Hypercritical


Jony Ive

According to any reasonable set of quantifiable measures, Jony Ive departs Apple as the greatest product designer who has ever lived. His hit products sold in vast numbers and were fundamentally transformative to both the company he worked for and the world at large. We all know their names: iMac, iPod, iPhone, iPad. Together, these products helped set the direction for the most consequential industry of the last century.

As the leader of design at Apple, Ive inevitably receives acclaim for work done by other people on his team. This is what it means to be the public face of a collaborative endeavor involving hundreds of people. Ive himself is the first to credit his team, always using the word "we" in his appearances in Apple's design videos. One gets the impression that Ive has historically used "we" to refer to the design team at Apple, rather than Apple as a whole, but he certainly never meant it to refer to himself.

While the iPhone is obviously the most important product in Ive's portfolio, his most significant and lasting contribution to Apple and the tech industry in general is embodied by a product that he worked on much more directly, and with far less help: the original iMac.

Aside from dramatically reversing Apple's slide into obscurity, the iMac finally pushed the industry over the hill it had been climbing for decades. Nearly overnight, it went from an industry primarily concerned with technical specifications to one that more closely matches every other mainstream consumer business—one where fashion and aesthetics are not just a part of the appeal of a product, they are often the dominant factor. As much as any individual product design, this is Ive's legacy.

Zima Blue

There is a certain predictable progression in the career of creative professionals. In the beginning is the acquisition of basic skills and experience—the tools needed on the road to mastery. Work done in this phase is more likely to be constrained by the orthodoxy of a given industry. The first step to making a great product is to make a competent product. One must know the rules before breaking them.

The lives of creative people are often animated by a few deeply held notions. These may be philosophical, aesthetic, fanciful—anything that stirs the soul. Early creative work often fails to embody these ideals to the satisfaction of the creator. Perhaps one's skills are not yet adequate. Perhaps one lacks the confidence to defy convention to the degree required. An early-career creative professional is surrounded by constraints.

With the acquisition of greater skill and authority comes more freedom. If you're Jony Ive, working in a company where that skill has led to world-changing hit products and their associated fortune and well-deserved corporate promotion, you may find yourself with very few limitations indeed. Everything has come together to finally give you a chance to do it right for once—to get closer than ever to that deeply held notion, that ideal.

It's not hard to guess what animates Ive's design philosophy. He's repeated some variation of it in nearly every Apple product design video. Ive wants to get to the essential nature of a thing. By stripping away the extraneous, we are left with the intrinsic truth of a thing. A successful design should seem obvious in retrospect. It should seem inevitable.

This philosophy has been embodied in the products themselves, and its potency has tracked Ive's career. Early on, technical, financial, and authoritative limits led to designs that today's Ive would likely view as over-complicated: a jigsaw of decorative exterior panels fastened to an inner framework housing a hodgepodge of components.

Contrast this with latter-day products like the unibody Apple laptops, where a single slab of machined aluminum replaced dozens of individual parts and their associated fasteners, seams, squeaks, and rattles. Or look at products like AirPods and the Apple Pencil that seem not to be assembled at all, but rather to have sprung into existence as complete entities. When introducing each similar product or manufacturing advance—each further simplification—Ive's joy has been apparent, even through his usual understated demeanor.

And so we come to the most common criticism of Ive's work. With so few limitations on his power and skills, the spark that animates his creative philosophy has been allowed to burn so brightly that it has overwhelmed everything else. Symmetry overrides utility1. Simplicity overrides flexibility2. Purity of form overrides quality of function3.

This creative arc is dramatized in spectacular fashion in Zima Blue, an animated short that's part of the Netflix anthology series Love, Death & Robots. I don't want to spoil the ending; suffice it to say that I doubt Jony Ive's career beyond Apple will lead to quite such a dramatic conclusion. But the dogged pursuit of a core animating belief rings true to me.

Millennium Designer

If Ive has overstayed his usefulness at Apple, it is only by a little. Few careers in any field will ever match his run at Apple. His designs changed the tech industry forever, and he hit home run after home run on the playing field that he built.

It's often said that the best creative work requires limitations. In this case, another piece of industry wisdom also applies: success hides problems. But in the years to come, when I look back on Jony Ive's work at Apple, I doubt I'll dwell much on the tail end, when he very nearly caught that thing he'd been pursuing for his entire career. Will he ever catch it? Does anyone? I'm not sure it matters to me. After all, it's the chase that I love.


  1. MacBook keyboard layout; iMac puck mouse.

  2. 2013 Mac Pro; MacBook port variety and count.

  3. Apple TV remote; butterfly keyboard.


Great Games

These are some of my favorite video games. They also happen to be truly great games, though they vary widely in terms of the required time commitment and gaming experience.

Many of these games are old enough to have spawned “remastered” versions. The remasters are usually easier to find, and are often—but not always—the versions I recommend playing. See the descriptions for more details.

This list is not exhaustive. It’s mostly limited to games that it’s possible to play today without too much trouble. As the games get older (and therefore harder to find and play), the selection criteria get stricter. I don’t go much further back than the 1990s, which ends up excluding my beloved classic Macintosh games. Maybe I’ll do a separate list of those someday.

The Destiny series of games is omitted because it’s very difficult to go back and play this kind of multiplayer online game after the community has moved on. But I do love Destiny…even if it doesn’t always love me back.

I could write many thousands of words about each game, but my failure to do so has prevented me from making this list for too long. In an effort to get the ball rolling, this list does not feature much commentary. It’s mostly just a list, with some information about how and where to play each game.

The games are listed in no particular order.


Journey

Available on PS3 as a download, and on PS4 as a download and a collector’s edition disc bundled with two other games. Coming soon to PC via the EPIC Store.

This is the most accessible game on the list. It only takes two hours to play from start to finish, and it costs just $15. I recommend playing it alone, in the dark, with no interruptions, in a single sitting. A good sound system (or headphones) really enhances the experience.

To avoid spoilers, finish the game before reading the article I wrote or listening to the podcast I recorded about the game.

What Remains of Edith Finch

Available on PS4, Switch, Xbox One, and PC.

This game is nearly as accessible as Journey, and is similarly a good choice for someone who doesn’t have much experience with modern video games. (Some familiarity with first-person 3D controls helps.) Though it is a bit longer than Journey, there are natural intermission points within the game. I recommend playing it in a few uninterrupted sittings.

To avoid spoilers, finish the game before listening to this podcast where I talk about it.

Inside

Available on many platforms. I recommend playing on a system with a controller.

To avoid spoilers, finish the game before listening to this podcast where I talk about it.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Available on PS4, PS3, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC, and iOS.

To avoid spoilers, finish the game before listening to this podcast where I talk about it.

Firewatch

Available on Mac, PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Switch.

To avoid spoilers, finish the game before listening to this podcast where I talk about it.

Ico

Available on PS2, and PS3 as a download and a disc bundled with Shadow of the Colossus.

It’s worth the effort to dig out an old console (or borrow one or buy a used one) to play this game. The PS3 version is a remaster with better graphics and no downsides. Prefer it if you have a choice.

To avoid spoilers, finish the game before reading my review.

Shadow of the Colossus

Available on PS2, PS3 bundled with Ico, and PS4 as a disc and a download.

Both the PS3 and PS4 versions are remasters. The PS4 version substantially changes the art style of the game. It’s not worse or better than the original art style, but it is different. I recommend either the PS3 version or the PS4 version, depending on your tolerance for dated graphics.

Though it is not a direct sequel (or prequel), it helps to have played Ico before playing this game.

The Last Guardian

Available for PS4 as a disc and download.

Though it is not a direct sequel (or prequel), it helps to have played both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus before playing this game.

To avoid spoilers, finish the game before reading my review.

The Last of Us

Available for PS3 as a disc and download, and for PS4 as a disc and download.

The PS4 version is a remaster, and it comes bundled with the Left Behind expansion. This is the version I recommend, but you should be sure to play both the main game and the Left Behind expansion—in that order—whichever version you get.

To avoid spoilers, finish the game before listening to this podcast where I talk about it.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

Available for PS4 on disc and as a download.

Though it helps to have played the previous three installments of the Uncharted series, doing so is not necessary to both understand and enjoy this game.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Available for the Wii U on disc, and for the Switch as a cartridge or download (optionally including expansions).

This game alone is worth the purchase price of a Switch. I recommend playing on a Pro Controller with the Switch connected to a TV.

If you want to hear over two hours of my spoiler-filled thoughts on Breath of the Wild and the entire Zelda series, listen to episode 91 of the Pragmatic podcast.

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

Available for the GameCube, Wii, and Wii U.

The Wii U version is a remaster that includes both enhanced graphics and some streamlined quest mechanics. It is the version I recommend. I strongly recommend against the Wii version due to the clunky motion controls, which are absent (or optional) on the other two versions.

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

Available for the GameCube and the Wii U.

The Wii U version is a remaster that subtly changes the art style of the game. I prefer the art style in the GameCube original, but the Wii U version is certainly more palatable to modern players. The Wii U version also streamlines a few of the game’s quests.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Available for N64, GameCube, and 3DS as a cartridge and download.

The 3DS version is a remaster with much-improved graphics, but I prefer to play Zelda games on a big TV. The GameCube version is a straight port of the N64 original with no significant improvement to the graphics. It’s a tough call, but I guess I recommend going back in time to 1998 and playing the N64 original when its graphics were cutting-edge. (Doing so would also be very on-brand for the game.)

Portal

Available on Mac, PC, PS3, and Xbox 360.

The PS3 and Xbox 360 versions come bundled with Half Life 2 and Team Fortress 2, both of which are also great games.

To avoid spoilers, finish the game before listening to this podcast where I talk about it.

Portal 2

Available on Mac, PC, PS3, and Xbox 360.

This is the rare sequel that matches or improves upon its fantastic predecessor in nearly every way. You should play Portal before playing this game.

To avoid spoilers, finish the game before listening to this podcast where I talk about it.

Super Mario 64

Available for N64 and DS. The DS version is a remaster, but I’m not sure the improved graphics are enough to make up for the smaller screen of the handheld platform.


Hypercritical T-Shirts Return

Hypercritical T-Shirts 3.0

Five years ago, I sold t-shirts commemorating my first podcast, Hypercritical, which ran for 100 episodes in 2011–2012. The shirts also celebrated this website, which is updated nearly once per year. Thanks to everyone who purchased a shirt all those years ago.

Since then, I've gotten many requests to sell the shirts again, either to replace old shirts or because someone missed the previous sale entirely. Today, the time has come for the triumphant return of the Hypercritical t-shirt. The sale ends on Friday, June 29th at 8 p.m. EDT, so if you want a shirt, don't delay. It may be five years—or longer—before they're sold again.

The shirts are available in men's and women's styles and in light and dark colors:

My sincere thanks to everyone who has purchased a shirt, past and present, and to all the people who continue to listen to my podcasts and read this site.


The Last Guardian

The Last Guardian

Fumito Ueda’s first game, Ico, was a beautiful, moody masterpiece. Its spare depiction of a boy attempting to escape from a vast castle with the help of a mysterious companion discarded the gameplay and interface conventions of its day, delivering an almost meditative sense of immersion. Ueda’s next game, Shadow of the Colossus, added the bare minimum of status indicators to the screen to support its complex boss battles that required the player to clamber up and onto a succession of giant creatures.

In terms of both gameplay and mood, Ueda’s latest game, The Last Guardian, is a straightforward combination of its predecessors. It features a boy attempting to escape from a mysterious castle with the help of a giant creature. Like Ico, it eschews a conventional HUD, save system, inventory management, power-ups, and nearly every other modern gaming convention. And as in Shadow of the Colossus, players will find themselves scrambling up the back of a large, often uncooperative, incredibly life-like beast (cheekily named Trico).

Ico was able to deliver on the promise of its design by reducing complexity in other areas. It’s set in a largely rectilinear castle that the player navigates on foot. It has a small number of enemies. Its environmental puzzles are mechanically and conceptually simple. Similarly, Shadow of the Colossus manages to pull off its extremely ambitious boss battles by removing nearly everything from the game except those creatures.

While The Last Guardian attempts to combine the strengths of its predecessors, it’s burdened by the combination of their features. The environment and the player’s movement through it is far more complex than in Ico. The puzzles play fast and loose with their own rules at a few critical points. The giant creature, no longer confined to a limited engagement in a boss arena, sometimes pushes the game mechanics past their limits.

Nothing kills immersion more than an acute awareness of the game engine itself. In The Last Guardian, the camera often gets stuck on walls or briefly shows the view from inside Trico. (Spoiler alert: like all your favorite 3D-rendered characters, he’s hollow.) Arguably, Shadow of the Colossus had an even more frustrating camera and control scheme, but that game was released eleven years ago on a far less powerful console. The Last Guardian has made tremendous strides since then, but it’s still not quite enough to avoid illusion-breaking lapses.

These shortcomings are compounded by an uncharacteristic lack of faith in its design. Traditional (read: oppressive) on-screen prompts describing the control scheme mar the opening of the game and are impossible to completely banish. A voice-over extends beyond its narrative role to provide a dynamic hint system that is often too quick to reveal solutions. Several brief cutscenes in quick succession at the start of the game undercut player agency. It's tempting to attribute these lapses to Ueda’s departure from the project several years before its release, but the reason is less important than the result.

Castle in the Sky

All of that said, it’s important to remember the context of these criticisms. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are two of the greatest video games ever created. Both pushed the limits of the hardware they were released on, and both have influenced video game designers, filmmakers, and other creative professionals far out of proportion with their modest sales numbers. That The Last Guardian fails to resoundingly best its distinguished parents is only disappointing because of how close it comes.

Let’s start with the obvious. The Last Guardian is a gorgeous game. The world design is in line with Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, but the increased fidelity of the PlayStation 4 really makes it shine. (PlayStation 4 Pro running at 1080p is recommended for best frame rates.) Lighting effects that Ico could only dream of add a poignancy to already majestic vistas. At so many points, I wished this game had the photo mode from Uncharted 4.

Trico is an amazing achievement: a building-sized NPC that truly feels alive. Its animations rarely feel canned or repetitive. Its behavioral inscrutability is completely in keeping with its character. Learning to read Trico’s moods and signals is a core part of the game. The experience smoothly transitions from frustration to a deep, intuitive understanding by the end.

Anyone who has finished Ico and Shadow of the Colossus will have no trouble completing The Last Guardian. I found the environmental puzzles a bit more challenging than those in Ico, but I never had to go to the Internet to look up a solution. Anyone who got stuck in Ico will almost certainly be even more stymied by The Last Guardian, however. The hand-eye coordination required is substantially lower than in Shadow of the Colossus, but the camera management and overall control-scheme finesse is much more demanding than in Ico.

Also keep in mind that these are comparisons to the difficulty of two much older games. The Last Guardian has a significant skill-barrier to enjoyment when compared to contemporary console games, especially those with such an artistic bent. Inexperienced gamers looking for a better match for their skills should try Journey instead.

Longtime console gamers who have never played Ico or Shadow of the Colossus should definitely do so, preferably before playing The Last Guardian. High-definition remakes of both games are available for the PlayStation 3 on a single game disc for a combined price of $25. If your taste in games is anything like mine, it is absolutely worth buying or borrowing a PlayStation 3 console just to play these two games. (Plus Journey for just $15 more.) [Update: Both games are also available on the PS4 and Windows PC via the PlayStation Now cloud gaming service, though I have not tried playing them this way.]

If you loved Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, The Last Guardian is well worth playing, but it bears the scars of its nearly decade-long development. Like The Force Awakens, there’s almost no way The Last Guardian could have lived up to the expectations accumulated during the long wait for its release. In the end, its reach exceeds its grasp, if only slightly. But, oh, what a reach it was. Like its star creature, The Last Guardian occupies a lofty perch—defiantly idiosyncratic and occasionally inscrutable, but a towering achievement nonetheless.


Canonical Bagel Flavors

These are the canonical bagel flavors:

Also: