Yearning for Wonderland

There is such a place as fairyland - but only children can find the way to it...until they have grown so old that they forget the way. Only a few, who remain children at heart, can ever find that fair, lost path again...The world calls them singers and poets and artists and story-tellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland. ~ L.M Montgomery

PC Game Review – The Book of Unwritten Tales

The Book of Unwritten Tales begins with a “spirited leap” onto the back of a dragon and doesn’t let go till the very end, some 20-odd hours later.



The action in the game is third person point and click. You play as a number of characters throughout the game: the gnome Wilbur Weathervane, elvish Princess Ivo, Nate the human buccaneer, or his creature Critter who is a…creature.

Some videogames have annoying and repetitive music and voices. This is not the case with The Book of Unwritten Tales. The few times when I had to play in a quiet area, I got my headphones so I didn’t miss a moment.

In fact, the music and vocal work is truly exceptional, the soundtrack nuanced with believable sound effects. Unlike some games that force two voice actors to create five or six different voices, this game has a sizable vocal cast about a dozen and you can tell as you encounter people throughout the world.

The visuals are five star, a dizzying array of locales. There are icy mountains, underground caverns, and dark forests.



 The pacing of the plot dynamic and keeps you interested.  The puzzles range in challenge from easy to ‘scratch your head difficult.’  The game raises the difficulty by disguising objects so perfectly into the background that you can’t perceive them.

Several mini-games require a series of quick key presses to progress, which creates a little urgency in a linear game since you cannot progress otherwise. Like most adventure games, the player has to combine unexpected elements. Fasten the rubber chicken to the torture device to create a makeshift slingshot? Check.

You also often have to switch characters during cooperative play as you often need to use a character’s specific skill to solve a puzzle.

Lots of humor is written into both the dialogue and the tiny reaction animations. The designers don’t take anything too seriously, a great deal is tongue-in-cheek. There are countless gaming and geek references: Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Advanced Dungeon & Dragons, Lord of the Rings, Alice in Wonderland, Magic: the Gathering, Mission Impossible…and those are just the ones I caught on the first go-thru.


Not only are there countless references in-game, but also musical jokes to those attuned to the soundtrack. Early in the game, Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” starts playing to underscore with ominous bassoon a risky venture by the main gnome. I often found myself laughing out loud.
If you are not a fan of puns, some of the humor in the game may strike you the wrong way (i.e. you encounter a cast-iron safe for saved games). On the other hand, who can resist cheeky termites talking in a Cockney accent?  “Get out of our sun, homeotherm!”

The game, however, is not without a few issues. The animation to switch characters is odd; they half walk in a circle around each other to swap instead of instantaneous, which gets old when you have to constantly switch. The same half-circle happens when going in and out of doorways and entrances.

Though the script is very good, the last few lines of dialogue in the game is in untranslated German. It was an odd way to finish, but a small mar of the face of an otherwise excellent game-playing experience.

Some lessons to take away from The Book of Unwritten Tales:
• Don’t tee off the trolls.
• If you can’t see the solution to the puzzle, it’s likely under your nose.
• Individually, tiny creatures are no threat. Collectively, they can cart you off and toss you into the bushes.

The Book of Unwritten Tales definitely gives you your money’s worth. The game is presented as a book, divided into five chapters. I’m quite adept at adventure games and I found myself stuck in several places for a day or two. I opted not to use the walk-thru, as that takes all the fun out of it.



Like any good tale, I did not want it to end and didn’t want to leave these characters behind. Does plucky little Wilbur have the courage to adventure forth and be a true mage? Do Ivo and Nate end up floating off into their own sunset in a gnome balloon? Well, I’ll let you play and write the story on your own.

There are strong hints of a sequel–“Maybe there’s another adventure out there for us,” says Wilbur–and there’s definitely room for more creative adventure games like The Book of Unwritten Tales.

Game Trailer:

You can also buy the full game as a digital download for only $29.99.

The Book of Unwritten Tales is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB

Article first published as PC Game Review: The Book of Unwritten Tales on Blogcritics.

"He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless…"

Back when I was playing Lord of the Rings Online, I was wholly enchanted by the way that the game designers had managed to turn my beloved Middle Earth into a playable experience. They managed to incorporate so many tiny details from the books and the movies, creating a whole new reality. As a LOTR geek, I could pop through the round doors in the hobbit holes in Bag End. I could amble along old pathways with Strider. It was like World of Warcraft for book nerds.

In fact, I loved it so much, I had to stop playing because it was taking up way too much of my time. Before I left, though, I stumbled upon one of the most charming surprises I have ever encountered in a game.

I was playing Ilbe, the Hobbit Minstrel (don’t laugh), and was getting thoroughly thrashed with a small group of players in the Barrow Downs. In fact, I got killed almost immediately. Previously, I had been resurrected in one of the resurrection points near one of the towns. Not this time.

I was resurrected in the Old Forest near Breeland. Instead of verdant rolling fields and friendly, apple-cheeked hobbits, I saw this:

Giant spiders, creeping undergrowth, and hostile trees surrounded me. Panicked, I hacked and slashed my way through, running like crazy from the most dangerous monsters until I realized I was actually lost. I was running in circles and couldn’t get back to my group. I was in danger of being picked off again, my life force was dwindling, and all of a sudden in the distance I saw a light…

I slowly walked up to the door of the cozy cottage. Once inside, I wandered around like a child, exploring. I thought it was possible that I had actually been killed in the Old Forest and this was just Hobbit Heaven.

And then I realized…this was Tom Bombadil’s House! The literary thrill from that realization was like a shock. I experienced true bliss, also known as nerd-vana.

Sometimes this also happens in real life. We are wandering lost in a dark, scary place and, just when we think all hope is lost, we see a light in the distance. There is a refuge just behind that door; all we have to do is open it.

Word of the Day – Elegiac

el·e·gi·ac [el-i-jahyuhk, -ak, ih-lee-jee-ak]  –adjective
1. used in, suitable for, or resembling an elegy.
2. expressing sorrow or lamentation: elegiac strains.
This seemed an appropriate week for the word elegy. Most notably, the ending of the NASA shuttle missions.
When you google ‘NASA’ and read the stories of the ending, the regret seems to be primarily over the loss of jobs and the loss of America’s role as a prominent space pioneer. These are definitely losses. 

I have not seen much addressing the loss of the wonder that was NASA’s shuttle program. The first orbital flight of the shuttle launched on April 12, 1981, described by NASA as “the boldest flight test in history”. The opening words of Star Trek
Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.

Sorry, Kirk, it seems as though your reality may never be. Science fiction turns into science fact easily. The visions of the future by great artists and writers, these have been brought to reality by creative scientists: engineers, physicists and designers. We now fly around the world in one long day. We build robots that seem human. We go 10,000 leagues under the sea and to the stars…or at least until lately.

It is a sad development. Without science exploration, who will supply the dreamers? How can we colonize Mars or see existence beyond our solar system? Humans have stared at the stars and wondered for thousands of years. And, finally, finally when we have the capability to move into that great beyond, that final frontier…we turn our faces away. We lower our eyes from the stars to the ground. We may wonder, but there are more immediate worries: unemployment, the debt crisis, and so on.
No one disputes that these are worrisome problems. But to see NASA as only a dump for millions of dollars, when we spend far greater money on wars we cannot win, that is grievously short-sighted.

We have 101 ways to kill a man, but no longer any way to take him to the stars.

A Very Few Moments

I’m sort of a sensitive person (attention: understatement). I cherish the evanescence of beauty – the fragility of a wildflower or the shimmering high note of an aria. I cry easily at happy things and sad things and beautiful things and memorable things. There have been very few moments in my life, however, which have combined all of these things. This post is about one of those moments.

Royo

One of my very favorite (living) artists is Royo, the master Spanish Impressionist. I had collected several of his serigraphs, but was longing to own an original. One day the owner of the gallery where I worked came in with two sketches under his arm, then set them against the far wall. I identified them immediately as Royo original sketches (despite the fact that we carried 40 artists and I was ten feet away) and actually -vaulted- over the massive wooden desk and snatched it up in my hot little hands.

“What is this??” I asked. Actually, I’m pretty sure I screeched.

“New sketches from Royo. They just sent them over from Spain,” he said, “Nice, aren’t they?”

Al Aire (In the Air), Royo, Original Colored Pencil on Paper

“Nice”, dear reader, did not even begin to describe the sketch in my hands. I was devastatingly heels-over-head besotted with this gorgeously nuanced sketch done in colored pencils. Only Royo could do such a magnificent scribbling on brown paper and make it look half-Da Vinci. My throat was mostly closed-up at this point, but I managed to croak, “How much?” He named the price and I ruefully hooked the sketch on the wall and stepped away.

I spent the rest of the day casting furtive glances at “my sketch”, as I now considered it. Cleverly, I had positioned it behind a door, so almost none of the foot traffic coming into the gallery could see it, unless the door was closed. When someone did pause to look at it, I hurriedly called their attention elsewhere – to a landscape, a floral, anything to prevent them from glomming on to “my sketch” and realizing they could acquire a Royo original for less than $2,000. Royo’s oils started at $9,750, to give you a sense of the futility of my task.

I made it through the better part of the day and even managed to leave the gallery for a few minutes and head to one of our other locations. When I stepped back in the door, my gallery director said, “Oh, your sketch sold.” My heart plummeted through my pancreas and I stopped dead. It turned out that it was the -other- sketch that sold, but that was all it took.

I practically tackled the owner when he re-entered the building: “I’m buying that sketch.”

He laughed, until he realized I wasn’t joking, “You can’t.” He then explained that new works had a 30 day hold on them before they were available for employee purchase. This was a bogus rule, as I knew I was the first employee threatening to buy an original off the floor.

I didn’t have 30 days. In fact, I knew I likely didn’t have 30 hours. All of my coworkers were merrily emailing the new bargain originals off to their client list. Royo sketches are both rare and in demand, due to their affordability.

So I stormed, I cried, I threatened and charmed and, in the end, I think I just wore him down. I ended up paying wall price, of course, but it felt like the best money I’d spent. Al Aire was mine. The title means In the Air and that’s pretty much where I existed. My little heels weren’t touching the ground, my head was sky-high and I floated about, probably annoying everyone in my vicinity.

Fast forward to the Royo show.

Royo was coming to our gallery. I was going to see him and meet him and maybe, if I was lucky, speak to him. I was in the throes of a giant art-history nerd crush. I felt like I was meeting John William Waterhouse or W.A. Bouguereau.

When Royo entered, he was the personification of the charming, small-boned Spanish gentleman. His charisma was unmistakable. His voice was soft, but everyone hushed when he spoke. He kissed my hand when he met me and I’m pretty sure I tilted.

I wasn’t able to approach him about my sketch until the next day. I was deeply nervous and had over-prepared. I had typed my request in Spanish, because I didn’t trust my nerves or pronunciation. It read like this:

Estimado Señor, estaría muy honrado si podría firmar mi esbozo “Al Aire”. Ella es muy hermosa y me gustaría saber nada que me puede decir acerca de ella. Esta es mi primera original y la quiero mucho. Sinceramente, Anna

Which means, roughly:

Dear sir, I would be very honored if you would sign my sketch, “Al Aire”. She is very beautiful and I would like to know anything you can tell me about her. This is my first original and I love her very much. Sincerely, Anna 

I’m fairly certain that the sheet of paper was damp with palm sweat by the time I was able to hand it to him. He read it and smiled a half-pleased smile. He picked up the sketch and looked at her, made a small noise of recognition, almost an “Ah”. He spoke rapidly in Spanish to his translator, “He remembers this, he says. It is Maria, you know.” Maria is Royo’s daughter’s best friend and one of his favorite subjects, “It was effortless, he says, she is very free.” We then posed for this picture.

Royo, Anna, and Al Aire

He dedicated the back to me with several florid strokes of the marker. When he handed it to me, I was somewhere between bliss and dismay that I was tearing up. A lot. He smiled at me again and gave me a hug. Royo hugged me; that’s something to tell the grandkids, like “Oh, yeah, I bumped elbows with Monet.”

I walked back to the front desk and set the sketch against the wall, working to regain a modicum of composure. My friend and coworker Leslie had the camera in her hands. She impulsively lifted it and snapped off a candid shot. I demurred, “Oh, don’t take a picture; I look a mess.”

She lowered the camera and told me earnestly, “You want a picture of this. You only feel this way a very few moments in life.”

And she was right.

A “Very Few” Moment

On the Eve of Fireworks

I wrote this post the night before my first Fourth of July in St. Augustine. It was like my own personal renaissance; everything was new and unfamiliar. I had only been living in Florida since the August before and I was still trying to make sense of who and what I was. Everything had changed and I wasn’t really sure who “Anna” was any more. Five years later, I still relish defining who she is.

Annahome

 07/03/06
I step out of my door and inhale Florida – all the musty warmth, the tropically gaudy smells mingling of dead and growing flowers. I imagine I smell salt on the air, even though the ocean is almost a mile away. The same ocean that I have dreamt of living near my whole life. I am here at last. I feel like I ought to celebrate, though there are no fireworks tonight.

I step out in my oldest, washed to thinness t-shirt, in a vivid red that I know clashes with my hair. The same hair that is pulled back in an untidy ponytail. Flip-flops and jeans that are cut, really, for smaller hips than mine – more Venus Williams than Venus de Milo. And yet, despite my awareness that this is hardly a shining moment of attractiveness, I feel more me than I have in awhile. Not in pearls and suit to impress a client. Not in little black dress and heels to please a boy. I shed my skins of elegance and sexiness, cleverness and intellect. Tonight, I only have to please me.

I step out and return with a sack of Krystals (the fairly subpar White Castle alternative in Florida), the grease soaking softly through the bottom of the sack. I eat them while perched on my stool, likely chewing with my mouth open, barefoot and reading Transmetropolitan. My favorite opera aria is playing on the stereo. Sometimes I forget what it’s like to hang out with me; I spend so much time with others. I am blissfully boring tonight. For a bare handful of hours, I am not a punchline or a sexpot or a muse or a saleswoman. I am not a girlfriend or a daughter or a friend or an employee.

I am just me and, thankfully, there are no fireworks tonight.