Later Levels’ leave: taking a break

Summer is on its way, the weather is getting warmer and a nice glass of something cold is waiting outside. As mentioned in yesterday’s Save Point post, we’re giving ourselves some time off during June and taking a break from both blogging and streaming.

A huge thank you to everyone who has supported us through our GameBlast21 streams since February and helped raise £4,753 for SpecialEffect. This is an absolutely amazing amount and will help many more physically-disabled people across the UK benefit from the joy of video games. Shout-outs to the best mods we could have asked for, Ellen from Ace Asunder and friend-of-the-blog Phil, along with all the regulars who joined us in chat and made each evening feel like we were hanging out with friends.

We’re looking forward to taking some time out over the next month after all that hard work. There are a few family matters which need to be attended to but we have fun stuff planned too: a new barbecue has been ordered for the garden, our local pub has now re-opened and there are people we’re looking forward to catching up with. There’ll also be a few video games thrown in for good measure, along with our regular World of Warcraft and Shadowrun evenings with online friends.

Who knows: we may decide to extend our break into July if we enjoy the next few weeks. We’re due a good holiday after almost five years of continuous blogging and streaming here at Later Levels, and it seems a shame to cut it short if we feel need a bit longer to recover. That doesn’t mean we’re disappearing completely though; you’ll still see us around online and can get in touch if you need us, and we’ll be back properly at some point in the near future.

Whatever you have planned for the summer, we hope you have a great time. Look after yourselves and we’ll see you again soon!

Kim and Pete ❤️

Save Point: May 2021

Welcome to May’s editorial post, a monthly progress report which rounds up all the happenings here at Later Levels in case you missed anything. With summer coming and 75-days of streaming behind us, let’s have a quick recap of recent events.

Blog life

  • WordPress:   1,846
  • Twitter:   653
  • Twitch:   281
  • YouTube:   71
  • Posts:

  • Total published:   14 posts
  • Most popular:   How to survive the zombie apocalypse
  • Most liked:   Quizzing the effect of gaming on wellbeing
  • Most discussed:   Your wit’s got to be twice as sharp as your sword
  • My favourite:   Touring England through FMV games
  • Traffic:

  • Views:   2,298
  • Visitors:   1,427
  • Likes:   305
  • Comments:   82
  • Best day:   06:00 on Mondays
  • Other posts worth checking out:

  • Poe and Munro: A Paradoxical Platinum by Ellen from Ace Asunder
  • What GRIS Teaches Us in a Post-COVID-19 World from AmbiGaming
  • It Takes Two to Break Me by Frostilyte from Frostilyte Writes
  • Female Representation in Video Games Meghan Plays Games
  • Celebrating Badass Video Game Moms by Colin from Pinkie’s Paradise
  • This year’s Zombie Awareness Month took place in May, so what better way to celebrate than to stream a few related games and publish some helpful undead posts. I took some time to think about why releases featuring shuffling corpses still remain popular; and if you’re not sure which of them to play, why not check out some of my favourite zombie games. But if you’re looking for something a little more ‘practical’, here’s a full guide to how you can prepare for and survive the upcoming apocalypse.

    Speaking of streaming, Pete and I were sad to announce that we had to bring our 90-days for GameBlast21 to an end early. We tried everything we could to keep going and we’re extremely grateful to our awesome mods Ellen from Ace Asunder and friend-of-the-blog Phil for all their help, but it was important for us to take a step back and give our full attention to some family issues (more about that later). Thank you so much to everyone who helped raise £4,753 for SpecialEffect – you’re absolutely amazing.

    Gaming life
    Games played:

  • Cats Organised Neatly
  • Hack Forward
  • Lucy Dreaming demo
  • Someday You’ll Return
  • Strangeland
  • The Darkside Detective: A Fumble in the Dark
  • The Puzzler’s Desk
  • The Wild at Heart
  • World of Warcraft
  • Games previewed or reviewed:

  • Lake
  • Lucy Dreaming
  • Murder Mystery Machine
  • Song of Farca
  • Strangeland
  • The Balthazar Stone
  • After LudoNarraCon took place at the end of April, I gathered my thoughts about all the great games I’d tried this year and picked three to highlight. Murder Mystery Machine has been on my wishlist for a while and the demo didn’t disappoint; Song of Farca used a nice digital twist on the detective genre; and the chilled Lake wasn’t one I expected to enjoy but really enjoyed. I also had the opportunity to review Strangeland and I loved the way it gave off the same unsettling vibe as the classic Sanitarium.

    Although Pete and I have always enjoyed streaming together, I can’t deny that it has nice being able to play a few video games offline and I’m looking forward to doing more of this during our break (more about that later again). We finally got around to starting Hack Forward, an escape-room-in-a-box I backed on Kickstarter in February 2020 and then received last year. We’ve only completed the first chapter so far and it’s very well done, so we can’t wait to start the rest of them.

    Real life

    Work has been absolutely kicking my butt. On top of the usual summer projects that happen every year, we’re now taking on an office move, department restructure, change to ‘smart working’ and huge data audit, which means lunch-breaks and finishing on time haven’t happened in over a month now. On top of this, my stepson has been going through a bit of a tough time recently; the teenage years can be hard enough as it is without the added difficulties which come from being part of a separated family.

    It got to the point where Pete and I had to admit that these matters needed our complete attention, and we had to reluctantly bring our 90-days of streaming to a close early. It really wasn’t something we wanted to do but other things need to take priority right now. We were planning to take a break for a month at the start of June anyway so the start of this has been brought forward and we’re going to take some time off from streaming and blogging over the next few weeks. See you on the other side!

    Coming up

  • We’re taking a break!
  • Posts planned:

  • We’re taking a break!
  • 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!

    Touring England through FMV games

    Video games have provided a much-needed escape for so many of us over the past year. While we’ve been stuck indoors during various lockdowns, we’ve been able to explore digital worlds both fictional and real from the comfort of our sofas.

    Full-motion video (FMV) games have made a frequent appearance on my playlist and streams over the past few months and many of them were filmed here in the UK. D’Avekki Studios has created some of the best and I’ve followed them since completing The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker a few years ago. It was their next release, The Shapeshifting Detective, which introduced me to my favourite FMV actors: the awesome Rupert Booth and Anarosa Butler.

    Titles like this gave me inspiration for celebrating English Tourism Week 2021. What better way to explore the country without travelling than through interactive movies? Unfortunately though, my research uncovered very little information about where filming took place. Titles such as ERICA by Flavorworks and Late Shift by CtrlMovie have either no Filming and Production section on their IMDb pages or one which isn’t particularly helpful. I did manage to track down some locations however, so let’s take a quick tour around England.

    Great Budworth in Contradiction: Spot the Liar!

    Billed as ‘the most picturesque village in Cheshire’, Great Budworth looks like a lovely place to visit for a quiet weekend (if you ignore the murder that Detective Jenks was sent there to investigate). The George & Dragon pub is a pretty Grade II listed building which we ended up visiting several times during our playthrough of Contradiction, although sadly didn’t stop for a drink at. Interesting fact: the telephone box our hero uses to call the police chief was transformed into a mini-library in 2011.

    Sandwich in The Complex

    I’ve not played The Complex yet myself so thank you to friend-of-the-blog Phil for letting me know about this one! It was filmed at Discovery Park in Sandwich, Kent, ‘a global leader for science and enterprise with world-class laboratories and exceptional office space’. It seems like the perfect place to film a game about the fallout after a bio-weapon attack on London and what the scientists do when they find themselves running out of both time and air in a locked-down lab… On second thought, do we really want to visit this place?

    Shrewsbury in I Saw Black Clouds

    I Saw Black Clouds isn’t the best FMV title I’ve ever played and I’d highly recommend that anyone thinking of playing it heeds the trigger warning included in its introduction. But the pub featured as one of the locations looks like a lot of fun! The ALB in Shrewsbury, Shropshire is a family-run cocktail bar and I wouldn’t mind trying their Bitch Juice or Bad Apple. For something completely different, check out the Shelton Hospital, the abandoned building where Kristina is stalked by something spooky.

    Kelvedon Hatch in The Bunker

    The Secret Nuclear Bunker in Kelvedon Hatch, Essex, is the setting for The Bunker. It was once a Regional Government HQ where a team was tasked to organise the survival of the population in the aftermath of a nuclear war but is now open to the public as a museum. I’ve visited this place several times in the past as my stepson was fascinated with it when he was younger; it has such a heavy atmosphere, just like the feeling you get when you play the game. Check out this post to see my photographs.

    Monk Fryston in The Dark Side of the Moon

    We had a lot of fun playing The Dark Side of the Moon in March and were surprised by the developer and his family when they joined us during our stream. Instead of immediately looking for the missing children in the most obvious places, our friends in Twitch chat demanded we always went ‘To The Crown!’ first. Monk Fryston looks like such a nice place for a weekend away – so much so that my other-half and I are planning a trip to Leeds later this year. Look out for another post at some point.

    VisitEngland, the organisers of English Tourism Week, and developers seem to be missing a trick. FMV games are a great way to promote towns and villages around the country that many people might not otherwise have heard of, and encourage gamers to get outside and visit them now that lockdown is easing. Come on, creators: share the details on IMDb, Wikipedia or the official website for your project so we can check out these locations and start planning our weekends.

    Do you know where other FMV releases were filmed? Or has a video game, FMV or otherwise, ever inspired you to visit a real-world location? Let us know in the comments below.

    Strangeland: mind, monsters and metaphors

    Last year wasn’t a great one for me personally in terms of gaming. My wishlist was bursting at the seams with upcoming releases I’m looking forward to playing, but many were delayed due to COVID-19 and challenges faced with remote working.

    Things are beginning to look up though. Not only are lockdown restrictions now easing in the UK, postponements in the gaming world are coming to an end too and I’ve been able to get my hands on some great games recently. The Dark Side of the Moon was a fun full-motion video (FMV) title with a science-fiction storyline and I can’t wait for the sequel; and Hitchhiker took me on a mysterious journey into the unknown which stayed with me for long after the credits rolled.

    I jumped at the chance of a review key for Strangeland after being kindly contacted by Emily Morganti as I’ve enjoyed everything that Wadjet Eye Games has had a hand in creating or publishing. Adventure fans are likely to remember Wormwood Studios’ 2012 release Primordia, a well-received point-and-click set in a post-apocalyptic world where a robot wants to find out what happened to the humans. Now after ten years of work, we’re finally able to play its spiritual successor this month.

    The story begins when you wake up on a rickety wooden bridge suspended in the sky with no memory of who you are or how you got there. In the distance is Strangeland, a nightmarish carnival filled with traps and riddles, where you witness a golden-haired woman fall down a bottomless well before you have a chance to save her. Somehow you know that until you destroy the Dark Thing lurking at the top of a towering rollercoaster, it will keep happening over and over again.

    I don’t want to give too much away but it should be fairly obvious from this summary that it isn’t a game for children. As advised on its Steam page: “Strangeland deals with mature themes involving grief, mental illness, self-harm and self-destructiveness. It has some horrific but surreal imagery. Some players may find such content triggering.” While I wouldn’t necessarily say the title is scary, it certainly gives off a heavy atmosphere and there are some rather creepy moments.

    For example: at one point you’ll find yourself trying to come up with a way to charm the eye out of a ten-legged teratoma, and at another you’ll have to discover the real name of a mermaid made by men. And lets not forget the ride to the edge of oblivion on the back of a giant cicada. Metaphors are liberally scattered through both the environments and conversations, and commentary is provided in an annotation mode for those interested hearing more about the references woven throughout the game.

    Stramgeland, video game

    Halfway through my playthrough, my other-half asked me whether I was enjoying Strangeland so far and I told him that I was because it reminded me of Sanitarium. It was therefore a nice surprise to come across an old post on the Steam news hub the following week, in which a member of Wormwood Studios discussed the game’s influences. They wrote: “We found inspiration in games like Sanitarium and Weird Dreams, shows and movies like The Prisoner and Eraserhead, religious and mythological works.”

    A point-and-click is nothing without puzzles so let’s move on to those now. Like Primordia, those within Strangeland can be solved in several different ways and non-player characters (NPCs) remark on the actions you’ve decided to take. For example, one player might win a carnival game with good mouse skills and sharpshooting, while another might notice the electrical panel next to the machine and choose to make some changes to its engineering instead.

    The carnival almost wraps back around onto itself as you progress and you’ll be placed in situations similar to those you’ve already experienced. For instance, early on you’ll have to figure a way around a vicious dog; then later, you’ll come across the beast again – but this time it has your face and you’ll need to tweak your previous solution. It’s an excellent way of reminding the player that unless the protagonist can break out of the cycle, they’re doomed to keep repeating the same fate.

    There’s no fear of getting stuck though. You can use the payphone found at the entrance of the carnival to make a call to the operator – who sounds strangely like the protagonist – for a nudge in the right direction at any time up until the final section of the game. I made use of this feature twice and was pleased both times because, rather than being cryptic clues, the hints given were direct yet succinct. This meant I could move on without becoming frustrated or the storyline being spoiled.

    It’s not only the puzzle structure which is reminiscent of Primordia; it’s the visual style too. The setting for both titles may be very different but the graphics show off the same retro-styled pixelated art in a muted palette. It’s easy to tell that Strangeland has been made by the same creators and you can see the influence of Wadjet Eye Games’ releases too. As mentioned above, there are a few creepy images featured during cutscenes but they aren’t overly gory and are more of a surreal nature.

    This doesn’t mean that Strangeland is going to be a game for all adventure fans however, because I can see its subject matter deterring some players. I’d recommend being aware of the topics touched upon before starting and checking out the ‘mature content description’ on the Steam page. At no point are these handled in a gratuitous manner though, and many discoveries made by the protagonist are shared in metaphors so they’re somewhat open to individual interpretation.

    What this title does brilliantly is present a cast of strange characters who speak in riddles. I usually don’t enjoy such conversations because I’m impatient and like straight answers; but there were enough clues given in each discussion to prevent frustration, yet enough obscurity to make every encounter feel mysterious and foreboding. At every moment during my five hours with Strangeland, I found myself wanting to progress to find out what had happened to the protagonist, yet fearful (in a good way) of where his journey would take him.

    In their Steam news hub post, the developer wrote: “Strangeland began as a way for me to process the sadness I felt about [a personal situation]. What it means to watch the slow-motion destruction of someone you love, thinking you can save her, but not being able to.” That last line sums up the entire feeling of this release for me. You can feel that the teams’ personal stories have seeped into the storyline and it’s been a while since I experienced so much atmosphere within a point-and-click.

    Strangeland is a game of mind, monsters and metaphors. It won’t be to everybody’s taste, but I can’t wait to see what Wormwood Studios come up with next.

    Lucy Dreaming: dreaming big on Kickstarter

    If you’re a point-and-click fan, it’s highly likely it was a LucasArts’ game which introduced you to the genre. This was the case for me and I’ve now played The Secret of Monkey Island so many times that I know the swordfighting-insults off my heart.

    This explains why it’s almost guaranteed that whenever a new adventure appears on Kickstarter, it’s almost guaranteed that LucasArts’ releases will appear in the paragraph about the creator’s influences. It’s started to become a bit clichéd over the past few years and has caused me to think twice about backing certain projects. Perhaps I’m getting far too cynical in my old age but I can’t help feeling as though certain games are mentioned simply to secure pledges through nostalgia.

    So why on earth did I decide to back Lucy Dreaming by Tall Story Games this month? The campaign page says it’s ‘influenced by classic 90s point-and-click adventure games’ and the promotional video features direct references to Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis and Day of the Tentacle among others. Although I’d read several positive articles about the project, I was unsure whether to give it my backing – until I played the demo for myself and saw something which made me change my mind.

    In Lucy Dreaming, players will take a brave step into the terrifying world of suburban middle-class Britain to help Lucy unearth the secrets of her recurring nightmares. Her subconscious is a rabbit-hole laced with intrigue and a cast of extraordinary creatures, and you’ll need to discover the power of dream control so she can finally break the cycle. Do you have what it takes to communicate with her dysfunctional family, untangle her repressed memories and bring an end to the nightmares for once and for all?

    The demo, available for download on the Steam page, sees Lucy explain that she has been reading about something called ‘lucid dreaming’. The problem is though that recently her anxiety is so bad that it’s preventing her from even getting to sleep. Fortunately though, some suggestions she found on the internet may help her get over this – so it’s time for a trip through her house to gather items such as soothing lights, firm head support and a warm drink.

    After leaving the initial scene in her bedroom and heading out onto the landing, the protagonist can look at a pair of binoculars on a bookcase. If you try to pick them up, she says in response: “I don’t need them in this demo. Kinda makes you want to back the full game, doesn’t it?” And yes, it did. There was something about this line which was endearing and plenty more humour within the demo which aimed to break the fourth wall in the same way the LucasArts adventures did.

    The puzzles are exactly what you’d expect from a point-and-click and you’ll normally need to complete several tasks to fulfil an objective. They’re all logical challenges though if you get yourself into that ‘adventure’ way of thinking. For example, Lucy needs to get hold of some feathers to refill her limp pillow. There’s an item somewhere in the house that will help if you could remove its plumage – but first you’ll need to find the object which will enable you to do that.

    Fans of the genre will be pleased to hear that the interface is reminiscent of the 1990s classics and will instantly feel at home when they see the verbs shown at the bottom of the screen along with the inventory. The graphics will also transport you back to the gold old days of adventures as they have that lovely pixelated quality which feels so nostalgic. I may have gone into Lucy Dreaming being doubtful, but by the end of my 30-minutes with the demo I was sold on its humour and visuals.

    It’s only Lucy’s home which is seen in the demo and the Kickstarter video advises that it contains no spoilers for the rest of the game. But it looks as if the full release will also be set in the land of dreams, as a blog post on the official website from last year shares that players will ‘learn how to influence the environment and characters that manifest while you’re dreaming to build up your confidence, unlock hidden memories and solve puzzles between dreams and the real world’.

    The project reached its £15,000 target within the first week and at the time of writing, an additional £5,000 has been pledged so far. This means that the first stretch goal has been reached and all characters will now be fully voiced in the English version of the game. There are still a few more days to go before the end of the campaign on 26 May 2021 so there’s a chance that we could see a mobile version and translations into other languages when its released around May 2022.

    Check out the demo on Steam if Lucy Dreaming seems like your cup of tea (well, I did say that Lucy was searching for a warm drink). You can also find more information on the Kickstarter page and follow Tall Story Games on Twitter.

    Your wit’s got to be twice as sharp as your sword

    “Swordfighting is kinda like making love. It’s not always what you do, but what you say.” Anyone who’s played The Secret of Monkey Island is likely to recognise this smooth line from Captain Smirk and be familiar with insult-swordfighting.

    For May’s EXP Share collaboration, DanamesX over at Tales from the Backlog is asking everyone to share a gaming-related thing that they’re good at or proud of. For example, are you great at identifying voice-actors without looking at the credits, do you hold a record for a speedrun or have you 100% completed a video game series? It’s none of these things for me – but what I can do is remember every insult response from the first Monkey Island release.

    As Smirk himself continues: “Any fool pirate can swing a sharp piece of metal around and hope to cut something but the pros, they know just when to cut their opponent with an insult, one that catches ‘em off guard. You see, kid, your wit’s got to be twice as sharp as your sword.” Wannabe pirate Guybrush Threepwood must complete the Three Trials to fulfil his dream of becoming a buccaneer, one of which is to defeat the mighty Sword Master – but as his mentor teaches him, it’s more than just how you handle your weapon.

    Our hero must track down opponents on the roads of Mêlée Island and challenge them to a duel to improve his skills. Sometimes they’ll shout an insult he has never heard before and so he’s forced to reply with a poor ‘I am rubber, you are glue’ before losing ground. It’s not necessarily a negative thing though: it means he now has a new line to test out on his next rival and, if they manage to respond successfully, he can add another move to his insult-swordfighting repertoire.

    These lines are legendary among adventure gamers. The most well-known is ‘You fight like a dairy farmer’ because it’s one of the first Guybrush learns, but other favourites include ‘I’ve spoken with apes more polite than you’ and ‘People fall at my feet when they see me coming’. Throw one at a true Monkey Island fan and they’ll immediately counter with the correct retort: ‘How appropriate, you fight like a cow’, ‘I’m glad to hear you attended your family reunion’ and ‘Even before they smell your breath?’.

    The reason I love the insult-swordfighting mechanic so much is because of how well it fits into both the Monkey Island world and adventure genre as a whole. It’s believable to see pirates duelling on the roads of an island somewhere in the Caribbean and the lines used perfectly sum up the humour that runs through the entire series. It’s such a great way of adding a touch of excitement to a point-and-click without resorting to a horrible action sequence or tedious minigame.

    The Secret of Monkey Island, video games, Guybrush, insult-swordfighting, pirates

    LucasArts captured the cerebral nature of an adventure game along with the thrill of a classic movie battle while letting us express our inner swashbucklers. The formula is mixed up later in the game when Guybrush is finally good enough to take on the Sword Master; you can’t just use the lines and responses you’ve already heard in the same way and instead must consider what would be the best comeback to her challenges. ‘How appropriate, you fight like a cow’ becomes the flawless retort for ‘I will milk every drop of blood from your body’.

    The mechanic makes a reappearance in The Curse of the Monkey Island but with a twist. As explained by Rene Rottingham after he boards Guybrush’s ship: “On the sea we fight it a little differently. On the sea, all your insults have to rhyme. So when I say ‘Every enemy I’ve met, I’ve annihilated!’, you say ‘With your breath, I’m sure they all suffocated.’” It also appears in Escape from Monkey Island – but our hero is utterly defeated when he doesn’t understand his opponent’s Australian-themed insults.

    Regular Later Levels’ visitors will already be aware of just how much The Secret of Monkey Island means to me and how it introduced me to adventure games as a kid. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve played since then, most recently for its 30th anniversary in October last year, but I’ve spent enough time on the roads of Mêlée to be able to know right insult response off by heart. I’m not sure any other mechanic in a point-and-click has captured the attention of gamers as much or been so suited to its setting.

    If you’d like to brush up on your skills, head over to the online insult-swordfighting game created by Karza. And by the way: soon you’ll be wearing my sword like a shish-kabob!