I know that very subjectively ordering all the different sorts of experiences games offer into a list isn't exactly the most sensible use of anyone's time. But this was just such a year for games that I couldn't help myself, I needed to make a space to talk about all the things I enjoyed. So here I am, doing it. And here you are, reading it. 

I hope we're both very proud of ourselves.

As for the order of the list itself, the ordering should be taken pretty loosely. It's a decent representation of how I feel, but they're a diverse bunch of games and so any comparison like this is going to be a weird one, and I can imagine different versions of this list that I'd be equally happy with. 

So, here they are.

1) NieR: Automata

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I've been doing this playing video games for a while now, and so it's quite unusual for a game to get under my skin and become a part of me. Most of that is all in the past, the games of my youth which got to me while my brain was still squishy and impressionable.

But I've been thinking about NieR: Automata since I first played it as a way to kill time waiting for Persona 5. It probably says something that the moment I finished Persona 5, I started NieR: Automata again, and went all the way through the main endings once more. 

I think it works as a pretty solid action game, though I know why some might find it repetitive on that score. But really it's the way that the game explores its themes of sadness and humanity through its systems, characters and environments that got me. Sure, for people who are more familiar than I was with Yoko Taro, some of this will feel like a retread. But this is the first time I got the experience of the kinds of melancholy he likes to deal in, and it worked so well for me.

It didn't hurt that this is a game about sad robots, something I always have time for. It also didn't hurt that it has one of the finest soundtracks I've heard in a long, long time - and I don't say that lightly. 

This game will stick with me for a long, long time.

2) PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds

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When this game was first getting a bit of attention, I thought I'd never want to play it. It sounded too stressful by far, something better to spectate than to be involved in. 

It turns out that I was wrong about how the game felt to play, once I was persuaded to join other people. Sure, it has tense moments, but more than anything it's a game about going on a feel-good adventure with your buddies. It might look like a gritty military sim, but trust me, it's the other thing.

This game has generated so many incredible moments for me, this year. It's the way the game acts as this big funnel into which the 100 players are placed and then jiggled about to have their stories intersect and converge. Vital to its success is how much latitude there is for failure or trying unusual things - so much so that some of our mistakes have turned into regular house rules variants. I have apparently played Plunkbat for more than 200 hours, and it is still finding fresh ways to surprise me.

But the other reason I have to talk about this game is that not only is it good to play with friends, but also it has actually made me friends. People milling on Discord servers initially just looking for others who might like to play and not be jerks, but who now I speak to on a regular basis and hang out with online. It's not since the old IRC days that I've bonded with people over a game, so this has to be something pretty special.


3) The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

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I've long thought that Zelda needed a break from the formula that has existed for so many years. So I was delighted when this seemed to be the one that would do it. I didn't expect it also to present a version of open world playfulness that I can only hope future games will imitate. 

This is a game where exploration feels organic and driven by the whims of the player, much more than the checklist of icons that so many open worlds present you with. It's a game that seems aware of the player's curiosity. It encourages it with the placement of every rock, tree, hill and mountain - and is always ready to reward it in little ways.

But most importantly of all, that shark man's smile.

4) Opus Magnum

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I love the creative design-puzzles that Zachtronics do so well. But they require so much attention and focus that usually there's a point where I fall off. I'm not quite done with Opus Magnum but so far I've found it a much gentler, more forgiving and yet still highly satisfying version of the experience that I enjoyed in games like Spacechem and Shenzhen I/O. This is the chillout version of that Zachtronics experience that I've been looking for.

The removal of space constraints to the main puzzles mean that it's easier to create a functional but inefficient solution to be improved upon later. The polished interface means that when I do return to a design I can be pretty confident I'll understand how it works. And it's all finished off with a nicely realised game world with a small but well-defined cast of characters.

5) Yakuza 0

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Another game that I picked up on a whim, having been unfamiliar with the rest of the series. I was delighted by how much heart the game posesses, the humour and range of its animations a particular highlight. On one hand picking up the phone can become a dramatic action shot with the cord whipping around in extreme slow motion. On the other hand it might be a tiny by perfect inclination of the head at just the right. See how perfectly the animation above moves from one to the other?

These might seem an odd detail to focus on for just a brief summary, but it says a lot about why I love this game. It thrilled me with its gestures both big and small, from ridiculous fights to pausing for a spot of Mahjong with the locals. I'll be picking up any sequels that the team wants to throw at me. I'm not ready to leave these characters behind.

6) Super Mario Odyssey

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While not as much of an overhaul as Zelda, it was a delight to play a big Mario game executed so well. In many ways I felt like this was Nintendo finally making good on the ideas explored in Super Mario Sunshine - there's that same melting pot of ideas and locales here, but with none of the frustration offered by that game. 

Some might be disappointed that there isn't very much challenge for most of the game, but it would have been difficult to retain the momentum, that breezy, playful joy the game exhudes if the player was regularly encountering difficulty hurdles. If it weren't for the inclusion of the rather pointless and distracting Broodals, and the usual predictable princess-rescuing story, this would be almost perfect. 

7) Persona 5

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This game is in good company on this list. Seriously, this year has been quite something for games. But it's the first one which I can't help but feel should have been higher. 

It's still a Persona game, executed very well and with a style that didn't tire me out even after over a hundred hours with it. But if the localisation had been on par with its predecessor, and if the writers could lay off the homophobic bits and tired anime tropes (which in this case are not only unnecessary but threaten to undermine the whole theme of the game) then it could have been something so much more special. It seems weird that I'm disappointed in a game for being merely great - but I expect a lot from my Personas. Personae?

8) Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle

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Well, this was a turn up for the books. Not only a game featuring Rabbids that left me... actually kind of liking Rabbids, but a genuinely exciting evolution of the turn-based strategy genre. There are things that this game does with character interaction and movement mechanics that I hope other games imitate. Though it sags later on with some overly involved inter-mission puzzles and one particularly ill-conceived enemy type, there's so much to appreciate here.

9) Night in the Woods

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There's not very much I can say about this game without spoiling it, because it's pretty much all story and writing and character. So all I will say is: it captures a particular style and mood and does it very well. Lively animations, a memorable cast and a conversational tone makes you feel like you're among friends the whole way through.

10) The Sexy Brutale

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I'm a real sucker for stories involving time loops, or indeed any time shenanigans, and so this one was easy for me to appreciate, especially wrapped up as it is in its glitzy-yet-grimy aesthetic. I would say that its puzzle ideas feel a little under-developed - I expected them to become a little more involved, but they never quite arrived at their potential. Still, I'm excited for what comes next from this team.

Games I Enjoyed But Didn't Quite Make That List

Destiny 2
Destiny is still a great game to chill out to, and this is mostly an improved version of that. I just wish there was a bit more of it to enjoy.

Tacoma
An enjoyable and satisfying story, told in an unusual way that expands cleverly on the idea of audio logs. I couldn't help but wish they'd done a little more with the replay mechanics, but the ending won me over entirely.

Pyre
A unique universe populated with fascinating characters pulled me through this game, but looking back on it I can't say I was really there for the unusual fantasy sports game underpinning it.

Danganronpa V3
This is hard to recommend since it's full of awful characters, gross dialogue and is basically a nightmare of bad anime tropes. But like the previous games they frame a series of fun murder mysteries, full of exciting turns. Just don't go anywhere near it unless you can compartmentalise the other stuff. 

Gorogoa
A beautifully illustrated puzzle game about associating, combining and pulling apart images. There's an almost dreamlike quality to the way it proceeds, but a curious logic underpinning the whole thing. I was disappointed to see it end so quickly - though it is easy to see why it had to be short.

Steamworld Dig 2
There's a moment during Steamworld Dig 2 where the story appears to be going to some very unexpected places. Ultimately, the game never really delivers on that. But it remains a very pleasant, over-too-soon mixture of old fashioned 2D mining mechanics and metroid-like exploration.

Assassin's Creed Origins
This is a fine Assassin's Creed game, the best in a while, set in an impossibly huge Egypt... but for me it just outstayed its welcome. By the time it ended I was relieved to be done with it, and part of that might be how dated it all felt after having played Breath of the Wild. The next time I see Assassin's Creed I'd love to see a similarly bold reinvention.

Sonic Mania 
This back-to-basics Sonic game achieves its aims brilliantly. But it's still Sonic, so there are still elements of the design philosophy I struggle with. When it flows, it's sublime, but it's still a game designed to reward replay and practice. I wish it were more often the case that levels felt great the first time through. 

Loot Rascals
Enjoyably drawn move-based rogue-esque exploration on a hex grid with some interesting looting and night/day cycle mechanics. I don't have much to say about it because I wanted to play it more than I did. Disclosure: I know the developers of this game and gave feedback on some early versions.

I Bounced Off These Games, Sorry

Prey
I see and like what this game is doing, but I just couldn't be there for it. It stressed me out too much, and I thought the story took too long to ramp up, which was probably the fatal blow. It got to the point where not only I was reluctant to keep going, but also game hadn't given me enough intrigue to make me power through.

Gravity Rush 2
It's not often that I make a conscious decision to stop playing a game. But Gravity Rush 2 did it to me. It was somewhere in the middle of one of the numerous forced stealth sessions (bearing in mind this is a game which provides no interface cues to aid stealth) that I put the controller down and said "Y'know what, game? I'm done." It's too bad, because I really wanted to like this game.

A Very Incomplete List of Ones-That-Got-Away Because Jeez There Were A Lot Of Games I Wanted To Play This Year:

Resident Evil 7
Horizon Zero Dawn
Nidhogg 2
Hob
West of Loathing
Gang Beasts
Heat Signature
Echo

Posted
AuthorPeter Silk

The NES has a channel where you can load really low quality samples to play. Most often it's used for the purposes of percussion. The samples have to be tiny.

By 1992 I'd moved onto the Amiga. But my neighbour still had a NES which I'd play often. The first game where I really noticed the sample track was the timpanis that play on the flying ships in SMB3.

I was surprised because I hadn't noticed before that the system could do anything except the usual bleeps. So I said while one of the neighbours was there, "That music is really impressive, I'm surprised it can do that." 

Big mistake.

My 10 year old self didn't have the music vocabulary to properly describe that what I was surprised to hear was recorded samples. So when the neighbour pushed for details about why this was surprising to me all I could say was, "My Amiga can do sounds like that, but I didn't realise the NES could."

It got a bit awkward. It sounded like I was boasting about how much better my Amiga sounded when actually I was just excited about a new thing I'd learned about the NES. I was just getting into writing my own music and noticing more about how it was put together.

So, I remember hours of fun playing games on that neighbour's NES, in the abstract. But the one specific memory of that time that my brain has decided needs to be properly retained forever and ever is the one where I accidentally made myself sound like a sound chip elitist.

Thanks, brain.

Posted
AuthorPeter Silk

 

Edit: Well, the election went better than I thought it would, but I thought I'd leave this here as an accurate record of how I was feeling at the time.

 

"Initial take?"

It's hard to see an upside.

"The Tories are going to hugely benefit from this, aren't they?"

I despair at the idea the Tories remain a viable choice for some people even after... everything. But apparently this is where we are. 

"Labour, then?"

Imagine a long and strained groan. I despise everything about the Brexit situation. That means Labour is obviously a complete mess and difficult to go for.

There might be some merit on voting for individual candidates that rebelled on Article 50, like my own, but that party needs some sort of plan. 

"To move past Corbyn?"

Look, Corbyn's a problem, and much of that is Corbyn's fault. A lot of it was the rest of the party's fault. Regardless, he's been made inert. I think that would have happened true even if he'd been able to muddle his way through a sentence sounding vaguely convinced that Brexit might be a bad idea. So he's dead in the water.

So ousting Corbyn isn't a plan in itself, it's an inevitability. Getting rid of him isn't going to solve the identity crisis. That's what needs a plan. At least Corbyn, as rubbish as he turned out, briefly inspired some people into thinking that maybe we could get better. Another vision-free, right-pandering candidate isn't going to inspire anyone.

"There's always the Lib Dems."

At least they're trying to oppose Brexit on behalf on the many people who didn't vote for it, and who actively voted against it.

"I sense an incoming 'But...'"

Of course you do. You're me. Here it is: But I understand unease for voting Lib Dems because while many of them will defend their record in the coalition, they botched a chance at electoral reform and rolled over on some key issues like university tuition. 

There are still reasons to be angry and mistrustful. Good ones. And even besides that, I worry that a move towards centrism helps the Tories more than it helps anyone else.

"That's not every option, though."

There are other choices too, but none with any kind of realistic chance of even slowing the advance of the Tories' election goals, let alone reversing it. 

"Can you bottom line all these choices for me?"

What do we go with: 

1) The Baddies? (No)

2) A disarrayed opposition which has shown little appetite for reversing the disastrous decisions of The Baddies, and shirked their best opportunity to fight back in favour of a pointless power squabble?

3) The largest minor party who made some huge, huge mistakes last time they sniffed power and whose leader squirms so much under questioning that you'd think someone had put snakes in his underwear?

4) A small minor party whose goals might align more with yours than any of the above but in First-Past-The-Post have no chance of moving the needle in any direction?

"Hey, I remember being me a few years ago. You always used to advocate for voting for whoever you most closely align with."

Yeah, my instinct in this sort of situation has been to do that, for the simple reason that doing any sort of tactical vote feels like being a part of the problem. People not voting for who they agree with is one of the big reasons FPTP is such a bad system for democracy. People remain unrepresented through self-fulfilling prophecy.

But the only way to avoid that prophecy is if everyone (or at least enough people) agree to vote for what they really want, and we collectively do the work to change the result. But FPTP itself demotivates people to do that. People don't vote for what they want - they either don't vote at all, or try to vote optimally. It's a bit prisoner's dilemma in a way, isn't it?

"I guess. A little bit. Or is it the Monty Hall problem?"

Definitely not. 

"OK. How are we gonna dig out of this?"

I think I have to accept that it's bad news all around this time, and that the only way to turn this around is to start building a real, progressive-led case for electoral reform, a process that could take years and years. 

"What kind of reform?"

That's a whole other rant.

"Getting people to agree to changing the rules of the game sounds a lot harder than just carrying on and hoping for the best."

'Work within the system' is only an acceptable way to approach politics for so long as the system isn't a terrifying quagmire from which good things only emerge occasionally and by accident. Only conclusion is that enough people need to be convinced of a need demand a change to the system itself. And that's a heck of a task for which I have no idea where to even begin. 

"But the opposition parties, they agree on enough that it's not so hard to imagine them coming together in a crisis, right? What if the parties, in trouble as they are, worked together in the national interest to solve the problem of the Tories, while it's such a big problem? And then carried on working together to bring about reform?"

Yeah, what if that? And what if we had Theresa May visited in the night by three ghosts? Or what if the Tories just all spontaneously exploded? All good ideas. 

"You seem agitated. So to finish up I want you to just rant about all this incoherently for a minute. Go on, I'll make a cup of tea."

Thanks. It's just so frustrating! The power to change all this is, we are told, in our hands. We could, collectively, overrule these awful choices. There are enough people either suffering from what the government are doing, or know people who are, that if they could look that head on maybe we could tear 'em to shreds. Ask for better. Demand better. Absolutely and unequivocally reject what is happening, en masse. Or even if we don't quite get there, at least, at least establish an opposition capable of making that argument competently. That, so we're assured, is the promise of a functional democracy. They work for us, and all that.

But they don't! Because the lesson they have learned is that they don't even have to, anymore. Catching a politician out in a lie used to carry some sort of political currency, I'm given to understand. Now it's just background noise. They don't care about doing it, and apparently not enough of us care about making them pay for it. 

I don't know where this is from, so due caution and all that, but I read that only 9% of people who actually voted agree with the statement that politicians can be trusted. I doubt that number has been high for a long time, but I bet it's also an all-time low. People are so distrustful of politicians by this point that the idea that they could be trusted is thought of as almost beside the point. Voting is treated as a gamble. 

Vote for the one that is making most of the right noises and hope that some of them accidentally come true.

Vote for the one that sounds the most 'reliable' regardless of policies, and hope that at least the country won't collapse. 

If anything is an indictment of anything, then that is definitely an indictment. Of something.

So the voices of the still-significant number of people who are despairing at where the country is are just fading further and further into the background for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with what we actually want to be happening and everything to do with a tiny number of people playing silly games. And that's not even getting into the right wing news media's role in all this. Or even the not-so-right-wing news media. That's a whole other limb of this monster shitbeast that I'm just going to keep out of the way of here.

"Can you sum it up in a word?"

No.

"A sound?"

Ruuaarrgh.

Posted
AuthorPeter Silk
2 CommentsPost a comment

Since I'm very (very!) close to the end of Persona 5 now, I have a lot of thoughts about it, and at some point when more people have played through and I'm freer to discuss them, I'm sure I'll have all those conversations in detail.

Until then, here are some spoiler-free bullet point thoughts, based around the realisation that while I enjoy almost every aspect of this game, every single one comes with a caveat or two. 

Dungeons

  • The Palaces of the game are much more interesting than any of the previous games' dungeons with their heavily randomly generated floors - and even the one with randomly generated elements feels snappier and less of a slog.

But...

  • When they're bad, they're bad. It doesn't happen very often, but sections can be tedious. There's one late game dungeon which has a mechanic which is cute the first time, but then is repeated over and over again, forcing the player through a series of puzzles which involve a painful amount of backtracking.

Combat

  • This is definitely the best the series has been for combat. They've been steadily making battles quicker to get through and this is the most streamlined approach yet. The new Hold Up mechanics offer some refreshing alternatives to All-Out Attacks, too.

But...

  • I wish they'd done a little more with those conversation mechanics. I don't know if it's just some weird localisation, but the response options feel very canned and in places odd, making it confusing to determine what the game wants from you. 

Outside the dungeons

  • It seems like there's more to do than ever, and it was a very good move to make it so that many of the social links grant you special abilities as well as simply powering up Personas. 

But...

  • One of the ways they balance the game is by stopping you from doing activities in the evening sometimes. Usually whenever any major plot points are happening. It makes sense from a balance perspective and the previous games did this sometimes too but here it feels intrusive.

Story

  • The game is at its best when it's on-theme. Some of the things that it has to say about society and how people defend the very systems that hurt them feel very relevant in 2017. While it doesn't go too deep into its critique of society, when it hits it, it hits it well. Another nice thing about the Palaces is that they feel like part of the story this time, rather than a gate for the story advancement.

But...

  • Conversely, the game is at its worst when it sabotages its own themes. For example, there are a few (fortunately very short) homophobic moments, in a game that is literally about defying society's expectations of how to be. I wish the writers would think harder on how specific moments affect the overall themes; it would deepen the whole experience. 

Characters

  • The characters are distinct and mostly pretty fun to be around, and aside from a few weird moments, there's none that I dislike nearly as much as Yosuke from Persona 4. I can't say I absolutely fell in love with them like I did with some of the better characters from Persona 4, either, but they're good enough to carry the story.

But...

  • Part of the problem is that the game suffers from an uneven localisation. It spends a lot of the time coming across as quite a literal, by-the-numbers translation into English, such that it's very noticeable when on occasion the dialogue springs to life. Also because the Palaces are not focused around the lead characters, the leads rarely feel quite as deeply developed as Persona 4's.

Aesthetics

  • As expected game is the most stylish yet, and I was still not bored of the way the interface animates and scene transitions after seeing them for hours. The music is for the most start more understated than previous games, but it perfectly complements the tone of the game, and the few standout moments in the soundtrack are among the best in the series.

But...

  • Some of the texture work is noticeably low quality, and it's a shame to be in such a stylish game and then walk past an large billboard advertisement which clearly had a very small texture. 


 

Posted
AuthorPeter Silk

At the risk of calling into doubt my cool Internet image as a man of impeccably erudite tastes, my favourite film is probably the first Back to the Future. It's also a film that over the years I have come to see as flawed in some quite important ways. 

Take Marty, for instance. In the first film he is an incredibly boring protagonist. He's cool, brave and talented. He has no discernable flaws (the 'nobody calls me chicken' bit comes along in the second film, presumably invented to sustain the character for another couple of films). By the end credits he succeeds not by overcoming anything personal - no, everyone around him has to change. 

Having a terribly uninteresting main character seems like a pretty major flaw for any film to have (and it's hardly the only one), yet I still call BTTF my favourite film. Why? I mean, not 'why do I like it,' but 'why do I give such big flaws a pass?'

The answer has two parts. First, I don't think I am giving it a pass. If anything, I'm harder on Marty than any old protagonist in some film I don't care about. And second, I'm desperately trying to outrun a version of myself that could easily become an embittered cynic about everything. Being aware of flaws while still being enthusiastic in my appreciation of something is one way of achieving that. 

I want to be a bit careful here. I'm not trying to imply that no problem should ever be too big. I don't want to be the guy saying stuff like "yeah, but if you look past the obvious racism that drives the whole plot and characters and infects everything then it's really got a lot to recommend!" 

It's not about looking past, it's about looking at. And sometimes looking at a problem can reveal depths to it which make the whole thing harder and harder to like. And your conclusion might be that for you this is a fatal problem; you can't enjoy this any more. It's not up to me or anyone else to tell you when or why it's okay to 'nope' out of a piece of media.

But other times it's not a choice between perfect and fatally flawed. Often it's entirely possible to recognise a problem, even a major one, and rather than dismissing it or excusing it, giving yourself permission to direct your enthusiasm towards the parts of something you like for a while. The flaws will still be there to talk about.

Persona 4 is a video game which is among my most cherished of all time, and it is another one that is far from free of flaws. In some ways they're even harder to untangle than the Back to the Future example.

Take the character of Kanji Tatsumi, by a long way my favourite character in the game. At first it appears that this is a tough-guy character who is struggling with accepting his homosexuality, and that was a character I was very excited to explore. It doesn't turn out that way.

I don't mind that they wanted to tell a different story, and in fact I like a lot about the story they do tell. In the end it becomes a story about Kanji Tatsumi, tough-guy who has a soft side to him that enjoys cute things and this causing him to have a crisis of confidence about his masculinity - which manifests itself as doubts over his sexuality. 

This is interesting in itself. I am all for stories which delve into and question society's expectations for masculinity, and Kanji's awkward teenage struggle between appearing tough and also enjoying traditionally 'girly' hobbies endeared me to the character immensely. That the character's sexuality questioning turned out to be a fake-out isn't really the problem, it's what they do with that later.

From that point, misunderstandings over the possibility that Kanji might be gay are played purely for laughs. In particular, major character Yosuke 'Literally The Worst' Hanamura never misses an opportunity to call into question and be troubled by Kanji's sexuality, at which point Kanji has to emphasise how in fact he isn't gay, and that was all just a misunderstanding. Ha ha, what japes, etc.

"Don't worry," the game seems to be trying to reassure us. "He's not gay. He just seemed that way at first. But he's not. So it's fine."

While the game takes the time to say that masculinity isn't defined by your hobbies or only enjoying stereotypically manly things, it stops short of extending this courtesy to gay people. They didn't have to make Kanji gay for this to work - there's plenty of ways to explore this subject, but it still would have been much more in keeping with the themes of his story if the the game acknowledged that even if he were gay, that wouldn't make him any less of a man. Instead, it is repeatedly turned into a rather cheap joke. What a wasted opportunity!

Did I mention that Kanji is my favourite character in one of my favourite games? It's not because I deny or choose to ignore these problems with the way the character is handled (although that has a lot to do with why Yosuke 'Please Just Stop Talking' Hanamura is one of my least favourite characters). Rather, being able to engage critically with things that I like helps me to understand better what I like and why I like it.

And so Persona 5 finally emerges and, with its strong themes of breaking free from society's harsh expectations and judgement, I had some hope that maybe this one might be the one finally, to explore sexuality properly instead of stopping short and treating it as nothing more than an opportunity for laughs. So I'm glad that I had some advance warning that actually, this is unlikely to be the case. I won't go into detail, but I gather the best that I can hope for is that moments that deal with sexuality are given less prominence in the plot than in Persona 4. Now that I know that, I can enjoy the rest of what the game has to offer without that nagging expectation.

But of course this doesn't stop the gears of The Discourse grinding up to speed. Not just about this issue, but about others too, and it risks becoming exhausting before even getting a chance to see the game for myself. Either you completely hate something for its problems or you're making excuses for it. Worse still, either you completely love something or you're oversensitive for bringing your views into it.

What I'm trying to come to is not some toothless 'both-sides' argument about how the truth is always somewhere in the middle. No, it's that axis on which this dichotomy is set up doesn't make sense in the first place. My very favourite things in the world can have problems, big problems even, and still be my favourite things, without denying or diminishing any of those problems. 

I don't have to choose. We don't have to choose. And thank goodness, because otherwise the embittered cynic in me would have wrestled me to the ground long ago. 

Posted
AuthorPeter Silk

I've been playing No Man's Sky on PS4 for something which I estimate to be in the region of 25 hours, and several thoughts keep returning to me as I play. So I thought I'd get them down.

Good: This is a beautiful game

 Moons tend to be close to their planets, and so provide striking views.

Moons tend to be close to their planets, and so provide striking views.

I don't just mean beauty in how the planets look, though that's a good start. While not every planet is a winner (and in fact most of them aren't) so far I've found sufficient variety that I can bring to mind several planets and recall their characteristics clearly. And many of them are stunning.

I've started to enjoy planets on a purely aesthetic level, landing simply for the photo-opportunity - the above shot, as an example. 

The game seems to provide endless lovely views out of the chaos that drives its terrain generation. When I got lost in a cave, coming across this opening wasn't just a relief, but a perfect picture, with those trees looming up against the green sky seeming to point the way to freedom. 

 The first sky I had seen for 20 minutes, which seemed like longer.

The first sky I had seen for 20 minutes, which seemed like longer.

It's not just pleasant beauty, though. No Man's Sky flirts with more sinister things beneath its postcard-perfect views, and several locations which I don't want to spoil have been among the eeriest I have encountered in a game.

Not-So-Good: A lot of samey buildings

When it comes to constructions, rather than natural wonders, the variety is nowhere near so satisfying. Once you've seen four or five different sorts of buildings, you've basically seen them all, or it feels that way. I'm no longer surprised by any building I visit, and that's a shame when you consider what they achieved with everything else. 

Each space station has an identical layout, and there are few configurations of buildings on the ground, too. They try to keep a feeling of discovery going by putting certain parts of these buildings behind locked doors which are difficult to find the pass to get through. But this feels like an acknowledgement of the problem, rather than a solution to it. 

Good: The Animals Are PRETTY GREAT

Once again, when it comes to the natural world, No Man's Sky shines. While you start to get to know the basic forms of the animals, this is the area where I have been most often surprised and it still frequently delights. Rather than talk about it, here are some of the favourites I've encountered. 

 Bearfriend

Bearfriend

 Yes, that does appear to be a T-Rex with a jetpack

Yes, that does appear to be a T-Rex with a jetpack

 I wanted to call this thing WTF but the profanity filter wouldn't let me. So then I decided on Crazy Legs, but accidentally named the planet that instead of the creature. I like to hope that one day someone will visit planet Crazy Legs and speculate on what happened.

I wanted to call this thing WTF but the profanity filter wouldn't let me. So then I decided on Crazy Legs, but accidentally named the planet that instead of the creature. I like to hope that one day someone will visit planet Crazy Legs and speculate on what happened.

Not-So-Good: The survival elements feel perfunctory

I'm grateful that this isn't an all-out survival game as I don't think it would work well. But the elements that are there make me wonder why this part of the game exists at all. It's quite minimal, with an easy-to-recharge environment suit protecting you from environmental extremes, and a life support system that is also easy to top up requiring occasional attention.

It's not hard to manage, but it's a constant nag. It occasionally tries to be more interesting by presenting a planet with particularly extreme conditions, but at least so far it has been easy simply to ignore those planets and move on. When presented with a practically infinite number of planets to discover, I feel no great loss for skipping one that is off-limits. 

The same criticism extends to the sentinels, a presence of drones (and then increasingly intimidating robots) which get annoyed if you cause too much destruction to the environment. But their behaviour is easy to predict, and it's rare that I'll alert their attention without knowing what I'm getting into. 

Again, they attempt to make this more interesting by putting attack-on-sight sentinels on planets with valuable items, but it's never enough motivation to deal with them. Especially because there are many planets with just as valuable objects hidden in caves, which will alert the sentinels when you take them, but you're underground where they can't find you. 

All the survival and sentinel elements seem to add up to so far are minor annoyances that are very simple to sidestep.

Good: The alien races are a welcome addition

I didn't think that No Man's Sky lore would excite me very much. I tend to dislike games that deliver their lore through long stretches of text and dialogue, but thankfully this is a lot more clever about it. Monuments will provide you with insight into the alien languages, helping you to communicate with the aliens while providing you with a bitesize insight into their history.

Often knowing more about the aliens will help you not only to understand what they are saying, but how you ought to react if you want their approval. Sometimes this is put directly to the test by special monuments that speak in an alien language and expect you to respond according to the customs of their kind. 

This is a part of the game that seems particularly well thought-out, especially in comparison to the survival stuff. The more language I learn, the more lore I pick up at the same time, and both in combination reap rewards. There are so many words to learn that after hundreds of these being discovered I still feel like a novice, and I'm still encountering new kinds of dialogues and fresh lore text after hours. It's one of the parts of the game that keeps driving me forward, and seems like it'll do so for many hours to come.

Not-So-Good: There are some surprising interface blunders

Some of the interface trouble seems like it could have benefitted from additional tester feedback. For example, the way you build upgrades into slots on your suit, multitool and ship is to go into an empty slot and select 'build technology.' This is fine, but it's also the only way of finding out the recipe for building an upgrade.

That's a particular problem with the multitool, because while the suit and ship store materials which can be shifted around, the multitool only contains upgrades. If you fill it with upgrades, therefore, it's impossible to see your recipes for future upgrades without first dismantling one of your current ones to free up a slot. So now I always leave an upgrade slot empty so that I can use it to check in on my recipes, which effectively reduces the number of slots I can use by one.

Also half-baked is the recipe 'pinning' system, designed to help you work towards a particular upgrade by providing advice in the corner of the screen regarding the materials you need. But it only shows you one material at a time, and you can only focus on one recipe at a time, so it rarely actually provides you with useful information. Just let me build a shopping list of resources I'm currently interested in!

In other areas, the interface is just sluggish. When you achieve a milestone (they're like in-game achievements), you lose access to all controls aside from moving around, and it seems to take forever, especially if you were in the middle of something.or under attack. And when activating a dialogue or a waypoint everything just seems to take a second or two too long. I know this is supposed to be a chilled out game, but please - I've got rocks to mine.

Other issues spring from an overcommitment to the 'always keep moving' philosophy of the game. I get it, you don't want me to hang around in the same place or be backtracking all the time. But would it really kill you to let me set a marker so I can return to a location after leaving the planet? Or to provide an easy means of plotting a path back to star systems I've already been to?

Good: The feeling of being pleasantly lost

 It happens all the time in these caves

It happens all the time in these caves

In a way, the lack of navigational tools does help. It definitely goes a bit too far, but sometimes I like to walk for miles and wonder where on earth I got to or realise my ship is far further away than I expected. This is never more effective as when I find a huge cave system and end up forgetting the way I came in, but it's a feeling that permeates the entire game. I want to mention the sense of scale I feel from the game later, but here I just want to talk about the feeling it all gives me.

Everything, from the way I only have scraps of language to the way I only have the vaguest hints towards a goal make me feel pleasantly lost in this world. I don't know what I'm doing, or even really where I'm going, but the view is stunning and I seem to have all the time in the world to figure it out.

Not-So-Good: Crashes

The first thing No Man's Sky did to me on PS4 was crash, which didn't bode well. After that it has been reasonably stable, but I still have had far more crashes than are comfortable on a console, including one concerning episode where I couldn't start the game until I restarted my PS4. 

Nothing to take you out of a feeling of being pleasantly lost quite like suddenly being wrenched into an error screen. I do hope they get the various technical issues that seem to be present both on PC and PS4 figured out soon. I hate that they could overshadow the best the game has to offer.

Good: That sense of scale

I hinted at it before, but aside from feeling lost in the size of No Man's Sky, it does a good job of conveying the awe of such a scale. From the initial loading screen which flies you past constant, countless stars to the way even the tiniest moons open out beneath you with their much larger planets looming on the horizon, you are constantly reminded that this place is big. 

 This shot would have been perfect if that blade of grass hadn't flown in front of my camera just as the ships were flying overhead.

This shot would have been perfect if that blade of grass hadn't flown in front of my camera just as the ships were flying overhead.

I wish I could go into it even more because there are certain aspects of the way that the game conveys scale which border on spoilers, but for now I'll just say it really works.

Not-So-Good: Planets draw in...weirdly.

I'm not sure how this is on PC on the highest levels of detail, but at least on medium settings and on PS4 the sense of scale is at least somewhat hindered by the way the game adds in detail. Quite often the planet can completely change appearance from one moment to the next. 

What I thought was a greenish planet turned out to actually be mainly red when I got closer, and then an area that looked like an island turned out to be water. An area of dark rocks, suddenly on closer approach is covered with bright sand, and so on. 

It's all to do, I realise, with the way the formulae that generate the terrain is interpreted at various levels of detail, but it's too often a jarring and inelegant effect. I never feel like I could, for example, spot an island from space and decide 'I want to go there' and have any confidence it'll actually be there once I'm closer to the surface. But perhaps it works better on higher settings.


So that's it. Those are my thoughts so far. I don't really have a profound conclusion to come to, sorry about that. But it's no doubt a fascinating game, one not without significant flaws but also one that is bound to keep me occupied for a good long while. 

Posted
AuthorPeter Silk

I don't know if there are any undecided people reading this, but if there are, this is for you.

I can understand the worry that undecided people have - that they feel ill informed by the standard of debate that we have, with the Leave camp indulging in outright, provable lies and the Remain being composed of politicians who haven't exactly proven themselves trustworthy and seem to be tying themselves in logical knots trying to address every argument the Leavers have.

But I still think that it's important to understand that we're not assessing two equivalent positions here. The question is about whether to make a particular change, or whether not to make that change. And in that arrangement, the onus is very much on the advocators of change to make the case.

To use an analogy, imagine if instead of deciding on the EU we were deciding on whether you should change how you commute into work. Perhaps you're fed up with your current commute, it's noisy, crowded, there are often delays and cancellations, it makes you late sometimes, and so on. So the entire country is going to decide on whether you should change it or not.

In order to decide, the people advocating change would not have to merely establish whether the current route is any good, they would also have to establish and make a credible case for what the improved options were. If they failed to do either of those things, voting to change would be a big gamble to you.

Meanwhile the people urging you to keep your current route have a bit of a quandary. They believe it to be the best option open to you but also know that it's not without problems. So they try to promise improvements. They'll put more buses on the route. They'll work with the train companies to make their services more reliable. All this might sound dubious, and it perhaps is.

But it gets back to where the onus is for making the case. If the people telling you to change have not done a good job of both criticising the current option and presenting the alternatives, then the choice has to be to carry on with the current route, warts and all.

Ah, but then the other side will start saying "actually, weirdly it's the staying on the current route which is the riskier option." Perhaps they'll argue that the service will only get worse, we have a bad negotiating position for improving it and the only way out of all this is a change. And perhaps they are correct in saying it is going to be very difficult to improve the current route. But they have still, at this point, failed in doing their job at presenting the credible alternative.

And I believe that's where we are with this EU referendum. Leave has tried to make arguments for why the EU should be ditched based on criticism of the EU itself, and many of those criticisms have been subsequently proven to be misleading, half-truths or what can only be outright lies. There may be good criticisms of the EU, but Leave certainly hasn't focused on them.

Furthermore, they have been vague and insubstantial in providing a vision for what the alternative is. They promise a lot of money freed up to be able to be spent in this country, yet fail to acknowledge the millions already spent by the EU on UK services, and get the numbers wrong while doing so. They promise access to all of the benefits of the single market, but fail to acknowledge that this would almost certainly mean that the UK would have to continue to abide by those EU rules and regulations they like to criticise so much. 

It goes on, and the point of this post isn't to make all the arguments being made on repeat already. Rather it's to reframe the question to recognise where that burden, the onus of making the case lies. The question is: has Leave made a strong case? I can't see how anyone could say they have based on the campaign we've just seen. I suspect you might not think so, given that you're still undecided.

If that is the case, I would urge you to vote Remain. It is a perfectly logical choice to make if you feel that Leave have not made their case. Remember: this was their job. Even if Remain had said precisely nothing through the whole campaign. I believe it would be deeply irresponsible to vote for a poorly-made case for change, and that the responsible thing to do to vote in favour of the current arrangement, even if in many ways that is a bitter pill to swallow.

Posted
AuthorPeter Silk

I was eleven years old in 1993 when the Internet was just starting to explode into our lives. That makes me just about old enough to say I grew up with the Internet, but just about young enough to notice how completely it was changing my world. After living with it and all it brings for twenty years and more there's little left that truly offends me, and yet I find myself accused (either directly or indirectly) of being offended and over-reacting rather regularly. So what's going on there?

I don't find it particularly surprising that little respect is given to the idea of offence. "People are so easily offended, these days," it is said. It rather conjours images of people reacting with horror to some "un-PC" joke, their monocles dropping into their teacups from the sheer consternation of it all.

Thought of in that way, it all seems so avoidable. You see this in the language used - "I don't know why people choose to be offended by this," that sort of thing. If people would just relax (which ought to be easy for people my age and younger who have grown up with all the offence the Internet has to offer) then all of this silliness could be avoided, right?

The trouble is, the monocle-dropping caricature of what's happening when someone is 'offended' doesn't bear much relation to what's actually going on. While it's not quite true to say nothing shocks me anymore, my (and I suspect many other people's) initial reaction is usually something more akin to a world-weary rolling of the eyes. 

But it doesn't matter how offended I am or appear to be. The truth is, whether and how someone is offended is at best a symptom, a side effect of what's really wrong.

Defending those 'edgy' jokes just because you don't think there's anything wrong with offending people is a bit like defending the Hunger Games just because you don't think there's anything wrong with kids getting a little competitive. People who have this view haven't just managed to ignore the elephant in the room. They've managed to mistake a mouse for the elephant.

So in a way, I can understand their puzzlement when it is suggested to them there's more to this story. When the discussion is framed in terms of offence, it limits the scope to hurt feelings, diverts attention away from more serious forms of harm.

Before I go on, a quick note. I'm going to talk about this in terms of homophobia, because that's what is closest to my personal experience, but really I'm talking about all forms of stereotyping, prejudice, bigotry. If there's something else that you relate to, I'm pretty sure that you'll be able to find something you recognise in this too.

I want to make what I hope are a few uncontroversial points which I think outline the real discussion which is being missed when people get distracted by this word 'offence'. 

1) Prejudice doesn't come from nowhere

There's a notion, one that appears particularly appealing to defenders of homophobia, that their reactions of discomfort, disgust even, is simply a normal human reaction. That while they "don't have anything against" LGBTQ+ people, expecting straight people not to react negatively to seeing, say, a gay couple kiss in public or hold hands is a step too far. After all, they are not attracted to that, so their reaction is normal. 

It's an argument that has some superficial draw, and had I been straight I might have even believed it myself if I was never forced to think about it too much. But as many LGBTQ+ people will tell you, before they came out to anyone else they had to come out to themselves. Having gone through that process I understand only too well how I was weirded out by my own feelings. How when I first took my tentative steps towards exploring my sexuality my reaction was initially of extreme discomfort that I never experienced with 'straight stuff'. The only reason I can think this would be the case is that I learned exactly the same latent homophobia that everyone else learned, and I had to unlearn it before I could even be honest with myself.

So when I say prejudice doesn't come from nowhere, I mean that it is acquired, learned - in many cases even by the victims of that prejudice.

2) We learn through exposure

I hope that it's not controversial to say that we learn through exposure, but when I talk about exposure I mean on every conceivable level. Think of how you learned the words you read on this page now. Some of them your teachers or others might have explained to you, or you looked up, but a whole lot of them you just absorbed through context, over time. They're second nature to you now and you probably can't identify a single point when you acquired them, but they didn't just get there by magic.

Intuitively, it's a similar thing with attitudes. They didn't just get there by magic. We keep a lot of the attitudes we are taught, but also we acquire them based on what we are exposed to, and anything else is abnormal, other. Obviously this is a simplification, but it's a servicable one. And thought about that way it's easy to see how a LGBTQ+ person can grow up with latent homophobia. You can believe intellectually and feel emotionally what you like about homosexuality, but that's still not going to trump years and years of exposure, without considerable effort.

I grew up on a diet of films, books, games and so forth that celebrated straight relationships and very little else. Right now it's quite common to have a bit of LGBTQ+ representation in a TV series or film, though I do think we're still not very good at this at all for reasons that are probably out of scope for this discussion. For the first decade of my life homosexuality as a concept wasn't even something I was even aware of. And that left only a couple of years before I would start to have to contend with my own feelings.

My exposure to homosexuality when it did come was almost entirely through news stories where someone coming out was a big and controversial deal, playground insults, jokes on television which probably would not be broadcast now. I was well into my mid-teens before I encountered a positive portrayal of a gay relationship. So it's no surprise that it took me several years to even understand and recognise that I was attracted to guys, and then longer to come to terms with the fact. 

I have mostly been free of mental health issues such as depression or anxiety, I have an extremely supportive and loving family, I live in a society that is mostly on the more tolerant end of the spectrum. Yet it still took me years to figure out something that straight people don't even have to think about. Is it so hard to imagine that someone whose circumstances are less ideal than mine have a much bigger struggle? 

This is why visibility is so important, both in quality and quantity. This is why trying to encourage more LGBT representation in characters, especially protagonists isn't simply attention-seeking behaviour. And this is why when we see representations that are more harmful than good, or jokes that rely on lazy stereotyping, it's so frustrating. It isn't just "political correctness gone mad." It's not an exaggeration to say that lives could be improved, even saved by media that makes people feel less alone where their own circumstances, peers and families let them down.

And even if you think that's all bunk, I'm yet to hear a good argument as to why LGBTQ+ shouldn't have representation in the media that's proportional with reality. Because right now it's not even close - you do realise that, right? If it bothers you that this game has a lesbian couple or that TV series has a bisexual protagonist because it seems somehow 'forced' to you, I'd be curious to how you'd feel if the numbers actually represented the world at large.

3) This stuff gets everywhere

When I was at school, I went on a skiing trip. We were four boys to a room, and one of them in particular was only too happy to make his homophobic views known, at just about the time that I had just come to acknowledge my own sexuality but was still thoroughly closeted. A self proclaimed homophobe who declared that he thought gay people should be taken out and shot, I wasn't about to say a thing that might give him any reason at all to suspect that I ought to be a target of his hatred. But I saw his homophobic bullying of plenty of people I'm now fairly sure are either straight or bisexual, since they are now married to women. Including another person staying in our room.

Homophobia doesn't just cause problems for gay people. No, it's a stick to beat anyone with who seems a little bit different, not just "one of the lads." And it's very easy just to shrug and say things like "boys will be boys" and assume that most will grow out of it. But some don't, and as we've seen it's hard to shrug off years of exposure to negative attitudes, even if you believe yourself to be more open minded.

I'm not trying to appeal to your selfish nature just by saying 'look, you can be a victim too!' The biggest harm is completely invisible to most people, until they're forced to look at it.

Straight guys, try an experiment: imagine two men kissing in public. Does the thought make you uncomfortable in any way? Does it gross you out even a little bit, for even a second? Longer?

Here, I'll help you out if you're feeling maybe it does but you usually think better of yourself: I am still not completely over seeing gay people show affection in public, despite being out for nearly half my life. It still gives me a bit of a jolt of discomfort in a way seeing straight people kiss doesn't, probably because I only see it happening in public on very rare occasions. 

Part of that is because there are a lot more straight people, true. But even taking that into account if gay people were as willing to display affection publicly as straight people you should be seeing examples of it several times every week, and I doubt many of you are. Doesn't take too much imagination to figure out why that might be.

But because I don't see it several times every week, my first reaction is thinking 'oh, weird' before I process what I'm looking and mentally tell myself off for that reaction. So, seriously, if seeing this does weird you out then I understand. You're probably not a terrible person. But recognise it for what it is - a learned response based on what you've been exposed to growing up.

If, as a socially liberal-minded person, that though makes you a little angry, then yes - it probably should. 


Where all this takes us is that being offended no longer seems like an extravagance, a chosen reaction with no utility once you lose the assumption that offence is as far as it goes, as far as it could ever go. It's easy to shrug off a percieved overreaction. Harder to shrug off bullying, a beating, a suicide. Harder to shrug off a mass shooting. 

It's not that every off-colour remark or joke at the expense of LGBTQ+ people is going kill people, and perhaps that's the issue. People have trouble connecting the dots. It's just that every time you tell one, it's like a little doggie treat that you're throwing as a reward for the idea that LGBTQ+ people, when visible at all, should be mocked, othered, and rejected as a normal part of society*, and it helps perpetuate those same attitudes that even I acquired. Hence that Pavlovian response I still, to this day and despite being in a ten year relationship, experience when I see a same-gender display of affection where I don't expect. 

So what should you really be angry about, what makes you want to change the world? 

That some people protest when they see certain kinds of things that belittle or stereotype sections of society?

Or that society has trained even those of us who believe ourselves to be inclusive and accepting to feel uncomfortable when two people kiss?

I hope I've managed to explain how these two things are connected.

The second one is what I want to do something about, and I have and will gladly modify my behaviour where needed. There are, after all, an infinite amount of jokes I can still tell and points I can still make - and I don't think anyone who knows me would claim I've lost my sense of humour. If anything, I wield jokes with greater precision now, because I'm more careful not to resort to lazy phrases or simplifications. I've even consciously removed a couple of lazy words from my vocabulary, which required effort at first but no longer does. I dont miss them because they've been replaced by more thoughtful words which actually get closer to what I really meant.

Does that mean I worry about offending people? That I'm censoring myself because of that? It's not really something I think about, if I'm particularly honest. I just don't want someone, somewhere to feel smaller, either indirectly or directly because of something I did. Because I understand where that goes and I want no part of it.


*It is possible to use satire to give the appearance of bigotry while actually cleverly doing the opposite, and this is a frequent defense that is given. But if the Internet has taught me anything it's that few people have the knack for weilding satire as a precision comedy tool. Satire is a more specific thing than 'it was just a joke,' and claiming satire isn't a magic shield to protect you from criticism. 

Posted
AuthorPeter Silk