​More Reasons to be a Gamer-Teacher

A student once asked me if Richard the Lionheart was ginger (we’d just finished a lesson on the Crusades). I stated that, yes, records show that King Richard I had red hair. The student gleefully announced that he had seen Richard in the city of Arsuf when playing Assassin’s Creed. Once again, a video game has provided a visual queue for a student’s studies. AC1_Altair_RichardOur hobbies and our professions are usually kept far apart. This is usually deliberate; a hobby allows you to take your mind off the work waiting for you. In other instances the career and the pastime are so different that they rarely cross paths. I usually put aside my enjoyment of video games when teaching… but every so often the two benefit each other. Continue reading “​More Reasons to be a Gamer-Teacher”

How do we stop Nathan Drake?

There’s going to be another Uncharted game?! Quick, hide all the precious historic artefacts! Raise airport security! Alert the United Nations to the threat! Make sure… What? No, I don’t think I’m overreacting.

The recent announcement of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End has by now generated a tonne of excitement. I’m sure that it will make for a fine addition to the franchise. However, our collective excitement for another instalment should be put on hold. We need to talk about Nathan Drake’s bad habits, and whether or not we can afford to let him run around on another adventure. screenshot_13large Continue reading “How do we stop Nathan Drake?”

What Video Game Can You Always Depend On?

Some of the greatest games only get one play through. Whether the adventure lasts for ten hours or one hundred, or occupies your gaming time for several months, there will come a point where the most entertaining game fulfils its purpose. The story is complete; all achievements are unlocked; each puzzle solved; every enemy slain. No matter how great, most games fail sooner or later.

But not every game. Amongst the shelves of past games or buried in a hard drive is that game you can always return to. Regardless of how long it’s been since your last visit, that game will always deliver. When it seems like you’ve played every game in your collection, a little voice reminds you that you could always play that game again, and you can’t think of any objections. I would very much like to talk about that game today.

Continue reading “What Video Game Can You Always Depend On?”

In Need of a Good Home: Which Video Game Creatures Deserve a Second Chance?

In my never-ending journey to the summit of Backlog Game Mountain, I finally reached The Last of Us. It took a long time to get there, but it was worth it. I’d heard great things, and was expecting to find an amazing game. It really is all sorts of amazing. I wasn’t however expecting to feel sympathy for the Clickers.

What is intended to be the creepiest creature in The Last of Us ended up earning my pity. They are monsters, but in my mind they are misunderstood monsters. Below, I will explain why I feel this way, and also share my thoughts on other creatures that I believe should not be punished for being bad.

Continue reading “In Need of a Good Home: Which Video Game Creatures Deserve a Second Chance?”

Press X to feel bad: Do video games make you feel guilty?

Imagine if I was to walk up to you in the street, grab your hand, and then use it to slap a passing stranger. As you turn to me hoping for an explanation I instead blame the whole incident on you, shaking my head in disgust and remarking on what an awful thing you just did.

Video games do this kind of thing to us all the time. Rather than patting us on the back as we save the day, numerous games force us into playing the bad guy or doing the wrong thing. This doesn’t put gamers off however; some of the most tremendous games have you playing the anti-hero throughout, or occasionally throwing you into a situation that will ultimately leave you feeling guilty, despite the fact that it wasn’t really your decision.

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Continue reading “Press X to feel bad: Do video games make you feel guilty?”

Should more games let you choose your gender? Part One

If you’re the kind of person that thinks, “I don’t want to play as a [Male/Female] character” or “There are too many [Female/Male] characters in gaming” or “[Men/Women] are underrepresented in video games”, then you [Madam/Sir], are in the right place.

The discussion of ‘Gender in Video Games’ is a tricky subject. Perspectives can often be so polar, opinions so aggressive and mindsets so entrenched that even parties that might agree with each other take verbal jabs and casts hurtful comments at random. The point I’m making here is that I approach this subject tentatively. To raise the issue of ‘gender in video games’ on the internet seems akin to walking into the lion enclosure… ringing a dinner bell… dressed as a lamb chop… singing ‘Be Our Guest’ from Beauty and the Beast

Why do it then? Why write this post? Well, because I believe I have something positive to say. No criticism, persecution or prejudice. I simply wish to talk about a (possible) solution to a Big Problem in gaming. Oh, and it’s not my idea. It’s not even a new idea. There are quite a few games out there that have already employed this solution.

The Big Problem in this case centres on these points:

  • There is a vast disparity in the number of Male and Female playable characters.
  • A lot of people don’t want to play as women.
  • Developers worry that Female protagonists won’t be well-received.
  • There is a perception that Women don’t play certain games so there really isn’t an issue.
  • Many people just enjoy playing games for what they are.
  • Some people want more female characters; some people don’t.

This is not a Problem that can be solved overnight. However, there are already several games that present an answer to the question of representation in games: the choice of gender. Allowing players to pick the character they want is instantly inclusive, and also highlights the fact that not every game has to decide the sex of the protagonist for you. Furthermore, you don’t have to play as a woman if you don’t want to. A long term hope in this scenario would be that game developers become more confident in creating games with female protagonists.

Should there be more of this? If the gender of the main character is not integral to the game, should the player get to pick male or female?Let’s start with one very obvious, very successful example:

Mass Effect did it.

Despite a slightly ropey finale that left some fans somewhat embittered, the Mass Effect series was good gaming. Player choice was a big part of each game. Your character could be kindly or cruel, fierce or heroic. You could pepper you opponents with bullets or psychically torment them. Whatever your choices, Shepard became a galactic legend by the end of ME3, and at no point did gender have an impact on that legacy. Some minor differences occurred during each game – it affected which characters wanted to see you naked – but Fem-Shep was not held back by her femininity, in any way. Furthermore, if a player didn’t want to be awesome as a female character, they could be an awesome dude instead. The aforementioned Big Problem fades significantly.

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As I’ve said, this is by no means the only game that employs gender selection. In medieval style RPG games with gender choice, I tend to play a man. This is because my History Teacher side reminds me the chivalric code and the realities of the feudal system. In my head, a male knight makes more sense, even if the game is also a fantasy. So in Dark Souls and Oblivion, I choose to play as a man. However, when I started playing Dragon’s Dogma I played as a female character. Why? Because I had just been watching Game of Thrones and I wanted to play as Brienne of Tarth. Why? Because she’s awesome, that’s why.

The fact is, as an individual I have enjoyed games that let me choose. I’m sure there are many of you who feel the same. The fact is that letting players choose their gender might just be the way to start bringing more female protagonists into gaming without angering people who only want to play as men. It won’t completely solve the issue, but it’s a way to head in the right direction.

Boy or Girl?

There are other games that go even simpler. No character creation or character modelling, just a simple question at the beginning of the game: Male or Female?

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I still remember the first time I switched on my Game Boy to play Pokemon Blue. The game soon asked me to name my character and my rival. The names were fairly boring because my younger brother would have told on me if I had gone with my first choices. I then got to pick my first Pokemon, which was Bulbasaur (the right answer, by the way). That was it – decisions made. It made no difference to me that “are you a boy or a girl?” was not a question introduced until Pokemon Crystal.

You might argue that it doesn’t matter if that little set of pixels you control is a boy or a girl. And you’d be right: it doesn’t matter to the game…and that’s the point. Gender selection in Pokemon wasn’t necessary, but it was added nonetheless. The game creators took the time to make the smallest change to their games, and now all the children (and adults of course) that play Pokemon get that choice.  A small gesture, that allows gamers to feel just a little bit more included and respected.

Another series which has implemented gender choice is Halo. Whilst the early multiplayer warriors were all men, Halo: Reach and Halo 4 have allowed players to fully customise male or female Spartan armour. Again, the impact that this has on players who want to ‘be men’ is negligible. For players who want to ‘be women’, it’s at the very least a sign that game developers know they exist. That they have a place in gaming. I found some of the customisations look better on the female Spartans (don’t look at me like that, you know what I mean).

On a slightly tangential note: I’ve often thought that if the original Halo had been made after Mass Effect, then the developers may have been inspired to make Master Chief’s gender changeable. There’s very little in Chief’s character that suggests that he could not be Fem-Chief if the player so wished it.

Which games could let you choose?

It’s an idea… could it work? I personally don’t think it would work with every game; it is often possible to argue that a character’s gender is important. However, I believe there is more room for gender selection – a simple message at the start of the game that asks “would you like to be a boy or a girl?”. To demonstrate this, I intend to write a ‘Part Two’, in which I will talk about the biggest games of the last few years and discuss how they would have coped with the addition of gender selection (including games where the protagonist was female) and whether the ability to choose genders has any impact on the games themselves.

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I could continue writing here, but I wish to pause, even for just a few days. This is because I want any following discussion to go in the right direction. Firstly, I want to hear your views on just the concept of more gender choice in games, before picking out particular examples. Secondly, if I’ve made an error in judgement or said something you disagree with at this stage, then it’s best to deal with that first. Thirdly, you get your chance to share your own experiences with games that have let you pick the character’s gender, or suggest games I should talk about in Part 2.

Your Thoughts?

  • Do you think there should be more games that let you pick your gender?
  • What other examples of games with gender choice have you enjoyed?
  • What games would you add gender selection to, if you could?
  • Or do you disagree with the idea of promoting gender choice in video games?

Why do the silent start speaking in sequels?

I’m sure that if I asked you to name your favourite video game characters, your list would include one or two silent individuals. Many of the most legendary protagonists are taciturn, and are often respected for staying quiet. Unvoiced characters often let their actions (or their games) speak for them.

Whilst many of these voiceless stay hushed, the decision to grant speech has occurred in many game sequels. In the past, this could be attributed to what games were capable of doing – voice acting in video games didn’t develop until the 1980s. Nowadays, this character change needs to be considered carefully. In my opinion, the addition of a character voice can change the very foundations of a game. Occasionally, a franchise will eject its original silent protagonist for a speaking lead, which has a definite impact on how the next game plays out.

Below are a few examples of games that gave their heroes permission to speak. I discuss how I reacted to the change, and the difference that change made.

1. Isaac Clarke from the Dead Space series

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In Dead Space 1, Mr Clarke arrived on the space ship USG Ishimura, to find the crew had been reduced to reanimated corpses suffering with serious finger nail overgrowth and a tendency to hug and kiss a little too enthusiastically. Now, if this was you or I, we might have something to say about the situation…

“Oh my word” we might say. “There are an awful lot of monsters trying to chew my face off. I am slightly perturbed by this predicament, and find this whole scenario quite taxing.” And so on.

Isaac Clarke however relies on a series of grunts and groans to communicate his feelings as he trudges, stomps and blasts his way through his own personal nightmare. At no point did I find Isaac’s silence off putting. On the contrary, in a game where isolation and paranoia factor heavily, the absence of a lead voice added to the atmosphere. Mr Clarke was alone and he knew it.

Then he starts talking in Dead Space 2. I know why they made the decision; I understand that they wanted to flesh out the story and the characters. At the end of the day, it hardly breaks the game. I just didn’t appreciate the change. The inclusion of more speech detracts from the lonely-helpfulness of the original. There were some other people in the first game, which Isaac refused to speak to, but in the second game he jabbers on with anyone who will listen. If he can talk, why did he never call out to his girlfriend in the first game? That was the whole reason he was there.

I also never felt that Isaac needed more character. Dead Space was a game designed to scare the player, to make us feel insecure and lead us to question what was going on around us. We didn’t need to connect with Clarke to play the first game, so why are we being told to make friends with him in the sequel?

2. Jak from the Jak and Daxter series

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Jak and Daxter are a little arrogant. They celebrate the collection of every Power Cell with the bravado of an entire football team. There’s a level of self-assured smugness about Jak too. In the end though, he turns out to be a charming protagonist. In Jak and Daxter: the Precursor Legacy, his physical reactions – eye-rolling, shoulder sagging, head shaking – convey all the audience needs to know about the current situation. With the bubbly Daxter quipping from his shoulder, Jak was never called on to say anything. He didn’t need to; he was the hero and he was going to get things done, high-fiving and fist-bumping all the way.

Then Jak is given a voice. Not just a voice though, he gets an overhaul. Everything from his hairstyle to his underlying personality were remodelled. The sequel itself is leagues apart from the predecessor. The series took a sudden left turn into ‘dark and edgy’ territory, and slung a pile of personal baggage over Jak’s shoulders.

The overhaul is one of the reasons why I personally accepted the ‘Talking Jak’. The transition itself is dealt with pretty well. There’s a defining moment early on the game when Jak begins talking, and it’s instantly used to show that the hero has gone dark and brooding. He never needed to say anything when he was happy saving the day. After two years in prison he’s got issues he needs to resolve. Daxter’s comedy relief is not only welcome, but is now also pretty important in keeping Jak on the right side of the line that separates Good and Evil. The jokes at the expense of Jak’s former silence are a nice touch.

“Maybe this guy’s a mute, like you used to be.”

3. John “Soap” MacTavish from the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series

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The Call of Duty games are full of mutes. From World at War to Black Ops, the world is seen through the eyes of numerous people, and most of them remain hushed. There are (and I’m sure to be chastised for a miss-count) six playable characters in the first Modern Warfare and the majority of your time is spent in the head of John MacTavish. He’s happy to act as trigger finger for the player without making a sound. This lends itself to the ‘every man’ feeling of the First Person Shooter; you’re playing as a character, but it’s really you that’s saving the day.

When Modern Warfare 2 rolled round, “Soap” MacTavish got a voice. The problem is… he’s really weird about it. When he’s a Non-Playable Character fighting alongside you, he’ll chat freely. When you take control of him in the final few missions of the game, he goes quiet again. It could be that MacTavish is conforming; maybe the “CoD characters don’t speak in first-person” is actually a strictly enforced rule. Either that, or when the player ‘pilots’ MacTavish, they’re actually sitting on the part of his brain that controls speech.

4. Claude from the Grand Theft Auto series

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As mentioned, sometimes it’s the game that changes rather than the Player Character. When Claude rolled up in Grand Theft Auto 3, the franchise was greatly advanced. The world was now 3D, the story and characters more fleshed out. The one thing that was yet to change – Claude, like his ancestors, was entirely silent. He would walk up to a payphone or into a cutscene. The mission giver would talk at Claude, congratulate him on the good work he had done so far, and then offer him a new mission. Then Claude would walk off again. Half the time, he wouldn’t even nod or show any sign that he had understood the instructions; he would just leave.

The fact that Claude was mute (he is the one very literal mute on this list) made no difference to the enjoyment of this Grand Theft Auto. In fact, from an immersion/gameplay point of view, it could be argued that his lack of voice made sense. The fact that he never comments on missions or describes how he feels about characters illustrates that Claude is not invested in the story, which (let’s face it) many people wouldn’t be either. It often seems strange in later GTA games that the protagonist will spend two minutes of a cutscene expressing raw, barely-controlled hatred for an antagonist in the game, but between missions the same character can spend their time collecting taxi fares or shooting pigeons. Claude’s lack on investment makes sense inside the GTA sandbox.

Having said that, the Grand Theft Auto games that followed have all been superb. The next instalment, Vice City, still holds the title of ‘favourite GTA game’ in my brain. Whilst the more story-driven approach tends to go against the free-roam nature of the franchise, allowing protagonists like Tommy Vercetti and Niko Bellic to talk has made (at least) one positive change to series: whoever you are playing as…it’s their story now. In GTA 3, you’re completing a random bunch of missions for other people; fixing their problems for them. From Vice City onwards, you were completing missions so that you could succeed; fixing problems so that you rise to the top.

5. Jack from the BioShock series

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This is the most recent transition from silent protagonist in the list. Again, the new, talkative character also came with a bold new direction for the series. Or at the very least, a new altitude (look at how clever and witty I am).

Jack isn’t completely silent in BioShock. He says/thinks an introductory statement, and then shuts up for the duration. Just as Isaac’s silence allows the atmosphere to press in on the player in Dead Space, so too does Jack’s reluctance to speak. Jack is clearly confused by underwater madness of Rapture and it’s equally doolally occupants, and we share in his puzzlement.

Booker DeWitt is Jack’s opposite when it comes to all things oratory. Not only does he spend the length of the game conversing with the ever-enchanting Elizabeth, but he will also comment on pretty much anything remotely interesting. Whilst Jack is determined to sneak and creep around the maze of pressurised tubes of the underwater asylum, DeWitt bounds around Columbia, commenting on the scenery, the enemies he faces, the contents of bins…everything.

Now of course, these are two very different games. Yes, one is in the sky and one is in the sea. The moods and atmospheres are different. The stories too, are contrasting. I believe that the use of speech in BioShock Infinite was necessary for such a dramatic change to work. DeWitt’s relationship with Columbia, Elizabeth and his back story would not carry the same narrative weight without his verbal contributions.

It also goes some way to showing that FPS protagonists can have voices. Although… Infinite does have a few weird moments where DeWitt is talking about things he remembers… but you’re playing as him and only hearing these things for the first time… which means the way you perceive Booker and his surroundings are different to how Booker sees things…which means you’re not seeing the world from his perspective… but you are literally seeing the world through his eyes… now I have a nosebleed.

Your Thoughts?

  • How do you feel about silent characters that gain voices, or the games that abandon the silent character?
  • Do you disagree with my assessment of any of these sequels?
  • What other examples of this transformation are worth mentioning? (I’ve missed a few obvious, big series like Sonic, for example.)

The Search for the ‘Ideal’… Melee Weapon.

You! Yes you! You have a decision to make! Well… that’s not true…you don’t have to. It’s just a bit of fun really. I didn’t mean to put you under that much pressure. I’m sorry I shouted. Let’s start over.

For my first post (which was a whole month ago! How the time flies) I asked a simple question: Which games would benefit from a Zelda Weapon? What was most intriguing was that many of the responses from readers reached a consensus: every game could be improved by the addition of Link’s Hookshot.

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Continue reading “The Search for the ‘Ideal’… Melee Weapon.”

Minecraft & The Roman Empire

I am a history teacher, and I have used Minecraft to teach my students.

When you want to help someone learn, at any age, you start small. You begin with a simple concept, and then you build on it. The better that starting point, the easier it is to add more information. It also helps if that starting point is interesting and relevant to your audience. I’m not the first teacher to realise that Minecraft fits the bill as a starting point for learning. Nevertheless, I’d like to share my experiences with Minecraft as a teaching device.

Education warning: This post contains small amounts of learning.

Continue reading “Minecraft & The Roman Empire”

D’You Dig Double-Jumps?

Now there’s a blog title I can be proud of for a long time. In my ongoing battle against the pile of games labelled “Want To Play” play sat upon various shelves and inside hard drives, I wandered into the side-scolling Mexican playground that is Guacamelee! One of the many aspects of the game I enjoyed were the the power-ups (special wrestling moves) which can be used in combat and in the platforming sections.

Early on in the game, you unlock the ‘Rooster Uppercut’, which allows your character to punch into the air, flaming fist first. Jump before using the attack, and Juan the Luchador will leap twice as high into the air, allowing you to reach higher platforms. Or groin-punch unsuspecting flying opponents.

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“That is an interesting way to bring the classic double-jump into the game”, I thought to myself.

Continue reading “D’You Dig Double-Jumps?”