A Cautionary Tale

***Warning – Grump Alert**

Just over 10 years ago a friend of mine was pestering me about reading a book that he had read and thought I should try. He had previously recommended Neuromancer which I loved and so knowing that his tastes were in synch with my own I picked up a copy of A Game of Thrones. I loved it. I went out and bought all the available sequels and then waited for the next one. The story, characters and world were amazingly rich and detailed and I felt like Westeros was a real place full of intrigue, betrayal and fantasy where heroes are hard to come by and where greed is second only to survival.

One day I was thinking to myself on the way to work that it would make a great TV programme. The whole thing was too complex for a 2 hour film but given the time in a TV serial all those charcters and storylines could be done the justice they deserved. Somebody at HBO must have been thinking the same thing because a year or so later the first series was commissioned and 3 years later it is one of the most anticipated and successful shows on TV.

I was excited about the prospect of seeing my favourite books on my TV but not being a Sky customer I didn’t watch the series and decided to wait for a DVD release. In the meantime Game of Thrones fandom got bigger and bigger. Praise flooded in from mainstream reviews and friends comments, everybody loved this TV programme with it’s rich and detailed story, characters and world. Wait that sounds familiar. Oh, that’s right, I know because I read the fucking books.

In papers, on TV, on billboards and in magazines I see images of the characters and they are slowly chipping away at the fantasy world I had built in my mind. Each stunningly created image from the latest episode is draining away my love for a series that I have enjoyed and lived in for 10 years or so. So while I am pleased that more and more people are getting to enjoy this fantastic epic, it is not the one that I know and it is slowly overwriting my personal world.

I guess what I am trying to say is, be careful what you wish for.

Growing Pains

Ghost Trick is all wrapped up and I have finally gotten to the mystery of Sissel’s death. I won’t spoil it but I really didn’t see THAT coming! Weird but certainly wonderful. In other gaming news there is basically no news. It seems that of late I have not really had the opportunity or motivation to do much gaming which seems very odd. Much of it is a time issue. Having recently had a baby, time priorities have become altered so that, even though he is usually (hopefully) fast asleep by 7.30 or so that is still enough of a squeeze on an evening. This plus my recent interest in board games has meant that digital gaming has taken a slump in my house.

There used to be a time when I used a games console on a daily basis but at the moment it’s more like weekly. A drop in Xbox time would usually be because I wouldn’t have any games waiting to be completed but even then I would be rooting through the bargain bins or having just one go on Trials HD over and over. However this isn’t the case at the moment as I currently have several pretty good titles ready to go like Sleeping Dogs, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light and Ni No Kuni but not the drive to make time to play them. This is to be expected to some degree. As time passes and our lives change so do our interests but to think that my passion could be waning in something that I have loved, championed and been captivated by for almost 30 years feels strange and a little frightening.

Maybe it’s just a matter of waiting for the right game to come along. Right now I have no interest in any of the newer consoles and even less in splashing out on a powerful gaming PC as titles on them seem to be lacking in any magic or wonder. Maybe it’s a matter of seeing through the cracks. After so long enjoying games my mind will naturally break a game down in order to beat it. It took a conscious effort to make natural decisions in Mass Effect instead of thinking about gaming the system for the best outcome. Maybe I should be looking back instead of forward. Nostalgia can fog our recollections about the true quality of things past but I have been thinking about getting Majora’s Mask on Virtual Console for a while now and I would love to see if I can recapture that N64 magic.

Maybe I should just stop being a baby, fire up Sleeping Dogs and just enjoy it. Yeah, probably that.

Tales From the Bargain Bin: Ghost Trick

Death can present a problem in a lot of video games. Once the main character is killed it’s usually the end of their adventure, at least temporarily. But Sissel’s demise in Ghost Trick is the very start of a strange and wonderful mystery that will have you scratching your head in confusion before palming your face in disbelief. After discovering he is dead and having lost his memories Sissel is assisted by a friendly spirit who tutors him in the art of ‘ghost tricks’ where he can move between objects and manipulate them. It sounds pretty basic but these simple powers make for some interesting puzzles that see you saving others and trying to get to the bottom of the mystery of Sissel’s death before sunrise the next day when we are told that time will run out and Sissel will cease to be.

Ghost Trick is a great puzzler, not as punishing as those old LucasArts adventures but still with a level of challenge that doesn’t treat you like an idiot. Many puzzles are time based which meaning you will occasionally get to a point where you can’t proceed any further but a neat rewind mechanic and helpful checkpoints mitigate a lot of frustration. The exception is a rather painful stealth section which meant a lot of agonising trial and error (which I hate) but thankfully this is only one brief part of one of 18 chapters so once finished it can be swiftly forgotten.

Story plays a big part of the game and you will probably spend as much time reading as puzzling. Thankfully the story is full of humorous twists and bizarre characters that really bring it to life. On top of this the animation is top notch and squeezes something pretty stunning out of my old DS Lite. It seems so rare now to be wowed by visuals but the simple and clean art style here really impressed me.

Ghost Trick won’t be for everybody, the fact that puzzles can lead you down a dead end may alienate traditional puzzle fans who aren’t used to a fail state and the crackers story gets a little tricky to follow at times especially when it loops in on itself but I wouldn’t let those things put you off. Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is a wonderful and unique title that I think all puzzle fans will get a kick out of.

Playing Myst is like having a wee … in a good way.

I have never really been a PC gamer but thanks to the excellent sales of GOG.com I have managed to get myself a few retro games that I missed through the years, well known titles like Dungeon Keeper 2, Theme Hospital or Syndicate (the latter being impossible by the way). Yesterday I started Myst and it has given me a real insight into the inspiration behind the atmosphere of certain modern games. Fez, Proteus and the forthcoming The Witness all seem to have a Myst feel and I love it.

It’s a strange feeling and hard to characterise. Adventure is definitely a part of it but there is no danger like Another World or Outcast. If I compare Myst or Myst-like games to Ni No Kuni which I started last week there are definitely parallels and both take a regular person somewhere strange and wonderful but one is full of kind hearts and cruel monsters where the other is not. Myst has no peril, no fail state, no death, no checkpoints and not even any characters to meet, just a world that is there to be explored and deciphered. Fez is probably the closest recent example and both have a hands-free approach in gently tempting the player into unlocking it’s world. They also both share a terrible map screen and navigation but never mind.

This approach is not for everyone. There is a lot of headscratching and clicking on stuff and then clicking on it again. If the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results then everyone that has played Myst must be absolutely barking (Far Cry 3’s Vaas Montenegro was clearly not a point and click man). But it’s this frustration that makes games like this so compulsive, finding that breakthrough, that flash of inspiration (or luck) that gets you through a bottleneck is intensely satisfying. Cruelly, the more annoyed you get the greater the satisfaction. It’s kind of like when you finally get to the toilet after having to wait an uncomfortably long time. So there you have it, playing Myst is like having a wee … in a good way.

Ni No Konfusion

Ni No Kuni is beautiful. The world, the characters, the art, the music. It’s all stunning. Fans of Studio Ghibli (Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away) are going to absolutely love sinking themselves into it like a big fat sofa. In fact it’s so lovely that I was prompted to write this just to share the following orchestral hot chocolate.

Outside of this the game is a little bewildering. This is good in a sense as being thrown into a magical fairytale world would lose a little wonder if it was full of the everyday. However in a gameplay sense I am in need of a little guidance. Controlling 2 characters doesn’t sound like many but when each has their own army of monsters and then each can be switched out as a leader (who is then monsterless) it gets a bit confusing especially with the fiddly joypad control system they have here. A little light grinding can give you some advantage but I have always thought that reliance on such things is a major failing in an RPG.

Despite this I still managed to scrape a thrilling victory past the intimidating Bashura and I have the feeling that I will get the hang of this by sheer necessity. Thankfully the game is quite forgiving and a defeat just resets you to the beginning of the fight with full health after taking some of your money. I think is a great concession to sporadic gamers such as myself. Also, it seems very playable in shorter chunks with plenty of save spots and short cut scenes. Of course all this may change as the game progresses but for the moment I may be confused … but I am liking it.

Puppeteer Impressions

Disappointing. I could probably stop right there. Puppeteer has filled me with buyer’s remorse after impulsively getting it in the PSN New Years Sale. I should have stopped after Brothers and Ni No Kuni but I was wowed by the price tag and, more regretfully, the discount. I always scoff when my wife comes home and tells me how much money was knocked off the coat she bought before telling me how much she actually spent, after all a £30 coat is still a £30 coat even if it started at £30,000, but I fell into the exact same trap. Viciously hoisted by my own petard.

The clever folks at Eurogamer summed it up a lot clearer than I could in their excellent review but Puppeteer is a clear case of vision exceeding mechanics. The theatrical presentation is beautiful and as stages progress it really feels like scenery is being madly shunted around by invisible stage hands with energetic characters being operated by master puppeteers. The silly story and script are like a chaotic pantomime and you can see the love that has been poured into the presentation aspect of the game. The problem is that it never stops. It seems that these actors don’t know when to leave the audience begging for more as cut scenes always feel that little bit too long. What’s worse is when you do get to do a bit of platforming the level design feels rudimentary and there is a lot of unexplored potential, particularly in the variety of heads that the main character can equip. Like I said, disappointing.

Carving Through Corporate ICE

I have always been a sucker for anything labelled Cyberpunk. At the age of 21 I rediscovered reading thanks mostly to William Gibson whose brisk style creats a cutthroat world of ruthless mega corporations and desperate criminals. At around the same time I learned about anime and after initially dismissing it as a perverse cinematic niche (it seems Urotsikodoji is a shared teenage experience for my generation) I saw Ghost in the Shell and was hooked. It brought to life the vision of a palpable future where technology is valued more than human life and AIs grow in the primordial soup of cyberspace. It may be no surprise that I also love Blade Runner.

Couple this with a growing love of board/card games and I have discovered a new obsession – Android Netrunner. Apparently it is a remake of a much older game that was released around the same time as Magic: The Gathering and created by the same designer and it is brilliant. The gameplay is asymmetric with one player as the corporation who is trying to further their agendas by installing them in servers and protecting them with ice (think Norton antivirus that fights back). The second player is a sort of digital Robin Hood that is attempting to access and steal those same agendas. Again, it is brilliant.

I know it has gripped me because when I start typing ‘andr’ into Google the list of suggested previous searches goes off the page. In some ways it’s nice to have a bit of an obsession with something, remember when you are a kid and just listened to the same song over and over, or made countless armies of Warhammer in school without the reference cards because you knew every Eldar point value by heart? Well maybe not the second one but I am pretty sure you know the first. The flipside is finding an outlet for this new passion. There is a group in Liverpool that play every Sunday night but seeing as I go to another gaming group on a Monday, two nights of gaming ineptitude might be a little too much.

Thankfully my wife patiently indulges these whims of mine and although she has never suggested a game (she prefers to efficiently destroy me at Carcasonne instead) she did say that she had ‘started to enjoy the last few games.’ Progress of sorts I guess. The last option is one that many desperate men turn to – strangers on the internet. There is an amazing site called octgn.net where you can play all sorts of card games including Netrunner and it looks fairly straightforward. I am sure that it’s a lovely community but sitting at a computer in my leisure time just doesn’t appeal (although I guess it’s just a little TV screen really). Maybe I should just shut up and do it, I mean, when a brave runner is on his last click, would he risk all and dive into cyberspace or just stay on the sofa watching Supersize vs Superskinny?