September is always a busy time of year for me.
My service management role in the IT department at a university in London means there’s always a lot to do this month. Although I’m not teaching classes or even directly helping the students with their laptop problems, there’s plenty work involved in supporting the teams that do.
I won’t bore you with the details of what I actually do (perhaps some other time), but this increase in work is one of the reasons I seem to find myself returning to The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) in the summer months. As posted last week, this is the epitome of junk-food gaming for me. I can pick it up for an hour after being stuck in conference calls all day and not have to think too much while exploring the world or completing quests.
Another person in the blogging community who understands the ups and downs of the academic calendar is Eric from Eric Hagmann Music. He recently revealed that he has a Last Airbender calendar in his office, along with several comic book hero figurines and a couple of Mario Kart racers. Why didn’t I have a teacher who was this cool when I was back at school?
We previously joined forces on posts about our favourite undead video games for Zombie Awareness Month in May (you can read Eric’s article here). After realising we both work in academic environments, we decided to collaborate again on something for September to celebrate the return of students to classrooms. You guessed it: here are our favourite schools in video games. I’ve expanded the definition slightly so my list includes other kinds of educational institutions, and you can see Eric’s top-ten choices here.
10. Bullworth Academy from Bully
Bullworth Academy has the reputation of being one of the worst schools in the country. This was the same status as my own when I was there back in the day so it has earned itself a place on my list. Set against a backdrop of rebellious mischief, the range of activities, classes and social interactions successfully captures the pressure of what it was like being a teenager. The only reason I’ve placed it at number ten is because it’s a rather obvious choice – although I’ve heard it may have scored much higher for Eric.
9. Blackwell Academy from Life is Strange
Anyone who’s followed Later Levels over the years will be aware that I’m not a fan of Life is Strange. It contains so much teenage angst that it made me feel like I was regressing, and I’m not overly fond of Max or Chloe either. So why on earth would I include it in my selection? The only good reason: the squirrels. There are several cute ones to take photographs of outside the dorm buildings, and a giant critter appears outside the window during Max’s nightmare. I’d rather hang out with them than the game’s protagonists.
8. The high school from Emily is Away
The high school backdrop in Emily is Away captures the essence of early 2000s online communication perfectly. It instantly invokes nostalgia for anyone who lived through that golden age of instant messaging, when every line had to contain an emoticon and it was mandatory to include moody song lyrics in your personal profile otherwise you weren’t cool. As players navigate their evolving relationship with Emily, the school setting serves as a relatable environment and helps create an emotional connection to the characters.
7. Turning Tricks Advanced Motoring from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
Think of yourself as a great driver but feel like you’re getting through way too many vehicles? Then perhaps you need to register at Turning Tricks Advanced Motoring. Although not a traditional institution when compared to some of the other entries on today’s list, this location does offer an education of a sort. Your driving skill can be enhanced through a series of 12 challenging tests, and these skills are sure to come in handy when trying to survive out on the streets of San Andreas.
6. Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp from Psychonauts
My school was obviously nothing like the Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp, but I wanted to include it in my selection for a particular reason. The settings within the minds of the campers and counsellors reveal a series of surreal landscapes full of unique challenges and puzzles. This atmosphere reminds me of hanging out with friends during the summer holidays. Whenever we had the chance, we’d grab our bikes and head towards a small forest nearby where we’d create random adventures.
5. Ozzie Mandrill’s Pirate Transmogrification Academy from Escape from Monkey Island
It wouldn’t be a Later Levels’ top-ten list without at least one Monkey Island game. The Pirate Transmogrification Academy takes barbaric, foul-smelling buccaneers and transforms them into prim, productive and polite members of society. In a challenge which displays the series’ sense of humour, it’s easy for Guybrush to answer all three exam questions correctly and become top student (the first time he has been a success at anything). But in actual fact, you need to do something different to get your hands on a certain item.
4. ATLAS business course from Contradiction: Spot the Liar!
It also wouldn’t be a Later Levels’ list without featuring a full-motion video (FMV) release, and Contradiction is one of my favourites as Rupert Booth is excellently cast in the role of Detective Jenks. It’s obvious there’s something suspicious going on the first time you visit the ATLAS centre. I’m not sure whether it’s the ritual-like ceremonies featuring fire or the costumes which look as though they’ve been ordered from a cult catalogue, but it’s clear this business course plays a significant role in the murder of a student.
3. College of Winterhold from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
The College of Winterhold has earned a place on today’s list not only because of my current ESO addiction, but for the atmosphere created by its halls. There’s something about the snowy landscape and grand architecture of the building which make it feel like the perfect location for curling up in front of a fire with a book about magic. As the central hub for all things mystical, this institution offers an array of quests which will see you uncovering secrets and thwarting dark forces through the use of spellcasting.
2. Guild of Heroes from Fable
The second instalment from the Fable series is one of my favourite games, but we first become acquainted with the Guild of Heroes in the original release. It’s here that that the protagonist finds refuge after a tragedy befalls his family, along with a desire for retribution once he becomes older and stronger. His introduction to the Guild establishes the game’s core mechanics while framing the journey from ordinary individual to legendary figure. Who doesn’t want to start school as a normal kid and leave as a Hero?
Honourable mention: Goodbye Volcano High
Goodbye Volcano High isn’t the sort of title I’d usually play. Its storyline and gameplay don’t appeal to me, and my impression from the demo was that the final game might be too focused on romantic relationships for my taste. So why have I included it as an honourable mention? You can read the full answer in this post. New releases deserve to be critiqued fairly based on their narrative, mechanics, presentation and themes, not solely on how their protagonist identifies.
1. University of Cooking School from I Love You, Colonel Sanders!
Anyone who’s tuned into one of our streams will be aware of the long-running joke about KFC. It’s the junk-food of choice in the Later Levels household (although we haven’t each it much recently due to training for a running event). What other game would I therefore pick for the number one spot? The Colonel may turn out to be a bit of a douchebag who leads you on while you try your hardest in cooking classes. But I only wanted him for his hot wings anyway, so he can cluck off.
Thanks to Eric from Eric Hagmann Music for joining me on this educational trip through video games, and good luck to everyone who’s returning to school in one form or another this month. Be sure to check out Eric’s post and find out which institutions made it onto his selection. And now over to you: what are your favourite schools in gaming and why?