In the early-noughties the beloved proprietor of the only shop in my grandmother's South Devon village died unexpectedly. While the villagers mourned, a question loomed: who would sell the eggs, order the newspapers, and chat with the lonely now that he was gone? Soon, a rumour spread: one of the major supermarkets planned to take over the vacated premises. A group of dismayed villagers rallied with an obstructive plan: they would pool their resources, run the shop as an independent business and, with a certain Blitz resolve, hold back the corporate invasion.
How modern technologies resurrected old consoles, and are now making them more powerful than ever
In the 1930s, employees at Universal Studio Cartoons devised a game to interrupt the bow-backed routine of inking cels and preparing animation frames. The men would work rubber bands and clumps of spit-mulched paper into spongy balls, hide them on their laps and, at an opportune moment, hurl the missile at the back of an unsuspecting colleague's head. A direct hit would be marked with a "bullseye!" that victory cry familiar to boisterous classrooms and offices everywhere, before everyone returned to their busywork, newly invigorated by the emotions of exhilaration, anguish and playful resentment now settling in the room.
Few sports labour under as much socio-political baggage as golf. It is a game popularised by royalty, spread by Empire, and moderated by prejudice (exhibit 1/59,674: Lord Moncrieff who, in 1902 decreed that women should only be allowed to play providing they not hit the ball further than 70 yards in order to remain graceful to onlookers).
30 years and 15-or-so games after its debut, Final Fantasy is not a string of sequels but a solar system of discrete planets, of varying likeness, linked only by a weird selection of motifs - airships, crystals, birds that can be ridden like feathery ponies. Within that solar system, Final Fantasy 12, first released in 2006, is an outlier, a Pluto quite unlike any of its neighbours. In other Final Fantasies - and many other RPGs for that matter - you adopt a clutch of orphan fighters and, experience point by experience point, chip away till you have revealed each individual's predetermined potential. In Final Fantasy 12: The Zodiac Age, there is no such predestination. Each character begins as a lump of clay, ready to be shaped to whim or strategy.
MMOs work to a different evolutionary schedule to most living games: grinding rumbles are first heard deep below the world's surface (or within its orbiting forum threads) followed by those tectonic lunges that accompany the release of each aptly named 'expansion'. Stormblood is the second such world-inflating addition to Final Fantasy 14, a release which the game's much-loved director-cum-saviour, Naoki Yoshida, has likened to the third season of a Netflix TV show.
I might never have got into the stranger's taxi if it weren't for video games. It was September and, earlier that evening, I'd met a journalist friend who lives in Japan for a catch-up drink. He took me to a themed Irish pub just off Shibuya crossing, the sort of establishment you'd never darken in Spain, but which, when transported to Tokyo, is transformed from blight to curio. The place didn't disappoint. Everything was slightly off: We drank pints of Guinness, each one laced with a shot of red wine. American sports blared on the overhead TVs. Most implausibly of all, one tidy queue trailed up to the bar: Dublin through a glass darkly. We caught up. Finally, we said goodnight. It was still early, the Autumn air muggy and electric. I muffled my ears with headphones and began to walk around Shibuya. And then I met Brad.
Sam Gideon cannot jump. There is surely no graver flaw in the video game multiverse, where the ability to leap is as valuable as one of the five senses, where even the lowliest grunt can manage a hop in a pinch. Still, the loss of one sense usually heightens another and what Vanquish's protagonist lacks in hang-time he amply makes up for in his ground game. Gideon glides across concrete like Michael Phelps skimming an Olympic pool. Sparks fly from those zinging metal knees as he streaks forward to donut a bewildered mecha. In Gideon's world, the term 'bullet time' is no mere poetic flourish. Squeeze an eye down the a gun's sights while sliding and time drawls to the extent that you can swat a fat, dangling rocket clean out of the air. Sam Gideon cannot jump. But by god he can fly.
Birthdays the Beginning's premise has a childlike simplicity: take a snowglobe world and fill it with life. No wonder: creator Yasuhiro Wada had the idea for the game as a child, after watching an episode of the cartoon Doraemon, which featured a tool to create a miniature planet, a mini-Earth that, once raised, could sit on a shelf in your bedroom while its ecosystem ticked away. Wada is best known for the series Harvest Moon, but while both games are bucolic enterprises exploring the stewardship of life, there is a vast difference in scale. In Harvest Moon you're a tinkering farmer; in Birthdays you're a sweeping divinity. Harvest Moon moves in seasons, Birthdays in millennia.
Sometimes, in the aftermath of an unexpected bereavement, a family will leave their departed loved one's bedroom unchanged for weeks, months, maybe even years. The preserved room serves as a walk-in memorial, a place to feel close to the departed (their beloved books heavy on the shelf, their smell soft on the pillow), to keep them in the present even as time shunts them ever further into the past. It's a way to wrest control back from fate's capriciousness: fortune may have taken this person from me, but I choose when to let them go.
For those who view video games as an adjunct to cinema rather than an alternative, the rise and fall of the interactive movie in the mid-1990s was something of a befuddling mystery. For a moment, and from a particular angle, the cinematic Choose Your Own Adventure, a genre facilitated by the advent of CD-Rom technology that allowed film clips to be spliced together to tell a story according to the whims of the viewer, seemed like the future of games. It was not to be.
Ōkami, painterly and poised, was a fairy-tale told with elegance and style. You played as a wolf god but this was a game rooted, not in the mystical, but in the pastoral. Wave a celestial paintbrush and you could revive wilted plants, raise vines, and even summon the sun. Such magic was localised, alas: shortly after Ōkami's release, Capcom shuttered the game's developer Clover Studio. A few weeks later its director, Hideki Kamiya, struck out on his own, co-founding Platinum Games (initially known as Seeds). It took three years to build, but when Bayonetta emerged in 2009, it showed Kamiya in a very different mood. Furious, playful, lascivious and grand, the game's Sarah Palin-esque star wore slick leathers, thick-rimmed frames and a demon-possessed hairdo. Yes, this was break-up game development writ large. Here was a boisterous counterpoint to Ōkami's tender refinements, a screaming f**k-you to constraints of genre, of style and even physics.
Pity the slugcat, a creature that has never before managed to step from the shadow of the grander, more celebrated mythical chimeras: the griffins, the centaurs, the Tricos. In part, that's because its arrangement of animal parts is peculiarly grotesque: the twitching feline nose and inquisitive ears mashed incongruously with the fat slimy torso of a common slug. But there's also a question of temperament. The griffin is part-lion, part-eagle, an apex predator squared, and as such can afford to be known. The slugcat, by contrast, sits just couple of links from the bottom of the food chain, able to catch bats and bluebottles, but otherwise hunted by just about every other carnivore on the block. No wonder the slugcat is absent from Greek myth: his survival depends upon anonymity.
You start life as a cartwheeling moose. As leading protagonists go, it's a bold casting. A moose, it turns out, can do very little, at least, very little here in Everything's deep and vast world. You move in a staccato, tumbling motion at one of two speeds, pausing only to converse with any nearby animals, rocks and plants over which a speech bubble hovers. "I don't know if I'll make it through the spring," says an anxious sapling. All you can do to reassure the plant is moo a big moosey moo, then flip-flop off on your way.
Even today, on the 20th anniversary of its Japanese launch, Bushido Blade feels surprising, revolutionary. Its grand invention was hiding in plain sight all along, of course. Shun the comic book fracases that littered the bountiful arcades of the day. Forget about screen-filling flaming uppercuts, magical fireballs and those screen-straddling health bars. Instead, slow the fighting game to reality's pace, where violence is typically preceded by a lengthy coiling of springs, its sudden release then followed by the brittle silence of the aftermath.
Did you know that in 2015 more people died while taking selfies than were killed in deadly shark attacks? I don't know how many people typically die in deadly shark attacks each year, and I've wasted enough of Google's time this week to bother finding out, but it makes for a snippy tabloid headline, or barstool factoid -- providing nobody asks too many follow-ups. Like a furious and lonely baby boomer in a Daily Mail comments section, I'd be tempted to judge the unfortunates behind the statistic were it not for the fact that, earlier this week I fell out of a tree while trying to photograph bird eggs.
In hopeful pitches delivered to panels of drab-suited, stern-mouthed men, game-makers will refer to their games as being 'platform agnostic'. It's a way to make a game more attractive to publishers; the fewer features unique to a particular console a game utilises, the farther it can travel and the greater the potential audience. This commercial incentive has flattened video game design in a sense. Most game-makers want the technology on which a video game is built to be as invisible as paper is to books.
You probably don't keep a diary in the way that Samuel Pepys or Anne Frank kept a diary: a written journal of days, scratched out in the woozy moments before sleep. But for anyone who owns a smartphone and uses it to tap out text messages, emails and diary reminders, a daily memoir of sorts accumulates in your pocket nonetheless. Most of us reveal different parts of ourselves to different people in our lives according to how much we trust, love, fear or doubt them. Eavesdrop on a single thread of texts to a specific acquaintance and you'll get a false sense of the person. But take all of their texts together and through this chorus of communications, a truer melody emerges. That we leave so much of ourselves in those tiny deposits of text is the first of the revelations in A Normal Lost Phone, Accidental Queen's exemplary game.
Few video game protagonists keep to strict working hours, and how could they? When there's a war to win, a world to save, a lover's heart to ensnare and all the other grand and arduous problems that a game designer asks us to solve, it would be practically irresponsible to clock off a five for a pint of lager, a packet of crisps and a prestige TV box set. Even if they did have time to unwind then, just as we rarely see Tony Soprano bobbing away at the urinal, or Donald Draper questingly exploring a nostril, surely these parts of the game would be first for the editor's chop. What Lara Croft does to relax (eating caviar off her butler's extended arm while listening to Brahms, I like to imagine) is rarely relevant to the story at hand. Aside from the indulgently barmy Final Fantasy XV, what your character eats for dinner rarely has a place in the core gameplay loop.
'Keep your politics out of our games.' Behind the fretful plea (one which has recently become something of a placard slogan, waved at game developers by those who want games to offer only retreat from the real world, not a reflection of it), is the belief that a video game can stand apart from the context in which it is created. The argument collapses when you consider the myriad ways in which time and culture infuse every aspect of a video game's design from a technological standpoint.
Imagine the murmuring crowd, congregated around the arcade machine the first time that it was switched on. It had been four years since the 1996 release of Marvel vs. Capcom: Clash of Super Heroes, the hyperactive, colourful, gloriously messy fighting game that hoisted the world of comic books and fighting games together. Anticipation for this sequel was accordingly high. As the operator stepped back and the attract mode sequence, with its unshakably catchy refrain "I wanna take you for a ride" began to play, everyone wanted to know the same thing: whom do we get to play as?
A murderous jester has cast a spell turning the king into a frowsy troll and his daughter, the princess, into a pretty horse (those come-to-stable eyes!). As the king's retainer, you are charged with accompanying these misfit royals as they trundle around Trodea's bucolic hills and valleys in search of revenge or, at very least, a face-fixing antidote. En route you pick-up a talentless criminal after he fumbles a hold-up on a bridge; the spirited and estranged daughter of a noblewoman, who longs to avenge the death of her murdered brother; and, finally, a flop-fringed knight who is just as likely to try to flirt his way out of an altercation as to draw his rapier. Often Japanese RPGs are burdened with impenetrable, byzantine plots that leave all but the most determined player bewildered. It's a charge that bounces off Dragon Quest 8, whose Grimm-like story is told with clarity, sincerity and exquisite wit.
The most deafening cheer raised at PSX, Sony's celebration of all things PlayStation held in a tinselled, sweltering December California, did not follow the news of a sequel to The Last of Us, but rather a surprise trailer advertising a 22 year old arcade game. Windjammers is Pong played with Frisbees. You're a bronzed Venice Beach bum, dressed in neon pink sweatbands and purple sun-visors, hurling the disc toward your opponent's goal. There's never been a better video game interpretation of air hockey but, while the game is often played at hipster-y video game tournaments, nobody anticipated a PlayStation 4 re-release. Fittingly the announcement was made on the same day that SNK, the Osaka-based creator of the enduringly desirable NeoGeo on which Windjammers debuted in 1994, dropped the 'Playmore' addendum of its name (picked up when the company reformed following bankruptcy in the early 2000s) to return to its original branding: The Future Is Now.
For all its alluring, intricate world-building (those misty whisky tumblers, the squeaking bench clamps, the crackling electric cables, the perfect uniforms), and distinguished design, there's a part of my brain that recoils when presented with a game like Dishonored 2. It may indeed be possible to enter Karnaca as a kind of aristocratic Rambo, clattering through doors and windows without restraint, head thrown back in deafening laughter while you fire a pair of muskets into the enemy throng. But I can only ever play as a benevolent creeper, clinging to shadows, choking out guards with a whispered "sorry", before gently laying their limp bodies on a nearby banquette, and, of course, stopping to save my progress every few feet. Being spotted in a game like Dishonored 2 is, for me, a fate equal to death: it forces me to load my game in order to maintain the façade of a perfectly clean score sheet.
Islands, as its titular addendum 'Non-Places' insinuates, is a game about those non-descript patches of no-man's land through which we all pass en route to where we're going. It's the baggage carousel in the airport, with its melancholy conga of luggage. It's the bus shelter, with its plastic seats, bathed in the white light of an advertising screen. It's the hotel lobby, with its deep chairs and bowed pot-plants. This is a surrealist study of architecture's supporting cast in which you're forced to consider and prod, at length, at the places that nobody ever cares about, or thinks about, or notices.
Editor's note: Hello! This piece originally ran in early November, but it seemed entirely appropriate to republish it this morning, now that a truly monumental piece of game development is finally reaching its conclusion. Enjoy!