Electron Dance

Electron Dance Highlights


The Beautiful Dead


Environmental narrative, which Richard Rouse III defined as "the little stories told through the world itself" [PPT], has been around for decades.

Even in a game as focused on play as DOOM (id Software, 1991) world-building through environment was important. The second episode "The Shores of Hell" takes place on missing Martian moon Deimos where the sky is blood-red and the UAC research base is meshed with "Satanic structures", suggestive of the moon having been dragged into the Hell dimension. In the third episode "Inferno", the player descends into Hell itself and fights through structures constructed from flesh with mutilated bodies treated as decoration. Although this graphical re-skinning has no functional impact, they help reinforce DOOM’s holy wafer-thin plot.

We’ve since experienced Valve’s highly-regarded environmental work on Half-Life (Valve, 1998) and Portal (Valve, 2007), and recent indie games such as Dear Esther (The Chinese Room, 2012) and Gone Home (The Fullbright Company, 2013) which foreground what most games consider background.

We're living in the era of environmental storytelling but, despite this, there's often confusion about what it is... and whether it's actually important.   

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The Stanley Paradox


The Stanley Parable (Galactic Cafe, 2013) was released last week and I ploughed through it over two nights, reaching a number of the game’s “endings”. I only dabbled with the original Half-Life 2 mod incarnation once, during IndieCade East earlier this year. But rather than fire up the mod as soon as I returned to Electron Dance HQ, I elected to wait for the remake.

There’s no doubt that the game is fun and you can almost smell the sweat and passion that’s been invested in its development. It might be best referred to, as Amanda Lange put it, “a work of absurdist surrealism”.

Okay, all good. But what does The Stanley Parable mean?

If you’re ready for spoilers, read on. If not, then you can choose to– oh GOD I’M NOT GOING TO MAKE THIS JOKE.    

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The Long Road to Verona


One day soon, my son is going to ask why we never park the truck in Euro Truck Simulator 2 (SCS Software, 2012) and I will explain, nay confess, that it is because it is bloody difficult. Having to get the truck into a precise position, like boarding a wagon for the Eurotunnel Freight Shuttle at Folkestone, freaks me out.

Oh, I've tried therapy. One night, while Little HM was asleep, I practised parking a trailer, determined my son would see his father reverse a truck without a hitch. And, in this parental fantasy, he would be inspired and grow up to do great things in the world.

Fortunately, the meat of ETS2 is driving and Little HM has always pushed for the longer jobs. He wants to take on a job that's too long for our driver to do in a single stretch and has to find somewhere to "sleep" in the game. At this point, the jobs available to us are not that long and we can drive from start to finish without stopping for fuel or rest.

A couple of weeks ago, we didn't have much too time to spend on the PC and we chose a job delivering coal from Luxembourg to Verona. I thought we’d be done in about twenty minutes or so.

Guess again.   

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Léon Loves Tetris

This is the concluding part of The Shooting Gallery trilogy. In part one, developers of 2D shooters spoke about their interest in the form, and part two explored the evolution of the 2D shooter.

Cards on the table time, folks. Here’s the question for the big prize. What is the 2D shooter about?

Well done! It is indeed about the shooting of stuff but let's peel back the outer layer of this onion. I also want to discard some of the games where the primary mechanic is navigating obstacles rather than shooting, such as Scramble (Konami, 1981) and Zaxxon (Sega, 1982). When we take the genre as a whole, we notice that shooters usually require players to destroy as much as possible.

leon loves tetris

Space Invaders (Taito, 1978) lays out five ranks of aliens which march across the screen and taking the occasional decisive step towards the ground. If a single alien makes it to the bottom, the game is over. Aside from the distracting saucers, the player must blast everything.

Something more recent? In arena shooter Death Ray Manta (Rob Fearon, 2012) the player must dispatch every green bunny and pink robot to proceed to the next Manta stage. Even something like Everyday Shooter (Queasy Games, 2007), where each level only lasts as long as the background track, encourages the player to wipe out as much as possible for the purpose of acquiring extra lives and creating safe space.

I'm reminded of this short exchange from Léon: The Professional (Luc Besson, 1994):

Mathilda: Léon, what exactly do you do for a living?

Léon: Cleaner.

Mathilda: You mean you're a hit man?

What is the 2D shooter about? It’s about cleaning.   

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This is the second part of The Shooting Gallery trilogy. In the first part, Shooting Spirit, developers of 2D shooters described their interest in the form.

I adore Iain McLeod's giddy shooter Spheres of Chaos 2012. The game is a reworking of McLeod’s original Spheres of Chaos, which debuted on the Acorn Archimedes computer in 1992. It shares genetic ancestry with Asteroids (Atari, 1979) although that association is misleading. The key strategy in Asteroids is to stay in the centre of the screen, whereas this is not recommended in Spheres of Chaos 2012.

It's an echo of the arcade shooters from three decades ago, even sporting an attract mode showing a breakdown of the enemies and their point values. Most of the game's muffled audio seems to have emerged from an old, broken arcade cabinet and when the player rattles the pointy powerups with a stream of bullets, it sounds like the program is out of tune.


The game often overpowers the player's senses with vibrant patterns of colour rippling out from every explosion. But my favourite moment is when the player's craft is destroyed and spinning orange shrapnel explodes across the playfield, blotting everything out. Eugene Jarvis, the developer of Defender (Williams Electronics, 1980), commented in the Chicago Tribune that the explosion of the player's ship in Defender is the biggest because “no one wants to play a game where they slip and hit their head in their driveway and die”.   

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Shooting Spirit

This is the first part of The Shooting Gallery trilogy.

Shooting Gallery: DRM in game

Cinema and literature have shown they can weather the storm of time: The African Queen can make contemporary audiences laugh, Nosferatu is still disturbing and Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice remains a favourite. But videogames are cursed. The cutting edge corrodes with frightening speed and the once-pioneering designs of yesteryear give way to frustration when compared to leaner, smarter modern work.

But sometimes this zeal for the new bites off more than it chew. The text adventure reportedly died a long time ago – but there’s still a thriving interactive fiction community. The industry also tried calling time on the point-and-click adventure – but take one look at Wadjet Eye Games, for example, and we’ll see it’s still possible to build a viable business with the point-and-click. Just because a particular form has dropped out of the mainstream favour, it doesn’t mean it is dead, antiquated or has nothing more to offer.

The 2D shooter experienced a similar fall from grace and yet, like the point-and-click, continues to enjoy a commercial life. However, unlike adventures which are story-driven, the 2D shooter has earned less critical attention. A shooter is a shooter, it seems, end of story. This seems ridiculous when faced with successes such as Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved and Everyday Shooter, or even efforts to sketch out new territory like Leave Home. Vlambeer made a big splash with the intensive Super Crate Box and their aerial combat shooter Luftrausers is on the horizon.

Before I began writing about videogames, I had dismissed the 2D shooter as “passé”. Today, I am a passionate advocate for the shoot 'em up. But what is so fascinating about the 2D shooter? Let’s ask some shmup developers like Rob Fearon, Kenta Cho, Matt James, Charlie Knight, Jonathan Mak and Stephen Cakebread that question.   

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Faith of the Pilgrim

This is everything I have to say on Alexander “Droqen” Martin's Starseed Pilgrim. If you don’t want to be spoiled, read last week’s The Five Stages of Starseed Pilgrim instead.

This is it, people, this is enormo-spoilers. Abandon hope all ye who enter here.


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The Five Stages of Starseed Pilgrim

If you're interested in 100% guaranteed spoilers and analysis, you best take a look at the next article, Faith of the Pilgrim.

Update 2015! This article has now been turned into a movie.

Alexander “Droqen” Martin's Starseed Pilgrim is another one of those games.

It's another Fight Club game, like At A Distance. A game you can't talk about. A game it's even dangerous to acknowledge the existence of. Don't go spoiling it y'hear. Don't go causing no bother, now.


“Hey, have you played–”


No one wants to spoil a good half of Starseed Pilgrim, which is about learning and discovery. Just half, mind you. The other half, which is just as important, is mastery.

Those reviewers brave enough to take on the task of communicating something about the game without, well, communicating something about the game become linguistic contortionists. Adam Smith tries on “Starseed Pilgrim throws its abstractions into the player’s face like a glass of cold water,” and Chris Priestman offers “a game that parallels the act of scribing, but replaces the words with symphonic gardening,” Phill Cameron suggests the “revelations cascade with the speed of a glacier” while the game “smirks and inverts”. John Teti hopes to motivate you with “Dirt is only boring until you plant some seeds. Then it becomes an experience.

Don't worry, I'm going to end up performing the same kind of trick as these fine fellows. I'm going to share my experience of Starseed Pilgrim without explaining anything whatsoever.

Let me tell you about the five stages of Starseed Pilgrim.    

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The Secret of Kairo


Richard Perrin's first-person exploration/puzzle game Kairo (available on Steam tomorrow) is a great example of environmental narrative taken to the extreme, because it tells a story eschewing words almost completely.

Yet after browsing reviews and impressions pieces, I discovered some players had trouble figuring out the story.

At The Border House, Michelle Ealey wrote: “After my first playthrough of Kairo, I was frustrated. I didn’t get it; I really didn’t know what had happened and why.”

John Walker at Rock Paper Shotgun wrote that "your purpose in Kairo is never explained" and "quite what Kairo is about entirely eludes me".

And Andrew Plotkin: “If I were to level a charge, it would be that the game world never really coheres, beyond the visual level. An adventure can set up its narrative drive through discovered texts and journals (old gag though that is). Or it can build a narrative out of its artistic details, the discovered connections and implications hidden in the visual world. Or this structure can come from the gameplay itself -- the connections you discover between the puzzles and mechanisms that make up the game. By solving, you learn what it's for.”

I'm going to let you decide. In this image-heavy post, I'm going to take you through my deconstruction of Kairo's story, start to finish. This means spoilers, of course. Massive spoilers the size of the Death Star.    

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Fish Out of Water

This is the first part of the Dishonored quadrilogy.

And lo, it came to pass that shortly after its release, I played Arkane Studios' Dishonored. For someone who has—

ARTICLE: you are entering an article, there are words here, read the words to understand

—spent the last couple of years submerged in indie fare, this flip to AAA comes as a bit of a—

SCROLLWHEEL: Use the scrhoolwheel to see more. Continue to next paragraphs with the scrollwheel.

FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! Will you shut your goddamn tutorial cakehole?!?    

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