Botanicula is Beautiful

Friday, April 27, 2012
I first stepped into the world of Amanita Design when I played Machinarium at PAX '09. I was intrigued by the art design, the intricacy of the puzzles and the imaginative story it portrayed. Like something stolen from my childhood brain I wandered from scene to scene, becoming more ensconced by the world I found myself in.

When I got word that Amanita's latest work, Botanicula, was debuting in a Humble Indie Bundle, I snapped it up at my first opportunity.

Botanicula is something a little different from Machinarium. The setting -rather than a tin-toy, industrial steampunk world- is a rather idyllic tree. You play as a group of tiny critters trying to protect a seed from an evil, Cyclopean spider and his minions. This all makes total sense if you've seen/played anything from Amanita before.

Never go drinking with Mr. Poppyhead
Throughout the game you are confronted with puzzles that play to a certain creatures talents. The trick becomes selecting the correct member of the group to solve each puzzle. Sometimes though, it's worth it to pick the wrong one as it often results in some of the funniest moments in the game.

If at all possible, play Botanicula with family; as good a game as Botanicula is, it begs to be played with other people watching over your shoulder or taking turns at the puzzles. I played it with my oldest daughter and she spent the rest of the day drawing the characters and creatures we saw. The game became an interactive storybook, a choose your own adventure of puzzles and strange insects.We giggled and laughed at the bizarre events of the game, worked through puzzles and wandered the branches of the tree for a good two hours before we brought Botanicula to it's conclusion.

 Botanicula is adorable, inventive and entertaining. I highly recommend it to anyone with a taste for puzzle games. I think you'll find it to be an engaging and uplifting experience. If you're really smart and want a bigger sampling of Amanita Design's work, you'll grab your own copy of the Humble Botanicula Debut while it's still available. You'll get Botanicula along with Samorost 2, Machinarium, an awesome movie called Kooky, with art direction by the founder of Amanita Design, Jakub Dvorsk√Ĺ and a ton of other little extras.

Why Metasploit is So Darn Nifty!

Thursday, April 26, 2012
Ever since this past March, I have begun to take a much more intense fascination with virtual machines running Linux operating systems on them.  Two flavors of Linux in particular, an Ubuntu server and BackTrack 5 R2 have caught my interest.  I've been working mainly on the Ubuntu server at this point fishing around for ways to secure it and the Apache server it will be running in order to create a comprehensive and simple to follow guide. (I'll post my secret plans for world domination using the server once they are done).  However, how can I tell if my server is really secure once I've completed my initial tasks?  How do I know what works, and what I need to try a different tactic on?

The answer is a little something known as BackTrack, or known jokingly within certain circles as Evil Linux. In truth, it is not really evil, it is a Linux distribution that centers around  penetration testing and digital forensics.  Being as such, BackTrack hosts a wide variety of tools to allow you to test systems, for which you have explicit permission to test, to your heart's content.  So far, my favorite tool from observation has been the Metasploit framework tool for its sheer versatility.  Metasploit was originally conceived and developed by HD Moore in 2003 to make penetration and vulnerability testing less tedious.  Imagine trying to pick a lock without the proper tools, breaking in to a computer system is the same concept.  While most penetration testers would build their own tools, it is far more simple to have the proper tools at hand and still allow for the testers to build more specialized tools.  This was exactly what the Metasploit framework has allowed them to do.

I have been wanting to learn more about how to properly use Metasploit for a while now, and this project (the Ubuntu server guide) has provided me with a cornucopia of opportunities to play with numerous functionalities of the framework.  Again I was left with the question of where to start.  I tried Googling with few results on websites I would like to visit (you know, the ones where you don't automatically get put on the CIA watch list) until I came across a book Metasploit:  The Pentration Tester's Guide by Kennedy, O'Gorman, Kearns, and Aharoni.

Suffice it to say, I tracked down a copy of the text immediately and began reading!  I was extremely impressed with the book, the information was easy to understand, it showed how to utilize many of the tools in the framework and provided what you should see when you give certain commands, and most importantly they provided a very thorough tutorial in one place rather than me taking hours gathering little bits and pieces of information in a process that mostly resembles trying to make ill-fitting puzzle pieces come together.

What does any of this have to do with gaming?  Everything!  Particularly for server hosted games, penetration testing is of the utmost importance.   It is even important for gamers who play often on their PC gaming rigs.  Penetration and vulnerability testing on computer systems allows you to be aware of your weaknesses and gives you an opportunity to patch up these weaknesses before a hacker gets in and steals your MMORPG account information.  On a larger scale (as with the games hosted on servers) the damage could effect several people, such as in the hack on Sony last year which caused the Playstation Network to be inaccessible for over a month.

Now that that rant is over with, what I am trying to convey is that it is important to test your computer and make sure that it is secure.  Granted you can install an anti-malware program (and I highly recommend that you do!), but think of this additional security precaution as the moat of a castle (codename: your computer) , and worth learning how to implement.  Adding this layer of protection is simple, I suggest downloading a virtual machine hosting program such as VMware or Virtual Box, and installing a BackTrack operating system on the virtual machine.  After that you can test away on your host (the operating system running the virtual machine) system and fix what needs to be fixed.  So far, everything but the book (which I believe is the best guide for beginners, please comment below if you find a better open-source online tutorial) is open-source software, so it will cost you nothing but a few gigabytes to ensure that you have a secure system.  Just remember, like it says in the book, "don't be stupid."  Only use the powers of BackTrack and Metasploit for good.  Meaning, please only use them on your own system or someone else's who has given you explicit permission!

Nerds, Assemble!


 

   Superheroes rock. I feel like it's okay for me to be fairly unambiguous in my support of them. You know what else rocks? The Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Basic Game, that's what. I stumbled across this little gem while I was working at home on my own free time, and, knowing that I had just the occasion coming up, preordered it. The game showed up two days before my good friend's birthday, and a couple pre-release posts I had read had worked me into a certain state of anxiety. You see, I had agreed to introduce this game and allow my friend and our significant others the opportunity to be directly involved in a skrull invasion of Earth, and not all of the early reviews were entirely complementary. However, I had chosen my course and was determined to see it through, so when the game arrived on my doorstep I tore through the packaging with trembling hands and began to read.

   The first thing I had get over was the fact that the game uses the Cortex system, something altogether alien and unfamiliar to my D20 programmed brain. The system revolves around this idea that you have a range of dice from a 4-sided (d4) up to a 12-sided (d12). Each die represents one of your abilities or talents and you can select some of them from a given roll to represent accuracy, effectiveness, etc. Suffice it to say that while this system is a little daunting to try and convey to another human being without specific hand gestures and physical dice present to illustrate the function you're trying to convey, in practice the Cortex system is acutally very simple and intuitive, and lends itself to the comic book feel of the game very nicely.

   The other thing I discovered was that the posters leaving negative commentary were missing some very important toolsets not included in the game. Wander on over to margaretweis.com and you'll discover a Random Datafile Generator and a blank datafile spreadsheet. You need these. You want these. The core book itself is great for covering the functions of the game, and gives you everything you need to spend a night as Storm or Captain America, or putting the moves on Mary-Jane in your best blue and red spandex, but the rules are a little fuzzier when it comes to creating your very own super-hero. That's where the Random Datafile Generator comes into play. This fills in all the blanks on character creation and allows you to create your very own hero, ready to throw down with the Hulk, out-angst Cyclops, or whatever your preference may be.

   Saturday evening rolled around and we all jumped in for the real test, playing an actual game. I was the Watcher, in charge of game mediation, storytelling, and controlling the doom dice, a dice pool representing the forces of fate arrayed against my intrepid heroes. Ready to charge into the fray were: The Occultist (trademark pending), wielder of dark mystical forces and wearer of the accursed Nephilim Armor; Roulette (trademark pending), a genetically augmented human trained by the military and occasionally possessed by the ghost of a child killed in the same military program; and Gremlin, a compueter programmer empowered by experimental nanites allowing her to control almost any technology she comes in contact with. We had a blast. The party was arrested, fought and befriended super-powered convicts, and ultimately slew a gravity controlling super-villain in order to prevent him from crashing an aerial prison colony into the Whitehouse. Just reading that last sentence makes goosebumps tingle over my skin as I remember the encounter.

   To sum up here, you want to play this. At $19.99 for the core book, this is a more than worthwhile investment for any interested gaming group. The biggest problem we had was realizing that there just isn't enough time in our normal gaming schedule to work in a regular occurrence of this game and still pretend to have a real life. If you need a quick switch from your usual tabletop game, this is for you. And for all the True Believers out there who know deep down inside that every nerd deserves his own smokin' hot redhead girlfriend to patch him back together when the world gets too rough (or if you happen to be that smokin' hot girlfriend, redhead or not), this is totally for you.

A Moment to Reflect

   Hello all! I'd like to officially welcome myself to Somnambulant Gamer. You may refer to me as Ssalarn, and hopefully that will be both mysterious enough and sibilant enough to match the mood our wallpaper tries to engender. I've done a little behind the scenes work with Somnambulant Gamer, but this will be my first acutal post, and it seemed appropriate to me that this post cover transitions.

   Specifically, I'm referring to Monte Cook leaving the design team for the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons currently being developed by Wizards of the Coast. This announcement was released earlier today on the DnDinsider site and it accentuated for me a certain reality of the dark underbelly of gamer society. Now, hold on, I get what you're thinking. "Ssalarn, gamers already ARE the dark underbelly of society!"
Well, those of us reading this know that that's not accurate BUT- and here's where I start to get to the point- it wasn't so long ago that people thought that way.

   Monte was a major design contributor for the 3.whatever versions of D&D, and I was personally excited to see him on the board for this new project. D&DNext purports to be the edition that will bring the best parts of all previous editions into one new, comprehensive game system, a project that was almost doomed to bring out the worst in RPG gamers right from the start. After all, everyone has their favorite edition (if they play) and has doubtless spent months or years trying to convince people who don't share their particular view of why their edition is the best. Anyone following the boards over at dndinsider.com for the last few months would have had the opportunity to see a host of posters spewing the most violent rhetoric imaginable at every opportunity whenever a discussion of what may or may not appear in the new edition came up. Monte, as the poster-child (get it? no? not funny? sigh...) for the 3.x editions of D&D, an edition that has been loved and hated by many with equal passion and is currently being championed through Paizo via their acquisition of the 3.5 OGL (that's open gaming license for those not in the know), was a particular target for much of this. Don't get me wrong, I understand that older editions had their chance and their time has passed. But, isn't it jumping the gun just a little to call for public crucifixions when they haven't even released the game for open playtest?

  And now I finally get to the point I just rambled through three paragraphs to make. Monte is gone from the D&DNext project, and his experience and talent go with him. The behavior by posters that helped contribute to this is not the kind of behavior we as gamers, and we as human beings, should stoop to. Objective questioning and amicable disagreement are fine, but hate has no place with us. Many can still remember being judged for playing roleplaying games by churches and various and sundry other community "leaders", or being bullied for being the scrawny pale kid who read too much or played video games instead of football. Just because we grew up to be masters of this strangely fundamental force known as the internet doesn't absolve us of the responsibilty to be better than the bullies who tormented nerdy kids in their youth (or beyond). The basic nature of tabletop rpg gaming revolves around the idea that creative people can gather together and pool their imaginations into an immersive experience that allows them to be whatever or whomever they can imagine. This spirit of sharing is inimicable to exclusionary attitudes, is open and accepting by its very nature. Let us try to emulate that openness and acceptance, and be the enlightened and better people we believe ourselves to be.

For anyone who thought that got WAY to preachy, I have good news. In my next post I talk about superheroes!!!

Why Bioware Matters

Monday, April 2, 2012
Bioware has been enjoying some well deserved success recently. I’ve  been impressed by their work from the first time Imoen and I ventured across Faerun. Since then I have crashed on Coruscant, retrieved Monsters for Lady Aribeth, studied the ways of the Spirit Monks, fought against the Darkspawn, become a trusted agent for the resurgent Sith Empire and most recently defended the galaxy from the Reapers.

What sets Bioware apart from other RPG developers is the way they manipulate the play space. Take any other RPG developer, Bethesda, for example. A game like Skyrim is enormous, deep open and beautiful. But the way it simply exists around your character can be problematic for story-telling. The standard Dovakhiim has almost no restrictions on their behavior. This often leads to outlandish and absurd occurrences that, while entertaining, detract from the main story. I’ve put well over 40 hours into Skyrim and still haven’t completed the main quest line.

The narrative threads are woven a little tighter in most Bioware games. In Mass Effect 3 you can wander the galaxy completing side quests, but even those contribute to the same ultimate goal. The universe in Mass Effect feels meatier as a result and that dissonant chord the absurdities of Skyrim can strike isn’t so easily plucked. You can more easily slip into the confines of this universe because it fits more contours of the world you actually live in.

The unfettered freedom in Skyrim is wonderful. However, allowing a player to be fast and loose with the principle story leads to a fragile narrative. Observe:
    1.  “Dovakhiim, now that you have mastered the Voice, go and bring death to Alduin.” Well first I’m going to see what’s over there, and probably get distracted by ten different shiny things and caves and cairns on the way. Oh, and I should look into the whole dark brotherhood thing, see what that’s about. Then I’ll make a ton of awesome weapons and armor that I’ll probably sell or store in the bottomless trunks and end tables in my house. I might get married too.
      2. “Shepard, the Crucible is nearing completion. Get out there and stop the Reapers.” Okay, well I’ll check out these Cerberus bases because there’s something going on there, oh, and I should see what’s going on with the Rachni, because they could be really helpful at the end. And then I should see about retrieving some other items for assorted people to raise morale and gather the scattered forces around the galaxy. I’ll probably have sex with some of the crew too.
Really the point is this. Many RPG’s want you to be free. Be that to pickpocket entire villages, eat baby chickens, or wander vast wildernesses. These games have stories in them, but it becomes secondary to your experience. Bioware wants to make you a part of the stories they create. Like any good sci-fi or fantasy novel, Bioware’s games mold you into the universe they create. That’s something special.