Friday, July 20, 2007

Embarking upon a Second Life


It always amazes me when I discover a new world.

Despite the fact that 'Second Life' is immensely popular, I never knew much about it until a friend recommended it to me yesterday.

For those who are as ignorant as I, 'Second Life' is a computer 'game' that actually allows individuals to live in another world. It is not like 'The Sims' because there is no story line and all the characters are real people. The world is very much like this one in most respects, although there are some technological advances, such as teleportation, that have not been possible at this point in our world.

When I visited the 'Second Life' site, I found it a little daunting at first. It seemed so much like reality, especially in the realm of business and money-making schemes, that I felt I would be as much a 'fish out of water' there as I was on Wall Street in Manhattan.

Despite my self-doubt, however, I registered and underwent the Orientation Tour. Rather amusingly, I was accosted by a number of newcomers like myself, who appealed to ME for help! Fortunately, having obtained my Key to the Island (the prize for completing the Orientation), I was able to help them. Perhaps one day I shall write a Guide for 'Second Life'. Who knows?

I wandered about a little, accepting pamphlets from various organisations and reading them. Free outfits and accessories were being given away as well. It was rather like a convention in many ways. I acquired a number of brochures and objects that may or may not prove useful. Although my avatar was clothed in jeans when I arrived at the Orientation Island, I was able to create an elegant long skirt for her instead, as well as a pair of gloves. Most of the activities on Orientation Island are designed to familiarise newcomers with the basic workings of 'Second Life'. They teach newcomers how to move, how to change their appearance, how to communicate with other individuals and how to interact with objects.

One of the first steps when registering is to create an 'avatar' for oneself. One is offered a few basic choices. One needn't be a conventional human being. If one would rather have the head of an animal, for example, one can. In any event, the initial appearance one chooses does not determine any ultimate choice. One can change gender, change body type, change everything, once one knows how to do it.

More than once on Orientation Island, I encountered a bizarre creature, perched on a wall. He (I assume it was a male) had the body of a chicken, but a head that resembled that of a human. I did not attempt to engage in conversation with the creature, although he looked rather forlorn, and the fact that I encountered him at different locations probably either signified loneliness or a desire to show off his bizarre appearance to every newcomer who arrived.

Incidentally, 'Second Life' truly is international. People speak every language and instructions can be found in almost any language. The first question any individual asked me was whether or not I spoke English. I believe I spoke to individuals from Scandinavia, Southern Europe and Japan within the first five minutes of my sojourn at Orientation Island.

I then discovered an offer for a free 'balloon tour' of the Island.
I clicked on the offer and was given the option to teleport to the site of the tour. Promises of free lemonade and popcorn operated as an added inducement, despite the fact that I never eat popcorn in the 'real world'. It sounded like fun, and that indeed was the purpose of this marketing device.

The balloon was very attractive, but did not move from its moorings. Until another newcomer arrived and promptly found a seat in the balloon, I was at a loss. He told me that the balloon would not move until an individual was seated safely inside. I found a seat and the balloon tour began.

'Second Life' really is all about marketing and recruitment. The balloon tour was a rather clever device to introduce newcomers to the people who had created 'Second Life' and to promote the entire vision of a second reality to newcomers.

As we passed a display of stuffed animals, I reached out to try to grab one and suddenly, was the recipient of a stern scolding from an unseen male. 'Don't make me get physical with you, Freyashawk!' the man shouted.

My companion, a chap named Noob Nishi, responded rather chivalrously, shouting back at the guy, telling him to be more courteous in future!

I was a little taken aback when my companion disappeared suddenly. I did not know if the unseen male had disposed of him in some sinister fashion or if he had forgotten the warnings not to stand in the balloon. (We had been told that if one were to stand, one would fall through the floor of the balloon.)

I completed the rest of the tour alone, floating slowly over the island until at length, the balloon returned to the platform with the popcorn machine.

Here I found my companion once more. He told me that his computer had crashed, thus explaining his sudden disappearance. He then announced his intention of flying to explore the island further.

Yes, one can fly in 'Second Life'. Although one can take a tour of the island via hot air balloon, one could take the same trip simply by pressing the 'Fly' button and taking to the air alone. No wings, but one does have the power to fly all the same, even though the scientific basis for this power may remain unexplained. (It is possible that it IS explained somewhere, however, as there are real scientific communities in 'Second Life', as well as exhibitions and events. One can attend lectures and become involved in classes, as well as opening businesses or creating a new community. One actually could make a second life more profitable than the first, and money made in 'Second Life' can be converted to American dollars or whatever currency you choose.)

I decided to explore a little in like fashion, and experimented with the power of flight. Unfortunately, when I chose to land, I overstepped the mark and fell onto a rocky cliff on a level far below the buildings I had intended to explore.

It was rather comical, actually. I do not know if any one watched my clumsy efforts, but I expect it would have been amusing to watch me dive and swoop, only to plummet onto the rocks below.

At length, I discovered a very upscale shopping precinct that included a photography studio and wedding chapel. More of this later...

Meanwhile, the official website can be found at:

In my next post, I will describe my exploration of some of the business opportunities that exist in 'Second Life'.

N.B. I do not know all the specifications for running the programme. I am not terribly adept at computer operations, but I was able to install the programme effortlessly. It runs without trouble on my laptop.

One simply registers by choosing a name and initial 'avatar' appearance, then one must provide an email address and create a password. After that, one will receive an email that includes a link to the download site. Download the application, install it and then open it to enter into a 'Second Life'. It is as simple as that.

Note: Two of the photographs show the basic avatar created upon registration. The third shows my avatar in her current manifestation on her own land.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

'Fish Tycoon': A Virtual Aquarium

Taking a break from intensive games like Harvest Moon and 'Lost in Blue 2', I decided to try another game from 'Last Day of Work'.

In fact, 'Fish Tycoon' is both simple and sublime. It really operates as a virtual aquarium but there are sufficient challenges even for some one who loves games. At the same time, it can be 'played' in a rather desultory fashion by an individual who simply wishes to have a virtual aquarium as a screensaver on his/her desktop.

With 400 different types of fish, the game can bring new surpises to a player constantly. There is some skill involved, however. As in reality, fish can be hardy, slightly fragile or extremely fragile. Without improving the fish tank and acquiring some education through research, one never will be able to have any of the rare fish. Cross-breeding is an integral part of gameplay, but the results may not be viable unless one has the right level of 'research'.

The key to this game is the 'Game Speed' setting. If a player wishes to be fully engaged in the game, the speed can be set to 'Speed 2x' or 'Double Speed', allowing births and growth to progress at a very fast rate. If one wishes to concentrate on other tasks and cannot be involved in the game on a constant basis, it is best to set the speed to '1/2 Speed'. This allows the game to progress very slowly, to prevent catastrophes from occurring while the player is otherwise engaged in his/her own life.

At the start of the game, one has a single tank, a few half-grown fish and $300. Isola dollars, the currency of the island where most of the games made by 'Last Day of Work' take place.

Fish become adults after 20 hours. Their species and type as well as value are determined only when they are fully grown. They then can be bred or sold at the Supply Shop. By selling fish, one earns money to purchase upgrades.

Upgrades allow one to breed more fragile hybrids by improving the tank environment and the quality of food. There are upgrades that increase sales as well. Rather like 'The Sims', one must purchase the ability to do research in the fields of food, environment and marketing. The upgrade, once purchased, then must be 'learned' over the course of time.

The game operates in real time, whether or not one actively plays it. Even when the computer is off, the aquarium will continue to operate. In this sense, it really is a virtual aquarium. One can change the Game Speed to pause the game or cause it to run in Half-Time, slowing the process when one cannot be involved actively in the welfare of the fish. In the same way, one can increase the speed to Double Time when one wishes to move time forward more quickly. Even so, it does offer a fairly realistic experience of breeding and cross-breeding fish.

Sometimes the simplest concepts are the most appealing. It is exciting to find a new hybrid in the tank or to nurture a fragile fish to adulthood. The only question that remains is what sort of 'lasting appeal' this game will have.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Update on Virtual Villagers

I read an interesting interview with the creator of this game concerning, inter alia, the problems inherent in any game involved with 'real time.' Apparently, 'Virtual Villagers' was intended to be the sort of game one could ignore for a fair amount of time without fear of catastrophe, but players would return to find corpses littering the ground of their Village, in the same way I did.

Since then, I have discovered a certain rhythm to the game. Apparently, a 'random event' will occur at least once in a 24 hour period. It can be positive or negative, and may or may not involve a response or choice on the part of the player. A child may be washed up on the shore, rather like Moses in the basket, or a terrible tidal wave can deposit more debris on the beach, after your villagers had succeeded in clearing the shore of debris. Every 24 hours or so, villagers randomly will become ill. If you ignore the game for more than a day, the sick villagers may die.

Although the game is rather realistic in some respects, the age limit for pregnancy is rather high. I was able to induce pregnancy in a woman of 54 years, although by rights, having repopulated the tribe, she should have been able to enjoy a brief 'golden age' in peace. Nonetheless, as she remained the only adult woman, I thought it politic to use her as breeding material despite her years.

Most of the 'upgrades' must be purchased with 'tech points' obtained by having your villagers involved in 'research'. At the same time, one must make certain that there are people working on farming and building projects for the village's survival.

When you purchase Level 2 Spirituality, you no longer have to see skeletons in your Village Square. My poor 'breeder' woman died when I attempted to impregnate her one final time at the age of 56. I waited for her to come out of the breeding hut in vain. Suddenly I was appalled by the sight of her 'decomposing body' in the Square.

This time, though, it was different from the initial mass death scene. I was able to guide her daughter to the graveyard. She then walked to her mother's corpse, took the skeleton gently in her arms and proceeded to carry it to the graveyard. The entire village became involved. It was rather touching! Flowers bloom where formerly it was nothing more than a barren field.

It is a good little game, once one has some idea how to keep things running smoothly. It is not as challenging as 'Lost in Blue' or 'Harvest Moon' but it does not require as much energy or concentration either.

Virtual Villagers: Hope for the Future

(The puzzle board, containing icons of each of the puzzles that must be solved in the game.)

To read the entire sorry tale of my experiment with the PC game, 'Virtual Villagers', you need to begin at the earliest post on the topic. The situation, briefly, was as follows:

In an attempt to prolong my 'trial period' as well as erroneously believing that I could sleep while the villagers worked, I left the game on all night and slept through their gradual starvation... If I had been awake, I would have been aware of the moment when they gained enough 'tech points' to buy Farming experience and ran out of berries to forage. Instead, they kept gaining points while continuing to forge until the berry bush had been picked clean.

In other words, they were extremely well-educated as well as having completed a wonderful project providing them with a lagoon in which to bathe. They failed to find another source of food, however, starving one by one, collapsing in the centre of the Village where celebrations ordinarily are held.

The only survivors were a mother with infant and a young male. The woman was almost dead, and yet she continued to nurse the baby. The young male was extremely weak.

I bought the Farming advancement instantly and set him to the task of planting crops. I crossed my fingers and prayed that the mother would survive. She survived (barely) and the child became a toddler. The child was a boy, however, necessitating another breeding attempt.

The woman was 39 at this point, and possessed only an eighth of her former strength. It was very cruel, but I had to force the two adults to breed. It took some determination on my part, but at length she produced a baby.

She now was 40 years old. If the child proved to be male, my village would not survive...

I am glad to announce that she produced a girl. In the illustrious tradition of the ancient Egyptians, I will start a new dynasty with the two children. I doubt my adult female will produce any more children. In any case, I feel she has done her duty to the village of Isola. She now is 41 years old.

Life in Death: Virtual Villagers

This photo depicts a civilisation at its nadir.

Despite the very poor quality of the photograph, the bizarre juxtaposition of the mother with her baby in her arms surrounded by the decomposing corpses of her fellow villagers had to be captured somehow. Despite the fact that 'tech points' had been used to boost the level of Spirituality in this small village, evidently the surviving male is not advanced enough yet to bury the dead. The mother holding the child obviously cannot volunteer for cemetary detail at this point. When I placed the male next to one of his dead comrades, he only knew how to 'embrace' it, the initial act in the sequence of breeding. That was disconcerting, to say the least!

The photograph in the next post of the villagers disporting themselves in the sparkling lagoon is NOT from my game, alas. In my game, the villagers succeeded in clearing the blockage from the lagoon before they died, but did not survive long enough to enjoy the benefits of their labours.

As I was sleeping at the point when they amassed enough tech points to allow the purchase of Farming Experience that would take them beyond the foraging stage, they continued to pick berries until the bushes were bare... then slowly starved to death as their 'Goddess' slumbered fitfully.

Virtual Villagers

Computers now are 'loaded' with demo versions of a number of games. HP apparently has an agreement with 'Wild Games' to promote their games. There are two ways to continue playing any game after the 'free trial' has run its course. You either can purchase the game or purchase virtual 'coins' to feed into a virtual machine. Some games do not require more than a trial to play the game properly. Others are extremely frustrating to play in the trial mode, especially if they are RPG or simulation role-playing games.

'Virtual Villages' is a simulation role-playing game, on the order of games like Harvest Moon and Lost in Blue. It actually was produced by a company named 'Last Day of Work'. The difference here is that 'Virtual Villagers' continues even if you are not there to supervise the actions of the characters. As it is a PC game rather than one for a handheld system or console, this essentially should allow an individual to work at other tasks while 'looking in' on the game from time to time.
I believe there is a 'virtual aquarium' game that is rather similar. I find it an intriguing concept.

The trial period continues as long as you do not quit the game. I thought I was very clever to leave the game running all night. My villagers would do research, amassing vast numbers of 'tech points' to improve their lives. They were working on a project to unblock a river as well. I rather fancied I would sleep through the boring labour and awaken to a bright, new world.

Sad to say, I awakened to a rather grim scene. One begins the game with two adult females, three adult males and one child who is five years old. The game had prompted me almost immediately to begin 'breeding' the villagers, so I had one female with a baby in her arms when I went to sleep. For two years after the birth of a child, a woman will do nothing but care for the child...

The mother and child survived, but barely. The other female had died, with the three adult males. Apparently, by some strange time movement, the child had become a young man. Needless to say, all the trained scientists and doctors were among the decomposing remains. Yes, the skeletons remain on the ground, awaiting further advancement of this civilisation.

In the midst of these grim memento mori, the mother continued to nurse her baby, although her strengh had been reduced almost to zero. The young male of 21 had retained only an eighth of his strength.

With all the 'tech points' amassed before their untimely death, I was able to purchase the knowledge necessary to begin to grow crops. I set the man to the task immediately, as the mother and child duo were useless.

I did not know if she would die before the child became self-sufficient or not. Amazingly, she survived and the child became a toddler. This allowed me to put her on farming detail with the male.

Unfortunately for the future prospects of this civilsation, her child was a male, and the mother now had reached the age of 38.

I had to work fast if I wanted the village of Isola to survive. First, I had to build up their strength a little. I force-fed them, then forced them to embrace and begin the difficult task of 'breeding' once more.

What a frustrating business that proved to be! They usually were too hungry to express any interest in the process. I would force-fed them, then force them again to embrace, ignoring all opposition and reluctance on their part. My only female now was 39. I was uncertain of the maximum age at which a woman would be allowed to have a child in this game, but it could not be far in the future...

At last, I succeeded. The poor woman, who was able to recover only an eighth of her former strength and energy before she became pregnant again, now has another baby in her arms. Gender is undisclosed until the woman has nursed the child for 120 minutes. I await the results anxiously. If the child is another male, I might as well face the horrible knowledge that this civilisation is doomed...

The game is more like 'The Sims' than Harvest Moon in the sense that characters often will resist your commands. They are quite stubborn and foolish sometimes and will refuse to forage even when there is no food in the storage area. There is no dialogue, but there are random events that occur, giving you the option of making a choice between two possible actions.

There are puzzles to solve. Some of these involve removal of rubbish or stones from various points in the village. Others provide clues as to the history of the village.

Oddly enough, the game is quite compelling in its way. It reminds me of 'Age of Empires', but without the threat of war. The fact that life continues even when you are not playing the game actively makes it rather like the games that create 'virtual pets' and allow you to care for them and improve their lives. I suppose 'virtual Villagers' is rather like an ant farm of homo sapiens.

If the child of my 39 year old woman turns out to be a male, I may lose my enthusiasm for this game. If it is a girl, however, I shall be overjoyed. You have no idea how awful it was to awaken to the sight of all those corpses, when I had expected only great advancement in knowledge and prosperity... To be able to 'turn it round' and create hope from despair would be very satisfying.

I do believe only a fool would use the 'virtual coins' option to continue playing a game like this after the trial period. If my little tribe survives, I am going to want to find the full version somewhere...

Monday, June 25, 2007

My Garden of Delight in an 'Innocent Life'

End of Spring of Year 3, Easter Ruins.

These are photographs of some of my fields at the Easter Ruins. I divided my fields basically into fields for flowers, herbs and vegetables. A couple of photographs shows flower fields. Flowers that can be grown in the Spring season are Pansies, Hyacinth and Tulips. All three are featured here, along with Lavender, technically one of the herbs.

One photograph shows a field where I mixed herbs with strawberry plants and another shows the shipping pods as well as a partial view of the Bas&Ket Railway that conveys baskets filled with crops from any part of the field to the shipping pods.

The third photograph shows another field filled with flowers and herbs.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Valkyrie Profile: The Chance to Experience Ragnarok and Rebirth

(Valkyrie Profile: Freya with Odin in Valhalla)

One of the very best games I ever have played is 'Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth'. Like many fabulous games, it has its basis in an old game for the original Playstation system. When they remade it for the new portable PSP system, they improved upon it. The result is one of the greatest games available for players who like both RPGs and action games.

Actually, there are two new Valkyrie Profile games, and this review will touch upon the PS2 game, 'Valkyrie Profile: Silmeria' although the main focus is on the PSP game, 'Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth'.

What is unique about this game is that it occurs on two separate levels. Lenneth, a Valkyrie, fights against the forces of evil on Earth while in Asgard or heaven, the Gods organise their forces to fight against the forces of evil. The interesting twist to this game is that all the heroes are dead. They are known as einherjar, the 'chosen slain'.

The game is organised in Chapters. At the beginning of a Chapter, Lenneth has the option to gain more einherjar for her army. By the end of the Chapter, she must decide who among her warriors she will send to Valhalla to fight with the gods.

This creates an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, a player would like to keep his/her best einherjar for the active battles that determine the course of the game. The einherjar sent to Asgard, however, bring rewards according to their virtues and their value as warriors. Points won in gameplay can be assigned either to combat skills or to improve the character of one or more einherjar. This game is quite complex really.

Although you cannot participate actively in the battles fought in heaven, the battles will change according to the warriors you send. At the end of every Chapter, the Goddess Freya will speak to you to give a report of your own progress and that of the warriors you previously sent to Valhalla. You actually can access the individual records of each of the einherjar sent to Asgard to read about and witness their performance in the war in heaven. This makes the game multi-dimensional in every sense of the word.

Both Valkyrie Profile games include a number of films that are unlocked at specific points in the game. The graphics are stunning and the plot is compelling.

If this were all that there was to 'Valkyrie Profile', it would be a richer game than most, but there's far more to the game than this. Throughout the game, there is a question as to the true identity of Lenneth. By making the right choices, you can unlock and experience her personal story, help her regain her memory and ultimately reunite her with her true love.

I am not going to go into the complex equations that determine the ending of the game, but there are three different possible endings. The first is the 'best' ending, where Lenneth and her true love reunite after the last battle to restore the earth. The second allows the player to experience Ragnarok in a different way. You can fight to victory, but Lenneth's own destiny will be lost in this version.

The third ending only is experienced if the player is truly indifferent to the game and refuses to perform any of the 'transfers' to Asgard of the warriors needed by the gods to fight at the last Battle. In this scenario, Freya ultimately becomes thoroughly disgusted with you... and you will lose the game.

What this means, in fact, is that there are three different games here. A player who loves this game can experience all three by playing the game differently each time. Moreover, even within the confines of a single ending, there are a multitude of permutations. By choosing different warriors to send to Asgard, you will be able to witness or read about different events in Heaven's war.

In terms of gameplay, Valkyrie Profile is extremely satisfying to any one who enjoys role-playing games and is attracted to games that allow one to improve one's fighters by increasing their experience and purchasing the best armour and weapons for them. Strategy is very much a consideration and most players require a good guide in order to fully enjoy the game.

The graphics are fabulous. It always amazes me when a game created for a small handheld system like the PSP has graphics that can be compared positively with anything made for PC or the larger consoles.

The 'dungeons' are well-designed and encompass every possible landscape, from forest to classical castle dungeons and levels in Heaven or Asgard.

For the impatient player, the beginning of the game, characteristic of many of the great RPGs, may appear long and slow. Believe me, it is worthwhile to persist. Once you are familiar with the characters, you probably will find the beginning intensely interesting. The first time round, though, it may be a little irksome to the impatient.

There is an aspect to the game that I found rather perplexing in terms of its divergence from the original Norse myths, but which will appeal to many gamers. On the side of 'evil', you will find vampires with a vampire lord named 'Lord Brahms'. True to the Norse cycle of myths, Loki is the leader of the forces of destruction, but Lord Brahms is an important character. The inclusion of forces of the 'undead' in the game must appeal to fans of such games as 'Castlevania'. For a purist like myself, the entire 'undead' component took a little time to accept, but there is no doubt that the castle of Lord Brahms is a fabulous addition to the game. Like many castles in Northern myth, it can be found only at certain times and once entered, the player has a limited time to explore it. It is in 'Valkyrie Profile: Silmeria', however, where Lord Brahms becomes a central character.

In point of fact, as previously stated, there are two new 'Valkyrie Profile' games: 'Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth' and 'Valkyrie Profile: Silmeria'. Lenneth and Silmeria are two of the three Valkyrie (swan maidens) chosen by Odin to choose the worthy slain. The third, Hrist, is an adversary in the first two games. One hopes her story will be told in the next Valkyrie Profile game. 'Valkyrie Profile: Silmeria' was made for a different platform: the PS2 or Playstation 2. It is by no means inferior to its PSP 'sister' game, and different enough to encourage players to explore both. Your first choice simply may depend upon the system that you own. I personally prefer 'Lenneth' partly because I favour small handheld systems and partly because I find her tale more romantically fulfilling.

In classical RPG fashion, you can choose between a wide assortment of warriors and mages in forming a company of four. Each einherjar has his/her own distinct style of combat and weapon type. Some weapons can be wielded only by one particular character. The battles are turn-based, but the equations are far more complex than most games. By planning the attacks of members of your party, you can generate special powerful attacks either by one or all members of the group. Magic attacks are elemental in nature and you need to know the strengths and weaknesses of your opponents in order to prevail. As in most games of this nature, enemies 'drop' war trophies. Treasures can be found in dungeons and some are more critical to the plot than others. In the case of Lenneth, you can use her either as a sword maiden or as an archer, and you can create an active party that comprises either one member or any number up to four. The range of any attack can be influenced by the attacker's position in the active party, so strategy is an element here as in other areas. Valkyrie Profile is both truly engrossing and unique.

Whichever 'Valkyrie Profile' game you choose, you cannot be disappointed. It is a game of beauty, depth and complexity that has something for every one.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

The Virtues of Patience

I found myself becoming impatient with 'Innocent Life' because nothing new was going on in the game. This caused me to reflect upon the nature of Harvest Moon games, and to realise that they are not designed to give instant gratification to players. They are designed to teach philosophical and ethical principles. Patience, respect for Nature and other creatures is at the heart of Harvest Moon. The ability to live in harmony with the world and to become one with the rhythms of Nature is what Harvest Moon teaches. If you are not willing to exercise patience and steadfastness, you should not become involved with any Harvest Moon game.

Another aspect of Harvest Moon is the need to master the skill sometimes known as
'multi-tasking'. When one becomes too obsessed with a single aspect of the game, one inevitably will make a mistake. Crops need to be planted, watered and harvested, but growing crops is not the only goal. One must be aware of the concerns and needs of other people, but not to the point where one neglects farming and ranching. One must pay attention to the animals, not simply ship their products.
One cannot remain on the farm all the time. It is by visiting other places that one unlocks new options.

When one becomes impatient, the game loses its charm. When one is able to participate in the rhythms of Nature, Harvest Moon offers an entertaining and sometimes instructive means to experience inner peace.

Friday, June 1, 2007

More on an 'Innocent Life'

Writing a series of posts on one game is not a very professional way to create a 'review' and I may have to delete all these posts to write a proper review when I have completed the game.

Nonetheless, I am prompted to share my experiences with an 'Innocent Life' as I progress in the game.

This game poses a philosophical question: is technology the enemy of Nature and if so, can it be held responsible for the ultimate destruction of our world? It is an interesting problem for a video game that could not exist were it not for the advanced technology that created such platforms as the PSP and the ability to build intricate 'virtual' worlds.

The premise of the game is based on the necessity of appeasing the anger of the Fire Spirit at the neglect of human beings who have turned to technology for all their needs and who therefore have forgotten to pay respect to the elements. Your character ironically is a robot who must 'become human' by learning to interact with nature by farming and ranching, and by doing so the 'old-fashioned way', without using automation.

As the game progresses, however, you are given more and more options to use automated devices. You are given a robot who can perform most of your farming tasks for you, should you decide to programme him to do so. You then are given Harvest Baskets with 'Life Arms', tiny insectoid mechanical creatures who can harvest your crops for you...

Once you have appeased the Spirits and averted the threat of the volcanic eruption that would have destroyed your island, do you use these devices or do you continue to work the land yourself?

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Living an Innocent Life

As I become more deeply engaged in the new 'Innocent Life: A Futuristic Harvest Moon' game by Natsume, its charm continues to grow. It combines classical 'Harvest Moon' role-playing farming simulation with the traditional 'quest' aspects of RPGs. The primary focus is that of 'healing' the land and restoring the balance of the elements through farming and ranching, but there are dungeons to explore as well. There is no fighting in the game, unlike most RPGs, but there are maze dungeons and Chests containing treasures.

There is something very enchanting about the landscapes in this game as well as the process of 'breaking seals' and transforming barren wastelands into fertile farming ground. This game offers far more travel than most Harvest Moon games. One can explore deserts, plains, dunes and forests as well as caves.

The PSP is an incredible handheld gaming system but it offered few games to players who enjoyed depth and intricacy rather than simple slash-and-hack or driving simulation games. Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth was a magnificent, complex role-playing fighting game, but there never have been any games to match Harvest Moon.

When 'Innocent Life' was announced last year as a future release for the PSP, I was very excited. It measures up to all expectations.

For fans of Harvest Moon, every new game will be compared to all other Harvest Moon games that preceded it. In each case, there will be aspects of the new game that will delight, but often an aspect of an old game that was not included in the new one will be missed.

An example of this can be seen with respect to Ranching in Innocent Life. Harvest Moon DS offered almost too many activities with respect to animal care, but Innocent Life offers very few. As it is a 'futuristic Harvest Moon', the ranching system is automated for the most part. Eggs and milk appear daily automatically on a conveyor belt. Sheep go through a shearing machine en masse automatically every Friday at 5.30 p.m. One can 'pet' each Animal once each day, but that is the extent of interaction with poultry and livestock.

On the other hand, with the arrival of the 'Pink Mask Representative' and his outlandish goods, you can acquire a 'Mother's Touch' and 'Shiny Coat', items that allow you to interact more with your animals.

An option is unlocked with respect to the World Ranch Channel that allows you to 'gamble' on your poultry and livestock by purchasing animals who possess temporary 'Stars', raising their value on a limited time basis. Even so, one misses the ability to milk the cows and shear the sheep oneself.

The endless Touchglove activities in Harvest Moon DS did become rather annoying, especially because of the wear-and-tear to the DS Touchscreen. To be perfectly honest, the Ranching activities in Friends of Mineral Town remain the best in Harvest Moon games.

This is rather esoteric information, however, for any one who never played a Harvest Moon game before. For a newcomer to the series, Innocent Life may be one of the easier games to master, as it is more 'linear' than other Harvest Moon games. Events unfold in sequence and there are enough hints from other characters in the game to allow a beginner to understand what he/she should do next. In any event, my General Guide to the game should give any further information that may be required in any case.

Friday, May 11, 2007

An Innocent Life: In the Mushroom Forest

Here is a very small screenshot from 'Innocent Life' showing the robot protagonist in the Mushroom Forest. Mushrooms are one of the wild items that can be gathered to be shipped, but in this Harvest Moon game, one needs a special container called a 'Scale Pack' in order to be able to pick them. The Scale Pack measures the weight of the wild items as you collect them and prevents the individual from completely depriving the forest of all its natural resources. When you have collected as many of the items as can be spared ecologically speaking, the Scale Pack will refuse to accept any more.

An Innocent Life: A Futuristic Harvest Moon

Having been fortunate enough to be given an advance 'hands-on' look at the forthcoming Harvest Moon game for the PSP, I have to say that Harvest Moon fans both young and old are going to be enchanted by it.

The graphics are marvelous for a start. The game is set on a volcanic island, so almost every vista includes breathtaking views of the water and sky. Sunsets are very dramatic. Weather and time always are important in Harvest Moon games. In this game, there are 'bells' that announce the time of day, rather like the old monastic system of 'the Hours'. (I have not been able to work out why the 'afternoon bell' is rung at 10.00 a.m. but perhaps that is simply one of those interesting Natsume errata that appear in the English versions of their games.)

The premise of An Innocent Life is similar to that of the old Italian fairytale of Pinocchio. In this case, the protagonist is a robot who looks (and acts) like a young boy. A scientist, Dr. Hope, has created him in the hope that he will be able to save the island from a predicted catastrophe. Automation has taken the place of real care and attention and the Island Spirits are angry at the neglect of Nature. If the robot boy can restore a farm to working condition and learn to love all living creatures as well as the land, it is possible that the eruption of the Volcano that threatens the Island can be averted.

At the start of the game, Dr. Hope tells the boy: 'Perhaps the most difficult things to understand are the human heart and the value of life... I'm sure after nurturing the plant and animal life on your farm, you'll grow to understand this.'

For the robot boy, the future holds the hope that, if he can learn how to be human, he will become a 'real boy'.

When he arrives at his new farm, he is told:
It was the spirits who sealed off these fields. You see, long ago the Easter People and the Volcano people fought a terrible war over control of this land. The behaviour of the humans angered the Spirits. And so they decided to seal off this fertile land. The Easter People then left the island, never to return. But the spirits did leave us one chance to make up for what we did. If some one could once again love this land and nurture life on it with his own hands, the seals would break. But the people in Volcano Town only care about autofarming. I'm afraid they've given up on this land... And I doubt thtat there is any one left in this day and age who still believes in the existence of the Spirits. But if something isn't done, sooner or later the anger of the spirits could destroy this entire island. Do you understand, Freyr? You are the only one who can save this island.'

After a tutorial that occupies the first week of your life on the Island, you begin to undertake your task in earnest. As in most Harvest Moon games, progress must be won through patience and sheer determination. You have no money at first, and you must grow and harvest crops to make enough money to purchase the basic tools that you require.

Much of the Island will be inaccessible to you at the beginning. It is only at the start of the second week that you even can leave your farm to visit the town! Even so, it is worth the wait... In the fourth week, you finally will be given a key that unlocks a Mine...

If you are patient and continue to persevere, in time you will be able to fish and camp out in other parts of the Island using a tent.

There really is something for every one in this game. Another new aspect of farming is the option to build a little 'railroad' on your farm in order to be able to harvest crops, place them in a special shipping container and then send them on their way down the tracks for shipment.

As always, friendship is as important as success in your farming ventures. You must maintain regular contact with all the other residents of the island if you wish to obtain important information and special items.

There is a wide variety of crops, fruits and wild items in 'Innocent Life'. Without becoming too specific, players of other Harvest Moon games should be delighted with the aspects of Innocent Life that are new to Harvest Moon. For example, flowers are not harvested in the same way as crops. You need to make contact with the 'Herbal Garden' and make an order to have your flowers cut and harvested by them when they are in full bloom. Crops can be interspersed in a field now rather than being regimented in 9 x 9 squares. You can 'design' your fields by growing a tulip next to a pansy and planting tall asparagus behind the short, flowering strawberry plants.

Mining has a new 'twist' to it as well. Special gems can be placed in 'sockets' on tools to augment their power or decrease the amount of energy required to use them. Other gems called 'Spirit Stones' must be found and placed on altars to unlock new locations.

For animal lovers, there are the usual opportunities to raise livestock and poultry but only when the area that could be used as a barn and pasture land is unlocked. As in other Harvest Moon games, one can have pets as well. In fact, there are a number of dogs and cats on the island. Before the end of the first season, one of the cats will have two kittens. Will one of the kittens become your first pet?

'Innocent Life' will be released in the U.S. on 15 May. It is a game that should appeal to young and old alike. The social philosophy it teaches is admirable, and the characters and animals are delightful. The landscapes are absolutely gorgeous and the buildings are intricate with details that can be explored for hours. I recommend this game to any one who loves Harvest Moon and any one who would like to be introduced to the genre of 'role-playing simulation game'. Set aside a few hours each day to live on a wonderful island and learn how to farm, mine, fish and even how to cook, arrange flowers and write haiku!

The PSP is an extraordinary system in many ways. It is a small, handheld version of the Playstation and can support incredible graphics and a variety of different uses. It uses a Memory 'card' or 'stick' and one can record music, pictures and even video clips as well as saving game files on it. The quality of the sound may not equal that of the IPod, but it certainly is more than adequate and it is rather marvelous to be able to play a game on the same system that one uses to listen to one's favourite music. Its disadvantages are its weight and its fragility. If dropped, it can be broken easily. One therefore should buy a padded case for it. Unlike the DS, which has its own 'case' with two screens that are protected when the case is shut, the PSP has a single screen without any protection whatsoever. With a decent case, however, one can be less afraid that it will meet with a fatal accident.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Milking a Cow in Harvest Moon DS

Here is an actual screen from Harvest Moon DS. Although it is taken from the original Japanese version of the game, the English version is very similar. The farmer (your character) is milking a cow in his field. He is wearing a device called the 'Touchglove' which allows him to use his stylus and Touchscreen to milk the cow, where otherwise he simply would use the action button with the Milker. When the Touchglove is used, the player actually 'milks' the cow by passing the stylus back and forth across the udders of the Cow. The speed with which this is done determines the amount of size of the milk that is obtained.

With the Touchglove, the player can pet his cow each day using the stylus and can wash it by using a Brush. Affection levels are increased when the Touchglove is employed.

Above the Touchscreen is a picture of the actual field on the farm. The player here has not done a very good job in clearing the field. Perhaps it is early in the game, but the tree stumps, rocks, boulders and weeds should be cleared away, the ground tilled and crops planted in their stead.

The house shown in the southeast corner of the top screen is not the player's farmhouse but the cabin belonging to Takakura, his father's old friend.

Harvest Moon DS

Having been a devoted fan of Harvest Moon for a few years, I was thrilled when Natsume created a Harvest Moon game for the new Nintendo DS system. For those who are not familiar with the DS, it is a revolutionary handheld system with two separate screens. The lower screen is a 'Touchscreen' that allows the player to use a stylus to input information and perform actions. A classical control pad with directional and action buttons is used as well.

Hand-held systems like the Game Boy, Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS are windows to miniature worlds that can be taken everywhere. They are small devices that fit in a pocket or handbag and yet the panoramic experience offered by some games is almost overwhelming in its details.

Harvest Moon probably is one of the most incredible, detailed 'worlds' ever created for video games. Natsume is a Japanese company and Harvest Moon does represent Japanese traditional values to some extent. Harvest Moon games are set in small villages and the player usually inherits or purchases a dilapidated farm and then proceeds to make friends with the other people living in the area and sometimes even is able to marry and have a child. In attempting to restore the farm to working condition, the player is able to augment his/her income through fishing and mining while raising crops and animals on the farm.

There are two primarily locations in Harvest Moon games: Forget-Me-Not Valley and Mineral Town. Characters in games set in Forget-Me-Not Valley may allude to Mineral Town from time to time and in the games set in Mineral Town, two characters from Forget-Me-Not Valley actually could visit periodically, but it is only in Harvest Moon for the DS that the two locations really come together in a significant fashion.

In Harvest Moon for the DS, one can order from businesses in Mineral Town by using the telephone and many characters from Mineral Town will visit the Valley on a weekly basis. One actually can court the eligible girls from Mineral Town in this game as well. For Harvest Moon fans, this game is the ultimate fantasy made real.

Apart from this connection, Harvest Moon DS endeavours to combine the best aspects of previous games set in either location. 'A Wonderful Life', a game set in
Forget-Me-Not Valley, allowed the player to create upgraded crops and to grow trees in addition. Moreover, in 'A Wonderful Life', characters aged as time passed. The child one had grew into adulthood as the years passed.

In Mineral Town, one could marry and have a child, but the child never advanced beyond toddler age. Years passed but characters remained the same. On the other hand, Mineral Town had incredibly complex mines and a system for upgrading tools that 'A Wonderful Life' lacked.

In Harvest Moon for the DS, there are four mines containing a multitude of items, rather like the mining system of Mineral Town, but the upgraded crops and trees from 'A Wonderful Life' can be created as well. When one marries and has a child, the child will grow and mature. The child actually can leave the house and form relationships with other villagers, unlike the child in Friends of Mineral Town.

For the individual who never experienced Harvest Moon, however, a basic description of the game may be in order here.

In Harvest Moon games, farming is the central focus. One must clear land, then plant seeds and water them regularly in order to produce a crop. Crops invariably are seasonal and one must be aware of the passage of time in order to be able to harvest crops before they die when the season changes. Animals can be raised, but must be fed and given attention and love if they are to prosper.

There are a number of different ways to travel through the Valley. One can walk, run or ride a horse. If one has been fortunate enough to acquire a 'teleport stone', one can move instantly from one location to another.

Making money is an important part of life in Harvest Moon but it is not as important as making friends. Friendships are maintained through regular contact and gift-giving. One must know one's friends, their likes and dislikes and remember their birthdays with a favourite gift.

Village festivals are an important part of the game. Special items and awards can be obtained only at Festivals.

Most Harvest Moon games are rather 'open-ended' in the sense that one does not 'win or lose' the game. One usually can proceed at one's own pace to achieve goals. It really provides a way to live another life, one that is far from urban pressures and contemporary problems. Technology tends to be quite limited in Harvest Moon. The lifestyle is that of a traditional village. Weather is an important concern, as it would be to any farmer or rancher. Making other people happy brings special rewards.

Harvest Moon games are extremely therapeutic. They allow one to attain worthy goals while being reminded of traditional virtues. Harvesting crops that one has grown and preparing nourishing and tasty meals with the fruit of one's labours is extremely satisfying. Witnessing the birth of an animal and nurturing it is another source of fulfillment. Cows are milked daily and sheep are sheared weekly. Chickens lay eggs daily. In Harvest Moon DS, provided that one has built a pond, one can raise Ducks for eggs as well.

For the individual who never played a Harvest Moon game, Harvest Moon DS will be an incredible adventure. For fans of Harvest Moon games, this game represents the ultimate Harvest Moon experience in many ways.

Nonetheless, all Harvest Moon games are worth exploring and for those who prefer a larger gaming system, there are games that were made for the GameCube and even the Playstation. These games will be discussed in separate posts.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Scene from Lost in Blue 2

Here is a wonderful scene from Lost in Blue. It shows the girl and boy characters in the 'Jungle' area.

Lost in Blue 2

If you ever imagined being stranded on a deserted island with a single companion of the opposite gender, you now will be able to live out that fantasy. No, this is not a 'reality show'. This is 'Lost in Blue 2', a game for the Nintendo DS system.

It is not the first time a game of this sort has been made. Lost in Blue 2 is the successor to the original Lost in Blue game, which itself was based on a game entitled 'Survival Kids'. As is often the case with games like this, Lost in Blue 2 has benefited from the problems encountered in the earlier games in the series and is more fun to play than the original Lost in Blue or Survival Kids.

In the original Lost in Blue game, one had to take the role of the boy in the first game and actually complete the game before one could play the role of the girl. Furthermore, the girl in the original was utterly hopeless. It was not entirely her fault. When the boy first found her stranded on the beach, he accidentally stepped on her eyeglasses, rendering her virtually blind. In that game, she was unable even to venture outside the cave unless she was holding the boy's hand. In Lost in Blue 2, the girl actually can be sent on errands alone: she can forage for food, firewood or water.

Unfortunately, although one can play either the boy or the girl from the very start in Lost in Blue 2, the girl still has inferior physical abilities and as a beginner, it is easier to play the part of the boy and only begin a new game with the girl once one has mastered the intricacies of the game.

The premise of the game is that, having been shipwrecked on a deserted island, one first must struggle simply to survive but ultimately, one actually must escape from the island in order to complete the game. One can build a great Treehouse and even have three separate homes in different parts of the island. One can hunt and fish, and learn to cook beautifully. The problem that drives one onward to escape finally is the fact that the island is the location of an active volcano. Progressively violent earthquakes force the characters to recognise the futility of any plan to make the island a permanent domicile. Alas, however comfortable and aesthetically pleasing a Treehouse with beds covered in furs might be, one never can feel secure there.

Fortunately, one does have plenty of time to enjoy the primitive life style that the island can offer. Moreover, there is a romantic aspect to the game, albeit understated. All is proper and morally unquestionable: the boy and the girl sleep in separate beds at all times. Even so, there are ways to court one's companion, and there are advances to be made romance.

Lost in Blue 2, like its predecessor, is extremely realistic in many respects. One of the most impressive aspects of the game is the manner in which one starts a fire. Using the L and R buttons, one actually must twirl a stick made from Twigs back and forth on a bed of Tree Bark. When a wisp of smoke can be seen, one then must blow repeatedly into the microphone in order to create a true fire. The fact that the firestick often will slip from your hands if you do not maintain the proper rhythm when twirling it, and the fact that the fire does not start immediately when you blow into the microphone only add to the realism of this task.

There are many other aspects of the game that use the Touchscreen in creative ways. When one uses a Spear to fish, the stylus actually becomes the Spear and one really must 'spear' the fish that appear in the water. When one 'searches' the ground, one must brush away sand, leaves or dirt using the stylus to uncover items. When cooking, one uses both stylus and microphone. When grilling food on a stone, one must flip each piece of food over with a circular motion, using the stylus. When steaming food, one must blow again into the microphone. When cutting food to make a salad, one must use the stylus as a knife and when boiling soup, the stylus becomes a spoon to stir the pot.

Hunger, thirst and fatigue are the ever-threatening enemies in this game, but one can encounter animal predators on this island as well. When one encounters any predator, one uses fists, spear or bow to defeat or kill it. When a large animal is killed, one will obtain meat, lard and fur. Fur is used to upholster furniture. Lard is used both in cooking and to make torches. Meat can be cooked immediately or smoked and made into 'jerky'.

Exploration of the island involves journeys through many diverse areas. There are four beaches to explore, each with its own characteristics. There are grasslands, grassy steppes, a Jungle, a Lake and a Swamp. Apart from the natural settings, there are man-made Ruins.

Essentially, one learns that every item has a purpose. Even leaves should be collected for use in mattresses and to cover the walls of Treehouses.

Building furniture uses the Touchscreen rather creatively as well. One must use the stylus alternately as a saw and in order to carve notches into wooden posts. One then must make certain that the pieces can be joined properly before one can hammer them into place. Sometimes one must turn a piece of wood from side to side and up or down a few times before the two pieces can be joined together. It can be rather a challenging puzzle on occasion.

For those who enjoy more detailed work and who are ardent about fishing, lures can be carved from wood using the stylus for the purpose of catching rare fish. As one might expect, different lures work on different types of fish. There are many varieties of fish to be caught in this game.

Individuals who tend to be impatient and who require intense action at all times will not respond positively to Lost in Blue 2. This game appeals to those who enjoy total immersion in another life. Existence in Life in Blue 2 requires repetition of the same tasks. Food and water must be gathered daily. The fire must be fed. Tools wear out in time and must be replaced. While performing these daily chores, one must continue to explore the island and perfect a means of escape.

Finding a boat is not really a problem. A lifeboat will wash ashore at some point, and one can choose to build a raft on the beach instead. Leaving the island, however, will not guarantee a successful escape. It is vital to have a means of communication with a potential rescuer as well as maps for navigation. Finding or obtaining these items takes time. Learning to survive in the most efficient fashion takes time as well. One must have patience and endurance in order to win this game!

Despite or because of this, the game actually does make the player feel that he/she is living a double life sometimes. When I have made another fire, defeated a wolf, collected 5 bottles of water for the oil drum and made a few Lunchboxes from meat caught in a small trap, I often feel exhausted. That surely is a good day's work! After that, however, I must make dinner in the 'real world'. All that cooking on the Cooking Stone will not give any sustenance in my 'other' life! Furthermore, it can be rather frustrating to have mastered the art of trapping and shooting a large animal only to realise that no one ever will appreciate my exploits apart from my 'virtual' companion on the island.

This game is very 'real'. Once I actually awoke in the middle of the night, wondering if I had asked my companion to smoke all the meat I had brought home. If I had placed it in the Smoker but not asked her to make smoked meat, the meat simply would rot away unnoticed... Another time, I awoke at night to the sound of violent rain on the roof and thought: 'Oh, that means all the vegetables and all my traps will have washed away. What a shame!' A moment later, I realised that the storm in THIS world would not affect the island in Lost in Blue 2.

If any one is limited physically in this reality, a game like Lost in Blue 2 gives one the freedom and mobility one longs to regain. For any one who is housebound or otherwise restricted, a game like this is can be a godsend. It is far better than any amount of psychological 'therapy' in easing the burden of frustration and helplessness that disabled individuals often experience. For those who are not limited physically in any way, Lost in Blue 2 offers an opportunity to experience a 'primitive' lifestyle, one where paperwork and bureaucracy is supplanted by simple survival skills.

Lost in Blue 2 is made by Konami for the Nintendo DS platform. It is a fairly recent release and should be available at most outlets. I have written a General Guide for Lost in Blue 2 that is published by IGN.