Somehow, it has been 20 years since the release of Half-Life. Which means, I guess, that it has been almost 20 years since a friend came back one night to the student house we were all renting and told me about this amazing game he had played. A first-person shooter - did we call them that back then? - in which, for the opening section at least, you did no shooting.
When I was a kid, libraries were often Victorian things. Alongside books, they sometimes had funny little exhibits: stuffed owls and old bones and things under bell jars, everything lining the lonely parqueted expanses of paneled corridors and generally in need of a dust. One library I knew in Thanet - the Isle of the Dead! - had a mechanical doll's house, one wall removed so the skeletal framework of rooms was exposed. Here was mum and dad in the parlour. Here was grandma in the bedroom and baby in her crib. There was a coin slot and a brass switch that triggered a whole bunch of unseen mechanical rumblings and then, when it wasn't broken, mum and dad would nod their heads over their papers, grandma would sit up in bed and the baby would kick its legs. Maybe there was a dog, too. There's almost always a dog involved.
Cor, Marvel's Spider-Man is a lovely game. So many classic villains! And here comes Hammerhead in the new trailer for Turf Wars, the latest DLC mini-campaign that arrives on the 20th of November. Hammerhead has a metal skull! Sadly, I don't know if he has those prongs around the back for pulling out nails.
It's all connected.
So many books in the old Hawkins place! Oh man, whole walls of the things. Books on shelves, books opened on tables and stacked in chairs. And in the playroom - such a sad playroom! - there's a fortress made of books laid out on the floor, with little wooden soldiers standing guard.
I have been known, when the planets are aligned, to make the sweetcorn chowder from Nigella Express, which is Nigella's best book even if I wonder if it would kill her to season things now and then. Anyway, it is a treat to make and a treat to eat - although I warn you in advance to give it time to cool, since sweetcorn, it transpires, has a capacity to retain heat that is almost singular amongst cooking materials.
Tetsuya Mizugichi and some of the staff of Enhance Games brought Tetris Effect to our office last week. Martin and I had a go on it - actually, Martin had already been able to play it in Japan, so he watched - and we wrote up our thoughts afterwards. In short, Enhance has a serious banger on its hands. I'm already very excited about this week's demo.
Return of Obra Dinn is a game about investigating a ghost ship and trying to work out what went wrong. All the crew are missing, presumed dead. What happened?
"You can't stir things apart," says Thomasina, the brilliant teenage mathematician and physicist in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. Thomasina is talking, I think, about entropy, and entropy is one of those fascinating, dizzying subjects that can make a person wish they had kicked off their Obra Dinn review with a close reading of a Bryan Ferry lyric instead. No matter, Thomasina is talking about the way that the present generally looks like the past after it's been through a blender. She is talking about the force that means we can remember yesterday and not tomorrow. (For more on all of this you could do a lot worse than tracking down James Gleick's wonderful book Time Travel: A History.) Sad stuff, I reckon, because there are so many things you might want to stir apart. Over the course of this morning alone I can think of two or three at least. You can't stir things apart: amazing, amazing line - so rich and funny and direct and unpatronising and profound. I often walk around my house when nobody is there speaking it aloud to myself and the cats. I will probably crochet it on something one of these days.
My favourite moment in Starlink: Battle for Atlas occured when, muddled and in the heat of a fight, I attached a weapon the wrong way around. Ubisoft's latest is a very late entry into the toys-to-life marketplace: when you play it, your controller houses a little mount upon which you slot a pilot, a star-fighter, and various weapons that then appear in the game.
Breath of the Wild, which I'm finally starting to properly play at the moment, is a game that's filled with clever ideas and neat little bits of business. But as I zero in on my first 20 hours, one of the things that's standing out as being particularly ingenious is the manner in which you mark things down on the map screen. Breath of the Wild's pins are properly brilliant.
I bounced off the latest Zelda, Breath of the Wild, quite quickly when it first came out, but over the last few weeks a very specific element of the game has been bringing me back. It's an animation that plays at certain moments, most commonly when you climb a new tower and unlock a new part of the game's gigantic map of Hyrule.
Astro Bot Rescue Mission is a pretty wonderful platformer, but VR does something that lifts it to the heady realms of actual magic: it allows you to climb inside its world.
Games get really interesting, I think, when designers start to think about what the player won't be able to do as much as they think about what they will be able to do. It's all a bit topsy-turvy. In my head, at least, games start with lists of possibilities and positives. What if you could eat a mushroom and grow really giant? What if you could move in every direction and shoot in every direction at the same time? But there are games out there that I really suspect were built in a very different way. And it turns out I've spent the last month playing one of them, and the last week playing another. They are both rich in joy, and they're both by the same developer. Jeepers!
There are few pleasures in life as rich and thrilling as those offered following the spectacle of a Hideo Kojima game as it crawls into the light. The feints! The sleights! The babies, in the case of Death Stranding, sloshing around in those fluey amber sarcophagi! Kojima is a wonderful game designer, but what he really excels at these days is this. The protracted and bizarro reveal, often employing Geoff Keighley - these are strange times - as the platonic ideal of a straight man.
Whenever I hear someone talking about the great old days of games, back when the designers would just chuck you right into the middle of it all ("Getting stuck on a puzzle?" I once heard Tim Schafer say, "We used to call that content"), I think of one game that did just this, and very literally. About a third of the way into Tomb Raider 2, Lara Croft goes for a short ride on a submarine. The ride is short because the submarine crashes or explodes or something wretched and annoying like that. Anyway, the cutscene ends ambiguously and then the next level begins and...well, total darkness. Or just about. You're floating at the bottom of the ocean surrounded by shadows and water and not much else. There is, initially at least, very little suggestion of where to go. My sense, upon first encountering this level, was that the game had broken itself in a very unusual way: it had broken itself in that the setting had survived but the game had somehow run out of narrative to fill it with. It was like the designers had downed tools and backed away.
I made panna cotta for the first time a few months back. It was delicious. Also, I learned two things, the first of which is that it's panna cotta and not pannacotta. Who knew?
What did you do during the incursions? When the city was under threat from within and without, when the petty, tooled-up factions were bristling and looking for any excuse to kick off, and then every few minutes they would burst through cyberspace (or whatever it is) at a new location and initiate a major scuffle?
There is a special kind of halo around the things games do that they don't really have to. The radio stations in GTA, or the fact that the GPS disappears when you go through a tunnel. The tinkle of shell-casings hitting the floor in a shooter that you would assume is too brisk and frowny for such distractions. The plaque you sometimes find by monuments on the battle royale island of Fortnite. These things don't define a game, but they quietly help to make things feel richer. They are signs that someone cares, and maybe, even, that somebody was having fun thinking of the fun that you would one day have in the worlds they were making.
A lot of scriptwriting lore has pretty much gone mainstream by now. We're all supposed to know that good writers show and don't tell - so much so that it's enough to make you ask, reeeeeeally...? - and if you hang about around the local cinema you'll probably hear people coming out of screenings talking about delayed third acts and all that kind of densely technical stuff. (Also you'll go home smelling of popcorn, which is always money in the bank.) One of the most interesting things that scriptwriters like to talk about, though, doesn't seem to have broken through in quite the same way. One of the most interesting questions scriptwriters often ask themselves is also one of the most fundamental. Whose story is this?
Oddworld Inhabitants has just announced that Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath is coming to Nintendo Switch. While there's no release date yet, the studio also announced that the game will be playable at next week's EGX in Birmingham. (EGX is a gaming show run by Eurogamer's parent company.)
There is little reason to use fast travel in Marvel's Spider-Man. Manhattan, as Insomniac Games draws it, is a sparkling but compact metropolis: no two points are far apart. More importantly, getting from A to B is an authentic delight for this particular Spider-Man. The web-swinging is endlessly enjoyable with its lullaby see-sawing between the city streets and the wild blue sky. Why would you want to skip all that just to get to your destination a few seconds sooner?
Fortnite's new High Stakes mode is a bit of a classic, I think. It's only just dropped in but, two games down, I'm already mourning the moment they snatch it away from us again. It's super simple: you land somewhere, hunt for a safe and extract a jewel from inside, and then you have to lug it to a getaway van. It's squad-based, so it's all about teamwork, and because this is Fortnite, the intricacies in terms of approach are already muddling my brain.
Can you truly say you have lived until you have lamped someone with a manhole cover in Insomniac's new Spider-Man game? Sure, you may have known happiness to a certain degree. You may have known love, even. You may have rolled the dice, as the saying goes, and landed a few sevens. But lamping someone with a manhole cover? It's top-tier. Top of the shop, as an older generation might put it. Bam!
I didn't realise, until I started playing The Messenger last week, that I had started to see this kind of game as a bit of a chore. The kind of game I'm talking about is the rigorously observed reconstruction of an 8-bit style of gaming, right down to the limited colours, three-slot save system and chugging, popping, tweeting sound effects. And I only realised I had started to see all this as a chore because I found I was surprised, an hour or so in, to be enjoying myself so much.