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Blue Tea Games and the Dark Parables Series

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Not sure exactly how I got on to the Dark Parables series, or hidden object games, or the Big Fish games interface. All I know is, I started playing them sometime last year, tore through the whole series, and swapped part-way through to buying the extra-features collector’s editions. I started getting really excited for new releases and then… the excitement dissipated a little.

From the top:

Blue Tea Games is a game studio that puts out primarily “hidden object” games, where the plot is moved along by a series of small puzzles, most of which involve picking out specific objects from a cluttered scene. I find this a fantastic game genre for me, since it provides a very relaxing level of challenge and generally comes in games with beautiful art and music. What’s more, HOGs pretty commonly come with several different difficulty levels, of which I usually select the middle one. Many of the really good games have thematic objects hidden throughout, and discovering all of them is a fun extra challenge.

One of Blue Tea‘s most exciting series is/was the Dark Parables games. This is a series of adventures in which a nameless protagonist called “the Fairy-Tale Detective” investigates strange, magical occurrences all over the world, only to discover the source of the mischief to be a fairy-tale character run amok. The twist that draws you in is that the fairy-tales are mashed up, crossed over and fused rather liberally, which allows certain characters to serve multiple roles in different stories. If you were personally insulted by not being able to like Once Upon a Time, you might find these games comforting.

The games have a rough chronological order and playing them out of order gives mystery spoilers. Generally, though, that’s not really the main draw. They are beautifully drawn, intricate and rich with details and motifs. The visual language of the games is distinct and recognizable and truly, to me, the very best thing about them. Unlocking the titular “parables” gives a little insight into how the original tales were forged into an amalgam.

The characters are fun but not very deep. The villains are frequently heroic characters turned dark by adverse circumstance, and last-minute redemption is pretty common. In addition to the fairy tale amalgams, the games add some original characters, of which my favorite is undoubtedly Queen Ivy, Briar Rose’s sister.

I played the games out of order beginning with Rise of the Snow Queen, before tracking back to the first game, The Curse of Briar Rose to get the full experience. Given my love for the games’ aesthetic, the entries I remember most fondly are The Exiled Prince, about the curse of frog prince, and The Ballad of Rapunzel, which adds my other favorite original character.

After the Rapunzel game, Blue Tea apparently sold the whole brand to a game studio called Eipix. Quite coincidentally, while googling around for game information, I discovered that I am not the only fan of the games who was less enamored of their two most recent additions. A trailer for a third game has been released, so I am waiting to see if I feel better about that one.

Meanwhile, I replay some of the earlier games in an attempt to catch all of the extras and bonuses, and use earned credits to upgrade the regular versions to collector’s editions. However, I am due to replay The Little Mermaid and the Purple Tide, since I seem to remember very little of it. Of all the hidden object games that I’ve played through the Big Fish app, the Dark Parables games are still by far my favorites.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth.

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Icon 2015: Guest of Honor Ted Chiang

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Every now and then Icon manages to acquire a major international writer as a guest of honor. It always seems like such a great opportunity, but on the other hand, I’m often only faintly familiar with the authors in question and their work. This year was an exception. Having just recently embarked on my career as a professional writer, and being that I’m still struggling with the specific demands of writing proper short stories, this year’s guest of honor events seemed too good to miss.

The festival takes place over three days during Sukkot and there are events all day long (and well into the night). Although I decided I couldn’t afford to write three full days off for writing, I was adamant that I would make the most and pre-ordered tickets to three evening events. These events were a panel on the subject of “the search for a perfect language”, a general short stories panel, and a one-on-one Q&A. Alas, I got ill on the second day and ended up missing the final event (the Q&A) which I was most looking forward to, along with the closing event where awards are announced.

The first panel was very interesting. The subject of language in science fiction is of perennial interest to me, not least because I’m myself bilingual. What I hadn’t realized (not being a linguist) is that “perfect language” is actually a quite specific piece of terminology. It describes, as best as I could understand, a language in which it is possible to perfectly express the speaker’s intent, without ambiguity. As a writer, obviously this seems like a terrible idea, because without ambiguity literature loses much of its magic. But, as a computer programmer, I’m a lot less worried.

All in all, it was very interesting and I’m very glad I got to hear it.

The second panel was a bit of a mess. I, like some others on the audience (and, I got the impression, also the panel moderator) got the feeling that the two Israeli panelists were dominating the conversation and injecting too many personal references and inner jokes. There was still a lot of interest to listen to, in between arguments about who won the most Geffen awards and short slips into Hebrew. ‘Where do you get ideas from?’ cropped up but also, more interestingly, some questions that were more about the process of transitioning the raw idea into a story-shaped concept.

I’m still sorry I missed the third event, but glad I went to the ones I did, especially the language panel. I’m even more glad that this gave me a good impetus to look up some of Ted Chiang’s short stories online and find out for myself why he’s so highly regarded. The stories I read are very high-concept based and feel like a distillation of the core process of creating science fiction. A novel scientific concept, a series of speculations, potential social implications and finally, their impact on the individual human.

A good week, despite my illness.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

Support Me on Patreon

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You can now support me on Patreon. A link has been added to the blog’s navigation strip.

I am very grateful to all my readers for their support, comments and appreciation over the years. Commenting on posts and linking to my blog were and are enormously encouraging for me. Now in addition to that you have the option to offer material support, which will allow me to continue writing full-time as I have been for the past several months.

The Katabasis of Queen Esther

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A knock came on her door.

Vashti raised her eyes from her book and glanced at the golden door, then cast them down again to look at the hound that lay at her feet.

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Tactics, Logistics and Chance: The “Game of Thrones” Board Game

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Yom Kippur is come and gone. Like every year I had grand plans of taking a serious, contemplative look at my life. Instead, I played the Game of Thrones board game.

If you play board games pretty regularly, or have friends who do, you might have heard rumor of this game. The rumor would likely be something about it being very long and very complicated to play. It’s all true. I spent almost six hours on it last night (and lost, badly).

The GOT board game struggles a little because it wants to maintain all the basic elements of a strategic territory expansion game, while still giving due to the core story elements form the books and show. It succeeds in parts, but the devotion to story elements is part of what makes the game so cumbersome to learn and play. The game’s initial set-up is still forced to stray from the story’s political dynamics, partly in order to give players freedom to form alliances and rivalries as they see fit, and partly for more obscure reasons.

Broken down, the elements of the game go something like this: each player plays one of the major houses and starts out with a roughly equal number of starting territories. Each territory adds one battle or supply action per turn. All actions on the board are revealed simultaneously, and acted out according to the order of the political power metric, which has a fixed initial setup and is periodically reshuffled.

To add an element of chance, cards are drawn at the beginning of each round to generate random events, such as Wildling attacks. The game goes on for ten rounds, or until one player conquers seven different castles. In our case, as I said, almost six hours (the full ten rounds).

Each of these elements has a few layers of added complexity. There are three different metrics for political power, which allowed each of us three players to start on top with some kind of advantage. Now and then there would be a kind of auction where players bet power tokens on each of the three, to reorder the power dynamics and hopefully gain an edge. Battle and supply actions are divided into five kinds (movement/attack, defense, support, raid and supply/recruit), and then further subdivided for increased complexity. Battles are acted out using weighted character cards to supplement troops.

Honestly, that only covers about 40% of the complexity of the game. Or convolution, I should say, because that’s an important distinction. Tactics, strategy, logistics even — those are welcome kinds of complexity, because they vary by the playing styles and experience levels of the players. Mostly, though, this games adds complexity via memory tricks and rules-lawyering, with an added luck element in drawing three random cards per turn.

Our game started auspiciously and overall went quite well, but would have been more fun and less wearying if I, as the newest player, didn’t get as confused about which stage of the turn we were in and what was supposed to happen next. I played House Lannister and almost immediately formed an alliance promising not to invade eastward past a certain point. Then I started stockpiling, while my two co-players bickered over the same bit of sea throughout most of the game. The strategic element then is brought in by the players, which is about right. From then on, the game pieces and cards restrict the player’s ability to enact their strategy, which is also, in theory, how it should go. There were just… too many nitpicky little bits getting in the way.

A good conquest game, as far as I’m concerned, should only have two phases to each round. First there is a logistical phase in which resources are recruited. Then there is a tactical phase in which attacks for the round are determined. The GOT board game has many more variable parts than that. For example, increases in supplies are not calculated immediately, and power tokens are used not just to mark territories, but also to bid for political power on a separate part of the board, and to fight a third party on another part.

When I laid out some of my criticism, a fellow player asked if I would rather the game be “boring, like Risk”. I answered that I think there’s a great deal of middle ground between the two. Part of the added complexity is supposed to add an element of political intriguing that goes beyond troop movements and conquering territory, but mostly manages to support the battle portions of the game and otherwise be wearying. Any “diplomatic” elements are brought in by the inclination of the players to form temporary alliances, or not.

All in all, I won’t say I didn’t enjoy it, because I did. Although parts of it were immensely frustrating, I did exit the game feeling like there was a reason I lost (other than being a first time player), and that if I played again, I might win. But I also left the game trying to figure out if there was a way I could house-rule the board and pieces to a more manageable proportion, so that future games would have the same amount of fun, but less frustration.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

Hail the Hunter

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I told you I was born in the Western mountains, but this is only part of the story. I was raised in a Moon temple, you see. I know you’ve heard of them. Yes, I grew up in a small temple, one of many in that part of the world, and spend my childhood looking forward to the day when I was declared grown, and ready to serve. Of the time before I was given to the temple, I remember very little.

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On “The 100” and the Characterization of Cold Women

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I have been thinking lately on why I have such a great fondness for cold women. When I say cold women, I mean of course fictional characters. Like most people, I’m fascinated by a great many types of characters whom I would never tolerate in reality. By cold women, I mean both women who are socially chilly and reserved, as well as women who operate based on cold numbers logic, and consequently make a lot of ethically questionable choices.

The initial impetus for this was The 100. Part of the reason I love the show so dearly is exactly this. It is a show that deals with characters trapped in impossible situations and constrained by violent power dynamics, repeatedly pushing them into morally untenable situations. Unlike a lot of other “morally grey” narratives, it allows women to, on multiple occasions, occupy the role of the decision-maker. The leader, the one who makes the call that no one else could make. The one that historians will debate about for years to come.

Traditionally, women are seen as warm. In Western mass-media, and in a lot of other contexts as well. In another show with a similar premise, a bright-eyed girl would occupy a help-meet role as a moral foil to the male leader. A personal moral anchor, or a political rival who fervently — emotionally — argues for a position of interpersonal ethics, as opposed to global ethics. Because women are emotional and men are logical. That one, that’s also a repeating canard.

You get a little bit of that in The 100, too. Arguably, though, Abby serves more as a Bones to Kane’s Spock, with Chancellor Jaha caught in the middle. But the dynamics between Clarke and Bellamy are quite different. Early on there’s a contrast between them, but the main axis of disagreement centers around adherence to the old social order. Questions of cruelty and compassion, when they surface, are argued based on the merits of the way things are done versus the possibility of building a new society from the ground up.

Clarke isn’t a typical cold, calculating, tough-decision-making character. Part of the impetus behind her character growth is the struggle of being thrust into a reality where the rules she learned to follow — the rules that protected her — no longer apply. In contrast, Bellamy is habitually lawless because the rules never protected him or his family, and the society he lived in taught him that it was built for people like Clarke.

Lexa, I suppose, is a more traditional cold character. She is a leader born and bred, after all. She has the kind of skills and, more importantly, charisma that allow her to give orders to warriors twice her age and have them followed, and she was raised in the same harsh environment that Clarke and the Arc people are struggling to adapt to. Her position as a warrior gives her practice in making killing choices, even when she is face to face with her enemy. As a leader, she has also developed the kind of social aloofness and emotional containment that Clarke lacks.

I often find myself trying to write the kind of cold women characters I so enjoy in the media that I consume. It’s a constant balancing game, trying to keep them on-point while at the same time giving the reader an opening to sympathize with them, or at least comprehend their motives. Writing a character like Clarke, who takes on the role though she lacks the corresponding temperament, is a challenge that I believe is still beyond me. Still, I keep looking to media to see what new and fantastic ways I can discover to expand this particular archetype.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth