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A decade later, I catch the Mass Effect virus

Went back to this place after many years of inactivity and long periods of disinterest in gaming. I don't know if anyone is still reading this or if the community of yore still exists. Last time I posted was 3 years ago when my Xbox 360 broke down and I needed a place to vent and rant about it. Never did get it fixed, by the way. €79 is too high for a repair that should've been free, and too low for my dignity. Luckily Grand Theft Auto V got ported to the PC and I've never really had to look back. Shame about Red Dead Redemption and Forza Horizon, but I was done with those games anyway.

My interest in games somewhat rekindled in the past 6 months. I started playing Elder Scrolls Online on occasions, and lately I played through the entire Doom series (Doom 1, 2, 3 and... well, DOOM). Doom 3 had been on my "still need to beat this damn game since I bought it for 2 platforms" list, but I never could get over the Great Martian Ducttape Shortage of 2145. Apparently the BFG Edition changed that so I bought that (third time's a charm) and beat the game in a weekend. Perhaps the last true old school shooter until Half-Life 2, FEAR and the Call of Duty series changed the genre forever in their own respective ways; not all of them for the best.

While those games made for many hours of good entertainment, that whole experience paled in comparison to what I experienced when I finally dove head-frist into that other series I still had to play but somehow never did: Mass Effect.

Having beaten Mass Effect 3 yesterday after well over 100 hours spent on that trilogy I'm still processing the entire experience, but suffice to say the hype is definitely worth believing.

No Caption Provided

I recall one of the main themes I ranted about in my blogs from long ago is how video games that try to tell a good story often end up with hamfisted disasters of narratives. Even if the plot itself is interesting (in most cases it's not), the developers are unable to push the story ahead in meaningful ways without making the gameplay seem redundant. While the details have escaped me by now (it's been 7 years since I beat the damn game), Bioshock's story was pretty poor to begin with, but even if it had been as amazing as its reputation suggested, it was hampered severely by most of the game consisting of shooting stuff with the occasional "a-ha!" plottwist crawling out from under the woodwork with the weight of a Tolstoy novel but the impact of a jump scare (WOD' U KINDLY?!). Man am I glad I stopped playing Bioshock Infinite after 2 hours.

The Mass Effect trilogy was one of the first game series where I felt invested in the story in a way similar to a movie or novel. I mean, I'm an Elder Scrolls fanboy like no other, and its lore is second to none, but Bethesda's virtually non-existent storytelling has the habit of turning many an interesting plot point into a clunkfest where you just have to soldier through questionable voice acting, shitty animations and all the bugs a man couldn't want.

But Mass Effect had none of that. Sure, there is a noticeable upgrade of production values with each game, so particularly Mass Effect 1 might not feel as 'epic' (an overused word, but nevertheless appropriate) as the other games, but damn if BioWare didn't succeed in creating a universe - in both senses of the word - that made me care greatly about what happened to it and its inhabitants. In the first game alone, we have the introduction of Garrus, perhaps one of the most likeable, interesting NPC buddies in recent memory. We have the conversation between Shepard and Sovereign, in which the latter's cold indifference and existence outside of nature and morality painted the picture of an adversary that was as ruthless as it was elusive (not 'illusive', mind). None of that "I want power/revenge/whatever" crap that villains resort to so often you get the impression they get the motivation for their nefarious actions through a claw machine that assigns them causes to pursue from a small selection of clichés. And while plenty of sci-fi tropes still maintain an inavoidable presence in the Mass Effect universe, BioWare managed to create a game world that feels unique, alive and full of wonder. Why they decided to throw all that away and go to Andromeda I still not understand, but that's a different story.

Not too much can be said about the finer details of the game's plot without giving away major spoilers, but more generally speaking the idea to make your decisions in Mass Effect have ramifications throughout the entire trilogy was a magical thing. You can give Shepard unique personality traits that aid in moving the game along a linear path without creating a unipolar experience. It is a compromise between having a fully scripted character that you either hate or love (GTA), and a custom character that can't be fleshed out too much in the story-telling because there are simply too many variables for the writers to work into a high quality narrative (Elder Scrolls). By the time Mass Effect 3, Shepard has become your Shepard. A character that has been shaped by you, and is an extension of your personality. As such, you feel attached to him in ways that more static protagonists couldn't hope to achieve.

That also goes for the crew(s) you assemble along the way. By talking to them, doing stuff with them, you can cultivate their personalities to a modest degree, occasionally even influencing story decisions they make. This emotional investment in the characters makes it extra difficult to work your way through the series and stay true to the principles you had envisioned for your Shepard at the start of Mass Effect 1. Will you sell out your comrades for a tempting reward, or will you stand by them in spite of the dire consequences your loyalty may generate in the bigger picture. It's role-playing the way it's supposed to be.

I could talk about the series for literally hours, but for now I'll conclude with one last observation: the games are damn great shooters. Especially Mass Effect 3, with its huge arsenal, countless upgrades and modifications. Even without the amazing game world and story, the Mass Effect games would've made for great shooters. But the fact that they do have all these things makes them more than just great games: Mass Effect is among the defining series of its generation.

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Quality Engineering - some anecdotal evidence

Even though I have done most of my gaming on a PC since the spring of 2010, I still turn to consoles once in a while to play some games I would otherwise be missing out on (Mario Kart) or I would have to wait for an excruciating amount of time (Grand Theft Auto V).

As a kid, 90% of my gaming happened on consoles. They offered the advantage of worry-free gaming with only a minuscule possibility of technical issues marring the experience. You simply had to put the game into the console, and the game was on. As an added advantage, owning a console meant a guaranteed 5-6 years of gaming pleasure without need for upgrades or any of that hassle.

Console gamers still try to make this point when juxtaposing their platform with the PC. But really, the time when console gaming meant plug in and play are far behind us. Regular updates, rushed game releases and useless DLC have turned console gaming into an experience that requires just as much, or sometimes even more fine-tuning than PC gaming.

For me the above is literally true: I have spent more time getting my Xbox 360 to work properly than I have with my current gaming PC. With the latter, I simply turned on the computer, installed Steam, downloaded some games and continued playing exactly where I had left off on my previous PC. As plug-in-and-play as you can get.

However, my issue is not with the way gaming as a whole has changed. I have accepted that, moved on and learned that DLC can have its advantages. The fact that Nintendo has been able to fine-tune Mario Kart 8, even providing some great additional content in the process, convinces me that having an update once in a while does not beat the prolonged lifespan of an already great game.

No, it is the lifespan itself I take issue with. Particularly that of Microsoft machines. While my own experience is not enough to establish a pattern, let alone evidence (hence the title), I will let the 360's dubious reputation speak for itself. Just take a look at the consoles I have owned in my life and their respective lifespans:


Owned since: Before I was born (in the late eighties)

Current state: Used extensively over the years, works fine, apart from the usual problem of regularly having to blow dust out of cartridges and the console itself.

Nintendo 64

Owned since: 2000, bought second-hand, so it is likely much older

Current state: Relatively fine. The reset button tends to get stuck, which sometimes generates problems, but nothing a paperclip cannot fix. All games still work fine, even Mario Tennis, which I once threw against the wall out of frustration. Used extensively.


Owned since: 2003, bought brand new

Current state: Dead since 2009 by my own fault. Did not pack it correctly while on holiday and a rough trip destroyed the fan. Promptly overheated. Never had a problem up until then.


Owned since: 2004, bought brand new

Current state: Dead since 2007. Randomly decided to not work anymore. Cannot even start up. Used often, but in concurrence with another console (Gamecube).

Additional information: Did not work upon arrival in 2004 and had to go to the repair centre 3 times before working properly. In the process they changed the Halo disc that was stuck in the console when I sent it to the repair centre for the second time to a fully German-spoken version of the game. I'm Dutch, and despite what you might think, they're not the same languages. Later, I also had to replace the power chord because they discovered the old ones were a fire hazard. It didn't work properly anyway.

Playstation 2

Owned since: 2007, got it from my brother (who had also gotten it used)

Current state: Dodgy since the beginning, but sufficient. It will read some discs, while spitting out others. It still works when you hit it a few times. Not used to often by myself, but extensively in the past.


Owned since: February 2008, bought brand new

Current state: Works fine, never had a single problem with any GC, Wii or Virtual Console game. Used extensively during the 2 years it was my only console of that gen. Since 2010 I still use it fairly regularly for certain games.

Nintendo DS

Owned since: 2008, bought brand new

Current state: Works fine, never had a problem. Used regularly over the years.

Xbox 360

Owned since: December 2012, bought brand new

Current state: Died last night. I can still access the main menu, but it won't read a single game disc anymore. Used for only 5 games alongside 2 other gaming machines (Wii and PC).

Additional information: S model, which is supposedly better than the original. Repair will cost me $79, because Microsoft claims the warranty only lasted for 6 months, until May 2013. This is against EU law, by the way.

Wii U

Owned since: April 2014, bought brand new

Current state: Works fine. Used fairly regularly.

Conclusion: In the future, I might just wait for the PC port of GTA after all.

'Insider Looking Out' - A Diagnosis of Video Game Journalism


Video games have for a long time been viewed as an ordeal for children and teenagers. This is only logical, seeing as young people are more inclined to adapt to new technologies. And with the medium only surfacing as a widespread form of entertainment throughout the 70s and 80s, there is little surprise that our grandfathers generally have little clue of concepts such as run & gun or MMO. However, with an increasing number of adults who have grown up on gaming, things are bound to change. Gradually, the veil of adolescence is being lifted from the public perception of video games. This can particularly be noticed when one compares the uncomplicated, formulaic manner in which reviewers approached games some 10-15 years ago to the more recent attempts to place games in a broader, cultural context.

There is little doubt that the process of maturation and diversification in video game coverage is a positive development. Unfortunately, this evolution is often marred by an inability to marry the subject matter in this branch and the more developed analytical discourse that one may stumble upon in the coverage of media such as cinema and music. Part of this can simply be attributed to the fact that the majority of video games still tend to be too simple and technical in nature to let loose on them all sorts of philosophical, intellectual contemplations.

However, there is a more alarming issue at hand, one that undermines the credibility of the trend of reflective writing on video games: video game journalism or at least its mainstream component suffers from a serious lack of commentators who possess both the passion that allows them to empathise with the gaming audience, and the savviness to come up with well-founded, thought-provoking viewpoints. As it stands, most attempts to lift video game writing to a higher plain have run ashore due to the instigator either being motivated by extrinsic factors, or hindered by a limited ability to convert shards of reflective observation into a structured and consistent argument. We may have matured as gamers, desiring a more complex, multi-faceted experience, but more often than not our (in)ability to write about these experiences betrays the teeny bopper origins of our trade.

"Where video game journalism is characterised by amateurism, academic research on video games is plagued by blatant sensationalism."

A recent example of an attempt to contextualise a video game from a societal point of view is Carolyn Pet!t's controversial review of GTA V. In this otherwise positive review, Petit called the game out on its alleged misogyny. This unsurprisingly sparked a wave of criticism from readers of Gamespot, where the review was published. Granted, a considerable part of this criticism consisted of the petty insults and other infantile kneejerk reactions that one has come to expect from legions of fanatical teenage gamers. After all, these kids were always going to virulently reject the notion that such subjects should even be discussed in a video game review. Violent personal attacks will always be part of an industry infested by rampant fanboyism, and hard as it may be at times is best left ignored.


The most important element in Pet!t's review is that it highlights exactly why video game writing still tends to fall short whenever it tries to delve into a games cultural/societal aspects. It is the dis-jointed and tacked-on nature of Pet!t's point on misogyny that reveals not only the authors acute desire to tackle this issue, but also her blatant inability to canalise this sentiment in such a way that it harmonises with the overall tone of the review. As a result, the fire of the outrage is fuelled by the simple fact that the most controversial argument of the review is not its main focal point. This awakens the suspicion that it arose from a personal grudge or, even worse, the ordinary desire to generate some controversy.

It is disheartening to behold how the more serious approach of video games in media and academics cannot yet be reflected properly by the video game journalists who are in the middle of it all. The larger number of mature gamers in this day and age would denote a growing demand for a more mature discourse surrounding their passion. And lamentably, simply turning to the academic world for a satisfactory discussion on gaming is not a viable alternative. For, where video game journalism is characterised by amateurism and undigested intellectualism, academic research on video games is plagued by tunnel vision and sensationalism.

"It is by no means a given that those who cherish the ambition to analyse video games in a scientific way have any affinity with the medium."

One has to understand that the popularity of video games and the ubiquitous controversy that constantly surrounds them make this industry an attractive field for researchers looking to make a name for themselves. Anyone who has ever written on an academic level knows that, for your research to be noticed, you should ideally find a topic that is hot (i.e. a current affair) and allows you to distinguish yourself with a unique perspective. Research surrounding video games tends to make for juicy headlines, while it is also a fairly new field of expertise with endless stretches of uncharted territory left for ambitious academics to explore. As such, it is by no means a given that those who cherish the ambition to analyse video games in a scientific way have any affinity with the medium. For the academic world, this is of course not a problem. But when it comes to writing for a gaming audience, the outsider-looking-in perspective will often result in mutual dissonance and frustration.

As it stands now, the spectrum of video game journalism is still torn by a large vacuum. It is waiting to be filled by writers who have both the talent and the passion to write about games intelligently without disconnecting themselves from the gaming audience. It is true that there is already a number of niche publications out there that are cultivating this approach successfully. But for a real breakthrough, mainstream websites and magazines should have the courage to not only passively, but actively offer a platform to more analytically flavoured coverage. Only then can the branch diversify to a point where it has the means to cater to each segment of its potential audience, instead of merely frustrating everyone.

Article originally written for System Wars Magazine.

Further reading:
SWMs report on the Petit controversy

So you want to be a music reviewer?

Then look no further! Ignoring all advice I gave in my previous article, I created for you this review template, which you can use to instantly rank yourself among the most prolific professional reviewers.

"A lot can be said about [artist], but it is undeniable that their expansive discography has made a lot of heads turn over the years. Whether it was due to [vocalist]'s passionately delivered vocals, the irresistible guitar licks of [guitarist], or the groove-injected basslines produced by [bassist], [artist] charmed even [genre]'s biggest sceptics. In recent years, their brave but occasionally naive experimental drive raised questions if maybe the band had gone past its expiration date. However, fans will be pleased to know that their latest effort, [album], represents a glorious return to form for the venerable rockers from [country/city or origin].

With their latest effort, [artist] take us on a journey back to the rowdy beginnings of their illustrous career. With a thumping garage sound and blistering guitar solos, [album] provides old-school ethereal soundscapes that will surely satisfy die-hard fans. The fuzzily distorted guitar sound seamlessly intertwines the multitudinous components of the band's dazzling new venture.

Gems like "[track 3]" and "[track 5]" easily rank among the most illustrious parts of their repertoire. All in all, [album] is a whimsical tour-de-force that will surely swoop up its listeners unremittingly. Fans of the [genre name] genre are obliged to give the band's au courant revindication a few spins at least.

4/5 stars"

Still not convinced? Here's an example!

"A lot can be said about Metalica, but it is undeniable that their expansive discography has made a lot of heads turn over the years. Whether it was due to James Hetfield's passionately delivered vocals, the irresistible guitar licks of Kirk Hammett, or the groove-injected basslines produced by Rob Trujillo, Metallica charmed even heavy metal's biggest sceptics. In recent years, their brave but occasionally naive experimental drive raised questions if maybe the band had gone past its expiration date. However, fans will be pleased to know that their latest effort, Death Magnetic, represents a glorious return to form for the venerable rockers from California.

With their latest effort, Metallica take us on a journey back to the rowdy beginnings of their lauded career. With a thumping garage sound and blistering guitar solos, Death Magnetic provides old-school ethereal soundscapes that will surely satisfy die-hard fans. The fuzzily distorted guitar sound seamlessly intertwines the multitudinous components of the band's dazzling new venture.

Gems like "Broken Beat & Scarred" and "All Nightmare Long" easily rank among the most illustrious parts of their repertoire. All in all, Death Magnetic is a whimsical tour-de-force that will surely swoop up its listeners unremittingly. Fans of the metal genre are obliged to give the band's au courant revindication a few spins at least.

4/5 stars"


(save the review, don't be another 'consumer guide')

5 Review Writing Tips You Can Throw in the Bin


Over a course of more than a decade in which I have been reviewing games, music, books and films, I have taken surprisingly little advice from reviewers more experienced than I. Similarly, I never wrote for a website or magazine that imposed strict standards upon the work of its editors. This allowed me to develop my own style without being bound to the conventions that are considered sacred in the ever conventionalised reviewing 'business' by magazines and websites alike. As a result, my reviews tend to be much more elaborate and profound (or overdrawn and pretentious, as some would say) than the generally concise and to-the-point reviews that are commonly found online.

Still, I was ever so curious what other reviewers had to say on the standards of their trade. How did they picture the ideal review? Did they abide to conventional structures, or did they choose a more free form of critiquing works of entertainment and art? Yearning for answers, I searched the internet for tips on writing reviews, as well as general thoughts on what constitutes a good review. The result was rather disappointing. From what I read, plenty of reviewers out there still hold to what I like to call high school writing standards: conventions designed to help inexperienced writers avoid the biggest pitfalls. In doing so, young writers are taught to avoid risks; risks that, when taken with a sense of tact, may actually allow more skilled writers to excel. In order to aid those who strive for more than mere competence, I decided to compile a list of (review) writing tips that you can safely ignore from here on.

1. Keep things simple

When taking a writing workshop or simply looking for writing tips online, one of the first things you will be told is that you need to keep things as simple as possible. While concision certainly contributes to the accessibility of a text, always aiming for simplicity can at times kill off great ideas. Do not be afraid to discuss certain topics in-depth if you possess the knowledge and skill to do so. Sure, you might lose a few readers who are looking for short blurbs, but if you can at least make a couple of readers bear with you throughout the text, the chance that they will read more of your work is all the greater.

In any case, keep in mind that you are not the only reviewer out there; if anything, there are way too many of us. This means that, if you write reviews according to the simplicity principle that is prescribed everywhere, your work may be more accessible, but it will also face some stiff competition from reviewers who have been at this game for much longer than you. Distinguish yourself, though, and you will have a much better shot at getting noticed, especially in the beginning. Providing more profound information and perspective than your conventional reviewer is one way of doing that.

2. Cater to your audience

As was established in the first point, one of the most important aspects of reviewing is finding your own style. Not because the review is about you, but because one of the biggest requirements of a review is that it provides a refreshing perspective. This is achieved not only through sharp analysis and original ideas, but also through having a distinct way of putting those thoughts to paper.

adoring fan

Be careful, though, that you do not turn into a 'writing jukebox' for your (potential) audience, writing only what you think they want to read. On the internet, there is an audience for almost anything. Have confidence in your own ability, write what you think is best, and your audience will find you eventually. In writing, authenticity is at least as important as originality, so if your reviews and other articles come across as insincere and/or pretentious, readers will simply not accept them.

3. A review is a buyers guide

This is not so much a tip as it is an assertion that is derived from descriptions of what the ideal review looks like; at least according to many dictators of writing tips. Too many writers still live with the conception that everything in a review ultimately serves to provide the reader with an advice, direct or indirect, on whether or not to purchase/rent/download the 'product'. In a day and age when everyone can go on YouTube to find out what the new album of their favourite artist sounds like, or watch "Let's Plays" of the latest video games, the role of the review as a 'buyers guide' is fading.


While reviews may not be on the same creative level as fiction or philosophy, they prove excellent vehicles for intellectual exercises about the content in question. This is true for readers, seeing as even a seemingly trivial piece of information revealed in a review can change their perspective on something they thought they knew very well. But it is also the writer who benefits: the process of writing a review can put together loose (shards of) ideas, which in turn helps the writer digest his thoughts about a certain topic, resulting in a balanced review that aids readers with putting things into perspective. At the end of the day, the best reviews are those who make you completely re-evaluate your opinion on that which is being discussed.

4. Do not spoil your conclusion

One of the most common pieces of advice I have received over the years - both online and offline - is that a review should by no means give or even hint towards its conclusion in the opening sentences. True, a conclusion is called that for a reason, but skilled writers can allude to or even outright reveal their opinion of a certain work to create a new tension curve. By provoking the reader with an opinion that he may not have expected, or is formulated in a strong way, a reviewer might actually fuel his curiosity.


Bear in mind that, for this tactic to be successful, you need to start your review in such a way that you shock or provoke your readers enough get their attention, but not so much that you chase them away to the more fluffy parts of the internet. And even after you have successfully gotten everybody's attention, it still takes some good thinking and writing to back up your claims. It is a difficult tactic that should be used with some reservation, but if applied correctly, it can make for damn fine reviews, such as this one, which starts out by calling the album discussed "a catastrophic artistic failure".

5. Biographical information

Another classic example taken from the strikingly uniform 'ideal review' model that is propagated on many websites. More often than not, you are encouraged to start out your review with biographical information and other basic data. Odds are, though, that the people looking for reviews and writings on whatever subject you are discussing, are already well aware of most of these facts. That is why it is much wiser to just include some facts in a special section, separating it from the text body (see this old review of mine for an example). This way, you will cater to those who might still be looking for factual information, without hindering those already familiar with the subject matter.

So how should you start a review? Just use your imagination. You can choose to provoke the readers with a bold statement (see point 4), broaden the scope by touching upon a bigger issue related to the topic (for instance: HD remakes), or even give a personal account of how you stumbled upon this game, film or album. As long as your review does not read as an entry on either Wikipedia or LiveJournal, you will be fine.


In the end, becoming a good reviewer comes down to dedication and passion. Dedication is required because it takes a considerable amount of time and patience to get to know the subject matter well enough to be able to form a well-rounded opinion on it, as does formulating that opinion in such a way that it is worth hearing. If you want to become a serious reviewer, once in a while you will have to talk about something that may not suit your taste at all. Whether you have to play a broken game or listen to an uninspired piece of music, the life of the reviewer is not a bed of roses.


Perhaps passion is even more of essence, as in the end, something you invest a big portion of your time in should generate enjoyment and satisfaction. Reading music and video game reviews in even the most renowned magazines often gives me the impression that the writer cannot wait until he gets to the end of the article. They do not seem to realise that something that was written without joy will also be read without joy. Find something you love to write about, and put that love into your writing. Then, and only then will you be able to contribute something to the oversaturated reviewing landscape.


Via: System Wars Magazine

Further reading:

Call From Beyond the Grave

*NOTE TO THE COMMUNITY MANAGERS - please don't feature this on the soapbox, as it's a mere personal update. Fancy editorials are forthcoming.*

Ah, we meet again. Every time I visit this site - which I have been doing more frequently as of late - I feel a bit guilty for not updating my personal section any more, be it through new editorials or reviews. Guilty not only towards the modest group of people that enjoyed my writing, but also guilty towards System Wars Magazine (the most enjoyable, light-hearted gaming website out there) and towards myself, for not reviewing some games I would obviously have something to say about. Titles falling into the latter category include Dragonborn, the fantastic Skyrim expansion, the very promising Arma 3 Alpha, and Borderlands 2, the highly addictive looting game that helped me reach dawn on multiple occasions already.

Arma 3
"Arma 3 - Indecent Infiltration"

My absence on both Gamespot and System Wars, however, does not mean I have not been flexing my writing muscles during this period. Quite to the contrary - with the help of Willy of SWM, I redesigned my music website, Black Ivory Tower, recruited a few more editors and boosted the activity once more. My music reviews tend to be even longer than my - according to some, overdrawn - video game reviews, and in addition to the length, I maintain my music website in both Dutch and English, meaning that I write every review/article in Dutch first, and then translate it into English. Translation of lyrics (I often review French and German music) takes up some time, as well. So, now you can understand why it has been difficult to write quality video game reviews/articles on the side, as well. To be fair, I haven't been paying too much attention to video game news and developments over the past few months. Music is, again, to blame, as it has been sucking up most of my leisure time and funds associated with it. Look at these pictures to get an idea of my music purchases since the last update:

January - February
March - June

Now, on to more cheerful news. I have decided to pick up my game-related activities again a bit, and the result is that I will probably be in the SWM podcast of July 10th. That's right, my soothing voice and charming accent will be exposed to the GS/SW community. Ladies rejoice. On a more serious note, I will try and start covering some video games again like in the good old days, but seeing as I have quite a few things lined up on the musical side of things, I don't yet have the courage to start making promises. Now, excuse me as I try to start up the Arma 3 Alpha while I make desperate attempts to stop listening to Drudkh...

Bicycle Clip Time - Stagnation and Innovation in Horror Games


Ever since I started thinking about video games more seriously, I have had to acknowledge the significant advantages media such as literature and film have over video games when it comes to such elements as storytelling, pacing and composition. The obligatory focus on gameplay in video games causes them to have a virtually unsurpassable disadvantage when it comes to the development of these secondary but still important aspects. However, this does not automatically condemn gaming to being an inferior form of entertainment. Due to the high level of interaction with the player, video games offer unique possibilities in terms of immersion and emotional involvement. The only catch is that video game developers do not always capitalise fully upon the potential.

Much like how horror films are seldom about the sensation of fear itself, horror games frequently focus on secondary elements such as gore and violence, relegating the nightmarish horror universe to a fancy backdrop rather than the centre of the experience. Even when the horror aspects do become the central focus, convenience dictates they take the form of short-lived jump scares rather than a more constant, suspenseful sense of dread. Many horror games give the impression the developers made the core game first and only then started creating the horror setting around it. This method leads to several fundamental errors finding their way into the design of even the most renowned horror titles of today.

Better bring a shopping list.

A major problem lies in the fact that many of the more traditional horror titles are, at their core, puzzle games. It is absolutely true that a well-designed puzzler can offer the same flow as the smoothest action titles, but lamentably, many developers lack the finesse to prevent the difficulty of their puzzles from hindering the overall pacing. Finding the right item or speaking to the right NPC in order to progress the game does not need to be complicated, but all too often, developers are too ambitious when they expect the player to come up with the far-fetched solution to the situation at hand. Swedish developer Frictional Games seemed to have realised this after it finished making the Penumbra series: its spiritual successor, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, presented items and locations in a much more logical fashion, their purpose being more obvious off the bat and puzzles being less convoluted in general.

"Ironically, video game developers can learn from even the most cheesy, unscary horror flicks."

However, there is an even bigger obstacle on the way of horror games becoming truly scary. Ironically, video game developers can learn from even the most cheesy, unscary horror flicks in this department: things do not become scary until the protagonists (or victims, if you will) become vulnerable. You can put all the creepy noises and eerie locales you want in a game, but if you subsequently give the player the arsenal to overcome all these terrors, they will never feel truly threatened by the game world, reducing the moments of fear to jump scares. The latter have a very limited effect, because more intelligent players are likely to quickly familiarise themselves with the pattern enough to be able to roughly predict what is coming.

Time to soil some loins, perhaps?

Granting the player too much power resulted in a game such as F.E.A.R. being only mildly frightening during the first few levels, when the details of the story are still alien to the player. In more advanced stages of the game, though, the knowledge of the player about the context of his surroundings, as well as his rather excessive arsenal make it hard for the game world to feel as hostile and dangerous as it did in the first two hours of gameplay. By the time F.E.A.R. 2 came out, the mystery surrounding the story about the ghostlike girl Alma had been unveiled and the game barely managed to live up to its horror pretence any more.

"The feeling of being hunted creates a more genuine sensation of fear."

Fortunately, the indie scene has managed to revitalise the horror genre, to a point where outlook is bright for those who look for a new influx of truly terrifying video game experiences. The afore-mentioned PC hit Amnesia: The Dark Descent hit the sweet spot of terror when it stripped players of the possibility to fight the hideous monsters they encountered. The feeling of being hunted and not being able to do anything about it creates a more genuine sensation of fear, as players realise that the game world is essentially way more powerful than they are, and can strike them down at any given moment. The effectiveness of this method was further confirmed by the cult hit Slender. This primitive, home-made game proved that the simple concept of having the player be chased around a forest at night can make for an experience easily more terrifying than many AAA horror titles. The reaction videos will attest to that.

Granted, F.E.A.R. did have moments of absolute terror.

Still, the key to suspense is not only vulnerability, but also surprise. Slender in particular spawned tons of clones on Steam (aided by the fact that the Slenderman is an internet fabrication that does not seem to be copyrighted), and it is only a matter of time before the concept becomes obsolete - once players know what to expect, their anticipation may render numb any terror derived from it. Fortunately, recent developments in the genre have been promising, as developers all over the world finally seem to have realised that it takes more than just severed limbs and spooky faces to make the modern audience sweat. But they will have to innovate if they want to keep catching us off-guard.

Bloodbaths and Red Herrings

smoking gun

It is not often that a small-time blogger such as myself would risk his head by sticking it into the hornets nest that is the gun crime debate, but when American President Barack Obama introduced new measures to fight gun-related violence, a response was warranted. Among a wide array of new measures, Obama called for the US Congress to invest 10 million dollars into researching a possible link between gun violence and the depiction of violence in media, such as video games[1]. Unsurprisingly, the suggestion sparked outrage among gamers. The implication that their favourite pastime might be related to the recent bloodbaths is a tough pill to swallow for the millions that grew up on games such as Mortal Kombat and Doom without ever having hurt a fly. Though the vast majority of the gamers will have rejected the presidents words immediately, a more thorough analysis makes his proposal seem even more bizarre.

"It would be sensible to save the 10 million dollars for more fruitful scientific endeavours."

Should Congress heed Obamas call for more research, the subsequent study would not be the first attempt to establish a link between virtual and real-world violence. Those who witnessed the media coverage of the Columbine shooting will surely remember how the shooters affinity for Doom was presented as a possible cause of their violent actions. Even more recently, the fact that Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik owned a copy of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (along with 22 million other people) spawned the rumour that he used the game to practice before he went out to kill 69 people. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, these and similar claims have never been substantiated, likely because they were motivated by the necessity of a clear scapegoat rather than factual information.

iron blood
Do video game developers have blood on their hands?

Still, Obamas main argument in favour of more research we dont benefit from ignorance implies that a link between violent behaviour and violent games has never been taken into consideration before. Given that there have in fact been numerous studies on violent video games, it would be sensible to save the 10 million dollars for more fruitful scientific endeavours. Out of the countless studies that have been conducted on the subject, some found basis to speculate on (temporarily) augmented levels of aggression in gamers, whereas others saw no reason to further explore the hypothesis that violent games cause violent behaviour. At any rate, the ignorance mentioned by the President says more about his own obliviousness to decades of research than the existence of a scientific niche.

"One would think that there is no better time than now to stop beating around the bush."

Curiously, it is still unclear how serious the suggestion of Obama will turn out to be. The 10 million dollar research was but one of many ideas, and it could well be that it was solely intended as an attempt to appease vociferous opponents of gun control by offering a broad range of measures, as to demonstrate that the White House is taking everything into consideration. After all, in the wake of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, the National Rifle Association was quick to point its trigger-fingers at films and video games[2]. Moreover, the Presidents desire for more research does not explicitly mean that he believes there is indeed a link, let alone that the conclusions of the research will lead to censorship. After all, the idea that virtual violence could be a decisive factor in Americas current gun crime epidemic seems far-fetched when you realise that the same games are being played all over the world without necessarily causing similar patterns of violence. As such, it is to be expected that the President of the United States is wise enough to realise that restricting the depiction of violence in video games is unlikely to contribute to a drop in gun-related crime.

GTA Lost & Damned
Games such as Grand Theft Auto are often accused of promoting violence.

However, even if Obamas plans turn out empty shells, he has insulted not only gamers, but also the academic community. It is not without reason that Dutch video game researcher and journalist dr. David Nieborg described the words of the President as a slap in the face[3]. For to suggest that decades of thorough scientific research have resulted in ignorance displays a lack of either knowledge of or respect for the many academics who have dedicated their careers to investigating the possibility of a link between virtual and real-world violence. Moreover, now that gun violence is sweeping across America, one would think that there is no better time than now to stop beating around the bush and address the problem with measures that will harvest results rather than votes. A red herring may temporarily boost approval rates, but it will surely not prevent more lives being lost.


Links and sources:
[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/01/17/obama-calls-for-10-million-video-game-study_n_2493716.html
[2] http://www.forbes.com/sites/insertcoin/2012/12/21/nra-press-conference-blame-video-games-and-movies-not-guns/
[3] "Barack Obama begrijpt niets van game-onderzoek", nrc.next 7, no. 216, p. 16. 18-01-13

Also posted on System Wars Magazine.

A Holiday as a Lemming


Anyone who is active on System Wars even sporadically, is forced to take a stance in the ongoing conflict of adolescent fanboyism. Playing games on your computer, for instance, will automatically grant you permanent membership of the glorious PC-gaming master race. But flattering as this status might be, the reality is that, outside of this alternate universe known as SW, PC gamers such as myself are willing to admit that consoles have their fair share of worthwhile games. So much so, that members of the 'master race' will sometimes cave in and go out to buy a console. And what better time than Christmas to get an Xbox 360 and catch up on 7 years of exclusives and so-called 'console exclusives'?

360 snowman

Hence the latest addition to my gaming connection. Fable 3 and Halo: Reach came with the package, and I got Forza Horizon, the game that eventually triggered me to buy the console, separately. Halo's Anniversary Edition was added to the family at a later point. With about a week of 360 experience under my belt, I do not regret the purchase at all, mostly on the account of the many, many hours of fun I've already had with Horizon, a game that does just about everything right when you are willing to ignore its obnoxious presentation and the constant in-game promotion of its DLC.

Still, the experience also reminded me why the PC is my main gaming platform. It is a common complaint that PC gaming is a hassle compared to the convenience of consoles, but even if this were true, that hassle is a small price to pay if it allows you to avoid being surrendered to the crazy antics of console manufacturers. One week was enough to bring back all the frustration I had experienced with the classic Xbox. I'm willing to accept that they charge a small fee to provide a streamlined online experience, but when I discovered that half of the functions on my 360 were practically disabled without a Gold subscription, the temptation to move 2 metres to the right, and sit behind my PC was already considerable. And as I was familiarising myself with the console interface, I came across more and more indicators of a complete absence of ethics on the manufacturer's behalf. Ten dollars to change my Gamertag? Oh, please. Where combining the full enjoyment of PC gaming with a set of principles is difficult already, I am slowly coming to the conclusion that it just can't be done on a console like the 360.

Forza Horizon

RUF Horizon

Although the sour taste left by Microsoft's cash-grabbing schemes has not been completely washed away, I did already get considerable amounts of enjoyment out of my new console. The allegation that PC gamers aren't missing out on anything can henceforth be classified as biased tripe. Having been left slightly disappointed by Burnout Paradise's repetitiveness, Hot Pursuit 2010's lacking open world gameplay, and Test Drive Unlimited 2's problematic racing AI, Forza Horizon absolutely, 100% nails the arcade racing genre. The races themselves remind an awful lot of Dirt 2, in the sense that they are accessible, yet with numerous options allowing more seasoned players to give the experience an air of quasi simulation. Meanwhile, the open world is littered with extra challenges, races and collectibles, so that exploring Horizon's fictional rendition of Colorado never feels like you are wasting time. It is simply perplexing how a Forza spin-off seems to have taken all the strong elements from the most prominent open world racing games and combined them into one, seamless experience.

Halo: Reach

As an avid FPS player, I was pleased to finally catch up with the biggest series I've missed out on since the start of this generation. I quickly noticed, however, that my interest in this title over the years painted a picture in my head that was perhaps a little too bright. While the single player campaign of Reach was a versatile ordeal showcasing some excellent direction, its pacing seemed off, with the campaign becoming interesting too late into the game. Maybe the green hills and large, open-ended zones made me expect too much of a tactical sandbox flavour à la Crysis from this title, but the first few stages in particular made the game feel a lot like a horde shooter, yet without the joy of over-the-top carnage that is imperative in that subgenre. Maybe the multiplayer will do more justice to the game's potential.

Halo: Combat Evolved (Anniversary Edition)

Seeing as I am planning to go through the entire Halo series, this purchase was only logical. I owned the original on the Xbox, but wasn't very good at it, as is attested to by the fact that it took me one playthrough in the Anniversary Edition to get to the point where I quit all these years ago. One thing that immediately caught my attention was the incredible similarity to Reach in terms of gameplay. It is only logical that instalments in the same series feel alike, but some more evolution in the gameplay would certainly not have been an unwelcome addition. It must be said, however, that the pacing of Combat Evolved in comparison to that of Reach is what betrays the game's age. Even the most tedious stages of Reach still showed some sense of progression, whereas Combat Evolved relies an awful lot on the 'ship full of bad guys lands on open space; repeat ad infinitum' configuration for its combat sequences. But of course, it is inevitable that any game comes across as archaic in some areas a decade later, and the fact that improved (though by no means fantastic) graphics proved sufficient in obscuring the game's aging process for the most part, only confirms its rightful status as a classic.


With a big portion of free time lying ahead, my 360 will probably work over hours during the final days of the year. And naturally, I'm more than willing to share the holiday joy. So if you want to play any of the above-mentioned games with me, just add Gamertag Draugen1P to your friend list, and we'll see each other online. I'm mainly looking for co-op partners, but even if you want to finally seize that opportunity to shoot me in the face after all these years, I'm game. Suggestions for what other 360 games I should get are also welcome.

Happy holidays!