Media Reviews - Part I

By Beerend Lauwers


Whenever I finish a game, a book, a movie, or a show, I often directly go to the fan-hosted Wiki pages to read up even more on the characters, the lore, the worldbuilding. Thoughts about the media ruminate in my mind for some time, and I feel more at ease if I can write about them a little.

They’re not groundbreaking. But they’re mine, and I’d like to share them.

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels I read this as an audiobook.

I’ve always appreciated reading about how games are made. I made some forays into it personally with doing programming for Empires Mod, an RTS/FPS total conversion mod on the Source Engine. A unified creative vision and leadership was the main problem there (as well as the huge time investment after some time).

Blood, Sweat and Pixels also touches upon these issues, which tend to plague game studios big and small. (I had just listened to Masters Of Doom as well - talk about a small game studio!) I liked that the book covered both huge developers like Bungie as well as tiny, even one-man game studios, and the sentiment that connected them all: people went through crunch to allow their creative endeavors to flourish. Passion pushed them forward, and, in some cases, ultimately burned them up. It was insightful to see that crunch wasn’t just something upper management imposed upon developers for cost-saving measures or hamfistedness (although I don’t doubt both of these reasons do come up in the wild), but rather a consequence of people wanting to create the best version of their game, quality of life be damned.

For some, like Stardew Valley’s creator, it was also the fear that their game wasn’t going to be good enough and that nobody was going to want to play it. Hell, even huge studios struggled with this, sometimes even resulting in cancellations.

I have a feeling that’s probably the worst punishment for a game developer - feeling your game just never got a fair shot. I know I had (and still have) that feeling with Empires Mod.

David Kushner - Masters of Doom I read this as an audiobook.

Masters of Doom chronicles, in excruciating detail, the journey the original developers of DooM undertook and where they ended up. I especially appreciated the nitty-gritty detail this book went into: you could perfectly envision the stuffy offices where they started their bootleg video game studio, the chaos they worked in when they moved out to their own offices and all the shenanigans they partook in.

The book delves into the feelings of each character of this story in similar detail. I had the feeling that I could understand the reasoning and actions of pretty much everyone involved - there isn’t really a “bad guy” that is being painted here.

Once again, this book illustrated that game development is an undertaking rooted in passion for the craft: John Carmack in pushing the technical boundaries ever forward and John Romero in pushing his creative vision to new levels, spurred on by Carmack’s innovations. I did feel sad during my listen that this dream team fell apart. I don’t really know if it was because egos got in the way, or because people just grew up a little more and the pizza-laden development bonanzas just weren’t fitting into that way of life anymore. It sure sounded like a lot of fun while it lasted. I guess the industry itself was also maturing, with more money getting involved than ever before, and that always puts a strain on these kinds of relationships.

G.J. Meyer - A World Undone I read this as an audiobook.

For some reason, I’ve always been fascinated by World War 1. Partly because nobody really seemed to realize this wouldn’t be your average conflict, partly because of how it seemed to spring up in barely a few weeks, and because of the huge disconnect between how wars were previously fought and the culture of the armies that were pitted against each other. The massive cultural ramifications it resulted in are also pretty interesting to see unfold.

G.J. Meyer goes into somewhat greater depth of how the first world war began and how it ultimately became unavoidable (both politically and logistically), as well as detailed discussions of the various offensives across the battle boundaries and the reasoning of the brass why these offensives would “surely work”. It’s peppered with personal stories and anecdotes of the figures involved, which brings a great humanity to them.

What I also appreciated, were the addendums at the end of each chapter, where Meyer zoomed in on a particular aspect of the war that is typically overlooked. These range from the royal families involved, various ethnic factions, to the women during the war.

I can only wholeheartedly recommend it to any and all history enthusiasts. I listened to it as an audiobook, and time really flew by when I listened to it.

Frog Fractions

Frog Fractions is a wonderful tiny game that increases in its absurdity as the player progresses throughout its levels.

It strongly reminded me of The Stanley Parable, in that the game sometimes acknowledged itself (and its absurdity), as well as the fact that many completely insane situations are narrated or handled in a completely straight-faced manner.

I encourage you not to read up about this game before playing it, and be sure to free up an hour or two of your time, as you cannot save your progress (and you won’t be able to put it down anyway).

Brainbread 2

The original Brainbread was a beautiful mod (well, total conversion) for Half-Life 1 where you were pitted against a horde of zombies together with other human players. Killing zombies gave you upgrades like a faster running speed, higher jumping, higher health, more damage, and so on. While maps varied wildly in theme (sometimes western, sometimes modern, sometimes sci-fi), most of the times the goals were to find some kind of item or access card to be able to progress, kill a number of zombies, or kill a very large zombie dressed as a farmer. If you got hit too many times by zombies, you slowly turned into one. You then had to kill human players or NPCs to be able to respawn as a human.

Unfortunately, there appear to be no more players for the original Brainbread. Brainbread 2 does have a handful of players and keeps the same mechanics I mentioned above, but it doesn’t have the same feel to it, particularly when moving across the map. In the original Brainbread, climbing on objects such as cars, hedges and waist-high walls was crucial in manoeuvring around the undead horde and being safe from them (if I remember correctly, most or all zombies could not scale these objects). You would mount one of these objects and leap from platform to platform, or clear out a path to the next safety zone, oftentimes being aided by your allies to do so.

This is entirely absent from Brainbread 2, instead encouraging constantly moving around to get away from the horde. This works for maps where there is a lot of open space, but some of the maps take place in small enclosed spaces, like a police department, apartment buildings, or office spaces. Your point man (or woman) getting held up results in everyone simply being stuck in place as zombies munch on them. It’s just frustrating. Some people try to lone wolf the level and keep dying, and people that try to work together are heavily punished if one of them ends up dying, as there are absolutely no safe spaces to hold out in to wait for said player to rejoin the group.

The more open levels do capture some of the magic of the original Brainbread, but the players I’ve encountered seemed to be mainly interested in going their own way and shooting their own zombies, whereas the original Brainbread emphasized helping each other traverse between those small islands of safety and carving a path to the objective together.


Rage is touted online as a weird diamond in the rough - an FPS with really tight gunplay, but an quite desolate and empty open world where there wasn’t really that much to do. I also played the Mad Max game a little, and it reminded me heavily of that, but that world seemed a lot more alive (and bigger!) than Rage’s open world. Driving around with the car was also pretty uninteresting, as was car-to-car combat.

As mentioned before, Rage shines in its FPS gunplay. The weapons, while somewhat generic at first, are fun to use and shoot. Of special note, however, is the special ammo for each weapon. I especially loved the shotgun’s “Pop Rockets”: a slug that explodes like a grenade when it hits. The tight explosion radius and slow trajectory means you have to lead your targets and ensure you get direct hits. Similarly, there’s a crossbow you can put dynamite bolts in. They were great for those long-range explosive encounters. I also liked the Wingsticks, which are essentially bladed boomerangs, for close quarters combat. The only other gun I remember is the BFG, which was somewhat underwhelming.

The map design reflects the dichotomy between the car-oriented open-world and the FPS levels. While some maps are just sewer crawlers and relatively bland, I still vividly remember the “Dead City” map, which honestly felt like I had been thrown right back into a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. or Metro 2033 level. It just oozed this great post-apocalyptic atmosphere, and I wouldn’t have minded if a lot more of the game had taken place there.

While the story is quite bland and the ending extremely terse, I did like the various NPCs and their impeccable character design. Each important NPC was obviously lovingly crafted, animated and very well voiced. Some prime examples are Dr. Kvasir, Dan Hagar and J.K. Stiles. It’s a shame I only encountered them a few times. I guess I’ll have to load up Rage 2.