Post-Mortem: SPOMENIK-1


Spomenik-1 is the first game I’ve actually produced for public consumption, and perhaps more significantly, the first game I’ve made with the intent of it being a complete, packaged product. In the course of making it I learned a lot of things I found useful and interesting, so I wanted to write a bit about the process. Some of this is technical, but most of it is more related to the process of game development in general. Feel free to skip ahead if there’s a section you don’t care about.

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200 Games, 200 Words: 14 – Dying Light


The parkour actually has a nice sense of embodied movement

There were so many reasons to pass on Dying Light. Not only was it an open-world zombie survival crafting game, but also an extension of the terrible Dead Island series of OWZSC games. However, once I finished with Fallout 4 I was casting about for something to occupy my time, and I happened to latch onto Dying Light.

Dying Light has a number of clever risk vs. reward systems that I really appreciated, i.e. rooftop safety vs. zombie-filled streets, daylight safety vs. faster XP gain at night. But that quickly wears thin, because Dying Light never really does anything with them, and the progression systems quickly make risks meaningless. And the environments are terribly generic (just like the voice acting, the script, the endless fetch quests) with immense amounts of repetition and little sense of place.


Far, far less violent and gory than the actual game.

More than that, though, a lot of other aspects of the game really started to get to me. Having a white undercover paramilitary dude beat the hell out of a whole lot of non-white bodies, and especially women’s bodies, got to me. Presenting them as zombies doesn’t actually negate what those bodies represent. All in all, Dying Light is just another fairly mindless and unnecessarily cruel exercise in video game stuff for the sake of video games, with nothing much of substance to justify its production.

200 Games, 200 Words: 13 – Ascension


There’s a lot going on, but I’m seven expansions deep here.

Ascension is my zen game. I’ve played it almost daily since I first got it on my iPad in 2011 and I’ve bought every expansion and promo set as they came out since. I know the game well enough at this point that playing it is close to automatic for me. I play it in bed before I go to sleep most nights, as the act of playing is almost meditative, and helps me switch off and get ready for sleep.

How I play Ascension is a mode of play I like to think of as “processing”. It’s something like how most people play Solitaire, and it’s almost the inverse of the idea of Flow, because it involves no challenge at all, just a mechanical following of a well-understood procedure. It’s what MDA calls a gameplay aesthetic of submission, a sublimating of mind to the task of processing game actions, and it frees other parts of the mind to think about other things. This is a mode of play I think deserves a lot more attention, because it covers how a lot of people play a lot of different kinds of games, from questing in WoW to routine cargo runs in Elite: Dangerous, to those tappy farming games. Not every game needs to engage the player in active, “immersive” interaction. Some games can, as Ascension does for me, just let the mind be.

200 Games, 200 Words: 12 – Fallout 4


Home, sweet self-built home

The most consistent thing in Fallout 4 is its theme of rebuilding, and this comes through in most of the game’s prominent mechanical systems, not just the story. It’s about making a new life in a new world, rather than trying to go back to the way things were before. You have to tear down the remains of the old world to build the new, whether this means dismantling junk for parts to build your new settlement, or opposing the forces that resist the new world in whatever form they take.

Unfortunately, in many other respects, Fallout 4 is deeply disappointing. Continue reading

Why Do People Like Metal Gear Solid?

I’ve written before about my ongoing struggles to comprehend why people like Metal Gear Solid. Inspired by the release of Metal Gear Solid V, I’ve started a critical playthrough of Metal Gear Solid 2. The plan is to sit down with friends who like and/or know the series better than me, play through the game, talk about it, make dumb jokes, occasionally trade off the actual controller, and record and upload it for anyone who’s interested. This is predominately something I’m doing for my own intellectual curiosity, but I think other people might enjoy it as well. If this goes well enough I’ll move on to other games in the series.

The first part is up on YouTube now, where you can watch me fight with the controls, take forever getting into the tanker, and occasionally do my terrible David Hayter impersonation:

I Fought The Law, And The Law Won: Driving Lawfully And Meaningful Choice In Grand Theft Auto

Rockstar and Take-Two like to market the GTA series as offering huge freedom of choice within a large urban simulation. But that premise breaks down almost immediately if you try to exercise that freedom by playing outside of GTA V’s expectations, which it turns out are actually quite narrow.


To illustrate this, I started playing GTA V using a very simple personal rule that I’ve experimented with before: I just chose to drive lawfully. Now, I don’t actually drive in real-life, so if I’m honest, my understanding of “driving lawfully” in the real world is pretty basic. And GTA V’s environment doesn’t actually have all the necessary signage to indicate things like speed limits, special turns and so on, or any way for the player to indicate before turning, so there’s only so far you could go to “drive lawfully” in any case. So to make this simple, for the purposes of this exercise, and this post, “driving lawfully” means three things: obeying traffic lights, sticking to marked lanes, and not hitting other vehicles, pedestrians or objects.

What immediately becomes obvious when you try to drive lawfully is that GTA V’s city simulation just does not have a functioning traffic system. Lane markings are difficult to read, and AI drivers tend to treat them only as suggestions in any case. Traffic lights, though, are the major problem. Traffic lights change far too slowly for the pace of the rest of the simulation. AI drivers ignore traffic signals often. When they follow the signals, they do so in ways that are awkward or imprecise. And if you’re trying to follow the signals, the AI drivers will bump up against you, or yell at you if you try to wait for a green light. The actual missions are even worse about accounting for traffic: NPCs will yell at you to keep moving while you’re waiting for a light to change, and you’ll just straight-up fail many missions if you wait for the lights. In the mission where Franklin first meets Michael, while repossessing an SUV, the player has no clear reason not to wait for lights to change. But if you do wait for the lights, you’ll always end up taking too long and failing the mission.

The end result is that GTA V excludes lawful driving from its possibility space, for most practical gameplay purposes. Narrowing the possibility space in this way undercuts the reputation the GTA series has for allowing player freedom.

In fact, shrinking the possibility space to exclude lawful play makes the player’s unlawful play meaningless. The best way I can explain this is by first giving you an explanation I use in my classes that illustrates how possibility spaces impact on player choice.

See, one of Rockstar’s other games, Red Dead Redemption, lets you shoot horses. But the thing about games is, they have significant variation in what they’ll let you do, even within a genre with established conventions. So generally the way players work out what they can do in a given game is, they try things. Some games might not let you shoot horses, for example. And until you shoot a horse in Red Dead Redemption, you don’t know for sure that you can do so in that game. Now, here’s where this gets interesting: to make any meaningful choice, the player needs to know what options are available. A choice with only one known option is no choice at all. What this means, in the case of Red Dead Redemption, is that because the player must shoot a horse to know that shooting horses is an option, the choice not to shoot horses can only be meaningful after the player first shoots a horse. It’s only once the player knows they can shoot horses that they can make any kind of meaningful choice about whether or not to do so. This leads to the delightful zen koan-like paradox that one must shoot the horse to not shoot the horse.

To bring this back to GTA V, what this means is that because driving lawfully isn’t really a practical or functional option, the player has no real, meaningful choice but to drive unlawfully. Rockstar and Take-Two market the GTA series on the freedom to choose to break rules like traffic laws, but GTA V has no functional way of not doing this, and so this choice becomes no choice at all.

The truth is, while the marketing of the GTA series can lead players to think they’re breaking the rules by driving unlawfully, in fact they’re simply playing by a different but still rigid and confining set of rules. Breaking the laws of the real world is, paradoxically, obediently following the laws of GTA V. In GTA V, the freedom to break the rules is no freedom at all. You have a choice, but only if you choose to do exactly what Rockstar expects you to do.