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Electron Dance Highlights


Dabblings 2019: A Wander Through Rezzed

A video version of my series covering EGX Rezzed 2019.



Discussion: Sunk Cost

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

What drives you to finish? Is it the FOMO, the concern that something important is right around the corner? Is it the importance of completing a game and leaving no loose ends? Is it the feeling of achievement, of climbing that hill to the top?

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


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?

Read More »

Filed under: Longform 41 Comments

Dabbling With… Vectronom

The final episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2019.

When I saw Ludopium's Vectronom on show, tucked away in the Indie Basement room at Rezzed, I thought I gotta get me some of that action. After getting me some of that action, I then shook Utz Stauder, one of the developers, rather vigorously demanding to know when it would be released.

That's enough hype. Chill out, Joel. This isn't No Man's Sky.

Vectronom is a rhythm-based isometric platformer where the obstacles in each level move with the beat. During the levels I played, I had to avoid pyramidal spikes and the floor disappearing beneath me. One wrong move and your cube avatar gets smushed or fall to its death. Vectronom is not like Super Hexagon where you are constantly on the move, but if we insist on Terry Cavanagh metaphors then it's more like VVVVVV. It's about observation, practice and muscle memory. You have to learn the specific sequence of moves to make it through each level and enact it to the beat.

Yep, it was one of them quick-to-pick-up, hard-to-put-downers. Vectronom reminded me of Crypt of the Necrodancer (Brace Yourself Games, 2015) in the way you embraced the music through play. It is frustrating in a good way as it makes the victorious highs that much sweeter when you break through a very tricky level. My favourite stage had a thin circle constantly contracting to a line and expanding back to circle; that required some seriously fancy fingerwork on the keyboard. God, it was joyous.

There is a two-player mode but the two players work independently - my good Side by Side buddy Gregg Burnell likes to call this "co-hab" multiplayer rather than "co-op". Only one needs to get to the exit to complete the level but when both players are performing the exact same actions the visual feedback is disturbed - it's usually better if players agree not to move together. Then again, if you play competitively, this might be a useful tactic to throw your opponent off.

When I brought my son and his friend to Rezzed on the Saturday, I made sure I put them both in front of Vectronom. And they loved it like I knew they would. Look, Vectronom is brilliant, okay.

Vectronom will be out "Spring 2019" on PC, Mac and Nintendo Switch with further plans afoot to bring it to mobile. From the Vectronom website:

Vectronom is a rhythm-based 3D platformer played in isometric view. Obstacles in the levels change in sync with the music, forcing players to memorize patterns and solve environment-specific riddles while moving to the beat of the music.

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


Dabbling With… Sigma Theory

The fifteenth episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2019.

Imagine you had made lonely sci-fi permadeath adventure Out There (Mi-Clos Studio, 2014) - would the obvious choice for your next project be a sprawling Cold War-esque turn-based espionage game?

I got the impression from the team at Rezzed that it had been a long road from prototype to what they now call Sigma Theory. The basic setup is this - there's a new Science in town called Sigma Theory and whoever has it will probably take over the world. Your job is to gather the few scientists who know what it is and, thus, achieve world domination.

That's the game in Sigma Theory but what about the game in Sigma Practice? Admittedly, I was still playing through the early tutorial stages when I abandoned my post as it's a game that needs time to get into - but I can lay out the basics. You recruit a number of agents and send them on missions to gather intel on where Sigma scientists are and then missions to obtain them. How this is done depends on the agents at your disposal. Blackmail, seduction, threats, infiltration, violence...

At the same time, there's a tech tree which you can assign your scientists to work on and the more scientists you gather, the further the progress you can make. The tech tree gives you access to more tools but your ultimate goal is to reach the far end of the tech tree, the singularity, where the world is changed forever.

Initially, it looked fairly simple. I sent agents to various cities, waited for their flights to land and set them tasks. But there was a sense of unease to the proceedings, as if it was all destined to spiral horribly out of control. Some countries are allies but you may have to decide whether you want to keep them happy, possibly at the expense of your own government, or betray them. Enemy agents can also infilitrate your country in the same way as you're doing to others. And perhaps the most concerning thing was the game needing to know the nationality of your spouse because... well, look, I don't know, but it does make me wonder what kind of grim narrative Sigma Theory has in mind.

Sigma Theory will not offer multiple game modes but is positioned as a game that will afford multiple replays - no two games will be the same. There is also a plan to have a different storyline for each country you can play. Now that's a lot of storylines, so we'll just see have to see how that pans out.

Sigma Theory will be released on Windows, Mac and Linux. It is launching on Steam Early Access... TODAY.

From the Sigma Theory website:

You are placed at the head of your country’s intelligence agency. Your objective: world domination by any means necessary, using the power of the Sigma Theory.

To achieve this you will have powerful resources at your disposal: special covert agents, tactical drones and, of course, your skills of diplomacy.

It’s a cold war out there, one in which mankind must face up to its future. A future that leads, ultimately, to the technological singularity.

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


Discussion: Hytale It Out Of Here

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

The Hytale trailer from December now has 47 million views. I’ve shown it to my children and their reactions were halfway between the Keanu Reeves ‘whoa’ and the Stargate ‘what a rush’. If you haven’t seen it, you’ll quickly get the idea if I tell you a bunch of react videos are called ‘Minecraft 2 announced!?!!???!!??!!!!!?!??!’

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


Dabbling With… Nth Dimension[al] Hiking

The fourteenth episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2019.

The very second game I played at Rezzed was Nth Dimension[al] Hiking by Zachariah Chandler. Nth Dimension[al] Hiking is quite forward about being a discoverable systems/exploration game and that it wasn't for everyone - although I would stress there really isn't "a game for everyone". It has a curious pixellated look with chunky scan lines, resembling the old Freescape games from the late 80s, although I'll note the player-character is not subject to scan lines, helping it stand out from the environment.

I got nowhere. Maybe it wasn't for me.

I tried to escape the bus stop at the beginning but no dice. The only achievement I did have was catching a bus. And then the game ended. I had a feeling I wouldn't write about it, despite it looking like the kind of thing I dig. And I walked away from the game. It was done.

Later, I saw someone playing it who had made more progress than I. They were... flying? How were they doing that? Of course, I had to go back for a second go. The mistake I had made was to assume this walking simulator-type game only used the button A; in fact, other buttons on the Xbox controller were critical to make progress. Once I expanded my mind to include other buttons, the game began to open up to me. Then I got stuck again after I'd hopped across a couple of floating islands.  And I walked away from the game. It was done.

And then the unthinkable happened. Something which has never happened before and will never happen again at Rezzed. I went back to play the game a third time.

I broke through my second impasse and managed to reach the much larger, and more beguiling structures. My guess is that the structures are simple in design but the scan line/dithered look painted in hard shadows makes the world feel far more unknowable, almost alien. However, Hiking doesn't feel hostile or threatening like, say, NaissanceE (Limasse Five, 2014), despite having similar problems with navigation and putting the player at some distance from the action.

It's an odd little thing which is still in development. A preview build can be obtained on itch.io for Windows, Mac and Linux.


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


Dabbling With… Wardialler

The thirteenth episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2019.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, there was a game which presented you with nothing more than a blank LOGIN prompt. Unusual for games at the time, it eschewed a title screen in favour of putting you in the moment. Faced with a LOGIN prompt - what do you do next?

It was 1985 and we were playing Activision's Hacker. In 2019, I sat down at the Leftfield Collection to play Wardialler, and its similarly stark presentation in green text reminded me of Hacker: MEMORY OK. READY.

The trouble with Hacker is that it offered the fiction of breaking into a top-secret system a la WarGames, but failed to follow through. It was an early discoverable system and what you found on the other side of the LOGIN prompt was a weird fetch quest game which didn't feel anything like hacking. Wardialler, however, is much more WarGames.

I am not implying Wardialler is the only hacking game in existence. The key to a real hacking game is making the user type on the keyboard (or perhaps its the green text and fixed-width font). We've seen Hacknet (Fellow Traveller Games, 2015) really go to town with the concept and Duskers (Misfits Attic, 2016) also does a great job of exploiting the command-line interface to heighten terror.

Wardialler is an interesting halfway house. It doesn't take too long to figure out how to get hacking and this generally comes down to finding out what kind of system you're dealing with and the matching exploit. In the section I played, I didn't have to do much more than that: it's almost like digging out a password. A lot of the initial information comes from an enormous repository at the hackers' site which, I think, tests the player's patience a bit too much. Imagine forcing someone to read a chapter on pure lore before getting into the action. (No one mention the prologue to The Lord of the Rings.) There was a notebook beside the Wardialler seat, inviting you to write copious notes; I did, because I needed to note down commands, servers, exploits, people's details...

Still, Wardialler only implies hacking because it seems to be much more interested in narrative (it is the second time in this series I am reminded of Subserial Network). I completed a simple hacking operation which then led the protagonist (I think?) to recount a memory (I think???). And then the game reset. I broke into a few other systems but didn't really achieve much of note.

Without playing more, I'm not sure how to view Wardialler: as a hacking game or a twine with an elaborate interface. But I was intrigued to see more.

Wardialler is a solo project from Paul Kilduff-Taylor, one of the co-founders of Mode 7. There's no website for the game at present: if you want to know more, all I can do is suggest you follow him on Twitter.

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


Dabbling With… Exhaustlands

The twelfth episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2019.

Ludum Dare has a lot to answer for. Such as Exhaustlands (Sand Gardeners, 2018). It was made in three days so no-one should be expecting world-class polish here.

Let me be absolutely frank. I didn't have the first clue what this driving game was about. And how could I? There were post-it notes everywhere, coloured stickers, a map you were encouraged to draw on... bugger me, I'm just going to grab the wheel and see if I can figure out what is going on. And when I write "the wheel", I mean the wheel.

The children's toy as controller was a curious addition to the original Ludum Dare game and I'm not sure the controller helped the Exhaustlands cause: it felt too contrasting to its somewhat darker theme and caused grief with some players. I was one of those players. Still, if you go pull the game down from the internet, you needn't worry about that.

There is more to Exhaustlands than what I saw or understood. I engaged with it on just one level, as a driving exploration game. I was on the road, travelling across a dark, moody monochromatic map peppered with ASCII buildings. Travelling from point to point would take awhile. More than once I began to suspect I was on an infinite road to nowhere, when I'd hit a sign or a fork in the road. Uhhh, how big is this game?

The realisation there was more to the game came late. You could "enter" buildings and there was an overarching goal - heck, you're meant to be fighting fascism. But the only memory I take away is a lonely drive through a remorseless, unrelenting darkness, unsure if there was anything out there at all. I should not be surprised to discover that Into the Black was an inspiration for the developers. (I was surprised.)

Some days you send signals out into the void. Some days, the signals come back.

From the itch.io page:

It is a time of war.

The RESISTANCE is dwindling, and the last remaining members take refuge in an abandoned power station in the heart of the EXHAUSTLANDS.

The FASCIST army moves closer everyday - unstoppable and hungry.

Under the cold BROWNIE COVE sun, members of the Resistance journey out into the lands to explore the area, and prepare to do battle with the approaching DARKNESS.

Space is running out, time is running out, faith is running out. But they can do this.

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


Dabbling With… Cyberpet Graveyard

The eleventh episode of a short series on games I discovered at EGX Rezzed 2019.

Alright, you know it. It's Nathalie Lawhead time.

I have an imaginary love/hate relationship with Lawhead's work. Whenever I see one of her works ambling down the street towards me, I always think, ya know, that's not my kind of thing, I'll just cross to the other side and let it pass. But sometimes I don't cross the road and then I have these feelings:

  • this is very mad
  • this is very happy

Then again, I still haven't tried out Everything is going to be OK (2017) nor RUNONCE (remember_me) (2019) in which you get a "downloadable friend" that you can run once... but never again. Forget about Citizen Kane, I was worried RUNONCE was the game equivalent of Bambi's mother getting shot dead.

Anyway, I did not cross over the road at Rezzed. I sat down in front of Cyberpet Graveyard (2018) in the Leftfield Collection.

And now I wonder if I should just write [THIS PARAGRAPH INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK]. To blab too much about a work like this kills it, a bit like what happened to Bambi's mom. It is very silly. And if I tell you about why it's silly I'm going to be robbing you of those moments where you, too, get to think oh gosh this is silly. It is about cyberpets that were developed for a 90s game, yet they were so "unlikeable and unwanted" they were never released. But, finally, digital historians have rescued them.

Cyberpet Graveyard doesn't present itself as a single application but more of a collection of broken files - a forgotten digital wilderness to explore. Windows File Explorer literally becomes an exploration. This also means the usual line between the game and desktop is disrupted, because the game inhabits your desktop. This all sounds serious. It is not serious. It is very silly.

Cyberpet Graveyard is also about CD-ROM technology, reflecting 90s tech nostalgia in a similar way to Hypnospace Outlaw (Tholen, Lasch, Nelson & Cochran, 2019) and Subserial Network (Aether Interactive, 2018). I think I'll write something about that in due course. But not today.

On a sadder note... because Cyberpet Graveyard is a folder on the desktop rather than a Game With Title Screen, the PC at Rezzed had the signature look of "game crashed to desktop and there is no developer here to fix it". Many times I went back to Leftfield to take pictures of it in progress and the seat was empty. I was concerned that players were passing on the "broken game" not realising that was its intended state. However, on Saturday, more commonly as the Day Families Come to Rezzed, Cyberpet Graveyard seemed as busy as Dicey Dungeons. So maybe everything is going to be okay.

If you want to check out the silliness, go download it for free.


From the blurb accompanying the game on GameJolt:

At some undocumented point in the early 00's there was a critical malfunction in the cyberpet factory. This meltdown led to the miss-creation of several unlikeable and unwanted cyberpets. Nobody knew what to do with them. They never made it past quality assurance, and therefore never made it to CD-ROM.


Due to the unsettling nature of these virtual companions, they were eventually banned to the cyberpet graveyard. The cleanup crew hired to capture and ban everything did a groundbreaking job, because these cypberpets would never to be loved or loved by again.
It is only until now that digital archeologists have uncovered the remaining files of these strange unwanted creatures.
Thanks to their efforts you can download this forgotten relic.

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