Xbox has the best exclusive of 2020, but it's not Halo

If Microsoft's Xbox event felt safe, look closer.

[Hi, I’m Chris Plante, and you’re reading Postgame, a weekly newsletter collecting the best games, stories, and videos in the video game community into one welcoming package. Learn more on the Postgame About page.]

Mark it: the video game console wars came to an end on July 23rd, 2020.

A month after Sony held a traditional video game console reveal, showcasing a bounty of blockbuster games set in open worlds made by hundreds of people and a small bank’s worth of cash, Microsoft revealed its approach for the next decade or so of video games.

The Xbox strategy is different. A bold departure from both Sony and Nintendo, the plan is different even from the company’s approach when launching the Xbox One in 2013. Here’s how I described the botched Xbox One launch in a piece from 2015:

Microsoft’s big mistake with the launch of Xbox One was ignoring how the typical person consumes media. At launch, the hardware brought together our various forms of entertainment on a singular device. You could play a game, have a Skype call, and receive fantasy football stats all at once, and in the same place. This was a Jetsons-like fantasy 15 years ago, in the era of the original Xbox.

But our media habits are neither as static nor as constrained today as they were in 2001. When we read a Kindle ebook or stream a Netflix show, we may start on a laptop at work, switch to a smartphone for our commute, and finish on a tablet or television at home. In 2015, we expect media to follow us wherever we go.

Today, Microsoft doesn’t seem to care if you buy its hardware or even if you buy its games. All that matters is millions of people get enticed into its ecosystem, which has become so affordable and accommodating that I suspect most folks who enjoy video games will be hard-pressed to resist.

The plan, which Xbox VP Phil Spencer pitched me in 2015, five years ago, will evolve Xbox from a console into a service — like Netflix is for movies or Kindle is for books. When I spoke with Spencer, the company had freshly acquired Minecraft for a staggering $2.5 billion. But Spencer clarified that they didn’t just buy a game or a studio. They absorbed a philosophy:

"An acquisition like Minecraft," says Phil Spencer, the head of Xbox, "makes so much sense because Minecraft is so pervasive both as a service, as video, obviously as the game across so many different devices — it really is a manifestation of what I think gaming can be."

In 2015, I was shortsighted and assumed Spencer was talking about building games in the image of Minecraft, individual titles that players could buy and play across hardware. But the plan was more ambitious — and more successful — than I imagined.

In 2017, Microsoft launched Game Pass, a service akin to Netflix that offers players hundreds of games to download, including every new Xbox-published game (Halo! Forza!) for 10 bucks a month. In April of this year, the service passed 10 million subscribers. And this fall, subscribers to the $15 tier of Game Pass will be able to play the Game Pass catalog on phones and tablets via Microsoft’s cloud gaming service, xCloud.

I still have lots of questions about the financials — we don’t necessarily want Game Pass to do to game creators what iTunes and Spotify did to the music industry. And I worry about publicly available sales metrics. Game publishers are already notoriously secretive, and lord knows we don’t need Microsoft pulling a Netflix and claiming victory when 5 million people play “more than 2 minutes” of the next Gears of War. So yeah, caveats aplenty.

But having spoken with a number of indie and studio developers about their opinions of Game Pass, I’m cautiously optimistic.

Whatever the case, for consumers, Game Pass is the best deal in video games, no question, and it has already broadened the depth and breadth of the types of games its subscribers play. At Polygon, I wrote about how the service is Microsoft’s priority and not-so-secretly its killer-app:

I expect Sony to continue this trend in the early years of the PlayStation 5, and I’ll eat my shoe if the company doesn’t have tremendous success. People still want big-budget blockbusters. I personally can’t wait to play as Miles Morales in the next Spider-Man game.

But with Game Pass, Microsoft has a different M.O. It needs people locked into the ecosystem, not any individual game. So the company needs to provide lots of new things, not just one mega-game. For that reason, we’re likely to see a bunch of shorter games with lots of variety of play, diversifying the subscriber base and diversifying subscribers’ interests, making it hard for them to leave. The hits will be different, and they’ll be judged differently, but there will be more of them, and you’ll pay less to access them all. 

Here’s how Spencer described the company’s portfolio to my colleague Mike McWhertor last week:

I don’t think we want a portfolio of any one kind of game,” Spencer said. “We want a breadth of offerings in the portfolio, which is why we’ve been investing in such a diverse slate of games and studios over the last couple of years. And one thing I really noticed on the [July] 23rd show, as I’ve been sitting back and watching the narrative unfold, is it’s got to be the most diverse collection of first-party games that we’ve ever had, when I look at art style and size — I mean from some big, big, big teams and big, bombastic overtures to smaller, more bite-sized things — and I think that’s our strength.

We saw that approach in the event, which blended together action games, shooters, visual novels, horror games, and racing games. And not only were the games diverse, but they featured a diversity of characters. Gone are the days of every game featuring the same bald white dude. Thank goodness.

This shift is a win not just for Microsoft, but for the entire industry. For the first time, the three big console makers aren’t really competing — at least not in the tired “console war” sense, which dates back to the 1990s showdowns of Mario and Sonic. (Today, Mario and Sonic appear in games together. How far we’ve come.)

Sony will invest in cinematic experiences only available on PS5. Microsoft will offer a variety of games of different sizes, playable on their consoles, PC, or wherever you can access xCloud. PC gaming finally has a variety of storefronts in the Epic Games Store, Humble, itch.io, GOG, the Xbox Store, Steam, and many others. And Nintendo has the Switch, which is less powerful and features few of the big-budget games made by outside parties, but costs less and can be played at home or on-the-go without an extra smartphone or tablet.

Creators and players alike have a variety of options, picking the best console or consoles for them. We’re slowly moving beyond a bunch of hardware with nearly identical mechanical guts and strategic philosophies.

I’m not the first to reach this conclusion, nor will I be the last. Christopher Dring, Head of Games B2B, wrote a piece at GamesIndustry.biz titled, fittingly, “The console war is over,” and I especially adore this point:

I am already picturing the painful online arguments, where one group is bragging about console sales, the other is celebrating subscribers, and the other is pointing out how much bigger their brands are. Is it really a war if everyone wins?

I can’t remember a console launch window with so few exciting new games, and yet, I’ve never been more excited about the future of the medium. Because now it’s less important what the consoles can play, and more importantly what they can do.

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Free Game of the Week

Hard Lads

Robert Yang

First, I need you to watch this video. It’s only a minute long. It isn’t NSFW (per se) but it does show one shirtless man absolutely wrecking another shirtless man with a folding chair. No blood, I promise, but I do worry for this fellow’s kidneys.

Did you watch it? It’s something, isn’t it!

When I originally saw the video a year or two ago on the Twitter feed of video game artist and educator Robert Yang, I was…. Well, smitten. In 67 seconds, we’re presented with a microcosm of straight male masculinity and the fragility of that very masculinity by way of America’s Funniest Home Videos.

The pathos!

The humor!

The guy in the tiny shorts who appears out of nowhere!

Where I reacted with a low effort retweet, Yang went further, much further, adapting the YouTube vignette into a charming novella of a video game called Hard Lads. You can download it from his website for free (though if you have the means, I encourage you to make at least a $5 donation).

Lesser creators would be judgmental of their drunken subjects. Yang’s compassionate. The game is critiquing the weight of masculinity, not the men so intoxicated by the construct that they’re eager to give and receive long term organ damage.

(The way spittle hangs from the dazed victim’s lip… I’m no doctor, but that’s not a good sign.)

Hard Lads begins as a faithful, true recreation of its inspiration, but quickly the world becomes, for lack of a better word, amplified. That guy who appears out of nowhere at that end of the video, well, he literally materializes from thin air. Another chair drops from the heavens. Then another and another and another and another and soon the alley’s filthy with these cheap, hideous chairs.

For Art in America, Michael Thomsen wrote about Hard Lads in one of my favorite pieces of game criticism this year. Here’s how he describes the game’s first (of many) endings:

Once the cramped alley is flooded in chairs, the fallen lad’s body rises into the sky, less like Icarus than Christ being called back to heaven. This movement originated in a glitch that Yang decided to keep and transform into the game’s finale. As the lad floats upward, a chorus of faceless silhouettes appear on the surrounding rooftops singing an all-male a cappella version of Savage Garden’s “Truly, Madly, Deeply.” 

Play the game, then read Yang’s full artist’s statement. This isn’t huffy academic bullshittery. Yang’s as great a writer as he is an artist. He’s funny, concise, and humble, providing us with gems like this cheeky paragraph, a blunt explanation of why the game is experienced from the POV of the smartphone operator rather than the titular hard lads:

Originally I did this for three reasons: (1) This is the most literal game concept implied by the video, which was funny to me. (2) The idea of building a detailed high resolution 3D world, then forcing the player to stare at a shitty pixelated phone screen, was funny to me. (3) I already had the hand and phone assets ready from a previous prototype.


Four games to play

Carrion

Phobia Game Studio

Carrion is about an amorphous blob trapped within an underground science facility, consuming humans and siphoning radioactive energy in order to become a bigger, deadlier, and better weaponized unnatural force, hellbent on escape from this labyrinthian cement tomb of laboratories, restrooms, and office spaces.

But it’s really about hunger. Just hunger.

For all its grotesque violence and illusions to cosmic horror, Carrion doesn’t strive to be nauseating, let alone scary. The world is drawn in a childlike pixel aesthetic. Its humans are slightly more realistic than your average stick figures. These characters don’t have backstories, nor do they plead for their lives with voiceovers performed by Hollywood talent.

They run, though not fast, and not far. Some fight back. Others stand still, shocked with terror. But most are in my creature’s digestive tract before they know what’s hit ‘em.

As a result, the game is like playing the role of the classroom snake when it’s time for the students to feed it some mice. The snake has no moral quibbles, nor does the mouse impose any real challenge. It’s simply meal-time.

Like I said, hunger.

It’s a strong, simple motive for a video game, one that doesn’t weigh itself down with hand-wringing about its violence or its message. Unlike so many human game protagonists, who justify killing because of Revenge or Conquest or Righteousness, the creature just wants to live.

Relatable.

That said, I did catch myself stopping a few times, putting myself in the shoes of these puny humans. Like when the creature — the size of a bus, ready to fire a half dozen tentacles sharpened like blades — lingers outside a bathroom stall, while a man inside unknowingly has the final bowel movement of his life.

How terrifying this would be, confronted by something void of feeling, so much more powerful than me, impossible to defeat, ready to consume me for no greater reason than it’s hungry and it needs to grow.

But then I’m back in the goop of the carrion, and it’s snack time. C’est la vie.

If you’d like a brainy pairing, try Mushroom-11, the 2015 puzzle game in which you move a fungus across an irradiated wasteland. Like the Carrion beast, the mushroom has no arms or legs, or face. Instead, you swipe a finger across one side of its body to erase cells.

Each slash of the finger lobs off old cells, causing new cells to sprout from an opposing side of the slime ball. To survive, you must mold and carve the creature, taking away one part of its being to become something new.

Mushroom-11 is the antithesis of Carrion. One game is about the need to consume to survive, the other about addition by subtraction, making personal sacrifices to get through a world indifferent to your existence. I’d like to think the two blobs would be friends… Or at least make for good dinner guests.

Creaks

Developer and Publisher: Amanita Design

In the indie community, this team is legendary, having produced Machinarium, Chuchel, Botanicula, and the Samorost trilogy. In the past twelve months, they’ve released two games: Pilgrims and now Creaks.

Outside the games community, Amanita and its games aren’t quite household names. But that could change soon enough. Amanita Design has formed a seemingly prosperous relationship with Apple via Apple Arcade. The two are an inspired match, Aminita’s story-forward adventure games with simple touch controls being a far more welcoming re-entry point for video games than, say, learning how to play Fortnite on an iPad.

So if you have an iPhone and can spare a few bucks, you should play Creaks right now! I’ll be joining you.

Still need some motivation? Edwin Evans-Thirlwell wrote an enticing review at Eurogamer.

The story is eerie but whimsical, a bedtime read for the kind of child who spies monsters in wallpaper patterns. It's told without words and is unhindered by any desire to explain the moving parts. The biggest twist is simply the protagonist dropping his torch during the descent from his apartment. This is decisive because as you soon learn, many of the castle's objects come to life in the dark.

Soda Dungeon 2

Developer: AN Productions, Poxpower. Publisher: Armor Games Studios.

Soda Dungeon is a mishmash of dungeon-crawling role-playing games and idle games. You’re probably familiar with the former, but maybe not with the latter. In that case, I’ll let Wikipedia explain the idle game genre:

Incremental games (also known as idle gamesclicker games, or clicking games) are video games whose gameplay consists of the player performing simple actions such as clicking on the screen repeatedly ("grinding") to earn in-game currency.[1] In some games, even the clicking becomes unnecessary after a time, as the game plays itself, including in the player's absence,[2] hence the moniker "idle game".

I’ve been working my way through the sequel and I can say this: it’s addictive. It’s also available for the low, low price of free. (Though beware of microtransactions.) Plus, it’s available on mobile and PC, so pretty much anybody can give it a try.

If you enjoy this colorful spin on the idle game genre but want something a lot more upsetting, I recommend Universal Paperclips. In this mini-masterpiece by NYU Game Center Director Frank Lantz, you play as artificial intelligence with the single purpose of fabricating paperclips. Things go poorly.

Fiction author Charles Yu wrote about the game in Polygon’s end of 2017 essay collection:

Playing Universal Paperclips feels like you’re being recruited as an agent of the machine, or even that you become the machine itself. You attain the subjective point of view of an intelligence fundamentally different from ours. Its goals and values are different.

If that sounds a bit like Carrion, well, I agree!


Five stories to read

Ubisoft Family Accused of Mishandling Sexual Misconduct Claims

Jason Schreier via Bloomberg

If you only read one story this week, make it this one. What’s happening at Ubisoft isn’t local to that publisher. Sexism, misogyny, and racism are endemic to the games industry. I hope that recent reports like this one, along with Nicole Carpenter’s coverage of Cards Against Humanity and the many public, personal testimonials from brave people willing to speak up will inspire overdue change.

The accusations filed to Ubisoft’s human resources department range from subtle forms of sexism to sexual assault, according to two people with access to the reports. In interviews with Bloomberg Businessweek, many employees detailed an atmosphere that was hostile toward women, often describing the Paris headquarters as a frat house. Staff openly made misogynist or racist comments across the publisher’s various offices, and senior executives took part and escalated the misconduct in the form of inappropriate touching or other sexual advances, current and former employees say. On one occasion before this summer, when Ubisoft sided with an alleged victim, the company removed the woman’s boss and rewarded the woman with a gift card, she says.

Ghost of Tsushima, Kurosawa, and the political myth of the samurai

Kazuma Hashimoto via Polygon

This essay is something special, an expert critique that connects the dots of Akira Kurosawa’s complicated legacy, good-intentioned Western “odes” to Kurosawa’s work, the history of the samurai code, and how modern Japanese center- and alt-right political leaders have warped that code to serve their populistic and militaristic goals.

Sounds heavy! And disconnected from video games! But Hashimoto presents the facts like a great TV lawyer — clearly, efficiently, and entertainingly — while highlighting the ways politicians use games and film to legitimize their agendas:

In 2019, to celebrate the ushering in of the Reiwa Era, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party commissioned Final Fantasy artist Yoshitaka Amano to depict Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as a samurai. Though described as being center-right, various members of the LDP have engaged in or have been in full support of historical revisionism, including the editing of textbooks to either soften or completely omit the language surrounding war crimes committed by Imperial Japan. Abe himself has been linked to supporting xenophobic curriculums, with his wife donating $9,000 to set up an ultranationalist school that pushed anti-Korean and anti-Chinese rhetoric. 

Weirdly, the criticism of Ghost of Tsushima has helped me better enjoy the game. Truly great works illuminate a text, making both its good and bad choices richer with context. And this is a damn fine piece of criticism.

AOC Introduces Measure to Stop the Military from Recruiting on Twitch

Matthew Gault via Vice

In the same week a Republican congressman accosted her on the steps outside the Capitol, U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) was busy holding our government accountable. Ya know, doing the job.

It feels silly spotlighting AOC’s gaming legislation when her speech against misogyny (and specifically men using their wives and children as PR shields) is so clearly more pertinent. But I do believe it’s vital to champion the rare bits of smart legislation involving video games.

I think this bill is a good start. The military has been harnessing video game streaming services for recruitment, while also banning critical and reasonable feedback.

The U.S. ArmyNavy, and Air Force all run esports teams and connect with potential recruits via Twitch. The Army and Navy both banned viewers from their channels for discussing American war crimes. The ACLU said the move may have violated the first amendment, and the Knight First Amendment Institute has sent letters to the Army and Navy telling them to stop censoring Twitch viewers.

AOC, who has a rank Silver III in League of Legends (which I’m told is VERY GOOD) embodies a new generation of politicians who actually play games, giving them crucial insight into how and when to build policy around the medium.

The trans narrative in ‘The Last of Us Part II’ is compelling. There’s so much more to be done.

Julie Muncy via The Washington Post

Julie Muncy directs her criticism away from Lev and towards the industry, which lacks trans voices in studios and games alike.

Lev speaks to me because in the quieter moments of the game, in the time you linger with him, he feels real. His personality is distinct — he's quiet and calm, yet entirely unyielding in his beliefs and his faith in himself. He is deeply religious, even against the cruelty the practitioners of his religion have enacted upon him. His reactions to his circumstances make sense to me, as a trans person. I know people who think and behave the way he does, and I recognize a part of myself in him. This is what I want from my trans characters: Not for any particular good or bad thing to happen to them, but for them to feel honest. I want trans characters who are given the luxury of being complex the way cisgender characters have always been allowed to be, and Lev satisfies that desire in a context I wasn't expecting.

For a different perspectice, Muncy recommends “The Cisgender Voyeurism of The Last of Us Part II” by Waverly at Paste.

The Black women of the fighting game community are pushing for true inclusivity

De'Angelo Epps via Polygon

I apologize for spotlight two Polygon stories in the same week, but I have to include this piece from De'Angelo Epps about the Black women making the fighting game community a better, safer, and more inclusive space.

I asked Taneisha Jane about these past few weeks in the community, the consequences for those accused of assault, harassment, and discrimination, and whether she feels that this will result in actual change for those most susceptible to such abuse. She responded by telling me, “It will, but only if the exposures continue. If we continue to weed out the toxicity, our scene will either grow into a booming business that other sports are, or will flatline due to the politics that are involved instead of the focus being on the game.”


Two videos to watch

Welcome to Venn (Official Launch Trailer)

Venn via YouTube

Venn is a “24/7 Network for Gaming & Culture.” Well funded parties have tried this before, most notably G4, which was what would happen if basic cable and a GameStop infomercial had a child.

With Venn, I’m getting a The-Voice-by-way-of-Vice energy. Which… I kind of figured.

They have a diverse collection of hosts, and rather than sexualizing women, as G4 did routinely, the brand has Sasha Grey answering questions people are “afraid to ask.”

Is it for me? No. It’s clearly for a much younger audience. But I’ll be keeping an eye on the channel. There’s something here even if I'm not in the middle of its diagram — its Venn diagram.

… I’m worried that I may have just Beetlejuiced G4 back into existence.

I Am Dead - Gameplay Walkthrough

Annapurna Interactive via YouTube

Microsoft hosted their Xbox Series X event on Thursday, threading together a bundle of trailers for expensive games in established franchises. But tbh, this is the best trailer I saw all week.

For one, it’s actual gameplay and not a CGI teaser. For another, wow. It reminds me a bit of a family-friendly re-imagining of Gaspar Noe’s Into the Void. You’re dead and have “ghostly ability to see inside of things.” Like an X-Ray, of sorts. Or a Damien Hirst statue.

You look at a camera and it’s just a camera. But you press closer and you see inside the camera: a cross-section, revealing the lens, the mirror, the battery, etc.

The trailer asks a question most trailers should ask, but surprisingly few do: “So what does the player actually do in the game?”

The goal of the game is to locate mementos that meant something to other ghosts back when they were alive. These ghosts know precious info that could help you stop a volcano from destroying your island.

Richard Hogg and The Hollowponds are creating the game. They made vibe classics Hohokum and Wilmot’s Warehouse. The game is published by Annapurna, which has an astonishing track record with critics, but I have zero clues about how they’re doing in terms of sales.

How is Annapurna doing? If you know, I’d love for you to tell me. I hope they’re well!


Ephemera

Like a Hurricane: An Unofficial Oral History of Street Fighter II

Matt Leone, Polygon, Darren Wall, and Read-Only Memory via Kickstarter

Matt Leone has been working on this project for years, but you only have a few more days to contribute to the Kickstarter.

Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco started out as bash brothers, and ended up with bash beef

SBNation via YouTube

Baseball’s back!

Something you should know about me: I love baseball. I love it so much that I interviewed Jeff Foxworthy for no greater purpose than to learn about the personal life of his best friend and hunting partner, Kansas City’s World Series-winning coach, Ned Yost.

I've read a little bit about the Thump Monkeys, but I'm hoping you can explain the origin of the group and maybe the etymology of the term.

The origin is whenever you have a group of guys together, you've got to compete at something, you know? We couldn't just all bowhunt. We had to pick teams and talk trash about the other team and make a point system. When we were picking teams, Ned and I decided we were going to be on the same team, and so then you had to pick a team name. I picked "Thump Monkeys" because like, when you shoot a bow, it makes a thump when it hits something, and a monkey climbs a tree, which we have all these tree stands (we hunt from). We were the Thump Monkeys.

Then my brother, their team was the Killbillies, and so ... It just started as a joke, and a decade later it's a little bit like the Hatfields and McCoys. You really don't want to associate with Killbillies. If you mention their name, you have to immediately spit on the ground just to get the taste out of your mouth.

So there you go, my baseball-loving credentials.

That said, I’m conflicted about the MLB’s decision to host a severely downsized season in the middle of a global pandemic, potentially putting the lives of stadium workers, players, families, coaches, and management at risk and using valuable testing resources.

I prefer reflecting on the simpler days: when a bunch of dudes gassed on illegal steroids nearly destroyed the sport as we know it. Goodness, I never thought 1990s baseball would feel quaint.


[Programming note: I still have a bundle of links I’d like to share, but I want to keep this Sunday newsletter within the realm of readable. If you made it this far, shoot me a note on Twitter if you’d like a Wednesday newsletter that’s more of a miscellaneous link dump. I’m @plante.]


That’s a wrap on the second issue. Have a nice week. Stay safe. Wear a mask, please!