Electron Dance

Electron Dance Highlights

30Nov/199

Discussion: Expect the Expected

Welcome to the November newsletter (sign up if you want to read it):

Sometimes I think the worst thing that happened to Valve was creating Steam because it took all the artistic videogame fire out of its belly. Say hello to the sleek new Valve 2, videogame rentier.

Dear subscribers, if you feel like chatting about anything at all from the newsletter, please speak your mind in the comments here.

Filed under: Longform 9 Comments
10Nov/1927

Behind the Poster

This is the first in a series of short musings on Control.

When I want to write about a game I like, it takes way longer than you might think. There’s an obsession to assemble an artwork of words that befits the title, something that feels as unique as the experience it delivered. That process never feels like a natural consequence of a great game; it’s not as if a game is an untapped seam of minerals and all I had to do was mine it for words. I’m looking for an essay that gives me peace, that looks like I've bled the memory directly onto the page. Write. Delete. Write. Delete. Go to bed. Format the drive. Start again.

I feel some remorse over my brutal carelessness towards a game which inspires derision. I can be cavalier with the words as all you have to do is swing that axe and the job is done. But what about the shrug game, the “meh”? How much brain juice needs to be expended on something that’s, uh, okay, I suppose? I will send my finest soldiers to the four corners of the world in search of exotic prose that conjures the most average of reactions. Now that’s real tricky, I think, as I write up my feelings after three hours of Control (Remedy Entertainment, 2019).

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4Sep/1954

Go the Distance

I am a skillful operator in the field of self-deception. I said I was going to give my mobile gaming a rest. I needed to do other things on my daily commute instead of playing games, like look out of the window. That might sound like a joke to you, but I haven't seen a train window since I acquired a smartphone six years ago.

I uninstalled all the puzzle games I had been working on but there were a few evergreen titles that had to stay. There’s Dissembler (Ian MacLarty, 2018) for example, whose daily challenges can easily suck me in for weeks. But there’s also the roguelike Hoplite (Doug Crowley, 2013).

The last time I was on a Hoplite roll, I stopped playing because, after hours of commuting hours sacrificed to the sweaty swipe, I couldn’t earn the “Speed Run” achievement.

Cards on the table. 2019 has not been kind to me. I needed not merely a distraction, but a small victory.

I decided to take on Hoplite again. And this time... I would win.

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15May/1923

Remade In Their Image

I thought I had no preconceptions when launching Feather (Samurai Punk, 2019). It was something about being a bird. Possibly an exploration game.

Turned out I was not far off the mark: I was indeed a bird who could fly anywhere I wanted on an island. Oh, I also saw these throbbing hoops, inviting me to fly through them.

Did you catch it? Did you spot my reaction to the hoops? Let me zoom in, Bladerunner style, because it’s quite faint. Enhance: Oh.

I assumed the hoops were a form of collectible. That I must fly through each to complete the island. Oh, of course. Another game selling out its explorer fanbase for the goal hunters. Oh.

This isn’t the punchline because more experience with Feather revealed I was wrong. The hoops were not collectibles at all and Feather was completely not that type of game.

Yet I wondered about that instinctive rejection and what it was a symptom of.

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Filed under: Longform 23 Comments
28Apr/1941

The Long Reach of Monte Carlo

A fracture runs through my memory of Pipe Push Paradise (Corey Martin, 2018). On one side of the fracture, I am dissatisfied, tortured. On the other, I am entranced.

Which perspective reveals the truth?

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Filed under: Longform 41 Comments
28Feb/1935

Tail Meets Head

This is the final part of The Ouroboros Sequence, a series on puzzle games.

Do I hate Snakebird? I don’t love it.

It was October 2016 and I had been playing Snakebird (Noumenon Games, 2016) for about a month. Finding it impossible to make progress around twenty levels in, I strapped the game to a concrete block and threw it into the choppy waters of the Thames. And while I did this, others continued to carry the Snakebird banner high, proclaiming its brilliance. I didn’t get it. I really didn't get it.

I wanted to know why. I scribbled into my book of half-baked ideas an article about why I don’t like Snakebird. But the exercise would be pointless without an answer to the question.

Time passed. I had many notes that sketched out areas of potential interest and I found myself more interested in the player side of the puzzle game equation rather than the design side. I wanted to think about how puzzle games might be failing their players instead of players failing their puzzle games. Failure can become very personal, hardening players against continued experimentation in the puzzle genre.

I grew frustrated with the whole concept, though. I could never weave these ideas into a complete whole. I was looking at an infinite number of darts thrown at an infinite number of dartboards by an infinite number of monkeys… but not one bullseye.

Screw it, I thought, I’m going to write the series anyway, even if I don’t have any conclusions. I’ll call it The Ouroboros Sequence because Snakebird is behind the whole series and I knew I wasn’t going to be any wiser about my disaffection for Snakebird after reaching the end. The truth was in the title, up there in every episode. No revelations would be coming. We’d end in the same place as we started. Disaffected with Snakebird, reasons unknown.

And yet. And yet.

This journey has not been a waste of time.

We have returned to the beginning, to Snakebird. But things are most definitely not the same.

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4Feb/1942

Hole In My Chest

This is the twentieth part of The Ouroboros Sequence, a series on puzzle games.

Consider the puzzle game as a mythmaker.

A plucky naive player sets out on a great journey. At first, they face simple trials through which they develop the confidence they will need to triumph against terrible odds. They encounter such incredible challenges that they feel they’re never going to make it. They emerge from this fire transformed and are now the true hero, the one to slay the final puzzle dragon.

But it’s a Sith dragon brandishing a lightsaber and despite the player’s transcension to herohood, they are no match for this terrifying foe.

The player, reluctantly, turns to a walkthrough for help. They copy out the moves.

The myth is dead.

It doesn’t feel heroic, it feels shitty. It feels like that dragon stabbed you through the fucking chest.

(Warning: Contains some spoilers for Cosmic Express.)

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30Jan/1926

All Roads

This is the nineteenth part of The Ouroboros Sequence, a series on puzzle games.

Back in the day when I was a beautiful youngling, skipping levels in arcade games like Pac-Man or Space Invaders was out of the question. You played from level one, every time. And early puzzle games did not escape the gravity of tradition; you played from puzzle one, every time. At least when I was making Sokobanlike The Citadel, I assigned each level a password so you didn't have to play through the whole game whenever you wanted to have a go. I still clung to three lives and a time limit, though.

In time, the Age of Player Punishment gave way to the Age of Contemplation. We've gone so much further than just skipping levels. Today, unless you’re playing something like a Puzzlescript game, your fancy puzzler is unlikely to force you through a list of non-negotiable challenges. I’ve previously discussed the level select as a tool to review the past; what we’re going to do today is discuss it as a road into the future.

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29Jan/197

Andromeda 14

This is the eighteenth part of The Ouroboros Sequence, a series on puzzle games.

Thursday March 16 2017 might sound just like any other day but you could not be more wrong. Take the first damn bus out of town wrong. It was a real red letter day just like when Gordon Freeman popped up in Half-Life 2. This particular Thursday was the day that saw... the release of Cosmic Express (Hazelden & Davis & Tyu, 2017). Be still my beating heart.

At the time, I did not realise the world had shifted axis. I didn’t rush out to buy this masterpiece because, frankly, I’d already poured my Christmas free time into Recursed (Portponky, 2017) and RYB (FLEB, 2016) and I wasn’t in the mood for another puzzle game. These were the dark days before I had focused my mind on a year-long project writing about puzzles called The Ouroboros Sequence.

Away from the electric puzzles in the real world, we had been house hunting. I’d become obsessed with this Traditional British Sport, studying local price trends, watching for new properties, jumping up and down in excitement whenever I saw a price drop. In truth, I hated house hunting with the kind of passion normally reserved for a Dark Souls boss but... if we were going to do this, we were going to do it right.

Then Cosmic Express designer Alan Hazelden sent me a free Steam key for the game and I was a little... resentful? Please, for the love of God, Alan, do not put this on my bloody plate. My cup of games runneth over.

But I saw others getting excited about Cosmic Express and exchanging stories of grief about how the puzzles were trolling them personally. I was jealous but had other things on my mind. On March 23, I tweeted “When you're reading other people's conversations about @Draknek's Cosmic Express and wish you were playing already.” Rezzed and a holiday in the Lake District were just around the corner.

On March 27, we saw yet another house. But I also loaded Cosmic Express up on my phone, as I felt bad that I hadn’t made use of the free key. It’s not like I was playing anything on the phone anyway.

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13Dec/1833

Dead in the Water

This is the sixteeneth part of The Ouroboros Sequence, a series on puzzle games.

The Steam store page for genius puzzle game Recursed (Portponky, 2016) highlights two reviews.

One is my very own, published on Rock Paper Shotgun. I wrote “Recursed’s brilliance is how it spawns complexity from a few simple constraints.”

The other is from the one and only Jonathan Blow who worked on a puzzle game you might have heard about. “I played for a while,” wrote Blow, “but it seemed really slow / simple.”

I’m only going to warn you once. Strap yourselves in.

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