Insomnia63: the trouble with Fortnite

My current obsession is Guns of Icarus Alliance. It’s not the sort of thing I’d usually play as I tend to shy away from anything competitive; but after getting roped into a match at Rezzed, I purchased a copy and have been hooked since.

So does this obsession mean I’d make a beeline for the stand if Guns happened to be on show at the next expo I’m due to attend? As much as I’m enjoying it and look forward to spending a few nights each week as an Engineer, probably not. I might wish to visit the developer at some point to give positive feedback about their project, but it seems strange to spend time queuing up for a ten-minute session on a title I could switch on as soon as I got back home to the comfort of my own sofa.

This hopefully explains my confusion when entering the NEC Birmingham last weekend for Insomnia63. After a short tour around the exhibition hall, we counted five separate areas dedicated to Fortnite: two full rows in the PlayStation zone, a couple of stands from Nintendo, a line of computers in the middle of the show and two merch sections where it was playable on gaming laptops available for purchase. And that’s not to mention the fact it also made several appearances on the BYOC timetable for the weekend.

Insomnia63, video games, Fortnite

Let’s get one thing straight before we continue: this post isn’t now going to turn into me ranting about how terrible a game Fortnite is. Yes, I’ve played it and no, I wouldn’t call myself a fan. But I’ve actively defended the title in the past when it has been the subject of outraged news reports and I don’t believe it’s going to bring about the downfall of our children (bad parenting will be able to do that on its own without too much help).

What I feel irked about is it being given so much coverage that it’s then turned into the ‘highlight’ of a show by proxy. I noticed the same thing done with Minecraft at Insomnia61 last year, along with other past events: row after row of monitors displaying the same badly-pixelated pigs. Although there may be a competitive element to these titles which doesn’t appeal to me, it strikes me as discouraging that so much floorspace is devoted to games which are readily available and most attendees likely already own.

Maybe I’m being cynical but it just seems like a cheap and non-creative way to fill empty areas in an exhibition hall. Tickets for myself, my other-half and stepson for Insomnia63 cost around £80 (including booking fee) so to part with that much and then be greeted with so many machines running Fortnite was a disappointment. And it’s not just the cost in terms of money: it’s also that we made a six-hour round trip and spent half of our weekend together at an event which promoted a game we could have stayed at home to play.

Seriously though, I think the worst thing about expos resorting to existing titles like this is the fact that new and unique projects then get overlooked by a good portion of attendees. Indie developers put so much time and effort into the games they’re working on, and those I’ve spoken to previously about the subject have revealed just how much commitment and organisation it takes to appear at a show. I can only imagine how disheartening it is to finally get there and realise you’re competing with 20 instances of the latest fad.

Attendees should be free to discover their own highlight of an expo rather than having something like Fortnite or Minecraft foisted upon them. Let’s hope we get to EGX next month and don’t find more than few machines dedicated to either of them.

Insomnia63: a round-up

Insomnia61 in August was my first time at the event which promotes itself as ‘the UK’s biggest gaming festival’. Having the stepson in tow meant we sadly couldn’t participate in the BYOC and camping part of the weekend because he’s too young, but I certainly felt that festival vibe.

We tried out a number of indie games (with Nature’s Zombie Apocalypse going down well with the boys); checked out the merchandise (and fortunately didn’t bankrupt ourselves); and saw a show featuring one of Ethan’s favourite YouTubers.

The day turned out to be more fun for him than my other-half and I because we don’t watch a lot of YouTube and therefore had no idea who the majority of the ‘special guests’ were. We also saw a few things that made us feel us feel a little uncomfortable in terms of the games these celebrities were playing and how frequently they tried to push branded merchandise to an audience consisting of mostly under-tens. On the positive side though, Ethan finally saw his idol as a real person and a gamer who makes mistakes like the rest of us.

We therefore headed off to Insomnia63 last weekend feeling slightly apprehensive but interested to see whether the atmosphere and behaviour had changed in light of recent controversies. Particularly curious was the fact that Alfie Deyes was there despite him landing in hot water earlier this year, but unfortunately he was only around on the Friday so we didn’t get to see what impact this had. As for the other special guests in attendance… yep, still no clue who they were.

The thing that struck us though was just how young they all were. And I’m not talking about the fact that Pete and I are getting older or are positively ancient compared to a lot of gamers nowadays. The meet-and-greet stands we passed seemed to be manned by kids who were barely into their teens and should probably be sorting out homework ready for a return to school in September. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this; while YouTube has opened a lot of new career paths, I can’t help but worry about its possible negative impact.

Anyway, Ethan wasn’t interested in any of the guests this year and wanted to focus on playing video games. TerraTech by Payload Studios, an open-world design-and-build title which has been doing the rounds at expos for several years now, caught his attention this time and we must have spent at least an hour in total playing it. We also tried Cat Quest II by The Gentlebros, along with Jarheads by Gareth Williams and Yukatan by Hairy Heart Games.

But that was it: other than a quick go on the original The Typing of the Dead (I couldn’t resist), watching a football match played by drones and buying a bit of merch this was all we did for the entire day. The thing we’ve come to realise about Insomnia is that if you’re not interested in the YouTubers and have an under-16 with you so therefore participate in the BYOC and indoor-camping bit of the event – or aren’t interested in playing Fortnite (more about that later this week) – there isn’t an awful lot to do.

Next on the calendar is EGX towards the end of September and after a couple of somewhat disappointing expos, I’m looking forward to it. Let me know in the comments below if you’re going to be there on the Thursday so I can keep an eye out for you and say hello.

Insomnia63 photo gallery

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Join The Procession to Calvary

One of my favourite games of Rezzed last year was Four Last Things, a quirky little point-and-click created by Joe Richardson. It was the last title to be added to my expo to-do list, because it looked unique, but I wondered whether it would end up being a little too leftfield.

You see, the game is made entirely from Renaissance-era paintings and public domain recordings of classical music; and its storyline about the Four Last Things (Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell) could potentially be a heavy subject matter. Instead it’s given a cheeky spin and what you’re presented with is something that feels almost as if The Secret of Monkey Island had been made in 16th century Flanders by a time-travelling Monty Python fan. It sounds like the weirdest thing but trust me: it works.

I enjoyed the Rezzed demo so much that I purchased the game and played it during our GameBlast17 marathon, followed by Richardson’s previous release The Preposterous Awesomeness of Everything. This adventure about progress, politics and propulsive nozzles was one of the highlights of the stream and we all fell in love with the game’s ‘random’ personality, with those watching at the time kept putting in requests for me to use the backflip button or visit the cat on the title screen.

When I heard that the developer had launched a crowdfunding campaign for a sequel to Four Last Things, I hurried on over to Kickstarter and made my pledge before event watching the promotional video. The Procession to Calvary sees the same protagonist return from his brief sojourn in hell and continue his quest for absolution. Will he turn to the Bible for answers? Will he become a Mennonite, take a dunk in the lake, then hide in a bush until the whole thing blows over? Or will he stick to his guns and follow his old masters South?

Richardson doesn’t actually know yet because he hasn’t finished writing the story! This isn’t unusual though and he says on the Kickstarter page: “When developing Four Last Things I created all the artwork before writing a single line of dialogue. This technique allows me to focus on making the artwork look as good as possible which, for me, is the most important part of these games. It also encourages a more surreal / silly story, which I think fits well with the style of the art.”

Speaking of the artwork, the visuals are made by cutting up, collaging and animating classical paintings. Some scenes are made from just a few images while others incorporate many blended into a not-entirely-coherent whole, and it’s this cut-and-paste method that gives the developer’s work such a unique feel. With the right paintings Richardson is able to achieve a good effect; and using Unity and Anima2D rather than Flash this time means more complex animations are possible.

You can get your hands on a copy of the game for just a £10 pledge but if you’ve got more cash to splash, it’s worth looking at the higher tiers. For £150 you can get a portrait of your face included in the Patrons Gallery after your photograph has been incorporated into an existing Renaissance painting using ‘some fancy Photoshopery’. And if you’ve got £1,000 to spare, you can request a personalised build of the release made just for you – perfect if you want the main character’s face replaced by yours or all the music overwritten by Skrillex tracks.

The Procession to Calvary is scheduled for release around April 2019 on PC, Mac and Linux and you’ve got until 06 September 2018 if you want to back the Kickstarter campaign. Visit the official website to find out more or follow Richardson on Twitter to stay up-to-date on progress.

A trip down blogging memory lane

Later Levels started at the end of December 2016 and I’ve written 289 posts (with this one taking the honour of being 290th). It’s thanks to Kelly from Why We Play Games that I’ve had a chance to take a look back through them and remember those I really enjoyed writing.

She very kindly nominated the blog, along with some other amazing writers I’m flattered to be in the company of, for a Sunshine Blogger award earlier this month. It struck me that I’d written previous articles about the subjects covered by many of the questions she posed to her nominees, so I’d thought I’d use this opportunity to take a nostalgic trip down blogging memory lane. Here are some of Later Levels’ best bits dedicated to Kelly!

What is the game that you play the most?

Right now it’s Guns of Icarus Alliance, an online co-operative game featuring flying airships. It’s not the sort of title I’d usually play but I became hooked after getting roped into a match at Rezzed in April when the developers needed one last player to take part. Let me know if you want to Come fly with me.

What is your favourite gaming memory?

In last year’s Christmas collaboration, one of the questions we answered was about our Festive gaming memories. Mine was about something that happened involving a PlayStation 4 and an excited young kid, around a year after I met my stepson for the first time.

What is your favourite gaming series?

Monkey Island is a favourite (more about that in The Games That Define Us collaboration) but there are two more. There’s Fable, as the original title was the one that got me back into gaming and made me WLTM: Peter Molyneux; and the other is The Longest Journey as it’s The series I love, but can’t finish.

What is your favourite part about gaming?

I usually play a game for a good story over anything else, but something I’ve come to realise since starting Later Levels is just how much those stories and the characters within them can influence us. A number have put me on the path to Becoming a better person; it goes to show that pixels on a screen can do more than just entertain.

What is your favourite genre of music?

I’m sure most people will know this already: anything from the 80s! Give me a bit of synth or a cheesy power-ballad, and I’ll be dancing and singing along in no time. It should therefore be no surprise that several tracks from the decade featured on The Later Levels Official Album.

What is your favourite book or book series?

I don’t get a lot of time to read unfortunately but when I do, I tend to go for something on the darker and pick up a book by an author like Stephen King or Neil Gaiman. That’s probably why I became addicted to Stranger Things so quickly and why I’d love to see a Stranger adventures video game.

What things do you do to relax?

Rezzed, video games, gaming, event, expo, SpecialEffect, stand, charity

As my other-half and stepson are gamers too, most of what we do together involves video games in some way. We try to support a charity as much as possible and you’ll often find me Volunteering for SpecialEffect at expos, and I rope the boys and friends into participating in the annual GameBlast marathon.

What inspired you to start blogging?

It was a book called 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die by Tony Mott and a conversation with friends in a pub after work one day. That was all the way back in February 2013 and there’s a post I wrote earlier this year in which you can find out Where it all began.

What is one of your favourite articles you have written?

Writing this response post for Kelly has made me realise that most of my favourite articles involve my family in one way or another. The one I look on most fondly though is about The hardest co-op, as it was one of the first times I wrote something quite personal and it steered the direction I wanted this blog to go in.

What is your favourite part about blogging?

Rezzed, SpecialEffect, Ben, Kim, Pete

It’s definitely the community: everyone here is an integral part of The WordPress jigsaw that makes it as special as it is. I’ve met some amazing people over the past few years and am proud to now call them friends! I love seeing everyone come together during events such as the blog parties and welcome newcomers into our group.

What is one piece of advice you would give to other bloggers?

Can I cheat and give several? First would be that Finding your thing is so important in keeping up your motivation. Next would be that you need to make sure you’re Playing games for playing’s sake and not just to have content for your site. And finally, it would be to remember that community and collaboration are The secret to blogging success.

A huge thank you to Kelly from Why We Play Games for the award nomination, and for the chance to look back over some older posts. I guess I should now get on with writing the next 290…

Dear Stylist: it’s not just film

Dear Stylist team,

I read your magazine on a regular basis and I, as do many others in London, truly appreciate your campaign to celebrate the brilliance of women. Strong, empowered female role models make such a difference to the world and their confidence, leadership and accomplishments inspire us to be the best we can be.

Your recently-launched Under Her Eye competition is therefore what the movie industry has been waiting for. As said by Editor-in-Chief Lisa Smosarski last week: “The majority of film reviews are through a male gaze. That means it’s a man writing about what the film is like from his experience. They can tell you a lot of great things about life through a male lens… but they can’t tell you what it feels like to be a woman.”

So is this my 600-word entry in the hope of becoming a member of your new film review team? Unfortunately not (so at least that’s one less to go through on your huge pile). While I fully support the need to boost the number of female critics from a fifth, I’m not at all qualified and there are people out there who could do a far better job than I ever could. I can’t even sit through a 90-minute movie without becoming twitchy and fidgeting in my seat.

What I do know however is video games. I’ve been playing them since discovering at a young age that worlds I thought only existed in books were able to come alive through pixels on a screen. I get the impression that not many on the Stylist team are gamers (Portal isn’t a ‘first-person shooter’ by the way) but that isn’t important: I’m sure you know how visual mediums such as this and film are amazing ways to share incredible experiences and see the world through another’s eyes.

I also know the hostility shown towards women who play video games, and those who have the audacity to then go on to write about them. I’ve been blogging since 2013 and although there has been improvement in the past five years, the community still isn’t where it needs to be. I’ve been harassed in online games; sent obscenities through my blog’s Facebook page; told that a man could do a better job than I could on Twitter; and ignored at gaming events and conferences by developers and PR reps in favour of my male colleagues.

The same as with film, we need more female video game reviewers. But that’s just the starting point because we need more diverse reviewers in all aspects, not only gender. Each person touched by a story relates to it in a different way, and we can learn so much about both ourselves and the world around us by sharing those experiences with each other.

I count myself lucky at having found a place in an awesome blogging community where sex or any other defining quality doesn’t matter. I’m surrounded by amazing women who inspire me every day by sharing their thoughts on the games they’ve played and stories they’ve experienced. We may not be recognised by the professionals in the gaming industry or have millions of readers, but we’re doing what we can to make sure the female voice is heard.

I wish you all the luck with finding your new film reviewing team and look forward to reading about the competition’s progress. Whoever the lucky women are, I’m sure they’re going to do brilliantly.

Yours sincerely,

Later Levels

PS: apologies for going over the word-count by four. I guess I’ve just got a lot to say on the subject.

2D to 3D: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

In my post last month, I mentioned how I’d managed to find a copy of the first Simon the Sorcerer PC game at the London Gaming Market recently. A photograph of the case sparked a conversation with proxyfish in the comments during which we briefly discussed the series’ visual switch from 2D to 3D.

This got me thinking about other classic adventure franchises where the developers made the decision to jump from 2D to 3D. There are a number of well-known occasions where this occurred but instead of being amazed by technical advancements, fans were left unimpressed; take the transition from Broken Sword: The Smoking Mirror in 1997 to Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon in 2003 as an example. So what is it about this switch in style that we don’t like?

I discussed the subject with a few blogging friends last week and was actually surprised at their responses: most were positive about the switch in style and very little negativity was expressed. Perhaps my 3D aversion has something to do me with being a slightly older gamer then? I can remember being so excited at the release of The Escape from Monkey Island in 2000 but being horrified at what they’d done to Guybrush once I’d managed to get my hands on it.

For fans of an established series, the change can be quite jarring. You’re used to seeing your favourite characters depicted in all their pixelated glory; and, as I wrote in my response post to Brandon from That Green Dude recently, the plot then encourages your imagination to fill in the blanks between the pixels to create their full image. Then all of a sudden they’re 3D, looking nothing like you pictured in your head – and more like a bunch of jagged triangles hastily glued together.

I suspect that, like myself, many older fans of the genre found their way into it through a love of fantasy and science-fiction books when they were younger. The nearest thing to actually seeing the amazing stories contained within their pages were comics, which were then a short step to 2D adventure titles. Perhaps playing those sort of narrative games in 3D is so far removed from the original mediums that it feels almost ‘unnatural’ and we’re more at home in our flat worlds.

But maybe it’s nothing to do with visuals at all? We’re all aware of how bad the controls became when titles such as Gabriel Knight: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of Damned made the visual switch. Gone was the ease of simply clicking on an item to use it or right-clicking to display the verb wheel; and instead we were greeted with frustrating movement, bad camera angles and a release which just generally feels clunky (not to mention cat-hair moustaches).

And then again, maybe it’s nothing to do with the game at all and down to the fact that we gamers are generally a difficult bunch to please. Nostalgia has a funny way of affecting your opinion on a subject and casting a rosy glow around all that you remember from your younger years. For 90s players, the most well-loved adventures were those presented to us in pixels; and just as we’d quickly cite our preference for 2D, an adventurer from the 80s is as likely to cry out for text.

Regardless of how bad we think the transition from 2D to 3D was, the visuals themselves don’t really matter: it’s more important for the graphics to be in-tune with the developer’s vision for their project and to suit the gameplay. As I wrote last month, if all aspects of a release aren’t in sync and don’t work together in harmony, they’ll never create a coherent form that makes for an awesome gaming experience.

And let’s face it: if LucasArts were still with us and made a 3D adventure today, it would be way better those triangular nightmares we recall from our past.