How India’s E-sports Industry Rose From the Ashes of an Elaborate Scam

The piece below is an article I wrote for The Daily Telegraph India, and probably the one I’m most proud of from my time there. It’s a feature-length article about the history of India’s e-sports scene, and where it’s headed in the future. I hope everyone reads the whole thing as a lot of research, planning and interviews went into this piece! Thanks for reading as always and enjoy 🙂

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The e-sports industry has a turbulent history in India, but stands poised on the brink of change in 2018. Stuart Wood takes a look at the scene’s past, present and future, and speaks to the people at its forefront.

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E-sports – the competitive, high-level play of video games – is one of the fastest growing industries in the world. In 2017, it generated $1.5 billion in revenue, far exceeding all expectations. At The International 2017, a DOTA 2 tournament held in August, players competed for $24 million in prize money, while 92 million people watched online. From this perspective, it’s not hard to see why retail giant Amazon paid $1 billion in 2014 to acquire Twitch, the online streaming service which broadcasts e-sports events, and which all those millions of people were tuned in to.

E-sports’ rise has been meteoric in the last ten years.  What started as a collection of small, competitive scenes has since become a cultural phenomenon and billion dollar industry which offers lucrative full-time careers to players, broadcasters and event organizers. E-sports has celebrities, villains, scandals, stories of success and failure, plenty of high drama and, best of all, it can be viewed online free of charge. Just as importantly, it has helped legitimize gaming as a hobby, and tackle the cultural stigma which still surrounds it in some areas of the world.

What games are we talking about when we use the phrase ‘e-sports’? Primarily, games that feature in large scale tournaments are MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena), or RTS (Real Time Strategy). Both are, in effect, top down strategy games in which two highly-trained teams compete against each other to control territory and dominate their opponents. Other genres which feature heavily in big tournaments are first-person shooters such as Counter Strike: Global Offensive and Overwatch, as well as one-on-one fighting games like Street Fighter 5 and Super Smash Bros Melee.

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For as much variety, passion and market potential as there is under the e-sports banner, the industry is still in its early stages in India. The reasons for this are many: firstly, despite being home to a population of 1.3 billion, only 462 million people are connected to the internet. Of these, many are connected via phone as expensive computer equipment is considered a ‘luxury good’, and often has to be imported from outside the country. In addition, internet speeds are not as fast as those in the west, reaching only 60ms compared to 10ms in Europe and North America, which can present problems for games that require quick reflexes and reactions.

But things are changing. The e-sports scene in India is beginning to catch on, and several high profile events have emerged following the foundation of a group called Nodwin Gaming. Nodwin have partnered with ESL, the worlds largest e-sports league, to provide the ESL India Premiership, and its 2018 incarnation is offering a prize pool of 1 crore – the largest India has seen to date. It’s a far cry from previous attempts to kickstart e-sports in India, none of which reached the level of success and exposure needed to sustain the industry.

A brief history of e-sports in India

2000 – The first coming of e-sports in India is in the year 2000, when the country competes in the World Cyber Games. The event generates initial interest in the scene, but popularity wanes soon afterwards.
2005 – Online gaming begins to take off in India around the mid-2000s, when the spread of Facebook and social media brings gaming to a larger audience. Until this point, online gaming was a niche hobby and small market, owing to the cost of consoles and PCs.
2005/6 – Gaming website Zapak.com, a subsidiary of Reliance ADAG, launches a series of gaming cafes around India, where games such as FIFA, DOTA 1 and Counter Strike 1.6 can be played. The venture proves unsuccessful and fails to catch on.
2007 – The E-sports Federation of India is established, aiming to promote, represent and regulate the e-sports scene in India.
2008 – Indian Inferno, India’s first professional gaming team, launches in Mumbai.
2013 – Nodwin Gaming is established.
2018 – India’s first televised e-sports league, U Cypher, launches on MTV India.

The Scam That Started an Industry

The story of Nodwin Gaming’s foundation is one that begins with a carnival. The India Gaming Carnival, specifically – hosted in 2012 by a group called WTF Eventz, and billed as “India’s largest gaming & electronics expo”. WTF Eventz was a company set up just months before the event was due to take place, and they claimed to be offering India’s largest ever prize pool of 1.5 crore. They also claimed that they had received 4 crore in funding from two Indian companies named GenNext and NSR Construction.

Canny users of Indian tech site erodov.com, however, noticed that these so-called sponsors listed the very same address and phone number as WTF Eventz, and also that WTF listed a starting capital of just 1 lakh – not even close to enough to fund an event on this scale. The India Gaming Carnival went ahead, but it was a shambles: the entire first day was cancelled, the electricity was shut off before League of Legends finals were played, and winners were not awarded any prize money. Attendees went through an arduous process to try and get their expensive tickets refunded.

Nodwin founder Akshat Rathee calls it “a disaster”, and it was the impetus for him to set up his company: “I set up Nodwin Gaming after the India Gaming Carnival, to show there was more to e-sports in India. We had to rebuild the gaming scene.” In the half a decade since, Nodwin and the e-sports industry have gone from strength to strength, forging links with publishers and advertisers, and staging larger and larger events to bigger audiences. “We now have one million daily players of DOTA 2 and Counter Strike: Global Offensive in India”, he says.

That growth has attracted the interest of investors from within India’s game industry, as well as further afield. Nazara Technologies, one of India’s biggest mobile game publishers, acquired a majority stake in Nodwin in January of this year. It is part of their plan, announced February 2017, to invest $20 million into India’s e-sports scene over a period of five years. “We need to build the ecosystem for e-sports in India”, says Manish Agarwal, CEO of Nazara. “The foundation is there, and the infrastructure is improving. We just need imagination.”

Nazara have plans for the creation of an online content platform, a professional league, and a network of pro teams entirely supported by the company. Agarwal says they are also working on the infrastructure around the scene, setting up faster servers with better internet connection speeds, and investing in local game development talent: “We want more games that are made by Indians for Indian audiences – to build the scene from the bottom up, not the top down.”

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A Portable Future

The key to capturing that audience might lie in a corner of the e-sports industry which has been under-explored in the west – competitive mobile gaming. Both Rathee and Agarwal believe that India’s mobile market has enormous potential to grow, and that the scene is still waiting for one game to reach widespread success and unify the playerbase. Cricket games like Real Cricket 17 and World Cricket Championship 2 have been downloaded millions of times on Indian app stores, but none has proved a runaway winner just yet.

The success in China and Korea of Tencent’s Arena of Valor, ostensibly a League of Legends clone for mobile, proves that the potential is there. And Rathee envisions that India could host a different type of competition for games like these: “Perhaps we will see big events that are less like Counter Strike or DOTA and more like the Tour De France, with players competing side by side in heats until only the best remain.” Competitive mobile games have already had some exposure in India: ESL India Premiership hosts Supercell’s Clash Royale, a spinoff of the enormously popular Clash of Clans. And Real Cricket 17, developed by Nautilus Mobile, featured in a significant Indian tournament which recently concluded.

U Cypher is India’s first televised e-sports league, and has been broadcasting on MTV India through January and February of 2018. It features six teams of fourteen players, all competing in four games: Real Cricket 17, DOTA 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Tekken 7. Teams are awarded points for each game, and place on a league table after each matchup. E-sports’ arrival on mainstream television – especially with the lavish production values boasted by U Cypher – is a sign of the times in India, and sure to spread the scene even further across the country.

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Rathee and Agarwal both agree that the future of competitive gaming is incredibly bright in India. They describe the industry in its current form as a ‘blank slate’ on which early adopters are staking their claim. As exposure to e-sports grows, so too does the infrastructure surrounding it, and the culture of fans and players that allow it to thrive. Rathee says that this, in the end, is the most important thing: “E-sports is about the community. To survive it needs heroes, and it needs stories.” We can only hope these stories are as compelling as that of the Indian e-sports industry itself – one with a turbulent history, but an incredibly promising future.

GAME REVIEW: Sonic Mania (Headcannon & PagodaWest Games, 2017)

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Sonic Mania is a game that understands the appeal of the Sonic series better than almost every game that it has produced in the last twenty years. What Sega seems to have missed is that Sonic was never really about platforming, or about the grating, two-dimensional furry-bait characters – those early Megadrive classics were more like moving pinball machines, at their best in the moments where you were almost in control of a rapidly moving object.

The level design in Sonic Mania nails this feeling, and is by far the game’s greatest strength. Each stage is full of clever contraptions that launch Sonic around at high speed – my personal favourite being the enormous moving gun that Sonic loads himself into like a bullet in the Mirage Saloon Zone.

Act 2 of each stage cleverly subverts the mechanics introduced in act 1: in the Oil Ocean Zone, for example, act 1 introduces pools of oozing oil that you can jump into and use as ladders, while act 2 grants you the fireball powerup, causing every pool of oil you jump in to burst into an enormous sea of spectacular pixellated flames, which slowly drain your rings.

On top of that, the multiple pathways of each stage interweave in some very clever ways, and are full of hidden secrets that reward exploration. At their best, Sonic Mania’s levels feel like a series of tightly wound contraptions intended to get you from A to B as fast as possible, while at the same time being littered with distractions that tempt you to slow things down.

Visually, the game looks a treat – the colourful presentation and high FPS all contribute to the sensory overload which classic Sonic depends on, as does the fantastic music. The developers have captured the look and feel of these games to a tee, but bring enough of their own ideas to stop it being a pure nostalgia trip.

But there are some aspects of Sonic Mania which hew too closely to the design of the original games. Things which are in fact so fucking frustrating they make me question whether I see the original three games with rose-tinted glasses.

First of all is the bosses. The bosses in Sonic Mania fluctuate wildly in difficulty, from insultingly easy (the Eggman sub in Hydrocity Zone) to stupidly difficult (the robot spider in Studiopolis zone). Often I felt that it wasn’t at all clear what I was supposed to actually do in these fights, and even when it was I still felt that the slow, floaty imprecision of Sonic’s jump was not at all suited to combat in a game of this pace.

My second problem is with rings. Rings are a bullshit system for health. The random angles at which they fly away from you after getting hit was a source of endless frustration for me while playing through Sonic Mania. If you get hit at any point while standing beside a wall or other impassable object, there is a high chance that all your rings will clip out of bounds, and be impossible to recover.

In several difficult boss fights which force you into one corner of the screen, I just felt plain cheated when I lost all the rings I had accrued throughout the stage in this way. And in almost every case, boss fights descended into a crude game of ‘get hit, scramble for the one ring I can keep hold of, and use the very lenient period of invincibility to damage you’.

After one particularly difficult boss fight caused me two or three game overs for the reasons described above, I decided to change tack. I replayed act 1 and 2 of the stage, carefully collecting 100 rings until I acquired a couple of extra lives, to give me a bit of a cushion. I was just approaching the boss, feeling prepared and ready to go, when – bang. I died to the timer, which apparently kills you if you spend any longer than ten minutes in one stage.

I turned the game off right then and there. Fuck that. I felt like I was being punished for not playing the game fast, but if Sonic Mania is a game meant to be played recklessly, then why the equally punishing and difficult boss fights?

It felt indicative of a contradiction at the heart of Sonic Mania, and one that might be at the heart of the Sonic franchise as a whole. These are games that revel in the thrill of moving at a speed beyond control, but their difficulty and structure often ask for a level of precision completely at odds with that. Ultimately, the many ways in which Sonic Mania successfully revitalizes the series only serve to highlight these frustrating inconsistencies.

7.3/10

GAME REVIEW: Boxboy! (HAL Laboratory, 2015)

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A simple idea polished to perfection from a developer with a strong pedigree. Boxboy! is not a revolutionary puzzler, but a very cleverly designed game with plenty of ideas which moves along at a breezy pace. Creating and manipulating boxes is a simple bit intuitive mechanic which conceals more depth than is at first apparent, and HAL build upon these ideas very smartly, with each new world offering up a different type of environmental hazard in a thirty-minute chunk of gameplay.

Having said that, though, I found myself waiting most of the game’s length for HAL to start combining these ideas together and making some really ambitious levels. It isn’t until the very end of the game (and the post-ending puzzles) that all your acquired skills will be put to the test, and its quite possible that many players will miss out on worlds 18-22, which are easily the best in the entire game.

In these stages, you’ll frequently have to think outside the box (couldnt resist, sorry) to traverse some really tricky combos of sticky blocks, moving blocks, falling platforms, portals, lasers, switches, and all manner of obstacles. The final two worlds even grant you the ability to place two sets of blocks at once, as well as access to a costume that doubles your jump height, both of which are slightly game-breaking, but feel like just rewards for having made it all the way to the end.

Time attack and score attack modes are a nice little change of pace, even if many of the other purchasable goodies in the shop are fairly useless. The ‘hint’ system, on the other hand, is more of just a ‘give me the answer’ button and strikes me as a lazy concession to accessibility.

Still, Boxboy! is an exceptionally tidy puzzle platformer that knows where it’s strengths lie, conceling a surprising level of complexity behind its simple but effective art style. Although it’s a shame so much of its best content comes right at the end, Boxboy! is thoroughly worth seeing through to the conclusion of its generous 12-hour runtime, especially given its paltry £3 pricetag.

8.4/10

In Pursuit of Knowledge: Jonathan Blow’s The Witness

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“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves like locked doors or books written in a very foreign tongue” – Rainer Maria Rilke

 

About five hours in to Jonathan Blow’s mysterious & cerebral puzzle game The Witness, I had an epiphany. I was picking my way through an abandoned town, full of wild grass and running wires, when I stumbled across a shipping container. It was situated in the centre of a crumbling building, about twenty metres or so from the shoreline of the island upon which the game takes place. On the locked door of this shipping container was a maze, much like all the puzzles that make up The Witness, which was populated by colourful symbols I had never seen before.

I spent a couple of minutes playing around with the puzzle, but eventually decided to leave it and come back later, sure that The Witness would teach me these new pieces of logic when it wanted me to open the door. Sure enough, two or three hours later, I was wandering aimlessly through a swamp when I came across a series of panels which gradually explained (without a single word) how I could trace around yellow blocks to create shapes, and thus find the solution to the maze.

Armed with this new piece of information, I returned to the mysterious shipping container. I solved the tricky puzzle on its door with a fist-pump of triumph, and the door slowly creaked open with a satisfying electrical fizz. But what was inside? Ten pieces of gold? A new shield? A DLC discount?

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No. Inside the shipping container was, of course, nothing but another puzzle. But not just another puzzle – another lesson. The panel innocuously thrown on the floor of the container was a simplified form of yet another mysterious set of symbols I’d seen elsewhere, and by solving it I moved one small step closer to understanding the endless mysteries of the island.

It was at this moment that I realized the utter brilliance of The Witness. This is a game which rewards learning with lessons, a game that is about nothing but the pure pursuit of knowledge, and uses that knowledge alone to gate the player’s progress through its twenty-plus hour runtime. There are no powerups or extra abilities in The Witness. Every bit of progress you make is as a direct result of understanding the rules and logic of the island, and your only reward for this task is the pleasure derived in doing so.

A craftily hidden puzzle on one corner of the island might, upon solving, unlock something in your brain which sends you rushing to its complete opposite end, finally understanding what that weird pyramid-shaped symbol means. And having solved that, you might gain a clue as to what that purple hexagon-shaped thing you encountered three hours ago was trying to ask of you.

The Witness’ gently unfurling structure is truly organic, able to be approached from any angle and at any time. It actively encourages you to leave puzzles you don’t understand and go exploring – the entire town, in fact, which you’ll encounter as probably the third or fourth area of the game, cannot be completed until you understand the rules of all ten other areas, but you won’t know that until you’ve spent some time playing around there.

And what a sense of freedom there is in not knowing, especially in the puzzle genre, which has been in thrall to Portal’s linear test chambers for almost a decade now. Too many devs have borrowed these closed-off, pristine white stages as a means of lazily gating the player to the next puzzle, while making no effort to hide the designer’s hand. The Witness’ crowning achievement and prime innovation is the way it makes its whole world into one enormous interconnected puzzle, then simply sets you free to roam.

And it is such a joy to roam. The Witness’ island is a gorgeous microcosm of the Earth, ranging from arid desert to autumnal woodland and marshy swamps in a dense space that can be traversed within minutes. There are bunkers, castles, temples, shipwrecks, and more secrets than I could begin to count crammed into every inch of geography. Everything in The Witness has a purpose, and one of the great joys of playing it is having your brain slowly rewired to see that purpose everywhere.

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All of this conditioning and learning comes to a head in The Mountain, the game’s final area, which is so challenging it becomes as much about the desperation of unknowing as it is about the cerebral thrill of discovery and understanding. These last puzzles will force you to confront seeming impossibility in order to overcome it – an idea expressed with consummate elegance by an audiolog near the beginning of the area. For anyone who was tempted to commit the ultimate puzzle game sin at this stage and refer to a walkthrough, Blow imparts these words of wisdom:

“Therefore I thank you, my God – because you make it clear to me that there is no other way of approaching you except that which to all humans, even to the most learned philosophers, seems wholly inaccessible and impossible. For you have shown me that you cannot be seen elsewhere than where impossibility confronts and obstructs me…if, therefore, impossibility is a necessity in your sight, oh Lord, there is nothing your sight does not see” – Nicholas of Cusa, 1453

And sure enough, these brain-melting final puzzles become the most transcendent in the entire game, a gauntlet that push your acquired knowledge and wits to the absolute limit, but feel truly enlightening to solve. The game’s penultimate puzzle had me cutting out and drawing over multiple post-it notes to figure an answer, and when I finally solved it I felt such a flash of elation that I jumped out of my chair.

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There are very few games with the power to instil this emotion, but The Witness achieves it. Jonathan Blow has created a game that constantly forces the player to re-evaluate what they are capable of, to undertake sublimely daunting leaps of logic, and to luxuriate in the complete satisfaction of natural human curiosity. Only the most masterful game designers can teach without words, but Blow has complete trust in and respect for the player’s ability to learn, and it is this that sets his game apart.

Cerebral as philosophy, meticulous as science, but so wildly creative it could be nothing but a work of art – The Witness is the greatest puzzle game of them all, and perhaps the most intelligent video game I have ever played. It is the sort of game that seeps deeply into your psyche, and will have you mentally tracing circle mazes in satellite dishes, roundabouts and road signs. A game that you will not be able to stop thinking about, long after having put it down.

And as for that gorgeous, mysterious ending sequence? Well, whatever interpretation you take from it will be the right one. If there is one lesson The Witness teaches above all else, it is this: the pursuit of knowledge is, in the end, not about the answer, but about learning to ask the right questions.

GAME REVIEW: Dishonored 2 (Arkane Studios, 2016)

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It isn’t uncommon in the world of video games for the second entry in a franchise to be its best. When a developer has time to iterate upon a new and exciting idea, but before the inspiration becomes a formula – that’s where the best results are often found. We saw it time and time again last generation: Uncharted 2, Assassin’s Creed 2, Dark Souls, Mass Effect 2…

Dishonored, on the other hand, felt like it arrived fully formed. Its emergent blend of stealth, FPS and Deus-Ex style sim gameplay was inspired, letting the player loose in a series of branching levels which could be tackled from any conceivable angle. It was my favourite game of 2012, and I would have been perfectly content with a sequel that just gave me more of it.

Which is, on a first impression, what I thought I was getting from Dishonored 2. The setup to Arkane’s sequel is very similar to that of the original and struck me as a bit unimaginative, while it’s opening levels felt like more of the same – not that that was necessarily a bad thing. That was, however, until I reached the Clockwork Mansion in Dishonored 2’s fourth mission.

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The house belongs to inventor and technician Kirin Jindosh, and at the touch of a button will completely reform itself into a new layout. Huge cogs and wheels will pull the floor from beneath your feet, or strip out a wall and turn it into the ceiling. As the level is transforming around you, you can use your Farreach or Blink powers to slip between the cracks, and thus see it from the inside out, rather like the trick Valve pulled in the second half of Portal.

It’s an inspired piece of level design, and indicative of what makes Dishonored 2 such a fantastic sequel. It chooses to leave the excellent framework of the first game largely intact, and opts against stuffing in more gameplay gimmicks or hours of playtime. Instead, it focuses on increasingly daring and creative individual moments, expanding sideways with some truly unforgettable missions.

The sixth mission, for example, finds the player in the Dust District, and tasks them with breaking into the manor of a gentleman named Aramis Stilton. The door to Stilton’s mansion is locked, and to open it you have three options. Either of two warring factions in the area will provide you with the door code if you kill the opposition leader. Or, you can sit down and solve an absolutely fiendish logic puzzle called the Jindosh Riddle, which will provide you with the door code and let you skip the entire stage.

Again – what an utterly brilliant, brave idea that is. The perfect expression of the game’s ‘play your way’ philosophy, letting you choose to tackle the level with brainpower, stealth or just pure aggression. It took me over an hour to solve the Jindosh Riddle (which is procedurally generated, by the way, so can’t be easily cheated using the internet), but when I finally did, it provided one of the game’s most satisfying moments.

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There are others moments just as brilliant which I don’t want to spoil in this review, including the seventh mission which is possibly the best of them all. Suffice it to say that Dishonored 2 never wants for inspired set pieces and labyrinthine playgrounds to set the player loose in.

I have to say, though, that I did find the new powers for Emily (one of two playable characters) a bit lacking compared to those of the first game. Farreach and Domino are the exception, the former feeling like a more visceral version of Dishonored’s Blink, and the latter allowing you to chain two or more enemies together so they share the same fate. This one will truly push your capacity for creatively murdering people.

But then there is Dark Vision, which is a fairly bog-standard ‘stealth vision’ like those found in most modern stealth games, as well as Mesmerize and Doppelganger, both of which serve a fairly similar decoy purpose. Shadow Walk is fun, allowing you to temporarily become a ghostly shadow-creature which guards struggle to see, but many of these powers feel lacking in the ways they can combine with each other, which is what made those like Possession from Dishonored so special.

The art direction of Dishonored 2, however, is consistently brilliant. Characters, environments, weapons and powers all look and feel incredible, with some particularly gorgeous views and interiors to be found towards the end of the game. The attention to detail in the character design, too, makes the people you’re tasked with assassinating much more real, and much more fun to hunt.

All in all, Dishonored 2 is a fantastic sequel. It expands upon the original game not in size or scope but in pure cunning and creativity, like a true assassin. Though not without a few flaws, the game is elevated to classic status by some truly unforgettable missions and an unwavering confidence throughout. Whether or not we’ll see a third game in the series remains to be seen, but Dishonored 2 would be a fantastic way to bow out if it does prove to be the end.

9.1/10

GAME REVIEW: The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (Nintendo, 2013)

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The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is, paradoxically, both the least original Zelda game ever made and a breath of fresh air for the series. As a direct sequel to 1992’s classic Link to the Past, this game is more than content to tread in its predecessors footsteps for the first hour or so. In fact, during that first hour it is so familiar that it seems more remake than sequel.

But what initially seems like purely an exercise in nostalgia soon reveals itself to be more of an exercise in subversion, deconstructing and rearranging the things you thought you knew about Link to the Past, or about Zelda as a whole.

The game’s central wall merge mechanic adds a wonderful element of surprise to a very familiar incarnation of Hyrule, forcing you literally and figuratively to look at the world from another perspective. It is employed in delightfully clever ways across the game’s overworld and many dungeons, where it forms the backbone of the game’s puzzles.

Then there is the item rental system, which is a refreshing change (if not a revolution) to the typical structure of a Zelda game. Rather than building your inventory up one dungeon at a time, here you are given access to almost all of the game’s items within the first hour, courtesy of the pink-bunny-hooded-magician and home-invader Ravio, who will rent items to you for a sum of rupees.

In practice, this means that the player is given a huge amount of freedom to explore the world in whatever order they choose. After the initial three dungeons, the game drops you into Lorule, a rather cheesily-named equivalent of the Dark World, and just says “We know you know what you’re doing, now here’s seven dungeons. Have fun”. It’s a huge contrast to a game like Skyward Sword, whose handholding introductory sequence was so excessively long I’ve still not gotten past it to this day.

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If at any point you ran out of hearts and die, Ravio will take all rented items back from you and you’ll have to purchase them again. This small but brilliant design choice adds real consequence to death within the game, and has the upshot of incentivising the player even further to explore the world and track down its many pieces of heart and other secrets.

In my own playthrough of the game, however, I only died a single time. That was within the first couple of hours, and after that first death I found myself exploring everywhere for pieces of heart and bottles, always making sure I was stocked up on red potions and fairies. Perhaps my familiarity with Link to the Past (being one of my favourite games of all time) was partly to blame, but it has to be said that A Link Between Worlds never felt particularly difficult, and could have pushed its ideas about death and fail states a bit further than it did.

One aspect of A Link Between Worlds that proved a pleasant surprise was its pacing. This is a game that moves along at a very fast clip, with Link’s movement and attack speed being much quicker than in most Zelda games. Its world loads smoothly at a high framerate, and content-wise there is nothing but meat on the bones. No lengthy intro, no pointless side quests, just great dungeons and a densely packed overworld.

My playthrough, collecting every piece of heart and almost every other optional item/secret, clocked in at a modest 15 hours. In some respects, I think this is great. Zelda games don’t all have to be epic 40-hour plus sagas that take weeks and months to finish, and I’m happy to see the series template can accommodate a leaner, more focused kind of game.

But it proves more of an issue alongside what is, in my opinion, the game’s Achilles heel: its narrative. All elements of the world, the quest and the characters in A Link Between Worlds feel quite lazy and by-the-books for the series when compared to the imaginative mechanical and structural ideas within the game.

A shorter length (while not in itself a problem) combined with a rather predictable and dull story, gives A Link Between Worlds a considerably less palpable sense of adventure and wonder. And this, in my opinion, is the one unchangeable element of the Zelda formula, and the thing that just barely holds A Link Between Worlds back from being a truly classic Zelda game.

And yet it comes so close. This is a game as daring as it is derivative, as inventive as it is referential. Like its title suggests, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is simultaneously a bridge to the series’ past, and a glimpse into its potential future. And it’s a bright future indeed.

8.9/10

GAME REVIEW: What Remains of Edith Finch (Giant Sparrow, 2017)

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What Remains of Edith Finch is the latest entry in a burgeoning genre I like to call the Walkie: interactive storytelling experiences which primarily consist of walking around, exploring an environment and the story to be found within it.

It’s a style of game that has been around for several years now, first introduced with the likes of Dear Esther in 2012, but which has been taken in directions as divergent as Proteus and The Stanley Parable. What Remains of Edith Finch, however, marks the moment of the genre’s sentience: the point at which it has become aware of, and is actively taking inspiration from, its predecessors.

One in particular springs to mind: The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home, which also features a slowly unravelling family story told by a twenty-something female narrator as she returns to a house she used to live in. Edith Finch certainly has ideas of its own, but I have to say I found it hard to shake an eerie feeling of familiarity as I played through it.

The game’s appealingly tidy structure, which finds you gradually ascending the house as you work your way forwards through several generations of family stories, is not unlike that of Gone Home. And the environmental storytelling, tightly packed into bedrooms and crowded kitchens, is effective if not altogether new.

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Edith Finch’s biggest new ideas are the sequences which tell the story of how each family member met their unfortunate demise, using interactive vignettes of fantasy, memory and imagination. Many of these sequences contain inspired ideas, but just as many are ruined by clunky animations or unclear controls which pulled me straight out of immersion.

Others go off without a hitch, however. One in particular, which tells the story of 11-year old artist Milton’s disappearance through a wordless hand-drawn flipbook, was brilliant. And the lavish, bleak, and occasionally hilarious story of Edith’s brother Lewis was another highlight.

For as effective as some of these vignettes are, however, their collective effect is of spreading the story a bit thin. There are thirteen Finches whose tales are all told throughout the game, and by spending such a short time with each one, none feel truly developed. Edith Finch misses what made Gone Home so special: the way it let the player develop a personal bond with its narrator, Sam, over a number of hours, despite never actually seeing her.

What Edith Finch sometimes lacks in narrative depth, however, it makes up in atmosphere. The house and its surrounding woodland are full of foggy moonlight and the sound of waves, while its minimal soundtrack, though it can feel a bit emotionally manipulative at times, is certainly very affecting during climactic moments of the story.

That story wraps up in a very satisfying way during the game’s final moments, coming full circle and tying all of its loose threads together. And it should be noted, too, that Edith Finch features one of my favourite ever credit sequences in a game. Without giving it away, I’ll just say that it’s goofy, very sweet, and the perfect end to such a personal tale.

My final impression walking away from What Remains of Edith Finch, then, was largely a positive one. This is an imaginative and affecting game which, while a bit derivative in places, is nevertheless worth seeing through to its conclusion. I’m sure developer Giant Sparrow has more great things to come.

7.8/10