Value Bin Gaming: Life Is Strange – A Multisensory Storytelling Experience

Video games can be expensive, with the latest games on the latest systems coming out at $100 or more. For most people, that’s a huge investment, especially if the game proves to be a disappointment.  To help with this challenge, the Downsview Advocate introduces a periodic column, Value Bin Gaming, where we highlight the gems in the rough of the video game world.

We want to help you play amazing games without setting your wallet on fire! Whether you like to play your video games on Nintendo, Sony, or Microsoft consoles, or prefer the control and finesse of a keyboard and mouse for PC gaming, our goal is to bring you the most the gaming art form has to offer at the best bang for your buck.

In this issue we review Life Is Strange, a multisensory interactive storytelling experience originally released over a 10 month period in 2015 as 5 episodes via digital download on Sony (Playstation 3 & 4), Microsoft (Xbox 360 & One), and Steam (PC, Mac, & Linux) online stores. The complete game is now available on a single disc for PC, Playstation 4, and Xbox One.  The game is rated M, recommended for those aged 17 and older.  Since its release it has sold over a million copies and has been nominated for and won numerous video game industry awards including Games for Change’s, Game of the Year and Most Significant Impact awards for 2016.

Life Is Strange sets itself apart with its focus on immersive storytelling.  Developers at Dontnod Entertainment invested heavily in the writing and voice acting from day one.  The result is a life-like, relatable, female protagonist whose decisions, guided by the player, determine how the story unfolds.

Whereas most games relegate women to the stereotypical role of damsel in distress to be rescued by the brash young warrior (or plumber in the case of Super Mario Bros.), heroine Maxine Caulfield, voiced by actress and folk singer Hannal Telle, is at once strong and vulnerable, capable and uncertain—unusually and delightfully human.  As she comes of age in a big and harsh world, she discovers that she has power over the flow of time and unfolding of events.

As the player guides Max through puzzles in the changing environment, an indie folk music soundtrack scored by Jonathan Morali sets the mood, deepening immersion and magnifying the emotions of the characters.  As with many of the games published by Square-Enix, including the Final Fantasy series, the soundtrack is so good it could be enjoyed on its own, sending the listener’s imagination soaring.

The life-like graphics of the game, built with Unreal Engine 3, showcase the power of latest generation gaming consoles yet it still looks excellent on older computers with mid-range video cards.  The artwork lends itself well to the sometimes dream-like aspect of the game’s story and its focus on photography as a plot element.

Best of all, the first episode of Life Is Strange is available for free on all platforms via their respective digital stores! You don’t have to take my word for it that this game is worth your time—Try it out for free and see!  If you find yourself hooked after the first episode, the complete game can be purchased for less than $10 on most digital platforms. The disc version can be purchased at most video game stores for less than $20 on Xbox One and PS4.  Don’t mistake the low price for poor quality.  Rumours online suggest that a television series based on the game is in development, which may explain the publisher’s choice to keep the low price of this excellent game to further build its popularity and increase viewership when the series is released.  We can’t wait!

Community Cats: Our Furry Neighbours

There are as many as 100,000 feral cats in the Greater Toronto Area.  Unlike lost pets or stray cats, ferals shy away from humans, don’t meow, and have a life expectancy of only 2 to 3 years.  They live a hard outdoor life scavenging for food and shelter wherever they can find it, driven by a strong instinct to reproduce as often as possible.

Feral cats can get pregnant as young as 4 months old and have litters of up to 6 kittens as often as every 12 weeks, which quickly leads to a population explosion, usually in the early spring.  Sadly, many of the kittens fall ill, suffer from malnutrition, and don’t survive harsh weather and predators. Feral cats will mate even if they are ill or starving, taking a huge toll on the health of females. Male ferals will spray and fight to establish and protect a territorial area, leading to those night time “cat fights” that can sometimes be heard in the distance.

To address this problem, cat-loving volunteers from animal welfare organizations including the Toronto Humane Society, Toronto Street Cats, Annex Cat Rescue, and the city’s Toronto Animal Services created Community Cats Toronto with the mission of making a difference in the lives of community cats through education, advocacy, and collaboration.

Volunteers take a formal workshop to learn about the best practices for helping feral cats.  The primary focus is on Trap, Neuter, and Return, or TNR, which has been shown in numerous studies in large metropolitan areas across North American to be effective in reducing the population of feral cats and improving the lives of the cats already living in our communities.  Once spayed or neutered, feral cats roam less, fight less, spray less, and the population normalizes through natural deaths instead of disease, exposure, and malnutrition.

Volunteers are trained on humanely trapping feral cats, minimizing their distress and discomfort.  The cats are then taken to a clinic where a veterinarian performs a spay or neuter surgery, depending on the sex of the cat. Every cat is vaccinated for rabies and other common diseases.  A small tip is removed from the left ear of each cat to mark it as a feral from a monitored colony.  A microchip is inserted below the skin of the neck, which, along with the ear tip, ensures that the cat swill not accidentally be picked up by the city pound and can be returned to their local colonies if lost.  After a recovery period, the cats are released where they were originally trapped.  Insulated winter shelters are built and distributed to colony locations to provide the cats with comfort during the coldest months.  Feeders provide food and fresh water to the cats on a daily basis, sometimes donated by companies such as Purina or Whiskas.  They also monitor the cats for signs of injury or distress and arrange for veterinary care as necessary.

In the past, many cat lovers in our community took care of feral cats in secret out of fear that neighbours would blame them for the cats’ presence in the area.  In fact, studies have shown that feeding cats does not increase their population.  Rather, feeding the cats is the first step in identifying and handling a feral colony through a local TNR program.  The City of Toronto established by-laws that authorize feeding and management of feral colonies, recognizing their importance in reduce the overall cat population in the city over time.

It’s thanks to tireless volunteers who care about feline welfare that there aren’t hundreds of thousands of more cats on the streets of the GTA!  Community cats are our furry neighbors who do their part for pest control and help keep other animal species such as raccoons and squirrels in balance in the urban ecosystem.  With care and love and education these cats can be safe, welcome local companions as they have been in cities worldwide for millennia, such as in Istanbul, Turkey, as recounted in the documentary film “Kedi” that is playing at cinemas around the world (www.kedifilm.com).

If you would like more information about feral cats or need help managing a feral colony in your area, please contact Community Cats Toronto (www.communitycats.ca).

Woodhouse Stout: Traditional style with local flavour

In 2014, former Labatt employee Graham Woodhouse carried on a family tradition for entrepreneurship by founding Toronto’s own Woodhouse Brewing Company.  His recipe for a refreshing amber lager quickly drew acclaim and the brew became a staple on summer patios at pubs across the city.

To complement its refreshing and sweet summer lager, Woodhouse recently released its second brew, Stout, better suited to the colder fall and winter months.  Leveraging partner The Cool Beer Brewing Company’s medium-scale production facilities, carefully selected ingredients were combined under the supervision of brew master Adrian Popowycz in the traditional Irish style.  Its pleasant simplicity quickly landed it on the LCBO’s shelves.

With plentiful carbonation, it pours with a rich, appetizing froth.  Its dry body has caramel notes and a chocolate bitter finish.  At 4.7% alcohol, it’s a bit lighter on the malt than some of the mainstream stouts.  It pairs well with stone oven baked pizza and pasta with sausage and sun-dried tomatoes.

The expansion of Woodhouse Brewing’s offerings showcases some of the emerging talent that the growing local craft brewing scene has to offer. Here’s to hoping the trend continues.  Cheers!