Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

Game LogoDeveloper: The Chinese Room
First Release: 11th August, 2015
Version Played: PlayStation 4
Length: Long
Available: PS Store US | PS Store UK | Steam

Everyone has disappeared in a small village in Shropshire. All that remains are the things they left behind and a mysterious light.

This is an exploration game, where the story of the apocalypse is uncovered by searching around for scenes. These act out what went on before and during the event. The people are made from light, showing it’s a memory of what’s happened, not something happening in real time. Each area is named for a person, and finding all their important scenes unlocks the finale to their story.

Though it’s a story about strange events, it focuses much more on the human side. It’s about how people in the village cope with what’s going on. It’s about their relationships and history. Tying it all together is the story of Kate and Stephen, the scientists working at the local observatory. Kate is African American, a woman with a doctorate, and kept her last name after marriage. All things that don’t go down well in an insular village. Stephen, her husband, is a local lad. He doesn’t really understand the issues Kate is facing.

I enjoyed the way the story unfolded, from finding the first blood-stained tissues to the final revelations. There are some answers, but there’s also a lot left open to interpretation.

The village is a great setting for the game. The beautiful countryside is a strong contrast to the horrors. There’s a feeling of isolation from walking around the empty houses and streets. It’s also a little surreal due to the way time moves around the player. Each area is at a different time of day, so the sun swings around quickly at the transitions. Then it waits until the player moves on. I felt as though the light was trying to explain what happened, though why remains a mystery, as the character controlled by the player is never revealed.

A farm field in the game

Image Caption: An open gate leads into a field of golden wheat, ready for harvest. Trees surround the field. A barn and a windmill are in the distance.

Accessibility is a problem, due to the terrible save system. There’s no manual save. The autosave only happens at points where the player has to tilt the controller to see a scene. Nothing else makes the save happen, including story scenes that happen when close by (the majority of them), listening to radios, and finding collectibles. As there are a limited number of tilt scenes, this means it’s very easy to lose progress. My first two goes at the game, I didn’t get very far before I had to stop due to motion sickness. My next attempt, I avoided activating the tilt story scenes. Instead, I kept a list, and only backtracked to them when I needed to stop. Being able to save frequently is really important for people who need to keep playtimes short.

There is a decent density of things to find for the size of area. There are also quick routes to previous areas if required. However, the game does have collectibles and players may need to search for missed scenes. Which means the lack of a proper run to backtrack is an issue. There is sort of a run, as holding one button down will eventually increase the speed, but it doesn’t help much. Restricting players to walking speed only really works when there’s no need to go backwards. I probably felt this more because of the need to backtrack to saves all the time (often whilst feeling sick, so getting there quickly would have made it a lot more comfortable).

I realise developers do these things because they think it helps immersion and makes the experience more magical. So to be clear, this does not make me feel immersed and does not improve my gaming experience. Nothing kills the mood more than having to keep lists of where I can save and hoping I can get there before I vomit on my PlayStation.

In terms of story and setting, it’s an interesting game. It relies on creating a chilling atmosphere, rather than jump scares and the like. There’s some blood and dead animals, but it doesn’t go heavily into gore. It’s likely to appeal to anyone who likes that quiet horror feel. I only wish some of the technical aspects, such as running and the save system, had been as carefully done. It feels like the way someone who doesn’t play games might design those features, which isn’t very practical for actually playing.

Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time – Hope Nicholson (editor)

Anthology CoverFirst Published: 24th August, 2016
Genre: Speculative Fiction / Short Story Anthology
Authors: Grace L. Dillon; Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair; Richard Van Camp; Cherie Dimaline; David A. Robertson; Daniel Heath Justice; Darcie Little Badger; Gwen Benaway; Mari Kurisato; Nathan Adler; Cleo Keahna
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

This anthology focuses on Native American two-spirit and QUILTBAG stories. All authors are Native, but not all of them are QUILTBAG. It opens with an introduction from the editor, followed by two pieces that introduce the theme and a little bit about the history of two-spirit people. There are eight stories and one poem, so it’s a relatively short anthology.

There are a number of reoccurring themes. Nations sending out colonists into space is one, and is handled differently in each story that raises it. Another is what makes someone a member of a tribe. “Valediction at the Star View Motel ” (Nathan Adler) has a white girl who was adopted as a child, and “Imposter Syndrome” (Mari Kurisato) is about a non-human trying to get on a colony ship. Both stories share a similar theme, of the tribe viewing a person as a member for being part of the community, and the outside not wanting to acknowledge that. I also liked that “Imposter Syndrome” has an asexual aromantic character. It’s clear this is not because she’s non-human, as another non-human wants a relationship.

A number of the stories are romances. “Né łe!” (Darcie Little Badger) was my favourite of these, as it was about slowly getting to know someone, rather than love at first sight. The concept of transporting pet dogs for wealthy colonists was also fun. A more serious note to the story is about sovereignty, and the contrast between tribes when it comes to being able to maintain it. The Navajo Nation has its own space colony. Whereas the protagonist is Lipan Apache, and her family is forced to leave their farm, with no new home in the stars.

I liked the focus on a parent and child relationship in “Legends Are Made, Not Born” (Cherie Dimaline). Auntie Dave is raising the protagonist, which includes training in two-spirit community responsibilities. It shows ties between two-spirit people outside of sexual relationships, which really shouldn’t be as rare as it is in stories.

Though there are a lot of positive things, I didn’t like “Aliens” (Richard Van Camp). Unfortunately, this was the first story, so wasn’t a good start to the anthology for me. I did like how it was told as people verbally tell stories, but I had some concerns when it was suggested that Jimmy being a gentle person who wasn’t having relationships would mean his life was forgettable. As though it’s not a proper life without sexual relationships. And then once he does have a relationship, the shift is to making fun of his genitals. It’s implied he’s intersex, though even if that wasn’t the specific identity intended, he’s still going to be in one of the groups that frequently gets reduced to being a set of genitals. Those jokes do not feel like jokes to the person constantly on the receiving end of them. Had the story been told from Jimmy’s perspective, and not treated like it was funny, I might have reacted differently. But it was from the perspective of the people doing the laughing. It was presented as a warm and positive thing. Fortunately, it’s the only story in the anthology that isn’t from the perspective of a two-spirit person.

There is some representation across the QUILTBAG, though it’s stronger on LGT than the rest. Lesbians are particularly well represented. Others are less so. I do wish the one possible intersex character had not been handled that way. The binary-gendered language of some of the stories also stood out. This is talking about both genders, rather than all genders. It’s having male roles and female roles, but no room for other roles. Which is an odd choice when the focus is on two-spirit people.

Note that some stories contain descriptions of rape and assault (particularly “Imposter Syndrome”). The term halfbreed is used in a few stories. It’s in a reclaiming context, rather than being used as an insult, but still something mixed race people might want to know is coming in advance.

It’s generally a strong anthology, with a range of approaches to speculative fiction. There are stories where the speculative elements are very light, space adventures, and fantasy. It has cultural representations that do not fall into stereotypes and othering. The QUILTBAG content was mostly good, but there were areas where it was spotty.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

The Day I Became a Bird – Ingrid Chabbert (author), Guridi (illustrator)

The Day I Became a Bird CoverFirst Published: 6th September, 2016
Genre: Contemporary Fiction / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

A boy falls in love with Sylvia, a girl who loves birds. He decides the obvious solution is to dress up as a bird.

The premise of this intrigued me, though I also wondered how well it would handle it. Early childhood love is often handled very badly. Boys are encouraged to treat girls poorly to get their attention, and when girls report it, it’s dismissed with, “He’s only doing that because he likes you.” That’s a pretty terrible message to put across, that it doesn’t matter if someone hits you, or destroys your stuff, as long as they like you.

Refreshingly, this book doesn’t go there. The boy is instead a quiet and sensitive child, who wants to appeal to Sylvia’s interests. At no point is it suggested that Sylvia should stop being so interested in birds. The boy wants to be part of that, rather than trying to change her. He also doesn’t feel he’s entitled to attention for dressing up as a bird. He’s hoping she’ll like it, but he waits to see if she reacts rather than pressing the issue.

I also liked that he doesn’t need to be a bird in the end. There was the potential for suggesting that the only way to find love is changing yourself, but it doesn’t really go there. It’s clear to all involved that he’s wearing a costume for a short time, rather than this being a permanent attempt to be someone else.

Pencil sketches make up the majority of the artwork. These act as a simple and expressive way of telling the story. The bird costume itself is huge, and looks both carefully made and uncomfortable to wear. I liked how it slowly begins to fall apart, as being worn for normal school activities takes its toll. Some additional bird art, such as a scientific diagram of a bird, and bird identification pictures, are included as part of showing Sylvia’s interests.

This is a gentle story, that encourages taking an interest in someone else’s passions. The bird focus is likely to appeal to young bird lovers, and it could be tied in with dressing up activities.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Sword and Star – Sunny Moraine

Series: Root Code, #3
First Published: 21st May, 2016
Genre: Space Opera / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Riptide / Anglerfish

The rebel fleet is recovering after a major battle, but more losses are to come. This puts a strain on Adam’s relationship with his husband Lochlan. Meanwhile, Sinder has a plan to get rid of the rebels and save the Protectorate.

The book is told from the perspectives of several characters, though Adam is presented as the main protagonist. Adam is a former member of the Protectorate. Lochlan is from the Bideshi, a group of space nomads. The rebels are made up of a mixture of both. Previously, Adam had been accepted by the Bideshi and trained by their Aalim (people with powers) to use his own powers.

The core of the story focuses on character relationships. A lot of time is spent recovering from attacks, with the tensions that arise when the initial rush of action is over. I liked the general idea of that, but I wish it hadn’t mainly been romantic relationships. Friendships and other family relationships were pushed to the side, such as someone’s children being conveniently absent and only mentioned in passing. It was that odd feeling of a community made up of a series of couples, rather than having a range of relationships.

I did like the political elements, as both sides have to make alliances and plan strategies. Sinder’s sections were particularly good for this, as it explores the ways he convinces himself the end justifies the means. He enlists the help of Julius, an exiled Bideshi, and tries to ignore that there might be very good reasons for the exile.

The worldbuilding had some elements with potential. Bideshi ships have a forest inside and an alien race appears briefly. Those things didn’t appear as more than background detail though.

The characters are various races, such as Lochlan and others of the Bideshi being black, though culturally things are pretty Western. The story of Abraham is told in detail and Western history is remembered. But other cultures are down to a few names and a forgotten statue. The main relationship is two men, though the other relationships are men and women. So there’s some diversity, but not perhaps as much as I’d hoped.

Some areas aren’t handled well at all. The Aalim are blind, which is connected to their abilities. It uses the common trope of them having magical sight. Their blindness was also constantly reinforced, in a way that felt very othering. The characters couldn’t appear without some reference to them being blind. Their eyes were blind eyes. When they looked at things, it was emphasised that they weren’t really looking, because they were blind.

Julius is albinistic. He’s described as having unnaturally pale skin, and that it’s disturbing when he’s dressed in white as that matches his skin. It could be argued this is from Sinder’s perspective, but the narrative also reinforces it as being true. Julius has supernatural abilities gained through violent means (some of which is shown graphically). He’s portrayed as an irredeemable monster. This falls into the stereotype of the evil albino, with a side helping of blaming his evil on insanity.

There were other things that didn’t work for me, like describing Adam using his abilities as though it was rape, Lochlan almost hitting Adam, and the general white saviour feel of Adam’s story.

It’s not a bad science fiction story. I liked the political parts and the interactions between the antagonists. It could appeal to someone who likes a strong focus on romantic relationships during difficult times. But the parts that didn’t work for me really didn’t, to the point of putting the book down for long periods.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

No Man’s Sky

Game CoverDeveloper: Hello Games
First Release: 9th August, 2016
Version Played: PlayStation 4
Length: Endless
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Steam

A traveller wakes up by a shipwreck on an alien world. A message is left for them by an entity called Atlas, and sentinel drones patrol for unknown reasons. It’s time to fix the ship and go exploring.

Procedural generation is the core of this game. Every planet is a bit different. Animals are constructed from putting together basic parts, there are different plant selections, different climates, and so on. The art style looks rather like old science fiction landscape covers. It’s somewhat realistic, but much brighter and bolder.

My first planet was an idyllic world with green almost-grass, reddish-orange trees, and lovely weather. As I woke up next to my broken spaceship, I was told something by the exosuit voice that I couldn’t understand, because the voice is difficult to pick out and it didn’t have subtitles. This fortunately becomes less of an issue after that, as the suit voice is just reinforcing things shown on the screen.

Image Caption: My starting planet. The foreground has green grass, and a larger tree on the right with red-orange leaves. The distance has patches of brown earth and more grass, with a forest stretching into the distance. The sky is a pale green colour. At the top, there’s a black curve, which acts as a compass.

The game prompted me to fix the ship. After a long journey for minerals, and an encounter with angry crabs, I got it done. But I still left the ship behind, as planets are made for walking. This became easier when I realised I could call the ship from certain locations, so I didn’t need to worry that I’d wander too far. I quickly got the hang of the different things I could find, like ruins with alien backstory, and drop pods to upgrade my suit inventory. I looked for new animals on the way, to find all the species on the planet. It is a little strange that I was discovering things on a planet packed with alien outposts, where spaceships were flying above me. These things already had names, and there were logs from travellers who’d been here before me. But my traveller liked to think they were the first to discover it, so I wasn’t going to argue.

Just when I was wondering where I’d find the last few creatures, I had a stroke of luck. As I crested the rolling hills, I spied a flock of majestic penises bouncing along on their testicles. It’s said that players given an open creation tool will always make genitals, but it’s maybe time we cut them some slack. Procedural algorithms are no better. It was also at this point I decided that naming everything after what it resembled was a bad idea.

Eventually, it was time to head into space. This was an odd experience, as space was a thick coloured cloud with asteroids everywhere. The controls were like trying to fly in treacle. Planets were all very close, making it feel more like a pretty menu for the planets than being in space. I do give credit for it being a seamless experience, as I could go from space to the planet’s surface without obvious loading screens. It just didn’t feel like space.

The galactic map, used for jumping between systems, was awkward to use. I really wish it had a cursor I could move over the stars, rather than having to move the sticks around and hope it moved to the star I wanted to view. It’s unlikely I could ever find my way back to systems I’d previously discovered.

After jumping between a few systems, ships would sometimes attack in space, but I still felt like I was selecting planets from a menu rather than flying a ship. The combat was nothing special. There wasn’t any depth in weapon choices, with only two kinds of weapon with a few upgrades. Having to go into the inventory to recharge shields was a pain. All round, space combat was something to do for the game milestones (which also link to trophies), not because it was good.

My early experiences were generally fun. I liked exploring, and it wasn’t too difficult to mine stuff to keep my exosuit running. Inventory space is a little tight at first, but it can be expanded. The biggest issue was the game didn’t want to explain anything. Controls were only shown in a diagram in the options menu and there was no explanation of what icons meant. For example, selecting options requires holding the button, not just pressing it. A red shield icon appears on the screen, but it actually means the inventory is full, not that the shield has a problem. Scanned plants and animals have to be uploaded after scanning to count, and again after all animals are found. There’s no air of mystery in withholding basic game functions from the player. All it meant is I paused the game to search for the answers online, which was time I wasn’t spending playing the game.

As the game continued, I got the hang of the interface, and it was mainly down to exploring. I enjoy mining and exploring in games, so I didn’t mind wandering around looking for animals and gathering resources. It’s a relaxing thing to do. There were a few more exciting moments on planets with threats, which were also fun in their own way. I spent a long time on a planet with sentinels that attack on sight, as part of a set of milestones for surviving on extreme planets. I think the family were a bit boggled as I walked slowly over the landscape and said, “I can’t stop. A killer robot is chasing me.” Sentinels aren’t the fastest robots out there.

Encounters with aliens were mostly rather similar, but there were a few that stood out. There was the time I stuck a killer slug up my nose because of a misunderstanding between “don’t stick this up your nasal passage” and “stick this up your nasal passage”. I’d have liked more of those, and less of aliens needing some basic resource for their equipment. These alien encounters could be a good way of showing how their society is now, in contrast to their ancient history, but the game never really got there.

The planets were the highlight. I found rocky deserts with strange plants and stone pyramids, ocean worlds with swimming eyeballs, and lush planets with plants everywhere. Some things do repeat a little too often, such as there being a limited range of items that grow in caves, and resource items looking the same on most planets. Those zinc flowers are like an invasive species that have found a way to populate nearly every planet in the galaxy. But mostly, I was finding planets that couldn’t have been mistaken for the one before.

Another planet

Image Caption: Another planet, which contrasts starkly with my first planet. Giant red leaves twist towards the sky, growing from a bare rock surface. The air is hazy and orange. The compass is visible, and there’s a white dot in the centre which acts as a cursor in the PS4 version.

Animals have areas where the variation really works, such as individuals in a herd varying. They might have babies with them, for example. Some species have very different individuals, to the point that it takes a scan to see they’re the same species. I did get a feel for some of the elements used to make the animals, as some noticeably repeated. Angry crabs were pretty common on the worlds I visited. The range of animal sounds was also small. But I was always finding new things. The best was when a big animal was given tiny butterfly wings, and it flew along like the universe’s most clumpy fairy.

As might be guessed from the clumpy fairy, the biology isn’t realistic. Herbivores can have carnivore teeth or a planet might only have herbivores. Animal behaviour is not very detailed. There were some nice moments though, like the carnivorous cow trying to chase one of the faster herbivores. There’s a good reason why cows aren’t mighty hunters. I’d like to see more of that kind of thing.

My discoveries

Image Caption: A collage of some of my animal discoveries, showing the range of things found. Animals include a mushroom with eyes on their stalk, a bird with three butterfly wing segments, a biped bird-dinosaur with a unicorn horn on their nose, an eyeball with tentacles, a mite with six legs and a crest on their back, and a green zebra-striped pigcow.

Much as I like exploring, the game promised a story. The strongest point is the lore about the past. Ruins reveal the history of the main alien races. Old logs tell the story of an ancient traveller. Any player can find these by exploring, regardless of other choices.

Things aren’t good when it comes to story where the player participates. The crash site had an item that let me talk to Atlas. This suggested there were two main story paths: helping Atlas and rejecting Atlas. It turns out that wasn’t the case. By rejecting Atlas, I’d opted out of the story, rather than choosing a different story. For those who do follow Atlas, the additional story it unlocks is sparse. There’s also a little bit of information that can be picked up by talking to two other characters, which again, doesn’t add a whole lot.

The game also strongly suggests that getting to the centre of the starting galaxy would be significant. All systems are marked by how close they are to the centre, there are black holes as shortcuts to the centre, and the galactic map really wants to show the player how to get to the centre. But the game sets players up to be disappointed, as it doesn’t follow through on the promise of something special.

The central problem was a lack of satisfying rewards for doing any of these things. That would mean getting a reasonable chunk of story or visiting a unique place. The game could have done with taking a good look at walking simulators. Those games have using story and setting as a reward, often in non-linear ways, down to an art. It’s clear that’s what this game was trying to do, but it didn’t succeed.

There are accessibility issues with the game. The character head movement can’t be turned off. This is particularly a problem as the character sways when standing still, which removes my usual trick of taking a motion sickness break by standing still. Red and green dots are used to mark animals when scanning, which is a colour blindness issue. The dots are also tiny. Making the dots bigger, and putting a symbol in the dots, would make them a lot more usable.

The game has a wide variety of genders for the animals found, including rational, asymmetric, orthogonal, none, and non-uniform. Some aliens are referred to using gender-neutral pronouns. There aren’t any humans, so there isn’t a direct comparison to how well it handles human genders. However, all but one of the trophy descriptions are named after stories by men, which isn’t a good sign in that direction (the exception being short story “Symphony For a Lost Traveler” by Lee Killough).

A concern for how endless the game will be is the design decisions for galaxy creation. My top update would be more types of worlds to explore, more alien races, adding more assets into the pot for the procedural algorithms to use, and other things that mean there will always be more to find. But the universe is already created, so that’s unlikely to happen. It would mean remaking the universe, and destroying people’s discoveries in the process, which I’m sure they won’t do (and I wouldn’t want them to either). I’d have rather the game started out with a single galaxy and had new variations in future galaxies, than to have infinite galaxies that will all be the same.

This is a game that has its extremes. The weak areas, like the story and the space flight, are very weak. The strength is the range of planets produced from the procedural algorithms, which is something unique. It will appeal to anyone who wants to wander alien planets. I loved finding the animals, swimming in the oceans, and naming everything. The main thing is for players to know what they’re getting. Exploring other worlds and seeing strange creatures, for sure. A story that explores the mystery of the setting and great space combat, not so much.