blog culture roleplaying

State of play

Dungeon World cover
Dungeon World cover. It looks like what I felt like as a kid playing D&D!

I was asked to write about where roleplaying is, locally, as I see it, in Finland right now. This came at an opportune time as I’ve thought hard about it recently. The objective of the exercise is to really get an idea of the state of Finnish roleplaying by asking bloggers for their perspectives. I don’t have any delusions of being a major component of that, but without any documented practice surely it’s impossible to form any sort of image. If enough people do the same, we actually can form an image.

Any honest – or rather, real – image of roleplaying as a practice or culture must be about the games we play. We can talk a great deal and I’m sure there are a couple of forums with people doing just that, but in the end it does come down to how we actually get on at the table. I can talk about that.

I’ve gone through a number of crises with my roleplaying. I have always been a gamemaster and always a system jumper; I’m leap frogging from game to game, chasing the elusive ultimate experience. Before Dungeons & Dragons, fourth edition (4E), came along, I felt lost. I was just not enjoying my old games like I used to. 4E re-ignited my love for the original game – Red Box D&D was my first love – and indeed it was the rather sketchy but adorable repackaging of the Red Box that got me in all over again. I stumbled on it waiting for a Gameboy concert to start in a comic book shop in Los Angeles. I then played in a 4E campaign and loved the mechanics of it, culminating in getting the then new 4E Essentials products and starting my own game in 2011. I vividly recall the planning sessions and the anxiety of starting a new game. We played that game for coming up on three years over something in the region of forty sessions and more than a dozen players. That campaign folded in a planned fashion in March 2014. We set out to cover levels one through ten, and we did just that.

My regular group was seven players, and most of the time we had the full seven players at the table. We painted miniatures and I pulled out all the classic D&D tricks from rust monsters to dragons. For much of the three years, it was glorious. Only towards the end, perhaps from level eight onwards, the mechanics just broke down, and with seven players and D&D 4E, the mechanics was almost the whole of the game. I didn’t enjoy the last couple of levels.

Around 2010, I think, myself and most of my roleplaying friends played in a mega campaign with some fifty-odd players, covering a hundred games. It was called Century, and I believe it changed most of us, at least the serious, life-sentenced GMs among us. It solidified a lot of ideas I had had kicking around in my head, mostly about narrative driven, meaningful mechanics and a decidedly anti-simulationist bent. Ever since then I’ve been getting seriously into Fate and “Powered By Apocalypse” systems. Last summer we played a short campaign of Heavy Gear to take a break from D&D. Heavy Gear is my all-time favorite game world and system, and now it felt too old school to bear. I just couldn’t function with a clunky system like that anymore. It got in the way. I can’t believe I’m saying this, with the amount of love I have for those books, but time has passed them by. I have outgrown them.

I suspect that’s the case with any of the dozens of books on my shelves. The defining, life altering works for me have been The Mountain Witch, Fiasco, Monsterhearts, Dungeon World, and Fate. The quality of experience you get out of those games is so decidedly, objectively better (yes) than with an old-school system that it seems foolish to go back. Why would you want to go back? Abandoning the simulationist approach doesn’t feel like an alternative, it feels like an evolution. These games deliver the sorts of experiences I was always looking for, and never could reliably reach. It sometimes happened, but more as a fluke or because of ignoring the rules. Now you can get to those places in a reliable, if mysterious, fashion.

It seems weird, then, that we’ve spent so much time with D&D 4E. But the circumstances have been different. Our group is very large, and you couldn’t run these other games with that group. We need the mechanics to carry the game wholesale. I’ve had to go back to my dungeon crawling roots, in a very real fashion back to my childhood and my formative years, and D&D was the only vessel that could carry me there. At the same time, as the campaign progressed, I started integrating more narrative devices and mechanics to get to the same kinds of places these new wave games could take us. Between our second and third season of the game, we played a few games of Dungeonworld, and going back to D&D after that felt like settling for an inferior experience. At that point it was all about spending time with the people, and attaining closure on the long game. My heart was lost to Dungeonworld.

I wonder what my next game is. It’s going to have four players and it’s going to run for perhaps four to five games, I think. My shortlist is my Pacific Rim inspired mecha thing running on Fate, Vampire (circa Revised) without the Storyteller system (again, Fate), more Monsterhearts and Fiasco, Trail Of Cthulhu. I’m thinking I’ll run Monsterhearts and Fiasco just for the narrative and player workout. Those games are great for massaging the storytelling muscles of any player, not just gamemasters.

We are still going back to the regular fantasy campaign thing, though. We ordered the Bones II Kickstarter’s several hundred euros worth of miniatures, so the next winter is going to see either D&D Next (it does sound pretty good) or Dungeonworld.

As a player I’m active in a modern horror campaign running on an extensively designed homebrew system (lots of Apocalypse World inspiration there). That’s unlike anything I’d run, with its thirst for very long form, unedited, uncut player interaction. Our group is comprised of very experienced GMs and we spend a good hour-plus after most games to debrief and discuss the systems, tone and developments on a meta level. Sometimes it feels like we played the session merely to gain topics for the post-game discussion.


My GDC 2013

I like San Francisco. I like the western US, and SF is my second most favorite place over there, right after Seattle. I have gone there once a year for the Game Developers Conference for five years now. It’s enough to start to know my way around downtown.

San Fracisco downtown, morning fog, March 2013
View from the hotel room on an early morning.

This year I was staying at the Marriott. It’s an old hotel right next to the Moscone Center where the conference is held, in the middle of the other big downtown hotels. As a base for doing business at GDC, it’s great. The lobby is busy and the top floor bar, The View, is a popular and well-known site after hours, with its commanding, Death Star -esque view of the skyline. I was reminded of Blade Runner’s opening shot when first visiting it at night, five years ago. That scene has lodged itself in my brain as “the America experience”.

Looking at my schedule, I had two meetings at Game Connection, two meetings in another hotel – the Inter-Continental, on the other side of Moscone – and everything else inside the Marriott. It sounded like a sad, weak way to spend a week in San Francisco, but I was there to work, anyway. Later I heard that some Finnish folks had been even worse, never branching out from between hotels and Moscone.

Game Connection is a sister event to GDC, held in the Francis Drake hotel on Union Square. I hadn’t been there before. There’s a lot of tables for meeting people in the somewhat cramped, labyrinthine space. It was really warm, hot even, inside, and I got the impression it was mostly outsourcing companies looking for clients. The atmosphere was busy and positive. I ran into a bunch of friends and colleagues and potential business partners. I was happy to get out of there after my meetings.

The Marriott is run-down, with a loud, cold lobby, but the rooms are nice and quiet. I slept better than at any other conference I’ve been to. Most of my time was spent in a meeting space on the second floor, with three rooms our agents were cycling developers and publishers through. The meeting rooms were big and old, impersonal and uneasy.
The best feature of the meetings were the automatically shutting lights. Two thirds into my piece, they usually cut off, with our agents getting up and jumping around to re-light them. Maybe that says something about me needing to be more animated when presenting.

I really like talking about and presenting our games. I believe in the games and I want to make them. It’s so important to me that I spend a number of weeks before a big show to really buy into whatever we’re doing – meditating, projecting, self-motivating, daydreaming. I need to believe in it on an animal level – the actual memorizing of facts comes at the last minute and isn’t even important to how I do.

I prefer to present on my own, because then I don’t have to think about what my colleagues are thinking, and can just concentrate on the moment: the client and the game. Having the agent along to take notes frees bandwidth as you don’t have to think about stuff you need to remember after the fact. All told, this year’s set-up was ideal for me.

What I always do is make a presentation PowerPoint that is way too long and just doesn’t fit with the way I actually talk about the game, when sitting down with someone. This year was my best effort in that regard, but I still ended up skipping much of the material on the PPTs. I was really very proud of our videos – by far the best we’ve produced for these things, and something I’d love to share with everyone. As usual, getting any sort of audio playback was a pain – it’s weird how something like this doesn’t “just work” these days. One of these years I’m going to remember to buy a convenient portable speaker that’s powerful enough for a conference room.

A shitty presentation destroys your confidence. I’ve learned to get over those, as long as I can figure out what went wrong. Usually a botched presentation feels like you never connected with the client – sometimes the client can seem unwilling to tune into your frequency. I had none of those this year. I did have one stellar presentation instead. That gives you an insane high, it feels like you can do anything. The secret was an audience that paid absolute attention and got into the thing openly and not in that super reserved fashion you commonly see.

We didn’t have any no-shows, which is something of a miracle, actually. A couple of meetings ran so late we had to do with ten minutes instead of the planned thirty. To my credit I cleared those effortlessly.

On Thursday I spent a while in a lobby and a corridor with Ninja Theory’s Tameem Antoniades, who was there waiting for a meeting, like me. I really wanted to go over and be a fanboy, but didn’t. He should know people still appreciate Kung Fu Chaos.

Later that day I had a couple of hours off, so I went for a walk down to the Ferry Building at the end of Market Street and took the BART back. After the conference I found out that there was this awesome impromptu event – Lost Levels, a kind of shadow GDC – being held in the Yerba Buena Gardens, right under my hotel window. I feel so bummed for missing out on that! I read about it on Twitter but didn’t realize it was outside the show proper – which I didn’t have a pass for.

San Francisco waterfront by the ferry building, March 2013
At the waterfront by the ferry building.

The Marriott doesn’t have breakfast. There’s an expensive, loud, busy Starbucks in the lobby, but I preferred to use my mornings for taking a walk and finding something to eat further out. One morning I found a fresh, hot bagel, on another I had a craving for Denny’s – a huge mistake, the overpowering sugar rush left me wrecked until late in the afrernoon. Friday morning was the best. I had seen long queues outside all the downtown Super Duper Burger joints, but at eight in the morning I was the only customer on Market Street. It was really juicy, really messy, and really good.

A Super Duper burger, San Francisco Market Street, March 2013
A Super Duper burger. I get hungry, just looking at it, now.

On Thursday night I hooked up with an ex-colleague. We took a walk to a random party in a speakeasy style bar, unmarked black door and a further hidden door in a bookcase and all. The neighborhood was a little dodgy and put me somewhat on edge. It’s weird how fast it changes in a city like San Francisco, basically in a block you can go from a high street to something populated only by the homeless.

I had a day off on Friday and wanted to really see the town. I knew I wanted to visit the Pacific Pinball Museum again, like we did last summer with my wife (who turned out to be a pinball maniac – I had no idea), but aside from that I had no plans beyond taking in the city. I checked out of my room and left my flightbag at the hotel luggage storage.
Taking off walking, I headed for Telegraph Hill. It was a great walk in the rising morning temperature. I got to see quite a bit of SF sights I hadn’t seen before and got a much better idea of the city on the way. I realize it’s basically just a couple of streets’ worth, but that’s still much more than just the downtown. And while we did drive around last year a bit, walking is just different. You get a pulse you just don’t unless you’re putting soles on the pavement.

Downtown San Francisco, March 2013
Walking in downtown SF from Market Street towards Coit Tower.

By the time I found my way to the top of the hill, I was sweaty and positively felt like summer. Taking the elevator to the top of the Coit Tower was worth it for the postcard photos and just looking around. A small group of people were exercising on the lawn at the foot of the Coit Tower. Their old dogs relaxed in the sunshine. One was so weak his elderly owner carried him back down the hill after their slow, familiar walk up the hill. Time seemed to slow down.

View from Coit Tower towards Embarcadero. San Francisco, March 2013
View from Coit Tower towards Embarcadero.

I found a steep, mostly hidden staircase down from the other side of the hill, towards Embarcadero and the waterfront. It had an amazing area with a mostly vertical park combined with small houses. It felt like a quiet, idyllic suburb somewhere in a European garden city. Cobwebs covered the only streetsign in the park.

Napier Lane, San Francisco, March 2013
I guess it was called Napier Lane.

Finally reaching street level again, I found out I had stumbled onto the courtyard of the Levi’s headquarters campus. The 14-year old myself wouldn’t believe I’m here, when Levi’s basically symbolized the whole American way of life, something we all thought we aspired to.

Levi's Plaza, San Francisco, March 2013
Levi’s Plaza.

The goal for the day was the magical Pacific Pinball, located across the bay. I took the BART over there. Emerging on the other side, I was puzzled at the sudden sight of chicken on a backyard, followed by apparently drug addicts sleeping on cheap, plastic, stained garden furniture. The contrast to the downtown sights just some five minutes away on rail was striking.

I wanted to use a local bus to save money and to just feel better for getting around sensibly. After some half an hour of searching, I gave up trying to figure out the layout of the area and settled for a cab, found in front of a convenient hotel.

Pacific Pinball was great, as it always is. It was my third time there. I enjoy the 90s machines the most as that’s what I encountered in my own life – favourites being Elvira, Medieval Madness and Attack From Mars. As pinball halls go, Pacific Pinball is great, but the one you must visit if you’re a fan is the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. It is spartan (and unbearably hot in July), but their collection has to be seen (played) to be believed.

Pacific Pinball, San Francisco, March 2013
Inside Pacific Pinball.

There was a Japanese restaurant across the road so I had some ramen for lunch. An old guy sitting at a table across from me had obviously been coming there for a long time. The restaurant didn’t look that old, though. We were alone in the big hall.

I tried to hook up with a former colleague when I was ready to leave. Waiting for his plans to clear, I had a coffee in a nearby coffeeshop and marveled at the warmth, thinking back to the freezing winter still waiting for me back home. We finally agreed to meet back at the hotel downtown, so I catched a bus back.

I didn’t have any change on me and when I dug out a five dollar bill to pay, understanding that I wouldn’t get any change in return – it was still much cheaper than a cab would be – a young man sitting in front stood up to interject, offering to pay. He hated to see money go to waste, so he wanted to pay on my behalf on principle. That would never happen in Finland.

Back downtown I hooked up with my friend and we drove on his rental across the Golden Gate bridge to take in the sights. An unbelievably dense fog had risen up, covering all of the bridge save for the very tops of its supports, even when you were looking at it right from its end. The city looked like Cloud City from Star Wars. We drove up the mountain and didn’t really see much anything due to the extreme fog. The sunset was surreal, the sun a molten ball of icecream on a sea of painted clouds so dense they looked like you could jump on them.

Foggy Golden Gate, seen from Conzelman Road, San Francisco, March 2013
Foggy Golden Gate, seen from Conzelman Road.


With this somewhat off-topic post I am signalling a change in the blog’s direction. I have so many things on my plate right now that I am no longer going to be committed to a weekly update pace. The content is going to stay the same, covering my travels – whether literal or less so – in games, it’s just going to be less regular.

What are those other things, then? I want to get more writing done and the blog has forced me to prioritize games writing. I want to practice more guitar and write songs and that means less time spent playing games, thus having less to write about. Finally and perhaps most pressingly, I’m changing jobs after over five years and want to focus on the new challenges. Thank you Bugbear for these five years and the introduction to the industry, hello Remedy.

Helmet on top of an everyman class car in a garage, somewhere in Finland
I’ve been wanting to use this behind the scenes shot from “Next Car Game” somewhere, and this seems apt.

Far Cry 3 (PS3)

Far Cry 3 PS3 cover
Far Cry 3 cover, with surprisingly relatable poster boy Vaas. The protagonist is hidden in the sand, which speaks volumes of his stage charisma.

What is Far Cry? It is Ubisoft’s open world shooter series where you also explore a wilderness setting while having freeform firefights in the first person. First (2004) it was an unbearably pretty tropical paradise with thematically nonsensical, design-wise questionable content. Then (2008) it was an immersive, compelling depiction of war-torn Africa with hypnotic, if flawed systems powering a feverish descent into madness. And now (2012) it’s back to the tropical paradise.

On the surface, they’ve gone back and done a better job with just about everything they established in the previous games. The first game was too reined in, hinting at a larger world – now it’s wide open, with a textbook open world. The second game had a lot of very neatly intertwining systems with sometimes questionable execution, and those are now all refined to something very close to perfection. Both previous games have thematically been about a clash of Western values and worldview with a feral world, and here Ubisoft dives deep into the theme.

Or rather, pretends it does. The theme is a good place to start discussing Far Cry 3’s merits and issues. When you first load up the game, you’re presented with an animated butterfly icon as a loading symbol. It takes you a second to realize the image is formed from gun silhouettes, which also animate between various guns. Perhaps you see it the other way around, first making out the guns, but immediately it feels like the game is trying too much. The sensation continues on to the minimalist title screen with its distorted close-ups of different dudes and vaguely threatening electronica. It’s like the game is telling you that shit is going to get crazy. You sigh and cringe and press start.

You’re then presented with a cast of seriously obnoxious young Californians partying in a paradise archipelago. It’s like the opening of Dead Island without the softening effect of that game’s obviously B values, seriously off writing and over-acting, and interesting narrative. It’s hard to tell how much of the bad taste in your mouth is intentional. Being a generous kind of guy, I assume it’s wholly intentional and you are supposed to hate these idiots. It then turns out you’ve been captured by an insane pirate and his crew and whereas less worthy hostages are tortured and killed, you’re going to be held for ransom. The crazy pirate Vaas is immediately likeable and manages to make you pay attention until the college jock douchebags start talking again. You’re imprisoned with your brother and you’re both so worthless, you completely wish them ill.

Your privileged white youth is then thrust, whimpering, into a bloody escape from the pirates. Once out, you’re free to do what you want on the Rook Islands. You are immediately transformed into jungle superman, only falling back on your airhead days whenever you open your mouth, which is mercifully rare.

The supposedly profound contrast between the sad protagonist’s sheltered life and his new life as a noble savage wannabe (and I mean that in exactly the offensive manner) in the islands never works. To the developer’s credit, most of the time they’re not even trying to get you to care, but when they do, it’s cringe-inducingly bad. The only good bit is the hero’s weak stomach for the animal-skinning he’s doing all the time – his retching and expletive-laden distaste for the job never gets old.

Where the original game didn’t really bother exploring its everyman hero’s psyche, that was never a problem as all the development (or lack of it) happened in the player’s head. Here they’re trying to let you know how you should feel, and unfortunately that tends to be “would you shut up, please, nobody is listening”.

The problem is not at all what you’re doing. What you’re doing is awesome, in many ways a perfect distillation of what’s been best in the series. Far Cry 3, like Far Cry 2 before it, is great at making you tell stories. I fell in love with it the time I was hiding in the bush, out of ammo and limping back to a safe place, mortally afraid of the animal sounds around me as I was in no condition to ward off an angry tiger (or dog, for that matter) (let’s face it, a pig would’ve done me in), when I could hear a jeep closing in. There was nowhere to hide as I had foolishly wandered into the open. The jeep spotted me, slowing down, with the pirates shouting at me, climbing out, brandishing their AKs. That’s when the tiger leaped from the bushes where it had been following me, tackling both pirates. Blinking once, I ran toward safety and left the melee behind. That sort of stuff happens all the time, the various factions and mechanics colliding in unpredictable ways, and it’s sublime every time.

Far Cry 3 has almost all the great systems from the previous game, and they’re all working perfectly in unison here. You don’t get the interesting buddy rescue system, but pretty much everything else is here. You’re liberating outposts, except now they become manned by your guys. When you remove the pirate threat from an area, the islanders take over in a believable fashion, with civilian life thriving and patrols making sure no more pirates sneak in. As changing open worlds go, it’s surprisingly easy to buy into the fiction and it’s very gratifying to see your actions having such visible effect in the world.

Stealth is now both fun and functional, and my preferred way of taking out outposts John Rambo style is so much fun it’s hard to stop doing it, emerging unseen from the bush to stab someone in the neck, dragging their bodies into hiding, then proceeding to a tin roof to jump down on somebody else. It makes you feel like the hunter you’re supposed to be becoming in the narrative, with your magical tattoos.

Firefights feel more like a game of survival than before. Playing on “Warrior” (I guess “hard”) difficulty, enemies go down in a shot or two, and if you’re ever caught without cover, you’re basically done for immediately. It feels like the way the game was meant to be played. With inventory space and ammunition in short supply, you have to be careful and it increases the intensity and weight of consequences satisfyingly.

The thrill of checking out your map for the next thing to do never gets old. You want to do everything, because most of it is a lot of fun. (The driving bits are not fun, but they’re just about passable, too.) It’s like you’re in a tropical boys’ adventure Disneyland, except with guns, and you’re being ushered from this one thing to the next fun thing, typically almost within line of sight. All that’s missing are water slides down the mountains, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there was one masquerading as a waterfall somewhere.

The game never cares about real world limits when there is a more fun option available. You can always fast travel to any of the unlocked outposts, all friendly buildings come with utterly ridiculous gun vending machines (which handily also buy your bloody animal skins and pirate knick-knacks) and there are lots of mini-missions available that are structured like arcade challenges; you’re transported to a custom level, given a set of weapons and asked to kill as many enemies as you can within the time limit, complete with exploding blue barrels of plus ten seconds. It breaks the already fragile fiction in an astoundingly straightforward manner, and the game is all the better for it.

It is all delicious fun, then, but it’s also completely at odds with what the narrative is trying to do. Some of the issues are on a mechanical level. You have a crafting system that’s supposed to make you feel like a jungle warrior in the making, but in practice you only harvest healing herbs for a couple of hours before unlocking an unlimited “heal for free” button that doesn’t require medicine.

You’re made to traverse the land and look for interesting stuff on the map, but the downside is that there is nothing else of interest going on. It’s a big, pretty world where everything is marked on the map for you. Where in Far Cry 2 you hoped for more stuff to do while wandering its epic empty stages, here you’re drowning in stuff to do but the world is just never that interesting.

And then, inevitably, you get to the really bad stuff. Continuing the positive, awkward Disneyland reference from before – imagine walking into Disneyland and instead of being able to head for one of the attractions you want to check out, you are assaulted by a couple of dudes who get up in your face, screaming at you about all the possibilities you’ve got in the park. This continues for fifteen minutes, the dudes highlighting every attraction and option until they are sure you have zoned out, leaving you covered in spit. You have no idea what they said after the fact, and you wish you could just punch them in the face and leave you be to figure it out. This is the experience of starting to play Far Cry 3 and it’s very bad indeed. For a game about exploration and discovering your own self, it is hysterical about not letting you take one step without guidance.

Thankfully you can go into the options and turn off pretty much all of the bullshit instructions you don’t want to deal with. The game becomes immensely better the moment you do. Everything is so user-friendly and so clearly signposted, you have zero chance of not figuring out how it all works on your own anyway.

The biggest issue with the presentation isn’t something you can bypass. A lot of the game happens in the menus and the menus don’t even try to maintain immersion. Far Cry 2 is still a shining example of how to do in-world orienteering and pretty much everything else, as well, but Far Cry 3 is content with chucking you out to spend some time in abstract blue screens every couple of minutes, whether it’s stocking up on ammunition, customizing weapons, organizing your loot or crafting stuff. Your immersion and buy-in into the world is broken every time. At least the menu experience is as smooth as everything else, going out of its way to make sure you get your stuff done efficiently and with all the information you might want.

Whereas the most offensive presentation migraine can be fixed, the technical side of things can’t. For the most part the game is pretty in the way a modern PC FPS with graphical options turned way down can be. Quite frequently, it’s shitty. They have some very questionable ambient occlusion going on that should’ve just been turned off, often resulting in comical stencil-style outlines for all characters. I could deal with the looks if it wasn’t for the framerate. Passable when you’re on your own, it plummets to at worst single digits in big fights or surrounded by lots of stuff – which is “all the time” you’re not in the jungle on your own. The performance is so disappointing I’m probably going to buy the game again on the PC one day. All told, visually it’s just not as nice as Far Cry 2 was on the PS3, no matter how enticing the tropical setting is. You never shake the feeling of being in a purposefully built tropical theme park, where the predecessor’s Africa was something you could get lost in and enjoy every moment of it.

It’s a really great game, an open world crammed full of fun stuff, with only good and fun mechanics powering it – if you take it as a game. If you start paying attention, like it sometimes – meekly – wants you to, it all becomes incoherent and borderline offensive. Which makes for an interesting game at the worst of times.

Games PC PS3 Xbox 360

Looking for Burnout

Burnout 3: Takedown cover (PS2, EU)
Burnout 3: Takedown. It’s the first console game I bought on launch day, at full price. (Actually, still the only one.)

The best car/ driving/ racing/ speeding/ adrenaline/ wheels game of all time is Burnout 3: Takedown (2004, PS2, Xbox). Its impeccably crafted highways that demand excessive speed or you feel like you’re doing them a disservice, its kilometer-long drifts, its picture-perfect scenery blazing by, its blink-and-you’re-gone, laughter-inducing crashes with cars flying hundreds of meters into the air – it is the perfection of the arcade racer form. The other contestants (Ridge Racer, OutRun) are good in some things, but they can’t offer the breadth and depth and generosity of Burnout 3. It’s perfect. I’ve completed it three times. My favorite game industry geek-out moments have been those spent working and hanging out with guys who crafted it.

I’ve been looking for a replacement ever since. I even made a game in the same vein (Ridge Racer Unbounded, 2012, PS3, X360, PC). While as I wasn’t in a creative lead position, I put everything I had towards recreating the sensation I had when playing Burnout 3. You could call it my personal tribute. But regardless of how we did, since it’s my own game, it can never be a replacement for the original for me.

What has the studio behind Burnout 3, Criterion, been up to since and how does their later output compare to the classic? With the recent news of Criterion now downsized to just 16 people with the majority of the former team now comprising Ghost UK (working on Need For Speed: Rivals under their Sweden based parent studio), it is a good time to review what became of the ultimate arcade racer.

EXHIBIT A: Burnout: Revenge

A direct sequel to Burnout 3, Burnout: Revenge (2005, PS2, Xbox, X360) just does not scratch the same itch. Revenge is of the louder, faster school of sequel development and in Burnout’s case, they went too far. It was always supposed to be over the top, but it becomes so far removed from the notion of speeding in a car on a highway with its vehicular pinball and dark color palette, you start wondering if they played the same Burnout.

The level design has become muddy and you spend too much time afraid, not looking forward to the next moment. Lots of satisfied grins, yes, and I did complete it, but it never made me smile.


EXHIBIT B: Burnout Paradise

Burnout Paradise (2008, PS3, X360, PC) is these days widely considered the best entry in the series, even if it never reached accolades quite as high as Burnout 3. The shift to an open world is initially bewildering. They let you free to go anywhere, but it can easily feel like you’re lost and wandering aimlessly. For a long time I couldn’t get on with the design and felt abandoned on its lifeless streets and it’s easy to start stressing about the approaching turns and racing with more attention paid to the map than the utterly lethal traffic. But if you just trust the game to lead you to great fun and experiences you want anyway, it works.

The level design is masterclass, again. While the city is wide open to explore, just about anywhere you might want to head means you’re on an expertly crafted race track that just happens to weave in and out of countless other race tracks. The city isn’t very believable, but then that’s not the point. It’s an oversize motorized playground for having fun with cars. The decision to have all events end at one of the eight corners of Paradise City means that you get a grip on its layout far better than in any other open world racer.

It only stumbles when you find yourself far away on the mountains at the end of a race with no quick way to get back to the more fruitful intersections of downtown, and any time you want to change your car – the trip to the junkyard to pick up a new ride feels just obnoxious.

Out of all the games they’ve done since, Paradise best captures the carefree, feel-good atmosphere and arcade-perfect, fast and delicate handling of Burnout 3.


EXHIBIT C: Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit (2010)

Criterion was no longer working on Burnout, with EA now focusing on Need For Speed, Criterion appointed to helm the series. They released two NFS games: Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit (2010) and Need For Speed: Most Wanted (2012). Can the Burnout I seek be found here?

It’s interesting that they’ve chosen to go back to old titles and themes with the new games. I’ve been conceptualizing action driving games for the past five years and I know it’s difficult to come up with relatable, understandable themes in that context. Cops and robbers is pretty much the only one with enough built-in drama and wide appeal to make sense, so it’s no wonder EA has doubled down on it. Hot Pursuit and Most Wanted are both cops and robbers speeding on highways, but they’re very different games and that’s not just because the latter is an open-world game and the former isn’t.

Hot Pursuit (2010, PS3, X360, PC) takes one half of the Burnout promise – the endless highways in majestic landscapes – and adds police chases to it. It is an alternative take on Burnout 3. What you do is the same, high-speed racing on closed tracks in larger than life environments, now with added weather and night time, but two major things make this a different experience – plus obviously the whole cops and robbers mechanic, which could work very well with Burnout, too.

One, the introduction of real life cars. You might argue that speeding and crashing real cars is preferable to doing the same in make-believe cars, but I would say you’re wrong. The real life branding makes the whole game taste faintly of marketing and mundane fantasizing about unattainable objects of desire, whereas all I want to do is scream down a highway, head-first, daring myself to not let go of the boost button. That has nothing to do with real life. Assembling a fleet of real life supercars is very appealing, but it takes away from the Burnout dream.

Two, a very different handling model. I really like the handling in Hot Pursuit, but the remarkably heavy steering and drifting makes this something antithetical to the arcade esthetic. There’s heft to it that does feel good, but just doesn’t fit the arcade vision. Taking out other drivers is also a far too rare, not nearly as guilty pleasure as in Burnout, in part thanks to the severely limited damage simulation.

It’s a beautiful game, often breathtaking, bravely stylized lighting and visual cues making for impeccably readable tracks. While lacking much of the Burnout playfulness, the tracks are still great fun to blast through.


EXHIBIT D: Need For Speed: Most Wanted (2012)

The thing that most baffles me about Most Wanted (2012, PS3, X360, PS Vita) is the presentation. There’s that Mirror’s Edge -esque title and then you’re hit with a parade of James Bond summoning gratuitous event intro movies. They are supremely moody and stylish and entirely pointless. I can’t quite tell what they’re trying to go for, but I’d like much more of that in the game all the same. There’s a moment when it threatens to completely win you over, with a mass of police cars inexplicably assembling a gigantic wheel that chases you as you’re transported as by expensive music video logic on top of shipyard containers and given the wheel. I was really disappointed that wheel didn’t continue chasing me once out of the cutscene.

An open world racer, Most Wanted’s structure is neat. You can change into any car you’ve discovered in the game world instantly, and each car is its own career with events tailored to it, wins netting you upgrades and options for that car. No longer wondering if you’ve got the right car for the event. This basically fixes all that was wrong with Burnout Paradise – no more taxing trips to the junkyard to change your wheels.

But being an open world racer that has level design not on par with Burnout Paradise, the racing part of it… kind of sucks. The world is indeed much more realistic, but that does not make it any more fun. Nobody asked for this map-reading bullshit. It is completely against the notion of a need for speed. One late turn and your race is screwed. Everything that they got right in this respect in Paradise is just missing from here. At least you do get a GPS route drawn on your map, but you’re not warned of approaching exits, nor the routes ever start to make sense to you. There is inconsistent use of big HUD arrows to signal turns – for a long time I thought they didn’t use them at all, until they were suddenly there in one event. Using these in every unclear turn would help the game a lot.

The game world is so beautiful you do forgive a lot. They’ve done a very good job of including pretty much everything that’s neat and enjoyable in urban driving in the US, at least from my experience all over the West Coast. There’s the Seattle tunnels, the Golden Gate, that other bridge in SF… The rural parts aren’t quite as successful, probably because they’ve had to loop everything back into the city within reasonable driving times. But let go of that and man, it can be awfully pretty. Criterion has some of the best and boldest color palettes, effects and lighting around.

As is a big part of a Need For Speed title, the cars are all real, with all the benefits and flaws that implies. Discovering cars that are only available through purchase of DLC is so disappointing that you start to let yourself down before driving up to them. Presumably because of the real world basis, in addition to the sometimes frustrating racing, what really pushes this away from a true Burnout experience is the sad lack of car damage. You’re just not allowed to have fun crashing cars, and that’s at least half of the Burnout fun.

The handling, on the other hand, is a step back towards Burnout. There’s still heft to it, but it is an arcade heft, not without lightness to it. It’s immediately responsive. When you’re retrying speed challenges you’ve just missed, over and over again, you do get back into that good old Burnout 3 hunger, especially since now you can just retry events at any time, regardless of where you are on the map – again, fixed what was wrong in Paradise.

Driving through the gas stations at ridiculous speeds to have your car repaired, nitro refilled and paintjob changed without slowing down feels like Burnout. The problem is that at race event speeds, it is way too hard to read which way you’re supposed to enter, too likely resulting in a crash and a restart.

The roads are sensibly empty during events, with just enough civilian traffic to keep those blind corners tense. Then again, telling the prey-like hostile racers apart from the backlights of utterly lethal civilian vehicles is too hard, and crashing becomes just a sad fail state.

And so it goes – everything that Most Wanted gets right, sometimes enthusiastically so, it fumbles something else, and the end product feels like something that wants to be Burnout Paradise, but isn’t allowed to.




There’s a fair bit of sucking and clawing involved.

Monsterhearts is a tabletop roleplaying game about sexy supernatural teenagers ruining their lives. It is very direct in its aims, seeking to create a teenage sex horror story. We played it last weekend for the first time and I came away stunned, really, impressed and inspired. It was one of the best sessions I’ve ran, ever, and while we do have a great group, a lot of it was thanks to the game.

Monsterhearts is a story game and as such there’s an emphasis on narrative integrity and story driving everything. Rules are important, but they are there to protect the narrative. The focus is on the characters, and the players are studying things they find interesting in those characters. The game is based on Apocalypse World, so if that (or its popular offshoot, Dungeon World) style of playing is familiar to you, you have a pretty good idea of how it works. Except Monsterhearts is all about the social dynamic – it doesn’t care about anything else.

There’s a couple of things that make Monsterhearts stand out. They’re things you might want to explore in your games, too, regardless of whether you’re into the Monsterhearts’ theme or not.

It’s wholly improvised. The gamemaster’s job is to make the characters’ lives interesting, which typically means picking any loose end and bringing it back in with as much noise and mess as he can manage. Most of the time it was obvious what the next scene must be and what’s going to happen in it.

We did have a couple of moments where this didn’t happen and as a GM I realized I’m without my usual bag of tricks, because the GM is forbidden from preparing the game in advance – it wouldn’t really work, anyway, because everything happens because of the PCs (see below). Thus my only option was to poke at the PCs until something interesting came up.

But as a player, you need something to work with, too, and I think we probably should’ve had some more chaos-spawning NPCs around. In a sense we had run out of NPCs in those situations. With improvised games I’m always worried there will be no satisfying arcs, but that proved to be incorrect: all three PCs had great personal stories that did come together beautifully (horrifically) in the end.

The instructions for the GM are not vague “you could try doing these things” type directions – they’re rules on how to keep the narrative “feral”; unpredictable and engaging. No player – including the GM – should know what’s going to happen in any scene, going in.

It’s only about the player characters. The gameplay is fully social. The giving and taking and using of “strings” (emotional power) you have on other characters drives everything you do. We had awkward, magnetic scenes between two characters falling in love that I would’ve cut short in any other game, but here you simply had to see them through, all the way until the clothes started coming off – and even then we had to cut back in as the vampire was getting… urges.

The single biggest reason which keeps the play about the social dynamic is that your characters have no physical abilities. Pretty much everything on your sheet comes back to relationships. Thus in order to “play the game”, you have to create drama.

Because everything revolves around the player characters and there is effectively no world beyond their agency, you automatically get powerful tension. All the rules and all the action is driven by the players and directed at themselves and the other player characters. There is no external force to which you could just react to, as you do in many games. The GM doesn’t even get to roll dice: it’s always the players doing things and dealing with the consequences.

The mechanics create the gameplay. I was doubtful about if it’s possible to create the kind of feel the rulebook evokes in a single sitting, but the rules made it work very well. The experience mechanic drives the action; players like being rewarded and they like playing with their character sheets, so they look for opportunities to gain experience. To do that you need to use your character’s “moves”, and those moves invariably create problems and result in tension. Some of your important abilities are only triggered after sex – there is a “sex move” on everybody’s sheet – and naturally you want to get to play with all of your abilities… hence sex. Finally, as the characters’ Darkest Selves start manifesting, you’re well on your way towards a dramatic, messy, memorable climax. If you didn’t have all these rules in play, you would pull punches and not go to all the places the rules push you to. Play it as written, though, and you’ll have a hell of a hot mess between your group.

It builds on and feeds off sex and romance. I’ve thought about romance and sex in games a lot, especially since the original release of Vampire: The Masquerade made it explicitly part of the characters’ unlives. Monsterhearts makes it work.

Because the romance and sex are tied to your abilities – your stats are Hot, Cold, Dark, Volatile and you have a bespoke sex “move” – it doesn’t feel like forcing something into the game that the game isn’t about. It’s plain to see to everybody that you’re supposed to be in a relationship (or few) and you’re supposed to have sex. It feels like you’re missing out if you don’t. And because it’s openly at the table, it doesn’t feel so hard to go there – you’re not standing out as a player, you’re just the first one to go there, with the understanding that likely everybody will.

Of course the first sex scene in the session still felt awkward, but then it was two teenagers trying to figure it out. The rules and the setting makes sex possible in a game, but they don’t take away the power.

Contrary to what you might, understandably, suspect, the mechanical basis for romance and sex in the game does not diminish the intimacy at the table. This would be a very difficult game for me to play with strangers (or it would lose all its power). It does make it easier as you have some rules to fall back on, but to make romance and sex work in a game, the group needs to pay very close attention to what’s happening. You have to be sensitive, or the romance doesn’t work, and you have to know when to call it a scene or it becomes just cheap and nasty. The rules can’t do this for you. My rule of thumb is figuring out if you could show it in a mainstream TV show, á la Buffy. Well, we may have gone a little bit further than that, but not quite HBO.

If you only had mechanics that would encourage characters to have sex, you’d have a sex game, obviously. Monsterhearts subverts that by introducing the Darkest Selves. Our game was all awkward teenage romance until the vampire got laid with the mortal, the mortal’s sex move then triggering the vampire’s Darkest Self. The Darkest Selves turn the teenage characters into literal monsters, forcing them to cause no end of trouble at the table. Relationships are broken, feelings are hurt, blood is spilled. The violent scenes in our Monsterhearts session felt like the easy stuff – even if those, too, were more powerful than in most games thanks to the grounded, believable teenage setting.

The hard parts were the ones in which the Darkest Selves did horrible things just with words, abusing already tender relationships, and we had to watch the characters deal with it. The decisions, even though dictated by the rules governing playing your Darkest Self, felt heavy. I had trouble believing the things our vampire did and said, although nothing in it was R rated.

It’s a great game and if you have a group of friends you trust, you owe it to yourself to play it. It’s also easy to play and very easy to run. After the one session to get your head around the dynamics and what works, it’s pick up and play with zero preparation.


Gone Home (PC)

Gone Home title screen

Gone Home is a game about revisiting a past you can’t really revisit. It feels like when you’re all grown up and you’re standing in the same yard you grew up in and you reach out and almost, but not quite, reach yourself, decades ago.

Gone Home is a game where you arrive home from a year abroad, only to find your house empty. Where is your family? What’s going on? You can’t really talk about the game beyond this without spoiling the experience. It’s only around one hundred minutes long and if you’re at all intrigued, you should play it instead of read about it. I usually consider videogames immune to spoilers as their stories are so often simply not worth caring about, but in this case: spoilers from here on.

Gone Home’s most superficial success lies in its environmental, or world, storytelling. You do not engage in dialogue nor make dramatic choices in the heat of a tense moment. It’s all in the details. What you’re doing is exploring the house and uncovering details, and all that you’re witnessing tells the story. Or stories, plural.

Gone Home’s environmental storytelling is leagues beyond what we’ve become to mean by it. Half-Life 2 was a giant in this playground for a long time, but its splashes of blood and scrawled graffiti now seem trivial in comparison. (That Lambda symbol is still genius, though.) Simply by witnessing their everyday environment, you put together a dramatic, compelling picture of this (your) family and the people involved.

This sort of storytelling means audio recordings. I hate audio recordings. They never work in the fiction and it’s tedious to wait through the “color” bits to get the clues to open the safes and doors. They’re lazy. Gone Home is audio recordings done right. There’s two kinds. One is your sister, Sam, talking to you as if in a letter, at key points during the story. They’re not explained, they just sort of overlay the narrative, much like a movie narrator. It doesn’t make sense, initially, but it’s all brought together beautifully in the end. The second kind is tapes (C-cassettes!) in the game world. Whereas you have to stretch your sense of disbelief a lot in most games to accept the audio messages, unlikely as they are, here they are mixtapes left by one teenager to another. If you ever were a teenager in the 90s, you very likely did this yourself. They don’t contain nonsensical messages, they contain music, reinforcing the story and the time and the place. When you find one, it’s useless before you find a cassette player (which are always at hand). Just this act of taking the object to the player and playing it back grounds it. You’ve done this countless times in the real life, turned a cassette around in your hand to deduce what might be on it and playing it back by pressing a satisfyingly clunky mechanical button on a deck.

To be fair, all the written material, moody and scene-setting as it is, is a bit of a crutch. It’s too conveniently laid out and chronologically ordered, and while the mid-90s explains why they’re writing things down in the first place (instead of typing it on Facebook), this dysfunctional family is really bad at leaving evidence of their doubts and transgressions lying around for anyone to see. But you accept it all for it is a game, after all.

Gone Home has exceptional characters. The family feels like your own and the characters, especially Sam, the protagonist (not you), becomes someone you want to hang out with. Much like a good movie or book, then, but that never happens in games! As the story races to its completion, you start to really care for them and want the best for them. There is genuine worry about their fate, far transcending the horror game tropes the game – misleadingly – starts you on. It is character building without ever meeting the characters. Any game writer should study this as a case of building characters and player interest in them.

Speaking of characters, there is an escalating, deeply personal drama here, without any character interaction or conflict in place. None. Yet it wouldn’t really work as non-interactive fiction, either – the player’s presence and agency is required for the story to work, but puzzlingly his input isn’t required. On paper it doesn’t sound like it should work at all, but it does. The story is completely reliant on the player caring and letting the story take place between the lines, in his own head. That’s a massive leap of faith, really, but one Gone Home works on building up to, all of the way.

The game is essentially only playable once. Its reliance on playing with the player’s expectations veers close to being a gimmick, but arguably just avoids it. They’re trading on the gothic horror cliches and videogame vocabulary to make the player except ghosts and demons – and monsters of a more mundane kind, as well. At the very least you expect a sad outcome – I know I had a suicide in mind at the end – but the emotion they’ve built up in you carries it through. You’re so relieved at the conclusion that you don’t mind the smoke and mirrors. It was all for a good cause, after all – that smile on your lips.

Gone Home does the micro meaning better than any game before it. When Heavy Rain proved that you could make a Hollywood thriller work without all the gunplay and fantasy cliches in a videogame, it was still relying on serial killers and weird dreams. It took you far out of the ordinary. Here the power of the mundane proves far more effective. The sense of place and time are meaningful. You are in this house, inhabited by this family, and it’s taking place in 1995. The world is not filled with incidental details – all the details are there to support the story. It’s a case of game – or rather narrative – design dictating visual design. They evoke the time with powerful details you had no idea you recall anymore, things like how the tape box hinges work and what’s the packaging of various items like. Nirvana and the X-Files on the walls of a teenager’s room.

I was born in 1978 and Gone Home often feels like visiting the houses of my friends in the late 80s and early 90s – and sometimes also like revisiting home. I didn’t know many girls at the time, and the feeling of trespassing on a teenage girl’s territory and thoughts in the game makes a powerful connection to my younger self. I shouldn’t be here, but it’s very interesting. What is Sam thinking about? What drives her? What does she want?

It’s easy to liken Gone Home to a movie, with its grown-up, mundane story with scarce videogame trappings and its length of barely two hours. But this is a game experience and like the best games, it only works as a game. Even though you engage in very few mechanics and you could argue that there are no meaningful choices in the game, it’s all a big meaningful choice. The game doesn’t exist without interacting with you – your youth, your childhood, your teenage hopes, dreams and struggles. If you start to take apart the story or the mechanics, it all unravels. But if you’ve connected with it, like any art, it proves impregnable to corruption or doubt.


Papers, Please (PC)

Papers, Please (PC) gameplay screenshot
The visual style is very effective and strangely affecting.

I’ve been playing Papers, Please. It’s a very intriguing game.

It makes you roleplay a border inspector who mostly worries about his own dreary life. By processing people, stamping them with an “approved” or “denied” stamp on their passport – or by detaining them if they’ve broken the law – you make money. You have to process about ten people per day or your family starts to suffer because you can’t afford rent, heat, food or medicine.

Inspecting papers is a matter of spotting discrepancies in the documents. Just as you master the previous set and become quick enough doing it to feed your family without making mistakes (you’re fined for mistakes), the bureaucracy adds complications. You need to remember what citizen IDs, work permits, visit tickets and so forth look like, and how their official stamps should look like. Doing all that, you also need to cross-reference the passports numbers and names, where it’s not rare to find a single letter that’s a little bit off, or an expiry date long gone by. You’re so immersed in the details that sometimes the obvious pulls one over you; I’ve often forgotten to check gender, height and weight, not to mention the mugshot.

The interface can drive you crazy, but that’s very much the point. You never have enough room to lay everything open conveniently, and that adds to your stress level. But you become better at it. If only it wasn’t for those damn foreigners from that one country that are always subject to “random searches”, which slow you down, you could be a great father. Or all the criminals trying to get in… You normally wouldn’t bother to detain them (as that takes more time and is more stressful to you), but you really need the kickbacks from the guards who are also paid by people processed.

You flip between efficient bureaucrat, desperate father, hopeless citizen and a human being just trying to do his best in a bad situation. Maybe you think you can afford that one citation, because you really feel like this one guy should be let through despite his documents having expired yesterday.

The people coming through your inspection post are not faceless. All of them tell some story, and even as you’re inspecting their papers you have to listen – for one part they may be criminals who might make mistakes in their story, and on the other hand your work is boring and it’s nice to feel like you’re dealing with people. Sometimes, when you’re denying every other applicant and detaining everyone you don’t let through, you pretend they’re not people.

Papers, Please is a great example of telling a story through gameplay, setting, interface and your own feelings. The couple of shortly worded splash screens that set the scene are not cutscenes and you’re not bombarded with dialogue. This is one of the very few games in which you can’t skip the dialogue, because it’s so integral to what you’re doing – all the while telling the story.

It isn’t a fun game, even though you are likely to laugh out loud at some of the characters and interactions. Mostly it feels stressful and somewaht disappointing. But at the same time you do get better at it and you do take pride in being a super efficient official and a dependable father, until something new comes along to spoil everything. Again. It is a very powerful emotional rollercoaster, all without voice acting or screens of text or outwardly emotional content. You are just inspecting papers.

There are a lot of similarities to Cart Life, but Papers, Please is much more approachable and accessible. It doesn’t make you guess as much, and the whole is just more polished. Cart Life is wider in its handling of the human condition, but it asks a lot more of you to get to it.

The creator also has some other intriguing games that I have yet to check out.


Medal Of Honor (PC)

Medal Of Honor (PC) screenshot
Running on mountains with the boys.

EA set to reboot their military shooter series with Medal Of Honor (2010). It didn’t work out to their satisfaction as they’ve now (sensibly) decided to focus on Battlefield as their shooter franchise. As its name implies, Medal Of Honor was always about the heroes of American wars. After its origins in the relatively black and white world of World War II (1999, with Steven Spielberg on board), the wars of today are fought on mountains and in valleys most people would struggle to place on a map, against foes most of us don’t really identify with at all.

I recently re-watched Rambo III (1988) and for all its blatant anti-USSR propaganda, it actually paints the people of Afghanistan and the surrounding regions in a sympathetic, relatable fashion. I haven’t seen Western protagonists having fun with these little understood tribal peoples in any other major movie since.

I’ve shot virtual tribesmen in the hundreds and thousands, though, and I’ve come to associate their language with war grunts and screams of pain, all through our disturbingly warped media about the wars of today. I don’t know if it’s all that different to othering WWII era Germans, really, but it strikes me as much more dangerous because this isn’t history we’re dealing with. This is largely the reason I’ve stopped playing modern military shooters.

Where Call Of Duty is about making as big an action movie out of an imagined war as they can get away with, Medal Of Honor attempts to stay true to its inspiration. On the cover, that inspiration is the so called “Tier 1” special forces units of the United States military, including the household names of “SEAL Team Six” and “Delta”, who operate very deep in hostile territory with little in way of support from their mighty military machine. Later on the game branches out to the Rangers, but the mystique of Tier 1 is very much present all through.

It’s a breed of soldier popular in fiction and non-fiction, operatives who value being able to work alone and sidestep all rules to get the job done, whether it has to do with appropriate clothing and facial hair, official tools or rules of engagement. They are the modern ninja, shadow warriors of which very little is known and much imagined. Ideal videogame subject matter, in other words.

Medal Of Honor (2010) manages to stand apart to a degree by keeping the action small and inconsequential. You’re chasing informants in confusing, poor villages and seizing barely functional airfields, none of which counts towards stopping a major world-threatening plot. You are merely surviving and doing your part in a war. This side of the game is refreshing in its focus.

They could’ve done a much better job of it, though. You don’t get to know these operatives beyond their callsigns, whereas the most impressive and relatable depictions of these men are always in contrast to other soldiers and civilian lives. Instead, you’re given a wholly uninteresting and throwaway story of the operatives Getting The Job Done when men in Washington don’t know better. I guess the problem was that the somewhat believable scenarios didn’t amount to much and the developer, Danger Close, felt that there had to be a bigger story.

The problem isn’t just on the level of themes and storytelling. The gameplay would’ve been better off abandoning the corridor shooter formula, which only really works when you keep thinking of increasingly implausible scenarios, and opting for something a little more open – allowing you to stay more grounded. To date, the best portrayal of special forces operations is the original Ghost Recon (2001).

Medal Of Honor had the opportunity to be a big budget story about people in war. Instead it opts to be a slightly differently flavored, less polished version of Call Of Duty. There is a genuine respect that comes through, but I still feel like it’s doing a disservice to the men it’s depicting.

The operations and all the trappings feel authentic in their banality. The drama is about getting the job done, even if you have no idea how the job matters in any way beyond yourself not dying. This is honest, in a way, but it leads to scenes where you just don’t plain care about the drama they’re pretending to be weaving.

The illusion falls apart because the other operatives treat you as a kid – like the gamer pretending to be one of them. “Rabbit, come here!” “Rabbit, take the shot! Take it! Come on, Rabbit!” And you’re the only one ever hit. You’re refreshingly fragile, but you see the death scene a lot during the campaign. “Rabbit’s down!” is something you’ll grow very used to.

Medal Of Honor (PC) screenshot - player death scene
You’re dead. Again.

It’s hard to understand the callout graphics for headshots that you’re seeing all the time – it’s the most often seen piece of HUD feedback you’re getting during gameplay. Where everything else is doing its best to bring a coherent, somber mood to the proceedings, this detail completely undermines the effort. The lazy PC port doesn’t help things as the HUD elements are ridiculously oversized for PC resolutions.

It would all work a lot better if there was less characterization – not that there’s a lot – and a more of laser focus on the missions. Look at the original Ghost Recon to see how this could’ve been done. Of course that had a much more open structure, but really nothing in Medal Of Honor would be in contradiction with that. They often present things like they weren’t a corridor shoot, but in reality they are. You can see the Frostbite engine chomping at the bit to be let loose when looking over the expansive mountain vistas.


Receiver (PC)

Receiver (PC) screenshot
Receiver doesn’t look like much, but it makes you see things you think you know in a very different light.

I have fired off millions of rounds in games over my gaming life. I have killed some number of virtual people that’s perhaps in the region of one tenth of that.

I have gone to a real life shooting range twice and discovered I’m a pretty good shot with a pistol. I also discovered that the gun is a tool that you need to learn how to safely opeate.

Receiver is a game that brings these two separate things together. Astonishingly, as far as I know it’s the first game to take this approach. It’s simple, more a toy or an experiment than a game, really: you’re given a random gun out of a couple of different models and tasked with finding a set of randomly hidden tapes in a randomly created building. A group of robots are on watch, out to kill you on sight. A single hit kills you and resets your progress. This game part of the whole is not very interesting nor good – the game was created in seven days and this is where it shows.

The point of Receiver isn’t that game. The point is what you’re doing in the game, which is operating a gun. The developer, Wolfire, has gone to unprecedented detail in how the gun is handled and in doing so discovered something profound about our relationship with virtual tools – and, yes, especially our virtual guns.

Instead of hitting “R” to reload a gun, you need to eject the magazine, hold it out, holster your weapon and insert bullets into the magazine one by one. Once done, you manually insert the magazine.

There is a separate button for all of these operations. On your first attempt you’re likely going to just drop the magazine on the floor. The game doesn’t tell you how it all works, you’re supposed to work it out on your own. (It does highlight the sensible options at any moment.)

After minutes of fumbling, you get pretty good at this. You’re going to be unnaturally fast, a virtual gunman, in no time, but it still feels like the real thing – like manipulating a magazine and preparing a gun for firing really feels like. They’ve managed to make a meaningful experience out of that most banal of all videogame activities; the reloading of the gun. Under stress, it’s very difficult indeed to recall how it was all done.

Instead of pointing a cursor at a guy and clicking to kill it, your mouse moves your gun hand (if holding the gun in ready position). You align the target using the gun’s sights and pull the trigger, perhaps hitting your target. It’s often hard to tell if you’ve even hit as there’s a loud report and your gun is jerked upwards and you need to re-orient before firing again. Sometimes a bullet misfires and you have to clear it by pulling back the slide and checking the chamber. All this, too, gets fast with practice.

Interesting things happen when so much attention is paid to operating the gun.

It becomes a meaningful skill. You get enjoyment out of operating the firearm, much like you do in real life. You might argue this is a perverse enjoyment and I wouldn’t object, but it feels profoundly good to get good at something so core to many videogames, but on a much deeper level. Encountering a new gun is interesting as you want to see how it feels to operate it.

The act of shooting becomes deliberate, not automatic. Even after you get good at the act, just because there’s so many steps to it and so much skill involved, you have an understanding of what you’re doing.

The gun itself gains weight. You stop think about it in terms of gameplay value or statistics. Exactly as in real life, you start to think about it as a lethal tool designed to destroy whatever is in front of the barrel. Having the gun makes you feel powerful, but also somewhat scared of that power in your hands.

Receiver makes you think about what else is so automatic in games, yet could be laden with meaning if more attention was paid to it. Receiver actually goes further than just the gun – running is simulated by pressing buttons alternatingly to pound the ground. It feels somewhat like running, unlike just pressing “W” does. (You can’t operate the gun while running.) Might a brawl be somehow simulated in real time using a more involved system than what you see in fighting games? Could sneaking be made more active and skill-based? What about talking?

I would be very interested to see a more fully fleshed game made with this kind of gun manipulation. Learning to operate a gun in Receiver essentially prepares you for shooting a real gun and you could argue it would be a disturbing murder simulator and if they were humans you were shooting, I might agree. Regardless, something like Metro 2033, Stalker or Far Cry 2 would be very interesting with this logically extreme dedication to gun fetishism.

roleplaying tabletop games

Heavy Gear summer campaign 2013 post-mortem

Mock movie poster for Operation Drop Bears Dive by KodiakDestroyer on DeviantArt
Mock movie poster for “Operation Drop Bears Dive” by KodiakDestroyer on DeviantArt. The campaign featured no Bears, of a dropping variety or otherwise (although it should’ve, really, as a pun on our D&D campaign’s mascot bear), but that’s a Heavy Gear alright.

I had planned a two-game summer special to take a break from my two-year Dungeons & Dragons campaign. It took five games to clear part one of the planned double feature. This is a post-mortem of that campaign; what went right and what went wrong. Don’t worry, we’re not spending any time on a recounting of the game’s events, just the takeaways.

The game is based on Heavy Gear’s fiction. If you’re not up to speed with that and sensitive to this sort of thing, perhaps best to stop reading now, but we are talking about things that were revealed in writing fifteen years ago in out of print books.


“The Beast Trail” took as its main focus the destruction of Peace River in the second interpolar war on Terra Nova by an anti-matter device. The game’s fiction strongly alludes to Earth agents being responsible for the act. I wanted to stage the game around racing to stop the Earth infiltrators, but being unable to change the final outcome. This required the players to be some sort of military intelligence agents. Running out of time to come up with characters and unwilling to spend a session in character creation with a new system (I hadn’t run Heavy Gear in a decade), I opted for the premade characters in the Operation: Jungle Drums Redux scenario.


The pre-written characters were a little bit mystifying to me as their tone suggested a very colorful, over the top anime story, which doesn’t seem to really gel with the rest of the setting. While this was a problem in terms of overall tone, it seemed to help the players get very quickly into their characters and bringing personality and (melo-) drama to the forefront in no time at all. I was so encouraged by this, in fact, that from now on I’m going to be suggesting over the top melodrama over hidden inner feelings any day.

We played combat in three ways: mostly freeform with barely a sketch of a map, a drawn map with rough distances and full-blown hex-map tactical combat. The hex-map way was by far the best option, but understandably took lots more time; hours instead of minutes. They all managed to carry the tone of Silhouette fighting with very high stakes; it tended to be one good hit and you’re down. Players were sufficiently terrorized in all cases, fighting against GRELs and SLEDGEs (Earth-born cloned supersoldiers) and Striders (four-legged gun platforms towering over Heavy Gears). It was dramatic combat. Even on a hex-map we managed multiple over the top anime moments with Heavy Gears jostling to climb on the Strider’s back to vibro-blade it, rocket launches leaving streaks in the desert air and giant robots zig-zagging on roller skates in the sandstorm, seeing barely fifty meters (a single hex) ahead. Fighting with giant robots is a lot of fun! I would recommend playing all giant robot action on the hex-map, though: it brings a sense of warfare, tactics and seriousness to the proceedings, adding to the weight and meaning of the mecha. In a counter-intuitive way, playing it seriously with the mecha helps having fun with it.

Since Terra Nova is my favorite roleplaying game setting, it comes as no surprise that I could come up with some cool set-pieces, using the game world to full effect. We played mostly in the Badlands but there were plenty of interesting sights and effective locales, including being lost in the McAllen tunnel network, fighting in a sand-storm, an archaeological dig, a maglev train being stopped due to the war setting off, and having coffee while the city came under landship bombardment. We had the works, really, from military intelligence operatives and Southerners vacationing in the North to Badlands caravans, GRELs, SLEDGEs, hovertanks, Striders, hex maps and affecting the written storyline of the game world. Come to think of it, the five-game campaign saw a lot of components. In a lot of ways it was the game I wanted to run when I was younger and very excited about the game and the world, but just didn’t have the capacity or vision to do so.

There was a big pacing problem with the game (more on which below), but I had the good sense to change my grand plan as the campaign grew. My original plan was to have the heroes die in the Peace River anti-matter detonation, but after multiple games it started to feel like cheating. I came up with a mechanical system I thought was stacked against the heroes, awarding them a playing card per cleared major plot point, scoring them against the bad guys’ total. When they cleared all of that effortlessly, I essentially let them win.


I severely underestimated the time it would take to play through the planned scenes. If we had skipped rules entirely, it might’ve been plausible, but I wasn’t willing to do that. We covered two scenes per game, which I should’ve guessed as that’s our D&D pace, too. This wasn’t really a problem as I had no other concrete gaming plans for summer, anyway, but it lead to serious pacing issues: when I thought we were going to finish in the next game, and that happened four times, I had no real idea where to take the game. During the finale I decided to entirely skip fighting due to its time requirements and cut very aggressively from scene to scene to make sure we finished on time. It lead to a good session to end on, actually beating the clock by an hour or so.

The rules weren’t a problem per se, but we should’ve gone over the players’ options in any situation more clearly. I tried to run it as a more freeform game than our D&D but that just didn’t sit well with the military scifi setting and our D&D sensibilities. Luckily my players are vocal enough to tell me when they want to see more maps and so forth, so we adjusted to more tactical play on the fly.

I had no good grasp of the players’ power level. Every time I thought I had hit them with a real challenge, they breezed through it, taking down GRELs and SLEDGEs (test tube super soldiers from Earth) and Striders (giant walker mecha) without breaking a sweat. The only reason the perceived challenge worked at all was thanks to the Silhouette system, which is very unforgiving of mistakes, and the initial encounter’s first shot resulting in a player’s mecha blowing up on the first shot. That early experience set a mood for the whole campaign.

The players struggled with the game’s atmosphere all the way through (over the top anime vs hard scifi, silly characters vs drama), vocalizing their issues. I wasn’t able to fix that. With my next game I’m going to make sure we have enough scenes of the characters behaving like they’re expected to very early on to make sure the players catch on. This was probably a result of both the game world being too familiar to me and the characters as written contradicting everything else going on in the game.

With aggressive cutting to new scenes and minimizing of downtime you get a dramatic game that clips along, but you risk not giving enough time for the players to really get into their characters. I probably went a little overboard with it. This is easy to fix by just adding bespoke “color” scenes with, well, downtime. I would make a point of making those about a character’s conflicts, though.

I failed to resolve a big conflict that I set up in the very first scene of the game – there was a double agent in the heroes’ squad who was obviously just waiting for the right time to re-emerge. The players talked about it all the time, obviously waiting for him to make an appearance. I had planned a great return scene for him in every single game session, and in all cases the players decided to do something that made it unworkable. The next time I absolutely need an NPC to do something, I need to come up with a way the players cannot sidestep it – for example starting with the required scene. This isn’t a concern for my dear plotting, by the way, but a serious failure in the game’s narrative construction.


It was a good game. I enjoyed the break from our fantasy tropes and the different group dynamic – all the players were the same, but we were missing two players from our D&D group – and everybody’s characters were rather different from the fantasy group.

It’s great that even after 25 years of running games, you still make big mistakes and can learn a ton from any game you run.