Eternal Step

Genuine question: What do we like about rogue-like games? That ever-popular sub-genre of procedurally generated dungeon crawlers, where every play through is different and every death means another trek back down to the ignominy of the first level.

Is it the joy of every small victory? Of passing your previous corpse and feeling the warm warmth of success pass through you? Or is it the numbing comfort of doing the same thing over and over again, albeit in slightly different iterations, so that we get lost in the action and reaction and pass into a happy daze of oblivion?

Whatever your pleasure, you will find it with Eternal Step – as rogue-like a game as it is possible to be. Dungeons, enemies, loot – all can be found in the corridors of this challenging but still entertaining game, which will draw you back for just one more try, because you almost had it and, next time, you definitely will.

Following the adventures of a nameless blonde youth on his trek up a mysterious tower, fighting slimes, skeletons and even jack-o-lanterns with nothing more than your weapons and your wits, it’s the subtleties that will draw you in. A mighty hammer is powerful, but slow and ponderous; a thief’s rags might keep you safe from traps but is it worth the paltry protection? Take your time. Plan your strategy. Assemble the best equipment you can only to have all of it striped away by a death that could so easily have been avoided.

It’s all very absorbing. Fight enemies. Pick up the cards that are the games way of delivering loot. Assess your equipment before escaping to the next dungeon to start all over again. With currently a hundred levels between you and the final boss, it would be a long game even without the constant spectre of death hanging over you, but the difficulty is unforgiving. After hours of absorbing entertainment the best I’ve gotten to is level thirty and that was a streak of luck worthy of a lottery-winning leprechaun. Don’t worry. I’ll be diving back in again.

Having said that, the game is not without problems. Little things mostly, that nonetheless irked. For all its good qualities, the game can be a little obtuse and counter-intuitive. A lot of the upgrades were left unexplained, leaving me to guess at what things were meant to do. The inventory is difficult to use, and you can’t swap out weapons mid dungeon unless you get a new one, meaning that my big hammer, handy for dispatching foes at a distance stayed resolutely out of my reach when I needed it. Most irritatingly there’s no way of knowing how many potions you have stored, so you can end up in the middle of a battle completely unaware that the press on the R button will not give you the support you need.

But the frustrations, such as they are, are minor things, easily overlooked in the fun of the challenge. A solid game that reminds us of the appeal of a classic genre, Eternal Step is well worth the price of admission. 8/10

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Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China

Let’s face it, Assassin’s Creed hasn’t had the best year. After the highly entertaining Black Flag breathed new life into a fast stagnating series, Unity was to be a new game on a new console generation. An ambitious and experimental vision that crashed like its terrible servers, and chugged like your Mum at a whisky-drinking competition, it was a game snared with the pride of Icarus – flying high with good ideas, only to be brought down by hubris and poor design choices. AC Rogue, the series’ rarely-mentioned last-gen offering was technically competent, but suffered from a fatal allergy to original thought – garnering solid ‘mehs’ from gamers everywhere.

All in all, not a year to be proud of for Ubisoft’s flagship franchise, but will the arrival of Assassin’s Creed Chronicles – a three-part series of 2.5D platformers – make up for their parent games’ flaws? The short answer: No, nothing will repay us for the mess of AC’s recent failures, but that doesn’t mean that Chronicles isn’t worth you time, especially if – like me – you foolishly purchased the season pass for Unity and they come bundled for free.

Set in China in 1526, and following the adventures of Shao Jun, concubine turned assassin, it is, without a doubt, the art style that sets this tale apart from other Creed games. Painted in the style of Chinese watercolours, the scenery is genuinely beautiful and beautifully compelling. It feels like playing through a piece of art, summoning the time and place far more completely than Assassin’s Creed’s more usual method of hitting you over the head with a history textbook. But atmosphere isn’t everything, and, much like Rogue and Unity before it, it’s in the story and gameplay that the wheels start to come off.

Shao Jun is seeking revenge for her slaughtered brethren, a plotline not on the shortlist for the ‘most original motivation’ Oscar, but with the right characters, the right villains, and the right narrative even the most boring tale can be made new again. Unfortunately AC Chronicles: China eschews all of these and instead produces one of blandest protagonists of the series (yes, including Desmond Miles), who has pages of motivations (see the wiki, seriously), but comes off as blank and shallow. The villains – an interchangeable conga line of Templers referred to as ‘The Tigers’ – don’t do much better, and after hours of playing I could not, at gunpoint, remember any of their names. The plot is kill go here and kill this guy. Now kill this guy. Now run away from this thing – not forgetting to collect these random objectives we’ve set up, ostensibly to encourage you to explore. Sure. It’s a platformer. Sure. It’s short. But even with minimal dialogue Abe, Sonic and Mario all manage to have more personality than this.

The gameplay is functional (not a given from Ubisoft over the last year), and occasionally fun, as you climb, hide, and assassinate guards, using and a number of tricks and gadgets to make your way as stealthily as possible towards your targets. Careful planning, good timing and some tactical thinking will get you through most situations, although the old AC fall back of fighting your way out when you get spotted is a no-no, as fighting is hard and finicky. In fact ‘finicky’ is a good word for most of the gameplay as it’s easy to jump the wrong way, or stumble into the vision cone of an enemy and have to start again from scratch. Detection is particularly annoying as you get rated for your performance of each level – a feature that has enhanced no game ever – and your ratings affect what upgrades you receive. To the game’s credit, the levels are sprawling, many-pathed things, but the frustrations of being detected meant I had little motivation to explore.

All in all, AC Chronicles: China is another example of good ideas and beautiful scenery squandered, and while being nowhere near as disappointing as Unity, the sense that it could be so much better lingers over the whole experience. I leave it neither anxious for the next instalment to arrive, nor disgusted at the waste of my time, and give it the most unhelpful of ratings – a seven.

7/10

Gratuitous Space Battles 2

Gratuitous (adjective): Done without reason, uncalled for

It’s an important definition, and a very telling name, because the space battles in GSB2 are a little bit pointless – sparkly and pretty to look at, but ultimately redundant.

This isn’t a game where split-second decisions decide the fate of galaxies, or a single well-placed shot takes down a Death Star. Your position in battles is purely observational, as you watch your carefully assembled fleet triumph or be annihilated – but it’s in that careful assembly that the fun’s to be found.

Four races, five ship types and hundreds of possible modifications – this game that delights in the minutia, as you must design your ships, your fleet, and your stratagems to achieve victory.

The experience begins with the ship builder, where dozens of different hulls offer a plethora of choices. How many weapons will each hold? How much power and manpower will it take to run them? Do I have enough space? Should I choose rockets over lasers? Nukes might do more damage, but can I really afford to sacrifice my shields? These are the questions that will haunt you, as you try to piece together the most effective combination.

With literally thousands of modifications, both operational and aesthetic, it’s the sheer depth of content available that’s perhaps the most impressive, and the most daunting. It feels stupid to be criticising a game for having too much stuff, but to a newcomer this variety can be overwhelming, and if you’re not the kind of person who delights in the little things, all of this choice might scare you.

But the decisions don’t stop with the designing the ships, next you need to put them together. Designing your fleet is another exercise in micromanagement. How many Dreadnaughts should I use? How will I defend them? Do I have carrier space for my Fighters? What strategy should I assign my Destroyers? It’s an intricate process, and requires wells of patience and a keen mind for strategy.

The battles themselves are gratuitous indeed, with your inability to influence tactics while watching your stratagems succeed or fail turning them into nothing more than watching numbers click down – pretty numbers, I’ll grant you. If you’re keen to learn from your mistakes, it’s the after battle report that you’ll want, showing effective weapons, ship types and other pertinent data.

After the battle, it’s the research budget you’ll be interested in. Smaller fleets, cheaper ships or more honourable victories with grant you more research funds – deciding whether to bulk up your armaments or try to skate through by inches is just another example of the pro-and-con analysis that makes up most of the game’s challenge.

Research unlocks new ship designs, new upgrades, even new species to play as, adding more choice to a game already bulging with content. With more equipment available, you can choose to improve your ships – a necessary step as the fleets you will face become more and more expansive, and the strategy required to beat them more nuanced.

So that’s the game play – plan, upgrade, assemble, watch what is essentially a cutscene, research and plan again – it’s a repetitive system, and your enjoyment of which will probably depend on your personality. If you love strategy, and have patience enough to micromanage all the features, than this game will happily absorb hours of your time and days of your attention. So yes, I can imagine people who would love this game. I am not one of them.

Don’t get me wrong – I did have fun with it. Upgrading, assembling, and strategising do all have a certain charm, but I lacked the interest and discipline to really get sucked in. My experience was not helped by a few glaring bugs, which at one point hindered me from saving new ships, and at another filled my modified vessels with bloom. I don’t know how common these issues will be (at time of writing the game had only been out for a few days). A couple of the design decisions were also detracted from the experience – losing battles seems to have no negative consequences, and the visual customisation suite (which is massive) is finicky to use. In fact ‘finicky’ is a good word to use for this game – too many details and not enough motivation to go through them.

7

My other blog

So, outside the comforting world of pixels and button pushes, I actually have another life. And in that life I’ve had an education. Sadly that education has not (for a variety of reasons) provided a job, and, equally sadly, I’ve started to forget the education.

For this reason I’ve started another blog – one not quite as trivial as this one – which will cover topics of science and epidemiology. I have boldly decided to call it http://www.depressivesguidetoepidemiology.wordpress.com

You are welcome to read it

Things I’ve learned from Video Games

The human brain is a wonderful thing. It’s a processor more intuitive than any operating system, more complex than any microchip, and more handy than any must-have gadget, but in the end, it’s only as good as the data it contains. Information can come from anywhere – books, conversations, and yes, even video games, filling our minds with specks of knowledge even as we twiddle away the hours. The trick is to distinguish hard fact from digital fiction – here are four things I learned from video games, and four things they lied about.

Metro 2033:

What I learned: You can burn away spider webs.

You might think this is a minor thing to cling on to, but I live in Australia, where we must give daily tribute to our spider overlords so they won’t crawl into our socks and eat us while we sleep. Sometimes I walk through six webs going to the clothesline, only to find they’ve reassembled themselves before my trip back. Sometimes they run across the inside of your windshield and all you can do is pray that they won’t drop on you until you get to a traffic light. Sometimes the only way I can get to sleep is to imagine all of those webs burning, and the little bastards weeping as they watch their homes go up in smoke.

While it’s technically true that spider silk doesn’t catch fire (although dust and particulates caught in it might ignite), the intense heat does cause the webs to contract – clearing a path in both Metro, and several other games (a Zelda one from memory), a satisfying result for someone who gets chills every Golden Orb season. While Australia’s climate doesn’t really allow wholesale burning as a method of pest control, using fire to exterminate them in games is both satisfying and scientifically accurate.

What’s Bullshit: Gas masks

I suppose I could start with monsters, mutants and aliens, but that’s part of the story and therefore excusable. What’s less accurate is the whole ‘I’m wearing a gas mask, so I’m safe from radiation’ logic. Radiation isn’t stopped by a gasmask (although wearing one may stop you from ingesting radioactive dust) – it, well, radiates out from contaminated materials, mutating cells, and not in the Stan Lee superpower kind of way. Radiation poisoning followed by aggressive cancers is the diagnosis for anyone who spends too much time wandering Moscow’s nuclear blasted streets.

Realistic Shooters (Pick One)

What I learned: Machine guns heat up.

Okay, before you have a go at me, I know that most shooters are about as close to actuality as a marshmallow pony is to a racehorse – but not everything they tell us is complete crap. Machine guns, for example, genuinely heat up with constant firing – a phenomenon that, in real life, doesn’t come with a convenient cool down bar.

The physics behind this is simple: bullets are fired when the gunpowder inside them is ignited – a process that produces heat. Repeat the process hundreds of times a minute and the heat produced becomes intense enough that it can ‘cook off’ bullets in the chamber – making them fire even if the trigger isn’t depressed. To prevent this from happening, most machine guns have cooling systems, but sometimes even more drastic measures are required – like soldiers carrying spare barrels to replace those too hot to use safely.

So yes, despite how irritating it is to have to pause in the midst of cutting down waves of enemies, this is one aspect of the games that actually mimics real life.

What’s bullshit: Silencers silence guns.

Admittedly, video games aren’t the only ones to get this wrong – TV, movies and even some books all apparently believe that sticking that thin black cylinder with instantly muffle the sound of a gunshot. The reality is far less impressive, because reality has to deal with the fact that guns, real guns, are astronomically, ear-splittingly loud.

This isn’t to say that that silencers make no difference – they certainly do, but there’s a reason that they’re officially called suppressors – because they suppress the sound, but don’t eliminate it entirely. They’ll turn an obviously gunshot into a something that might not be a gunshot, but it’ll still attract the attention of anyone standing on the other side of the room. Not that handy a trick if you’re trying to stealth-save a macguffin by silently taking out the guards.

Assassins Creed

What I learned: Pirates had a republic

Actually, the storied history of Nassau isn’t the only thing I’ve learned from a series that prides itself on historical accuracy (with the exception of the Assassin-Templar dynamic and a few cases of artistic license) – but it demonstrates a bigger point, and one that, now I come to say it, does seem kind of obvious: Historical figures were people too.

Sounds dumb, I know. But there’s a difference between knowing things and actually understanding them. Before I played the games I knew that stuff happened in the past (pictured mostly in black and white), but I didn’t really think about what that might mean. AC gave those figures faces that moved and actions that I could watch happen – as opposed to reading about in a book, or listening to a lecture. The games let me be a part of stories that have shaped our world, and made me realise the significance of them. Blackbeard waxing lyrical about the innate freedoms of man might have been a pile of hogwash, but seeing him, and watching his story unfold gave me an appreciation of history that 20 years of education had thus far failed to.

What’s Bullshit: Early guns were accurate (and waterproof)

Nothing starts out perfect. Every new idea on earth will take some time to reach a point of real efficacy, and guns are no exception.

Early guns (or muskets) needed an open flame to ignite the black powder, which had to be refilled after every shot, and fired lead balls that bounced and wobbled along smooth barrels, making accuracy a joke. That’s why early militaries were so keen on firing salvoes, because multiple muzzles were about the only way they could guarantee they could hit what they were aiming at.

Water was also a problem – it could extinguish the necessary flame meaning that every time Ezio goes for a swim, he’d have relight his weapon. Edward may have had access to flintlock pistols – which required no slow match, but still used powder that would become contaminated by water, rendering them useless. In short, there’s a reason that swords were still the go-to weapons in all these games.

Simon the Sorcerer

What I learned: Gold isn’t magnetic

I’m showing my age here, but this nineties point and click adventure was one of my first forays into gaming. After retrieving a magnet from somewhere, and gathering a rope from somewhere else (it’s been a while, okay), we were all set to retrieve gold from the hole atop a dragon’s hoard when Simon gives voice to one of my first lessons in gaming, namely that gold isn’t magnetic – a statement that doesn’t seem to hold much weight, as immediately you start pulling up riches like it’s going out of fashion.

I know it seems like a little thing to finish on, one very puny fact in an old and often-overlooked game, but in some ways this is the most important example on this list, because, for me, it’s the one that started it all. After I heard Simon’s pronouncement, I went and looked up this obscure reference (in an actual encyclopaedia, the internet not being a thing in our house at that point), and found that yes: gold really isn’t magnetic.

What’s Bullshit: Miniaturisation

I’ll admit, as a fantasy game, there isn’t a whole lot of realism to be found. Druids can’t turn into frogs, sausages isn’t a magic word, and using a watermelon to sabotage a sousaphone is unlikely to end well (why yes, I am waiting for the remaster), but one thing that’s definitely impossible is shrinking down in size.

Despite Ant-man, Honey I Shrunk the Kids and any one of a dozen or so series dealing with miniaturisation, there are some massive problems with suddenly being small – the easiest to explain being your sudden inability to breathe.

Without going into too much detail (and I could, this is my wheelhouse), the circulatory system depends on haemoglobin molecules in the blood combining with oxygen molecules. If you (and your haemoglobin) were to shrink, but the oxygen around you remained the same size, it would no longer be able to bind to your haemoglobin and pretty soon you’d be suffocating.

But the whys and wherefores of miniaturisation aren’t really the point. I had to study for years to learn why shrinking is impossible, but to learn that gold isn’t magnetic it only took a game that didn’t take itself to seriously.

Every time I learn something from video games, I think back to Simon the Sorcerer, because for the first time games had taught me something I wouldn’t have otherwise gotten to know, opening a door to greater knowledge, and that is what learning is all about – opening doors and showing us things we’ve never seen before.

The Dangers of Going Digital

This is an amended version of an article I did for powerupgaming.com.uk. If it doesn’t make sense it’s because I took out the wrong parts.

My sister got married this year, the second in three years, and as I contemplated how happy she looked and how I may irrevocably end up alone, another thought occurred to me: It’s not going to be long before I’m up to my ears in nieces and nephews, the cute, but loud reason that singleness might not be such a bad thing. After all, the best thing about not having kids is the ability to give them back when they get sticky.

But as I shrugged out of the bridesmaids dress and slowly sobered up, I started to consider the importance of my relationship with these soon-to-be fountains of stickiness. Would I be the strict, boring babysitter, or the fun, let’s stay up late hipster – who gets requested when my sister has finally had enough? It didn’t take me long to realise I wanted to be the Cool Aunt, who’s calm, snazzy and otherwise awesome.

But how to achieve this goal? I’m neither cool, nor particularly snazzy, and my other sister – who will likely start pumping out sprats of her own, will have the benefit of both experience, and a starting level of awesomeness that towers above my own, like the Himalayas compared to a toddler’s sandcastle. I would, it seemed, have to rely on bribery, and while my personal budget won’t extend to trips to Disneyland, I felt I could use my PS4 (the only one in our family), to my advantage.

For that reason, and no other, I decided to purchase a digital copy of Little Big Planet 3, the next in a series that I had played, but due to being some twenty older than the target audience, found somewhat underwhelming. For someone raised on the stark but entertaining simplicity of Mario Brothers, it toed the line on twee with colourful, if cluttered abandon.

There more observant of you will note that there is no LBP3 review on this site, and, because I feel guilty about that, I’m here to tell you why.

My first hint that things were not as they seemed was the fact that I received an EU copy of the game – a little puzzling considering I’m based in Oz. I don’t know if this was the cause of the problem, but it put my back up, just a bit.

The second hint was considerably more troubling. I’d barely made it through the introduction – a colourful and somewhat cheesy experience, with reasonable instructions and a plot twist a blind man could see coming – when the game crashed on me, without the slightest shred of warning.

I tried again – dutiful gopher that I am, and found that once again the next section wouldn’t load, kicking me out three times more before I had a chance to rescue Oddsock, one of the new playable characters that appeared so often on the promotional material.

My first thought was to re-install the game, but how? The games paltry 11ish GB, had put us close to our monthly data limit, in short, I’d have to wait a ten days to download it again, a fiddle, but given my only other option was to go out and purchase another copy of a game I’d already bought, one he’d just have to live with.

The time passed, our Internet clicked over, and I was able to finally start again, rushing this time, because I was going on holiday two days later.

I tried, I really did, skipping every extra level, and only attempting multiplayer when it seemed important (I never managed to make a connection – whether this was due to my defective game, or just Australia’s slow internet, I’ll never know), but real life, slow load times and my own incompetence made my progress stymie, and when I went up to Queensland that Monday, I’d barely advanced at all.

I spent a month at my parents place, and helped my sister move to Canberra the week after – all time away from my PS4 (it’s probably sad to say I missed it). When I got back to Sydney, I started again, acquiring allies, but waiting longer and longer for the levels to load, until, finally, it refused to load at all – taking over an hour before I switched the damn thing off.

I suppose I could have tried installing the game again, although by that stage our monthly Internet was again almost full, and I couldn’t see much point prolonging the inevitable. I gave up, feeling pretty bad about it – hence I’m writing this, to make up for a lost review and warn others about the possible dangers of downloading.

But are there dangers in downloading? Are digital copies more unreliable than discs? As someone whose current disc is dangerously close to full, I know the answer to be no, but can’t help thinking that a solid copy would have saved me so much bother – no data issues, no re-installs, and best of all someone to yell at when I go back to the store to complain.

I have, of course, contacted PlayStation, and will try to contact Sumo – but since I seem to be the only one to have the problem, I feel my efforts may take a while to be heard – and lack the satisfaction of a few well-chosen words. Perhaps in time the problem will be solved, and I’ll be able to spoil my future N&N’s, but right now I’m in a fix, with my consumer rights on one side, and the endless hills of legal issues on the other. Will I eventually enjoy my purchase (I did, I think, what little that I played)? Or will this meander on, a cautionary tale, for me and others casting our money through the ether of the Internet? I don’t know, but I know this, the next game I buy will have a box, a disc, and a physical person I can blame if it goes wrong.

The Joy of Incompletion

So 2015 is here, we’re all one year closer to our inevitable deaths, and yet despite all the things that have changed over the last twelve months, one thing remains stubbornly the same – I still haven’t finished Skyrim.

I know what you’re thinking. It’s been three years – a new console generation has arrived, along with some games that may have surpassed it in quality (I stress may), and yet despite starting it at least a dozen times I’ve still yet to pass the embassy mission of the main story. Yes, Skyrim is more packed with content than a boa constrictor let loose in a choose-your-own pet store, but surely any sensible person would at least have played it through once to see what happens.

It probably goes without saying that I’m not a sensible person, because this isn’t the only game I’ve deferred finishing. Even discounting games I’ve rage quit in disgust (the new Thief springs to mind), there must be half a dozen I dragged out until the bitter end – Fallout 3, the original Dark Souls, even the last Pokemon I played (Sapphire I think) – all were delayed by re-starts and re-loads, as I tried to nut out the perfect formula. Even Dragon Age Inquisition is threatening to become a member of the never-gets-done club – as I’ve started it twice already and am, when I get home after the holidays, more than likely to start it again.

But why are my chances of finishing a game inversely proportional to how much I enjoy it? And am I the only person on this planet with this particular problem (statistics would say no, but who can rely on maths in this day and age)?

Looking back, there are several factors that seem to nudge me to drag out my experience of a game.

First, and this is kind of an obvious one – the game has to be good. For me a bad game is like a trip to the dentist, something that’s more painful the longer it lasts – if it sucks, but it doesn’t piss me off enough to make me quit (see Thief above), I’ll rush to the story end and then swap it out at the game store – possibly pausing to exorcise my console if I feel it’s been tainted by the experience (I tried six Hail Mary’s after Unity – not being Catholic I’m not sure it’ll be enough).

Second, it has to be big – not necessarily long, but certainly taking place in a world big enough to swallow most of New Zealand. Side quests and other activities are a must, as well as plenty of places to explore – wide open spaces where I can while away the time before I have to renew my membership to the human race.

After a couple of days faffing around, I’ll start to get an itch in my brain – a little voice that’s telling me that I should start over, see what would happen if I tried something different in those few missions I’ve dug through. Maybe I should have used stealth, or found a way to use that machine gun, or flung spells instead of flailing swords.

I can resist for maybe a day, telling myself that I always do this, that I should finish things I start, that memorising the first mission is not why I bought the game – but always, always, I’ll give in, and boot up that opening sequence once again.

It’s worst with RPG’s. Especially those big Bethesda ones that are more like countries than computer games – exploring Skyrim is a task I still haven’t bored of, and taking on the Capital Wasteland wasn’t much better – I doubt I would have finished it if the DLC hadn’t come out and encouraged me to finally hang up my Hazmat suit, (I couldn’t tell you anything about the character I used to finally finish, because by that stage I’d started so many they’d all begun to blur together – lasers, melee, big guns – over all those partial play throughs I’d specialised in all of them).

But I don’t need different characters or branching story lines to hit the reset button. I must have started Sid Meyer’s Civilisation V over a hundred times, quitting for no other reason than… that’s just it, I don’t think I have a reason. I love that game. I love all these games – I just can’t stop quitting them.

But why? She asks, flinging the question into the ether of the Internet. Why can’t I finish what I start? Why does my brain explode at random intervals, and nudge me into incompletion? Why can I obsessively collect every trophy out, but just can’t bring myself to pick up the big one? Is it just that I want to hang on to my good experiences, or is there something deeper at work, some psychological hurdle I can’t bring myself to cross? I’ll probably never know (at least not without some serious therapy), but what I would like to know is if there’s anyone else out there like me, because it’s pretty lonely at the never-finish station (what with Amber boasting about how awesome the end of DA:I is), and it would be nice if I didn’t have to shelter under the partially completed overhang alone.

Mental Illness and why I love games

My friend wanted me to put this up. It seemed important.

Check your privileges kiddies, I’m about to come out of the closet.

No, not the ‘I’m gay’ closet, that’s probably an equally hard cupboard to climb out of (being into dudes, I’m not in a position to make a fair comparison). The closet I’m talking about is one that could legitimately get me fired, has stopped people from wanting to live with me, and is pretty much guaranteed to end any conversation I start (hence I’m writing this down – now you can’t escape!).

I’m talking about the mental illness closet. I am mentally ill. I have bipolar disorder, the psycho older brother to depressions’ sad little sister – a condition that has drastically altered the course of my life, hurt my family I don’t know how much, and still impacts my ability to work today. Yet there’s a distinct percentage of people reading this who have now made the judgement that I’m somehow weak, or faking it, or blowing something that everyone has to deal with out of proportion.

But I’m not here to bitch, or confront bigots, (who have an amazing ability to remain bigots), or even change anyone’s mind about mental illness, I’m here to talk about something that kept me alive in my darker days, and lent me some much needed sanity on my more psychotic ones, about something that might be a silly hobby or mindless pastime for some, but something that for me became a lifeline. I’m here to talk about video games.

And once again, I’ve lost a portion of my audience. It’s strange – these days video games have a bigger audience than Hollywood, and more international impact than any musical act (with the possible exception of The Wiggles), but they’re still shrugged off as silly kids stuff – and all the mature story lines and deep involving worlds don’t make a damn bit of difference. But again, I’m not here to bitch about the unfairness of these stereotypes, I’m here to talk about how video games have helped me.To begin, you’ll have to understand a little of what it’s like to live with a mental illness.

 Let’s start with depression. Depression is… pain. It’s agony. It’s your brain remembering every negative thing you’ve ever thought, said or done and torturing you with it, bringing it up over and over again, until even your good memories are nothing more than reminders of how you’ve failed. Every thought, every breathe is agonising, and all you can think is how much easier it would be to feel nothing at all. You try to survive, to find things to distract you from your brain that now hates you, you sleep (if you can), take drugs or alcohol, do anything to stop the voices telling you how useless you are. It doesn’t always work, too many people take those demons at their word (no, you don’t think they’re literal demons – that’s a whole other thing), and turn tragedy into reality.

 Trust me, there were days that I was very close to joining them. For the best part of three years I was alone in the dark, looking for a light switch, and during those midnight days and starless nights, games became more than just a hobby to me – they became a lifeline. I’d boot up my console and disappear into worlds where I could be more than a hopeless mass quivering beneath the bed sheets. Where I could be safe from the agonising thoughts and terrible images. Where the pain would recede into the distance, where it could do no more than flail weakly against the edges of my consciousness.

 It might sound stupid to you, but I can honestly say that Skyrim saved my life – that game, that world, became a bulwark I relied upon, a safe haven in a shifting, soul-destroying sea.

But bipolar disorder isn’t just about depression – it has some fun psychotic hijinks thrown in. I’m lucky, I only have bipolar 1, my manic episodes have never involved walking down the street naked singing the national anthem, they lean more towards the life destroying and frankly illogical (like quitting med school for no reason and buying a puppy immediately after losing my job), but video games have helped with these days too.

If I feel one coming on (I can’t always – the worst thing about mental illness is that you can’t always tell you’re sick), I can vanish into places where my actions, no matter how psychotic, have no real world impact – where I can do all the dumb things in my head, but they won’t ruin my life.

By pulling me into different worlds, games give me an escape when I need one, a way to get out of my own head (my head is often the last place you’d want to be). They’ve helped me through the death of loved ones, the constant crushing agony of depression and the mild psychosis of hypomania, and yet I still get funny looks when I try to explain their significance to me. Some people find comfort in music – they might turn to a favourite album in times of trouble, and when they mention doing it, no one blinks an eye. For the last couple of years my comfort has been games, and I’d like to live in a world where people think that that’s okay.

Dragon Age: Inquisition (First Impressions)

So I try not to do this. I do, after all have a sadly still unprofessional work ethic, but I’ve spent hours playing this game, and while I technically haven’t finished it, I feel I’ve spent enough time to volunteer a few meandering thoughts. Also I’m at my parents place for the holidays and there’s not a lot to do. So here it goes, first impressions of Dragon Age: Inquisition.

I should start by saying that I come to this table with some pretty big expectations. Neverwinter Nights was the second game I played as an adult, (so I can honestly say I’ve been a Bioware fan since before they were bought out by the satanic mother ship of EA), and I fell in love with the well thought out complexities of the plot and the depth of the characters within it. Over time I’ve watched Bioware’s stories move from a fantasy kingdom to outer space and back, but I’ve always been captivated the worlds they create and the people they conjure to populate them.

I am, in short, a fan, and one who was disappointed by the disastrously unadventurous Dragon Age 2, a game with more recycled material than a chain of thrift stores, and characters who I couldn’t wait to see the end of. Fortunately only one (and the least irritating one) of the companion characters shows up in DA:I and while Hawke (the had-to-be-human protagonist) is an important part of the plot, he (or she) is totally overshadowed by the great allies you accumulate over this story.

Not only do Origins favourites Leliana and Morrigan return (although not as companions), but all of your potential sidekicks are eminently likeable. From Cole, the helpful spirit made flesh, to Iron Bull, the gigantic horned mercenary, each has an absorbing personality and back-story. Unlike previous games I found I wasn’t content to stick with the least annoying three, but happily cycled through all of them, adjusting their abilities meticulously instead of letting the game level them up automatically.

It wouldn’t be a Bioware game without story, and this is another point of strength, as you get pulled into a tale full of excitement, with a villain who’s both easy to hate and cunningly woven in to the history of the world. Choices you make in the game (as well as those you may have made in previous Dragon Age games) can alter the plot considerably. I haven’t finished it yet, but even after starting again with a second character (I do that… I never seem to finish an RPG with the first class I choose), my decisions have changed several outcomes, cutting me off from some content while revealing others. This is not a game you’ll be content to play once and then forget about, I haven’t finished either of my play throughs and yet I’m already planning to play it again.

With a choice between tactical, top down control, or fast-paced, real time combat, the action can be as frenetic or strategic as you want it to be, although harder difficulties may require a more cerebral approach. Each character can have multiple abilities, but mystifyingly only eight can be hot-keyed into your talent slots, even on PC’s. After the successful use of a circular menu for previous games, this decision is puzzling to say the least, especially with the new focus abilities, which require group effort to charge, needing a slot for themselves if they are to be used. In previous games it was possible to tailor your teams behaviour in the tactics menu, but this has too been slimmed down, with nothing but the ability to turn abilities on and off. Also reduced are potion slots – with each character only able to carry 2 different philtres or grenades (apart from health potions), this is especially annoying as there are dozens of tonics and bombs to choose from – all tantalisingly craftable, but given the lack of space effectively unusable.

Crafting returns, with far greater depth than before. You must collect herbs to create and upgrade potions, but making armour or weapons requires ores and materials scavenged from vanquished foes – a feature that can be as optional as you like, as there’s plenty of loot to be found, handily colour-coded Borderlands style to tell you its rarity. Whether you choose to craft or not the thought that’s gone into it is impressive, even if all that collecting becomes tedious after the thousandth brutalised weed.

New are mounts, of which there are a prodigious variety, but even though the maps are sometimes huge, your inability to fight, pick herbs, or interact with characters while astride quickly dampens the sheen of your multi-coloured lizard thing, even with its impressive crocodile jaws.

But it’s size of the world that’s perhaps most impressive, with the repetitive rehash of DA2’s Kirkwall forgotten as you cross deserts, jungles and frozen mountain passes to expand the influence of your fledgling Inquisition. This exploration is essential for advancing the plot, but you’ll get drawn in to the joys of discovering new areas, new enemies and new resources for crafting.

About the only negative thing I can say about all this freedom, is the paltry ‘there’s too much of it’, as the sheer size of the game can descend into grind if you (like me) try to explore all regions before moving on with the plot. It’s a problem that’s easily overcome by returning to the story missions, but the feeling of leaving things undone irked considerably, and I wish there was a little more direction, especially because the enemies don’t scale. It feels stupid to have struggled your way through one area only to discover that you’ve skipped another, leaving you to face enemies so middling you can take them down with a single super-powered stroke. While this inequality isn’t as irritating as it could be, and maps are easily navigable, there was still a fair amount of retreading the same (beautifully presented) ground to complete all the quests (again, my OCD is showing).

After the misstep of Dragon Age 2, Bioware were clearly determined to knock it out of the park with this game, and for the most part they’ve succeeded – with excellent story, fun characters and a world so rich in absorbing action that it’s almost overwhelming. Even unfinished it’s become one of my favourite games of the year, and I fully expect the game to get better.

How to make a good sequel: by someone who’s sick of all the bad ones

I’ve played a lot of sequels this year, in fact sequels, pre-sequels and reboots still make up 90% of my current game collection, but let’s face it, not all of them were successes. Sometimes a good idea can only be stretched so far. Sometimes expectations are too difficult to meet. Sometimes the thought, care and planning that went into creating an original piece gets thrown away in the heartless grasp for cash that makes up so much of today’s games industry.

Having contributed a few thoughts on sequels that expanded the franchise, I thought I’d go the other way, and try to hone in on some features that make a sequel a disappointment. I figured I’d do it as a list (although not a comprehensive one – there doesn’t seem to be a limit on how shit can hit the fan) – so here it is: the four ways that a sequel can let us down.

  1. It has no identity of its own.

I put this one last because, of all the crimes on this list, this one is the easiest to forgive. It’s also the easiest to understand.

Commercialism is like evolution – only the fittest survive. IP’s that get more than a single showing must be good (or at least controversial), and there’s no point in messing with a good thing. So instead of trying to expand on their ideas, or improve on their mechanics, developers play it safe – producing games that are essentially indistinguishable to the originals.

This doesn’t make the sequels bad, per se, more of something wonderful can still be pretty sweet, but getting a new bicycle for your eleventh birthday isn’t going to have the same impact if you already got one for your tenth, (get another bike for your twelfth birthday, and clearly your parents are running out of ideas).

For all our good points, humans are fickle creatures, what delights once may bore twice, and become unbearable by the third, fourth, or sixteenth time. In order to keep our attention, developers of this school trot out bigger and bigger worlds for us to play in (lands, worlds, galaxies – I dub this the Mario vortex), and shiny new creatures to entertain us (hello Pokemon!). Come to think of it this whole argument could be summed up as the Nintendo approach – a technique that, true, has netted some great games, but has also failed to innovate in a way that’s truly spectacular.

Most games don’t have Mario’s durability (a point that’s to Nintendo’s credit, before all you fan boys have a go at me). Most ideas have only so much mileage before they begin to dwindle into the mundane. Most kids with three bikes want something else for Christmas. And so do I.

  1. There’s no need for a sequel.

Call me a follower if you like, but I love the Harry Potter books. Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore (which interestingly doesn’t get picked up by the spell checker) – they became more than characters to me, they became friends, people I genuinely cared about, who lived in a world I still long to visit.You might think that given this, I would have been heartbroken when the Deathly Hallows came out, and I had to say goodbye to the people and places that meant so much to me.

I’ll admit, reading (and later watching) those last few scenes was decidedly bittersweet, but I was okay with it because (for the most part) the story was satisfyingly concluded – with all mysteries answered and all plot lines resolved. There was (for me at least) no need for another sequel, because I knew that with Voldemort dead, Harry would be okay.

My point is that, sad as it sometimes is, a good story has a beginning, middle and an end – a natural conclusion that’s both satisfying and necessary. It’s a critical point that some sequels fail to grasp, and by shoehorning in extra content, developers ruin something that was precious and meaningful. Nowhere is this better illustrated than then case of Bioshock 2.

While Bioshock Infinite was pretty much the perfect sequel – expanding on Bioshock’s reality altering ideas and giving us a new world to play in, while still hanging on to what we loved in the original, Bioshock 2 was one mildly interesting DLC idea (the chance to play as a Big Daddy), stretched into a whole game (and a short one at that).

While well produced and at times fun to play, it still felt like nothing more than expansion pack to its far superior forebear – with no change in scenery, no real alteration in game play and only a handful of new enemies. Worse still was the rushed and nearly nonsensical plot, which lessened the impact of its predecessors’ excellent conclusion. For a series where story and atmosphere are everything, Bioshock 2 managed to befuddle one, and steal the other wholesale – creating nothing new in a world that previously floored us with its originality.

A good sequel isn’t just an extra chapter tacked on to a book we love. It’s a tale all by itself – one that may happen to share a world with the original (or not – Dark Souls 2 kicked that pre-conception in the goolies), but doesn’t detract from it.

  1. Being rushed.

AC Unity is getting a lot of flack at the moment and since I’m the follower mentioned above, I figured I’d jump on board.

My problem with Unity isn’t that it’s bad, in fact there’s a lot that I like about it, by shaking up so many of the core mechanics, it’s certainly done more to enliven the series than the technically polished but definitely derivative AC Rogue, but all of these good points are overshadowed by massive technical issues – issues that could have been resolved by maybe a year of extra development. But instead of taking that year (or even six months), Ubisoft booted Unity out the door in order to keep up with the release schedule they’ve set for themselves.

This cynical one-game-a-year money grab that big publishers are pushing for (how do you spell EA?) has a lot to answer for. Not only does it force out games that aren’t ready to see the light of day (*cough* Battlefield 4 *cough*), it also prevents developers from having time to properly innovate – to produce games that aren’t derivative knock offs, identifiable only by the number on the end.

Companies want to make money – I get that, and the easiest way to do it is to put out more of what people love, more often – but do production values really have to be sacrificed on the altar of ‘this needs to get out by X’? Would the world really end if the next Assassins Creed game was just a couple of months late? As someone who’s really questioning whether she’ll buy an AC game next year, I can tell you that as long as the game was good enough, I’d be prepared to wait.

Instead of trying to improve the formula, or expand on the story, games released on a yearly schedule are content to be ‘just one more’ in a series that might already be in decline – they have no motivation (or time) to produce the kind of sequels that really improve on the original, the ones that remind us what we loved in the first game, while blowing our minds with what we never saw coming.

  1. Forgetting what made the first game great.

I’ll admit – putting both this and point 4 on the same list may seem a little unfair, but I’ve never claimed that making games should be easy. And there are plenty of developers who, without losing the magic of the original, have still expanded the sequel in ways that are truly spectacular. I’m not talking about those great games – I’m talking about the ones that have taken something special and systematically removed everything that made it unique. I’m talking about your Thief’s, your Resident Evil 5/6’s, your Hitman Absolutions – games that turned what was special into the mundane.

These games, while not perhaps intrinsically awful, are always the most disappointing – not just because they’ve failed to recapture the spirit of the original, but because by forcing characters or places that we love into situations we abhor, they paint the first game with their incompetence and leave a bitter stain on a something we value highly.

Take Dragon Age 2 for example – a technically polished but ultimately soulless mess that lacked all the character of its excellent predecessor. Literally everything that made the original special was stripped – the diverse environments, the character customisations, the sense that the fate of the world hinged on your actions. They even took away the top down camera – a huge loss for those of us who grew up on Baldurs Gate and Neverwinter Nights. Bioware seem to have found the magic again for Dragon Age: Inquisition, but only by returning to its playable dwarf roots.

I think part of the problem is that games pay too much attention to what’s going on around them – instead of focussing on what made their game great, they see what’s popular at the moment and try to adapt to the trend. It’s the reason that Thief’s Garrett lost his snark, Resident Evil turned into Call of Duty with more monsters, and Hitman Absolution became so generic that even a bald man with a barcode tattoo was just another face in the burly white boy crowd.

The simple truth is that games we love are those that stand out, those that have their own identity, that tell stories we haven’t heard before. By aping other games, and trying to keep up with the Joneses, developers sacrifice that with was unique in favour of what they think will sell, apparently missing the point that a good game will be popular even if it’s as random as a mutagenic FPS set in an underwater dystopia.

A great sequel should remind us what we loved about the original, without actually being the original. It should tell its own story, but still remain true to the spirit of its forebears. It should not be rushed to take advantage of a fad, or summer sales period, but released when it’s ready to be released. It should resurrect the soul of a loved one even if it doesn’t reanimate the body.

It should, in short, be made by Valve