On Brutal Doom


As a rule, I am generally skeptical of fan remakes. Often, the rhetoric around them can perpetuate the already problematic discourse around videogames that conflates ‘more’ with ‘better’. The kind of discourse that assumes if a game has more polygons or more gameplay or more features or more levels or more stuff then it must be better than a game with less stuff. This is the games-as-content-buckets approach mixed with a technological progressivism that sees game design on this linear trajectory of continual improvement where new games will always be better than old games. Fan remakes often fall into this discourse uncritically: what if Link to the Past came out on the WiiU? What if Super Mario Bros was made in the Unreal engine? It’s this general idea that games are continually held back by the technology we don’t have yet, and with better technology we can finally fix these games. Of course, this is also the source of the excitement behind Final Fantasy VII’s official remake: now, at last, we can see Midgar for what it really is.

But somehow Brutal Doom avoids this. A mod for the original Doom that adds kicking, mouse movement, iron sights, new lighting effects, and a whole range of other features, somehow Brutal Doom doesn’t feel like an attempt to make a ‘newer’ Doom. Instead, despite the addition of all this extra stuff, it feels like an amplification of a core Doom-ness. This is Doom made Doomier. Continue reading

On Firewatch, Gone Home, and the Oppressive Terror of Loneliness


Spoilers for both.

On the first day of Firewatch, you are walking back to your tower after chasing down some irresponsible teens when a shadowy figure shines a torch in your eyes. You are in the middle of the Wyoming wilderness and no one is meant to be around, but now this man is looking right at you. Henry, your character, is startled by it, but Delilah, his workmate-cum-friend in another tower is nonplussed: it’s the wilderness, of course there are going to be some other people around. Sure, okay. But at the same time, the reason there might always be someone around is because, for the overwhelming majority of the time, there is definitely nobody around. That is why my reaction to the man was the same as Henry’s: I was startled. I was expecting, moment-to-moment, to be alone, to be that one human who happened to be in this particular bit of wilderness. Then suddenly there was movement. That was terrifying.

For most of Firewatch, you don’t see anyone. But the fact you did see someone that one time kept me constantly on edge as the game progressed. What if someone else just jumped out from behind a tree or walked down a distant path? “We can animate humans in this game,” that first reveal seemed to say to me. “We can do it again whenever we want.” That would be terrifying to see that movement. The absence of animals in this national park only amplifies that terror not of being alone but of potentially suddenly not being alone without any warning.

This is where I think Firewatch is most enticingly like Gone Home. There are easy comparisons to make between the two games: each is a walking game set in a semi-open world where you walk around and inspect objects and a story progresses. Each is a game about difficult personal relationships set in the late 20th Century. But these are easy comparisons to make. More interesting for me is how each game is about making you feel very, very alone, and then playing on your imagination to make that loneliness feel oppressive and terrifying, and then, finally, making you feel like an idiot for letting your imagination get so carried away. Continue reading

Brisbane Game Events Maybe?🙆


So I am writing this post mostly as an initial testing of the waters to see if there is any interest at all in what I am proposing. This isn’t an announcement post or anything official. Just testing the waters.

Since moving back to Brisbane from Melbourne mid last year, I’ve really missed the real collegial games ‘scene’ like Melbourne has. There are a bunch of game studios in Brisbane and a bunch of both indies and ex-AAA people. There’s more than a few academics and a heap of students around between the few universities. The local IGDA does some real important industry-focused events every year. Others have been putting on a range of really interesting shows and events. But there’s still something missing that Melbourne had. Something that isn’t just about developers (and especially isn’t just about development in the commercial space) but also isn’t just about game enthusiasts either. That real sort of cross-pollination of games people and art people and writing people and just general ‘culture’ people that Melbourne manages largely just through having a high density of such people. Continue reading

On Digital Cheating



Yesterday I obtained an Avenger Reflex controller skin for my PlayStation 4. I bought it because these things fascinate me, and I want to do some research on them from a phenomenological perspective on how bodies integrate with videogames (I wrote briefly about this here). When I tweeted about my new possession, however, it was a side comment I made about a marketing blurb on the box that got the most attention.

The blurb promised that the controller skin will “Increase your PS4 gaming skill without cheating!” I find that fascinating. This device is confident that it will give its user an advantage over other players, but it is categorically ‘not cheating’. I am not particularly interested in claiming that it either is or isn’t cheating. Rather, I think a lot of fascinating insights can be pulled out of a statement such as this one to better understand videogames generally: why is using this device to improve your chances not cheating? What sort of advantage would be considered cheating? Why? Continue reading

Videogames Without Players


I made a Super Mario Maker level recently called “You Need Two POW Blocks” (7A92-0000-00EB-B2CB). It’s an autoscrolling level, so you can’t go back towards the beginning. At the end of a corridor is a door floating in the air, two grid cells up from the ground. The only way to enter this door is to place two POW blocks on the ground underneath it, one stacked on the other. The only POW blocks on the level, however, are back at the start, and you can only carry one at a time, and you can’t throw a POW block without destroying it. I made this level once I noticed that if a POW block or P-Switch falls on your head while you are already carrying one, it will bounce forward until it lands on the ground. If the player is very careful, they can move a falling POW block by headbutting it down the corridor, and thus end up with two POW blocks at the end of the stage.

mx9uuywThis is probably not a good level, in the sense that no one who has played the stage on Super Mario Maker’s online community is yet to actually complete it. It is frustrating and obtuse, and it is not entirely clear what you are meant to do. Indeed, no one has completed the last four levels I’ve uploaded. Each of them require fairly intricate and fiddly combinations of Super Mario World mechanics that the original game never actually required. On one stage you have to throw a red shell in the air, then do a spin-jump to catch the shell in mid-air and land on a piranha plant to spin-bounce over a canyon with the shell in hand. On that same stage you have to jump on a P-Switch in mid-air, and somehow get a POW block to the top of a beanstalk. Continue reading

A Play of Bodies: Read My PhD Thesis

The PhD thesis I have spent the last four years working on is now finished and available for anyone to read. It is about videogames, what bodies do with them, and what they do with bodies. It’s an accumulation of my thoughts and ideas over the past five years on what videogames are, how we engage with them, and how we might talk about how we engage with them.

I would like to think I’ve written it in a manner that a non-academic and even a non-gaming reader might get something out of it. At least, insofar as that is possible for a PhD thesis. The genre that is the PhD thesis requires a certain denseness as you both have to prove you read all the correct things and be defensive of your position. That inevitably means the writing isn’t the most exciting thing to read.

But despite that, I am really happy with how it turned out, and I truly believe there is some significant stuff in here for both videogame studies and videogame criticism. I am really excited for you to finally be able to read it!

If you don’t want to read the whole thing or if you are just generally curious to see a deadline, this is how the thesis is structured:

The Introduction accounts for the importances of considering the player-and-videogame as a single object of analysis, rather than distinguishing them into a player/game hierarchy.

Chapter One introduces a bunch of theory and argues that how the participatory nature of videogames does not render them immune to textual analysis.

Chapter Two tries to find a more complex way of thinking about how we engage with virtual worlds through actual bodies without any sort of reductive and idealist way of presuming the player just ignores the actual body that the construction of the virtual depends on. A case study of casual mobile games is looked at to do this.

Chapter Three performs a close, descriptive account of the various complex ways the learned player’s fingers become adapted to the gamepad controller (and how gamepad controllers become adapted to player fingers) to forward a notion of ’embodied literacy’. I do this to challenge the reductive notion that gestural controls like wii-motes or touchscreens are ‘more embodied’ than gamepads or keyboards.

Chapter Four makes the argument that ‘action’ is too reductively considered when we talk about videogames and that ‘looking’ and ‘listening’ are acting in their own right. To say a play ‘does nothing’ during a cut-scene greatly misunderstands how bodies engage with moving images. This chapter looks at and compares Audiosurf and Slave of God to do this.

Chapter Five is about temporality through the lens of character death. I look at the various ways character death is depicted as either permanent or impermanent and how this influences the player’s perception of temporality.

Chapter Six is a manifesto of sorts that is essentially saying that now that the previous chapters have challenged a bunch of ways we think about and evaluate videogames, this is what we can do now. Namely: we can account for and appreciate a much broader range of videogames that are obscured when we reductively and mechanistically think of videogames as simply digitalised non-digital games.

And that is what my thesis is about! Any of the chapters could be read on their own and would make some sort of sense, I think. But hopefully at least some of you are interested in reading the whole thing. If you do read it, do let me know what you think!

So I Accidentally Started A Misdirected Witch Hunt

So yesterday I got home from an incredible week at Indiecade and I sat down on the couch, super jetlagged, to catch up on my emails. One of them was a PR email about Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate that seemed really weird and self-congratulatory. I tweeted out a screenshot of it in this tweet.

I deliberately ensured the PR’s email address and name wasn’t visible in the screenshot so as to not send an angry mob their way in case the tweet blew up. I just wanted to say I thought this was a terrible way of advertising a game, but I know how detached PR usually is from a game’s actual development so I had no interest in some individual just doing their job getting a whole lot of hate over a poorly worded email. What was obscured in me doing this was the fact the email was sent from a third-party PR company, not Ubisoft’s internal PR. This wasn’t helped by my phrasing “Ubisoft’s PR” in my tweet, which was me trying to condense the phrase “PR sent on behalf of Ubisoft” into 140 characters.

The tweet got retweeted a whole bunch! Like, 200 times at last check. Then people pointed out that it reads like perhaps it is PR for the actress that the text seems to focus on, not for the game. Ubisoft then confirmed this to be true in a couple of tweets to me this morning.

So straight up: I screwed up! To be sure, I think it is entirely understandable that when a games journalist gets a press release about the most recent Assassin’s Creed, that it would be safe to assume that Ubisoft has signed off on that press release. But still, I was wrong and the wording of my tweet did not help things at all in the way it suggested this was sent by internal Ubisoft PR, so I truly apologise to anyone at Ubisoft PR who had to deal with any fallout from that.

So choices I made to deliberately ensure there would not be an angry online mob thing instead ensured the opposite occurred. My intent to just tweet “hey this thing is kind of crap” snowballed into a whole lot of people getting really angry at the wrong target. I guess I will just add this to the growing list of reasons why I increasingly feel that Twitter is not a useful place to have any sort of real conversation.

I apologise unreservedly.

On Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

(I have avoided explicit spoilers through this essay, but I do mention moments from within the game and suggest themes and topics that emerge during play. If you are yet to play the game and would prefer to go in blind so that every little thing is a surprise, you probably shouldn’t read this.)

There is no denying it: the second of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain’s two chapters is an unfinished mess. The intent was clearly that after chapter one concludes what has until that point been the main plot (while leaving various other threads open), chapter two was intended to feel like a return to normality for Big Boss and his Diamond Dogs private military company. The intent was clearly to feel not like a story was progressing but like everyday life was just going on while this or that plot thread resolves itself. In reality, though, the progression of this second chapter is inconsistent and unsatisfactory. Majority of the missions are not new but repeats of earlier missions with harsher conditions; they feel like the kind of tasks you would unlock post-completion, which was perhaps the point. Plot progresses with occasional cutscenes rarely connected to any particular mission: you’ve played for long enough to see the next story bit. These story bits do not conclude, however, as the final mission that would conclude them never made it into the game. The ending we do get is one I found satisfying, but it has no connection to anything the player is doing at the time. It has no connection to anything the player has done at all, really, since the game’s prologue. Everything the player does in the game is ultimately pointless, a distraction. But, then again, perhaps that was the point. 

From the video that shows what would have happened in that final, abandoned mission, it seems Hideo Kojima’s ambitions got ahead of him. It would have required a massive new area to be created on top the game’s existing two huge environments and the immaculately detailed hospital of the prologue. It’s through chapter two—both what is present and what is absent—that the tensions between Kojima and Konami that ultimately led to Kojima leaving the company can be seen most clearly. Kojima wanted to make his epic bigger and bigger to an absurd and (from a capitalist perspective) irrational scale. Kojima wanted more time and money for a whole third chapter, if rumours are to be believed; Konami wanted this game to just hurry up and ship already. I can’t really be angry at either party for this.

Ultimately, I find The Phantom Pain’s unfinished state charming. This does not feel like a lazy sort of unfinished but an overly-ambitious sort of unfinished. It feels like a modern day equivalent of one of those huge cathedrals the architect was never really going to finish in their lifetime. I want to make comparisons to Wagner’s Ring Cycle or Hugo’s Les Misérables or Wyler’s Ben Hur. It’s a work that impresses through its sheer, intimidating size. By this I don’t just mean how big the map is (but this as well) or how many dozens of hours it takes to see the story through (but this as well). There is an audacious attention to detail in every single moment of The Phantom Pain that marks a confidently inefficient use of a production budget. I think this tweet of Matthew Yaeger about Quiet’s armpit and these tweets by Robert Yang about animations only appearing once in the game are great examples of this. Phantom Pain is wasteful in its enthusiasm, its inefficiency. It’s a heightened level of enthusiasm for itself that I can’t help but find infectious. The game is an incomplete mess, there is no denying it; but it is the very clear ambition that I find truly exciting. Continue reading

On N++ and Momentum

I remember Metanet’s N mostly as this weird interesting Flash game that was fascinating mostly because of its minimal presentation and, simply, because it was a side-on platformer at a time when very few people (that I knew of) were doing that. I remember N+, released on Xbox 360, as an enjoyable but also infuriating platformer that I felt like I was fighting against more often than playing.

My time so far with N++ since it was released yesterday has been one of satisfying flow and momentum. The way a level just perfectly cups your character from a fall that should kill you into a fast sprint. The way a ramp lets you double-jump perfectly through the designed gaps between the mines. The way a vertical wall is just a pixel high enough to tap your feet against to immediately shift the direction of your movement with a walljump.

With N++ I feel like I finally understand what N and N+ were doing (the pedagogical design of the early stages really helps this, I think). These are not games about movement but momentum. They are less about getting to a ‘top speed’ and more about increasing your speed consistently over a level. They are less about finishing a level as quickly as possible and more about finding that perfect current that is invisibly flowing between the surfaces and obstacles just waiting for you to find it.

Here is a video of my favourite stage so far. Trace the path of my avatar with your finger in these kind of figure-of-eight loops back and forward across the screen. I died a good thirty or forty times trying to bring these loops into performative and ephemeral life, of course, but once I did it, it felt so good. Note, also, the new enemy type of the shadow that follows you across the course. If this shadow comes in contact with you, you die. Such an enemy type fits so perfectly with the game as it forces you to keep moving but if you keep moving so will the shadow. It encourages the endless momentum the game wants to encourage. Really, each enemy type in the game is there to encourage particular kinds of movement and momentum.

Anyway, N++ is really good.

On Roadtrips

(All images in this post are screenshots I captured in The Crew. More in a gallery here.)

Last week I moved to Brisbane, Queensland from Melbourne Victoria. My partner had moved up several months earlier to start a new job, so I drove for two days and about 1700 kilometres by myself. In America, that’s about the distance from New York to Memphis. In England, that’s about the distance from London to Budapest. An important difference to stress, though, is that Australia is far less densely populated than America or Europe. The vast majority of Australians live in urban centres along the east coast around Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane. Beyond these, towns can often be hundreds of kilometres apart.

Usually when we drive from Melbourne to Brisbane, we go via Sydney. It’s almost impossible not to. Sydney is a concrete sprawl that sucks in all the roads around it. If you want to get from one side of Sydney to the other, you either need to go through Sydney or way, way around it. We have friends up the coast so we typically use the drive as an excuse to see these friends. An easy day’s drive up the dual-carriageway of the Hume Highway from Melbourne to Canberra; a short day from Canberra to Maitland through Sydney after the morning peak hour and before the evening peak hour; then a final long day up the ever-terrible Pacific Highway through the beautiful scenery of northern New South Wales and wide freeways of the Gold Coast to Brisbane.

I didn’t want to go to Sydney on this trip and, besides, recent flooding was reportedly causing havoc around some of the major bridges just north of Sydney. So I took the inland route. I started early, around 7am, and took the Hume Highway just past Gundagai and the Dog on the Tuckerbox before exiting onto Muttama Road. From there, it was all winding old roads through towns with names like Coolac and Cootamundra. Towns with a few thousand people living in them, at most. Mostly retirees and children and teenagers just waiting to turn eighteen and move to the city. Some towns are mere intersections in the highway. After driving 110km/h in a straight line for ninety minutes, you hit a Give Way sign at a T-section with a pub on one side and a gas station on the other that has either been closed for one day or ten years.

Sometimes the endless farmland turns into endless scrub and forest. Driving along the Newell Highway through the Pilliga Nature Reserve it’s all red dirt and brown trees and the occasional emu. You can do this trick with your eyes (the road is so straight that there’s nothing else for them to do) where you shift your focus so at 110km/h you either see the endless strip of red dirt on each side of the asphalt, or you see the endless line of discarded plastic bottles tossed out of car and truck windows.


I have no interest in cars. I know how to drive them but beyond what sort of petrol to put in one and which pedal makes the car move faster, I know nothing about them. I drive an automatic and have zero understanding of how a manual car would even work. But I enjoy driving. Or, more accurately, I enjoy moving over land. Cars or trains or buses, it doesn’t matter. Air travel makes places too discrete, but when you travel over land you are forced to appreciate just how much land there is, that this place is connected to that place. All that ‘in-between’ space are places too. You drive past an old woman watering her garden behind a cyclone fence hours from the nearest town and you are hit with this realisation that this is somewhere; not just a between.

It’s the continuity, I think. The gradients and rhythms. The way there are moments where you are definitely ‘in’ a town or ‘in’ a forest but if you went and tried to draw a line at the exact point a town ended you wouldn’t be able to do it. Towns turn into suburbs turn into industrial areas turn into farms turn into farmland turn into forests turn into farmland turn into farms turn into industrial areas turn into suburbs turn into towns. It’s this constant rhythm that’s incredibly clear at any given moment but trying to distinguish any one point is like trying to determine where one ocean wave ends and the next begins.

But cyclical rhythms are always punctuated by linear repetition, as Henri Lefebvre might say. The undulating landscapes are punctured in a roadtrip by toilet breaks and refueling. Every two hours you hit another town that might as well be a carbon copy of the last town and you stop in another Lions Park where the only difference is the names in the toilet graffiti. But you go to pay for your fuel and the cashier knows the guy who came in before you after filling up his mud-covered ute. These people live here and know this place and you’re just some city guy in a Toyota Echo riding the asphalt surf through their lives.

Driving, in particular, forces an attention be paid to this passing of land that getting a bus or a train might not. It’s just as uneventful and ‘boring’, but demands far more attention. At any moment a truck might require overtaking, or a kangaroo might jump out onto the road. A police car will drive in the opposite direction at just the moment you realise you haven’t actually looked down at your speedometer for a minute or so. It demands an attention if not to the landscape around you then definitely to the landscape in front of you, to that constant shifting of landscapes. To what’s coming next. But you never truly see what is coming next. Even a huge city like Brisbane is just kind of not there and then, suddenly, is there.


The best open-world videogames capture this rhythmic continuity of space. They don’t just have a City Zone and an Ice Zone and a Desert Zone. Rockstar are masters of this, and it is why I will keep playing every new Grand Theft Auto despite the dreadful and embarrassing writing. In Grand Theft Auto IV you will travel from a poor socio-economic area to a business district but you could not place your finger on the exact street where things changed. In Grand Theft Auto V the city peters into green hills into barren wasteland and trailer parks with an expert granularity. I can think of few non-Rockstar titles that achieve this. A good roadtrip videogame would have to achieve this.


The Crew is not a good videogame by any stretch. It’s a poorly designed, Frankenstein mess of ill-conceived systems and incoherent user interfaces. The story is as as naive as it is forgettable. It is literally unplayable without a constant internet connection. It is a full-priced triple-a game with microtransactions. It remains, however, one of the best roadtrip simulators I have ever played. Not through any deliberate accomplishments of the game (with the exception of the environment artists who truly have done a spectacular job), but more through the ability to ignore everything the game wishes you to do. The entire world is unlocked from the get-go, and every single interface element can be switched off, leaving nothing between your car and the open road.

The world is huge and, largely, empty. It’s an abbreviated “postcard America” as Austin Walker describes so beautifully in his review of the game for Paste (still one of the best things written about videogames in recent times). I am not particularly interested in The Crew‘s accuracy of portraying North America, but in its vastness and diversity of spaces and—crucially—the continuity that has city roll into countryside without a clear distinction between the two. I appreciate it’s willingness to let me bored.

In The Crew I leave the highrise mess of New York and drive south down the freeway towards Miami as the sun rises over the ocean to my left and paints the orchards on my right a blood red. As I near Miami I turn west and twist around the swamps before hitting another freeway that crosses a massive expanse of desert. Perhaps I leave this freeway, too, and turn back north down a dirt road, driving by trailer parks and overtaking slow tractors. Eventually I end up near the West Coast and find myself spiralling up a mountain range past giant trees and, ahead of me, I see the smoggy high-rises of Los Angeles as the sun begins to set.

Night time driving is the best. Beyond the cities, the stars shine bright and the ground is tinted a dark blue. Sometimes you can see break lights disappearing around the next corner or the inverted galaxies of another city across the desert. It’s lonely and quiet and black and boring and uneventful and beautiful. Sometimes you drive through a small turn and all the lights are off except the flashing neon of the motor inn by the highway.


A good roadtrip game would be long and boring and mundane with an ever-changing landscape demanding your full attention. It would feel like being in the middle of ‘nowhere’ while, at the same time, if you pulled over anywhere in that ‘nowhere’ it would feel like somewhere people live. It would force you to do nothing but drive for hours (actual hours) at a time, but have you constantly on the lookout for cars to overtake or obstacles to avoid. Not constant obstacles, but a constant potentiality of obstacles.

It would be like a walking simulator but one that is obnoxiously long. Imagine Dear Esther or Proteus but six hours long, perhaps with an ability to save your progress only appearing once every two hours at a motor inn. You would have to plan ahead before you sit down and start playing it.

It would tell stories through its environment. At one point in my roadtrip last week I saw the same billboard every 30 or so kilometres between two towns, advertising the Duck Inn Cafe. When I eventually got to the next town, I saw the Duck Inn Cafe. “That’s the cafe from the signs!” I thought to myself. As I drove by, I saw the curtains were all drawn and a FOR SALE sign was stuck to the closed door.

It would be intrinsically pleasurable to play. It would use a controller like a 360 gamepad, something that just feels satisfying to hold. Something you can get comfortable with while you use. Holding that right trigger in at just the right pressure to maintain a constant speed while your palm grips plastic like it would grip a steering wheel. You wouldn’t need to ‘do’ anything because driving and looking out the window would be enough. (In The Crew you can, at any time, rotate the right stick to look in any direction as you continue to drive forward, greatly increasingly the game’s roadtrip potential).


Several existing games capture the roadtrip feel well, but typically that roadtrip-ness is secondary to other goals. Glitchhikers and The Long Way are two games about hitchhiking (in the first you pick them up, in the second you are trying to be picked up). Each captures this nice, banal feeling of long drives, but each is relatively short and focused more on conversations than the drive itself. Glitchhikers still deserves special mention for the phenomenal sense of solitude and mystical introspection that comes with long-distance night driving.

Joe Wintergreen’s in-progress Magenta Sunrise has inspired ideas such as using the car itself as a sort of inventory. Being able to play with all the ‘bits’ of the car. Maybe you want to wind the window down for a while and listen to the rush of wind and the nearby cicadas rather than the dull thud of the engine and your own music. Maybe you need to change the radio station while also keeping your eye on the road. Maybe you have a spare tank of petrol in the boot for particularly long drives.

Deadly Premonition doesn’t do roadtrips, but it does do long, banal drives at the speed limit around a town spectacularly well. It offers the same sense of downtime and introspection with the character talking to himself as he putters along.

Fuel, got the vastness and the boringness right, but perhaps didn’t have enough of actual interest to look at. It perhaps felt too empty (though, in an essay for Kill Screen, Ben Abraham noted just how similar driving in Fuel felt to driving through western New South Wales). It still provided decent roadtrip material, however. 

Robert Yang’s Stick Shift isn’t about roadtrips but it captures the atmosphere and lighting of night driving in a really satisfying manner.


There’s an intrinsic pleasure in traversing space and seeing all the places between here and there. Videogames like The Crew don’t understand that driving across land in and of itself is (or at least, can be) a pleasurable activity. There is no need for racing or stunts or challenges. Give me places to see and a wide open road to connect them and the means to look at them and a satisfying vehicle that I can just drive for hours on end.