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Shadows and Drugs: Our Chat With Compulsion Games’s Guillaume Provost



Compulsion Games is a studio known for their unconventional indie titles Contrast and We Happy Few. Based in Montreal, Canada, the studio was founded in 2009 by Guillaume Provost, an industry veteran. Goomba Stomp had the chance to talk with Provost at his studio about his career, early access and the company’s next game.

GS: How did you start out in the industry?

GP: I started in ’97 started out trying to start my own game studio. I went up to Lac Saint-Jean to try and start a game studio and then I ended up—it’s a bit of a crazy story, we were a bunch of kids who didn’t really know what they were doing; it didn’t work out. I ended up landing my first game job in Toronto at a company called Pseudo Interactive we made racing games for the original Xbox. I was a programmer. That’s where I started.

I moved to Toronto because I liked a girl there, that’s the original story. I started as a programmer and worked there for 7 years. The company went from about 8 people when I joined to about 80 people. We did a bunch of titles. We did Cel Damage for the hardware launch of the Xbox for Microsoft. We made a set of racing combat games called Full Auto. So I went from programmer to lead programmer, then producer, then I was managing the whole team. We wanted to go live in Europe, so I started looking around and I got the job at Arkane and moved to produce one of the Half-Life episodes. We were working on it for Valve at the time. We lost that project pretty quickly because Valve changed strategy. I stayed there for a little bit under a year. Then I set up shop by myself in France and eventually moved back to Montreal to start my studio.

GS: You worked on Half-Life 2 Episode 3?

GP: We were actually working on the fourth one. I can’t say more than that. We were working on a Half-Life episode called Return to Ravenholm. It’s public news now, but we had to keep it secret for several years. It leaked in the press a couple years back so I feel comfortable talking about it now.

At Arkane, we worked on Half-Life for a little bit, Half-Life 2 Episode 4, and then Valve, for reasons I can’t talk about, decided to make a strategic move internally on the franchise at that time, and we worked on a game called ‘The Crossing,’ which I was responsible for pitching in Europe while Raphael (Colantonio), the studio head, was supposed to pitch it in America. It was a multiplayer, single player game concept that we never ended up signing. I left the company right after we signed on to work on LMNO which was a Steven Spielberg project with EA, which also never shipped. So I have no titles that shipped while I was at Arkane. It was a tumultuous period for the company.

This was before they worked on BioShock 2, and then they worked on Dishonored after I had left.

GS: Why did you want to start your own studio?

GP: I’ve been working for independent studios my whole life. Actually, the whole story is I was in France, I considered opening a studio there at first, but as a Canadian expatriate living in France it was quite complex to get it going. I originally got a call from a Taiwanese game company that was interested in starting a studio in Montreal and had a lot of money to start the studio. They approached me, we did an interview, I went there and stayed for a bit to work in the trenches down in Taiwan. Then we signed some contracts and they said, “Hey, we have $4 million for you to start a studio in Montreal.” I said, “Yes, lets go, go, go, sign all the paperwork.” Then I got all my stuff packed, and containers locked and ready to go, and we ran right into the housing financial crisis in 2008. And so the money disappeared overnight. So I kind of said fuck it, and I moved and started the studio with no money instead, and it was my studio. So that’s the not-so-glamorous story of me moving to Montreal to start a studio.

Originally, this was in 2009 when I started the studio, I had spent some time working with Valve, and kind of looking at what was trendy back then. To give you a little background, in those years, I wasn’t really clear on the fact that you could actually run a studio on making digitally downloadable games. Like, it was really still in the era where everyone was making boxes, packing those boxes, and sending them to Wal-Mart to sell. So I was looking around me, and Braid came out that year, and Castle Crashers, so there were these few Xbox Live Arcade games that I felt could support a small team. I was a big fan of Portal at the time because I had worked with Valve when they’d shipped the Orange Box, and so I was trying to think through the different mechanics we use like my strengths. That’s how I came up with the original mechanic of you being able to move in 3D, and moving in and out of shadows, developing the whole gameplay gimmick and working around that. I had originally envisioned the project to be pretty small, like a 2 to 3 person team, because that’s what I thought the market would support. I didn’t think that I could make a bigger game without going to the retail shelves, which was really the domain of 60 people plus teams at the time. Showing up with very little money, I also knew that it would take sometime to actually accumulate that much money to be able to start a team. We didn’t have the tools that we have today, the Canadian Media Fund, and the other large sources of capital to start studios.

GS: What were the early days of the studio like?

GP: The first 2 years of the studio, I developed the concept on paper, and I hired Whitney (Clayton), our art director, who’s the first employee of the company, but then we did a lot of contract work. I call it brain prostitution, just to start a little bit of a war chest to start our own project, so that took about 2 years, 2009 to 2011. We mostly did work for hire for larger studios, so we went to work with the guys on Darksiders at THQ, we worked with the folks at Bedlam on a Dungeons and Dragons game, and then I patiently accumulated some money so that we could self-fund our first game. Then, in 2011, we had accumulated enough money, and the Canadian Media Fund came onboard at that time. That gave us the war chest that we needed to start production on Contrast.

GS: Many indie games are made by very small teams and most are smaller 2D experiences. Why did you set out to make such an ambitious game for your first project?

GP: We did make it with a pretty small team. The final size of the team for Contrast was around 7 people. So it wasn’t a big team that made it. I’ve always been someone who had ambitions, but Whitney and I also wanted the game to have a certain look and feel to it. I think that what it comes down to is that, originally, I had just felt like, okay, you know what? I’ll make a really small game and I’m really going to centralize everything on the mechanic itself and bet big on the fact that people are going to like it. As with all great things in the industry, all great ideas come to multiple people at once. At the time of development, there were two other games that were in development that popped up with very similar mechanics. One of them was Tower of Shadows, I think was the name, it was a Wii game. There was a second one called Shadow Physics, which had been picked up by Microsoft. Both had similar mechanics. Of course when you start this project and you think you got this amazing new idea, you got Microsoft and some big company in Japan picking up similar mechanics, it’s a bit frightening. I reacted to it by saying I’m not going to change my idea or my concept. I’ll develop it further and basically put different onion peels to it that make it a unique project that stands on more than just one leg.

I think that’s how Contrast developed into what it was. It had an interesting story, an interesting setting, an interesting mechanic and when you marry those together you don’t really need to worry about copying another game at that point or feeling like other people will think that you copied another game. In the end, it turned out that Shadow Physics never shipped, Tower of Shadows didn’t make a huge splash either. I don’t know that I had a reason to be really worried in the first place, but I think it’s a philosophy we’ve put forth to all our game concepts. We want to develop a sufficiently well rounded, coherent game experience that we don’t have to worry about having direct competition with somebody else. I mean there’s always going to be some comparisons. We Happy Few gets compared to BioShock on a regular basis and I’m okay with that, but I don’t think that anyone thinks we are copying it. We have enough different elements in our game that creates that unique experience, that it’s our voice not someone else’s voice. That’s how Contrast became bigger than I had initially anticipated it was going to be.

GS: Was launching with the PS4 part of your plan from the start?

GP: I don’t think we ever normally plan on a very specific platform from the get-go. We really try to concentrate on making a game that’s strong, and as we get closer to the ship timeline, we figure out whether there are opportunities for us to benefit from working with one of the partners. So in this case we had been working pretty closely with Sony. Both Matt (Robinson), the technical director, and I have extensive experience shipping on hardware on time. So we approached both Microsoft and Sony and said, “Hey, we’re making this game, we’re getting close to shipping, we might be interested in supporting the hardware launches if you’re interested.” Sony said no, and Microsoft said no, until we got pretty close to the spring of 2013, which is the year that we shipped. At one point we showed a demo to the folks at Sony and they said, “Yeah, lets get you devkits and see if this works.” We jumped on that internally, we treated it seriously, and we got them a working version of the game for the E3 show floor, for that summer’s E3. I think that was the piece that really clinched it. They were able to see that we could turn it around really quickly and get it to work on their hardware.

Things moved really quickly from there because they felt confident that the game would be ready on time. That’s the hardest thing when you are launching a platform, you get a lot of commitments but not everybody makes the day one launch because it requires being capable of working with hardware that’s not quite finished and a number of other development issues on both the hardware side and the software side. And then they made an offer that was very good for us. This is the thing, we shipped, I think it was on November 13th, the day of the hardware launch. We actually shipped on 4 platforms at the same time. We shipped on the Xbox 360, the PS3, the PS4 and PC at the same time. The PS4 version was part of a PS Plus deal we had with Sony at the time. The big calculation I had in my head was my goal for the first game of the company was not automatically for us to become millionaires, I wanted to make something I felt proud of and I wanted to establish the reputation of the company. Knowing that Sony was going to put us in every PlayStation 4 booth in America, selling the PlayStation 4 and that people would see our game while they were considering whether to buy a new console was really the big move I wanted to make to say, hey, we’re small but we punch above our weight and we’re part of this exciting new experience that you’ll get if you buy into the PlayStation 4. Those kinds of deals rarely happen well in advance unless you are a very established developer like a Bungie. Really they’re going to look at the game when it’s almost finished and say, “This is good enough, we want it on our platform.”

GS: What changed for you after the release of Contrast?

GP: I think we made some healthy profits on Contrast; not enough to make us millionaires, but enough to keep the company going and allow us to grow. So that has really helped tremendously in stabilizing the company. It also made my life easier, because I spent a lot less time chasing after money on this project than on the last project. I feel like that’s going to be even more the case on the next project. We’ve also got real reinforcement from the fans and the people who have been interested in the game since we showed it for the first time. The first time we showed the game, We Happy Few, was at PAX East. We got a way more enthusiastic response, not that the people weren’t enthusiastic about Contrast, but they were like, “Oh that’s great, its an artsy-cool game.” When we showed We Happy Few for the first time people were like, “Oh my God, I need this now.” That was the first reaction, the second reaction was that it looks like BioShock, which is a bit scary for us because BioShock is a quarter of a billion dollar game made by a team that was quite a bit larger than we have here. So it told me two things: it told me that the game was going to be popular and that people were expecting a bigger game than the one we were making. Those are the two big trends that allowed us to grow and go out a do the Kickstarter campaign, that went super well. Then we signed a deal with Microsoft. We had constant reinforcement that whatever we were doing was going to work, but only if we delivered on the promise that the fans saw in the game. The fans that we met said that they were really interested in the world and that they wanted to dive into it a little bit more. They wanted to know the history of that world and the history of the characters that they were playing. Those are the key points of what people were most excited for, and that takes a larger team and more money, so I went and took that information and got more money.

GS: From the start, it seems that the fans’ reactions really guided We Happy Few.

GP: It caused me to focus more on certain areas of the game that I sensed that the fans really wanted to hear about and that we here were really excited to work on. If I had gone to PAX and gotten a muted response, we might have spent less time on the project, get it in, put it out, and move on to a new project earlier than we did.

GS: Was ‘early access’ always part of the plan with We Happy Few?

GP: It was mostly always part of the plan. When we went to PAX originally, we started giving a couple of keys away. Then we gave more keys away through our Kisckstarter campaign. The process of working with the community, because we share newsletters with the community every week and are very active about telling them what we’re going to do, worked well both for us internally as a team and for people who were following the game. So, we were going to do it anyways with our Kickstarter backers, so we figured it had been a year since our Kickstrater, we went out on early acess and we figured it was a great time for us to just expand the pool to a much larger audience. It keeps us honest, to make sure that we’re going to ship a good game. Yes, we made some money off of it, I don’t know that that was the prime purpose of it. The purpose was, what we’re doing right now is working, let’s do it on a larger scale.

GS: What are some of the benefits of being ‘early access’?

GP: It forces us to regularly ship working versions of the game so we don’t make it to the end of the game and try to fix everything all at once and end up with a clusterfuck that doesn’t quite work. We’ve kept ourselves honest in a way. We also get a lot of feedback from a wide variety of people: gender, age, interests, and geographic locations, about how they feel about the game. I feel that is super important in terms of really understanding what’s working, and what doesn’t work. We have a pretty strong vision internally for the art style, atmosphere, and story we want to tell. I think it’s pretentious to think you are going to get everything right. The community, especially at the size it’s at right now, has really helped us by saying, “Hey, this is really just not working.” They don’t always find the right solutions, but they definitely paint the problems for what they are. I think that’s the key element of assuring that we’re addressing the issues in the game before we get to the final version.

It’s shaped a lot of the gameplay loops that we have and tightened them up. It’s shaped where we put our efforts and focus in the development team. I think those are the two big things that its shaped.

GS: What are some of the downsides to being early access?

GP: Maintaining constant communication with a large number of people makes it harder for us to bunker down and focus on development, and the requirement for us to ship every two months keeps us honest on one side but there are also some inefficiencies that come from it. There are some things we have to finish earlier than we would normally finish it within the development cycle because we need to package it and send it to people to play it. A simple example would be: you make a quest in the game world, you got a robo-voice going, you have to actually go out and cast an actor and record that actor and place the lines before you ship it out to the community for the first time. If it turns out that that quest wasn’t so great after all, you end up ditching that quest and obviously wasting a little bit of money in the process. I think that’s ultimately a fair trade for the engagement that we’re getting with the people.

You know, as much as we like to make a lot of noise, we don’t compete with several hundred thousand angry or excited people. It forces us to plan more carefully what we talk about, when we talk about it, and how we talk about it. There are 27 people here and they get validation every week from thousands of players that are excited about the work they do every week and that’s worth a lot in terms of morale, culture, and pride.

GS: When working on an ‘early access’ game, how do you know when you are done? Do you have a set plan, do you have a date at which point you consider the game done, or is it just sort of nebulous?

GP: If it was just nebulous we’d probably just run out of money. I would say it’s all three in the sense that when we go out in early access we had a good idea of how much money we had at that time but it was more of a wait and see like, okay, how is the community going to react to what were shipping them? That helped us to frame a plan of what we wanted to retake and redo, because it wasn’t good enough. Then there’s a whole bunch of stuff that we had very specific ideas about. What we wanted to put in the story for example. The way I see things is we had a plan before moving to early access of exactly what we were going to work on, and what the set of features and story elements we wanted to put in the game were, and we had a date for finishing that set of features, but we allowed ourselves, after three months, to look at that feedback from the community and change some of those plans in order to make sure that we are addressing the concerns of the community while still building the story we wanted to build. So we have a plan, we have a date, we’re not ready to announce it yet, but we have a date and a budget. But we also allowed those plans and dates to be affected by the results from the community. I think that because we’re very transparent every week about what we are working on, we’ve garnered some good faith with the community. I’m pretty excited about where were going. I’m hoping it’ll be as good as I think it’s going to be in my head. It certainly seems to be heading that way.

GS: Is everyone working on We Happy Few, or have some moved on to your next project?

GP: Absolutely everybody is working on We Happy Few. We’ve had a few discussions internally about what are we good at as a studio and I think that will definitely influence what our next project will be. At this stage, there’s absolutely no one working on anything else than We Happy Few and I honestly don’t see that changing in the next 2 to 3 months.

GS: To backtrack, what were some of the main influences for We Happy Few?

GP: I’m not the only one who comes up with ideas on the team. When we came off of Contrast there were a couple of elements that we considered. Contrast was a game we were very proud of, but because it was a game that was linear in nature and very story oriented, and the main gameplay loop revolved around puzzles, adding hours of extras content or doing DLC or making the game longer was almost as difficult as generating the first hour of gameplay. We had a lot of discussion about how we, as a smaller team, could leverage our strengths to try and create better value and keep punching above our weight. That’s where ideas like procedural world generation came into play and we started to tackle other ways of how we could make our production more efficient. I really wanted to make a dystopia because I was a big fan of the genre in general. I had a lot of discussions with Whitney about, “Hey, what are you going to draw?” Or, “This is what I’m thinking, this is the universe I’m thinking.” Whitney was the person who came on board with the idea of setting the game in 1960’s England because it’s the point in history where the English stopped looking back towards World War II and started looking forward. There was a wave of optimism during that time. There was a bit of form-fitting function, it went well with the society we were trying to create. It takes us a couple of months to figure out how we’re going to build a world, but it’s done through brainstorming where we set the pillars of what we are trying to do. So when we started it was: let’s do a procedurally generated world, let’s build a world that has panache and style. A lot of the procedurally generated worlds we had seen were copy-paste that same grey building over a dirt road and call that a different world. We wanted to create something that had a bit more style. That’s proven to be an ongoing process, it’s complicated to marry the two. Whitney wanted to work in a time period, with architecture, and fashion, in an era that was interesting to her.

We draw a lot of inspiration from books, movies, and sometimes games. I think we take more the inspiration for mechanics and gameplay from games and a little less of contextual story elements from it. When we settled on a time period, we watched English movies—A Clockwork Orange was a big inspiration—but the number of shows that were British from that era were also inspirations. Shows like The Prisoner, the drug called Soma in Brave New World, is one of the elements we looked at for drugs and joy. The whole concept of using drugs to escape a reality and be in denial of the reality people are really in.

GS: Do you avoid drawing on games for narrative inspiration in order to remain more original in the medium?

GP: I think it’s just the creative language that we speak with when were talking about different aspects of game experience we’ve created. It does make it a richer experience if we draw on different mediums for inspiration, but I think there’s more variety in theater and movies to look into for visual expression for a sense of place.

GS: What have you learned from We Happy Few that you will be taking into your next project?

GP: A lot. I have a pretty good idea of where I want us to concentrate our efforts on our next project. I mean, I don’t know if it’ll be a zombie musical on the moon or medieval game. In terms of context, I don’t even want to dive into it just yet because then we’ll all get excited about this new context and place we want to develop and its not the right time for us to do that. The things that I’ve discovered we’re good at, because we’re 27 today—we were 5 when we started this project—our strengths today are not very different from what they were back then but they have changed as a function of new team members coming on board. Yes, there are things we could do a lot better. In terms of world building, we can be creating worlds with more characters. In Contrast, for example, there’s really only you, Didi, and shadows on the walls. Now we’re trying to populate our world with different people and I think we’ve learned a lot of important lessons about AI, character animations and how to create a larger sense of population, more of a dense sense of place. We definitely want to carry that forward to the next game. On every project we’re going to make our fair share of mistakes; so far we’ve been doing all right on this one, we’ve maybe bit off a little more content than we can chew, which we did a course correction on right after we started early access. But I’m confident that the end product will be good.

GS: Do you still consider yourselves ‘indie’?

I think that when Microsoft puts you on the E3 stage, you don’t carry much of an indie label anymore, whatever the reality of that is or not in the eyes of the public. I don’t really care whether people give us an indie label or not.

It’s a matter of perspective, I’ve worked for indie studios for 20 years, but 8 years ago you couldn’t be an indie studio unless you were 60 people. That was the smallest indie you could be. Do I consider myself indie? I consider myself independent, because that’s what we are. There’s no crazy ‘VC Capitol Fund’ in our backyard telling us that smurfs are yellow, not blue. Everything gets decided here, by the people doing the work. To me, we do our own projects, on our own concepts, on our own terms, and we find our own financing for it. So that is what makes us independent. Being indie is really not an important consideration for me. It’s whether people like the games we make, it’s whether they’re excited to see what we’re doing next. I mean, we’re about as indie as Double Fine, we’re about the same size. So if Double Fine is indie, we’re indie. It’s not a label that’s important to us.

[This piece was lightly edited for length and clarity.]

Justinas Staskevicius is a freelance writer based in Montreal, Canada. His stories about antifascists, eSports and benefit concerts have graced publications including Goomba Stomp, GigSoup and CULT MTL

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Game Reviews

‘Life is Strange 2’ Episode 4 Review – “Faith”: A Journey Through Trump’s America

Life is Strange 2 continues its strong trajectory from the previous episode, weaving a complex and troubling tale of faith gone mad.



Life is Strange 2 has returned for its penultimate episode, a dense and troubling exploration of faith, prejudice and family in a time and place that has never been more divided: modern America. Following the events of Life is Strange 2‘s stellar third entryEpisode 4: “Faith” sees Sean attempting to pick up the pieces of his shattered life after Daniel’s violent outburst at Merrill’s farm.

Though the story of Faith” begins in a hospital, with Sean working to recover from his injuries, the trajectory of the tale explores more settings and environments than any previous episode of the series. From wandering the highways of Nevada, to exploring a dusty motel, to sneaking into a remote church, Life is Strange 2‘s 4th entry never lacks for something new to see, or someone new to interact with.

Life is Strange 2
However, the cynical bent of the story is the new centerpiece of Episode 4. Though Life is Strange 2 has never sidestepped the controversy and division of Trump’s America, Faith” leans into these ideas with renewed fervor. Violence is committed more than once against our Mexican protagonist, and his skin color often sees him at odds with the more conservative denizens of the highways he journeys down. In a particularly telling exchange, Sean even finds himself beaten and placed on the other side of a closed compound, with a gun-toting guard glaring at him from the other side. Metaphors don’t really get much clearer than that.

This will, no doubt, lead to more calls of keeping politics out of games and other entertainment by the president’s more ardent supporters, but as other writers have pointed out, gaming has never been apolitical. Further, it would be categorically irresponsible to tell a story like this without addressing the elephant in the room. With these elements in mind, the politics of Life is Strange 2 have never been clearer than in Episode 4: “Faith”, and they account for some of the strongest storytelling fuel the series has found yet.

Life Is Strange 2, Episode 4: Faith
Politics aside, Life is Strange 2 also puts Sean at a variety of other disadvantages. His starting injuries include a lost eye that must be tended to medically throughout the episode, and the various beatings he takes throughout Episode 4 more than leave their mark. This leaves Faith as the typical darkest, and most troubling, episode of this second series, where we find our protagonist at his absolute lowest point, and must continue on with him in hopes of finding a better future. It’s a common enough trope, but one that is used to great effect here.

There are many returns of characters from previous episodes, some through letters and other communications, and others through surprising reveals and revelations. A particularly shocking character joins the story with zero preamble, and emerges as one of Life is Strange 2‘s finest editions yet. To spoil who, or how, would be criminal, but rest assured that Episode 4 is more full of surprises than any of the previous entries.

Life Is Strange 2, Episode 4: Faith
Though the main conflict that eventually reveals itself, that of Daniel being used as a messianic figure for an isolated Nevada church, feels contrived initially, the layers that are eventually revealed, and Daniel’s reason for joining the church, make a lot of sense in the overall scheme of things. Due to this strength of narrative, it really feels like all bets are off during the climax of Life is Strange 2: Episode 4, and that’s a good thing for a game so centered around the notion of interactive storytelling.

Fresh, prescient, and altogether rewarding, Life is Strange 2: Episode 4 — “Faith”, is a welcome piece of fiction in a society that has become so increasingly fragmented. It illustrates the horrors of the modern American landscape, but always remembers to remind us that there are good people out there, even when hope has never seemed so far away.

Strongly Recommended

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I Still Don’t Understand ‘Death Stranding’ (and That’s a Good Thing)

Death Stranding could create an experience unlike any game before it, and while I can’t claim to understand it, I’m certainly excited for it.



It may only be a few months until launch, but Death Stranding remains shrouded in mystery. This first independent project from gaming auteur Hideo Kojima has been an enigma ever since it was first announced. When the world first saw Norman Reedus standing on a foggy shoreline with a weeping fetus in his arms, many questions naturally arose. Why is a celebrity actor cradling an unborn child on a beach? What kind of gameplay could we expect from this? And what does “Death Stranding” even mean, anyway?

Years may have passed since that initial reveal, but in my view at least, these questions still haven’t been fully answered. I simply do not understand Death Stranding. It’s confounded me like few games before it have – and yet, that may be the very best thing about it. There’s something enticing about that mystery. Death Stranding could create an experience unlike any game before it, and while I can’t claim to understand it, I’m certainly excited for it.

Between trailers, interviews, and a fairly hefty amount of gameplay footage, there’s been an increasingly constant stream of information about Death Stranding for over a year now. This is especially true at Gamescom 2019, where the game has had an extensive presence with two full trailers and a live gameplay demonstration. For most games, this extensive amount of coverage should eliminate all the biggest questions, presenting a relatively clear idea of what the final product should be. But consider the content of Death Stranding’s most recent trailers: one consists entirely of an exposition dump about the power and proper maintenance of jarred fetuses, while another opens with Norman Reedus urinating in a field to create a giant mushroom before dropping off a package for Geoff Keighley. Previous trailers show ruined cities overflowing with tar, gold-masked lion monsters, and levitating shadow creatures. If you can make heads or tails of all that, then you’re certainly cleverer than I.

With every new piece of information, I find it more difficult to wrap my head around the game. Even with the few concrete details known about it, Death Stranding continues to defy simple categorization. Although it features stealth elements, it certainly doesn’t seem like another Metal Gear; while it will have a massive open world, it doesn’t look like it will follow in the footsteps of signature modern open worlds like Horizon Zero Dawn or Breath of the Wild; and though it tells a story about reconnecting the broken cities of a post-apocalyptic United States, its mixture of stealth, politics, and the supernatural make it distinct from most other narrative-focused games out there. Each trailer introduces another wrinkle to the perplexing web of Kojima’s latest vision.

It is this very ambiguity that makes Death Stranding so enticing. With most games, it’s easy to understand them based on a quick glance at their trailer alone. This will reveal their genre, their personality, any unique gimmicks – all the usual culprits. But with Death Stranding, the more we learn about it, the more the mystery grows. At this point, it’s even difficult to pin the game into a single genre. Only the most ambitious games manage to create genres of their own, but from what we’ve seen so far, Death Stranding looks like it could be one of them. It could simply be little more than excellent marketing, but knowing that Kojima’s unbridled imagination is behind it, my hopes are high.

Death Stranding

It would make sense for Death Stranding to be so inventive given the circumstances behind its creation. For years, Kojima’s corporate overlords at Konami had stifled his creativity as they moved the company’s focus away from Kojima’s traditional titles like Metal Gear and Silent Hill towards more immediately lucrative pursuits such as mobile platforms and pachinko machines. Now that Kojima has freed himself from those restrictions and formed an independent studio of his own, his vision can run more freely than ever before. It’s to be expected that, finally presented with the opportunity to fully express his vision, he’d do so by creating something truly daring, something never seen before.

Of course, as attractive as the intrigue around Death Stranding may be, it doesn’t change that it’s difficult to really judge a game without knowing much about it at all. With so many important details remaining unspecified, there’s no telling whether Death Stranding will actually achieve its clear ambitions. If I were to view things pessimistically, I’d posit that the game’s ambiguity could be nothing more than an elaborate marketing scheme meant to mask the lackluster game beneath it. While I’m certainly much more optimistic about the game than that, I can’t deny the very real possibility that it could be the case.

But at the end of the day, I simply cannot resist the romantic allure of a game so surrounded by mystery. The core of Death Stranding may be wrapped in an inscrutable fog, but Kojima uses this layer of secrecy to invite players to experience a game that is truly new, an all-too-rare commodity in games today. Kojima hasn’t been free to express his vision so fully for years now, but at long last he has his chance. I cannot comprehend Death Stranding, and that’s exactly why I’m so excited for it.

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‘Daemon X Machina’ – Spotlighting 2019’s Least-Hyped Switch Game

Daemon X Machina made a bold first impression with its bombastic announcement at E3 2018 – and gamers promptly stopped caring about it. It’s time for that to change.



Daemon x Machina

Daemon X Machina made a bold first impression with its bombastic announcement at E3 2018 – and gamers promptly stopped caring about it. It’s time for that to change.

From the very beginning, Daemon X Machina has struggled for attention.  It’s certainly not for lack of trying; after all, Nintendo has worked tirelessly to help promote this Switch-exclusive mech action game from Marvelous, even going so far as to position it as the first announcement of its big E3 Direct last year. Despite these efforts, though, Daemon X Machina has often been lost in the shuffle of other Switch exclusives. When there’s constantly talks of a new Animal Crossing, Zelda, or Smash Bros., an original IP like Daemon X Machina easily gets left out of the conversation. However, there’s no denying that it has some incredible potential, making it a game that’s certainly worth checking out amidst the crowded release schedule for the rest of the year. Now is the time to spotlight that ahead of its launch on September 13.

A good mech game doesn’t need to do much – it must simply provide the player with massive robot suits, near-excessive over-the-top action, and a story to help the game make at least a little sense. Daemon X Machina looks set to deliver in all three of those departments. It will feature a huge amount of flexibility to create the perfect mech, thanks to hundreds of interchangeable weapons and body parts, many of which can be scavenged from fallen enemies. With gargantuan destructible environments and hordes of robotic foes to take down, the combat looks to be as extravagant as some of the best action games of recent years. That’s not to mention the main plot, which focuses on the aftermath of the moon exploding. Yes, it does sound like ridiculous anime-inspired fodder, but a game about giant roots blowing each other out of the sky doesn’t need a plot that adheres to realism. It need only set up a somewhat-reasonable backdrop for intense mechanized combat, and in that regard, it’s looking like a recipe for success.

Daemon X Machina

All these features are great on their own, but what makes them truly exciting is the pedigree behind them. Daemon X Machina is being developed by a dream team of developers who have worked extensively on some of the most iconic mech games ever made. For instance, the team includes Kenichiro Tsukuda and Shoji Kawamori, who respectively produced and designed the mechs for the legendary Armored Core series. This team aims to take the classic formula that made Armored Core and other classics so special and put it back in the spotlight with Daemon X Machina. However, that doesn’t mean that it will be merely derivative. It already displays a distinct personality of its own thanks to its ambitious gameplay concepts (again, exploding moon) and its distinctive cell-shaded visuals. Its striking color palette of bold reds, blacks, and whites shouldn’t be surprising, considering that its art is directed by none other than Yusuke Kozaki, who has worked on such stylish titles as the No More Heroes series.

If it achieves its potential, Daemon X Machina could be a godsend for its genre. While it would be unfair to call the mech action genre “dead,” it is certainly quite niche. This would be the first time in years that a giant robot action game has had the full support of a major company like Nintendo behind it. And while Nintendo has already supported this genre in the past, this will be the first time that it’s done so on a hit console like the Switch, which automatically gives it a wide and passionate audience. Even with its inherent niche status, Daemon X Machina is already in a better position than many similar games before it thanks to its publisher and platform. If it does well, it could inspire Nintendo and other companies to promote similar games, leading to a needed revival of the genre’s popularity.

But this leads to one of the simultaneously best and worst aspects of Daemon x Machina: its demo. Marvelous released an early demo on the Switch eShop back in February with the intention of drumming up interest in the game and getting player feedback. To put it plainly, it wasn’t very good. The action felt unsatisfying with a lack of any feeling of real impact with each blow; it was difficult to aim at enemies due to imprecise targeting systems, poor visibility, and an absence of gyro controls; and worst of all, its performance was horrendous. It was stuck at a mere thirty frames per second, which is already less than ideal for such a fast-paced action game. But it didn’t even manage to hit that target consistently, leading to a choppy and unsatisfying experience. One need only take a quick look through Digital Foundry’s breakdown to understand the demo’s many issues.

Daemon X Machina

“Marvelous did something incredible here: they listened to their fans.”

However, the demo has turned out to be something of a blessing in disguise. Shortly after the demo’s release, Marvelous distributed a survey to many players and requested their feedback. A few months later, Nintendo released a new trailer showing how the feedback had been integrated into the game. The full list of changes reads like a wish list of everything that needed to be adjusted following the demo. Highlights include the addition of gyro controls, improved targeting and feedback systems, and most importantly, an improved framerate. In fact, the developers have stated that performance was one of their “top priorities” when adjusting the game.

Marvelous did something incredible here: they listened to their fans. The fact that they were so open to feedback and eager to improve bodes incredibly well for the final release. They know that the mech action genre isn’t what it used to be, and they seem truly passionate about creating a quality title in the genre they love. In an industry that is so often focused more on emptying players’ wallets than creating a worthwhile title, this attitude is incredibly refreshing, hinting of a project that’s filled with genuine care and passion.

The unfortunate truth remains that Daemon X Machina is bound to be one of Nintendo’s least-hyped games this year. As long as games like Astral Chain, Dragon Quest XI S, and Link’s Awakening are all releasing within the same month, it will almost inevitably remain that way. But there is incredible promise for it nonetheless. With the quality of the game design, the legacy of its creators, and their clear passion for their project, it looks set to become something very special and deserves every bit of attention it can get. If fans can look past the games that typically hog the spotlight to find this bombastic little secret, they could be in for an enthusiastic, if under-hyped revival of a once-dormant genre.

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‘Earthbound’ is one of the Weirdest, Most Surreal Video Games

25 Years later…



Games that Changed Our Lives

The SNES is arguably home to some of the best Japanese role-playing games ever made, but even among such revered company, Earthbound (known as Mother 2 in Japan) stands out as a brilliant satire about growing up and our fears of conformity. It’s anarchy versus conformity, only conformity doesn’t stand a chance.

EarthBound has been often compared to Catcher in the Rye with its complex issues of identity, belonging, loss, connection, and alienation. Blistering, hallucinatory, often brilliant, Earthbound is a one-two punch of social satire and a hilarious ride into the twisted recesses of a boy’s psyche. This often funny, always poignant coming of age tale, deeply embedded in suburban mores, centers around four kids, off to save the planet by collecting melodies while en route to defeating the evil alien force known as Giygas.

didn’t reinvent the wheel, but it sure had fun twisting the usual JRPG tropes. There’s a princess you must rescue, not once, but twice, who’s really just a child prodigy, and there’s an arch nemesis who turns out to be your next-door neighbour. The game puts you in the shoes of a young boy named Ness as he investigates a nearby meteorite crash. There, he learns that Giygas, has enveloped the world in hatred and consequently turned animals, humans, and inanimate objects into dangerous creatures. A bee from the future instructs Ness to collect melodies in a Sound Stone to preemptively stop Giygas from destroying the planet. While visiting eight Sanctuaries, Ness partners with three other kids, a psychic girl (Paula), an eccentric inventor (Jeff), and the prince of the kingdom of Dalaam (Poo). Along the way are underlining themes of corrupt politicians, post-traumatic stress, corporate greed, depression, capitalism, police violence, terrorist attacks, homosexuality, religious cults, and xenophobia. Your adventures take you through modern cities, prehistoric villages, cold winter climates, a desert wasteland, monkey caves, swamps, dinosaur museums, and even a yellow submarine.

“Ness, you’ve stood on the eight power spots of the earth. From these, you created Magicant, the realm of your mind.”

A pivotal moment in the game comes after collecting all eight melodies with the Sound Stone. After Ness has taken control of his Sanctuaries, Ness visits, Magicant, a surreal location that exists only in his mind and contains his warmest memories and his worst fears – an allegory perhaps, for how the entire game allows us to see into the mind of the creator. There, Ness must face his dark side. A man tells him, “Magicant is a place where you must cleanse yourself of the evil hidden within your mind. Take the time to look around, it is your mind after all.”

EarthBound is arguably one of the single best RPGs ever made, and boasts one of the best storylines of any game.

The tone of Earthbound is perhaps its most fascinating attribute, best exemplified by its most famous quote: “There are many difficult times ahead, but you must keep your sense of humor.” Earthbound skillfully surprises you with a reservoir of emotion and sentiment that happily counters the game’s trendy ironic veneer. Along the way, Ness visits the cultists of Happy Happy Village (based on a real-life Japanese doomsday cult founded by Shoko Asahara in 1984); their mission statement is to paint the town red by literally painting it blue. You’ll fight a watchful puddle of vomit and battle through the zombie-infested town of Threed. You’ll use a peculiar device called the Pencil Eraser to remove statues of pencils that block you from advancing through specific areas, and you’ll suffer through terrifying hallucinations of your family and friends, and be asked to dismember your arms and legs, or otherwise, lose your mind. In one of the game’s most memorable moments, Paula is kidnapped by the Department Store Spook, an unseen entity that resides in the town’s shopping mall. And after defeating Frank Fly and his evil creation Frankystein Mark II, you’ll be escorted to the back of a police precinct, only to be assaulted by four officers and Captain Strong, the chief of the Onett police force. Defeat the corrupt cops and you’ll gain access to the second town you’ll visit (named TWOson, so as not to be confused with Onett, Threed, and Fourside). And when entering a cave, you’ll battle five moles made up of members who each believe themselves to be the third-most powerful of their group. Then there is backwards city Moonside, a warped mirror image of Fourside, that hides a secret more terrifying than the town itself. Just walking around feels like something between an out-of-body experience and a nightmarish trance, in which abstract art attacks you and the psychedelic imagery, lit by gaudy fluorescent neon-lights which contrasts the entire look and feel of what came before. It’s a city where yes means no and no means yes; a place where blond-haired business men teleport you across the city blocks and where an invisible man with a unibrow and a gold tooth gets you past the sketchy sailor hiding out in the back alley.

Throughout the game, Ness is repeatedly antagonized by his neighbor, Pokey, who resurfaces several times, and countless other enemies including Titanic Ant, professional thief Mr. Everdred, and a glorious evil statue Mani, Mani. But the real big bad of the game is the aforementioned Giygas, a.k.a. The “Embodiment of Evil” and the “Universal Cosmic Destroyer”, who intends to sentence all of reality to the horror of infinite darkness. Giygas borrows heavily from Stephen King’s It and was inspired by a murder scene from the black-and-white Japanese horror film The Military Policeman and the Dismembered Beautya sequence which scarred creator Shigesato Itoi, when he accidentally watched the film as a child. Giygas is without question, the most disturbing, and strangest end-boss villain of any Super NES game – a character so deranged, there’s been hundreds of fan theories about what he really is.

While EarthBound’s overall gameplay feels like a traditional Japanese RPG of the era, the game is full of ingenious ideas that buck genre trends. EarthBound also makes no apologies for being very difficult to complete. It takes days to finish and is most challenging at the beginning when Ness travels alone and hasn’t yet powered-up. Inventory space remains incredibly limited since each character can only carry a certain amount of items and you can’t drop many of the items since they will come in handy later in the game. Boosting your XP is a must, otherwise, you won’t stand a chance in defeating any boss; and currency is also important when buying new weapons or visiting the hospital to attend to fatal injuries. Money must be withdrawn from the nearest ATM, deposited by your estranged father, and a bedtime snack from your loving mother sends you off to bed to recharge your stats. There are other refreshing deviations from RPG tropes, and every one of the four characters has a specific skill-set.

Earthbound is a strange game, themed around an idiosyncratic portrayal of American culture from a Japanese point of view. The game subverted popular role-playing game traditions by featuring a real-world setting while playing with various staples of the genre and adding a number of pop-culture references throughout. The Japanese title was inspired by the song of the same name by John Lennon – a song about growing up without a father for most of his life, and unsurprising, Ness’ dad is never once seen, and only communicates with his son via telephone. And that’s not the only Beatles reference you’ll see: EarthBound makes two additional nods to the world’s greatest band, along with allusions to Bugs Bunny, comedian Benny Hill, Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap, the Blues Brothers, Monopoly (Monotoli), Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Rambo, Mr. T, and The Who, to name a few. Written, directed, and created by famous Japanese personality Shigesato Itoi; this is surely his love letter to 20th-century Americana.

Localizing Earthbound was a massive undertaking. Under directives from Nintendo, Marcus Lindblom worked with the Japanese artists and programmers to remove references to intellectual property, religion, and alcohol from the American release, such as the Coca-Cola logo and the red crosses on hospitals (due to issues with the Red Cross). Alcohol became coffee, Ness was no longer walking around nude in the Magicant area and the Happy Happyist blue cultists sprites were altered to look less like Ku Klux Klansmen. The Runaway Five members’ outfits were changed to make them look less like the Blues Brothers, and the “Sky Walker” was changed to the “Sky Runner” to avoid the Star Wars reference. Apollo Theater was changed to Topolla Theater, presumably to avoid issues with the real-life venue and the use of the word drug, seen on the various town maps was removed or changed. The list goes on and on…

Chock full of odd charm and humour in a genre that usually takes itself a little too serious, Earthbound is one of the weirdest, most surreal video games you’ll ever have fun playing.


The game had a lengthy development spanning five years and involved a number of Japanese luminaries, including writer Shigesato Itoi, songwriter Keiichi Suzuki, sound designer Hirokazu Tanaka, and future Nintendo president Satoru Iwata. Released in a huge box-set that contained a strategy guide with scratch-and-sniff stickers, Earthbound came with a $2 million marketing campaign derived from the game’s unusual brand of humor. As part of Nintendo’s “Play It Loud” campaign, EarthBound’s tagline read, “this game stinks.” Earthbound was proud to one of the most bizarre RPGs – and it didn’t shy away from its offbeat premise. Unfortunately, the game was met with poor critical response and sales in the United States, but as the years went by, the game received wide acclaim and was deemed by many a timeless classic. It has since become one of the most sought-after games in the second-hand market, selling for upwards of $80 for the cartridge alone. Holding onto an incredibly dedicated cult following, the main character Ness became a featured character in the Super Smash Bros. series and in 2013, EarthBound was reissued and given a worldwide release for the Wii U Virtual Console following many years of fan lobbying.

EarthBound is arguably one of the single best RPGs ever made, and boasts one of the best storylines of any game. There are two extremely popular fan-made sites dedicated to the game (Starmen.netEarthboundCentral), and dozens of other sites have devoted countless hours in translating the sequel for English-speaking audiences. Earthbound was ahead of its time when released and its influence continues to be felt, inspiring the likes of Pokemon, Animal Crossing, Majora’s Mask, Chibi Robo, Retro City Rampage, and South Park: The Stick of Truth.

While Earthbound’s game mechanics stick to the traditional JRPG template, its surreal world, imaginative locals, and experimental soundtrack created a truly unique experience. Nothing stands out quite like its visual style – an 8-bit presentation powered by a 16-bit processor. The graphics might not be as advanced as some of the other 16-bit titles available on the SNES, but it is certainly among the most memorable. The SNES was home to some amazing soundtracks, but EarthBound’s soundtrack remains the best. Created by four composers, there’s enough music here to fill 8 of the 24 megabits on the cartridge – with direct musical quotations of classical tune and folk music, and a few samples culled from commercial pop and rock. It also contains one of the very best endings in any video game, a touching climax that captures the vulnerability and beauty of adolescence and the power of friendship. And the punctuation mark comes during the credits. Throughout the game, you’ll cross paths several times with a photographer who descends from the sky and snaps a photograph of your most recent achievement. These pictures will roll throughout the credits, serving as a makeshift montage of your time spent playing the game. And be sure to stay until the very end. To say more would be giving away the surprise.

I can’t think of another game as irreverently comic and deeply touching as Earthbound. Here is a game that resonates long after completion, and oozes originality in just about every frame. Ness may rock his sweet ball cap, handy backpack, telekinetic powers, and a trusty baseball bat, but even this hero needs to call his mom regularly, otherwise, he may suddenly find himself useless in battle. Earthbound stands, sweet and strong, outrageous and quirky, like its heroes — it’s about the loss of innocence as well as gaining wisdom – and is one of those treasures absolutely not to be missed. While it suffers from a slow start and stretched premise, the charm of its cast debunking an intergalactic conspiracy goes a long way. Of all the games I own on the Super NES, Earthbound is the game I treasure the most and the game that made me fall in love with the medium.

– Ricky D


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Indie World 2019: The Best Games From Nintendo’s Showcase

With a healthy mix of brand new titles and a few shocking ports, here’s all the best games announced at Nintendo’s Indie World showcase.



Indie World

Whenever Nintendo announces another indie presentation, it’s impossible to know what to expect. One may be a fairly low-key event, while another might announce a brand new Zelda game. The latest “Indie World” presentation for Gamescom 2019 found itself somewhere in the middle. It didn’t feature quite as many earth shattering reveals as the previous presentation in March, but with a healthy mix of promising new titles, updates on previously announced games, and a few shocking ports, Indie World was a worthwhile showcase in its own right. Without further ado, here’s some of the very best game announcements from the presentation, arranged in order of their appearance.


Indie World

I’m firmly of the belief that you can never have too many Zelda-likes in your life. For this reason alone, Eastward looks like it could be an exciting addition to the Switch’s indie lineup. Better yet, this latest Chuckelfish-published game looks like it has all the makings of a great entry in the genre.

It tells a simple story: a miner finds a young girl alone in a secret underground facility, and together, they go on to explore a post-apocalyptic land. Although this world has been apparently ravaged by a cataclysmic disaster, it still looks gorgeous thanks to its lush pixel art and fluid character animations. Pair this with your typical Zelda-like gameplay loop of overworld exploration and dungeon puzzle-solving, and Eastward looks like it will be a promising prospect when it releases next year.

The Touryst

Indie World

Shin’en Multimedia has long been known for making some of the best-looking titles on Nintendo consoles with visual stunners like the Fast Racing series. However, The Touryst is a departure from the games they’re known for. While it’s just as breathtaking as their previous work with its beautiful lighting and voxel-based design, it’ll be a much slower experience than Shin’en’s signature lightning-fast racing games.

As its name would suggest, it focuses on a tourist taking a relaxing tropical vacation, whiling away their time with activities like shopping, scuba diving, and visiting arcades. However, the trailer also hints of a greater mystery lurking beneath this laid-back surface. With Zelda-like dungeons to explore and puzzles to solve as well as a contemporary tropical setting, it seems like it could be considered a spiritual successor to the NES cult classic, StarTropics. It should definitely be one to keep an eye on when it launches this November.


Who’s the real monster here? Röki is a narrative-focused adventure game set in a world taken straight out of Scandinavian fairytales, featuring a snow-laden forest inhabited by fantastical creatures of Nordic mythology.  It puts players in control of a young woman exploring this mystical environment, with the goal of saving her family and interacting with these various monsters. Its visuals adopt a beautiful storybook style, and with its emphasis on accessible gameplay and telling a touching story, it looks like it could be a worthwhile purchase for anyone in search of a more poignant adventure when it hits Switch this winter.


Indie World

It’s not a true Nintendo presentation without a shadow drop or two, so SUPERHOT took it upon itself to be the first to fill that void during Indie World. It’s a striking shooter built upon one simple concept: time only moves when you do. This core idea creates a uniquely methodical approach to the genre, nearly turning SUPERHOT into more of a puzzler than a shooter. It’s already made quite an impact on other platforms, so it should fit right in on Nintendo’s hybrid wonder – and best of all, it’s available right now.

Hotline Miami Collection

Indie World

If it has style, action, and plenty of violence, it’s probably a Devolver Digital game. The boutique indie publisher has supported the Switch with plenty of quality games over the past few years, but the brutal series that launched the publisher into fame in the first place has been strangely absent. Thankfully, that changed today with the surprise release of the Hotline Miami Collection on the eShop.

Gathering both games in the iconic Hotline Miami top-down shooter series into a single package, this release brings all of their signature hardcore difficulty and neon style to a Nintendo platform for the first time. For anyone who’s enjoyed Devolver’s fantastic output thus far on the Switch but hasn’t yet experienced these famously bloody titles, it should be an excellent purchase.

Ori and the Blind Forest

Microsoft’s surreal love affair with Nintendo continues with the reveal that another Xbox One console exclusive will be making its way to Switch. Ori and the Blind Forest: Definitive Edition is the ultimate version of the acclaimed artistic platformer. It will feature the same beautiful visuals, detailed world, and touching story that made the original release so special, along with all the additional areas, story, and improvements of the Definitive Edition.

For those concerned that the game’s incredible visuals will lose their luster on Nintendo’s under-powered device, there’s no need to worry: the developers have confirmed that the Switch version contains no compromises, running at a locked 60 frames per second at 1080p resolution while docked, with a native 720p resolution in handheld mode. It joins the ranks of Cuphead and Super Lucky’s Tale as yet another former Microsoft exclusive to appear on Nintendo’s console, and with its uncompromising conversion to Switch, it should be one of the most remarkable Switch ports yet when it releases on September 27.

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