Electron Dance

Electron Dance Highlights


Countdown 2016, 24: Groundhog Day

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

"If I see anyone flip gravity again, I'm gonna fucking freak out."

Have you read A Theoretical War that was posted on 24 April 2012?

"Story's not important, what counts is interactivity!"

"Without stories, games are just toys and will never replace movies as the most powerful medium!"

I'm sure you must have heard about the fight-to-the-death between "ludology" and "narratology"? There didn't seem to be a comprehensive, approachable overview of this theoretical war between two academic camps, so I wrote about it to launch a series which would attempt to fight the game academics' corner. I also wanted to point out that this war, assumed to be over, had exploded into the gamer streets.

A well-rounded reading diet will always give you useful, multiple viewpoints. RPS found The Curious Expedition a fun game. Kill Screen and podcast Twenty Dollar Gaming found the implications of the game's mechanics uncomfortable. Here's a question: who is right? Here's a better question: does someone have to be right?

And to my surprise, the debate emerged again in a brief conflagration involving critics and academics in 2015 complete with brand new alt labelling: now the ludologists were formalists. This recent resurrection wasn't something I could enjoy with a bag of popcorn but the debate blew over. It always does.

Still, I've learned something. Something I can share with new developers. Here is my hard-won critical insight:

  • If you'd like to make a game about systems, go right ahead.
  • If you'd like to make a game about stories, go right ahead.
  • If you'd like to make a game that tries to fuse systems and stories together, go right ahead.

That's it. Merry Christmas, everyone!

No, seriously, that's really it, this is the final Christmas Countdown entry. I hope you found at least one piece you might have previously missed. Of course, there'll be one more bit of Electron Dance before the year is out as the December newsletter will be published next week.

And don't forget you can go read A Theoretical War right now for zero pennies.

From the comments:

  • George Buckenham: "Games should be everything."
  • Nicolau: "There’s so much I think reading this."
  • David Kanaga: "I think of games as pieces of music, which feels to me closely related to ludological approaches."
  • Raph Koster: "I do not see why an act of definition is considered destructive."
  • James Patton: "I approve of taking a phenomenological approach to the player’s moment-to-moment experience."
  • Amanda Lange: "We do have tools, but sometimes those tools lead down a particular design path"
  • Steerpike: "The study of a medium leads to understanding, but not necessarily mastery."
  • CdrJameson: "I used to be quite dismissive of the pictures (not the story, of course) but then I played Knights of the Old Republic."
  • Alex: "I’ve never really understood the idea that narrative and gameplay are two separate, irreconcilable entities."
  • Ava: "I think one should in part look beyond what people are saying, in most discussions, and see what feelings they are actually expressing."
  • gotohaneda: "It all points to a fragmentation of the field of Game Studies."

Countdown 2016, 23: Burn Bright

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


Have you read Stanley Kubrick Is Gone posted on 14 June 2011?

Believe me when I tell you, for most mortals, Bill Williams' Necromancer from 1983 is quite impossible to beat. But what a rush! That first round trying to grow trees as the forest spider picks them off one by one; that second round with the dread of spiders hatching as your walking trees attempt to tiptoe through the vaults; that final round where you confront the necromancer himself and it's just a matter of time before you're spider food. It overwhelms you, it obliterates you.

I was sad to learn, many years later, that Bill Williams had died at an early age. But he had always known it would be so - thus I had to tell his story. I found a way of intertwining his history with the experience of Necromancer which I believe gives it more tragic bite than simply recounting his personal story.

Stanley Kubrick Is Gone was the most popular entry of the Where We Came From series.

Go read it.

From the comments:

  • Tom: "The quote under the Vaults, to me, is the shining moment of his legacy, the thing we should remember from Bill Williams."
  • Steerpike: "It’s so important to remember some of the geniuses we lost tragically early."
  • Barrie Ellis: "Fascinating life, with some really interesting parallels to the fictional book Skallagrigg by William Horwood."
  • Gregg B: "A fascinating read and I’ve got to say, from the videos, Necromancer looks excellent, and I really mean that."

Countdown 2016, 22: Discoveries

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

qrth-phyl screenshot with the word "ghosts"

Have you read the two-part Returning Home posted on 13 November 2012?

I wrote reviews in the early years but I decided to quit formal "reviewing" because it didn't add up to exciting writing for me. I mean, if you want a review, by all means go to a site which does reviews. I didn't feel that was what Electron Dance was about. Avoiding traditional review structure meant that I could talk about games any way I wanted. I didn't have to make judgements, I could just pick out something great, something weird or something flawed, something which would make for interesting words.

Matt James has a knack for putting out games which seem retro and familiar, yet the execution is something else altogether. I'd written a small, glowing review of his small, glowing 2D shooter Leave Home in 2010 but I always felt I'd done it a disservice. When I took a look at his next project, qrth-phyl, I was blown away by its quiet ambition. I decided to kill two birds with one stone, highlighting the beauty in both titles and show why James' work was worthy of wider attention. It ended with the absolutely heartfelt line "this is an astonishing piece of work" but one tweet did admonish the two-parter as being a little on the navel-gazey side.

Curiously, Matt James is one of those people, like Michael Brough, who is cursed with being the game designer's designer: high praise without the high sales. Don't get the wrong impression, though, as James is happy with his lot.

Unfortunately for poor little me, his next title Δ was not released on PC so I do not know what it feels like. My impression from YouTube, though, is a twitchfest in the Super Hexagon mould that I might just bounce off. Except... I'd made similar assumptions about James' earlier work, only to be proven wrong!

Go read Returning Home!

From the comments:

  • Badger Commander: "And we all know that Babylon 5 is is a big pile of shit."
  • Steerpike: "These are the kinds of games I perennially miss."
  • JonBro: "I kept finding myself craning my head towards the screen, trying to see around the edge of the camera."
  • Jordan: "This is now on my “to-play-list”."

Countdown 2016, 21: Off the Map

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

Obsolete Ring

Have you read Into the Black posted on 30 January 2013?

From the smallest of acorns... I had been trying to keep up with the intense output from Terry Cavanagh's Free Indie Games site. It proved too much in the end but one of the games I loved the look of was a 7FPS contest game called Obsolete. It was okay, nothing special in the game department, but then I decided absent-mindedly to wander out of the core game area... and Obsolete did not stop me. I found I could keep going and had this terrifying experience of being lost in the dark.

When I remade Into the Black as a film, I discovered I was unhappy with some of the descriptions used on the page, sounding to me like they all I could come up with given personal deadlines. And so I feel the film is far more representative of what the essay should have been than of what it was.

But the original is still here, intact and unchanged. Go read it?

PostScript: In my head, translating the journey "into the black" from word to screen sounded easy, but I tore my hair out over this. In real-time, the journey is very slow so requires careful editing to keep it watchable but also preserve a sense of narrative flow. Further, choose the wrong direction and the journey ends in darkness pretty quickly - I had to find exactly the same route as that intimated in the original text!

From the comments:

  • ShaunCG: "The counterargument can be made that with games such as Far Cry 3, no matter what you might find within that world it is always only a framework for the core mechanical experience"
  • Steerpike: "But I admit, there are times when I look at something linear and find great comfort there."
  • Fernando's comment shocks me: "So this whole thing is like Chekhov’s Gun." This is precisely the argument I made in Chekhov's Collectible... two years later. GAHHHH! Did I remember Fernando's argument all that time but fail to recall the source of it? I'm sorry for not acknowledging you, Fernando!
  • Amanda Lange: "When I first read this article, I was annoyed a little."

Countdown 2016, 20: Commercial Break

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


Have you read A New Art Form that was posted on 19 Feb 2011?

I'm not sure I convinced anyone with this one particularly with the hyperbolic title. You'd probably assume I was going to talk about how games were a new art form. WRONG-O. I was talking about game trailers and it was that infamous Dead Island trailer that drove me to it. Yes, the Dead Island trailer that had nothing at all to do with the game.

I still look for interesting trailers that do different things. The Stanley Parable ones were fabulous, the recent Botolo launch trailer is too cool for skool and, while not offering new ideas, the execution of the Oxenfree trailer is sublime.

In contrast, I found the impressive trailers of No Man's Sky uncomfortable because there was a gaping black hole in them: what could this massive universe game possibly be about? Could it really do everything implied? All promise, all self-fulfilling disappointment. That's why I had originally decided not to buy the game on release... a decision I reneged on (through weird logic: as I assumed it was crap, it was likely I would enjoy it).

Go read it! (Although the Singularity ARG videos seem to have disappeared.)

From the comments:

  • BeamSplashX: "Maybe all game trailers should seek to be that if they don’t want to include any real footage."
  • Steerpike: "That Dead Island trailer sure riled a lot of emotions."
  • Chad M: "I can’t blame anyone for liking the trailer."

Countdown 2016, 19: Coming of Age

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

Dynamite Headdy (Megadrive)

Have you read The Retired Gambler that was posted on 03 May 2011?

I hadn't read this one in years, even though it still turns up in the Electron Dance Highlights. It takes the creeping suspicion that I am getting too old for games and makes me wonder if that is actually hiding a different problem... well, not a problem at all. I've been planning a return to the subject of players getting old for a few months and perhaps you'll see an article in this vein next year.

But most striking is the very final line of The Retired Gambler. I don't think I could write a final line like that today; it just feels too unnatural, unearned by the words that went before, a whiplash-level of subject change! I wonder what you will think of it.

Go read it!

From the comments:

  • Badger Commander: "It is my belief that pretty much everything we do in life is some way a game"
  • BeamSplashX who is no longer 22: "Although I’m 22, reading opinions like yours have made me more aware of when games are wasting my time"
  • Jordan: "Is a game most identified by a measurable outcome set by its parameters, or simply by the act of playing?"
  • Josh W: "games like VVVVVV fill a place in my emotional landscape; the semi-meditation space they share with tetris"

Countdown 2016, 18: I, Dev

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

The Citadel calc pos code

Have you read the three-part Learning Curve that ran from 10 December 2013 to 14 January 2014?

In the wake of The Ethics of Selling Children, I'd been trying to stay away from writing personal stories, particularly about growing up. But I felt the time had finally come to tell the story of my indie developer years. Yes my dark secret was that I had been a games programmer... 30 years ago.

The trilogy of articles cover my growth from zero to competent programmer, the commercial game I developed to prove I could actually achieve something with all this knowledge and then... how it all came to an end.

On the whole, I was trying to recreate other people's ideas but there were signs that I was aware of the limited visions for the computer game towards the end. In fact, it's not mentioned explicitly in the articles, but I was starting to think of games "for adults". I recall being fired up, wanting to show an "adult" videogame did not meant simply it included references to sex.

I had assumed this would only be of niche interest but I'd packed in enough curious details to attract a wider audience. How I made a game without a computer, the day I was cloned, the titles of all those games I didn't make like Suicide Dancing.

Go read it!

Also, there was an addendum that followed a year and half later. @Zarawesome has suggested I remake my commercial game using PuzzleScript. It may happen!

From the comments:

  • Nicolau: "Great piece. Feels like something you’ve been writing mentally for years."
  • Badger Commander: "You can see exactly where our paths split. You saw code and became fascinated. I saw code and became bored instantly."
  • Richard Goodness: "Well, Joel, I guess you were the original Zinester."
  • Matt W: "It’s a bit odd to find out that all the time the chap I’ve been chatting about games with was a bleeping savant."
  • James Patton: "Wow, what an article. It left me feeling both sad and hopeful, which I suppose was the point."

Countdown 2016, 17: Etched in Memory

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

Yakushima - Wilson's Stump (Okabu Trail)

Have you read The Rings posted on 15 Feb 2012?

As the personal essay rose to prominence in the game critic space, I moved away from this pattern, seeing it as a kind of crutch. That is, are the ideas I'm trying to articulate good enough to stand on their own without the lead-in anecdote? The Rings is an example of the personal essay I used to do, with half its length about climbing the island of Yakushima.

The Rings is about accepting consequences in games. I don't know if I could write this today, perhaps suspecting I was padding a short idea into a long one using a personal story.

See if you agree.

Go read it!

From the comments:

  • Michael Brough (brog): "Nobody reloads from saves in a multiplayer game."
  • Badger Commander: "How do I fix that, tell me HM, how do I fix that?"
  • Gnome: "Oh, and people -especially on the internet- are indeed strange"
  • Steerpike: "With gaming – and everything – we all do tend to look back and remember the grass as greener."
  • LiberalEurope: "There was a point, late-game, that I was worried the game might never end. We had broken so many rules, but we nonetheless found ourselves trapped in the game."

Countdown 2016, 16: Everyday Hate

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

Have you read Punchbag Artists originally published by the now-defunct Resolution Magazine on 4 Oct 2010?

Originally written for zero pennies and imaginary exposure, this was a big hit. How do developers deal with destructive criticism? People seemed to dig the message although there were criticisms that Derek Smart was sharing the stage with Dan Marshall, Chris Park, Edmund McMillen, Paul Eres and... Gabe Newell.

Yeah, even I was shocked that I got a proper reply from Gabe Newell for the article, having been writing about videogames for only six months.

Go read it!

From the comments:

  • Pippin Barr: "I particularly think that more good writing from the “developer” side is sorely needed, and this humanising kind is a favourite."
  • Christos: "Flaming responses and personal attacks to game developers are for me the result of such “problematic” mappings"
  • Gnome: "Oh, and people -especially on the internet- are indeed strange"
  • BeamSplashX: "Oh god, the RPGCodex invasion into Second Person Shooter was just shame, shame, shame."
  • ShaunCG: "I suppose the explosion in popularity of Charlie Brooker and Yahtzee must have driven it to some extent."

Countdown 2016, 15: Revolution to Control

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


Have you watched #warningsigns posted on 1 July 2014?

#warningsigns was conceived as a launch video for a big Electron Dance series... except then I turned that series into a book which has still not seen the light of day. So the video became a standalone project although remained representative of the book.

#warningsigns was devoid of narration yet had to tell a story. Every scene was pondered over. Everything had to mean something. But this was the video to end all videos. It took a year to make and production devoured so much time I decided I would never make another video for Electron Dance as long as I lived.

I knew it would never be a big YouTube hit - it got several hundred hits at the time - but it was just something I had to do, had to get out of my system. Despite being exhausting, today I have no regrets because I continue to find #warningsigns hypnotic and engaging.

It also bears ten copyright claims.

Go watch it!


What Happened Next

I made a brief return to filmmaking a year later for Electron Dance's five year anniversary. This was despite swearing in the newsletter I would never do video work again. I personally prefer reading to viewing (it takes me forever to watch anything Chris Franklin puts out) but chose to mimic the video essay format for this one-off: write an essay, recite it over some game footage.

Of course, having made #warningsigns, I could never just make "a simple video essay". I threw in some music and visual tricks to make it more interesting... and discovered people liked this, they liked it a great deal.

And that was the end of my self-imposed video celibacy.

From the comments:

  • Amanda Lange: "Wow, powerful stuff. Reminds me of “Who Killed Video Games”…"
  • ShaunCG: "Stitching the overall thrust of argument together is going to be fun"
  • Richard Goodness: "I have watched the movie. I need to digest it and perhaps watch again."
  • iDragonarion (on YouTube): "I strongly agree with the message of the film, as well. I'll be going through the material for months."
  • John Gottschalk (on YouTube): "The fonts are terrible, but I really dig this, especially the Mother metaphor is very on point."