Are you a walker or a fast-traveller?

I came across an article by Gavin from Bits & Pieces last month which gave a brief history of fast-travel in video games. Although he was unable to discover which title first used this mechanic, he gave examples of how it has been implemented over the years.

This got me thinking about how much other-half and I make use of it. I’ve written a couple of posts recently about our gaming differences – for instance, how Pete will hit the ‘randomise’ button while I’ll spend ages mulling over the character creation screen, and how he has no qualms in picking the evil response whereas that kind of decision usually leaves me feeling guilty – and it seems that fast-travel is yet another element where we have completely different opinions.

Pete will make use of a fast-travel option as soon as it’s offered to him and will utilise it to its fullest extent. He does enjoy some exploration in video games but it’s certainly not the main appeal of gaming for him: he’d much rather be wrapped up in the energy of a battle than slow down to explore every inch of the world. His argument is that he doesn’t have enough time to play nowadays thanks to adult responsibilities, so he wants to cram in as much action as possible whenever there’s the chance.

On the other hand, there’s me: I’m not so bothered about being involved in constant action and play more for stories and immersion. The feeling of a digital world slowly opening up as you travel through its locations and uncover its secrets is therefore one of the most exciting for me personally. A slight hint of a new quest, mystery to solve or path to follow through the trees is enough to make me forget about the main quest for a while and wander off into the wilderness.

I guess my perfectionist tendencies and the fear of missing out has a lot to do with my frequent reluctance to resort to fast-travel. Whenever I play an RPG, the worry that I might fail to see something constantly niggles at the back of my head and is enough to get me traipsing across the map on my feet or a mount. I’ve experienced some lovely scenes in open-world releases in recent years and probably wouldn’t have seen them if I’d opted to zip across the miles in the blink of an eye.

Take the time I caught a mudcrab trying to steal the morning’s catch from a drying-rack next to a river, and the way the fisherman responded to it in The Elder Scrolls Online. Or when I found a colony of tree ants crawling up a trunk in the sunshine in Horizon Zero Dawn, each carrying a leaf in their teeth. Moments like these don’t necessarily do anything to progress the central storyline in a game but they go a long way in helping to create a world which feels alive and spontaneous.

The ability to teleport across a map in an instant hides the size and layout of a digital world and, when you think about it, is kind of at odds with the usual epic-quest-premise found in most RPGs. The Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘quest’ as ‘a long search for something that is difficult to find or an attempt to achieve something difficult’. Does that mean it transforms into something more like a task on your to-do list if you can reach your destination in a few seconds behind a loading screen and tooltip?

The risk of the mechanic is that it reduces the in-game map to something almost like the diagram of the London Underground. You run a few errands in town and pick up a bite to eat while you’re there before hopping back onto the Fast-Travel Line; then jump off a few stops later to deliver a parcel to a non-player character and get your weapons fixed. Don’t forget to take your belongings and tap your Oyster card on the Autosave before you head above ground.

RPG environments are becoming more about these hubs of activity, and less about finding your way to the next one and exploring the distance between them. I do get it though and can’t deny that Pete has a good point. When life is full of adult commitments and you don’t want to waste an hour walking between locations only for nothing much to happen, the fast-travel mechanic offers a convenient shortcut which allows you to squeeze in as much of the best parts of a release as possible.

It’s not always about practicality and accessibility though. We gamers can be an impatient bunch and there are many players out there who want an instant hit of adrenaline and fulfilment of a power-fantasy – and there’s nothing wrong with that. We’re all unique and get our enjoyment from different aspects of gaming so, for people who are more interested in constant action, fast-travel is appealing because it cuts out all that boring walking from one side of the map to the other.

But this gives rise to a new question: why do we find it boring? It’s the developer’s job to find a fix for any boredom and a fast-travel option feels more like a workaround than a cure, but I do understand that it’s something of a catch-22 situation. If you know most players are interested in the hubs of activity mentioned earlier, that’s where you focus your effort; but failing to create a journey full of smaller interesting moments means fewer gamers will be enticed to take the long trip.

Is it a case of open-world games simply becoming too big for their own good and therefore being too difficult or expensive to fill with these scenes? This is something picked up on by several people who kindly responded to my recent poll. Even Frostilyte from Frostilyte Writes, who seems to agree with my point about fast-travel hiding the scale and layout of a game-world, said that a lot of modern open-world releases are painful to explore because they’re just too large.

I’m not saying that fast-travel is a bad thing or that I never use it. It’s certainly useful when I’ve only got a spare half-hour and I quickly want to get somewhere to finish a quest before having to turn off my PC. But my preference is always to hit the road using my feet and take in all the sights during the journey to my next destination. A good RPG for me is one when you’re never really lost, because there’s always an adventure waiting around every corner.

So how about you: are you a walker or a fast-traveller?

Finding it hard to be bad in video games

Last month I asked readers how they approach character creation in video games. Do they make a protagonist who looks just like themselves, one who appears completely different, or maybe even hit the randomise button and see what they end up with?

The most popular answer in the poll was ‘somewhere in the middle’ at just over 40%, but that’s not the most interesting trend I noticed from everybody’s responses. It seems their character’s appearance is also influenced about how they intend to play the game. Most people said they would make a complete badass who looks dangerous if they were going down the evil route; but the protagonist would look more like themselves if they were trying to be the hero.

This got me thinking about my own gaming habits further. As I wrote in that last post, I’ll spend ages getting each slider on the character creation screen just right and trying to make my female avatar look as much like me as possible (but with a post lockdown haircut). And then I’ll always try to imagine myself in each situation and base my in-game choices on what I would do in real-life, hardly ever performing a completely aggressive or reckless action and preferring to stick to the paragon path.

That’s kind of weird when you really delve into it. Here we are, presented with millions of digital lands where there are opportunities to be whomever we want to be. We can turn ourselves into the evillest villain we can dream up and do all those things never allowed in real life, knowing they’ll be wiped away when you turn off the game and that the only consequences are inside of it. So even when I’m given those chances, why do I still find it so difficult to give into the temptation to be bad?

The morality system I’ll always look back on fondly is in Lionhead’s Fable, released in September 2004. It was the first time I’d seen anything with an alignment mechanic and this fascinated me because it affected everything to do with my Hero of Oakvale: his looks, the titles available to him, the actions he could do and the way others responded to him. I spent the entire game trying to become as good as possible and felt pleased when he grew a halo, had butterflies fluttering around him and villagers cheered him on.

I went back in for a second playthrough some time later with the aim to do the opposite: make the protagonist so terrible that his eyes glowed yellow and a malevolent haze circled around his legs. But I just couldn’t do it. I got tired of having to sort out the attacking guards every time I entered a location, as it pulled me out of the story and broke my immersion. There was also the fact that I felt a pang of guilt whenever I killed an innocent bystander or stabbed a chicken.

Morality systems have matured and evolved considerably since Fable was published almost 20 years ago. It’s not just about being straight-up good or bad any longer; video games have introduced more shades of grey and started to ask their players to really think about the results of their actions. Instead of your only option being to rescue the princess, you can now decide to leave her sitting in the castle in favour of another non-player character (NPC) – or even go in there and behead her yourself.

We’ve grown to expect that the decision which appears to be the most virtuous on the surface will usually have a far-reaching consequence we didn’t see coming. This brings an added pressure to gameplay and it’s definitely something I felt watching Pete play Until Dawn for Halloween in 2019 or playing Detroit: Become Human myself for last year’s GameBlast challenge. I wanted to keep every character in both release safe and felt so bad at the unintended outcomes of some of my choices.

As I’ve written before, I do sometimes struggle with choice-based video games. The two sides of my gaming personality – being a perfectionist and not wanting to replay titles – don’t always exist together happily because there’s that niggling fear of failure in the back of my head, along with the feeling that I’ve got to make it to the ‘best’ ending in a single playthrough. I sometimes seek comfort in linear narratives because knowing I’ll arrive at the same end point as everybody else can be liberating.

Maybe this has something to do with why I’ll always choose to be a good protagonist whenever I can. Although things have changed since the dawn of video games, the most compelling endings are still usually associated with heroes and so that’s what my inner perfectionist constantly wants to achieve. There’s that guilt I feel when mowing down innocent villagers or defenceless chickens too; I know they’re not real, but it seems both reckless and pointless doing away with them when they’re not causing any harm.

Ultimately though, and this goes back to the point raised in my post about character creation, it’s to do with both challenge and escapism for me. I want to see what I would do when confronted with a difficult scenario or a choice where there are no right answers: would I be up to the test and able to save everyone? I can find out the answers in a situation I’m never going to come across in the real world, and where the only consequences are in my save file.

It appears many people have a similar preference but for their own reasons, as over 80% of those who voted in my recent poll said they’re most likely to aim to be good during a first playthrough. Some like Ellen from Ace Asunder want to be the hero; others like Luke from Hundstrasse just can’t seem to commit to being evil; and there are those like Nathan who feel the paragon path makes for better character growth. Heather from KiaraHime is similar to me in that she doesn’t like upsetting the NPCs.

My other-half is the complete opposite to me though. Pete is one of the kindest people I know in real-life but stick him in a video game and he’ll be the one doing the double-crossing, blowing up their spouse and killing defenceless creatures (rest in peace, Rubbish Dog). Maybe he’s of the same opinion as Frostilyte from Frostilyte Writes: unless there’s an obvious advantage to being good, sometimes it’s fun to do the evil stuff you can’t get away with in everyday life.

I guess your preference once again comes down to your preferred form of escapism. Some people enjoy seeing themselves in games and finding out what they’d do when confronted with an end-of-world situation, their desire to be the hero and save everyone. Others want to completely forget about any aspect of real-life for a while and aim to behave in the opposite way, leaving a path of destruction in their wake and killing every NPC who so much as looks at them in a funny way.

So what about you: are you good or bad?

StrideQuest: I would run 100-miles

The end of February saw hundreds of gamers all over the UK take part in the annual GameBlast event. Thanks to their dedication, hard work and marathon streaming sessions, a grand total of £228,300 raised for SpecialEffect.

This amazing amount will help the charity continue their work free of charge. The aim is to put fun and inclusion back into the lives of people with physical disabilities by helping them to play video games, and they use a range of technology including modified hardware and eye-control software to find a way for individuals to play to the very best of their abilities. This not only brings families and friends together but has a profoundly positive impact on confidence and quality of life too.

Our 24-hour stream for the official GameBlast21 weekend may have finished over a month ago – but that doesn’t mean we’re stopping any time soon. To say thank you to everyone who helped us raise £4,579 and raise awareness for the charity, we’re streaming for at least an hour every day right up to Saturday, 29 May 2021. There are also a few surprises coming up: Pete will be making another appearance in his Pokémon onesie and Phil and I are warming up our vocal chords for an evening of karaoke.

Streaming isn’t the only way we show our continued support for SpecialEffect though. I’ve regularly volunteered for the charity by helping out on their stand during expos such as EGX and Comic Con since finding out about their work in 2013, and can’t wait to get back to it once such events are allowed again. I’ve also taken part in the ASICS London 10K a few times and am hoping to finally cross the finish line in under an hour at this year’s event on Sunday, 25 July 2021.

One of the biggest ways in which the lockdown has affected me is a drain of motivation, but I’ve tried to keep running regularly since a long-service award from my employer meant I was able to buy myself a treadmill in November. I might not feel like it some days but forcing myself to leave my laptop at lunch-time for a run means I get a much-needed break away from the ‘office’ while working from home. Plus it stops me from feeling too guilty when I treat myself to a Creme Egg in the evenings.

The hardest part of running for me personally isn’t so much the physical exertion: it’s the mental endurance needed to continue for longer distances. On the particularly tough days I find myself constantly watching the clock and counting down the minutes until I can stop. It’s a blessing when friends are streaming in the afternoon as listening to them talk provides a pleasant distraction (shout-outs to Darkshoxx and Nathan from Gaming Omnivore); but on the days when they’re not available, staying on track can be difficult.

This explains why I signed up immediately when SpecialEffect announced a new event a couple of weeks ago. In collaboration with game illustrator and writers RPG Toons and R-N-W, the charity has created an RPG-inspired virtual fitness challenge that transforms your usual run into a quest through mountains, forests and epic landscapes. It’s up to you to find a travel beyond the small village of Loftwood to find a cure for the glum and listless feeling which has infected its inhabitants in StrideQuest.

This distance-based adventure can be experienced as part of your normal daily routine and sounds as if it’s going to make any walk, jog or run that little bit more exciting. As miles are covered, successive segments of a unique fictional map that unlock the next chapter of the story will be emailed to everyone taking part. You can choose to make your journey either 50- or 100-miles and by the end of it, you’ll have travelled through new and wonderous lands as well as finding the remedy for the mysterious illness.

All you need to do is sign up via Eventbrite, complete the miles for your chosen challenge between 01 April and 31 May 2021, and record your distance using a fitness app such as Strava or a smartwatch. Alternatively, you can email the team a photograph or screenshot and they’ll update your progress for you. If you’re thinking of getting back out there now that it’s spring and milder days are coming, perhaps StrideQuest is just what you need to give you that little bit extra incentive.

There’s no obligation to fundraise but there are some great incentives if you choose to do so. After registering, simply set up a JustGiving page linked to the charity’s StrideQuest campaign and raise £25 to get your hands on a limited-edition print of the full quest-map or aim £50 to be eligible for a themed t-shirt. I’ve created a fundraising page myself but I’m aware of just how much the community has supported our GameBlast21 efforts already, so I’ll be making a donation myself once I complete the 100-mile challenge.

If you decide to register to take part in StrideQuest yourself, please do let me know as it would be great to form a little support group to cheer each other on! I’ll give regular updates on my progress during our daily streams on Twitch and will let you know how I’m getting on in my round-up post at the end of April. Good luck!

Yakuza 0: trying something different

The Christmas holidays are a great time for gaming. Whether it’s spending time with a game received as a gift, treating yourself to a title in the Steam sale or trying something completely new, it’s the perfect time of year to curl up on the sofa with your controller.

My other-half and I managed to complete several releases we’d never played before. Sea of Solitude was a lovely puzzle-platformer with a sincere message at its heart; Greyhat: A Digital Detective Adventure kept us guessing at what was going on right until the end; and Call of Sea was a beautiful escape-room type journey. Then there was Quern – Undying Thoughts, a game I’d purchased after a recommendation from Darkshoxx and which felt like discovering Myst all over again.

It wasn’t all about video games though. Being aware of just how much I enjoy a good detective thriller, Kevin from The Lawful Geek very kindly sent us a murder-mystery-in-a-box to solve. Post Mortem: Death in La-La Land was a choose-your-own-adventure with physical evidence that kept us bust for around six hours trying to find out whodunnit. It made us feel as though we were the middle of our very own noir story and I can’t wait to start the next case, Lucha Muerte, very soon.

This would be a good pick for January’s EXP Share but it’s not the experience I’ve chosen to talk about today. This community event is hosted by DanamesX over at Tales of the Backlog and has been designed to get us all sharing our gaming tales, with the current topic being: “Share a story about a game that you played for the first time this month.” I know I’m cheating a little by selecting something from December but, with bonus points available if it’s in a genre you wouldn’t normally pick up, I’ve got something that’s perfect.

Although I’d vaguely heard about Yakuza previously, I’d never tried an entry myself because the series just wasn’t something on my radar. I quite like watching others play action-adventure releases and seeing how their narratives develop, but I often don’t take the lead on the controls because I’m so uncoordinated. It’s also the case that I don’t usually enjoy Japanese RPGs or releases set in the country because their storylines tend to be a little too over-the-top for my taste.

But watching Nathan from Gaming Omnivore play part of Yakuza 0 during one of his streams made me kind of curious. What the hell were we doing following two strangers into a restaurant and then helping them solve a crossword puzzle? And how on earth was ‘soy sauce face’ the opposite of ‘sauce face’? Although I get it now, at the time the Crossed Words substory was perhaps one of the weirdest side-missions I’d seen someone play through on Twitch.

And now this absurdity is the main reason why I’ve been having so much fun with the game since downloading it from Xbox Game Pass a few weeks ago. Obviously I’m terrible at the controls and prefer to mash the buttons while sticking to a single fighting style but that’s ok – because Yakuza 0 doesn’t take itself too seriously, I don’t feel the need to either. There’s no pressure for me to perform perfectly during the combat sequences and so instead I can concentrate on simply enjoying myself.

Just when you think the substories couldn’t get any more outlandish, they do. I’ve saved someone’s daughter from losing all her money to a doomsday cult and reunited her with her mother. I’ve won several cuddly toys from the UFO Catcher at the SEGA Hi-Tech Land for a child and then had to listen to her call me ‘Daddy’. And I’ve incorrectly given someone a pizza when they actually wanted a visa, and then celebrated with her and her pimp after they decided to get married.

On that note, I must admit that some of the depictions within Yakuza 0 do leave me cold. The sexes feel as though they’re handled rather differently: while positive traits have been written into male characters and some even subvert stereotypes, the women come across as being unable to do anything without the help of a man, and are expendable. I may understand that the game is set in a different era and culture but it doesn’t mean I have to agree with it – and that’s where I’m going to leave that subject for the time-being.

The other negative I have with the title is its use of character-switching. This isn’t a mechanic I like because I find it breaks my immersion in a story; I know many people like seeing a digital world through multiple protagonists’ eyes for different views, but I prefer to stick with just one throughout a playthrough. Saying that though, it’s not so annoying here because you get to spend several chapters with either Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima before switching over to the other.

These aren’t the reasons why I’m not sure I’m going to be able to finish Yakuza 0 though. This is actually due to its long length: with 17 chapters, 100 substories and a bunch of mini-games that can take around 140 to complete, I’m just not sure I want to put that much time into it. The past few years of blogging have taught me that I don’t like spending so many hours on a single game, and I get more satisfaction from shorter releases which can be finished in several sessions.

But still, I’m glad that hanging out with my blogger-friends in a stream led to me trying something I’d not considered before. Having an action-adventure divert my attention away from my beloved point-and-clicks resulted in a few fun days during the Christmas holidays – and it even reminded me why I adore the adventure genre as much as I do. A big thank you to Nathan for persuading me to download Yakuza 0 (and for sticking with the Gabriel Knight series for his streams!).

Thank you to DanamesX from Tales of the Backlog too for another great topic this month. If you’re interested in joining in with January’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.)

Dear diary: journals in video games

I’m so used to being on my laptop nowadays that picking up a pen feels weird. Although I haven’t forgotten to use one yet, writing anything by hand is unfamiliar and I’m sure it takes me far longer than it used to. Watch any of our Shadowrun RPG sessions where keeping notes is a must and you’ll see what I mean.

I’m sure I’m not the only person afflicted by this struggle with penmanship. We’re always within range of technology and a large part of our life takes place online, meaning we’re usually more at home with digital than physical mediums. We celebrate birthdays and other milestones on Facebook; share our opinions on world events and politics on Twitter; and record our careers and promote our professional skills on LinkedIn. There are even some of us who are crazy enough to keep a digital journal in the form of a blog.

The Painscreek Killings, video game, journal, diary, handwriting

If we’re likely to turn to a keyboard over a notepad then, why are older forms of life documentation still frequently used as items within video games to tell stories? They might be more common in games like point-and-clicks and RPGs but such objects can appear in any genre. The smallest handwriting samples might be sticky-notes on the side of a computer monitor or a shopping list stuck to a fridge with a magnet; and when you discover a hidden diary, you know you’ve hit the narrative jackpot.

It’s something I’ve been mulling over since playing The Painscreek Killings last month, an excellent 2018 release by EQ Studios. This murder-mystery simply wouldn’t exist without journals, letters and newspaper articles. The developer tried to mimic real-world investigations with their project so there are no hints or quest markers for the player: instead, you’re reliant on the information you can glean from these objects and must translate it into leads to be followed up on.

Of course, this game takes place in an American town in 1997 and focuses on a crime which happened two years earlier, so physical documents don’t seem at all out of place in its world. Back then there wasn’t a computer in every home and not everybody had access to a personal email address or mobile phone. But would The Painscreek Killings have worked so well if its setting had been more modern? Would it have had the same impact if the diaries had been replaced with forms of online communication?

I’m not so sure. Digital documentation might have been able to carry the gameplay but there’s just something about a handwritten journal within a video game which makes the player feel more connected to a character. Because of how private they are in nature, we’re aware we’re holding an item which comes as close as possible to reproducing how a person thinks – plus there’s the added illicit thrill of reading something you know your eyes were never meant to see.

Answer Knot, video game, diary, journal, handwriting, Uncharted, Nathan Drake, Shambhala

There’s also the chance to discern part of a character’s personality through their writing – the way they form the letters on a page, pace their sentences and structure their paragraphs. It’s far easier to do this when you can see their scribbles than when an email or text message is all you have to go on, for example. The language used for such communications is shorter, more to-the-point and standardised, and you learn nothing from an Arial font which could be attributed to absolutely anybody.

As well as giving us an insight into a protagonist’s thoughts and behaviours, journals in video games are used in a few other ways. In Answer Knot by Naraven Games they’re a way of showing the past: the voice messages left on the answerphone show the current state of a relationship while the diaries show its history. Some of the entries also inject a little comedy through Easter eggs – for instance, there’s one which mentions a trip to Shambhala, where half the temples were blown up thanks to a bizarre ‘treasure hunter’.

In Return of the Obra Dinn by Lucas Pope, you spend more time within the protagonist’s ledger than you do in the game world itself. Using the evidence recorded within in it – a manifest, sketches of the crew and a map – along with a healthy dose of observation and logic, you must figure out who each person is to fill in the empty pages and solve the mystery of the abandoned ship. It’s easy to assume the notebook would take a backseat to the game’s magic watch, but it is in fact vital to the central mechanic.

Now let’s jump to Gone Home by Fullbright, a narrative release made even more emotional thanks to the way it handles diary entries. Discovering a scribbled page from your sister’s journal hidden around the house triggers a recording of her voice – incredibly fitting, seeing as your character would be likely to read those words in her head in her sibling’s tone. It makes the game extremely touching as you can both see and hear the feeling in Sam’s writing, even though you never once see her in person.

Gone Home, video game, drawer, letters, notes, read

Emails and text messages may have started to creep into video games but I doubt we’re going to stop seeing diaries and other handwritten documents any time soon. They provide a way of giving us a deeper insight into a protagonist or getting to know a character who isn’t present. As written by Andrew King in an article for USgamer: “The journal, then, is as fitting a tool for the video game protagonist as the gun or the sword; a tool designed not to do violence but to cope with the violence one inflicts or receives.”

Looking back over my notes for our Shadowrun sessions, it’s easy to tell whether we had a good or bad game just from the way my writing slants across the paper. Some scribbles are half-formed ideas about plans to attempt in the future, others are big fat question-marks, others are successes shown by crookedly-drawn stars. Each page is a reminder of challenges and victories, and this is what I think of when I see diaries in video games.

Final Fantasy XIII: staying focused

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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