Summer of Indie Pt. 1 – Thomas was Alone

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It’s summer, which in case you haven’t already noticed means that there are basically no new games coming out. With promotions like the Steam Summer Sale and the XBLA Summer of Arcade, it is clear that gamers are supposed to be playing through some indie games when they are sunbathing on the beach, if you happen to live in Florida, or dancing in sprinklers, if you don’t. So today I am beginning the first of what I hope to be many articles highlighting some indie games I have played recently. What I love about these games is that each game offers a truly unique experience that could only happen in an indie title. But I am getting ahead of myself, so without further ado lets jump in to my first summer indie title.

Thomas was Alone

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Let me get this out of the way to start, Thomas was Alone (which I will now refer to as TwA) is a masterpiece. Seriously, this game it in my top five indie games of all time alongside other works of genius like Bastion and Braid. I name those two, particular games because of the shared elements that TwA employs as well. Like Braid, TwA is a story driven puzzle game. Or is it platformer? I guess it’s a bit of both. While the puzzles maybe aren’t quite as ingenious or head scratching as Braid’s, they are just as engaging. To put it in perspective, upon firing up TwA I did not stop playing until the games conclusion, solving puzzle after addictive puzzle until the credits rolled some two hours later. Yes the game is short, but it is also immensely satisfying and you could probably pick it up for less than a cup of coffee. The puzzle mechanics are simple, physics driven gameplay primarily involving jumping, sliding and falling until you reach a goal “portal” which is often located “up and to the right.” Nothing special right? Wrong. The game quickly introduces multiple character pieces who each have their own “special powers.” For example one of the characters acts as a springboard of sorts, allowing the other characters to bound off her to reach higher places in the level. Notice I said “her” not “it,” more on that in a moment. Another character can float on the otherwise deadly water, acting as a raft to ferry the player characters to new areas. The game slowly introduces each character’s mechanics before asking the player to employ them in concert with the other characters in order to reach the increasingly difficult goal “portal.” By the middle of the game I was quickly dissecting the level’s layout in order to effectively utilize my small five piece army of character sprites to get each of them to the end (you can only end the level once each character is aligned with their specific goal portal). TwA is a game that requires coordination and planning instead of quick thinking (with a few levels being the exception). Yet as complicated as these obstacle courses got, they were never frustratingly so like some of the Braid puzzles. At the end of the more complicated levels I would often sit back quite satisfied with my accomplishment before diving back into the next level.

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Don’t judge a game by its screenshot. You have to see this one in-motion.

But viewing TwA as simply a puzzle platformer game would be to do it a disservice. I would even go so far as to say that the puzzles themselves are second to the actual story. Thomas was Alone tells the story of a red quadrilateral AI called Thomas. Yes, you read correctly, this game’s protagonist is a red rectangle. Upon first reading about this game I too thought this was ridiculous, but ten minutes into the game I was entranced by this plucky little sprite who was simply looking for a friend. You see, Thomas starts the game alone, forced to speculate about the word he inhabits to himself. This speculation is transmitted to the player in the form of narration by the phenomenal Danny Wallace. Wallace’s narration is both charming and intuitive, often reflecting on the very actions you are taking the moment you take them. You see, this is a game in which the gameplay and the story are interwoven to the extent that they are greater than the sum of any individual part. By the end of the story I had experienced joy as Thomas befriended each new quadrilateral, fear as he dodged the pursuing pixel cloud of death, and delight at the various narrated anecdotes.

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The gang’s all here.

The story and gameplay are also augmented by a simply phenomenal soundtrack and a minimalistic art design. The soundtrack is composed of a mix of simply piano melodies and electronic beats that is always subtle and complements the narrative beautifully. I am listening to TwA‘s soundtrack right now, and am reminded by games various themes of the dynamic range the game hits emotionally with distorted piano notes punctuated with digital tones to create a melancholic sound. The art design is equally effective as the soundtrack, with Thomas’s digital world filled with shadow and light that is extremely simple but always effective. Sometimes this minimalistic design of light and shadow creates moments of hesitation when it comes to judging jumps and heights of objects, especially for those characters that can barely jump. But these are rare moments, and are never confusing. TwA uses its art and sound to contribute in meaningful ways to the narrative and gameplay, which all work together to create a incredibly compelling experience.

So in case you couldn’t tell, I am in love with Thomas was Alone, and whether you consider yourself a hardcore gamer or only play Mario, like my wife, I am willing to bet that you too would fall in love with Thomas and his gang of misfit quadrilaterals. This is a game about friendship, working together and finding out that no one should go through this world alone, and that is a game I can get behind. You simply Must Play Thomas was Alone.

Check back again in a few days when I look at two short and incredibly unique titles, Proteus and Dear Esther. See you then.

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World War Z – Review

I want to start by saying that I was not planning on seeing this movie. It’s not that I have anything against Brad Pitt or zombie films, it is just that I didn’t see anything in the previews or the write ups on the film that particularly interested me. That said, a friend wanted to see a movie and World War Z has been receiving surprisingly decent reviews so I was happy to go and check it out. All that to say, when I walked into the theater I had rather low expectations.

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Brad Pitt produces and stars in this one, but I couldn’t help thinking that Will Smith could easily have done the same movie with the same result.

I am glad to report that World War Z is a pretty good zombie flick. Just don’t go expecting your mind to be blown.

World War Z, which was produced by Pitt, focuses on the character of Gerry Lane, who begins as a retired United Nations officer that apparently has seen his fair share of action. The film begins with Lane and his family, his wife (played by Mireille Enos) and two daughters, taking part in the mass exodus out of New York after some type of viral outbreak apparently turns humans into super fast moving, biting zombies. What ensues is a thrilling sequence that sees Lane and his family trying to stay alive while trying to find someplace safe. I am not going to ruin these opening moments for you, but suffice to say they certainly deliver the non-stop thrills one would expect in a summer blockbuster.

This sequence also introduces Lane’s motto “movement is life” which could be taken as inspiration of the remainder of the film, as Lane soon visits South Korea, Israel, and Wales in his search for a way to find a cure. Lane is unwillingly drafted as savior of the world due to his past experiences in “dangerous places.” I know, so many stereotypical zombie tropes in so little time, but the film has a sense of self-awareness which I can appreciate. At one point, during another awe-inspiring sequence in Israel, Lane chops a limb off of a soldier to save them from being infected, and after the danger has passed they exchange a knowing glance almost as if Pitt is acknowledging that there is nothing new going on here. But that doesn’t stop the film from delivering non-stop chaotic action including numerous harrowing encounters with the undead (seriously, do zombies always have to be dead, really) that somehow manages to balance both massive encounters with citywide destruction and intimate moments with just a few people in cramped hallways. Each sequence is equally as harrowing to watch and Pitt’s character works both as an observer and as an action hero.

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Seriously, the sequence this poster is based on is absolutely nuts.

But I will say it again, there really isn’t anything new that World War Z brings to the table. At the end of the film though, that fact didn’t really bother me as much as I thought it would. I mean really, not since I am Legend has there been such a universally competent Hollywood retelling of the zombie narrative. The action sequences are incredible, the scares are tangible and frequent (even though sometimes you can see them coming) and the acting is certainly decent enough to support this world ending tale. For some people that would be enough to warrant a trip to the theater to check it out on the big screen. Is the plot a bit contrived? Absolutely yes, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth seeing if you are looking for a fun thriller that certainly delivers in every area a zombie flick should. And the film does lightly touch on some interesting themes like global unity; this is certainly a positive apocalyptic narrative wherein human ingenuity and our adaptability ultimately bests anything Mother Nature can throw at us. Plus, the zombies themselves (also called zekes, just to keep things interesting) are pretty freaky with snapping teeth, fast moving bodies and the ability to group together as a writhing mass of destruction. But for me, with my hi-def television and home surround sound, I would have been just as satisfied renting the movie as much as seeing it inn the theaters, which is why I am giving World War Z a solid and respectable Rent It.

Badland – iOS Review

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Let’s talk about the iOS game, Badland (I want to add an ‘s’ so bad, but I will resist). This game has been on my radar for a few weeks now, but that I have finally been able to get my hands on thanks to a sweet sale when it won the WWDC Apple Design Award. So lets just start there; this game is incredibly beautiful both to play and watch. First I want to talk visuals. Look at those pictures above, that is all gameplay, and I promise you if you took a picture of the screen anytime while playing you would have a shot very similar to any of those above. This game takes the minimalistic design of other games like limbo with simple silhouettes making up the landscape in the foreground, but then they pair that black architecture with a bright, lush background that really just makes you want to sit back and stare at your screen, which you have the option to do as there are moments scattered throughout where you simply just glide as you watch the landscape roll by for a few seconds. A very nice touch.

The wonderful aspect of the game though is that not only is this game great to look at but it plays equally as well. Badland can best be described as a cave flyer with a heavy emphasis on physics based gameplay. Think Jetpack Joyride meets Tiny Wings. The game runs with a consistently smooth framerate, at least on my iPad 3rd gen, which is fantastic because when you get forty of your little flying bat creatures on screen along with everything else I could see lesser games losing a few frames. The game is extremely well polished in that respect. I will say though that the game can be challenging to play though, and this coming from a gamer. It took me a few rounds to adjust to the way my little creature flies and even longer to adjust to the effect of the various power-ups scattered across the stages. I could see some people getting turned off, but I would encourage those people to not get frustrated and try again. The pause screen even has suggestions every time you pause.

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The goal is always to simply survive to the end of stage, avoiding both the environmental traps and the always encroaching edge of the screen (fall off the leftmost edge of the screen and lose). While these environmental puzzles start off simple enough they quickly escalate until it becomes truly challenging to get to the end of the stage. And that is where my second concern comes in. The physics are set up in such a way that sometimes it feels like more of a trial and error game than the tight physics puzzler that it may pretend to be. This identity crisis can be supported by each stage’s challenges, which range from getting more of your little creatures to the end of the stage to making it through the stage without dying (and many, many others). I am usually a perfectionist when it comes to these types of challenges, but I don’t find myself coming back to accomplish these because I feel like the result would be more frustrating that challenging because of the often emergent physics system. This system is exciting most of the time because of the often erratic behavior of the environment and player’s creatures, but I am concerned that if I went back and attempted to accomplish these goals I would become quite frustrated. But that is not a deal breaker for me because for the price you get dozens of levels and a constant stream of new level packs (as of writing the second level update just came out) and each set brings with it new traps and exciting level layouts. These designers are not simply rehashing old tropes but iterating. Seriously, some of these later levels are ingenious, I love it.

So to wrap this review up I just want to say that Badland is a testament to the brilliant new development team at Frogmind and I can’t wait to go back and play more levels with my strange new bat creature crew. Yes the physics can be a little unpredictable and the challenges a bit too much, but that doesn’t dimiinish the brilliance of the visuals and the exciting and fun gameplay, which is why  I am giving BadlandMust Play.

 

Breaking Bad Season 1-2 Review

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“Yeah science!” With those simple words I knew I was in for something special. After years of people telling me I had to check out this strange TV drama, I finally booted up the ol’ Netflix account and watched the first episode of Breaking Bad. I know that I’m a little late to the party on this one but I just had to start this blog by writing on my current love affair with Walt and Jesse. But since I am late to the party and missed the main course, instead of commenting on the overall strength of the show I want to approach it from a slightly different angle. I could talk about all the twists and turns of the plot or the strong acting, and I must say that both elements are top notch. But instead of I want to talk about “earning” the moment.

But first a digression..

As an English PhD I have taken a few courses over the year in creative writing, the most recently being a course in play-writing. Over the course of the semester my professor kept telling me that my character’s dramatic moments were not earned. I would write a long speech or a highly intense exchange between two characters, but when looking back over each moment they never felt right, never felt natural. The reason being is that these moments were not “earned.” The character had not done enough or been through enough for the audience to buy into these highly dramatic moments. In essence, I jumped the gun and sprinted to the “good parts,” the explosive moments that I couldn’t wait to write, but in the process skipped all of the equally important but not as exciting character building moments. You know those moments, the small, quiet exchanges that give the audience a peek into the character’s psyche, what makes them unique and believable. These small moments are essential, a prerequisite if you will, for earning those larger, chaotic and exciting moments that every writer looks forward to penning.

End of digression…

Vince Gilligan and his writers in Breaking Bad are masters of earning those explosive moments the show is known for. Lets look at an example (SPOILERS AHEAD, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED)!

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In season 1 the buildup to Walt’s explosive encounter with Tuco, the drug dealer who agrees to buy Walt’s stock, is carefully executed over the course of the episode. Most shows, hell, most movies would quickly jump to Walt walking into Tuco’s office and demanding his payment before blowing up the place. Who wouldn’t want to rush to that scene. But Gilligan and his crew carefully orchestrate the buildup to that incredible moment.The buildup begins with Walt telling Jesse that “No matter what happens, no more bloodshed. No violence.” The group intervention that occurs in Walt’s house which led to Walt consenting to conduct business with Tuco, Walt’s ongoing capitulation chemotherapy, and Tuco’s violent assault on Jesse all contribute to Walt finally deciding to violently confront Tuco at the episodes conclusion, a complete turnaround from his perspective at the beginning of the episode. It is those small moments, many of them built over the course of many episodes, that allows the audience to buy into the idea of Walt basically dropping a grenade in Tuco’s base of operations and walking out with tens of thousands of dollars in cash.

And this is just one of numerous examples of Gilligan and his crew earning every moment in his brilliant show. This is why I believe that Breaking Bad is one of the best shows on television and it is also why I give the show, at least the first two seasons I have seen, a Must Watch