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Never Alone

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Never Alone is a puzzle-plaformer game, based on folklore from the Inupiaq people of Alaska. The game was made as a partnership between Upper One games, the first indigenous-owned video game developer in the US, and the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, and is specifically designed to not only be a compelling game, but also to shaure Inupiaq stories and culture with players around the globe.

First of all, this is an absolutely beautiful game. The animation and art style are stunning. I would recommend it for that alone. But as you progress in the story, you also unlock cultural insight videos, short clips that explain, through interviews and the like, elements of the culture seen in the story. Get a weapon in the game? Here, it’ll tell you, if you’re interested, what the weapon actually is. Meet strange underground-dwelling people? Here are the legends about them. There are short introductions to the Inupiaq belief systems, to some of their cultural objects, to their community, their hunting styles and storytelling traditions and legends about the Northern Lights.

The game itself is about three hours long. You control both a girl, Nuna, and a fox, as they seek the source of a never-ending blizzard that has been plaguing Nuna’s village. You can play the game as a local co-op, with one person controlling Nuna and one controlling the fox, and honestly, I think that’s a much better experience. Although it’s possible to play the game as one player, as I did, some of the puzzles aren’t well-optimised for it. Some of the later challenges require switching back and forth between Nuna and the fox under time pressure, and I found myself dying many, many times because of how difficult it was to coordinate both movements by myself. The AI was also occasionally frustratingly inadequate. There’s nothing quite like controlling one character and having the other fall idiotically off a platform instead of standing still, or having them move away from where you’ve placed them, causing the platform the other character was using to disappear. Some of the puzzles also get a little repetitive by the end, but that might have been because of how frustrated I was getting with all these deaths — especially as you see the surviving character mourn the dying one every single time, and seeing that heartbroken fox broke my heart too.

So if you’re a gameplay first kind of person, I wouldn’t recommend this one. But if you’re willing to overlook some flaws in service of an overall story experience, then Never Alone is fantastic, with a lot to teach you, a great story, and absolutely beautiful graphics (and, of course, the fox is adorable).

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Video Game Recommendation: Her Story

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OK, so I’m a little late with this, since the game came out last year, and everyone else was raving about this then. But I got Her Story as part of the narrative Humble Bundle, and a couple of nights ago, I was like, “sure, why not? I’ll try it.”

Cue me staying up until 3am hunting down every last secret in the game.

The game is a bit of a weird one. In fact, it’s not really a game, exactly. It’s more… interactive storytelling. You’re accessing an old police database to try to put together what happened in a murder case from twenty years ago. The database is full of clips of interviews with the victim’s wife, but in order to access any of them, you need to search for keywords in the transcripts. Type in a key word, and it’ll pull up any clip where that word appears, with the caveat that you can only watch the first five clips that it finds. Your first suggested keyword is “murder,” but after that, you can type in anything you want. Which means that everyone is going to experience the game differently. You’ll jump from clip to clip based on weird word similarities, all completely out of order, and attempt to piece the narrative together from that.

There’s very little gameplay, beyond putting on your detective hat and figuring out what words to type in to find new information. Most of the game is spent watching video clips of the interview. But once you start, it’s very hard to stop.

I stumbled across the big, “Wait, what??” moment quite early on, maybe twenty minutes into the game, but it just made me more hungry for answers. And, honestly, one of the most clever thing about the game is that there are no answers. There’s the full story as told by the woman, which you can roughly piece together in your head through the clips. But it’s only the story as she wants to tell it. The truth lies unspoken somewhere inside it, and just as you have to wriggle out clues and bring all the pieces together to find the narrative, you also have to analyse the details and come to your own conclusions about what is really behind what’s being said.

It’s incredibly innovative, and incredibly compelling. It’s a little short for the full £4.99 price on Steam, so it might be one to grab during the next Steam sale, or if it appears in the Humble Bundle again. Both options are basically made for trying out short experimental games like this. But it’s definitely a unique way of presenting a story, and is worth a few dollars’ investment and the two or three hours of your time.

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Having A Bad Time: The Theory of Undertale

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Last year, I wrote a post gushing about why everyone should play the indie game Undertale, which you can read here if you haven’t played the game. This post is chock-full of spoilersRead at your own risk.

Maybe I have a bit of an analysis addiction. Because although Undertale is an amazing, heartwarming, heartbreaking, thought-provoking video game that I think everyone should experience, my favorite thing about it isn’t the characters or the humor or the music or the story. It’s how darn meta it is.

Undertale is a game designed to make you think about games. It takes all our assumptions about game mechanics, about our roles as players, about how we are supposed to interact with and think about videos games, and rips them apart, forcing us to examine them in more depth.

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Entertainment Recs for Anxiety and Depression

One of my biggest struggles is how difficult I sometimes find it to concentrate on stories. When anxiety and depression are bad, we really need the distraction of some good entertainment, but concentrating can just seem to take too much energy and effort, even if it’s just casually watching a TV show.

So, with that in mind, here are some of my recommendations for low-concentration entertainment for low and anxious days.

Reading

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Graphic Novels. I only got into graphic novels last year, but they’re perfect for flying through a story. They’re easy to read, visually appealing, and you can read a whole trade paperback in less than an hour, so they don’t feel intimidating. Rat Queens is a good bet, as it has a fairly simple plot, great characters, and is lots of fun. I also recommend The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, because it is hilarious. (My full review for Rat Queens is here, and Unbeatable Squirrel Girl here)

Novels are tougher, but I recommend some light and breezy contemporary fiction — something that’s easy to pick up and get invested in. I particularly love Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, and Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.

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Life is Strange

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Yup, I finally played Life is Strange.

First, a quick spoiler-free review. Life is Strange is fantastic. It’s part mystery, part philosophical musing, part coming of age story, part time-travel adventure. And you take a lot of polaroids. You play as Max, an aspiring photographer with no confidence in her abilities who suddenly discovers that she has the ability to rewind time, and starts using the power to try and solve the problems of the people around her. The game is visually lovely, with amazing characters and a great soundtrack, and is, in turn, uplifting, bittersweet, heartwrenching, dark, though-provoking and disturbing. And I can’t say a single other thing about it without potentially spoiling it, so if you haven’t played the game, stop reading here and go give it a try.

And if you have played the game, my spoiler-filled thoughts are below.

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Do choices matter in Telltale games?

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Yesterday, the final episode of Telltale’s Game of Thrones game finally hit Steam. The game had a lot of expectations to meet — it promises, during every moment of gameplay, that your decisions will affect the story. After five episodes of strategy, manipulation and hard choices, players really wanted to see how they personally had affected the fate of House Forrester.

But did the decisions make any difference? Players familiar with other Telltale games won’t be surprised to hear that the answer is no. Players experienced a slightly different path depending on one major choice from episode five, and events happen slightly differently depending on what strategy you choose in this episode. But otherwise, no. It doesn’t make a difference. House Forrester meets the same fate. The same characters live or die, with one exception, and that one is only affected by a single decision in this episode, and not by anything that came before.

It’s incredibly frustrating, considering how much the game emphasized that your choices matter.

Coincidentally, I also just finished the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, a game that affected me so much I took a week-long break between episodes four and five due to despair over what was happening, and cried all the way through the credits and beyond. But here’s the thing. Choices don’t really change things in The Walking Dead either. The plot progresses almost exactly the same, no matter what. Yet while Game of Thrones‘ false free will frustrated me, The Walking Dead still managed to feel emotionally resonant, and the choices still felt meaningful.

The difference lies in the kind of choices that the games offer, and in where their difficulty lies. In Game of Thrones, we’re focussed on the potential result of our choices, while in The Walking Dead, it’s the choosing in itself that matters.

(Note: the post contains mild spoilers for both The Walking Dead S1 and Game of Thrones)

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Why You Should Play Undertale

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OK, I’m cheating here. There isn’t much to say about Undertale from a “feminist fiction” perspective. At least, not without spoiling the game, which I really don’t want to do.

But Undertale is an absolutely amazing game, and I simply had to write about it. Don’t let that simple pixel-y look deceive you. Undertale is funny, fun, surprising and emotional. It’ll probably make you cry, and it will definitely cause you to get far too invested in a bunch of little 8-bit monsters.

In Undertale, you play a gender-neutral human child who has fallen into the underground realm of monsters. You must pass safely through this world to find the barrier between the realms and return safely home. As you go, like in most RPGs, you encounter monsters and bosses to fight. You can get items and armor to make you stronger, and you can bring down everyone you meet.

But you can also choose not to fight. All enemies have a reason for attacking you, and if you can convince them to stop, you can spare their lives and continue on your way. Put in the effort, and you might even make friends. You might even end up on a date with a skeleton.

But this isn’t a simple choice of “killer path” or “peaceful path.” Pacifism is difficult. The game always gives you a hint about how to resolve things peacefully, usually through character dialogue, but they’re not always easy to figure out. And if you never kill anyone, you never gain XP, meaning you face stronger and stronger monsters with the same health, attack and defence as when you began. When an enemy has killed you for the tenth time, it can get tempting to just hit back.

And of course, there’s the question of whether you want to be a pacifist all of the time. Sure, it’s easy to spare the cute fluffy dog or the nice woman who baked you pie, but if the enemy has done awful things, do you want to spare them? Is it even safe to do so? Character actions have consequences, and although the game starts with a sense of “tra la la, love and kindness,” it gets far more complicated along the way.

But killing enemies has consequences too. If you start marching through the world of monsters killing everyone you encounter, characters will react to that. The whole story will change. You are, after all, a rampaging murderer to these creatures. It’s a horror story, and you’re the monster.

If players play either of these two extremes, they’ll experience almost entirely different stories, even if the basic steps are the same. But there are also many paths in middle, where you befriend one person but kill another, do this but don’t do that, that also reshape the story.

And multiple runs are encouraged. Things might not all go as you’ve intended, and the game doesn’t completely reset when you restart it. Some memories linger in the characters, and more of the story is revealed. I was told this by a friend on my first playthrough, but although I was enjoying the game, I couldn’t imagine wanting to replay it — I’d just get it right the first time. Then I actually got to the end, and immediately started the game again.

That said, the game I’m recommending is the peaceful game — the game I assume most people try to play at first, if only because that’s that game’s selling gimmick. Undertale‘s greatest strength is its characters — how much personality they have, how quickly you grow attached to them, how you might suddenly find yourself crying a not-so-digital tear when you learn more about who they are. Having finished two runs of the game, killing any of them seems too emotionally gruelling to attempt. Even watching a Let’s Play of that path on Youtube was difficult, to say the least.

After two runs and some videos, I’m sure I still haven’t seen all the possibilities in the game. It starts off deceptively light and simple, but there’s a lot hiding underneath, and something about its simplicity makes it particularly emotionally compelling.

And don’t worry if, like me, you’re not a fan of RPG turn-based combat. Undertale makes it far more interesting, first by having you figure out what peaceful approach is best for each enemy, and second by having a mini-game for each enemy’s attack — if you can dodge them, you don’t take any damage. And the enemies not only all have unique attacks to dodge, but attacks that change depending on what you do. An angry or distressed enemy will attack faster. An uninterested or sad enemy might not really try to hit you at all.

Overall, Undertale is a game that starts out cute and funny, but quickly sucks you in. It only takes six or seven hours to initially play, but it will stick with you for much longer than that.

I have so much I could say about this game, the cleverness of the writing, the world-building and the characters and the directions it takes. But I also don’t want to spoil a thing. Go into this one blind. Give it a try, and see where it takes you. I promise it’ll be worth it.

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Game of Thrones, Mira, and the Illusion of Choice

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A few months ago, I wrote about how much I loved the Game of Thrones game from Telltale Games. I particularly loved the female characters in the game, especially Mira, the daughter of House Forrester and handmaiden to Margaery Tyrell, who must survive the manipulative landscape of King’s Landing around the time of the Purple Wedding.

But the latest episodes have been something of a let-down. Despite the appearance of Daenerys Targareyn and lots of gasp-worthy twists, the story isn’t quite coming together.

And the major problem is the game’s neglect of Mira, its only playable female character.

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The Wolf Among Us by Telltale Games

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Telltale Games feel like the modern successors to the old point-and-click adventure games. They’re about story and character, guiding our protagonist through the tale and trying to figure things out as we go, but they avoid the randomly trying to combine objects and retracting your steps a hundred times that the old games required. Instead, our influence on the story is mostly about choices — what we say, how we judge people, what we think is the right way to proceed.

I already reviewed the Game of Thrones game, which I’ve been loving, and thanks to the recent Steam sale, I decided to try another Tell Tale story based on a property that I’m not familiar with — The Wolf Among Us. In The Wolf Among Us, you play Bigby, aka the Big Bad Wolf, the sheriff of a community of fairytale characters forced to leave their home world and live in New York City. The game has a hard-boiled crime feel, with Bigby as the much-mistrusted investigator who must solve the case of a girl’s beheading in a dangerous and crime-ridden town.

The result is excellent. In fact, it’s quickly become one of my favorite games of all time. With a gripping plotline, shocking twists and compelling, morally complex characters, The Wolf Among Us sucked me in and made me utterly invested in its world far before the first chapter was done. The Telltale game style of movies that you control — you make the choices, you click to throw that punch, you are responsible for what happens — makes the entire experience incredibly absorbing, and incredibly real.

There are several important female characters in the game, with the main one being Snow White, a brave, no-nonsense, work-by-the-books figure who wants to help everyone in Fabletown but doesn’t always go about it in quite the right way. She is, as this article in the LA Times suggests, a huge influence on the gameplay experience, as the player becomes absorbed in her and Bigby’s tension-filled relationship and has to constantly question whether a harsh or violent approach to crime-solving is really necessary, when it might destroy any goodwill Snow has for us. Snow is a tough character, and a sympathetic one, who both helps and impedes our protagonist, and who, refreshingly, isn’t always the gentle one either. She has issues of her own to deal with, and the clashes between her and Bigby drive some of the tensest moments of the story.

We also have a great, frightening villain in the form of Bloody Mary (of the “say it three times in the mirror” fame), and several other morally complicated female characters who help or hinder the case. But it should be noted that the case revolves around the murder of prostitutes, and the game doesn’t shy away from that — not a count against it, necessarily, but something players should be aware of.

Unfortunately, The Wolf Among Us does have a big problem with diversity. Unless I blinked and missed it, there’s absolutely no diversity in this sizeable cast of characters. Talking pigs and toads, sure. Trolls, yes. But non-straight, white characters? Not that I could see. Even without racebending, these characters clearly exist in the world — Aladdin’s lamp plays a minor part in the story, if only as a prop — but they’re nowhere to be found. And while this might be an adaptation problem, depending on the diversity found in the original graphic novels, it’s something that could and should have been addressed, with a bit more care and ingenuity.

But as a gameplay experience, The Wolf Among Us is absolutely stellar. It’s probably not a game for people who focus on strategy and care a lot about battle mechanics, but if you’re a gamer who plays for story, like me, then this is the perfect thing to immerse yourself in. Bring on Season Two.

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Game of Thrones by Telltale Games

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When I finally picked up a copy of Telltale Game’s ongoing, episodic adaptation of Game of Thrones, I was more than a little bit skeptical. Video game adaptations don’t exactly have a reputation for quality, and the last attempt at a Game of Thrones game was considered pretty terrible even without taking its lack of female characters into consideration.

But Telltale Games do things differently, in the best possible way. The game is less of an RPG and more of a visual Choose Your Own Adventure (albeit one with pretty subpar graphics), where the player gets to select dialogue options and character choices, but where the movement itself is mostly out of your hands. It’s focussed on character and plot, and not on fighting at all.

The game has several playable protagonists, all related to House Forrester, bannermen to House Stark struggling to survive after the Red Wedding. Their lord and his heir are both dead, a young boy is now in charge, and the Boltons are threatening to take everything they have left away. Through that young boy lord, a squire who survived the Red Wedding, and Margaery’s handmaid/Forrester daughter Mira, as well as a few extras later on, the game considers the different ways that characters can contribute to, or disrupt, the delicate political web, and how each of their unique positions can help or hinder House Forrester’s recovery.

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