Sunday, March 29, 2015

Monument Valley Game, where I enthusiastically jump on the bandwagon

The iOS/Android game, Monument Valley from USTWO, has already garnered a ton of praise and awards since it's release last summer. But it wasn't until watching House of Cards these last few weeks that I found out about it. The design and interaction are simply stunning. I love puzzle games and with the ethereal, calm, zen-like quality of the visuals, the soundtrack and chapter titles that read like Buddhist mantras, this game transforms into a mediative experience. I only wish there were more levels to explore since counting the the original plus the expansion upgrade there are only 18 total. It costs $6 on Android but the experience is like eating a small portion of the most delicious dessert you can think of: what it lacks in volume makes up in quality. With the game's success, I hope this means there are more chapters to come. This is the second great game from a London-based game studio that I've fallen in love with this year. Go Brits!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Live-action Cinderella: Don't forget the tissues

My biggest problem with the live-action Cinderella wasn't the ridiculous waistline or the being saved from one's circumstances by a man...

Warning: Spoilers ahead

Come for the Oscar-bait-costume-design and aspirational rags-to-riches story, stay for the not one, not two, but three intense scenes of children reacting to their parents dying.  Ahem.

When I decided to take Sidney last Sunday to see her first movie in a theater and chose the live action Cinderella, I thought I had a good idea of what we were in for. Having heard that Kenneth Branagh's version would be pretty true to the animated version, I felt reassured. But not so fast.

Be warned that Branagh's wheelhouse is chalk-full of Shakespeare and, just maybe or on purpose, some of that irresistible embrace of tragedy seeped into his film. We all know that Cinderella's father remarried and then subsequently died, leaving Cinderella to fend for herself amongst her stepfamily.  But in this movie we also get to see the "golden childhood" where both of her parents were happy, and alive, thus setting up an even more epic fall into grief, emotional abuse and a life of servitude. Watching young Cinderella bravely experience an extended deathbed scene with her mom, followed by a death-in-absentia of her father, is utterly heart-wrenching. However, I'll concede: that's part of the story that we already know.

But as an added 'bonus,' we get to see the death of the beloved King which installs our new prince charming as the head of state before finding and marrying Cinderella.  Another heart-wrenching deathbed scene with a parent and child. A death fatigue overtook me, as it weighed heavily on the story. By this third death, I started to doubt my parental instincts on how good of an idea this was, noting that my Kindergartener was sniffling right along with me. Poor girl. Even the plucky Helena Bonham Carter as the Ditzy Fairy Godmother couldn't totally right the ship and dry the tears fast enough. I know how Disney loves nothing better than to jeopardize healthy parent-child relationships because it removes steady authority figures and leaves our titular characters to make decisions for themselves. So they either separate, endanger or just kill parents.  Just take a second and think of pretty much any Disney film, then find that element.  So while I'd love to pin all the blame Branagh, it's not totally unexpected I suppose.

What is fascinating and deliciously interesting about this version is Cate Blanchett's Lady Tremaine aka the Evil Stepmother. When she finally reveals her motivations, we suddenly have a very real and chilling understanding of why she's been so cruel to Cinderella. It's a very human moment and she plays it fabulously. For a moment, I felt some compassion for her character which makes for juicy tragedy. I also felt this way for Angelina Jolie's Maleficent, though outside of her performance the plot and other actors aren't as up to the task. Regardless, it's fascinating to discover why people turn from light to dark.  What fuels their bitterness? (As long as we're getting to the bottom of motivations, I'd also love to know what happened to the Little Mermaid's Ursela to make her so vengeful. My money is on King Triton and some other fish in the sea, if you know what I mean. But we'll have to see about that one.)

Since Disney now seems bent on bringing all it's animated movies into live action, we may see more backstory, motivation and depth to some well known characters of our childhoods. Though we should also expect equal amperage to some of the more dark aspects as well.  Lesson learned.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Year of Living Dangerously

My 40th year just came to an end--a year of many firsts--so I wanted to made a list as a reminder that no matter how old you are, there is still lots to do, discover and aspire to.  Life is not over whenever you reach a certain milestone, no matter what pop culture would have you believe.




These aren't in any particular order.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

'Sam or I': the new social casual game from Absolute Hero Games

(Disclosure: Sponsored post but opinions are my own.)

The fine folks at Absolute Hero Games gave me a peek at their brand new game called Sam or I which comes out today and is available on Facebook HERE.  


The verdict: I couldn’t stop going back for more of this killer gameplay mechanic.


A Simply Unique Game
It’s really hard to find a stand-out game with a novel play mechanic that hasn’t been overdone. But this new social casual game by Absolute Hero Games, Sam or I, mashes up classic casual game mechanics of four major types of games: ‘block breaker’, platformer, side-scroller and puzzle then blends them all into something totally new and intriguing. Truth be told, I’ve played many, many casual games since I once worked in casual games. But Sam’s thoughtful artistic design is delightfully surprising to find in the social casual space. That’s also why this particular game’s well-balanced levels coupled with it’s novel hybrid game mechanic, make it an exciting addition on the Facebook platform (and soon, iOS & Android platforms).

sam_poised.png sam_grandfather.png

Sam or I is set in Feudal Japan and chronicles the journey of Sam, a plucky, young samurai-in-training, as she follows a map given to her by her grandfather sensei.  She uses her ‘martial arts skills’ to break through blocks between her and the keys at the end of the each level. The rich graphics and animations pay homage to the simplicity of ancient East Asian art. Meanwhile, the distinctive color palette and atmospheric background music really give it an inviting, optimistic vibe.

The Social Casual Element
Levels become more intricate as you progress. The Absolute Hero Games team balanced ‘clickable fun’ with focused concentration.  A player is best advised to be thoughtful and deliberate since Sam only has a limited number of moves to reach the end of each level. In her travels, Sam encounters combinations of basic color blocks, immovable stone blocks, locked blocks, burn-your-feet-and-subtract-moves lava blocks, and (my personal favorite) color-shifting chameleon blocks that can change your strategy in an instant.  Every day players are awarded a certain number of coins which can be used to buy various boosters that add to the number of moves allowed in a level, delete whole columns, undo turns, or eliminate all of one color block from the board. A player can also straight-up purchase coins for boosters which is the ‘throw-money-at-the-problem’ option.


Female Factor
While casual games are typically made FOR the female demographic, it’s rare that they are actually made BY them. Two of the primary creative forces behind the game--lead developer, Lisa Wick and lead artist, Kaari King--are in fact women. “I think women are an asset to any healthy working environment. Their contribution can add a balance to any creative collaboration,” said King. “A lot of casual games are geared towards women as customers so it only makes sense that women should help to create those experiences.”

However, Sam or I is intended for a broader audience than the usual ‘women over 30’ demographic. "We believe this game will appeal to a very broad audience," said CEO Craig Robinson.

But shooting for a broad audience requires a lot of refining. “We had the freedom to explore and iterate on what worked/didn't work in every aspect of the game from start to finish,” added Wick. “The making of this game was very much a team collaboration.”   

King also enjoyed the collaboration and responsibility that comes in smaller teams. “I am grateful for the path that eventually led me to the casual game space which turns out to be my favorite type of game to make and play,” she said. “It includes colorful, happy graphics, small teams and short product cycles, where I have large ownership of the visuals for an entire game.”

I think the team’s gender balance is part of what allowed the game to have more depth and appeal. The play mechanic is sophisticated but not overly complex. The levels are impressively challenging as is the attention to detail. And all of this done in HTML5--not the easiest platform to develop highly-polished game graphics and animations.


Absolute Hero Games & HTML5
The team at Absolute Hero Games started out two years ago doing contract-for-hire games but ultimately wanted to develop their own IP. Though all seven members are game developing veterans and hail from all corners of the industry (mobile, console, social, PC), Absolute Hero Games’ specialty is HTML5 social casual games. HTML5 is an exciting and efficient approach that allows one code base to be developed to target many different platforms, including Facebook, web browsers, mobile devices and tablets.

“The best thing about HTML5 is that it is capable of delivering a high-quality gaming experience across desktop and mobile browsers without the need for Flash or other plug-ins,” said King.  “Players don’t have to download a separate plug-in and developers don’t have to have separate codebase for each platform.”

Developing games in this way makes them much easier to scale and extend and Sam or I integrates the benefits of a social game like comparative rankings, in-game item share-ability and in-game purchases of boosters, coins, keys and accessories.

Sam or I is an invitingly subtle yet sophisticated, easy-to-learn social casual game that has overall appeal for a wide audience. And just like it says in the video, it's ‘small in size, big on power.’ Find Sam or I now on Facebook HERE.


All images used with permission © 2015 Absolute Hero Inc.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Trapped in a Room with a Zombie

My crazy-wonderful husband who has a flair for the unique and the knack for the dramatic didn't just pick some random superhero movie off my Amazon wish list for Christmas, he meant to continue the theme of a "year of living dangerously" and pushing boundaries. In my stocking last December, I found a gift certificate to something called Trapped in a Room with a Zombie, for which I just had to set a date and invite 11 friends to solve all manner of clues and riddles to escape a room with a rabid zombie chained to the wall.  Um, what??? I was initially a bit horrified. Truth be told, zombies aren't my supernatural creature of choice. (That would be vampires.) So what the heck would this activity be like anyway?

We finally set the date, contacted our friends and booked the sitter. Then I started looking for reviews online just to make sure I had some idea of what we were getting ourselves into. I found myself growing more intrigued and delighted as I looked around and read feedback on this multi-city offering, it would challenge problem solving abilities and require team work with friends. That's a very good thing, I think, to put yourself (and friends) in safe but challenging situations. You feel surprisingly alive, like you might just be capable of anything. And not just capable of finding a missing Ravensburger puzzle piece under the couch or being able to assemble a dinner in 10 minutes with no planning. You know, big thinking.

One can do this Escape the Room activity with strangers if you sign up for an open, non-private party session but I loved that ours was with people we knew.  I announced to the group before we began, that all of us are parents (with kids ranging from 1-10 years old) so we all know how to multitask while a writhing uncooperative creature wails in the corner.  That's just 'Tuesday-morning-before-school' in my house. Oh really, is a zombie the best thing you got?  How about no sleep for 3 months with a beast that allows no other focus than itself and might as well be eating my brains because I couldn't remember a damn thing. But I digress.

We're sworn to secrecy not to reveal what the clues are like but suffice it to say, last Saturday's romp was very clever and fantastic challenge. In our group, self-named the 'Dirty Dozen', I was the first to fall to the Zombie as I took my focus off of her when looking around the room and misjudged how much chain length she had. We came very close to escaping the room though.  The best part was watching each of our friends find their niche and contribute to the effort. Some people are cool under pressure, some get a little more excitable. But best of all, we all got to do something out of the ordinary, making our tasty brains that much more full of juicy neural activity.

With a few more minutes, we would have succeeded in escaping the room. But only 30% are successful, so not great odds. They may change up to a whole new game with new clues and everything soon so we'll have to see if the 'Dirty Dozen' is up to the task again.

Until then, check it out yourself for some unconventional good times. Ugggggh. BRAINS!!