Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Plants vs. Zombies

Name: Plants vs. Zombies
Developer: PopCap Games
Platform: PC
Genre: Casual--Tower Defense
Release Date: May 5, 2009

The Premise: Plants vs. Zombies is the latest release from PopCap Games, the masterminds who brought us Bejeweled and Peggle. Your neighborhood has been invaded by zombies, and they all seem to be gunning for you. The only defense you have against them is your wits. . .and your inexplicable collection of battle-ready garden plants. With the occasional "help" of your neighbor Crazy Dave, you mount a defensive against wave after wave of frighteningly funny undead.

The Gameplay:Your beautifully maintained yard serves as the battlefield, and is divided into a grid within which you place (er, plant) "weapons." Prior to each level, you choose which plants you'll use to defend your home. Your best friend is the Sunflower, who spits out little orbs of sunshine at regular intervals. These little bits of sun are what you use to buy your seedlings. If you run out of sun, kiss your brains goodbye; If a single zombie makes it into the house, you lose.

When a level begins, you're given about 30 seconds to start planting, then a small progress bar appears at the bottom right of the screen. This, plus text and sound cues, lets you know that the zombies are approaching and that you'll need to move quickly to keep up your defenses. When a zombie comes in contact with a piece of vegetation, he chomps on it until it's fully consumed or he falls apart from damage created by cannon fire. Once you've eliminated all the zombies from each wave, the level ends and you progress to the next section.

This may seem a little too easy, but don't be fooled: These shambling schmoes are a lot smarter than they look. Once they realize that daytime battles aren't their strong point, these guys start attacking after sundown. Fog, grave stones, your pool, and a lack of natural sunlight can work to their advantage, and you'll have to adjust your game play accordingly. If you defeat them here, they'll move to your backyard, and later your roof, in order to get what they want. As such, you're forced to change your fighting approach accordingly, which keeps things from getting monotonous.

The Finer Details: With 48 different plants to unlock or buy (defeated foes sometimes drop money as they fall), and 26 types of zombie, you'll probably never play a level the same way twice. In addition to the 50 levels of Adventure Mode, you can play through 20 mini-games, 20 puzzles, and a Survival mode. There's also the strangely compelling Zen Garden, where plants you collect from fallen zombies reside. If you care for them properly, they'll reward you by dropping coins, which you can use to purchase items from the shop your neighbor, Crazy Dave, runs out of the trunk of his car.

The level of humor in Plants vs. Zombies is a lot higher than most other casual games I've played, too. All the weapons and zombies have clever and witty names which add to the fun. There's something satisfying about using a Threepeater and a Torchwood to send flaming peas at the enemy three at a time, or a well-placed Cherry Bomb to take out a whole group of undead at once. At the same time, some of the zombie classes will make you wonder what the design team was smoking. While the Thriller-esque zombies are a no-brainer, who the heck came up with the Zomboni and the Zombie Bobsled Team? (Incidentally, those two are my favorite simply because they are just so incredibly random.) Even the Help section is somewhat comical in nature, as it was written not by the designers, but by the Zombies.

Also, this game has some of the most solid mechanics I've ever seen. Nothing seems contrived, or out of place, the difficulty is well-balanced, and everything works fluidly. The autosave is FLAWLESS. The only time I lost any game progress was during an unexpected power outage. In all, I have but two issues with the entire game. Firstly, while a few plants show degradation visibly (seeing a stoic Tall-nut cry while being eaten is heartbreaking to behold), there's no health indicator for most of them. I somehow prevent one of my Peashooters from being consumed, only to see it disappear in a single chomp from the next zombie that comes along. It can be very frustrating. Secondly, the final boss seems so. . .well, random. And I don't mean that in the "wow, that's clever," sense, either. I won't spoil it for anyone who has yet to play, but his appearance leaves you scratching your head wondering, "If this guy was in charge the whole time, why did it take so long for them to get a clue? And why were the notes they sent me so badly written?"

Even with those tiny flaws, PopCap has created an addictive little game that makes time fly by with disturbing speed and gives you a whole new appreciation for the greenery around your house . Plus, you'll find yourself humming the song from the ending credits for DAYS. . .and yet not be bothered by it. (Speaking of which, said ending credits and song can be seen/heard here.)

The Bottom Line: I installed this game at 9:30 pm on a Friday, and the next thing I knew it was 4:30 am Saturday. That was more than a week ago, and I'm still playing. Best not-quite $20 I've spent so far this year.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


Until now, writing reviews for games has been easy: Talk about the mechanics and story, state the pros and cons, give my opinion, publish. Literally, that is how my outlines for such things actually read. (Well, sometimes there's an item on the list like, "Lambast the designer who came up with X stupid idea; try to make them cry." You know, if a game or section really awful.) Now that I have an "official" game blog, though, it is proving to be much more difficult, and I have no idea why.

My personal diatribes over on LiveJournal have far more followers than this little blog (give or take 90, to give you an idea), but for whatever reason I fear letting these particular readers down with lackluster content more than anywhere else. I try to keep things within the "theme," even if only sometimes loosely so (i.e. the "somethin' else" tag), but it feels so. . .confining. The artist in me hates confinement, yet the pragmatist in me can't do without it.

And maintaining multiple blogs is TOUGH, if anyone was curious. Not only do I maintain three of my own, but I maintain one other as a side job for someone else, as well as moderating several communities and lists. I used to update my personal journal every day or at least three times a week. Now? Yeah, I'm lucky if I remember to update once a week, and even then it isn't as if I am reporting anything particularly spellbinding. My friends have been asking if anything is wrong because I've stopped updating frequently. All I can tell them is, "I seem to have run out of words."

In order to better serve my readers, I think it's time I took their pulse. Feedback is a writer's crack-cocaine. What do you guys want to see here?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Poppin' Tags

My life just exploded into a logistics minefield. So much to juggle, so little time. . .

Currently updating the entry tags for this blog, and working on the Plants vs. Zombies review. To tide you over until that is finished, have some Transformers geekery in the form of a flash drive. Thank you BawdyJane (on Twitter) for sharing this little piece of awesomeness. ;)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Game Consumption

Plants vs. Zombies has overtaken my life for the past 2.5 days. I've beat it once already, and now all I want to do is play it some more. For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, please go view this video. (Cannot get it to embed today for some reason.)

As my friend Marq said, Japanese pop is much more tolerable when it involves zombies and sunflowers.

My full review of the game is forthcoming. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: FINALLY got the video to embed. My HTML-Fu is off this week.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Chocolate Geekery

One of our dogs, Max, has a vet appointment today, so I won't have a more substantial post until later. For now, revel in the awesome bit of related geekery pictured above and described below.

Not to be confused with the game development company that creates games for mass-market casual platforms, Digital Chocolates on Etsy provides specialized chocolate treats for the discerning gamer. When a Twix or a Snickers just won't do, reach for Digital Chocolates. Old school and new school chocolates available. (Warning: Wiimote chocolates do not come with wriststraps. Eat at your own risk.)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Library outing was a bit of a bust. I keep forgetting that even though we live very, very close to it, we do not actually LIVE in Chapel Hill and thus cannot use the Orange County Library for free. It would cost $60 a year per person to do so, and rightly so. If someone from another county wanted to use our library I'd expect them to pay out-of-pocket since they pay no taxes in our county. The main reason I wanted to use it was that I can never find the Pittsboro Memorial Library here in Chatham County. I always get lost. Then I remembered what John gave me for our first anniversary this past December: A GPS for my truck.

Yeah, quick-witted and with it, I am. Really.

Anyway, it wasn't a total loss. I did get to bug Chrissy at Barnes & Noble, and John found an electronic copy of Character Development and Storytelling for Games for me to use via the Undergrad Library at UNC. Having a spouse who works in the university system definitely has it's perks.

The Old-Fashioned Way

I'm something of an oddity. I like doing old-fashioned things, but I prefer doing them in modern ways. For example, all the bread we eat here at home is homemade. However, my hands aren't as strong as they used to be so I have my trusty bread machine do the bulk of the kneading for me. The opposite applies, as well. All our dishes go through the dishwasher. . .only to be set up in a dish rack to air dry.

My attitude toward education is the same. New technology is great, but sometimes you can't beat a set of flashcards when getting ready for your next quiz on multiplication tables. Conversely, you can't really learn basic computer skills from books alone. You need that hands-on component (playing with the computer itself) to make it all stick. You really need both tried-and-true techniques and shiny new programs and gadgets to achieve a complete learning experience. About a million notebooks litter the landscape of our home, because I prefer to do much of my planning and writing with good ol' pen and paper. Even the writing I do for this blog is rarely stream-of-consciousness; I typically have a hand-written outline sitting next to me to remind me where I want to go in each entry.

After talking things out with a few of my friends yesterday (thanks, y'all), I've decided to begin my education in game design somewhat old-fashionedly: I'm going to the library. I'm going with the express purpose of setting up my self-taught curriculum using a few books that were suggested to me by folks at TGC. Specifically, this one by Rafael Chandler and another one by Lee Sheldon. I'll add to my curriculum as suggestions come up and as materials become available. I'll be checking out a copy of Wizard's First Rule by Terry Goodkind today, too.

What? Reading fantasy fiction counts as homework in this industry. . .right?

If things go well, I might even head over to Barnes & Noble to pick up a book or two to brush up on my HTML while bugging my friends Chrissy & Autumn at the coffee counter. :)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

More Cake Geekery

Taking a break from bread baking means I surf the web for fun food stuffs, apparently. I do not yet own an iPhone, but I know many of you do. This was just too good NOT to share. Again, courtesy of the incredible artists at

Update: New User Photo

I finally have a user photo. For the curious, that was taken around Easter 2007. The puppy with the bunny ears? Yeah, that's my golden-not-retriever, Oddball, at about 5 months old. :)

Have Your Game and Eat It, Too

Anyone who has known me for any length of time knows I have a bit of a cake problem. I will forsake many things for a slice of exceptional cake. In that vein, I bring to you this wonderful work of art from

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Road Not Taken

Growing up, I despised poetry. Not because the genre itself was boring. No one can read something like The Walrus and The Carpenter by Lewis Carrol and possibly say that poetry is boring. No, I hated it because our teachers made out every line to be some sort of code that only adults could understand. To me, poems were stories told in a beautiful style that only a few could master. Symbolism wasn't lost on me, but often I had to wonder, "When is a shoe just a shoe and nothing more?"

It was thanks to writers like Lewis Carrol and Shel Silverstein that I have any love for poetry. If it wasn't for them I would have given up on the genre altogether in my childhood. I bring this up because I was thinking about one of my favorite poems today, while asking myself, "Well, Manda, which way are you going to go?"

Of course, I'm talking about Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken. It was one of the few poems I knew by heart for years and years, and every time I come to a fork in the road, figuratively or literally, I hear my 13-year-old self murmuring in my mind, "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both. . ."

My current problem is deciding on a single direction to move in and sticking with it. I feel pulled in a multitude of directions all at once and I can see the dozens of possibilities that each path could bring. That's what makes choosing so darned difficult: I keep wondering what I will miss by choosing a particular road. I can promise myself that I will revisit the paths left behind, but as Frost said, "Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back."

Do I plow full-tilt into graduate school? Buy some programs and books and opt to teach myself these things that look like gobbledy-gook when my eyes pass over them? Take art lessons from the cartoonist who lives nearby? Start reviewing video games and hope someone thinks my opinion deserves monetary rewards?

I just don't know.

And the Rock Called Out, "No Hiding Place!"

I finally heard the song that quote comes from a few weeks ago. On a television show, even.

Anyway, I finally left the rock I live under and joined Twitter. Now I can be mediocre and uninteresting on the Internet in a completely different format than usual. Score.

Username amandadadesky over there, if it interests you. That is all.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mom, This Blog's For You

Ah, Mother's Day, that one pre-determined day of the year when we tell good ol' Mom how much we care. (I personally believe we don't give our mothers enough credit the other 364 days of the year, but that is a rant for another post.) I've spent this day in years past doing what everyone else does: Flowers. Cards. Brunch. Gold-painted macaroni sculptures. This year, though, I'm going to do something a little different.

Today, I'm going to tell the blogosphere exactly how incredible my mother is.

Over the last few months I have been slowly revealing to people that I am pursuing game design as a career. Once this has been said, many have asked me what boils down to the same question, "How does it feel, being a woman in a male-dominated industry like game development?" Often, I put on my trademark mischevious smirk, and say something cute like, "Not too shabby. It's fun to stand out without trying too hard." Then everyone laughs at my little quip and moves on. I don't do this to be flippant; quite the contrary. I say such things because, honestly, it never really occurred to me that being a woman had much to do with what I choose to do for a living. Why?

Well, because of my mother.

Chief Petty Officer Brenda P. Goldman (aka Mom) retired from the United States Navy with 20 years of service and more than a few commendations under her belt several years ago. She's done everything from training recruits in the art of field medicine to piecing back together the fallen during the Gulf War to creating sick hall protocols that are still in use by the Navy today, if my information is correct. In addition to all that, she raised two children, sent them both to college, took care of all three of my grandparents in their later years, managed to volunteer in the community, and maintain a happy marriage to a fellow enlisted person through thick and thin for 21 years. All the while, she was serving our country in a near-flawless fashion.

Plus, she makes one hell of a rum cake.

(You think Master Chief from Halo is a badass? Well, when he can pick the kids up from soccer practice, look smashing for a cocktail party at the Commadant's house AND save the Universe all at the same time, then we'll talk. Until then, he ain't got nothin' on Mom.)

In all my growing up years, never did my mother ever make a huge fuss about being a woman in the military. Not once. She never expected special treatment. She never complained about the guys being too rough on her. She dished it out just as good as she got it, too, whenever someone was stupid enough to imply that Mom was too weak or too stupid to do something because she was a woman. She didn't get in their face, she didn't complain to her superiors. No. . .she just got even, by being the best damn servicewoman around.

This is pretty much my mother's attitude towards everything. Women can do most anything that men can do, and vice versa. Other than some of the finer details, gender matters not. Men can be nurses, women can be fighter pilots, doesn't matter as long as they get the job done. Naturally, this world view made its way into my psyche. Due to this fact, it wasn't until I hit college that I found out exactly how "rare" female gamers are. People were shocked to find out that I, the girl with the penchant for musicals and mystery novels, was a gamer. It never occurred to me that my sex was supposed to automatically dictate my likes and dislikes.

From the day Dad brought home our shiny new Nintendo Entertainment System to the day my very own Playstation 2 was bestowed upon me, games have been a part of my life. Without thinking much of it, they have been a part of my mother's life, too. I remember staying up late with both her and Dad, playing Duck Hunt and Super Mario Bros., then being shuffled off to bed so they could play alone. When I'd wake up in the middle of night to ask for a glass of water, sometimes I would catch her at a critical point in a level, but she'd pause the game and tend to her youngling, anyway. It's what good mothers do, after all, though I wonder how many times I inadvertently caused her untimely demise in-game. . .

Thinking back, it was all so very obvious. Mom played our GameBoy more than us kids did, Tetris and Yoshi's Cookie being her games of choice. She was the first to aquiesce to our pleas for a Super Nintendo, and later the Nintendo 64, after which she played through and beat Super Mario 64 before I had even finished reading the game pamphlet. We were the first kids in our neighborhood to get a GameBoy Color. (If nothing else, that was the first time in my childhood that I was undisputably cool. Thanks, Mom.)

When I got older, I logged on to our family PC to do my history homework, when suddenly Warcraft: Orcs vs. Humans began its auto-run sequence and three hours later my homework still wasn't finished. I asked my brother why he'd left his game in the CD drive, only to have him inform me that said game belonged to our mother. Heck, my mother got a Wii a while ago and I still don't have one. It makes me proud and jealous, all at the same time, to tell people that my mother kicks butt at Zelda and Wii Bowling.

My mother is a "casual gamer," though not in the way the term is typically used. Rather than describing the genre of games one plays, it describes the demeanor of the player. In her patented unassuming manner, Mom has been a gamer for most of my life. She never brags about it, isn't ashamed of it. . .it's just something she does. The fact that she's a woman has nothing to do with it. She thinks video games are fun, and she plays them. End of story. No trash talking. No rabid newbie punting. No fuss. Just having fun.

It is for this reason I have been striving to be low-key about my gaming, as well as my transition from soapmaker to game designer. I haven't always succeeded in this endeavor, but no one is perfect. I have also eased up on the trash talking on Xbox Live, because we're all there to have fun. Making someone cry because I beat them during Free-For-All on Call of Duty 4 isn't going to make my experience more entertaining. (Besides, there are 12-year-olds that play that game. I really don't want someone else's mom to report me for teaching their kid new and interesting ways to say, "You suck.")

Anyway, here's to you, Mom. Thank you for inadvertently teaching me how to be a better gamer as well as a better person. May everyone have such a mother in their lives.

Happy Mother's Day. ^_^

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Back on the Air

Toshiba got my laptop back to me in record time. Less than one week from shipping it off to having it returned. It was waiting for me on Friday evening when John and I got back from picking up our three mutts from the vet's office. My friend Jeff and his buddy C.J. signed for it while we were out. (They were working on a Toyota Supra in our other barn when UPS rolled in.)

Thanks, guys. :)

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The One Who Wept

I've been struggling, these last few days. Struggling to decompress from Triangle Game Conference and digest all that I learned there. My thought hamsters (more on them later) are working overtime, sorting, cataloging, and shelving all the information that was stuffed into my brain last week.

Something in particular has come to my attention in regard to a presentation I attended on the second day of the event. Brenda Brathwaite's lecture, "How I Dumped Electricity and Learned to Love Design," wasn't billed as a life-changing experience, but then, such things are rarely spelled out so explicitly. Something of an overview of the presentation, it's subject matter, and the audience's reaction can be found over at The Escapist, but frankly, it really doesn't do Brenda or her work justice.

The part that got my attention was in the next to last paragraph:

There were audible gasps in the audience when Brathwaite revealed Train's shocking conclusion; one attendee was so moved by the experience that she left the conference room in tears.

Well, boys and girls, I have news for you: That attendee the author mentioned was me.

Let me explain.

Essentially, this legend in game design was fed up with digital games. Brenda had played three video/PC games in a row that seemed nearly identical in scheme though they were produced by three different companies, and she'd had enough. Being a board-game aficionado, Brenda made the conscious decision to spend a nine-month period avoiding all digital gaming and immerse herself in the non-digital possibilities. During that time, as the article outlines, the opportunity to use a game to drive home the true meaning behind the events of the Middle Passage to her 8-year-old daughter presented itself.

This scenario started the wheels turning, bringing up questions along the lines of, "Why is it more games like this don't exist? Why is it that other mediums, like film, photography, and writing, could tackle the difficult subjects such as Columbine or the assassination of JFK, but making games about them was "just too much?"

Thus, the project The Mechanic is the Message, a series of six board games that deal with some of history's most uncomfortable (and horrifying) subjects, was born.

The piece in the series that has gotten the most attention thus far is one titled, quite simply, Train. During the lecture, the first slide that came up in regard to this piece was all black, with the title hanging in the lower right-hand corner, in white, eerily nondescript type.

A younger part of me, locked away during my teenage years, gasped. "Please, please, please," she pleaded, "let this be a game about the Underground Railroad. Pretty please?"

The next slide was a close-up shot of a black boxcar with its tiny sliding doors standing slightly open, through which you could see little yellow avatars, about the size of your thumb. I recognized that particular shade of dingy, dreary yellow. . .

"Oh, God. No, no, no. . ."

Then the next slide came up, which depicted the whole game board in all its terrible glory. Three train tracks, laid across a shattered window pane, with little black boxcars filled with tiny yellow people. . .

I gasped again, this time audibly. Part of my mind quailed, wanting to tune out the words that were to come next. . .and that was when the aspiring designer in me took back control. After all, I wasn't going to learn anything if I stopped paying attention just because the subject matter was uncomfortable.

"Nope. Definitely not the Underground Railroad. Things are about to get REAL interesting."

As Brenda described the objective of the game, which was to get all your pieces from Point A to Point B, I became misty-eyed. She explained, "You see, I had made the pieces just a hair too tall to fit through the doors easily. Because of this, some players opened up the end of the boxcars and began "stuffing" the people inside to make them fit better." That was when the first tears started silently streaming down my face. And when she said, "It wasn't until someone 'won' that the destination was revealed: They had just shipped all those people to Auschwitz," it was all I could do not to openly sob.

Now, the reason I wrote all this is because I don't feel that the writer at the Escapist truly understands why I was so moved. Well, I should say reasons, plural. The first is the most obvious: The subject matter all of these games deal with is very difficult to face. I married a half-Haitian Jew (I'll give you a a moment to wrap your mind around that), so not only do I feel strongly connected to the events of the Shoah, I have very strong feelings on the slave trade. Always have, honestly. (I took a black gay man to prom and got a shitake-load of flack for it.)

The other reason? I "got" it. I understood what Brenda was trying to teach us: the mechanics are the game, period. Neither a storyline crafted by a Pulitzer-prize winning author nor the highest polygon count in the universe can save your game if the mechanics don't work. Clunky and/or confusing mechanics rob the player of complete immersion into the world you've created, and thus she is cheated out of a "whole" experience. Next-gen technology is nice, but it isn't (nor should it be) the heart of design. In the race to create the most outstanding looking game out there, companies seem to have lost the ability to create the best all-around game. They seem to be going for a category award, such as "Best Musical Score," rather than reaching for the ever-coveted "Best In Show."

Until last Thursday, I had no idea that Brenda prototypes her digital games non-digitally. To me, this was a WONDERFUL revelation. Because I am a writer with no programming skill under her belt, I had become discouraged with finding where I belong in the games industry. Now, thanks to Brenda, I know that the written word is all I really need to create great games. And for that, I am grateful.

To end this post, I will leave you with the words from Brenda's last slide, about working with "taboo" subjects in the digital medium:

"I saw the wide, blue ocean and full possibility space of design. Photographers, painters, musicians, poets, actors, writers can all do it. We can do it, too."

Thank you, Brenda, for showing us the way.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Technical Difficulties

I mentioned this in my personal blog on Saturday, but failed to say anything here. Bad panda, no new games!

My beloved Toshiba laptop is currently in the shop. Understandably, this will make updating anything, especially this blog, slow-going this week. (For the curious, the problem is that the power jack connector finally caved in. This always happens with Toshibas, not matter how gentle I am with the darned things. I had to send it in to Toshiba to have them weld it back in place since doing it myself would have violated what little time there is left on my manufacturer's warranty. Oye.)

Anyway, at the moment I'm at my friend's house using his machine to make this post (thanks, Jeff!), but this is not a guaranteed source of computer access because he has a life and I need to respect that. As it stands, the bulk of my updates this week will be done when my husband comes home from work with his ThinkPad. Hopefully I can barter time on the 360 for time on his laptop.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

A New Feature

Some of you may have noticed that there are now advertisements (specifically of the Google variety) being displayed on my blog. I gave the idea a lot of thought and decided that income is income, and while this may not result in me rolling in dough, money in any amount eventually ad(d)s up.

Pun most definitely intended.