Games and grieving

We’re all aware of how video games are negatively perceived sometimes: as a bunch of pixels which do nothing but encourage violence and addiction. But for every politician, media outlet and parent declaring them evil, there are just as many academic studies indicating that gaming has many psychological, social and even physical benefits.

This was discussed by the talented Athena from AmbiGaming last year in a post on the subject of how games can be used for coping with difficult situations. After receiving personal stories sent to her anonymously, she wrote: “Everyone used games as a way to step out of their world and into a world that they knew would be orderly, follow its own rules, and ‘make sense’ in all the ways they needed their lives to make sense at the time.”

Unfortunately, life is never as simple as a video game. In the digital world, there’s a solution for every problem in your path and all the tools you need to get across that chasm, solve the next puzzle or defeat the final boss are within reach. In real life however there’s no mini-map or quest guide, so it’s impossible to tell what’s going to be thrown at you next and how you’re going to cope with it.

Gran

In the middle of February, my grandmother-in-law fell in and was taken into hospital. We took the decision to postpone our GameBlast18 event when her condition rapidly deteriorated and she sadly lost her fight at the beginning of March. My other-half, his mother and I were with her when she passed; and although there were plenty of tears at the time, I held myself together remarkably well.

It was only in the weeks afterwards that realisation fully hit and I understood I wasn’t doing as well as I’d thought. The fact we’d been at the hospital when her death had come, a situation I’d never experienced before, was a big part of the reason for that and it’s something which changed me. But it was also because of the person she was: this wonderful, independent, stubborn and humorous lady who had accepted me into her family.

Alongside this, a restructure of my department at work was announced and I was informed my role would be changing soon. Its nature would be completely different and managerial responsibilities would be a thing of the past. While I’d been unhappy in the job for a while and had been making progress towards changing career, this news brought with it an added layer of uncertainty and stress which wasn’t welcome.

ESO, The Elder Scrolls Online, Draugr, skeleton, warrior, tomb, shield, sword, fight

This had the result of causing me to retreat into myself. The routine of writing regularly gave me a sense of structure so I continued blogging; but I stopped making comments on posts and getting involved in conversations on social media, with both bloggers and friends. I wanted space from all the noise and some time just to be quiet, to work through what was happening around me and figure out a way forward without any pressure.

I started picking up the controller more frequently and jumping into The Elder Scrolls Online at every opportunity. It was more than just my ongoing addiction to the title however, as I started to find a sort of calm in going through the motions of completing a quest. I didn’t have to think about the combat (I’ve played so much that the actions came naturally) and I didn’t have to worry about getting overrun by Draugr due to a plentiful supply of soul gems.

Teri Mae from Sheikah Plate wrote something relatable in a post about the positive effects of gaming: “[Playing a game] allows me to be in control of my entire situation. If I want to explore in that direction, I can. I get to control where I go, when I accomplish tasks, how long it’ll take, and how to approach an enemy. This, for someone who feels like their life is spiralling, is a positive experience and helps me feel a little more inner peace and calm.”

LaterLevels, Instagram, Gwyneth, hitch your wagon to a star

A video game can be a way of spending time with yourself. They provide a way to escape distractions and anxiety for a short period of time, giving you space to think things over subconsciously. Having a virtual space to work through your feelings – even if it is artifical – can give you a sense of purpose and a feeling of release which helps you feel strong enough to keep going.

Being something I don’t have to think too hard about playing explains why I opted to play TESO at 06:00 in the morning when my teammates were falling asleep after 22-hours for our GameBlast18 stream this month. After the stress of previous weeks, being holed up in our living room with the boys for an entire day was just what I needed; completing the event was tougher than any of us expected but I came out of it so much lighter emotionally.

As said by Athena in her post: “Games are undoubtedly immersive. They maintain our attention, and give our brain exactly what it wants. These elements can be used to help modify how we approach our real, physical worlds, and change them for the better. There is a certain satisfaction in having an effect on the environment, and feelings of efficacy are extremely important for coping.”

So after hiding in the lands of Glenumbra and Stormhaven for several weeks, I’m ready to start dipping my toe back into the world of ‘being social’. My other-half’s mother very kindly gave me a ring that belonged to his grandmother, which I now wear. Pete and I are now planning a makeover of our garden with an area dedicated to her and her love of daffodils (being Welsh). And I’ll go into this new role at work with an open mind, give it all I’ve got and see what I can make of it.

I’ll end this post with a quote by Chris from OverThinker Y, taken from something he wrote about what video games can teach us: “…many people’s answers have had this common theme about how gaming’s taught them that nothing is impossible. I think the idea of escaping into a game world as a sort of fantasy or wish fulfilment lends itself to this, and it’s probably a big part of why many people pick up a controller in the first place.”

You can lose yourself in a game. But you can also find yourself.

Rezzed 2018: the trouble with narrative games

Earlier this week, I picked up on the increase in the number of narrative games on display at Rezzed. The ‘detective’ theme seemed to be popular also, with several story-rich titles featuring male investigators who were trying to solve some mysterious or vaguely-supernatural case related to either unexplained missing persons or gruesome murders.

This was a great thing for me: everyone has their own individual reason for playing video games and mine tends to be for a good story. Give me a title where I can get lost in its world and wrapped up in its plot for hours on end, possibly with a few twists thrown in for good measure, and I’m a very happy gamer. But this increase in narrative projects on show at expos also comes with a downside.

Here’s an example. One of the games I’d added to my to-do list for Rezzed was The Peterson Case, a cross between The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and Outlast by Quarter Circle Games. When I asked how scary it was, the developer I chatted to (I really should have made a note of his name) told me that it was less ‘jump-scares’ and more ‘atmospheric’; but they’d left the horror part of the project at home, feeling it couldn’t be adequately shown at the event.

I knew this would be a title I’d end up purchasing and playing shortly after starting the demo. The graphics were detailed and shadowy, impressive considering the game is being made by a three-man team; and I was enjoying the gameplay, getting to know Detective Franklin Reinhardt through items scattered around his office. But within five minutes, I stepped away from the keyboard and thanked the developer for his time.

Why?

Narrative games tend to get lost at expos. It’s the stands full of bright lights, loud sounds, over-enthusiastic PR staff and free merchandise that immediately attract attendees’ attention; and their projects are usually those full of explosions and gunfire. A seat in front of a monitor displaying a quieter story- or text-rich title is likely to not see as many bums and it means some excellent work gets overlooked in all the noise.

It’s particularly difficult to show games such as The Peterson Case at events like Rezzed, as Quarter Circle Games’ developer pointed out himself. They rely heavily on creating an atmosphere and its far harder to get the most from it in a crowded environment at an expo than at home on your own in front of your PC. This was why, he explained, they’d made the decision to not bring the horror part of their project with them.

Then there are titles such as Disco Elysium by ZA/UM and Lamplight City by Grundislav Games, RPGs and adventures which feature a lot of text in their gameplay. It’s hard to read every word and not be distracted by the crowds around you or the noise seeping in through the headphones; and not fully taking in their meaning properly leaves you confused as to what you’re meant to be doing, which compounds my next point.

Although I love going to shows like Rezzed, there’s one aspect of them I don’t completely enjoy: having people watch me play video games. There’s something about a developer standing there while you’re trying to work through their demo and not mess up which makes me feel really awkward (it’s one of the reasons why I no longer apply for press passes). I’d much rather play at home where nobody can see me struggle with a puzzle.

Narrative games deserve all the love they can get as their stories enable us to see through another’s eyes and form our own ideas about the societies we live in. Sadly though, expos and conventions aren’t always the ideal place to get that attention: the constant noise and crowds detract from the hard work and passion which has gone into making them and it can be hard to truly see the world the developer is trying to create.

That being said though, a great project which contains something special will stand out regardless of the physical environment around it. I’ve been attending expos for the past six years now and have had the opportunity to play a lot of demos in that time; and this experience has taught me how to recognise a title I’ll likely enjoy within the first few minutes of sitting down at a stand.

If you’re going to a gaming event this year, give these ‘quieter’ games a chance and you might come across something you love. If you’re struggling to fully experience a demo due to the noise and crowds, or if you feel awkward playing in front of people, don’t be afraid to tell the developer that and ask if you can contact them at a later date to find out more because their project has caught your eye. Trust me: they’ll appreciate both your honesty and interest.

And who knows, you might even find your new favourite video game this way.

Rezzed 2018: playing detective

While at the Rezzed expo recently, my other-half pointed out how many more narrative games were on offer than in previous years. It’s one of the highlights I mentioned on in my round-up post published this week: I came away from the Tobacco Dock adding more upcoming projects to my wishlist than I’d done during any other time at the event.

A few examples: handmade adventure Harold Halibut by Slow Bros. is one I backed on Kickstarter and looks impressive hands-on. Midnight Hub’s atmospheric Lake Ridden caught my eye at EGX last September and the new section of the demo was great. Futuristic thriller State of Mind by Daedalic Entertainment seems like something I’ll be able to get my teeth into; and my stepson was pretty taken with Backwoods Entertainment’s hand-painted Unforeseen Incidents.

After having some time to reflect since Rezzed, something else struck me. So many of these narrative games cast the player in the role of a male detective trying to solve some mysterious or vaguely-supernatural case, usually related to missing people or murders. What is this new obsession we have with investigating the unknown, upholding the law and bringing wrongdoers to justice?

Not that I’m complaining at all. The following titles look like they’re going to be excellent.

The Sinking City

First up is a game by Frogwares, developer of the Sherlock Holmes series, which is set in an open-world inspired by the works of Lovecraft. Players find themselves in a city dominated by a supernatural force and suffering from floods, and it’s up to them to find out what has taken control of the minds of its inhabitants before they succumb to madness themselves. There’s no release date as yet but this is definitely one to watch out for.

Du Lac & Fey: Dance of Death

As the Ripper stalks London’s streets, players join Arthurian immortals Sit Lancelot Du Lac and Morgana Le Fey on a quest to stop history’s most infamous murderer and save the city. I was able to switch between both characters (the latter portrayed as a dog) in Salix Games’ demo in order to question people and solve puzzles. It’s hinted that Fey isn’t actually a canine, so that could add an interesting element to the project.

The Peterson Case

Described to me as a cross between The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and Outlast, Quarter Circle Games’ project looks amazing; I had to stop partway through the demo because I didn’t want to spoil it for myself! Set in a location near the Roswell UFO incident, Detective Reinhardt must explore a deserted house to find out what happened to its missing residents. He soon discovers an unearthly presence within, which is hot on his trail…

Lamplight City

This turned out to be one of my favourites at Rezzed which is no surprise: it’s being made by Grundislav Games, the creator of Shardlight, and has a very ‘Wadjet Eye’ feel about it. Set in an alternate steampunk-ish Victorian past, Miles Fordham must solve five cases each with multiple suspects, false leads and different outcomes. I like the fact that you can move on if a case seems unsolvable, with the story adapting to your choices.

Disco Elysium

I didn’t get to play Disco Elysium by ZA/UM until the final day of the expo as the stand was constantly busy, but it was worth the wait. It’s an interesting mix of detective-show and isometric RPG where players can choose the type of cop they want to be through an original skill system which takes feelings, doubts and memories into account. Kick in doors, interrogate suspects, or simply get lost in the city of Revachol as you unravel its mysteries. This one was my game of the show.

The fact that more narrative games were on offer at Rezzed this year was one of its highlights for me; and I love a good detective story so I’m really looking forward to playing those above. That being said however, it can be challenging to give such titles the attention they deserve at expos and this is something I’ll be delving more into later this week.

If you got a chance to play the games above at Rezzed, what did you think? Were there any other titles which caught your attention out on the show floor? Let us know in the comments below.

Rezzed 2018: the Schafer experiment

Anybody who visits the blog regularly will know how attached I am to the Monkey Island series. The original was the first game I played on my Amiga 500 as a kid in the early 1990s and this was the title that sealed my fate as an adventure fan and wannabe-pirate lover.

It was therefore with some excitement that I learned Tim Schafer, one of the designers of the franchise, would be giving a developer session at 2018’s Rezzed event. I knew my blogging partner-in-crime Ben would be hyped about this too; when we first met in person around five years ago, he launched into an enthusiastic in-depth discussion on why Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle are some of the finest games ever made.

We made our way over to the room in the Tobacco Dock an hour before Schafer was due to appear on stage and eagerly took our place at the front of the queue. We had the pleasure of bumping into Luke from Hundstrasse while we were waiting and sneakily edged him into the queue with us, before quickly heading down to the first row of the hall once the doors were opened (thank you to the lovely EGX staff who made this happen for us!).

As Eurogamer editor Oli Welsh asked questions about his career, it became obvious that Schafer was the sort of guy who had plenty of experience along with great sense of humour: you’d love to take him to your local pub for a chat about his favourite video games over a pint or two. He gave some good advice for aspiring developers on how to handle crunch and avoid the mistakes usually made by people trying to break into the industry.

When discussing his design process, Schafer picked up on the concept of ‘free writing’: “I use a pen and a notebook, and you just have to write for a certain amount of time – it can be two minutes or an hour – and you just can’t stop writing. That’s the only rule. So even if you’re just writing one word over and over, you have to keep writing. It’s a strange thing where putting your mind in that position makes ideas come out.”

He continued: “I think it’s a similar thing to when you’re creatively stuck and then you go to lunch with somebody, and you’re telling them how you’re stuck. As you’re talking, you start to solve the problem out loud; they never say another word but you’re like ‘Thanks, I fixed it, that’s great!’. Sometimes it’s just the act of going verbal with your thoughts, it opens doors and it’s a weird phenomenon but it’s helpful.”

Schafer then went on to explain where this process came from: “I learned it in seventh-grade English class. It was just like, we had to write for two minutes and I just did it. At first you’re like ‘This is dumb, why am I writing, I’m hungry, I really have to go to the bathroom’ – then all of a sudden, poof! Some weird idea comes out, then you get excited and you start writing, and you’re turning the pages because you just designed an entire game.”

So on his advice (that everybody should try it because ‘it’s really cheap’) I’d like to propose a short experiment for anybody reading this who’s willing to give it a go. All you need is a timer, your keyboard and an active imagination. Simply set your stopwatch for two minutes, click into the comments box at the end of this post, write whatever comes into your head and don’t stop typing until the time is up.

Will the WordPress community be able to come up with a groundbreaking idea for an awesome new video game that we can pitch to Schafer and Double Fine Productions? I’m looking forward to seeing what everybody’s free writing experiment produces. Even if it ends up being only thoughts on hunger or needing to go to the loo – hey, existing games have been developed on lesser concepts than that.

Let’s end this post on a high point with a bit of inspiration for the rest of the day. In the words of the great man himself: “Do what you have to do, whatever it takes.”

Rezzed 2018: Steel Rats

My stepson Ethan has a habit of making a new friend wherever we go. At last year’s Rezzed event he made an impression on Other Ocean’s Marketing & Consumer Sales Manager Gillian Hickman after queuing up to play Giant Cop three times. Then at the PC Gamer Weekender back in February, the guys from Muse Games chatted away to him for ages.

Rezzed last weekend was no different and the game this time around was Tate Multimedia’s upcoming vehicular combat title: Steel Rats had caught Ethan’s attention while he and his dad had been waiting with me for a seat at the Disco Elysium stand opposite. Being the boy he is, perhaps it was the huge image of a badass in leathers mounted on a futuristic motorbike in front of a number of ominous robots which had stood out for him.

Tate Multimedia’s press release advertises Steel Rats as ‘a visceral and groundbreaking evolution of the 2.5D action-arcade genre, fusing destructive, octane-fuelled motorbike combat and death-defying stunt gameplay’. It takes place in a dieselpunk world inspired by 1940s and 50s Americana, where a punk biker-gang now find themselves as Coastal City’s last line of defence against a constantly-evolving army of destructive junkbots.

My other-half and I gave a sigh of relief as we saw Ethan select the easiest of the three levels available in the demo. I’d seen from other players already at the stand that the game is heavily physics-based; pulling back on the controller raises the front of your bike and botching a landing after a jump results in a deadly fall. We highly expected several deaths and a bout of frustration before our kid put down the controller and stepped away.

But strangely, that didn’t happen. It took him a while to get used to the controls but soon enough he was zipping around the map, turning the motorbike’s front-wheel into a chainsaw and using it to slice through obstacles and enemies. Lead Designer Rafal Sadowski revealed to us later that day that Steel Rats was intentionally hard and their bosses had been considering whether to tone down the difficulty level.

He kindly showed Ethan how to switch between four playable characters, each of which were distinct in their skills and attributes. Each had a unique weapon such as missile launchers or the ability to shoot fire out of the bike’s tailpipe; and one of the larger biker boasted higher damage, while the other characters were faster on their wheels but had lower health.

Threats came in the form of environmental obstacles as well as the vicious junkbots – one of which had been made into an impressive statue in the basement of the Tobacco Dock, on which we had the pleasure of playing Steel Rats a second time later during the event. I’ve since learnt that blasting away these enemies earns the player war bonds, which can be used to upgrade their motorbike and equip them against latter-game opponents.

As Ethan raced through the devasted streets, abandoned subway tunnel and starlit rooftops of post-apocalyptic Coastal City, I found myself reminded of Deadlight in terms of the title’s look and feel (just with less zombies and more diesel). He jumped over ramps and railway tracks with oncoming trains, starting to enjoy pulling of airborne stunts, and Sadowski told us this element was something we’d see more of in the finished game.

This makes sense considering that Tate’s previous releases include Urban Trial Freestyle and Urban Trial Playground. Looking at their back catalogue, it seems as though they’re now trying to head in a more ‘serious’ or adult direction; and considering their latest project was recognised for ‘Best Gameplay’ at the Game Connection America development awards, it looks as though they’re going to succeed.

Steel Rats ended up being one of the first titles we played at Rezzed this year and it was also the last. Ethan was pretty tickled when Sadowski showed him a little secret before we left the event: with a few secret button presses, he lifted up the bike and transported the character outside of the level. My stepson was then able to race through shadowy fields, and chuckled to himself when we drove off the edge of the world.

A big thank you to the Tate Multimedia’s team for answering all of Ethan’s questions (and giving him plenty of stickers and badges). Steel Rats is due to release this year on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and you can head over to the official website and Facebook page for more information in the meantime.

Rezzed 2018: a round-up

This past weekend saw us attending 2018’s Rezzed expo in London. Thousands of gamers hit the rooms of the beautiful Tobacco Dock to get their hands on over 200 playable titles and meet their creators on the show floor, as well as attend developer sessions by some well-known designers and find out how to get a job in games at the GamesIndustry.biz Career Fair.

In the introduction post published on Friday, I mentioned that the thing I love most about the event hasn’t changed in the six years I’ve been attending. That’s the atmosphere: a real vibe of support for independent developers where everyone comes together to celebrate indie gaming. It’s not as flashy as some of the other annual events and you can really get to spend some quality time with upcoming titles.

Although the atmosphere was still there this time around, the event felt different somehow although it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why. That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy our time at Rezzed however; we had a thoroughly enjoyable weekend and be attending again next year. Here are the highs and lows of 2018’s show along with a few teasers about the posts coming up over the next week.

Highlights

Surely the best thing about Rezzed was being able to attend again with Ben (who wasn’t able to come last year) and getting the chance to meet the awesome Luke from Hundstrasse in person! It was also good being able to catch-up with Terry from gamingatheart, Will and Murr from geeksleeprinserepeat and Kevin from The Mental Attic. It was lovely to see them all and hopefully we’ll bump into each other again at EGX in September.

The other highlight was being in the front row for a developer session with Tim Schafer, one of the designers of my beloved Monkey Island. This was pretty apt considering the increase in the number of narrative games on the show floor this year; I’ve added quite a few titles to my Steam wishlist including Disco Elysium by ZA/UM and Lamplight City by Grundislav Games, both of which are due to feature in a post coming later this week.

My stepson Ethan attended again and continued making friends after striking up a bond with Gillian Hickman from Other Ocean last time. This year it was Steel Rats by Tate Multimedia which caught his attention, and lead designer Rafal Sadowski kindly chatted to him while he played. The guys from Muse Games also remembered him from the PC Gamer Weekender in February and we had several rounds of Guns of Icarus Alliance with them.

Lowlights

While Schafer’s section was a highpoint of the weekend, the other developer sessions were unfortunately lacking. In previous years I’ve always found at least a few I’ve wanted to attend but the range of subjects on offer this time just wasn’t as interesting, and nothing else caught my attention. The presentations have always been something I look forward to when going to the expo so I was little disappointed.

Alongside the increase in narrative titles on display this year, there seemed to be more games in general and additional space had been filled at the Tobacco Dock which was good to see. However, there seemed to be fewer ‘standout’ titles: those you see as you walk into a room and think to yourself ‘I simply have to play that.’ That’s not to say I didn’t find some gems – simply that they were harder to come across this time.

And to anyone reading this who works for Eurogamer and coordinated the event: please sort out the food next year because it wasn’t great! A gamer can’t live by chips, cans of coke and Mars bars alone, you know.

Did you attend this year’s Rezzed event? If so, what did you think of it and what was your game of the show? There’ll be a few more posts coming over the next few days and in the meantime, take a look at the photo gallery below to see what we got up to.

Rezzed 2018 photo gallery

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