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I really need to get a PS3...

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My Favorite Games #4: "The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim"

One of my favorite games of all time is “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim”, commonly referred to simply as “Skyrim”. It is the fifth game in the long running Elder Scrolls series of games that deal with a huge fantasy world, full of elves, orcs, humans, lizardmen, cat-people, and more. Each game in the franchise has focused on a different region of the world, but Skyrim is one of the most exciting provinces to date; spanning the frigid northern part of the continent, and including environments ranging from frozen tundras, to snowy mountain peaks, to damp bogs, to forest paths.

The game’s story begins with an unnamed character being carted off to his or her execution for being “in the wrong place at the wrong time” and being associated with a wanted criminal who killed Skyrim’s last king. As you are about to be executed, a dragon suddenly attacks. No one in the world has seen a dragon for thousands of years. In the confusion you escape, and from that point on, you are free to explore this gigantic world.

The world is populated with numerous villages, cities, caves, fortresses, and ancient ruins. As you explore, you begin to uncover a prophecy that tells of the return of the dragons and the end of humanity. In the past when the dragons were subjugating or destroying the people of the world, a defender would be born known as the Dovahkiin, or “Dragonborn”; a warrior with the soul of a dragon, who is able to destroy the monsters permanently. The Dragonborn is sent on a quest to discover a way to defeat Alduin, the dragon-lord, and save the people of Skyrim from total destruction.

There are also many other things to do in the world besides following the main questline and saving the people. There are guilds you can do quests for and rise to leadership positions of. These include the Thieves Guild in the “mafia-run” city of Riften, The battle-hardened Companions of Whiterun, The Mage College of Winterhold, and the illusive Dark Brotherhood assassins guild. Along with all that, there are hundreds and hundreds of side quests you can complete in order to help people in various cities, or to acquire ancient and powerful weapons to help you in your mission to destroy the dragons.

Throughout the game, you’ll fight a variety of enemies that inhabit the wilds of the province of Skyrim. One of the most exciting enemies you’ll encounter are dragons: ancient beings resurrected by the evil dragon-lord, Alduin. Fighting these enemies is dynamic and incredibly exhilarating as they fly around, land on buildings and rocks, and breath fire or ice while trying to destroy you. When you finally bring one of the dragons down, it feels very rewarding.

One of the most interesting aspects of the game for me, is simply exploring the fully-realized and enormous world of Skyrim. There are so many interesting places to discover, that sometimes my favorite thing to do is to just wander the landscape, and explore any forts, dungeons, or caves that I come across. Most of the time, they will be filled with bandits, trolls, or evil wizards. You can spend a ton of time just exploring these interesting and beautiful locations, without even contributing to the overarching quest to stop Alduin. You can also buy a house in any of the major cities, become Thane under the Jarl’s in each of their holds, and even find a wife and get married! To top it off, there’s also a major questline involving picking a side in the civil war going on in Skyrim, and leading that respective army to victory; thus unifying the province. There really is a massive number of things to do in this world.

In conclusion, this is a game I would recommend to anyone. It’s fun to play, and very rewarding to explore. The combat is satisfying and varied (You can use swords, shields, bow-and-arrows, magic spells, axes, or hammers). As Dragonborn, you also have the ability to “Thu’um” or Shout at your enemies, using the ancient dragon language to forcibly push enemies away, breathe fire or frost, and even slow down time! Very fun, indeed.


My Favorite Games #3: "Grim Fandango"

My history began with this game the day it was released. My actual playing of it, however, did not.

Grim Fandango was a very highly anticipated adventure game from the core team of adventure game creators at Lucasarts, the video game devision of Lucasfilm Ltd. It was released the day before Halloween in 1998, and told a surreal but epic noir-styled storyline (in the vein of the Maltese Falcon), set in the world of the dead, heavily inspired by artwork created in association with the Dia de los muertos celebrations in Mexico. At the time that I purchased it, the game required 32MB of RAM to play. I only had 8. The game would frequently lock up, and be unplayable because my computer did not meet the minimum requirements to play it. A year or so later, after I had the opportunity to upgrade my computer, I was finally able to play the game that had tempted me for so very long

The main character of the game, Manuel Calavera (or 'Manny' for short) begins the game as a reaper, shepherding a poor dead soul to the land of the dead. As it turns out, he's little more than a travel agent, attempting to pay off debts he accrued in life by working for the Department of Death in the afterlife. From this downtrodden platform, he stumbles across an elaborate conspiracy that has been robbing the honest souls entering the afterlife of their just dues, as well as thieving Manny of the lucrative clients he deserves to help him pay off his community service debts.

The game stretches across 4 years, and introduces the protagonist Manny to a vast array of intriguing and amusing characters, including the loud and brash Glottis, a “travel spirit” whose existence relies on driving very, very fast. There’s also an old sea captain, a cranky TSA agent, a very unlucky French butler, a determined man attempting to cross the ocean floor on foot, and a Che Guevara-inspired revolutionary. Meeting and interacting with the intriguing characters is most of the fun of this epic game, as Manny Calavery attempts to solve the mystery of who is behind the nefarious scheme to steal honest souls’ tickets on the “Number 9”, a train that can ferry the souls of the dead to the land of eternal rest in 4 minutes instead of the 4 years the journey might take otherwise.

Most of the characters in the game are modeled after calacas skeletons which are common in Dia De Los Muertos celebrations. Other characters in the game are closer to typical 'Tim Schaefer' fare: bizzare anthropomorphic bee-men, orange monsters, and vampiric fire-beavers. There are many puzzles to solve, and sinister forces to stop.

The charm and inventiveness of the world is what made the experience so endearing to me. The locations and story were just so unique and creative, that it made me want to learn more about Dia De Los Muertos, and about South American history and culture. The game was funny too. The dialog was sharp and witty, and a joy to experience.


One of My Favorite Video Games: "Final Fantasy VIII"

 Videogames are like films to me.  I mean this in the sense that my opinion of a game is strongly influenced by what how I was feeling emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.  One of the games that stands out in my mind as being an influential and affecting adventure was Final Fantasy VIII.

A powerful story set in a huge world on the brink of war; what attracted me to this Final Fantasy above all others was its focus on the love story developing between Squall and Rinoa, rather than the conflict of the world.  Squall himself, was a character that I felt held a lot of qualities and conflict that were very personal to me.  As a character, Squall embodies traits that a large portion of gamers can relate to.

I did not own a Playstation at the time, but managed to borrow one in order to play this game.  Wanting to return the system to him as quickly as possible, I played the game almost non-stop for a week.  Eventually I hit what I consider to be one of the most powerfully sad scenes in any game.  Towards the end of the third disc, I found myself crying through the entire “Eyes on Me” scene, as well as what happens immediately afterward.  It was enough to depress me, and I decided to take a break at this point.

During my break, my friend returned, claiming that he needed his Playstation back for a week, and that I could borrow it again when he returned.  I reluctantly returned it to him, and spent the week miserable, pondering the fate of Rinoa and Squall, unable to know how it would be resolved.

I didn’t realize something like a video game could affect my mood so drastically.  I guess this was an early sign that I was destined to find passion and beauty in video games, and experience them as I would any film or book.  These were powerful stories with truth and emotion to be discovered, not only in the characters, but also in the hearts and minds of the players themselves.


One of My Favorite Video Games: "Riven: The Sequel to MYST"

 Anyone who knows me knows that I am a huge Myst fan.  I've read all the books, i've played all the games, countless times, and in my younger years I even helped maintain an AOL Help forum for Myst and Riven, its sequel.  I've gone to Mysterium, the annual Myst convention, when it came to Los Angeles back in 2007, and I also regularly contribute to a monthly podcast called The Cavern Today, dedicated to the Myst franchise as well as the Online Multiplayer exploration of Myst Online: Uru Live, which has recently become a free-to-play online game.

The Myst series over the years has remained my favorite franchise, created by the remarkable creative minds at Cyan Worlds.  No other game spoke to me so powerfully with a deep story of betrayal and consequence, told subtly through the clues and environment, rather than through cut scenes and dialogue.

I was at CompUSA as a child, shopping for a new PC with my parents; the first real computer my family would own after the ancient 386 I had been using.  With this computer (a prefabricated Compaq model that eventually proved less than sufficient.  My parents weren’t the savviest computer shoppers), my parents allowed each of their children to select a software title of their choice (within reason; no $400 AutoCAD or anything like that.)  My sister chose some Winnie-The-Pooh Clipart program; my older brother selected an early home-architecture program from Broderbund.  My younger brother chose Jet Fighter 2, and I chose a game that captivated me with its box-art of a lonely island amongst an endless sea: MYST.  
           Playing the game is among the happiest childhood memories I have of playing games with my siblings.  My older brother and I worked hard to solve the puzzles in the game together, drawing out notes and maps.  I felt so proud of how well we had done when at last we solved the final puzzle and completed the game. 
By the time Riven had been released, my siblings were already starting to move on from games, or adopt a more casual attitude towards them.  He didn’t want to play Riven with me as he had done before with Myst.

This was a pattern that could continue on until today, where I still remain deeply passionate about video games, and my siblings either no longer play them, or only retain a passing interest in them (With the distinct exception of my brother Jon who is well into the clutches of World of Warcraft).  Even so, playing these games with my siblings would leave me with my fondest childhood memories.

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While Myst was an intriguing game unlike anything I had ever played before, it couldn't compete with the far superior Riven.  The game had a much darker and almost steam-punky feel to it, thanks to the hiring of Richard Vander Wende, an artist and designer who worked for Disney on Aladdin.

Throughout the game there are some pretty dynamic moments.  Chief among them are the sequences where you travel between the five various islands that compromise Riven.  Most of them are connected by Mag-Lev transport (Magnetic Levitation) or through mine cart tracks.

The sensation was pretty incredible.  The other aspect that really intruigued me was the design of the puzzles.  Everything in that wolrd felt like it belonged.  The game didn't follow the common adventure game tropes of having puzzles for the sake of having puzzles.  All the puzzles in Riven felt like they belonged where they were, and had a good reason for being there.  
A good example is a puzzle involving decoding a security password written in D'ni, the fictional language of the Myst series of games.  Solving the puzzle involved figuring out the unusual base 5 and 25 number system, which meant finding a school-house on one of the islands that was being used by the villagers to teach their children.  There is a mechanical hangman game in the classroom where one could watch the D'ni numerals come up, and count the number of clicks, extrapolating from what they've learned to pick up the remaining numbers.  All of it felt natural, as though you were a detective using all your resources to solve a mystery.

To date, I own 7 copies of Riven:
1. Original 5 CD-Rom release (Cardboard art-sleeves)
2. 5 CD-Rom release (Double Jewel-case)
3. Playstation Release, 5-Discs
4. Ages Beyond MYST - Myst + Riven CD-Rom bundle
5. MYST Anniversary DVD Versions (Includes MYST, Riven, MYST III: Exile)
6. GoG (Good Ol Games Digital Copy)
7. Steam Release Digital Copy

This may seem like a lot, but I own nearly every version of *all* the MYST games.  Everyone's gotta collect something, right?

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Yes, there were Myst III action figures!

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And finally, the MYST Board game....  It's not very good.  Basically a 'Competitive Jigsaw Puzzle'    

Powered by Coffee

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There’s a few things that start off just about every day of my life.  The first is a shower, since I like starting the day with a refreshing blast of water in my face. 

The second thing is a hot mug of coffee.  In fact, (and this may be strange to some of you), but I have a coffee pot that I keep set in my unusually large bathroom.  That means that in any given morning, I can step right out of the shower and have a hot mug of coffee waiting for me.  What can I say, I really like coffee!

As a young child, I was reviled by the fierce bitter taste of the coffee bean.  It was an unpleasant beverage when compared to sweeter fare such as Dr. Pepper or apple juice.  Still, as I grew older, I began to lose my taste for the sour and sweet candies I enjoyed most, and began to gravitate towards bitter flavors.  Things like unsweetened teas and coffee.

Coffee is a delightful drink.  In many ways it’s an adventure with every cup, since coffee tastes different every time I brew up a pot full.  This is the nature of extracting a flavor from a living-growing plant that holds a slightly different flavor each and every day of its life and subsequent roasting.  I drink it black too.  No cream, no sugar, I take it straight.  Some people like to put a pinch of salt into their coffee grounds to cut some of the acidity.  I’ve recently tried this, but found I prefer the unaltered nakedness of a hot cup of smooth, bitter coffee.

The coffee I tend to drink every morning is Yuban.  I really like the smell and taste of that particular South American blend, but there is also a strong factor of nostalgia involved, since that was what my father always brewed up every morning.  One of the coffees I really like is the Dunkin Donuts brand.  It is usually expensive to buy at the supermarket, and comes in smaller bags, so It is reserved as a rare treat.  I have always wanted to try a hot cup of coffee at a Dunkin Donuts franchise, but the closest one to California is in Las Vegas…  A little out of the way for morning joe, ya know? (Hey, I rhyme!)

Something I did not know about coffee:  Coffee was used during some religious ceremonies in Africa, and during the 17th century, it was banned in some parts of Turkey as part of a political battle. 

I typically drink 3-4 cups of coffee in a given morning.  That might seem like a lot, but I always picture Fry from Futurama buying 100 $3 cups of coffee in a day with his $300 tax break.


My Favorite Albums #1: The Protomen - Act II: The Father of Death


So, one of my favorite albums is the second album from the acclaimed Tennessee rock band,  The Protomen.  

Their self-titled debut album told a high-energy story of a man entrenched in an oppressive society watched over by powerful robots.  This man, Dr. Thomas Light builds a 'child' to pour his hopes and dreams for a better future into.  Eventually the child, Protoman, decides that the way to build this better future is to defeat the man responsible for controlling the robots and to restore hope to the beleaguered city.  He fails, and is lost to the mercy of the machines that protect Dr. Albert Wily, the man responsible for the city's fascist state.

Years later, Dr. Light attempts to build a second 'child' named Megaman.  Light decides this time, to protect this child and be content with the company.  It isn't long before Megaman decides to follow in his brother's footsteps and attempt to save the dark city.  In an intriguing twist, it's discovered that the general in command of Wily's robot army is now his own brother, Protoman.  Protoman tries to convince Megaman that the people refused to back him in his quest, rather they left him as a martyr to fight and die for them, without being willing to help force the change themselves.  Megaman, with sadness, strikes out at his brother, and leads the attack, but knows that Protoman was right, and the mass of people at his rear will do nothing to keep the revolution going once he's fallen in combat.  Still, the album ends with the hopeful last words of Protoman: "If these people...tell this their they sleep...then maybe someday...they'll see a just a man...who knows he's free."

The entire story is told through high energy rock mixed with some spaghetti-western influences.  The music and powerful, and the vocal performances really strengthen the delivery of a story inspired by a simple video game franchise created by Capcom known in the United States as 'Megaman'.

I told you all of that so that I could tell you this:

Their second album "Act II: The Father of Death" is a follow-up to their first album that tells the story of how the city fell into darkness in the first place, and how Dr. Light himself was a partner with Dr. Wily, who unwittingly played a part in bringing the city itself into an industrialized robotic-driven work-state.  

After losing his father to mining accidents, Dr. Light began work on a robotic work force that could aid the miners in more dangerous tasks.  As he neared the projects completion, he grew hesitant to take the work away from such able-bodied people, but with the urging of his partner, Dr. Wily, he throws the switch and sets things into motion.

At the same time, Dr. Wily has plans of his own.  After refusing to join him, Dr. Light's fiancée, Emily, is murdered by an assassin robot, and evidence is left to implicate Dr. Light.  With the entire city keening in hunt of the man, he is soon taken into custody, and placed on trial.  Despite feeling he has nothing to live for after losing the love of his life, he is found innocent, against the popular opinion that Light is a callous murderer: all a ploy by Wily to gain the city’s trust by proclaiming that the justice system was broken, and that his glorious technocracy is the best thing for the future of the city.  Light is placed in exile, and the city begins to decay into darkness.

Years later, a boy named Joe begins to feel that things in the city are not right.  He leaves town in an attempt to discover what can be done about it.  Out in the outskirts he encounters Dr. Light, who shares his plan for “freeing” the city by cutting off the ever-present communication network that Wily uses to keep his constant propaganda fed to the people.

The mission is a success, and Joe sacrifices himself to make certain the ever-present illuminated communication screens around the city go black…  But there was a backup, and within moments the screens are back, and Wily has an excuse to declare complete martial control of the city “for the people’s safety”.  The city enters its darkest days, but Light, driven by the spirit the young boy Joe showed begins to formulate a new plan…. Too build a robot of his own: a son he will call Protoman.

The story is one of a dystopian future, but it’s the attention to the emotions of the characters as the album is performed that really makes it something I love to listen to.  The Protomen are a band that stays “in character” during their performances and interviews, claiming to be “freedom fighters gathering support for the war against Wily”.  The songs are acted out on stage, and the audience is drawn into a story that they get to participate in.  The music itself is epic, pulling inspiration from spaghetti westerns and the futuristic cyber-punk feel of the story itself.  For being loosely based on a simple video game, the Protomen have really made the story their own, and I look forward to anything else they decide to do as a band.