17 articles Articles posted in Writing

Destiny’s captivating map screens

I surprised myself by enjoying Bungie’s Destiny Beta more and more as I dived deeper into it. I started to “get” MMOs for probably the first time, in fact. I’ve often looked on furrow-browed at people who apparently enjoy spending a full evening shaving individual pixels off a big dragon’s health bar. But I got sucked right into Destiny’s three-person Strike mission: at least 20 minutes of wearing down a gigantic Devil Walker tank-beast, ducking down behind masonry shuddering with the impact of the monster’s plasma cannon, and rushing into the open, teeth gritted and fingers crossed, to revive dead teammates and blast the Fallen trying to flank us.

But being me meant that in between actually pointing and firing guns at things like I was supposed to, I kept getting distracted by little details. Like the map screen, which is a thing of beauty.

Destiny’s map screens seem inspired by world maps from the 16th century onwards, with thick land outlines and intricate pencil-style drawings and geometric doodles around the edges. The intention no doubt is to make you feel that much more of an explorer, as you gaze down at these blueprints from the future. They look great moving too: the screen’s layers parallax scroll as you move your cursor around, which reinforces how captivatingly 2D these maps are in a game set in a vast 3D world.

It’s all very fitting from a developer that brought the word “cartographer” from deep in the dictionary into the consciousness of mainstream FPS gamers.

destiny_bungie_map destiny_bungie_map_earth destiny_bungie_map_moon

Destiny map screen captures from videos by GhostRobo and TheRelaxingEnd.

Gigantic multiscreen retrogame display at The Barbican

I booked tickets to the Digital Revolution exhibition at The Barbican Centre before I knew they had this in the first room: towering multiscreen audiovisual retrogame amazingness. If I had known, I’d have brought a camera with better focus control.

The exhibition was a strange one: “digital creativity” was the theme, and that essentially amounted to “computers, eh?” — there can’t be many other exhibitions where you’d find Doublefine’s Broken Age sharing the same space as a Fairlight synthesizer and a dress with flashing LEDs on it. But there was a real charm to the strange mix of interactive exhibits. You’d turn a corner and find a video mirror-wall that showed smoke pouring out of your eyes, or be confronted by a giant pseudo-3D will.i.am head with eyes that followed you around the room (no joke). Completely mad, and more than a little bit awe-inspiring. I like to think it’s akin to what attending a World’s Fair was like.

But of course, my favourite bit was seeing them throw Manic Miner, Elite, Another World and Parappa the Rapper up onto the big screens. And give us chills with that PlayStation startup sound.

Bonus: here’s a photo of Tim Schafer looking disgusted that the Broken Age exhibit has to share space with another game.


What I played at Indie Launch Party: Summer ’14

Basically, not enough. There were at least 20 games at Bar Scenario on Monday night as part of Indie Launch Party: Summer ’14, all diffused in a pleasantly chilled atmosphere generated by 200-odd happy gamers. Yet my ageing brain and fingers managed to only get through three games. Three! Tsk.

One reason: I was rapt in front of Gang Beasts for ages, like a dog staring at a cake on a counter. Another: I spent some talking to Future Publishing’s lovely Joe Skrebels and Kate Gray. (I’m sure Kate was thrilled to come from an afternoon of Matthew Castle reminiscing about NGamer, straight into an evening of me reminiscing about NGamer.)

So here’s some information about three games:

Rock Boshers DX (TikiPOD)

So no-one else played Rex in the ’80s, clearly. The developers of Rock Boshers DX very patiently endured me comparing their neat little shooter to several ZX Spectrum games that no-one remembers or perhaps I just dreamt existed or made up. Rex. Spore. Gauntlet (they did remember that one, in fact.)

Rock Boshers DX is a top-down puzzle-shooter, each level a daintily crafted series of little switch/door puzzles. I do like games where the whole level is on one screen — somehow there’s a purer sense of exploration when you can see the little spaces you’ll be unlocking later, and being a tiny collection of pixels in a single big environment is always fun. Rock Boshers has an intriguing story — you’re a young Queen Victoria, in space — but the carefully-written text popups were brazenly clicked away by me, right in front of the poor developer’s face.

It really does look a bit like Rex, I’m telling you.

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Rock Boshers DX flyer that I grabbed from the developer.Rock Boshers DX flyer that I grabbed from the developer.

Unnamed Robin Hood SNES (Namespace)

I didn’t take down the details of this game at the time, but luckily there aren’t too many Google links for “SNES Robin Hood indie game”. Because that’s what this is: a proper modern-day little Super Nintendo game, by Alex Roberts and Luke Shires, running on a Super Everdrive, which is a Super Nintendo cart that you can plug an SD card into. Alex made me feel old by remembering that her granddad might have had a Super Nintendo. I fled.

Gang Beasts (Boneloaf)

Very popular, this. And it was so good to play Gang Beasts with others, after watching so many YouTubers dissolve into giggling fits skating around and punching each other’s plasticine parts.


This version of Gang Beasts had some features I don’t think have been shown before, like character costumes. At the event, the blobby doughmen were wearing animal onesies inspired by Japanese kigurumi (and this tweet apparently), including a dragon suit that made you feel uncomfortably like you were beating up Bub from Bubble Bobble.

I only played the game briefly, as a man in a chicken suit, who under my control mostly lived a life of tumbling off window cleaning platforms and getting swallowed up by industrial grinders. But watching other play Gang Beasts is just as much fun — maybe even more fun. There was so much joy among the crowd as we watched little fellas cling on for dear life to chasm edges, or clumsily hoist other characters over their head and fling them to their doom.

James Brown, one of the brothers who make up Boneloaf, was there, a lovely man who barely paused for breath as he chatted to me about the game and its inspirations — which are mainly preposterous late ’80s/early ’90s retro side-scrollers like Final Fight and Streets of Rage. I think Boneloaf are a little bit shocked by the attention their little game is getting — but they deserve every bit of it.

Explorer: an exploration game from before there were exploration games


I’ve been wanting to write something about Explorer for a long time. The more that contemplative exploration games like Proteus, Dear Esther and Fract become an established thing, the more interesting this little (read: absolutely gigantic) 1986 game seems to become.

Explorer was created for the ZX Spectrum by UK coders Graham Relf and Simon Dunstan (under the software development wing of George Stone, one of the men behind Max Headroom). The premise is that your spaceship has crash-landed on an alien jungle planet and broken into bits, which have in turn scattered themselves across the entire globe (somehow). You have to explore and find them all. And there’s some serious exploring to do, because the game has 40 billion procedurally-generated “graphic locations” (in the marketing terminology of the time).

Look at one of those locations, and there’s something interesting about Explorer that’s hiding in plain sight: it’s in first-person. That’s no mean feat for the mid-’80s. It’s all smoke and mirrors, of course: 8-bit computers would have wept actual blood trying to build Explorer’s world in actual full-on 3D. Relf and Dunstan’s ‘Rotovision’ layered flat layer upon flat layer, generating static (and slow to draw) views of your immediate and distant surroundings.

The Lords of Midnight had pioneered a similar technique. But Explorer didn’t ape the clean, two-colour, comic book style world of Mike Singleton’s masterpiece. Instead, it took a step towards realistic first-person environments. The impressionist sense of scale and distance was unusual for the time, and even now there’s a painterly quality to the environments and their use of silhouette and shading. Those trees, in particular, are somehow simultaneously a bit of a mess (mostly thanks to the Spectrum’s colour clash) and surprisingly evocative of a real jungle towering over you.


Explorer has a unique atmosphere, heightened by an unerring stillness throughout. Everything in this world is motionless except for the odd pool of water, and behind the dense forest lie hauntingly quiet villages, with strange stone totems towering over huts that have been abandoned by whatever used to live in them. Every so often, you encounter a shimmering warp gate — again, provenance unknown — that you can use to fly to a new area of oppressively empty wilderness. The only action is a sporadic (and clumsily implemented) attack by skittering bugs.


All this quiet beauty (a little phrase I’ve borrowed from Samantha Nelson’s very prescient article about World of Warcraft’s ghost cities), coupled with the focus on just walking around and discovering what’s over the horizon, makes Explorer something of a forgotten granddad in the exploration game family tree.

Yes, you could successfully argue that earlier first-person games — Mercenary, The Eidolon — created a similar atmosphere of exploring the unknown. But Relf and Dunstan’s game has a much deeper connection to today’s “walking simulators” (and by the way, I love Ed Keys’ point that if we’re going to deride exploration games on those terms, we should just go ahead and call FPSs “face clickers”).

Because Explorer was born from a literal walking simulator.

Two years before Explorer, Graham created The Forest, first for the TRS-80 and then for the Spectrum. It’s a game proudly described on its title screen as “a simulation of orienteering” — Graham created a full OS-style map for it — and it was probably the only 8-bit game ever deliberately built around the joy of walking. It got a rave review from Crash magazine, too. Explorer was, in Graham’s words, a “less orienteering-oriented version” of the same concept.


It’s fascinating to learn of Explorer’s orienteering heritage, then trek forward to today where Proteus is influenced by Ed Key’s childhood walks in the Wiltshire countryside and has a trailer filmed in the Lake District.

It’s just a shame that Explorer is, essentially, empty. There’s no reward for exploring — no puzzles like Myst, no story like Dear Esther, no enchanting you with colours and sounds and wondrous sights like Proteus. The eerieness of Explorer’s nameless planet, the empty buildings clearly once built and inhabited by something, suggest the beginnings of a mystery — but it’s actually the beginning and the end. There’s nothing to uncover. Just nine bits of spaceship and 39,999,999,991 empty locations.

As such, Explorer’s reviews were less than glowing. Still, it’s fun in retrospect to see game journalists of the ’80s as mystified by Explorer as many of today’s gamers are by genre-defying indie gems. Here’s Popular Computing Weekly’s verdict on Explorer:

[It] really does defy categorisation. It’s not an adventure, it’s certainly not an arcade game, and it’s too surreal to be a strategy game.

Sound familiar?

If Explorer had incorporated text adventure elements — probably the most fitting option in the era it was made — I suspect it’d have got better reviews, and moved it into the family tree of Myst (a game that both Proteus and Fract have often been compared to). And in fact, Explorer’s sketchbook look, and the lack of on-screen indicators and counters, lends it a similar atmosphere to ’80s graphic text adventures, which also often sent you alone into a foreboding forest or jungle (I’m reminded of the early stages of Activision’s 1985 adventure Mindshadow in particular).

Or perhaps if Graham and Simon had made Explorer a true sequel to The Forest, a proper walking game, just you and nature, with views that opened out rather than walls of rainforest that constantly closed in on you… well, it would probably have got even worse reviews. But as Tale of Tales told the VideoGameTourism site in response to all the “walking simulator” jibes about their games:

Walking is one of the nicest things one can do on this planet. Very worthy of simulation.

I’ve been in touch with Graham for this blog post — and after I contacted him, he’s started busily building a new version of The Forest in HTML! You can view the progress for yourself on Graham’s website.

Thief and the power of solitude

Screenshot from gamepressure

I really like the new Thief. Perhaps if I’d played the original 1998 game, I’d have found more to disappoint me. But most of the negativity seems to focus on 1) big glitches and bugs (which I luckily didn’t encounter too many of) and 2) the story being a mess — which I completely agree with, but godawful writing doesn’t stop some games getting rave reviews.

Maybe it’s just that I’ll forgive Eidos Montreal anything after the brilliant Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

Anyway, my three favourite things about Thief:

  1. Hands! Amazing. Particularly when you slide your fingers along the underside edge of paintings, looking for secret switches, and get a fingers-sliding-along-the-underside-edge-of-a-painting sound so perfect it makes your wrist hairs stand on end.
  2. Puzzles in the hub city are exactly right. Just when you’ve tried everything and go to turn away, convinced that you’re missing some crucial ability or item, the solution hits you like a blackjack to the back of the knee.
  3. The Forgotten Ruins.

So I had a conversation with my friend Nick about some forgotten ruins in a different game: Tomb Raider (the new one). He was dismayed that the game’s tombs, which are supposed to be all old and mysterious and heavy with the atmosphere of many centuries’ abandonment and ruin, are dotted with lit torches. Something of an atmosphere killer.

Thief’s Forgotten Ruins is how to do it right. After a long series of puzzles in the Blossom House brothel, a hidden stone door opens up in a basement. You head through it into dark tunnels. Garrett mutters, “This has gone forgotten for a long time.” And that’s the moment it hits you that you’re completely alone.

You’ve found somewhere no-one else in the city knows exists — and it’s chilling to realise that this essentially puts you outside the game. Because, down here, the developers can’t rightfully have a guard patrolling the next corner or a shopkeeper idly waiting for your custom*. All the world’s characters are far above you, totally oblivious to this ancient place. Normal play has been put on hold.

The unsettling feeling of solitude comes a little bit from the primal fear of being stuck underground far away from help. But it comes a lot from the pure power of suggestion. A little thought keeps tapping at the edge of your skull: if there definitely isn’t an NPC around the next corner of this ancient and lonely place — what the hell is?

This is exactly what Thomas Grip means when he talks about the power of “mental modelling” — and he should know, having developing the terrifying Amnesia. He describes a similar power-of-suggestion moment from a quiet area in Slender: The Arrival:

It got really creepy, and I felt this cold chill down my spine, which has never happened before in a game. And I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to continue playing this game. And it was all just me scaring myself — no mechanics!

The music’s kept minimal in Thief’s ruins– and as you descend deeper, the distant splash of water behind the walls gets louder and fuller, until you’re faced with a subterranean waterfall, still powering a crumbling waterwheel. Now you feel truly underground. And you’re as awed as Garrett to then discover an entire library, caked in dust but otherwise preserved for centuries. It’s brilliant design.

And there are no lit torches.

* Actually, Thief does have shopkeepers in unlikely places. There’s one in the main town who’s decided to peddle his wares in a tiny space that can only be reached by opening a small knee-high vent and crawling through. Not the brightest business mind there.