Reviews

Sudoku Ball Detective

Sudoku Ball Detective is a potentially brilliant idea marred by a half-formed story and the terrible decision to allow for guessing.


Sudoku Ball Detective

Publisher: Playlogic
Players: 1
Price: $19.99
Platform: Nintendo DS (Reviewed), Wii, PC
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+
Developer: Whitebear
Release Date: 2009-08-25
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I'm sorry, but Sudoku is boring. Okay, fine, I think Sudoku is boring.

A lot of people don't find it boring -- it's true! -- and for those people, Sudoku Ball Detective might actually be a passable way to spend a few hours of time, if not more, by doing puzzle after puzzle the same way that you'd do them in Brain Age, Brain Age 2, Sudoku Gridmaster, Platinum Sudoku, and so on and so forth. They all function in basically the same way: you fill in digits from 1-9 in a 9x9 grid, such that any given digit never appears twice in the same row, column, or 3x3 section. The rules don't change, there are no clues other than a few digits that you're given right off the bat, there's no narrative, and there's nothing to it other than logic and math. If that's your bag, Sudoku Ball Detective will treat you just fine.

My own high hopes for Sudoku Ball Detective hinged on the fact that I love puzzles but never could bring myself to care about Sudoku given its relatively clinical take on the genre. The addition of the words "Ball" and "Detective" to the title of this particular piece of software indicate a game that takes Sudoku somewhere that perhaps it has never been before.

First, there's the "Ball" portion of the title. This refers to the "Sudoku Ball", a construct that adds a third dimension to the traditional 2D Sudoku puzzle. It does this by slapping a whole bunch of Sudoku puzzles onto a large ball in such a way that they share corners with each other. This allows the puzzle solver to work on one puzzle while helping toward the solution in another, "solving" the ball by finishing all of the puzzles that comprise it. It sounds interesting enough, but it's basically just like doing a whole mess of Sudoku puzzles at once.

The other side of the innovation in the title is the "Detective" side, which appends a mystery to the Sudoku. You play a detective, there's a murder, and yes, you use the powers of Sudoku to solve it.

This is the part of the game that has the most potential given that it sounds as though the narrative could well turn the game into a Sudoku-centered Professor Layton. It starts out in a promising enough fashion, as there are games that involve solving numbers in a Sudoku ball as quickly as possible as part of a chase, solving the center number in a series of puzzles to pick a lock, and solving specific 3x3 sections on the ball to find clues.

The problem is that something like 25% of the way through the game, you've seen all that it has to offer, and the mystery narrative is so dry and perfunctory as to barely exist. Worse, some of the game types don't get any more difficult as the story progresses, so you never feel as though you're overcoming any sort of difficulty; you're simply going through the motions to get through the game. Perhaps worst of all, every game type other than the lockpicking encourages guessing. When you correctly complete a row, column, or 3x3 square, it flashes and freezes, letting the player know that that section is complete. The problem is this: if you need a 3 and a 6 to complete a row but it's not obvious which number goes in which open spot, there is no penalty for putting them in the wrong spot. So if you put the 3 in one spot and the 6 in the other and the row doesn't flash, you know that you got it wrong, so all you have to do is switch them.

This is where Sudoku purists should be crying foul -- it essentially removes the deep elements of logic that make Sudoku appealing to so many people, replacing those elements with a simple guessing game. It's the sort of move that's aimed at people like me, people looking for a casual Sudoku experience who don't want to run into any brick walls as they solve the mystery, but rather than adding to its appeal, the allowance for guessing feels nothing more than insulting.

Add to that a couple of game types that feel utterly tedious when put next to the more fast-paced games, and you have an unevenly-paced story with a poor implementation of Sudoku. The ball is an interesting idea, but it doesn't change the game enough to make up for its deficiencies. I mean, why bother putting in a world map if you can only go to one location on it at any given time?

Even Sudoku fans should steer clear of this one -- there are simply too many solid attempts at Sudoku on the DS to bother with Sudoku Ball Detective.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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