Ama’s Lullaby and my Kickstarter confession

At the end of January, I wrote about how I hadn’t backed anything on Kickstarter for a while. Over time I noticed a decline in quality and grew tired of searching through campaigns for sub-par mobile games and ‘gangster shooters’ produced by 11-year olds (true story) to get to the good stuff.

Well, I have a confession: I’m now a backer of not one, but two recent projects. Yes, two. In just as many months. Damn you, Kickstarter

Beautiful Desolution intially drew me back to crowdfunding because I’d enjoyed The Brotherhood’s previous release so much. The level of quality in terms of design is astonishing when you consider that STASIS is the work of such a small team (I’d highly recommend checking it out if you’re into science-fiction or point-and-clicks). Developer Chris Bischoff revealed he’s a fan of The Dig, Gabriel Knight and Broken Sword when we interviewed him, saying that adventure games are ‘the perfect form of expression’.

You tend to listen when someone with taste like that makes a recommendation, so when Chris sent a tweet about Ama’s Lullaby one day I headed over to Kickstarter to take a look. The campaign page mentioned the three magic words: ‘point-and-click’, ‘cyberpunk’ and ‘command-line-based hacking system’. Based on that, I’m sure you can’t blame me for parting with my money.

Mercy Ground Creations’ project takes place after the announcement of a potential impact between Earth and an asteroid. A space mission led by an artificial intelligence (AI) brings a young computer-science prodigy called Ama to the 1st colony on a planet built by machines for humans, so she can be protected. But when she finds out the real reason for her presence in the colony – and notices the strange behaviour of its inhabitants – her whole world suddenly falls apart.

Players take on the role of Ama and have the opportunity to explore their surroundings, meet its human and non-human citizens, negotiate with the AI and make decisions that will affect the course of events. Here’s the bit that caught my eye: thanks to the character’s programming talent, you’ll be able to hack any network of the city to steal confidential data to use, disclose or blackmail. Be warned though, for every action has a consequence and Ama will become an easy target once her identity is unveiled.

The protagonist’s main weapon is her laptop and by logging into the colony’s networks, she’ll have access to almost every resource. Players will have to enter simplified command lines with the help of visual monitoring, launching programs, forcing firewalls and deleting files (sounds like a normal day at work). But you’ll have to act on strategy: when they realise they’re being hacked, opponent networks will attempt to track Ama’s position or corrupt her own system.

The Kickstarter campaign for Ama’s Lullaby is due to finish on 25 March 2017. With 28 days left to go and still over €14,000 left to raise at the time of writing, it could possibly be looking a little tight for Mercy Ground Creations; but I’m keeping my fingers crossed for this one because I think it shows a huge amount of promise.

So Kickstarter, what will you have for me next time? Will it be three projects backed in three months? We’ll have to wait until March to find out.

Gamely Giving: helping others get back in the game

SpecialEffect aims to put fun and inclusion back into the lives of people with physical disabilities by helping them to play video games. Levelling the playing-field in this way has a profoundly positive impact on therapy, rehabilitation and confidence – and what’s more, the charity does all of this work free of charge.

I’ve supported them since meeting Media & Graphic Designer Hannah Whittaker at the EGX event in September 2013 and have been fortunate enough to see some of their work close-up. Volunteering on the charity’s stand at previous expos gave me the opportunity to set up the equipment, and show attendees how to play Rocket League using only their chins and control Minecraft with their eyes. Hopefully, I’ll get the chance to do it all again at Rezzed next month.

Today is the official start of GameBlast17, the UK’s biggest video game marathon, and gamers all over the country will be streaming live for 24-hours to raise funds and awareness for SpecialEffect. The sponsorship raised through the event will help the organisation change the lives of many more people – individuals such as John, who you can see in the video opposite.

A group of friends and I have participated in the GameBlast event under the team name of ‘Gamely Giving’ for the past few years, and we’re doing the same again in 2017. Unfortunately real-life has thrown some obstacles at us which have meant we’re unable to host our stream this weekend so we’re planning something huge to make up for it: from 16:00 GMT on Friday, 28 April 2017, we’ll be live on our Twitch channel continuously for 72 hours.

This isn’t a post to ask for donations (although I can’t deny that sponsorship via our JustGiving page would be fantastically awesome), but one to help promote SpecialEffect because it really is an amazing cause. If you have a few minutes to spare, please head over to their website or YouTube channel to see more of their fantastic work; and give them a follow on Twitter to stay up-to-date on their progress.

Good luck to all of the gamers out there taking part in GameBlast17 this weekend. We’ll be visiting your streams on Twitch to cheer you on – you’re all doing a great thing for an amazing cause.

GEEK 2017: a round-up

Margate’s GEEK festival took a break in 2016 and so a local couple, who curated sections for the event in previous years, decided to keep the flag flying with an offshoot ‘tapas selection of family fun’. Bits & Bytes took place in February and was a one-room taster of cosplay, video-gaming and interactive art – take a look at our gallery to see what went on.

This year however, GEEK was back and took place in Dreamland’s iconic and newly-refurbished Hall By The Sea from 17 to 19 February 2017. This time around the event focused on multiplayers and encouraging everyone to participate in all genres: board games, real-world games and video games, both retro and new generation.

Below you can find a short photo gallery from the event. If you see yourself, let us know in the comments at the end of this post!

GEEK 2017 photo gallery

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Playing games for playing’s sake

Since the start of the year, we’ve been extremely lucky to be nominated for several awards by some amazing bloggers. The latest is The Blogger Recognition by NekoJonez from NekoJonez’s Gaming Blog – for which we’re very appreciative – and as part of the nomination, recipients are expected to give two pieces of advice for new writers.

This seems to be a common theme among these awards: helping new bloggers find their feet and giving those that have been around for a while a bit of well-deserved acknowledgement. It’s just another aspect of the WordPress community that makes it such a great and friendly one to be a part of.

Our nomination from NekoJonez this month got me thinking: what’s the most important thing I’ve learned in the several years I’ve been blogging? There are tips that make writing easier over time – planning the structure of posts, organising a schedule, staying focused for example – but would I say they’re critical? In fact, the most important advice I could give was written by Vincent from Alpha Signal Five in this post from last year.

I need to read and write for their own sake, and adjust my own expectations of creating.

The site that Ben and I wrote for previously was heavily focused on reviews. The policy we created for them meant we played video games analytically and dissected their every aspect: plot, gameplay, audio and visuals, replay and innovation. At the end of each post we’d assign a score which would then correspond to a final award. This site lasted for around three years and during that time, we forced every title we touched into a neat little box.

My world outside of blogging was similar in a way. I manage a team that oversees a best-practice framework within IT (that’s the best way I can explain it) so my job tends to centres around processes and data… lots of processes and data. Each side of my life was based on logic and followed a structured set of rules – and woe betide anyone or anything who dared to step outside of those boundaries.

Over time, I admitted something about myself: I don’t enjoy writing reviews. I don’t particularly enjoy reading them either. I started blogging in 2013 as a creative outlet but during those three years it had changed into something very different and less fulfilling. I realised that I’d started to attempt each new gaming experience in a way that was almost clinical, with one eye always on the lookout for material for the next article, and I’d forgotten about the sheer joy that comes from playing video games.

I couldn’t describe it any more perfectly than Vincent did himself:

Basically before I’ve finished seeing, reading or hearing something, I’m already reviewing it in my head in case I can drag a good 500 words out of the experience. And because of this (albeit small) mental shift, I feel like maybe I’m missing out on enjoying something for its own sake.

Taking the decision to wrap up our old site after several years was difficult, because we’d spent so long hiding behind analysis and review scores instead of writing from the heart. Our new home has given us the chance to remember that a video game is more than the sum of its parts and to love them for what they are. I’m no longer interested in numbers and final awards; I want to know about the journey a title takes you on, the way it lets you step into another person’s shoes, and how it makes you feel.

That’s the most important bit of advice I can give: play for playing’s sake, and write because you have something to say rather than something to post. The world of blogging is a wonderful place and you have something unique you can bring to it.

Thank you to NekoJonez for inspiring me to write this post – you should go check out NekoJonez’s Gaming Blog as soon as you possibly can – and to everyone who has nominated Later Levels for an award. And hello to all the new bloggers out there: you’re doing great.

So many games, so little time

My New Year’s resolution to play more video games is so far not going too badly. Since the start of 2017 I’ve played The Last Guardian, began The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker with my stepson, and recently completed Firewatch (thanks to a tip from cripleh from Howling In the Dark) despite writing that I was going to lay off the walking simulators for a while.

Before Firewatch however there was another title that I attempted. It’s a very-well-known adventure: one of those titles that everybody is aware of even if they haven’t played, and those who have usually rave about it. It currently has a metascore of 84 on Metacritic so you can understand how popular it is – and I seem to recall that it’s one of Ben’s favourite video games.

Over the course of a week or so, my other half and I managed to get in around give hours of gaming. According to HowLongToBeat.com that means we may it through over half of this game so you’d have thought we’d have had a pretty good grip on it by then. The puzzles weren’t particularly difficult and the humour wasn’t necessarily to our taste, but it was something not-too-taxing to zone out with after being at work all day.

One evening after dinner though, I asked Pete if he wanted to turn on the PlayStation so we could continue and he said: “I’m not fussed.” It was then that I admitted to myself… neither was I. This adventure wasn’t a terrible one, but it wasn’t capturing my attention and giving me that got-to-rush-home-so-I-can-play-it-again feeling either. After five hours of playtime, I couldn’t see what all the hype was about.

As gamers, we have this horrible habit of feeling guilty about either our backlogs or lack of completion. We all have our own ‘pile of shame’ that sits there patiently in the corner, eyeing us up critically as we reach for our wallets to purchase yet another release that we won’t play.

As we get older, more of our time is taken up by adult responsibilities so there are fewer available hours for gaming. It’s one of the reasons why Ben and I moved to Later Levels: our grown-up commitments meant we couldn’t achieve the goal set for our previous site, so we had to make the decision to start over with a new objective that was more compatible. If that was the right choice, and one that’s working out well for us, then surely the same can be true for the video games we choose to play too.

I mean, why should we spend our free time on titles we’re not enjoying when it’s so limited and therefore precious? Yes, the result may be that some titles I never complete and my backlog will never reduce as much as I’d like it to. But surely it’s better to actually take pleasure in the games I do finish? We’re meant to look forward to our hobbies – that’s what makes them ‘hobbies’ rather than ‘work’ – so that guilt we all feel as gamers seems a bit self-defeating.

A title receiving high-ratings from critics doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone should buy it, will enjoy it, or will see it through to the end. As long as we’re open to new experiences and give them a decent chance when they come along, there shouldn’t be any guilt felt at putting them down in favour or something else more fulfilling of our spare time.

Pete and I didn’t finish that adventure I mentioned above but does it bother me? Not at all. Deciding to put it away and move onto something new meant that we found Firewatch, and that was an experience we enjoyed a whole lot more.

The hardest co-op

Earlier this month I came across a post on Explore the Gaming World! about video games and violence. Author Claudio explains that games don’t always have to be violent and can be a form of art with well-written stories. There was a paragraph that stood out for me:

Every game has an age: if you gift to a kid an 18+ game, it’s your fault. Instead buy him something colourful or take him out to play something with you in the park. It isn’t the kid’s fault if they play this kind of game. But it’s the choice of a lazy parent.

I completely agree: strictly speaking, video games aren’t toys. They’re media with plenty of content – not all of which is appropriate – and so parents need to make informed decisions when purchasing titles for their child. Unfortunately though, it isn’t so straightforward when that child comes from a split family.

My other-half Pete has a nine-year-old son from his past marriage. Ethan is a not-so-little-any-more boy with a very inquisitive nature, always full of jokes and various songs he’s made up; and he’s currently trying to decide between whether he should become a maintenance man or a game developer when he grows up. He just isn’t quite sure which he’d enjoy the most.

Ethan, Pete, Duxford Air Museum, hangar, planes

I’ve become rather attached to these two lads over the past few years and gaming has always played a big part in our relationship. It’s definitely something Ethan and I have bonded over from the beginning. He was surprised to find that ‘girls play video games’ when we were first introduced and there was an initial period where I had to prove my credentials, but now he’s started to add female protagonists into ideas for projects he’s going to make when he’s older. He gets that I’d rather play as a character the same sex as myself, and I love him dearly for that.

Parenting where the responsibility is shared between two families is one of the hardest cooperatives I’ve ever taken part in. At times it can be even more difficult and confusing than that damned goat puzzle in Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars. It’s like being part of a four-person team where everyone wants the controller: multiple views on Ethan’s wellbeing come from Pete, myself, my stepson’s mother and her new husband, and even the smallest decision requires coming to an agreement.

It’s impossible for all of us to be completely happy with every decision made but we generally manage to get along. Unfortunately though, the subject of video games has recently started to cause some friction within our ‘team’. Where Pete and I are gamers ourselves we’re aware of the content of what’s being played and can make sure it’s appropriate. Yes, we’ve made some mistakes (like the time that Ethan caught me sneaking in an hour of BioShock after we thought he’d gone to bed and was scared witless) but on the whole, I think we handle the subject of gaming with my stepson as responsibly as possible.

Our teammates however don’t have much existing knowledge of video games, although they were recently given an Xbox so Ethan could continue his hobby when he’s at his ‘other’ home. This means he has begun to play with his stepdad – which is great, because I know myself how much if can facilitate bonding – but the choice of titles gives us cause for concern. For example, he recently revealed that they’d bought a Tom Clancy game to play together, and there’s also been a mention of Grand Theft Auto.

You would have thought that PEGI’s bright-red 18-rating symbol on the box would have indicated that these aren’t things suitable for a nine-year-old. Titles are given such ratings for a reason: they provide ‘a reliable indication of the suitability of the game content in terms of protection of minors’.

As Ethan’s friends start playing Call of Duty after school or are given a copy of Five Nights at Freddy’s by their older brothers (both of which have happened), it’s time for our team to have that conversation. Experience tells me that it’s going to be a tough one and Pete and I will have to word our opinions very carefully. There’s a real danger that what we say will be misconstrued: instead of hearing the warning that the games he’s playing aren’t age-appropriate, there’s a chance it will be taken as though we’re saying we don’t want him gaming with anyone other than ourselves.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of any decision or actions taken lies with Ethan’s mum and stepdad purely due to logistics. While we’re able to monitor what he’s up to when he’s with us on the weekends, that becomes harder to do when he’s at his other home during the week. Does that mean we should give up and hand over a copy of GTA V though? No, it bloody doesn’t.

Journey, video game, mountain, stranger, dessert, sky, star, sand, clouds

Regardless of how the conversation with our teammates goes, what we will do is continue trying to teach Ethan and be the best parent-and-step-parent we can. I’ve taught him practical things such as how to tie his shoe-laces, how to do the front crawl, how to round numbers to the nearest ten and how to make a cake. And I’m also trying to show him that games don’t have to include guns and violence to be fun; that they can be enjoyed responsibly; and experiences such as Journey can be beautiful, scary and exciting all at the same time.

For the record, he loved Journey. After climbing the snowy mountain and reaching the final cutscene, he said:

So I’m the star… and the next person playing right now will see me in the sky at the start of their game. That’s cool.”

Yes, it’s definitely cool.