Discover more from Have You Played?
A short scheduled break in your HYP programming
Welcome new subscribers! Last week’s piece on Honkai: Star Rail was picked up by Critical Distance and GameDiscoverCo, both excellent publications you should check out if you’re into games criticism and the business of how games are “discovered” by players/customers.
I’m taking my first break in almost three months, partly because I just had a short holiday, but mostly because I wanted to look back on the games I’ve covered so far and share what I’m planning for the next few months.
Least-read: Grand Tour Legends
My least-read post was about a black and white game crank-operated cycling game for the Playdate handheld:
The Playdate isn’t so much a console as it is a tiny arcade cabinet that uniquely supports crank-operated games. If the idea of spending $199 on such a thing seems ridiculous when a Nintendo Switch is only $100 more, I don’t blame you. But if its whimsy outweighs its ridiculousness for you, then you won’t mind spending a little more again on a novel experience. And to me, every good crank-centric Playdate game feels like an arcade game.
This was understandable – basically no-one owns the Playdate, and even fewer have heard of, or played, Grand Tour Legends – but still a shame! One way I’ve been able to keep up a weekly posting schedule is by playing smaller games and writing shorter posts, and I was happy to find something interesting to write about this time. There’s an art to making simple games and they made the perfect one for this odd little handheld.
Most-read: Terra Nil
If you’re going to make a good turn-based strategy game, you should stop thinking about SimCity and start thinking about boardgames. And if you’re making a game about restoring ecosystems, don’t make players blast lasers through forests in the name of recycling.
This is probably my most negative post, and maybe that contributed to its popularity, along with the game’s very recent release. Still, I don’t think I was unfair, and I always write with the intention of being able to defend my words if I were to ever meet the game’s creators.
I do that by being as specific as I can be; instead of saying “recycling buildings sucks”, I try to explain precisely what the game makes me do that I find objectionable, sometimes down to the individual taps. I think I can pay respect to creators by being as thorough as I can, at least in the scant time I have outside of my day job for this newsletter.
Longest I Played: Cyberpunk 2077
Of the fourteen hours I’ve played Cyberpunk 2077, six were devoted to the almost totally-linear prologue and the remainder was mostly spent on a handful of totally-linear main quests. These hours were indistinguishable from linear story-driven games like The Last of Us and Uncharted, in that I didn’t have any choices to make and I was mostly being driven between locations where I would alternately talk and shoot at people, albeit in very pretty surroundings.
Now, I like linear story-driven games. Purists deride them as being barely different from movies but as long as they’re entertaining movies, I don’t mind. And so, just like movies, the best games end up being highly edited, whether that’s in movie-like cutscenes or levels being designed in ways to not waste players’ time.
But Cyberpunk 2077 isn’t edited. At all.
Speaking of scant time, it’s basically impossible for me to complete most long games (e.g. 15+ hours) at a weekly pace. I was expecting more pushback on this on Cyberpunk 2077 and Signalis, which I also didn’t complete, but I’ll always read plenty of other reviews and essays to check whether the game doesn’t become completely different after the point where I stopped playing.
It is obvious to me that practically everything should be shorter. Not just games, but books, TV shows, movies, almost all entertainment. I say this knowing my own games and books and essays commit the same sin. Long games cater to an audience that confuses quantity with quality, and while it’s awfully elitist of me to disagree – I still disagree. Even if you love Cyberpunk 2077, I don’t think your time is best spent playing it for 100 hours.
My First Post: Pentiment
Pentiment is the kind of game that gets glowing reviews by English major journalists who adore the fact that they finally get to combine their passions. It is also a game that is quite annoying to play. But you should be assured its annoyances are shortcomings of design, not story.
We don’t talk enough about how annoying it is to play most games! A major thesis of my newsletter is that “it’s all too easy for games to hamstring themselves by indulging niche audiences, making themselves impenetrable to all but the most faithful”. Sometimes games like Cyberpunk 2077 succumb to this, and sometimes games overcome it, like Pentiment.
It’s really tiresome to run around in Pentiment, making sure you’ve talked to everyone you need to and inspected every single room and house, just like a point-and-click game from the 80s. There are half a dozen ways they could’ve eased or eliminated this requirement, so that more people might play it and complete it. And yet the game is still well worth playing. It’s a piece of art, not simply in its visuals, but in its writing and its wonderfully humanistic message.
Well, I’m playing Star Trek: Resurgence. It’s… interesting! I will have a lot to say about it.
Also: a fantastic post on OPUS: Echo of Starsong. I can say it’s fantastic because I didn’t write it myself! I commissioned it from a games journalist whose writing I find incredibly perceptive and probing.
I haven’t yet decided how often I’ll commission posts. It’s a great way to give myself the occasional break, and to highlight different voices and games that I’d never have thought to play myself. I like the format I’ve developed for this newsletter because it forces me to describe very clearly what a game is like to play, something that many publications and writers take for granted because obviously we all know what it’s like to play a Japanese RPG or a card battler or top-down shooter.
But we don’t. Not even people in the games industry. In fact, especially not people in the industry, because we’re all mostly too busy to play games other than the ones in our professional genre or those we’re personally into. That makes it hard for people to really understand and learn from games they aren’t already familiar with. So I’m writing the newsletter I’d want to read to learn about new games, and by paying other people to write in a similar format, I get to enjoy it, too!
(Sure, you can watch gameplay on YouTube. YouTube will always be more popular than reading newsletters! The thing is, I can read far faster than I can watch, and I think writing offers a precision of expression and the ability to quote and reference that’s different from video.)
I have no plans to charge for this newsletter. It gives me a reason to go beyond my comfort zone and really think about what makes a game uniquely interesting. I suppose if it becomes really popular I might get readers to chip in to commission more posts, but that’ll be plenty of time off.
For now, all I ask is this: share Have You Played with anyone you think might enjoy it!
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