Posted by: Ben | October 9, 2014

if: Icepunk

Those IF Comp 2014 disclaimers again:

  1. Even if I hate your game, I love you.

  2. Your game is better than mine, since I haven’t written anything capable of being shown to another human being. But criticism is a skill too!

  3. Ratings are on a three-point scale of Great, Good and Grim, which will be finessed into a rating out of ten in time for the competition voting deadline.

  4. This review may contain (a) spoilers right to the end of the game in question, (b) adult themes and (c) material that some people may find offensive.

On with today’s review, which is Icepunk, a Twine game by Page13oy.

(But first I’d like to take this opportunity to enthusiastically agree with this post by Carolyn VanEseltine on the subject of Twine as Interactive Fiction.)

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Posted by: Ben | October 5, 2014

if: The Black Lily

It’s October, so it’s time for the annual Interactive Fiction Competition, which this year is the twentieth. What a phenomenal achievement by the IF community and the various competition organisers. And to think, some people say video games are still a young medium.

For various unimportant reasons I have barely played an IF game of any description in four years. I expect I’ve missed out on some classics. Consequently if you want an informed perspective on the scene, I am the last person whose reviews you should read. And yet, here they are.

Disclaimers follow:

1) Even if I hate your game, I love you.
2) Your game is better than mine, since I haven’t yet written anything capable of being shown to another human being. But criticism is a skill too!
3) If you want a transcript, please get in touch and ask for one. I reserve the right to edit my own inputs to make myself look better.
4) Ratings are on a three-point scale of Great, Good and Grim, which will be finessed into a rating out of ten in time for the competition voting deadline.
5) This review may contain (a) spoilers right to the end of the game, (b) adult themes and (c) material that some people may find offensive.

Disclaimers out of the way, time for the first game, which is (drumroll:)

The Black Lily, a z-code game by Hannes Schueller.

(Here’s my review of Hannes Schueller’s 2009 entry, The Believable Adventures of an Invisible Man. My younger self gave it a grumpy 3 out of 10 but word on the street is that a later reworked version was better.)

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Posted by: Ben | January 18, 2014

Silver Age: DROD: King Dugan’s Dungeon

PC. Caravel Games, 2002-07

We need to talk about DROD.

I confess to having picked up the commercial release of this title, known to acronym-haters as Deadly Rooms Of Death, and its four sequels for one American dollar each in a winter sale on an obscure digital retailer, where it was surrounded by dreggish pre-boom indie titles and horrible-looking games simulating boring jobs. It’s half a decade since I played the freeware version, which is still available and has most of the content in a less pretty engine. This version adds improved graphics and just enough voice acting to tantalise.

It’s a pretty venerable game now, having been knocking around in various guises since Menswear had a record deal. For many years, the free version was one of the top-rated games on legendary site Home Of The Underdogs. Nowadays there are fewer signposts to it, although it is also available on Gamer’s Gate and most importantly, direct from the developer.

In this turn-based puzzle game with roguelike looks, you control the laconic, psoriatic Beethro Budkin, a little man with a big sword. He’s no fantasy hero, but rather a working joe, a Smitemaster contracted to eliminate all the creatures on each of the game’s 25 levels. Each type of creature acts predictably and according to a series of simple rules, making it possible to predict with some accuracy what they will do next, a skill which increases in utility as your foes become progressively more intelligent, numerous and awkwardly placed.

The roaches can’t find their way around the wall, but as soon as I pass it they’re going to rush me from both sides.

As simple and predictable rules interact, complex and chaotic situations emerge. You will execute a seemingly perfect ballet of swordsmanship, only to have a gigantic cockroach creep up behind you and eat you. Repeatedly. Until finally you realise if you make this slight movement to the right 300 turns earlier at the start of the level, you can prevent the little bastard from ever being born, leading you to clear the screen with relative ease and feel like a genius right until the moment you realise how long it took you and how many times you banged your stupid head against the same brick wall. That’s the kind of game it is. Remember when Deus Ex came out and emergence was the big thing?

It's not long before things start getting quite a bit more complicated.

It’s not long before things start getting quite a bit more complicated.

Some Stallone-esque voice work really sells Beethro’s down-to-earth credentials, while a selection of other voiced characters leave the player in doubt about the ethics of killing some of the more intelligent creatures.

If anyone, be they critic or consumer, has ever played DROD and failed to conclude it was one of the finest games of all time, they haven’t bothered to say so. And yet it doesn’t seem to have secured a place in the canon of must-play titles. It’s never been in a PC Gamer Top 100, for example. Rock Paper Shotgun have never put it on any of their lists. And couple of the sequels are languishing unloved in Steam Greenlight at the time of writing. Although VVVVVV developer Terry Cavanagh’s forthcoming title, Halting Problem, is reported to be DROD-influenced, so there could be a revival of interest in the next year or so. Catch up with it now is my advice. That way you’ll know what all the hip people are talking about when they start.

Posted by: Ben | October 6, 2013

Ten Factual Inaccuracies In The Harry Potter Films

I watched the Ben Affleck film Argo last night. Then I went to Wikipedia to find out more about the alleged “true story” it was based on, only to have my suspicions confirmed that the film was so inaccurate that it might as well have been fiction. This got me thinking about another series of popular films that was riddled with inaccuracies and half-truths, and I just wanted to jot down a quick blog post to make a note of some of the more obvious ones

1. Contrary to the films, Harry Potter did not have magical powers, although he did teach himself a few sleight-of-hand tricks while he was locked in a cupboard, and he had indeed been observed talking to a snake. Innate magical powers have never been a pre-requisite for entry to Hogwarts. Also, the “Ministry of Magic” (as it is informally known in and around Hogwarts) is not a separate “shadow government” but is in fact a branch of the Home Office. The “Minister for Magic” is actually a civil servant; his actual title is “Permanent Under-Secretary for Prestidigitation.” The current incumbent is Sir Kingsley Shacklebolt, KCMG.

2. The Hogwarts Expresss leaves Kings Cross at 05.30, not 11.00 as depicted in the films. There were never any Dementors on the Express, as depicted in “Prisoner of Azkaban”. Speaking at the film’s premiere, one former student described it as “absurd” that Dementors would be up and about before midday, adding that they were “really not all that dedicated.”

3. The character of “Dean Thomas” is entirely fictional.

Dean Thomas: Entirely fictional.

Dean Thomas: Entirely fictional.

4. In “Philosopher’s Stone”, Harry is selected for the Gryffindor Quidditch team and becomes Seeker in his first year. In fact he did not join the team until his third year, and was a Beater. The player turnover on the team was also much higher than depicted in the books.

5. Harry’s owl, Hedwig, stayed at in the Owlery at Hogwarts during the summer holidays. It would have been cruel to take her home and lock her up in a tiny cage all summer. Also, contrary to the films, Hedwig was not killed by a Death Eater, but lived into her early twenties and had a long and happy life.

6. The portrayal of Dementors in “Prisoner of Azkaban” was criticised as “racist” by Brian Caton, the General Secretary of the Prison Officers and Dementors Union. “I’m appalled by the depiction of our members as these nightmarish, humourless figures in ragged black robes who suck all the joy and happiness out of a room,” said Caton. “This kind of irresponsible misrepresentation can only promote even more violence against hard working public servants who already do a very challenging job.” The film’s director, Alphonse Cuaron, responded by saying that the story was “heavily fictionalised… it has to work for audiences,” and that Caton should “lighten up and stop ruining people’s entertainment.” “Maybe he should concentrate on getting his members to smarten up, have a bath and grow a sense of humour,” added Cuaron.

Dementor: Hard working public servant

Dementor: Hard working public servant.

7. In “Goblet of Fire”, Cedric Diggory is killed by Peter Pettigrew with the Avada Kadavra spell. In reality he badly bruised his right ankle, but was otherwise unhurt. The portrayal of his fate stands in contrast to that of Colin Creevey, who was depicted as surviving in “Chamber of Secrets” even though he was actually eaten by a gigantic snake.

8. Contrary to the events of “Order of the Phoenix”, Dolores Umbridge never taught at Hogwarts and never held the titles of Headmistress or High Inquisitor. She attended Hogwarts for three days as part of a Ministry of Magic health and safety inspection team following the injury to Cedric Diggory.

9. In “Half-Blood Prince”, Harry almost kills Draco Malfoy with a spell called Sectumsempra. There is no evidence that any such spell exists. As the spell’s supposed inventor, Severus Snape, later said, “You can’t just pull a brand new incantation for severing body parts out of your arse.” A further inaccuracy in the sixth film is that Malfoy spends most of it plotting to kill Albus Dumbledore. In fact a subsequent enquiry cleared him of all involvement, and Malfoy himself has admitted that he spent most of his free time that year in a disused girls’ toilet trying to kill himself

10. The battle of Hogwarts as seen in “Deathly Hallows Part II” never actually took place. The remaining Death Eaters had surrendered six weeks earlier after Voldemort (more commonly known by his real name of Bruce Riddle) had been hospitalised owing to severe carbon monoxide poisoning caused by faulty central heating at Malfoy Manor. Consequently the school was never in any real danger.

The One Who Will Vanquish The Dark Lord

The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord

Posted by: Ben | April 13, 2013

Silver Age: Batman – Arkham Asylum

(Rocksteady / Warner, 2009)

Arkham Asylum, a four-year old superhero game, takes place in what is nominally an open world but actually an excuse to constantly backtrack through the same environments in linear missions. There’s lots of items to collect, upgrades to buy, challenges in single- and multi-player flavours and character biographies to read to get you up to speed with Batman continuity. You’ll have to forgive me for stifling a yawn, I’m just so incredibly worldly and jaded. I don’t really want to be playing a perfectly serviceable big-budget videogame from 2009, I’d rather be crossing the Kalahari desert on a sailboat with wheels, accompanied by Zooey Deschanel on piano and Prince on the banjo. I’m just too cool and interesting for this game.

The part I’m especially too cool for is not the stealth bit, in which you must incapacitate armed guards one at a time without being seen. Neither is it the side-scrolling platform segments set in Bruce Wayne’s subconscious. I am not He Who Is Too Cool To Play A Side-Scrolling Platform Game, that person is to come after me and I am not fit to wash the socks in his sandals. No, the troublesome ingredient is the unsophisticated, Golden Axe-esque button mashing beat-em-up part. The sprite of a burly white plutocrat so rich he has a spare Batcave pirouettes about the screen, smashing his fist into the skulls of undereducated, economically disadvantaged mentally ill people who are disproportionately likely to be members of ethnic minorities. The animation is lavish, at the cost of the game practically playing itself during these sequences, giving you plenty of time to wonder at the horrible irony that is the popularity of Batman as a character. This guy spends a fortune on Kevlar bodysuits, souped up cars and all the rest of the paraphernalia necessary for the fulfilment of his juvenile fantasy of beating people up, while his home city sinks further into the spiral of poverty, crime, drug abuse and incarceration. Look at him, standing on a building trying to look cool as his trademark is projected onto the sky.



Batman is not like other super heroes. His position in Western culture is so assured he doesn’t even need an origin story. Spiderman was bitten by a radioactive spider; Superman comes from another planet and the Hulk got the way he is from standing too close to an atom bomb when it went off. Batman draws his super powers from the class system. In every incarnation in every medium, Batman beats seven shades of shit out of the poor because it is what we expect him to do. Because it is what we would do.

The Batman that we used to know and love was a figure of light entertainment, rescuing local councillers from muggers on the streets of Peckham with his sidekick Rodney. Nowadays, of course, he’s all poorly lit and growly. I reflexively find the concept of a dark, gritty Batman too offputting to have ever bothered reading any of the relevant comics, but it is my understanding that the more influential ones were written by alleged racist misogynist homophobic wizard-bothering gun-nut Frank Miller, who remains desperately popular with the same comic fans who have latterly been organising a letter-writing campaign against the comparatively moderate and personable Orson Scott Card. (I come here not to praise Card, also a homophobe, but merely to point out that there are no reports of him losing a PA over a faeces-smearing incident.)

The other interesting thing about a character who’s basically Patrick Bateman in a pair of comedy ears is – and this is by no means an original observation – just how extraordinarily gay he is. (Batman, not Miller). Here we have a man who lives alone with only his butler for company, except when he’s house-sharing with a young “ward”. He prowls the streets under a false identity at night looking for his natural arch-enemy, the very incarnation of open deviance.

joker's boner

The Joker is Batman’s dark mirror, the person he could be, if only he gave in to his innermost desires. Here, as played by Mark Hamill, he’s pitched perfectly. The macabre delight with which he taunts his own thugs as Batman takes them out one by one in the Human Revolution-esque stealth sequences is a gift that keeps on giving. Regrettably, his inevitable bulking up for the finale strikes a bum note.

Did I bring up the Human Revolution comparison already? This game, which predates it, refuses to be eclipsed in the crappiness of its boss fights. One day I’m going to write a blog post about why boss fights are and always have been a grotesque blight on game design, with examples including, but not limited to, R-Type, Rainbow Islands (which might not be the first game many would pick as an example of horrible bosses; those people wouldn’t have had hours of work undone on multiple occasions by the appearance of a vampire who spits out other, smaller, vampires), Joseph Campbell and Shadow Of The Sodding Colossus. That blog post will go viral and have Comment Is Free, the New Statesman and the Huffington Post banging on my door. Today is not that day, but suffice it to say that the ones in Arkham Asylum are about the usual standard. There’s Bane, who is apparently some sort of Mexican wrestler guy. There’s Poison Ivy, the plant-related villianess who carries out plant-related crimes and sits, with crushing inevitability, in a big killer plant. There are a number of other big lads, each of whom insists on halting the narrative until you beat the crap out of them. None are remotely interesting.

I hate you.

One day, Count Fangs, I will return. And I will kill you.

Would it be quite fair to describe Arkham Asylum as a distillation of everything that’s wrong with this dying console generation? Well, no, because I’ve been playing the PC version, and there’s a splendid fourth-wall breaking moment about two thirds of the way through that wouldn’t have worked as well on console, assuming it remains unchanged. It relates to Scarecrow, a super-villian of the insane genius persuasion, who demonstrates the fact that he’s more concerned about being evil than he is about being able to scratch his nose by having syringes strapped to each of his fingers. His schtick is to inject our hero with psychoactive drugs that are actually capable of breaking the fourth wall, by making you think your graphics card is overheating and the game has crashed. But it’s OK. Batman fixes your computer, then you help repair Batman’s fragile psyche. Making Batman apparently the first person to be able to resist Scarecrow’s drugs. “What are you?” asks Scarecrow, in horror. He suspects, you see, that Batman’s indestructability comes from the fact he’s a character in a game.

He’s wrong. Batman is more than that. He’s already left the pages of the comics and become part of our everyday lives. The reason he doesn’t need an origin story is because he’s already emblematic of the contemporary relationship between criminal and victim, plutocrat and plebeian. That’s why he’s open to such varying degrees of light and shade in his portrayals, and so tormented. He’s the hero we deserve, and the one we absolutely don’t need right now.

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