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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How on earth do you write a game?

Notebook next to laptop, ready to write a game

If you read my last post you’ll know that I’m part way through making/writing/developing a game for the very first time – doing everything from the art to the coding to the VO myself. So just to manage any expectations: the title of this post is a genuine question. I don’t have the answer…

I’ve written for a fair few different media up to now; not with massive success, I’m the first to admit. I’ve got a completed novel that’s done the agent rounds (dig into the previous articles if you want to read up on that process), other novels at varying stages of completion, short stories, a couple of play scripts gestating, an experimental TV episode, even a few scenes for a rom-com film script. All of these share one key feature (other than lack of publication): they’re not interactive.

Even though writing for the stage is very different to writing a novel, there is that lack of interactivity tying them together. When a play is performed the actors and director will of course find different things in there, in just the same way that a novel will tickle people’s imaginations differently. They all begin, have a middle and have an end. The actions between the beginning and end are utterly predetermined.

There are exceptions – the Alan Ayckbourn play that changes on the toss of a coin; Fighting Fantasy style adventure books; Punchdrunk-style immersive theatre… But that’s not the kind of territory my writing has taken me into so far.

So. I repeat my question. How on earth do you write for games? And I’m thinking here of narrative-driven games more specifically.

Maybe the big con is the illusion of non-linearity? Some games don’t try to escape the linear – I’ve been playing through Wolfenstein: The New Order and the Uncharted trilogy recently and they’re fairly straightforward. Cut scene, interactive shooty (or climby) bit, cut scene, interactive shooty (or climby) bit and so on and so forth.

Alternatively, there are games like the Walking Dead where choice forms the central interaction (well, choice and quick time events). This is more the style of game that I’m interested in making, so I’m going to ponder a little deeper.

There’s a trick in this kind of game, which isn’t a criticism – I absolutely adore Telltale’s style and what they’ve done for narrative games. Having replayed a couple of their titles, the impact of the choices is sometimes less than may be imagined. Huge SPOILERS coming for The Walking Dead Season 1…

Whatever you do as Lee, whoever you sacrifice or save, the game will still resolve in pretty much the same way. You’ll go to the farm, then the coast. Clementine will be taken. Lee will get bitten. Clementine will wind up on her own. That said, the emotional journey Lee and Clementine (and the player) take will be different each time as the choices change.

This is interesting, and starts to move the narrative technique away from other media to a degree. In writing fiction, one of the big lessons is to ensure thatthe plot spirals out of the characters’ actions. If in a game the characters can take various different actions but the overall plot remains the same then how does this work? Why doesn’t everything feel contrived in Telltale games and their ilk?

I think the answer is a combination of a few things: firstly, on initial playthrough the player can be unaware of which actions are causing which consequences. So there’s the potential for pulling the wool over a player’s eyes. There’s a great example of the opposite happening in Witcher 2, by the way. Half way through the game you get to choose between following Roache or Iorveth. This takes Geralt and the player to a radically different area – a whole massive chunk of the game and narrative won’t be accessed by players who only play through once. Well done CD Projekt Red! Both options are well worth playing through, if you haven’t already.

I digress though. The second point to consider is which choices the player is given. And how that fits in with the various levels of plot. Is The Walking Dead a game about a man finding a young girl alone following a zombie outbreak, falling in with a group of survivors and doing what he can to protect the girl and the group? Or is it about the relationship between the man and the girl? The plot for the former is set largely in stone, with a few minor tweaks along the way. The latter though is completely mutable and up to the player.

Firewatch (which I’ve written about before), created by some of the team that worked on The Walking Dead, is an example of this to the nth degree. The plot is utterly unchangeable, and there isn’t really the illusion of choice about it; instead the interaction hinges on the relationship you build with a voice on the other end of the radio. Having chosen the protagonist’s backstory at the beginning you then get to decide how this affects his social interactions. At the end of the game you’ll have a character that may feel completely different from someone else’s, but will have gone to all the same places and ‘done’ all the same things.

Last thing to consider – the quality of the writing. Telltale’s Tales From The Borderlands is worth a mention here. Playing through, it felt like the choices were fewer and for the most part less dramatic than The Walking Dead, but by gum it’s great fun. That’s not to detract from The Walking Dead of course, which also features top quality writing. Tales… just elevates things even further. I wouldn’t really have cared if it wasn’t at all interactive – I loved the characters, the premise, the dialogue, the acting (another big plus). And it features the very finest gun fight in the history of everything – without a single gun.

So perhaps linearity isn’t necessarily as old hat as I thought. This is good news, as the game I’m making features a straightforward objective – the protagonist has to escape a ship that’s crashing – but how they achieve that could vary. The main interaction is in three branching dialogue scenes with different characters in our hero’s way, and the options chosen will lead to success or failure. It’ll all be over in a few minutes, but hopefully will be worth a replay to see what other options lead to. Also, worth mentioning that I am in no way comparing the quality of what I’m working on to the games mentioned above. Mine is a doodle that those developers could knock out in half an hour. But it’s a start.

Where the trick lies is remembering all the standard narrative plot structure stuff and lacing the interactivity around that. It’s not something I’ll manage this time around, but definitely useful for the future.

@BornToPootle