'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.

Stephen Totilo: ‘Gaming takes over everything’

Stephen Totilo, Axios:

Video games will move to the center of the entertainment and pop-culture universe next year.

Why it matters: Streaming services, Hollywood studios, tech giants — even the Saudi government — are racing to capitalize on gaming’s vast and ever-expanding popularity, and its lucrative intellectual property.

Between the lines: This is what happens when a subculture has been deepening its roots for a half-century.

  • Many of the first kids who grew up with gaming become gamer parents, ready to pass gaming to the new generation.
  • Power takes notice. Outside elites elbow in.
  • Inside, young workers and players look around and see their once-rebellious pastime as an establishment that needs to be challenged.

The bottom line: From World of Warcraft to Wordle, it’s a game-lover’s world.

I’d been thinking a lot about why my blogging on Zero Counts has steadily slowed down. A lot of it has to do with the a busier work-life. Some of it has to do with my duties as a new parent. But I can’t help to think that it’s simply harder to have unique takes on games and the games industry, and for good reason. Not only has the mainstream popularity of gaming skyrocketed, but so too has solid coverage from mainstream media — Totilo (formerly of Kotaku) writing for Axios as an example. I touched on this one year ago in ’NYT: Making Video Game History‘.

The odd bits of coverage I found in mainstream media was an inspiration for Zero Counts. I captured what I could to elevate said pieces, but I didn’t feel the gaming space was being covered in a way I wanted to see. I’m no business expert, but I did what I could to fill the gap. Now video game coverage from top-tier veteran games journalists, critics, and analysts is ubiquitous at major media outlets. Meanwhile, traditionally games focused outlets seem to be leaning into the surrounding media (movies, tv, anime, comics, conventions, etc.) more than ever, which makes sense seeing that media at large is incorporating more and video game IP into it’s catalog.

None of this is a bad thing. In fact, quite the opposite. I love how big this hobby of mine has become. It’s important. It influences so much of the world around us from technology to entertainment to education to culture to art, and it’s not getting smaller. There is obviously a huge dark-side to Big Business — “elites elbow in” creating “an establishment that needs to be challenged” — I’m just glad (read “hope”) press coverage has grown to a level to hold it accountable.

Or perhaps this new father who grew up with gaming is just happy to see the medium proliferate, is optimistic about the new generation, and was giddy to see this piece published on his birthday.

Project Leonardo for PlayStation 5

Image of Project Leonardo hardware


Through conversations with accessibility experts and incredible organizations like AbleGamers, SpecialEffect and Stack Up, we’ve designed a highly configurable controller that works in tandem with many third-party accessibility accessories and integrates with the PS5 console to open up new ways of gaming. It is built to address common challenges faced by many players with limited motor control, including difficulty holding a controller for long periods, accurately pressing small clusters of buttons or triggers, or positioning thumbs and fingers optimally on a standard controller.

This is the most exciting news I’ve seen out of CES this year.

Project Leonardo comes nearly five years after the Xbox Adaptive Controller was announced, but much better late than never. And coming in at a distant second means Sony has surely incorporated a lot of feedback about the Xbox Adaptive Controller into the design of Project Leonardo.

Project Leonardo can be used as a standalone controller or paired with additional Project Leonardo or DualSense wireless controllers. Up to two Project Leonardo controllers and one DualSense wireless controller can be used together as a single virtual controller, allowing players to mix and match devices to fit their particular gameplay needs, or to play collaboratively with others.

For example, players can augment their DualSense controller with a Project Leonardo controller or use two Project Leonardo controllers on their own. A friend or family member can also assist by helping to control the player’s game character with a DualSense controller or a second Project Leonardo controller. The controllers can be dynamically turned on or off and used in any combination.

The design of Project Leonardo is radically different from the Xbox Adaptive Controller. The sheer fact that hardware itself is highly customizable, from physical button layout to analog stick distance and size, let alone the ability to map buttons together and pair this device with a DualSense for individual comfort or collaborative, assistive needs, the combinations are seemingly endless. I’d be stunned if some curb cut effects don’t come out of all of this flexibility.

So Morimoto, Designer, Sony Interactive Entertainment:

“Because players can customize Project Leonardo according to their needs, there is no one ‘right’ form factor. We want to empower them to create their own configurations. The controller can also flexibly accept combinations of accessibility accessories to create a unique aesthetic. I am excited that the design will be completed through collaboration with players rather than presenting them with a single form factor.”

Competition fuels innovation, and the accessibility space can never receive enough innovation. I’m eager to see the informed reception and comparisons between Project Leonardo and the Xbox Adaptive Controller, and how accessibility in gaming evolves from here.