Second Glance: Investigating the Creation and Failure of Damnation with Lead Designer Jacob Minkoff


 This article was originally a feature on Gamesbeat.com

The steampunk shooter Damnation was met with unanimous derision upon its release in 2009 and then disappeared, going out as one of the worst critically received games for a decade.
The product of first-time developer Blue Omega Entertainment, Damnation was to be a revolutionary combination of fast and hard gunplay, vehicular combat and traversal, and a sprawling, organic level design. Its story would sidestep clich├ęs by reimagining the American Civil War as a conflict driven by steam, not gunpowder — where airships, mechs, and giant tanks were common sights. History and fantasy would collide in a maelstrom of bullets, acrobatics, and heroism, resulting in a game quite unlike anything that had come before it.

The team realized almost everything it set out to achieve though often in only the most tenuous of ways. The game was universally criticized as being awkward and stilted, visually bland, incoherent, and half-finished. I spoke to lead designer Jacob Minkoff to discover why Damnation showed so much promise but failed to deliver on all but the most basic levels.

“Games are, I firmly believe, the hardest possible type of media one can work in,” Minkoff told me on a cold November morning. “There’s a formula to making a good story, and every time you watch a film, it plays out the same way. But there is no formula to making fun.”

Indeed, even the most linear of games are a collection of systems that all play important roles, where the failures of one often hinder the others. Damnation was not meant to be a simple linear game, though. Jacob’s design documents peg it as the “next step in the evolution of the shooter.” Damnation was intended to be something very special.

The game germinated from a hybrid first/third-person action game entered into the first Make Something Unreal competition in 2004. While it didn’t win, production continued with a full retail release as the ultimate goal. Aspirations were high among the team, and its plans for the game were lofty. Its ace up the sleeve was to be its gigantic levels. Rather than follow generally accepted design conventions and create locales from smaller, more self-contained segments, the team wanted Damnation’s locations to be huge and open so that players could clearly see where they had come from and where they were headed. Claims that the player would be able to see “three hours of gameplay stretching out before and behind them” are astounding in their audacity, especially at a time when shooters were still dragging players through courtyards connected by hallways and corridors.

“Before and behind” didn’t just mean horizontally, either, as many of Damnation’s locations would also open up vertical space to the player. Buildings and terrain were to be more than window dressings; they were important tactical tools that the innovative player could use to his advantage. A rooftop could provide the perfect vantage point for players until the advanced enemy A.I. spotted them and began flanking maneuvers. Suddenly, this advantage would become nothing more than a place of momentary respite until the player was forced to run for his life, leaping through gunfire to an adjacent window, across the fifth floor of a building, and then down to the street via a flagpole.

Blue Omega was aiming high with Damnation. It wanted to create huge battlefields that player and adversary alike could traverse any way they saw fit. It was seeking to create both organic locations and enemies, throw the player into the mix, and watch the emergent gameplay spiral out of control in the most fantastic of ways. Things eventually did spiral, though no one, especially the player, benefited in the least.


“When we started, we just didn’t consider the possibility that we could fail,” said Minkoff, rationalizing his team’s high expectations. “Please note that I say that with a certain amount of pride. There is no room for self doubt in the creation of any great work.”

He does, however, concede that “Damnation was a product of a green team that didn’t really know what they were doing. It was my first professional game development project; the same was true of many members of the core team.”

It seems that Blue Omega’s hefty aspirations, some of which bordered on the ridiculous, were born out of inexperience rather than any tested and proven knowledge. With this in mind, sound bites like “hundreds of animation per character” and “the most detailed A.I. routines yet seen” cease sounding like possibly attainable goals and become hyperbolic and fantastical.

The eagerness of the team also led them to overlook the huge challenge set by the new console hardware they were developing for. “We were on the cusp of a new generation, and we learned lessons that have since become common knowledge in game development,” said Minkoff.

In trying to expand upon Damnation so dramatically while working with new hardware, Blue Omega tried to accomplish too much too soon. “Making a sprawling — theoretically — triple-A game on console and PC was simply too much for us to handle,” said Minkoff.

This problem was only exacerbated by the decision to outsource large portions of the game and maintain an uncommonly small in-house team. The strategy was originally intended to afford this core team the greatest level of flexibility and allow it to adapt throughout development. As Minkoff revealed, this simply was not the case in practice.

“Outsourcing was a problem,” he said. “You need the time, experience, and budget to turn on a dime — to throw out what you’ve made and try something else quickly, and within constraints. We did not have the resources or knowledge to do that at Blue Omega.”

This inflexibility, caused by inexperience and outsourcing, led to the game’s woefully protracted development cycle. Few games command four years to make, and when they do finally see release, it’s usually justified with high levels of polish and production value. This was the opposite for Damnation. The longer it stayed in development, the more out of touch and less impressive it became. Level architecture, A.I., textures, animations, movement, physics, audio mixing, sound effects, dialogue, cutscenes, acting, weapons, and general common sense all had their merits eroded over the years it took Damnation to gestate.

“The most detailed A.I. routines yet seen” devolved into enemies standing in place until the player came within twenty feet and activated them. Considering levels were hundreds of feet long, wide, and often high, this left a huge margin for error. Entire enemy encounters could be circumvented with only a sniper rifle and steady aim as foes were picked off one at a time, all elements of challenge, tension, or believability falling away to reveal Damnation’s hollow interior. This is not simply me being cruel — every mechanic, design decision, and art asset suffers the same terrible, crushing, worst-case-scenario fate. Nothing holds up as it should.

             
While the game showed so much promise and its team so much enthusiasm, its ultimate downfall was to be sealed by forces that cared little for either. “In the end, you usually run out of time or money,” said Minkoff. “With Damnation, we ran out of both. One of the primary reasons why you see so much architectural reuse is because it was cheaper to pay for a retexture than all new geometry. It also took less time to do so, giving us more hope of us meeting our release date.”

I find it terribly sad that Damnation was a failure. The aspirations of the team were noble and can still be seen peeking through the murk at times. While far from the organic lived-in locations they were intended to be, the levels are still undeniably impressive. Towering cliffs, precarious buildings, and death-defying leaps all do exist; they are simply not attractive, inspiring, or mechanically fluid enough to be awe-inspiring. The A.I. is terrible though it sometimes shows hints of how good the game could have been had the enemies been more intelligent. The aforementioned architecture reuse really hurts what could have been strikingly diverse locations, but the game is still varied enough to be bearable.

That is what I find so frustrating with Damnation. It could have been a great game had the team been more experienced, focused, and time-efficient. Minkoff sees the silver lining: “Many games never ship at all because the investment to make the game simply pass console certification would be prohibitive. That it shipped at all is a triumph for Damnation’s team.”

His positivity likely emanates from where Damnation took him next and where he was able to take its fundamental concepts. After the game’s completion, Minkoff moved to Naughty Dog and designed some of the most memorable sections of the Uncharted sequels. There, he was finally able to realize his ambitions for Damnation thanks to an experienced team and appropriate resources.

That the similar yet vastly superior first Uncharted game was in development at the same time as Damnation and saw release two years earlier to critical acclaim is an irony that is not lost on Minkoff. Instead of wallowing in the past, however, he is looking toward the future and building upon his first game’s auspicious past.

“Everyone has to learn somewhere,” he said. “I learned on Damnation.”

Ghettoisation in Videogame Communities


I think blaming the aggressive and offensive minority within the gaming community can only get us so far. Yes, these people bring shame on the medium and it is terrible. Things are said that have no place in any form of group entertainment, though I truthfully doubt this will ever cease completely. Diminish, I hope so, but disappear, not a chance. Competition breeds aggression; we see this at sports games where violence, racism and intolerance still conspicuously occur. The perpetrators of these hate crimes are often identified and dealt with by the legal system, a consequence sorely missing from games and the internet on the whole.

The removal of repercussions, I feel, is the single biggest factor that allows these abhorrent practices to continue at such a level. If the anonymity were removed, even without consequences, I think we’d see a dramatic decrease in offensive chatter. Br0heim69 might reconsider calling Al3xVanc3 an ‘undesirable woman of the night who should perform fellatio on me now’ in the spur of the moment if he knew that everyone could see or hear it as; Leigh Harrison (lives in London, aged 23) called Stephanie Walker (lives in Birmingham, aged 29) an ‘undesirable woman of the night who should perform fellatio on me now’. Take that one step further and log, at a system level, everything typed and spoken by the player in a game. Have these records available when grievances are raised and use them as evidence against offenders. Lists of online handles are useless unless they are attached to something more tangible and meaningful; the people behind them. This would be more difficult to adapt outside of the closed, console realm but it would be a start.

         

This is only part of the problem, however. These people do tarnish the rest of the game playing community, though I think an equally large part of the issue is not with the people who play games but the people who don’t. They are, in many ways, often as dismissive as Mr. Sexism or Mrs. Racism are in Halo, if significantly less offensive. Some don’t understand games or the people who play them and often simply don’t want to. Games are becoming more widely accepted as a legitimate cultural endeavour but they are still considered a minority art form and dismissed by many. The problem with any minority is that if successful integration doesn’t occur ghettoisation will often take hold. Communities become even more insular as lines of communication break down with those around them. Customs and traditions become more important to the community in placing themselves within the wider world and cease to simply differentiate them as a group and instead begin to define them.

We see this behaviour in many of the most competitive genres of games. The concept of ‘paying one’s dues’ before you are truly accepted into a community created around an entertainment product is completely ridiculous, though this clearly occurs. We saw this mentality of ‘otherness’ earlier in the year with Aris Bakhtanians’ comments regarding the fighting game community. A figurehead of the scene for over a decade, he understandably offended many when he defended the use of questionable language and behaviour; “[the] racial stuff and sexist stuff... those are jokes and if you were really a member of the fighting game community, you would know that.” This aptly addresses the underlying psychology of a ghettoised community. Cultures and practices are held as defining traits that an outsider ‘simply wouldn’t understand’. They have come to symbolise what sets this community apart from those around it, regardless of their propriety within the wider community.

As these customs become more entrenched within a segregated community their importance intensifies. Bakhtanians later discussed, in his apology, his fear of the homogenisation of what he sees as fighting game traditions through the implementation of more ordered, controlled professional leagues. “[These] leagues ... have intent to censor the community to make it more accessible. I think the sink or swim mentality is something that defined our culture, and if that succeeds it removes something which has been important to help create some of the best fighting game players of our time.” Again, we see the active distancing of the marginalised and, interestingly, the affirmation that the customs not only hold up the community but now also shape the individual members therein.

This apology is no such thing; it is instead the self-imposed segregate attempting to rationalise his hateful conduct as legitimate cultural signifiers. His cherished fighting game community was never recognised by wider society and so closed its doors, doubling down on aspects of the culture in an attempt to justify its ‘otherness’. It is this that I was driving at earlier; cultural misunderstanding begets more cultural misunderstanding.



While games are still widely considered culturally inferior we will never be without social extremism. The overused stereotypes associated with people who enjoy games won’t go away as long as people like Bakhtanians are still around proving them to be accurate. He and his ilk are hopefully already experiencing their twilight years. Just as social, cultural and religious barriers can break down over generations, so too can those separating games from other widely enjoyed cultural commodities. The ghettoised communities, the self-styled ‘keepers of heritage’ don’t help this transition, though I think they will ultimately fall by the wayside. In them we can see how isolation leads to self-imposed isolation and hopefully recognise that this does not make us stronger as a common community built around a shared passion. We will be part of a minority culture for a little while longer, it is up to us what state our community is in when the rest of the world is ready come and find us.    

Silent Hill: Revelation Highlights the Ongoing Problems of the Series


This article was originally a feature on Bitmob.com 

Silent Hill: Revelation appears to have little understanding of what made its source material compelling enough to warrant a cinematic adaptation in the first place.

While the first film was far from perfect, it at least captured the forlorn isolation that pervades the best entries in the series. These games tormented players with haunting sights and, more effectively, sounds, to create locations steeped in atmosphere that were deeply unsettling. For a time.

The first two games are widely recognized as landmark titles -- both within the horror genre and video games as a medium. They both feature broken, guilt-ridden protagonists descending through a hell of their own design, populated by antagonistic manifestations of their deepest fears.

Failings and inadequacies are turned back on these characters as they are forced to physically assault their own inner turmoil. The forlorn nature of the lonely, often completely empty town collides with hints of visceral terror, and then all falls quiet again. This silence, though, was often more unsettling than the violence that punctuated it.

The first film captured this atmosphere admirably. The streets of Silent Hill still seemed confusing and dangerous even though we were now viewers and not participants. The slowly building tension was present; anything could be hiding in the fog, though this time I couldn’t simply run away from what I found. After the sharp shocks, we were always returned to the streets, to the heart of Silent Hill’s power over both player and viewer.

That film ultimately falls apart once it forgets this, as atmosphere is thrown out in favor of confrontations with sexy nurses and Pyramid Head. Both are signifiers from the games but, crucially, each is devoid of context here. It was the intrinsic link between a character and their tormentors that made the first two games so frightening. The thought that Silent Hill could delve deep within an individual, find their dirtiest fantasies and most shameful secrets, and then make the character confront them is horrific.

Murderous, disfigured medical practitioners are scary, but knowing that they exist as an explicit result of the player character’s sexual preoccupations is infinitely more disturbing. That the character is forced to dispatch their own fears makes the first games, especially Silent Hill 2, uniquely intimate horror experiences.

       Silent Hill 3

Silent Hill 3 is where things began to slip. The original game featured enemies created from the subconscious of both the protagonist and antagonist, and since SH3 was a direct sequel, it was duty bound to do the same. This diluted the personal torment that was so effective in SH2 and pared back the emotional resonance seen in that game. What remains are manifestations that are less focused and ultimately less rewarding to interact with, appearing more carnival sideshow than charnel house torment.

Aspects of the previous games collide with one another at this point and galvanize the direction of the series thereafter. Silent Hill 3 ushers in the end of disparate tales being told to the backdrop of the town and instead the story of the town itself becomes the series’ prominent focus.

The games after Silent Hill 3 attempt to weave increasingly complex and contrived plots that somehow link the protagonist to the town, its past, and inhabitants. Silent Hill ceased to exist as a purgatory for lost souls to confront themselves in. Later games busy themselves with filling in parts of the town’s history and the events in and around the first and third entries which have, over time, become the main focus of the series’ mythology. Cults, evil deities, Immaculate Conception, and sacrifices take over where the series, after SH2, should have continued its exploration of self-destruction, depression, and psychosis.


In following the plot of the third game, Silent Hill: Revelation is doomed to wallow in the needless torrents of ancillary information necessary for it to be coherent. While the first game -- and by extension, film -- were steeped in the aforementioned mystic trappings, they were kept at a more manageable level. By deciding to continue with this previously resolved conflict, the sequels become intrinsically linked to hokey conspiracies and outplayed cultish nonsense.

The mystery that once made Silent Hill such a compelling and frightening place was stripped away by increasingly heavy handed applications of history and exposition. Both game and film feature long, utterly needless, monologues explaining exactly why Silent Hill has become such a cursed place. Built on an ancient Indian burial ground? Really?

The film commits another disservice to the series by homogenizing its antagonists even more than its forebear. While this had begun to some extent in the games by Silent Hill 3, Revelation throws away any sense of propriety when it comes to monsters. Nurses and Pyramid Head, as I said earlier, have become the defacto figureheads for the entire series and appear to be obligatory inclusions at this point.

The rest of the cast of creatures, however, appear to have been designed with only the loosest of connection to either the lead characters or the traditions of the series. A single Lying Creature, a spider mannequin, a naked Nemesis lookalike, and a Carrie Anne Moss Cenobite. The designs are incongruous and belittle the notion of one’s fears made flesh. They show that Revelation, more so than even the original film, is simply an excuse to throw together mildly shocking scenes of violence with opportunistic jump scares and call it a day.
The first two Silent Hill games displayed commendable levels of reverence to the worlds and differing mythologies they existed in and around. After that, the series lost its way as it expanded needlessly upon these very foundations and attempted to rationalize the mystery through hackneyed plot contrivances. SH2 is so effective at unsettling the player precisely because they have very little grasp of what is and is not real around them.

Revelation’s biggest failure is that it continues to commit the sins of the father. Disparate aspects of almost every game in the series thus far are thrown together with little care for the source material. The film is cinematic reconstituted meat ... different parts of the series melted down and squeezed together to create something that resembles the original but could never be mistaken for it. The biggest shame here is that the same, too, can be said of almost every entry in the series over the past decade*.

Oh, and there aren’t any revelations in Silent Hill: Revelation. Not one.

*Shattered Memories was a bold and fantastically realized psychological thriller, and I really like it.

Public Investment in Video Games is Dangerously Similar to Lending Money to a Friend


With friends like these…

Early November saw the unlikely continuation of a long running saga as another, less surprising one, entered its dark middle chapter. Earlier this year 38 Studios, founded by baseball player Curt Schilling, folded only a few months after the release of its first game, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. At the time the studio was also still in production of an MMO tentatively titled Copernicus. In 2010 38 Studios agreed a $75 million loan from the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation (EDC) to “relocate to Rhode Island, complete production of […] Copernicus, and to capitalize the company’s growth and expansion in Rhode Island.” In short, the State of Rhode Island would fund the remainder of development, presumably with the intention of creating jobs and ultimately reaping the financial benefits associated with a community of successful professionals in the form of tax revenue. This, evidently, did not play out the way any of the parties involved would have liked.

A couple of weeks ago I stopped renting with friends. Over five years have passed since I first partook in this practice, partly because I was a student then and you just don’t live alone but mainly because I couldn’t afford any other option. Apart from my first year of university I’ve been pretty good with managing my cash flow; the same can’t always be said for my cohabitants. There has been a few times where I have found myself lending friends money, always with the proviso that it is paid back promptly, so they can make their rent or bills. The sums aren’t huge, a couple of hundred here and there, and I trust these people. What harm can helping someone out really do?

I find worrying parallels between this and EDC vs. 38 Studios. I sought no financial gain from my transactions, granted, but the general though behind these decisions are very similar; lend someone some money to continue making a living. If my friends default on rent and bills they eventually lose their home and job, likewise, 38 runs out of money and everyone, eventually, loses their job.

            

The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men

The accusations made by the EDC are plentiful; I will attempt to summarise. 38 Studios, its lawyers, numerous advisory bodies and selected employees of the EDC knew or should have known that not all of the $75m loan would reach the coffers of the developer after fees, safeguards and extraneous costs were deducted. The actual amount was much lower at around $50m, though the projections for Copernicus’ completion supplied to the EDC were all based on a full $75m investment. The projections also didn’t take into account any of the cost of moving the company from Massachusetts to Rhode Island. This, according to the EDC’s allegations, was projected to run to $5m but eventually cost over double that initial figure. Furthermore, projections didn’t take into account annual repayments on the loan that would total $1.125m. Taking all of these unaccounted costs into consideration the EDC concludes, that “38 Studios’ own financial projections showed that the company would run out of cash in 2012 and actually have a negative cash flow in 2012 of $8,868,987. Even excluding [conservative] relocation expenses, that cash flow would be negative $3,868,987.”

I am reminded of the time my more financially soluble housemate and I sat across from the stony faced recipient of our aid. “Make sure you take enough to pay off all your debts” I said, “it’s no use taking too little and ending up behind again in a month’s time.” While this may sound unflinchingly selfless it was also an act of pragmatism. I am often too nice for my own good while my co-financier, on the other hand, is a hard man when pressed. We both saw the need to rectify our friend’s financial shortfall, though he only the once. It was my role to bring the disparate parties together for the good of the whole; thus I found the words “take more money from us it helps” falling from my mouth.

38 studios weren’t in the enviable position that my friend found himself in. They and others who brokered the deal were, if the EDC’s allegations are to be believed, fully aware of the loan’s funding shortfall yet sought to use it as a means to secure further investment. An email selected by the EDC from Mark C. Lamarre of placement agent Wells Fargo to Jennifer MacLean, CEO of 38 Studios, is purported to prove this accusation. “The email notes the “[o]bvious but important conclusion is that completing the EDC low-cost financing adds material value to current shareholders [primarily Schilling] . . . .” Lamarre was thereby recommending that 38 Studios accept the loan from the EDC even with the shortfall. Lamarre’s email also states that “[w]e have discussed with you the benefits of ‘safety’ in raising equity near-term versus not doing so.” Lamarre was referring to the fact that trying to raise equity in the near term was safer than waiting until the funds received from the EDC were exhausted before raising additional funds.”
This, if proved to be true, goes a long way to explaining why vital financial figures were so misleading. It appears 38 were convinced Copernicus could attract further investment deeper into development and took the EDC loan to tide them over until that occurred. It had struggled up until then to secure anything meaningful and the loan would buy them significant development time to improve their offering to other investors. Furthermore it, and less importantly Reckoning, would be sizeable successes, injecting more capital into the studio within two years. All of these factors feature within the claims made by the EDC, along with the consequences of events playing out differently.

                       

Things falling apart

It appears that 38’s blind conviction is to be blamed where the EDC is concerned. The management’s biggest mistake was their unwavering belief in a product. Curt Schilling wanted to make an MMO regardless of the business sense that made for a first time developer and the huge financial implications of its failure. While any creative industry needs driven individuals who are unafraid of challenges, those same people need to operate within both the realms of financial responsibility and, more crucially, the law. However, while Schilling’s name is indeed mentioned within the claims, others are referenced conspicuously more often. The various financial advisory companies, and individuals directly linked to investment and capital generation, are present heavily throughout. Wells Fargo, for instance, allegedly obtained an extra $500,000 payment in undisclosed fees. Parties under the employ of the EDC itself sought to disregard evidence from a prominent RI political figure that discredited and even directly warned against the loan. Various testimonials were altered to be more favourable toward the deal and its approval. All of the above counts are simply the accusations of the EDC at this point; none have been answered by the defendants yet. If proved true, though, they paint a picture where the naivety of Schilling was thoroughly taken advantage of in the name of personal gain. While it is he who has borne the brunt of criticism from within the gaming community, the court papers point more certainly at the brokers of the failed investment. Whether he was party to the doctored projections to simply facilitate the continuation of work on Copernicus, or for more insidious motives, we cannot be sure yet. What is clear is that the deal, and the period thereafter, was littered with bad decisions, ones which ultimately cost good people their jobs.

My friend was lucky enough to never lose his job, though like 38 Studios his financial shortcomings certainly cost him dearly. The money he was lent, the sum that was supposed to make him solvent, was repaid in due course and all was well for a time. A couple of weeks later bills started to be paid late and eventually months would pass between me receiving remuneration for my paying of them. Words were exchanged and promises were made, though their impact was lessened the more times they were uttered. The final indignity came on the morning we moved out and he assured the rest of the house his rent arrears were all paid off. That payment, like many of his rent cheques it transpired, had been late by over a month, though now everything had been “taken care of.” He moved back in with his parents and we learned later that so had his money.

                    

A matter of trust

For all the accusations that make up the EDC’s ninety four page document, everything boils down to a couple of lines near the end. They simply, and understandably, sought that 38 and the other defendants would show “due regard to the interests of the EDC” and “refrain from abusing [its] confidence by obtaining any advantage for themselves or any third party” and to, ultimately, “be loyal to the EDC.” These three simple assumptions not only encapsulate the entire case but also highlight how these events came to pass in the first place.

I trusted my friend until the very end, lending him money and letting him skip responsibilities because I trusted that he would eventually make good. I wanted to see the best for him and in being so lenient couldhave simply made matters worse. He didn’t have to manage his money strictly because if he ran out I would help him. I saw him as a victim of circumstance, he, I now feel, saw me as a soft touch who couldn’t say no. If the allegations are proven to be accurate, it will be clear that the EDC took everyone involved at their word and ended up in much the same place as I did. If information is withheld, whether it be a friend overspending every month or a $25m funding deficit, the financer behind any deal will be oblivious of the terrible choices they are making.

Video games are a very unpredictable investment prospect for anyone, let alone a group of volunteers acting almost entirely on good faith. It is doubtful the outcome of the case will satisfy most of the parties involved and almost certainly be of little solace to the former employees of 38 studios. What should be gained from this is the knowledge that financial backing for video games simply can’t come from bodies representing the public interest at this point in time. The sums of money involved are too large, the decision makers too removed from the industry and the risk of failure too perilously real. The EDC almost certainly set out with good intention for both Rhode Island and 38 Studios. Sadly, good intentions can only get you so far.

Xbox Live for Windows Phone is great. Unless you like playing compelling games


“Batman has the Lumia 900” said Shauna the sales assistant “its Batman’s phone”. “What will he do if I buy it then?” I asked churlishly “surely I’d get in the way of, nay hinder, his important work?” “It has the logo on the back, that’s all”. “Then I definitely don’t want it” I said “I imagined Batman would have a more exciting phone, I’ll just take the regular one please.” This was how my adventure with a Windows Phone began. How I embarked down a road I, and seemingly very few people, had travelled before. A journey that was set to be thrilling and fascinating in equal parts; one that would almost certainly be as full of games as it was excitement and the unknown. It had Xbox Live on it after all.

The thought of seeing my avatar on my phone whenever I wanted set my heart a flutter. Being able to pour over all of my achievements and show them to my friends in real life also appealed to me tremendously. There had been countless social occasions where I had been just dying to show off my gaming prowess to new acquaintances, though without the evidence I had declined lest I be labelled a fraud. With my Live profile in hand I would no longer be that guy in the corner at parties, no, I would be centre stage, basking in the adoration I would inevitably receive, chest bursting with pride being flanked by beautiful and envious people. The Windows Phone had already completed me and I had yet to play a single game.

Minesweeper. That perennial of any true gamer’s collection was my first foray into post-millennial mobile entertainment. Not only had it seen a stunningly minimalist graphical update, think the beautiful offspring of Lumines and Picross, but it had also been gifted with achievements. Modern games are, after all, less about playing the game in hand and more about playing the game of playing the game; the meta game as it is often called. Achievements are awarded for completing challenges in Minesweeper, such as playing a single game of it, and the player is then awarded points for being a diligent participant. The more Minesweeper one plays the more points can be earned and so the actual act of playing became secondary to my quest for more points. Being able to earn achievements while away from my Xbox was a revelation, it didn’t matter that what I was playing was as old as time or that the game clock was hugely obtrusive; I was levelling up and the progress was comforting.

Knowing that I didn’t actually have to actually like the games that I played was tremendously liberating. I commute almost every day but having to worry about quality could easily have eaten into my playing time. Instead, all I had to do was look for Live certified games to know that my enjoyment was guaranteed, however tangential that enjoyment proved to be.  The breadth of titles and mechanics was astounding. There was a game where you had to roll things across platforms into holes. Great. Another where platforms had to be moved to get something into a hole, this one looked a bit like Limbo to boot. Even better. I found another where you have to direct oil with platforms to get it from one hole to the next. Shrieks of “Holy diversity, Batman”, or something along those lines, have been heard echoing around the Batcave recently, I’m sure.

                

Cavities aren’t the only preoccupation of Windows Phone games though, oh no. Not every title was comfortable exploring the dark recesses of the human psyche, some aimed for levity, reminding me of the unbridled joy to be found in unpretentious entertainment. Tiki Towers tasked me with building platforms out of bamboo and coconuts (how delightfully quaint), so cheeky monkeys could reach deliciously ripe bananas floating in the air. It mattered not that the game featured little to no bona fide Tiki sculpture; its charm was down right infectious. Besides, Monkey Mechanics or Banana and Bamboo Building don’t really convey the same breezy personality.

Similarly, while I cannot fault the noble intentions of the developer, growing monkey malnutrition is a real issue that needs more exposure, the limitations of a small touch screen interface cannot be ignored, however minor their impact upon my enjoyment. The titular towers are constructed by dragging bamboo trusses with a finger. This functions admirably when building simple structures but becomes imprecise when the monkeys demand more complex assistance. Adding to a tower can often end in precarious results as unsafe appendages are constructed accidentally, rather than the sturdy Babel-esque monument of intention. I found myself spending vital time deconstructing and rebuilding unforeseen errors while my monkeys withered and died. One particularly fateful level saw five generations of the same family expire, 37 monkeys in total, and led me to cease playing forever. While Tiki Towers was outwardly frivolous it carried with it an important message; mobile games are often unsuited to their platform, though if players are bribed with achievement points they will often persevere for longer than they otherwise would have.

As a side note; my final and most meaningful gripe is that the game features imagery resembling the Statue of Liberty from Planet of the Apes. Tiki Towers clearly features monkeys, simians that are not featured in the film or any of its sequels. As such, this anachronism is an unforgivable and lazy way of repurposing a well known cultural image.

             

After putting up with less than stellar titles for the sake of vapid showboating I decided to run an experiment. My hypothesis was thus; Microsoft happily grants Live status to, in my opinion, sub par games therefore independent efforts must be even less worthy of my attention. Most of my findings vindicated my initial thoughts, especially one game where I had to burrow a tractor underground in search of watches and rocks. The premise and goals were arbitrary and silly but it was the unresponsive controls that killed the experience. Movement was floaty and imprecise and led me to ditch my tractor underground and dig myself out by hand. As it happens I came across a couple of old Timex jobbies and sold them for a tidy profit, so the endeavour was not a complete loss.

I reinvested these precious pennies into what emerged as my overall, and possibly only, winner in this quest to uncover a Legitimately Compelling Windows Phone Game. CastleMine is not thematically ambitions, nor is it mechanically diverse. It is, however, singular in its game play intentions, focused and incredibly well suited to a small screen. It is a tower defence game with hints of Dungeon Keeper and a surprisingly robust skill progression system. Instead of playing out on either a set path or blank canvas, players must dig a single tunnel into a play area measuring only five squares across. As the tunnel extends downwards it unleashes waves of enemies that must be dispatched with the player’s fortifications. These weapons can be upgraded and assisted by buff towers that grant bonuses and improve chances of survival. At the end of each level the player gains experience based on their success, allowing them to invest in permanent upgrades to towers, resource collection, survivability and a number of other ancillary abilities.

                                   

While nothing CastleMine offers sounds particularly inspired on paper, its solid execution and well managed difficulty curve made it my go to title whenever I was out. The upgrade system provides a tangible reason to continue playing what is a relatively repetitive style of game, without resorting to introducing new features every couple of levels as so many mobile games do. Unlike the Live achievements which value perseverance over any real skill, CastleMine rewards players for their successes with a means to further improve their game, not simple trinkets. The game also embraces the touch screen fully and works to both its strengths and weaknesses, eliminating the need for precise or speedy inputs and allowing the player to feel in control at all times. It is for these reasons that I appreciate it and have spent countless hours on the train enjoying its simple yet refined mechanics.

There still aren’t many truly good mobile games available. There are even less on Windows Phone. Microsoft appears to have missed the point in putting Xbox Live into a mobile phone. Yes, I can access my profile, achievements, messages and all that other stuff I never use when I’m sat at home, what I can’t do is play many good games, the one thing I most closely associate with the Xbox brand. Developing for a touch screen needs arguably more thought than developing for a controller. Input needs to be simple and responsive and this should be reflected within the mechanics of a title. Building a tower so a monkey can reach a banana is a great (?) pitch for a game until the finished product mechanically prevents me from easily accomplishing the simple goal. Giving me five achievement points won’t divert my attention away from bad controls, but it might in time spoil my confidence in Microsoft’s attempts at quality control. Windows Phone gaming is largely a ghetto at the moment. Good curation and promotion on merit, rather than publisher ties, is the best way to improve the social standing of the service, not sugar-coating the creative poverty like a bad politician.

Have I No Time for Games?


Borderlands had a shiny slipcase; that is why I bought it. I never intended on doing so but the insignificant yet alluring cardboard had me. It also perfectly encapsulates my now far removed opinion of the game. It is fluff, attractive fluff yes, but it will always remain an insubstantial experience, one fuelled by blind and compulsive greed masquerading behind pithy humour and shiny things. An almost perfect metaphor for the video games industry in general? Most likely, but it also proved to be one of my favourite games of 2009, shortly behind Flower, which is obviously the greatest gaming experience of all time.

I don’t consider calling it shallow to be at all a criticism. In terms of shooting mechanics it strikes the almost perfect balance of being challenging and constantly enjoyable. Shooting things in Borderlands is a joy and it stands beside Doom and Quake 2 in my upper echelon purely joy-filled shooting games. That, however, sets a precedent; the core game play of Borderlands is highly reminiscent of that of a by-gone era. Doom was released sixteen years prior, yet the two fundamentally play almost identically. Priority is given to dispatching enemies with little aid from modern cover use, reflexes are rewarded and skilful aiming is a necessity. Shallow, then, is maybe the wrong word to use; pure may be more apt.

While the shooting in Borderlands had me from the outset it was the, admittedly limited, role-playing aspects which made me persevere. The well-documented lust for a slightly better weapon or shield had me playing daily in an attempt to gather a more substantial arsenal. The random nature of the loot was a source of both compulsion and frustration. One evening I would fully upgrade my equipment only to spend the next week using it ad nauseam, constantly striving for that elusive upgrade. Levelling promised progression that would make everything more productive, though each character bonus was never strong enough to make me unstoppable. Individual level progression began to stretch out across multiple evenings; the more hours I sank into the game the less productive my time was. The second almost perfect metaphor from the game, this time about the curse of addiction? Undoubtedly.

I was truly hooked by Borderlands. I played it solo and exhausted every quest before the finale, fully aware that I would inevitably begin a new game plus upon its completion.  That inclination proved misguided; I barely played it again. My will was shattered and I no longer lusted after incremental weapon upgrades. I played the zombie-themed content, though was dismayed by its awkward level design and ended our unhealthy relationship there. Freed from the game’s cruel greed I retired it, along with its attractive facade, to the shelf, thankful that I had escaped its insidious grasp.

After being ‘on the wagon’ ever since I was intrigued by the prospect of a sequel. The Borderlands period of my life contained enough time to allow long games to take their hold. Fallout 3 entertained me for over a hundred hours, though New Vegas stalled at a third of that. Having less time meant I was unable to commit to such protracted games; I don’t like spending my handful of hours a week on a game if it will take me months to fully enjoy. I was a student in 2009 and so had significantly more time to devote to games. Three years later I now have a meaningful job, a long-term partner and a gym membership. All of these things inevitably eat up large swathes of my time, though I still enjoy playing games.
          
Borderlands 2, then, is everything I can’t appreciate in a game anymore, yet still wish I could. It seems to be very long. I have only played around ten hours so far, though it took up a Saturday and Sunday afternoon; all the game time that I am going to get on a good week. Being long cannot be considered a bad thing of course. It is fantastic for the avid player in that they get a lot of game for their money, especially in a game like this where little is padding. It is entirely centred around shooting lots of things a lot of times and the player knows that upon entry; repetition is the understood game play device after all. I recently finished Darksiders and that surely contains ample amounts of padding. The last third is spent jumping from arena battle to puzzle to repeated boss encounter, something that grinds the game to a halt for about five hours; to its detriment. Borderlands 2 definitely does not force any of that upon the player in such a rigid structure.

Sadly however, things take too long to progress for my predicament. I accomplished ten levels in roughly the same number of hours, the last couple taking over an hour each to garner. The first game held my compulsion bone because I had the time to invest in its progression; I fear I cannot commit to the sequel. While the characters are wittier and the plot that surrounds them more substantial I still do not envisage myself having the time to invest in them. Borderlands was doubtless a great experience throughout the sixty hours I spent with it. It pales in comparison to the memories I have of Flower, however. Journey furthered that experience within an even shorter timeframe; it is just a shame that I can’t work within Borderlands 2’s to enjoy it as much as I did its predecessor. 

Death, Character and Storytelling - Shooting Things Part I




The day Half Life 2 was released my hard drive died. I never discovered what happened to cause the passing of my precious repository and at the time I never even questioned the why, simply the how. How could my drive cease to function on this most special of days? What terrible events could be inflicted upon Gordon Freeman without me watching over him? How, in short, could this happen to me? I played Half Life 2 shortly after these events. Sometime after the terrible circumstances surrounding the game I must have grown up somewhat as I stopped asking myself the whiney how’s and simply got on with playing games. Somewhere during this time Half Life 2 suffered the same fate as my juvenile sense of entitlement and slipped to the back of my mind; the excitement for the original game was simply not present when it came to the subsequent episodes. I bought them a few years later when steam launched for mac out a sense of guilt but didn’t give them much though. A few more years have rolled by and things, I, have changed yet again; the apathy which leached away the youthful excitement has in turn been replaced by scholarly curiosity. It seems Half Life 2 has been there throughout all of my formative years, waiting patiently for me to yet again be ready.

Both of the episodes prove to be fascinating time capsules in some respects and in others examples of superior design decisions which to this day remain curiously underused. The storytelling technique of maintaining a strict first person perspective which is employed in all of Valve’s single player releases has been heavily praised since 1998 yet is still largely ignored in favour of the more ‘cinematic’ use of cutscenes. Though Valve’s games are probably the best suited to this device through their casting of the player as a silent protagonist, thereby allowing them to completely inhabit the game world and indirectly interact with characters, other developers have attempted implementation with varying degrees of success. The Call of Duty series has used the technique throughout, though it is the Modern Warfare trilogy where this can be seen most prevalently. Unlike Half Life, however, these games dilute the powerful connection between player and supporting characters by jumping between protagonists in rapid succession, showing the hollow shell of the player-character to be just that. Gordon Freeman works as a host because we consistently use his eyes to see. The consecutive nature of all of the Half Life 2 games fosters an acute connection between the player and the world by way of Gordon, thus making him a tangible character unto himself, regardless of his personality being exclusively a projection of the player’s own. In breaking up continuity and changing protagonists the Modern Warfare games, barring a couple of effective moments in the first, impede our ability to suspend disbelief and accept our host as a complete character. This often reverses the relevance of one of the most important rules of narrative, that of ‘show don’t tell’. In wanting to show the player everything the Call of Duty games destroy any sense of identity the player characters could possess. It is for gameplay reasons, then, that the player is transported back in time to Pripyat and into the body of yet another character and only tertiarily connected to any narrative or character progression. The events of this flashback could be summed up in a short paragraph yet the game dedicates far more time to it. While the Half Life games similarly show rather than tell the player about many of the important plot points the fact we inhabit a single character following a defined and temporally linear chain of events is crucial. This elevates the narrative concessions made for gameplay from mere contrivances to understandable compromises.

One such gameplay compromise is that of player mortality. I had practically forgotten the time before recharging health existed in shooters before I endeavoured to see Episodes One and Two out. Neither Half Life’s health pack mechanic nor the modern shooter’s penchant for regenerating health prove to be narratively sound solutions when it comes to governing a player’s ability to sustain damage. I am not, however, going to attempt to suggest a more fitting replacement to either, I’ll save that for another day.

In my absentmindedness I hadn’t only forgotten health packs but also the way they define how we play these games on the whole. Jumping back into Episode One it had been some time since I had felt the levels of tension I was experiencing from finite health. Ordinarily one would just duck out of the action for a few seconds and then get back to the job of killing things, here I was forced to endure a number of reloads before my mind once again became used to the concept of being careful.

My ability to stay alive was more directly connected to my understanding and implementation of the games systems as a whole rather than relying upon them one at a time. For instance; close to the end of Episode 1 I was tasked with escorting a number of groups of soldiers and medics across a train yard, leading to a back and forth where enemies and obstacles would change every time I returned across the yard. During these trips I was using all of my movement options (run, duck, jump, strafe, cower, sprint, strut) along with the different interactions I could perform with the world (shoot, throw, gravity gun things, re-supply limited stocks of resources, cower). All of these actions were being performed in a beautiful sequence, fluidly linking into one another with grace and at my own free will. Much like the best sequences in Halo, i.e. anything outside, the stage was set and it was up to me to devise a way through. The cowering, then, was not a simple couple of seconds which broke my combat flow in favour of health regeneration, no, it was an intrinsic part of the dance which allowed me to avoid danger itself, not simply the percentage of health it would deprive me of for a short period of time. In forcing me to think carefully about how I took damage, in making the health system a participative one rather than the more passive ‘recharging duck’, the combat scenarios within the Half Life games proved to be much more organically flowing and divergent. Enemies were scripted to enter stage left, yes, but when they got there they had the entirety of the stage with which to make a scene, not simply one corner. With finite health the player is encouraged to lead and be led in this merry dance rather than the singular task of skulking around and occasionally peaking out from behind something to watch the show.

While this difference in gameplay is rarely as dramatic as I am describing, I feel it highlights the changes shooters have undergone in a very short period of time, a change which would not have occurred so dramatically without the popularisation of recharging health. If a player has a finite amount of health within a certain section of the game the developer can control their experience with much lighter brushstrokes than if a player can theoretically heal most of the time. The ballet of the train yard and its varied, defined progression would be transformed into an assault course of infinite waves of enemies, a challenge to be traversed quickly rather than thoughtfully engaged with had Gordon Freeman recharging health. The APC he faces would not pose anywhere near the same challenge if he could duck in and out of buildings to replenish health. How would this problem be addressed? More APCs. More soldiers. More bullets. More rockets. More everything. This, however, rarely increases the difficulty, instead simply prolonging encounters to the point where challenge is now borne out of longevity, the gameplay of attrition if you will, rather than any increased test of tangible skills.

Half Life 2, I feel, presents a game where the lineage of shooters butts heads with the modernising of a genre. The game is the zenith of the corridor crawler, giving the player a clearly defined trajectory with just enough lea-way to mask the straight line we follow. This creates a world where combat situations are diverse, player-driven and divergent, pacing is (mostly) tight and character interactions timely. Modern Warfare seemingly promised to do all of this and take us out of the corridor, setting us free with pistol whipping, silencers and abseiling and all we had to do was turn the corner and follow the light at the other end. It’s just a shame that after only a couple of years our eyes adjusted to this light of modern excitement and we found ourselves trapped in the shooting gallery, firing an ever increasing array of munitions at the same paper targets.

The Walking Dead Presents a Compelling Story, but is the Gameplay Still Too Complex?



This article was originally a feature on Bitmob.com

I was having a leisurely pint of ale with my girlfriend when my mind began to wander away from our conversation. What ever we were talking about evidently paled in comparison to my thoughts on the Walking Dead game, the third episode of which I had played through a couple of nights before. When she ultimately realized that I was not giving her my full attention, I tried to explain why the game touched me so deeply. I found it almost impossible to justify my feelings without speaking about it in “gaming terms” and by comparing it to other games (two things I know she doesn't understand and finds difficult to relate to).

I took a moment to compose myself and tried again, this time with the non-linear narrative and the implications it has for character development. I started from the beginning, telling her about the player character, Lee, and how we are shown that he is going to jail at the opening of the game. Besides this, we know nothing about the character and are still expected to speak for him, which shapes our version of him from the very start. I find this a fascinating way of opening a decision-based narrative. Does the player embrace the ambiguous criminality that has been set at their feet, using it to justify immoral actions that their version of Lee may perform? Alternatively, do they attempt to right these unknown wrongs with their own intervention, repenting for what could be a minor indiscretion by way of noble altruism?

This brought us to the question: Would she care to take part in this fascinating exploration of human morality?

Being a psychologist, I imagined that the good woman sitting next to me would find this divergence of choice fascinating. She had bemoaned my short-sightedness when “researching” SimCity Social and directed me to a more scientific opinion of the game. I therefore assumed she would surely find something to dig her teeth into with this, and even possibly consider playing it herself. Although her interest was peaked, we were still ultimately talking about games, so I’d have to work harder to convince her of The Walking Dead’s narrative merits. It hadn’t helped that I’d recently been talking about Borderlands and its gleeful embrace of cartoon violence over emotional substance, though it just made the endeavor that more meaningful. Not all games are striving for the same audience reaction, after all.

Next on the agenda was Clementine, a young girl Lee is charged with accompanying. His task is twofold: protect the youngster from the cruelties of a humanity unhinged and attempt to find her missing parents. Early in the game, you happen upon her deserted home and discover through voicemail messages that they were vacationing when the zombies attacked. Their likelihood of survival is slim, though it is up to the player to decide how realistic Lee wishes to be about this with Clementine. I began by being quietly optimistic with her so as not to break her heart so early on in the relationship. After a couple of hours though, I found it increasingly difficult to be anything but supportive of her insistence to find them. I cared for her too much.
I had, as I always do, followed the noble path. Mass Effect, Fable, and Fallout 3 are all games in which I inevitably played as if I were me. Proof that role-playing is still very much alive in gaming, yes, but also a testament to my inability to separate myself from a gaming avatar. However, The Walking Dead has, in Clementine, an even deeper moral hook in me. Throughout all of the choices Lee is given, I am not simply following my blind morality, I am also making my decisions based upon what Clementine would want. Should I let my sense of anger or vengeance win out as it has in past gaming experiences? No, I have to remove myself and think of Lee and more importantly Clementine’s relationship with him. She will witness such a lack of self-control and remember him for it, and I don’t want to be held accountable for that.
My girlfriend initially said yes to playing The Walking Dead, though we have still yet to sit down together and begin our journey across a decimated Georgia. Like all game-related discussions we have, the actual act of playing proves to be the barrier to entry, not the content behind it. Discussing the implications of player choice with her proves fascinating. Her psychological viewpoint far surpasses my own, but the idea of her sitting and playing a game still proves to be an obstacle.

She can’t separate the mechanics and her fear of not being able to competently interact with them from the game that sits on top. While the controls in The Walking Dead are very simple, their unfamiliarity still intimidates her. It harbors one of the greatest and most emotionally resonant narratives I have ever experienced within a game. It is a shame that some (like my girlfriend) will miss out on this fantastic examination of the human condition pushed to its limits simply by virtue of it being game.

Forgetting About Older Titles Could Undermine the Future of Games



This article was originally a feature on Bitmob.com

Against our best intentions, video games that get left by the wayside often stay unplayed and are ultimately forgotten. Games are a temporal art form. They can only be fully enjoyed within a short period of time after their release. Once a title is no longer considered new, many players distance themselves from it and discard it into the annals of history. Albeit with a few exceptions, many offerings’ influence wane significantly over time.

Games differ from sculpture, painting, film, and music in this sense. Because the evolving technology powering them is more apparent, titles can quickly appear outdated. Simple mechanics like running and jumping can be easily rendered archaic through minor advances in design.

Gamers and critics lauded the early Tomb Raider entries for both their gameplay and graphical quality. Time colored these opinions, but this does not render them obsolete. Crystal Dynamics remade the original Tomb Raider with more-modern mechanics, releasing it as Tomb Raider: Anniversary in 2007. The company vastly improved basic movement through technology and highlighted the lack of precision and control in the original game. I feel both the original and remake, however, should be considered valid options to play. The releases represent certain periods in gaming and reflect the limitations technology imposed during their respective eras.

Much like the 1998 remake of the film Psycho, TR: Anniversary is as much an exercise in clinical recreation as it is a fully formed game. Its reverence to the past is astonishing, and its adherence to the original admirable. While Psycho is a statement that any film can be remade into an almost identical product, Anniversary shows that remaking a game inherently brings massive changes.

Remaking a film shot for shot might include a change of cast -- and, in the case of Psycho, the introduction of color -- but the overall aesthetic of both image and performance can be retained. Remaking a game, however, changes almost every aspect. TR: Anniversary, then, was less an act of creative curation and more one of reimagination. It repackaged a name and template for a modern era, essentially making the old new again. Anniversary is by no means the original Tomb Raider, though. It is a completely different entity.

I don’t feel this is necessarily negative. The phenomenon does highlight the problem of games maintaining their relevance. It took almost 40 years for Psycho to be remade yet only 10 for Tomb Raider. Technology will inevitably continue to improve, leading games to appear old much more quickly than other pieces of art. Does this mean that aging titles should be forgotten or simply rehashed, overwriting the past? I think neither option is sustainable.

Games are built on iteration more so than any other popular medium. Progress is inevitable when it comes to a technology-dependent platform, but it should not constrain the past. The original Assassin’s Creed, for example, faced criticism for its repetitive nature and generally bland storytelling, but it paved the way for a vastly superior sequel. Should the game be disregarded or forgotten because of its shortcomings? No.
These titles are fascinating because of their fractured and intricate lineages. Forgetting gaming’s past disregards everything that has brought us to this moment. Leaving games unplayed makes us lose all sense of the present. If we leave them alone for too long, we’ll lose all sense of the past, which has further-reaching implications.

Monetizing Gameplay: How SimCity Social Swallows Your Soul


I was in a weakened state after a period of self-indulgence when a stranger offered his assistance. I initially rebuffed his kindness, feeling somewhat foolish about myself at that moment. It quickly became apparent to both of us, though, that I couldn’t function alone. I reached out to his extended hand of altruism and let him envelop me in his warmth.

We walked a short distance to his humble-yet-inviting abode and sat down in front of a halogen fire for warmth. Although still shaking a little from my weekend alone, I was now at least in the mood for company. The stranger cast an interesting figure: middle-aged with a ruddy face (although, not in a grandfatherly way) and wearing jeans and a loose shirt. His eyes and cheekbones were sharp and told me that he was a stern man, yet his attire made him appear much younger in every sense. He had pulled me from the gutter, though, and for that I thanked and trusted him.

“We should play a game to pass the time”, he suggested as he placed a huge board between us. “All you have to do is build a city. You can do it any way you like. Imagine that? You play, and I’ll be here to teach you the rules. You’ll learn them as we go.” The idea was fantastic -- the man a near genius for having the perfect distraction to my current situation.

I love building cities, I thought. But what would it be like with someone around to rein in my imagination?
The board already had a mayor’s office and a couple of factories and businesses “to get me started,” the man told me, though, everything else “was in my hands.” I built a few houses to make sure that no jobs were going spare -- that would be wasteful, after all -- and then set about thinking toward the future. I’d build a whole new shopping district flanked with trees with open piazzas, a safe residential area where families could live, and move my industry out to the fringes. People would love the ideals of my city and flock from miles around to move in.

“Why don’t you call a couple of friends and ask them to come over?” my host asked. “There’ll be pizza and fizzy pop.” I declined his offer, saying I’d rather be mayor away from the scrutiny of my peers for the time being until things really took off.

I instead kept building businesses and homes; I wanted my communities to flourish without outside influence and be great by their own merit. “Hold on there, son,” he interjected. “You’re taking the game too seriously. You’ll have to slow down. It’s only a bit of fun.” I didn’t want to, of course. Matters were beginning to get too pressing. The suburbs were stagnating thanks to a lack of amenities while businesses were struggling to keep up with demands. What was I to do?


“Why don’t you sit a while, by the fire, and come up with a sound strategy?” The only clear route was investment, but the old man was stopping me from developing my paradise. “Read a book for a minute or two,” he suggested antagonistically, “or give me 20 American dollars, and we can continue.”

He knew full well that I didn’t have any foreign currency on my person -- we were in South London after all -- yet he still offered the trade. “That amounts to only 12 pounds sterling -- and a cheap deal at that.” His goading worked, and I palmed him some coins to get back into the game.

My money had bought me more than extra time with the game; it had bought me status. I built fire and police stations, sports venues, and parks for my citizens. My generosity was enriching their lives. I created employment, safety, and piece of mind; I built them their lives.

“Look!” shouted my ever-encroaching host. “Your friends are moving into your city!” I knew they weren’t as I still hadn’t called them to come over, yet tiny facsimiles of them appeared as if by magic. “Expand for them! Keep them safe! Make their lives better!” My host was evidently revelling in his administrative role.

He had positioned himself as an enforcer of rules and a spectator of habits, yet now he was playing a greater part in my decision-making. When it came to staffing my second fire station, he demanded that I call my friends again. I told him that they apparently lived in the neighboring apartments and worked at the ice cream factory and so couldn’t be fire fighters as well. “Fine!” he rasped. “Then pay me 10 American dollars, and you can have your new fire station!” What was I to do? I didn’t want to risk their idyllic lives with my own frugalness. Investment was the key to success -- or so my mantra had become.


The breaking point of our short-lived-yet-tumultuous relationship came when the gentleman advised me to open a bank. I invested heavily into the structure and furnishings with the promise of my citizens becoming economically solvent.

Edward, as I later learned was his name, had lied to me. The bank could only open its doors if I dedicated one more, financially imperative item to the city. The building required a farmyard plough. “Harvest some crops from your farms and grab a plough!” he instructed, seemingly unaware of the disconnect between the socio-business amenity and a pastoral device.

I questioned his judgement as to why the two were so intrinsically linked, and he simply replied, “Why don’t you call a couple of friends and ask them to come over? There’ll be pizza and fizzy pop.”
At that moment, his jeans and loose shirt fell away to reveal a perfectly pressed suit and dark brown dress shoes. I suddenly saw Edward for what he was. He had used my insecurities against me and made me feel like a champion of the people only to exploit me for my money.

I snapped out of my self-pity and ran home safe in the knowledge that sometimes playing games alone benefits everyone.