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Giving Thanks for Great Stories: A Brunette Games Roundup

Gratitude

Here at BG, stories make our world go round. But I think that's true for everyone, every day. Imagine what it would be like to live on a planet with no stories, no fiction; the concept of make-believe is utterly non-existent. That would be a sterile world, in my opinion. We need stories like we need air. They tell us who we are every minute, they help us make sense of the world, they connect us with our own emotions, and they foster empathy for our fellow humans.

With that in the background and in honor of the Thanksgiving holiday, we offer this roundup of the stories we're most grateful for right now. No doubt in anticipation of our official office closure this week, all of us gravitated toward binge-watch shows. 

Dexter’s Fascination with Fear

When it comes to popular TV shows and their spinoffs, it’s always hit or miss, with the vast majority being miss. However, one has astounded me ever since its debut: Fear the Walking Dead, a spinoff of the popular zombie drama, The Walking Dead.

The pilot premiered in August 2015. Unlike its parent show, which derives directly from comic book source material, Fear the Walking Dead strives for originality, often portraying elements of a zombie apocalypse never seen before. This is quite a feat, especially considering just how played the zombie genre is at this point.

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Kim Dickens as Madison Clark, in Fear the Walking Dead.

While Fear the Walking Dead’s first season was a bit rocky, it did get one very crucial thing right, which was its lead character. In a survival genre dominated by men slashing and bashing their way through hordes of the undead and the living, Fear the Walking Dead offered a lead unlike any other in Madison Clark, a middle-aged mother whose story is one of the most realistic, grounded I’ve ever seen. She’s not a veteran survivor. She’s not a trained killer. She’s just a former guidance counselor trying to protect her children. Played by Kim Dickens, Madison never fails to steal the scene. 

With its phenomenal writing, Fear the Walking Dead grew to become a truly exceptional show that often falls under the radar. Madison remains compelling as she leads viewers across the crumbling landscape of California, through pirate-infested waters, over the desolate lands of Mexico, and onto the barren, apocalyptic landscape of Texas. If you're looking for a strong, well-developed female lead, look no further.

Tamsen's Penchant for Pirates

The most compelling narrative that I’ve binged so far this year is Black Sails (available to watch on Hulu). The series is a Treasure Island prequel that has a very addicting storyline and lots of character development.

Though not for the faint of heart, the story follows the more political aspects and power struggles involved in the pirate lifestyle. There are definitely plenty of scenes riddled with sex and violence, but it doesn’t feel as gratuitous as many other shows. The pace never drags, and the pilot episode sets up the course of the entire series quite nicely.

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There are countless overarching plotlines, but the entirety of the show deals with holding on to their lifestyle in a rapidly-changing world.

I admire the interconnected, separate plotlines feeding into a larger story in Black Sails. This could be a valuable example to game designers who wish to create more open-world games, as many of the small plotlines seem to parallel the plot of a side quest. While sometimes side quests feel unnecessary and unrelated, the way the creators have everything feed into each other makes it more rewarding for the viewer. As a side note, I want to make a pirate version of Red Dead Redemption, so the inspiration is real.

Elisa's Fascination with World Building

Possibly the best sci-fi TV series I've ever watched almost came to an end this year. But it didn't.

After three riveting seasons on Syfy, The Expanse (based on the novel series by James S. A. Corey) got cancelled, but after fans mobilized on social media to #SaveTheExpanse, Amazon Prime picked it up for a fourth season. Thank goodness!

So what's the excitement about? For me, it's how the series draws on science, sociology, and even linguistics to create three compelling cultures inevitably drawn into conflict. The Expanse takes place in our solar system, in a distant future where Earth and its rival Mars depend on mining in the Asteroid Belt for precious basic resources. The Earthers, Martians, and Belters coexist uneasily until a devastating alien "protomolecule" threatens them all.

Expanse

Much as you might despise Earth's scheming UN deputy undersecretary, Chrisjen Avasarala (played by the peerless Shohreh Aghdashloo), you can't help but admire her ardent defense of her beloved planet. I choked up when tough-as-nails Martian marine Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) sought her first glimpse of water on Earth after a lifetime on a waterless planet.

But it's the richness of the Belter culture I love most. The Belter underclasses have long supplied ice and minerals under duress to Earth and Mars but are themselves starved for resources. Living in low gravity has altered their very physiology; Belters' long, brittle bones and weaker muscles can't endure Earth's gravity. Yet, the Belters possess a fierceness and identity all their own. They speak a creole—based on languages as distinct as Chinese, Bantu, and English—that actors such as Jared Harris and Cara Gee (who play Belter leaders Anderson Dawes and Camina Drummer, respectively) convey so convincingly. Even Belter tattoos have messages behind them.

There are whole series to be written just about the Belters. Ultimately, that's the hallmark of robust world building: that the stories you write give rise to yet more stories.

Lisa's Obsession with 'Reality' Stories

I've written before about my guilty-pleasure HGTV binges... which is part of why I have not had cable since 2005, when I ditched the TV and its connections. That hasn't exactly stopped me from bingeing, but without the stream of cable I have considerably more control over my addictions. The current drugs are house-hunting and home improvement shows from the BBC on Netflix, starting with "Sarah Beeny's Selling Houses."

On this show, rival homeowners are each given a thousand pounds to bring their pads up to snuff, vying for the attention of one buyer, who will view them all. Beeny herself swoops in to plant key criticisms and advice for how to spend the thousand pounds, but of course many of them ignore her and head off the rails, usually both breaking their budgets and failing to solve the problem that drove buyers away in the first place. As someone who's on her fourth owned property, I find this entire process enormously entertaining.

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Absolutely, I was #TeamFrankie.

My obsession with British lifestyle doesn't end with the home but extends to all the "homely" (in the UK this is a compliment) things you can do in a home. Even though I can't eat flour, eggs, or sugar, when a new season of "The Great British Baking Show" drops, I have to watch it. But my favorite of them all is "The Great Interior Design Challenge," where a handful of amateur interior designers compete with one room and (again) a thousand pounds to prove their competence with the color wheel. Fantasizing about moving to the English countryside and renovating a "chocolate box" cottage with a thatched roof is just an itch I can't scratch enough. 

Luckily, all of this binge-watching is useful in my work on games. Consider it "research." I've used my deep, TV-acquired knowledge of home decor in my design and writing on Matchington Mansion. There's a whole premium scene in Choices: Veil of Secrets centered around the magnificence that is the English savory picnic pie. And for the interactive novel I'm working on now, I draw inspiration both for the settings and the characters I design from the stream of real people and their homes as they come and go on these shows. I enjoy the quirky texture of the average Brit, having his or her 15 minutes of fame.

What binge-watch story gets your gratitude--not to mention your screen time--this week? Tell us in the comments.

Other roundups you might like:

The Play's the Thing: December Game Roundup

Something Mysterious: December Reading Roundup

 


Dragon Flower Mini-Farm Update: Please Fence Me In

Zigzag
It feels a bit... "open-space in a bad way."

When Anthony and I bought our St. Louis home last fall, we were well aware of its flaws. After all, those flaws gave us a below-market price for a near-pristine World's Fair-era home with loads of period charm. It's the kind of house that makes you swoon and want to break into song like Judy Garland in "Meet Me in St. Louis." For my West Coast friends, let me list some of these drool-worthy details of which you might not be familiar, since I know you have less exposure to homes built during the turn of the last century: tall ceilings and oversized windows, character mouldings, original wainscoting, copper (!) doorknobs, transoms on both outside and inside doorways, original hardwood floors, a carved bannister, and finally, a dramatic fireplace graced by a wooden shield adornment. Yeah, that's right. A shield.

The house is also in a very walkable neighborhood full of funky shops and restaurants and more yoga studios per capita than any neighborhood I encountered in the Pacific Northwest (so take that). Side note, gamers: we can walk to not one but two places to buy comic books and games--plus there's a pinball bar. I like the 'hood better than Seattle's Ballard neighborhood, where I lived for a decade, and I was a super-loyal Ballardite who thought I'd never leave. Maplewood has all the good parts of Ballard, in my opinion, and none of the bad, as it's still working class, affordable, and somehow retaining its original Route 66 vibe even though we've got an entire shop devoted to bespoke knives and a restaurant that serves "shaved kale salad."

So those are the USPs, or unique selling points, for ye who aren't addicted to HGTV. But back to the flaws. I'm sure when you weren't distracted by the 60s vintage table set (I've had that beauty for 20 years) and lovingly rehabilitated rose bush in the photo above, you undoubtedly noticed the apartment building.

Hmm... yeah, the apartment building. It's a doozy of a flaw, for sure. Here's another shot so you can get the full effect.

Leftside
Yep, that's a double-decker balcony staring right down into our yard.

A lot of people would run screaming from this, and a lot did. The house had sat on the market for nine months before we bought it.

But Anthony and I fell in love with it... and we smelled an opportunity. The lot is 1/4th of an acre, walking distance to the St. Louis city limit. Within a 10-minute drive is the world-famous St. Louis Zoo, Art Museum, and Science Center, all flanking Forest Park, which is not only hands-down the loveliest city park I've ever seen, it's larger than New York's Central Park, a fact that seems to shock even St. Louisans. The only thing that would make the home's location better would be a view of the Arch, which you can get a short walk away.

Anthony loved the property's quiet, farm-like feel. A quarter acre is a lot of land to play with, the biggest plot either of us has had across the span of adult lives spent in ten different cities, six different houses, and more apartments than we can count. Besides, we'd outgrown our last garden, a tiny in-town plot in Chehalis, Wash., in pretty short order, filling it within two years and wishing we had more room.

We discussed the matter and decided that the house's main flaw (and its smaller ones, too) could be fixed, with a little hard work and patience. And that brings me to the big reveal.

This summer, we initiated STEP ONE of our master plan, which was to remove the eyesore chainlink fence zigzagging across the left side of the yard and replace it with a 6-foot tall wooden one. We actually wanted an 8-footer, but the city of Maplewood would only permit to a max height of 6 feet. So much for property rights. Here you can see an orange broom my husband is holding up, showing where the 8-foot fence would have reached. Ah, well.

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Where's Waldo--and his orange broom?

Once the powers-that-be nixed the 8-foot option, we knew we wouldn't get the first-tier-balcony coverage we wanted, but the fence was necessary anyway to block off the wall of cars that is the apartment building parking lot, which butts right up against our property line. Not to mention an eyesore of a Dumpster that was all-too-visible from the house. And yeah, the zigzagging... which was weird and bad feng shui for sure and probably a holdover from when there was a garage at the back of the house, as the fence once skirted a gravel drive that is now buried under a layer of turf. Good times.

I hate chainlink fence. Just hate it. We were worried we'd have to remove it ourselves, but the fence company we hired removed it for us--along with a metric ton of vegetation that had to go as well.

Allclear
No more chainlink!

We got bids from 3 different companies, and Just Wooden Fences was the best fit for us. I can't say enough good things about this company. The owner, Walt Thorngren, came over to measure for the bid himself, was very helpful in going over the options, and even provided us with a list of recommended contractors and providers for other home improvement services. Walt was super-responsive throughout the process, and his crew worked quickly and efficiently, to a high level of quality.

Chainsaw
A tough job, but the crew pressed on.

We were particularly impressed that the Just Wooden Fences crew tackled a tricky situation: A very mature plant meant to be a ground cover that had grown around and through the chainlink. At first I felt guilty because removing the chainlink would definitely mean removing the plant, but during our visit from the St. Louis Audubon Society, we found out that the plant was none other than wintercreeper--also known as Euonymous fortunei--which is considered an invasive "thug" here in Missouri. They recommended eradicating it, so we did.

Wintercreeper
Die, wintercreeper, die!

Later, we treated the exposed stumps with an herbicide, which normally, I'm opposed to, but this plant unfairly competes with and displaces native plants and is particularly noxious in the way it spreads. After doing a lot of research, we made the tough call to treat the stumps. There's wintercreeper EVERYWHERE, so I'm sure we haven't seen the last of this little villain.

On to happier topics... I don't know if you've ever had a fence installed, but this is my first one. So you can imagine the emotion I felt when that pile of lumber the crew brought started to look like, you know, a fence!

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When the posts went up, so did my excitement!

If I'd known getting a new fence was this easy, I'd have been getting new fences all my life. Of course, what made it easy for us is that we hired a company to do the work, one that specializes in fences--JUST wooden fences! My brother installed his own fence, with my other brother's help, but they are mechanics and guy-guys who are good at that stuff. (And younger. I'm the oldest of four.) Anthony and I knew ourselves well enough to know that actually building a fence was outside our limits. As recently as this past spring, we both hurt our backs, like a couple of typically middle-aged people with desk jobs.

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Aerial view of the awesome crew.

The fence installation only took two days: one to remove the old fence, and another to put up the new. Just Wooden Fences cleared out the chainlink entirely, gave us a referral for someone to haul away the vegetation debris, and left us with a gorgeous, brand-new fence.

Finished
I've never loved something so utilitarian like this before.

OK, so we opted to get the raw cedar, which is stunning, as you can see. But in a couple years' time, that will turn drab grey, so we needed to stain/seal it ourselves, to preserve both the color and the integrity and lifespan of the fence. That was a harder job than we'd thought, mainly because it required using an oil-based stain (yes, we realize there are latex options, but all the research says it won't last). The fumes were as noxious as that durn wintercreeper, and since I can barely stand perfume, let alone oily paint fumes, it was more than I could take. Next time, we hire someone with spray equipment to get the job done lickety-split.

Stain
My husband, the hunky fence guy. Between the construction-worker vibe and the doctor's gloves, this might be more fantasy than I can handle.

Here's the view from the dining room before and after...

Now you see the Dumpster...

Dumpster

And now you don't...

Nodumpster
Yes. This.

What a difference a fence makes, people. If you don't have a fence, I highly recommend getting one. If you're in the St. Louis area, seriously, just call Walt at Just Wooden Fences.

Finalfence
Ah....

I know, I know... you're like, wait! What about the balconies! They can still look down on you! But don't worry. We have a fix in store... stay tuned.

What do you think of the project so far? Any tips, from those of you who've been down this road? What sayest thou? Don't you want to come over now and plant some carrots????

Previous mini-farm updates:

Insect Week!

Original Yarden Photos


Developer Notes: Tamsen Reed's First 'Game Jam'!

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Abram Donovan and Tamsen Reed, next to their arcade game, Waste of Space.

Junior Writer/Designer Tamsen Reed is here to tell you what it's like to be a young indie game developer participating in her first Game Jam.

Here's Tamsen:

"You know, it’s not nearly as big a deal as you two are making it out to be.” There was an air of excitement as we descended into the basement of the St. Louis Science Center. I looked across at my friend and teammate, Kei, whose apprehensive energy radiated through the elevator.

You see, it was our first Game Jam. For the uninitiated, a Game Jam is an event where game developers come together to create a themed game in a very limited timeframe. We would spend from Friday night until Sunday night making a game with our teams. Many Game Jams take place in a location where participants can elect to spend the full 48 hours on-location to work. In this case, we could only be in the St. Louis Science Center until 10 pm every night.

For our third teammate and friend, Abram, this was not his first day at the proverbial rodeo. He’d done Game Jams in the past. He was being subjected to car rides of “What If” questions and endless anxious thoughts, which brings us back to his previous comment: "You know, it’s not nearly as big a deal as you two are making it out to be.”

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The 3-person team of Webster University game design students demo their finished prototype.


I’ll admit, he was absolutely right. I don’t know whether to credit our team dynamics or our self-knowledge about our abilities. It went so incredibly smoothly, I was unsure if we’d even participated in the event I’d heard so much about.

When we arrived on Friday night, we decided two things:

  1. We would actually sleep every night.
  2. We were happy to be in a group with just each other.

We plopped our stuff down at a corner table as we watched others walk around from table to table marketing themselves. It was likely what we should’ve been doing, but we were content just to spend time with each other.

The theme was announced, and everyone scattered. We were to make an arcade game based off of the exhibits that were on display at the St. Louis Science Center. There were some rules about decency because the main audience would be children.

Immediately, we jumped on their website to view a complete list of exhibits. We found an OMNIMAX movie that they show called “Australia’s Great Wild North.” Kei and I rattled on back and forth about an E.T.-esque game where you play as a dingo trying to eat/collect babies while dodging their mothers.

Abram saw an obvious collision between the rules on decency and baby-eating. So, we went back to the drawing board. Based on an OMNIMAX film on the International Space Station and the Makerspace exhibit, Waste of Space was born. Our game has been described as “Katamari in space,” which I think is accurate for a game where you attempt to construct a space station while trying to stay in orbit.

Abram was our programmer, Kei was our main artist, and I took on all the writing tasks as well as the managerial work. By the end of the night on Friday, we had a playable build of the game. So, we celebrated with breakfast for dinner at the Courtesy Diner. After eating an unconscionable amount of diner shrimp, we stocked up on food at a local grocery store. Our Schnuck’s snack selection was what you'd expect an 8-year-old might purchase if given free reign and $100. After deliriously laughing and dancing our way through the grocery store, we finally retired to bed.

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Fuel for the Jam.

 Saturday morning brought about some worries. Our game was crashing the whole arcade machine. I was concerned, but Abram took a quick look and just added some brackets (or commas? I won’t pretend I understand it). It was completely fixed.

Abram imported Kei’s art assets to replace all of his placeholders. I wrote some rules for the game. Kei and I created a background for the game. We were done. It was Saturday night. We were finished!

What do you do when you finish your game early? Increase your scope, obviously! So, we fled to my apartment to unwind with some Netflix comedy specials. While watching, Abram typed a few things into Unity and voila! We had a two-player mode.

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Get a load of this loading screen!

 We woke up a bit late on Sunday but made our way back to the Science Center for the final day. I wrote some instructions for the new mode, Kei made it look pretty, and Abram imported it into the game. We playtested a bit before resigning ourselves to doing homework for other classes that we’d neglected all weekend.

We unveiled our game to a receptive audience of game developers. Though we'd found time for sleep every night, we were still exhausted. I drank so many energy drinks that I couldn’t form coherent sentences. Despite our mental and physical exhaustion, we still managed to stay up for another 7 hours after the Game Jam.

One of the selling points of participating in Arcade Jam 2018 was that our games would all be on display at GameXPloration, a new exhibit at the Science Center. Unfortunately, we were unable to play our game when we visited. The arcade machine software was apparently broken, so they selected one game that would always be looping as a temporary fix.

We definitely thought the exhibit as a whole was amazing, despite the chaos that’s wrought when parents let their children loose on an unassuming new display. GameXPloration features multiple PixelPress set-ups, an oversized NES controller, racecar simulators, and an arcade machine full of games from local game developers. It’s also full of areas to play traditional games and brainstorm game ideas. The brainstorming areas really emphasize the importance of stories in games.

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This Game Jam montage brought to you by too many energy drinks to count, unless you're Abram, and there's code for that.

 Overall, the Game Jam was an adventure that reminded me of the importance of being a generalist and reinforced all the things I’ve learned during my time at Webster University. I think it’s an unmatched experience for developers (or hobbyists hoping to break into the development sphere) to explore their own skills and get some game titles under their belt.

If you’re interested in games and you live in the  St. Louis area, I can’t recommend highly enough the St. Louis Game Developer Co-op. They organize a multitude of events like Game Jams, educational presentations, and “drinkups” where you can drink and socialize with other local devs. 

 As long as I’m linking pages…

Here's some info on the GameXPloration exhibit at the St. Louis Science Center.

If you want to play our game, Waste of Space, it's also available online(I will warn you that it is incredibly hard on PC for whatever reason. Like VERY difficult.) Maybe we need to playtest it outside of a group of game devs...