Optimising The Fun Out Of Video Games

Civilisation game-designer, Soren Johnson, once wrote on his blog, “Given the opportunity, players will optimize the fun out of a game.” This was something that I originally considered to be an alien concept – until I realised that I do this, and so does everyone else.

It comes down to an interesting question – what is the objective of a person playing a video game? Why do they do it? Will they take actions in the game specifically to have fun, or will they choose to forgo fun for the sake of making the game easier so therefore to ‘do better’? Johnson, in this quote, argues that the player cannot be trusted to play the game in a fun way, but rather a fashion where they will play better. Some would then argue that the feeling of doing well in a difficult video game provides a kind of enjoyment – which is true. However, I’d argue that this is only a feeling that many players have when they’ve been playing a game for a while, and they initially struggled with it. The feeling they are enjoying is a sense of achievement and progression – it’s good to know that you are getting better at something you once found challenging. If there was no challenge to start with, it is unlikely that any such feeling will be experienced; it’s boring because the game is too easy (of course, some games aren’t supposed to be challenging, and the enjoyment comes from other elements). I’d argue, then, that the feeling of doing well in a game does not correlate to enjoying the game.

My personal story regarding this started about three months ago when I decided to replay Bioshock: Infinite. When this game came out in 2013, I considered it hands-down one of my favourite games – but I could never put my finger on why. I’d been coaxed into reinforcing my resolve that this is a good game when I saw several game reviewers I respected discussing how they didn’t like this game and that they didn’t know why anyone does. I, instead of being stubborn, decided to replay the whole game and reaffirm my opinion – as well as, hopefully, finally put into words what it was I liked about it.

My result? Well, I didn’t like it nearly as much as I remember liking it. I still enjoyed it and managed to play through the whole game in less than two days, along with the Burial At Sea DLC in the following two days. But the interesting thing I found about this game, and what got me thinking about this topic, was the fact that I remember the combat being really fun and engaging. This was not the case on a replay – I found the combat ludicrously easy and, not exactly tedious, but certainly somewhat mind-numbing. You see, the world in this game has a system of ‘skylines’ which are a set of suspended rails above the maps that can be used by the player to quickly traverse around the map in combat scenarios. The idea is that the player can swoop in over a group of enemies to fight them, and then swoop away as soon as they’re in too much trouble. This promotes a fast-paced, aggressive combat style. It’s really fun and was a great feature for the marketing of this game. The devs really wanted players to be flying about the map using the skylines and fighting aggressively and quickly.

The problem is that the skylines are completely unnecessary when it comes down to it. I don’t mean that you can play the game without really ever using them, just that there really is no advantage to using them, apart from when they’re the only way to reach a location of an area. In fact – the game is much easier if you don’t spend your time swooshing about, and actually just stand still – against a wall, with the carbine, head-shooting enemies as they approach.

It’s shocking how many maps in this game allow you to do this – and it how well it works for that matter. The game mechanics even reward this behaviour – unintentionally, I’m sure – with the ‘Booker, catch!’ mechanic. Booker is the name of the character you play as, and so this phrase is shouted at you by your AI companion, Elizabeth when she throws you supplies. Early on in development, she (in an attempt to make her more of a feature of gameplay rather than a cut-scene only type of character) would actually path-find through the local area to supply drops around the map, and then throw them to you as you need them. This was changed – for a variety of reasons – to a system where she just spawns in whatever you need and throws it at you. If you’re thinking that this would surely ruin the combat – seeing that you no longer need to look for ammo or health packs when you’re low on either – then you’d be right. It entirely promotes a slower, more defensive combat style, which this game does not suit because it simply wasn’t designed for it. It is further worsened by the fact that enemies have the aim of a loose garden hose on full blast, providing no immediate threat to anybody. I died once in this game – due to a glitch.

So, as stated the game is easiest played by standing in a corner, behind some amount of cover, and just blasting the enemies with the carbine, which is the ultimate long range, and mid-range weapon in the game. Combined with the shotgun, which is obviously great for short range, and you’re unstoppable if you play the game slowly and less aggressively – which was against the intentions of the developers. There is a boss battle about three quarters through the game involving a ghost woman. It’s supposed to be really hard because it spawns other ghosts that attack you – but you don’t have to worry about them, you just have to go for the main ghost. My strategy? Use charge (which is a kind of superpower you get that allows you charge into an enemy at great speed and do some damage to them) to get really close to the ghost woman ASAP, and then shotgun and charge repeatedly until she teleports away. Only she didn’t have a chance to do that, because I had her dead before Booker and Elizabeth had finished their ten-second dialogue about how we need to kill this ghost-lady – which was kind of funny; the dialogue at the end of the battle started overlapping with the dialogue at the start if the battle.

Because I had anticipated that the shotgun and charge combo was the way to go, I’d spent all my upgrades on maxing both out, so by the end I was an unstoppable killing machine – which is actually less fun than it sounds – there was no challenge to it anymore. There is a fun way to play the combat, and then there is an effective way to play the combat – the circles do not overlap in this diagram. By developing these strategies, I’d optimised the fun from Bioshock Infinite.

While Bioshock has these problems, I also consider my attitude towards games to be at fault – to an extent. With the new Tomb Raider coming so soon, I decided to replay Rise of the Tomb Raider in preparation. Now, this game isn’t supposed to be unreasonably hard or anything – the focus of the experience is in its exploration and puzzle solving, with some stealth and set-piece combat sections breaking the experience up. The thing about this game is that the combat sections are frustrating in a way that I don’t really enjoy that much. Perhaps it’s due to my playing the game with a controller and the lack of auto-assistive aim, but I’m not such a fan of the bits where you need to shoot people. I don’t hate it, I’d just rather avoid it if possible.

Well, it turns out that sometimes it is possible. In some sections, it’s entirely possible to simply run past all the enemies until you reach the next checkpoint location – it’s not mind-blowingly easy because you’ll probably have to make a few attempts due to all the enemies shooting at Lara, but I found the challenge of doing that was more fun than the challenge of having to fight all these enemies with the frustrating combat system. Once you reach the next checkpoint, just let Lara die, and when you reload at that checkpoint the game will assume that you killed all the enemies behind you – or at least successfully snuck past them.

This is not the intended way to play the game when it was designed, it’s more me being lazy. But you can’t blame the player, you can only blame the game. There doesn’t need to be a system to prevent the player from doing this.

Halo’s checkpoint system prevents it, but it often leads to what I like to call ‘stingy checkpoints’, where the game will only give you a checkpoint under very specific conditions. I consider the checkpoint system of all the Halo games, from one to four, to be broken (I haven’t played five). It leads to the player legitimately playing the game the way it was intended to be played, but still being in situations where they die and then reload to a checkpoint twenty minutes earlier. I recently played Halo 4, and it’s a big problem still, successfully making my experience with that game worse than it needed to be.

If Crystal Dynamics, when developing Rise of the Tomb Raider (RotTR), had made the combat and sneaking mechanics more compelling and less tedious, I might have felt more inclined to not try to skip those parts of the game – the simple fact is, my method of skipping these sections is legitimately more fun than the way the developers intended me to play the game.

Having said this, I do still believe that I, overall, had a worse experience playing the game improperly than I would, had I had just persisted. I felt little satisfaction, or much of a sense of achievement, in skipping combat sections altogether – and I was messing with the pacing of the game. RotTR is a very linear experience that has been painstakingly tuned to be just right. So while skipping was more fun in the short term, it was probably not as fun as finishing the game more legitimately.

The two examples I’ve given here are very different in nature. My ‘optimisation’ of RofTR felt distinctly cheaty – I knew I was breaking the system. Bioshock was different in that I didn’t feel like my ‘optimisation’ was illegitimate, nor was it breaking the game. Bioshock’s problem was a lack of incentive to play the game any differently to the way that I was, other than a few prompts telling me that I should use my powers and the skylines more – but when my strategy is working really well, why would I change anything? It’s not like I had no fun playing Infinite, it was just significantly less than I remember back in 2013. Although I was a dumb sixteen-year-old back then so my opinion might have just been plain wrong.

I don’t think you can really ever blame the player for ‘playing the game wrong’, you can only incentivise them to play it in the way you want them to. XCOM 2 has a controversial system that limits the number of turns a mission can be played in. This forces the player to think more about what they’re going to do in order to not waste any turns – and more importantly – it forces them to take risks. The game is said to be a lot more fun when the player is using a dangerous strategy, so Firaxis (the developer) made it part of the game. This has been met with some pushback from fans, because it forces everyone to play the game in one way, in a strategy game where the player should be able to handle any mission in any way they want.

When Blizzard was developing World of Warcraft, they wanted to make sure players were taking regular breaks and not playing the game for unhealthy numbers of hours, so they provided an incentive to players for logging off. The ‘Rest’ bonus gives players an XP boost for players who are logged off, which wears off over time when they are logged in. This also makes it fairer for players who don’t want to commit as much time into the game as hardcore players who may never stop playing the game.

Unlike the XCOM example, this is a well-liked feature of the game. The reason? This is an incentive that acts as a reward for doing something, rather than as a punishment for not doing that thing. When people are playing a game they want to have positive experiences rather than negative ones. The XCOM example punishes players for being slow in the most extreme way it can – failing the mission and making the player start it again. It would be better if the game gave a big reward for players who completed the mission quickly, such as a research bonus or more equipment, but was more forgiving for slower players who don’t want to take too much risk. Players would be more inclined to choose to play the game in the way the developers would like them to, rather than feel like they’re being forced to play the game in a way they don’t want to. The game should dangle a treat in front of your face and tells you that if you want it, you need to play the game like this.

TLDR; the most effective way to play the game should be the most fun way to play the game. That is the goal of a game designer. Unless it shouldn’t.

If this interested you, here’s the video that inspired me to write about this topic:

Hell’s Kitchen: The Anime

There’s something so fascinating about Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen. It’s a simple formula that can be boiled down to The Apprentice but it’s about cooking. A large group of both professional and amateur chefs battle it out week-by-week completing cooking challenges and desperately try to be the winning team to avoid the possibility of being eliminated from the competition. The reward at the end? Glory, money (lot’s of money) – and you get to run one of Ramsay’s restaurants with a big salary (a very big salary). There’s intense, over-the-top drama, there are tears, and there’s a hell of a lot of arrogance and bitching. The show is both American and a reality TV show, so it is unbelievably over-dramatic, to the point where it is quite impossible to put on and ignore, and even harder to not watch just one more episode. The drama is so intense it becomes funny to watch. Shamefully, I once watched an entire season in one sitting. I didn’t sleep that night. It’s trash TV. I love it.

The selling point of the show is not only that it is a competition, but a chance to grow as a chef – to be tutored by the great and almighty god of cooking, Gordon Ramsay. It’s quite funny, sometimes, to see how much these chefs look up to and fear Ramsay – especially when I’ve seen him on UK shows and can see how much of an act he is putting on in America as an aggressive, sweary, British chef. He’s not like that on UK TV – probably because people wouldn’t put up with it so much. People in Hell’s Kitchen are terrified of him and also idolise him – if he gives one of them a compliment they’ll almost collapse with the pride. It doesn’t even have to be anything big – they might have cooked some spaghetti properly. They’ll record interviews Big Brother style so that sound bites can be played over the top of challenges. Some have been so overwhelmed by Ramsay’s presence that they have started crying.

I’ve always felt while watching the show that it is well executed; by the end of a season, you feel as though the right person won and the right people lost – yet the show can still often surprise you unexpectedly, which is all in how it’s edited but that’s a topic for another blog. The show is so completely ridiculous and it’s one of my favourite shows on TV – so you can imagine my disgust when I realised that it has been removed from UK Netflix. What’s even the point of Netflix anymore? It has since been restored, but I have found a new love.

In my dark days of not having access to Hell’s Kitchen, I have discovered a new light to lead me further down the path of cheesy, melodramatic cooking shows. “Shokugeki no Soma” doesn’t really translate into English as anything useful, so it has been renamed to “Food Wars!” in English speaking countries and that is what is translated into other languages – so in French, it is “Guerres Alimentaires!” I thought that was interesting so I’m sorry if you don’t care. The exclamation mark cannot be removed – it is part of the title. Personally, I prefer the title Shokugeki no Soma – but only because I’ve watched a season so I know what a Shokugeki is and I know who Soma is.

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The student cast of Shokugeki no Soma

Soma Yukihira works in a popular diner run by his father, Joichiro Yukihira. Because of their god-like cooking abilities, Restaurant Yukihira is incredibly popular. One day, Soma’s father tells him that he must go to a cooking school, but not just any cooking school – the best cooking school in the entire world! Totsuki Culinary Acadamy is the size of a city behind its closed walls and has a pass rate of less than 1%. Not because it’s actually a terrible academy which fails to properly teach it’s students, but because so many students get in at the first year and the standards are unbelievably high, leading to many expulsions. So you could say that the graduates are the best in the world because of a process of elimination rather than any particular training – in this way it reminds me of getting a Hunter License in Hunter X Hunter (very recommended).

In that, we have the drama aspect of this show. Soma is already better than most of his year at the academy because his father taught him so well while they worked at their small diner in Tokyo. During his three years at the academy, he must complete many varieties of challenges – all of which involve cooking in some capacity. One might wonder when the actual teaching happens because every day seems to involve a new challenge to test the students, and not a lot of actual lessons. Fairly reminiscent of the challenges in Hell’s Kitchen, but much more dramatic and often quite a lot more dangerous. Students battle it out in Cook-Offs called Shokugeki – which is the only way disputes can be formally resolved while at Totsuki. Any student can challenge any other student or teacher to Shokugeki – often by shouting ‘SHOKUGEKI!’ at them. While it is admittedly not exactly the same in Hell’s Kitchen, competitors are often challenged to battle each other in the cullanry arts by Ramsay.

Shokugeki No Soma is unbelievably melodramatic, which is the primary source of comedy in this show – and this show is very funny. Not an episode goes by that I won’t laugh out loud, rather than just quietly chuckle as I normally do. Students have ridiculous feuds between them which involve them shouting about how they are so much better than the other and that they will destroy them. A little bit similar to Hell’s Kitchen when competitors take a dislike to each other and have stupid arguments. My favourite was when one man started shouting at the other, “I will cook circles around you! You couldn’t cook my cock!” What makes Shokugeki No Soma so funny is how self-aware the show it to how stupid the drama is. Either when it comes to how the animation is done, or the sound design, or the acting. It all comes together beautifully to create a great show. It’s all excellent in execution and makes the show extremely enjoyable to watch. I love it. I want an anime Gordon Ramsay to show up for one episode to reveal that he was trained there as well – that would be my make-a-wish if I was a terminally ill child.

In conclusion, I recommend you watch Hell’s Kitchen and Shokugeki No Soma. I’m not sure where any of this was going to be brutally honest. Happy Easter?

The Library Level Should Have Been Cut From Halo

Halo is a pretty good game – to put it mildly. That is not a controversial statement; almost everyone who has played Halo: Combat Evolved loves it. It’s one of the (many) reasons the Xbox brand ended up being so successful. Indeed, the name Halo is almost synonymous with Xbox. It’s one the best first-person shooters on a console even to this day and one of the first to introduce so many game mechanics we consider standard today. Aim-assist, regenerating shields, even the standard FPS controls – all introduced or heavily innovated by Halo. It’s safe to say that Halo is a historic game and has had an astonishing and undeniable impact on the console gaming world. But it is definitely not without its flaws.

The Library is the seventh level of ten and represents an absolutely disgusting lapse in quality during such an otherwise high-standard game. If you can, I would wholeheartedly recommend that you skip this level; it adds nothing but half an hour of tedium and frustration.

In order to fully understand the failings of this level, it is important to examine the rest of the game as a whole. Halo’s other levels are vast, expansive and varied. In most missions, there’s not too much of a sense of repetitiveness about them (apart from when there is). In an age of endless corridor-shooters, Halo stood out as a game with huge sandbox levels that were both fun to fight in and also nice to look at, with only a few endless corridors. Each level has its own purpose – whether the purpose is to convey some story element or to teach the player about a game mechanic, most levels feel required and useful, which is important to the player’s enjoyment of a game like Halo.

What, then, is the purpose of The Library? I’ve seen it said in forums and comment-sections that The Library is used to convey the overwhelming nature of the Flood. As the Master Chief moves through the level, he must fight the ever persistent Flood, which come close to overwhelming him by their sheer numbers. It, in theory, sounds like a good way of conveying why the Flood are so feared and a disaster if they get off the ring while following the story-telling rule of ‘show – don’t tell’. But wait – hasn’t the game already done this? Level 6, ‘343 Guilty Spark’, is the level which introduces the Flood – and does quite a good job of it, too. In that level, Master Chief delves deep into an installation looking for Captain Keyes, only to find both Covenant and Human soldiers dead as if they had been mutilated, and no signs of the Captain. Suddenly the Chief is hit by a wave of Flood – and another, and another. The only way he can survive this is to run away as fast as possible through the corpses of his companions and enemies, it is not required of him that he kills all of the Flood, buts that’s up to the player. Sounds to me like this idea of the Flood being overwhelming and almost undefeatable has been conveyed quite well, while also providing an entertaining experience for the player. So, bearing that in mind, what is the library for? Is it to reinforce the plague of the Flood idea? If it is, it is done quite ineffectively, makes the level ultimately feel redundant, and takes away from the impact of the flood because too much time is spent on conveying that one idea without expanding it or giving the player any new information – it’s all just repetition. The player learns not to fear the Flood, but to be frustrated and bored by them.

So the level has no point, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth anything; it could still be fun and simply act as padding to make the game another half an hour long. And that would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that this level is awful owing mainly to the almost comically-bad level design. The level starts by putting you in a corridor. Run forward for a bit while you get attacked by a wave of flood. Wait for Guilty Spark to open an unnecessarily oversized and slow-moving door. Congratulations – do that for ten more corridors and you’ve done the level. Three groups of corridors are broken up by two also very large lifts, and a couple rooms where you get locked in and have to fight the Flood for a bit. Every corridor is an exact copy of the last – obviously literally copied and pasted to make the level longer, but occasionally a slight alteration is made, making the level feel extremely repetitive. The result is a player who feels like they have been going around in circles for 30-40 minutes. A feeling of being lost is very common in this level, which was probably not deliberate.

It all just screams laziness – Bungie made a couple of corridors, a lift, and the final room and then just seemed to settle for looping them over and over again until the level felt long enough. The whole level design is boring because you’ve seen the whole thing about 30 seconds into this half-an-hour level. This is especially bad because Halo was supposed to be a game that moves away from closed in corridors and into vast open levels, so The Library feels a bit counter-intuitive in that regard, being a level almost entirely composed of corridors. The level gets completely boring about two minutes in, and carries on for over half an hour.

The level design may be bad, but that alone isn’t what makes this level so hated. The other main problem is the combat. The Flood are awful to fight. It’s hard to imagine anybody actually enjoys fighting the Flood, and if they say they do, they are wrong. The Flood are essentially zombies with guns and therefore have no regard for their own safety, and as a result, the Flood fight you stupidly. They’ll ignore cover, they’ll run straight at you to hit you a lot or stand still shooting endlessly. You’d think this makes them easy to fight, but you’d be wrong, because in order to make them a challenge, Bungie made them do a frankly over-the-top amount of damage, and also put what seems like a million of them in a level at once, completely surrounding the Chief. They don’t try to keep their distance or try to defend themselves like the Covenant do – they get closer, they sneak up behind you and blow up to take your shields out (à la creepers from Minecraft fame), they hunt the Chief down and run at him – making trying to hide from them almost impossible. Exactly one gun is effective against the flood – the shotgun. You can fight them with other guns but you’re not going to have a good time doing it – although, you’re not going to have a good time whatever you do, but it’ll be much better with a shotgun. This means that the best way to fight them is to run at them while they run at you and shoot as you go, except they’ll overwhelm you if you do that so you have to sort of run around in circles, trying not to advance too much at once and clean-up the level as you go. All of this combined makes them very challenging – but not in a fun way, and after you’ve died to them a few times you’ll start getting suicidal over how tedious this whole act of fighting them is.

The combination of a boring, uninspired, repetitive level design and an enemy which is painful to fight in great numbers makes this level possibly the worst level in Halo history. So what should have been done about it? I like to take the ‘brutal editor’ approach to this and would suggest cutting the level entirely and replacing the little storytelling it conveys with extra lines of dialogue in other cutscenes, or even create a new cutscene where the level previously was; it wouldn’t have taken very long and would have drastically improved the overall quality of the game – and, incidentally, this is precisely what Bungie did multiple times while developing Halo 2 (although that was because of ridiculous time constraints rather than anything else). The level could also have been drastically shortened and altered, but this would have to be to the effect of pretty much completely changing the level design, structure and even the objective – essentially the same as cutting the level, except a new one would be put in its place.

The game would have arguably been seriously improved if the Flood were more fun to fight, however that could run the risk of losing the emphasis of how the Flood will destroy the entire universe unless wiped out, and thus the main driving force behind the whole plot would be lost. The Flood are at their best when the player is running away from them, not when the player is forced to kill them all; it both makes more sense in terms of the plot and world-building that has already been established, and can provide quite dramatic and memorable sequences.

The Library level is hard to enjoy, even for the most veteran Halo fans. It’s boring, it’s tedious, and it’s far-too brutal. If it were just boring but not very hard, the player could just zone out while playing it and it would be forgotten, but when it’s both boring and difficult, the player must focus on a repetitive slog through a seemingly infinite set of corridors. This level takes place in Halo’s second half, which is often said to be where Halo starts going downhill in terms of quality, but The Library is a rather sheer cliff-face of a drop-off. The quality recovers immediately after but never quite reaches the same standard set at the start of the game. Halo is a really fun and historic game which everyone with an Xbox should play – just skip The Library if you can.

EGX 2017

I went to EGX 2016 alone. No one I asked to come with me was available, or they simply didn’t want to. This year I got two suckers to come with me – Ambrose and George who what I live with. I found that having company at EGX is extremely preferable to being alone, so I’ll start this by thanking my compadres for agreeing to accompany me. I mean, I’m sure neither of them came just for that reason alone, but I’m glad they did.

We arrived in the morning with enough time to get our wristbands (I managed to embarrass myself by holding my arm out for the woman to put it on me rather than take it and do it myself which is what you’re supposed to do), and get pretty close to the front of the line waiting for 11 o’clock to be let in. Our ambitious plan was to get in as quickly as possible and go straight to the Assasin’s Creed line. Being an EGX veteran myself, I doubted we would be able to get in the queue seeing that a lot of people had gotten the early entry tickets so they’d been in the show since 9AM – but I was willing to try. Sure enough, however, we reached the queue and saw the line would be 2 hours. We abandoned AC for the time being.

On our way over to AC, we saw a big banner hanging from the ceiling. One side had displayed in large letters, “PUNCH ZOMBIES IN VR.” On the other, “SHOOT FRUIT IN VR.” This was above a big booth showing off a couple of VR games. The first we saw was a game called Shooty Fruity being demoed on the Oculus Rift. You play a checkout person, doing the checkout thing, who must periodically pick up guns and shoot down malicious fruit charging for an assault. The best part was that the queue wasn’t very long so the three of us got in line.

I’m told, reliably, by George and Ambrose that the game was very enjoyable. You see, I couldn’t fit the Rift over my glasses, and I couldn’t see anything in the Rift without my glasses – even with much adjustment from the people running the demo. This surprised me because I’m short-sighted and can see further forward than the Rift protrudes from my face. Obviously, I don’t understand optics as well as I thought. I’m disappointed I couldn’t have a go personally but I trust that is was very fun to play. George got 2nd place on the EGX leaderboard, but we checked a few hours later and he’d already been knocked off by other people.

At my request, we went to the other VR demo in that area. It was a game called Bloody Zombies (it’s set in the UK, so I think it’s a pun) and was being demoed on the PS VR. This one was an interesting one because it’s a 2D side-scroller fighting game. Usually, VR games are 3D first-person games for obvious reasons – how would something not in the first-person work in VR? Luckily, the PS VR was designed to work with glasses so I could find out. Surprisingly to me, I put on the headset and immediately exclaimed, “Oh my God this is amazing!” Because it was. George and Ambrose were playing at the same time and seeing the game on a TV (it was co-op), which restricted their field of view to a small window where their characters were. I could see everything. I could see the whole level by looking left or right, I could see things in the background which the others could not, I could see it all in 3D which made the gameplay easier because I could more easily see what 2D plane my character was on. I didn’t want to take the headset off in order to let my friends have a go and when I did everything seemed so flat and small. I want to go back! I mean I still don’t think it’s worth a £500 investment but it is pretty cool and I found it made the game a lot more interesting.

The rest of the day was spent going from game to game and trying everything that was free at the time. Total War: Warhammer 2, Cuphead, Worms WMD on the Switch, Mario and Rabbids, Disney Land Adventure. What a list. We also spent a small while looking at a couple of indie games: Tokyo Dark and Max: Curse of the Brotherhood.

I’d seen Tokyo Dark advertised a lot on PC Gamer’s website and wondered what it was. Turns out it’s a 2D point and click detective visual novel puzzle solving thing. The small amount I played was quite intriguing; it features puzzles which rely on you paying attention to the dialogue and using the information characters give you to solve them. The game doesn’t seem to hold your hand very much at all, and the small amount of the story I saw was rather intriguing. I’m currently considering buying it. I’ll get back to you on that one.

Max: Curse of the Brotherhood is a 3D puzzle platformer with a twist. At the touch of a button, one can summon an enormous pencil and draw ropes connecting things together. The game was fun and challenging, and the kind of thing I could play with my children – as it seems to be geared to a child audience.

Overall, it was a very fun day out and a marvellous time was had by all. The most impressive thing we saw would have to have been the VR stuff – it’s what we were talking about for the days after the event. I look forward to VR becoming affordable.

 

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EGX lads 2017 (I didn’t know my hair looked like that)

 

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Story Telling In Video Games

Story tellers have always been looking for new and more creative ways to express themselves and/or entertain the masses. I think that, if handled correctly, video games can be the most immersive and creative medium of all. But what is the correct way to go about telling a tale in such an inherently interactive environment? Over the past several years, various people and studios have experimented in an attempt to answer this question. The solutions some have come up with have been absolutely amazing in some cases, controversial in others and a complete failure in a disappointing number more.

You may have heard of The Chinese Room. They are an independent developer who has gained some fame for making two such infamous story-based games. The ‘walking simulator’ is a derogatory term which (so far as I know) was invented to describe the games that The Chinese Room is known for. Dear Esther is the first time I’d heard of them myself. This is a ‘game’ which I believe I have complained about before on this blog; the amount of interaction the player has is minimal: hold ‘w’ and move the mouse to point in the direction you want to walk while a mopey man talks in your ears about something. I honestly gave up listening to him after only a few minutes of him complaining. A mistake, it turns out, as the mopey man who talks way too much turns out to be the device by which the entire story is told. You walk around a deserted island until he runs out of stuff to complain about. The end. There is some kind of gameplay here, but I fear it was not intended by the developer; the level design is extremely poor. So much that it presents quite the challenge at times to work out where you’re supposed to next. Oftentimes it leads you to a dead end and you have to, with no indication at all, work out that you’re supposed to do a 180 and go back the way you came for a bit. To get through this harrowing experience, I would throw on some tracks from Spotify to listen to while I held ‘w’ down for 5 minutes straight, and discovered that you can’t actually drown yourself in game – several times. When this torture ended, I remember a great feeling of frustration that I had wasted my time on it. I was shocked to discover that I had only apparently spent 76 minutes on it. I thought it had been hours.

Their next game was Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture. I did a review of it at the time. If you can’t be bothered to read that, here’s a summary: if you ignore the very nice graphics and beautiful soundtrack, the only thing impressive about this game is how the story can be so boring throughout, and yet the ending still manages to disappoint you. The story is told in basically the same way, except there is now some kind of gameplay, I’m not talking about the (still as unbelievably terrible) puzzle of a level design, but there’s a confusing light puzzle thing that is remarkably easy to solve once you work out the first one.

Everything about The Chinese Room’s games screams pretentiousness to the highest degree. They are games that feign depth and put on an aesthetic which tries to trick you into thinking that these games are deeper than they actually are. The kind of thing that some people would be scared to criticise because fans could so easily tell you that you ‘just don’t get it’ and that you’re ‘not clever enough to understand’. Well no more!

Gone Home is also a walking simulator, developed by Full Bright. I love Gone Home. It’s the only good walking simulator I’ve ever played. It tells the story of a person going home to the house they grew up in and learning about the events that transpired while they were away. What makes the game good is how much freedom the player is given to pick and choose how much information they want to learn. There’s the base story, which you have to follow, but there’s also so much more detail the player can go into in the form of documents, photos, notebooks etc. The player chooses the pace at which the story is told – this is an advantage of this medium that walking simulators simply must capitalise on if they’re going to tell a story. If you’re trying to tell a story through a game and you don’t want to give the audience the freedom to go at their own pace and skip out on stuff that might not be as interesting to them as someone else, are you sure a video game was the right medium to tell this story? Gone Home’s story is simple, easy to follow and excellently told. It doesn’t try to be anything more than it needs to be – there’s no fluff, it’s not trying to examine the human condition, it’s trying to tell the story of a family and the struggles they’ve had with living together – and yet Gone Home has had a far deeper impact on me than anything The Chinese Room has ever done. I fell in love with the characters and I left the game feeling satisfied, rather than frustrated. Gone Home is up there with the greats.

Walking simulators are quite limiting, however. You can only really tell one kind of story with one – one where the events have occurred and you’re a person walking through the rubble, uncovering the story regarding what happened. Telltale takes a more cinematic approach. I think most people know of or have played their Walking Dead game, at least the first series. It’s the only one I played. Telltale pioneered the episodic approach to releasing a story driven game. They would work on an episode, release that, and then do the next episode a month later or so. This is a pretty good system for them for a few reasons. For one thing, it means that they can have an output and release stuff on the regular without compromising so much on quality than if they had released it all at once. It also gives the players a common stopping point. It means players of the game are more likely to discuss it with each other. If the game was released all at once, it would leave players all at different points meaning that they would avoid discussing the game. By releasing the game in easily-digestible 2 hour chunks, you get the water-cooler effect, where people start discussing what they think might happen next. Then we get the peer pressure in for the people who aren’t playing the game but everyone else is. It’s a great marketing strategy.

In terms of how Telltale tells a tale, it much like watching an episode of a TV show, only you get to make some decisions like how the main character will reply to a question, who they’ll back up in a conflict, should they go to this location and do this or go to the other location and do something else. There’s also a combat system built into most of them which almost always consists of quick-time events and button-mashing, which can be exciting sometimes, but it is almost impossible to fail most of the time. Telltale has made series in this style ranging from The Walking Dead to Minecraft. They have been hugely successful, and I’m not going to sit here and write that they are bad at it; they’re not, they make good stuff, just nothing great.

I think that there are a few things which hold back all Telltale games. For one thing, production value is fairly low – animation is consistently robotic looking, graphics usually leave something to be desired and the soundtrack has never been stunning, but this is what you get when you are splitting you’re resources so much that you can be working on multiple series at once, and when you want to easily port the game to mobile.

Also a problem for me is the implementation of player choice. We know from the failings of The Chinese Room that you need player input. I’m not convinced Telltale actually really has any. I think that when you are given a choice in a Telltale game, you are being tricked. It’s not like the game ignores anything you tell it – it’s more that the choices you make have no real effect on the outcome of the story. Quite often a dialogue choice will come up and it will be designed so that whatever you choose, the same event will occur afterwards. It is, of course, unrealistic to expect Telltale to create such a branching story line so that any choice the player makes will have a different effect on the outcome. I just think that when you have a system like this, you are relying on the illusion of choice you’ve set up to not be shattered; once it is, the player starts to wonder why they’re bothering. I’ve always watched Telltale games being played on YouTube rather than buy them and play them myself.

For a more high production value game in this style, see Life Is Strange. Life Is Strange is the same sort of formula, except it’s a lot more like a normal game; you have a lot more control over what the main character, Max, does. You can walk her around, go exploring and also control time – but that’s more to do with the plot than anything else. This opens up something that is missing in Telltale games – exploration. Like in Gone Home, the player is given more of an opportunity to play at their own pace. If they were to walk into a room, they’d be able to look at loads of things in the room in order to learn more about the world, the characters and pick up hints about the plot. Choices that the player makes actually affect aspects of the game. So far as I know, nothing can change the outcome, but it makes the journey to the outcome so much more interesting, and provides a different experience for each player.

Life Is Strange is also a beautiful game, with pretty good animation, nothing stunning but better than Telltale’s stuff, and a great soundtrack. You may get annoyed with the characters, being that they’re all angsty teenagers, and you’ll definitely get annoyed if you are a teenager yourself because the character’s lines were all clearly written by someone who does not know how teenagers talk to each other – I’ll say this is charming; it did give me a good laugh while playing it.

There are loads of other games I could talk out – The Witcher 3, The Last Of Us, Uncharted – but I wanted to focus on games who’s sole purpose is to tell a story rather than be an action adventure or an RPG. I have seen proof that games can be, when done correctly, an amazing way to tell a story and an experience to remember for the player. But I think that it is so much harder to achieve this than to make a great film because there are so many variables involved. For a story to work as a game it has to be written as a game, and it should not be something that could be directly translated into a film or a book. Story telling in games is hard – but when it pays off, it can make for a groundbreaking experience.

Reddit – It’s Reddiculous!

It’s about nearly the end of my second year at university and my God, are the deadlines building up. As of the time of me writing these words I face four weeks of exams and hand-in dates for my various coursework projects. I would be lying if I wasn’t feeling at least a little bit stressed. It takes a lot to stress me out, and I’m starting to feel it, so you know it’s pretty dire up in here. As is such the situation that is the situation of right now, I find I don’t really have a lot of time to be writing this at the moment, so this is going to be a short one.

Let’s see… what do real blog writers do when they have to post something but have no idea about what to write about? Ah, yes – steal something from Reddit. I’ve had a Reddit account for about 4 years and my interest in the site comes and goes like the tide. I’ll go through periods of being a little bit obsessed with the thing and then time will pass and I’ll get bored and only type its URL in my address bar every so often. The same goes for things like various Youtubers, like PewDiePie. Between about August 2016 and the end of May 2017 I’d say he was one of my favourite YouTubers but now I’m not so interested anymore. These are the kind of things that are really good if you’re careful not to wear yourself out on them.

What I find frustrating about Reddit is the repetitiveness of some of it. /r/AskReddit is a prime example of what I mean. For those not with it on these matters, this is a subreddit where people ask a question and everyone else provides an answer. These questions can be for example: “What’s the sluttiest thing you have ever done?”, or, “Besides fight club, what is the first rule of something?” (both actual questions). Often, someone has something interesting or funny to say. The problem arises when, because nearly every obvious question imaginable has already been asked, the less creative of Redditors just end up re-asking the same questions as before. You’ll get different answers, but there’s something tiring about the whole thing. A common question will be something along the lines of “Ladies of Reddit, what is the sexiest thing a man has done for you in bed?” and, “Whats a red flag for you on your hot date with a hot guy?” Obviously an attempt to grab some quick tips from some deeply lonely person. It’s fine for a while but then it’s just tedious just to read the same question over and over again. There are some interesting questions being asked but there are too far between to make up for it.

We also have the marvellous places that exist like /r/thatHappened, /r/Im14AndThisIsDeep, /r/IAmVerySmart and /r/TumblrInAction where no one seems to understand a joke. These are subreddits where people see something someone has written somewhere on the internet, or in real life, which is either pretentious, obviously a lie or simply just stupid. These are places that are a bit of laugh at first, but then just irritating. People are incredibly sceptical and sometimes downright nasty towards the subject of a post. It’s not a good mindset to get into and can lead to one thinking that every something someone has written that was intended as sarcasm is just them being stupid or pretentious. Similar things can be said for /r/SavedYouAClick, where people share examples of click-bait and answer the question it is asking – but a lot of the things people post are actually not click bait and intended as a joke, but no one understands this of thinks the can get away with it for sweet Reddit karma.

There are bad subreddits that are examples of good reasons to go on Reddit, however. My favourite being /r/LifeProTips where people share their pro tips for life in the format of “LPT: When packing for a trip, make sure to touch everything you’re not sure you packed. This creates a stronger memory of what you packed and where it’s packed.” Yes, they are normally that stupid. The subreddit ranges from unnecessary ideas like “Go in every room in your house every day to make sure every room in your house is fine”, to bad ideas like “Don’t say sorry, say thank you instead!” Great idea if you want people to not like you. Some tips are unrealistic: “LPT: If you’re about to drop something down the drain, don’t fumble around trying to catch it and risk dropping it again- just cover the drain”, some are obvious: “LPT run your spoon/scooper under hot water before digging into a fresh tub of frozen ice cream” and then some ideas are just oddly specific: “LPT If you eat at a shop regularly and know you won’t be there one day, let them know.” This is often at least mildly amusing and a good way to waste a few hours. Sometimes you’ll come across a genuinely good tip which you’ll forget about immediately and never implement into your life.

There are some subreddits I like because they are genuinely at least slightly interesting places, but there’s nothing out there that makes me feel like I’m spending my time wisely. For some reason, the saying “time enjoyed wasting is not wasted time” doesn’t apply here. I always feel like I could have wasted my time in a more enjoyable way. I decided, recently, that I was going to commit to not wasting time as much as I normally do. This fell apart when I started watching endless episodes of Gordon Ramsay programs, but that’s basically over now. I’ve been able to play more video games, read more and of course get a lot more work done much faster than normal. Yet, still, I only post one of these a month. I’m just lazy when it comes to this blog, I think.

They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To

I saw La La Land about a week and a bit ago. I loved it. It’s probably one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time. The music, the story, the cinematography – I was a fan of all of it. If you enjoy a good film, you simply must go and see La La Land.

Although I’ve had my eye on this film for a while, it was not until relatively recently that I saw the reviews that they used in the trailer. You know the ones I mean – where they read a review and clip a sentence or two out to put on the posters, like text sound-bites. I never trust them when they only pick one word from the review to sum up the whole thing. Like “Astonishing.” That could very well be taken out of context, for example:

Astonishing. How could a film be this bad?

I’m not going to read all of those reviews to confirm that these little clippings are being used in proper context, so we’ll never know if the review is in the proper context or not. Which is why I never normally pay attention to them, but one caught my eye:

They just don’t make movies like this anymore.

Now I’ll admit, I couldn’t find the source with my classic ‘fifteen seconds of Googling, and then just giving up’ routine,  but I promise I’m not making this quote up beyond the limitations of the variable reliability of my memory. This review got me thinking. Do they really not? If you think about it, they just did – it’s called La La Land and you should totally go and see it. In all seriousness, however, I get what this person meant, but I think there is a reason for that.

For one thing, Hollywood hasn’t been making a whole lot of musicals since the 60s, just simply because people got bored of them; people demanded a different, more modern kind of film. “Musicals are the kind of thing my parents like; it’s not for me and my band of cool, hip, rebellious friends – I want to see something different and challenging, something that will really knock my socks off!” Is what I imagine the teenagers of the 70s and 80s spoke like (I’ll have to ask my Dad for confirmation), and we all know that the film industry is the slave of the teenager, with all their disposable income and confused ideas about rebellion and challenging the status quo etc. I thought people liked Status Quo, maybe I should listen to their music sometime.

The main reason I think this person holds this view is quite simple: La La Land is intentionally nostalgic. They couldn’t make it more obvious if they tried; the film even references the fact that it is pretty nostalgic. I think this is part of the subject matter of the film, however, and not the director & writer Damien Chazelle being a pretentious git. The film is about the dreaminess of the idea of Hollywood (despite the real Hollywood apparently being not very nice as a place) – hence why the film is called La La Land. The film is deeply artistic, and it the kind of art I really appreciate; it’s trying to look like an old film from the 40s and 50s by using techniques like film with real film cameras, strong colours and cinematography that makes some scenes look like it was filmed on a big sound stage like those musicals from back in the day, and all with a highly appropriate degree of subtlety.

I suppose the reason this review got me thinking the most is the constant assumption that people jump to that because an old film is old it makes it better “‘cos these Hollywood producers only care about money rather than the art of film. Do you know how many masterpieces are turned down every day because they aren’t some superhero blockbuster? I don’t, but I bet it’s a lot.” Is what they say. But is older better? No. There’s not much of a debate to be had about the subject. Have you seen the latest season of South Park? You should – it deals exactly with this subject. Hollywood has discovered a new goldmine to exploit: nostalgia. There have been so many films and TV shows that are rebooting old films and TV shows from the 70s and 80s these days, and not nearly half of them have been any good. And in any case, when people say that all the good films were made before the year 2000, they’re only thinking of the classics: Alien, Terminator, Ghost Busters and so on, they never consider the terrible films like 1997s Air Bud, 1989s Alls Fair (3.6/10 on IMDB) or 1965s Monster A-Go Go (2.8). Not thinking about them are you, nostalgic people?

I’m not saying that La La Land is only liked because of the nostalgia factor, because I have no nostalgia for these types of films, having only seen things like The Sound of Music and West Side Story in the past few years for the first time, and I didn’t think much of them – least of all West Side Story. I can see what style and era La La Land is going after, but it doesn’t remind me of any film in particular. And anyway, I reject the whole idea that films aren’t as good as they used to be; there have been some bloody brilliant films that have come out quite recently – La La Land is not the only good film of late and it’s not good because it looks a bit old.

So in conclusion, they do make films like this anymore, nostalgia should be treated with scepticism and I really liked La La Land. You should go and see it.

The Turing Test

A little while ago, it was my 20th birthday. “Huzzah!” came my cry as my teenage years had come to an end and I entered the void of the time between being a teenager and a proper adult, with a job and a place to live that isn’t my parent’s house. One of my many birthday gifts was a game called The Turing Test. I’d asked for this because it was intriguing; I’d seen a part of the game being played on a YouTube channel, and I became very interested in it, both for the  gameplay and the discussion the game creates.

The game is a puzzle game, and clearly takes many themes directly from Portal – you’re solving puzzle rooms to get through a sci-fi facility while being talked to by a sentient robot, who turns out to be a little sinister – very Portal. The difference here is the far more serious tone that game takes, it’s a lot darker and brings up quite complicated ethical and philosophical issues, that really get you thinking while solving these puzzles. The game gets you thinking by presenting you with a well-balanced argument about AI and how you prove something has intelligence. It even goes into arguments about what intelligence even is and how you can define and measure it. By the end of the game, I had a lot to think about, which lead me to do a bit of reading on my own on the subject, but it also helps that one of my modules in University is all about AI, so I’ve been learning from that. The game is good, and I’d recommend playing it, but I don’t really have much to say on the subject. The ending is very good and left me very conflicted about who’s side I was on, the robot’s or the humans’.

But that’s not what I came here to write about, I want to write about the Turing test, as in the actual Turing test. Most people know about the original idea of the Turing test – a person sits at a computer terminal and has two conversations, one with a computer and one with another human. If the person is unable to reliably tell which is which just based on the conversation they had, the computer has passed the Turing test. For a lot of people, this is not a very convincing test, and most would argue that it is possible to program any computer specifically to pass the Turing test, without needing it to be intelligent at all. The  main argument for this comes from John Searle in a book he wrote called Minds, Brains, and Programs. The argument is called The Chinese Room. It argues that a computer can be programmed to fake the ability to have a conversation with someone using a rulebook telling it how to reply to every possible input to look convincing as a sentient being, when in fact, it’s just faking, this is basically how things like Cleverbot work. Some people have taken this argument to mean that it is completely impossible for a computer to be truly intelligent, as a computer is unable to understand the meaning of the replies it is giving and is simply pretending to be clever (like a lot of us d0).

Think of it this way: a computer knows the definition of house and it knows the definition of home but does it understand the true meaning of either word. To a human, we understand what it truly is to make a house a home™, but does a computer which is basing its understanding on:

House
noun
  1. a building for human habitation, especially one that consists of a ground floor and one or more upper storeys.
    “a house of Cotswold stone”
  2. a building in which people meet for a particular activity.
    “a house of prayer”

And:

Home
  1. the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household.
    “the floods forced many people to flee their homes”
  2. an institution for people needing professional care or supervision.
    “an old people’s home”

Both definitions are taken directly from Google, which is probably where an AI would get its knowledge from (No intelligent being would dare touch Bing). I know which house is my home – it’s not the house I live in permanently, it’s the house I grew up in rather than the house I live in when it’s term time at my University.

But, when one looks at the other side of this philosophical coin, one can see the other argument. Taking a quote directly from the Turing test game, this argument can be summarised quite neatly:

If someone copied, exactly, the brain of a duck into a digital form that could be run by a computer, and put it into a perfect robot copy of a duck, would onlookers not say, “that is a duck”. After all, if it quacks like a duck, swims like a duck and does everything a duck would typically do, would you not simply say “That is a duck!”.

I’m not sure I would make any comment about a duck if I saw one, but it does raise an interesting point: if a computer could mimic intelligence perfectly, why does that not mean it is intelligent? In the Chinese room example – sure, the person in the room doesn’t understand Chinese, but the whole system does understand Chinese, or at least appears to. This is the main argument against the Chinese room experiment, and I think that it is a very interesting one.

Humans have been known to think very highly of themselves, so when it comes to the idea that a computer could become intelligent, we tend to get a bit snooty about the attempts to make a computer intelligent, dismissing them as ‘faking’ or ‘cheating’, but I think that before we can understand how a computer can be intelligent, we need to know how a human can be intelligent, and even the simple question of “what even is intelligence? How do we measure it? Where does it come from?”

In my AI lectures, students have been asked “What is you favourite colour?” to which they reply blue, red or some other colour. Is that an intelligent answer? I walk to University every day, is that an intelligent act? Does someone have to be intelligent to walk from A to B? Or do they just do it, especially when they have walked this route before? What is it to be intelligent? What do we do that is classed as intelligent?

Sorry to end this on a list of questions, but I simply don’t have a solid answer to any of this. If you want to know more, there was a really cool program on Channel 4 a couple of days ago (that was definitely not an hour long advert for Humans season 2) which explored some of these questions, it was called How to Build a Human. Watch it, it was very cool. I won’t watch Humans, though. Maybe someone can tell me if it’s worth watching, and then I probably still won’t; I have a vendetta against Channel 4 at the moment.

My Day at EGX 2016

Every year, I go to EGX. It’s a tradition that’s last about four years now. It started when I found out about it from a friend and learned that it was about a thirty-minute journey from my house in London. It’s moved to Birmingham now, which means my pleasant thirty-minute journey has changed to a stressful three-and-a-half hour journey – and all because Earl’s Court is gone (also, you could argue that the NEC is a more appropriate location for a UK convention as it is located more centrally in the country – but on the downside, it means you have to go into Birmingham). I usually go with my brother, but this year he couldn’t come for a plethora of reasons, so I spent the day on my own. So, with no one else to share my experience this year with, I thought I’d just write about it.

 

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Oh, the things you see.

 

I love the experience of going to EGX; I feel suddenly I’m with a whole massive room full of thousands of other people who are a bit like me in at least some small way, of all different ages and backgrounds. I like listening to conversations and finding that people are talking about the Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Dishonoured or loads of other games, they may even be talking about being excited to meet the Yogscast, or Syndicate (I have no idea why you’d want to meet him after recent events). To put it simply, EGX is one of the only places where that small part of my life feels less alone; it reminds me that there are other people – real people, in front of my face – who also spend a few hours every night watching the same YouTube videos that I’m watching, it reminds me that there are other people obsessing over their PC builds and other people who play far too much Skyrim to be healthy. It reminds me that I am part of a community – that’s why I go to EGX every year, and that’s why I still went when they moved the event to Birmingham – that’s right, it’s so good, I’ll brave having to be in Birmingham for eight whole hours.

This year, I planned to go to EGX as soon as tickets were available. I didn’t spend really any time at all thinking about what I’d being doing about the time EGX was on – I just assumed I could fit my life around EGX. I bought tickets for the Friday, and then as soon as I could, I booked tickets for the train. If I’d known about a show on that night by the YouTube group Hat Films, I’d have gone to that, but it was too late; my ticket home was booked.

 

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This is a very cinematic queue shot.

 

After I’d travelled the three hours to get to the NEC, I started on the labyrinth that is the epic twenty-minute journey between the train station and the halls where EGX was being held. If you’ve not been to the NEC via train, you should know that the train station, the airport and the NEC are all one building. It’s bloody massive in there. I spent the time walking along and finding my way. For most of the walk, there aren’t any signs pointing you to EGX, but that’s fine – just follow the gamers. How can you tell who are gamers and who aren’t? Strangely enough, that doesn’t prove much of a challenge. The NEC is so massive, that at any one time, multiple exhibitions are going on. When I was getting close to the hall I needed to go to, I, surrounded by some other gamers heading to EGX, approached a man who clearly worked for the NEC – based on his uniform, who stood next to a signpost which pointed off in two opposite directions – one pointing to the cycling convention to the right, and the other to EGX on the left. The man took one look at us and must have thought, “are these people into cycling or gaming?”, clearly, the answer was obvious to him as he called to us, “The entrance to EGX is in hall 8.” If I were a lesser man I’d have been offended that when he looked at my toned, athletic body he didn’t instantly assume I was after the cycling show.

I’ll give this to the NEC, there is a hell of a lot less queueing to get in than when the show was at Earl’s Court. You walk in, show someone your ticket and they give you a wristband and when the event opens, they just let everyone walk in and try to spot anyone who hasn’t got a wristband. When event goers walked in this year, they were given the gift of Tornado energy drink. I never go understand this connection between energy drinks and gaming, but I will admit that Tornado is the only energy drink I’ve ever had which I can bare the taste of – believe it or not, I actually drank the whole thing. If I were to start drinking energy drinks, I’d drink Tornado (can I have ad money now, Tornado?).

When I do get into EGX, I like to spend an hour walking around and seeing what’s on offer; eight hours go by quickly when at EGX, so you need to prioritise and find out what you want to invest your precious time onto looking at. It would be great if you could have a go on all the AAA titles, but in my experience, you’ll probably have trouble squeezing more that two into your visit, especially if you want to do anything other than playing the AAA titles.

 

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Not sure I do want to have a go on that to be honest.

 

This year, the over 18 area was almost completely not worth going in at all as far as I’m concerned; unless you really want to spend three hours queueing to get a go on Titanfall 2, Gears of War or Battlefield One – not very worthwhile if you ask me. The only redeeming feature of the area was the small stand set up to promote South Park: The Fractured But Whole. I’d have had a go on it if it weren’t for the Nosulous Rift you had to wear while playing. If you’ve not played The Stick of Truth (the first South Park game), you should know that one of the main game mechanics in that game is the ability to produce flatulence at will. This is a feature that has been carried on to the new game, and, to promote this new game, the developers built this device which, when one produces flatulence in game, squirts a rather nasty smell into one’s nose, for immersion purposes, and to add to that, one’s face is broadcast to a large screen above one, so all may observe one’s reaction for general amusement. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that, and in any case, I will buy the game when it comes out; I really liked the Stick of Truth.

 

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Another cinematic queue shot.

 

Moving on to the regular area, I noticed one game I was vaguely interested in, and that was Dishonoured 2. I only played a couple of hours of Dishonored 1, and I can’t actually remember why that was. I’ve seen a full playthrough on YouTube, however, so I do know what happens and how the game is played. I entered the queue, thinking that it wouldn’t take very long; the queue as far as I could see only went around the corner of the booth – I thought it’d take 30 minutes at most. When, after about 25 minutes, I finally got around the corner, I saw the endless zig-zagging maze of tenser barriers that was the rest of the queue. By that point, however, I felt that I’d been in the queue so long, it’d be a sign of weakness to leave then. It took a further hour in the queue to get in.

Why the people who’d set up the event didn’t allow us to use keyboard and mouse will forever haunt my wonderings. The game was being demoed on PC, yet they only allowed me to have an Xbox One controller, which meant I had a tough time getting through the whole level in the half an hour I had, simply because I am terrible at first-person games when using a controller; I only ever use keyboard and mouse. I was just about to get the final part of the level when someone tapped me on the shoulder and told me my time was up.

If you’d like my thoughts concerning Dishonoured 2, here they are put simply: it’s pretty much the same as Dishonoured 1 except with some new features, like being able to play as Emily, a skill tree system and new abilities. Do I think that’s a bad thing? No. Dishonoured 1 was a good game, and I think the attitude of taking a good game and adding new features to it is a good one. I don’t mean Call of Duty or FIFA style, where the game isn’t really changed at all, only graphical changes and maybe a new gun or football team (and this year, managers!), I mean new game mechanics and improvements to old ones to make the game more enjoyable. It’s why I liked Rise of the Tomb Raider – it’s pretty close to the previous game, but with new features and improvements to old ones. I like that system of making sequels. I will probably get Dishonoured 2 on November the eleventh, the day it comes out.

 

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I’m trying to point out that there are a lot of queues.

 

After doing that, I decided then was my time to go and meet the Yogscast. I’ve been a fan of that lot for quite a long time now I think about it, but I’ve only ever met HAT Films at a convention before. The experience of actually meeting these people who you’ve been watching videos and live streams of nearly every day for the past 5 years is a slightly bizarre one, to say the least. You think you know these people, because you do to an extent – you know some random things about their lives from the stories they’ve told, on the way over on the train I was listening to the Triforce podcast where Lewis was talking about weird things that have happened to him at conventions, and previously he’d been talking about dealing with his landlord and giving away details about the flat he was living in, but when you’re standing in front of him and actually talking to him, you suddenly realise that you don’t actually know this person, and he doesn’t know you at all.

 

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Actaully a very nice T-shirt.

 

In spite of that, Lewis actually was excellent at making conversation with the people who came up to meet him. He asked me a couple of questions and was very confident. He somehow made it very easy to talk to him, which is a real talent. We didn’t talk long, however, as there was a big queue behind me. I moved through Duncan, Kim and Turps, none of whom I talked to at all really other than saying hello and asking each other how the other was. I’m used to this; I am pretty awful at conversations, especially if I’m expected to lead it, and also it should be said that they were all about to have a break, so they were looking a bit worn out.

The other half of the Yogscast that was there was on the other side and required a different queue. This side had only just started so the energy with all of them was much higher and they seemed more enthusiastic. I met Hannah, who was very friendly and eager to talk, Caffcast, who was equally talkative, Vadact, who I’d never heard of and didn’t really say anything to me and of course, HAT films. Trott laughed at his own signature because he felt it wasn’t as good as anyone else’s, Ross was cheerful and friendly, and I actually had a 30-second conversation with Smith about Dishonoured. All in all, meeting the Yogscast was a very worthwhile thing to do.

 

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Thanks, Sony, the backlight really makes taking a picture easy (Not! Lol!).

 

After that I had lunch and decided to have a bit more of a look around the place for my next adventure. I saw the new PS4, which is indeed smaller, and I saw the PS4 Pro, which I think looks a bit weird to be brutally honest, but whatever. I then had a look at all the different PC stands like Scan who were trying to flog their very fancy looking PCs for a lot more money than I’d ever pay for anything ever. I was slightly gratified that most PCs they were showing off had the same keyboard and mouse combo that I use, I suppose Corsair was sponsoring them.

I then moved on to have a look at the Retro Arcade, featuring genuine retro things, like ZX Spectrums, Commodore 64s and a BBC Micro, what I have one of. They also had a couple of Xbox 360s and PS3s. It’s too soon; I’m not ready to accept it. I spent quite a long time here, looking at all the different old gaming machines, like an original asteroids machine which I played quite a lot of.

By the time I’d torn myself way, there were only about 40 minutes left of the convention, and that’s when I found, tucked away in the corner, Horizon Zero Dawn. I really wanted to have a go on that, but I was too late; they’d accepted their final group of people. I’ve really wanted just to know what that game is and if I should get excited about it. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to wait until the game has more information made public, or when it is reviewed – what a struggle life is.

It then wasn’t long before the event was closed, and I was heading home. I’d had a pretty great day out, even though I didn’t feel I’d achieved very much, but you could say that is what makes a day great. I’m for sure going back next year, and probably every year – it’s not something I’d miss, unless they moved it to Swindon or somewhere.

This post ended up a lot longer than I thought it’d be. This is why people have editors, I suppose, but because I don’t, you’ll have to manage for now – poor you.

One Year of Windows 10

I was holidaying in Sweden on the 29th of July 2015, the first day of Windows 10. Of course, I stayed up all night watching my laptop, waiting for the message telling me it was ready to upgrade. I wasn’t aware of the system Microsoft was using, which meant that Windows 10 wouldn’t install on most machines straight away unless you force it. I ended up forcing it as a result of a life-long, crippling impatience. On this, the day after the day after the anniversary of that day, I thought I would find a selection of tweets to illustrate that day:

https://twitter.com/sammysquirrel12/status/626060057701130240

And then, many hours later:

https://twitter.com/sammysquirrel12/status/626309899555872769

So, then, Windows 10 has been with us for a whole year. The free upgrade offer (as far as I know without actually checking) is over. It’s been a rocky metaphorical road of good times and bad, of moments of “wow – that’s nice” and also “why did they do that?” I can say that I’ve overall been very pleased with Windows 10. I would describe it to any fool who has not upgraded yet, as a mature, more developed Windows 8. Indeed, some outraged people commented that Windows 10 is what Windows 8 should have been in the first place. However, if you believe the theory that every other version of Windows is doomed to be a failure, then there was no way that Windows 8 had to happen. Incidentally, I actually quite liked Windows 8; it was just misunderstood.

My joy for windows 10 did not last forever, however, as is apparent in this poorly typed tweet (“iven” should have a g in front of it):

https://twitter.com/sammysquirrel12/status/646641133305626624

It was true that Windows 10’s development was the shortest of all the Windows versions. And some of us felt that Windows 10 could have done with a bit more polishing before it was released. As a response to this, Microsoft released the first big update in October which added a multitude of things, fixed a bunch of issues and generally made the OS feel more like a version of Windows I like. It’s the version we’re currently all using if you’ve been updating your computer like a good human. Soon, there will be a new update – on August the 2nd to be precise, and it will add many, many more thing – some of these things you might actually use!

This update will not include two things I’d really quite like in Windows 10, and my trademark impatience is growing. I, like most issues I care about, have tweeted many times about these things.

https://twitter.com/sammysquirrel12/status/646663837995925504?lang=en-gb

This is the first thing. In Windows 8, you could look at the entire contents of your OneDrive right from File Explorer, even the files you haven’t downloaded. This is a system which worked really well in Windows 8 – you could directly interact with your OneDrive files without ever having to open a web browser. Now it’s gone and even a year later I still miss it; it was what made OneDrive the best cloud storage service. It’s gone now and OneDrive has become just another cloud storage service.

Another thing I’d quite like is something I care about far less, but It’d be nice:

https://twitter.com/sammysquirrel12/status/674411873513684992?lang=en-gb

I don’t have much to say about this. I think it’d look cool. That’s all.

Overall, I’d say Windows 10 has been better than I thought It’d be, and I was hyped. I’m looking forward to the many big updates we’ll be getting to Windows 10 forevermore, but slightly saddened that I’ll never have the experience of building up to a new version of Windows; it’s always something I enjoy – it’s the anticipation and the waiting that makes the experience of waiting for a big update very exciting, and the gradual updates just don’t have the same magic about them. No, I don’t have many friends, why do you ask?

I hope you enjoyed my blatant advert for my twitter account. Please follow me at @sammysquirrel12. I have 70 followers now, I’m hoping to break 100 by the end of the year. Support my cause!