Sunday 26 April 2015

My thoughts about Life Is Strange so far

I've been wanting to write about this for a while, but it's been put on hold for various reasons. One of those reasons is that I wanted to play the second episode of Life Is Strange before I made my mind up about it. The pilot didn't really amaze me. In fact, it annoyed me. However, the ending intrigued me enough to make me want to carry on.

There may be spoilers ahead (for episodes 1 and 2), but I personally find that a game of this sort is difficult to spoil, which will become apparent.

For those who don't know, Life Is Strange is an episodic choice-based game developed by Dontnod Entertainment, and published Square Enix. Its similar in a lot of ways to the choice-centred games created by Telltale, but still incredibly unique.

The game initially struck me as being Mean Girls mixed with Donnie Darko in game form, but I'll get into that later. You play as an 18 year old girl called Max, dealing with all the issues that being a teen girl brings. This is probably one of the reasons that I felt so unsure about the game. It felt too close to home. Some people might say this is a good thing, but I WAS Max, having to deal with bullies, friends, and boys. It was hard to watch, hard to DO. This is where the main mechanic of the game comes in handy, because Max can also turn back time. You can have a conversation, and if it doesn't go so well, you can have another go. Oh, how I would've LOVED to do that as a teenager...

Being able to turn back time is great, but it felt very forced. Every time Max spoke to someone, the voice in her head would say something like "Hmmm. That didn't go so well, I should try again" while the corner of the screen is flashing at you to press the button. I didn't like being told when I should change my mind. Yes, it was good being able to hear all the different outcomes of conversation trees, but I felt like I was being pushed in certain directions every time I was prompted to push the time button. I started to just ignore the voice in her head, and play it out my way.

Max is also a photographer. (She's a teen girl, so of course she's a photographer.) However, despite the fact that the game is set in the modern day, Max prefers to use a little polaroid camera. Somehow it's allowed for her to be studying photography, and have a polaroid as her primary camera. Her teacher has no issues with it. Yeah, I'm not buying it. She even looks at her teacher's camera and says "Wow, I bet that takes pristine digital images, but I'm so analogue", or something to that effect. To top it all off, every time she takes a photo, she SHAKES THE POLAROID. Anyone who actually enjoys using instant cameras would know NOT to do that. Grr.

On top of the annoying details, the dialogue was pretty.... awful. Okay, that's probably a bit harsh, but it's very obvious that the writers have not interacted with teenage girls much, if at all (I think all the writers are grown-ass men). Nobody says 'hella' or 'bizarro'. I, for lack of a better word, cringed every time one of the girls spoke.

All of these things make it sound like I hated this game, but that's not true. There's a lot of stories going on at once in this game, much like in life, and they're all interesting in a different way. Max is reunited with a long lost friend, Chloe, who also happens to be friends with a girl who recently went missing in their town. Chloe's step-father is also the creepy security guard at Max's school. At the end of episode 1, Max has a vision of a huge tornado that's going to wipe out the town. It's a bit all over the place, but it left me curious, so I played episode 2

One of the main things that makes Life Is Strange different from a Telltale game is that there's a lot more exploring involved. The start of episode 2 has you, Max, walking around the girl's dormitories. You could head straight to the shower, like the game suggests, but you'd be missing out. You can speak to each of the characters, enter their rooms, and find out more about them. This becomes especially important later on, but I'll get to that. You speak to Kate, who I only vaguely remembered from the first episode as being the Christian girl who was picked on a lot. I made sure to talk to her, because I know that being bullied sucks, and she looked pretty upset. While talking to Kate, and other characters, you learn that a video of Kate has gone 'viral' (again, the writing annoyed me here. I wouldn't say a video getting spread around the school equates to 'going viral', but here we are). The video contains footage of Kate going 'wild', and long story short, Kate is pretty cut up about it. So as any good friend should do, you try to stop the information spreading.

Later on, you meet back up with Chloe, and there's a really fun section where you're proving to her that you have powers. It's just things like telling her what she has in her pockets, but I really enjoyed it. I feel like this is exactly what my friends would be like if I tried to tell them I could turn back time.

Chloe decides that the best way to play with your powers is to shoot stuff (because Chloe is so ~wacky~ like that), so you go to a junk yard for the most annoying section of the game. I felt like I was doing an RPG side quest to fetch an NPCs shit, except it was in the middle of the game and you can't skip it. Chloe is standing there in the junkyard like "could you go find me 5 glass bottles? Thanks" and I thought she'd maybe go find other stuff, but nope. You spend like 30 fucking minutes walking in circles looking for shit, while she's standing about drinking. Fucking Chloe, am I right? What the hell. Bitch, don't tell me to do your chores while you sit about doing FUCK ALL.

Ahem. Sorry, Got a bit carried away there.

Whatever, it was dumb, but things get better after that, and you learn that Max's powers aren't unlimited (because that would be over-powered as hell) and Max can do some serious harm to herself if she doesn't keep things under control...

I'm gonna skip straight to the action, this isn't a fucking walkthrough.

Long story short, you remember Kate? Yeah. She kills herself.


Oh wait. That whole "it's not unlimited" thing. Hmm.

So Max sees Kate fling herself off the top of a building. Not good. Turn back time! Okay, she's up top again. Then Max learns that she can temporarily freeze time, and she manages to get to the roof top for the most intense/heart-wrenching part of the series so far.

You have to talk Kate down. This is where all the extra exploring you (hopefully) did comes in handy. You're Kate's friend. You should know her.

But I couldn't do it. She died.

I couldn't let that happen. I reloaded my save.

Now, BEFORE you get shitty at me for reloading my save, let me explain. First of all, I just wanted to know that I COULD save her. Again, this is where LIS differs from many Telltale games. In several Telltale titles, it doesn't matter what choices you make, some things are just going to happen. I kind of wanted to prove to myself that I COULD save Kate. I knew it HAD to be possible. They couldn't just let her DIE. If you really paid attention to everything in Kate's room, then you can save her, and I'm so glad I did. Kate didn't need to die, and now you can get on with figuring what the HELL is going on in this crazy town.

So yeah, episode 2 was awesome, even with the stupid bottle thing. It had some of the most intense moments I've ever experienced in a game, and I felt really immersed in the story. Not to mention, the soundtrack is pretty great. Episode 2 made me forgive the cringey writing, and the damn shaken polaroids. It felt great to play a story-based game where I could feel that my choices really mattered, and I can't wait to play episode 3.

If you haven't played Life is Strange, I would highly recommend it. I played on Xbox One, but it's available on Xbox 360, PS3, PS4, and PC as well.

Saturday 31 January 2015

I've been playing around with RPG Maker

Before I begin, if you're going to come here to tell me that it's not a REAL game engine etc etc, you can just leave now. Because I don't care, and I'm not interested. I'm just having a bit of fun.

As the title suggests, recently I've been playing around with RPG Maker VX Ace. I've always been a very visual learner, so this program has been perfect for me. The program provides the graphics too, which is even better.

I started off by making a very simple map.

An NPC came next. She may, or may not be, Taylor Swift. Initially, all she did was wander around saying "I'm Taylor Swift". Kinda boring.

Then, I added a house. This took a little bit longer to make, but I think it looks quite cute.

Using the "quick event" function, I added a treasure chest. It felt a bit cheaty at first, but then I realised it gives you all the code (RPG Maker uses Ruby, I believe). So I started taking that and applying it to other events, like barrels.

Baby steps...

Adding treasure chests gave me items, so it was time to make a simple fetch quest. Taylor Swift needs a potion! (In retrospect, I should've said it was to mend her broken heart... ah well.)

It started off with her simply taking the item from me if I had it in my inventory and giving me some gold, but then I added in a Yes/No option. It's starting to look like a real game!

Next came adding a conditional branch. There's a chest in there, but some lady is blocking it. I need to complete the quest for Taylor first. Seems fair enough. Just need to find that potion.

Long story short, here's a quick video of what I've made so far! (Apologies for crappy quality etc, I'm still trying to figure out which capture software I like best)

Basically, I'm having fun with this program! I have some fun ideas for other games I want to create with it, and I'll probably keep adding to this one and see what it turns into. Hopefully I'll be able to show off something cool I've made in Python soon, too.

Tuesday 20 January 2015

On falling back in love with Nintendo

A few months ago, a late-night grocery run in Tesco resulted in us coming home with a Wii U. We bought the bundle with Mario Kart 8, and an extra Wii U Pro controller. It was kind of impulsive, but I've certainly had no regrets.

My love for Nintendo probably started with the GameBoy. I didn't own one, but my best friend did. I borrowed hers as often as I could. I mostly played Pokemon, but I don't think I was particularly good at it. It didn't matter, though. I was hooked.

One Christmas, Santa brought me a GameBoy Advance and Warioland 4. I still have such vivid memories of playing that game, and it brings a smile to my face.

My collection of games (and Pokemon) grew. I was basically never looking up from the screen. Of course this only became more intense once the DS came out.

Long story short, I eventually fell out of love with Nintendo. I was busy with school, games were getting way too expensive, and to be honest, I was pretty bored of Mario. It just wasn't doing it for me any more.

For a while, I was so sceptical of Nintendo in general. Their determination to do things their own way had clearly not been working, and I didn't want to buy a whole new console just to play the games from the franchises I love. I turned to Xbox and PC, and I thought that would be it. Until the late-night trip to Tesco.

Okay, so I've been making it sound as if I turned up at Tesco and went "FUCK IT", but really, I'd been thinking about the Wii U for a long time. Nintendo's display at E3 2014 REALLY impressed me. The announcements from Nintendo stuck with me the most. So many of the displays left me thinking "I need to play that game!" In particular, Captain Toad and Yoshis Wooly World, but obviously not forgetting that open-world Zelda announcement, and Smash Bros! And Amiibo! There was just so much that piqued my interest.
So buying a Wii U just felt like a good choice. How else would I play all those games?

The Mario Kart 8 bundle is basically fantastic. And the fact that Nintendo have hopped on the DLC bandwagon? I'm all for it! I love having new tracks come out every few months.

For someone who's never really been able to sink many hours into fighting games, I've had so much fun with Super Smash Bros. Although I will say that the Amiibos level up a BIT too fast. It didn't really feel like AI that was learning, to be honest. It just felt like a really tough CPU. But hey, they're still cute and fun and something new to play with!
Obviously I can't forget to mention the game pad. I loved having a map of the course on the controller while racing on the TV. It's also great if you want to play Captain Toad (which is amazing) while your boyfriend is using the TV to play Xbox (or if your bedroom is conveniently placed above your living room- that game pad is coming to bed with you). It feels like somewhere between a GameBoy and an iPad.

Nintendo get a lot of stick for putting out a lot of remakes, but they're more than some new textures. For example, Pokemon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire are just outstanding. I got a 3DSXL with Ruby for Christmas, and I didn't put it down for about 2 weeks. It made me nostalgic about the original, but it didn't feel like the same game. It's so much better.

3DSXL with decal and case from Etsy (Can you spot Logan's toes?)
As well as all the new content, Nintendo have been keeping the classics alive with the Virtual Console. I bought Earthbound, which never had a European release the first time round, so that was great. I also bought the original Legend Of Zelda for my 3DS. It's been a joy.

Logan, pls.
Nintendo also made me realise that it's okay to enjoy "lame" games. All the boys in school who said you didn't really like games unless it was a shooter were clearly idiots. It's okay to play games the way YOU want to play them, and Nintendo are the best at embracing that.

What I'm trying to say is that Nintendo have really been doing things right recently, and I hope it stays this way. Let's just say that there's far more games that I'm currently excited for on 3DS and Wii U than I am for Xbox One.

Friday 2 January 2015

Goodbye 2014

2014 started in the best way. I had just left my job as a waitress, meaning I had my weekends back. New year's eve was a fairly lacklustre night on Ashton Lane, but it was new year's day that was really special. We had pub food, lots of beer, and mini musical sessions in the pubs we stopped in. Impromptu ceilidh dancing even started while we were playing. It was fantastic.

February brought my 21st birthday. I wasn't expecting much; I just wanted to have a few drinks with some pals. As I was getting ready, I opened my front door to find that 2 of my best friends had travelled half way up the country to surprise me. It was the first time I've ever cried with happiness. I was elated. I truly do have the best friends ever, and I hate that I don't get to see them enough.

A few days later, my boyfriend and I travelled to Iceland. He bought me the tickets for the birthday. The trip included whale watching, the Blue Lagoon, and best of all, aurora hunting. Probably the best holiday I've ever been on.

All photos by me :) (and Doug)
One of my final astronomy projects involved making a magnetometer to detect geomagnetic activity. Without a doubt, it was the most fun I had during my 3 years at uni. Not only did I enjoy the topic, but it felt like the work was actually worth while. This lead me to writing for The GIST, and realising that I quite enjoyed coding.

It was around this time that I realised that it was possible for me to pursue a career in video games; something which always seemed like a dream before. I'm not sure what actually made it click, but I decided to start making that dream a reality.

I still worked hard on my physics course, but I knew that it was no longer for me. I started to focus my free time on other ventures, such as teaching myself some basic coding, and creating this blog to record my progress (amongst other things).

Things started to look bad around May, when a job offer went sour, but I always have back-up plans. Sort of.

I would have probably been a lot worse off if I hadn't decided to adopt Logan form the SPCA.
He completely brightened my life, and kept me company during my month-and-a-bit of unemployment.

After sending my CV around, I found a video game company looking for QA testers. I sent off my CV, and got a reply within 10 minutes, asking me to go for an interview. The company was based in Edinburgh. Not the most ideal for someone happily living in Glasgow, but it's not really that far, so I went.

A few days later, I got the call telling me I got the job, and I started in July.

This is it. My foot is in the door. I have a job at a game company.

Since then, the year has FLOWN by. I mean seriously, how have I been working here for 6 months?

It has been a GREAT 6 months, and the job also allowed me to relax. I've always been the type of person to over-work myself, and stress myself out, but having a job meant I could chill out a bit. (I'm still not completely over the fact that my free time really is FREE. I don't have to worry about exams or report or lab work.)

I realised that I don't need to rush myself to put out games. I only just graduated, I'm allowed to have some time to chill. I don't need to stress that I haven't published anything yet; I don't need to rush myself. I'm still just 21.

So, I caught up on games I missed while I was at uni, all while picking up fantastic experience at work. I helped the lead designer work on the matchmaking systems for the game, and I've been playing around in different game engines in my spare time (when I'm not too exhausted after work).

Oh, and I bought a car. That was good, too.

The work can stress me out (as I haven't completely forgotten my old ways), and the days are long, but as I said, my foot is in the door. This is all going to be worth it.

Aside from playing games, I've been getting back into painting and drawing, as these are all things that will help me make games.

Unfortunately, I've neglected this blog a bit. Partially due to being busy, and partially due to being worried that no one even cares what I write.

I'm going to start thinking less things like "but will people like this?" and more like "I want to write about this". So that might mean I share my thoughts on a game I played, or I might post pictures of my crappy (but starting to impove!) art. You don't have to read it, don't worry.

All in all, 2015 has a lot to live up to if it wants to match 2014, but I can't wait to see what's in store for me :)

EDIT: oh, and Christmas was good too. I wasn't working, so, yay.