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.

The best games to play at Christmas

There’s something about Christmas which gets everyone nostalgic. That’s usually the same feeling we want from video games this time of year: a sense of comfort and good memories to make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

And let’s face it, gaming with a glass of mulled wine and a mince pie or two is far more entertaining than watching the Queen’s speech (sorry, Your Majesty). In case you’re not sure what to play during this holiday season, I asked some of my blogger-friends to tell us all about the titles they find themselves picking up at Christmas. Whether you’re looking for something that reminds you of your childhood, a game to take you away from it all or a good story to get wrapped up in, we’ve got something here for you.

Lorraine from Geeky Galaxy

Stellaris, video game, space, stars, planetStellaris is the game for me during the holiday season for a few reasons. I get far more time to play since I take as much time as possible off work. That means I can get in a full game without blinking an eye and a full game in Stellaris is not a short thing. BUT, I can also create a galactic empire modelled on Father Christmas and his elves. A corporate empire, with a leader with a white beard and a subservient second species as elves? See, you can make any Christmassy if you try hard enough!”

Charles from Comfortably Adventurous

Civilization VI, video game“The holiday season traditionally involves a long drive to see my family and the limitations of my laptop to satisfy my gaming needs. With no great predication for discovering new niche titles, the mainstay of my gaming habits in recent years has been an old favourite, Civilization VI. It’s an easy game to get lost in, that allure of ‘one more turn’ just pulling at you until you realise everyone else has left the room and your are a millennia into the history of your culture. Few games have held my attention as strongly as this classic.”

DanamesX from Tales from the Backlog

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel, video game“The holidays have always been a great time to catch up on gaming. I have two weeks off from work, so this is the perfect time for me to finish up any long RPGs that I’ve started throughout the year. Last year, I wrapped up The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel, and this year I am working on finishing the third game in the saga. This is the perfect time to get it done since the game makes you explore and talk to everyone in every area that you visit. It is not required to get through the game, but if you want to complete it, you can’t leave any area unchecked. So for me, there is always a good chance that I am playing a long RPG to finish it up before more games enter the backlog.”

MagiWasTaken from Indicator

“The best game to play during the holidays? Well, obviously, it’s got to be Headbangers in Holiday Hell. It’s an action-roguelike that my laptop can run and since runs can be somewhat short (due to my lack of skills), I can get as festive as I want as often as I want and quit at any time if I need to spend some quality time with my family. After all, I don’t get to visit my family all too often, especially nowadays, so I don’t play too many games these days. Happy Holidays! Sincerely, Magi!”

Nathan from Gaming Omnivore

Animal Crossing: New Horizons, video game“When I think of video games I associate with a particular time of year, one of the very first that spring to mind is Animal Crossing. One of my favorite parts of Animal Crossing games has been the changing of seasons along with the different scenery and activities to go with it, especially once the autumn season begins and makes way into Halloween and before you know it, we’re already approaching Toy Day and New Year’s Eve in the winter. Some of my most vivid holiday memories have been spent strolling through my village (or island) and taking in the seasonal sites with the neighbors. I still remember the New Year’s Eves that were spent with the GameCube hooked up to the living room tv as we’d visit the other village denizens and gather in the town square to count down to the new year at midnight. Of course, you could make it whatever season you’d like by simply adjusting the clock on your console, but time travel was never really my thing (I’m not a Doctor).”

Ellen from Ace Asunder

World of Warcraft, video game, Christmas, tree, star, snow“I haven’t been able to say this for five years, but oh my gawd, I will definitely be playing World of Warcraft this holiday season. During my eight pre-20015 years in WoW, it was a Christmas day tradition to drag my characters to either Ironforge or Orgrimmar (I shamelessly play both sides) and collect gifts left under the Winter Veil tree by Greatfather Winter (yep! Blizzard’s version of Christmas). These gifts were limited time toys for your characters that could be used to interact with other players for extra fun. I’m so excited to resume my addiction tradition this year!”

Gaming Diaries

Monopoly, Fallout, board game“For games that are perfect for the holiday period I always come back to games you can play together. Quite often this combines with ones that reflect a more traditional board game or even a quiz show. For example, the various Monopoly or Risk style games, but also games like Knowledge is Power or Scene It. These give you so many fun moments as families and are great for the reluctant gamers in the family to get involved with easily and the tidy up at the end is far quicker. Anything that means coming together and having fun is perfect for this period and with a little extra time available to play and the opportunity for a lot of laughs these can be perfect.”

Athena from AmbiGaming

Journey, video game, mountain, stranger, dessert, sky, star, sand, clouds“December, and particularly Christmas, is a hard time of year for me, so I often find myself reaching for familiar games, like those in the Dragon Age or Mass Effect series, although I have a yearly tradition of playing Metal Gear Solid 2 on New Year’s Eve, as well. However, this year I might change it up and pull out Journey, a quiet, contemplative game that offers surprisingly close relationships with other (real) people on their own separate, but ultimately familiar, journeys, before gaining the understanding needed to become a light for someone else as they begin their own trek across the sands.”

William from WCRobinson

Pokémon, Platinum, video game, winter, snow“My pick is Pokémon Platinum. To start with, Diamond / Pearl / Platinum are my favourite games in the series for a multitude of reasons, and very special to me personally. So, why am I picking Platinum here? Well, to explain: Platinum was the third game, arriving in 2009 and bringing several changes to the formula. One of which is a newly wintery tone, with a snowfall and brisk chill covering the region, as shown with the addition of a scarf to each player outfit! This iteration of Pokémon has such a comforting feel, with soothingly melodic music (just listen to Route 209!), a beautiful 2D sprite-based art style, and endearing characters; add that snowy aesthetic and numerous other additions, such as animated Pokémon sprites, new story content, and map changes, and you get a warm blanket of a game that you can sink into. I associate Platinum with a sense of relaxation that matches this time of year so well, and I hope you can enjoy it too!”

Luke from Hundstrasse

Assassin's Creed IV, Black Flag, video game, sea, water, ship, island, pirates“There’s something about that lost week between Christmas and New Year, when I’m full of mince pies and Terry’s Chocolate Orange that makes me crave an open-world game. I can’t say that there is one specifically that I associate with the festive period, but over the years I’ve tackled many open-world adventures during the holiday season: Black Flag, Sunset Overdrive, and Dying Light all spring to mind from recent years, but there have been many more. I think it’s just that once-a-year combo of not having to get up early in the morning and not having anything else that really needs doing to beckon in hours of ‘just-one-more-sidequest’ and ‘Ooohhhh… I only need X $/£/points to unlock that fancy costume’.”

Kim from Later Levels

The Elder Scrolls Online, video game, tankard, inn, drink, woman, barman“I usually find myself returning to The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) at Christmas. The main reason is because I first discovered it at this time of year so it seems fitting, but it’s also because it’s so simple to get into. You can do a couple of quests before putting down the controller, step away to open presents and have dinner with the family, then dive straight back into it without having to try too hard to remember where you left off. It’s also easy to unwrap your next Quality Street while working your way through a conversation tree.”

What will you be playing this Christmas? And what will you be keeping an eye out for in the Steam winter sale? Let us know in the comments below, if you can put down your controller and mince pie to spare a moment.

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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.

Metal Gear Solid 2: cutscenes and craziness

Back in March, Luke from Hundstrasse and I took part in a game-swap. Our objective was to find the most bizarre retro titles and, in return for my gift of Realm of the Dead, he sent me Whiplash – a platformer that caused come controversy when it was released in 2004.

It was a fun experience so, when Athena from AmbiGaming asked if I wanted to do another game-swap, I agreed straight away. This time the requirement would be different though: instead of searching for titles the other had never played before, we instead challenged each other to try one of our favourite releases. This explains why she completed Fable on stream recently, something I can only apologise to her for; I might love this game but the controls and camera do feel awfully clunky nowadays.

She nominated me to play Metal Gear Solid in return but it didn’t quite work out as planned. Thanks to the original being rather expensive to purchase and a code donated by Ellen from Ace Asunder not working due to regional lockout, I didn’t get the chance. Athena agreed I could play Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty instead, so a copy was ordered for my PlayStation 2; but ultimately I installed it on our Xbox One after realising it was available via Game Pass as it would enable the use of a modern controller.

This would be the first Hideo Kojima title I’d ever tried so I felt a little apprehensive for a couple of reasons. Although I can enjoy action releases, poor coordination means I’m not that great at them and I wondered how long it would take me to complete the game. In addition, my opinion of Kojima had been influenced by articles I’d read in the past – about the way he viewed women, his eccentricity, his sense of ego – so I wasn’t sure whether I’d feel comfortable with what I was about to see.

I usually give a story overview of the game at this point in posts but I’ve struggled to write one for MGS2. There are so many plot-twists thrown at the player, particularly within the last couple of hours, that I’m not entirely sure I fully understand what happened. There was something about virtual-reality (VR) simulations, several terrorist organisations, a president being taken hostage, huge metal machines which behave like animals and artificial intelligence (AI) – and this is only a start.

And there are cutscenes. Lots and lots of cutscenes, some so lengthy that our Xbox decided to put itself on standby while we were watching. I found this infographic online which shows they averaged 05:30 minutes each, with the longest being 20:15 minutes. I’m not adverse to such moments in video games because I usually play them for the narrative, but at times it was excessive: it felt like the control was taken away from us each time we were starting to get into the gameplay.

Metal Gear Solid 2, MGS2, Sons of Liberty, video game, man, Solid Snake, face, gun

Luke was watching while Pete and I streamed the game on Twitch, and kindly sent me an email last week to try and explain it all. I can’t deny that I’m still confused though. There are so many plot elements, not all of which seem completely relevant or necessary, and there are far too many names for someone who struggles to remember the characters are like I do. There was the impact of streaming too: sometimes it was hard to follow what was happening in-game at the same time as trying to keep up with chat.

Luke also told me about the controversy surrounding MGS2 at the time of its release. The tanker section, where you play as Solid Snake, was released as a prologue so fans were understandably annoyed when they got their hands on the full release and realised they’d be spending a lot of time with Raiden. I’ve also read that Kojima came up with the idea of this new protagonist to appeal to female players, after hearing female debuggers working on the original Metal Gear Solid say that it wasn’t appealing to them. More about this later.

I agreed with Athena before starting that I could attempt the title on the easiest mode and I’m glad I took this option. I had to pass the controller to Pete on several occasions because there were sections I struggled to get to grips with. My main issue was the way the camera angle changed whenever you entered a new scene so I never knew which direction I’d be moving in (the main reason I’ve never felt totally comfortable with classic point-and-click series that make the transition from 2D to 3D).

The thing is though, for all the things I found confusing or frustrating about MGS2, there’s a part of me that enjoyed playing it. After our stream of the last section of the game, my other-half and I both admitted to each other that we’d actually had quite a lot of fun. Maybe it was the fact that we could finally say we’d experienced a Metal Gear title, or that we’d played while discussing it with friends over Twitch, or that we just never knew what the plot was going to throw at us next. It’s difficult to put my finger on it.

I can see why the series is one of Athena’s favourites. Certain elements might come across over-the-top or not aging well, but it must have been pretty amazing to experience a release that like that on the PlayStation 2 when it was originally released back in 2001. As Nathan from Gaming Omnivore and Phil explained to us, there was nothing on the market 19 years ago 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’m afraid I can’t end this post without saying something about the game’s depiction of women though, and I’m not sure what it is that annoyed me the most. Maybe it was that Emma both looks and behaves like a 12-year old girl despite being 18, and Raiden has a good long look at her butt as she climbs down a ladder above him. Or perhaps it was that girlfriend Rose feels the need to call him regularly and constantly brings up their relationship every time he wants to save, even though he’s on an important mission.

As Kevin from The Lawful Geek said in chat: Kojima can’t write a female character to save his life. But my annoyance could also come from the designer creating the protagonist for female players, as if a hunky blonde hero is the only thing we’re interested in when it comes to playing video games. It almost feels like he treats a person’s view of the opposite sex as something that’s purely sexual; his characters’ interactions are very voyeuristic and it’s as if people are measured in terms of their sexual worth.

I might not like all the characters. I might think the cutscenes are excessive. I might feel that MGS2 is incredibly self-indulgent and as Brandon from That Green Dude said, could have benefited from an editor going through it and telling Kojima ‘No’. But playing this game has definitely been an experience and one I’m glad I’ve had. In the very least, it gave me the opportunity to play something I probably wouldn’t have picked up otherwise and be more open to the idea of further game-swaps in the future.

Metal Gear Solid 2, MGS2, Sons of Liberty, video game, man, Raiden

Speaking of which, my next collaboration is lined up already. I’ve shared before that I really dislike turn-based combat because I just don’t have the patience for it, so Ellen is going to try and convince me otherwise with her gift of Final Fantasy XIII. In return I’ve gifted her both Her Story and The Madness of Doctor Dekker, to help cure her of her aversion to full-motion video (FMV) after she watched us play Dark Nights with Poe and Munro in May (perhaps not the greatest example of the genre).

Thanks so much to Athena from slogging through Fable and for giving me the chance to experience my first Metal Gear game. Here’s to more game-swaps!