PONY ISLAND REVIEW – “MOUTH LASERS ARE NOT ENOUGH”

I have a soft spot for indie game development, as everybody who reads my work knows. I tend to be kinder in my reviews, more encouraging in my feedback, and more willing to part with my money when it comes to that final choice of buy/deny.

And that’s because indie game development is very important to the gaming community, perhaps more so than the big AAA stuff that gets the most attention. Gaming was founded on small projects made by people working out of their homes and universities, and even now the indie stuff feels like the most creatively liberated section, willing to take risks and make artistic statements – so good on them.

And because of that, I was approaching Pony Island with a certain amount of hope and expectation. After all, the information I picked up was certainly positive, and it all seemed to gel with the sort of things that I like. Classic arcade gaming with a subtle depth beneath it? Intriguing. Subversion of traditional visuals by infusing them with a darker edge? That can certainly work. Shooting Jesus in the face with a laser made of Matrix code?

… Well, now I’ve got to try it, right?

So Pony Island is a very short game that uses fourth-wall humour and underlying metacommentary in the main story, with a deceptively cheery old-style arcade game appearance presented as a façade over the whole thing. The façade falls away as we progress through the game, and as it becomes more clear that certain forces, both good and evil, are trying to manipulate you into performing actions that will have far greater consequences than achieving a new high score.

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BLAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAActually, this rather hurts my throat to do.

Now, I double-checked the timing on Pony Island’s release, and saw that it came out only three months after Toby Fox’s modern classic, Undertale. So I certainly won’t say that Pony Island was made out of some rushed attempt to leap onto an existing bandwagon, because most game development takes longer than three months. And like I said: it’s indie development. I want to be kind here.

But if it’s not guilty of being a copycat, it may be a victim of unfortunate timing. It certainly hits a lot of the same notes as Undertale. There’s a villain who seems exaggeratedly cute at first, there’s retro-gameplay altered in theme to meet modern sensibilities, excessive levels of games-talking-‘bout-games and even the same ending as Undertale, with one of the characters speaking directly to the audience and asking them not to player the game anymore.

An instruction I was all too happy to follow, as this is the question that was plaguing me throughout the two or three hours necessary to win: if Pony Island is a spiritual successor to Undertale, why do I love the latter whilst finding this new pretender rather insufferable?

It might be because the story feels a little bit too much like a gimmick, and doesn’t really know what to do with the good ideas it does have. To begin with, the game is way too excited about throwing away the initial illusion of cutesy “My Little Pony” visuals, which barely lasts five minutes before we get the darker stuff overriding it. We’re not even half an hour through before they’ve broken out the demonic pentagrams and creepy music. Oh look, a game about unicorns jumping over gates is actually a scam utilised by the Devil himself to gather souls. Man, that’s not something I’d expect Uncle D to be using. What? No, I’m not yawning. I’m, uh, silently gasping in terror. Yeah, let’s go with that.

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Lovey the Flower! No, hold on.

Which brings me to my second point – shouldn’t the antagonist be more threatening? Shouldn’t I feel more of a motivation to win? Undertale made me scared of a smiling yellow flower, and Reigns was clever enough to make a lovable dog seem unaccountably creepy. But the devil here just feels like an annoyance, something that throws a multitude of inconvenient (but by no means concerning) obstacles in your path. It’s like trying to write an essay, and every couple of hours somebody pops up and deletes a random sentence. Pretty weak stuff, I think you’ll agree. And with no real characterisation for either the player character or the NPCs, I never get the sense of anybody actually being in danger or grief. At one point the player is allegedly sent to sleep and trapped for three centuries, but so what? We see no consequences; we don’t become bothered by anything. We just sit back down and keep playing. Why is this supposed to concern me?

And the metanarrative is just as shallow, highlighting why such ideas can either turn out as gold or mould. Maybe I should stop belabouring the point, but Undertale was wise enough to initially keep its bigger ideas in the background as underlying subtext, and then had them emerge forward as the game progressed. So it starts off by drawing us in with characters, then doubles down by connecting the more philosophical stuff to the main plot later on. It also had much more interesting ideas than this game. What would the ability to save and repeatedly reload your life do to a moral mind? How would the ideas of grinding for experience or trying to reach total completion look in a real-world context?

Pony Island doesn’t seem to have any thoughts on that level, or even any real thoughts at all. There are moments where you step away from the fictional arcade machine you’re playing, and bits where you get on the developer’s nerves by cheating or playing unfinished levels, but there’s no deeper meaning to any of it. It’s just… There. I guess it’s meant to be funny, but I didn’t find myself laughing – the ultimate nail in the coffin of the comedy game.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t parts I like. Or perhaps I should say part, singular. It’s just one scene, but it’s a very clever scene where you have to keep your eye trained on a certain entity to see how it changes, and the game tries everything it can to distract you, to make you look away. I won’t spoil what happens, but needless to say that the game really does pull out all stops and makes it near-impossible that first time you try, utilising the kind of tricks I’d never expect, yet somehow manages not to feel cheap in its tactics. There’s no deeper meaning behind it, but that doesn’t mean the basic idea in that scene isn’t clever and well-made, so due respect there.

Because it’s better than the gameplay, which was definitely getting to be a chore by the end. I suppose it’s in keeping with the joke that this is silly, shallow arcade gameplay, but let’s remember something – you’re still making me play a shallow arcade game. For lengthy periods of time. That might not have been the smartest move to perform on somebody who’s already losing patience with your creation to begin with.

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Don’t let me type stuff into video games. That never ends well.

There are two forms of core gameplay: the platforming sections and the hacking sections, and they both suck. The former is briefly entertaining until the developers run out of abilities to give you (two), having you jump over obstacles and blast enemies with your mouth laser in 2D side-scrolling perspective. But once it’s gotten those bits out the way, the game has nothing more to offer action-wise, except for the occasional alteration in who you fight. But considering Code Genie, Angry Flying Skull Thing and Lord Giant Boss Demon Monster Sr. all go down with a hearty dose of tonsil beams to the face, there’s no real change that comes across as significant to the player.

But it’s better than the hacking, which is represented by that age-old pipe-water game AGAIN. The game does its best to hide it by adding a heavy computer-code aesthetic, but it’s still steering an object around a grid by swapping out directed sections of a maze. Pony Island, we talked about this just a few days ago. I know Bioshock was an incredible game, but it’s now widely accepted that hacking the vending machines was the one element that sucked more cock than a hungry leech in a chicken coop. Out of all the Bioshock aspects you could’ve taken inspiration from, why that one? It’s like deciding that the best part of National Lampoon’s Vacation is that racist scene in the city slums.

I’m torn on to whether to recommend Pony Island or not. On one hand, it is incredibly cheap at only four pounds, and some people do really seem to like it. Not to mention that if I’m going to give my money to anybody, I do want it to be small-scale artists trying to succeed with creatively interesting ideas.

But on the other hand, I don’t like this game! Four pounds isn’t much, but paying any amount of cash for an unenjoyable experience is wrong. That’s why going to visit distant relatives for Christmas is so utterly depressing, and why you usually bring heavy amounts of booze to compensate. But I didn’t have any alcohol to hand with this one, and when my flatmate asked me to help her tidy the kitchen, I was only too pleased to escape.

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OH GOD NOT AGAIN

Though I did get to what seems like the canonical ending of Pony Island, the achievement list does suggest more gameplay and narrative hidden in there somewhere… But I don’t care. My work is officially over when the credits start rolling. If you want me to play more than that, you need to seduce me with some good material, and you can consider me as dry as a nun on this one. Maybe give it a try if you like your fourth-wall humour, or have just taken a great deal of drugs and need something entertaining in the background.


4/10

Pony Island has high ambitions, honourable intentions and even a few good ideas – but none of them ever amount to much. Generally inoffensive but nowhere near as original as it believes it is, the game becomes boring and eventually meanders into the frustrating.

WHAT WOULD JOEL DO… IN THE DISHONORED FRANCHISE?

Dishonored (which I will always maintain is spelt wrong, America) was one of those games which has received both too much and too little praise. This first-person stealth game was a critical darling upon release in 2012, achieving a stream of awards and much slobber from the online websites, even BEFORE most of them had been paid to like it.

And though audiences were positive and no real complaints were raised, the game faded in the minds of the public, likely due to the lack of multiplayer, the focus on a complex setting, a sense of genuine challenge and the fact that no gender controversies were made about it. These are all things that make it work in my mind, but that’s me – always bucking the trends to look cool. And people say critics don’t represent the people! To that I say: of course not, who the hell would want to? In the ancient Caddyshack war of Snobs versus Slobs, I stand firmly with Ted Knight against the invading forces of Rodney Dangerfield.

But I’m getting off-message. Dishonored was a good (if somewhat flawed) game, and with a sequel scheduled for release in November, I took it upon myself to consider how a potential follow-up might work. The answer? Well, read on, you lazy goose. I’m not going to do all the work for you.


STORY

Let’s consider things in reverse to what we did for Zelda (where we decided story should inform gameplay), because here we actually do have an excellent template for what a Dishonored sequel should be like: the Boyle Masquarade Ball in the first game. The absolute highlight of the whole affair, and a good blend of gameplay, world-building, organic side-quests, physical and social stealth with multiple solutions to a single problem: how do we work out which of the creepy women in wolf masks is our target, and how do we guarantee that she’s never seen again after this night?

And one of the things that made that mission work was that it was when the game suddenly had a lot more character. Thus, I would make our hero something very different to the silent, staring Corvo Attano in the first game. In this instalment the protagonist (we’ll call him Monty, purely because I like the name), is a charming raconteur and daring wit, the cream of high society… And also an accomplished cat burglar, going under the suitably thrilling name of “The Fox” when it comes to the popular press.

Bam. A solid set-up for a stealth game (yes, I know it’s similar to Thief, but there hasn’t been a good Thief game for ages, so I’mma take it), with bona ride reasons why our hero can sneak around at a professional level, not to mention why he’s breaking into places right from the start. When he’s seen trespassing, his mask covers his face and identity, and when he’s hiding in plain sight, he takes off that mask, and just goes around looking innocent and putting up a façade of endearing buffoonery. Basically, he’s a combination of the Scarlet Pimpernel and Batman, with all the delightful fun that implies.

Then we need some inciting incident, after a couple of tutorial missions where we just pinch large diamonds and so on. To my mind, two things would happen in tandem – Monty would steal something that’s much more valuable and important than he immediately realises, and simultaneously be visited by the ghost of Edward Cullen (aka, the Outsider), to be given a stack of magic powers to do with as he wishes.

And everything then happens at once. Monty makes a few selfish decisions regarding the mysterious item (i.e., keeping the damn thing), resulting in a friend of his being hurt/killed by somebody who’s intent on taking it back. Monty decides he’s not going to stand for that, and works to discover the true purpose of his new toy whilst looking to get revenge on the faction that seeks to take it from him, a la The Count Of Monte Cristo. Oh, did you see what I did there?

As he does so, he finds that he’s being pursued by a deadly assassin that is more reminiscent of Daud and Corvo from the previous game, a symbol of Dunwall’s grim past that needs to be overcome and left there, in favour of the lighter, more merciful approach that Monty embodies. Along this journey he’ll come to understand that his actions have consequences and that he must learn to think about others… But that doesn’t mean he can’t pinch a couple of rare baubles from blustering nobles now and then. Got to have some fun, right?


SETTING

This one is tricky. Partly because Arkane Studios did such a good job of crafting the city of Dunwall the first time around, that it’s hard to think of specific areas where it can be improved. I know that the main characters in the first game seemed to lack the depth and substance of the world they lived in, but that’s one of those things that you can assume gets fixed for this one, like bringing your car in for a tire change and assuming that the tire will actually be attached to the car when you leave.

The real problem here is one of tone. Corvo’s grim saga of betrayal, revenge and revolution was a good fit for a city where everything seemed to be going wrong on an hourly basis, including an attack of zombie plague and a militant fascistic movement taking people’s liberties like one takes Twiglets from the bowl.

But the initial cheerfulness of The Fox’s life feels like we’re in a far lighter story, especially considering his own attitude. And whilst I suppose the city wouldn’t have to be Dunwall, it does feel cheap to move away from it purely for that reason.

So we’ll stick with the same city, but we’ll approach it in a time of relative prosperity. It’s not perfect – one of the likely themes considered would be the disparity of the poor versus the wealthy – but it’s doing well enough and doesn’t seem to need immediate saving from anything at the time. It’s like Gotham City between issues of Batman, whereas Dunwall previously felt like Gotham City in the third act of a major Batman arc – namely, completely buggered to hell. We navigate bustling cobblestone roads, cane tapping cheerfully as we glide between street urchins and market vendors. Then, when nobody’s looking, we duck into an alleyway, put on the mask of The Fox…


STEALTH AND COMBAT

… And the challenge begins anew! First of all, I should urge that I like the idea of Monty being a legitimate inventor, crafting strange and wonderful devices to help him accomplish his burglaries. To my mind he would make a good descendant of Piero, the brilliant but uncomfortable man in the first game – maybe a grandson? Ah, doesn’t matter too much.

So we have a combination of gadgets, black magic and natural agility working to ensure that the bad guys get bonked, the jewels get jacked and the guards stay unguarded. And the next priority is to clearly categorise these abilities and their purposes.

I’m thinking that black magic and Outsider powers should relate to mobility and interaction with the environment, and be the cornerstone of “I’m stealthing around, and I’m staying that way.” We keep the teleport “blink” power and X-Ray vision because they’re awesome, but we also add powers like levitating objects, sealing certain doors closed, making unconscious bodies invisible and triggering sounds at a distance to distract people.

By the way, hiding bodies is now more important than ever. For Monty is a thief, not a killer, and he does NOT leave a bloody trail behind him. He knows how to use his reinforced cane for self-defence and he knocks people unconscious when he has to, but he doesn’t skewer them like kebabs and doesn’t summon hordes of rats to eat them alive. This might seem discordant after the potentially apocalyptic death count of the first game, but even then you were subtly praised for staying your hand and utilising non-lethal approaches. Besides, this is a new age for Dunwall, and moving past the darkness of what it once was is a key element of the story here. It’s also undeniable that Monty would seem slightly twisted if he kept a sense of humour alongside his blood-stained dagger. Uncharted proved that the lovable hero becomes a lot less lovable when he starts breaking necks like a turkey farmer approaching Thanksgiving.

So you do have to be sure that nobody’s going to find the sleeping guards, because you can’t just turn them into dust when you’ve finished hacking them pieces this time. And It’s going to be harder than ever to keep them hidden, because one very valid criticism of the first game was that the guards were incredibly easy to navigate. They’d walk across a room, pick their nose for a bit, then walk back to where they were and repeat the whole process. No chance of being surprised by somebody taking a long circuitous route, which is usually where the average stealth game is at its most interesting – having to improvise in a heartbeat.

Beyond that, the original game doesn’t need excessive revitalising. The stealth worked then, still works now, and is made more enjoyable by the scope of options given to you. Admittedly, I would like to see more of a use to the environment other than platforming. Maybe killing the lights by finding switches in the basement, or sneaking up behind goons to put sleeping powder in their hip flasks. But Dishonored did that sort of thing fine, so I won’t say that it needs fixing, only emphasising the strong points. And then there’s something that does not need emphasising at all.


COMBAT

Look, I know Dishonored 1 proudly tells you to play it your way, but that leads to a lack of focus and a fundamental problem: if I’m just trying to get to the end of the game without much thought to specific tactics, why wouldn’t I just load up my pistol and grenades (something most enemies drop after being murdered), and hack through everybody who comes into my sight line? Dishonored’s swashbuckling was fun, but ultimately easier to do than sneaking if you were happy to go lethal, especially when certain powers only had capacity for loud, lethal means.

Here that doesn’t fly anymore. I said The Fox was a good fighter, but there’s a reason he doesn’t charge in and turn a burglary into a robbery – the odds of survival rapidly diminish as more enemies get involved. Fighting one dude? Yeah, should be fine as long as he’s not a real expert. Two guys? Bit tricky, but not terrible. Three? Well, now things are getting problematic.

This is where the gadgets and toys come into play – they provide means to escape or to end combat quickly when somebody advances on you with a sword. Tranquilliser darts, smoke bombs, flashbangs, and the steel walking cane for when you need to parry a cutlass strike or smack somebody in the chops. Maybe add some fun toys to that roster, like rope traps that’ll drag an unsuspecting thug into the air, but on the whole your various gadgets are to be used in the event of an emergency.

The reason for this is that combat is going to be a genuine problem, something that you really might not survive, with reinforcements charging in all the time to back up their friend. Anybody would call for back-up after being attacked by a man with a large walking stick and a selection of steampunk James Bond gadgets.


CHOICE

And now we come to the heart of the matter. Dishonored’s original choice system doesn’t really work, for a number of reasons. The deceit of “play it your way” means either taking the easy, evil option or the difficult, more merciful path, and that in itself is a problem. It’s well recognised at this point that most “evil endings” equate to a weak-willed game over screen, feeling ultimately cheap and unrewarding after hours spent striving to accomplish something.

But for this game we’ve shifted the focus more firmly onto stealth, and removed the option to slit the throats of people who treat you with disdain. And whilst I’m happy to keep a reactive gameplay experience, it can no longer be to who you kill and who you spare.

No, the game should be altered by your methodology and approach, something the original did do right to a certain degree. Maybe you find the location of a target or rare item by conversing with the chatterboxes in a crowd, or maybe you break into a guard’s office to see where the hired goons seem to have been assigned to, and peak in through the windows to see what’s inside. The approaches you take will affect future missions, with those who decipher your tactics taking steps to prevent them, and those who are on your side trying to support you accordingly. If you kill the power to a building so that you might blend into the shadows, the next one you go for will have the fuse box under lock and key, because they heard about what you’re up to, you rogue. Of course, if you really work hard and take extra risks, you could conceal your approach after everything, and get to use it with hindrance again next time.

The social stuff also has a good template for how to converse and persuade others – the dialogue minigame in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, one of the best means of approaching persuasion in video game history. It would be easy to reimagine reading people as an Outsider power, and the rather terrifying Heart from the first game would actually have a use in the secrets it told you.


CONCLUSION

Like Zelda, Dishonored is a good game that doesn’t need a complete overhaul, just recognition of what work and what doesn’t. But whereas Zelda’s problem comes from a distinct reluctance to change or innovate for the better, Dishonored is too young a series to be guilty of that. What it needs is urging on for the stuff that it has already worked out how to do right, and the sense of discipline and focus to pick out what works and what doesn’t. Maybe the sequel next month will be good, maybe it won’t. But Arkane Studios, just remember that I’m happy to do some work for the next game, hmm? I’m the only freelancer who’ll take his hourly rate in Cadbury’s, you know.

 

WHAT WOULD JOEL DO… IN THE ZELDA FRANCHISE?

Over the last year I’ve been playing Zelda. A LOT of Zelda, actually. Wind Waker, Ocarina Of Time, Majora’s Mask, A Link Between Worlds, Oracle Of Ages, and Metal Gear Solid 3 on the 3DS. That’s not a Zelda game, I just hate it so much I want to grumble for the rest of this paragraph about how awful it is. Ugh.

And though I have great affection for Zelda, like many Nintendo properties I think it could use an injection of fresh blood, not just remaking it periodically with alterations at the fringes, like putting a woollen jumper on a decaying sheep and hoping nobody will notice. All ideas lose their lustre and charm the more we are exposed to them, and concepts that seemed good at the time can age poorly or be supplanted by better ones.

Admittedly, it’s an exercise in futility to demand change from Nintendo (or at least the good kind of change, such as NOT reducing Mario to an infinite runner and compromising on elegant and nuanced design), but I’m going to demand that change anyway. In an age flushed with reboots, reimaginings and remakes, it’s not hard to concede that another one could make its way forward and even achieve some success. This is my hypothetical Zelda game that’ll likely never get made, despite the fact I’d want to see it.


STORY

This is the first thing you work out, because good design should complement and serve a basic narrative. And whilst it’s not usually done that way round in the industry, this is a fantasy and I’m going to indulge myself a little more before we finish.

First of all, we throw out Link being a character with no personality. Wind Waker proved that he’s more likeable when he emotes realistically, rather than trying to be a blank canvas for the player to project onto. Emotionless Link doesn’t work now and never really did, the idea was just so inoffensive that nobody cared too much. Maybe we keep Link being silent for this game, because a voice might be jarring at this point, but that doesn’t mean we don’t give him obvious drives, hopes, desires, fears and complexities. After all, the hero’s journey demands a proper hero at the centre, not a training dummy on marionette strings who has no more investment in what’s going on than the average deku nut.

Which brings the question of what exactly Link wants to achieve. Well, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater – we’ll go with the classic explanation and say that Ganondorf is being evil, so Link has to hit him with a sword until he stops. But “generically evil” isn’t enough of a reason for somebody to commit atrocities, so we ask ourselves another question: why is he doing this?

Well, it occurred to me that we never really see things from Ganon’s perspective, not properly. There’s certainly not much of a personal motivation to defeat him, as he usually has only a couple of appearances in each game, once at the beginning to announce that he’s there at all, and once at the end for the boss fight where you kick his ass.

Which is where my central story concept originates from – I would structure a narrative in which Link, Zelda, Ganondorf and an extra fourth friend (no, not Tingle) grow up together as children and genuinely get along, before the Triforce then shows up and ruins everything by gifting each of the main three heroes a third of its divinity. Zelda gains great wisdom and understanding from her segment as per usual, whilst Ganon is hit with the Triforce Of Power and promptly goes megalomaniacally insane from its influence, unable to function stably now that he’s been hit with the power of a god.

See what I mean? My Ganon would be a good person corrupted by an object that was not intended for mortal usage, hence why his close friend Link has personal investment in stopping him and separating the two. It’s like the second Sam Raimi Spider-Man film, but with a gold triangle instead of a robot octopus. Ganon isn’t evil at his core, but the Triforce has warped him into a monster, making him both more frightening and more tragic all in one go, especially considering his new insanity would cause him to attack his friends for their pieces of that golden triangle.

Which brings me to the last point – Link is NOT the receiver of the Triforce Of Courage. Everybody thinks he has it, including himself, but what I’d actually do is send it to that fourth friend I mentioned and reveal the truth in the third act before the finale. Because it would make Link’s acts of heroism all the more heroic, as he’s not backed up by magic and he’s not a chosen one. He’s just a guy who stepped up to do the right thing, and that was all that was really needed. Link, the unnamed new character and Zelda work together to bring Ganon down, and rest is all details and plot points to be finalised later.

Who would that fourth friend be? Well, I was thinking of a younger kid who looks up to the rest of them, the symbolic representation of innocence and purity that lies in the balance. The game is about trying to save civilisation, but we see that struggle represented in the confused emotions of a younger friend, who embodies the battle of good, evil, power, courage, wisdom and more, deciding where his loyalties are owed. Exciting stuff.

Which leads us to the question of where to put this epic saga. The grand, sprawling majesty of Hyrule Kingdom? Well… No. Not exactly.


SETTING

Here’s something else to make the diehard Zelda fans bluster a bit. I would confine my story to one city, and one city only, with maybe a bit of land around the outside as and when plot demands it. Probably Hyrule capital, as the existence of Zelda herself suggests that her castle has to be in the area, but it doesn’t have to be there if we decide to reincarnate her like they did with Tetra.

Because if there’s one thing these games have always done well, it’s oddly emotive and endearing NPCs and random townsfolk. When Ganon blows up everything in Ocarina Of Time, the only part that made me sad was seeing the bustling market square turned into a lifeless ghost town. I couldn’t really care less what happens to the fields and plains outside, because nobody lives there except Maron, her lazy father, and their entrepreneur field hand Edmund Blackadder.

So double down on the city and personality of everything within it, making the whole thing feel like one vast but diverse settlement that all connects to each other. Make various districts, regions and locations that are visually distinctive, and include a likeable melting pot of all of Hyrule’s races. Maybe the Zoras live around the river, just next to Gorontown and its Hard Rock Café, arf arf. We should be establishing from the beginning that for all its faults, the city is something good, something that needs protecting and deserves these efforts to restore it.

The point of this is that when said city is threatened, the audience gives a damn and feels invested. Ganon promises to blow up the world in a lot of these games, but considering you never stay in one place for more than ten minutes, it’s hard to care about any of it. Having the whole map feel like Link’s home – albeit a very big and messy home – means that there’s a sense of community, and ideally enough of one to make the audience shout “hell, no” when a demonic boar comes threatening destruction.


GAMEPLAY AND PUZZLES

Well, right from the start it just makes sense to boost Link’s basic agility, increasing his climbing and jumping skills, as well as giving him the option to sprint. This is a city full of rooftops to be run across, alleys to hide in, crowds to duck through and drainpipes to climb, and Link is some simple urchin who would know how to scamper around an urban landscape. Enhance the ability to parkour across the town a bit and now it’s a vast, three-dimensional map that’s simply fun to traverse on its own terms. And not only that, but we can make it even more fun with the reintroduction of a couple of old toys from Zelda lore.

Those toys are the hookshot and the deku leaf. For those of you who don’t know, the latter was a Wind Waker item that functioned mainly as a parachute, slowing and controlling your fall whenever you leapt off something. So clearly it has an obvious function in any game where roof tiles are the new pavements. I don’t want to see my innards getting scooped into a barrel by some grimacing guard every time I slip on a drain gutter and take a tumble.

The hookshot is equally self-explanatory, a retractable grappling hook that historically has allowed Link to rappel up surfaces or drag enemies towards him. Here it would fit the mechanics like a glove, allowing you to swing over gaps, launch up the sides of buildings, and be used as a more central weapon in combat, but more on that later.

And none of that snapping to first person in order to aim it, OK? We can do that on bows and arrows, but here the emphasis is flow of movement and not stopping if you don’t have to. Take influence from Arkham Asylum, with the little symbol popping up on hookshot-friendly ledges when you get close enough to them.

And then there’s the puzzles, and right away I can think of something I’d do to change those: integrate them more cleanly into the world around them.

What do I mean by that? Well, one of the things I liked most about Majora’s Mask is that the time-travelling puzzles made sense within the context of the story. You find out that an old woman got burgled last night, so you hop back in time to prevent it from happening with your new knowledge. That all holds up within the established ideas of the world and doesn’t feel like the game is intruding on the story and setting.

But most puzzles in Zelda games don’t feel that natural. There is no real reason the water temple would have several buttons to change the tides, as well as moving platforms and spikes that lead to a chest holding a key that opens a door on the other side of the building. And don’t think you can get away with just calling these labyrinths “tests of courage,” either. In my Zelda game, the puzzles are either based on navigating traps set by somebody who genuinely doesn’t want you to progress, or more focused on plausible problems within the context of the world around you.

Finally, I’d make my dungeons and my open world a little less distinct from each other. Not cut out the dungeons altogether, but don’t make them an entirely separate pocket dimension. In the urban context it makes sense that most of them would be located in buildings, so why not have the option to access them through different entry points? Not as some mandatory thing that you do because you can’t complete the dungeon otherwise, but because you’ve found out from an NPC that you can deactivate certain traps and get a good sniper position if you try going through the higher window first.

I’d also make dungeons shorter and much more common, maybe a dozen brief rooms each, with most of them being optional and containing various new abilities. With time, all dungeons get frustrating, claustrophobic and run the risk of being repetitive, so we break up the monotony before it can ever sink in.

Notice how I very specifically DIDN’T say power-ups just then, I said abilities. Hacking your way defiantly through some secret labyrinth should unlock new attacks, or fresh options in combat and exploration. It should NOT just make the weapons and moves you already have become more powerful. Link is a small child going up against the hordes of darkness – it makes sense that he’d be fighting intelligently, utilising a bag of tricks scavenged from various hidey-holes around the capital.


COMBAT

Which I guess brings us to combat mechanics proper, and if there was anywhere in the Zelda games in need of a tune-up, this was it. First of all, Nintendo can sort out the targeting system, for god’s sake. Just make it how every other game in the universe does it, locking on and switching between enemies with the right analog stick. I’m sick of trying to engage in combat with some ravenous beastie, only for the Hero Of Hyrule to advance nervously on some dozing caterpillar far beyond it, all because the programmer doesn’t know the correct etiquette for target-lock.

And as mentioned, I’d also increase the utility and importance of the hookshot, maybe using it to replacing the shield altogether. Remember, my Link is a nimble, light-footed rapscallion that won’t block an enemy attack if he can avoid it altogether, and in my mind the shield would be a heavy, unwieldy thing that comes with suitable penalties. But by using the hookshot in tandem with the sword, I’d like to see the player drag enemies around with the chain, disarm them of weapons, throw them into other foes, trip them up, and maybe work with environmental objects in order to get that edge in combat. How cool would it be to organically swing over some goon’s head, only to pull down a damaged wall with the same item and squash him with the debris?

I’d also remove the aspect where you stun-lock most enemies easily. For a while in the 3D Zelda games it’s been pretty simple to get the edge on most bad guys by rattling their heads with the Master Sword until they die, but that won’t fly in mine. Ramp up the AI intelligence so that they know how to deflect a sword blow AND recover from one too, so it’s less about knocking down various armoured weebls than it is about looking for the opening or opportunity. A lot of enemies won’t even leave easy ways for you to attack them in the first place, making the environment essential for success.

Same principles apply to bosses, which admittedly is something Zelda has usually been pretty good about. My choice of bosses would be a rogue’s gallery of monsters, mercenaries and minions, all of which have legitimate backstories that explain their actions. Which is why upon defeating them that Link doesn’t just kill/desummon/explode the bastards, but hands them over to the city guard for a just trial. After all, this city is meant to be something good, right? It knows how to treat criminals with respect.


CONCLUSION

So there we have it. Rather more experimental than most Zelda games, but I think there’d be real potential in something like this. Originality and reinvention associated with old products is often approached with disdain by hardcore fans, but if Nintendo are going to keep making these games, I’m going to ask that they acknowledge the times we live in to some degree.

Did you think this premise sounded solid? Can you think of anything you’d add or subtract from Zelda games as a whole? What games would you also like to see tackled in this way? Stay tuned for next time, where we’ll be looking at refining a certain sneaky-stabby franchise that’s now coming back after a temporary hiatus – and no, it’s not Assassins’ Creed.

WHO THE ARKHAM KNIGHT SHOULD’VE BEEN

Spoilers! Big, bouncing spoilers for Arkham Knight up ahead! If you haven’t played the game yet, or if you don’t want anything ruined for you, go read another article now. Seriously, we’re dealing with the big one here.

Alright, this time it’s another bit on how the most recent Batman game failed my expectations, and I realise that I’m sounding pretty down on a game that was actually really good. There were only two major problems with it: the quality of the PC release, and the identity of the Arkham Knight himself.

For those of you who haven’t been following the news, the Arkham Knight was a character invented for this game by Rocksteady themselves, a sort of evil reflection of Batman who wears an Iron Man-style suit with a vague militaristic theme, and has some sort of grudge against Bats himself. A key part of the main story is the big question, “Who is the Arkham Knight,” and sure enough we find out about this mystery figure in the final third of the game.

You want to know who it is? You sure? Last chance to back out.

Alright, it’s Jason Todd. And suddenly the history of Batman has to be repeated because most people won’t know who the hell that is.

Basically, there have been three people who have held the position of Robin. The first one was Dick Grayson, an acrobat who had his family murdered or something. He went on to become Nightwing, probably because people kept making fun of the Robin costume and Batman was being the joyless that prat he is.

Then we had Jason Todd, who gets killed by the Joker (except that he didn’t), and he was a bit violent and kind of a wanker. No great loss there, I think. There’s something kind of embarrassing about a snot-nosed brat acting like the Punisher and trying to be all gritty and dark. Oh, shut up, training bra. Go watch Scooby-Doo and we’ll let you play with the big boys if you’re very good.

And now we have Tim Drake, who pretty much got the job because he briefly met Grayson one time and managed to work out who Batman was. Sounds like a circuitous route, but I guess Starbucks wasn’t hiring.

Anyway, Todd is back. I mean, he’s around in the comics too, as the vigilante Red Hood, but this is set before that, and Todd is revealed to have been secretly left alive. He’s imprisoned in an unused wing of Arkham Asylum, tortured by the Joker and made to hate Batman, whom he thought had abandoned him. After burning letters into his face and generally having a good time hitting him with anything he could find, Joker then sets him lose, whereupon little Jason spends several years training his own army and getting billions of dollars. No, I don’t know where he got the cash, put your hand down.

Knight 2

Holy uncomfortable helmet, Batman!

Anyway, Jason returns in a mech suit, calls himself the Arkham Knight and sets up a big plan with his new buddy Scarecrow to torment Gotham for some contrived reason I couldn’t quite work out, all so that he can kill Batman.

Wait, can’t you just go and beat him up? Jason seems pretty reluctant to get involved with Scarecrow’s plan at all, and keeps breaking away from the schedule in order to go kill Bruce Wayne. There also doesn’t seem to be any reason to hide his identity, but he does anyway. Surely knowing that his old sidekick is trying to kill him would hurt Batman more? For a guy who’s spent years working out his revenge, he’s missed some rather obvious points. Or maybe he just read the script and knew how to pace the story.

I’ll be honest, I’m not impressed with this reveal, for a number of reasons. First of all, Todd had no presence in the games up until this point. He wasn’t mentioned until this instalment, having basically been considered ancient history until now. When he was brought up in an off-handed way it became immediately clear that he was the Knight, to the extent where I wondered if they were trying to bluff me. It seemed a little too obvious, you know what I mean? Surely Rocksteady can write a better set-up than this?

No, it turns out that they can’t, but there’s other stuff that’s iffy too.

The developers claimed that the Arkham Knight was a completely original character, for one thing. And whilst the design of the suit is certainly new, I think it was a little cheap to say he’s a fresh concept when the guy inside the costume has been around since 1983. I guess if you stretch the logic somewhat then it’s not quite a lie, but I still think it’s also not the truth. If I wear Groucho Marx glasses and a fez, it’s not quite right to say that I’m an entirely new citizen. Maybe they’re playing on the dual-identity of the character and we’re supposed to view him as a new man, but I don’t care much for these metaphorical shenanigans.

The problem was that among die-hard fans, Todd was a very early suspect and considered one of the most likely entities to be dwelling behind the helmet. And whilst I understand the writers trying to lure us away from the reality by stating that it’s a fresh concept, it ends up diminishing the reveal of the character.

See, we like to have all the clues to hand when we look at a mystery. We want a fair examination of the facts, so that we can grin at the eventual revelation and see how every fitted together. But giving false information… Well, that’s just cheating. Especially if it’s fake info given in an actual interview, and not in the game itself – that’s sacred ground, isn’t it? You can’t just trick the fans before we’ve even bought the game, we’re assuming that everything said to the press has been honest. I don’t think we should have to study your PR campaign to work out when you’ve been sniggering behind your hand or not.

The other thing that made it eye-rollingly obvious was that part of the pre-order DLC for Arkham Knight was the “Red Hood” pack. As mentioned before, Red Hood is the title that Jason takes when he returns from the dead, and this just made his presence even more likely. It would have been like Darth Vader wearing a “world’s best dad” barbeque apron in The Empire Strikes Back.

The end result of all this was a vague sense of disappointment and frustration from the fans who’d been engaged in the mystery. To those who didn’t know the comic lore, it seemed like Todd had been thrown in at the last minute to fill the gap. To those who were aware of the history, it confirmed one of the first suspicions they’d had and came across as too easy.

I wasn’t impressed either, not least because I could think of several characters who could’ve worked as the Arkham Knight without disappointment. My personal preference was Barbara Gordon, aka The Oracle, aka Batgirl, who I think would’ve been almost perfect, if they’d just tweaked a few details.

Think about it. The Arkham Knight is only assumed to be male because of that voice distortion gizmo he’s got in his helmet. Imagine the reveal, hearing that electronic growl slowly revert to the calm, younger voice of the Oracle, and seeing Batman’s face turn to shock as he realises he’s been betrayed. She also has the motivation, losing the use of her legs because Batman let the Joker live one too many times, a disability that the Arkham Knight suit could have been built to cancel out. Another possible twist that would have made sense.

Actual Knight

You might have everybody else fooled, but I’ve got my eye on you…

Like the Knight, she’s a technical genius with an intimate knowledge of Bruce Wayne and access to money and resources – Bruce’s money and resources, more specifically. It would’ve been a chilling moment for him to return to the Clock Tower and discover pieces of his old suits had been combined and altered to make this new one. On top of which, remember that all the information he obtains about this new foe comes from her. It would be fun to watch him get lured around by this cuckoo in the nest, feeding him a false trail of breadcrumbs.

There’s other good reasons why it should have been Barbara. She’s had a strong presence in all the games, so the impact would have been at its highest, unlike Todd who meant little to the series. Her death is faked halfway through the story, so she would’ve had free reign to orchestrate her plans as the Knight from that point on, and she’s had a lifetime of practicing acrobatics and combat as Batgirl. It was almost a perfect match.

I do think this would’ve been the better option. Admittedly, it still wouldn’t fit with the “entirely new character” smokescreen that Rocksteady threw up, but I think we’ve just got to put that one to the side for now. Exactly what original characters could’ve been in there, Quincy Sharp? That pudgy old man wouldn’t have been very impressive to watch, not to the mention the fact that I wouldn’t have cared at all if it had been. No, it had to be an established character so that they could have some emotional weight. It’s just a shame that the writers couldn’t admit it to our face.

Despite all of this, Batman: Arkham Knight is still a great game and worth your time. Just not on the PC. By the way, how’s that coming?

Arkham Knight Delay

… Fine. I can wait.

LEVELLING IN VIDEO GAMES MAKES PLAYTIME A CHORE

I realised recently that there’s something missing from Elite: Dangerous, something I’m glad to see didn’t make the final cut. You see, E:D always sold itself as an MMO, but something so iconic to MMOs has been left out: the levelling system.

Most of them have one, of course. You know the sort of thing I’m referring to. Bing! You’re now level twenty-eight! All your stats have marginally increased and you have some points to drop into a skill tree! You are now better at the game because we say you are! Although you might have become this legendary hero simply because you’ve been wandering around the starting area, killing millions of frogs with a spoon for all we know, because experience is experience and you might simply be a dedicated amphibian-smasher.

I find myself wondering about the point in levelling systems as I play more games, especially when it doesn’t seem to contribute much. Shadow Of Mordor does it best in my mind – rather than affect your stats in any proper way, and go through the risky business of making you overpowered, instead you just spend points on a grab-bag of tricks that are all helpful, but never fundamentally change anything on their own. That’s something I like, it makes the game more dependant on skill than statistics. You’re not just the best because you have the best numbers, you have to put some effort in, boyo.

But in many MMOs it’s simply not about skill, only about your stats. Any game in which a completely new player with eight thumbs and their eyes pointing backwards can still smash buttons and win against an veteran player with a lower level character, that’s a game that seems to have missed the point.

ED Anaconda

It looks impressive, but it’s being piloted by Hans Moleman, Mr Bean, and the police force from the Blues Brothers. It’s only a matter of time.

It’s why I like the Elite: Dangerous system – yes, you have a far lower chance of winning against a massive space cruiser, but you can still do it. Fly smart, use tactics, keep out of range and try to get the best angles, it’s not as hard to beat those star destroyers as you think. Better weapons don’t count for much if you can’t aim them, and a fast ship won’t help if you keep flying it into asteroids.

Borderlands 2 had a level system that implemented increased stats too, and it was just as pointless then. All it meant was that going back to old areas became insultingly easy and turned into an absolute chore. A level four rakk? Please, I’m level thirty-two and running DPS out the wazoo, you might as well surrender now and beg for mercy.

Some people like going back to old areas just to stamp all over the local enemies that troubled them the first time, but I’ve never seen the point. It just seems boring and repetitive, though I know this is standard formula for many MMOs. Why not just ditch stat tweaking as you level up, and have all the enemies at set difficulties to keep a consistent challenge going? Ironically Borderlands 2 seemed to realise this after a while, and added a mode where enemies scale to match your level. Yes, it’s an improvement, but you’ve still missed the point, Gearbox. Just ditch this number stuff, and you wouldn’t have to struggle with all the level balancing.

That said, I do know why games include levelling in this way, especially online games with subscription fees like World Of Warcraft. It’s because levelling is seen as progress, albeit progress of a boring, uninspired kind. You’ve put in the legwork, do you really want to give it up now after all you’ve, ahem, “achieved?”

I get that it has a curiously addictive feel to it. You’ve levelled up! Look at this little fanfare and the way your character lights up like a beacon! Yes! You’ve done it! You’re the best player ever! Anyway, get back to mindless grinding for two months more and maybe it’ll happen again. No, don’t think about how bloody tedious the actual game is, just focus on the experience bar and work on filling it up for the fiftieth time.

It seems to me like this is similar to holding a beer mug underneath a slowly dripping tap. It takes days and days to fill up, watching the dull process of how it gradually trickles out in tiny droplets, but when it does – a drink! A lovely, crisp, cold beer. Right, now that it’s over, we’re giving you a slightly bigger mug and a tap that drips slightly slower. Here we go again.

Not to mention the fact that with subscription fees, you’re paying money to endure this horrible process. Why on earth would you do this? I wouldn’t sign up for Chinese water torture if I got a chocolate bar every other week.

WOW

And yet, this empty courtyard is perhaps one of the most interesting things World Of Warcraft has to offer. Don’t believe me? Well, tell them that. This is one of the screenshots they’re advertising the game with.

The other reason that subscription games include levelling is that it’s an aspirational thing. Your friend is the highest level and you want to match his accomplishments, but if there wasn’t a difference to that mechanically, it wouldn’t be worth much. But if being level eighty-thousand means you can fell an Uber-Dragon with a single blow, then people will put in the effort, forgetting that it’s functionally the same attack but with a different particle effect and a higher number stamped on.

But all these reasons don’t mean much when it comes to your enjoyment. They’re not there to make you have fun, they’re put in to encourage you to keep playing. They want you to get addicted, and the false idea of progress is as tantalising a drug as any other.

Occasionally I might concede that levelling is necessary. In Pokemon, for example, you’d have to do some major restructuring to the mechanics to make levelling obsolete, otherwise it would be silly if you could take on the Elite Four from the very beginning. But then again, the fact that levelling is at its core doesn’t mean it’s good. One of the constant problems with Pokemon was that you could just grind to five levels higher than you needed to be and stamp all over any gym leaders that happened to be in your way, regardless of whether they had type advantage or were supposed to be a challenge.

So I’m not sold on levelling as a system. Maybe I’ll be persuaded otherwise, but I’m not so sure. It’s going to take some work to urge me that basing a game around a spreadsheet and a lot of patience is the best thing for the player.

WHY CAN’T THE BIG COMPANIES RESPECT US?

You know, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently. A lot of consideration about the industry we’re looking at. After my plea for a greater consumer awareness at the end of the Arkham Knight article, I was looking back over it and thinking about the statement I made – that the big publishers don’t respect us.

It’s not universally true, of course. Valve has a fairly good history of treating players with dignity. Nintendo make some mistakes in my mind, but I suspect that it’s usually down to stupidity rather than nastiness. There can be good publishers, I wouldn’t say otherwise. If it wasn’t possible for a publisher to be good, I wouldn’t spend so much time lamenting the fact that so few of them are.

But these paragons are a minority. For every Valve, there’s a dozen Activisions. For every Nintendo, there’s a dozen Ubisofts. And let’s not forget the real wicked witch, the black hole of gaming: Electronic Arts. That’s EA to you and me, or more possibly just AAAGH!

God, where to start? After looking at a truly bleak history, you can see how they got the “Worst Company In America” award for two years in a row. It would be strange to see them not get such an award after the tricks they’ve gotten up to.

How about we start with their utterly awful creation, Origins? A service that will sell you downloadable EA games at the prices of physical copies, for no reason other than a blatant attempt to scrape money out of your wallet? How about the fact that they gouge more and more content out of each instalment of major franchises like The Sims, so that it can be sold additionally to you as DLC? What about the fact that they refuse to innovate and reduce all their products into bland, formulaic sludge to give everything a mass-market appeal, ironically pleasing nobody?

It’s not just their disrespect for the players that shines, they make it miserable to be part of the company too. Have you heard about when EA had to be slapped on the wrist when it was making workers put in over a hundred hours a week, even when there wasn’t a need for it? Or about their habit of buying and then destroying smaller games companies, when they demand the developers take responsibility for the failures that EA put them up to? Ask yourselves, where is Bullfrog Entertainment? Or Pandemic Studios? Or Westwood Studios, Black Box Games, Origin, PlayFish or Mythic? All dead, all gutted by the hungry entity that is EA, and that’s not even the full list.

Eww!

If you want to get this much done in Dungeon Keeper Mobile and you’re not willing to pay, it could take a while. You might have to give your phone to your descendants, because you’re not getting this done within your lifetime.

My favourite example of all this evil was the Dungeon Keeper Mobile incident. You see, Dungeon Keeper was a respected old game from the nineties, in which you had to build and manage your own D&D-style labyrinth. And EA, seeing the potential for using nostalgia to their advantage, made a mobile game with the same premise, using a free-to-play model based completely around micropayments.

It was awful. The game was essentially unusable without these constant fees to speed up the process. Just digging out a four-by-four empty room could take the best part of a day, if you weren’t willing to cough up the green to accelerate it.

EA’s reaction was so wonderfully faceless and corporate-like, it made me laugh. When called out on this by angry fans of the original game, and by those who felt insulted by such an obvious attempt to scalp them, Frank Gibeau, the guy who ran EA Mobile, had this to say.

“I don’t think we did a particularly good job marketing it or talking to fans about their expectations for what Dungeon Keeper was going to be or ultimately should be. Brands ultimately have a certain amount of permission that you can make changes to, and I think we might have innovated too much or tried some different things that people just weren’t ready for.”

Yes, I think you did innovate too much Franky, in the same way that throwing an assault rifle into a kindergarten might be considered an innovation to the idea of kiddy’s playtime.

I mean, you see what he’s done there, right? Rather than admit that the game was a nasty attempt to take cash from you, he’s told us that it’s our fault for not keeping up with the times. Ha! Right back at you, EA. People who work their staff like slaves and can’t catch up with the quality of modern gaming shouldn’t tell us that we need to catch up with them.

EA is probably the worst offender, but it’s not the only one. Everything they’ve done has, at some point, been done by other games publishers too. It’s just a nice example of one of the more horrible corporations out there, and what they’re willing to do to you to make money. Think about it. It’s not aimed just at other people, they’d take your cash too if they could. I have a friend who flatly refuses to buy any product from EA, because he can’t bring himself to give money to such an awful cause. I can’t say I blame him.

But this leads back to that first troubling thought. Why? Why are they all so willing to rob us in this manner, to give us so little respect? This doesn’t happen at the same level when it comes to other entertainment, like music or books. Even the film industry looks almost saintly when you compare the two.

Maybe it’s the fact that the games industry is so comparatively young and has exploded so suddenly in the last few decades, to the point where it’s all exciting, untrodden ground. Maybe they have to push these boundaries until they find what the limits are, and that’s when they’ll get pushed back.

Or maybe it’s the fact that an industry based around play is always going to view its audience as childish and immature, easy prey for the good con-artist. We know that many high-ranking executives don’t know anything about games themselves, they make the jump from other industries, mainly packaged and physical goods, and find themselves in positions of power in an artistic movement they have no interest or respect for.

The good, the bad and ugly

Grand Theft Auto V, or as it’s known in the games industry: Ker-ching!

Or maybe it’s just the money. Gaming is now the biggest entertainment industry in the world, GTA V and its absurd success showed how much there is to be made here. Perhaps they just can’t resist, can’t drop the thought of making a little more cash and profit at the expense of this culture. After all, those indie developers can deal with the artistic side of gaming. We’ll just sit here and make box-ticking blockbusters, we’ll be the Michael Bay of gaming. Isn’t that a horrible thought?

It almost doesn’t matter what the cause is, because we know the cure. A combination of tenacity, self-discipline, and self-righteous anger. The first two suck, I know, but the third one is pretty fun. And we’re going to need all three, because we have to start telling these companies when they’ve gone too far. We have to refuse to buy products that treat us like idiots, rather than just putting up with it. If enough people dig their heels in and refuse to budge, it WILL work. If EA, Activision and Ubisoft start losing money, they’ll listen to what we have to say. They won’t have a choice.

It won’t even be that hard. If two major releases from a publisher flop badly enough, I think they’ll sit up and take notice. They’ll put an ear to the public, and the public message will be this: stop treating us like arseholes.

It’s not much to ask of them. I think it’s about time we took our dignity back.

ARKHAM KNIGHT PROVES HOW BADLY PUBLISHERS THINK OF YOU

You’ve probably seen that old Simpsons episode, the one where Homer ends up trying to jump an enormous chasm on a skateboard and it all goes horribly wrong. Falling short by several metres, his fall is thankfully broken by a jutting piece of jagged rock. And another. And another. By the time he’s halfway down he’s hit more stones than a miner with good work ethic, and they just keep coming. When he finally reaches the bottom he’s a bruised and bloodied mess, beaten into submission and needing to be taken off by an ambulance

I was reminded of that episode by the horror surrounding Arkham Knight on the PC this week. Every time it looked like that game had ballsed up as much as it was going to, it was suddenly struck by another rock and it all starts over again.

Let me be clear here – I’m referring to both the game as it ran on my computer, and to the general management strategy of Rocksteady Studios and Warner Brothers. They’ve all committed the kind of errors that need a bloody ocean of Tippex to even think about cancelling out.

I should probably explain to those who aren’t in the know. Batman: Arkham Knight, the highly anticipated conclusion to the critically beloved Arkham Series, came out three days ago. It was, by all accounts, a very good game, at least according to those who played it on the PS4 and the Xbox One. Not that those who bought it for their computer would know, because on that platform it’s unplayable.

That’s not an exaggeration. For most who downloaded it off Steam, the framerate was so poor and the game so riddled with glitches that it’s essentially unusable. I bought it myself, determined to see what the fuss was about, and it’s pretty bad. I have a high-end gaming laptop, and even on the lowest settings it still found a way to chug, still managed to fuck up everything it tried to do. I even downloaded a specialised driver that the game recommended, and it didn’t do anything to help. Eventually I got it to the level where I could basically play it (though it still resembled a slideshow at times and never actually looked good) and decided to power through, cataloguing every error and fault I could see.

Car

The Batmobile – terror of villains, monsters, and PC framerates alike.

By the end of this process I had cramp in my writing hand. It’s a horrible mess. Aside from the constant framerate issues, there were the usual suspects to back it up. The game crashed a couple of times when I went to a new area, the  positioning of enemies often warped when I wanted to do takedowns, and anything involving the Batmobile, gliding, or combat – the three main mechanics of the game – made it freak out and cause the framerate to fall even lower. Not to mention a couple of other problems that were so absurd that they were almost funny.

For example, dialogue is spoken at a consistent rate, but the game is unable to handle something as complicated as one character moving their lips, and starts to slow down the visuals so it doesn’t explode. This usually means that after a character has finished their sentence, they still flap their mouths at the person they’re talking to for a few moments, making wildly emotive gestures in awkward silence, until the other person decides to interrupt just to put them out of their misery, only to do it themselves. This wasn’t a rare thing, mind you, it happened for all the dialogue that wasn’t in CGI cutscenes, and there’s a lot of that.

Another one that made me laugh was when Commissioner Gordon walked purposefully across the room in a highly dramatic scene, only for his gunbelt to bob behind him in perfect unison like it was auditioning for the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It took the tension out of the moment, but I think it was worth it. It’s about the only thing that was.

It’s sad, because the game itself seems to be really good. The brief moments of functionality I managed to grab were genuinely enjoyable, and there’s a horror-based sequence near the end that was one of the most chilling moments I’ve witnessed in a video game in years, not to mention a phenomenal moment where you have to navigate around a major villain without being spotted as he… Well, I won’t spoil it for you. I’m incredibly happy to say that the game worked on those moments, but it’s not enough to be worth buying it. Not that you can buy it anymore.

You see, at time of writing there’s been quite a bit of scandal around the whole thing. Quite rightly so – if a major product is sold in an unusable state, people should get pissed off. It should be a scandal. Immediately the game was hammered to death on Steam, where reviews currently put it at thirty-two percent positivity.

Thirty-two percent! Aliens: Colonial Marines is on fifty-four, and that game’s a load of dishonest wank. Things were not looking good. And then the companies really went and put their foot in it.

Barbara

Guess she played the PC port of the game too, judging by that reaction.

Weirdly, they’d actually done it twelve hours before the game was even out, but somebody noticed and made a note of it. And then they got the word out, and EVERYBODY noticed. Half a day before the game was playable, they very sneakily altered the required specifications for the game without saying anything about why. They also mentioned something that people might want to have known before:

“There are some known issues with the performance of Batman: Arkham Knight for PC owners using AMD graphics cards. We are working closely with AMD to rectify these issues as quickly as possible and will provide updates here as they become available. We thank you for your patience in this matter.”

“Issues” is the right word. Whilst it was buggy for most, the game was unplayable for those who were unlucky enough to have older AMD graphics cards. I’m sure they might have wanted to know that, but by that point they were already downloading the thing.

It became even worse with an update later on, this time all about the various computer specifications you’d need to run it in “greater” detail. The final straw was when they told us the recommended specs, the ones that would cause the game to dry heave with the strain and which weren’t even that good, and then they said the unforgivable.

“The Recommended Spec is intended to deliver an experience on par with the current generation of gaming platforms.”

Now I don’t know about you, but if I fork out over twice the price of a console on a gaming computer, or potentially even more than that, I don’t want to be told that I’m lucky if I can reach the level of a PS4. No way, no how. You don’t get away with it that easily. Let’s forget for the moment that the game has been proven to be less visually detailed on the PC than on the console versions (though I know I won’t), but it’s still inexcusable.

Finally, thankfully, Warner Brothers realised what they had to do this morning.

Arkham Knight Delay

Took your time there, lads. Guess even the evil deities that run triple-A games publishers can understand that it might, just might be bad publicity to be selling a game that doesn’t work.

So who gets the blame for this farce? Well, I doubt it’s Rocksteady’s fault. They’ve gotten a lot of flack, but judging by my knowledge of the games industry, I’d be surprised if they really had a hand in this. It’s more likely that they made a console version as they normally do, and Warner Brothers provided a company afterwards to make a PC port.

Except in this case it was Iron Galaxy Studios who had to do the PC work, or rather, just twelve people from Iron Galaxy. With only eight weeks to do it. Well, hardly surprising then, is it? Especially when we recall that Iron Galaxy aren’t seasoned PC coders, also focused more on console work, and that they helped ruin the launch of Arkham Origins too.

Oh god, it’s all so obvious now that we know the facts. If I had understood exactly how little care was going into this project, I’d have hidden beneath the bed and kept my PC away from me with a spear and a copy of EA Origins.

Honestly, I suspect that Warner Brothers are the ones to blame. They would have known what this game was like before it was released, they’d have been in charge of finding a group to do the PC work, and they’d also have made the decision not to push back the PC launch until it was ready, something they’ve now been forced to do. I can only suspect that they’re pressuring the developers into taking some of the blame for this, as the big publishers always tend to, so now the prestigious Rocksteady is getting wounded by their efforts too.

Contrary to what you might think, I’m not even angry about all this. Just kind of sad and bitterly unsurprised. You see, I worked something out as I was writing this – that the video game industry is one of the most toxic industries that has even walked the earth. One of the most nasty, the most deceitful, the most uncaring and calculating systems we’ve ever seen.

It used to be better, back in the early days of the PS2. We all knew how it worked then – symbiosis. If a publisher and developer produce a good game, then we will buy it and fund their lifestyle as well as the production for other games. We all kept each other happy and satisfied.

It’s not like that anymore. It’s a sustained conflict, in which they are trying to gouge every penny out of you as fast as they can, before you catch onto the next trick they’re planning. We have to keep watching, keep being wary, because they will do anything they can to us and developers, if it will raise those profit margins. It’s stopped being symbiosis and has become parasitic.

This is the price that is going to have to be paid. In any war, there are casualties. Last year it was Assassin’s Creed and Unity, this year it’s Batman and Arkham Knight, two big sagas that have been inherently damaged by publisher’s attempts to con us. It’s always sad when a beloved franchise takes a bullet, but there’s no way around it, not now. We let them get away with too much, and now they want to see how far they can push it.

Choke a bitch

This would be a good technique to deal with major publishers. Sadly the law stands in our way.

So I’m not angry about that, because this is just the way it is if you want to play games. But I am angry because of something I saw. When I was looking through news sites online, observing people’s reactions to the story, one comment said that we shouldn’t be so hard on Warner Brothers. Everybody makes mistakes now and then.

Fuck you. How dare you make excuses for that kind of behaviour? How dare you try to stop people being angry at such an offensive attempt to rob them? Do you really think that this was a mistake? Do you really think that they didn’t know how horrible this thing was? Do you really think that they were unaware of the product that they were selling?

Bullshit. They knew, of course they knew. They proved it with the update before it was released, it was all damage control. They were hoping we’d suck it up, that we’d sigh and say “well, it’s just one of those things.” They’ve only taken it off Steam because we forced their hand, because we locked all the other doors and told them that this was their only way out. Don’t make excuses for them, don’t tell us to go easy, because these companies don’t respect you.

They really don’t. They made a calculated decision before release, they weighed potential profit in one hand, and your dignity as a consumer and as somebody who might care about the product in the other. And you know what? You were found wanting. You weren’t good enough, your happiness came second to a thirty-five quid profit.

How is it, to know precisely how much they think of you? Thirty-five pounds or less, that’s what you amount to in their eyes. That’s what they think of you. And we all know this, but it’s inexcusable to forgive them for it, to tell us to stop being so mean to the poor little mega-global corporation. I’m not surrendering, and neither should anybody else.

This is the dilemma – I love video games, but I hate the video game industry. It’s partly why I do this site, because I feel that people need to understand how ugly these companies can get if they think they can take your money, how games we care about will suffer if they are permitted to do as they will. Because games often suffer, Arkham Knight suffered just this week. It won’t ever get that stench off it now, it’s too late. I didn’t want it to happen, but it did.

But we need to understand that it’s only when this happens that we can provably point at something and say those six magic words. “Don’t you dare do this again.” If we make apologies for them, it will happen again, because they’ll think that they can do this sort of thing to us, and to this great art form.

Don’t let them get away with, my friends. Love and forgiveness are greatly overrated.