Scotch Corner – It’s All About The Narrative

Read Stuart’s column every week in The Scottish Sun, where he shares his reviews, news and podcasts with the 99.3% of the World’s population not fortunate enough to be able to buy a physical copy of the paper. The following appeared originally in The Scottish Sun on Sunday 1st September.


One not to a-Void…

CARA ELLISON is a rare breed in gaming.  The 33-year-old — who was born in Edinburgh but grew up in Aberdeen — spent her early career as a product critic, becoming a strong voice about the depiction of sex and violence in games.  But then she got involved in game development — working on titles like Dishonored 2, recent release Void Bastards and new title Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines 2.  I find out what makes her tick . . .  FEISTY game star Cara Ellison is the role model to others that she never had as a kid.  The Scot admits she doubted women could make a career in the industry because it seemed targeted at the guys.  But she has changed that perception with an influential job as a critic before letting her creative juices flow on the development team.  She admitted:

“I don’t think I thought games could be for me until the era of Tomb Raider, Simcity 2000 and Dungeon Keeper, but by that time PlayStation had started to market games specifically to men and Nintendo called their portable console a ‘Gameboy’ which seemed to indicate that games weren’t really for women.  Of course, women were playing games secretly.  Probably there are grandmas out there who could whoop my ass at Tetris.  But now it’s much more accepted that women are part of the industry and want to see games made for them.  Women characters seem to get made more often now.”

She had also feared there would be no openings for her in the UK.  She added:

“Games only seemed to be made in the US and Japan, but I hardly ever saw any role models in the industry as a kid.”

While doing her English degree in Edinburgh, Cara wrote the narrative for an educational app for children.  She said:

“That was my first paid games work.  I worked in publishing in Edinburgh and was a QA tester on Grand Theft Auto IV at Rockstar Games, went travelling, joined BBC Radio for a time then fell into writing about games as a critic.  I started making my own little games — portfolio pieces for places like Arkane, where I was hired for Dishonored 2, and later for other major studios.  My job is generally referred to as ‘narrative design’.  It is about 50 per cent design, 30 per cent production skills, and about 20 per cent writing, which is the very last thing you do in the process.”

Along the way she was writing for the likes of PC Gamer, Rock, Paper, Shotgun and The Guardian.  However, she said:

“I am no longer a games critic, mainly because I haven’t got time to play other people’s games very often, but more because it feels difficult and hypocritical to write about my colleagues’ games now.”

She is making her own headlines with games like Void Bastards — adding her own small slice of Scottishness along the way.  Cara said:

“Ben Lee, the art director, interviewed me for the job.  Davey Wreden, who made The Stanley Parable, recommended me.  Jon Chey and Ben already had an idea for a System Shock-based tactical game.  We talked about the Red Dwarf books and their dark humour, and we got talking about Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.  Void Bastards is very much inspired by British bureaucratic processes — in particular the welfare and unemployment system.  The UK has been ruined by a Tory government and years of austerity.  People are exhausted and demeaned by how little regard our government has for human life.”

The game also features “ion-bru” and Scottish pirates, but Cara insisted:

“I try to keep my Scottishness to a minimum on a lot of projects because most of my work comes from the US and Canada, and those jokes are not really found consistently funny there.  No one would know what Irn-Bru is there really.  I do occasionally have trouble with the terms that Americans, in particular, use for things.  I wrote ‘hob’ in a design document the other day and no one in my office knew I meant ‘stove’.  I don’t get to write Scots very often so when the Void Bastards team was like ‘go wild’, I wrote the pirates and some of the Juve lines with the most Scottish swearing I knew how to muster.  Then they made me voice the pirates, which is the ultimate punishment for a writer.  I enjoy the variety of language Scottish people have access to when they get angry.  I only really appreciate it now I live in Seattle and people are way too polite.”

Cara’s next game, Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines 2, is also on the horizon and she was at the recent E3 exhibition to show it off.  She said:

“I guess I never thought an interactive fiction enthusiast would be writing a game that everyone has waited for since about 2005.  It feels terrifying, which is exactly the way it should feel.  Brian Mitsoda and believe that if you’re a writer who isn’t scared about how your writing will be received you might not be any good any more.  The anxiety keeps the fire hot.”

However, working on such a loved franchise brought its own stress.  Cara said:

“The pressure is sometimes unbearable, but working with the writer who designed the first one helps a lot.  He really knows what he’s doing.  He’s effortlessly funny and interesting with everything he writes.  I think he’s probably the industry’s best-kept secret.  I’m a fan of the original.  Brian hired me because I wrote about the writing in Bloodlines 1, and Annie Mitsoda, who is his wife and a talented narrative designer, was a fan of my writing from a long time ago.  It’s possible she is responsible for my being here.  She is very powerful.”

But Masquerade 2 is almost the perfect project.  She said:

“I love writing vampires.  They are scary and sexy and monstrous.  They hate and manipulate each other every night.  I have a couple other things in the works, but not as involved as writing a massive RPG.  I just like sitting in a little corner with Brian, making him laugh at my bad jokes and writing pretty much what I like every day.  I like putting two characters in a pressure cooker and watching them explode.  If you give me space to do that, I’ll do it forever.”

Vigor (Xbox One, FREE)

IT must be a buzz for developers to see their game go from preview to full-blown release.  And it must be daunting because that’s when the public give you a thumb up or down.  Czech studio Bohemia Interactive – the team behind the ARMA series and DayZ – will be having those palpitations with Vigor.  The Xbox exclusive has seen a few big tweaks between the preview version and the final offering — the biggest being that the game has now gone free to play so anyone can download it and get stuck in.  What you get is a blend of Battle Royal and shooter looters with a game set in 1991 after a nuclear war.  Norway has been left as one of the few “safe” places on the planet.

It’s up to you to navigate this lawless land and survive.  Finders often means keepers so your main focus is to search for resources which you can then use to build up your home base and get better gear and weapons.  But, needless to say, you are not alone when you travel across good-size areas from mountain sides to blizzard-hit villages.  They really look the part and help you build a feel for the game.  You’re dropped into the game with 11 other players or six groups of two if you’re playing teams, but there are few ways to find them or even track how many are still alive.  That creates a real tension as you embark on each outing — you have no idea what, or who is lying in wait.

The downside is that Vigor has a one-and-you-are-done philosophy.  If you die then you’re heading home and you have lost all your hard-earned loot and gear.  That forces to think very carefully about what you pick up — get that powerful weapon and die and it’s gone.  This is really a risk-and-reward game about how far you can push your luck.  It is worth noting that there is no need to kill everyone so think about your actions.  It’s almost real human nature.  With it being a free to play title it will hopefully get regular updates.  It needs a few tweaks just now — especially to the gunplay.  Things lag when it comes to the crunch and the excitement at upgrading soon turns into a grind, so we would welcome more things to do or different modes.  This is out of the ordinary and a break from your usual fare on the Xbox.  It’s full of vim and Vigor and, being free, there is no reason not to try it out.

Score: 3/5

RAD (Xbox One, PS4, Switch and PC, £15.99)

NOTHING is simple in a gaming future and things are not looking good in RAD.  The Double Fine roguelike creation shows us a world that has been nuked TWICE.  The survivors have built a culture with a strong link to the late 80s/early 90s where floppy disk open chests and cassettes — ask an adult — can buy your dinner.  You fill the high tops of a cool teen who has to find 50p for the meter as your home town has lost power.  It’s up to you to head out into the wilds with your magic baseball bat to find a new power source.  It’s a light frame but it holds everything together.

The gameplay takes the lead as each run sees you able to mutate as you level up.  You can suddenly lay spider-like eggs or throw your head like a bomb against nasty creatures  . . .  however, each mutation is randomly picked for you.  It’s a fun hook because you never know what’s coming but the game is also procedurally- generated so that plays a big part in each run.  You may get a strong one and be super-powered in no time, or it could be a weak one where you don’t get a break —anywhere.

The levels follow a set format of finding a number of “keys” to unlock a dungeon then beat a boss to get an upgrade.  Then you do it all over again and all in front of an ever-changing neon-soaked backdrop.  If you die — which you will because the game is not that easy — then fear not, because you can bank cassettes on each run so future outings can use them instead of you instantly losing everything if a run fails.  This is a fun roguelike that gives you a flavour of the 90s.  So, it’s a must for anyone pining for that decade.  The rest of us will find an addictive game loop where you always want one more run.

Score: 4/5

Horace (PC, £10.99)

HORACE may be walking under your radar at the moment, but pay attention or you will regret it.  The indie title by Paul Helman and Sean Scapelhorn is a rock- solid pixel platformer wrapped in an epic tale that will have you throwing your laptop around the room sooner than later.  Horace is a robot butler who looks after the family that made him.  The early sections play as a kind of tutorial as you learn the ropes and find your feet in more ways than one.  They also hint at how story-focused things are going to get.

The tale is told by Horace and his borderline nightmare-inducing robot voice.  However, it’s a real story of growth as he has the awe of a child.  Everything is new and exciting, but they move in a Bicentennial Man type of direction.  If you have seen the Robin Williams flick then you have a rough idea of how things go.  The gameplay aims for a Super Meat Boy-level of challenge.  You have to pixel-perfect jump around levels, dodging everything because it will kill you.  But you can walk on walls and ceilings with your gravity shoes so things start getting deep and you need to remember which way is up.

The controls could be tighter for the level of control you need in this game.  That also bleeds into the boss battles.  They are solid but SOOOO hard.  There is a shield system where the more you fail the more the game dishes it out.  The game also has a set difficulty so it’s very much about trial and error and your levels of patience.  But, just when things are getting too much, the game throws a curve ball and breaks things up by switching to a first-person perspective or launching more retro-inspired sections.  Helman and Scapelhorn have undertaken an epic challenge.  The story/discovery combo is huge.  Parts of it are just too hard but you can see the love and attention that has gone into making this.  Don’t let the difficulty put you off at least giving it a go.  Horace deserves that much.

Score: 4/5

I’ll be back next week with more from North of the Border. Catch ye’s…

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Stuart Cullen

Scotland’s very own thorn in the side of the London gaming scene bringing all the hottest action straight from The Sun… well… The Scottish Sun at least, every week!

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