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Recap Review: The American Girls Premiere

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One lovely summer day, my parents were summoned to the basement for the world premiere of my very first play created on the computer.

This one-woman show invoked the minimalist style, in the sense that almost nothing actually happened. Its protagonist, Felicity Merriman from the American Girl franchise, crossed the stage and recited a brief soliloquy in robotic monotone: “Hello. My name is Felicity.” Then she curtseyed and walked off the stage.

…well, I thought it was a work of genius at the time. And it was the start of many more bizarre plays starring the American Girl characters.

For those unfamiliar with it, the American Girl franchise started out as a doll collection. Each doll was based on a fictional nine-year-old girl living in a specific period in American history. Around the time that the franchise caught my interest, there were six of them: Felicity, living in Colonial Williamsburg just before the Revolutionary War, Josefina, living in New Mexico before it became a U.S. territory, Kirsten, a Swedish immigrant, Addy, a slave who escapes to Philadelphia with her mother, Samantha, an orphan who lives with her wealthy, old-fashioned grandmother in 1904, and Molly, whose father is a doctor overseas during World War II.

The dolls each had six books that described their misadventures with family and friends and showed how important historical events had an impact on their lives. I loved reading them as a kid. I also loved staring longingly at the many, many accessories and clothing that you could purchase for the dolls in the American Girl Catalog, most of which I couldn’t get because they were just too expensive.

And then came an odd but kinda amazing addition to the franchise: The American Girls Premiere.

The American Girls Premiere was a computer game for Windows and Mac, where you could create your own plays using the characters from the American Girl stories. It gave you numerous tools to work with: characters, setting, props, music, sound effects, lighting, and actions.

Unfortunately, it did have one big limit, story-wise: you couldn’t create an epic crossover starring Felicity from 1774 and Molly from 1944, or Josefina from 1824 going on adventures with Addy from 1864. Once you picked one of the girls, you became confined to her time period, her settings, and her supporting cast.

I’m guessing that the company didn’t want girls coming up with plays that were too wacky, but in hindsight, they might as well have let us go wild.

The most memorable part of the game was the horrific, computerized voices that you got to use to make the “actors” say their dialogue. Technically, the game also provided a voice recording option if you had a microphone with your computer. I didn’t, so I could never get that feature to work and had to rely on the voices given to me.

The results? Well, you can watch this masterpiece of a play to get an idea of what they sounded like:

I couldn’t find many videos of people’s American Girls Premiere plays anymore (and I suspect some of them were removed for copyright infringement), but “Meet Robot Felicity” is a perfect representation of how these productions often looked and sounded, and then some. You could indeed make characters soar through the air or burrow underground.

Although the game came with a basic tutorial, I ended up uncovering most of the ins and outs myself. It offered me an opportunity to mess around and see how far I could go when putting together a play. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, it also offered a learning opportunity in how to create something with limitations. Need to show the character sleeping in a bed instead of lying on the floor? Levitate him or her so that he or she would appear to be lying on top of the bed. The computer can’t pronounce the lines correctly? Well, time to deliberately misspell the words so it would.

The American Girls Premiere wasn’t perfect, but it offered many, many hours of fun.  It served as a nice introduction to the different elements in creating a play: having the right props, the right lighting, etc.  The silly robot voices added some unintentional humor to the whole experience.  I’m glad it existed and I miss playing it.

Influental Women in the Gaming Industry: Claudia Billie Stræde

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Some women are just powerhouses from a young age. Claudia Billie Stræde is one of those women. She has accomplished so much already and doesn’t seem to have any intention of slowing down.

Claudia is a Danish filmmaker and animator. She was admitted to the Danish Film School. There Claudia was the youngest director in the animation department. However instead of staying there in 2006 she dropped out to attend the Academy of Untamed Creativity instead. Claudia found a better fit for her passions there.

That was when she started to learn about animation. Claudia also found like minded students at the Academy of Untamed Creativity. In 2007 they banded together to create and event called The D.I.Y. Film Club. This event was an opportunity for more obscure films to have a place to be shown. It featured films that ranged from obscure art to homemade documentaries.

Claudia then attended the Copenhagen Film and Photo School. She was able to study live action filmmaking for a whole year. There she got to also experience different aspects of filmmaking. Claudia was able to do everything including; directing, producing, cinematography, editing and sound design. After that Claudia felt the pull to go back to the Danish Film School.

This time Claudia stayed. She got to work on many different projects, including computer games. Here she had access to state of the art equipment. Claudia teamed up with other students to create a horror game called Blackwell’s Asylum.

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Blackwell’s Asylum is a horror themed adventure/roleplay game. The team was inspired by the true life experiences of Nellie Bly, a female journalist who went undercover in an insane asylum to expose the horror in the mental health field at the time. The game has the player wake up, drugged in an asylum in the early 1900s. The goal is to get past wardens and escape. Claudia was the director of the game. Blackwell’s Asylum won the 2011 Game of the Year and winner for the Adventure/Roleplay category in the Intel Level Up 2011 Game Demo Contest.

Claudia is a great example of working toward your passion on your terms. By learning and experimenting your goals will be exceeded.

During this holiday season give Blackwell’s Asylum a try…if you think you can get out with your sanity in tact.

 

ALWAYS KEEP SPARKLING!

 

Review: To The Moon

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You may or may not know this, dear reader, but part of the VanriTheRogue persona is the fact that I don’t have emotions. At least, I don’t have strong ones.

In an effort to see my emotions, a long time viewer decided to take matters into his own hands. Randomly one day, I received a gift on steam. One of my friends and our long time viewer, Plottrig, had sent me a story-heavy indie game called To The Moon. He wanted me to play it on stream, so that I could feel the feels.

What’s it about?
To The Moon follows two scientists who work for a company that grants dying wishes to dying patients, for a price. The game begins with the scientists arriving at the house of their patient. We meet his caretaker and her two brat children. We find out that the patient is in a coma upstairs and his final wish is to go to the moon. The scientists set up their equipment and prepare to enter the patient’s mind. Their plan is to rewire his memories so that he thinks he’s gone to the moon.

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What did I think?
The game doesn’t have much gameplay to it. You walk around a bit, find things that are important to the patient as memory points, and solve small puzzles to jump from memory to memory. It’s in the retro, 8-bit style that I love so much. The detail in the artwork is amazing, I wish I could have explored more.

The story itself is powerful and sucks you right in. I completed the whole game in one sitting because I just couldn’t bring myself to exit out of it. There’s no voice acting, but the soundtrack creates the perfect atmosphere for a story as heartbreaking and heartwarming as To The Moon’s.

The only problem with games like these – not just this one, but all of them – is that there’s no replayability. The story is the same every time. The items and the puzzles are the same every time. If you go through it once, you could go through it a hundred times. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but I do like my choices games and my multiple endings.

Do I recommend it?
Yes. I recommend you go and buy it right now. Play through it and feel the feels that I felt… and showed… on stream. (I’M NOT CRYING, YOU’RE CRYING!) Go and be as scared about the outcome as I was. Go and experience the amazingness that is To The Moon.

Thank you, Plottrig!

Top 10 Steam Games Under $5

I trolled through my house today looking for loose change. All in all I found $4.82. Not bad. As a kid growing up in the 80’s this would have been a spectacular find. That $4.82 is a sweet, sweet candy stash. Today, not so much. In 2018 this kind of couch change doesn’t have the same kind of impact… however, for under $5 there are a plethora of enjoyable games you can find nestled in the deepest depths of Steam store.

(Before I start a quick note on how I choose these games. Every single game I choose are games that I have personally played and can vouch for. I realize that there are many games out there under the $5 mark that could easily make this list. This is MY list. I did not include games that are Free as that’s a whole other list… I also looked for a plethora of games that could be enjoyed by various audiences and appeal to many types of gamers. That’s that. I hope you enjoy the list and please, feel free to let us know what you favorite $5 and under game is, and if there are any suggestions you may have.)

Organ Trail

10. Organ Trail: Directors Cut. When I was in 6th grade I was introduced to PC gaming by a fun little experience called The Oregon Trail, in which you follow the historic trek many took across our country in a time when dysentery and fording a river were more dangerous than we could possibly imagine. There were hunting mini games and indian attacks. You usually didn’t make it… Imagine that set in the zombie apocalypse, and that’s what Organ Trail is.

Town of Salem

9. Town of Salem. This game is fun… with friends. Please bring your friends. With that in mind Town of Salem is a great time and a ton of fun, and if it tickles your fancy you can look into the tabletop version…

Xcom

8. X-Com: UFO Defense. Sure this game is old as dirt. Sure it has a bunch of bugs. Sure it can make you want to throw your controller through your TV… But, you still love it. It’s charming and horrible and well worth a look if not just to see the origins of the rebooted X-Com series.

PLants v Zombies

7. Plants vs. Zombies GOTY. In which you plant plants to fend of a zombie invasion. It’s fun and addictive, and hard to put down… Tons of game time packed into a charming package. Well worth a look.

Sally Face

6. Sally Face. What a great little game. This horror adventure has a uniquely catered art style that reminded me of classic Nick cartoons like Aaahh!!! Real Monsters. This aesthetic combined with a disturbingly unique story line make this a great pickup.

VVVVVV

5. VVVVVV. A 2D platformer where instead of jumping you control gravity. This colorful masterpiece is simultaneously ridiculous and charming. I don’t recommend this for those that are easily frustrated as each level takes a bit of trial and error, and can be quite rage inducing at times. It’s still well worth the price tag.

Reigns

4. Reigns. Yes or No? As the new king you need to decide what sort of entity you will be. You are presented with requests from your citizens and need to decide what is best for you or your kingdom and impose your will. Reigns is simple in concept but hides a layer of strategy well worth looking into.

Overlord

3. Overlord. You are in charge and your decisions matter. Its hard to deny the surprising charm Overlord brings to the table. Every action you take on the battlefield has lasting effects on the world around you. Command your plucky minions to do your bidding in this quirky adventure. Take them on raids in villages or fight monstrous beasts. What kind of Overlord will you be?

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2. The Binding of Isaac. Roguelikes are a dime a dozen anymore and their influence on indie developers are like a blanket on a hot and humid day. I wish they would go away so we can finally move on. That being said, there are a number of great roguelike games available and few have the draw and prestige of the one of the greatest. The Binding of Isaac is one of the originals and is still loved today.

Superflight
1. Superflight. Wow! That was my initial reaction when I first picked up this game. There is something to be said about simplicity and atmosphere. Superflight is a game about adorning a flight suit and traversing beautiful procedurally generated atmospheres. You can feel the speed as you dip and dive your way through colorful landscapes. Even with the intense feel of falling it is a surprisingly relaxing experience. I was initially gleeful with my experience and was overjoyed to find myself willing to go back and play some more. If you haven’t seen this title, do yourself a favor and give it a solid look.

Influental Women in the Gaming Industry: Christie Golden

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Christie Golden joined Blizzard Entertainment in 2017 where she has become a senior writer for the company. Prior to that Christie made a career of writing. She has written fifty novels and even more short stories.  

A native of Atlanta Georgia Christie was born in 1963.  She spent most of her young life in Arlington, Virginia. There she went to high school with Sandra Bullock. Christie went to the University Virginia. After earning her degree in English she traveled.

Christie used her degree and her experiences to help her start her career. At first it didn’t seem like it would pan out. Seven years after receiving rejection letters for her first manuscript Christie was able to use the connections that she had made to help her get the first break of her career. From there she was able to sell her first book; Vampire of the Mists, a Ravenloft book. Yes Ravenloft, as in supernatural Dungeons and Dragons campaign that kills so many of us Tabletop gamers. Thus began a beautiful relationship between Christie and writing novels that take place in the worlds of games.

Writing what are known as “tie in” fiction has been good for Christie. It has also been good for us. She has given the world a plethora of novels to dive into. From there gamers can get a more in depth knowledge of the worlds of their favorite games. Also for some people a love of books does not come easily. Books based in the settings of their favorite games can be a wonderful invitation to a world of reading that some may never have received otherwise.

Fiction of this subgenre is also inspiring for writers. Learning how to channel your interests, such as gaming, into your own projects is always a good skill to obtain. However the only way to achieve that is just to sit down and write. It is a tough enre to get into but Christie has proven that not only can writers make the cut but that it can lead to bigger things from companies that give us the games we love. If you are willing to put in the work the work will work out.

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What Christie has really taught us is do what you want. Game how you want. Write what you want. Put that passion into a career and you will get there. It may take time but you will get there.

You can also keep track of what Christie Golden is up to though her Twitter.

ALWAYS KEEP SPARKLING!

 

Review: Narcosis

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We all know how much I love me some horror games. I’m always looking for new games to play, especially from amazing indie developers. I was ecstatic to get a review copy of Narcosis from indie developer, Honor Code, thanks to my fellow Mixer streamer and friend, Rorifett, who put me in contact with David, one of the writers and the marketer for the game.

What’s it about?
A hundred leagues under the sea lies several research facilities. Narcosis follows a nameless man as he attempts to find his way back to the surface after an earthquake destroys these facilities and kills almost everyone else down there. He must find his way to the single escape pod, while avoiding aggressive squids, bloodthirsty fish, and terrifying spider crabs. All the while, the game is being framed and narrated by an interview, possibly on a talk show.

What did I think?
This game is visually stunning. The detail in each chapter was so painstakingly realistic, both visually and atmospherically. Each piece of floating debris made me jump. Each spider crab injected a new nightmare into my brain. Each squid caused a mini panic attack.

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The story was slow building and kept me at the edge of my seat. What happened to the other survivors? Would we ever get out of here? All questions were answered in the end, which is extremely satisfying in a horror game. I don’t want to be left with more questions than I started with. I want to be left wanting more content, not answers. Narcosis accomplished this in bounds.

The most important thing – to me – is that this game actually terrified me. My stress level was so high throughout the entire game that I had to take my anxiety meds. Not only am I terrified of the ocean as it is, but the creatures in the deepest, darkest reaches also fuel the worst nightmares. If I never see a spider crab again, it will be too soon.

Do I recommend it?
Highly. If you like horror games, this game is for you. If you like deep sea exploring, this game is for you. If you want to be afraid to go into the ocean for the rest of your life, this game is for you. (That last one’s a joke, of course, I was already afraid to go into the ocean!)

Narcosis can be found on PC and Xbox One.

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Recap Review: Arkham Asylum

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Here we have yet another game that’s been on my radar for a while, but I never got around to playing until now. And boy, did it live up to the hype!

Full disclaimer: my knowledge of the Batman mythos mostly comes from the Christopher Nolan films. I’ve started watching The Animated Series, and I’ve seen bits and pieces of Tim Burton’s Batman and the 1960’s Adam West show. Oh, and The LEGO Batman Movie and Batman and Robin (unfortunately). That’s about it.

So I knew I wasn’t fully appreciating Arkham Asylum the way that a diehard fan would. But I still really enjoyed playing it and it’s inspired me to finally start watching the beloved animated series.

If you haven’t played it yet, here’s the plot: Batman has captured the Joker and they’re off to Arkham Asylum. Shortly after they arrive, the Joker escapes, kidnaps Commissioner Gordon and Warden Sharp, and then traps Batman and members of the Gotham police force in the asylum. Naturally, you play as the Caped Crusader as he navigates the island to rescue Gordon and figure out the Joker’s real plan behind all of this.

To save the day, you’ll have to use a variety of skills and weapons. Sometimes, it comes down to a regular fistfight with the Joker’s hired thugs. Other times, you’re stuck in a room with armed men patrolling the area, and you need to take them out through stealth. Other times, you’ll enter Detective Mode to follow the trail of the Commissioner or whomever else you’re trying to find as the plot progresses.

Personally, I found Stealth/Predator mode to be the most challenging, but also the most fun. That’s when I really felt like Batman. You’ll often have to take out enemies one by one, because if the others see you, they’ll start shooting, and your health drops fast. Then the Joker will often add to the challenge, i.e. rigging explosives on the gargoyle statues to prevent you from hanging from the ceiling, or telling Harley to kill the Commissioner if she or any of the other thugs see you. It’s not unlike the kind of challenges that Batman would face in the movies, shows, or comics. Only this time, it’s down to you to figure out a way around them. That makes it feel all the more satisfying when you succeed.

Another fun element of the game comes from the Joker’s commentary as you navigate the place; he constantly mocks his henchmen as you take them out. Fans of the animated series will be happy to know that Mark Hamill returned to voice him, while Kevin Conroy and Arleen Sorkin also reprised their roles as Batman and Harley Quinn, respectively. They all do a wonderful job bringing their characters to life, as do all of the other voice actors in this game.

I won’t spoil the rest of the game, but I will say that you meet and fight several other major villains in Arkham Asylum besides the Joker and Harley, and they each contribute to the plot in some way. The Riddler also provides two sidequests for you: one to find the many hidden Riddler trophies throughout the game, and the other involves solving actual riddles by examining the right area. I feel bad that I couldn’t get as excited by some of the character cameos, since I’m such a newbie to the Batman franchise. But diehard fans will love them, and the game’s so well-written that newcomers will likely enjoy them too.

Arkham Asylum was originally released for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Microsoft Windows. It is now available as part of a collection with its sequel, Arkham City, on the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One. The collection is titled Return to Arkham. I wholeheartedly recommend it if you haven’t played it already.