GAME OF THE YEAR 2014 – (10) VALIANT HEARTS: THE GREAT WAR

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If there’s one thing (of many) that is represented incorrectly in video games, it’s war. Typically, being in a video game war is akin to the most awesome death rollercoaster you’ve ever imagined. They overflow with excitement, bravery and strangling foreigners with the American flag. Games make war fun and badass. Hell, I remember when I slowly knifed an enemy soldier in Modern Warfare 2, watched his eyes roll back in his terrified head and then proceeded to kill a hundred more dudes immediately afterwards. War + Game = Whatevs.

I have never been in a war but I have read and watched enough about them that at least I know they seem like the worst thing ever. Among the vast amount of wars that have ravaged the globe over the centuries, one of the most brutal and senseless was World War 1. Ending up with a death toll close to 20 million, “The Great War” has been very briefly touched upon in video games but the true harrowing cost of those four years of blood and sacrifice is something that would be near impossible to capture in any way that would make sense.

Valiant Hearts comes close.

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While its big brother studios were off making huge open-worlds filled with endless side missions with teams of thousands, Ubisoft Montpellier have designed a small story of four characters that stabs your in the heart with pain and sorrow at every opportunity. This studio have gone out on very precarious limbs before with Beyond Good & Evil and From Dust. With Valiant Hearts, I think they have once again made it clear that story and characters tower over any number of missions that involve gunning down 8,000 enemies with kick-ass guns.

See, my perfect war game would consist of 20 hours of sitting in a trench with very minimal action, lots of crying and perhaps suicide at the finish. Yes, yes I know it wouldn’t sell many copies. But it would be worlds more interesting than forgettable mission after forgettable mission of moving from A to B to C. Valiant Hearts is in the spirit of this “perfect game”. As a 2D adventure game, there’s action and puzzle-solving but the thing sets it apart is the characters backstories and the developer’s dedication to research. Pick up an object and some soft piano begins while you have the option to read about how that object helped soldiers through the worst hell they have ever been a part of. Hope exists in Valiant Hearts but it is often lost in the mud and insanity so reading such historical facts, real-life letters to home and fascinating notes fills that void.

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Thankfully, the gameplay itself is fun and rewarding. A depressing game that tries to show the player the horrors of conflict is great but if it’s boring to play, then none of that would matter one bit. The puzzles are interesting and action sequences are tense. Every character has different attributes and skills and the game transports you to very different and very fascinating ravaged areas of Europe.

But let’s get down to what really matters: Valiant Hearts is one of those rare games that reminds you how utterly horrific human beings can be. Obviously, this doesn’t sound like “fun” but I don’t care. There’s enough games where you fistpump the air at the end. Even in its small victories, no section of this game doesn’t make you want to celebrate anything. And that’s the point. Whatever your situation, if you are sitting there playing Valiant Hearts then chances are your life is much more comfortable than any of the characters that are portrayed. They have been numbed to death and tragedy to an alarming degree. They are trapped in hell while you press pause to see if that latest episode of Agents Of Shield has downloaded.

I can’t even fathom what soldiers in World War 1 were subjected to. The raw nerve of it. Like being told by another person to walk into instant suicide basically because that’s also what the enemy is doing. It is behaviour that should be reserved for madmen. I never felt even a hint of consequence in countless games that had me storming Omaha Beach or firing rocket launchers at tanks but a small moment in Valiant Hearts where I swung a shovel at someone’s head left me stunned. Because I knew this simple act would have grave consequences.

Valiant Hearts is a brave, rewarding game that left me terrified. Terrified to be yet again reminded that throughout our past and into our future, human beings will continue to be monsters with very little prompting.

Pretty sweet achievements, though.

 

NECESSARY ROUGHNESS: THE VIOLENCE OF THE LAST OF US

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Stomach-churning levels of violence in video games have probably peaked. It would be a surprise to encounter a more horrific act of carnage than what is already contained in Raven Software’s Soldier Of Fortune series or Rockstar’s Manhunt.  If you can tolerate those displays of brutality, then I wager not much is going to bother you in the future.

Under the surface of slit throats and caved-in skulls however, there’s not much of interest going on in most cases. That isn’t to say the violence in games is mindless (I don’t work for FOX News), but it took one game to make me realise that all violence that I have previously experienced, seen or taken part in is largely forgettable. Sure, I still have memories of executing the perfect murder in Hitman or gunning down wave after wave of faceless terrorists in a Call Of Duty game but I was taken aback at how all of it now fades into the background. A whole life of virtual killing left in the dust by one game.

Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us.

Two decades after an worldwide outbreak of a fungus-based virus that turns people into homicidal monsters, The Last Of Us tells the story of Joel and Ellie. A middle-aged man and a teenage girl. Through various circumstances they end up travelling together across the USA in search of…well, I won’t go into any more details. It’s best for you to discover these things for yourself.

The country is soaked in death. The military is everywhere trying to keep the peace through strict and violent law inside quarantine zones. For the survivors that aren’t infected, day-to-day existence is pure survival. In addition to the virus stricken Stalkers, Clickers, and Bloaters, humans play a large part in your obstacle to where you need to go.

Bandits, survivalists and others are all out for themselves. In abandoned towns and suburbs, they will kill to protect what’s theirs. Nobody can be trusted. They fight with whatever weapons are at hand. Revolvers, shotguns, molotov cocktails and machetes all pose a threat at every corner.

However, no weapon is strong enough to defeat what Joel and Ellie possess: loss. They are both driven by it. They have both suffered before meeting each other and are connected by it. It took the entire span of the game for this to become totally apparent but when it does, every horrific act they have delivered upon people is not only understandable but absolutely vital.

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Joel is a broken man barely holding a explosive rage within himself. Ellie is also frustrated and angry, mostly due to how people see her. But throughout the game their relationship grows in a very natural and convincing way. They act like human beings. People who you might know. All their emotions bubble to the surface with every word spoken between them and every moment they have to defend themselves. It’s a result of Naughty Dog’s brilliant writing and the convincing performances of Troy Baker (Joel) and Ashley Johnson (Ellie) to make everything work. Joel and Ellie are unsure of each other when they meet but as the story progresses they need each other to survive. Not only in battle but in life. They belong together.

This is how the violence is validated. They both dish out some of the most brutal acts of horror on people but at no point is it gratuitous. Every kill seems crucial. The majority of it is survival but on occasion, it is pure rage. Throughout the game, Joel needs to save Ellie and vice-versa. At one point, a bandit is choking Ellie as Joel is fighting off another. When he deals with his enemy, he looks over to see his companion near death. As a player, you can almost feel him bristle with anger.

How dare you harm us. After what she and I have been through, I will destroy you.

Now free from the other bandit, Joel runs at full speed towards Ellie’s attacker. With gritted teeth, he kicks the man in the face. He then picks up the limp body and smashes the attacker’s face repeatedly into the concrete. He helps Ellie up. They recover and move on. The desperate murder only intensifies from here on and together, they wade through carnage. The rage grows and grows. Ellie stabs men twice her size with such ferocity you’d be forgiven for thinking she had succumbed to madness. When Joel discovers an axe, he hacks away at his attacker’s throat like he’s chopping wood.  They constantly end the lives of men because if they don’t do it and make it count, then they are both dead. Both torn away from each other.

All of it justified. Every gunshot, stabbing, burning, explosion and brick to the face. It has to happen. It needs to occur. All of it reflected in the conversations they have. No matter the subject, it’s clear they have been affected by what they have been forced to do when they speak to each other. Joel and Ellie are the main characters in The Last Of Us but it’s obvious everyone in this world has engaged in some level of violence to keep on breathing and keep moving forward. Everyone needs to be a ferocious killer to survive.

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I have written in the past about the lack of meaning in violent games. I never expected to be sitting here with a solution. I asked a question and Naughty Dog answered. They delivered violence that means something. Not only to Joel and Ellie but to the player. I was taken on this journey with them on an emotional and very human level. I felt their tension and their anger. Every time they muttered a “motherfucker” under their breath, I was right there beside them. With every kill, a true understanding of what survival horror could be began to take shape. It is necessary to the experience and will most likely never be matched. Not in a similar way or tone, at least.

In July, a ‘remastered’ version of The Last Of Us was released for the PlayStation 4. With better visuals, director commentary, in-game photo mode and downloadable content included, it sounds like the definitive package. I’m hesitant to go out and buy it. It may have been updated and improved but experiencing that game for the second time is something I’m not sure about. The art is beautiful, the story compelling and the gameplay completely rewarding. However, the split-second desperation won’t be there. Not with the same impact. Joel and Ellie’s journey wouldn’t seem right without the full bone-crunching concussion of what I consider to be the third main character: the violence. It is merciless, messy and perfect. It feeds into everything the characters do and every emotion the player feels. Diving headlong into it a second time wouldn’t be the same.

When the game ended, I realised I will now look at violence in games through a different lens. What Naughty Dog achieved in this game has changed me and I can only assume it is for the better. I hope video games can be changed too.

It’s Just A Hallway

The scariest thing in the world is my own imagination. Seriously, you have no idea what inhuman horrors crawl around in there. Neither do I, until it is unleashed and I just want to run to the nearest hole and stay there until morning.

Terrifying personal mindscapes aside, they can’t exist without some sort of trigger. Every once in a while, such triggers appear and I’m stuck rigid to my seat. Too frightened to stay, too compelled to move. These events come in many forms but the most memorable that towers above everything else is Regan McNeill’s bedroom door in The Exorcist.

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There, that one. The door in the background. As Father Merrin and Father Karras take a well-earned rest from the demon Pazuzu, the bedroom door remains closed. All through the film, that door is approached several times. And every time, it reveals something more horrific. But that’s the point. Every second that the camera gets closer to the door, ready to reveal its terror, my mind races with unholy thoughts. What is going to be behind there this time? Do I want to know? Can I tear myself away?

At the time of writing, the video game trade show Gamescom is winding down in Cologne, Germany. Second only to E3 in size and scope, Gamescom attracted every major publisher and game manufacturer from around the world. Many games were revealed and most of them looked amazing.

Sony had a press conference to show off their new wares for the Playstation 4. Somewhere in the middle of the briefing, a strange video advertising something called “P.T.” appeared. It contained a talking, bleeding bag, creepy hallways and dark mystery. The video said that it was an “interactive teaser” and it was now available for download. What lay in wait on my PS4 is, hands down, the most fascinating and terrifying “game” I’ve played in 2014.

The main reason for this is this hallway.

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This is where P.T. (short for ‘playable teaser’) essentially begins. This hallway. An incredibly realistic rendering of a mundane section of a house. Bland pictures on the wall, faded paint, polished floorboards and some of the most effective lighting I’ve ever seen in a game.

As I take my first steps, sounds emerge. It’s raining outside and somewhere else in the house is a news report about a murder. Already, I’m tense.

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Several times throughout the game, I walked down this hallway. Most of the time, it is the only safe haven in the house. Each time I creep along, I come to that right turn to the next part of the house. And each time, I’m terrified of what might be waiting for me around that corner.

Eventually, I find out. But it never lessens the raw nerve-scraping terror I feel whenever I steel myself to approach that corner again. In fact, considering the disturbing and shocking things that are in other parts of the house, the corner only becomes increasingly less pleasant.

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This is insane. It’s a computer-generated video game hallway. How in the blue hell can it be so terrifying? Because my mind allows it to be and because the developers of P.T. have executed their goals so precisely. That’s how. The details are staggering. The family photos covered in a sinister vibe act as tombstones in front of scattered pill packets and beer bottles. The phone doesn’t work. Food has been left on counter tops and gone bad. Whatever happened in this house, it wasn’t good.

So as it turns out, P.T. is an interactive teaser trailer for the new Silent Hill game reportedly being made by Hideo Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro. Which makes it all the more exciting. The Silent Hill franchise has enjoyed the lavish surroundings of mediocrity for far too long. If P.T. is any indication of where Kojima and Del Toro are taking the series, it could be truly groundbreaking.

The events of P.T. chilled me to the bone more than any other game in years. Its photorealistic visuals, creepy sound design and baffling mystery all lead to a very exciting future for whatever full product this eventually becomes.

It also proves that, just like the bedroom door in The Exorcist, it doesn’t take much to set your mind on fire with horror. Just a hallway. The most terrifying hallway I’ve ever seen.

 

A Few Words About Destiny

My total playing time in the entire Halo series amounts to roughly three to five minutes of Halo 3: ODST. So my experience with games developed by the Bellevue, Washington-based company Bungie is minimal. The official Alpha and Beta periods for their next game, Destiny, have come and gone. The full game proper launches on the 9th of September and from my time playing the early parts of it, I couldn’t be more excited. I even went to so far as to pre-order one of those stupidly rare Collector’s Editions. Complete with talking Peter Dinklage floating robot thing.

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It’s been a good long while since a major, multi-million dollar game sunk its claws into my delicate skin but all signs point to me playing Destiny for an obscene amount of hours. The main reason is it’s a great deal of fun. The world is fascinating, the combat is impactful and the prospect of scouring each and every planet for loot is a lure too strong to ignore. Every inch of the game has me utterly enchanted. I want to take my time. Sit on the ground and just breathe in and out in this universe.

In addition to the desire for solitude, Destiny’s multiplayer aspects are also my cup of tea. Running around (and dancing) with friends is enjoyable but I especially like the concept of completing a mission together, returning to the Tower and everyone splitting up to take care of their own respective business. Check your mail. Redeem your bounties. Upgrade your weapons. Everyone meet back here in ten minutes because we need get back into the hunt. That loot ain’t gonna collect itself. Or head out to the Crucible for more traditional PvP multiplayer. There was only one mode on offer during the Beta (two, if you count the Iron Banner limited time events) and it was a good way to get to grips with the most hectic of skirmishes. There seems to be a lot more modes to come in the full game so it will be interesting how and where everyone’s skills will fit.

The class that best suited me was the Hunter. I enjoy the sniper and scout rifles and the frenetic pace of stabbing enemies up close is the perfect amount of slightly-too-satisfying-violence. Plus, the Vanguard who sells you Hunter-specific gear in the Tower is voiced by Nathan Fillion so you can’t really go wrong there. In fact, the voice acting across the board is phenomenal. Fillion, Gina Torres (Zoe From Firefly), Lance Reddick (Colonel Daniels from The Wire), Bill Nighy (Bill Nighy from everything), Shohreh Aghdashloo (Tali’s mother from Mass Effect 3) and James Remar (Ajax from The Warriors) all suit the atmosphere of Destiny’s world in such a uniform way so as to never feel like you’re just talking to an actor in a recording booth.

On the whole, Destiny seems fantastic. Packed with enough content to sink your Guardian’s teeth into but at the same time, there’s enough space to breathe and quietly reflect on the surroundings if you need to. I plan to do this a lot.

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Despite my positive feelings, there has been a slow but steady criticism of the Beta period of the game. Players are concerned there won’t be enough on offer when the game finally ships in September. Will there be enough areas to explore? The enemies seem to be spawning way too fast. Will the level cap be high enough? All these points are valid.

All these concerns seem to come from one place: hope. Bungie have said they plan to support Destiny for ten years. Whether that simply means a ton of add-on content or several sequels is not exactly known. But it’s this ambitious fortitude that is giving potential fans some pause. Everyone who wants to jump into these deep waters wants to make sure the water is warm enough first. Remember, Bungie made five Halo games before starting work on Destiny so they know a thing or two about the longevity of fictional universes. Players are simply hoping that when they jump off, Bungie will be there to catch them with meaningful content and satisfying worlds.

I have faith, and that slightly confuses me. I have no history with Bungie. No past knowledge of their products. So why is it that I believe they’ll come through with the goods? I had a great time with the Alpha and Beta but those are barely scratching the surface of Destiny. What makes me think it will fulfill my expectations?

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Before I try to figure out the answer, have a look at this. Back in May of 2012, Bungie’s publisher, Activision, was neck-deep in lawsuits surrounding the developers of Call Of Duty. During these proceedings, a ‘highly-confidential’ contract with Bungie first came to light detailing the first hints of what Destiny would be. Here’s some highlights:

  • The contract between Activision and Bungie stipulates that Bungie will develop four “sci-fi fantasy, action shooter games” codenamed Destiny. Additional content packs or DLC, codenamed Comet will also be released. The four Destiny games will be released in the Fall of 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2019 followed by Comet DLC in 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020.
  • The contract states that Destiny will initially only be available on Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and later systems, codenamed Xbox 720.
  • “Licensor agrees that it shall not wilfully take any actions (or make any omissions) in its development for the Xbox 360 version of Destiny Game #1 to hinder or undermine the ability to also develop Destiny Game #1 for the PS3. In no event shall Licensor be required to simultaneously ship Destiny Game #1 for the Xbox 360 and PS3 in the Fall of 2013.”
  • Bungie owns the intellectual property for both Destiny and the Comet additional content.
  • The commencement date for development is April 16 2010.
  • Activision will pay Bungie a ‘Quality Bonus’ of $2.5 million should Destiny score at least 90 or higher on GameRankings.com (“or equivalent reputable services if gamerankings.com is no longer in service”) within 30 days of release. Bungie will receive $2.5 million per year between 2010 and 2013 regardless, just as long as development milestones and quality projections are met.

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Fascinating, no? Obviously, certain dates and console platforms have changed but that contract sure does contains some zingers. It’s also interesting from a business perspective. Take away all the spider tanks, Vanguards and Guardian cloaks and what you’re left with is a product designed to potentially earn billions of dollars. Both Activision and Bungie are banking a hell of a lot on Destiny so it’s probably extremely smart for them to go through an exhaustive Alpha and Beta period for the final release. They need to make sure this thing drops as smoothly as possible. Especially considering a lot of games in previous years with heavy focus on multiplayer aspects have, shall we say, crashed and burned on launch day.

I’ll be there to see it happen. And I won’t be alone. I have never before seen my PlayStation Network friends list join together in unison under the same banner like this one. At one point during the Beta, I saw a 21 out of a possible 62 online. Every single one of them was playing Destiny. Worldwide, the Beta attracted 4.6 million players. So it’s almost a foregone conclusion there will be enough people dancing like fools all over the Moon.

Whether Destiny becomes a global phenomenon or a colossal failure, I’m already excited to know more. There were a lot of sections on the Beta maps that were sealed off. Either by smoky doors or invincible enemies. What’s in there? What secrets do these ruins hold? Also, the Collector’s Edition comes with a myriad of fiction-expanding journals and manuals. All ripe for picking. That’s what truly great video games can do. They can convince you that this make-believe world is not only worth your time and money but is something you desperately want to fall headlong into and never come out.

I’ll be looking out over the horizon until September.

Madness, Loss And The Dreamweb: An Interview With Stephen Marley

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This feature was originally posted on June 20, 2013.

“Someone nicked my physical copy, so I don’t have anything to put on my bookshelf either!”

That’s Stephen Marley, a science-fiction author based in the UK. He and I are lamenting the loss of an object we both once owned. I treasured it. He wrote it. And the chances of either of us finding it again are slim to none. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. If the tale of a tangible object ever needed a backstory, its this one.

A digital-only future for video games is something that has been agreed upon by most corners of the industry to be inevitable. Valve’s PC game client Steam has long been the template for the ideal vision of games distribution. For convenience sake, it sounds wonderful. No more searching for sold-out copies of major releases on launch day or risk of scratched or lost discs. All those (admittedly minor) worries will be a thing of the past. Compact discs are considered obsolete by today’s standards. Soon, so shall physical game discs.

It might be nice to no longer fill our shelves with rows and rows of game boxes but there’s an underlying tragedy in this transition. And if we’re honest, it started to happen long before Steam existed. Most game manuals are now glorified pamphlets. As in-game tutorials have become standard, we no longer require page after page of instructions on the mechanics or controls. The only reason these ‘manuals’ still exist at all is to include legal information and epilepsy warnings.

As such, any bonus physical items that seek to add to the game are increasingly rare. Extras like guidebooks, maps and comics are now solely the exclusive inhabitants of expensive collector’s editions. Which makes sense to a point. Why else would you want to spend extra money on special editions if not for the bonus material that adds to the experience?

The items themselves can vary in quality. Anything from soundtracks to art books entice the customer to part with more money. Even downloadable codes for in-game weapons have become commonplace. But the real loss with this move towards an all-digital future is a very specific item. Books or stories that flesh out the universe of the game. To help the player fall even more headlong into the world that the developer has created. These items are even more hard to find these days. Most likely they will be part of a 100+ hour old-school role-playing game as a novelty. Financially, it doesn’t make much sense for major game publishers to commission such extras and put the necessary effort into their production.

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In 1991, Neil Dodwell and David Dew were the total staff of UK developer Creative Reality. They were in the midst of making the game that would take them from obscurity to cult fame. The game was the dystopian cyberpunk adventure Dreamweb, a game I have written about before.

It revolves around a protagonist that may or may not have lost his mind and turned homicidal. As the game starts, his grip on reality is already gone. A deliberate and calculated murder spree begins and the player starts to wonder what to think when directing the actions of a serial killer. The beginning of the game barely explains his motivations.

That’s where Stephen Marley comes in.

Included with copies of Dreamweb was a physical notebook. A diary. Filled with disturbing entires that become more and more erratic with every passing day. The main character, Ryan, details nightmares of robed figures telling him to kill. ‘Diary Of A (Mad?) Man‘ was not only a disturbing and compelling read but it is an absolutely integral piece to the full experience of Dreamweb.

Marley was hired to write the diary and interviewing him, it becomes clear he was the right man for the job. “It was, I think, towards the end of 1991 that my literary agent put me in contact with Jacqui Lyons, who operated as an agent in both the literary and video game businesses. At that point I had three published novels to my name, one a historical fantasy and the other two were dark fantasies.”

“What Jacqui was looking for was someone who was ‘off the wall’. My agent obviously thought I fitted the bill. I met up with Jacqui, Neil and David in London and we got on well. A few weeks later I visited them down on the south coast and they gave me an outline of the game they were in the process of finishing.”

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Diary Of A (Mad?)Man serves as a prequel to the story of the game and gives the player an understanding of what Ryan has been through, who his closest friends are and more importantly, how broken he is.

It’s rare to find a video game today or even in the nineties where the character was completely insane when it began. But is Ryan insane? This was the main question throughout the diary and the game. A question that made them inseparable.

Marley agreed on this vision before he wrote a single word.

“Neil and David, left the diary’s storyline pretty much up to me. I wrote the title before anything else: Diary of a (Mad?)Man. Everything in the diary flows from that title. Let’s face it, in the game, Ryan, the protagonist, has a dream in which a red-robed guy tells him to kill seven people. Ryan’s response is essentially “Oh, okay then!” Of such stuff are serial killers made!”

“I took the view that the reader and player should be in two minds about Ryan’s mission, as in are they following the progress of a hero in an urban fantasy, or are they keeping track with a psychopath? When I put my take on Ryan to Neil and David, they had no problem with it. In fact they liked the ambiguity.”

Dreamweb tells such a downtrodden and bleak story that it’s difficult to find any character that is redeemable. Unlike Beneath A Steel Sky, Syndicate or Deus Ex, Ryan’s descent into madness is one completely without hope. Perhaps that is why it so compelling.

The diary delivers on its promise to tell how one man is consumed by the fear in his dreams. But it also proves to be crucial to the playing experience. On the back page, Ryan has scribbled a few notes to remember including computer passwords, door codes and his girlfriend’s birthday. Without this information, the player cannot progress in certain sections of the game.

Today, it would seem ludicrous to make a bonus item so important. Nowhere except in the diary are these notes present. They cannot be found in the game itself and as a result, would make the game impossible to finish these days were it not for a few PDF copies of the diary pages scattered around the internet.

Tales of dystopia and corrupt futures have always been a part of games and Marley understands their influences. As far the influence of the diary on him, that’s another question. “I’ve always been a fan of dystopian fiction. That pessimistic strain in literature dates back at least as far as Mary Shelley. A book I loved when I was ten, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, which is dystopian to the core, was a major influence on the nascent writer in me. As for cyberpunk, not so much a fan, although some books and movies in that genre do appeal to me. I’d say I was much more a fan of steampunk. As for whether writing the diary later influenced my own work, I’m really not sure. To date, I’ve not written anything in the same vein, but if in the future I do compose something similar it would probably be set in London’s East End – in 1888, to be precise.”

Creations like ‘Diary Of A (Mad?)Man‘ have a very special place in video game history. Tangible objects that further push the player into the game. When you commit yourself to delving deep into a game’s fiction, you want to drink heavily from its cup. And Marley’s diary is the apex of such a desire.

Marley still plays games. And takes notice of bonus items that mirror what he tried to accomplish in the early nineties. “Of course we’re now in the process of phasing from paperbacks and hardbacks to ebooks which the sentimentalist in me regrets but the realist embraces. I’m all in favour of ebooks linking up with interactive entertainment although so far I can’t say anything has blown my socks off.”

Part of the reason is because the diary in its original form will always be superior to some soulless documents you can scroll through between Adobe Reader updates. To actually flip through its pages was important. Important in a very personal way.

Here was a game that very few people knew about at the time. And an object that someone put their heart and soul into creating. All for this obscure little tale of murder and nightmares. To hold the diary when I was young felt like I was part of some exclusive club. To fully realise the true potential of Dreamweb‘s story felt special and ‘Diary Of A (Mad?) Man‘ played a large part. With the potential for an all-digital future for video games on the horizon, extras like Stephen Marley’s diary will remain a relic of history. Save for an occasional novelty items included in ultra-expensive collector’s editions, that feeling of total inclusion into a game’s universe will be lessened. And if you boil video games down to what matters most, that’s what they should strive for.

 

Aliens Infestation: The Definitive Aliens Game That Nobody Played

This feature was originally posted on Jun 13, 2013.

Let me explain for a moment the definition of being dedicated to your work. It’s going that extra mile when nobody asked you to. Only a handful of people may notice what you have done, but to them it means a lot. It means that you understood something that they didn’t even know they wanted but are suddenly very glad to receive. That’s what makes it special.

Aside from the main story campaign, Aliens: Infestation has a bonus mini-game which can be accessed from the main menu. Entitled ‘Knife Trick’, it is a timing-based challenge inspired by the scene in Aliens where the android Bishop (or artificial person, if you prefer) demonstrates his inhuman ability to play five-finger fillet. It is a great little nod to an iconic scene, obviously included just for those fans who can appreciate it. But that’s not the amazing part.

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As you can see, the mini-game itself is pretty straightforward. Just tap the stylus in the red area whenever it appears and try your best not hit the fingers. Now, have a look at the right side of this screenshot. Specifically, that yellow object. That is a piece of cornbread.

In the film, the marines complain about having to eat cornbread as a part of their meal before heading out to investigate the colony on LV-426. Despite Cpl. Hicks reassuring them that it’s “good for you boy, eat it”, nobody seems to like it. That cornbread didn’t need to be on screen during this mini-game but somebody made the conscious decision to put it there. An extra level of the movie for those keen enough to spot it. I admit, I didn’t even notice it the first time around. This is a perfect example of the attention to detail paid to Aliens: Infestation.

t the time of writing, Aliens: Colonial Marines is already a high contender to top some Worst Game Of The Year 2013 lists. I have spoken at length in a review as to why is it a very poor game and also why it fails on a very basic level: satisfying fans of Aliens. Many people say they feel ‘betrayed’ by developer Gearbox who maintained throughout development that they were huge fans of Aliens and not to worry because they were on the case and couldn’t wait to release a game that did justice to its source material once and for all. They failed.

Aliens fans started to think that the perfect Aliens experience would never be translated into a video game. No arcade or mobile games, no sharing the limelight with Predators. They wanted someone to deliver upon a promise that was put in place almost thirty years ago. Well, I have some good news.

California-based developer WayForward already did it.

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Eighteen months ago, Aliens: Infestation was released on the Nintendo DS. It is a 2D side-scrolling adventure game set after the events of Aliens. It takes the same premise as Colonial Marines but the story, events and characters are wildly different. It was published by SEGA (publisher of Colonial Marines) and despite having Gearbox’s (developer of Colonial Marines) name attached, it is clear in both the game and every press release or developer diary video that WayForward did the work. They put in the incredible amount of effort and dedication needed to translate the Aliens universe on such a small scale. To do it with this level of style and intricacy is staggering.

If you take Aliens and combine it with open-world exploration, the gameplay elements of Metroid, snappy writing and fascinating use of the DS platform, you end up with an extremely fun and rewarding experience. Incredibly, it also manages to create consistent levels of tension. Not only from the xenomorphs but from the fact that the game employs the mechanic of ‘permadeath’. Every marine can die and never return.

You start with a squad of four marines commanded by Lt. Colonel Patrick ‘Stainless’ Steele. On board the derelict Sulaco, you can recruit a total of nineteen marines. All with individual looks, dialogue and backstories. I finished the game with five marines still alive. Because of the personality infused in each character, I felt a sense of loss with every death. Just like the movie, it presents you with likeable, interesting characters and then kills them off one by one. Sometimes they are captured and you are given a short amount of time to track their vital signs on the map and recover them from being cocooned. I only managed to achieve this once. The timing is hectic. In theory, it would be possible to not lose any marines throughout the entire game but it would be a monumental challenge.

The interface is fascinating to use. Tap on the bottom screen to reload weapons, choose a marine, weld doors, check the map and turn your motion tracker on or off. Every iconic weapon is present: pulse rifle, smart gun, shotgun, incinerator unit. All with different capabilities. Even the pistol, as a last resort, isn’t without its merits.

The USS Sulaco as an environment makes complete sense from a design standpoint. Exploring its various decks as each section progressively unlocks (in a Metroid-Castlevania style) is rewarding. The aliens have built nests in the ventilation shaft throughout the entire ship that can only be accessed via explosives. As more hidden sections of the Sulaco open up, it’s clear Weyand-Yutani have been busy. The results of some of their grotesque experiments become apparent. Towards the end of the game, an unexpected spacewalk around the exterior of the ship is tense and exciting.

This is the game. You may have some hesitation due to its platform but for Aliens fans, nothing else approaches James Cameron’s science-fiction masterpiece in video game form. Facehuggers, power loaders, surly and reliable marines, the blip of the motion tracker and ‘the company’ are all intertwined in a superbly designed game.

But nobody bought the thing.

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Since its release in 2011, Aliens: Infestation for the Nintendo DS has reportedly sold 110,000 copies. To put that in perspective, Aliens: Colonial Marines sold 354,995 copies. In its first week. Just on the Xbox 360. It is also available on the PlayStation 3 and PC. It is a tragedy to see such innovation and devotion to source material not find a large audience. Meanwhile, a broken product made by people who seemed to have no passion for Aliens tops the sales charts. Despite terrible reviews, Colonial Marines is still selling well. Whereas a copy of Infestation is extremely difficult to find. As such, a game like this will probably never happen again. Not in this way and most likely, not with such care.

Since 1986, people have been waiting for the quintessential Aliens video game. It already exists. It was made with such care and obvious love of James Cameron’s film, that I can’t see it being improved upon.

At the time of writing, people are sifting through the disaster of Gearbox and the development process of Colonial Marines. Who developed how much of the game? Did Gearbox misuse funds? What was SEGA’s role in all of this? And meanwhile, sitting quietly on my desk, is a Nintendo DS game that succeeded on all fronts. Effortlessly, it gave me what I always wanted: a brilliant Aliens video game. I can’t wait to play it a second and third time. And see that cornbread again.

In Place Of Sound: Bully

Every piece of music in Rockstar Games’ Bully can exist entirely on its own. Its varied, whimsical style isn’t tied down by Bully but at the same time, intertwines perfectly with each mission in the game. On paper, anyone would think a mixture of 60’s pop and surf guitar, 70’s chase music, erratic flutes, hip-hop and cinematic influences would become a mess when actually put into practice. But its quite the opposite. Everything works in unison and flows with an ease rarely seen in some of the finest instrumental work ever created.

Played during a mission to retrieve boxing trophies for the Preppies, ‘Punishment‘​ has an eerie quality to it in the game but by itself, it is a chilled exercise in funk and classical guitar. Bully‘s composer, Shawn Lee, tells me about his goal for this track. “The process was to create something with a bit of a cinematic hip-hop feel. I remember there were vocals which were inspired by the French soundtrack Le Planete SauvageI also had a glockenspiel, a Kawai piano and the tremolo strings which were employed throughout the score to great effect. I remember this cue was quite quick and easy and obvious to do at the time. I had to work quickly as there were always so many more cues to do.”

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Ivan Pavlovich is Rockstar Games’ Music Supervisor who has overseen everything from The Warriors and Red Dead Redemption to several Grand Theft Autos and Max Payne 3. He’s the one who sent Lee an email and organised him to come to New York to compose the score. Kansas-born and London-based, Lee had a direction in place for Bully from the beginning. His challenge was to both derive tone from sections of the game and to create an overall theme for the score. “It was a bit of both I’d say,” Lee tells me, “That was certainly the overall challenge of the musical score. There were lots of different styles of music which all had to be brought together to have an overall coherent feel. Each track had its individual needs but I also had to always think about the bigger picture of the soundtrack. I did specifically compose cues for their intended use within the game.”

​If there is a single, iconic track in Bully, it’s the main theme. It plays several times throughout the game and its influence can be heard in other tracks. Its never far away from the player but surprisingly, it wasn’t recorded with a theme in mind. Lee explains. “I worked very close with Ivan (Pavlovich) and he provided me with a lot of direction and valuable communication. At times we weren’t sure what certain things needed, so it was also a voyage of discovery. The main theme was composed in the first batch of tracks that I recorded. They (Rockstar) made the decision to use it as the main theme. It did capture a lot of the signature Bully hallmarks very well.”

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Lee’s choice of tools for the score reflects its varied tunes. For composing and recording, he put everything but the kitchen sink into the process and like a magician, makes it all interlock and fit together perfectly. Considering the work he put into it, the score can only be viewed upon as a success. “I worked pretty solidly on the music for eight months. I started out doing four day weeks of twelve hour days then eventually five, six and seven day weeks towards the end. It was both enjoyable and stressful. A real challenge. Besides drums, bass and various guitars, I used piano, harpsichord, glockenspiel, vibes, autoharp, melodica, my voice and a Kawai kid’s piano that I got in Tokyo. That was my main palette of instrumentation for the game. I also used strings and horns on a few things.”

The soundtrack has a total of twenty-six pieces of music on it. When people remember Bully decades from now, Shawn Lee’s score will be at the forefront. Its playful and challenging nature is a brilliant example of how music in games can be responsive to the game and yet wholly original at the same time. It is a special piece of work and Lee knows it. “I composed over one hundred pieces of music for the game, the soundtrack album was just a small portion of the whole score. Nothing was wasted, everything evolving to the end result. I’m very proud of my work on Bully. If they ever do a sequel, I would most certainly want to do it!”.