Hello! I'm Tom. I designed a game called Gunpoint, about rewiring things and punching people, and now I'm working on a new one called Heat Signature, about sneaking aboard randomly generated spaceships. Here's some more info on all the games I've worked on, here's the podcast I do, here are the videos I make on YouTube, here are some of the articles I wrote for PC Gamer, and here are two short stories I wrote for the Machine of Death collections.
I just finished my first game of Civilization V with the Brave New World add on, which is focused on culture and stuff. Here’s how it went. Continued
“It has the atmosphere of a cheerful village fete, but in a village that couldn’t exist. At one point, we seem to be in a cloud: a thick haze turns everyone in the street to silhouettes, picked out by spectacular rays of golden sunlight. Confetti floats through the air, and hummingbirds pause to probe flowers. Two children splash each other in a leaking fire hydrant.”
“Half an hour later, for reasons I won’t go into, I’m ramming a metal gear into a man’s eye socket until blood geysers all over my face. I’m drenched. Everyone’s screaming. Four more men are coming for me, and this blunt steel prong is all I have to kill them with.”
I’m trying to see if it’s possible to do this level without punching anyone. Not for the first time, my conclusion was: “Nope. Hmm, unless…”
I have to get to those stairs. The guard will shoot me if he sees me. I can’t open the building’s other entrance from the outside. Continued
“In Skyrim, a mage is an unstoppable storm of destruction. In real life, a mage is just an illusionist: they can’t do much except trick you. If one of them turned out to be the world’s only hope of salvation, hijinks and sudden death would inevitably ensue. Since these are my two favourite things, I’ve decided to try playing this way.”
Hope you enjoy/enjoyed it. It totally reinvented the game for me, made the world feel dangerous in a way it hadn’t since I first started. And something about having no weapons or armour makes the experience more convincing – I found myself appreciating the scenery more, being happy to trudge through the sparkling snow on a sunny day.
It makes me really want a Skyrim Survival Mode. One where you remain realistically vulnerable at all times, and leaving a town is heart-thumpingly tense. You’d need to eat before you could sleep, and sleep once a day to stay sharp. The only impetus to risk the wilderness would be to hunt animals, gather ingredients, or hope to find something valuable enough to sell for food before you find something too fast to run from.
I’m so amazingly goddamn rich. A string of gold-studded and jewel-encrusted Mine levels led straight into the Jungle, where two levels in a row left a Bone Idol trivially close to the exit. I barely had to nudge them to get out $40,000 richer, long before the ghost they trigger showed up. And now I’ve found the Black Market. Continued
I didn’t realise the recent Red Faction game was by the guys who made the excellent Saints Row 2, and I didn’t even realise Saints Row 2 was by the original Red Faction guys. I just rather childishly thought “Ugh, Red Faction” and ignored it. I didn’t expect it to be the first game to claim freeform destructibility and not actually be lying. And I certainly didn’t expect it to be one of my favourite games this year. Anyway, here’s a thing that happened:
I’m sandwiched between a GDF building and the compound’s armoured walls, angry APCs swarming the roads outside, when the crash happens. The cab of a large cargo truck bursts through the thick black wall in a fountain of rubble, run off the road by the careening GDF cars. The civilian driver bolts out, giving me both an opening and a free vehicle to drive through it. I clamber in and reverse out.
There’s already a similar truck parked in the garage back at the rebel base when I arrive, and I’m not entirely sure my heavier number is going to fit. I decide to find out full speed, so I not only crash headfirst into the other truck, but actually drive up its crumpled chassis and punch through the roof of the garage.
I flop limply out of the driver side door onto what remains of the roof, pick myself up and assess the damage. I figure I can make it slightly less obvious if I can just push my truck back down through ceiling, so I start pounding on its roof with my sledgehammer.
When the blast clears, I’m on a rock twenty meters away, black smoke billowing up from where the garage used to be. There’s a second detonation as the fire reaches the truck below, and the last few struts and girders clank to the floor. I back quietly away and talk to my boss.
I’ve unlocked something called The Grinder, so main plot be damned, I’m spending my salvage on making one of those. I have a little left over to buy the ability to teleport to any safehouse, so I zip to the furthest one to try it out.
It’s like a different planet, closer to Cumbria than Mars. It’s green, for one thing, and the cars are all differenty. One is a beautifully idealised designer vision of a future-car, impractically low, wide and sleek. I love it so much that I run directly towards it, am hit in the shins by a hubless hoverwheel, and somersault onto my back, beaming. I get up and hijack it – the doors open upwards! Of course they do! – and its one careful owner just says “Good luck!”
I speed off across the Martian countryside to the hostage rescue mission I picked up on arrival. The setting turns out to be a municipal building across a huge open plaza, and there’s a taxi in the parking lot so cool that I’m going to have to come back to admiring it later or no-one’s gonna get rescued today.
The guards let me stroll all the way up to the building itself before they get angry, at which point I finally try the Grinder on a live target. It charges for a second and then FOOSH! A razorblade the size of a dinnerplate has buried itself in the guard’s duodenum. Holy shit! I’m keeping this.
The Grinder swiftly clears out the ground floor – I can take little credit – but no hostages; they must be upstairs. FOOSH! One guard staggers back through a first-floor window with a blade in his diaphgragm. I have time to untie one of the three hostages before FOOSH! Another guard crashes over a balcony into the foyer, landing face-first on the razor in his skull. This is brilliant. This is every sci-fi fantasy I’ve ever had. FOOSH! A guard tries to high-kick me and finds a foreign object the size of an LP in her thigh.
Outside is an army, which I instinctively try to electrocute with the Arc-Welder before realising we’re going to have to double back. I hammer out a new backdoor to the building and lead my charges through the hole, on a painful dash to the cover of the next brick wall. FOOSH! FOOSH! FOOSH! I can’t razorblade them all, but they’re so pervasive that even in the quiet shade of a cafe I have to cut a few down to buy us a moment’s peace.
My friends make it round the quiet corner one by one, but the third girl lingers too long at the threshold to take pot-shots at the encroaching squadrons, and she’s felled. The survivors need no cajoling, we scarper for the carpark almost in unison. On arrival, we have a problem: futuro-car’s a two-seater. No wonder that bastard said ‘good luck’.
The taxi! It’s doors are portholes how cool is that? Once we’ve all climbed in, the discs of glass slide back into place and I speed off in a light drizzle of gunfire, my two fares looking completely unmoved by our plight. I’m having the time of my life.
1 Nobody’s Vault: “I looked up to find all the other students staring at me, and a trail of blood smattered across the walls leading to the limp body at my feet. I lowered my guard, and talked to the examiner. He agreed I should probably just skip the exam.”
2 Anywhere But Megaton: “I chose to exit the conversation, wait for him to turn round, then put a rusty kitchen knife I found in a toilet between his eleventh and twelfth vertebrae.”
3 The Road To Tenpenny: “I bought a dress only mildly stained with the blood of the dead, a magnificent bonnet to shade my emotionless murderer’s eyes, then pickpocketed my money back and headed up to the penthouse for some light genocide.”
4 Striking Out: “The shot ripped his right leg off at the knee, sending him pitching forward in a sprinkler-spurt of blood face-first into the dirt. All was still. The Fat Man was safe. I’ll be nice tomorrow.”
I decided to travel as far West as I could, as much to find out what would stop me as any reason to believe clues might lie this way.
I found a cave. It was called Lamplight Cavern. I went in. A twelve year-old boy told me to fuck off.
I wasn’t going to be nice today.
There’s a perk you can choose in Fallout 3 that makes you more persuasive to children. I’m serious, that’s its sole purpose. I don’t have that perk, and frankly I worry about those who do. Certainly situations do arise, like this one, where persuading a child is useful to your quest, but it’s the pre-meditation that makes this such a creepy thing to want. “Yeah, I’m probably going to need to convince some kids to do something they don’t wanna do. I’ll take it.”
I relied on raw charisma to get in. It was a society full of kids, which didn’t make a lot of sense given that they got here two hundred years ago, and they have a policy of kicking people out long before they reach child-bearing age. Luckily, though, one of the magic kids happened to know something about the android I’d made it my mission to hunt. She had a recording that confirmed the thing had acquired one of the two devices it was after.
As I’d arrived in Lamplight, someone else was leaving. Sticky. On my way out, I agreed to take him to Big Town because, well, he knew where Big Town was and I didn’t and I like places that are big.
Sticky tells randomly generated stories from modular – stupid – components. No two are ever quite the same, or interesting. He also runs off a lot. He’s one of those characters who was clearly designed to be annoying. While you can’t help but admire the developer’s resounding success, it’s hard to deduce why this was something they felt they had to achieve.
Tired not so much of Sticky wandering off – the break from his chatter was welcome – but of trying to find him again, I tried making him wear a variety of outfits before settling on a radiation suit. We weren’t headed towards any more than the normal amount of radiation, but the suit is bright yellow, and therefore easy to spot.
I had a good feeling about Big Town. Which was probably one reason it went so hideously wrong that the game actually stopped to produce a dialogue box calling me a sick bastard.
I’m going to start pulling a few things out of the old James that seem to belong here. They’re a bit tucked away in that giganto-document: for those who never saw it, I manually wrote every post of my last site one after the other in a vast HTML file using a text editor, in a sort of misguided show of geek bravado. This one’s about Battlefield 2, and the little kill reports that tell you who killed who with what.
Locutus [SVD] mrbuzzard
Fuck. They’re swarming us. This beachhead strategic point looked safe, but they’re pouring in now and that guy just got it in the face. I sprint over to him and whip out the defibrillators. I’m a medic, you see.
He gets back up and I chuck him a medikit for good measure. “You’re gonna be okay buddy,” my character automatically says. “Thanks man, I owe you one,” his automatically replies. The tank we’re standing next to explodes.
mrbuzzard is no more.
Fuck! The concussion from the blast is so strong I can barely see, but as a medic you See Dead People regardless. I stagger over to his body and-
-shock some life into it. I don’t have time to patch him up before the ground explodes again and the troops pour in.
^^andy^^05 [AK-101] BlueBall
^^andy^^05 [AK-101] $uper_Gang$ta
hammi [T-90] tOMMy
Jesus Christ. I make a beeline for the bodies and an enemy troop rounds the sandbags ahead of me. I hit the deck and spray him with M4 fire, and he goes down before he can hit me.
Pentadact [M4] pHk
I get BlueBall-
-fixed up, but $uper_Gang$ta fades away before I can get to him. God damn it, I hate it when I lose one. “You’ll be fine, get back to the fight.” I wish I could believe or stop myself saying that.
nofear [T-90] Squire
nofear [T-90] tOMMy
Shit! The tanks have rolled in, and I’m-
Mr0 [Artillery] mrbuzzard
Mr0 [Artillery] easydog
Mr0 [Artillery] Sigmax
Everything explodes. You hear it before you see it, but not by much. Then you can’t see anything at all, and pretty soon you can’t hear anything either. The dust-clouds a blast like that kicks up would blind you even if you weren’t in shock, and your ears just hum a monotonous song instead of reporting the outside world. When my senses return it’s to a beige world of loud noises. Through the smoke I can still make out the gleaming white trails of more artillery shells slamming down into us. I know with a grim certainty that almost everyone will die before I can get to them, and before I even make it to the first one I’m shot three times and hit the deck. I have no idea where the shots came from, or even if there’s any cover nearby – all I can see is the corpse bar on my singularly selfless HUD. Biting the dust seems to have saved me, and I’m on the mend all the time my medikit is out, but I’m not any closer to the bodies and I’m not going to hold this post on my own. I get up and immediately come face to face with the guy who shot me. I throw myself backwards over some sandbags and frantically hammer the number keys. My Beretta 9mm comes up and I shoot him three times in the face.
Pentadact [Beretta] ^^andy^^05
In retrospect he was probably more surprised to see me than I was him – it was a fair bet I was dead. More fire rains in, either a Support troop or a tank judging by the sheer fire rate. Shots thwack into the sand all around, and a final artillery explosion kills-
Mr0 [Artillery] BlueBall
Mr0 [Artillery] wpmike
-two more and-
Mr0 [Teamkills] th0ry
-ha! One of their own. I’m hit again but I’m not ducking this time. I pelt straight for the very patient body of my patient, dive through the smoke over an ammo box and land prone on top of him, immediately-
-defibrillating. He gets up and-
neurax [AK74U] easydog
God damn it! I shock him back to life. He’s learnt his lesson and stays down with me, but by this time I’ve lost everyone else for good. I chuck him a medikit and we scramble to the bunker by the flag.
easydog [M16A2] Bleak
easydog [M16A2] neurax
Pentadact [M4] Parliuus
easydog [M16A2] Monterto
He might be stupid but he’s a good shot. But there’s still the APC, and when its not scattering heavy fire at our little window on the world, it’s smashing up our empty vehicles with guided rockets. Worse, an enemy chopper I thought was just flying by has come around for another pass.
But something’s not right about it. I don’t know anything about anything, really, but consciously or otherwise most of the Western world now knows a Black Hawk when they see it. Black Hawks are ours. I focus on it and sure enough, friendly nametags pop up – green ones, in fact: my squad. Then, inevitably yet surprisingly, gloriously and loudly-
D4rkM4ster [Black Hawk] nofear
D4rkM4ster [Black Hawk] hammi
D4rkM4ster [Black Hawk] DanMM
D4rkM4ster [Black Hawk] Jage
It’s their turn to explode. The much-killed idiot and I sprint out to meet them. There’s still a body out here I can res, which I promptly-
-do. Half my squaddies throw themselves out of the chopper and parachute down to meet us, while the pilot takes it to a safer landing just outside the base.
It’s a fantastic sight, but I don’t have time to admire it – I’m seeing more Dead People. Scampering around the wreckage of the base rubbing my shock-pads together gleefully at the prospect of more life-saving fun, I suddenly discover where these fresh corpses are coming from. An enemy Spec Ops commando an inch from my face, silenced pistol raised to my neck. I don’t have time to think.
Pentadact [Shock Pads] FaR2SiNiSTeR
At some point during my peaceful reign over Tenpenny Towers, I found myself chainsawing an old man in the neck. In his office, which for some reason he’d kitted out like a doctor’s surgery, I found an old tape of someone talking about androids. Specifically, an escaped android who’s looking for a doctor to have a little work done. Ah, that’s probably it – he was a doctor. I knew there had to be some explanation.
I’ll be honest, I don’t much care where my dad’s gone. He was a nice enough chap to have around when I was growiing up, but I’m sure he’s got a good reason for striking out on his own. Jesus, I’m what, twenty eight? I’ve been living with my parents long enough. Besides, he’s quest-critical. The worst that could happen is that he falls over for a while.
So I didn’t have much interest in Fallout 3’s main quest. But I had a lot of interest in an escaped android. The tape wasn’t much of a lead, but I headed out from the safety of Tenpenny to investigate it all the same.
What I found, almost immediately, was a raider camp. Slipping down a mountainside I sniped a lookout’s arm off with Tenpenny’s rifle, then ploughed through the two entrance guards with my baseball bat. Inside it was a fairly small warehouse, but a hole in the wall lead to a huge cave complex beneath. Decked out like a nightclub. I snuck around it smashing people with a sledgehammer and planting landmines in their pockets until I came to a friendly man named Smiling Jack. Jack wasn’t a bandit like the others, he was a weapons merchant with an enormous arsenal who didn’t much care who he sold to. I put a landmine in his pocket and took it all from his corpse.
Tenpenny’s rifle was immediately obsolete. I had laser rifles, laser pistols, grenades, missile launchers, flame throwers, and something called The Terrible Shotgun. But it was on my way out that I found the jackpot: The Fat Man. A handheld nuclear warhead launcher. Handheld, but not light – its weight tipped my haul over the humanly haulable limit, and I was slowed to a crawl. Usually this would be irrelevant – I could just fast-travel home and ditch some stuff. But I’d slipped in with a minimum of fuss, which left a maximum of enemies still roaming the camp. No fast travel till they’re dead.
With a sadness I set the Fat Man down on a step and set about disintegrating the camp’s inhabitants. It turned out they had a Goliath caged up, which I left well alone, as well as some slaves. Since I was going to have to kill all their captors anyway, it seemed rude not to set them free, so I unlocked the pen. See? I can be nice.
Slaves don’t have any weapons, of course, but they’ll snatch any they find on the ground as they run, so they might be of use against the last few guards too. One nabbed a Chinese Assault Rifle from the nearest pile of radioactive ash, and the rest ran gratefully off in the direction I’d just come from. The direction I’d just come from after dropping the Fat Man. Fuck.
Am I really going to have to do this?
I shot the armed one first, figuring he’d turn on me when I started gunning down his pen-pals. I caught the next one in the back with a critical laser blast, atomising him as he ran. The third exploded entirely of his own accord – either a landmine I hadn’t seen, or a missile launcher lurking behind the shacks. But the final slave was too far away to hit with my fancy new rifle. I had to pull out Tenpenny’s Sniper for its superior accuracy. Three feet from the Fat Man, 40% chance to hit.
The shot ripped his right leg off at the knee, sending him pitching forward in a sprinkler-spurt of blood face-first into the dirt. All was still. The Fat Man was safe.
I’ll be nice tomorrow.
There isn’t one. There’s a cracked blasted rockscape crawling with spitting bloatflies, ravenous hounds and mutant scorpions. It took me the entire freaking night to cross it, so when I arrived at dawn and found someone ahead of me in the queue to get in, I stoved his head in with a tire iron and took over the intercom. Yes, hello, I’m here to see your boss.
I was delighted to find Tenpenny an insular society of bigots, a place oblivious to the suffering of others. I wasn’t wild about Megaton, but the Wasteland was even worse, so I was glad to find a place that had nothing to do with either. I bought a dress only mildly stained with the blood of the dead, a magnificent bonnet to shade my emotionless murderer’s eyes, then pickpocketed my money back and headed up to the penthouse for some light genocide.
On the balcony, I was presented with a big, shiny red button. I gave it a tentative prod.
And now we are all sons of bitches.
Actually I guess we’ve been sons of bitches for about two-hundred years at the point Fallout 3 is set. We’re great great great great grandsons of bitches.
This felt like the most destructive thing I’ve ever done in a videogame. I’ve killed billions in DEFCON, but they weren’t unique people things. Megaton is full of carefully crafted stories, characters, homes, secrets, even a whole religion found nowhere else. And less than an hour after I first set eyes on it, it was ash.
It’s probably not much consolation to the citizens of Megaton, but I got a sweet penthouse apartment out of the deal. I picked out a new outfit, had my housebot make me a blond, and bought a house theme: Love Machine.
Oh dear God, it’s like a disastrous episode of a post-apocalyptic Changing Rooms. But the nightwear that comes with the heart-shaped bed does go well with my welding mask.
Dressed and rested, I headed back out to the balcony to join Alistair Tenpenny for an afternoon of shooting poor people from our ivory tower.
And I was all set to live a long, peaceful and sheltered life at Tenpenny Tower, until I noticed Tenpenny had a better Sniper Rifle than me.
You can tell a lot about people by the armour they wear, and the stuff I prised off the cold bat-battered bodies of the first people I met outside the Vault was classified as ‘Painspike’. The outside world is not hospitable.
Still, I was determined not to just head straight to the town of Megaton like everyone else. All anyone seems to talk about is Megaton this, Sheriff that. I wanted my experience to be different, so I doubled back and headed in the opposite direction. After being shot at by flies (?) and mauled by molerats (!), I finally came to a sheer wall, hopefully some trace of civilisation. I circled it until I came to the entrance. It was Megaton.
I took immediately against the place. The Sheriff was annoying and made no sense – apparently he doesn’t trust me, and the reason no-one’s ever defused the bomb is that he doesn’t trust any of the locals, but he invites me to try. I find this guy’s Vault Loyalty lacking.
I ignore him and head to the bar, where I’m told the proprietor has some information I need. I run into him on the balcony outside. He’ll tell me what I need to know for 100 bottlecaps. I tell him to fuck off. He’ll tell me what I need to know if I do a job for him. I tell him to fuck off. He’ll tell me what I need to know for 300 caps.
There’s an option, at this point, to ask him what happened to the 100 cap deal. I didn’t take that option. I chose to exit the conversation, wait for him to turn round, then put a rusty kitchen knife I found in a toilet between his eleventh and twelfth vertebrae.
His body spasmed a little, and I had time to snatch his computer password from his pocket before it slipped off the threshold and plummeted to the city below. If you’re going to be a dick, don’t do it on a balcony.
On my way out from breaking into the barkeeper’s office for the info, I run into a man who wants me to blow up the entire town of Megaton.
My name is Sophie, because the way in which Fallout 3 asks you to pick your name is a way that makes silly names, or obtuse ones like Pentadact, seem rather cruel. I’m not going to spoil what that is right now, but I will in the following entry.
I’m going to location-tag these spoilers, so if you’re playing right now, or you plan to, you can skip the sections about any areas you haven’t visited. I’m not doing the main plot, so I won’t be spoiling anything about that. I ended up picking a different main quest. Continued
“Portrait? I don’t have a photo ready for this, but I’ll see what I’ve got in My Documents. Ah yes, an animated GIF Tim sent me of David Hasselhoff wearing David Hasselhoff briefs, which zooms into his crotch recursively, forever. Perfect.”
Over at the PC Gamer blog today, the full story of my doomed attempt to play the one game I know for sure I’ll hate: Football Manager. It doesn’t go well.
Galactic Civilizations 2 is a strategy game about colonising space. The cool thing about it is the AI: the alien races you meet have very different personalities, and it’s fun to bargain with them and play them off against each other.
Long ago, I tried playing the biggest possible match of it, with the most possible alien races, and wrote up how it went in bite-sized entries.
CVG, the site I wrote this diary on, is gone forever. But the diary is now back up on PC Gamer’s site! It starts here.
Second Life is a Massively Multiplayer Online… Place. There’s no goal, so it’s not a game, but it lets you create things – potentially of enormous complexity. People make games within it. Somewhere, I’m told, there’s a hangar in which people are still playing a World War II MMOG they recreated in SL after the real one got scrapped. A basic Second Life account is free, and with that you get a few hundred virtual dollars to buy and make stuff – on top of which, a lot of groovy players give away copies of the stuff they’ve made for free. Continued