My blogging-friends and the games we’ve shared

Valentine’s Day is the celebration of love – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that feeling must be romantic. Love can encompass all sorts of relationships, from family members to good friends, from people you’ve met through blogging to your cat.

This is recognised by DanamesX from Tales from the Backlog in February’s EXP Share event. The subject for this month is ‘Share a story that involves someone special to you’ and as he points out himself, this can be ‘a significant other, older or younger sibling, parent, close friend, your Twitch chat, the voices in the wall or your pet’. I’ve decided to give a shout-out to the people who have been keeping me sane during the lockdown and share some of the video games we have in common.

Ellen from Ace Asunder

As covered in my post for the #CreativeChristmasCollab, the awesome Ellen is now someone I speak to every day and share hundreds of cat memes with. Our friendship was tested when we participated in a game-swap last year and she made me play Final Fantasy XIII in return for Her Story. I’m just joking: after over 50 hours of gameplay, getting hit with instant death attacks by the final boss several times and a 03:00 finish, I’m still talking to her. And that’s even though she doesn’t like full-motion video (FMV) heroes Poe and Munro.

GD from Gaming Diaries

When I decided to revisit a nostalgic game as part of our 50-day challenge for GameBlast20 last year, GD was one of the only people who supported my decision. Sure, Herdy Gerdy is an old PlayStation 2 title that not many people have heard of and won’t be to everybody’s tastes: there’s no action or explosions but there are plenty of cute little animals. It’s funny how it’s now become a running joke in our Twitch chat and GD champions the return of Herdy Gerdy while everybody else groans.

Luke from Hundstrasse

Luke and I have known each for ages through the blogging community, but we finally met in person for the first time at the Rezzed expo in 2018 where we watched a talk by Tim Schafer. When COVID-19 put a stop to our plans for meeting up at the London Gaming Market in March last year, we decided to do a game-swap by post and this saw me working my way through crazy platformer Whiplash. This game sums up Luke’s sense of humour: random, hilarious and absolutely perfect.

Teri-Mae from Sheikah Plate

Although Teri-Mae and I met through blogging, it’s pretty rare that we talk about video games nowadays. We’re more likely to discuss politics, world events, social commentary and baking. Saying that though, I’ve recently been trying to persuade her to give The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim a go after she decided to pick up something different and play Uncharted. Hopefully we’ll soon find Teri-Mae sneaking through Tamriel as a Khajit, going undetected and stealing all the sweet-rolls.

Kevin from The Lawful Geek

I’ve known Kevin since I started blogging in 2013 and he finally convinced Pete and I to try our first tabletop RPG towards the end of 2019. A year later and we’re still surviving in Shadowrun thanks to the support of fellow players Kat, Ozzy and Diane. Head over to the The Lawful Geek on Twitch every other Thursday to find out how we’re getting on – and you can also join Kevin there for an evening with special guests in support of GameBlast21 from 20:00 GMT this Saturday.

Friend-of-the-blog Phil

Sometimes it’s hard to believe I’ve known Phil for over 15 years. We first met when I started working at our current workplace in London and now he’s making himself known on Twitch (although we still haven’t managed to convince him to start up his own blog yet). Our shared love of FMV games started when we had the chance to meet Her Story creator Sam Barlow at an expo in 2015 and he streamed it shortly afterwards, and now we both keep an eye out on Steam for upcoming releases in the genre.

My stepson, Ethan

He used to be so cute and then he turned into a teenager… still, at least he realises how good the classics are. Ethan and I have shared many gaming memories over the years but my most recent one is us playing The Secret of Monkey Island together for its 30th anniversary. He spent the first hour or so of the stream talking in a Russian accent (I have no idea why) and no doubt he’ll return for another one soon. Unfortunately I can’t tell you which voice it will be next time though.

My husband, Pete

One of the questions Pete asking me during our first conversation was who my favourite Street Fighter character was. Since then we’ve played plenty of video games together and I have fond memories of us huddled together over a laptop in my small flat when we first met. The one we probably spent the longest on was The Witness; he even went to the trouble of making a physical board and pieces that replicated some of the puzzles in the title so we could solve as many of them as possible. There’s nobody else I’d rather be tackling these challenges with.

Thank you to DanamesX from Tales from the Backlog for a heart-warming subject this month. If you’re interested in joining in with February’s EXP Share, you have another week until the deadline and can find all the details in this post.

We’re taking part in GameBlast21 to support SpecialEffect, the gamers’ charity.
Making a donation will bring you great loot, increase your XP by +100 and make you immune to fire.*
(*Not guaranteed.)


Coming of age: gaming with my stepson

Anyone who regularly visits Later Levels or watches our streams will know my stepson. Ethan’s observations on video games have resulted in several posts, a few of which are my favourites, and he occasionally appears on camera when he decides to come down from his bedroom.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe I first met him not long after he’d turned seven because it feels as though he’s grown up so quickly. He’s no longer the shy kid who always carried a cuddly giraffe toy and a 2DS with him wherever he went; he’s now a teenager who’s starting to find their way in the world. To celebrate his birthday and the person he’s becoming, here’s a selection of the games we’ve bonded over during our time as a family and the memories we’ve made over the years together.

The LEGO Movie Videogame

GEEK, expo, convention, video games, Nintendo DS, Mario Kart, EthanEthan played The LEGO Movie Videogame constantly when I was first introduced to him, so much so that I ended up learning the words to the annoying theme tune off by heart. He used to wake me up early on Saturday mornings while Pete was still sleeping so I could he could teach me about it, and it was during these times he said several enlightening things which inspired a post for an earlier blog. It changed the way I felt about writing and the subjects I wanted to cover, setting the future direction for Later Levels.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

GEEK, expo, convention, video games, Mario, costume, Ethan, cosplayMy young stepkid was slightly shocked to realise that ‘girls play video games’ when he met me and I had to prove my credentials during our first few times together. He ended up loving watching me play The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and used to stand behind me, waving his arms about while pretending to be a knight with a sword and shield. One evening Phil came over to my apartment to hang out with us and showed Ethan the bucket trick – and I remember him giggling so hard that he almost wet himself. Good times.

Journey

Rezzed, video games, gaming, expo, EthanJourney taught my stepson that video games don’t always have to be destruction, explosions and a hero who saves the world. After climbing the snowy mountain and reaching the final cutscene, 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.” Yet again he came out with something which inspired one of my favourite posts. Even though shared-parenting can still be tough, I think we’re doing ok when it comes to showing Ethan how to use games responsibly.

Minecraft

Bits & Bytes, expo, event, video games, Minecraft, EthanIt’s Phil we have to blame for Ethan’s Minecraft obsession after he gave him a copy as a present. It was lovely to see my stepson become so interested in a game but it brought out a few negative behaviours in him, so it taught Pete and I a lot about responsible parenting and the importance of limiting the amount of playtime. It wasn’t all bad though: Ethan came up with an idea to use Minecraft to raise money for SpecialEffect a few years ago, placing a block of TNT in a tower for every £1 donated and blowing it up on stream.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time


If it’s Phil we must blame for Minecraft-obsession, it’s The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time we must thank for starting to bring about an end to it. We downloaded the title onto his Wii U as a surprise one weekend and despite us being a little worried that the retro-style may put him off, my stepkid ended up loving it. He forgot about bashing things in a world made of blocks and became more interested in helping the citizens of Hyrule. He even wanted to do a Link cosplay for Comic Con (until we told him he’d have to wear tights).

Fallout 4

Comic Con, London, Pete, Ethan, cosplayers, Bill & TedEthan’s obsession with Minecraft may have been bad but it was nowhere near as huge as his fixation with Fallout 4. He found out about it after catching Pete playing on his laptop one weekend in late 2015 and it’s only now that he’s starting to gradually lose interest. He read every book on the series that he can get his hands on; bought so many Funko Pop! Vinyl figures with his pocket-money; and purchased a Pip Boy we found at the London Gaming Market with his birthday money. His bedroom remains a shrine to the Sole Survivor even now.

Job Simulator

Ethan, Pete, Christmas, PlayStation VRFor Christmas 2018, everyone in the family clubbed together to gift Ethan a PlayStation VR and I’ll never forget the look of excitement on his face when he unwrapped the box. It’s now something we take to family gatherings and everyone gets involved. My stepson’s favourite game back then was Job Simulator thanks to his favourite YouTuber at the time and, although it was great to find a virtual-reality title suitable for his age, it turned out to be one of the most mind-numbing to watch. Everyone now groans whenever he asks to put it on.

Overwatch

Ethan, Spencer, ice-cream, boysWhen my stepson asked us if he could spend his pocket-money on a copy of Overwatch last year, we were very surprised and a little apprehensive because he’d always shown an aversion to any kind of competitive team-play in video games. Our fears were abated though when he told us it was his best friend who’d introduced him to the title. You’ll now find them playing together online every weekend, and it’s Spencer who’s responsible for encouraging Ethan to move on from Fallout 4 so they can have shared interests (including ice-cream).

Dungeons & Dragons

wedding, Kim, Pete, EthanAnother recent surprise for us was when Ethan told us he’d always wanted to try a Dungeons & Dragons game, because it was something we’d never mentioned before. We hired the skills of Kevin from The Lawful Geek to run a trial session for him last month and it went so well: we all made it out of the crypt alive, were able to prevent a town from sinking into a swamp, broke a curse and were transformed into knights. It made my stepson’s day and he asked if it’s something we can do again, so it might become a regular family thing.

It hasn’t always been easy: moving into your teenage years is tough for anyone and living in a shared-parenting situation can sometimes make it even more difficult. But I think we’re doing ok so far and we’re finding our way forward together. It’s been a privilege be a part of my stepkid’s life during the past six years and it’s lovely to see him starting to grow into the person he’s going to become. Hopefully there’ll be many more gaming experiences in our future and I’m sure his comments will continue being the inspiration for blog posts.

Happy birthday, Ethan. Have a good one.

Married bliss: video game weddings

My other-half and I surprised our friends and family by getting married last January. It was something we’d decided to do only two months beforehand and we kept our plan a secret for as long as possible, so it ended up being a nice New Year surprise for everyone.

We’re still playing video games together a year on and there’s nobody else I’d rather have as my player two. Anyone who has watched Pete and I on Twitch together will have seen how we tease each other, but it’s all done in fun and he still makes me laugh every day. He listens when I need to talk, keeps me grounded and buys me chocolate too – what more could you want in a husband? Hopefully there’ll be many more anniversaries to come and to celebrate our first, here are some of the best weddings in gaming.

King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow: Alexander and Cassima

King's Quest, King's Quest VI, King's Quest 6, video game, wedding, Alexander, CassimaI have a feeling that the royal wedding between the beautiful princess Cassima and prince Alexander split the inhabitants of the lands of the Green Isles into two camps. There would have been those who were believers in love at first sight, thinking the couple couldn’t wait to spend the rest of their lives together; while others would say they moved far too fast. Meeting for the first time, quickly falling in love and then getting married all in the course of one four-hour game? Slow down, kids!

Super Paper Mario: Bowser and Peach

Super Paper Mario, wedding, Bowser, PeachAlthough not the most successful or even mutually-agreeable wedding, that of Peach and Bowser was the first time the King of the Koopas did something a little more imaginative than simply kidnapping the princess. Sure, he kind of forced her into it at the start of Super Paper Mario but it meant we got to see just how good he looked in his tuxedo. Fortunately for both of them, the marriage doesn’t hold together and they don’t get to the point of having kids – because I’m not sure how that would have worked out.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: you and whoever you choose

The Elder Scrolls, The Elder Scrolls V, Skyrim, weddingSkyrim proves the saying about there being ‘plenty of fish in the sea’ to be true because you can wed almost anyone in this game. Don’t expect a romantic ceremony however because it’s never anything other than slightly awkward. Marry your lizard-partner while your adopted children moan about being hungry and wanting to play hide-and-seek, and your Housecarl glares at you with all their might. Then never speak to your spouse again because they’re based in Markath and you’ve completed all the quests there. Married bliss!

The Secret of Monkey Island: LeChuck and Elaine

The Secret of Monkey Island, Special Edition, video game, wedding, pirates, Guybrush, LeChuck, Elaine, monkies, churchLeChuck is no villain: he’s simply misunderstood and all his actions were done for love. He ‘dropped dead’ when Elaine told him too; and his feelings for the governor were strong enough to bring him back from beyond the grave and take the form of a ghost, because he couldn’t bear to be parted from her even in death. It’s just unfortunate that Guybrush spoiled his one chance at happiness when he interrupted their wedding – and then went on to destroy him with root-beer.

To The Moon: Johnny and River

To The Moon, video game, dancing, sky, lighthouse, starsThe relationship between Johnny and River in To The Moon has to be one of the most bittersweet in gaming. Throughout the game, their memories of both joy and sadness are shared and almost all of them are entirely ordinary; but it’s the ‘realness’ of this partnership which makes it all so touching. The scene shortly after Johnny and River’s wedding where they dance in her beloved lighthouse under the stars is beautiful and brings a tear to my eye every single time.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End: Nathan and Elena

Uncharted, Uncharted 4, A Thief's End, video game, wedding, photographs, Nathan, Drake, ElenaAlthough the wedding may only be seen in photographs during the game, the relationship between Nate and Elena is perhaps one of the best depictions of marriage in video games. It’s obvious this adventurous pair love each other deeply but their life together isn’t without issues. They make it work in the end thanks to the power of communication – but to be honest, I’m not sure how Elena puts up with him, his murderous ways or his annoyingly-sarcastic quips. Get out of there as soon as you can, girl!

Happy first anniversary to my other-half – I’m afraid to say you’re stuck with me now. At least you’ll always have someone to play video games with and tease on Twitch.   ❤

Pour decisions: wine with video games

Getting Commander Shepherd drunk in every bar in Mass Effect. Using cocktails to manipulate moods in The Red Strings Club. Downing so much beer in Fable that you throw up and earn The Drinking Game achievement. Alcohol has long featured in video games in ways both subtle and over-the-top.

I’m writing this now with a fuzzy head on a Sunday morning, after going to my first wine-tasting event in London with my other-half the previous night. I can’t remember how many varieties we ended up trying but it must have been quite a few – and thankfully we managed to keep a list of those we really enjoyed. Through my alcohol-induced fog, I began thinking which of our chosen bottles would go well with video games so here’s a list of my best pour decisions.

Katie Jones La Gare Old Vine Syrah 2018

A classic big red ripe with dark fruit and notes of wild rosemary and thyme, with a peppery aroma. Barrel aging helps soften the wine and control its wild rustic character. Goes well with a meaty steak and chips.

Pete’s favourite wine of the evening. There’s nothing understated about it: it’s strong and packs a punch of flavour, and a wine like that needs a beefy video game to stand up to it. So how about something like Red Dead Redemption 2? These two ‘wild rustic characters’ could be a match made in heaven.

Stefano di Blasi Montepuliciano DOC 2018

An intense and velvety modern red, full to the brim with bright red fruit and smooth dark chocolate. It’s very easy drinking and will therefore suit many different pallets. Goes well with a rich, gamey stew.

A glass of this would be perfect in front of a roaring fire in the winter, and where better to find a ‘gamey stew’ than one of the traditional inns in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It’s a game that many people love regardless of what their preferred genre is so this easy-drinking tipple could be its perfect pairing.

Simpsons of Servian Sparkling Syrah 2018

A deliciously soft and fruity sparkling red with a fabulous deep opaque colour. Bursting with sweet red fruits, this is one to try if you’re intrigued by something different. Goes well with traditional fare like roasted turkey.

Sparkling wines go with special occasions and there’s nothing more special than this festive time of year – convenient, seeing as this one pairs well with turkey. Pour yourself a glass before digging out your old-school consoles so we can go retro with Home Alone. Merry Christmas, ya filthy animal.

Ocaso Sparkling Rosé

This modern sparkling rosé may win over some red wine drinkers and convince them to give pink fizz a try. Think fresh cherries and strawberries full of small and brilliant bubbles. Goes well with grilled marinated shrimp or fish.

This tipple is a bright and happy one, and there’s just something about its bubbles that make it feel very uplifting. It therefore needs a positive game to go alongside it so a title like Journey could be a lovely choice here. I bet you’d have a great big smile on your face by the end of your play session… hic.

Cecilia Simon Tokaji 2015

Full-bodied and complex, here’s a modern dessert wine with sumptuous aromas of peach and figs. Subtle wooden notes thanks to spending 18-months in some big old barrels. Goes well with a meal of nuts, fig, dates, citrus or pear.

My favourite tasting of the night: I love the sweetness of dessert wine but this one had a slight acidity to it. That meant it was in no way sickly and was somehow refreshing, so a title like Eastshade would be a good match. The colour of the wine even reminds me of the golden sunset glow in game.

Quevedo LBV Port 2013

A late bottled vintage port lovingly aged for six years. Velvety caramel with a massive smack of vanilla and strawberries, and a hint of cherry bakewell tart. Goes well with cheese and roasted almonds after a delicious dinner.

A refined tipple. I’m not a port person but this one made me reconsider: it was incredibly smooth and like dessert in a glass. We felt it would be perfect for after Christmas dinner, sipping it on the sofa while playing cards, so how about a few rounds of solitaire with a game like Shadowhand?

Let’s end this post with a line suggested by Pete in his wine-induced morning haze: wine is fine, especially at game time. I’m now turning off the laptop and going to find the paracetamol.

Bad blood: worst jobs in video games

Last month I was challenged by Matt from Normal Happenings to write a Daily Inkling post. The nominated subject was bad ventures: business ideas dreamt up as a child which seemed brilliant when young, but are now clearly terrible when viewed through by adult eyes.

Unfortunately I can’t recall any such brainwaves but I do remember a certain career aspiration which could have been disastrous for everyone involved. I’d wanted to be a nurse when I was about eight-years old. A noble profession yet one which I would have been so bad at. I’m an absolute wimp: I’ve passed out while watching a friend give blood; fainted during a first-aid course when the instructor told the class fractured pelvises; and didn’t get my ears pierced until my early 30s because I really don’t like needles. I think it’s safer for everybody if I stay away from hospitals and patients.

Thankfully things turned out ok and I ended up making a much more suitable career choice when I was older. Unfortunately for certain video games however, they weren’t so lucky. Following on from a post back in June 2017 and in honour of the Daily Inkling series (to put a gaming twist on things!), here’s an article dedicated to Matt about some of the worst jobs in gaming.

Janitor

Some who visit the attractions in RollerCoaster Tycoon just can’t handle the excitement and intensity of the rides. Their lunch ends up being thrown all over the park as a result – along with burger wrappers and popped balloons so carelessly discarded along paths – and it’s the Janitor’s responsibility to clean up all that mess. You might get a payrise if you seem unhappy, but job security isn’t great and you can be replaced at the click of a button. If only the guests had stronger stomachs and better manners.

Professional Writer

Many bloggers view their hobby as a potential route to achieving their dream of becoming a professional writer but after seeing what happens to a best-selling novelist in Alan Wake, they may sensibly opt for an alternative career path. When you realise that events from the plot in your latest book (one you don’t remember writing, may I add) are happening in real life, your wife is mysteriously missing and shadowy figures are trying to kill you, it’s definitely time to consider changing to different profession.

Treasure Hunter

Travelling to exotic locations all around the world and hunting for valuable relics in the Uncharted series may sound like the perfect job to those who crave excitement. But there’s just one thing standing in the way of you and career-happiness: pirates. They’re everywhere you go, hiding behind crates with their guns and busting into the scene in armoured tanks, and you just can’t seem to get rid of them all. A stable office job may seem boring on comparison but at least the only thing you’ll get shot at with is a stapler.

Test Subject

A lot of employees don’t think of their boss too highly. But when yours is an increasingly- malicious artificial intelligence with murderous tendencies who always promises cake and then cruelly snatches that possibility away, you know you’re going to have a bad day at the office. Sure, getting to mess around with a Portal gun all day sounds like fun; but when it comes to career satisfaction, finding a job with a manager who doesn’t want to kill you on a daily basis could be more fulfilling.

Dragon Killer

Many people are animal lovers who dream of working with creatures, perhaps at a zoo or vetinary centre. But a job where it’s your responsibility to deal with some seriously p****d-off dragons is a whole different ball-game. Forget unhappy pets and minor scratches – in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim you’re looking at being stomped to death, painfully set on fire or eaten alive by flying lizards. You’re better off re-training and accepting a junior position on an entirely different career path.

I’m not sure which is worse: taking on one of the careers above or the thought of me being a nurse. Tell us in the comments below about any bad business ideas you had as a kid, or video game characters who should have thought more wisely about their profession choice!

A gaming life sentence

If you could only play one game for the rest of your life, what would it be? That’s the question posed by Strange Girl Gaming as part of her Sunshine Blogger award nominations last month. A big thank you to her for choosing Later Levels and giving me the opportunity to ponder over this difficult conundrum, as well as publish the following musings in her honour.

One of the things I love most about video games is the variety. The term ‘non-gamer’ has become somewhat of a misnomer; there are so many different types of genres, styles, mechanics and platforms nowadays, that it’s highly likely everybody would find something they loved if they just gave it a chance. From open-world quest-packed RPGs to quieter, shorter adventure titles, there’s something to suit every individual.

That’s why choosing just one to play for the next sixty years is incredibly tough. It’s the same as ice-cream: regardless of how awesome the stuff is, wouldn’t we all get bored of eating it if the only type available was vanilla? It’s obvious I love the adventure genre but even I’d grow tired of it if that was the only thing I could play. You know what they say about variety being the spice of life: it keeps things interesting.

So to answer Strange Girl Gaming’s question, I need to pick a title that has plenty of elements so it was possible to mix things up every now and again. When I got bored of completing quests for example, I could head into the map and simply explore or go annoy the inhabitants in a nearest village to see what reactions I could get out of them. It would also need to be something with many hours of gameplay as a minimum.

I have to admit I’ve struggled with this challenge and it’s probably the hardest nomination question I’ve had to answer so far! I therefore haven’t been able to narrow it down to a single title and I’m torn between two. Which should I choose to fulfil my gaming needs for the rest of my years?

The Elder Scrolls, Skyrim, video game, warrior, dragon, mountains, snow

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a fairly obvious choice and one I’m sure many other gamers would pick. There’s just so much to do within this game and every time you head out into the landscape, you always seem to find something new: a mudcrab trying to steal a fish, a villager reading a book under a tree, a mage trying to perform a spell. Although I’ve completed many of the side-missions I’ve still not finished the main quest itself; and I’d have plenty of time to do it if this was the only game I was allowed to play.

Horizon Zero Dawn, video game, woman, warrior, Aloy, mountains, sky, photo mode, clouds

Horizon: Zero Dawn is the other option. As well as being an excellent title and one of the best of last year – and featuring a kickass female lead who everyone wants to be friends with – it also includes an awesome photo-mode. I spent over 130 hours playing this game and I’d hazard a bet that around a third of those were due to me taking screenshots. Imagine the photo gallery I’d be able to build up over a 60-year period; that’s plenty of tweets right there.

The Secret of Monkey Island, video game, ghost, pirates, LeChuck, Guybrush Threepwood, root beer, grog machine, Stan's Previously Owned Vessels, boatyard

I’m guessing there are some readers who are surprised I didn’t go for The Secret of Monkey Island, the point-and-click which sealed my future as a gamer almost thirty years ago now. But I just couldn’t imagine this being the only game I was ever able to play despite adoring wannabe pirates, fine leather jackets and insult-swordfighting. Adventures are all about their story and puzzles, and they lose much of their mystery once you know both inside-out.

Writing this post has made me realise that although I have my favourite games, they’re not releases I’d necessarily want to be the only ones I had access to for the rest of my life. And if that’s the case, is there ever truly such a thing as a ‘favourite’ title? That’s a big question for another time, and one I may attempt to answer in a future article.

Thank you once again to Strange Girl Gaming for the award nomination – you certainly gave me a lot to think about with this one! Which game would be your only one?