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?

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.

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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.

For Honor and glory!

There’s a moment in For Honor when, with a flash of light, the camera locks into place and a white ring appears around the feet of your opponent. The heart starts pounding, fingers tighten around the controller a little more and eyes narrow at the screen. There’s nowhere to hide, nowhere to run. Only one of you will come out of this contest victorious and you’re going to do everything in your power to make sure it’s you.

For Honor, video game, battle, fight, swords, mud

Weapons clash, the sound of metal on metal echoes across the battlefield. Blocks, parries and dodges dominate, blood is spilled until one falls and the other stands.

It’s exhilarating stuff, and feels like a much fairer test of skill than in other fighting games. Agreed, I’m not a top player at all but there is a real sense of both combatants beginning the fight by sounding each other out, trying to sense a style or weakness before exploiting it. There’s no clock counting down or combos with dozens of hits to worry about, just good timing, reading of the opponent and knowing your character.

For Honor, video game, duel, fight, swords

In a sense there’s a SoulsBourne element to it as you will die again and again as you get to grips with the various human and excellent artificial intelligence (AI) opponents but the learning curve is all part of the challenge. Each defeat teaches you more than a victory and yet there’s no feeling quite like the rush of emerging triumphant. It’s just a shame there is no ‘bow’ emote to show respect to an opponent who engaged in glorious combat until eventually succumbing to your blade. Plenty of celebrations, no way of showing they fought with honour.

Now if only they could get the Star Wars licence and throw in some lightsabers…

The Last Guardian: a lesson in trust

I have a huge fondness for both ICO and The Shadow of the Colossus, so a Christmas present of The Last Guardian was very gratefully received. It’s this game that has helped me stick to my New Year’s resolution to play more video games during the first week of January after buying a new house and moving to a different town left little time for gaming last year.

If you haven’t already played the title and intend to do so, you may wish to stop reading now and come back later. This article is as spoiler-free as possible but final paragraph contains details about the end of the game.

Most people will be aware that one of the stars of the title is Trico, a giant griffin-like creature whose name can be taken to mean ‘prisoner’, ‘baby bird’ or a portmanteau of ‘bird’ and ‘cat’ in Japanese. He behaves much like a domesticated animal and this has been a source of frustration for some players: while reviews have been generally favourable, some critics feel that ‘a realistic interpretation of a house pet makes for terrible gameplay’.

Creator Fumita Uedo was asked about Trico’s ‘disobedient behaviour’ in an interview with Eurogamer last year and confirmed that the design was intentional. He said:

It’s something that’s deliberate in the game. There is a worry that it might stress out some people out there. But this game isn’t continual action, it’s not fast-paced. Whether people stress out about that is down to personal preference.

For me, this is what made The Last Guardian as thoughtful and touching as I found it to be. Yes, it can be extremely annoying when you need Trico’s help to reach a ledge and all he wants to do is clean his feathers or play with a nearby chain. But at the same time, it creates one of the most believable bonds between a human and animal within a video game.

Link, Zelda, cats

My other-half and I decided to get a cat when we moved into our new home late last year and after visiting the local Cats Protection branch, we ended adopting not one but a pair. Their history isn’t clear but some ‘challenges’ we’ve faced over the past two months have given us reason to believe they’ve had a bit of a rough time. Link and Zelda (as we’ve chosen to name them) are slowly becoming more trusting of us although we’ve got some way to go yet.

Perhaps that experience has something to do with why The Last Guardian resonated with me. Your character is a young boy who awakes to find himself trapped in a strange cave with Trico, who it’s obvious has been mistreated and is badly hurt. Your initial attempts at helping get you slammed across the wall and knocked unconscious; but slowly the creature starts to become used to your presence, even accepting some food and letting you pull bloody spears from his body.

Over time the protagonists learn more about themselves and each other, even finding a way to communicate. That doesn’t mean that Trico will do exactly as he’s told however: he might choose to ignore your commands in favour of watching nearby birds take flight or giving you an affectionate nuzzle. But if the player was able to simply order the creature around like a tool, The Last Guardian wouldn’t be nearly as effective.

The relationship between the two characters strengthens over the course of the title and is built on trust. When Trico can’t move because he’s scared of the stained-glass eyes dotted around the environment, it paints a picture of the traumatic conditioning he’s been subjected to and it’s up to you to smash the artefacts to pieces. When you’re trapped on the other side of a canyon, Trico mewls at you to give you the confidence to make the jump and catches you before you plummet.

But it’s not only the creature who cares for the boy and fights for his life. It’s clear to see how much he means to the people from his home village too when they risk their safety as he’s taken at the beginning of the game, and do so again when he’s returned by the animal who abducted him. It makes the player feel even more for Trico as he has no place in the world: not only is he feared by humans, he’s assaulted and left by his own kind too.

As I made it to the end and watched The Last Guardian’s final cutscene last weekend, I couldn’t help but brush away a tear and give Link and Zelda a tickle behind the ears. I’m going to miss Trico.

Nostalgia isn’t enough to make me Switch

Since its official unveiling in a presentation to financial analysts in October last year, fans of Nintendo have been clamouring for more details about the company’s upcoming console. Their wait was finally over last week when, during a presentation on 13 January 2017, current President Tatsumi Kimishima took to a stage in Japan to thank the audience for joining him for ‘a detailed introduction to the Nintendo Switch hardware and software’.

For those awake and watching the event live on YouTube at 04:00 in the UK, it was revealed that the console would be simultaneously released in regions across the world in a little under two months at a suggested retail price of $299.99 in North America. The event drew to a close just over hour later with Kimishima saying that he hoped Nintendo had shown enough to earn the audience’s support, before the moment a lot of people had surely been waiting for.

The trailer for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was as epic as we’d all imagined it would be: our green-suited hero coming to the aid of Hyrule and facing the Calamity Ganon, a primal evil that has endured over the ages. Wide-open backdrops consisting of sandy beaches, snowy mountains and grassy plains all brought to life in a gorgeous visual style. Sweeping classical music composed by Manaka Kataoka that complimented the graphics beautifully.

By the end of the video, both myself and my other-half were sitting on the edge of our seats transfixed. The game looked awesome. The same response was elicited from other gamers also, with Murr from Geek Sleep Rinse Repeat writing:

It looks absolutely beautiful. Just jaw-dropping in its size and scale. This is legitimately one of the most incredibly hype-inducing trailers ever. Seriously jaw-to-the-floor… I wasn’t convinced about launch pick-up until that trailer ended.

It was all about those last three minutes of the presentation. An hour of information about the Switch’s three play styles, Joy-Con controllers in various colour combinations, online service and various party games hadn’t captured our attention. But those final few moments during which we were mesmerised by Link’s world and the promise of adventure… they were all that was needed to ensure that many retailers had already reached their pre-order limits only two days later.

Well played, Nintendo. Well played.

Nostalgia can make us do funny things, including reaching for the credit card to buy a new console with a £280 asking price. Many people in their thirties have fond memories of gaming as a kid and that was the era when Nintendo was king. For myself, Super Mario Bros. was one of the first titles I ever played; and my brother and I spent hours working our way through The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time together when we were teenagers.

It’s possible that the Switch could be to our children what the original NES was to us, and there are probably many parents who’ve pre-ordered the console for their kids in the hope of capturing that feeling. But with a lack of titles other than the usual party offerings and games already available on other platforms – along with a price-tag bigger than those currently stuck on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One – it’s just as possible the hardware could become a very-overpriced copy of a Zelda game.

Yes, the Switch could be the first machine to truly combine a living-room-experience with on-the-go-play and yes, it has ‘inherited all of Nintendo’s entertainment DNA’. But the company has a long way to go before I’m convinced I need another yet another console in my life. Particularly when the one launch title I’m interested in will also be released on the Wii U, currently sitting upstairs in my stepson’s bedroom. As said by my other-half:

What? You mean we don’t have to buy a Switch to play Breath of the Wild? F***ing awesome!

With Super Mario Odyssey confirmed for ‘holiday 2017’, it’s highly likely Nintendo will release a Switch bundle at a reduced price just in time for Christmas. Maybe it’s time to take of those rose-tinted glasses and put away the credit card, at least for the time-being.