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Inspired Play 01: Kentucky Route Zero

As a creative person, often I find myself conscious of the creative choices that went in to the making of whatever I’m viewing or reading. Often I think, "I see what they’re doing there, that’s awesome." But every now and then I experience something so novel that it’s not even obvious to me how the effect was achieved, or how a piece was put together. Citizen Kane was like that for me. Going back and watching scenes in the film, I knew Orson Welles was doing something incredible, but he was on a level so much higher than me creatively that I couldn't say what it is or how he’s doing it. It’s that kind of feeling that clues me in that I’m experiencing a creation of historic import, something that truly pushes the boundaries of the medium. Kentucky Route Zero feels that way to me.

ghost

On the surface it’s about an antiques dealer in Kentucky trying to make a delivery… but to do so he must go down a secret underground road called Route Zero. All this you learn in the first minutes of the game,  I don’t want to give much more away. 

KRZ Road

The Takeaway:

KRZ showed me that a video game can have the depth, complexity, and poetry of a great work of literature.

Kentucky Route Zero is available on Steam and Humble Bundle. http://kentuckyroutezero.com/

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Word of the Week: Lek

It’s a tough choice, the first ever LETTERSWIRL Word of the Week. So why “lek?” I suspected that it wasn’t a real word until I looked it up.

Lek Currency

Noun: lek; the basic monetary unit of Albania, equal to 100 qintars

Interesting, but was it blog worthy? At first, I didn’t think so. Luckily, just before I closed the book, the second definition caught my eye.

Noun: lek; a patch of ground used for communal display in the breeding season by the males of certain birds and mammals, especially black grouse

verb: lek; take part in a communal breeding display on a lek

"antelopes mate in lekking grounds"

Well, this merited some deeper research. Time to dust off the encyclopedia.

Each male defends a small territory in order to attract females for mating. Varying degrees of interaction occur between the males, from virtually none to closely cooperative dancing. Females visit the lek briefly to select mates and to copulate, but they do not form lasting pair bonds with the males. Lek behaviour, also called arena behaviour, is found in a number of insects, birds, and mammals.

Hmmm… mammals? Some of my best friends are mammals. (Sorry, I just had to get my two leks in.)

Lek Birds

But in the end, it was actually the etymology that sold me:

Origin: late 19th century, perhaps from Swedish “leka”, meaning “to play”.

That clinched it. I like to play, and what better way to celebrate Words of the Week?

I could go on. If you totally want your mind blown, look up Lekking and the Lek Paradox. Who knew that a tiny three letter word could lead to such complicated concepts?

Finally, I couldn’t help checking Wikipedia and found these other references:

Lek (pharmaceutical company), now part of Sandoz, the generic drug subsidiary of Novartis

Lek (river), a river in the west of the Netherlands

De Lek, a former manorial fiefdom in the Netherlands

L.E.K. Consulting, international strategy consulting firm

Lek, the family nickname of King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand

Lek or Lekë, an abbreviated form of Alexander

Lek, a fictional form of Cardassian currency in Star Trek



Star Trek? Really? But you probably knew that already.

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Cuban

Over the weekend, we went to Rumba Cubana Restaurant in North Bergen.  My co-worker kept telling me to go after learning my taste for Cuban food.

What an amazing place! People are practically spilling out of the restaurant, but everyone is having a good time. We only ordered take-out and left, but the parking lot was full at 2 p.m.

All the way home we smelled the food, and couldn’t wait to try.  My co-worker was right.

Nothing like the Cuban food I ever ate! I am definitely going back there again. While waiting for our food at the bar, I couldn’t help but think about LETTERSWIRL in Spanish version, because none of the customers around me spoke English. I definitely want Latin-flavored LETTERSWIRL.

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Dr. Matthews

I actually never thought of how I learned to spell. Since English is not my first language, learning to spell was almost like a puzzle at the beginning. I began to wonder how children first acquire this ability.

I had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Francie Matthews, an educator in schools and private practice who has established her reputation as a leader and child/parent advocate in the field of learning differences.  As she described how important orthographic awareness is for learning to spell, I decided to read more about it, starting with this definition from Merriam-Webster: Orthography is the art of writing words with the proper letters according to standard usage. While searching for some articles on the Internet, I found a website created by Applied Learning Processes, a learning center providing research-based diagnosis and treatment for learning difficulties experienced by children, adolescents and adults. The following paragraph helped me understand the process of learning to spell clearly.

“Targeted instruction that stimulates the brain’s ability to visualize the letter symbols in words can improve a student’s reading and spelling. Applied Learning Processes uses methods based on Seeing Stars®*, developed by Nanci Bell, to develop the brain’s ability to image, hold and retain letter symbols in words. This approach starts with the most basic pieces of words, individual letters, and systematically strengthens the student’s orthographic processing for reading and spelling single syllable words, as well as complex multi-syllable words.”

- See more at: http://www.appliedlearningprocesses.com/orthographicprocessing

 To put it more simply, that is one reason why I love LETTERSWIRL. I can relax, forget that I am targeting anything, and just have fun playing.

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Codex

Spencer’s Book

Spencer showed me a book he got, and I was so intrigued. As I started to read it (not really, because you cannot read it; it is a book with gorgeous pictures and doodles that are aligned perfectly), I was trying to break the encryption for the first five pages, until I realized that it was not encrypted. It was just imagined.

And the pictures inspired me. I went through the book page by page and was transported back to my childhood, when I was sick with chicken pox at the age of six. My beloved grandmother wanted to do something special for me, and went out and bought the entire set of an encyclopedia, all brilliant color pictures and all.

In my bed, I read all 12 volumes of them and was in awe of the wonders of nature, the animals, the plants, the humans, and everything about this world we live in. This feeling was dug up from somewhere very deep in my mind while looking at this book.

We are inspired so little nowadays. But when I first saw Spencer’s design of LETTERSWIRL and heard the sound he designed for it, they also inspired me. Those sounds still take me somewhere long ago where I am standing in a sunny field, and feeling a warm breeze through my hair. I must have been very young, I would imagine.

…..Of course, the title “Codex” sounds like a plural for codec, which I have to download to my users’ computers all the time, and I liked it immediately.

“How are word games good for our brains? Such activities keep us intellectually engaged by getting us to ‘stretch’ our thinking. Unlike timed activities, which offer us a different kind of challenge, word games (and puzzles, board games, and the like) grab our attention, get us to make new connections, and give us the chance to think outside of our mind's box.” - Cynthia R. Green, Ph.D., Psychology

http://www.sharecare.com/health/functions-of-memory

“The Alzheimer's Association says that ‘higher levels of education appear to be somewhat protective against Alzheimer's, possibly because brain cells and their connections are stronger.’ It also suggests that Alzheimer's patients take advantage of this information by getting mental stimulation working word puzzles of various types. Word puzzles such as scrambles can help keep the brain active and alert.”

http://www.ehow.com

We all know that word games help to stimulate our brains, but how do we keep playing day after day, so that we keep our brains well-maintained, especially without getting bored?

You need a very engaging game like LETTERSWIRL so that you purely enjoy the game, without thinking about these benefits!

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Coffee and Letterswirl

    Every morning as I sip my coffee, the obsession begins. No, not with coffee, but with my other addiction - LETTERSWIRL. It starts out as a passing thought, "I wonder if anyone has made a move?" And then I can't rest until I grab my iPad and tap on the icon that opens the game. "Not another 'Z'... That's it. He is getting a 'J' from me." My mood immediately lifts when I hear the soothing sound of the wind chimes and the melody of crickets, signaling that the game challenge is on.

    I admit it. I'm hooked. As far as I know, I am the first person to play the iPad version of the game with the game developer. And I am certain that I hold the world's record in number of games played.  How do I know?

That's simple. The developer, Spencer Hargiss, is my son.

    If you are thinking what I would be thinking, then you would be wrong. That is not the reason I love LETTERSWIRL. Word games have always been a passion of mine.  Crossword puzzles were part of my morning every day, like caffeine and breathing. And then I got my iPad. And my first app. And my brand new addiction.

    Actually, buying apps was too scary when my iPad was new, so my son surprised me and bought my initial game app for me. Now the first thing I check each day after pouring my first cup of coffee is my LETTERSWIRL status. If I'm lucky, there are one or more games in progress online. After a while, Spencer brews some tea, and we can sit down across from each other with some Earl Grey and a game of Face to Face. In between times, single player mode presents a challenge, since I have been trying to beat an opponent's top score for weeks.

    What do I like about the game?  The way the game looks, the way it sounds. The crickets and the gentle chimes are calming and help me think. No bright flashing and loud crashing and things whizzing by too fast for me to follow. I like setting up letter combinations that will give me the largest selection for possible future words, and then getting just the letter that I have been waiting for. I like playing with people I have met and those that I haven't met yet. Plus, I enjoy getting to use all those strange words I learned doing crosswords, like "adz" and "quoin." Or highlighting a letter string that I think cannot possibly be a word, only to see the game light up and ring, and I say with wonder, "That's a word?"

    Watching my son perform the magic that goes into making a video game app is awe-inspiring. My field is computer graphics but believe me, I have no idea how he does what he does. Meeting the other people on the development team has also been great fun.

    So if I am going to be obsessed with something, I am thrilled that it is LETTERSWIRL. Even better than coffee, because I can play one last game each night, close my iPad, and go straight to sleep.

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How I Best Enjoy Letterswirl

It feels pretty strange for Letterswirl to finally be available to the public. Letterswirl has been in development since 2011, and playing as we’ve progressed has been a lot of fun. For years we have played the game regularly and I’ve always been fine-tuning it to make it increasingly entertaining, but also increasingly meaningful. Now what has long been our secret pastime is available to all. Letterswirl can be enjoyed any number of ways, but like everyone on the team I have my personal favorite way.

 

STEP 1: Brew a Pot of Tea

For a game of Letterswirl to be truly complete it must be accompanied by a pot of black tea. For a genuinely authentic game, loose leaf is obligatory. I’ve had some good tea from bags, but brewing with bags is very unreliable; tiny variations in brewing conditions can result in huge differences in flavor. Only loose whole-leaf tea brews the same reliable flavor every time. A pot of Earl Grey will work, but to be truly methodical I recommend pairing Letterswirl with a nice smokey Yunnan, which will perfectly match the game’s mysterious, magical atmosphere. Brew for five minutes with filtered water from a kettle immediately removed from the stove. Use real teacups, not mugs.

 

STEP 2: Atmosphere

Letterswirl is best played with lights partially dimmed, to enhance the mysterious atmosphere, but can be enjoyed in indirect sunlight as well. It is very nice played in a park in the shade, although just as with any mobile game, watch the battery level when playing outdoors, as outlets don’t grow on trees. It’s best if there aren’t any jarring sounds in the environment to spoil the mood, but Letterswirl can also be quite enjoyable (and fashionable) in a café environment, provided of course the café has good tea.

STEP 3: Setup

I recommend an iPad for play, to be placed between players like a chessboard, and I recommend placing the device near the corner of a table, at a 45 degree angle. This allows players to sit at a table, but still close to each other, not having to reach over the table to touch the device. Players can best reach for their cup of tea if they are of opposite handedness, but it can be made to work either way with a little experimentation. Café tables offer an alternative.

 

Step 4: Play

I find Letterswirl works best with pleasant conversation, and there are times when silence can be appropriate as well.

Some on the team have different preferences. Byron and Joyce are fond of gently teasing one another, pointing out each other’s mistakes, and suggesting ostensibly optimal moves to the opponent.

Intermittently, breathe in the delicious smokey aroma of your Yunnan, then exhale while smiling. Ahhhhh.

 

Of course, everybody has their own creature comforts, and ultimately you’ll find your own favorite way to play. If you do, feel free to add to the comments for this post!

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On Myst

main-myst.jpg

When we were looking for inspiration in the beginning stages of development, one game was on our minds; Myst. It was a classic as far as gamers are concerned; and it occupies a strange point of common experience among children of the 90s. Like the cracking sound of a modem connecting to the internet, Myst's foreboding ambient soundtrack and proto-steampunk art direction suggested that your computer was going to be something other than just a big calculator. It could be a place of exploration, connection and discovery. 

myst-34.jpg

Despite it's many faults (Has anyone ever solved the clock tower puzzle…?), Myst shines back to us today like and exit sign in an abattoir in an era where every game that comes out involves shooting some variation of Nazis or aliens. Inviting players to explore rather than conquer their environment. Painting its story in strokes of impression and memory as opposed to the vulgar gestures of a Hollywood screenplay. 

We are carrying this tradition into our first tablet game. We feel that games that make you think don't have to look like homework.

-kbw

 

 

 

 

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