Sunday, October 26, 2014

Badland Review

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

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

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

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.