When will we get a decent choose your own adventure videogame?

I spend a lot of time playing video games.

I also spend a lot of time reading and writing stories.

When I decide what game I want to play, it’s not which one has the best graphics, the most innovative gameplay or offers the biggest test of my skill that grabs my attention.

It’s which one can tell me the best story.

Because of that I’ve been really interested in looking at how games can help us tell stories, as the format uniquely puts the player directly in the driving seat of the character, making all of the decisions.

For years, we’ve been promised games where you can truly chose your own adventure, where you can play in fantastically realised worlds that is changed by your actions.

In my opinion, most games to date have failed at this.

Yes, you can make changes but they are usually superficial, or confined to the final few per cent of the game – do you get the happy ending, or the sad?; are you paragon or renegade?; do you get the werewolf powers or the vampire powers?

Going down one path might unlock a certain set of scenes or dialogue choices compared to another, but you essentially travel the same path and end up in the same place.

I can understand why: making a game is expensive and you don’t want to waste time recording dialogue and creating environments if half your audience is going to miss them.

To get around this script writers create ‘story vines’, where small branches come off the main trunk of the story but they always come back to that main drive to the end.

All of my favourite video games have a strong storytelling element, though none have managed a true ‘choose your own adventure’.

Some writers have tried to give a sense of true choice by going for open world games.

Supposedly, these allow you to tell the story you want to tell, but they still suffer from the same issue in that, yes, you can do the quests in any order, but once you start one you’re pretty much set to run on the rails of the game.

I also find that in most open world games, your actions can’t have too much of an effect on the world at large, because you risk breaking the narrative for quests later on (I found that Skyrim was a particularly bad offender in this regard).

It leaves this particular player feeling a little cheated – if my quests don’t change anything, what am I even doing them for?

The closest I have seen to a game with a true story tree, where your decisions branch off leading you towards a completely different path, are visual novels.

But while these games are rich in narrative, they are usually little more than glorified text adventure games with no voice acting and simple anime style graphics.

However, it does show that it’s possible to create a real choose your own adventure, but now if we could just join that together with decent graphics, we’d be laughing.

People have tried, most notably in the Telltale Games series, but all the ones I’ve tried have only ended up annoying me as no matter what you chose the outcome is usually the same.

(Which really irritates me. There’s more than one occasion where your Big Decision has zero effect on the game.)

One game that looks like it might succeed in marrying up high quality graphics etc and true choice story telling is Detroit: Become Human, which is due out this year, so here’s to hoping.

Then again, maybe I’m asking too much from my games because, as an old friend once told me:

“Playing games for the plot is like watching porn for the plot – there is one, but that’s not really the point, is it?”

This post was inspired by listening to Writing Excuses Season 12, Episode 21: Narrative Bumper Pool.

Review: Artemis by Andy Weir

Artemis by Andy Weir

Artemis follows the adventures of Jazz Bashara, who lives and works on the Moon

When Andy Weir released his first novel The Martian in 2011, it quickly became a surprise hit, eventually being made into a film starring Matt Damon.

Now, Weir is finally releasing his long awaited second novel Artemis, a thrilling story of lunar sabotage and subterfuge.

Several decades from now, mankind has set up its first ever permanent human lunar colony, Artemis. Founded by the Kenya Space Corporation, Artemis is the must-visit destination for scientists, business leaders and the excessively wealthy.

Keeping the city running is an army of support staff, from cleaners to architects. And at the very bottom of the social heap is Jazz Bashara – porter, part-time smuggler and our heroine.

One day, billionaire Trond Landvik offers Jazz a million slugs (lunar currency) if she will just do one tiny act of vandalism – blow up the station’s only way of producing fresh oxygen.

Should she accept? And if she does, how do you even go about blowing something up in the lunar vacuum?

As with The Martian, Weir uses the scientific practicalities of how people would actually go about surviving and thriving on the Moon to shape the plot.

Everything about Artemis has one foot in reality: all the technology either already exists, or probably will in the next decade or so. One rather surprisingly tense plot point comes from the health and safety procedures of getting in and out of an airlock.

Every challenge that Jazz is confronted with, she uses her scientific and engineering knowhow to make the perfect plan.

And as with every ‘perfect’ plan, it never runs smoothly.

Soon Jazz is drawn deeper into Artemis’s world of political intrigue and industrial espionage, a world she never expected, or wanted, to be a part of.

This political side of Artemis is just as well thought out as its scientific aspects.

In the here-and-now, space is no longer about Russia and the US: Europe and the Asian nations of China, India and Japan – not to mention private spaceflight companies – are transforming spaceflight from a purely scientific enterprise to a serious business model.

Weir’s vision of our lunar future is equally as diverse, with characters hailing from all over the globe brought together by the common dream of venturing out into the vast beyond.

The only real criticism of the book is its pacing. It takes a while to get going and while there are some incredible action set-pieces, the sections linking them together often fall a little flat.

Thankfully the lulls tailed off towards the end, and as I neared the grand finale I found myself racing to get to the conclusion.

Artemis is a fantastic view into what it would be like to live and work on the lunar landscape, wrapped up in smart and gripping novel.

A must-read for any future lunar dwellers.

How to play Hanabi two player

I suggested Hanabi in a previous post as being a really great two player game to bring couples together.

It is not, however, necessarily great from a game play point of view.

Over the years my partner and I have adapted the game as we’ve played and here is my advice for playing two player Hanabi.

Variant 1: Five cards

five card hanabi two player

Both players start with a hand of five cards.

This doesn’t give a lot of leeway.

You can only see five cards, opposed to the eight you can see in three player, so you have a lot less information making deductions much harder.

Not only that, but it’s easy to end up in a situation where one player has a ‘locked up hand’ where nothing is playable or discardable – you end up having to throw away a card even though you know it will stop you getting a high score.

This is annoying, and makes the game a lot less fun.

Variant 2: Five cards plus one

5cardsplus

Both players start with a hand of five cards and one additional card is placed face up on the table.

Either player can play or discard the card BUT discarding it doesn’t get you a clue back.

It’s amazing how helpful just one extra card is to working out what cards you have, as well as preventing a hand from locking up.

However, it’s still not perfect. There are times when you get a run on the shared card, constantly playing or discarding from the shared card for several turns in a row.

This feels like cheating.

While perfectly allowable in the modified rules, there’s no real finesse required. It undercuts the joy of puzzling out the situation with logic.

Variant 3: Six card hand

six card hanabi two playerEach player has a hand of six cards.

This, to me, is the best option we have tried so far.

There’s no runs, so no feeling of cheating, you have the extra information and even that one extra card means you rarely ever end up with a locked out hand.

There is, instead, a different problem: it ends too quickly.

All too often, we reach the end of a two player game only to find that the remaining playable cards are in one persons hand, but there are no more turns to play them.

With the clever use of clues, you can stall to play down as much as possible, but often in two player this is impossible to do to any meaningful degree.

There is nothing more frustrating in this game than getting to the end, knowing you can get a much better score but unable to play your cards.

Variant 4: Six card hand with an extra turn

Each player has a six cards and at the end of the game they get two turns to play down cards instead of the usual one.

This is a recent addition to our repertoire.

The small bit of extra freedom can lead to several more cards being laid down, and a much more satisfying end to the game.

However, some people I’ve played with say it feels like playing on after the clock has run down.

 

I suggest you try the options for yourself and see what works best.

The couple that games together, stays together

My partner and I have a game we play in the bedroom ­– Hanabi.

For those not familiar with boardgames, Hanabi is a co-operative card game of logic and deduction with a twist – you can’t see your own hand.

My partner, Sam, and I often play boardgames together but I realised that the two-player ones I most enjoy playing with him are co-operative games, where we working towards a shared goal.

Though I do love a good victory, it always feels slightly tainted when I’m only playing against Sam, because it means he’s lost.

But with a co-op game, we win and lose together. We are a team in the game, as we are in life.

We look at the situation together, listen to each other’s thoughts on what to do, decide on the best course of action and make compromises when we don’t agree, working as one towards the end goal – all good skills for a relationship.

Oddly, it is the losses not the wins that are the best for our continued domestic bliss. When we lose, it would be easy to fall prey to bitterness for some ‘stupid’ move our counterpart made.

But we’ve learned not to. And being able to rise over such petty resentments has helped us long after the game has gone back in the box.

But probably the best games are the ones where we aren’t allowed to communicate freely. Games like Hanabi, which we often play, as my misleading opening line would have you believe, in bed.

Couples game hanabi 2 player

Boardgames have been an important part of our relationship since day one

In Hanabi, you have to play cards in a certain order, but you can’t see your own hand and are limited in what you can tell your fellow players.

We’ve played the game together for years. We’ve grown to understand how the other thinks.

Now when Sam gives me a clue I can see the message beyond what he said. Unspoken communication – yet another great relationship skill.

And then when he fails to notice that I’m about to throw away a vital card which will screw us monumentally? Well, I usually blame that on him being tired rather than an idiot. Usually.

We recently purchased Codenames: Duet, another game of limited communication, this time about word association. We’ve played a few games, and I’ve already learned a lot more about the way his brain works (as well as the disparities in our vocabulary…).

What will I learn about his mind with more games? I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

From Russia with Rocks

On 15th February 2013 an explosion happened in the air above Chelyabinsk, Russia blowing out windows and doors for miles around. It was not, as many locals thought, a bomb going off but the shock wave created when a huge asteroid hit the earth’s atmosphere. News carriers around the world quickly picked up on the story, inviting experts to come and talk about the meteorite. Experts like me! I was contacted asking whether or not I’d like to go to Russia to film a documentary on the meteor. I, of course, said yes. After several manic days of trying to get visas and cold weather gear I was off.

It was great to be in the place where the meteor actually struck down.  It’s the first time something like this has happened and it’s been caught on camera. By looking at the footage scientists were quickly able to work out what direction the asteroid came from and how fast it was going. The best estimates put it somewhere around the 40,000mph mark.

Meteoroids are small particles of space rock, ranging from dust grains all the way up to kilometre sized asteroids. Meteoroids hit the Earth’s atmosphere all the time, around 50,000 tonnes of them a year. When this happens they, they become known as meteors. Most are small and burn up in the atmosphere, meaning they’re only dust when they reach the ground. By using stations across the globe designed to listen out for nuclear bombs, astronomers managed to work out how much energy the meteor created when it exploded, putting the size of the meteor at about 10,000 tonnes. Meteors of this size are thought to hit the planet once every 100 years or so. While it’s sad that so many people got hurt, it was really fortunate to have the event caught on so many cameras.

On the hunt

A quick explanation to camera before heading out into the snow fields to look for my rocks!

The day after we arrived we headed out into the countryside to ground zero: the spot directly underneath where the asteroid exploded. The fact that the area is covered in snow was actually a huge help to us meteorite hunters. I had to look for tiny holes in the snow, made by the meteorite as they showered from above. When you found a hole you had to dig around it, clearing a ring. Then I had to sift through the snow in the middle and hopefully find a meteorite. A lot of the holes were from mice or bits of tree but eventually me and the team got lucky and we found one! It was about the size of a jelly bean, covered in a black crust and felt really heavy.

Me and my Meteorite

Me with a 1kg meteorite found by the Urals Federal University.

We took the fragment to Urals Fedral University, where they were looking at the fragments already found. The discovered that the meteor was actually a rather average meteor, with about 7-10% iron, which was why the rock felt so heavy. I even got to look at a piece in a travelling electron microscope.

Despite the devastation that this meteor caused it was actually quite small, probably only 15m across, around the size of a house. The one that killed the dinosaurs was about 10km in size. Luckily those only happen every few million years and we’d probably see it coming. Projects like Pan-STARRS regularly scan the sky and can find nearly all asteroids that would risk wiping out all life on the planet. It hasn’t found any that are on a collision course with Earth, so there’s no need to worry. We’re not going the way of the dinosaurs anytime soon.

Meteor Strike: Fireball from Space is currently available on 4OD. If you haven’t seen it already, you might want to give it a look.