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Editorial

Tether’s Sci-Fi Psychological Horror — Friday Freebies Club

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The business side of publishing a game can be a difficult thing to navigate. As reported by Damien Lawardorn last year, work on promising indie horror title Tether was put on indefinite hold when the developer Freesphere Entertainment was unable to secure funding for the project. After a year of radio silence on the game, Freesphere Entertainment suddenly released an early alpha demo to the public on Itch.io, with any proceeds going directly to continuing development on the game. An atmospheric walking simulator set on a dilapidated space station, Tether is definitely worth a look if you have a spare hour to wander some creepy corridors.

Lesleigh awakens to the voice of her son calling out to her. She sits up, confused, images flickering in the corner of her eye. She is on a long-haul flight to Mars, and her son Peter definitely should not be on the ship. The Tether, a system that helps people survive the long journey, has the side effect of jumbling and rewriting people’s memories. Out of medication to control the side effects, Lesleigh must make her way through the winding metallic corridors of the ship to the medical bay, fighting darkness and her own mind along the way.

Tether

Tether plays as a walking simulator, with Lesleigh’s journey comprised of exploring the world and checking journals and audio logs for clues. She can pick up and throw items, but  mostly this skill is unused, with accumulating information the primary method of progression.

This limited interactivity is made up for with a rich and detailed world: the bedrooms have clothes strewn around, drawings from Lesleigh’s children are pinned up, pictures of loved ones hang on the walls. I was reminded of exploring an abandoned vault in one of the Fallout games, arguably the best part of the series. The station creaks and moans as Lesleigh explores, adding to the foreboding atmosphere.

Tether features full voice acting, and performance is strong across the board, with Lesleigh’s voice work a particular highlight. She sounds genuinely terrified by the things that she sees, a difficult performance to pull off. I would have liked an option for subtitles, especially for the audio logs which have a fuzzy ham-radio effect on the recording.

Tether

The metallic corridors of Tether are extremely dark, and some in-game brightness settings would be beneficial. This darkness was compounded by the partial controller support, which caused issues on my playthrough when the flashlight button failed to work. This darkness impacted what should be a simple puzzle later on—I had to put a new fuse into the fuse box, but the replacement fuses all just look like big white polygons in the dark. That room also contains a prominently placed screwdriver, so I spent far too long trying to unscrew things before finding the solution. Movement is also slow and sluggish on gamepad, with mouse and keyboard clearly being the intended experience.

Despite these minor gripes, I found Tether to be an interesting experience. The game is beautiful and atmospheric, but I felt the story could have been more fully developed. Here’s hoping this public demo will provide an opportunity to revitalise the project.

Tether

Discord user Dismount that Dinosaur enjoyed their time with Tether. Response has been lightly edited for clarity.

Dismount That Dinosaur

I played it; it’s similar to Alien Isolation. The atmosphere and graphics are pretty good for a free 2017 experimental game. There is good potential for the game to evolve into a full-fledged single player game.

Tether

Damien Lawardorn, fellow OnlySP writer and editor extraordinaire, also played through the Tether demo, and had some mixed feelings about the experience.

Damien Lawardorn

Full disclosure: I’ve had my eye on Tether for a long while. When it was put on ice, I was put off, but I understood the reasons after talking to lead developer Mark Gregory. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I got a message from Mark letting me know that the prototype was finally available to play, so I knew I had to give it a go. All that is to say I may be a little biased.

At the same time, after playing this vertical slice, I think I can kind of understand why investors were uneasy about buying into the project. It feels conflicted. It’s a horror game, a walking simulator, and an immersive sim all wrapped up into a brief package. As good as the demo is—and believe me, it’s good—it lacks a clear identity.

Maybe a part of the problem is that the protagonist, Lesleigh, feels nondescript. She is a wife and mother separated from her family by the vast distance of space. That family connection and the distance is an essential part of the story told in this demo, but it is overshadowed by the horror theme, which permeates every room and hallway in the claustrophobic Nostromo-like spaceship. The atmosphere is dense and tense, and the family only matters because you are told it does. These two themes do coalesce at points, but they are rare, with Freesphere relying more on jump scares than a psychological treatment of Lesleigh’s fears.

The horror and narrative elements therefore sit a little uncomfortably beside each other, and the immersive sim elements only heighten that confusion. Early on, almost every item not bolted down can be picked up and thrown around or interacted with in some other, less destructive way. However, that agency does not last long. Soon enough, the environments become almost purely set dressing, which further complicates any identity Tether seeks to convey. Although this decision choice is likely a necessary concession to the developmental struggles of the game and to the pacing, it feels restrictive after the freedom of the opening.

This brief demo showcases a lot of potential, particularly in the nerve-inducing locales and genuinely unpredictable jumpscares, but Tether could certainly benefit by bulking out either the narrative or the gameplay (or, ideally, making both work together more effectively). Mark and his team have had about a year to think about how to improve their design and process, but this prototype is promising, and I’m hopeful that this time the team is able to realise the project.

Tether

Thank you for your thoughts everyone! Next week, we’ll be taking a break from horror games and checking out be you, a short choose-your-own-adventure game available on Steam. Discussions are happening on our Discord server, or you can email me here.

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E3 2019

Gender and Race Representation at E3 2019

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E3 2019 Diversity (Deathloop, Wolfenstein Youngblood, Star Wars Jedi Fallen Order)

Despite making up around half of the gaming population, women remain underrepresented in video games. More Hispanic and Black people refer to themselves as “gamers” than white people, yet minorities remain a rarity in modern titles. E3, which recently came to a close for another year, is gaming’s largest annual event, demonstrating the interests of the industry. Therefore, the statistics from E3 are a fairly accurate representation of the industry as a whole. OnlySP has broken down five of the main conferences from E3 2019 to see how each publisher represents women and people of colour in the games showcased, as well as their presenters.

Some of the shows from the event—the PC Gaming Show, Kinda Funny Games Showcase, EA Play, and the Devolver Digital Big Fancy Press Conference—have been excluded. Previously released games receiving updates or trailers at the event, such as Fallout 76 or Final Fantasy XIV Online, were also excluded from the statistics.

Each conference is broken down into seven categories for gender:

  • Male: where the game features only a male protagonist (Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order)
  • Female: where the game features only a female protagonist (Wolfenstein: Youngblood)
  • Player Choice: where the game allows a fully customisable character (The Outer Worlds)
  • Both: where the game allows the player to control both a male and female character, but not customise their preference (Marvel’s Avengers)
  • Ambiguous: where the protagonist’s gender is unclear (Ori and the Will of the Wisps)
  • None: where the game does not feature a gendered character, including racing games (Microsoft Flight Simulator)
  • Unknown: where the game’s protagonist is yet to be revealed (Elden Ring)

The last five categories are repeated for race within games; protagonists whose race is evident are identified as such.

Microsoft

E3 Chart - Microsoft 2

Microsoft kicked off the main press conferences this year with far more games than the conferences to follow. Out of a total of 29 applicable games, almost a third featured only male protagonists. Thankfully, female representation is not totally out of the question—with 24% of Microsoft’s games allowing full character customisation and 10% featuring both male and female protagonists—but only three games with a sole female protagonist is a disappointing statistic.

Unfortunately, representation among the presenters at Microsoft’s conference does not inspire much hope either, with two of nine being women (one of whom appeared alongside a man). This is sadly representative of the company as a whole, with women making up only 26.6 percent of Microsoft’s employees.

In terms of race representation within its games, Microsoft is not achieving great results. While nine of the games showcased featured Caucasian protagonists, only one had an African-American lead. Thankfully, at least, Microsoft is still allowing the player to decide the race of their character in 21% of its games. Microsoft’s presenters were also mostly white—mostly American, with two Brits, one Canadian, and an Australian—with only one African-American presenter.

While Microsoft’s representation at E3 is better than most of the conferences that followed, it still has a long way to go.

E3 Chart - Demographics - Microsoft

Demographics of protagonists in games shown at Microsoft’s conference.

Bethesda

E3 Chart - Bethesda 2

Bethesda’s conference was short on new titles this year, with only six upcoming games showcased, but it had the strongest showing in terms of character representation. Only one of the six titles—Doom Eternal—featured a single male protagonist, and, that aside, the game is shaping up to be something special.

Both of the upcoming Wolfenstein games—Youngblood and Cyberpilot—feature female protagonists, and while two female-centric games is not a hugely impressive statistic, as an overall indicator it is quite impressive when compared to Bethesda’s other games. Two of the six games—Commander Keen and Deathloop—allow the player to select between a pre-determined male or female character; and in the case of Deathloop, both characters are African-American, so Bethesda’s representation expands beyond gender. However, only one title with a confirmed non-white character is not a very impressive statistic.

The same praise cannot be applied to the presenters of Bethesda’s conference, either; only two of the 17 presenters were female—one of whom has become a bit of an icon following the show. Of the 17 presenters, more than half were American, with only two Japanese presenters, two French, one Swedish, and one Puerto Rican–American. Considering Bethesda’s support of women and minorities in the past, seeing such little representation among its staff is a disappointing statistic.

E3 Chart - Demographics - Bethesda

Demographics of protagonists in games shown at Bethesda’s conference.

Ubisoft

E3 Chart - Ubisoft 2

In regard to giving the player choice, Ubisoft easily beats the competition, with three of its eight new titles featuring full character customisation and two allowing the player to select between a male and female character. Diversity of representation, however, ends there; Ubisoft did not showcase a single female-led video game during its E3 showcase this year. Of the three games allowing character customisation, two—Rainbow Six Quarantine and Roller Champions—are multiplayer games; and of the two allowing both male and female, one is Watch Dogs Legion, which lets players choose between dozens of characters in their operation. Whether or not such a concept will lead to positive representation is yet to be seen. While no games from Ubisoft star an African-American in the leading role, hopefully the developer can achieve positive diversity by taking notes from its 2017 title Watch Dogs 2.

For its presenters, Ubisoft is better than its competition, with females making up four of the conference’s 14 on-stage personalities, but that statistic is still disappointing. If 29% is the best that the industry can do, it still has a long way to go in the years to come.

E3 Chart - Demographics - Ubisoft

Demographics of protagonists in games shown at Ubisoft’s conference.

Square Enix

E3 Chart - Square Enix 2

Square Enix may have had the most disappointing press conference this year in regard to gender representation. Of its 14 games, not a single had only a female protagonist, while over half centred around males. To the publisher’s credit, several of these games feature, in some segments, playable female characters, but to have so many male-centric games without a single sole female protagonist is incredibly disappointing.

Thankfully, five games shown at Square Enix’s conference allow the player to select between a male or female. However, even in some of these games, representation is not entirely clear—only one of the five main playable characters in Marvel’s Avengers, for example, is female, as is only one of the three in Outriders.

Unfortunately, the disappointment of diversity is only exemplified with the conference’s presenters. Only one of the show’s nine presenters was female, with her appearance taking place at the very end of the show alongside a male presenter. Square Enix has a long way to go with its female representation.

E3 Chart - Demographics - Square Enix

Demographics of protagonists in games shown at Square Enix’s conference.

Nintendo

E3 Chart - Nintendo 2

Historically, Nintendo is not known for strong female characters—Princess Peach is the figurehead for the damsel-in-distress trope—but it has made strides in this area with strong characters such as Zelda in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Unfortunately, none of these characters have been allowed to represent their own video game, constantly being shadowed by the male protagonist.

While six of the 17 new Nintendo games shown during its Direct this year featured male protagonists, not a single game featured a female protagonist. With three games allowing full customisation and six giving the choice between male and female, not all hope is lost with Nintendo, but diverse representation is better than customised representation. Being forced to take on different perspectives—as females must do when playing 35% of Nintendo’s games—is more beneficial to the player than choosing to play as an undefined character.

Nintendo only had three presenters during its presentation—deputy general manager Yoshiaki Koizumi, president of Nintendo of America Doug Bowser, and general manager Shinya Takahashi—but seeing some more representation of its female staff (as it does rather well during its Nintendo Treehouse live stream later in the show) would be encouraging.

E3 Chart - Demographics - Nintendo

Demographics of protagonists in games shown at Nintendo’s conference.


Overall

As a whole, E3 2019 was rather disappointing. While a third of the games showcased at the five conferences above featured only male protagonists, only 7% featured female protagonists. While developers are improving in regard to player choice—allowing either full customisation or the selection of a male or female character—diverse representation is a necessity moving forward, and the industry needs to look at improving.

Presenters Demographic

Demographics of presenters at the five conferences during E3 2019.

In terms of race representation, the statistics are even more abysmal. While an Americanised show is expected due to the location of E3, some diversity would be appreciated; with over half of the presenters being American, the companies are failing to demonstrate their diverse talent. The same can be said about the games; as seen below, 27% of protagonists in games are Caucasian, while 3% (only two games) feature African-Americans as lead characters. As aforementioned, developers are seeing improvement in allowing players to customise or select their characters, but specified diversity is a change that the industry requires.

E3 Chart - Games Demographics

Demographics of protagonists in the games showcased at the five conferences during E3 2019.

The industry has a long way to go.

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