Played Things

Two Fave New Apps: Monument Valley and Petting Zoo

It’s been a long time since I talked about something besides knitting on this blog, so let me tell you about two apps that have been making my iPhone fun lately!

The first is the puzzle game Monument Valley, which is an all-around beautiful experience. You play a silent little princess navigating a surreal landscape of Escher-like towers and blocks that work in mysterious ways.

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The mechanics of it reminded me a little bit of the game Fez, but Monument Valley differs greatly in its approachability and ease: the puzzles start without the delay of a boring tutorial, and build in difficulty to something challenging but not frustratingly so. It’s a game that I think has a calming effect on most people, which is something I always appreciate my phone doing. Really, I enjoyed Monument Valley so much that I didn’t want to “waste” it by playing it while waiting in line at the grocery store. I played it at the end of the day when I could let myself get drawn in by its strange little world.

The other app I’m digging lately was recommended to me by Kay Gardiner of Mason Dixon Knitting, of all people.

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It’s called Petting Zoo, and it’s an “interactive picture book” by Christoph Niemann, the illustrator responsible for some amazing features on the New York Times website, among other things. I suppose the primary audience for this app is young children, but I’m not ashamed to say that I find it delightful as an adult. Its simple concept: line drawings of animals that you poke and prod to make them respond in amusingly elastic ways. The actions start with simple concepts, like “pet the stretchy dog”, then get gradually more surreal and unexpected. (The melting panda is a favorite of mine.)

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I’m enjoying this app so much that I’ve been using it sparingly, trying to delay the end (which I haven’t seen yet) as long as possible. I’m looking forward to sharing it with my 3-year-old niece the next time I see her, but in the meantime I’m happy to enjoy it as a 33-year-old.

Both of these apps cost money, but are extremely worth it. Oh, and why am I talking to Kay Gardiner about apps? Because I was telling her I was thinking about making one. How fun would that be???

Threes

Last week I blogged about two video games that helped me get through the coldest days this winter. Since I normally get excited about a video game about once a year, I thought that would be it for a while, but then John introduced the iPhone game Threes to me over the weekend. I’m in love!

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Threes is a tiny game about matching numbers. I love this modest description. It’s accurate—this is not a complicated math game, as you might think at first glance—but everything that the game does around its simple premise, it does extremely well. What initially caught my eye about this game, though, were the characters that embody each number. I saw John sliding around numbers with cute, animated faces on them, and I had to play what he was playing.

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I’ve always thought that numbers—at least the first 20 or so—have personalities. The odd ones tend to be more interesting, almost villainous sometimes, while the even ones are goody-goodies who occasionally cheat on tests to maintain their 4.0 GPA. I bet I’m not alone in my numerical character assignments. Threes takes that idea and runs with it: We’re actually introduced to each of the numbers as individual characters, some of whom have bigger personalities than others.

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The characters in Threes are charming, but I hardly noticed them after a while, because the game itself is just really great. John just wrote a piece for The A.V. Club about how perfect its opening tutorial is, and he’s right—this game has one of the best introductions I’ve ever played. Threes is a $1.99 right now in the iTunes app store. SO worth it!

The Winter of our Nintendo

My hands are usually too busy for video games, but every couple of years I make an exception for a game that really draws me into its world. It happens that during this coldest winter ever I’ve managed to pour many hours into TWO games, both big Nintendo series that I enjoyed way more than I had expected. And each is cute in its own way!

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There wasn’t really a question about whether or not I would play Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, the new 3DS game. John got me into the Zelda games back when we were dating in college, and since then I’ve played all but one or two of them. The Zelda story is a classic, and the games are always quality, but I wasn’t convinced this time that I’d love going through all the Zelda-y motions again, with the same (or similar) characters and plot twists that are now familiar to me. But this game surprised me! First of all, it’s in the top-down Zelda world, which is always cuter than the first-person world.

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As a 3DS game, it can be played in 3D mode, which really does work. But that wasn’t the big selling point to me—I found that playing in 3D was interesting for the first few minutes, then I didn’t notice the 3D-ness after that. Actually, the best part about this game is the very opposite of 3D: a new ability to merge into a wall like an animated painting.

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Becoming two-dimensional may not sound so impressive, but the game designers found lots of clever ways to incorporate the ability, adding some real freshness to the game. You can sneak by enemies, of course, but you can also get to hidden places, squeeze through tiny crevasses, and go through portals to Lorule, the dark “opposite world” of Hyrule.

Usually when I get to the end of a Zelda game I’m happy to see it through, but I was a little sad when this one came to an end. It was the perfect winter break companion, and finishing it meant it was time to get back to real life. I’m sure there will be another Zelda game soon enough, and if it has a bit of the same innovation as this one, I’ll be the first to get it!

The other game I’m excited about lately was even more of a surprise to me.

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Super Mario 3D World for the Wii U is the best multi-player game that I’ve ever played. I’m not as much of a Mario fan: I played the early games at a friend’s house when I was a kid, and I’ve played a few minutes of other Mario games that have come out in years since. They’ve always struck me as a bit boring, or a bit hard… something was always not quite there for me. But this game is excellently designed for maximum fun, and it’s ideal as a couples game—there are plenty of opportunities for teamwork, and it also solves potential skill level gaps in clever ways, so nobody feels bored or out of their league. (We tried all of the characters, but settled on John playing as Mario and me as Toad.) The designers clearly put a priority on fun and originality with this game, which must be hard when soooo many Mario games have come before.

Best part: a cute new cat suit!

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It’s a power-up that makes really great sense, and it’s nice to see someone finally acknowledge all the special abilities that would come with being a cat (namely, climbing walls and scratching out enemies’ eyes).

Other best part: you can ride around in a giant skate!

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That’s just one of the fun surprises that make this game truly feel like play. And there are so many worlds to unlock, John and I have thought we had reached the last one three times already, and there’s still more to do. I can’t say that it’s worth it to get a Wii U just for this game, but I want to say that it’s worth it. It’s worth it if you have the money and time to play, or if you have a husband who writes about video games and has to get all the newest systems for work.

That may be all the gaming I’ll have time for this year, but these games were just the best compensation for the bleak weather outside this winter, and I think they even inspired me a little bit with their originality!

Inspiration: Katamari Damacy

Sometimes I wish I had four hands so that I could play video games while I knit. (When I really think about it, though, gaming while knitting would probably mean bad results all around.) My hands are almost always busy with needles, so when I do put the knitting down for a game, it has to be a pretty great game. And Katamari Damacy, in its various iterations, is maybe the closest thing to a perfect game to me.

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This is a game with legions of fans, so I’m sure many of you have played it and love it too. For those who haven’t, the premise is sublimely bizarre: the King of the Cosmos has accidentally destroyed the universe, and you, his tiny prince son, are tasked with restoring the planets and stars by making new ones. To create a heavenly body, you roll stuff up on earth, starting with small objects like pushpins and parsley, and gradually adding larger items like teapots, cats, apartment buildings, and clouds as your ball gets bigger.

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The rolling works in an easy, natural way, with your two thumbs on two joysticks pushing it forward. (Most of the games are for the Playstation, with the newest, Touch My Katamari, for the PS Vita.) With virtually no learning curve, this is a game that is instantly fun for anyone with two thumbs.

It’s the world of Katamari Damacy that really inspires me. It’s a world full of stuff, but that stuff is curated for maximum play and discovery. Roll up an egg, and it hatches out a swan as you do so, making your ball that much bigger. Roll into a school bathroom and someone’s on the Japanese-style toilet— you may not be big enough to roll him up yet, but you can snag the pile of toilet paper sitting next to him. Grow your ball giant enough to roll up the cosmos themselves, and you’ll encounter magical incarnations of the game’s characters alongside ancient Shinto deities.

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For the most part, this is a specifically Japanese world, and much of the items you roll up are specific to Japan. The game’s attitude about its nationality is refreshingly matter-of-fact. After rolling up a pile of caramels, you might roll up an “octopus sausage,” the name of which will appear on the screen, but with no further commentary about what it is. I love how the Japanese developers neither tried to make the world more generic for players in other countries nor played up the Japanese-ness of the game as a big selling point.

This is a game with no bad guys, and no real failure. (You can get shamed by your cosmic father for not living up to his expectations, but once that’s over, you just get back to rolling.) The cosmos themselves don’t contain any good or evil, and nothing in the world is too small or too big to be in play. That’s a spirit that I strive to bring to my own creative projects, and I know I’ll always return to this game for some imagination fuel.

Kackel Dackel

As you know, I went to Berlin in April, accompanied by my lovely sister-in-law Jenna. I was mostly there to make art and to see art, and Jenna was mostly there to locate this game:

That’s right, it’s a German game in which you get points for making a dog poop. We actually didn’t find the game in any of the many toy stores we stopped in, but Jenna managed to acquire one later via eBay. It’s pretty much as fun as it looks!

By the way, Jenna, who took gorgeous photos of my cats last year, has just moved next door to us in Brooklyn. If you’re in the area and have a pet and/or a kid, check out her beautiful photography website!