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Thrower’s Tallies: Games of the Year 2014


Another year, another end of year wrap piece. Time to reflect on the past 365 days as you force down another sweetmeat and another glass of cheap sherry and then to wonder what the future holds.

This has not been the best gaming year for me, personally. Not just in terms of titles released but in terms of finding opportunities to play. For one reason and another, I just haven’t spent the time at the gaming table I’d have liked.

That makes me sad. Real life is important, of course, but you only get one shot at it, a thing I’ve become increasingly aware of as the years slip past. Since gaming is one of my favourite things to do, I ought to be able to find more space for it. Other things just always seem to intervene.

So I look at my collection, much of which is gathering dust in the attic, and wonder if I’ll ever play most of them as many times as they deserve. Or that one day I might look back and regrest not making more time for my favourite things, which so often get lost in the push and shove of family life.

I guess that’s a game in and of itself.

Anyway, enough of the melodrama. This long preamble is setting up the point that a lot of the games I’ve played this year just haven’t lasted beyond the required review plays. Not because they’re bad games, just because they weren’t quite good enough to elbow their way in to a very crowded itenerary.

But when I looked back on what I’d played this year, I conveniently found that there were exactly three games that had broken that trend. Three games that had forced themselves back onto the table after I thought I was done with them by virtue of their brilliance. I was also exceptionally surprised by what they were. Can you guess?

Before I reveal all, I wanted to mention something that’s been bothering me more and more in recent years. I’m just not seeing as much fun in new titles as I used to. I still want to game as much as I ever do, but that itch of excitement when you read a preview or tear the shrinkwrap has gone.

The problem, I think, is that game design has become a process of iterative improvement rather than fizzing creativity. When I got back into board gaming at the turn of the millenium, the design community was still buzzing with the influx of ideas from Germany. Over the next few years, recombining this new paradigm with the traditional American model of gaming proved a fertile furrow.

Now, those ideas seem to have run dry. Genre-breaking games seem to be few and far between. I think this is because, with the market glutted by kickstarter titles, we’re near the limits of what can be done with mere card, wood and plastic. Newer titles are, for the most part, still a step up on older ones. But the improvements are so small, it’s not worth the money or the effort to acquire and learn them over existing games.

We’re done with the misery. On to the awards.


#3 Band of Brothers: Ghost Panzer

Don’t judge games by their boxes. I was put off the original game in this series, Screaming Eagles, by the small publisher and the bad art. Then, while it had its supporters, it didn’t seem to gain much fan traction either, so I wrote it off.

That was a serious mistake. I enjoyed its perfect blend of realism, accessibility, tactics and excitement so much that I played it solo, something I never do. I enjoyed it so much that I went right out and bought Screaming Eagles second hand in case it never got reprinted. The components still suck, but these may be the best tactical wargame rules ever made.

#2 Splendor

This was the real shocker. In many respects, Splendor represents a lot of what I dislike about modern game design. But it keeps coming off the shelf, again and again. And it keeps finding its way into friends collections, again and again. It’s a keeper and, on reflection, one of the best Eurogames I’ve played.

While everyone was mistakenly raving about the way Five Tribes had cross-hobby appeal, Splendor was quietly doing just that in the background. It has one page of rules, can be played competently by my 8-year old, yet is challenging to win at consistently. It’s got gorgeous pieces, a smidgen of interaction and can be completed in 30 minutes. When you step back, what’s not to love?

#1 Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition

Ok, so I’m cheating slightly. But in terms of table time, this is the undoubted winner this year. I thought I was done with role-playing games. I thought over-heavy rules and anti-social players had ruined the genre for me forever. Then fifth edition came along and reminded me of just how amazing, how limitless and soaring, role-playing can be when it gets things right.

I have never seen a rules system which achieves so much with so little. Yes, there’s still lots of spells and magic items and stats to remember. But the actual play mechanics are lean and mean, yet manage to cover almost any situation, allowing groups to mine whatever rich seam of fantasy they choose. I’m so looking forward to where this system is going to go next year. More so than any board game in the pipeline.

Well, except XCOM, perhaps.

Speaking of which, I guess I spend enough time iOS gaming nowadays to make a best of year list for that platform too. I have an odd love-hate relationship with my iPad. Part of me longs for the hours and hours of total engrossment that only a AAA PC or console game can provide. On the other hand, in a busy life I’m grateful that I can now enjoy such excellent bite sized gaming.

It feels like 2014 is the year mobile gaming came of age with meaty franchises and big studios finding their way to the app store. But these are the top of the pile for me, staying installed long after their peers have been deleted.

#3 Hoplite

I’m a big fan of rogue-like games but the classic model doesn’t tend to port well to tablets. It’s too involved, too stat-heavy. Hoplite hit the nail on the head by reducing the genre to a kind of puzzle game, with role-playing elements. It sounds dull, but isn’t, because the procedural generation ensures every puzzle is unique.

#2 FTL

FTL may be the most perfect game in the most perfect genre ever devised, an endless story generator with strategy and role playing thrown in for free. I’ve yet to beat it, even after about twenty hours of play time. And I’m still trying, even after about twenty hours of plat time. This might be number one, were it not marginally better on PC than tablet.

#1 Hearthstone

FATtie Erik Twice has asked me several times why I complain about it all the time on social media, when I profess to love it. The answer is simple: it’s the same reason drug addicts complain about crack. Addiction is a terrible thing, but it doesn’t make the high point of the trip any the less sweet.

Social Justice Warriors and The Grand Conspiracy

The Gamasutra/Intel debacle cannot possibly be summed up better than in the pictured tweet. I’ve blacked out anything identifying because I’m specifically leaving individuals out of this post. This is not about any one person. If you need a broader primer, this article at The Verge is a good place to start. For actual, non-fantastical ethical concerns in games journalism, this is a pretty good start. (Edit: And this, because GG is not about ethics.)

So, how’ve you been?

Let’s talk about social justice warriors and their grand conspiracy to… well, I’m not sure what. But it must be bad for so many people to get all riled up. All I can say for sure is that I’m with you! (I’m not.) These people, these SJWs, must be stopped! (Nope.) We must not have social justice in gaming. (Because why?) Because justice is bad. Inclusion is bad. Diversity is bad. It’s a grand media conspiracy to destroy gaming because gaming must never change. It must never be criticized. It must never evolve. It must never engage in self-examination. It must never grow or broaden, it must only double-down on what it’s been for the last ten years or so, because that is the only history that matters. More guns. More explosions. Bigger tits. These things must not become an endangered species just because a bunch of chicks who are barely gamers to begin with, and the dudes who want to score with them, think games can be more inclusive.

If you support the ideals that you believe the Gamer Gate movement represents then that paragraph is going to sound belittling and misrepresentative. And that’s okay. It was meant to be. I know, being a large-ish (maybe?) group of people, you’re not actually all of one mind about this, and what GG represents from one person to the next isn’t identical. I believe there are good people (probably) who support GG and what it represents to them; people who are genuinely fair-minded (probably); are not racist or misogynistic (probably); people who are not inherently hostile and believe with every fiber of their being that they are on the right side of the issue (probably). I believe these people exist because they have to. No movement of this relative scope can legitimately hinge on making sure vocal women can’t sleep soundly at night. I have more faith in people than that. For the life of me, though, if you’re one of these “reasonable” Gaters, I can’t begin to figure out what “issue” you think you’re on the right side of.

Seriously. I have questions…

Your so-called group of SJWs? (As if there is a some card-carrying universally like-minded SJW organization. Hint: There isn’t. They’re every bit as individualistic as you are and you should stop thinking of “them” as some kind of swarm. “They” are not your enemy.) But taken as a whole, I can understand what many, who are ascribed that label, want. It’s pretty simple stuff, really. Generally speaking, they want gaming to be more inclusive of women and people of color. They’d like AAA publishers, in particular, to stop drinking quite as often at the well of overused tropes. They want to see less use of obvious degenerating gender and racial stereotyping in games because they believe these stereotypes are harmful to the perception of women and people of color in the real world. (I wonder what could possibly give them that idea ?)

Yes, I can see why you would be afraid of what havoc these warriors for social justice can bring to gaming. These are some dangerous notions, so much more dangerous than the onslaught of hostile and threatening criticism they face for the crime of speaking up.

Except you know that’s preposterous. You know that if mutilated hookers disappeared from games tomorrow that it doesn’t mean gaming as you know it is gone forever. I am going to go ahead and assume you are not that stupid. So please explain to me, what is your line in the sand? What damage are your so-labeled SJWs or anyone like them doing to society or the world of gaming? What games have been cancelled and what titles have completely tanked in sales because someone suggested that a female protagonist would’ve been better? How does an opinion column, one that argues the label “gamer” is no longer particularly useful, damage your quality of life or that of anyone else? If games don’t have a problem with misogyny or detrimental stereotypes then what changes are you afraid of happening? You do know that the stoic, white male hero isn’t going anywhere, right? Go ahead and explain all this to me. I’m listening.

Okay, so let’s approach from the “journalistic” side (while trying to remember this is not the New York Times; this is enthusiast press, like Entertainment Weekly). If what concerns you is the editorial direction of websites that feature games writing, maybe you’re not aware that there are like a billion of them, catering to every possible style under the sun? Maybe you’re not aware that these sites are not democracies? They get to choose their content. You may not like their choices, but, the beauty is that if they consistently choose poorly, people won’t go to them and your problem with them is solved. (See: High Scores, No.) And if people do go to them, then maybe the work and viewpoints they espouse aren’t as outside then norm as you’d like to believe. Maybe –and stay with me here– if you, specifically, can’t find an outlet that adequately reflects what you like about games (because the only good writing is writing you agree with?), then you’re either looking in the wrong places or you must acknowledge that it is your views that are increasingly outside the norm in 2014?

This, to me, is the biggest mystery in the entire Gamer Gate fiasco. It’s a movement in search of a cause. It is misplaced and unrestrained anger looking for a punching bag and it’s not particularly picky about who it’s punching. “Look! This gal thinks differently from us and she’s saying so publicly! Get her!”

That is, perhaps, the biggest difference between the Gaters and those of us in the pro-inclusion crowd. I don’t see people in the latter group trying to bully anyone out of the industry or out of the hobby (and I follow a lot of the people near the epicenter of these debates). The vast majority of what I’ve seen written, tweeted, or recorded, has been in advocacy for how gaming could be better for more people if it were more inclusive. You can’t say that about the Gaters. This is a movement that is entirely about silencing voices. Boycotting something is not how you express disagreement with a perspective. Boycotting is how you say that something is so beyond the pale awful that it must be ended immediately, and until it’s gone you won’t do/buy thing X. That has its place in our society, but that place is not because Chris Writer, who happens to write things like, “Game Y would be better with more women in it,” belongs to a group of professional colleagues that –Gasp!– actually discusses issues in gaming and games criticism.

The stupidest part of all this bellyaching that writers (and developers) have opinions and a tendency to express them is that gaming –you know, the actual games– is experiencing a renaissance at this very moment. Today. It has a long way to go, so don’t conflate this with me saying awesome = above criticism when it’s not, but it is getting better and it’s becoming so much more like it used to feel when I was a kid — hugely diverse.

I remember walking into a software shop as a ten-year-old and marveling at the sheer volume of options at my disposal. Not just the total number of games, but the variety of them. For a kid to walk in the software aisle in 1986 as your dad told you, “You can pick out just one”? That was a flipp’n holiday. And a huge giant matzo ball of stress because how can you possibly look at this wall of stuff and pick just one?

And then gaming got popular. Like, really popular. Like you were no longer the weirdo because you played games. And when something gets popular, more money gets involved. And when more money gets involved people who like to make money get involved. And these people don’t actually give a fig about games or gamers, just money, so they’re only going to fund the games that they believe are likely to make the most money. Simultaneously, the machines on which we play got more advanced. And as they got more advanced, games got a lot more expensive to make. And then, one day, you suddenly had to pull up giant armored trucks full of money and pour it out onto a table to get games made at all. And with all that up-front money required, you kind of had to be hugely, ridiculously successful in order to make it worth being a ginormous publisher in the first place. We have stockholders to appease, dammit!

(Hey, look at all those sentences that start with “and!” Suck it, 8th-grade English teacher!! I’m living the dream right now!!! Exclamation points for everyone!!!!)

As this played out, the variety and types of games narrowed and it narrowed some more and it narrowed some more. We call this the Golden Age of AAA Publishing. Or I do. Except I don’t mean it because I’m a sarcastic git. It’s really more like a ginormous, burning mound of coal, the kind that’s putting more carbon into the atmosphere and slowly killing us all. (Ooops. That was liberal. I apologize for my embrace of a giant consensus of edumacated climate scientists and their desire for the human race not to die out within a millennia. They’re worse than the SJWs.)

AAA publishing produced a lot of good games, so don’t get me wrong. But it didn’t produce a particularly broad variety of games and the script just a few years ago had become so beyond the pale rote and boring to me, that I very nearly gave up on gaming altogether.

A quick synopsis of me from 2011 to 2013.

A funny thing happened, however, while I was busy lamenting that $60 boxed copies of games were becoming more and more homogeneous. People, a whole lot of very creative and talented people, were making and utilizing tools that could make independent and small studio game development plausible again. A hobby that started out as a few of guys or gals in their basement or garage dreaming up something cool and different, and turned into something that only a team of hundreds could build, began returning to a few guys or gals in their basement or garage dreaming up something cool and different.

Only these folks? There are more of them and they’ve got the Internet now, not to mention a couple of very popular delivery platforms that will host and sell their content. I don’t know if gaming has gotten bigger as the indie and small dev scene has exploded, but it has absolutely gotten broader. I’ve watched gaming evolve for more than 30 years. There is more stuff out there today, and a greater variety of it, than at any time I can remember. As a gamer, even if that broadening means that there’s also a preponderance of stuff out there that you wouldn’t play if your life depended on it, that’s something you should celebrate, not something to fight against. It’s okay for some things to be for people who are not you.

The other thing that’s happened as gaming has broadened, is that so has the media that covers them. Guess what happens when the people who write about games become a more diverse group? Yeah, you get more and different opinions about games. And you? You’re not going to like all of those opinions. Some of them are even going to say mean things about games you like.



The beauty is, you don’t have agree with any of it. Nobody is forcing you to carry a placard and decry the evil AAA publishers because maybe not every single shooter in existence needs to have a set piece featuring strippers. Mostly, this cabal (not a cabal) of SJWs just wants to be able to speak about this stuff without you calling them in the middle of the night with orders for Five Guys, or, you know, issuing vile epithets, rape, and death threats on Twitter. And if you could cut out the doxxing that would be swell too.

I know that’s asking a lot, this request to behave with some shred of basic human decency, even in the face of people saying things you don’t like. It is, sadly, the world we live in. But we’re not talking about you, right? Because you, Rational Gamer Gater, you are probably staunchly opposed to this behavior too. For you it really is “about the principles.” Well, there are two things here:

1. Whether you like it or not, if you align yourself with this whole GG thing, this harassment campaign is something you’re aligning yourself with. It’s not avoidable.

2. People writing things you don’t like is not corruption, nor is it, in and of itself, a reason for those things not to exist. More to the point, people writing things you don’t agree with doesn’t make them wrong.

Game reviews and opinion columns are not supposed to be objective, nor balanced, nor must you agree with them to get something out of them. Some of the best game writing I’ve ever read took positions with which I didn’t agree. (A favorite quote: “If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people. If you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.”) Writers who can paint a clear picture and substantiate what they love or hate about a game (or gaming) in an eloquent way are hugely valuable to the gaming community because they do, in fact, allow you to make your own informed judgment about what to buy and who to follow. If you’re looking for a game review or an opinion piece to be objective, or if you think something is bad purely because it engages in ideas or perspectives you don’t agree with, then your problem isn’t the writer or the outlet, it’s you.

Now, say I’m wrong about every last thing I’ve written here. It wouldn’t be a first for me. Guess what? Even in that case, all you folks who are upset because you’re convinced gaming journalism is corrupt can still sleep soundly at night in the knowledge that games writers really don’t move the needle all that much and when we do it tends to be in a way that spurs sales, not spurns them. Publishers determine what and how games get made, not critics. Publicly traded AAA publishing companies, in particular, go where the money is. If gamers buy a game en mass, then no egghead writer is going to stop the publisher from making another one just like it. Boom. Done. Ballgame.

As long as publishers feel there is more money in bigger guns and dead hookers, that’s what we’ll continue to see. However, many of us in the “pro inclusion” crowd believe there is actually more money to be made in being more inclusive, and opening more doors to more and different people, than there is in a potentially harmful status quo. And there is at least some evidence to suggest that needle is moving. Slowly, yes, but it feels like it’s happening and, if so, it’s surely in large part because games criticism, development, and publishing are gradually becoming more diverse. More smart women and people of color are finding places for their voices to be heard and it’s a travesty that so many people would ally themselves with a movement whose sole purpose is to extinguish those voices.

A good chunk of the time when I hear something from one of those voices, I don’t even agree with them. Or, more accurately, I agree with some bits of it, but not others. Yet I’ve learned more in listening to those voices and giving them my consideration than I have from bandying about with a bunch of people who already think like me. I hope this trend of fresh new voices, and old voices finding new and more platforms, not only continues, but accelerates. We can only learn, grow, and benefit from them. And if it just so happens that it leads to publishers and developers pushing harder to make their games more mature, more consistent in acknowledging women and people of color as something other than stereotypes, then remember that they’re doing it because they think there’s a larger audience for them in doing so. It’s not because of censorship (maybe look that term up before you start bandying it about), it’s because the market always wins eventually and sometimes that means you lose.

It’s an outcome that I can only hope comes to pass, for the simple reason that this hobby is at its best when it’s by everyone, for everyone.

Cracked LCD- Reiner Knizia, Master of Theme


Over the past year, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and re-thinking about what makes a game “thematic” versus “abstract. I reached a certain impasse, a level of dissatisfaction with games that were regarded by gamers with the dreadful “dripping with theme” appellation, which almost always means that a game has plentiful artwork, nomenclature and lore regardless of the relative interchangeability of mechanics derived from a stock list of routine processes and procedures. I’ve argued in the past that there are levels of theme occurring at “executive” (illustration and fluff) and “conceptual” (mechanics and contexts) levels. But a few games that I’ve been revisiting of late have caused me to completely rewrite the Barnes Position on theme in games- where it exists, what generates it and what it should be doing as part of a design.

It may surprise many readers, who have bought into a certain online gamer forum party line, that all of these games were designed by Reiner Knizia. For as far back as I can remember- going back to newsgroup at least- the general consensus was that Dr. Knizia was the case study for the pasted-on theme, a layer of pictures and text to impart a post facto sense of meaning or setting to colored, numbered cards or auctions.

Truthfully, if your understanding of theme in games is a direct function of how many plastic miniatures are in the box, how much flavor text there is on the cards, the quality of the drawings in the rule book or how much dice-rolling there is in it then certainly a Knizia design isn’t going to be regarded as “dripping with theme”. But if by theme you want and expect a game to provide a formalized, abstract explication of more literary and interpretative contexts and meaning then some of Knizia’s best games reveal him to be a far greater master of expressing theme in games than any of Fantasy Flight Games’ house designers.

Modern Art, which I recently reviewed as part of my Eurogames Reclamation Project is a perfect example. It’s widely considered an “abstract” design, consisting primarily of a deck of cards depicting the purposefully terrible works of fictional artists and some money chips. Yet what the game describes is a perfect example of how rich a game’s theme- as opposed to its setting- can be. Players represent art dealers effectively trying to turn worthless art into valuable commodities. The action of the game creates these values, and players are constantly engaged in hyping up junk and paying attention to what’s hot and what’s not from season to season. The actions, as well as the themes they illustrate, serve to parody speculation and the fine art marketplace. This is all getting at a deeper function of game design than shooting zombies with a +1 shotgun or whatever.

Tigris & Euphrates is another game widely decried as having a “pasted on” theme, but when I play this Sackson-influenced tile-laying masterpiece, the theme of civilizations rising and then coming into conflict with others over resources or political, spiritual, and geographical issues blazes through the simple process. The internal conflict mechanic, for example, describes how a new leader may stage a coup within a population with the support of local religious or ideological figures. In game terms, this may just mean playing a wooden token and then some tiles. But that abstraction (and let’s not forget that all games are abstract) bears real meaning beyond the description of action. What is lost in the depiction of conflict in Tigris and Euphrates is the kind of detail that you might find in Civilization or Clash of Cultures but in return players experience a very lean, very focused sense of what actions mean at their most essential level.

You see these kinds of things throughout the Knizia catalog, usually bound in authorial, recurring themes and mechanics. Risk-taking, balancing advantages with helping others, accepting negative values to attain positive ones and choosing your conflict from among several are concepts you see time and time again. It’s true that some of his designs skew more toward pure abstraction and away from bearing purposeful theme, but even in games like Through the Desert meaning emerges. A caravan needs water. But you have five caravans, and you have to decide which to increase in value by getting them to water, which also increases their size as you add camels. It’s not Tales of the Arabian Nights in terms of storytelling, but there is a narrative there and a theme of desert survival and water as a source of prosperity clearly becomes evident.

Which isn’t to say that some of Knizia’s games aren’t purely mechanical. Loco, Flinke Plinke, Thor, Quandary or whatever name you know his simple “play a card, take a chip” game by has no theme other than competition. It isn’t abstracting anything, it is raw mechanics. Many of his more recent designs- Fits, Indigo, Callisto Qin and so forth are also moving more toward exploring or iterating on mechanics without themes. An ever-growing number of Knizia designs are simpler card games that have been appointed with new “themes” such as the recent Fantasy Flight addition of Game of Thrones stills, terms and fonts to a Knizia game that used to have something to do with penguins. And there’s the case of Municipium, a compact area control game which started out with a pulp adventure setting and wound up on the market saddled with woefully generic Roman livery and horrible Mike Doyle artwork to appease the Eurogaming set. It strikes me that this whole notion of him “pasting on themes” has more to do with publishers repurposing his less specific designs with market-appeasing pictures and less with the kinds of theme he builds into his more significant work

Knizia is a tremendously versatile designer and despite his name appearing on hordes of games with genuinely pasted-on settings (Cthulhu, zombies, donuts and so forth), he has done games that are closer to what most gamers would regard as “thematic”. His 2000 masterpiece, Lord of the Rings, is one of the most thematic games ever published not because it literally recounts Tolkien’s entire story as an abstraction, but because it describes the literary themes that were important to the writer. The Lord of the Rings is not “about” fighting orcs, a magic ring or even Hobbits. It’s about themes such as self-sacrifice, overcoming impossible odds, finding the strength to endure corruption, friendship and other very human, very universal concepts that reach much further than the fantasy nomenclature and settings.

Knizia’s Lord of the Rings does exactly the same thing, regardless of how many gamers whine and sniffle at the fact that the primary, highly abstracted procedure of the game is playing cards representing four different heroic values to move a token forward on a track. For these gamers, War of the Ring is likely a much better representation of the setting although what it describes is action much more so than theme. Knizia’s concept was to convey both the literal and literary content of Tolkien’s work, and when you are faced with a do-or-die situation in the game where you have a choice to risk putting on the Ring and falling into corruption to save the party, it’s clear that this game is pasted on to its theme- not the other way around.

Five years later, Knizia would do something almost as compelling in terms of expressing theme with Beowulf, a game that even I didn’t really quite get when it first came out. Back in 2005, I wanted a Beowulf game where you could “be” Beowulf, fighting Grendel and accomplishing heroic acts from the celebrated epic. But this was a game where you played sets of “friendship” cards to win auctions. Honestly, at that stage in my gaming life it could have been a Talisman clone in Beowulf drag and I would have been happy. But revisiting the game here in 2014, I’ve been nothing less than shocked to find how richly thematic it is.

Knizia’s take on Beowulf is highly interpretative. That means, do not go into this game thinking that “Beowulf” is a theme. In this woefully underappreciated FFG release, players represent members of Beowulf’s retinue. The idea is that you are trying to effectively keep up with- and impress- this archetypical superhero figure by rising to various challenges. But in Knizia fashion, you just don’t have the strength or endurance (represented by your cards) to do it all. So the theme that emerges is one where players are made aware of the traditional heroic narrative and participate in all of the risks, triumphs and defeats, but at a distance from Beowulf. He is going to make it to the end and be the hero, regardless of what the players do or how badly they fail. Because Knizia wants you to know that you aren’t as good as Beowulf. Who could be? The best you can do is to try to be as good as Wiglaf, and to do that you have to play cards that abstract the core actions and values at the heart of the epic, strategically conseriving and exerting strength. The game doesn’t need flavor text, excessive detail or elaborate mechanics to drive its narrative toward its thematic goal of having the player experience heroic fantasy as participator, an observer and most importantly an aspirant.

The evidence for Knizia’s economic mastery of theme goes on and on, often in subtler detail than is usually expected in so-called “thematic” games. There’s the Nile tiles in Ra that have to be flooded for them to have value. The persistence of the Pyramids- the only relics of the first half of the game that remain standing- in Amun-Re. There’s the desperate struggle to keep Frodo hidden in his two-player Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation. High Society is as much about saving money and being prepared for disaster as it is the excessive spending of the wealthy. Consider the simple, hugely thematic concept of choosing which expeditions to risk investing in over the course of a game of Lost Cities. And then there are any number of “play or pass” mechanics that Knizia uses in everything from Taj Mahal to Blue Moon that represent players, leaders or factions resting, strategically withdrawing to marshal strength for the next fight. That’s a theme in itself, and one that is deeper than what is usually seen in games “dripping with theme”- which too often means that the design is built on top of relatively generic mechanics and laden with pasted-on pictures, nomenclature and fluff text.

Why the Internet is Full of $#!t About Destiny’s Story

Destiny-Logo-XBox-One-PS4Like many of you, I’ve been playing Destiny. I’ve mostly retired from playing AAA video games for a number of reasons documented here at NHS and elsewhere, but a new game from the creators of Halo was compelling enough to get me to go to Gamestop- for the midnight release, no less- to pick up a copy of this big-budget blockbuster. Because Bungie understands video games better than many other developers. They understand play, and the Halo games have always excelled at providing players with lots of ways to engage their content. Their mechanics are impeccable and their games are thankfully free of the kinds of negative, hateful “let the bodies hit the floor” style violence so common in other popular action games.

But one thing Bungie has never been good at is telling a story.

Let’s face it, if you were over the age of 18 or so when the first Halo came out then you’re old enough to realize that the success of Bungie’s world-building and lore-crafting has more to do with their James Cameron-like sense of military detail and production design grounded in practicality. The actual writing, the dialogue that spills out of the mouths of Master Chief, Cortana and…that other guy…is atrocious. The plotting is nebulous at best, nonsensical and incoherent at worst. Dialogue is mostly of the sort that sounds really awesome when you’re 15. Tropes flood the games, watering down the most successful parts of the story- there is a mega-weapon called the Halo. Aliens shoot at you unless you shoot them first.

Coming back to Destiny, one of the common complaints that discussion forums and comments are neck-deep in this week is that the Destiny story “sucks” or is practically non-existence. There is a sense of disappointment that there’s no Master Chief-like character to anchor the action. Folks are upset that there isn’t more of a sense of world-crafting or specific narrative upon which to hang all of the alien-shooting.

At first, I’ll admit I felt that too, that it was missing a narrative binding to hold together the outstanding, finely tuned gameplay. But then I realized after a few hours that not only was I thankful that Bungie abandoned both their own storytelling techniques from last generation, but also the faux-Hollywood methods that have poisoned AAA game development by shoving gameplay to the back of the bus in favor of non-interactive spectacle.

Instead, it seems that Bungie took a cue from the Souls game rather than The Last of Us. The story of Destiny is effectively told in two pieces. One piece, the most important one, is in what you as a player do with your character over the course of the game. The weapons, missions, social connections, discoveries and events are the story. It’s not told in non-interactive cut-scenes. It’s not told in a vast, open world filled with NPCs spouting canned sentences.

But the other piece of the Destiny story is the more interesting one. Bungie has opted to do something that is almost never popular with the proletariat. They decided to create the world, the story of Destiny almost entirely through vague suggestion, imagery and wilful exclusion of detail.

Even if you’ve just played the alpha or beta, you can see this in the Russian area of the game. You know about the Traveller, some vague suggestions that it has some kind of function similar to the Monolith in 2001. There’s a couple of different alien species that have sort of waylaid humanity’s expansion into space. There’s a mysterious power called “the Light”. And then the Guardians, sort of ranger-warriors fighting to preserve what’s left of humanity.

It’s clear when you first walk out into post-Collapse Russia that something went down. There doesn’t need to be any more detail than what is shown. You see downed, ancient jet fighters and tanks. There’s that amazing vista of the Cosmodome, its launch pad prepped for launch but in a state of arrested function. Do you really want there to be a cut scene that shows you exactly what happened, or would you rather engage your imagination and wonder?

There are, of course, some minor details supplied by Peter Dinklage’s much-maligned, disaffected line readings. There are bits of background story amorphously suggested here and there- the names of guns, systems of nomenclature, allusions to organization and culture. But the vast majority of what happened and is happening is implied, not enumerated. I think this was a brilliant decision, and one that is already divisive. They went gameplay first in it, but they took a much more sophisticated approach to world-building and storytelling than I expected.

Destiny, in a lot of ways, shows how Bungie is very much trying to sort out what exactly a next generation FPS game looks like. It’s a highly studied, carefully constructed game that draws from a number of trends in game design from the past several years. It’s surprisingly experimental for a game with a gazillion dollar budget, but it plays it very safe in terms of actual gameplay. Yet they’re skirting close to (and actively) antagonizing gamers by witholding “lore” details.

I applaud Bungie for taking a big chance by jettisoning the weakest part of the Halo formula. I’m really quite stunned that they dared to dare players to use their imaginations, to tell their own story through gameplay rather than by parading didactic fake cinema across the screen and calling it a “game”. Once again, the internet dogpile mob has demonstrated that it can’t be trusted when it comes to opinions and analysis about video games.

I Wrote the Wrong Post (on Misogyny and Gaming)


A few months ago I wrote a piece that was ostensibly about maturity in the game industry, but that was really about trying to define what is and isn’t sexism and misogyny in games. Yes, I uncategorically condemned online harassment. Yes, I absolutely supported the idea that the gaming industry desperately needs to grow up and become more inclusive. But I also wrote that the mere appearance of sexism doesn’t make something inherently sexist. I wrote that it’s impossible to avoid stereotypical pitfalls 100% of the time and that its surface appearance, which absolutely should be open to analysis and criticism, also shouldn’t come to define the entirety of the work. I wrote that we can better see the real problems the industry has with inclusion by looking more at the aggregate than the specific.

I was making the wrong arguments…

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe those things, but as I actually open my eyes and pay more attention, and in light of some of the truly abhorrent events of the past weeks, I can see just how much this argument truly does not matter. Not right now. There is no point in debating the topic at that nuts and bolts level when the peanut gallery can’t even agree that it should be out of bounds to threaten the bodies, lives, and families of women who dare to have publicly-expressed opinions about gaming.

I was naïve as to how bad it can truly get. There is no other word for it. Sure, we’ve all seen horrifically moronic, hate-filled comments posted beneath all manner of articles on all manner of subjects. It’s disgusting and depressing, but that is nothing new and we’ve largely managed to get by in growing a thicker skin and understanding that words only hold as much power as we give them. But that attitude can only take you so far. There are lines being crossed that go beyond sticks and stones. There aren’t words to describe this…


That’s from Anita Sarkeesian’s tumbler. That hate is coming her way for what reason? Because she had the unmitigated gall to create some thorough, professionally produced, and thought-provoking work on Women as Tropes in gaming. Work that was crowd-funded in a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign that rose to six figures against goal of just $6k. (I’ve embedded the first two parts of the most recent set, Women as Background Decoration, at the end of this post. You don’t have to agree with every example used in these videos to understand the accuracy of the broader point and these videos are required viewing if you want to even begin to form an opinion on this topic.)

This harassment isn’t even the tip of the iceberg. At best it’s a few steps from the base. The tip is where people, decent people who are getting by doing the best work they can in and industry they want to love,  are having personal accounts hacked and publicized, the accounts of friends and family members hacked and publicized, having their home addresses published alongside threats to their lives. It’s surreal. Most of you already know the most recent events, and if you don’t there are plenty of quality places to go to learn more. Try here and here if you want to get started.

So why am I writing this? What do I have to add? Unfortunately, not nearly as much as I’d like. I suppose I’m posting this in part because although I don’t specifically disagree with what I wrote before, I can’t in good conscience let that be my last word on the matter; not when I’ve come to realize that half the core argument is irrelevant. It’s minutiae that, in this climate, is not worth the page space I gave it. I mistook the forest for the trees and I regret it.

Mostly, however, I’m posting this because I want to do and say something and I don’t know what else I can do. Even standing on the distant periphery of it all, this ongoing savage injustice frustrates and saddens me on so many levels I don’t really even know how to process it. I feel impotent and less than useless in the face of it. So, however small this particular pool, it’s the most public place I have to say that I stand with the people calling for tolerance and inclusion. I support them in word and I’m going to begin supporting them by whatever other means I can, including backing their work in venues like Patreon and Kickstarter. I hope that you do as well.

This has also all been a sharp reminder that I’m raising two young children who are growing up in this world and that guiding them to be better than all of this is perhaps my most important contribution. I want my daughter to know that her dad has her back in whatever she chooses to do in life and that she’s strong enough to face down whatever or whomever would stand in her way. For my son I want very much the same, but I also want him to understand that this cacophony of Internet hate-mongers do not represent what it is to be a man. I want him to understand that empathy, patience, and tolerance are not weakness, nor are faux-bravado, intimidation, and threats strength. If you have or will have children you have a responsibility to guide them, as best you can, not to be a part of this problem. Sadly, our most realistic path to a future better than the present is to grow our way out of it.

One final note, the latest straw man from those who don’t like what these women have to say is to call them corrupt; to call the entire games journalism profession corrupt. I’ve only ever skimmed the surface of game journo circles, but I can tell you with 100% conviction these arguments are asinine. There is shoddy work out there, yes, but the notion of widespread corruption is a fallacy. Isolated examples will always exist, but don’t confuse the poor work of some with corruption. There is a difference. And what’s truly bizarre is that it’s the best, most brilliant work people out there that are, perversely, under the most severe attack. It’s that their work that, if you agree with it, needs your support in whatever way you’re able to offer it. If you don’t agree with it, at least stop and think about how you respond to it. What cause are you furthering? What message are you conveying? If you have (or someday might have) a daughter  (or son) would you want her (him) to see what you’re putting out there? If your only goal is to tear something or someone down by any means necessary then I sincerely and wholeheartedly beg of you — just back away from the keyboard and let it go.

It doesn’t have to be like this.


YouTube video

YouTube video