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.)

Modern adventures (which aren’t Monkey Island)

Thanks to a Sunshine Blogger award from TriformTrinity, yesterday I got to talk about some of my favourite classic point-and-clicks. Surprisingly, my list didn’t feature The Secret of Monkey Island – although regular visitors will clearly recognise this as, quite simply, one of the finest titles ever made and the yardstick against which all future games shall be measured (he he).

So here’s a bonus post: I enjoyed writing that piece so much that I’m back again today with another list, this time focusing on more modern adventures. This one was a little harder to put together because the definition of the genre has changed significantly over the years; it now spans a wider variety of releases than just point-and-clicks and so it has been tough narrowing down the selection. Hopefully the following titles will provide something for everyone.

2011: To The Moon

One of the first indie titles I ever played after being introduced to this side of gaming was To The Moon. It absolutely broke my heart and I was genuinely in tears by the credits; and it taught me that video games are much more than entertainment and pixels. Here’s a storyline that shows the player that life is too short to have regrets so if there’s something you want to do, get out there and do it.

Chris from OverThinker Y and I played the follow-up, Finding Paradise, earlier this year and has a lengthy discussion about our thoughts. Freebird Games smashed it again: there was more sobbing along with the life-affirming realisation that sometimes we have everything we need right in front of us. To steal a quote from Chris, it’s a title which tells a story which feels as though it’s about real people and lets the player decide how to feel about it.

2012: Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller

Featuring an FBI agent whose ‘psion’ powers enable her to see the past, it would have been all too easy to resort to using them to complete every puzzle and push the plot along. But instead, Erica’s skills aren’t the solution to every problem: they don’t always work as intended and cause her a great deal of trauma. She’s wonderfully portrayed as a real person who’s struggling with a stressful job, tragic past and powerful secret.

I’ve participated in the GameBlast marathons for SpecialEffect for a number of years now and during a our first event in 2014, our team decided to play Cognition. Kevin from The Mental Attic kindly put us in touch with Katie Hallahan from Phoenix Online who agreed to chat to us about the game as we worked through it on air – which turned out to be both an awesome and nerve-racking experience, all at the same time.

2014: J.U.L.I.A.: Among the Stars

This is a title I haven’t yet completed so why am I including it in my list? I started it a fortnight ago when I had some time off work and ended up sitting in the same position for the entire day after becoming completely hooked from the start. Although it takes place in a completely different setting, there’s something about J.U.L.I.A. which gives me the same feeling I had when playing Myst for the first time – a game included in yesterday’s post about my favourite classic adventures.

So if it’s that good, why haven’t I finished it? The thing we all dread: a fatal crash. I’ve been in touch with the team at CBE Software and have sent them my save file in the hope they can fix it, because I really want to find out what happens. Unfortunately I haven’t yet heard from them but I’m guessing they’re busy working hard on their next release – the website for Someday You’ll Return teases that there’ll be more in a few days and I can’t wait.

2015: Her Story

Hannah Smith may not be the most likeable video game character, but she’s definitely one of the most interesting. During the summer of 1994, she reports her husband as missing to the Portsmouth Police Station and it’s now a number of years after the event. It’s up to you to use video clips held within an archive database on an obsolete computer to assemble this woman’s story and answer the burning question: did she murder Simon?

Before going to the Rezzed expo in 2015, I’d found out quite a lot about Her Story through the bigger gaming websites and its premise, along with its unique central mechanic, had piqued my interest. It was therefore great getting the change to play the title at the event before meeting Sam Barlow and watching Ben interview him. Although this isn’t something we routinely do any longer, thinking back on the experience makes me want to reach for the camera.

2017: Stories Untold

Maybe it’s nostalgia talking or perhaps I’m becoming jaded in my old age, but it seems as though a lot of current text adventures are missing the thing that used to make them so special. At least, that’s what I thought until I completed Stories Untold in October last year, after receiving a recommendation from Bradley over at Cheap Boss Attack when he referred to it as one of his favourite games of 2017.

Advertised as ‘four stories, one nightmare’, this experimental title manages to bend the genre into something new and unique. It cleverly combines text adventures, point-and-clicks and psychological horrors into a rather remarkable experience which is likely to stay with the player for quite a while. If you’re a fan of series such as The Twilight Zone and Stranger Things, of 80s throwbacks and retro games, then you need to take a look at this one.

A huge thank you to TriformTrinity for his Sunshine Blogger award, and for allowing me to take an indulgent look back at some of the best entries in the adventure genre. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve ot some pointing-and-clicking to do…

Beginner’s guide to indie: part three

It’s time for the final part of my beginner’s guide to indie and, if you didn’t find something that tickles your fancy in part one or two last week, then hopefully we’ll manage to put that right today. Once again, a big thank you to Dan from Now is Games for suggesting I write this series and being the inspiration behind it.

As mentioned in my last posts: the following list contains only games I’ve actually played myself (except for the final category below) and, as pretty obvious from the content on Later Levels, I tend to favour adventures or games with strong narratives. However, I’ve made a point of not making every entry a point-and-click so hopefully there’s something for everyone here. Without further ado, let’s round this series off!

Typing games

Epistory – Typing Chronicles is a game I’m not sure many people know of but it’s definitely worth checking out if you enjoyed The Typing of the Dead: Overkill (my guilty pleasure). There are no zombies this time however: the world unfolds in front of you like an origami storybook and it tells the story of a writer who’s stuck for inspiration. You defeat your foes by typing words shown on-screen and every element in the title is controlled exclusively with the keyboard.

On the other end of the typing-game-spectrum is Hacknet, a simulator based on UNIX commands and real hacking rather than the Hollywood-version of it. The hacker responsible for creating the most invasive security system on the planet is dead and it’s now up to you to unravel the mystery and ensure that Hacknet-OS doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. If you’re not good under pressure or tend to type with two fingers only, then it’s probably not one for you.

Visual novels

I’m not a huge fan of visual novels and so my knowledge is somewhat lacking, but here’s one I actually enjoyed playing. Cinders is a mature take on the classic Cinderella fairytale and it’s not as cutesy as you’d imagine: this heroine isn’t afraid of taking fate into her own hands, even if it means breaking the rules. There’s plenty of player choice and my Cinders became an independent lone traveller who didn’t need a man by her side – you go, girl.

Next up is one of my favourite video games: To The Moon. It’s been called an adventure and an RPG but its gameplay elements are so light that it’s more like a visual novel with some movement. If you’re looking for action then it won’t be to your taste; but if you want to get drawn into an amazing story then I urge you to pick this up as soon as possible. Just be aware that you’ll be crying like a baby by the time the credits roll and will probably need a hug.

Something different

Looking for something different? Then you’ve come to the right place. First in this section is Her Story, a full-motion video (FMV) game which has you sorting through clips of old police interviews in order to discover what happened to a woman’s missing husband. Viva Seifert plays the protagonist and she does so perfectly; her body language, expressions and tone of voice all come together to make you wonder if she’s lying about what she knows…

Proteus isn’t a title that will appeal to everyone but if you’re in need of a ‘digital holiday’, then here’s your stop. Although the only mechanic is exploration and all you can do is walk, it’s a lovely and calming experience: this procedurally-generated island is home to creatures and ruins with magical properties, and a dynamic soundtrack changes in response to the world around you. A new island is generated each time so you’ll always see something unique and can use the ‘postcard’ feature to capture it.

What’s next?

There are loads of indie titles waiting on my wishlist and here’s what I’m playing next. I’ve heard good things about Night in the Woods, an adventure game focused on exploration, story and character. College-dropout Mae returns home to resume her former life but things aren’t the same: it seems different now and everyone has changed. Leaves are falling, the wind is growing cold, strange things are happening and there’s something in the woods…

Athena from AmbiGaming has been playing RiME recently and she has convinced me to give it a go! You play as a young boy who has awakened on a mysterious island after a torrential storm. Wild animals, long-forgotten ruins and a massive tower beckon you to come closer; and armed with your wits — and the guidance of a helpful fox — you must explore the enigmatic land, reach the tower’s peak and unlock its closely guarded secrets.

It can be an effort to work up the motivation to turn on the console or PC after a long day at work when you have only a spare hour in the evening; and sometimes the thought of jumping into another 100-hour open-world RPG can be a bit daunting. But it doesn’t mean you have to give up gaming completely because that’s where smaller indie titles can fit in nicely. Although huge big-budget games do have a certain appeal, there’s also something nice about being able to make good progress in sixty minutes and complete a title within several sittings.

Hopefully you’ve found an indie release among the 23 I’ve listed in my three-part beginner’s guide that has inspired you to give them a try. If you have any other recommendations, please feel free to leave them in the comments below and give me a few more to add to my wishlist!

Fascinating females: interesting women in video games

A while ago I came across a two-part piece on The Guardian website entitled ‘Beyond Lara Croft’. It’s well-written and authors Kate Gray, Holly Neilsen and Jordan Erica Webber make an interesting point: “Over the years, there has been no shortage of articles about ‘the best female characters in video games’. The problem is, what they’ve usually meant is ‘the sexiest female characters in video games’, which has made for some very repetitive and occasionally rather creepy reading.”

We’ve all seen our fair share of such posts. For example, there are several bloggers who regularly appear under the ‘gaming’ tag in my WordPress reader with series such as ‘Sexy Games’ and ‘Hot Cosplayer of the Week’ that I decline to read. If that’s what you choose to write, then that’s entirely up to you – but surely there’s more to female characters than oversized legs (as well as other body parts) covered in shiny, streamlined (read: skimpy completely useless) armour?

That got me thinking: which entries in The Guardian’s list resonate with me? Which characters have been missed which are worthy of inclusion? Here’s my compilation of interesting women in video games, along with some notable mentions from the article.

Warning: some spoilers are included below so if you haven’t played a title, you may wish to skip forward to the next entry.

Included: Vella Tartine from Broken Age

One of the newer characters included within The Guardian’s list, Velouria Beastender Tartine – or ‘Vella’ for short – is described as having ‘incredible patience and resilience in the quest to escape her determined role’. The ritual of feeding young maidens to the monstrous floating bear Mog Chothra every fourteen years keeps him at bay, or so the Sugar Bunting village elders say; but our heroine can’t accept this and questions why they can’t just kill the damn thing (much to her grandfather’s delight).

Broken Age’s plot and characters are extremely well-written and it’s refreshing to see Vella and her counterpart Shay Volta not falling into the usual tropes or ‘save the universe’ storyline. It’s the girl taking on the monster while the boy is trapped in the gilded palace. The game explores themes of individualism and highlights the potential dangers in mindlessly conforming to a group without question – and Miss Tartine, portrayed by Masasa Moyo, is one woman who certainly takes fate into her own hands.

Missing: Erica Reed from Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller

A game that employs the talents of the amazing Jane Jensen, creator of the Gabriel Knight series, as a story consultant is sure to have a great plot and well-written characters – and that’s certainly the case for Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller. It tells the plot of Boston FBI Agent Erica as she searches for the evil Cain Killer, the murderer of her brother Scott. It gradually becomes clear that a group of seemingly-unrelated killings all have clues that only our heroine can read: using her ‘psion’ powers to see the past, she can find connections between objects and access other people’s memories.

With potent abilities like these it would have been all too easy for the developer to resort to them into order to push the plot along. But instead, Erica’s powers aren’t the automatic solution for every problem: they don’t always work as intended and instead cause her a great deal of mental trauma. Raleigh Holmes does an amazing job of portraying Erica as a real person who’s struggling with a stressful job, tragic past and powerful secret. It’s due to her acting and some wonderful writing that Agent Reed is one of my favourite video game characters.

Included: Samantha Greenbriar from Gone Home

Players step into the role of Kaitlin Greenbriar in this critically-acclaimed title, but it’s younger sister Samantha (Sam) who takes the centre stage. After returning home from Europe, you find a note from the teenager stuck to the front door asking you to not go ‘digging around’ trying to find out where she is. An emotional message from a tearful female on the answering machine immediately makes you concerned for Sam’s wellbeing: what happened in the past twelve months while you were away?

You might not encounter any other characters in the flesh while playing Gone Home but the writing and voice-acting are absolutely top-notch – full marks to Sarah Grayson for her portrayal of Sam. The teenager comes across as smart and snarky yet insecure and relatable, and you can’t help feel for her. Unravelling her coming-of-age story and relationship with Lonnie, she reveals herself with a lot of honesty through her journal entries; and by the time you’ve spent the three hours needed to complete the title both she and her story will have left a lasting mark on you.

Missing: Zoë Castillo from Dreamfall: The Longest Journey

The plot of Dreamfall: The Longest Journey concentrates on the story of Zoë Castillo, a girl who starts the title in the same way that April Ryan did in the first instalment of the series ten years before: in her underwear (but it’s not what you think!). After becoming disillusioned with the path her life is taking, she decides to drop out of university and give her journalist ex-boyfriend a hand with a story he’s working on by completing a favour. Little does she know that this will set in motion an epic series of events that will see her caught in an adventure of dream technology and travelling across the globe…

At first I was a little disappointed not to be playing as April as I loved her when playing The Longest Journey, but after a short while Zoë really started to grow on me. She’s a likeable, realistic character with a big heart, who questions what happens to her and doesn’t just accept the unbelievable events she’s involved in. Her story continues in Dreamfall Chapters by Red Thread Games.

Included: Hannah Smith from Her Story

This is a fascinating one: Hannah Smith may not be the most likeable character within this list but she’s definitely one of the most interesting. During the summer of 1994, she reports her husband Simon as missing to Portsmouth Police Station and it’s now a number of years after the event. It’s up to you to use video clips held within an archive database on an obsolete computer to assemble this woman’s story and answer the burning question: did she murder Simon?

Hannah manages to hide the existence of her estranged identical twin Eve through both their child- and adulthood until her sister’s pregnancy ruins things. Excellently portrayed by Viva Seifert, the omissions in her character’s answers are highlighted through small slips of the tongue, repeated phrases and awkward body movements, and each revelation will leave you switching between sympathising for the woman and hating her. When Hannah finally reveals the truth about her husband, the speech is delivered with such an unnerving calm that it will cause the story to stay with you long after you’ve finished the game.

Missing: Theresa from Fable

Theresa is probably the most mysterious female on my list. Being over six-hundred years of age, she’s one of the oldest known living beings in the Fable series’ world of Albion – as well as one of the deepest and most important characters with powerful but unclear motives. Frequently referred to as ‘The Blind Seeress’, she has had prophetic powers since a young child and possesses extrasensory perception due to her exceptional Will (magic) abilities, despite being unable to physically see.

It’s difficult to reveal much about Theresa’s history here as her backstory is so detailed. But the most intriguing thing about this character is the fact that you’re never quite sure whether she’s on the side of good or evil: is she telling you all she knows, or has she seen the future and is now trying to guide you down a certain path? Zoe Wanamaker does such a great job at portraying the Seeress, with a perfect balance of mysticism and threat in her voice; now whenever I see a television advert voiced by this actress it feels as if Theresa is trying to sell me something.

Included: River Wyles from To The Moon

Despite its lack of gameplay, To The Moon is one of the most beautiful and heart-breaking video games I’ve ever played. Sigmund Corp employees Doctors Eva Rosalene and Neil Watts have been hired by a widower named Johnny Wyles because he wants to go to the moon; however, he isn’t sure why and from this one riddle many others arise. Their patient has already slipped into a deep coma so they must quickly sift through his memories, figure out what’s motivating this wish and, using their ‘artificial memory creation’ technology, make it happen.

As stated in a The Guardian’s article: “…a love story gone slightly wrong… If it breaks your heart (which it might) that’s mostly down to River, the wife of the lead character, who is caring, loving, creative and dedicated.” What makes her so special is that she’s one of the few video game characters explicitly diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. But this fact is never exploited in this extremely poignant tale of love, loss and regret, you’ll be shedding a tear by the end of it.

Missing: Elaine Marley from The Secret of Monkey Island

The games in The Secret of Monkey Island series focus on Guybrush Threepwood but it’s Elaine Marley who steals the show. In the original title, the wannabe-buccaneer arrives on Mêlée Island to begin his quest to become a pirate; and despite learning that other swashbucklers in the area are afraid to sail because of the evil ghost pirate LeChuck, he completes the Three Trials and learns the arts of thievery, sword-mastery and treasure-huntery (argh me hearties!). When the evil villain kidnaps beautiful governor Elain Marley it’s up to Guybrush, in true adventure hero style, to find a way to the legendary Monkey Island to rescue his amour.

That’s not to say she’s your typical damsel in distress however – far from it in fact. She’s more than capable of taking care of herself and on the occasions when she’s kidnapped, she’s usually able to escape from LeChuck at her own volition whilst throwing out comebacks such as “You are an evil, foul-smelling, vile, co-dependent villain and that’s just not what I’m looking for in a romantic relationship right now.” It’s no wonder she’s the dominant half in her partnership with Guybrush, but she still has faith in his abilities despite his hapless nature.

The one thing all of the women above have in common is excellent writing and, except in those cases where there is none, superb voice-acting. It goes to show that developers don’t have to resort to big boobs and scant armour in order to make a memorable and interesting female character.

Have you read the The Guardian’s ‘Beyond Lara Croft’ article? What did you think of their list, and who are your most interesting women in video games? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.