Firewatch (and things we lost in the flames)

I’ve had a slightly strained relationship with so called ‘walking simulators’ in the past. The term itself is rather lazy, often describing games in which action and set pieces take a backseat to exposition. As I’m interested in how story can be relayed in games I’ve played a few examples of the genre lately. ‘Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture‘ left me cold as it had a fantastic setting but just felt like you were moving around having the events taking place in Yaughton told to you rather than finding out anything else for yourself. It also felt like you’d arrived after the fact, all the interesting stuff having long since passed you by.

Gone Home was a vast improvement that I actually enjoyed greatly. Taking place in a house unfamiliar to both the character and you as the player was a good step.The focus on your younger sister as the character you discover the most about through letters and everyday objects gives the game focus. It was also a story about family even though in the opening moments it seemed so much like a haunted mansion tale. It was shorter than Rapture but probably better for it.

SPOILER WARNING- The following text goes into a fair amount of depth about the storyline of Firewatch.

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Taking advantage of the price drop in the PSN January sale I picked up Firewatch. Having finished it a couple of evenings ago I can honestly say I’m very glad I did. Like ‘Rapture’ and ‘Gone Home’ it’s a first person game that features a main character with a very personal story.

Henry is a rather gruff man whose life has been dealt a shock because his 41 year old wife, Julia, has developed early onset dementia. As her condition worsens she goes back to see her parents in Melbourne whilst Henry takes a job as a Firewatch in the National Park of Wyoming. He is assigned a watch tower for the summer and has contact over the radio with another more experienced member of the watch called Delilah.

All of the background part of the story is pretty much ran though with a few multiple choice questions in the introduction. You have to decide what to name the dog you both buy, if Henry wants kids or not and if Julia accepts a job offer three hundred miles away. Apart from one phone call later in the game you never see or hear Julia. Usually I’d be frustrated that such a crucial part of this story is dealt with so quickly but Firewatch has a major difference in that all this is the part of Henry’s life he’s running away from. The information that you’ve skimmed over is what Henry wants to put in the back of his head. As a part of the overall narrative it works well.

I still started the game proper sort of hating Henry though. Here was a guy who had purposely travelled thousands of miles away from his wife to simply forget about her. Rather than be next to his wife in this difficult time he’s wandering Yellowstone Park instead. I felt like I was entering the shoes of a complete jackass. It isn’t that long into the game and the interplay between Delilah and Henry shines through. Whilst it is possible to render Henry a complete arse during your initial conversations with Delilah by batting back her questions I found myself really opening up to her. I chose not to lie about why I was in Wyoming and to tell her about Julia early on. This led to a good few conversations with the two joking back and forth. It’s then you realise that Henry has missed the style of conversation he’d usually get with his wife. Once that’s established Henry’s position makes much more sense.

There’s a lot of walking in Firewatch. It helps greatly that the game’s art style is so good meaning the park is a pleasure to wander around in. The first day opens with fireworks being set off near a lake as Henry goes off to investigate. He finds two drunk teenage girl skinny dipping. He mentions this over the radio to Delilah.

“I’ve found a bra”

“A what?”

“Please don’t make me say it again”.

“Why? Is it because you’re 12?”.

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From this moment on Firewatch unravels into a mystery as the two girls seem to vandalise Henry’s tower and then go missing. Then there’s the small matter of somebody listening into and recording the conversations between Delilah and Henry. As the story goes on the relationship between Henry and Delilah gets closer. There’s something of the internet chat relationship between the two as they have to imagine what each other looks like. At one point Delilah reveals she’s drawing a picture of Henry and you are given various choices as to how to describe yourself to her. I went for ‘the better looking brother of Tom Cruise’. There’s another moment in the game in which both are looking at a fire in the distance and Delilah mentions something about wishing ‘they were together’. I went along with the conversation which, although never actually fully mentioned, is obviously about to turn sexual in nature. The next morning, before Henry leaves for his hike, it’s possible to find his wedding ring on the table. I ended up picking it up and putting it back on. Henry’s struggle becomes that of the player very quickly.

Firewatch’s final stretch sees the forest in the middle of a huge inferno and helicopters coming in to evacuate everybody. Upon discovering who exactly had been spying on you both all summer you are told to hike towards Delilah’s watch tower as it’s right next to the evacuation point. It feels like the game is finally going to reveal Delilah and she’ll fall into Henry’s arms. It doesn’t work out that way however. Before Henry gets to the location Delilah says she must leave as the helicopter is doing rounds. Henry can protest but it feels in vain as she departs anyway. When you get to her tower you see the picture she drew of Henry and all the other things she referenced during your conversations. The helicopter then lands and waits. As Henry walks down the stairs I had a feeling that something was about to happen that would prevent him from escaping. Would Henry decide to stay? Would the helicopter leave him? The final exchange Delilah and Henry have over the radio is when Henry invites her to meet him back in Colorado. She seems to brush him off, saying that she might drop by sometime. You take the hand of the rescue personnel and fly away from the flames.

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There isn’t much actual interaction with the objects you find in Firewatch, you don’t actually really meet another human close up and there’s often a fair bit of wandering involved but unlike some other games you’re fully involved in the story. I might have started the game feeling that Henry was running away from his duty as a husband but as I spent time playing through Firewatch his situation and feelings became clearer. By the end I felt for him and understood him more. Credit must be given to the development team at Campo Santo for not only telling a good story but making the player feel much more than a bystander.

No Man’s Sky

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“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.

The radiation levels were off the charts. I got out of my ship and darted across to the trading station in order to offload the vast chunks of aluminium I had gathered from my previous stop on the neighbouring planet. The station looked familiar. Despite the billions of light years I had travelled so far on this journey the buildings all looked the same. I was greeted by a Gek who squawked at me whilst tapping his tablet screen. He has a name but he looks just the same as every other Gek I’ve met so far. Maybe that’s space racist.

No Man’s Sky is a really big game. It’s probably the first detail that we were told upon the game after being announced two years ago. A vast number of planets, probably far too many to compute for any human mind, stretching out into a map of stars upon stars. So large is No Man’s Sky that developers Hello Games said there was minimal chance of ever meeting another player online. Anybody who thought it was going to be a console version of games such as Eve, with players joining together in gargantuan space wars, was to be left disappointed. No Man’s Sky is very much a solitary experience designed around the single player.

As you awake on a far flung alien planet at the beginning of the game you find the burning hulk of what used to be your ship. Your ownership of the vessel is assumed because there’s no other indication as to why you’re there or what happened previously. The first few hours of No Man’s Sky find you searching around your environment trying to find the minerals needed to get the ship in a condition to take off again. The game doesn’t want to guide you through this process too much. Space is a lonely place and you won’t get anywhere needing somebody to tell you what to do all the time. Once you’ve fixed the hull, put the thrust boosters online, made sure there’s enough fuel to get the thing off the ground and perhaps equipped a laser or two should any pirates find some cargo they feel is worth the firefight for then you’ll be off into the stars beyond.

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Pointing your ship towards the next planet, flying towards it and then watching the heat of the atmosphere burn the outside of your ship before landing on a new place is a certain thrill. Knowing that you’re probably the first player in the game to actually arrive here and getting to name the planet so that others will come to refer to it by that name is a good feeling. The flora and fauna need to be documented. These moments of turning around corners and muttering ‘What the heck is that?’ to yourself are a high point of the game.

No Man’s Sky is a game built on mathematics and systems designed to generate new lands and planets. It’s not long though until you become part of a system as a player also. You’ll find that your ship will need fuel even for the simple act of taking off so unless you fancy walking for a long while to all the locations you want to find then you’ll need a constant supply of plutonium to keep it going. You inventory space is so limited at the beginning of the game in both your exosuit and your ship’s cargo hold that you’ll often receive the dreaded robotic drones of ‘Inventory Full’ from your system software. Spaces in your inventory are also used for any extra equipment you wish to install meaning you often have a hard choice between upgrading and making life easier with mining or combat as opposed to just leaving it and having more room for things to sell and use towards the ship’s demands for power and shielding. There are plenty of blueprints for new technology to be gained from searching abandoned buildings and factories but it’s often a case of forgetting all about them because the room in your inventory is that scarce. The game becomes a process of land, seek, gather, build, sell, take off and repeat. No matter how different a planet looks from the last, the buildings you visit and the processes you have to go through are the same.

The in game story is left incredibly vague, The stated aim of reaching the centre of the universe is the main thread. It’s shown as a line on your star map but you’re never given any reason to actually go that way. You seem to be expected to make that long journey without any reason to. There’s also ‘The Call Of Atlus’ which sees a strange signal appear on your charts. Following that seems like the preferable option if only because it actually has some sort of detail to it. A third choice of simply wandering the stars of your own free will appeal to begin with but the similarity between each space station, trading post and factory will mean you would quickly see what the game has to offer. Many games have large maps and yet it always feels like something is happening even when you are not there at the time. The planets are just sat in space waiting for you to mine them. Everything is reactive to you.

The closest I got to a small scale story breaking out of the game was arriving at a trading post and seeing a Gek (standing in exactly the same position every Gek does in every other trading post). Upon interacting with it the text revealed that I had caught him stealing from the storage vaults. I had a choice to either split the spoils with him and say no more or call the security forces down on him. I choose the latter and a message popped up saying I had been rewarded by the local police. There was no animation to show this, the guilty Gek was still standing in the exact same position even after all this had happened and I could still trade with him as normal. No Man’s Sky is such a slave to its own process it cannot deviate from them lest something truly spontaneous shine through.

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Add to this the fact that the game seems to have some strange design choices that seem to make the game more frustrating on occasion than it really should be. Why is the visor you use to scan animals part of your mining tool and not part of your exosuit? Why do you need an inventory slot free to even talk to some traders? Why is it possible for pirates to scan your ship and find out what’s in your cargo hold yet impossible for you to do the same to them? Why does your ship’s engine run on both Plutonium and Thanium 9 meaning it’s easy to fill yet the thrusts used for take off exclusively use Plutonium? There’s a long list of odd things that could so easily be remedied to make for a better experience.

Getting over all of this however, somewhere in the deepest core of No Man’s Sky, is a game seemingly wanting you to switch off and let your brain operate on a subconscious level. It wants you to not think too hard, admire the green sunsets over the mountains ahead whilst you laser through some iron and carbon, fly through space learning an alien language whilst trying to find your place in the world. Even after all the faults I’m still playing No Man’s Sky in blasts, clocking up at least twenty hours or so now, still forging through to the next star system whilst naming planets after former Glasgow Rangers players (you must visit The Laudrup System sometime).

Just try not to think to hard about it.

Because space might be big but the theatre curtain that reveals the inner workings behind it all is extremely thin.

Acceptable In The 90’s.

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Gone Home arrived as a free game for Playstation Plus users this week so I finally got around to sitting down with one of the most lauded indie games in recent history. Fullbright’s game was held in high regard upon its PC release for having a good narrative and an excellent story telling technique so I was very interested to play it through for myself.

There follows a few spoilers for Gone Home.

Taking the role of 21 year old Kaitlin Greenbriar you arrive at your family home in Oregon having spent a year travelling around Europe. It is not the house you had left however as the family have moved in the meantime. This is an equally strange place for both you as a player and Kaitlin as a protagonist. It’s the early hours of the morning, the weather is terrible and there’s nobody else in the house.The first thing you’re greeted with is a handwritten note from Kaitlin’s younger sister Sam telling her not to investigate what happened.

Gone Home plays with genre. The old house, the rumbles of thunder outside and the rain belting against the windows give this a horror feel. The foyer of the house, with the large staircase in the middle of the room and doors at either side, reminded me a lot of first entering the Spencer Mansion in Resident Evil all those years ago. I actually turned around and tried to see if the game would let me back out of the front door. Whilst this wasn’t possible there also wasn’t a rabid dog trying to kill me on the other side.

Edging towards the phone on the side table reveals two messages. The first is your own voice explaining to your parents that you won’t need picked up from the airport and the second is a girl crying. So begins the story of Gone Home, pieced together by searching for objects in the various rooms of the house. Every once in awhile the voice of Sam will read pieces of the journal she left behind for Kaitlin upon her return.

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Gone Home has a few stories running through it even in the fairly short play time. Sam’s is certainly the main thread however. She doesn’t settle into the family’s new surroundings very well initially as she struggles at a different school. The house the family have moved into used to belong to Oscar, an older relative of the Greenbriars who seems to have gained a reputation locally. Sam is instantly nicknamed ‘Psycho House Girl’ by her classmates which hardly helps matters for her.

Sam’s life changes when she meets Yolanda DeSoto, nicknamed ‘Lonnie’. The two girls bond over games of Street Fighter 2 in the local arcade and grunge music. The sound of Sam’s voice becoming noticeably happier as the initial few audio logs go by is certainly uplifiting. She’s genuinely over the moon when Lonnie wants to visit the ‘psycho house’ and is exhilarated after they sneak out to a Misfit’s concert. Before long the two become romantically involved. For once a homosexual relationship between two women in a videogame isn’t put in there for the purposes of titillating a young male audience. There’s a very human and honest quality to the relationship between Sam and Lonnie which probably goes someway to explaining the impression the game made on most of the people who have played it.

Upon investigating your parent’s bedroom you find a Bible in the bedside cabinet. Already I was figuring that their daughter’s gay relationship would not sit well with Mr and Mrs Greenbriar. In the en suite bathroom though there’s a book about how to repair your marriage so I gathered they perhaps had other things on their mind at the time. The reason for both parents not being there at the time and for the house having quite a few pizza boxes sitting around the place is that they’ve gone on a short break for their anniversary. A leaflet found later advertising a course for couples to improve their fractured relationship has dates on the back which are exactly the same of this ‘holiday’. Perhaps Sam’s parents aren’t so much disapproving of her choice of partner but more the fact she has found a love they’ve long since lost? Later discoveries include the fact that Mr Greenbrair has written two spy thriller novels which were published to mediocre reactions twenty years previously. His ambitions to be a writer have seen him write reviews of audio equipment for magazines. The final few letters around the house addressed to him however show that a small publishing company want to reprint his books for their audience and also want him to write a third. His marriage might be failing but his longed for career seems to be forming. Mrs Greenbrair is a forest ranger and seems to have been promoted according to her correspondence found in the house.

There are more stories, many of the details of which I’ve probably missed. It’s actually part of the beauty of Gone Home. The stories told are small, private affairs as you are entering somebody’s home. Kaitlin as a character is probably fine running through the house looking at her family’s letters and notes, as a player it has something of a odd discomfort to it. The fact that the narrative is discovered through finding objects and discovering room inside the house is a definite advance over similar games such as Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture which I played this time last year. In that game it felt like you were moving from place to place watching a performance before moving on. The self discovery of Gone Home’s characters makes it better for me in the long run.

The ‘gaming’ aspect of my brain kept on telling me that something was going to be in the house alongside you in Gone Home. There were just too many dark corners and strange noises around the place. This was amplified further whilst reading the notebooks of Sam and Lonnie who have been trying to communicate with the ghost of Oscar. I honestly thought that I’d be down in the basement and eventually find old Oscar throwing cups in my direction as blood dripped down the walls. It’s a testament to the restraint shown by Fullbright that it never comes to that.

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Towards the end of my playthrough it seemed like the game was taking a darker turn. Lonnie is due to leave town and join the military. The final few journal entries seem to hint that there’s a double suicide on the cards as the two women cannot face being apart from each other. Finding a pentagram in the room under the stairs which seems to have been an effort to say ‘goodbye to Oscar’ made me believe the worst. Making it to the attic, the place where Sam has set up a dark room for her photography (no Photoshop in 1995 y’see) reveals that Lonnie got off the bus in Salem and Sam has driven out to pick her up, probably never to return again.

As the screen faded to black and the credits began to roll I wondered what would have came next in Kaitlin’s story. Would she have tried to get in touch with her parents and tell them about Sam? Would she phone the police and report her missing? It seems a fairly safe bet that she wouldn’t sit alone in this strange house and wait for somebody to come home. For the game to go any further might be a mistake however. The story being contained in one house which has marks left by all involved renders it far more memorable.

‘Heartbreak For Scotland’

It is the World Cup Quarter Final between Scotland and The Netherlands. After ninety minutes of pulsating action the score is 3-3. Scotland manage to grab another goal in extra time but the Dutch pull one back just before the end to force a penalty shoot out. After initial successful kicks from both teams Scotland’s James McFadden misses only to see Ruud van Nistelrooy score for The Netherlands who end up progressing. The Scots, who had been the surprise package of the tournament up until now by coming through a group that included Italy and Nigeria, are heartbroken.

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This is, of course, pure fantasy and actually took place during a play through of Pro Evolution Soccer 5 on the Playstation 2. It lives long in the memory however because it was one of the occasions that PES stopped being a football game and instead became something much more like actual football in emotions with highs and lows. I had taken my plucky Scotland team all the way through the qualifying rounds (that away trip to Ukraine was a bit of a banana skin) and into the tournament proper before getting out of a difficult group. We even won our first knockout round match to be drawn against the Dutch in the last eight. For a short while I was a bit gutted at losing out. I could have just restarted and tried again but the thought of going through the whole ringer again was too much. I’d learnt this fact the hard way during all my years of playing Championship Manager. The defeat had happened, there was no changing that now.

During the PS2 era I worked in a small games shop and, upon each new PES release, one customer would go home with his copy and edit in all the proper kits, sponsors and player names before returning a few days later so we could copy his file over to our shop memory card. One year we even had a 16 team knockout tournament in store. There was a cup draw beforehand which involved drawing balls out of a machine whilst a crowd of onlookers huddled around the counter. When the tournament got going proper we played matches on a big TV in store and people who had no interest in gaming actually walked in off the street because they thought we were watching real football. Many of them stuck around and watched it as real football even when they were told otherwise.

pes2016realmadrid It was always said at the time that the perfect football game would be PES matched with the licensing power of FIFA. Little did we know that from FIFA 09 onwards it would be EA that would march into the lead as Konami struggled to get PES up and running on the PS3 and 360. For the next few years I switched over to FIFA, leaving only happy memories of PES. FIFA had the kits, it had the stadiums, it had the top flight players scanned in. The reputation EA had gathered for having an engine based more on pinball than football had been eradicated. PES suddenly seemed like it was constantly lower division.

I was all set to repeat my annual process of picking up FIFA this year until I played the PES 2016 demo on my PS4. Something had changed with the old series, something for the better.  PES had always fell down in recent years as feeling a bit rigid and inflexible. In this demo however there was flowing football and, much more than that, it feels like football. When you’re a goal up going into the last ten minutes the AI will make efforts to get that goal back. Unlike some other games it won’t just throw players forward, instead making smart decisions. Even during the demo the feeling existed that you were playing a game of tactics and using players to their strengths.

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FIFA 16’s demo suddenly felt old in comparison. The usual FIFA official glitz was there but the core gameplay was based on charging towards goal regardless of what team you were going as. Tactics also seemed fairly generic and without any detail. If losing lump everybody forwards, if winning stick everybody back. There was a flow to PES this year that FIFA lacked. For the first time in around seven years I found myself back with Konami.

It’s a decision I do not regret. Fair enough, the lack of licenses in some aspects is grating to begin with but downloading PS4 option files from sites such as PES World more than makes up for it. It might be slightly more effort but it works a charm once you’ve put the time in to get it just right. The core gameplay of Pro Evolution Soccer 2016 also seems much more fun because there’s more to it than running and gunning. Whilst FIFA seems intent on making me play Ultimate Team every year (a mode I don’t have any great passion for) PES seems to have finally worked out a plan of just being fun to play out of the box.

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It hit home in a big way the other night whilst I continued my career game of managing Lazio. I was fourth in Serie A going into November but faced a tough away game against AC Milan at the San Siro. Not wanting to ruin a good run of results by trying to blast through one of the biggest names in Italian football on their own turf I played a cagey game. There were few clear cut chances in a 0-0 draw but I was happy to take a point back with me. The game was also still enjoyable even though the game wasn’t an end to end thriller but then again, nor is real life football on occasion. The engine behind PES 2016 is comfortable in doing both the all out attack play and the grind out stuff without making it feel like the game is somehow trying to force you into one or the other.

It’s moments like these that take the series back to the glory days of the Playstation 2 era. The multiplayer also gives rise to fantastic times as a tense battle between Scotland and England when a friend came round gave a fine example of. It seems Pro Evolution is on the comeback trail and I’m happy to welcome it back.

Super Mario Maker

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There is, in some quarters of the internet, a snide attitude towards Nintendo as a company. ‘They make the same games over and over again’ they will say. A cynic would say that Super Mario Maker goes one step further by leaving all the work to the player, simply giving them the tools to design their own levels. Nintendo do not usually cater for cynics.

If Splatoon was Nintendo’s take on the first person shooter then Super Mario Maker is their version of games such as Little Big Planet.  The core of levels are there but the main attraction is to tear them apart, add your own spin on it and share the end results with the world. The advantage behind Super Mario Maker is that it has thirty years of being ingrained into popular culture to fall back on. Sackboy is a good character but Mario is far more recognisable. For all the building blocks Super Mario Maker gives you none are unfamiliar, you’ve been playing games featuring them for the last three decades.

It's possible to see the trail of Mario's jumps. An essential feature when deciding how far to place platforms away from each other.
It’s possible to see the trail of Mario’s jumps. An essential feature when deciding how far to place platforms away from each other.

Upon first loading up the game you’ll be given something that looks near to World 1-1 of the original Super Mario Brothers. The level will then suddenly open up into a vast chasm, giving you the opportunity to finish it off by placing blocks, stairs, platforms, Koopa Troopers and Goombas. The WiiU Gamepad’s touchscreen actually makes this a complete joy by allowing you to take icons from the top taskbar and drag them wherever you want them to be. Shaking them gently also turns various things into other forms. Rocking a green Koopa Trooper will turn it into a red one for example. Placing mushrooms on enemies also makes them grow bigger. Using this process it’s possible to have any number of giant, flying Goombas and the like around your level. Levels can also be themed around four Mario titles namely Super Mario Brothers, Super Mario Brothers 3, Super Mario World and Super Mario Brothers U. Themes can be changed at the flick of a options screen and every block changes accordingly, even if that particular design feature wasn’t originally in the game you’ve chosen to base on. The actual process of making levels in Super Mario Maker feels good and tactile.

Super Mario Maker also gives a wonderful insight into Nintendo’s design process. The underlying fact being that they’ve made it incredibly easy to make a level but it’s harder to make anything as good as they do. This isn’t a fault of the game by any stretch, it’s more the idea that you truly have to break down levels into their component parts to see what works and why everything is there. A very basic level can be drummed up in a matter of minutes, getting one that others will play and enjoy will take a little longer.

Going between edit mode and play is a simple button press away.
Going between edit mode and play is a simple button press away.

It’s the online library of user generated content that will keep Super Mario Maker going though. Vast amounts of levels currently seem to be simply there to be as frustrating as possible, simply throwing in crowds of enemies and hoping you can dodge past them. Every new player is limited to ten downloads though and only gains more when a certain number of stars are awarded by others players for the quality of levels made. It’s a sure fire way of making sure the cream rises to the top. In some ways this has already happened as some gems shine through. There are levels which mimic other games and others which revert standard Mario gameplay features in new and interesting ways. Eventually as time goes on the better levels will be far more prominent.

When Super Mario maker was first announced it seemed a little trivial. Just the original Mario Brothers theme was shown and it came across as something that would be more suitable as a free download. A curiosity and nothing more. Nintendo have built on the premise to give something that is both fun to make and play using all the features built up in the history of Mario and some more. It’s the house of Mario giving you the keys and telling you it’s your turn. Other games may feature user generated content but tend to get bogged down in their own mechanics, alienating all but the most dedicated. Super Mario Maker has an array of sort of design flourishes that Nintendo often weave into their own games. As such it’s a wonderful toolkit for experimentation and learning exactly what a good job Miyamoto and his colleagues did thirty years ago.

Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture

‘Show, don’t tell’.

It’s an important piece of advice when telling a story. If you give the audience the means to put together the information for themselves then they’ll experience those tiny moments of euphoria. The story will then resonate with them. Have somebody do that bit for them and explain each step and they will feel patronised and stupid no matter how detailed a world you’ve built up.

rapture3 Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture is a rare thing in a few regards. It’s probably the only game ever to be set in a Shropshire village and it’s a game that tries to suppress some of the standard video game mechanics we’ve come to know over the years in favour of story telling. There may well be things from outer space coming down to Earth but you won’t be shooting them at any point, in fact them seem fairly non-aggressive towards you all the way though. Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture wants you to see the human drama going on in this small, English valley.

The town of Yaughton is mostly comprised of pubs, a church, a farm and some thatched cottages. About the only modern building is an observatory up on the hill, not far from where you begin the game. It’s in this building that two scientists, Kate and local man Steven, have discovered something heading our way. As the game begins there is no human life left in Yaughton at all. The village has all the signs of being cut off in an attempt to contain what they thought was an outbreak of influenza but doors are left open and cars sit in the middle of roads unlocked. The only life that remains are floating orbs of light which either show you the way to go or take the shape of human bodies in order to act out events that led up to all this. The 1980’s setting gives the game a definite feel of British sci-fi around that time, it’s very much like Peter Davison is about to step out of the TARDIS at any moment.

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Great efforts have gone into giving Yaughton all the details from the time and making sure it’s a convincing setting. This is just as well because the actual walking speed of your character is glacial. Holding down R2 does build some speed and momentum but it’s not that far removed from the slow walking pace. The Chinese Room have made this place, they’re making damn sure you study it.

Despite being so well detailed there’s also very little you can actually do with anything you see in the village. Only some doors can be opened, those that can’t are usually signposted by a government poster or just generally locked. You can go into the local pubs but you cannot walk behind the bar. The local church is off limits as is the shop. Picking up items is impossible and doors open towards you often pushing you back as if you shouldn’t be there. Yaughton isn’t a place you inhabit, it’s a museum exhibit being shown to you.

Each section of the game focuses on one character and details their side of the narrative. There are two stories that reach over the whole thing, one being the invasion itself and the other being a love triangle between three residents of the village. Each time you see a globe of light in front of you there is a need to twist the controller at a certain angle to activate the cut scene. This is the most interactive thing Rapture does.

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There are some wonderfully touching moments in the story. At one point you have an echo shown of a Mother who has taken shelter in one of the houses because her children and husband had become tired and were getting nosebleeds (an early sign of the ‘infection’). Her husband and the children had gone upstairs to rest but that was six hours ago and she’s too scared to go up and check on them. You go upstairs to see a room in which the beds have been disturbed and there are bloody tissues on the floor. This would seem a fair conclusion but the truth is you’ve seen the same tissues in the previous five houses and you’re well used to them by now. Before long every single one of these stories ends in the same way with you looking at blood stained tissues. It becomes repetitive to the point of you not really caring. The voice acting is of an extremely high quality and the orchestral soundtrack gives feeling and mood but when it’s attached to a story which continually repeats itself in this manner, which leads to the same conclusion each and every single time, it feels wasted.

Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture feels like it should be about exploration and finding a story out for yourself. The exploration element is stunted by the fact it takes forever to get anywhere. You might be able to see a building in the distance but walking there will take the best part of ten minutes and when you get there you’ll probably be presented with one cut scene and more bloody bloody tissues. You’re also not finding out anything for yourself instead being told about it by somebody else each and every single time. It’s possible to find radios and telephones that give some of the character’s conversation but it amounts to pressing a button to hear a short clip. You’ve arrived too late as all the good stuff happened when people were still here.

Games can tell good stories, we’ve surely reached the stage when this is a given now. Bioshock’s story was so effective because you were actually part of it, The Walking Dead’s story worked because you were shown human characters you could identify with and your decisions effected them. Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture treats its players as mere bystanders to be dictated to.  Whilst The Chinese Room are to be commended for trying to create something different from the usual shooting and flying in alien invasion it seems they’ve missed the mark when it came to thinking of the player, of you experiencing what they’ve made.

‘Show, don’t tell.’.

It’s important.

Love and Skateboards

Here’s a short tale about love and skateboards.

It’s also a little bit about the value of nostalgia but we’ll come to that in a short while.

Back in 2001 I’d used a vast chunk of the first installment of my student loan cheque to buy a Playstation 2. This wasn’t the brightest idea in retrospect. The first night I brought it home I hooked it up in the shared living room and we played Gran Turismo 3 until late on. Upon deciding it perhaps wasn’t a good idea to keep an electrical device I’d bought near anybody drinking beer I moved it into my room where it took pride of place below the 14 inch Sony TV I had at the time.

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One evening my girlfriend was round and she asked me to teach her how to play a video game. She’d had a Master System and a Mega Drive when she was growing up but had never got into games the way I had. I asked which she wanted to play, she said any would do. It doesn’t sound like the most romantic of things I know but I appreciated her efforts to get involved with her boyfriend’s (sometimes quite anti social) interests. We settled on Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3 because it was easy to get into initially but more parts of the game opened up through practice. She soon took to it completely, skating around the Foundry level in an attempt to find the secret tape. We kept playing it together on a fairly regular basis from then on. My girlfriend became my wife, we’ve been together 14 years. Pro Skater 3 holds a special place in my heart because of that.

Now for the value of nostalgia bit.

Activision recently announced that the art style has changed for the upcoming remake/reboot/sequel Tony Hawk Pro Skater 5. After a good few years of trying to get involved with peripherals and motion control, all with pretty much no success whatsoever, following up with mothballing the series for a few years so we could all forget about the horror Activision have brought back Pro Skater. Instead of coming with a gimmick this time they promised it would be back to basics, a simplified score attack game just like the good old days. Activision hoped that feeling we all got with the first few games in the series would mean we’d let this one have a clean break.

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They weren’t prepared for the initial reaction to screengrabs though. Pro Skater 5 looked like it had been made quickly, on demand, with somebody whipping the developers across the wrists each time they put some originality into it or updated something for modern tastes. We were supposed to take this new game into our hearts and welcome it back like an old friend. It was looking like being as welcome as a phonecall in the middle of the night.

Changing the game with only a month or so to go until release is risky at best and retail suicide at worst. Activision are desperate to dress this up as something from the good old days. They want me to spend money on this thinking I’ll get back that feeling from the student bedroom of 2001 teaching my girlfriend how to manual. They want my feelings of nostalgia to be greater than any kind of negative thought towards this game. They’re willing to do anything to make it like the good old days and it isn’t really happening.

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I don’t often like to predict the future but I reckon Pro Skater 5 (which as we all know isn’t the fifth in the series by a long stretch) will still come out because it’s got too much riding on it to be cancelled now but it will arrive to a tepid welcome. It’ll sell a few copies but nowhere near enough for Activision to ride the tidal wave of cash to the bank like they did before making Pro Skater the unofficial Jackass simulator it became. Pro Skater and I had some good times but there’s no going back now.

The Knight’s End

The following entry contains spoilers for the story of Arkham Knight (2015) and Arkham City (2011). Only read if you’ve finished the main campaigns.

Arkham Knight was always going to have it tough. As Rocksteady’s final part of the Arkham trilogy and being the first on this generation of hardware it had a lot to live up to. A bigger chunk of Gotham was expected, the Batmobile was confirmed fairly early on and Scarecrow’s looming face during the Sony presentation at E3 2014 confirmed that the alter ego of Jonathan Crane would be the main antagonist this time around. Doubt however remained in some, perhaps soured by the taste of Arkham Origins which felt more like a stop gap than a fully realised Gotham we were hoping for. Rocksteady quite simply couldn’t do it a third time of asking.

They did though, for the most part anyway.

I played through Arkham Knight’s main campaign and a fair few of the more interesting side missions within two weeks after release day. It wasn’t because of the fact I wanted to rush through it and get it traded in and I’m not usually in any position to be playing games for a few nights running as I have other stuff to do. I made time for Arkham Knight though, I wanted to see what would happen next, the story certainly led me through the game. I liked thwarting the bank heists organised by Two Face and I loved chasing Firefly through the streets in the Batmobile. I even took enjoyment from hunting down Manbat once I’d worked out where the heck he was in the skies above the city. Arkham Knight started to fall apart towards the end though, just when the Knight really begins to get desperate.

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During the development of Arkham Knight we were informed that Rocksteady had worked with DC in putting a brand new character into Batman lore. Many theories were banded about to explain any number of characters the Arkham Knight could be. There was the possibility it could be Joker who died a little too close to a Lazarus Pit in Arkham City for comfort, another suggestion was Hush who had something of an unresolved participation in City and would have probably been open to the idea of being an alternative Batman. I remember at the time also reading a left field idea based on the Arkham Knight being Alfred, possibly taking revenge for Bruce Wayne always leaving his dinner to go cold.

Jason Todd is fairly heavily sign posted throughout the game as Bruce Wayne’s fearful nightmares about losing the second Robin at the hands of The Joker play out at certain moments in game. Most of the events in Arkham Knight are about Batman’s loss. The loss of his parents as the initial cause of his desire to keep Gotham safe, the loss of the people who help him now such as Oracle and the loss of those who have helped him in the past. Scarecrow is acutely aware of this throughout the entire story and so the recruitment of Batman’s one time companion as his new nemesis makes sense but the moment the Arkham Knight takes off the visor it’s more a ‘oh right’ than ‘oh my god’ exclamation..

In the lead up to this scene you’ve battled the Arkham Knight indirectly in what feels like hundreds of situations. There’s been the section in which the Cloudburst has spread Scarecrow’s fear toxic throughout Gotham, then the part where you have to work with Poison Ivy to protect her plants from attack by tanks and drones sent by Arkham Knight, then comes the Batmobile section when you have to sneak up on all the Cobra tanks before getting to the Cloudburst tank itself four times to make it overheat, then it’s the Arkham Knight’s base itself, then the tunnels underground in which the Knight tries to destroy you with an industrial drill and finally the face off with Jason Todd himself which is broken down into three separate predator sections. After all of this Jason Todd vanishes, only appearing back at the end to shoot Batman free from Scarecrow’s ‘media presentation’. I began to actually tire of the whole thing when I was hiding from seven Cobra tanks in my heavily armed Batmobile for about the third attempt. It seemed in places that Rocksteady had three ideas of how to end Arkham Knight’s story, thought long and hard but ended up choosing all of the above and trying to cram them in.

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With Scarecrow finally locked up in GCPD I spent some time flying around Gotham trying to get rid of all the strongholds the Arkham Knight’s forces had set up. Having access to all the gadgets now made these a lot of fun and it wasn’t too long before there were no red lights patrolling the skies anymore. After that I had to read up how much more was left to do, Catwoman would have to stay locked in the orphanage with Riddler, the thought of trying to find every Riddler trophy in the game was a little too much to bear. The bombs would have to stay planted in the roads as I’d grown sick of the sight of tanks as well. Even the Red Hood and Harley DLC, given away with the PS4 version, has remained unused. Gotham is a wonderful game world but I think I’ve had my fill for now.

Arkham Asylum is the smallest of the Arkham trilogy, taking place only in one island and two or three buildings but there was a tension there that forced the story along. Batman was isolated from the mainland of Gotham city and had to work towards getting the Asylum back in quick order. City expanded the formula but was still set in a contained area. Knight meanwhile proves that giving the player a huge map sometimes dilutes the story a little. It’s hard to go off and find Riddler trophies when you’re well aware there’s a bomb about to go off that will spread fear toxin throughout America’s coastline.

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Knight is still a great game and a fitting ending to Rocksteady’s time at the helm of DC’s most iconic hero (sorry, Mr Kent). Sometimes however, a little less goes a much longer way.