So I found out some interesting brain stuff this week

This friggin’ thing…

UPDATE: For those interested, I’ve been recording audio diaries of my experience getting used to Vyvanse, the medication I’ve been prescribed. You can listen to them here.

I’ve long been of the belief that one should be open about mental health. Aside from wanting to help end the stigma and ignorance around it, I’ve always thought telling others what you’re going through not only lets them know they aren’t alone but can provide insights into their own struggles and maybe, give them a basis to start figuring them out. The human brain is nothing if not insanely complicated and we’re all too often left to try to parse all the weird things it does ourselves.

Three days ago, I was officially diagnosed with ADHD and Major Depressive Disorder. Both of these come in numerous variants so for those curious, the official diagnoses are Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder – Combined Presentation (DSM 5 Code: 314.01, Mild) and Major Depressive Disorder – Recurrant, In Partial Remission (DSM 5 Code: 296.35). In addition, while I did exhibit certain symptoms of ASD or what is also commonly called High-Functioning Autism (formerly known as Asperger’s Syndrome, a term now deprecated in the DSM), I did not exhibit enough of them and they did not combine into a significant enough detrimental effect to warrant a formal diagnosis of that. I do have the formal report I was given by the therapist and while I’m not going to post it here as it would in many ways be doxing myself, I’m happy to provide a copy to anyone I know personally who is curious. I am not ashamed or afraid of posting what I am here. Indeed, more people should be able to talk about this without fear. Anyone, whether a friend or an employer who will judge me negatively for this is someone I don’t wish to know.

The layman version of those two things are that I have ADHD but a version of it that doesn’t constiture a major detriment to my ability to function as an adult. It’s clinically considered “mild” but the therapist said the three stage scale they’re supposed to use is a system she doesn’t agree with and I shouldn’t pay it much mind. It doesn’t mean my life isn’t being negatively impacted by it, just that I can get by with it if I had to. I had been formerly diagnosed with depression and anxiety already so that was no big surprise but this more granular diagnosis means that I am prone to major depressive episodes (can confirm) but that they are less frequent than they were before I started treating them with medication (can also confirm.)

So now that all the doctor speak is done, what’s all this then? Back in early 2017, when my ex and I decided to end our relationship, I was getting some remote therapy with a Psychologist through my work’s Employee Assistance Program. We were talking about various things during one session and the therapist said “Out of curiosity, have you ever been tested for ADHD?” I was kind of taken aback because I’d never considered that before. I said no and asked why he thought that and his answer really threw me: “Well, I’m diagnosed ADHD and I can tell from our interactions that you exhibit many signs of it. It might be worth looking into.” After that, a good friend who has two kids diagnosed with it said “I never thought it was my place to say but I could tell within 5 minutes of first meeting you that you had it.”

I’ve always been a very fidgety person. I often talk a lot and hate silence in conversations. I have issues with eye contact and can come across as socially awkward, even when I’m comfortable with someone. I’m also extremely introverted and heavy social situations are draining for me. I will make almost any sacrifice to help those I care about but I also decide very quickly after meeting someone if they’re a person I want to care about and I don’t tend to give second chances easily when I’ve been burned. I’m easily distracted and passive activities like reading and studying I have very hard times with. Most of all though, my brain always runs a mile a minute, trying to process 10 thoughts at once, usually going nowhere fast with 8 to 9 of them. I have major issues with focus and have found that gaming is one of the only activities where I’m able to shut my brain’s multitasking down and just “think normally.” It’s a big part of why gaming is so important to me, even taking into account my love of the medium in general. I have a cousin with ADHD (with a big emphasis on the H part) and much like when I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety some years ago, I always assumed “There’s no way I have that, I’m sure it has to be way worse to even come close to being clinical.” Never assume.

For all the good and security our public health care system in Canada provides, mental health is always one aspect where it’s fallen very short. Psychologists and assessments of this nature are not covered at all, something that’s always frustrated me when you look at some of the things that are covered. While many corporate benefit plans can help, my employer offers a miserably low cap for mental health every year. They’re looking at rectifying this in some way but it hasn’t happened yet. To get a professional diagnosis from a well-regarded clinic that specialises in this kind of thing was between $1,800 and $2,500 when I researched it. The clinic I chose (one that’s considered excellent and also happens to be near me) was on the high end of this scale, partially because they also suggested we test for ASD traits as well. I make a decent living but not enough to just have that kind of money lying around. I ended up scrimping and saving for a number of months and even then, was only able to do this so soon because of a major freelance tech job that came about earlier this year. Thankfully, I’ll be able to write some of this off on my taxes but I still won’t see that for a while and this wasn’t chump change. I consider myself very fortunate I was able to make this work and it really bugs me that so many people who could use it, can’t because our system doesn’t take mental health seriously.

A key thing to note is that despite the high cost, I wasn’t going into this expecting to come out with an ADHD diagnosis. While many signs pointed to that being the case, I knew that if I was going to do this, I had to be prepared to accept the result, even if it was that I didn’t have anything and was just someone who overthought things and stressed out too easily. If you’re convinced of what you have from the get go and are just going for validation of that, you’re doing it wrong. You have to go in with the mindset that you’re asking for a diagnosis but you might also just have it confirmed that you don’t have what you thought you did and it’s going to cost the same either way.

Getting diagnosed consisted of a couple of very long interview sessions, 3 to 4 hours each. In many ways, it’s like going to a Psychologist for general therapy for the first time, where they’re mostly getting to know you and your history, except condensed into two long sessions instead of several short ones. The therapist I saw was very kind, understanding, patient and a pleasure to deal with and I instantly felt comfortable relaying my extensive mental health and life history to her (if you’re in Ottawa and want to know the clinic I dealt with, leave a comment with an obfuscated e-mail address or DM me on Twitter.) I was also asked to provide a copy of my high school transcript for her to analyse as obviously, ADHD can have a major impact on education performance. She had a short phone interview with my Mom and we were both asked to fill out some lengthy and detailed questionnaires. I also did some longer electionic ones in my second session.

My life growing up and indeed, throughout much of adulthood was not a simple or easy one. Though it certainly could have been far worse, I had a lot to make her aware of. Since ADHD is a neurological disorder that you’re born with, we went back pretty much as far as I could remember and worked forward from there. She took a phenomenal amount of notes and was writing something down with just about everything I told her. We talked about my home life, childhood and adult friendships, school experiences (both academic and social), romantic relationships, employment history, life goals such as children, and hobbies. A lot of this involved explaining a lot of past unpleasentness but thankfully, I’m at peace with most of it. She didn’t just want to get to know me, she wanted to know how the ways I handled many key aspects of life could have been influenced by ADHD and other things.

She was not a gamer and didn’t understand the hobby much but was very curious to hear about it, my content efforts like YouTube and Mixer and in particular, how those have benefitted my mental health and why I feel gaming has been the only hobby I’ve found that can truly let my brain focus. My content has paid phenomenal dividends in terms of making me feel at ease talking to crowds and interacting with others and she was interested to hear about how that all works. I told her my theory of why gaming works so well for calming my brain, which is the non-passive nature of it and how being in control of what’s happening and having to manage that while also observing it, keeps my brain more occupied than a more passive activity like watching a movie or reading can. I can do those activities but will always uncontrollably have many other thoughts going at the same time, which can not only diminish my enjoyment of it but also impact how much of the experience I mentally retain. With gaming, that’s far less of an issue. She agreed that seems a likely reason but also agreed that there’s probably other things that could have a similar impact that I just hasn’t discovered yet. Indeed, I’d like to find other hobbies I can enjoy as much as gaming and I hope I can at some point.

Once the interviews are done and the questionnaires are filled out, it takes 4-6 weeks for the report to be completed. It seems like a long time but like with most things, I’m very much of the belief that it should be done right, not fast. They don’t just hand you a printout and bid you good luck, they actually sit down with you for another 90 minutes or so and go over the whole thing in detail, including what next steps might be involved. The therapist and I already had a great rapport so she knew I just wanted an accurate diagnosis and wasn’t going to be upset at anything she told me.

I kind of spoiled the big reveal up top but there were some interesting details in the report that helped determine the diagnosis. Firstly, my academic performance was very telling. Overall, I was an exceptionally average student. I squeaked by in the majority of subjects and the ones I did really excel in were those that involved less direct absorption of information and more hands-on tasks, such as Computer Science, Creative Writing and Stage Crew. This really didn’t surprise me as I’ve never been good at studying, something that’s continued to haunt me to this day as I’ve found studying for IT certifications much more difficult than they should be.

We also discussed a lot of my social quirks, like how I ramble to avoid silence in conversations, issues with prolonged eye contact. and strong introverted tendencies. It was those things that led to the decision to also test me for ASD (high-functioning autism) as they’re common with that. The conclusion was that while I don’t have ASD, the ADHD can definitely be contributing to those and treating it could help alleviate them.

She also detailed something that threw me a bit. I’ve often referred to myself as “solutions oriented to a fault.” Since I’ve had to overcome many challenges in life on my own, my first instinct when I see a problem or difficulty is not to seek pity or comfort but to immediately figure out a way to fix it. Indeed, this is one of the reasons I’m so good at my job in IT. However, this instinct also kicks in when I see someone else in distress. I’ve always found it difficult to just let someone be upset or vent about something. I always have to pivot into a discussion about what they’re going to do about it. In my mind, I always go “Well, the faster we can solve the problem, the sooner it’ll stop upsetting you.” This may often be the most pragmatic approach but it’s certainly not always the best, especially as a lot of people just need comfort before looking for solutions. What threw me though, is that she said even though this approach can be interpreted as cold by others, she said I’m also extremely empathic and more attune to the emotional state of others than many people. My solutions oriented approach may be overly practical at times (as oddly contradictory as that sounds) but it’s done out of genuine concern and empathy because I see it as the quickest path to providing relief to someone. It was put to me that it’s not a fault per ce and not something I should stop doing, I just need to be better at understanding when someone just needs comfort and to check my want to always fix things and just give them that because the solutions can always come later. This probably sounds rather elementary to many of you but it was a revelatory thing to hear.

When we started this process, I was asked what my end goal was. That was always to find out what specific afflictions I had that were impacting my life and figuring out what to do about them. Like I said above, the key thing is go to into something like this not to have your exising self-diagnosis confirmed but to be open to whatever is told to you. It turns out that my self-diagnosis was broadly correct but there was a more nuance to it and learning how it affected specific elements of my life was very eye-opening. In particular, I was told that untreated ADHD can often lead into things like depression and anxiety and while those things could also be operating independently for me, dealing with the ADHD could suddenly make those far less prominent as well. That’s something that can only be found out through treatment.

So why did it take until I was almost 40 to finally have this figured out? I worked with several mental health and learning disability specialists when I was in school try to to boost my academic performance and the concept of ADHD was never raised once, something my Mom confirmed. The answer unfortunately is that much like Autism, ADHD has only really become understood and more clinically identifiable in recent years. When I was in school in the early 80s through the late 90s, only the most extreme cases were considered for diagnosis because that’s just how the disorder was treated back then. Even now, my case is not considered severe. I can be frustrated about that in retrospect and sometimes am but it doesn’t really matter.

On the flipside, there was also a period until recently, where any child that was fidgety, had any kind of difficulty concentrating or in many cases, was just being a freakin’ kid, was considered to have ADHD. The common medications for it were wildly overprescribed and the disorder was being used as a catch-all for any overprotective parent who thought their less than perfect little angel was that way not because they’re simply human, but because they had to be sick. It’s not unlike the current but diminishing trend of everyone assuming they have gluten intolerance, only much worse. These two extremes both happened in my lifetime and are why I really wanted to know for sure what I had and to have a professional be the one to tell me. I hate how overmedicated our society has become and am determined not to take anything that I don’t have someone who knows better, tell me is necessary.

That said, what is my treatment anyway? Well, at least to start, it’s you guessed it, medication. I already take an anti-depressant (plus I have a stronger on-demand one for when it’s needed) and have for a couple of years now. It has evened out that element of things somewhat but it’s not perfect and I still have depressive relapses (I’ve been dealing with one for about a month or so now.) It also does nothing to help with the focus issues or social ticks. The therapist was a Psychologist, not a Psychiatrist, so she didn’t have the ability to prescribe me anything. This involves me having to talk to my family doctor, which is a fun time in and of itself but that’s another story. I’ll likely end up being prescribed one of the two major medications for ADHD. I’m not going to name them here but trust me, you’ve heard of them.

Here’s the really interesting part though. I had always assumed that since these medications alter brain chemistry, they worked the same way anti-depressants do. If you don’t know, an anti-depressant is a process. You have to build it up in your brain when you start taking it and for a period of time, your symptoms will feel significantly worse. A similar things happens when you need to change your dose or get off of it. If you don’t wean yourself down, things can go very bad because depression is nothing if not a treacherous beast. It turns out, ADHD medication enters and exits your system so fast, you can take it on demand, much like an off-the-shelf painkiller. Some people take it daily, others do that but stop on weekends and holidays, others only take it when they need to. You’re able to experiment and find a method that works for you, all without worrying about sudden side effects. This blew my mind and actually makes me kind of excited to try it and see what happens. I had no idea this kind of thing could be so flexible.

The therapist also advised continued therapy if I could manage it. She said she enjoyed working with me and would be up for continuing to. I certainly would be as well and it’s honestly something I’ve thought I needed for a while but sadly, the diagnosis ate all of my measly benefits for the year. I’m hoping that once a raise kicks in at work, I’ll be able to budget a least a session a month with her and hopefully more if our benefits improve. Others have suggested things like daily meditation as well. I’ve always wanted to get into that but having a brain that won’t shut up made it never stick with me. If medication can help me focus, I can easily see it becoming part of my routine. Exercise was also recommended, a no brainer I also really need to start doing as after several years of achieving decent weight loss, I put almost all of it back on in 2017 because of stress and my tendency to emotionally eat.

So after this lengthy story, what’s the the end result of all this time and expense? Though it may sound cliché, it’s a sense of hope, one I’ve not had in a long time. Will treating my ADHD fix my depression or even lessen it? Will it finally allow me to focus to the degree I need to make up the knowledge deficits that have been holding my career back? Will it allow me to finally enjoy hobbies and activities not gaming related the way others do? Will it just shut my damn brain up and let it do 1 thing at a time well instead of 10 things half-assed? I honestly can’t tell you right now. However, getting this diagnosis and knowing there’s a path to treating it has for the first time in my life, made me think that yes, I can take control of what I know has been holding me back and yes, I can overcome obstables that I thought were just going to be there forever. This isn’t a one-stop fix and I’m always going to have struggles and difficulties that many people won’t experience. However, I’ve had to overcome a lot of challenges in my life to get where I am now and though my brain often tries to tell me otherwise, where I am now is pretty damn good. I can only imagine where things could end up once I’m in even more direct control of my mind and by extension, my future. Was that worth $2,500 that it took months to save up? No, it was worth far more than that.

I know this post has mostly just been a lengthy retelling of my diagnosis and I don’t know if it’ll really help anyone or not. However, if you’re someone who has struggled with this stuff, I hope it makes you remember that you’re not alone in your quest and that it inspires you to seek help and guidance if you’re able. I know depending where you are, getting this done isn’t a cheap endeavour. Don’t forget though, you may have benefits better than mine and it may not be as expensive as you think. Even if it is, if you have the means to make it a goal, I can’t recommend it enough. And of course, anyone who needs to can always reach out to me for help or advice and I’ll offer whatever I can from what I’ve learned. Just remember, I’m solutions oriented to a fault.

Our brains are amazing but they can also be real jerks sometimes. When they’re sick, they’ll lie to you, get in your way and make you feel like you can’t do what you know you can. With the right tools, you can fight back, smack it in line and when you can then realise your full potential, it gets a lot easier to keep it that way.

Thank you for reading and good luck and good fortune. You deserve it.

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Hey, remember this thing?

Oh not so bad.

So yeah, it’s been a bit since I posted something here. Honestly, I didn’t intend for Geek Bravado to just go dark like it did. I’ve continued to have stuff I’ve wanted to say that’s best put into posts here and I’ve always said “I’ll get to that as soon as I can!” and then that time never comes. 2017 was a nightmare year for me personally and though things are improving now, between my day job, my side business, YouTube, my exploding Mixer channel, Extra Life and everything else, some things had to give and this was unfortunately one of them. Geek Bravado’s always been about my opinions and most posts are written in one sitting based off knowledge I already have. They usually only take an hour or two but when you have so much else going on that’s growing faster than your blog ever did, allocating that much time in one sitting is tough.

That said, I’ve never wanted to get rid of this thing. Some of the posts here still get a lot of traction (this one from 2013 in particular for some reason) and I would like to get back to making new posts when I can manage. So, I’m going to keep it around but there will probably be a few changes. I host Geek Bravado on WordPress.com, which is a colossal ripoff and gives a very limited set of features compared to running WordPress yourself. I am in the process of redoing my side business web site, as well as creating a brand new site to promote my other content in one place. The host I am testing does allow WordPress installations and while it’s not the easiest thing to do, it is possible to export all my content out of WordPress.com and move it onto another self-hosted installation, while keeping all the links intact. That’s what I’m going to do with this. Once that’s done, I’ll have access to more plug-ins, design tools and storage and can hopefully update the design of this place a bit as well.

I also do plan to post occasionally in the mean time. I have some things I want to talk about in a long-form way and this is still the best place to do that. I’ve tried to tone down the snark and anger on my Twitter feed (with moderate success) and the stuff I really want to talk about in a brutally honest way, I think better fits this place and the theme I always intended it to follow.

Future blog posts won’t include audio versions on YouTube as those never got any views and took as long to make and upload as the text posts did. I thought making audio versions would allow the posts reach a wider audience but that experiment didn’t work out and that’s fine. What goes up here will just stick to here. Even though this blog never gets a lot of views, being able to say the stuff I want to say in this format helps me in its own way. When I look at my cringe fest original posts from back in 2013 and compare them to the recent ones, it’s clear writing so often has been a great boon and that alone makes this place worth maintaining.

So yeah, that’s the current state of Geek Bravado. I should have written this post a long time ago but hopefully those of you that still check in here once in a while will get some more stuff and eventually, you’ll see this integrated as part of my larger content efforts, which will have a snazzy new home soonish. Thanks for continuing to read. This place has never been popular but I never needed it to be either. If you’ve stuck around this long, it’s really appreciated. More coming soon!

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My Top 10 Video Games of 2016 (Plus Honourable Mentions and Disappointments)

2016 pretty much sucked across the board. It sucked for the world, it sucked for humanity and towards the end, it really sucked for my family and I. When it came to video games though, it was actually one of the best years in a while. Despite many of those who would call themselves the “enthusiast press” continuing to dump on their audience and base their opinions of games on identity politics more than quality, gamers got one of the biggest varieties of stuff to play ever in 2016. No matter what kind of gaming experience you like, there’s almost definitely something out there for you.

Every year, I like to compile my own top 10 list of the best games I played. Even though I give myself a bit of a cop out with Honourable Mentions, I force myself to do a numbered list for the big ones because it really makes me think hard about what I played and try to quantify my opinions. This year wasn’t easy by any means but that’s definitely a good thing. I also did a YouTube video where I talked about my five biggest indie surprises from my PXA Peeks first impressions series. Only one of those games is on my top 10 but everything in that video is great and worth checking out as well.

My taste is principally in mechanics and game play. I’m all for a good story but if your title isn’t a good game first, you’ve already failed at your main job as a designer in my opinion. It’s one of the reasons I have very high standards for so called “walking simulators.” This list is going to reflect that. You’ll also see an overall lack of indie titles on here. The very existence of PXA Peeks should be proof enough that I probably like indie games more than most people but I also love stuff that pushes the limits of technology and which can give me experiences I can immerse myself in for hours at a time. Indie games are a different kind of experience for me and even the good ones often just aren’t as memorable to me. Maybe in the future, I’ll do a separate top 10 just for smaller games, we’ll see.

As usual, I’ll start out by discussing my disappointments for the year, listing the games I didn’t get a chance to play but that could have been contenders, the unordered list of Honourable Mentions and the big 10 from last to first. If I did a video or blog review on a particular game, you can click its title to check that out if you want.

I’d love to hear what your own favourite games of the year were and if you disagree with my list, why that is. Drop your ideas in the comments and let’s chat!

Disappointments
Mighty No. 9 – Not the biggest Kickstarter flop in gaming but certainly up there. This was to be a spiritual successor to Mega Man, led by the original creator, Kenji Inafune. Like Double Fine before them, they milked nostalgia to raise way more than they asked for, only to mismanage things to an astonishing degree. It went over its inflated budget, was repeatedly delayed, had a major graphical downgrade and in the end, was at best a frustrating and mediocre platformer that had none of the soul of Mega Man. To boot, they also hired a community manager who frequently banned paying backers from the forums for disagreeing with her politics. A mess through and through and one of the reasons I’m largely done with Kickstarter. Go play 20XX instead.

Inside – LIMBO was an incredible debut from Playdead. People were stoked for their follow-up and while the press are gushing over Inside, I thought it was awful. A return to the once hated grey and brown aesthetic, less interesting puzzles and platforming than LIMBO, coupled to a world and story that clearly thought highly of itself but was full of holes, dead ends and is ultimately pointless and unfulfilling. The key set piece moment near the end was amazing but not enough to redeem the rest. I expected better from Playdead.

Tom Clancy’s The Division – It’s basically Destiny in a city and sucks for all the same reasons Destiny did. It has all the tropes that I don’t like about MMOs: Bullet spongey enemies, endless grind quests, boring, one-dimensional characters and it insists I play everything multiple times to get the best stuff, even though none of it’s compelling enough. It’s also heavily focused around co-op and doesn’t properly balance to a lack of players, even though the community was all but dried up when I got around to it. It relies on an open-world competitive aspect to keep people in once the story’s been exhausted but it’s just team based looting that was full of cheaters in no time, at least on the PC. I hear the new Survival DLC has made things a lot better but I can’t be bothered to find out. At least for as weak as the story was, it didn’t have its head up its ass like Destiny.

Mafia III – The hyper progressive press is loving this because of it’s admittedly admirable take on race relations in the 60s, something we don’t see often from AAA games. While the story, writing and characters are great, it’s a wrapper for the most boring kind of open-world game. Just like Mafia II, you’re given a big city with nothing interesting to do in it, horrible driving mechanics you have to rely on to get around and mushy, frustrating combat. It feels like an open-world game from the early 2000s, despite how many better recent examples they could draw from. A good game story only succeeds if the game itself is good and this one isn’t at all. I love the stories this series tells but it would be better done as just a linear series of missions.

Mother Russia Bleeds – All I needed to hear was gory 16-bit graphic style brawler with Devolver Digital involved and I was sold. Unfortunately, the game play is stuck in the same era as the graphics. Mother Russia Bleeds is a deliciously graphic but also short, shallow button masher and tells a simple story with way too many words. I so want the brawler genre to make a return but it needs to evolve and this didn’t.

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst – The original Mirror’s Edge was flawed but also fresh, innovative and full of promise. Despite not selling well, we somehow got an open-world sequel. It’s gorgeous and the parkour is as slick as ever but the story is rote and predictable, none of the characters are likable–especially the protagonist Faith–and just like Mafia III, there’s nothing to do but boring challenges that don’t reward you with anything you need. That you start with a third of the character upgrades already unlocked told me all I needed to know about this rushed sequel that did nothing to reward the patience of fans.

King’s Quest – This technically started in 2015 but finished this year so I’m including it. I’m an old school fan of Sierra adventure games and the lead up to the rebooted King’s Quest looked like it would be a cool fusion of modern adventure games and Telltale choice-based narrative. The first episode was very promising, then all the ones after it were delayed and almost all bad. The tone flailed wildly between whimsical and intensely dark and the last two episodes are full of frustrating puzzles they are clearly there to pad out a lacking amount of actual story content. On top of that, the epilogue is locked away to anyone who didn’t buy the entire series up front. Even if you bought the season pass after playing the first episode, you can’t get the complete story experience. This series has Activision all over it and it’s the last time I trust them with this formula. A mismanaged insult to modern and old school gamers alike.

Didn’t Get To
Total War: Warhammer
Shadow Warrior 2
Furi
Master of Orion
Salt & Sanctuary
Hyper Light Drifter
Firewatch – I’m planning to stream this soon but just couldn’t make it happen before the new year.
Let It Die
Anything VR – I don’t own VR and won’t for the foreseeable future.

Honourable Mentions
Battlefield 1 – Anyone claiming this is just a World War I skin on Battlefield 4 is just plain wrong. While it’s certainly no simulation, the game play differences by reverting to a much older period of war are substantial and make this feel like a very different game. At the same time, it’s still just more Battlefield. The War Stories campaign is mostly interesting and quite well done but the meat of the series is still multiplayer. I enjoy it very much but the differences don’t cover up that we’ve definitely seen this before.

Overwatch – As they’ve done with other genres, Blizzard redefined the first-person shooter with Overwatch. There’s really nothing else like it right now and it’s full of personality and unique characters that all play vastly different and somehow, all still gel together in almost any combination. The reason it’s not on the top 10 is because there are still major pacing and balance issues that persist to this day which Blizzard gets a pass on because they’re the Apple of gaming. When I have a choice of online shooters to play, this is rarely the first one I go to. Also, this game arguably popularised the trend of single use random loot boxes and screw Blizzard for making this mobile inspired exploitative trend the norm.

SUPERHOT – Also known as Super Badass Simulator 2016, at least to me. This is another Kickstarter success story that gives you incredible first-person combat puzzles that you can approach in a ton of different ways and makes you feel like you’re directing your own Hong Kong action film. It’s a game that will keep a grin on your face from beginning to end. Unfortunately, it’s also $30 and the awesomely bonkers story mode is fairly easy and can be beaten in 2 hours. This pretty weak value proposition is why it’s not in the top 10. If you can find this on sale though, absolutely play it.

Gears of War 4 – I’ve liked the entire Gears of War series (yes, even Judgment) and new developer The Coalition took the reigns from Epic and did it proud. The campaign maintains the iconic action while also having great new, funny characters, a solid challenge and what is probably the best DirectX 12 title on PC right now. Unfortunately, the competitive multiplayer is the same rolling Gnasher bore it’s always been and the new micro-transaction unlock system took the otherwise gold standard Horde mode and balanced it in favour of spending money. Heavy black marks on what could arguably be the best Gears yet.

My Top 10 Games of 2016
As usual, these are great games I think everyone should play if you have the means but if not, this is the order I’d suggest. It was a tough internal fight but I’m feeling good about these choices.

10. Batman: The Telltale Series – I’ve largely been done with the tired and stale Telltale formula for a while. I was going to skip this series, then the first episode was made free so I tried it out. Boy, what a surprise! Sure, they have some core Batman story beats they have to hit but Telltale put their own spin on that to create a compelling, tense and dark tale that’s not like any other Batman arc we’ve seen. There isn’t really much game play here but this is the best Telltale story I’ve seen since The Wolf Among Us. They should still be embarrassed by their engine though.

9. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided – I almost liked this game more just because it got the perpetually outraged in the games press riled up with Mechanical Apartheid and Augs Lives Matter. That aside, it’s an evolution of the exceptional Human Revolution that game before it. It looks gorgeous and is still a great world to experience but it’s also very similar to what came before and has weaker story, writing and diversity of environments. It marketed itself as having a bold and brave tale of oppression and bigotry and only delivered on that in the safest way possible. It’s Breach Mode is also a cool addition but it spends way too much time shoving microtransactions in your face. This is most certainly for Deus Ex fans only but as one of those people, I was very pleased.

8. Halcyon 6: Starbase CommanderAlso one of my biggest indie surprises from this year, this is a Canadian Kickstarter success story that combines elements of my favourite game of all-time, Star Control II with Master of Orion, XCOM and spreads a thick layer of JRPG combat with spaceships on top. It requires careful thought, planning and management of resources as you engage in several different kinds of game play and juggle multiple conflicts simultaneously as you try to re-take the galaxy. The systems all gel together great and while you can pause at any time, things are always tense. There’s a ton of value here for its modest price tag and while there is a new Star Control game in the works, this is something very worthy of your time if you’re a fan of that series.

7. Titanfall 2 – Along the the rest of the community, I flamed out on Titanfall 1 so fast, I never thought I’d be interested in a sequel. Boy, was I wrong! Beyond greatly refining the already innovative multiplayer of the first game, Respawn addressed the lack of a campaign by adding one that was apparently thrown together from game play prototypes with a story draped over it but ended up being one of the most fun FPS campaigns I’ve played in the better part of a decade. The movement, verticality and pace of combat is unlike anything else you’ll play and everything just feels so good when it comes together. The reason this isn’t higher up on my list is because the multiplayer matchmaking is completely broken and doesn’t take skill into account, making almost every match a one-sided curbstomping. If they can address that, they’ll have something I’ll keep playing for a long time. It’s a crime that EA shoved this in between Battlefield and Call of Duty. It’s almost like they wanted it to undersell so they could buy Respawn for cheap. Not that I’m into that kind of conspiracy or anything.

6. Dishonored 2 – The first Dishonored was the closest thing we got to a proper successor to the Thief series (no, the latest Thief most certainly doesn’t count.) Dishonored 2 is basically more of that with more toys and a newer engine. In many ways, that’s pretty much all I wanted. You now can play as one of two different characters, each of which have their own sets of powers and abilities. It’s a masterclass in modern level design, with every objective having a huge variety of quiet and loud ways to approach them. You can even choose to play the game without supernatural powers and it still works somehow! Unfortunately, while the world is still as detailed and depressing as ever, the writing and voice acting are a huge step back from the first game and both feel like something more akin to a late 90s or early 2000s game. It’s almost like bringing on someone mostly known for pretentious think-pieces from the games press to help write your game isn’t the way to a great script. Who knew?

5. Watch Dogs 2 – I’m one of the few people who really enjoyed the first Watch Dogs (the game, screw Aiden Pierce.) However, Ubisoft took a lot of the criticisms of that game to heart and addressed them all in Watch Dogs 2. You have a whole new cast of characters, all of whom are ripped straight out of a 90s hacker movie, yet are all still likeable and the setting has moved from a dark and dank Chicago to a bright and vibrant San Francisco, where you go to battle with “Big Data.” While is tackles some very real issues, it doesn’t take itself seriously and that makes things much more lighthearted and fun. Like Dishonored, you also have a wide variety of tools at your disposal, giving you many ways to tackle your objectives and the many side missions you have available, both on and offline. It’s definitely another Ubisoft open world game but their beaten to death formula has definitely made some strides ahead here and it’s one of the most fun open-world games I’ve played in a while.

4. Forza Horizon 3 – This launched rough on the PC where I played it but it’s polished up now and is one of the best open-world racing games I’ve ever played. There isn’t much of a story, just a huge and gorgeous world full of all kinds of cool cars to bomb around in and a total absence of traffic laws. The map is covered with different challenges you can do and this is further complemented by a robust and near seamless online mode. You can spend hours zoned out in the game’s world, just having fun in whatever way you see fit and not having to be concerned with wrecking your car or adhering to rigid rules. Aside from being a lot of fun, it’s just a great way to relax.

3. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End – The Uncharted formula was getting pretty stale but man, what an ending! Arguably one of the most technically impressive console games ever made, it’s filled to the brim with the series’ top shelf set piece moments and combination of combat and climbing. There are a few levels that even go partially open-world, giving you more of a sense of exploration than you normally get from Uncharted. A lot of time is spent breaking from the action and humanising the characters, giving a fitting send off to their stories. It’s still very much an action series but you actually feel some real emotion for them later on. Naughty Dog clearly learned a lot from The Last of Us and this was a great way to end the Nathan Drake story.

2. HITMAN – After the critical and commercial flop of Hitman: Absolution (a criminally underrated title in my opinion), IO Interactive announced they were rebooting the concept of the series and adopting an episodic business model. No one was expecting this to be good and we were all wrong. It turns out that releasing new missions over time was the perfect way to keep the audience engaged. Not only that, each new episode has tons of extra objectives and ways to complete them, encouraging tons of replayability and getting a lot of attention from the streaming community. They’ve also continued to dole out new timed community assassinations like clockwork and even thrown in some extra missions, mixing up the existing environments. The levels are massive and incredibly detailed and despite the business model, this is a 100% AAA game. The Hitman series has never taken itself particularly seriously but this one in particular, knows exactly what it is and revels in it, which is exactly what it should do. It’s apparently done so well that a second season of content is coming and I can’t wait!

1. DOOM – Speaking of things no one thought would be any good, this game started off after the tepid reception to RAGE, getting completely scrapped and rebooted partway in development. Then they released a multiplayer beta that impressed no one and embargoed reviews until the day of release. Many wondered if the post-ZeniMax id Software had lost the magic that made it the household name is was. The new DOOM’s campaign showed everyone how they got their mojo back. An unapologetically fast, brutal, stupid, technological masterpiece, this game takes everything old-school gamers loved about early 90s first-person shooters, marries it with modern design mechanics and progression, layers on the most hilariously dumb pulp sci-fi story on top and tells you to strap the Hell in. It never takes its foot off the gas, throwing you into battle within the first 15 seconds. From beginning to end, you are a walking machine of apathetic death and destruction, gibbing everything in your path as you try to stop a demonic invasion caused because a corporation was trying to frack Hell. I’m not even kidding. In a world where far too many shooters either take themselves too seriously or worse yet, are stupid without realising it, DOOM knows its story is dumb. It not only doesn’t care, it’s going to ride this insane roller coaster with you and it’s going to make sure you never forget it. It’s both a throwback to shooters of old and yet incredibly refreshing at the same time. Only a few teams could have pulled this off so well and id Software’s still got what it takes to make some of the best shooters in the business. Even if you completely ignore the multiplayer and the innovative SnapMap mode, this is worth full price for the campaign alone. I almost never play games a second time and I have every intention of going through this campaign at least once more on Nightmare mode. It’s that good. I’ve told several people on the fence about it that if you like shooters at all, just buy it, you’ll thank me later.

There we have it, a list of what I think is a pretty great bunch of games from a pretty great year for gaming as a whole. Despite how I still, rightfully, take shots at what’s becomes of the games press, it is nice to see that many of these appeared in their lists as well. I still think the disconnect between them and the audience is miles wide but maybe it’s finally starting to improve, maybe.

Like many, I’m nervous about what 2017 holds. I’d like to think it’s only uphill from 2016 but the world sure has a way of screwing with us. I hope my fears don’t come to pass and that everyone has a great, prosperous and fun year, filled with even more great games and the great times they bring. Nothing would make me happier! Let me know what your favourite games of the year were and what you’re looking forward to seeing in 2017. Game on!

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So That Was Extra Life 2016

When I started doing Extra Life in 2011, it was because I saw a few games press people doing it and thought it would be a fun thing for kicks. It was just me alone in my apartment for 24 hours with some donations from co-workers. No live streaming, no stretch goals, no guild I was helping run.

How times have changed.

This year, not only did the Ottawa Extra Life Guild attend almost every geek convention in the city, not only did I have more stretch goals that had the backing of several indie game developers, I organised and live streamed a nearly 20 person LAN party at my work with what I thought was a very high initial goal of raising $2,000USD for CHEO. Not only was it some of the most fun I’ve had in years but that $2,000 goal was completely shattered and we’ve now raised a monumental $4,615USD at time of writing! The total has flown past even my wildest dreams of what we could achieve in our first year as a team and I couldn’t be happier or more proud.

As of now, my own fundraising is at $1,320, which is certainly nothing to sneeze at but it’s also under last year’s total of $1,685. There’s a few reasons for that (more on that later) but there’s still time to donate because Extra Life takes donations until the end of the year! We’ve already crossed one stretch goal, which was my $1,000 one where I now have to play through Syndrome in one live-streamed sitting. It will also be recorded for YouTube but trust me, you’ll want to be there live. That’s probably going to have to wait until December, when my girlfriend will be back in the country and can look after the dog while I’m doing it. Follow @PXAMedia on Twitter or watch this space and I will announce when I have a firm date. I’m very close to my $1,500 stretch goal where I also have to play through Ziggurat in one sitting and we still have tons of time to reach that! With your help, I still can and maybe even surpass last year’s total and if I’m real lucky, get the Grade A IT All-Stars to $5,000! I also have to co-op System Shock 2 with Devon Payette for one of his stretch goals too.

When I put out the call to turn one of our regular LAN parties at my work into a 24 hour marathon for charity, I wasn’t sure what response I’d get. I thought maybe we’d get 10 people interested and we got close to 20. Grade A is a special place. It’s a company full of proud, hardcore nerds, even by the standards of IT companies. However, it’s also a tight-knit group, many of whom are friends outside the office. I see more of that here than I’ve seen at any other place I’ve worked. It’s a culture that’s encouraged and fostered by the management and it’s what makes the place work so well compared to many of its counterparts in the industry. It’s something I’ve always respected but I never understood just how powerful and important it is until I saw this crew playing together to support a great cause, with Devon and his friend from CHEO at our side like they were part of the crew, even though they only met most of us that day. It was almost surreal and something that gave me pause several times.

There are so many people to thank. Aside from every member of the team, I wanted to give shoutouts to some extra awesome individuals. Monica, one of our finance people–who’s only been with Grade A for a few months–was not only on the team and raised a ton of money but she and her chef fiancé offered to feed us for the entire day if we just gave her $20 each for the materials. And this wasn’t the kind of crappy food you normally would eat at a LAN party, it was top shelf stuff for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. We were fed like kings and it made the marathon so much easier to get through. We would have made it through either way but she went way above and beyond and she’s a hero for that.

I also wanted to thank Kevin, one of our network people, for donating his GoPro Hero 3, which allowed us to have a continuous shot of the room on the live stream. That really helped convey how much of a group effort it was.

Michaela, our wonderful marketing person, also deserves major props. She not only pushed our event hard on the company’s social media, she gave me control of Grade A’s Twitter account for the whole event to keep the stream promoted. I never asked her to do that, she just offered it to me. To trust me, a guy who hasn’t even been there a year, with something so valuable to the corporate brand was a great compliment and it was a great help to our efforts.

I also wanted to give a shout out to our various co-workers who weren’t registered with the team but still came by and hung out. Some brought their PCs and played with us for a while, some just came in and shot the breeze with us. One of the owners also came by with his kids and they seemed really amazed by the whole thing. It was really cool to see these people who weren’t doing the event still take the time to come in, hang out and give us a morale boost. Like I said, Grade A is a special place.

Last but not least, I want to thank my various cohorts from the Ottawa Extra Life Guild and Olenka Bastian, our wonderful representative at the CHEO Foundation. This was the second year of the guild and boy, how far we’ve come. The first year, we were trying to find our feet and kind of flailing around a bit. This year, we had more people involved, attended nearly every geek show in the city, signed up a pile of new players, did a second Extra Life marathon on the CHEO Telethon set, had a segment on a major local morning show and helped give Devon a gaming PC. It was an enormous achievement and while we still have more to do, we are off to a great start and are doing it with a great team. It’s been my honour and privilege to help start this guild with you all and I hope we can continue it for a long time yet.

Every year, I also vent a couple of criticisms about how the event went for me and while they are few this year, they’re still worth airing. I was very disappointed how just like Twitch and YouTube do, the official Extra Life communications only promoted events that were already massively popular and had easy ways to reach a large audience. These places didn’t need the help and meanwhile, smaller events like ours were begging just for retweets and never got them. Promoting what’s already popular is backwards and not how you get sustainable growth. I’ve already told them this and they claim they’re passing it on which is something.

I’m also really disappointed in several media outlets I contacted, particularly the CBC. CTV Ottawa has been a big supporter of us, between the telethon and our segment on their morning show. However, I sent numerous e-mails and tweets to the CBC and various personalities about Extra Life, as it’s the perfect kind of local charity event they like to cover. I got zero response. Not even one declining because they thought CTV had it covered, silence. For a public broadcaster (one I’ve vocally defended for years) to completely shun a local charity like this is profoundly disappointing. I’ve had some real issues–particularly in the last year–with the direction of some of CBC’s programming and how they’re devoting an incredible amount of attention to a narrow set of issues, at the expense of everything else. I have to say, I’m really reconsidering how much I advocate for that organisation in the future.

I had a similar thing happen with several local businesses I approached for support. These are companies that either myself, Grade A, or both, have brought a lot of business to and I wasn’t some random person, they knew who I was. Once again, I got nothing from them, not even a no. Donating to charity is a personal choice and I wouldn’t fault anyone for deciding that Extra Life wasn’t something they wanted to back. But at least send a response saying you’re not interested, don’t just ignore people who reached out. Maybe I’m too old school with how I think communication should be handled but this really got under my skin. Thankfully, we did great without them.

Beyond these things that are fairly minor in the grand scheme, almost everything about Extra Life this year vastly exceeded my expectations. I’m so proud of what the Grade A IT All-Stars accomplished and it was an honour and a privilege to have had the chance to do this with everyone.

We sadly live in a time where the mainstream media and in particular, the gaming press that’s supposed to advocate for us, have made a business model out of telling gamers how they’re bad, hateful, exclusionary people because of the actions of a few. I wonder how many of the so-called “journalists” that are poisoning the enthusiast press raised for sick kids this weekend because gamers like us, we collectively raised millions. If I’m to choose between those people or a bunch of third-rate bloggers who have made a business out of outrage when asking who did more good for the world, I think that choice is plainly obvious.

I’m a very introverted person who has few friends and doesn’t make new ones easily or often. I’ve only been at Grade A since March but it feels like somewhere I’ve been for years and it’s because of the people there. As the company continues to grow like wildfire, hold onto that culture with both hands and don’t ever lose sight of what makes that place amazing. It’s the single biggest asset the place has. Those people, they aren’t just my co-workers, they’re my friends and it’s an incredible thing to be able to do so much good with them.

Grade A’s a special place.

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Announcing My 2016 Extra Life Campaign for CHEO – LAN Party Edition!

WHEN: Saturday, November 5th, 2016 @ 9am EST
WHERE: My Twitch Channel
DONATE RIGHT HERE

‘Tis the season, the Extra Life season! I can’t believe I’ve been doing this incredible event for 6 years and have raised over $7,700 (that’s over $1,100 per year on average!) for the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario thanks to all of you. CHEO is a legendary local institution and if you grew up in Ottawa or know someone who did, chances are you know someone who has been touched by the incredible care they offer sick kids. It’s both humbling and incredibly gratifying and this event something I’m honoured to be a part of.

This year is also my second year as part of the leadership team of the Ottawa Extra Life Guild and I’m so proud of what our group has accomplished together and how much awareness we’ve generated for this great cause in my home town. Earlier this year, we got invited to do a second 24 hour marathon, live on the set of the CHEO Telethon, which was one of the most incredible experiences of my life and raised a ton of awareness in our community. We raised over $75,000 last year and our stated goal is no less than $100,000 this year. It’s a lofty goal but I’m absolutely certain we can hit it with your help.

If you aren’t familiar with Extra Life, it’s a yearly event where gamers from around the world commit to playing games of all kinds for 24 hours straight to raise money for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. In my case, the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario. They’ve got all the knowledge you need over on their official web site.

When I first started doing Extra Life in 2011, it was just me sitting in my living room in my apartment with consoles. The next year, I started live streaming. Then I added stretch goals. Then I started doing YouTube and recording the stretch goals. Then last year, I did the entirety of Extra Life with a friend of mine, playing co-op for 24 hours. How could I possibly up that this year? Easy, more people!

Earlier this year, I started working at a local managed IT company called Grade A. It’s a fantastic place to work, full of passionate, tight-knit nerds who love gaming and love helping out a good cause. One of the perks of working at Grade A is that we have LAN parties every quarter in our board room. I was sitting around the last one and thought “Why don’t we just do a 24 hour version of one of these, form an Extra Life team and raise a bunch of money?” I threw the idea out and a bunch of my co-workers jumped on it!

On Saturday, November 5th, 2016 from 9am until the following 9am, we will be holding a 24 hour LAN party at Grade A for Extra Life! We have our official team setup with over 15 participants and we’ll be live streaming the whole thing over on my personal Twitch channel. It’ll be my gaming feed people will be watching but we hope to have multiple cameras setup so you can watch the whole crowd. This is going to be epic and my co-workers and I–many of whom had never heard of Extra Life before this–couldn’t be more excited and we have the full support of the company management.

Of course, let us not forget the stretch goals! These have become a hallmark of my Extra Life campaign since the second year and I wouldn’t dare leave them out. The first is the $1,000 horror stretch goal, which is everyone’s favourite. I’m a complete weak sauce when it comes to horror games and having to watch me play through one in a single sitting on a live stream is always hilarious. If you want a taste, here are Let’s Plays of the last two I did for Outlast and SOMA:

This year’s title is going to be a brand new release called Syndrome. I got review code for this for my PXA Peeks first impression show. I got 5 minutes into it and was like “Oh yeah, this is the one.” So I’m holding off on that video and if we hit $1,000, I will commit to playing through the full 8-12 hours of Syndrome, live in one sitting, recorded for YouTube as well. If you want an idea of what the game is, check out the trailer:

Believe me, you’re going to want to see me play through this, it’ll be hilarious!

But wait, there’s more!

For every $500 we raise for my campaign over and above the $1,000 mark, I’m also going to commit to playing a recent Roguelike title in one sitting! Roguelikes are a very old genre of game that’s had a renaissance in recent years. They’re known for being very difficult and often requiring dozens of even hundreds of replays to fully complete. I didn’t used to be a fan of this genre but have come to quite enjoy some of its better entries of late. I have four Roguelikes lined up, those being Ziggurat, Neon Chrome, EVERSPACE and BRUT@L. Each one of these is very different and each title is harder than the one that precedes it, with BRUT@L indeed living up to its name. However, they’re all excellent games that I’d love to play through and I figure this is a great incentive. Each might only take me a couple hours or they could take tens of hours, who knows! So, at the $1,500, $2,000, $2,500 and $3,000 marks, I’ll have to commit to playing through each of those live on stream in one session for each game. This is a big goal, both in terms of fundraising and how it will test my gaming skills but I’m up for it if you guys are!

So that’s my plan for this year. I want my 5th Extra Life gold medal in a row and I know you guys can help me get there and make a huge difference for the kids at CHEO! If you can help out, you can donate on my Extra Life page via credit card or PayPal. You can also check out the Grade A IT All-Stars team to monitor our progress or throw some bones at my co-workers too. You have to donate in US dollars unfortunately but 100% of the converted amount goes to CHEO and as always, you’ll get a tax receipts sent to you for that same amount if you provide your address. No amount is too big or too small.

Extra Life has become a big part of my year and something I hold very dear. In the last couple of years, gamers as a whole have taken a lot of flack, much of it undeserved and much of it from the media who are supposed to be our advocates. Extra Life is a shining example of the good gamers can do and how we can take this hobby we all love so much and help out those less fortunate than us. I hope you believe in this as much as we do and I hope you can help me raise a bunch of money for CHEO. Thank you for reading and for donating everyone, I hope to see you in chat on November 5th!

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Review: The Bunker (Spoiler Free)

A brand new FMV game in 2016! And it's good!

A brand new FMV game in 2016! And it’s good!

Developed By Splendy Games/Wales Interactive. Published by Green Man Gaming.
Available on PC, PS4 and Xbox One.
Review code provided by Green Man Gaming.
Buy a cheap Steam key from Green Man Gaming and help support my content.

The Bunker is a brand new full motion video adventure game, released in 2016. If you haven’t clicked away after reading that, hear me out. As someone who grew up with these gems of the burgeoning “multimedia era” and who still has a place in my heart for them, I’ll be the first to admit that in almost all cases, they were neither good films, nor good games. Many have tried to resurrect this fascinating sub-genre recently and most didn’t do any better than their 90s counterparts. The Bunker maintains some of the genre’s past faults but makes up for it with a well shot, well acted and very well told post apocalyptic vignette that I think you’ll like if you’re into that kind of fiction.

Your character is John, a man who was born in the UK nuclear bunker in which the entirety of the aptly titled adventure takes place. You entered the world the moment the atomic bombs fell in a fictitious 1986 conflict. The game takes place 30 years later, when the population of the bunker has gone from 59 to just you and your Mother, who is breathing her dying breaths as things start off. The reasons for this aren’t made clear until near the end, where some major and incredibly dark twists happen. Some people may see them coming but when I played this on stream, both myself and most of my chat were stunned. While John is the focus of the game, there are many flashbacks with various characters from the backstory that help flesh out what happened and why. Things start off feeling mundane and boring on purpose but really go places by the end.

Much like titles such as Gone Home or Dear Esther, the story is what you’re really here for in The Bunker. There’s very little interactivity, just some clicking around scenes to examine objects or trigger an automated manipulation of them and the occasional simple quick time event that can determine how some scenes play out. There’s no real failure state, except for a couple of parts that just take you back to the beginning of a scene, which you unfortunately can never skip, even if you’ve seen them already. My opinions on so-called “walking simulators” are well known and I hold this genre to high standards because your story has to be incredible to make up for a lack of game play. The tale told in The Bunker is one that’s disturbing and dark but also surprising and it showcases the tortured life of a character who is trying to live in a world that would drive most people mad. It’s more of an interactive movie than a game but it tells something original and compelling, unlike the other two games mentioned. There are some bits that might make you jump but this definitely isn’t a horror game, more of a thriller.

The acting is well done and conveys the weight of circumstances well. It’s an oppressive place with people working under extraordinary circumstances and it feels that way. Some of the cast are apparently known actors in the UK., though I wasn’t familiar with them. The writing isn’t long-winded and gets to the point and doesn’t use more words than necessary. FMV games are often tricky for actors because they have to film things like idle positions and transitions between scenes. These often appear stiff and unnatural. Your character in The Bunker has some major anxieties and is nervous in general and his constant fidgeting helps make these transitions much smoother. They also flow together well and rarely do you see the cuts between two obviously different clips of footage.

Outside of the flashbacks, you’re completely alone in this place and they nailed the atmosphere. The game was filmed in an actual British nuclear bunker and it’s an austere, dark, oppressive environment that adds to the sense of loneliness and unease. The sets are full of period appropriate props, including old tape decks and British appropriate computers like Commodore and Amstrad, several of which you’ll end up interacting with. Everything is very well shot and framed and you can tell there were professional filmmakers involved. Unfortunately, they don’t do a great job of making the modern elements jive with the old ones. It’s very obvious when you’re using the computers that they’re just projecting modern text elements onto an image of an old school monitor. It’s not too jarring but a few added scanlines would have made a huge difference. This is accompanied by a great sound track–which you can purchase if you wish–that combines some good 80s synth with deep, foreboding tones that inspire dread. There’s elements of the excellent scores from the two recent Deus Ex games in here and they fit nicely.

The Bunker is a short experience as games go at only two hours and unless you want to achievement hunt, there’s no incentive to play it a second time. Some might find its $20 price tag a bit steep and I can’t blame you if you do. Personally, if I spent $20 on this, I would have felt quite satisfied as it’s a good story told in a way that we don’t see too often in this day and age. However, if your gaming budget is limited and you need something you can put a lot of time into, this may be worth just watching me play it instead of playing yourself. Though largely an interactive movie, I still think there is a lot of value in being the one in control and for that reason, I still highly recommend The Bunker. It’s an FMV game done right and with a fiction I find morbidly fascinating and it’s stuck with me since I finished it. I’d play more FMV games like this and I hope this can finally be the dawn of a modern day reemergence of this genre.

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Review: Inside

WARNING: This later parts of review will spoil the endings of both Inside and Limbo. It’s impossible for me to provide my full critique otherwise.

After debuting with the hit Limbo in 2010, many were eagerly awaiting the next title from Danish indie studio Playdead.  They spent the next several years porting it to practically everything with a screen and left everyone wondering what they were going to do next. Their second game, Inside, finally came out recently, with very little buzz for something so highly anticipated. It instantly became an indie critical darling, with many critics claiming it to be far better than Limbo and an easy contender for game of the year. I played and finished Inside in one afternoon and while I did enjoy it, I can’t disagree more with these other critics.

The common elements between Inside and Limbo are plentiful and obvious but Playdead have also made some nice iterative improvements. There is no UI and you use only two buttons and the analog stick. The mechanics are so simple, the games don’t even have a tutorial, nor do they need one. They’re able to use this minimal control style to create some deep and intricate environmental puzzles and while most of the ones you’ll encounter in Inside aren’t very difficult, it’s also impressive what they were able to construct with only two buttons. It’s not a bad formula but it’s not at all out of line to say that the majority of Inside just plays like more Limbo and after 6 years of development, I’d hoped we’d see more than that.

Where Playdead has really upped its game is in the art department. Limbo had a very flat, black & white, almost newspaper comic art style that was striking and beautiful but like its mechanics, very minimalist. Inside is in colour but still uses a limited palette to great effect, using generally subtle variances in tone to highlight important things. If something stands out, you know they intended it to be that way. They also used a means of presenting depth that I can’t really explain without visuals but everything really pops out, almost like it’s being presented in stereoscopic 3D, even though it isn’t. Check Giant Bomb’s image gallery on the game for some great examples. It’s a beautiful, yet oppressive aesthetic that weighs you down with intent.

There is music in Inside and it conveys the mood very well but you won’t hear it very often. Most of the game’s atmosphere is contained within its soundscape and it’s used to great effect. It’s not often where I can say a game is frequently at its best with the absence of music but that’s certainly the case here. Inside is largely a game of solitude and the humming ambience and deep echos you hear when manipulating the puzzles convey that very well. There’s no doubt that Playdead are masters at using as few auditory elements as possible to create a mood.

Here’s where the spoilers come in. Like Limbo, Inside is getting most of its praise for its storytelling. There isn’t a word of dialogue in either game and everything is communicated through the environment and the sounds and movements of your characters and those around him. That’s a great way to tell a story when it’s done well but I don’t see how anyone can think Inside did it better.

Like Limbo, you play a young boy who is on the run. You start off having no idea why and are supposed to find out as you wind your way through the world. Whereas in Limbo, you were being pursued by otherworldly creatures, Inside takes place in something more closely resembling the real world. You’re running from actual people and you discover that some evil corporation or possibly government is enslaving people to essentially become remotely controlled automatons for what I imagine are the wealthy class. You first learn this by being put in a position to control some of these drones to solve a puzzle, then later have to impersonate them in what looks like a human quality assurance line. This was the part that stuck with me the most because it’s truly shocking when you first see it and makes you question just what kind of dystopia you’re trying to get through and why everyone’s so keen on tracking you down.

The problem is, nothing is ever explained to you. You don’t know who you are, why you’re running from these people, why you eventually end up running towards them or why you’re really doing anything at all. Early in the game, you come across a farm where there are dozens of dead pigs everywhere. The one pig you find alive attacks you relentlessly, until you trap it in a corner and pull off its tail, at which point it becomes completely docile. None of this is explained at all.

This is horrible to look at but what does any of it mean?

Later on, you come across what seems like a young girl with long, flowing hair who lives and breathes underwater. Whereas water meant instant death in Limbo, Inside has several sections focused around swimming. This girl pursues you relentlessly in these sections and kills you instantly when she gets her hands on you, except for one point later on where you can’t avoid this and she suddenly bestows you with the ability to breathe underwater. Why? Again, this is never explained.

This is the underwater girl. Who is she? Why is she here? Why does she want to kill you right up until she helps you instead? No idea.

This is the underwater girl. Who is she? Why is she here? Why does she want to kill you right up until she helps you instead? No idea.

Eventually, you infiltrate the oppressor’s massive and daunting facility. What you end up finding at the end of it is a grotesque ball of humanity in a tank. It looks like a massive concoction of random body parts. You have no idea what it’s purpose is, if it’s fully formed or some kind of experiment in progress or even if it’s sentient, you just know from the crowd of workers around the tank that it’s something important and that it’s where your character aims to go.

You work your way to the tank and dive in with this…thing. Your character then proceeds to merge with it for again, no obvious reason and it’s here where the game takes a massive twist, turning from slow and methodical puzzle platformer to a semi-horror action game. You now have control over the abomination and proceed to quickly break out of your enclosure and raise Hell. Being more or less round and covered in various human limbs on the outside, you’re able to roll yourself around and crush anything in your path but still have the means to use elevators and navigate obstacles. The controls at this point become mushy, slow and unresponsive, very much in keeping with the lumbering, clumsy ball you’re now controlling. You instantly get a dopamine rush at this point that lasts for several chapters, as you barrel your way through this horrible prison, destroying everything in your path and sending the workers scattering in panic. It feels like revenge and like the oppressed going Godzilla on the oppressors. It was a blast.

You will eventually roll your way into an office where a terrified figure in a tie cowers against a window. It’s never stated but it’s obvious that this is the person in charge. There’s no time pressure here, you can sit and stare him down as long as you want, making him live the fear your character did in getting to him. Then you charge, burst through the wall, fall several stories and turn him to red mist as he breaks your fall. As soon as I hit the ground, I instinctively put my first up and exclaimed “Fuck yeah!”

But it’s not over yet. There are several chapters left in which you have to try to make your way out of this place now that you’ve seemingly accomplished your goal. There’s no clear path out or what you’ll do when you get there but you’re going to try anyway. Several more puzzles stand in your way, including a surprising one where one of the remaining staff who is desperate for you to leave, actually provides a measure of assistance. By the end, you find your way to freedom, away from your prison and the awful people who did this to you. Then…you proceed to roll down a hill and die on the beach.

That's it, hunh?

That’s it, hunh?

In the end, your journey is ultimately one of futility. You killed one of the people in charge, who you just know will be promptly replaced. You’ve made no substantive improvement to the world. The evil entity still exists, people are still being enslaved and the elite class who run things still do. Nothing about the other characters you met is explained. Things are more or less the same as when you started, except now you’re dead. So what exactly was the point?

In Limbo, the surreal, creepy state of the world and the fact that you largely accomplished nothing in the end made sense because well, you’re in Limbo. It’s right there in the title. It’s not supposed to end, it’s a place where you live in perpetual failure, unable to accomplish the one thing you want more than any other, which in that game, is reuniting with your sister. It was dark, oppressive and ultimately futile but it all made contextual sense and that context is what made you think.

All Inside does is leave you with a ton of unanswered questions and also having accomplished nothing. In so many key aspects, this game is just a reskin of Limbo, except it’s storytelling is far worse, leaving many previously established things hanging in the air and being an ultimately futile journey with no reason as to why that is. The ending is a cop out, leaving you to try to draw your own conclusions as to what just happened and why. I personally think that’s a crap way to tell a story. Your job as a storyteller isn’t to neatly wrap everything up in a bow but you can’t ask me to spend 4 hours of my life playing through your story, only to just arbitrarily end it out of nowhere with far more questions than answers and go “You figure it out.” without giving any of the tools to do so. That’s the kind of pretentiousness I expect from games like Dear Esther and Gone Home.

Limbo’s storytelling was good because it drip fed you the context of your actions and the world you were in and it’s conclusion made contextual sense. Inside gives you tons of disturbing elements in the world but provides no context for most of them so you have no idea why any of it’s important or if it even is. Then you spend several chapters in an adrenaline fuelled feeling of triumph, only to have it all ripped from your hands and to be told that you just spent 4 hours ultimately accomplishing nothing and seemingly, for no reason.

There’s already tons of discussion and debate online as to what Inside’s true meaning is, what it’s trying to explain and the statement Playdead was making with it. I think those kind of discussions are cool and I’m glad people are having them but I don’t play story driven games to have to crowdsource what might be its message. That’s supposed to be the job of the writers and in this case, they completely failed at that for me. I enjoyed Limbo very much but also just one time. With Inside, I feel like I waited 6 years for something that looks incredible, plays well, has a more interesting world but in the end, did nothing with it and makes you feel like you wasted your time. The story feels unfinished and yet is clearly pleased with itself. I won’t say I didn’t enjoy playing Inside but everything about its story feels like a huge regression from Limbo and its mechanics alone aren’t enough to make up from that.

I’d hoped for much better from Playdead with their second outing and I am very surprised that I seem to be so much the minority on that.

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