PUZZLE: A Friendly Holmes Quiz

This quiz accompanied the Sherlock Holmes piece when it ran in Games Magazine. 

There are two kinds of readers of the Sherlock Holmes stories: those who have read and enjoyed them, and those who have read and memorized them. The following quiz attempts to find a happy medium between the two.

1. Watson used numbers in the titles of several stories.  Add the following together: Napoleons, Orange Pips, Gables, Students, then multiply by the number of Garridebs,
2. Name four shades of red hair described by Jabez Wilson.
3. What was the hiding place of the blue carbuncle?
4. What made the face yellow?
5. This was the first case Holmes tackled.
6.  Who was the victim at Thor Bridge?  Who was the perpetrator?
7. Where in London is 221B Baker Street?
8. What kind of tobacco does Holmes prefer?
9. What does Holmes write in bullet holes in a wall of 221B?  (Take extra pipe and plug of shag if you can name the kind of bullet he uses)
10. What was one of the books Holmes dropped when, in disguise, he bumped into Watson in “The Empty House”?
11. Which original stories were not written by Watson?

Weekend O/T Post: A Three Patch Problem

I finally caught the new Sherlock series on PBS this week, and I thought they did an excellent job of updating the stories in clever ways while still being true to the characters. For example, Sherlock (played by a man with the marvelously Dickensian name of Benedict Cumberbatch) refers to the case being very much a “three patch problem,” and then rolls up his sleeves to show his arm covered in nicotine patches. This is a riff on a direct quote from “The Red-Headed League,” and it works perfectly.

It was also interesting to see Martin Freeman in action, since he was just cast as Bilbo in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies. He’ll be perfect: he already looks half-hobbit.

I thought I’d use this opportunity to publish a piece I wrote about Holmes in 2004 for Games Magazine. Although this is one of my off-topic posts, it’s not that off-topic, since I focus on the gamesmanship that’s a part of the stories and fandom. 

Although I don’t get to write about fiction much any more, that’s how my career began. My first credits were writing about horror for The Horror Show and Cemetery Dance, mysteries for Armchair Detective and Mystery Scene, and literature for The Thomas Wolfe Review and Bookpage, among others. Then I discovered that I could make a whacking huge amount of money as a tech and game writer, and my lit crit days pretty well ended. (Eventually, so would the whacking huge amount of money as a tech and game writer after the bottom fell out of the publishing industry. Which reminds me: have you bought anything through my Amazon links lately? [sound of tin cup rattling])

I’m a pretty hardcore Sherlockian. I’ve read the canon through several times, and I collect as much other Holmes media (Old-Time Radio, movies, TV, pastiches) as I can lay hands upon. This is one of the few times I really got a chance write about it, however.

Sherlock Holmes: The Great Game

To a small but dedicated group of followers, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes and Watson stories are more than just great literature. They are part of what they call “the game,” in which Sherlockians maintain that Watson and Holmes were real, their adventures actually happened, and the stories were truly written by Watson with Conan Doyle serving as his literary agent. From this “gentle fiction,” as one author calls it, springs a wealth of writing of sometimes astounding imagination and wit, speculating on every detail of the stories and weaving elaborate theories to reconcile Conan Doyle’s sometimes dodgy dates and details. A massive new annotated set of the tales promises to reinvigorate the game for a whole new generation.

Leslie S. Klinger’s The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes (Norton, 2 vols., $75) takes a different approach from William S. Baring-Gould’s Annotated Sherlock Holmes, the two-volume set at the heart of every true Sherlockian book shelf (usually at the end of the shelf, propping up the rest of the books). Originally published in 1967, Baring-Gould’s massive work collects and annotates the 56 short stories and four novels, explaining obscure aspects of Victoriana and often elaborating on various hot-button Holmes-Watson issues, such as the marriages of Watson, Holmes’ missing years, and torrid speculations about Holmes’ relationship with Irene Adler (of “A Scandal in Bohemia”).

Though beloved by Sherlockians, Baring-Gould’s work (including his terrific mock biography, Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street) has long been a source of mild controversy for its chronological organization. Baring-Gould was dedicated to determining the order in which the adventures actually happened, and his placement of individual stories within the timeline has been hotly disputed among Sherlockians, who are capable of hotly (and quite amiably) disputing pretty much anything.

Hand Me My Gazetteer 
As an indicator of exactly how much material Klinger had to work with, one need only look to The Complete Baker Street Journal on CD-ROM (available at http://www.bakerstreethournal.com for $100). Published since 1947, the BSJ is the main journal of Sherlockian scholarship, and its complete archives fill four CD-ROMs in PDF format, adding up to some 16,000 pages of material. Every issue of the BSJ is included, from its origins to the year 2000, accompanied by cumulative indices and searchable through the included Adobe Reader software. Aside from the usual news and records of meetings one would expect in a publication such as this, there are countless articles dissecting every aspect of the “canon,” or “sacred writings” as it is known to the Baker Street Irregulars.

For instance, in Scandal in Bohemia, Holmes refers to the landlady as Mrs. Turner, yet we all know the landlady is Mrs. Hudson. The answer is, of course, prosaic: in the manuscript of “The Empty House,” Doyle made the same mistake, but crossed out “Turner” and wrote “Hudson.” In “Scandal,” however, he didn’t catch the error. This is a feast for Sherlockians, who have speculated that it was actually Martha Turner (the second victim of Jack the Ripper); that Turner was an alias used by Mrs. Hudson during a tryst with Holmes in a country hotel or inn, and Holmes simply slipped by using this name; that it was a character from The Boscombe Valley Mystery; and so on.

The late pulp writer Manly Wade Wellman used the Holmes/Hudson affair for a delightful flight of fancy called “The Great Man’s Great Son: An Inquiry into the Most Private Life of Mr. Sherlock Holmes” (found on Disc 1, Volume 1, Number 3 of the BSJ on CD-ROM). Wellman lays out a detailed case to prove that the illicit love child of Holmes and Mrs. Hudson was none other than … Jeeves, Bertie Wooster’s redoubtable gentleman’s gentleman in the P.G. Wodehouse stories. By the time Wellman fills in all the lacunae, you begin to believe it. (Wodehouse himself idolized Conan Doyle, so the speculation would have no doubt amused him.)

Making these connections is all part of the game, and the BSJ archives are a treasure trove of material, with such Holmesian figures as Christopher Morley, Edgar Smith, and Vincent Starrett sharing space with notable writers such as Wellman, Robert Bloch, John Dickson Carr, and Ogden Nash. The BSJ is still a thriving publication with four issues plus a special Christmas annual each year, with subscriptions starting at $25.

The Game is a Footnote 
Klinger has mined this treasure trove, much of it unavailable to Baring-Gould, for his New Annotated Sherlock Holmes. He dodges the chronological issue by organizing the 56 short stories according their order in the five collections Doyle published in his lifetime. (A third volume collecting and annotating the four novels is scheduled to appear in Spring 2005.) Though it will no doubt spare him many dissenting articles in the Baker Street Journal, it’s ultimately a less satisfying order than the Baring-Gould chronology (which links the tales into a flowing biography of Holmes and Watson) or even an arrangement by composition or publication (which would allow us to see Conan Doyle’s development as a writer).

Measured against the quality of the rest of Klinger’s work, however, this is a trifle. Klinger engages in the game with gusto. The new annotations and essays largely sidestep issues of mainstream literary criticism to integrate the last 30 years of Sherlockian scholarship, offering numerous alternate theories while elaborating on the lives and connections of peripheral characters. Was Moriarty a figment of Holmes’ imagination? Was Holmes replaced by an imposter after his death at Reichenbach Falls?

The notes also explain many details of Victorian life, helping to establish locations, explain slang, and place story aspects in their historical and cultural context. The book begins with a brisk but immensely informative introduction explaining the time and place of the stories and offering biographies of Doyle, Holmes, Watson. Both volumes are heavily illustrated with the original Strand drawings and period photographs, which prove quite useful when trying to visual a gasogene, for instance. Some of Baring-Gould’s annotations are carried forward intact, but much more is added.

On the other side of the aisle is the nine volumes of the complete Oxford Sherlock Holmes, which offers A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Valley of Fear, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, and The Return of Sherlock Holmes. (Most of these titles are available in matching paperbacks for less than $10.) Each has a lengthy introduction about the background and writing of the world, with extensive endnotes dedicated to Conan Doyle’s sources as well as Victoriana. Frankly, most devoted fans will find the books nicely complimentary: Klinger focusing on the inner life of the stores, and the Oxford editions focusing on them as works of literature.

The Final Problems 
And the Holmes industry continues to thrive. New books, novels, stories, and pastiches are published each year, creating a modest cottage industry dedicated to chronicling the adventures of the Holmes, Watson, and even peripheral characters from the series. Loren D. Estleman’s entertaining Sherlock Holmes vs Dracula: The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes are back in print, and Laurie King recently published volume 6 of her critically acclaimed Mary Russell series. Beginning with The Beekeepers Apprentice (Holmes retired to the country to become a beekeeper in his later years), King’s series teams Holmes with a young American woman in a series of vastly entertaining mysteries. A quick Amazon search for “Sherlock Holmes” will yield a surprisingly wealth of new material ranging from pedestrian pastiches to polished fiction.

He continues to thrive in other media, as well. Over the past few years MPI Home Video issue a dozen of the original films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson, and the complete run of Grenada television series starring Jeremy Brett. Holmes even made his long awaited-return to computer games with the adventure “Secret of the Silver Earring” (see our review this issue).

This fall [2004] saw the publication of Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden Years, a terrific new hardcover anthology edited by Michael Kurland, author of a series of novels about Professor Moriarty and editor of the previous Holmes tribute My Sherlock Holmes. The Hidden Years recruits authors Peter Beagle, Carolyn Wheat, Richard Lupoff, Rhys Bowen, and others to fill in the gap of “The Great Hiatus,” the three years between Holmes alleged death at Reichenbach falls and his reappearance in “The Empty House.” Only one of these stories is a true pastiche (that is, a work written in the style of the original), while others use a variety of styles to challenge the great detective (sans his Boswell) in mysteries ranging from Tibet to San Francisco to New Orleans and beyond.

Conan Doyle’s work uniquely lends itself to this kind of lavish attention due to its wealth of detail, from place names to odd characters. The Sherlockians take mystery stories that are, in themselves, literary puzzles solved by a master, and apply his techniques of observation and deduction to tease interesting theories from the text. Had Doyle written more, or been more careful with some of his dates and characters, perhaps the game never would have evolved the way did.

Or perhaps not. The game began while the stories were still being written, with Andrew Lang’s 1904 “open letter to Dr. Watson” (published in Longman’s Magazine), analyzing the story “The Three Students.” Klinger cites Father Ronald Knox’s 1911 “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes” (written as a parody of Biblical scholarship) as the beginning of Holmes studies. Knox favored using a “method by which we treat as significant what the author did not mean to be significant, by which we single out as essential what the author regarded as incidental.” In this, he was merely following the dictum of the Master: “the little things are infinitely the most important.”

These “little things” continue to fascinate over a century after the original tales appeared. Indeed, can any other author lay claim to such a serious examination not of his work, but of the fictional life of his characters? As legendary Sherlockian Christopher Morley famously observed, “Never has so much been written by so many for so few.” Perhaps a book like The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes will prove that it’s not for so few after all.

App O’ The Mornin’: OTR Streamer Review

Grade: B (design), A (content)

Price: Free

Looks like today is going to be off-topic Friday all the way through, but stick around: it’ll still be interesting.

I wanted to write about OTR Streamer because, along with Pandora, Inquisitor, MobileRSS, Mobi Net, and a few others, it probably gets the heaviest workout.

That’s because I’m a total OTR junkie. OTR is shorthand for “Old Time Radio,” and it refers to radioplays produced from the 1920s to the early 1960s. Collectors also tend to use it for modern radioplays, which are still produced by British radio.

You probably know some of the basic radio shows of the time: Orson Welles War of the Worlds, The Shadow, The Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke, Superman, Abbott & Costello, Amos & Andy, and maybe a few others. It was an entire art form that was born, thrived, and died in a span of about 40 years.

Not only was it brief, but it has also largely vanished. I believe only about 10% of the output from these 40 years has survived in some recorded form. That still leaves a whole lot of radio programming for anyone to collect, and the age of the internet has been a boon for collectors. The quality ranges from unlistenable to crystal clear, but there’s certainly no shortage of good programming out there for free on sites like archive.org. I built my collection many years ago thanks to traders on the usenet binary groups, but you can still fill in gaps and upgrade recordings if you hunt around.

OTR Streamer is a delight for any fan of radio, or for anyone who’d like to just explore it. It’s a simple interface with a generous selection of shows divided into 8 categories: Adventure, Comedy, Crime/Police, Detective, Drama, Mystery, Science Fiction, and Western. There are about 80 different shows listed, with any number of episodes for each show.

For example, there are only 17 episodes of Nero Wolfe, but 138 episodes of Sherlock Holmes, with versions of Holmes ranging from the 1930s up to the 1980s. I have a complete collection of all Holmes OTR, but OTR Streamer allows me to stream them without taking up any space on my device.

The streams are actually quite stable. They rarely fail, and even if they do they usually start right up again. The sound quality is good, and the download time is perfect. Although you can instantly stream any episode at any time, you can only download and save one episode.

This lack of additional save slots, as well as the bare bones production and interface, is what earns this one a B. The Vintage Radio Lite app has a far better interface, complete with show notes, but fewer episodes. I use them both, but OTR Streamer gets the heavier workout.

OTR may or may not be your cuppa joe, but you really should check it out. Once you get into the rhythms and narrative devices unique to radio, it becomes an incredible experience that you just can’t find anywhere else.

App O’ The Mornin’: Topple! Review

Grade: B

Price: $2 (lite version available)

There are two apps called Topple: one with an exclamation point, and one without. The one without a ! is a stacking game, and not a bad one at that. The one with a ! is a word game, and I have no idea why they gave it this name. It doesn’t make sense, and this just confuses me. I live in New Jersey, so I have enough confusion in my life every time I read a sign telling me to make a lefthand turn from the righthand land.

Anyway, the mysteriously enthusiastic Topple! (it almost seems like it should be written TOPPLE!!!) is a plain old word jumble game. That’s it. It’s basically Wheel of Fortune with a selection of letters at the bottom of the screen.

Okay, so it’s a little more than that. Empty blocks show where the words of a quote or saying were once spelled out. The letters have fallen into columns at the bottom of the screen, and the goal is to drag these letters up to their proper place.

The production is bare bones, and yet it’s strangely entertaining. There are 288 puzzles in the full game, and none of them will slow down serious wordies for very long. Yet the lack of a time limit or arbitrary scoring system makes this kind of appealing as a light fill-in game when you don’t want to tackle something more challenging. I find myself coming back to it now and then less as a real gaming challenging than as a nice little stress reliever.

Check out the Lite version for a free taste

App O’ The Mornin’: Doodle Jump Review

Grade: D

Price: $1
I was planning to post a quick addition to my Doodle Jump review in order to mention the Halloween update, but then I looked at the index and realized I’d never even reviewed Doodle Jump. My bad.

I probably passed it over because there really isn’t much to say about it. It remains remarkably popular for reasons that continue mystify me. I just don’t get the appeal. It’s a shameless ripoff of PapiJump (another snooze-fest) but adds a little more meat to the bone. And by “more meat on the bone” I mean about as much as you’d find clinging to an extra-crispy chicken leg out in the KFC dumpster.

Instead of just climbing from platform to platform a la PapiJump, you climb from platform to platform and occasionally hit some special items. Some are breakaway platforms, while others boost you higher. There are enemies along the way, and rather than just avoiding them, you can tap the screen to shoot … something. I don’t what. Boogers, maybe.  Doesn’t matter, since I’ve never been able to really hit anything this way, and just typing all this out makes me bored.

The goal is to get as high as possible before you fall to your death. I guess we needed games like PapiJump and Doodle Jump in order to get to interesting games like Bird Strike, but that doesn’t mean I need to keep the sucker on my device.

Oh, and about that Halloween update. It’s an update. With a Halloween theme. Monsters, broken-bone platforms, Frankenstein jumper, etc. Much excitement ensues, if by excitement you mean making the little icons jiggle so you can delete these sucker and get back to playing Axe in the Face.

Note: About that grade … I originally gave Doodle Jump a C because many people find it appealing and it is certainly competently made. Then I realized that Many People aren’t writing this blog: I am. If Many People want to give it a C, or a B, or an A+ with a smiley face sticker and write “Super Job!!!!” in the margin in purple bubblegum-scented ink, they should start their own dang blog. As far as I’m concerned, this game needs about 90% more axes to the face before I’d even consider bumping it up to a C, and even then I’d be grading on the curve.

REVIEW: Super Scribblenauts

Grade: A
Platform: DS

The original Scribblenauts made a splash on the DS gaming scene by allowing gamers to conjure almost anything out of thin air. Thanks to a vast database of nouns and the use of jointed sprites, people could type in a word and see an item materialize before them.

Was there a portion of the game level you couldn’t reach? Well, you could type in LADDER and a ladder would appear, just in case you wanted to prove to everyone that were boring and pedantic. Typing in WINGS was a bit of an improvement, since you could attach these to you character and just fly where you needed to go. Or you could type PEGASUS and ride a flying horse. The only limit was your imagination.

This immensely appealing gameplay was placed at the service of a pretty good puzzle/arcade platformer. There were some things to fight, but most of the gameplay was centered upon collecting stars by solving problems or getting access to hard-to-reach areas.

Super Scribblenauts has expanded and improved this gameplay in a number of ways, though not all are sure to appeal to fans of the original. The most notable change is the addition of adjectives to the game database. Now, instead of just conjuring a VAMPIRE, you can conjure a GIANT vampire, or perhaps a RED VAMPIRE or even a GIANT RED VAMPIRE. You don’t just have to ride a flying pig to reach that higher lever: now you can ride a BIG POLKADOT FLYING PIG.

The folks at 5th Cell, who also gave us the original Scribblenauts and Drawn to Life, have used this adjectival bounty to reshape the gameplay a bit. The original game tended to suffer from JETPACK/WINGS syndrome, in which people just banged through puzzles by typing in the same couple of objects over and over again. Super Scribblenauts focuses on more structured puzzles that require more precise nouns and adjectives to solve. It may be as simple as making a red key for a red lock, or creating a sequence of animals with long necks.

This leads to some awkward word fishing, as you try to read the minds of the designers to come up with the word DIETICIAN rather than HEALTH TEACHER, but an in-game hint system makes these problems minimal.

Fans of the original might not like that the game is less freewheeling, but the invidual puzzles are simply better with more structure. And there’s still a sandbox mode in which you can pit CTHULHU against HUGE SANTA and see who wins. That’s good, because I like to get two mismatched enemies fighting and then use a catapult to fling DIRTY ANGRY PEASANTS and PUDDING at them. The knowledge that a game can do such things should be all the recommendation you need.

App O’ The Mornin’: Skycat and the Starchildren Review

Grade: B
Price: $1

Skycat has a lot going for it, which is why some if its flaws are so disappointing. This is a running platformer in the Canabalt family, but with a greater degree of control and style than most run-to-the-right games.

The action follows the adventures of an adorable little cat with as he runs through a fluffy cloud land filled with stars, his magical scarf flapping in the breeze as it gives him wonderful powers to leap and dash. And yet I can not only write that sentence, but admit that I enjoyed the setting and the game without any concern that people might question my masculinity.

That’s because Skycat is just that damn cute.

Skycat has a couple of controls, and even after finished the game I’m still not sure I can explain how they work together. There is a simple jump button that allows him to, well … jump. But there’s also a slash-gesture input that gives him a dash in the direction of the slash: vertical, straight, or down. Vertical increases his leaps, dash increases his forward speed (usually as a forward tumble), and down slows his momentum. Used together, they allow you to more precise control over the running speed and leaping distance.

The problem lies in the screen size, which is a bit too small for Skycat’s grand ambitions. It’s far too easy to loose track of either the upper or lower reaches of a level, meaning that you need to feel your way through each level, failing along the way, until you really have a sense of its layout. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: any game that requires you to fail in order to understand the nature of its environment and challenges is fundamentally flawed.

The other problem is that Skycat is short. I mean, really really short: 9 levels lasting about 45 second each. Since you can’t solve these levels in a single pass (see previous paragraph) it takes longer to finish the game, but that’s just not enough content.

People keep lumping this one in with Robot Unicorn Attack, but there’s no contest: Skycat is far better. It’s also shorter. On other platforms, that would be a deal-breaker, but that’s not the case with apps which a) only cost a $1 on average and b) usually get free content updates.

I liked Skycat’s visuals and controls enough to overcome some pretty serious problems, but I’d like to see it evolve a bit and address some of these issues. Until then, it’s a still a nice diversion for a buck.

Microsoft "Doubles Down" on PC Gaming?

File this one under “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

This Kotaku story does have some interesting points.  Next month’s relaunch of the Games for Windows Marketplace is a good thing for PC gaming, particularly since digital delivery is the future of all electronic media. And although the idea of a cross-platform gaming between Xbox and PC platforms really never amounted to much, another attempt will be nice, if not particularly vital.

The most comical part of the Kotaku story, however, is the reference to the “tremendous line-up of computer games” for 2010. I searched in vain for some idea that this was meant ironically, but no: I think the writer is serious. He goes on to say that “computer gaming isn’t just still around, it’s making a resurgence,” and cites … 3 sequels, 3 ports, and an expansion set as proof. (And he doesn’t mention the most exciting part of PC gaming this year: Minecraft.)

I guess it’s a kind of “resurgence,” if you redefine what that word means. My writing career parallels the entire rise and fall of computer gaming, so I remember when there were hundreds of releases in a year. In a way, there are still hundreds of releases, if you count casual and Java games, which also migrate to mobile phones and other platforms. But the big-ticket games that drove the PC gaming boom have simply vanished. We put out a 300-page issue of PC Gamer one Christmas during those heady days of the 1990s. We didn’t do it based on an average PC-gaming output of 0.5 releases per month.

The muscular years of hardcore PC gaming are not about the return in the midst of a full-blown recession-bordering-on-depression. That’s just crazy talk.

CONTEST ENDS TODAY: Bejeweled Photo Frame


Zombie hand not included
We have a heavy metal (as in the actual heavy metal kind, not the Black Sabbath kind) picture frame encrusted with real fake jewels. These frames are pretty rare, actually. PopCap produced some to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Bejeweled, but they were never sold.

To enter, all you have to do is:

1. Share a link (even this one) or follow State of Play via:
Please note: if you already follow us on Google, RSS, Twitter, or Facebook, just let me know that you’d like to enter, and please do a retweet or some other kind of link share.

AND

2. Let me know you want to enter. Do this in any of the following ways:
  • Leave a comment.
  • Tweet me @StateOfPlayBlog
  • Post a message on the State of Play Facebook Page
  • Send an email to “games=at=aptopub.com” (replace the =at= with @) to have your name entered.  
  • Please don’t forget to do one of these things or I won’t know you’ve entered!
Deadline is Monday, October 25!

I’ll choose winners by the scientific process of writing names on little pieces of paper and pulling them out of my Mario hat.

ONLY NORTH AMERICAN ENTRIES PLEASE!