Japan 2023 Travel Tips

Here are some observations and tips from my recent week-long trip to Tokyo and Kyoto with a friend. This was from April 25th to May 2nd, and it was my third trip and his first.

I’m not going to post an itinerary – we did all the usual things and I don’t think you’d be surprised by any of the places we visited, though I do have a few notes about Kyoto later on.

Arrival and Departure

  • Arriving at Haneda at 11am, it took 30 minutes from exiting the plane to clearing immigration and customs and getting our bags. This is a lot faster than the horror stories I’d heard!
  • We pre-activated our Ubigi eSim before our flight; my friend’s worked as soon as our plane landed but I had to restart my iPhone to get it working properly.
  • ATMs are plentiful in the airport, there’s no need to bring any cash (we didn’t)
  • There was a short 5 minute queue to buy a Welcome Suica on the way to the monorail.
  • Departing Haneda on Tuesday May 2nd, we entered the security line at 6:35am and I exited at 6:47am; my friend who started at same time but went through different security line exited at 6:52am. In other words, it took us about 15 minutes – again, way way faster than I’d feared.
Me pondering a tiny bar in Kyoto

Bullet Trains

  • We didn’t get a JR Pass and instead used the SmartEx website to buy tickets to and from Kyoto. The website is fairly good but the instructions are extremely bad. I’ve used the JR Pass before and I appreciated the simplicity of “normal” tickets, plus being able to go on the quieter and faster Nozomi bullet trains.
  • When you buy a ticket through SmartEx, you download a QR code per ticket from the website (for some bizarre security reason, this requires email verification). You can print this QR code out and/or add it to your mobile wallet. The QR code is all you need to pass through the bullet train ticket gate, but only some gates have QR code scanners. It can be hard to spot which ones these are, but they will have an upwards-facing scanner and the words QR on them. If you’re confused, you can just show someone your code at the booth and they’ll direct you to the correct gate.
  • If you add your QR code to your mobile wallet AND you have a Suica card on your iPhone with Express Transit enabled, you might have a problem (like I did) when exiting via a bullet train gate, in which the gate tries and fails to read your Suica instead of the QR code. On one occasion it kept failing and a guard eventually waved me through; on another I just tried another gate and it worked. I liked the simplicity of having everything on my phone but printing out the QR code is probably easier.
  • The overhead luggage shelf on our bullet train (a typical N700 class) was able to fit all standard airline cabin luggage sizes. 
Shopping in Harajuku along Mozart Street


  • In Tokyo I saw 95% of people masking on the subway, and maybe 75% outdoors; the numbers were lower in Kyoto, perhaps because there were more tourists. No-one seemed bothered at all at people who weren’t masking (we masked most of the time, particularly indoors).
  • Almost all the toilets I encountered had hand dryers. Maybe I got lucky, but I didn’t see any need to carry around my own towel.
  • I usually carry a water bottle around with my on holiday but it’s pretty much pointless since there are few places to refill it and there are so many vending machines. In fact, I didn’t carry any bag at all – if we got drinks or a snack, we’d just consume it there and throw away the rubbish in the same place or carry it to another vending machine’s bin. If you can pull off bag-free travel, it makes the constant walking much more comfortable!
  • The last time I visited Kyoto several years ago, I was pretty stressed out at the crowds at Fushimi Inari (the one with all the gates) and Kiyomizu-dera. They were both smaller this time! We arrived at Fushimi Inari around 10am and while the entrance was busy as usual, it only took 15 minutes of walking for the crowds to thin out where it was possible to take photos with barely anyone in them. In other words, you absolutely do not need to get up at 7am to have a good time here. 
  • We both bought 10GB Ubigi eSims for our seven day trip. My friend used only 800MB by making sure he uploaded photos solely by wifi. In contrast, I used 9GB; I used my phone exactly as I would back in the UK (lots of social media, Discord, Slack, browsing, photo syncing, but little YouTube or TikTok), and this notably included a large 700mb movie download. I was able to tether my MacBook just fine and achieved a peak speed of 2MB/s (i.e. 16mbit) while hanging out on a busy bullet train platform. I should also note that you get solid signal even underground.
Simple and delicious: pork katsu from Niigata Katsudon Tarekatsu in Kyoto


  • We had dinner reservations for three out of seven nights, which was just about right; for everything else, we just searched Google Maps for general cuisines and walked past a few until we found one that seemed right (not too busy or dead, etc.). The longest we waited was 40 minutes at a high-end sushi conveyor belt place near Ueno Park in Tokyo, Kanazawa Maimonzushi; everywhere else was just a few minutes wait, max. I don’t think it’s worth overplanning or stressing out about whether you’re going to the “best” place – the general quality and value level in Japan is really high.
  • Everything is far cheaper across the board, too: easily 30-40% cheaper than London prices, and better quality. The portions are smaller, which is why you should do as locals do and buy yourself a fancy snack in the afternoon.


  • I believe Japan still doesn’t have a major design museum but Tokyo’s 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT always has excellent temporary exhibitions, and better yet, it’s inside the beautiful Hinokicho Park, with the fancy Tokyo Midtown mall right next door, if you like that kind of thing.
  • If you’re looking for quieter park and shrines in Kyoto, Maruyama Park leads into some lovely trails to the west and north, and you can loop back through the Chion-In Temple complex.
Hinokicho Park in Tokyo

It’s hard to resist the temptation to overplan a trip to Japan, especially if it’s your first trip. But there’s so much to see and do, and the cities are so easy to get around, that it’s worth taking your time to wander about.

It’s astonishing how much easier it is to be a tourist in Japan now, even compared to just five or ten years ago, with mobile internet and translation apps and more information being available in English. We had a blast!

Thanks to Alex for his photos of me!


PC, Mac, and Steam Deck
$10.99 on Steam
7 to 12 hours long

Originally posted on my newsletter, Have You PlayedSign up for free!

Roadwarden is an illustrated text-based role-playing game (RPG) where you explore an isolated, godforsaken peninsula in search of the previous roadwarden who’s gone missing, while also trying to re-establish trade and political ties between the peninsula’s fractious settlements and your home city of Hovlavan, while also fulfilling your official roadwarden duties as combination ranger, diplomat, trader, and postal worker. Oh, and you’ve only got forty days. 

An illustration of a tiny walled settlement, with game dialog and choices, and your health stats
That’s an illustrated text-based RPG, alright

There’s a lot going on in Roadwarden, maybe a little too much. When you arrive at an outpost on the way into the peninsula (which, I will note, is deliberately unnamed), you meet a couple of guards whom you laboriously ask twenty questions in a row to download into your brain what feels like the entire history and politics and economy and flora and fauna of the region. It’s such an exhausting, un-fun data dump that I almost abandoned the game there and then. 

As soon you leave the outpost to explore, the game becomes punishingly hard and obtuse. You start with a handful of coins – but what is a coin worth, and how easy will it be to earn more? How much should I really be paying for dinner? What happens if I choose to sleep in the cheaper stables rather than get a good night’s rest in an expensive inn? You’ll endure too much pain for too long in answering these questions. It turns out that even though you’re an agent of the notional central government here to help the people of the peninsula, no-one gives a shit (probably because the previous roadwarden annoyed everyone and disappeared), and in fact everyone kind of hates you. 

This quickly establishes the peninsula as an intriguingly brutal place lacking in trust, but the fact that you’re a homeless civil servant, as one reviewer put it, for the first few hours of the game is a real drag to play. Your chronic exhaustion, filth, hunger, and penury constantly get in the way of doing anything interesting, even just travelling, since you sleep in late if you’re tired. If re-establishing contact were so important to your Hovlavan masters, surely they’d have kitted you out in more than rags given how so many characters judge you based on your clothes. 

You eventually learn how to play more effectively: locating cheap places to sleep, securing affordable rations, buying soap so people don’t run away from your stench, that sort of thing. Yet I never felt far enough from utter destitution to pursue interesting and risky quests until I googled “roadwarden tips”, whereupon I learned that a) gambling is such a reliable source of cash that it’s practically cheating and b) fishing traps are the same but with food. I’d never have figured this out on my own, once again demonstrating how forums and wikis make playing games more enjoyable.

Once you have money, you can take on quests that demand more health and equipment, resulting in bigger rewards and new opportunities. This loop allows you to accumulate all the supplies and fancy clothes and armour you could only have dreamt of a mere twenty in-game days ago. Levelling up in Roadwarden is as satisfying and compulsive as in any other RPG, but it’s also faintly ridiculous. The game works hard to establish how tough life is in the peninsula, but how tough is it really when you can go from zero to noble in forty days? 

(This is “ludonarrative dissonance”, a term that highlights how weird it is that some games’ narrative portrays the player’s character as virtuous whereas the gameplay – the ludic bit – makes you mercilessly mow down hundreds of enemies. It’s a term that is both an accurate description of a real issue in games but so overused it’s ceased being a helpful criticism; we get it, it’s weird how you kill so many people in The Last of Us! Still, it’s neat to apply it to Roadwarden’s odd power curve.).

If you’ve played Roadwarden, you’re already shouting, “But Adrian, why didn’t you choose an easier difficulty level?!” 

True, you can pick between three difficulty levels at the start of the game. The easiest removes the forty day time limit and makes quests easier, while the hardest gives you only thirty days and makes quests tougher. 

I dithered for a while before picking the regular difficulty. And I still think that was the right choice. I play action games on easy because, as a child, I was cruelly deprived of a SNES or Megadrive and thus did not hone the fine motor skills required to enjoy such things; but Roadwarden is not an action game, it’s a thinking game, and I like to believe I am just as good at thinking as the average gamer. 

Perhaps I’m wrong and that’s why I had such a hard time at the beginning, but a lot of players seem to agree with me, with some suggesting there should be a modified version of regular that keeps the time limit but has easier quests. Maybe! Except I think mucking about with difficulty multipliers (e.g. making food 50% cheaper, combat 20% easier, etc.) only gets you so far and if you want to make a game substantively more enjoyable (which is not the same as easier!), more serious surgery is required.

As for the time limit: while I’m not a fan of artificial timers in games, the standard forty day limit seemed central to Roadwarden’s premise. I liked the idea that whether I did “everything” or not, I’d have had a complete experience as the designer intended. 

Which is what I got. Few other games have transported me like Roadwarden did, with its richly detailed world emerging from haunted ruins and broken promises and sideways glances and seemingly mundane quests. Instead of a classic hero arc to save the world, most of my time was taken up by routine roadwarden tasks: clearing roads, repairing bridges for trade caravans, driving out wolves, delivering packages, playing matchmaker, finding someone to read a letter for a farmer. Practically everyone you meet has some grudge, some revealing tale, some little request.

And sometimes those requests are bigger, involving many trips over many days. These can open up new areas for exploration and force you to make tough choices. There are plenty of opportunities to do the right thing or to betray people’s trust, with no traditional “morality meter” tutting at you; usually the only lasting consequence for being selfish is your own guilt. Most people identify Roadwarden’s message as anti-colonialist, which isn’t wrong, but I’d argue it eschews the usual RPG didacticism to ask an even wider question: what is it like to be the person who picks up the pieces after a storm, knowing you may be bringing another on your heels?

All this amid a world of high fantasy. Cults, guilds, zombies, golems, magic, blood sacrifice – they’re all here, except without the usual kings and castles. Instead, we get a power-hungry, expansionist mayor; a foolish merchant wasting his money on snake oil; a commune of the young who you alternately admire and condescend to. 

Each and all are well-drawn despite Roadwarden’s reserved, monochromatic appearance. Artwork is reserved for maps and locations rather than characters, who you only see in big, book-like chunks of text. Sometimes the style makes the peninsula blend together but overall it’s a subtle, effective accompaniment.

A map of roads and settlements, with lots of gaps and blank space
A pleasingly non-literal map (via The Gamer’s Lounge)

Even the place names are evocative. I found myself murmuring the name of my home city over and over again, even when I wasn’t playing. “Hovlavan,” I’d say, savouring its mouthfeel. Gale Rocks. Pelt of the North. Howler’s Dell. As you reach them, you uncover a bit more of the pleasingly non-literal map. Places right next to each other might involve arduous hikes, whereas the long eastern road can be traversed speedily if you’ve cleared it. 

The forty day time limit means that even if you’re rich, you still have to worry about whether you’re spending your time efficiently. Travel is counted in hours and it’s dangerous to venture out at night, meaning that as the days grow shorter, the difficulty neatly ratchets up. Unfortunately I wasted a lot of time revisiting locations and talking to people just to see if their quests had advanced; in theory the game’s journal would help with this, but as is the case in so many RPGs… it doesn’t.

Then again, my aimless wandering made the peninsula feel like an open world. When I couldn’t figure out what I was “meant” to do next, I’d trot around setting fish traps, foraging for food, and repairing huts. But the game never quite manages to be a real open world, partly because its systems aren’t flexible or complex enough to support the illusion. There are merchants you can buy and sell things from, but there’s no proper economy of scarcity and abundance. You come across dangerous beasts but it all seems a little random rather than part of a living ecosystem. And so the game’s limited options means you can never ignore its prompts to pursue the main quests.

Game asks "what are you looking for?" with a free text entry field. Someone has typed in "treasure"
Spoiler: saying “treasure” doesn’t work

Speaking of prompts, you’re occasionally invited to answer open-ended questions like, “what are you looking for here?” or “who would you like to meet in this town?” This is a very text adventure/interactive fiction thing to do, one that’s been largely abandoned in modern RPGs because, essentially, it asks too much of players who are accustomed to quickly selecting options from a list, as Roadwarden itself normally does. Initially I found this off-putting but after I saw it a couple of times, I opened a notes file on my phone to keep track of interesting names and objects. It was fun to feel like a detective, but the experience wasn’t entirely successful because, like in so many text adventures, it was annoying to have to guess which exact word it wanted me to use. Will ChatGPT rescue this game mechanic? We’ll see…

It took about seven hours for me to complete my regular difficulty run of Roadwarden. Judging by the achievements I unlocked and what I’ve read of the story online, I saw just about half of the story, which means there were entire quests I didn’t begin and whole environments I didn’t see. Like I said, I feel I had a complete experience, but the game is clearly designed to reward multiple playthroughs. I have mixed feelings about this. I’m not a professional reviewer; I don’t have the time to play Roadwarden another two or three rounds, but I worry that I’m shortchanging it because I haven’t seen everything. Then again, we’re overdue a conversation about how games should respect players’ time rather than demanding ever more.

A conversation about undead workers being used in a settlement
Undead workers? Nothing could go wrong with that.

Yet I suspect Roadwarden would’ve been better if it were either:

  1. Bigger, with more open world gameplay inside a properly simulated ecosystem and trade economy, more sophisticated character attributes, etc. OR
  2. Smaller, with more help on finding and completing quests, and less time spent simply trying to feed yourself and make money.

The game’s extreme difficulty at the start is a consequence of a highly compressed power curve playing out within a relentlessly hardscrabble world. If you went bigger, you could extend the time limit and smooth out the curve. And if you went smaller, you’d have no power curve at all, focusing more on the great story and characters.

I find it hard to criticise it for landing in the middle. Roadwarden was apparently designed, written, programmed, and illustrated by a single person – an astonishing achievement and a recipe for unconventional design decisions. But it’s a shame the game isn’t a touch more approachable. Holding people’s hand isn’t so bad. That’s how you pull them into your world – and Roadwarden has a hell of a world.


A reader suggests Season’s overwrought writing (covered last week) is because it was originally written in French and then translated directly into English. “I can also say it’s very, very common to hear this kind of really cerebral language in French. not so much in English, right? but the French really don’t seem to give a shit. 😄” The studio behind Season is based in Montreal, so perhaps…



PC, PlayStation, and Steam Deck
$29.99 on Steam and PlayStation
7 hours long

Originally posted on my newsletter, Have You Played? Sign up for free!

In Season, you bicycle through beautiful landscapes, documenting the world as you go by taking photos, recording audio, drawing sketches, and collecting mementoes for your scrapbook. Eventually the scrapbook will be stored in a museum vault to survive an impending, tumultuous changing of the “season”. 

So, what is a “season”? Well, that’s the problem. As far as I can tell, it’s a period of a few decades or maybe a century or two, with a theme that encompasses the world – so there’ll be a season of peace, then a season of war, and then something else. When seasons change, everyone’s memory gets wiped so people forget what happened yesterday and start living in an entirely different way. 

But buildings and monuments survive, and so do things in museum vaults too, which means it’s not actually true that everything gets reset because what’d be the point of the scrapbook otherwise? Of course, it’s not like people forget everything either, otherwise what would happen to kids, and how would people keep farms running, and wouldn’t all the power plants blow up? And indeed, you meet people who tell you about events from earlier seasons, which is nice but seems contradictory.

The more I try to explain how seasons work, the less they make sense. If that annoys you, you won’t like Season; and if it doesn’t, you might love it. 

You can probably guess where I fall on that line.

Which is not to say I disliked everything in the game. As I travelled through Season’s landscapes, I was touched. I helped a family facing evacuation choose what to take with them; their possessions were all piled up in a field, in a floor plan of the new flat they were moving into. Deep in the woods to the east, past an avenue of trees strewn with lanterns, I came across an old artist’s sculptures. She asked me to photograph them so could see them one last time, unmuddied by her fading eyesight. When I showed her my scrapbook, she was pleased her art might live on past the season. 

That’s Season at its best, reminding us that it’s worth making space and time to document memories.

It’s an incredibly pretty game. I found myself jumping off my bicycle every thirty seconds to photograph yet another beautiful new vista, yet another stunning sunset, concept art made flesh. The game is constructed for those moments, the rise of a hill and the curve of a cliff revealing photo ops with the most immaculate vibes. It’s like if you asked Midjourney AI to make a game in the style of Firewatch and Journey. It’s almost too perfect, a little too conventional in its Instagrammable beauty, but few would complain about that. 

A person walking through an Italian-style town
Wandering through your home town

If the designers stopped there, that would’ve been enough. But the game’s website also promises we’ll “contemplate and make difficult choices that could affect how the story ends,” “collect memories, make recordings and piece together the secrets of the world of Season,” and “meet a diverse cast of characters, each of whom has two precious things to share with you: the stories of their lives and a moment together at the end of the season.”

Given that I imagine most players who’ve seen Season’s marketing will only remember its amazing vibes, it’s puzzling why they felt it was necessary to add so much extra stuff. Let me list the things you do in this game:

  1. Ride your bicycle. It feels great. On the PlayStation 5, you pedal by squeezing your controller’s left and right triggers, their resistance varying based on slope and speed. We should have more cycling games like this!
  2. Take photos. This is nice. I never used any of the filters or focus settings.
  3. Record audio. You point your microphone at an audio source for a few seconds, which records an entire clip. It’s fine, but unlike taking photos, you rarely encounter things worth recording, which gives it a perfunctory feeling.
  4. Collect things. Letters, postcards, trinkets, that sort of thing. It’s OK. There are way too many of them.
  5. Add those things to your scrapbook. You already know whether you like this kind of thing, but regardless: you have to do it. A lot. And each time, you need to select and position and resize those things.
  6. Talk to lots and lots of people. There are a surprising number of people and they all have plenty to say. It’s not great. More on this later.
  7. …and make decisions for them. Don’t worry – it makes no difference!
  8. Unravel a mystery. Ummmm… what?!

This is a surprisingly interactive game for something I thought would be about cycling along coasts and mountains and taking photos! Story-driven exploration games (“walking simulators”) usually have far fewer things to do; Firewatch is almost entirely about map-reading and using a walkie-talkie. Why so simple? Well, it’s hard enough to make even a single mode of interaction feel good in a game, let alone half a dozen.

Season could’ve easily been a game only about cycling, taking photos, and talking to the occasional person. Instead, I felt pressured to Always Be Scrapbooking so I could fill up my literal “memory meter” (or whatever it was called) and unlock extra insights, stopping me from getting immersed in the world.

A scrapbook containing photos, postcards, sketches, and writing
The first of many scrapbook pages

Now, you could say: ignore the scrapbook! But taking a photo of specific vistas and objects unlocks additional (and occasionally vital) information as your character comments on what she sees; the same for recording audio or collecting things. This, combined with various scrapbook-related puzzles, turns the process of documenting into an unpleasantly gamified chore. 

And there are so many things to photograph ad collect that aren’t beautiful. Season tells its story through innumerable posters, plaques, letters, graffiti, billboards (“environmental storytelling”), all of which you’re compelled to laboriously interact with and read in order to progress, or at least understand what the hell is going on. Environmental storytelling can easily become repetitive in a game that doesn’t know what players have already seen – designers placing posters and graffiti and billboards all saying the same thing to make sure absolutely players get the message in case they don’t see them all – and that’s exactly what happens in Season.

Talking to characters feels just as clunky. In most conversations, you have to press a button to play the next spoken line, even if that means pressing twenty times in a row while someone relates a story. Not only is this tedious, but it results in weird pacing; if a character is going to say twenty uninterrupted lines, why not just have each line play automatically, one after the next – you know, like in real speech? 

I could excuse all of this if the writing were good. It’s not.

Season’s writing strains for sincerity with every word. It tries so hard to be profound, but it’s just po-faced. To be clear, I am not against profundity! Profound people are some of my best friends! 

A person in a junkyard talking to an old woman, with a speech bubble saying "What magic might be hiding in this day which will pass and never return?"
Much profound

But if you’re going to make players sit through a ton of reading and dialogue with nothing to do, it needs to be as well-written and as well-acted as anything else we can spend time on. Instead, players have to sit through someone literally recounting their dream, famously the most boring thing to listen to. 

Here’s some of the writing:

“I try to divide the things I see between two categories: permanent and impermanent. But the division breaks down. The difference is just a feeling.”

“The land curves, we curve it, and are curved by it in turn. Along the way I hear and smell and touch and listen.”

“What is a symbol but a word without a sound?”

“I hold tight to the feeling of being almost lost, barely lost, wandering without conviction. If I could talk to dad I would tell him this feeling in detail.”

“The scale of the old world grew beyond human proportion, maybe beyond human feeling. The parking lot will never die.”

On a letter:

Passers-by, I’ve shared my mixed feelings on a certain new organisation. These are my potential perspectives. What is your perspective? I left some paint around. Make a mark. Give another view.

On a plaque by ruins:

These Atmospheric Ruins Has [sic] been designated a symbol of THE UNFATHOMABLE NATURE OF THE PAST. What is this? A bridge? Some kind of aqueduct? Who built it? Why did it fall apart? We don’t know but we’ll live beside this hulking structure for the rest of our lives.

It’s all like this. Designers: if it’s too hard to write well – and it is hard – just cut the words until you can manage it!

Case in point: the old artist in the woods. After you’ve photographed her sculptures, you can show her other photos you’ve taken across the valley and she’ll tell you a tale about them. She was able to do this for over twenty of photos, and are just the ones I took in a quick playthrough! There is a reason most games don’t let players do this: it’s because it’s very hard to write good, believable dialogue in such high quantity. 

And now we reach the most confounding part of Season – its politics.

Mild spoilers!

Once, there was a golden season. Then there was a season of war. The war eventually ends when a monk, sick of all the killing, prays to put all the soldiers to sleep. Then a new season begins.

This is a child’s view of the world. It would make sense in a fantasy, but the world of Season is closer to our reality. It’s a world of trucks and TVs and hydro dams and motorways. It wants to say something important to us, but it can’t even take war seriously. It’s a world where people talk of “internationalism” and of a golden age (for whom?), but never about why these things happen, just that war is bad. I don’t need Season to give me a manifesto, I want it to give me a point of view, yet all it’ll show me are platitudes and pretty pictures.

The gaping void at the heart of Season also jumped out at Malindy Hetfeld in her review for The Guardian:

The world of Season, which is so crucial to its functioning, feels less like a real place and more like an amalgam of cultural influences scrubbed of their real-world significance. Here, Japanese shimenawa ropes appear next to Scandinavian architecture, while men in Stasi-like uniforms casually dictate behavioural rules via propaganda posters.

…The game is enamoured with ideas of community and culture, but in appropriating real culture and removing it from context, it robs itself of its own message …Season [is unwilling] to paint the world in anything but the broadest strokes (“Internationalism was breaking down”) and [a] penchant for flowery but meaningless language.

Instead, Season asks us to uncover a mystery involving experiments with magical crystals that absorb memories. It’s so confusing and drawn-out that it shatters the game’s chill, contemplative vibes.

Spoilers over!

Season reportedly had a very hard time in production. A year before launch, the studio’s creative director was accused of screaming at, belittling, and groping employees, their behaviour enabled by the CEO (they were both reinstated a few months later). Perhaps the disjointed dialogue and various bugs I encountered were the result of these problems. But I suspect Season’s bad writing, confusing plot, and overstuffed mechanics were there from the start. And I’m not alone; a lot of playersdon’t understand the most basic and important parts of its story. 

And yet most of them enjoyed the game! So it is fair for someone to respond: well, Iliked the writing, I wasn’t bothered by the mechanical issues, I loved the art. That’s fine: most reviewers liked it too, Hetfeld notwithstanding. I would bet good money on it being shortlisted in awards like BAFTA’s Game Beyond Entertainment and Artistic Achievement categories. And having sat on those jury panels in the past, I wouldn’t be surprised if it won. 

That would be a shame. It’s far from the worst game I’ve played. Even as I write this, I wonder if I’m being too harsh, if its art and sincerity don’t redeem its failings. But I can’t get over my disappointment in its writing, in its story, and in its execution. 

Season could have said so much more by doing so much less.


PC, Xbox, and Steam Deck
$19.99 on Steam and Xbox, free via Xbox Game Pass
15 hours long

Originally posted on my new newsletter, Have You Played? Sign up for free!

Pentiment is the closest you’ll get to playing Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose – which is to say, investigating a murder in a medieval monastery (hell yeah!). The game is set a few hundred years later than Eco’s book, when the Reformation is about to tear the Catholic Church apart, but it’s just as thoroughly researched.

This is definitely not an allegory for video game development at all

It’s also beautifully illustrated, with the entire game rendered as an illuminated manuscript, with cut-out characters trotting through richly-coloured buildings and gorgeous landscapes. Your character, Andreas Maler, is an artist working at Kiersau Abbey in Bavaria (now Germany), and spending the rest of his time in the nearby town of Tassing. It’s his in-between existence that gives him the unique ability to investigate the murder.

At this point you probably have three questions:

  1. Sounds worthy (games are art, I know!) but is there anything to this other than cool art?
  2. Do I need to like Umberto Eco to get this? Because I don’t know that much about the Reformation.
  3. What is it like to play, and specifically, how boring is it?

To which I can say:

  1. Yes! The writing is excellent and it has things to say about frustrated ambition and the construction of history and the grief of life that goes beyond the usual video game “it’s sad when someone dies” tropes.
  2. Not really. I have read and mostly forgotten The Name of the Rose, and more recently researched medieval pilgrimages and indulgences (which play into Pentiment somewhat), and I still didn’t get most of the historical details until they were explained, which they usually are, and even if they aren’t, it doesn’t matter that much because you’ll figure it out from the context providing you’re not just skipping over all the text.
  3. Now that’s where it gets interesting.

Pentiment is a walking (slowly) and talking (to literally everyone) game. How do you figure out a list of suspects? You talk to people. How do you know who was where and when in the run up to the murder? You talk to people. Talking talking talking. Everyone has a lot to say, not just about the murder, but about their horrible neighbours, or the greedy abbot who’s stopping them from cutting down trees, or the arrogant shithead doctor who’s just moved in.

The good news is that the conversations are clever and funny and memorable, if always a little too long. You can’t say anything wrong in these conversations, let alone “fail” them (the game as a whole is unfailable, which is the way I like it), but your choices can reveal more information or change people’s opinions of you, altering events later on – but again, never putting you in a place where you can’t progress.

Then there’s the walking. Oh the places you will walk! You’ll walk through the abbey’s dormitories. You’ll walk through the forest to gossip with the charcoal burner. You’ll loop around the winding pathways of Tassing, trying to remember which houses you’ve already visited. And every time you move between locations, the game “flips” between pages of a book, which is charming the first time it happens and tedious the next thousand times. It’s not great, and it worsens the malaise whenever you’re at a dead end.

Always be Sexting

So, it’s not unlike your classic graphical adventure game. There is a slight wrinkle in that there’s usually a ticking clock that gently limits the amount of time you can devote to special activities that reveal more clues (e.g. eating a meal with suspects, helping with chores, going on a hike, etc.); but in practice you have near-unlimited time to scour the town and abbey and run down every conversational avenue with every human for all the non-special-activity-related clues you can get. Which, I think you’ll agree, is quite boring as soon as you start having to backtrack and figure out who it is you haven’t already talked to. 

(Not all story-rich games do this! Inkle’s 80 Days and Heaven’s Vault are cleverly designed to eliminate the need for backtracking.)

I suppose the designers might argue your laborious movement around town is meant to make you feel a part of the world, which seems reasonable until you realise Pentiment, like practically all games, plays tricks with space. Sometimes it takes ten seconds to walk past a house, other times it takes ten seconds to walk a mile. This compression of space keeps the game from being even more of a slog. So if you’re already compressing space, why not allow players to compress it even more, with a world map that lets you teleport between locations? We’re already living in a book here!

The tragic thing about this is that it’s all unnecessary. Not just from a game design perspective, in that Pentiment could make it a bit clearer who it’s worth talking to and where it’s worth exploring (the game’s nigh-on unusable “journal” certainly doesn’t help), but from a player’s perspective, in that there’s really very little benefit you gain from doing all this walking and talking.

Because – and this is a slight spoiler, but one in service of getting you to actually play this damn game – you can’t win Pentiment. It might seem like you can ace the investigation just by working and walking harder, but you can’t. The trick of the ticking clock is to make you think that if only you made a different decision you could’ve cracked this case wide open. That makes Pentiment a commentary not only on our futile search for certainty in a world that cannot deliver it; not only a game with characters who are haunted by the belief that they are responsible for every ill they’ve touched; but also an unnecessarily tiresome game to play. 

So I am telling you, if you play Pentiment, do not try to talk to everyone. It’s not worth it. You will end up knowing what you need to know anyway. The important things will happen, don’t worry.

There are three more things to mention.

The first is that Andreas isn’t a cipher. He is a person with a history and relationships, some of which you get to define (in a way that matters very little, so don’t sweat it), and some of which you don’t. It’s a little heartbreaking to play as this talented, frustrated, unhappy, well-meaning man who doesn’t quite know what to do with his life. I realise as I write this that Andreas sounds like a bit of an asshole, which is true, but also true of so many young people throughout history, and the game captures that reality and the inevitable shattering of that reality very well.

This makes so little difference to the story!

The second is that while everyone talks about how good the game looks and how each person’s dialogue is animated and rendered in a different font based on their style of speech, which is a cute trick, it’s the writing that’s the real achievement. There are so many words in this game, but very few that are wasted. Pentiment is not just a book-ass game, it’s a grown-up-ass game, in a good way. It will help you see people from the medieval period as people, not as gullible simpletons.

The final thing is that Pentiment has three acts, each lasting about five hours of play. Each act is quite different from the last. If you are getting a little tired of the game, don’t worry – things will change a lot once you sort out your current investigation.

Mild spoilers below!

My spoiler policy: most games take so long to play that we do them a disservice by not talking about everything that happens in them. If I can persuade you to try a game by spoiling parts of it for you, then I will.

Acts 2 and 3 involve major time jumps, which reveal the consequences of the events you’ve just played through. These are not the consequences of your actions – it’s not that dynamic a game, you don’t get to play a completely different act 2 or 3 if you do really well in act 1 – but you get to see how the people of the town and the abbey and their children and grandchildren respond to and remember the things that went down earlier.

It’s not unusual for games to force you into a difficult choice and then ignore it. What’s pleasing about Pentiment is how it embraces this sleight of hand. 

It says: your choices are never as important as you think they are. 

It says: you are part of a community and you swim in vast tides of events that you cannot possibly change. 

It says: you can’t min-max life because you will never have even a fraction of the information you desire. 

It says: even so, the little things you say, maybe they will change how people grow up and think about you. 

All of this sets Pentiment’s choices apart from many games’ absurd trolley problems where players are presented with literal “save your friend or save humanity” dilemmas, which may be dramatic but are completely overdone.

It’s really those later acts that make Pentiment worth playing, because it’s as much a game about what a community chooses to remember and believe in as it is about solving murders. It’s a game about the construction and telling of history, and how storytelling and, yes, artistry plays into that.

Spoilers over!

Pentiment is the kind of game that gets glowing reviews by English major journalists who adore the fact that they finally get to combine their passions. It is also a game that is quite annoying to play. But you should be assured its annoyances are shortcomings of design, not story.

And while it’s easy to criticise games for their rough edges (believe me, I’m going to do that a lot in this newsletter), what I find exciting about Pentiment is what I find exciting about video games in general: they’re a work in progress. TV is polished to a sheen these days, so easy and satisfying to watch, with the perfect length and perfect technology and storytelling conventions everyone’s grown up with for 30 years. One day games will be like that but until then, we get to live through the time when they’re still annoying to play but weird and surprising and new. Pentiment may be the first ever game that has told this kind of story before. Don’t tell me that’s not exciting!

I want to avoid being an uncritical booster of games in this newsletter. It’s not as if the industry’s survival is reliant on me saying nice things. So believe me when I say that Pentiment is worth playing, if reading lots of text and investigating a medieval murder appeals to you (and if it doesn’t, stay away!). 

It is an unusual labour of love, and one that I won’t quickly forget. Just don’t try and talk to everyone!

Have You Played? is an experiment in taking games seriously, but in a fun way. Tell me what you’d like to see more of! And if you liked it, share it with your friends. Sign up to the newsletter for free!

Should I Write a Newsletter About Games?

I’m trying to talk myself out of writing a newsletter about games. There are many reasons why this would be a bad idea, not least because people are asking whether there’s a future of video games journalism at all, but I can’t get over the fact that I found so few newsletters about the most profitable, most popular, most innovative form of art and media and entertainment today.

There are plenty on the business of games – everyone wants to tell you the minutiae of Microsoft’s attempt to buy Activision Blizzard. And while there are countless excellent podcasts and YouTube explainers out there, they’re not for me. I just can’t sit through an hour talking over gameplay clips or three hours of someone dissecting the mechanics and clothing of Cyberpunk 2077. That’s not a knock on those videos, it’s a commentary on my impatience and my preference for reading rather than watching non-fiction. If you like them, I salute you!

So here’s my pitch for a newsletter:

  • It’d be for the general audience and for experts. Think Aaron A. Reed’s 50 Years of Text Games or Matt Levine’s Money Stuff: accessible to total novices, thorough enough for industry veterans. No academic jargon unless absolutely necessary!
  • It’d avoid breaking news and industry talk. Too much of games discourse is around how much money they make.
  • It’d focus on recent games I’ve played, like why Pentiment’s story works so well but its design makes it so tiring to play; or the utter vacuum at the heart of Season’s gorgeous settings.
  • It’d also cover broader society and political themes, like how I think multiplayer games may be an imperfect replacement for the institutions that used to help men make friends
  • 1000-3000 words per week. Long enough to get into specifics, not so long you give up halfway through.
  • It’d be cool to get guest contributors, whom I would pay.

What I find most exciting about games is their incredible number and variety. The barriers to entry and distribution are lower than ever. But even after making games for twenty years, I still find it hard to wrap my arms around everything that’s going on. I want to learn about the amazing games people are making, but existing games outlets, with their focus on breaking news and reviews, aren’t doing it for me. And while there’s no lack of great games writing in the world, much of it is highly specialised and written for experts.

I want to write something I’d like to read: a newsletter that helps me understand what matters in games today, from someone with direct experience. Something that takes games seriously – which means being serious about critiquing them. But it’d also be fun to read!

Why not continue writing on this blog? Unfortunately, people don’t read blogs as readily as newsletters! They don’t spread as well and they don’t get anywhere near as much feedback or engagement. I’d still write here on non-games topics and try to copy stuff over.

What about something even longer-form, like a magazine or a book? Well, I already write a monthly column for EDGE magazine, which is lovely, but it takes weeks for my words to get in front of readers and I don’t get a lot of feedback from them, either. Books are even worse. And they’re both too big a commitment.

I’m not promising to write this – I’m pretty busy right now! But I love writing, and I love writing about games; I just wrote a book critiquing gamification that the New York Times liked! I especially love writing for general audiences.

Newsletters are perfect for that.

Photo by Bram Van Oost on Unsplash


A short story excerpted from my book, A New History of the Future in 100 Objects (MIT Press, 2020).

New York, US, 2055

An account from the inventor of Superzoom:

Nostalgia is a hell of a drug. Isn’t that what Don Draper said in Mad Men? Don’t tell me, the truth won’t measure up to how I remember it.

The truth is we remember too much nowadays. There’s no room for Rashomon when cameras are watching from every corner. We only need to blink and we can see the past as it really happened. Every joke that fell flat, every stumble, every roll of the eyes, it’s there in our permanent record. And don’t even try erasing your records, because there was another camera just over your shoulder.

But for those of a certain age, we remember when we couldn’t remember. In the small years of the 21st century, you could go for minutes, even hours, without making the faintest mark in digital records. It was perfectly normal to have simply forgotten a meeting or an obligation. Imagine that! The downside was that you would forget the peaks as often as the troughs, and with only your imagination to hand, those peaks would be eternally shrouded in fog.

Let’s imagine that your heart’s desire is to pierce that fog. You wait for the perfect moment on a clear day, you unpack an expensive camera with a powerful telephoto lens mounted atop a sturdy tripod, and you step back very carefully. The camera opens and closes its shutter, and you have the very best photo you can take of your peak – a peak that, yes, is a pinch sharper, a touch more detailed than you first remembered, but still dispiritingly grey and misty.

So you load the photo into image editing software and you click (because that is what we did in those days, clicked) a button labelled “Enhance”. If I asked you how this button worked, you might bluster something about “artificial intelligence” or “content-aware fills” but if you ever did know, you honestly can’t remember now. Your answer is very different when I ask what this button does, because its results are very clear: it strips back the fog to reveal crags and cliffs and sprays of ice and snow that were once obscured. It makes the photo look better. It is full of detail.

If you were to travel back to that peak on a day so bright and hot that the fog has burned away entirely – and why would you, because now you have a very fine, fully-enhanced photo – and you were to compare that photo to what you could see with your own eyes, you would be shocked. Reality is different from your photo! The overall shape of the peak is the same, absolutely, and so are the gross details like the ridges and cornices, but the smaller crags and ridges and trees in your photo, they’re nowhere to be seen.

Except you never revisit that peak. You can’t. You just keep the photo, a photo that teeters on the precipice between real and invented, but as far as you know or care, a photo that is perfect, and perfectly real. Just like you remembered it. 

What really happened when you clicked that button? How were the details filled in? It’s quite simple. The software compared your photo’s features to others it had seen before, and it found a match with other peak-like features. It then filled in the fog with a hybrid of those peak-like features, not unlike the reverse forensic linguistics developed in the forties. It would be unfair to dismiss this as fakery. We can instead say it is controlled hallucination.  

Just as we can hallucinate the details of a fog-shrouded peak, we can hallucinate events of the past. We do this all the time in our heads, of course. Who hasn’t mixed up their friends’ favourite movies or books, or remembered something than never happened? What I invented is a way to do this outside of our heads. It takes all the data you can supply, from your lace and other public and private sources, and it reconstructs any memories you wish to see more clearly. 

That first wonderful dinner with your partner: you might remember the restaurant and the date. You have a vague recollection of what you spoke about and what you were wearing. But you want to see it again. So I look at the features of your memories, I compare them to your more complete memories and to the records and memories of similar people in similar situations. Then I use controlled hallucination to clothe you, to fill your plates, to choose the music, to scent the air. It’s not real, but it could be real. That witty line I imagine you said when your partner sat down – even if you didn’t say it, you should have said it. 

The more you want to see, the more I will provide. There is no limit to how far you can zoom in. If you find contradictory data, who cares? I can incorporate that into the hallucination, if it helps. Or maybe you prefer what I’ve remembered for you.

Nostalgia is a hell of a drug. I made something better.

Photo by Guillaume Bourdages on Unsplash

A List of Video Game Newsletters

I recently realised that while I subscribe to a lot of newsletters, very few of them are about games. And of the ones about games, most are written for industry professionals and cover the production and business of games. They’re less about recommending or critiquing games, which is what I’m interested in right now.

So I asked people for their favourite newsletters about video games – and here’s the list!

Note: Descriptions are paraphrased from the newsletters/websites themselves.

Game Reviews and Criticism

50 Years of Text Games (inactive): Traces a path through the history of digital games without graphics, by picking one game from each year between 1971 to 2021 and taking an in-depth look at how it works and why it’s important. Now a wildly successful Kickstarted book (which I backed!). Published monthly, free.

Clockwork Worlds: Austin Walker’s thoughts about games, movies, music, etc. Publishes infrequently, free.

Electron Dance: Words and films on gaming. Publishes a couple of times a week, free.

How Games Change the World: How video games are changing the ways we live, learn and interact with one another. Publishes monthly, free.

Pushing Buttons: Keza MacDonald’s look at the world of gaming for The Guardian. Publishes weekly, free.

Rock Paper Shotgun: The Sunday Papers: A digest of the week’s most important stories as covered by the RPS team. I think this is the same as the Rock Paper Shotgun Weekly newsletter. Publishes weekly, free.

Small Screen: An independent curation experiment by Campbell Bird, who has been covering mobile games since 2013. Recommends one game per newsletter. Publishes monthly or less, free.

Not newsletters but people sent them anyway:

Arcade Idea: An examination of a selection of canonical and interesting games going chronologically from the 1940s all the way up to the present. Publishes monthly, free with Patreon.

Critical Distance: Weekly roundup highlighting the most important critical writing on games from the past seven days. Not really a newsletter since I believe the website is the main way to read it, but you can get some updates via email if you’re a Patreon supporter (like me!) Publishes weekly, free.

The Digital Antiquarian: A historical chronicle of interactive entertainment. Again, not a newsletter but you can get updates via email if you support on Patreon. Publishes every two weeks, free.

Gamers with Glasses: A gathering place for scholars, developers, artists, and fans of video games and tabletop games. It’s a site for people who like to think about play. Publishes weekly-ish, free.

UppercutCrit: Devoted to punching up through high quality content that focuses on highlighting marginalized voices and great criticism. Publishes near-daily, free.

Mostly or Entirely about the Games Industry

Axios Gaming: Keep up with the multibillion dollar video gaming universe, from the hottest games to the most interesting studios and players, by Stephen Totilo. Publishes twice-weekly, free.

GameDiscoverCo: A regular look at how people discover and buy video games in the 2020s written by ‘how people find your game’ expert and GameDiscoverCo founder Simon Carless and his company colleagues. Publishes twice-weekly, free (a paid $15/month tier gets you an extra weekly newsletter plus other useful stuff; I am a subscriber).

Hit Points: On video games and the game industry, from writer, consultant and former Edge editor Nathan Brown. Publishes twice-weekly. £4/month, half of the issues are free.

Levelling the Playing Field: Level up your game development career with the lessons, processes, and tricks from Rami Ismail’s’s decade of successful game development! Publishes once or twice a month, free.

This is not an exhaustive list of newsletters, it’s just what people sent in, so if you aren’t included, don’t get annoyed at me!

Feel free to leave a comment with your own newsletter, preferably not mostly about the industry, please! Include a link, short description, how often you publish, and if it costs anything. I will try to update this list occasionally.

Photo by Florian Krumm on Unsplash

The Taking of Stonehenge

The Federation is proud of its scientific and cultural alliance with the UK. When we made contact with Earth in 2028, we chose the UK as one of our key partners due to its long history as a trading superpower. Just as the UK once built networks of commerce and knowledge between continents by sail, so too does the Federation between the stars by translation gate. And the UK’s current status as a global financial leader facilitates the delivery of what we can both offer to humanity as a whole.

In the past six years, we’ve identified the missing pieces in your scientists’ research on black phosphorus to create the next generation of computer processes. We’ve provided optimised dispute resolution AI agents to improve the efficiency and fairness of your legal system, uncovering corruption that helped overturn your previous government. And most importantly, we helped you deploy near-fractal trading techniques to help boost your nation’s wealth. 

This was not merely a gesture of goodwill, but a fair exchange for your cultural products. And so we hope you see the Federation as a close and valued partner, just as we see you.

We believe close partners should be candid with each other when misunderstandings occur. As such, we wish to respond to certain inaccurate statements made today by British officials and media regarding our archaeological activities.

Let us address the major issue directly. Yes, the Federation is responsible for yesterday’s movement of 467 sites of archaeological interest, including Tintern Abbey, Stonehenge, Vindolanda, Sutton Hoo, the Callanish Stones, Mên-an-Tol, Avebury, Skara Brae, Holyrood Abbey, and Kenilworth Castle (see Appendix D for a full list).

These sites were moved in their entirety via translation gate to a temporary conservation facility in the Luhman 16 system, 6.5 light years from Earth. Once they have undergone initial study, the majority will be transferred to the Orion-Cygnus Arm branch of the Galactic Museum, approximately 3,300 light years away

We selected these archaeological sites based on their importance to our collective understanding of human and galactic history, and their immediate risk of irreparable harm from pollution, climate change, neglect, and looting. We are sympathetic to claims that preserving these sites in their “original” context is important, but our duty of care outweighs such emotional considerations.

In the interests of full transparency, approximately 200 “undiscovered” archaeological sites were also moved to Luhman 16 yesterday. The UK is not lacking in skilled archaeologists, but they are sorely under-resourced and lacking in the ability to excavate them safely. Unfortunately, we have been advised to withhold details on these sites’ location or nature by our barristers to prevent any further damage or disruption from looting.

For similar reasons, a small number of objects were moved from your museums, galleries, and storage facilities, including the Elgin Marbles, the Rosetta Stone, the Lachish reliefs, the Admonitions Scroll, and Dolly the Sheep (see Appendix E for a full list).

We encourage you to view our movement of these sites and objects in the way it was intended: to provide a helping hand in their documentation and preservation for future generations, whether they live in the UK, on Earth, or throughout the galaxy. It is not, as some have suggested, a punishment or a hostile act. In the short amount of time our research engines have had physical access, we’ve generated deeper and more confident historical insights than your own. We will, of course, share the findings with you – after appropriate sensitivity reading, as they are likely to cause distress given your regrettable misunderstanding of your own history.

You should be proud that trillions across the galaxy will be drawn to see and appreciate British sites and objects. The Galactic Museum has always been free and open to all. At your rate of advancement, we estimate it will be a mere 150 years until a significant number of UK citizens will be able to visit them. Perhaps just over a century – with our help!

Finally, we are happy to clarify the legal grounds of our actions. In 2033, you were the first country on Earth to adopt optimised dispute resolution AI agents within your legal systems, and accordingly the first to benefit from their considerable advantages. You will find the agreement negotiated between the Federation’s agents and your own gave us the option to lease an unlimited number of cultural artefacts in return for the expected gains from our technological transfers. As to the suggestion that we have somehow taken advantage of your relative inexperience, you have always insisted on being treated as an equal partner under galactic standard terms. Even so, we provided an extended period of consultation for your agents: a full 27 milliseconds during yesterday’s negotiations.

As a demonstration of our good faith and in recognition of our close partnership, however, we are prepared to loan some sites and objects to Federation-approved Earth institutions, though this should not be construed as a cancellation of our 300 year lease. 

You may contact our lawyers in London for further information.

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

Superficial Thoughts on Bangkok Malls

Earlier this month I was on holiday in Thailand and Cambodia, mostly to see Angkor Wat and other temples, ruins, etc., all of which very much lived up to the hype – so while they were impressive, they were unsurprisingly impressive.

I was surprised by one thing in particular, though: the malls in Bangkok.

I do not subscribe to the notion that tourists – and that’s what I am, a tourist – should only go to the oldest, least commercial places in a destination to get a truly “authentic” experience. I learned more about contemporary China by going to malls and theme parks and resorts than by going to the Great Wall. If you want to know what a city is really like, you should check out the popular, busy places. Hence visiting two malls in Bangkok.

The first mall we visited, Iconsiam, looked to be one of the newest and fanciest in the city, having opened only four years ago. The second, Terminal21 Asok, was more run of the mill, being twelve years old and bereft of superlatives other than the longest escalator in Thailand.

There are apparently over 100 eateries in Sooksiam, just one of the many foodcourts in Iconsiam

What they had in common were restaurants and foodcourts the likes of which I have never seen in the UK and, I suspect, never will. They were so good that even as I ate the most delicious meals there, I felt a pang of despair because I knew that my country simply didn’t possess the interest or the infrastructure to pull off a similar achievement.

It’s not like we don’t have malls here. They’re so popular that before online retail really took off, they were blamed, probably correctly, for the decline of the high street. Westfield’s malls in London are just as big as the ones I visited in Bangkok, even if they were less shiny. And of course they have food courts and restaurants, though of a different sort.

If I had to summarise the differences:

  1. Bangkok malls have 2-3x more restaurants and fast food places than similarly-sized UK malls
  2. They cover a much wider price range, going from very cheap streetcart-style food to pretty expensive Michelin-starred restaurants
  3. They’re generally much better quality and value

It’s hard to judge value given differences in purchasing power, but it sure as hell ain’t hard to judge quality. The restaurants we ate at would easily rank among the very best in all of London, and believe me, I’ve eaten at a lot of restaurants.

I think this happens for a few reasons. The first is that more people are more discriminating when it comes to food in Bangkok. I’m not sure why; some people think this is more of a UK/Anglo problem than anything else, stemming from WW2 and industrialisation. I don’t know the origins of it. What I do know is that I keep seeing British people confidently saying they’ve eaten great Chinese food at restaurants that I know to be mediocre, at best, like this person who thinks London’s Chinese food is as good as that in NY, lol.

Some of the food we ate at Savoey in Terminal21 Asok

It’s obvious to me that a lot of Brits have never actually tasted really good Southeast Asian food, and even if they had, they wouldn’t be able to (or care to) discriminate it from bad food. Maybe this is just a charming patriotism, a defence of the domestic restaurant industry. Or maybe it’s just racism!

The other reason is that rents are too high in British cities, which makes it unprofitable for all but the blandest and/or biggest-scale restaurant chains to success, like Wagamama and Giraffe and Nando’s. The solution would be to build more, but we all know that’s anathema. Another solution would be to allow smaller outlets to open, foodcart-style. To the extent this exists in malls with their “streetfood areas” and such, this isn’t really working because retailers still end up in overlarge spaces with oversized, overbuilt industrial kitchens provided by the landlords.

A week on and I’m still reeling at the experience. It’s not as if I’d previously thought UK malls were the home of good cuisine – I’ve been to Paris – it’s more that I hadn’t imagined Bangkok malls would be this good. That’s my own racism at play, or more charitably, the consequence of not having travelled to Asia for years. It was impressive, and depressing.

Generative AI in Game Development: Threat or Menace?

As I approach my third decade in the games industry, my natural curiosity about new technologies is now mixed with worry: that if I don’t learn them quickly enough, they might also bring my obsolescence. I don’t want to be that person who refuses to use a new tool and declares that it’s the children who are wrong, so I keep wondering if now’s the time to pick up Godot or start getting serious about VR. 

Specific technologies aren’t what keep me up at night, though. You can always adapt to them pretty quickly. It’s entirely new ways of working that are the most challenging to adopt, whether that’s going from working in an office to working remotely, or going from a single game release to making “games as a service”. And I think AI may be one of the biggest changes to game development in a long while. 

AI isn’t new to games, of course – it’s been used for decades, to govern the behaviour of NPCs and generate graphics. But in the last year, it’s been impossible to miss the tidal wave of AI-generated art from tools like DALL-E 2 and Stable Diffusion, which turn text prompts into increasingly decent-looking graphics; more than a few developers are using these tools to prototype art. Meanwhile, Nvidia’s GET3D AI tool can generate 3D meshes and textures, and various companies are commercialising “neural radiance fields” that can generate 3D views of complex scenes from just a few 2D photos – photogrammetry on the cheap, in other words, providing that you don’t mind the AI dreaming up the details.

Perhaps we don’t need 3D models for computers to create convincing moving images on 2D screens, though. That’s what Google’s Imagen Video and Meta’s Make-A-Video AI systems are doing, by converting prompts into short movies. They’re quite basic, but improving fearsomely quickly. And there’s AI writing tools based on OpenAI’s GPT-3 language model, like Sudowrite, which are already being used to help write novels. They aren’t limited to generating prose, either – you can use them to brainstorm ideas for plot and dialogue. 

These AI tools might transform how companies create assets for games, like speedily generating the 3D models and dialogue for hundreds of NPCs in the next Call of Duty, but from a operational perspective, they’re comparatively minor changes to the overall development workflow. It’s games like AI Dungeon that are truly transformational though, where AI-powered conversational interaction is the central component of the game; and the Bureau of Multiversal Arbitration, a multiplayer game on Discord involving AI art generation. 

There are important ethical questions here. Most generative AI tools were trained by scooping up massive amounts of text and graphics from the internet, often without their creators’ consent; some AI proponents claim this is perfectly fine, making a distinction between inspiration and copying, though the legal situation is far from settled. The problem becomes acute when people use AIs to create art “in the style of” specific living artists, who understandably believe that they’re being exploited and their livelihoods threatened.

And that leads to a broader question of whether we’re comfortable with AI tools disrupting entire professional fields overnight. It’s likely that a lot of the work that today goes to illustrators and 3D modellers and writers might soon be performed by AI systems. Claims that AI will simply increase the demand for skilled human professionals, or that professionals can easily retrain, displays a callous disregard for very real economic pain. What responsibility do the people benefitting from these tools – gamers who might get cheaper and more interactive games, game developers whose profit increases – have toward the wellbeing of those whose livelihoods might disappear? 

Even if we solved these problems with new laws and income transfers, there’s yet another question: how will game developers use AI tools? As a writer, I instinctively bristle at the idea that an AI could write better than me. But I can understand a developer who was a less confident writer using AI tools to write the script for a game where the story wasn’t the main attraction. And I think there will be some games that don’t benefit at all from AI assistance.

Back in 2012, I saw Jason Roberts presenting a demo of his beautiful puzzle game, Gorogoa. It felt like a game out of time, one that could’ve been made in the 80s, or the 2000s, or even the 2040s, and indeed, the version he released five years later looked exactly the same as the demo. Maybe AI could’ve helped Jason with some of the art, but the puzzles and animations and story were so idiosyncratic that I can’t help but wonder that no matter the instructions you gave an AI, it wouldn’t have produced what he made.

Originally published in EDGE magazine issue 380 (February 2023). Photo by DeepMind on Unsplash.