Monday, December 05, 2005

... It's for the Kids ...

I am very involved with my kids and their activities. I'm a Cub Scout leader, a Team Manager for Destination Imagination, and teach CCD for our Church. I attend every weekend or night function, and do my best to get to every function during the day. I'm involved, and I do pretty well as a leader and motivator of kids - and I love doing it. But when I got a call a week ago to help as a volunteer at the lower elementary school's (preschool - grade 2) 'Breakfast With Santa' I stepped into uncharted territory.

My kids are very smart, but they differ in how they see the world. My younger son has an imagination that runs rampant in both directions - he came up with more than half the ideas for our town's Haunted House, including a fully realized 'Monster Lab' in which he got up in the middle of the room and told the entire room (of mostly adults) what would be where, and what would happen ... and it was great. But that same imagination kept him from ever stepping foot in the finished Haunted House. My older son is much more of a pragmatist - he is very creative, but is much more analytical and is always trying to work things out.

When it comes to Santa, while both know that the 'Santa' at our December CubScout pack meeting is the Scoutmaster in a suit, they approach the other 'Santa's Helpers' in different ways. My older son understands that Santa can't be everywhere so there are helpers, and that sometimes people just dress up like Santa for fun at parties. My wife and I believe our younger son will go to college thinking any guy he sees in December with a white beard and red suit is *the* Santa.

It should be pretty obvious what I was asked - to play Santa for the kids. There was some talk last Monday, but I didn't get the call until Thursday night - but since I already knew it was likely to come, I was prepared and said yes immediately. But then we had to decide what to tell the kids - do we tell them, hint at it, or just not say anything. We decided not to say anything - not lie or avoid, just that I was working, and had to be there earlier than them (my wife was also working, but didn't have to be there before it opened.)

I was very nervous about doing this, which is somewhat strange. My wife thought it hilarious, since I don't even blink an eye about presenting controversial technical subjects at conferences to audiences that have exceeded 1000 people, where I know I'll be challeneged by some of the brightest people in the semiconductor industry. But here I was, all out of sorts at the thought of having a couple of hundred kids come sit on my lap for a picture and tell me what they wanted for Christmas. But I don't get nervous for work stuff because I know what I know, and am not afraid of what I don't know. With kids, all bets are off - and even if I'm not the *real* Santa, I wanted to be the best Santa's Helper I could, making the experience as magical as possible.

All of my visits to various Santa photo opportunities have been from the other side - either as the kid or adult. The most I've ever had to worry about was when my older son was 1 and didn't want to be left with Santa and it turned into a family photo. So seeing it from the other side was eye-opening. The kids were all respectful - people asked me later if I got my beard pulled or anything. Far from it, the most common reaction was *AWE*. Sure, there were many kids who were afraid, and wanted nothing to do with me, and other who wanted to stand next to the chair (if I saw a kid looking tentative I offered that as a choice), just as there were kids who came right out of line to hug me, most kids were very respectful, keeping their distance and giving me a smile and a wave.

Just in case you thought it only happened to you - kids tell Santa everything, and most parents are left straining to make sure they hear everything their child is saying or asking for. I heard it all, from shoes to laptops and everything in between - as most kids were in first or second grade, GBA was a very popular request, as was all things Barbie and Bratz - and I tried to make each kid feel special be saying how wonderful their idea was, with some details if I knew them.

Only one kid knew who I was, and it was one of my older son's friends. I gave him a wink and his mother glared at him as if to say "if you say anything to your little brother I'll kill you!" There was a teenager whose mother worked at the school and wanted a picture of her daughter with Santa. Her daughter was very nervous and embarrassed, so I told her 'remember, you can't actually die of embarrassment', which made her chuck and put her at ease.

The saddest thing was two kids whose only wish for Christmas was that their family be happy - these were kids under 8, and there were some obvious issues, probably a recent death or divorce, but sadness permeated their faces. I said I'd do what I could and would pray for them as well ... and I have.

My own kids ... I bet you wondered what they thought? Well, neither one really said anything, but I bet my older son knew. He was poking around it as we were getting ready to leave, but there were still a bunch of little kids there so I deflected the questions with non-answers, but as soon as we were home I talked about things and left it wide open ... he talked a couple of times as if he might ask, but I was going to make him do it himself rather than pushing it. When he mentioned talking to his friend I figured that was it, but he sidestepped it. My younger son never went there - where I saw skepticism and exploring in my older son's eyes as he approached me/Santa, with my younger son there was only pure wonder. He told me his secret wish for Christmas - that Rudolph would visit him sometime. And when we got home he told us that he had told Santa his secret wish - but *still* wouldn't tell any of us ... and this is the kid who can't stop from telling anyone anything! It was truly a great experience ... next year both of my boys will be in the 'upper elementary' school (3rd - 5th grades), and there are no Santa parties, so this might have been a one time magical experience.

As it says in the end of 'Polar Express', so long as you hear that bell, the magic of Christmas is yours ... I still hear it, as does my wife, and we hope you all do too and have a wonderful Christmas!

Friday, December 02, 2005

Bringing Closure to Two Years of Hate

Two years already? ... two years. On December 2nd, 2003 Deus Ex: Invisible War was released - and I was there on the day of release to get it. Sure, there was a demo a couple of weeks prior, but I had already decided I didn't want to spoil the beginning ... see, I was such a big Deus Ex fan that I *knew* it would be great.

Only it wasn't. In fact, not only was it a mediocre game, and a *huge* disappointment to fans of the original, it was also a complete pig in terms of performance. Not only that, it showed too many hallmarks of being designed 'console first' including some settings that explicitly said 'for XBox, if used on PC change this to X' but hadn't been changed.

I hated this game, oh how I hated it ... from playing this sad excuse for a Deus Ex game - which crawled and stuttered on my brand new laptop with a 3.2GHz processor and a 128MB nVidia 5220 card, as well as my slightly older desktop - came my first gaming resolution: if there is a demo, play it! I had gotten complacent based on successfully skipping available demos for Jedi Academy and others.

But that was two years ago, and I have a new computer. I decided that it was time to confront this old ghost once again. First I took a look at GameRankings and for some reason the average score for this game is >80%. That I don't get ... but anyway ...

I was also surprised that it was on 2 CD's ... have I become so used to 4 CD installs that 2 CD's seems svelte? It installed quickly, and I patched it up to 1.2 ... which too a surprisingly long time.

But what surprised me most were the graphics and performance - the graphics didn't look that great, and the game breezed as if I was playing an old game. Sure, I have an nVidia 7800GT with 256MB, but still ... So I cranked the setting little by little, until everything was maxed out - and it still didn't look all that great. I'm not expecting Half-Life 2 or F.E.A.R. here, this game didn't stand up to my maxed out No One Lives Forever 2!

Finally, the gameplay. It isn't as bad as I remembered - I still don't think it is 80% material, but I not longer hate it for wasting my $50 and representing an insult to the legacy of Deus Ex. So I can let go of the hate, but remember the lessons - a great game doesn't mean a great sequel, and always, ALWAYS play demos when they are available.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

For the Love of Game Demos

One of the games on my IGN 'Wish List'was Hammer & Sickle, a strategy-RPG by a Russian developer based on the acclaimed Silent Storm engine. Everything that I read about it looked quite interesting - you play as a Russian agent in early Cold War located in the Allied zone of Germany, you get to choose a character type and progress through the game, and there broad flexibility in the turn-based combat system.

A demo was just released for the game. Obeying one of my Gaming Resolutions, I downloaded and installed the game immediately. The game opens with a long series of cutscenes, which are interactive to the extent that I needed to constantly click 'next' to advance the dialogue. By the time the action moves to player-control, I already had a bad feeling - poor translation of bad dialogue, lousy voice acting, mediocre graphics and not great performance.

Playing for a while I became painfully aware that the game is just awful. I have no need to spend $40 to get the full version to confirm this - and I have no desire to play this game in some attempt to uncover the 'golden nugget' that might be hiding. This isn't really my game type, but looked interesting enough to check out.

Amusingly, had my Gothic II Gold pre-order arrived at EBGames when scheduled, I was going to pre-order this game ... so while I'm lamenting the shipping delays with Gothic, it appears to have saved me $40.

This is also a validation of the value of demos. Prior to the release of Deus Ex Invisible War I would often buy a game without trying a demo even if it was available ... but after getting burned by that game I resolved to test out anything I possible could.