My Favorite Game Reviewers

There are several game reviewers who are responsible for getting this 50+ year old mom into the world of gaming. One is Alex Shaw (and his team of merry friends) who create fascinating, often hilarious podcasts. I LOVE their discussions of the Mass Effect series. Thank you so much Alex, Sharon, and friends for hours of enjoyment.

Dan Floyd of Extra Credits teamed up with James Portnow to give the infamously difficult Dark Souls games a try. Dan’s series, informally known as Dan Sucks at Dark Souls, gave me the courage to try the game myself. I mean really, could I do any worse than this?

Dark Souls # 10 — Loot Runs

Thank you Dan and James for hours and hours of pain despair fun.

And finally, there’s Noah Caldwell-Gervais.

When I was in high school I had a class called “The Rise and Fall of Practically Everything”. The class met for two hours a day and combined history, art, and literature. We wrote essays and term papers and created art projects; in my case I learned calligraphy and made my own illuminated manuscript!

Imagine if the smartest guy in the Rise and Fall class spent hours writing an eloquent, well-thought-out essay, and then used the essay as narration for a video. A video about gaming. That’s what Noah’s videos are like. I feel my brain expanding every time I listen to one. (I treat Noah’s long videos like podcasts, and have them playing while I do something else.)

Thanks Noah for expanding my brain, and challenging me to be a better writer.

Here’s the most recent of Noah’s videos —

No Man’s Sky — Sixty Hours In

One month later — sixty hours in — I’m continuing to enjoy No Man’s Sky. You would think  that a random assortment of planets would make for a story that feels sort of, you know, random. But instead the story feels dramatic, with twists and turns.

For example, after several planets where dangerous “animals” jumped out of hiding and attacked me, this latest planet seemed quiet.

Too quiet.


Welcome to Chadwickia 913!

The first half-hour I spent here, I jumped every time I heard a noise or saw a shadow out of the corner of my eye. I’m finally starting to relax and let down my guard.

I have not yet seen any forms of “animal” life except for these underwater organisms


At one point I saw something deep underwater that looked like bones — a giant ribcage from a huge vertebrate?  Uh oh, if there’s dead ones, there could be live ones nearby…

On closer examination, though, they turned out to be random rock formations, not “ribs” at all.

Are there any life forms here that we would call “animals”? In 3 hours of exploring, the only thing I have found that moved was this curled up plant-worm-scorpion thing. It lashed out at me as I walked by and sprayed me with a mist of toxic liquid.


The Toxic Squirt is the coiled up spiral thing on the far right.

Could this be one of the few underwater “animal” life forms that made it onto the land? Or is this a specialized plant, more like a Venus Fly Trap?



No Man’s Sky and the “Explorer’s Mod”

When I first heard about No Man’s Sky, my initial reaction was “Cool, an exploration game! I really enjoyed the exploration in Mass Effect; I just hope there isn’t too much combat in this game. Combat is so boring”.

Unlike so many other people, I was not disappointed in No Man’s Sky. I was hoping for hours of exploration and very little combat — so the game has greatly exceeded my expectations.

HOWEVER, I do have a special mod to my game, let’s call it the Explorer’s Mod, which improves the game a lot — makes it much less “grindy”.

To get the “Explorer’s Mod”, all you have to do is edit the memory of your game (in my case, I asked my son to do it) and add two billion credits to your account.



Think of it as a research grant.

No more mining for resources while hiding from sentinels! No more shuffling items in my inventory! Now I can focus on what’s really important —  to explore, take photographs of landscapes and lifeforms, and to catalog new species. Along with this scientific mission there are responsibilities. I have to find blueprints for the best technology, and learn how to use them.  I have to figure out how to use the navigation system…try to avoid getting lost…again.

Part of the Explorer’s Mod Research Grant is the constraint “DO NOT KILL ANY CREATURES”.  Not even in self-defense. And ever since the time I saw a clump of “mushrooms” get up and run away, I haven’t killed any “plants” either.

It’s great not having to worry about money, but there are still many challenges. Here I am trying to take one more picture of a new species before my shields fail.


In that case, it was not a good decision.




Another challenge is the calculation “Do I have enough resources with me to go to that area over there on foot, or should I run back to my ship before I freeze to death?”

And, I have had to bargain with dozens of aliens in order to find the ship that had the technology I wanted. This was a slow process that took endless patience. Although, I have to admit, it was great to be able to afford whatever caught my eye. (Don’t you just love that new starship smell?)

Wealth does not solve all my problems — it appears that some resources are not for sale. I need Emeril to construct a shield upgrade — but I couldn’t find it in any of the space stations; no fellow travelers had any for sale either. My research grant doesn’t help me here. I really will have to brave the Sentinels and mine for Emeril myself.

Another challenge is Space Pirates. In this case, I have broken the rule “do not kill any creatures”.


I’m hoping it’s possible to improve my shields so much that shooting pirates is no longer necessary.


One Year Gap

It has been about a year since I’ve written here!

I have had some wonderful experiences in the gaming world in the past year…

First of all, I finished Mass Effect 2 around Thanksgiving.

The plot of ME 2 is that Commander Shepard gets the old gang back together in order to carry out an extremely important mission…one which will probably result in the death of the entire crew even if the mission is successful. A suicide mission. As Commander Shepard recruits team members, sooner or later they work up the courage to ask her if there is something they could take care of, some unfinished business, before the final mission takes place. As Commander Shepard and her crewmates go through these experiences, they bond as a team and as friends. In my playthrough, Joan Shepard developed a close friendship with the icy perfectionist Amanda, and fell in love with Thane Krios. With Amanda forging ahead, clearing the way with her bionics, and Thane at her side, Shepard was able to get her entire team through the mission. Even Zaeed, who was not loyal, made it through.

I then moved on to Mass Effect 3.

However, I got stuck a few months in and haven’t yet returned to the Mass Effect universe. The story is very dark right now. Every planet we visit is in the process of being destroyed. Garrus is endlessly worried about his family (caught behind enemy lines) and Thane is far away, slowly dying of Kepral’s syndrome. The ship was ravaged when it was re-possessed after Commander Shepard’s court martial (long story) and looks gloomy and derelict. Exposed cables and pipes everywhere. On the plus side, it’s great to have Liara back on board, and I like the new crew members Steve Cortez and James Vega. The DLC “Leviathan” was beautiful and exciting, and I still have the DLC “The Citadel” to look forward to. I will definitely be back.

My son introduced me to Undertale.

Over Christmas break, in a massive session that lasted til 6 am, he took me through a pacifist run. (He handled the combat and I did the exploring.) What an amazing experience — excellent story, and the art and music was a big part of the emotional impact. As the final scenes rolled, I had to blink back tears. Happy tears!

During bleakest February I started Dark Souls 1.

…And all spring and summer I slogged away. Since I had literally NEVER had a game controller in my hands before, there was a steep learning curve. As of July, with the help of my son, two of his friends, and the ever-cheerful Solaire, I was able to survive Blighttown and ring the second bell. Then when I returned to Firelink Shrine, there was a very weird new character where the pond used to be. I still haven’t spoken to him. I’ve watched several play-throughs and I know what he wants.  He will send me to Sen’s Fortress, and I don’t want to go.

That was July. In August I started…No Man’s Sky.

The varied worlds of No Man’s Sky remind me of the different landscapes and environments I’ve seen in Minecraft — those wonderful, evocative landscapes of the imagination. I have been so immersed in No Man’s Sky for the past month that my Facebook friends are tired of  hearing about it.

So that’s why I’ve dusted off this blog!



The Making of Mass Effect

Here is a series of videos about the making of the video game Mass Effect. What I like about these videos is that they talk about the creative process. At one point they say “we wanted to create a world that we would like to visit”. That was inspiring to me because I have ideas for a science fiction story that takes place on one of my Minecraft worlds!




There are also videos # 5, 6, and 7.


A Summer of Gaming

It’s hard to believe, it’s been more than 6 months since my last post! It has been a busy summer.

One of the projects this summer was to dip my toe into the world of gaming.
As you know, I have spent a lot of time with Minecraft (as a sandbox game) and Minecraft editing software. Many years before that (in the late ’90s, when my son was a baby!) I played Myst and Riven. I even read the novels that went along with the games.

Myst series

Those games seem so primitive now — there was no motion, they were just a series of stationary slides with a few rare cut scenes. Nonetheless, I became deeply immersed in those worlds. When I listen to the the soundtracks now, I feel such a sense of nostalgia for those places I had visited. The fantasy / science fiction basis for the games’ storylines was, if someone learned the art of writing “linking books”, they could link to other worlds. (It was left unanswered whether these worlds had been created by the writer, or if the worlds had existed previously!) Myst centered on the character of Atrus, a creator of linking books, and his two problematic sons, Sirus and Achenar. Riven continued the story of Atrus, added his brave and resourceful wife Catherine, and Atrus’ deeply disturbed father Gehn. I loved the grumpy but well-intentioned Atrus, and (spoiler) cheered when Atrus and Catherine were reunited. Part of the fun of it was that I identified with Atrus — a slightly paunchy middle-aged geek (played by Rand Miller).

Atrus and Catherine Riven


THIS summer, I decided to try something completely new. I had been listening to the excellent podcasts of Alex and Sharon Shaw

They have deep, thoughtful (and often hilarious) discussions of favorite movies, games, and other topics in the geek world. When I tried some of their movie recommendations, I found that I often liked the same sort of things they did. So I decided to take a stab at one of their favorite games, Bioshock Infinite.


Here are my impressions. Like Myst and Riven, Bioshock Infinite had an excellent science fiction storyline and characters I came to care about. The graphics were spectacular and the world was “immersive”. However, unlike Myst and Riven, there were many scenes of blood and violence. It wasn’t gratuitous violence (it was a very important part of the story), but it was shocking and stressful. I never did get the hang of using the weapons. Times of exploration were constantly interrupted by tedious combat episodes. I needed my expert gamer son to take over, in order to reach the end of the story!

Now I have moved on to another favorite of Alex and Sharon, the Mass Effect series. I am playing as a female Commander Shepherd — or as she is sometimes known, “femshep”. It was so cool to be able to personalize my character by choosing her appearance and background story.

femshep blue eyes

I also get to choose (from moment to moment) her way of treating the people she meets and the situations she finds herself in. The “Paragon” approach is one of diplomacy. Paragon Commander Shepherd works to win crewmates’ loyalty with compassion and attention. Renegade Shepherd has a brusque approach and will give the crewmates a (usually metaphorical) smack upside the head to spur them into action. Some people respond well to this form of leadership, and so a Renegade Shepherd can also end up with a loyal crew. Paragon calm

I have started the Mass Effect series by jumping right into Mass Effect 2 because (as Alex and Sharon have said), its combat system is simpler. I still find the combat boring and frustrating, and I die a lot, even on the easiest mode. However, I’m enjoying the game SO much more than I did Bioshock Infinite. There’s a higher fun / tedium ratio — more things to do that don’t involve getting shot at — such as chatting with my crewmates, mining planets for resources, learning about alien species, even poking around sleazy marketplaces for bargains. When I went to a scrap shop and found the T6-FBA coupling that my ship engineers had been wishing for, I literally shouted in delight.

I’m currently working on the mission to Omega station to find the infamous “Archangel” — who (spoiler) turns out to be a good friend and comrade from Mass Effect 1. So far I have died and seen the following screen half a dozen times.



How I hate combat!! But — I’m looking forward to meeting and interacting with all the Mass Effect characters (whom Alex and Sharon Shaw have talked so much about in their very spoilery podcasts)!

Mass Effect characters


Mid-February Music Progress

I’ve made some good progress in music lately, though I haven’t posted any new “noodles” for a while. I finally made it through the part of the video that talks about mixers, and I’ve been experimenting with that. The lectures at Coursera have been getting further and further out of my comfort zone (lots of terminology) so I’ve started making notecards! I’ve also been watching FL Studio tutorials by Andrew Aversa (aka Zircon). To me these tutorials are mindbogglingly complex and would be very intimidating, except that I “got to know him” by listening to an interview, and he is just such a nice guy.

Just today one of my new books arrived — it’s called The Guide to MIDI Orchestration. I expected that it would be a very dense book with tiny print, no pictures, and teeny-tiny little snippets of music scores. But I just opened the book at random and…it has pictures! The music score examples are readable! And the material sounds learnable. Ex. if you change around your wind instruments so that the low instruments are playing in their highest register and the highest instruments are playing in their lowest register (ex. bassoons high and flutes low), you get a completely different sound. That makes sense.

This video by Zircon is almost like looking over his shoulder…

This is one of his better-known songs — “Just Hold On”

My favorite interview so far

I’ve been listening to the Top Score podcasts, and this is my favorite one so far. The composer Ben Prunte was self-taught, and worked a lot of other jobs while he learned his craft as a musician. He said it took 10 years before he got good at it!

For Ben, the glamour of scoring video games did not come without effort. While working alternately as a janitor, Google diagnostician, and volunteer coordinator, he dedicated his spare time to honing his craft. After years of improvement, he received a call from the developer of the new game Faster Than Light (FTL). They asked for a score, and Ben’s life changed forever.

The music-writing software he uses is called Cubase, which has been around for a long time.

Here is a playlist of the soundtrack he wrote for the game FTL. I really like it, I think because it reminds me of the electronic music I listened to back in the 70s.

Previews of new Adventure Map

I don’t want to give too much away, but here are some previews of the new Adventure Map I’m working on. This section is called Vierria, named after David Vierra, the guy who wrote the MC Edit software.

Vierria preview
This area is the last region the adventurers will reach, and is called Ultimaria.

preview Ultimaria

Top Score podcast — interviews with game composers

I just found out about the podcast Top Score, which discusses the music composed for, and used in, computer games. The woman who does the interviews has a classical music background. The following video talks about how the podcast interviews are made. Cute scene at 8:55 where they’re editing out the vocal flubs.

Learn the process behind Top Score, the podcast from Minnesota Public Radio that features interviews with the composers behind the world’s biggest games.