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 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

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 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!