Review: Inside

WARNING: This later parts of review will spoil the endings of both Inside and Limbo. It’s impossible for me to provide my full critique otherwise.

After debuting with the hit Limbo in 2010, many were eagerly awaiting the next title from Danish indie studio Playdead.  They spent the next several years porting it to practically everything with a screen and left everyone wondering what they were going to do next. Their second game, Inside, finally came out recently, with very little buzz for something so highly anticipated. It instantly became an indie critical darling, with many critics claiming it to be far better than Limbo and an easy contender for game of the year. I played and finished Inside in one afternoon and while I did enjoy it, I can’t disagree more with these other critics.

The common elements between Inside and Limbo are plentiful and obvious but Playdead have also made some nice iterative improvements. There is no UI and you use only two buttons and the analog stick. The mechanics are so simple, the games don’t even have a tutorial, nor do they need one. They’re able to use this minimal control style to create some deep and intricate environmental puzzles and while most of the ones you’ll encounter in Inside aren’t very difficult, it’s also impressive what they were able to construct with only two buttons. It’s not a bad formula but it’s not at all out of line to say that the majority of Inside just plays like more Limbo and after 6 years of development, I’d hoped we’d see more than that.

Where Playdead has really upped its game is in the art department. Limbo had a very flat, black & white, almost newspaper comic art style that was striking and beautiful but like its mechanics, very minimalist. Inside is in colour but still uses a limited palette to great effect, using generally subtle variances in tone to highlight important things. If something stands out, you know they intended it to be that way. They also used a means of presenting depth that I can’t really explain without visuals but everything really pops out, almost like it’s being presented in stereoscopic 3D, even though it isn’t. Check Giant Bomb’s image gallery on the game for some great examples. It’s a beautiful, yet oppressive aesthetic that weighs you down with intent.

There is music in Inside and it conveys the mood very well but you won’t hear it very often. Most of the game’s atmosphere is contained within its soundscape and it’s used to great effect. It’s not often where I can say a game is frequently at its best with the absence of music but that’s certainly the case here. Inside is largely a game of solitude and the humming ambience and deep echos you hear when manipulating the puzzles convey that very well. There’s no doubt that Playdead are masters at using as few auditory elements as possible to create a mood.

Here’s where the spoilers come in. Like Limbo, Inside is getting most of its praise for its storytelling. There isn’t a word of dialogue in either game and everything is communicated through the environment and the sounds and movements of your characters and those around him. That’s a great way to tell a story when it’s done well but I don’t see how anyone can think Inside did it better.

Like Limbo, you play a young boy who is on the run. You start off having no idea why and are supposed to find out as you wind your way through the world. Whereas in Limbo, you were being pursued by otherworldly creatures, Inside takes place in something more closely resembling the real world. You’re running from actual people and you discover that some evil corporation or possibly government is enslaving people to essentially become remotely controlled automatons for what I imagine are the wealthy class. You first learn this by being put in a position to control some of these drones to solve a puzzle, then later have to impersonate them in what looks like a human quality assurance line. This was the part that stuck with me the most because it’s truly shocking when you first see it and makes you question just what kind of dystopia you’re trying to get through and why everyone’s so keen on tracking you down.

The problem is, nothing is ever explained to you. You don’t know who you are, why you’re running from these people, why you eventually end up running towards them or why you’re really doing anything at all. Early in the game, you come across a farm where there are dozens of dead pigs everywhere. The one pig you find alive attacks you relentlessly, until you trap it in a corner and pull off its tail, at which point it becomes completely docile. None of this is explained at all.

This is horrible to look at but what does any of it mean?

Later on, you come across what seems like a young girl with long, flowing hair who lives and breathes underwater. Whereas water meant instant death in Limbo, Inside has several sections focused around swimming. This girl pursues you relentlessly in these sections and kills you instantly when she gets her hands on you, except for one point later on where you can’t avoid this and she suddenly bestows you with the ability to breathe underwater. Why? Again, this is never explained.

This is the underwater girl. Who is she? Why is she here? Why does she want to kill you right up until she helps you instead? No idea.

This is the underwater girl. Who is she? Why is she here? Why does she want to kill you right up until she helps you instead? No idea.

Eventually, you infiltrate the oppressor’s massive and daunting facility. What you end up finding at the end of it is a grotesque ball of humanity in a tank. It looks like a massive concoction of random body parts. You have no idea what it’s purpose is, if it’s fully formed or some kind of experiment in progress or even if it’s sentient, you just know from the crowd of workers around the tank that it’s something important and that it’s where your character aims to go.

You work your way to the tank and dive in with this…thing. Your character then proceeds to merge with it for again, no obvious reason and it’s here where the game takes a massive twist, turning from slow and methodical puzzle platformer to a semi-horror action game. You now have control over the abomination and proceed to quickly break out of your enclosure and raise Hell. Being more or less round and covered in various human limbs on the outside, you’re able to roll yourself around and crush anything in your path but still have the means to use elevators and navigate obstacles. The controls at this point become mushy, slow and unresponsive, very much in keeping with the lumbering, clumsy ball you’re now controlling. You instantly get a dopamine rush at this point that lasts for several chapters, as you barrel your way through this horrible prison, destroying everything in your path and sending the workers scattering in panic. It feels like revenge and like the oppressed going Godzilla on the oppressors. It was a blast.

You will eventually roll your way into an office where a terrified figure in a tie cowers against a window. It’s never stated but it’s obvious that this is the person in charge. There’s no time pressure here, you can sit and stare him down as long as you want, making him live the fear your character did in getting to him. Then you charge, burst through the wall, fall several stories and turn him to red mist as he breaks your fall. As soon as I hit the ground, I instinctively put my first up and exclaimed “Fuck yeah!”

But it’s not over yet. There are several chapters left in which you have to try to make your way out of this place now that you’ve seemingly accomplished your goal. There’s no clear path out or what you’ll do when you get there but you’re going to try anyway. Several more puzzles stand in your way, including a surprising one where one of the remaining staff who is desperate for you to leave, actually provides a measure of assistance. By the end, you find your way to freedom, away from your prison and the awful people who did this to you. Then…you proceed to roll down a hill and die on the beach.

That's it, hunh?

That’s it, hunh?

In the end, your journey is ultimately one of futility. You killed one of the people in charge, who you just know will be promptly replaced. You’ve made no substantive improvement to the world. The evil entity still exists, people are still being enslaved and the elite class who run things still do. Nothing about the other characters you met is explained. Things are more or less the same as when you started, except now you’re dead. So what exactly was the point?

In Limbo, the surreal, creepy state of the world and the fact that you largely accomplished nothing in the end made sense because well, you’re in Limbo. It’s right there in the title. It’s not supposed to end, it’s a place where you live in perpetual failure, unable to accomplish the one thing you want more than any other, which in that game, is reuniting with your sister. It was dark, oppressive and ultimately futile but it all made contextual sense and that context is what made you think.

All Inside does is leave you with a ton of unanswered questions and also having accomplished nothing. In so many key aspects, this game is just a reskin of Limbo, except it’s storytelling is far worse, leaving many previously established things hanging in the air and being an ultimately futile journey with no reason as to why that is. The ending is a cop out, leaving you to try to draw your own conclusions as to what just happened and why. I personally think that’s a crap way to tell a story. Your job as a storyteller isn’t to neatly wrap everything up in a bow but you can’t ask me to spend 4 hours of my life playing through your story, only to just arbitrarily end it out of nowhere with far more questions than answers and go “You figure it out.” without giving any of the tools to do so. That’s the kind of pretentiousness I expect from games like Dear Esther and Gone Home.

Limbo’s storytelling was good because it drip fed you the context of your actions and the world you were in and it’s conclusion made contextual sense. Inside gives you tons of disturbing elements in the world but provides no context for most of them so you have no idea why any of it’s important or if it even is. Then you spend several chapters in an adrenaline fuelled feeling of triumph, only to have it all ripped from your hands and to be told that you just spent 4 hours ultimately accomplishing nothing and seemingly, for no reason.

There’s already tons of discussion and debate online as to what Inside’s true meaning is, what it’s trying to explain and the statement Playdead was making with it. I think those kind of discussions are cool and I’m glad people are having them but I don’t play story driven games to have to crowdsource what might be its message. That’s supposed to be the job of the writers and in this case, they completely failed at that for me. I enjoyed Limbo very much but also just one time. With Inside, I feel like I waited 6 years for something that looks incredible, plays well, has a more interesting world but in the end, did nothing with it and makes you feel like you wasted your time. The story feels unfinished and yet is clearly pleased with itself. I won’t say I didn’t enjoy playing Inside but everything about its story feels like a huge regression from Limbo and its mechanics alone aren’t enough to make up from that.

I’d hoped for much better from Playdead with their second outing and I am very surprised that I seem to be so much the minority on that.

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Review: Mirror’s Edge Catalyst

The Edge of Nowhere

The original Mirror’s Edge was an impressive AAA anomaly for its time. A single player game set in an oppressive, yet beautiful future, focused on running and parkour and all from a studio that was almost entirely known for competitive online shooters. It was flawed but still impressive and there was nothing like it at the time or since until recently. It’s still one of my most memorable games of the last decade. Unfortunately, like every AAA game that takes a creative risk, few showed up to buy it and it was a sales failure.

EA surprised everyone a couple of E3s ago by saying that DICE was being given another crack at Mirror’s Edge. They were rebooting the story–even though there was only one of them–and going open world with it. I instantly wanted to play it but grew concerned when they released it right around E3 this year and with very little marketing. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst clearly has the kernel of a grand vision but if feels unrealised and more concerningly, unfinished.

Faith, the rebellious yet tortured protagonist is back again with a new traumatic backstory that gives a glimpse into the origins of the corporate “beautiful dystopia” she’s in as well as her reasons for being a Runner, a group of couriers who operate off the grid and outside the law but which the corporate overlords tolerate. There’s some pretty blunt “evil 1%” political messaging in this, not that I disagree with it. You start the game fresh from a stint in prison and not more than 30 seconds out the door, you’re right back with your crew. The rest of the story has a few twists and turns but like everything else in the game, feels half-baked and rushed, ending in a cookie-cutter cliffhanger where you’ve ultimately achieved pretty much nothing. It’s clear the team wanted to setup a sequel in the hopes EA would let them make it but if that doesn’t happen–and it probably won’t–most of what happens in Catalyst is pointless. There aren’t many characters, none of them are particularly likable and the interactions with them are so few and blandly written, you never get to know anyone well enough to care about them. Even Faith herself comes off as bratty, bullheaded and self-centered, taking stupid risks, regardless of how they may harm those around her. I never grew to like her.

The original Mirror’s Edge was a linear experience but a solid, tightly designed one. Catalyst makes things an open world which on paper, seems like the perfect evolution for this type of game. Unfortunately, it’s a largely lifeless world with nothing to do in it. To stay off the grid, the Runners operate on the rooftops. You never get to street level so you don’t see much actually happening in the city. You get around by running, jumping, sliding and scaling your way over and between buildings. When you bring up the map, you see a huge metropolis that gives you the impression there’s tons to see and do. Then as you progress, you realise that only about half of that map ever becomes available to you the game is way smaller than you thought.

You get the standard open world compliment of main missions, side story missions and icon barf of optional activities. The problem is, almost all of these are basically the same thing, either delivering something or running a course, always with an arbitrary time limit that usually makes no contextual sense. There’s no variety and the time limits are often so strict that one slight mistake in a 2+ minute run means doing it all over again, as these are the only times in the game that you aren’t generously checkpointed. Some of the delivery missions come from in-world characters who essentially give you their life story over the radio as you make the run. This is intended to make you empathise with the oppressed of the world but all it does is distract you and provides no value to the fiction. Most of the time, I just wanted them to shut up and let me run. There are a ton of different collectables in the world which yield tiny bonuses but are obviously just there as padding for obsessive open world players. I know that in a game focused almost exclusively around running, there’s only so much you can do but surely DICE could have come up with more than this. It renders the whole point of making this an open world game moot.

By default, your augmented reality system known as The Beat, provides you a virtual in-world line to show you the way to your next objective and it’ll also highlight objects you should scale as part of that route. It’s not always the fastest route, just the least difficult one and for some of the tougher side missions, following it actually means you won’t succeed. The problem is because you’re in an open world, disabling it makes it really easy to lose your bearings and get turned around. It’s definitely possible to complete the game without it but you’ll be making things way harder on yourself. Still, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of when you get a good flow up and have been running and parkouring for a long stretch without a gap, though some of this comes down to how easily this flow can be interrupted.

When you’re not running, you will occasionally have to fight. In the first Mirror’s Edge, it was possible to take guns from enemy soldiers and use them against them but there was also an achievement for beating the game without killing anyone, which I got. In Catalyst’s world, all the guns are coded to the soldiers so Faith has to beat everyone in close quarters melee combat. She still has no conscience about murder though as she has some brutal finishing moves and I regularly kicked guys off buildings. You never see blood but you’ll hear lots of things crack and snap. Like most elements of Catalyst, the combat also feels clumsy and unrefined. You have a few different moves but never get new ones and there’s no combo system. Combat usually comes down to just spamming different moves until everyone’s down. Parkouring well and mixing up your moves rewards you with Focus, a meter that allows you to automatically dodge bullets but instantly drains away when you stop moving. Again, a cool idea but one that doesn’t make a lot of sense when you think about it. If you stir up enough trouble, VTOL aircraft will be summoned that can drop additional soldiers and also shoot at you. When this happens, you have to outrun its scanners and hide for a bit until it gives up, which rewards bonus experience depending on how many soldiers you took out and how long the chase lasts.

The dead giveaway that Mirror’s Edge Catalyst was rushed is the progression system. By earning experience, you can upgrade Faith’s parkour and combat abilities, as well as some pieces of equipment to help you get around. The thing is, you start with a third of these upgrades already unlocked. I’m not kidding. I did the story and narrative side missions and maybe 15% of the optional missions and this was all it took to earn every upgrade. Other than going for 100% completion, there’s no reason to do the optional content after this. I don’t know of any other way to interpret this other than a whole whack of stuff was cut from the game to make a deadline. There’s no explanation given for it and frankly, it feels like DICE went out of their way to showcase it. I know in the world of corporate AAA development, there’s probably too many layers of management involved for this to be a not-so-subtle statement from the team on the kinds of pressures they were under but it sure feels like it. Regardless of the development realities, this was a full priced release and to not only have so little content but to not even hide it is frankly pretty insulting to those who shelled out money for it. They basically told me that I spent $60US on what is in many ways, an Early Access title and that’s not cool.

The original Mirror’s Edge had some gorgeous production values and at least those are still here in Catalyst. The game runs great on PC and while the frame rate hitches on consoles, it does target 60 which is a rare pleasure. The city basically looks like a giant Apple store with lots of white and bright, unblended colours as well as digital billboards everywhere. It does a good job of feeling like a dystopia where the people in charge don’t want you to know that. There’s lots of talk about “The Graylands”, a bleak and unforgiving place where the lowest classes of people are relegated but you never see it and it’s left to your imagination. DICE are experts at audio design and they do a great job here too, with sounds that are believable and subtle audio cues that aid in the flow of your parkour. Swedish ambient musician Solar Fields did the score for the previous game and his work there made me into a big fan of his. He returns again for Catalyst and his tracks once again fit the world well, though I feel his work last time was more memorable.

Both Mirror’s Edge games feel like passion projects from a studio that’s desperate to make things other than Battlefield. I didn’t think we’d see another after the first one flopped but the passion of its small fanbase and DICE’s huge success otherwise managed to convince EA to give them another shot. Indeed, when you look at the core team credits for Catalyst, it’s quite small compared to what we normally see for AAA releases these days. However, either they weren’t given enough time or the team wasn’t able to capitalise on the time they had and we got a full price release that’s pretty and has its core mechanic down but is short on story and full to the brim with boring padding. I didn’t want the first Mirror’s Edge to end but half way through Catalyst, I was wanting it to be over. If this was the best EA was willing to let DICE give us for a sequel, they should have just not bothered. At best, I’d only recommend this at 50% off and only if you either like parkour games or really wanted more time in the Mirror’s Edge world. Even then, you’re probably better off just playing the first game again. I doubt we’ll ever see another one of these but if we do, I hope we get a complete game next time.

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So That Was E3 2016 (with Ramble Video)

Another year of the video game industry’s biggest blast of info, spectacle and hype has come and gone and it’s time for my yearly chat about it. Despite being little more than a fancy marketing event, I’ve always really enjoyed watching and reading about E3. As someone who is keenly aware of when I’m being advertised to and takes that as such, I just love this chance to get a huge block of knowledge about the next year’s big batch of games that are coming and consuming all the analysis of it that I can. If you love games and especially, big AAA games, E3 is basically second Christmas.

Last year, a group of us talked over all the press conferences and got to give our impressions of the games we saw as we went. Sadly, real life prevented that from happening this year. This post is mostly going to focus on talking about the show as a whole and some broader concepts about it. If you want to hear me yak about what specific games interested me, I do so at length in the Geek Bravado Ramble video.

E3 2016 was still pretty great but there’s no doubt an air of change and uncertainty permeated this year’s show. Several major publishers have scaled back their presences or pulled out entirely, choosing instead to focus on communicating directly to their customers online, something that’s easier and cheaper than ever before. The show floor was much more sparsely populated and quiet, to the point where Giant Bomb was actually able to record a short podcast in the middle of it, something that would have been impossible even last year.

For the last several years, we’ve heard the lazier members of the games press naval gaze about E3’s relevance. In the past, it was more them wondering if consoles and big games in general were doomed in the face of the mobile games bubble, something I waved off as the nonsense it was later proven to be. This year though, I think there’s validity to the claims but for different reasons. E3 is incredibly expensive for a company to attend and whether you’re an Electronic Arts or a Devolver Digital, there are myriad other ways to talk directly to the people you’re selling to for far less money and on your own schedule and your own terms. I’ve no doubt that the flashy, dual-city press event that EA put on probably cost them far less than a press conference plus booth presence at the show proper would have and Devolver’s street party that wasn’t even officially part of the show definitely cost them less and arguably, got more attention. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more publishers follow their lead in the future.

E3’s never been so much about the games press as getting the attention of the mainstream press but in the era of YouTube and Twitch “influencers”, even they aren’t really that important in the grand scheme of things. I don’t know how the ESA can alter E3 to combat this change. Maybe they can’t and going forward, we’ll see a much smaller show or perhaps, it’ll just disappear after a while. I definitely would miss the concentrated week of crazy gaming news but at the same time, games are getting even more expensive to make and the audience isn’t growing fast enough to keep up so these companies have to save where they can.

What surprised me the most about this year’s E3 was not so much what was there as what wasn’t. Two major paradigm shifts in the games industry are on the horizon, incrementally upgraded consoles and VR. These are two things that were unheard of just a few years ago but in recent months, have had sustained hype behind them. Yet, at the game industry’s biggest show, both were only shown in a rather tepid fashion. Sony didn’t talk about the next PS4 at all and beyond a teaser video, Microsoft said next to nothing about Project Scorpio, instead focusing on the smaller but no more powerful Xbox One S that’s coming later this year. We also got no word from Nintendo on their next system.

As for VR, it was certainly there but I was shocked to how little a degree. Sony is shipping PlayStation VR this year but only devoted a few minutes of their press conference to it, largely showing off another batch of gimmicky tech demos or “experiences” it will launch with and few full games. A couple of publishers have either VR add-ons for existing games coming or some experiments of their own but that was it. I get that Sony is probably going to dedicate their PlayStation Experience fan show to really pushing PlayStation VR but its muted showing at E3 was a real surprise.

The hype over VR went from everyone constantly saying “This game would be so awesome in VR!” to them now saying it has potential but there’s little to play on it and none of it’s worth the price of admission. Even with Sony’s offering being half the price of it’s closest competitor on PC, you’ve got to have compelling software for people to buy into these things. Without an install base, no one’s going to make big games for them and without good games, no one’s going to buy them. Sony and Oculus have been helping to fund new VR projects but many of them are nowhere to be seen and it’s more and more feeling to me that these companies should have held back their hardware launches until more stuff is on them. I could afford a VR headset right now if I wanted to but I’m instead choosing to put that money towards a GTX 1080 GPU, something that can benefit every game and which seems like a much better use of funds. VR has a short window to capitalise on the hype before it fades and it doesn’t feel like they’re doing that.

What made me very happy to see was that at least some of the AAA industry is actually back to taking some creative risks. Much as I like big games, there’s no denying that most publishers have been relying on the safest of bets the last while, especially as they waited with bated breath to see if consumers actually bought new consoles. It turns out they are and in greater numbers than last generation so the money taps have opened again and creativity is being allowed to shine, at least in some places. We saw a number of new, big budget IPs showcased this year and some complete creative overhauls of others. God of War is now a third-person combination of The Last of Us and Dark Souls based around Norse mythology. Resident Evil 7 looks more like Silent Hill style horror and has full VR support. The new Call of Duty is mostly in space. The new Battlefield is set in World War I. The next Legend of Zelda is a fully open-world game with crafting and free traversal. While the big games industry will never be as experimental as the indie space, it’s clear they feel more comfortable taking risks now, even going so far as to flip traditional cash cow franchises on their ear. That’s an exciting thing indeed.

Almost every E3 has some kind of industry gimmick theme that you can see throughout it. It’s uncanny how many of these big companies that are supposed to be competing tend to ride the same trends as the same time. In past years, it’s been things mobile integration into console games that no one asked for. Other years, it’s been turning everything into a big open world, even games that didn’t need it. This year however, it seemed like the overall theme was just an industry more comfortable in its position and that’s realised big AAA games do indeed have a long-term future and that yes, the audience won’t turn their backs on them for trying something different. There’s still a lot of safe bets being made but fewer than before and the risks they’re taking look like they could end up with some pretty awesome things. This new tone was both exciting but also a relief for me to see. It’s arguably never been a harder time to make money developing video games, yet the industry also seems to be more comfortable and less stressed than it was before. I think that’s ultimately a great thing for everyone.

Unfortunately, it also wouldn’t be an E3 without the outrage baiting gaming press doing everything they can to attack the industry they cover and the audience they serve in the most hubristic, tactless, insulting way possible. To the shock and sadness of everyone, the horrible terrorist attacks in Florida occurred the Sunday before E3, mere hours before EA’s press event was due to kick things off. Most of the press events paid tribute to the tragedy with either moments of silence and/or wearing multi-coloured ribbons in solidarity. Hard as it is to have to sell entertainment products mere hours after such horrific events, letting the world stop because of the actions of madmen only validates their actions further. As they say, the show must go on.

Nonetheless, we got a pile of articles and tweets from all the usual suspects, some saying that E3 should either have been delayed or cancelled but most saying that E3 and the industry should have been ashamed because so many of the products being shown “glorify guns and violence.” Let me be clear here: I hate guns and I detest those who fetishise them. I don’t believe guns are valuable or necessary in a civilised society and I think America’s near lone obsession with them is as terrifying as it is despicable. That said, video games aren’t real and watching many of the same members of the gaming press who tore apart Jack Thompson’s insane “games cause violence” rhetoric not even 10 years ago, spewing the same nonsense almost verbatim was disgusting.

I don’t know how one can think any good is being served by piggybacking on a massive tragedy to argue that video games cause violence, arguments by the way that have been thoroughly, repeatedly, scientifically and indeed, legally debunked time and time again. Of course, the hack writers who published this garbage don’t actually believe it, they just found another horrific event they can use to cynically drive clicks to their dying web sites while also pretending to have the moral high ground in doing so. It’s disgusting, abhorrent, unethical behaviour and anyone who did that should be ashamed of themselves. Have the business models of these sites become so broken that this is the only way they can hope to survive as YouTube and Twitch continue to eat their lunch? And if so, what does it say about the character and ethical standards of those who put their names on this stuff?

If you hate your audience and the video game industry that much, why are you people even here? If the only things you can say when getting paid by a video game site to cover the largest, most anticipated video games event of the year, is how your audience are bad people because they like games with guns in them, then get out now. Go start another social justice blog to preach your outrage or go start a new games site where you can write about the pretentious walking simulators and Twine games everyone should play instead. Of course, none of these writers will do that because they know there’s not enough of an audience for that stuff to make a living. You’re not here to serve yourselves and your warped social agendas, you’re here to serve your audiences. If you can’t do that, step aside for someone who can.

I said a long time ago that as much as the games press deserves the reckoning it’s currently going through, that I don’t want the PewDiePies and the Game Grumps of the world to become the new face of games journalism. I still don’t but at this point, I’d take them 10 times over before I would take much of the games press we have now. Say what you will about the most popular YouTubers and I can say plenty but at least those people actually love games and gamers. They know who they serve and it’s the players, not people who can only derive satisfaction from life when they’re being offended at someone other than themselves. The current games press is crumbling and I’m now more convinced than ever that they wholly deserve it.

So there we have it, my top-down, big picture analysis of this year’s E3. There’s no doubt that it was a weird year but it was also a good one and whether you’re into big games, small games or both, there’s a metric ton coming that should interest gamers of all types. Personally, I don’t know where I’m going to find the time to play all the amazing stuff I see coming but hey, that’s a damn good problem to have if you ask me. Every year is a good year to be a hardcore gamer but 2016 and 2017 are shaping up to be some of the best in a good while. I don’t know what the future holds for E3 and one thing is clear, no one else does either. I do hope it gets to stick around in some form as I do like what it offers and what I can take from it. Maybe like the games press that covers it though, it’s time in the sun is fading. I’m very curious how they change it up next year.

 

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34 Hours for CHEO (with Ramble Video)

I stayed up for 34 hours this weekend. It’s longer than I’ve ever stayed up and I’m still recovering. And it was among the best 34 hours of my life.

When I first got the e-mail from Extra Life in 2014 inviting me to the kick-off meeting for a new Ottawa Guild, I really had no idea what to expect. I knew what guilds were and what some of them had done but little beyond that. I certainly never expected to get invited to be on the leadership team and I never in my wildest dreams expected that two years later, I’d be doing an entire, second Extra Life marathon, on the set of the CHEO Telethon, one of Ottawa’s biggest and most cherished charitable events. Not only did that happen but the $72,154 that we helped raise for this fantastic event helped push the telethon to a new record total of $8,013,771 raised and without it, they wouldn’t have cracked the $8,000,000 mark.

This still feels surreal to me.

Doing something with the telethon was always an idea our guild had in our minds but we never actively pursued it. It was our awesome liaison at the CHEO Foundation, Olenka, who came to us with this idea several months ago. We jumped at the prospect but it only really started to coalesce into a real thing a couple of months back. We had no idea how it would go or what the experience would be like but we knew it was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. To say everything went better than we could have hoped is I think, an understatement.

A lot of children’s hospitals don’t really support or endorse Extra Life because they still ignorantly see gaming as a dumb kids hobby that makes people fat and wastes time. Not CHEO. They have supported our guild efforts 110% and have seen the incredible things gamers can do when they band together for a good cause. Many charities are struggling to figure out how to get newer generations of people engaged with their causes. The CHEO Telethon is a huge deal in this town but at the same time, many young people don’t watch TV any more. I’m 37 and I haven’t had cable in six years. To get new people in, you’ve got to embrace new and different ideas that appeal to them and CHEO has had the foresight to see why things like Extra Life do exactly that.

The idea was simple: They invited us to do a second 24 hour Extra Life marathon from the set of the Telethon at the EY Centre and they’d make it a big part of the show so that they could help drive awareness of both the event and what they’re doing to bring young people in.

Our guild showed up in spades. We were allowed to bring up to 25 people and got a full complement. Men and women ranging from teenagers up to old fogies like me. Not only that but this event was even harder compared to the normal Extra Life because it ran from 7pm to 7pm as opposed to the normal game day’s 8am to 8am. This meant that many of us had to go through most of a regular day before even starting the marathon and several from the guild were at the EY Centre setting up well hours before things got going. This was an even bigger challenge but we were up for it.

We had a bunch of PCs, several of which had people streaming, a bunch of consoles and then, the Ottawa board gaming community showed up. They brought a mind blowing 60 board games to the event and I was told that was just their “travelling set.” We had all aspects of gaming represented, except for tabletop RPGs and I have a feeling people might be down for that in the future. Our area was this insane jungle of tables, screens and cables and looked like something out of a cyberpunk novel. You walked into that space and within seconds, you unquestionably knew it was made up of hardcore gamers.

The CHEO Telethon is one of the most well organised events I’ve ever seen. I’ve done things at shows this size before and I’m always prepared for everything to be a fight and for having to nag people to get stuff done. Our experience here was the polar opposite of that. We were given a massive space with a bunch of brand new couches donated by The Brick and were promised 30 megabit synchronous fibre Internet to be used for multiplayer gaming and streams, which was not only delivered but was rock solid. They gave us our own coffee, water machine and fridge and we had tons of food delivered throughout the event and free access to the common food area as well. No details were overlooked, nothing was ever a fight and though this was the first time anything like this was ever done, you’d have never known.

The thing that sticks out to me the most though is what they did for us overnight. The CHEO Telethon goes off-air and loops previously recorded footage from 11pm to 9am because few watch or donate overnight as most are asleep. When this happens, the entire set goes dark and as it turns out, almost everyone goes home for a few hours of shut eye. Aside from a couple of people handling overnight logistics, they left us completely alone and to our own devices for 10 hours. The hall was dark but we were allowed to go anywhere we wanted, completely unsupervised. We could have wreaked havoc if we wanted and there was basically no one there to stop us. Of course, we didn’t do that but it was a really striking show of trust. These people didn’t know at all, many of them had never met us before, yet they trusted us implicitly and treated us like we were part of the same group that’s been doing this for years. That’s really something that gives me pause.

A few of us needed to take cat naps on occasion but the vast majority went through the entire 24 hours without a hitch. I don’t have a total for how much we raised during the event but I know it was significant, especially considering the main Extra Life day is months away. My good friend Devon Payette, the 13 year old CHEO Champion from last year was at the event and despite having major chronic illnesses, said he would stay up the whole 24 hours with us and he not only did it but he did so with an energy and gusto most of the rest of us had long since lost by the time things were done. I gave him my old gaming PC when I got a new job recently and he not only spent most of the 24 hours on it, he streamed a bunch too and raised more money than any of us! That kid is a force of nature and an inspiration to everyone. People like him and what CHEO has done for him are why we play.

We had a number of visitors during the show, including the CEOs of both CHEO and the CHEO Foundation, a bunch of local media personalities and other community leaders. Most of them didn’t know or understand Extra Life before but they were all blown away by what they saw and how driven and committed everyone was to it. It was clear that within minutes, we’d reached them and showed them how awesome this is and why we all take it so seriously. Right after the show, a prominent local radio personality hit us up on Facebook and basically said “I didn’t know anything about this before but it’s awesome. If you ever need help promoting or an MC for special events, let me know.” Even if we didn’t raise a dime, these things alone made this worth it.

I talk about my own experiences and how my stream went in the video but I had a great time. My brain barely worked by the end but I played for the whole 24 hours as well and made a big dent into my backlog. I didn’t get as many viewers and donations as I wanted but a bunch of regulars from my YouTube channel showed up and they made it a great time as they always do. My good friend Andrew “KeyMastar” Scrader hung out for most of the stream because he’s insane, as did my buddy Reetin, whose podcast I regularly guest on. I also met a fellow Extra Life CHEO player from North Bay named Orcryst, who is a prominent Twitch streamer. He was a super nice guy and gave me a whole pile of advice on how to grow my streaming presence and maybe also combine it in a unique way with my YouTube efforts. I’m planning to make some big changes based on his advice. That’s something I never saw coming.

We were all barely functional by the end but when they revealed that the telethon had raised a record of over $8,000,000, we all got a massive boost of adrenaline, something that made it a lot easier to pack up our stuff and get home. There was no trouble, no drama and everyone left with a smile on their face, knowing we had done good. There are few greater feelings to have.

In terms of people to thank, there are so many:

  • Olenka from CHEO is an incredibly warm and caring lady and one of the most organised people I’ve ever met. Doing this was her idea and without her, I don’t know if it ever would have happened.
  • My colleagues on the committee, Richard and Frankie are amazing, inspiring people and it’s an honour to work with them.
  • Conor from the guild has always been an amazing help and is willing to bend over backwards for us.
  • Kristy and Vicky are newcomers to the guild who offered to take up the challenge of managing social media for us, something the rest of us aren’t great at and didn’t want to do anyway. To say they’ve done an incredible job is a massive understatement and they were the sole reason our social media got so much attention in the week leading up to and during the event.
  • Devon and his parents for being so supportive of the guild and allowing Devon to play with us. He sat right in the middle of the whole group and was an incredible inspiration. Kids like him are why we do this and everyone was stronger with him there.
  • Laura from Freeman who was an incredible help getting us our Internet connection and making it possible for us to play online and streaming.
  • The entire telethon staff for putting so much trust in us and treating us like we were part of the family.

Most of all though, I want to thank everyone who showed up to play. I’d not met a lot of you before and yet we all came together and ran ourselves ragged to raise money for this great cause. You all should be incredibly proud of yourselves. We’re sadly in a time where the media–including the games press that’s supposed to advocate for us–are trying to paint gamers as hateful, selfish and exclusionary, largely to drive easy traffic and ad revenue to their dying web sites. This past weekend, a large, diverse group of us took this hobby we love and in unison, did something completely selfless with it. We showed that when united, gamers can do incredible, virtuous things. The next time the “enthusiast press” says you’re a bad person because you don’t share their politics, think of this and remember what gamers are really about. You all did immense good and you had fun doing it. What can be better in this world?

My girlfriend and I are only children from small families and we decided very early in our relationship that we probably don’t want to have kids. I’ve never really the bond with children that many people, even non-parents, do and it’s sometimes made me sad and frustrated how as my friends have families, that I’m “losing them” to that. Extra Life has given me a special connection to kids and helping them that I never thought I’d have and probably never would have had without this charity in my life. It’s something you can’t really quantify the value of until you experience it. I don’t think I’ll ever be a “kid person” and I still don’t think I want to have any of my own but I get the drive people have for kids more than I had and that enlightenment is something I am so grateful to have had happen.

I say without hyperbole that this past weekend was one of the most rewarding, gratifying experiences I’ve ever had and it’s because of Extra Life and the amazing people in this guild that I got to do it. I’ll remember that forever and it was an honour and a privilege to share this experience with you. You’re all rockstars and I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of this and to be doing it with all of you.

Let’s do it all again! November work for you?

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I’m Doing A Second Extra Life Event This Year!

WATCH LIVE STARTING SATURDAY, JUNE 4TH AT 7PM EST ON TWITCH AND YOUTUBE!
DONATE TO MY CAMPAIGN HERE!

The title says it all folks! The Ottawa Extra Life Guild is doing a second 24 hour Extra Life event this year! I wanted to talk about this sooner but it took a while to get things organised, plus I got sick for a week which derailed that for a bit. Don’t know what Extra Life is? Check here and get yourself some knowledge!

If you’re from Ottawa, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the CHEO Telethon, a massive local tradition where CTV Ottawa partners with CHEO to do on-air fundraising. The telethon has been running for years and has raised millions for CHEO and is a huge event in this city.

In recognition of the huge and growing impact Extra Life has for the hospital. CHEO has invited our guild to do a second 24 hour game day on the set of the telethon this year! Approximately 20-25 of us will have our own area on set where we’ll have several people streaming from PCs, a bunch of console players, a board gaming area and more. We’re also going to be doing a cheque presentation during the show for the almost $80,000 Extra Life raised for CHEO last year, as well as various short interview segments during the run of the broadcast. I’ll be doing at least one of these.

This event’s going to be a fair bit different from normal Extra Life in that the telethon runs from 7pm to 7pm, so it starts late and ends late. This is going to be much harder to calibrate my internal clock for and will probably be a tougher 24 hours but we’ve got a great group of people that will help make it easier.

As usual, I’ll be streaming the whole thing, both on YouTube at 1080p60 and on Twitch at 720p30. I normally have a theme with my Extra Life events but this one is simple: Attack the backlog. I’ve been so busy the last few months that I have a bunch of new releases that I’ve either barely touched or not touched at all. The Division, Fallout 4, XCOM 2, Total Warhammer, HITMAN, Dark Souls III, Overwatch, Uncharted 4, the list goes on and on. I plan to just play as much of these new games as I can and make as big a dent in the backlog as I can. I’m also hoping to be able to hook up a second headset so that some of the people on set with me can jump into the occasional local co-op game.

Most of these titles have online components as well and I want to play with you guys! Extra Life is always more fun when you can play with other people. Whether you just want to hang out and yak in the chat or coordinate some multiplayer action, it’s all good! I’ve also got Killing Floor 2 and Warhammer End Times: Vermintide which I haven’t played nearly enough of either. Let’s play stuff together and have fun!

I don’t have my stretch goals for this year’s campaign figured out yet but I’m still actively raising money already so if you have a few bucks you can chip in to help out sick kids, you can donate right here as always. 100% of your donation goes to CHEO and is tax deductible. The more we raise, the more stretch goals I’ll be committed to when I figure them out so donate early, donate often.

I hope a bunch of you are able to tune in and play stuff with me next weekend. This event is a huge deal for the Ottawa Extra Life Guild and we are so excited to make it a massive success so that CHEO will hopefully make our telethon presence a yearly thing going forward. Even if you can’t watch or donate, please just tell even one other person about it. The more people we get watching, the more awareness we raise and the bigger an impact we have and after all, that’s why we all do this.

Thanks for your support and I’ll see you next weekend on Twitch and YouTube!

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Why I’m Basically Done With Crowdfunding

Anyone who is reading this likely doesn’t need me to explain the epic rise of crowd funding that has happened in the last 5 years or so. An idea most people would have once laughed at, it’s now become not only a popular way for small and sometimes big projects to help get the funding they need, but also a very profitable industry for the handful of popular platforms that facilitate it. Beyond the most popular pioneer that is Kickstarter, we also now have spins on the pre-funding idea, including things like Steam Early Access, which allows you to buy into products that are within some stage of production and also Patreon, a site that allows you to fund individual creators on an ongoing basis, instead of individual projects. There has never been more ways for fans to contribute to projects they love that might not get made any other way and indeed, many think this is a golden age for independent artistic projects.

Yet, despite diving deep into this kind of funding model at its outset, I’ve decided that with the occasional exception, I’m basically done funding stuff this way. I’ll explain why but the crux of it boils down to one word: accountability.

Kickstarter doesn’t allow me to directly link to the page that shows the projects I’ve backed so here’s a PDF of it at time of writing. As you can see, I’ve put a lot of money into a lot of stuff, mostly video games but other things too. The checkmarks denote what projects have delivered and as you can see, the majority have. You might think I’ve got a pretty good track record backing successful projects and are wondering what my problem is. Well, it’s multi-part.

First, most of the projects that have not yet delivered and indeed, even most of the ones that have are extremely late. I’m not certain but I think there’s a good chance that literally nothing I’ve ever backed on Kickstarter has come out when the creators stated it would. Most projects that did ship were well over a year past due. A few undelivered ones in that list like Nekro, SpaceVenture and M.O.R.E. are over two years late, approaching three.

Second, many projects that did ship fell well short of my expectations and many others as well. Broken Age, Strike Suit Zero, Planetary Annihilation, Mercenary Kings, Video Games: The Movie, Carmageddon: Reincarnation, Starlight: Inception, Republique, TAKEDOWN: Red Sabre and the Idle Thumbs podcast all either didn’t live up to their stated promises or were just very disappointing. They’re all projects that had the funding and supposedly, the talent to do well and they all failed at it.

Last but not least, there’s the projects that have just plain died and run off with the money. I’m lucky in that compared to some, I’ve only backed a couple of these duds. Kate Mull’s Tingly Sensation ASMR documentary largely went dark a long time ago. There’s also been rumours that the lead developer of Nekro has shut down his studio before finishing the project and the Early Access version is no longer available on Steam. I didn’t lose much money on these but there have been some much larger profile flops, not to mention huge messes like the development of Broken Age or how Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women has still not delivered all its backer rewards, despite her still being buddy buddy with Kickstarter brass.

When it comes to Steam Early Access, one doesn’t have to look far to find the litany of disasters that have happened there, ranging from projects that either get abandoned (something even press favourite Double Fine is guilty of) to others that have spent years in the program with no end in sight to out and out scams. Like Kickstarter, there have been plenty of successes here too and I own a number of them but the problems are widespread and largely unaddressed.

In the case of Patreon, there are many great creators making great stuff on there but like many other platforms such as YouTube and Twitch, it’s biased heavily in favour of people who are already popular, as opposed to those who are new but also doing good work. It’s also been a hub for professional victims who produce nothing but faux and fake outrage and who essentially crowdfund their lives from the naive and gullible. This latter reason is why I’ve never had a Patreon account. There are people I would like to contribute to but not through a company that supports, fosters and profits off of professional victims while banning other valid projects like 8chan, which these people dislike. Their standards are unequal and unfairly applied to say the least.

Now, the first thing these services and their defenders will say is that any money you put into them is not an investment, that it’s buyer beware, don’t donate any money you aren’t prepared to lose etc etc. They’re totally right and I understood the risks when I backed every Kickstarter and bought every Early Access game. This isn’t sour grapes over money I lost on non-existent or disappointing projects, even though it is a lot of money. The reason I’ve largely decided to walk away from this model is that companies like Kickstarter, Valve and Patreon are using these excuses to profit without any responsibility and I think they’re all successful enough for that to no longer be a valid excuse.

Kickstarter and Patreon have made a big deal about how they’re modern tech startups that were able to get big with a minimum of external investment and debt. They’re lean and managed to get and stay profitable very fast. Indeed, to the business community, these are shining success stories. As for Valve, well c’mon, it’s Valve, they’ve been rolling in dough for years.

My issue is that they have rather ingeniously structured their business models around being financially successful off projects that both succeed and fail, regardless of the outcome to customers. Kickstarter, Patreon and Steam don’t produce anything, they’re merely middlemen who provide the tools to get funding from consumers to creators and in Valve’s case, to distribute as well. The former 2 take 5% of all pledges and donations, with Valve taking 30% of all sales made on Steam. The problem is that they get this up front and they have no incentive to provide anything beyond that.

If a Kickstarter project funds and the creators either under deliver or don’t deliver at all, Kickstarter’s stated policy is to wash their hands of the matter and leave it to backers to try to seek restitution. Their FAQ is laden with answers that dodge responsibility while also stating outright that they do keep their fees regardless. In the case of Steam, there are refunds but only for a limited time, far too limited for a project which may take a long time before running into trouble. Even when they directly help facilitate a project that fails or ends up being a scam, these companies simply trot out the “Caveat Emptor” excuse when customers lose their money, yet they themselves never do. Whether you get what the creator promised you or not, the companies always get to keep their piece. In the case of Patreon, at least it’s easy to stop contributing to someone but again, there’s no accountability for money they already received from you and didn’t use as promised.

It’s this fundamental lack of accountability on the part of these companies that has made me decide that crowdfunding in its current form is heavily biased against consumers and backers. These are all very profitable businesses who facilitate far more successful projects than failed ones. There is no reason they cannot have insurance or escrow funds that can help consumers get back at least part of their contributions in the event of a project either failing or especially, if it turns out to be a scam. At the very least, they should not be allowed to keep the proceeds from failed projects and if they can’t return them to backers, they should either be donated to charity or put towards some other cause that is not lining the pockets of shareholders. I cannot think of another legitimate business where it’s considered acceptable to profit off of failure. Projects can fail for myriad reasons, some perfectly valid, others not at all. Regardless of who was primarily at fault for the failure, if you profited in some way off the project, you should have some amount of culpability.

I’m not saying I’ve sworn off all crowdfunding forever. If there is a project I truly believe in and that comes from a creator with a proven track record, I may still back it if it’s necessary to make it happen. However, when I look at many of the projects I’ve backed, the truth is that most of them would have hit their target with or without me. I could have let others take the risk and if the end result was good quality, just bought it on release. Of course, if everyone thought that way, then this whole model would fall apart and nothing would get crowdfunded. The crowdfunding bubble certainly hasn’t burst yet but compared to its heyday, it’s certainly not the guaranteed path to funding it was once seeming to be. Too many people soured the milk for everyone else.

In theory, the object of any business is to serve consumers first and by doing so, that’s how they make profit. The crowdfunding industry has devilishly found a way to get their profit, regardless of whether or not they serve the best interest of consumers. That’s a terrible, unfair, devious way to run a business and it’s not one I want to participate in. Buyer Beware isn’t good enough any more. This industry is making piles of money for simply being in the middle and if they’re going to, they need to take their share of the responsibility when creators mess up. Maybe they’ll have to vet projects more closely. Maybe they’ll have to reduce the number of projects they let run at a given time. Or maybe, they’ll just have to factor in losses from the occasional failed project as a cost of doing business. Truth be told, I don’t think those losses would be enough to offset their successes but if so, I think that speaks more to the long-term soundness of their business model.

I don’t want to see crowdfunding go away. For all the drama and mishaps that have come from it, we’ve also gotten a ton of great, creative content that we likely would never have seen otherwise. I’m grateful to have all of that and want to see more of it get made. This is a fantastic way to fund something that involves your fans and which couldn’t have been done before. However, it requires accountability from all parties involved. Without it, the democratized nature of the idea gets tainted and soured. Until this industry accepts that its part of the process goes beyond just providing a web site, processing payments and distributing bits, I’m stepping out and I don’t think I’m alone in that sentiment. Don’t let this get ruined so early on, there’s too much good that can come from it.

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Introducing My New Interview Video Series: Behind the Games


Check out the first episode with Matt Roszak from Kupo Games!

When I started doing YouTube, one of my long-term dream goals was to do interviews with game developers. I not only love video games as a hobby but I love hearing about the craft, struggles and yes, even the business realities behind them. I think it’s valuable as an enthusiast of this medium to not only experience the games but also to learn about what goes into making them and the people that do so. Few things are more fascinating to me then hearing a creative person talk about their creativity.

It’s been a long time coming but I’m super stoked to announce Behind the Games, my new YouTube series devoted to doing exactly that!

My goal with this series is to make things informal and more like a friendly chat, flowing between topics as we go. Everything’s unscripted, aside from maybe a few notes of basic things to ask and there’s no set time limit. There are plenty of interview shows on YouTube but I always find more formal interviews to be a bit stuff and rigid. I think just allowing the creators to talk about whatever interests them with no pressure will bring out the most interesting stories and really let us get to know the person, not just their business. I’ve been trying to get this series started for a while but when you’re an unknown YouTuber and don’t have an episode to show off your format, people are understandably leery to be the guinea pig. Thankfully, I found an awesome developer who was gracious enough to take a chance on me.

My first episode is with Matt Roszak from Kupo Games, sole creator of the Epic Battle Fantasy and Bullet Heaven series, among other titles. I had not heard of Kupo Games before getting a review code for Bullet Heaven 2 last year, a game I think very highly of. I then discovered that Matt has an impressive body of work, starting largely in the Flash space and has carved out a very interesting niche for himself at a young age. It was the first on-camera interview for both of us and while that maybe shows through a bit, I think we had a great conversation about a whole bunch of stuff and I learned a lot about him and his history in game development. Matt was a fantastic first guest and I can’t thank him enough for agreeing to start this series with me. You can see footage of some of his games in the video but seriously, they’re all free to play anyway so if you think you’d have any interest, you should check them out.

I have a bunch of other developers I’d love the chance to chat with and I’m hoping having this first episode out in the world will make that easier. Like all my series, this isn’t going to be on a set schedule and new episodes will come out when I’m able to get new guests. I’d like to talk to almost anyone and everyone who makes games, whether from a small team or a big one but I’ve got a few ideas for who I’d like to approach next and it’s mostly indie developers.

Please feel free to drop a comment on the video with any feedback you have. As long as it’s constructive, I’m happy to hear it. This being the first one of these I’ve done, I’ve already noted things I can improve and they’ll only get better with time. My first YouTube videos make me cringe compared to my newer ones but that shows me that with a good effort, things always get better.

Most importantly, if you like this stuff, please help spread word by posting it on Reddit, forums, social media, anywhere you think it would interest people. Nothing makes it easier to get more guests than high views.

I’m super excited to launch this series. It’s been a dream of mine for the nearly three years(?!) I’ve been doing YouTube and with your help, it can become a regular staple of the channel. Give it a watch and let me know what you think! Thank you again to Matt from Kupo Games, it was a pleasure talking to you and I hope I can again soon.

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