The Weekly Playlist: the one where Steve talks of goal-oriented explosions and Jeremy enjoys death in Half-life


This week’s playlist has Steve reveal how it’s important to set yourself goals in sandbox games like Kerbal Space Program; Paul discusses Elizabeth’s role in Bioshock Infinite, likening her to a Doctor Who sidekick; Jeremy returns to Valve’s seminal shooter, Half-Life, to examine how they handle death, seeing that, even there, the developer was breaking from the herd; and Julian? Julian’s forgotten the purpose of the playlist and has provided a cocktail recipe.

Steve Hogarty: Kerbal Space Program (v0.19)

This week, as is true of all weeks, I have been playing Kerbal Space Program and expanding the frontiers of the Kerbol System. Kerbal Space Program is a space simulator in which you construct your own multi-stage rocket ships and hope that they stay in once piece as you lift off. Failure is generally catastrophic, with house sized fuel cannisters exploding into fireballs and doomed Kerbans in their capsules being turned into smoking craters. If you can build something space worthy however, you can visit the Mun, or even take the long voyage to other planets in the system.

It’s a fairly realistic simulation too, with proper physics dictating your trajectory and actual rocket science coming into play at every level. To fly farther you must carry more fuel, for example, which increases your weight, and so increases your fuel demands even further. New to the latest versions are manoeuvres, which allow you to queue up a sequence of actions at some point along your projected trajectory: say to enter a transfer orbit, leaving one planet’s gravitational embrace and entering another. On large orbits, around the sun for example, firing your thrusters for just a few seconds at the nadir will alter your course by hundreds of thousands of kilometres at the apex. It’s surgical. It’s space surgery.

Much like real space programs, you need to be self-motivated in Kerbal Space Program. This is still a sandbox game, free of campaigns and objectives, so setting your own targets is essential. I’m building a space station, using the newly added docking ports. These allow for proper construction of orbital space stations, which requires such careful manipulation of orbital paths and gentle controls of RCS thrusters.

Once I’ve built it I’ll crash it into the atmosphere. Then I’ll build a Martian rover, then I’ll crash that. Then I’ll build a space plane and crash that. Because it’s important to set goals.

Paul Dean: Bioshock Infinite


At last I’ve been able to get my hands on Ken Levine’s ostentatious, bloom-enhanced depiction of kleptomania among the clouds. Steam tells me I’ve been playing for about nine hours so far and it looks like I still have lots more to adventure through, so I’m very pleased to see that this is such a substantial shooter. It’s extremely pretty and it creates an unusual and very original fiction, though it feels a little disjointed at times. Two things really bug me, though.

First, I find it strange that we’re still so accepting of many of the immersion-breaking conventions of first-person shooters. So accepting, in fact, that they no longer break our immersion any more. Infinite has endless impenetrable closed and shuttered doors, it has us rifling in bins for not only food, but money (why is there so much money in the bins?) and it turns a hotdog into an item that can immediately make you feel a lot healthier. I know that if I find this silly, then the alternative to this is to try an Arma-style military shooter with an emphasis on realism, but isn’t there some middle ground instead? Something where we don’t gobble food every two minutes, where we don’t accept that the world is really just a collect-’em-up corridor. Infinite may have skies instead of walls, but it’s still an extremely linear experience where you spend a lot of time picking things up.

The thing is, these conventions are so accepted now that I feel they’re equivalent to, say, the knockout punch in action movies. Maybe I’m thinking too hard. Maybe I need to disconnect my brain in that same way I do when I see a movie represent something that’s equally implausible, something that both director and audience know would never really happen.

The second thing that really bothers me is my relationship with Elizabeth. It’s the same sort of thing that bothers me about Doctor Who, a dynamic where the female sidekick comes along for the ride and, sure, has their own particular skill set, but they’re very much a supporting character who is useful but who is always playing second fiddle. Elizabeth is helpful. Elizabeth is handy. What Elizabeth isn’t is assertive or contradictory or at all likely to challenge me. She hops alongside me like a loyal dog, fetching items or opening doors with a gentle nudge, but in spite of how extraordinary her powers are, she’s pretty… subservient. I don’t like that.

I’ve had a lot of fun with Infinite and I’m impressed at just how vicious the combat can be. I was expecting a game where the story would push the action aside but, playing on Hard mode, I’m enjoying the gunfights and I like how difficult and pressing they are. But still, I think Infinite is some great ideas built on some wobbly foundations and I wish it had challenged both FPS conventions and gender relations more.

Jeremy Peel: Half-Life


Morbidly enough, replaying Valve’s debut has been all about the death sequence for me, or lack thereof. There’s no unskippable slow-motion 3D fall to earth, as was increasingly the fashion at the time. Instead there’s the sickening thud, crunch or snap of whatever it was that did for you this time, before the camera drops askew to the ground, and the HEV Suit plays Gordon out with a monotonal, flatline dirge.

And then it’s back to the last savepoint with you. Or not. It’s up to you, really. Because until it receives the left-click of base acknowledgement, Half-Life is perfectly content to let you sigh, pause, and sit out Black Mesa’s death-by-hubris as just another corpse littering the facility floor.

It’s a time to soak in the sobering effects of some exquisite place-setting, rendered timeless by a holistic approach to sound design. And to ponder the challenges.

Nobody can claim that Portal wasn’t a risk or a surprise, but it was hardly Valve’s first puzzle game. Half-Life’s logistical mouse traps are still clever, binary things. They made the FPS more than it was in a time when open-air excursions were still technologically out-of-bounds.

Some of them are quite tough, too. When faced with those, a time to be dead can come in very handy indeed.

Julian Benson: Gin Bucket


You will need:

  • 24-litre plastic container (lid optional) x 1
  • (cheap) gin x 3 litres
  • lemonade x 12 litres
  • lime cordial x 2 litres
  • lemon x 5
  • lime x 5
  • Ice cubes x 1 kilo

When it comes to preparing the punch, be sure to quarter the fruit and place them in the container first, you want them to infuse into the cocktail from the bottom up, else you can have a particularly ginny mix. Next comes the gin, you want to pour this in before the lemonade because it gives you a good base layer (around two inches of undiluted spirit), pour in the lemonade on top of this and then add cordial to taste. Beware, many a good gin bucket has been ruined by too much cordial so do yourself a favour and add a third at a time, sampling the mix after each addition.

Now, people often ask me what my stance is on stirring and it’s quite simple: it’s entirely dependent on the social function. Are you crafting a punch to be shared amongst close friends or strangers? If strangers, you’ll want to stir up the bucket and get the gin mixed through the whole contents, giving an even level of alcohol throughout the cocktail. If it’s close friends then do not stir. You want to lull them into a false sense of security: let them drink a cup or two from the top layer, largely consisting of lemonade, and then give them a glass scooped from the bottom of the bucket and see if they can stand in 20 minutes. If they can: give them another.