Gamerly Musings

Where failed pitches go to shine.

Q&A Overflow: Longread Response on Crowdfunding and Developer Friendship Ethics

This post is actually a response to a question from a freelance game journalist Q&A I’m doing through my account, but I just had so much to say on the subject that I ran out of room in the little response text box. So instead of shortchanging my answer, I decided to copy it all over here and finish it properly

The Question: Why should we, the readers, trust an industry that was content to ignore the issues of possible conflict of interest, such as patreon support and friendships with sources, until the issues went public. In short, why should we believe you can effectively police your biases. – [no name was provided]


I realize that it seems like game journalists are just suddenly talking about issues with crowdfunding like Patreon and Kickstarter, but that is not entirely the case. There have been a few public discussions on twitter about how to handle coverage of crowdfunded games, but much of the talk has taken place behind the scenes in places like the GameJournoPros group.

Within the GameJournoPros group the conversation started as the Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter (which would eventually become the game Broken Age) was making huge headlines in February 2012, and has continued to be a heated topic in the group as the discussion evolved since then. In the last few days a lot of people have eagerly and excitedly sent me links to the Greg Linsby interview video as a means to answer this question, but I think the answer it provides is incomplete for the context.

For example, would paying for a game in order to review it be considered financial support to the developer, and therefore a breach of ethics? Say, hypothetically, a publisher or PR firm actually does decide to blacklist a journalist or publication. Is that publication then ethically incapable of providing its audience with a review because in order to do so they would be providing some financial support to the developers? Is paying out of pocket for a review copy of a game less ethical than agreeing to a review embargo in order to have access to an early copy of the game? I would hope that you at home are answering “no, of course not.” How a review copy of a game is obtained is of far less importance than how that game is then reviewed.

So what does that mean for crowdfunding campaigns? What makes crowdfunding campaigns different? Is it the act of paying in advance while the game is still in development? What then about pre-ordering a game for a review if you know ahead of time you won’t be able to get a review copy from the publisher/PR firm? The pre-order money doesn’t immediately go to the developers/publisher, but is that delay in timing a significant difference? And what about Patreon, which allows developers to have an ongoing project or series of projects? Keep in mind that Patreon contributors are only charged when a creator releases something, making Patreon less about funding a project than it is about a creator making something with the confidence that they will be compensated for their work upon release. Since the payment happens only once the content is created and released, is it functionally the same as purchasing a game on the day it is released? Does the fact that a Patreon contributor is guaranteeing that they will purchase each game on its release day make it a significantly different sort of transaction?

These are questions which game journalists have been debating for over two and a half years now, and no universal consensus has been reached. Gamers only recently started questioning it, and so the discussion has become more public, but a public debate doesn’t mean that game journalists have gotten any closer to agreeing to any universal guidelines. What gamers see as ignoring the issue is more accurately a reflection of that lack of consensus.

Since there has been no universal consensus, publications have individually elected to carve out their own guidelines. This is a good thing, or at least I would think anyone worried about game journalists colluding in secret would consider it a good thing that there is healthy disagreement and debate. It is the prerogative of each publication to carve out their own journalistic guidelines. I have already laid out my own personal stance on the ethics of crowdfunding contributions in a previous reply but since I am a freelance writer I do not have the luxury of only complying with my own personal code. Obviously I would have to comply with the policies of whichever publication I am writing about a game for, making any necessary disclosures to the editor.

Another facet of crowdfunding is writers who try to offer a crowdfunded project and have developers as contributors. This is not unethical on its own, but it is something that has the potential to be. If it were inherently unethical then any gaming magazine that has ever had a copy purchased by a game developer would be just as guilty. I can’t imagine any writer so desperate for the $1 monthly contributions that are typically given by Patreon supporters that they would curb their work to favor a contributing developer, but it’s still something to keep an eye on. If there is a slip, and preferential coverage is given to a supporter, the most productive course of action would be to approach the journalist with the assumption that it was an unconscious slip, since that is most likely the case. The journalist can then simply ask the developer to withdraw funding and the matter is solved quickly and painlessly for everyone.

Ok, whew, that was a lot to write. Now to address what I see as the second part of your question: press friendships with developers.

Again, that same Greg Linsby interview video is frequently brought up as a response to the question of journalist/developer friendships, but unlike Linsby’s answer to crowdfunding, I feel he provides a much more complete and satisfactory answer on this subject.

Linsby states that the matter of what constitutes friendship is not always so clearly black and white, and that journalists have to be constantly vigilant and self-regulating to ensure that the line is not crossed. For example, having a drink with a developer at a professional event like GDC or E3 is not, on its own, a sign of anything to be worried about. There is a crucial distinction made between being friends with a subject and being on friendly terms with a subject for professional or networking reasons.

Personally, there are a lot of developers I am friendly with. I’ll talk with them on twitter and make sure to touch based with them and say hi if we’re at the same industry events, maybe even try to hang out with them at one of the many parties or bar hangouts that take place at night during an industry event. But during these times there is always an understanding of a professional relationship.

One example is how diligent developers are to specify on and off-the-record comments when speaking with myself and other journalists at those industry events. Linsby’s way of defining friendship between press and their subjects is putting the friend’s interest before your own. While everyone behaves outwardly friendly at an industry event, the trust of friendship just isn’t fully there, with both journalists and developers always on their toes and aware of their respective roles. Anything said that isn’t explicitly off-the-record is liable to end up in an article the next day, making the conversation’s dance of what is said and not said fascinating to watch and be a part of. Obviously that is not the only measure of crossing between being friendly and friendship, but this post is already long enough so I’m not going to go through every possible circumstance.

So in short, I hope you can trust us because we are professionals and take the responsibility of our occupation seriously. You may not always see the careful precautions journalists take to ensure we are providing the best reporting possible, but if you take the time to politely ask and listen to the reply it’s possible you might find that the answers aren’t as murky as you first thought.

I Write Fiction Too: Meet Fred

Exciting things are brewing in my professional life! And though I can’t divulge the specifics yet, I can at least say that I’m adding the title “Narrative Director” to my business cards. Now, this may come across as opportunistic to those who only know me by my games criticism writing and occasional journalism, since it has all of the appearance of me using my position in games media to slide into narrative writing, practical fiction writing experience be damned. But would it surprise you to learn that was not actually the case? In fact, if anything it would be the other way around. I spent the vast majority of my college education in fiction writing courses and workshops. It was actually one such class that put me on the path to freelance journalism, as my professor happened to be the sister of at-the-time Editor-in-Chief of PCWorld Harry McCracken, and I pestered that poor professor every day until she put me in touch with him to discuss freelance writing.

In any case, back in college I earned a bit of a reputation for writing short stories about zombies, robots, giant squid, and the afterlife re-imagined as O’Hare airport in classes where genre fiction was shunned in favor of “literary fiction.” And despite my subject matter of choice, none of my professors seemed to be able to tell the difference. I guess what I’m getting at is that this opportunity to actually write for a game is really more of a homecoming to my fiction writing roots than a divergent path from the game criticism career I’ve forged over the last few years. Note that this isn’t a complete career change, games criticism can’t get rid of me that easily, just a new project I’ll be working on in addition to my regular freelancing.

But really, the point of this post isn’t so much to announce my new writing gig, that will come later when I can actually talk about it more. Right now I mostly wanted to post a sample of my fiction writing so that the new gig will make more sense when it is announced. So without further dallying, hopefully you’ll enjoy the below excerpt from a story of mine called Binary People in which I’ll introduce you to a recently unemployed robot by the name of Fred.


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Musings and Memories of 2013: Learning My Craft

Rather than a strict Game of the Year list, at Gamerly Musings I’ll be writing a series of  articles about the games that were most important to me, personally. The games will be roughly grouped together by themes, qualities, or learning experiences that they shared rather than offering awards based on genre or release platform, which I think works out rather nicely for highlighting some under-appreciated games that would never appear on a “best of 2013” list but deserve special recognition in their own right.

Reviewing and analyzing these three games – one good, one bad, and one somewhere in between – helped to develop my skills as a writer more than any other in 2013. Each of the games are very different, but in my effort to give them the reviews they deserved I grew as a writer. That could be growth in learning new techniques, refining old ones, or finding new perspectives through which to look at the games. Regardless of how it happened, all three of these games helped me learn my craft as a writer in 2013.

Gone Home

goty gone home

By the far the most challenging review I wrote in 2013 was the one I did for Gone Home. I already knew it was going to be something special, the 2012 IGF demo, just the demo, was my game of the year that year after all. And even just from that demo it was revelatory the way it used the environment to infer most of its story outside of Sam’s narrated journal entries. Even the “put back” mechanic, simple as it was, was a stroke of genius in depicting domestic exploration that didn’t devolve into ransacking the place. But most of all, it was Sam’s coming out story that sealed it. Sam’s story felt so true, but was told in such a distinctly game-y way, I still get chills thinking about it.

While playing Gone Home I felt like I was playing something important, a game that would become part of the essential literacy for game critics. The same feeling I got when first playing Bastion or Dark Souls, the feeling that it was a game people would continue to write about for years, dissecting it for every morsel of meaning.

And here I was supposed to review it? To be one of the first voices in that ongoing critical discussion? Yeah, I was a bit intimidated. Read the rest of this entry »

Musings and Memories of 2013: Learning Humility

Rather than a strict Game of the Year list, at Gamerly Musings I’ll be writing a series of  articles about the games that were most important to me, personally. The games will be roughly grouped together by themes, qualities, or learning experiences that they shared rather than offering awards based on genre or release platform, which I think works out rather nicely for highlighting some under-appreciated games that would never appear on a “best of 2013” list but deserve special recognition in their own right.

The theme of this first post is “learning humility,” highlighting games that caught me off-guard or subverted my expectations in thrilling, surprising, and always humbling ways.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger

Gunslinger goty

It seems that every year I’m going to be asked to review a game for which I have rock bottom expectations and ends up being one of the highlights of the year. Last year it was I Am Alive, which blew me away with its brutal survival mechanics and story, and this year that pleasant surprise came in the form of Call of Juarez: Gunslinger (which, coincidentally, both I Am Alive and Gunslinger were published by Ubisoft).

I already wrote a glowing review when it came out, so I won’t retread through all the reasons it is such an amazing game here, but even now at the end of the year it sticks out in my mind as easily one of the best gaming experiences I had in 2013. Read the rest of this entry »

Beautiful Machinery – The Structure of Zelda: A Crack Between Worlds

For those who haven’t heard, I am beginning a new column called Beautiful Machinery. It will be a twice monthly series of articles examining the artistry and craft of games through their mechanics. I am doing a little experiment with it though, by trying to gain support and funding for the column through Patreon, a service that lets you, the reader, support creators directly on a per article basis instead of going through a major publication. You can pledge any amount per article, even if it’s only $1, your support will be hugely appreciated. The following article is my first piece for Beautiful Machinery and an example of what to expect from the column, looking at The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds and how its item rental system impacts the game’s structure.

Head over to my Patreon page to learn more about Beautiful Machinery and support my writing to make this column a success.


While it seemed fairly unanimous among my colleagues that the new item structure was a cause for celebration in The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, I was conflicted about the change as I began playing. There was talk of a more open overworld to explore and being able to approach the game’s dungeons in any order. It essentially boiled down to more player freedom and choice, which I am told are inherently good features in a game.

I am not convinced, though. See, to me, the gatekeeping due to item restrictions was always the highlight of a new Zelda game. I’d see some far off ledge that I couldn’t quite reach, and it would fill me with excitement to discover which item I’d eventually find to let me cross to that ledge.

However, the anticipation and delayed gratification is a key part of that formula. If I could instantly hookshot or glide on a leaf over to the ledge, it wouldn’t be as special an area. It would just be another area just like any other that I could walk to. But by delaying my ability to cross over to the ledge it fills the area with a sense of mystery and discovery. Sure there may be a treasure chest filled with a handful of rupees or a heart piece, but the treasure wasn’t the real reward. The real reward was gaining the ability to travel off the beaten path, and in order to travel off of it, there needs to be a beaten path to begin with.

My fear going into A Link Between Worlds was that every area would feel like part of the beaten path, and that no areas would truly feel special or hidden. And for the most part, unfortunately, this was the case. So long as I had bombs, the hammer, and in one place the hookshot, I could explore pretty much the entire overworld right away. And because Zelda games hand out rupees at a rate that should collapse Hyrule’s economy, it was no problem to rent those items as soon as they became available.

There were some item gates though, and these proved to be my favorite parts of exploring the game’s overworld. I needed to collect flippers before I could swim, giving me that satisfying feeling as a previously off-limits area became mundane, and likewise with areas that were sealed off by large boulders and required the titan gloves. The giant bomb that can follow you in Lorule was also a nice touch, sealing off certain areas until you performed an escort mission that served a similar gating purpose by making the areas it unlocked seem more special than simply using a regular bomb.

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Here’s the thing about reviews…

Over the past five years of covering the videogame industry (holy crap, has it really been that long?) I’ve noticed many shifting opinions about the purpose of reviews and their role as it relates to critical writing.

To me, first and foremost a review is an informative piece. That is my way of making up jargon that fits both the critical and consumer-facing roles of a review. Because really, it does serve both of those roles, and to disregard or discount the importance of one of those sides seems to me to be missing the point.

So on the one hand you have the consumer-facing aspect of a review. This includes elements to help make a review more accessible to its audience. A score that becomes interpreted as a “buyer’s guide,” references and comparisons to other similar works, and general background info about the work to set up its premise.

But, at least in a good review, these consumer-facing elements are backed up with critical analysis. In the realm of games, this can include digging into the game’s overarching themes, a deconstruction of its mechanics, an investigation of level design and pacing, really any and all critical perspectives can apply.

The idea, to me at least, is to provide readers with some critical perspective that makes them look at a game in a new way. It could be as simple as highlighting a game’s save/checkpoint system and how it increases tension. And after reading a review someone playing the game is suddenly highly aware of this element, gaining a greater appreciation for the game because the review opened the door for them to look at it more critically.

Now, “true critical writing” usually follows a few weeks or months after the reviews hit. These pieces look much deeper into a game’s themes, mechanics, and what have you to provide more specific, and usually more insightful, criticism. That’s awesome, and a highly valuable part of critical writing.

But I feel like the critical element of reviews often gets lost in all of that. People only see the consumer-facing side of reviews, and ignore their greater purpose: to open the doors of critical dialog with their readers. Yes, commenters are by in large a steaming pile of shitbags, but I don’t think that should deter us from offering those critical voices in reviews.

It is a writing philosophy that I think can be applied to any medium, not just games. I read film and television show reviews not to find out if something is worth watching, but to get that “aha!” moment that illuminates some new a critical perspective. I recently read a Breaking Bad episode review (which I now can’t find) that focused entirely on the use of lighting, and it was brilliant. It still discussed the episode in broader strokes as one would expect of a review, but all through the lens of how lighting and shadow was used in each shot. It made me want to watch the episode again and see it all with this new perspective.

That is what a good review should accomplish. Obviously this is harder to achieve in games since to replay a game can be a huge time commitment, but a review should have the capacity to make someone at least want to go back, even if they actually don’t.

To 100% toot my own horn, this is the way I approach my own reviews. I hope that from reading my reviews the audience is able to gain some new perspective or insight that they might have missed. In The Wonderful 101, I tried to offer context for the game as a pivot point between Platinum Games’ past and what could lead to the studio’s future. For Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, I tried to highlight how the game uses and disregards the tropes of horror, and used the analogy of a haunted house to convey how the static sense of artifice undermines its atmosphere. For Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse I tried convey the balance between nostalgia and innovation, and how it modern techniques to reinvigorate classic platforming elements that have gone out of style since the 32-bit era.

You’ll notice by reading those reviews that they all still include the consumer-facing buyer’s guide, telling readers whether I think the game is worth their time/money or not. But it is my greater hope that people who read my reviews later notice the aspects that I point out, and, having been given some critical tools in the review, are able to continue the discussion of whether the game is successful or not in accomplishing something.

Apologies that this piece kind of rambles and jumps around, I wrote it pretty quickly in between other assignments just to get it off my chest. This is the beauty of having a personal blog and posting my random thoughts (or gamerly musings) through stream of consciousness rather than through an editor. Hopefully it makes sense to those few out there reading it, and hopefully it will help spark new discussions.

Why I spoiled Gone Home in my review

Before the reviews went up for Gone Home, I knew it was going to be interesting seeing who considered what parts of the game a spoiler.

Almost a year ago when I played the IGF build of Gone Home, I would have agree that Sam’s coming out story was a spoiler. As such I kept the secret, thinking that it played a much larger role in the game. Keep in mind this was a demo that ended when you open Sam’s locker and hear about her first kiss. The story, at that point, culminated in the realization of Sam’s sexual awakening, without any access to the basement, kitchen, dining room, greenhouse, or attic that comprised over half of the entire experience.

After playing the full game my view on its spoiler status changed, and I was excited to read reviews from other writers and see whether they considered it a spoiler or not after playing through the whole thing at once without a first playthrough that ended at the locker.

It turns out mine was the only review (that I saw at least) that mentioned Sam’s coming out story. I was shocked, expecting at least a few to at least acknowledge one of the game’s most prevalent themes. There was actually one other writer who sent me private messages on twitter asking if I thought talking about queerness was a spoiler or fair game for a review, and I explained that I thought it wasn’t. That writer’s review ultimately does not include any reference to Sam being a lesbian.

Now, the argument has been made that it is best to go into Gone Home without any prior knowledge of the plot at all, and I think that is also an acceptable view. But if you are writing a review from that stance, it can be a nigh impossible task. Mentioning that the father is a troubled writer or that the mother is contemplating an affair already breaks that trust, which most reviews had no trouble disclosing. So why leave out the main character, the character who is quite literally the voice of Gone Home?

I believe the fact that Sam’s sexuality is considered a spoiler says more about our culture’s views on homosexuality than it does on the actual game. Homosexuality is still largely considered the taboo “other,” even by allies and many within the LGBT community. That is not “other” in a negative sense, but rather the simple expectation that someone is straight until proven gay, and when that proof is given there is a tendency to act surprised. I am guilty of this as well, it is a pervasive part of our culture.

So even though Sam’s attraction is clear from the very first note mentioning Lonnie, a note most players will find within their first 10-20 minutes, it is still treated largely as a surprise, as an unexpected twist that subverts expectations. Even though there is no grounding for those expectations in how Sam is presented at any point in the game.

Let’s compare the reaction to Gone Home to another recent game with character relationships at its core: The Walking Dead. I would argue that Sam’s relationship with Lonnie is just as central to Gone Home as Lee’s adopted fatherhood for Clementine. And yet reviews had no issue coming right out and (rightfully) praising The Walking Dead for having and developing that relationship. The fact that Lee takes on that father-figure role isn’t a spoiler, it’s how that relationship informs their actions that players will discover and shape the emotional core of the game.

Likewise, it isn’t a spoiler that Sam is attracted to other women. Like the theme of fatherhood, within the theme of “queerness” there are still a vast spectrum of experiences that could be conveyed. Her sexuality simply acts as the framing agent for those experiences.

Just using Sam’s queerness as a starting point it opens tons of story possibilities. Does Lonnie feel the same way? If so, will they stay together? How will Sam’s parents react? How does Sam’s school react? How does this all piece together to explain why Sam isn’t home, and where she might be? Does the fact that Sam is missing have anything to do with why the parents aren’t home? What is going on with the parents anyway? Who is Oscar? Why is the house called “The Psycho House?”

One more question, does Sam’s sexuality ruin the reveal of those more relevant questions?

Knowing that Sam is a lesbian doesn’t spoil the discovery of her Captain Allegra stories and how they evolve with her own self-realization. It doesn’t spoil how her own affinity for writing fiction draws a parallel to Terry, who also tried to make sense of childhood experiences through fiction and received only discouragement from his own father. It doesn’t spoil how the “ghost” of Oscar that caused Terry to become reclusive and jeopardize his marriage was also the catalyst for Sam’s first true love. It doesn’t spoil a strained and complex family dynamic. It doesn’t spoil Sam and Lonnie’s zine, or Sam’s attempt in vain to make her school aware of the abuse and bullying she received because of who she loved. It doesn’t spoil that Sam and Lonnie’s only option was to escape from their expected lives if they had any hope of being happy.

So why did I come right out to say Sam was a lesbian in my review, and spoil Gone Home for all those potential players? Because Sam’s sexuality isn’t a spoiler, and I didn’t actually spoil anything.

The Last of Us, but not the best of us

Since I’m not obligated to write a traditional review here on Gamerly Musings, I’ve decided to parse out my thoughts on The Last of Us in list form since it just makes more sense to me that way. As always with things I write here, spoilers.

Things The Last of Us gets right:

The opening. The first hour of The Last of Us does a fantastic job of introducing Joel and the game’s world. Starting with control of his daughter, you explore the house in a pre-infected state, then find Joel rushing inside being chased by early infected. There’s a nice sense of knowing that the infection is happening elsewhere, but naivete about it actually hitting home, even as things escalate quickly around them. It also features what may be the first time in a Naughty Dog game that your character is being chased and you aren’t running toward the camera while seeing the pursuers behind you. You probably can turn the camera around to look, but I got the sense that doing so would slow me down and get me caught, so I just kept running with an unknown danger at my heels. It’s a heavily scripted scene, but very effective.

The setting. Never let it be said that Naughty Dog doesn’t know how to set a scene. From the ruined buildings and plants reclaiming the streets to the wilderness of the hydroelectric plant and Colorado winter. The art direction has an impeccable attention to detail, with subtle nuggets of information about how survivors lived, or failed to, wrapped into every corner of the world. The sewer nursery and Colorado University campus were particularly well realized examples of world-building.

The acting. The Last of Us probably won’t be on my shortlist for top games of 2013, but it’s definitely up there for one of the top movies of the year. The voice acting is fantastic throughout, and the motion capture for the cutscenes got some amazing footage with body language and inflections to drive the acting home. The only jarring part of the acting was when Steve Blum’s gruff voice kept popping up for the random thugs and soldiers you fight, since his voice is so distinct that it came across as fighting the same enemy over and over rather than a mob. More enemy voice diversity, please.

Winter. Everything about the Winter chapter is the best part of The Last of Us. You finally get to control Ellie, hunting in the woods for survival. She then threatens two strangers with a bow and arrow, and barters her food for medicine, which is the kind of thing I like to see in a survival game (though it would have more impact if characters had a hunger meter or something). David is wonderfully twisted and complex character to add for the chapter, as you go through the initial trials building trust with him through gameplay only to discover he’s the leader of the mob that attacked you in the last chapter.

He’s also a cannibal, and most likely a pedophile since one of his underlings refers to Ellie as his “pet,” though in David’s early scenes he shows just enough humanity that there might me a genuine paternal feeling behind his motivation to steal Ellie away from Joel. The whole stealth fight with David is done well, and I love how Joel arrives just in time to watch Ellie beat David’s face in. Winter is the chapter that shows just how far Ellie has come since the beginning when Joel was trying to shelter her into a survivor capable of handling herself. Of course, she’s also still a kid, which comes out in her attitude and depression in the following chapter after brutally killing most of David’s gang.

Scavenging/crafting. I really like scavenging for materials in survival games, and The Last of Us had plenty of materials to find. Those materials could be used to craft health kits, explosives, and upgrade melee weapons, with some materials needed for multiple items so you had to manage your resources. Well, kind of. The game actually threw too much scavenging material into the environment, and I often had to leave stuff behind because I had maxed out all of my items and the amount of materials I could carry. Abundance aside, the system worked well, and I liked how crafting items was in real-time so you could make items at any time but there was a risk attached if you were in combat.

Things The Last of Us gets wrong:

Partner A.I. Holy hell, the A.I. is dumb in The Last of Us. While I was trying to sneak past clickers with Joel, Ellie and whoever else happened to be along at the moment would run around in tap dancing shoes completely ignoring the fact that we were supposed to be stealthy. And for the most part, as long as I hadn’t been noticed, they could make as much noise as they wanted. It kind of ruins the effect of the stealth portions. But then as soon as I get noticed by an enemy, suddenly the A.I. companions are visible and I have to rescue them. It’s immersion-breaking and really inexcusable considering how much of the first half relies on stealth. When I press crouch, the A.I. should automatically follow suit, even if enemies aren’t actually nearby. It would reinforce both that enemies pose a genuine threat and that Joel is taking on a leader/father role to Ellie if she followed his actions like that.

Notice that Winter was the highlight of the game. David makes for an uncharacteristically competent A.I. partner, shooting enemies to stun them so you can finish them off. His competence, especially after so many miserable A.I. companions, is a big part of why that scene works for building trust in him, or at least wanting him to turn out to be a good guy, and why his betrayal stings even if you saw it coming (which let’s be honest, who didn’t?). David is also only your companion for a short time, after which Ellie and Joel get their own solo segments, which forgoes the entire A.I. problem altogether.

Anything involving guns. I am not convinced that Naughty Dog can make a competent shooter. I’m sorry, I’ve never been a fan of the gunplay in the Uncharted series, and it’s just as wrong-feeling here in The Last of Us. For some reason it always feels much more difficult to aim any gun at close range in a Naughty Dog game, which should be the opposite, and becomes a real issue when fighting the infected. I actually don’t have an issue with the aiming being shaky as other critics have said, but to compensate each bullet should be far more lethal.

Unavoidable combat. Oh, you thought The Last of Us was a stealth horror game? Haha, nope. For each encounter that has a stealthy option there is a scripted sequence where you can’t progress until every enemy in sight has been killed. Usually the unavoidable combat sequences are against heavily armed human opponents, which as I’ve already said anytime the game uses guns the fun level drops drastically. The entire Philadelphia section of the game is excruciating for all of the wrong reasons. Sometimes it will also throw in unavoidable combat with infected, in which case the terrible close-range combat comes into play. Other times it’ll throw a swarm of infected at you and expect you to run, but because the game has established a pattern predominantly of “kill everything to progress” it wouldn’t occur to me to run until after dying several times. Hotel basement with the generator, I’m looking at you.

The focus ability. Joel and Ellie have a unique ability where they can crouch low and see enemies through walls if you hold the R2 trigger. This is super helpful in the stealth portions, and a good addition to the game. So why is the focus ability something The Last of Us gets wrong? Because it has selective usefulness when it comes to scripted scenes. I try to play as a good survivalist, so I’m sneaking practically everywhere, and using the focus ability liberally. But sometimes there will be an infected hiding for a jump scare, or human enemies that are scripted to pop out, and they won’t appear with the focus ability until their scripted trigger is activated. Players should be rewarded for being careful, and at times The Last of Us is just far more concerned with being a thrill ride than giving the player agency.

Magical cutscene injuries. I know, it’s a tired trope that shows up in most games, but that doesn’t make it any less terrible when it pops up in The Last of Us. Even if Joel falling on the metal beam is the catalyst for what leads to Ellie’s starring role in the excellent Winter chapter, it’s still a cheap plot device that A) seems minor compared to the multiple gunshot wounds Joel survived before it and B) wouldn’t have happened if the encounter played out like every other bit of combat in the game. As I already mentioned, I’m a very careful player, so seeing that kind of clumsiness from characters in a cutscene is very jarring. Also, how does Joel survive for a few months until winter in a perpetually deteriorating state, then after one penicillin injection he’s better within 12 hours? Again, yes, it’s game logic, but I feel like for the world they’ve created the consequences should be greater, or at least force players to take care of Joel as Ellie for a longer time before he recovers.

Puzzles. You’d think that at some point during their year-long trek Joel would teach Ellie how to swim. Nope, let’s do the same carry-Ellie-on-a-plank-of-wood puzzle half a dozen times. The ladders and planks were also a good idea that turned into a missed opportunity. Being able to freely position ladders and planks could have led to some tense escape sequences or non-linear exploration, but instead there’s usually only one place you can really use them. It feels like Naughty Dog had big plans for re-positioning ladders, but either ran out of time or got locked into a linear structure and forgot about them halfway into development.


Overall, if I had been reviewing The Last of Us, I’d have probably given it something in the 6-7/10 range, with text that strongly emphasized that it is the story that brought up the score, not gameplay. I’d easily recommend either I Am Alive or ZombiU over it, and the fact that both of those came out last year as superior survival experiences greatly influenced my opinion of The Last of Us. Then again, in ZombiU I had the opposite issue, where the story was awful and gameplay was fantastic, so if there was a game that could merge Naughty Dog’s storytelling with ZombiU that would be just about perfect.

E3 2013: A PS4 controller that is finally worth holding

I have been quite vocal over the years about my hatred for Sony’s dualshock controllers. The analog stick placement is wrong, the triggers feel wrong, just everything about their controllers from the original PlayStation up to the PS3 has been a miserable experience that a begrudgingly endure for the occasional exclusive game.

Heck, I don’t even finish most PS3 games these days, games I genuinely love, because I hate that controller. I got halfway through Akrham Asylum on PS3, then bought a second copy on 360 to finish it because I just couldn’t stand using the PS3 controller anymore.

So people were understandably taken aback when I said that I loved the PS4 controller that I got to try at E3 this year. It looks fundamentally the same, so has that much really changed?

The short answer is yes, that much really has changed. I was skeptical too just by looking at it, and actually cringed when I looked at the hands-on stations for Thief and noticed a PS4 controller sitting there. The cringe was noticeable enough that one of the developers asked me if something was wrong. I told him no, a lie at the time but once I picked up the controller it turned out to be true. The PS4 controller is very right.

Read the rest of this entry »

Donations Welcomed?

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and so I’ve finally built up the courage to come out and ask what people think about the idea. I’m thinking of adding a donate button to articles I post on this blog.

I know, donate buttons are taboo, and from what I’ve heard in the past this is doubly true for professional freelance writers. But I wonder if that taboo is breaking down as sites continue to close and ad-blocker cuts into the funds the still-running sites can allocate to a freelance budget.

I created Gamerly Musings with the subtitle “where failed pitches go to shine.” The idea was that this blog would afford me an outlet to still post articles and features that other outlets had turned down. However, I have not been using it that way very often. One of the reasons is that there are only so many hours in the day, and I am a fairly slow/methodical writer, so I prioritize my time for articles that will help sustain me financially, which this site doesn’t do.

Adding a donate button to articles I post here would give me the peace of mind to actually post more articles on Gamerly Musings. Maybe I did an interview with a developer that has a unique line of questioning, but my regular freelance sites already had someone interviewing them. Maybe I have a new perspective on a super popular game and editors don’t need more articles on that topic? Maybe it’s a new perspective on a less popular game that editors don’t think will bring in traffic so they turn down the pitch. I often hesitate to spend time transcribing or writing out pieces that my editors have already rejected. Even though this is my personal site, it is demoralizing to post pieces here when I’m devaluing my work.

Any articles that I put a donate button on would be original content, not re-published articles that I post elsewhere (not that I do much re-publishing here anyway). This would also be a donate button at the bottom of the article, not a payment requirement or a general donate button for the entire blog. Did you like something I wrote? Maybe you liked it enough that it’s worth a dollar? Maybe more? Maybe nothing at all? I would not expect to make very much from donations, it would more be an experiment to see if people are receptive to a per-article donation model.

But first, I want to hear from you. All of you. What would be the argument against adding a donate button? I see it as offering a way for people who like my original work to support it, and to get some (most likely minuscule)  compensation for work that wouldn’t otherwise be paid. I especially want to hear from other writers and editors, in a personal email if they don’t feel comfortable in the comments. I haven’t 100% decided that I will add a donation button, but I am leaning that way and would like some feedback as to whether that is something people would support or a terrible mistake.

Thank you,
Scott Nichols