Beautiful Desolation: mapping out the future

In January I backed the Kickstarter campaign for Beautiful Desolation before I’d even finished watching the promotional video. I’d been a backer for The Brotherhood’s first project in November 2013, isometric science-fiction adventure STASIS, and so I didn’t need to see the end of the sales pitch by Chris Bischoff to know it would be something special.

This point-and-click is set in a post-apocalyptic future after the Penrose monolith appeared without warning in the sky in 1980. Governments laid claim to this impossibly-shaped structure, assembling an investigation team to learn more about its origin and purpose; they were able to reverse-engineer the technology discovered and this accelerated our understanding of physics, materials and computing by centuries. Mankind hurtled forward on an alternative historical trajectory and the world rejoiced – but discovered at the heart of the Penrose, a terminal revealed an unencrypted line of text: “I WILL FIX THIS. MARK LESLIE.”

Beautiful Desolation, video game, map, aerial, mountains, clouds

Last week I received one of the regular updates on the project, this time on the subject of its maps and they’re stunning – take a look at one of them opposite. The developer advised that a major inspiration in their design was bringing back the excitement of exploring the original Fallout’s map, and theirs provides a ‘tangible link’ to everywhere you’re able to explore in the game’s post-apocalyptic world. Bischoff wrote: “Geography and history will entwine to reflect in the environments and their march through time. Working on the histories of the different areas and how they’ve grown out of this ruined world, is both exciting and challenging.”

Maps are often something we take for granted in video games. We use them to get our bearings, figure out which way to go next, perhaps even fast-travel to our intended destination – but it’s rare that we take a step back and just admire them. They clearly take a lot of planning in order to work properly and I get the impression that more effort goes into them than us non-developer types could imagine. Not only are they functional, but they’re a treat for the eyes too.

One person who has picked up on this is Dimlicht from Game Cartography whose blog showcases some of the most gorgeous in-game maps. Her latest post is on Horizon Zero Dawn and if you’ve read anything I’ve written recently, it’s pretty obvious I’m wrapped up in this title. She wrote: “At first glance just an ordinary in-game map, nothing really special about it. But up close it turns out to be a surprisingly detailed aerial photo-ish kind of map. Did I already mention how beautiful this game is!?”

Horizon Zero Dawn, video game, map, aerial, mountains, clouds

And she’s absolutely right. Zooming into the atlas reveals all kinds of details such as rocky outcrops, curious structures and abandoned buildings, while the clouds seem to float across the surface. A number of times I’ve been on my way to the next quest, only to stop to check direction and then get distracted by something intriguing on the map. It could go some way towards explaining why I’m almost 80 hours into the title and only two-thirds of the way through the main storyline; but on the plus-side, I’ve discovered some excellent modifications in this way.

The next time you’re playing a video game, take a moment to admire its map and all of the hard work that went into creating it. If you don’t know where you’re going, any road can take you there.

Home improvement, the BioShock way

My other-half and I have had problems with house renovations since buying our home back in October last year. We’ve been focusing on changing the layout of the ground floor and, despite our builder originally advising that it’d take up to four weeks, we’re still living in a building site three months later.

Fortunately though, the work is almost complete and we should hopefully have a fully-working kitchen within the next several days, if not a completely-decorated one. But that’s the fun part: adding paint and those other finishing touches to turn it into something uniquely ours. We’re both long-time gamers so it’s pretty much a given that most rooms in the house will feature something subtle (or not so subtle) to do with video games.

Last month we visited the Battlesbridge Antiques & Crafts Centre with the intention of finding some furniture. I love this place: an old granary and surrounding buildings that are full of curious and beautiful things. We bought ourselves a table that’s in the process of being made (if you’re looking for one yourself, check out Mr and Mrs Smith because they’re so helpful). But we also came home with something a little more… well, unexpected.

While browsing though the various rooms, making our way past old armoires, delicate vases and frightened-looking stuffed animals, we came across one laid out with the accessories of an old office: green velvet, an old desk, lamps, book shelves and sherry glasses. On a bureau in the corner stood a beaten-up diving helmet perched on a hand-stand, and our conversation went something like this.

Me: “Look at that…”
Pete: “It kind of reminds me of BioShock.”
Me: “Yeah, I was about to say the same thing.”
Pete: “I want to try it on and be a Big Daddy.”
Me: “Shall we buy it?”
Pete: “Yeah, go on then.”

And so that explains how we came away from Battlesbridge with a diving helmet – and more importantly, why my other-half ended up trying it on. This has now set the tone for how we’re going to decorate the kitchen and dining area in our home; the aim is to have our gamer-friends walk in and recognise the BioShock references instantly while others will simply assume we’ve gone for a vaguely-nautical theme, which seems to be everywhere in interior-design nowadays.

We’ve purchased a few other items for the house too, including several from Gametee: their lovely mana and health potion candles, along with this ‘respawn point’ tin sign. It’s a shame there aren’t more places like this which cater for people who’d like to have something geeky in their home decor without it being too ‘in your face’ (if you know of good online shop, please let me know!).

Gamers are able to see video game references everywhere, including in a random room at an antiques centre in the middle of Essex. How do your gaming preferences influence the way you decorate your home?

Editorial: June 2017

Summer is almost upon us and, with a few lovely days in May, we were able to get out for a bit and get some sun on our skin. That didn’t stop us from finding time to play video games though! A massive thank you to all of our 324 followers for sticking with us – you guys are awesome and we’ve listed you over on our dedicated page to prove just how great you all are.

The WordPress community continues to create amazing posts and every time we look at our reader, we’re treated to something new and special. Here are some of the highlights from the past month:

  • If you’re a writer in need of useful advice on your blogging journey, you need to read this inspiring post by Ian from Adventure Rules.
  • ‘Realism is necessary only insofar as it remains fun.’ Great post here about hacking in video games from James at Opinion Loading.
  • Feeling a bit peckish in the morning? Then why not check out this post about video game cereals by Alexander on Pardon The Gamer.
  • I’ve just started watching 13 Reasons Why and this post by James at QTX ties in very nicely. Life is Strange is worthy of going on the school curriculum!
  • Following on from our post about visiting the set of The Bunker in real life, Tony from Wakalapi explains here how another real-world location has influenced his gaming habits.

  • Last month, Kim was…

    Doing:   solving problems and coordinating appointments
    Feeling:   a bit overwhelmed
    Playing:   Horizon Zero Dawn (still)
    Writing:   Arm yourself: video game weapons

    The past month has been completely nuts. Despite our builder advising that house renovations would take between three and four weeks, here we are three months later still without a fully functional kitchen – and with several cupboards installed upside down (that would explain why the drawers won’t fit). There’s only so much KFC one woman can eat so my other-half and I have had to take matters into our own hands.

    So with days of DIY and hospital appointments for my dad (thank you to everyone who sent well-wishes), there hasn’t been much time for video games unfortunately. The only thing I’ve managed to play during the past several weeks is Horizon Zero Dawn and, despite getting through over 70 hours of the game, I’m still only two-thirds of the way through the main storyline. Although I’m absolutely loving messing around in photo mode, I’m starting to get twitchy and feel the need to move to a different game coming on.

    I’ve received a number of recommendations: Kona from Dimlicht from Game Cartography; Virginia from Daniel from Dan Talks Games; and Life is Strange from both James at QTX and James from Excalibur Games. If you have any advice about these games or title suggestions that should be added to the list, please do let me know!

    Something I intend to play this month is Slime Rancher as part of the next Gamely Giving event. From 07:00 GMT on Saturday, 24 June 2017, Ethan’s Mini-Marathon will see us gaming for 16-hours live on Twitch in honour of the wonderful charity that is SpecialEffect. For every £1 donated, Ethan will place a block of TNT on a structure in his Minecraft world along with a sign showing the supporters name; he’ll then light it at the end of the stream so everyone can see how much destruction it causes. BOOM.

    Coming up this month…

    If we ever get a working kitchen, we’ll be adding some video-game-themed touches to the room (as well as cooking proper dinners rather than eating KFC) once it has been painted. I’ll share our ideas in a post later this week and you can let us know whether they’re cool or simply terrible.

    Alongside that, it’s Father’s Day here in the UK on 18 June 2017 so they’ll be something dedicated to all the dads out there. There’ll also be another blog party here on Later Levels on 30 June 2017 so get your colourful leis and even-more-colourful cocktails ready to help us celebrate the summer.

    The first round is on us – Kim and Ben   🍸

    Question of the Month: June 2017 edition

    The question of the month is back and will see us attempt to answer a quandary that has been puzzling the gaming community since it first saw Mario disappear down a pipe. We’re going up against our friends and blogging neighbours in order to find the ultimate response in less than 100 words – and we’re asking you to choose the winner by voting in our poll.

    But first, let’s take a look at last month’s question and find out who won…

    Last month’s results: what game would you recommend to a non-gamer?

    We received 27 votes in our poll – our highest response yet so thank you to everyone who took part – and received a range of additional answers from the community. Here’s the breakdown:

    Poll answers:

  • 7 votes: Journey, submitted by Kim from Later Levels
  • 7 votes: Tetris, submitted by NekoJonez from NekoJonez’s Gaming Blog
  • 5 votes: LEGO Jurassic World, submitted by Luke from Hundstrasse
  • 2 votes: BioShock, submitted by Nathan from Gamely Giving
  • 1 vote: Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars, submitted by Kevin from The Mental Attic
  • 0 votes: The Last Guardian, submitted by Chris from OverThinker Y

  • Additional answers:

  • Gears of War, submitted by Luna from GamersUnitedGG Blog
  • Mario Kart 8
  • Rez
  • The Last of Us
  • Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

  • So it was a tie between Journey and Tetris last month! A big thank you to everyone who voted, and now let’s see some competition going for the next question…

    June’s question: which video game contains the most surprising plot twist?

    We all love getting wrapped up in a video game and then being thrown a plot-twist that catches us off guard. From the final realisation in indie-darling Braid to the shocking climax of Red Dead Redemption, we’ve experienced some great turning points during our gaming years – but which is the most surprising? Beware of spoilers below as we reveal our contenders for the June 2017 trophy…

    Answer 1:   Baten Kaitos Origins

    Ian has been playing video games since his early childhood, primarily on Nintendo consoles, and he began to seriously experience tabletop gaming as a hobby in college. His passion for writing began at ten and he hasn’t stopped since! Head over to Adventure Rules to find out why he chose Baten Kaitos Origins as his answer this month.

    Answer 2:   BioShock

    Nathan from Gamely Giving says: “I might have given BioShock as my answer for the last question of the month, but let’s face it: it’s an awesome game that deserves to win. Now would you kindly vote for me? After all, a man chooses and a slave obeys.”

    Answer 3:   Corpse Party: Blood Covered – Repeated Fear

    NekoJonez from NekoJonez’s Gaming Blog says: “While it’s not my most surprising plot twist, Corpse Party: Blood Covered – Repeated Fear has one of the best. In the first chapter, you get to know Seiko and Naomi and they get trapped in the horror elementary school called Heavenly Host. These two can’t be separated but, due to the fact they’re in a haunted school, Naomi finds Seiko hanged in the ladies room. You find out it was Naomi that hung the rope around Seiko and killed her. When I reached this plot-twist, my mind was blown. Seriously, I didn’t see that one coming.”

    Answer 4:   EarthBound

    Tim is a guy who likes to get dressed up, have a good time, meet people who are passionate about their respective geekdoms and encourage everyone to be vocal about who they are. He’s also vocal about his answer for this month’s question – check out his argument for EarthBound over on GeekOut South-West.

    Answer 4:   Metal Gear Solid

    Luke writes about his long and varied gaming history and current musings over at Hundstrasse, and rates the selling of his copy of the truly bizarre Street Fighter: The Movie: The Game for PlayStation as one of his biggest gaming blunders. Read why he chose the FoxDie reveal from Metal Gear Solid as gaming’s most surprising plot twist here.

    Answer 5:   Metroid

    Kim from Later Levels says: “If you played Metroid well and reached the top-tier, you were awarded with an additional ending screen that showed Samus Aran without her Power Suit – revealing her to be female. I love the fact that not only was this a major plot-twist, it was a turning point for an industry obsessed with brave men rescuing helpless damsels in distress. Samus is now one of gaming’s most iconic female characters: she takes matters into her own hands, knows how to wield and weapon, can deal with alien lifeforms and takes no s**t from anybody. You go girl.”

    Answer 6:   Silent Hill 2

    Chris from OverThinker Y says: “Silent Hill 2’s twist is a classic, but for good reason. See, the player, as James Sunderland, spends the game searching for the author of a letter which appears to be from his dead wife while trying to avoid death by horrible deformed creatures. Turns out the creatures are manifestations over his guilt at having killed his wife, put there by his subconscious to punish him. The ending then changes depending on the player’s behaviour in a way that hasn’t been done as subtly or as effectively since. It’s perhaps gaming’s smartest and most legitimately disturbing horror story all these years later.”

    Answer 7:   Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

    Kevin is a geek and proud of it: no matter the situation, no matter the environment or the people around him, you’ll hear him discuss novels, games and films with anyone who’ll listen. He’ll also discuss his answer if you ask him nicely and you can find out why he chose Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic on The Mental Attic.

    So who’s got it right, and who’s got it so wrong that they deserve to never get the answer to a video game cliffhanger ever again? Cast your votes in the poll opposite or give your own suggestion and we’ll reveal the most popular answer on Friday, 07 July 2017 along with the next question.

    Got a question you’d like to see us struggle over next month? Or would you like to join in and add your own answer into our polls on a regular basis? Leave us a message in the comments below or get in touch!



    The wisdom of The LEGO Movie Videogame

    If you stop by Later Levels regularly, you’ll likely have read about Ethan at some point: a boy with a fondness for ice-cream, fluffy animals and anything related to Minecraft. I can’t believe how quickly the past few years have gone by and that my stepson will reach the grand old age of ten this weekend. Double figures!

    The following post was one I wrote several years ago for a different blog that no longer exists, a while after first meeting Pete and being introduced his son. I wanted to reprise it here in honour of Ethan’s milestone to wish him a very happy birthday: may his future be full of pixels, explosions and triumphs over the forces of evil.

    •••

    Originally published on 06 May 2015:

    Last year I moved to a different part of Essex for a fresh start and, after a few months of living in my new town, I had the pleasure of meeting Pete in a local pub. During a long conversation over a couple of beers we discovered we’d grown up in the same area on parallel streets, share a similar sense of humour, and both eat fish and chips more frequently than is good for us.

    But while we hit it off instantly, I was reluctant to tell him about my blog at first. It wasn’t because I was ashamed of it; it was more to do with the fact that I’ve mentioned it to others in the past and they tend to get this look in their eyes which means ‘women don’t play video games, let alone write about them’. I didn’t want to get into yet another discussion where I had to justify myself as a gamer, trying to convince the other person I don’t play Candy Crush and am quite happy spending a Friday night with a controller in hand.

    But eventually I plucked up the courage and you know what? Pete believed me straight off and wanted to know more. Our conversation then turned to the subject of gaming and he confessed he was a bit of a gamer too, having run a Vietcong server in his twenties and sinking way too many hours into World of Warcraft. He even told me it was he who had made the winners’ trophies for Games World and, being someone who was a teenager during the nineties, I was kind of impressed.

    Video games and friendship

    We’ve hung out pretty regularly since meeting and video games play a part in our relationship. We worked our way through Costume Quest 2 on Halloween, took a trip to the Heart of Gaming where I kicked his butt at Street Fighter II: The World Warrior (barely); got an hour through Thief before deciding it was way too much like Dishonored; and spent Christmas playing Alien Isolation while eating our own body-weight in chocolate. Although he has no desire to write, he’s interested in my blog and went to his first expo with me earlier this year.

    There are two aspects of our friendship which stand out for me, the first being that Pete doesn’t look at me any differently because of my gender when it comes to video games. I’d like to think we’ve both learnt a lot from each other: I’ve introduced him to the world of indie development and guided him through the perils of Kickstarter, and he told me about classic titles I’d never heard of before and didn’t laugh when I forgot the control system while trying to play The Witcher 2. Our discussions are those of a couple of people who enjoy gaming and accept each other for who they are, and it feels good not to see that look I mentioned above when we talk.

    The other factor is Pete’s son Ethan: a gorgeous seven-year old with boundless energy, a cheeky sense of humour and countless knock-knock jokes. He carries his 2DS with him wherever he goes and can do an excellent Mario impression. He’s played The LEGO Movie Videogame so much in my presence I now know the words to the annoying theme tune off by heart. Next on his wishlist is Minecraft, he often turns up wearing a Mario hat I bought him at EGX last year, and he completely freaked out when he got a Wii U for Christmas.

    It’s obvious from his description that games feature regularly when spending time with Ethan. If he and Pete come over for breakfast on a Sunday morning, he’ll tell me to sit down next to me because he needs to complete the next part of my ‘training’ on Mario Kart 8. He has watched me roam (nothing more) through the mountains and forests of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim while pretending to be a knight with a sword. And there was one lengthy announcement where he revealed he’s going to be a game developers when he grows up, with his first release being ‘Warcraft Insanity’ and featuring ancient Egypt, mummies and grenades.

    The thing all gamers have in common

    There have been several controversies in the gaming industry over the past few years and – while it pains me to say it – the community surrounding it has become so much more hostile. I’m not going to turn this into a post on feminism or write this feeling sorry for myself, but it can be particularly hard being a woman at times. I’m fortunate enough never to have experienced the same level of aggression as others but I’ve been ignored at expos in favour of male friends, received horrible comments via Facebook posts and tend to stay away from online gaming.

    The one thing we all have in common as gamers is exactly that: gaming. We may be of different genders, from different countries, of different sexualities but all of us share a love of video games and it’s a common ground that should bring us together. We’ve all shared that experience of picking up our now-favourite title for the first time, eagerly awaiting the release of a much-anticipated sequel, and spending way too much money during a Steam sale and then bankrupting ourselves until the next one.

    Unfortunately though, some gamers don’t see it that way and instead choose to target other players for their differences. Abuse written on forums and dished out during online games is now seen as the norm, with ‘gay’ and ‘gamer gurl’ being common insults. While certain members of the community are ostracised, we limit both ourselves and the community as a whole; we deter new talent from working within the industry, we lose unique ideas that could lead to amazing experiences, and we perpetuate the view of gamers as being caustic and hostile.

    GEEK, expo, convention, video games, Mario, costume, Ethan, cosplay

    Both Peter and Ethan don’t see me as a ‘girl’: they see me as a gamer who happens to be female, one they’re happy to spend time with talking about and playing video games. It doesn’t matter to Ethan that I’m of the opposite sex, or so much older than he is, or that I suck at most of his 2DS titles and regularly forget control schemes. He just wants to stick on a game and sit on the sofa together so he can train us and become the ‘Uber-Master’ of everything he plays. He may only be seven-years old, but sometimes he’s wise beyond his years.

    Hope for the future of gaming

    I have to admit this makes me hopeful for the future of gaming. When I was growing up, video games were seen as a bit of a ‘niche’ hobby and not something everybody did; but there are many children out there who are now familiar with and accept them as a part of everyday life. The majority will experience gaming at least once if not be a fan themselves, and because of this they’re more likely to be accepting of other players despite their differences.

    When you see Ethan’s expression after discovering a new shortcut within Mario Kart (usually followed by a ‘whoa!’ or ‘easy now!’) and consider the fact he wants to share this with you whoever you are, it’s hard not to smile and wonder what the gaming world will be like when he’s my age. There’s every reason to hope the hostility and discrimination so apparent within the community at present will eventually die out; I just hope I’m still around to witness it.

    As a woman who blogs about gaming, I’m tired of continuously having to justify myself as a gamer. The sooner the community can accept the fact that every member is equal and has a worthwhile opinion, the sooner we can get back to doing what we love and playing more video games. Perhaps we should all try to be a bit more like Ethan, and maybe the theme tune to The LEGO Movie Videogame holds more wisdom than it first seems…

    Everything is awesome; everything is cool when you’re part of a team.

    Kitacon 2017: cosplay update

    Earlier this year I wrote about Kitacon. Tim from GeekOut South-West first introduced me to it back in March 2014 when he was in Birmingham for the event and I was in town for a different show. After a few rounds of Cards Against Humanity with his friends, he snuck me into the Hilton Metropole so I could see what it was all about.

    This year it’s taking place in its new home at the University of Warwickshire from 18 to 20 August 2017. It’s thanks to Tim and his lovely partner Jake that my other-half and I have tickets: 1,400 standard passes sold out in just over eight minutes so we’re extremely grateful to them for being ready to click the order button.

    I’ve got a steep learning curve in front of me during the lead-up to the convention. Members of the Kitacon Official Social Group on Facebook have been discussing their cosplay plans over the past few months and most seem to have ideas for not one, but several awesome costumes. I, on the other hand, have absolutely no clue when it comes to dress-making or cosplay creation and so there’s a chance I could be a little out of my depth.

    Stranger Things, television programme, Eleven, girl

    That’s not going to stop me from trying though, although house renovations and recent family illness have meant I’ve made hardly any progress lately. But I’ve now at least narrowed down the ideas I came up with previously to two. I’ve chosen to make a start with Eleven from Stranger Things (pictured opposite) for a couple of reasons: the outfit itself is pretty ‘normal’ in comparison to others so it’s not too ambitious for a cosplay first-timer, plus the character herself is simply badass.

    Tim recently set up a Trello board for us so we can keep track of progress on our costumes. This collaboration tool organises your projects into boards so you can easily see what’s being worked on and by whom, giving a lovely visual representation of all you’ve achieved so far. If you’ve never heard about it before, head over to the GeekOut South-West site on Wednesday for a handy guide that explains how to get started.

    Our Cosplay Progress Board is open to everyone if you’d like to see how we’re getting on. As mentioned above, my creativity skills aren’t that great so I’m going to have to source a lot of the items needed for the Eleven outfit rather than make them. Fortunately I’ve managed to find a great dress by VioletHouseClothing on the Etsy website and will be placing an order next week; I’m still struggling to track down the right socks though so if anyone has any recommendations, please let me know.

    Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, cartoon, female, reporter, journalist, microphone, April O'Neil

    My second costume is going to be April O’Neil (pictured opposite) from the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and I’ve already found a yellow jumpsuit on eBay which might do the trick, although the quality could be a little hit-and-miss. I’ve therefore dug out an outfit I wore to a fancy-dress party a few years ago so I’ve got Velma from Scooby Doo ready as back-up in case needed. I just need to buy a good wig.

    I doubt I’ll ever become a cosplay master but hopefully these costumes go well enough so I feel as though I fit in while at Kitacon. Three months and counting: I’ll take some photographs as soon as an outfit is complete for a further update. Wish me luck!