How Poetry Died

For those who don’t know me in real life – I’ve been unemployed for a little while now since returning from India, looking for work and somewhere to live in London. I’ve had a handful of interviews already, and hope to have some good news on this front soon. But in the evenings, after I’ve spent my day drinking double strength coffee and slavishly refreshing indeed.com, I’ve been working on another task, one equally heroic though considerably more pointless. Like a modern day Sisyphus, slowly pushing a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down again, I have been – yes – trying to clear out my Steam library.

Call it the one benefit of having too much time and not enough money: I’ve been trying to get through the long list of games I’ve purchased on digital game market Steam, but never found the time to actually play. Every adult with a Steam account probably knows that vaguely depressing feeling of scrolling through your games library and realizing you’ve never even installed half the titles in it. You feel like you’ve become just another cog in the wheel of cultural capitalism, a victim of market psychology: ‘Oooh, it’s half price – wouldn’t it be stupid not to buy it?’ But, inevitably, you never find the time to play through that copy of Grand Theft Auto 2 which was marked down to 60p.

A culture of consumption

Of course, we know why this is happening. The people who run digital markets like Steam, Playstation Store and Amazon are masters of sale psychology. Limited time deals, wishlists and free trials tap into a particular part of the brain, and lead us into purchasing decisions we might not otherwise have made. It doesn’t make any difference to the platform holders whether we actually play the games or watch the movies we buy, so long as we’re spending money on them. (As a side note: anyone who wants to learn more about how corporations advertise to you should watch this fascinating Youtube video on the six principles of persuasion.)

We can see it in the world of music, too. I’ve sometimes caught myself listening to an album for no more than twenty minutes before abandoning it forever, for the sole purpose of logging it on music database rateyourmusic.com, a website where I have rather obsessively ranked almost 2000 albums on a scale of 1-10. As someone who writes critically about music, it can certainly be a useful tool for keeping track of everything I listen to. But there’s definitely an element of fetishizing the sheer quantity of music that enters into my ears, without giving it the critical attention it deserves. And even more perverse is game database backloggery.com, which I recently stumbled across, where users spend large amounts of time creating detailed lists of all the games they haven’t had time to play. Instead of, y’know, actually playing them.

“This is the reason why poetry is pretty much dead in 2018”

I think this trend towards a culture of consumption, which has probably been happening since the industrial revolution, is accelerating faster than ever now that online stores make it so easy to purchase media. And I also think this is the reason why an artistic medium like poetry is pretty much dead in 2018, or has at least lost a great deal of its cultural relevancy. A book of poetry doesn’t have a runtime, or a clear beginning and end – it gives out as much as you’re willing to put into it. It requires patience and space to think, both of which are in short supply in the digital age. And it isn’t easily qualified or ranked. In short: you can’t consume it quickly and throw it away.

And poetry is also almost completely removed from technological advancements, which have been at the heart of culture throughout the 20th and 21st century. Film, games and music have all developed alongside the technology that powers them, taking us from rudimentary projections, Pong and Kraftwerk to 4K displays, virtual reality and an electric organ made entirely out of furbies. OK, whether that last one is an evolution or a monstrosity might be up for debate. But regardless, these mediums are the ones that have remained, or become, relevant to contemporary culture (by which I basically mean popular and financially viable) because people want progress. And in the digital era, technology is progress.

“We’ll still be able to write poems in the dirt with our mutated, radioactive fingers.”

I went to a poetry workshop in Bath a few weeks ago titled ‘Publishing Your Poetry’, which was hosted by a small publisher called Burning Eye Books. One of the things that struck me the most was when the speaker made a very casual comment that there was ‘absolutely no money in poetry’, and that none but the one or two biggest publishers do better than barely staying afloat. Of course, I never expected I would make any money from writing or publishing poems I’d written, but I was surprised to hear just how bleak the business reality is.

Perhaps that doesn’t have to be a bad thing, though. Everyone who works on the publishing side of poetry does it purely as a labour of love, and for the sake of the art. Likewise the people who still feel the urge to write poems in 2018. If poetry is dead, maybe it can live an afterlife where it serves as an antidote to the culture of consumption which surrounds contemporary art? One which exists outside the whirlwind of reviews, sales figures, fame, twitter controversy, and – yes – steam sales. And even if that never comes to pass, we can at least take comfort in this thought: when Donald Trump and North Korea lead the world to an inevitable nuclear apocalypse and all human technology is destroyed, we’ll still be able to write poems in the dirt with our mutated, radioactive fingers.

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How Fortnite Became the Most Popular Video Game on the Planet

Every once in a while, there comes along a video game that reaches such enormous levels of popularity that it transcends the games industry and becomes a cultural phenomenon in and of itself. Over the last decade a handful of games have managed it: Wii Sports, Angry Birds, Minecraft, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and Pokemon GO are some of the first that spring to mind.

Fortnite is the latest addition to the list – the battle royale builder/shooter which is dominating Twitch and Youtube, and making waves further afield in the mainstream media. It’s set new records for concurrent viewers, and it’s been pretty much unavoidable on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

This article was originally going to be a review of the game, but as I thought about it I was much more interested not in whether the game is good (spoiler: it is), but in why it’s been able to reach such enormous levels of popularity. What aspects of the game’s design, and of the world in 2018, have conspired to allow Fortnite to capture the zeitgeist as quickly and as completely as it has?

A New Genre’s Next Step

 

To start with, it’s the next step in the burgeoning battle royale genre, which has already proven compelling enough to support variations upon its key ideas and gameplay loops. This is how game genres develop: an innovative, popular game comes along, whose ideas inspire a wave of imitators and experimenters looking to expand upon the formula. PUBG is the game which laid the genre’s foundation, much as DOOM, Dark Souls or Spelunky did for the FPS, Souls-like and Rogue-like. But Fortnite is the first major player in the second wave of battle royales, and as such players and devs alike are looking to it for clues on how the genre will develop moving forwards.

Fortnite’s biggest innovation is, of course, its building mechanics. The ability to place walls, ramps and ceilings increases the pace of the game, offering a huge layer of strategy beyond simply aiming, as well as dissuading players from hiding in a bush for ten minutes. And – whether by a stroke of luck or canny design – those building mechanics have proven to be intuitive for a generation of young kids and teenagers who grew up with construction games such as Minecraft, and are now looking for something a bit more mature.

Minecraft (and imitators like Terraria) were and continue to be popular because they are essentially the digital descendants of Lego: they’re sandboxes where creativity and problem-solving can be learned through play. Fortnite, though it doesn’t offer the same level of depth in construction, taps into that same desire for creativity, and is one of the biggest reasons for its runaway success.

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Fortnite is riding the rising tide of the new media platforms on which it thrives”

 

This creative play, combined with the game’s competitive combat and elements of chance such as random loot and chests, generate stories. You’ll always remember that one time you dropped into Tilted Towers and found nothing but sticky grenades, but somehow blasted your way out alive. Or when you shot someone’s ramp out from beneath them seconds before they put down a launch pad, and cackled as they fell to their death.

It is these stories which generate another reason for Fortnite’s success: its watchability. Each 20-minute game has a narrative arc: the decision making before you drop, then the frantic looting and initial kills, the high-stakes interactions in the mid stage of the game (Is it worth attacking? Can I take them on?), and then the heart-pounding tension of the endgame, when there’s only a few players left alive.

Twitch streamers and Youtubers are successful when they are expert storytellers, playing the role of protagonist for their viewers to experience vicariously. Of course, it helps that Fortnite lends itself so well to bite-size viral content, while also being able to sustain multi-hour streams and e-sports tournaments at the same time (for my thoughts on why Fortnite will never be an e-sport, click here).

And it also helps that these platforms are themselves still growing at a very fast rate. Fortnite is riding the rising tide of all the new media platforms on which it thrives, and its success is legitimising streaming and e-sports within the mainstream media. The kind of news reports we used to see on e-sports – “people pay to watch you play videogames??” – seem further and further away each year.

“The game has the depth to sustain audiences over a long period, unlike other viral successes such as Pokemon GO”

 

The final reason for Fortnite’s success, in my opinion, is its accessibility. Not just in its intuitive building mechanics, or its bright cartoonish graphics which take after Team Fortress 2 and Overwatch. But also in its price model – being free to play on PC, console and phones reduces the barrier to entry by an enormous amount, and opens up the game’s potential audience. Low barrier to entry is the reason why a game like football is played more than, say, tobogganing: if all you need is a round object and two goals, anybody can have fun playing the game.

That’s what it all comes down to in the end: fun. Fortnite is popular because it is immensely fun to play, whether alone, in a pair, or with a group. But all of these trends within game design, and the shifting media landscape in the world at large, have contributed to the game’s meteoric rise. It isn’t just a flash in the pan, either: Fortnite has the depth to sustain audiences over a long period, unlike other viral successes such as Pokemon GO. I’m sure E3 will throw up a whole lot of announcements of new battle royale games in a couple weeks time, but at least for now it’s hard to imagine anything challenging Fortnite’s position as the biggest game on the planet.

 

Why Fortnite isn’t an E-sport, and Never Will Be

The Twitch record for concurrent viewers was broken this past weekend, as top Fortnite streamer Ninja hosted Ninja Vegas, a tournament which was watched live by 667,000 people at one and the same time. It’s the first attempt to turn Fortnite, the battle royale free-for-all which is currently the biggest game on the planet, into a competitive spectator sport.

But this event only served to highlight the problems that battle royale games have in transitioning to the huge, stadium-filling spectacles that Counter-Strike, DOTA, and League of Legends have become. We saw it with the invitational Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds tournament last year which failed to take off, and many of the same issues were prevalent here.

First and foremost is simply the format. Battle royale games do not lend well to the kind of tightly controlled play environments that high level e-sports require. They are about bringing order to huge, chaotic maps, with a healthy amount of luck to boot. Often the smartest way to play is the least exciting – that is, crouching in a PUBG bush or camping in a 1×1 Fortnite tower – and that doesn’t bode well for serious competition.

Then there’s the problem of who to watch – with 100 concurrent players, how can you meaningfully invest in any one of them, or allow storylines to grow? The team at Ninja Vegas handled this better than at the PUBG invitational, where large parts of the action were missed by the cameras, spectating somebody running across an empty field while plays were happening elsewhere.

Here, the viewers were watching and rooting for Ninja at all times, while a collection of other prominent Twitch streamers and Youtubers fought alongside him. Anyone who killed Ninja earned $2500, which rolled over to the next game if he survived, and another $2500 was awarded to the winner of each game. This worked reasonably well, but there were still a couple of occasions where Ninja died in the middle part of a match, and we were left watching an unknown player nobody particularly cared for.

Then there was the fact that, because of where monitors were positioned in the arena, some players could clearly see the screen which was broadcasting Ninja’s gameplay feed to the crowd. One particularly hilarious shot caught a player who had just killed Ninja turning to look right at it, betraying the fact that he’d obviously been following it and camping for a chance to earn $2500.

There were also technical issues, which are understandable in a game still in early access, but completely unacceptable if we were to take Fortnite seriously as a sport where huge prize pools of money are on the line. Players (including myself) experienced rage-inducing skipping all weekend, as what appears to be an issue with Epic’s servers would leave them frozen in place for one or two seconds at a time – enough to turn the tide in a frantic shootout.

The introduction of TSM_Myth, Fortnite’s second most popular streamer, was also brought to a hilariously anticlimactic end after a physics glitch sent him flying off the edge of a mountain, where he abruptly fell to his death. And players also reported sound issues, with opponent sounding as if they were above rather than below them – probably more an issue with the venue’s setup than the game itself.

‘More carnival than competition’

None of this is to detract from Fortnite, or to suggest the event was poorly run. The production was high quality, the casting was very good and the whole thing ran very smoothly, bar a couple of awkward interviews and transitions. The issue is just with battle royale games in general, and the way organisers have attempted to fit their sudden and explosive popularity within the confines of existing e-sports formats.

There are other ways it could be done – perhaps we’re heading towards a sci-fi future where viewers will watch 100-strong battle royale leagues inside an Oculus Rift, flipping between different gameplay feeds at will while listening to dynamic commentary that somehow makes sense of it all. But the technical challenges of pulling something like this off would be enormous, and I wonder if the battle royale genre has the longevity for it.

Fortnite certainly has a high enough skill ceiling to support competitive play, and its building mechanics have helped to make the battle royale less defensive, and more exciting to watch. But Ninja Vegas was more compelling as a carnival than as competition, whether it was the pon-pon dancing, the look on Ninja’s wife’s face when he almost said ‘fucking’ in an interview, or the kid who gave him a hug on stage while wearing matching Lil Xan hoodies with his mum. A ten year old in a hoodie that had actual fucking Xanax pills on the back! Did she not Google that shit???

I’d love to be proven wrong, but I just don’t think Fortnite will ever work as an e-sport. This is a game that is best played socially, in a team of friends or broadcasting via a Twitch stream. It’s chaotic and silly nature is precisely the reason for its enormous popularity in an age of memeable Facebook clips and oddshots, but is counterintuitive to both playing and watching the game at the highest level.

Still, that same popularity has the potential to push Fortnite forward as an entirely new kind of viewing experience. Battle royale games are still in their infancy, and as they grow they could become an ever bigger buzzword than e-sports has been for the past decade in the games industry. Only time will tell, but one thing is certain – in the free-for-all that the battle royale genre itself is currently conducting, Fortnite is definitely winning.

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

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

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.

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.

Image result for cs go grand finals

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.

Image result for u cypher

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: Boxboy! (HAL Laboratory, 2015)

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, concealing 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

“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.