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.