Final Fantasy VI Is The Best

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The  Final Fantasy VI  logo.The  Final Fantasy VI  logo.

The Final Fantasy VI logo.

In a time when the majority of games had plots thinner than Subway’s bacon, Final Fantasy put an emphasis on story. Final Fantasy VI, released in 1994, remains my favorite game in the franchise nearly two decades later. This isn’t a trick of nostalgia. It wasn’t the first game I played in the series, nor was it the last. Technical limitations prevent it from having the most impressive visuals or beautiful music. Despite this, it remains to me the most memorable and engaging. Why?

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Hey, look, Terra realized what feelings are. Hey, look, Terra realized what feelings are. 

Hey, look, Terra realized what feelings are. 

1. The Characters.

To this day, Final Fantasy VI has the largest cast of playable characters in the series. Most of them are interesting and well thought-out, with believable motivations and weaknesses. They transform over the course of the game, and not always in expected ways.

The first character you control, Terra, is a perfect example of this. As a young woman robbed of any sort of childhood, she begins the game with no understanding of how to relate to people. She can’t fathom Edgar’s romantic advances, and plainly states she doesn’t know what love is. In most stories, this would simply lead to her finding the right man and a budding relationship. This isn’t how things play out in Final Fantasy VI: Terra doesn’t discover love in the arms of another person, but in protecting a village of orphaned children.

Other characters exhibit similar depth. Celes and Locke both seek redemption, though for entirely different reasons. Edgar and Sabin, twin brothers of royal birth, struggle with balancing freedom and responsibility. Cyan must move through the grief of losing his wife, child, and country in a single moment. Gau, a feral child who was abandoned by his father, must accept that he will never truly get closure.

That’s half the cast of playable characters. While most of the other characters aren’t quite as deep, the rest of the cast is still varied and interesting.

 

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One of Kefka's many classic lines.One of Kefka's many classic lines.

One of Kefka’s many classic lines.

2. The Villains.

Although Final Fantasy VII’s Sephiroth is the most iconic villain in the series, Kefka is the most terrifying one. While Sephiroth’s stone-faced detachment and hyper-violent feats of strength solidify him in the minds of many as the epitome of bad ass, Kefka instead giggles with delight as he mercilessly destroys everything in his path. He sees every other living thing on the planet as a plaything. He revels in chaos and destruction. He poisons a castle’s water supply to end a siege he’s grown tired of, and turns against his allies once they have served his purpose. He’s… kind of a video game version of The Joker, right down to the makeup.

There are other villains in the game, though they all take a backseat to Kefka. Emperor Gestahl appears to be the main antagonist early in the game, and recurring nuisance Ultros serves as comic relief. The Rommel-like General Leo holds the begrudging respect of his enemies.

 3. The Music.

There’s no escaping the fact that later games in the series had higher-quality audio, from a technical standpoint. But along with Final Fantasy VI’s large cast came an eclectic and often moving soundtrack. Every character has a memorable theme. Music for battle is appropriately stirring, and the game’s final battle and ending themes are each over fifteen minutes long. Although the quality is decidedly low-fi, Final Fantasy’s score is undoubtably epic.

Oh yeah, and there’s a playable opera sequence right in the middle of the game!

4. The Visuals.

Every subsequent Final Fantasy ups the ante in terms of graphics, and I would never try to argue that Final Fantasy VI looks better than its follow-ups. That said, Final Fantasy VI was surprisingly impressive for it’s time, doubly so because console role-playing games of the age were not known for their visuals. Character sprites conveyed a surprising range of emotion, and backgrounds were pleasing to the eye. The number of Super NES RPGs with comparable graphics can be counted on one hand. I don’t think people were blown away by Final Fantasy VI, but they were impressed.

5. The Overall Story.

Initially, Final Fantasy VI follows the same path as most other epic fantasies: a small band of heroes fight against impending doom. The game has all the trappings of a classic tale. Except for one thing: you don’t save the world.

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Final Fantasy VI is the one game in the series where the heroes really lose. Halfway through the game, your party confronts Kefka and fails. They fail hard. The entire world suffers for your unavoidable loss, completely transforming it. The latter half of the game takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where Kefka is a maniacal ruler. Even when you eventually defeat Kefka, the price is quite high — all magic is stripped from the world. Final Fantasy VI’s ending, while hopeful, is bittersweet. Its grand ending sequence paints a world that is rediscovering hope, but is forever lessened.

It’s hard to call a game almost twenty years old timeless. The limited resources of the Super NES and a story limited by programming and storage limitations will feel more and more dated as time goes on. It is unfortunate that Square Enix has lost the magic that made the Final Fantasy series so great. There is no one developer who has taken up their mantle. Bethesda Softworks has created engrossing worlds in their Elder Scrolls series, but their plots and characters are horribly bland. BioWare has created compelling characters and stories, but have stripped many character-management aspects from their games, to the point where no one would really classify the Mass Effect series as an RPG. 

As much as I would love to play a high-definition remake of Final Fantasy VI, I don’t think Square Enix is up to the task. The Game Boy Advance and PlayStation ports were abysmal. It’s a shame that one of the best stories in all of gaming will likely languish and be forgotten.

 

By A Thread – A Review of Beyond: Two Souls

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 Jodie, one of the protagonists from  Beyond: Two Souls.   Jodie, one of the protagonists from  Beyond: Two Souls.  

 Jodie, one of the protagonists from Beyond: Two Souls. 

Many game developers have a style. Shigeru Miyamoto tends to gravitate toward the whimsical, whereas American McGee likes to twist children’s tales. David Cage pushes heavily toward the cinematic. Like Heavy Rain before it, Beyond: Two Souls is more readily described as an interactive narrative than a video game, but that isn’t a bad thing. The vast majority of video games use heavily recycled tropes ad nauseum, and although David Cage’s work is never as fun to play as peers, it is every bit as compelling.

The latest release from David Cage’s studio, Quantic Dream, Beyond: Two Souls tells the story of two characters that are linked together by an ethereal cord. The first, Jodie, is a young woman. Aiden is her spirit companion, an entity of unknown origin that is bound to her. Though the two are always connected, neither controls the other. The player controls them both, toggling between them with a tap of a button.

The narrative of Beyond: Two Souls jumps around a lot, and sometimes it’s hard to explain why. Jumping around on a timeline can be a great way to add mystery and suspense to a story, but when done improperly, it’s just confusing. I would not say that Beyond ever reaches the point where things make no sense, but I don’t see a compelling reason to jump around beyond mixing things up to keep the story from going flat. Several chapters feel tacked-on and useless, doing nothing to push the story along and not even doing much to add flavor. One chapter in particular, while interesting, is a several-hours-long detour that adds next to nothing to the story. It could have easily been cut, and expanded upon for DLC further down the road, and I don’t think anyone would have noticed. Both the game and the chapter may even have been better for it.

Knowing what to cut is important. Pacing is a key part of storytelling, and it’s something Beyond: Two Souls struggles with. Some segments just feel long and drawn out. Others seem like they could be cut, or at least combined with others to be streamlined. Although Cage is obviously designing his games to have film-like narratives, he is using game-design logic to extend the experience.

 

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Young Jodie.Young Jodie.

Young Jodie.

Additionally, the romantic aspects of Beyond: Two Souls are inexplicable. As the game spans fifteen years of Jodie’s life, you’ll come across more than one love interest. Of the three, only one is in any way believable, and it’s the shortest, shallowest of them. The other two feel forced and tacked-on. David Cage also has a strange penchant for shower scenes, and the one in Beyond feels just as out of place as the one in Heavy Rain. I don’t know why it’s in there. Well, I do. But it doesn’t need to be there. The camera lingers in a way that can best be described as creepy.

Despite my harping on it, the story in Beyond: Two Souls is good, especially compared to most other games. The only place it really falters is the controls. Like Heavy Rain before it, Beyond relies very heavily on QTEs — Quick Time Events — to keep the player engaged in the action. For the uninitiated, QTEs are contextual button presses that appear on-screen the moment you should press them. There is no logic behind which buttons do what, so you need to have the controller buttons memorized in order to hit them on time. It is basically a more complex version of the classic Dragon’s Lair arcade game. QTEs aren’t always a bad thing, and in Beyond, missing a single one doesn’t result in complete failure. However, this also means they feel less critical. QTEs can easily become boring or frustrating, and this game has moments where they become both. 

While we’re on controls, it is important to mention that Beyond: Two Souls does something very interesting: it lets you control the game via an iOS or Android device using the BEYOND Touch app. This greatly simplifies the controls, making it so pretty much anyone can play the game. All but the most beginner-level gamer will probably enjoy playing with a DualShock more than the app, but if you are trying to get a non-gaming friend/family member/significant other into Beyond, this app will make it a lot easier. I started playing using the app, but switched to a controller several chapters in. 

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Willem Dafoe as Nathan.Willem Dafoe as Nathan.

Willem Dafoe as Nathan.

I haven’t even touched on one of the biggest selling points of Beyond: Two Souls yet: it stars Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe, and has a supporting cast that includes Kadeem Hardison and Eric Winter. These actors went all out: they provided not only voice acting, but some of them provided an intense level of motion capture as well. The result is an engrossing performance that no game has matched yet; only 2011’s LA Noire comes close. The game is visually impressive, and its score, created by Hans Zimmer, is wonderful. Beyond story jumps from mysterious, to exciting, to touching, and neither the performances nor the music ever miss a beat. I don’t think Hollywood talent is required for this to happen, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

Despite it’s flaws, I still recommend Beyond: Two Souls. It’s a summer blockbuster type of game. Flawed, sure, but entirely enjoyable. I don’t think it’s worth $60, though. It makes a compelling argument for more variety in game pricing, or taking the episodic approach Telltale has had so much success with.

Family Matters – A Review of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

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The Brothers look over some of the terrain they will traverse.The Brothers look over some of the terrain they will traverse.

The Brothers look over some of the terrain they will traverse.

Sweden-based Starbreeze Studios is probably still best known for 2004’s well-received Chronicles of Riddich: Escape from Butcher Bay, as well as The Darkness. Over the summer, they released a short game called Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Envisioned by Swedish director Josef Fares, it’s an original adventure that features unique gameplay that is best described as single-player co-op. It is is available for Windows, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3.

The control scheme for Brothers is intuitive: the player controls both brothers at the same time. The older brother is controlled by the left analog stick, the younger brother by the right. Each brother has a single action button, which is the trigger button(L2 or R2 on the PS3) on their side of the controller. In addition, the camera can be rotated by pressing the left and right bumpers (L1 and R1 on the PS3). Although this initially seems quite simple, the task of controlling both brothers at once requires a sort of concentration that most games rarely call upon.

Brothers begins with the younger of the two titular characters recalling the loss of their mother. His sad memory is interrupted by his older brother, who requires his help to transport their sick father. They take him to a doctor, who reveals that his only chance lies in a hard-to-find cure. This introduction sets the tone for the rest of the game. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, though it has occasional lighthearted moments, is a somber adventure.

Taking place in a fairly nondescript rural medieval area, Brothers feels like playing through a fairy tale — a classic Grimm tale, not a modern, watered-down Disney film. The fantastic and the macabre get equal screen time, and the game’s colorful presentation belies its sometimes-grisly story. The graphics are hardly mind-blowing, but considering the game’s cost and length, they are good. They won’t wow you, but they fit the mood brilliantly. Its score is ethereal and haunting. 

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The brothers, working together to overcome an obstacle early in the game.The brothers, working together to overcome an obstacle early in the game.

The brothers, working together to overcome an obstacle early in the game.

There is a sense of purpose and camaraderie between the two brothers that is brought about in the way the player gets them to interact. Each brother can perform tasks the other cannot. The elder brother carries the brunt of the burden: he knows how to swim, he can pull large levers, and hoist his younger brother up to higher ledges that either could reach on their own. The junior brother, meanwhile, is adept at squeezing through tight openings. Throughout the game, each brother depends on the other to overcome a myriad of challenges, obstacles, and dangerous encounters.

Like Gone Home, I am hesitant to describe the game any further. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a game whose mechanics and story are so tightly integrated that divulging too much detail could ruin a plot point or puzzle solution.

It’s fifteen bucks. Just give it a try. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Three

Once, there were three of them. It was decades ago, when options for friendships were limited to other children on the block, and it didn’t matter much if you liked the other kids there or not. Their parents would gather on the porch each night, along with their other neighbors, and William, Terry, and Joshua would play tag, or hide-and-seek. Sometimes, when her parents weren’t fighting, Jessica from across the street would join them. The trio of boys called themselves The Three Musketeers, though none of them had read the book, or even seen a film based upon it. Terry had seen the book on his family’s shelves and was in awe of the titular swashbuckling heroes pictured on the cover. Upon presenting it to his friends, the decision to bestow the title upon themselves was unanimous. None of them realized that the Three Musketeers had a fourth companion, though Jessica knew, and secretly considered herself their d’Artagnan.

The boys grew apart, as children are wont to do. There was no particular event or moment where the friendship fell apart; it simply dissolved over time. As the trio got older, they built friendships based on bonds stronger than immediate location. By the time they’d entered high school, they only saw each other in passing and the occasional block party. Their parents convinced them to share a limo to prom their senior year of high school. None of them had achieved a level of popularity that would keep them from consorting with each other, and there was no animosity to make the ride awkward. All of them agreed it was a good night, and none of them had spoken since.

It was strange, then, for William and Joshua to receive a message seventeen years later that Terry had died and mentioned them in his will. Joshua had built a life in Seattle, where he’d gone to college and met his wife, Corinne. Together, they were raising a daughter, Danielle, and ran a successful, if small, restaurant. William still lived in the Chicago area. In fact, William had just moved in with his parents, who had retired to Lincolnwood several years prior. He’d taken a little too well to drinking, and found himself rebuilding his life at thirty-five: he was recently divorced, even more recently unemployed, and would be a regular at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for the foreseeable future.

The former friends’ eyes locked immediately as they filed into the mortuary where Terry’s funeral was being held. Even after all those years, a kinship remained. Each immediately felt guilty for not keeping in touch. William drove Joshua to Terry’s grave for the burial. The cemetery was large, and the area Terry was buried in unkempt. Though his grave had been cleaned and cleared, the tombstones around his were covered in layers of wet leaves.

After Terry’s burial, the remaining two musketeers caught up over a late lunch. William was proud of Joshua’s success as a restaurant owner, and more than a little jealous. He tried, and failed, to hide it. Joshua pretended not to notice, for the sake of his old friend’s damaged ego. For his part, he felt a tinge of guilt over William’s misfortunes. He knew the fault lied largely with William, but felt it just the same.

Terry, it turned out, hadn’t done much of anything after high school. He worked at an office supply store after dropping out of college, and rose to the position of assistant manager. Corporate policy regarding his lack of a degree prevented him from moving any higher in the company, though he knew the business backward and forward. He lived frugally in a studio apartment. He never married, and never had any children. By all accounts, Terry’s life had been uneventful until his tragic death: hit by a speeding car while helping a stranger change a tire on the side of the road. The driver who hit him had never been found.

*   *   *

Terry bequeathed to William and Joshua the key to a storage unit. Their curiosity was piqued even before they knew what had been left to them, so the pair drove immediately to the climate-controlled storage facility in Morton Grove. Joshua cautiously inserted the key into its matching padlock, and turned it. In the empty, sterile halls, he almost thought he could hear each tumbler spin, and the click of the lock was as clear as anything he’d ever heard in a movie. He removed the lock and opened the door to reveal a room not much larger than a walk-in closet.

White sheets covered everything in the room. The first sheet, when pulled, revealed a stack of boxes, the topmost of which contained art supplies: markers, pens, and various other implements. Joshua drew a posable figurine from it and played with it, while William moved to the next sheet-covered pile and drew away the cloth to reveal paintings of various sizes.

“Holy shit,” he said, leaving his mouth agape. “I think Terry made these.” He flipped through them. There was a regression in style and technique as he moved from the front of the stack to the back. As he moved through the pile, the dates on the back of each canvas moved further into the past, revealing in reverse chronological order the progression of Terry’s work. Their style always leaned toward realistic, with a brief stint in the middle seemingly inspired by Thomas Kinkade. Terry’s work was competent, though not particularly interesting or unique. For a moment, William hated himself for judging the work of his dead friend. None of the pieces on the floor were less than a decade old.

Upon seeing William’s discovery, Joshua placed the figure back into the box he’d taken it from and moved to another sheet. Behind it, various landscapes had been stacked against one another, with large sheets of butcher paper between them to keep the oil paint from each piece from seeping into another. “I guess Terry really liked to paint,” he noted. “He always did like drawing when we were kids.”

“We all liked drawing when we were kids,” William returned, “We were kids.” He paused for a moment, then moved to what looked like a tall shelf. Several sheets covered it, none of them large enough to protect it on their own. The shelves held more recent work, this time branching out into still life and portrait. William gasped as he discovered an entire shelf was dedicated to portraits of Jessica. He paged through them, freezing when he came upon one of her posing nude. “Uhh… There are a lot of Jess in here,” he said, as Joshua peered over his shoulder, mouth agape. “They look pretty recent, too. This one’s from last year.”

“I didn’t see her at the funeral,” Joshua returned, pulling another sheet from a smaller shelf. “Maybe we should look her up.” He flipped through a few paintings on the shelf, then suddenly stopped and stepped back. Tersely, he called William’s attention. “Will.”

William stopped paging through images of their childhood haunts to see what Joshua had found. It was a painting of the three boys as the Musketeers, rapiers held high. Their raiments were ill-fitting, as if they still had a long way to grow into them. “It’s us,” he said, shocked.

There were more paintings of the boys, and always dressed in oversized musketeer garb. Sometimes, they ran alongside one another, other times they fought. Some paintings featured Jessica as well. Her costume was shabbier than the others, but she always looked radiant despite this. “We really need to find her,” Joshua declared. They hurriedly covered the art back up, taking a few of the musketeer pieces with them. Terry had installed a large roll paper dispenser in one corner of his space; William and Joshua used it to wrap the three paintings carefully.

“I guess we start with her parents,” William said as the got into his car.

Joshua nodded in agreement. “Makes sense.” He started the car, carefully pulled out of their space, and headed back to their old neighborhood.

The drive to their childhood home in Portage Park was quick, but it felt like an eternity. With no idea how long the search would take, and every intention to complete it, both men were filled with anxiety. Jessica’s parents were never easy to deal with. They were drunk as often as not, and regularly fought outside their house late at night. On more than one occasion, other people on the block were roused from their slumber and witnessed their spectacular arguments. William’s father would joke that they should sell tickets to the show, and his mother would always rebuke him for his lack of tact.

Jessica’s childhood home was almost directly across the street from where Terry lived. His parents had sold their house long ago, and the people that bought it from them had moved out as well. It sat vacant now, as did several others on the block. The house Jessica grew up in still looked the same. It had been maintained, but was still painted the same colors. Cautiously, William knocked on the door. No one came to answer it. Joshua peered into the building, trying to discern anything beyond the curtains. “There’s a light on in there,” he noted.

William knocked again, this time more firmly.

“Someone’s coming,” Joshua said, quickly moving away from the window.

William heard someone fumbling with the various locks on the front door. It slowly opened, revealing neither of Jessica’s parents, but the woman in question herself. Her hair was unkempt, her eyes bloodshot, and her cheeks flushed. She didn’t look at the two men on her doorstep at first, until William was able to eek out faintly, “Jess?” 

Jessica looked up. Her eyes widened, then dropped. She raised her hand to her forehead. “Fuck, it was today, wasn’t it? God damn it.” Her lips contorted, but she quickly regained her composure. “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Come in.” She unlatched the screen door handle and walked back into the house. She collapsed on the couch.

Joshua opened the door for William, then followed him inside. The interior looked like it hadn’t been cleaned for several days. Empty cans of various store-brand sodas and light beer sat on a glass coffee table that stood in front of a blanket-covered couch. On the floor next to it were more than a few wadded up tissues. Cautiously, William ventured to ask, “Still living at home?”

“It’s my place, now. Dad died in a bike accident, and Mom kind of disappeared after that. I paid off the mortgage.” Jessica’s eyes flitted among the cans in front of her, and reached for one containing diet cola. “How was it?” She took a small sip, and placed it back among its brethren.

“Somber,” William said.

“Surprising,” Joshua added.

Jessica placed her drink back on the table. “I bet.”

William sat down opposite Jessica on the couch. “Did you know he would leave us in charge of the artwork?” 

“He talked about it, but I didn’t know he’d actually done it.”

“He was very talented.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Jessica pulled the blankets closer around her. “I’m sorry I wasn’t at his God damned funeral. I feel like such an asshole.”

“I didn’t know you two stayed in touch,” Joshua said, taking a seat in a recliner beside the crowded sofa. “Although, I guess there’s no way I could have known.”

“He missed you guys so much. He would never have stood in your way, you know. That’s just not how he was. But he missed you all the time, even after high school. He probably realized you were all drifting apart before anyone else.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“Would it have changed anything?”

“Probably not.”

“Then don’t apologize. What’s done is done.” Jessica stood up, still wrapped up in her blanket. It trailed behind her like an extravagant wedding gown. She walked out of the living room, past a sparely-furnished dining room, and into her kitchen. She retrieved another can of pop from the fridge and returned to the front room. “He was the best out of all of us.”

“You loved him,” Joshua realized.

“Of course I did. Idiot. You think I would have posed for all those pictures if I didn’t?”

“Did he love you, too?”

Jessica shot him an angry glance. “You think I would have posed for all those pictures if he didn’t?”

“I suppose not. How long were you together?”

Jessica sat back down on her couch. “A few years. We’d talked about moving in together.” Jessica shook her head. “We broke up a few weeks ago. It was a stupid fight, and I was sure we’d patch things up soon. But then…” Jessica scrunched her eyelids, hoping in vain that they would stem the rush of tears fighting their way out. “I couldn’t see him. Not like that. Not after what I said to him.”

William changed the subject. “Did he ever sell anything?”

“No. He never felt it was good enough, until recently.”

“The Musketeers,” Joshua said, hoping to clarify his suspicion.

“Yeah.”

“They’re really good. But even the stuff before it has a certain charm.”

“Yeah.”

“So,” William interjected, hoping to move the conversation forward, “What do we do now?”

“Fuck if I know what you’re doing. I’m drowning my sorrows until I pass out, and hoping I can face returning to work tomorrow.”

“I’m in town for the rest of the week, if you need anything. I don’t know what I can do. But if you think of anything…” he trailed off. “Where do you work?”

“I handle billing for a small medical practice in Lakeview.”

“Can we take you to lunch?”

Jessica shrugged. “I get a lunch break. Don’t know if I’ll be up for eating.”

Joshua handed her his business card. “Call me twenty minutes before you take your break.” He stood, and put a hand on her shoulder. “I am so very sorry for your loss.”

Jessica put her hand over his for a moment and squeezed. “I’ll see you two out.”

William rose and walked beside Joshua. After they walked out the front door, Jessica locked it and turned off the lights. The soft glow of light disappeared from the curtains facing the street. The pair were silent as they walked to William’s car. After he started it, Joshua spoke.

“Did you ever read The Three Musketeers?”

“No.”

“At some point, I listened to an audiobook of it. Did you know there was a fourth?”

“I didn’t know there was a sequel.”

“No, I mean a fourth musketeer.”

“Really? That’s misleading as hell.”

“Well, it was actually about a kid who wanted to be a musketeer. And the three musketeers in the title, they’re his friends.”

William said nothing.

“I have an idea. I’ll fill you in tomorrow, if you’re willing to hear it. I’d like you to be a part of it.”

“I’ve got nothing going on.”

“Good. Well, not good. But…”

“I get what you meant. I’ve got a meeting tonight, do you mind if I drop you off at your hotel?”

“Works for me, man. I’ll be up early, so just call whenever you’re ready tomorrow. We should meet up before seeing Jess.”

*   *   *

Joshua woke up tired. Seattle being two time zones behind Chicago, his night of phone calls to various contacts ran later than he’d have liked. He also had to extend his stay another week in order to iron out the details of his plan. He was anxious to get home to his family, but he knew his business here was far from finished. He slept through William’s call, and it wasn’t until his old friend was knocking on the door to his room that he woke up.

“Sorry,” Joshua said, inviting his friend in with a sweep of his hand. “Have a seat.”

William entered the room and sat in one of the two chairs at Joshua’s small hotel desk. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah, yeah.” Joshua said, waving off William’s concern. “Just a later night than I expected. But I think we can do this.”

“Do what?”

“You need a job, right?”

“Yeah,” William replied, warily.

“I’ve got a job for you. It will keep you busy for at least a few weeks, if not a couple months. And you’ll need to commit to a week or two a year from now.”

“You haven’t told me what the job is.”

“I want you to be my assistant while I am here. And I want you to be my liaison when I am back in Seattle.”

William looked at Joshua quizzically. “You do realize I’m a fucking mess right now, right?”

“You won’t screw this up. Not only will I not let you, you’re not going to want to. I promise, I am not bad to work for. Even if I am, it won’t be for long.”

“I’m not saying no, Josh, but you need to tell me what it is I’m doing before I agree to it.”

Joshua smiled and leaned in. “You’re in. You’re so in.”

*   *   *

Joshua and William met up with Jessica outside the Lincoln Restaurant shortly after the lunch rush had died down. The diner looked as though it hadn’t been updated in several decades. Wood paneling lined the walls, and shelving near the ceiling was decorated with a smattering of knickknacks that were vaguely related to either Abraham Lincoln or the Civil War. At a table on the opposite end of the dining room sat a group of senior citizens who appeared to have been there since the restaurant first opened.

Beside the vestibule a hostess manned the restaurant’s register. “Table or booth?”

The three friends looked at each other for a moment, exchanging shrugs. “Whatever,” Jessica said.

The cashier stepped out from behind the counter, a bundle of menus under her arm. She led the trio to a small table in the middle of the room and handed each of them their menu as they sat down. “Someone will be with you shortly,” she said, and walked back to her station.

“Wow, I remember coming here as a kid,” Joshua mused as he flipped through the laminated pages of his menu. “They still serve everything.”

Jessica smirked. “Of course. It’s a neighborhood staple. I don’t think it’ll ever change.”

“And I assume Superdawg is still guarding the intersection at Nagle and Devon?”

“Oh, of course.”

“Man, all I need to do is hit the Choo-choo Cafe and Wolfy’s for the ultimate nostalgia trip.”

After a few quiet minutes of indecision, a waitress approached their table. She looked to be about as old as the group of seniors across the room. On a small tray she carried three glasses of water. In a gravelly voice, she said, “Hello.” She placed a glass in front of each of her customers, then withdrew three straws from her apron to place beside them. “Are you ready to order?”

“I’ll have the Custer Omelette,” Joshua said, handing her his menu.

“I’ll just have a side salad with vinaigrette,” Jessica said, “and a Diet Coke.”

“A Cheeseburger for me,” William concluded, taking Jessica’s menu and stacking it on his own. “Medium-well.”

The waitress took the menus from him. “Fries or fruit?”

“Oh, fries. Definitely.” He smiled.

“I’m still not hungry,” Jessica admitted. “I know I have to eat, but… I don’t know. The idea of food just doesn’t cross my mind. I think I had like two cans of ravioli between the time I heard what happened to Terry and today.”

“It’s understandable.”

Joshua nodded. “You’re trying.” Jessica said nothing, so he continued. “I want to do something for you. And for Terry.” He paused for a moment. “Maybe William, too.”

Jessica held up her hand. “Josh, you don’t have to. You don’t owe any of us anything.”

“I know, I know. But I want to. And I think you’ll like it.”

Jessica scrunched her face and shook her head. “Come on, Josh. What can you do? Open a gallery and show his art to the world? Be realistic.”

Joshua and William exchanged a look. “Well, kind of, yeah. I’ve booked an exhibit at a small place not far from here. I am being realistic, Jess. I spoke with my wife, with some art dealers I know back in Seattle, and my accountant. They are all behind me on this.”

“Jesus Christ. So, what, you blow into town and make a quick buck off my dead boyfriend?”

“Absolutely not. You will be getting a large cut of the profit. I won’t lie; I’m going into this hoping to make some money. But I also genuinely want to help. I don’t think you’re going to be set for life or anything. But I’m sure Terry would have loved to get his art out into the world, right?”

Jessica sighed. “Yeah. You’re not wrong. It just feels inappropriate to do this. Like, he’s dead. He worked so hard, and he won’t see anything for it.”

Jessica played with the straw in her water, shifting the ice back and forth. As she did so, the waitress returned with their food. She gave Jessica a glass of diet soda so large it dwarfed her head, then gave William’s cheeseburger to Joshua, and Joshua’s omelette to William. She made no attempt to correct the mistake. As she walked away from the table, the two men swapped their plates.

Before eating, William spoke. “It’s a tragedy, obviously,” he began. “But I don’t think Terry would prefer you hide his work away. If it’s good enough to share, and sell, wouldn’t he have wanted to do that while he was still alive?”

Jessica picked at her salad. “Yeah. It’s not that I disagree. I just feel bad.”

“You got dealt a shit hand, Jess, no doubt. But that doesn’t mean you can’t try to make the best of it. Right now, everything is raw. Everything to do with Terry is going to be abrasive.”

“Maybe. Do you think we could put off making this decision for a few months? I really need to think this over.”

“No,” Joshua said. “These things take time to pull together, and if you procrastinate you’ll miss your chance. I found a gallery that will show his work. They’ve got an opening in April. If we don’t reserve it soon, it will go to someone else.”

William raised his hands, signaling Joshua to stop. “I’m going to be the one taking care of this. Josh is taking care of the financial stuff, the business side. I’m doing logistics and promoting. I’ll be the feet on the ground here. You can work with me every step of the way, and stop me any time and tell me if something we do isn’t okay.”

Jessica took a sip from her gargantuan soda. “Do I even have a choice? He left that stuff to you two.”

“You’re right,” Joshua said. “This is our call. But we’d rather have you with us. It’s important to his legacy.”

Jessica sighed. “Fine. Whatever. Just… please don’t let this turn into a mockery of him.”

“I’ll shut it down myself before that happens,” Joshua promised.

*   *   *

When Joshua returned to Chicago for the show opening, he brought his family with him. He’d always wanted to take Corrine to a Leona’s buffet, and to show Danielle the parks he played in as a child. It was too cold for a comfortable stroll along the lake shore, but he and Corrine were able to catch a performance of Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind the night before the exhibition of Terry’s work.

Joshua and his family arrived at the gallery several hours before the exhibition would open. Jessica and William met them at the entrance. William wore a well-tailored suit with a modern cut, and Jessica a flattering black dress. “This must be Corrine,” she said, putting out her hand.

“Corey,” Corrine corrected. She brushed Jessica’s hand aside and went in for a hug. “It’s so nice to finally meet you.” She stepped back and placed a hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “This is Danielle.”

“Hello,” the little girl said shyly.

Jessica knelt down to meet the child at eye level. “Hi, Danielle. I’m an old friend of you’re Daddy’s.”

Danielle nodded. “He told me that. And that your boyfriend made the paintings, but he died.” She was quiet for a moment. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, Danielle. It’s hard, but I’m working through it.” She stood up and addressed the group. “Are we ready?”

Joshua smiled. “All for one?”

William rolled his eyes. “Let’s save the speeches for when the crowd has had a few drinks,” he advised, holding the door for everyone else. “In the meantime, we’ve got a gift for you.”

The gallery presenting Terry’s work was not large, but made excellent use of its space. The best of his most recent works were placed at the storefront, so that they could be seen from outside the building by passersby. These paintings included two “Three Musketeers” images, all of them featuring Jessica. Each of the three interior walls was lined with paintings from a different series. To Joshua’s left were more of the Three Musketeers series, to his right were landscapes capturing both the city and nature. Along the back wall hung a still life series. Some of his larger pieces hung from the ceiling by thin wire rope. In the center of the room, ten of his works were available as limited edition prints. Four of them were from the Three Musketeers series, the remaining six split among still life and landscape.

“This is wonderful,” Corinne said, awestruck.

Danielle stopped and stared at a painting the featured a young Jessica holding a wooden sword to the throat of a defeated William. They were both mottled with dirt, and grinning madly. She smiled.

A sudden panic struck Joshua. He grabbed William’s arm. “You didn’t put up any of the… more revealing paintings, did you?” He glanced at his daughter.

Jessica laughed. “No,” she said. “Those will remain in my private collection.” She opened a door at the opposite end of the gallery. “Your present is in here.”

In the center of the back room, the originals for the four musketeer prints stood on easels.

“We’re each going to get one, and the last one will be sent to Terry’s parents,” Jessica explained. “Since this was your idea, you get first pick.”

Joshua brought his hand to his chin and pondered each piece. Each one featured all four of them. In the first, they stood in a line with their arms around each other, smiling. In the second, they played a game of hide-and-seek. The third featured them again in a line, this time with wooden swords raised high. The final image was the most elaborate: the children played a board game on the sidewalk as their families looked on from the porch of William’s home.

“It’s kind of Rockwell-esque,” Corinne commented.

“I think this one should go to his parents, if I might suggest it,” Joshua said, pointing to the piece with their families. “I’d like the one with our swords raised.”

“I told you he’d go for that one,” Jessica said to William, smiling. She turned to Joshua. “I wanted hide and seek. Will wanted the huddle. It looks like everything worked out perfectly.” She paused for a moment and looked into the distance, the memory of Terry striking her heart for a moment. “More or less.”

“One last thing, before the show begins,” William interjected. He produced a small serving tray with four wine glasses and a juice box. Three glasses were filled with red wine, the fourth with water. He handed the juice box to Danielle, and took the water for himself. After each of his friends took their wine, he placed the tray on a table and raised his glass. “To Terry,” he said.

“To Terry,” the group replied in unison.

Ouya: Take Two

I haven’t used my Ouya much since writing my original articles about it. I don’t have much time to play games over the summer, as work keeps me swamped until mid-September… which is now. I thought I’d take some time and revisit the console, now several months into its first year, and re-evaluate it.

Let me begin by pointing out that the controller still isn’t great. I gave up on an improved experience via software updates, and got my hands on a used PS3 controller. I am happy to report that things work much better once you start using a good game pad. Games like League of Evil start to play better, and emulators feel “right.” It is an unfortunate mar on the system’s reputation, but one that can no longer be ignored. The cost of an Ouya just went up by the market price of a PS3 controller. Since the Ouya does not support force feedback, you can at least save some money and buy a Sixaxis instead of a DualShock 3.

There are still lots of system updates, which can be seen as a good or a bad thing. It could just have been the fact that I haven’t turned my Ouya on in over a month, but I wound up getting two updates over the course of less than a week. They don’t seem to have fixed two of the Ouya’s most glaring annoyances: that games don’t seem to download in the background, and updates fail more often than they succeed. I’ve spent over an hour sitting at the menu screen, trying to download updates and watching all but one or two fail. It’s maddening.

There’s also the issue of Ouya’s extremely limited storage space. Although you can add an external drive, games must be programmed to support them. This limits you to around 8 GB of useable space. The amount of space a game takes up can vary wildly, from a few megs to over 1 gig. This wouldn’t be a big deal if you could easily expand the storage size. However, you cannot. You may find yourself deleting games you’re not as interested in to make room for new ones. You may find that you don’t want to try any new games, because your Ouya is filled with games you really like, and don’t want to lose any of them. It’s a hassle.

The Ouya does still work, however, and there are still games being released for it. Let’s take a look at a few more.

Freedom Fall

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Freedom Fall . The Princess' messages are a disturbing delight.Freedom Fall . The Princess' messages are a disturbing delight.

Freedom Fall. The Princess’ messages are a disturbing delight.

An interesting platformer marred by stiff controls and a broken wall-jump mechanic, Freedom Fall is something I’d really like to get into. The general concept is great: you play a medieval prisoner whose tower cell is opened up, only to discover your way out is a winding fall designed to be the ultimate deathtrap. The course is lined with amusing notes from its designer, a demented princess who derives great joy from torturing her father’s prisoners.

I am on the fence about this game. I really like the idea behind it, but one of its core mechanics just does not work. I want to purchase it and keep playing, but I know that the wall jump difficulty will make me hate it. Freedom Fall would be a must-buy if they could get the timing on such a critical move right. A platforming game’s controls should not fight the player; that’s the job of the level design. It’s a pity. I want to buy this game. I want to play more. But it’s broken, so the developer doesn’t get my money and I don’t get my fun.

The Life of a Pacifist is Often Fraught With Conflict and Enemy of the Solid State

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The beginning of  Enemy of the Solid State.  The beginning of  Enemy of the Solid State.  

The beginning of Enemy of the Solid State. 

Both of these games are visual novels created by bentosmile. Visual novels, for the uninitiated, are semi-interactive stories. Most of the game involves reading, and occasionally making choices for the character. These two visual novels in particular are clever, with just the right amount of wit. They are also quite short, but since they’re free I can easily recommend them if you’re looking for a nice quick story.

Sine Mora

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Fighting a boss in  Sine Mora  .Fighting a boss in  Sine Mora  .

Fighting a boss in Sine Mora .

Sine Mora is a bullet-hell shoot-em-up(often truncated to shmup) by Grasshopper Manufacture, and it’s probably one of the least-weird games they’ve ever made. The story is nigh-unfollowable, but I think it’s fair to say no one plays shoot-em-ups for their plots. The game features an interesting time control mechanic, which helps you weather the storm of projectiles rushing toward you as you fight through enemy lines and take down massive bosses. Grasshopper Manufacture has a great reputation, and this game does not disappoint. If you are a fan of side-scrolling shmups, you should definitely check Sine Mora out.

I missed Sine Mora when it was previously released on XBLA, Steam, PSN, and iOS. In this instance this is a case where being on the Ouya helped the game stand out. I purchased it after playing through a single level. However, since I do have access to these better consoles, I may start playing it on them, instead.

Shuttle Rush

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  Shuttle Rush   in action.  Shuttle Rush   in action.

 Shuttle Rush  in action.

Shuttle Rush is a fast-paced puzzle-platformer where time is of the essence. Your character, Space Taxman Bob, punctured his space suit and must make it back to his shuttle before all the air leaks out. The denizens of the ship he’s aboard don’t care much for him, and will attack him on sight. As you progress, stages get larger and the puzzles more difficult. You will occasionally run across air pumps, where you can spend the coins you collect while playing to have your suit refilled.

Although it wasn’t really my cup of tea, Shuttle Rush is not a bad game. The visuals have a fairly unique style to them, and while the animation is not great, it’s certainly acceptable. It was the jumping mechanic that bothered me. I felt like I could never get the hang of it, and was regularly mis-timing my leaps. There isn’t much of a story to speak of, so the only thing to keep you going is figuring out each level’s layout, and perhaps beating your old score. The developer, Takusan Works, was very generous with the amount of free demo gameplay they provide, so it’s worth checking out if you are a fan of games like Braid.

The Vestibule

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A promotional image of  The Vestibule.A promotional image of  The Vestibule.

A promotional image of The Vestibule.

Another visual novel, this one from Project BC. It tells the story a Gale, who is traveling a great distance via rail to their lover. Gale shares a pair of cars with two passengers: a young woman visiting her mother, and a lawyer on his way to represent an old friend. Each of them is as anxious about arriving at their destination as Gale. Like bentosmile’s offerings, The Vestibule can be completed in a single sitting. It’s interface felt a little unresponsive, but because timing is hardly of the essence it wasn’t enough to keep me from enjoying the story.

Reaper

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The player fights Natives in  Reaper .The player fights Natives in  Reaper .

The player fights Natives in Reaper.

Reaper is a moderately fun game that would probably be more compelling if it wasn’t built around an auto-attack mechanic. Your character will automatically attack any enemy right next to them, but these attacks are weak. When your character does enough damage, they get a rage tokens. There permit them to use powerful forms of your manual attacks. You’ll also collect money and experience for defeating enemies, which allows you to level up and buy better equipment. The demo mode limits you to gaining ten experience levels. I lost interest before I hit level three.

This game is an example of a mobile game being shoehorned into a console form. It is designed to be played in small bites, and with simple controls. However, console games and smartphone games are not the same, and need to be approached differently. There is no better example of this than the much-lauded console version of Diablo III, which greatly changed its play style to suit the change in input. Reaper doesn’t do this, and suffers for it.

Rush Brothers

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The madcap platforming of   Rush Brothers.The madcap platforming of   Rush Brothers.

The madcap platforming of  Rush Brothers.

Rush Brothers is a multiplayer platforming game where you race an opponent to the finish line. Each course is filled with traps and items that will either help you or hinder your opponent. The game is tied in with Reverbnation, and features a fast-paced techno/electronic soundtrack that fits the style perfectly. Rush Brothers combines the fun of a frantically-paced platformer with the joy of sabotaging your opponent, Mario Kart-style.

The biggest flaw in this game is that it does not support ps3 controller. You must use the Ouya controller, which means that you’re at an instant disadvantage. Granted, your opponent must, too, but as soon as they trigger a control swap switch, you’re fighting both the game pad and reversed controls. Its other flaw is that it requires you to play online. If you don’t have an opponent, you can still play, but if there is an issue with their servers, you can’t. In addition, lag between players can steal a victory from you. I once crossed the finish line several seconds in front of my opponent, and yet the win went to them.

Rush Brothers offers a 30-minute timed demo, which is plenty of time for you to figure out if these issues are deal-breakers for you. They were for me.

Polarity

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Polarity.Polarity.

Polarity.

Polarity is first-person puzzler in that feels a bit like Portal minus the portal gun and snarky AI goading you on. You play as a hacker hired to steal data from a super-secure virtual bank. By toggling your polarity — red or blue — you can navigate its labyrinthine halls and circumvent its security. Polarity’s concept is sound, and its visuals, though simple, are the good kind of sparse that set a consistent tone. It feels like Tron invaded Aperture Labs, and it looks nice.

The only place Polarity falls short is the controls department. You are again limited to just the Ouya controller, but that’s not the biggest issue. My real complaint is that you can’t change the control stick sensitivity, which I found to be way too high. I was constantly overshooting targets with the right stick. If I could reduce that sensitivity, I would buy this game at its $4.99 price in a heartbeat.

Fallen World

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Defending your partner in  Fallen World.  Defending your partner in  Fallen World.  

Defending your partner in Fallen World. 

A combination of tower defense and hack-and-slash brawler, Fallen World tasks you with protecting a young cyborg from waves of enemies. You can place automated defenses around the battlefield to slow the tide and slowly reduce their numbers, and directly attack enemies to more quickly dispatch them. Knowing when to rely on automated defenses and when to interact directly is the key strategy you’ll need to develop.

Although its graphics can only charitably be describes as “sparse,” Fallen World is interesting. However, I found the controls frustrating. The player character moves with an odd sort of inertia that I found distracting. I played enough to get to point where I could level up the character’s speed, but the game would not allow me to do so without paying to buy the full version, so I can’t tell if it gets better. I did like the theory behind the game, but without knowing if the controls improve by leveling up, I can’t really recommend it. The game is too restrictive with its demo. It also doesn’t support third-party controllers.

Abbigale and the Monster

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One of the many single-screen puzzles from  Abbigale and the Monster.One of the many single-screen puzzles from  Abbigale and the Monster.

One of the many single-screen puzzles from Abbigale and the Monster.

This is a top-down puzzle game where you must simultaneously maneuver two characters to their destination. Gameplay takes place on a simple grid, with varied obstacles on either side of the board. You directly control the monster, and Abbigale’s movements mirror yours. This means that when the monster moves up a space, so does Abbigale, but when the monster moves left, she moves right. It takes a moment to get used to, but it makes sense very quickly. As the game progresses, enemies get added to the mix. They move when you do, so the challenge becomes accounting for their patterns while navigating the maze. The game’s plot revolves around the metaphor of the monster within Abbigale, but outside of the introduction, my short time playing it did not delve any deeper.

At first glance, Abbigale and the Monster reminded me of The Adventures of Lolo. However, this is an unfair comparison. While Lolo is very much about pushing blocks and preparing a room, Abbigale and the Monster is more about the challenge of navigating its boards. Like many of the other games I’ve reviewed here, this game did not support the PS3 controller. However, due to it’s turn-based movement, this does not affect play at all. This not the sort of game I enjoy, but I can see the appeal. I definitely recommend giving it a shot.

There are still lots of games on the Ouya I have not played. Although I was not too impressed with most of what I played this time around, I will go back and try more. So far, though, I’d have to say the Ouya remains a cube with unrealized potential.

 

Up For Nine Months

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A promotional image from Jawbone featuring the Up band in various colors. A promotional image from Jawbone featuring the Up band in various colors. 

A promotional image from Jawbone featuring the Up band in various colors. 

I didn’t weigh myself once between 2008 and 2012. I was shocked to discover I’d put on over thirty pounds in that time. It is likely that more than half of that came on in the last few years; I hadn’t bought a single new pair of pants between 2008 and 2010, and I found my waistline increasing in 2011. I’d taken on a new job that involved significantly more sitting around, and quite a bit more dining out.

I decided to do the responsible thing and start dieting. I’d thought I was being cautious before, but a quick glance at the calorie counts for many of my favorite restaurants revealed that there are much worse places to eat than McDonald’s. I realized I’d need to keep better track of what I was eating, and I should probably get a better idea of how many calories I expend in a day.

Fortunately for me, a revolution in health and exercise information is going on right now. Products like the Fitbit and Nike Fuel band are blowing up, and even better products are on the horizon. I chose to augment my less-than-stellar fitness sense with Jawbone’s Up band. I selected this particular device not for its style (although I liked that), or its cost (it’s right in the middle on cost), but because it also has an interesting sleep-tracking function that attempts to wake you each morning while you are in light sleep, making the transition back to consciousness easier. I’ve always had a hell of a time waking up in the morning. Every little bit helps.

The Jawbone Up band comes in various sizes and colors. At the time I got it, late December of 2012, only a few were available. I went with the incredibly standard medium-sized black band. It fits my wrist pretty well. I don’t care for wearing any sort of jewelry or accessories, so it took some getting used to. I still remove it whenever I am typing. The band is semi-flexible, and after you wear it for a while it will adjust a bit to your wrist. The Up band is also water resistant, so you don’t have to take it off unless you plan on actually submerging it completely. You interact with the band in two ways: one end has a single button, the other a standard 3.5 mm TRRS headphone jack. The headphone jack plugs into a compatible iOS or Android device and transfers the data it collects to your Up account. The button can be pressed and held in various morse code-like patterns to alter functionality.

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A promotional image of the black Jawbone Up, the color I purchased.A promotional image of the black Jawbone Up, the color I purchased.

A promotional image of the black Jawbone Up, the color I purchased.

I’d like to get the bad news out of the way first: the quality assurance on the Up has been an issue from day one. I was hesitant to purchase one, because the previous generation of the device was known for breaking down quite easily. Jawbone was adamant that their revised model, released in 2012, would fare better. I have a second generation model, and it hasn’t impressed me on that front. In fact, I am on my third band (fourth, if you count them sending me the wrong size after the second broke). The first band stopped taking a charge after a month, and no amount of hard or soft resets could revive it. The second stopped vibrating several months in — a key function for me, as I’d purchased it as much to monitor my sleep as my movement. I’ve been on this third band for a few months now, and so far it has held up to the same level of stress that defeated its forebears. Still, I can’t escape the concern it will fail on me at some point in the near future.

The Jawbone Up communicates with an app that runs on either an iOS or Android device. A full list of compatible devices can be found here. The software translates the data the band collects into sleep patterns and estimated movement. For example, you can mark specific activity on the band by pressing the button on the end once, then quickly pressing and holding a second time until the band vibrates, and repeating the same action when done. If you are engaging in actual exercise, this is a good way to verify the app’s calorie counts and movement tracking are accurate. The same app also has a calorie-tracking function to help you keep an eye on the food you’re eating. Its library is fairly extensive, though you’ll find yourself entering in data for local brands or just estimating meals based on existing listings fairly regularly. The App also heavily relies on communicating with Jawbone’s servers for every sync or meal, so if you don’t have an internet connection, you’ll have to wait until you do to update your information. 

Putting aside my concerns for its workmanship, the Jawbone Up has helped me lose thirty-five pounds and keep them off for two months. I’ve started a second round of dieting, with the hopes of losing up to thirty more. If you aren’t interested in its sleep-monitoring alarm, there are cheaper competitors with a better build quality track record. However, I can say that for me, the Up has made me healthier and more keen to alter my often sedentary lifestyle. I’ve lost weight, put more effort into getting at least some exercise, and sometimes, I actually wake up on time.

Sometimes.

Our Fair City: A Lighthearted Dystopia

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The   Our Fair City   logoThe   Our Fair City   logo

The Our Fair City logo

This article was written by me for, and originally posted on, Forward Compatible

 

Outside the walls, things are grim: New England is a frozen wasteland. Things aren’t much better within them, but your chances of survival are better. Slightly. The denizens of HartLife’s community — better known as Policies — live to work. At the very least, they work to live. The corporation keeps its Policies in line through oppressive bureaucracy, brazen propaganda, and a multitude of unnatural threats. Those who do not bend to the will of HartLife often contend with the like of giant ants and carnivorous mold. A strict social order maintains some semblance of order, and HartLife’s Orwellian monitoring systems prevent the order from being questioned.

Our Fair City is a podcast produced here in Chicago. The cast recently performed a live episode for several nights at Chicago’s Fringe Festival. This special event was presented as a live taping of The Archibald Funnypants Variety Hour, a popular radio show designed to entertain HartLife’s Policies while keeping them mollified. The venue wasn’t perfect; the lack of air conditioning made the room muggy and slightly uncomfortable. It was underground theatre in its most raw form, and I do not think it should be used to judge the show. I only mention it because, in a way, it suited the concept of the show. An audience of HartLife Policies would likely view the show in a less-than-comfortable climate.

I gave the show’s web site a quick glance before the performance, but I did not listen to any episodes beforehand. Though a thorough understanding of the show would have likely lead to a deeper connection to Our Fair City’s live production, I am happy it was not necessary.  The story is easy enough to get into, and Archibald Funnypants, portrayed by Mark Soloff, does a fantastic job of acclimating the crowed to their world. The majority of the show was a series of moralistic short stories, skewed to suit the interests of HartLife. As a radio drama, actors stood in front of microphones while performing, and a foley artist created an aural landscape onstage to accompany them.

I thoroughly enjoyed the show, which included parables about the proper place in society for mole-people, the dangers of carnivorous mold outbreaks, and the dire need for Policies to donate their discretionary income back to the company. It piqued my interest in the podcast itself, and I would jump at the chance to see another live performance.

Our Fair City presents the lighter side of corporate-sponsored dystopian misery, and it’s worth checking out.

 

Everyone Needs To Play Gone Home

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TVRoom2013.jpgTVRoom2013.jpg

I went into Gone Home blind, and I’m incredibly glad I did. News about the game was blowing up for a while, and I had to avoid reading articles and listening to podcasts about it. It was a little maddening. I am the type to do all sorts of research into something that catches my interest. I enjoy being engrossed. I don’t need a hype machine; I get myself hyped. I obsess.

With that said, Gone Home may be the most enthralling thing I’ve every played.

You don’t need to know much about Gone Home. It takes place in 1995, and overflows with references to the culture of the time. It’s a first-person exploration game that follows Kaitlin (Katie) Greenbriar, a young woman who has just returned home from traveling abroad. No one picked up the phone when she called to announce her return, and no one met her at the airport. She arrives at the front door of her family’s relatively new home at about 1:15 am, and no one is there to greet her. Throughout the course of Gone Home, you will learn about Kaitlin’s family, and why no one is there.

Because her family moved while she was traveling abroad, the building you’ll explore is as new to Kaitlin as it is to you. Everything here is as much a surprise to the character as it is to the player. Nearly everything in the home is interactive. Every drawer and door can be opened. Almost every object can be inspected. Most of it is incidental, but it builds a convincing world to explore.

A lot has happened in the time Katie has been gone. It’s hard to know what to think, early on. The game is vague, and no outward indicators have been left to tell Katie why no one is in the house. Each hallway and room you explore will deepen the mystery. If you’re anything like me, you will speculate wildly until the very end. By the end of your journey through the mansion, however, you’ll be left with no questions.

Gone Home is intense, due in no small part to its tightly-integrated story and well-planned path through the mansion. As you make your way through the house, a voice over of Samantha, Katie’s sister, tells the story of what has happened to her over the past year. She is clever, witty, and utterly engaging. Less a game and more a piece of interactive fiction, Gone Home is superbly written, acted, and scored. The visuals, while not groundbreaking, are very good. A great deal of the game is about lighting, and is more about presenting a believable world than wowing the player. It succeeds in every aspect.

If you have $20, around 4 hours free, and a relatively recent computer (Windows, Mac, or Linux!), Gone Home should not be missed.

An Obituary

JEROME HAMMOND, resident of Northbrook, IL, passed away on August 26th, 2013, at the age of 96. He was finally done in by his fourth heart attack.

Born at his childhood home in Chicago, Jerome was renowned for being the most hated person in the world, by percentage. Although monsters like Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin tend to claim this title in terms of sheer numbers, Mr. Hammond broke new ground in this category because practically everyone he met hated him. 99.8% of people who came into contact with him disliked him immensely. His daughter disowned him at fifteen. His son was famously quoted saying, “He isn’t good for anything, even an inheritance.” His own mother described him as “a complete and utter disappointment.”

From a young age, Jerome was insufferable. He found a way to effortlessly display every negative character trait known to man. As a child, he was a bully. He channelled his frustrations at younger children, tormenting them at every opportunity. On more than one occasion, his peers confronted him about his conduct. In every instance, he cowered like a wuss until they let him be, and then returned to his reprehensible behavior. As he entered high school and realized no one was intimidated by him anymore, he began to instead harass immigrants and minorities. He was particularly fond of mocking the Irish, even after it had fallen out of vogue.

Jerome never learned from his mistakes, and blamed every misfortune to befall him on someone else. Every hare-brained scheme that failed was the fault of a co-conspirator, and every car he rear-ended had a faulty brake light. He heaped unreasonable expectations on every person he met, and took no responsibility for himself. He was exceptionally rude to sales clerks and waitstaff. There are no recorded instances of him receiving an unmolested meal upon returning to a restaurant for a successive visit.

By contrast, every good thing to happen to him was, in his view, entirely his own doing and richly deserved. Jerome did not believe in chance. Every scratch-off lottery ticket that did not result in a win was a misprint; every win was due to his refined scratching technique and “system.”

When asked how a man such as he could ever get a woman to sleep with him, let alone marry him, his wife of sixty years, Margaret, responded, “He paid me. He was a bastard, and a pain in the ass, and he had the most annoying voice. But he mostly left me alone. Once he had a couple kids, he never touched me again, thank God. Jerry was a means to an end, and that’s it.” Margaret, for her part, is the sixteenth-most hated person in the world, disliked by 92.24% of the people who have met her.

Jerome is succeeded by his aforementioned wife, Margaret(84), son(Robert, 63), and daughter(Dinah, 59).  In addition, he has four grandchildren. They are reasonably well-adjusted, all things considered.

Jerome has already been cremated, and the world is richer for having lost him.

Josephine

There’s a saying about turning heads when a person walks into a room. It’s supposed to indicate how attractive or magnetic a person is. I never liked it; most people will turn and look when they realize someone has walked into a room. They want to know what is going on. The real measure is how long a person is watched when they walk into a room.

I say that because I don’t think it does Josephine justice to say “heads turn when she walks into a room.” Of course they do. What’s exceptional is how long everyone’s eyes stay locked on her. Josephine always looks perfect. She’s in great shape. She dresses both stylishly and appropriately. When she smiles, her eyes light up. Her laugh is infectious, and she always know when to laugh, and for exactly how long. Everything about Josephine projects success, from her perfect hair and make-up, to her ever-changing wardrobe. She’s polite, she’s kind, but she is still formal and to-the-point. She’s the epitome of no-nonsense.

Josephine is always the queen of the room, and she knows it.

The room, in this case, is a small cafe that specializes in sweets and sandwiches. She comes here several times a week, as I do, though not from the same place. Most of the time, when I see her here, she gets a salad to go. She has never once stayed to eat. She walks in the door, makes a bee-line for the counter, where her food is already prepared, and she leaves. Josephine has never given any indication of noticing me. I don’t mind that. It’s probably for the best. What would we have to discuss? Something tells me she doesn’t watch Community or The Venture Brothers, and I’m pretty sure she’s never pondered the finer points of Final Fantasy VI. Her favorite bands are probably whatever’s on the Top 40 station at the moment, and her favorite movie is likely a romantic comedy, but not a good romantic comedy, like Stranger Than Fiction.

Speculation, I know.

Here’s the thing: I went to high school with Josephine. She was a beauty, even then. She was a cheerleader and a dancer, and she always dated the coolest, best-looking guys. It would be easy to believe she’d been bred from a tank for science. One parent an Olympic-athelete-turned-doctor, the other a marathon-running attorney. Something like that.

She was in my Theatre Workshop class freshman year. I think we had some other classes together, too, but with one exception my memory is foggy on the subject. We didn’t run in the same circles, you know?

We only really talked once. She probably doesn’t even remember it. Whenever our algebra teacher couldn’t make it in to work, a few of the more unruly students took to making disruptive noises whenever the substitute teacher turned his or her back. Most of them made animal noises, but one person made a hard-to-pin-down guttural sound that was something between a cat’s curious meow and a rubber band. Between the moos and baas was a doyoyoyoyoyoy that couldn’t be sourced.

“Come on, guys,” Josephine would chide. “Grow up.”

Toward the end of the year, as the cacophony was in full swing, she turned to look at me and smiled. Below the rumble of the mock zoo, she whispered, “Can I show you a secret?”

“Sure,” I said, shrugging.

She twisted in her desk to better face me. “Watch my lips and my neck.”

I did. Nothing happened. The audible chaos continued, that distinctive doyoyoyoyoyoy joining a chorus of pigs and wolves. “I make that noise, and no one ever guesses that it’s me. No one knows except you. Don’t tell anyone.”

Josephine smiled at me and turned back around, putting on a serious scowl. “Seriously, you all still think that’s funny? Jeez.”

I wonder if that Josephine exists anymore. The world would be a sadder place if she didn’t.