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.

Why third-party iOS app stores are vital for digital culture

Adapted from my Mastodon thread from Dec 14, 2022, which was covered by GameDiscoverCo and

With the news Apple is planning to support third-party App Stores to comply with EU regulations, I see we’re rehashing the old arguments about whether it’s a good thing. To be clear, I don’t only think it’s a good thing – I think it’s essential to the flourishing of digital culture, and it’s astonishing how so many people have become convinced otherwise. So here’s my responses to those tired arguments:

“I don’t want to install a new store for every app/game!”

Do you really think that’s going to happen? That’s not happened literally anywhere else! It’s hard and expensive to run an app store, even big games publishers are giving up on the most open platform we have – the PC.

“Apple keeps me safe”

Apple checks Mac software for safety through the notarization process. Software can be notarized even if you don’t sell it through the Mac App Store. They can do the same for iOS.

“I don’t want App Stores full of junk and scams!”

Have you visited the App Store lately? Apple only spends a few minutes reviewing app updates and even major apps routinely break its rules (I found this myself while researching subscription paywall flows). New app stores could be worse, yes – but they could be a lot better, too.

“I like the simplicity of Apple’s payments and refunds for apps”

That won’t go away with new app stores, and besides, it’s in their interests to make payments easy. Speaking as a developer, Apple’s rules make it impossible for us to issue refunds directly, even when we’d like to. So we could provide better customer support under a different set of rules!

Here are the real benefits of third-party app stores:

  1. Publishers can make a living. Apple’s 30% fee exceeds the margin that book, music, and film publishers have, which is why they’re the only game in town (since they save 30%!). If you want better e-readers than Apple Books; if you want new avenues for people to publish content digitally, this is the ONLY way it will happen. There is NO alternative other than going web-only, with all the pain that entails.

  2. We can get new kinds of political and adult content. Apple prohibits games about sex and they’ve had problems with political speech too. You might handwave this by saying “oh but at least they prohibit the bad stuff too” and I just disagree. This is the “” store argument – we could have games about everything and anything, if we had third-party app stores. Proving the point, Apple recently made a reprehensible and ill-informed argument about how games on’s “so-called adult games” that were “so offensive we cannot speak about them here.”

  3. New discovery mechanisms. The App Store is an awful way to discover apps and it’s getting worse since it’s infested with ads. It no longer pays for referrals so sites like Toucharcade can’t make any money reviewing games. New app stores allow for new, more targeted, discovery mechanisms.

  4. Faster, fairer development experience. This is invisible to consumers, but an ever-present overhead on developers, who have to contend with capricious app review processes. It’s better than it was before but ultimately it excludes new developers and people with less experience; it benefits incumbents who know how to navigate and exploit Apple’s labyrinthine rules.

Ultimately, people have been so starved of the benefits of multiple app stores that they have no idea of what they’re missing. It’s honestly tragic, and in economic terms, the opportunity cost is almost incalculable.

We have lost 15 years of digital cultural development because everything has to abide by a single gatekeeper that controls the dominant mobile platform in many countries.

I will not be sad to see it go.

Photo by James Yarema on Unsplash

A Cut in the Shape of My Heart

A couple of years ago, in the midst of COVID lockdowns, a Guardian story went viral: I’ve had the same supper for 10 years. The story was, if anything, more surprising than the clickbait headline. It was an account by Wilf Davies, a 72 year old farmer who’d barely left his Welsh farm’s valley, and had only ever left Wales once, to visit a farm in England.

Yes, Davies had the same supper for ten years (“two pieces of fish, one big onion, an egg, baked beans and a few biscuits at the end”) and as he tells it, much of his life was equally routine. He doesn’t regret any of it, being happy with feeding his sheep and seeing the seasons pass in the valley that’s “cut in the shape of my heart”. In contrast, he hears London “is a place best avoided”.

I remember reading the piece and thinking that there are all sorts in the world and at least he was happy, but as the story went viral, I was taken aback by how many praised it as a “life well-lived”“a glimpse of enlightenment”, “seems to me to have the secret to a happy life”, and so on.

Maybe it was the stress and anxiety of lockdown, but I was surprised how angry I became at these reactions. When did the good life become one free of curiosity, never wanting to taste new food, experience different cultures, or travel to new places? Since when did we think the best thing in life is to stay in our own valley forever? I have nothing against Davies – what baffles me are people who, I assume, enjoy the fruits of travel and trade and the flow of culture, and decide, “you know what, maybe we’d all be happier if we had less.”

Davies’ story has lingered in my mind for years. I didn’t want to write about it at first, afraid I’d come across as spiteful to those who loved it. But I think it reflects a country that’s becoming more spiteful to those who want something different.

Britain has become world-leading in making a virtue out of necessity. Can’t afford to eat different food? Didn’t want to, anyway. Don’t have the time or money to travel across Europe or the world? Everything you need is at home. There is a humility to this thinking, an acceptance of limits and where we come from. There is also a meanness and smallness of mind about it, a suspicion of outsiders and the ideas they bring.

I’m the child of immigrants from Hong Kong, a former British colony. They came here to study, fuelled by ambition and opportunity and curiosity. My partner is from Canada; her father immigrated from Scotland. I grew up in a quiet town in the Wirral, just north of Wales; I imagined I would hate the noise and chaos of London, but came to love it after working there for a decade. I moved to Edinburgh, a capital city airdropped into a beautiful, miniature wilderness, which I love in a different way.

Paeans to a way of life exemplified by a man “at one with the earth’s natural rhythms” who tells us he has never eaten Chinese, Indian, or French food and never wants to, are a cut to my heart. I imagine that they’re just as baffling and vaguely insulting to anyone who has come to love the variety of the world, whether out of choice or out of necessity.

Again, good for Davies, I’m not about to make him try anything he wouldn’t want to – but I would ask others to try. No, I would beg others to try. I’d say they can only know themselves if they explore different possibilities, and that if you travel to London and Edinburgh and France and Egypt, and you meet different people and you try different foods, and you decide that, yes, my farm in my valley is the place I want to be above all, I would say that you will love it even more after all that.

I’m defined by the places I’ve walked in and the people I’ve met. I am those places and am those people.

I remember a clear night in Cornwall. I’m 14, looking up at the stars and commiserating with a friend about a cloud that’s just drifted by. “That’s the Milky Way,” he explains.

At 17, staying with a friend in Canada, I bite into a cob of corn and almost drop it in shock. “What is this?” I ask. “It’s sweetcorn. Have you never had sweetcorn?”. Never like this. I didn’t think it could be this sweet, anywhere in the world. Later, I look into why we have the fruit and vegetables we do in the UK.

19, San Diego. I spend the summer at UCSD doing synaesthesia research, bunking at a PhD student’s house in La Jolla. I can’t drive, so I have to walk 30 minutes to the nearest shops, which are in a mall. I’m the only person I can see on foot, and it takes me a while to figure out how to navigate the parking lot. I’d heard about the car culture of the US, but never believed it until that point.

Years later: we drop in to a tiny bar on the corner of a quiet street in Nagasaki. A young couple serve beers and fried food from a kitchen that would absolutely fall afoul of British health inspectors. Five – maybe six, at a push – customers can fit inside. Spending just an hour there leaves me with countless questions about how such a bar is even possible. How can they pay the rent? How cheap is the rent? Why had I never seen anything like it, anywhere in the UK? I could’ve learned about the history and economics of countless similar places from Jorge Almazán’s Emergent Tokyo, but that gets the order wrong – I bought the book because I’d seen the bar. And even if I’d bought the book, I’m not sure I would’ve understood what it meant without sitting in the bar.

Lockers in Japanese railway stations, cheap and plentiful so travellers don’t need to haul their bags everywhere. Bullet trains that aren’t just faster versions of British trains, but capacious and impossibly smooth. Cities and towns with utility poles and wires snaking everywhere, a different aesthetic approach enabling denser and more affordable rents. We can live differently, I realise.

In Hong Kong visiting my relatives, we wander through Kowloon on a hot evening. Hundreds of people are eating at tables in the middle of streets that hours earlier were busy with traffic, sharing dishes heaped with steamed chickens and vegetables and bottles of beer. Why don’t we do this? It’s not just because of the weather, I think.

Last year, I venture to an open-air public bath in the sea near Malmö. No clothes allowed. Men and women are strictly separated, but a little raft within sight of both areas lets everyone meet, if they want.

Going home from a party in Greenpoint, Brooklyn at 1am, feeling pleased with myself for staying out so late, then walking past bars packed full of surprisingly non-drunk people. Different drinking cultures are possible!

In Shanghai, I meet the artist behind an exhibition based on my book. We have a beer and trespass onto the enormous walkable artwork outside the gallery. He recounts the events of art fundraiser he went to the previous week, a tale of such excess, belying such inequality I wouldn’t have believed it of China in any other circumstance.

We have a superpower: we can see different ways of living by travelling the world.

We have to be careful about how we do it, of course; trains are better than planes, long trips better than shorter ones. And we can learn an awful lot through books and social media and TV and movies. But how do we decide who gets to travel and bring which ideas back to us? And can we really pretend we can understand the world just the same secondhand as well as firsthand?

We have made a world where we are all reliant on one another. Precious few people can stay in their valley all their lives; jobs vanished, valley obliterated, their calling in another city, their love in another land.

It is not always better to stay in the valley. It is not closer to nature. It is not more enlightened. It is not something we should imagine is better. Choice is not the same as capitalism. Variety is not always a vice.

We are all citizens of the world. We might as well get good at it.

2022 Year in Review

2022 was the one of the busiest years of my life – even busier than 2021, when I sold my company, Six to Start, and wrote most of my book critiquing gamification, You’ve Been Played

I’m still CEO at Six to Start. This year we continued expanding the company to more than double its pre-acquisition size to support new projects like localising Zombies, Run! to four new languages, notably bringing on and training up a whole new set of managers and team leads. 

My book was released in September. I hadn’t expected how it would feel compared to self-publishing or writing essays – far more protracted, with a long gap between finishing writing and starting an endless series of interviews and commissioned essays and articles. Many people whose opinions I value have been very complimentary toward the book, and it had some excellent reviews in The New York Times and The Irish Independent, a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, yet I still have mixed feelings about the entire process.

Oh, and I started writing a monthly column for EDGE magazine about video games. 

All of this took place amid the gradual lifting of travel restrictions around the world, and I took full advantage, travelling to Paris and New York and San Francisco (the latter two for my book launch) which was delightful and also tiring. 

Learning Figma at Six to Start

I’ve already mentioned the big news in the introduction, and there are some unannounced projects I can’t talk about yet, but I do want to highlight my experience learning Figma this year.

Screenshot of the Figma editor

I’ve been the lead game designer of Zombies, Run! since we started work on it in 2011. Less publicised is my role as lead UI and UX designer. This made a lot of sense when we were a tiny team and makes less sense today given all my other obligations, but I find it immensely satisfying and a way to remain directly connected to our users. Also, the UI doesn’t change that much on a year-to-year basis, anyway.

I originally created mockups in Omnigraffle, a vector-based rapid prototyping and design app. I moved to Sketch a few years later, a more powerful tool more suitable for app design. It was very easy to mock up new designs in Sketch and give our developers a sense of how things should be arranged on our app’s various screens, but the way I and many other designers used Sketch was more like Photoshop than anything else, creating mockups that didn’t use consistent layouts or properly cater for different text or screen sizes. This would save me time but would entail a lot of headscratching and questions from our developers when they came to implement them in code.

A big chunk of designers have moved to Figma in the last two or three years. It has two enormous differences from Sketch. Firstly, it’s a web app, whereas Sketch is only for the Mac. This has some obvious limitations (e.g. you can’t use it offline) but it enables seamless real-time collaboration, not to mention eliminating the need to constantly update apps or keep file versions in sync, all of which Sketch struggles at.

More importantly, Figma encourages designers to use its sophisticated auto-layout system rather than placing elements willy-nilly, a la Photoshop. This means that when you’re creating a list of items (e.g. a settings screen), you have to specify a consistent amount of spacing between elements, along with considering what happens when a text field is very short or very long, and ideally set up libraries of images and icons that can populate each part of the list.

Every carousel everywhere all at once

In practice, this means that creating a new mockup (e.g. a carousel of banner images) takes ten times longer in Figma than in Sketch because you have to figure out how to make everything line up perfectly in all cases while not turning it into an incomprehensible mess of layers; the goal is rather to craft a beautifully nested series of reusable, configurable components that can be intuited in the briefest glance such that your developers will cheer your name through the streets as they behold its clarity and logic. If you’ve done your job properly, instead of designing five near-identical carousels that can’t be reconciled with one another and need five different implementations in code, you’ve designed a single super-carousel that’s adaptable for every conceivable circumstance that only needs to be coded once. 

I realise it’s a little ridiculous for me to still be doing any amount of UI design work as CEO. The way I justify my work on Figma is that I’m setting up a design system which will be far easier for others to understand, adapt, and extend; and that it’s actually quicker for me to lay the foundations myself rather than explain it to another designer. 

But if I’m being honest, Figma’s puzzle-like nature is probably the closest I’ve ever gotten to actually-useful programming. It’s hugely satisfying to know that designing things “properly” makes life much easier for our developers and results in a better experience for our users, who get a more reliable app and consistent design. Figma is a tool which seems daunting and unnecessarily fussy at first, but also rewarding to learn, to the point where I can now look at community-created designs and work out how to do them better. I like to understand the details of how processes work in my company because it helps me know where our limits and opportunities lie, even if I end up delegating the work later on.


My first book, A History of the Future in 100 Objects, was effectively self-published back in 2013. There was a print edition published by a small company and a new edition was published by MIT Press in 2020, but its original funding from Kickstarter meant I had near-total control over its writing and publicity.

Cover of You’ve Been Played

My new book, You’ve Been Played: How Corporations, Governments, and Schools Use Games to Control Us All, has gone through a very traditional non-fiction publishing process with Basic Books. The advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing vs. publishers are quite well worn these days and I mention them briefly in my review of John Thompson’s Book Wars, so I won’t reiterate my fairly obvious reasons for choosing differently this time (distribution, prestige, getting an advance, having an editor, getting reviews, being more well-known such that I can get an agent and publisher more easily, etc.).

What I’ll say is this: publishers still add a lot of value, but not as much for someone like me as I’d expected. I’ve always had to be my own editor, publicist, and marketer.  I’ve always been happy hiring people to help me, like getting the excellent Jen Monnier to throughly fact-check my book. That’s not to say I didn’t have any help from my editor, but it wasn’t what I imagined.

I’m a little exhausted from talking about the book. I finished writing the core of it almost a year and a half ago, which might as well be a lifetime. Sometimes when I’m being interviewed, I find myself relying on the same examples over and over again, and I wish I could express its ideas as clearly as I did in writing. A book is the crystallisation of thousands of hours of thought by a single person into form that can be consumed in just a few hours. A podcast or a video might be more approachable, but I can’t imagine making one that would have the precision of argument or the breadth and depth of my book. All of which is to say, I can’t even really talk about the substance of the book here, all I can think about is what’s happened in the last few months, which is the book launch, the publicity, and the initial reception.

Some of the very biggest publicity hits for You’ve Been Played were things I did on my own, like being interviewed on Anne Helen Petersen’s massive Culture Study newsletter, or speaking at the NYU Game Center, or trolling Elon Musk into thinking my terrible ideas for gamifying Twitter were good. I often think I could’ve done these just as easily if I self-published. But I don’t think I’d have gotten reviewed by the NYT that way, and for better or for worse, that review is of immeasurable value.

I ended up wasting a lot of time on the book’s publicity, too. I said yes to every single interview for this book, bar one. Most of them were from pretty small outlets and podcasts and, I’m quite sure, did nothing at all except tire me out. I also said yes to every invitation to write essays and articles about gamification. At one point this summer, I was writing three original multi-thousand word essays simultaneously in my “spare time”. I was paid pretty well for most of them, but it was more work than I should’ve taken on. 

Three months on from a book’s launch is a strange place to sit. Unless your book blows up instantly – which very few do – most people will still be in the process of reading it or hearing about it, so you won’t know what its ultimate reception will be yet. By any objective measure, my book has done well. Most authors would kill for the reviews I’ve had – I know past Adrian would’ve! But like most authors, I’d hoped it’d do even better. I wonder if gamification has been dismissed as being too obvious and old hat in the tech world, and too niche or unimportant by everyone else. There’s little I can do about that other than writing the best book I can, so I’m always pleased when readers say how engaging and accessible it is, and how it stimulates so many conversations.

Maybe it’d have done better a year or two earlier, when the topic was fresher. That might have worked had I self-published it, or been more famous so a publisher rushed it out, or if I were a full-time writer. Or maybe the title should’ve been something more obviously about gamification; practically every review used the word “gamification” in the title.

Me in conversation with Eric Zimmerman at NYU

But this is just my impatience speaking. A History of the Future made far less of a splash on its launch and went on to gain an important audience in the following decade; in a year or two’s time, I hope You’ve Been Played will have had much more influence. And I hope my complaints here are understood as someone who’s spent three years writing about a subject he cares about deeply and wants it to have the very best chance it can get to reach an audience. Anyone who’s spent this long on any creative endeavour is going to feel a little protective of what they’ve made, whether or not they let it show. 

Perhaps in the future, I can channel my impatience with the publishing process into solving the same problem for others.

Continue reading in Part 2…