Same old story: video games and replayability

Last month I asked readers how they felt about character-switching in video games. Do you enjoy seeing a digital world through the eyes of multiple protagonists? After playing The Little Acre and changing characters every five minutes, I was reminded of exactly why I don’t.

This month I’ve got another question for you: do you immediately replay releases you’ve just completed to make different choices or see other endings? The reason I ask is because of an article I came across on the gamesindustry.biz website recently with the headline: In the past, YouTubers were very problematic… Suddenly they became our allies. This was about a discussion between Quantic Dream founder David Cage and Hazelight Studios founder Josef Fares at the Gamelab conference in July 2019.

They talked about the impact of platforms such as Twitch and YouTube on games which hang on a strong narrative. A number of developers have stated in the past that too many people will simply watch a release online rather than experience it for themselves; once they know how the story turns out, they no longer feel the need to play. I can’t deny I’ve never done this. There have been a few titles where I’m not so sure about the gameplay but have been interested in the plot, and so I’ve found a video (my version of watching a film).

The struggle to create a narrative game people want to play rather than watch was tackled in different ways by Hazelight Studios and Quantic Dream. The former took a linear story path in A Way Out, but its unique cooperative gameplay had an appeal which caused players to want to try it for themselves This was the case for myself and my other-half: we’d watched a chapter on Twitch before agreeing we should purchase the title. The ending may not have been what we wanted but it was an enjoyable experience overall.

Quantic Dream went in a different direction and created a narrative that couldn’t be easily captured in video form. Their solution was to focus on the situations players faced in Detroit: Become Human and provide choices where the audience was split at least 70/30 in their decision. It meant that although YouTubers and streamers could show one version of the title’s outcomes, they were unable to show them all; so viewers wanted to find out for themselves what would happen if other choices had been made.

Speaking of branches, players are given access to a ‘flowchart’ in Detroit which not only shows the decisions they made but the paths not taken too. This was a change from their previous releases where those alternative paths had remained hidden. Cage said: “Maybe that was not a good decision. Maybe hiding everything from the player is not a good thing. Detroit was a better compromise, because it was about showing part of what you missed, and that played a major role in the success of the game.”

EGX, expo, event, video games, Kim, Detroit: Become Human

He attributes this and the branches throughout his project as the reason why around 78% of players finished it, rather than the 25% to 30% that’s usual for most video games. He also said: “It’s the story. People want to know what’s going to happen next, and a story can achieve this for you. What’s interesting on Detroit is that we managed to make people replay, so they could see all of the different branches – which is quite rare in a narrative game. We achieved this because we showed all of the branches and the variations of the story.”

But if you discount those that can be completed in under an hour, I can’t recall a time I’ve ever replayed a game immediately after finishing it. The version of the narrative I’ve just witnessed is my story and I’m happy with that; I’ve never felt the need to go back and change it, even if I got the ‘bad’ ending. I might reload the last save-point if it’s right near the end and won’t take too much time or effort to see the alternate outcome, but it doesn’t feel right to use my free hours to restart a story when there are so many new ones to jump into.

Saying that though, I haven’t yet gotten around to playing Detroit so it’s always possible the branching flowchart could change my mind. I had the opportunity to try a demo at EGX in September 2017, purchased it soon after its release in May 2018 and installed the game on my PlayStation, but it’s still waiting there for me. Perhaps this is a good excuse to schedule another stream: let’s get something organised for this month, and see live on air whether I’m tempted by the prospect of entering into another playthrough.

In the meantime, over to you: do you immediately replay video games? If so, what elements of a title encourage you to do this? Let us know in the comments below, or in your own post if you’re inspired to write.

A Way Out: not the ending we wanted

When the schedule for our GameBlast19 marathon stream was revealed in January, I was pleased that A Way Out had made the cut. I’d been looking forward to playing it for a while and it seemed as though it would be great for an extended gaming session: something with a good narrative to rope us in and simple controls.

I wasn’t wrong. What I’ve learnt during five years of GameBlast events is that if you haven’t got your hands on a controller, you’re going to fall asleep at some point during those 24-hours. The cooperative style of A Way Out meant my other-half and I could play at the same time, so we were both involved in that section of the stream and it made it somewhat easier to keep going. After a few minutes’ debate we picked our characters and jumped right into the story.

If you haven’t played this game yet and intend to do so, I’d highly recommend navigating away from this post now and coming back later. There will be some major spoilers in the paragraphs towards the end.

I went for Leo Caruso: a man who has completed six months of an eight-year prison sentence for grand theft, assault and armed robbery, after a plan to steal and sell a famous diamond went horribly wrong. He may initially come across as insensitive and headstrong, but it’s obvious he cares deeply for his son Alex and wife Linda. The most touching moments in-game are those where he’s with his family and for all his faults and misdemeanours, you can see he really does want to be a good father.

The story begins when Vincent Moretti (Pete’s character) arrives in the same jail after being convicted for fraud and murder. They become reluctant friends when a thug sent in by crime boss Harvey tries to murder Leo – and it turns out that Vincent has a history with this dodgy villain too. Together the pair complete a daring escape plan so they can seek their revenge, during which they become closer and more trusting; but neither protagonist is aware of what it will cost both them and their families (more about that later).

A Way Out is only playable in either online or local split-screen co-op, so it’s not a release you’ll be able to get through on your own. The players need to cooperate and help each other in order to progress; this might consist of taking on different roles, such as one distracting a nurse while the other steals a chisel, or timing button presses correctly. One of the best parts for this is when it’s necessary for Leo and Vincent to climb up a tall shaft, and they do so by linking arms and walking upwards with coordinated steps.

There are more action-focused sections also where, for example, one character has to steer a vehicle while the other takes shots at pursuers. There are several Uncharted-style gun-rights towards the end of the game although these aren’t particularly long or difficult. You’re usually presented with a choice of choosing Leo or Vincent’s way of dealing with a situation (head-on and somewhat reckless compared to more strategic), and both players must agree before you can move on.

Ultimately though, A Way Out is a series of quick-time events (QTE) set to a plot so you might want to give it a miss if you’re not a fan of Quantic-Dream-type titles. I don’t mind a QTE every once in a while though as long as the narrative is good enough to hold my attention, so I found Hazelight Studios’ release it to be a pleasant and casual experience for around seven hours. That was until the end however, when something happened to make me almost completely change my positive opinion.

The reason why Vincent is on the scene is very personal: he’s a police officer who’s on the hunt for Harvey, his detective brother’s murderer. His sibling was shot dead six months earlier after going undercover to expose the theft of the famous diamond by Leo and the crime boss. He essentially uses his new ‘friend’ to track down Harvey before killing him in act of revenge – and then turns the table on Leo, knowing that a whole lot of police are going to be waiting for him when they land at an airport.

A Way Out, video game, criminals, police, police car, gun, hostage, Leo, Vincent

It’s not this plot-twist both Pete and I objected to but rather what came after it. Leo manages to subdue Vincent and uses him as a hostage in order to hijack a car. It eventually ends with a gun-fight between the pair on a rooftop in the rain where there can only be one survivor. In that space of time, we were continually thinking that Vincent would come up with a way of letting Leo escape as he finally had what he wanted in Harvey’s death… but no. The cop was going to pursue him until the bitter end, one way or another.

This absolutely sucks. Not the most eloquent phrase I’ve ever used in a review but it really does suck and for two reasons. First, the characters bond over the course of the game and eventually develop a level of trust, sharing their worries about their futures and their families. Leo even provides Vincent with a certain level of ‘marriage counselling’ on the flight to the airport mentioned above and this is what keeps him together with his wife, if he survives the final confrontation.

So it therefore doesn’t feel right to have Vincent betray his partner throughout the game. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not asking for an entirely happy ending and I understand he’s a police officer who’s ‘doing his job’, but it just didn’t feel as though it flowed with the rest of the title. There’s also the fact that the switch in gameplay from cooperative to competitive is incredibly jarring – although I have to admit this does effectively imitate the emotion the protagonists must be going through themselves.

The second reason for the huge suckage is that the player isn’t given a choice about the characters’ fate: they’re simply told to battle it out with button bashes to see who reaches the gun first and therefore lives. When Leo was successful and a scene showing an aim icon over Vincent appeared, Pete and I sat staring at the screen for a while because neither of us wanted to see either protagonist die. Eventually we had to give in because there was no other way to move the game forward.

A Way Out, video game, men, gun, shooting, rain, Leo, Vincent

I know all video games present an illusion of choice and it’s ultimately the developer’s path we’re walking, but players want to feel as though they’re able to affect an outcome. To not offer the chance to save both Leo and Vincent seems inappropriate almost. There was a chance for the criminal to now be with the family he loves, even if he’ll spend the rest of his life constantly looking over his shoulder; and there was a chance for the cop to move on after his brother’s death and realise his wife and new daughter are the most important things in the world.

Although I wouldn’t necessarily now say A Way Out is a bad release, the ending has tainted my opinion of it somewhat. Perhaps that makes me a selfish gamer and I should accept the experience of the story that Hazelight Studios wanted to tell. If you’ve played the game, I’d be interested to know what you think: how did the ending make you feel and would you have made a different choice if you could?

Two can play that game

As well as declaring our love for our backlogs this week, it’s also Valentine’s Day: that time of year when we show our loved-ones just how much we care about them. And seeing how I managed to bag myself a new husband last month (it still feels weird writing that), I guess I should be pulling out all the stops to show him just how special he is to me.

I don’t do red roses, boxes of chocolates and cards bearing statements of everlasting love however. The idea of Valentine’s Day has never held any appeal for me and I find it counter-intuitive: you can show someone how you feel about them on any day of the year rather than waiting for a particular date in February. So I’ve chosen to forego the traditionally-soppy stuff and instead devote today’s post to him, all about the video games we’ve played together over the past few years.

Street Fighter

After moving to a different part of Essex in 2014, someone overheard me having a conversation in a pub about Street Fighter. He introduced himself as ‘Pete’ and started trying to guess my favourite character; and during a conversation over a couple of drinks, we realised we’d grown up in houses on parallel streets and had moved to the same town as adults but never met before. Not long afterwards we visited The Heart of Gaming, where we went head-to-head on the title and I kicked his butt (there’s a chance he may have let me win).

Alien: Isolation

For our first Christmas evening together, the most festive thing Pete and I did was eat an entire tub of Quality Street. The rest of the night was spent playing Alien: Isolation, creeping around the Sevastopol space station in search of Ellen Ripley – and being unable to make our way past a dark corridor because that damn Xenomorph kept dropping through a vent in the ceiling and onto our heads. In a fashion which has repeated itself with horror games since, he was in charge of the controller while I hid behind a cushion.

Journey

In an effort to introduce them both to the indie side of gaming, I re-installed Journey for my other-half and stepson – and Ethan fell in love with it as soon as we handed the controller over to him. After climbing the snowy mountain and reaching the final cutscene, he said: “So I’m the star… and the next person playing right now will see me in the sky at the start of their game. That’s cool.” Getting that opportunity to show him that video games don’t have to be about violence and the fact that he understood that so well made me very proud.

Guild of Dungeoneering

Pete had never been to a gaming expo before so when Rezzed rolled around in April 2015, I bought him a ticket to go with Ben and I. His favourite game of the show was Guild of Dungeoneering; a strange choice for him because neither of us are particularly into card games. The quirky hand-drawn art-style won him over however and we played this title together for a number of weeks afterwards, and even now he bursts out into song because the catchy theme tune has suddenly popped into his head.

Overcooked!

Ethan really enjoys titles where all three of us can play together so Overcooked! seemed like an obvious choice when it was released in 2016. We haven’t managed to complete it yet though and gaming sessions usually end up with my stepson running around blasting the fire extinguisher; but it’s an awful lot of fun and encourages plenty of yelling. We’ve tried increasing our team to four members by including my mother-in-law when she stays with us – but it usually has hilarious, if disastrous, consequences.

To The Moon

Although it’s not the sort of game he’d usually enjoy, Pete was happy to sit and watch while I played through To The Moon once again last year. He may have teased me a little when the tears started falling towards the end but he could see how much this game meant to me. When it came time to pick the music for our marriage ceremony, Everything’s Alright by Laura Shigihara therefore seemed like the perfect choice for one of the songs; and the piano version we went for left our guests unaware that it was a track from a video game.

The Elder Scrolls Online

If adventuring through the Elder Scrolls lands was fun before, it’s even more fun now having Pete there by my side as explained in a post last week. We’ve been levelling up alongside each other and completing all the quests together; and when a solo one comes up, we’ll wait for our comrade by the exit once we’re done. It’s nice having someone there to explore the world with, celebrate in-game accomplishments with, and trade loot with – and it’s an added bonus that he’s sitting right next to me on the sofa.

A Way Out

Pete has participated in the GameBlast marathon stream with me ever since we met, although the event this year is going to be a little different. The other members of our usual crew will be tied up with spouse’s birthdays and new babies so it’s just the two of us next month! The game I’m most looking forward to playing is A Way Out because I love a good couch-coop – and if both of us have a controller, there’s less chance of us falling asleep. You can find out about our 24-hour stream schedule in this post.



With a new year of gaming ahead of us, hopefully there’ll be many more games Pete and I play together during 2019. Are there any titles you’d recommend for couples and friends; and which releases have you played with your loved-ones? Let me know in comments below so we can share the love this Valentine’s Day.   ❤

GameBlast19: game schedule announced!

Here’s the latest on our plans for GameBlast19, an annual gaming marathon for SpecialEffect. This amazing charity puts fun and inclusion back into the lives of those with physical disabilities by helping them to play video games using a range of technology, making a positive impact on confidence and rehabilitation. Take a look at this update on the SpecialEffect website or click on the link to see all Later Levels’ posts about the event.


Unfortunately I have some upsetting news to share in this update: I’m sorry to announce that my PC sadly passed away shortly before Christmas. We had some good times together over the years and, although I maybe should have shown her a little more attention during the past few months, I loved her like she was one of the family. Her memory will forever live on in the digital lands we explored, the characters we met and the games we played together. May she rest in peace.

Pete, Zelda, cat, PC parts, building

Alright, so it’s not that dramatic and it’s not all bad news. Pete and I had been planning to a upgrading to a new machine anyway and this situation gave us the push we needed to finally get around to doing it. The parts for the new addition to our family arrived a couple of weeks ago and we spent a weekend putting it together, taking slightly longer than expected due to a couple of minor issues. After a bit of tinkering and several cups of tea, we had a new PC that’s going to see us through 24-hours of games for GameBlast19.

‘And what exactly are those games?’, I hear you cry. Well now we can reveal all as the results of the GameBlast Bytes Battle are in! We’ve been asking you lovely lot to vote for the titles you’d like to see us play on Twitch since November, and the winners can be found below.

Date Time Genre Game Votes
Saturday, 23 February 2019 08:00 GMT Platformer Crash Bandicoot 73.91%
11:00 GMT Community Overcooked! 52.63%
14:00 GMT Virtual reality Moss 72.22%
17:00 GMT Action Hellblade 73.91%
20:00 GMT Adventure A Way Out 80.95%
23:00 GMT Horror Until Dawn 58.33%
Sunday, 24 February 2019 02:00 GMT Shooter BioShock 73.68%
05:00 GMT RPG ESO 63.16%
08:00 GMT Stream ends Sleep 100.00%

Over the next few weeks, Pete and I will be running a number of test streams so we can properly set up our equipment so we’re ready for February. Drop in and join us in the chat if you’re free – any feedback on how our microphone and camera are doing would be very much appreciated! I need to finish up J.U.L.I.A.: Among the Stars after the developer very kindly sent me a bug fix recently, and finally get started on Detroit: Become Human, so I’ve got a couple of games to play through before GameBlast19.

All money raised via our JustGiving page goes directly to SpecialEffect, to enable them to continue their wonderful work and help many more physically-disabled gamers across the UK. We’ve already received a few very kind donations and are already at 10% of our £500 target for the charity, so we’re off to a great start!

Ones for the wishlist

2017 was a mixed bag for both gaming and life. A lot of us wanted to hide when the UK voted for Brexit, Donald Trump became President of the US and gaming controversies continued; but we were shown things weren’t entirely bad when people from all over the world came together in the name of equality, and we were treated to new and amazing video game experiences.

Here’s hoping 2018 continues in that positive vein and the next 12 months are filled with light and awesome games. As part of the Liebster Award nomination, Thero159 from A Reluctant Hero asked us which titles we’re most hyped for this year so let’s stay positive and look ahead to what we’ve got coming up. Thank you to this lovely blogger for selecting Later Levels – this post is dedicated to you!

A Way Out

Leo and Vincent don’t know each other, but they’ll need to find a way to work together no matter the situation in order to break out of prison. I adored Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons so I’m really looking forward to this game by its creators; and I love the fact it’s a couch co-op designed to be played together with a friend. This is definitely one I’ll be roping the other-half into playing with me (although I don’t think it will take much persuasion).

Detroit: Become Human

Not everyone is a fan of Quantic Dream’s games but I’ve eagerly awaited their releases since first playing Fahrenheit in 2005. I got the chance to play a Detroit: Become Human demo at last year’s EGX event and have been excited about it since. There has been some controversy surrounding the title already, so it will be interesting to see how its themes will be handled in this story about androids and what it means to be human.

Lake Ridden

Here’s another game I got to try out at EGX in 2017, which is being created by former Mojang and Paradox developers. I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to the horrors genre but give me a supernatural adventure with puzzles and an atmospheric plot and I’m right there. If you liked The Vanishing of Ethan Carter or What Remains of Edith Finch, I get the impression you’re going to like this one.

Praey for the Gods

I really enjoyed Shadow of the Colossus (see below) so it was hard to resist backing Praey for the Gods on Kickstarter when the project appeared on the crowdfunding platform in July 2016. You’ll play as a lone hero sent to the edge of a dying world to discover the mystery of a never-ending winter, and will have to face immense battles with giants where you can climb your foes.

Shadow of the Colossus Remake

Following on from Praey for the Gods, here’s a title which is cited as one of its influences: Shadow of the Colossus was originally released in 2005 and is now getting a remake. I’m really looking forward to getting the opportunity to play this game with my other-half and stepson; they’ve never experienced it before, and I have a feeling they’re going to end up loving it as much as I do.

The Gardens Between

It was the art-style that initially drew me to this title as it brought to mind a cross between The Witness and Oxenfree. And when I found out it was a puzzler in which you travel back and forwards in time to reveal a story about friendship, childhood and growing up, it got added to my wishlist straight away. I get the feeling this is going to be one of those unassuming little games which actually turns out to be something pretty special.

Trüberbrook

Another game which I backed on Kickstarter, this point-and-click adventure has a distinct visual style: all scenery is built by hand and real lighting is used to simulate different times of day and weather conditions. It’s a sci-fi mystery inspired by Twin Peaks, The X-Files and Stranger Things, and players will step into the shoes of Hans Tannhauser to find out what’s going down in the town and save the world.

Vampyr

Dr Jonathan Reid is a newly-turned vampyr. As a doctor, he must find a cure to save London’s flu-ravaged citizens; but as a member of the undead, he’s cursed to feed on those he vowed to heal. That conflict of interests sounds incredibly interesting and I can’t wait to play this game. It was delayed from November 2017 due to a technical issue which has now been resolved, so let’s hope we’re able to get our hands on it very soon.

We Happy Few

This one has been on my wishlist for absolutely ages but I’ve resisted the temptation to purchase it in its Early Access status so I can play it in its finished form. It’s now finally due for release in the spring. It’s a game full of paranoia and survival set in a dystopian English city in 1964: can you blend in with its drug-addled inhabitants, most of whom don’t take kindly to people who won’t abide by their not-so-normal rules?

Where the Water Tastes Like Wine

This is a recent addition to my wishlist after reading several posts by bloggers, and is a game about folktales. Players take on the role of the personification of folklore after losing a poker game with the wrong entity and it’s now their responsibility to pass these stories from place to place. Each character is penned by a different writerso the title’s content is influenced by their individual interests.

Thank you once again to Thero159 for the nomination! Which games are you looking forward to in 2018?