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?