Games of 2013

Here's a rapid-fire wrap up of new and old games I played this year. Most came out in 2012, but I held off on playing them until I bought a new PC.

In no particular order...

Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs

I bounced off this pretty quickly, despite being a fan of Amnesia and Dear Esther. I know this house, for I've seen it in every scary game that has a house in it. I know the layout of the rooms, the patterns on the carpet, the eerie painting of a forest above the fireplace. I know there'll be a note in the second drawer of the desk in the study where the father of the house hints at some grim happening, which will be expanded upon in the torn diary entry found in the butler's quarters. It's not a bad game at all - it's kind of exquisitely done - it's just tired. Hopefully the next one will be set on a moon base or something.

Kerbal Space Program

I've barely played this, but it's really smart stuff. It sits alongside Dwarf Fortress as one of those games I'll play forever.

Batman Arkham City

This is a nice example of where I depart from modern games. I literally didn't understand what was going on most of the time. I walk two metres to the right and I get XP. I can select, buy, upgrade things, but not sure how to do it, or why, or what to get. I land on a roof and an obstacle course pops up in the middle of nowhere so I can glide through glowing rings. The meat of the game is punching and kicking things, and while I do punch and kick things, I'm not really doing anything. A pigeon could peck the mouse button and have as much success. It's not that the game is terrible, it's just that I don't understand it.

Dishonored

Stealth games are all about level design, and this is superb. Missions don't feel repetitive and the skill progression feels like it moves in leaps - upgrading even a minor skill can significantly change how you approach the game. I'm not sure why some felt the game was too short, the base game felt just right. And the expansions are excellent, possibly better.

Deus Ex Human Revolution

Beautiful, but a bit lazy. The story meandered, the boss fights were awful, the stealth action seemed to rely far too much on man-sized air ducts, and the 'multiple pathways' were too heavily signposted. I remember that the environments and set-pieces were lavish, but I actually can't recall any of them, which is a bad sign.

Alan Wake: American Nightmare

I've a soft spot for this kind of design. Simple, straight-forward, doesn't take itself seriously (though some of the darker content could probably have been taken a bit more seriously). I generally don't like third-person shooters, but the one-two punch of the flashlight and firearm was strangely satisfying and not repetitive.

Bioshock Infinite

I think this was well-received at the time, yet now it isn't. It's like a summer blockbuster: well produced, everyone talks about it, it has some memorable scenes, but doesn't really do anything particularly well. As a shooter, it was fairly ordinary, but my biggest problem is that I was unconvinced by a bunch of racist cloud people, so the general story never hung together.

XCOM Enemy Unknown

This blew me away. I was unimpressed by other modern XCOM remakes/reboots, so I had low expectations. But this is a blast. It's faithful where it needs to be, cuts out the fat and adds what's missing. The interface confounds me though. The camera feels like it's swimming around and it's hard to select specific parts of the terrain, which is especially odd given that this is basically a boardgame.

Cities in Motion 2

I score transit games based on the time it takes me to quit and then fire up SimuTrans and CiM2 took about an hour. There's a lot of flashiness and depth, but the interface is just maddening. Setting up a route involves about a hundred clicks, and there were times where I literally stared at the map not knowing why my trams wouldn't work. At one point I started up a new game and built a circular railroad track on some empty land just so I could figure out why my trains weren't working. I think the most notable addition here is timetabling, which was bizarrely absent from the original. So that's something, I guess.

Outlast

Ah, what a game. No guns, just a lot of running, sliding, jumping and hiding in cupboards. For the first few hours, this is all you need, but the jump scares and parkour get boring pretty quickly. Soon you'll get objectives, which can get frustratingly obtuse because the levels, while nice looking, aren't particularly well done. Once I couldn't figure out what to do or where to go, so I ran around, ignored monsters, found all the scripted triggers, got the lay of the level, and then reloaded and did it 'properly'. Yeah, a bit of a mood killer.

Rise of the Triad

I thought I'd like this a lot more than I did. I love fast, visceral shooters and I enjoyed the original, so it's a good fit. It plays quick and the shooting model is faithful, while still feeling like a contemporary shooter, but I can't say the same for the level design and pacing.

The Stanley Parable

There's nothing quite like The Stanley Parable. For added effect, try playing it after an hour of Batman Arkham City. The demo is something to behold too.

Far Cry 3

I had a bit of fun with FC3, but not enough to keep at it. The island looks more alive than it is, but it's never really convincing. It also feels like there's a lot to do, but it's all a bit thin. I wonder if completionist gamers will feel like that week they spent skinning animals was worth it. I liked that the game puts you in the head of a character, rather than some mute blank slate - helping turn this naive American fun boy into some kind of death machine is a nice change. If the story wasn't so obnoxious, I may have been more compelled to complete the story missions.

Crusader Kings 2

I really like CK2, but it's probably my least favourite Clausewitz-engine game. This is a game about people management and relationships, but trying to get an understanding of what's going on in your dynasty involves flipping open dozens of character profiles and trees, piecing it all together in your head. It's like standing two inches away from the Bayeux Tapestry and panning your head around. The game needs a way to stand back and really observe all those connections and relationships. Europa Universalis and Victoria (my favourite) don't have this problem because they aren't about people, so the map works fine. Crusader Kings should break away from the world map model.

Going static

Speaking of Github, this entire site is served statically via Github Pages. It's simple, possibly too simple in some areas (browser caching would be helpful), but it's free, quick, serves files, and generally does what I need to it do.

I think 'what I need it to do' is something most people have stopped considering when starting up a website. Just fire up a new WordPress site because, hey, you need plugins, even if you're not sure what kind of plugins. Oh, and an image carousel. Yeah, we must have something that shows images. And comments and share buttons and a calendar and WYSIWYG editing. But there's a cost when you get something that 'does all the things' - more points of failure, security issues, speed, loss of control, opaque procedures - but these are happily ignored.

Static sites don't incur the same costs. They don't create pages dynamically or piece them together from a database, so they're often quicker (possibly by an order of magnitude), the server is less likely to be drowned by many users, and because it's straight HTML, there's not much that can really break. Administration is different, too - no software updates, no security hotfixes, no dependencies - and moving your site somewhere else is as easy as copying and pasting a folder. So while you may lose the benefits of a dynamic site, perhaps you don't really need them for your generally text-based site that includes and the odd image or two.

I'm making it sound simpler than it is. Static pages require a different kind of work: you need to generate the static pages somehow and then sync them to your site. There are some platforms that can do this, but they all require at least a moderate degree of expertise, which I define as 'more complicated than setting a WordPress site'. Then again, you could just fire up a HTML editor and update your site manually, which is what I do: I write with Vim or Sublime Text, and then push the changes to Github. It's that easy. Anything else I need to add will need some of kind of minor scripting (eg, generating an RSS feed and an archive), but this is not difficult.

So if you know your way around basic HTML, CSS, and light scripting, and your site is really just serving text and some pics (be honest here), then give it a crack.

Github

Every now and then, I'll beat some code into shape and pop it up onto Github. Most of these were written before I'd have called myself a programmer, so they might be rough. I'll try to put up more recent stuff soon.

Transmission

Check out Transmission. It's a work-in-progress, but certainly playable.

I tend to use projects as a way of understanding something. In the case of Transmission, I used it to experiment with a very precise, elegant game mechanic - the opposite of my previous work - and to get familiar with Unity. It needs a bit of attention, but even in its minimal form, it can be mesmerising. The goal of just trying to keep something balanced - rather than destroying or building something - is oddly novel, but nicely satisfying. I can easily see the idea transplanted into something larger, more elaborate.

As for Unity, I've plenty to say about it, mostly critical, but it's undeniably the single best option for indies. Most problems aren't showstoppers, and even its most frustrating aspects are easily forgiven when you look at all the platforms it supports.

Collaboration

I like working with people, especially artists, and especially artists who can code a little. Not a lot, just enough to know how computers interact with your work. Prior experience with games is irrelevant. Send me an email if you're interested. And I will pay you money if it's a commercial game because I'm not a prick.

What of Screwfly Studios?

With Backstrip up and running, a few people have asked me what's happening with Screwfly Studios. If you don't know, I own half of Screwfly Studios, Logan Booker owns the other half, and together we made Zafehouse Diaries, which became an order of magnitude more successful than we imagined.

Backstrip doesn't affect Screwfly. It's still active, Zafehouse Diaries is still supported, and we'll likely continue releasing updates for it. We have plans for new titles, which we'll hopefully start talking about soon.

It's true that my time will be split between the two outfits. But despite the success of Zafehouse, it doesn't pay the bills, and never has - it was always part-time.

So the short answer: nothing's changed.

Welcome

Hello, welcome to Backstrip. I'm David Kidd and Backstrip is my independent game development studio.

There's not much here at the moment, but that will change soon. Until then, check my currently active projects, drop me a line or follow me on Twitter for updates.

If you're looking for my old blog, it's over here.