Luigi’s death stare: are you enjoying Mario Kart 8?

Mario Kart 8 has been out in the UK for a few weeks now, leading to a large increase in sales for the Wii U console. It’s even seen the birth of its own meme: the Luigi death stare, a celebration of the lesser-heralded Mario brother’s ice-cold reaction to the administration of shell-based justice.

I spent the weekend getting to grips with the latest Mario Kart iteration, sunny weather eschewed in favour of relentless four-player action.

Early impressions are positive. The karts drive, glide and slide like a dream, and as our review points out, the new weapons are a satisfying addition. And there are little pleasing tweaks that make logical sense: if you plunge off the course into a cute ravine, lakitu returns you to the track much more efficiently than before, power-up boxes reappear a touch more quickly, and there is now a means of combatting the blue shell. At last.

And, as the Luigi death stare indicates, the end-of-race highlights (which you can edit and upload to Youtube) are an absolute joy. We almost enjoyed watching each hit, in glorious high-def slow-mo, as much we enjoyed playing the game itself.

As many have mentioned, the only bugbear is battle mode, which now takes place on the standard courses rather than ready-made arenas, and this is a real step backwards. “I can’t find anyone,” and “it’s taking ages, isn’t it?” were standard responses when we tried it.

Now it’s over to you. How are you finding Mario Kart 8? Is it the best one, or do you still pine for the SNES or the underrated Game Cube versions? Share your thoughts – and links to your own killer videos, if you’ve made any – in the thread below.

Lady Macbeth cuts a swathe across London fashion week

Formidable women influence proceedings at runway shows for Berardi, Erdem and Roksanda

The namedropping is pretty highbrow at London fashion week these days.

Lady Macbeth, Mark Rothko, John F Kennedy, Virginia Woolf and Eugene Delacroix were all referenced by designers before 11am on Monday morning, and Michael Nyman was there in person, playing the piano in a piece composed to accompany the Roksanda collection. Burberry are making Henry Moore the star attraction at their show later on in the day, with a catwalk that will double as the opening night of a sculpture exhibition.

This London fashion week is developing a distinctive look. It starts with a long, fluid skirt, a tight waist and a flourish at the cuff. The silhouette is elegant, but there is an element of grit in coarse, sensible tweeds, eiderdown quilting and thick velvet. A certain steely British femininity keeps coming up in backstage conversation, with the suffragettes, Tracey Emin and the Queen among the names being dropped.

And there is a common refrain among designers who speak of formidable women. For Antonio Berardi this was Lady Macbeth, the starting point for dramatic silhouettes in which dense fabrics were swathed about the shoulders and wrapped tight at the waist, with collars tipped high over the chin and skirts swirling at the knees, as if for an unimaginably glamorous walk in the Highlands.

Roksanda Ilinčić talked about how the influence of living in an extraordinary moment of history helped her crystallise her “warrior women” on the catwalk, whom she dressed in exquisite shades of carmine and rust she took from Rothko paintings she saw in the Royal Academy’s recent Abstract Expressionism exhibition.

Erdem imagined what the wardrobes of his great grandmothers – one from Turkey, near the Syrian border, the other of English and Scottish heritage – would have looked like together, merging Ottoman necklines with Victoriana bodices, and throwing in elements of Virginia Woolf for good measure, to dreamy effect.

“I like to imagine women’s stories,” he said backstage after the show. “I don’t have any photographs of my great grandmothers, so this is about their identities as I invent them, I suppose.”

Nintendo’s rejection of gay relationships gives fans a lot to be angry about

Nintendo often seems like the rarest kind of corporate entity: one that only inspires feelings of goodwill from its customers both past and present. Even as the company continues to flounder in its current state of financial insecurity, much of the criticism from fans, detractors and industry analysts is delivered as if from a concerned friend, rather than a dispassionate onlooker.

That changed on Wednesday, when Nintendo of America (NOA) responded to a social media campaign asking the company to allow players to enter into gay relationships in its game Tomodachi Life with a flat denial issued to the Associated Press.

The company “never intended to make any form of social commentary with the launch of Tomodachi Life”, the statement reasoned. “The relationship options in the game represent a playful alternate world rather than a real-life simulation. We hope that all of our fans will see that Tomodachi Life was intended to be a whimsical and quirky game, and that we were absolutely not trying to provide social commentary.”

It repeated the phrase “social commentary” twice in just three sentences. NOA was trying to avoid rocking the boat and ended up doing the exact opposite. Fans responded passionately with anger and disappointment.

There’s a lot to be angry about here, and a lot to be disappointed by, too. But more than anything else, I’m confused by Nintendo’s logic, because none of this makes sense.

For starters, look at the game itself. Tomodachi Life belongs in a hyper-specific genre of games called “life simulators”. It has often been described as the Japanese gaming giant’s take on The Sims, that enormously popular Electronic Arts game that lets players indulge in seemingly mundane activities – picking out outfits, going to work, coming home, going on dates, getting married.

There are tons of games that owe no debt to realism. Those that do, like Madden or Call of Duty, aspire to such a narrow vision of what realism means that a degree of exclusion is understandable. I don’t expect to see myself cast as a quarterback for the Giants any more than I feel entitled to be represented as burly meathead who runs around hunting for terrorists. But if you make a game that’s meant to simulate life – even a “whimsical and quirky version” of life – and then tell a portion of your players that they’re simply not allowed to make an authentic simulation of their lives, something isn’t adding up.

But the weirdest part of Nintendo’s justification for effectively banning gay marriage in the precious little virtual universe of Tomodachi Life is yet to come. In its statement, NOA went on to say: “The ability for same-sex relationships to occur in the game was not part of the original game that launched in Japan, and that game is made up of the same code that was used to localize it for other regions outside of Japan.”

The implication here seems to be that there are value-neutral lines of code at the heart of this game. Devoid of “social commentary”, the code was simply copy-pasted from its birthplace in Japan, where the game was first released in April 2013. Tomodachi Life sold 1.83m copies in its first nine months on the market there, so people must have loved this non-“social commentary” version. Why bother tampering with a tried and true formula?

The problem is, that’s not true. People did love Tomodachi Life when it launched in Japan. But part of what they loved about it, according to a report by my Kotaku colleague Brian Ashcraft, is that there was initially a bug in the software that allowed players to indulge in gay relationships – or at least male ones. Japanese players were “thrilled by the bug, posting photos of their gay couples online”. When Nintendo got wind of the game letting players do things they couldn’t legally do in their own country, it quickly issued an update to eliminate the glitch. Dissenting players responded on social media by vowing not to download it.

Nintendo never publicly responded to this story. And given its tight-lipped reputation, the closest we may ever get to hearing anyone from Nintendo speak candidly about LGBT representation is this week’s opaque conclusion that it is using its sudden anti-gay marriage stance as “an opportunity to better understand [its] consumers and their expectations” and is “looking to broaden [its] approach to development whenever possible”.

Did Nintendo – the world’s largest video game company by revenue – really never think about the sexual identity of its customers before 2014? Late last month, one of the developers of the latest Kirby video game mentioned that Nintendo figured out early in the life of that franchise that American audiences preferred an angry-looking version of Kirby over the “cute” one that appealed to Japanese gamers. If the company’s market research delves into the minutiae of the expression worn by an innocuous blob, ignoring something like the demographic makeup of that blob’s fanbase would appear to be a massive oversight.

Then again, Kirby is a nominally male figure who’s naked, bright pink, and best known for his superhuman ability to fit large objects in his mouth. Maybe Nintendo’s market research team didn’t want to ask the question because they were scared of what they’d hear back.

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Whenever the video game industry does ask itself why it continues to drag its feet on introducing gay characters, however, the answers aren’t encouraging. Earlier this year, Assassin’s Creed developer Ubisoft let one of its openly gay writers explain that even he could not write a queer protagonist into his own work “because of fears that it’ll impact sales”.

It’s hard to accept that logic since it’s rarely backed up (at least openly) with actual data. Plus, it runs opposite to the recent history of every other area in the entertainment industry that comes to mind.

But whether or not you buy Ubisoft’s reasoning, such market-oriented thinking hasn’t been doing a company like Nintendo any favors lately. The same day that Nintendo explained why it didn’t feel the need to include gay marriage in its popular sim game, the company also reported that its earnings for the 2013 fiscal year were even lower than the level it had pre-emptively lowered them to back in January. And that comes after two years of similarly staggering losses.

The company’s Wii U console isn’t selling well. And the 3DS, that beloved mobile system on which Tomodachi Life will soon appear for gay and straight gamers alike in America, isn’t doing so hot either.

I didn’t cover any of this financial news, however, because I was too busy playing the amazing new Mario Kart that’s coming out later this month. Which gets to the real source of my confusion here: how is a company that consistently produces phenomenal work so thoughtless at the same time?

I don’t have an answer to that. So just let me play the part of a concerned friend once more and say: come on, Nintendo. You’re better than this. And it doesn’t seem like you have much more to lose anyway.

How Jann Mardenborough went from Gran Turismo on a PlayStation to being a racing driver

Jann Mardenborough won the Nissan PlayStation GT Academy competition in 2011, earning the chance to take part in professional racing. Backed by Nissan, he has since competed extensively in sports car racing and completed one season in single seaters; he’s finished with a class podium at the Le Mans 24 Hours and as runner-up in the Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand.

As part of the Infiniti Red Bull Racing driver development programme, he will race for Arden International in this year’s GP3 Championship – one of the most important feeder series for Formula One.

I started gaming when I was seven

Playing Gran Turismo on the original PlayStation, really just racing games, I played the odd shooting game now and then but the majority of it was racing, I’ve always had a passion for Gran Turismo and to drive cars I’d probably never, ever, get to drive.

For my A-levels I designed a gaming pod to race in

I made it out of MDF wood and bought myself a wheel paddle with some money I saved up, and then I was away. About a year later GT Academy came round, and served me pretty well.

Winning GT Academy was the best moment of my life

I knew that my life was going to change massively. After that, the first time I drove a fast GT car, a fast road car, that was a pretty cool moment – to be released round Silverstone in a 500-horse power Nissan GT-R was pretty crazy for a 19-year-old.

The transition from videogame to real-life driving wasn’t that difficult

The controls and physics engines in games these days are crazy, they take real-life data from cars and then put them into code so that the way that the car pitches and brakes and the steering input works very well in racing games.

Of course you feel the G-force which you don’t in the game, but you’re so tightly strapped into the seat, that it’s not really an issue.

People think gaming is just lounging around

But it can actually be something that’s fantastic and, although it’s all happened very, very quickly, it’s a amazingly cool situation to find myself in.

In a way, I’m sort of living out my childhood dream, so it’s very fulfilling that gaming is what has allowed me to do that.

It would be the absolute pinnacle for me to reach F1

But I’m concentrating this year on GP3 and will try to develop and improve. The Infiniti Red Bull Racing driver development programme means I can use their simulators to train so that I can arrive at a track I’ve never driven at before and can be on the pace in the first practice session.

A lot of guys have made the jump into the top of the sport from GP3, so it’s nice to know that I’m in the correct championship, and with a great team as well, I’m in a great position to get the ball rolling.

The GP3 season begins in Spain on 9 May, Sky are televising all the races

Thief – hands-on in the city of stealth

Eidos Montreal’s reboot of the respected stealth-‘n-steal series is out in a month. Here’s what is right – and wrong – with the return of Garrett, the master thief

As obvious as it sounds to say so, in Thief you nick things. You nick a lot of things. Broaches, necklaces, wallets, candelabras – anything valuable that’s lying around, really – all disappear into lead character Garrett’s bottomless sack. You find some of these trinkets in the oddest of places. One would expect to find a golden bracelet or two in a wall safe behind a painting, but who on earth leaves a goblet on a rooftop or a couple of coins at the edge of a pond?

It’s possible Eidos Montreal has left these treasures scattered around its game in order to put players into the headspace of its protagonist. If that’s the case, it’s an absolutely brilliant piece of game design because stealing stuff in Thief isn’t just fun, it’s addictive. After you’ve snagged your first five or six baubles, you turn into a veritable magpie, filled with the need to obtain any shiny object that catches your eye – even if it means potentially exposing Garrett to danger in order to do so.

This compunction to loot is backed up by the game’s open-ended structure and its seductive visuals. Thief is set in a gloomy urban sprawl where the architectural schools of Gothic Europe, Victorian London and Steampunk Sci-Fi seem to have collided in a mass of fog and iron. Garrett, the antihero of the series since its 1998 premier, it back, returning to his home town, which is now in the grip of both a horrendous plague and a tyrannical ruler, The Baron. A palpable sense of foreboding drapes over the city’s gas-lit streets and shadowy rooftops, an effect that’s bolstered in no small part by the flashes of lightning that briefly throw Garrett’s shadow onto the walls and pavements around him.

As sinister as all of this sounds, it becomes apparent early on that the city’s darkened alleys and rooftops are Garrett’s natural turf. His almost superhuman ability to move noiselessly through his surroundings turns the skyline into his thoroughfare and makes every shadow inviting. Garrett also has the ability to ‘swoop’ in and out of pools of light quick enough to avoid detection and he’s armed with a decent array of equipment including lockpicks, arrows and a crowbar to force open the odd window.

Stolen moments

From the evidence of the preview build I had a hands-on with, Thief contains the odd brief linear passage, which helps move the narrative along, but once Garrett is in view of a building that houses a valuable item he’s after – whether it’s part of a side task or a story mission – Thief’s structure opens up. Couple this loose framework with the kleptomaniacal impulses instilled in the player early on, and the world in Thief simply begs to be explored.

A great example of this came in a passage of play that occurred after the game’s tutorial level. Following a bungled robbery, Garrett has to flee back to his headquarters through one of the city’s mercantile districts. As I picked my way across the rooftops, noticing one of the streetlamps below me was on the blink, I heard a couple of guards remarking on how beautiful a golden mask in the window of a jewelry shop looked.

Well, I thought, since it’s on my way…

The jewelry shop raid showed there’s no set way to successfully pull off a burglary. It was possible to enter the premises by observing the nightwatch guards, taking note of their patrol patterns, timing one’s movements to reach the shop’s door undetected and then picking the lock. Alternately, I found after circling the emporium that one of the back windows was open and it was possible to enter by shimmying up to the
rooftops.

Once inside, I found that the open-ended nature of progression extended to the style of play, too. To wit, players can proceed as loudly or as quietly as they wish, although, they’ll find that playing to Garrett’s strengths – moving stealthily and hiding from view – will prove easier in the long run.

In my run-through I found one guard on patrol in the front of the shop, but incapacitating him was easy enough. Once I’d helped myself to everything that wasn’t nailed down on display, I picked the lock of the window display case and found that the mask in the window that had so impressed the guards was actually gilded glass – and thus, worthless. At this stage I could’ve easily made my exit but I decided, since I’d gone to the trouble of breaking and entering, to explore more of the shop.

Waiting game

I’ll neither reveal what else I found, nor will I reveal any details I uncovered about the game’s plot. Believe me when I tell you I’m doing you a favour. The less one knows about the game’s story and its hidden gems, the better time one will have when it’s released at the end of next month. That is, if the developers manage to sort out a couple of issues that, while not deal-breakers, are irritating nontheless.

Garrett’s inventory, for example, is mapped to the touchpad on the PS4’s controller, but the way it’s been implemented renders it virtually useless. Selecting items involved hammering the touch pad and while this is irritating enough during sections of the game where players have a lot of time to consider their next move, it would be potentially infuriating if they’re under duress.

Second, I can report that Thief has a lot of beautiful loading screens, and it’s a good thing that they’re beautiful, because players will be staring at them for an awfully long time. Loading times feel interminable and when they appear after a dramatic cutscene, they manage to break the atmospheric spell the rest of the game is so successful at weaving. Facial animations also look positively last-gen, which is strange because the environments surrounding the characters are fantastically detailed and beautiful to behold.

Here’s hoping Eidos manages to tighten up these flaws because they’re sizable chinks in Thief’s armour. Without them, there’s a lot in this game to admire and the pull of its world is intoxicating. Thief puts players into the headspace of a light-fingered ne’er-do-well and drops them into a city filled with trinkets to steal and houses to break into. Even with its niggles Thief accomplishes what the best adventure games set out to do – it surrounds you in a world you could get lost in and then encourages you to do just that.

Oculus Rift: Valve promises to take virtual reality to the masses

Valve is backing the Kickstarter-funded VR headset. But will consumers warm to immersive technologies?
For a few years, back in the early 90s, virtual reality (VR) looked like the obvious future for video games. Here was a technology capable of truly immersing participants in the digital environment; the essentially alienating presence of the 2D screen would be gone for ever, to be replaced by computer-generated realms that we could step into and exist in. Consumer headsets by companies such as Virtuality and Victormaxx crept on to the market, as films like the Lawnmower Man and Disclosure considered the implications of our soon-to-be lives in cyberspace. But the screens were low-resolution and the motion tracking primitive, the sensors prone to sickening lag. The gulf between expectation and reality was impassable. The future moved on.

Two decades later, in a packed room at the Washington State Convention Centre, Valve Corporation told the industry that virtual reality can become a consumer reality by 2015. When Valve says something, people in the technology sector listen. Not only has it produced two of the most beautiful and sophisticated science fiction game series’ of all time (Half-Life and Portal), it also runs the Steam digital distribution service, where 75m PC owners purchase 20m games a month. During a talk at the company’s Steam Dev Days conference, attendees discovered that Valve will be working closely with the creators of the Kickstarter-funded Oculus Rift, a VR device that has received a huge amount of positive attention in the gaming press. The aim? To “drive PC VR forward”.

The attendees have seen in Valve’s declarations a genuine desire to explore and support the technology rather than to stake a claim on the mega-bucks that could ensue. “I remember when computer entertainment companies were careful about toying with new technology, and constantly missed new trends because they lacked sufficient mainstream exposure,” says Leonard Ritter of German studio Duangle, currently working on Nowhere, an experimental RPG for Oculus Rift. “I’m happy to see that an established player isn’t afraid to meddle with cutting edge tech, not because someone did the numbers, but because they think it’s cool and they’d like to see it succeed.”

On a PowerPoint slide that has been widely photographed and shared through Twitter, the proposed specifications for a consumer VR technology were laid out. It would have a mere 20 milliseconds of latency, 110-degree field of vision, and one million pixels per eye. Valve now seems to be suggesting that it won’t bring its own prototype head-mounted display to market – despite impressing developers with a short demo. Instead, the company is set to release a VR platform that will make it easier for developers to create and share virtual reality games; there’s even a VR interface in development for its Steam service, which would turn the online store into a virtual space. It seems Oculus Rift,will be the go-to hardware.

And there is plenty of support for Rift from an enthused and curious development community. The main candidate for “killer app” right now is perhaps space combat title EVE Valkyrie, which astonished many who saw it at Gamescom and CES. But the likes of zombie survival adventure DayZ, forthcoming shooter Doom 4 and David Braben’s long-awaited modern day Elite sequel, Elite: Dangerous, have all promised implementation.

These are all a way off. Right now, the Rift is available only as a developer kit, which lacks some of the specifications of the proposed consumer version set to arrive later this year. The company, which has attracted almost $100m in funding since its successful Kickstarter campaign, showed the latest version of its head-mounted display (HMD) technology, dubbed Crystal Cove, at the CES show – to impressive effect. Developers are lining up to support the device, which is relatively easy to accommodate. The $300 developer version comes with an SDK, documentation and sample code, and current game projects can be retro-fitted with compatibility in a matter of days.”The process involves increasing the internal framebuffer resolution, inserting a post processing shader and applying an additional transformation to the camera,” says Ritter. “We integrated Oculus VR support across all three platforms – Windows, OSX, Linux – within a week or so.”

“Video games are one step before a whole other virtual universe” Vin Diesel
But the real challenge for coders and designers is to learn the new language and conventions that virtual reality demands. “Details are vital,” says Daniël Ernst, who has produced the highly regarded Rift demo, The Shoebox Diorama, and is now working on a narrative adventure. “In a traditional game, environmental micro-details are less important. You won’ t really notice the names of the books on the shelve, or what text is written on a piece of paper on a desk. There is always a distance between you and the environment. With the Oculus Rift, you don’ t have this distance. Things can be a couple of inches from your face and if the texture is blurry or pixelated it will break the immersion. You actually have to measure objects before replicating them in 3D. You will even notice if a telephone is a couple inches too big.”

Interestingly then, true immersion may well put the brakes on mainstream gaming’s constant sense of forward momentum. Titles like Call of Duty are always prodding the player forward through corridors of escalating sensory violence – is that just compensation for the lack of physical ownership of the game space. In VR worlds, we may be happy spending several hours exploring every aspect of one room. “We’ve found that a vast majority of our players behave differently in VR,” says Hrafn Thorri Thorisson, co-founder of Icelandic games and simulation company, Aldin Dynamics. “When you’re inside a virtual world, as opposed to looking at it on a regular monitor, the urge to explore and inspect is really compelling.”

Henrique Olifiers is overseeing the Oculus Rift version of Bossa Studio’s hugely successful Surgeon Simulator title. For him, the problems are in jettisoning some of the effects we usually see in first-person games designed for a 2D screen. “The difficult bit is grasping what works and doesn’t fly on VR from a content point of view,” he says. “For instance, you don’t want abstract interfaces in a VR game, the information has to be shown in the world itself. You want to avoid movements that are not triggered by the player, such as camera shakes as they cause discomfort. You have to strip out unnatural behaviour like running backwards or strafing laterally – all hallmarks of first-person shooters. The manual on game development for virtual reality is yet to be written, there’s a lot to learn before we can create amazing games with it.”

James Parker at Bristol-based developer Opposable Games sees similar challenges. “There’s an ongoing issue with what’s the most appropriate control system, particularly in shooters,” he says. “Traditionally, players are used to pointing their gun essentially in the same way as their face – as soon as you separate those two things, it’s a pretty radical shift in control experience. On the other hand, if you keep the two locked together you lose a lot of what make VR so immersive.” Meanwhile, David Braben, founder of Frontier Developments, believes developers will need to consider the playing position of the participants. “Oculus Rift is great, but it works particularly well with games where, in the setting you’d actually be sitting.”

Clearly, there is powerful potential in the concept of inhabiting a virtual environment; indeed the technology has been used in science, medicine and the military for many years, aiding in everything from training to therapy. If nothing else, a cheap HMD like Oculus Rift will allow more researchers to try out a greater range of serious implementations – just as the Wii Remote and Kinect camera have done with motion tracking. “Imagine VR for learning life-saving skills such as first aid, for example,” says Thorisson. “That’s something that the Icelandic Institute for Intelligent Machines has been exploring in collaboration with us.”

But for consumer appliance, it’s about whether developers can pull themselves away from the forms we’re used to. “My general view of VR is sceptical,” says Ed Key whose exploration game Proteus is currently being retro-fitted with Rift compatibility by programmers Aubrey Hesselgren and Nick Ludlam. “At the moment it seems like not many people having figured out good things to do with it beyond naively trying to make current FPS games into a holodeck. I think there are a lot of unsolvable problems if one just assumes you can put on a headset and amplify immersion. You’re still just pressing buttons to move around, and you’re not getting most of the sensory input that you get from actually moving – ie inner-ear stuff, forces on the body, proprioception. Any successful VR work has to understand the limitations before making something satisfying.”

Video games, Down’s syndrome and my brother – a personal story

Playing with my brother is one of many ways he reveals himself not as a ‘disabled’ person – but simply as his own person

In 2005, when my brother Euan was still a schoolboy, we used to play a lot of Tekken 5 together. If you’re new to this famed video game series, it’s a one-on-one martial arts simulation – a ferocious yet endearingly flamboyant experience in which kangaroos trade blows with Bruce Lee clones, and winged demons grapple with Mexican wrestlers. And I’m fairly sure Euan is the most savage, unprincipled Tekken 5 player ever to lay his traitorous fingers upon a PlayStation 2 controller. Some combatants prefer to open a bout with a stunning punch to the lower body, but Euan was rarely that noble. “Wait a minute, I want to show you something,” he’d declare, scuttling out of reach. I’d dutifully wander over to his side of the arena, all patronising solicitude, and he’d kick me in the face.

Euan is a dirty fighter. But he’s also one of the most fearlessly imaginative people you’ll meet. And in its own small way, our shared gaming hobby is proof of this.

There have been greater feats of cunning than his Tekken 5 antics, but I like that this gambit ducks right under the question of manual dexterity. Because on those, purely functional and “sportsmanlike” terms, my brother has a bit of a mountain to climb. He has Down’s syndrome, a genetic disorder that reportedly affects one in every thousand babies born in the UK each year, which often hampers development of fine motor skills. I’ve never been entirely sure what Euan thinks of his condition – if you’re reading this, Euan, I apologise in advance for any stupid assumptions. Still, I can’t help but wonder whether his refusal to fight on terms that leave him at a disadvantage reflects something larger, a rejection of the role society wants him to play.

Video games v expectations
We expect “disabled” people – that’s to say, the vast spectrum of individuals branded as such for convenience’s sake – to be passive, unaware, content to live within tacit, carefully managed social nooks in exchange for support and guidance. We don’t expect them to recognise such overtures for what they are: well-meant, but limiting. We don’t expect them to break the rules. We don’t expect them to cheat.

By contrast, most video games outright encourage you to misbehave, or at least refrain from bringing down the gavel when you do: it’s what makes them such wonderful, liberating escapism. Just look at Timesplitters 2, the work of Nottingham-based developer Free Radical Design. A deranged cartoon shooter, it tracks how each player conducts him or herself over the course of match, and offers an appropriate award. As a rule, I’d end up with something like “hypochondriac” (for picking up medical kits when you’re unhurt) or “backpeddler”. My brother, meanwhile, walked away from each round with a toxic cocktail of judgments usually including “most cowardly”, “bully” or “ricochet king”. He’s a sneaky player.

Euan and I don’t play Timesplitters 2 anymore, mainly because the disc has come to resemble a half-digested beermat. Nowadays we’re fond of Gears of War: Judgment for the Xbox 360, a science-fantasy shooter in which granite-jawed marines scuttle around blasting hideous cave mutants with chainsaw-guns. It’s an opportunity for Euan to flaunt his own, oddly 80s sense of machismo, equal parts Steven Seagal and The Village People – he’s taken to somersaulting his character in time to a raucous rendition of Everybody Mambo. There’s nothing in the game’s world or fiction that accounts for this behaviour, of course. It’s just his personality at play.

No man behind
Another favourite is Left 4 Dead 2 (also on Xbox 360), a brilliant riff on B-movies from Valve Software, the games industry’s indefatigable pioneer and prankster. Though a world apart from Timesplitters in most respects – the idea is to carve a path through hyperactive crowds of Danny Boyle-era zombies, from one safehouse to the next – Left 4 Dead 2 compares to Free Radical’s game in that in effect it is a personality test. The nature of the threat isn’t pre-determined but protean, shifting in response to your traits and tactics.

Cower for too long at the mouth of a street, and Valve’s vaunted “Director”, a bundle of code with a Stanford complex, might sneak a few grumpy corpses into the road behind you, a none-too-subtle hint that you’re letting an unseen audience down. Split from the group in a fit of zeal and you’re asking to be pinioned by an elite nasty like the Hunter (imagine one of David Cameron’s huggable hoodies, cross-bred with a panther). Euan gets along famously with Hunters. He’s also well-acquainted with the Witch, a sinister, weeping apparition who won’t bother you, providing you don’t bother her. Suffice to say that we seldom leave a Witch to her own devices, and I’m usually the one who winds up a broken ruin in the process.

And yet – my brother has never once abandoned me to my fate. His delight at leaving me in the lurch is exceeded only by the satisfaction he seems to feel at being my rescuer: it’s another way, I guess, of refusing to be the kind of individual he’s expected to be.

Each of Left 4 Dead’s chapters or “campaigns” concludes with an all-or-nothing gauntlet run or final stand in the face of overwhelming odds. You might have to defend a rock stadium while waiting for a rescue chopper, using concert pyrotechnics to set the undead on fire, or refuel a car in the middle of an infested shopping mall. We’re rubbish at these sections, but that’s OK – dying in Left 4 Dead is often much more fun than surviving. The point isn’t so much to succeed as to share the experience of a protracted and hilarious failure, as best-laid plans fall to the Director’s tricks and only-human feats of incompetence or treachery.

Clegg v sense
Games like Left 4 Dead can be every bit as exhilarating and convivial as a real-life sport. It’s frustrating that so many people continue to regard them as degrading and desensitising. Parents should “ration” a child’s consumption of “corrosive” videogames, father of three Nick Clegg observed on LBC in September, adding that players “occupy a sort of hermetically sealed world really of their own, and that can have a very detrimental effect”. The idea of joining in, much as you’d join your kids for a game of football, doesn’t seem to occur to Clegg – but how are we to lure people out of that “world”, assuming this is necessary, if not by comprehending what makes it so enticing? And what possibilities are we dismissing in the process?

My brother has been playing video games for well over a decade. If this has had “a very detrimental effect” on him, he hides it very well, though I suppose there is that slightly unnerving fixation with James Bond. This has been the cause of some strife: I’ll travel home for the weekend armed with a critical darling like Bioshock Infinite – think Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York meets David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas – only to discover him tucking into his battered old copy of Quantum of Solace, a middling adaptation of the Daniel Craig film. I’ve hidden the disc on occasion. Not proud.