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Margaret Robertson

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There are those who say that when any door closes another one opens. These people have clearly never queued for the ladies toilet in St Pancras Station. Conceptually, though, they have a point. Endings are often beginnings.

The biggest ending of all, however, has long had me beat. As a wet-humanist, I have no big expectations for life after death. A bit of rotting. General blankness. The absence of everything is a prospect I’ve always found more soothing than daunting. The concept of heaven has always troubled me far more. What would it be like? What would I want it to be like?


For a while I thought my answer to those questions was Phantasy Star Online. Perfect sunsets, nice greenery, good clothes, the company of friends. There was a timelessness on Ragol which would clearly have been compatible with eternity.

Today though, thanks to the slightly underwhelming reminders of ODST, I think I’d like to go to Silent Cartographer when I die. What could be better? It’s beautiful, for a start. The moon hanging fat in the sky, and the Halo stretching like spun silver around the horizon. Waves lap on the golden shore, shaded paths climb to airy peaks. (more…)

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D&G Quarrel - 001.JPG


Margaret Robertson

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I have a favourite new gaming peripheral. It’s 16 bits of mounting card, 48 four-square bits of Lego, the men from 14 games of Ludo, 100 tiddly-winks, three marker pens, some wipe-clean grids, a laptop, 280 pounds of human flesh and a roll of kitchen towel.

This peripheral is otherwise known as ‘playing the board-game prototype of Quarrel with Gary and David from Denki’. Denki you ought to know from the majestic Denki Blocks, and Gary Penn and David Thomson (pictured top, L to R) lead the team there who are currently turning that prototype into the upcoming Xbox Live Arcade version of the same, which you may well have first read about on this fine website.

The most reductive way to explain it is as a cross between Dice Wars and Scrabble: up to four players compete to dominate a map divided into a dozen or so different territories. Each player’s men are randomly scattered in squads across the map, occupying a share of the territories. Each turn, a player can have a squad attack any adjacent territory, triggering a two-player battle – against the clock – to find the highest scoring word within the same eight-letter anagram.


What makes this harder is that the total number of letters you can use is the number of men you have on that territory: so if you’ve had your squad of four attack a neighbouring squad of six, your opponent has two more letters and hundreds of thousands of more potential words to play with. It’s a highly narcotic mix of sleek strategy and good wordplay, as I found out when I spent a very happy day doing a spot of consultancy on it at the Denki studio last week.

But although I was supposed to be spending the day thinking about Quarrel, I ended up spending a lot of it thinking about the value of physical prototyping. On one of my own projects at the moment – a two-player online co-op confection – we’re at the paper prototyping stage. Paper prototyping online co-op, I can exclusively reveal, involves a great deal of running up and down corridors with post-it notes stuck to your chest. So arriving at Denki and discovering they had board-game prototyped Quarrel got me thinking, and rapidly got us playing. (more…)

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Margaret Robertson

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I spent this weekend playing Super Metroid, start to finish. I thought the ending was a bit weak, but I loved the puzzles with foam and the grenades.

Psyche! Metroid doesn’t have foam and grenades. But you knew that. What does have foam and grenades is Shadow Complex, which is basically Metroid in 2.5D with some nice water effects, courtesy of the Unreal Engine. But you knew that too, probably cos you spent the past weekends playing it as well.

I should stress that I’m not saying Shadow Complex is just 2.5D Metroid to belittle it. Metroid is a member of that very small cadre of games which are damn near perfect, and finding a smart, innovative way to update it is a substantial game design accomplishment. I may not quite have bought into Shadow Complex‘s fiction, and I may have had issues with some of its platforming, but shooting people was bloody satisfying, the sense of exploration and mastery was well conveyed and the bosses were sensibly designed. First game this year I’ve dedicated a weekend to, start to finish.


Finishing it – or rather, ‘finishing’ it (I’m a long way off finding all the keycards, let alone tracking all the bullion and every upgrade) – made me want to go back to Metroid. To talk about how emotional just a corner of the map makes me. To rave about the brilliance of the sound design. To preach about the strength of games whose environments form one interlinked whole, rather than a random scattering of different zones. To my enormous surprise, however, I’m not going to talk about any of those things. (more…)

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Margaret Robertson

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I like to prepare for every eventuality. I have plasters and safety pins stashed in my bag. I get the train before the one I need. I have assembled a small army of toys on whose loyalty I feel I can depend if inanimate objects come alive overnight and the war between organics and inerts begins in earnest. You never know.

I also have a plan for what I would do if a mysterious benefactor died and gave me a billion dollars on the proviso that I didn’t buy anything with it. I would rent a gigantic mansion – something with wings – and I’d hire a hundred brilliant, educated, curious, dedicated minions and I would set them to work researching.

Their first task would be the definitive map of all videogames. There have been attempts before, of course. The latest I saw was Eric Wall‘s, which while fueling lots of nitpicking and chest-beating from neglected non-North Americans, was a good run at an almost impossible problem. But my map wouldn’t just do publishers and developers: it would do people.


It would start with Roger L. Jackson. You might think you don’t know Roger, but you do. Right now, you might be enjoying him in the new Monkey Island chapters. Or perhaps you met him in MadWorld. Maybe you killed him in Hitman: Blood Money. Or flirted with him in Final Fantasy X-2. Or in Mass Effect, or Jade Empire, or Yakuza, or the criminally ignored EyeToy:Antigrav.

Or, if you’re an aficionado of mid-cycle PS2 Jap weirdness, then he’s already on your shelves thanks to Kuon, Bujingai, Dororo and Virtual-On Marz. I’d met him dozens of times without realising, but today was moved to look him up for the first time. Why? Because he’s the voice talent behind maybe my favourite gaming hero ever: Galleon‘s Captain Rhama. (more…)

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Margaret Robertson

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It’s a tranquil scene: a herd of gentle creatures gambol by a pool. They chirrup and neigh as they drink. When a predator thunders down towards them they scatter, but one is too startled, too slow. The beast’s massive jaws close on its back legs, breaking them.

The creature shrieks and flails, but already blood is fountaining from its wounds. With a twist of its neck the beast pulls the shattered limb free, the sudden wrench sending the dying animal through the air in an arc of gore, to fall in a helpless heap.

Animal Leader is a game all about – and only about – fighting and fucking, and it’s made by Nintendo. Not just any Nintendo, mind. Early GameCube Nintendo. Nintendo at its most cartoony and saccharine. Wind Waker Nintendo. Super Mario Sunshine Nintendo. Animal Crossing Nintendo.

Sex and death Nintendo. (more…)

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Margaret Robertson

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I resent having to write this column. I resent being on a train on the way a conference that I also resent. I resent the pretty song that’s playing on my phone. I resent the way the sun is breaking through the clouds. I resent the nice second breakfast I’ll be enjoying in an hour, I resent all the nice people I’m about to meet and all the interesting conversations I’m about to have. Sod the lot of you. I could be at home playing Final Fantasy XII.


This is not rational. For once, I’ve already played FFXII. Twice, in fact – once in Japanese and once in American. Pretty much the same stuff happened each time. And while it’s always a pretty place to be, the way I’m playing it now – running it through a PS3 so I can be wireless – means that it’s letterboxed and smeared across a fraction of my telly’s unco-operative screen. There are dozens of newer games I could – should – be playing instead.


And more than rational, it’s downright dangerous. I love FFXII with a fierceness which would daunt a nursing lioness, but the more time I spend with it, the more opportunities there are to notice its few shortcomings.

The puzzles really are dreadful, it will surprise no-one to hear. The story occasionally fractures under the strain of obeying simple logic, let alone credible character arcs. The more you ogle the cut-scenes, the more you are infected with creeping dread that Balthier might actually be wearing slingbacks. It gets harder and harder to ignore the oddly saurian ridges that fan out along Vaan’s spine.


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Margaret Robertson

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I love spam poetry. I horde it and treasure it and dream of one day releasing it as a short anthology and making my fortune, as so many poets do. I got some very fine stuff through the other week, from Haley, who thought I might need some herbal penis enlargement pills and hoped these words might sway me to buy them from her:

Expand tog fab rococo,
Bawd parley meat palpal.
Dense murray glum racer!
Suet doomed horn crunch.
Coop detour confab.
Expand cower parley.
Confab jumpy tamer.
Boon echo whorl top?
Crikey, tamer sanded yule.
Jumpy parley confab.
Tog docile.

I didn’t order, despite her best efforts. If only she’d sent me something more like this, I might have acquiesced:

Angry mailman, great dane, mustang.
Robotic persona. I’m Spartacus!
Get away from me.
Used police car,
sports buffs, million eyes.
Granddad vacation.
Masticating incredibly
gentleman bitchiness.
Maul, give, bump
nitrous oxide, testosterone.
Hollow, sluggish, maggot.
Show biz.
Mannish ukulele demon.

That, though, isn’t spam. It’s level 2 of Typing Of The Dead. And Typing Of The Dead, put simply, is a light-gun game where you type words rather than firing bullets. It’s absurd, of course, and your first instinct is that someone at Smilebit simply raided an English dictionary at random. To ace a ten-zombie challenge, you’ll need to nail the following: abstinence, acrophobia, air kissing, airsick bag, apostrophe, back up!, backbiting, beefy hands, bionic boy, bobbed hair. Random, right?


But soon enough, you’re not fighting with spam, you’re fighting with fleeting little haikus. Arch little combos. Is it really fluke that the game follows ‘Hate the bitch!’ with ‘Which hole?’ Or ‘mixed bathing’ with ‘neurotic mother?’ And then tiny, fragile stories start to appear. Some sad – ‘Paediatrician. Overworked. Disappear.’ Some happy – ‘Lisping. It’s love. Chill out.’ Some down-right disturbing. ‘Limp-wristed. Mr Pervert. Tell your wives. Beat to a pulp.’ A core delight of the game is never quite being sure who’s got the dirty mind – you or it.

It’s little surprise, then, that I love it so much. It’s absurd, it’s funny, it’s got words I actually had to look up in it. It has dirty jokes and knowing little winks to camera. I’d love it without any of those, though. I love it because it’s typing. (more…)

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Margaret Robertson

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It’s 2008. You’re an experienced game maker waiting to pitch your big new idea to your boss. ‘Well?’ he asks. ‘It’s a motion controlled music party game with novelty peripherals that will retail for around £100!’ you blurt. A smile. ‘Perfect!’ says your boss. ‘Get my secretary to give you $10 million on your way out.’

It’s 1998. You’re an experienced game maker waiting to pitch your big new idea to your boss. ‘Well?’ he asks? ‘It’s a motion controlled music party game with novelty peripherals which will retail for around £100!’ you blurt. A frown. ‘What,’ he asks, ‘is a music game? And what’s a party game? And what’s motion control? And who pays £100 for a videogame? What kind of lunatic are you?’ At which point you remind him you’re the Yuji Naka kind of lunatic and the secretary gives you $5 million on the way out anyway (adjusted for inflation).

Samba de Amigo is the most prescient project in videogame history. We’re so used, now, to the way that Guitar Hero and Wii Fit rule the game charts, that we forget how far we’ve come, and how crazy those initial pioneers must have seemed. But in 1998, when Samba went into development, it was out on its own.


Parappa had been around for a few years, but Guitar Freaks and Taiko Drum Master were yet to debut. Mario Party and Bishi Bashi Special came out just a whisker before it, and long after it must have gone into development. The only peripherals in town were light guns and steering wheels.

Samba De Amigo was a genuine quantum leap. There was so much in the implementation to give it credit for – the exuberance of the visual style, itself a radical rejection of the browns and greys dominating early 3D gaming; the crisp groove of the move sets; the ludicrous playlist – that it’s been easily to overlook the brilliance of the very idea. (more…)

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Margaret Robertson

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I’m not playing it coy this time. The game I’ve gone back to this week has no truck with coy. It is Kurushi, the ‘Modern Times‘ of videogames. If you’re American you might know it as Intelligent Qube, which means you missed out on the oh-so-subtle ‘I krush u’ pun of the European title.

It will have crushed you, nonetheless. It’s a game that pits a tiny, fragile human against an implacable, advancing wall of giant, granite cubes. There is no winning, only surviving. There is no reward, only a fresh wall of furious, thundering monoliths. It is, in many respects, the most frightening game ever made.

Why go back to it? Because it remains one of the neatest strategy games ever conceived. Your job is to lay mines under the advancing wall to destroy the light grey blocks, while avoiding damaging any ‘forbidden’ black blocks. As the cubes roll forward, you detonate whatever mines you have laid under them. The only thing stacking the odds in your favour are the green blocks: hit one of these, and it will take out all the blocks around it.

That’s it. Destroy the grey blocks and get out of the path of the black ones. Failure comes either by being crushed, or by running out of ground to retreat along. You need excellent spatial skills and the ability to think three steps ahead, and you have to do it all fast.


It’s also one of the cleverest games ever conceived. I’m not entirely kidding with the ‘Modern Times’ reference. This is a game about how one apparently powerless person can take down the faceless system. It’s about our need to measure ourselves against machines, and machines against ourselves. And, if you ever make it all the way to the end, it’s about death. And not the St-Peter-meeting-you-at-the-gates-with-your-childhood-dog-and-a-mug-of-cocoa kind of death, either.

This week, though, I’ve been playing to lose. This week, I haven’t been the brave, battling human, the tiny spark of organic potential refusing to be ground in the gears of industrialised progress. This week, I have been the cubes. This week, I am become death. I am become rage. I am become unstoppable, howling fury, mashing the pathetic, scuttling bug of a human beneath my perfect planes and razored bevels. Because, this week, that tiny human hasn’t been man. He’s been a man. A very specific man. (more…)

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Margaret Robertson

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I have a happy, long-running argument with one of the nicest game developers in the world about whether or not games can do subtle emotions. It’s a familiar debate: games can deliver big, bold visceral emotions – fright, frustration, triumph – but are subtler sensations – regret, embarrassment, alienation – beyond their remit?

As ever, what puts the kibosh on this whole discussion is that games don’t contain emotions at all. The emotions are supplied by each individual player, and since each individual player will respond to a game in a unique way, there’s no empirical answer to be had. Our happy argument has been bubbling along for years, but all that’s really happening is that he’s saying ‘here are the emotions I experience when gaming’ and I’m saying ‘and here are mine’.

So I shall not, in this column, be telling you about how Passage proves that games can somehow inject into their players the kind of oblique, mutating emotions we struggle to find words for. If that’s a disappointment to you, then a quick Google will provide satisfaction: hundreds of people have written movingly about their experiences of this little game about the biggest of ideas. I went back to it this week, as I often have before, for a refill of the ammunition needed to convince yet another friendly, clever, skeptical non-gamer about the potential of the medium. It worked: after talking her through Bioshock, Bejewelled, World of Warcraft and Passage, it was Passage she wanted to play. (more…)

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