How I made peace with my gaming backlog, and how you can too

There’s one word that strikes fear into the heart of every gamer. No, it’s not ‘microtransactions,’ though that is a scary one. It’s not ‘delayed game,’ because that is, in fact, two words. That is not a fun thing to hear, either.

No; the one word that truly strikes fear into the heart of every gamer is ‘backlog.’ Did you shudder? I wouldn’t blame you if you did.

For those of you unaware, a backlog is a game or games that a player has in his or her queue to play. That seems like a relatively simple concept, and it really is. You can only play so many games at one time, so if you ever buy more games than you have time to play then some of them will have to sit unplayed until you get to them.

This is all well and good, and plenty logical, but there’s a huge catch when it comes to games. You can listen to a music album in 45 minutes. A film will take about two hours to watch. Reading a novel will usually take between three and seven hours. Watching an entire 20-episode, hour-long TV series will take a little over 14 hours if you’re not viewing any commercials.

But games? Well, they are a different animal entirely. The website HowLongToBeat polls gamers by asking how long it took them to beat a game, and then lists the averages of the polls. The Legend of Zelda: the Breath of the Wild won Game of the Year at this year’s Game Awards. According to HowLongToBeat, the core story of Breath of the Wild takes a whopping 44 hours or so. Extras can take dozens more hours, and a full completionist runthrough could climb to almost 200 hours. Many modern games will last about 20-30 hours, but some may last even longer than Breath of the Wild because they are open-ended.

Add the longer time it takes to experience games to the fact that there are dozens of great games that come out every year and, well, that’s how you get your backlog.

Every gamer has a backlog. It’s just a fact of life. But here are three steps that you can take to make peace with that backlog.

STEP ONE: Don’t buy a game that you’re not going to play now

bastion supergiant games

Look: video games go on sale all the time. All the time. Digital sales, physical sales–games rarely stay at full price for very long, and even after they drop you can often find a great deal on a title that you covet. There are at least two major Steam Sales every year, during summer and winter. If you prefer your games in Xbox or Playstation flavors, though, they often have digital sales of their own. And with consoles, you get the benefit of choosing used games, which are cheaper anyway and offer an additional avenue for gamers.

While seeing that hot indie title in the Steam sale at just $4 might be tempting, and seeing that Xbox Live sale of that newish game for only $20 might also be tempting, keep in mind that you’ll see those games at that price again. Yeah, it’s a great deal! But great deals happen in video game land constantly.

So, unless you are going to buy that game to play now or play next, don’t get it. Even if you think you’ll love it. Even if your friends are telling you to play it. Don’t buy games that you’re not going to play now.

If you’re a big fan of that game’s franchise and you know you’ll play it at some point, sure, that’s an exception. But a big source of most gamers’ backlog problems is that they knowingly add to it. Cut out the initial purchase until you’re ready to buy it, and you’ve cut away at the core of the issue: you don’t have a backlog if you don’t have games sitting around in the first place.

STEP TWO: Utilize let’s plays and Twitch

XCOM 2 enemy unknown

Nowadays, Youtube and Twitch are huge for gaming. You can look up and watch pretty much any game that has ever existed. Just the other day, I looked up a Lego Racer let’s play (for Nintendo 64, of course) because I wanted to see the game again. Lego Racer is not exactly a thunderous title that everyone remembers, but it’s there. Of course it’s there. The internet is infinite.

Part of my problem with my backlog is that I don’t want to spend a few hours learning and mastering a game’s mechanics. Games are a lot more complicated nowadays, and the learning period for many big titles or RPGs can be huge. But watching somebody else play it gets around that issue, and it might help you learn faster if you watch somebody else use the varying systems first.

Look: you will not be able to play every single game that comes out, let alone spend a lot of time in them. Twitch and Youtube allow you to explore games that you’re lukewarm on, experience games you know you won’t get to, or expand your palette into games you wouldn’t necessarily play yourself. There are a lot of ways to use let’s plays and streams, so if you want to use that to attack your backlog, you can, and if you want to use that to prevent games from getting there in the first place, you can. You have a lot of freedom, so use it.

STEP THREE: play what you want

assassin's creed syndicate synchronize big ben

Every gamer has uttered the sentence our thunk the thought “I should really be playing Game X right now” before popping a different disc into the console or clicking a different game in your Steam library. I certainly have. This will give you a feeling of inadequacy, like you’re failing yourself in some way. Like you have a responsibility to play that other game.

But I’ve got a news flash for you: life is too short. Play what you want.

Yes, it is important to expand your comfort zone and play games you wouldn’t otherwise play, because that’s how you find new experiences. As much as possible, you should try to do that. However, you should never feel bad about not playing something. If you want to play another few rounds of PUBG rather than starting up Hellblade, because you’re in the mood for the former, go for it.

Games are entertainment and we work hard to have downtime in which to partake in said entertainment. So why on earth should you feel bad for playing a game that you like?

It is this mental shift which will truly help you with your backlog. No gamer will complete their backlog. That’s just life. There will always be games to play, games we’ve bought but never completed, that darn backlog. If you want to play some games on the backlog, do it. That’s great. You’ve bought the game, after all. And if you don’t? Who cares.

Sometimes a sunk cost is a sunk cost. Don’t stop it from letting you enjoy the game you’re playing now.


All screenshots are from games on my own backlog. I may never play them. So it goes.

My favorite game of 2017

It’ll be February this week. February! Of 2018!

Not too long ago, I shared my favorite movies of 2017. And about a year ago, I shared my favorite games of 2016. In a normal year, I’d be sharing my favorite games of 2017 right about now.

But, well, that’s not gonna happen. Sorry. Sorry! I’m sorry, sorry.

There are multiple reasons for this. The first one is that I really haven’t played that many games that came out in 2017.

The second reason is that I’ve put a lot of playtime into a few games. I’ve played almost 160 hours of Destiny 2. I put in 50 hours into Mass Effect: Andromeda. Ditto that amount for my favorite game this year. Now that I’m married, I don’t play as many games as I used to. That’s ok. But when three games take up over 260 hours of playtime, that’s a lot of time that could be put into multiple separate games.

The third reason is that I played a lot of games that weren’t released in 2017. I’m not a game journalist, which means that I don’t have an obligation to constantly experience the cutting edge. So if I want to play Rocket League, God bless its beautiful calculated soul, I am going to play Rocket League, or Overwatch Furthermore, I finished the tremendous DLC for Witcher 3 last year, which sunk about 30 hours of my time, and I played another 30 hours of Cities: Skylines, a neat game that I missed when it initially came out. Oh yeah: I’ve also put in another 160 hours into NBA 2k17, which just sort of happened. Sports games are inherently rewarding and easy to return to, and I think are a little underrated in the modern game pantheon.

The fourth reason is that one game I played just blew the rest of them totally out of the water, making a ranking somewhat anticlimactic. At some point in the future, I’ll probably write about my full 2017 list – I have yet to finish Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and I’ve got a few PS4 games like Hellblade and Uncharted: Lost Legacy to play as well. But for now, let’s cut to the chase.

GOLD MEDAL – Horizon Zero Dawn

Aloy horizon zero dawn sunset

My own screenshot, wandering the lands as Aloy


To begin: Horizon Zero Dawn has no business existing.

First, it’s a single player game. Games nowadays are extraordinarily expensive to make; a standard estimate for a studio’s expense is at $10,000 per head per month. So a team of 100 people working on a game for two years results in a $24 million expense, with no income for the studio until the game is released.  The industry has instead moved towards ‘games as a service.’ These are games that contain an open-ended gameplay loop and an opportunity to utilize microtransactions. Horizon Zero Dawn has an expansive world but nothing beyond replaying it in a new game to keep customers around, its only downloadable content a standard issue expansion pack.

Second, Horizon Zero Dawn features a female protagonist. Yeah, it’s a game in 2017, but that truly matters, and it’s still rare. Look around at the other big releases of the year–Zelda, Mario, Cuphead, Destiny 2, Call of Duty: WWII–none of them feature you, the player, as a female protagonist and character.

horizon zero dawn mountain

Third, and most importantly, Horizon Zero Dawn is a brand new intellectual property. Media, as a whole, has relied more and more on franchises. New franchises are awfully risky, let alone new franchises from somewhat unknown developers. Like I said a few paragraphs ago, games are expensive. To do something new and fresh, something that could fail, and take as many risks as Guerrilla Games did with Horizon is brave.

Horizon Zero Dawn is a video game overflowing with effervescent creativity; it fuses impeccable world-building, satisfying combat, and strong emotional weight to offer an experience that has stuck with me for months. That, I think, is its greatest quality. It is so boldly itself that you can’t help but be gripped by it. Like Aloy, the game is determined and confident in every facet. It is not perfect, but it does not need to be. There are other games which bear facsimiles to this one–open world games with endearing characters, good combat, and interesting narrative hooks. But none of them are Horizon Zero Dawn.

It is a wonder. It should not exist. And yet it does, and its wild success is appropriate and deserved. I love it.

Why do we consume media at all?

Do we partake in entertainment–watching films, playing games, reading books–in order to escape reality or help understand reality?

That question sure seems mutually exclusive, but it’s something that people tend not to think about most of the time until politics rears its draconian head: how often do you hear “I don’t want politics in my football” or “keep your feminism out of my games” or “stop pushing your agenda in my television.”

The people raising those complaints are definitely in the ‘escape’ camp. When they turn on the baseball game, they don’t want to think about their problems or muse about the recent topics in the news. They just want to watch some dudes play a game and engross themselves into some lighthearted entertainment. When they watch the newest Star Wars, they don’t want to see thinly-veiled political commentary: they just want to see Kylo Ren’s chest muscles gleaming in the starlight.

kylo ren and his beautiful man breasts

On the other hand, the best media helps us process trauma, connect with others, and explore what it means to be human. By definition, that cannot occur without tackling difficult conflict. Escapism isn’t only about politics, after all; some consume media in order to take their minds off a death in the family, or worry about disease, or to attempt to forget something unforgettable. Those who argue that we consume media in order to understand reality point out the utter silliness and impossibility for media to ignore troublesome or thorny topics, and assert that it is far more healthy to process a loss than to actively ignore it and allow it to fester.

I certainly empathize with the escapists’ point. Escapism is important in a modern culture where harsh news is just a click away and digital conflict can be prompted with a single scroll of a mouse. The world is full of awful things, and good things are a welcome and necessary respite. For instance, if you’re sick of Trump, it’s almost impossible to avoid him, so you probably don’t want to see pontifications on Trumpian policies anywhere or

Donald Trump in Home Alone because reasons

Yeah…this scene aged interestingly.

…well, that.

I also empathize with the other point. We can process pain, loss, and difficulties through media. It helps us explore our emotions in a safe space, a space that is fictional. It lets us try out methods of coping by living vicariously through the characters, and so helps us decide what we ought to do in our own lives. Fiction also puts characters in situations that stress their humanity in ways that we never will experience; sci-fi and fantasy are particularly great at this.

However, I do not think that both ideas are mutually exclusive. Sometimes, we want to escape, and some media does a great job of escaping. Sometimes, we want to experience catharsis, to sit in emotion and process it.

But also I think that there can be a kind of catharsis through escapism. We can avoid our own problems by immersing ourselves in other people’s problems. And even if the conflicts happen to be similar to what we’re going through, it’s different because we actively recognize it as fiction.

Regardless, we keep coming back to fiction and other entertainment. It does something for us that we can’t or don’t get elsewhere. And what you get out of it is deeply personal. Maybe that’s why it is important.

Some stories don’t need sequels

About a year ago, I read the novel Spin by Robert Charles Wilson. It is the winner of the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel, and it is completely deserving of that honor. The book brilliantly subverts multiple sci-fi tropes and mechanics, and its core as a mystery-infused personal drama makes the thing a page turner.

The novel is a full story, tying its loose ends and ending properly for the world and the main characters. I did not think there was a sequel. There did not need to be. And, in fact, there really couldn’t be, at least not in the traditional sense.

But I loved it so much that when I learned that there were indeed sequels two months ago, I immediately put them on my Christmas list. When I got them for Christmas, I consumed both novels within a span of about five days.

Wilson had more stories to tell in the world he concocted, and it was his right as an author to tell them. They are good novels, though the events of Spin prevent many similarities to that story. Still, both sequels–Axis and Vortex–work well, and the ending of Vortex does answer questions that were never completely answered in Spin.

However, I think that Wilson skirted danger here. Some stories don’t need sequels. That was the case with Spin–it did not need any. And while some sequels may work for these stories, sometimes sequels don’t do any good for the original story, and some even harm or retroactively modify the efficacy of the original story.

Consider Star Wars: The Last Jedi, for instance. I’m not going to go into detail here for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, but those of you who have seen in know that seemingly immutable truths and qualities in the original trilogy are brushed aside in order to forge a new path. The new trilogy did not need to exist, necessarily; Return of the Jedi included a fitting end for the story of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. But exist it does, and its existence fundamentally changes the context in which the original trilogy operates. Some people like The Last Jedi because it goes its own way. Some people hate it for that reason.


In a more extreme case, take a look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The MCU is nothing but sequels. That makes it extraordinarily difficult to tell a self-contained story. The second Avengers movie was a wreck because it couldn’t focus on its own story and character development enough–instead, it had to serve a bunch of administrative tasks in tying the varying characters together and laying the groundwork for future movies. And beyond one example, it is almost impossible to create real tension in a cinematic universe where creative risks are stifled for the benefit of the whole.

Finally, the most innocuous of results for sequels is that they are so totally unnecessary that they can’t help but be depressingly boring. Maybe you remember the 2003 young adult novel The City of Ember (it was also adapted to film in 2008). I sure do; I was 12 at the time, and the book, which was a huge success, was written directly for my age group. It’s a great novel, but its plot is self-contained: once the inhabitants solve the city’s riddle and leave, the core elements of why the book was successful vanished.

Since it was such a success, of course there were sequels. But when a story is so tied to a specific time and place, with specific characters, can a sequel succeed? Usually not. That’s why, if you read The City of Ember, I bet you have no memory of its sequels.

We all know why sequels exist. Making creative media is expensive, and it is always more cost-effective to create something that already has word of mouth and an install base. But they don’t always need to exist. In fact, in a perfect world, most probably shouldn’t.


My favorite movies of 2017

It’s that time of year again–time we go over what Things came out and celebrate (yay movies on this list!) or hate (boo Boss Baby!) them.

This will be like last year. Again, a disclaimer: I’m not a huge film buff. It’s not my thing. I often feel that film criticism tends to veer harshly into “my film taste is more advanced than yours” territory very quickly, whether it intends that or not. A lot of the time, I get the feeling that I should feel bad for liking something, which is not a tone that I perceive often in, say, video game criticism.

Another disclaimer: I’m not including Star Wars Episode VIII in my list because it’s Star Wars. Of course it’s my favorite movie this year. Anytime there’s a legit Star Wars Episode (versus, say, Rogue One) that’s going to be the case. As long as it’s not awful, that is. Looking at you, Episode I. Bless your heart.


Superhero films are inherently ridiculous. They feature random dudes with super powers, and then those random dudes claim dumb names (Spider-Man? Ant-Man? Batman? Wonder Woman?), put on dumb spandex clothing (BAT NIPPLE), and then fight bad guys who have equally idiotic names and costumes.

Thor: Ragnorak knows all of this, and rather than try and present itself as a second-rate sci-fi story like most superhero movies, it doesn’t take itself at all seriously and presents itself as one of the funniest comedies I have seen in a long time. It’s a superhero movie, so it’s in the ‘action-comedy’ genre, of course, but that just gives it even more opportunity for slapstick humor. Slapstick humor in space.

Also, Korg is the best. Long live Korg.


Dunkirk is a bit of a weird movie. It features an all-male cast, surprisingly few spoken words, and sparse character development. Those things deter a lot of people, and they should, except Dunkirk has reasons for all those decisions. It’s a period war film, which explains the lack of women. It eschews words in favor of actions, which are smart and help move the plot along (and, of course, there is speaking in the film, just not a lot of it). And Dunkirk’s lack of character development work inside its central themes.

Really, Dunkirk is what happens to an action movie if you suction out all the fat, distill the essence into something as pure as possible, and then stretch that out over a full two hour film length. It has an excellent score, and it’s a visual thrill. Most interestingly, it feels different than any war movie I’ve seen, which is a feat. It’s so easy to get into a rut when doing a war movie, no pun intended, and Dunkirk avoids it spectacularly.

SILVER MEDAL – Wonder Woman

I’m usually not a huge fan of superhero origin stories. They all feel the same after a while. Person acquires powers, person struggles with powers, person somehow happens to find worthy villain, person overcomes villain. Blah blah.

Wonder Woman gets around this in part by being very smart about it. It’s a period piece, taking place in World War I, a setting that is never touched by superhero films. As such, it’s able to make standard origin story beats feel fresh.

But also, and I can’t stress this enough, Wonder Woman is a shining example that film needs more women in charge of things. Gal Gadot plays Wonder Woman with unnerving perfection as Wonder Woman, as if she was born for the role, but director Patty Jenkins is, I think, an underrated maestro. There’s a certain grace, strength, and twinkle in this movie that would not exist if a man had directed it. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but Wonder Woman is refreshingly sincere and dignified in a way that most action movies aren’t. Representation matters, and Wonder Woman is a perfect example of why.

GOLD MEDAL – The Big Sick

What are movies but stories on a silver screen? And what are stories but ways in which we experience the world?

The Big Sick is a romantic comedy. For many, that might be enough to not watch it. But that would be a mistake. See, The Big Sick is authentic in a way that most movies aren’t. Don’t get me wrong: ‘authentic’ isn’t just a way of saying ‘it’s not that good but it means well.’ The Big Sick is a great movie. It’s characterization, pacing, and comedic timing are perfect. All the little things are checked and accounted for.

But The Big Sick is authentic. That’s its real strength. It communicates real humanity, both good and bad, in a way and a story that we don’t often see. It helps immensely that this is the real story of Kumail Nanjiani and how he met Emily Gordon. It also helps immensely that they are now married and it’s all just so adorable and lovable.

Watch this movie. You won’t be disappointed.


Is anything nerdy anymore?

During last Halloween season, many of my friends posted pictures of their costumes on Facebook. A friend of mine and her husband dressed up as football players, their baby dressed as a football. Another friend of mine dressed up as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, complete with her dog standing in as Toto.

And there were plenty of fantastic costumes that would be traditionally referred to as ‘nerdy,’ and a few of my friends explicitly mentioned their nerdiness in their post. One dressed as Link from the Legend of Zelda (and had to explain to confused elders that Link was not, in fact, Zelda). Another dressed as Rey from Star Wars. Another dressed as a mashup of Doctor Who and Harry Potter.

Conventional wisdom is that these costumes, based on video games, science fiction movies and TV shows, and fantasy novels, are indeed ‘nerdy.’

But I think conventional wisdom has its drawbacks here, because I’m not entirely sure any of those costumes, or anything else on the Google Image search for ‘nerdy Halloween costumes’ are actually nerdy. I have my doubts that anything at all is truly ‘nerdy’ anymore.

Consider this: the nine-movie Harry Potter franchise has grossed over $8.5 billion worldwide. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, consisting of more than a baker’s dozen films, has grossed over $12.3 billion. Star Wars has grossed over $7.5 billion over seven films (and the entire franchise was sold for a whopping $4 billion to Disney five years ago). Of the top 12 film franchises by gross ticket sales, 10 (!) of them are science fiction or fantasy franchises.

harry potter coin gif gringotts

Harry Potter and the Coin Vault That He Got From All Those Film Revenues

What about video games? The industry generates about $100 billion in yearly revenue. Characters like Mario, Link, Sonic the Hedgehog, Master Chief, Lara Croft, and Pac Man are cultural touchstones. And television? Many of TV’s biggest hits over the last few years are, yep, science fiction and fantasy shows: The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, A Handmaiden’s Tale, Black Mirror, Westworld.

‘Nerdiness’ and ‘Geekiness’ are slippery terms to define, but I think they encompass two big ideas. The first idea is a distance from social norms, whether actively sought by nerds and geeks or thrust on them by the ‘cool’ kids. The second idea is that of an ‘in-group;’ in other words, the only thing required for access to the close-knit nerd community is a knowledge and appreciation for the culture around which said nerd community revolves.

Today, both ideas are invalid or watered down. It’s impossible for something so widespread and culturally powerful as Star Wars to actively be uncool. When the high school quarterback says, “Yeah, I saw the movie with Thor and the Hulk and Iron Man and it was wicked,” that’s pretty much the death knell of comic book characters being nerdy.

And as far as community? Over eight million copies of the seventh and final Harry Potter novel flew off the shelves in a single day when it was released in 2007. Hundreds of millions around the globe have read the series in dozens of different languages. Your aunt has probably seen a few Harry Potter films, and I do not care how old/young or clueless/hip she is. That’s just how it is. And so, yeah, it’s awfully difficult to have something be an ‘in-group’ when everybody is there.

So the weird thing is that ‘nerdy’ isn’t a functional descriptor of something sincere, but is instead used as a legacy adjective that merely designates a particular swath of pop culture. In that way, it’s like The Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings used to be nerdy. Then Frodo and Gandalf and company went on a merry adventure and won a bunch of Oscars and now ‘YOU SHALL NOT PASS’ is as much (or more!) of the cultural lexicon as ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn’ or ‘I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.’

You shall not pass gandalf gif parody

Is ‘nerdy’ then necessarily useless? Maybe? Maybe not. There are certainly some things that you could accurately describe as ‘nerdy’ today–role playing games, some tabletop board games, stamp collecting. Religious watchers of anime and voracious manga readers probably qualify. Cosplay, too.

But even some things that should be nerdy aren’t. Look at the curious case of fantasy football. By all accounts, it should be nerdy. Lots of numbers and analysis involved? Check. Game that you play need a computer/smartphone and an internet connection to play? Check. A sub-industry dedicated to intense fantasy football fans? Check. The word ‘fantasy’ in the name? Check.

No one calls fantasy football nerdy, though. That’s because sports are not nerdy, which is literally as nuanced and complex as the argument goes.

That throws a wrench into the existence of the word’s meaning. Put it this way: nerdiness is supposed to be about something that has a niche following, but the success of traditionally nerdy types of niche followings like Star Wars and Harry potter have nuked that definition. Nerdiness is supposed to be about traits or approaches that are not lauded by the ‘cool people,’ but the statistically-focused existence of fantasy football and sports discourse in general blow that definition out of the water. Nerdiness is supposed to be something the weird white guys did, but the continuing influx of women and people of color into the nerdy spaces has fundamentally changed that idea, too, without eroding the integrity or authenticity of the nerdy spaces itself.

There is a whole collegiate dissertation here for the writing. Actually, more than one: the gender history and implications of nerdiness alone is worth a dissertation itself. And so any conclusion of mine is going to be necessarily incomplete, but here it is anyway: while it is clear that nerdiness does not mean what it used to, and that applying the concept to wildly popular megafranchises like Harry Potter and Star Wars is inherently silly, being a nerd can mean different things to different people.

And isn’t that the point of nerd culture? For you to be you, no matter what you like to do?


Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: A book review

Films have been including ‘how it’s made’ featurettes in DVD releases for years. Books, poem, and comics are self-explanatory, and significantly less interesting to watch being made. And recording sessions are embedded enough in the public consciousness that they, too, are inherently comprehensible, even if you don’t know the ‘hows’ and the ‘whys.’

Video games, however, are a different breed. Many gamers–even passionate ones–simply don’t know how games are made, what processes are involved, the time frame needed, or the required building blocks to make a good game. This is true in part because games are a new medium, but also significantly due to the complexity and difficulty of making modern games.

Jason Schreier’s book Blood, Sweat, and Pixels is a fantastic insight into the niche, secretive, complicated world of how games are crafted. It is the perfect book for those who are interested in how games are made, and because of Schreier’s focus on narrative and excellent ability to distill more obtuse concepts into easy-to-understand chunks of information, it’s perfect for game veterans or n00bs alike.

Though the book isn’t an argument, it has a core thesis that intertwines the composite parts of the book together, and that thesis is this: modern video games are incredibly difficult to make.

I had drinks with a developer who’d just shipped a new game. He looked exhausted…Some of them slept in the office so they wouldn’t have to waste time commuting, because every hour spent in the car was an hour not spent fixing bugs. Up until the day they had to submit a final build, many of them doubted they’d be able to release the game at all.

“Sounds like a miracle that this game was even made,” I said.

“Oh, Jason,” he said. “It’s a miracle that any game is made.”

Rather than sctructure the book around how a game in general is made, Schreier focuses on something more specific (and more accessible): the story of how individual games were made. Each chapter features a different game. The choice of games covers everything from small indie titles like Stardew Valley to some of the largest RPGs ever made (so far) like Dragon Age: Inquisition and The Witcher 3. The book features 10 chapters in all.

Again, Schreier’s dedication to a strong narrative is impeccable. Each chapter is an individual story, and Schreier does a great job of outlining who is developing the game, why they are making the game they are making, what problems they encounter along the way, and how they decided to tackle those challenges.

Ciri from the Witcher 3 wild hunt

The book is extremely engaging, and I finished it very quickly. I had played four of the ten games included, and while I was naturally more interested in the stories of games I had completed (and, in my case, really loved), the stories of games I had not played were equally vivid and engrossing.

Schreier highlights a few issues repeatedly throughout the book, as they are natural to a game’s development. First is the dichotomy between funding and freedom. While a game like Pillars of Eternity has no publisher to answer to, self-funding represents its own set of challenges on the creative process. On the other hand, as it the case with Destiny, virtually unlimited funding can be constrained by the demands of the publisher.

The second thing that is highlighted is the prevalence of crunch time. In the gaming industry, crunch time is a period of extended hours that occurs before specific milestones, or in order to complete or add something special to the game. Its status is contested within the industry, as some see it as a necessary evil in order to produce great games, while others see it as a result of poor producing and management. Regardless, each of these games go through some manner of crunch time, and how it is utilized is a part of each chapter.

Third, Schreier highlights the oft-hidden world of conflict between developers about where a game should go or even what game is important to make. Video games are made by real people, and creative differences can arise even under the best, least stressful circumstances, let alone the pressure cooker that is game development. These creative and professional arguments can make or break a game, and their coverage in the case of Uncharted 4, Destiny, and Halo Wars is a core part of their story.

iron bull dragon age inquisition western approach

There are more than these three issues that recur, and it is this pattern that represents the book’s biggest flaw, though it is certainly not a fatal one. In the case of seven of the 10 chapters, the chapters follow the basic beat of A) here’s why and what game developer is making B) here’s the conflicts and problems the developer overcame C) here’s what the game did well and the story of how it succeeded.

That’s because those seven games–Pillars of Eternity, Uncharted 4, Stardew Valley, Halo Wars, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Shovel Knight, and The Witcher 3–were critical and commercial successes. There are obviously different specifics, but the same beat happens because of the types of games they are: successes. Sure, those games exist, and their stories are important.

But the most interesting stories are why games don’t succeed, and the book’s three strongest chapters–on Diablo III, Destiny, and Star Wars 1313–focus on the varying failures that manifested themselves in the game (or in the case of Star Wars 1313, how the game ceased to exist). How Destiny shipped as a shell of what it was intended to be despite being given years and millions of dollars to percolate is fascinating; how Diablo III managed to turn a complete 180 degrees from angering its install base is fascinating; how Star Wars 1313 flopped so hard it didn’t come out is fascinating. These are the types of stories that I wish Schreier could have covered more in the book, and I was glad to see his coverage of Mass Effect: Andromeda, a troubled game where everyone just wondered ‘how did this happen’, on Kotaku.

concept art star wars 1313 scifi city

Concept art for Star Wars 1313

Still, I recognize that this particular criticism might be personal taste speaking, and I realize that it’s probably easier to get developers to talk about successes than failures. The book’s quality is still evident.

If you’re a gamer, a person who finds games fascinating, or just someone in search of a good new nonfiction book to read, I highly recommend Blood, Sweat, and Pixels. Not the least of which because the title includes an Oxford comma. Good on you, Jason; fight the good fight. Well, both of them: the Oxford comma one and the video game coverage one.