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Operation: Backlog rumbles on, and I’ve run into a point or two I forgot earlier.  I’m going through my Steam list alphabetically, picking up games I own but haven’t played to see what’s there.  15 minutes each is all I’m budgeting, but I reserve the right to get sucked into a cool game.  Some I’ve played already, though, so I’ll mention them in passing here and there, giving them a rating like the other games.

I’ll be giving each of these Backlog games a rating of sorts, as follows:  Regret (uninstall and forget), Remember (uninstall but wish for more time), Revisit (leave installed for later) and Recommend (wish for more time to play this right now).  This is a squishy continuum of sorts, and deliberately imprecise.  This isn’t an in depth survey-and-review, it’s Spring Cleaning of my video game backlog.

First up this time is AVSEQ

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This is a weird little game.  It’s a puzzler of a sort, but more of a reflex clicky thing.  It doesn’t seem to have much depth, but maybe it opens up later.  The 15 minutes I had with it were, well… clicky.  As in, I clicked on a lot of stuff, but didn’t feel like I was making many decisions or planning strategies.  It was more reactive than anything.  That’s not a terrible thing, but when I’m in the mood for a puzzle-ish music-based game, I’ll play AudioSurf (Recommend), Chime (Revisit), Lumines (Revisit) or Symphony (Recommend), all really great games.  AVSEQ is just sort of there.  I’m giving it a Regret rating, but it’s really more of a “forget” than a regret.

***

Then there’s Back To The Future: The Game

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This game really scratches the nostalgia itch, with voice actors, music and incidental sounds that just nail the feeling of the movies.  Sure, it’s sort of a weird cartoon version, but this is Christopher Lloyd we’re talking about, and he’s something of a living cartoon, so it works.  It starts off with some serious callbacks to the first movie and its era, gives a sense of the conversation mechanics, and sets up some weirdness that ol’ Doc Brown has become mired in again.

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Biff gets a little more depth (he’s still a peon in George’s presence, but a punk to Marty), you get to explore Doc Brown’s house a bit, and a new mystery fires up with Einstein arriving suddenly, alone in the deLorean, with a mysterious message from the Doc.

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The characters are appealingly stylized, the voices are great, the visuals capture the time of the movie… all in all, it certainly seems like a love letter to the movies.  I didn’t see a lot of the story, so maybe it falls apart, but the first 15 minutes of the game really got their hooks in me, and I want to play through all 5 chapters at some point.  This gets a Revisit rating as a result.  I’m not itching to get back into it right now, but I like it.  A lot.

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***

Speaking of a game I do want to play more right now, though, we have The Banner Saga.

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Oi, I was right.  15 minutes isn’t nearly enough for this game.  In that time, you barely get through the worldbuilding intro and the first tutorial fight, then a conversation movie or two.  It proceeds at a stately pace, weaving together some interesting fantasy lore and Norse flavored Eyvind Earle vikings.  Oh, and a stationary sun that throws everyone off, and has for months.  Yeah, it’s a bit weirder than I expected, but that’s a nice twist.

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It really, really wants to be, well, a saga, a big story, presented in a beautiful old Disney Sleeping Beauty style.  It’s packed with lore and characters, many of which are quickly appealing.  For crying out loud, your main character is an old, vaguely grumpy scribe-tax collector, one of the “Varl”, the horned giants.  That alone gets bonus points in my book, since it’s not just “plucky band of teens save the world”.  I do love my Final Fantasy games, but The Banner Saga aims for something different and more resonant.  I like that.  A lot.

It throws a lot of worldbuilding stuff at you and expects you to keep up or shrug and expect that it will all make sense later.  Sometimes that doesn’t work, but I liked it here, as I appreciate worldbuilding.  I can see that it might throw some people off, but I like it.

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The tactical game play is pretty solid, though I’m still getting a handle on the best approach.  There’s enough there that I want to do more, though, and that’s a good sign.  There are some subtleties afoot, which is really good.  The interface is a little… tiny.  That’s not terrible, but the designer in me would have liked to do things a little differently.  The art style is great and consistent, I just think the UI could use a little more usability work.  I do give bonus points for a really nice world map.

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I give this game a Recommend, though, like other games with significant depth, that’s qualified somewhat because I haven’t played through the whole thing.  What I have played, though, that’s great stuff, and I want to play more.

So, in passing, this episode goes by AudioSurf, noted above as a Recommended game, and the other 4 chapters of the Back to the Future game.  All in all, this was a pleasant week, with two of three games being ones I really like.  Would that I had more time to play, but the Operation moves on.

Next time, I’ll dig into Birth of America (no longer on Steam, perhaps, or maybe changed to this one that the site’s search engine gives me?), Blackwell Deception (whee, an adventure game!) and Cargo Commander, with more than that mentioned as drive-by “played already” games.  See you then!

This isn’t part of the Operation Backlog, exactly, but since Flight Rising is one of the few games I’m playing in “maintenance” mode, popping in most days to do a few oddments, I figure it’s worth noting.  It was a Kickstarter project that found success, and is largely closed to new players, though it does open up windows once in a while.  I joined the site in November in one such window, and there’s another one coming up April 8th.

Announcement

It’s a game that’s good fun, if a little on the shallow side for those of us used to meatier games.  It’s been fun to collect dragons that my kids like, and I’ve gathered more than a few.  It’s free, mostly supported by ads (the ones it shows me are for webcomics, but I’m not sure what system they are using), though you can spend money on premium currency.  It’s not necessary, which is Good Design, but it’s there if you want to give them some money and get some of the spiffier goods.  (Their Auction House means most of those goods wind up on sale between players anyway, and there’s no “buying power”, so overall, it’s a really low key monetization setup.)

If you do decide to join the game, please let me know, and I’ll send you some welcoming goodies.  My handle over there is Silveransom, the handle I use on Puzzle Pirates.  I’m in the Light elemental flight, but you don’t have to join that one; I can send goodies to anyone.

There’s no registration bonuses or pyramid scheming afoot, either.  It’s a nice, clean game about pixel dragons and some light “Coliseum” elements where your dragons can fight baddies.  (It’s really the key to wealth, the Coliseum, but fun is to be had if you just can’t stand it.)

I’ll get another Operation Backlog post up soon.  The Banner Saga is up now, and… it’s going to be hard to keep that 15 minute limit, I think.

To make this Operation: Backlog thing work, I’ve decided to put the handful of games I’ve been playing more or less on the shelf, as it were.  Slingshot Braves on my smartphone and Flight Rising in a PC web browser are what I think of as “chore” games, in that they have daily tasks to do, part and parcel of many free-to-play games.  I’ll probably still log into those and do a little bit here and there often, but that’s mostly because I play them with my kids.  Ditto for Minecraft, our family XBox 360 game.  We used to play on the PC, but the local multiplayer on the 360 trumped the PC’s moddability.

Other than that, I’ll be putting Smash Brothers (3DS), Professor Layton and the Last Spectre away for a while.  Batman Arkham City will also have to wait, as will Uncharted 3, Flower and Final Fantasy XII, though I haven’t played them for more than an hour or two each since I was downsized in April of last year.  They are just my “want to finish” games that are already on the back burner.

World of Warcraft will have to wait, but that’s fine, since I don’t want to pay a subscription anyway.  Maybe I’ll qualify for a scroll of resurrection promotion one of these days, or Warlords of Draenor will go on sale for under $10, and I’ll drop back in for a bit.  Yes, yes, I do have a “trial” account I can putter around endlessly and mostly uselessly if I really want a WoW fix, but since I’ve seen most places that I can in the lower levels, and I’m all about Exploring, it’s not really that big of a draw.

…we’ll see how this goes.  I’ll be playing with mouse and keyboard, only reluctantly using my wired XBox 360 controller when it offers significantly better usability.  Perhaps that’s the purist in me, since I didn’t have PC joysticks or controllers when most of these games were new.

This might wind up even more relevant when I dig into my GoG.com library, but that’s way down the list at this point.

I’ve decided I’ll also be giving each of these a rating of sorts, as follows:  Regret (uninstall and forget), Remember (uninstall but wish for more time), Revisit (leave installed for later) and Recommend (wish for more time to play this right now).  This is a squishy continuum of sorts, and deliberately imprecise.  This isn’t an in depth survey-and-review, it’s Spring Cleaning of my video game backlog.

First up on my trek through my Steam library, then?

A.R.E.S. Extinction Agenda

AI War: Fleet Command

Aquanox

A.R.E.S.

On paper, I should love this game.  It’s sort of like MegaMan X, one of my all time favorite games, if the blue bomber could aim in any direction with the mouse instead of charging his shot, and didn’t have a dash or wall slide, but a double jump and shoulder roll instead.  OK, it’s not exactly like that, but that’s the high level impression.

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The art style is all over the place, the camera feels like it’s in a little too tight, the levels are too short, ARES feels clumsy and his grenades aren’t controlled well, but this plucky little game really wants to be a spin of the MegaMan formula, and I give it points for aiming high.  It’s very nice to be able to aim in any direction, though that’s something that I want to use the mouse for.  It’s almost like I wish I could use a SNES controller in my left hand and a mouse in my right to really get it working like I want to.

Level design is somewhere between MegaMan and Metroid, though I think it would have been better to embrace the “Metroidvania” aspect more to really give the game its own identity.  It’s a 2D platformer, gameplay-wise, but with 3D environments and some oddments, though oddly, the player character and enemies are more of a Spine sort of thing, animated from 2D images, perhaps derived from 3D toon renders in some places.

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It’s a fun little game, but it certainly needs polish (and an art style guide!).  I give it a rating of Remember only because I wish I had time to see more bosses and see if the game opens up later, and I think that a MegaManX Metroidvania sort of game could be really cool.  The initial phases of A.R.E.S. were competent but not all that exciting.  It feels more like a proof of concept from a freshman dev team than a finished game.  That’s not a bad thing, it’s just that I’d rather go play MegaMan X again and dream of what this game could be with more work.

AI War

Hoo boy.  This one is nigh impenetrable in 15 minutes.  It’s supposedly a Real Time Strategy game set in outer space, with plucky humans fighting a malevolent AI.  OK, cool.  I like that.  It’s just… there are so many moving parts and tons of little things to learn about.  It’s a game that I probably would have loved playing back in the day, after finishing StarCraft and when I got burned out on Master of Orion’s interminable endgames… but today?  Eh, I don’t have time for this.

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I managed to play the first of 7 tutorials, just getting a hang of navigating the User Interface.  It fought my Maya and Photoshop muscle memory, so I can’t imagine really wanting to master it, but it seems to be designed well enough.  The visuals are good, though the sheer volume of data involved in the game means for some small details in the UI that were just so much static at first glance.

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I get the feeling that this would be a good game for me if I had the time to dig into it.  I give it a Remember rating as well, since I want to check out some other reviews of it to see how the game handles itself beyond the tutorials… but there’s no way it fits into my schedule to actually play it.  That’s a bit of a pity, really, but hey, at least I’m left with a feeling of wanting to know more.  That’s a good sign.

AquaNox

This game really, really wants to be Elite/Privateer/Freelancer, but underwater, with a dash of cyberpunk and social commentary.  That’s not a bad working premise or goal.  It’s just… the first ten minutes of the Story portion of the game were talking (both the video and the dozen or so text-plus-voice bits you have to get through) and a mishmash of mixed up art, from FFVII-like 3D computer graphics to anime-ish portraits to grainy FMV proto-Bioshock underwater city… stuff.

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And talking.  So… much… talking.  I’d give them a pass if the voice actors were even passable, but, well… they are not.  I like watching Star Trek, the one from the 60s, and while all the cool kids rag on that show now for its kitsch and stage-like hamminess, it’s a masterwork compared to this game.  I never want to hear this game again.  (For crying out loud, they pronounce “Succubus”, a key ship in the game, as “Zuko Boose”.  Yes, Zuko was a good character, but that’s just… wrong.)

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That’s not a killer, though, if the play is worth it.  The two missions I had time for once I got through the backstory were a brief “shoot the underwater junk” mission to get a feel for moving a little and firing weapons, and a brief escort mission for a tanker that was trying to just bulldoze through a junk field.  I had to clear the way and shoot a bad guy that popped up.  So, nothing all that exciting, nothing all that bad, though it loses points in my book giving me an escort mission so early.  I hate escort missions.

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That said, I really like the feel of the controls, actually.  The sub drives a bit like what I’d expect, with good WASD controls (A and D sliding/strafing like Minecraft, not turning), augmented by using R and F to go “up” and “down” respectively for the full 3D movement.  Mouse sensitivity is a little high for my taste, but I could probably tweak that.  Shooting feels pretty good, targeting is solid, movement feels right for being underwater, with inertia and drag giving a good impression of actually navigating through something much thicker than the outer space sims I’m fond of.

The “I’m-actually-playing-something-finally” graphics are good, far better than the intro video and talky graphics would hint at.  Explosions underwater seem a bit silly, undermining the look and feel, but all in all, it could be fun.  If only they would… stop… talking… and get on with it.  I just wanted to go blow stuff up and zip around underwater.

I give the game a Regret rating overall, even though I do love the idea of an underwater game in the Privateer mold, one of my other all time favorite games.  This game just isn’t it.  I hear there’s a sequel, so maybe the game gets better, and maybe the sequel is even better… but I won’t be spending any more time to find out.

——————————

So, three games out of… um… more than 100.  There are a few other minor grievances I dealt with, but out of the gate, I have to say that it’s about what I’d expected.  I’m a firm believer in style guides and making a good, quick first impression.  That doesn’t preclude depth, but gamers today have to be intrigued and having fun fast, or they will move on to another game.  These games just aren’t up to par.  They might be worth playing if you don’t mind their shortcomings, as none of them are actually bad, they just are behind the curve a bit.

We’ll see what these titles have in store next time:

AVSEQ

Back To The Future: Ep 1

The Banner Saga

…I’ll admit, I really, really want to like The Banner Saga.  I am not even close to unbiased on that one.  I love the music I’ve heard, and I love tactical and strategic games.  The Eyvind Earle art style is gorgeous.  I sort of want to give it a lot more than 15 minutes, but we’ll see how it fares with a nibble instead of a Viking feast.

Operation: Backlog

I’ve played video games since Bowling on the Atari 2600 back in 1980.  I’ve played on most major consoles here in the U.S. (the Neo Geo is the one I skipped… that thing was stupidly expensive, though I loved some of its games in the arcades of the day), though I’m still stuck in the PS3/XB360 era due to lack of funding.  I’ve played PC and Mac games, from simple DOS games like Sleuth up through Star Control 2 and The Dig, and later, Batman: Arkham Asylum (I know, it’s a port, but it’s my most graphically intensive PC game) and Minecraft.

I discovered a taste for design in the Dark Castle days, drawing out new levels on graph paper.  I further refined my interest in mechanics when I did some serious work designing a world and game systems for a RPG in the King’s Quest days, though it wound up being more of a Final Fantasy Tactics sort of game.  I really, really wanted to make a good sequel to Chrono Trigger, and made many notes on what I’d do.  Chrono Cross, great game that it is, just didn’t scratch the same itch.

I’ve always enjoyed games, both playing and designing.  In many ways, creating new games is more satisfying, since I’m a creative sort and would rather produce than consume.

My BFA is in Computer Animation, and while some of my classmates have worked for Pixar, Rhythm and Hues, Blue Sky, Dreamworks and Weta, I wound up in the game industry.  I’d have loved working at Pixar making Disney films, like I planned to do as a kid, but circumstances led to other choices.  I still love animating, though I’m most experienced at modeling, texturing and solving weird tech issues, since I’m  a “Technical Artist”, comfortable with tech and art.

I worked for Headgate Studios, largely working on EA’s Tiger Woods games.  Then I worked at Wahoo Studios, making a few Kefling games along with a smattering of other projects both internal and contract work.  I have a list around here somewhere of the 15 or so games I am credited in, which qualifies me as a veteran of sorts. That said, as is so often true, time and economics caught up with me, and I’m now “retired” from the industry after almost a decade working on the art in games, with a bit of dabbling in design.

These days, I design my own games, write about what I’d do if I had pie-in-the-sky budgets to design games, do graphic design, make cool game accessories and try to find ways to make a living in a freelance world since there just aren’t career opportunities at the moment.  Once in a while, I even get to play games (though some of that time is just playtesting my games… I really need to update Chromaround).

Games and I, we have history.

Anyway, I’m in between serious contracts, and while I’m scrambling for something new to pay the bills, I have a few minutes here and there.  So, given that I’ve been collecting games over the years, adding to my Steam collection and assorted game bundles, I have more than a few games to fill that time with.

So, I’m going to be systematic about it and just start plowing through my game backlog.  I’m going to give each game 15 minutes to really grab me, then do a quick writeup of what happened, probably with a screenshot or two, and with some commentary about the design and art.  Pith may be present.  I might revisit the games, but I probably won’t.  Still, I want to do a bit of exploration.  It’s good to see what’s out there, and how other games are designed.

I’ll post those writeups here, though I’m not committing to any regular schedule or format.  Perhaps this is the sort of thing YouTube is for, but I hate being in videos and hearing myself.  Writing, that I can do.  We’ll see how it all settles out.

I know, I know, some games really need more than 15 minutes to get a proper shakedown, but, well, I can’t be the only one who only barely has time to graze games.  I could devote dozens of hours to the latest Final Fantasy when I was in high school, but these are different times.  I think it’s a good game design that has the ability to do something to earn further attention within those 15 minutes.  I simply won’t be doing some games justice, but that’s life in this saturated, cutthroat market.  There are still lessons to be learned, I think.

See you next time with a bit of commentary on what I’ve been playing, then I’ll mostly shelve those games and start trekking through the wilds.

Crowfall

Just in case you haven’t noticed this, there’s a new big MMO Kickstarter presently running with a full head of steam.

Crowfall

It seems good, and some of the pedigree is great (Raph Koster, J. Todd Coleman are ones that caught my eye).  It picks up on ideas I’ve written about before, and would still love to see in a big MMO.  It looks great, more like Wildstar, WoW or perhaps Torchlight rather than FFXIV or Guild Wars (I like dodging the Uncanny Valley, but I do love GW2’s more painterly art direction).  It could be a great game.

I want to be excited about it, but I’m feeling sort of amputated from the game world.  I worked there for almost ten years, and still love game design, but since I have almost no time to play and I’m sort of retired from the industry due to circumstance, it’s all just sort of… attenuated.

Still, Crowfall could be really good.  Go check it out.

Avatar: Aang and Korra

I really like Avatar: The Last Airbender.  Aang’s story is solid, and the core cast all get great moments like Katara’s “The Painted Lady”, Toph’s “The Blind Bandit” and Sokka’s “Sokka’s Master”.  Even Zuko’s arc works really well.  It’s not a perfect show, and it has its weak episodes like many shows, but for every beach party episode, there’s a gem like “The Boiling Rock”.  For every facepalming moment like the musical hippies, there are great character moments like Sokka reflexively covering Toph on a crashing airship or Iroh counseling a mugger.  There are even really great subtle worldbuilding touches like the trains in Ba Sing Se.  (And oh, Iroh’s Tale.)

It’s one of the very few series that I have on DVD, in the august company of DuckTales, Stargate SG-1 and MacGyver (classics, all, and though also cursed with the occasional stinker episode, the good far outweighs the bad).

So, when it came to the sequel Avatar series, Legend of Korra, I was really looking forward to seeing some cool new ‘bending tricks or even combo uses (like Chrono Trigger’s team-up Tech attacks) for the magic in that world.  I thought it would be great to see how technological advancements might happen in a world with magic, and how the two might compete and cooperate.  The world really has a ton of rich potential.

Unfortunately, I wound up disappointed with the characters, writing and meta manipulations of the series creators.  The animation is often great, and the flashback two-parter in Book 2 where we see the origin of the Avatar is really, really fine work.  I’ve had a hard time putting my finger on a lot of what bothered me, though, until I stumbled across this Tumblr:

Poorly Written, Poorly Executed

It’s true that there’s no shortage of criticism and nitpickery online, but almost every single entry I’ve read over there resonates with concerns I have with the series.  This one is perhaps the best place to start, though, looking at it through my perspective as an aspiring writer and experienced artist, since it underlines the backbone of the trouble; the creative staff.  (See also: the Star Wars “prequel” films, and how a rein-free Lucas squandered some of his goodwill credit.)

My single biggest complaint with Korra is that there is so much wasted potential.  The bad writing and character assassinations throughout are like a persistent cough, but the lost opportunities are really what bug me.  The series really could have tackled things ranging from social considerations of magic (one of the stronger themes in the series, but undermined by Amon’s big reveal), the importance of spirituality in the Avatar world, liberty vs. the State (OK, Book 3’s baddies were mostly well done), nascent dictators and assorted other considerations in a world where magic is relatively common but with wildly differing power levels.

There’s so much there to mine, but no, we got relationship drama, disjointed storytelling, burned bridges, relationship drama, character assassination, pointless drama, character assassination of the previous series’ characters, and relationship drama.  There were certainly high points, so the series isn’t devoid of value, but it could have been so much more.

One other big thing that bothers me is something that seems to be a concern in a lot of popular media.  Once the creators start engaging an audience, things can often go sour.  Far too many little beats in Korra came across as either fanservice or trolling that it became less of a legend and more of a performance art experience.  Maybe that’s fine for what some people want, but I think that the Avatar world deserved better.  There’s certainly a good reason to be aware of your audience, but I think there needs to be a barrier there, or else the creative work suffers.

I think I can still recommend Book 1 of Korra’s Legend, but really, it’s best just to go watch Aang’s Airbender stories.

Edited to add:  I ran into another Tumblr that reminded me that the group dynamic was better in Season 1, Bolin was better, and man, they really needed to make a team work like Aang’s crew.  They never really did that well at all in Korra.  They could have, but failed.

Korra’s Team

Man… that’s really the downer of all this.  It could have been so much better.

Edited again to add:  This article from Larry Correia is a great fisking of a monumentally dumb article that shows some of the mentality that I think pervaded Korra’s story.  Maybe not at first, but it seeped in as the authors engaged with the most rabid segments of the audience and catered to sociopolitical quirks of today instead of staying true to their own story.  To be sure, every work is a “product of its time” in ways small and great, but when a work of fiction becomes less about its own interesting story and more about preaching a Message, it falls apart.  This was the problem with Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land‘s third act, for example.

Aang’s journey was internally consistent (mostly, and notably, the Message episodes were the weakest), Korra’s was a mess of Messages and fourth-wall pressures, suffering from undue external influences.  It’s a good case study in what not to do, in many ways.

Ambigrammar

I’m fond of ambigrams, and have taken a stab at making more than a few in my day.  This is the latest:

Chiaroscuro Ambigram V2

I’m just putting it out there at the moment without explanation, though.  I’d like to see if it’s readable and interesting.

What do you think?

It seems that the trick is making the thing read correctly both ways, while keeping the letterforms appealing and at least reasonably consistent.  It’s hard to make an ambigram “font”, though this sort of font shows up often:

AmbigramSample

My designs lean more to the “tribal” aesthetic than the Olde Tyme Fontography.  It gives me a bit more flexibility, though it’s not always as readable.  It’s interesting to me to see how these might work.  They often try to “hack” our natural tendency to see patterns, especially with the little bits and floating details that might be important one way but best ignored the other way.

Sometimes it’s easier with more words, too… and sometimes not.  They can give more datapoints to help decipher the rest of the puzzle.  This one is for the Alhambra Speech and Debate team, for example, and some of it works well… other bits don’t.  A lot depends on context; someone on the team would be able to read it fairly easily since they would expect it to be relevant to their interests.

AlhambraSpeechAndDebateAmbigram

If you’ve a guess at what this latest one reads, I’d love to see it in the comments.  Thanks!

Updated with this application of the ambigram… and the word: “Chiaroscuro”.  Thanks, all!

ChiaroscuroBanner

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