The Average Apocalypse, Part 1: Axe and the City

11 Mar

The most interesting thing about DayZ is also its biggest flaw. With no directives for player behaviour beyond satisfying basic bodily functions, survivors of this particular zombie apocalypse are free to be as violent, altruistic, danger-seeking or isolated as they please, and that freedom can lead to thrillingly tense encounters where someone’s motivations might be vastly – even dangerously – different from your own.

However, the lack of objectives can also make it feel  a bit…aimless. Progression is limited to what kind of gun you might find, or how many pieces of brown combat gear you have draped over your body. Meanwhile, the zombies themselves are laughably easy to take down, even in groups, so those who avoid armed conflict with almost Swiss determination never get to experience any kind of meaningful challenge.

I think that’s why a lot of players have taken to roleplaying. Chernarus is or has been populated with organised police forces, doctors, assassins for hire, and at least one roving reporter; besides the attractively complex interactions that may occur when one of these groups meets the lawless bandits of DayZ, I suspect the rules and codes these players enforce on themselves adds a special sense of difficulty and accomplishment to what can be a fairly meandering existence.

Now I want in as well. I’m going to reject DayZ’s assumption that every character is a qualified survival expert and play as someone who would be utterly out of their depth after the fall of civilisation: myself.

Besides potentially answering the age-old question of “How long would you last in a zombie apocalypse?”, playing as a journalism graduate from Swindon gives me some tricky new parameters. I’ve never even touched a firearm, so in-game guns are off the table completely. I’m pretty risk-averse, so I’ll need to avoid players and the undead as much as possible. I could probably hold my own against a single zombie, but if they show up in a group, I’m mostly likely going to bottle it. Although, I do have one thing going for me where self-defence is concerned: I’m okay with a bow and arrow. Admittedly I’ve only ever shot static targets, not sprinting ghouls, but my weapon of choice will be  ideal for hunting animals – allowing me to stay fed without needing to scavenge in heavily-populated cities. Plus, DayZ’s bow is whisper-quiet, so I can stay hidden from prying bandit ears.

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First, I need to make myself with the less-than-robust character creator. Due to the lack of options, the closest I can get to my true form (lanky, slouching, prescription glasses) is a muscular middle-aged man with a permanent squint. No matter, because soon I’m joining a near-full server, with a solid plan to craft an improvised bow and avoid the large cities.

I spawn in Chernogorsk, the largest city.

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On the bright side, I’m already on the side of town which contains an abandoned shop (where I can grab provisions) and a fire station (where I can find an axe, which I’ll need to craft my bow and arrows). Incredibly, for an area with so much survivor foot traffic, I manage to bag several cans of spaghetti and a walkie talkie. In a small factory two doors down, I ditch the walkie to make room for more spaghetti, and pick up a hunting knife. This is a great start – I’ll need to cut the meat from any animals I hunt, and the knife also doubles as a handy can opener in the meantime. I immediately consume two whole tins of cold pasta, and move on to the fire station.

Just outside the station’s outer wall, I’m halted by the gurgled cry of a walking corpse. Terrifyingly, it appears to be making a beeline for the single open door of the station, suggesting that there’s someone inside. I’m relieved, then panicked, when it passes the door and starts running at me instead. I’m nowhere near confident enough to battle a zed with a tiny knife, so I scramble through a hole in the wall, dash inside the station, and slam the door shut. I’m safe – for now.

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My luck continues in the form of a good-condition fire axe laying on one of the station’s many, if mostly empty, shelves. Incredibly, there are three different handguns mere feet from my new axe, including a rare inscribed Colt. Most survivors would be ecstatic, but I’m British and thus have no idea how to load or maintain ballistic weaponry. I leave all three where they sit and try to sneak out the back exit.

No dice – the zombie had continued to sniff around outside, and immediately gives pursuit. I’m now wielding the most effective melee weapon in Chernarus, even in the feeble hands of someone who got stopped going to the gym in 2014, but am anxious about stopping to fight; after all, this will be first time that I kill something larger than a fly. However, sprinting through Chernogorsk with a growling monster on one’s heels is a good way of attracting unwanted attention. I stop in a walled-off yard, ready the fire axe, and prepare to take the swing.

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Thunk. The bastard gets me first, and my vision flashes white as two rotting fists slam into my face. Yet I still manage to bring the axe down, slashing deep into my assailant’s shoulder. It recoils a bit, then resumes its flailing attack. Suitably afraid of something that can survive such a bow, I retreat a few steps – accidentally dodging another lunge. I swing again, land a second hit, and watch as the actually-dead dead man flops to the ground. I’m bruised, but alive.

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I decide to move on to some nearby factories, partly to search for rope for a drawstring and partly to get off the streets before anyone spots the aftermath of my pathetic zombie duel. After passing through a hospital – the floor of which was, for whatever reason, covered in fresh fruit – I enter a large, vaguely industrial-looking building which turns out to be a bunch of offices. I upgrade my boring T-shirt for a brown hoodie (which I’d totally wear in real life, so is fair game) but find no rope, so I head up a ladder to the roof.

There’s nothing up top, but there is something down below: another agitated member of the formerly living. Once again frightened that it might be targeting a nearby survivor, I go prone to conceal myself from anyone on the ground.

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I needn’t have bothered; I’d apparently made so much noise walking on the rooftop gravel that the zombie had heard me and raced all the way up to the top floor. I narrowly avoid having my ankles clawed off in a failed attempt to descend the ladder before it could reach me, and clamber back up to assess the situation: I’m trapped, on a roof, with a violent cannibal blocking the exit.

Welcome to Chernarus, myself.

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Coming soon in Part 2: Feathers, an ambush, and the world’s most perilous stairs.

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A Samsung Galaxy A5 review, eventually

10 Mar

I’ve had fairly good luck with technology. Besides a wonky graphics card and a monitor which developed a small smattering of dead pixels, I can’t remember the last time I replaced a gadget out of necessity rather than vanity or sheer capitalistic greed.

Except I can, because it happened last week, and I was furious. After returning to London from three days of assorted business and leisure activities in Cardiff and Yeovil, I thought the only thing dying was my legs. Just as I was preparing for bed, however, my phone – merely twenty-five months old – suffered a circuit failure. A sufficiently catastrophic circuit failure, I was later told, that it would take several working days to fix.

Unacceptable. The entire reason I spent a day dragging a suitcase (actually the third broken thing) around Yeovil was that I was interviewing for a fiercely desirable new job, and going phoneless meant I might miss their callback, look like a fool in their discerning eyes*, and throw away my chance. Instead, I took the opportunity to ditch the pay-as-you-go plan I’d been using since college, and walked out of the O2 shop with a shiny new Samsung Galaxy A5 on contract.

After a week of usage, I’m far less surprised that my old phone tapped out after two years – this thing makes it look like it was released in the Eighties. The 720p screen is bright and impressively colour-rich, the camera is as megapixel-y as a decent point and shoot, and the whole thing is encased in a wafer-thin (but bend-resistant) body that’s been cut from a single piece of metal. The subtle ‘honeycomb and glitter’ finish on the screen bezel looks lovely, too.

Why hello there.

Also, when I turned it on, my hair grew back, my eyesight was fixed, my jaw became more chiseled and my plaid shirt turned into a tailored suit.

Brilliantly, the button that engaged the Settings menu on my 2013 model now brings up a sort of streamlined Task Manager; a carousel of all the currently-open apps, which I can switch between and close with pleasant swiftness. This isn’t a particularly new or exciting feature in 2015, but I’m glad I’ve caught up. Plus, the 2GB of RAM – a relatively modest amount – keeps apps and menu navigation feeling fast and buttery-smooth. Plus, I can finally look at more than two gifs in a row without running out of memory and losing the ability to look at any more animations of people falling over.

My least favourite thing to do with the A5 is, funnily enough, make phone calls with it – and not just because it’s nice to look at. Strong lines are fine, but the sharp edges around the phone’s front panel means that holding the handset to your ear is like pushing a garden hoe into the side of your head. I imagine I’ll have to get accustomed to engaging the speakerphone and holding it out in front of my chest, using the slightly jaunty telecommunications stance popularised by candidates on The Apprentice.

I could be paying a bit more for the stronger under-the-hood power of a full fat Galaxy S5/S6 or an iPhone, but the A5 does more than enough to sate my nerd lust. It also does so in a compact enough package that, just yesterday, caused me to panic because I couldn’t feel its preposterously skinny form in my pocket and thought I’d have lost it. I really am a fan; I just hope it lasts longer than its predecessor.

*I still haven’t heard back, so maybe this happened regardless.

Crossing a line

16 Feb

I quit my job in December. Some might say it’s neither big nor clever to go voluntarily unemployed while living in Britain’s most expensive city, but sod it – I needed a change, and with my journalism degree quite literally gathering dust, I thought it high time to elbow my way into the press full-time.

This (intensely hopeful) career plan, couple with a newfound surplus of free time, has brought me to learning Teeline shorthand. Self-teaching, of course, since a £3 textbook used by the National Council for the Training of Journalists represents a significantly lower risk of early onset bankruptcy than the NCTJ’s own courses. Having spent most of my uni years in Cardiff’s libraries, I’m finding the experience of nabbing a tax-funded desk and hitting the (singular) book to a pleasantly familiar one.

It’s also bloody weird. The genius of the Teeline style, as my second-hand tome excitedly explains, is that the symbols for each letter are based simply on their regular English equivalents. I’m inclined to differ – B looks like an obese 6, Z is a 9, and F resembles a partially deflated balloon. Meanwhile, Q is a giant U, Y is a smaller U, O is a wide U, and U is a U. Sheesh.

Putting aside the fact that this alphabet has more Us than a 11 year old’s IM logs, it’s undeniably a clever system. Almost all of the symbols are designed to be joined with the others, so it’s comfortably similar to writing in normal cursive, and it’s flexible enough that I could start out writing whole words before becoming more adept at cutting unnecessary vowels. I can almost see why, in age where good digital sound recorders are available for £20, it hasn’t died out as a form of taking dictation.

I’m having bigger problems than obsolescence, though: fancy symbols or otherwise, my handwriting is still bloody appalling. This inability to draw a flat line without giving it a slight curve, or a curve that looks too much like a flat line, is proving a bigger barrier to my self-inflicted education than the actual syllabus ever could.

On the plus side, I recently gave myself a lot of time to practice.

Watch my voice

14 Feb

Players of the popular action-strategy video game and peculiar wealth creation exercise Dota 2 would do well to watch Tales From the Trench, a frequently hilarious play-by-play series commentated with infectious enthusiasm by a chap named Rusts. I suspect that is not his real name.

I’m obviously a big fan, partly because of the brilliant Twilight Zone-inspired sequence (which is actually more akin to Futurama’s The Scary Door) at the opening of each episode. Since I’m also a big fan of parody, Dota, writing, and apparently the sound of my own damn voice, I got in touch with Rusts to ask if I could contribute to a future episode with a voiceover of my own.

I could, I did, and the episode in question is now live!

As far as 27 seconds of talking goes, this was a hell of a lot of fun. I love writing pastiches, even if they aren’t my forte, and a game as complicated and characterful as Dota 2 lends itself perfectly to parody. There are a few places where I might have delivered a phrase differently, given another chance, but considering my normal speech consists mainly of shapeless mumbling, I think I gave it a decent crack.

Monster Hospital: The Story of Nightmare House 2

2 Feb

This piece was originally posted on Gaming Daily back in 2011; you can view an archived version of the original page here. I’m putting it here for portfolio-related reasons and, well, because I kinda like it!

Don’t look behind you. Don’t look behind you. Don’t look behind you. It’s a testament to the startlingly professional presentation of Nightmare House 2, a ten-month-old, free, first-person-pantsoiler mod for Half-Life 2: Episode 2, that when a text box silently pops up – a method of delivery that, in any other game, would be so biblically lame I’d roll my eyes clean out of their sockets – and instructs me in no uncertain terms to do something, blindly obeying it seems like the least terrifying option. Instead, I ran -whether it was from a jawless demon, a working light switch, or nothing at all, I’ll probably never know.

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My possible near-death experience with a few lines of captions was case of NH2′s Auto Scare System (which I’m not giving anyone the pleasure of acronymising). Every few minutes you’ll be given a brief, randomised shock – a distorted whisper in your ear, a sudden slap from an unseen hand. It’s one of many little touches that the Nightmare House series of mods and map packs have been using to gleefully confuse and harass players since 2005, when the original – a ten-minute skulk around a dilapidated mansion, occasionally beating off Half-Life 2′s zombie breeds with a crowbar – went live. Unlike NH2′s lengthy but technically impressive campaign, Nightmare House was quick and a bit rough, with scares that were well-implemented but lacking in any kind of narrative.

“It was the first map I ever released, and actually ever made” explains Hen Mazolski, creator and lead developer on Nightmare House 2. The missing horror story in a horror mod? “It was important for me to concentrate on the main thing I wanted it to be: scary”. Zombies and shotguns aside, NH”s frights embraced the paranormal. Shelves topple over an inch from your face, mirrors suddenly shatter, and metal beds violently slam into the ceiling in sequence, sending mattresses flying and cowardly writers recoiling. Poltergeist staples, to be sure, but sometimes the old ones are the best. More importantly, the mod itself wasn’t left to gather dust, and enjoyed a couple of reduxes – first up was a remake using elements from the sequel, still in early development at the time but poised to feature much richer writing. “I had the basic plot laid down so I started thinking about how to connect it with the first game,  and the idea of the NH1 remake came up. I actually placed a bet with a friend that I can remake the original game in a week and a half”, says Hen. “I won”. Five years after its initial release, the original’s second revamping would be included as the prologue to Nightmare House 2: a much more ambitious undertaking from Hen and the team he would lead, We Create Stuff.

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The poor chap from Nightmare House – that’s you – wakes up in a padded cell that’s helpfully been left unlocked. It quickly becomes apparent that the hospital you’ve been incarcerated in, comatose, has been abandoned for some time – save for a lone doctor desperate to contact you and the growling, shambolic walking corpses that were previously the building’s inhabitants. Them and a shadowy, stick-thin woman that haunts your vision and appears to be capable of manipulating your very perception of reality. Less claustrophobic than the original House it may be, but it’s probably a good idea to try not being there any more.

As it happens a hospital is perfect for NH2′s combination of physical threats and mind games – a horrible corruption of a place that should be tending to the damaged and vulnerable (you), yet is littered with so many dark red stains that it looks like Greg from Hematology’s been dicking around. Yet it was not always thus, and Hen recalls how numerous iterations of the mod were conceived. “During its development time, Nightmare House 2′s plot and settings were changed a lot, from another haunted house to a haunted town, a deserted island or a place made of only dreams and nightmares, and eventually the hospital/asylum idea was chosen. Even then the plot was nothing to what it is today…I still wasn’t sure if I want to take a more paranormal approach, with ghosts and demons or a more mutants/monsters/zombies approach”. We Create Stuff eventually settled on a mix of the two, and while the concept of a game set entirely within the minds of its characters is an interesting (if no longer unique) idea, the finished product is wonderfully atmospheric; a paranoid mini-adventure where you can be harmed with thoughts as well as claws.

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You are, of course, not alone. Besides the good doctor, who occasionally pops up on television screens and radios to give you directions, a glimmer of normality comes in the form of an “automated” female intercom announcer who, through an increasingly passive-aggressive (if constantly cheerful) series of messages, becomes a whole personality of her own. Neither spend much time barking into your ear, but wouldn’t the knowledge that you’ve got someone watching your back be detrimental to maintaining a near-constant state of fear?  I asked Hen whether he knew the risks of showing a gregarious side. “Yeah” he replies, “it’s all risky, but I think it came out for the best….most of it made Nightmare House 2 what it is today”. Playing through, it’s clear he has a point. Some of the best moments in the game involve the infuriatingly chipper announcer – “If this were a real fire, you’d be dead by now!” she beams as you walk, emasculated, from a door you failed to open yourself. Brief interludes like this one were a conscious effort ot break up the overwhelmingly sombre mood – Hen notes “action, plot advancement and humour” as the three flavours of interval that We Create Stuff sprinkled throughout the story.

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Having been spawned from Episode 2′s version of the Source SDK, Nightmare House 2 piggybacks on some of the engine’s strengths: convincing gunplay and physics, Faceposer support, integration with Steam and so on. The developers are also quick to praise Source’s “great scripting and trigger system” (a feature that enabled the unpredictable insta-headfucks of the Auto Scare System), even though this is likely to be We Create Stuff’s last game to use it. Still, NH2 was also forced to grapple with some of the limitations of Valve’s tech. “One of the things disturbing us the most was the lack of real time lighting, both in-game and both in the level editor. I remember how I used to render a map for hours to find out the lighting was totally out of place, or not quite right, there was really no way to know at first…one of the things we all wanted the most was to make a real time lighting system, like the one Portal 2 has now. We did manage to get something basic working, but it never went beyond that”. I’d add that borrowing the AI of Half-Life 2′s civilians – with their famous aversion to personal space and questionable self-preservation skills – to insert into the heads of a gun-happy SWAT team that break into the hospital and become your best pals did lead to some awkward doorway jams.

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That reminds me,  about halfway through, a squad of gun-happy SWAT troopers break into the hospital and become your best pals. Wait, what? You’ve had access to firearms from a very early point, but time spent with these guys is definately more about shooting than hallucinating. Their introduction is, subsequently, one of NH2′s biggest surprises. Including them was, according to Hen, “the thing that scared me the most” during development, and for good reason; should someone view the SWAT sections out of context, they’d be forgiven for thinking they were playing a very dark Counter-Strike map. Smartly, time spent with them is at most fleeting – bursts of shooty action to ward off ghost fatigue. In fact, despite objections from a loose estimate of “10%” of players, these guys are actually serving a handful of purposes at once. “From the very beginning  I wanted to have a twist in the middle of the game of some sort, having an ‘oh, snap!’ moment” says Hen. “In most horror games when you hear soldiers are coming they usually end up dead seconds before you reach them, or turn out to be the bad guys. Here I wanted to have a twist, and a friendly group of SWAT soldiers were great for that. I also wanted to show the player he’s not alone, and there is something bigger then he thought going on”.

I recall my own reaction to the first glimpse of a black helicopter; absolutely more of a “Thank God, help’s coming” than “Get the hell out of my psychological horror experience”, such is the strength of NH2′s terror-inducement. Frankly, if the SWAT team (who were reportedly loved by the other 90%) didn’t show up I might have gone a little insane, and even their reference-laden wisecracks weren’t enough to offset their reassuring presence. If nothing else, they’re expendable – not long after meeting them, and immediately following a successful zombie battle, you advance into a relatively brightly-lit room. The rear guard then pipes up: “Where’s Johnson?” Everyone stops. The HUD indicator for the number of team members drops one. Where is Johnson? Dread wastes no time setting in: something is here, it’s just taken a heavily armed man without you noticing, and it’s after you. Good luck with that. This, right here, is scripting done right – no bullshit glass walls, no control theft and no locking our heads straight.

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Nearly a year later, Nightmare House 2 is doing just fine. Hen remains confident he put out the best game he could, barring a few missed bugs and one case of weak signposting during the climax (“Every time I watch that I bash my head into the desk again”). That said, don’t expect a third installment. The entirety of We Create Stuff has moved on to new projects, including Flash games and lending the occasional helping hand on Underhell – another horror/FPS hybrid mod, revived in part by Hen after its original creator messaged him noting similarities between their respective efforts. It’s in good hands – NH2 is a creepy triumph, designed with meticulous attention to detail, packed with neat touches and easter eggs, and almost as compelling as the crème de la crème of singleplayer Source mods, MINERVA: Metastasis. You’d be a fool to miss it; just remember to break the wood at the end. You’ll be saving a forehead.

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Did I ever tell you about my food blog?

10 Jan

I don’t think I did!

Basically, about this time last year, I started having ideas above my station about learning to cook. Considering that I had, up until that point, been subsisting largely on Tesco sandwiches and McDonald’s, this was a matter of some importance. Of separate blog importance, in fact.

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The thinking was that if I had a blog to update, I’d have the motivation to keep cooking. Sadly, it didn’t quite work out; proper home cooking is prohibitively expensive for a young single man renting in London, and – let’s be honest – the thought that I’d feel obliged to update a blog demonstrates a clear failure in pattern recognition. Still, I got a good twelve recipes in before coldly leaving it to perish, and other than some slight regret about the unnecessary profanity, I’m actually pretty happy with the texts within.

Without further ado, then, I present The Slow Roast, pages one and two. By James Archer. Age 24.

Games of 2014

29 Dec

…THAT WERE ACTUALLY RELEASED IN 2014 AND EVERYTHING

Titanfall

Earlier this year I attempted, with limited success, to describe to some colleagues the actual physical sensation of playing Titanfall. I think my description was along of the lines of a pleasured “mmmnyahhh” and a small shoulder writhe, which in turn was basically me saying “it sends shivers up my spine” without invoking the cliché itself.

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Titanfall really deserves better, because it’s easily my second favourite multiplayer shooter of all time. And while it’s a game full of sublime design, like the deceptively intricate maps or the way matches seamlessly escalate from infantry skirmishes to stompy mech battles, I think this is mainly because of the movement. Slick, smooth and empowering, there have been no more exhilarating or intoxicating FPS experiences this year like pulling off a kilometre-long wallrun and doublejump chain while dancing around two-storey robot men and their grenade launcher fire. Titanfall gives you to tools to spend every moment doing something awesome, and for that, I love it.

Ten months after release, it’s a lot quieter than I’d like; it’s almost impossible to find a Capture the Flag match (the best game mode by virtue of leveraging the game’s rocket-propelled parkour for dramatic chase scenes between bases), and what’s left of the playerbase rarely ventures outside of Attrition (team deathmatch). That’s pretty sad – a genuinely innovative installment in gaming’s brownest genre, and no-one plays the damn thing – but when I too eventually move on, my memories will still be filled with aggressively ludicrous acrobatics rather than empty servers.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

How great a surprise was this? A game that screamed “licensed cash-in” one minute and growled “tediously gritty” the next, turning out to be a deep, satisfying action-adventure with no shortage of wit or character.

Most praise for Mordor has focused – deservedly – on the Nemesis system, which populates the world with unique randomly-generated Orcs, each with their own personality, strengths and weaknesses. It’s true that humiliating these shit-talking bastards by exploiting their vulnerabilities never gets old, and that repeated encounters with the same Nemesis can ignite a burning rivalry that’s much more personal than your relationships with the story’s designated villains, but the cleverness of this system makes it easy to forget how well-implemented the less glamorous mechanics were.

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Take the combat, which – while obviously and shamelessly lifted from the Batman: Arkham games – augments free-flowing swordfighting with magical special moves and slow-mo archery. These give fights a dynamic flashiness that makes them just an absolute joy, your character clearly growing in lethality as the combo chain ticks higher and both arcane crowd-control attacks and spectacularly brutal finishing moves become available.

The fact that you’ve got so many different abilities also means that you’re rarely forced to slog through a crowd of enemies by simply hitting them a lot, or that stealth and combat are treated as wholly distinct systems – which is more than could be said for the Arkham games on both counts. Instead, you can adapt to the threat; isolated Orcs make easy prey for stealth takedowns, small and medium-sized groups are best fought with combos and AOE attacks, and giant hordes can be whittled down with the smart application of explosive barrels or teleporting hit-and-run attacks. Shadow of Mordor is a total power fantasy, but the best kind: one that lets you off the leash and allows you to discover that power yourself.

Jazzpunk

Comedy in games usually amounts to one of two things: using a trope commonly agreed to make a game worse while simultaneously pointing out how such tropes are commonly agreed to make a game worse, or knob gags. Jazzpunk has one arse joke early on, but is otherwise one of the few, the proud, the brave: a comedy game that’s actually funny all the way through.

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Of course, it improves its own chances by delivering cracks at an almost Airplane!-like pace; to avoid showing an visual gag or amusing background event on-screen, you’d pretty much have to point the camera straight at the floor. Even more impressively, Jazzpunk manages to stay on the right side of surprising surrealism without ever teetering over into laboriously “lol random” wackiness.

On that note, one of the more self-involved reasons I appreciate Jazzpunk is that it reaffirms my belief that comedy is best when it’s slightly dialed back. After I involuntarily honked with laughter at a piece of cardboard unexpectedly falling to the ground, I pondered the myriad of ways in which lesser writers might have overcooked such an effectively simple moment. Happily, those writers were too busy blogging about their favourite videogames to have anything to do with Jazzpunk.