Sharing the gift of gaming

What better gift to give to someone special than gaming? Whether it’s introducing a loved-one who’s never played before to the world of video games or helping a gamer-friend through a genre that’s new to them, we enjoy sharing our love for our hobby.

Last month, DanamesX from Tales from the Backlog launched the EXP Share: a monthly community event designed to encourage us all to share our experiences around a particular subject connected to video games. The topic for December is: ‘A story where you shared the gift of gaming with someone, or someone shared it with you.’ It’s a lovely subject for this time of year and a nostalgic one perfect for Christmas, so here are some of my favourite gaming memories.

1990: an Amiga 500 and The Secret of Monkey Island

genericI’m sure everybody already knows the story of how I originally got into gaming as a child. My dad’s Commodore 64 and the Usborne coding books made me curious about games with narratives more in depth than ‘save the princess’; and then an introduction to The Secret of Monkey Island after receiving an Amiga 500 kicked off a long-lasting love of the adventure genre and a crush on wannabe pirates. In fact, you can read all about those events it in my previous EXP Share post.

2013: the joy of video games

I first met the SpecialEffect team in 2013 after coming across their stand at the EGX event and have been volunteering for the charity since. They believe it’s everyone’s turn to play and experience the joy of video games. They put fun and inclusion back into the lives of people with physical disabilities by helping them to get involved, and use a range of technology such as modified controllers and eye-control software to find a way for individuals to play to the very best of their abilities.

2014: Cards Against Humanity

When Tim from Timlah’s Texts & Unity3D Tech and I realised we were both due to be in Birmingham at the same time, we immediately arranged to meet up for a drink in a pub at the NEC. It was still a bit of a surprise when he walked in dressed as Edward Elric and handed me a card saying something rude though – I had no idea what Cards Against Humanity was back then. We’ve been friends ever since, and my other-half and I have missed not being able to see him and his partner Jake this year.

2015: a PlayStation 4

Rezzed, video games, gaming, expo, EthanMy stepson’s reaction when he dived into his Christmas stocking and pulled out a box containing LittleBigPlanet 3 was a confused one: “I’ve always wanted to play this game, but it says it’s for PlayStation and we don’t have one.” It was at this point that I surprised Ethan and Pete with another box containing a PlayStation 4. We spent most of the holidays that year playing video games and letting the kid stream them on Twitch, so friends and family could stop by and say hello in chat.

2015: The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO)

The Elder Scrolls Online, video game, tankard, inn, drink, woman, barmanFriend-of-the-blog Phil kindly lent us a batch of titles including ESO so we were geared up and ready to play with our new PlayStation 4 – but then Pete came down with flu and passed out on the sofa for several days. That meant I was left to entertain myself in between fetching him tea and paracetamol, and it’s here that my on-off addiction. It’s a game I find myself returning to every few months and returning to Vvardenfell for some fishing has helped pass a few hours during the COVID-19 lockdown.

2016: Journey

Journey, video game, mountain, stranger, dessert, sky, star, sand, cloudsWe didn’t expect Ethan to be fascinated with Journey as soon as we handed the controller over to him. After climbing the snowy mountain and reaching the end, he said: “So I’m the star… and the next person playing right now will see me in the sky at the start of their game. That’s cool.” Getting the chance to show him that video games don’t always have to be about guns and explosions, and hearing him say that line inspired a post and went on to shape the content I wanted to write for Later Levels.

2018: the PlayStation VR

Ethan, Pete, Christmas, PlayStation VRAfter he fell in love with virtual reality (VR) at his first Rezzed expo in 2017, our families decided to club together to gift Ethan a PlayStation VR for Christmas. The look on his face as he unwrapped it was priceless and, unlike with the PlayStation 4 above, I had my camera ready this time. The headset now comes with us to family events so everyone can get involved and no doubt it will make an appearance again this Christmas – and my non-gaming sister-in-law can put us to shame with how great she is at VR Luge.

2020: game-swaps

When Luke from Hundstrasse and I had to cancel our plans to meet up at the London Gaming Market in March thanks to COVID-19, we decided to send each other the most bizarre PlayStation 2 games we could find. This is how I was introduced to Whiplash and the game-swap series started. Thanks to some lovely blogger-friends, I’ve played games and genres I’ve never experienced before: Metal Gear Solid 2, Final Fantasy XIII, Banjo Kazooie and most recently, VA11 Hall-A.

Thank you to DanamesX from Tales from the Backlog for another excellent topic this month. If you’re interested in joining in with December’s EXP Share, you have until the end of the month 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.)

PlayStation 5: waiting for the hype to blow over

On the evening of 11 June 2020, Sony took to YouTube and Twitch to reveal the PlayStation 5 to the world after much speculation. Millions of viewers turned in to find out about its new look, what was hidden under the hood and the titles they’ll be able to play on it.

Did I join in with the friends and bloggers who were watching? No, I didn’t. My other-half and I were taking part in our group’s fortnightly Shadowrun RPG session over on The Lawful Geek’s Twitch channel at the time of the presentation. Several big plot events happened during that game so we were fully wrapped up in trying to figure out how we were going to get out of the situation our characters now found themselves in. Was I bothered about missing the big PS5 reveal though? No, not in the slightest.

The current generation of consoles were announced in early 2013 and I remember being caught up in the excitement back then. I think recently starting blogging added to the feeling; I’d just found a community of likeminded people who were all eager to see the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and I got swept up in it with them. I stayed up late to see the reveal events, published several posts about them, ranted about always-online and backwards-compatibility – and watched everyone else do the same.

It felt like history repeating when I woke up the morning after our Shadowrun session. I switched on my laptop, logged into WordPress and saw that almost every post in the reader was about PlayStation 5 or the games announced for it. A quick glance at Twitter showed loads of tweets by people who hated the new console’s look and just as many by those who loved it. And the professional gaming websites were getting in on the action too, publishing as many articles as they could to bring in the views.

‘All the details about the new PlayStation 5 revealed!’ shouted a random blog post. ‘Let the console wars commence!’ cried the first tweet in my feed. ‘PS5 Reveal Event: Everything Announced at the Show’, a well-known website promised to share. If you thought you could escape by turning to the main news outlets to find out what else was happening in the world, you were wrong: even the UK broadsheets were jumping on the bandwagon and throwing out some articles of their own.

The older I get, the less I’m able to tolerate hype. I first became aware of this two years ago when I got incredibly sick of seeing an endless stream of content about the upcoming Fallout 76 and Red Dead Redemption 2. The huge amount of promotion surrounding a release seems to directly correlate to my lack of enthusiasm for picking it up, and this has caused me to not play some of the biggest series. Hell, it took me five years to complete Life is Strange and I suspect the hype around it negatively affected my opinion of the game.

I just can’t bring myself to see the consoles as anything other than just another bit of hardware nowadays. I can immediately think of several friends who are going to tell me off for saying that – and are also going to remind me that I should be looking forward to the better titles I’ll be able to play on a shiny new PlayStation 5 soon. But the truth is, I don’t particularly care. If the hardware I currently own can still run the games I personally want to play, regardless of how old it is, then I’m really not bothered about owning the latest equipment.

And those games tend to be made by independent developers far more frequently than big studios. They’ve never let the complications of new consoles stop them from getting their creative ideas out there; and hardware obstacles have even caused them to become more creative sometimes. I remember it dawning on Sony and Microsoft just how popular indie titles were shortly after their reveals back in 2013 and suddenly deciding they wanted to get smaller teams on board.

But this is just personal preference and I understand that everyone has their own individual gaming tastes. If you’re excited by all the news about the PlayStation 5 and the big-budget releases coming for it, then I’m genuinely excited for you. Let’s face it: anyone who knows my other-half will be aware much he loves new technology and gadgets. It therefore won’t be too long before a new console appears in our living-room, so I’ve got to show a small amount of enthusiasm at least.

Maybe it’s the lockdown getting to me. My motivation levels have taken a dip since it started here in the UK at the end of March and as was evident in my post about digital expos last week, it has been a struggle to work up enthusiasm for much recently. Perhaps I just need to dig out a few indie games, hide myself away with them, and wait for the hype to blow over.

Life is Strange: a hella annoying game

Before this year, people were always surprised when I told them I hadn’t properly played Life is Strange. That’s because it should have really appealed to me with its female protagonist and strong narrative, plus it’s one of those releases that everyone you know seems to rave about.

If you haven’t yet played Life is Strange and intend to do so, I’d recommend navigating away from this post now and coming back later. There are some spoilers in the following paragraphs which may spoil your enjoyment of the game.

But thanks to a complicated relationship with this game, it’s taken me five years to finally complete it. I didn’t pick up the first instalment when it was published in January 2015 because episodic games just aren’t for me and I’d wanted to wait until the whole title was available. But a house move and other adult responsibilities meant I didn’t get the opportunity until September 2017, when I then discovered that it wasn’t what I wanted from a gaming experience at the time and didn’t progress to the second episode.

From that point onward I had so many friends tell me I ‘really needed to finish Life is Strange’. Their comments were intended to be helpful recommendations but weirdly they had the opposite effect. When a game is continuously hyped up, whether it be by the press or people closer to you, it makes me think that it’s too good to me true and then I’m reluctant to give it my attention. This is exactly what happened with Fallout 76 and Red Dead Redemption 2 (and look how they turned out).

But when our 50-day challenge for GameBlast20 took place earlier this year, I realised it was it time to let go of my apprehensions and give DONTNOD Entertainment’s darling a fair shot. I replayed the first episode on day seven, moved on to the second on day 42 and then finished the others during a week in March. After five years I’m finally done with Life is Strange and I feel a weird sort of achievement, even though I sadly missed the part with the giant squirrels in the window.

But that’s not to say I’m now in love with it and am going to start telling everyone to play it.

In my first post about the game in 2017, I mentioned that I hadn’t warmed to Max as a character. I’m afraid to say that’s still the case after completing all the instalments and she’s never going to make it onto my favourites list. It’s clear the developer designed her as a shy, introverted opposite to Chloe as having two strong protagonists may have been overwhelming for a title like this; but at times she was so frustratingly passive that it made me want to shake some sense into her. It’s only her powers that make her interesting.

And speaking of Chloe, I can’t claim to be a fan of hers either. There’s certainly more to her than Max, she didn’t grate on me as much and her scenes within Life is Strange are more enjoyable; but I’m still struggling to understand why so many gamers love her as much as they do. She’s obviously had a difficult upbringing and certain events have had an impact on her personality, but most of the time she’s just a rebellious teenager who wants to revolt against the world. Nothing new there then.

Now let’s move on to Warren. While streaming the game, the friends who joined us in chat told us that players hate him because they think he’s a ‘stalker’. I have several issues with this. Firstly, the nightmare sequence happens inside Max’s head and may therefore not be representative of Warren’s feelings; secondly, if it is in any way representative, surely the locker is more a metaphor for unrequited love; and thirdly, he’s wetter than a lettuce. There’s simple nothing to like or dislike about him, so those how hate him seem to be taking it a bit far.

Life is Strange is one those releases which falls flat if you don’t like the main characters. Everything hangs on the player making a connection with them because the narrative is so tightly focused on their lives and reactions to each other, even if the story implies that the villain will have an impact on the wider world. If you’re unable to form that relationship with your protagonists, you’re more inclined to not overlook the unbelievable set-up, gaping plot holes and inconsistent game mechanics.

Speaking of which, there’s one such hole that I must discuss here: the storm. At the very start of the first episode Max has a vision about a tornado hitting Arcadia Bay followed by further environmental disasters, and she mentions them to nobody other than Chloe and Warren (and the homeless lady if you make that decision). Then at the Vortex Club party when the teenagers see two moons in the sky, they all just pass it off as a freak event and carry on drinking. Hello, people – it looks like your world is about to end and this might be a good time to panic.

We were also told by our friends in the stream chat that some players consider the storm to be ‘Rachel’s revenge’ thanks to a line said by Chloe during episode five. Reading up about this on the internet reveals a whole host of theories about how Rachel Amber was able to control the elements using her emotions, and how Max’s powers may be a gift from her. This is all just too far fetched for me. It feels as though some people fell so in love with Life is Strange and its characters, that they then spent far too much time trying to plug the plot holes.

I now have absolutely no desire to play Life is Strange: Before the Storm. I don’t particularly care how Chloe and Rachel met or what their relationship was like before Max returned to Arcadia Bay, and I certainly don’t want to listen to them saying ‘hella’ all the time. I’m aware I could be giving the series a hard time though due to my reluctant reaction to hype as described above. If only I had the power to go back in time myself and play Life is Strange when it was first released, to see if my reaction to the game would have been different.

I’m also conscious of the fact that playing such a narrative-heavy title on stream, when your attention is split between what’s being discussed in chat and what’s happening in the story, may not have helped my negative opinions. That’s why one day I’d like to play Life is Strange 2 off camera to see if the experience is any different. Surely there must be something I’m going to like about the franchise, seeing as so many of my blogging friends keep telling me it’s one I should like?

That’s not going to be for a while though. I’m not sure my other-half could manage to go through another five-episodes of teenage angst right now.

Life is Strange: the next episode

In September 2017, I wrote a post shortly after playing the first episode of Life is Strange. The final paragraph started with the line: “I’m sure I’ll go back to [it] at some point in the future.” It may have taken me over two years to get there but with our 50-day challenge for GameBlast20 underway, that time was earlier this month.

I didn’t finish all the episodes in 2017 because it wasn’t what I wanted from a gaming experience at that moment. With a lot going on in the real world, after being at work all day I couldn’t face stepping back into Max’s shoes, dealing with all that teenage anxiety, and making decisions that would have long-lasting effects on other characters. Instead I wanted to get lost in a game where I could simply switch off, so I turned to the Blackwell series by Wadjet Eye Games and became a detective.

But let’s step back in time a little further: if the first episode of Life is Strange was released in January 2015, then why did it take me so long to finally get around to playing it? On paper it looks like exactly the kind of title I’d enjoy: ‘an award-winning and critically-acclaimed adventure game that allows the player to rewind time and affect the past, present and future’. Throw in a female protagonist too and I should have been all over it. Yet there was one reason that stopped me from picking it up for a couple of years…

Its episodic nature.

I understand the theory of why games released in this format can be a good thing for both developers and players. For the former, it’s a way of delivering chunks of your project to your audience far more quickly than it would be to wait until a title is ready in its entirety. You can use the money generated from the sale of one episode to fund the creation of the next; and once the season is completely finished, you can stick all the sections into a bundle and sell it as a special edition. It’s a win-win situation.

There’s also the possibility of a better game. Developers are able to make a project over a longer period of time and, with feedback received from gamers after each episode, future instalments can be fine-tuned to open up the opportunity for higher review scores. And instead of releasing a full title and then having it fade in everyone’s mind a couple of weeks later – or months, if you’re lucky – every episode means new conversations on social media for players and continued attention for creators.

The theory is great – but I’m not sure it actually works in practice. The idea of having to wait a year or sometimes longer for a game to be released from start to finish just doesn’t cut it nowadays. Digital distribution platforms such as Steam and the PlayStation Store offer players what seems like an endless list of titles, and ones which are perceived to be more complete than episodic releases. They come with the attractive benefit of being able to experience an entire game without hanging on for the next instalment.

This is why I skipped Life is Strange four years ago. My original intention after the first episode was published was to wait until the final one was released in October 2015 to play it. But you know what it’s like when you’re a gamer with a backlog: other titles come out and catch your attention, meaning older ones possibly get forgotten about and end up languishing on your wishlist. The amount of hype surrounding DONTNOD Entertainment’s project also added to my lack of enthusiasm about playing it.

But here I am, over four years later, finally convinced to give it a try. It’s thanks to suggestions from several blogger friends recently that I’m now picking up a controller and playing Life is Strange during our 50-day challenge for GameBlast20. So far I’ve made it through first episode and am actually quite enjoying it, although that may be because I know what to expect this time and am preparing myself for the feels as a result. Who knows, I might even complete it this time and move on to Life is Strange: Before the Storm.

But as for episodic releases: they’re not really for me. Give me a game I can play from start to finish and see through to a fulfilling conclusion, rather than a chunk of it that leaves me with a cliffhanger for the next month or so – because I won’t be waiting for the next episode.

We’re taking part in GameBlast20 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.)

Same old story: video games and replayability

Last month I asked readers how they felt about character-switching in video games. Do you enjoy seeing a digital world through the eyes of multiple protagonists? After playing The Little Acre and changing characters every five minutes, I was reminded of exactly why I don’t.

This month I’ve got another question for you: do you immediately replay releases you’ve just completed to make different choices or see other endings? The reason I ask is because of an article I came across on the website recently with the headline: In the past, YouTubers were very problematic… Suddenly they became our allies. This was about a discussion between Quantic Dream founder David Cage and Hazelight Studios founder Josef Fares at the Gamelab conference in July 2019.

They talked about the impact of platforms such as Twitch and YouTube on games which hang on a strong narrative. A number of developers have stated in the past that too many people will simply watch a release online rather than experience it for themselves; once they know how the story turns out, they no longer feel the need to play. I can’t deny I’ve never done this. There have been a few titles where I’m not so sure about the gameplay but have been interested in the plot, and so I’ve found a video (my version of watching a film).

The struggle to create a narrative game people want to play rather than watch was tackled in different ways by Hazelight Studios and Quantic Dream. The former took a linear story path in A Way Out, but its unique cooperative gameplay had an appeal which caused players to want to try it for themselves This was the case for myself and my other-half: we’d watched a chapter on Twitch before agreeing we should purchase the title. The ending may not have been what we wanted but it was an enjoyable experience overall.

Quantic Dream went in a different direction and created a narrative that couldn’t be easily captured in video form. Their solution was to focus on the situations players faced in Detroit: Become Human and provide choices where the audience was split at least 70/30 in their decision. It meant that although YouTubers and streamers could show one version of the title’s outcomes, they were unable to show them all; so viewers wanted to find out for themselves what would happen if other choices had been made.

Speaking of branches, players are given access to a ‘flowchart’ in Detroit which not only shows the decisions they made but the paths not taken too. This was a change from their previous releases where those alternative paths had remained hidden. Cage said: “Maybe that was not a good decision. Maybe hiding everything from the player is not a good thing. Detroit was a better compromise, because it was about showing part of what you missed, and that played a major role in the success of the game.”

EGX, expo, event, video games, Kim, Detroit: Become Human

He attributes this and the branches throughout his project as the reason why around 78% of players finished it, rather than the 25% to 30% that’s usual for most video games. He also said: “It’s the story. People want to know what’s going to happen next, and a story can achieve this for you. What’s interesting on Detroit is that we managed to make people replay, so they could see all of the different branches – which is quite rare in a narrative game. We achieved this because we showed all of the branches and the variations of the story.”

But if you discount those that can be completed in under an hour, I can’t recall a time I’ve ever replayed a game immediately after finishing it. The version of the narrative I’ve just witnessed is my story and I’m happy with that; I’ve never felt the need to go back and change it, even if I got the ‘bad’ ending. I might reload the last save-point if it’s right near the end and won’t take too much time or effort to see the alternate outcome, but it doesn’t feel right to use my free hours to restart a story when there are so many new ones to jump into.

Saying that though, I haven’t yet gotten around to playing Detroit so it’s always possible the branching flowchart could change my mind. I had the opportunity to try a demo at EGX in September 2017, purchased it soon after its release in May 2018 and installed the game on my PlayStation, but it’s still waiting there for me. Perhaps this is a good excuse to schedule another stream: let’s get something organised for this month, and see live on air whether I’m tempted by the prospect of entering into another playthrough.

In the meantime, over to you: do you immediately replay video games? If so, what elements of a title encourage you to do this? Let us know in the comments below, or in your own post if you’re inspired to write.

Trust, friendship and Team Ico’s games

At the London Gaming Market in March 2019, I bought myself a PlayStation 2. I’d been thinking about getting one for a while and was finally persuaded. I also picked up a copy of Fahrenheit as it never felt the same on PC, along with ICO – one of my favourite releases for the console.

My other-half had never played it so it seemed like a good excuse to set up a stream and introduce him to the world of Ico and Yorda. We completed the game over the course of a weekend and although he didn’t enjoy it as much as I did, he could see why it had received so much praise over the years. He did make one interesting observation however: “I’m surprised you like this. It’s about a girl who’s being led around by a boy, and tells her what to do all the time. I thought you’d have a bit more to say about that!”

I have to admit I’d never thought about it that way before. I could see his point; at the beginning of ICO, Yorda does come across as somewhat helpless. We may not know anything about her history or why she’s there but it’s true Ico rescues her from her caged prison. And he appears to be the leader during most of their journey through the castle, calling her or taking her hand to pull her along when necessary and frequently jumping in when she’s dragged down into dark holes by shadowy creatures.

But I don’t think it’s that simple though, for the protagonists have transformed by the end of the game. Ico is no longer the horned boy exiled from his village to protect it from a curse after becoming the warrior who defeated the Queen. And Yorda has changed too: she realises she has her own power and gains the courage to stand up to her mother. Both characters draw strength from the relationship because it’s one that’s built on trust, regardless of language or any other barriers.

This seems to be a theme in all of Team Ico’s games and it’s easy to compare their 2016 release, The Last Guardian, to ICO. The focus of both releases is the close bond formed between two protagonists from different worlds despite of their backgrounds and the words they speak. The Boy’s initial attempts at helping Trico get him slammed across the room and knocked unconscious but slowly the creature becomes used to his presence, and by the end of the game they’ve even found a way to communicate.

You may think it’s not so easy to compare Shadow of the Colossus, originally released in 2005, but it’s still a title about trust – misplaced trust. Wander puts his faith in a mysterious entity called Dormin when he’s told he needs to slay 16 giant stone beats in order to revive Mono. During the course of the game however, the feeling that something is wrong slowly builds and at the end it’s revealed that Wander was being cruelly used: his loved-one may be alive again, but this has come at a great and unexpected cost.

The Last Guardian, video game, Trico, animal, beast, phoenix, griffin, boy

Although Team Ico’s releases bring on a melancholic mood, there are positives to be taken away from the experiences. Just look at how the rescuer becomes to rescued each time. Ico releases Yorda from her cage, then she releases him from the castle; Wander attempts to revive Mono, then she carries him in his new form; and the Boy cares for Trico, then the creature defends his companion. It’s about building trust in your own strength to save the ones you love, but also trusting in them to have your back too.

They may not be to everyone’s taste and yes, they do have some quirks, but to me the releases discussed in this post are some of the most touching ever made. They manage to convey stories full of emotion that leave the player feeling sad yet strangely positive at the same time, with very few words ever spoken by their characters. Even though we had to wait over a decade for the latest and there’s a chance this could happen again, the thought that creator Fumito Ueda is working on something new fills me with excitement.