Tuesday, January 9, 2018

In Media Res: Life is Strange and Narrative-Driven Video Games

by Angie

Confession time. I have a tenancy to forget that I am playing a game. There are some games that I intentionally don't finish, I just grow tired of playing them and walk away. There are games that I convince myself I am going to "go back to someday and finish" because I am still enjoying but I have something else I want to play but I'm still really enjoying it. And then sometimes life just gets busy or I get frustrated with something about a game and decide to take a break for a day and do something else entirely and somehow it slips through the cracks and I completely forget that I was playing it at all. It's not that I have plans to "go finish that someday", or even that I'm bored with them, it's just that I... forgot?

Rewind to sometime in the way back years of 2011. I discovered a "new" style of narrative-driven adventure games. The first one I played was Heavy Rain. It was roleplaying in a whole new way. I wrote about the way it made me feel at the time, and it's still of the most emotional experiences I've ever had in gaming. 

Oh, Ethan. How far would you go??

About a year later The Walking Dead Season One came out, and I was once again captivated. I had zero interest in the Walking Dead franchise, but I had read so many cool things about the game, so I picked it up and I was immediately drawn into the story of Lee and Clementine. Another story that has stuck with me for years. 

Oh, Lee. What would you do for Clem?

Since then I have eagerly played as many of the narrative-driven, often episodic, games as I could. Telltale Games is especially known for putting out these types of adventure games, and has an entire selection of them now ranging from Batman to Minecraft Story Mode. Despite the strong emotional impact of Walking Dead, my favorite so far has bee Tales From the Borderlands, which also had an emotional impact but was also just so *fun*. I loved the characters and felt really invested in the story. I am a big Borderlands fan, so my delight in the universe played a huge role I'm sure. The fun style, the friends-frienemies story between Rhys and Fiona, the jokes (I laughed out loud in this game so many times! BEST FRIEND LOADER-BOT!), the great use of music, and the moments of action-game feel really made it feel like I was in for a fun ride.  

Oh, Rhys and Fiona. I love you both so much!

Sometime after Tales of the Borderlands, fellow Growing Up Gamers blogger Julian recommended to me a new game he was playing called Life is Strange. This one was not a Telltale Games adventure, and he was raving about the story and the fact that it had a neat new mechanic where you could rewind time to see how other decisions could have played out. This sounded like a fun new evolution, first we get choices that matter and now we have games where choices matter but we can play around with deciding which way we want those choices to impact the story. I'm in! 

Max can rewind time and change her choices!

I played through the first episode of Life is Strange right away and loved it. Cool story, great characters, and the fact it was set in Oregon was a really fun bonus. One thing I noticed that I especially enjoyed was the use of music in the game. This is a thing I enjoyed a lot about Borderlands and while Life is Strange did it completely differently I'm coming to appreciate how much of an impact it can have on my experience, and have been trying not to immediately mute a game and play with my own music on!

I really like the general vibe of this game, it's relaxing but sometimes intense

One of the things I liked the most about the first chapter of Life is Strange was the emerging/rekindling friendship story between Max and Chloe. That was what I enjoyed so much about Walking Dead, the friendship between Lee and Clemintine, but that game was so stressful. Life is Strange definitely has stressful things going on in it, but the rewind power makes it so I know I can go back and (probably?) fix my mistakes. I was invested in their story and eager to see how it played out.

I really want this to all work out for them. They seem like they could be good BFF's

And then it happened. I got stuck on a minor thing in Chapter 2. It was frustrating me so I decided to take a break. The next day I chose to watch TV or something instead of playing the game. I probably started binge watching a show. And despite my enjoyment of the game and investment in the characters, I completely forgot I was playing it!

Fast forward to last week. My friend started streaming games on Twitch and when she said she would be streaming Life is Strange I suddenly remembered Max and Chloe and all the things I wanted to do! I had 3 and a half chapters to go! I hastily "finished" Chapter 2 so I could watch her stream without spoilers. I say "finished" because it was late at night, a dramatic thing happened and there was an emotional scene, and I somehow told myself it was over despite not seeing credits roll.

The feels. Also, get off the train tracks kids!

So, I jumped into the stream eager to watch someone else play the game and see the choices she would make. One question I always have is how do your choices really impact the story, and can it really have a difference?  I think it's super engaging with a game of this sort to see the choices other people make and how they play out, especially if they are scripted well so that some of the consequences may not appear until much later. I think that its possible that in many instances you have the illusion of consequence more than actual branching paths, and perhaps watching all the permutations could break that, but I'm still willing to buy into my choices and story. I'm a role-player, after all :)

I thoroughly enjoyed watching the stream and participating in the chat. It's exciting to experience the story reveals along with others. Eagerly anticipating the next stream, I went to play Chapter 3 to stay ahead and turns out I hadn't finished Chapter 2 after all. No spoilers but WHOA there's a major story moment at the end of chapter 2! I definitely would have remembered that, so I'm glad I had to cut out of the stream a few minutes before she got to that part, although I am very curious how our choices differed.

If you want to join in on the fun, my friend Mrs_Growley  will be streaming Episode 3 tonight, January 9th, at 6:30pm PST on her Twitch channel. Excuse me while I got play Chapter 3! Come join us for the stream, or check out the stream archives on the channel if you're interested.

What's your favorite narrative-driven video game?

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Jack's Game Review Zone- Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

by Jack, age 9

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is an award-winning game set in the amazing world of Hyrule. 

Here are some pros about the game: 

  • it has about 3 whole years of content (including DLC)
  • unlike other games in the series there are lots of weapons
  • 5 main story bosses
  • unlike other games in the series it is has a completely open world.  
  • it has an amazing storyline

No cons I can think of. 

While I played it I liked how there was lots of treasure, amazing graphics and lots of content. One thing that was frustrating was the icy mountain. 

Five out of five stars, definitely would recommend to a friend

(Cross-post from Jack's new blog!)

Sunday, December 31, 2017

In Media Res: A Breath of Fresh Air with Breath of the Wild

by Angie

On all the "2017 Game of the Year" lists for video games that I've seen, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was in the well-deserved top spot. I've played some great video games this year, and I think Nintendo hit it out of the park with their latest entries in both the Mario and Zelda franchises for the Nintendo Switch. They both capture everything I've loved about the games in the past, but with all the modern video game innovations I've come to love. Did Breath of the Wild do it better? I'll leave that for people who like ranking things to debate and decide, and instead talk about something I think Breath of the Wild does really, really well.

In Breath of the Wild, Hyrule feels like a fully realized world, more so than in any other video game I've played. So much so that when talking about the game I've often described the world, the environment and the things in it, as the main character in the game. Yes, you play as Link, but every bit of the game has you thinking about how you are going to move about, interact with, and experience the world of Hyrule. From your first few steps out into the world, you don't have trees rendered as objects in the "background" to look pretty; they are places where you forage for precious food like apples, mushrooms, and acorns (and if you are lucky a bird's nest with eggs or a bee's hive with honey!) make weapons from the branches, collect rare beetles from the bark, climb to get a good vantage point for scouting and hide from monsters, or even to chop down to collect firewood or make a bridge. And that's just the beginning. If you haven't seen or played Breath of the Wild, I highly recommend checking it out if you are able, there's something special captured in this game. 

You can go anywhere you can see! I've explored all of that and more!
We got Breath of the Wild on the day the Nintendo Switch released last March, and I played it A LOT. I didn't finish exploring all the content in the game, I never do, but I did "defeat Ganon" which is getting a lot further into a game that I often go. I still had a list of personal objectives I was planning to come back to, but again, I always do (I'm still going to finish Knights of the Old Republic someday, ok?!?) 

No spoilers, but I didn't get the right ending, I'm going to try again...
Fast forward to this month. Having just played a huge helping of Mario Odyssey (I'm at about 630 moons collected as I write this!) I was thinking about how wonderful the sense of discovery has been in the new Nintendo games I've played. I'm always excited to see other people discovering a game I've loved for the first time, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to watch both a friend and my mom experience the first few hours of Breath of the Wild in the past couple weeks. From finding their first tree branch to fight to running away from an angry club-wielding bokoblin to accidentally setting a field on fire to hunting around for every last piece of edible vegetation they could find to restore their hearts, I loved every minute of it. Especially the sense of wonder and awe as they realized the scale of the world and their ability to affect it. Discovering a treasure chest underwater and using a newly learned rune power to acquire it, or climbing straight up a cliff to a high point instead of taking the longer path around, those moments were such triumphs!

Aww, look at that little hero finding his way in the world! 
Watching this made me realize I had gotten to a point in the game where everything was easy, and that was part of why my interest had waned. I had a ton of great equipment. All the best food. I didn't have to desperately run around looking for an apple or fight with a half broken tree branch anymore, I was a full-fledged hero with the Master Sword, and that's GREAT, but there's a certain nostalgia to the good ol' days of hardship my little burgeoning hero faced when he emerged from the shrine of resurrection in his underwear....

My Champion Link, with all his gear!
Then I remembered... THE ISLAND OF DOOM! At some point when I was out discovering shrines and filling out my map I saw an island out in the distance, and I swam all the way out there. I didn't yet know how to use Korok leaves to propel rafts, nor did I have a lot of stamina, so this truly was an epic feat. I was so proud of myself, using many stamina recovering items I carefully cooked up to make my way out there and I was ready to enjoy my discovery. And when I got there.. I heard a voice, and then she took away all my stuff!!!!! 

Wait, what?! Even my clothes? What is it with heroes in their underwear Nintendo?
The challenge of the island was to start from scratch and scavenge new supplies, cook items, and defeat the enemies on the island, in your underwear (Side note: my son thinks it is hilarious that you can buy a boxer shorts outfit for Mario in Mario Odyssey, in a 9 year old's words "because its ALWAYS funny to see people run around in their unders!"). At the time, I only had a few hearts, and the experience of scrounging for weapons and food wasn't filled with a whimsical nostalgia yet! So, I tried and died a few times, which causes you to start completely over. Then I gave up and marked it on the map, thinking maybe someday if I was feeling particularly completionist I'd come back. 

So here I am feeling nostalgic for the struggles of a new hero, but I don't want to start over, so remembering this island made me think the developers were geniuses. You get to have all the feels of being a new hero, but keep your cool powers and heart and stamina upgrades so it's not really THAT hard. So, I set off to go try my hand at survival island! 

This time I realized you can actually just paraglide there.
This is where I tell you how I am so good at the game now that it was a total cake walk. But it was hard, I died and started completely from the beginning at least twice. I lost one of the ball things you need to open the shrine really far out in the ocean and sat on the beach for a good cry before my sweet husband looked it up and found out that it will respawn if you camp on the other side of the island. I nearly jumped up and down with excitement when I found my favorite food in the whole game, a Hearty Durian tree! Then I lamented that to actually use it I'd need to fight my way to the cooking pot :(

Every last bit of food was precious again!
Overall, this experience was wonderful. It was like a breath of fresh air, it totally revitalized my interest in the game and got me thinking about all the other little corners of the world I had yet to explore. I was really happy to get all my gear back, but I didn't take it for granted as much anymore. I was picking up apples again! I checked out the DLC Season Pass and one of the things available is the Master Trials, which is apparently exactly that same kind of experience as the Eventide Island survival shrine! 

So, I'm in my undies again hunh? *Sigh*
Link in his underwear with no gear again, but this time for something like 45 grueling levels of increasing difficulty and an amazing reward, so I immediately went and purchased the season pass and started throwing myself against that wall. I've now died several times and made it like, 6 or 7 levels in. This is going to be great! Wish me luck?!

I've got this! Probably! Maybe! Send help if you don't hear from me in a week?
Have you played Breath of the Wild? Are you still playing? What holds your interest in a vast, open world game?

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

In Media Res: Charterstone and Legacy Games

Hi! Angie here! It’s been quite a while since I’ve blogged about gaming. I’m going to take another stab at this. There’s so much to catch up on! Instead of making any kind of attempt at “getting caught up to current”, I’m going to fast forward to *right now* and start writing about the things we are playing today, this week, and recent times that really stand out. If as I go along this spurs something from the gap years that seems fun to fill in I’ll do one of those flashback things and, well, we’ll see what happens…

I’ve got many areas of interest in gaming these days:
  1. Board Games
  2. Roleplaying Games (this currently consists of a weekly Shadowrun 5E campaign)
  3. Console Video Games
  4. Mobile Games
  5. Hearthstone (my interest/time investment is big enough for it to get its own category)
  6. Magic the Gathering (I don’t play much outside occasional Magic League these days but I’m still very interested in the game)
  7. Game Design (we’ve released two published games since I last regularly blogged!)
  8. Any Game I Can Play with My Littlest Kid (the big one plays almost everything)
  9. Sports/Competitions the Kids Participate In (Battle of the Books, lacrosse, the little guy insists he is going to play football and baseball but we’ll see)

The idea is that for a post I will grab a category or two, tell you what we’ve been playing, and share some thoughts or experiences… anything from a mini-review to a rave about a great mechanism to a rant about a frustrating level to a funny story about a game I played. Hopefully this will be interesting enough that you’ll come back. Enough blah blah… :)

Board Games: Leaving a Legacy

I think the current definition of a legacy game is a board game that changes and evolves as you play it to reflect the choices the players make, and has persistent effects on the game from session to session. This usually involves writing on the game board and cards, using stickers, (maybe ripping stuff up!), opening up surprise boxes of new pieces, and adding rules and other twists to the game. The ones I’m familiar with have a set number of games that form a “campaign” of linked games, and once you play through those game you are done exploring the new content and have created a unique version of the game that you can (theoretically) continue to play. One big draw of these games is the sense of wonder and discovery as you find out what comes next. Another is the variety of gameplay as the game is constantly changing and evolving. Both of these have an incredible appeal to me.

The only time I’ve played one was Risk: Legacy, and we blogged about our first three games (we played 5 or 6 total) but didn’t write them all up because we weren’t entirely sure how to deal with spoilers and while the in-depth character stories we were writing were fun it was a lot of work to keep up with after playing a few back-to-back sessions. Additionally we had the problem of trying to coordinate sessions where exactly the same players (and no one else) got together to play and ultimately we just decided there were other things we’d rather do.

Since Risk: Legacy, I have watched from the sidelines as legacy games have taken off and become a whole genre, and wanted to dive back into one, but wondered how to surmount those problems. Enter Charterstone. It’s so cute. Everything I read says the games take about an hour… but, a *real* hour, not one of those “this takes and hour but really 2”. My husband Randy and just-turned-12 year old daughter Katie both really like worker placement games, AND they are a captive audience that I can get to replay a game with me over and over without so much coordination. SOLD SOLD SOLD. And, after a *few* well-placed hints, Katie got me a copy of Charterstone for Christmas! Let’s do this! We are three games in, which we played all in a row on Christmas day, and I’m loving it. I want to open all the crates and see what all the cards do and cover the board in stickers. And, did I mention that it’s so cute??

One thing that cracks me up is that when I showed Katie what Charterstone was she was like “No no no, no…. Why?!? No. Writing on cards? Stickers on the board?! This is… no. We can’t do that. No.” She said it was sooooo stressful the first game, but a few games in and she’s peeling of stickers and asking for the sharpie with a big smile on her face. She’s perfectly happy to write "something funny" on a card now, so thanks Stonemaier Games for breaking her aversion to the concept of legacy games!

So far I have only one complaint, and I suppose you could call it spoiler-ish so avert your eyes and skip to the next paragraph if you are very sensitive….. In our last game I eagerly opened a crate right near the end of the game and three REALLY great buildings came out. I didn’t have enough time left to build any of them because another player (*ahem* Randy) spent his influence on that same turn and started running out the clock, and I can only carry one over in my personal supply to the next game (the rest will go into the general advancement supply). And because we have 3 inactive charters there’s a chance they will get built immediately into one of those. But if they don’t they will be available for my opponents to grab and build for *very many points* even though I worked so hard on the chain of things to unlock them, and it feels really unfair. I knew I might have to chose one to go in the general supply if I couldn’t get it built, but I had no idea so many could come out of a crate at once. If I had any idea that was going to happen I would have opened the crate at the *beginning* of the next game so I had some time to build one or two of them myself. /SIGH. I guess it’s just a thing about legacy games is that you will sometimes back yourself into a corner that is disadvantageous. It’s just a really weird feeling in a worker placement game where points are tight, and where you have a sense of building up towards an overall victory at the end.

I’m really eager to play again and excited for all the cool new discoveries. I feel like there are many things we aren’t yet fully using that we *have* uncovered, and obviously many things yet to reveal. I’ll check back in on this one after a few more plays.

Have you played Charterstone or another legacy game? Thoughts?

Monday, October 30, 2017

Storm Hollow: Call To Adventure is on Kickstarter!

by Randy

Storm Hollow: Call To Adventure!

Storm Hollow, the epic storytelling adventure game by Angie & Julian (two of the authors of this blog!) is on Kickstarter! Storm Hollow is a lavishly illustrated storytelling game where players play heroic versions of themselves transported to the world where all the stories happened! Battle darkness, solve puzzles, outwit your enemies! The Storm Hollow storytelling system is a great introduction to roleplaying, though there is plenty for veteran roleplayers who love good stories.


Tuesday, September 12, 2017

And the winner...

by Randy

The winner of the Storm Hollow Treasury raffle is....

Courtney Brown!

We are so grateful that so many of you stepped up to be heroes for the people of Houston. Thank you so much, every one of you! Your generosity is appreciated.

And thank you to Game Salute for helping us make this happen.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Hurricane Harvey Raffle Update!

By Randy

Update on the Hurricane Harvey Raffle!

We want to thank everyone who has donated to the Houston Food Bank so far; you are kind and generous people, every one. We discovered, after posting the original post, that it had an incorrect email address for the first 24 hours. We are concerned that some of you may not have received entries for your donations. So we are extending the deadline for entry until noon PST tomorrow. If you donated and sent us your info, you should have received an email response from escapadegames@gmail.com. If you did not, please re-send your info!