Category Archives: Video Games

How “BloodRayne” Illustrates the Identity Crisis of ’00s Level Design

I love janky video games, especially from the late 90s/early 00s era before the open world boom. Level design reigned. It encouraged a host of clever mechanics, and maps that gradually unlocked like a gigantic puzzle. Realism wasn’t as important as giving the player the unexpected. It didn’t matter if the experience felt authentic; it mattered if the world and mechanics surprised you. The 2002 vampire actioner “BloodRayne” is both an average and a problematic game. Why delve into it? It sits at the intersection of various approaches to game development. These different influences are a big part of the reason it’s so muddled in the first place.

Level Design in the 2000’s

Intricate, self-contained puzzle levels were the hallmark of great action games in the 90s. The “Doom” and “Quake” series would often feature levels that opened up like a Rube Goldberg machine. Keys and switches opened doors, raised gates and bridges, and revealed whole new sections of a map, changing how a player viewed and engaged parts of a level they’d only been seeing from one perspective.

This would be chipped away over the 2000s, first by the popularity of linear military shooters like the “Call of Duty” series. The on-rails storytelling abandoned winding, puzzle-box levels and replaced them with a cinematic experience. This relied on frenetic, triggered scenes that featured on-the-ground perspective for chaotic battles, chases, and disasters. It gave developers a much stronger director’s hand when it came to shaping story and building momentum. The trade-off was that players lost agency to explore and engage a level at their own pace. In these games, there was less to figure out; you essentially continued forward until a new event triggered.

Neither is a better approach; they both have their strengths. Each can be done well, or badly. The big difference centered on player agency. Puzzle-box levels meant two different players might have very different stories about how they discovered those puzzles or pathed through the level. Yet the puzzles themselves often boiled down to repeating hunts for keys to the next door. There simply wasn’t enough quality level design to go around. Developers wrestled technology to even implement new mechanics in the first place. That bottlenecked the breadth of puzzle design a game could incorporate.

Linear level design meant that the story happened at the developer’s pace. This allowed for more character-heavy work, better-managed pacing, and more natural dialogue scenes. With more tightly-directed scenes, the silent, cypher protagonists who dominated 90s action games were replaced with voice-acted ones full of opinions and backstory. The more direction and timing developers could implement, however, the more agency was removed from player exploration and experimentation. The more linear, the more every player experiences the game exactly the same. There were fewer instances in these games where players would have different stories (this experience would instead arise from the increasing accessibility of multiplayer).

An exaggerated comparison between complex 90s FPS level design and "simpler" military FPS level design.
An exaggerated meme, but it makes the point.

The ongoing open world boom followed. Technology finally allowed developers to realize full cities and open, varied landscapes. This wasn’t anything new – the “Elder Scrolls” and “Zelda” franchises had exemplified this approach for well over a decade, the limitations of technology be damned. As that technology caught up, it wasn’t just a few developers pushing the limits. Open worlds became the norm. There was more demand for them and there were fewer unknown pitfalls to making them.

Yet with near-yearly “Assassin’s Creed”, and “Far Cry” entries, the creativity which technological limitations had once demanded now gave way to standardized design. Icon-strewn maps distracted you with empty time-fillers that were sometimes indistinguishable from meaningful side quests. Collect every feather in “Assassin’s Creed 2”, shame on me. Go on every hunting quest in “Far Cry 4” for the promise of a wacky fashion show, only to be awarded a letter telling you there was no reward of any kind, shame on the developers.

Of course, the era of closed-level design wasn’t without its flaws, as I was about to be reminded by playing the original “BloodRayne”. The story is pretty straightforward – a dhampir (half vampire, half human) named Rayne travels around the world in the 1930s and 40s preventing Nazis from unearthing powerful ancient artifacts. Think Indiana Jones if he wore a corset, drank blood, and spoke every line like Mae West telling you to, “Come up and see me sometime”.

OK, this “BloodRayne” isn’t the original original. The game got a 2020 remaster in “BloodRayne: Terminal Cut”. The old version had a lot of hang-ups on modern systems – such as most lines of dialogue being cut off mid-sentence. These are fixed, and a range of modern graphical upgrades are included. It still wears the low-polygon bones of the 2002 original, but it’s upscaled, has wide-screen support, some basic 4x anti-aliasing, and now features reflections, enhanced fog and shadows, and nicer water. Some of these are integrated better than others. The interaction of water and certain other effects can produce some strange artifacting, for instance, though it’s nothing game-breaking.

Why Do This to Myself?

Why would I want to play something as sophomoric and proto-edgelord as “BloodRayne”? It didn’t interest me back in the day. I remember seeing a friend play it and thinking it was an incredibly thin, repetitive game. Its major selling point was the look of the hero in all her early 2000s, corseted goth glory. What it distracted from was any talk of the gameplay itself. If you were a nerd coming of age in that era, a Shirley Manson-inspired vampire killing Nazis in a BDSM-punk world – that caught your eye, sure…but other options included a strange, antagonistic political world to explore in “Morrowind”. The storytelling of “Final Fantasy” was in its heyday. The “Silent Hill” franchise was changing the face of horror games. They weren’t my thing, but you had “Max Payne”, “Metroid Prime”, a “Grand Theft Auto” release a year. “Spider-Man” and “Jedi Knight 2” had both come out that year. “Super Mario Sunshine” was a uniquely challenging platformer that I would argue is the best Mario game, and Nintendo’s party games were entering a Golden Age. “BloodRayne” offered the appeal of a poster, while each of these offered new and deep gameplay that could entertain, puzzle, and thrill for dozens of hours.

If anything, “BloodRayne” is most interesting now as an artifact of its time. It holds a specific place in the ‘archaeology’ of game design, and specifically level design. Back then, who could’ve known that linear military shooters and open worlds would supplant the more traditional level design in 90s big hitters like the “Quake”, “Unreal”, and “Thief” franchises?

The standout of these was the original “Half-Life”, which strung levels together more naturally. A cluster of levels might loop back on itself, but it was still a progression of linked levels. Instead of a self-contained single level, it often presented a hub-and-spokes model. The effect was ultimately similar to traditional design in that you hit switches or recruited scientists (essentially walking keycards) to unlock another section of that hub. This allowed you to progress to the next closed hub of linked levels. This hinted at variations of the hub-and-spokes model that later stealth games and immersive sims would shift toward, such as “System Shock 2”, the third “Thief” entry, the “Bioshock” franchise, and elements of the “Dishonored” franchise.

“Half-Life” also matured the triggered event beyond monster closets and ambushes. Story events would erupt around the player in a way that hadn’t really been mastered before. Even as “Half-Life” evolved the intricate self-contained level into hub-and-spokes levels, its evolution of triggered events would outpace this in enabling the linear, cinematic level.

How does this inform “BloodRayne” in a way that makes it such an example of its time? “BloodRayne” features a mix of self-contained levels, as well as a handful of hub-and-spokes models that see you returning to a prior level in order to open up a new area. The latter can feel pretty pointless, stressing a game with already repetitive gameplay, but let’s hold off and back up a minute:

The Game Itself

As I mentioned, Rayne is half-human and half-vampire. She has a lot of the same rules as “Blade” in that she has vampiric strength, skills, and drinks blood to regenerate, but with only a few of the drawbacks. For instance, true to Bram Stoker-era lore, crossing a body of water hurts her – and the game loves to throw flooded areas at you.

Rayne is recruited in the 1930s by a secret agency called the Brimstone Society – it protects humans from things that go bump in the night. Nazis are obsessed with procuring any kind of supernatural power for themselves, so after an opening prologue/tutorial in Louisiana, we skip ahead by several years to Rayne’s infiltration of a Nazi base in Argentina.

The first thing to know about “BloodRayne” is that fights can be fun but meaningless. As a dhampir, every Nazi in sight is a walking health kit. While “BloodRayne” doesn’t utilize the regenerating health mechanic that became the standard in shooters a few years later, virtually any human enemy who isn’t a boss can be fed upon to recover health. This makes most shootouts feel like they’re wasting your time. Leave one or two enemies for the end, and you can regenerate all your health regardless of how well you played.

It also hurts that the game doesn’t feel very skill-oriented. Guns lock on automatically, but rely on them and you run out of ammo pretty quickly – despite being able to pick up nearly every enemy’s firearm. The melee itself plays as woefully unspecific, but it doesn’t really matter. If an enemy’s close to Rayne, they’ll get hit. The combos feel oriented to show off Rayne’s gymnastics instead of communicate interaction or impact. While the monsters are creative, fighting against them is rarely as fun as fights against humans. It’s all just a melee mash, with Rayne’s own combos and dodging not mattering much and boiling down to button mashing.

Playing with a controller, I can see why the mechanics are set up this way. Playing on PC with a mouse and keyboard, I’d have preferred if these mechanics were reversed: melee that hard-locked onto enemies so that you could just focus on moves and combos, and shooting mechanics that required precision aiming from the player.

The game was never a struggle in these moments. It just felt annoyingly drawn out. The action was solid, but endlessly repetitive. The gameplay felt more natural and rewarding by switching on the invulnerability cheat and toying around with the slow-motion bullet-time. It was more fun to create my own action scenes than to play the game as it was designed.

When given multi-level arenas with countless fools shooting at you, “BloodRayne” feels great even today as you leap from enemy to enemy and systematically take them out. It feels good to leap up three stories because you’re a dhampir, and see the once-confident Nazi you’re about to eat start panicking. That is a rewarding feeling. There just aren’t many opportunities for it.

Too often, the game devolves into long corridors or a series of similar-looking rooms where half a dozen enemies will spill out in one of two predictable variations: monsters or humans. It gets redundant and the warren-like early level design doesn’t do the game any favors. The hub-and-spokes design used here stresses the repetition even more, without making the levels puzzle-like enough to reward the amount of backtracking that has to be done between switches, batteries, and explosives that open up new areas.

Mid-game platforming sections also fail the game. It’s not built around precision-platforming. That makes the platforming sound difficult, but it really isn’t. You’ll fall off a few times because you won’t be able to tell what’s invisibly walled and what isn’t, but that’s a common fault of level design from that era, so not something I can really hold against the game. The bigger problem is that platforming is neither challenging nor interesting. When you’re playing a character who can jump three stories or across vast chasms, uninteresting platforming feels like a massive failing. Thankfully, these sections are generally brief.

Rayne approaches one of the better levels in "BloodRayne", one of several castle maps.
The better levels in “BloodRayne: Terminal Cut” open up the environment.

“BloodRayne” does have some redeeming features. Later levels are much better, especially after they dump the hub-and-spokes design for a progression of self-contained, outdoor, castle levels. Developers in the late 90s and early 00s really knew how to make castle levels, and “BloodRayne” delivers. A balance of outdoor and indoor paths through ruined German castles offer enemies ambush points with overlapping fields of fire. It’s here the game features the verticality that’s missing in its earlier and endless closed bunkers. This forces you into some light strategy like flanking, taking out one position before another, or shielding your approach by using those vertical elements. I’m not going to say it really matters because you’re still surrounded by walking health kits, but it’s a lot easier to pretend it matters, and in a vampire power fantasy that’s just as fun.

Where I will say the game excels is in its boss battles. These are unexpected, tense, and varied. You’ll fight a giant Cthulhian monster across a swamp of half-sunk boats that forces you to rely on your leaping ability just to stay alive. It’s a tough fight that’s made unfair by how little ammo you can scrounge up, but it is incredibly memorable.

Another moment has you fighting supernaturally fast twins. One will distract you while the other attacks. There are puzzle elements to many boss fights, and the last boss fight is a three-sided affair where the gameplay becomes more challenging in different ways depending on which of the bosses you kill first.

You’ll fight a butchering Nazi performing human experiments who’s dressed like a fetish nurse who – you know what, let’s skip that one. In all honesty, it’s a quality fight that sees you spamming your slow motion ability to leap off trap doors as they swing open, but yeah, there are some deeply problematic characterizations here. The game’s entire treatment of women is godawful, and we’ve seen how the 2000’s incorporation of Nazi imagery into niche fetishization has gone – I’d say haywire, but I think it was really pretty predictable in the end.

It still feels good and even cathartic to play a game that can unequivocally recognize that yes, Nazis are the bad guys, yet there’s still a “yes, but” element when a game says, “but we can still fetishize them”. It’s only presented this way in this one character, but in so doing it poses women Nazis as desirable if they present themselves ‘attractively’, which is a weirdly fucked up message.

(I do appreciate that it’s not just “Looney Tunes” or something from 60+ years ago where we can look at it and contextualize its problematic elements. It feels good to look at something from 20 years ago and be able to do the same, because it suggests our ability to change those things – or at least highlight them for change – has become a bigger part of the conversation with a much faster speed of social recognition.)

As for the boss battles, while they are well designed, they encourage ammo rationing. Since those boss battles aren’t usually signposted ahead of time, it can lead to a mentality of rationing your ammo all the time. That means relying on the unwieldy melee even when it’s not necessary.

What does that all mean? I enjoyed large sections of the game. The monster design is good, as is the early and late art design. The boss battles are unique and clever – they generally outshine the rest of the game. The vampire power fantasy works in streaks, and “Matrix”-style bullet-time effects in games never really get old.

On the other hand, the platforming is neither difficult nor fun. The early level design isn’t as tight as it is later. Some mid-game level design is really discouraging in its repetition, backtracking, and bland, dreary design.

“BloodRayne” refines as it goes, meaning that most of its worst parts are presented first and foremost. Outside of boss battles, it’s only in later levels that it starts fully realizing how to bring its design and gameplay elements together in a cohesive way that feels fun. What works here is the leaping, closing distance on groups, causing chaos, and acting as we imagine a vampire would to utilize their otherworldly powers. There isn’t anywhere near enough of that until the level design allows it in the final third of the game.

BloodRayne” as Historical Artifact

All of this is understandable when you look at developer Terminal Reality’s original intention for the game. “BloodRayne” was once planned as a sequel to 1999 action-adventure “Nocturne”, in which a detective investigated stories alongside supernatural allies as part of a secret agency called Spookhouse. “Nocturne 2” was never greenlit before Terminal Reality’s publisher Gathering of Developers went defunct. Gathering of Developers didn’t want to share the “Nocturne” license with another publisher, so Terminal Reality created a spiritual sequel in “BloodRayne” that was legally distinct. Gone were the adventure elements and the fixed-camera, survival horror aspects Terminal Reality had made so atmospheric, now replaced by a trendier third-person shooter and a lead character made for posters more than story.

Good boss battles and some interesting level design show flashes of saving a messy and otherwise average game. But I didn’t really play “BloodRayne” to play a great game – I more or less knew what I was getting into. I played it because it’s a fairly standard example of that era’s action design, and it represents one of the closing moments for when self-contained, puzzle-box levels were still the bread-and-butter of the industry.

It really highlights why that intricate hub design didn’t capture the mainstream the way linear levels did. The weakness of “BloodRayne” is its sheer repetition, and the hub-and-spoke set of Argentina bunker levels in “BloodRayne” are easily the game’s worst moment. If both the hub and spokes all play the same, then it doesn’t matter that they’re organized that way.

There was a three-headed tentacle boss in “Half-Life” because of course there was. Stuck beneath a test rocket chamber, you sneak past it into various wings of the facility. One spoke level turns on oxygen, another fuel, the next power to the test rocket. The monster is blind, but can sense sound and vibration. Each passage through the hub sees the monster increasingly destroy it, which means there’s less cover, fewer means of distraction, and your crossing becomes riskier. At the time it came out in 1998, it was so new that it was easy to misplay and waste resources, which also meant that you had less to distract the tentacles with as you got closer to enabling the rocket test firing that defeated them. There was a sense of escalating tension and increasing risk here, all in an approach that was relatively new.

Giant tentacles that look like asparagus terrified "Half-Life" players in the 90s.
Giant asparagus…giant asparagus never changes.

In “Half-Life”, the spoke levels impacted the hub. Each one got you closer to your goal while increasing the tension and risk in the hub itself. It stands as one of the tensest sequences I’ve played.

Yet due to the popularity of “Half-Life”, many other developers copied the newness of the hub-and-spokes model of level design without always having the time, budget, or design focus to inject it with something meaningful. If the spokes don’t impact the hub aside from opening a new door, then all you’ve done is add an extra step to hunting down a keycard or lever. It just wastes time and there’s no need for levels to be organized that way. A spoke level has to change the circumstances in a hub level so that the hub is different in substance and experience when you go through it again.

Failing that, why not just progress through each of the levels without having to backtrack across a hub that remains unchanged? “BloodRayne” feels a lot better in later levels that simply progress one standalone level to the next – although that’s also helped by the more open and vertical design in them.

This is one reason that hub-and-spokes level design only seems to survive in immersive sim franchises – “Thief”, “Prey”, “Deus Ex”, “Bioshock”, “Mirror’s Edge”, the current iteration of “Tomb Raider”. These have enough other gameplay mechanics and tools that we’re often able to go through a familiar area in whole new ways as we return. How we move through an area and what we can access in a place that’s familiar changes from early- to mid- to late-game. We might see a whole new path in a hub and realize we don’t have the tool to get to it yet; we’ll come back to it later when we do. This adds depth not only to environments, but also to gameplay mechanics. When we do come back, experimenting with our new tools in an already-familiar and safer environment encourages us as players to utilize them in new areas and riskier situations.

“BloodRayne” shows why the hub-and-spokes design often works against more traditional action games that don’t introduce many new mechanics or tools. It’s an example of why that model didn’t gain popularity when it potentially had more to offer than the linear-level design it was competing against. While it may be a fairly average game, “BloodRayne” exists right at this point where action game design was splitting between self-contained puzzle-box levels, hub-and-spokes levels, and linear levels. There are few games that so obviously struggle between each of these elements because few games tried to incorporate each of them. That makes it a unique intersection in level design history – it represents an element of each level design philosophy that was fighting for popularity at the time. All three are captured in this one place, certainly not successfully, but in a way that freezes in amber the very different approaches level designers were weighing at that time.

Ultimately, I think “BloodRayne” is engrossing now if you’re interested in the ‘archaeology’ of video games. Mechanically, the franchise is emblematic of third-person action games of the time, but its level design captures a struggle over the soul of what action games would look and feel like going forward. Even when I was bored by its repetition, I was engrossed by why I was bored. What wasn’t working that was later fixed, abandoned, or only proved useful to a different genre? What did work that we may’ve lost when we dismissed certain approaches as niche? “BloodRayne” is a very average game, but an amazing museum piece to explore.

A masterpiece that shaped the industry can tell you a lot about how game design evolved. An average game with an equal measure of success and failure can tell you just as much about how gaming was shaped. What didn’t work and hasn’t been solved tells you as much as what did work.

I don’t want to beat up on “BloodRayne”. The game’s a product of its time, but I think it’s more fascinating now than it ever was in 2002. The shortcomings of “BloodRayne” fill in a missing link in the evolution of level design, and the successes in it communicate alternate paths that mainstream development didn’t follow. We remember the masterpieces, but the flawed games that didn’t work also have stories to tell about how an entire medium has evolved.

You can buy “BloodRayne: Terminal Cut” on most major PC gaming platforms including Steam and GOG, and on major consoles as “BloodRayne: ReVamped”.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon! It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

“The Convenience Store” is a Horror Gaming Favorite

One of my favorite genres is low-budget horror. That extends into gaming as well as film. I can’t wait to see what the next offer from Kitty Horrorshow or Connor Sherlock is, and collections of small team developers like DreadX or the yearly Haunted PS1 Demo Disc always contain gems. These are the short story collections to a AAA game’s novel. You’ll bounce off some, but others will be unique and enthralling experiences. When it comes to horror, a unique experience goes a long way, and these games usually only take an hour or two to complete. A developer founded by two Japanese brothers named Chilla’s Art is creating some of the most unique.

“The Convenience Store” is a $3 game on Steam that combines terror with the everyday, rote actions of working retail. Your character starts every night in their apartment, having to walk through an incredibly dark town to get to the shining light you can see out their window. It’s a glaringly lit convenience store. You’ll restock shelves and serve customers, but none of these take very long. Nonetheless, Chilla’s Art stacks these just enough to create the sensation of being rushed and understaffed.

Being rushed in horror is nothing new. Time constraints are a genre staple. That time constraint always has to do with survival. This evokes something escapist in nature. “The Convenience Store” goes for something more lowkey but intense: a creeping dread. Usually, that sense of dread is meant to be enjoyed more slowly. Here, it’s paired with something more identifiable than survival alone – the anxiety of rushing at work to meet too many goals. Paired with that dread, it makes for an exquisite commentary.

There’s a tension between wanting to leave because of the game’s severely creepy atmosphere vs. knowing you have to stay and work to figure out the next part of the game. It reflects the feeling of enduring a situation because it’s your job to do so, overcoming your fight-or-flight response in order to simply absorb the punishment.

Angry customers eventually give way to mysterious packages in the night and trying to chase off a ghost. There are so many core horror fundamentals that are done right. I know that every time I go in the office to peer at the security cameras, I’m exposing my unprotected back to the whole store. What’s stunning is the driving sensation that I shouldn’t run. To play the game, I have to do the job. Restocking the shelves is a frustration when a ghost keeps scattering them. Serving customers is hair-rending when you get locked in the cooler. Yet the overwhelming urge “The Convenience Store” evokes isn’t that I have to run, it’s that I have to overcome every reasonable urge to run in order to keep doing these mundane tasks.

Of course, my goal as a player is to see the game through, but it’s not to save the day or rescue anyone. That gameplay loop of progression is transformed into the experience I mentioned above: ignoring your fight-or-flight response so that you can absorb that punishment. You’re surviving to restock shelves. You’re risking your life to make sure everything’s crossed off on the manager’s checklist by the time your shift ends. Every walk through the dark town to the convenience store is filled with dread not just at the terror of the supernatural, but the idea that you’re risking your life for nothing.

“The Convenience Store” is rough in a lot of ways. With small development teams, you can often see them learning on the fly. Obtuse mechanics do aid the impression of working an inefficient retail job, but you’ll likely have seen each done more smoothly elsewhere. I often knew the solution to a puzzle, or simply what action needed to take place, but there were times when the game was less responsive or an action prompt was missing. This can create moments where you’re searching for the right angle to be able to get the game to accept an action. I did peek at a walkthrough once or twice, but I don’t feel it impacted what I came to Chilla’s Art for in the first place: atmosphere.

There are also inelegant development shortcuts. At one point, you need to get a customer five beers and a pack of cigarettes. This means going to the cooler section at the back of the store and selecting one beer – not from the cooler, but scattered on the floor in front of it. You bring them to the customer one at a time. You can pick up stacks of an items at other points, so why did I need to carry each beer one by one at this moment? Likely they didn’t have the model for more, and they didn’t have an animation for opening a cooler door.

It’s also easy to miss certain details, like a character dropping a small item. The store page on Steam says “The Convenience Store” takes about 40 minutes to play through. Mine took 100. I did go off-piste now and then, exploring extra corners and testing the game’s limits out of curiosity…but part of this was knowing a puzzle solution but needing to find the right angle to call up a prompt.

Given that the game has no save system, and if you exit out you’ll have to start over from the beginning, this means you’ll have to set aside an evening where you have a movie-length chunk of time to give it.

“The Convenience Store” is a product from a developer whose ambition outpaces their technical skill. Yet the artistic skill on show here is stellar. The mood is dark and foreboding. Every trek to the convenience store through that packed, cluttered, dark town was brimming with foreboding. I found myself regularly checking to the side and behind me, peering at the gloom to see if anything was coming out of it.

Yet the glowing oasis of the convenience store feels no safer. In the distance out your apartment window before you leave, and erupting with light the minute you cross the bridge out of your town and turn the corner, that store serves as an ebb and flow of relief and fright.

As low-budget horror movies sometimes ask us to be generous with our suspension of disbelief for choppy effects or questionable make-up, low-budget horror games can ask for us to volunteer greater patience with gameplay mechanics or a missing feature. When you’re spending $3 (closer to $2 on sale or bundled) and an hour or so to play, you’re not risking a whole lot.

I like games from lesser known developers, and those learning the ropes as they go, because these games often offer something that more established (and thus risk-averse) developers don’t. They try new ideas, or fuse disparate elements together in new ways. With fewer creative constrictions, they can find a way to bring an element of horror into another medium. They don’t know what they can’t do yet, and playing “The Convenience Store” there were moments where I thought, “They don’t know how to implement this”. It didn’t matter in the least because I was so successfully terrified in such a unique way that I can’t find anywhere else.

It’s rare that I actually get goosebumps playing a game, but this one drew me in expertly. You have to see what the next moment brings.

Chilla’s Art has 22 games on Steam and despite coming out in 2020, “The Convenience Store” is now one of their earlier entries. They’ve found modest success and you can see player reviews improving over time as they get better and more capable. I’m excited to try more, to see what it’s like when their technical abilities create more room for their considerable artistic talent. Hmm, “The Ghost Train” can’t be that scary…right?

You can buy “The Convenience Store” on Steam.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon! It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

Chess is Getting Me Through the Pandemic

We all saw those memes. They told us we should pick up a new skill during the pandemic, as if we were at summer camp wondering if we should take the option for orienteering or keep our evenings free. What a time to survive, and have all this trauma-infused free time to be guilted over inefficiency.

Yeah, I already picked up a hobby – it’s called wondering when the pandemic will be over and I’m really good at it. Oh, conservatives don’t want to wear a mask, it’s gonna be another winter of COVID! I guess my new skill is being the Pennsylvania Dutch to these groundhog motherfuckers.

Yet a lot of time being stuck in one place wears on you. Avoiding travel and socializing because I don’t think a weekend of glamping is worth someone’s grandma’s life means you’ve got to find something new to dodge the cabin fever.

Lo and behold: chess. I only arrived at one of the earliest hobbies known to humankind.

I’d tried to get into chess before. The problem is that as a beginner, it means losing a lot before I was any good. It’s discouraging to struggle with level 5 of “Chessmaster” and realize there are 20 more levels beyond it that I may never beat. It doesn’t help that I feel a pressure to be perfectionist and I’m really self-critical when I fail at something. It doesn’t help that games are my outlet for my competitiveness in the first place. That doesn’t plug in well when I’m sitting three levels above the picture of the A.I. Chimpanzee. If you start playing chess, it means losing a lot if you want to get any better. That’s just the reality.

As a beginner, it’s also hard to view chess as anything other than win-loss. Without knowing the game well, it’s hard to recognize that mitigating a disadvantage or drawing out a loss with smart plays is a kind of victory when it comes to getting better at the game. Getting a draw or quality loss where you couldn’t before is a huge mark of improvement.

There are two big things that finally got me over the intimidating learning curve of chess. Let’s start with the trendier one:

Chess on Twitch

I like Twitch, or rather I like that the platform exists. The company itself is a mess, but that’s another conversation. Streaming as a whole is the single biggest and most accessible medium for performance art the human race has ever had. Just like video games, movies, TV, theatre, and literature, it means a lot of good, a lot of bad, and a lot of mediocre mixed in.

The way streamers create narratives and content is often very connective. It means a lot of leaping from one channel to another. I can’t quite remember how I got to BotezLive, but I’m guessing it’s through JustaMinx, a foul-mouthed Irish streamer who often embraces the performance art aspect of streaming and who’s one of the platform’s most talented comedians. I started watching her because she was the funniest person on AustinShow’s “Love or Host”, a weird satire of dating shows where 80% of the cast is the same every episode, which I watched (and was surprisingly entertained by) because a friend was on an episode.

That four-layered path brought me to BotezLive, a chess channel where two sisters break down games. I started watching it at length when Woman’s Master Alexandra Botez and (combined) Grandmaster Robert Hess were covering the Chess9LX tournament in September 2020. That tournament featured some of the best players in the world, including the legendary Garry Kasparov. He retired from competitive chess in 2005, in large part to involve himself in activism opposing Russian President Vladimir Putin. This saw him jailed and beaten after attending a verdict reading in support of activist punk band Pussy Riot. After increasingly fearing for his life, Kasparov would become naturalized in Croatia and essentially live in exile.

Since retiring, he’s also coached some of the biggest names in chess, including Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura – who were also playing in the online Chess9LX tournament. Why Chess9LX?

The tournament refers to a version of chess usually called Chess 9LX, Chess 960, or Fischer Random Chess. In this variation, the home rank pieces for both players are randomized. In other words, rooks, bishops, knights, queen, and king are shuffled within their row. You still need bishops on opposite colored squares, you still have to have a rook on either side of the king to allow castling, and the players’ positions have to mirror the other. The variation leads to 960 unique starting positions, hence the nickname.

Chess 960 random start example
One example of a randomized starting position in Chess 960.

The randomization of starting positions undermines the effectiveness of traditional chess openings, and is often viewed as forcing riskier, more creative games.

Alexandra Botez and Hess were an exceptionally good casting team, helping to break down the game in ways that are easy for a beginning player such as myself to understand.

The really useful thing about chess on Twitch is that there are streamers who cater to every level of the game. As I’ve found since, Alexandra Botez and her younger sister Andrea do a superb job of describing opening theory and basic strategic guidelines that can help a beginning or intermediate player improve. As sisters, they play off each other well, with one slowing the other down when they start getting ahead of the audience on analyzing games.

This helps especially when it comes to popular blitz, bullet, or lightning styles – those chess games that typically only allow five minutes or fewer for each player to make all their moves. Often, these lead to a losing opponent with more time on the clock simply running their opponent’s clock down – which results in a win. This adds another layer of strategy, and helps educate beginning and intermediate players in how to mitigate a disadvantage. Drawing out a game you’re losing might seem rude, but prolonging a loss can help create opportunities to even things out.

The speed of these chess types makes them a popular spectator sport online, but both Botez sisters think about the game much faster than I can follow. It’s their skill as analysts, at breaking a game down more deliberately, showing where someone created an opening or how a mistake was telegraphed – that all helps me start to apply my fledgling pattern recognition to their games.

Chess casting isn’t just educational about the game, but has gotten genuinely good. Because it’s so focused on in-game strategy, I’d say it’s much better than the commentating for major league sports. When a sport isn’t at the viewership level of one of the major leagues and is still building its audience, there’s a vested interest in commentators teaching the game – how to play it, how to view it, where and when to pay attention. Even moves that seem inconsequential can help set up later strategies. In teaching an audience to recognize this, you teach them how to knowledgeably watch your sport – how to become as excited about a pawn moving a space as you are about a sacrificed queen.

BotezLive got me into chess because they helped make understanding the game the exciting part of playing – not whether I won or lost. I started getting better at the game only once I found it more interesting and full of possibility. It made chess more of a process and less of a competition – a game I can pick up and play during a quiet moment, set aside a few days without playing, and then watch and play for hours on a weekend. Both sisters are very good at describing strategy for beginners, and Alexandra Botez is often recognized as a popular, up-and-coming commentator.

There’s a wealth of good chess streamers today. As I said, they cater to many different levels. As I’ve shifted more squarely into an intermediate level (an ongoing process), I still mainly watch the Botezes, but I’ve been able to start following streamers like International Masters Anna Rudolf, Levy Rozman, and Grandmaster Robert Hess without becoming befuddled. This is by no means a complete rundown of chess streamers, just the few I’ve found most interesting and accessible as a beginner into intermediate player.

It’s not a coincidence that they all commentate as well. As chess grows in popularity, there are opportunities in casting live events beyond the sphere of diehard players and to a wider, more general audience of spectators. You can see a notable difference in younger commentators explaining the game in a way new players understand vs. older commentators going denser with the assumption their audience is more knowledgeable. Neither’s a better approach, they just serve different audiences. As a newer player, I’m obviously going to gravitate to the former.

Chess Games are Everywhere

The other element is the preponderance of chess games that are available. I’d join a local chess club, except: pandemic. I also like a good mix of A.I. opponents and the option to play others online. I can train specific aspects of my game and learn to avoid my most common blunders against an A.I., and then take what I’ve learned into live games against other players. You can’t go back three moves to see how you set up your own blunder while a real opponent is waiting for your move; an A.I. opponent is as patient as you need it to be. That breadth of ways to play is a lot to ask, but luckily we’re not wanting for options: may be the most complete answer. Its free version allows play against online opponents, offers a lot of historical and more recent game variants, as well as a limited number of A.I. opponents and daily puzzles. It has various paid tiers, but the basic one ($29 a year) eliminates ads and opens up 67 A.I. opponents with different habits, as well as various analytical tools for their system to describe to me exactly why I suck and where I started sucking most. It’s a good investment if you’re going to use it a lot. If you’re dabbling, the free version already outpaces most paid chess games if you just want to play chess against other people and a few A.I.s.

“Chessmaster” is a game I bought on Steam ages ago – in 2011 or something, which was approximately 30 years ago. They don’t even sell it any more. It displays in a little 800×600 window and just stretches everything miserably when you ask it to go full-screen. Yet it is beautiful, with one of the best training modes I’ve seen, endlessly generated puzzles, and a roster of absolutely vicious A.I. opponents who each have preferred styles:

Beginner opponent Sonja overvalues queens, whereas the next rung up features Jonesie, who likes queen trades. Some opponents will have good opening knowledge, whereas others are strong in the middle and endgame. You have to adjust your game as you get good enough to face each new opponent. is clearly better on most fronts, but “Chessmaster” is like a warm blanket I never want to give up. I’ve also never felt the keenly burning hatred toward’s overly friendly A.I.s that I have toward the silent, smugly smirking faces on Chessmaster.

"Chess Ultra" Santa Monica DLC image
“Chess Ultra”: For when your GPU wants to play chess, too.

“Chess Ultra” is at the other end of the spectrum, favoring visuals over everything. The game can be played the way I do on a traditional monitor, but it’s designed for VR. Its strength is its various settings: it’s great to play in a luxury cabin as the wintry winds howl outside, in an apartment overlooking Mulholland, or on the Santa Monica beach, especially in a year where we’ve had to stick in place and avoid traveling. It features beautifully detailed chess sets and locations, many as overpriced DLC. No, I’m not paying $5 for a set where you can’t tell the pieces apart; I’m playing chess, not wearing it to the Met.

“Chess Ultra” is easily the most graphically-demanding chess game I own and will not work on a tablet or laptop with an integrated GPU. Its limited range of tutorials and puzzles feel like an afterthought, its ratings system is nonsensical, and the game’s frozen on me once or twice…but the base game regularly sells for $5 and includes a few settings and piece sets. In terms of playing chess in a satisfying, responsive way, it’s OK. In terms of pretending I’m chessing it up on a buggy Holodeck, it’s the best.

Chess is also playful. “The Chess Variants Club” is a $5 game on Steam that collects a huge range of chess variants from across history. It’s early access, which means it’s available to play now but still in active development. I love it. It has Microchess and Demi Chess, variants that take place on small boards using a fraction of the pieces. It has the aforementioned Chess 960.

That’s all before the really weird shit: Atomic Chess involves destroying both the capturing and captured piece, as well as certain pieces on any bordering space. Circe chess involves captured pieces getting reborn in their starting positions. Dunsany’s Chess is an asymmetric variety featuring a traditional set of Black pieces, but the White pieces just being 32 pawns. Want six knights a player? Play Knight Supreme Chess.

My favorite might be Aleut Chess, wherein the Aleut people were found to have adapted Russian chess into a whole new game where two asymmetric forces are staggered across the entire board.

Aleut Chess starting positions from "The Chess Variants Club".
The asymmetric starting positions of Aleut Chess in “The Chess Variants Club”.

The list goes on, and while has a slightly more gimmicky selection of variants, “The Chess Variants Club” dives into historical variety. Some of the more limited variants are more curiosities than anything else. There are only so many possible sequences in the 4×4 Silverman chess, for instance. It’s interesting to sample, but once you know the trick, it’s solved. Most of the variants are deeply involving and challenging in new ways, though. They’ve also helped my midgame a lot by forcing me to get more creative and recognize less predictable development. Its selection of puzzles isn’t bad either.

“The Chess Variants Club” is under construction, adding in new variants while quashing bugs. It lacks a 2D option, has only one set design so far, plays the same (super-awesome) song over and over, and only has three levels of difficulty. I’ve also encountered rare bugs with the A.I. not allowing a move that should be available. A lot of the A.I. is being designed for new variants that haven’t been programmed before, so this is to be expected. All in all, though, it’s an expanding collection that develops my game in this amazing, exciting notional museum of playable chess variants.

That’s not even getting into “5D Chess With Multiverse Time Travel”. This hurts my brain. An average game involves pieces traveling back in time to create new universes where they existed earlier on the same board. Eventually, you’re playing forward in multiple universes. It may be advantageous to create a universe where you have two queens on the board, but that means the one who escaped this universe is no longer there to help it.

Pieces can move through multiverses in ways that reflect how they move in chess. A bishop can move up or down a universe, but only once for every square they move into the past. In other words, their travel through universes and time is always diagonal. A knight can travel two universes away, but only one board into the past; or two into the past, but only one universe away. It reflects the knight’s classic L-movement. Needless to say, things get complicated and mind-bendingly hard to track quickly.

"5D Chess With Multiverse Time Travel"
Welcome to Hell.

I haven’t even tried with the set of new pieces with new rules designed specifically for multiverse time travel because every time I try to wrap my head around the normal variety, it goes all the way around, meets itself, and thinks, “Oh, you’re here, too?” Writing about it sends a chill of awe down my spine at how much there is to learn that I haven’t yet.

Hell, I haven’t even tried “Four Kings One War”, a free game where two players each control two sets of pieces that descend on a central board from all four sides, setting up a modern “guerilla chess”.

I’ve also got a traditional game on my phone that’s limited in scope but has a good range of A.I. levels. Take your pick, there are a thousand free, mobile chess games, and each of them has ads more annoying than the last.

As good as chess is, I don’t think I would have gotten into it if I hadn’t found chess streamers who are good at breaking the game down and teaching what about it keeps them interested and excited. As good as chess streamers are, I wouldn’t have kept playing without a bunch of different options to do so. is great, but sometimes I want to take my new skills back to “Chessmaster” and show 1229-rated A.I. Miranda what’s up. Yeah, I got better while you’re stuck in 10th Edition “Chessmaster” forever neglecting the center. Who’s up next? Oh no, not 1365-rated “Josh – Age 7”, that dude has no heart.

And sometimes I want to play shitty chess while the wind buffets my luxury library-cabin. And then rove around a museum playing five different variants. And then name my bishop Kyle Reese and send him back through time to protect my queen in an alternate dimension long enough for her to travel back to this one and open up a can. If I get frustrated or hit a wall where I don’t feel I’m learning well in one mode, I can just watch an entertaining streamer teach, or hit another chess game with a different presentation or variant, and it feels fresh again.

You can’t get cabin fever when you keep moving around. Even if you’re stuck in the same place, oh what ways we have to move around. This last year has sucked, and chess for me isn’t a new hobby or skill. It’s a vast range of landscapes, perspectives, connections, experiments, histories. It’s a whole field of art and sport and invention to appreciate that I know how to look at in a way I didn’t before.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write articles like this one.

One Thing Free: “The Old Tree”

One of my favorite experiences in gaming is the 10-15 minute game that stands as a single idea done well. Usually these are free. They often serve as a proof of concept or a brief artistic experiment. The mechanics themselves tend to be simple, and the gameplay easy. They’re atmospheric and lend a sense of ease or relaxation that longer experiences can have trouble delivering. “The Old Tree” by developer Red Dwarf Games is one of these.

Most longer games need to present more gameplay complexity, demanding more obstacles for you to overcome and systems to master. A short game doesn’t need to do that. They can instead focus on the mood and art, or sometimes the character and message, standing alone.

“The Old Tree” is a very straightforward 2D puzzler. You play as a…plant? tendril? thing? Kind of an apple with antennae. You crawl from room to room, trying to get to the top of an old tree. Or rather, the character crawls – you don’t control any motion. Instead, your job is to solve light puzzles so that your apple octopus can make it to the next room. The character patiently waits for you to unblock the way and then crawl along.

The art is very good. The creature you play sparks of claymation, while the visuals around them are moodily dim without ever feeling obscured. The music suggests more otherworldly mystery than threat. The experience might be slightly unnerving if it wasn’t all so calm.

I enjoy games like this because you can put your attention into them completely. You’re not dedicating dozens of hours climbing up a skill tree or collecting every icon in an open world. Don’t get me wrong, I can get lost in those games, but this is one I can focus on calmly and where I can complete the experience quickly. I never get distracted from the artistic impulse that drives it, whereas a Gwent addiction in “The Witcher 3” or tracking down every collectible in a “Far Cry” can sometimes start to blunt the beauty and commodify the mystery of those worlds.

There are no distractions in “The Old Tree”, just a delicious looking applctopus on a linear path with 10 minutes of puzzles that serve as a way to exist inside this beautiful art. The ending is relaxing and rewarding, and you can sit with it for a moment if you wish.

It’s both an ideal free game and an ideal short game.

“The Old Tree” can be played free in a web browser on the developer’s site, or on Steam.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.


Virtual Tourism Where You Least Expect It — “Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare”

CoD Nigeria warning

by Vanessa Tottle

My life is like a Doom painting right now. Don’t confuse that with a Doom painting. Sometimes field work is being hunched over a 70 million year-old skeleton before going back to camp, fighting the elements around a campfire, and telling a story you’ve told a thousand times before as if for the very first time while you drink hot coffee like it’s Ambrosia of the gods. It’s that feeling you get in a book when you exist in a world that isn’t anything like the four walls around you.

And sometimes field work is taking an ancient jeep back to port, fixing the jeep because it breaks down halfway there, getting told your associate’s boat is delayed a week, which is great cause he has all the petty cash, going back to camp, fixing the jeep because it breaks halfway back, getting a call that says your associate is in town and where are you, fixing the jeep again so you can go back to town the next morning and get him, finding out once you get there he got his own ride instead, and stopping on the road as you pass him trying to fix his driver’s truck, which looks like the result of an unholy union between a dump truck and a VW bus, and has a flatbed filled with the only kind of goat in the world to which you’re allergic. Maybe it is more like a Doom painting.

The point is, sometimes I come back from the field content to nest in bed with a good book about fairies getting along splendidly, and sometimes I come back from the field clawing open the latest technological marvel that lets me headshot 10,000 bad guys who deserve it because they wear uniforms that have green instead of blue and drive trucks that look like VW dump buses. Call of Duty waffles back and forth between being a franchise about reinforcing patriarchy by eliminating third-world nobodies who look at us funny and reinforcing military-industrialism by saving the world from megalomaniacal dictators who now look like Kevin Spacey but don’t even come close to existing in the real world.

It’s a bad franchise, but it scratches an itch, and I probably got that itch from those fucking goats. Something funny happens in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, though. Call of Duty exists in an awkward valley between gameplay mechanics that tell you “shoot everything” and artists who want to make social statements by how they design the locales you’re about to blow up. Whenever they have a good message about who you’re shooting and why, they undermine it by having you shoot everybody by the end anyway.

Luke Plunkett at Kotaku details one moment in a sequence in Nigeria, where you’ll see, “This house is not for sale beware of 419,” scrawled across the sides of houses. This references real-life tactics used in Nigeria designed to warn and organize against local scammers.

It’s a brief instance that will be overlooked by most players, since many don’t even play the single-player component, but artists in games make statements just like artists in any other medium. It’s up to players to recognize these moments and echo them, so that artists in a medium at war this very moment realize making social statements – no matter how small – can be a good use of time and resources that paying customers appreciate, understand, and support.

Now go read Plunkett’s piece. I’m very tired, so I’m going to finish out the single-player before going online, hearing, “You’re a girl, how big are your tits??!?!!” a million times from other players and saying, “Not as big as my score,” as I shoot them in the face, which carries its own metaphorical value.

October 16 is Now Brianna Wu Day

Stop GamerGate

by Gabriel Valdez

I’m declaring today Brianna Wu Day. Why? Because of this.

What’s this? It’s the piece Brianna Wu just ran on XOJane about her experience with GamerGate.

We told you yesterday that GamerGate was asking for it, that the tide was already shifting, that their unbridled misogyny is creating icons that the hate group won’t be able to stand against. You can only persecute a group of people so long before one of them stands up and hands your ass to you.

So go read this, and after you’re done reading it, have yourself a Happy Brianna Wu Day and celebrate this by sharing it on whatever platform you can log into.

Why We’re Thanking GamerGate

No Girls Allowed

by Vanessa Tottle & Gabriel Valdez

Dear GamerGate, what is it about my gender that pisses you off so god damn much? Anita Sarkeesian. Zoe Quinn. Brianna Wu. If you really cared about objectivity in games journalism, instead of persecuting women because you can, you would go after pay-for-play, or the AAA developers’ use of influence and access to manipulate critics. You wouldn’t be sending rape and death threats to single-employee studios.

That’s Vanessa in the bold, this is Gabe in the plain text. Every woman I know in the gaming industry has received physical threats. Every one of them. Elizabeth Tobey’s written about them, Meagan Marie’s shared them in interviews, and countless others who shy away from the spotlight have relayed that they have each endured threats that have escalated to FBI referrals.

It is the only combination of job and gender I know for which the chief requirement is being able to interface with the FBI.

Here’s the shocking thing – I know more men who are leaving the industry because of this than women. Men who can’t take selling a piece of their souls to sit idly by while this shit happens. I know more women for whom this has crystallized their desire to enter the industry than ever before.

Those supporters of GamerGate don’t know what’s about to hit them. Yes, hate is effective over the short term – nothing rallies better than hate – but after it blows over, after its core audience inevitably finds some new distraction, GamerGate’s going to be a buried artifact of the past.

A funny thing I learned working as a campaign manager in Oregon is that negative campaigning is usually met with an equal and opposite reaction. Single out something negative about your opponent (whether true or false) and you can raise funds off it and gain points off it, but so will your opponent. It’s been shown again and again that these negative campaign moments are mirrored by accuser and accused pretty much dollar for dollar, polling point for polling point. The result is that negative campaigning has very little real effect on ongoing campaigns. It simply raises the awareness of politicians’ names on both sides. Even in the most hate-filled campaigns, whoever wins (be it accuser or accused) will find a readier and more willing audience down the road. The effect, whether intended or not, is only to celebritize the eventual winner.

The hateful core of GamerGate should have learned after their hatred of Sarkeesian KickStarted her career. After she sought $6,000 for her video series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, she raised $158,922. You may have made her life difficult, but your hatred and harassment escalated the conversation surrounding her to such levels that she became an overnight sensation. You didn’t create your worst enemy – she was already on her way to kicking your ass. But you did give her a much, much bigger audience to watch her do it.

History does not remember the passing hate of a moment. It remembers the people who respond to it. Sometimes, a culture responds to it the wrong way. Sometimes, a culture responds the right way. Take a look around, GamerGate, at the women you’ve boosted onto MSNBC, CNN, at the surge of concern you’ve caused not just in the gaming community, but in American culture at large.

How do you think this culture is responding to you? You’re already losing steam, your casual members have left you, you’re continually chased off Reddit, and you’re paying for your crusade essentially out-of-pocket. I haven’t seen a single one of you show your face on a network.

Meanwhile, conversations about gender-equality in gaming that were once comfortably pushed off as avoidable and eventual are now being treated as imminent and immediate. Including women and their perspectives is now a front and center concern for developers and publishers. Your harassment of these women – death threats, forcing them from their homes, hacking their finances – has forced the industry to reassess how they treat female employees in the workspace, as well as female characters in their stories.

Keep in mind what I said about politics. Negative campaigning only works for the winner, giving her a bigger audience down the road. You have accelerated the increasing role of women in game design and criticism in a way you couldn’t fathom.

Donations to games designed by women have increased. Coverage of women in game design has increased. Women appearing on news channels or addressing crowds of thousands have only ever encouraged more of us to look at what they do and say, “I want to do that, too.” You are creating a generation of women game designers by shaping and popularizing the icons who will inspire them.

The only mark GamerGate will leave – the only mark – is in the surge of strong women who will learn to create games just to spite you, to show you they can, and because they see other women having the kind of success measured by CNN and crowds and the number of articles on them, whose names pop up on Google now as first options. They will see those women and hear their voices and regardless of what you say, game design will become a more viable and desirable option for them.

You didn’t make these icons for women in game design. They were already on their way to kicking your ass. But you did exponentially increase their audience, an audience that is overwhelmingly siding with them.

This is Gabe. Thank you GamerGate, because the games this surge of women create in just a few years’ time? They’re going to piss you off so much, and I can’t wait to play them.

This is Vanessa. Thank you GamerGate. Your hate has given us icons tempered by fire. They had strong voices before, but now they stand above the industry itself. You took individual critics and developers and, by your hate, you have made them arbiters.

This is Amanda Smith. Thank you GamerGate.

This is Rachel Ann Taylor. Thank you GamerGate.

This is Cleopatra Parnell. Thank you GamerGate.

This is Shayna Fevre. Thank you GamerGate.

This is Eden O’Nuallain. Thank you GamerGate.

This is Olivia Smith. Thank you GamerGate.

This is Himura Sachiko. Thank you GamerGate.

E3 Reactions — Gabe Valdez’s Top 3

Witcher 3 Wild Hunt

I’m a story addict. If you don’t have a story, you won’t keep my attention. The greatest reward for me isn’t a new level or new ability or new armor. It’s more plot. There are three broad lines of thought on how narrative in video games takes place now.

The first demonstrates how game development branched off of filmmaking – classical linear narrative. This has you follow a pre-scripted story, using either gameplay mastery (like in Mario or Sonic) or architectural exploration (like in Doom or Quake) to progress you from one moment to the next. The finest example of this at E3 was Valiant Hearts: The Great War. Games, especially a decade ago, were obsessed with World War II – it was a necessary war in an age of unnecessary ones, filled with tales of individual heroism in the last war where the majority of combatants could see each other’s faces.

World War I has been largely ignored in gaming. It was a meaningless war played at by endangered monarchs desperate to measure the size of their armies against each other. Its biggest impacts on history were mechanized warfare, chemical weapons, and laying the political groundwork that led to Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. Gameplay would be difficult to adapt – trench warfare consisted of weeks of digging out your own third-world country followed by minutes of mass murder. In other words – not something that can be easily or respectfully game-ified.

Yet game developers are beginning to feel brave about making artistic statements. Critics of other art forms – most famously the late Roger Ebert – have repeatedly claimed games cannot be art. I always held the sneaking suspicion that Ebert might not have truly felt this, but rather used his position and bearing as a challenge to developers to start prioritizing art over entertainment. Regardless, the indie boom of the last few years (which Eden O’Nuallain wrote about on Monday) has forced major developers to look at telling more difficult, emotionally challenging stories. And if the trailer for Valiant Hearts: The Great War can make me well up with tears inside of two minutes, I have high hopes for the game itself.

The second narrative style is emergent narrative. These are typically formed in open worlds, or sandbox worlds (as Forrest Walker discussed for us on Tuesday). Developers design these worlds to exist without the player – characters and animals in the world will carry out daily functions regardless of the character’s intervention. Involve yourself in any number of pre-scripted plots or just point yourself in a direction and go, creating your own plot along the way.

The most famous example is The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, a high fantasy world of craggy mountains and foggy marshes. Follow a main plot involving the emergence of dragons and a bloody civil war, become a thief, go to a school of magic, or just book it to the nearest pub and make a quiet living as an explorer or hunter. Or do all of the above at once. These narratives are called “emergent” because many of the story elements arise out of the functions of the ongoing world itself. The world-building, geographical design, and artificial intelligence need to be top-notch in order to create a believable-enough illusion of a land that existed long before you arrived. Every player will have a different experience.

This brings me to No Man’s Sky, a title that evokes in name and gameplay the pioneering freedom of Firefly.

Emergent narrative hasn’t been developed very strongly in space flight games. Choosing to be an explorer, a soldier, a mercenary, a trader, a manufacturer…none of that’s new in the genre. What is new is being able to set foot to ground and explore the very surface of a planet, discovering new flora and fauna while mapping out planets like an intergalactic John Muir. (Intergalactic John Muir is all I’ve ever really wanted to be, by the way.) I’ll probably end up shooting spaceships in this game at some point, but what really excites me about it is the evocation of exploration and discovery in a science-fictional setting.

The last narrative style is that of choice. Think of a more mature version of Choose Your Own Adventure. This transfers the architectural exploration of early games into a narrative exploration of motivations and philosophical imperatives. Players are given agency to make decisions that guide how the plot develops.

Choice is something that movies, books, poetry, theatre, no other medium can really do very well. Yet it’s something that gaming can do beautifully. It’s not mutually exclusive to linear narrative or sandbox worlds – it’s more of a modifier that can be applied to either. The Walking Dead is a linear game that comes to an emotionally devastating yet philosophically uplifting conclusion; it’s built not so much from the choices you’ve made as it is from the very act of choosing in the first place.

Perhaps the best gaming moment I’ve encountered was in Mass Effect 2, a semi-sandbox universe. As an operative in a doomed science-fiction universe, I was asked whether to keep information that might one day eliminate an intelligent, yet warlike, species of life. No, I said. That was someone else’s fight. Destroy the information. Later, I was asked to risk saving a hated enemy who had killed a friend, or take them out of play by eliminating half their population. I considered the character I’d been shaping in-game: emotionally torn by death, overburdened, and whose snap decisions were only based on morality when tactical advantage didn’t get in the way. Here, the universe was at stake – it was my fight. I was a hypocrite. Destroy the species.

As a writer, I adore this style of narrative – it gives me a chance to inhabit a character who thinks wholly different from me, but whose various paths are written by someone else. It allows me to entirely focus on a character’s psychological make-up, analyzing why he makes each decision.

Which brings me to The Witcher 3.

Take the over-the-shoulder perspective out and this has all the look and feel of a movie trailer. Compare it to Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s strong yet nonetheless generic trailers. Witcher has the character, sense of place, and feeling of consequence that Dragon Age lacks in its advertising. Compare it also with The Witcher 2‘s “Hope” trailer, which promised not a high fantasy experience, but rather a melancholy one, a rare tone in tales of swordplay and magic.

People who play games are more and more seeking out different, intelligent, artistic experiences. We want the medium to challenge us like film and literature can. The Witcher franchise, already unique for being a canon continuation of a series of best-selling Polish novels, demands decisions of players that are often ill-informed, manipulated by untrustworthy characters, and that are faced with siding alongside a variety of unappealing evils. By asking players to make judgment calls which could very well be wrong and repeatedly have unforeseen consequences, it forces players into situations of damage control, mourning, and some pretty honest vengeance.

That we’re given agency over the story itself to effect, avoid, or suffer a character’s feelings of melancholy, loss, and anger only makes the experience more poignant, more affecting, more vital as a piece of art. This style of narrative gives games the opportunity to speak to us in ways other mediums can’t. As for the Witcher 3, this trailer promises a dynamic story, beautiful locations, phenomenal music, but most of all…it hints once more at a rare combination of epic world and raw emotion. To look upon foreign, fantastical landscapes and react to them with the full scope of your emotional range is a truly compelling experience.

For other E3 reactions, I linked Eden’s and Forrest’s articles above. Also see:

Elizabeth Tobey walks us through the pros and cons of gameplay and cinematic trailers.

Vanessa Tottle reacts to Ubisoft’s treatment of female characters and highlights three games with female leads.

E3 Reactions — Elizabeth Tobey’s Top 3

The Division

by Elizabeth Tobey

For the first time in five years, I didn’t personally attend E3. While part of me was sad about missing out on such a usually huge event for me work-wise, the rest of me giggled with glee that I didn’t have to worry about trailers and appointments and booths and how I’m a germaphobe and detest shaking hundreds of hands.

Watching E3 purely as a spectator, with no proverbial horse in the game, was a breath of fresh air. It is, however, impossible for me to shed my (fairly cynical) perspective of the industry when I sit down to write about three trailers that stood out to me during the event. It’s so easy to critique negatively when you are sitting on the sidelines, but I know that every demo that went to E3 came with the baggage of long nights and perhaps some frantically couriered thumb drives with last-minute edits.

I’m going to start off by cheating a little bit and talk about the same game for my first two trailers. See, I have a problem with trailers that I can tell are fake: they either have gameplay I’m fairly certain was made just for the demo and therefore might never make it to the real game (so often it doesn’t) or somehow the dialogue is so forced and fake that I actually cringe when I hear it. Case in point is the gameplay trailer for The Division:

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud Ubisoft for showing off so much gameplay and I think it shows the game very well, but for god’s sake, people, gamers don’t talk like that to each other. When you are cooperating with your friend, you speak like a normal person and not in character. This doesn’t make me feel like I’m playing with my friends – it keeps making me realize this is a carefully scripted demo read by the devs to hit on the Key Marketing Initiatives for E3.

That being said, The Division absolutely nailed it with their cinematic trailer:

I don’t even really like cinematic trailers as representations of gameplay because – while they are great mood pieces and often artworks in their own right – they are CG, usually made by an outside agency, and so often the gritty mood of the piece (I’m looking at you, Dead Island cinematic trailer) does not carry in the slightest to the final game. That makes you even more disappointed in the end product than if you’d never seen the cinematic piece in the first place. But this trailer? I want to be a good guy (not the kind of good guy that when you think about it is actually a psychopath) and this trailer sells me on the desolation and the hope of the world they are creating.

Saving the best for last, The Crew continues to blow my fucking socks off. This year’s trailer, “Coast to Coast,” wins a special place in my heart not just because it used in-game footage that I felt was realistic and representative of the actual experience, but because it brought together the thrill of driving cars and made me absolutely giddy to do it online with my friends. The sheer scale of this game makes me want to play it right now thankyouverymuch – I have bought into everything this game promised and it’s a Day One purchase for me. The best part about me loving this trailer and game? I played it last PAX Prime and I was TERRIBLE at it. It was embarrassing. But that doesn’t matter. I need to play it, even if I’m the derpy pre-order Z4 that always gets smashed up, because that’s what friends are for and The Crew makes me believe that completely.

Elizabeth Tobey has been a Senior Manager of Interactive Marketing at Bioshock developer 2K and the Director of Global Communications at Defiance developer Trion Worlds. She is currently the Director of Marketing at Smule. You can read her thoughts on the gaming industry and other topics here.

E3 Reactions — Vanessa Tottle’s Top 3

Rise of the Tomb Raider

by Vanessa Tottle

When I was growing up, I had a lot of games. I think my parents gave me them because it kept me distracted and away from them for long periods of time. I loved the ones where I could play as women. Instead of watching someone else with perfect hair on a California sound stage kick the shit out of supernatural creatures, I could do it myself.

In Lara Croft, I found a woman who did everything the men did in action movies, but I got to shoot the guns, climb the ancient ruins, and drive the motorcycles myself. I do what I do now (paleontology) in part because I got to be a woman in short shorts and climbing shoes when I was just a kid who thought the world ended at the edges of my hazy town and couldn’t always be sure it would start again the next morning. Yes, Core Design expanded her tits in every sequel until Crystal Dynamics took over the series, but games were the one experience I had in having agency over anything, and Tomb Raider gave me the best games in which I had that agency as a woman. That opened up what I thought I could do in the world.

I have only been watching E3 for a few years, but Ubisoft blew the doors off this one like no other company before: their lineup included Assassin’s Creed Unity (AssU for short), Far Cry 4, The Division, Rainbow Six: Siege, The Crew, and Valiant Hearts: The Great War. Then they were asked why AssU and Far Cry 4 lacked playable women in the multiplayer. An innocent enough question. Ubisoft could have said female playables didn’t fit their vision or that they wanted to focus on some male-driven theme. Not perfect answers, but at least it would mean they had considered the possibility. Instead, they insisted animating female characters would have doubled their development time. Which is bullshit. Which their former animation lead came out and said was bullshit. Which, for a game being developed by nine studios, like AssU is, is especially bullshit.

So forget them. Why?

I’ve got an H.R. Giger Alien to face off against using only a motion sensor and a crème brulee torch. Alien: Isolation looks like everything I want in a horror game: dark and moody, a focus on sneaking around an overpowered opponent, survival against a constant threat instead of victory-by-shooting gallery. All set against a late 70s vision of our technological future and the vast emptiness of space. Its protagonist? Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen. Good thing, too. Like in Aliens, I don’t know that your average man with 20 guns could hack it. A woman with a blowtorch and a schematic? The Alien doesn’t stand a chance.

Why else? Because Faith is my Batman. The heroine of the first Mirror’s Edge returns in the second, which for a very long time looked like it wouldn’t get made. Faith slows down when she picks up a gun. It’s extra weight, and she has to use her hands to aim. In a first-person parkour game, that means death. She’s much better at navigating the architecture of a level to beat someone up, avoid combat altogether, or bypass conflict. Imagine playing a game that lets you be Jackie Chan. This is it.

And finally, Rise of the Tomb Raider. When Crystal Dynamics rebooted the franchise in 2013 with Tomb Raider, it kept the supernatural elements of the series and grounded everything else. When you fire a gun, it feels powerful. When you jam a pick into someone’s skull, it takes effort and feels revolting. It was more survival game than shooter or platformer. Lara’s world was no longer glamour and ritz, it was dirt and grime. She’s a woman who gets beat up by her opponents and her environment, but who gets back up again and again, always in the service of helping someone, discovering something new, or solving a mystery. If you’ve read anything I’ve written before, you know why that speaks to me.

So go back to the 18th century, Ubisoft. The rest of us have fucking games to play.

Vanessa is getting her PhD in vertebrate paleontology, with a special focus in geochemistry. She has participated in digs on four different continents. Eat your heart our, Lara Croft. You can read more of her work here.