Review: Blindscape

I recently played Blindscape, a free mobile ‘game’, though it is far more accurately described on its title page as ‘an interactive audio story’.

The quirk of this game is that the screen is completely blank.

Instead, a blind narrator tells you his story as he tries to escape the confines of his apartment.

You have to tap randomly about on the black screen to find and open doors then navigate around by sound (you’ll need earphones).

It was a really interesting way to use the format without feeling gimmicky as it helped you to get into the mind set of someone who couldn’t see, and forcing you to wear headphones shut out the world allowing you to be fully immersed in the narrative.

My only real complaint was that it was only 10 minutes long and left me wanting to know more about this world.

That said, I think the format might have dragged if it had lasted much longer, and the reason I decided to play it in the first place was because of its brevity.

I’m really interested in seeing how new media can be used to tell stories in a much more interactive way – Blindscape really showed that sometimes the best way to do that is to tear away all the bells and whistles and let the story do the talking.

New games!

This weekend I had a bunch of people around who brought with them a whoooooole bunch of new games, several of which go up to six players! So here’s a short run-down of what I played, and what I thought of them.

Betrayal of Balder’s Gate:  Betrayal at House on the Hill, but with a D&D theme. There are a couple of rule changes — you can attack mid move, the haunt can’t come out before the third omen — that all help to keep the game moving. Being based on a role play game, the story telling elements were all on point and the inn jokes (I’m so punny) made me smile. Unfortunately, both times we played there was no individual betrayer, which kind of took out half the fun.

Subterra: Forbidden Island extreme. With monsters. My friend had the SuperDuperDelux edition which is very pretty, but I did find it rather hard to see the tiles as they were so dark (which might be half the point. You are supposed to be in a dark cave). We died the first time, then played with the Investigation expansion the second time which seemed much easier. It was fun, but it didn’t seem very different from similar games, so I kind of felt I’d played the game before.

Ticket to Ride, Old WestFinally! A proper six player Ticket map! This is the flip-side of the new France expansion. The new rules require you to put down Towns and you have to build out from those — so everything has to be connected. No more suddenly going on the other side of the board to grow your ever expanding train empire. Also, if you build a route to another person’s town they get the points, not you. Interesting take on the game and the rules really change things up. I just wish I’d realised how important putting down more Towns was. I did not do well…

First MartiansYou are astronauts on a Martian colony. You have to keep it running, complete missions and survive events which are thrown at you by an app. It’s a great mix of good mechanics and strong storytelling. Unfortunately, it has the WORST rule book I have read in a long time, and we were constantly FAQing everything. I was also a bit annoyed that you HAVE to have an app for the events when a deck of cards could also do the job for those without a smartphone (yes, those people do exist). Having got to grips with it however, I would love to keep playing especially as it has a campaign mode and I love me some of that!

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.

Review: Fragments of Him

fragments-of-him-titleA tragic accident one morning takes a young man’s life. Though he is dead, he is not entirely gone, living on in the people he has left behind.

This is the set up for Fragments of Him, a walking simulator by indy developer Sassybot. It’s a title that is more narrative experience than true game, taking the player through the life of Will, the eponymous Him. As it does so, the game explores the true nature of love and grief, as well as tackling topics such as polyamory and homophobia.

The narrative follows the three people who loved Will most: first Mary, his grandmother who raised him, then Sarah his ex-girlfriend who stepped aside allowing Will to find true love with Harry, whose grief over losing his partner is shown in the final act. Throughout this, we see Will as he prepares for the what will ultimately be his last day, thinking of the past and looking forward to the future.

Certain aspects of this story line were expertly done. Hearing Will’s voice over as he plans a future the player knows he will never have does a fantastic job of reaching right into the chest, grabbing the heartstrings and yanking.  It’s a cheap trick, but an effective one.

I also enjoyed Mary’s story. She does not react well to learning of her son’s male lover, and getting a view inside her head as she tries to justify her reaction was a very interesting take on homophobia I haven’t seen before.

However, Sarah and Harry’s stories were less compelling. The game repeatedly tells you how in love Will is with the pair, but never really shows it. The end result is I never felt connected with either character. There was an interesting story buried in there somewhere, but it was somewhat lost in the telling.

Fragments of Him gameplay

The graphics of Fragments of Him features simplified, largely grey scale graphics, relying on voice over to provide emotion. Credit: Sassybot

The gameplay was also disconnected from the story for the most part, just requiring you to move around and click on different objects. There was no real choices to be made, no grand vistas to explore, just you plodding through the story. This made things drag in some places, particularly when you had to spend a minute searching for one thing you missed to click on.

There were a few places however that this play style was used very effectively. During Harry’s mourning, you have to go through the house clearing out everything, really hammering home the sense of complete loss.

The graphics were very minimalist, clean lines all shaded in a sort of off-white grey scale. Bleaching all colour out of the world really helped to add to the sense of desolation, echoing the sense of mourning once again.

The characters were portrayed as blank mannequins, instead relying on voice overs to convey emotion. Thankfully, the voice acting was spot on and a few other clever tricks helped bring the characters to life, though not enough to compensate for the flaws in scripting.

When I finished playing Fragments of Him, I walked away thinking: about life, love and loss. I think this was the game maker’s plan, so well done. Purpose very much achieved.

Summary: An intriguing, but flawed story about loosing a loved one that doesn’t quite measure up to its promise, but a worthwhile play none the less.

Review: The Martian

The Martian still

Mark Watney sits on the surface of Mars. Credit: 20th Century Fox

Alone on a planet where the air will kill you, the ground is barren, and it’s so cold you’ll freeze to death; you wake up and realise no one even knows you’re alive. This is the situation that Mark Watney (Matt Damon) finds himself in the latest blockbuster, The Martian. After a disaster on his mission to the red planet, Watney is left behind 140 million miles from aid, with no way to contact Earth. The only man on Mars has nothing but his wits to survive.

Luckily, it’s not long before NASA realises they’ve left a man behind and begin to mount the most ambitious rescue mission in history. For every step closer Watney takes to coming home, another thing breaks, explodes or tries to kill him. While the whole world is looking to Mars in support of Watney, there are many times when the only person he can rely on is himself.

The action flicks back between Mars, those on Earth and the vessel carrying the five other crew mates back and forth between the two. The reminder of all the people that were working to bring one man home helped to give heart to what could so easily have been a dry story of one man growing potatoes and fixing things. However, while this served to highlight the triumphs of every obstacle overcome, it seemed to do the opposite for every set back that occurred on Mars. Major accidents that could easily have killed Watney were easily fixed with a roll of duct tape in a few minutes, making it seem that surviving on Mars was relatively easy when in truth it is anything but.

The bigger challenge was the constant struggle with loneliness, and it was here that the film shone. Though thousands at NASA work tirelessly, ultimately Watney is alone. Fantastically played by Damon, he has nothing but is intellect and smarm to fend off not only the inhospitable Martian terrain, but the psychological horror of being the only living soul on an entire planet.
Nowhere is this conflict more apparent than in the depiction of the planet itself. Mars is shown in its full majestic beauty, at once showing the incredible wonder that inspires and draws people to it while simultaneously emphasising its barrenness and emptiness. This is a world that humans cannot survive on, and yet Watney does.

For those of you that have read Andy Weir’s book on which the film is based, there are several changes. Where the book deals with how to survive on Mars, the film concentrates much more on the rescue. Much of the hardcore science nerdery is mentioned, but passed over quickly and several of Watney’s major disasters are by skipped completely, but the spirit and humour of the book very much remains. If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend giving it a read. Bring a calculator.

The Martian is a tribute to human determination and exploration and I highly recommend it.

The Martian will be showing in cinemas around the UK from 1 October.