Category Archives: Culture

The first feminist game I played

Coolest-Girl-In-School-the-Mobile-Game-For-Bad-Girls-2The first feminist game I remember playing came out in 2007. Contemplating 2007 from 2014 is a really good exercise in understanding how weirdly time moves for the games industry. Is 7 years a long time ago? Obviously not. Except it’s an eternity ago. In 2007 there were iPhones, but no App Store, which is to say there were no iPhones. In  2007 I spent the summer playing Picross and Planet Puzzle League on the DS, and Rogue Galaxy on the PS2. In 2007 I was looking forward to Hellgate: London.

I didn’t meet this game until 2009, which is my fault, not the game’s. The game had done the rounds by then – an IGF submission, coverage in Jezebel and Geek Squad.  I’d missed it, somehow, but I will never forget finding it.  This is because I’d never played a game before that set me the dilemma of how to get through the day if I ended up with a period stain on my skirt. Life has set me that dilemma.  Videogames, previously, had not.

The game in question is Coolest Girl In School, an old Java game made by Holly Owen and a team of female collaborators. It was a little text-based RPG with a killer plot; you wake up one morning to discover that the coolest girl in school has exploded, leaving a vacancy. Can you fill that role?  The writing and the art were anarchic and rawly honest. It was a game that revelled in every high-school-girl stereotype without ever losing sight of the painful, personal experience of trying to make it through high-school as an actual human.  And so, despite the fact that I was in my 30s when I found it,  my 14-year-old self was suddenly back, collapsing with relief. I hadn’t been a freak. I hadn’t been a failure. All that stuff I had going on was normal, it was just a kind of normal that no-one talked about.

Because really, no-one talked about it. I grew up surrounded by women who would only refer to pads as ‘sanitary towels’, and in fact not as ‘sanitary towels’ but as ‘STs’, and in fact not ‘STs’ out loud but only in a horrified whisper. Bloodied skirts are one of the unifying bits of female experience that even books and films and TV aren’t all that interested in dwelling on.  Having something say to me ‘this is normal’ felt like a big deal. Having that thing be a game, and having that game tell me that a girl who stained her skirt now and again still had a chance at being the Coolest Girl In School was a really big deal.

So much has changed in 7 years. Coolest Girl wouldn’t be news now, I don’t think. We’re lucky to have a much richer range of games starting to explore female experience, from all kinds of game makers. I can write this article, which I would never have felt able to 3 years ago, let alone 7. There’s an App Store, now, so you don’t have to PayPal a lady in Australia $6 so she can send you the game file to install on your Sony Ericsson.  But thinking back makes me excited to look forward. There’s a lot to feel bad about in current game culture. But if we’ve come this far in the last seven years, how far can we go in the next?

Closing note: I don’t mean to suggest, for a second, that Coolest Girl was the first feminist game, or even the first feminist game that I actually played. But it is the first one I remember connecting with – the first game that came with a jolt of recognition that someone, somewhere, had thought that the thing that I was was a thing that was interesting enough to make a game about. I would love to hear what that game was for you.



Indiecade Feast


Last year, my husband Kevin Cancienne and I were asked if we’d like to chair the Indiecade East conference, which is one of those questions you don’t have to think about too hard. Indiecade has long been a part of our lives – I have particularly happy memories of meeting them first at Nottingham’s GameCity, many years ago now. The idea of getting to put together a speaker line-up for an event on our home turf – Indiecade East is hosted by the magnificent Museum of the Moving Image – was a very delicious prospect.

We had a riot at the conference – thanks so much to everyone who came, and everyone who spoke, and everyone who helped make everything run so smoothly for those who came and spoke.

If you’re interested in the thinking behind the event, Kevin and I wrote a series of conversational blog posts, which you can check out over on the Indiecade blog. We tried to pull out the big themes we wanted to cover – history, Who And What, community, criticism, and Getting It Done.

And if you missed the event, there are a good few talks you can catch up on over at the Indiecade East YouTube channel.

Independence Night

killscreenGDC is weird this year, because everything’s on the wrong days, and in the wrong halls, and accompanied by the wrong lunch, but by jove it doesn’t matter cos the people are so nice.

This evening, the people who were being nice were mostly indie-types, brought together by the now-fledged UK Indie Developers club. It made me think, while introducing people to other people it was inconceivable they didn’t already know, that there’s still an awful lot of us who haven’t met, despite all living in a country the size of a teapot. So, if you’re an established, or just-getting-established UK indie, and fancy being on a mailing list with a bunch of other nice indies keen to help each other out, drop me a line (contact form on right) with info about yourselves and the game(s) you’ve made and I’ll get you on the mailing list.

Other nice indies around tonight included the team behind new, ultra-irresistible games mag Kill Screen. I left my promo copy in the hot hands of some over-excited paper fetishist, so I’ll be heading off to their site to buy another. It’s smart and pretty – you should too.

An interactive story game predictor matrix

storybingoLast week at Doc/Fest I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel about story games in the very fine company of Alice ‘Wonderland‘ Taylor, Paula ‘Bus.Tops‘ Le Dieu, Adrian ‘Smokescreen‘ Hon and Mike ‘Routes‘ Bennett. Paula asked us some unforgivably tough questions, like ‘what are games?’ and ‘what is story?’ and the audience threw us the odd paedophilia related curve-ball, but I’d say we held our end up.

Where I didn’t hold my end up was in preparing any kind of presentation. Mostly out of laziness, of course, but partly because I didn’t trust myself in any way, shape or form, to keep within the five minutes allotted. So instead I made a stupid toy, reducing an otherwise intelligent, informed debate into a round of bingo.

Making it – other than my incredible oversight in missing out Ico and Braid, which Mike and Adrian (respectively) were quick to correct me on – it did strike me how limited our range of references is when we talk about the whole subject of the stories games tell. I’m sure you could suggest all kinds of improvements in the 24 games I’ve picked (wot no The Longest Journey? etc), but I’m equally sure you could get a decent score at almost any games-and-stories talk or panel with it as it stands. Good thing that we have a shared set of cultural references to measure complex ideas against, or bad thing that there is so little that is interesting – or well known enough – to get a mention? Both, probably.

The other thing that it made me think was, why are there so few PowerPoint games? If Excel is equal to Sonic and flight simulators, shouldn’t PowerPoint have a wider following among game makers? Other than a legion of middle-school teachers making vocab tests and evolution quizzes, and some frankly rather demoralising Choose Your Own Adventure templates, I couldn’t find much. If only someone, somewhere would rise to the challenge and make the ultimate PowerPoint story game then I could add it to my ultimate story PowerPoint and then probably embarrass myself on stage by mucking up all the hyperlinking.

In the very unlikely event you’d like to join in the fun, here’s the file.

This is why.

dsci0530I’ve mentioned before that I get the ‘so how come you like games’ question pretty regularly, and don’t have a particularly cogent answer, beyond ‘because they’re awesome’ and some stuff about the funny quizzes my brother used to write for me in Basic. But one key component was an amazing pop-up book about computers that made it perfectly clear that they were the most exotic, powerful and fascinating things ever made and that, if at all possible, I’d quite like to grow up inside one. I’ve long lost the book, and long given up trying to do it justice in words and gesticulations, but now I don’t need to, because The Internet has found it!

Jonathan Ryan has been kind enough to post a complete set of pics over on his blog. I still remember every single page, perfectly. He doesn’t, however, mention the crucial fact that the tab on the dot matrix printer page was cut in a saw-tooth, so it actually made the printer noise when you pulled it. I bet there’s a whole army of us out there, who grew up into geeks partially thanks to its cheery oversimplifications. Good times.

Wasting my life

So, over from my home-from-home Offworld, I wrote a piece about the majestic God Hand, particularly praising its adaptive difficulty. The more dudes you pummel successfully, the more dudes attack you. The more you get pummelled by dudes, the more other dudes leave you alone. It’s a system I like because it preserves the absolute challenge – you can only go toe-to-toe with other player’s high scores by pushing for the highest difficulty – while ensuring progress through the game is possible for poorer players. And it does it all transparently, letting you see what difficulty level the game is setting for you and therefore allowing you to make decisions and plan strategies around how hard you want the experience to be.

It’s kicked off quite an interesting debate, which seems to be focused around two issues. The first is whether or not adaptive difficulty dilutes the purity of the challenge, and therefore the satisfaction of victory. As is so often the case, the right answer to that conundrum is the cop-out answer: it depends. There are undoubtedly games where you want unwavering, unalterable hardness: lines in the sand you can measure yourself against. Sometimes it’s more important to guarantee progress. I had a rather marvellous meeting yesterday for a sex education game I’m helping out on, and its designer very astutely pointed out that it’s pretty much essential that everyone who plays the game is able to finish it. No use clueing teens in to the perils of herpes if they get stuck before they find out how to spot syphilis. What prompted me to write yesterday’s column, though, was delight at how often truly hardcore games manage to balance those two needs. It’s not that God Hand lets you coast, flailing aimlessly through a challenge-free experience. It uses its adaptive difficulty to lure you in to harder fights, teaching you as you go. It’s the perfect teacher, constantly advancing the goalposts to stretch your skills, whatever your natural level.

The second issue was best summed up by commenter Inverse Square:

But damn, to give in to the desire for a power fantasy is a terrible thing to do. Escaping from reality is nice, but it’s indefensible. To flatter it, to trade in it, to treat it like it’s useful is wrong. It’s helping no-one; it’s teaching you nothing.

Are all games just power-fantasies? By no means (although – fair cop – I did say they were in that piece, mostly cos I was feeling a bit grumpy). They have long done much more to inspire, challenge, surprise and educate. Are some games just power fantasies? Yes, absolutely. And do I think that’s a bad thing? Sometimes. Sometimes I’m delighted to have a ready-made range of sand-castles I can kick over, oceans of virtual balloons I can rampage through with a pop-gun, virtual plates I can smash and virtual pencils I can snap. Often though, I go back to Geoffrey Miller’s eminently scary article (you’ll need to do a text search for his name to find his entry)  from a few years ago which posits that the eventual downfall of all intelligent civilisations will be our seduction by fitness fakers – virtual constructs which gives us the feeling of achievement without actually achieving anything. The natural extension of the argument? That videogames are the reason we haven’t got to Mars, and the reason that other advanced alien life-forms haven’t got to Earth. We’re all too busy playing God Hand. Sorry ’bout that.

The lost levels

Here’s a question for you. What level are you? Overall, I mean. What level are you in total? How do you even start that sum? What would the rules be? Let’s make one key decision straight off: main characters only. It’s easy enough to begin with – tot up all 11 normal Final Fantasies leads and World of Warcraft alts. Add in all your Laharls (or Etnas, depending). What about Links? Alright, another key decision: only games with actual numerical levels, rather than ranks or grades or whatever. Except I can barely remember which did and which didn’t. Did Deus Ex? Did Dark Chronicle? VF4?

Even after thinking about it on two trains and one bus, I’m not even sure what the magnitude of the number is. 5000ish? Or is it going to be one of those numbers which is much lower than you expect, like the number of books you read in a lifetime? Or maybe huge! Maybe 200,000? I have done a lot of levelling, in a lot of games, some of which have very high level caps. It seems crazy to me that something which has been such a big focus for so many hours adds up to nothing more than a big question mark. There should be an app that tallies it for you. Somehow it would depress me less than my /played in WoW (too high) and my Gamerscore on 360 (too low). For now, though, it gives me something to ask people at parties other than ‘what’s the furthest you’ve walked in a day and why.’

So, not that this is much of a party, what level are you?

Rule revisions: let’s include tabletop, let’s include games you played for any length of time, let’s say you take the top level your main character reached, regardless of what level they started at, but let’s say you only count your top-level Pokemon (or whatever), whichever it was. But that’s top-level Pokemon per version of the game, and per play-though per game – so you might be adding up three or four different Pikuchus that you raised at different times.

Actually, I think everyone should totally be allowed to make up their own rules as long as they explain them, but I’ll keep a tally above for anyone who wants a level (!) playing field.


dscn0479-1Last night I slept like a dragon, roosting on a pile of new treasures.  If I was a shallower person, I’d just be here to brag about my amazing new rainbow-filled Parappa pick, or my forces-you-to-overcome-years-of-disk-ruining-paranoia-to-use-it hand-made Ranarama coaster. If I was a slighter better person, I’d type out a full transcript of the character descriptions in the DC Bangai-O manual I snaffled yesterday, instead of just teasing you with:

Mrs M, informer: A very attractive woman with whom you communicate via all news satellites positioned in space. She conveys highly useful, yet at times totally stupid information. Infortunately she is very miserly and demands high information fees. Normally a housewife residing in Manami Senju who has been married for three years, she keeps her activities as an informer secret from her husband. She allegedly buys ties or stuff like that from her husband’s income.

Sabu, street urchin: As his reputation says he plays the lowest role in the Cosmo Gang. He appears and disappears again and again. Nobody knows if it’s the same person or if he has a double. He dreams of his own  office some time in the future. Unfortunately, he is not very talented when it comes to preparing octopus pellets and simply can’t resist the waffles of goldfish salesmen.

As it is, since I’m a somewhere-in-the-middle person, I’ll give you complete scans of the wraparound Japanese boxart for Jet Set Radio, which is a masterpiece of matt-finish colour-clash brilliance (apologies that my aged scanner can’t really do it justice), and a bonus discofied treat of the silver Jap DC Space Channel 5 box.





Let me know if you want super-high res versions. And, in case that hasn’t sweetened your day enough, here’s a whole funky micro-subculture I found while googling for Parappa ukelele tab. And thank you R, and thank you T! Giving truly is the gift that keeps on giving.

Two week countdown

So, part of having The Best Job In The World, is getting to help run The Best Games Festival In The World, which is part of my cunning overall plan to get paid for doing things I would pay to do anyway. Here’s a brief guide to what you (you!) could be doing in less than a fortnight. I really can’t think of any sane reason why anyone who likes games wouldn’t want to come along.

Thursday 30th October
Sessions from SCEE’s EyeToy team and Midway Newcastle, a live Q&A with God Of War’s David Jaffe, art workshops with Bizarre Creations, design workshops with Midway Newcastle, and a chance to pick the brains of some of the best independent game developers from around Europe. Plus game design insights from Elite-creator David Braben, the inside track from mod-makers turned Quake Wars designers Splash Damage and the world premier of the new game from Amanita Design, makers of the universally acclaimed Samarost.

Friday 31st October
A unique masterclass in game design as original designers Martin Hollis and David Doak dissect Goldeneye, and an insight into the workings of Guitar Hero and Rock Band creators Harmonix, plus the chance to put your questions direct to Geometry War’s Stephen Cakebread and Oddword’s Lorne Lanning. TT Games will be on hand to advise on how to achieve real-world domination, and Monumental Games will do the same for virtual-world domination .

Saturday 1st November
Saturday takes us back to the birth of a phenomenon as we hear firsthand about the creation of the first Grand Theft Auto, before Media Molecule, creators of the extraordinary Little Big Planet take to the stage to deliver this year’s BAFTA keynote. Then we head back the the US (via Skype) to hear direct from another big star in the gaming firmament and discover how things will change when gamers rule the world.

But that’s not all!

It really isn’t. Keep your eyes peeled for some last-minute, big-name additions to the programme, which will present fantastic opportunities to hear first-hand from some of the biggest companies making games in the UK today. And, alongside all these fantastic sessions, we also have huge extravaganzas like our Halloween attempt on the world zombie gathering record, which will give you a chance to shamble your way into the record books, live gigs from Harmonix, Jonathan Coulton, Press Play On Tape and PowerPlay, pub quizzes, craft sessions, birthday parties, all-night gaming marathons and more. And that’s not to mention the chance to quaff our very own festival beer (Fine Ale Fantasy), and take advantage of fantastic offers across a wide range of Nottingham’s bars and restaurants.

Dedication (and an email account)

…are what you need.

psx_wipeout.pngJust a quick pointer for anyone who’s ever fancied being a world record holder: Guinness are accepting nominations for new gaming records from people who think they can achieve them live on the big screen at this year’s GameCity. So, if you know you have some obscure, unbeaten claim to gaming fame (I’ll give anyone a run for their money of fastest lap of Altima with the TV turned off) this is your chance to claim international glory. Head over to sign up here.