Christmas Spent Gaming With Awesome Women

For the last few years the Christmas break has become more than an escape from work in my household – it’s become a break from reality. We spend the month or two before exhaustively listing all the games we’ve missed over the year (or been specifically saving) and whittle them down to the ones we want to spend our holiday playing. And then that’s pretty much all we do for 10 days.

This year I realised that all the games we’d chosen were female-led, and given the story that’s doing the rounds at the mo about the top 3 grossing films of the year being female-led it seems like a good time to write about them. So in a medium that’s incorrectly seen as being predominantly consumed by men, yet has a history of marginalising women in the industry and the games themselves, is the tide turning? If these games are the result let’s hope so.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

Hellblade

A happy game for happy people

Hellblade looks like it’s going to be a third person actiony kind of game. The titular Senua is a Pictish woman crossing into the Norse hell to rescue her beloved who has been killed by ‘the north men’. She has a sword at her hip and a few combat moves in the repertoire. While there is a fair bit of combat involved, it’s actually a lot more than that. The game was developed with input from the Wellcome Trust and despite its fantastical setting (or perhaps thanks to it) deals fairly seriously with psychosis and trauma.

Best played with headphones, Senua is constantly beseiged by the voices of the furies, sometimes offering helpful hints but most often second guessing or belittling Senua’s progress an ability. As well as combat, there are a lot of visual puzzles. To unlock various doors Senua has to find the relevant rune in the surrounding environment, using perspective to line up geographic features. It’s one of the most intense games I can remember playing, and benefited from multiple short play sessions over long stints. I felt like I needed to come up for air, the psychosis suffered by Senua all too well realised and stifling. The animation is brilliant too, from Senua’s facial expressions to the way she drops into different movement styles. One of the best this year without a shadow of a doubt.

Blackwood Crossing

Blackwood

This was well received and looked like it would be right up my street – you play as a young woman on a train following her kid brother, but things start to get surreal as you try to keep up with him. I’m a big fan of ‘walking simulator’ style games (when they’re done well) and this looked a little Alice in Wonderland inspired to boot, with a white rabbit beckoning you on. This year also saw the release of What Remains of Edith Finch, another exploration based game that deals with the same themes as Blackwood Crossing and has been hailed as one of the top few games of the year. I played it in the Autumn, and it’s possible then that this suffers because of that comparison. Something in the pacing and mechanics just didn’t quite work for me in Blackwood Crossing. And while I’d probably say the same about Edith Finch, that was also punctuated by moments of surprise and ingenuity. I like that his kind of game exists, but I think the benchmark has shifted a lot higher over the last year or two. Still, it’s very short (maybe three hours?) so worth a go if you like this sort of thing.

Horizon Zero Dawn

Horizon 2

It’s a nice looking game.

This was the ‘big’ game of the Christmas break, the one that I knew I wouldn’t get to the end of before the dread return to work. It’s a big open world rpg where you play as Aloy, a member of the Nora tribe in a world a long time after some sort of near apocalypse. Humans are split into luddite tribes, and machines stalk the earth. But Aloy’s background is a mystery that seems to link into whatever technological tragedy befell the world.

Aloy’s tribe is matriarchal in overall leadership, but other than that the gender roles are fairly evenly split. There’s also a clear drive to ensure racially diverse characters and strong representation of same sex relationships which is great to see and a AAA game. Aloy herself is voiced by Ashley Burch, of Chloe Price fame (more on her later) and comes across as self confident and plucky. She has to take on giant robot dinosaurs single handed, so you’d hope so really. There’s a nice touch relatively early on in the plot when you leave the Nora lands and move into a different, patriarchal, tribe’s domain. While there does seem to be a balance of gender still across the NPCs, there’s more open sexism in conversation.

Sometimes in games the choice of gender can be rudimentary – you pick either male or female and, aside from potentially affecting romantic partners (hello Bioware! I was gutted when Dorian from Dragon Age Inquisition turned out to be gay. No romance for my lady elf) it doesn’t have any other impact. It’s nice to see a main character being specifically written as female and that having an impact on how characters talk to you.

Horizon 1

A REALLY nice looking game

That aside, it’s a fun (and big!) game. I can’t talk about how the plot comes together because I’m only part way through, but it’s certainly a treat to look at and enjoyable to play. The world is interesting enough and although it doesn’t set me on fire like Witcher 3, I find myself eager to get back to it. Also, it looks absolutely stunning. There’s a photo mode which I’ve been abusing Twitter with, and some genius put in the option for Aloy to strike different (and often silly) poses for the photos. Like I needed the extra distraction.

Walking Dead Season 3

Walking Dead

One of these people is a badass. The other is male.

Watch out for minor spoilers here – more about the tone than the specific content.

Okay, so this one isn’t as female led as I thought it was going to be. The first two games revolve around Clementine, a young girl caught up in yer standard zombie apocalypse. In the first game you play as Lee, the man who becomes a father figure for Clem, and the whole game revolves around the influence you are having on her. In the second game you play as Clem herself. It turns out that in this one Clem is a much more peripheral figure. There’s still the sense that your actions are having an impact on her, and at the end you’re given a rundown on how Clem has been shaped by your actions. It’s not quite what I was hoping for though. Part of that is because I remembered reading that this was going to be the conclusion of Clem’s arc – turns out that’s not the case and the game ends with ‘Clementine’s story will continue’. I felt a bit miffed about how sidelined Clem had been until I got to that text.

It’s hard to judge the game setting aside that disappointment, but I’d say it’s still pretty good. The weakest of the three seasons, but still well worthwhile if you’re already invested in the world. New main character Javier is a compelling presence, and has one of my favourite lines of the year. He and his latino family are besieged by some predominantly white bandits. When recounting the battle he says they were attacked by ‘some very bad dudes’. Fantastic.

Life Is Strange: Before the Storm

Life is Strange 2

Longtime readers (both of you) will know about my love for the original game. This is a prequel focusing on Chloe Price and her friendship with Rachel Amber. After the original, Chloe was one of my favourite videogame characters of all time. After this she’s one of my favourite characters in any medium. There are only three episodes this time around (with a separate bonus episode coming this year some time). There are some huge emotional gut punches, particularly in the first episode. There’s also plenty of humour and lightness of touch, and some really surprising moments that I will not spoil by even hinting at. It’s a tighter, more focused game than the original, and looks great too. Some of my favourite moments were letting Chloe sit, slumped in depressed thought, with punk music turned up loud. It’s dripping with an atmosphere that hits all too close to home.Life is Strange 1

I’m not going to say anything else about it, apart from if you haven’t played the original please go and play it and then play this. There are some clunky moments, sure, but it’s all worth it. The voice actor has changed, due to a strike of some kind, but after about three minutes I’d adjusted. The only weird thing was Lyd playing Horizon Zero Dawn while I played this – so every now and then I’d hear Chloe’s original voice yelling about robots. It seemed oddly fitting.

So there we are. Five games, four and a half lead women (damn you Walking Dead!). Action, emotion, humour, violence and the rest of human experience. A Christmas well spent.

@BornToPootle

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Life Is Strange – The Secret To Its Success

life-is-strange

There are a huge number of things Life Is Strange does brilliantly (and perhaps a few that aren’t so great, shaka brah) but the more I think about it the more one thing stands out. No major plot spoilers ahead, but if you haven’t played it and want to go in fresh, maybe check back after you’ve finished.

So, what’s this amazing thing? No, not the tenderness with which it deals with a huge variety of sensitive topics. Not the casting of the player as the geeky girl rather than the geeky guy pursuing said geeky girl. Not even making the main character a photographer, mirroring the player’s sense of watching events unfold with varying degrees of powerlessness (incidentally, we’ll be talking about all this plus subtext, gender, sexuality and more on the next episode of The Conversation Tree Podcast).

Nope, the best thing about what is, with hindsight and distance, rapidly becoming my favourite game of all time, is the very central core mechanic. It’s Max’s time manipulation power.

Games are stuffed full of characters with superpowers. Look at Geralt and his ability to set things on fire, create magical traps and a shield. How about Commander Shepherd and his/her biotics? Corvo, The Inquisitor, Booker DeWitt’s fistful of crows… Even supposedly normal characters often have superhuman abilities – Nathan Drake can definitely absorb more bullets than the average chap, and shrug wounds off with astonishing ease.

No, a mild bit of time manipulation is not the most earth-shattering addition to gaming culture. Not in general terms at any rate. But who has gained this power? A socially awkward teenager. Which is perfect.

Who gives a monkeys that Booker DeWitt can summon a watery tentacle to fling foes off a flying city – sure it’s fun, but it’s rootless. It doesn’t mean anything. Max’s time travel means everything. It’s the one thing that a socially awkward teen might conceivably most want. Rewind that conversation and be less of a dork next time. Rewind that meeting and don’t trip on the way through the door. Just like the powers in The Incredibles (still the finest of superhero films) Max’s power is directly related to an aspect of her personality.

Not only that, but gaining the power is the inciting incident for the plot. Without that power the rest of the story couldn’t happen. It seems obvious, but happens surprisingly infrequently. Booker could still murder his way through Columbia without his vigors. Geralt might have a tougher time with  just a silver sword, but could give it a good go. The Inquisitor’s glowing hand may be more integral to Dragon Age Inquisition, but it ends up just one of a range of stupendous abilities.

So the power perfectly fits the character and is central to the narrative. Great! I’m sure there are other examples of this though. Life Is Strange’s power has another benefit though…

Ever since choice became a hot topic in games I have had a struggle with myself. I know in Mass Effect what Shepherd did and who he (yup, Shepherd is forever a dude to me) was. I started a replay at some point, and tried to make different choices but… that wasn’t Shepherd. But was there any point replaying if I just want to do everyhing the same way?

I’ve played The Walking Dead season one twice. Season two once (though I reloaded the ending). SPOILERS AHEAD. SKIP PARAGRAPH TO AVOID! I definitely want to replay both but… what’s cannon now? When the third one comes out, who is Clementine? Did she kill Jane? Is Kenny still out there? It’s muddled. I can’t separate out my ‘true’ playthrough from the one where I just wanted to see what the other options were.

Life is Strange gives the player the best of both worlds. Being able to rewind time means being able to make a different choice, to see how events might play out differently. And when you’ve tried all the options, seen what could be, you can make your choice. What would Max do given all the information? It’s not some weird omniscient player reloading to try a better option, it’s an integral part of the fiction. It’s the fabric of the story. There are of course unforeseen consequences. How some scenes play out will affect things much further on, so there is still an element of needing to replay to see everything. But that’s why I think it’s the best of both worlds. The player gets enough curiosity sated to not need to constantly reload and simultaneously there are enough palpable changes that you still wonder what-if. You can still see your impact on the lives of other characters.

Not only that, but this also enables better immersion in the game. Exhausting conversation trees in rpgs and talk-em-ups can sometimes feel very strange. Why does the other character suffer through your incessant questioning, particularly when you start looping back through questions to get to different sub-questions? In Life is Strange you can try out all the conversation options while still remaining in the fiction. Super-Max can simply rewind time and try something else.

Effectively this all comes down to obstacles. As a player, using the time power to try different options removes an obstacle to immersion and developing a fully rounded sense of character. As a character Max uses her power to overcome  her own personal obstacles. And not just the big plotty stuff. Max starts crippled by self doubt and shyness. By the end of the game she’s confident. She’s a badass. That’s how to weave game mechanics into a narrative and that’s one of many reasons Life is Strange may well be my favourite game.

@BornToPootle

@TheConvoTree

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firewatch_150305_01

Sunsetwatch would be a more apt name for my playthrough

I’ve been playing an awful lot of games recently, which has been rather nice. And since ‘finishing’ the mahoosive Witcher 3 I’ve turned my attention to shorter games with a focus on the narrative. Stand up Firewatch, Life Is Strange and Tales From The Borderlands. That’s got me thinking about endings, whether videogames approach them differently to other media and whether that matters.

Before we get any further – there are some SPOILERS ahead for Firewatch and Life Is Strange. And Mass Effect 3.

It’s impossible to think about game endings without mentioning Mass Effect 3. So great was the outcry against the ending for Bioware’s brilliant space opera that they went back and created a more in depth version. The things is, I completed it before they fiddled with the ending; although I have started a replay of the whole trilogy, I haven’t got to the third instalment yet, let alone the end. For me though, the original ending was fine. It was a relatively simple and abrupt choice, sure, but so what? The Mass Effect trilogy are huge games, full of memorable ohmygod moments.

What sticks out most in my playthrough is the fate of Tali. She was my lover and I damned her to death through the complicated moral choices surrounding her race and the sentient robots they’d created. I named my laptop after Tali (uh huh) out of a sense of remorse, though still sure I’d made the right choice. And I’m sure for other people the genophage plot line or the mighty Garrus will be the stand-out moments. For me, the ending couldn’t ever live up to the impact of the Tali moment. Think of that as being the focus of my Commander Shepard’s plot and everything else the background detail. Sure, the universe was at stake, but that was always going to feel less personal.

Life Is Strange offers a similar ending in a way. The game follows teenager Max ‘literary reference’ Caulfield through a week in which she develops minor time manipulation powers, reunites with her former bff and gatecrashes the cool-kids’ party (may not sound like much, but it’s a grower and worthy of all the praise). It’s a game of choice and consequences and, despite being smaller in scope, is no less impactful. Ultimately though, it comes down to ‘press this button to be magnanimous, this button to be selfish.’ Some argue – vociferously, from the message boards I’ve seen – that it renders the whole game pointless; all the previous choices are inconsequential given the ending. I disagree with that. Sure, you can argue about the logic of her time powers and what she’ll remember, what was ‘right’ for the character, but I don’t think that’s the point. During the course of the game, I saw characters who seemed like sketchily drawn archetypes become fully fleshed out people. One of the main characters, a seemingly typical rebellious teen managed to grow into someone I felt I understood. Brilliantly, the writers seemed to know that the character came across as a clichéd rebel – that was her mask to face the world and when they allowed us little glimpses beneath it paid off. What really sung for me though, was that after 15+ hours of choices, I knew the characters so well that, when the final choice presented itself, I found I didn’t really have any choice at all.

Although I loved Life Is Strange as an overall experience, some of the plotty bits – particularly in the last chapter – didn’t quite grab me. I had the same experience with Firewatch. Perhaps unsurprisingly though, considering the team were in part responsible for Walking Dead Season 1, it’s the emotional punch that ties it together more than the plot. As a narrative game (rather than an action or puzzle game) it seems odd to think of the plot being second-fiddle, but that’s how it felt to me, and I reckon I’m ok with that.

Within 3 minutes of the start of the game I was in tears. In that respect, It’s the Up of videgames (no talking dogs though, more’s the pity). Through a very simple but incredibly effective text adventure at the beginning, the main character’s background is fleshed out with a few tricky and devastating choices. What consequences that has on the plot is minimal. But on how you play the game it’s quite the reverse. Your character, Henry, is a firewarden up in Wyoming, all alone in a large area of national park but for his supervisor’s voice on the radio and a few glimpsed-from-a-distance guests. A plot slowly unfolds, starting as wonderful paranoia and ending as melodrama. Throughout it all though, you’ll be chatting to your supervisor. Or dodging personal conversation topics. Or flirting outrageously. You see, Henry hasn’t gone into the forest to find exciting plotty things, he’s gone to find himself. I felt that I ended the game with Henry ready to face the world again, shaped by the experiences that led him to seek solitude, but no longer defined by them. And that is massively satisfying in and of itself.

These games have all had their endings scrutinised and criticised, but I think that’s judging one medium by the standards of others. Games aren’t films; done well, there’s an investment in the characters that simply isn’t possible in other media. Sure, a hugely satisfying ending is something to strive for, but sometimes the journey really is the most important thing.