Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Cave

I’ve been waiting for the new Double Fine game for quite a while, although not as yearningly as I waited for Torchlight 2. The Cave promised me a fun game, with puzzles, with several characters to choose from, with the Ron Gilbert humour of one of my favourite games of all time, Day of the Tentacle. (Where, by the way, is the new Special Edition for this one?)

On the 24th, The Cave was released at Steam. After the following weekend, I had played it through with every character twice, once for the bad ending and once for the good ending. I still haven’t gotten all the Steam Achievements, but I had a lot of fun. And I will play it again, soon.
Admittedly, The Cave is by no means a hard game. It’s not overly difficult to understand, it’s very forgiving when it comes to mistakes. The puzzles usually are quite straight-forward and there’s no such thing as completely ruining the game by a wrong move or decision.
But what a game it is! It’s fun and even stays fun after several rounds. The comments of the cave itself, which could be a lot more frequent, are very funny. The several special areas make good use of the characters’ special abilities. The cave paintings tell the stories of the characters.
There are seven (well, eight, if you count the twins as two) characters to choose between at the beginning of each game: the knight, the hillbilly, the time traveller, the scientist, the adventurer, the twins, and the monk. Half of them (knight, hillbilly, monk, one twin) are male, the other half (time traveller, scientist, adventurer, other twin) are female. No matter how you mix up your group, you will always be able to get through the cave, find the objects of desire for all the team members and make your final decisions at the end to have the good or the bad ending. It took me at least three hours for one tour through the cave, even once I had done all special areas and knew what to do where, so if you remember you need at least three games to play every character once and at least five to play every character with both ends, that’s quite a game.
Each character has a story, from the knight who wants Excalibur to the Monk who wants to become the master of his order. Each character has a fitting area filled with puzzles that demand his or her special ability. There are also some areas which you will always cross and can solve with all characters, albeit sometimes with different solutions. The cave is huge and full of strange places like castles, zoos, pyramids, or islands. To cross the various areas, the characters have to use their special abilities and work together. To make it through the cave and collect what they desire most, you have to think and experiment and make use of the characters and their surroundings.
I, personally, like the graphics very much, too. I like the slightly cartoonish, colourful look with the changing lighting and the nice details. Some pros claim it’s not up to date and only hides the technical weakness of the game, but I don’t mind it at all. The game plays well, movements are fluid, there’s no lags or suchlike. For me, the technical side is good enough.

All in all The Cave is what I had hoped it would be: a game for playing several times, a game with a lot of humour, a game with an interesting story (several, in fact). For me, this makes the game a good deal, so I’m glad I got it.

Casual Corner

It’s the last day of January and thus it’s time for the Casual Corner. Good thing I waited so long, though, because one of the games only came out yesterday and the other arrived at the portals (except for Alawar, where the game was developed). This month’s Casual games are ‘Grave Mania: Pandemic Pandemonium,’ ‘New Yankee in King Arthur’s Court 2,’ and ‘Gardens Inc: From Rakes to Riches.’

‘Grave Mania’ is both a sequel and a Dash-type game. This means a lot of dragging people around (in this case zombies you prepare for final burial), quite a bit of balancing between the stations, and quite a bit of stress. The game has a nice, cartoonish look and gets challenging soon. On the other hand, though, it also has mini-games that can be annoying sometimes. On the whole the ‘play level, buy upgrades, play next level’-principle works and makes this a fun game.

‘New Yankee 2’ obviously is also a sequel. Like the first one, it’s a builder game with a certain charm and a lot of humour. While the main character was pulled into the past alone last time, he brings his wife with him in the second game. She’s now doing the magic stuff and he fights the enemies while the workers do all the work. The game itself is quite long and a lot of fun. It also has achievements now (that seems to be something everyone wants in their games these days) and the levels are a lot of fun. The game is cartoonish and rather well balanced.

‘Gardens Inc,’ the last game of this month’s casual corner and was the last one that came out. It’s a nice variety of the MKFTP-type games, instead of building roads, you create gardens, making your way through them, planting stuff, gathering tools and wood and rocks and seeds. The game includes a bonus goal in almost every level and gets tough rather quickly. It’s beautiful in looks and breathes a new life into the genre.

All three games this month are TM games, a genre that has to struggle quite a bit right now. Enjoy them and see where they are so much more challenging and fun than the umpteenths HOG.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Elementary vs. Sherlock

As the first episode of Elementary was aired here in Germany yesterday, I’m finally in a position to compare both new versions of Sherlock Holmes. Of course, comparing six 90-minute-movies to one 45-minute episode (if you cut out all the ads) seems hardly appropriate. Especially the developing relationship between Holmes and Watson will need some more watching.

Off the bat, I can’t see how Elementary could be a copy of Sherlock. Apart from the basic premise of putting Sherlock Holmes in a modern environment (which isn’t new, the first Sherlock Holmes movies made, the ones with Basil Rathbone, did that already), there isn’t much both series have in common. Of course both have a certain set of characters (Holmes, Watson, Lestrade/Gregson). Of course both versions of Sherlock Holmes are able to surprise their surroundings with their deduction skills. But, as far as I can say, that’s where similarities end.

The Sherlock Holmes of BBCs Sherlock is, very much like his original version, strictly asexual, as can be seen in his dealings both with the lab girl and with Irene Adler. He has no interest in people ‘this way,’ no matter which gender they are. He’s a creature of the mind much more than one of the body, foregoing many ‘creature comforts’ while his mind is highly active. The Sherlock Holmes of Elementary, however, is quite a polar opposite. As he explains to Watson early in the first episode, he recognizes his brain and body need sex to function properly, so he obtains it (through a prostitute) when he feels it’s necessary.

Same goes for the topic of drug abuse, which comes with Sherlock Holmes (although it should be noted that cocaine, Holmes’ original drug, was perfectly legal in his time). While BBCs Sherlock does even abstain from smoking (wearing several nicotine patches at the same time to make up for the missing pipe/cigarettes), the Sherlock Holmes from Elementary meets up with ‘his’ Watson only because of a drug habit. She’s supposed to make sure he stays clean this time.

Which brings us to Watson. In BBCs Sherlock, we have a very traditional Watson, whose basic characteristics and background (safe for replacing his brother with a sister) are very, very close to the original. An army doctor, wounded in Afghanistan, looking for someone to share a flat with. A man of action and medical abilities who can assist Holmes in every way necessary (including shooting a murderer before things can escalate too much). In Elementary, we have a female version of Watson (which is a good idea per se), a former surgeon who turned to helping addicts after a patient died under her hands (though it’s questionable whether any doctor would throw the towel after just losing one patient, maybe even one so severely injured survival chances were sparse). She is Holmes’ watchdog in a way, keeping him from straying back to the drugs, but she also is about to become a valuable aide. The Sherlock Holmes from Elementary is more rude and aggressive at times than his BBC equivalent (who, while a sociopath, is more of a cold, emotionless type), so he needs Watson to stop him and provide a softer alternative (which might explain why there’s a female Watson, just saying).

My first impression of Elementary is a good one. I will definitely continue to watch the series and find out more about this Holmes and Watson.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Casual Corner

Yup, last month’s Casual Corner is definitely late. However, with no abundance of really interesting games around and Christmas in the week before the end of the month, I just didn’t get to write anything until today. December casual games will be Meridian: Age of Invention, SpaceChem, and Big City Adventure: Paris.

Starting with Big City Adventure: Paris here. The Big City Adventure series (6 games, including Paris) is at its best with straight HOGs (the last one, London, had an adventure mode, but the classic one was much, much better). You get to see all interesting parts of a city, you get to learn something about each of them, you get to play nice HOG scenes and mini-games in between them. Lately, I’ve found straight HOGs more agreeable than IHOGs, for whatever reasons. The graphics are as nice as they have been before, the mini-games are varied, there are achievements, there’s both a timed and an untimed mode (but even timed mode has plenty of time, at least for me). Hints have to be found as coins in the scenes, they are not just filled up again. In addition, you can find skip coins, time coins, and point coins. I enjoy playing the Big City Adventure games, because I can take a look at a city without actually going there (Paris being the first city of the bunch I have actually been to). So far, Jolly Bear Games has released Big City Adventures for San Francisco, Sydney, New York, Vancouver, and London. And now Paris, of course.

SpaceChem is a nice and very addictive puzzle game. I got mine from GOG during their Christmas sale, but it can also be found at Steam (and other places, I’m sure). By programming production lines, you build and transport elements and compounds and create chemistry. The game is a lot like programming, so it’s a nice training, if you want to do that. In addition, it’s a great puzzle game and a lot of fun. It’s one of those ‘just one more level’ games that you usually play much longer than you wanted to.

Meridian: Age of Invention was a nice surprise during Christmas at Alawar games. The game has very good graphics and an interesting mix between MKFTP-type games and strategy games. You build up villages and fulfil tasks in order to advance. Every now and then you get upgrades from the Inventor who travels with you. The graphics and the Steampunk setting did it for me, but the whole game play is very nice with this one. You don’t just build, you also send out delivery boys who can deliver from the market to the houses (groceries) or from one house to another (letters). They have to work, because this is how you make money. Every delivery means a bit of gold, which you can then invest in workers or materials. The game is varied, there’s not too much fast clicking, and it’s a lot of fun to play.

This it is, last month’s Casual Corner. I promise I will be on time (at least in January) with my Casual Corner this month. Have fun with games!

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Doctor Who, Sherlock, and Moffat

I’ve been reading several blog posts in several blogs about how Steven Moffat has a sexist approach to female characters in Doctor Who and Sherlock. However, after watching most of Doctor Who (well, haven’t seen season 7 and am only about halfway through season 4, but have seen everything else, including the Christmas specials right up to The Snowmen), and the first two seasons Sherlock, I find myself wondering about those posts.

A very recent blog post about Doctor Who pointed out Moffat uses cardboard cut outs for his female characters that seem to be based on Whedon’s Buffy. I’m not sure about that, to be honest. A lot of Moffat’s female characters actually hold themselves well, whether you look at the companions (Rose, Martha, Donna, or Amy), at the recurring female mystery (River Song, at least until the end of Season 6), or at female characters that only appear once or twice. Here in Germany, though, Doctor Who has never caught on well (for whatever reason, probably because the first airing of the original series was completely mixed up). It’s not considered a children’s program, either, you’ll usually find it filed under science fiction. And Sherlock definitely isn’t a children’s program, even in England.

Moffat got into a lot of trouble over Irene Adler in the second season and the Chinese refugee in the first season (in “The Blind Banker”). While I have to admit the story of the Blind Banker could have done with a bit of polishing, here a few thoughts on Irene Adler.
I can’t help thinking people are putting too much into ‘The Woman.’ I’d like to point out first that Irene Adler only features in one story Doyle wrote, “A Scandal in Bohemia.” I’d also like to point out I am annoyed myself with always putting her in the ‘villain’ category in the movies, usually roping her up with Moriarty at some point (even in the newest movies). But I have to point out, it seems, something else about her: she’s neither nice, nor innocent, nor helpless. Miss Adler is an opera singer in the story. At Doyle’s time, performing artists were not part of the ‘good’ society, no matter whether they performed in seedy bars or opera houses. In addition, she has had a relationship with a man, without being married to him. She’s quitting it, because she is about to be married and will leave England behind. She has pictures that could provoke a scandal (although I don’t have the impression the original Irene would have used them). Holmes is trying to steal them from her, but has to admit defeat (which puts her above most of the people he comes across, admittedly). If you work it from this, making the ‘new’ Irene a Dominatrix isn’t too far off. Just as a performer isn’t a prostitute, but was seen very much like one in the Victorian era, a Dominatrix is very much seen as a prostitute, but she doesn’t have sex with her customers (which means, depending on your definition, she might not be a prostitute at all). This Irene keeps pictures as a safety measure, just in case she might need them. This Irene makes Sherlock sweat ‒ and not only because of the tension between them. There is nothing obviously sexual between them, Sherlock seems pretty asexual to me, Irene admits to Watson she’s a Lesbian. Just like the original Sherlock Holmes was attracted to Irene’s intelligence and cunning, so is the new one. Brains is the new sexy, as it is put in the movie.

Now a step back into the TARDIS. I wonder if it might be possible for the Doctor to one day regenerate into a female form, but I very much doubt it (though it might be fun). From the beginning (from what I have read and can remember from the ragtag episodes they aired over here), the Doctor has had female companions. Not a surprise, therefore, that the new doctors, from No. 9 onwards, also have had female companions (although the 11th Doctor also has a male companion in Rory). Let’s take a look at what a companion has to be like, obviously. She can’t be too tied to her time and place, because a woman with a huge family and a time-consuming job could not just leave it all behind and travel through time and space. She has to be adventurous. She has to be brave and capable of making her own decisions (since as often as not, the companions find themselves alone in a foreign place in the series). She has to be able to understand strange things and people (since most places will be alien in every meaning of the word). Rose, Martha, Donna (as far as I can tell, after only part of season 4), and Amy all can claim to be like that.
Does it make them Buffy cut outs? Not any more than being the brave, strong, powerful hero makes Buffy herself a cut out. Whedon’s new take was to make his vampire hunter hero a heroine. To take the blonde cheerleader that would normally be the first victim and make her the person to slay the monsters and save the day. Saying the companions are Buffy cut outs is the same as to say every strong female character created since Buffy (including characters Whedon himself created since Buffy) is only a Buffy cardboard cut out.
When it comes to other female characters, I can’t see that much of a problem with them, either. Most act like you might expect a woman to act in their time. Some are scheming, some are timid, some are strong. Just like some men in the stories are scheming, timid, strong. Compared to some of the women in daily soaps, most of the women in Doctor Who are glowing examples of womanhood, if you want my view. And, as some people pointed out in the comments of the blog post mentioned above, the male characters (including the Doctor in some aspects) are just as much of cardboard cut outs, because that is how series and movies work, by presenting us with characters we can understand, because we have, to a certain degree, seen them before. There’s just one hero, but, as Joseph Campbell wrote, he has a thousand faces. Villains might have a few thousand, as it were.

If we go back to Sherlock now, to take a look at the series as a such, there are few women, indeed. But if we take a look at the original, there aren’t many women there, either, apart from clients. Yes, a new approach might have changed gender for some characters (as Elementary does with a female Watson ... or the Doctor Who Christmas Special 2012 with Madame Vastra, who is supposed to be the base for Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, who changed the lizard-woman to a human male). The most drastic change would have been to make Holmes, Watson, and Lestrade female and Irene Adler and Mrs. Hudson male. But such a drastic change is highly unlikely to occur any time soon.
What do we know about recurring females? The female sergeant can’t stand Sherlock (but so do several of her male colleagues). Mrs. Hudson is taking care of her lodgers, even though she is not their housekeeper (and says so on occasion). Mycroft’s female aide is an aide and does what aides do. End of story. Where is the sexist view in that? Admittedly, the coroner having a fling with a man might have spiced things up, but not every series can have a Jack Harkness. A male landlord might be caring less his for lodgers. A male aide wouldn’t make the slightest change to Mycroft’s behaviour. Sexist? I don’t think so. Mrs. Hudson has a dept to Sherlock for helping her out. She’s a nice person, so she does care about the people who share the house with her. A man her age might feel the same about them. And most people who meet Sherlock despise him, so the female sergeant (I think she is) isn’t an exception, she’s the rule. A lot of personal assistants are male, so the female aide Mycroft employs is actually a nice change. Then there is the nice woman at the lab who obviously has it for Holmes. Given the fact that he isn’t interested in people ‘that way,’ no matter the genre, it's obvious she’s not going to get close to him and he’s not going to understand her any time soon.

I can’t help it, I can’t see the terrible sexist tendencies in those series, no matter how hard I try. Maybe I’m too old, too stupid, or just too Feminist for them.