Wednesday, December 7, 2011

An Everway Character

No use rambling, walking in the shadows, trailing a wandering star
"Pack Up your Sorrows," Richard & Mimi Fariña

This is the story of Raindrop. She rose from humble beginnings to respected status to the friend of dragons. Now she's out to right injustice in the spheres, even if it means confronting the gods themselves...

Some roleplaying games require you to have a good idea of your character before you can start. If you make a character for Dungeons and Dragons 3rd or 4th edition, you need a good idea of what you're going to do before you ever pick up a 20-sided die. Other games give you little or no control over what happens to your character. If you're playing Traveler, you get to make choices which influence the way they'll turn out, but not the specifics.

But there are games which take a middle approach. Here's one where coming up for the inspiration for a character is actually part of the process of character creation: Everway.

When you open Everway's box, you see something that looks like a game box, with slots for cards, and a character sheet that feels like it could be a game board (though it doesn't really act like one). I could go into the history of the game, but that's not supposed to be the thrust of this article. The nickel tour: It was put out by Wizards of the Coast before they bought D&D, when they were trying to produce a different roleplaying game.

The game has a New Age feel to it. Characters are described by their Fire, Water, Earth and Air skills, and rather than rolling dice, you draw cards from a "Fortune Deck," modeled on the Tarot, and filled with imagery of elements, planetary symbols, and gods and goddesses.

In Everway, your character plays a Spherewalker, who can travel from one fantasy world to another. It allows a lot of backgrounds, and a lot of freedom in character creation. It's also, unlike many games, a visually interesting process. If you learn the (fairly straightforward) system, you only need to look at a few beautifully illustrated cards when you're creating one, rather than flip through tons of rules and pages of charts.

I started out with no real idea for a character, and wound up with one I think is pretty interesting, just by following the steps in the Players Guide. This is how I made Raindrop.

The Vision Stage
The first setting, the GM sets the premise, and may ask for specific themes.  Since this was a solo design, I sort of skipped that, and assumed that it's going to be a "you meet in a tavern while wandering the Spheres" type of game. Then you select five cards you find appealing, and decide how you want them to relate to your character.

The first two I was drawn to had weird animals, so I decided to make the third a dragon, and the fourth a man surrounded by animals. Originally I had a very patchy story to connect them, which I'll spare you. Here's the refined version of what I decided each meant.

(Illustration by Hannibal King)
She was a tiny child, the illegitimate daughter of the duchess' housemaid. She was named Raindrop for both her small size and humble background. And she might have remained that way, except that one day the duke's fae-cat got loose from his coach, and young Raindrop managed to calm the mystic beast and bring him back safely.

(Janine Johnston illustration)
The Duke gave young Raindrop a job in his menagerie and she quickly became a respected member of the household staff. When she and the Duke's daughter were both teenagers, the duchess-to-be had her heart broken by a cruel prince. Raindrop gave her a box. "Cry into this and give it to me." The noble's grief did indeed go away, though for years afterward Raindrop found it hard to look at a boy. 

(Both Ian Miller illustrations)
When a dragon invaded the kingdom, Raindrop thought it, like the beasts she tended, might be lashing out since it was troubled. She sought out the wise and enigmatic imp known as The Toymaker, who told her of the curse the gods had imposed on the drakes. Raindrop used her talent to restore the dragon's speech at the cost of her own voice, but, touched by her kindness, the dragon returned her speech and left the realm in peace.

The final picture is not yet part of her story, though it could be. It represents taking on an epic,  gorgeous project, going on a quest to rid the realms of sorrow:
(Janine Johnston Illustration)

Notes: While I was looking through the cards, the folk song "Pack up your sorrows" got stuck in my head, and I decided Raindrop could do just that. Here's Judy Collins singing the song, if you don't know it:

Identity stage
I included parts of the Identity stage above, but I'll outline them here, rather than how I ultimately decided what they came to mean.

Name: While Everway allows any name, they encourage you to use common words. The example character in the book is Fireson. I chose Raindrop because it's a small item, but it can be part of something much bigger -- a nourishing shower to feed the crops, or a horrible deluge. It's a name with a lot of potential.

Motive: I chose "Authority," one of the listed motivations, even though it's not quite why she's wandering the planes. But part of it is "eager to bring justice" and I see her as eager to end suffering throughout the Spheres, which she thinks of as bringing goodness and justice. (You're supposed to play a hero in Everway; though possibly a flawed one. Raindrop really wants to do good.)

Virtue, fault and fate: These are three Fortune Cards. When they get drawn from the deck, it's probably significant to your character, much the way that in some games when you roll the exact number of your skill or a natural 1, it's meaningful to the character.

While these are normally chosen based on symbolic meaning, I was drawn to the Dragon as her Fate card for narrative reasons. In Everway, dragons once rebelled against the gods, and they were punished by losing some of their gifts. Some lost flight, some lost speech, etc. Raindrop's very annoyed that the gods would punish immortal beings for eternity; it offends her sense of justice.

Symbolically, the dragon represents "cunning." Reversed, it represents "blind fury." Raindrop is treading a dangerous, narrow road.

Her flaw was easy too: Striking the Dragon's Tail. She's prone to leap before she looks, not ask if maybe there's a reason bad things happen to people.

Her virtue was hard. I ultimately decided on "The Creator," which represents nurture. She started out caring for animals, and has only growns since then. And it is a fine, chutzpadik name for someone who will challenge the gods for perceived slights against others.

 If you're curious, here are my notes while I was working on her. You can see that the identity phase took up nearly half a page, compared to a few lines for the third phase, and a seven for the first phase:
Powers Phase
I liked the concept of a modified sin eating, so I chose that as Raindrop's big power. When someone else has a problem, she can take it on, no matter what the cause. I think it's an ability that can be used frequently in the game, is powerful, and allows a variety of different effects, it's a 3-point ability.

Raindrop is also entitled to a free power, something that is not likely to come up much or make a big difference in play. I choose "stable friend," meaning that domesticated animals naturally find her likeable (it would not keep a guard dog from attacking, but a merely curious dog would likely give her the benefit of the doubt).

Elements stage
There are four stats in the game, Fire, Water, Earth and Air, and what they symbolize represent the character's physical and mental attributes. A genius with her head in the clouds has a high Air and low Earth.  Someone who is full of Fire is energetic. I had 17 points to assign after powers.

Raindrop is Water 5; Earth 5; Fire 4; Air 3.

To use the book's adjectives, she's sensitive to strong energies; tough and energetic. (Her Air is average. I thought about lowering it to two and raising Water, but decided that might risk making her look Ditzy.)

You also get a Specialty for each element, something you're really good at. I chose "Animal empathy" for water, "Obstinacy" for Earth, "Herb Lore" for Air, and "Fiery Rhetoric" for Fire. Normally, that would be an Air specialty, since argument falls under that category, but because there's a Fire connection, she can put forth her causes as well as an expert promoter, even if she's average at most Air tasks.

Magic Stage
Raindrop doesn't use magic, as Everway defines it. I get to skip this.

Question Phase
This really requires play at the table, when players ask about characters to refine them. I actually tweaked Raindrop a bit from the original. This would give me a chance to refine her more.

Everway also suggests you define their possessions. Here are a few of the things she carries:
  • A loaf of bread, a hunk of cheese and a canteen of cheap wine, wrapped in a patterned cloth.
  • A wooden flute. (She can play simple melodies beautifully, but nothing too fancy)
  • Some sugar cubes, carrots, scraps of dried meat and other treats for animals
  • An elegant clockwork rabbit, which will hop and wiggle its ears when wound.
  • Some salves
  • A charm bracelet. Most of the charms are cheap copper, but one is an actual dragon's scale.
Raindrop doesn't carry weapons or armor; she's not a believer in violence, and Everway doesn't require them to be effective.

Here's what her final character sheet looks like:

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Okamiden, Day 19

The dog has got more fun out of Man than Man has got out of the dog, for the clearly demonstrable reason that Man is the more laughable of the two animals.
James Thurber 

The ending of Okamiden is all right; it's a bit of a let down after such an amazing game. I felt like it was trying too hard to set up Okami 3. Still, it's not too bad. 

Spoilers follow. 

Friday, August 5, 2011

Okamiden Diary, Day 18

And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting/ On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door
Edgar Allen Poe, The Raven

It took me a little longer to get to the boss fight with Akuro than I thought. First I had to rescue my colleagues, fight some lesser bosses and get some revelations. Now, I have to figure out how to defeat this guy. (I'm probably missing out on one of the ways to use the celestial brushes.)

I'll post my thoughts tomorrow.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Okamiden Diary Day 17

Little darling of mine, I can't for the life of me remember a sadder day
"Mother and Child Reunion," Paul Simon
I'm about 23 or 24 hours of play in, and I think I'm nearing the end, though I may be mistaken. (Also, I'm not really playing 80 or 90 minutes a day; I got large chunks in on the weekend, but smaller bits during the weekdays, and it averages out.)

A lot of really exciting stuff happened in today's play, but it was preceded by something less exciting but emotionally satisfying. I came into a room, and a demon sicced a  monster on me. It wasn't quite a boss battle, but it was tougher than most creatures. Anyway, once I finished, the demon thanked me, saying that the monster had been a pain in its side, and it was glad it was dead. That was a pleasant little twist. Yesterday, I said I didn't like boss battles for the sake of boss battles, but the demon's reaction turned a random fight into a memorable encounter.

Anyway, a ton of stuff happened afterward. Big stuff. Highly spoilery stuff. You've been warned.

The only real bad part of Okami was the beginning. Before you can begin playing, you need to sit through a 15 or 20 minute unskippable cut scene about events that happened 100 years before the game began; how everyone assumed that Shiranui, Chibiterasu's grand-sire, was evil until he sacrificed himself to save the hero Nagi from evil. Then they realized that he was actually an incarnation of Amaterasu. It's not a bad story, but it's never fun to do nothing whatsoever when playing a game.

Well, this part of the game takes place 100 years (and nine months) in the past, and we got to see this happen. Of course, Shiranui sacrificed himself trying to stop Akuro, this game's big bad, instead of Orochi, Okami's big bad. I'm not sure if this is because we've changed history, of the scrolls didn't quite have the full story. Either way, the wolf's sacrifice effective emotionally:

Poor Chibi. Sad little godling puppy.

Shiranui was unable to stop Akuro, but he was able to save his grandson and Nagi.

Then, soon afterward, we learn a nasty twist about who Akuro was. He's possessed Kuni, Chibi's first partner. (Or maybe created him as a vessel. I'm not totally clear.) And he explains how he's manipulated Chibi all along into killing the obstacles and acquiring the pieces he needs.

And then, Chibi summons help.
(Isshaku actually makes an appearance in Okami. He's that little blur in the bottom right of this picture.)

As I've said, it's tough to take good pictures of this game. I'll post a picture of Kagu which is, objectively crappy, but I like how the flash that unexpectedly went off makes it look like there's a spotlight behind her. It's appropriate for a child actress.

So this whole scene was effective. You have  pathos, betrayal, and the joy of seeing old friends. 

Tomorrow, I suspect, will be the final(?) showdown.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Okamiden Diary, Day 16

I know it is wet, and the sun is not sunny. But we can have lots of good fun that is funny.
Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat

I once ordered a salad at a restaurant, and was given what looked like a plain plate of lettuce: no croutons, no fancy veggies, no creamy dressing. I was disappointed, and about to reach for some oil and vinegar, but  decided to taste it first.

Each leaf was perfectly dressed; they might have looked like they had nothing on it, but they had just enough extra virgin oil and vinegar to coat them, offsetting the slight bitterness of the greens with a rich and slightly tangy flavor.

I was unimpressed when I started this night's Okamiden. The first part had what felt like an arbitrary, meaningless boss battle, which should be a contradiction in terms. You put bosses in because it's a climactic part of the game play, not because it's been too long since the last battle. And compared to some of the previous bosses, this one was boring. It was a plain dragon; not even a complete one, you just had to battle the head since the rest was buried in a pile of ice.

Then things got interesting. We found something else in a block of ice. Something lupine.

No, it's not Chibi's mother; it's his grandfather. I'm sorry I didn't get any good shots of them together, but if there's anything cuter than a little wolf god, it's a full grown wolf god and little wolf god interacting. I loved how calm they were about it. "Oh, it's my grandson who's traveled through time. Well, guess I can curl up and take a nap," Shiranui seems to say. I don't know if dogs don't worry about paradoxes, gods don't worry about paradoxes, or it's a combination that keeps them so cool.

So Chibi and his companion head to the Moon Cave to rescue the companion's mother. I started this entry talking about food, and when Chibi and Manpuku fall through a trap door, they almost become the base for a soup, but Manpuku drinks it all instead. It's a great cartoony moment.

Tonight, I also learned the story of why Manpuku had to give up his dog, which would be tragic if it wasn't so silly; saw a demonic chef get jealous of another talented cook; and saw Chibi try to get the overweight Manpuku to move somewhere he didn't want to go. That was also an awesome animation as the puppy wound up walking in place trying to push the child.

So what started out as a ho-hum evening turned into an excellent night.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Okamiden Diary, Day 15

About forty years ago, I made a short visit to the curè at Bregnier, a man of immense stature and who had a fearful appetite.
Though it was scarcely noon I found him at the table. Soup and bouilli had been brought on, to these two indispensables had succeeded a leg of mutton a la Royale, a capon and a salad.

 Brillat Savarin

A short entry, even though this session was rather plot-rich.

Kurow got a message, and left in a hurry. He looked rather sad when leaving:

After a minor quest, Chibi found his new companion, who calls him Pork Chop. For no particular reason, he can shoot fire out of his hair and walk past spikes. (The mermaid could swim underwater and shoot water from her hair, but that made sense, because she was a mermaid. Kurow could float, but he was a moon person. And Kagu had magic powers, to explain what she could do. Maybe I'll learn about why my new friend can do these things soon.)

Manpuku is on a quest to rescue his mother, Charity, who has been kidnapped by demons because a) he had eaten everything in the house and she needed to go out and find him more to eat; and b) she's a good cook and may be the one to prepare Orochi's meal. But there's a demon chef, Umami, who is working to make an even better meal. Let's hear it for names which are horrible puns.

At one point, to propel them around a puzzle, Pork Chop and his companion jump into cannons. It doesn't photograph well, but a closeup of a dog's butt sticking out a cannon is a really silly sight.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Okamiden Diary, Day 14

I'm gonna make it to heaven/ Light up the sky like a flame/ I'm gonna live forever/ Baby, remember my name
Fame, Irene Cara
A lot happened in the last couple of hours of game play. But before I get into the plots, I want to mention two scenes that I really liked. (Obviously, spoilers follow. You don't get so far into a game without them.)
The first was when Nanami and Chibi were riding around a ship on a quest. The actual quest annoyed me; it felt largely like filler, and most of the monsters weren't powerful enough to be challenging, so there was a bit of boring grind. But there was one scene where Nanami came to a pet shark in the ship's aquarium. "If you have a chance to escape, go for it!" she told him. Mermaids don't believe in cages apparently, which actually fits well into the mythology.

The other moment I really loved was when Kurow rejoined Chibi, and took him flying. Look how uncomfortable the dog looks:
The game really packs a lot of personality into 256x192 pixels. That is not a happy wolf. I understand that dogs today don't like riding airplanes either.

Anyway, the story is, like the first one, doing some strange time travel things. I started this session nine months in the past, at the time Ammy is fighting Orochi with Susano's help. We run into Susano, but only see the other two from a distance.

As in the first game, and a few times in this one, we have needed clever disguises to get past demons. In this case, it's a piece of paper worn as a mask (you decorate the mask yourself. It's hard to see, but I gave Kurow a smiley face. Chibi's, which is not yet on him, says "Woof!" 
After tricking the demons, and seeing Ammy fight Orochi (I'm a little bummed Ammy and Chibi didn't meet, but there's still time), they meet Akuro, who I believe is the big bad. He needs to bathe in the blood of a freshly killed Orochi to gain the ultimate power, which is why he went back in time. When Chibi and Kurow stops him, he asks who they are, says he will remember their name, and creates another time portal, which he jumps through, followed by our heroes.

So now Chibi and Kurow are 100 years in the past. (Technically, 100 years and nine months. It's a good thing Kurow's from the moon, that makes it much less likely he'll kill his own grandmother accidentally.)

What indignities will Chibi have to endure to get from point A to B next time? Tune in and find out.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Frank, Laurel and Necessity

It's bigger on the inside.
Basically everyone on Doctor Who wehen they enter the TARDIS.

When I first saw the master bathroom in Kentuck Knob, I thought that Frank Lloyd Wright had been rather parsimonious, only giving the family a shower instead of a bath. That was because most of the tub couldn't be seen behind the door; it's a full sized tub, with some good shelf space too.

Kentuck Knob was one of the last houses designed by Wright, who was 86 at the time. It was, for him, a partial job; he let the owners, the Hagen family (friends of the owners of the nearby Falling Water, install a fair amount of the furniture and do the landscaping. Mrs. Hagen in particular had a strong say, insisting that the kitchen be expanded (because she liked to cook and was worried about getting snowed in  (She also chose a very cool futuristic stovetop, where the burners folded away when not in use, and could be detached and plugged in elsewhere to used as a hot place for dinner parties.)

But Wright's style is still a major component. He had a strong visual theme, and kept it going throughout the house. For example, most things are hexagonal, including the skylights:

This really pays off when the sunlight hits the house, creating a cool pattern:

When the Hagens moved out, Lord Palumbo (Wikipedia informs me he is a baron; the tour guide used the honorific lord) purchased it to use as a summer home when he was here in the colonies. Then he decided to make it available for tours about 15 years ago.

In addtion to the fascinating home, there is also a lot of modern sculpture on the grounds. I think my favoirte pieces were a row of vintage British phone booths and a sculpture called Red Army. I'm not wild about the photos I took, but the artist has some nice ones on his website here.

Luarel Caverns\
The last cave I went to was Lurray Caverns in Shenendoah Valley. Laurel Caverns is rather different. for one thing, it's composed of an entirely different type of rock. While this means there are no stalagmites or stalactites (there were a handful, but early explorers broke them off and took them as souvenirs), you can also safetly touch the walls without fear that the oils in your hands will damage the delicate formations.

There are two ways to explore Laurel Caverns. You can take the short, guided, family friendly tour which goes down 17 stories along well marked paths. Or you can travel on your own (in a section that is still well explored), bringing your own light sources, climbing over boulders and crawling through some tight spaces. I chose the former.

The tour is really designed more for kids, but it was still pretty interesting. My favorite part was an optical illusion, based on the fact you lose your sense of direction when you can't see the horizon. But I also found the parts about early explorers interesting. In addition to taking samples, they graffiti-tagged a few sites to show how deep they went. They also named several of the rock formations, presumably to help fellow explorers. For example, they warned that when you came to this bird, you should head in the direction of his beak, because the other way was the Devil's Staircase, a 40-foot drop.

I don't know why the explorers were so keen  to go around the cavern.. The tour guide never mentioned any valuable minerals found in the area.

Laurel Caverns also features a cavern-themed miniature golf course which I didn't play on, but think is a cute idea.

Fort Necessity
While George Washington did many wonderful things for our country, it's a good thing he wasn't in charge of naming stuff. Otherwise I bet Washington D.C. would be called Capital City and the Declaration of Independence would be known as The Letter to King George.

Fort Necessity got his name because he thought his soldiers woudl need a fort to defend themselves from the French. Depending on who you believe, the French and Indian War started when the British ambushed a group of French soldies and massacred them, or when a group of British soldiers on their way to parley with the French were attacked as they approached.

Either way, the British made some boneheaded decisions. Washington signed a document agreeing that he had assassinated the French commander in that incident because -- get this -- it was written in French. Apparently Col. Washington had a mediocre translator, and the document was also wet and smeared. Later on, a group of Native Americans approached General Braddock, Washington's mentor, and said they were worried about the French encroachment to their territory, and were considering helping the British. Braddock cleverly replied that once they won the land would belong to England, and not a group of savages. Surprisingly, this didn't sway them to his side.

Washington recognized that where he had built the fort was actually a good location for trade, and purchased the land, believing it would be a good location for an inn. He never built one, but was instrumental in getting the National Road, the superhighway of the early 1800s, connecting Pennsylvania to the western states. Someone else built the Mount Washington tavern on the land in the 1830s.

My favorite moment at Fort Necessity was when I saw a deer. At first, since I was a little distance away, I thought it might be a golden retriever, because she (?) was wagging her tail and standing on the trail. I got about 50 feet away without her spooking, but she ran into the bushes as I turned on the camera. I guess she hadn't paid the admission fee for the park.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Drving through Pennsylvania

Beep beep, beep beep, yeah
The Beatles, Drive My Car

A few observations about my day driving through Pennsylvania:

Each rest stop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike has a different ice cream stand. (No, I didn't stop at all of them; I just noticed the signed.) One place had a gelato store; the one near Hershey, unsurprisingly, had Hershey's brand. 

The turnpike is a fairly scenic road, but the feature that I found most interesting were there windmills:
Partially, that's because I wasn't driving (it was one of the rest stops I did wind up at). Partially, it's because I had seen a farm with a field of solar panels a few miles earlier and was wondering if they were related in any way. The other thing I noticed about the Turnpike was that the posted speed limits were ignored even more than they are in New Jersey.

If you are ever in Mt. Pleasant, I recommend the Evergreen Drive-In, even if its website is a little chintzy. The prices are ridiculously low -- I think I paid $8 for a ticket, and that theoretically entitled me to a double feature (though I didn't stick around for Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon). They're very up front that they make their money off the concession stand, not the tickets, and encourage you to buy snacks there to keep them in business.

Sadly, I can't recommend the first half of the double feature, which was Captain America: The First Avenger. At its best, it's by-the-numbers. At its worse, it's incoherent. I'd give it a C, C-: watchable, but not worth full price. (My other choices were Cowboys Vs. Aliens, which has gotten very iffy reviews, and the Smurfs, which was just no.)

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Okamiden Diary, Day 13

Bluebird seas I sailed/ With mermaids riding whales/ Oh whistle round the world/ Oh whistle round the world/ I’m a little wolf inside a girl, you say
Ringo Biyori (Spice and Wolf closing theme), Rocky Chack

I've been saying that Okamiden takes place in ancient Japan. Now I can be more specific. It takes place sometime between the year 1000 and 1025. I know this because today I met an actual, historic figure, doing what I must therefore assume are actual historic things, despite some evidence to the contrary.

(Spoilers follow)

Actually, I didn't recognize the historic character. Instead, I recognized her creation, who materialized as a spirit thanks to a magical jewel:

Genji, I knew, was from a work called The Tale of Genji. It's one of those contenders for the very first novel. He was brought into existence by his author, Shikibu. Since Genji was written in the first decade of the 11th century and the author died in 1025, the game must take place then (or, since I'm traveling in time, some point in 1026.)

But I'm getting a little ahead of myself.

To get to Genji, Nanini and Chibi needed to enter a doll-house sized temple, which they did with the help of the Lucky Mallet, which lets you shrink things down to bug-size and bring them back to normal. I didn't mention it yesterday, but Nanini loved playing with it, shrinking and growing Chibi a few times before he got annoyed.

Once in the temple, you needed to go through an underwater side-scrolling level, a staple of video games since at least World 4 of Super Mario Brothers. I've always hated them, though I've played ones which were far more annoying than this one. At this point we arrived at the shrine with the magic jewel, but found a woman had been possessed by evil spirits. We saved her, and found out she was Shikibu. I'm not quite sure how a Japanese lady-in-waiting wound up in an underwater temple, but will assume that it was a common practice of the nobility of the time to shrink themselves to microscopic size and visit shrines you normally need a sea goddess to guide you to.

I will note that she looks nothing like the pictures on her Wikipedia article. None of those show an angry woman who feels her literary creation betrayed her by turning into a horn dog. And none of them wear some sort of dragonfish helmet.

While trying to help us, she accidentally summoned Genji. I've heard of the book, but never actually read it. From what I can gather, he's the Japanese equivalent of Don Juan. As you can see by his dialogue, he takes a shine to Nanini (who, judging by the cartoon hearts, thinks he's kind of cute too). He grabs her and runs off, and Shikibu advises you to find them while she gets the jewel ready to use.

What follows is an easy, but cute, game of hide and seek. In each room, after you find Genji, he grabs Nanini, looks for another good hiding spot, fails to find it, and heads to the next room. At one point there's some fourth-wall breaking, when he looks out the screen of the game -- and blows some kisses while he's at it. I'm curious how that would look on a 3DS. But when you finally corner him, you find out it wasn't necessary -- Nanini doesn't like being abducted, and is beating him up.

After that, we find the information we need, which concerns a character from the first game, Waku. Okamiden reminded me of some of his background, which is good. All I remembered about him when I started playing the game was that he and Ammy had a kind of friendly rivalry going throughout the game.

No game diaries for the next couple of days, because I'll be out of town.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Okamiden Diary, Day 12

Oooh, what does this button do?
Dee Dee, Dexter's Laboratory

I mentioned before that one of my favorite parts of the original Okami, which isn't in the sequel, is feeding animals. I was thinking of this as I helped several animals out while playing today, including a pig and a puppy. The new system lacks the zen appeal of the original, as you can see from this video:

In addition to helping animals, I learned what the strange device that Gen was working on was. Since I needed to travel back in time, I wasn't too surprised it was a time machine. Though it was a nice touch that I had the TV set to Doctor Who while that happened.

I was also overjoyed to see Gen was given another set of blueprints, which he enthusiastically called "dubious." 

A few of the highlights of tonight's session, because it's getting late here.
  • We've travelled back in time nine months. I wonder if that mean's Chibi's mother is going to make a cameo soon.
  • When Kurow hears that we need to conjure a sea queen to help us with our quest, his first question is "Is she hot?" I think he's a little precocious.
  • Since we have to go underwater, and Kurow not only can't swim but is hydrophobic, Nanini the mermaid is back. And I learned why she calls Chibi "Squiddy." 
  • I also noticed exactly how she rides the wolf puppy. I thought she had balanced on him like a seal would, but she actually turns her tail and essentially rides in a side-saddle position, which makes a lot more sense.
  • Ancient Japanese sailors aren't even curious when they pull children and wolf from the middle of the ocean.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Okamiden Diary, Day 11

Reunited and it feels so good/ Reunited 'cause we understood/ There's one perfect fit
Peaches and Herb

Okamiden is set less than a year after Okami, and in many of the same towns and environs. If I was cynical -- and normally I am -- I'd say it was because this let the artists reuse a lot of their assets, making the game cheaper to produce. But while playing today, I saw Chibiterasu raise a paw and attempt to reassuringly pat a distressed character. Who can be cynical when the puppy is trying to comfort you?

Instead, this is a great chance for them to reintroduce old characters. For example, Mr. Chic, a fashion designer, played a small role in the first game. You could get praise by helping him design clothing patterns with your brush. Well, he's back, with a shout out to the last game:

This time, he doesn't want your help, saying he's learned he needs to do things on his own. The cynic in me would say that the DS didn't have enough memory for another drawing mini-game. But a more generous interpretation is that an underlying theme of the game is the concepts of independence and dependence. After all, Chibi is much more dependent on his partners than his mommy was. (He's also more involved with them, if I remember correctly, Ammy was more indifferent to what her colleagues were doing.)

Anyway, this session, which was only about 20 minutes of play, had a lot in it. In addition to meeting our old friend Mr. Chic, I heard some words from an inventor you never, ever want to hear: "I found these blueprints in the old ruins." There is no way that can end well.

I also met a new enemy, Akuro, a super powerful demon, who mentioned that he'd be talking to some old enemies of Chibi. The thing is, those enemies were killed in the first game, which implies time travel. Now, I remember Okami had some time travel, but after four or five years I don't remember the details. We'll see what happens.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Okamiden Diary, Day 10

And very becoming her dress was. It was white velvet, without any other garniture than rich white lace worked with pearls across her bosom, and the same round the armlets of her dress. Across her brow she wore a band of red velvet, on the centre of which shone a magnificent Cupid in mosaic, the tints of whose wings were of the most lovely azure, and the colour of his chubby cheeks the clearest pink. On the one arm which her position required her to expose she wore three magnificent bracelets, each of different stones. Beneath her on the sofa, and over the cushion and head of it, was spread a crimson silk mantle or shawl, which went under her whole body and concealed her feet. Dressed as she was and looking as she did, so beautiful and yet so motionless, with the pure brilliancy of her white dress brought out and strengthened by the colour beneath it, with that lovely head, and those large, bold, bright, staring eyes, it was impossible that either man or woman should do other than look at her.
Barchester Towers, Anthony Trollope

As I said earlier, at first I didn’t like Kagu. I thought she was really bratty, and a spotlight hog. And when the main character of the game is a puppy with a magic paintbrush whose mother is the goddess of the sun, it should be pretty difficult to hog the spotlight. And, as I also mentioned, my opinion of her mellowed after she realized that her magic powers weren’t a bad thing she had to hide from the public, and decided to become a Miko (some sort of magical priestess thing). My opinion of her has changed yet again. This time I feel very sorry for her, after meeting a fan. (Again, apologies for the mediocre screen shots.)

There’s nothing wrong with telling a girl, especially a famous child actress, she looks cute. But then this fan went and turned it into creepy country:

“Maybe I’ll get lucky and a demon will attack me.” Ewww. She’s a little girl, City Dweller.

Kagu agrees with me. Look at her reaction, and her express. It's what I was thinking too.

While I don’t have any screen shots, there were some really wonderful things that happened in Yakushi Village. This is a place where you encourage people – and animals -- who seem restless to move. They give you praise, which is the game’s equivalent of experience points. Yakushi was founded by Dr. Red Beard. A better name for him would be Dr. Red Mustache, since he has giant red whiskers, but that’s neither here nor there.

One of the families which moved to Yakushi Village did so because their daughter, Ayame, was sick. So sick even the great Red Beard couldn’t cure her. In an earlier quest, Chibi and Kuni revived her spirit by getting someone to put on an inspirational fireworks display. But Ayame sickened again.

Fortunately, Kagu knew Dr. Red Beard’s cousin, who, due to his blue mustache, is known as Dr. Blue Beard. It’s a sign that the game creators have never heard of Gilles De Rais. His medicine, with his cousin, is enough to cure Ayame, and this is celebrated with another moving fireworks display. My favorite animation was when Ayame’s mother started crying tears of joy.

Then, to cap off time in the village, I got swindled by a tanuki disguised like a merchant. For those who don’t know what it is, a tanuki is either a) a raccoon-dog; b) some sort of mischievous spirit; c) the cool suit that Mario got in Super Mario Brothers 3. So I was cheated out of money by a raccoon dog. I suppose I should be angry, but that is too awesome for me to stay mad.

And later in this play session, I got to use my lightning powers like a defibrillator, and simultaneously help a ghost pass on to the next world.

The game can be really interesting when you’re not fighting monsters. Not that the combat is bad, but the imagery in the rest of the game is amazing.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Okamiden Diary Day 9

I just can't imagine that you've ever been gone! It's not starting over, it's just going on! 
"Together Again," The Muppets Take Manhattan

Boss fights are fun to play (assuming it's a well designed boss) but not necessarily fun to right about. That seems to be the case with one I just fought, against a monster known as King Fury.

Normally I try to pad this by making interesting, non-spoilery observations, but I'm drawing a blank, so I'll just put in a cut. If you clicked on this from some link, you probably knew what to expect. If not, read on.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Okamiden Diary, Day 8

Fiona: Nibblonians to Nibble stations. Prepare cuddle bug for deployment in 40 nibblets.
Nibbler: Sometimes I fear we are cute.

Futurama, "The Day The Earth Stood Stupid"

A quick check around the Internet reveals that there's no easy way to get screen captures off a DS game. I found three possible options. One was to get a device which hooks up a DS to a TV, which can get screen captures. There are a few problems with this option: a) The device wasn't ever sold in the U.S.; b) the device was built for the original DS, and I have a DSi XL, so I don't know if it would work or even fit; and c) the device is no longer made. Another technique is to buy a specially designed video camera that fits on the top screen and records your game. The problems with this one are a) again, this was built for the original DS; b) the camera covers the top screen, making it impossible to play any game which uses it; c) since it's apparently a low resolution camera, the pictures may not be great. A third technique I found was to buy a developer's kit. This too has numerous problems, but for me the biggest one is that it's several thousand dollars. That isn't much if you're planning to design an actual game, since presumably you'd be hoping to make more than that in profit. But it isn't really economically feasible to just take screen captures of a game or two that you like. 

So I continue to take my screen captures of the game using a camera. Since playing the game requires two hands normally -- one to hold the DS, one to use the buttons and/or stylus, I can't take photos unless there's a time when there's no gameplay. And since those are often animated scenes where a lot is happening, it's hard to get a good picture, since everything is moving. (Plus, I want to keep an eye on the game screen, rather than my camera's screen.)

As a result, a lot of the photos I've gotten don't really do the game justice. I'll miss the perfect picture and need to settle for good enough; or I'm moving the camera and the image is blurry.And certain angles show the granularity of the DS, something you don't notice as much when playing on it.

I suppose this means you should get the game and play it for yourself. That's the only way to really do it justice. 
This is a preface to tell you that as soon as I realized what I was doing wrong yesterday, things got incredibly awesome. And also totally adorable.Some of this material is worthy of a site like Cute Overload or the Daily Squee. For example, consider this photo.

Warning: I'm about 12-14 hours into the game now. Spoilers follow. Adorably cute spoilers.

 It's a puppy typing on a computer!

Let me make it clear this is not the best shot of the puppy banging on the keyboard. There was one where Kurow (the blond boy) batted him away from the buttons, saying he didn't know what he was doing. And there's another when the computer crashes and Chibi bangs away furiously, beads of worry sweat flying off him.

Let me back up a few seconds. Yesterday I said I was worried I was missing something obvious, and I was. You had to draw a certain pattern to get past one door, and I'd been drawing it wrong. I thought I'd been drawing it correctly but missing a key item needed to continue. Once I got the pattern correct, the rest of the ruin exploration went smoothly.

We found the computer room and got some useful information off it. Later on, we found a pair of wings that Kurow could wear; they make it look like he had a flower on his back.

And the first time we tried to use them, we got blown completely off course. We wound up back in one of the old locations. And there was another great psyche out, where you thought an old character had returned but it was a dream sequence.

Then we had to fight an old boss, a giant witch queen who ran a demon market. To the game's credit, this wasn't a rehash of the previous fight; it was a totally different mini-game.

(I'm trying to avoid summarizing, because there's other places you can go for that. This is my impressions.)

Anyway, to make a long story short, we learned the techniques needed to get to the cloud, and learned a new brush technique, how to manipulate lightning. As I've said before, the animals who give you these are children of celestial constellations, and almost as cute as a puppy operating a computer. This is the tiger cub who game me the power of lightning:

I think it's the little rounded ears that make it so successful.That really does make it look like a baby tiger. Here is a video of one if you need an example.

And with the new powers he gave me, I'm ready to face a boss battle. My reports on that tomorrow.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Okamiden Diary Day 7

You spin me right round, baby, right round like a record, baby. Right round round round
Dead or Alive, You Spin Me Around

I'm not sure I like the layout of these spaceship ruins very much. I spent something like half an hour trying to figure out how to get past an electrified barrier. I backtracked to see if there was something I might have missed. I looked at the rooms where I had to solve a puzzle to get through, and replayed the puzzles when possible to see if something noteworthy happened. I left the dungeon and explored the environment around it to see if I'd missed anything (I had, but it was just a chest with a small treasure, not a much needed clue.)

Finally, I realized it was a matter of perspective. There was one room where you have to climb up and down a series of stairs. And what I thought was a dead end by this barrier actually had a staircase leading down. I'd been staring at it for 15 minutes and hadn't realized I could use it. I suppose it's possible that it was just confusing to look at, so I'm going to blame the game designers rather than admit the possibility I'm an idiot who doesn't know what stairs look like.

Also, as is appropriate since I'm getting somewhere in the game, the monsters are no longer pushovers. They're not really tough, but you can no longer be completely careless in the fights. If nothing else, many of the creatures in this board have an ability that paralyzes you for a few seconds, which prolongs the fight at best.

Fortunately, things got interesting soon after I figured out how stairs work. For one thing, I learned a new celestial brush technique -- one which had no analogue in the first game. And it was from the trippy sort of creatures I'd come to expect. I haven't been really happy with the photos I've been taking. In this case, my camera software acted up during the scene I really wanted to capture. But I'll show you my distant second choice.

Chibi is being greeted by two baby whales with yin-yang symbols on their blowholes. The two whales speak in rhymes. And their parent is really impressive; huge and imposing and majestic. These two young whale-gods give Chibi the power of magnetism. Now, I admit that my knowledge of Japanese mythology is very sketchy, but I don't think that the gods were known for their amazing ability to create Tesla coils.I may be misremembering the original Okami, but I don't think it was quite as anachronistic.

Still, it's a cute ability. There have been puzzles where you need to manipulate charged balls, attracting or repelling them from each other.

Unfortunately, I've come to another spot I don't quite know how to advance from. Maybe I'm missing something obvious again. We'll find out tomorrow.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Okamiden Diary, Day 6

Look, out the window! A fire truck! I've seen drawings of fire trucks in my picture books, of course, but how could I have ever known how pale and insignificant those crude representations were in comparison to the real thing! Fire truck! Oh, great God in heaven, fire truck! This has got to be the most moving of mankind's creations, and perhaps of nature's, as well.

As today's quote suggests, the session I played today is guaranteed to appeal to your inner five year old. There are no fire trucks, but there are plenty of other awesome things. Seriously, in a couple of paragraphs, what I'm going to say sounds exactly like the story you'd here from a five-year-old boy.

But, to give some warning to people who are coming here because they Googled "drawings of fire trucks" and don't want to know what happens in Okamiden's plot, I'll start out by saying I actually died when playing the game today. That was the first time it's happened to me. I got careless when fighting some monster who can not only shoot lightning, but disassemble himself and spin around to create whirlwinds. I'm a little surprised; I remember Okami was very forgiving, and this game had been too, so far.

Also, all of my screen shots were mediocre. Here's the best one from today, with the explanation below. As Dave Barry says, I am not making this up.

Okay. So Chibi and his new pal Kurow are in ancient Japan, and they're looking at ruins because a pretty lady who was exploring them is sad that she ran away when monsters attacked it, and her friend is there, and Kurow likes the lady because she's pretty. But before they can get to the ruins, they learn that the bulldozers which are digging it up are cursed by demons! And they have to fight the demons and make the bulldozers work again. And then they get to a cliff, but Kurow can fly over the cliff and Chibi can make a vine to get to Kurow. And they enter the ruin and Kurow sees a spaceship and tells Chibi that it's his, and it's from the moon, and he's from the moon, and he was told to go Earth and wander around and he'd learn what to do and he's been having a real good time on Earth so far. So now the wolf and the boy from the moon are exploring the space ship ruins and they're fighting tough monsters.

Tune in tomorrow to see what happens next.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Okamiden Diary, Day 5

“Ah!” there sat the dog, with the eyes as large as teacups, staring at him.
“You’re a pretty fellow,” said the soldier, seizing him, and placing him on the witch’s apron, while he filled his pockets from the chest with as many pieces as they would hold. Then he closed the lid, seated the dog upon it again, and walked into another chamber, And, sure enough, there sat the dog with eyes as big as mill-wheels.

Hans Christian Andersen, "The Tinder-Box"

Yesterday, I complained that Chibiterasu seemed somewhat overshadowed by Kagu. I can now take that back. In my latest play, the pooch has shown he's got lots of personality.

While there's several things I'd like to talk about, I'm rather tired. So let's just show a couple of pictures and put in a paragraph or two.

Oilers-spay ollow-fay

As you may recall, my goal was to make trees bloom, but Kagu and I were interrupted by a super tought monster. When Chibi tried to attack him, the monster, King Fury, knocked him out. Look at his expression. He's got tons of personality even while unconscious. (Had I taken this a second earlier, he'd have had stars circling his head).

Later -- and I'm leaving out some interesting stuff, including a wonderful psych-out -- he and Kagu separate, but he meets a new friend. And he reacts to the friend by scratching himself. Because he's not impressed by what he's hearing. Or he itches. Or both. (His mother did that too, it's a family trait.)

Kurow, incidentally, has a similar problem to Kagu. She thought she was an X-Man in a fairy tale land. Kurow is quite open that he has a mysterious superhero background, coming from a meteor that crashed into some ruins. I think Kurow believes he's one of the Avengers. While the meteor background suggests Superman, the blond hair and way he twirls a flute like it's a hammer make me think of Marvel's Thor,

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Okamiden Diary Day 4

To look at Montmorency you would imagine that he was an angel sent upon the earth, for some reason withheld from mankind, in the shape of a small fox-terrier.  There is a sort of Oh-what-a-wicked-world-this-is-and-how-I-wish-I-could-do-something-to-make-it-better-and-nobler expression about Montmorency that has been known to bring the tears into the eyes of pious old ladies and gentlemen.
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men In A Boat

The little girl on Chibiterasu's back is Kagu. The blue monkey with the paper mask over his face is a demon. But he's not an evil demon; he's just a merchant who will sell you things like bones (which replenish the dog's health) or ink (which will replenish the ink for the celestial brushes). But I don't really want to talk about the demon, who gets one line, but about Kagu, Chibi's partner for a decent chunk of the game.

Kagu, who calls Chibi "Pooch" is a child actress. It's gone to her head just a little bit; she's bossy and rather vain. But she's not a total brat; she wants to help people.

I feel bad for her for two reasons. One, her hair seems pretty tough to manage. I know it's hard to tell from a photo of a DS screen. but it's got an elaborate braid, with a very long, thin strand on the back that's interwoven with pink flowers. (It's in the upper right of the shot.) Also, she mistakenly thinks she's in a different game than she actually is.

(As I said yesterday, potential spoilers ahead. But you should continue reading anyway, for such great phrases as "toilet demon" and "giant kabuki puppets.")

Kagu has magic powers. She can create lightning, lift heavy objects with her mind, and use this power to drive out demons. Unfortunately, she thinks she's in an X-Men game, where everyone will treat her as some sort of mutant pariah if they find out. However, she actually lives in a fantasy medieval Japan, where people love the idea of little girls with the power to exorcise demons, especially when demons have taken over her parent's theater. Fortunately, after using her powers to save them, and getting the approval of a priestess, she realizes that the ability to shoot lightning at monsters is a very, very cool ability.

Kagu and Pooch meet several interesting demons while going through the possessed theater. My favorite, who I was unable to get a good photo of was the Toilet Demon. He wasn't a living latrine, just an ordinary demon who locked his prisoners in a toilet stall. (Did they have toilet stalls in ancient Japan? This one was on the second floor, which implies decent plumbing, or a garderobe.)

Another cool demon is the prop spirit. You don't need to fight him, just help him fix his broken props so his bosses won't be made at him. Here he is revising his opinion of humans after being helped by Chibi's magic brush.

His bosses are a turtle and a crane who think they are wonderful actors, and possess giant kabuki statues to fight you. The fight was a little tough for me because I misunderstood the mechanics and wound up wasting ink and time, but I defeated them.

After they've been beaten, Kagu goes out to correct the ills, great and small, in the rest of the city, armed with a new dress a priestess gave her. At the moment, my quest has gone from fighting demons who possess giant puppets to making cherry trees blossom.

I notice this entry is mainly about Chibi's partner and not the wolf himself. Though he does one or two interesting things, and saves her a few times. I don't know if the scenes are Kagu-centric or she's just got one of those personalities that takes over the screen, like so many child actors do.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Okamiden diary, days 1-3

No, no, Lord Byron, before I'll believe that this Assyrian was actually like a wolf I must have some kind of proof;
Did he run on all fours and did he have a hairy tail and a big red mouth and big white teeth and did he say Woof Woof?

Ogden Nash, "Very Like A Whale"

On Saturday, I began playing Okamiden. So far it's a good game, though hardly perfect. But while playing, I kept running across moments I wanted to share. After all, it's a game that involves -- so far -- puppies, drawing, mermaids, giant toads who eat too much fruit deluded catfish who can swallow a man whole, and child actors. (It's likely this post, and others, will contain spoilers. But I'll put a warning when they come.)

Okamiden is the sequel to Okami, a game which initially came out for the Playstation 2 in 2006. I played it then (or maybe some time in 2007) and really enjoyed it. "Okami" roughly translates as "Wolfie" Some research on the interweb tells me that in Japan, Okamiden has a subtitle, and the full translation might be something like "Wolfie's legend: the little sun." In other words, it's a diminuation of an already diminutive name. Here are the boxes for both games.

The original Okami was beautiful. and I don't mean "beautiful for the time." Screen resolution, polygon count and anti-aliasing have very little to do with how good a game looks. Rather than trying for realism, the creators made it look like classic Japanese prints. It tells the story of Amaterasu, a sun goddess who comes to earth in the form of a white wolf. In addition to her divine weapons, she is armed with a celestial brush, which allows her to draw and alter the environment. She uses this power in the game to do things like repair broken machines, bring water out of a lake to extinguish fire, or cause wilted flowers to bloom again. (Since the game involves drawing, a version for the Wii was made, since the Wii-mote is a more natural brush than the PS2 controller). Throughout the game, Amaterasu is accompanied by Issun, a flea-sized artist who provides the commentary. The game tells a rather convoluted plot about fighting an ancient multi-headed dragon and his minions, and re-enacting events of a century before.

The gameplay is not particularly challenging if you're used to video games. But it's worth it for the story. There's some really funny scenes. (Issun is great comic relief, calling the sun goddess who has come to save the world "Ammy" or "furball." Almost everyone else calls her "doggy," so it's almost respectful.) There's also a lot of touching moments. In addition to fighting monster, Ammy goes around trying to help people and animals. There's something very zen about watching her offer grains to some birds, and seeing them eat it as peaceful music plays in the background.

Okami told a rather complicated story, about fighting a giant evil multi-headed serpent, events repeating themselves from a century ago, Issun's quest to become recognized as a great artist and lots of weird things. Honestly, I'd forgotten much of it by the time I started Okamiden, though I remember enjoying it.

The sequel takes place nine months after the first game, and involves Ammy's son, Chiberatsu. If I understand Japanese -- and I don't -- that name translates as "Cute Little Sun God." It's made for the DS, and the graphics are almost as good as the original version despite the smaller screen and weaker processor. It still looks like an artist's print come to life. The DS isn't quite up to the task -- sometimes the game slows down when there are a lot of enemies, and there are frequent, though very short, loading screens -- but it's 95 percent there. For the most part, it's a pleasure to play, and the fact one of the major mechanics is drawing things works well with a game system that uses a stylus.

I'm not going to go into depth about mechanics or all the plot. You can get that information from or some other site. These are just the details of the game which really appealed to me.

I plan to update this diary daily, until I win or I get bored, though if I only play for a few minutes one day I may not bother. With that out of the way, here are my impressions.

Potential spoilers ahoy.

Okami had a character named Susano. He started out as comic relief, but by the end of the game he had really matured. I was very impressed to see in this one that his new attitude has remained. It's always annoying when you see a sequel and everyone reverts to their old habits. But he does something that is both in character and touching for his adopted son.

Because Chiberatsu is just a pup, he needs to travel with companions. His first is Issun, but he's just around for what amounts to the tutorial. The second is Susano's son Kuni. Kuni calls Chibi "Mutt," saying he's not sure whether the pup is a dog or a wolf. The second companion, a mermaid, calls him "Squiddie," and the third "Pooch." Each time the little deity looks very, very sad.

In Okami, constellations came to life to give Ammy new brush powers (because these were celestial powers). In this one, the children of constellations help Mutt out. The original were funny, such as the mouse who carried a giant sword. These are also great; the three mice children come running out of the scabbard.

About the mermaid: the animation of her riding around on the dog's back is adorable. The boss they fight, a catfish who thinks he's a carp, is hilarious.

A wonderful touch: when Chibi is with a companion and comes to a sign or something else to examine, the companion reads the words on the sign, or explains what they're looking at. If the puppy is alone, he just cocks his head, whimpers, and looks confused. Apparently having the power to make plants bloom, cause the sun to rise, or create bombs out of thin air doesn't help you read. Surprisingly, this makes a lot of sense. He's a little puppy; why should he be able to read.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Bright with sinuous rills

We are stardust/ Billion year old carbon/ We are golden/ Caught in the devil's bargain
Joni Mitchell, "Woodstock" *

I have finally gotten a chance to plant some vegetables in the garden. It's nothing amazing, just some tomatoes, pepper, squash, and herbs, but I've very happy I finally did it. Here's a picture of the basil growing. It was one of the more mature looking plants I transferred, so that's why I chose it as the photographic subject.:
I actually started working on the garden a few weeks ago. We didn't really use it last year, and a bunch of weeds and seedlings had started to grow in the plot, so a little more than a month ago I cleared it out. with the intention of picking up some plants in the next few days and starting it up again.
Then things kept happening. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I kept procrastinating. And before I knew it, Memorial Day weekend had come and summer was officially here.

And, needless to say, I had forgotten almost entirely about the garden at this point. Fortunately, my father was on his way to pick up some plants, and asked if I'd like to go with him and pick out some vegetables. I said "give me 15 minutes, I just want to make some progress in the game."

The game I was playing is called Rune Factory Frontier. I'd bought it a couple of years ago, played it for a while, and then gotten distracted. But it was a quiet weekend, and I had nothing planned for that morning, so I figured I would restart. It was only as I was saving the game that I realized the main activity in Rune Factory is gardening. It's one of those strange Japanese games where you spend most of your time planting crops, talking to people, and trying to form relationships with some of the ladies who you meet. You also travel to strange dungeons, such as the one in your neighbor's yard, or the one on a giant whale-shaped island. But fighting the monsters in the dungeon is really a secondary part of the game; it's not something you think about until you've harvested turnips or strawberries or whatever the season's crops are. In fact, part of the reason to fight monsters is so you can domesticate them on your farm, or clear away magic soil in the garden where you can grow more vegetables. Here's what the game looks like (though the version I play is in English):

Anyway, I put aside the virtual garden, temporarily, for the real one. I'm sure it's good soil, because I had to practically re-weed everything. Stuff wants to grow there. I know this sounds stupid, but I always forget how dirty dirt is. Most of my life doesn't involve interacting with soil, and it's strange to run your hands under the sink when you're done and see the water darkening as it washes the grime away.

But I am now looking forward to summer vegetables, which I will enjoy as I play video games.

* (When double checking the lyrics to this song before posting, I realized that Joni Mitchell and Crosby Stills Nash and Young have slightly different choruses. Mitchell doesn't mention the fact we are ancient carbon until the last verse, whereas CSNY points it out in each chorus. She only points out we are stardust and golden. I don't know if that significantly changes the meaning of the song or not.)

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A good vampire novel

I am the terror that flaps in the night. I am the lollipop that sticks in your hair. I am Darkwing Duck.
Darkwing Duck

I always bring several books with me when I travel. This trip, the one that I've been reading is The Vampire Genevieve by Jack Yeovil. It is set in the Warhammer universe, which means I would normally never read it, because while I love roleplaying games, I've found 99 percent of the fictional tie-ins to be complete and utter crap. But I decided to give these a chance for one reason: I discovered that Jack Yeovil is a pseudonym for Kim Newman.

Sometime in the 1990s I read a great trilogy called Anno Dracula, by Newman. If you enjoyed The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, you'd love this. The first book is set in a Victorian England, where Van Helsing has failed to kill Dracula, and the Count turns Queen Victoria into his bride and takes over the British empire. In addition to Dracula, it's got Fu Manchu, Moriarty, Jack the Ripper, Dr. Jeckyl, Gilbert and Sullivan, and many other real and unreal characters. And one of the main characters is a vampire named Genevieve.

A couple of months ago, I learned that Newman had first written about her for Warhammer, and liked the character so much he used her in a non-Warhammer book.

The Vampire Genevieve collects Newman's novels written in the Warhammer universe. For those who don't know, it's not quite a standard D&D-esque fantasy world. It's got a heavier influence from Michael Moorcock and H.P. Lovecraft. It's sometimes described with the phrase "grimdark." It's very clearly set in Europe with the serial numbers filed off. For example, Genevieve was turned into a vampire 600 years ago, when she was a teenager in the land of Bretonia, which is very obviously Brittany.

The prologue of the book opens with Genevieve and a group of heroes on a quest to slay the evil archfiend. This immortal wizard had killed her father when she was still a mortal, and the prince who recruited her thought she would go along on their quest for vengeance. However, that didn't interest her; she knew he'd have been dead six centuries even if the big bad hadn't gotten him. Then the prince appeals to her need for something interesting and a change of pace, and she finds that a reasonable excuse to go adventuring.

Against great odds, they defeat the wizard. The main action in this story takes place 25 years later, and involves writing a play. I was rather happy to see that. In a world where the dark gods of chaos and destruction threaten humanity daily, it's nice to see a story about actors. Of course, the play is about the events of a quarter century before, and horrible deaths start happening during the rehearsals...

The second story also involves plays. That play is clearly Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, though the names are given a Slavic twist. It also involves a phantom of the opera, who is much more disturbing that just a guy in a mask.

Another involves what I can only describe as a soap opera performed by a twisted version of the Adams Family. Yet another involves unicorn hunters, blackmail, and assassination attempts.

What I respect about the heroine is that she does not sparkle. She isn't quite the classic vampire that turns to ash in the sunlight, but she doesn't angst about how horrible it is to have the strength of 20 men, or never grow old. She can be a crazed, unpleasant killer, but she isn't always the nastiest thing in the room. Some men do fall wildly in love with her, but others are indifferent, and her relationships tend to be complex.

So this book is definitely a good vacation read. It's got lots of action and excitement, but it's also got nods to classics and cultural references.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Water water everywhere

What do they got? A lot of sand. We've got a hot crustacean band.
"Under the Sea," The Little Mermaid

As I wrote last time I was in Florida, even though I live five minutes from the ocean in New Jersey, it doesn't tempt me. Today, I swam in both the gulf and a hotel swimming pool. Why I actually want to get in the water while on vacation, and not when it's nearby, I can't say.

I was at Delnor-Wuggins Pass State Park, (If you're wondering about the name, I think that the beach is named after a Delnor, and the pass is inamed after a Wiggins. There was a plaque just off a parking lot explaining it, but I didn't really look at it too closely.) which is very pretty, as you can see:

 The water isn't quite crystal clear, and there were a few leaves and dead bugs floating in it, but it was still pretty clean, and a nice shade of green. When I entered it, I rushed in because I thought it would be best to immerse myself in the chilly water immediately, but it turned out to be surprisingly warm. 

I was at Delnor beach to celebrate my aunt's 85th birthday, and it was a wonderful event, but I don't want to talk about it too much on a blog anyone can read, just in case some relatives or people at the party don't want names and details put where anyone can see them. (Not that I have anything bad to say.) I will note, since the conversation has come up several times in the last few days, that she is not technically my aunt, but great-aunt. I have decided I prefer to refer to relatives as "aunt/uncle" or "cousin," instead of "fourth cousin three times removed" or "former uncle-in-law." 

Following the party, I returned to the hotel, where, with more relatives, I went into the pool. That too was surprisingly warm. I suppose it's something to do with the fact the temperature is in the 80s most days of the year and the pool is in sunlight a large amount of the time is what makes it so comfortable.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Off we went into the wild blue yonder

(Homer's thoughts) Oh, glory of glories. Oh heavenly testament to the eternal majesty of God's creation. (Out  loud) Holy macaroni!
Homer Simpson, Treehouse of Horrors VI

I had several conversations today about how friggin' cool a smart phone is. Here's a picture I took with my smart phone, that I suppose I could have taken with any digital camera. However, I wouldn't normally have had a camera in my pocket at that moment:

In the past, my camera would have been in my luggage. But since my phone is also my music player, I had it while I was looking out the window at 30,000 feet.

For some reason, most travellers I know don't like the window seat. They prefer the convenience of being able to stretch whenever they want, and not needing to ask others to move so they can use the restroom. But, perhaps because I fly so infrequently, I like looking out the window. There's something amazing about looking at the roofs of buildings, then broad patches of land, then seeing clouds and the shadows they cast, and finally reaching the height where the clouds look like a strange all-white landscape. At one point we flew through a thunderstorm, which did generate a little turbulence, but also made a fascinating viewing experience. The sky darkened and it seemed like we were driving through fog. 

Everything about air travel except the actual flying is, at best, annoying, and at worse uncomfortable. I don't feel more secure because I was asked to take off my shoes. I don't think that giving out 20-cent packages of pretzels or some other minor snack was really bankrupting the airlines, and they should resume that practice. I don't know why they think someone should pay them $8 extra to watch episodes of CSI Miami on a tiny screen.

But the flying itself wants to make you say holy macaroni.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

I'm leaving on a jet plane

THE GREAT problem is at length solved! The air, as well as the earth and the ocean, has been subdued by science, and will become a common and convenient highway for mankind. The Atlantic has been actually crossed in a Balloon! and this too without difficulty-without any great apparent danger-with thorough control of the machine-and in the inconceivably brief period of seventy-five hours from shore to shore! 
Edgar Allen Poe

Tomorrow, I embark on my first notable trip since last year, and what I think is my first time leaving the state since I went to New York City in January. I really need to get out more.

It's not a long trip, just a long weekend in Naples, Florida. This time, instead of driving down like I did last year, I'm taking a plane, which makes a lot more sense for a four-day trip. Because I liked being thoroughly connected during my last trip, I've decided to bring a laptop again. However, the laptop I took with me last time was a 17-incher with a full keyboard, and is rather heavy. It was great when I could throw it in the trunk of my car, but not if I have to fit it into a suitcase. So I picked up a cute little netbook. (I'd have picked up a tablet, but I really like having a keyboard.)

I was planning to throw the netbook in my suitcase, but now I'm not sure if I can or not. This "helpful" page from the TSA tells me, with capital letters DO NOT pack laptops in checked baggage. Later, when giving tips on checked baggage, it suggests you should "LABEL your laptop computer." So I'm throwing my computer in my backpack, and hoping it's not too much of a pain to get through security.

I hope an extra weight in my backpack is the worst thing I experience at Newark tomorrow.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Number nine. Number nine. Number nine.

How long till my soul gets it right? Can any human being ever reached that kind of light?
Indigo Girls, "Galileo"

I have just finished playing 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors, an interactive novel/adventure horror game. I knew that it was my kind of game when one of the characters used the phrase "saponification." For those who don't feel like Googling it, saponification is the the process through which fat is transformed into wax or soap. In the conversation the characters were having, they were talking about it happening in to a human corpse, which keeps it from decaying.  (Wikipedia tells me this form of saponification is known as adipocere, but the game doesn't get into that level of distinction). Later in the game was another esoteric word, which I can't mention without giving away a major plot point. I bet that sort of conversation never crops up in Kirby, Pokemon or your typical DS game. 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors is a horror game, and it does have some gruesome imagery and blood, but it's also got existentialism, strange conspiracy theories, shout outs to Kurt Vonnegut, and some beautiful literate imagery.

For those unfamiliar with the game genres, an interactive novel is something like a choose your own adventure series on a computer, with pictures, sound and some minimal animation to go with the words. You go through a story, and at certain points you have to make a decision, which will both affect which future decisions you have to make, and the ending of the story. Because of this, they have a fair amount of replay value. Adventure games, strangely, don't involve adventuring. They involve solving puzzles. 999 weaves these together.

If you want a demo, you can go to the game's website. That "M" on the box means the game is meant for adults, so if you're under18 you'll need to lie to play it. The demo is somewhat different than the real game, but gives you some of the flavor of the introduction.

The story is told from the point of view of Junpei, a young college student. One day, he comes home to his apartment and finds a mysterious man in a gas mask, who quickly tranquilizes him. Junpei wakes up in the crew quarters of a ship, with a locked door, with a bracelet with the number '5' locked on his wrist. Then the window breaks, and the room starts filling up wirh water. He must figure out how to get out of the room, solving a series of puzzles to do so. (Don't worry, you can't die during the puzzle solving sections.)

Once Junpei escapes the room, he discovers eight other people on the ship, each wearing a bracelet with a different number. One of them is a girl he went to grade school with, and hasn't seen for years, but discovers he still has a crush on. The others include a giant man with amnesia, a woman in her 40s who is wearing far too little clothing, a blind man and his pink-haired sister, and several others.

The group hears over a loud speaker that they were brought here by Zero, to play the Nonary Game. Different rooms on this ship have different numbers, and there are rules for how the group must go through.
If they can find the correct door, they can escape. If they can't the ship will flood. The group needs to figure out what to do. But quickly someone dies, and the tension ratchets up. Why were they brought here? Who is Zero and what does he want with them? Can they escape with their lives?

As I said, each play-through gives a totally different experience.

The first time I played it, I was in a game filled with conspiracy theories -- about whether the Titanic ever really sank, about whether a mummy could exist, if scientists had perfected the Ice-9 that Vonnegut wrote about (ice which doesn't melt until it's 96 degrees). There were several other out-there theories. When I played that version, I didn't like the one character who struck me as cold, manipulating, and possibly in on the conspiracy. Also, I died rather horribly at the end.

Fortunately, I could play it again, armed with what I had learned the first time. (The game lets you fast forward through text you've already seen, but not puzzles, so if you play it several times, you'll need to keep escaping from the same rooms.) It let me correct a few choices I'd made before. And I learned something about the character I didn't like which made me now think of them as a poor victim, clearly not part of the mystery. Plus, this ending was different, with multiple people dying horribly in totally different circumstances.

I played it a couple of more times, trying to build on what I had learned. (One of the times I died, I said to myself "so that's what that puzzle represented.") Then, I looked up how to get the "good" endings, with the best possible solutions.

I don't want to spoil it for anyone who's planning to check it out. I found the ending very satisfying. Strange, but effective.

Sometimes you need to read a book multiple times to appreciate the details. In this case, you see different parts of the book each time you play the game. I like the effect.