Thank you, BioWare

It took me two years to finish Mass Effect 2. Not because there’s two years worth of content, although by the time you factor in multiple play-throughs, character options and mission selections there might be; but because my daughter was born.

Yes, my gaming was interrupted by our second child – selfish, eh? Still, as a result Mass Effect 2 will always have a special place in my heart (Batman: Arkham City will too but that’s a story for another day).

I made slow progress but the design of the game was such that I could always pick up where I left off and know exactly what I was supposed to be doing, even if I hadn’t touched it in months. Part of this is the underlying theme of family in Mass Effect 2 and I think it’s the primary reason I kept going back to it, stealing thirty minutes here and there whenever I could. The way Shepard’s family was growing was, in some way, similar to my own. Each member of the Normandy’s crew was having to adjust to new arrivals into the fold just as my son and dog were having to adjust to the tiny scream-factory invading their own status quo.

The Normandy’s expanding crew each had their own personal backstory to uncover, which lead to a character specific mission that would, on completion, earn Shepard their trust. These personal adventures kept up the family theme too with some being more subtle than others. Garrus was betrayed by a team-member he trusted; Grunt (a clone of his species) wanted to go through his coming-of-age trial; Morlin had to track down a former protégé; and many of the others had direct family members in some kind of trouble.

Shepard too was like a child in a tug of war between two parents: Cerberus for saving his-or-her life and giving him-or-her a ship and a crew with which to take on the Reapers, and Earth’s Military who had provided training and position. BioWare’s skill was in making the small, personal stories have such a huge impact on the narrative, with the player knowing throughout the entire game they were heading for a one-way suicide mission to the heart of enemy territory. Without the trust and loyalty of the crew there was no way all of them (including Shepard) would survive and, crucially, if they died then they wouldn’t make an appearance in Mass Effect 3.

The final mission itself forced the player to make certain choices about who to take with them, who to stay and guard an area or escort prisoners back to the ship. The only way to know who was best suited to the job was to have completed the missions so you could understand their strengths and weaknesses. Just like you know the individual quirks of your family.

Mass Effect 2 is a brilliant game, it plays well, it’s scripted brilliantly and delivers on all fronts. That it was released at a time when my own family was growing adds an extra personal level for me but I’m sure there were themes, ideas and moments in the game that resonated with everyone who played it; more so if you made it to the end and began that final, heroic mission from the Omega-4 Relay.

That’s just one small snippet from my experiences with BioWare. From Baldur’s Gate to the Old Republic, from Two Rivers to Kirkwall, this is a company that has consistently delivered games of the highest calibre. So thank you and happy birthday – here’s to another twenty years.

Batman bites: video game ratings and suitability

I met Pete and his young son after moving to a different part of Essex last year. Ethan is a gorgeous little seven-year-old with boundless energy, a cheeky sense of humour and countless knock-knock jokes.

He carries his 2DS with him constantly and can do an excellent Mario impression. He’s played The LEGO Movie Videogame so much in my presence that I know the annoying theme tune off by heart, and he completely freaked out when his dad revealed a Wii U for Christmas (yes, I’m training him up for reviews).

During the holidays I was invited to the sales with them so Ethan could get a new video game for his console, and when we arrived at a local GAME store his initial choice was Super Smash Bros. Its Pan-European Game Information (PEGI) rating of 12 caused Pete and I to throw sideways glances at each other over the top of his head; but as soon as he saw LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham all thoughts of any other title were put to one side, so we didn’t have to tell him ‘no’. We felt it would be entirely appropriate given its PEGI 7 classification and left the shop with the box in hand.

Because of their matching ratings and LEGO themes, we were expecting something similar to The LEGO Movie Videogame. But the title we ended up with was quite different: this wasn’t something Ethan was able to pick up and play without any assistance. An unclear storyline, huge number of characters with various special abilities and an increased difficulty curve meant that Pete and I had to guide him through every step, including the tutorial – and there were some points where even we were stumped ourselves and had to report to a walkthrough we found online.

Realising our mistake

Once Ethan had gone to bed, we started talking about the classifications given to video games and how they’re applied. Why had LEGO Batman 3 been assigned a PEGI 7 rating when it seemed to be beyond the skill of a typical seven-year-old gamer? We’d chosen a title that didn’t feel appropriate for a child of Ethan’s age and we all ended the day feeling pretty frustrated; he was upset as he thought we were telling him off for not playing the game properly, when all we were trying to do was give him little pushes in the right direction. A few wary looks were exchanged behind his back when Ethan said he wanted to try again the following day.

But what we didn’t realise straight away is that we’d got it wrong. The classifications applied are no reflection on the difficulty level involved or the skill required in order to play a game; they’re only concerned with the suitability of the content. A new version of Call of Duty could be created using fantasy non-human characters and slapstick violence and it would be appropriate for a child according to PEGI despite the complex control scheme, because it wouldn’t contain any content that could potentially ‘harm’ them. OK, so that’s a bit of an extreme example – but you get my point.

The PEGI website states:

[The ratings] provide a reliable indication of the suitability of the game content in terms of protection of minors. The age rating does not take into account the difficulty level or skills required to play a game.

A classification of 3 is given to titles that contain ‘some violence in a comical context’ and the child ‘should not be able to associate the character on the screen with real life characters, they should be totally fantasy’. A PEGI 7 title is ‘any game that would normally be rated at 3 but contains some possibly frightening scenes or sounds’.

So given this explanation, the classification applied to LEGO Batman 3 feels correct. The game doesn’t contain anything that could possibly scare Ethan and it’s not as if Pete has had to explain what he has seen onscreen in terms of violence, sex or bad language. But his dad has been gaming for years and I write for this blog, and as such we consider ourselves to be pretty clued-up when it comes to video games; so if we weren’t aware of the true meaning behind the PEGI ratings, then how many parents out there are oblivious too?

Video games aren’t toys

Manufacturers print age-ranges on toy boxes to show how age-appropriate they are. Toys that are too easy will end up boring a child while those that are too advanced will only frustrate them, so the companies provide an indication to help parents decide what will suit. Safety also comes into play (no pun intended but who doesn’t love a good pun) and manufacturers must carry out a comprehensive safety assessment and sample testing of all marketed toys under UK law.

But video games aren’t toys: they’re media with plenty of content, and so therefore need a different method of classification. The PEGI rating system was established in 2003 to assist parents in making informed decisions when buying games and give an indication of suitability of content. As well as age assessments, packaging carries descriptors to help in explaining the subjects that a title might touch upon and these appear as a set of icons covering themes such as fear, bad language, violence and drugs.

The mistake we made was to initially view video game classifications as being similar to the age-range applied by toy manufacturers. I spoke to Ben about this briefly to ask his opinion on the matter and, being a dad himself, he agreed that a lot of parents incorrectly group games and toys into the same bracket. This potentially means that there are many adults out there who are letting their children play titles that are completely unsuitable for them, and I don’t just mean in terms of difficulty in the same way that Pete and I had got it wrong.

For example, we all know parents who are extremely proud of their kids, and who (rightly or wrongly) think their seven-year-old is more advanced than their peers as they display a higher-than-normal level of intelligence. The adults therefore assume the child could handle a video game classified for an older age-group and because they view them as toys, they believe the next level up – a PEGI 12 rating in this case – would actually be more appropriate. The kid is therefore exposed to ‘violence of a more graphic nature towards human-looking characters’ and ‘nudity of a slightly more graphic nature’… that game doesn’t seem so appropriate now, does it?

Handling the situation as a parent

Speak to any gamer and they’re likely to have a story about a parent who has purchased an inappropriate game for their child. In fact, when Pete went to collect the Wii U for Ethan’s Christmas present he actually came across one such dad himself. The guy in front of him in the queue was there with his two young daughters and son, all of whom appeared to be between eight and fifteen. One of the girls handed over a copy of Grand Theft Auto V (with its PEGI 18 rating) and her money when they got to the till; and the assistant told the dad she couldn’t take it from her because of the classification. But rather than choose something more suitable for his kids, the guy handed over the cash himself before passing the game back to his daughter.

The Video Standards Council (VSC) is the board that now jointly administers the PEGI rating scheme with the Netherlands Institute for the Classification of Audiovisual Media (NICAM). It established a Code of Practice after being formed in 1989 and this was extended to the gaming industry in 1993. One of its rules states:

Members will have a duty to take all reasonable action to ensure that age restricted and other audio-visual products, DVDs and video games are not supplied or offered for supply either as physical products or online to persons under the specified ages.

So the shop assistant in the example above did the right thing; unfortunately however that doesn’t some people from circumventing the regulations.

It’s entirely believable that an intelligent child may be able to handle a game for an older age-range in terms of complexity of gameplay, but they could still be harmed by inappropriate content such as that contained within GTA V (drugs and strip-clubs, anyone?). Video games blur the line between toys and media. Should they therefore be given a double-rating to distinguish between difficulty and content suitability? Would this be too much classification and cause even more confusion? And some people, like the dad in Pete’s story above, even care?

Perhaps I shouldn’t comment as I’m not a parent myself, but I think the best way to deal with the situation is to get involved with your children. Know what they’re playing and don’t leave it to an age-rating on some packaging; find out for yourself whether the content within a video game is suitable and if the difficulty level matches their skill set. You’ll gain a greater awareness of gaming as well as spending some quality time with your kid. Pete and I may have been initially mistaken about LEGO Batman 3, but at least Ethan will get to the end of it (with our help and a walkthrough) without seeing anything he shouldn’t.

For more information on video game classification, please go to the official PEGI website or take a look at The Good Gaming Guide leaflet.

Interview: STASIS

STASIS is a 2D isometric, point-and-click adventure game for PC and Mac, set in the distant future on a desolate spacecraft. John Maracheck must interact and solve puzzles to save his family but – as if that wasn’t difficult enough – he’ll uncover horrific experimentation, illicit research and find himself drawn into an ever-deepening mystery.

Several chapters have been fully completed while the remaining areas have been technically-planned; you can experience the title for yourself by getting the alpha demo from the official website.

The Brotherhood consists of Chris (‘The Developer Guy’), Nic (‘The Business Guy’) and John (‘The PR Guy’) and they have big plans for further isometric adventures. But first STASIS needs to be successful, so the more support their Kickstarter project can get the better! We’re proud to call ourselves backers, and would like to say a big thank you to Chris Bischoff for taking the time to answer our questions about his amazing project.

How did The Brotherhood team meet and what made you decide to start making STASIS?

Chris:STASIS started long before The Brotherhood existed. Although, in a way, The Brotherhood has always been around in one form or another. Nic [Nicholas Bischoff] and I are brothers and have been building games and working together for a very long time. STASIS came about as a side project in late 2010, as an artistic distraction to keep me occupied during a December break. It naturally expanded as I grew more involved and fell in love with the world! Since then, not much time has passed where I haven’t worked on it on an almost daily basis.”

You mention some classic adventure games such as The Dig, Gabriel Knight and Broken Sword on your Kickstarter page. Are you a fan of the genre and how have these titles influenced your work?

Chris: “I’ve always loved adventure games. When I first started playing them, it was for the humour then the puzzles and the stories. The Space Quest series is one of my favourites, with many school days spent trying to figure out the homing beacon puzzle instead of doing homework!

“My passion has been for stories and trying to get the best way to tell them. In a large way, that is what drives my love of art. I found that adventure games, with their heavy focus on story and world building, are the perfect form of expression for me as an artist.

“I love The Dig for its beautiful art and its focus on a much more mature game world. The Gabriel Knight series and Broken Sword are great examples of games that have a firm basis in reality, but with a fantastic story-telling twist. STASIS borrows from this in that the world itself is grounded in a reality (well, as grounded as science-fiction can be), but places our character in an extraordinary situation in that world.”

STASIS tells the story of John Maracheck, who finds himself on a desolate spacecraft trying to save his family. Are you able to share any further details about the plot and this character?

Chris: “I’ve been careful not to divulge too much information about the story. I can say that there are more than a few surprises in store for the player!”

You mention that the title follows the gameplay mechanics of classics such as Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle, very different from STASIS sci-fi, horror storyline. Was it a conscious decision to go for something darker, and how well do you feel horror games lend themselves to the point-and-click genre?

Chris: “I love adventure games because it is such a versatile format. If you look at some of the more recent adventure game, like The Walking Dead, you can see just how easy it is to take the genre and mould it into something new and exciting.

“The world of STASIS stems from my passion for science-fiction and horror. It was certainly a conscious decision to make STASIS a reflection of that. If you’re going to be so intimately involved in a piece of artwork for such a long time, it must be something that you love.”

The ‘Suicide’ stretch goal is intriguing: this will see key items planted around the spacecraft that John can pick up and use on himself! Other than death, will this have any impact on the gameplay?

Chris: “There is death in STASIS, but it’s supported by a robust auto-saving function which ensures that the death doesn’t become an annoyance to the player. My hope is that it will drive home the severity of the situation that John finds himself in.

“The suicides will be an extension of the pre-existing death system, and while it won’t have an impact directly on the story, I’m hoping that it will have an impact of the players’ psyche!”

We were instantly reminded of Sanitarium when watching the Kickstarter video; the isometric view really lends itself to conveying a dark, abandoned atmosphere. What made you decide to do with this visual style?

Chris: “Simply, I like the isometric point of view. Fallout, Diablo, Commandos – these are games that shaped me as a young artist. To be able to create and then explore my own world from that point of view… it’s just a dream come true.

“The isometric view also has a way of making you feel small, I think. As if you are just a part of this larger world – a world that will carry on in existence with or without you. In a horror game, that can be a scary thought.”

You recently announced that the game will be scored by Mark Morgan, who has worked on some great titles such as Zork and Fallout. How did this collaboration come about?

Chris: “Before we went live with the Kickstarter, we knew that hiring a composer was a major aspect to get the game up to the level that we wanted it. Once the Alpha demo was released, I got a message from Mark Morgan on Twitter saying how much he enjoyed what he had seen. It was an incredible surprise and an honour.

“When he offered to score the game, I almost fell off my chair! The games he has worked on have been such an intricate part of my artistic life and in many cases their fingerprints can be felt in STASIS. To think that the game will have a Mark Morgan score… it’s just surreal.”

The Kickstarter campaign has been very successful so far, with 72% of the $100,000 target being received from 2,380 backers (at the time of writing). What challenges have you faced going down this route and were you prepared for them when starting out?

Chris: “I think you can only be prepared to a certain extent and then you may realize that none of your plans are working. We wanted to allow ourselves to remain flexible during the campaign, and that is something that has certainly made the experience a lot more fun.

“Initially, the biggest challenge was waiting. It took an extra few days for our campaign to make it through the approval process due to a heavy load on their side. I’m sure that anyone who has done a Kickstarter campaign can tell you that a few days can feel like weeks!

“We used this time to our advantage and polished the Alpha demo of the game into a fully playable state that could be released with the campaign.”

Is there any advice you’d give to someone who’s thinking of making an indie game?

Chris: “Love what you are doing, because you are going to be working at it tirelessly. I think there has to be a form of obsession for your project. Also, do something out of your comfort zone on the project because it will keep everything fresh and exciting.”

Can you tell us which component of STASIS you’re currently working on? How are you feeling about its release?

Chris: Currently I’m working through all of the feedback received from the demo and implementing many of the suggestions that have been offered.”

Once again, a big thank you to Chris for answering our questions! Help The Brotherhood out by heading over to their Kickstarter project to show your support by 07 December 2013, and by giving them a thumbs-up on Steam Greenlight. Further details and the demo download can be found on the official website.