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Puzzle Games Saved my Basement

2013-07-17 14.18.49

That right there is a riser, a riser I built as part of finishing my basement. It is in my movie room so that those banished to the back row of seats can see over the heads of their betters, namely those important enough to be allowed to sit in the front row. It is roughly eight feet by eleven feet, a super fortified combination of plywood, two-by-sixes, two-by-fours, sweat, blood and gumption. It is very big. It is very heavy. It is not fun to move, something I can now attest to personally.

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For all it is, one thing it was not, prior to this past weekend, was protected from water damage where it rested on the floor. Call it an oversight, call it stupidity, call it not finishing basements for a living, call it what you want but when I made the riser I neglected to notice that all of the previously framed walls were resting on pressure treated wood, presumably so that my house would not collapse in a damp cloud of wood rot. Unfortunately this shortsightedness extended to all of the walls that I framed for the basement, but that’s not the focus here, the focus here is the riser, the big, heavy riser that, once under the steadfast gaze of the county building inspector, was judged on its water-proofedness, judged and found wanting.

Oddly enough, the inspector didn’t seem concerned that someone with no building experience built this riser. Maybe if he knew that my astigmatism has rendered my eyes incapable of seeing vertical lines straight up and down he’d give pause to giving the ok to a riser that children and the elderly might use but in the eyes of the county, wood that collapses under its own weight is fine so long as said collapse doesn’t happen because of moisture. In other words, ignorance is fine, water is not.

So here we were, two people and a very heavy riser, a riser that needed to be moved so that we could somehow place something under it to prevent water from getting to it. I briefly entertained the notion of destroying the whole thing and rebuilding it but decided instead to use my brain rather than my reciprocating saw to see if there was some way to deal with the problem without resorting to complete and total destruction.

This was easier said than done as before I could even consider putting something under the blasted thing, I had to first get it un-nailed from the three walls surrounding it. In an attempt to make sure it never moved, like ever, I nailed this thing into the walls within an inch of its life. At the time it seemed like a good idea. A hacksaw blade managed to get through most of the nails with my wife providing the necessary illumination via handheld flashlights, overhead lighting gone the way of the dodo for the electrical inspection. I sawed, she held and we moved on.

If you’ve ever played an adventure game, you have come across a puzzle for which there seems to be no obvious answer. Whenever I got to that point, I’d usually open up my inventory and start using everything I had in the hopes that I’m just not seeing the puzzle the way the designer wants me to see it and I’ll stumble across the answer as part of my trial and error. I ran into a similar situation here, with me returning to my workshop over and over again, checking my inventory of 40 year old tools obtained at garage sales across the tri-cities area in hopes I’d find something capable of destroying a trio of three nails that were all that stood between the riser and freedom. Eventually I found a file forged at some point during the Bronze Age and some good whacks with the hammer sent those nails on to their heavenly reward.

Eventually we got the riser moved enough to see that we had options but not so far where it would move any more, a fact that limited many of our choices. The lizard part of my brain and my reciprocating saw were both earnestly pushing for complete destruction and I was doing my best to quiet them down. The saw had already tasted sweet, sweet wood when I used it to cut away a particularly snug section and it thirsted for more.

Now, I’m not one to go one and on about how video games have changed my life and taught me all manner of important life lessons. Video games are entertainment and like all forms of entertainment, they make you think, they stir emotional responses, they serve as way to blow off steam and get a break from life’s little tortures. I will say, however, that if you play a lot of Professor Layton games, eventually some of that shit wears off on you.

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Once I looked at the riser as a puzzle, it all became clear and I mean, like, in an instant it all became clear. The riser was topped with three sections of plywood. We could buy pressure treated plywood and just slide it under the riser. We had already done the heavy lifting, literally, and had the riser propped up on some chairs on one end and some blocks on the other so that I could get under it for other moisture related shenanigans. If we strategically moved the chairs so that two of the three sections were supported at all times, we could slide each section of plywood in, move the chairs and blocks and then do the same for the remaining two. No risers needed to die this day. The saw would go to bed hungry.

So that’s what we did and it worked beautifully. I have to say, I felt pretty stupid not thinking about using the right materials the first time but once that we managed to get the riser back in place, resting atop a layer of moisture-proof wood and looking as if it was built that way from the beginning, I felt like a construction genius.

Now it’s possible my wife would have come up with the idea on her own, she’s pretty smart and it’s possible that had I never played a Layton game, and not experienced more block moving puzzles and river crossing puzzles that I could ever hope to remember, I would have come up with this idea on my own, but I kind of doubt it. The heart wants what the hearts want and my heart wanted to say “screw it” and bust the damn thing up.

Thankfully, all’s well that ends well and we passed our next inspection. The basement is ready to be drywalled and then we can move on to installing outlets and switches and learning that, as bad as I am as a carpenter, I am far worse as an electrician. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a Layton puzzle for that.

Fable 2 and Gender Empathy – Part 2

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Editor’s Note: This is the follow-up to this piece regarding my time in Albion as a woman. This one gets more into the possibilities of video games as tools to give folks an idea of what it’s like to live as another gender. Unfortunately, it’s pretty blatantly cisgendered so I apologize for appearing ignorant or dismissive of those whose gender identification doesn’t break down into ‘male’ or ‘female’. Had I to do it again I’d be more inclusive. Alas, I’m not a big fan of rewriting history, so here it is.

Right, so Tim the sex crazed husband is no more, sacrificed at the Shadow Temple in a quest for an achievement. Shortly after dropping Timothy off in the underworld I met Jennifer the traveler. Jennifer the lesbian traveler to be more specific. I liked her, she liked me and despite her being from the upper class, which means she requires a nicer house, she conceded to marry me.

Now, Jennifer is exactly like Tim in that she wants sex a lot, and she’s the only one who makes noise during the act but for some reason I find this perfectly acceptable. In fact, I’ve grown quite attached to young Jennifer and don’t mind at all traveling home to give her a gift or spending time with her.

I realized the other day though that even though I picked a female when I started the game, I was dressed as a man (mostly because I hadn’t found a place that sold nice women’s clothing), I acted likea man, belching and farting for laughs and I was married to a woman. Basically, I was playing a man.

I have since remedied that by buying clothes that show off my girlish figure, a figure that needs some toning down due to my penchant for gourmet Filet Mignon pies, and by getting pigtails to further accentuate my womanliness, but the whole thing got me thinking about whether a role playing game could truly provide a different experience based on gender without stumbling into various offensive stereotypes about male and female behaviour.

Now, there have been games in the past that give women lower strength ratings and higher wisdom ratings or something along that line, but the truth is that most RPG’s treat men and women the same. Sure, you may have a line here or there to remind the player of their gender, but I can’t recall any game that was played differently based on your gender rather than a game that simply reacted differently to you based on your gender.

There’s no doubt that men and women think and approach problems differently. Certainly there is commonality there too, as well as folks crossing gender lines in how they approach things, but I think it’s still safe to say that men and women approach things differently. Is it possible to craft a role playing game around those differences? Men’s brains seem to be wired better for math and science, women’s for language and writing. How would you design a game that stresses these skills yet doesn’t have quests like “The king needs to know what 6 times 4 is!” or “Some bandits have stolen the prince’s term paper!”

Quests aside, can you create a living, breathing world that reacts to the player’s gender to the point where they have an idea of what it’s like to be a member of that gender? Would players even want that? In my limited time in Fable 2, a game that treats male and female characters alike, I read so much into the romantic harassment I was receiving that I had to mentally turn myself into a man just so that I didn’t find it bothersome any more. If I was playing a game where, as a woman, I was getting less gold per quest than my male, adventuring counterparts would I keep playing? Is that even valid or just another example of a stereotype that a game like this could easily fall into?

In the end, it’s a moot point as most of the people making the games are men, which makes it difficult to make a game that tries to present a world from a woman’s point of view. I have no doubt that there are designers out there smart enough to present choices to the player that build off of various conceptual starting points to problem solving. I do have doubts that men could present a female gaming experience that didn’t devolve into some male fantasy world of lingerie and pillow fights.

The real question though is if it even matters. If you’re just looking to have some fun, are these ideas even relevant to what you’re looking for? Probably not however if you’re looking at games as a place where game presentation and player choice can give them more insight into how people relate to one another, then I think there’s a real potential here to see how the other half lives, so to speak. Fable 2’s implementation of your dog scratches the surface of marrying emotional resonance with player choice, but it’s still miles away from what would be needed to truly get into the guts of how men and women treat each other, and are treated differently by the world.

As the game progresses, it will be interesting to see if my gender makes more of a difference or if I make more subconscious choices to play her as a man. I’m going to try not to, but I didn’t know I was doing it in the first place, so I can’t say with confidence that I won’t do it again. Those pigtails should help.

Free to Die – Time with Ravenmark: Mercenaries

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When it comes to turn based strategy games, I pretty much suck at them. There’s nothing new to report there. I’ve been sucking at strategy games ever since I first sidled up to a keyboard. Sure, I managed to get through all of Fire Emblem: Awakening but I played that on casual and turned permadeath off. Had I played that game on the default settings I’d still be at the first mission.

Despite my ineptitude at strategy games I gave Ravenmark: Mercenaries a spin. It’s free to play so all it cost me was some bandwidth and storage space and my thinking was that maybe it would be lenient enough for a strategy lightweight like me to master.

Yeah, not so. This game is a Strategy game with a capital S and while the monetization schemes may irk some, if you’re into turn based strategy, you really should check it out.

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Free to play games can be dicey with the amount of content given away, but this game has a pretty good amount of starting stuff to get you rolling into battle and, if you’re like me, getting destroyed by human and AI opponents alike. The game allows you keep various regiments of up to four brigades each and bring up to two of those brigades into battle. When you start the game you have enough money from winning your tutorial missions to fill up at least two full regiments of brigades. Sure, they’re not the best brigades out there, but they can get you going and earning more money as well as field a nice selection of ranged, ground and mounted units.

From here you can choose to take on small missions that succeed or fail based on some computations you’re not privy to (in other words, no combat), you can partake in a border skirmish against the AI or you can tackle real live humans in asynchronous online battles. Unfortunately using a brigade for any of these activities means they’re out of commission until they cool down, or, in the case of online battles, while they’re sitting idle while your opponent plans their next turn. As a result, it’s in your best interest to have as many brigades as possible, one way in which the game gets some real live coin out of you.

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While in battle, the amount of tactical options are staggering. Units can be teamed up in various formations, with those formations wheeled, flipped and broken up as needed for maximum efficiency. Units can be given standing orders to advance or stand their ground or pursue an enemy unit so that valuable action points don’t have to be spent micromanaging every unit on the field. In addition, heroes and commanders can give passive buffs and units can have special abilities to help bolster your ranks when the fighting gets thick. Add to this the rock-paper-scissors style of unit strengths and weaknesses as well as needing to be mindful of things like flanking and attacking from the rear and well, you can see why I did not fare well in my battles.

If it all seems overwhelming, the extremely extensive codex is there to help illuminate things if you can get past the sheer amount of content available. Seriously, this thing is daunting. A tremendous amount of time went into the world building for this game and I applaud a mobile game that takes the time to give the player this much insight into the world should they want to read it.

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Along with paying for more brigades, you can also pay for better brigades, maybe with a hero or two to keep yourself from getting slaughtered. You’re also free to grind away for these brigades if you don’t like the idea of paying for your content, but it’s going to be a long haul if you decide to go this route based on how long it takes brigades to recharge. Me, I’m fine with that idea. They clearly put a lot of time and effort into this game and if I decide that I don’t want to pay for it, I shouldn’t expect to get everything the exact moment that I want it. You also get some ads when playing for nothing, but you can pay five bucks for the ads to go away and for some unique brigades and some customization options. The ads never bothered me if that’s any indication.

There’s no real story to speak of, if that’s your thing and I have no idea if one will pop up at some point, but there wasn’t a story in Summoner Wars either and there isn’t one in Ascension and I don’t care. Ravenmark: Mercenaries gives you plenty of bits and bobs to make your own epic tales of I Have Met the Enemy And He Is Very Good At Killing Me, and all for nothing more than some time and some data. I’d say it’s well worth it.


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Etrian Odyssey IV is a game about maps.

It may look like a game about dungeons and monsters and airships, but it’s really about maps. Sometimes games look like they’re about one thing but they’re really about another. The World Ends With You looked like it was about Japanese teens fighting shadow monsters but it wasn’t. It was about pins. Pins and fashion. It was about equipping pins and leveling up pins and not equipping pins to level up your pins and switching out your pins and admiring your pins. All your pins. So many pins. It was also about wearing unpopular clothes and taking the attack hit for your unorthodox fashion sense, only to see your dress code skyrocket up to popularity. The World Ends With You was into wool caps before you were into wool caps. Now that you’re into wool caps, it is so over wool caps.

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I’m assuming there’s going to be a story in Etrian Odyssey IV. I don’t know, really. So far I’m just doing fetch quests. Get some spices here, go kill a baboon there. This ship needs carrots. That one needs trout. That kangaroo is angry. You know, how kangaroos get. Crabby creatures. To complete these quests you venture into dungeons, first person style, and do battle with various grasshoppers and moths that make you go blind. Occasionally a bear shows up. He is also not happy, presumably from spending too much time with the kangaroo. Turn that frown upside down, mister bear.

As you progress through the dungeon, you map as you go, but it’s not the full featured work of a true cartographer, more like the hasty scribblings of someone trying to remember how to get you to the closest gas station. Making a true map means going off of the beaten path, investigating all of the cracks and fissures and occasionally running away from an angry, kangaroo influenced bear. At those times, you’ll appreciate having mapped out the area ahead of time, provided you were able to. I ran into a bear and was forced to flee but luckily, a secret passage awaited me and I was able to escape. I marked it on my map. It was pretty important, as secret passages go.

Etrian Odyssey IV wants you to make maps. When you take on side quests, it will tell you where on the map to go. A4, it says, assuming you’ve been to A4 and were paying attention. You were paying attention when you went to A4, weren’t you? People need fresh herbs. They are depending on you for their produce.

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Etrian Oddyssey IV is also about exploring. You can’t make the full map until you’ve explored the whole dungeon. We don’t explore any more. We carry around computers in our pocket so that we don’t have to explore. We don’t go down roads to see where they go. Maybe it’s a dead end. Maybe it’s a new road. Maybe it’s a pig farm and you can get out and take pictures of all of the pigs. Yes, a pig farm. Right here. I know, right? Nowadays we don’t explore to find things. We yelp our friendsters to find the Lebanese place with the best hummus. Etrian Odyssey IV wants you to go looking for the hummus. It will taste better this way. Trust me.

I care much more about making the maps then fighting the monsters on the maps, a task made much easier now that I know how to assign skill points. Etrian Odyssey IV is not a game about player instruction, even when it really should be. “Go on, find the hummus”, it says when all I want to do is figure out how to level up my characters. Sometimes I don’t want hummus, sometimes I just don’t want to die at the hands of bipedal rats.

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I spend a lot of time making my maps. When I come across a harvesting spot, which icon do I use? Which one did I use before? Do I want an arrow for this secret passage or an exclamation point? An arrow is functional, but what if it’s a two way passage? What then? An exclamation point has panache! Look here! Passage! Escape! Maybe it’s too much, though. Doors are important too, but there’s an icon for doors. They don’t exclaim anything. They just stately proclaim that they are, in fact, a door. They are unassuming, unlike those exclamation point fellows. Rowdy bunch, exclamation points.

When I finished the first dungeon and the soldier you meet along the way looked at my map and told me how good it was, I beamed with pride. In fact, I purposefully did not carry over my progress from the demo, despite appreciating the option, because I knew how substandard my map was in the demo. I’m not proud of it. It was functional, which is as backhanded a compliment as I can give it. Not this new map. This new map is glorious, exclamation points and all.

I hope that a story surfaces for this game eventually, but if not, that’s ok. I’ll come up with a story about maps and doors and exclamation points. About pig farms and hummus. About journeys to lost places and the angry baboons contained therein. Those are the best stories, any way, the ones you didn’t know you were writing until you stumbled upon them.

Where Lost Islands Lost Me

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The game I spend the most time with on my iPad is Lost Islands, the free to play Skylanders game from Activision. I don’t usually play free to play games, in fact, with the exception of Jetpack Joyride, I actively avoid them. Lost Islands was another story though, a story with Skylanders in it. Skylanders has three iOS games and a PC game to tie in to the console games, all of which use the figures used in the console games. Cloud Patrol is a shooting gallery game, Battlegrounds is a hex-based, real time action-RPG and Lost Islands is a free to play, kingdom builder. The fact that you can use your figures across all three games made it all the easier to buy more figures for the main game, not that I needed a reason. I mean, come on, this is me. I don’t need reasons to buy toys, but as reasons go, increased utility is a pretty good one.

As I got more figures, my kingdom grew and grew in the usual free to play way. Characters use energy to go on missions, missions that reward them with gold and experience. Gold buys crops which in turn grow more energy. Gold also buys houses which attract Mabu citizens. The more Mabu you have living on your island, the more public buildings you can have. Public buildings and houses grant your kingdom experience. As your kingdom levels up, you can get better houses and better public buildings. As your characters level up, they can go on longer missions that give bigger rewards. Grafted on to all of this is a quest system that rewards you in money, experience and gems, a multi-purpose currency used to buy special buildings, buy new Skylanders and speed up missions and building construction. Finally, there’s a pretty nice “element of the day” mechanic in which Skylanders that match the element of the day get reward bonuses when completing missions and planted crops that match the day’s elements give additional energy.

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Everything was fine up until a week or so ago. I had established equilibrium in my economy, the best trade off between airships and crops, so that my economic engine was humming along quite efficiently. All of my Skylanders had leveled up to level 10, save for the Easter themed Pop Fizz that I won via the game’s wish stone mechanic. I was dutifully working towards level 30, needing only a keep and a Town Hall to finally finish up all of the quests. Once that happened, I was planning on putting the game aside and letting my kingdom crumble to dust. Cruel, I know, but when one sees the end of the tunnel, one doesn’t dwell on what’s on the other side.

A week or so ago, the game got a substantial update that not only added in companions, special residents of your kingdom that allow you to do new things like level up your characters to level 12 and level up your kingdom to level 35 (once you get your characters up to level 12, of course) but it also added a huge number of kingdom quests. Unfortunately, most of these quests involve the same thing, obtaining various items from all of the buildings in your kingdom. Now, I’m no stranger to these quests, having seen them many times before in this game, but this takes things to a whole new level. 200 snow globes from houses, a hundred armor pieces, fifty books from a library that gives up a book once every seven hours, hammers from the blacksmith, water from the waterworks. Worse still, is that there are multiple quests that need different things from the same place, so the pace of completing quests is piddling at best.

Now, I’m not stupid, I know why they did this. You can buy gold and gems with real life money and then use said gold and gems to get through these quests more quickly. This is a free to play game after all, and while I have been able to successfully play the game without shelling out any money other than for figures, figures I was purchasing any way for the sister product, my purchasing habits are not what Activision is hoping for.

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The problem is that I had the end game in sight. Level 30 had been obtained, my keep was under construction and I was on the grind to get enough citizens to get a town hall. I typically don’t have a problem walking away from a game if I’m done with it, but I had put so much time into this kingdom at this point, that it seemed wrong to walk away so close to the end. Now though, I dunno. Now I’m just randomly tapping on buildings, hoping that what I need from it pops out so that I can finish up and have a reason to walk away. If I stick around, I can go up to level 35 and get more buildings which will lead to more quests for more random items and so on, until what? Will it ever end? Is there an end or will the levels just keep going up until Swap Force comes out and they’ll integrate those figures in?

The bottom line is that I need to give myself permission to leave, despite what I’ve got invested. Otherwise, I’ll just be mindlessly tapping, hoping that what I want pops out, when what I really want is freedom.