Saturday, 21 July 2018

Are Video Games Just Modern Day Page Turners?

Written for and originally published by Forces of Geek June 2018

Life is forever getting in the way of important things - like gaming. Whether it’s your job or spending quality time with your loved ones, there are always other commitments that detract from gaming. I would argue that life has always been this been this way as long before commuters were playing games and watching TV shows with their faces glued to mobile devices, the Victorians had a similar phenomena and had a hard time putting down books. 

Back then a combination of cheaper labour and production cost meant books were more widely available and with literacy improving due to public libraries and schooling this meant that reading was no longer for the rich or educated. Technological advances in the latter part of the 19th century were also to blame, as gas and electric lighting became more accessible allowing people to continue to read long into the night without the mess of gas lamps or the dimness of candles. 

No longer an idle pursuit or time wasting leisure, books were everywhere and reading was heralded by many in the pursuit of education, advancement and cultural progression. Though, much like todays video games, reading was also reviled by many people. These critics felt that too much reading would corrupt the lower and middling classes, giving them ideas to act out against government or maybe even copy the fictional crimes they were reading about. Sound familiar? 

Over the course of my life, I’ve seen countless attempts to decry video games in a similar vein. “Video games cause violence”, “Video games are bad for peoples health”, “Video games are for kids, grow up” “Stop sitting so close to the TV”, “Go outside and play”, “Do something more worthwhile with your time” - all of these phrases and many more add to the ill-informed view that gaming is either negative or a waste of time. Even now, when gaming dominates the entertainment industry.  

More often than not, Victorian women were often criticised for losing themselves in books, criticised for living in fantasy worlds of make believe rather than their real, duty bound, tangible lives. Although this reasoning came from a patriarchal need to keep women in their place (the kitchen/bedroom) but the same criticism can be applied today for video games as many gamers are often berated for spending too much time playing games or enjoying their fictional game worlds.   

In a game, you can discover who you are by becoming anyone and honing skills you never thought you had or even needed. Of course, that is not to say that critics are completely wrong as there are cases where you can become obsessive, lose who you are or even find yourself enamoured with a fictional game world. Gaming addiction is a real thing problem that needs to be addressed, one needs only to look at the potentially dangerous addiction of Starcraft fans, especially in South Korea, many of whom will play without eating for days! See also the hundreds of reddit posts from fans trying to quit. 

Monday, 9 July 2018

What Sonic The Hedgehog Taught Me

Written for and published by Forces of Geek June 2018

When I was a young girl I was enrolled as a foot soldier in the notorious Nintendo-Sega Wars. I had no choice but to pick a side because neutrality and pacifism were not options on the mean school playgrounds of 1990s Britain. 

I had been exposed to both Nintendo and Sega, as well as other games consoles but one of the first games I ever completed (not to mention I was good at) was Sonic The Hedgehog (1 and 2) so naturally, I fell into the Sega camp. 

Despite the warring factions and name calling that occurred, I never faltered because Sonic The Hedgehog taught me many things. I want to share those life lessons with you:

1. Hedgehogs are cool

Hedgehogs, simultaneously cool and cute ^.^

Don’t believe me? Well, here come the facts: A hedgehog can run over six feet per second, or 9.5km/h which is damn impressive for a mammal of its size. 

In the UK, we have very few poisonous animals, one of which is the adder but hedgehogs are so badass that they’re not even affected by the venom. 

They also eat bugs, slugs, chilli dogs and other nasties that like to ruin crops and damage gardens so essentially, they’re helping us to live our very best lives. 

Shakespeare even referenced hedgehogs in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest (that’s one for all you literary nerds…like me). 

One last fact, baby hedgehogs are called hoglets and if you don’t think that’s both cute and insanely cool then are you even human? 

2. This is an echidna:

Image: Wikipedia Commons
That is all.

3. Exercise is important

Regular exercise is a necessary requirement for good health, Sonic knows this and so should you. It’s also especially important to get some really decent sneakers, trainers or runners. What you call them is up to you but if your treads don’t cut it, they will slow you down. Good running shoes are an investment, look at Sonic’s…they’ve lasted for over 25 years. 

Image Credit: Bakaotaku (Flickr)

4. Be nice to animals

Now, you don’t have to go all vegetarian or vegan on me but treating animals with respect is a key lesson in the Sonic games, whether your two-tailed best friend or small, simple woodland creatures that have been kidnapped by Dr Robotnik, be nice to them all (even if your best friend does slow you down sometimes). 

Don’t be like Robotnik, experimenting on animals is cruel and these games are the reason I began my teenage years experimenting with makeup and hair products that weren’t tested on animals.  

5. The sea is evil

Underwater levels in all games, not just Sonic games taught me that the sea is pure evil. Many dangerous enemies lurk below the depths and as mammals we’re not meant to exist unless we’re above sea level because…well…oxygen. 

Sonic taught me this all too well, so next time you’re underwater and hear *that* music…get out before it’s too late. Or learn from Sonic’s failings and learn how to swim, it’s an important life skill after all. 

A Long Time Ago On A Console Far, Far Away

Originally written for Forces of Geek May 2018

There have been more Star Wars games than you can shake a stick at (a stick that may glow and go “whom, whom" when you wave it around) over the last few decades. Everyone knows that George Lucas made most of his millions through the toys on the first movie but the late seventies was also a time when video gaming started to become a big thing and the wish fulfilment of being able to play one of your favourite characters or even just explore the star wars universe was now a reality - a jagged blocky reality, but a promising one nevertheless.

There are countless Star Wars titles covering many genres over the decades that range from legendarily good (Knights Of The Old Republic) to laughably bad (Han Solo dancing in the Bespin carbon-freezing chamber in Star Wars Kinect). After the launch of various Lego/film tie-in games Disney acquired LucasFilm (and therefore LucasArts).

LucasArts have made great Star Wars titles but more than that they have made some spectacular games outside of the popular franchise: The Secret Of Monkey Island, Grim Fandango and Day of The Tentacle to name a few. And once they hit their stride they were the market leaders in good Star Wars games, you only need to look at their back catalogue to see that they’ve created over sixty individual titles in the franchise. Arguably, their best in the series was when they teamed up with Bioware to make Knights Of The Old Republic - without that game being as huge as it was, we wouldn't have games like Mass Effect and its successors. 

But I digress; LucasArts to me, has always been a cool company that comes from a great independent place however, that all changed in 2012 when Disney bought out LucasFilm (because Disney feel the need to own everything) and then proceeded to lay off LucasArts employees, out sourcing to other companies. LucasArts continued to function as a video game licensor with fewer than ten employees. In the process multiple future in-development projects were cancelled. And what have we had since then? 

While the cinematic universe and board game scene have been getting stellar releases that have been genuinely mammoth successes, the biggest video game titles we've had in the franchise are the Battlefront reboot series. 

I wasn’t sure at first how this reboot would differ or if it was entirely necessary so I played the beta alongside my husband and a couple of friends. The first positive was that I could play split screen with my husband, something that we have little option to do anymore in most AAA titles. I also felt that the multiplayer was incredibly fun and it felt as though I was part of the universe in the same way that I really feel like Batman in the Arkham Asylum games. The lack of campaign was the most noticeable issue for me, that and the game is quite limited. I mean, there’s only so many times you can play the same levels. 

Sunday, 13 May 2018

The Super 8-Bit Power Hour

Having been a guest on this fortnightly geek-centric podcast in the past, I was delighted to be asked to come onboard as a fully fledged member of it. We talk about all things, TV shows, anime, film and comics.

My first appearance as an official member of the podcast was on Ep.113 which aired on Friday 2nd February.

Please check it and the rest of the shows out on Soundcloud here or wherever you listen to your podcasts!

And please, share, like and subscribe on all social media platforms and maybe leave us a comment on iTunes. Thanks!

Gamers (As Seen On TV)

This rant was published on Forces Of Geek on 9th May 2018. I'd recently endured Ready Player One and was very disappointed in its representation of gamers. It got me thinking about all the terrible TV shows that portray gamers and wondering why they always get it so bad. Hope you enjoy it and please leave a comment if you have any good examples! 

The recent Spielberg film Ready Player One contains a slew of video game nods and references, many of which stirred its audiences nostalgia strings. Personally, I felt it had a lot of issues and despite being a film about a gamer on a hero’s journey and video games in general, I should have been its key demographic yet I was left underwhelmed and extremely unimpressed as the credits rolled. Of course, it’s not just big blockbuster films that fail to represent gamers or portray video games inaccurately, in fact the way they are depicted in TV has been a point of contention for a long time. 

One of the worst offenders is a show which really should know better as it claims to be about geek culture. In The Big Bang Theory, early on in the first series the cast are “playing” Halo 3. I adore the Halo series so seeing it on a mainstream TV show at first felt novel, I was pleased that it had permeated into primetime and yet watching Leonard and Co. press every button in quick succession made my blood boil. If the actors had actually been playing, they’d have jumped in the air, fired one shot and then blown themselves up with their own sticky grenade. To add further insult to the Halo gaming community, none of the actors even had their controller turned on!

Sure, that might just be an oversight by the props department and these are just actors doing their job but in a show that claims to be celebrating geek culture, these things matter. Also, when did actors start thinking that games controllers were steering wheels? So many shows portray gaming as flailing about and mashing buttons. But before you bring up the Nintendo Wii, this phenomenon has been a trend in film and TV for years, hell…it’s possibly even more prevalent in stock photography. 

Likewise, I know some games do actually warrant a small amount of button mashing but these games are either retro titles, where the controllers a stiff or they are quick time events in obscure Japanese RPGs which constitute a niche section of the gaming industry. In mainstream media, these games are not the ones being represented so why is there so much button mashing in commercials and TV shows?

The Big Bang Theory is not the only one to get Halo 3 wrong, I seem to remember an episode of Dexter where Michael C. Hall is playing it on a keyboard (many years before it had even been released on PC). One saving grace was that at least he knew how to use a sticky grenade but surely, it can’t cost that much to ask someone who actually plays games to fact check this kind of stuff? 

Even Breaking Bad has caused the gaming community to collectively eye roll, Jesse clearly distraught after shooting someone in the head is playing the game RAGE, that part in itself isn’t an issue given how cathartic gaming can be but he’s playing it standing up and with a light gun! I know he’s got all that meth-money but I’m preeeetty sure that game doesn’t come with a light gun.

In this day and age, it’s hard to believe that actors don’t know how to play or haven't played video games so what’s up with the inability to act like a gamer? Is it directors demanding more movement on screen? I understand that someone sitting motionless, concentrating on the screen and holding their controller perfectly still isn’t particularly exciting to watch. However, if that were the case then Let’s Plays wouldn’t dominate YouTube and Twitch wouldn’t be the successful live streaming service it is.  

And TV commercials, I get it…you need people to believe that playing on your console or game is the single best moment of these actors lives. You’re selling a product, cool…except please understand that actual gamers don’t fall for that, over acting our favourite activity is offensive to us. We buy games based on reviews (that hopefully aren’t paid for) or our love of a particular franchise or on the merit and calibre of a developers previous work.

Despite the overwhelming majority of TV shows getting it wrong, there are a few examples I’ve found that hit the nail on the head. The first are episodes 98 and 99 of the anime Gintama, where gamers are queuing up for the midnight release of the Bentendo Owee, an obvious parody of the Nintendo Wii. Given that the Wii was released just two years previously (one year if you count the manga which was the source material of show) it was an extremely current reference. These two episodes also highlight the passion of many gamers who will line up for hours to wait for a new release in a way that film or music fans don’t.  

Monday, 30 April 2018

In Defence Of Nintendo Labo

Hello readers, apologies...I've been away again! I wrote this just after the Nintendo Labo was announced for Forces Of Geek - hope you like it!

Nintendo is the company of nostalgia, the company and its fans absolutely revel in it. From the longevity of characters like Mario and Link to Nintendo’s habit of looking to the past for inspiration. Folded cardboard toys were something Nintendo were making 40 years ago and even those were seeped in history as paper toys in Japan were common during the Edo period.

If you’ve ever wondered what your Nintendo Switch would be like if it had the ability to transform into a piano, a dollhouse, a robot or even a fishing rod then Labo is definitely for you. These interactive kits are the latest contribution to the gaming community from Nintendo and are due for release in April 2018. 

The kits themselves are comprised of cardboard cut-outs and various other materials that can be assembled and are intended to incorporate the Nintendo Switch console as well as the Joy-Con controllers. The end result is the creation of what Nintendo is touting as ‘Toy-Cons’ that will interact with various software and Nintendo games. 

In fact, the robot seen in the trailer for Labo is actually a mini mech suit, with a visor that holds the left Joy-Con for motion sensing, leaving the right Joy-Con in the backpack so that it can read hand and feet movements. This means the player can actually move through a virtual world on-screen as if they were a giant, stompy robot! 


However, many people are dubious of Nintendo’s newest offering precisely because Labo components are made of cardboard. Yet, once you get over the initial shock of paying extortionate prices for corrugated, foldable card what remains is something truly different, revolutionary even. 

Hyperbolic as that may sound, when you consider how much plastic is condemned to landfill and how the games industry contributes to this (look at cases for game consoles and plastic toys, figures and peripherals) this is a better alternative. Sure, Nintendo has always been notorious for the latter but Labo suggests a more environmentally responsible way to play. 

Plus, it is a well known and documented fact that kids love cardboard boxes and often get more joy from packaging than the gifts inside (the same can also be said for cats but you catch my drift) and Nintendo are a company capitalising on this, after all they’re a business and one which has endured since 1889.    

Nintendo is known for taking risks, going against the fold and dare I say…thinking outside of the box. At its core, it has always been a toy company. One which seeks to spark the imagination of children. Nintendo has long focused on family and co-operative play and is always the innovator within the games industry. 

Monday, 5 February 2018

Video Game Characters Inspired By Myths and Legends

Originally written for Forces of Geek and published 26th January 2018.  

Since the dawn of time, humanity has been fascinated with myths, legends and lore, we’re social animals and some of our oldest stories can be traced back to thousands of years. Whether through religious superstition, oral tradition, stories and songs passed down through centuries, written accounts, fictitious embellishments describing strange mythical creatures and legendary protagonists, there’s no doubting humankind loves a good story.

It’s no surprise then, that one of our most popular forms of entertainment has oft looked to myth and legend for inspiration, I want to explore some of the video game characters that are imbued with mythical history or inspired by tales of old.

I’ll begin with an obvious game, one that probably came to mind while you were reading the previous two paragraphs, Pokémon. While not all pocket monsters are based on mythical beasts or creatures, this game series possesses multiple examples. It’s true that the majority of Pokémon stem from Japanese folktales however there are some that find their origins elsewhere. 

For instance, Zapdos, the flying bird that can summon lightning shares an uncanny similarity with a mythical bird found in Native American lore. Many tribes along the Pacific North West believed that there was a bird that brought with it, thunder, rain and lightning. These birds were said to have made a thunderous sound overhead as they flapped their wings, the Native Americans called these spirits, thunderbirds and they often adorned the tops of totems.

Sableye is another Pokémon that shares its origin somewhere other than Japanese folklore (I have plenty of examples of mythical game characters that relate to Japan, which I will get to later). In the late 20th century, there were multiple eyewitness accounts of a small extra terrestrial creature with bright glowing eyes, pointy ears and a slender frame (fun fact, the film Critters was also apparently based on these accounts). 

The sightings were contained to Kentucky and the whole occurrence has since become referred to as the Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter giving the critters in question the imaginative nickname of Hopkinsville Goblins.