Back to Where I Once Belonged

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Front Square during Freshers Week: Societies a-go-go

The other day, I mentioned to someone in the pub that I graduated from Trinity College Dublin back in 1998. His response? “Wow, I was ten then.”

Now, I quite like the grey in my stubble, and references to my advanced years rarely bother me. However, there was one difference with this comment: the guy I was talking to wasn’t just a stranger in a pub. He was a classmate.

That’s right: after a gap of fourteen years, I’m heading back to college. Specifically back to Trinity. My goal? To study for an MSc in Interactive Digital Media, a one-year, full-time course. It’s been a strange experience so far; nostalgia and novelty in equal measure.

My first four years in Trinity were a time of change. The college was getting wired up to the Internet and making the most of the nascent boom as it fundraised for new buildings. Over the course of my degree, I made lifelong friends, got my first email address, and found myself a new place to live. I settled in Dublin, got myself a job, and have never been away for long since then.

Even so, reentering education has offered up a lot that’s familiar. Freshers Week, with its host of society kiosks in Front Square, is much the same as ever. The Sports Centre is new since I was a student, but seeing as my fees paid for it and I’ve been using it as a graduate, it’s not exactly novel. All the strangeness, in fact, comes from the fact that I’m in a very different position to my former student life.

Let’s not mince words here: in my class, I’m the oldest, by a good few years. Most of the rest of the class are a few years at most from their graduation. They seem like a great crowd though, and there seems to be a common eagerness to develop an esprit de corps. Given that a lot of the work we’ll be doing is team-based, that can only be positive.

So I doubt I’m going to feel like an outsider here. Even so, most of my fellow postgrads still have the habits of education ingrained in their heads. How much of that has survived a decade and more of a working life? I’m about to find out.

Puzzle Craft – Slim but Beautifully Made

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A fully-loaded settlement – a far cry from what you start off with.

The recipe for making a game that profits through microtransactions is ostensibly a simple one: provide an enjoyable activity for players and then throw in a few difficulties that they can ease through small purchases. The trick lies in finding the balance between fun and hardship. Too easy and there’s no reason for anyone to reach for the microtransaction button; too hard and players will feel that they’re being gouged.

Right from the start, the iOS game Puzzle Craft (€0.79) from Chillingo gets two things very right. First the name: puzzle games are perfect for smartphones and tablets, and the “craft” suffix has worked for some major properties (World of Warcraft and Minecraft most obviously). Second the art, which is a luscious spin on the Euro boardgames style, with tiny, characterful workers and cartoonish buildings. However, when it comes to gameplay, it errs (perhaps understandably) on the easy side of the microtransaction equation.

The goal of the game is straightforward: collect resources to build your settlement up into a city, complete with castle. The resources are collected by dragging your finger to link up groups of tiles on two 6×6 grids, representing a farm and a mine. Both cash and resources can be used to hire workers, craft tools and construct buildings, introducing higher-level resources and easing the process of building up their stockpiles. The game is generous with its handouts, and the core mechanic of linking resources will stick in your brain when you put the game away for a while.

The problem (apart from some serous bugs that have supposedly been squashed in the latest update) is that there just isn’t a huge amount to do at the moment. The only current element to the game, the “campaign mode”, in which you build up your settlement to a city complete with castle, isn’t going to last for more than a week. Worse, there isn’t much challenge to be had along the way. The lack of a need to reach for microtransactions isn’t wholly a bad thing: this isn’t a free game, after all, and €0.79 for a week’s worth of fun is a decent deal.

Further content is promised, though exactly what that might be isn’t clear yet. Hopefully, it will provide a little more challenge and add some replayability and a social aspect. For the moment though, picking up this game will deliver a gentle, slick and appealing city-building game that you’ll come back to again and again as long as it lasts.

August Book Reviews

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Not all of my books are for entertainment. Just most of them…

Not too much fiction this month, but plenty of history, psychology and literary advice. All of which adds up to, well, probably a need to dive into something a little more lightweight in September, what with all the craziness about to be fighting for my brain space.

In the Shadow of the Sword, Tom Holland: Holland has made a career out of examining turning points in history, and this time he dives into one of the most contentious and mystery-shrouded upheavals: the birth of Islam and the world that it overturned. He first delineates the nature of that world, then offers up a strong argument that Islam was not so much a new divine revelation as a new tapestry woven out of the threads of the old world. Covering a vast span of space and time, it remains readable despite the depth of detail, as all of Holland’s books have been, but with few strong and vivid characters, readers might struggle to find an entry point into this strange world of clashing civilisations, religions and desires for domination.

Style: The Art of Writing Well, F.L. Lucas: A classic among books on writing, yet out of print for four decades, Lucas’s book excels in practicing what it preaches: it not only tells one how to write well, but it is also written well. The modern reader will occasionally bump against the author’s viewpoint (that of a scholarly Englishman in the post-World War II world), but his advice is always easy to understand, often funny, and bolstered with examples of the finest writing in many languages. Only one of the eleven chapters delves into technical matters – the rest cover more fundamental issues of style, focusing on how writers can best communicate with readers and providing plenty for both to learn from and enjoy.

Ancient Echoes, Robert Holdstock: Once more delving into the psychological and mythical depths that provided him with the material for Mythago Wood, Holdstock provides a tale that feels more specific and grounded, yet less satisfying at the same time. To a large degree, the meat of the story takes place within the psyche of the protagonist, with the narrative point of view zooming in and out relative to how deep the story is delving, and as he comes face to face with remnants of prehistoric time, buried cities and their need for vengeance, and the threat of marriage and parenthood dissolving. It’s a heady brew to manage, and it never quite comes together, with a heavy expository passage towards the end and a reliance on a rather literal deus ex machina to bring it all to some sort of closure.

I, Claudius, Robert Graves: Fact and fiction form a perfect mix in Graves’ famous pseudo-memoir of the fourth Emperor of Rome. Ever the outsider, Claudius observes the long, tortured decline of his family, from the travails of Augustus to the depravity of Tiberius and insanity of Caligula, not sparing his own foibles and failings as he presents a picture of lethal ambition that is surprisingly fresh and modern. For all the evident depth of research underlying this work, it’s an easy read, with an unassuming narrator who capably manages his sprawling cast.

The Twelve Caesars, Suetonius (translated by Robert Graves): The lives of the rulers of Rome, from Julius Caesar to Domitian, are laid out in cleared-eyed detail in this fine edition of the classic set of biographies. Suetonius pulls no punches when it comes to describing the worst qualities of the Caesars, but nor does he neglect to mention the finer moments of even the worst of them, and the result is an even handed description of the rulers that Rome suffered and gloried in during the first century AD. In the wealth of incidental detail he provides, there’s plenty to be learned about Roman society and morals, and in his determination to stick with the facts he can find, Suetonius is surprisingly modern (apart from a recurring focus on the importance of omens and auguries in the life and death struggles over the rulership of Rome).

The Brain that Changes Itself, Norman Doidge: In a series of eye-opening case studies, Doidge reveals the brain’s ability to change itself to recover from trauma and to continue to change all the way through adulthood and old age. Overturning the notion of the brain as a machine that gets more and more fixed in its ways from childhood onwards, he shows in inspiring fashion that every one of us is capable of gaining new knowledge and behaviours all through our lives. Although it seems on some places too good to be true, if even a portion of its potential is real, this is a book worth owning, not just reading.

Schadenfreude, or The Little Book of Black Delights, Tim Lihoreau: I will happily admit to suffering from “calicurrophilia”, and while I am resistant to the appeal of “tollophilia”, “mecutempophilia” is another matter (though that might be saying entirely too much). Adopting the tone of an upper-class English savant, Lihoreau takes readers on a ride through the spurious offshoots of schadenfreude, in the form of delights in varying shades of grey and black, with titles that twist the scholarly use of Latin far beyond what it was intended to achieve. It’s not a laugh-out-loud book, but there are few who will read it without finding themselves smiling involuntarily when they are reminded of a pleasure that they perhaps should be more than a little ashamed of.