Rainy-day gaming

The weather here in the UK has surprised us these past couple of weeks (at the time of writing). Instead of our usual summer where you might see a bit of sunshine but are still wise enough to take a jacket when you go out, we’ve had clear blue skies and soaring temperatures.

We should be appreciative when we have warm spells like this but try to play video games and you’ll soon be wishing for rainy days again. The thought of sitting in the same room as PCs and lamps adding to the hot air when it’s already over 30 degrees inside doesn’t make streaming a pleasant experience; and the glare on the television caused by sunshine sneaking around the blinds means you can’t actually see what’s happening on-screen clearly anyway. You might as well put down the controller.

It’s not only these factors that make gaming on a sunny day less fulfilling than normal. There’s just something about grey clouds and the sound of rain outside that makes video games feel even more special. You know the feeling I’m talking about: a quiet weekend, the housework finished in the morning and lunch now eaten, drops of rain gently hitting the window and muffling any other sounds from outside, nothing to do for the rest of the afternoon except lose yourself in a digital land and possibly save the world.

It’s during periods like this that I’ve discovered titles which have stayed with me for a long time afterwards. To The Moon is an example and it’s now one of my favourite games. It must have been a Saturday morning when I decided to grab a cup of tea and turn on my laptop to install it, with the intention of only making sure it ran ok before getting in the shower. Around four hours later I was still sitting in my pyjamas on my bed, crying my eyes out and wondering how a video game could do this to me.

There was also J.U.L.I.A: Among the Stars. I decided to do a little work on my backlog during a day off work and this was a title I’d picked up as part of a sale some months before. I pretty much stayed in the same spot for nine hours because I was so engrossed in this story about a woman and artificial intelligence (AI) who were lost in space. It made me feel as though I were playing through Myst for the first time all over again: that feeling of stepping into an unknown world, trying to figure out why you’re there and what’s happened.

Then there was The Red Strings Club. It was a release which had been on my radar for a while, so I gave it a try when it was appeared in the Prime Gaming bundle one month and I happened to have a spare afternoon. I’m not sure a game has ever left me with so many questions about myself and my views before. It asks us how far we’re willing to go to suppress the worst aspects of our personalities for the good of the population; do our feelings make us who we are and is happiness at the cost of free will ultimately worth it?

The Red Strings Club, video game, bar, woman, Larissa, bartender, Donovan, android, Akara

Experiences like those described above could explain why rainy days and time off work give me a strong desire to play point-and-clicks. I can’t deny that this is my favourite genre and the one I turn to most frequently, but there’s just something about this type of game which makes it fit perfectly with lazy afternoons. Perhaps this could have something to do with nostalgia and memories of my childhood: maybe they remind me of school holidays filled with strange characters, conversation trees and overflowing inventories.

Somehow the rain makes it easier to switch off from the rest of the world. It presents you wish the guilt-free excuse of staying inside while waiting for the clouds to pass; and the sound of the drops dull other noises so it’s easy to pretend everything outside your room doesn’t exist for a moment. The only thing to do is focus on the story unfolding on the screen in front of you, immerse yourself in the world shown to you and shape its future – whether it be a point-and-click or some other type of game that takes your fancy.

According to the weather reports at the time of writing, we have another day or so of these clear blue skies and rising temperatures before the storms are about to hit my part of the country. I know I should be out in the garden making the most of the sun while working from home, taking long walks through the local nature reserve, or enjoying barbecues at my parents’ house. But there’s a part of me that’s looking forward to the rain coming in and getting lost in a totally different kind of adventure.

Are you a fan of rainy-day gaming? Or is there some other time you find perfect for video games?

Beginner’s guide to indie (2019): part one

Almost three years after starting Later Levels, I’m still a huge fan of indie video games. Independent developers aren’t afraid to take creative risks to bring us something new; and their smaller releases aren’t as daunting as tackling a large, big-budget experience.

Two years ago, Dan from nowisgames.com asked for indie game suggestions and this resulted in a short series of ‘beginners guide’ posts. A recent ‘this time in 2017’ tweet then prompted him to ask whether I’d considered doing a follow-up – so I’m back once again thanks to Dan! I tend to favour adventures or titles with strong narratives and this will be obvious from the following list, but hopefully everyone will find something that piqued their interest. Let’s dig into the updated beginner’s guide to indie (part one).

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

Although it has a completely different setting and premise, I kept being reminded of playing Myst for the first time all over again when I began J.U.L.I.A: Among the Stars by CBE Software. It was that sensation of stepping into new worlds, and being confronted with strange contraptions and mysterious structures – albeit in the stars and through AI companions. The developer is currently working on their next title, Someday You’ll Return, and it’s one I’m eagerly awaiting the release of.

2016: Kona

James from Killer Robotics very kindly gave me a key for Kona by Parabole in October last year and, although this chilly walking simulator won’t be to everyone’s taste, I really enjoyed it. One of the reasons for this is the game’s narrator. This nameless voice has a wonderful personality about it and the script was written in such a way that you’re never quite sure whether he’s being solemn or joking in his observations. For a title that’s set in a blizzard with a theme of isolation, it lightens the mood when things start to get serious.

2016: Maize

It’s hard to explain what Maize is about for two reasons. Firstly, it’s difficult to hint at several plot points without spoiling the whole thing; and secondly, this title by Finish Line Games is just so weird. Trying to summarise the story here would make a lot of readers think it was probably best left in a dark corner of my library but I encourage you to give it a go if you’re a fan of the slightly bizarre. A game doesn’t need to be serious or challenging to make it worthwhile, and Maize is proof that sometimes a bit of silliness can hit the spot.

2017: Stories Untold

If you loved text-adventures as a kid, you need to check out Stories Untold by No Code. It was recommended to me by Bradley from Cheap Boss Attack and ended up being my favourite game of 2017. The fear slowly rises as you make your way through four episodes and see connections until the hairs stand up on the back of your neck every time you’re asked to enter a new command. It’s difficult to say more without spoiling the game for future players except that the developer has crafted some very special, atmospheric moments.

2017: Paradigm

One of Paradigm’s highlights is its comedy but this is also the reason why some won’t enjoy it. There are plenty of jokes about drug use, addiction, deformities and other sensitive subjects so if any of those topics are likely to offend, I’d recommend finding another adventure. But if you’re a fan of the absurd and can overlook how close-to-the-bone some of the gags are, there’s plenty of silliness here in Jacob Janerka’s release that will likely appeal to you – and the awesome Ellen from Livid Lightning agrees.

2017: The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker

Full-motion video (FMV) games are like Marmite: you either love them or hate them. I’m in the former camp and have been lapping up the titles published by Wales Interactive over the past year. D’Avekki Studios’ The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker has been my favourite so far because its characters have a way of sucking you in: will you, a psychiatrist, be able to solve your predecessor’s murder and fix the chaos he left behind? Be careful, because the questions you ask your patients will determine their fate and your own.

2017: Finding Paradise

To The Moon was included in my original beginner’s guide and it’s one of my favourite games. I’ve played it multiple times because I love its emotional story; the ending still manages to inspire all the feels because it’s just so bittersweet. When Freebird Games released the follow-up, Finding Paradise, fellow fan Chris from OverThinker Y and I got together to have a long discussion about the series so far. The title contains some hints about what’s going to happen in the third instalment and I can’t wait!

2018: The Red Strings Club

Let’s finish off today’s list with one of my favourite games from 2018: The Red Strings Club. It’s a release that asks the player how far they’re willing to go to suppress the worst aspects of our personalities for the good of the population, and whether it’s worth sacrificing negative emotions such as sadness and anger. Do our feelings make us who we are, are we shaped by our suffering, and is happiness at the cost of free will ultimately worth it? Deconstructeam has given us an experience that questions who the real villain is.

That’s it for today, so hopefully you’ve managed to find something new for your wishlist! For not if you haven’t though: I’ll be back on Wednesday with part two and eight more indie games worth checking out.

Lost in space with J.U.L.I.A.

During a lazy week off work last month, I decided clear a few entries from my Steam backlog. I was in the mood for something with a science-fiction feel so J.U.L.I.A.: Among the Stars was one of my picks. It was a title I’d picked up some months ago as part of a sale after seeing how many good reviews it had garnered.

Here’s the setting: after countless years of exploration, humans finally found a solar system similar to our own from the middle of which was coming a signal of artificial origin. A mission plan was formed and a massive space probe constructed, designed and equipped to be ideally suited for meeting and studying extraterrestrial sentient life-forms. Equal care was taken with the crew; only the most prominent scientists were selected and trained to represent Earth.

Unfortunately though, something has now gone terribly wrong. Rachel Manners has been woken from decades of cryogenic sleep to be told by the ship’s artificial intelligence (AI) that she’s the last surviving crew member. As if the day couldn’t get any worse, the probe is also severely damaged by a disastrous impact with a passing meteoroid swarm; so it’s up to her to first make repairs to ensure her own survival, before finding out what happened to everybody else.

Once all the immediate fires have been put out, the player steps into Rachel’s shoes (spacesuit?) but doesn’t control her directly. Instead, the game is played through a series of computer interfaces and a reconnaissance robot for planetary exploration called MOBOT. Together with the ship’s AI they travel to six unique planets to uncover their secrets and find out what happened there, battling with puzzles and ship upgrades – as well as a few alien strangers, not all of whom are friendly.

I got the weirdest sensation after playing J.U.L.I.A. for several hours: it was almost as if I was sitting down in front of my PC and playing Myst again for the first time. This seemed strange as the games’ settings completely different but then I realised I was stepping into unknown. Taking that first step into new worlds, confronted with strange contraptions and mysterious structures… maybe Cyan’s 1993 classic and CBE Software’s 2014 release aren’t so dissimilar after all.

After nine hours and just as I was thinking that I may have found a new entry for my favourites list, disaster struck – not a meteoroid shower this time, a game-breaking bug. It was something a number of people had reported via the Steam discussions page as recently as last year. Just as I tried to lure a glowing underwater alien into a cupboard so I could safely make my way across the submarine, it would weirdly disappear and leave me unable to move any further.

I’ve reached out to the developer and have sent them my save file in the hope there’s something they’ll be able to do to rectify this situation. I’ve not yet heard from them though, but I’m assuming this is because they’re busy working on their next game. The trailer for Someday You’ll Return looks as creepy as hell, the website teases that your search leads deep into ancient Moravian forests and reveals secrets that should have stayed buried – and it has already been added to my wishlist.

I can’t tell you how much I hope CBE’s get in touch with an amended save file soon because I really want to be able to complete J.U.L.I.A. and find out what happens to Rachel. I know I could simply watch the remainder of the title via a longplay video but it just won’t be the same: I want to explore the stars and beautiful planets with MOBOT for myself, rather than simply watching someone else have all the fun doing it.

If you happen to have a safe file, please do get in touch – I’d be eternally grateful and forever in your debt! Hopefully I won’t be lost in space for too long…

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…