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Second Shot: A Case for Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days, Part One

The aesthetic strategies of Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days in expressing a documentarian style and commenting on our relation to images.



Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days

Replaying Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days, I find myself often reminded of the rich discourse in film culture following the rise of inexpensive digital video aesthetics in the early 2000s. While low-grade and crude at the time, digital video became a worthwhile tool for artists like Michael Mann and David Lynch who adopted the crude format to make visually abstract, often confrontational, works. Films like Miami Vice or Inland Empire experimented with what the technology could do, showcasing longer shadows, overexposed lighting, more vibrant colors, grainy nighttime footage, extreme focal lengths, and more fragmentary editing patterns achieved with computer programs. IO Interactive’s 2010 game Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days is, in many respects, an undervalued masterpiece drawing from this artistically expressive moment in cinematic history and was woefully shunned by a video game culture too reactionary and shortsighted to engage with it.

What Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days presents is an abstract catalogue of death and misery with Cormac McCarthy-esque levels of lyrical bleakness. I’ve written at length about Dog Days before, having published a piece on the game’s rough and nihilistic surrealism for Unwinnable, but this game demands greater examination given the depths of its engagement with a slew of themes, artistic influences, and narrative risks. In certain stretches of gameplay, Dog Days emits a heavy, atmospheric gloom during shootouts so that action feels poetically forlorn and languid, like a funereal pall hanging over the proceedings. Other times, the game favors the brash immediacy of bodily flesh and movement, touting impressionistic images that emphasize blurred textures over straightforward dramaturgy and visual clearness.


Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days has a basic story, but I get the feeling that IO was more concerned with chiseling an urgent work of art than drawing clean narrative lines. The game follows the titular characters reuniting in Shanghai, China, after settling down and following a more mundane lifestyle. Their domestic bliss is cut short when they provoke a gang war and lawless manhunt after playing a role in the unforeseen killing of a corrupt politician’s daughter with ties to the local mob. Dog Days stands apart as one of the most concise statements of video game violence and evil, elaborating on the themes of predecessor Dead Men with greater success in a self-contained, standalone story. It’s also a game about images and our relation to it; Dog Days presents an unparalleled aesthetic of snuff film-esque, low-grade home video footage as though captured on a cheap cell phone. These are images that exist in the same intellectual headspace as filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard who crafted similar painterly smears of pixelated light and color in late works Film Socialisme or Goodbye to Language. The implied presence of an unseen camera operator following Kane and Lynch throughout the game adds a layer of remove from the atrocities committed onscreen, trailing a legacy of similarly minded video games like Manhunt and Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number.

If the game evoked such artistic influences and promoted themes as deep and varied as I’ve argued, then why did Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days suffer the mindless, negative groupthink it faced upon release (and often still does)? Kane & Lynch in general was plagued by a number of factors, including the shallow criticism that Dog Days was too short and had unpolished shooting mechanics, but most infamously, its predecessor was marred with the firing of writer Jeff Gerstmann for giving it a mixed review score. That’s a controversy that has only entrenched mainstream games criticism and the discussion about “ethics” further into moronic mudslinging (a general discourse embarrassingly intensified with added misogyny in the past year and a half), and I’m uninterested in examining the matter further.

Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days

Instead, I’ll suggest that the unwarranted critical failure of Dog Days had more to do with a games culture ill-equipped with the language to talk about the game when it was released in 2010. Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days is very much a mass-market art game, employing its imitation of blown-out digital video to provide a strange new texture underutilized in video games. Of course, mainstream discussion on games as art was only in its nascent stage in 2010. Roger Ebert’s now archaic diatribe against games as art was published that year, prompting serious discussion and online talking points. Even today, many gamers and some critics still resist the kind of critical dialogue necessary in considering games as art, shunning pertinent topics like feminism, gender politics, and race representation and generally refusing to engage with a broader political and social landscape in favor of cultural isolationism.

We were also still mired in the useless drivel that was “ludonarrative dissonance,” a narrow-minded, counterproductive means to talk about games that merely lambasted works with the buzzword rather than analyze how dissonance between gameplay and narrative can operate on thematic and stylistic levels. Mainstream games criticism only recently stepped up conversation with the release of Spec Ops: The Line in 2012 and Brendan Keogh’s book-length analysis Killing is Harmless, prompting (directly or indirectly) further reconsideration of games that attempted similar thematic concerns as Spec Ops like Far Cry 2, Max Payne 3, and Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days. These are games in which the dissonance between a narrative’s condemnation of violence and gameplay’s complete embracement of it produces thematic tension that clues players into the fragmentary psychology of the characters onscreen. To simply fault games on the basis of “ludonarrative dissonance” disallows for engagement with crucial narrative devices like unreliable narrators, metafiction, and Brechtian distanciation techniques. It disengages video games from how other mediums like theater or literature handle dissonance, cutting off games criticism from useful language that could better serve underappreciated and divisive games.

Refreshingly, a number of eloquent defenses that identify the bold artistic strategies of Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days and its complex themes have steadily emerged over the years since its release, and these writings greatly inform my thoughts here. Max Chis’s seminal piece on Dog Days as an anti-shooter achieving similar themes as Spec Ops: The Line notes IO’s storytelling triumph as prophetically ahead of its time, praising it as “perhaps one of the most ingenious AAA games of recent memory, and nobody noticed or cared.” His essay is vital for those looking to uncover a long-form response to the game’s lack of appreciation, joining some other necessary essays delving into Dog Days’s deliberate, confrontational ugliness and nihilism regardless of their personal liking of the game. Of further importance is Filipe Salgado’s entry in the essay anthology Shooter, its presence alongside writings on established genre works like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Far Cry 2 which grant the game additional critical validity. Finally, Ed Smith, one of the few writers who gives marginalized games like the Kane & Lynch series a fair shake with thoughtful analysis, notes how predecessor Dead Men (and by extension, Dog Days) is a valuable work because of its refusal to provide neat catharsis or clean moralizing, thus making the game “truly about bad guys, truly about violence.”

What we can observe over the course of five years since the release of Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days is an initial, reactionary contempt that set the tone for discussion and an eventual reconsideration by a small but growing handful o f writers. Dog Days, to this particular writer’s eyes, remains a singular vision that pulls the merits of video game art into greater focus. From the moment its pair of damnable nightcrawlers reunite to their Orphic descent into the pits of the Shanghai underworld, Dog Days steeps us within an aesthetic all its own, its setting of neon-drenched urban squalor and reckless subterfuge affirming the inevitability of violence.


Even before the game begins, Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days prefigures its thematic interest in digital video culture and our knotty relation with images in its main menu and loading screens. The randomized looped video that plays against the main menu signals the subjective, home video-style handheld camera presentation throughout the game. The images provided are that of candid normalcy that disguises the malicious horrors to come. A camera positioned from a car’s backseat idly gazes out the window as Chinese radio pop warbles from the dashboard. In another, the camera eyes a spider web tangle of telephone lines, and a jumbo airliner descends close to the city. Whatever the provided imagery, the constant presence is an overcast sky that establishes the gloomy atmosphere of the game and a misdirecting sense of mundane domesticity that the game inverts over the course of its narrative.

The loading screens extend these thematic and stylistic interests, displaying still images appearing consecutively to form a collage like a Facebook album of vacation photographs. In lieu of a loading bar, Dog Days centralizes a YouTube-style buffering wheel that suggests that the entire game is a kind of prerecorded, home video snuff film that we’re queuing up to watch. Indeed, the very first image we see when the game loads is that of a close-up of a digital camera in the midst of recording. This expressive first shot is already significant because it connotes a moment of reflexivity, calling attention to the game’s means of expression and in a way, turning the camera on audiences like a similar shot pulled in the opening scene of Jean-Luc Godard’s film Contempt. Moreover, the camera emphasizes a layer of remove from reality; our protagonists are claustrophobically framed in its tiny viewfinder and obscured by pixilation rather than depicted directly. A series of impressionistic, quick cuts witnesses the flash of a knife and a voice crying out, “I’ll fucking kill you!” before the game cuts to its title.


Within the first few seconds of Dog Days, we’re already tuned into its disorienting, fragmentary aesthetic of low-grade digital video. As previously stated, what sets Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days apart from its predecessor (and most other games) is its stylized, voyeuristic camerawork. The game presents its world through a glitch-prone, pixelated digital camera operated by an invisible third party following Kane and Lynch throughout the game. As such, the game takes on a vérité aesthetic that feels paradoxically real and unreal. The camera shakes wildly when you sprint forward, evoking a sense of rushed shakycam like bystanders filming on the ground guerilla-style. The camera’s “lens” is occasionally speckled with blood, dirt, and grime, adding a level of smeared materiality to the screen that grounds the game to a sense of realism as though the camera is slowly getting worn over time.

Inversely, the visual styling of the game also underscores a level of falsity that increasingly breaks apart the digital image. Shadowy locales intensify the graininess of the image as the camera struggles to focus on a light source, and lens flares from car headlights and streetlights create a blinding sheen. Throughout the game, the camera sometimes glitches in pixelated error, conveying a smeared digital hell of blown-out pixels and characters coming out of focus. Nudity is pixelated out as though manipulated in post-production to make it appropriate for online upload. Enemies dead from headshots will also be pixelated as though their corpses are too gruesome to bear, evoking censored newsreel footage or snuff films that conceal the identity of those murdered. This aesthetic degradation extends to the audio of the game as well. Extremely loud noises such as explosions or a burst of crazy gunfire will produce tinny, low quality audio as though the recording equipment is faltering.

These stylistic flourishes contribute to a general sense of visual and auditory pollution that attacks our senses. Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days’s handheld, found footage-style presentation lends itself to a snuff, documentarian style that resists the typical video game appeals to “fun” and “enjoyment,” instead favoring aesthetic ugliness and disruption. Curiously, early marketing concepts dubbed Kane & Lynch 2 as “The World’s First Documentary Shooter,” and the full spread of the advertisement campaign and its unpublished ideas are just as gripping, emphasizing bodily decay mediated by digital camcorder aesthetics. The marketing team’s labeling of the game as a documentary shooter is a striking interpretation that further cements the notion that there is indeed an invisible camera crew following Kane and Lynch through the streets of Shanghai.

If we are to accept this documentarian understanding of the game, then Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days uncannily follows in the tradition of the great 1992 mockumentary film Man Bites Dog, a work with a similarly canine-inflected title and preoccupation with taped ultraviolence. The trio of directors Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde depict a fictional documentary crew filming and eventually becoming complicit with the crimes of a crazed serial killer. The overlap between Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days and Man Bites Dog is astonishing, from the way in which both films stake a claim in documentarian realism in depicting criminality to the finale of both works where the camera operator is knocked down as though fatally wounded.

Translating a “documentary shooter” style to gameplay creates a strange effect to our point-of-view. In a way, Dog Days asks the player to control two characters simultaneously: a third-person view of Lynch and an implied first-person view of the unseen camera operator, both movements tethered to one another. The presence of a digital camcorder filming these events means we’re viewing everything through a mediating screen that disengages us from the immediacy of the characters’ atrocities. As in snuff films, the game portrays extreme violence enacted on others and on the self, and the layer of remove provided by the implied camera suggests a critique on video game violence by resisting immediate identification with the characters and events onscreen.


To move through Shanghai in Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days is to experience a markedly ugly urban landscape that reflects the damaged, rotting psychology of the characters. Kane and Lynch are detestable murderers not meant for players to admire, and the setting provides a visual exteriorization of their inner moral decay. The occasional glimpses of domestic bliss like in the apartment of Lynch and his girlfriend Xiu suggest a kind of ironic relationship wherein the evil and the mundane coexist in a means that conveys the former’s latent ubiquity in the latter.

Much of the game takes place in polluted back alleyways or dingy interiors that make for an oppressive and aggressively unpleasant visual landscape. Dog Days barely provides any natural light, setting Kane and Lynch’s campaign in ungodly nighttime hours. Light sources are often artificial, including garish fluorescent bulbs and the dead glow of neon that casts strange colors. There are sequences at dawn, but the sun overhead shines a ghostly white light that feels as far away as the sun from Mars, providing not warmth but coldness.

Seeking shelter inside yields no respite from the game’s all-consuming purgatorial hell because you’ll only encounter labyrinthine interiors that all look similar. There’s a controlled chaos in the game’s representation of a tangible criminal underworld. Narrow passageways and a maze of dank, cluttered back rooms provide numerous dead ends, conveying a sense of bewildering claustrophobia that envelops all who descend deeper. Criss-crossing electrical wiring hangs overhead as though it’s delivering a suffocating chokehold on the city. Dog Days rarely steps foot in the touristy, glamorous avenues of Shanghai, but in the underbelly: storage areas, sweatshops, alleyways, freezers, black markets, slums. The tight, meandering alleys crowded with debris, tepid water, and black trash bags encircled by flies reminds me of the slums of the Kowloon Walled City. As in Max Payne 3, Dog Days has a secondary interest in visualizing the exploitative effects of rampant capitalism and political corruption on working class peoples. Traversing a sweatshop, you’ll stumble upon a dark, windowless room with bunk beds tightly packed together to house its workers, and the environment feels prison-like.

Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days

Of course, you feed into this problem too, perpetuating organized crime and gun violence within these spaces. One particularly memorable location is a seedy electronics store peddling cheap DVDs and consumer electronics, a blaring neon sign dripping red and pink visual pollution outside. This is an underground economy that exchanges violence and material goods; two-bit criminals cohabit the same streets as honest day laborers.

Kane and Lynch will also tread the dilapidated periphery of these urban spaces, crossing construction and demolition sites where the essence of a building lingers. Rotting tenement blocks lay amidst the cratered ruins of concrete pillars and rubble sandwiched between the oppressive cityscape. Time and time again, you’ll advance through downed sections of pipe, through ditches, and between pillars like vermin emerging from beneath the earth. The brighter neon lights of more respectable parts of the city are always on the horizon and tantalizingly out of reach.

These construction sites are especially unusual because they feel borderline fascist in their oppressively industrial and sharp concrete edifices. Indeed, these ubiquitous spaces warp into abstract landscapes under the grotesque vision of Dog Days. Shootouts in construction zones appear sculpturally organized, enemies weaving around concrete pillars, steel blocks, and metal pipes in geometrical precision. These industrial surroundings recall the minimalist sculptures of artist Richard Serra. They’re ultimately chest-high walls, but Richard Serra and Kane & Lynch 2 share similar themes of industrial severity and the flow of people through inorganic spaces. That a video game even evokes abstract sculpture warrants closer inspection to foster the cross-pollination of disparate artistic traditions.

Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days offers abundant thematic and stylistic questions for game critics to probe, yet the series’ unwarranted derision accumulated over the years reflects a medium still regressive and repellent to the idea that games should be engaged on a serious level. That a genre shooter game from the bargain bin can entertain complex themes and abstract artistic flourishes should lead us to believe that more exploratory works detached from generic conventions must be even more artistically cohesive and venerable. However, the mainstream critical narrow-mindedness in writing about a game from a lowbrow, easily accessible genre like a shooter suggests that games culture would be severely hesitant—even resistant—in engaging on a deeper level with more obviously arthouse works. This reality is failing the artists making these games, and so the antidote would be to reconfigure the way we write about video games and the way we think about the games themselves. To look forward into the future of video games necessitates that we also look back—back to marginalized works that would benefit from a second shot at critical analysis now that we’re at least better than we once were. Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days is one such game, and I’m more than eager to step back into its bleakness, and to disappear once more into its darkened heart.

In the second half of this essay, I’ll be moving from the aesthetic strategies of Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days towards its characters and lyrical themes.

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Found it interesting, entertaining, useful, or informative? Maybe it even saved you some money. That's great to hear! Sadly, independent publishing is struggling worse than ever, and Thumbsticks is no exception. So please, if you can afford to, consider supporting us via Patreon or buying us a coffee.

Miguel Penabella is a freelancer and comparative literature academic who worships at the temple of cinema but occasionally bears libations to videogames.


The 3D Super Mario games ranked, from worst to best

As Super Mario 3D All-Stars comes to the Nintendo Switch, we take a look back at the long and varied history of Mario’s adventures in three dimensions.



Super Mario 3D games ranked

As Super Mario 3D All-Stars comes to the Nintendo Switch, we take a look back at the long and varied history of Mario’s adventures in three dimensions.

Super Mario 3D All-Stars might not be the celebration of Mario that many fans wanted, but there’s no denying the quality of the games it includes. Each one has its fans – even Super Mario Sunshine – but how to do they rank among Mario’s other 3D exploits?

Here is our official ranking, ordered from worst to best.

7. Super Mario Sunshine

Well, this is a rare pleasure, a ranked list of video games in which there are no absolute stinkers. That said, it’s probably no surprise to see Super Mario Sunshine as the first entry.

Despite its flaws, Super Mario Sunshine only sits seventh place because of the high quality of the titles that surround it. Its problems are well documented: the camera can be a nightmare, some of the character design is dreadful, and the fiddly blue coin quests overstay their welcome.

But, there is so much to like. Delfino Isle is a wonderful, secret-filled playground. The swoonsome music and balmy holiday tone is a delight. And consider the flawed but fun FLUDD mechanics, which have subsequently influenced Splatoon, the Zelda series, and Super Mario Odyssey. Sunshine is the weakest 3D Mario game, sure, but it’s still full to bursting with wild ideas and concepts. And, of course, it has that adorable rideable Yoshi.

6. Super Mario 3D Land

Super Mario 3D Land

Although positioned in the lower reaches of this list, Super Mario 3D Land can comfortably lay claim to being the best handheld Mario game ever made. Alongside Mario Kart 7, it helped to revive the fortunes of the stumbling Nintendo 3DS, proving that the device was capable of delivering immersive and fresh experiences.

On release, 3D Land felt like a slimline version of Super Mario Galaxy, but in retrospect, it’s clearly the first title in a third tier of 3D Mario games. In contrast to the open sandboxes of Super Mario 64 and Sunshine, or the kaleidoscopic planet-hopping of the Galaxy series, the game takes a more controlled approach. With a wealth of levels to explore, 3D Land’s bite-sized structure is closest to NES classic, Super Mario Bros 3. The result is a joyous game that will forever remain the franchise’s best portable-only excursion.

5. Super Mario Galaxy

One of Super Mario Galaxy‘s greatest achievements is how effortlessly it surpasses the constraints under which it was made. Developed for Nintendo’s breakout – but relatively low-powered – Wii console, the game had to both improve on its flawed predecessor, and make complex three-dimensional gaming accessible to the console’s casual audience. It also had to do it using an idiosyncratic control scheme that swapped sticks and buttons for motion and pointer controls.

Super Mario Galaxy achieves all of these things with ease. The game’s emphasis on spherical worlds removes the reliance on a user-controlled camera and keeps the moustachioed plumber centre-stage at all times. The sandbox structure of Mario 64 and Sunshine is replaced by a series of increasingly elaborate and carefully constructed miniature worlds to negotiate.

An abundance of gameplay ideas display a refreshed enthusiasm from Nintendo, with Yoshiaki Koizumi’s team flexing their creative muscles with new power-ups, enemies, and gravity-bending platforming. Combined with sumptuous visuals and a triumphant, orchestral score, Super Mario Galaxy is a giddying adventure from start to finish.

4. Super Mario 3D World

Ranking Super Mario 3D World above Super Mario Galaxy may prove contentious. The game may not be as recklessly inventive as Mario’s Wii adventure, but it’s a masterclass in the art of 3D platforming. 3D World is a more measured outing, but this allows for every block, platform, and jump to be crafted and polished with scientific precision.

The game is equally enjoyable played solo, or in multiplayer with up to three friends. And Cat Mario is an elegant – and often hilarious – way for younger or less skilled players to keep pace. Super Mario 3D World also looks glorious, with a chunky, toys-to-life consistency that is lacking from the next game in this list. And let’s not forget that one of its finest achievements was spun off into its own game with Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker.

3. Super Mario Odyssey

Super Mario Odyssey is the toughest game to place on this list. Its biggest achievement is not the level design, or its cap-based transformations – although they are all quite wonderful – but its generosity. Every corner of the game rewards experimentation, risk, exploration, and curiosity.

Super Mario Odyssey charts an expansive – and often overwhelming – new direction for the series, but it also doffs its cap to those that came before it. On at least two occasions, a nod to the past brought a tear to my eye. At all other times, I was grinning from ear to ear. It’s an amazing experience and capped (pardon the pun) a wonderful launch year for the Nintendo Switch.

2. Super Mario 64

If you wanted to put Super Mario 64 at the top of this list, it would be hard to argue. Much of what we take for granted in the series – and 3D game design in general – debuted here. Like many titles of the era, it can feel rough around the edges, but its ideas still feel fresh, playful and creative.

Having refined the art of 2D platforming with Super Mario World and Yoshi’s Island, fans might have expected Super Mario 64 to be a cautious first step into three dimensions. But no, its a supremely confident long jump, followed by a ground pound to mark the game’s place in history.

1. Super Mario Galaxy 2

On paper Super Mario Galaxy 2 has the simplest brief of all the games on this list: make more of the same. Using the core concepts introduced Super Mario Galaxy, Koizumi and his team expand upon that template, and then some.

Gameplay mechanics and ideas that could easily be the foundation of entire games are introduced, chewed up, and disposed of with abandon. The variety is astonishing. Each course is a memorable test of mental mettle and physical athleticism. Each power-up is a delight. Each boss is a thrilling, fast-paced puzzle to solve.

In its post-credits end game, Galaxy 2 is also one of the most demanding, and fulfilling, platformers Nintendo has ever created. Super Mario Galaxy 2 is where Nintendo’s talents in design, artistic expression, and desire to entertain all come together. It’s Mario’s best ever game, and its omission from Super Mario 3D All-Stars is baffling.

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Tabula Rasa: In defence of the amnesiac video game protagonist

It’s a trope so overused it borders on cliché, but perhaps the amnesiac protagonist route is so well-trodden precisely because it is so effective?



Breath of the Wild silent princess
NIntendo /

It’s a trope so overused it borders on cliché, but perhaps the amnesiac protagonist route is so well-trodden precisely because it is so effective?

Plato theorised that we are all born with all the knowledge in the world – we simply need to remember it. Marie Antionette once said, “There is nothing new except what has been forgotten.”

Playing with memory and memory loss is a staple of media, and always has been. In The Madness of Hercules by the ancient Greek poet, Euripides, the hero is gripped with madness and can’t remember his own family. In this crazed state, he murders them all and must make amends by undertaking his famous 12 labours. In film it’s been used in every genre – from action movies like Total Recall to romcoms like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Amnesia is also an absolute staple of soap operas – the Australian mainstay of Neighbours uses it frequently. One famous example was in 2002 when fan-favourite Susan slipped on some spilt milk (queue obvious jokes) and lost 3 decades worth of memories. That other beloved form of soap opera, wrestling, also uses amnesia. In 1993 Cactus Jack was powerbombed by Big Van Vader into the concrete floor of the stadium. The character was institutionalised, eventually escaping his mental hospital and developing amnesia before eventually returning to the ring.

Video games are no exception to this ancient trend – and though amnesia plotlines have a reputation for being lazy and schlocky, I am here to defend them. So from Hercules to Cactus Jack to Link – what makes memory loss and retrieval so appealing?

Let’s start with Monument Valley. This British app-game won a Bafta in 2015 for Best British Game. It’s deceptively simple – you must twist and turn the Escher-inspired architecture to navigate the beautiful and geometric landscapes. But as we progress through the first level we are told that Princess Ida must return all the Sacred Geometry that she’s stolen. Just like Hercules, Ida must undertake her own series of labour. We follow Ida on her emotional journey – the shame of discovering her crime, the loneliness of the empty cities, the fear of the antagonistic crows and eventually the joy of redemption and release.

Monument Valley

In 1922 Proust wrote In Search of Lost Time, which includes his famous “madeleine moment”:

“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me […] And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings […] my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.”

This hugely evocative moment has been referenced and resurrected many times – most famously in the Pixar movie, Ratatouille, where the food critic Anton Ego is instantly transported back to his rural childhood with just one bite of the eponymous dish.

Old Man’s Journey, like Monument Valley, is another literal voyage into memory and emotion. Like Proust with his madeleines, the player character of this game has memories periodically triggered as you traverse the dreamy landscape. We all know this feeling – a long-forgotten memory that floods our minds, transporting us into a past moment. (As Proust said: “And suddenly the memory revealed itself”.)

This game perfectly represents that feeling. The memory washes over the screen, the sounds and colours so evocative of the past moment. But it is also fixed and nearly static, a fragment we can recall but can’t interact with. As Proust was in search of lost time, so is the main character in Old Man’s Journey. We already know where he has ended up – old and alone on the sea shore – but as we walk with him we uncover that lost time and what has come before.

The Legend of Zelda is one of the most well-recognised legacy properties in the games world. But significantly we know it as Zelda, and it’s her name we remember, even as we take up another game to play as Link. Link is left deliberately blank so that we can project ourselves into him. Scott McCloud, in his excellent book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, he writes: “When you look at a photo or realistic drawing of a face, you see it as the face of another. But when you enter the world of the cartoon , you see yourself.”

The blankness of Link, the simplicity of the sketched out person, leaves room for projection. Enter: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

Breath of the Wild wake up link

This is Link at his most blank, most characterless. As the game begins he is stripped of even his iconic outfit – as well as all of his memories. Even the marketing of the game plays into this, the website stating: “Forget everything you know about The Legend of Zelda games”. Forget what came before, just as Link has.

Gradually he recovers his identity, his memories, even the landscape opens up and unfolds before him as he recovers memories. Critically we, the player, build our skills, knowledge and identity alongside Link. This mirroring leverages an enormous emotional payout at the game’s conclusion – good friends of mine wept at the close of Breath of the Wild.

Amnesia used in clumsy hands can be silly and schlocky. But when the rediscovery of memory is used with skill, it builds the closest of relationships between the player and the player character. The Tabula Rasa – or blank tablet – of the character allows us to project ourselves onto them. We discover the past and personality, abilities and history of the PC at the exact moment as the character themselves. We might be separated by the screen, but in that moment our minds are as one, the feelings evoked are perfectly in sync.

Roger Ebert once called cinema an “empathy machine” and games have the potential to create just as much, or even more, empathy for our main characters. Through amnesia plots, alongside the device of having us work to discover memories in tandem with the player character, video games are engineering a significant amount of empathy.

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Enjoyed this article?

Found it interesting, entertaining, useful, or informative? Maybe it even saved you some money. That's great to hear! Sadly, independent publishing is struggling worse than ever, and Thumbsticks is no exception. So please, if you can afford to, consider supporting us via Patreon or buying us a coffee.

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The Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater soundtrack, as told by the bands who made it

The soundtrack of a generation: We spoke to Bad Religion, Consumed, Fu Manchu, Lagwagon, The Suicide Machines, Swingin’ Utters and The Vandals about the impact of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.



Tony Hawk's Pro Skater soundtrack the hawk mix

The soundtrack of a generation: We spoke to Bad Religion, Consumed, Fu Manchu, Lagwagon, The Suicide Machines, Swingin’ Utters and The Vandals about the impact of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.

There had been licensed music on video game soundtracks before Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. With the advent of Sony’s PlayStation, a disc-based system that allowed for full reproductions of songs rather than chiptune melodies, came the inclusion of licensed music.

Gran Turismo, released in late 1997, was one of the first. It featured a somewhat disjointed mix of British rock album fillers, including Ash’s Lose Control, Garbage’s As Heaven is Wide. Not that they’re bad tracks, of course, but why not Kung Fu or Girl From Mars from Ash? Or Stupid Girl or Only When it Rains from Garbage?

The only arguably “big” songs on the Gran Turismo soundtrack are Feeder’s Tangerine (the game also features a bunch of B-sides from the band) and Everything Must Go by Manic Street Preachers. But this rocky iteration of the soundtrack wasn’t even universal; in other countries, like Sony’s native Japan, the game featured a completely different list of tunes.

Meanwhile, the Grand Theft Auto series – most people’s go-to for “good” licensed video game music – didn’t really get its act together on licensed soundtracks until it hit its retro stride, with the 80s disco mix of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City in 2002, and the heady blend of early 90s grunge and hip-hop in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas in 2004.

And then, slap bang in the middle of those two frames of reference for licensed video game soundtracks, is Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. It’s the perfect storm of gameplay, music, attitude and style. It’s crammed full of absolute bangers and, on its release in September 1999, fast became the soundtrack of a generation.

Tony Hawks Pro Skater screenshot 1


I recall seeing Goldfinger at Leeds Festival in 2002. It wasn’t on the main stage, even though other US punk bands – including The Offspring, Weezer, Less Than Jake, and even Sum 41 – got the nod. No, Goldfinger were playing in a tent. It was also two in the afternoon on the first day, while the hungover (or still-drunk, or still-high) masses fought their way from the campsite to the stage area through a literal festival quagmire.

Third on the bill, in a tent, at two in the afternoon, on the first day of the fourth- or fifth-best musical festival in the UK. It was not what you would call an auspicious start.

But Goldfinger had a secret weapon. They still do, 20 years on. It’s a song with enduring popularity and reach that most any band would be jealous of. A song that brings with it a legion of fans and, even better, acts as a conveyor belt to bring in new ones. That song? Superman, the de facto anthem of classic PlayStation game, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, released worldwide three years earlier.

I think it was early – maybe I was hungover, or drunk, or high? – but I don’t remember at what point in their set Goldfinger hit the staccato, ska-punk intro to Superman, but the effect was instantaneous and inspiring. A half-empty tent began to fill. The dribble of crowd meandering outside became a torrent. It was as though they had flipped the switch on an enormous electromagnet, attracting every punk, geek, and skater for miles around.

There were, of course, a few gatekeeping grumbles in the crowd, people complaining that the PlayStation generation weren’t “real” fans of Goldfinger. But those dissenting voices were soon crushed under a throbbing mass of jubilation, of far too many people crammed into far too small a space, united in a singular goal: to dance their asses off to the song from Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.

I really don’t recall much else of that Goldfinger show. It was a delirious blur. I had come dressed for the occasion, in a Superman “costume” cobbled together from a vintage DC Comics t-shirt and some things I had begged, borrowed, or stolen then the night before, and spent pretty much the entire set crowd surfing. At one point, I came together with an inflatable – I think it might have been a rubber dinghy? I have no idea where that came from, or how I collided with it – and was dumped into a crashing heap in front of the stage.

Winded and a little groggy, possibly sporting a concussion, a very kind security guard got me a bottle of water and allowed me to sit on steps on the edge of the stage. I recall singing along to 99 Red Balloons, looking out at the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen crammed into a festival tent.

I’m not saying that Goldfinger owes their success to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, of course. They’re a brilliant band with an incredible catalogue and a killer live show. But the positive impact of featuring on that soundtrack is obvious.

And they’re not the only band who saw a shift following the release of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater screenshot 2


The Vandals, formed in 1980 in California, were part of a burgeoning punk rock scene with the likes of Bad Religion, Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies and Social Distortion. They signed for Epitaph Records, the Los Angeles label run by Bad Religion’s Brett Gurewitz, in 1982, and the band’s popularity grew.

In 1999, when Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater launched on the PS1 – featuring Euro Barge, from their 1998 album Hitler Bad, Vandals Good – The Vandals had been established for almost two decades. But the impact, even to a group of punk rock veterans, was noticeable.

“We were in our 20s and 30s when the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater game was released,” Joe Escalante, founder member and bassist of The Vandals, tells me. “Soon we started seeing 8-year-olds at our shows. It took a while, but we finally started asking their parents from stage what they were doing there and they said it was [because of] Tony Hawk.”

The Vandals, along with Primus and punk veterans Dead Kennedys, were the big-name artists on the roster. For a band like The Suicide Machines, however, who had a much smaller fanbase and were by their own admission struggling to make an impact via traditional channels, being on the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater soundtrack was enormous.

“We were already pretty deep into DIY touring before Tony Hawk Pro Skater and would have a few hundred people at most shows,” vocalist Jason ‘Jay’ Navarro recalls. “We signed to Hollywood Records and they tried pushing our songs No Face and SOS at MTV and radio and it really didn’t work. I swear after the game our shows were packed up to 1000 people a night. It did more for our band then our label did for our band.”

Rumour has it that Tony Hawk himself had a hand in the selection of the bands and tracks. With such a positive impact on the bands involved, it’s yet another story of the good the skating legend has had on the community and the scene as a whole.

“I’m not sure how [it happened], honestly? We were on Warp [the Warped Tour] out West when Tony was on it a few days skating. Maybe he saw us? No clue how that song was chosen. We didn’t pick it,” Navarro tells me, but he is very glad someone did.

“The lyrics [to Euro Barge] are an homage to the pains of touring Europe, that’s why Tony latched on to it,” Escalante says, confirming Hawk’s part in selecting the soundtrack. “He’s paid his dues over there and there are deep cultural differences that all Americans struggle with. The “Euro-Barge” was our term for how Europeans have no problem cutting in lines anywhere. But the song goes on from there, calling them out for all their sins. All in fun, of course!”

The funny thing is, in spite of its popularity among their fans (in no small part due to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater), The Vandals rarely play Euro Barge live, if at all.

“We hardly ever played the song Euro Barge, maybe because we played the game so much in the tour bus we were sick of hearing it,” Escalante says. “But over the years, even though we seldom play it, it remains the #1, 2, or 3 top-performing song on any list ranking our songs, in sales or streams, etc.”

“The truth is it’s actually hard to play,” he confesses, “because Josh wrote it in this f’d up 7/8 time signature, so we never thought we were getting it exactly right, even though we love the song.”

Not all of the bands we spoke to for this feature played Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater – more on that later – but like Escalante, Navarro remembers it fondly.

“It was a fun game to play,” he says. “Played tons of hours on it. I have been skating since 1985? Or 86. I felt it represented skating well. As far as all spectrums of our culture.”

That’s the crux of it, isn’t it? Neversoft’s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was, of course, a very good video game. It plays brilliantly and it captured the sense of freedom that comes with creative skateboarding. But that in itself is not enough. Games don’t get remade, 20 years down the line, unless they’re something truly special.

And Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was something incredibly special, probably because it fell at the intersection of so many different subcultures, a Venn diagram of things that are so close to overlapping, of punks and skaters and nerds. The soundtrack was a core element of that, stitching together skateboarders and gamers with a fabric of punk rock, with hints of ska, metal and hip-hop.

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater screenshot 3


With the success of the first Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, it was inevitable that there would be a sequel. It was also inevitable that the stakes of the soundtrack would be upped. If people thought it was surprising to see anti-establishment punk pioneers Dead Kennedys on the first game’s tracklist, it was a real shock to see Rage Against the Machine’s Guerilla Radio and Bring the Noise by Anthrax & Public Enemy on the sequel.

But at the heart of the sequel’s California skate scene, punk rock roots, was You by Bad Religion, from their 1989 album, No Control. I asked Jay Bentley, bassist and founding member of Bad Religion, about the impact of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 on the band and the wider punk scene.

“The game went hand in hand with a burgeoning lifestyle that was taking hold, with the advent of the X Games and the Warped Tour,” Bentley tells me. “Bands like us were the soundtrack to this Southern California lifestyle. The impact of Pro Skater 2 just blew the roof off skate culture. We met a lot of people whose introduction to Bad Religion was from that game.”

For a massive band like Bad Religion, a younger generation of fans is a bonus. But Bentley found one young skater in particular, a lot closer to home, who he connected with over Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2.

“My oldest son was 9 when it came out. He loved it. Played it religiously. I thought the game was fantastic. I wasn’t any good at it,” Bentley admits, “but it was still cool. It led to us building a half pipe in the backyard for him to skate, and that’s all that matters.”

“Get out and skate!” He adds.

As with the first game, all of the bands I spoke to weren’t entirely sure how their track came to be chosen, but the underlying theme was that the skaters involved – and, of course, Tony Hawk – had a hand in selecting the tunes.

“It is my understanding that the individual skaters that Tony asked to be in the game came in with songs they wanted,” Bentley recalls. “It may have been Eric Koston (but I really can’t remember) that wanted You. Anyway, Tony reached out to Brett [Gurewitz, guitarist with Bad Religion] and that was that.”

Joey Cape, vocalist of Lagwagon, also credits Hawk himself with their place on the soundtrack. He also recognises the power of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 in pushing the band to a wider audience, far beyond the traditional reach of radio and MTV.

“I think a friend at our record label said Tony had reached out and asked for the song specifically,” Cape says. “I remember being offered the chance to be a part of a skateboarding video game backed by Tony Hawk and saying, ‘Hell Yeah!’. I do think the song choice was the right one for the game. I’m so happy they picked May 16th because, whatever song they had chosen, it would inevitably be on every setlist from then on. Lucky for Lagwagon, we still enjoy playing the song, and now we have our own day.”

“I have said it many times before, “Cape continues, “it’s almost like May 16th is our only single. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 soundtrack made the song a hit in our world and beyond. Somewhat miraculous for a band that did little in radio and video. Other bands involved seem to feel the same way. The soundtrack is kind of legendary now.”

When asked if he enjoyed the game, Cape is one of the musicians that remembers it fondly.

“Oh yeah, I played it,” he says. “It’s a great game regardless of your background in skateboarding and even cooler if you grew up in board sports. I remember not being all that skilled at the game, but thinking it was so well-done and it was a rush to hear our song while playing it.”

But as I said earlier; not every band on this list played the game on their tour bus, jamming out tricks between shows. Scott Hill, guitarist and vocalist of Fu Manchu, is very quick to admit that he’s not a big gamer. But he does recognise the value of a new generation of fans brought in by Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2.

“I’m not the biggest video game player,” he admits, “but I have younger nephews who played it a lot and I did play it. It was fun,”

“We did notice a lot of younger fans getting into the band,” he continues. “A lot of people that would have never heard Fu Manchu heard us because of that game. We get fans all the time telling us that they first heard of us from the game. Not sure about increased record sales, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt!”

“I’m embarrassed to say that I have never played it,” Johnny Bonnel, lead vocalist of Swingin’ Utters, also confesses. “I’ve watched it a few times and it looks fun, but I’m just not that dude. I had a few dreams playing it but my reaction time was underwater. Everyone that has played it says it’s siiiiiiick! I guess I’m missing out on the sickness.”

But like so many of the bands I spoke to, Bonnel doesn’t underestimate the importance of getting their shot on the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 soundtrack. (Even if he doesn’t know how they ended up there.)

“I wish I had a cool story about getting on the soundtrack. Maybe there actually is a cool story but I don’t know it. I remember Erin and Mike being happy about it, so that made me happy. Max was the one who told me and I couldn’t believe it!”

“It seemed so huge at the time that it made me nervous,” he recalls. “Five Lessons Learned was the song choice and it is one of my favourite songs. Jennifer Koski wrote most of it which makes it that much better! I dedicate Five Lessons Learned to all women skaters when we play it at our shows.”

“The game is globally popular so we were seeing an influx of new, younger followers on our tours,” Bonnel says. “It was the height of our popularity and buzz. I heard our sales increased – makes sense. I, often, mingle with the people who come to our shows and there is always a few people that offer unsolicited information about how they found out about Swingin’ Utters and most of the time it is Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. All over the world, I am known as the dude who sings on a song on the soundtrack of Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2.”

“Pretty sweet,” he adds. “Thank you, Tony!”

But for all of the big bands on the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 soundtrack, it was again the opportunity afforded to lesser-known bands that was most exciting. Far from the skateparks and sunshine of Southern California were Consumed, a punk rock band from Nottingham, right here in the UK.

“Consumed was never destined for huge success,” Chris Billam, the band’s drummer, tells me. “We were happy with being reasonably well known within the UK punk scene back in the day, but we lacked any real ambition to push the band to where it perhaps could have got to. After being picked up by Fat Wreck Chords in the late 90s, we were lucky enough to travel that bit further and reach a wider audience. These were good times for the band and we were very lucky to have the opportunities and experiences we had. One of the biggest opportunities for further exposure came when we were told by the label that Activision wanted Heavy Metal Winner to feature on the soundtrack to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2.”

Like Dead Kennedys, Bad Religion, Rage Against the Machine, and other bands with an anti-establishment bent, however, Consumed faced some flak from parts of the punk rock world, who felt it was “corporate” and “selling out” to appear on a video game soundtrack.

“Inevitably, there were a few grumbles from the punk rock elite who believed Consumed had sold out,” Billam recalls, “and that we’d let the scene down terribly by agreeing to be involved. I also remember hearing rumours that we’d been paid enough money to set us all up for life. In reality, we did get a small one-off payment which went towards the band’s debt and a copy of the game each.”

I’d argue that if people are giving you the same grief as they’re giving Dead Kennedys and Bad Religion, you’re at least in some very good company. Like all of the bands I’ve spoken to, though, Billam was keen to reiterate how positive the experience was for the band.

“We were aware of the success of the first game,” he continues, “and that one of its biggest draws was the soundtrack, so we felt honoured to be asked to be on the soundtrack of the sequel. For a virtually unknown band to be sitting alongside huge names from the world of punk, metal and hip hop will always be something for us to be extremely proud of.”

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater screenshot 4


When the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 remake was announced on May 12, 2020 – and the initial excitement over playing them again (without having to dig my PS1 out from the attic) subsided – my thoughts immediately turned to the soundtrack. Which songs would be on it? Would Activision be able to reacquire all the licenses? Would the bands involved the first time around even still be interested?

So began this feature and, over the intervening four months, I reached out to (pretty much) every band on the soundtrack from the original games. Some of the bands involved no longer exist, while others haven’t made it back onto the remake’s soundtrack for unknown reasons. But every band I spoke to, without exception, is thrilled to be back on the soundtrack for Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2.

“I’m honoured and grateful to be part of the remix,” says Jay Bentley of Bad Religion. “I hope it spawns a whole new generation of skaters. That’s how I grew up and look at me!”

Like Bentley two decades earlier, building a halfpipe in the garden with his son, Lagwagon’s Joey Cape sees his band’s presence on the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 soundtrack as a link to his teenage daughter’s love of skating, in addition to a great opportunity for the band.

“When Pro Skater was first released, many of Lagwagon’s fans were already skaters. I do think the new version could bring some younger fans to the soundtrack and in turn, the bands,” he says. “My daughter, for example, is 16 and she and her friends are skaters now. It’s really cool to witness the relationship between skateboarding and punk rock resurface. It always made sense. The sound and sport reunite over and over again.”

“It’s great. It did turn a lot of people onto our band and if people like the song on the soundtrack, I think they will do some digging around to find more by our band,” Fu Manchu’s Scott Hill tells me.”

“Always looking to gain new fans!” He adds, acknowledging the function of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater as an on-ramp for fans, turning them on to a band’s whole back catalogue through hearing one song while playing the game.

Johnny Bonnel of Swingin’ Utters, meanwhile, promises to make the most of being on the soundtrack for a second time.

“I’m really pleased with being on the remastered soundtrack! Looking back, I was not in a good frame of mind at the height of our popularity,” he recalls. “We were touring with Social D [Social Distortion] and NUFAN [No Use For A Name] and Lunachicks! I should have been ecstatic at the direction we were headed. Instead, I was a grump. I want to make a promise to the new generation of fans: I will love you unconditionally.”

“I played the original Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 a year or so ago and it still feels great when our song pops up,” Chris Billam says, of Consumed’s return to the soundtrack. “To be included in the remake feels just as exciting as it did 20 years ago. As well as a welcome nostalgia trip for us older folk, it’s a chance for a whole new generation of gamers to hear the original soundtrack and discover musical avenues they may not have explored without playing games from the THPS series.”

“Yes, I’m pretty excited,” Jason ‘Jay’ Navarro of The Suicide Machines tells me. “We are also on the documentary about the game with a new song. I just hope it’s as fun as the first game and or better. We were insanely lucky to be on this game it changed the path of our band I believe. I just hope it interests gamers of all walks of life to go out and get on a board for real.”

Only time will tell if Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 has the same impact as the original games. The critical reception to the game has been incredible (our review is coming soon) and if the game’s popularity follows the same trajectory as the originals, then the experience should again be positive for everyone I’ve spoken to.

But for a new generation of bands, they’re also getting their shot. For every song that didn’t come back for Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2, another three have taken their place. There are over three dozen new tunes on the remake’s soundtrack, including punk luminaries like The Ataris, Less Than Jake and Reel Big Fish. But there are also bands you might not know, bands you may never have heard of if they weren’t featured on the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater soundtrack.

And that’s the most exciting thing, isn’t it? The idea that any scrappy little band can be given a meteoric boost, just because they got the nod from Tony Hawk and his crew.

The soundtrack of a generation is back, then. It’s still the soundtrack of my generation, but now, it’s the soundtrack of the next generation of skaters, punks and geeks, too.

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater screenshot 5


I’d like to say a big thank you to all of the bands who took part in this feature, and to all the representatives who made it happen. You’ve all been excellent sports and this article literally wouldn’t have worked without you.

(And if you’re reading this, John Feldmann, I’d still like to talk to you and hear your thoughts on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. Goldfinger quickly turned into my white whale for this feature!)

Enjoyed this long read? Then why not share the article on Twitter or Facebook, buy us a coffee to say thank you, or support Thumbsticks on Patreon to enable more long-form features.

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Found it interesting, entertaining, useful, or informative? Maybe it even saved you some money. That's great to hear! Sadly, independent publishing is struggling worse than ever, and Thumbsticks is no exception. So please, if you can afford to, consider supporting us via Patreon or buying us a coffee.

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Dan Marshall on growing (and feeling) old in the video game industry

Taking a moment out from promoting the console release of Lair of the Clockwork God, BAFTA-winning indie developer Dan Marshall writes about growing (and feeling) old in the world of video game development. (And draws a Bulbasaur from memory.)



Drawing of a bulbasaur from memory by Dan Marshall
by Dan Marshall, age 39 and 3/4

Taking a moment out from promoting the console release of Lair of the Clockwork God, BAFTA-winning indie developer Dan Marshall writes about growing (and feeling) old in the world of video game development. (And draws a Bulbasaur from memory.)

I’m turning 40 in a couple of weeks. By the time this article runs, I’ll be well into my forties, crying into my All-Bran – which I now presumably have to eat every day for breakfast – and mentally eyeing up coffin prices. It’s all downhill from here.

One of the great things about growing up loving technology, surrounded by the latest tech, and going on to forge a career in video games, is that I always felt up-to-date with the latest hot youth trends, even if I had no personal interest in them.

When Pokémon came out, it was my first year at University. Cartoons about pocket monsters were the last thing on my list of interests at the time, and I immediately dismissed it. I was still aware of it, though. I never played it – I never played any of them – but I could probably bluff my way through a pub quiz on it, if only because I’ve absorbed a lot of information by osmosis over the years. I could probably draw a Bulbasaur from memory, even if I don’t actually know what the hell one is. [This was a red rag to a bull, so we called him on it. Now the artwork above makes sense, right? – Childish Dares Ed.]

It kept me “young”, you know? Knowing what the tiny people were up to, being subliminally drip-fed information about Fortnite even if neither my countryside internet connection nor my greying synapses could handle it, there was a connection there, a connection to a youth culture that kept me feeling like I was “in the know”. Which I’d like to say is important in my job as an indie game developer, but the actual truth is I’m not sensible enough to pay attention to “trends” or “metrics” or what-have-you, and I still just bloody-mindedly make whatever I want to make. I’m not spending 3 years of my life crafting games for other people, I’m doing it for me. I’d go mad, otherwise.

But I’d always wondered when old age would happen. That neat, underscored line in my life where I can no longer tolerate even the slightest incursion from things I reflexively deem “lesser”. When the young person stuff would be deemed so astonishingly unimportant that I actively seek to keep it out of my brain.

Lair of the Clockwork God feeling old

I remember when it first happened, and it was celebrity YouTubers. I remember people actively engaging in what I felt was just the most poorly-produced waffle, and mentally my brain just went: “You know what? This isn’t for us. Let’s bounce all information about this topic right out of the park, and get back to focussing on grown-up things like which brands of weedkiller are socially and morally acceptable to use and hey is that a new Ben Folds album and wait where was I?”

Most recently, it’s been Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I don’t understand people who are my peers, who are my age and have jobs that require them to wear a suit, and they’re getting all worked up over something that looks-and-sounds like the sort of thing my 4-year-old has grown out of. “Oh no, Teddy Tummy has sold my turnip collection to a badger, and now I need to sweep up all these leaves before sunset! What am I going to do?”

It’s. I mean… come on. I’m all for all sorts of games in every genre imaginable, not everything needs to show skulls smashing to pieces in Ultra HD 4k resolution at 60fps, but this one thing my brain has actively repelled.

I’m wrong, of course. It’s clearly a brilliant game. Maybe 4 years of children’s TV with my kid has made me slightly more on-edge about stuff with that ultra-kiddy preschooler tone. I’m 100% sure if you took Animal Crossing and replaced everything with spaceships I’d be all over it like a rash.

Besides, life’s too short to get angry, you know? Here I am, 40 already, and it’s all slipping away like grains from a Palossand’s arsehole. See? I told you I know Pokémon stuff, somehow.

Lair of the Clockwork God is out now on Nintendo Switch and Xbox One. It’s also available on PC, Mac and Linux via Steam and GOG.

Read our review of the game here (we loved it) and our extensive interview with the man himself, on the reception to Lair of the Clockwork God and the future of Ben and Dan.

Enjoyed this article?

Found it interesting, entertaining, useful, or informative? Maybe it even saved you some money. That's great to hear! Sadly, independent publishing is struggling worse than ever, and Thumbsticks is no exception. So please, if you can afford to, consider supporting us via Patreon or buying us a coffee.

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That’s time gentlemen, please: Lair of the Clockwork God ‘a nice swansong’ for Ben and Dan

We caught up with Dan Marshall to ask about expectations for Lair of the Clockwork God, designing games in the pub, and the end of the road for Ben and Dan.



Lair of the Clockwork God Dan Marshall Interview
Size Five Games

We caught up with Dan Marshall to ask about expectations for Lair of the Clockwork God, designing games in the pub, and the end of the road for Ben and Dan.

Lair of the Clockwork God is one of the first games on the list for our inevitable “best games of 2020” article later this year, and let me tell you now, there’s no shifting it. It’s indelible.

There are only a handful of games this year – yes, even big AAA behemoths – that I would consider as good as Lair of the Clockwork God. You can count the games that might be “better” on one hand. (With strong emphasis on the “might” depending on the mood I’m in.)

The critical consensus would tend to agree with me. It’s “mighty” on OpenCritic, with 100% of critics recommending it, has a Metascore of 84, 99% positive reviews on Steam, and has been the one of the top “undiscovered gems” on Steam for months now. But for some reason, Lair of the Clockwork God doesn’t have the sales to match its critical reception.

The working theory at Thumbsticks, incidentally, is that people have been “waiting for it to come to Nintendo Switch”. Yes, even though the Switch version of the game – which releases September 4, 2020, alongside the Xbox One version – wasn’t announced until last month. (Switch port begging is wild, huh? And if you were doing that, you’d better buy it. We don’t like looking foolish.)

So with the console release right around the corner, I caught up with Dan Marshall of Size Five Games to ask about the reception to Lair of the Clockwork God, the joys of designing a game in the pub, and what’s next for Ben and Dan.

Lair of the Clockwork God lazy dev

Thumbsticks: I am aware that Lair of the Clockwork God hasn’t sold as well as you’d hoped – I follow you, I see the tweets – so I’d like to home in on the commercial success/failure aspect a little bit, if that’s OK?

Dan Marshall: I mean, look. By any realistic measure of success, Clockwork God is doing well. It’s selling well enough to prop the company up and should do enough to make another game. I think the problem is that when you’re self-funded you need to be making that “next game” with some idea of what your budget’s going to be like, and that’s where things have gone tricky.

So, ideally, Clockwork God would have immediately made £100k and I can go, “you know what, that’s fab, I can hire an artist for the next game and we can do X, Y and Z,” and the reality is in 2020 games don’t sell like that. They sell when they’re on sale, they sell when they’re on Switch… So it’s way harder to work out what I do going forward. Which sucks.

I think a lot of my “waaah this hasn’t sold as well as I’d hoped” also comes from the critical reaction to the game, y’know? In that it got ace reviews, both from critics and users, and was in mid-year GOTY lists and stuff and… I mean I had assumed if I’d ever made a game that was that well-received, the money would flow along with it. That I’d be actually rich, and that side of things definitely hasn’t happened.

But, it’s not like I’ve made a stinker of a game, so career-wise it’s been brilliant. It’s a near-universally liked game, and that’s a huge boost for me personally, even if I’m not typing this from my own personal yacht.

The critical reception to the game has indeed been fantastic, but the number of critic reviews seems – I’ll be honest – absurdly low. Are you hoping the console releases will give the game a second shot at generating some sort of buzz?

Yeah, I mean, I get it. I think the big outlets will only really review games that are proven to bring in clicks? Stuff that’s already popular and successful? I don’t know how it works; I’m guessing. But it felt like that. Even when we had the 84 Metacritic under our belt, and I was taking the game to big outlets and going “LOOK. SEE? GOOD GAME, OF INTEREST TO YOUR READERS.” it was getting nowhere. And you know, Clockwork God was never a viral-y sort of game. Great puzzles and funny dialogue don’t gif well, so it has an at-best modest following, so I understand how it bounced off those big sites.

Even now, I don’t know how many outlets will take it “seriously” for the console launch. I don’t think it’s a game that brings in clicks. Lesson learned. But it’s certainly a second opportunity to talk about the game, to thrust it in peoples’ faces, and get a second wave (sorry, poor choice of words) of buzz.

Lair of the Clockwork God dinosaur

Is there anything you might’ve done differently, then?

No, I mean by this point Ben and I have been designing the game in pubs for a decade. It needed making, we’d had too much fun talking about it and throwing ideas around. It needed to come out of my brain and into a computer, really. Short of suddenly changing it into a Roguelike, there’s not much that can be done.

I mean, when I started development on it, narrative games like Night in the Woods/Thimbleweed Park were getting great buzz and good numbers, so it seemed like a reasonable thing to be taking on. So, I guess you just can’t tell.

I’m talking like it’s done badly. It hasn’t! I’m just slightly bitter that it hasn’t done as well as the reception would suggest!

Down the pub, though, with your best mate – you did have a lot of fun making it?

Oh, it was the best time. Just, the absolute best bit of the job, sitting around, throwing ideas back and forth. I wish I could do that forever and not have to worry about all the messy practicalities of actually making the game afterwards.

But yeah, amazing. We laughed so long and so hard it was just magical. We’re going to have to find something else to design when we meet up, because I think I’m just addicted to that specific part of game development, now.

So, what’s next, then? Is it the dinosaur game or, dare I say it, Behold the Clipmen, or something else? 

Yeah, the Dinosaur Game next. It was something I was tinkering around with and having learned my lesson from Clockwork God I was like, “I’ll put this up on Twitter, see if I can gauge if there’s an appetite for it,” and it did really well, so it’s a strong direction to go in, I think. It feels unique, it feels like there’s nothing quite like it. I can’t believe there aren’t many games where you get to play as a dinosaur out there, it seems so…. obvious?

Behold the Clipmen came to a crashing halt because it just didn’t hang together very well – I wanted to make something quick and easy, but Clipmen required a depth of mechanic I wasn’t willing to invest for such a gamble of a game.

And will Ben and Dan be back?

Dan and Ben probably won’t be back, to be honest. I’d love to, because it means Ben and I can do some more “design meetings” but I think it’d only happen if the console versions do so astronomically well it’d be daft not to. We’ll see, but for now I think this is a nice swansong for the characters, a well-received lovely little game that’s funny and unique and a bit clever, and doesn’t sully the good names of Ben There, Dan That! and Time Gentlemen, Please! It feels like an apt “out” for them.

Lair of the Clockwork God Ben and Dan

Oh man, well that’s bummed me out for the day ahead! You’re right, though – it is a lovely swansong and a fitting place for their story to end. Speaking of endings, then: I remember you saying that you tried to get a licensed bit of music for the end of Clockwork God but it didn’t come off. What’s the story there, and what was the song?

Hah, at first I wanted I Think We’re Alone Now by Tiffany, which I thought would be hilarious, and then briefly looked into Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now by Starship, but there’s a Beach Boys song called That’s Why God Made the Radio and some of the lyrics fit how the game ended, and it’s a beautiful track. It has this washy, free, relaxed, happy feel to it and it just felt “right”. The entire end sequence was written and designed with that song in mind.

So I set about trying to clear it, and the lady I was dealing with was… I mean, I assume if you’re not some big movie studio she felt like you’re wasting her time? That’s how it came across, anyway, as if I was a nuisance because I wanted to give her money. Like, some tiny indie game wasn’t even worth the effort of typing a reply.

So I chased and I chased and I chased and eventually after many weeks the quote came in as about £2-3k which was… I mean, it’s manageable but a lot. But the license expired after 5 years so I sent her an email saying, “what’s the quote if it’s forever because I’m not interested in changing the game 5 years down the road because of a song,” and as I recall she didn’t even bother replying, so I thought, “fuck it, I’m not chasing this again, I’ll just write my own damned song,” which, actually, I think worked out better.

I love that Beach Boys song, but that’s a good call, I reckon. If even Microsoft and Remedy fell foul of expiring music licensing rights (and it pulled Alan Wake off sale for the best part of a year while they sorted it out) then that’s not the sort of headache you need as an indie developer.

And you’re right, you know? The ending worked out pretty much perfect the way it is.

Lair of the Clockwork God releases on Nintendo Switch and Xbox One on September 4, 2020. It’s also available on PC, Mac and Linux via Steam and GOG.

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