Welcome to Pushing Buttons, the Guardian’s brand new gaming newsletter. If you’d like to receive it in your inbox every weeek, just pop your email in below – and check your inbox (and spam) for the confirmation email.
I want to use this first issue to tell you what to expect from this newsletter. The gaming world is fast-moving, and it can be hard to keep up with while also living a busy real life. I want to be a friendly guide to what’s interesting and relevant, and what games are worth your valuable time and attention.
But this won’t just be a news rundown. Video games don’t exist in a cultural vacuum, and they’re not just products that appear and are quickly forgotten. For anyone who plays them – which, increasingly, is pretty much everyone – games are a part of life, not something separate from it. I want to talk about them in a way that reflects that.
Ask any anthropologist and they’ll tell you that we can learn a lot about people by looking at how we play. I find that games that break through to become popular often reflect some interesting facet of our culture and the world we live in: whether that’s The Sims’ potent mixture of ultracapitalist fantasy and soothing control over human affairs, or pandemic space-skullduggery hit Among Us’ undercurrent of anxiety, instability and mistrust. Even a game that ostensibly has nothing much to say – Fortnite, for instance – can tell us a lot when we look at how people play it. Teenagers use it as a place to hang out; their generation’s equivalent of loitering pointlessly around the local park with your mates, though possibly without the covert cans of cider.
And gaming culture – because it is young, because it is technologically cutting-edge – can give us an insight into what’s on the cards for the world as a whole. There’s the dismal example of Gamergate, the 2014 harassment campaign that foreshadowed the Trump campaign and the seductive tactics of the alt-right; but gamers were also early representatives of the Internet’s ability to connect and empower people, with our newsgroups and online lobbies. People were creating and curating new selves and friendship circles in video game worlds long before they were doing the same on Instagram.
I say all this to reinforce the notion that games matter. They’re not some guilty pleasure, some pointless waste of time. Like all art and culture, they have power. Games connect and entertain and, sometimes, effect change. The people who make and play them can be fascinating. I love video games in all their forms, from the sublime to the very, very ridiculous, and that is exactly why I take them seriously. The right game at the right time can change your life. Or it can give you something fun and blissfully escapist to do inbetween working long days, raising your kids, or navigating the everyday heartbreaks of life. That’s good, too.
I’ve been a games journalist for 16 years, and I still find them endlessly fascinating. I’m excited to share the games and stories that make my brain happy with all of you.
What to play
This week’s game recommendation is Death’s Door, an extraordinary wee game that flew somewhat under the radar this year – appropriately, as it stars a crow who works as a Grim Reaper. It’s an invitingly beautiful Zelda-like adventure game, with stylish, snappy fights and a world comprised of pleasing dioramas full of interesting secrets to find, but it’s also gently melancholy in a way that really got to me over time. There’s something almost Spirited Away about it, with moments of touching levity in among the dungeon-delving.
Available on: PlayStation 4/5, Xbox One/Series X/S, PC, Nintendo Switch Approximate playtime: 10 hours
What to read
At the end of a year full of shocking stories about harassment and toxic work culture at studios from Ubisoft to Activision Blizzard and more, IGN’s Rebekah Valentine reports on claims of a troubling work environment at former Halo and current Destiny developers Bungie, which would sit at odds with the company’s virtuous self-image. Valentine’s wide-ranging reporting doesn’t just allege problems that are endemic across game development – sexism, boys-club culture, overwork, a lack of diversity – but gets into what it might take to try and solve them
My heart was well and truly warmed by this feature on Terry Pratchett’s love for the 1998 stealth game Thief: The Dark Project. Rick Lane dug through Pratchett’s old posts on a video game newsgroup in the late 1990s to tell the story of the great author’s favourite video game in his own words. I was also greatly amused by his reaction to being introduced to The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion: “Aaargh! What have you done to me?”
The Game Awards were last Friday, a glitzy mashup of celebrating the year’s gaming highlights and hours’ worth of adverts and announcements for upcoming games. The wild, creative, genre-hopping co-op family caper It Takes Two rather unexpectedly won Game of the Year, a game I had a lot of fun playing with my IRL partner earlier this year. The Verge has a full run-down of the game announcements – an open-world Sonic game has the old Sega fans squeaking with excitement, and horror aficionados should check out Slitterhead, a new game from Silent Hill creator Keiichiro Toyama.
This is where we ask you for your questions about all things gaming, and get interesting people to answer them. Today we ask Dominik Diamond, host of the iconic original GamesMaster TV show and legit games pop-culture legend: were video games better in the 90s?
“Of course games were better in the nineties. Mainly because when you bought them, they were actually finished products. If you had said to people in the 90s, ‘Here is Super Mario Kart, you can play the first three tracks then it gets a bit buggy, but we’ll have a patch in a month’ you’d have been locked in a room with Mr Blobby and made to drink Sunny D until your skin changed colour. Oh, sure games these days have more graphical bells and whistles on them now but so what? Gameplay is gameplay. In the 90s we didn’t even need to know how to spell Nvidia.”
What to click
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that this pirate game is full of hornswagglers
How my lockdown obsession with Super Smash Bros led me to a vital epiphany
Solar Ash review – ambitious sci-fi adventure leads to a boring new world
Next week: I’ll be taking a look back at 2021, a year in which the effects of the pandemic on game development really began to be felt. Until then!