Gamescom 2018 thoughts: Spider-Man, Starlink, Forza Horizon, Oculus, and more

A child was flooring the gas on a tractor simulator here, with full HOTAS-style controller setup. “I live my life a quarter acre at a time.”

I managed to play a fair few games here at Gamescom in Cologne in between business meetings. The first day – Tuesday – is solely for “trade visitors” rather than the general public, so the crowds weren’t too bad. That said, people in the games industry tend to like playing games, which meant highly-anticipated titles like Spider-Man and Smash Bros. still had 1+ hour long queues most of day.

In order of when I played them:

Space Junkies (Ubisoft) is a space-based multiplayer VR FPS with jetpacks. It’s about as fun as any other FPS, except it’s in VR, which makes aiming easier. It also had imaginative guns requiring two hands to operate that were fun if distractingly janky.

Due to space restrictions, we had to sit down in front of a PC, which meant you couldn’t look behind you – instead, you use the right thumbstick to rotate in 45 degree turns. While this may be the least-worst way of doing VR motion thus far, it’s still not great and it doesn’t help elevate an otherwise unremarkable game.

Next door was Transference (Ubisoft), a horror-themed walking simulator set largely in the real world. The art and graphics were impressive, and I enjoyed picking up stuff in the environment (postcards, letters, toothpaste, radios, etc.) and inspecting them, although this is an area where increased headset resolution will be massively helpful.

I wasn’t sold on the heavy use of full-motion video (FMV) to set up the story. There’s something vaguely B-movie about all game FMV, which is often delivered straight to camera, and while this wasn’t awful, it just dragged on.

Surprisingly, I found Transference even more nausea-inducing compared to the highly vertical environment of Space Junkies. There’s something about using a controller stick to walk around (rather than using your legs to walk) that puts me off, even with the 45 degree snap-turns. The fact that  you had to walk around a lot to pick up stuff and carry it between rooms really didn’t help matters, and while the Ubisoft attendant helpfully whispered hints in my ear, it really just highlighted the poor level/puzzle design.

So, I remain unconvinced that using a controller to navigating in an open world VR space will ever be entirely free of nausea for me, and after 15 minutes of play of both games, but particularly Transference, I was glad to take the (very comfortable) headset off. Perhaps a wider field of view (FOV) would help, and I wonder if you eventually get used to VR, especially if you’re a kid who’s grown up on it.

Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey (Ubisoft) is like AC: Origins, but it looks marginally nicer and it’s in Greece. What else is there to say? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I managed to catch this game while the queue was short. Even better, when the attendants spotted my “Exhibitor” badge, they ushered me right in, perhaps assuming I was far more important than I really am. But karma came around when the console crashed just ten minutes after I started playing.

Starlink (Ubisoft) is the latest implementation of “Toys to Life”, most famously and profitably demonstrated by Skylanders. I was impressed by how versatile the toys were, and how well the fit together – you can choose between pilots and then slot a spaceship over them. The spaceships themselves are modular, allowing you to mix and match components between ships, and even turn wings and weapons backwards (not convinced this will have useful gameplay effects, however). The gameplay was basically Starfox… and the graphics were really quite rough compared to the ultra-HD gorgeousness exhibited by the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X.

Sadly, I didn’t get to drive in Scotland or Edinburgh on the Forza Horizon 4 (Microsoft) demo on Xbox One X. I really enjoyed the original Forza on the Xbox 360 and it’s nice to see it continuing to walk the line between realism and arcade gameplay, especially with the helpful rewind feature. But it’s not enough to make me buy another console.

Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum Session! (Bandai Namco) reminded me of my enduring love of  rhythm games. There’s not a lot to this one – you can hit the single drum in the centre or the rim, and besides things like drum rolls, that’s more or less it. There was a good selection of songs – I played Let it Go, the Totoro End Theme, Carmen, and some other classical song. It was the only game I played on two separate days, although that’s partly down to the total absence of queues.

The response on the drums felt a bit soft, and I thought the notation of hits against the drum rim vs centre didn’t really correspond with melody or, well, anything else. But hey, it’s a rhythm game by Namco, you know what you’re getting.

The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan (Bandai Namco/Supermassive) was available for demo on the same day of its announcement, which explains why there were no queues. Like Until Dawn, also by Supermassive, it has highly atmospheric and realistic graphics, with no free look, and consequently, very cinematic (and manipulative) perspectives.

I found the demo quite boring and lacking in context. The cheesy, stilted dialogue and the exceptionally slow walking pace didn’t balance out its use of the LA Noire mechanic of “inspecting objects” which I always love.

Ride3 (Milestone) had no tutorial and was impossible for me to play. I couldn’t figure out whether I should be tilting around corners or how much I should be breaking – and yes, I have played driving games before. This was the only game I had to abandon before the end of the demo.

Amazon Prime Video had an immersive “brand activation” experience promoting their Jack Ryan TV show, freshly imported and translated from New York Comic Con. It was not good. We had to a wait a long time for them to reboot the first task, a mediocre shooting gallery game. The second task involved us watching the Jack Ryan extended trailer (pretty transparent, I know) and answering questions about it. Unfortunately, all the questions were in German, despite the fact that we’d registered as English-speakers.

I guessed all the answers randomly out of four choices, and scored 48%. “How?” demanded one of the attendants as I walked out. “Guess that’s on a need to know basis,” I said, with a twinkle in my eye.

The popularity of this poor experience just shows how much people value live action ‘immersive’ entertainment…

Since I have an Exhibitor badge, I was able to queue up early to play Spider-Man (Sony/Insomniac) on Wednesday. The web slinging and general feeling of motion is excellent, and you really can zip around the entire open world with zero loading times or pop-in.

I didn’t quite figure out whether I should be holding down sprint/web button all the time, and my usual tactic of spamming attacks didn’t work on some enemies (probably a good thing). Good dialogue, good transition into QTE-powered cutscenes. Very much looking forward to this game in November.

What began as a fun force-feedback drive on F1 2018 (Codemasters) gradually turned into an unrelenting nightmare of spins and crashes. I can’t explain what happened: on the first two laps, I was literally outracing Lewis Hamilton, and then somehow I just couldn’t stay on the track. Maybe the game was was simulating tire wear or somehow I pressed the wrong buttons that changed traction control (everything was in German) but it was all I could do to reach the finish line with a shred of dignity intact.

Miscellaneous thoughts

  • Let’s face it, industry-led videogame conventions are weird. Most of the games are going to be out soon, there are plenty of gameplay videos online, so why wait in a queue to play for hours? The answer, of course, is that some young people love these games with the passion of a thousand stars and are willing to wait any amount of time to play them even for just 15 minutes.
  • Because I am a terrible person, there is no sweeter sensation than arriving at the convention hall at 8:45am and not only walking past thousands of the general public (10am admission) but also hundreds of trade visitors (9am admission) all desperate to get in. I used my extra time to visit the toilets while they were clean, and then to play Spider-Man.
  • The queuing process for all the games was well-organised with clear wait times.
  • The 10-20 food trucks served the trade visitors perfectly well on Tuesday, but were laughably inadequate when tens of thousands of the general public arrived on Wednesday. It is baffling how the organisers refuse to improve this. Do they not like money? Do all the visitors just go hungry all day? I’m not sure if you’re meant to pack a lunch…

  • I say this in all seriousness: the videogames industry has a drinking problem. Every event seems to involve vast quantities of free or cheap alcohol, and you can easily bounce between events from 5pm until the early hours. It’s not healthy in any measure, and we shouldn’t feel like the only way we can socialise is by getting hammered.

Bonus photos

Not sure what was inside here. Videos and concept art?
Mobile escape room!

Exercise Tips, 2018 Edition: Do what you like and be opportunistic

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My 7km running route around Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh

I used to hate exercising when I was younger, but managed to get into a place where I run or swim outdoors 3-5 times a week and generally enjoy it. Here’s what I found helps:

  • Try to exercise every day rather than just 3-4 times a week. You won’t (and shouldn’t!) exercise every day since things will come up, but ideally you’ll end up exercise most days.
  • I work from home now, but when I lived in London I would always try to combine my commute home with a run to save time and money. This is more practical in some locations than others, but the principal holds.
  • Do whatever kind of exercise you like. It’s more important that you do something rather than nothing.
  • Be opportunistic, especially if you live in a place with changeable weather. It usually doesn’t rain all day. When it comes to running, if you can get used to running in the rain – which may require some special clothes – you’ll be able to work out more regularly. Some of my most memorable runs were in the pouring rain in Hampstead Heath, when I gave a comradely nod to the sole dog-walker out there as I passed him.
  • Don’t obsess about statistics and calories. It’s not an exact science. Again, something is better than nothing.
  • Good shoes matter for running. Nothing else does, other than some kind of sweat-wicking T-shirt. It’s worth going to a dedicated running shoe store to get some advice; many of them have treadmills and cameras to analyse your gait.
  • The Apple Watch is surprisingly good at run tracking. Its other exercise features are mixed; I like the daily stand reminders and the 30 minute activity ring, but “Daily Coaching” notifications are infuriating bad and, frankly, dangerous. You can turn them off by opening the Watch app on your phone, then going to Activity > Daily Coaching.
  • Don’t overdo it. Pushing yourself too far is counterproductive. The only times I’ve really hurt myself while running with sprained ankles or falls was when I was tired or on the brink of illness and went for a run anyway because I “had” to.

On Mayonnaise

An exquisite disquisition on mayonnaise from Metafilter’s Nanukthedog:

Alright. I’ve been a high end cook/chef and I’ve also worked for as ‘Big Mayo’ a company as you can in the world. I know mayo inside and out – from making it in small batches, to mass production and sourcing, to which demographics and some indication as to ‘why’ those demographics buy it.

So first I’ll talk about what mayo has in it and why mayo is what it is. It is the quintessential definition of mise en place. There is not a single unnecessary component to make it what it is. It is culinarily perfect – even if you don’t like it. Mayo, like making wheels for a bicycle, is an art form of craftsmanship. The ingredients are simple: eggs, oil, mustard, lemon, water, salt, and spice. You can make it with a ridiculous amount of junk in it like pureed avocado or sriracha or Frank’s (on edit: Hot Sauce), or chopped up pickles, or vinegar or what have you… but if you can’t combine the first set perfectly – somebody is going to taste ‘something off’ and not be able to figure out what it is.

… Here’s the thing: big mayo makes this stuff surprisingly similar these days. There was a period where they stopped, but unsurprisingly folks have come around to understanding that their changes changed both the flavor profile too much, as well as were things that made people walk away from the product. So mayo has largely gotten back to its roots. I am of the belief that mayo requires egg – which means that you can have avegan mayo substitute, but calling something mayo that is vegan is questionably honest and causes me to raise an eyebrow to your understanding… Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think that there is anything wrong with a vegan product, its just the misleading equivalent of ‘frozen dairy product’ being equated with ice cream. I think you can get some great tastes with sandwich spreads, but thickening salad dressing emulsifications does not make you a mayo without the base ingredients.

… The numbers didn’t lie. Mayo is a full on red-state established food product. Even ‘light mayo’ is red state. If you want to attract blues – Olive Oil and Organic. Everybody loves squeeze mayonnaise. The quantity consumed will be much lower in the blue states, but – full stop – they don’t consume nearly the same quantity.

The fall-off for traditional, store bought mayo purchase is a death curve aligned to the baby boomers, with millennials purchasing some, but then only the ‘squeeze’ form factor for (assumed) sandwiches. For those that bought, the purchase cycle by unit was uniform across demographics, but looking out actual ounces – the older you were the bigger the containers that you bought and the less-healthy your containers were.

Edinburgh Fringe 2018: Brief Reviews

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Owing to work and travel I haven’t seen many Fringe shows this year, but here’s what I did see:

  • The Half: Well-performed tragicomedy about a comedy double-act (both women) reuniting after a decade. Very much about what it’s like to be a woman in theatre/comedy.
  • Afternoon Concert at St. Michael and All Saints (Free): The Roxburgh Quartet played Dvorak’s “The American” and some Mozart (I think). Not bad; good first violin, but the cellist was weaker.
  • Museum After Hours: A medley of 15 minute samplers from comedians, poets, and circus acts.
    • I enjoyed SHIFT‘s cyr wheel acrobatics – or at least, what little I could see of it due to the dreadful staging (not their fault). Pro tip: unless your circus performers are on stilts, you better have raked seating or an elevated stage.
    •  Jay Lafferty had great delivery but spent her time dunking on obvious/tired subjects (millennials, Brexiters, rich people, health and safety, gluten intolerance).
    • Ben Target‘s physical meta-comedy was met with aggrieved incomprehension from the mostly-aged audience; I thought at least half the jokes were pretty great, which is a good hit rate.
    • Solid acrobatics from Tabarnak. Shame it was all over in just five minutes.
    • My highlight was Toby Thompson‘s lovely and funny poetry, whom we saw on Kate Tempest’s recommendation. I’ll try to catch his full show next week.
  • Once Upon a Daydream: Adventurous family-friendly mix of live action, music, and animation by a Taiwanese company. There are many good bits but the “miserable single woman seeks happiness through love” theme was tiresome.
  • First Snow / Première neige: The most Canadian thing I’ve ever seen. ‬‪Deeply earnest, mulingual, multicultural, multinational, fourth-wall breaking, overly concerned about its place in the world, with good acting, important story, and confused execution. You can tell this is devised theatre.

There’s no question that Twitter’s self-inflicted mishaps and dreadful behaviour has driven people to Mastodon, but I also think that the move towards blogging and a slower, more artisanal form of short-form updating is fundamentally a reversion to the mean.

Which is to say: even if @Jack (Twitter’s CEO) wasn’t an utter asshole, I think people would have gone to blogging/Mastodon anyway. He’s just massively accelerated the migration.

In this reading, the fact that Mastodon is slower, less connected, and has more characters, is indicative of a desire to move away from the brain-melting shit-heap that Twitter has become. It turns out that blogging wasn’t dead, and there is still a place for longer-form personal writing on the internet.

Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective – Fantastic Theming, Poor Puzzles

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One of my favourite games in recent years is Her Story. It’s more of a puzzle than a game, really; you’re trying to uncover the truth of what happened in a crime via a database of short video interviews with the suspect. The only way you can access a given video is by searching for a word that appears in its transcript and hoping it appears in the results; and to prevent you from just searching for the word “is”, the database will only show the top few search results. This means that the only way to find all the videos is by carefully listening to the interviews and noting down unique names or places or things.

Her Story is wholly linear – it would be nonsense to determine the outcome given its premise – and there’s no way to fail. Instead, it’s a tightly written and carefully crafted puzzle that demands and rewards close attention and engagement with the videos. If you play the game, make sure you have a notebook to hand.

Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective (SHCD) is basically Her Story: The Board Game. You solve a series of cases by interviewing people; and because this is a wholly analogue board game, the interviews are written down in a book, so it’s more like you’re reading interviews. In another curious parallel with Her Story, the main way you identify people to interview is by looking up their names in a directory (like a search index!), such that you need to pay close attention and take notes. Similarly, there’s only one correct solution to each case. There is a nominally a score based on how many people you interviewed before solving the case (the fewer the better) but most people don’t bother keeping track, and I encourage you to follow their example.

SHCD has an extraordinary reputation in the board game world. It’s ranked 65th on BoardGameGeek, on par with classics like Dominion, Codenames, Battlestar Galactica, and Pandemic; it’s by far the oldest game in the top 200; and yet it barely even qualifies as a board game! What, then, accounts for its popularity? As far as I can tell, the reasons are:

  1. Strong theming: SHCD is thoroughly drenched in Sherlockian lore, from the main cast to the most minor bystanders. The newspapers that accompany each case, the copious dialogue, the intricate map of London – they’re impeccably designed, at least in the modern edition. So whether you’re an ardent fan or merely an occasional TV watcher, you won’t find this game lacking.
  2. Novel (and good) game mechanics: I’ve never seen SHCD’s game mechanics – interviewing and ‘searching’ a directory for new leads – in anything other than Her Story, which was itself celebrated for its unique game design. But novelty alone isn’t enough; there are plenty of weird games out there, and some of them are really enjoyable, but only a few of those have mechanics that are as instantly understandable as SHCD’s.
  3. Not enough narrative puzzle games: There are surprisingly few good long-form narrative puzzles available, by which I mean multi-step mysteries with a solution. There are plenty of brainteasers and the like, but not so many that have actual stories and can be enjoyed over the course of an evening. That said, if there were more good ones out there, we’d realise just how bad some of SHCD’s puzzles are.
  4. People who dislike SHCD do not finish it: Each case in SHCD takes a couple of hours to solve, and I imagine most players are unwilling to pronounce a definitive opinion unless they’ve completed all ten cases. Consequently, there’s a selection bias amongst reviewers towards those who enjoyed it enough to play for a good twenty hours.

In case you hadn’t guessed, I didn’t like the puzzles in SHCD, which is a serious problem because the game is fundamentally all about guessing rather than solving (yes, I said it)

Even after pursuing every lead, visiting every location, and interviewing every suspect and witness, it’s very common to end a case with multiple plausible and even probable explanations for the mystery, in which case you’re at a loss as to which one you’re meant to pick. There are a few exceptions, like Case 2. This is one of the community’s favourites, and I’m pretty sure it’s because it’s the one that provides the most solid evidence in the game. By the end, you feel confident you have the answer, not merely an answer. 

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The iPad and Apple Pencil are an excellent note-taking combination given all the scribbling-out I had to do

When it comes to narrative puzzle games, I don’t expect perfection or anything close to it. Having designed several alternate reality games and hundreds of puzzles, I know full well that you can’t predict how players will approach them, especially with lots of clues and red herrings. But when you have multiple reprints of a game that was originally made in 1981 – almost forty years ago – including multiple reprints of the English language edition, it’s baffling that there are still massive problems with several of the cases.

Take Case 3, for example. After an frustrating evening trying to solve this mystery, followed by an equally frustrating ‘solution’ presented by the fictional Sherlock (you are merely his hapless sidekick, dispatched to tackle the case independently), I discovered that this case has been broken for literally decades. Despite multiple attempted fixes to the narrative, including swapping the identity of the murderer, it remains a fundamentally broken and nonsensical story requiring massive leaps of logic, with plenty of posters on BoardGameGeek feeling the same way. Quite why the designers didn’t just cut their losses and write a new case, I’m not sure.

The problem continues, with Pieter on BGG describing the problem with Case 4:

As per usual, Holmes was leaping to conclusions based on very circumstantial evidence. While we came to the same conclusions as Holmes, our mindset was more like “Yes, that could be a possible explanation, but there is no real proof. It is all suspicion. It is clear why the lions were killed, and it is also very clear that Barry O’Neill was in cahoots with the person who did it, and it might very well have been Thomas O’Neill as they are brothers and he was in the neighborhood. But all of that is definitely not sufficient evidence to clearly pinpoint Thomas as the killer. Can’t we find more? Can we talk to Thomas? Can we link Thomas to the case in a stronger way than just saying that he is the brother and he is a thief and he was in Europe?”

Still, considering how the previous cases were constructed, we knew that when a story can be told that fits all the facts, for Holmes that is enough to assume that that is actually what happened. 

Opinions may differ, but I feel that a satisfying solution to a mystery should not merely be plausible, it should be exclusive. In other words, the mystery should not have multiple plausible solutions – at least, not given a consideration of all the evidence. I can make exceptions for TV shows and movies where the action moves so fast that you don’t mind the occasionally leap in logic, but I’m not willing to extend that leniency to puzzle games.

SHCD commits an additional sin in a later cases that involve actual puzzles – Caesar ciphers and such – that got me very excited until their convoluted nature collapses in on themselves. Don’t even talk to me about the Bridge House Hotel problem.

We all imagine that we could solve a mystery through deduction alone, just like Sherlock Holmes does, so it’s no wonder that SHCD – an exquisitely-themed game with unique mechanics  – has dazzled players and reviewers. What I don’t understand is why reviewers, including Shut Up and Sit Down, claim that SHCD wants to “provide you with a level, fair playing field”.

I’m aware this sounds like sour grapes from someone who wasn’t able to solve the puzzles. Trust me – I know I’m not good at solving puzzles (as it happens, I think that makes me good at setting them). But I do know when a puzzle’s solution is unfair, in that players could not reasonably be expected to have arrived at it given the evidence. The fact that this happens in most of the cases in the game, and that there are countless BoardGameGeek posts describing the same frustrations again and again, indicates this is not a trivial problem. It’s a major flaw riven through the very heart of the game.

People are in love with the idea of being Sherlock Holmes, of lying on the carpet with a cocktail in one hand mentally wrestling a mystery to the ground. And in SHCD, the thrill of the chase is real. The challenge of puzzling the clues together is real. The pleasure in acting as a detective is real. But it’s all for naught when the solutions are broken.

The world’s greatest detective deserves much better.


If you insist on playing the game despite all my warnings, here are some tips:

  • Buy the Space Cowboys edition, which has the nicest materials and the fewest errors (Amazon UK, Amazon US).
  • 2-3 players are best. Any more and you’ll get frustrated by having to pass the gamebooks around too much.
  • Set a two hour time-limit to solve each case. If you don’t have it by then, you’ll just get more annoyed. For some cases, 90 minutes is enough.

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story

Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story was easily my highlight of last year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Created by Hannah Moscovitch, Ben Caplan, and Christian Barry, it’s a beautiful and funny and touching story based on real life, and Caplan has a tremendous baritone voice. From the Folk Radio review:

Old Stock is the story of Chaim and Chayah, whose characters are based on playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s real-life grandparents, two Jewish refugees fleeing Romania in 1908. They arrive in Canada where they start a new life and eventually found a large family. Old Stock is, first of all, a reminder of the long history of immigration and the role it played in the history of North America. At the same time, it’s obviously a very poignant story in this day and age.

… The title comes from a speech by Stephen Harper, a Canadian politician who made the distinction between “old stock Canadians” and new immigrants. Caplan turned it around and used the odious expression as the title for a story about immigrants a hundred years ago.

The album based on the play is out now, and it’s just as good as I remember. It’s hard to pick favorites but Traveller’s Curse (above) and Minimum Intervals are standouts.

The play is now on tour around the world – check it out!

A bonus video showing off Caplan’s tremendous voice: