Electron Dance

Electron Dance Highlights


The Lever

intra system trust issues 1

A recent addition to the indie sub-basement was an unassuming title called Intra System: Trust Issues (Smoke Some Frogs, 2017). Now I’m not here to announce this is some remarkable sleeper hit, something that deserves to be a major headliner.

What I can tell you is that it’s pay-what-you-want and peculiar enough to hold my interest. It’s a souped-up branching narrative adventure with voice acting. It has you direct a stranger through a series of rooms which may or may not be death traps. It has an interesting twist which I’d like to talk about in terms of narrative game design.

I’m going to be talking spoilers. If you want to have a dabble first, it only takes about 15-30 minutes to get through the whole thing although you may choose to replay.

For everyone else, read on.

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Gaze of the Abyss

Manifold Garden

Earlier this year I wrote an essay called Art of the Impossible about Fragments of Euclid (Antoine Zanuttini, 2017) and William Chyr’s as-yet unreleased Manifold Garden. In classic Electron Dance fashion, I ended on a throwaway thought that bore closer inspection. I moaned about the tendency for beautiful art games to rely on what you might call “tried and tested” mechanics to drive them. I don’t think of them as tried and tested, more like “unambitious and disappointing”.

Find a key, unlock a door. Touch the hotspot. Memorise a sequence.

Does this sound familiar?

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Free to Prey


I find a secret route into an area that was locked down. Unusually, this feels exhilarating as I’m still not familiar with the game’s signposts. There’s a genuine sense of discovery. Can this last? Perhaps I am just enjoying a longer than usual honeymoon period, where the lack of education about the game’s design imbues it with mystery and surprise?

Of course, I consider backtracking. I’m not exactly running with a powerful character and perhaps this is not the route I’m supposed to take. There's an office ahead; I want to at least see where this leads. Ah, a few corrupted operators. Annoying but not difficult to dispatch.

I'm inside a small maintenance crawlspace and the only other exit to the office is blocked with boxes. Corrupted operators continue to stream through the open windows, so I refuse to enter the office until it's safe. God, how many more of these? Suddenly


all the boxes jolt forward as if something is trying to get in. I assume it’s just another operator. And again,


Boxes go flying and-- what… what the hell is that trying to get in? It’s as big as the door! I put up a good fight but The Thing From Beyond the Door kills me. Reload, it kills me again. I reload again. And again and again.

Just as I’m on the verge of throwing in the towel, I spy a window on the opposite side of the office. I sprint across and throw myself through it - and fall a few metres to the floor below.

I hold, staring up at the window with the gloo gun in hand. I wait.

Moments pass and it seems I am safe for now. But where has this one-way trip taken me? There’s only one thing to do: keep quicksaving and carry on.

This is Prey (Arkane Studios, 2017). Backtracking is for wimps.

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The Warning Orchestra


I know we like to talk about AAA games being dumbed down and over-tutorialised but to an outsider they can still seem like a blistering attack on the senses. These days, I find the early honeymoon hours often start out with bewilderment rather than wonder as I blunder around for an hour. There's a limit to how much tutorial my brain can internalise in such a short time span.

When I embarked on Prey (Arkane Studios, 2017) it was the same old routine of relying on WASD muscle memories then working through the game’s many systems. Its surface writhed with information: personal and suit health in the bottom left corner; pop-up inventory matrices whenver I examined someone or something; objective updates blasting out across the top of the view and nav markers skating across the screen whenever I turned my virtual head to admire the sheer depth and attention to detail in the Prey environment.

There was another layer of feedback embedded in the game which is not unique to Prey. Feedback I’ve come to resent. Let's call it the warning orchestra.

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Credits Provide Closure

I didn't hire Matt W to write off-topic comments for Electron Dance, but he does it anyway and they're usually worth the pixels they're displayed on. I decided to rescue one particular neglected rant-in-the-comments from Matt and give it its own post. Actually I decided to rescue it last year, but we all know Electron Dance time is the slowest possible time. Anyway, before we get into the rant, Matt would like everyone to know Closure is good and you should play it (if you like platform puzzlers). Happy reading.


Here’s how Closure works. For most of the game, there’s three separate sets of levels that you proceed through linearly. When you start up, there’s an in-engine level select where you walk through a door to one of those sets of levels, then walk to a set of doors to the last level you unlocked, and then a little animation plays as your character turns into the PC for this level. This is kind of annoying to go through every time you boot up especially the “turning into the PC animation” is redundant after the fifth time. But once you’re in the levels, when you finish one you just go on to the next.

When you finish all three sets of levels, another door in the level select screen unlocks, taking you to a new set of harder levels. And when you finish those a giant door in that level select screen unlocks. Therein lies the problem.

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Dabbling with… Future Unfolding

The ninth episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2017.


OMG I’m cheating again. See, I’ve already been playing around with Future Unfolding (Spaces of Play, 2017) at home. And, well, Future Unfolding keeps its cards close to its chest.

What I mean is that it’s difficult to say exactly what the game is. Not that it offers never-seen-before mechanics or innovation that will carve out new genres for others to follow. Future Unfolding is a top-down adventure game with beautiful presentation.

However, the eventual goal completely eludes me and this sense of exploration of the game as artefact is what keeps me interested. That said, there’s plenty of spatial exploration to be done and the game map slowly fills in as you progress. Still a lot of empty space on my map…


The only down note is something better summed up by Philippa Warr in her Rock Paper Shotgun review:

I got into the habit of exploring an area by skirting the edges of the forest, hugging the rock walls to make sure I hadn’t missed anything there and then exploring within. It’s a very different thing to the earlier mindset of running about and converts the experience from something freeform to something more mired in functionality or completionism. That feels wrong here.

The sense of just exploring for the sheer joy of it slowly gives way to the realisation that Important Things are out there which can only be dug out through brute-force search sweeps.

But that's the only thing. I'm still looking forward to discovering what makes Future Unfolding tick.

Future Unfolding is currently available for PC and Mac from various portals including itch.io.

Interested in other games I've dabbled with? Check out the series index!

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oh no not again

Seven years after I wrote A Weaponized Machine about the indie scene snapping in twain over the proposed $100 fee to access Greenlight, it's Groundhog Day again. Steam are finally jettisoning Greenlight into the yellow light of the sun, like Teh Gabe promised a while back, and will be allowing developers to upload games directly into the heart of Steam with a service called Steam Direct. All that crowdsourcing bollocks is out the window.

But worries about FAKE GAMES and Steam's reputation persist and so instead of the $100 access fee for Greenlight there will now be... ta da an as-yet-undetermined publishing fee. And thus the indie "community" is once again at each other’s throats.

Last time this happened, I got rather sentimental about the passing of an indie golden age, with all its group hugs, hippie values and shit like that. Can’t get sentimental about what never came back, so what can I add to the conversation this time?

I can rant.

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Countdown 2016, 1: Walls That Talk

Welcome to the Electron Dance Advent calendar. Each day will bring another post from the archives.


Have you read The Beautiful Dead posted on 12 November 2013?

During the rise of the "walking simulator", I felt that environmental narrative was acquiring far too much prominence, sometimes verging on worship. So I wrote about the role of environmental narrative in videogame storytelling and how, really, it was just a very good kludge.

From the comments:

  • Jonas Kyratzes "Mamet’s advice is cowardly, empty-headed bullshit"
  • Amanda Lange "Wow. That last paragraph. Love it."
  • Eric Brasure: "Dark Souls does this amazingly well. Joel, just play it already."
  • Robert Yang: "Hahaha you hear my voice in your head? Awesome."
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On Monday, I tweeted that while Thumper (Drool, 2016) looked and sounded great, I had already decided I wasn’t putting myself through that. I didn’t want the stress.

The next day I put myself through THOTH (Carlsen Games, 2016), a twin-stick arena shooter with an important twist. Normally, shooting is the act of cleaning. Not here. In THOTH, shooting is the act of making your life fucking worse.

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Arithmophobia II: The Numbers Strike Back


So I had this week's post Arithmophobia in my head for months as “write some words on how RPG numbers put me off playing” using The Story of Thor and Dark Souls as examples from different sides of the numerical wall. It was meant to be short, more about these individual games, but something happened on the way to the Publish button: I started to question why those numbers were important.

I had no conclusion so instead turned the ending into an invitation to discuss. And a lot of people got in touch, through the comments and on Twitter. This has been great and helped sharpen up my thoughts.

This post is a more structured take on RPG stats than the original Arithmophobia, touching on different aspects such as grind, feedback, accessibility and more. It was supposed to be short. Who would have guessed that evaluating the role of numbers in an RPG turns out to be a goddamn rabbit hole...

To show I’m not biased against numbers, I’m going to number every subsection. P.S. I also have a PhD in mathematics.

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