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Remembering the Wretched Firewatch

The good and excellent critic of all media, Jed Pressgrove, has kindly replied to last year's A Tale of Two Walking Simulators (1): Firewatch with his own thoughtful diatribe, Remembering the Wretched Firewatch. Here's an extract about which I have no disagreements whatsoever:

Nothing between 2016 and today has convinced me to stop hating the term “walking simulator.” I don’t believe it’s an acceptable descriptor, as you suggest. I believe it’s an abomination similar to Metroidvania (which gives too much credit to Castlevania), roguelike (used by, for the most part, people who have never played Rogue and thus don’t know what it’s “like”), shmup (toddler’s gibberish), and Soulsborne (what did Bloodborne even accomplish that warrants this reference?). 

You can check out Jed's acerbic vitriol (not directed at me, I might add!) over at his always opinionated, always fascinating Game Bias blog, the rumours of the death of which were clearly greatly exaggerated! (Also, if it seems wrong to take a year to reply to a letter, please note that it took me four years to reply to Jed's original review of Firewatch... There is no concept of time in the Republic of Letters - only virtuous discourse!)


Guild vs Houses: 2-player co-op for Splendor

SplendorHere at ihobo, we rather enjoy a quick game of Splendor, and we're always looking for new ways to play. Since we also love co-op games, it did not take us too long to experiment with a co-operative version of the game.

Guilds vs Houses is a variant for the popular boardgame in which 2 players (the Houses) attempt to defeat an automated opponent (the Guild), who plays by a unique set of rules, described below.


Rules of Play

  1. Set up the game exactly as you would for 3 players (i.e. remove two chips from each stack except the gold). Set up the turn sequence so that both of the Houses (human players) take their turns before the Guild.
  2. When the Guild takes its turn, it acts according to the rules described below.
  3. Players combine their victory points and compete against the Guild to be the first to reach 20 victory points.


The Guild

The following rules govern the Guild's actions:

  1. Splendor SequencePurchase Lowest Numbered Development Card: The Guild purchases the development card in the lowest numbered slot it can afford (counting top left Rank III card as the #1 position and the bottom right Rank I card as #12, left, to bottom right)
  2. Else, One of Each Gem Token: If the Guild cannot purchase any development cards, it takes one gem token of each kind. If any stacks have run out, the Guild takes one gold token for each gem it would otherwise have received.
  3. Or, All the Gold Tokens: If the Guild already has one of every kind of gem token it takes all the remaining gold tokens instead. Count solely gem tokens for this rule - development cards that contribute gem values do not count. (This will guarantee it can make a powerful acquisition next turn.)
  4. Flip After Three: Once the Guild has three development cards of the same kind, turn one of the zero victory point cards of that kind face down and place it over the other two - this indicates that the Guild may no longer purchase Rank 1 development cards i.e. slots 9 to 12. (This will mean it picks up tokens more frequently, accelerating its buying power.) In the unlikely event that the Guild has no zero victory point cards when it gets three of a particular kind, the lowest value card is flipped over, and its victory points no longer count towards the Guild's score.

The Guild's buying power massively exceeds that of the Houses, but its automated purchasing help balance its performance against the players' collective intelligence, as it seldom makes the 'best' purchase. If the players manage to co-operate, victory is attainable - but it does not take long for the Guild to build up substantial resources if it is left unchecked... The game is especially difficult if all the Noble tiles have similar requirements, and easiest when the Nobles have more distinct requirements. Good luck!

The variant might work with more than 2 players, but it has not been balanced for this - let us know in the comments if you try any variations!

A Tale of Two Walking Simulators

FirewatchOver at Only a Game, ihobo founder Chris Bateman continues his intermittent correspondence with US critic Jed Pressgrove, this time sparring over the 'walking simulator' in a two-part blog letter entitled A Tale of Two Walking Simulators. The two parts discuss the 2016 game Firewatch and the 2015 game Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. Here's an extract:

If we put side to side the artgame achievements of the walking simulator, broadly construed, it marks bold new possibilities for the media that share the name ‘videogame’, new paths that in no way invalidate (and indeed, help illuminate) our more familiar player practices. 2005’s The Endless Forest – Tale of Tales’ landmark ‘massively multiplayer screensaver’ – not only led to thatgamecompany’s Journey but revealed new potential for the encounter play that had been inherent in table top-role playing games but had struggled to find expression in any visual form. Ed Key and David Kanaga’s Proteus, perhaps my favourite game of this century, turns walking into a magical experience using only the tricks of the nature documentary and a cunning alliance of sound and vision. But it is perhaps The Chinese Room’s Dear Esther that especially helps shed light on contemporary games by being built upon the skeleton of an FPS yet stripped of its guns and violence. It delivers a wondrous ghost story whose thin play seemed to open the door to new narrative possibilities in videogames by denying the necessity of challenge – for which it had to be ostracized as ‘not a game’ by legions of aesthetically conservative players.

The letter is mostly concerned with videogames as an aesthetic and artistic medium, and not as a commercial medium, but if you have an interest in the walking simulator genre, or either of the two games discussed, you should definitely check it out! 

Underground Gamers

Joypad Graffiti.2-1The one thing that all gamers can claim is a love of videogames. But which games? There are more players today than ever before, but there's a stark difference between those who are playing almost exclusively the impressive big budget spectacles at the top of the market and others, stealthily lurking in the corners, with far more diverse tastes in games. Between the megagamers and the gaming underground.



If the majority of your time is spent playing videogames which have or have had a million or more players, you're a megagamer. Your media diet is focussed on the big brand fast food titles – GTA, Zelda, Assassin's Creed, Mario, Call of Duty, Pokémon... basically anything that might get mentioned at E3 and released in Q4. Megagamers are the lifeblood of the games industry, because without these fans of the big games, there'd be no specialist hardware for games at all – no new consoles, no new graphics cards for PC. Megagamers ensure games get bigger, better, and badder year on year, and we all benefit directly or indirectly from the AAA industry that serves them.

But megagamers are also the battery chickens of the videogame barnyard. There is not a great deal of variety in their diet. According to NPD's report for 2018, more than half of the top selling titles belong to just two genres ('go anywhere/kill anything' open worlds, and multiplayer gun games). 90% of these chart-topping games are franchise sequels and the remaining 10% are licensed IP (in fact, a full quarter of these games are licensed).

If you were interested in the creative power of the medium of games, asking the megagamers isn't a great place to start. To really take chances with games requires a project that has a smaller budget, fewer players, and greater creative license, for exactly the same reasons Hollywood blockbusters are inevitably more formulaic than arthouse movies. The players that are tuned into this exciting secret world of games are something radically different from the megagamers...


Underground Gamers

If you spend more time playing indie games than AAA, chances are you're part of the gamer underground. These players (which include many game reviewers but are a much wider crowd than that) still play several of the big releases, but their tastes go wider and deeper than the megagamers. Some like to sample a little bit of everything; their Steam libraries are like an A to Z of the last decade of games, and they're still working on playing them all. Some have strange and wonderful tastes in games that are simply not satisfied by the familiar franchises. Some have a passion for the obscure, the outlandish, the curious titles that defy expectations and categorisation. They were playing Minecraft when it cost less than $5 to buy. They helped make Undertale a hit. They were annoyed by Pathologic 2's Metacritic score because it obscured what was interesting about the game (as Metacritic almost inevitably will because of its extremely blunt algorithm).

The players of the underground are free range gamers – they won't be stuck in AAA cages, they have to wander through the entire landscape of games, searching for interesting, novel, unusual, and undiscovered oddities. Without them, we'd all miss out on so many of the fascinating curiosities that are hidden away in a market now so impossibly varied in its niches that nobody will ever again be able to claim to have played everything.

Megagamers are the beating heart of the games industry, but the gaming underground are its soul. They are willing to take the time to understand what makes every game special, and are willing to look far beyond production values when judging what they are playing. They don't like everything and they can be scathing in their critique when their ire is enflamed, but without them, videogames would rapidly devolve into a bland monoculture of familiarity. They are the unsung champions of everything and anything that dwells in the uncharted wilderness at the fringes of gaming. And it is these heroic outsiders that make me proud to make videogames.

Are you part of the gaming underground? Do you know of a forgotten classic or invisible new release that was either overlooked or misunderstood? We love to hear about obscure oddities and games that don't or didn't get talked about. You can comment here or flag us up at @ihobogames on Twitter. We'll be happy to share anything you've written about anything off the beaten track of games.

Sparring over Breath of the Wild

Breath Nihongo
The wonderful Jed Pressgrove has written an open letter in response to the six part Zelda Facets serial that ran on ihobo last year. Entitled The Dreariness of Zelda, it engages with and counters some of the arguments put forward into the serial and is well worth a read. Here's an extract:

As far as Zelda games go, I see Majora’s Mask as a more innovative and sophisticated story than Breath of the Wild. Has any other Zelda game so daringly asked us to understand the humanity of our enemy like Majora’s Mask? Has any other Zelda game captured a sense of world-weariness like Majora’s Mask? As I played Majora’s Mask, I could not forget about that moon and the dread it represented. As I played Breath of the Wild, I rarely thought about Zelda (outside of the times the game rammed her name down my throat) and what she represents. I thought more about the smorgasbord of content before me and the growing ineptitude of big-name games.

You can read the entirety of The Dreariness of Zelda over at Game Bias.

Pokémon GO Update: The Highs, the Lows

Highs and LowsA little over a week since Niantic put the new Gyms system and Raids live in Pokémon GO, and the backlash is gradually being drowned out by the support for the way the year-old game has been reawakened by a cleverly imagined, although clunkily implemented, revision to a major part of the core game. The state of the player community is aptly summarised by these two pictures. On the left, five strangers (GPS spoofer not pictured…) took down a Tyranitar in a city in the US… on the right, someone turned up for a big Raid and found nobody there. Indeed, there’s far more of the experience on the right at the moment than the one on the left, but when it works, players are ecstatic about the Raids – and the fact that all three rival Teams can battle together makes it far more open than anything else in the game.

I mentioned before that there were too many Raids triggering for it to fulfil the needs of event gameplay, which is something any AR game wants to create if it can. Pokémon GO has had the most success with this by virtue of the power of the Pokémon brand. However, while I stand by the assessment that the sheer ubiquity of Raids makes no-shows far too likely, the one aspect of this set-up that could work out is that a group of players that set out to attempt a Raid together will have a good chance of finding one that would suit them, and big wins will generate a lot more social media buzz than the no-shows, which will be largely invisible in the secondary media. I have suspicions that part of the problem with Raids is that the app can only hold a relatively small geographic chunk of data in memory at any one time, and thus Niantic are not set up to flag Raids city- or county-wide… if they were, there are much better ways of designing the Raid allocations than those we’re currently seeing.

Meanwhile, and quite fortunately for Niantic, the furore over coins is starting to die down as players gradually adjust to the new arrangement. It becomes clearer and clearer than the most outraged players are the ousted nobility of an economy that was akin to a pyramid scheme in rewarding the players who had been at it for longest while excluding everyone else. Not long after the update, Niantic brought the cap on the Gym Defender Bonus down to 50 PokéCoins per day, but raised the rewards to 1 coin per 10 minutes (immediately after the update, it was 1 coin per hour up to a maximum of 100 per day), which didn’t go down well. But what’s becoming clear is that instead of 1-2% of players getting 100 coins a day and 5% of players getting 10-20 coins per day, now anyone who wants to can get 50 coins a day, at least if they’re not too close to the centre of a city nor too far away from any major settlement. (As someone who grew up on an island only 30 miles across, I can feel the pain of the rural players right now…)

The real switch in people’s heads is in understanding how everyone now gets ‘paid’. It used to be a salary system, where the pay was proportional to the number of Gyms occupied (up to 10). This encouraged squatting in Gyms with 3,000 CP overlords that the majority of players – especially those coming late to the game – could never match. The new pay is a mediated lottery system, because it’s not hard to get a pokémon to hold a Gym for 8 hours and get the full 50 coins (if you’re up late at night, it’s even easier!), but you need to ensure that you get at least one monster returned to you each day, and this isn’t something you can guarantee. Rather, the more defenders you put into Gyms, the better chance you have of getting your expected earnings.

The new Defender rewards is far a subtler system than the one it replaces.. you are going to get lots of creatures coming home in bandages at the weekend, when there’s a lot of player activity, so it can feel like those coins are ‘wasted’ when players still think in terms of salary. But the dominant strategy for the the new coin system revolves around ensuring that at least one 8-hour Pokémon comes back each day. I predict it won’t be long before players complain less about getting multiple monsters back at once (which at the moment feels like having ‘lost’ money, because of the comparison with the old salary system) than about living in an area where nobody comes and battles at their Gyms ever. These complains already exist, but those voices will get louder and more bitter the longer the situation persists, always assuming the players just don’t drop out entirely.

Urban players will quickly adjust to the idea that they’re going to be getting a steady 50 coins a day now (50 cents USD/40p GBP) – and I estimate 10-20 times as many players getting that full pay-out from Niantic than were getting it before, which is obviously a win for the game in terms of engagement and player satisfaction. At the same time, rural players are going to find their Pokémon stuck in Gyms and getting no coins at all. They’re asking for a button to recall the Pokémon – but this would break the Gym system. Niantic ought to be thinking about what they can do to balance the city and the countryside, although as a strict commercial decision it does make sense to favour the densely populated areas over the sparser regions. Still, they would earn a lot of brownie points for being responsive to this issue.

There’s one last issue: Stardust. It is used in the game economy to power up pokémon, and under the old system it was the scarcest and most valuable resource because it could not be purchased directly by IAP, unlike PokéCoins. Players who were earning 100 coins a day used it to purchase Egg Incubators because these pay-out the most Stardust, but they also got 500 stardust for each Pokémon in a Gym (up to 5,000 maximum per day), which was enough to power up a high level monster once, or a low level monster twice. Under the old ‘Overlord’ Gym system, Stardust was essential because you had to be competitive on Combat Points (CP) to stay in a Gym. But under the new system this simply doesn’t matter because visiting Gyms frequently is much more important than having played the game for longer than everyone around you. Players who became used to having a lot of Stardust (the toppled nobility) are feeling the loss… but for most players, the new arrangement is simply better for them than the grind-heavy old regime, even if the 10 Stardust per berry fed at a Gym is peanuts next to what used to be paid out.

Right now, Niantic are doubling down on bug fixes, since launching two new systems at once has understandably broken the game in dozens of different ways. The real testament to the success of the Raid system is that players who form a group and beat a strong Raid Boss enjoy the experience so much it completely blows away their irritations over fatal crashes, bar display fluctuations, and other such problems that in a less popular game would be fatal. With a week of Raids now over, I’m going to call the update a qualified success for Niantic – and it’s going to be interesting to see what it means for their revenue when that data is released. For the time being, though, there’s never been a better time to be part of the 65 million strong player community for Pokémon GO.

Pokémon GO Raids: First Weekend


Has Niantic hurt its player community with the new update, or has it succeeded in raising engagement and monetisation? This question is not yet fully resolved, but after the first weekend of Raids and Gym battles under the new system, we have a sense of how things are going for the 65 million-player augmented reality game.

As both a player and as a videogame consultant, I’ve been keeping a very close eye on how the new Pokémon GO update affected the player community over the weekend. It was a significant event in the game’s history, because multiplayer co-operative Raids are now live for all players, having previously been through an interesting Beta-by-level countdown (such that, for instance Level 35 players had first access, then Level 30 and so on). The Raids are an important part of Niantic’s monetisation strategy going forwards, so they need to work well enough for that to pay off for them.

The good news, for both players and Niantic, is that the Raids have been very well received, offering a new kind of battle to the players that are exciting and engaging. But there is a problem. The Raids are clearly intended to be event gameplay – the idea is that groups of players get together to fight a powerful Raid boss together. But this hasn’t happened. So far, in all my skimming around Raid sites, the most I have found at any one is two players, and a single player or none at all is more typical.

The problem is, there are currently far too many Raids triggering at once. The Raids only work as events if players all descend upon one Raid together – which is clearly intended, because the monetisation of Premium Raid Tickets (IAP $1 USD or 79p GBP) is the big win that Niantic is aiming for in the new system. With one free ticket a day, and dozens of Raids to choose from between 9 am and 9 pm, players are not congregating for the Raids at all. Perhaps Niantic is expecting players to self-organise for this. If so, they are being optimistic.

Eevee GymOn the plus side, the new Gym update has brought the player community out of hiding. Outside of Raids, I have encountered more Pokémon GO players in the last three days than in my entire time with the game thus far. That’s a win for Niantic – the revision of the Gym system has worked as intended, and it has ended the domination of 3,000 CP overlords. Now, more players than ever before are able to get pokémon into gyms, and more different kinds of beasties are appearing in gyms as players realise that the old rules don’t apply. This has also generated a lot of free publicity in social media, with images like the one above circulating rather well online.

But while players who had previously been marginalised are now coming out of the woodwork, the existing PokéNobility are still seriously offended by the changes to the coin rewards, as I discussed before the update went live. This is an ongoing mini-scandal, and how offended players are about it depends on how well they were doing out of the old system. There’s a certain degree of the aristocracy-after-the-revolution about this sour grapes, especially since it was the vast minority of players (I reckon between 1 and 5% of the player base) that were benefiting from the old regime.

Don’t think, however, that this means that the new PokéCoin system was clever design work on Niantic’s part: one of the serious problems with the way the new system works is that players have lost control of how their rewards are received. Previously, players chose when to take their PokéCoins, and this setup allowed even marginal players to get some coins every now and then. Now, players have absolutely no control over when they get rewards. You don’t get coins until your pokémon are ejected from gyms, and this happens when another team decides to attack. Players feel understandably set adrift by this, which is bad for player satisfaction, and (perhaps worse) it is an additional incentive for players to start secondary accounts – which Niantic are publicly opposed to.

Overall, this new update has been a good news, bad news kind of affair. My impression of the response from the player community is that the benefits have outweighed the costs for the majority of the players, but that a minority of well-established players are displeased by the toppling of an empire that benefited them greatly. That said, no-one is happy about a reward system that quashes player agency and creates huge ambiguity about how to earn rewards by playing the game. On this front, Niantic have some crucial fire-fighting ahead of them.

Wave Goodbye to the 3,000 CP Overlords

First Gym DataThe gyms went live last night at 9:00 pm GMT, and as predicted it was the biggest land grab in videogame history… Within two hours, every gym within ten miles of me was claimed. As a Team Mystic family, I was lucky to get any pokémon into slots as there are so many more blue players than anything else – but I did meet other players for the first time in the UK, who were clustered around my local gyms, working to secure them and fill them up. As someone who missed the launch of the game, it was a nice feeling to see the community in the flesh.

With the first night over here in the UK, the effects of the Motivation system are readily apparent: eight hours later, those who put 3,000 CP+ defenders into gyms will find their pokémon bored to death this morning, with zero motivation. Now it’s a face between allied players giving them berries to perk them up and rival teams to claim the gym – which will be easier the more behemoths were fielded. This is an extremely encouraging development! It really does end the pokémonopoly, even though (sadly) Blissey will remain ubiquitous on account of her unbelievable tanking stats.

I chose to field an unusual pokémon because it seemed in the spirit of the new meta-game to do so, putting in a 1,799 Typhlosion my kids had evolved at the end of the Solstice event. I have much higher CP defenders to choose from, but I was curious as to whether the new setup really would shake things up. This morning, the 3,293 CP Dragonite and a similar-strength Gyrados were seriously flagging, and down to roughly 1,200 CP. But my Typhlosion is only down to 1,631, and the Espeon of one of the trainer I met last night is down from 1,714 CP to 1,552 CP (odd that Blissey went from 1,918 to 1,935 CP, but it may have already lost Motivation in the first case, and have been recently fed in the second). This means, as predicted, the question of what is a good gym defender is back in play – and really will be different according to the local conditions. Great news for players who are in it for the fun of battling for control.

However, it has also become apparent that the new PokéCoin mechanic utterly destroys any hope of players in cities from making much in-game currency, since a pokémon must defend for an hour to get 1 coin now. Previously, as soon as you took a gym you could claim 10 coins immediately, and it was easy to take 30-40 coins a day from occupying gyms only briefly, and perfectly viable to claim the maximum 100 coins (worth about a dollar, or 79p here in the UK). Now, rural players will be able to take advantage of the slow turnover of their gyms, which is nice compensation for their isolation, while spoofers (who use fake GPS data to cheat at the game) will at least have to work harder to work out which gyms are worth holding. 

This strangling of reward may well have the desired effect of raising real money transactions – we'll find out the next time Niantic post profits. However, I for one will dig my heels in and be much less likely to buy PokéCoins knowing that the developer is intentionally starving supply. Of course, paid Premium Raid passes might be Niantic’s endgame here – and many will be tempted to buy these to get a chance at capturing unique pokémon. But it means in the monetisation meta-game, Niantic is going to have turned a lot of its friends into enemies.


This is a critique, not a review. My review is: ‘if you care about artgames, you should buy and play this game’.

20160507203016_1The moment I finished playing Sunset, I went on to replay Façade, one of several games in 2005 to put artistic motivation firmly back into play for videogames, after languishing for decades out of anyone's concern. Façade was a landmark artgame: it reinvented the commercially dead adventure game genre as a means of delivering theatre, taking the one room, small cast format of an off-Broadway play and making it into a game. Sunset, released by Tale of Tales in 2015, revisits (probably inadvertently) the idea of taking cues from theatre while simultaneously developing something entirely original and unexpected. In so doing, it shows the remarkable distance artgames have travelled in just ten years.

Sunset is the most luxurious artgame to be released without a publisher, a testament to the capacity for crowdfunding to open up previously impossible development pathways and facilitate utterly original projects. This plush element could easily go unnoticed, but anyone who has worked in game development could not help but notice the clean, elegant interface. The control panel for the elevator that leads to the games’ apartment serves as a control panel, and from here an options screen that would be the envy of any indie game can be reached. To exit the game, you click a red button, and the panel slides across the screen; to confirm, you press red again, completely defending against accidental exit by moving the button between actions. Having played almost all of Tale of Tales previous games, this attention to small interface details immediately reveals the larger budget at work here.

Yet the interface is also feels like a site of tension... here, for the first time Michael and Auriea (the beating heart of Tale of Tales) accept the interface practices of gun games, two-handed, move and aim. True, an alternative is offered – but buried in the beautifully designed options such that anyone who might need it would likely lack the game literacy to find it. Thus, as with Dear Esther, we find ourselves in a first person shooter without guns – the derogatorily named ‘walking simulator’ insult-turned-banner-of-pride that serves as a perverse testament to the games industry’s utter dependence upon firearms and violence for producing commercial entertainment.

There are guns in Sunset, but you never see them. Indeed, this is a game that spectacularly eschews conventional spectacle. Throughout the games’ slowly-unfolding story, a civil war against a 1970s South American dictatorship is witnessed both from a distance – the sound of gunfire in the streets, an explosion at a neighbouring building – and from the intimate inside, since the player serves as maid to a key politician-turned-rebel. It is an ambitious, highly theatrical staging, and admirable when it works, which it does more often than not. As Emily Short comments of the narrative, however, it struggles with both its thematic focus and some occasionally muddy moments of exposition.

Yet to treat Sunset purely as a narrative game is to rob it of its greatest achievement, and perhaps also to misunderstand one of the layers of meaning wrapped up in its name. For while it is metaphorically concerned with the sunset on the Anchurian dictatorship, it is also at the same time quite literally concerned with sunsets, and every moment of the game occurs against one. In so doing, it takes one of the most tangential artefacts of commercial game design and makes it the star of the show; for it is not the protagonist, Angela Barnes, who can claim that title, but the most literal star in the game: the sun.

Ever since The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time in 1998, I have been revelling in virtual sunsets. The day-night cycle was ostensibly added for gameplay purposes, perhaps because most game designers (‘planners’ in Japan) have a slender appreciation of the power of visual aesthetics. Yet I can think of nothing more spectacular in 2004’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas than its sunsets, particularly because each region had its own colour scheme and painted the most glorious tableaux at the end of each day, burned into my memory far more deeply than its casual violence or lacklustre pastiche of John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood.

Time CollageIn Sunset, as the title makes clear, the sunset is the empress of its tiny world. Yet rather than gaze at the landscape, as I did in GTA or Ed Key and David Kanaga’s Proteus, Tale of Tales’ game populates its apartment setting with artworks – paintings, sculptures, tapestries. While lacking the palpable tangibility of real gallery works (you have never seen a Van Gogh painting if you have only seen a print, for the furrowed grooves of his brushwork is everything), the works the team of artists has produced for Sunset are perfectly suited for their milieu. They show up every subtle shift in tint and shade as the sun crosses the imagined sky, and as a player the option to turn on a lamp and further illumine each piece is an act of agency with astonishing aesthetic force. I spent several of my in-game days staring at a single work as it gave up its palette to me in silent joy.

These experiences go far beyond what an art museum has an opportunity to provide, and create an entirely new kind of play, what might be called a gallery game. In steadfast opposition to Michael and Auriea’s insistence that their later project, Cathedral in the Clouds is “not a game”, I shall view it as a sequel to Sunset. In so doing, I also hint at an important way that Sunset’s flawed narrative is essential to its function as a gallery game, since it creates the conditions for the ebb and flow of the artworks within the sculpted gallery-space it provides. This, as with Animal Crossing’s every-changing daily content, provided my most powerful reason to return day after day, and may also have dulled my enthusiasm in the latter half of my time playing, as the pieces gradually became boxed up and hidden. I played for just under ten hours in total. It took me seventeen months. Throughout, my experience was always changing, never compulsive, always compelling. Sunset has just what it needs to do what it does best.

Which brings me back to 2005. Although my respect for Façade will never dim, replaying it reminded me of its core problem: it’s frightfully overengineered. Its creators, Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern, called it an ‘AI game’, reflecting their pride in the artificial intelligence dramaturge they had created. I remember the GDC lecture on the design, and it was readily apparent at the time that this was not something anyone else could possibly have any reason to emulate. What’s more, the majority of the player experiences Façade produces could have been generated by a far simpler ‘classical’ narrative design. The genius of Façade was its taking influence from theatre, rather than film or other videogames, and this alone is more than enough to mark it out as a significant turning point for artgames, even if most of my plays of it feel remarkably similar.

Yet 2005 was not a banner year for artistically-motivated games just because of Façade, and among the other remarkable games that debuted that year was Tale of Tales’ first release, The Endless Forest. This unique ‘massively multiplayer screensaver’, which went on to inspire thatgamecompany’s Journey, created an entirely new concept, what might be called encounter games, that allowed players to meet and act out a role with no possibility of harm or competition. It was an idea they followed up with 2012’s Bientôt L’été, with their usual mixed degrees of success.

Sunset, once again, does not succeed on all counts, yet aims so much further beyond anything else I’ve seen attempted in the theatrical artgame genre that it is staggering that it came a mere decade after Façade. That alone would mark it as a phenomenal achievement. That it also contains an entirely original conception of a gallery artgame arguably renders it Tale of Tales magnum opus, and certainly places it far beyond the rather narrow achievements of most artistically-motivated games. Michael and Auriea’s work is not likely to be enjoyed by everyone, and most gamers will find nothing much to their taste in Sunset’s meanderings. Regardless, I find their gallery game to surpass several bricks-and-mortar galleries I’ve visited. I'm not sure I have a higher honour to bestow.