Where No Man Has Gone Before

This year, Star Trek will turn 50, and I’ve loved the show since the days when I used to stay up at night and watch midnight Voyager reruns on TV. It’s been a part of my life for a long time now, and to me it represents a kind of optimism for the future where humanity has reached a point of accepting understanding. I love pretty much all of it – the campiness of The Original Series (TOS), the dry humanity of Next Generation, the character development of Voyager (as the first Trek I saw I’m still very fond of it, in spite of its flaws) and the boldness of Deep Space 9. Oh, and Enterprise too. This may be controversial, but I even like the reboot movies. They have their problems, but to me they represent a good balance of fanservice and updating the Trek concept to match modern trends and tastes.

I imagine most people will have heard the news by now, but here’s a crash course for those that missed it: It’s been announced that in the upcoming Star Trek Beyond, the character of Sulu will be shown as being married to a man. This marks the first time in the show’s 50 year history that a character has been openly gay1Okay, I know someone will say this so I’m going to get it out of the way. I’m not counting Lieutenant Hawk here because there’s no reference to it in the film itself. He was later revealed to have a male trill partner in the licensed novels, but that’s so far removed that I don’t think it really counts., and it’s sparked a discussion on multiple fronts about how appropriate it is.

Sulu was chosen as a homage of sorts to his original actor George Takei, a well-known gay rights activist. Takei has, however, spoken out against the change:

“I told him, ‘Be imaginative and create a character who has a history of being gay, rather than Sulu, who had been straight all this time, suddenly being revealed as being closeted’.”

The movie’s writer, super-nerd Simon Pegg, responded:

“He’s right, it is unfortunate – it’s unfortunate that the screen version of the most inclusive, tolerant universe in science fiction hasn’t featured an LGBT character until now.

“We could have introduced a new gay character, but he or she would have been primarily defined by their sexuality, seen as the ‘gay character’, rather than simply for who they are, and isn’t that tokenism?”

This leads me to what made me want to write this in the first place. I actually can’t take sides here2Though, as a side note, I hate Pegg’s argument that making a character who’s gay is instantly tokenism. It’s part of a wider problem of straight white guys staring minorities in the eye and saying “Perhaps YOU are the real bigot” with a straight face. This has been relegated to a footnote because I’m absolutely, 100% certain that Simon Pegg doesn’t have a homophobic or remotely bigoted bone in his body, but the phrasing here irks me., I agree with both of them.

Takei is absolutely right. The whole idea of retrofitting a character to make them gay makes me uncomfortable in a way I find it hard to accurately describe, but it’s a bit like campaigning for equality for 50 years only for the Wizard of Oz to wave his hands and go “actually, the gay character was inside you the whole time!”. It’s cheap. It reduces sexuality to something so flimsy that it can be arbitrarily assigned to an existing character so long as they’ve not explicitly stated that they’re straight. And that’s the other thing, there’s always the worry that something so obviously arbitrary could be taken away just as easily as it’s added.

Not to mention that this has some frankly bizarre knock-on effects to the original character as played by Takei. Was Sulu gay in the original series? Was his daughter, seen in Star Trek Generations, adopted? Created genetically using future technology? Maybe the events of Nero travelling back through time in 2009’s Star Trek had the bizarre butterfly effect of making Sulu like men instead?

Takei is right. The ideal scenario here is that they introduce a new character, who happens to be gay. A well developed character that can stand alone as a person and mesh with the existing group to bring some much needed sexual diversity into the franchise.

Which leads me to why Simon Pegg is also absolutely right. That is never going to happen. Star Trek, in particular the TOS characters that the reboot series revolves around, has been around for 50 years. Kirk and Spock are household names, and “Beam me up, Scotty!” was a meme before memes were memes. You simply can’t create a new character and insert them into a group that’s been loved so intensely for so long. This leaves Star Trek with two options:

  1. Wait until we get another live action series with an entirely new cast of characters, and make one of them gay. Hope that the character proves popular, that the show makes enough of an impact on the series to be warmly regarded by the existing fans and that it lasts longer than Enterprise did.
  2. Retrofit an existing core character.

1 won’t happen for a while, and there’s no guarantee it will even work. 2 is cheap, certainly, but it forces the issue – you can’t have the TOS Enterprise crew without Sulu, and if Sulu is gay now then we have a permanent, immovable point of diversity in the series.

Maybe, then, as much as I agree with Takei and want to share his optimism, making Sulu gay is the right thing to do. So much of the media we consume is, at heart, extremely old. Star Trek debuted in 1966. The Avengers were first published in 1963, James Bond first came to the cinema in 1962, Superman is from 1938. Hell, Sherlock Holmes has three major modern franchises and he’s from 1881.

The characters are heavily rooted in a time when white, straight male characters were even more commonplace than they are now. They still carry the status quo of the time and it will take years, perhaps decades, for new characters to rise to fill their shoes and become the Bonds, Iron Mans and Supermans of tomorrow. That’s why Takei’s logic is important, we have to push for new gay characters so that in 50 years a gay action hero will be as accepted and celebrated as James Bond is now. But 50 years is too long. I don’t want five decades of queer children growing up without role models, without feeling normal. I don’t want to be 80 by the time I see a gay lead in a Hollywood blockbuster. So perhaps we also need people like Simon Pegg forcing the issue, making sure that change happens sooner even if it means being cheap about it.

The final thing I have to say here is that I obviously don’t speak for all gay people. I know people who are thrilled to be represented, I know people who want Sulu to shove his big gay normality down people’s throats until the homophobes and the people who resist change just accept it. I also know people who feel that even showing Sulu in a gay marriage may not be subtle enough, and that it just emphases that being gay is something abnormal that has to be a Big Deal. Diversity is a complicated, nuanced issue. But Christ, I’ve already gone on long enough.

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1. Okay, I know someone will say this so I’m going to get it out of the way. I’m not counting Lieutenant Hawk here because there’s no reference to it in the film itself. He was later revealed to have a male trill partner in the licensed novels, but that’s so far removed that I don’t think it really counts.
2. Though, as a side note, I hate Pegg’s argument that making a character who’s gay is instantly tokenism. It’s part of a wider problem of straight white guys staring minorities in the eye and saying “Perhaps YOU are the real bigot” with a straight face. This has been relegated to a footnote because I’m absolutely, 100% certain that Simon Pegg doesn’t have a homophobic or remotely bigoted bone in his body, but the phrasing here irks me.

David Bowie

In one of his books (I think it was The God Delusion), Richard Dawkins suggests that some human quirks stem from the fact that the bulk of our evolution happened in small, localised groups hunting across a relatively small area. This is how our brains evolved, and in order to process anything larger – say, 510 million square kilometres of land or seven billion people – we have to do some odd mental tricks to allow us to even vaguely comprehend the scale of the world around us. While Dawkins used this to illustrate another point, I feel that it’s probably the explanation for another phenomenon.

Specifically, it’s why thousands of people woke up this morning to find out that they’d lost someone they felt genuinely close to.

It’s an odd feeling. I’m well aware that I never met David Bowie, and that the man himself wasn’t even aware of my existence. We never shared anything meaningful or developed any kind of actual connection, but when I loaded up the news app on my phone this morning and read David Bowie dies at 69 my heart sank like I was reading about the death of a close friend.

David Bowie has been on my mind a lot recently. I was excited for the release of his 25th studio album, and for some reason his 1974 album Diamond Dogs had been striking a chord with me for weeks an I’d been listening to it non-stop. How could a man who seemed so alive only yesterday when I listened to Blackstar possibly have died?

The answer, simply, is that cancer is a shit.

I loved Bowie for his ability to make full, lush worlds filled with bizarre and vibrant characters in the space of a five minute song. I can’t think of another artist who could create a world as lush as the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Diamond Dogs in just six minutes and then have the legacy of that world last over forty years.

It wasn’t just his worldbuilding and storytelling I loved, it was how safe and comfortable he made me feel with my sexuality. As a gay teenager, it felt like strong queer role models and idols were few and far between, but Bowie’s androgynous gender-bending and the public acceptance of his eccentricities felt like a caring hand on my shoulder and a reassurance that things would turn out fine.

There will always be a debate as to whether or not Bowie’s bisexuality was real, a curiousity, or just a fuck you of rebellion during the 70s that he later regretted. His interviews paint a conflicted and even contradictory account, but I’m not sure it even really matters. Bowie appealed to disillusioned gay and transgender kids and made them feel like things will be okay. That’s important. That’s really fucking important.

The public’s deep and unrequited connection to Bowie stems mostly from how much of himself he put into his albums. Even some of his most fantastic or bizarre characters and songs could be seen has having some metaphorical connection to aspects of David Bowie’s life story, and the opinion is quickly emerging that Blackstar was his goodbye, a knowing acknowledgement of his impending death and a characteristically cryptic and eccentric final message to the world.

Never has the interpretation of an album changed so drastically overnight as it has with Blackstar. It was an odd album to begin with, moody and discordant, seven tracks long and recycling two of those tracks from bonus tracks off his last album, The Next Day. But when viewed as the final chapter in Bowie’s musical autobiography, it’s immediately takes on a different, far more human meaning. It was one final metaphor, so deeply shrouded in the man’s typical mystery that it could only be unlocked once the artist himself had died.

I listened to it again today, and had to choke back tears  as the final track, I Can’t Give Everything Away, played. I wonder if he wrote it as a symbol of the one final, essential piece of himself that would disappear upon his death. That spark that we’ll never see again.

I’ll always see David Bowie as proof that you can be whatever you want to be. It doesn’t matter if that’s rebellious, conforming, male, female, gay, straight, bisexual, homo-superior, Martian, or a one-legged post-apocalyptic hipster. If you don’t like your reality, you can change it. Even if it means changing everyone else’s perception of reality in the process.

001 – Sonic The Hedgehog (Master System)

Over the course of the next year, I’m going to try to write about 100 games. There’s no great selection criteria here: They won’t be in any kind of order, they won’t all be significant, and they probably won’t even all be good games. But they will be 100 games that I’ve played, and that in some small way or another contributed to my appreciation of gaming as a whole.

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 19.49.19So, where better to start than the first game I played? Okay, so this part is actually pretty fuzzy. I don’t remember what age I was when my parents bought me a Master System II (or even why they bought it), but a bit of guesswork based on me remembering Sonic 2 being released makes me 5 or 6 years old when I got it. The model of Master System I owned came with Alex Kidd in Miracle World built in, so it’s possible that game holds the distinction of being the first I played. But what I do remember vividly to this day is this sitting on the floor of my parent’s pink wallpapered bedroom all day playing the Master System’s Sonic the Hedgehog.

This version of Sonic the Hedgehog is probably better known as the version that was released as Sonic the Hedgehog on the Game Gear, subsequently re-released on Nintendo’s Virtual Console service and as bonus content in Sonic Mega Collection and Sonic Adventure DX. Rather than being produced by Sega itself, development of the game was handed to Ancient, a Japanese developer that nowadays almost exclusively makes games based on the Reborn! Shōnen Jump manga.

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 19.36.49It’s impressive how well the game holds up after all this time. The 8-bit Master System version of Sonic the Hedgehog is much more than a downgraded port of its 16-bit daddy, it’s a full, unique game in its own right. Despite being limited by a much less powerful machine, Ancient were able to successfully strip back the feel of the 16-bit game, only loosely basing it on the parent title but retaining the sense of speed platforming that eventually became Sonic’s signature. Most of the key gameplay elements are present – fast running, rolling through enemies, jumping over spike traps, collecting rings – with only a few compromises. These small concessions include being unable to collect lost rings once lost (something they managed to make work in a limited sense for the 8-bit Sonic 2) and some fairly basic boss battles, but in exchange they added some neat small touches, such as a world map (pictured left) that showed the location of the level in relation to the wider South Island.

As a kid I never actually beat the game, I still remember being unable to pass the Jungle Zone boss and progress further. I came back to the game in my teenage years, fuelled by nostalgia. It was an interesting feeling, akin to returning to your old stomping ground, and I still recall the feeling of surprise when I passed that boss on only my second attempt. I knew the first three zones inside-out as a child, but from that point on the game was uncharted territory. It was like returning home and finding an entire half of the house you never knew existed.

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 19.39.45Even going back to it today, for the purpose of writing this article, I was still impressed by how much fun the game is. There’s an obvious veil of nostalgia there, but it really feels like a lot of love went into making this game, as though Ancient set out determined to equal the Mega Drive title rather than settling for a cheap imitation on inferior hardware.

I took dozens of screenshots in preparation for this article, and it’s been hard to whittle it down to the three you see here because so much of the game is still dear to me. Small corners an insignificant details of the map were all sources of wonder for me as a child, from the hidden floors of the second level to the rolling logs in the third zone. Still, I’d like to finish on Sonic the Hedgehog’s recreation of the famous Green Hill ring jump, one of the few areas of the game directly influenced by the 16-bit game. It’s a short section, and pared down from its Mega Drive equivalent, but to probably-5-or-6-year-old me, it was one of the most fun things imaginable. That’s what got me started.

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Games of 2015: The Beginner’s Guide

Note – This article is heavy in spoilers for The Beginner’s Guide. If you’ve not played the game yet and there’s any chance you may want to do so in future, skip this one.

The Beginner’s Guide is the latest game from Davey Wreden, the guy who brought us the fascinating Stanley Parable. Following on from his previous’ games exploration of agency and the nature of choice in a video game narrative, Beginner’s Guide is essentially another experiment in storytelling, weaving a narrative through a collection of disjointed games supposedly created by a man named Coda.

Each of the games plays like a small prototype or proof of concept, rarely consisting of more than a few corridors or abstract areas that Davey narrates himself, tearing each minute detail of the world apart looking for deeper meaning in his mentor’s work.

Much of the game’s actual meaning is left open, with some subtle hints that there may not even be any deeper meaning to discover. It’s a minefield, and I’m yet to fully make up my mind what the greater meaning behind the game is, or if there’s even anything to be found. So instead, I’m going to focus on one chapter in particular that stood out.

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The chapter begins on a rocky hill at night time. On your left, at the very top of the slope, is a door. To your right a little way in is a modern-looking glass sided house. When you enter the house, the door shuts behind you and you meet an unnamed, stationary NPC who asks for your assistance in tidying up the house.

This proves to be an endless task, no sooner has the player run around the house straightening the rug, making the bed and cleaning the dishes, some unseen force has messed them all up again and the player is forced to go back and do things again. Periodically the action is broken up by stopping to muse with the host, who makes strange, disjointed and semi-deep small talk with you.

It’s a bit like Sunset, but without the underlying story. You just clean, and clean, and clean.

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But, at the start of the chapter you were outside. You had a choice. What about that door on the left?

The huge windows of the house leave the door almost always in view, inaccessible and just tantalisingly out of reach. As I busied myself running around the house, cleaning up for the box-headed NPC, I kept looking at the door and wondering where it led. Would things have been different if I’d gone to the door first? Would I be able to learn about it without starting the chapter over?

In the back of my mind I was always aware that the door would either lead nowhere, or be something mundane, but there’s something about been shown what you could have had that sends daggers into the heart of human nature. I liked the house, it felt warm and cosy, but what if I’d missed out on something else?

Screen Shot 2016-01-02 at 13.26.30The cleaning task abruptly stops during one section of dialogue, the glass walls are removed and the game leaves you free to exit the house and proceed to the door, which is now open. It’s an odd point of the chapter, strangely contrary to the theme of comfort and longing that pervaded the experience up until this point. The short-lived satisfaction of heading to the door was balanced

In a later narration, near the end of the game, you learn that Davey meddled with the games he received from Coda, adding endings, solutions and symbolism where none originally existed. The story goes that Coda and Davey argued over whether the games should be playable, or if they should just exist as they are. Specifically mentioned is the cleaning level, suggesting that you were originally intended to stay in the house forever, wondering about what could have been.

This kind of fascinated longing isn’t new in video games, though the biggest examples that spring to mind were unintentional. A similar feeling surrounds Pokèmon’s mysterious S.S. Anne truck, placed just out of view so that it can only be seen by glitching or otherwise sequence-breaking the game. There’s also the unobtainable underwater book in Super Mario Sunshine, hidden behind a secluded door, the hidden island in the Dam level of Goldeneye 007, the myriad of unused but mostly complete areas that existed within vanilla World of Warcraft.

There’s something beautiful about things simply being there in games, whether they be leftovers or Easter Eggs, that we never get to see. Something just beyond our reach that we can only speculate about. Perhaps the reason I find this so interesting is because it’s a device – storytelling or otherwise – that is completely unique to video games. Someone made the S.S. Anne truck, someone modelled the island in Goldeneye. Their mere existence hints at a real life story that we can only speculate upon, and that’s what The Beginner’s Guide is all about.

The meaning of the game as a whole has been deliberately left up to the player to interpret, so it’s possible that I’m reading tea leaves here – seeing experiments and meaning in something that was never intended to be more than a goofy vignette – but there’s a seductive feeling  that this was the chapter where I saw eye-to-eye with Davey and saw what he (or possibly Coda) was trying to achieve. That this chapter was where I saw the point in his pointless, unwinnable game.

I think Coda was right. The game was better when you never reached the door.

Games of 2015: Clicker Heroes

Help, I can’t stop playing this game. Steam shows just under 900 hours on record for me at this point. While this isn’t entirely accurate as Clicker Heroes is classed as an idle game, it’s still a good sign of just how engrossed I’ve become in this little freemium game of infinitely scaling monsters.

Screen Shot 2015-12-30 at 20.26.41For those not familiar with idle games, they’re games that don’t always require active engagement. You leave them running (or not, in the case of Clicker Heroes, as the game will calculate your heroes’ earnings when you return) and return occasionally to spend your earned currency to improve the speed of your farming. The game is deceptively simple, and I’m sure somewhere someone has ranted about it being a part of the casual “I could have done this!” plague of games that started with Angry Birds and now encompasses almost every free-to-play game ever made.

So what makes Clicker Heroes worth playing? What makes it worth sticking with? Essentially, Clicker Heroes is a game about managing resources. You start, aptly enough, by clicking monsters to earn gold. As anyone who’s played this kind of game before (Such as Cookie Clicker or the excellent Kittens) will recognise, you then graduate to buying Heroes to do the clicking for you, increasing your DPS to earn more gold, to buy more heroes, ad-infinitum. What sets Clicker Heroes apart for me is how gloriously well it scales. It always dangles the carrot of self-improvement – how about resetting to earn some hero souls, another form of currency? How about increasing your starting level to earn better equipment? A recent update also added minions that you can send on farming quests on your behalf.

Essentially, once you’ve settled in, this turns Clicker Heroes into a resource management game. You have to work out the pros and cons of spending hero souls (which themselves provide a boost to your DPS) in order to reap long-term bonuses to DPS, including different abilities tailored to idle or active play styles. It’s not a game for everyone, but as someone with an endless love for watching arbitrary numbers getting bigger and bigger, this is a game I probably won’t tire of for a while.

Clicker Heroes can be downloaded free from Steam.

Games of 2015: Undertale

Let’s get this one out of the way first. Undertale has reached that point of utter saturation that places it in a similar place as Breaking Bad: It’s a great game, but the more you tell people that it’s a great game, the less they want to play it because they’re sick to death of everyone telling them what a great game it is.

Screen Shot 2015-12-30 at 19.24.25There are two things that make it hard to write about Undertale, and this is one of them. You’re either preaching to the choir or just adding to the noise that only serves to drive people away from the game.

That all said, Undertale is a game that just begs to be talked about. It arrived out of left-field and took the Internet by storm, quickly developing its own subculture, dominating and/or rigging online polls (depending on who you ask), and generally just being omnipresent in all forms of gaming media. So, why?

Well, this is the other difficult thing relating to writing about Undertale: Saying damn-near anything about the game is a spoiler and will ruin some of the fun, surprise and discovery you get from playing it by yourself. However, as I mentioned, at this point everyone has either played the game or never wants to hear about it again, so everything past this point is a spoiler and you have been warned.

Personally, I loved Undertale because of how damn meta it is.

An early section of the game has you learning the basics with Toriel, your well-meaning but thoroughly overbearing surrogate mother for the first 30 minutes of gameplay. She teaches you the basics of the game: talking to monsters to end combat, solving puzzles, baking pies. At the end of the tutorial, you’re forced into a choice: stay in the underground forever with Toriel, or engage her in battle to show that you’re strong enough to proceed in spite of her warnings.

And that’s what I did. Toriel dies, you proceed, and the game serves up a long stretch of forest to walk through while you think about what you did . At this point, I was troubled. I knew it was possible to beat the game without killing, but I’d just killed a major character. Talking had gotten me nowhere, but perhaps there was something I’d overlooked? So I did what most players would do wen faced with the prospect of living with a choice they’d made incorrectly.

I reset the game and reloaded.

Second time around, I found a way to save Toriel, only to be chided in the next room specifically for having killed Toriel and reloaded to absolve my guilty conscience. This was where I learned the first rule of Undertale and fell in love – the game has two saves. The first is the traditional game progress save system, updated when you manually save at save points. The second save is a persistent, automatically saved log of certain actions you’ve taken so that the game can subtly tweak encounters and dialogue depending on actions taken even when you didn’t save, reloaded or even restarted the game entirely.

This duality is a key theme of Undertale. On the surface, you have a simple story of a child trying to get home. Underneath is a carefully told meta-narrative about characters who are aware, on some level, that they’re in a video game and subject to being saved and reloaded entirely at the player’s whim. All this culminates in a final boss fight where the enemy crashes the game entirely multiple times (actual, genuine crashes that require the game to be relaunched) and intentionally save-scums the player if things don’t go his way.

Beneath that, there’s even more. There’s one extra, deeply hidden layer of narrative only vaguely hinted at during the main game. By modifying the game’s ini files, you can find traces of unused and unfinished content that hint at the existence of a character that, while researching the underlying mechanics of the game itself, was somehow banished from existence entirely. Again, this is just beautifully meta.

This is all, frankly, mind-blowing and a big part of why I utterly loved Undertale. The game treats the player with a huge amount of respect when it comes to the story, without falling into the same trap of awful, cryptic pretension that games like Braid fell into. Each of the game’s three endings stands firmly by itself, but all compliment each other and reveal new aspects of the plot. Several aspects are left open to interpretation, some are only apparent through small clues that are easily missed on your first run through. Some are so deeply buried that, if not for the strong community that built up around the game, they may never have even been discovered.

There’s always been a long-running debate on games as an art form, that always seems to hinge on comparing video games to other mediums. Frankly, games will likely never tell a story like a film. They’ll never develop characters like a TV show, or analyse and deconstruct the world their worlds as effectively as a comic book. But with Undertale, it’s possible to see how games can compete on their own level, playing to the strengths and weaknesses of the medium to tell a story that couldn’t have been told any other way.

Satoru Iwata

So I guess I owe a small part of everything I am to Satoru Iwata. It’s taken a week or so for this fact to finally click into place, but there really is no denying it.

Screen Shot 2015-07-21 at 01.03.42To explain this fully requires some fairly personal backstory, but here we go: as a teenager I suffered from fairly severe depression that led to me dropping out of school and eventually finding it hard to leave the house without panic attacks or stress-induced stomach problems. So I was a friendless, isolated teenage shut-in. But, without dwelling on this too much, thanks to a ton of therapy and support services (the quality of these services on the NHS is much maligned, but God knows I probably wouldn’t be here without them), I eventually started to make some progress.

With that out of the way, here is where Iwata stepped in. I already loved video games, and after admiring the Pokémon games from afar for many years, they quickly became a favourite of mine when I was finally able to get my hands on a US import copy of Pokémon Blue. I played that game a lot. Like, seriously, a lot. When I finally out it down on that first day I found it hard to walk around without seeing caves moving in front of my eyes.


Flash forward a few years. Pokémon Gold had just been released in Japan, and I came across a copy behind the counter in the Birmingham CEX (Back when the store was still officially “Computer Exchange” and the CEX branding was a cheeky joke, and long before Nintendo cracked down hard on these kind of imports). Even though the game was in Japanese, I knew the RBY mechanics off by heart and had read enough about the new game to make a decent crack at it. Through a combination of memorising menu layouts and sheer perseverance, I was able to make a solid attempt at it.

The first thing Pokémon Gold gave me was communication. After a while, as the game’s plot developed and required a degree of backtracking for progression, it started to become harder and harder to decipher my goal against the relentless onslaught of Japanese gibberish. It was while searching the Internet for a guide that I came across by first honest-to-god online community – a Pokémon forum that also held full guides and loose translations of various stages of Gold and Silver. It was there that I began to learn that there were, out there, people with the same interests as me, who wouldn’t tease me for liking video games. I don’t think I was ever a major part of the community, but I remember it fondly, and it began a chain of discovery that moved me from forum to forum, chat to chat, that I can firmly chase to the friends I hold to this day.

I’m forced to consider what would have happened without Pokémon Gold. I suppose I would have found Internet forums eventually, but would I have moved between them in the same way? It seems possible, even likely, that by removing that one small link from the chain of my social development that I could have ended up in entirely different social circles to the ones I frequent now. It’s possible that with different friends and influences during a trying period of my life, that without Pokémon Gold I would have ended up an entirely different person to who I am today. Would I know my friends? Would I have met my fiancé? It’s a sobering thought.

Years later, Pokémon Gold had been released in English and the game would go on to help me again. By this point I was starting to work my way back into society – I’d finished a rough facsimile of school intended for problem children, and at their suggestion I’d enrolled in a part time IT course at the local college. A big coping mechanism for me is routine, (and in a way it still is, which is why I single-handedly keep my local Starbucks afloat with my regular visits) and each day before the course began I’d follow the same ritual. I’d wake up, shower, lie on my bed listening The Red Hot Chili Pepper’s By The Way and play Pokémon Gold until the taxi arrived to take me away. I followed this same routine for months, and the small comfort it provided was enough to get me securely through the course.

The rest of my struggles with depression are almost inconsequential here, but for the curious, here we go: Building on the minor qualifications I was eventually able to enrol in a basic college program offering GCSE equivalent grades. Following that with an A level equivalent BTEC and night classes I somehow managed to get myself into university, get a degree, and now I pass as a normal human being heading up development at a small media agency.

But, one way or another, I probably wouldn’t be here without Pokémon Gold. Which means that, as small as his contributions were to the game, I probably wouldn’t be here without Satoru Iwata. The man loved the games he helped to bring to life, and he loved his job, but I wonder if he ever knew that the games he helped to create managed to touch the life of a troubled teenager on almost the other side of the planet. Could anyone really comprehend their actions having such wide-ranging, drastic consequences?

I hope he did understand how deeply his work touched the lives of those who played them. I’m just one person of millions who played his games, who bought the consoles he pioneered, who watched Iwata Asks and laughed when I saw him as a puppet only a few weeks ago. I doubt I’m the only one of those millions whose life was changed in some small but significant way by his games.

I don’t think there’s any great meaning in death, despite the natural scramble to try and make such a cruel, random twist of fate carry some meaning. But, to fall on some old clichés, Iwata’s influence will live on as long as the people he affected continue to live on. I’m not sure that’s a comforting thought or an upsetting thought. Either way, Iwata, I doubt I’ll ever forget your legacy.

Special thanks, Satoru Iwata.

Nobody Wins at Flappy Bird

Okay, so I can’t believe that after all this time, I’m updating this blog again to talk about Flappy Bird. In the interest of full disclosure, I never played Flappy Bird. It didn’t appeal to me. The borderline-stolen art made me uncomfortable to even try it out – on a personal level I don’t want to help contribute to the ad revenue of someone using stolen assets. But, now it’s gone, I do care. Personally, I think everyone should care. Not because Flappy Bird is gone, but because of the attitude that’s followed its removal.

To bring anyone up to speed who’s not been following the whole saga, here’s a brief history of Flappy Bird. A Korean developer developed a simple game in a few days where you help to navigate a bird through a series of pipes. Through a mixture of luck and viral marketing, the game became a huge hit, eventually earning the creator upwards of $50,000 a day in in-game advertisements.

Honestly, when I first saw Flappy Bird it looked so bad that I assumed it had been launched to the top of the charts through some kind of exploit. The Mario pipes, the bizarre reviews referring to the “devil bird”, and the fact that the game had more ratings numbering in the tens of thousands just helped to cement this, and I was waiting for it to vanish as fast as it appeared.

But it didn’t vanish, at least, not at first. Soon, Flappy Bird started to seep into everything. Usually serious Tumblr blogs were posting screenshots of their high scores and even the BBC started reporting on the game.

Then, as quickly as it had begun, the creator posted a warning that he’d be taking the game down in 22 hours, saying simply “I cannot take this anymore.” I didn’t think he’d follow through, but I was wrong. As of this morning, Flappy Bird is no more.

Twitter exploded with applause. This led me to a single, disturbing realisation that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

A game that someone created out of a love of making video games, that gave millions of people joy, is gone. And people are happy about it.

The reason for this is fairly standard. I’m going to pass over the (perfectly valid) argument about the originality of the artwork, as everyone makes mistakes and Flappy Bird was only a 30 minute sprite-swap and an apology away from coming out of that clean. Neopets rolled out with an unsourced photo of Bruce Forsyth as a pet and now that thing is a multi-million dollar enterprise. Hell, let’s not even get started on Ms. Pac-Man.

No, the main source of the criticism leveled at Flappy Bird was at its simplicity. It was the latest in a long line of popular mobile games to invoke the Angry Birds “It’s just a Flash game, I could have done that!” argument. An argument that I feel comes as much from an opposition to change as it does from jealousy.

This isn’t about Flappy Bird. This isn’t about Angry Birds, Farmville, Candy Crush or any of the other simple games that have found a loving audience on mobile platforms. This is about us – those of us who have been playing games for a long time, those of us who write about them, those of us who create them. I firmly believe that if a video game comes along that brings joy to people, we should be happy. We should be happy that video games as a medium are still enriching people’s lives, bringing friends together and brightening people’s days.

We should not, ever be happy that joy has been taken from people. Even if Flappy Bird was pretty stupid.

The 3DS Launch Line Up

Today when I walked into work, I was immediately reminded of something I’ve been putting off. “Hey Dan, has your new Nintendo arrived yet?”. I replied no, I’ve ordered the thing but it’s not due for another… Three weeks?

The damn thing is four weeks away and I’ve still not actually ordered any games for it. My hopes were to celebrate the launch with Zelda and Starfox, and after those dreams were crushed I could never really bring myself to deal with the task of picking from the meager launch titles. There’s a lot lined up for the 3DS that awakens the impatient gaming 12-year-old in me: a Kid Ikarus rail shooter, Paper Mario, ports of my favourite N64 games and new installments in both the Layton and Ace Attorney series. I just never really imagined when the 3DS was announced that I’d be facing launch in under a month with absolutely nothing that excites me.
Well, almost nothing. Pilotwings is a revival I’ve been hoping for for years. The series is tied with Wave Race for the Nintendo series I most wanted to see revived, both the SNES game and its N64 sequel are all time classics and I find it impossible not to remember them fondly. Selling it as a Resort spinoff strikes me as off, but as long as it has the same minute attention to detail and endless easter eggs as the earlier games it’s going to do the job.
There’s one small problem, though. I suck at Pilotwings. On the SNES I could never do anything besides the skydiving/parachute stages (that exception probably being owed to their overwhelming presence in 90s gaming TV shows), and on the N64 I just unlocked the Birdman stages and flew around taking photos of the landscape.
So, this leaves me with the realisation that if Pilotwings is my only launch game, my first experience with the 3DS will be repeatedly crashing the Gyrocopter into a cliff over and over and ballsing up my landing. What else is left?
Nintendogs+Cats is probably what Nintendo are hoping will shift the units, and indeed it seems to be touted as the main launch title for the console. It’s not for me though, when the “Aww, cute!” wears off I find very little in virtual pet games that demands my attention.
Super Street Fighter IV: 3D is admittedly looking fairly impressive, but if there’s one thing sadder than me accidentally massacring the cartoon cast of Pilotwings, it’s me playing fighting games. I have no coordination, no memory for combos and I simply don’t enjoy them enough to have a drive to work towards being good at them . After much tear-shedding and soul searching after being destroyed by Guilty Gear XX’s easy mode I accepted that I’m just the guy who sucks at fighting games. I’m grown up enough to accept my shortcomings and move on with my life, but I’m guessing that spending £35 on SSFIV3D will be enough to leave me calling a therapist.
There’s Monkey Ball, but Sega have been churning them out pretty fast and the last time I enjoyed one was probably Monkey Ball 2 on the GameCube. I love Lego Star Wars as much as the next guy, but I’d rather get the full title on the 360 than play a port that’s most likely watered down, and don’t get me started on the latest round of “Tom Clancy Presents:” games.
Rayman? Rayman is cool. The many, many ports of Rayman 2 have been hit and miss, but maybe this one will be okay.
Of course, I’m typing this with a copy of Rayman DS sitting in a neglected drawer only a few feet away. It’s quite an incredible example of a cash in port. Rayman 2 is a classic of its genre; it’s well designed, vibrant, lovable and exquisitely paced. To take that solid foundation and turn it into a muddy unplayable mess must have taken a kind of sadistic determination that few can rival. Rayman 3D is obviously spawned from the same concept, god forbid we make a new Rayman game when we can bring out what’s left of Rayman 2 for another round.
Maybe if I buy it that’ll change. Maybe they’ll see that the series is profitable and actually release Rayman Origins. Even if Rayman 3D turns out to be as bad as Rayman DS, if Origins is actually released I’ll feel a warm glow of satisfaction for buying it.

I’ll probably get Rayman. Maybe.

Are Games Getting Easier?

A fairly common question with modern video games is whether or not games as a whole are becoming easier. On the surface, it would appear to be a no-brainer: It’s far more likely that you’ll see the end of a video game nowadays than it was ten or twenty years ago. But we need to ask ourselves, are we asking the right question? What if difficulty is based on more than how far you can get into a game before hitting a wall?

My point is thus: Many older games weren’t difficult, they were more punishing. An example of this is a lives counter, something that’s in less and less in modern video games. Extra lives allow you to restart from a recent point in a game after you die. When they run out, you get sent back even further – to the start of the level, or even to the start of the game. But does this add difficulty? The events of the game don’t become any more challenging to overcome with extra lives, it just means that after a somewhat arbitrary number of attempts the smacks you down with a much larger punishment. As such, most games now do away with a lives counter, and always allow you to restart from a recent checkpoint as many times as you wish.
Another example comes from RPGs, which have also progressed in a similar way. In the vast majority of old RPGs, dying or wiping your party lead to a Game Over screen, which lead back to the title screen and forced you to reload at your last save. Obviously, at the end of a dungeon, this could lose you hours of work. Recently, the trend in RPGs has been to offer safety nets – allowing you to restart boss battles, or skip back to a moment before. Again, this is difficulty versus punishment. It doesn’t make the gameplay any easier, but serves to speed things up and reduce the likelihood of you losing progress.
Obviously the points I’ve tried to raise here don’t apply universally. When Metroid Prime 3 launched, people were surprised to find that the game’s Normal difficulty was balanced to be the same as the earlier games’ Easy, and that the standard difficulty for the series had become “Veteran”. It is also the case that many old games, especially from the NES era, were heavily based on the design of the arcade. In the arcade, incredibly difficult games were an advantage, as every death meant another quarter from a determined customer. But, overall, I think most of what people see as games getting easier is actually just games becoming more polished, less punishing and (arguably) more fun experiences.