Sunday, 29 June 2014


Part uhhh of a recurring (?) series of words about games I bought on Steam when they were on sale. Today: Prison Architect, available in pre-release Alpha version for half-price at the time I picked it up.


Games! You like games, right! Well, how about architecture? Who doesn't like making buildings! And prisons, you like prisons? Um. Games!

Prison Architect is the latest project by floating-brain-in-a-jar games developers Introversion Software, who previously made one of my all-time favourite games: DEFCON, the lo-fi, high stakes game of nuking your friends into oblivion and back. DEFCON was a game of bluffing, planning, and hair-trigger timing, aiming to get your precious missiles launched into your opponents' soft underbellies before they could repeat the trick on your delicate civilian populations. DEFCON put you in charge of one continent in an escalating global nuclear confrontation. At each of the game's five DEFCON stages, more of the game's choices were revealed: at the lowest level, players place their installations and fleets. In the second, radars get turned on and players can start eyeing each other warily. In the third stage, conventional weapons - fighters, bombers and fleets - are unlocked and the jockeying for position began. Four is the calm before the plunge - and what a plunge. At DEFCON five, all hell is unleashed as the nuclear weapons are unlocked. From there, only one objective remained: do as much damage as possible while protecting your own populations. Points are scored per million of population wiped out. It's... that kind of game. It was amazingly atmospheric; the action played out on a Dr. Strangelove war-room style map, each side represented by glowing cities and stylised military installations. Nuclear detonations appeared as bright blips on the map; the ensuing fallout spread over the continents with a poisonous green glow. Accompanying this was a beautifully evocative soundtrack of soft, ethereal music and the faint sounds of a tense command bunker - squeaking chairs, radio chatter, and coughing. It's as grim and pointed as games come, and it's superb fun to play with good friends.

So Prison Architect comes with a fine pedigree, which is probably the only reason I decided to take a punt (at a reduced price) on a game which is currently in a pre-release state. It's at least as pointed as DEFCON: the player must design and run a prison for a profit. The perfectly harrowing tutorial - which has the player constructing an execution chamber to carry out the punishment of a murderer whose crimes are recounting in lurid, heartbreaking - sets the tone of proceedings fairly clearly. Your charges, guards and sundry employees may appear as cheerful little blob-people, but a light-hearted romp this is not.

Gameplay consists of defining buildings, assigning workers, managing resources, and juggling the demands of your prisoners for things like security, privacy, clean clothes and something to do with the necessities of ensuring they're adequately punished (or rehabilitated) and, most importantly from your standpoint, ensuring as few of them escape, or overdose, or shiv one another in the showers, or riot, or...

It's a little hard to get to grips with. Buildings aren't exactly intuitive: you need to define a zone of foundations, add in entrances, and then start subdividing the interior into offices, cells, kitchens, what have you. You have to do this on a tight budget, and the game doesn't make entirely clear from the outset exactly how it is one gets ones hands on more money. It turns out that the player can apply for grants, which come with objectives for handy pointers to progress, and, of course, you make money from the prisoners themselves; the higher their risk level, the more reward.

So once you do get to grips with making sure you've got plenty of buildings, walls, guards and so on, and your first few jumpsuited charges are buzzing around from cells to showers to kitchens to the yard to back to their cells, the basic puzzle of the game is revealed. You need money to hold prisoners; you need prisoners to get money. You can rehabilitate them, but that takes a lot of cash. Otherwise, you can try and milk your inmates for all they're worth by having them churn out products for sale, or else to undercut your other employees and reduce your wage bill by putting them to work in the kitchens and cleaning cabinets - but to do so you'll need to train them, which costs money, so you'll need more prisoners (who need more cells and more facilities) or to make cuts elsewhere, so think hard. And then there's the unintended consequences of good deeds: you can run drug-rehabilitation programmes or put your inmates to work to cut their chance of reoffending, but you'll soon fund that some of them are taking the opportunity to steal supplies, sometimes with deadly consequences. You can try and put a stop to an absurd volume of illicit spoon-smuggling from the canteen, but guess what? Metal detectors, the electrical wiring to power them, and the workmen to install them, all cost money! Balancing all this is a pleasing challenge, at first; you feel trapped by your tight budget and, while you may well start out with the best intentions for your inmates, the need to always secure the necessary income forces you into more and more cynical decisions. I made my cells smaller so I could squeeze in more prisoners; I kept them suppressed and compliant by deploying armed guards and dogs. I researched tax-avoidance strategies using an accountant. And so on. It's a beautifully cynical game.

But. That word "game" is contentious, because, actually, there isn't much game here yet. After a while I worked out the systems enough to build a prison which, while not particularly aesthetically pleasing, ran like a pretty well-oiled machine. I'd researched everything there was to research. There were no problems. Everything just... worked. At that point, the game's dead. You can watch your charges mill around, day after day, but there's nothing to do except add in more and more inmates for more and more money and - at this point - there isn't enough to spend it on, or enough to go wrong to force your hand.

Maybe this will be fixed in the final release. I certainly hope that many of the bugs will be. At the moment there are some severe pathfinding problems which mean workers, prisoners, guards, or some comically unlikely pileup of all three can get lost or stuck. The queueing of tasks follows some whimsical formula incomprehensible to man or beast. The game is still a little ugly; the research screen especially is uninspiring, and many prisoners are lacking in art or coherent descriptions; furthermore, while the flavour text on their past offences feels like it should give them more personality and force you to care about them more, it doesn't. There's too many blob-convicts, too many names, and they're all milling around all the time, so it's hard to really develop any attachment. Their actions and proclivities don't seem to be based on their criminal background, either.

Prison Architect is, at the moment, a distracting toy with an absorbing financial balancing act at its core, but not enough to keep you playing. There isn't, as yet, a game. You can build prisons and share them to your heart's content, but, honestly, unless you really like that sort of thing - and if you do, what the fuck is wrong with you? - I'd give it a miss until it's got more of a direction.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Witch, Witcher, Witchmost

Part something of a semi-regular series of words about games I bought because Steam had them on sale! This time: The Witcher 2, which I think cost like £3.

The Witcher 2 is a rambunctious monster-hunting adventure through a preposterous medieval fantasy world inhabited variously by A. crusty dirt-farmers with silly regional accents and upsetting stains on their breeches, B. impossibly-endowed sorceresses with cold stares, thick eyeliner and low-cut dresses or C. blood-curdling monsters from the Dark of the Depths, who are also sometimes B. An action-RPG with a set character - Geralt, the titular Witcher, a dark, brooding antihero straight out of central casting - the game is notable primarily for its interesting gameplay structure and an amusing story shot through with dark-grey morality.

You, Geralt, are a monster hunter with a bad (and entirely narratively suspect) case of amnesia. Also, you might have died once; it's not really clear. The game does an excellent job of making sure the player shares in Geralt's confusion with the in-media-res prologue. Amnesia is a hack's tool for story-writing, but here it's carried off with such aplomb - and it's used so well, as the player feels they're discovering (or rediscovering, if you played the previous game) the world along with Geralt. You'll meet characters who've known you for years, or so they say - how far can you trust them? How far do you think you can take them for a ride? Many of these choices are left up to the player. You have a limited amount of control over Geralt's character and decisions - you have some wiggle-room on what strategies to take in conversations, but none of the options presented feel out of line with the sort of character Geralt is clearly meant to be. He's not a bad man, not a cruel man, but he is a hardened professional and outcast who works in a very dangerous and expensive line of business. Be kind to peasants if you want, but magic swords don't pay for themselves. I usually like more freedom in choosing my character and their portrayal, but Geralt anchors the tone of the game very well. Although he's not particularly original (and neither is the world he inhabits), he's well-executed and interesting enough to separate the game from a lot of action-RPG fare alone.

The standout feature, however, is the structure of many of the game's quests. Most RPG quest design sticks to a well-tested "go here, do this, bring evidence back here" quest mechanic, and I won't pretend that's not well in evidence here. Where the game shines, however, is in integrating the quest mechanics with the goals and methods of the character you're playing, and the tone and themes of the story. You have to hunt monsters, but the reason people will pay you to do it is that hunting monsters is extremely difficult. This doesn't just mean that they're tough enemies, but that there are methods and tactics you'll need to research and adopt in order to win. You could just wander into the cave with a sword, but you'd probably die. No, what the game wants you to do is to play like a professional monster hunter: research your enemies by fighting them off the beaten track, or better yet, by reading about them in a book. Then, gather ingredients for the potions and items (traps, bombs, swords, armour) that will swing the odds in your favour. Learn to make the right items, do so, and then you might be set. This process is my favourite part of the game, and when the game trusts itself enough to let you complete these processes, either organically in side-quests or with objectives in the quest-log on the main chain, it's always satisfying to do so, especially when this long drawn-out process is leading up to a boss. The game loses some of its shine, however, when it falls back on the more traditional "talk to this guy, now that guy, then back to the first guy" structure, mostly in the second act. It's a disappointment, because tying the character, their motives and expertise so closely into the core game mechanics is something that RPGs should be doing much more often.

Combat itself is based on a relatively simple and intuitive system of combo-chaining using two attacks; light and heavy. It bears some similarities to the Batman: Arkham Whatever series with the ability to acrobatically flit between enemies; also that you're almost always outnumbered. You can also block and dodge, and, with the right timing, execute riposte attacks for extra damage. It's intuitive and satisfying without really being anything new or outstanding. A lot of the time, especially with tougher enemies, it becomes a matter of slogging it out and outlasting them rather than any especial skill.

There are problems: the Grim Yet Curiously Sexy Darkness of the Imagined Past setting is overdone, silly and uncomfortably male-gazey (although there's nothing as bad as the previous game's pinup cards); it's clear that the writers' aim at Gritty Fantasy is still too-often dragging them into puerility. The story, while good, is also confusing as hell sometimes and rewards close attention. The array of craftable potions and items was sometimes a little too overwhelming for me, with marginal distinctions at best between a few of them. Fighting human enemies, as you will for big chunks of the game, is nowhere near as interesting as the varied cast of ghosts and ghouls, mostly because there's little to research or prepare and they have few interesting attacks. The game tries to compensate in the most dismal way possible by simply making you take on huge groups all at once. The quest tracker is buggy and navigation difficult; it's easy to get lost in some of the more open areas.

Still, though, I had fun. It's a good game, especially for the price I paid.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Feature, Not a Bug


So, the first thing to note on l'affaire Ubisoft is that it came about because a journalist actually bothered to ask a games developer just why they hell they still aren't putting a playable female protagonist into their multimillion-selling flagship series. That alone is fairly staggering; you're a games journalist, man, you're not supposed to ever ask difficult questions, let alone call someone on their obvious bullshit! The piece is, of course, currently rocketing its way across the channels and byways of the internet, giving lie to the oft-repeated claim that these questions aren't asked because people aren't interested in this sort of thing. We are, of course. Especially when it's a question-and-answer which cuts to the heart of the problems with representation in the games industry.

A female character was, we are told, on a "features list" for a long time, but simply had to be cancelled owing to the unfortunate exigencies of developing games to tight budgets and schedules. They'd have had to do different animations. Costumes. This would have doubled the dev time on those things, so unfortunately, the lady got canned. Sorry! And besides, they're doing history, and women were all in cupboards or something back then...?

All of this is nonsense, and it's hardly worth spending time on debunking. Ubisoft are a big company; the Assassins' Creed franchise sells millions of copies every year; the biggest expense as far as I'm aware wouldn't have been costumes or animations at all (there's female characters in the multiplayer mode) but rather in voice-acting, and so it's possibly telling they don't mention it.

No, the core of the problem here is that a woman was not conceived of as a credible focus for the story Ubisoft was trying to tell from the get-go. Despite their protestations to the contrary, it's clear that they started off with a male character to tell a man's story. The female counterpart was never a core part of the experience but a feature to be jettisoned. The woman is peripheral from the start: she is not integral to the experience except as an ancilliary character in the orbit of a man, deployed to chide, harden or propel the male character's adventure. Men get to be free-running sexy assassins; women get to be rescued.

It's not like Ubisoft are exactly alone here, although the Assassins' Creed, Watch_Dogs and Far Cry releases are all prominent offenders in perpetuating the utterly ubiquitous bestubbled-meaninglessly-angry-loner-male protagonist known and reviled as Doomguy. It is, as I said at the top, a problem the games industry has: because it's still male-run, male-driven, and creating for a notional audience of awkward teen boys (despite the large and ever-increasing numbers of women who play games), it is an industry utterly accustomed to putting a man at the centre of things and viewing women as a peripheral, an added extra: a feature.

When you're relegating half the world's population and a good section of your own audience to the level of a gun -with-some-flames-on-it DLC, something's badly wrong.

The maddening thing is that there are examples out there - good, successful ones - of how to do this sort of thing, and have been for years. I'll glance briefly at two here - Mass Effect and Dark Souls.

Mass Effect, as well as offering a broad palette of character customisation in terms of name, appearance and background, was constructed around a character-driven narrative that could be altered (within limits) at the player's discretion. If the character was male or female, the world subtly shifted around them, as it did with many of the choices the player could make. This kind of agency reached its zenith in the third instalment, where the character could choose to pursue a relationship with basically any of the main supporting cast. Want a chaste, do-gooder male space marine with stubble? Go ahead, you boring fuck! Want a remorseless black lesbian space-racist? Knock yourself out! Whatever you choose, you get to be the hero or heroine of your own story - and the gender choice, from the perspective of running around blasting fuck out of galactic bastards, is entirely arbitrary. It is still a masculine story and structure (ultraviolence in space; the loner against those who doubt him) - it's just that the game developers cared enough to give the player some level of control over it.

Dark Souls offers the character customisation but does something quite different with the narrative: which is to say, Dark Souls doesn't actually have much of a narrative as such, and as a result the player is given remarkably free reign to put his or her interpretation on it and, indeed, to construct their own character's story as they traverse the world. The silent protagonist is a perfect cypher for whatever the player wants them to be (with the stricture that the player has to want them to be a mouldering undead who batters monsters with a club).

There are plenty of other examples out there, of course, which just makes it all doubly maddening. Nintendo's ever-more-androgynous Link and the prospect of a Zelda game where you get to play as Zelda (!) are tantalising glimpses of progress, even if the company will have to do more than that to atone for its shameful handling of the Tomodachi Life fiasco. People who self-identify as "gamers" are constantly anxious that people aren't taking the medium seriously enough. There's something of a point there. But I expect that the Ubisoft news story will be met with the usual calls from the gamer grognards that attempting to have this discussion is somehow "injecting politics" into something that's meant to be fun, oblivious as ever to the fact that this sort of thing means games aren't fun for a lot of people. Until game-players, developers, producers, journalists - in short, the industry - get a grip on its problems with women, minorities, and all the wondrous variety that is human expression and experience, then games don't deserve to be taken seriously.

Monday, 9 June 2014


E3! Christ! It can be hard to pick your way through the exciting offerings of the still-totally-relevant Electronic Entertainment Expo - but have no fear with this, the United Servo Academy Chorus' exclusive guide to all the hits from this most exciting of games-industry trade shows!


Xbox head honchos were carted onto the stage, bound and gagged, to the audience's hotly-anticipated, next-gen lusty booing and hurling of medium-sized garden furniture. In an unprecedented gesture, the penitent suits were doused in aviation-grade kerosene and ignited with a Halo 5-branded flamethrower (retail price: $70,000, or free with Kinect)! The screaming carcasses were then hurled bodily into the baying, delighted crowd, there to be stamped and torn to bits - all in stunning 1080p!


Sony cemented their hard-won place at the top of the console-wars mound of skulls by announcing the release schedule for the 2014-2015 fiscal year would be replaced by a single game-changing release: the reign of King Death, He who is the end of all! Sony executives refused to comment on whether the ensuing demise of this frail universe would be free to Playstation Plus subscribers.


I dunno, Smash Bros. or something.


So there you have it, folks, all the news from another thrilling E3! Video games! Fuck!