Virtual Reality and the Future of Videogames

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It’s official; we’re living in the future. In Back to the Future Part II, Marty McFly and Doc Brown piloted their tricked-out DeLorean time machine from the year 1985 to the distant future; the year 2015. While the film didn’t get everything right about the tech of our time, its depiction of virtual reality gaming might not be too far off the mark.

On Wednesday, Microsoft announced their ‘HoloLens’ device during a Windows 10 keynote at their headquarters in Redmond, Washington, and it looks promising. Unlike the Oculus Rift and other virtual reality devices, the HoloLens creates augmented reality through the creation of holographic illusions – virtual objects – for users to interact with in their real-world surroundings. It’s all very sci-fi and the prospect of immersing yourself in a virtual world is exciting, but haven’t we seen this before?

In 1995, Nintendo gave virtual reality a try with the Virtual Boy headset and after roughly one year it was quickly and quietly taken off the market due to low sales figures. Its failures were myriad and complex but, in short, several design oversights led to hardware that was uncomfortable and impractical to use for any length of time. The jarring red monochromatic graphics that the Virtual Boy presented also caused problems for users. It was harsh on the eyes and many complained of headaches and eye strain. The final nail in the Virtual Boy’s coffin was the lack of worthwhile games that utilised the hardware effectively. With a couple of exceptions – I still think that Mario Tennis looks pretty cool today – the Virtual Boy’s line-up failed to deliver on its promise of heightened immersion; of feeling as though you have actually stepped in to a virtual world.

Given the financial failure of Nintendo’s headset, it’s not particularly surprising that we didn’t hear much about virtual reality in the years that followed. It looks as if that’s all beginning to change however. Virtual reality re-entered the headlines in 2012 when a company called Oculus VR hit Kickstarter to raise funds for the development of their Oculus Rift headset. Almost three years later, it still isn’t readily available to consumers but it shows a great deal of promise. The Oculus has been generally well-received by the press and is often praised for its immersive 3D effect and relative comfort. Additionally, the Oculus promises to utilise original games as well as popular hits and, crucially, many developers seem to have taken to the device. A recent tech demo let players sample last year’s Alien: Isolation and it proved to be an immersive, if terrifying, experience for those that tried it. Having been bought by Facebook for $2 billion last year, Oculus VR also has some pretty heavy financial backing.

Not to be outdone, Sony started showing off their own virtual reality tech at GDC 2014. Sony’s headset – Project Morpheus – also shows promise and first impressions have been largely positive. With global sales of the PlayStation 4 reportedly reaching over 18 million units as of January, there is certainly a large install base for Project Morpheus and many gamers are keen to find out more.

The high level of graphical fidelity that games can offer now and the smart tech behind these new devices means that if they are marketed well and appropriately priced we could well be on the verge of a VR renaissance. Given the failures of the past and the fickle nature of consumers, however, I remain sceptical of – but hopeful for – the future of virtual reality gaming.

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Things I’d Like to See From Games in 2015

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It’s unlikely that 2014 will be remembered as one of gaming’s best years; it probably won’t even go down in history as being a particularly good one. It wasn’t all bad but- between the online culture wars, the games that were delayed, and those that simply didn’t work at launch – 2014 proved to be, at best, a mixed bag for gamers. The good news is that it’s 2015 now so all of that nastiness is practically ancient history and, since it’s a new year, I’ve been thinking about the gaming trends that I’d like to see emerge (or continue to grow) over the next twelve months.

Top of the list would have to be games that actually work at launch. Last year was undoubtedly, at least in my mind, the Year of the Glitch. From Halo: The Master Chief Collection requiring a seemingly endless stream of patches to have working multiplayer to Assassin’s Creed: Unity’s nightmarish glitching, a lot of broken games have been released over the past year and it has to stop. A certain amount of bugs rearing their ugly heads is unavoidable and making a fully-functioning game on the scale of many blockbuster titles is extremely difficult but it can be done. Destiny and Call of Duty both managed to launch with very few issues and, at £40-£50 a pop, we need more games that are playable from the minute they officially launch; not weeks or months down the line.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor – a game that actually did work at launch – proved to be one of the year’s biggest sleeper hits. While it could, perhaps, be criticised for being derivative of the Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham franchises, it largely succeeded because the mechanics that it did lift from other games were extremely well-implemented. It all felt remarkably slick and satisfying and, most importantly of all, Shadow of Mordor featured the Nemesis system; an innovative new mechanic that created an army of randomly generated enemies that would learn and grow the more you fought them. There’s no end to the innovation that can be found on the indie scene but big budget games desperately need more originality. In the current era of annualised sequels where the same thing is repackaged, remarketed, and rereleased year after year, developers and publishers need to start taking risks or their big franchises are going to crater. Sales of the Call of Duty series are beginning to decline – despite this year’s entry being a vast improvement over its predecessor – and Shadow of Mordor was referred to by many as “the best Assassin’s Creed game of the year” which, given that there were two actual Assassin’s Creed games released in 2014, illustrates just how stale that particular franchise has become.

Speaking of originality, too many games feature the prototypical white-dude-with-a-big-gun (or some variation thereof) as their protagonist but games have been getting better at representing other groups of people in recent years. Last year, we got to play as an eleven-year-old girl in season two of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, as pretty much whoever we wanted in Dragon Age: Inquisition, and even as a piece of bread in I Am Toast. There’s nothing wrong with playing as a white dude with a big gun but, as is the case with gameplay mechanics, many big budget games run the risk of becoming stale and boring if they don’t start innovating in the storytelling department. Creating diverse and interesting characters that appeal to broad swathes of the population is, by no means, an easy task but it’s worth the effort.

So, those are the things I’d like to see from games in 2015 (or the top three at any rate) and I think that this year has a lot of potential. With a bit of luck, my optimism won’t turn out to have been misplaced. 2014 could have been so great, here’s hoping that 2015 truly is something special.

The Representation of War in Videogames

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Many games use war as a backdrop but few treat the subject with much sensitivity. It’s understandable really. War provides the perfect setting for action-oriented shooters or strategy games because it offers a straightforward conflict and goal that you can build a game around: kill the enemy. Besides, nobody wants to dwell on the realities of war when they’re having fun shooting people in the head, right?

WWII-based shooters were ubiquitous for a time before making way for those that were built around more modern conflicts, often set in the Middle East, and these quasi-historical action games have always left a bitter taste in my mouth.

Call of Duty: World at War, released in 2008, was a great game. It was fast, it was exciting, it was visceral; it was everything a first-person shooter should be. It was also brutally violent. As gaming hardware has developed, becoming more powerful, graphical fidelity has increased and so too has the ability of developers to depict the horrors of war on the battlefield.

Generally speaking, I’m not troubled by violent videogames. I grew up with them and, besides, I can hardly complain about the level of violence in games here and then go back to stabbing guards in the face in Assassin’s Creed, can I? Nevertheless, there’s something about shooters based so closely on real conflicts that leaves me cold.

While they do depict the brutality of war, they tend to do so for the purpose of cheap thrills. Usually, war is used as a plot device to push the action along, little more than window dressing, and most games that feature it focus on the influence the player character exerts on the war rather than on the impact of the war on the game’s characters.

Accurately depicting the way that war devastates communities and tears apart families is difficult in any medium, but some games are attempting to do just that. Ubisoft Montpellier’s puzzle adventure game Valiant Hearts is a good example.

The game tells the story of World War I through the eyes of four people and one dog. It’s about a group of ordinary people struggling through extraordinarily bleak circumstances and how one family is torn asunder by events completely out of their control. It has a truly stunning aesthetic and, while it stays light on the gore, the hand-drawn 2D artwork does a better job than most of depicting the horrors of industrialised warfare.

This War of Mine, from 11 Bit Studios, comes out on Friday and looks set to tackle the realities of war from a different angle. The game focuses on civilians caught in the crossfire of a large-scale conflict and trying to survive as best they can. It’s another example of a game in which you play not as a gun-toting super-soldier but as a group of ordinary people fighting for survival in dire conditions.

This War of Mine looks bleak...really bleak

This War of Mine looks bleak…really bleak

It’s about the desperate choices that ordinary people have to make when forced into situations like this to survive. Will you try to protect everyone in the shelter or will you sacrifice some of them to conserve supplies? Will you steal from other survivors to endure the hardships or will your conscience get the better of you?

I hope that I haven’t been too disparaging towards high-octane shooters like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve played countless historical shooters and will continue to do so but it’s great to see videogames representing war in more nuanced and interesting ways and, as the medium continues to mature, hopefully this is just the beginning.

Silent Hill 2 and the Future of Psychological Horror

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Having apparently forgotten the recurrent nightmares it gave me the first time around, I recently decided to fire up my battered old laptop and play through Silent Hill 2 again. Turns out, it’s still scary.

Silent Hill 2 was first released in 2001 (I try not to dwell on the fact that it was almost fourteen years ago that I played this on the PlayStation 2) and while it is certainly dated in many respects – the unwieldy ‘tank’ controls that won’t let you turn and move at the same time stick out as does the combat which feels clumsy and stilted – it remains terrifying.

As you travel through the fog-shrouded town of Silent Hill, it starts to get under your skin. Slowly – but surely – a sense of creeping unease and disquiet will start to play on your mind and it sticks with you long after you’ve turned it off.

This is largely due to the design of the game’s enemies: horrific Jungian archetypes that are directly connected to the psychological workings of the protagonist James Sunderland and, by extension, the player. The hideous, twitching ‘Bubble Head Nurses’ and the screaming ‘Mannequins’ (creatures consisting of only two pairs of female legs) were designed to be sexually suggestive and representative of James’ subconscious sexual desires during his wife’s hospitalisation while the iconic ‘Pyramid Head’ reflects his guilt and desire to be punished.

The town itself feels as if it’s out to get you. The thick fog, low lighting, and narrow corridors make Silent Hill feel heavy and claustrophobic. With such a limited field of vision, it’s easy to lose direction and get lost in the mist; it’s a confusing place when you’re calm, when you panic it becomes almost labyrinthine.

Everything in Silent Hill 2 has a somewhat dreamlike quality and it’s never explicitly clear what – or who – is and isn’t real. The dialogue – and its delivery – can be toe-curlingly cheesy but this, somehow, feeds into the surreal, otherworldly ambiance and makes the whole thing even more unsettling.

These are some of the features that make Silent Hill 2 stand out as the pinnacle of psychological horror in gaming and, unfortunately, the horror genre has fallen out of favour in the last ten years.

With the notable exception of Dead Space in 2007, very few noteworthy big-budget horror games have been produced in the last decade. After Resident Evil 4, most entries in that series have been fairly lacklustre and tend to be more action-oriented while more recent – Western-made – entries in the Silent Hill series have retained the setting and the Cronenberg-esque body horror of Silent Hill 2 but they lack the subtle touches that truly get under your skin.

While there have been some excellent indie horror titles (Amnesia: The Dark Descent being a prominent example) and even some substantial AAA releases in recent weeks (Alien: Isolation for one), there haven’t been many satisfyingly scary games and certainly none with the subtlety and overall weirdness of Silent Hill 2. It looks like that might be about to change however.

P.T. (or ‘Playable Teaser’) has players – in the first-person – walking through a fairly innocuous hallway in a family home but, after walking through the door at the end of the corridor, you realise that you’re back at the start of that same corridor. Although, this time, something’s wrong.

With each pass of the hallway, things start to get unhinged. The radio will turn itself on to tell you a story about a deranged father who killed his family, a baby will start crying unrelentingly, and you’ll start to hear footsteps behind you but turning around could prove fatal as it soon becomes apparent that a ghostly visage of the lady of the house is following you; and she’s never too far away.

At the end of the demo – if you have the nerves to make it that far – it is revealed to be a playable announcement for the next entry in the Silent Hill series with auteur developer Hideo Kojima (of Metal Gear Solid fame) at the helm. P.T. certainly captures some of what made Silent Hill 2 great and, as far as I’m concerned, it looks like the series might, finally, be getting back on track.

Opinion: On GamerGate

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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.

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

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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.

Opinion: The Problem With Pre-orders

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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.