A passage from “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow” by Gabrielle Zevin:

“‘Zweisamkeit’ is the feeling of being alone even when you’re with other people.” Simon turned to look in his husband’s eyes. “Before I met you, I felt this constantly. I felt it with my family, my friends, and every boyfriend I ever had. I felt it so often that I thought this was the nature of living. To be alive was to accept that you were fundamentally alone.” Simon’s eyes were moist. “I know I’m impossible, and I know you don’t care about German words or marriage. All I can say is, I love you and thank you for marrying me anyway.”

Ant raised his glass. “Zweisamkeit,” he said.

I mostly enjoyed “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow”. While the tapestry of the novel is of game development (which hooked me initially), as Zevin puts it, it’s really a book about work and love, which stuck with me; namely the passage above.

I’m so thankful for my wife and daughter, but I’ve had similar feelings of loneliness — lonely while in the company of others — in other parts of my life for far too long. I resolve to change that this year.

GameDiscoverCo: ‘Compulsion loops’, predatory monetization & you..

Simon Carless, the GameDiscoverCo newsletter (weekly free issue)

We’ve been sitting, mulling on this subject for a few weeks now. But it’s time to uncork it. You may have noted that the PC/console game market is changing, with a high supply of new games, and a tendency to reward titles that allow recurring play.

Along the way, we’ve been preaching things like: ‘make deep, mechanically complex games that you can additionally monetize with DLC. We’d defined this as both good business & ‘ethically sound’, whatever that means. (We’ll get there later.)

But what happens when you get too far down the spiral of monetizing your human-computer interface at all costs? One of the most powerful books I’ve read in the last few years is Natasha Dow Schüll’s ‘Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas’, which answers precisely that question:

“Drawing on fifteen years of field research in Las Vegas, [the book] explores the dark side of machine gambling - a solitary, rapid, continuous form of play that has less to do with the competitive thrill of winning than with the pull of ‘the machine zone,’ as gamblers call the trancelike state they enter.”

As an industry, we make video games that give people pleasure. But I do think people should, from time to time, ask - are we jamming people’s brains with overly ‘addictive’ things? And are we taking advantage of that to make money, especially from those less able to afford it?

Dow Schüll’s book is relevant because - remarkably - it is both a meticulous history of how machine gambling companies learned to retain players, and a close study of some of the local, less affluent Las Vegas gamblers locked into a vicious cycle of spending - because these machines demand money constantly.

One big conclusion from her work? Winning money back from slot machines - the thing that makes the government regulate them so closely - doesn’t actually seem to be why many people play them. It’s about reaching a ‘flow state’, as defined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi - the idea that you can get lost in an experience.

A good piece from a good newsletter.

'I Just Took the One with the Best Story'

Alex Barasch detailing the origins of HBO’s The Last of Us for The New Yorker:

When Druckmann expressed confidence that the show “will be the best, most authentic game adaptation,” Mazin said, “That’s not the highest bar in the world.” He went on, “I cheated—I just took the one with the best story. Like, I love Assassin’s Creed. But when they announced that they were gonna make it as a movie I was, like, I don’t know how! Because the joy of it is the gameplay. The story is impenetrable.”

The other day, a close friend of mine sent me a rumor that an animated Legend of Zelda movie is in development by Illumination, the studio responsible for the upcoming Super Mario Bros. animated film. My quick rely was something to the effect of pure agency not translating to film. I.e. Link has (almost) always been a silent protagonist. Unless they give him a voice, I don’t understand how the movie is compelling. The world, characters, and music of Zelda are charming and iconic, but refined puzzle solving and discovery — agency — are what makes Zelda games great.

Furthermore, agency is what makes games special. Somewhat shamefully, I only recently came to understand this thanks to C. Thi Nguyen’s book/thesis ”Games: Agency as Art”. After decades of playing video games in wonder, asking myself why these things and this industry captivate me so, telling myself that they are the evolution of story and immersion, truthfully it comes down to agency — I get to play a part in a universe whether it’s a pre-determined story on rails or a completely open world that I get to explore on my own.

As for The Last of Us, the game itself created such a fervor because there was an incredibly compelling story spliced into the game. But if memory serves, the story beats and gameplay felt very siloed from one another — the latter feeling repetitive and much weaker between the two. Brendon Bigley of the Into the Aether podcast put it best on Mastodon:

cards on the table: i’ve never been a huge fan of the first Last of Us. i found it more impressive than good, if that makes sense. my feeling was always that it used the language of cinema in its storytelling so much the game itself fell by the wayside — i spent all of my time playing wishing i was just watching.

point being: the hbo show is GOOD SHIT baybee

Nintendo Nintendos

Jeff Cannata and Christian Spicer hypothesizing on Nintendo’s next console during their “Bold” and “Cool Ranch” predictions of 2023:

Jeff Cannata: Your number 3 “Cool Ranch” prediction…

Christian Spicer: The next mainline Nintendo console — I don’t know if we’re going to hear about it this year — but it’s portable also. I don’t think it’s going to be the Switch 2, but I think they’re gone from having a discrete home console and there’s no looking back on portability. I don’t think they’re going to have a separate “portable” and a separate “home” [console]. From this point for the foreseeable future, the next Nintendo console is also a portable of some form or fashion.

JC: Why isn’t this you predicting Switch 2?

CS: ‘Cause Nintendo’s Nintendo. I don’t know if it’s going to be Switch 2.

JC: You think it’s going to be like a Game Boy?

CS: Or a Steam Deck? I dunno.

JC: I mean, Switch is a Steam Deck, basically.

CS: I don’t know if there’s money in that name. You already can’t “switch” with the Switch Lite.

I was surrounded by nieces and nephews at the end of last year and here in 2023, and they almost all refer to it as Nintendo. “I wanna play my Nintendo. Where’s my Nintendo?”

JC: But the Switch has sold 100M consoles, or whatever it is…

CS: It has! But so did the Wii. And the Wii U… was meh. But Nintendo is not afraid to just name things. Maybe Super Switch?

JC: Yeah, Super Switch could be. A lot of people have speculated on that.

The thing I don’t understand about why you think this is “Cool Ranch” is that I feel like it’s a no brainer that to me that they’re in the handheld place now. You can’t go back from Switch to now having, like, a GameCube. It can’t just be a home console anymore. I feel like that’s a no brainer.

CS: I wonder if they know how many people play docked vs. handheld? I feel like when I would talk about the console for years on this show, how I was exclusively handheld mode, you and so many people would say, “it hurts my hands. I got these grips and now I can use it,” or “I only use it docked and you gotta get a Pro Controller.” Maybe I haven’t been reading the tea leaves, but to me as a big handheld proponent — and I think 2022 having been the Year of the Handheld, in a lot of ways — I think that’s what will push this into happening. I think when the Switch launched, I don’t know if Nintendo was like, “yeah, we’re going all in on one handheld, one thing pushing forward.” I think the progress of mobile chips has made this a reality that it wasn’t before. That’s why I feel like we’re still living in that “Cool Ranch” world. Nintendo Nintendos.

JC: I went back and forth. I really struggled. For the longest time I had one of my predictions being Switch 2, or Switch Pro, or Super Switch, or whatever they’re going to call it. Part of me was like, it definitely gets announced this year; it definitely doesn’t get announced at all this year… I went back and forth. It’s too hard for me to predict because I feel like Nintendo could just wait another year at this point. I literally wrote down a “Bold” prediction of “Pikmin 4 is the last big hoorah for the original Switch; the Switch 2 is coming in 2024”. I feel like whatever it is, it has to be the next extension of the Switch. The Switch is become the de facto Nintendo console.

I belabor the above because I find it hilarious in context with my and Scott Taylor’s belaboring of the rumored Nintendo NX console back in 2016 on the Ported podcast:

Scott Taylor: For people like you and I — the older generation, who have the luxury of affording and owning multiple different platforms — how great would it be if I could start on my Wii U — OK I’ve gotta catch my plane — then pick up on my 3DS. That would be a rad experience!

Kyle Starr: That’s the dream, right?

ST: Absolutely! And I think that alone would be my incentive to buy a 3DS. That I could take my desktop experience (if you will) and turn it into a mobile experience. That would be a huge win. That would be really, really great to see in the future. I do think that kind of thing is making its way into the industry. I do think we’re going to see more and more of that. For years, there was a rumor of a mobile Xbox, which obviously never came to light. I do love the idea of starting in Location A and picking up in Location B.

KS: Rumor of the Nintendo NX — their next console — is that it’s achieved that dream: one console, multiple places. I don’t know how… I’ve been trying to comprehend what that would be like; trying to fathom how that would work, to have a console and mobile experience. One and the same, and not totally break the bank and give you two consoles when you buy the thing. But who know? We’ll see. Nintendo’s the crazy toy maker.

ST: They are, but I don’t know if I have faith in them to be the one that innovates and really disrupts the market.

KS: But they did it with Wii.

ST: But they didn’t though, right? To this today, it doesn’t matter. Nobody else is doing it. Xbox 360 never picked [motion controls] enough so that they said, “that’s a disrupter; we have to do it.”

KS: They went into Kinect which was sort of motion control.

ST: I don’t want to get started on Kinect. Kinect is a joke. Kinect shouldn’t exist because they don’t even believe in that product.

KS: But they tried.

ST: They innovated in their own division, I think. They innovated in their little avenue. It was innovative. I’m not saying it wasn’t innovative, I’m just saying it wasn’t disruptive. It didn’t change the rest of the market. I don’t know if I have faith in Nintendo to disrupt the market. I have faith in them to innovate, but are their innovations — this is going to sound silly — for the sake of innovating? They can’t compete on a CPU level. They can’t compete on a GPU level. So what do they do? They create some sort of “gimmick”.

If you remember, Wii was huge. It was monster. It was sold out Monday through Sunday. For months, you couldn’t get it. It was definitely something that worked, but I don’t know if I’d put my money on Nintendo to be the ones to innovate and disrupt the market.

KS: That’s a good point. There’s a difference between innovation and disruption. If you look at gaming right now, motion controls had their place and then they were gone. You don’t talk about motion controls anymore, except in the instance of VR which is way to early to talk about. But I do think that Nintendo’s claim to fame truly is innovation. The NES alone was innovative in the sense that they had a great marketing strategy; they had this certification process for games ensuring that when you bought a game it was going to be certified that it’s a good game to combat the crash that happened before that (which was before my time, but I’ve read enough about it to understand that). The SNES was more of a power horse. Nintendo 64 was first to really understand the 3D space, coming out with games like Super Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time and teach people what it means to play a video game in a 3D space. And then the GameCube which was, in my opinion, kind of a weird move — another “let’s make this thing a bit more powerful”.

ST: That was them trying to get into the disc space to compete with PlayStation and Xbox. People loved the GameCubes. There are people who would absolutely defend GameCube as one of the best consoles that Nintendo put out. I never owned it. It never did anything for me.

I would say they innovate, but they don’t disrupt in terms of hardware. In terms of software, they innovate and disrupt. To your point, 3D worlds is a huge one.

KS: Then there was the Wii, which obviously innovated in the space of motion controls. Everybody thought that was the future. For a while there, it felt like that was the disruption point. Xbox followed with Kinect with their own kind of motion controlled thing. Sony came out with the Move, which flopped. And that was the end of the motion control space.

Then when PlayStation and Xbox went to create their bigger, better hardware, Nintendo decided to take another route and try something new again with the Wii U. It is an innovative platform. I love the experience of it. I think it was poorly marketed. That was the biggest downside of that console.

ST: The name itself is confusing for users. “What do I do with that? Is it an expansion? Is it a little bit better? It is a completely different system?” As a customer who’s about to give you $300-400, I don’t want to have those questions in my mind. I want to know that this is a brand new system. I want to know this is brand new hardware. I want to know this is a brand new experience that I’m about to… experience. Those kinds of questions are going to kill you. And it killed them.

KS: One Christmas, I watched my aunt gift my little cousin a Wii U game. He opened it up and freaks out. He didn’t have a Wii U. He had a Wii. She had no idea. She didn’t understand. If you’re in the space, you’re going to know. I don’t put the fault on her. I put the fault on Nintendo because that marketing was just awful. Needless to say, he had a fit and she was bummed out. It was terrible.

ST: So you could say Nintendo ruined Christmas for a lot of kids.

KS: I’m sure it did, and I was there to witness at least one of those kids.

Anyway, I think the NX… we have to remember that Nintendo has a ton of cash in the bank from the Wii. They have room to innovate. Their shareholders are probably pushing them in one direction — they obviously want them to compete in the space. But Nintendo has their own priorities with innovation. I think what we’re going to see with the NX is something in between. It’s going to be an innovative platform, but I think they do understand that they need to compete in the power playing experience which is what Xbox One and PS4 are doing. They have these insanely powerful consoles. Getting tons of third-parties on-board. Nintendo’s going to be at a cross-roads with what they internally want to do and what the shareholders want them to do. I don’t think they’re keen on third-parties. They love their own experiences. But they’ve got to branch out a little bit more. If they can’t come up with a killer console on their own terms with their own first-party content, then they have to expand a little bit.

So, I’m super curious about the NX. Again, this all stems from that dream of having the same experience in multiple places. Whether it’s on your TV or on a handheld device.

While I’d love to edit/add/update what was said in the above episode of Ported — (OK, just one: motion controls disupted camera/aiming mechanics with gyro enchancements) — the length of this post is the point. Speculation of what Nintendo will do next are some of the most fun conversations to have in gaming. That’s because Nintendo is more than just an innovator; they are an inventor. They garner the same secrecy and mystique as Apple, but rather than perfecting existing experiences, Nintendo is in the business of changing the game, pun half-intended.

What will Nintendo do next? Who knows. I couldn’t wrap my head around the NX before the Switch was announced. In hindsight, Wii U was very telling of where Nintendo would go with the Switch — scrap the dual-screen experience and lean into taking games off of your TV screen and into your hands. The writing was on the wall. The Switch has disrupted console design and the direction of gaming. You can see it not only in the Steam Deck, but the promise of cloud gaming — taking console (or greater) experiences on the go.

But where does Nintendo go after the Switch? Where is the writing? Where is the wall? Any guess is wild or “Cool Ranch”, in my opinion. The crazy toy maker remains illusive. Nintendo Nintendos.

Pentiment in The New York Times

Gilbert Cruz in The New York Times: The Morning newsletter:

The world of video games is large indeed. Last year, it encompassed difficult open-world dark fantasy titles like “Elden Ring” (for many, the game of 2022), surprisingly Zen experiences like “PowerWash Simulator” and this one, which I started just before the holidays and am slowly making my way through. “Pentiment” is set in 16th-century Bavaria, and you play as a manuscript illuminator who must eventually investigate a murder. (It sells itself, right?) With a look that tries to approximate medieval art styles, this is a largely text-driven game that becomes more engrossing the longer you play it.

In 2018, Pentiment developers Obsidian Entertainment were acquired by Microsoft, so it doesn’t seem fair to call recognition by a widely circulated mainstream newsletter “indie love”. But I think it’s fair to say Pentiment is a niche game. Within games media, it’s been widely discussed/praised — immaculate art design and impressive moral system — but it doesn’t seem like a title that would typically garner such placement. “Books-level boring” (in a good way) per The Besties.

I have yet to play Pentiment, but the more I hear about it, the more I’m itching to invest in it (after the three books on my nightstand). Very cool placement from The New York Times. Congrats, Obsidian.