Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Commentary: Gabriel Knight Sins of the Fathers 20th Anniversary Edition

Adventure Gaming Then and Now

A recent advertisement about Toy Story's 20th anniversary made me feel old.  Then, I

saw an article about the original, critically acclaimed Sierra Games' point-and-click adventure Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers also recently celebrating its 20th anniversary, at which point I realized I have been gaming for a LONG time.  Needing something to lessen my withdrawal after completing Dragon Age: Inquisition, I delved into the Steam library and decided to take a little trip down memory lane by replaying GK, this time in its 20th Anniversary Edition format. I have always considered GK one of my favorite game series of all time, in the company of other greats such as King's Quest, Monkey Island, and Leisure Suit Larry (that's right, you heard me!), and it was a huge reason I came to love point-and click-adventures. So I was excited to revisit this title and see what creator Jane Jensen added to the mix 20 years later.

The Story

You play Gabriel Knight, a bookstore owner and less-than-successful writer who is investigating a series of brutal "Voodoo murders" in New Orleans for his latest book.  With the help of his book store assistant, Grace Nakamura, and his buddy Detective Mosley at New Orleans Police Department, he becomes immersed in a terrifying web of cults and voodoo practices to find the truth.  In the process, Gabriel unlocks secrets about his family's past and, perhaps, his own future. 

One note about the story that is somewhat amusing, playing the game 20 years later, is the historical and technological context.  Set in the early 90s, there are no cell phones (what do you mean I have to call from a land line and use a phone book?), discussions about research conducted in actual libraries (what, no Google?!) and references to East and West Germany. Ha! To be fair, most of the game's dialogue and visuals don't come across as dated--unless you consider Gabriel's and Det. Mosley's sexist comments dated, but hey, that stuff still happens now!


Okay, so it's been 20+ years since I played GK for the first time, so my memory of the nuances of the game are a bit diminished.  That being said, there were multiple features that stood out to me as improvements/enhancements in the 20th Anniversary Edition compared to the original:
  • Higher resolution graphics with great color and improved detail
  • Re-imagined soundtrack and audio to include at least some new voices
  • Great remastered cut-scenes in graphic novel-like artistic style
I understand that there was new puzzle content added for the 20th Anniversary Edition as well, though my poor memory was not able to differentiate that from original content--many of the old puzzles were familiar to me, but not enough to where I remembered how to solve them!

The point-and-click interface still harkened back to the good old Sierra format, with an action wheel for viewing, taking, or operating an object.  The inventory interface still allowed for the combining of items and close examination of items, and actually highlights which items are eligible for combinations or closer inspection.  Also in keeping with the original format is the presence of Gabriel's journal, in which he chronicles his daily activities for reference throughout the game. It also serves as a repository for hints-on-demand and one new addition: an "Extras" section with some bonus content including concept art from the original game, commentary from Jane Jensen and other creative team members, and some video interviews. The bonus content was interesting to peruse, but I expected it to be more extensive.

There were a couple features that I recalled being downsides from the original that unfortunately were not improved in this 20th Anniversary edition. First, there is inherent lag in the point-and-click action during critical, time-sensitive scenes throughout the game.  For example, it was super annoying to futz around with multiple clicks to watch Gabriel casually walk from point to point to maneuver around a bunch of undead in a cave.  No sense of urgency--in fact, quite the opposite--slowness to the point of having to replay through multiple scenes just because of the lackadaisical nature of Gabriel's movements...not to mention all the characters look like they have a stick glued to their back as they're walking around. 

The second annoying feature was some of the really nuanced "triggers" for solving puzzles, in typical Sierra game fashion.  Like having to click on and read every name plate at Gabriel's family tomb (fairly irrelevant to the

immediate plot) in order to trigger a rodent to knock over a vase that has a $20 bill in it, thereby advancing another puzzle.  Really? Could such tedious things not be eliminated in the updated edition? Perhaps I had more patience for such roadblocks as a 14-year old gamer, but as a working-parent-gamer with extremely limited time to play, it's frustrating to spend time on these little moving parts.  It left me feeling lame using hints just to get the story moving forward again.

Lastly, there seem to be some glitches with the dialogue in that sometimes the conversations would overlap--one character would begin their response before the other had even finished. Again, minor, but occurred often enough to be annoying.

There is one more feature I found a bit bothersome--Gabriel's voice. I loved that Tim Curry did his voice in the original. The new voice actor, who I am sure is wonderful in other performances, really made Gabriel seem beyond sleazy (I know, he's meant to be sketchy, but the ridiculously deep voice just seemed over-the-top). Moreover, the voice just didn't fit with Gabriel's visual appearance at all in the 20th Anniversary Edition.  It just felt "off" through the whole game.  I'm sure Matthew McConaughey would have been up for the job, why didn't you use him? ;)

But let's end on a positive note, shall we? The above shortcomings aside, the real beauty of GK is in Jane Jensen's masterful storytelling and the suspense created by the twisting, carefully crafted plot line. Even knowing the endgame of The Sins of the Fathers up-front, there were still scenes that left my skin crawling.  Getting caught up in Gabriel's world, from his personal transformation to his mysterious encounters on multiple continents, makes it possible to overlook the other issues I mentioned. 

So, Who's Playing?

While I found GK 20th Anniversary Edition to be well worth my time, I recognize my bias toward both retro gaming and point-and-click adventures.  I am unsure who is playing this game now, outside of old gamer folks like me for nostalgia. I hope that GK has been successful in reaching a new generation of gamers and rekindling a love for the series (and adventure gaming), but I don't know if this updated version hit the mark enough to draw in a greater fan base. I think some of the flaws I am willing to overlook as an old fan may be detracting enough to turn away potential new fans.  It seems that the 20th Anniversary Edition is positively reviewed by Steam users, which is promising.  Unfortunately, the news feed on Jane Jensen's and Robert Holmes' Pinkerton Road website is woefully outdated, leaving us wondering if there's enough momentum behind GK to crank out that 4th game in the series. Only time will tell.

Friday, February 26, 2016

A Toddler (and Parent) Guide to San Diego Comic Con

OK, so I'm not a prolific blogger, thanks to a toddler, another one on the way, and a full-time job.  But the recent San Diego Comic Con Open Online Registration reminded me that I never posted anything about our experience at SDCC 2015 with a 15-month old.  When planning (and I take my planning seriously), there were few online resources for Con-going parents and a lot of unknowns, so I want to share some tips with anyone out there who may be going to SDCC 2016 with one or more young children in tow.

Cosplaying? Things to Consider.

Packing. We always cosplay at the cons, and that can have a big impact on logistics with the kid factor, especially little ones.  Packing limitations and baggage fees on flights can be a real issue when you add up your cosplay pieces in addition to baby/toddler gear.  One option to minimize volume is to plan on stocking up on baby
essentials once you arrive in San Diego. Another option is to ship out portions of your cosplay gear in advance, if you are staying somewhere that accepts packages (see accommodations section below), or to a local friend if you are lucky enough to have one down there.

Cosplay Preparation and Execution. Select your cosplay ensembles carefully! 
1. Don't traumatize your kid.  If you plan to do something that significantly alters your appearance, or anything that could be scary for a young one, I strongly recommend you get your kid familiar with the cosplay well before Comic Con by putting it on in front of them at home.  If they react poorly and don't acclimate to your cosplay appearance, you may want to rethink your choice so you don't end up walking around with a screaming kid at the Con.  Since we did Mad Max on one day of SDCC last year and my husband and daughter were Master Blaster, we let her see my husband put on the helmet and gear several times to make sure she was comfortable with it. Fortunately, she was!

2. Preparation time.  If you think preparation for cosplay is a long process without kids, multiply that times two or three with a toddler's schedule in the mix.  Plan for a less intensive cosplay (less make-up, less assembly on-site, etc) to minimize the stress and have realistic expectations about how early you are going to get out and about for the day's activities.

When assembling my fairly elaborate Princess Aura cosplay, I
didn't fully consider how appealing all the beading and sequins
would be for my 15 month old.  This photo also captures the
reality of hauling a toddler through Gaslamp in cosplay.
3. Cosplay construction, assembly and accessories. It is widely accepted that babies and toddlers love to grab, pull, and stick things in their mouths.  Especially colorful, shiny things. If you are going to be wrangling your kid while in cosplay, it may not be a great idea to have an ensemble with lots of small, shiny parts, sharp edges and or embellishments that are easy to pull off--in addition to creating wardrobe malfunctions, it can also result in some unanticipated choking hazards! This is something that I wish I would have taken more seriously when planning our cosplays for SDCC last year.

The Accommodations Dilemma
Lodging is something that all SDCC attendees struggle with--the hotel reservation process sounds almost as stressful as the online badge registration process! Even before we had kids we opted for the vacation rental option.  If you are going with more than just a couple folks, financially it can be as costly to stay in individual hotel rooms as it is to rent a 2 br condo for the week. With children, having the flexibility of a kitchen to prepare your own meals and a living space for your kid(s) can be even more beneficial.  It may be a little late to secure something for SDCC 2016, but you can try your luck with listings on Homeaway.com, Flipkey.com, TripAdvisor, and vrbo.com.  Typically, property managers or owners release their properties for the week of SDCC around the beginning of the year (if not sooner), but they usually rely on wait lists from past inquiries to send such notifications...so it's never too early to do your research on vacation rentals.  It's well worth the advance planning; we stayed in a 1 br unit in Gaslamp walkable to the grocery store and Convention Center and the convenience saved us a lot of stress.

Getting Around
I admit that as a non-parent attendee at SDCC I used to judge parents that were pushing around their SUV-strollers through the crushing crowds around the Convention Center.  Why aren't they using a baby carrier? Well, as a parent now, I'll tell you--San Diego is hot in July, and your toddler will be hot, cranky and uncomfortable in one of those carriers after about 15 minutes of walking around Gaslamp, leaving you with carrying them by hand (back-breaking after a morning of walking around) or trying to track them on a baby-leash through the crowds.  That being said, it's really annoying pushing around a stroller, to the point that we opted to not even try taking her into the actual Convention Center.  Not even worth the hassle.  I don't have a great solution for this problem, but it was certainly a thorn in our sides for getting around the heart of the Con and something about which you should manage your expectations. 

What Events are Kid-Friendly, Really?
It was a bit more challenging than we anticipated to find truly kid-friendly venues around Comic Con.  Our 15-month old could only gawk at the parade of costumes in Gaslamp for so long from her stroller before we needed someplace she could roam around and touch stuff.  These options are far and few between, at least for the really young audience.  A shout out to NerdHQ, the Nerdist Conival and Petco Interactive Zone for providing the more kid-friendly sites around Gaslamp that were not suffocatingly crowded and allowed us to keep track of our toddler wandering around.  Thumbs up to the FX Fearless Zone for allowing my husband and me to "swap out" watching our daughter outside each activity so that both of us could enjoy the events without losing our place in line. Thumbs down to the Adult Swim Carnival for not exercising some latitude with their 18+ policy.... they denied us entry with our toddler to their general outdoor carnival area even though we just wanted to swap out who was watching her so we could go into the different attractions. I understand it's a liability thing, but my kid could just as easily look at their booth "visuals" from outside the gate as from inside.
Some events, like the Ghostbusters Mass Hysteria Party, were
held at bars, but staff were generally welcoming and we just
made it work.

We decided that the density of the crowds inside the Convention Center was not worth the effort of bringing our toddler in, not to mention the inability for our toddler to actually see anything without waiting in a long line--an unfortunate feature of almost anything at SDCC, not compatible with a toddler's attention span.  That being said, SDCC has recognized the logistical complications of toting a young one around the Con, and offers a sort of day care service near the Convention Center where you can pay by the hour. We didn't use this service--wasn't really comfortable with the idea given the age of our daughter--but this might be a great option to utilize for parents with slightly older kids.

The Morning Advantage
Ok, so maybe it's not much of an advantage since Gaslamp District is pretty sleepy in the mornings.  But with a toddler in tow, the mornings are the best time to get out and about: streets are less crowded, you kid is energized and likely in a better mood, and you may be able to get the jump on some of the SDCC off-site attractions that are impossibly crowded later in the day. Do your research in advance to see what activities open earlier in the day and take advantage of being the early bird!

Food, Glorious Food

Eat In.  A general good strategy with or without kids: make a run to the grocery store at the beginning of your trip to stock up on portable snacks, beverages, and breakfast items.  This is even more necessary with children.  You will be hard pressed to keep babies/toddlers from having a meltdown after a few hours without stopping for snack time or lunch--and asking them to be patient at a sit-down restaurant may be a bridge too far.

Eat Out.  I would recommend avoiding restaurants as much as you can with a toddler...the wait is too long at most places, and by the time you are seated you'll be left shoveling in your food while your kid has a meltdown. The only pro is that most places are so noisy, your kid's screams will likely be drowned out by all the other activity.  If you do want to eat out,  here's my recommendations based on our limited experience:
- The best strategy we found was to order something as take-out and head over to the less chaotic open green space at Petco Park.  We ordered some awesome sandwiches at Brickhouse Deli (adjacent to the green area) and brought our food over to the grass and had a picnic-style dinner outside with the kiddo. It was probably the least stressful meal that we had and a lot of fun. 
- The second-least stressful meal we had was at Diwali on 5th.  We had a reservation for our group of 8, they had a table almost immediately, and seated us in an area where it wouldn't matter much if our toddler started screaming. But service was fast, food was delicious (if you like Indian), and we had a meltdown-free meal.
- The Panera Bread by Horton Plaza opens early for breakfast and has both take-out and online ordering/rapid pick-up options...all good features when you have kids with limited stay-time in restaurants.

My Plug for the San Diego Zoo.
I know, it's a crazy idea. You came to San Diego for Comic Con and not to see the city. But if you have young kids I strongly suggest you consider a day away from the Con with your kids to go to Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo. It's too good to miss, family-friendly and can compete with the best spectacles your kids may see at the Con. Well worth a trip and only about 10-15 min from Gaslamp (public transportation accessible).

By realistic expectations, I mean expectations consistent with all the crazy SDCC factors--those I have mentioned above--paired with the everyday realities of being a parent. Know that your kid will still likely need that afternoon nap time, some snacks, and a break from the over-stimulation.  Accept that unless you make plans to trade off child care duty with your spouse, take a shot in the dark with a sitter, or have a really nice SDCC friend who can watch your kid, most evening events may be a no-go for you. To be honest, the toddler-parent experience we had at SDCC 2015 was fun, but was enough of a shift from our past experiences that we've decided to write off SDCC for several years until our kids get older.  But every kid is different, parents are different, and the trade-offs may still make it worthwhile for you depending on your situation.

My experience is by no means comprehensive.  If you are an SDCC parent who has done the Con with a toddler in recent years, and have additional advice to offer, please include it in the comments below so everyone can benefit!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Budget Cosplay Series, Part III: Popeye on a Penny

(well, not QUITE a penny, but everyone likes alliteration, right?)

Happy New Year!! In 2015 I resolve to post more regularly, but I admit that now my goal timeline for posts is a lot less frequent with the little kiddo around.  When I do post, I'll try to make it count! So, in keeping with that...
The first two installments of my Budget Cosplay series received such overwhelmingly good feedback that I'm still trying to keep up with it from time to time.  In that spirit, this Halloween (our little girl's first), we decided to tackle Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Sweet Pea on a budget.  Our choice was partly in honor of the late Robin Williams, who did a great portrayal of Popeye in the 1980 movie.

This is what I'm talking about:

There is certainly no shortage of commercial options for Popeye and Olive Oyl costumes. A cursory review of price points for these costumes on popular Halloween sites averages $40 each, and let's be honest--they are pretty corny and generic looking.  So, not even counting the Sweet Pea costume, a commercially bought set of outfits for Popeye and Olive Oyl will run around $60-80 even if you use a coupon code.  I'm going to show you how I made all three for less than $50.

I have one caveat up front: about two years ago, I taught myself how to sew using YouTube videos and already had an old sewing machine to work with.  This project did involve a bit of sewing. If you cannot sew, I believe that most of the stitchwork can be replaced with fabric glue.  A bottle of Fabric Fuse will run you about $5-7 and should be enough for this whole project.  

There were three sources I used to obtain all the supplies for these costumes: Fabric store, thrift store, and home.

For Olive Oyl, the basics are:

Red long-sleeve top - I bought one from the thrift store for $3.99.
Long black skirt - Many women probably have one in their wardrobe, but I bought one from a thrift store for $3.99.  I had a small amount of red fabric from a previous project, enough to cut a 2" band to attach to the lower half of the skirt.  Make sure you leave a quarter inch extra on each edge to fold under when you sew/glue on the band, so you don't have raw fabric edges showing.  I pinned on the red band with edges folded under and then sewed it into place, but you could just as easily use fabric glue to secure it on the skirt.

White frilly trim - I bought about 1 yard of white lace trim from the fabric store for $2. I cut this to size based on the collar of the red long-sleeve top, pinned it to the top edge of the collar, then sewed it in.  I followed the same process for the sleeve cuffs, but sewed the trim on the inside edge of the sleeve to that it would lay correctly.  You could also Fabric Fuse the trim to the collar and cuffs in lieu of sewing.
Black hat or black wig - She sports both looks in the movie. I opted to go with a hat because wigs can be expensive. This can be a plain black winter hat from your closet, or (in my case) I made a black fleece brimmed hat using the baby hat pattern discussed below. I bought the black fleece fabric remnants for around $6 to make the hat.  I obviously had to do some guesswork to cut the fabric pieces larger to accommodate adult sizing, so it took some time.  The hat has a red rosette--I ran out of time to make one so I bought a red crocheted rose at the fabric store for $3.49 and pinned it to the outside of the hat.
Black boots - I already had some black combat-style boots in my closet. I used some black duct tape over some crumpled paper to fill in the front and back sides for that clunky "comic" look of Olive Oyl.

For Popeye, the basic components are:
White long-sleeve collared shirt - you might have one in your closet like we did, or can get one cheap at the thrift store.
Navy blue "neckerchief" and back flap - I used a small piece (1/2 yd) of navy blue fabric remnants I picked up from the thrift store to make this component.  Cost was around $3. It took some guesswork to get the fabric cut in a square and ensure that there was enough to come around the front of the collar, so there was a lot of safety-pinning and measuring before I did any cutting--not very scientific but that's how we do!
Pants- They're blue. If you want to be fancy go ahead, but a medium shade, faded pair of blue jeans will do the trick. Blue utility pants could work too.
White captain's hat - We are lucky in being former Navy folks that we retained a combination cover (very similar to Popeye's once you remove the framing) to use.  But to make one, you could easily use one of the baby hat patterns I discuss below with some white fabric and adjust the pattern sizes larger to fit an adult; or, if you don't want to mess with that, get a plain white ballcap and make the band with black duct tape or masking tape colored with a blue/black pen. You could even tape on a circle of white fabric over the crown of a black ballcap to give it a more baggy look like the hat in the movie.
Pipe - My husband simply used an old wine cork, colored the end black with a sharpie marker, and stuck a broken wooden chopstick in one side of the cork for the mouthpiece.
Muscle-bound forearms -  Cut off the toes of a pair of knee-high panty hose and stuff them with acrylic fiber stuffing (like what you would use for pillows).  A small bag of the filling was $2.99 at the fabric store.  We used elastic bands to secure the "stuffed" panty hose to his arms. For Popeye's tattoos, I stetched the hose over a piece of cardboard and drew on anchors with a black Sharpie.  The end result was not my favorite (see photos at end of post) and there's certainly better methods, but it got the job done in a limited amout of time.

Sweet Pea
For Sweet Pea, there are two outfits depicted in the movie. One is blue bunting with white frills and a sailor dixie cup hat with ear flaps (pictured). The other is a mini-sailor outfit similar to Popeye's.  I knew at the outset that I would have to make whatever outfit our baby was going to wear, because I was striking out at the thrift store.  So I went with the blue bunting ensemble because bunting would be far easier to sew than a sailor outfit with pants, trim and detailing. The basic components are:
Blue bunting - I purchased some blue fleece fabric remnants from the thrift store, about 2 yds.  It was clearanced out so it only cost about $4.  I found an Easy-Sew pattern for fleece bunting at the fabric store for $2.49.
White frilly trim - I bought a 1/2 yard of white sheer trim from the fabric store for $2. I pinned the trim to the inside collar of the completed blue bunting and sewed it in.  You could just as easily use Fabric Fuse to glue it on.
White dixie cup with ear flaps - I bought some white fleece fabric remnants at the fabric store, about 1.5 yds.  It was on clearance so it only cost around $3. To make the hat, I came across an Easy-Sew Pattern set for baby hats for $1.99. There were six different patterns, including a "boater's hat" which was very much like a dixie cup.  Luckily, the pattern set also included ear flaps, so I attached those to the crown of the boater's hat (you could also Fabric Fuse it on). If your child is a little older, you could probably just buy a kid's sailor hat on Amazon for around $8, but these were too big for our girl.  This part of the project was my biggest headache because it was challenging to get the sizing right for baby's big head based on the sewing pattern measurements provided.

So, here's a run down of the materials and associated costs mentioned above:
Red long-sleeve top $3.99
Long black skirt $3.99
White frilly trim (Olive Oyl) $2.00
Black fleece fabric remnants $6.00
Red rosette $3.49
Small bag of acrylic filling $2.99
Navy blue fabric remnants (Popeye) $3.00
Blue fleece fabric remnants(Sweet Pea)  $4.00
White frilly trim (Sweet Pea) $2.00
White fleece fabric remnants $3.00
Easy-Sew Pattern Set for baby hats $1.99
Easy-Sew Pattern Set for baby bunting $2.49
TOTAL COST: $38.94

Items that are not included in the above list were household items or leftover from previous projects:  White captain's hat (Popeye), white collared shirt (Popeye), black boots (Olive Oyl), blue utility pants/jeans (Popeye), red fabric strip for skirt (Olive Oyl), black duct tape, scissors, pins, and sewing machine.

Here's the finished product!

I hope you enjoyed this edition of the Budget Cosplay series. If you have any questions or suggestions on how you've done these costumes, or other money-saving tips, please comment below.  Thanks!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Get Your Mobile-Spook On: Five Nights at Freddy's

There are only a few things that make my skin crawl:  Clowns.  Porcelain dolls.  Squirmy worms.  DC Lobbyists.  But after playing Scott Games' indie smash hit, Five Nights at Freddy's, I am adding animatronic toys to my list.  I was always a big fan of Chuck E. Cheese's as a kid, but I really think this game might have ruined that memory for me.  Well anyway, onto the game.

Five Nights at Freddy's is available for mobile platforms as well as on Steam.  The premise of the game is that you are an overnight security guard at Freddy Fazbear's Pizza which serves up food and entertainment in the form of large, animatronic toys that, according to the staff, have a nasty habit of getting into mischief when the lights go out.  

 During your night shift, you are confined to an office space where you are able to control 10 security camera feeds and 1 audio-only feed. You also have the ability to control the lights in the hallways to your immediate left and right sides, as well as the doors leading to both of those hallways.  You are probably thinking, "Oh, sweet, well I'll just keep the doors closed, problem solved!" Well, not quite.  The facility has a limited amount of power overnight which is drained by use of cameras, lights, and doors. The more you look at security cameras, turn on lights, and keep doors closed, the more quickly that power drains...which means you are inevitably left in the dark and vulnerable to the toys roaming the halls until 6am.  

So how does this all shake out in terms of the game play?  There's no tutorial or directions when you start playing, so if you go at it cold (like I did) you're likely to get pretty startled the first few times as you get the controls down.  If you enjoy getting spooked and/or frustrated, then it's probably best if you just stop reading about the game and go play it NOW!!  

Anyway, your power monitor in the lower left screen shows how much power you have left for the night and how much power you're using.  One green bar is the lowest you can achieve on energy usage, since you have to keep some power going in the office. In the upper right is your time indicator which updates on the hour.  Each hour equates to about 1-2 minutes of game play--but those are some LONG minutes!  On the lower right screen, you have a facility diagram indicating the locations of camera feeds. Selecting one of the cameras on the diagram will toggle your view to that camera and increase your power consumption.  The whole idea is to use the cameras to check on the current location and movements of the animatronic toys, and also to listen really carefully for clues as to when the toys are on the move toward your office.  The catch with looking at the cameras is that you lose perspective on what is happening near your office...so you may toggle back to your office screen to find a surprise!  Using the lights can also be helpful in slowing or delaying the movement of the toys.  But you will realize after surviving the first few nights that you MUST remain inactive for some periods of time in order to conserve enough power to survive the night.

Each of the toys has a distinct movement and sound pattern, which enables you to exercise some decision making as to when to conserve your energy and just listen, versus monitoring cameras closely, shutting doors, flipping on lights. Fazzy Fazbear is not a fast mover, so you can see him checking you out on the cameras in neighboring rooms and still have ample time to get that hallway door closed before he pays you a visit in the office.  Some of the other toys, well...  if you don't catch them on the camera, you have probably missed your window to get that door closed!!

There are a few other challenges that add to the suspense (or frustration, at times) of the game.  There is very low contrast in many of the security camera feeds, so it can be really difficult to discern where there is a toy lurking in the shadows. In addition, there are blind spots in the camera coverage so you may notice a toy is missing from its original location, but cannot find it on any cameras.  At that point, it becomes a waiting game.... a sound, a pop-up on another camera, or a pair of flashing eyes in the hallway outside your office, mwahahaha!  

My experience with this game was fun, but also a bit frustrating. I played the Android version on my tablet and when I made it to Night 4, the game repeatedly froze up on me, shutting down the app.  It seemed to occur conveniently (for Freddy Fazbear) when I was getting really close to making it to 6am.  I played the game for about an hour each night over the course of a long weekend to get through it.  A sixth night is unlocked if you make it through five nights, but I admit my motivation to continue playing at that point was rapidly fading.  It started losing its scare factor after playing it a few nights, to the point where it was less scary and more annoying.

Five Nights at Freddy's is a great game to check out this Halloween season if you want a good scare.  Kudos to Scott Cawthon for putting this one together.  I recommend you turn out the lights, turn off the TV, and hunker down with your tablet or phone to get the full experience.  I don't think I would find it as entertaining if it were another time of year.  But you still have a few weeks to take advantage of the spooky season!!  If you have any additional thoughts on the game or similar experiences with the freeze up like I had, please comment below.  I wonder if there will be sequels involving clowns or crazy dolls....

  All screen shots on this page courtesy of Steam.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Gaming for a Good Cause

Sadly, we live in a world where there is no shortage of people in need. And, in Washington, DC, there is certainly no shortage of non-profit organizations, lobbyists, and independent philanthropists eager to promote their respective causes.  It can be challenging for someone who wants to give back to determine the best way to contribute, or which cause to support.  As for me, I never feel like I have the time or money to give back nearly as much as I want to and I constantly struggle to find the balance between family priorities, personal hobbies, work, and community involvement.

Last year, I came across the Extra Life marathon on social media. "Play Games, Heal Kids," was the headline I saw on their website.  I learned that it is a gaming marathon founded in 2008 in honor of Victoria Enmon, a teenage gamer that lost her life to leukemia.  Extra Life encourages participants to raise money for their local Children's Miracle Network (CMN) Hospital.  It works much like a walk-a-thon in that the 24-hour gaming period is completed on the honors system and can be any form of gaming: console, PC, tabletop, etc.  All the money raised by Extra Life participants goes to the CMN hospital of the participant's choice to save kids' lives. Last year, Extra Life raised an amazing $4.1 million! I signed up, raised a humble amount, and spent my gaming hours playing Defiance online.  By being involved in Extra Life, I even received some codes for upgrades and special gear for for the game.  It was awesome to have some fun gaming and also know that I had contributed to a great cause.  

As an avid gamer, I thought Extra Life was a great idea: a way to get gamers proactively involved to give back to children who need live-saving medical care.  On a personal level, it was a great way to balance my passion for gaming with supporting the community in a really meaningful way.  Since the birth of my little girl this past spring, the fundraising behind Extra Life has taken on even greater meaning for me as a parent.  Additionally, one of my neighbors had a son this year who was born with a very rare heart condition and recently received a heart transplant at Children's National Medical Center here in DC.  I'd like to think that the money raised through Extra Life, in some small part, has allowed him to get the long-term treatment he needs.  

The Extra Life DC Guild was founded this year to support an ever-growing number of gamers around DC who realize the impact that the gaming community can have through this gaming marathon for children all over the country.  The Guild has participated in many recent conventions and gaming events around DC to recruit new members and increase awareness about this great cause.  Keep an eye out for us at upcoming local events, including Magfest 8.5, the Red Bull Battlegrounds, and Anime USA. (check out a complete calendar of upcoming events at my website.)

It is great to see that Extra Life and other gamer-oriented charities are showcasing how gamers are doing good things--combating the stereotype of the lazy, couch-potato gamer in his or her "bubble," disconnected from the world.  I would be remiss if I did not recognize the many initiatives out there besides Extra Life that demonstrate the gaming community is giving back in different ways:  Gaming for Good, which sells games online with the proceeds going to Save the Children; Child's Play, which provides video games and consoles to children's hospitals; and Special Effect, which leverages new technologies to allow handicapped individuals to play video games, just to name a few.  If you work with another great gamer-oriented charity, please comment below to give them a shout-out.

The bottom line is this: if you're a gamer and aren't currently involved in charitable gaming, think about joining the community.  Find your cause, step up and give it a shot.  You might be surprised at how much satisfaction you get from giving back a little!  If you think Extra Life might be a good start for you, please give it a try and sign up for free at www.extra-life.org.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Game Review: Valiant Hearts Revisits the Great War, 100 Years Later

July 27th, 2014 marked the 100th anniversary of World War I.  Therefore it seemed appropriate to play the recently released Valiant Hearts which, in its own way, pays tribute to the "unsung heroes" of The Great War.  I have always been interested in games with a true historical basis, so I've had this game on my to-play list for a while.  Valiant Hearts is a unique side-scrolling, puzzle-adventure game by Ubisoft featuring detailed and accurate historical context, diverse puzzles, compelling characters and an emotional storyline which collectively make for a memorable game experience.

Valiant Hearts' story begins in Saint-Mihiel, France, and introduces two of the four characters that the player will control throughout the game: Emile, a widowed farm owner in Saint-Mihiel who is called up to serve in the French Army shortly after war was declared; and Karl, a young German living and working at Emile's farm, who is married to Emile's daughter and was forced to leave France after war was declared. Later in the story, two more playable characters are introduced, an American fighter and a Belgian munitions factory worker.  I would be remiss if I didn't mention a fifth playable character: Walt, a Doberman Pincher K9 medic, who helps out the other characters throughout the game and is critical to their success--not to mention, ridiculously cute.  (Spoiler Alert: No, the dog doesn't die at the end....if he did, I probably would have thrown my controller at the screen).

The player starts the game controlling Emile as he is going through basic training with the French Army--which also serves as the basic training for the player to learn the controls for the game.  Valiant Hearts uses extremely simple controls for interacting with the environment; for example, using the square button to execute each character's special skill, like digging or cutting wires.  In addition, many actionable items have a "button prompt" hovering over them so that you know you can interact with them.  In addition, the inventory of the character is streamlined to only what the character is carrying on his or her belt, plus whatever Walt the dog might have.  This simplicity further emphasizes the game's focus on storytelling and character development, rather than a flood of attack combos and a giant inventory of supplies and weapons, which is often the case in other war-themed games.   

One of the many puzzles throughout the game. (Photo
courtesy of Ubisoft Entertainment)
As the game and story progress in chapter style with a narrator, the player will rotate through gameplay with each of the four "unsung heroes."  They will encounter a series of diverse puzzles to solve on the battlefield, in a prison camp, or on the city streets, with varying difficulty.  Some tasks may require the use of various items in cooperation with Walt the Dog, distracting enemy soldiers, digging around mines, or moving objects in the correct sequence.  

There are some legitimate battle sequences that give a sense of the stress on the battlefield, as the character dodges airborne attacks, hides in bunkers, and narrowly escapes enemy fire or chemical attack. I found the time-pressure puzzles for Anna (the Belgian munitions factory worker) to be particularly stressful, as she is often charged with healing people wounded in battle.  The player controls Anna's administration of first aid through a series of rapid button-pushing sequences, which must be executed at precisely the right time and in the right order to save the patient.  Every time the player misses a button, you can see the patient bleeding more!  
Anna uses her medical skills to help a war victim.
(Photo courtesy of Ubisoft Entertainment)

Despite the artificial stress created by certain puzzles and time-limited actions, Valiant Hearts is generally forgiving with respect to saved games and resuming play if a character dies.  There are auto-save checkpoints at the start of each chapter and no penalties for having to play through a particular chapter many times to advance.  I personally found this generosity, as well as the simplicity of the controls, to be almost too simple to provide satisfying and challenging gameplay.  But again, I think this goes back to the idea that the developers really wanted players to focus on the story.

Another unique aspect of this game is the inclusion of extensive historical data about the World War I.  Facts are interjected via sets of hidden collectibles and historical items in each chapter.  When the player collects an item, a new fact card is added to the player's deck.  I found it really interesting to read through them and learn more about what happened during World War I.  The fact cards are short enough to where I didn't feel like I was reading a history book, and they usually bore some relevance to the game's story line or puzzles at the end. 

The graphic style of Valiant Hearts has the feel of an interactive
cartoon. (Photo courtesy of Ubisoft Entertainment)
Stylistically, Valiant Hearts is also unique in its comic book graphic style.  The game was rendered using Ubisoft Montpellier Studio's UbiArt Framework.  The artistic idea was to make the player feel like they are interacting with a cartoon, and the game environment effectively conveys that feeling.  However, I have to say I felt slightly uneasy about the scenes in the game depicting mounds and mounds of bodies (when depicting the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles of the War) in the game's friendly-looking cartoon style.  It had a big emotional impact.  The game's soundtrack was fairly memorable and complemented the game well.

I don't want to spoil the story, but let it suffice to say that Valiant Hearts does an excellent job intertwining the stories of the four "unsung heroes" illustrate how the transition to modern, total war of World War I affected individuals from a variety of angles, not just the perspective of the soldier.  The perspectives of the characters transcend generations and still resonate with me in relation to current world events.  I appreciated the historical context of the game and the developer's efforts to ensure the accuracy of the facts included (even receiving certification from the French Commission on World War I).  

If there is one thing I cannot reconcile about Valiant Hearts, it is the intended audience of the game. Who is it? As a thirty-something American female gamer, I can appreciate the historical education aspect of the game and the focus on story rather than complexity of gameplay.  I am not sure that many younger American gamers would enjoy Valiant Hearts solely for the story or actually read the historical facts, but perhaps European gamers would be more attuned to this aspect of the game.  I am also doubtful the gameplay would appeal to gamers who gravitate toward first-person shooters and heavy action games.  Valiant Hearts is truly unique, which is both a blessing and a curse in terms of its appeal to large audiences.  The game's strength lies in its compelling story and its focus on the interpersonal relationships of a diverse set of characters to illustrate the effects of war.  If that sounds appealing to you, I highly recommend you check it out.   

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Blog and Website Hiatus: Make Way for Capital Gamer Baby...

Hey there everyone.  You may have been wondering about this extraordinarily long hiatus I've taken from the Capital Gamer blog and website.  Well, in case you missed it on the other social networking outlets, this gamer girl has been incubating a human being for the last 8.5 months.  I have learned so much about pregnancy that no one ever talks about....like who knew morning sickness is actually all-day sickness?  And that even though I was sort of joking when I referred to my unborn child as a parasite, it is actually a somewhat accurate description?  Nausea, swelling, food aversions, difficulty breathing, and, in my case, bed rest...ah, I could go on, but the bottom line is that all these wonderful things have definitely impacted my gaming and cosplay pursuits.

But do not fear!! 2014 is a rebuilding year for Capital Gamer. And when I'm back up and running--hopefully this fall--you can bet there will be even more projects, reviews and cosplays, with the added bonus of incorporating our new bundle of joy into our cosplay plans for 2015.  A whole new world of opportunities!!  So please stay tuned for future updates on here, and also via my Twitter account @CapitalGamerDC.  In the meantime, thanks for your support!