Diary: April Arcadia

Hi there! So this is a new thing here on AR. And if you’re concerned about that, it’s reasonable! I’ve lost count of the number of new things I’ve started writing on AR and then failed to follow up on.

The idea with this one is that it’ll be very informal and, unlike a proper article or review, won’t be about a single thoroughly developed idea or a single game analysed in detail. It’ll just be me talking about a few things that’ve struck me over the previous month. It’ll all be about games, of course, rather than cars that inexplicably mount the pavement when they see me walking along.

What I’m basically saying is that this is an excuse for me to throw a few hundred words at something I haven’t had the time to write about in more depth, or that just wouldn’t support a full article alone. Yes?

(Feedback welcomed. If you think this boring and self-indulgent, tell me! If you want to see more about a game or subject I’ve mentioned, tell me!)

 

That New YouTube Paradigm

This year I’ve been trying to get into videos as a vector for interesting games coverage. If that makes it sound like I think of YouTube games coverage as a disease, just think of it as the bitterness of new media lashing out at new new media.

An stupid photo of a cat illustrating what I think of YouTubeI have to admit I’m still struggling to find a regular ‘tuber who I can tolerate, let alone actually like. No names named as this largely comes down to personal preference. Fortunately, whilst I’ve not found anyone regular I have found some short series and occasional videos I’ve really enjoyed.

Rock Paper Shotgun (commercial disclaimer: I have written short news posts for them occasionally) have had some good video series lately. Best of all, they’re of interest to non-PC gamers too. My favourite has been COGWATCH, a series from ex-contributor and now one quarter of Shut Up And Sit Down Quinns. The angle here is that each video zooms in on a single game mechanic and an example of it done really well. It’s well worth a watch.

Rab Florence recently completed a series called File System Aging, also for RPS. It’s ostensibly a series addressed to Rab’s daughter, articulating some of his fondest or most significant personal gaming memories. It’s an interesting idea, trying to speak about games across generational lines that don’t yet exist, and as an old Consolevania fan I always enjoy Rab’s narration and video composition, but it can stray quite far into pomposity.

starseed-pilgrimFriend o’ Arcadian Rhythms Joel Goodwin recently completed an excellent mini-movie in celebration of his site Electron Dance reaching five years of age. It’s quite an accomplishment, but don’t worry Joel – Arcadian Rhythms is only ten months your junior! Oh wait, I meant to say the video is quite an accomplishment, being both clever and funny. It’s titled The Five Stages of Starseed Pilgrim and explores the stages that a lot of Starseed Pilgrim players reportedly pass through. I like Joel’s video work and I hope he does more. His style reminds me of Adam Curtis, in that he pursues a consistent narrative and uses footage and music to alternately support or act in juxtaposition to that narration. Anyway, go watch that video so the numbers get big enough that he’ll do more, eh?

Probably one of my least favourite things about regularly checking in on YouTube is the way the site continually recommends me anti-Anita Sarkeesian attack videos. What’s with that? Surely the Google-owned video giant has algorithmic analysis clever enough to realise that I like thoughtful criticism, not reactionary drivel? Shame I can’t customise my homepage to remove these recommendations entirely: I’m tired of playing whack-a-mole.

 

Rubbing my face into video games

Believe it or not I have been playing a few games lately. I’ve already written about Pillars of Eternity and may write more, so shall say no more here.

I’ve also been playing Minecraft again! This is because I’ve gotten a bit of work writing about it (also again). I’ve actually not revisited the game since it officially launched, so it’s nice to see what’s changed as well as sink into its pleasures once more. The downside is that sometimes I’m having to cheat my way to higher-level play in order to write what I need to write. It does ruin the magic a little, but to be fair the game being a global mega-phenomenon for half a decade has probably robbed it of more magic than playmode switching possibly could.

Last night, feeling a desire to fill an hour with some simple-minded gaming, I fired up Costume Quest – a recent Humble Bundle acquisition. I’d never played this before and didn’t expect much. Having finished it, I feel the criticisms about how easy and repetitive it is are wholly on the money. But it is also briskly paced, charmingly presented and largely doesn’t waste your time. I don’t think the world needs much more saying about Costume Quest, but in a world of post-scarcity gaming and bundle fatigue it’s nice to fire up something I incidentally acquired and play through the whole thing just because it was quite nice.

Mobile gaming! I’m still doing it. At the moment I’m going through a third stage of regular play with The Battle Cats. I’m now well past the point of ordinary investment: I’ve beaten chapter three, aka. new game ++, and acquired all treasures. My regular units are fully-levelled and I’m slowly boosting their bonus levels. I’m chipping my way through the extra challenge levels; I’ve got lots of chapters still to beat on one star, but I’m also going back and beating earlier ones on two stars now.

A frankly embarrassing screenshot of The Battle Cats presentation of the female form

Then again: this shit. Battle Cats veers wildly between ridiculous and creepy.

Why? Well… Battle Cats offers a mix of challenges that demand different strategies. That’s it, really, but it’s something that a lot of free to play titles seem to miss. Challenge can be partly down to level generation aka. luck (Candy Crush), how much time or money you or an opponent have invested (Clash of Clans) or simply run up against the rule of diminishing returns (Puzzle & Dragons). In Battle Cats there’s always something to do and if you get stuck it means you either need a new strategy or you come back later. It’s rewarding to simply take on a few new challenges each day and feel that I, and my squad of cats, have progressed as a result. I really don’t understand why PONOS’ approach to monetised mobile gaming is so rare. They’ve produced a great game that’s varied, fun and challenging for players on either side of that artificial core/casual divide, that clearly has a massive player base and is making them enough money for ongoing support and the creation of new content. But then Battle Cats is not widely written about either. If you visit the hated Metacritic you’ll see just two reviews. What’s up with that?

 

Dare Dairy

I wanted to keep these diary posts fairly brief, figuring that people won’t want to read a huge amount of my usual waffle if there isn’t some sort of point there. I’m not sure how well I’ve done at that, but ehhh. Fuck it. Now here’s a quick round up of closing thoughts.

Photo of the bassist from The Kodan ArmadaZoe Quinn (don’t anyone fucking start) wrote a piece about Punk Games over on Boing Boing’s Offworld back in March. I was as overjoyed to hear about that as you might imagine, having written this essay for Kill Screen last year. It even pulls out the Sideburns “three chords” anecdote. Ack. But really, despite my contempt for punk being appropriated for a lazy metaphor in video games writing, this piece is more a screed written in support of the “alt games” movement, which is basically an attempt to establish a new space for the creation of weird and non-commercial games now that “indie games” has been thoroughly market-colonized and robbed of whatever specific meaning the term once had. So you know. I’m cool with the article. I just wish that people would stop using punk for superficial metaphors. In fairness I may be the only person in the world who gives a shit about that.

As a corresponding reminder concerning how thick, conservative and reactionary people on the internet who are into games can be, here’s a Robert Rath Critical Intel piece from January. It’s basically a historically-supported smackdown to people who regard women fighting with swords in fantasy role-playing games to be unrealistic, an argument so fundamentally stupid I actually can’t think of a way I want to end this sentence. But then we live in a world where Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire is one of the most popular fantasy properties going, so I guess institutional, internalised misogyny sells, even when you’re down with dragons and magic. YES I AM HERE TO INSULT YOUR FAVOURITE THINGS.

Something that made me much happier was another RPS series (look, I’m not shilling for them, honestly they’ve just had some great material lately) titled Electric Dreams. It’s the work of Michael Cook, an AI researcher and PhD student. Electric Dreams is all about AI, research and games development, and its five instalments variously explore the failure of the last fifteen years to develop on past hopes for AI, Cook’s optimism about the present state of AI research, where player expectations and artificial intelligence meet and collide (this one is particularly of interest to laymen wanting to understand what “AI” means when we talk about games), and where the future may still take us. AI is not written about enough and doesn’t receive as much development focus as it should, and hopefully this series is a step in the right direction.

A final shout-out: check out Chris Spann’s Recycle Bin podcast if you aren’t already following it. It’s basically Room 101 but for video games and is both entertaining and thought-provoking, a bit like Room 101 used to be. Chris has been joined by co-host Laura Rich for ages now (I can’t remember exactly when she joined, but she was a guest in the third episode) and they’re still turfing up interesting guests to point at things and talk about how shit they are.

 

That’s your lot. Unlike a teenager’s diary, this one is open to being read. If you did, maybe pour out your hearts below?

P.S. your crush is totally into you so ask them out already, geez. And don’t worry about making the team. The team is for thickos. Peace out, 1990s!

P.P.S. Happy May Day.

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