21 Sep 2012

Modification Motivation: Why Playing Black Mesa Is An Exercise In Eye-Opening

A collective gasp across Twitter feeds isn't particularly rare, but it's usually the result of something deeply unpleasant occurring. Last Friday, however, it was a good thing - a gasp denoting awe and intrigue. It wasn't unexpected, but it was still deeply fascinating to observe. By now - unless you've stumbled upon this site through a succession of misjudged mouse-clicks - you'll understand exactly what it is I'm referring to.

The event was this: the release of Black Mesa. Otherwise known as a mod for a fifteen-year-old game. Otherwise known as a free mod, eight years in production, for a fifteen-year-old PC game. Half-Life to be exact. And people were excited. Good golly.

Quite how widespread the build-up was for this release is reflected by the main headline it earned earlier this month on the BBC News website, under their technology section. Now, take the time to re-read that previous paragraph in order that you can fully consider how wonderful this all is.

Naturally, it would be foolish to speculate over the motives or emotions involved in the publication of such a piece, but it demonstrates the prevalence of Half-Life as a memory in the minds of gamers in allowing it this sort of treatment, so many years on. Whether it was a slow news day at the Beeb or a news editor with a Valve-shaped heart, somebody thought it worth mentioning. My feelings are very much the same.

I’ve just finished playing through the Black Mesa Modification Team’s near decade-long effort and I can safely say that it was a triumph throughout. Half-Life’s aged skeleton has been polished up and fleshed out. The bits that didn’t sit so well inside the original game have been clinically extracted or skillfully altered to form something a little more suitable. And it seems well moderated this time around, more settled in its premise. It was never a great work of fiction - not by any stretch - but here the central storyline sits comfortably atop a more palpable setting.

But what I don't intend to do here is simply congratulate the team on their successes - however deserved - or even explain to people why they should pick the mod up. Rightfully, no one needs any further recommendation beyond the following dialogue (and feel free to redistribute this in any way you like):-

Hello Sir/Madam. Do you like Half-Life? Perfect. In light of your assumed emphatic assertion, please head here.

No, I want this to be something more than a good job well done. It's an extraordinary achievement, yes, and I think there needs to be some lasting purpose beyond that.

Black Mesa is a better version of Half-Life, I've said as much above, but what commanded so much love for the original game still remains right here. So much within this mod is a direct reflection of that old title. We have the intelligent level design, the spark of the combat, the exemplary pacing... It quickly becomes clear quite how exciting the execution of the core game remains and, by comparison, just how much of it we tend to lack in modern AAA action gaming.

So, my question is this: how do we maintain this success? From the Twitter buzz to the post-release reviews and the impressive national news coverage - how do we keep the ball rolling? And, along with all that, how do we break the trends that tie this broad genre to sloppy rehashings of already rehashed ideas? We've beaten World War II only to have our shores invaded by hordes of thick-necked future soldiers and, as they fall, a thousand zombie apocalypses rise in their place. I say, enough already.

This recent release should signal a revision - or a refresher at least - of what standards we should expect of our first/third person action/adventure games from this point onwards.

Black Mesa shows us, fifteen years on, exactly what can be achieved and what the future of video gaming can deliver. But we are that future. So we can leave the dumbed down and derivative behind now. We don't even need the distraction tactics of a playground sandbox to have a good time. We just want invention and evolution - all the entertainment that all the talent in the industry has to offer.

Or, in plainer terms, when the hell do I get to play Half-Life 3?

14 Jan 2012

Free speech: An amateur's perspective on volunteer work


In the last week an issue that directly involves my writing work sprouted, blossomed and promptly overgrew that portion of Twitter more commonly reserved for general games chatter. It appeared to start with this, an article offering guidance to aspiring young game journalists and was promptly followed by this, an article by Rock Paper Shotgun’s John Walker that acted as a rebuttal or, in the kindest sense, clarification on how amateur writers really need to go about things. The most debated point in the whole article was undoubtedly its stance on working for free. Walker posed the question: When should you write for professionals without remittance? And his answer, interestingly, was this: Never. But what if..? Nope. Never. Unless the site you’re working for happens not to turn a profit then you need to expect payment for the money you’re making them in advertising. End of story.

Then, this happened. NowGamer yesterday announced a competition for entry by amateur games writers, the prize for which was ‘a chance to write alongside UK games journalism’s finest’ in a regular, unpaid blog or ‘column’ as it was referred to at least once on the site. The resulting response on Twitter was nothing less than outrage. Uproar that the company could be recruiting unpaid workers by process of what was essentially deemed to be a talent competition. It was taking advantage, it was devaluing the trade, it was... well, not a particularly pleasant move in the eyes of many of the professional writers I follow on the site.

And this is where I come in. As previously mentioned on this blog, I’ve recently taken up volunteer work with DIY Gamer, a site of great use to me when I was typing up copy for this drifting, leaky one-man vessel. And I’ll say right now - when I was offered the chance to write on that site I didn’t feel cheated. I wasn’t upset with what I deemed to be a solid opportunity to be published on a platform that claimed two hundred times more hits per day then my own piffling blog. My thoughts were: Write for the readers and write for free. That’s the price you pay. I’ve read these posts from established games journos many times before - accurate or not - that warn you of one thing: You’ll be working for free when you start out. You’ll be working many hours on top of a full-time job that won’t offer you money. It will be the hardest thing to do, but you will do it if you want this, the golden chalice of published and paid games commentary. It’s the writer’s trial. Something that will perhaps in time allow you to get picked up by some philanthropic entity that wishes to kindly offer you hard cash for your toil. Imagine that. Money.

Of course, this sort of thing is no great act of altruism, it’s a simple offer of employment. You seem to manage your words well. Why not write for us? The issue here is whether I’m being taken advantage of - whether it’s correct to give my mind and words over to someone else for their commercial gain when I’m receiving nothing in return other than this fabled substance known only as ‘exposure’.

It has been announced repeatedly this week that the required steps from bedroom broadcaster to volunteer writer to published, paid for presence is a self-perpuating myth. It only happens now because it’s happened a thousand times before to writers - good writers - who now see money for the words they provide over at, say, IGN or Gamasutra or VG247. Overwhelmingly, the message of the people in the know is that this practice is wrong. You need to retain your dignity and wait for paid work. Submit to editors willing to pay for hard, worthwhile material. They’re the good guys. Try and try again until you succeed, otherwise you’re only cheating yourself and keeping others out of work.

Now, I want to take the time to highlight something here; a perspective that I haven’t noticed being raised at all during the heated debate surrounding this issue. I don’t write for DIY Gamer primarily to give myself increased exposure within the industry. I also don’t write there for the free games, because I was perfectly able to acquire those for coverage on this site. My biggest reason for desperately seeking the role and making the switch was far more practical: I wanted structure and drive. I work a 9 to 5 job that I dislike. After an hour-and-a-half commute in the evening and a frenzied effort to feed myself I don’t have much left to give. I love the results of my writing but find it hard to sit down and commit to work. Writing for someone else, paid or not, changes that. It's exciting.

If I were to pack it in and return here to my homeland at the DPP I can’t help but feel that the lack of dependence will cause me to break my recent rush of productivity. Looking back over the posts on this site, there’s a clear pattern of write-fuck it-write that terrifies me. Many times this week it has been inferred on Twitter that people like myself need a swift lesson in self respect. Well, perhaps I’m just weak of character, but it seems to have been entirely omitted from the discussion quite how demoralizing it is to work full-time in an industry with which you feel absolutely no allegiance. Writing and being given the drive to write keeps me in a reasonable state of mental health, and that’s incredibly important to me. Whatever this degenerative, unworthy extracurricular practice does to my sense of dignity is nothing in comparison to what a continuing, fully-compensated career in insurance broking does to it on a daily basis.

Of course, I’d love to be paid for putting finger to keyboard. I would love to write full-time, but I haven’t had the opportunity. DIY offered to publish my work and I am grateful to them. If they hadn't awarded me the position then it would have gone to someone else. If I hadn’t made the move then I wouldn’t be receiving the rather pleasant feeling that comes from many hundreds of people reading what I deemed to be average-to-okay content on a daily basis. Whether I'm right or wrong in the eyes of others, I can't be sure. All I can do now is return to my writing and hope - hilariously - that my future words don't feel cheapened by the events of last few days.


As a final point of note: I was compelled to write this article because I have the utmost respect for all the journalists involved in the recent discussion - John Walker in particular - and their comments urged me to sit back and seriously consider my position. This isn't for or against their own arguments, it was written primarily as a way to alleviate the sense of guilt that I’ve felt following all the recent discussion. If I’m wrong - if I’m entirely missing the point then I want to hear that perspective. I’m open-minded and always contactable by twitter or email, details of which are displayed in the right-hand panel.

15 Dec 2011

Announcement: DIY Reporting


I just thought I'd write up a quick post to let whoever reads this fine publication know that things may slow down to a crawl on the site leading up to Christmas. It's obviously a busy period for everyone personally - and it will be for me - but for once I've got a reason to halt activity here which isn't exclusively 'I'm feeling a bit lazy'.

No, sir. This time I'm not being productive because I am being productive. You see, I've been asked to contribute to the indie gaming coverage over at the excellent DIY Gamer blog which, besides making me feel incredibly honoured, also means that I will likely be batshit busy for the forseeable future. This could be the first step towards a career in something I love so I'm taking the whole thing by the nuts and running with it... however painful or strangely erotic that may sound.

That's not to say things won't get written on here. I'll still be completing the odd review (in particular the overdue Trine 2) and definitely continuing my Terraria diary, just... not right now.

12 Dec 2011

The little arrow that could: Swift*Stitch


Prolific indie dev Sophie Houlden has recently put up her latest project, Swift*Stitch, for purchase. In fact, she's even catered for those who aren't willing to blindly throw cash at games of which they have no prior experience by providing a demo. It sounds like madness, it sounds like utter foolishness, but actually it's just common sense - common sense you can play in your browser.

Swift*Stitch is retro in style but perfectly postmodern in the subtlety of its design. Your natural goal is to guide a trail-spewing arrow from start to finish line in over forty separate mazes. Minimalist controls allow you to focus fully on the screen whilst you click at either mouse button. The left one changes your direction to that of a superimposed ghost arrow which will usually force you to continue perpendicular to your current facing. (Other times it will do mean, horrible things. Truly.) The right button acts as your saviour and slows time to a crawl for a limited period. Trust me, you'll need that little perk more often than not.


Each level features coloured barriers which change the properties of the little pointy guy you're trying your damnedest to control and that's where things become decidedly tricky. Swift*Stitch is inherently difficult, but I make it so much worse for myself. There are seven preset speeds in the game, but for some reason I find it impossible to accept that I'm anything less than a four. I am a four. Plus. I've been playing these things for years and... shit, into a wall again. Let's have another go...

It makes for compulsive playing and once you've experienced the extensive demo on offer you might be hard pressed to pass up the full version.



Swift*Stitch, is currently available to buy via Sophie Houlden's website, here.

11 Dec 2011

Here's an idea: Influence


My first impressions of Blanket Fort Games' Influence, prior to playing, were pretty neutral. It looks lovely - you can see that from the shots on this page, and particularly the ones shown here - but it also seemed as if it might be tame, too mellow to keep me from the many other IGF entries for any great length of time.

Happily, I was wrong. Although Influence may be simple enough to play (no keys or clicks required, only mouse movement) very rarely was I able to perform anything other than frantic hand-twitching whilst my eyes darted from corner to corner of the arena in search of my next victim or escape route. It is, thankfully, deceptively good.


Ideas form the theme of the game. Despite essentially being a deathmatch experience, Influence does try to recreate how certain thoughts can take on a life of their own, consuming alternate thinkers, pulling passers by into their ranks and, in certain circumstances, completely dominating anyone who might oppose them. Each id in the game must be captured for victory and doing so simply requires your followers to exceed the enemy's numbers whilst you convert them.

The music in the game is soft synths and sporadic piano key presses, all dynamically generated by the little ids in each army. Joyfully, capturing the opposition en masse will create a flourish befitting the effect of consumation and growth. You can even save the song at the end of each battle, which is nice option, particularly if you're the kind of person who revels endlessly in your own glory.

By its tranquil approach to RTS gaming, Influence is particularly reminiscent of Eufloria. It's just as straightforward but also as cutthroat as that title. The game is primarily a multiplayer experience, although you are able to set up custom matches against some incredibly aggressive AI opponents. I wasn't able to find anyone online to play it, but I was using the demo version and whether this is reflective of the online population in the full game I'm unable to say. LAN is also an option.



[via IGF]

Influence is currently available in demo form, here. You can also purchase the full game here for £6.00.

9 Dec 2011

Meet and eat: The Visitor Returns


Here's a quick browser game to start your day off, and hopefully one that will have you vomiting into your cornflakes. The Visitor Returns allows you to live out your wildest The Thing fantasies - goring, assimilating and imitating your prey in the name of saving your own slithering behind after crashlanding onto Earth.

The game takes place beside a remote US trailer home. With all the scavenging wildlife that such a setting provides it won't be long before you're squirting stink clouds and crawling up walls to tackle the really big game - the human inhabitants.

It's a nice little puzzler and, if you've got the stomach for it, one that offers a variety of grizzly ends for its final terrified victim. The solutions are fairly straightforward, but the results are so well animated that you're desperate to push on just to see what the little monster will come up with next.


You can play the game via the developer's website, here.

[via JayIsGames]

8 Dec 2011

Losing weight: Cold Equations


The IGF Main Competition is a natural breeding ground for experimentation. With Cold Equations we have a project which experiments with the idea of failure within games - how we deal with it and what it means when we do all we can to succeed but still can't achieve a satisfactory endgame. What do we expect when we enter into a game? Without thinking, we need to be the hero. We need to win the day, to rescue the girl, to shoot the mad Russian in the face (the western mainstream's idea, not mine). Cold Equations challenges this expectation.

In this respect it has a good deal in common with Krams Design's Egress, which I covered last month. Both games take the standard point-and-click approach and force it in a new direction. It's also something you'll be wanting to play again and again to test the game's parameters, to see if somehow you are able to make things go your way.


The plot of Cold Equations is based on a sci-fi short story of the same name. In it we find ourselves aboard an emergency supply vessel sent out from the mothership to provide much needed medical supplies to a small group of desperately ill colonists on a nearby planet. Problems arise when a stowaway is discovered onboard - a young girl whose presence pushes the craft over its weight limit. Carrying such cargo it will be unable to reach its destination and communications to outside help are unavailable. Where do you go from there?

Your first thoughts and, of course, your only option is to get things shifted from the craft. You have about three minutes to lose the weight of a child. You can spend some time talking to her, from which you'll discover her intention to see her brother on the destination planet and how she was only expecting a fine for hiding onboard, but none of this will help you both to survive.

The game is available to play online, here, and I advise you do so before reading any further into the story it's based on. You can read the developer's thinking behind its creation after your first play.

[via IGF]

Cross-platform: Fader


"This is Fader. It is a game about space, confusion, duality, triality and escape". I was contemplating leaving this post entirely to that one line from developer, Chris Makris, but Fader is definitely a title that warrants some further discussion.

Another entrant to IGF this year, it is a game of iconical indieness. A two-tone, minimalist, thinking man's platformer. I know that we have so many of these sorts to choose from currently (and, no doubt, many more to see release in the next twelve months) that the market should be saturated with idea clones and copycat visuals, but it's a testament to this sector of the industry that so many fresh ideas can still be retrieved from one base mechanic - that of making a little man jump around on a 2D plane.

So, take Fader - here the idea is one of duality, as described in the quote above. You control two characters onscreen, one above the other, but in essence you only really control one. That is, your actions on the keyboard will be reflected by both characters at the same time. Intriguingly they inhabit separate planes of existence so, when one hits a door but the other looks to have free reign to proceed, neither can move. And there's your headfuck.


I love the concept, but I'm also enjoying how incredibly threatening the game comes across in the video below. There's something disconcerting in the way the ghostly audio combines with the transposed layers of existence. And there are some great sci-fi zapping and buzzing sounds that just seem to hang in the air when the player interacts with doors, lifts and switches.

Having the two characters at cross-purposes but needing to work together is a novel concept and I think it reinforces a theme which is prevalent in computer games: Escape. We always seem to be running from something, whether it's the Half-Life Combine, or the ghosts in Pac-Man. We're constantly trying to break free from constraints placed upon us and here, imprisoning the player in two settings at the same time seems to make it so much more tangible.

We'll see how it plays on release, but Fader is something I will be keeping a very close eye on.



[via IGF]

Keep on running: InMomentum


The recent deluge of indie bundles has provided me with a chance to go back and check out some releases that I'd missed over the last twelve months. Usually I'd read the reviews, watched the videos, became eager to play and.. ach, was too skint to pay for any of them. Well, the three-thousand-four-hundred-and-twenty-five bundles we've had in the last week have helped to fix that situation. These days - these last few days in particular - we've been able to buy a shed-load of indie gems for practically nothing.


Well, InMomentum was one such game that I'd spotted when it was released last month. Purchased through bundle new-blood, The Indie Gala, it was the first of the games on offer that I loaded up yesterday to play. It's a fairly simple concept. You're a virtual runner within some kind of simulation. You need to get from point A to point B in as a fast a time as possible. There are other things to worry about like orbs and checkpoints but traveling onwards is pretty much your main concern. It's like Mirror's Edge, but also not at all like that game.

On offer are the abilities to wall-jump, double-jump and gain momentum to travel further faster, usually through the air to another set of abstract objects on which you're intending to run along. At first it feels clunky. At first, when the controls aren't mapped to your liking and you haven't yet had a good enough feel of the way you can interact with the world, you fail and fail hard.

I was cursing my luck and gnashing my teeth at first. I was trying to figure out how anyone but a seasoned Quake 3 deathmatcher could navigate such treacherous paths at a velocity greater then that of a three-legged cat.


And then it clicked - and I was flying forwards, bouncing from wall to wall and using the inbuilt ability to slow time to heave myself across gaping chasms to fall with the grace of a young, athletic pigeon. Your association with the controls in InMomentum becomes entirely unconscious, it's twitch gaming in the sense that I could feel my brain twitching as it struggled to keep up with what I was seeing onscreen. And that sensation is the draw of the game. There are online leaderboards to beat and you're able to hook up with other thrillseekers online, but I was happy to play just for the rush of retaining the momentum in every movement I made.

So it seems a fantastic game - there's not a singleplayer campaign to speak of, but it doesn't stop you from giving the odd half an hour here and there to improving your first-person gaming skills. That said, I'll wager you'll never come close to this guy's silky platforming abilities.