Update: Geeks Under Grace and Love Thy Nerd

Hey everyone! I just wanted to give you all a quick update on the site and on my writing endeavors. I’ve recently begun writing articles for Geeks Under Grace, an awesome organization that examines geek culture (games, movies, TV shows, anime, etc.) from a Christian perspective! My first articles to be published on their website are updated versions of my articles on diversity (the first two of which are now live), but some original articles and reviews are in the works as well. Go check out what I’ve written so far!

Geeks Under Grace logo

I’m also writing for another Christian organization called Love Thy Nerd. They’re a brand new organization; so new, in fact, that their website isn’t even up yet (but it will be soon)! I have some original articles for them, too, so stay tuned for more info on that front!

Love Thy Nerd logo

As for this site, I still plan to continue posting new articles here from time to time, particularly news stories in the gaming industry that catch my interest. So be sure to keep an eye out for new stuff here as well!

That’s all for now!

-Michael Mendis

Excitement and Skepticism: The Paradox of E3

A special shoutout goes to Gaming and God, who have also posted this article on their site!  Be sure to check them out as well!

Summer has arrived, and that means the hype for the Electronic Entertainment Expo (better known as E3) is in full swing. Every year, video gaming’s biggest conference tantalizes gamers with the promise of amazing new experiences, overloading them with game trailers and marketing jargon. Major companies in the industry make their biggest announcements, revealing new games and hardware in an effort to grab people’s attention and whet their appetite for future products. Yet the result of this incredible advertising blitz is a contradiction: E3 becomes a spectacle that leaves gamers both excited and skeptical about what the future holds for their hobby. How does this come to pass, that an event designed to thrill its audience sometimes has the opposite effect?


The reasons for excitement and optimism about E3 are easy to identify. Perhaps the most obvious reason, of course, is all the new products that get announced and shown off at the event. This is the world’s opportunity to get a peek at the future of the gaming industry: whether you’re seeing the biggest games coming out during the holiday season, or the new consoles that will set the pace for the next five or more years, there’s always something for every gamer to get excited about.

Another great reason to watch E3 is that we get to see indie games shine in one of the biggest spotlights that the industry can give them. This is a recent development, too; for a long time, only the biggest and most well-funded companies grabbed any headlines at the event. But the gaming world has taken notice of the unique and creative talent found in the indie scene, and the big dogs want a piece of that action. Console makers receive attention and positive press by letting smaller studios showcase their talent on the big stage; in turn, indie developers benefit from getting a level of exposure that would otherwise be unattainable for them.


Cuphead E3 2015
Indie darling Cuphead featured prominently at Microsoft’s E3 2015 Press Conference


Despite all this, however, there are valid reasons for cynicism as well.  Over the years, gamers have learned the hard way that what you see of a game at a press conference isn’t necessarily what you’ll get when the game releases.  Gameplay features that are shown off at E3 don’t always make it into the final version; other times the graphics take a hit, and the end product doesn’t look as pretty as it did in on stage a year earlier.  These discrepancies are a byproduct of the fact that E3 demos are often created outside of the normal process of game development; members of the dev team take time away from creating the actual game in order to make a short, highly polished demo, one that may be more representative of what they hope the game will be like when it is completed, rather than where the game currently stands.

This is, of course, assuming that the game actually makes it to store shelves. But that isn’t always the case.  In certain instances, games announced at E3 have been cancelled entirely, leaving fans feeling burned and understandably skeptical about future products.  How can you get excited about a new game when in the back of your mind you doubt that you’ll ever play it?


The Xbox One exclusive Scalebound was cancelled two and a half years after its announcement at E3 2014


The insane amount of marketing that goes into these events also contributes to the cynicism that gamers experience. Gamers have a love/hate relationship with video game marketing; on one hand, they love the anticipation and excitement that comes with new announcements and new gameplay footage. On the other hand, gamers (like many other people) have grown weary of the incessant advertising and commercialism present in modern Western society, and E3 adds yet another heavy dose of just those things. Since E3 is one of the few times of the year that mainstream media outlets are likely to report on the gaming industry (and for reasons other than to debate whether or not gaming is ruining society), companies go to great lengths to catch the attention of a large audience. Famous people from other industries (such as film, television, and professional sports) are trotted out on stage and then promptly disappear from the gaming scene as soon as their five minutes in the spotlight are over.  Other tacky attempts to attract attention – such as when Microsoft hired Cirque de Soleil to perform during their 2010 E3 press conference, or when Mr. Caffeine peppered the 2011 Ubisoft conference with cheap, crass humor – may drive a few clicks in the short run, but ultimately leave gamers feeling suspicious: if a company is relying on dumb marketing gimmicks to sell their game, it may be that the game isn’t very good on its own merits.

World Premiere of Kinect for Xbox 360

So, what does one make of E3? Given its contradictory nature as an event that both excites and frustrates its audience, is it worth watching?

The answer lies in an element of the experience that is often overlooked: the opportunity to share it with other people. My strongest memories of E3 aren’t about any of the surprising new announcements or cringe-inducing attempts at humor or sophistication; rather, they’re the chances I’ve had to watch the event with friends, getting excited together about the games that leave us floored, and shaking our heads when the presentations fall flat. Moments like these help us learn about the interests of our fellow gamers and form friendships with them. For the church in particular, this is an opportunity that we can’t afford to pass up; the gaming world is desperately underserved by the church and in need of the gospel. Take some time to share E3 with gamers, either watching it together in person or chatting about the event on social media. It’s a fun and easy way to share Christ’s love and build bridges with the gaming community.

The Xbox Adaptive Controller: A Step Forward for Disabled Gamers

We live in a world that serves the majority; our goods and services are designed to be used by the widest possible audience so as to maximize effectiveness and profit.  For those of us who fit into any given majority, that works out just fine!  But for those in the minority, it makes life more complicated and difficult.  Just ask any left-handed person, for example, how many things in life are made with right-handed people in mind: school desks, spiral bound notebooks, and can openers are just a few common items that clearly cater to the those in that majority.

When it comes to video games, one particular minority group has a very hard time participating: people with limited mobility due to disabilities.  Game controllers simply aren’t usable for them, and they have to rely on jerry-rigged setups and unusual control schemes in order to play anything at all.  Creating a suitable device and setting it up is a challenging, and expensive, process; as a result, those with limited mobility are often on the outside of the gaming community looking in as everyone else is enjoying themselves.  So when Microsoft announced the Xbox Adaptive Controller (XAC) last week, a controller specifically designed for those with limited mobility, it was a special moment that stood out in a number of ways.


When viewed from above, the XAC looks simple; two large buttons (which can be programmed to function as any button from a standard Xbox controller) take up most of the space on the device, and a d-pad sits off to the side.  The size and curved surface of the buttons make them easy to press, and there’s enough empty space for a person to rest their hand between the two.  The gentle slope of the controller and the firm grip it keeps on whatever surface it rests on also contribute to its ease of use.

But while the controller’s ergonomics are important, it’s the myriad inputs on the back and sides of the controller that make the XAC stand out.  Each input along the back is a 3.5mm jack that’s mapped to a specific button from the standard controller, while the USB ports on each side act as the thumbstick inputs.  This allows users to plug in all manner of custom control devices, from buttons, to joysticks, to foot pedals, and more, and be able to play any Xbox game.  The XAC functions as a hub for all the other devices needed to make gaming possible for people with disabilities, a hub that’s flexible enough to meet the needs of many different gamers.

XAC top and back

Perhaps the biggest surprise of this story, though, is that Microsoft, a massive technology company, is the one spearheading this initiative.  For the longest time, disabled gamers have had to rely on amateur engineers, charities, and hospitals to make gaming an option for them, and the limitations of such an approach are readily apparent: the high cost of production and the challenges of working with third-party software make this approach far from ideal.  But now that one of the biggest companies in the world has stepped into this space, gaming is a much more attainable hobby for those with limited mobility.  Creating a device like the XAC – a device that’s comfortable and flexible enough to prove useful to this underserved demographic – simply wouldn’t be possible without the kind of money, expertise, and manpower that a company like Microsoft can put into it.  Hopefully this invention will spur the imagination of other developers, both inside and outside Microsoft, to continue to find ways of including disabled gamers in the gaming community.

To read more about the XAC, check out this in-depth article over at arstechnica.  And to see the controller in action, take a gander at the official video I’ve embedded below.

Review – Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

 Hellblade Senua's Sacrifice cover art

Developer: Ninja Theory

Publisher: Ninja Theory

ESRB Rating: M (Mature)

Platforms: PlayStation 4 [reviewed], Xbox One, PC


Development studio Ninja Theory is known for its experience in the big-budget, AAA gaming space; over the years, they’ve worked with a wide variety of publishers, and have crafted a number of well received action games, establishing themselves as a talented group of people.  With their newest game, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Ninja Theory has taken on an ambitious task that puts all of that talent to the test in new ways.  Unlike with their other games, Ninja Theory self-published Hellblade, taking on all the extra work that a publisher would do, and creating the game with a much smaller budget as well.  On top of that, Hellblade attempts to do what few other games have dared: to portray what it’s like to live with psychosis.  It’s an admirable but undeniably daunting goal.  So, the question is: does Ninja Theory succeed?

senua skull

Hellblade tells the story of a young Celtic woman named Senua who is travelling into the underworld to recover the soul of her slain lover, Dillion.  Senua suffers from severe mental illness, however, which alters her perception of reality: she hears voices, she sees runes and patterns in the world where none exist, and can even lose control of her body to one of the other personalities existing within her mind.  It’s a fascinating premise for a story, and the stellar performance by the lead actress really sells the raw agony and struggle that Senua endures throughout her journey (which is particularly impressive since the actress didn’t come into this project with any professional acting experience).

The game starts without much build-up; after some brief exposition to establish Senua’s mental illness, you are dumped onto the shore of the underworld and set on your path.  Senua’s backstory, which is crucial to understanding both her and her quest, are pieced together over the course of the game.  But even as the player is provided answers, more questions arise: can she trust any of the voices she is hearing in her mind?  How much of what Senua perceives is real?  Interestingly, it wasn’t until I finished the game and watched the featurette that comes with it (which the player is warned not to watch until completing the game) that I got a better understanding of the story, and, relatedly, of the ways that Ninja Theory sought to portray mental illness.  Some of the ways they showed the effects of psychosis had been lost on me during the actual gameplay, and in retrospect, I wish that this information could have been given to the player before or during the game, rather than just at the end.


If there’s one aspect of the game that Ninja Theory absolutely nailed, it’s the visual presentation.  You can’t tell that this game was made on a small budget just by looking at it: the realistic lighting, gritty hellish landscapes, and plethora of other graphical effects show just how much experience the developer has in making top notch visuals that can stand up against any AAA competitor.  The face capture they used for Senua stands out in particular, as every ounce of emotion given to the character by the actress is recreated in painstaking detail on Senua’s face.  While it may seem superficial, this level of detail goes a long way in establishing the emotional weight within Senua and within the story as a whole.

Senua closeup

Alongside the gorgeous visuals, the audio work is also one of the game’s highlights.  Every time you boot up the game, a message appears onscreen encouraging you to play with headphones on, and upon starting the journey you quickly find out why: Senua often hears voices in her head throughout her journey, and hearing those voices yourself, right next to your own ears, is an integral part of the player’s own experience.  Sometimes the voices are encouraging or helpful, alerting you to an enemy that’s about to strike you from behind; other times the voices are despondent, bemoaning Senua’s situation; still other times they mock Senua, causing her (and by extension, you) to question her perception of reality.  It’s as if all the thoughts you would normally experience as your own have now become their own personalities in your mind, bombarding you constantly without your consent.


In terms of the actual gameplay, you spend most of your time alternating between combat sequences and puzzle solving.  In the combat sections you square off against enemies armed with various melee weapons – swords, maces, axes, shields, etc. – and to beat them you’ll have to learn their attack patterns and strike them with your sword when they’re vulnerable.  The enemies are slow to approach you and flank you, but they can do some serious damage with just a couple hits, so it’s important not to let yourself get surrounded.  Early in the game, only one or two enemies will appear at the same time, but later on you’ll have to deal with four or more, each with different attack patterns to take into account.  At its best moments, the combat feels downright exhilarating; the controls are smooth, the character animations are fluid and appropriately stylized, and landing a successful parry is one of the best feelings I’ve had in an action game.

The puzzle sequences in Hellblade feature some of the most creative ways that the developers portray the effects of psychosis.  One of the most common puzzles, for example, is to find runes in the environment: a door will be locked until you can find several shapes that appear in the game world, requiring you to line the camera up with doors, shadows, wooden posts, and other objects until you can see the shape of the various runes.  This puzzle is designed to mimic the way that real people with psychosis will often see shapes and patterns in the world, where the rest of us would just see coincidence.  Other puzzles in the game also make use of camera positioning, and every now and then you’ll encounter a puzzle that throws in another twist, such as a section shrouded in darkness that forces you to focus on different senses in order to survive.


It’s in the gameplay that you can start to see the game’s shortcomings, and the limitations Ninja Theory faced because of their smaller budget.  While all the gameplay present is slick and well polished, the problem is that there’s not enough variety.  Certain puzzles (such as the rune puzzle mentioned above) get reused too often in the game, and thus become less interesting over time.  The combat sequences are enjoyable in a visceral sense, but they’re also repetitive and formulaic: dodge or parry an attack, land some hits of your own, rinse and repeat until victorious.  New enemy types require you to memorize a few new attack patterns, but it’s not enough to make the combat truly interesting.  And the game is linear to a fault.  Many puzzles don’t really require much thought; to solve a puzzle, all you often have to do is follow the main pathway to a few specific spots on the map, and you’ll find your solution.  There just isn’t much in the way of critical thinking required to solve the puzzles, which detracts from their appeal.  Even considering the game’s relatively short length (6-8 hours for a full playthrough), this lack of variety still holds the game back.

And then there’s the issue of character death.  During your first combat encounter early in the game, you are faced with enemies you cannot defeat, leading to your first death.  Text then appears on the screen informing you that a “rot” has entered Senua, and with each death it will grow up her arm and closer to her head.  If it reaches her head, her journey will be over, you’ll lose all progress and have to start the game over from scratch.  This game mechanic, often called “permadeath”, is intended to add pressure to the combat sequences and encourage the player to fight cautiously.  It isn’t commonly used in very many games, certainly not story-heavy action games like this, which helps Hellblade stand out.  Or at least, that’s what Ninja Theory wanted people to think.

permadeath message

When other journalistic outlets published their reviews just prior to the game’s release in summer 2017, they generally took for granted that the permadeath mechanic was real.  Once everyone got their hands on the game, however, it was soon discovered that the mechanic was a bluff, or to be less charitable, a lie; you could die as many times as you wanted to, but the rot would never make its way to Senua’s head.  People debated over why Ninja Theory would do this, with many concluding that it fed into the theme of mental illness, as the player would be scared of something that wasn’t actually real (the game’s lead developer has since given a very brief statement regarding this decision).  Since I picked up the game only recently, however, I was already aware of the game’s deception going into it, and thus I could only imagine the tension that those first players would have felt when they played Hellblade last year.  One time during my own playthrough, I actually saw the rot retreat much further down her arm after one of my deaths, which only served to further break my immersion.

Senua bloody skull

So with all this in mind, what does one make of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice?  It seems to me that it can be evaluated from a couple of different angles.  As a method of portraying mental illness, the game is an unparalleled success.  A wide variety of psychosis symptoms are effectively incorporated into the game, in some ways playing directly into the interactive element that only a game can achieve.  And you don’t have to take my word for it, either: as this Accolades Trailer shows, Ninja Theory has received hundreds of letters from actual sufferers of mental illness, letters saying that this game has done a better job portraying their situations than any book or other work of art before it.

As a video game, however, Hellblade is more of a mixed bag.  On one hand, the incredible audio/visual presentation, stunning performance by Senua’s actress, and the combat’s raw, visceral appeal all work to elevate the experience; on the other hand, the linear design, simplistic gameplay, and overused puzzles hold the game down.  I can’t help but feel that there is missed potential here, and that the game’s limited budget kept the team from putting as much depth into the gameplay as they did with the story and thematic elements.

Ultimately, I enjoyed my time with Hellblade.  The game’s simplicity keeps it from greatness to an extent, but the things that it does well manage to offset its shortcomings.  Perhaps more importantly, though, Hellblade gave me a window into the lives of people much different from myself.  My knowledge of mental illness going into this game was negligible, since neither I nor any of my closest friends or family suffer from it; now that I’ve played Hellblade, I have a better understanding of how mental illness affects people, and the incredible strength of those who have lived through it and endured.

Race/Ethnicity and Gaming Culture

Last week we looked at how women are represented and treated in gaming culture (click here to check out that article), and while that situation poses a challenge, representation of racial and ethnic minorities presents an even bigger one.  Looking at surveys taken over the last few years by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), we see caucasians representing anywhere from 68% to 81% of game developers, with those of Asian descent always coming in second with anywhere from 8-18% representation, Latinos at around 5-7%, and African Americans all the way down at 1-3%.[1]

How did we get such a disparity here?  The causes are many, and exist both inside and outside of the gaming industry.  Gaming can be a rather expensive hobby, which means that those with wealth are more likely to buy games, or at least buy more of them and become more invested in gaming as a whole; they, in turn, are the ones most likely to become game developers themselves once they’ve reached adulthood and earned a degree or two.  Since racial minority communities tend to be poorer than predominantly white ones, you won’t find as many people there who can afford to buy games in the first place.  They also have fewer education opportunities and fewer pre-existing connections with those in game development, both of which make it more difficult to find jobs in this field; Derek Manns, a black developer speaking with Newsweek on the issue of racial diversity in gaming, emphasized the importance of knowing people already in the industry, stating that landing a job usually boils down to “Hey, I have a friend who can do this, and he’s a good guy.”[2]

Another aspect of this challenge is the fact that most of the countries with both a wealthy enough economy to sustain a high-end tech field like gaming, as well as a stable political system, are the predominantly white nations in Europe and North America.  Many of the poorer nations in Africa and Latin America are either unable to support a thriving industry, or are faced with economic/political challenges that currently keep them from realizing their potential.  This means fewer developers and publishers from these nations, and fewer people from there moving to the West to find gaming jobs.

While many of the barriers discussed so far center on economic factors, it’s worth noting that cultural obstacles exist as well.  The stigma of pursuing a career in an oddball field like gaming is easier to overcome when you come from a heavily individualistic community, which many white people do; those from minority communities, on the other hand, have a different experience.  Kish Hirani, the chairman of a UK organization that seeks to attract more ethnic minorities to the game industry, highlights the barrier that he sees coming from within his own Indian cultural background:

Generally video games still suffer from the label of not being a “proper job” to a lot of people.  But when you reflect this into ethnic minority communities it is amplified.  Being from an Indian family, picking a career in the video games industry can be complete no-no.  Luckily for me, I was head-strong.  I did what I wanted to do.  But not many people can escape family pressure.[3]

Brazil flag Rio de Janeiro
The Brazilian gaming market is one of the few bright spots in Latin America

As a result of the lack of diversity within development studios, it comes as little surprise that ethnic minority characters in games are a much rarer sight than white characters, and those that do appear often fall into stereotypes, lacking the variety and nuance that you see in their caucasian counterparts.  Most lead characters in games these days, especially, tend to be white.  In fact, the most consistent place to find ethnic minorities in games is in sports titles like FIFA or Madden, games which don’t explore the depth of experiences or emotions that many others do on a regular basis.  All of us as human beings are naturally drawn to those who are most like us, and just as we’ve noted when looking at how women are portrayed in games, people from ethnic minority communities aren’t going to feel welcome in gaming culture if they rarely see anyone who looks or acts like them appearing in games.

Racial and ethnic minorities also suffer from abuse online (another similarity to the situation facing women).  Racial slurs comprise a big part of the toxicity problem that is all too common in multiplayer games, which then discourages ethnic minorities from plugging in their microphone or making custom characters with skin color similar to their own.  That, in turn, feeds into the cycle of minorities feeling unwelcome in gaming culture, and thus hesitant to become game developers themselves and bring their talents and perspectives to the industry.


Japanese RPG Final Fantasy XV has been a phenomenal success across the globe


Having identified all these problems and challenges regarding race and gaming culture, it’s worth noting some of the positive ways we’ve seen games embrace minority communities (and vice versa).  First and foremost, we can’t talk about race and gaming without discussing the massive impact that Japanese culture has had on gaming worldwide.  It was a Japanese company, Nintendo, that revived the video game industry after the crash in the mid-1980s, and they along with other Japanese companies like SEGA, Sony, Square Enix, Konami, and Bandai Namco (to name just a few) made many of the big games of the ‘80s and ‘90s that inspired young white males in America and Europe to become developers themselves.  Even as Western game developers add their own cultural flair to the games they make, Japanese influence can still be seen in many of their efforts.  And to this day, many Japanese-made games (namely role-playing games like Final Fantasy and fighting games like Soul Calibur) continue to find a niche audience around the world.

There are also some other encouraging signs in recent years in regards to showcasing little known and/or less understood cultures.  The rise of the indie games market provides an opportunity for niche, smaller budget titles from ethnic minority developers to find an audience, and the internet gives them a way to advertise that doesn’t rely on signing deals with big publishers.  Never Alone, a game made by an indigenous-owned developer in Alaska, incorporates aspects of Inupiaq culture into their storytelling, while the game Mulaka takes a similar approach with the culture of the Tarahumara people of northern Mexico.  Even Ubisoft, a major AAA publisher (and a majority white company, at that), has pushed for some innovation in this regard; Assassin’s Creed: Origins, the latest entry in Ubisoft’s popular stealth-action series, recently received a new mode called Discovery Tour, which lets players wander through the game’s recreation of Ancient Egypt at their leisure and learn about the land’s history and culture.


In some ways, it’s difficult for me to feel very optimistic about overlooked people groups finding their place in gaming; the high cost of gaming is a barrier for so many nations, and the various cultural obstacles that have discouraged ethnic minorities from participating in this space are unlikely to disappear in the near future.  Yet as technology has advanced further into the developing world, we’ve begun to see more ethnicities and cultural backgrounds represented in gaming.  Hopefully this trend will continue, inspiring new generations of game developers from across the globe to showcase their talent and creativity, making their mark on the gaming world.  And I hope that Christians will see this as an opportunity to learn more about the many people with whom God has called us to share the gospel.



[1] 2015 Survey: https://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.igda.org/resource/collection/CB31CE86-F8EE-4AE3-B46A-148490336605/IGDA%20DSS%202015-SummaryReport_Final_Sept15.pdf

2016 Survey: https://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.igda.org/resource/resmgr/files__2016_dss/IGDA_DSS_2016_Summary_Report.pdf

2017 Survey: https://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.igda.org/resource/resmgr/2017_DSS_/!IGDA_DSS_2017_SummaryReport.pdf

[2] http://www.newsweek.com/2016/10/21/video-games-race-black-protagonists-509328.html

[3] www.bbc.com/news/technology-42357678