Thursday, December 18, 2014

Telltale's Game of Thrones Episode 1 Review

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I have become a big fan of Telltale's interactive story format, but this is the first time they have made a game in a franchise that I am already invested in. And it makes a world of difference. Even though Game of Thrones tells the story of a relatively minor house that has not appeared directly in the books or television show, I am already well acquainted with other characters and the politics of the world. This gives me a framework from which to base my interactions with these characters. Even if you are new to the series, they do a good job introducing characters with really obvious clues about their true nature. But really, you should read the books up through A Storm of Swords or watch the show up through Season 3. Speaking of which, they have all the same actors voicing their characters from the show.
Now let's talk about the characters they have created specifically for the game. House Forrester seems to have been written very similarly to House Stark. They are from the north, they are honorable, and their members have been flung all over the world. It is obvious why they did this: everyone likes the Starks, and Telltale wants the player to like the people they are playing as. I'm a little disappointed that they couldn't find a better way to do that than to follow an established formula. Much like in the books, there are multiple characters whom the player controls. This is where having the characters flung across the world comes into play. As in the books or the show, there are quite a few characters to keep track of, so I recommend going into the game's codex before you start playing so you aren't totally lost.
While reading A Song of Ice and Fire, I had gotten so used to George RR Martin's tendency to pull the rug out from under the reader that I could predict when bad things or good things would happen. Thankfully the writers at Telltale didn't follow that formula, so I was legitimately surprised a few times throughout the episode.

The art style is gorgeous to behold. I was expecting it to be cel-shaded like their last four games, but instead everything looks as if it could be straight out of an oil painting. Objects in the background become slightly blurred, and characters' faces have a curious texture. The border between foreground and background objects had a strange shimmer where the blurring ended, which was a little distracting. But does it look good in screenshots or what? By far Game of Thrones is the best looking Telltale game to date.

The gameplay has moved farther away from puzzles and action sequences than even The Wolf Among Us. Carefully choosing dialogue options is the only meaningful action the player makes. If you do the wrong thing during one of the few action sequences, it is simply game over. It is quite difficult to fail that way, but I giggled at the game over screen.
I don't remember caring this much about the characters' lives I am affecting, even in The Walking Dead. I was so conflicted during dialogue that I sometimes let the time run out accidentally. If Telltale can keep up this level of quality, Game of Thrones will easily be my favorite game of theirs, and probably my favorite game of 2015. Iron from Ice!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Monument Valley: Forgotten Shores Review

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It's high praise to say that you wish a game was longer so you could play more of it, but many times you will never get the opportunity to do so. Fortunately for fans of Monument Valley, ustwo were listening.

Forgotten Shores brings eight new levels to the game, almost as many as the original release. Of course quantity is not everything, so it is a very good thing that Forgotten Shores improves on the original in many ways. There are new puzzle mechanics and architecture types. I thought that my mind had been blown as much as it could, but every level in Forgotten Shores had something new to amaze me with.
They also upped the emotional impact, but of course I won't spoil it with any more details than that. It was a surprise to me, and it would have meant a lot less if it had not been a surprise.
In this case the floor really is lava. Or is it magma?

My biggest praise for Forgotten Shores is that it makes Monument Valley feel complete now. If you at all enjoyed Monument Valley, Forgotten Shores is a must-play, It's available as an in-app purchase on all platforms the original is on.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Codename Cygnus Review

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I wouldn't blame you for thinking that radio dramas are a thing of the past. Is A Prairie Home Companion even on anymore? Oh, it is. Anyway, the closest I have been listening to in recent years is Welcome to Night Vale, hands down the best podcast in the world. But if you put the word "interactive" in front of any old-fashioned concept, it suddenly seems modern and cool. So when I found out that interactive radio drama is a thing I was pretty excited.

Codename Cygnus is an interactive radio drama where you play the role of a secret agent. It is full of hilarious spy tropes, and isn't ashamed of it. The story is conveyed through excellent sound effects, dialogue of other characters, or the narration your handler provides. The writing and voice acting were good most of the time. The highlight for me was that Logan Cunningham appears as a villain.
Whenever you get to make a decision, your handler will ask you which option you want to take. They often come with the unspoken question: what kind of agent are you? I of course went with the charismatic approach whenever possible.
I thought it was a little odd that the player takes on the role of the agent directly. Being that you get all your information audially, it would have made more sense if the player was the handler, and simply gave suggestions to the agent. Then the agent would have to have a voice though, and probably a predefined personality. Perhaps their current approach is actually best, even though it does not make sense for the handler to be describing to the agent what is happening around the agent.

Now, you could use your fingers to tap the option you wish to choose. But touchscreens are so 2007. The real way you should be playing is by speaking your decisions. Their voice recognition is quite good. It never mistook my decision, though sometimes I had to say "clever" several times before it registered. The other technical hiccup that I found is that it does not play when the screen is locked. I would love to be able to play while walking to school, but keeping the screen on in my pocket would be too much of a battery drain.
Update: According to Jonathon Myers (ZOMG I got an email from their CEO, how cool is that?) the iOS version presents itself as a media player, so you can play it with the screen locked. On the Android version they have started experimenting with the transcription that writes as you play, so until they implement a toggle to turn the text on/off the screen has to stay on. I do notice that you can go to a different app and it will continue playing though.

So far they have one mission out, which consists of five episodes. Each episode lasts 15-20 minutes. However, with so many different choices available, I will likely play the mission several more times to see everything. I would say that a reasonable price for a mission is $5. Of course the prologue is free, so check that out if you're not sure if this kind of thing is for you. Available on Android and iOS.

I am excited to see where this medium goes in the future. In particular I was happy to hear that they hired Dave Grossman, who has written at LucasArts and Telltale. Who knows, maybe they will use the framework they already created to branch out into other kinds of stories. Maybe in the future I will get to be a detective in Lake Wobegon.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Atari: Game Over Review

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I'm a big sucker for a good documentary, but of course not all of them are created equal. The best ones will focus on the human stories embedded in whatever overarching topic the movie holds. Fortunately, Atari: Game Over does just that.

If you are even a little into video game culture, you have probably heard of the infamous ET game for the Atari 2600 and its reputation for single handedly bringing about the video game crash of the mid 80s. Part of the story is that Atari had so many of these games unsold that they took them out somewhere in the middle of the desert and dumped them in a landfill. For a long time I thought this was an urban legend, just like I thought that Battletoads wasn't a real game. But then news started popping up about a filmmaker who wanted to excavate the landfill where the cartridges apparently resided.

The documentary itself is well structured. It switches back and forth between describing the company culture at Atari at the time, and recounting the search for the location of the cartridges in the last few years. It is a very positive look at the people involved, in particular the game designer who made ET in five weeks. Watching the footage from the day of the excavation makes me wish I had been there to witness the event. It was very emotional for those involved, in particular the game designer.

The best part about it is that it is available for free! Right now it is only available through Xbox Video (don't worry, you can watch it on the web; you just need a Microsoft account) but I suspect that later on it will make its way to other platforms.

TwoDots Review

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TwoDots takes the game mechanics of its predecessor and applies them to a puzzle game instead of an arcade game. Instead of playing on a randomized field and trying to get a high score, TwoDots features multiple levels with set goals to accomplish. There are several different themed chapters, each of which introduces a new type of goal: in the sea chapter you have to drop anchor dots to the bottom of the grid, in the snow chapter you have to break ice blocks, etc. After introducing the new mechanic, many levels combine multiple different mechanics to make things interesting.
It is an incredibly cutesy game, with a catchy tune that didn't get old for me, and satisfying sound effects to accompany each action. As you scroll through the overworld, objects move in response. Think about your favorite example of parallax scrolling and you will understand how great it feels.

Each level of course gives you a rating on how well you completed it. This score, as well as how many levels you have completed, can be compared to your friends. It uses Facebook, which is nice because I do not think that any of my Android friends have played yet. On the other hand, now I am comparing my score to people who I have not talked to in ages (one of them went to elementary school with me, still not sure why we are friends on Facebook).

Up until now, everything has been sunshine and roses. Unfortunately, they drop the ball in a way that is very important to me. The game is monetized through in-game power ups. For example, you have five lives, losing one whenever you fail a level. They regenerate one every 20 minutes or you can pay a little money now to keep playing. When you fail a level, they will offer you five more moves and an item that will solve all your problems for only a dollar!
I absolutely refuse to beat a puzzle game by paying money, but I cannot be sure that the people on my friends list have the same philosophy as I. So now I am left wondering what is the point? I can succeed at this game "honorably," but how can I know that anyone else has? For that matter, how does anyone know that I did? As a result every time I play I can't help but hate myself a little.

A side effect of this is that I have now realized that the original Dots suffered the same problem, though it was not quite as obvious. Over time it became more difficult to earn power ups solely through playing, and if you wanted to beat your friends at it those power ups were crucial. Both games are pay-to-win, and I am done with them.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Dream: The Underground Tugboat

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I was going for a run in a city I am unfamiliar with. For some reason I was having trouble controlling my legs properly (maybe I was sleeping on one in real life). I was suddenly compelled to get in a car in the parking lot and drive down the walking path to where one runner was resting. I told her it was time to go, and she grudgingly got in. I told her that mom wanted us home, which confused me because I did not know the runner. I asked her who I was and she said "you're my sister." I said that I thought I was Ian, and she said "yeah, you're Ian too." It was weird, like I had two different people's memories on my head.

Suddenly the dream shifted. I was just me, and my passenger was +Sonja Richardson. We were trying to navigate to a destination in the city, but again we were unfamiliar with it. She was trying to use my phone to find it on a map, but Action Launcher was confusing her (as it does to people who have never used it before). I somehow kept driving onto grass and hills and behind bus stops.

Eventually we gave up on the car. We got out and were going to bike to wherever we were going. We thought we were in an alley that led to the main street, but we were actually on a ramp that led into a cathedral (looked a lot like the traditional Russian Orthodox cathedral I toured in St Petersburg). Despite our best efforts to go away from the cathedral, somehow we ended up in a tunnel system that led us in circles under the cathedral. This made up the bulk of the dream, with us wandering around this crowded tourist destination with our bikes. Somehow we kept ending up at the same souvenir shop, main tunnel, cathedral interior, etc. Eventually we came to realize that we were actually on a big tugboat on an underground lake that was a museum. Still wandering around looking for an exit. We eventually ended up going to the side of the tugboat, getting on the other side of the handrail, and shimmying along so we could be sure to see the whole outside of the boat no matter where the walking paths went. We ended up on the bow. We swore that we had seen a dock going from the bow to shore, but there wasn't one. Perhaps it was at the stern. As I was making my way around to the starboard side (for some reason that side was right next to the water level) the water swelled and nearly washed me away. I managed to grab a rope and pull myself back in, and somehow my bike also didn't wash away. We were just starting back on the port side when I woke him.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Tarkin Review

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You know what they say about villains- nobody thinks of themselves as the bad guy. And then they go and throw a character at us who is willing to blow up an entire planet. A planet that has no weapons and had been a member of the Empire and formerly the Republic since its inception. Seemingly for no other reason than he was interrogating the senator from that planet, and it was a convenient target. How can someone like that not think of themselves as a bad guy? Read Tarkin and find out.

It is amazing how Luceno manages to take everything that Tarkin does, all his motivations and rationales, and makes them seem perfectly reasonable. I had never thought much about the character before. In A New Hope he simply struck me as an overconfident monster. Now he is one of my favorite characters in Star Wars, and it is all thanks to this book.

Part of it is that I always reading stories from the perspective of tactical geniuses (Grand Admiral Thrawn, anyone?) and part of it was learning about Tarkin's childhood through flashbacks. Not only are battles fun to experience from his perspective, but the wider mystery that they were attempting to solve throughout the book had me trying to think ahead and figure out what was going to happen. The flashbacks were extremely important in shaping who Tarkin is and how he reacts to various situations. The final flashback was hinted at throughout the book as something to look forward to, and it paid off satisfactorily.

As it turns out, Tarkin is a classy and polite individual. I remember him having a total of one argument in the entire book, and that was because the other person was getting in the way of Tarkin doing his job. Look, now even I am making excuses for him. But seriously, he was even polite to his enemies. Oh, and have I mentioned that the very first conversation in the book was about Imperial military fashion? Yeah, it includes this gem: "There is a marked difference between a uniform that 'fits' and a uniform that suits the wearer."

It was great getting to see Tarkin and Vader working together before they knew each other well. There were references to events in The Clone Wars (which I have not watched yet) but it did not affect my ability to appreciate their working relationship. In fact, it made me more interested in finishing that show.

Much more than A New Dawn, this is a book that I can recommend even to people who are not diehard Star Wars fans. If you have at least watched the movies you will appreciate this look inside the mind of one of the series' more iconic villains.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

A New Dawn: Star Wars Review

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This first paragraph is a bit of a rant about Star Wars Legends. Skip it if you only want to know my thoughts on A New Dawn.

April 25th, 2014 was a surprisingly important day in my life. On that day the Lucasfilm story group changed the definition of what is canon and what is not in the Star Wars universe for good. I was extremely unhappy with the announcement, in ways that would seem irrational to most people. You have to understand, though, that a huge portion of my childhood has revolved around reading as many Star Wars novels as I could get my hands on. My brothers and I can talk for hours and hours about all of the things we have read in the Expanded Universe. Before April 25th, 2014 if you asked me who my favorite Star Wars character was, I would have immediately said "Grand Admiral Thrawn." Now I don't know. None of the characters that appeared in the movies even came close. Imagine a historian who dedicated their life to learning all they could about a particular area of the world in a particular period of time. They are one of the world's foremost experts on the subject. Suddenly a document is uncovered that reveals almost all of the materials they studied up to that point are false. How would you feel as that historian? I suppose there is a bright side to this whole situation: for the first time in my life I actually have a chance of catching up on everything that officially happened in the Star Wars universe. Because of that motivation, A New Dawn is the first Star Wars novel I have read in years. So let's get into it.

Efficiency is a prominent theme in A New Dawn, and this extends to the book itself as well. It uses its time well: the story never gets bogged down by unnecessary details, all of the characters introduced have important parts to play, and all of the events that occur are there to move the plot forward. It was refreshing to read a book that took this approach, but there are a few side effects as well. For example, knowing that everything is important allows the reader to know several characters' secret identities well before their "big reveal". Or any time something seems like a strange coincidence, it most assuredly is not a coincidence.

The cast was fairly diverse, and most of them were interesting characters. Among the four main protagonists, half were female (in total it was a little less, five women to eight men), half were not human, and one was an amputee. I was quite pleased with Hera, a strong female lead who had her own goals and agenda and saved Kanan at least as many times as he saved her. I was significantly less impressed with Kanan: haven't we seen enough ladies' men with a penchant for drinking who pretend not to care about anyone in Star Wars?

I am having a hard time figuring out what age group this book is meant for. The supposed mysteries that were so easy to figure out point towards a younger teen audience. But then Miller goes and uses words like "coruscating" and "perdition" which I have never seen before. There is a very silly notion of what falling in love entails (Kanan hears Hera's voice and immediately his only goal in life is to find out who that lovely voice belongs to). But then there is the savage violence displayed by Count Vidian. I suppose I was reading more intense stuff at that age, but maybe I should not have been.

Should you read A New Dawn? That entirely depends on how much you care about Star Wars. It is a good book, but not really a must-read for those who do not care about keeping up with everything going on in the galaxy. It is meant as a setup for the Rebels show that just started, though I doubt you will be lost if you just start watching the show without reading.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Inbox First Impressions

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If you are wondering what Inbox is, read the announcement. I'll only be talking about what I have noticed about it since I started using it.

The fundamental ideas behind Inbox are great. Yes, I receive too much email. Yes, some of it I do not need to read and never will need to. Yes, some of it I will need to deal with, but I cannot right now. And yes, some of it is quick enough or important enough that I should deal with it right now. Inbox is the best way that I have seen of dealing with all of those cases in one place.

Inbox was clearly designed with mobile in mind first. The one-column organization and vertical navigation are suited very well to a phone. Swiping a message left or right to snooze it or mark it as done feels very natural, especially if you are on Android (think about the notification tray). The fact that you can snooze/mark as done from a notification is the icing on the cake. I do wish that I could swipe sideways while a message is open, either to snooze/mark as done or to navigate from one conversation to another like in the Gmail app.

The desktop version needs some work. It has the exact same layout as the mobile version, one column. We solved this issue a long time ago in Gmail: let the list of messages take up one column, and open messages alongside it in another column. Images are displayed awfully; I received a screenshot taken on a phone, and it was almost twice the height of my screen. Swiping obviously is not an option, so there are buttons on each message for snoozing/marking as done. It doesn't feel as cool as swiping the message away, but it is still a lot better than having to select a message and then looking around at the top to find the archive button. It is also only available on Chrome. They say that other browsers are coming soon, but what better way to test it than to let people who got into the invitation only program try it on whatever they prefer? Not to mention that this is an unacceptable abuse of Chrome's position as the most popular browser. Isn't the point of web applications that they are platform agnostic? I have also noticed that the amount of memory Inbox takes up slowly increases over time. This was not scientifically tested, just something I noticed.

Bundling messages together in a visual stack instead of tabs feels much better, in particular on mobile. It also makes it very easy to perform an action on all messages in that bundle. I am confused as to why a bundle's name will show up when there is only one message present in that bundle. I don't want to have to open the bundle to get to a message if there are no other messages in the bundle. Allowing the user to create their own bundles makes them infinitely more useful than the predefined tabs in Gmail. Any filters you already created in Gmail will be preserved in Inbox and can be made into a bundle easily.

Speaking of preserving things from Gmail, all actions that you make in Inbox happen in Gmail as well. Marking something as done in Inbox archives it in Gmail, and probably vice versa. However, not everything from Gmail has made its way over to Inbox. For example, in Gmail old chat logs can be found, but they will not show up in Inbox.  It also does not allow you to edit contacts.Gmail will obviously have to coexist with Inbox until they make their way over or are fleshed out into their own product. I am not sure it would be a good idea to bring them into Inbox, as its strength comes from its simplicity and cleanliness. Priority markers did not make the journey either, but they were clearly on their way out when tabs were introduced to Gmail.

I approve of reminders being brought into Inbox. It makes sense, because the act of snoozing a message essentially makes it into a reminder. It would not make sense to have one sort of reminder in Inbox and another in Google Now. The presence of reminders is another motivator to keep a clean inbox; if you have a bunch of messages cluttering it up, the reminders will not stand out to you. Gmail clearly intended for its users to archive messages when they were done with them, but it never encouraged that behavior the way Inbox does. And for that, I am sold. Plus, look at what happens when you have nothing in your inbox:

Saturday, November 1, 2014

A Storm of Swords Review

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One thing that people usually notice about a book right away is how long is. However, I got the first four books in a pack digitally, so I had no idea that A Storm of Swords is a whole third longer than the previous two books. Fortunately, the book does not slow down in the middle the way A Clash of Kings did. The momentum was maintained mainly through major character deaths, some false character deaths (making the reader think someone died when they did not), and an ever-increasing sense of the bigger picture and more impressive feats of magic. Martin still leaves enough time between each cool use of magic that each one is surprising and delightful. Kind of like how the Force seemed so much cooler in the original trilogy, before we had tons of Jedi running around using the Force willy-nilly.

I believe that this marks a turning point in the series when the conflicts that were focused on before no longer seem as important, and the real threat is revealed. It was also a turning point for many characters; some became more courteous, some discovered bravery, some became accustomed to killing, and many accepted their destiny and made difficult life decisions against the will of those who were trying to influence them. I finished the book with a wildly different opinion of most of the perspective characters than I started the book with. As someone who enjoys character development more than anything else in storytelling, I appreciate this.

In the past the multiple perspective characters served the purpose of allowing the reader to know what was happening in different parts of the world. For the most part there was one perspective character per location. A Storm of Swords changes that by moving characters around and sometimes showing the same events from different perspectives. The first few times perspective characters came near each other I giggled to myself because they often had no idea how close they were to each other. Over time however it became the norm.

After reading three of George RR Martin's books in a row I have become quite accustomed to his writing style. For one thing, it has become quite obvious that he loves building one expectation for a situation and then completely changing the outcome at the last second. As a result, whenever a character I care about seems to be in dire peril I relax because I know they will probably get out of it unscathed. On the other hand, if things have been going well for someone for a while, I start to get tense because I know it will not last long. I have also noticed several phrases that Martin uses a lot. The one that really started to bug me was "half a hundred". Whenever there were a large (but not overwhelming) number of countable objects, someone would remark or think to themselves that "there must be half a hundred of them."

One running joke that I found odd was the song "The Bear and the Maiden Fair." I do not remember anybody mentioning the song in either of the previous books, but suddenly everyone seems to know it. Any time someone sings, there is about a 50% chance that it will be "The Bear and the Maiden Fair." It was funny, but I don't understand how it goes from nothing to #1 pop song in Westeros when they don't have mass media.

Despite its length, A Storm of Swords is my favorite book so far in A Song of Ice and Fire. Because of its length though I think I need to take a break from the series to get caught up on Star Wars novels. Shouldn't take long.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Badland Review

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At first glance you might want to call Badland an infinite flyer. But there are enough major differences that I do not think it quite fits. Much like infinite flyers, you have one basic control: touch to fly up, don't touch to drop down. However, in most infinite flyers touching anything results in death. In Badland there are many things that will kill you, but usually the floor and ceiling are safe bets. Instead the game is based around set obstacles that you must get past.
There are two main ways to lose. Contact with objects like saws, lasers, or getting squished between two otherwise harmless objects will kill you. Falling behind the camera also results in failure. Usually the camera continues forward at a slow but unstoppable pace. There are exceptions, like during maze sections where the camera will kindly wait for you to complete the puzzle. Failure is not the end of the world like most infinite flyers. Instead the game is riddled with checkpoints, usually placed right before each obstacle or puzzle. Badland spices things up with power ups found throughout levels. Some make you smaller, some bigger, some bouncy, some sticky, etc. Usually they are strategically placed to help you get past the next obstacle. As with any good puzzle game, Badland takes the limited number of different elements and combines them in new, more challenging ways as the game progresses to keep itself fresh.
I have never played a game with a setting quite like Badland's. It is a jungle world with pieces of abandoned advanced technology lying about. You see this world as a small creature trying to survive the day in this deadly world. The art style does a great job of presenting this beautiful world. The backgrounds are vividly colored, seemingly handpainted panoramas of huge objects in the distance. The objects in the foreground (as in, everything that you interact with in the game) are almost completely black. You might think that the background would distract from the important objects, but it did not. In fact, I only noticed things in the background if I was in an area with a lull in obstacles. I started to imagine what kinds of events might be happening on this world, what awesome sci-fi adventures were happening that my little fuzzy animal was completely unaware of. I also thought about all the hilarious ways that this little animal's journey might be inadvertently affecting the world around it.
There is no soundtrack to speak of in Badland. Instead, ambient jungle sounds permeate quietly throughout. Many obstacles make sounds, such as the buzzing of a saw or the sizzle of a laser. Honestly I did not miss the existence of a soundtrack until I looked in my humble library and realized that the game came with no music.
There are 70 levels, divided into different times of day. They of course get progressively more difficult. There are also goals besides simply reaching the end of a level. Throughout many levels you can get power ups that clone the little creature. The more clones that make it to the end, the better. It becomes very difficult to keep them all alive however, because they all obey your command to go up or down at the same time. Each level has three different objectives to complete, such as saving a certain number of creatures or collecting all the power ups in the level. It is the kind of game that I have enjoyed completing, but I doubt I will ever fully beat it.
There is also a hilarious local multiplayer mode where up to four people control different creatures making their way through the same level together. It is competitive, so whoever makes it farthest wins. This multiplayer mode works best on larger screens, and it is the first game that I can think of that makes perfect sense to play on Android TV.
I would say that a reasonable price for Badland is $4. Those of you who enjoy a challenge will get more out of it, but everyone should be able to enjoy the atmosphere in the first 30 or so levels, as they are not too difficult. Grab it on Android, iOS, Windows Phone, or Blackberry.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Moment of Self Reflection

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One of the arguments in support of encrypting phones without any backdoors is that things that are acceptable today may be embarrassing in the future. Out of curiosity, I decided to read through a few chat logs from high school to see how embarrassing they are. I was not expecting to be so disappointed with what I found.

First of all, I never realized how self-centered I was. I was so wrapped up in the things that interested me that I never talked about other things. If whatever you had to say did not have to do with science fiction or video games, I was out. That is no way to relate to people. That is no way to make friends. Yes, it is good to find other people who share interests with you, but not at the expense of connecting with others. For example, if you started to tell me about your favorite K-pop groups I would have clocked out of the conversation immediately.

Second, I was a low self-monitor. That means that  I acted mostly the same no matter what context I was in. Many of my messages were just whatever passing thought I had at the time. A Star Wars reference occurred to me? I sent it to somebody. I read a funny webcomic? I messaged somebody the punchline. If somebody did that to me today, it would get old really fast. I seemed to believe that anything I had to say was valuable in any context. Now, this was likely linked to my extreme self-confidence, which I am glad my parents fostered in me. I just wish it had manifested in a different form.

Third, I took great pride in being an unempathetic robot. I think I even used that phrase to describe myself at the time. I had no interest in understanding those human "feelings" everyone seemed so preoccupied about. Hence, I was a prick. I called things as I saw them, and didn't worry about whether it would help or harm the person I was talking to. It's a wonder that people wanted to be around me. Despite the fact that we have been best friends for as long as I can remember, +Ian Decker told me that he did not feel comfortable bringing up vulnerable subjects to me. I was likely to just tell him to stop being an idiot and move on with his life. In fact, when our English class read Pygmalion we decided that we were a real life Pickering and Higgins duo; he treated everyone with kindness and respect, I treated everyone with contempt.

Fourth, I was a loan shark. I had recently discovered what a wonderful thing Steam sales were, but I did not have a debit card to buy games with. So whenever I lent a friend money I would ask for the money back in the form of Steam games. And because the sales were often very time sensitive, I ended up hounding people (including my girlfriend) incessantly for games. I was so pathetic.

Fifth, I was self righteous. Sure, I had the moral high ground when I argued against pirating music and games, but I didn't have to shame my friends about it the way I did. Maybe I should have let my little brothers install Civilization IV on their friend's computer so they could play together. At the time he did not have the means to buy it for himself anyway, and they could have had a great time together. If I had to assign myself an alignment, it would be lawful neutral. I esteemed legality as the highest moral standard. Maybe I was just too lazy to form my own sense of right and wrong.

Sixth, I was blind to my own privilege. I came at situations assuming that everyone else would have similar experiences and opinions as mine. As a result, most of the people that I hung out with had similar experiences and opinions. By that I mean that we were a bunch of nerdy, white guys whose parents are middle class. And I convinced myself that it was not our fault. One of the most telling messages I came across was one where I brought up The Sims. I asked if the person I was talking to had ever played them. When they said no, I ended with "good, because they are a mockery to all things video game." There are so many things that interaction reveals. A few I talked about above, like talking about things that I am interested in and assuming that they would interest everyone else as well. But the thing that really bothers me about this is how I was just regurgitating the opinion of others about a game I had never played myself. I was so wrapped up in being a gamer that I outright rejected anything that a "real gamer" would not like. In a word, I was insecure.

Now here is where my self reflection took a twist. I also happened to be reading some articles about recent events involving GamerGate. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that if GamerGate had happened in 2010 instead of 2014 I probably would have been in support of it. Gross, right? Wherever I stood on all the other issues, I would have been fixated on the perceived threat to my precious gamer identity. I would have been able to ignore most of the other issues (feminism wasn't on my radar yet, and what did I care about ethics in journalism?) or make up excuses for them, like "no, those people making death threats don't represent the rest of GamerGate." I can see high school me ignoring the important issues just because I would have perceived the argument as being gamers vs outsiders.

As disappointing as it was to look back on my demeanor in high school, several people I have talked to about it have assured me that I have improved. Ian in particular made me feel good when he said "I think of you as a brother more than ever." Having others there to evaluate one's behavior is important, as we are often ignorant of the harm we are doing. Nobody thinks of themselves as the bad guy, but we can all strive to improve our interactions with other people. When we stop trying to improve, we have failed. I like the advice that +Anna Haslow gave me on the subject: "Your first, immediate thoughts are what's been ingrained into you by society. Your second thoughts- when you pause and think, 'whoa, that was really shitty'- that's what you as a person think. Keep second-guessing yourself, think before you speak, evaluate your language from another perspective. And keep doing it." In fact, if you still have chat logs saved from years gone by, I encourage you to have a peek. You might learn a thing or two about yourself. I would also recommend exposing yourself to perspectives other than your own. This is especially important if the perspective you see in the media is usually like your own. I have found that Tumblr helps.

So to those of you who knew me in high school, I would like to apologize for my behavior back then. I regret a lot of it, and I wish that more of us could have become lasting friends. I'll see you at class reunions. And stay classy, Central.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Assassin's Creed Pirates Review

Note: this blog has been migrated to Medium, with the articles here available to preserve permalinks. Please see this post at

Out of all the AAA games I have played that were adapted to mobile, Assassin's Creed Pirates is by far the best. Of course, all the other ones were terrible, so it did not have a very high bar to clear.
Pirates seems like a winning strategy: what did everybody love about Assassin's Creed III and Assassin's Creed IV? The naval battles! So let's make a mobile game with just naval battles. Out of necessity you only ever control the ship as a whole. No freerunning, no boarding ships, no cutscenes. The reason for this is twofold: the controls would be impossible to implement well, and mobile devices would not be able to render characters' faces with enough detail. This was a smart decision, as everything they left in the game can be done well. It is one of the most visually impressive games I have played on my phone, and the controls felt natural for the most part.
That being said, there is a big problem: the game just isn't that fun. Sure, there are lots of different activities to do, like hunting down cargo ships, fishing, rescuing slaves, retrieving packages, and racing. But none of them drew me in, none of them felt like they were worth my time. It is a massive game (1.01 GB!) with tons of maps and many chapters to the story. And Ubisoft should be commended on supporting the game after launch with new maps and stories for fans to play through. I just can't imagine pushing myself to sit through it all.
The game tries to reward you with collectible treasures and daily challenges. It even sends you notifications if you have not yet played today, which is unacceptable. After a few days I just wasn't interested. I didn't care about any of the characters, and I didn't care about the special items they were hawking. The game is supported by selling in-game gold (ranging from $1 to $100) which does not rub me the right way. It would take a long time to accumulate enough gold without purchases to buy anything useful.

If you really want to check it out and you have the space on your device, it is free on Android and iOS.

Dream: The Horse Headlock

Note: this blog has been migrated to Medium, with the articles here available to preserve permalinks. Please see this post at

This dream started off with a situation similar to my recent trip to St Petersburg: a bunch of students staying at a hotel. They went to a club, and for some reason I went with them.

Eventually I decided to head back to the hotel. I had a DSLR with me (clearly born of my desire to have one on these trips I keep taking). On my way I passed a bunch of fields where sports people were doing sports things. Seeing some good photo opportunities, I stopped to take pictures.

I got to a field with some horses, so I got on one to continue my journey. I noticed that the camera was not taking pictures anymore, so I started fiddling with some settings. When I changed a particular setting, the horse I was on started freaking out. I tried to calm it down, but it simply laid down, pinning me there. Then another horse came up and put me in a headlock with its front legs. I was terrified. Figuring that the camera was what was upsetting them, I threw it out of the fence.

+Amy Buck came by and picked up the camera. I told her to change the settings to placate the horses. She must have found the right one because suddenly the horses let go, but not before slobbering all over me. Then +Sonja Richardson showed up and asked me what happened. After I told her, she of course took the horse's side. I can never win.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Smash Hit Review

Note: this blog has been migrated to Medium, with the articles here available to preserve permalinks. Please see this post at

Smash Hit is an arcade game that tasks you with traveling as far as you can down a path riddled with glass obstacles. In order to get past these obstacles you have to throw metal balls at them to (you guessed it) hit and smash them. You have a finite number of balls, and the game ends when you run out. If you fail to smash an obstacle before running into it, you lose ten balls. To replenish balls you must smash crystals as you pass them.

The game adds complexity through different types of obstacles. Each stage of the game has a theme, with similar obstacles showing up together. The stages also serve as checkpoints: once you have completed a stage, the number of balls you have is saved. From the main menu you can start any stage that you have reached previously. There are eleven stages, and once you have completed them all you gain access to endless mode.

Power ups also add a layer to the game. Each power up is suitable to a different situation. Some slow down time, some allow you to throw a rapid fire stream of balls, and some make your balls explode on impact. Figuring out when to use each is not difficult, but it is important.
They have added several difficulty levels, each of which has separate progression (but only Classic and Mayhem have leaderboards). This gives the game replayability through added challenge. There is also an extensive collection of achievements to strive for.

I have become quite enamored with arcade games on mobile. The genre fits well for three reasons: they tend to be easy to learn but difficult to master, they can be played in quick sessions, and comparing high scores with friends is much more reasonable than real-time multiplayer. Smash Hit hits most of those categories on the nose. The only exception would be quick sessions; checkpoints are several minutes apart, meaning that I only start up this game if I know I have some time to spare.
The free version of the game only includes Classic difficulty and does not include checkpoints, essentially making it a demo version of the game. So don't take my word for it, go check it out on Android or iOS. The premium version is well worth the $2 they ask for.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Room Two Review

Note: this blog has been migrated to Medium, with the articles here available to preserve permalinks. Please see this post at

If The Room was a good proof-of-concept for what a premium game should look like on mobile, The Room Two took that concept and perfected it. Nearly everything about it improves on the foundation that the original laid down. In a lot of ways it reminds me of my impressions of the first two Assassin's Creed games. We had never seen anything quite like the original, and I finished thinking it was a pretty good game; then the second comes along and suddenly I realized that it was the game the original should have been all along.

As in its predecessor, The Room Two tasks you with solving physical puzzles. The original was limited to opening various types of safes, but The Room Two takes it several steps farther. Most of the rooms you find yourself in contain several different objects to interact with. Each provides pieces that are required to solve different parts of the others. That addition alone makes the game five times more interesting. It also means that most chapters are longer than the chapters in the original. There are also several more chapters, so all told it takes about twice as long to complete.
The visuals are also vastly improved. Not only are the textures all high enough resolution to not be distracting, they added little touches like motion blur when zooming from one part of a room to another and little particle effects. I thought the particle effects were a little much, but they never got in the way of being able to solve the puzzles.
Speaking of puzzles, I thought they were better designed this time around. There were several times in The Room where I got so stuck that I had to read all of the hints to understand what was expected of me. It may have been the result of already being in the correct mindset, but I only ever had to read the first clue this time around. There were times when I struggled for a while, but otherwise it would have been too easy.
I mentioned the creepy vibe I felt in the original. In The Room Two they took that vague sense of unease and did the best they could to turn it into a horror game. There is only so much they could do given that the player only has the ability to look around a room (don't expect any chase scenes). But they did an excellent job creating creepy environments and using jump scares to keep me on my toes. There were even a few times I thought I saw something out of the corner of my eye, but when I looked nothing was there.
I think they have it out for Doctor Who fans.

I got sucked in so much that I sat down yesterday and just plowed through half of the game, which is rare these days. I highly recommend it, and I feel comfortable saying that it is worth $5, though of course it is being sold for less. Go play it on Android, iOS, or Kindle.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Room Review

Note: this blog has been migrated to Medium, with the articles here available to preserve permalinks. Please see this post at

Out of all the mobile games I have played so far, The Room is by far the one that feels the most like a premium experience. If there is a AAA category on mobile, this is a prime example of how to do it right. Ironically an independent studio made it, which just shows you how nontraditional this space is.

From the title you might expect The Room to be a game where you are stuck in a room that you have to escape from. In fact it turns out to be the opposite. You are in a room with a safe that you have to figure out how to get into. Being a puzzle game, you find everything you need to get in somewhere on the safe itself. The game is divided into chapters: each time you open the container you find another inside that you must open. You start each chapter by inspecting the container to identify the points that you can interact with it. Many of these points will do nothing until you obtain some object (a key, a cog, a crank, etc) from another part of the container. All your interactions are intentionally tactile, making good use of the touch screen.
The puzzles tend to do a good job of walking the fine line between being too hard and too easy. I was concerned at the beginning when it insisted on continuously giving me hints. It soon stopped and I realized that I was sorely unprepared for what I had gotten myself into. Most of the levels were quite enjoyable, giving just enough challenge to result in a satisfying "Aha!" moment. Even when if you get completely stuck, the game gives optional hints. There are usually a set of hints for a particular puzzle. They start general and vague and progress to being so specific that I never had to look online for an answer.
The story is told through a series of notes left by the previous owner of the safe. They had been researching what they call the Null element, and the game soon takes on a creepy old-world mysticism vibe. In a lot of ways it reminds me of Amnesia: the Dark Descent, though of course it is not a horror game. The story tropes, the tactile interactions with the world, and even the visuals all contribute to this feeling. The game was lauded when it came out for its visuals, and they still hold up for the most part. There were a few textures that I would have liked to be higher resolution, and a couple of times I was distracted by jagged edges on objects, but it wasn't a chronic problem. Also if you get the PC edition this should be less of a problem as they touched up many of the textures.

One of the important things in a mobile game is being able to pick it up for quick sessions and put it down at will. The Room manages this by saving after every action, so you are free to leave and come back as often as you need to. I did not find it difficult to remember what I was in the middle of doing when returning to the game.
If you have a choice of different devices to play on, go with the one with the largest screen. I played on my Nexus 5, and there were a few times I felt cramped and had to lean in close to inspect objects. The game is also quite dark, so you will have a hard time playing anywhere near sunlight.
There are five chapters in the game (four at launch and an epilogue that was added to lead into the sequel). It was not an especially long game (took me a weekend of moderate playtime) but it was not nearly as short as Monument Valley. I would say that it is worth a good $3-4, and fortunately because it is a relatively old game you will find it for a lot less. Check it out on Android, iOS, Kindle, or PC.