Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Ball

Fun game. It lacks the polish of a big-studio production, but it’s still a good game.

At the very start you’re given a device. Then you find the Ball. The device attracts the ball to you, or knocks it away. Like in Portal, your objective is to maneuver the ball (and yourself) around the game world. I thought it would be a burden, lugging this thing everywhere with me, but it wasn’t. It became my companion, my pet.

The ball is your friend. It is your pet. You’ll come to love the ball because you’ll use it for everything! It’s a platform to stand on. It’s a defensive shield. It clears the path. It opens doors. It’s your only means of offense. Everything in this civilization under the volcano revolves around the ball.

The architecture of the whole game reminds me of the Chizra levels from the original Unreal. The resemblance is striking and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’m playing a mod of that level. I expected to see a Slith pop out in the water levels. But it works pretty well. It creates a good atmosphere, and the music matches it flawlessly.

Now, complaints. The puzzles are too simple. A few had me scratching my head, but overall the developers didn’t use Ball-puzzling to its full potential. Most of the puzzles are too obvious. Everything you need to do to solve them is in the same room. They’re still fun and satisfying to solve, but they could have been more complex, and that’s what I was waiting for. More complexity. More level-long puzzles that require multiple steps spread out over multiple chambers to solve. But it never went beyond self-contained rooms. I don’t think their target audience was diehard puzzle-gamers, so this may have been intentional.

By and large the game is about puzzle-solving, which is good, but I liked the combat best. The ball is your only weapon, and it’s so cool to use it this way. Once you get good at manipulating the ball, you can do some pretty cool tricks with it. The most difficult puzzles involve using the ball in combat, especially in the last few levels. That was the step-up in difficulty I had been waiting for! The enemies that require clever manipulation of the ball to defeat. I wanted to do more of that! Action puzzles are seldom done right, but this game pulled it off very well. Give me more of those lizard guys!

Because there’s combat, there’s the potential for death. Sort of. Death works like the vitachmbers in Bioshock. When you die, you respawn at the closest checkpoint, but the game doesn’t reset. The puzzles, status of the enemies and bosses are still the same as when you died. What’s the point of death if there are no consequences? This is a growing trend in games these days and I’d rather it not catch on because it makes them too easy.

The game tries to have a story, but it’s sketchy at best. Really, the story is irrelevant. It’s a puzzle/action game, and everything in the world is contrived so it can be a puzzle/action game. There’s no real explanation for why this whole underground world can only be navigated by the ball. It’s stated that the world is a giant lock, keeping everyone inside, and the ball is the key that unlocks the world. But the ball is lying in this world for the player to find, so what stopped the inhabitants from taking the ball and guiding it to the factory themselves? Why is everything trying to stop the player from achieving this?

Ah, well, it’s all just an excuse to build a game around this type of puzzle. It could’ve been bigger and better, but what we have is quite good, lots of fun and challenging in its own right.

Support indie games!

Sunday, March 6, 2011


Talk about that teacher getting suspended for (anonymously) complaining on her blog about students and the education system. I remember the news stories quoting her saying things like students are lazy these days. They don’t want to do anything, they complain if you challenge them to be creative, and they feel entitled to whatever they want.

That’s gotten me thinking about something that happened in ninth grade art class. The teacher wanted us to create an island and draw it. The kid sitting across from me made a drawing of a Nike swoosh as a landmass and populated it with vegetation. Even at the time I marveled at this. That was his whole world. A damn corporate logo. There was a commercial where this kid’s imagination should have been.

It’s been a problem for years, and it just keeps getting worse. Even when I was a kid, there were children entering fifth grade who couldn’t read, and nothing was done about it, not because people are lazy and don’t want to solve a problem, but because nobody has time. There aren’t enough teachers to go around, and with so many budget cuts, if a few kids fall behind, there is no one who can take the time to help them.

For some reason, schools stopped teaching phonics, too, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many kids can’t read shortly after this happened. I learned by phonics. I maybe have been one of the last classes to be taught to read this way, and it works perfectly. It’s the basis of written language. Why not teach the sounds each letter makes instead of teaching kids what individual words are?

School doesn’t teach kids how to use their minds anymore, if it ever did. Thanks to computers, kids aren’t learning how to do anything. They don’t have to memorize the multiplication tables anymore because computers do all the multiplying for them. Kids don’t learn how to spell anymore because computers check spelling, grammar, and even format documents for them. Hell, teachers use handwritten assignments as punishment for misbehaving! When I heard that, I was so mad; it used to be the ONLY way to do assignments! Computer-written assignments weren’t required until I was in high school. Until then, everything from worksheets to history reports was handwritten.

These days, middle-schoolers are required to have laptops. Like…why?

I grew up on the very tail end of the technology age. Computers weren’t part of the classroom until high school. Calculators weren’t in classrooms until the seventh grade, and weren’t required until high school. I did all my assignments by hand until the ninth grade. I had to memorize the multiplication tables. I had to learn grammar and spelling.

Now that technology has taken over, I feel like I’ve earned the right to use a calculator to do math. I feel like I’ve earned the privilege to type everything on a computer, and let it check my spelling. I went through the period where I had to do all of this by hand, so my reward is the computer automating it.

Kids these days have all of that already. They’re used to everything being done for them instantly. It’s not good preparation for the real world, and it doesn’t teach kids how to think for themselves. Instead, they’re taught to plug the numbers in and the calculator spits out the right answer. No explanation for how this works, or why, just plug it in and the computer does it for you.

The result: kids resent putting forth an effort to do anything. We’re not teaching children how to take what they have and make it work; no, they’re given laptops and calculators and taught to use these things to get their answers. They learn procedure, not ingenuity.

That teacher shouldn’t have been suspended for speaking the truth. It’s a symptom of a bigger problem: people don’t think anymore. We’re not teaching our children how to think for themselves. In fact, we’re raising them in an environment wherein they don’t have to think in order to achieve anything. It’s all done for them.

We are not resourceful. We are not creative. We’re used to being provided for. This is a very dangerous thing.

And now education budgets are being cut even deeper. Yeah, good idea, let’s teach our children even less. All the taxes we’re paying in this country, how can states be broke? Richest nation in the world, and we can’t even afford to teach our children the basics, and yet, somehow, prisons have internet access and inmates receive upgraded gym equipment. One quarter of my income goes to taxes. I’m one of some 300 million people in my country. Where is all this money going?! Roads and bridges are falling apart, schools are shutting down, police officers are getting laid off because states can’t afford them anymore! What is it being spent on?!

What kind of country is this when school sports teams have to do fundraisers in front of Wal-mart just to exist? Not too long ago, that was state funded. Why isn’t this money being used to fix the real problems?

Well, when the motivation of a nation’s people is profit, what do we expect? People care more about making themselves rich than being useful in the world.