Plot-twists, instant deaths and naked missions

What has been the event within a video game that has shocked you the most and left you reeling? Maybe it was a major plot-twist, the death of one of your favourite characters or a gameplay element that seemed to come out of nowhere.

This is the subject of the latest EXP Share, a monthly collaboration hosted by DanamesX over at Tales from the Backlog to encourage everyone in the community to share their experiences. Here’s the question: “Share a story where an event in a game, television show, movie or book left you in shock and your reaction to it.” I always turn to video games when I have free time so most of the following anecdotes are to do with gaming, but I’ve thrown in a couple about other media for a bit of fun.

There are spoilers in the following paragraphs. If you haven’t yet experienced the game, television show or book, you may wish to consider navigating away from this post now and coming back later.

Video game: Final Fantasy XIII

As part of last year’s game-swap series, I was challenged to play this title by Ellen from Ace Asunder back in September. I’ve never been a fan of turn-based combat so I knew it was going to be difficult for me but I didn’t realise the sheer frustration I’d feel with the last boss. After its health drops below 80%, there’s a possibility it could use its Instant Death power – and getting unfairly hit by this several times at 03:00 in the morning meant I was ready to rage. I’m not sure I’ll ever pick up another Final Fantasy game.

Video game: Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

The game-swap before the one in the paragraph was with Athena from AmbiGaming and she challenged me to complete my first Metal Gear Solid title. I now have a lot of thoughts about the series in general, especially its depiction of women, but the strangest moment was when Raiden was captured and stripped naked. Seeing the protagonist perform attacks which had him doing somersault kicks – while firmly holding his crotch to keep his dignity intact – was perhaps one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen in a game.

Video game: SOMA

This was a release which left me thinking about its story long after I played it in September 2018. I think it’s very cleverly written: all the clues about what’s going to happen at its conclusion are there all along but it’s so easy to overlook them and focus on your pursuit for escape. The questions it asks the player, such as what it really means to be human and how you would feel if you found out you were a copy of yourself, are far scarier than any monster hiding in the dark corridors of PATHOS-II.

Video game: The Eyes of Ara

My other-half and I decided to pick up this title after completing Quern – Undying Thoughts and being in the mood for another similar game. It started off well and we enjoyed the puzzles-within-puzzles, even if we weren’t overly concerned about finding all the various collectibles. That was until we reached the final section and raged when we realised the blue orbs weren’t optional. A note for developers: never trick your players into believing that an object is a collectible when it’s not, because it’s really not fun.

Television show: Behind Her Eyes

It’s rare that Pete and I watch television, but this was a mini-series we watched last month after finding ourselves with a free evening and picking the first thing that came up on Netflix. Although he wasn’t overly keen on the thriller storyline which suddenly turned supernatural, I really enjoyed it and loved the twist at the end. My allegiance kept switching between David and Adele all the way through because I couldn’t work out who the real villain was; so Rob’s body-switch and then Louise’s subsequent death caught me completely off-guard.

Book: Pet Sematary

I used to read a lot of horror novels when I was far too young for them and Pet Sematary by Stephen King will always be the one I remember the most. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so scared by a book since and I can still recall the feeling of clammy palms while forcing myself to turn the pages. Being rather attached to my pet at the time, I was both fascinated and horrified about what happened to Church in the story, and the thought of a zombie-cat lurking around the house was terrifying.

Thank you to DanamesX from Tales from the Backlog for another interesting subject this month! If you fancy joining in with March’s EXP Share, you have another week until the deadline and can find all the details in this post.

My blogging-friends and the games we’ve shared

Valentine’s Day is the celebration of love – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that feeling must be romantic. Love can encompass all sorts of relationships, from family members to good friends, from people you’ve met through blogging to your cat.

This is recognised by DanamesX from Tales from the Backlog in February’s EXP Share event. The subject for this month is ‘Share a story that involves someone special to you’ and as he points out himself, this can be ‘a significant other, older or younger sibling, parent, close friend, your Twitch chat, the voices in the wall or your pet’. I’ve decided to give a shout-out to the people who have been keeping me sane during the lockdown and share some of the video games we have in common.

Ellen from Ace Asunder

As covered in my post for the #CreativeChristmasCollab, the awesome Ellen is now someone I speak to every day and share hundreds of cat memes with. Our friendship was tested when we participated in a game-swap last year and she made me play Final Fantasy XIII in return for Her Story. I’m just joking: after over 50 hours of gameplay, getting hit with instant death attacks by the final boss several times and a 03:00 finish, I’m still talking to her. And that’s even though she doesn’t like full-motion video (FMV) heroes Poe and Munro.

GD from Gaming Diaries

When I decided to revisit a nostalgic game as part of our 50-day challenge for GameBlast20 last year, GD was one of the only people who supported my decision. Sure, Herdy Gerdy is an old PlayStation 2 title that not many people have heard of and won’t be to everybody’s tastes: there’s no action or explosions but there are plenty of cute little animals. It’s funny how it’s now become a running joke in our Twitch chat and GD champions the return of Herdy Gerdy while everybody else groans.

Luke from Hundstrasse

Luke and I have known each for ages through the blogging community, but we finally met in person for the first time at the Rezzed expo in 2018 where we watched a talk by Tim Schafer. When COVID-19 put a stop to our plans for meeting up at the London Gaming Market in March last year, we decided to do a game-swap by post and this saw me working my way through crazy platformer Whiplash. This game sums up Luke’s sense of humour: random, hilarious and absolutely perfect.

Teri-Mae from Sheikah Plate

Although Teri-Mae and I met through blogging, it’s pretty rare that we talk about video games nowadays. We’re more likely to discuss politics, world events, social commentary and baking. Saying that though, I’ve recently been trying to persuade her to give The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim a go after she decided to pick up something different and play Uncharted. Hopefully we’ll soon find Teri-Mae sneaking through Tamriel as a Khajit, going undetected and stealing all the sweet-rolls.

Kevin from The Lawful Geek

I’ve known Kevin since I started blogging in 2013 and he finally convinced Pete and I to try our first tabletop RPG towards the end of 2019. A year later and we’re still surviving in Shadowrun thanks to the support of fellow players Kat, Ozzy and Diane. Head over to the The Lawful Geek on Twitch every other Thursday to find out how we’re getting on – and you can also join Kevin there for an evening with special guests in support of GameBlast21 from 20:00 GMT this Saturday.

Friend-of-the-blog Phil

Sometimes it’s hard to believe I’ve known Phil for over 15 years. We first met when I started working at our current workplace in London and now he’s making himself known on Twitch (although we still haven’t managed to convince him to start up his own blog yet). Our shared love of FMV games started when we had the chance to meet Her Story creator Sam Barlow at an expo in 2015 and he streamed it shortly afterwards, and now we both keep an eye out on Steam for upcoming releases in the genre.

My stepson, Ethan

He used to be so cute and then he turned into a teenager… still, at least he realises how good the classics are. Ethan and I have shared many gaming memories over the years but my most recent one is us playing The Secret of Monkey Island together for its 30th anniversary. He spent the first hour or so of the stream talking in a Russian accent (I have no idea why) and no doubt he’ll return for another one soon. Unfortunately I can’t tell you which voice it will be next time though.

My husband, Pete

One of the questions Pete asking me during our first conversation was who my favourite Street Fighter character was. Since then we’ve played plenty of video games together and I have fond memories of us huddled together over a laptop in my small flat when we first met. The one we probably spent the longest on was The Witness; he even went to the trouble of making a physical board and pieces that replicated some of the puzzles in the title so we could solve as many of them as possible. There’s nobody else I’d rather be tackling these challenges with.

Thank you to DanamesX from Tales from the Backlog for a heart-warming subject this month. If you’re interested in joining in with February’s EXP Share, you have another week until the deadline and can find all the details in this post.

We’re taking part in GameBlast21 to support SpecialEffect, the gamers’ charity.
Making a donation will bring you great loot, increase your XP by +100 and make you immune to fire.*
(*Not guaranteed.)


Final Fantasy XIII: staying focused

Over the past six months, I’ve had the pleasure of taking part in a few game-swaps with other bloggers. We’ll decide on a theme together, send each other a video game which matches the requirements, and then play the title received and share our thoughts on them.

Luke from Hundstrasse sent me a copy of Whiplash for ‘bizarre retro titles’, a PlayStation 2 platformer which caused some controversy when it was released. Then followed all the cutscenes and craziness that came with Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty after sharing ‘favourite series’ with Athena from AmbiGaming. The most recent game-swap is with Nathan from Gaming Omnivore, and Pete and I are currently playing through Banjo-Kazooie for ‘genres we’re not experienced with’.

I’ve also been playing Final Fantasy XIII since the middle of August for a swap with Ellen from Ace Asunder. Anyone who knows this lovely lady will be aware just how much the title’s pink-haired protagonist means to her. In a post entitled Lightning Will Not Leave Me published on her blog last month, she wrote: “Lightning’s story taught me about myself, the person I know the least about, and that’s a precious gift I never thought a series of video games could give me.”

It’s therefore easy to assume that the basis of our game-swap was ‘favourite games’ or maybe even ‘most-loved protagonists’, but it was something completely different. This collaboration was going to one which challenged us to play releases which make use of mechanics we don’t usually enjoy. I’ve never hidden how much I dislike turn-based combat, having written about the subject in the past and discussed it several times while streaming, and so I wasn’t surprised when a copy of FFXII appeared in my Steam library one day.

So why don’t I like turn-based titles? My biggest problem is that it feels so far removed from what would really happen in a fight. When you come face-to-face with a huge monster, you’re not going to politely wait while it takes it’s turn to strike – you’re going to get stuck in and hit it with everything you’ve got to prevent the beast from doing damage to you at the start. There’s no way I could see myself saying, ‘Oh no, I couldn’t possibly attack you first, that would be far too selfish! After you, good sir.’

This explains why I initially had some doubts about streaming Ellen’s gift. I knew how much this game and its follow-ups meant to my blogger-friend and so I was concerned I’d say or do something to spoil it for her. Would I be able to play it for long enough to be able to see what she found so special about it? Would that be what I needed to keep me going when the gameplay wasn’t to my taste or became tough? And would I even be able to pick up the mechanics in the first place, without throwing down the controller in frustration?

Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy XIII, video game, female, Lightning Farron, pink hair

I must admit that I don’t dislike the combat as much as I expected thanks to FFXIII’s Command Synergy Battle (CBS) system. Instead of controlling every character in your party and taking turns in a battle, the player focuses on the leader only and can perform actions as soon as the segments on their Active Dimension Battle (ADB) gauge is filled. Other party-members are controlled by the game’s artificial intelligence (AI) although you can switch between Paradigms to have them fulfil a different role.

It also helps that Ellen agreed I could play on easy mode and I’m making use of the Auto-Battle feature. This selects commands automatically for the player during fights depending on factors such as the party’s health and the enemy you’re trying to beat. I can totally understand why experienced turn-based fans would avoid it at all costs because it does take away some of the more tactical elements of the game – but for a complete novice like me, I found it invaluable. I’m not sure I’d have had the patience to continue without it.

The thing I don’t like though is the Battle Rating system, as I don’t feel the need to be graded on every single fight because all I care about it making it out alive and getting back to the gameplay. And I know it’s a fundamental part of turn-based RPGs but I don’t like having to keep switching between characters either. As I’ve written before, I much prefer sticking with one protagonist so I can get to know their backstory, personality and skills fully rather than having to jump between several of them.

Pete and I have found that the people joining us on Twitch while we’re streaming FFXIII have been firmly in one of two camps: they either adore the game or it’s their least-favourite entry in the series. There doesn’t seem to be any in-between and the more frequent complaint is the game’s linearity. On one hand, I can see what they mean. You’re essentially travelling down a long corridor which is interspersed with fights at regular intervals and, although we’ve been told it opens up later on, we haven’t reached that point yet.

Final Fantasy XIII, video game, battle, fight, Lightning

Personally I don’t have a problem with this. Sometimes I like being able to sit back and enjoy the journey the developer wants to take me on, rather than having to deal with the pressure of choice. My issue is more with the number of battles in each corridor. I understand these are needed to gain Crystogen Points (CP) to level up your characters but the enemies are often the same in an area and it feels a little repetitive. Maybe I’d have a different opinion on this if the game was entirely an action RPG and used mechanics that come more natural to me.

Speaking of the characters, I’m warming far more to the female protagonists than the male ones right now. Hope is growing on me a little since toughening up but at first, I groaned each time he appeared onscreen thanks to his downbeat nature (we renamed him ‘Mope’). I’m not sure I’m ever going to like Snow though. Anyone who calls themselves ‘The Hero’ has got to be an idiot and as Lightening says herself, he’s ‘arrogant and chummy from the get-go and thinks he’s everyone’s pal’.

Playing FFXIII has taught me two things. The first lesson is that I can manage turn-based combat if I put my mind to it, even though I may not enjoy it anywhere near as much as other mechanics. The second and more important lesson is that it’s important to remember that everyone has a special game which is unique to them. We might not always understand their choices or see what they see in a certain title, but there’s something in it which spoke to them and possibly helped them through a tough time.

For example, that game for me is Fable. It will always have a special place in my heart because it was the one which brought me back to gaming after stepping away from it for several years and I might not be here writing this post today if it wasn’t for Peter Molyneux’s project. But I’m well aware it’s very much a game of its time and feels awfully clunky to play nowadays, having picked it back up again myself after watching Athena play it on her stream. It therefore won’t be something that everybody enjoys or finds as special as I do.

It’s therefore important to be aware of other opinions about a title and take them into account – but as discussed last month, it’s also vital to be honest when it comes to sharing your own views. You just need to make sure you explain your viewpoint so readers can understand where you’re coming from. Everyone is going to have their own perception of a game because of their unique backgrounds and experience, and that’s ok: the gaming world would be a pretty boring one if we all liked the same kind of releases.

The great thing about game-swaps is that they’ve encouraged me to try genres I wouldn’t normally play. If it hadn’t been for these collaborations with other bloggers, I’d never have found out about the uproar caused by a weird release back in 2004; my feelings about the representation of certain characters in Hideo Kojima titles; or just how terrible my spacial awareness is when it comes to 3D-platformers. Every swap has been an experience which has broadened my gaming horizons and I’m grateful for that.

I’m about 16 hours into FFXII and I’m going to keep playing for now. I don’t know whether I’m going to be able to finish it; at the time of writing, I’m a little stuck on a particular boss and have failed numerous times. But I’m going to keep trying for a few more sessions and see how I get on. To quote Lightning again: “We can win if we stay focused!”

Games of their time: still something special

Have you ever felt like replaying a game you haven’t touched in years, and then felt slightly disappointed when you do? There’s an image of it in your mind and you remember what it like the first time you played – but are let down when what you’re playing now doesn’t match up.

I’ve had the opportunity to take part in several game-swaps with other bloggers this year and this has given me the chance to try some older releases I’ve not experienced before. First up was Luke from Hundstrasse, who sent me Whiplash for my PlayStation 2 after we decided to find the most bizarre retro titles we could. Next was Athena from AmbiGaming with whom I swapped favourite games, and you can find out what I made of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty in last Wednesday’s post.

In return, Athena bravely challenged herself to play Fable on her Twitch channel every week until she’d completed it. Work conference calls sometimes got in the way but I tuned in as often as I could and, watching her experience the title that had me back into gaming in my early 20s, I remembered a lot of fond memories and found myself wanting to play it again myself. That weekend I turned on our Xbox One, tracked down Fable Anniversary on Game Pass, hit the install button and waited eagerly with the controller in hand.

I’ll always love this series. I understand why it gets a lot of criticism in certain respects, one of them being that it never lived up to the expectations that the proclamations of designer Peter Molyneux set for it, but I can see past that. To me he was someone who was pushing the boundaries, being inventive, taking risks instead of churning out cardboard-copy titles and I can admire him for that; and there’s a chance that without Fable, I wouldn’t be a gamer today or be sitting here writing about my hobby.

Playing through the start of Fable Anniversary reminded me of how much the original title had pulled me in back in 2004. It was something to do with the land of Albion, its real-but-fantasy setting which felt like something out of a fairytale and made you believe the protagonist was destined for great things. It was the world’s inhabitants too: perhaps my favourite thing about them is the humour, and anyone who enjoys a Monty-Python-style of comedy is sure to find something here which appeals to them.

But damn, the controls were bad. Like, really bad. I didn’t remember it being like this before and had no trouble picking up the title all those years ago. But now the buttons felt as though they were back to front and I was behaving like an uncoordinated mess (more so than usual). Accessing the menus felt counter-intuitive, the items on the D-pad changed continuously and the camera never stayed where I wanted it to. No wonder Athena had remarked about the control scheme on a few occasions during her streams.

She also made a comment about certain releases being ‘games of their time’ during her next session on Twitch the following week and this really struck a chord with me. It completely hit the nail on the head when it came to the original Fable. Its story and humour were still current enough and the graphics didn’t let it down too much, plus it had been positively received when it had been released 16-years ago. But the controls had aged terribly and made playing the title sluggish, giving it a heavy and dated feeling.

I feel the same way whenever I turn on my PlayStation 2 nowadays. The console may have had some great releases but I dislike the controller immensely now, mainly because the jump button never seems like it’s in the right place. I had to hand it over to my other-half while playing Whiplash for my game-swap with Luke because there were certain bits I just couldn’t get to grips with; and I made the decision to play MGS2 on our Xbox for my collaboration with Athena, thinking it may be easier with a modern controller.

It didn’t help much though. I struggled with the way the protagonist insisted on sticking to walls whenever I got too close to them and he wouldn’t do certain actions unless I removed his weapon first. I may had had a few issues with my first Kojima game but as several people in the Twitch chat said to us: there was nothing on the market back in 2001 which was as cinematic or ambitious in what it was trying to deliver, so I can imagine it was something truly spectacular for players at the time.

I guess that’s what ‘games of their time’ are. They may feel old and outdated to us but, when you look back on what they managed to achieve when they we released, it’s clear there was something special about them. Without these titles we may not be where we are today in terms of narrative strength, innovative mechanics or impressive visuals and you can see their influence in many of today’s titles. We might not get the same feeling from playing them now but we’ve still got a lot to thank them for.

The next game-swap lined up is with Ellen from Ace Asunder. She was rather put off of full-motion video (FMV) after watching us play the strange Dark Nights with Poe and Munro in May so I’ve sent her copies of Her Story and The Madness of Doctor Dekker to prove that there are some good entries in the genre. In return she has gifted me Final Fantasy XIII to help me get over my aversion to turn-based combat, so we’ll see if we manage to convince each other to come around to the others’ way of thinking and open our eyes to new genres.

FFXIII was released in 2009 so it’s a little newer than the other titles I’ve played for game-swaps so far, relatively speaking. I’m curious to find out if it turns out to be another game of its time, and whether I’ll see what it is that makes it special for Ellen.