saviour of mankind when there are hundreds of other players around self-evidently having the exact same experience?).  Enemies, settings, and equipment are exactly the sort of enemies, settings and equipment we’ve seen in space games a thousand times.  This all leads to a repetitive experience. Get mission, blah, blah, something or other which comes down to following the white dot on your radar and shooting stuff on the way. Press square to deploy your personal Peter Dinklage for some phoned-in waffle bereft of emotion and onto the next white dot.

I’m being harsh, but really, the end of the previous generation, with games like the Last of Us, Grand Theft Auto V, Tomb Raider, proved you can do an awful lot better than this from a characterisation, plot, and emotional involvement point of view.  Destiny just feels so safe, sterile and over-produced.

Having said all that, I have been playing it pretty happily for some time, and I do keep wandering back.  An intense and hugely monotonous grind though it is, requiring an unholy amount of hours to make progress at the higher levels, they have managed to winkle out whatever it is that makes that kind of experience compelling.  I can’t say why, cause they’re basically just like the others, but I do seem to really want that pair of special boots that guy’s selling, and it’ll only take me 15 hours of grinding to save up… The saving grace is the action – it is repetitive but it is great – smooth, exciting, plenty of satisfying impact, easy to learn but hard to master.  The worlds are a bit generic but they are beautifully realised, full of texture and detail, you just find yourself ignoring it all a bit in your urgency to chase the latest white dot on your radar.  Adding a couple of friends does improve things but you’d better have a few who are online a lot because the game makes it strangely hard to get an ad hoc crew of strangers together for the most challenging tasks.

Destiny does do a lot of things reasonably well, it all knits together into a pretty compelling experience and after the opening fiasco of GTA V you’ve got to applaud the technical achievement of making such a massive online experience run smoothly.  But it’s nowhere near as big, as varied, or as original as promised, and for me completely fails to supply the much-vaunted knitting together of single and multiplayer experiences.  Maybe the additional content they’re planning to drip in will gradually offer more variety, more reasons to grind away for untold hours, and there is a solid foundation there to build on, but without anything truly innovative or, more importantly, any personality of its own, I can’t see it pulling me back much as the months wear on…

Dark Souls 2

Posted on April 29th, 2014 in games

It is without a shadow of a doubt dark, it undeniably involves souls, but the 2 is something of a lie, as this is actually the THIRD in From Software’s super dark, totally soul-related, and super duper unforgivingly hard connoisseur’s choice RPG series.

The first was Demon’s Souls, which I very nearly completed some years ago but gave up at nearly the final hurdle after describing it as ‘scrotum-witheringly difficult’. The second was Dark Souls, which I put some forty hours into then gave up once again saying, ‘the unrelenting, punishing, hurting darkness and pessimism of the whole thing, unlit by any apparent spark of positivity doesn’t help.’  Which makes Dark Souls 2 the first of these games that I can say I have actually honest-to-goodness-ly played through to the end.

The basic tone and gameplay haven’t changed hugely.  Once again you are a cursed undead dropped into a mysterious, ruined world for reasons unknown, having to harvest the souls of small monsters, middle sized monsters, and flipping enormous monsters in order to improve your stats, assisted by messages from other players and occasionally by those other players themselves as you wrestle your d-pad in a slightly clunky 3rd person action adventure style through assorted dark forests, dark ruins, dark towers, dark caves, dark castles, dark temples, and well-lit toy emporiums.  One of those is a joke.  Can you guess which?

As with previous entries in the series, the strangely hopeless tragic gothic mood is highly effective.  The designers keep you mostly in the dark (knowledge wise as well as graphically), but they have a real knack for making the fragments of background and mythos they feed you seem fascinating and mysterious rather than just, you know, mumbo jumbo.  Enclosed spaces are sometimes a bit bland, but you can get some spectacular vistas and there’s a great visual imagination at work.  It’s still often intensely difficult, requires iron will and concentration and a willingness to play through the same section or boss twenty times, and initially this game seems very much like the previous two, but over time you start to notice quite a lot of subtle differences.  You can now quickly transport between bonfires (save points).  There’s a sort of central base area where useful NPCs tend to gather.  Once you’ve cleared out a given area a dozen times or so the monsters start to thin out, then disappear entirely.  There seems to be a little bit more of an understandable backstory to be pieced together.  The world’s a bit sunnier, a bit less unremittingly gloomy, there are more people about and they’re not quite so universally pessimistic and down about everything.

The overall effect is to make this game a good deal more forgiving, a good deal more accessible, perhaps, than its forebears, and in many ways that’s a good thing.  But in smoothing off some of those rough edges it does feel like they’ve lost a little of what made these games so unusual and arresting.  It’s like that crazy-ass band you admire for doing stuff like no one else who suddenly come out with a more commercial album.  Yeah, there’s still a lot of the heart there, and yeah you can see why they did it, and maybe you even play that album more than you did the others cause, you know, they were hardly easy listening were they?  But somewhere at the back of your mind you’re just that little bit disappointed that something so strange and extreme has become that bit more like everything else…

2013 in Review

Posted on December 31st, 2013 in film and tv, games, opinion, process, progress, reading, reviews

Happy Birthday to Me. Happy Birthday to Me. Happy Birthday dear MEEEE-EEEEE.  Three cheers, anyone?

Yes, indeed, another year has flowed beneath the bridge at ever-increasing speed and I am 39 today.  It’s round about 12 years since I started writing The Blade Itself back in 2001.  Some 9 years since I signed my first book deal, and 7 and a half years since The Blade Itself was published in 2006, would you believe.  Got a feeling it’s hard to argue that I’m new on the scene any longer…  An interesting year this has been.  Didn’t publish any new novels, but I made some big deals for three and wrote most of two of those.

Let’s break it down a little, shall we…?

A YEAR IN BOOKSELLING – In spite of all my complaints, I really can’t complain.  No new novels published, though I did have short stories in a couple of anthologies: Legends and Dangerous Women.  The Blade Itself continues to come out in languages and territories that have yet to be exposed to the sunny radiance of my literary presence – I think we’re up to nearly 30 translation deals now.  Partly due to the huge success of GRRM’s Game of Thrones, I’m sure, The First Law books, especially the trilogy, would seem to be selling better and wider than ever.  Which is nice.  I’m told all six books, in all languages and formats, have sold somewhere around 3 million copies now, which really does beggar belief for stuff I dreamed up in the middle of the night for my own amusement. Less travelling this year, but a much enjoyed second visit to my pals at Celsius in Spain, and my first trip to Russia saw 250 people in a bookstore in St. Petersburg and a sleeper train back to Moscow with a very nice man who works in oil and gas called Mikhail.  I spent most of June locked in negotiations for the publishing of my new YA (ish) trilogy which will be starting in July in the UK and US with Half a King, more detail on all of that over here.  It looks as if 2014 might be a very big year for me…

A YEAR IN BOOK WRITING – A strong year, especially at the start and end.  Quite possibly my most productive ever, certainly since 2007ish when I was finishing the First Law, long before I was a full-time writer and there were so many child-based and administrative demands on my time.  I wrote the second half of Half a King, revised and edited it, planned Half the World and drafted three quarters of it, and wrote three short stories.  Overall the move to a (slightly) different style of writing does feel like it’s done something to refresh my interest and recharge the batteries though, you know, it’s amazing how fast work becomes work again…

BOOKS – A level of reading that makes last year’s pitiful level look amazing, and most of what I did read was non-fiction about vikings. One thing that I did very much enjoy was Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles starting with The Last Kingdom.  Strongly written adventure stuff with some great battle scenes and a feeling of authenticity.  I burned through four of them while in Russia, then got stalled on the fifth.  Perhaps a slight sense of diminishing returns when read back to back.  Otherwise, my tottering to read pile just gets ever higher.  Don’t think that bad boy’s going to get any smaller, now…

TV and FILM – Boy it’s been slim pickens film-wise, I have to say, adding considerably to my ongoing conviction that the interesting stuff mostly happens on the small screen these days.  Can’t think of anything that really did much for me at the cinema since I squeezed into the most packed viewing ever to see Les Mis back in January.  Those big scifi and superhero blockbusters I saw didn’t do masses for me.  I liked Star Trek Into Darkness a hell of a lot more than its predecessor, but that isn’t saying all that much.  Kick-Ass 2 was entertaining but not exactly deep.  Pacific Rim I thought was mostly nonsense and, no, geekdom, not in a good way.  Man of Steel I didn’t even enjoy thinking about watching.  The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug was a good deal better than the first instalment but a long way short of the Lord of the Rings, with the story bloated up like a steroid-popping body builder losing all charm and personality in favour of ACTION and SPECTACLE.  Ah, well.  TV was a great deal more promising.  Breaking Bad got better and better (or possibly worse and worse) though I haven’t yet seen the final episodes so SHUT UP SHUT UP.  Game of Thrones Season 2 was good, sometimes very good, after a slightly wobbly oversexed start.  Hannibal was largely riveting stuff with some awesome design and some great performances, Vikings was an interestingly off-beat and authentic-feeling effort that I look forward to the continuation of, Hell on Wheels 1 and 2 were also promising.  Justified Season 3 continued to improve on the sparky character-led police hijinks of the previous two series.  Spartacus Vengeance was more of the same brilliant/awful lurid schlock.  The Danes offered us a great final season of Borgen, and a not-so-great final season of the Killing.  The French offered us the initially gripping and ultimately baffling The Returned.  Sons of Anarchy I find watchable enough in the main but I wouldn’t be that bothered if I saw no more.  Dexter still offers a few things to like but is really dribbling away by Season 6.  I enjoyed Season 2 of the Walking Dead in spite of many issues, however they’ve sorted out most of those by a storming Season 3, the end of which I haven’t quite got to.  Probably the most pleasure I got out of TV was soaking through my t-shirts with tears watching the full five season run of Friday Night Lights.  You wouldn’t think a show about a Texas High School football team would be my cup of tea at all but, heavens, the acting, the scripting, the storytelling, the commentary on american life, the raw emotions.  Brilliant Stuff.  I’m tearing up again!  Help me, coach, teach me how to be a man!  Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose…

GAMES – After a slightly disappointing 2012, 2013 will be remembered as an absolutely vintage year.  Good stuff often happens at the end of a hardware generation and some of this year’s releases were particularly noticeable not only for their technical strengths but for their strengths in character and narrative.  The White-Knuckle Tomb Raider Reboot then the Mind-Bending Bioshock: Infinite both delivered powerful central story lines.  For me, in spite of a far smaller budget, Telltale’s harrowing Walking Dead video game got closer to the holy grail of interactive drama than the fascinating yet flawed Beyond: Two Souls.  Grand Theft Auto 5 was pretty triumphant however you look at it.  The one player campaign may not quite have had the depth and thematic cohesion some of the previous outings offered, but for sheer quantity of content and realisation of a living, breathing, beautifully detailed free-roaming game world it is untouchable, and its multiplayer incarnation was rich and varied enough to get me finally playing something online for a significant chunk of time.  In spite of the fierce, fierce competition, though, my game of the year has to be the magnificently stark and uncompromising The Last of Us, which for boldness, characterisation, detail of setting, richness of experience, seamless fusion of action and story and sheer narrative drive from first frame to last set new standards for scripted games.

BEST REVIEWS – No new books means no significant splurge of reviews, and I must confess that I’m finding reviews as a whole just a lot less fascinating than I used to.  Partly it’s that you see the same points and arguments repeated over and over, partly it’s that I’m just not as fresh and interesting and review worthy as I once was, partly it’s that when you put together a hundred reviews of a book you tend to see pretty much every viewpoint expressed somewhere, and partly it’s that there seems to be less and less connection between the critical and commercial spheres and, I dunno, the commercial sphere just interests me a lot more.  It seems more honest in the main.  I get bored by the contempt for success and the celebration of obscurity you seem to get from a lot of ‘serious’ critics.  Still, no doubt when people start to react to Half a King I’ll be glued to the interwebs for every grain of opinion once again…

CONTROVERSIES – Ongoing criticism of cynicism and darkness in fantasy, not to use that elusive term ‘grimdark’, caused me to write a post on The Value of Grit early in the year, which prompted a fair bit of response, but in a way it’s a reheating and re-examination of a familiar circular argument.  There’s a degree to which, once you’ve spent a fair bit of time about the internet genre scene, you start to see the same comments and controversies coming up over and over in one guise or another and you’re forced to wonder whether you have any further substantial contribution, or even frothy outrage, to offer.  That, and the fact I’ve talked about pretty much every aspect of the publishing scene at one time or another has caused me to cut back on the blogging slightly this year.  I’m still going to be talking about TV, games, whisky, publishing, my forthcoming work, and all the other stuff I’ve always talked about when there are substantial posts to make, but I’m also reasonably active on Twitter these days (@LordGrimdark), and some of the smaller comments and announcements (not to mention arguments) are happening over there…

Happy new year, readers!

The Walking Dead (Telltale)

Posted on November 27th, 2013 in games

What an amazing game.  I suppose you’d call it a gruelling point-and-click struggle for survival set in the milieu of the zombified graphic novels of the same name.  It’s actually in very similar territory to Beyond: Two Souls, which I played a couple of weeks back – an interactive drama, you might say – but I think overall it’s a good deal more successful, because although it lacks the visual bells and whistles it scores huge on the human interaction, imagination, narrative drive and drama.

They make a neat decision not to repeat the story of the graphic novels, telling instead a parallel one of their own devising with a few nods to the original material and a couple of characters in common.  Lee, a college history teacher, is on his way to jail for murder when the world ends, and he soon finds himself surrogate father to a little girl called Clem, struggling desperately to survive against the predatory dead and the even worse living as one of a group of mismatched companions.  Like all the best zombies, it creeps up on you.  Initially you’re interested, a little baffled, perhaps somewhat turned off by the rough and ready looks of the thing, but quickly the characters, and the spiky interactions between them, the desperate need to survive against the odds in a world gone to hell, start to pull you in.  There’s a ruthless realism to the way characters career into and out of the fast-moving narrative, a genuine sense that death could come for anyone at any moment.  It’s arranged into five episodes and the second is certainly the weakest, both visually and in terms of plot, but the drama builds bit by bit, until by the fourth episode, if you’re anything like me, you’re absolutely gripped, totally bound up in the people and their fraught relationships, and that continues right to a wonderfully tough, haunting, uncompromising end.

The visual style is, well, kinda basic, I suppose you could say, very much taking graphic novel as the cue, and in the first couple of episodes it can look pretty clunky at times, but it gets better with each instalment, they use angles and events cleverly and by the brilliant last couple of episodes it’s suiting the material down to the ground and by no means getting in the way of the drama.  The individuality and expressiveness they get out of the characters is impressive, even if their expressions are generally some combination of shock, agony, rage or horror.  I guess those are the times.

There are shocks a-plenty, some slightly arcade-ish sequences, a fair bit of hunting down object x to do thing y, some occasionally rather frustrating gameplay as you struggle to move the cumbersome cursor over an attacking zombie and cleaver its head in half, but the heart of the game is in talking to other characters, trying to manage the relationships between them, making tough decisions when there’s often no clear right call, and trying, and failing, to keep everyone alive.  And it’s just very well written and acted, both in terms of the dialogue itself and the way it creates drama and gobsmacking moments.  Sometimes things go wrong.  Shockingly and spectacularly, leaving you thinking, could I have done something differently?  In that I think it really does get to the heart of the graphic novels and the tv adaptation – it’s not so much about the zombies, as the way the people react to the unbelievable pressure of a constant fight for survival.  A fight they often lose.  If you like things simple, heroic, and optimistic, this may not be for you.  Everyone else should play it NOW.

Beyond: Two Souls

Posted on November 19th, 2013 in games

Beyond: Two Souls seems to have somewhat divided opinion, and indeed it’s divided my opinion rather.  An amazing technical achievement in some ways with great acting impressively captured, some stupendous visuals and spectacular sequences, an intense piece of storytelling that hits much more than it misses, but as a game it can be a limited and frustrating experience … indeed there’s a strong argument to be made that it’s hardly a game at all.

So little Jodie is born with the amazing gift (or perhaps curse) of being linked to a ghostly entity called Aiden who can do all kinds of crazy shit.  Like open doors and knock stuff over, then later possess people, choke them to death, and show snippets of the past and future.  Which sounds way cool, except that scientists, soldiers, and the CIA are intent on exploiting Jodie and Aiden for their own nefarious goals.  Beyond relates the story of Jodie’s extraordinary life as she grows up, rebels, loves, loses, triumphs, drinks coffee, breaks horses, busks, interacts in highly specific ways with a limited range of objects, delivers babies, and closes interdimensional rifts in space time with the help of her telekinetic imaginary friend.

This is all delivered in a highly cinematic manner familiar to anyone who’s played the game’s idealogical forebear Heavy Rain.  If you imagine a spectrum with free-form open-worlders like Skyrim at one end, and much more limited but cinematic and story-rich fare like The Last of Us at the other, Beyond is way off the scale past The Last of Us and not a long way away from, well, a film.  Player input is relatively minimal, usually in the form of timed button presses or movements of the controller, and the feeling is sometimes that of watching a giant cutscene.  With Beyond they’ve added some slightly more complex and involving gameplay forms.  In fights action occasionally slows down while you guide Jodie to a successful block, punch or kick with pushes of the right stick.  There are some darting between cover sequences and avoiding guards reminiscent of a greatly simplified Metal Gear Solid.  Then you can usually switch to control of Aiden, who’s able to float through walls, shift objects, manipulate people and otherwise help Jodie through trouble.  A lot of this is beautifully realised, but these different modes tend to come piecemeal, and don’t really integrate into one cohesive style of play.  Most of your time is spent wandering about looking for things to interact with or just ushering events along and watching them unfold.  There’s also less of the feeling of variable outcomes that you got with Heavy Rain, here things truly do feel ‘on rails’.

What’s good, then?  Well, a lot, actually.  The narrative doesn’t go in order but springs nimbly between scattered episodes, from Jodie as isolated child experimental subject to troubled teenager to ass-kicking adult and back, gradually filling in the blanks in her life and shedding new light and offering new perspectives on the events you’ve already seen.  It’s clever, it’s varied, at times it’s affecting, at others exciting, and sometimes seriously beautiful to look at.  It’s all anchored by an excellent central performance from Ellen Page, with just the right mixture of toughness and vulnerability and, even when the dialogue gets a little ropey, you never doubt the reality of the character.  Acting all round is strong, in fact, and the capture of the acting is outstanding.  At times Beyond has the most realistic and expressive faces I’ve ever seen on a game.  Tear tracks glisten on every nick and freckle, eyes gleam, cracked lips quiver, choppy hair is artfully tugged by explosions.  Willem Defoe has never looked so much like Willem Defoe.  EVER.  Though capturing the actor’s faces whole rather than capturing the performance and applying it to a face built from scratch does give a different vibe to something like The Last of Us (probably the closest competitor in this regard) – not worse, just different.  More filmic, less game-y, if that makes sense?

And more filmic, less game-y, is very much the overall feel here.  While Beyond is coasting along on its own terms, delivering fluid cutscene after lavishly tooled action sequence after emotional close-up exchange between beautifully rendered characters it can be mesmerising, but when the player is grudgingly invited to the party, things can begin to creak.  Your minimal level of impact on the game is occasionally made painfully clear.  Sometimes you’ll be required to push your right stick towards something in order to make Jodie move things along, characters awkwardly frozen while they await your input.  No choice, just input, and you wonder whether that input is really adding anything except to spoil the illusion of a smooth-flowing story.  Sometimes sequences rather jerk from one to another, fragments of wide shots flickering up awkwardly between, and the more fluid and spectacular these little sequences become the more those ungainly joins stand out.  And when the game occasionally opens out to at least give you a small area to wander in and explore, more often than not you end up steering a rather plastic-feeling Jodie clumsily about, walking into cupboards, struggling with ungainly camera angles and hoping you’ll find the next little dot to push your right stick towards sooner rather than later.  At times like these Beyond feels a lot less like a bold, slick, next generation concept and more like a clunky, daft and rather tedious one.  It’s not always clear what the required movements are when the action hots up, nor is it totally obvious what’s gained by doing them right or lost by doing them wrong.  There’s no real art or cleverness to controlling Aiden either.  Taking possession of guards and getting them to shoot their friends can be cool, the rush of images when you look into the past can be impressive, but in essence you float around looking for objects or people you can interact with then interact with them in the one way the game allows you.  There’s no puzzle, no reflex, no strategy to speak of.  One could say, ‘I’m good at Grand Theft Auto,’ or ‘I’m good at Street Fighter II.’  No one could really claim to be good at Beyond.  “What, you can push the right stick in roughly the right direction at kind of the right moment, then, under no apparent time pressure, align two glowing balls in roughly the right place? WOW.”

The thinness of the gameplay really does shift all the attention onto character and story – I guess that’s the idea – but the storytelling is, especially in the light of such great work done this year in the likes of Bioshock: Infinite, Tomb Raider and The Last of Us, I dunno, a little patchy.  Some episodes are really great.  Some are less convincing.  The mythos and background, not to mention Aiden’s abilities, seem inconsistent – as so often, the more of the mystery is revealed, the less interesting it seems.  Sometimes there’s a genuine emotion to be gained from the performances and excitement from the action.  Sometimes they splurge you with drama without doing the groundwork.  Sometimes the development of the plot just isn’t very believable.  So isolated Jodie visits a party with other teenagers and some seem OK and others are a bit snide then, suddenly and without much reason, they gang up on her savagely, assault her and lock her in a cupboard leaving the player (or at least this player) thinking – uh?  There are enough of these brow-furrowing moments and unconvincing behaviours to prevent me ever getting totally immersed.

When it comes to a game that really aims to deliver great characters and a powerful narrative, Beyond is nowhere near so coherent, convincing, subtle or, in the end, effective, as the Last of Us.  Maybe I’m being unfair with the comparison, because there is a lot to admire, and if not being as good as The Last of Us is a crime, then pretty much every game ever is guilty.  But while Heavy Rain went for subtle emotion and mystery, Beyond aims more at big emotion and spectacle.  While Heavy Rain had the feel of an art house thriller, Beyond is much more in big budget Sci-Fi territory.  Not necessarily a bad thing, as Heavy Rain could feel a bit dour, a bit humdrum, but it does bring Beyond much more into competition with titles like The Last of Us, or maybe even Mass Effect and, despite some great elements, it suffers by comparison.  In The Last of Us, character, plot and gameplay all dovetail together to intensify the experience.  In Beyond gameplay becomes vestigial, and character and plot and the believability of the whole exercise suffer somewhat as a result.

Perhaps it sounds like I was thoroughly disappointed by Beyond: Two Souls, and I don’t mean to sound that way.  I enjoyed it overall, was gripped for some sections and it’s certainly stuck in my mind afterwards.  I greatly admire the concept and the rendering of the central performance – no doubt it’s a fascinating one-off – and maybe that’s why the shortcomings are so frustrating.

You certainly wouldn’t want every game to be like Beyond.  But I’m glad a couple are…

Grand Theft Auto V

Posted on November 12th, 2013 in games

There’s been a great deal of virtual ink expended on Grand Theft Auto V, by some margin the fastest-selling entertainment product in history.  Plus it’s been out a while now, so I’ll keep it relatively simple…

I remember playing the original top-down, most definitely niche GTA back in, er, 1806, I think it was, and chortling over the sense of humour and lurid, unapologetic mayhem it offered. I loved the considerably less niche fully 3d GTA 3, Vice City, and particularly San Andreas, but was somewhat disappointed with GTA 4, which despite being technically impressive seemed to have lost some of the variety, depth and, I don’t know, fun of the earlier entries in the series.  GTA 5 brings back a lot of that range and personality while retaining its unremittingly black sense of humour, and delivers one of the most compelling and varied online experiences I’ve had (not that I’ve had that many, I must admit).

The size and detail of the setting and the sheer quantity of content is mind-blowing, indeed it is. GTA has always been a leader in the creation of living, breathing open worlds and I don’t think there’s anything to touch GTA 5 in this regard, indeed it’s hard to imagine anything touching it for some time to come.  As far as world building goes it’s truly a leap forward which I would never have thought possible on the current technology.  The views from hilltops or helicopters can be simply staggering in the quantity of detail, and there’ll be times when you’re left entranced by a sunset, or a lens flare, or the rain slashing the sidewalk, or an explosion ripping apart a parking lot.  There’s an ultra cynical, world-weary sense of humour applied to everything, from offhand dialogue overheard in the street to the TV shows to the hours of radio content, and however long you play, new moments just keep on appearing.  Faces and figures don’t have the level of detail you get on something like The Last of Us, but they fit the task, and there’s still plenty of expression in the central characters and some great acting to boot.

Having three characters instead of one works well, and is elegantly managed.  One big problem with previous GTAs, and with Red Dead Redemption, was that you could play any way you wanted but the central character was still the same guy in the cut scenes.  You could get a rather jarring disconnect between your John Marston and the one the game presented you, if you like.  Having three characters gives you the luxury of different ways to play while still feeling true to character.  Franklin and Michael are adequate leads but their basic stories are perhaps a little familiar. Trevor is just genius, though, personifying the anarchic heart of Grand Theft Auto – hilarious, terrifying and pitiable by turns.  There’s a truly vast amount of different side-challenges you can undertake, and the central missions are more elaborate and detailed than ever, with the inclusion of heists – more in-depth jobs that require a fair bit of preparation and execution.  But there’s maybe a slight sense of same-old to some of it, a bit of a blandness about the secondary characters, and I found myself rushing through at times, not feeling the desire to pause and explore that I have with other games.  It often felt like the game was just about to open out only to rather frustratingly push you straight through to the next mission, or series of missions.

As a one player experience, then, I think I’d say great but perhaps not truly legendary.  Technically superb, no doubt, but I don’t know that it had quite the feeling of immersion in the world and life that made San Andreas so all-consuming, or the total freedom to define your own adventure you get with Skyrim, or the narrative drive, thematic cohesion and sledgehammer payoff of Red Dead Redemption.  I’m being ultra critical because so much here is truly class-leading, but I’m not sure it’s as memorable as some other recent efforts that emphasise plot and character.  There’s a slightly unfinished sense about some of it – the narrative maybe playing second fiddle to the spectacular setting and background.

For me, despite the early problems, saving issues, and general frustrations that accompanied release, I actually found the online element more rewarding.  In fact I found it by some margin the most rewarding online gaming experience I’ve ever had.  I should say I’m not generally a fan of MMOs, have never played World of Warcraft or Call of Duty online, and generally find the whole culture more than a bit horrible.  I’m not sure exactly what it is about GTA online that works for me.  Perhaps its the huge variety of gameplay on offer, from parachuting to shooting, from golf to arm-wrestling, to wondering around just looking for big trouble with crew-mates.  Perhaps it’s the mass of customisations, perks and rewards you can work towards.  Perhaps it’s just the strange, beautiful, horrible, unpredictable stuff that happens when other humans are let loose in such a complex system.  But I think it may mostly be the total lack of narrative thread, the total anonymity of the mute and background-less character you bring into neon-lit Los Santos, the total freedom to experience the setting any way you please.  The freedom to make up your own story.  The rather old-school opportunity to fill in some of those gaps with your own imagination.  With the one player game I tended to feel a bit rushed along, a bit handled, a bit more observer than player.  But with the online version I felt that sense of freedom to explore, develop and, I don’t know, role-play, maybe, that’s missing when the characters are served up  fully formed with all their dialogue, pasts, tics and plot lines already in place.  Yeah, the psychopathic savagery, offhand stupidity, and tedious waffle of other actual people can be wearying.  But that only makes it the sweeter when you come out on top of 15 of them in a Rockford Hills death match, right?

So GTA V, factoring in its online incarnation, is a magnificent achievement, a superb hodgepodge, a dazzling mess, packed with great design and hilarious, thrilling, even occasionally moving moments.  Superb value for money too, you’d have to say, and a worthy bookend to a console generation and what seems to me to have been a vintage year for gaming.  But that true fusion of great character and narrative (a la the Last of Us) and great freedom and open world (a la Skyrim) remains elusive.  Perhaps it always will…

The Last of Us

Posted on July 9th, 2013 in games

A good friend of mine with whom I play a lot of games often tells me, with good reason, that I hate everything.  So it is with some surprise that I admit to having really liked – if not to say loved – the last three games I’ve played.  More surprising still, my long-established taste has generally been for sprawling adventure games, free-form strategy and sandbox open worlds, rather than more tightly scripted, ‘on rails’ gameplay, and these recent three – Tomb Raider, Bioshock Infinite, and The Last of Us – are all pretty tightly scripted.  Even more surprising, I’ve always said gameplay is king, and gameplay is actually not a particular strength of any of these three, but in various ways they score huge on character, setting, story, and that rarest and most desirable of things in video gaming – emotional involvement.  These are three exceedingly well written games, which taken together are making me feel very optimistic about the future of gaming.  It’s a character, story and setting bonanza trifecta.  It’s a video game fruit machine emotional involvement jackpot.  It’s a goddamn end of generation scripted adventure holy trinity we’re looking at here.

And the apex of the triangle, the best of the crowd, is the Last of Us.  Let me be clear.  From its title to its final scene, it is a superb experience.  Raw, thrilling, affecting, uncompromising.  Quite possibly the best tightly scripted game I ever played.  This may be the old generation of hardware, but it is a new generation, a quantum leap, a brave new world in character, story, setting, and, you guessed it, emotional involvement.

So, it’s 20 years after the apocalypse.  Mankind has been largely wiped out by a fungus that turns people into fungal flesh-eating fungus zombies.  The eponymous last of us are  scratching out hand-to-mouth existences in military run totalitarian quarantine zones, banding together for survival in the wilds or living as packs of predatory hunters in the ruins of the cities.  Joel is a hard-bitten old survivor with a dark past and violence issues obliged to escort Ellie, a 14 year old girl with a secret, across the ruins of the US.

Studio Naughty Dog has good history in the cinematic action adventure arena with the Uncharted series, but while those games have a sparky, humorous, Indiana Jones sort of a feel you can probably tell already that they’ve gone for something an awful lot more solemn – if not to say horrifying – with The Last of Us.  If I say the game sits somewhere within the venn diagram formed by The Road and the recent Dawn of the Dead, I’m probably making it sound a bit more dark, hopeless and cynical than it is.  But not a lot more.  There’s some nasty, nasty stuff going on out there, and our protagonists are responsible for a fair bit of it themselves.

Looking for a video game comparison I guess Resident Evil 4 springs to mind with more stealth and less shooting. Indeed if you’re reaching for a gun early on the chances are high you’re doomed, because once they’re alert to your presence the infected will swarm you in a heartbeat with hideous consequences.  Much better results are achieved by creeping around and throttling the infected from behind, blowing them up or torching them with improvised explosives, and, when you must, beating their skulls to pulp with a lead pipe with five pairs of scissors taped to it.  Or for that matter distracting them with a tossed bottle and avoiding the creepy bastards altogether.  Action is swift and extremely savage.  Sneaking is pretty simple but plays smoothly and intuitively.  There’s a simple system for crafting helpful items, upgrading weaponry and learning new skills which will have you scouring every decaying corner for anything of use.  There are varying styles of infected to overcome or sneak around, but as in all the best horror the true hell is other people, with soldiers, raiders, freedom fighters gone wrong and loopy cannibals all making their own particular attempts to horribly rob, murder and eat our protagonists, not necessarily in that order.

Characters are big and detailed, move with a believable weight, interact convincingly with the surroundings and each other, helping with that feel of cinematic realism.  I’ve never seen such a beautifully realised setting, so cohesive, realistic and believable.  Although in some ways it’s repetitive – lots of abandoned cityscape and suburbs – colossal efforts have obviously been made to make everything individual.  It’s not just an office – it’s an architect’s office with fancy furniture, drawing boards and certificates for each employee.  It’s not just a smashed-up shop, it’s a toy shop where they were having a half price sale when the world ended.  It’s not just a cellar, it’s a janitor’s closet where a band of psycopaths were stripping their victims of their clothes and neatly arranging them in useful heaps.  The atmosphere is second to none, music spare and haunting, the groans and unearthly clicking of the infected suitably nerve-wracking.  They’ve done a very smart thing, I think, by not crowding every area with masses of enemies as well.  Large sections are just empty, abandoned, rotting, overgrown, with the noises of wildlife taking back the city, and everywhere evidence of the carnage that ensued following the outbreak, human stories picked out in notes, journals and photographs that rarely have happy endings.

The designers have had the confidence to let things breathe, to leave silences, to let you fill in the blanks – it’s about the notes you don’t play, as Miles Davis had it.  That extends to the characters too, who are vividly painted with some spare dialogue, some highly convincing, understated voice acting and some great visual design.  You see what happened to Joel in the initial outbreak in a storming opening sequence which sets the scene for you to be put through the emotional wringer for twenty hours, and you know that he’s done some dark stuff since to survive, but the mentions are forced through tight lips in passing, never made explicit.  The bond between Joel and Ellie is built up steadily, carefully, without a lot of show, but when it’s tested, you believe it.  They don’t tend to make the easy choices – the characters are spiky, aggressive, shitting themselves, difficult, believable.  The choices made become increasingly dubious, but never out of character.

It’s a very carefully and cleverly paced game, as well.  They’ve split it up into titled seasonal parts.  A classic multi-act structure.  And each season doesn’t just bring a shift in the weather, the settings, the atmosphere, but a shift in the approach, in the relationships between the characters, in the emotional resonance, constantly changing things up and throwing new styles of gameplay and drama into the mix.  New secondary characters come in too, and new dynamics between the characters.  Men and women, which is good to see.  It’s maybe 20 hours for a thorough, slow going play through, a mere bagatelle compared to something like Skyrim, but it in no way feels like a small game, and it’s an extremely intense one.  The Uncharted games were packed out with cinematic set-pieces, with climbs up dangling trains, crawls through capsized ocean liners, escapes from burning chateaus, the full-motion video and the gameplay all smoothly dovetailing.  They’ve applied all that expertise here, special moments scattered throughout, but they’re more intimate, more realistic.  Caught in a trap Joel dangles upside down, trying to repel a zombie onslaught with a revolver while Ellie struggles to free him.  You cover your allies, sweaty-palmed, with a sniper rifle while they’re attacked by a squad of thugs, then a legion of infected.  Badly wounded Joel staggers through an abandoned science block towards safety, leaning on every counter he passes, occasionally blacking out from the pain while Ellie urges him on.  You get the picture.  It’s not one bland office block full of zombies after another, it’s full of incident and invention.

Criticisms?  Pfah.  Combat can be lumpy, jittery and messy but then combat is.  Checkpointing’s maybe too smothering, you rarely have to go back far and that can make things a little on the unchallenging side.  Sidekicks occasionally run about in plain view without being seen by enemies, but I’m clutching at straws in the light of what’s done so well.  I’ve heard people say that they wish the game was less ‘on rails’, that there were more choices here, more ‘moral’ options, but I actually think the designers made the right call in telling the story they wanted without a lot of input from the player in the overall shape.  I’m not sure how well those moral choices ever really work in games, nearly always they boil down to – will you be shining hero or cackling villain, actually making things feel more artificial rather than more organic – and here things are kept much more ambiguous.  Events fall out how they may, sometimes with a sick inevitability, sometimes with a suddenness that leaves your jaw dropping.  That goes right through to the ending which, without spoilers, I found to be wonderfully surprising, understated, and complex, but still hard-hitting.  There are no easy answers, no simple decisions, no clear right and wrong, only the driving need to survive at all costs.  Not what I was expecting at all, but a very bold choice in a game which, after all, is a big time commercial proposition.  This does not feel dumbed down at any time.  It does not ever feel adolescent.  It does not feel lowest common denominator.  And I think that’s the really heartening thing for me about The Last of Us (and Tomb Raider, and Bioshock Infinite).  While commercial cinema seems to be becoming ever safer, dumber, more dominated by the bland, repetitive and obvious, in commercial games there still seems to be room for originality, bold approaches, and great design and writing.  Games – at least some of them – are getting grown up.

What makes The Last of Us so bloody good?  I think, in the end, it’s a gestalt of many small things, technical and creative, all done very well and all aimed squarely at creating that atmosphere and that involvement with the characters, which in turn makes the gameplay – relatively simple though it is – so very intense.  Great music and sound, great motion capture and expression, brilliant pacing with a fluid ebb and flow of calm and tension, strong dialogue, characterisation and a refusal to do the easy thing, a willingness to keep it all spare and tight and let the silence talk, and just amazing attention to detail throughout which makes everything feel powerfully real.  It’s a masterpiece.

I am of the first generation to grow up with video games.  I thrilled to Space Invaders, to Way of the Exploding Fist, to Elite, to Dungeon Master, to Street Fighter II, to Shogun Total War and many many many more.  But it feels like gaming is starting to come of age not just as entertainment, but as a storytelling medium.

Fine, fine times to be a gamer, my friends.  Fine times.

BY THE WAY: I’ve tried to keep this spoiler free, but I can’t say the same for the comments. If you read the comments, BEWARE OF SPOILERS!

Bioshock Infinite

Posted on April 15th, 2013 in games

The short version – though not without some significant shortcomings, this is an often spectacular, occasionally stunning, in many ways groundbreaking piece of work with some of the wildest ideas and design – and definitely the best companion – I’ve ever seen in a video game.

If you’ve got the slightest interest in games you really should play it.

The longer version might take a while…

The first two Bioshock games both take place in the amazing undersea city of Rapture, and though I very much admired the ideas, the unique design and loopy characters, the unpredictable, mystery-based plotting and the attempts to examine some properly adult themes (not adult in the sex and gore sense, but in the political and philosophical sense), I wasn’t quite as taken with them as others have been.  Partly it was because, beneath the admittedly spectacular dressings, I found them rather limited and dreary as first person shooters, which has never been my favourite format anyway.  The gameplay didn’t inspire me particularly, and there was a claustrophobia about the whole thing I found, I dunno, a bit wearying.

And though it’s no sequel, exactly, the DNA of those two previous Bioshocks is very much present in this one.  Again you fight your way through a beatiful yet corrupt impossible city controlled by a sinister idealogue in which you get the sense that everything is a metaphor but you’re not entirely sure what for.  Gameplay is very similar – gun in one hand, magico-biological power of some kind in the other – and the arsenal is maybe less varied than before, if anything.  Enemies aren’t all that exciting or intelligent either, and the stealth elements have disappeared entirely.  Indeed one could make the rather bizarre assertion that Bioshock Infinite is at its least interesting in the midst of combat.  The original Bioshock at least paid lip service to some moral choices – use the helpless or save the helpless, fight the monster or become the monster.  Here the moral choice tends to boil down to – gun down the indoctrinated masses or bludgeon their heads off – and the gung-ho splatter seems a little at odds with the much subtler things the game aims to achieve.  At times it’s a little like two games forced to exist unnaturally within the same dimension – one a rather mediocre first person shooter in which you rummage through crates a lot, the other an evocative character piece in an amazing setting, filled with nimble ideas and a wonderfully realised co-star.

The graphics are beautiful, but in a painterly, impressionistic, unreal style, packed with powerful imagery, the score is fantastic, featuring late twentieth century classics reimagined to suit the 1910s mood – a barbershop quartet version of the Beach Boys’ God Only Knows has been haunting my dreams ever since I heard it.  The sense created of an utterly other world set partly within our history, really is … well, something else.  In spite of being a blockbuster in scale and quality there’s an arthouse feel about the whole thing, full of clever asides and self-referential touches.  It dabbles in physics, determinism, spirituality, prejudice, politics, and though there’s sometimes a bit of a lack of depth – I’m not sure it has much to say about many of its more controversial themes beyond HERE THEY ARE – at least they’re making the attempt.

There are some really stunning set piece moments – falls from floating buildings, giant clockwork robots smashing through windows, airships going down on fire – but some really affecting and emotional moments too.  Dialogue and voice acting are very, very good, the voice recordings scattered about the city – as in the earlier games –  add to the background, though you might say the secondary characters don’t quite have the zing of the first Bioshock.

The crowning glory though is Elizabeth, co-star, companion, axle of the plot and emotional anchor of the story.  Generally speaking, in video games, no one likes an escort mission.  Companions are dumb, boring, get in the way, get themselves killed, undermine any sense you’re in a real place containing real people.  This is the first time I’ve ever seen one work anywhere near so well.  She’s superbly designed – hitting that spot between realism and cartoon-i-ness, actually useful from a gameplay standpoint, and highly expressive (especially about the eyebrows), her reactions adding extra emotion to the events, providing a naive counterpoint to the used-up pessimism of the central character.  In a way the whole plot (and indeed experience of the game) is based around their relationship.  On occasion you’ll see the joins – she’s got a habit of flicking coins at you when you’re concentrating on something else, sometimes not looking right at you during an emotional speech, but overall she’s a pretty amazing achievement.


In general I think the plotting is bold, mind-bending, and fully immersive when you’re in it, but I also think, with hindsight, it sets up some problems.  The basic conceit of multiple alternative dimensions in which every possibility is played out allows some really clever things to be done with the gameplay mechanics and the setting, and sets up some strong plot twists that I have to admit I didn’t see coming (for all everyone else on the internet apparently did). But the writers follow the concept only as far as they need to to make the plot work and supply the fireworks, and refuse to go the rest of the way – that in infinite dimensions every possibility must occur, and therefore there is no meaning to preferring one outcome over another.  There’s a price to be paid in this, I think – if you can always slip into another dimension where one or other problem is solved, where’s the drama in solving the problems you’ve got here, now?  Where’s the drama in any given result since there will always be a place both where it happens and where it doesn’t?

There’s also, looking at it from the end, a rather lumpy progression to the storyline, in which things seem (relatively) normal for most of the game, with the foundational mystery being drip, dripped through to you, then towards the end the revelations come thicker and faster until there’s finally a hefty sequence where they really give up on gameplay altogether and spoon up undigested plot for fifteen minutes.  I mean, it’s an incredible and ambitious sequence in many ways but I still think it could have been more artfully done, more spread out and organically revealed within the rest of the game.

But I feel bad, now, because the failures, such as they are, are the sort common to a lot of games or born of high ambition, and the successes, of which there are many, tend to be unique and groundbreaking.  In the end, Bioshock Infinite delivers a feel, vision, and intelligence you just can’t get anywhere else. I found it to be a throughly enjoyable, thought-provoking, and at its best a truly magical experience.

I find myself in a strange position, because I’ve often argued that gameplay is always king, and then I’ve found myself greatly enjoying and admiring two games in a row in which gameplay is actually a relative weakness.  But both Bioshock Infinite and Tomb Raider are triumphs in their own ways even so, because they score very highly on things that are a lot harder to come by in video games – story and emotion.  In Tomb Raider it was a strong central character, a powerful driving narrative, crunching violence and cinematic sequences, and a real sense of threat and physical danger.  In Bioshock it’s the wild ideas and the unravelling of the mystery, the way that music, design and pacing create a unique sense of place and moments of high drama, all given energy and purpose by an amazing secondary character.

Fine, fine times to be a gamer, my friends.