Let’s Silhouette!

The Silhouette machine, which looks like a printer

A die-cutting machine. Check it out at the Earl Center.

You’ve probably heard that the Earl Center offers some incredible, state of the art tools and resources that give you the ability to learn new things. With just a little bit of exploring, you’ll find that the Earl Center is full of opportunity to create, learn, and innovate. I am currently interning at the Earl, so it’s likely that you’ve seen me floating around, making this and that, or facilitating pop up makerspaces every now and again. One of the skills I’ve learned during my time at the Earl Center is how to operate the Silhouette Cameo. The following overview of the precision instrument was pulled from my blog, MakerSpace Magic. On the blog you can find in depth summaries of my favorite projects that I’ve been able to create by utilizing the tools and materials in the Earl Center. The best part is that all, of the skills I’ve learned are available to you too! Stop by the Earl Center whenever you have some free time and learn something new. And now… let’s Silhouette!

-Meg Rubadou Class of 2019

Silhouette Cameo. It is a precision instrument similar to the Cricut, and paired with software can come to the rescue with all of your sketching, designing, and cutting needs. If you’ve done any work with Photoshop, InDesign, or any of those Adobe programs, you’ll pick up the Silhouette software pretty quickly. You can design your own stuff or choose from their library to create. As far as printing and cutting, you can also use a wide range of mediums. Silhouette offers some such as vinyl (pssst…Child Life Specialists, teachers, and other kid-fun related professions! Think wall pops. You could design your very own!), paper, cardstock, iron-on heat transfer paper, sticker paper, and (as an inked citizen of America- my favorite,) temporary tattoo paper.

USER FRIENDLY RATING: I give it a 4. The machine itself, or the one I was using (there are different generations), Cameo 3, took me a bit to get the hang of, but the outcomes of my work are below. The only thing I couldn’t quite grasp is using the PixScan feature of the software that allows you to scan and cut using either a scanner or a smart phone camera for image reference. However, I’m quickly learning that if you have questions about the machine or software, you’re not the first who’s had that same question. Google it!

BINGE WORTHY?: When you don’t get paid until next week but you stumble upon it on amazon on a random Monday, maybe not. But if you are ready to commit a few hours to learning the ropes and you have $250 to burn, go for it. In the long run, a great purchase. There are also packages on amazon that sell bundles of materials like the vinyl for cutting and all that good stuff for good prices so shop around. Plus, the good news is that you can save a ton of money by purchasing cutting and printing material that isn’t produced by cameo. For example, a cheap construction paper will be just as effective as an expensive colored paper. Learn as you go with this.

MAKERSPACE MAGIC?: Yes. 100%. If you are a librarian who wants to bring the community together to learn how to make easy, quick, lettering designs or other projects, this machine is a good one for you to invest in. Moms will love it, teens will love it, people of all walks of life will feel so accomplished when they learn how to grasp this super neat tech.

Continue reading her post on the Silhouette. It has some great examples of projects done with the Silhouette.

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Hour of Code

three women looking at their ipads at a table.

The Earl Center will be hosting an Hour of Code lunch and learn on Friday, 12/9,  from 12:30 to 1:30.  Bring your lunch and the Earl Center will supply drinks and chips.

Hour of Code started as a non-profit organization and website headed by Hadi Partovi. Its purpose is to encourage people and schools in the United States to learn computer science. In 2013 90% of the schools did not teach computer science. It is estimated that 20 million people world-wide participated in the first Hour of Code.

Figure 1 Rear Admiral Grace M. Hopper -Wikipedia

Figure 1 Rear Admiral Grace M. Hopper –Wikimedia Commons

It is now offered voluntarily by schools and organizations during Computer Education Week, the first or second week in December,  to coincide with celebration of the birthday of Admiral Grace Murray Hopper (December 9, 1906). She was a computing pioneer who designed a compiler for the first computer programs among other things. She was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama on November 22, 2016. She was also the identifier of the first computer bug-a moth stuck in the relay of a Navy Mark II computer.

Participation in Hour of Code requires minimal resources. It can even be done without a computer, by any age group from pre-readers to adults. Code.org provides free resources for educators (who don’t have to know how to code when they start) https://hourofcode.com/us/how-to.

Information on computer science education in Massachusetts https://code.org/advocacy/state-facts/MA.pdf

iamge of graph paper with scribbles

photo of first computer bug – a moth stuck in a computer – Wikimedia Commons

 

 

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OSMO Coding

Light blue character has a round circle body with oblong limbs. The two arms have three yellow bands. The face is smiling with a big grin and a red tongue. The character is holding a strawberry. White background

upright white box with clear plastic window in the center, written word “Osmo” in different colors at the top, black word “Coding” at the bottom. The box rests on a white round table in front of a window that shows the bricks of the Student Center building in the background. In front of the box are scattered colorful blocks with little figures walking or jumping. Smaller yellow blocks have numbers on themThe Earl Center has recently updated its Osmo set! Now, in addition to Tangrams, Words, Newton, and Masterpiece, we present: Osmo Coding!

It’s a great little set with a number of coding blocks.

The set up is the same as with Tangrams and the others: simply download the Coding app onto an iPad (which we have a number of at the Earl Center!), put the tablet into the base, and get started!

The main character is our furry friend Awbie, who seems to be Bigfoot’s little cousin. They love eating strawberries.

Light blue character has a round circle body with oblong limbs. The two arms have three yellow bands. The face is smiling with a big grin and a red tongue. The character is holding a strawberry. White background

Please join us on the Earl Center Blog for more updates on Awbie’s grand strawberry adventures!

We follow Awbie on their quest to eat strawberries and to grow flowers on the…er…remains of the strawberries.

The player helps Awbie by using the coding blocks to move Awbie forward a space, to turn, to jump, to grab strawberries, and so forth. Pressing the “play” button gets Awbie started on the moves the player has designed – and then we find out if Awbie is successful or not!

ipad plugged into OSMO base and the OSMO Coding box right next to it. In front of it are 3 coding blocks. The top block shows a walking figure, an up arrow, and the number 2. The middle block shows a walking figure, a right arrow, and the number 2. The third block shows a triangle pointing right

Here, Awbie will be moving up two spaces and over two spaces – there’s a nice ripe red strawberry waiting!

The gray arrows on the blocks turn to the direction the player wants, and the yellow tiles go up to five – the player can mix and match.

The pink bar on the side keeps track of Awbie’s strawberry points – then Awbie can get a plant to put in the garden!

Here Awbie has returned to their empty garden plot…but fortunately, there is a plant to place in!
Ipad plugged into OSMO base. The screen depicts the character, Awbie, moving through a garden. In front of the ipad are two coding blocks. The first coding block depicts a walking person, an up arrow, and the number 4. The second coding block depicts an arrow pointing right.
Lastly, here is the sick volcano that Awbie is helping. Awbie follows the white rabbit to each level – hopefully the volcano will get happier and happier!

-Reviewed by Quincy Knapp, Earl Center Public Services Assistant

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Little Robot, Big Deal: A Review of Ozobot Bit

Image of the Ozobot Starter Kit's items: sheets, stickets, and cards

Designed by electronics company Evollve, the Ozobot Bit is a palm-sized device that looks a little like a bon-bon, but you can dress it up with the tickers and chipboard decorations like ears and horns that it comes with.

This little bot uses a micro USB based rechargeable LiPoly battery. Before you start to play, you must calibrate the bot. To do that, just hold down the power button (located on its side) until the robot’s LED turns white, then place it on the calibration card it ships with. Once the little robot’s light turns green, it’s ready to go.  One calibration lasts about 90 minutes.
From left to right: 1. a small, flat empty container (to hold cards, booklets, and stickers) 2. two sheets of stickers (variety of ears, stars, numbers, mustaches, sunglasses, and eyes) to decorate ozobot 3. ozobot start guide 4. lone gaming instruction sheet   5.a set of sheets with gaming instructions   6. a tray with 4 markers and a cyan blue plastic round piece and a round motor.
I tested the Ozobot Bit starter pack (available at the Earl Center) which contains:

  • One Ozobot with two skins
  • 4 code-creating markers
  • 2 clear play surface sheets,
  • 2 sheets of reusable code stickers
  • A DIY blank customizable skin
  • DIY skin sticker sheet.
  • A charging USB cable

All nicely packaged in a way that ensures the contents won’t get damaged.

There are about 25 activity cards, as well as instructions on how to download free Android & iOS Apps.

How it works

Using color sensing technology and dual micro motors for variable speeds, Ozobot follows black, red, green, and blue paths that control its movement and speed in different directions. What’s interesting about this robot is that you can use it atop smartphones and tablets as well as on just a piece of paper. You can create mazes, tracks and playgrounds on paper, game boards and digital screens. I tried a few of the simple mazes and then one of the more complicated cards that required using some of the stickers that direct the bot left, right and straight.

You can find printable code challenges on the Ozobot website as well the Ozobot android/iOS app which contains three games: OzoDraw, OzoLuck and OzoPath.

OzoLuck lets you select a discreet number of outcomes for the Ozobot, then pick from three maze types. Once you select a maze type, you put your bot on the calibration point in the center and press the start button. You guess where you think Ozobot will finish at then sit back and watch as it moves forward and turns its way to one of the available outcomes.

OzoPath is an app where you race against clock. You try to get Ozobot to complete a path from start to finish using specific game tiles. Depending on the rotation of the tile, the piece can only be placed in certain squares, rotating the tile will open new possibilities and shut down existing ones, thus introducing gaming style and design.

Ozodraw lets you create new game surfaces. Using this part of the app, you are guided on how to draw one of the over 25 unique code commands that control Ozobot’s speed, decision-making and behavior.

Another app is called Ozogroove, which is supposed to get your Ozobot grooving to the music of your choice. I tried using the built in demos (the bot is supposed to dance to preprogrammed chacha, country or step dancing) on my phone, but it didn’t work very well for me. To be fair, it would probably be much more fun on a tablet or similarly sized device.

In all cases, there is a learning component: you try combinations of colors (codes) to get the Ozobot to make the moves you want it to.

So what?

Aside from the obvious fun, why would you want to include the Ozobot in your curriculum? Well, here are just a few reasons:

  1. In the guise of a game, the Ozobot teaches basic coding practice; e.g., different colors make the bot go at different speeds and different combinations of colors make the bot move in different directions.
  2. The kit promotes deductive reasoning. Consider for example, extras available from the Ozobot website. Amidst a maze of black lines, students choose codes to get Ozobot from one end of the maze to another. Using the green, red, blue, or black markers provided in the kit, students color (code) and watch as the Ozobot reads and deciphers the code and then follows the command to successfully complete its journey.  Unlike a lot of technologically based materials, the Ozobot actually works very well when there is more than one player, so in a sense it teaches one of the most basic skills in K-12 education: social interaction. As one Web site puts it, Ozobot is a “bridge between technology and family game night, Ozobot encourages kids to play and interact.” (https://www.thegrommet.com/ozobot). With a device that falls squarely in the realm of techie, that’s just plain cool.

Evollve is about to launch a new robot called Evo, designed to “connect the physical and digital worlds, replacing solitary screen time with endlessly engaging user-to-user, user-to-bot and bot-to-bot interactions.” (http://marketersmedia.com/ozobot-releases-a-first-of-its-kind-smart-and-social-robot/132531)  Evo is slightly larger and can do more. You can program it by drawing colored stripes on paper, by creating actual programs in the Ozoblockly programming language on a PC (think a cross between Scratch and Logo), or using a companion iPhone or Android app as a remote control for the bot. To find out more about the company and its products visit http://ozobot.com.

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Perler Beads

Okay, remember being a kid. Yes, we are all kids at heart, but go back to when you were able to proudly create small treasures with just the right amount of “oohs and awes” from family and friends. Those precious memories of magic and wonder are still accessible. Enjoy those glorious moments of being a child again by playing with Perler Beads. Sift through the rainbow, captured inside these little plastic beads, with your own fingers and delight your senses. This is what it means to be a child– A bin full of fun. The Earl Center has the beads, pegboards, ironing paper, and an iron that you can use in our art area. Also, remotely check out the ebook Craft it With Perler Beads through our Library to get some “ooh and awe” ideas.

craftit

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Story vs. Gameplay in Videogames: Good Gameplay, Bad Story, Part 1

Last time I talked about what happens when a game developer and/or publisher creates a game with a good story and gameplay that enhances the game experience only to decide in the sequel to alienate the two elements thus creating a disjointed game that elicits more laughs than a stoned crowd watching Reefer Madness on a continuous loop. Now we will turn to the opposite side of the same coin, when gameplay mechanics can range from strong to solid, but the story prevents the game from engrossing its audience’s captivity. The closing results in being akin to an unfunny comedy, boring, painful, and not worth the price of admission.

CallofDutyLogo.svg

Now, I know that there are many games that I could use for this category, the Mass Effect series, The Elder Scrolls series, among them. But in order to demonstratethis point, I will be examining Call of Duty World War II games and the Call of Duty modern warfare games. I personally feel that the Call of Duty series has suffered from its longevity in the game market, mainly because it is the epitome of what I am trying to prove. While the core gameplay mechanics of this first-person shooter series remains solid, over time the series has succumbed to mediocre storytelling that is not only unrealistic, but, on a personal level, both offensive and jingoistic. But I will demonstrate that point when we get to that bridge. So sit back, strap yourselves in, and remember, this is just an opinion.

THE FIRST-PERSON SHOOTER

Before I begin to delve into the topics, I would like to give a little history on the First-Person Shooter genre and my opinions of it.

The First-Person Shooter (FPS) is a genre of videogames where the player sees through the eyes of the player character (first-person prospective). While games may use the first-person prospective to emphasize personal exploration or to help immerse players into the world, the FPS focuses on (you guessed it) shooting. Typically, it is your job to shoot through hordes of enemies, find the boss, and shoot him down as well. After you do, you have officially won, quite possibly saving the world/universe in the process. It is truly a simple matter of aiming your cross-hairs and shooting.

While the genre was created in the 1970s/1980s, with the first Image result for wolfenstein 3ddocumented games being Maze War and Spasim, it was not until 1992 that the genre became a part of the collective consciousness.
Wolfenstein 3D by id Software was released to significant controversy since it focused on the player character killing Nazis during World War II, displaying a first-person perspective of the player character firing a gun and people dying, often with bloodshed. However, the following year saw the release of Doom by the same company. This release improved on Wolfenstein 3D in multiple ways, including enhanced graphic and textures, which included flickering lights, and height variations,which meant that the flat one-floor environments of the previous game were replaced with multi-level rooms and allowed the player to climb stairs and ladders. What also helped in the game’s popularity was yet another controversy involving the satanic imagery that was found in the game, since you were playing as a space marine who was fighting the forces of Hell on Mars in a bloodbath. I could only make that up in my wildest of fever dreams.

Since then, more notable titles have refined the FPS experience, including Half-Life, System Shock, and Call of Duty, all of which, including Wolfenstein 3D and Doom are considered classic games and have had sequels follow suit. These sequels often enhance the gameplay while still remaining true to the FPS perspective.

However, I must admit that I am not a huge fan of FPS titles. While there are some exceptions to the rule, some consider The Elder Scrolls to be FPS games but I consider them Role-Playing Games played from a first person perspective, in general I just feel a little blasé to the genre. This is mainly due to two factors:

  1. The fact that it is a FPS means that you are the player character. I often feel conflicted about this, especially when the game tells us that we are playing as a specific character with a set personality. I feel that if I am supposed to be the soldier, it should reflect the personality that I have. I feel this way whether the player character is silent (a Gordon Freeman) OR talkative (a Duke Nukem).
  2. Stories tend to be bad. Though plots for video games have become more complex, with technological leaps comes story leaps apparently, it does not mean that stories for FPS games have become good. I have an unresearched feeling that FPS developers tend to focus on the gameplay first then build the story around it. For me, this is a HUGE disadvantage since this makes the final product seem rushed in the plot department.

Now I admit that this is my opinion and that not everyone has that opinion. Some may think that the same reasoning can be applied to third-person games. Others may feel the opposite of my opinions regarding PFS games specifically. But let us not linger on this and dive into the meat of this, shall we?

CALL OF DUTY: HONORING VETERANS

I will admit that I have always been a sucker for World War II history. It may be one of the ONLY times in history where the world was actually divided between good and evil with good triumphing in the end. It is a real example of the classic hero’s tale. This is why I enjoy videogames that are centered on World War II; for once I feel like I am a hero, especially since the events being portrayed could have happened on the battlefield.

And this is what the Call of Duty World War II games succeeded with, making sure that you were a part of this monumental occasion by pitting your character against the Nazis. What helped was the games context. The games were divided into three main chapters, each representing a different theater during the war: Europe, Africa, and Russia. Each theater opened with an introduction of the character you would be playing as, an American for the European Theater, an Englishman for the African Theater, and a Russian for the Russian Theater. The character would give their back-story, explaining why they were involved in the war, what their personal life was like before the war and what they hope to achieve after it is all over.

It is this little bit of context, combined with the historical significance, which helps create a sense of familiarity with the characters and an urgency to see that the player characters survive the war, i.e. you successfully complete the missions. You felt the importance you played in the war itself, whether you were bringing down German forces in Africa, Russia, or Europe. In essence, it was personal. It also helps that the game tries to accurately demonstrate the horrors of the war with many casualties in the trenches and battlefield and bullets whizzing by the player’s head as they charge from cover to cover. It is a World War II battleground, hectic, bloody, and sensually assaulting.

After some research, I discovered that the people you were Image result for Call of duty 1playing as were not real. The three games are a fictitious representation of major World War II battles, seen through the eyes of a person who never existed. It is akin to reading Gone With the Wind; the characters are fake, but the backdrop of the Civil War actually happened and the events that follow the character after the war are common occurrences to real life events. This being said, it could be concluded that the games, which cover battles like D-Day, Stalingrad, and the Battle of the Bulge, could be realistic representations of events, though fictionalized.

Despite my trepidation with FPS games, it is for this reason why I find the three World War II Call of Duty games to be interesting, playable, and fun. The games, while adhering to simplistic FPS gameplay, do draw the player in by engaging him or her with the story and characters. While they may be basic plots and simple characterizations, it is just enough to connect the player to the experience. For me, it is a game series where, like Silent Hill 2, the gameplay and story help enhance the game experience. However, the same cannot be said for the rest of the series, which opts for present day combat. That will be covered in the next post.

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Theatre Next Door

One of the reasons why I enjoy working at Wheelock College is because of the Wheelock Family Theatre, which is located right next door to the Earl Center for Learning and Innovation. The two WFT shows that I have seen thus far in my Wheelock career are their 2013 production of The Hobbit and their 2015 production of Shrek: The Musical.

shrekI developed an interest in theater in high school that continued into college and beyond partially because I got to know quite a few of the actors who were involved in the Cougar Catwalkers (the name of my high school’s drama club – our mascot was the Cougar). The first show that they did that I saw was their production of Once Upon a Mattress, which I saw with my mother in my high school’s auditorium in the spring of 2001. This show, coupled with the production of The Lion King that I had seen the previous year as part of my eighth grade trip into New York City, really stuck with me.

According to their website, the WFT offers classes and workshops throughout the year that are geared towards young people between the ages of 5 and 18. They also present themselves as being a “professional, affordable theater for every generation!” I can definitely attest to this statement. The enthusiasm of the Wheelock Family Theatre staff members, interns, and student employees is infectious, as is their dedication to making theater affordable (and fun!) for everyone.

This past summer, the WFT used part of the Earl Center as a rehearsal and performance space for one of their classes. It was exhilarating coming into work and being able to watch the children (who looked to be about in the 8-10 year old range) rehearse, work on their props and costumes, interact their group leaders, and just generally have fun. I left work that day smiling from ear to ear.

That’s what I love about the theater. It’s supposed to make us smile. It’s supposed to make us think. It’s supposed to give us a chance to escape reality for a few hours and enjoy a show that people have spent hours and hours working on perfecting.

Currently, the Wheelock Family Theatre is performing The Trumpet of the Swan.  You can learn more about the story and buy tickets by visiting the Wheelock Family Theatre website.

trumpet_ink Blue2.tif

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Boston Harbor Islands

If you’re not ready to say goodbye to summer or are just looking for a fun trip before we all get snowed in again, think about taking trip to the Boston Harbor Islands!  Not all of the islands are open to the public year-round.  At this time of the year, you can still get to Georges Island and Spectacle Island via ferry until Columbus Day (just a few weeks away).  You can get to them by taking the Boston Harbor Island Ferry from Boston’s Long Wharf (the Aquarium stop on the Blue Line).

Georges Island (Wikimedia Commons Image by Doc Searls)

Georges Island is home to Fort Warren, a fort that defended Boston Harbor from 1861 to the end of World War II. It was decommissioned in 1947, and during the American Civil War, it served as a prison for Confederate officers and government officials. It was placed on the National Register for Historic Places in 1970. There is a visitor’s center and a snack bar on this island where people can buy prepared foods such as hot dogs, French fries, burgers, and ice cream. Grills are available so that people can grill food that they’ve brought to the island from home.You can also do what my husband and I did when we visited this summer, which is carry prepared food from home onto the island, and eat lunch on one of the many picnic tables that are available near the ferry terminal and visitor center. It was lovely being able to sit outside on a nice day, chowing down on grapes, cheese and crackers, and salami, people watching and chuckling over the antics of a fearless seagull who was determined to snag a bite of someone’s lunch. Walking trails encircle Fort Warren, and benches dot the landscape.

Spectacle Island (image from http://www.bostonfoodandwhine.com)

There is an inter-island ferry to Spectacle Island, which my husband and I took during our visit. Spectacle Island is also home to a visitor’s center and a snack bar, as well as a lifeguard-manned beach, and walking trails.  We walked to one of the highest points on Spectacle, and took some photos. There is a gazebo that was dedicated to Krystle Campbell, one of the Boston Marathon bombing victims, and spent a few minutes there, enjoying the peaceful scenery. It was nice to see people enjoying the beauty of the island, especially parents exploring the islands with their children. These scenes put a smile on my face.

 

The Krystle M. Campbell Gazebo

The Krystle M. Campbell Gazebo (Image from insidemedford.com, courtesy of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation)

Some of the organizations that help manage the Boston Harbor Islands are the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, the National Park Service, the United States Coast Guard, the City of Boston, and the Thompson Island Outward Bound Center.

One fun fact that I learned during our initial trip out to Georges Island was that in 2008, Peddocks Island (another Boston Harbor Island that people can camp on) was used for filming scenes from the movie Shutter Island.

It’s too late now to visit Lovells Island, Peddocks Island, Grape Island, and Bumpkin Island, but if you’re already planning activities for next summer, these islands offer camping.  Lovells Island is home to picnic areas, walking trails, and a non-supervised swimming beach. This island was named after Captain William Lovell, a resident of Dorchester. Peddocks Island is home to the defunct Fort Andrews, another fort that was active in harbor defense from 1904 to the end of World War II.  Peddocks Island is also the only one of the camping islands that has access to drinkable drinking water, which might be a factor in your decision of where to camp.

 

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Story vs. Gameplay in Videogames: Good Story, Bad Gameplay

Silent Hill 2 video game cover

Whenever I go to the local library for my usual dosage of Terry Pratchett books or the random DVD titles, usually prefaced on Wikipedia by “This article about a horror film is a stub; You can help Wikipedia by expanding it,” curiosity always seems to get the better of me and I always explore the building before checking out my materials. Computers, ever a popular workspace in any library, are usually in continuous use from opening until closing; their adult users exhausting their time with browsing online library material, surfing the Web, or, most commonly, playing Solitaire.

minecraft image

However, while I find this extremely common with adults, I have always found children to be using computers to be preoccupied with the online videogame Minecraft. Minecraft is a sandbox videogame, an open world videogame that allows the player to explore the in-game world and create anything, seemingly without limitations. Players collect blocks and tools that allow them to create structures, ranging from a simple cottage in the woods to the ornately detailed Notre Dame and beyond. Since the game is online, players are also able to create communities and play with others, which allows each person to come out of each session with a different experience and story to tell.

minecraft survival mode

Minecraft’s Survival Mode

But then it hit me. If each person has a different story to tell, what is Minecraft’s exact story? To my utmost surprise, I found out that the closest Minecraft comes to a “story” is through its Survival Mode, where the player character needs to collect supplies within the game world to survive, culminating in nighttime battles against spiders, skeletons, and zombies (Oh my!). Because of this, instead of a true “story mode,” the game opts to put it entirely in the player’s hands. Though each of Minecraft’s  four gameplay modes (Survival, Adventure, Creative, and Spectator) contain various similar elements, such as wood, diamonds, mining, and others, the developers at Mojang decided that such a game was not suitable for the traditional storytelling mechanics. Instead, the game will focus on players creating their own worlds and items, potentially sharing it with other users before the one troll in the group decides to burn it all to the ground just because he or she can. One can almost smell the jealousy coming out of the flames. But creativity moves on and so do the haters and the non-haters.

Image from planetminecraft.com

Arc de Triopme in minecraft

Now I have tried Minecraft briefly and can understand why people enjoy it. Who wouldn’t be enticed by a bright, colorful, and open world that is the player’s own personal background where they can create what they want, when they want while simultaneously fighting off hoards of skeletons all before lunch? Personally I did not much care for it. While I may not be the most creative person in the world, especially compared to the person that can create a life sized replica of the Arc de Triomphe out of Minecraft building blocks, I can still understand why there is such a fanbase for this game. However, my main reason for not caring for it, though I can make a mean chimney, is the fact that for me story is an important element for me to enjoy media.

STORY MODE

Freddi Fish Game

Freddi Fish

When my family bought our first computer in the 90s, I was astounded over the fact that I was able to play Solitaire on what resembled a small television. Gradually, the repertoire was expanded towards videogames, mainly the catalog from Humongous Entertainment, mainly sports games and adventure games. While my sister and brother were fascinated by the sports games, I was always intrigued by the adventure games such as Freddi Fish, Putt-Putt, and Spy Fox. While these games were aimed at children, with their brightly hand-drawn animated layout, they were similar to one another and other adventure games because they were all point-and-click adventures that required the player to use the right item at the right time to accomplish the goal. Not only did this involve a lot of trial and error, but it attempted to stir creativity in the player through both obvious puzzles (wait until a man’s back is turned to steal a page of his sheet music) and the downright mystifying (use your pet mouse to retrieve a key from under the sofa that could have EASILY been picked up).

But the most notable point about them was that they always followed a cohesive narrative. There was a problem that needed to be solved, characters that either helped or hindered the player’s actions, and a resolution for beating the game. Yes the stories were simple, such as locating missing zoo animals or solving the case of the stolen toys, but they all worked towards a goal that upon successful completion rewarded the players with a satisfying conclusion. Something that Minecraft does not do, opting to let the player continue on infinitely until they log off for good or leave the mortal coil of the real world behind.

Spy Fox game

Spy Fox

It is entirely possible that since I started reading books before I began my trek into the Videogame Universe that I am inevitably drawn to the narrative structure and like to see it applied to new mediums, whatever they may be. As a result, I tend to play games that tell a competent narrative and whose gameplay reflects the tone the story sets out to create. By having story reflect gameplay or vice versa, the game world feels more fleshed out and open, allowing the player to fully immerse himself or herself in the game. And that is what all forms of medium want, total immersion. It is what will drive people to continually come back and replay the game, relive every moment they had fun in, question underlying subtexts in the story, and create new memories through a new playthrough.

However, it has been through my experience that story and gameplay need to work together in hand instead of one pummeling the other into submission. When there is a discord between the story and the gameplay, it tends to throw the entire game off balance, like a scale with a feather on one end and the entire Playstation 2 game catalog on the other. It is a problem that happens with a lot of horror films. Sure the films are trying to build suspense, but even that is ruined by the unintentional laughter from the audience because the acting is so over-the-top that it rivals a Lady Gaga performance. Plus, the fact that the movie is going through a checklist of horror clichés like a shopper goes through a grocery list does not help it at all. The same thing applies to games. You can make a racing simulator that has a story mode where your racer is trying to win the Sprint Cup. A competent game would complement this by have you upgrading and repairing your car and racing. But if the actual gameplay during the race acts as a point-and-click adventure and you are not personally racing at all, there is a huge discord between the story and gameplay. In fact, it would be jarring.

This is probably one of the reasons why Minecraft does not have a story; no story would be good enough to enhance the free-roaming creativity that it provides. But I would like to take this opportunity to examine story driven games, specifically how gameplay can enhance or detract from a story. While there are many examples that can be used, I will be focusing on two games from one series to demonstrate both points. Silent Hill 2 and Silent Hill: Homecoming. So sit back, strap yourselves in and get ready for me to tear apart your favorite games.

SILENT HILL 2: RELATABLE HORROR EXPERIENCE

Silent Hill 2 video game cover

Silent Hill is a long-running series created by Konami first released in 1999 on the Sony Playstation. The games series focuses on the title town, which through means involving Lovecraftian gods, monsters, and religions, has become, in essence, a sentient being that is able to draw the tormented to it so that they may be confronted with their deepest and darkest secrets. As such, this series focuses on psychological horror, a genre that is extremely story driven since it tries to get into the audience’s head and make the experience relatable. Because of this, it can be split into two camps, bone-chillingly terrifying or laughably bad. This is due to the fact that horror is in the eye of the beholder; not everyone will find the same thing to be scary and few films, books, and videogames can lay claim to the fact that it can scare EVERYONE.

Speaking of those select few, Silent Hill 2 is one of those games. The game focuses on James Sunderland, a clerk who receives a letter from his wife, Mary stating that he should meet her in Silent Hill. However, the catch is that Mary has been dead for 3 years. Despite this, James makes his way to the town to find out what is going on, meeting other people drawn to the town as well, including Angela Orosco, a teenage runaway looking for her mother, Eddie Dombrowski, another teenage runaway with a knack for being near events and corpses he “had nothing to do with,” Laura, a child who claims the town is normal and James is weird, and Maria, a hooker with an uncanny resemblance to Mary. Throughout the game, James solves puzzles, fights monsters out of a Freudian/Lovecraftian nightmare, and finally figures out what is going on, specifically Mary’s ultimate fate.

Screenshot from silent hill 2 game

To say that Silent Hill 2 is a just game is to say that running your car purposefully into a fire hydrant is an accident. The game is an experience. The town is constantly surrounded by a thick fog, which obscures the character’s vision and makes it difficult to see monsters coming towards you until they might as well be on top of you. The soundtrack also evokes a sense of dread as the wind howls through a town that seems to have been abandoned by all human citizens, static from a radio alerts the player to a possible monster attack, and the music is an eerie combination of instruments and sound effects, including a siren. In essence, the game makes the town itself a character. It is the driving force, putting the main character through hell itself before he realizes the sad and extremely disturbing truth about his wife. In fact, it is also shown that it is not just James that is going through this turmoil, but also the two runaways, who are seen intermittently throughout the game, but contribute to the overall feel of dread. You are compelled to keep playing just to see what secrets these characters are hiding and how much they are suffering as a result. Sure the characterizations are not the game’s strong suit; it uses a great deal of blanket characterizations. But there are underlying implications to their actions, hints of darker secrets implied, but never explicitly stated, leaving the subtle and memorable horror that plays with the player’s mind throughout the journey.

pyramidhead

Pyramid Head

I stated before that the game has monsters out of a Freudian/Lovecraftian nightmare. Maybe it would have been better to say that these would be monsters dreamt by Freud after he had read the entire H.P. Lovecraft library. Without giving too much away, since it will seriously spoil the story, all of the monsters are constructs and metaphors for each character’s secrets and dilemmas. Monster’s range from undead nurses and two pairs of mannequin legs sewn together by the hip to a monster named Abstract Daddy and an executioner named Pyramid Head who wears a gigantic red three-sided pyramid over its head. It is not until we have completed the game that we can interpret what each monster means, as the game takes painstaking precautions to avoid forcing a meaning onto them. As a result, it is the story, underlying subtext, and details that carry the game.

As such, this game has a great story. But what about the gameplay? Well, to be perfectly honest, gameplay, especially fighting, is extremely clunky. In fact, it is the one part of Silent Hill 2 that most game critics tend to single out for negative criticism. Combat tends to be slow and does not seem to make a great impact against the monsters that are out for your life. As a result, it becomes a matter of timing the blows and pressing the button at the right moment in order to hit your foe with one of the random melee weapons that can be found throughout the game.

Right now I can imagine some of you asking, “but if that is the way combat is with a melee weapon why not use a gun?” To you I say, “I am glad you asked, since I was just getting there!” While there are guns in the game, a handgun, a shotgun, and a hunting rifle, ammo for the weapons is actually quite limited and should ONLY be used for the boss battles. With this little twist, conserving ammo becomes key and makes it a necessity to fight regular enemies with melee weapons. But even though the monsters can be defeated with a gun, much more easily as well, it is still a struggle, as if James does not really know how to handle a gun.

BUT THAT IS THE POINT!

James Sunderland

James Sunderland

Darn it Jim, James is a clerk, not a soldier! James is a representation of the player character. What we face in the game is the unknown entities that lurk in the fog when we are not looking, the deepest depths of our subconscious. How do we fight these monsters, especially since most of us are not trained in combat? We are helpless against such an enemy, especially since we are everyday people. It is not commonplace for us to use a lead pipe to defend ourselves on a daily basis. When we do, it feels foreign. The same goes for a gun; hunters can use it with ease, but the first-time user may shoot it, miss the target and end up disturbing a hornets’ nest.

But never mind why I will never hunt again. It is through this helplessness, this clunky control over the in-game action that not only makes James more personal to the player, but also increases the game’s tension to the next level. It is not only James fighting, but us as well. As a result, instead of being a true detriment to the game, it adds to the story’s horror. James’ story is our story and we are just as anxious as he to find out what happened to Mary, whatever it may be. In the end, we are disturbed, shocked, and scared, exactly how a good psychological horror story and game should make us feel.

 SILENT HILL: HOMECOMING: WHAT HAPPENED KONAMI?

What a psychological horror game should not make us do is feel like we have the advantage over the monsters!

Silent Hill: Homecoming focuses on Alex Sheperd, who has just returned home to Sheperd’s Glen after he has completed an overseas tour of duty in the Special Forces. He returns to find the town nearly deserted with only a few people remaining, a majority of them having gone mad through grief. He finds out that his brother and father have gone missing. Soon enough, monsters start appearing in Sheperd’s Glen, including Pyramid Head, and it is up to Alex, his friend Ellie Holloway, and Deputy Wheeler to find out what all of this has to do with three missing children, as well as find Alex’s brother and father in Silent Hill.

Compared to the previous story, this one feels lacking. This is because most of it lies on its somewhat predictable plot, predictable if one is an ardent fan of the psychological horror genre. But even then, the story is relatable because it focuses on family and how far we would go to save them. What also helps is that the game is heavily influenced by Jacob’s Ladder, which tells of a soldier attempting to return to a normal life after a Vietnam tour, but is haunted by gruesome images of his life and monsters that may or may not be a product of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This helps to bolster the story thematically, since the main character is a soldier who is suddenly thrust back into a horror scenario, a supernatural battlefield, after he had just left from one, the modern war zone. Again the soundtrack and sound effects add to the game’s horror tone and the fog returns to obscure monsters until they are breathing down your neck. Overall, it provides a chilling setup and you are curious to find out what the answer to the mystery is even when the experience veteran may see it coming miles down the road.

Playground from Silent Hill: Homecoming

Freud must have reread Lovecraft again, since the monsters also return with the undertones that add to the subconscious horror that the previous game had offered. However, the monsters in this game tend to have their meanings spelled out by certain portions of the game, thus robbing some of the mystery that helps to enhance horror. It is similar to a modern Stephen King horror supernatural horror novel where an over-explained monster robs the book of any potential horror that the climax may have provided if some of the mystery remained in the shadows. However, some monsters do not have this over-explained nature to them, thus allowing multiple interpretations to be made to their very nature, which can enhance the horror. It truly is a mixed bag.

But what truly sinks the game is its gameplay. In this game, Alex can be swarmed by a multitude of enemies. This was probably done to demonstrate the game’s new graphics and game engine, allowing it to handle more enemies on screen than ever before. But this provides the game with the unintended hilarity often found in a low-budget slasher film. Because Alex is a SOLDIER, he can defeat swarms of enemies with relative ease. What does not help is that there are more guns in the game, including multiple variations of guns (there are 2-3 types of shotguns found in the game). Where James was an everyday person, Alex is a combat expert and most enemies go down way to easily. Yes the difficulty ramps up as the game goes on, but it does not take away from the fact that Alex, a trained military professional, can go toe to toe with a demon that can only be found from a nightmare induced through Freudian psychiatry combined with the Cthulhu Mythos. This also includes the fact that Alex can combat roll.

That is right, he can COMBAT ROLL!

Alex from Silent Hill fighting off a feral

What makes this even funnier is that he can combat roll outside of combat. While he is supposed to be slowly exploring the towns and take in the atmosphere that should be excreting horror, he has the option to do somersaults and combat rolls in the middle of the street! Just the thought of it happening makes me picture a group of humans and monsters just stopping what they are doing just to witness a man rolling around in the street as if he were in a warzone or practicing Somersaulting for the 2018 Olympics, but isn’t. I can image them just pulling up chairs and eating popcorn as he might unintentionally run into a fencepost or a telephone pole due to the inherent blindness and dizziness that came when he decided the best mode of transportation was becoming one of the wheels on an eighteen wheeler bound for hell!

It is the type of gameplay design decision that makes me laugh and I laugh long and hard when I find something to be funny. And this only highlights the problem; psychological horror needs to be taken seriously in order for it to have the desired effect. The story, though competent, has lost its desired effect. Sure the symbolism, metaphors, atmosphere, and driving force remain, but when Alex decides to turn into the human tire, what else can be said? He was overpowered to begin with and making him more able at combat not only diminishes the horror, but lightens the story with some poor design decisions. Once someone laugh at an unintentionally funny bit, it’s game over man, game over!

NEXT TIME ON STORY VS. GAMEPLAY IN VIDEOGAMES

In this post, I have shown that gameplay and story need to be in balance with one another in order for a videogame to be an effect form of entertainment. I have also demonstrated what happens when a game has a good story, but proceeds to nearly ruin the game by including gameplay mechanics, which, though true to the character, undermine the game to a significant extent. However, this does not end the discussion. In the next posting we shall explore the reversal of this post, what happens when gameplay mechanics are solid, but the story undermines the game. Until then, sweet dreams and good night from Silent Hill gentle readers! Thanks for reading!

 

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Welcome OSMO!

OSMO is a new item in our collection that is really fun to learn for children and adults alike. It comes in a neat package that includes game pieces, a mirror reflector, and base. All you need to supply is an iPad, pen, and paper to play all the games.

A great feature of OSMO is after you download their free iTunes apps you do not need the internet.

osmoappsThis is a great toy to play at Grandma’s house, on vacation, or in the classroom. There is a word game (similar to hangman), tangram, and various drawing activities each with increasing difficulty levels you can master. The only important thing to note is that you can only use the OSMO on one iPad at a time which does encourage interaction between two or more players. It does not save scores or levels for player 1 and player 2, but you can save drawings that you make on your iPad video memory.

osmo2My entire family loved playing the Word Game together. You can take turns laying down letter tiles or you can race each other to place a tile down first. The game will note whether the blue or red tile wins that point.

If you create an OSMO account you can also create your own word file or download public files which have topics like music notes, counting, and, animals. This would be a unique way to study for your Spanish vocab test or create a “Continents of the World” test for your classroom.

tangramforosmoNext is the tangram game which allows you to select novice up to expert.

 

tangram1
tangram2

For those not used to tangrams the game will give you an outline and hint at the shape. More advanced features only give you a black shadow image and you need to figure out how to align the shapes. My 8 year old son and I were able to take turns easily and move between difficulty levels.

 

newtonforosmoNow the target practice game requires quick thinking and imagination.

OSMO calls their game “Newton” and you need to make the falling balls hit your orange target. To do this you will need a pen, paper, and other inanimate objects to create virtual walls, slides, and barriers for the bouncing balls to hit the target.

newton1Easier said than done!

 

masterpieceforosmoThe final free app offered by OSMO is called Masterpiece. My 10 year old daughter loved this activity. Not only can you draw like a pro, but the game video tapes your evolving creation as it appears on the paper.

A picture, OSMO supplies or you have downloaded, appears on the screen along with your real time pen in hand. You watch the iPad screen simultaneously as you “trace” the image on your paper. Truly, it feels and looks like magic.

It’s intuitive enough for kids to learn on their own and easy enough for adults to play along! Check out their website and have fun.

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