SOMA: the real monster in the dark

Horror games are like Marmite: you either love them or hate them. There are plenty of gamers who can’t wait to step across the threshold to an abandoned mansion, hiding in terror from the demons that stalk them in the darkness while they search for inhabitants’ secrets.

Then there are others like myself who transform into a quivering mess as soon as they pick up the controller and start imagining all sorts of monsters once the lights go out. What can I say, I have an overactive imagination.

It’s therefore somewhat strange that I suggested SOMA when my other-half and I were looking for something to play recently. This 2015 release from Frictional Games, the creators of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, is advertised on its Steam page as a ‘science-fiction horror’ in which the player ‘faces horrors buried deep beneath the ocean waves’. It’s one of those titles I’d heard a lot of good things about from friends and thought we should finally get around to checking out… although I did make it clear to Pete he’d owning the controls for this one.

The following post contains some major spoilers for the game. If you haven’t yet played it, I’d highly recommend doing so before reading on otherwise you’ll ruin the experience for yourself!

During the 11 hours it took us to fully explore the underwater research facility known as PATHOS-II, we encountered all manner of threats while trying to figure out how protagonist Simon Jarrett ended up there and his method of escape. A variety of enemies were on standby including corrupted humans, deranged robots and angry fish who wanted nothing more than to rip off our head; and many typical horror elements including isolation, tension and uncertainty were present.

But would I say that SOMA as a video game was scary? Ultimately, no. Although there were a few freaky moments and some yelp-inducing jump-scares, it didn’t leave me diving for the nearest cushion on the sofa so I could hide. However, its themes are a different matter altogether; they’ve left an uneasy, anxious sensation in the Later Levels household and have been the case of several interesting philosophical conversations in the fortnight since we reached the end credits.

SOMA leaves the player questioning what it is that makes us human through a storyline based on the idea of scanning human intelligence. In its world of 2104, scientists can use advanced technology to take an exact copy of your personality and then upload this into a robot or simulation to give it your memories and experiences. This being then goes on to live a version of your life from that point forward with your beliefs and feelings to guide it through its new existence.

Does this mean you’re still you? And if so, are these copies something less than you with a reduced right to life? Situations thrown at Simon throughout his journey poke holes in our answers to these conundrums. For example, take the point in the game where it’s necessary to obtain a chip from a robot using force. Are you simply taking a part you need from a machine; or does the fact that it has the personality of a real person and therefore considers itself to be human make it more than that?

These questions become even more complex when it’s your own personality which is at stake. For instance, say the body you’re currently in is failing in some way and you’re offered the opportunity to be copied over into a new one. Which version of you then takes precedence? Should the old version be terminated? And if both copies should be allowed to live for however long they have left, how do you come to terms with there being multiple versions of yourself in the same space?

More importantly: how would you feel if you found out that you were the copy?

The things we discovered in SOMA and its questions around what it really means to be human were far scarier than any of the monsters encountered in the corridors of PATHOS-II. Instead of being just another release about demons chasing us in the dark, Frictional Games have given us something infinitely more terrifying.

Lookin’ good: video game visuals

Do you prefer realistic graphics or a unique art-style in your video games? That was the interesting question posed to the community back at the beginning of July by Brandon from That Green Dude.

It’s a bit of a difficult one to answer due to the sheer amount of choice we have available to us: advancements in technology mean we no longer have to put up with a simple sprite and can instead take our pick from retro graphics, hand-drawn animations and photorealism.

Everybody has a preference of course, and I’d say mine lies with pixel-art due in part to my age and nostalgia. My fondest memories of gaming while growing up primarily involve classic adventures such as The Secret of Monkey Island, Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars and Simon the Sorcerer; titles depicted in only a low resolution and 256 colours. Playing modern titles with a similar aesthetic still brings back that same sense of excitement and wonder that I felt as a child.

The Secret of Monkey Island, video game, ghost, pirates, LeChuck, Guybrush Threepwood, root beer, grog machine, Stan's Previously Owned Vessels, boatyard

There’s something about a developer adopting this type of visual style that’s quite brave, despite some gamers believing it’s ‘easy’. There’s a chance for their whole game to fall flat if the story isn’t perfect; the plot needs to be one which inspires the player’s imagination and encourages them to fill in the blanks between the pixels on screen. It’s the power of the mind’s eye which takes Guybrush from a blocky Deluxe Paint character to a young, blonde wannabe pirate.

As much as I love the pixelated style of the adventure classics however, there’s something magical about the photorealistic art used in today’s games too. Take Horizon Zero Dawn for example – one of the best releases of last year. Everything in the title has been fine-tuned to make it look as awesome as possible and around 80% of the natural landscape is procedurally-generated. According to Naughty Dog’s creative director, it was ‘simply stunning’ and set a new bar for graphics.

I spent so many hours both playing it and messing around with its photo-mode. It’s the small things that make it so special: the way Aloy’s hair ruffles when the wind catches it and how she hugs herself as she’s battered by rain. The mechanical beasts that interact with their herd while casually grazing, then limp and spark when wounded. The huge open vistas full of mountains and sunsets but smaller details such as tiny tree ants too, if you take the time to look closely enough.

Horizon Zero Dawn, video game, woman, warrior, Aloy, mountains, sky, photo mode, clouds

But would Horizon work so well if it was depicted in pixels of 256 colours? Definitely not. We want to see all that detail in Aloy’s metal foes as we go into battle against them because they’re so far removed from everything we know in the real world. And would Monkey Island have captured my imagination as much as it did if it was photorealistic? No again – because Guybrush would be someone else’s creation and not the pirate I see in my head (who I developed a big crush on).

It’s important for the graphics of any video game to be in-tune with the developer’s vision for their project and suit the gameplay. If all aspects aren’t in sync and don’t work together in harmony, they’ll never come together in a coherent form to create an awesome experience. The player is a the tourist in a game’s foreign lands and, just as with our adventures in the real world, each place we’ve visited conjures up a unique image in our minds that is wholly its own.

Thank you to Brandon for being the inspiration for this post – I’m sure there’ll be more questions from him in the future! Now, what’s your visual preference?

Cocktails with Red Strings attached

It’s usually obvious who the antagonist is when you play a video game. Even when there’s a plot twist at the end, they tend to make themselves known. With The Red Strings Club however, I was kept guessing every step of the way and even now am questioning who the real villain was.

The following post contains some minor spoilers for the game. If you haven’t yet played it, I’d highly recommend doing so before reading on – going in with limited information will make for an even better experience.

This title takes place in a cyberpunk future, where the Supercontinent Ltd corporation is on the verge of releasing Social Psyche Welfare (SPW) to the population: a system that will eliminate depression, anger and fear from society enabling everyone to be their ‘better selves’. But the bartender of a clandestine club and a freelance hacker don’t regard this evolution as an improvement and instead see it as brainwashing, so together with a rogue empathy android and company employees they will pull all the strings they can bring down the scheme.

However, it’s so much more than pretty pixels on a screen and what at first appears as a typical dystopian science-fiction storyline. The Red Strings Club excels at taking a subject which seems to be crystal clear and then twisting it back on itself until you’re questioning your own beliefs and motivations. It asks difficult questions to which there are no right or wrong answers, and you’ll be left thinking about the choices you’ve made long after the credits have rolled.

Players step into the shoes of a protagonist and take on a mini-game in between dialogue trees. The first is advanced android Akara-184 who manufactures personality-changing implants to meet her clients’ needs, many of which relate to influence or power. The solution isn’t always straight-forward however; for example, for the cosplayer who wants to be more popular online, do you increase their social network charisma or remove their need to be socially-accepted altogether?

Akara is presented with characters who will go as far as installing a behaviour modifier chosen by a robot into their bodies because they’re so scared of their weaknesses, despite not knowing what effect this will have or whether it will make them happier in the long-run. There are parallels here to the products and technology we’re confronted with every day which tell us we’d be fulfilled if we were prettier, skinnier or more popular. Is it our flaws who make us who we are and are we fundamentally changing ourselves by removing them?

Next up is Donovan, the bartender and owner of The Red Strings Club itself. His speciality is mixing cocktails but they’re no ordinary drinks; they tap into the hidden parts of a patron’s psyche once consumed and allow you to subtly influence them to get the information you require. For example, a blend of absinthe and bourbon will make the madness in one character’s personality more prominent while a mix of tequila and vodka will make them lustful and forward-speaking.

The Red Strings Club, video game, bar, woman, Larissa, bartender, Donovan, android, Akara

One character here is worthy of an individual mention for several reasons. Marketing Director Larissa may appear confident, glamourous and unashamed but a deeper look into her soul reveals an awful lot of depression, showing that a bold exterior can sometimes be a mask for other emotions. Later during the title when a secret is revealed it becomes clear that there’s more to how she’s feeling. It’s worth pointing out that this is a point which gained negative criticism from some players.

While the Supercontinent supporters interviewed by Donovan at the bar say its SPW technology is no different from the mood-controlling medication taken by a lot of the population, we’re left with the question of whether his cocktails are just another form of control. The irony of him giving his customers mind-altering drinks in order to bring down a neurological manipulation scheme isn’t lost on them either. Each question you ask branches off into a different part of the story and you constantly wonder whether you’d made the right choices.

You can to chat to Akara between customers and she’ll question you on morality, humanity, technology and the relationships between them. It’s during one of these sessions that she presents you with hypothetical situations that seem almost obvious; for example, it’s hard to dispute the fact that using SPW to remove homophobia or racism from society could be a good thing. But she’s then quick to poke holes in your logic and asks who gets to make those kinds of choices.

The Red Strings Club, video game, office, telephone, man, Brandeis

This paves the way for Brandeis’s section of the game where he must sneak into Supercontinent’s headquarters undetected and bring down the technology designed to deploy SPW to the masses. As communications and access to critical systems are handled through an old-fashioned landline network, he does so using an implant which enables him to impersonate anyone’s voice providing he has enough biometric data. The hacker must use clues found in an empty office and information obtained from those he calls to sabotage the network.

But surely this is him imposing his view of the best outcome on humanity? How is that different from the corporation forcing theirs upon us? Is it moral to make a choice if it’s for the greater good; and what if your idea of ‘good’ is vastly different from somebody else’s? The Red Strings Club argues that bending society’s rules and changing the future based on the opinions of one group is hypocritical, and it calls you out for making the decisions you have.

Akara, Donovan and Brandeis all begin to doubt their motivations and purpose as the game progresses and this cleverly mimics how the player is feeling. You’ll eventually realise the consequences of your actions on the title’s world and, while you might be confident about some of the choices you took, the delayed cause-and-effect gives rise to internal questions about how you could have formed certain opinions in the first place. It makes for a uniquely personal experience which isn’t entirely a comfortable one.

The Red Strings Club, video game, photograph, selfie, men, Brandeis, Donovan, notebook, bar, drinks

The Red Strings Club is a release that asks us how far we’re willing to go to suppress the worst aspects of our personalities for the good of the population, and whether it’s worth sacrificing negative emotions such as sadness and anger. Do our feelings make us who we are, are we shaped by our suffering, and is happiness at the cost of free will ultimately worth it? Deconstructeam have managed to give us a game which makes the player consider who the real villain is.

As Akara says: “I’m programmed to make you happy, not to give you everything you want – those are two very different things.”

Blogger Blitz 2018: the countdown begins!

To steal a phrase from Ian at Adventure Rules: ‘Blogger Blitz is just around the corner and our competitors are all itching to get their fingers onto the keyboard.’ This annual event will see a group of bloggers go head-to-head in a series of wacky writing challenges to find out who’ll be crowned the this year’s champion and earn themselves some sweet, sweet bragging rights.

I took part as a competitor in last year’s event and this time around, I’ll be one of the judges along with the awesome Pix from Shoot the Rookie and Destiny. Read on to find out more about my 2017 experience and advice for the new challengers…

My experience last year

You know those moments when you make a decision and then wonder what the hell you were thinking two minutes later? Well that was how last year’s Blogger Blitz started out for me! I found myself sitting in front of my laptop asking whether I really had just entered my name as a competitor – and then freaking out when I realised I had indeed. You see, my brain deals in logic which means I’m not a creative writer at all, so participating in a creative writing event was a shock to the system.

The Secret of Monkey Island, video game, Blogger Blitz, competition, pirate, mailman, Guybrush Threepwood,, lookout

Little did I realise it would turn out to be one of the best blogging decisions I’ve ever made. After considering several format ideas ranging from ‘formal’ to ‘ludicrous’ and getting some sage advice from Tim from GeekOut South-West, I decided to go with the riskiest option. I ended up presenting a sea-shanty to the theme tune of SpongeBob SquarePants, about how Guybrush Threepwood from the Monkey Island series would make a better postman than Claire Redfield from Resident Evil.

Unfortunately it didn’t pay off and I was knocked out by Luke from Hundstrasse (damn him!) in the first round; but the experience taught me so much. I’ve learnt to be braver with my writing and that although it doesn’t come easy, I can be creative when I really try. I’ve since mixed things up on Later Levels and have created all sorts of posts, including a dodgy advert, a press release and a job description. Last year’s Blogger Blitz opened my eyes as a writer and encouraged me to push myself harder.

My advice

I’m not going to lie though: the event may have been beneficial in the long-run but I found it tough at the time (and that was just the first round). I think it was partly because it was the first competition of its kind and nobody involved knew what to expect, including Ian himself. The only guidance we’d been given as competitors was to write our answer in 500 words or less and although that freedom gave us a lot of room to manoeuvre, it also allowed doubt to creep in.

These are things Ian has addressed this year however and a bit of structure is never a bad thing! So my advice to those taking part this time around is to make sure you read his wise words. I’d also say it’s important to consider all aspects of your entry in equal measure: the format style, creating a good argument for why your character would come out on top, pre-empting what your opponent may come up with for their own character and thinking of creative ways to trump them!

Most importantly though, have fun. Blogger Blitz only happens once a year and it’s one of the best ways to get to know those around you in the WordPress community. And don’t play it safe with your answer – go at it with all the fireworks you’ve got because now is your chance! Use your imagination to submit an entry we’ll never forget. Aim to have us all looking back during future events saying: “Hey, do you remember that creative / crazy / ingenious / awesome post from 2018’s Blogger Blitz?”

Thank you to Adventure Rules!

This whole thing wouldn’t be possible without Ian and all of his hard work. If you thought last year’s event was great, with the huge amount of effort he has devoted to Blogger Blitz this one is sure to be even more amazing. If you’re not already following Adventure Rules, head over there right now and click that button; and make sure you give him a follow on Twitter too to stay up-to-date on all things Blogger Blitz (including a bit of fighting talk from the competitors!).

Blogger Blitz, Adventure Rules

The first match will take place on 30 July 2018 and the winner will be revealed on 02 August 2018. Will Marjolaine (sponsored by Athena from AmbiGaming) or Bowser (sponsored by LightningEllen from Livid Lightning) crack the Totalitarian Teatime? Find out more about the setting for this and other matches, along dates and information on the bloggers taking part, in this post on the Adventure Rules site.

I’m looking forward to experiencing the event from the other side of the table this time, although I must say I’m a little nervous about being a judge for so many amazing writers. If any of last year’s judges have some words of wisdom, they’d be very gratefully received!

It’s time to talk

Several blogger-friends have recently opened up to reveal how they’re struggling. I have nothing but respect for them; sharing something so personal can be difficult, and being brave enough to say how you’re feeling requires a lot of courage. Even more so when it’s something that could cause the people, friends and relationships around you to react in an unexpected way.

You see, there are still those out there who believe mental health isn’t something to be discussed. They incorrectly think the subject is threatening and uncomfortable. That those experiencing mental ill-health are weak or even worse, dangerous; a perception fuelled by media stories who portray them as violent perpetrators without much context. These people would prefer we didn’t talk about such problems in either private or public and kept them to ourselves.

It’s negative attitudes like this which mean too many of us are made to feel embarrassed because of a mental health issue. One in four individuals will be affected this year alone and it’s extremely sad that over half of them will say the associated isolation and shame is worse than the condition itself. The social stigma attached to mental ill-health and the discrimination experienced because of it can make the problem worse, and recovery from it even harder than it is already.

It’s 2018 and changing the way we all think about act about mental health is long overdue. Being open to the subject and talking about it frankly doesn’t have to be awkward or tense, and the associated stigma and exclusion will be a thing of the past once everybody realises this. Simply being there for a family member, friend or colleague can make a huge difference: your attitude towards mental health could change their life.

To the friends and bloggers who have shared their stories recently: thank you for being so open about what you’re experiencing. I just want to let you know I’m here for you and still see you as the person I’ve always known. If you need someone to talk to, a companion to simply listen or a friend to play a video game with, I can do that; I’ll do what I can to help. I can’t say I’ll know how to fix what you’re going through but I can be there with you through it.

And to those who are worried about someone in their lives: please don’t hesitate in reaching out to them. Go on, do it right now – don’t wait. Send them a private message and ask how they’re doing so they know you’re thinking of them and they have your support. We all need someone to look out for us sometimes and if your friend is going through a tough time, stepping in and showing you care could mean more to them than you realise.

It’s time for change. Together we’re stronger, and we can make a difference.

To join a growing movement of people changing how we all think and act about mental health problems, please visit the Time To Change website. You can also join in with the next Time To Talk Day on 07 February 2019.

London Gaming Market July 2018: a round-up

Back in the beginning of the nineties, there was a stall at a local market which stocked video games. My dad would sometimes take my brother and I there on a Saturday morning so we could spend our pocket-money and as a kid, it was heaven.

Visiting the London Gaming Market in November last year felt just like that all over again. Held every four months at the Royal National Hotel in Russell Square, I regressed back to those nostalgic times as a child when I saw all the games available for purchase in the main room and had to show immense willpower in not parting with my cash all at once. Best of all, everything for purchase here was the real deal – unlike that dodgy bloke down at the local market.

We returned last weekend with my stepson and his own pocket-money in tow, eager to see what bargains were available this time around. The summer weather and World Cup meant that the hall wasn’t busy as it had been previously but it was all the better to move and see what was on offer. Sadly there didn’t seem to be as much artwork on display but that was probably a good thing; every time we go to an event I seem to come home with another picture and we’re beginning running out of wall-space.

The real find of the day was a Fallout 4 Pip-Boy Edition which included a copy of the game (even though we have two already), a Pip-Boy Replica and Capsule Case. Ethan is currently obsessed with the Fallout world and nothing was going to stop him from parting with most of his birthday and pocket-money to own that thing. He also bought a Metroid keyring along with Streetfighter mini-bead magnets for the whiteboard in his bedroom, so he left the event feeling pretty pleased with himself.

As for me, I only came away with one purchase this time. Remember I said above that I originally bought Simon the Sorcerer at that local market when I was a kid? I managed to find a copy for £6 to add to the collection on my shelf. I also came close to buying a PlayStation 2 because seeing all the games for the console brought back waves of nostalgia; but Pete is pretty certain he still has his old one in the loft, so guess what we’ll be trying to find this week.

The next London Gaming Market is due to take place on Sunday, 21 October 2018 with the doors opening at 11:00 and closing at 16:00. Tickets are available on the door at a small entrance free.

London Gaming Market July 2018 photo gallery

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