Sunday, July 31, 2016

Display: Bits and Bytes

In the computer lab we are lucky to have a large, prominent display board. Sometimes it can be a challenge knowing what to put there, and I most recently had student work displayed. With the start of term 3 I decided to spruce things up a bit. This has been a display that I've been wanting to set up for a long time but I finally had all of the parts together to make it work. During the past year the IT technicians have been amazing at keeping outdated and broken bits of hardware aside for me. This is the result:

Bits and Bytes - hardware display
The first challenge was figuring out how to hang the keyboard. Luckily, there is a nail embedded in the wooden frame of the board, and after I wrapped the keyboard cable around it, it managed to hold the weight. The motherboard was also a tricky shape to hang, some of my colleagues suggested a 'picture-frame' arrangement which turned out great. The rest of the bits and bobs secured easily to the cork backing, mostly with drawing pins. 

Parts of the Computer
The display has already drawn curious eyes, especially thanks to the pop-out nature of all the physical pieces. The colourful yellow labels really livened up the place, too. I'm proud of the monitor that I'm created from a screenshot of a student's desktop and some recycled black-printed paper. 

What the display board looks like in the lab.
 I've left a bit of space to the right of the display, in case I'm able to track down a pair of worn-out speakers, earphones or headphones. I've had senior primary boys ask what some of the bits and pieces are. What's a floppy disc? I consider this display a great success.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Game Review: Everybody's Gone to the Rapture

Game Review: Everybody's Gone to the Rapture
Developers: The Chinese Room

Welcome to Yaughton.
As someone who grew up in the UK, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture feels just like being in a Real English Village. The train station with uniform signage. It always interested me as a child that no matter what train station you went to, they always looked the same. The rainy caravan camp with scheduled activities. The pretty surroundings filled with people with insular, close-minded views. Two pubs and a church within walking distance but not a whole lot else going on. The Keeping Up Appearances houses, complete with slim white telephones. People still being considered outsiders or 'blow-ins' because they've only been living there for 1 or 2 generations... I've had authentic experiences of pretty much all of these things!

Hop on the train to Yaughton

The main story is a good scene-setter, there is a big ominous observatory near the village and we experience events surrounding two of the scientists that work there. It's a pretty straightforward sci-fi plot, and I'll always root for a decent sci-fi story. The real enjoyment for me, though, came from piecing together the inhabitants of the village, their relationships with each other and their trials and tribulations. Despite it being set in a different decade, I was often reminded of J.K. Rowling's adult book, The Casual Vacancy. Both this game and Rowling's novel are character studies, where you slowly figure out how everyone is interconnected. I really appreciate that gaming has come so far as to be compared with literature, even if it's only by me.

The voice acting and music are fantastic, especially given the limitation of not being able to see the characters - all the character interaction that we experience is in flashback. Without even seeing Wendy I could start to picture her as an old, interfering biddy the longer that I listened to her voice. Rhys and Rachel stood out as those rare younger folk of the village and I enjoyed their side-story immensely. They have some great choral music that seems to play along with appropriate story triggers, the music elevates certain important scenes to make them quite poignant. The emphasis on audio to tell the story reminded me of the tradition of excellent radio plays, where the acting needs to be that good so that the listener can tell what's going on. On reflection, I actually listened to Rowling's The Casual Vacancy as an audio book, with an excellent narrator voicing the characters. This is why EGttR and that novel both mirror these themes for me. Kudos to the voice artists and sound team, they really made the game a cut above the rest.

There is a fine old windmill on the hill overlooking Appleton's Farm.
Glowing balls of light

You are shown around the village by a moving, glowing ball of light, which was problematic at times. At one stage my ball of light got stuck in a hedge, leaving me on my own to hopefully trigger the right story-sequences, which are proximity-based. In the final section all of the voice-notes that were supposed to trigger just didn't, leaving the whole thing far more eerie (to be fair, I didn't realise there was supposed to be commentary on what I was seeing until reading forums after but I would have preferred the full experience). In certain sections I wandered around fine and hit the correct story beats, but in one or two places I sadly had to resort to a guide to complete that area's story. Adding some mechanical, game-y elements like objectives, a mini-map or waypoints certainly would have reduced my confusion. Unfortunately, doing this would probably have taken away from the mystical element of the glowing orbs.

The picturesque village and surrounds are absolutely beautiful. I was going to just grab some screenshots available online to demonstrate this but the idea of jumping back in to the game to take my own was exciting! For anyone that really enjoys taking an in-game walk and seeing the sights, EGttR has corn fields, shady forests, windy footpaths and more for you to explore. Gaming tourism at it's finest. If you have a decent rig then the game will be even more stunning, I was only able to play on lowish settings.

Stop by the village church.
Walking simulators?

Walking simulators is the label given, sometimes disparagingly, to games like Everybody Goes to the Rapture. The aim of the game is, yes, to walk around. You stroll around the game and interact with things, usually such as books or audio recordings, which helps unfold a story about the place that you are exploring. You don't get a weapon, which in a first-person video game is near-standard. You don't even get to jump or run very fast. Wikipedia calls EGttR a first-person adventure art game, which is a more appropriate moniker.

Some gamers turn up their noses at the 'art' tagline, saying that games that are trying to be art are pretentious:

"Games are supposed to be fun!" 
"There's supposed to be enemies!" 
"You're supposed to shoot things!" 
"You're supposed to level up!" 

Some of these statements I've found to be less true than others. As someone who rates narrative as the top thing I care about in a game, walking simulators are fantastic. I found that wombling around Yaughton and piecing together a narrative quite fun. If you're the kind of gamer that wouldn't enjoy that, well, just keep on walking.

As someone who has become a fan of of walking simulators, EGttR was unfortunately more like a crawling simulator. The walking speed is incredibly slow. The devs have released a post explaining that there was actually a run button, which I hugely appreciate them writing - it had been forgotten to be emphasised at release, causing some reviewers to really slam the game. Even with the run button, though, I found the default speed entirely too slow. To run you have to hold the key down which becomes tiresome. I understand the developers not wanting anyone to ruin the experience by bunny-hopping around the idyllic English countryside, as we tend to do in first-person titles, but I had to resort to using Cheat Engine to change the movement vales to something a bit less lethargic. They do prevent you running near important story areas, which I respect, in order to make sure you aren't missing anything.

Barbara will be able to help you at the surgery.
So why bother?

How is playing this game better than reading a book or watching a movie with the same premise? This is a common criticism leveled at walking simulators, and I think it's a genre that game developers are getting better and better at exploring. During my own play-through I did grumble about the shortfalls above, but I have now gone on to write this quite robust review. The game made an impact on me. Despite some mechanical reservations, I really enjoyed my time with EGttR. The atmosphere was unique and authentic. When I stepped into the access tunnel near the end, I could almost smell the rainy, cold smell of a similar place from my childhood. I just wish that you could explore more of it - some of the houses are explorable but some are not, leading to some time wasting.

The train station for Yaughton and Tipworth.
I suggest you play Everybody's Gone to the Rapture if you want to be immersed in the sights and sounds of a trip to the 1980's village of Yaughton. Don't forget to pack your wellies.