Dear Reader – Part 2

Back in March, I wrote an open letter to the readers of to explain that I was going to be less visible on the site for a time. Unfortunately real life sometimes gets in the way of things you want to do and it’s necessary to take a step back. Continue reading Dear Reader – Part 2

WLTM: Peter Molyneux

When I was a child, I was an extremely avid reader. My grandmother taught me to read before I started school and I had my head stuck in a book continuously throughout; at eight-years-old my father gave me my first Stephen King novel (The Eyes of the Dragon); and I spent many summer holidays with books on a blanket in my grandparent’s garden. So when I found adventure games, it was almost an epiphany.

Featured - WLTM Peter Molyneux

I’ve mentioned this story several times already and it still brings a smile to my face whenever I recall it. When I was nine, my father chose to get me my first Amiga for Christmas and after spending ages looking at all the floppy discs that came with the hardware, I finally decided to give The Secret of Monkey Island a try. He asked what I was doing and I showed him the game, then gradually both he and my grandfather got sucked into playing it too. I remember being so proud of myself because I’d managed to figure out the grogs-and-mugs puzzle before they did (sorry Dad!).

I fell in love with adventures that day and afterwards I devoured anything in the genre I could get my hands on, particularly titles by LucasArts (damn you, Disney). I went sailing around the Caribbean with Guybrush (and envied Elaine) through the rest of the Monkey Island series; I learnt how to become a wizard with a horny and slightly sarcastic teenager in Simon the Sorcerer; and I searched for Princess Cassima with Prince Alexander in King’s Quest. My love of books and vivid imagination had been combined in a medium that I could not only read, but experience and influence for myself.

The Secret of Monkey Island started my love for adventure games.
The Secret of Monkey Island started my love for adventure games.

Unfortunately however, as you grow older you start to realise society may not view you or your hobby in the same way that you do; and against your better judgement, you try to change the person you are just to fit in. When I progressed into secondary school it was hard enough being the shy, awkward, quiet kid who always sat the corner so as not to be noticed. But add to that the fact that I liked to play video games and preferred to spend time with the boys rather than my female counterparts, and it resulted in being quite a difficult period in my life.

To turn myself into something more ‘acceptable’, I gave up the games and forced myself to make friends with a group of girls when I became a teenager. I went from spending the weekend with the likes of Guybrush and Simon to instead hanging around shopping centres, going to sleepovers and dressing up for the local under-eighteen-night (admit it, you all did it). But while this change seemed to make me more tolerable to my peers, I can’t say it ever made me completely happy; and my teenage years aren’t exactly something I look back on with a great deal of fondness.

When you’re growing up, sometimes you feel you have to change to fit in.
When you’re growing up, sometimes you feel you have to change to fit in.

I stopped playing video games for around eight years although I guiltily dipped back into them every once in a while, but after leaving college I grew apart from my female friends because I really had nothing in common with them. I preferred being a tomboy, I didn’t want to go out shopping with them every weekend, and I wasn’t particularly interested in any of their other ‘girly’ activities. Instead, I started making more male acquaintances of which there was one I frequently hung out with. Over time it became commonplace for me to watch him playing on his PlayStation 2 whenever we got bored with the television, and one day in 2004 he turned up at my apartment with an Xbox under his arm along with a copy of Fable.

That was the day I turned into a gamer who wasn’t ashamed to admit it. After thirty-minutes of playing I was hooked; my friend and I spent the next week ploughing through the title, trying to find every side-mission, figure out how to get through all the demon doors and meeting as many residents of Albion as possible. You know everyone has those gaming moments they’ll never forget? Well, Fable plays a massive part in mine.

After finding Fable, I no longer felt ashamed admitting I was a gamer.
After finding Fable, I no longer felt ashamed admitting I was a gamer.

For those who have never touched this role-playing game, let me give you a brief overview. You take control of a protagonist known only as the Hero of Oakvale after your home is raided by bandits and your entire family is killed, and you’re rescued by the wizard Maze who sees great potential in you. As with any RPG, it’s necessary to complete quests in order to advance the plot with optional side-missions if you wish to gain gold or renown, and your character can be levelled up by collecting Strength, Skill and Will experience. The world of Albion is dotted with activities other than quests: for example, towns have houses that can be bought and rented if you wish to become a property tycoon, or you can woo and marry someone of the same or opposite sex if you’re feeling amorous.

The thing that fascinated me most about Fable was the sense of character development as it was the first time I’d seen anything with a real alignment mechanic. Good deeds such as saving villagers result in you becoming a light-featured champion with a halo above your head and butterflies fluttering around you; while evil acts such as eating crunchy chicks see you turn with glowing red eyes and a malevolent haze around your legs. Other actions affect your Hero also; eating too much and drinking excessive amounts of beer will make you ill (as we’re all too aware in real life), and clothing can change how townspeople react to you depending on how attractive or scary you appear.

Whenever I play games with alignment, I always tend to go for the good side…
Whenever I play games with alignment, I tend to go for the good side…

Fable took around four years to create by a team of seventy developers at Big Blue Box, a satellite studio of Lionhead. This developer was originally formed as a breakaway from Bullfrog and was founded by Peter Molyneux in 1996. The majority of gamers know who this guy is and you’ve probably played one of his titles before; there aren’t many people who won’t have heard of classics such as Populous and Dungeon Keeper, or the upcoming ‘regeneration of the god game’ Godus that was funded via Kickstarter back in December 2012.

Despite the critical and financial success of his titles, Molyneux has managed to get a bit of a reputation for being somewhat over-ambitious – a trait that has caused many to lose faith in him. In the past he has issued enthusiastic descriptions of games under development, only to cause uproar with the gaming public when his promises weren’t delivered in the final version. This goes all the way back to Black & White in 2001 but the most well-known case is with Fable, when it was released in 2004 without many of the features Molyneux had talked about in interviews during its development.

Molyneux is known throughout the gaming community as being over-ambitious.
Molyneux is known throughout the gaming community as being over-ambitious.

For example, he had previously mentioned that the Hero of Oakvale’s children would be significant in the title and that trees would grow as time passed, but both were completely missing from the released title. Molyneux reacted to complaints by posting a public apology on the official Lionhead forums in which he regretted his overhyping and the missing promises. He went on to say: “I have come to realise that I should not talk about features too early so I am considering not talking about games as early as I do… I will not mention them to the outside world until we’ve implemented and tested them, and they are a reality.”

Three years later, Molyneux said in an article with GameSpot: “After Fable, there was a pretty dark time where people looked at the game and compared it with what I said in the press, and they felt cheated. I realised I couldn’t keep on doing that. But that was very much a reflection of how we worked, because what I was talking about in the press was what we were experimenting with at that moment, and a lot of those experiments would sort of come out as you were making the game… People understandably get enormously upset about it… I think a lot of what we do is realise what we’ve done wrong and work to try and make that right. It’s far better than thinking that we get things right all the time.”

Molyneux said children would be significant in Fable, but this feature was missing.
Molyneux said children would be significant in Fable, but this feature was missing.

So there tends to be a bit of a love-hate with both Molyneux and Fable for many gamers. But for myself, if it wasn’t for the developer and his title I wouldn’t be here writing this today.

Sure he may be over-ambitious, but where’s the problem in reaching for the stars and challenging the status-quo? He might make grand promises that don’t always work out, but what’s wrong with dreaming, and having enthusiasm and big ideas? I’m far more intrigued by and interested in a developer who takes risks, rather than those who churn out carbon-copy titles with little vision; I understand there are a lot of people out there who enjoy them, but in my opinion the world doesn’t need another Call of Duty or FIFA. Give me someone who’s going to push the boundaries, be inventive time after time, and create stories that remain in the minds and hearts of those who experience them for years afterwards.

If it weren’t for Fable, I honestly believe I wouldn’t be here creating this post. I wouldn’t be the gamer I am today and I’d be less happy with the person I’ve grown into since leaving school. I wouldn’t write for or The Mental Attic or have been fortunate enough to experience the wonderful times we’ve had together as a team. And, most significantly for me, I wouldn’t have made some of the great friends I’ve gotten to know both in person and online. That may sound like a bit of a grandiose statement and it’s possible there’s a touch of rose-tinted-ness here but, alongside finding The Secret of Monkey Island aged nine, the moment I picked up Fable was one that really shaped me.

There’s only one thing that makes my memory of the game a little melancholy: the fact I can’t go back and it’s impossible to experience it all over again for the first time. It’s extremely unlikely that anything will be able to capture that feeling of when I first stepped into the Hero of Oakvale’s shoes or met the mysterious Theresa, Blind Seeress. But that’s not to say I’m not going to try; I recently bought Fable Anniversary and Phil and I will be playing it together very soon. It won’t be the same, but I’m looking forward to experiencing the wonder of Albion through a new player’s eyes.

As is obvious from the size of our adventure category, I’m still a big fan of the genre. Fable gave me the opportunity to meet people with similar loves and they’ve have introduced me to newer titles that now reside in my heart alongside the classics, such as To The Moon and Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller. Lionhead’s RPG and its creator taught me that it’s good to dream big and, even if your ideas don’t always come to fruition, you shouldn’t let that stop you from being ambitious and pushing forward. I’d love to meet him one day, shake his hand and explain how much his ambition has done for me.

So, thank you to Peter Molyneux and the rest of the team that created the wonder that is Fable. I couldn’t have done this without you.

The Online Dating Game

A lot of my posts recently seem to be written after I’ve just read something in the newspaper that catches my attention, so here’s another one for you. Whilst on the train travelling to work recently I came across an article under the heading: ‘End of the chat-up line as dating game heads online’. Continue reading The Online Dating Game

‘She is afraid of this’

On my way to work one morning last week, I came across an article in the newspaper that caught both my attention and anger. I normally only glance at the headlines because the usual superficial stories of celebrity gossip don’t hold much interest, but there was a small piece about a game available on Google Play that I made a point of reading all the way through. It existed under the heading: Liposuction game for 9yo girls ‘awful and reckless’.

Later on I did some further digging and found out that Plastic Surgery had been removed, although it was estimated that it had already been installed between 500,000 and a million times. The game’s description was advertised as the following (the bad grammar comes courtesy of the developer): “Barbara likes to eat a lot of burgers and chocolates and once she found that she looks ugly. She can’t make it up with situation any additional second. And today plastic surgeon is going to make operation on her body and face to return cute Barbara’s look. She is afraid of this.

Image 2 - 'She is afraid of this'At the same time, Plastic Surgery for Barbie was taken down from the App Store. Recommended as being suitable for children aged nine and over and free to download, it instructed young players to perform plastic surgery on the image of a woman resembling Mattel’s doll who has ‘so much weight that no diet can help her’. Both apps were pulled after Everyday Sexism launched a campaign and protests were made by four-thousand users on Twitter.

Here’s a message for anyone who has just read the above and is now starting to worry that this is going to be yet another post on women and sexism in video games: trust me, it isn’t. I said my piece on that particular topic in a lengthy article last year and I don’t particularly feel the need to explain my opinions once again. This post is about something different: it’s about body-image and self-confidence, a subject which could affect anyone regardless of their gender.

To give you some more background, here are some additional details about the apps. The games themselves are quite simple: the player taps on a surgical tool, then on the character’s body to use it. Liposuction involves local anaesthetic, a scalpel and an implement that looks like a bicycle pump, and ‘helpful’ arrows show you what to do. The poorly-programmed controls and slow animations means that it takes around ten minutes to finish, and once surgery is complete there’s an opportunity to play dress-up with a choice of new hairstyles, dresses and shoes.

Image 4 - 'She is afraid of this'It’s bad enough that modern media promotes the perception that all you need to be successful is youth, a good body and a beautiful face, but to so obviously market this message to children? I can’t explain how disappointed this makes me. Hell, if you’re old, overweight or unattractive then you may as well forget about getting anywhere in life – but if you want a quick fix, then why not go under the knife and cut all your troubles away! It’s not just apps like these or video games in general, but all forms of media that promote these ideas. Try to think of one that hasn’t used beauty, sex or a set of toned abs for promotion at least once and you’ll struggle to come up with an example.

It’s not something I like to talk about but I was a real ugly duckling as a kid. I was awkward, shy and had several problems that prevented me from being what you’d call a ‘conventionally pretty’ child (I’d really rather not go into them here). Add to that the fact I liked to play video games and preferred to hang out with the boys rather than my female counterparts, and it resulted in quite a difficult time growing up. My parents, while great, were firm believers in ‘tough love’ and felt that pulling me apart on my appearance would give me additional motivation to change it; and this, combined with being teased at school, was enough to make me feel almost worthless.

By writing this admission I’m not asking for your sympathy or looking for attention – indeed, I’m sure many people can relate to my own tale of inadequacy and have one of their own. I’m just trying to give some context about why I feel so strongly about this subject and had such a negative reaction when I read about these Plastic Surgery games. It took me many years to become comfortable in my own skin and my experiences are what have made me the person I am today; but, even though I’m now quite happy with what I see in the mirror, every once in a while those old insecurities bubble to the surface and it can be a real battle to push them back down again. I may have had a tough time and still have to deal with the effects of that occasionally, but I can only imagine how difficult it must be for the children of today.

They’re bombarded with images of the ‘ideal beauty’ from such any early age and through so many more media channels than were available when I was young. I’m not a parent myself and so maybe not the best person to comment, but when I think of my friends’ children I do worry about how this will affect them. A study by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) found that the negative effect of media on body-image appears to be greater among young adults than in children and adolescents; and this may suggest that long-term exposure during childhood lays the foundation for the insecurities in early adulthood.

Image 3 - 'She is afraid of this'There seems to be very little emphasis in today’s media on learning to love yourself or your body, and being happy with who you are. The attitude that a person can never be ‘too rich or too thin’ is all too prevalent and this makes it extremely difficult for anyone – male or female – to achieve any kind of contentment with their physical appearance. Sadly it’s not something that can be easily changed because it’s so engrained in modern society and, let’s face it: whilst sex continues to sell, the media is going to keep using these images to rake the money in.

But that’s not to say that we can each do something about it. It’s so hard to change your mind-set when everything around you says you must be conventionally beautiful to succeed, but it’s important to remember that true beauty is always in the eye of the beholder. Yes, it’s cliché, but Margaret Wolf Hungerford hit the nail on the head when she first said that famous phrase. What really makes a person attractive is how they respond to the world and react to others around them, not their appearance.

This isn’t just something I’m saying for the sake of this post but advice I truly believe in. I have crushes that some others may find weird but the attraction is because of who that person is, rather than what they look like. There’s an actor whom I think is extremely attractive because of his wicked sense of humour; a TV personality who’s gorgeous because he seems like a genuinely nice guy; and a video game developer I’d love to meet because I admire him for all he’s achieved. What these people have in common is that they may not fit society’s view of what’s considered to be beautiful, but that makes them nonetheless appealing to me.

Give me Ragnar Tørnquist over Brad Pitt any day. The fact that this man has the creativity to come up with one of the most amazing stories in video game history makes him seriously sexy in my book. (If you’re reading this Ragnar, feel free to give me a call sometime.)

Image 5 - 'She is afraid of this'While I applaud Google Play and the App Store for removing the Plastic Surgery games, I can’t help feeling that more could have been done. The latter version was available for a year before it was taken down; it took four-thousand tweets before anything happened; and it seems like Apple’s decision may have been more to do with a possible trademark infringement than anything else – and that’s after a potential million children had downloaded the app. At the same time as being overzealous in its approval process (removing titles such as that by prize-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore after accusations of ‘ridiculing public figures’) the company lets many more like these liposuction games slip through the net.

Developers like those of Plastic Surgery make me afraid for the world and where the future of media is heading. Video games of any kind – apps or otherwise – have the potential to be a great positive medium, so why is the industry not taking advantage of that? Children shouldn’t be playing things that make them feel inadequate or that the most important thing in life is to be beautiful; and there’s no reason why games can’t potentially teach them how to overcome their body issues, or how the media distorts reality, or that it’s more important to be beautiful on the inside.

Every child deserves to feel special, regardless of their appearance, size, gender or background, and nobody should be made to feel as if they’re insignificant just because of the way they look. If we all just took the time to get to know others for who they really are rather than how they appear to be on the outside, then we may find that there are many more beautiful people in the world than we ever realised existed.

I’ll end this post with a quote by Markus Zusak, the author of one of my favourite books: “Sometimes people are beautiful. Not in looks. Not in what they say. Just in what they are.”