Save point: November 2020

Welcome to November’s editorial post, a monthly progress report which rounds up all the happenings here at Later Levels in case you missed anything. With Christmas now on the horizon, let’s have a quick recap of recent events.

Blog life
Followers:

  • WordPress:   1,603
  • Twitter:   617
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  • Twitch:   189
  • Posts:

  • Total published:   17 posts
  • Most popular:   Blogging awards: breaking the chain
  • Most liked:   Blogging awards: breaking the chain
  • Most discussed:   Blogging awards: breaking the chain
  • My favourite:   Why I fell in love with video games
  • Traffic:

  • Views:   3,699
  • Visitors:   2,449
  • Likes:   332
  • Comments:   108
  • Best day:   Wednesdays
  • Other posts worth checking out:

  • Why inclusivity in gaming is a good thing by Duane from Bar Harukiya
  • Extra Life 24-Hour Marathon Live Stream by Jett from In Third Person
  • Musings on the word ‘geek’ by Katie from Musings of a nitpicking girl
  • The 5th Retrospective Blogger / Creator collab by Jonez from NekoJonez
  • Framing the issue of photos in video games from The Gaming Dashboard
  • After receiving a blogging award that required nominees to share their origin story and guidance, I was stumped: I was all out of new advice and I’d already explained how the blog came to life in previous posts. Sure, some awards do make for great writing prompts (like this one about explaining horror game storylines to children in a way that doesn’t scare them). But a lot of them seem to be nothing more than an SEO exercise – so is it time to finally break the chain?

    I know this sounds incredibly cynical. 2020 has been a rollercoaster, sucking much of the motivation and enthusiasm out of many of us. A post for World Kindness Day didn’t garner as many responses as I’d hoped for and I wonder if this is a sign that blogging isn’t such a community-orientated hobby any longer. Perhaps events such as the new monthly EXP Share hosted by DanamesX from Tales of the Backlog and the Five Game Challenge from Naithin over at Time to Loot are just the sort of thing we need to draw us back together.

    Gaming life
    Games played:

  • Bejeweled 2
  • cyperpunkdreams
  • Dishonored 2
  • General Horse and the Package of Doom
  • Horizon Zero Dawn
  • Interrogation Files: Port Landsend
  • Jessika
  • Related
  • Tetris Effect
  • The Light Remake
  • The Suicide of Rachel Foster
  • The Talos Principle
  • VA11 Hall-A
  • World of Warcraft
  • Games previewed or reviewed:

  • General Horse and the Package of Doom
  • Harvester
  • Murder on Space Station 52
  • Related
  • Shivers
  • October’s trend continued as Kickstarter once again featured in posts this month. At the start of November, I backed Made from Strings’ campaign for Murder on Space Station 52 after its mysterious storyline appealed to me and its promotional video made me laugh. I then found myself making a pledge towards Fractalcatz’s project for Related a couple of weeks later, after playing the first episode and agreeing with the Steam reviews which praised it for its incredibly creepy atmosphere.

    Staying with the point-and-clicks, I revisited some classics. Playing Shivers again for the first time since its release reminded me of just how much it scared me as a teenager, even though it’s actually pretty tame. Trying Harvester wasn’t so successful though and I came away cringing and feeling confused. The star of the month however has been new adventure General Horse and the Package of Doom by Spektar Studio and Porcupine Parkour – as crazy as it was, it’s a contender for my game of the year.

    Real life

    While everyone was excited about getting their hands on the next-generation consoles this month, I left the hype behind and focused on charity. Get-Well Gamers UK deserved a mention because donations of unwanted PlayStation 4s and Xbox Ones will mean they can provide more equipment to hospitals; and SpecialEffect finally opened registration for GameBlast21. We’re now officially signed up for the event and have revealed our plans, Zelda made a brief appearance in the promotional video, and we even got a lovely mention in a SpecialEffect stream!

    In other news, I decided to splurge on a treadmill after wanting one for ages and doing a lot of saving up. I may ache all over now after signing up to several interactive running and hiking series but I’m completely addicted to this thing. I’d love to be able to train up and gain enough endurance to be able to complete an extended distance one day so who knows: maybe I’ll find myself completing a different type of marathon as part of our fundraising targets for GameBlast21.

    Coming up
    Events:

  • 01-21 December: Christmas Community Collab
  • 01-25 December: Great Run Solo for SpecialEffect
  • 01-31 December: EXP Share
  • 10 December: Shadowrun stream
  • 14 December: Gamers’ blog party
  • 23 December: Shadowrun stream
  • Every Thursday: #BloggerTalk
  • Take a look at the Side-quests page for more!
  • Posts planned:

  • London in video games
  • Cyberpunk bartender action with VA11 Hall-A
  • Why so much negativity in gaming?
  • The annual beginners’ guide to indie
  • More GameBlast21 updates
  • And now over to you guys: what have you been up to lately, and what have you got planned for the coming month? Is there anything the community can help with or get involved in? Let everybody know in the comments below so we can show our support. Thanks for reading!

    We’re taking part in GameBlast21 to support SpecialEffect, the gamers’ charity.
    Making a donation will bring you great loot, increase your XP by +100 and make you immune to fire.*
    (*Not guaranteed.)


    GameBlast21: the next challenge

    Video games are more than just pixels. Many of us have relied on them during the lockdown not only as a form of entertainment, but as a way of staying connected with friends and managing our mental wellbeing too. So doesn’t everybody deserve to be able to benefit from them?

    SpecialEffect is a UK-based charity which believes this. Since 2007, the team have aimed to put fun and inclusion back into the lives of people with physical disabilities by helping them to get involved, and use a range of technology including modified controllers and eye-control software to find a way for individuals to play to the very best of their abilities. This not only brings families and friends together but has a profoundly positive impact on confidence and quality of life too.

    Along with hundreds of other enthusiastic gamers all over the country, my other-half and I join in with their annual GameBlast gaming marathon in February every year to help raise money and awareness for their amazing work. It’s such a worthwhile thing to participate in because we get to share our love of video games while helping level the playing-field for people with disabilities at the same time. Check out this post to find out more about SpecialEffect and how I became involved.

    Completing a 24-hour marathon is always a huge achievement and one we enjoy taking part in immensely, but we’ve aimed to push ourselves further for each event so now we need a new test. How on earth are we going to do that after everything that happened for GameBlast20 this year? Well, now that the registration for the marathon has finally opened and the Later Levels’ team has officially signed up, we’re delighted to be able to announce…

    #DaysForDonations, GameBlast21, SpecialEffect, charity, Later Levels, title

    You’d think that spending every evening with Pete and I on Twitch for almost two months would have been more than enough for anybody. But no: several friends wanted us to continue the daily streams after our GameBlast20 50-day challenge. That’s why we’re doing #DaysforDonations for GameBlast21 – and dragging friend-of-the-blog Phil along for the ride – giving you guys the chance to determine how long we’ll go on for this time around, along with some other surprises.

    Target:

    #DaysForDonations:

    Achievement Unlocked:

    No additional days GameBlast21 stream from 08:00 GMT on Saturday, 27 February 2021
    Daily streams for 10 days after the official event Signed Zelda postcards sent to everyone who donates to show our appreciation
    Daily streams for 20 days after the official event The official GameBlast21 stream above completed with Pete wearing a Pikachu costume
    Daily streams for 30 days after the official event A giveaway to win the signed copy of Project Zero that made Pete rage-quit on stream
    Daily streams for 40 days after the official event Special stream completed with Pete, Kim, Phil and Ethan in Pokémon costumes
    Daily streams for 50 days after the official event Digital copy of the official #KaraokePete album sent to every person who donates
    Daily streams for 60 days after the official event Special extended tabletop-RPG stream featuring Kevin from TheLawfulGeek
    Daily streams for 70 days after the official event Special 80s-themed karaoke-and-cocktails stream completed by Kim and Phil
    Daily streams for 80 days after the official event A pixelated-Zelda tattoo, complete with GameBlast logo, for Ellen from Ace Asunder
    Daily streams for 90 days after the official event A 26.2-mile treadmill marathon completed by Kim and streamed on Twitch
    Daily streams for 100 days after the official event #DaysForDonations finished off with another 24-hour stream

    All money donated via our JustGiving page goes directly to SpecialEffect to enable them to help many more physically-disabled gamers across the UK. As well as matching, modifying or creating equipment tailored to each individual, funding also goes into research and the information is shared with other organisations globally so everyone can benefit. The charity can continue their work, more people get to experience the joy of video games, and you get plenty of streaming action; could it get any better than that?

    Pete, Phil and myself are now going to start thinking about which games to schedule for our 24-hour stream and we’d love to hear your ideas: give us your suggestions in the comments below and keep your eyes peeled for another update in December. If GameBlast21 sounds like something you’d be interested in participating in yourself, check out the official website for more details and give the team a follow on Twitter to see the latest announcements.

    It’s time to get everybody back in the game.

    We’re taking part in GameBlast21 to support SpecialEffect, the gamers’ charity.
    Making a donation will bring you great loot, increase your XP by +100 and make you immune to fire.*
    (*Not guaranteed.)


    #BloggerTalk: 26 November 2020

    #BloggerTalk takes place over on Twitter from 21:00 to 22:00 GMT on Thursdays. Each week, everyone is invited to give their thoughts on a specific question connected to blogging, writing and the community so we can all learn from each other’s knowledge and experience.

    For more information about how #BloggerTalk came to be and its aims, check out this post and feel free to get in touch. Without further ado, let’s take a look at today’s question and get the conversation going:

    What’s the one thing we can all do to make new bloggers feel welcome in our community?


    If you’re a long-time blogger, perhaps you’d be willing to share some of your experience and help guide those who are new. And if you’ve just joined the community, welcome – you’re part of one of the best and most supportive groups out there. I look forward to seeing you on Twitter for #BloggerTalk.

    Five Game Challenge 2020: my picks

    At the time of writing, 8,181 games have been released on Steam during 2020 so far. That’s an average of 27 new titles every day and an awful lot of choice. But which ones would you choose if you were made to pick only five to last you an entire year?

    This is the question posed by Naithin from Time to Loot. The first part of the Five Game Challenge community event involves writing a blog post about your choices, and those who were brave enough could test their selection by playing only those titles during November and writing about their experience for part two. I opted out of the latter as I had a bunch of half-finished games I really needed to complete this month – but I’ve been looking forward to joining in with the former and thinking about what my picks would be.

    It’s a similar question to one asked by Kayleigh from Strange Girl Gaming all the way back in April 2018: you can only play one video game for the rest of your life, so which one is it? I found this pretty tough to answer because there’s so much choice available to us, but I eventually managed to narrow it down to two titles. It will be interesting to see whether these make an appearance in my selection this time around and what the other choices will be.

    Coloring Pixels

    I first tried Coloring Pixels towards the end of last year after it popped up in my Steam suggestions and two things happened after that initial session. First, I was surprised to find a game without a story had held my attention for as long as it did (I completed ten levels without being the slightest bit bored or even realising I’d done so many). And second, it turned out to be a great way to wind down after work because an hour or so of colourful clicking proved to be wonderfully therapeutic.

    With 25 DLC packs now available and providing even more pixelated images to colour in, I think this could be a great choice for the Five Game Challenge. It’s perfect for those evenings when you want to do something but don’t have the energy to play an intense game, and there’s no risk of frustration because you aren’t penalised for filling in a pixel with the wrong colour. You can just zone out, click away, and eventually your masterpiece will appear in front of you.

    Horizon Zero Dawn

    One of the two games I chose for Kayleigh’s question in 2018 was Horizon Zero Dawn and there are a few reasons why it made the cut. If you’re going to spend an entire lifetime with a single protagonist, you’d better make sure it’s one you get along with – it’s incredibly difficult to hate Aloy. She tells men that her ‘eyes are up here’, questions the right of the matriarchs to take power simply because they’ve had children, and pulls apart any traditions that don’t make sense. You go girl.

    With the main storyline, side-quests, errands, hunting grounds, Tallnecks and DLC, there’s plenty here to keep you going for quite some time. And you can always go exploring for the best scenic spots to make use of the Photo Mode when you need a break from fighting mechanical beasts and saving the world. I recently started playing this game again after being reminded of how much I enjoyed it three years ago so let’s see how many photographs I come away with this time.

    The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO)

    I’ve had an on-off affair with ESO since first playing it at Christmas in 2015 and found myself returning to it during the COVID-19 lockdown. The absence of a steep learning curve makes it so easy to get back into and there’s always something new to see: a villager who’ll reveal some local gossip, a hunter chasing a fox, a clifftop with a beautiful view. All simple things and events that don’t have any direct impact on your journey but ones which add more depth to this online land.

    There’s plenty of exploring and action to get stuck into, but it’s not all about fighting long-dead draugers and killing giant spiders. This is a great game for simply hanging out online with friends. Some of the most memorable moments for me have been the evenings where we’ve left the dungeons behind and done something completely different – such as viewing everyone’s mansions in an ESO-version of MTV Cribs or seeing how many other players we can convince to dance with us. Good times.

    The Long Dark

    I became a Kickstarter backer for The Long Dark over seven years ago in September 2013 but haven’t yet tried it. At first, I was waiting for it to come out of early-access as I prefer to play titles once they’ve been fully released; and after that happened in August 2017, I’ve been delaying until all episodes of the first season of the story mode have been published. But if I’ve got to pick just five games to last me an entire year, I think this could be a very good choice because it contains a lot of content and looks beautiful.

    Entries in the survival genre don’t usually appeal to me but the supernatural edge to the plot here made me pay attention. After mysterious lights are seen in the sky, the world is plunged into darkness and all our technology is knocked out in an instant. I think I’d end up getting wrapped up in getting to the bottom of what’s going on – but there is also a survival mode and standalone challenges alongside the story episodes. In fact, I think I might get this one installed and give it a go over the winter.

    The Witness

    The Witness is a title which frustrated me immensely when I played it in 2016. It was hard to accept that I’d sunk so many hours into completing hundreds of puzzles – some of which I’d had to bash my head against for hours – for so little pay-off in terms of a story, when all along it felt as though a mysterious secret was going to be revealed at the end. I think I would have gotten so much more out of it if I’d gone into it treating it as a pure puzzle game rather than a narrative one.

    But this is knowledge gained with hindsight and the reason why it would be a really good entry for my selection. It’s similar to Coloring Pixels above in a sense because it provides a mental break: after a long day at work when I don’t have the energy to save the world, I can spend the evening mulling over a challenge or two and forgetting about everything else. There are also plenty of locations to take lovely-looking screenshots so my library won’t be full of Horizon Zero Dawn photographs only.

    There you have it: the titles I’d choose to spend a year with as part of the Five Game Challenge. Would any of them make your list too? Thank you to Naithin for hosting the event, and good luck to everyone participating in part two this month!

    Harvester: still confused and cringing

    Have you ever played a video game that left you thinking about it long afterwards – but not for the right reasons? This sums up my experience with Harvester, a point-and-click which promoted itself as ‘the most violent adventure game of all time’ when it was released in 1996.

    I don’t recall it being a title I ever came across back in the nineties. In fact, I only started taking an interest in playing it after it made an appearance in several news articles and blog posts published as Halloween specials last month. The coverage made me decide to pick up a copy so I could find out for myself whether any of the claims about violence and controversy were true, and this is how I found myself streaming Harvester on the Later Levels’ Twitch channel one Saturday evening.

    There are spoilers in the following paragraphs. So if you haven’t yet played the game and intend to at some point, you may wish to consider navigating away from this post now and coming back later.

    The story begins when 18-year old Steve wakes up in the town of Harvest in 1953 with a case of amnesia. It’s immediately obvious there’s something sinister going on: all its inhabitants are extremely eccentric or downright creepy and they keep urging him to join the Order of the Harvest Moon. The only person Steve can confide is in Stephanie, a girl he has no recollection of but who he’s apparently due to marry in two weeks, and it looks as if their only choice is to get into the Lodge and find out what’s happening.

    Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see much of the plot during the stream as I managed to get Steve killed in a rather spectacular fashion around three hours in. How was I to know that using the word ‘Comrade’ in front of Colonel Buster Munroe would cause him to shoot the protagonist in the head, fall on a big red button and send a batch of nuclear missiles rushing towards Russia? Perhaps this was for the best though. Several scenes made for rather uncomfortable viewing so I decided this was a game better played off stream.

    I went back to Harvester a week or so later, starting again from the beginning and getting much further this time. The first third of the gameplay focused on gaining an application form to become a member of the Order, then the second involved completing a series of petty vandalisms that had wider consequences. That was where I decided to stop. Not because it was getting too violent, but because the final third of the game involved something every adventure fan dreads: action sequences in point-and-clicks.

    I’ve always loved the genre despite its quirks but sequences like this make me want to pull my hair out. There’s nothing worse than being ripped from a world of colourful characters and interesting puzzles, then shoved into a scene which requires you to make use of a different mechanic which is usually very poorly implemented. As soon as I realised this was the direction in which Harvester was heading, I uninstalled it and found a video on YouTube so I could watch someone else struggle with the rest of it.

    So how did I feel after witnessing the ending; do I now believe it’s one of the most violent adventure games ever made, as its box-art claimed back in 1996? The truth is that I’m still not sure what to make of it. The only thing I can say for certain is that it’s possibly one of the most confused and pretentious releases I’ve ever experienced or researched in my years of blogging. Developer FutureVision (later renamed to DigiFX Interactive) obviously tried to achieve a lot with their project but not all of it was successful.

    It certainly goes out of its way to shock the player as much as possible. There were many scenes that made me cringe internally or even look sway from the screen – but again, not because of the level of violence involved. Let me give you some examples and start with Steve’s parents’ bedroom. After you manage to break through the bars over the window, you find yourself surrounded by bloodied walls and sex toys while your bandaged father gives you a disturbing speech about what a married couple do behind closed doors.

    Then there’s the puzzle solved by distracting pornography-obsessed Detective Loomis with a magazine. I’m not sure what’s worse: the fact you see him disappear into a jail cell with it or what the General Store owner says when you try to buy the item. Being told ‘that kind of interest is healthy for a young fella because it steers them away from being a fireman’ seems like a vaguely homophobic remark at first, until you meet Sparky; a man who spends his time sketching nude male models and updating the fire station’s interior design.

    And let’s not forget those vandalism tasks mentioned earlier. They begin small with a scratch to Mr Johnson’s beloved car, but then evolve into more serious actions. Stealing something from the barber shop results in Mr Pastorelli’s death after a live wire is left in a puddle of water; and Edna Fitzpatrick kills both herself and her young daughter Karin after her diner is burned to the ground and she can no longer support her family. It feels as if these scenes only exist for the shock factor.

    Perhaps the worst one though is when Stephanie asks Steve to ‘take her now’. I know that people in highly stressful situations may turn to each other for comfort but there’s absolutely nothing sexy about this: the whole thing is out-of-place and made even more awkward through terrible writing and acting. And if that wasn’t bad enough, your fiancé’s father is watching through a small hole in the wall complete with a close-up of his face and heavy-breathing sound-effects.

    I’m not sure I’ve ever played a release which sets out to disturb the player as deliberately as Harvester does. It throws so many taboo subjects at you in such a short space of time that it seems like a confused mess, and most of the scenes are so over-the-top that it’s hard not to see the game as a bit of a joke. Although I didn’t find it scary at all, I must admit that it was rather unsettling – not because it’s incredibly violent or bloody, but because most of it doesn’t make any sense.

    This had a negative impact on the ending for me personally. It wasn’t necessarily disappointing and I got the feeling it was trying to satirise something, but I struggled to figure out what exactly because of just how much the game relied on the shock factor. The last scene should have been a moment of insight and reflection, a chance for the player to question themselves and how they feel about violence in video games; but instead I came away scratching my head in confusion.

    After finishing watching the YouTube video, my research led me to a post on the GOG.com blog where they had republished an interview with the title’s designer. It’s clear from reading this and other supporting material that he was vehemently against censorship. He said: “By [Harvester’s] very existence, it would place the player at the end of the game in the position of the protagonist IN the game, raising questions regarding the impact of violence in media on the audience.”

    I’m not sure trying to create ‘the most violent adventure game of all time’ was the best way to raise that sort of question, but he did achieve in making an interesting mark in the history of the adventure genre. Harvester is definitely a game of its time and one I’m glad I played, if only for the experience.

    Related: double trouble

    The COVID-19 lockdown has caused many people to reconsider their career direction. And it seems as though some have decided to make the leap into video game development; at least, that’s the impression I get from all the new campaigns on Kickstarter recently.

    It’s been a mixed bag for the platform over the past several years. Sometimes the video game category is empty, or stuffed with sub-par mobile games and ‘gangster shooters’ being made by kids still in secondary school. Then at others you’ll find several projects worthy of your backing, as has been the case for me over the past few weeks: I’ve now made pledges to over 40 campaigns and that number is likely to continue increasing.

    My latest pledge is towards another entry in the adventure genre: Related, under development by three-person team FRACTALCATZ. It’s not a game I’d ever come across before the campaign appeared in my Kickstarter search results one morning even though the first of three chapters is already available for purchase at a small price on Steam. The reviews so far are very positive; players have praised the game for its creepy atmosphere and are looking forward to seeing how the story progresses.

    So where does that story begin? Meet conjoined twins Jessica and Julia, who are locked in one body. The girls have been living in an orphan asylum since their early childhood and they don’t remember how they got there or whether they ever had a family. With the scornful attitude of the orphanage personnel and attacks by other children, the list of their troubles is long and although they have each other for support, they have conflicts just as all siblings do.

    Fast-forward a few years and Related’s plot is now narrated by a grown-up Jessica. After suffering from a series of continuous nightmares, she decides to go back to the abandoned orphan asylum to try and collect her memories: will she find the answers to questions she has tried so hard to forget, and learn the biggest mystery about herself? Chapter one can be played for free until the Kickstarter campaign ends on 03 December 2020 so I took the opportunity to give it a go.

    It’s just what you’d expect from a point-and-click in terms of gameplay and adventure fans will feel right at home. The environment can be explored and interacted with by clicking the mouse and objects collected are stored in your inventory, with the option of being able to examine some of them more closely for clues. Certain items require multiple clicks before anything happens; there were a couple of moments where I felt I was stuck, until I clicked on hotspots again and caused an action.

    The movement speed is pretty slow in the scenes where you control Jessica as a grown-up and her movements are slightly uncoordinated. However, I got the impression this is deliberate rather than down to poor animation. You’re able to double-click to make her run in the flashbacks to her time as a child so her speed as an adult feels like a design choice. Perhaps this has something to do with the narrative and there are secrets about what happened to Jessica and Julia waiting to be uncovered.

    The first chapter took around an hour to complete and contained several puzzles. The solutions for these all felt logical despite the surrounding plot and situations being rather creepy so, if they provide a feel for what’s coming up in the rest of Related, I’d say we’re in for an adventure which isn’t overly challenging and pulls you in with its story. It’s worth noting here that some of the objects involved are quite dark and include a bloody knife, so this probably isn’t going to be a game to let your young kids play.

    But if you’re looking for a title with an eerie atmosphere, it’s worth checking out. There was something about the music and sound-effects which instantly put me on edge and made me almost hesitant to continue into the next scene for fear of what I’d discover next. As mentioned above, the Steam reviews so far have highlighted this aspect of the game, and this initial chapter is a great set-up for the coming episodes and getting to know the main characters without too much being given away.

    In fact, the only worry I have right now is about the portrayal of mental health. What I’ve seen so far doesn’t give too much cause for concern as it seems there’s going to be more to the story, but consider the protagonists and setting – two girls trapped inside the same body and living in an orphan asylum – and you’ll see a situation ripe for clichés and tropes. I hope the developer handles this in a sensitive way and I’m willing to make my pledge to give them that opportunity.

    At the time of writing, FRACTALCATZ have managed to raise around 10% of their £12,730 target. Head over to the Kickstarter page for more information or to become a backer before 03 December 2020, and you can stay up-to-date on progress by giving the team a follow on Twitter.