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The Ill Communication

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The future is now

January 9, 2017 | 19:27 | Written by: snake911

Hope everyone enjoyed that short exploration of Microsoft Home software because that last one with a big dive into Scenes with screensavers and wallpapers was the final one.  Actually, I know you guys like them as those blog entries are one the most trafficked pages on the site.  It was short lived, but I was able to cover all five major categories the catalog of software had to offer, which was my mission all along, so I'm proud to say the mission was a success.  But don't fret because as one feature gets sunset, another will take its place; and this time it's going to get its own section.

I'm pretty excited for this one.  This is one of those ideas I had mulling over in my brain for a number of years now, but am now finally getting my butt in gear to finally put it out.  Ladies and gentleman, I present to you: Ghost in the Shell: Post Factum.

So I'm a fan of Ghost in the Shell, and have been a fan since 2004 when the TV series premiered in the US.  Yeah, I knew about the franchise much earlier when I was first exposed to it when playing the demo for the PS1 game back in 1997, but I really didn't get into it until the TV show aired; and since then I've been a fan of it.  Well, to be honest, more like a casual fan, as I never really consumed anything other than the TV shows, the original game, or the first manga book.  I kept buying everything GitS related over a decade's time between 2005 and 2010, but never actually took anything out of the shrink wrap.

But now that the live action film of the series is coming out soon, it's acting as a motivation in an effort to finally get through all of the material before the movie debuts in what should be late March.  So over the next several months, I'll be dumping my opinions regarding every book, movie, TV show, and games related franchise into their own articles, so you can get a small sampling of the content that inspired the live action movie.  My goal is to be finished with this feature before the movie premiers.  That's a tight deadline, but I think I can make it; even though Let it Die has been hampering my efforts!

Now even though I hate spoilers and I try to make my write-ups as spoiler free as possible (like my games journal feature), I'm going to make an exception for this feature, so expect to see spoilers throughout it.  I'll provide a warning on the hub page for this feature, so be cautious if you don't want anything ruined in the way of me telling you certain plot points or endings!

And due to the rush in getting this feature accomplished, the index page and a few other things will look bare bones and lite on original designs.  All of that will be added later on after I've written all of the content.  So expect the index page to get a facelift after it's all done.  To get to the index page, click the image you see at the top of this entry, or click the link on the right-hand side of this website where the other features are at.  The first batch of content should be hitting the website next week.  Hope you'll stick around for them :-)

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Echoes from the past

January 4, 2017 | 22:31 | Written by: snake911

Last night I was rummaging through some old backups and I unintentionally went and did a deep dive into it, killing a lot more time than I would have like to.  However, during that expedition I found some real treasures I thought were buried in the sands of time.  And when I mean “treasures,” I mean I found a lot of image editing projects.

This is the earliest one I can find.  It's dated October 2001 and that makes sense as that was the time I bought a used laptop for college, which I started a few months earlier in July.  A friend gave me a butt load of software to go with the laptop, including a copy of I believe ImageReady 3.0, which would be my introduction with photo editing software.  It's like a very lightweight version of Photoshop that included layers, basic filters, and nothing else.  A few months later he would give me a copy of Photoshop and Illustrator 6.0, which opened things up greatly.

Anyways, that image was created as a concept for a game I was thinking about creating once I graduated from college with a degree in computer programming.  Since it's been 15 years and I haven't created even one game, I guess it's okay to let my idea out and let everyone know what a fresh and ignorant 18 year old had in mind for a game.  But as you'll see, over the years, some of the ideas and story points in it would be seen in other games, so it's not really that original anymore.

The story for Outlaws begins in the future where a large corporation dealing with making major leaps in technology fields like medical and aerospace were creating a teleportation system able to travel large distances for space exploration, but accidently created a time portal that pulls in a scientist, along with a bunch of other equipment in the lab, to the old west.  Meanwhile, a pair of outlaws during the old west days, unfortunately being around the same physical location where the lab would be at in the future, witness the time portal open up, throwing the scientist into their time along with one of the outlaws being pulled into it, throwing him into the future.  In addition, the portal causes the surrounding areas to be infested with spiritual beings that came from the portals and possessing people and animals.  Ultimately, it would be a survival horror game.

The game has the player controlling the two who were thrown out of their times with the scientist running around an old west town, assisted by the other outlaw (who is the boss of the two) while the other being the outlaw running through a futuristic city, assisted by the other scientist's lab partner.  There's a special communication device both sides use so they can work together in resolving this incident (the communication device was created for use while subjects were traveling in the portal).  Both parties on the opposite sides of the timeline are needed due to a lot of the lab equipment got pulled into the portal.  Time travel gameplay mechanics like burying something so a character in the future can use it in their time would be used along with survivor horror clichés of running around fighting or running from monsters and item collecting so the player can progress to new locations.

Finding out what went wrong would be on the future side, running into suspicious characters and taking note of what they were doing.  Eventually the player would discover that the lead scientist was actually part of the occult and attempting to free their god who has been imprisoned in a lost dimension that occurred millennia ago.  The time portal was close to but missed the demon's prison, giving to the reasoning behind the evil spirits.  The final boss battle would be going into that demon's dimension and killing it.  I remember I wanted the ending to have a twist in it, similar to a horror movie where everything isn't as rosy as you'd like it to be at the end, but I never got around to actually creating the documentation that explains the game in details.  All as far as I ever got was creating some title images that you see in this post.

As a contrast, with my friend and his game idea, he went way further than I did to where he pretty much had his story written and finalized with a scene-by-scene explanation, script dialogs, and even character models.  But unlike a survival horror like mine was, his was a JRPG styled game.  Before he moved to another state, he gave me a copy of his story.  Man, need to see if I still have that somewhere.  I totally forgot what it was about except for the name of the company which the story centers around: Shadow Fox Industries; or something like that.  It'd be cool if I can find it again to see it with 15 years' worth of hiding in the darkest of backups has caused it to be as good as it was when he originally told me it, aging like a fine wine.

But with my story and game mechanics, you can point out a few games that had similar plot points or mechanics.  The biggest would have to be Doom 3 with all of the demons and portal crap.

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MS Home - Microsoft Scenes

December 15, 2016 | 22:54 | Written by: snake911

When looking back at the archives of home computing technology, there seems to be a synonymous connection between screensavers and the 1990s.  The reasoning behind this might be due to the fact that that was the decade where non hobbyists were starting to purchase computers for their homes and with it a large amount of customization.

Starting with Windows 95, there was full functionality built into the OS for things like custom wallpaper for the desktop and screensavers when the PC was in idle use.  Sure, you could have had patterned wallpaper and a screensaver for Windows 3.1, but they were features that were lacking in options and not fully fleshed out until 95 rolled out when it began to feel complete; so much so that the windows form for these features looked nearly the same for many versions of the Windows OS following 95.

This may be obvious, but just in case you didn't know, a screensaver is a program that displays animation or a series of images on a computer monitor after a preset amount of inactivity has passed to prevent burn-in from occurring to a screen.  For today's LCD screens it's not that big of deal but back in the '80s and '90s when CRT monitors were still relevant, a static image was prone to burning itself onto the screen, creating a permanent ghost image on the display.

As part of the Microsoft Home line of software, the Scenes series of programs added a full range of customizable options for both screensavers and wallpapers.  For a selection of flavors to choose from, there were a number of different subjects you can purchase such as the Undersea Collection, showcasing fish and plant life in the oceans; Hollywood Collection, which includes photos of famous celebrities and actors; and Sierra Club Collection of photos from the organization's archives.  For this feature, the Brain Twister Collection was selected as the subject matter.

Of all the programs from Microsoft Home that we've explored thus far, this one has to be the absolutely most basic one of them all.  In fact, it's more like an add-on function to the operating system as the interface is as vanilla Windows as you can get.  After installing the software and launching it, you can see its interface is split in half down the middle where the screensaver options are on the left and the wallpaper options are on the right.

With wallpapers, you have around 40 images to pick from where all are filed under the category titled Brain Twister.  For this series of images, Brain Twister deals with funky looking, somewhat abstract photos that may cause you to say "what the heck am I looking at?"  For a better explanation, here's the official description written on the back of the box:

Using images drawn from the world around us, you'll be visually challenged by images as diverse as three-dimensional stereograms and other synthetic object to those from the natural world.  Perspectives blast you 500 miles up into space or zoom you in microscopically close with magnification of 7000 power.  It's as fascinating as it is fun to puzzle these pictures out.

Each image also has an option to have a small window display with the description of the image so you know what you're looking at.

For the screensaver, it basically incorporates all of the images used for wallpaper, but places them into a slideshow.  Options allow you to set the duration time for each image and the kinds of transitions between each slide.  Again, all simplistic and but very intuitive to use.

Probably the handiest tool of Microsoft Scenes is the ability to allow for the user to enter a password after the screensaver starts, which allows for a bit of security for the OS.  If I'm remembering this correctly, adding a password or locking the OS didn't come standard to the OS until Windows 2000 or XP, leaving all 9X series of Windows vulnerable for unauthorized access.

For a personal touch, Scenes allows you to create your own collection of images for use as screensavers.  The problem with this is pretty much one had a digital camera or a scanner for their computer back in 1994.  So to make it easier for home users to get their precious family photos for use with Scenes, Microsoft created a division to digitize photos to digital pics that they mailed back to you -- just mail them your prints, negatives, or rolls of film and they will send a disc back.  Of course, coming with a cost for the service, but it was a niche market, so they probably made some good coin on it until digital cameras began to rise in popularity.

By the way, if you made it this far on an article about how to use desktop wallpapers and screensavers for your PC, then you deserve a round of applause.

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Drain a vein

December 12, 2016 | 22:42 | Written by: snake911

I used to do a lot of volunteer work when I was younger by helping out our local church during the holiday season by sorting out donated food and toys; and I think I should get back into that and give more time in volunteer work, so that may be a goal for 2017 I should really consider.  But in the meantime, I decided to do the easiest option which is to donate some blood.  Now this is something I wish I could do more, but I've only done it twice this year.  For one, I really hate needles.  Not scared of them, but I hate the idea of metal piercing my skin and seeing the bag of blood slowly filling up, and the pinching sensation you get where the needle makes contact.  Then afterwards, I get symptoms like feeling exhausted and having headaches.  So it's not a pleasurable experience for me.  But then I think of the person who needs the blood and would happily switch places with me if all they were doing were getting a shot in their arm as opposed to whatever horrible situation they're in that requires receiving blood.  So I suck it up and just deal with it because my issues are nothing compared to theirs.

But it's not all bad, there are some positives too.  For one, everyone at the blood donation centers are the nicest, assisting you every step of the way so you yourself are doing the bare minimum (which is giving them your blood).  On top of that, you get to eat free cookies, sandwiches, and juice during the waiting period after the process is over, so that's something to look forward to!  And you get to pick what color your bandage is, which I like to get the light blue colored one.  So it's a win-win.

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Retightening the bolt

November 22, 2016 | 20:49 | Written by: snake911

Very productive two weeks working on the backend of the site.  Due to the CMS making a ton of changes even when compared to just a few versions back, I needed to get schooled on what modifications were made because there were a number of things that were not working that were before.  On top of that, the backup service I depend on from my webhost was acting up.  This problem bugged me the most because it was an additional service I was paying extra for!

But after a few support calls to resolve the backup issue (which I eventually had to figure out myself), then reading up on what to do for the new CMS version via the forums, documentation, GitHub, official blog, and the such, everything seems to be working fine.  Well, actually there's just one last thing left to resolve and all will be good again.  In case you noticed, the new CMS version is the reason why there was an obvious missing media object towards the bottom of the latest MS Home article.  I don't include a wall of text that high!  I like to break it up a bit with some images or video files.

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MS Home - Gahan Wilson's The Ultimate Haunted House

November 15, 2016 | 20:18 | Written by: snake911

"What about the kids?"

Sure, Microsoft is using Home to help children expand their knowledge with software found in the Reference and Exploration catalog with products like Encarta, Microsoft Dinosaurs, and Microsoft Dangerous Creatures, but let's be honest: while interesting as those applications may be, it's about as fun as walking through a museum.  Where's the games!

As we saw in an earlier MS Home article, games are in the Entertainment catalog, but most are either remakes of arcade classics or flight simulators without much focus on kids being the primary players.  With this in mind, Microsoft went about and created the Kids catalog that is robust in software for the pint-sized computer user with titles that include games with educational topics in mind or just plain old fun.  Falling in line with the latter, this game is probably the oddest duck found in the kids section.

Gahan Wilson's The Ultimate Haunted House is an exploration game that has the player wonder around the inside of a haunted house.  You're trapped inside and need to find 13 keys hidden throughout the house before the thirteenth hour is herd chiming from the antique clock in the foyer.  If you don't find the keys in time, you're trapped in the house forever! *sounds of thunder*

I find this game to be odd because of its art, which is done by Gahan Wilson, an artist known for his macabre illustrations that center around monsters and murderers.  For this game, he toned down the spook level and designed monsters that were softer and kid friendly; otherwise I think kids may have been traumatized after playing the game.  But Gahan didn't just provide the art, he came up with the idea for the game itself, so when I say this is an odd game, he'd probably take it as a complement.

In relation to the character art, the backgrounds are drawn in the same fashion: non-straight, hand drawn lines filled in with bright, vibrant colors.  It's like playing a cartoon!  Which I'm sure looked absolutely amazing back in 1994 when the game came out, and actually still does today because of the hand drawn style of it all.  If anything, it has a real unique look that detaches itself from looking like most other games from the time that shared the same engine and thus had similar looking styles.  Some examples include games from LucasArts which used the SCUMM engine or games from Sierra using the SCI engine.

Ultimate Haunted House is a point-and-click game minus all of the verbs at the bottom of the screen.  Kids were kept in mind when designing this game as all of the menu options have been simplified to the max where Windows OS styled windows are kept to an minimum (mostly used for saving and loading games).  If anything, you can relate it more to Myst in the way that there are no option windows to take the player out of the experience.  The clock in the foyer acts like an options menu baked into the game itself with options like saving, loading, quitting the game, and accessing the help system.

As noted earlier, the goal of the game is to escape the mansion by collecting 13 keys hidden throughout the house.  There's an overall timer, so you need to complete the game within a limited time or it's game over.  13 in-game hours is all you have, where in real life is about 20-25 minutes per in-game hour.  The house has 13 rooms to cover, so this isn't the kind of game for they player to dally about.  You need to start searching for keys immediately.

The most interesting thing about UHH is the randomness of it all.  When you start a new game you need to select a difficulty level where the higher the difficulty, the more tasks you need to go through in order to find a key.  For example, instead of giving a monster two items, you only need to give one.  Rather than searching for and collecting a number of things and then combining them together to create a unique item, which in turn you give to a monster to receive a key, the already constructed item can be found without the need to scavenge for each thing and knowing what items you need to collect to construct it.

To help with that, there's a library with many books in it including cook books, formulas, spells, encyclopedias, and diaries.  Even though they are written to be funny, reading all of the books is rather dull and sucks the fun out of the game; and I doubt many (if any) kids cared about that part.  It kind of reminds me of the library in Myst where reading all of the partially burnt books on the shelf are time consuming and boring.  But fortunately for Myst there is no time limit, so you can read all of the materials at a leisurely pace.  UHH on the other hand has a time limit, and you get anxious when you are reading through the books because you hear the clock bell ringing from the foyer letting you know another hour has slipped by.

The monsters and where they show up are random.  When they want something from you, it might be different from what they wanted from a previous playthrough, although they have personalities and will want or reject items to match who they are.  For example the vampiress will reject a hand mirror while Frankenstein (Frankenstein's monster, whatever) will accept a brain.  The game encourages the player to try items out on many things to see if it triggers an event.  You might be hesitant to do that, but there is a place in the mansion to retrieve items, so don't fret over permanently losing an item while experimenting.  Go nuts!

Other than the library, there's not much reading in UHH.  Most is dialog spoken from the monsters and objects in the house.  Each monster has quite a bit of dialog to match whatever you hand over to it.  Once you complete the game you might have heard just a small fraction of all the dialog created for the game.  Even the Help and Tips options are all told through spoken dialog.  In addition, Gahan Wilson provides the voice for one of the monsters, a ghost with a good and an evil personality (also named Gahan).

If you're able to find all 13 keys within the time limit and escape the mansion, you literally get rewarded with items.  Although not very exciting, they consist of media files that include audio drops in WAV format and comic art from Gary in the BMP format where you need to open and view it with something like MS Paint.  Pretty weird that they give you this stuff outside of the game.  For kids, it seems like it would have been more practical to have an option menu called Rewards within the game that allows the player to playback the sound files or display the images so you can view them whenever you want without having to use 3rd party or OS level programs.  I don't know, maybe that was their sinister plan to have kids explore the operating system with the purpose of having them get familiar with Microsoft programs and the Windows platform.

When you look at the game as a whole, you can see it being like an interactive version of a children's story book.  One of the more eerie ones with creepy looking illustrations where you pause and think to yourself "is this ok for a child to read?"  Although it came out at a time before the ESRB, they did give a recommendation for players to be 8 years or older, which gives them some wiggle room with some of the content like seeing what appears to be blood spattered on some of the devices in the wreck room.  And with content like that, this makes it the most interesting game in the Kids catalog of Microsoft Home.  The kids love it!

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