I wrote this piece for The Guardian on Full Throttle recently. It went down okay for a slight return. I did get this comment though:

This is because the strapline took my badly-worded sentence ‘Full Throttle examines how gallant, restrained masculinity could function as an action-adventure ideal using every [game] material available’ and slightly misinterpreted it. But I could have worded it like, ‘Full Throttle uses every game material available to examine a restrained, gallant action-adventure masculinity’, or something to that effect. I wanted to say: the fact that every part of the game is involved in demonstrating gallant and restrained masculinity, a masculinity of service and thrift, and not wild, laser-blasting excess, is kind of interesting in the game sphere. Sadly that was groundbreaking and in some ways still is, mainly because many of today’s masculine-heroed game narratives are purely about consumption and destruction and not people and restoration. Anyway, I fucked that sentence up. Sorry. I could have been clearer.

Interestingly, another car-related narrative that resurfaced recently, Max Max: Fury Road, also tries to make the main male character secondary, or the homme fatale, to the female protagonist, just like Full Throttle’s Ben and Mo relationship. (From my now deleted Twitter account, preserved by the miracle of lovely followers I was blessed with:)

So you see, Full Throttle predicted Fury Road by a number of years, and therefore everyone who worked on it is a genius.

Talking with a beautiful, accomplished, interesting single woman invariably always comes around to one thing these days. We talk about being single in the most economically and politically unstable situation we can think of.

Really, who gives a shit about your being single if you are beautiful and accomplished and making money? What more do you want? You want to be a fucking partner as well? Is that what you’re destined for? You want to be in a fulfilling and fucking intellectually exciting fucking relationship with fucking on top? Like, fuck us for wanting that. How embarrassing for us to cry about it. Feminism’s fault, et cetera. Want your cake and eat it too, huh. Now look who’s beautiful and sad and has to fucking regret not getting on their knees for their childhood sweetheart when he wanted them. That is to say: it feels like a bourgeois complaint. But there are single women across all the economic strata, and as we get older, we get a little more aware that it’s not just the men who have no time for us any more.

One should strictly not complain or agonize about this around people in long term stable relationships. It invites guilt: all my friends in long term relationships tend to complain about how confined you feel in a relationship with responsibilities, mortgages, how you cannot just go out and protest when you must think about a babysitter. How you can’t just drop the bullshit of the day and go watch a movie by yourself and tell no one – because it’s rude and inconsiderate if you live with another hard-working individual who relies on you. I often sit by myself, in the centre of a cinema in the middle of the day, taking up room, dressed in the most outlandish outfit, watching the weirdest most pointless film I could possibly have chosen, all because my time is my own and also – so is my money. These are the freedoms singledom gives me. It makes me feel powerful in public. It makes me feel strong. I like it. It’s mine.

But in private, when you’re single and past the twenty-somethings, there isn’t really anyone around to hear the private agonies of holding up patriarchal capitalism. We all babysit that mess of a baby. The emotional labour of actually getting up and acting and striving for others is a shared responsibility, and the secularisation of society means that religious buildings are no longer the place many people regularly must go to for social relief. Forums and social networks have tried to become the place you might go but nothing is as good as a voice and a face. Sometimes your single friends can help you out with money troubles and a friendly ear. But there are much fewer of them than there have ever been now I’m over thirty.

The social net, as you get older, gets smaller, and it gets smaller specifically because people are getting married and having children – if it’s the only way out of this and into a private confession booth, yes, god yes, do it, do it I don’t blame you, escape, god escape, you have my full blessing. And if those relationship people do have time to listen to the privileged singles, they are distracted and stressed because they are already taking on a serious workload of full time emotional labour for another person, twenty-four hours a day, and sometimes the life of an even needier human being they made together. I emphasise: participating in these rigid relationship structures is soothing and reassuring (if it’s safe and stable for you to say in them, which is a whole other thing), but it requires that some people lose out. When I’ve been in relationships before, I simply didn’t think that through well enough. It’s not meant to be kind to everyone. It’s meant to coax people into a neat unit that self-repairs so you can go on being a nice wee cog. That can be dangerous for women who might economically depend on a partner too: how do you leave this little state-ordained machine when it’s no longer good for you?  And, oh god, what of single parents who must bear this strange singledom with other little humans to provide for?

All this single isolation is probably exacerbated by the experience of working from home. As Eddie Izzard is fond of saying, you can’t flirt in the break room when you work from home, just like if you’re a beekeeper you can’t flirt with the bees all day, unless… well I guess bees might be personable if you weren’t stealing their honey as an actual job.

Still more of my friends are so so successful they literally can’t spare any time to talk, and some of them are so floored by the UK and US’s awful political and economic regimes they are struggling to get by. I do my best to help, but sometimes I can’t bear to tell them in all my dumb luck coasting-along that maybe I might feel a little isolated myself. I mean one of the worst things about the political situation is that you can feel paralysed by guilt at all times of day: while reading the news, while buying a coffee, while really enjoying yourself, while simply issuing an invoice, even if you are actively trying to change it and bear the brunt of the shitty political outcome responsibly, through action, every day. You feel guilty asking anyone for help because everyone’s this precarious mess-shack of sticks barely holding against a constant piss-torrent of fucking fuck. God, cling to each other as best you can. I love seeing you all get married. I love hearing from you at any time of day. Do anything you can to be alive.

There is a small social gap I personally am occupying, I think. It’s probably common to a lot of single men and women in their thirties these days (although, I do think there are less of the single men, which is probably part of another problem that some people attribute to a mix of education and sexism, but that’s a really long other thing and I don’t have time). One solution that society presents is to get a therapist. This does work: however, you have to be home all the time to go to one regularly, and you also need to put aside quite a lot of money. The only other real answer the current society presents for the globally hyperactive Cara-bot is to get a boyfriend.

I don’t know if I like that answer. I am aware that this is as designed. This is not, as far as the heteromandatory patriarchy is concerned, a bug. It is a feature. And I would like it to go fuck itself. Because all I do all day is daydream about how fantastic it would be to be wildly in love, and that’s part of a need to be distracted by intimacy with someone, which will take me away from the dreadful fuckstorm outside my window that I go into every day wearing only a little windbreaker from Superdry. Admittedly I should get a better coat. But it isn’t too much to ask to want some bro around who actually wants to build things instead of break stuff or steal stuff or just generally try to suck out your professional contacts with a lukewarm intimation that one day, when he’s ready, you might get to see one part of him unclothed like in a particularly devilish D.H. Lawrence story. (You won’t. D.H. Lawrence is dead and so are his men.)

In the latest bout of this kind of conversation with beautiful, accomplished, interesting woman, I think, incredulously, about how completely incredible this other woman is and how I haven’t met a male match as good as she deserves and… oh so secretly, as not to look weak, or anti-feminist, wants. She needs a guy to be the exciting intellectual powerhouse she is. She needs a guy who complements her as a running mate. And I have never met a ready and available one that has even a fraction of her vast intellectual rigour and warm manners and charismatic enquiries. And this is the other thing that is inadequate about the world we have built. We ask that men care about the economy, and that they care about the public arena of work. But powerful men whose voices are actually listened to in the public arena don’t ask other men to take care of intimacy and emotional labour in others. We absolutely do not require it from them as a society. They are only to give this stuff under guise of a relationship – and even then less than a woman gives. This truly is the economy of scarcity, but not in the way that Dr Nerdlove or the UK government talks about it. There is a particular capacity that I think about and it isn’t related to how long it will be before orgasm. It is entirely unrelated to sex.

Sometimes I fantasise about being wildly in love, and I wonder if it is boredom, or whether it is something much more plaintive. It’s probably that we thought that feminism would necessarily require that men become as warm to each other and us as we to them, as well as able to hold up the world, as we do. And the worst part is that women can and do do it all alone, letting everyone off the hook. We are single with all the other valkyries next to us under the globe, triceps flinching, screaming and crying and laughing; no energy to even look each other’s way. But when we do, it is such a fucking relief. It feels like shutting the barn door against a gale and hearing it howl against the walls.

Christ. There really is nothing like leaning back, and stretching your arms over those empty red velvet cinema seats and knowing you are all alone.



I have started making a playlist called ‘Survival Music’. In these end times it feels like we are playing cards with the Devil Himself; it is hard to decide whether humanity has been this close to ending itself before or whether it is just some sort of massive practical joke written by Private Eye where the headlines every day get a bit worse. Perhaps the reason so few people believe journalists these days is not because they are lying but because they are fucking telling the truth.

David Bowie’s Heroes came on BBC 6 Music this morning and as soon as the first notes hit my ears I cried. At first it was selfish: an upset at how dark and quiet the world seemed in the face of awful things. Then it became about how feeble and far away the lyrics of sitting on walls and togetherness seemed. Then it became about the absence of Bowie. But there was something electrifying about the power of this incantation; there was something that even in death felt like some banshee of the man himself could lift up the entire building or the entire city and lob it further into the universe and the way his voice could push the air from the very bottom of his diaphragm, near the centre of himself, out over people like waves, and after I had finished crying I felt completely recharged with what I needed.

I guess they call it surviving.

This essay opened with the phrase “playing cards with the Devil Himself” because there is a throwaway line in Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road where the First World War poet Wilfred Owen plays cards with another officer in a trench under bombardment. I always think of the image and try to occupy his state of mind: how do you play cards at such a time? More importantly: is survival an act of determinedly playing cards until you can have a hand in your own fate? Perhaps because I work in video games this occupies my brain more often than it should; the act of playing seems in direct opposition to what is needed quite often these days.

But I always remember that Wilfred Owen returned to the Front from a shell shock hospital in Scotland, went over the top in Ors, and was killed in action though he had done everything he could to speak up about the injustice of the entire construction of the war, often risking court martial and execution and never seeing his men again. He wrote that ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ is a ‘lie’; that the phrase ‘it is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country’ is a lie – something that I imagine literally could not be said by a serving soldier right now, and we are not fighting a world war. It has come to that. I think about it often.

Perhaps there is something that Wilfred Owen himself can teach us about despair, then. How do you carry on surviving in horrible circumstances? How do you regain the energy to act? If you think, like the UK government seems to insist, that the answer is investment in STEM subjects, you are wrong. Wilfred Owen probably did not get up in the morning and think about how the scientific wonder of the machine guns that tore soldiers apart was inspiring and incredible, and investment in tank technology would certainly lead to a win for his side. He probably didn’t want to think about the machinery of the world at all. Perhaps instead, it was more fuel to think of stories, of writing, of poetry, to think of a way out of the present, to process things through art and beauty and build his own hope. Hope was very hard to find in his situation. There were only a few things that kept soldiers moving on despite not being listened to, despite their great misgivings about tactics, despite the lack of morale.

MCpl. D.M. Drysdale CD, a piper in the Canadian Scottish Regiment, wrote a history of Canadian Scottish pipers in the Great War. It’s available online here. (A ‘piper’ is a person who plays bagpipes.) Bagpipes are generally, nowadays, something that is a subject of ridicule, particularly outside of Scotland, and in England I have heard them called detestable in polite conversation quite often. But even here in Scotland, bagpipes’ popularity isn’t surging, and there’s a polite embarrassment about the raw power they have, the loudness, the skirl of them, they are almost rude in nature. Pipers here in Edinburgh stand on street corners and play Scotland the Brave for pennies from tourists, and visitors tut as they pass by because they find the sound annoying. It interrupts their conversations. It demands attention.

But I grew up around the sound of bagpipes – not only on street corners, but on intensely happy community occasions. For me the sound of bagpipes and the familiar tunes they play create a feeling – even if it is attached to an ugly patriotism – of pride and love for other human beings. My aunt used to have a cottage in a village with the unlikely name of Auchtermuchty, and every Hogmanay (New Year) spent there we would walk a couple metres to the town hall to hear the bells and sing Auld Lang Syne to pipes. Everyone would hug each other and share wine or beer they had brought. Music would start, a barn dance happened on the common. People would invite each other back to their houses. Every Scottish wedding, every Burns’ Night, every Hogmanay, every St Andrews day or Highland Games I have attended, there the pipes are, to indicate that we are together. I do not – like an American friend once told me he does – associate bagpipes with funeral dirges, military funeral processions. In fact, I find that sole association quite offensive in my heart. Bagpipes are not a sad thing for me. They are something that makes me proud to be alive, and the songs played on them are often upbeat, rousing, technically difficult, interesting things. They are not meant to indicate only sadness, although they can. They usually tell me that I can feel good about who I am. And even though pipers often play alone, they are a symbol of the fact that I am not. The very act of playing bagpipes is like a beautiful sacrifice to some archaic god, some god of music that gently tips his hand to press people together.

MCpl. D.M. Drysdale CD (what a mouthful, but I do want to give him his rank) writes that during the First World War, the Canadian corps had a number of pipers who provided such a service to the soldiers who were participating in one of the most desperate situations humanity had ever seen. Some of the situations were similar to the community service and spirit I wrote about above (except they had Flora the goat mascot):

“On Dominion Day, 1918, the Canadian Corps held a sports’ day at Tincques, west of Arras… During the day every competition proper to Highland Games was engaged in; piping competitions (both individual and regimental, in which twenty-two pipe bands and numerous individual pipers competed), Highland dancing, putting the stone, tossing the caber, tug-of-war; and when at the close of the day the massed pipe bands, two hundred and sixty-four pipers and one hundred and forty-eight drummers, under Drum Major Graham of the 16th Battalion and led by ‘Flora’ the pet goat of the 13th Battalion, played ‘Retreat’, the like which had not been seen before. Then, on July 15, the Canadians went back to the line.”

It is the going back to the line that is hard. But the pipers were there too.

Most pipers knew that it was their duty and their job to go first into No Man’s Land when the time came, and not only would they be a large silhouette on the battlefield thanks to the bagpipe drones over the shoulder, they would also be one of the loudest things on the battlefield. By the end of the war, out of 17 pipers in the Canadian Scottish 16th Battalion alone, only 3 were left alive. And yet the pipers fought amongst each other to be chosen to go over the top. Piper Alexander McGillivray played soldiers over the top at Passchendaele, and his service seems typical of the fearlessness required of pipers at that time. Drysdale quotes:

“When all ranks were feeling the strain of remaining inactive under galling fire, and when the casualties had mounted to over 100, a skirl of the bagpipes was heard, and along the 13th front came a piper of the 16th Canadian Scottish. This inspired individual, eyes blazing with excitement, and kilt proudly swinging to his measured tread, made his way along the line, piping as only a true Highlander can when men are dying, or facing death, all around him. Shell fire seemed to increase as the piper progressed and more than once it appeared that he was down, but the god of brave men was with him that hour, and he disappeared, unharmed, to the flank whence he had come.”

A lot of this document is imbued with the sort of military pride that comes of military propaganda – the sort that disgusted Wilfred Owen, and made men volunteer for a hopeless and wasteful war that killed a whole generation. And few military establishments would record the feelings of pipers who were afraid of leading the charge, who doubted their ability to go on, who knew that they were being used as a military recruiting tool, an emotional cosh over the head, a siren to lead people to their deaths. But among the confusing feelings I have about this, there is one thing that I think is true: that those that did have to endure this awful moment of history were comforted by the music. It was unlikely dulling their feelings of disgust, or their contempt for their superiors who sent them blindly into mud quagmires so deep men were sucked under. But what it might have done was make the situation more bearable. Perhaps they felt like though they were probably going to die, looking increasingly likely as the war headed into 1918, at least the piper was there to guide their steps, to have them do what was necessary to get home. They knew they weren’t alone. I think even now I can tell that music was something that made them determined.

It is hard to understand what was endured back then, but I think it would be a disservice to forget any lessons volunteered at all by history. I doubt there is a direct line from a man sacrificing his life on the WW1 battlefield to my listening to pop music to try to get through the day. But I do know that there is a lot of stuff to do now. There are lot of things to be righted. There are a lot of things I think I have a responsibility to do: to volunteer and to support and to complain and to talk and to help. Energy and determination are assisted by music, and every day some weird kernel of a musical phrase will eke its way into my head and have me think: I could carry on a while. I think we will all need a piper.

Anyway, I have started making a playlist called ‘Survival Music’ and humming ‘do it do it do it do it’



Hi I am Cara I make money from writing you may know me from such things as ‘writing extremely sarcastic essays about the lazy assumptions of people who play shootmans games’ or ‘exuberant about thing’ or ‘wow I caught a feeling’ or ‘lol dicks’.

In my latter years of feature writing I became known as ‘the feminist one’ even though I don’t really count caring about other people as the sole territory of feminists (in fact, TERFs try to do the opposite). I spend a lot of time wondering about why I never got hired as a staff writer anywhere, and the preceding list just answered my question. Along with my idiosyncratic sentence structure.



Someone once called me ‘mercurial’. They are right; that makes me sound really fucking mysterious and cool. I like to imagine that Wes Anderson would get called ‘mercurial’ for being a weird, stubborn fucker too, but he would probably instead be called ‘a genius’ and any dick jokes he might have told would have been ‘charming’. Really what they mean when they call me mercurial was ‘tired’ and possibly even ‘disillusioned’. I think I once got into trouble from readers at RPS when I wrote an entire news post about a game that had space bears in it that was just a hyperlink followed by SPACE BEARS SPACE BEARS SPACE BEARS ad nauseum because it was funnier than repeating the press release. RPS runs on the Roger Rabbit rule: if it’s fucking funnier, that’s why you do it.

Like, who the fuck are you to tell me that a huge post tattooed all over with SPACE BEARS isn’t useful? Click on the link you Curly Wurly. That’s what it’s FOR. I don’t have any EXTRA information on unreleased games. I’m not GOD.


Once, at the end of my tether of journalism, and right at the end of a writing project that was eliciting a mental breakdown of Nicholas Cage proportions, Kotaku offered me a one-off weekend editorship, and I was so worn out and fucked up I panicked and finally lost all of my personality, and a good personality, if you ever read Ashley Feinberg’s stuff, is sort of necessary when you write on a Gawker site. I could feel the Long Spoon of Editorial Desperation scraping out the story scraps from my brain bit by bit like it was trying to get at the last dregs of chocolate mousse in the pot. I only wrote one good essay that weekend and it was basically about how annoyed the dialogue in Life Is Strange made me, and I really had to amp up the Voice to make me sound angry enough that it might be entertaining. (The internet loves being angry, and they love to witness others being angry, it is cathartic, you could almost liken it to violent videogames if you could even call the flying fuck police to tread that well worn path again) (URGH). In any case, my flatmate thinks all my opinions on Life Is Strange are capital W Wrong and she has a full time staff job writing about videogames, so Who Is The Dipshit Here, et cetera.

My point is: burn out is real and I am not talking the car explosion game. You can just not be good at writing at a particular point in your life. I mean I was shitty at writing for most of my life! Probably still am in some areas. If you visit the right internet places I have always been shitty at writing. It is still weird to me that you, YOU, like reading me, or that you ever sent me hecking money to do it.

It’s okay to be shitty. At that time it was just a strain to look back at my work as if I was once good, like Charlie in Act 3 Flowers For Algernon. That’s how I felt then: I was writing this giant-ass travel book for myself, but had lost the ability to know if I even had an opinion left on the stuff that people cared about. I started travelling and videogames seemed so fucking INSIGNIFICANT. PUNY. It’s partly why I stopped writing all my columns suddenly: I was just fucking done. The fridge was empty. Not even snacks.


The point of this post: the other day I came across a handwritten list of articles that I was determined to write at some point, and like the online hero Ashley Feinberg, I know every single editor would have shot them down, but oh god I really wanted to write them. In fact, I was planning to start a website once that employed all my heroes to work on it that could have housed these, but circumstances conspired to take that idea away from me. Here are a small sample of posts I would have eventually written on a quiet day if anyone had employed me, or if I had just become an editor of A Website, just for posterity. (They firmly cement that I am a complete loser.)



(1,000 words; real reader entries; probably a joke that would get old but recur if cult following; probably something early 2000s Kieron Gillen would write and claim it was his idea)


I am having a lot of problems with my boyfriend, Neville. He is becoming distant and recently has lost his libido. He says I am still the woman he loves, but I don’t know any more. Is it because I am unattractive?




Texts From Ben to Mo In Full Throttle

(1000 words; stolen from The Toast (with regards); we could have run a whole website purely based on my and Elizabeth Simins’ fanfic ships?; recently Zam has also branched out into this stuff)

You know
Whenever I smell asphalt
I think of you

Like cigarettes and gasoline?
Or like
You think I smell of cancer?
Asphalt gives you cancer though

I’m just saying you’re beautiful
You know, like roads

Do you want me to fix your bike again

Yeah can you fix my bike



(all of them)



(ongoing series; possibly podcast although text might be funny; I have only played MGS 5 and don’t understand it; would be funnier if we got to the point where she actually claimed Kojima really Knew What He Was Doing with plot; my increasing frustration and incomprehension a feature; probably not even VICE would go here)



(about the time I got lost on a drive through town in Deadly Premonition; 2000 words; increasingly more existential; possibly the most absurd thing I’d ever write)

Apart from being a ‘stinky agent’, it became apparent that though FBI agent Francis York Morgan had managed to find a bed in a remote shed in a field to prevent himself dying of exhaustion like we previously could not have seen coming, he was now rapidly dying of hunger in Twin Peaks America, and was about ten hours drive away from any food. I ran past the inert cow outside (cannot kill for food, the FBI would be angry), got in the car, flies buzzing wildly around me, and drove, talking to my imaginary friend Zach about Back To The Future and other films for about thirty minutes (real time, twenty hours game time). My first destination: a vending machine that, it turned out, only sold lollipops. I ate nine of them and saved myself from death. It cost me $4000 dollars. Trump’s America.



Where do you get your ideas from

How many hours of gameplay is there

How cool are you

Why am I so disappointed with your product

Which employee is to blame for this shitty part I fucking hate



(I’m still thinking about this one)



(is like my Dyson vacuum cleaner, loud, annoying, sux but incredibly efficient, 7/10, etc)



(I think I actually did write this one? Oh god what if I did write that one)



Bantha farming simulator

Jabba’s Palace intergalactic smuggling strategy game (Send bounty hunters to their death! Recruit weird alien dancers for your shows! Throw useless employees into Sarlacc! Build giant pits of death for gladiatorial shows! Intercept ships carrying valuable cargo and sell it off to buy giant monster pets! Upgrade Palace R&D to transform droids into cocktail waiters!)

Learn To Speak Wookiee

Darth Vader’s DEATH STAR MANAGEMENT (Like Civ, but the map is the Death Star, and all wise Nimoy-like audio is just Darth giving kindly tips on galactic massacre and manipulation of the British for his own megalomanical ends) (why does the title sound like the name of a rapper’s agent)

Interplanetary Barhopping With Princess Leia (This would mainly be based on Carrie Fisher’s personality tbf and is more of a Telltale based game about a pub crawl. It would be entirely full of witticisms, bar fights and blunt observations about life. Leia would chain smoke and look witheringly at all men in her vicinity and talk about how Han is a shitty lay)


I had one serious one, which was an entire treatment for a game based on The Handmaid’s Tale, but it is my fondest wish I might need it one day, so fuck you.

 On Kentucky Route Zerotld

We are all mortal. We are all slowly dying. There’s a Tory government ruining us. Climate change is killing people already. The rich/poor divide is getting so wide and so disproportionate the poor are soon going to rise up in bloody revolution. A game that we hoped would take us away from all this, No Man’s Sky, it turns out, is just a game that cannot magically make this all go away.

But there’s one thing the No Man’s Sky reactions do tell us:

We want to be lost far away from here. We are convinced that distance will make us happy.

Scale has always enchanted players, but why has map size always been this obsession? Is cosmic orienteering something that by itself can comfort? I played Space Engine for months on end, at one time, a real simulation of space travel through our known and unknown star systems. Beautiful though it was, I sat in the rings of Saturn and all that really returned to me were the words and thoughts I had been trying to avoid. Maybe being whisked far away is not really very comforting, in the end. Perhaps being closer to home, and facing up to things, and making peace with contradiction, impossible situations, tragedy, and loss, is somehow a more manageable expectation. Perhaps a game that meditates on our problems is even more therapeutic than just drifting through space.2

I can see the cogs of Kentucky Route Zero clear as glass: it is a point and click game, it has scrolling text, it functions on nets of minor conversation branches, it riffs on myth and the Great American Novel and magical realism. It appears as a pop-up book and its 3D space is navigable with a little nod to a couple deft camera techniques and storytelling that owe a lot to American cinema: Lynch, maybe the Coens, maybe a little Wes Anderson. It is talking about us, and games, and history. Its themes encompass nostalgia, tragedy, architecture, journeys, life, death, technology, the nature of the dark… It is a metanarrative on how games take part in and shape our lives. I am truly lost in it, because it asks no questions, and gives no answers. The problems are part of the landscape of being. They are part of the experience of play. You can only go through them, you cannot run away from them. You can merely choose what you say in response.

Kentucky Route Zero is the only game I have played where I slowly, achingly, drift into feeling upset. But comforted in that upset. Like I am being told, quietly, gently, about the nature of my own death.

We are in an era of tragedy. It is time that we admitted it. It’s not just that Bowie and Rickman and Prince passed away. It is that we can touch fascism in our living rooms. And we do not understand how we got here or how we will survive without the heroes of our past to interpret it. We are alone in the universe, now. We only have each other for comfort.




People miss the point with much anticipated sequels: it is not to use the exact same systems and the exact same development techniques, because all you are doing is digging through badly documented archives to produce a moving skeleton with a party hat on. The most important task is to evoke the *effect*, or the *feelings* those old systems produced, and it doesn’t much matter how you get there as long as you do. Push the buttons that that old game once pushed, but do it using new techniques that are developed just for those buttons. Make the buttons more efficient. Make there be more ways of pushing them.

I don’t feel the same playing Goldeneye now as I did when I was a child. Sometimes I feel like Splatoon scratches that itch, other times I feel like the new Wolfenstein can take its place. Sometimes I remember Martin Hollis saying he regrets ever making Goldeneye because of the effect it has had on the militarisation of games. But I don’t regret feeling the magic of playing Goldeneye as a child.

Goldeneye did one thing well: it proved that undertaking the job of a government killer could be made to feel good. Before it, Bond films had proved for years and years that it was possible to make a callous, uncaring, misogynist man who would throw a lover in front of a knife to save himself into some sort of enjoyable, feel-good person. We have been proving it to ourselves for many years since. We can make the awful enjoyable. We can make it bearable. We can make a government hitman a celebrated hero, with his own theme tune, and a really beautiful watch.

Kentucky Route Zero functions on this level. Kentucky Route Zero is trying to have us embrace something awful too. But it is not a suave violence man. It is decay.


Aging is a horrible thing in video games. If I’d stayed in big budget games from my first job at Rockstar Games, there is some evidence to say that I might be a highly paid mission designer by now. (There are no other kinds of mission designers there.) Perhaps by 30 I would have had a mortgage, if so. Instead I left that job and went travelling. I wrote scripts, speeches and radio programmes at the BBC. I wrote terrible poetry and terrible games journalism. And now I have just returned to big budget games. I still don’t have a mortgage. But games are a different thing at 30 than they were at 22. I’ve sat in Tom Bissell’s house and told him that it’s great that he has this nice house (partly because I doubt that anyone I know actually owns one), and in turn he looks at me, tired, and tells me that he is in his forties, and that’s just what happens. I’m old, he said to me. And it occurred to me that I had never applied an age to a person who works in games before. People in games are ageless, or they are supposed to be.

But Tom is right: leaving your twenties, especially, feels like something. We are not children any more. We are no longer the people who are supposed to play games. If we are, maybe some things need to change.



And yet we grew up on the experience of games. I learned to read because I wanted to type into parser-led text adventures. I wanted to learn about politics because of Simcity 2000. The first time I saw a dominatrix was in Dungeon Keeper. I wanted to tell friends about my experience of Ocarina of Time, I watched Tasteless commentate tournament Starcraft and felt like I was witnessing the future of sports.

Kentucky Route Zero is very adult in many ways, but the central theme for me is the embrace of decay. Of loss. Of becoming obsolete. Of becoming stuck. And this is the most adult theme of all.

Anyone who plays games or who watches a Ziggy Stardust video knows magic is real. When we are children, magic exists everywhere. It is something you can take part in effortlessly. You can have it happen anywhere at any time. Magic is attached to novelty, the new, the weird. And games are realtime magic. They are! They are magic composed before your eyes. You cut a path into virtual worlds you cannot believe were made by mortal entities.

When you are an adult, your access to those new, novelty virtual spaces starts to be shut off. There is less time, and more responsibility. There is less money to take risk and make mistakes, there is very little safe space for the magic to be let loose. You might save all year for a Beyonce ticket, just to see a certain miracle be performed in front of you, just so that you can go on with life knowing that there is magic, if you have time for it, if you find time to breathe it in.

But so few things are new to us, as we get older, and we’re not willing to risk paying to find the new in case it hurts when we don’t. The things that were new and wondrous – the deep, mysterious, stuttering space of the original Elite, for example – now live only in memory, because the BBC computer you played it on is no longer accessible, or you bent the floppy disk, or spilled coffee on it, or you have forgotten how to tell it to function. Or more likely, you do not have an attic in which to store this once fearsome beast, and online versions are missing the magic of the disk read noise, and you as a person are missing the time to relearn its ways. It is this remembered magic, the magic of the past, that Kentucky Route Zero successfully articulates. Kentucky Route Zero understands what it is like to watch things break and become unusable, their magic still intact in RAM but somehow out of reach. It remembers for you, so that you can feel like a child, while still an adult.



Kentucky Route Zero is saying: it is okay to hurt. It is okay to fail. It is okay to never really *progress*. There is no brave future. We are lost together. But it looks for the most effective way to have technology say that. It says it in maps that when you navigate them, they are circular. It says it in roads that are unlabelled and that you get lost on. It says that in obscure, beautiful conversations that seem like they have no logical output. It says that by providing characters who know you and like you,  who seem to accept you and help you despite their awful problems. It says that through an alcoholic who, after an ordeal, begins to drink again, and there is no way to prevent it. It says that by indicating that the whole world is in flux, that maps must be redrawn because nothing, even the landscape, is stable. You can click to steal a musician’s tip in Act IV; there is no admonishment. Only a sliver of text to indicate that the unsteady steady the unsteady. If you needed it, you needed it.

It is hard not to think of Kentucky Route Zero as a love letter to American life. Perhaps not to the systems or to the politics, but to the people. It makes me cry to think of how attached this game is to America. It is so, so kind, in a way that British people would rarely be to themselves. It forgives so easily, where Scotland has never forgiven Thatcher her sins, even as she has passed away. Scotland has never forgiven England. Scotland has never forgiven itself.



The most British joke I ever heard was in the disastrous aftermath of Brexit: “At least now we’ll get a period of incredible rock music”. I’ve been thinking about that. I’ve been thinking about John Steinbeck, and this little known game called Kentucky Route Zero.

In dire times artists work with a better view of constraint. This is not to say most artists work better within the passions of tragedy, although some may: it is that the boundaries are clearer on what they can and cannot do, and the stakes become clearer too. You get up in the morning, and you think: ‘what if I do not have a reason to get up tomorrow morning?’ You get up and look at the news headlines, and you think, ‘What if the welfare state is not there tomorrow morning?’ ‘What if our healthcare infrastructure decays to an extent where it is no longer available?’ ‘What if our Prime Minister has it so that babies are gestated in women’s bodies to term whether they like it or not?’ These are all reasonable worries in our time. These worries are inflected in our art and entertainment.

Occasionally the downfall of empire weighs on my mind. The British Empire’s downfall, thanks to the Victorian obsession with study, is well documented. A lot of it was hubris, industrialisation, the backlash of oppression. The assimilation and erasure of cultures. The mass murder and concentration camps. It makes the American decision to model some terms of government on the Roman Empire seem both understandable and short-sighted: those who left European shores decided they had a chance at a new start, and so began to model greatness by taking old failures and putting new veneers on top. It was all just the old Enlightenment thought: we are making progress, and building upon our failures.

But there is some evidence to the contrary, since we are still trying the money/power paradigm and expecting a different result. One thing is certain for me though: My determination to see the new art that comments on this awful world is the thing that keeps me waking up in the morning and attempting to do better. Matt Fraction has a similar sentiment.

Sometimes when Kentucky Route Zero’s next episode comes out, I can feel myself holding my breath, and trying to hold on until the darkest hour of my week, so that I can have it lift me and push me on.