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Monthly Archives: February 2010

Turnover

There’s something eerily strange about playing old sports games. Picking up and putting in an EA game from a couple of years back is tantamount to rubbing shoulders with the ghosts of the past, with names and faces that are both familiar and at the same time disconcertingly out of place.

I’m not quite sure what it’s like for your own team, but down at White Hart Lane there has been a reasonable amount of player turnover during the last few seasons. As new managers come in so do players that suit their style, and a broom is swept through the dressing room to remove those that don’t have a place in the new regime. Last minute transfers can play havoc with a developer’s nicely tuned roster but a season’s worth of change leaves it a mere shadow of its former self.

Spurs seem to have it worse than most, though. Despite only being FIFA 09, last year’s edition, our default starting line-up was ajudged to be Darren Bent and Giovani Dos Santos, strikers who are now plying their trade at Sunderland and Galatasaray respectively. The Sunderland connection continues with appearances from both Fraizer Campbell and Alan Hutton making the squad, with Didier Zokora, currently playing for Sevilla, playing alongside them.

The squad is completed with Chris Gunter (now of Notts Forest), Kevin-Prince Boateng (Portsmouth), John Bostock (Crystal Palace), Jamie O’Hara (Portsmouth), Adel Taarabt (QPR), Ben Alnwick (Norwich), Hossam Ghaly (Al-Nassr), Ricardo Rocha (Portsmouth), Paul Stalteri (Borussia Mönchengladbach) and Dorian Dervite (Southend). In fact, out of the whole squad of 30 players, only 11 are still with us this season. And do bear in mind this is only last year’s game.

When so many changes have been made, it’s hard to take the team seriously. The sense of playing a part in your club’s virtual success is soured by the history that has since been made with the players you are now making dance to your will. That star striker that left you citing his intentions to “take his career to the next level” is more likely to be plunged into dubious and red card inducing challenges. That defender with the now dodgy knee might just skirt the edges of the action as you resisting to urge to send him into the heat of battle for fear of recreating that career ending tackle.

Play as a team from a foreign clime and all might be well, but it seems easier to pick up SWOS and examine the Totttenham Hotspurs line-up of the early Nineties than it is to turn the calendar back just 12 months. It’s all too easy to see how EA keep making their money.

P.B. Winterbottom – Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

The Misadventures of P. B. Winterbottom are a throwback to that most classical of platforming staples: collecathons. The protagonist, one P. B. Winterbottom, has a weakness for pies and causes no end of trouble for his fellow townsfolk as he bids to stuff his face with as many of these baked goods as possible. Nothing will come between him and his next fruit filled crust.

However, one fateful night, ‘bottom encounters an enchanted pie which leads him on a merry chase across a Victorian cityscape. Unfortunately, in doing so, it carelessly grants him the power to control time and space.

If the prospect of a platformer beset with arbitrary items to collect already has you wracked with apathy, then fear not. True, our dear ‘bottom has the standard ability of jumping higher than a man of his portly nature should really be able to, and is equipped with an umbrella that he can use like a moustachioed Mary Poppins, but thanks to the magical pie he also has the ability to spawn a clone.

Holding down the right trigger will see all of ‘bottom’s actions recorded, and upon releasing said trigger up will sprout a replica ‘bottom who will replay his exact actions on an infinite loop. The original is then free to interact with his clone, be it turning his sturdy hat into a stepping stone to reach a higher level or using a prerecorded swing of his umbrella to send himself flying through the air like a loosely delivered cricket ball. This may sound fairly reasonable but when it clicks that you can record yourself using a recording of yourself, or even record yourself using a recording of yourself using a recording of yourself… then the brain may just begin to trickle from the ears.

Whilst fellow Xbox Live Arcader Cloning Clyde never really got beyond the premise of producing clones to do little more than to stand on switches, Winterbottom keeps the concept fresh and engaging by reinventing itself every few levels. The first world sees pies needing to be collected in a specific order, the second introduces pies that can only be collected by clones whilst the third, fourth and fifth build on those concepts with evil clones and even more ingenious methods of keeping you from your favourite food. True, there is a certain amount of standing on switches initially but soon you will find your mind being forced to think in four, or occasionally five, dimensions, and in ever more imaginative ways.

Some levels involve timing, others a basic degree of platforming skill, but all require a modicum of thought and a hefty helping of patience. As with Braid, the joy gained from such an experience is not only identifying the solution, but executing it with panache. Early on, for instance, you’ll have to grab pies swiftly from alternating sides of the screen. At first it may seem impossible but constantly replicating yourself and whacking ‘bottoms to left and to right can only be described as a perfect ballet of clone abuse.

Later you’ll find see-saws, conveyor belts, flames, moving doorways and a series of dazzling spotlights that all need to be beaten in order to reach your goal. Only occassionally will frustration creep upon you with a solution that is not entire evident, but the gentle learning curve and gorgeous presentation does a great deal to soothe any possible thoughts of storming off in a annoyance.

The entire escapade is portrayed as though it were a silent movie; over its monochromatic palette a grainy filter plays, and in between levels still-frames display text that tell of ‘bottoms tale. Written as rhyming couplets these segues do a great deal to bring the characters to life and evelates the game as a whole. Both their humour and their style can be likened to the dark comedic writings of Roald Dahl, which is apt for the accompanying imagery seems a blend of Quentin Blake and the more contemporary Penny Arcade.

Some may accuse Winterbottom of being a touch of the short side. His stature aside, it is possible to polish off his pie obsessed adventure in less than two hours. Personally I would far prefer to leave a game wanting more than feeling grateful that the credits are rolling. And with the inclusion of a host of challenge levels to test your speed and cloning proficiency, there are the means for you to carry on enjoying ‘bottom’s company long after his story has ended.

At its core Winterbottom may seem easy to pigeonhole as a cross between Braid and Cloning Clyde, but it takes their principles and improves on them both. Dothing his hat and a waving his umbrella, Winterbottom packs in more character than Indie darling Braid and provides more substance than the disappointing Clyde. May his misadventures continue.

8 /10

Bioshock 2 – Review

There are some games that simply don’t need a follow-up. Those titles that, whilst not perfect, have given you an experience that would only be tainted should a publisher turn around a hurried and substandard sequel. Team Ico’s output is a great example of just leaving things be, but another would have been Bioshock. What more needed to be said about Rapture?

The original surprised and delighted me a great deal. I was so taken by the wonderful art-deco metropolis hidden beneath the waves that I thought returning would only dampen its impact and tarnish its memory. Swapping the developer and incorporating a multiplayer element compounded worries; but people need not always fear change.

Set almost a decade after the events of Bioshock, the underwater city of Rapture has fallen under control of eminent psychologist Dr Sofia Lamb; though with that shift in power away from capitalist Andrew Ryan, things are no better for its denizens and their lives still lie in ruin.

Genetic mutants known as splicers continue to roam freely, hoping to for their next fix of ADAM. Those familiar with the series will know of the Little Sisters, warped young girls who seek out angels, aka dead bodies, and harvest their genetic material, the ADAM the splicers crave. These young children would not last more than a few moments in such a harsh environment if it weren’t for the bodyguards which accompany them. Trussed up in ancient, heavy-duty diving suits, these Big Daddies will protect their Little Sisters at any cost. Naming conventions aside, what you’re looking at is a good old fashioned drug war several hundred metres below sea level.

Into this depressing arena you arrive, the original Big Daddy. Supposedly killed ten years prior, your reappearance is a shock to many, not least of whom is Dr Lamb; who willed you to put a gun to your head whilst your bonded Little Sister Eleanor watched on. Time has not dented this connection and you set out into Rapture to rescue her.

The first thing that is obvious is that Bioshock still looks stunning. 2K Marin have not slipped from the high standard set by Irrational Games, and Rapture is replete with all the ramshackle 1950s styling that you’d expect. The one thing that isn’t there however is the punch that the initial instalment made in its opening scenes, though this isn’t surprising as you can never recapture the awe of seeing Rapture for the first time.

But any slight sense of disappointment is put to one side early on as you are swiftly introduced to your new nemesis: the Big Sister. Just like you she is a supped up guardian of the Little Sisters, but this nimble minx is a world away from your lumbering bulk. Able to vault and spin her way swiftly through the environment, she is a deadly foe.

To aid you in your fight against her, combat mechanics have been revised slightly with the ability to wield both a gun and a plasmid – Bioshock’s ADAM induced superpowers – at the same time. Early on combat can be a struggle, almost chore-like, as you have but one gun and the game does not control as well as the likes of Modern Warfare or Halo; as a straight twitch-shooter it doesn’t stand up. However, as you begin to earn ADAM, more of an arsenal becomes available and things change dramatically. The feeling that Bioshock 2 is a run-of-the-mill shooter dressed up in some mid-twentieth century hand-me-downs fades, and in its place you discover a whole box of toys to play with.

Although this list may seem slightly macabre, instead of entering a room firing blindly from the hip, why not get creative? Set a few flaming hurricane traps for splicers to wander into, or a few electric trip wires just out of view. Get their attention by sending in a swarm of angry bees, and when they come running hypnotise one to fight on your side and freeze the rest before shattering them with your Big Daddy trademark drill – all whilst the hacked security drones mop up the stragglers. Beats a boring SMG any day of the week.

Plasmids are what sets the Bioshock franchise apart from other first-person shooters. And whilst electric bolts, fire balls and icy winds are the staple of any set, there is enough variety to encourage hackers, stealthy assassins, elementals and gun toters to each have their own experience. What you’ll be frying or freezing will be familiar, with thug, leadhead, spider and Houdini splicers all returning and joined by a thug that is not too dissimilar from the Tank in Left 4 Dead; he’s tough and doesn’t mind lobbing the odd block of bedrock in your general direction.

Almost inevitably, taking on the role of a Big Daddy sees you tasked with protecting Little Sisters. There is the small matter of relieving their current Big Daddy of his duties – and of his obligation to remain linked to the mortal coil – but once adopted they can be put to work harvesting ADAM. Each harvesting, however, is a battle of survival as waves of enemies are lured by the possibility of another fix. It is here that all plasmids and special weaponry must be utilised to their fullest to fend them the assailants.

These set-pieces were the highlight of the adventure; they summed up exactly what life in Rapture seemed to be like from all that we have come to know about the Big Daddies. Their thankless task of protecting this warped child while they harvest organs is a panic-inducing experience. There was always the calm before the storm where the area could be prepped with mini-turrets and traps, but as soon as the harvesting began, splicers could appear from almost anywhere, causing an intense and ammo-sapping few minutes until Little Sister had finished and you could retreat and recuperate.

Furthermore, rescue all the Sisters in the level and Big Sister will reappear to reprimand you for freeing her siblings. After a pitched battle the last thing you want to see is an athletic monster come springing towards you, but again it helps capture an experience that has reinvented itself for the sequel.

For those who yawn at the thought of a multitude of protection missions there is always the option of simply harvesting the child herself, which will save you an awful lot of time and effort. Though those who do so may find their trip to Rapture curtailed somewhat. That is not to say the game is padded out with these events, but some may wish to argue as such if they find they race through this dilapidated Atlantis at pace.

Of course others remember their first venture into Rapture’s decaying heart for more than the rough and tumble. The dystopian story took in capitalism, morality and a double cross which still stands as one of the best tales of this current generation. Again, throughout your journey you’ll meet many strange folk, each with their own back stories and reasons for helping or hindering as you make your way to the Doctor and Eleanor. There is a seemingly communist undertone to the Doctor, which is an interesting counterpoint to Ryan’s stance on how society should be run.

The environments themselves take in a cross-section of Rapture life. From research labs to housing blocks, theatres to ballrooms, you wander through a drowned society with a level design that may not be the most sprawling but fits itself around buildings that are assembled as though they had proper form and function. That same aspect does mean there is a small amount of backtracking but it is not to the detriment of the game and is nowhere near the scale of Bioshock 1. Instead it reinforces the believability of your surroundings and the design makes clever use of the space.

As already admitted, the initial impact of the sequel was muted in comparison but the way the tale unfolded as a whole I found much more compelling, helped in no small part by the moral choices made and the characters encountered enroute. The closing chapters also take in a pleasant and surprising snapshot of Rapture that helps lift the veil a little on the lore, before reaching a finale which is thankfully no longer a clichéd boss battle.

Initially I ventured into Rapture for a second time thinking that as long as Bioshock 2 didn’t sully the name of the original then I would consider it as acceptable. What I found leaving Rapture for the second time was that 2K have exceeded my expectations. By making subtle tweaks and improvements to the formula and opting for a story that nods in recognition at those that have gone before, rather than following on or escalating events, they have released a game that can stand on its own merits and not just ride on the coattails of its predecessor. The wow factor may not be as strong but those who were concerned about a followup that they didn’t need, should stow their scepticism and descend beneath the waves once more.

8 /10

iPad

So the world and its dog were looking towards San Francisco last night. Steve Jobs once again went on stage and unveiled yet another product that regardless of its quality or functionality would sell simply because of the badge that it was embossed with. Or is that too harsh?

This particular piece of tech is called the iPad, and from $499 you can pick up a wi-fi enabled touch screen that in both looks and function resembles an iPhone/iPod Touch. EA Mobile’s Travis Boatman described it as like “holding an HD display up to your face.” He went on to say “it’s really cool”, no doubt talking about it’s 9.7 inch display, full capacitive multi-touch, 1Ghz A4 chip, 3G options, Bluetooth, accelerometer and compass. Although the final feature on that list has me thinking more of Swiss Army Knives than of Apple.

That’s an awful lot of kit that they’ve included in its 0.5″ thick housing, but for me it’s what it’s missing that is just as important. Just like the iPhone, there is no multitasking, so no browsing the web whilst running app, and also like its phone cousin it does not offer support Flash and can only run programs downloaded from the App Store. Though the most wince-inducing is that you have to buy an adapter to be able to plug a USB device into it; the cheek of you wanting to use your own devices with their product.

The lack of multitasking alone turns me off to the idea, and the exclusion of Flash and limited applications in my closed/UNIX-based Netbook was the whole reason I recently formatted it and put on XP. In my opinion, for the same money (prices range from $499 for wifi and 16GB version to $829 for 3G and 64GB) you could get yourself a very nice netbook that could be capable of quite a bit more.

However the iPad is not for me. Those who are savvy with technology will no doubt already have enough devices for access the internet on strewn about their house that another, no matter what the branding, would be considered a step too far. Where the iPad comes into its own is for those more casual users you simply want a movie viewer, photo album, web browser, basic email client, music app and/or game platform that they can use from the comfort of their sofa. No matter how small you netbook, it’s incapable of “curling up” with such a device thanks to the need to use keyboard and touchpad; the iPad is altogether more conducive to the concept.

Speaking to a good friend of mine, his daughter is already fully aware of how to use an iPhone. Although still under the age of two, the concept of touching, dragging and sliding is now so natural to her that when approaching a television with Media Centre blazing away on its screen she is confused that the icons cannot be moved about in a similar fashion.

We have already glimpsed their vision of the future with the iPhone and the iPad seems to be the next step; for those who a keen in the concept but want it on a scale that is deemed less fiddly. And with the horizon littered with similar concepts of improved tablet PCs and Microsoft’s Courier – also unveiled last night and resembling a touchscreen filofax – Apple once again are attempting to get out ahead of the pack and sell us their vision through smooth lines and sleek interfaces. Although they may have piqued my interest, like so many first iterations of a product it sadly still has too many kinks for me to be truly interested. Roll on version 2.0.

Osmos – Review

Life in the world of Osmos is brutal; it’s kill or be killed. There, only the strongest survive. But this isn’t the same level of conflict that you’ll find hanging around the top of the recent Christmas charts, filled with rough-neck marines calling in missile strikes. No, this is warfare on an infinitesimally smaller level.

Those of you who have now had their interest piqued with the mentions of guns and soldiers will hopefully stay for the rest of the article, not put off by the fact that Osmos actually takes place within the confines of a Petri dish rather than any theatre of modern combat. In an environment teeming with life, the aim is to take your own tiny single-celled organism, or “mote”, and absorb those smaller than yourself until you grow to become the largest mote in the dish, all the time being careful not to be absorbed yourself. Picture Katamari Damacy, but under a microscope.

Conforming to the theory that “every reaction has an equal and opposite reaction”, manoeuvring your mote is achieved by emitting tiny portions of your own mass. Casting these parts of yourself away will not only move you in the opposite direction but also see you shrink slightly. A balance must then be struck between speed and size; too much thrust to chase down your quarry and you might just find yourself shedding too much mass and actually being consumed yourself.

Navigating your mote through the Petri dish, an environment akin to deep space, is very reminiscent of games like Asteroid and Solar Jetman. Tiny amounts of thrust can be used to coast slowly across the void, and the many minor course corrections places you more in the mindset of an astronavigation specialist rather than an amoeba.

As with Keita Takahashi’s psychedelic ball roller, it is the early stages of Osmos that prove most taxing. Your diminutive forms means that targets need to be picked carefully, and the act of reaching them with the right mass is as much a challenge as avoiding the larger motes that seem omnipresent. Break the back of the challenge however and your mote will be large enough to see the game morph from an exercise in precision manoeuvring to an all the more relaxed process. There comes a time in every successful run where, unless something catastrophic presents itself, you can coast through without fear, consuming all the other motes in the stage.

The score accompanying the game suits itself best to these moments. Ambient and soothing, it is not only a highlight but it fits perfectly with the imagery of motes drifting lazily through an environment that is comparable to both the black of space and the muffled depths of the ocean. It’s the kind of calming environment that yoga teachers might ask you to imagine when clearing your mind, with the ambience only ever disturbed by motes emitting squelches as they collide.

For those wishing for more than an interactive visualiser for their chill-out tunes, developers Hemisphere Games have included two further modes. Force mode presents special Attractor motes which create a gravitational force that causes all other motes to swirl around them as if they were planets circling a sun. Sentient levels see certain motes gain independent thought and either attempt to avoid your advances or, conversely, actively pursue you. The former proves an interesting twist on the standard formula whilst the latter can prove frustrating with dexterity at which the AI can navigate their motes, but all is possible with practise.

When examined obtusely, Osmos can appear to be a simple puzzle game with minimalist features and looks. Sitting almost alongside Rez, however, what players will find is a package that marries gameplay, sound and visuals in such a manner that at times it turns into something more than a game; it becomes an experience. Scoff if you may at that rather pretentious statement but subtly crafted level design throughout still keeps Osmos as a prime example of PC puzzle gaming. Be sure to have this on hand for your next bad day at the office.

8 /10

Osmos is available through Games For Windows, Steam and from Hemisphere’s own website.

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Let me tell you a story…

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Advancement in technology is a wonderful thing. Just a decade ago I was singing the praises of the Digital Versatile Disc and yet there I was on Saturday night, G&T in hand and jaw on the floor, as Fight Club played out in HD glory on my PS3. It had been several years since I’d previously seen David Fincher’s brutal adaptation of Chuck Palahnuk’s novel, but, as clichéd as some may consider the fantasised Tyler Durden, it’s a wonderful yarn to weave. Full of anti-capitalist tendencies, a brow furrowing plot and the assertion that you and I are certainly not special.

And it got me thinking. How would such a story be played out through the medium of video games? Could such a tale be told without removing what made the original so compelling: the sleight of hand, the duplicity of a single character, the depiction of insomnia, the visceral nature of the violence. Contract the majority of studios to do a game adaptation and the most likely result would be a poor Streets of Rage homage lacking any of the film’s unique qualities. Given the anti-materialist tone of said film, I can’t see Tyler being happy with his story resulting in yet more mass produced crap.

Even away from the notorious domain of movie licenses, story driven games are tricky things. Cast you mind back through recent times and consider whether you have played a game with a storyline that could truly be considered good. Great, even. Great, that is, in the sphere of storytelling and not in just games. Far too many rely on derivative tales of revenge and bloodlust with little or no character progression or even consideration for story arc other than to move the player to the next exotic level. Halo, Modern Warfare, Gears of War; all massive selling franchises but with stories little better than a Michael Bay Victoria Secret’s commercial.

Taking Halo as an example, it may have a great deal of lore defined behind the scenes but this is ultimately just the building blocks from which the game’s universe is formed from. The adventures we actually embark upon with Master Chief are, when stripped down, little different to Mario’s original quest to find his Princess: one man striving to save something of value to him, running through mostly linear levels to be met with more supposition on their completion. For Master Chief this is a well lit cutscene depicting the latest twist in the war against the Covenant, whilst in Mario’s case it comes in the form of a Toad professing that he knows nothing of the princess’ whereabouts and suggests looking in another castle.

Although that may seem unfair to some, the story telling within ODST brings Halo 1-3′s (and most FPSs) into starker relief. There you find the same elements of a mystery, a love story and an adventure, but they are then backed up by a group of soldiers each with their own personalities and traits. Not only do they add more depth but these characters’ story arcs are shown through a series of flashbacks revealing that developers can attempt to express stories in less than conventional ways successfully.

However, the most successful story tellers of this generation to my mind are Bioshock and Portal.

Part of Bioshock’s accomplishment is down to the completeness at which Rapture has been realised, allowing anyone treading its subterranean hallways to be full immersed in its dark atmosphere. From the very beginning you are involved in a plot to bring down certain figureheads through a plot of deceit that has apparently been many, many years in the offing. But it’s not just that makes Bioshock standout as it is the amount of optional story that can be found through audio diaries that really starts building up certain characters.

Speaking at GDC, Bioshock’s Ken Levine detailed how their team build up characters ahead of time to make them feel more imposing, a more integral part of the world. Discussing the importance of using storytelling to make up for the deficiencies of game characters, “When we finally meet [deranged doctor] Steinman, he’s just an A.I. with a machine gun and a medical mask, but players have been set up to invest emotion in the guy. At the end of the day these digital actors are not Brando.”

Portal’s storytelling is also subtle. Although constructed like a common or garden puzzler with stark levels and a seemingly predictable path, it soon breaks off into something very surprising. With a homicidal computer attempting to control proceedings and the story of others played out through graffiti in hidden nooks, it has a tale to tell if people are willing to invest time in to seeking it out but equally does not burden those who just want to play with reams of text or cutscenes. A policy continued with the Left 4 Dead series.

No matter how much subtlety developer’s can include, the medium itself falls shy of the many expectations heaped upon it. Despite the progression in processors and the raw power available in comparison to at the start of the video game revolution, we still cannot hide that video games are not in the whole treading their own unique narrative path. Rather they are following in the footsteps of others, namely Hollywood.

—–

Yesterday we spoke of the influence Hollywood had on storytelling in videogames. It is an influence that has brought about an abundance of immersion shattering cutscenes and quick time events (QTE). Developers have strived so hard to produce dramatic set pieces aimed at thrilling the player visually, and yet at the same time these scripted dramas can’t help but mock them.

Stood before you is the character you have been guiding for the past dozen hours, dodging falling masonry and firing a rocket launcher into the underbelly of an escaping helicopter, and yet you are no longer in control; the game is playing itself to a conclusion. The culmination of your adventure has been played out without you, or, and possibly even more heinously, has been played out whilst asking you to occasionally press a random button to keep proceedings flowing; the game intimating that you couldn’t have possibly have done that on your own.

For the most part, videogame storytelling has aped film because during videogame’s growth it has been the standard in visual storytelling, but it is now time for videogames to evolve past that and stand on their own. Whereas films themselves are a single interpretation and vision of a storyline, namely that of the director, games must cope with many players all trying to do different things and so must seek their own way of expressing such narratives. Speaking to CVG last March, Square Enix producer Yoshinori Yamagishi commented that “in film, the creator has control over how he gives the story to the viewer – it’s easier to control the emotions and feelings expected from the viewer.” Hence why when something important needs to be said the safe option is to head into a cutscene so that the player does not miss it, misinterpret it, or ruin the atmosphere by standing on a desk and attempting to stab you boss whilst he tells you of your next deeply important mission, ala Assassin’s Creed.

Some developers already understand this as an error. David Cage, creator of Heavy Rain, compared this standard approach to that of adult films. In an interview with Gamasutra he said of Uncharted, “it gives you a bit of story, then action, then a bit of story, then action – like porn movies, when you think about it.” Not one to speak without actions to backup his comments, his work with Fahrenheit and the forthcoming Heavy Rain attempt to challenge preconceptions about stories in games and make it a core focus for a player.

Though well received, Fahrenheit was something of a mixed bag. Its closing chapters left a lot to be desired and could be sadly likened to a poor episode of the X-Files. The opening scenes, however, captured players’ imagination with their ability to shape a sizeable part of the early story. Waking from a trance in a restaurant’s filthy men’s room, you found your hands convered with blood and a stranger lying dead at your feet. How do you respond? Should you run before anyone comes in? Maybe attempt to clean up the crime and pretend nothing happened? Or would you prefer to turn yourself in? Many things are possible and with it the replayability as you sought to experience the consequences of each possible avenue of choice, almost like the classic Choose Your Own Adventure books of the 80s.

With the imminent Heavy Rain marked as Fahrenheit’s spiritual successor, Cage’s work looks set to continue. But is this the future? Whilst the web of storytelling maybe an intriguing prospect, how game-like can it be? Fahrenheit descended into little more than pattern matching and QTEs by its finale; will Heavy Rain be any different? And are any other titles going to follow suit if it does?

In a recent talk at Game City, David Braben compared the current state of the videogame industry to that of 1930s Hollywood. More specifically, declaring that the likes of Activision and EA are the equivalent to the then MGM and Warner Brothers: “production units that ensure consistency of quality and professionalism at the expense of pushing the envelope and exploring the broadest potentials of their medium.” No great examination is required to reveal that the larger publishers play it safe to recoup the most for their investment, and this doesn’t just go for styles or genres but for storytelling too.

So as with many interesting developments, the indie scene can be seen to be thriving when it comes to pushing a whole menagerie of envelopes. With comparatively little risk and many projects born out of sheer passion, many bedroom coders throw their all into their games with the hope that it will get a little love in a world dominated by multinational giants.

Although approaching its fifth anniversary, indie game Facade has always struck me as a very clever game with an interesting narrative. The entire premise is that you, invited over to a friend’s apartment, witness the end of their marriage. At least, that is one possible outcome. Thrust through use of a first-person view directly into the situation you have the power to talk and act in a bid to help salvage your friend’s relationship or, conversely, drive the final wedge between them. Whereas Fahrenheit used actions to branch its tale, Facade uses words. With an impressive comprehension of most things typed you can play through its short runtime attempting a variety of different tacks.

Though technically a polar opposite, Facade also shares something with Modern Warfare 2 and its terrorist scene; both dramas will continue with or without your involvement. Locked into the first-person perspective you are free to walk around, possibly prompting responses from others but never being forced to react yourself. If the general comparison for videogame story telling is cinema, then this approach is more like theatre-in-the-round, where the audience between them can see every angle of the performance before them. With such a production there is no “one perfect angle”, an informality as the actors turn to address each sections of the audience, and almost a sense of the audience itself intruding in what is unfolding.

For the most part, however, the stories that prove most compelling are those that the players make themselves – the metastories. The week after GTA IV was launched, conversations were all too frequently laden with tales of narrow escapes from the police, amazing feats of driving skill, or of how helicopter gunships were flown back from the pub and parked in someone’s front garden. And it doesn’t just have to be sandbox games, anyone can regale you with how they escaped the horde using nothing but a toothpick in Left 4 Dead, manage to do two loop-the-loops in a warthog and land square on an opposing player’s head, or even how they were moments away from death in Tetris before that long thin block appeared and helped them clear the screen. No matter what type of game it is there will a personal tale to tell.

And for now I believe that it is the player’s own experiences that will craft the greatest tales, for I do not believe that gaming has yet had its own Citizen Kane. We do not know what the best way of how to tell a tale because it hasn’t happened. It is an intangible possibility waiting in the wings. Industry names can all talk about why using cinema as a template may not be the best way to present narrative but until we have our own Rosebud moment we will be just like the cinema of the early 1900s: full of gimmicks and novelties to attract the paying public but with very little lasting substance. Back at the turn of the last century they were stunned by images of a moving train, and in a century’s time will Burnout be regarded in much the same way?

In the same talk Braben asked the question of “when did the games industry start?” Was it with Space Wars? With Pong? The NES? The advent of 3D? Whilst there is an industry, I believe the answer is “when we start telling stories in our own unique way”. The answer, is not yet.