It's easy to underestimate the humble door. You open it, you go through. Sometimes, you must find the key first, and for many games, that's the whole extent of the player's interactions with doors. They're something to get past, something that cordons off one bit from the next bit. A simple structural element, of special interest to level designers, but not the ones who turn the knobs.
Summer landscapes can be taken for granted as bright and breezy backdrops to games. However, what spring started, summer finishes. Following on from the rebirth of spring, summer further fuels and invigorates the landscape. Lands become majestically colourful, gorgeously lush and bursting at the seams with life as the peak of the growing season and life cycle are hit. Bright sunlight basks the land in glorious light and stretches the days, while vivid foliage spreads as far as the eye can see, punctuated by glorious flowering plants, laying a carpet of life over the land. These are the hazy days of summer, indeed. Life breeds life and swathes of landscape are transformed, covered in lush foliage and colour, while the land becomes more productive, increasing interaction and function.
If you're looking for an expert on immersive sims, speak to Randy Smith.
There may be spoilers for the Dishonored series of games ahead.
Let's Play videos can be appealing for a variety of reasons. Sometimes you watch them because you like the personality of the presenter. Other times you want to get tips or tricks and seek a video walkthrough. And often gameplay videos are engaging because someone is trying to pull off a particularly impressive challenge, like, say, playing Dark Souls 3 with a controller made from bananas, or speedrunning a title to near perfection.
Arkane Studios is known as the developer of "immersive simulations" - worlds you sink into, wallow in, made up of intricately interlocking systems tied to exotic abilities, which can be manipulated to resolve a scenario any number of ways. But perhaps it would be more accurate to describe the Lyon and Austin-based company's creations as "emersive" sims, frameworks you struggle to break free of, using tools that aren't quite under the designer's control.
Dishonored 2 begins by throwing you in a locked office against your will, trapped and unarmed. An open window across the room teases the possibility of escape, so - once you're done rifling through the room, reading discarded notes and idly spinning a globe - you climb onto the ledge outside. There, you are teased with a vista of smokestacks and gothic spires. You can taste freedom, but a huge pipe blocks your path. You head back inside, and it's only then that you realise there's another window, closed, just across the room. Open it up and slip outside, and that promise of freedom is fulfilled.
"Most [players] struggle for a while," says level design director Christophe Carrier. "When they find that these windows can be opened, they often react like 'Of course, how didn't I think of it before? For them, it became some kind of unconscious guideline for the entire game that is: 'I should try things that I assumed were not possible'."
The resulting freedom can be discombobulating; today, players are hardwired to seek out alternate routes solely for collectibles, rather than to move through a level in an unexpected way. Dishonored 2's trick is no more than a modern variant on old school side-scrolling platformers would reward you for moving left along the screen at the beginning of a level before venturing right.
2015 for me was dominated by a single game - The Witcher 3. Nothing came remotely close to CD Projekt's dark fantasy masterpiece. It was everything I hoped it would be and so much more. This year, it's been far harder for me to pick a favourite. I agonised over my best games list for a silly amount of time, and even now I'm not entirely happy with it.
Part of the problem is, when I look back upon 2016, I don't really think about specific games at all. Instead, my mind conjures little moments and individual scenes from about half a dozen titles. I think about the mesmerising gears of Dishonored 2's clockwork mansion. I think about wandering the detritus-strewn streets of Mankind Divided's Golem City. I think about the little puff of confetti that accompanies the opening of any ride on Planet Coaster. I think about how I killed a man in Hitman by moving some pencils around on his desk. I think about Trico's feathers.
2016 for me, was all about the little details. And I don't think this is accidental. This year has seen a marked shift in the priorities of developers.
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 fašade of a perfectly clean score sheet.
Here's what's clear: big console game sales are down. Titanfall 2, Watch Dogs 2, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, Dishonored 2 and more all failed to even match the sales of their predecessors at launch. People I've spoken to in the UK retail business are in panic mode. The PS4 has been a huge success. Xbox One is doing well. What's going on?
I've seen plenty of theories, some better than others. Writing on Eurogamer's sister site, Gamesindustry.biz, Rob Fahey puts forward one of the better ones: that the rise of digital means fewer physical game sales are in people's hands to trade-in. Certainly in the UK, which has a huge pre-owned video game market, that makes a lot of sense.
Fahey also suggests more and more games are designed to keep us playing week after week and, as a result, we're not interested in playing as many new games. Think Destiny or Minecraft or FIFA. Again, I agree this plays a part. I played Destiny for pretty much two years solid, tuning in each week to the detriment of trying out new games.
What a confounding beast Dishonored 2 is. Like its predecessor, this is a game that gives players lots and lots of ways to murder people, then shames them for doing so. After every level it offers you a rating based on your conspicuousness and kill count. "Taking lives will cause Emily (or Corvo) and their allies to grow more cynical. Too many deaths will lead to higher levels of bloodfly infestation and a darker final outcome for the story" it tells you, wagging its schoolmarm finger in disapproval.
Editor's note: Dishonored 2 is out shortly, and we've just got our hands on final code. We'll be bringing you our full review early next week, but before then here are impressions culled from the game's opening hours.
Last night, Bethesda laid clear its policy on media reviews from Dishonored 2 onwards. In a short statement on its official site from global content lead Gary Steinman - himself a former games journalist - Bethesda announced that you won't see any reviews before the launch of its games because it will continue to send out code to publications a day before release. It's not a particularly surprising statement, even if Bethesda deemed it shocking enough to put behind an age gate.
It is anti-consumer, though, and riddled with inconsistencies. "We want everyone, including those in the media, to experience our games at the same time," reads the statement, knowing as well as we do that final code for Skyrim Remastered is currently in the hands of many 'influencers' and has been for some time. Bethesda claims it wants you to get the game the same time as everyone else, at the same time as announcing a pre-order bonus that lets people play a day early. Where to find the truth in that message?
It's not unknown for publishers to favour preferred publications when it comes to supplying review code - as recently as last week 2K elected to hand out Civilization 6 code to a handful of sites while the rest of us had to wait until a few short hours before its official release, which meant getting a review up of a game of Civilization's scope and size at launch was impossible for those outside the chosen few.
Last week, Aoife and I paid a visit to Bethesda's offices in London to get hands on with Dishonored 2; we had a couple of hours to fully explore the clockwork mansion level as we learned how to use Emily's powers and got reacquainted with Corvo now he's learned to talk.
Gamescom appointments are, by and large, a hurried affair. Get in, ask questions, get out, write up. Everyone, from developers to journalists to exhibitors, has a harried look in their eye and half a mind on where their next caffeinated beverage is coming from. So, sometimes it's nice to get a chance to sit down in an air-conditioned room and have a slightly longer, more relaxed chat about a game you're genuinely looking forward to playing. In this case, it's Dishonored 2, and I spoke to co-creative director Harvey Smith about, well, pretty much everything to do with the game, to be honest. The thought processes that led to the sequel, the reasoning behind having Emily and Corvo as dual (but not intersecting) protagonists, the nightmare that is designing levels that can be played not only with different sets of powers but also no powers at all, and certain incidents that may or may not involve drowning chambermaids.
We've decided to take a slightly different tack with our E3 awards this year. Rather than pick a single game of the show, or nominate games to other sub-categories based on genre or achievement in some specific area of technology or design, we've simply picked five games that particularly impressed us this week and presented them with our Editors' Choice Awards.