Category Archives: Games

The Matter With Britain

These are dark days for Britain. As chaos engulfs the land, a venal and vicious ruler has risen up, interested only in seizing power by whatever means are at hand. Some have sunk into despair while others have abandoned their morals and thrown in with their twisted rulers. Amidst collapse, disease, and the dying throes of a nation turning in upon itself, you must gather your courage and your friends and make your way to the Field of Camlann, where King Arthur awaits your aid.

Wait, what did you think I was talking about?

Inkle Studios’ newest game, Pendragon, arrives at a fortuitously relevant time (for it). Its themes of loneliness, loss, and struggle in the midst of desperate times might cut a little close to the bone for some players, but that struggle also heightens the rewards of connections both new and renewed and reminders that hope is never entirely lost.

Inkle has a strong heritage in narrative games, with both the wonderful 80 Days (if you’ve never played it, seek it out—on almost any platform at this stage) and the more recent Heaven’s Vault, an archaeology-themed translate-‘em-up that’s only available on PC but is highly rewarding for those willing to delve into its science fiction worlds. Pendragon is a game on a smaller scale than Heaven’s Vault but it’s just as creative and rewarding.

The core gameplay of Pendragon consists of a series of chess-like encounters between Arthur’s followers, friends, and family as they crisscross Britain in their quest to reach Camlann before the once-and-future king’s final encounter with his bastard son, Mordred. A single play through of the game takes less than an hour in most cases, but with the opportunity to tackle different difficulty levels, unlock a variety of starting characters, and experience the twists and turns of the game’s narrative engine, there’s ample encouragement for replay.

The chess-like gameplay strikes a careful balance between being too intimidating and too simple. The basic concepts of threat and territory control are easy to figure out and amply signposted by the interface, with the special skills of certain characters suggesting particular strategies. Each encounter takes place on a limited battlefield, and though it can become crowded with enemies, their abilities and preferred tactics are likewise clearly signposted. Every battle provides the information that the player needs to win it, though victory isn’t always possible, and sometimes necessity or failing morale will see you fleeing the field.

In fact, victory is rarely a simple matter. Learning Pendragon takes the player along a specific path: First, learn the basics and simple strategies. Then learn to think a few moves ahead so that you don’t end up in a trap. Then learn how enemies act and where their weaknesses are. Then learn how to lure them into traps and dispose of them safely. Then … well, that’s as far as I’ve gotten so far. I’ve yet to even hit the middling difficulty levels.

Amid all of this tactical back and forth, Pendragon’s story engine does its best to weave a compelling tale. Each starting character has their own reasons for seeking out Arthur. You begin with the disgraced knight Lancelot and his lover Guinevere, both freighted with guilt, but other collectible characters who join on the journey do so out of a love of battle, a need to make amends, or sheer vicious spite. In addition to these main characters, there are others who may become your allies, their motivations created randomly and shifting in response to the choices you make.

These characters join you both on the battlefield, where their own skills open up new tactics, and around the campfire, where tales can be shared each evening of knights, faeries, and other Arthuriana. One of the game’s greatest strengths is how well it nails the feeling of the Arthur stories. The ultimately doomed nature of the best intentions in the face of time and dissolution is a recurring theme within both the original stories and Pendragon’s Britain. The world is unkind, and it only takes one person with bad intentions to make it far worse. Only through trust and determination can something better endure.

Mechanically, Pendragon has clearly been honed through multiple iterations. The short duration of each attempt at the game is a priority, with the constantly depleting morale counter pushing the player ever onwards. Characters can sacrifice themselves on the battlefield, to be rescued when the day is won, but this is a trick that can only be repeated so many times, with the food that extends its use always being in short supply.

In short, even on the lower difficulty levels, Pendragon instils in the player the sense that they’re racing against time. Both within battles, due to that falling morale, and on the longer journey as food runs out. Even once Camlann is reached, the pressure of time remains as you face Mordred, who grows stronger as the final battle proceeds, regardless of who faces him.

Mordred is, perhaps, the game’s biggest weakness. Depending on your character’s talents and the randomly generated battlefield you face him on, it’s possible for the final battle to feel unwinnable (in some cases it can even be unwinnable). This is exacerbated by the decision in this confrontation to remove the need to confirm moves, which is present all through the rest of the game. Changing the gameplay in such a way seems an oddly artificial way to up the stakes, and all it achieved was to annoy me when I lost twice to Mordred as a result of misplaced clicks. To have a quest end in such an anticlimax undercuts all the hard work done by the game’s narrative.

In a year like 2020, Pendragon will either match your mindset or undercut it. With its themes of learning how to cope with adversity, of maintaining the struggle even when things seem bleakest, it might feel a little too downbeat for some. For me though, the atmospheric narrative and gorgeous stained-glass art style kept me going through the initial stumbles of plumbing its gameplay depths. This is a tale of camaraderie and persistence in the face of a crumbling world. We could all do with a little of that.

For the moment, Pendragon is only available on PC and Mac, but it’s not an expensive purchase. Moreover, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it follow 80 Days onto a range of other platforms. If it drops onto one that you frequent, do take a look.


Cancer Update

I’m not as good at keeping this blog up to date as I was in the LiveJournal days. Sorry about that. The good news to report is that as of the most recent doctor’s visit, everything seems to be holding steady. I am a little worried about my medicine-induced low heart rate and the encroaching winter combining to turn me into a hibernating blob, but my workplace’s decision to run a “Walktober” event is at least encouraging my more active habits. We’ll see how well that lasts when the weather turns nasty.

There is also the issue of the ongoing global bastard (as one of my favoured YouTube channels calls it). Numbers are spiking in Ireland, especially in the North, which means that I may become even more housebound than I have been in recent months. My immune system is okay, but avoiding any trouble for my lungs seems sensible. I hope you’re keeping safe too, wherever you are. If we’ve ever met or talked, rest assured that you’ve been in my thoughts at some point during all of this.

Wage Epic War

Apple Inc. is, by some measures, the biggest company in the world. From a near-bankrupt state in 1997, it has turned itself into a globe-spanning colossus, worth somewhere in the region of a trillion dollars. In an age of corporate technology titans, it’s been at or near the head of the pack for years.

And this week Epic Games declared war on it.

Not just on Apple either. On Google too, which along with Facebook and Amazon, forms a modern tetrarchy of technology. It’s a war that’s being fought on legal and public fronts, but exactly how does Epic plan to win? And how did these corporate David and Goliaths come to be at odds?

Founded in 1991, Epic Games started as a video game developer before segueing into developing the tools that others use to make video games, most notably its Unreal Engine game engine. Just as sellers of shovels made more money during Gold Rushes than most miners, so Epic did pretty well out of that move. Then, a few years ago, it released Fortnite.

You’ve probably heard of Fortnite. Even if you don’t play it, you know kids who do, or maybe just kids who watch video streamers who do. A free-to-play game with battle royale, creative, and cooperative elements, its in-game purchases have proved a massive cash cow for Epic, pushing the company’s valuation into the tens of billions.

With all that cash weighing it down, Epic decided to throw its weight around. Casting itself as Robin Hood, it first took on Steam, the dominant storefront for PC games, promising players cheaper games and developers a bigger cut of the revenue. The verdict on this ongoing war remains open, as while the Epic Games Store continues to host exclusive titles and offer free games to tempt new customers, many PC gamers are heavily invested in Steam. However, it’s now clear that this was just a warm up for Epic’s biggest fight.

Apple has faced years of criticism for its “walled garden” approach to releasing software on its iPhone and iPad devices. In short, if you want your software to run on an iDevice, you follow Apple’s rules and give Apple its 30% cut. While the ecosystem for Android devices is more open, the Google Play store, which has adopted similar rules and a similar revenue cut, is the quickest and easiest way to find and install new software. Hence, most users will use it.

This week, Epic said “nuts to that” and implemented a new feature in Fortnite, whereby users could make in-game transactions directly from Epic without giving a cut to Apple or Google. Apple swiftly removed Fortnite from its App Store: if you already have it, you can continue to play, but there’ll be no new users and no updates. Google followed suit not long after, delisting Fortnite from the Google Play store.

For players, the immediate impact is minimal. The difference will only really start to show when Fortnite’s new season begins. Unable to update, iOS and Google Play users will miss out on the new content. But Epic didn’t wait to let them know about it. Not only did they slap Apple and Google with a lawsuit accusing them of monopolistic practices, but they also hosted an in-game video that mocked Apple’s famous “1984” advert, arguing that Apple now held the same position as the corporate behemoths it once opposed.

It’s a fair comment. Apple is “the man” now, just as Google has long since ceased being a scrappy garage startup. Both companies have their share of questionable practices and wield ludicrous economic and social power. Yet the fact that Apple got a video whereas Google didn’t suggests that Epic is relying on public opinion being on its side in this fight. Specifically the public opinion of millions of young Fortnite gamers who might end up missing out due to this corporate spat over revenue sharing.

Apple’s argument is the same two-pronged one that it’s used to fend off anti-competitive arguments in the past. First, it built the App Store, and the host devices, and their operating systems. If Epic uploads a free-to-play game and makes billions through in-app purchases, it’s effectively freeloading if Apple doesn’t get a cut. To which Epic might respond, well, isn’t 30% a bit much? In their turn, Apple can say that the same rules apply to everyone, no matter their size. Epic might then point to Steam, which responded to the competition posed by Epic by implementing lower by altering its terms for revenue sharing. It’s a back-and-forth argument but not Epic’s strongest suit.

Apple’s second argument sees it on shakier ground: it controls its walled garden by checking the content it hosts. This has kept Apple’s App Store largely free from the knockoff apps and rubbish that plagued Android in the past, but it also means that the everything on the App Store has to be Apple-approved. With Apple having recently banned Microsoft and Facebook from hosting their own game-streaming services on iPad and iPhone, this is an opportune moment for Epic to draw attention to how Apple’s corporate culture defines what its users get to experience.

The stakes are high. Apple makes a good chunk of its earnings from hardware sales, and losing Fortnite could see it lose a chunk of those (it’s already facing threats to its Chinese market from Trumpian “diplomacy” to add to its vulnerability). On the other hand, Apple has more cash-in-hand than most countries and can weather the storm, whereas Epic is for the first time putting its cash cow at risk.

On the other hand, if Epic can’t quickly find acceptable terms with Apple and Google, some of its players and streamers might just move on. No game lasts forever as “the big thing,” and my own nieces and nephews are pretty happy with Roblox. Epic is not lacking in competitors who would be more than happy to carve off slices of the Fortnite billions.

Of course, Epic has its own war chest to fight this war, and the lawsuit against Apple and Google may prove to be nothing more than a negotiating tactic. After all, implementing changes to the law does require the presence of a justice system with the will to do so, and the U.S. has its own issues at the moment. Europe would be a more friendly venue in which to argue the merits of the tech giants’ market power, but that’s not where the lawsuit was served (as far as I can tell).

Which is where Epic’s social media strategy comes in. The video mocking Apple was a call to arms for Fortnite players to rally to the game rather than the platform. To think about a world where Apple doesn’t take a 30% cut of Epic’s earnings. Which, given that the game deliberately targets younger players with its marketing and in-game purchases, comes across as just a little bit skeezy.

Ultimately, this is a fight between companies worth billions about who gets how much money. Just because it’s the little guy doesn’t make Epic virtuous. As shown in its conflict with Steam, it’s quite happy to leverage its riches and fight dirty. Similarly, just because Google began in a garage and had a motto of “Don’t be evil” for years doesn’t make it the good guy either. And though I’ve been an Apple user for most of my life, I’m more than happy to see people calling it out when it’s getting things wrong.

This is particularly true in the area of games. It’s something that Apple has never quite got to grips with; a legacy of the Steve Jobs era. Now offering its own subscription-based games service, Apple Arcade, it looked dodgy in throwing roadblocks in front of Microsoft and Facebook. It’s a sore point that Epic has targeted, and it’s one in which Apple could do with reviewing its practices.

I’m just not convinced that there’s much more to this fight than money. There’s a possibility of a more even playing field that delivers benefits for consumers emerging from this spat, but believing in that takes optimism that’s in short supply in 2020. Epic wants more money, and it believes that it can force Apple and Google to the table. Time will tell if it’s calculated correctly, and in the meantime Fortnite users will be the ones to pick up the tab.

Fictionally Humane

The gameplay of Ion Storm’s Deus Ex, released twenty years ago, begins with a choice. Preparing to deal with a group of terrorists, the player chooses one of three extra weapons: a rocket launcher, a sniper rifle, and a mini-crossbow loaded with tranquilliser darts. Unusually for a game of that era, Deus Ex announced from the start that the player’s choices mattered.

On my first full playthrough of the game, I selected the mini-crossbow. I had already been an active player of roleplaying games for years at that point, and I was happy to play into the fiction of the game that those trying to kill you might have valid reasons for doing so. (The sniper rifle is the choice for players unconcerned with lethality, whereas the rocket launcher is best suited to taking out robots and inconveniently locked doors.) This fiction is carried through the game’s plot, in which the initial truths you’re presented with are undermined and other characters react to whether or not the player is happy to shed blood through the course of the game.

Although a seminal game in showing how player choice and morality could be integrated into games, Deus Ex proved a hard act to follow. It received only one sequel, and its 2011 prequel, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, received notable criticism for forcing players into unavoidably lethal boss fights.

One year later, in 2012, a spiritual successor appeared in the form of Arkane’s Dishonored. In this title, the player adopts the role of a vengeance-seeking assassin but the developers leaned into stealth as a mechanic and decided to provide the player with the opportunity to find non-lethal resolutions to all of their goals. Not that these are any less dark in some cases: one “fate worse than death” sees a society hostess and supporter of the corrupt regime delivered to an obsessed stalker as an alternative to being murdered.

The ten year gap between these very similar games presents a degree of progression. Deus Ex asked players to think about how they solve problems and whether casual murder can be justified within the fiction of the game. Dishonored asked that question again, and reinforced it by pointing out that just avoiding murder wasn’t enough to make you a good person. Vengeance takes you to dark places.

At this stage, I ought to point out that both Deus Ex and Dishonored are first-person action games. The player literally sees out of the eyes of the protagonist, so opportunities to distance themselves from the morality of what they’re doing are limited. Action-oriented first-person shooters, such as Halo or Doom, tend to either present inhuman enemies like aliens, demons, or zombies as cannon-fodder or lean towards the multiplayer experience, where the targets are usually other players and an immersive narrative is tossed out in favour of an arena atmosphere: you get shot, you respawn, it doesn’t really matter.

The multiplayer-focused Call of Duty series does engage with this issue but in a fashion that passes over player choice. A mission in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s single-player narrative sees the player participate in a mass shooting. The mission is flagged for “disturbing content” and players can choose how to interact, but the massacre happens regardless. The narrative requires the deaths to happen, regardless of player choice. They’re a necessity of the narrative, just as the mission itself is seen as a necessity on the part of the player character. No moral choice is made.

Step forward another decade or so and we come to 2020’s The Last of Us Part II.* Once again the protagonist is hell-bent on what initially seems to be justified vengeance. As with Modern Warfare 2, the player has no choice but to deal with the deaths they cause. Worse still (from the perspective of the player character), an in-game switch in narrative perspective does its best to rob them of any belief that their vengeance was just in the first place.

Admittedly, The Last of Us is not the same type of game as Deus Ex and Dishonored. It’s played from a third-person perspective and is less a playground for player creativity than a canvas for the creators to tell a story. It’s also unrelentingly grim in tone, and its apparent theme of just how much choosing to kill costs is one that many players seem to have resented confronting. Even so, it’s another step on the same spectrum: engaging in a work of fiction requires emotional investment, and regret, shame, and horror are all valid emotions to feel around making the choice to kill.

Narrative is one of the strongest tools that artists have to generate feelings in consumers of their art. We have literally centuries of practice when it comes to affecting emotions through stories and of making listeners, readers, and viewers reconsider their preconceptions. Video games, as an interactive art form, are much newer on the block, and it’s hardly surprising that they’re going to crib from what came before. The first few decades of film, after all, copied heavily from theatre until the new art form developed its own language.

Yet the linear narratives that other art forms have developed sit uneasily within video games. The Last of Us hews closely to linearity and while it clearly knows the story it wants to tell, it gives players little real moral choice. Even Dishonored, where the player has the freedom to devise their own solutions to problems, has a linear narrative to follow and an external marker of morality: the more murderous the player is, the more the city they inhabit falls into chaos around them.

Deus Ex had things easy, after a fashion. Technology wasn’t advanced enough to create realistically human opponents, so the moral choices facing a player had a level of abstraction. Ten years later, Dishonored provided a more sophisticated world with more sophisticated inhabitants, but it was still a playground of sorts. That twinge of discomfort when handing over Lady Boyle is one of the strongest memories for players of that game because they were forced to reflect on their choices. In that moment, they were reminded that whatever the narrative might tell them, they might not be wholly the good guy.

A decade further on and The Last of Us Part II is even more sophisticated in its world building and character portrayals, but its directed narrative might be a dead end. By all accounts it is an amazing achievement and perhaps a pinnacle for current-generation technology, but if the player has no agency in the choices the narrative makes, how powerful can the moment be when the game forces them to reflect on the morality of those choices?

This problem of ludonarrative dissonance is hardly new, and people within the games industry have been hacking away at it for years.** In these few examples, I wanted to take a look at how some games flag the choice to be a killer and how they can either lead or force the player to reflect on that. The technological capacity for doing so has definitely advanced over the years, and narrative sophistication has likewise grown, but it doesn’t feel like the two have come together yet. I wonder if and when they will.


*Having never been a person of the PlayStation persuasion, I haven’t played The Last of Us, but I have watched Noah Caldwell Gervais’s deep dive into the two The Last of Us games, which I heartily recommend.

** I specifically limited myself to a few examples to restrict the length of this piece. The Mass Effect series is one that deals heavily with morality within the narrative, though less so with the morality of killing.


Cancer Update

Yes, it’s been a while, I know. For what I hope are understandable reasons, my enthusiasm for writing anything here was at a low ebb for a while. Restoring my mental momentum took a while, and there was a recent recurrence of the whole coughing-up-blood thing that distracted me a bit too.

As a general overview though, I’m doing fine. A round of scans and another bronchoscopy found nothing too egregious (well, nothing that they didn’t already know was there) and I’m back on track, taking my medication and doing my best to dodge Covid by the simple expedients of wearing a mask, limiting the number of people I meet, and washing my hands (not all at the same time, admittedly).

My biggest worry for the moment is becoming a couch potato, which is all too easy when the couch in question is only two feet away from your work chair. Still, I have an isolation break to look forward to shortly, and in the face of Ireland’s fitful summer, it’s not so bad to be indoors. I’ll try to keep up with the posting in future, though no promises. In the meantime, I hope you’re all keeping well and safe.

Memento Mortem—Return of the Obra Din

The best stories in games are those that the player has a part in telling. Usually this role is one of making choices that determine how the story goes. The story in Return of the Obra Dinn (Mac / PC) is of a different kind. Here, the story has long ended, and it’s up to the player to piece it together from scraps of information, building their understanding of what happened, when, and to whom.

Some spoilers for Return of the Obra Dinn below, and if you’re planning on playing it, spoilers are worth avoiding.

Continue reading Memento Mortem—Return of the Obra Din

A Long Time Gone


A picture of a dead whale. Because this blog is like a … never mind.

It’s been a long time, hasn’t it? Not that this was deliberate on my part. I had plenty of intentions of posting new and fascinating content, but circumstance and laziness always got in the way. I do intend to be better though. Thoughts about films, books and games will be forthcoming, and there will – in a not overextended period of time – be more travel journals. (Yes, that time of the year has come around again. I have become terribly predictable in my elder years.) In the meantime, a few thoughts on some of the media I’ve been consuming lately.

Mysterium: It’s a board game. Which is not something that I play enough of these days. (There’s a Tuesday evening boardgaming evening in the Black Sheep pub in Dublin that I’ve been making excuses for not going to for weeks now.) What sold me on Mysterium was the review from Shut Up and Sit Down, a site you should really be following. Boiled down to a brief description, it’s cooperative psychic Cluedo (Clue for Americans) and is as easy to play and strange as that description suggests. One player is a silent ghost who hands out vision cards to the gathered psychics; the others are those selfsame psychics, who must use those visions to solve a long-ago murder. Cue a lot of confused babbling about the exact meaning of the symbolism on the vision cards and exasperated gurning on the part of the Ghost, who doesn’t understand why they can’t figure it out. It’s a lot of fun, and most importantly you don’t need to be a boardgame veteran to play. Highly recommended.

(I also played Cards Against Humanity for the first time at a recent wedding (no, really) and proved beyond all reasonable doubt that I am a horrible person. Which is all that you need to know about that.)

The Just City: I burned my way through Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy recently, having enjoyed the TV series to start with, so normally I’d be writing about that. But I’d been looking forward to reading Jo Walton’s The Just City for so long that it sneaks in ahead of it. The high concept – the goddess Athena decides to build the theoretical state from Plato’s The Republic as an experiment – is delightful, and the execution more than lives up to it. The viewpoint characters are chosen to pick apart the assumptions of privilege and precedent at the heart of Plato’s supposed clean-slate state, and while it’s no surprise when holes are poked in it, the manner in which it happens is consistently engaging. The second book in this series is already out, and the third is coming soon, and if they live up to the opener they’ll have a happy place for themselves on my bookshelves.

Stellaris: It’s been an odd year for games. This was the first of three games I was really looking forward to, and poor reviews for the latter two – No Man’s Sky and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided – have put me off splashing money on them until the next Steam sale. So in the moments between the vaguely social activities that are my forays into Lord of the Rings Online, I’ve been playing Paradox’s Stellaris, a mostly successful attempt to lift its grand strategy template into space and take the place of much-loved classics like Master of Orion. The opening stages of the game, as with all Civilization-style games, are the key draw, as you map out a galaxy for your new interstellar power (designed with plenty of freedom courtesy of the game’s engine), and the mid-game has improved with Paradox’s legendary post-launch support. As yet, none of my games have made it into the late-game phase, so I can’t really report on that (blame LotRO) but with larger patches and content expansions looming, I’m looking forward to seeing the game it becomes.

Film: Honestly, nothing I’ve seen in the past few months has really floated my boat. Which is a little depressing. Overhyped offerings are the order of the day in blockbuster season, and even those films that promise something more haven’t gone anywhere. There’s been no Mad Max: Fury Road this year, and while that’s a high bar to clear, it would be nice if someone at least got close. Or made the attempt.

So, that’s where I am right now. There are political thoughts (shudder) and other matters in my brain that may or may not get exposed in the three-and-a-bit weeks before I escape on another travelogue. In the meantime, my apologies for having been absent and my promise to be a little more present in the weeks and months to come.

Prague: City of a Thousand Photo Opportunities

 

Just a couple of in-spiring towers.
Charles Bridge, somewhere near sunset.
 
My preferred method of exploring a city is to start walking and only change direction whenever I see something more interesting down another street. Were I to try that in Prague, I would end up walking in spirals, or in an endlessly zig zag pattern. In Prague, there’s always something more interesting around the corner. This is a city that’s as close as any I’ve seen to the clichéd fantasy medieval metropolis.

There are the endlessly winding cobbled streets, with tiled rooftops packed so tightly overhead that guilds of thieves could conduct entire wars up there with no one below being any the wiser, save for the occasional corpse-cobble impact incident. There’s a town hall with an overly ornate astronomical clock, complete with clockwork mannequins. (The story goes that the designer was blinded once he finished so he wouldn’t go on to make a better one.)

 

The mannequin show is fun, but surprisingly minimalist.
Other clocks are available, and probably easier to read.
 
There are legends and stories galore surrounding the city, from poor old Jan Hus, who put too much trust in princes, to the golem that once stalked the Jewish quarter. Best of all, there’s the Defenestration of Prague, which manages to use one of my favourite words in its title. (Seriously – how much more fun is it to say “defenestration” than “thrown out of a window”?)

There’s a centuries-old bridge lined with statues of saints and divinities, across a river that’s home to an entire flotilla of swans. There’s not one but two hilltop citadels overlooking the city. Prasky Hrad, with its Gormenghast-like scale and complexity, and the over-the-top gothicness of St. Vitus’s Cathedral, gets all the press, but I’m partial to the more ancient Vyšehrad, which is mostly a shell these days, but is lovely to wander through and offers great views of the Vlatva River and Prague itself.

 

And this is the commanding view the rulers thought they could do better than.
The Vlatva, looking south from Vyšehrad.
 
There’s even a hill hard by the city that’s swathed in an encroaching forest and hides not only a monastery with an ancient library but also a wizard’s tower that peeks through the treetops and has a labyrinth at its base.

All right, so the tower is a copy of the Eiffel Tower and the labyrinth is a maze of mirrors, but wizards are noted for their lack of originality. I doubt the average medieval inhabitant of Prague would have quibbled over the details before reaching for the nearest pitchfork and joining the local mob.

It’s a city for losing yourself in, then, as I’ve done for the past few days, the high point of which was when I found a store selling replica Viking arms and armour. For a good five minutes, I considered attiring myself in a manner befitting a Norse adventurer and taking ship down the Danube to the Black Sea and seeking service as a Varangian Guard in Miklagard/Constantinople.

Sadly, dreams of adventure and fantastic vistas founder when they hit the hard rocks of reality. Even as I’m enjoying my travels throughout Europe, a group of far more desperate travellers are trying to head in the opposite direction. The “tide” of refugees entering Europe is much in the news at the moment, often to heartbreaking effect, and while I’m currently on my way to Vienna, my plan is to be in Budapest, the current flashpoint of the crisis, in three days.

That may change, but even if it doesn’t, it forces me to think about why I’m travelling – this experience of cities and nations I’ve never been to before. How much worth does my indulgence hold against the desperate need of others, exemplified in the huddled form of a small boy washed up on a lonely beach? Are they comparable? Or even relatable? And what can I do?

I only have the beginnings of answers for any of those questions. I doubt that one traveller can make much of a difference, or learn everything he’d need to in the space of the two weeks I have remaining. The one thing I do know is that if I close my eyes, I’ll learn nothing. So I’ll keep travelling and see what answers I can find.

Free-to-Play Three Ways: Capitals, Future Fight and Fallout Shelter

Sometimes, I just revert to mucking around in Pixelmator instead.
*Some terms and conditions may apply.

I have no aversion to spending money on mobile games, and some of my best experiences with iOS games have been paid for: Plants Vs Zombies, Hitman Go, Thomas Was Alone and Monument Valley to name but four. Still, the plethora of free-to-play games does allow me to try out new gameplay experiences more or less forever, as long as I’m willing to risk the intrusion of money-making schemes into your fun. Recently, I’ve been playing three F2P games that have taken very different approaches to monetising fun, with very different results.

Monetization-Lite: Capitals, NimbleBit

Capitals is a clever little app that combines a Scrabble-like word game with some simple head-to-head strategy. You and your opponent start with one space each (your “capital”) on a hexagonal board, and the aim is to grow your territory and ultimately conquer your opponent. You do this by claiming spaces: each space has a letter, and if you use the letter in a space connected to your territory, you expand into it. But if your opponent claims territory bordering yours, some of your territory will turn neutral again.

A huge amount of strategy emerges from this simple gameplay: Sometimes it’s better to avoid a big word in favour of shoring up your defences. Sometimes you see an opportunity to strike deep into your opponent’s territory. Sometimes you want to use up convenient letters so as to cramp your opponent’s options. In the games I’ve played, some have been brief and wild struggles, others chess-like confrontations of advance and retreat.

There’s not much to complain about on the gameplay front: a few games turned into slogs as I tried to grind my opponent down (or they tried to grind me down), but there’s plenty of fun to be had. All the same, you wonder whether NimbleBit thought out their F2P strategy very far. Right now you can pay for unlimited “lives,” which you can also claim by watching promotional videos (one view equals one life). It feels restrictive, and Nimblebit might have been better simply making this a cheap paid game instead. Still, they’ve been updating Capitals gradually since it came out, and they might yet get the balance right. In the interim, I’d recommend giving it a try.

Monetization-Heavy: Marvel Future Fight, Netmarble

I’m a comic book geek, and when it comes to superheroes, you can Make Mine Marvel. So a F2P fighting game starring a range of Marvel heroes, with good gameplay and high production values should be a winner, right? Future Fight certainly makes a good start, giving you three leading heroes (Iron Man, Captain America and Black Widow) to start with and plenty of free goodies just for logging in every day. But it then buries the whole experience under layers of complexity, social networking hooks and premium currencies.

The core gameplay is a lot of fun—the three hero types (brawler, speed and ranged), are each stronger or weaker against one of the other types. Missions last no more than two minutes, providing experience and equipment to improve your heroes, and there’s even a story illustrated with quick cut scenes before and after missions. So that’s fun. The problem is that managing everything else becomes a chore. There are multiple ways to improve your hero, multiple types of mission you can take on, and coins, gems and tokens galore to collect.

If you’ve got the patience to get to grips with all of this, there’s a rewarding game to be found under all of the cruft. However, I found myself reduced to logging in once a day to pick up my daily reward, telling myself that I’d try to get to grips with it later. I never did. It’s one of the problems of F2P—having paid nothing, I’m not invested, and the grind of gaining expertise and levelling up my characters has put me off. Which is a shame. This is a well-coded, slick and fun game that might have done better had it been paid-for with much less in the way of complications.

Just Right?: Fallout Shelter, Bethesda Game Studios

Fallout Shelter caused a lot of fuss when Bethesda announced it alongside Fallout 4 at E3 recently. As a promotional iOS app, trading on an established franchise name and using a F2P model, it could have been awful. It isn’t. In fact, it’s one of the friendliest F2P games out there, with an in-app purchase model that actually seems to work. (It’s currently at #18 in the top-grossing games in Ireland.) How did Bethesda manage this? By keeping things simple and sticking to the feel of the Fallout franchise.

Whimsical ‘50s nuclear paranoia might not seem like a good basis for a game, but it’s worked for Fallout for years. The main Fallout games have been roleplaying-focused, but this is a management game that charges you with creating a paradisiacal “Vault” in the midst of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. To do this, you’ll have to guide your vault dwellers to create food, water, energy and medical supplies, send them out to explore the wasteland, and encourage them to breed in order to swell your population. Do it right and everyone will be blissfully happy. Do it wrong and you’ll have miserable, radiation-raddled inhabitants who fall prey to radroaches, raiders and the occasional nuclear reactor fire.

The first ingredient that makes this game so appealing is the grace notes sprinkled across the game (equipment descriptions, wasteland explorers’ journals, and cheesy banter between dwellers—the writing is uniformly excellent). The second ingredient is an in-app purchase system that doesn’t intrude and even enhances the game. The standard currency is bottle-caps, with which you pay for new rooms (and occasionally resurrecting unlucky vault dwellers). The premium currency is lunchboxes, which serve as booster packs that contain equipment, caps or dwellers, some of them better than any you’re likely to find in game. You can earn these lunchboxes through the game, but the excitement of opening a new one is enough to encourage you to plonk down actual money for more.

It’s not a perfect game—the learning curve is a little steep if you don’t RTFM, and there’s a lack of depth in the challenges you’ll face as you build your Vault beyond 100 inhabitants. But even so, it manages the SimCity trick of making you feel proud of what you’ve created while allowing you to peek in on the lives of your dwellers and even get a little invested in their continued existence.

Hitman GO and the Pit of F2P

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On my way to make a killing…

I’ve been looking for a new smartphone game recently. It’s a fraught process these days. The goal is to secure a source of entertainment. The dilemma you face is this: do you go free or do you pay? I’ve done both, and I’ve returned from the wilderness of the App Store with dusty wisdom.

Free-to-play (F2P), or freemium (ugh), games have flooded App Stores in recent years. After all, with so much competition, it’s all about about ensuring that as many people as possible sample your wares. Free entry means that there’s no barrier, so the potential audience is everyone who has a device capable of playing your game. With such a large audience, only a small percentage have to make “in-app purchases” for a game to be profitable.

The problem is that F2P games are a balancing act. On the bright side, they can offer you plenty of enjoyment at no cost, with the option of throwing in some cash for more of the same, or faster progression. On the dark side, the reminders to spend money can be relentless, multiplayer games can fall into “pay-to-win” scenarios, and progression can become a terrible grind for those unwilling to fork over their money.

My first attempts at finding a new game headed in the direction of golf games. (Blame Rory McIlroy’s recent success for that.) I’ve an old copy of EA’s Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2012, but it’s creaky and buggy now. EA’s King of the Golf Course seemed like a sensible replacement, and its core mechanic was beautifully smooth, but the game structure of a linear set of challenges devolved into a slow grind after a couple of days. Com2uS USA Inc.’s Golf Star was even worse: old-fashioned mechanics stuffed into an overly ornate game that never missed a chance to encourage you to spend money. Both were highly rated on the App Store. Both are no longer on my phone.

It doesn’t have to be this way for F2P games. NimbleBit’s NimbleQuest is an addictive arcade game that is fun to play even as you’re grinding, and their Pocket Trains trades a little immediate fun for a lot more strategy. Plain Vanilla Corp.’s QuizUp is still one of the best multiplayer experiences on the iPhone for trivia geeks. Gameloft’s Rival Knights devolved into excessive grinding by the end but was fun until then. PopCap’s Plants vs. Zombies 2 took a F2P approach to a superlatively fun paid game and only suffered because it made the game more complex, a different kind of entry barrier.

The fact is though, I’ve found that the best results are to be had when you’re willing to pay for a game that isn’t going to nag you or slow your progress. You’re rarely going to be paying more than the price of a pint or two for an iPhone or iPad game, and for that price, ten or more hours of entertainment is a small price to pay.

Paid games seem particularly suited to more story-based titles, games with a finite span. Capybara Games’ Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery is an absorbing adventure, beautifully presented. Bossa Studios Thomas Was Alone is a similarly absorbing recreation of an atmospheric online puzzle game. Lastly, usTwo’s Monument Valley is a perspective-based puzzle game, perfectly suited to touch screens. I paid for all three and don’t regret it, even if Monument Valley is a little light on content.

There’s plenty of space for both models in the App Store economy. F2P games when you want to sample, browse and check things out. Paid games when you know what you want. Well, I tried out the browsing side of things, but if was paying that got me what I wanted.

Square Enix’s Hitman GO, (pictured above) is a genuinely strange mobile adaptation of a first-person assassinate-em-up. Rather than try to recreate the shooting segments of the game that inspired it, the mobile version focuses on the tactical thought behind it, locking the player into a turn-based board game as they make their way through a multitude of levels, setting numerous targets along the way.

The board-game aesthetic is beautifully realised and feels only a little cramped on a phone screen. The rules of the game are rigid enough to allow the player to plan, and the occasionally mutually exclusive achievements encourage replay. There are a massive number of levels too, with the option of paying for more if you want to. (The line between F2P and paid is blurry in places.) At some point in the future, I may exhaust its appeal, but by then I’ll have long since got my money’s worth.

Shiny Happy Knightly People

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What does it take to make a game? Not all that much, it seems. Take a rhythm action section, consisting of eight taps on a screen, then add a few seconds of drag-to-target and voila! You have new free-to-play offering Rival Knights (Gameloft, iOS and Android).

Oh, all right, there’s a bit more to it than that. This game of jousting knights is deepened by an item (mail, helm, lance and steed) collecting element that improves your abilities, and it’s polished by some fine design, graphics, audio and physics. The latter element is particularly satisfying, as a successful strike sends your opponent ragdolling through the air.

Still, the core of the gameplay comes down to the joust itself, and given that each joust lasts around ten seconds or so and will be repeated many, many times by a player seeking to advance through the single- or multiplayer modes, it has to be refined to a high degree. Luckily, it is. While the mechanics can be made more difficult by the wrong equipment, they provide satisfying rewards for increasing expertise.

That equipment affects the three measures that decide who wins a joust. Armour is largely decided by mail and helm, though it, along with the other measures, can be boosted by a critical hit. Speed is based on your horse and modified through the rhythm-action segment. Attack Strength is based on your horse and modified by your accuracy in the targeting segment. Win two out of three and you win the lot.

Being a free-to-play game, players can spend some money to purchase in-game cash or the game’s premium currency: gems. Gems allow you to buy special equipment to get a head start in both game modes, though you can play with the standard items without feeling short-changed. You can also use gems to reset the timers that control how often you can play, though they fill quickly enough on their own. If you’re trying to hit the top of the daily leaderboards in the multiplayer mode, though, spending gems gained either in-game or through purchases might sound appealing.

So we have some simple, yet rewarding, game mechanics at play and a relatively nonintrusive payment system. What really sets Rival Knights apart is the amount of detail and polish Gameloft has lavished on it. The graphics are top-notch, and though there’s only one jousting field, differing times of day and weather conditions (none of which have any effect on the gameplay) boost variety.

Even more variety comes through the equally attractive equipment you can collect, which extends to designing your knight’s coat of arms. I’m getting into the third of five tiers of the single-player game and there are still plenty of opportunities to mix and match equipment to find a successful blend of armour, speed and attack strength. Even lower-tier equipment remains useful in the multiplayer mode.

Still, it’s not a terribly deep game, just a fun one. The multiplayer mode relies mostly on daily leaderboard challenges, with an asynchronous knock-out competition offering some secondary fun. It’s a bit loose and while it offers rewards to dedicated players, it’s not as big a draw as the single-player mode yet. Worse, the networking behind the multiplayer is pretty flaky at the moment. While this will probably be smoothed out soon, it’s annoying right now.

The only real worry I have with regard to the game is the impact of all that shiny graphical wonder on my iPhone’s battery. Sure, it looks beautiful on an iPhone 5S, but the way the phone heats up proves just how hard its graphics chip is being pushed. As a result, playing regularly through the day is going to burn through your charge. So while you might enjoy the life of a knight on the tourney circuit, it’s best not to stray too far from a plug socket while you do so.

Tiny Death Star

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It’s a hard life as building manager of the Death Star…

Nimblebit, iOS, Free

It’s a mark of how watered-down Star Wars has become that Tiny Death Star even exists. The villains of the original trilogy, a bunch of faceless, menacing, planet-destroying quasi-fascists are here rendered down into cutesy 8-bit form, as you’re asked to fund the construction of the planet-destroying battle station by turning it into a residential/commercial emporium.

Yeah, someone didn’t put a lot of thought into that. Best to just roll with it.

Tiny Death Star is, of course, a reskin and slight reworking of Nimblebit’s hugely popular Tiny Tower, taking the basic mechanics of building a tower block and filling it with inhabitants and things for them to buy and tweaking it for a kiddiefied version of the Star Wars universe. As such, anyone who’s played Tiny Tower will find themselves right at home. However, they may also find themselves uncomfortably constrained.

The big draw of Tiny Death Star is the Star Wars ambience, and the game sprinkles it around liberally, with famous figures from the movies roaming the levels of your growing battle station, sometimes incongruously so. Fittingly, the soundtrack also consists of musak versions of famous Star Wars themes, though these soon enough grate through repetition alone.

Tiny Tower’s gameplay has also been tweaked in several ways. In addition to the standard residential and commercial floors, you can also build Imperial levels, which allow you to complete missions (about which more later). Since these levels don’t make you money though, this slows down the process of building new levels, which was already slow in the original game.

Of the game’s two currencies, then—credits and bux—the former, used to build and stock new floors, comes more slowly than before. Not half so slowly as bux though, which are used to buy elevator upgrades and hurry various other aspects of the game. As purchases of bux are the main form of in-app purchases the game offers, it’s understandable that Nimblebit have chosen to strangle in-game opportunities to earn them, but in doing so they’ve also strangled the sense of progress for players who don’t want to spend extra coin.

Providing at least a modicum of variety to gameplay that strays close at times to Ian Bogost’s Cow Clicker (click on things to earn more things, then click on them to earn yet more things) are the missions, provided by Darth Vader and the Emperor. Both provide credits as rewards, but although the Emperor’s missions are designed to guide your construction efforts, the rewards are meagre. Vader’s missions are slightly more rewarding, but I ran into one that required me to build a specific level (the game chooses which levels in a specific category are built at random), stalling any progress in that direction.

In the end, this is a Star Wars game, offered for free. If that appeals to you, go for it. But be aware that unless you’re willing to pay up, it’s going to present you with a choice between a long, hard slog and an escape route from this doomed battle station.