Sorry, guys. According to the Arstotszkan Border Authority, 4 of you are not allowed to enter the country. That's including you, Blond Dave.

Sorry, guys. According to the Arstotszkan Border Authority, 4 of you are not allowed to enter the country. That's including you, Blond Dave.

There are some games that everybody likes. Well, maybe not EVERYBODY, per se, but there are games that have that deep appeal, hitting the right notes for hardcores and casuals alike. I remember the night we got a Nintendo Wii, my entire family was in the living room hot-potato'ing a pair of video-game controllers. These were just the out-of-the-box Wii Sports Bowling and Boxing apps, and they were a smash hit at my house. Or take Candy Crush. Every time I see somebody on public transit with that focused frown as they stare down at what's obviously some kind game on their smartphone, I'm shocked to see it's Candy Crush in such a person's hands: old biddies, fatigued salarymen, meatheads. These games feature basic interfaces, yet boast intuitive controls & causal relationships. They epitomize gaming, in a sense, offering the most pleasure for the least up-front investment in terms of rote memorization and skill fluency.

Among my friends, I've seen customs official simulator Papers, Please make a huge resurgence recently -- especially among my gaming friends' non-gamer girlfriends. And that is awesome. To me, there can be no greater success for a game than to capture the imagination of its most improbable player. Seasoned gamers truly take for granted the massive baseline barrier to entry against getting into most video-games. We understand that the RT button fires our weapons; we, the inveterate players, know to reach for WASD, or QWER, before gameplay even begins. But these are hard-won intuitions dating back through decades of personal experience and game design tropes. Gamers carry with them a sprawling lexicon of input and output algorithms, controller schemes, and menu hierarchies. Most of the time, we're in so deep we don't even realize the assumptions we're making when we jump (Spacebar, duh) into a new game. 

And then a complete oddity like Papers, Please comes along, equally unprecedented to both the amateur and the super nerd. From the start, the game draws you into its weirdness through the simplicity of its design: check passports for discrepancies before allowing or denying passage through your pseudo-Soviet border crossing. Make a mistake, and your daily pay will be docked, preventing you from feeding and housing your family at home. However, before long, amidst the increasingly deep dossiers you must shuffle through in order to process each traveler, ethical considerations begin to interfere with your pencil-pushing efficiency. Do you translate the spy's encrypted message? Detain the innocent for a cut of the guard's commission? Let your uncle starve, so your wife and son may eat? Papers, Please succeeds for so many players, because its deepest challenges aren't located in its mechanics, but in the weight of the choices you must make within them. These moral challenges become increasingly muzzled by the anxious monotony of the too-short workday, in much the same way it likely would for a real Russian customs official. Through the drudgery of a thankless job, the player may realize opportunities to influence change in his own life, in those of others, and in the fate of his nation -- or he may never see past the paper-thin labyrinth surrounding him. Papers, Please is a game that not only stays in your head long after playing, but has probably been with you since long before. It deeply evokes the frustrating experience of working life itself, and the emphasis on this particular depth is its throughline to such a wide range of players.

As a side-note on universal appeal in games & its obstacles, isn't it interesting how the games with the most complex control schemes also have the most violent and potentially offensive content? Why is it that stringing together a 4-level interchange in Mini Metro is something anyone can do, while gunning down a platoon of undead zombies is a privilege reserved only for more fluent gamers?


HOW FAR is a new column, exploring developments in design between Then and Now.

Outdated... but relevant!

Outdated... but relevant!

When I look closely at Old Thief and New Hitman, it’s hard to say that game design, at its core, has grown significantly deeper over the years. In terms of mechanics the games are nearly identical. Hitman and its cousins have merely grown in breadth, with larger, more lifelike spaces, binders full of scripted interactions, and overabundant audiovisual fidelity; but in terms of how they actually play, nothing has changed. By many names, it seems like we’ve been playing the same games all our lives.

Here: let’s compare about 15 minutes of gameplay from each title.


I’ve done a bit of sewer crawling, but haven’t yet been able to breach Bafford’s Manor. I meander in overlapping paths, not having any strong idea of my position relative to the goal without the aid of a whirling minimap, but my headmap is filling in and I’m started to case the location. I find my way to a small, square shed out back of the Manor with a single guard. He steps away to patrol and I slip up behind him and konk his head. I move to the building, but the door is locked. When I turn around to explore, I see the bright, shiny key at the guard’s belt. I take it, open the door, and break into the Manor.

This is a very typical problem in video-games by now: defeat the enemy to acquire the key to unlock the door behind him. But it’s no less an elegant interaction for its commonness, for it can be flubbed. If we already have the key when we arrive, or if we kill the guard before we know he’s guarding a door, there’s no drama. Seeing the location, solving the problem/fighting the enemy, being barred access, and then realizing you had already earned it, is basic, but good, design. Looking at the map, I found I could have learned about the locked door earlier, stretching this first mini-plot arc even further. Of the few words written, arrows pointed at one area (the map is a true map - no dynamic pinpoints) and signaled “Well leads to basement -- One Guard!”


I start out in a safehouse with some remote detonation charges. I could creep into the mansion through a window across a rooftop which I can reach from my third-floor safehouse, but there’s a huge chunk of map to the right I’m curious about. I drop down and explore the beach. There’s a clown, whose performance I interrupt, to the annoyance of the audience, by standing on his carpet. I toss a coin into his hat as apology and some guy yells at me not to throw things. Continuing along the whitesand beach I find a sewer entrance. I case the sewers, knocking out a worker and taking his Sewer Key and Red Plumber disguise - no Mushrooms though. I follow the sewers through a ruined tomb and surface beneath the steeple of a church. I ascend to the top, grabbing a crowbar along the way, and make a mental note for a future run that I can cut the cable suspending the churchbell. I make my way down to the cemetery, lay in a coffin just for laughs, then double back across the beach to the targets’ mansion again. Time to focus on the mission.

I was actually getting really into my bussing career til I remembered I was here to murder people.

I was actually getting really into my bussing career til I remembered I was here to murder people.

Now, take note of the 18 years separating the two -- which story makes more sense?

I don’t mean to belittle Hitman. I love the game, its rotating arcade of custom challenges, its  clockwork of looping level events, the tense yet articulate sequences of killing and sneaking. Hitman makes for great stories and unprecedented possibilities, just like Thief does. But for having come so much later in the history of game design, the game pushes few boundaries, beyond its Whoopie Cushion-meets-Gallows Humour emotional tone. All the graphical polish and dynamic sound and plausible-looking crowds of people and dozens of scripted, achievement-linked interactables in each level are just padding around what is, mechanically, the 1998 game Thief in third person. As another player wisely observed, Instinct mode isn’t there as a gameplay tool or character element; it’s a counterbalance against the game’s own obsession with graphical fidelity, to the detriment of visual clarity. Unlike the way animated figures blatantly pop out from the watercolour backgrounds in old Disney movies, Hitman’s high-fidelity housekeys and pipewrenches blur into their surroundings, obscuring their usability. Interactable objects may be indistinguishable from decorative textures without the highlighter-yellow silhouettes. Though Thief takes no pains to distinguish these tools through its UI, it really isn’t necessary, as these objects by their nature are interactable. Chests are for opening, levers are for pulling, fine china is for pocketing. That the opening and closing of all doors in a room strikes this player as impressive speaks volumes about the queer point we’ve reached in current game design. Hitman’s spaces are so sprawling yet full of walls, that level design itself is insufficient to inform the player of where the patrolling enemies are; minimaps and X-ray heat-vision is simply compensation for this unfortunate drawback of massive, sprawling in-and-outdoor levels in a stealth game.

Even the freshly retooled disguise system is just an extrapolation of the visual stealth mechanic in Thief. Disguises operate like small areas of personal shadow, obscuring you from detection except to a dangerous few, who can “illuminate” you through your disguise if they see you, depending on the disguise. Switching from disguise to disguise to gain access to new areas is not significantly more interesting than using the water arrows in Thief to create patches of shadow to creep through the level.

Oh, I guess Hitman has cover "mechanics.” That’s new. I don’t think I’ve been in a situation where wall-hugging would have hidden me any better than just standing as near to that wall as possible. It’s a strange and unnecessary conceit, an artefact of shooter design left in just because.

Though it looks like shit - charmingly so - or maybe because it looks like shit - Thief’s affordances, mechanics, and exposition are communicated deeply and clearly at every level of the game’s design. To a designer with about half the computational power that we play with today, the idea of devoting a team to illustrating an animated, inaccessible background at full clarity would be absolutely ridiculous. All they could afford to take seriously would have been the core design - the interactive component, the game - and that shows in how well it coheres, even today, with its dated graphics and interface. As much fun as I’ve had turning over every leaf in Hitman’s sprawling level designs, the challenge lists and purely scripted interactions ring out as more of an embellished tradition in the 1998 stealth genre than an evolution of it.

Can’t we go further??


space shuttle endeavor.jpg

Tristan, Kevin and old man Petie boy help themselves to a big bite out of the old conversation pie. We take a new and possibly improved format for a test spin. Pete compares Kevins mancave to Silent Hill 4 'The Room.' Kevin wonders if anyone saw the latest James Bond 'film' and does anybody really care? Impressions on Mr.Blows latest game 'The Witness' are also heard to have been remarked.  A gawd awful intermission song takes place....sadly and we talk about our questions for the week: What are your favorite and most memorable game mechanics? Which do you prefer the game character improving or improving as a user? and what does EA origin have to do to win you back as a consumer, assuming you were one to begin with. All this and so much more right here in the Gismos! 

We encourage you wonderful listeners to participate. It's much more fun that way. By any means you feel is necessary- write us, rate our podcast subscribe and ask questions, fuck make a statement just so we know your alive and paying attention. And again folks, thanks for using your precious time to hear us out, we know its the most valuable thing you can afford us.