Zombie Awareness Month 2021: life left in them yet

It’s Zombie Awareness Month. Running since 2007 and coordinated by the Zombie Research Society, this annual campaign is designed to raise awareness and prepare us all for the apocalypse which is inevitably going to happen.

It’s often mistakenly thought that the first zombie movie was George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead back in 1968. It was actually Edward Halperin’s White Zombie almost 40 years earlier in 1932 – but even that was based on a book published in 1929, The Magic Island by William Seabrook. The undead have therefore been shuffling around in our nightmares as well as our media for over 90 years and it doesn’t look as if there’s any sign of them stopping yet.

It’s believed they made the transition to video games in 1984 when Sandy White created Zombie Zombie for the ZX Spectrum. Forget the usual advice of shooting them in the head though: the player had to use a helicopter to build platforms and then fool the living dead into falling to their doom in this isometric 3D-adventure. Both technology and story-writing have improved and become far more sophisticated since then, but developers and gamers still regularly turn to the undead to get their digital kicks today.

What do you think of when you hear that word? The image we usually conjure up is that of a horde of reanimated corpses, dragging their decaying limbs towards us in the overriding desire to munch on our flesh. This traditional view has been depicted in video games with apocalyptic settings such as Dead Rising and Dying Light, along with lighter-hearted releases such as Plants vs. Zombies. They may be slow, but they have all the time in the world while you only have so much energy and limited ammunition.

The living dead don’t always fill this role in their current interpretations, however, and over the years creators have experimented with their forms to challenge players in new ways. We now have runners, crawlers, screamers and exploders among others; consider all the various types used in titles such as Left 4 Dead, World War Z and Days Gone. This variety is good because it keeps players on their toes – but it also means that aiming a gun at the skull might not be enough to save you any longer.

Then there are releases where the undead appear almost out of the blue. They ambushed Drake and Elena in the underground cavern in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune; were used by Eva to terrorise Neil in To The Moon; and stalked the player in the mines during The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Whether their presence has been introduced to cause excitement, humour or fear, it’s usually more welcome than other enemy types and our obsession with them continues.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, video game, zombie, face

So why is this? I’ve been doing some digging around in the graveyard for and I think I’ve found a few possible answers. Several online sources discuss the fact that developers like using the zombies as non-player characters (NPCs) because they ‘cover a multitude of programming sins’. We expect them to have a low mentality and therefore be oblivious to the impact of bullets, and so we usually put their inhuman movement down to them not being alive rather than poor code.

Programmers aren’t the only ones who love the shuffling corpses: they’re a goldmine for writers too. They can be used as a narrative element to tap into many of our fears – violence, cannibalism, and infectious viruses for example – and then taken even deeper to look at subconscious terrors including mindless consumerism, the loss of the people closest to us and confrontation with our own mortality. The living dead have got you covered If you’re looking for an enemy which can be used as a metaphor.

You can’t overlook the fact that the undead are almost guaranteed to make a profit also. Game development is an expense business and publishers are usually very risk-adverse; why chance losing all the cash you stumped up when you can go with something you already know will be popular with your consumers? Zombies are a proven commodity, so much so that themed downloadable content (DLC) has been created for titles where there were no living dead in the first place to make a bit more money.

That’s the game industry but what about the players themselves? Well, it could have something to do with what’s referred to as the ‘uncanny valley’. The concept suggests that the more something resembles a human, the more it provokes feelings of eeriness and revulsion in observers. I remember a sensation like this when visiting the AI: More Than Human exhibition at the Barbican a couple of years ago and coming face to face with a robot called Alter 3. I wasn’t sure whether to be amazed or hide in fear.

Left 4 Dead 2, video game, zombies, clown, gun

I think it’s a similar sensation with zombies. We view them as a threat because they’re so much like us – indeed, they once were us before everything went to hell – but there’s something not quite right about them and it puts our senses on high alert. Our reaction is to stop them by whatever means necessary, but there’s no need to feel guilty about our actions because they’re already dead. This means we can continue firing without feeling guilty or having to question the morality of the gameplay.

We’re not just fighting to stay alive though. There are bigger consequences at stake: we have to stop ourselves from turning into a mindless undead thing like those who form the shambling horde in front of us. Transforming into the living dead is usually depicted as something worse than death in any media, and it’s during those scenes that we’re asked to consider how much courage we have. Would we be brave enough to end it all if we had been infected?

Let’s sum up our fascination with the undead with a quote from Simon Pegg. In an article for The Guardian in November 2008, he wrote: “Zombies win out over vampires and werewolves when it comes to the title of Most Potent Metaphorical Monster. Where their pointy-toothed cousins are all about sex and bestial savagery, the zombie trumps all by personifying our deepest fear: death. Zombies are our destiny writ large. Slow and steady in their approach, weak, clumsy, often absurd, the zombie relentlessly closes in, unstoppable, intractable.”

It’s the primal nature of the zombie which fascinates and scares us in equal measure. It’s safe to say there’s plenty of life left in them yet.

LudoNarraCon 2021: a round-up

Although lockdown restrictions are easing, we’re still not quite ready for large-scale events. This doesn’t mean we have to miss out on gaming expos though: after The Big Adventure Event in January, the end of April saw LudoNarraCon take over.

Organised by indie label Fellow Traveller, the first event took place in May 2019. Since then it has become popular with fans of the adventure genre thanks to its focus on narrative and innovative video games – along with the fact that it’s free and hosted entirely on Steam. That means you can forget about lengthy queues, deafening noise and sweaty bodies; simply sit back, download demos to experience titles for yourself, and check out the developers during live streams.

The event scheduled for 23-26 April 2021 seemed smaller, although that wasn’t the case: looking back through emails from previous years revealed that about the same number of games were on show. I think this was due to many of the games having appeared at other digital expos because there have been so many of them over the past 12 months. However, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t able to find a few gems and a couple more titles have now been added to my wishlist.

Murder Mystery Machine, video game, office, secretary, detectives, sofa, Cassandra, Nate

I’ve had my eye on Murder Mystery Machine by Blazing Griffin since coming across the trailer in December 2019. It’s now due for release on PC and console very soon and, after playing the demo for myself, I can’t wait. It’s no secret how much I like detective games and I really enjoyed the way this title gave you an investigation board so you could link together the evidence uncovered for yourself. Although there are hints, there’s no real handholding and it gives the impression of being a real investigator.

Song of Farca, video game, LudoNarraCon, livestream, developer

Speaking of detective games, another one on my watch-list was Song of Farca by Wooden Monkeys. I wanted to try this during a previous Steam Game Festival but unfortunately ran out of time so it was one of my priorities for LudoNarraCon – and I wasn’t disappointed. It has more of a visual novel style than the previous demo but there’s still plenty of investigation for you to do. All of this takes place online via internet searches, hacking into CCTV cameras, digital enhancement and telephone calls.

Next up was something completely different: NUTS by Joon, Pol, Muutsch, Char & Torfi. I wasn’t sure about its visual style at first but reading about its premise made me curious, and it was added to my wishlist immediately after completing the demo. The aim is to place cameras around a forest to track where squirrels are hiding their stash but you might be surprised to find out what exactly it is that they’re hording. I have a feeling this title is going to end up being wonderfully weird.

Last, video game, street, trees woman, post, van

Lake by Gamious was a title I was already aware of thanks to it appearing in my Steam discovery queue recently. I wasn’t sure it was going to be something that would usually appeal to me but there’s something about the narration of the trailer, and the way it makes the game feel as though it’s an American television show, that made me want to give the demo a go. Delivering the post to residents around Providence Oaks and getting to know them better turned out to be a rather relaxing experience.

LudoNarraCon

There were a range of interesting live streams alongside the demos and discounts this year. Sam Barlow joined Natalie Watson to discuss Her Story and Telling Lies, along with upcoming release Project Ambrosio; and Jack Attridge chatted about how Flavourworks is innovating new storytelling technologies and design philosophies, starting with debut ERICA. We’ve been playing a lot of full-motion video (FMV) games recently so these were both talks I was glued to.

Other demos I managed to play were Do Not Buy This Game by Kingblade Games, No Longer Home by Humble Grove and Beacon Pines by Hiding Spot. And although the Forgotten Fields demo from Frostwood Interactive failed to work properly for me during The Big Adventure Event, I’ve now received a review key and will be writing about it soon. Each of these titles is completely different and that’s the great thing about LudoNarraCon: it shows that narrative-focused released are incredibly varied and there’s something for everyone.

LudoNarraCon is due to return once again in 2022 and you can follow Fellow Traveller on Twitter to stay informed. In the meantime, check out the gallery below to see some of the other games that were on display and keep an eye out for further posts over the coming week.

LudoNarraCon 2021 photo gallery

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StrideQuest: I would run 100-miles

The end of February saw hundreds of gamers all over the UK take part in the annual GameBlast event. Thanks to their dedication, hard work and marathon streaming sessions, a grand total of £228,300 raised for SpecialEffect.

This amazing amount will help the charity continue their work free of charge. The aim is to put fun and inclusion back into the lives of people with physical disabilities by helping them to play video games, and they use a range of technology including modified hardware 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.

Our 24-hour stream for the official GameBlast21 weekend may have finished over a month ago – but that doesn’t mean we’re stopping any time soon. To say thank you to everyone who helped us raise £4,579 and raise awareness for the charity, we’re streaming for at least an hour every day right up to Saturday, 29 May 2021. There are also a few surprises coming up: Pete will be making another appearance in his Pokémon onesie and Phil and I are warming up our vocal chords for an evening of karaoke.

Streaming isn’t the only way we show our continued support for SpecialEffect though. I’ve regularly volunteered for the charity by helping out on their stand during expos such as EGX and Comic Con since finding out about their work in 2013, and can’t wait to get back to it once such events are allowed again. I’ve also taken part in the ASICS London 10K a few times and am hoping to finally cross the finish line in under an hour at this year’s event on Sunday, 25 July 2021.

One of the biggest ways in which the lockdown has affected me is a drain of motivation, but I’ve tried to keep running regularly since a long-service award from my employer meant I was able to buy myself a treadmill in November. I might not feel like it some days but forcing myself to leave my laptop at lunch-time for a run means I get a much-needed break away from the ‘office’ while working from home. Plus it stops me from feeling too guilty when I treat myself to a Creme Egg in the evenings.

The hardest part of running for me personally isn’t so much the physical exertion: it’s the mental endurance needed to continue for longer distances. On the particularly tough days I find myself constantly watching the clock and counting down the minutes until I can stop. It’s a blessing when friends are streaming in the afternoon as listening to them talk provides a pleasant distraction (shout-outs to Darkshoxx and Nathan from Gaming Omnivore); but on the days when they’re not available, staying on track can be difficult.

This explains why I signed up immediately when SpecialEffect announced a new event a couple of weeks ago. In collaboration with game illustrator and writers RPG Toons and R-N-W, the charity has created an RPG-inspired virtual fitness challenge that transforms your usual run into a quest through mountains, forests and epic landscapes. It’s up to you to find a travel beyond the small village of Loftwood to find a cure for the glum and listless feeling which has infected its inhabitants in StrideQuest.

This distance-based adventure can be experienced as part of your normal daily routine and sounds as if it’s going to make any walk, jog or run that little bit more exciting. As miles are covered, successive segments of a unique fictional map that unlock the next chapter of the story will be emailed to everyone taking part. You can choose to make your journey either 50- or 100-miles and by the end of it, you’ll have travelled through new and wonderous lands as well as finding the remedy for the mysterious illness.

All you need to do is sign up via Eventbrite, complete the miles for your chosen challenge between 01 April and 31 May 2021, and record your distance using a fitness app such as Strava or a smartwatch. Alternatively, you can email the team a photograph or screenshot and they’ll update your progress for you. If you’re thinking of getting back out there now that it’s spring and milder days are coming, perhaps StrideQuest is just what you need to give you that little bit extra incentive.

There’s no obligation to fundraise but there are some great incentives if you choose to do so. After registering, simply set up a JustGiving page linked to the charity’s StrideQuest campaign and raise £25 to get your hands on a limited-edition print of the full quest-map or aim £50 to be eligible for a themed t-shirt. I’ve created a fundraising page myself but I’m aware of just how much the community has supported our GameBlast21 efforts already, so I’ll be making a donation myself once I complete the 100-mile challenge.

If you decide to register to take part in StrideQuest yourself, please do let me know as it would be great to form a little support group to cheer each other on! I’ll give regular updates on my progress during our daily streams on Twitch and will let you know how I’m getting on in my round-up post at the end of April. Good luck!

GameBlast21: lessons learnt

GameBlast21 has officially been completed. Last weekend, hundreds of dedicated gamers all over the UK streamed themselves playing video games for 24-hours and managed to raise over £200,000 for the amazing SpecialEffect.

I’ve participated in the GameBlast events since they started back in 2014 and every marathon has taught me something new: tips about streaming in general, ideas for creating content and understanding how supportive our friends within the community are. I like to share a round-up of the lessons learnt each time so we can keep track of our experiences and benefit from them every year so, in normal Later Levels’ style, here’s an overview of what happened during GameBlast21.

Lesson one: accept that something will always go wrong

One of the lessons we’ve discovered in previous years is that something will always go wrong during a marathon stream. But it’s not so much being prepared to fix it that matters; what’s more important is that you accept it’s going to happen and are able to roll with it when it does. The regular streams we’ve been doing over the past year have given us a lot of experience with our streaming software and hardware so for the first time during GameBlast history, there was no stress in the Later Levels’ household.

Lesson two: an awesome mod makes your life easier

This year was the first time we decided to get ourselves a mod for the marathon stream and we can’t be more grateful to Ellen from Ace Asunder for stepping up to the challenge. She kept her eyes out for bots (thanks to Darkshoxx for giving us a giggle by creating a fake one so she’d have something to ban), posted links in chat when they were needed and welcomed new people to the channel. It meant that some of the ‘admin’ work was taken off our shoulders so we could focus more on the stream itself. Thanks so much, genniz0rz!

Lesson three: FMV comedy games work at 02:00

The section of the stream we’ve always struggled with is from 02:00 to 05:00. It’s incredibly difficult to pick a game to play during this period: you want something which is going to be exciting enough to keep you awake when you’re starting to flag, but not one which requires a great deal of coordination or concentration. It was General Horse and the Package of Doom which stepped up to the challenge. The easy gameplay and crazy humour kept us laughing during the early hours and pushing on through.

Lesson four: Pete doesn’t like Pikachu

At some point before the GameBlast21 event, GD from Gaming Diaries managed to talk Pete into wearing a Pikachu onesie for the whole 24-hours. I think there was a part of him which believed he wasn’t going to have to do it but there was no way our stream-friends were going to let him get out of it. He said afterwards that it was horrible having to wear it for so long because it was far too hot under our key lights – but in my mind it was worth the discomfort, after Fed from Fed’s Life persuaded him to do a Pikachu impression.

Lesson five: stream-friends can work together to break a record

We set up a pun-counter after last year’s marathon and this is something which has featured in our streams since. Mr. Wapojif from Professional Moron bravely said he was going to break the record of 76 puns in one session – and he managed to smash that by reaching 184 with a little help from some stream-friends. We’d like to say a big thank you to the following people for their pun-efforts, staying up for all or most of the 24-hours, helping us when we got stuck during games and just being generally awesome:

Friend Blog Puns contributed Notes
Mr. Wapojif Professional Moron 47 puns The pun champion
the_Ghost_Owl 37 puns The best detective ever
Darkshoxx Darkblox 22 puns General Horse expert
Phil 22 puns Impressive Viking skills
Nathan and Worried Cat Gaming Omnivore 14 puns Kept us awake
Vox_AB 12 puns Provided plenty of jokes
Ellen Ace Asunder 7 puns The most marvellous mod
Gao Li Occasionally Reviews 4 puns Creator of our GameBlast GIFs
Luke Hundstrasse 4 puns Donator of Pop-Tarts
GD Gaming Diaries 3 puns Taker of all the best clips
KiaraHime 1 pun Stayed up for all 24-hours


With your support, we’ve managed to raise an amazing £4,515 for SpecialEffect so far. They’re a wonderful charity which aims to put fun and inclusion back into the lives of people with physical disabilities by helping them to play video games, using technology ranging from modified joypads to eye-control software to find a way for everyone to play to the best of their abilities. Head over to their website or YouTube channel for more information and to see examples of their work.

The fun isn’t stopping just yet though. Your donations unlocked a series of rewards, part of which now involves us streaming to the Later Levels’ Twitch channel every day for at least an hour right up until Saturday, 29 May 2021. Our JustGiving page will remain open until that date in case anyone would like to make a contribution to SpecialEffect and we’ll reveal the games we’re streaming every Monday on social media.

GameBlast21: we’re live!


Hundreds of gamers all over the UK are taking part in GameBlast21 this weekend. This annual gaming marathon is designed to raise funds and awareness for SpecialEffect, an amazing charity which helps people with physical disabilities to play video games.

We’ll be live on Twitch all the way through to 08:00 GMT on Sunday, 28 February 2021 with the schedule below – and then back again for at least an hour each day for 60 days afterwards as part of our #DaysForDonations challenge. All donations received through our JustGiving page go straight to the charity and allow them to continue their wonderful work.

It’s not just about money though: anything you can do to spread the word about SpecialEffect is hugely beneficial too, as it increases the potential for them to reach more people they can help. Tweet about the charity’s work, share our press release, join us in Twitch chat; it’s all valuable and we’re so grateful for your support!

Date Time Genre Game Channel
Saturday,
27 February 2021
08:00 GMT Platformer DuckTales Remastered Later Levels
11:00 GMT Adventure Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars Later Levels
14:00 GMT Other Escape-room-in-a-box Later Levels
17:00 GMT Retro The X-Files: Resist or Serve Later Levels
20:00 GMT Action Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Later Levels
20:00 GMT TTRPG The Last Expedition of Professor Winglow The Lawful Geek
23:00 GMT Horror The 7th Guest: 25th Anniversary Edition Later Levels
Sunday,
28 February 2021
02:00 GMT FMV General Horse and the Package of Doom Later Levels
05:00 GMT MMO The Elder Scrolls Online Later Levels
08:00 GMT Stream end Sleep


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: coming this weekend

Video games have the power to do a lot of good. They help us see the world through another person’s eyes and experience their stories, as well as giving us the chance to meet new friends with similar interests. It’s no exaggeration to say they can even change someone’s life.

This is something hundreds of gamers all over the UK taking part in GameBlast21 this weekend believe in. The goal is to raise as much funds and awareness for SpecialEffect, a wonderful charity which aims to put fun and inclusion back into the lives of people with physical disabilities by helping them to play video games. By using technology ranging from modified joypads to eye-control software, they’re finding a way for everyone to play to the very best of their abilities.

We’ve participated in the annual GameBlast streaming marathon since it started in 2014 and there’s only a few days to go until this year’s event. Read on to find out what we’ve got lined up this time around and how you can get involved.

24-hour stream from 08:00 GMT on Saturday, 27 February 2021

Thanks to everyone who voted in our polls to create the game schedule for our marathon stream! A reminder of what’s coming up can be found below. We’re going to have some awesome people helping us out on the day: friend-of-the-blog Phil will be headlining the action section; Kevin from The Lawful Geek will be running a TTRPG to support the cause over on his own channel from 20:00 GMT on Saturday; and Ellen from Ace Asunder will be our marvellous mod for the event.

Date Time Genre Game Channel
Saturday,
27 February 2021
08:00 GMT Platformer DuckTales Remastered Later Levels
11:00 GMT Adventure Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars Later Levels
14:00 GMT Other Escape-room-in-a-box Later Levels
17:00 GMT Retro The X-Files: Resist or Serve Later Levels
20:00 GMT Action Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Later Levels
20:00 GMT TTRPG The Last Expedition of Professor Winglow The Lawful Geek
23:00 GMT Horror The 7th Guest: 25th Anniversary Edition Later Levels
Sunday,
28 February 2021
02:00 GMT FMV General Horse and the Package of Doom Later Levels
05:00 GMT MMO The Elder Scrolls Online Later Levels
08:00 GMT Stream end Sleep


#DaysForDonations fundraising targets and awards

Over £3,500 has been donated by you generous lot through our JustGiving page at the time of writing this post. This means we’ve now hit six of our fundraising targets and will be organising some special events as rewards, as well as streaming for at least an hour a day for a 70-day period after the marathon stream. The more we manage to raise for SpecialEffect, the longer our streams will go on for – and more we’ll embarrass ourselves on camera for a worthy cause.

Target #DaysForDonations Achievement unlocked
Any amount raised No additional days 24-hour GameBlast21 stream on 27-28 February 2021
£500 raised 10 days (up to 10 March) Signed Zelda postcards are sent to all donators
£1,000 raised 20 days (up to 20 March) Pete wears a Pikachu costume for the 24-hour stream
£1,500 raised 30 days (up to 30 March) A signed copy of Project Zero is given away
£2,000 raised 40 days (up to 09 April) The team streams wearing Pokémon costumes
£2,500 raised 50 days (up to 19 April) The official #KaraokePete album is emailed to all donators
£3,000 raised 60 days (up to 29 April) The Lawful Geek hosts an extended TTRPG stream
£3,500 raised 70 days (up to 09 May) The team completes a cocktails-and-karaoke stream
£4,000 raised 80 days (up to 19 May) Ellen from Ace Asunder gets a Zelda and GameBlast tattoo
£4,500 raised 90 days (up to 29 May) Kim completes a treadmill marathon on stream
£5,000 raised 100 days (up to 08 June) #DaysForDonations finishes with another 24-hour stream


How you can get involved

We can’t deny that donations are greatly appreciated and will be put to good use. They enable SpecialEffect to continue their work assisting hundreds of physically-disabled people across the UK to experience the joy of video games. The charity does this free of charge, and shares the knowledge gained from their lifelong assessment and support services with hardware and software developers – so a feature that’s worked successfully for one individual can then go on to benefit thousands of others.

Check out our JustGiving page for details if you’d like to donate. It’s not just about money though: anything you can do to raise awareness and let others know about SpecialEffect is hugely beneficial too, as it increases the potential for them to reach more people they can help. Tweet about the charity’s work, share our GameBlast21 press release, come along to our streams join us in chat; these are all valuable actions and we’re incredibly grateful for your support.

Good luck to everyone taking part in GameBlast21 this weekend! Together, we can help SpecialEffect level the playing-field for people with physical disabilities and share the joy of gaming.

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.)