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In Play: Scratch that pitch

How Dirt Rally, Quantum Break and Enter the Gungeon sell themselves with titles alone.

Movie studios talked about the 'high concept' or the 'elevator pitch'; the ability to condense the plot or premise of a film to a two-minute sell, a breathless paragraph, a single tag line and image that will lodge in the audience's mind. If you're making a video game in 2016, sometimes you need to go one further. If you're trying to stand out on Steam amid dozens of new releases every day, and you don't necessarily have a Hollywood marketing budget to get your point across, you need to sell a game with its title alone. (As someone who runs a website in the social media age, I have some sympathy with this.)

Take this week's wonderful indie, Enter the Gungeon. I mean, what more do you need? You could even miss off the "enter the". There will be a dungeon, and guns; this being 2016, it will probably be a procedurally generated roguelike with pixel art. Oh, look, got it in one, just as we were supposed to.

You even get a sense of the tone, pulpy and flippant and furious. You might intuit that the guns are not just potent firearms with which to clear the dungeon but the existential point of the dungeon itself, and so it proves. Guns are everything in Enter the Gungeon, and anything can be a gun.

"There are guns that shoot rainbows," writes Simon in our review. There are guns that fire pillows to smother their targets. There are guns that hurl spinning letters of the alphabet that, when they strike a target, form comic book-esque onomatopoeic words. There's a mailbox you grasp by the post that fires unopened letters. There's a semi-automatic ant that spits acidic projectiles. Another fires live fish."

There's a beautiful simplicity to this pitch: offering something that you want as soon as you hear about it, and that, once you get your hands on it, is exactly what you expect. It's not quite novel, but it's a good idea, flawlessly executed. "Enter the Gungeon's genius is found in the combination of its moment-to-moment play and its structural ingenuity," reckons Simon. "As a twin-stick shooter, it matches the abstract greats such as Geometry Wars and Mutant Storm Reloaded... As a dungeon-crawler, Enter the Gungeon provides a sense of unfurling mystery... There is nothing here that is strictly original, save for the unique arrangement of its exceptional ingredients. This is a game shaped by current fashions - the procedural generation, the M83-style soundtrack, the streamer-friendly novelty of each playthrough. Yet it evades derivation through its vibrancy of character and imagination. Even within the hoariest cliché of the video game gun, Enter the Gungeon shows that there are fresh wonders to be found."

At the other end of all kinds of scales we have this week's blockbuster release - Remedy's Xbox One exclusive, Quantum Break. What does the title tell you? Precisely nothing, other than it presumably intends to sound cool. Perhaps there's a suggestion of hoary old time-travel TV series Quantum Leap, which turns out to be oddly apt, because Quantum Break actually contains a hoary time-travel TV series, shot in live action with actors from Game of Thrones and Homeland and everything, and meshing with the third-person gunplay of the actual video game in limited ways.

Who asked for this? Set against the stark clarity of Enter the Gungeon's sell, it's tempting to suggest that Quantum Break's pitch isn't to the player but to the boardroom. It is the eventual, late and lonely fruition of the cross-media "TVTVTV" dream espoused so disastrously by Don Mattrick at Xbox One's launch, and we already know from gamers' reaction at the time that it was something they weren't really looking for. You have to wonder how its scope has changed in the couple of years since, and how sold the developer Remedy was on the game's live-action component.

Still, the Finnish devs made a decent fist of this tech executive's idea of the entertainment of the future. "It's as a spectacle that Quantum Break really triumphs, a showcase of excellence on Remedy's behalf as it creates an experience that's aggressively handsome, delivered with great visual flair," Martin writes in our review. "When those firefights break out into noisy showers of sparks, pockets of fractured time and splinters of scenery, Quantum Break shows the magic that can happen when you give a handful of demoscene veterans a Hollywood budget.

"Scratch away at that and you've got a watchable TV series wrapped around a focussed and competent game, but Remedy's keen sense of style manages to elevate Quantum Break to something just about worthwhile. Maybe it's because of how eccentric the whole enterprise is. There's never been anything like Quantum Break, and it's hard to imagine there ever being anything like it again: more often for better than for worse, Remedy's strange hybrid feels like an adventure out of its own time."

It's a timely reminder to listen to your audience. That's something Codemasters has done after years of apparent deafness, to fantastic effect, with Dirt Rally, which has been available on PC for a while but is released on consoles this week. And the title? To the uninitiated, it sounds rather blunt, but to racing game fans those three syllables tell a whole story. Dirt was loud, populist off-road racing series that emerged from the much-loved Colin McRae Rally line of games. Whatever its virtues, there's no doubting that it drifted a long way from a pure representation of this demanding motorsport. By bringing the word "rally" back into the title, Codemasters is saying that representation is back. And how.

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In fact, this is the most hardcore simulator Codemasters has ever made, and one of the most faithful sports games to the essence of its inspiration, too - tackling the strategy of maintenance over a long haul of a rally campaign as well as the skill of the Scandinavian flick.

"It's been a decade of loss for racing video games in the UK, from the death of Colin McRae, the rally driver who lent his name to Codemasters' first rally game, in 2007, to the domino run of closures of numerous racing game studios around the country, most recently, that of Evolution Studios. Here, Codemasters offers us a bright beam of hope through the trees," writes Simon in our review. "Dirt Rally, a muddy, plucky sim with an island-tough mentality, cannot compete with the moneyed luxury of today's Japanese and American supercar racers in terms of polygon-counts. It has neither Gran Turismo's lavish roster, nor Forza's luxurious presentation. But the stories it tells? You'll never forget them."

Of course, you can't reduce all creative endeavour to just selling your audience what they want back, as in Dirt Rally, or even what they didn't know they wanted until you told them, as in Enter the Gungeon. Sometimes an idea needs to be made for its own sake, and sometimes that idea can't be reduced to something you can pitch in a couple of words. But still, these three releases are a salutary reminder to keep things simple and focused on what works, and to keep the player in mind at all times. Because if you're not making a game for the players or for yourself, who are you making it for?

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