The most excellent game developers at Supersonic, creators of Micro Machines Turbo Tournament, Mashed, Wrecked etc. have set their sights on the world record for the biggest word search – check it out over at Kickstarter!
The most excellent game developers at Supersonic, creators of Micro Machines Turbo Tournament, Mashed, Wrecked etc. have set their sights on the world record for the biggest word search – check it out over at Kickstarter!
Help me gather reviews and you could win a book… If you have read any of the five books pictured below, you could win one of three signed copies of Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy I’m offering as prizes in a special Spring review drive!
A friend recently pointed out to me that I don’t have a great deal of reviews on the Amazon sites, and that it would be good to get the numbers up. To this end, I’m offering books as prizes for three lucky contributors to a review drive running throughout Spring. To take part, you have to have read at least one of the five books pictured above, and contribute a review to either Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk (or both – for double the chance of winning!). At the start of the competition, there are 10 reviews for these books on Amazon.com and just one on Amazon.co.uk – surely we can do better than that!
Here’s what you have to do:
That’s all there is to it! Each book review on each site is worth one more chance to win, so if you’ve read more than one of my books you can rack up multiple chances to win. (If you’ve already written a review of one of these books for one of these sites, you can still submit that review to the competition).
There will be three random draws for prizes, one at the end of February, another at the end of March, and a final one at the end of April. If you enter before the first draw, you will get three chances to win for each review you submit.
Closing date for entries is 30th April 2013. Prize draws will be held on or shortly after 1st March, 1st April and 1st May. Competition is open to individuals with a postal address anywhere in the world. Multiple entries are permitted provided each corresponds to a review posted to either Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk, the text of which must be included with the entry. Reviews posted to the relevant sites prior to the competition commencing are still eligible for entry into the competition provided the relevant email is submitted to the competition address. The same review text may be posted to Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk, and this will qualify as two entries provided each is submitted in a separate email. Participants may only win one prize no matter how many times they enter. Winners will be determined at random using polyhedral dice rolled by an appointed judge. The judge's decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into. The prize may not be transferred to any other person. No cash alternative or alternative prize is available. Spambots will be shot. All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Entry in the competition implies acceptance of these rules.
Competition cross-posted from Only a Game.
This competition is currently open.
I was reading about achievements the other day and how bad they are because they ruin the fun of the game, where you almost compulsory hunt for achievements. So I started to think about this post, and about dynamic difficulties. How about combining achievements and difficulties? It's not a new thing, but how about making it more obvious?
Lets say that you got a platform shooter and before each level, the user can see what achievements to reach and if has been collected for this level. Without trying to collect achievements, the game is pretty easy, but when having achievements like "Never used a submachinegun", "Never stood still" and "Collected all five achievements in one go", the user can force itself to strive for harder challenges.
I replied as follows:
Rickard: the addition of achievements overdetermines the content of the gameplay (and also undercut the narrative content of the game). From a challenge or completist focused standpoint, the achievements are beneficial - but they channel players into these play styles, even if they aren't the player's native play styles. I view achievements as potentially valuable, but I judge the requirement that all games on a platform support achievements as a significant cost of play.
Your example of the platform shooter is actually something that used to be relatively common in the space between straightforward gameplay goals (up to 1990 or so) and the arrival of achievements proper (2005 onwards), namely the reuse of internal materials conditioned by assigned goals. The paradigm case is still probably GoldenEye 007 (1997), which has three difficulty levels, each of which assigns separate goals to the same map, and within which the player also has targets to unlock secrets.
Perhaps the most depressing aspect of the ubiquitous achievement regime we now have on many platforms is that some players interpret this in terms of positive agency i.e. they get to choose which achievements to ignore. But the framework which enforces achievements upon everyone is a framework which partially evacuates agency of its meaning since rather than giving the player a freedom to experiment with the game world, their actions are always conditioned by the achievements - whether or not they decide to complete them.
From the perspective of the artistic value of the medium, achievements in games are as crass as product placement in movies. That they add to the enjoyment of a proportion of players, possibly even a strict majority of players, should not distract us from noticing that both player agency and creator artistry are being eroded in favour of more compulsive, addictive and challenge-focused play.
To commercial game designers I would say: you have to do what you have to do. But to artgame creators I would say: please resist achievements as best you can and continue to explore the possibilities of this great medium.
We can not only learn from the design of this inventive strategy-adventure from the dawn of videogame history, we can learn from its outstandingly authentic port how to fix problems without detracting from the essence of the original. Come with me on a journey to revisit the epic world of Midnight!
Today we are spoiled by the rich contents of the fictional worlds in our games. GTA, Elder Scrolls or Assassin's Creed games are filled to the brim with things to do and find, places to explore, and stuff to play with. But as polished and stylish as these hugely expensive titles are, they can never achieve the elegance of those games made by very small teams, or even lone programmers. There is a charm to the simplicity of smaller games that never tarnishes – like Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion animations, they may age when compared to the top-of-the-line but they also mature with age, like a fine wine. And Mike Singleton’s The Lords of Midnight is a vintage wine of outstanding quality, a game that I first played when I was 12, then again on an emulator in my late 20s, and now once more in my early 40s. Both a strategy game and a simple adventure, it has a unique feel that nothing since has ever recaptured. Every time I return to it, I get more out of the experience. While other games have certainly achieved timelessness – Tetris, for instance – the world of Midnight is remarkable for offering so much from so very little, and it is this elegant simplicity in its design that makes it not only a worthy object of study, but one of the great videogame masterpieces. It may be shamelessly ripped off from Tolkien's “The Lord of the Rings”, but no-one has made a game that captures the feel of that tome as admirably as this ZX Spectrum classic.
When it was released in 1984 it formed part of an incredible posse of games, all released within 18 months of one another, that were to set the tone of the mature videogame industry some two decades later. Elite was the first procedural world; Paradroid and Mercenary created the template that GTA perfected; and The Lords of Midnight? Well, nothing since has really perfected its heady blend of adventure and strategy. This is part of its unique appeal. All these games were created in fewer kilobytes than an empty Word document – Singleton’s original game uses just 41k. When facing technical limitations such as memory, early game designer-programmers had to devise incredibly inventive approaches if they were to produce anything substantial, and as a result the most memorable titles from the 1980s almost always involved a touch of genius.
In The Lords of Midnight, the inspired step was to create a rendering pipeline that could compose geographical scenes out of simple primitives like trees, mountains, forts and towers. A 64x64 grid records the objects at each spot in the world, and then the algorithm simply composes the different primitives at appropriate scales in order to create a first person view from any place in the 4,000 location world. Singleton called it landscaping, and it allowed him to radically surpass the quality of graphics offered by his contemporaries. More than this, though, the views created by landscaping still have a remarkable aesthetic appeal. Although Chris Wild had to recruit an artist to redraw the primitives, the graphics on the new port of the game combine the sharp resolution of contemporary games with the unique art style of the original. This alone is a triumph in porting, since it would have been all too easy to either accept the pixelated look of the original, or to revise too completely and lose the charm. Instead, playing the port has all the feel of the original yet with a pleasing crispness. If you know the original, take a look at the iOS screenshot above – it looks just like the ZX Spectrum version, but zoom in and you’ll see just how well-defined it really is.
The play rests on a simple movement point system coupled with the snowball effect of recruiting more Lords to your cause. You start with four characters at the dawn of the War of the Solstice: Luxor the Moonprince (surrogate Aragorn), his son Morkin (a less whingy Frodo), Corleth the Fey (the local equivalent to elves) and Rorthron the Wise (surrogate Gandalf), who all begin at the Tower of the Moon. (Notice – no dwarves… I couldn’t be happier about this!) You can choose to play the adventure game by simply focussing on Morkin, who must sneak into the Tower of Doom to steal Doomdark (a far more vicious opponent than sulky Sauron!) and steal the Ice Crown. This can then be destroyed in four different ways, all of which can be learned by visiting the towers of the Wise, who dispense occasionally useful advice. As most players of this game know, winning with Morkin is really quite easy as you can sweep in and melt the Ice Crown in just one carefully timed single day raid. Far more challenging, and far more rewarding, is the quest to save the free citadel of Xajorkith and sack Doomdark’s capital of Ushgarak. To date, despite thirty years of (intermittent) attempts, I have still not quite won the siege of Ushgarak, although I am getting ever-closer!
The key to the strategic game's design is recruitment – there is no ludicrous internal economy coughing up troops overnight in this game, instead there are 32 lords scattered around Midnight, each with a thousand to two thousand warriors or riders, and the challenge is how to deploy your initial four to recruit them – or rescue them – and where to send them afterwards. You win if you either use Morkin to destroy the Ice Crown or sack Ushgarak, but you lose if Morkin is dead and either Luxor is also dead or Xajorkith has fallen, and deciding how to split your forces between Luxor and Xajorkith is a great deal of the challenge of the battles. The reason the game possesses its players so effectively is the number of questions you constantly ask but which can only be answered by further play. Where should Luxor make his stand? How can I prevent the citadel of Shimmeril from being sacked? Who should defend Xajorkith? When should I sweep my forces up the western passes to bolster Lord Gloom? Every time I end a game – even when I win - there are things I want to know, things I want to try out. The interest it generates is not so much about how to win but where and when with whom.
Because of the tiny file size, there was no hope of clever AI. Instead, a devilishly simple algorithm creates a surprisingly compelling illusion of an aggressively menacing foe. The world contains a number of pre-specified strategic points, mostly forts and citadels, and Doomdark’s troops effectively flip a coin at each to then proceed to one of two other strategic points, with some influence from the position of Luxor whose moon ring not only makes him immune to the ice fear emanating from the crown, it also gives away his position to Doomdark. If this system sounds trivial, rest assured that the effect on players is demanding since you never know whether to watch for a pincer movement, expect a blitz of five thousand riders to arrive at once, or if your valiant defence of a citadel is entirely pointless because the Doomguard have besieged somewhere unexpected en masse. Expert players, who set strategic goals beyond mere victory, have to work hard to perfect resilient strategies.
Chris Wild’s port to iOS and other platforms begun with the assistance of Mike Singleton before he unfortunately passed away last year, is careful not to disrupt any of the elements that make the game so compelling. However, it is also mindful of the problems inherent in bringing the original to a contemporary audience. Chief among these is the fact that the original requires every single lord to be controlled individually – even when they are moving along identical routes. With up to 32 lords to move, this could get tedious. Wild's port adds a select screen that shows all the recruited lords and allows you to drag them onto other lords to make groups. Fans of the original breathe a sigh of relief at this elegant refinement of the movement system. However, there is a flaw: there are times when lords cannot move, either because they have run out of movement points (represented as hours left in the day) or because they are too scared. With the groups, it is sometimes entirely unclear why you can't move, and new players (if it is possible for this game to reach them) will not understand why it is being so recalcitrant.
Another improvement is the save management. Although the original allowed a save to magnetic tape, it was notoriously unreliable and slow. These are easy fixes, but Wild has to think about whether to implement a self-contained system with minimal backtracking or a maze of saved states with the ability to backtrack anywhere. Sensibly, he chooses the former and thus emphasises playing forward over constant reloading (a problem I forced onto myself when playing with an emulator). However, an undo for the last action, and a return to dawn (which undoes an entire game) are a welcome concession to error-fixing, and contribute to a far smoother play experience, although it would have been nice to undo an individual lord’s day rather than just one action.
One significant change is the inclusion in the game of not one but two maps. One is the standard explorable fog-of-war map that players have come to expect, and believe me it is extremely welcome. The other is modelled on the original map that the game shipped with, printed in its manual and showing all the key landmarks. This brings up an interesting change in the nature of games that has occurred in the last twenty years. When The Lords of Midnight came out, there wasn’t the resources for a mapping subroutine to ship with the game and so you either had to map manually by hand or wait for magazines to publish the map for a game (which they always dutifully did). Role-playing games and games of similar ilk, like this one, that were published in the 1980s almost always expected the player to make their own map. The interesting thing is, mapping was a big part of the fun. Both for The Lords of Midnight and for other games like The Bard’s Tale, which came out the following year, there was a definite pleasure to be gained by constructing the maps by hand. As the system resources have expanded, this gameplay has been obliterated by subroutines that do it for you. These have definitely been a gain – I don’t have the time I did as a child to map a game! Yet we have also lost an entire aspect of gameplay from videogames that was fun. I can’t help but think there is an opportunity here for a game that turns map-making into the core of its play. However, this aside, Wild’s mapping tools are a welcome addition to the game, making it far easier to get to grips with.
One of the main reasons that The Lords of Midnight has enduring appeal is the incredible sense that all this truly epic play emerges from just 41k of quite simple code. Obviously the new port expands that, but not gratuitously, and it is to Wild’s credit that everything that has been done helps show off the wonder that was Singleton’s original masterwork. I fear, as Wild himself has suggested, that this may be too much to expect the new generation of gamers to get to grips with… It’s too quirky, too different from what’s expected. How many games today would consider offering a ‘think’ verb as the means to illicit status information! Yet, for those with the nostalgia for it, or those with an interest in the history of videogames, the iOS, Android or Blackberry port of The Lords of Midnight (or the forthcoming Windows port) are essential purchases. This is porting of a classic game conducted expertly and admirably. There are lessons here to learn for anyone trying to keep the videogame past vibrantly alive in the present.
The iOS, Android and Blackberry versions of The Lords of Midnight are available now, with a Windows version to follow. The website for the port is at TheLordsofMidnight.com, and Chris Wild's blog is the Icemark, which is also his Twitter handle. Support the preservation of gaming history by buying this classic!
I realised yesterday that I now have seven different loyalty cards for seven different coffee shops. Of course, this is hardly a sign of my superlative loyalty! Quite the reverse. The very reason I have so many is precisely because I'm not consistent in where I buy coffee, but don't want to lose out on the advantages of repeat custom. The loyalty cards work on a system identical to B.F. Skinner's fixed interval schedule of reinforcement, which I talked about many moons hence in a piece entitled Designing Rewards in Games. Although now rather tatty, this piece still pulls in traffic to my blogs from Google quite regularly. For the coffee shop loyalty schemes, the schedules pay out roughly 1 in 6, with the best offering a free coffee every 5 and the worst (Costa) effectively offering just a 1 in 20 (5%) return. But all these loyalty schemes are superior in dividends to Microsoft's Gamerscore scheme (or G), which until last year offered no tangible rewards at all.
And yet, G is far more effective than the coffee shop loyalty cards at promoting loyalty, and it is interesting to see why that might be. It is worth recognising as an initial point why loyalty cards work when they do work. Most people have fairly steady and regular routines. They may have a choice of coffee shops on their way to and from work, but it's a static choice and once people settle on their preference they will tend to stick to it. Loyalty cards exploit this in two ways: discouraging infidelity, and encouraging marginal purchases. In the case of infidelity, the cards discourage customers from going elsewhere if, say, the queue is too long, or they've come on a slightly different route. “If I go elsewhere, I won't get my free coffee”, the putative punter thinks, and sticks with the regular shop. In the case of marginality, the cards give an extra reason to buy even if coffee isn't what's on their mind. “Well, it's a step towards my free coffee”, is the thought process.
Gamerscore leverages the same kind of thoughts, even though there is no explicit reward. In this respect, the new Xbox Live Rewards scheme with its paltry 2% maximum rebate on online purchases is farcically negligible in its effects. What makes G work more than anything else is vanity, the same motive your parents had for buying that new car, TV or VCR in the classic game of “Keeping up with the Joneses”. Players on Xbox’s subscription service literally compare themselves to other players via their Gamerscores, trying to remain one step ahead of their friends. The psychology of this is in itself intriguing. If someone you know has slightly more G, that motivates you to get more G to get ahead. If someone you know has slightly less G, that motivates you to get more G to stay ahead. If someone has considerably less G, you feel satisfaction at your superior sense of ‘achievement’. And the icing on the cake: if someone has radically more G, well, they have no life and are obviously a freak. Cognitive bias, the bedrock of so much human behaviour (not all of it negative), ensures that we recognise how sad it would be to be obsessed with accumulating the meaningless reward currency G, even while we steadfastly resist applying that judgement to ourselves, because clearly we do it “just for fun.”
The striking thing about this comparison between the two kinds of loyalty scheme (both of which are mildly addictive Skinner reward schedules) is what a difference publicity makes. The coffee shop cards are private to individuals and only work if the individual’s lifestyle happens to run regularly enough for it to be a factor. But G is necessarily public – it is mandatory, inescapable, and shown publically to everyone who cares to look at your profile for any reason. Indeed, it was precisely these reasons – that I couldn't opt out, and that it was necessarily public – that inclined me to avoid collecting G, and ultimately led me to mothball my 360 after just one boxed game. G was not the only factor, of course – the Xbox controller gives me terrible hand cramps, and of course, see last week’s remarks on my disinterest in contemporary boxed videogames. But unlike the vast majority of Xbox players, the G was always a reason for me not to play and never a reason to play. I could make a very similar case about Facebook, in fact.
The rewards of G, and the commoditisation of friendship in social media, work the same basic way as the loyalty cards, but instead of tangible rewards (free coffee) they are predicated on socially constituted vanity and insecurity. The thought processes run similarly, though. In the case of discouraging infidelity, G ask players to think: “If I play elsewhere, I won't get my G”. In the case of encouraging marginal purchases, G asks players to think of certain so-so games: “Well, at least it’s easy G”. The most effective part of the new Xbox Live Rewards scheme isn’t going to be the birthday gift or the miniscule rebate, but rather the vanity associated with the titles ‘Contender’, ‘Champion’ and ‘Legend’, because players will put in extra hours on otherwise humdrum games in the pursuit of these rather meaningless title. They’ll want to say “I’m a Legend”, even though before they get there they might say “How sad do you have to be to have earned enough G to be a Legend?”. To be fair, many of us (myself included) did exactly the same just to earn the title ‘Elite’ in the game of the same name. This isn’t exactly a new phenomena, it’s just taken upon new stakes by the increased publicity of these new social media dimensions.
We like to think that we desire money because of its value, but actually many people desire money because they associate it with status. Which is ironic, because we mostly tend to despise the rich, even while longing to be like them. In many ways, G taps into the same powerful combination of vanity and cognitive bias that makes all materialistic acquisition so pointlessly circular. In this respect, the simple Skinner schedules of the coffee shop chains seem positively innocent by comparison.
I’ve been wondering: what would make me consider buying a new console? The answer, it seems to me, would be “running out of games to play with my wife on our existing consoles”. On the whole, this doesn’t sound like much of a reason to ‘upgrade’, since there are huge numbers of games out there – but the interesting thing is, the kind of games that my wife and I play together seem to exist in shockingly small numbers.
We have recently been favouring platform games – which is why we’ve mostly been playing on the Wii, since Nintendo are one of a very small group of companies still making platform games (rather than, say, “run and guns”, or even just “guns”). We’d like to play puzzle games of the kind we used to enjoy – something like, say, Bust-a-move or The New Tetris – but we have no way of finding them. I used to look at the demos coming down the pipelines for PS3, but you can only eat so many turds before you lose your appetite.
I simply don’t have the time to play the kind of games that the consoles are offering as boxed products, unless I play with either my wife or my “Boy’s Night” gaming group, and the latter isn’t console-based because I refuse to pay Microsoft a subscription fee for anything, forcing us to play on PC instead. I still stay abreast of the new releases by getting people to demonstrate them to me, and I have to say I don’t feel like I’m missing much. Of all the boxed products released in the last year, the only one I would have liked to have played was… erm… no wait, it’s on the tip of my tongue… nope, it’s gone. That’s how enthusiastic I am for boxed games – I can’t even name one I want to play.
I played some great games in 2012, like Journey , Dear Esther, Proteus and Bientôt L'été – but not one of them was a boxed product. I have owned ten different home consoles over the years; in order, they were the N64, Megadrive (just for Micromachines Turbo Tournament!), Saturn, Dreamcast, PS2, GameCube (still one of my favourites), Wii, PS3, Xbox 360. I have huge crates of Dreamcast, PS2 and GameCube boxed games. I have a stack of Wii boxed games. I have one boxed game for the PS3 and one other for the Xbox 360. Partly, this trend reflects less available free time (from working multiple jobs and from being a new father). But partly, it reflects a dissatisfaction with what is being offered, which is primarily gun violence with a side order of misogyny, cars and blade violence. In short, I am bored of what boxed videogames have come to offer even though I still enjoy videogames and would like there to be more I want to play.
Have I fallen away from boxed product gaming? Or has it simply failed to retain my interest? The answer seems to be a little of both. But looking at this situation all I can really say is that I will eventually have to buy a Wii U in order to keep a supply of quality platform games, but I have no reason at all to even consider the new Sony or Microsoft consoles – even though I have no idea what they will turn out to be. I may not be typical of the audience for games, but I doubt I’m alone.
What would make me buy a new console? The answer seems to be, very little indeed. Yet oddly, I feel quite sad about that.
Alas, since I am only two thirds through the manuscript of Chaos Ethics, I'm not going to be able to commit to resuming blogging this month in the manner to which I have become accustomed - namely, writing short essays on various topics that interest me. Since I don't want to stop blogging, I'm going to try and return to a form of blogging closer to what I used to do in the early days - writing more stream-of-consciousness pieces, possibly even writing content on the day I post it (instead of scheduling in advance). Instead of building little sandcastles, I'm going to have to switch to skimming stones for a while. You're more than welcome to skim them with me!
Alas, that’s all I have time for since I’ve now started work on the manuscript for Chaos Ethics so the blogs will have to rest for a while. Enjoy your winter fun and games!
ihobo will return next month.
This critique of Tale of Tales’ Bientôt L'été contains a few minor spoilers.
I stand on the edge of the sea, lost in silent reverie as the sound of waves gently lapping against my feet is punctuated by the frantic cries of seagulls, startled by my presence. Memories sweep over me with the tide, things said, things unsaid, seem to wash up on the sand like driftwood. This is the beach where we met, fell in love, fell apart. Or is it? Is it merely a dream of the past, or perhaps a reconstruction of what has gone before – a desperate attempt to cling onto something that slips away with the sunset?
Bientôt L'été (French for ‘It’s Nearly Summer’ or ‘Almost Summer’) is the latest art/game from Belgian creatives Michaël Samyn and Auriea Harvey, better known by their nom de jeux, Tale of Tales. It has become impossible for Tale of Tales to do anything that could position them closer to the forefront of the artistic exploration of digital games, since they are already cursed by their success. Not financial success, I should qualify, since it is clear they do not have any greater access to funds now than they did when they began – but critical plaudits, showers of praise from their unique niche audience, and endless recognition of their inventive contributions to the medium. Can there be anybody left who is interested in the relationship between art and videogames who hasn’t heard of Tale of Tales?
If you are one of those people who were satisfied with the big videogame releases this year and are perhaps crying out that 2012 was the best year for games ever, Bientôt L'été is probably a title you should scrupulously avoid, since it will likely lie far outside of your tastes. If, like me, 2012 was the ‘best year for games’ thanks solely to titles such as Dear Esther, Journey and Proteus, then Bientôt L'été is the capstone for a year of art/games that has pushed the thin play concept into remarkable new directions. With this new title, Tale of Tales riff off the idea of online encounter they brilliantly reinvented with The Endless Forest, and which went on to influence Journey. However, whereas Journey offers a powerful pre-designed emotional experience on the back of its one-on-one encounters with other players, the experiment in Bientôt L'été walks purposefully in the opposite direction, asking how much ambiguity can be introduced into a fictional world before it ceases to offer a coherent story. Indeed, the final Beta version began by warning you that there is nothing to do, and there is no story. Respectfully, I must disagree.
The experience begins on the shore of a sandy beach, the kind that stretches as far as the eye can see in all directions. Other than the waves, the horizon, and the seagulls, the only other feature that can be discerned is a single building – the café – which can be entered to switch to the game’s second experience, what I like to call the encounter. But for me personally, Bientôt L'été is at it’s greatest on the shoreline. Using technology radically far behind what the upper market for games is able to muster, this art/game creates an impression of the seashore that is incredibly evocative. As someone who grew up on the coast (albeit a rocky coastline, not the flat and sandy plains of this world) the sense of the ocean is overwhelming present here. It is impressionistic in the way that the paintings associated with that word are, despite its graphical flaws, perhaps because of them. It is not that it looks like the sea – the waves, when far from shore, seem to lack conviction – it is rather that it feels like the sea, and does so more than any other game has achieved before. Layered above this is an incredible score by Walter Hus, which serves throughout to intensify the tone of the emotions being conveyed.
Alas, your enjoyment of the beach is interrupted by the constant appearance of lines of dialogue that overlay the entire field of view. I say ‘unfortunately’, although in fact these sentences are key to what Bientôt L'été achieves as a work of artistry, but it is nonetheless the case that they detract from the depiction of the edge of the ocean in a way that initially feels disappointing. It is only later, when the player is afforded the opportunity to speak the lines that have literally washed ashore, that their incongruous insertion into the world of the game becomes meaningful. That the disjointed, nonsensical, apparently (and actually) random lines of speech only appear at the water’s edge is part of the core sense of what the beach is about, and the fact that all the lines are taken from the novels of Marguerite Duras underlines the game’s theme. It is clear that you – as either Homme or Femme, the two nameless protagonists you may choose between – have been through a life changing experience of love. The lines that wash ashore are returning to you as if from memory as you silently mull what has happened. And although this is very much a love story, it is not a romance, and there is no happily ever after.
When you enter the café, you are match-made with a partner who appears as a shimmering ghost image across the table from you. Armed only with a chess piece, a pack of Gauloises, a wine glass and the radio in the background, you encounter the ghost of your lover. Alas, other players are not very numerous at this time, and almost all of my experiences have been with the AI simulation, although it is abundantly clear that the café encounter is superior when it is with a human, as my one live hook-up confirmed. The players take turns contributing to the scene by moving their chess piece (or pieces, as you eventually acquire a full set) on a board where squares correspond to the lines of dialogue that washed ashore, all spoken – surely it had to be! - en Français, although subtitles for non-French speakers are provided. Thus you get to take a random collection of lines and stitch them together into a dramatic scene, using smoking or drinking to change-up the pacing when speaking nothing will say more than you need. The result is extremely imperfect, yet it is possible to have quite a range of scenes, albeit all in the key of bittersweet, with occasional overtones of abject despair. (Indeed, the ‘end’ of the game, if I may call it that, makes this hint of desperation quite explicit).
Returning to the beach from the encounter, there is always an apparition to be found – a magnolia tree in bloom, an old radio, a boardwalk – and when triggered, a short sequence of quiet reverie occurs, making it clear that you are reminiscing about the past. The music that plays suggest fondness, although some of the apparitions are frankly disturbing (I cannot reconcile the apparition of a dead dog with the theme that plays no matter how hard I try). After each apparition, you receive a new chess piece for use on the board in the encounter. It’s a simple advancement mechanic, one that gives a sense of progress without rising to the overtly desirable level of rewards in most digital games, and the collection of apparitions serves as the closest to exposition the game has to offer. They are not taken from the Duras materials that serve as inspiration, as far as I can tell, certainly not from Moderato Cantabile, which seems to be the stepping point for the near-story of Bientôt L'été, so presumably all the apparitions spring solely from the imagination of the art/game’s creators.
A word about the interface is in order, as an incredibly inventive aspect of the design of Bientôt L'été is the use of closing your eyes. With your eyes closed you not only gain access to the game menus but you also have other capacities. With your eyes open, you can only walk; with them closed, you can rush across the beach and cover great distances (as well as accruing a change in time) without any disconcerting departure from the logic of the fictional world. You can also locate the apparitions effortlessly with your eyes closed, which is just as well as searching for them by walking could take forever. The net result is that closing your eyes becomes a decision to step out of the fictional world and to return to the game as a game, thus both drawing attention to, and suturing the rift between, the game as an artefact and the fictional world it wants you to experience. I will be extremely disappointed if the ideas explored here via the metaphor of closed eyes don’t open the eyes of other game designers to new ways of dealing with the usual problems of the disconnect between a game’s rules and its fiction.
I am a little frustrated by one aspect of the presentation. On the one hand, I want this fictional world to be a dream, as the experience is strongest for me when I approach it in those terms, but alas there is just enough overt science fiction to subvert the oneiric interpretation. The choice of your avatar-doll at the start is given in the form of two cryostasis tubes, and the surreal world of the beach is periodically overwhelmed with visions of other worlds, creating a Proteus-like departure from expectation that is one of the most memorable aspects of the experience of playing. The world is bounded by a barely visible wall that seems unavoidably to offer the idea of this being a holographic projection. The dream interpretation is not impossible to maintain, but the weight of the content seems to draw against it in a manner that I find faintly disappointing, but perhaps only because if there is one thing I am bored of in games it is the same old fantasy and science fiction tropes. Still, even the slightly passé inclusion of science fiction elements could not hope to reduce Bientôt L'été to anything less than pure originality.
Ultimately, the two halves of Tale of Tales latest art/game do not fit together perfectly. I adore my time on the beach, and admire the creativity of the café encounter, but the latter’s imperfections mar it slightly… all too often the line I want is not there, and silence is too gauche a reply. Perhaps I can chalk this up to wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic of transience and imperfection, which Bientôt L'été dances alongside but never entirely with (there is too much symmetry, too much European panache). Perhaps I should see this as the inevitable cost of reaching – almost literally – for the stars. Indeed, the problem with the encounter is not that it doesn’t work, it’s that you cannot help but sense as you are playing it that there is so much more in this direction to be uncovered. This is a pioneering art/game brimming over with inventiveness and originality, but sometimes trailblazers have to walk the most rough-hewn paths.
Bethesda like to say that they are always trying to put more of the uniqueness of tabletop role-playing into their computer RPGs, but there is more of the authentic experience of role-play in Bientôt L'été’s flaws than in all of Bethesda’s perfections. It seems harsh to chastise any art/game for reaching too far, especially when the impressionistic successes of the beach are a masterclass in why representation is more than mere accuracy of depiction, yet, there is surely something further to be found in this vein, something that the café encounter can only gesture towards. I have loved my time in this world, and will continue to do so. Yet I shall also be hoping that it inspires others to take the path less travelled, to walk along the shoreline of possibilities and wonder at what might wash ashore.
You can learn more about Bientôt L'été, released today, at Tale of Tales’ website.
Not long ago, I suggested this current round of home game console releases could be the final round of the long-running Console Wars. To be honest, I'm not sure why I wrote that – but it wasn't that I thought there would be no more dedicated games machines being made. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that what made the whole concept of a Console War meaningful was that multiple companies were producing dedicated games hardware to directly compete for the money of game players.
But in fact, the idea that the home consoles could be treated in isolation has been tenuous for a while now – the idea that the DS, being a handheld machine, didn't count for the Console Wars – despite having been only a whisker away from being the best-selling console of all time for over a year – is absurd when viewed economically since the DS absolutely was vying for the same pool of money as the home consoles. All that blocked their inclusion in that battlefield conceptually was the gamer hobbyist image that I have a games machine at home and a handheld for when I travel. But this isn't a description of how most household's make spending decisions about game technology. Viewed economically, the Console War was always an ideological image fostered by the games industry (and perpetuated by gamers) that gave a cosy sense of importance to dedicated games hardware.
However, dedicated games hardware is no longer the core revenue generator for games, and hasn't been since World of Warcraft showed just how much more money games-as-service could rake in. The home consoles are still very much profitable - but it strains the imagination to suggest they compete in isolation from all the other ways people can now play games. What distinguished the home consoles more than anything was the fact they were played on the household TV. But this venerable device is no longer the de facto entertainment hub, since a tablet or laptop – hell, even a cellphone – is just as capable of delivering the media the TV always used to have a corner on. TV sales are falling, only by about 8% at the moment, but there is already a sense that the domination of the TV as an entertainment device has been challenged at the very least.
What threatens the TV is the same thing that threatens the games consoles and, for that matter, the ebook reader: the tablet computer. More specifically, Apple's all conquering iPad tablet. You only have to look at the design of the new Wii U to know who Nintendo view as their biggest rival: Apple are hurting Nintendo most in the mobile space, but make no mistake, when the mass market for games can get their play on a device they already own, expect dedicated device sales to suffer. To give this story some key numbers, Nintendo's Wii – putatively the winner of the last round of the Console Wars – sold 97 million units over 6 years. Apple's iPad has sold 84 million units in just 2.5 years, and about three quarters of those people use their iPad to play games. Need more evidence that this is an issue? Even though many iPad owners also own an ebook reader, they tend to read books on their iPad. When you're already using one device for so much, you just don't need dedicated equipment as much.
None of this is to say that the home consoles have nothing to offer – for the gamer hobbyists, both online gaming services like Microsoft's Xbox Live and high dimensionally controllers (e.g. twin sticks) are indispensable. Trouble is, the economics of the home console always depended upon crossing over into a wider market, where these factors are less decisive. And platform licensors like Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo can no longer count on swankier graphics to make a difference as except to the trained eye of a diehard gamer the differences in quality have become quite marginal.
Gamers will persist in seeing the Console Wars as ongoing because they will face a genuine choice over where to spend their money. But many will no longer really be choosing between different hardwares: they will be choosing between different service providers like Xbox Live and, possibly, different controllers. What's going to really raise the stakes is the gradual adoption of Smart TVs that bring the multirole functionality concept into the living room's electrical centrepiece. You can bet that Microsoft and Sony will be targeting these for their game services, and thus weakening the value proposition for any dedicated devices even further.
The notion of a Console War depends upon the need for dedicated devices that directly compete for the same pool of money. But it's already the case that the only part of the home consoles that is unique to them is the controller, which is the cheapest part of the whole deal. Ship a Smart TV with a twin sticks gamepad and a one month trial of a cloud gaming service and see what happens... Even if no-one tries to bite that apple, the idea that Apple isn't already taking a bite out of the console market is absurd.
The Console Wars are already over. The wider competition over games revenue has already begun – and the home consoles are just one front in that 'war', one that must work harder than ever to maintain its viability.