Thursday, September 04, 2008
Before last weekend, I had seen -- but had never played -- the card game Apples to Apples. Gary and I went to a Labor Day barbecue at a friend's house, and we arrived to find all the guests in a circle on a picnic blanket under a tree in the back yard. Everyone was playing Apples to Apples. At first, the game seemed a bit confusing, but I took over someone's hand when they had to run an errand, and it turns out that it's pretty easy to learn.
I never actually saw the game box, so what I describe may be different from the official rules. Anyhow, the game contains green cards that each contain a single adjective (luscious, dirty, funny, glamorous, etc.) and red cards that each contain a single person, place, or thing. Everyone playing draws a certain number of red cards (this apparently varies depending on the people playing; with 6-10 people playing, our game maven had us all draw 7 cards) that they keep hidden like any other playing card hand.
The game progresses as you go around in the circle with each person taking a turn drawing a green card. This becomes the topic for the turn. The person drawing the green card announces the topic, and everyone else has to pick a card from their hand that they think best fits the adjective (or hilariously deviates from the topic) and lays their card face down in a widow in the middle or the table (or picnic blanket as the case may be). The person holding the green card then picks up the discarded cards, shuffles them, and goes through them and picks out what he or she feels is the "best" card for the topic. The person who threw in the pick of the kitty is then awarded the green card, and the person with the most green cards at the end of the game wins.
When Gary and I entered the game, most of the fun came from the green card holder snarking on the card selections. Sometimes you'll end up with nothing
that matches the topic -- for instance, when the green card was "glamorous", I think I had "log cabins", "rocks", "oxygen", "my parents' house", "spilled milk", and "Ernest Borgnine" in my hand. Nothing glamorous there, so I had to try for something that might seem hilariously inappropriate, so I threw in ol' Ernest. I didn't win the turn, but everyone got a laugh.
Not being a champion snarker, when it came to be my first turn to draw a green topic card, I ended up telling a little story with the widow cards: "So the Rolling Stones were traveling down the highway when they got a flat outside Waco, TX and they were approached by a group of choir boys carrying a pregnant woman who was about to go into labor on a trampoline ...." People got a bigger kick out of the silly stories than the random snarks, so we all started trying to make stories out of the cards before we made our pick.
So, anyhow: Apples to Apples is a fun, silly party game, and makes a nice icebreaker for any gathering of geeks. But it also struck me that it could be used as a creativity exercise. Stuck for a plot? Draw some red cards and see what relationships and conflicts you could draw between them.
Labels: game, game review
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
Imagine that you meet someone new. You've seen him hanging out at parties and concerts, and your at-a-distance impression is that he's a shallow, flashy trendsetter. But when you actually talk with him, you're not only struck by how pleasant he is but by his talent and brains. You two start playing games and going to concerts and horror movies together. You go on a couple of road trips and have a great time -- you couldn't ask for a cooler travel companion.
You'd really like this new guy to become a real friend, a real part of your life, but there's a problem. Games and movies and music are awesome, but you're a horror writer ... and he won't read. You can (with difficulty) get him to thumb through a comic book, but anything else, even your own stuff -- forget about it.
You've had casual "fun friends" before, but you see such tremendous potential in this guy that his steadfast illiteracy baffles you. Furthermore, his witty, insightful commentary on movies and music has convinced you that he would be an excellent co-writer ... if he would only try. But so far, he just shrugs off your suggestions. As a consequence, your friends and family think you're completely wasting your time when they see you with him.
How frustrated would you be with a guy like this? At least a little, I bet.
And that's how I feel about my PlayStation Portable.
Okay, stop rolling your eyes. You knew I was a geek when you came in here.
My husband got me a PSP last Christmas, knowing I'd never get it for myself no matter how much I kept eyeing it in the store. It was just for gamers, and I don't game, I insisted. It's for kids, not adults: the goofy TV ads ("It's cheese you can listen to outside! Hells Yeah!" says the cartoon rat) aren't directed at thirtysomething me, surely.
Well, the kids certainly do love it (my 9-year-old niece covets mine terribly), and it's great for games, even though the title availability is still limited compared to regular PlayStations. However, now that I've gotten over my Lumines addiction, I actually use it for games only occasionally.
So what's a PSP good for if you don't play games on it? Plenty. So what good is it to a writer? I'll get to that in a minute.
When I first took my new PSP out of the box, I was impressed with how small, light, and intelligently-designed it is. It fits very nicely in your hands (unless you're built like Andre the Giant, at least) and the buttons have a good feel to them.
As nice and small as the body of the PSP is, it's the screen that attracted my attention in the first place. I may be a lukewarm gamer, but I'm a movie fanatic. The PSP's screen is wide, clear, bright, and sharp. When I'm holding it in my hands, I get the same kind of view of the movie that I do when I'm watching our widescreen TV from the couch.
So, the heck with watching video on an iPod or cell phone -- the PSP's viewing experience has them beat, hands-down, and unlike a portable DVD player the PSP will fit neatly in my purse.
You can buy movies on UMD format or rip them to your computer and store them on Pro Duo memory sticks, which are roughly the size of postage stamps. You can get the entire Evil Dead trilogy onto a 1GB memory stick with room left over for an episode of the Twilight Zone, although the quality won't be as good as you'd get on a UMD. 2GB sticks recently entered the market -- that's enough room for Shaun of the Dead, Dead Alive, and Bubba Ho-Tep on top of the trilogy.
That's not as much video as you can get onto an iPod, but it's still respectable. 4GB and 6GB sticks are supposed to come available in the near future. Add in the availability of VCR-style recorders that save directly to Pro Duo cards and the ever-increasing availability of UMD movies, and you've got a gadget guaranteed to entertain any horror movie fan, even if he or she has zero interest in games.
The UMD format may prove to be a serious challenger to the DVD format. The UMD looks like a tiny DVD in a rounded teardrop plastic housing -- if you ever saw the old magneto-optical disks, it's the same general idea. The downside is that if the outer housing gets damaged, the disk may be unable to spin and the UMD becomes useless. The upside is the size: you can keep 5 UMDs in a round Altoids Sours tin (minus the candies, of course).
I've geeked enough about movies. What else does a PSP do? Well, it plays MP3s and other audio files; the sound quality isn't quite as nice as that of an iPod, but it's very decent. It lets you store and view photos. And every PSP comes with built-in WiFi, so in addition to playing games against others you can surf the web down at your local Starbucks (the current incarnation of the web browser isn't great, but it's functional).
And now we get to what the PSP -- frustratingly and unreasonably -- doesn't do out of the box.
It doesn't have a single built-in PDA function. No calendar, no calculator, nothing.
With its gorgeous screen, it would make the world's nicest small ebook reader ... but it has no native functionality for reading even text files, much less PDFs and other ebook formats. Even the first-generation iPods with their little black-and-white screens let you read a calendar and basic text files. There is no good reason Sony couldn't have integrated a basic text reader and calendar into the PSP.
You can work around this fairly easily by using a free program called PDF 2 PSP, which will convert PDFs to image files and upload them to your PSP's memory card. I tried converting and uploading my copy of Stephen King's The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. A crisp, clear, easy-to-read 600KB ebook became a series
of fuzzy, memory-hogging images, over 100MB total. And that's just painful, even with a spacious memory card and nice screen.
And that easy-on-the-eyes screen of the PSP makes me yearn for even more. I want to be able to write on the thing. When people see my PSP and say, "Oh, you're taking a break to play a game?" I want to be able to toss my hair back and say, "I'm working on a story. Wanna read it?"
The PSP comes with a built-in software keyboard for inputting text for web pages and such -- unfortunately, it's desperately bad. Take the text input on your cell phone and make it suck so hard you want to give it cab fare -- that's how godawful the built-in text entry function is.
However, there's a tantalizing USB port right on the top of the PSP, just waiting for someone to develop an external portable keyboard that will work with it.
Logic 3 tried and failed to develop an external keyboard for the PSP because Sony wouldn't provide the company with the necessary command protocols. This seemed like stupid stonewalling on Sony's part until rumor sites revealed that Sony has filed a patent for a keyboard add-on for the PSP.
So, PSP owners should be able to get functional text input Real Soon, but for now businesslike functionality is just a dream for writers, right?
Not so fast. If you're willing to venture into the shadowy world of hackerdom, you can run a variety of "homebrew" applications to serve your readerly needs.
I should warn you: hacking your PSP is a tricky business (you'll need to get a copy of Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories, and then you can take the red pill). Any recently-purchased PSP will come with version 2.X of its operating system, which was largely released to foil hackers who'd managed to figure out how to modify OS1.52. Admittedly, a portion of the homebrew community is focused on illegal game cracks, but there are plenty of PSP hackers who just want a fully-featured device.
So what will running homebrew applications on your PSP get you? Aside from DOOM and expanded audio and video players, you can get your coveted text and PDF readers along with calculators and calendars. There's even a basic painting program for creating graphics. Not bad for a bunch of unpaid PSP hobbyists.
In short, the PSP has all the potential to be a horror writer's favorite portable electronic device. We've just got to wait for Sony to get with the program and admit their device isn't just kids' stuff.
Labels: game, technology
Friday, February 17, 2006
Apeiron is a Macintosh game that ranks as one of my absolute favorites. If you enjoyed the old Atari arcade games Centipede and Millipede, you're likely to find Apeiron downright addictive.
In this updated version of those old classics, you control a crystal shooter you use to blow away sneaker-wearing pentipedes, goggle-eyed fleas, grouchy scobsters, and flatulent geckos that zip down the mushroom patch, determined to do you in. The patch's landscape is altered by the occasional visit of a flying saucer. Game play is livened up by "yummies" such as psychedelic shrooms and bouncing gold coins that give you special powers such as machine-gun fire, guided shooting, an invulnerability shield, and additional lives (you get a maximum of eight shooters at any time).
The graphics and animation on this game are excellent and the sound effects are gleefully obnoxious. Game play is simple; use your mouse or trackball to move your shooter and press the button to fire (you can also use a keyboard or other input device). Everything you see on screen is worth shooting. There's nothing to get in between you and the pure arcade adrenaline that kicks in around Level 5 and doesn't let up until your last shooter shatters.
The first version of this game was developed in 1995 by Ambrosia Software's founder Andrew Welch and rapidly became a big hit for the fledgling company. Newer releases have addressed OS and hardware upgrades (the introduction of USB rendered the older version of the game unplayable due to system conflicts). The game's name comes from the Greek word for "countless", which refers to the number of enemies you'll face.
A very-playable shareware version of this game is available for tryout at www.ambrosiasoftware.com.
The game can get tough, particularly after Level 12. But please note that if you use any of the cheats listed below (except pause) your score won't count towards the high score tally.
To abort the game because your boss is coming: Escape The game must be paused in order to apply the following cheat codes
To pause the game: Caps Lock
- SNAPPLE - locks in whatever "yummies" you've accumulated
- PERNTS - adds points to your score.
- NALA - give you the "sprinkly shield" of invulnerability
- SQUISH - machine gun fire
- USMC - adds 5000 to your bonus score
- DJARUM - lets you pass through mushrooms
- HECTOR - maxes out your lives to a total of eight
- NICE BOX - give you guided shots
- MORRISON - moves you ahead 12 levels
Labels: game, game review
Monday, December 19, 2005
It makes sense that you can use Tarot cards for various games, since the 78-card Tarot deck is the ancestor of the modern 52-or-54-card playing deck. Modern playing cards are really just the minor arcana under a different guise: knights and pages have been combined to become jacks, swords have become spades, staves have become clubs, cups have become hearts, and pentacles (coins) have become diamonds. The joker is the only major arcana card to survive in the modern deck: it began as The Fool.
Why would you want to play games with Tarot cards? Well, for one the cards are more beautiful and interesting than regular ol' playing cards, and the game play is more complex and challenging. And for some people, the act of playing with something associated with the occult may give them a bit of a thrill.
If you want to play with a real Tarot deck instead of a special European tarocci deck (which won't be readily available in many places in North America anyway), I recommend the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck.
The Rider-Waite deck is generally the least expensive Tarot Deck you can buy and is usually available in most bookstores. Its imagery is simpler (making the cards easier to recognize in your hand) and the card size is closer to that of regular playing cards than many decks you can buy. Card size and feel is an important issue, because oversized cards can be hard to manage. And playing with a cheap-but-durable deck is important; your spiritualist friends are unlikely to surrender a prized deck to be battered and chafed in a card game.
Tarot Poker: Assumption in Last Call
I stayed up all night playing poker with tarot cards. I got a full house and four people died.
-- Steven Wright
Apparently, fantasy author Tim Powers heard this saying at some point, because the plot of his amazing dark fantasy novel Last Call revolves around a Tarot poker variant he named Assumption.
In the novel, the game is played every 20 years and the winner becomes the new Fisher King, a modern-day mage who can control chance and chaos and, ultimately, the fate of the world. Most of the game's thirteen high-rolling participants are unaware of the true nature of Assumption; they think they're just playing an arcane sort of high-stakes poker. The book's wealthy antagonist, Georges Leon, uses the game to capture people's bodies and souls. Those who have lost their souls in a game are usually totally unaware of it until the next 20-year game. During the following cycle, Leon evicts said souls and transfers his consciousness into their empty-but-living bodies to increase his power and influence and attempts to achieve immortality.
Leon is a modern-day Cronus who invented the game as a way of spiritually creating children he could then turn into puppets. In the first part of the book, he is shown to be possessing his own young sons and evicting their souls, but while he is in the process of taking over his youngest son Scotty, the boys' mother enters the room to rescue her son. In the melee, she shoots Leon in the groin, castrating him. In order to maintain his power, he must find a way to create more children though he is biologically incapable of doing so.
The game of Assumption results in the creation of a winning hand created from two different player's initial hands that spiritually represents the fruit of the player's souls; instead of being "lost" it is actually "sold" by one of the hand's spiritual parents to the other. The "winning" player who takes the pot for the hand has in effect sold his or her own soul to the other "parent" of the hand, and the taker of the money then assumes the spiritual role of the child of the other player ... and is thus ripe for possession.
Assumption must never be played over "untamed" water like a natural lake, river, or ocean. Man-made bodies of water like Lake Mead are useful sites for play, and in fact the climactic final game takes place over that lake.
Assumption uses the minor arcana of a Tarot deck, which means that you'll be dealing with Knights in addition to the standard Kings, Queens and Jacks (Pages). It's possible for you to use regular playing cards for this game by adding doctored Jacks from an identical deck for your knights. In fact, Powers was too superstitious to mess with a Tarot deck, so he used a modified playing card deck to figure out the hands he'd need to use in the novel.
I participated in an Assumption game once; we set it up as a joke to spook Tim at Clarion the week he was leading the writing workshop. His wife Serena saw us playing with the tarot cards, shook her head and said to Tim, "See, if you put it in a book, the kids are going to try it."
The objective of Assumption is to combine your four card hand with a four card hand you buy from another player to create the best 5-card poker hand possible. However, the ultimate goal of Assumption is to to win other player's souls in the final round so that you can use their bodies as puppets years later.
Here's how to play:
- Thirteen players (ideally, but you can start with fewer) sit down and ante up. Whatever you do, don't play over water, like in a houseboat or in a canoe. And don't talk about anything important in front of the cards. Bad things could happen.
- The first 2 cards to each player are dealt face down. The 3rd is dealt face up.
- Players go through the first round of standard poker betting.
- The 4th card is dealt face up.
- Players go through the second round of betting.
- This is where it stops looking like regular poker:
- First comes the "mating": each four card hand goes up for bid, starting with the player to the dealer's left (yes, already this is a sinister game). Any player may bid. Provided that the owner of the hand is willing to sell for the offered price, the highest bidder gets the hand and combines it with his or her own cards (for a total of 8 cards). The two down cards aren't revealed to the buyer until after the sale. Sometimes hands simply won't sell. If an odd number of people are still in the game at this point, one 4-card hand will inevitably be shut out.
- Once a player has bought another hand, his or her cards are "conceived": he or she must continue the game with those 8 cards. Selling cards off to another player or buying others is against the rules. So, players must be choosy when buying hands.
- Buying and selling continues until as many hands are conceived as possible.
- Players who bought hands and thus have properly conceived hands now set aside the three least desired cards in their hands and enter a third round of betting.
- The best 5-card hand (using standard poker rules, adjusted for the presence of Knights) wins the pot.
- The winning player earns 90% of the pot, and the player who sold his or her four cards to the winner -- the hand's "parent" -- gets the other 10%.
- As a final double-or-nothing game, the "parent" may make an Assumption challenge by throwing down a stack of money that must equal the whole winning pot. Then:
- The entire deck is reshuffled and cut in half.
- The two play a quick hand of War: the winning player picks one card from the deck, and the "parent" does the same.
- The highest card wins the entire pot ... but the "losing" player takes the "winner's" soul.
- Thus, the initial winner is forced into a double or nothing bet for the pot, and to win everything is to lose everything:
"You're taking money for the hand," Leroy observed.
"Uh ... yes." Again Scott was aware of the bulk of metal against his hip.
"You sold the hand."
"I guess you could put it that way."
"And I've bought it," Leroy said. "I've assumed it." He held out his right hand.
Puzzled, Scott put down some bills and reached across and shook hands with the big brown man in the white suit.
"It's all yours," Scott said.
Pretty cool, huh? I won my friend Dora's soul in our workshop's penny ante Assumption game, and I haven't a clue what I'll use it for (it should come "due" in 2015).
Monday, August 15, 2005
Tired of playing Slug Bug on those long car trips? Roadkill Bingo is an irreverent, gruesome little game in which the car's riders compete to spot roadkill lying by or in the road. This game isn't for everyone, but those with a certain morbid bent (particularly goths or biology majors) can be entertained for hours. There are a couple of different versions of this game.
Free-Form Roadkill Bingo
The first version requires no special apparatus other than perhaps a piece of paper to record one's roadkill sightings. Roadkill values are weighted according to the condition of the carcass and the relative rarity of the animal in question. For instance, in Texas, a dead bald eagle would be worth much more than a dead armadillo or skunk. Likewise, an intact raccoon that has become so bloated with gas that it resembles a furry balloon would be worth more than a more-normal-appearing dead raccoon.
- typical roadkill: 5 points
- unusual roadkill: 10 points
- rare roadkill: 20 points
- unusual condition: +5 bonus
- extraordinary condition: +10 bonus
- observing roadkill in progress*: +20 bonus
Whoever spots the roadkill first gets the points for that animal. Scoring is by its nature subjective ("Are you crazy? Mule deer aren't rare!") and bonuses are generally determined by the degree of oohing and cringing that the carcass' condition elicits from observers.
A simpler version of this game -- which more closely resembles actual bingo -- involves people competing to see who will be first to see five instances of a particular type of roadkill (skunk, armadillo, deer, etc.). There is no scoring per se; first person to spot five of his or her assigned animal wins.
* Under no circumstances do roadkills caused by the car you're riding in count toward scoring. The object here isn't to kill anything.
Commercial Roadkill Bingo
The Roadkill Bingo Company sells plastic bingo sheets with static cling cover squares with different animals on the sheets instead of standard bingo numbers. The car's occupants then play the game much like a standard bingo game (five animals in a row wins the game). As always, if your car hits an animal, the game is over and nobody wins (particularly the critter you just crushed).
ObDisclaimer: I have a great love for wildlife, so I have mixed feelings about this game. However, one time when I was on a road trip with a bunch of goths in a Toyota, we had a fine old time playing this one.
Monday, October 22, 2001
The Visual Language of Myst III: Exile
a review by Jenise Aminoff
In Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun
, Severian the Torturer tells us that physical objects have meaning as symbols, meaning that transcends individual experience and in fact stems from the grand collective of human history. If Wolfe believes his own character, then he would have loved Myst and Riven, by Cyan Software. Myst remains the best selling computer game of all time, attracting a wide range of players, many of whom were non-gamers lured in by rich, textural graphics and intricate puzzles. The sequel, Riven, was built upon Myst's foundation and added astonishingly beautiful graphics, action sequences, and even more complex puzzles, all within a coherent, self-consistent plot.
Now, as Cyan transforms itself into Cyan Worlds and focuses on gameplay across broadband internet (including the possibility of multiplayer games), they've farmed out the next installment in the Myst series to Presto Studios, makers of rather unremarkable games like Star Trek: Hidden Evil and Steven King's F13. Okay, they're good at working with other people's worlds. But can Myst III: Exile live up to the incredibly high standard that Cyan has set?
Well, that depends on what you liked about Myst and Riven. Myst III does do an excellent job of recreating the stunning graphics and atmosphere of exploring an entirely alien landscape. Some of the worlds are downright disturbing, including a world in which you regularly interact with weird living things, both flora and fauna, in a landscape that looks like wind- and water-worn bone. Similarly, if you like puzzles, you won't be disappointed by the plethora of tricks and teasers of varying complexity.
One major advantage of Myst III is that it uses a completely immersive interface. While you'll still step from frame to frame as before, you can now look 360 degrees around you, up and down and sideways and slantways and any ways you can think of. While this sometimes makes it difficult to manipulate objects like journals, you can simply hold down the shift key to release the cursor. Not everyone will think this is an improvement, however. My husband gets thoroughly motion sick after watching me play for just a few minutes.
Sound is also an important component of the game. The soundtrack expands on its predecessors and includes an interesting range of styles. I'm particularly fond of the music with Middle Eastern influence. In a few places, I found vocal background music jarring and kept looking around for the source of the song. Sound plays an integral part in several puzzles, so make sure your sound system is up to snuff. I played Myst III on a Macintosh G4 with OpenGL. If you're on a Mac, make certain you go to www.apple.com and get the latest version of OpenGL to install. After having been stumped by the final puzzle in Riven because I couldn't distinguish a couple of sounds, I invested this time in a surround sound stereo system from Cambridge Soundworks. It made a huge difference and helps to immerse you in the game. And I'll admit, I love cranking up the subwoofer for an extra dose of musical angst.
Having said all that, Myst III does lack one important feature: a driving plot. In Riven, Cyan broke new ground by integrating their puzzles into the culture of the people in their ages and the character of Gehn, the game's villain. The plot, to capture Gehn and save Catherine, gave Riven a mood of urgency and purpose that Exile lacks. In Myst III, Atrus's latest creation, in which most of his people, the D'ni, now live, is stolen by a victim of Atrus's wayward sons, Cirrus and Achenar, featured in the original Myst. The victim, Saavedro, is on a quest for revenge on Atrus (played by Myst co-creator Rand Miller) for allowing his sons to destroy Saavedro's home. He leads you on a wild goose chase through five worlds just to get Atrus's book back.
But the brilliant moments of character interaction that made Riven so riveting are missing from Myst III. Aside from the occasional recording of Saavedro taunting Atrus, you're left alone to muck about in the worlds as best you can. Even more striking, though, is the lack of semiotic content. Riven did an amazing job of reinforcing the plot with visual symbolism and mood-setting. One scene in Riven, a spidery gold cage in a dark room of rough hewn stone, literally made me jump out of my seat.
By contrast, Myst III is merely beautiful and mysterious. Wandering around the initial world, J'nanin, in which Saavedro claims to have been trapped for so long, you start to wonder what his problem was, living on an island of Frank Lloyd Wright-ish stained glass and cute little white bunny-like creatures. Where is the devastation caused by Cirrus and Achenar? Where is the aura of loneliness and abandonment? And why all the cheerful choral music when you're nearing the lair of a grief-crazed psychopath?
Presto Studios has done an excellent job of imitating the style of Myst, but it has failed to capture the substance. Where Myst and Riven are guided by narrative, Exile is guided by a deep need to reproduce the real thing. Myst and Riven are among my favorite examples of multimedia, interactive storytelling. The visual language Cyan uses draws you in on a semiotic level that rivals the fiction of Gene Wolfe. Without that visual narrative, Myst III is just a game.
Still, it's a really good game with a lot of engrossing play and satisfying problem solving in it. In my opinion, it's a better game than just about anything else on the market right now, and it certainly makes for a satisfying stopgap while we wait for Cyan's next project, a non-Myst 3-D Internet-based game, code named Mudpie, to reach completion.
Labels: game, game review