Opinion: On GamerGate

Standard

Over the last few months, a line has been drawn in the sand. On one side of that line are the gaming press and on the other are the proponents of a very loosely defined movement – operating under the hashtag ‘GamerGate’ – campaigning for greater transparency in the dealings of the mainstream games media.

These tensions have been bubbling under the surface for a long time. In 2007, for example, when Jeff Gerstmann (founder of Giant Bomb) was dismissed from his editorial director position at Gamespot many thought that it was a direct result of his less-than-glowing review of Kane and Lynch: Dead Men and the resulting pressure from publisher Eidos on the website’s management team. This incident – and others like it – have made many gamers deeply suspicious of ethical practices in the industry. I can’t blame them.

Can major gaming publications be trusted to be unbiased if they make a great deal of their ad revenue from games publishers? Can writers be trusted to be fair when writing about games made by people with whom they have a personal relationship? Are these conflicts of interest disclosed effectively enough? These are valid concerns and they should be considered and discussed freely. Regrettably, it doesn’t look like that’s what’s happening.

Things came to a head in August when an ex-boyfriend of Depression Quest developer Zoe Quinn wrote a blog post implying that she had traded sex for positive reviews. Though this has since been thoroughly debunked, the ensuing fallout has resulted in an ongoing campaign for greater transparency in games reporting. If it were that simple, we’d all be a lot better off.

GamerGate is an incredibly diffuse movement. Indeed, the extent to which it is a ‘movement’ at all is debatable since it lacks any sort of formal organisation or cohesion; anyone can use a hashtag or leave posts on a forum. Consequently, some of the vilest elements of the gaming community have taken up the hashtag to bully and harass women working in the games industry. This is – like concerns over journalistic ethics – nothing new. Sexism in the games industry is a well-documented and heavily debated issue. Female game developers and critics – like Quinn and feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian – have faced continual abuse and harassment for a long time but this has exploded in recent weeks.

This whole episode has felt like something of a nadir in gaming culture. The sort of repulsive abuse that many have been subjected to is truly beyond the pale. Threats of physical violence combined with incidences of ‘doxxing’ (researching and publishing personally identifiable information about an individual) have forced many of those targeted to leave their homes out of fear for their safety. No doubt many women working in all parts of the games industry are wondering if it’s worth it and some – like freelance writer Jenn Frank – have already decided that it isn’t. This is abysmal news for all gamers.

Diversity in the industry is good for games. We need unique and varied voices in the games industry to ensure unique and varied content; this is true of all forms of artistic expression and entertainment. Take the 2011 film Bridesmaids as a case in point. It’s hilarious and easily one of my favourite comedies of recent years but – as it is written by women and features a predominantly female cast – if women had been hounded out of the film industry then it wouldn’t exist. If it did, it wouldn’t be half as good as it would likely lack authenticity and believability in its writing and execution.

Even better, having more diverse voices in films hasn’t stopped the male-oriented action genre from thriving (look at The Expendables) and nor will it in games. If people keep buying games like Call of Duty and Halo, developers and publishers will keep making them. Nobody is coming to take your games.

Many have criticised the left-leaning bias of many publications and of the so-called ‘social justice warriors’ (a derogatory term for critics who try to address social issues in their writing) amongst games journalists but, again, the market sorts these things out and if people stop reading articles on websites like Kotaku and Polygon then they’ll eventually cease to exist.

If you disagree with an opinion, you have every right to speak your mind and, even better, if enough people share your views then you may have just discovered a gap in the market for a more neutral or right-wing gaming publication. Careers have been built on a lot less.

You do not, however, have the right to threaten someone with physical, sexual, or psychological violence. You do not have the right to publish someone’s address and contact information on the internet to further this harassment. You do not have the right to perpetuate a culture of fear that prevents people from speaking their minds and drives them out of the industry.

What’s needed from all parts of the gaming community is civil, frank, and open discourse but, in all honesty, that’s probably not going to happen any time soon. Any legitimate discussion about journalistic practices has been overshadowed by violence and any meaningful debate about diversity in the games industry has been tainted by the perceived condescension coming from the games media. To be clear, both ‘sides’ (if they can be defined as such) have faults and threatening language has a tendency to escalate on the internet.

As such, this ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality that has been brewing for almost a decade has now become firmly entrenched and everyone seems certain that they’re not a part of the problem; it’s not ‘us’ using inflammatory language and rhetoric, it’s ‘them’ over there. ‘They’ are the problem. The biggest question I have for people who talk like that is this: who’s ‘they’?

Everybody needs to step away from that line in the sand, take a deep breath, and regain some perspective. Maybe then we can begin to move forward.

Advertisements

Alien: Isolation review – I Admire its Purity

Standard

PC/ PS3/PS4 (reviewed)/Xbox 360/Xbox One

Taking Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi/horror classic Alien as their inspiration, British developer Creative Assembly have produced a truly terrifying and subversive horror experience. This is not a game that makes the player feel powerful like so many big budget titles; quite the opposite in fact.

Alien: Isolation is a first-person survival horror and stealth game where, playing as Amanda Ripley (the daughter of Sigourney Weaver’s character from the original film), you travel to the space station Sevastopol to recover the ill-fated Nostromo’s flight recorder and learn more about your mother’s mysterious disappearance fifteen years ago. Unfortunately for Ripley and crew, Sevastopol is in crisis.

The old writing-on-the-wall trope is alive and well in Alien: Isolation

The old writing-on-the-wall trope is alive and well in Alien: Isolation.

Like Bioshock’s Rapture, Sevastopol is a society in tatters. Desperate survivors stalk the station in search of supplies and dead-eyed androids attack any who defy their protocols. Most disturbingly of all, an otherworldly creature is prowling around the station’s ventilation system aggressively pursuing its human prey.

For most of the game, Ripley is tracked by a single Xenomorph and where she goes, it follows. This, coupled with the game’s dynamic AI that actively seeks out the player and reacts to noises in the environment, is one of the key factors in making this experience so distressing.

If you run, fire weapons, or interact with objects in the environment it makes noise and, if you make noise, it will attract enemies. Aggressive packs of survivors, creepy “Working Joe” androids, and – if you’re really unlucky – the Creature itself will all investigate noises and hunt for the source of it relentlessly.

I'm safe in the locker...right?

I’m safe in the locker…right?

The Xenomorph is particularly tenacious and you can expect to spend a lot of time hiding in lockers and crouching under desks desperately yearning for the opportune moment to escape. Additionally, outside of a couple of scripted events, it doesn’t have any set pathing or route and as such is unpredictable. Each time you load up a save or start a new game, the Alien will find new ways to surprise you and this results in truly emergent gameplay. It might track you and follow you into the vents or maybe it’ll get distracted by some other survivors and go for them; the AI reacts to events in the environment and can change on the fly. It’s capricious, it’s horrifying, and it’s fantastic.

Dead again.

Dead again.

Humans and androids, on the other hand, can be dealt with in a variety of ways using the weapons and items that Ripley finds or builds from crafting materials found in the environment but the Alien cannot be killed; it is totally implacable. Some weapons, like the flamethrower you pick up about halfway through the game, can be used to temporarily scare it off giving you a few frantic seconds to run or hide but it will return to the hunt soon enough.

I died A LOT in this game.

I died A LOT in this game.

Ripley encounters the titular Alien countless times throughout the game’s 15-20 hour duration and, inevitably, it loses some of its mystique after a while; becoming less frightening the more you see it. Like all truly great horror, however, the greatest fear comes not from constant gore or jump scares but from the tension generated while the monster isn’t in plain view. This is where Alien: Isolation really shines.

Listening to the soft bleeps of the motion tracker getting faster and more frequent as the Alien hurtles towards you is unbearably nerve-racking and reduced me to a panicky mess on more than one occasion. Similarly, hearing the Creature clattering about in the ventilation shafts above you or hissing as it slithers into the room you’re hiding in is truly horrifying. Be prepared to sweat out some seriously tense moments while you anxiously listen for some indication that the coast is clear for you to sneak away. The atmosphere is further enhanced by the game’s aesthetic.

The game's aesthetic will be instantly familiar to fans of the 1979 film.

The game’s aesthetic will be instantly familiar to fans of the 1979 film.

The game’s art design truly captures Scott’s original bleakly industrial, lo-fi tech aesthetic and fans of the franchise will love exploring Sevastopol’s many environments. The developers also use sound and art design to toy with the player’s imagination. Crawling through a vent in the dark, it’s easy to mistake a coil of pipes for a tail or the hiss of steam escaping from a pipeline for that of the beast and Creative Assembly put this to good use in generating fear and panic in the player. What’s more, death actually has consequence in this game.

There are no checkpoints in Alien: Isolation. To save your progress, you must get to the nearest emergency telephone, punch your card in, and wait. At any point in this process, you can be killed. This mechanic is brutal but it does create a very real sense of balancing risk and reward; you desperately want to get through a room and reach the next save point but do so too hastily and you will be punished.

Beep. Beep. Beeeeep......and breathe.

Beep. Beep. Beeeeep……and breathe.

Doing away with automatic checkpoints is a bold decision – one that I fear will alienate many potential fans – and, if you have enough patience, it creates an even greater feeling of dread when you don’t know what’s around the corner. Regrettably, this feature can become immensely frustrating (especially when compounded with the Creature’s dynamic AI that can lead to it dropping right behind you at a moment’s notice) and this isn’t the game’s only flaw.

The experience is somewhat marred by technical problems. The frame rate occasionally drops significantly (especially during the cut scenes where, at times, it really stutters) and I suffered a game-breaking bug that meant returning to the start of the previous mission. These glitches are worth bearing in mind but must not be overstated; the game runs fairly well for the most part.

The horror.

The horror.

Alien: Isolation is not a game that’s designed to make you feel powerful, it’s built to take your power away. It’s a survival horror experience set in a lovingly crafted world fraught with tension and thick with atmosphere. The gameplay focuses on stealth rather than combat and, for those with the patience, there’s a lot to like here. Just remember that even if, in space, no one can hear you scream, your neighbours probably still can.

Opinion: YouTubers, Journalistic Ethics, and the Murky Waters of Taking Money for Game Coverage

Standard

Popular YouTuber and game critic John Bain, aka Totalbiscuit, recently revealed that YouTubers were being offered early PC review copies of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor and would be paid to promote it as long as they didn’t say anything negative about the game or expose any glitches they encountered. What’s more, some critics on YouTube (as well as some in the traditional press) tried to get review copies and couldn’t. This is a problem.

YouTubers straddle a fine line when it comes to games coverage as most do not consider themselves critics or reviewers. They are, instead, more like entertainers trading on their personalities or athletes being paid to promote a brand. Their role is to entertain, not evaluate. There is some merit to this argument but, whether they acknowledge it or not, YouTubers have a big influence on their audience.  They are often seen as gamer’s gamers, representative of ordinary people, and as such their opinions carry weight.

In countries like the UK and USA, there are governmental agencies that regulate trading standards and it is required that transactions like this are disclosed.  Unfortunately, this requirement is usually fulfilled with the inclusion of a footnote buried beneath the ‘show more’ button and the majority of viewers are none the wiser.

For better or worse, these types of deals are not particularly unusual and have been going on for years now but what do they typically involve? Well, in the case of Shadow of Mordor, The Escapist’s reviews editor Jim Sterling dug out a copy of the contract being offered to YouTubers and some of its clauses are more than a little worrying.

“Persuade viewers to purchase game”, the contract states. Videos must “promote positive sentiment about the game” and “must not show bugs or glitches that may exist”, it stipulates. This type of skewed coverage is a sticky issue given the pull that YouTube personalities have over their audience but, as long as it’s transparent, may not pose too much of a problem. In this particular case, however, it gets worse. Much worse.

The contract demands that: “The company has final approval on the YouTube video…at least 48 hours before any video goes live”. This vetting of content for approval equates to censorship and reeks of anti-consumerism in the worst possible way. Of course, YouTubers can always purchase a copy at launch and still create content saying whatever they want. By this time, however, many others will have already uploaded their videos and their more fickle viewers will have gone elsewhere. Additionally, any impressions offered after the game’s release date will be of no use to those that have pre-ordered it if it turns out to be a mediocre game.

Many gamers don’t have a problem with these deals as a way for their favourite YouTubers to make a living but withholding pre-release review copies of games from those that won’t sign a contract that would effectively order them to say positive things about the game while enforcing draconian rules against critique and open discourse is worrying. What’s more worrying is that these terms are occasionally enforced by company inspection. When a company maximises potential exposure while stifling criticism and free expression in this way, the consumer loses.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor review – Master of Puppets

Standard

PC/ PS3/PS4 (reviewed)/Xbox 360/Xbox One

Death is an interesting prospect in Shadow of Mordor. The game begins with its protagonist, a ranger named Talion, watching as his family are murdered by the lieutenants of the evil Lord Sauron and then he dies. Sort of. Talion’s fate has been entwined with that of a mysterious wraith and he’s cursed to walk the world of Middle-earth until he can visit revenge upon his killers and learn more about the enigmatic phantom to whom he is bound.

This is how the game begins and, while it serves its purpose, the narrative isn’t particularly noteworthy. It’s a fairly typical revenge story that exists primarily as a hook to hang a game on.  Fortunately, that game is very, very good.

The core mechanics will be instantly familiar to any fans of the Assassin’s Creed or Batman: Arkham franchises. Talion can scale walls and towers with ease and the environment is a joy to explore; especially when sneaking up on an enemy.  The combat is fast and fluid; building up a huge and varied combination of moves is immensely satisfying and unleashing a killer finisher at the perfect moment feels fantastic. Even better, environmental hazards – like exploding kegs of grog and vicious caged beasts – can be used to create chaos in orc strongholds.

It's not you're day really, is it mate?

It’s not you’re day really, is it mate?

Eventually, Talion gains the ability to ‘brand’ enemies and make them fight for him. This allows the player to orchestrate Machiavellian assassination plots on powerful orc leaders by exploiting the Nemesis system; the game’s most compelling mechanic.

Each new game generates a plethora of enemies with names, hates, fears, ambitions, strengths, and weaknesses all trying to climb their way up the blood-spattered ladder from grunt to captain to warchief. These enemies roam the open-world map competing with each other through various types of power struggles. They hold feasts, execute rivals, and participate in deadly duels to build their strength and prestige amongst their fellow orcs. Those that emerge victorious gain new strengths and lose weaknesses making them considerably more formidable in battle. What’s more, they remember their encounters with the player and learn from them.

Orc power struggles allow the player to pull the strings from behind the scenes.

Orc power struggles allow the player to pull the strings from behind the scenes.

In Shadow of Mordor, death doesn’t always stick and, much like the player, many of the game’s enemies will keep coming back for more. Talion might be able to creep up on Lamlug Skull Bow once, but next time that strategy probably won’t work. He’ll have learned his lesson from their first encounter and will be on the lookout for sneaky rangers. Eventually, the physical scars of your battles will start to show too. If Lamlug gets run through with a sword, he’ll have scars, if he’s set on fire, he’ll have burns. In my game, poor old Lamlug took so much punishment that he eventually turned up with a bag on his head.

It isn't all barren wasteland; some parts of Mordor are strikingly verdant.

It isn’t all barren wasteland; some parts of Mordor are strikingly verdant.

While the plot isn’t particularly exciting, Shadow of Mordor is an exceptional open-world game that gives the player a vast set of tools for murdering a slew of unique enemies and gives them the freedom to deal with them in any way they see fit; manipulating power politics from the shadows and pulling the strings on a hit from behind the scenes is especially satisfying. With so many ways to go about it, it’s never been so much fun to hunt some orc.

Opinion: The Problem With Pre-orders

Standard

As autumn rolls around, the AAA games industry awakens from its summer slumber and begins to churn out titles in anticipation of the holiday season.  With a slew of big budget titles scheduled for release in the next couple of months and Bungie’s first-person space opera Destiny reportedly becoming the fastest selling new IP ever in the UK, this might be a good time to talk about pre-order culture and why you should be wary of it.

Physical pre-orders used to serve a clear purpose; if you thought a game had a strong chance of selling out then you could have a retailer set aside a copy for you.  This was, of course, when lots of games actually stood a chance of selling out.  Between the rise of digital delivery platforms (Steam, PSN, Xbox Live, etc) and the vast quantity of units that publishers ship these days, the prospect of a big game coming out that you can’t just walk into a shop on release day and buy is exceedingly small.  Which begs the question, why do people still pre-order games and who benefits from it?

Retailers and publishers track pre-order statistics to try to divine how well a game will sell when it hits shelves and, as you can probably tell from the various physical and digital goodies on offer, they really want consumers to pre-order.  Admittedly, the bonuses offered are often fairly insignificant (a new skin or costume for the main character, for example) but some come in the form of in-game content (such as unique weapons or missions).  The upcoming Alien: Isolation will have special missions for those that pre-order featuring most of the cast of the original film.  An Alien game withholding Sigourney Weaver as a pre-order bonus; that’s what we’re dealing with here.

So why are these companies going to all this trouble?  What do they stand to gain besides some statistics to show the stockholders?  Well, reviews and word of mouth play a big part in determining the success of a new videogame.  Professional critics and like-minded peers can get their hands on a new title and tell you if it’s worth your time and money.  Publishers and retailers who, understandably, want to sell as many games as possible don’t want potential customers being put off  by poor or mediocre reviews and encouraging a pre-order culture is a way around this.  By signing up to buy a game in advance with only the marketing campaign to go on you are signalling that you, as a consumer, are absolutely fine with paying £40-£50 for a game based purely on the talent of its marketing team.

If the game lives up to the hype then that’s great but what if it doesn’t?  What if it turns out to be an absolute mess?  Aliens: Colonial Marines failed to meet expectations so spectacularly that it resulted in an ongoing class-action lawsuit claiming that the publisher (Sega) and the developer (Gearbox Software) had falsely advertised their product using faked demos of the game at E3 and other trade shows.  So when the next big title comes around and you’re thinking about pre-ordering, sleep on it.  You have very little to lose and everything to gain by waiting for the reviews to come in.