Ring Fit Adventure review

A year ago today I took delivery of the Nintendo Ring Fit gaming system, which would turn out to be a very wise lock-down investment. I haven’t completed it per se, although I have got through the main story mode. But since this is an ongoing activity, today seems as good a day as any to publish my review.

I set myself a goal way back in lockdown#1 to complete a marathon on the exercise bike, which I cheerfully managed. Since then I also completed the Couch to 5K programme on the bike, which is quite a different experience to doing actual running, but still an effective way to increase levels of aerobic activity. But I decided I should also be doing something a bit more muscle focused.

After reading a few positive reviews I took the plunge and got a Ring Fit towards the end of April 2020. Since then I have, on and off, done some exercise most days, alternating bike sessions with Ring Fit Adventure. Very virtuous!

For me, distraction is the key to sticking with exercise programs. If I can successfully kid myself I’m not actually working out, I’m far more likely to persevere. This strategy worked like a charm in the early 2010s, with the aid of the Wii Fit system. Together with a few adjustments to my eating pattern I lost a couple of stone and felt happier and healthier than I had in years (feminist misgivings notwithstanding). Could Ring Fit Adventure help me pull off the same psychological trick again?

Over the course of the 7 years after my initial weight loss triumph, those two stone had crept back. The icing on the cake (no pun intended) was the first few weeks of lock-down; over-indulging in crisps and beer as a coping strategy. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. But a global health crisis is a great incentive to take stock. Through the calorie counting based NHS Weight Loss app, and playing this game, I have successfully shifted around 7kg (also I do metric now). I’ve developed a little bit more muscle definition around the arms, my legs are stronger, and I’m very faintly starting to remember what it feels like to have abs underneath my comforting Doritos-duvet of gut flab.

The main story of the Ring Fit game took me around 32 hours of exercise time, which I completed over the course of 3 months or so. Defeating the final boss cues the credits to roll. But in true Nintendo fashion (like Breath of the Wild Master Mode) the completion of the initial story then opens up the opportunity to replay with a few narrative changes to keep things fresh.

One of the game’s real strengths is that it is very flexible in terms of user ability levels, and you can adjust the challenge to your heart’s content. It may not be suitable for someone with serious mobility constraints, at least not without medical advice. Similarly if you’re already a super-fit workout junkie this might not give you the exercise load you’re after. But for anyone in between those extremes, the game should allow you to set yourself a workout which is challenging but doable.

The cutsey approach isn’t for everyone, and some of the voice acting might annoy. Personally I found it quite charming – but it drove Terry up the wall. Each to their own. More frustratingly, some of the controls can be a bit hit and miss particularly in the mini-games. A few special items (clothing, power-ups etc) require these mini-games to be completed with a minimum score, so if you don’t have the knack you’re out of luck. Also for some unfathomable reason the game only unlocks a few optional challenges at a time, so if you can’t complete one then you won’t be able to access the others. The smoothie mechanic was fun at first but becomes needlessly complicated for a game of this nature as the number of ingredients increased. (Although to be fair I also think Skyrim has far too many varieties of mushroom.)

One purely practical concern: in battles you select an exercise to inflict damage on the enemy, and complete the specified number of repetitions until the enemy is defeated. Which I realised meant, in the case of the ones where you do half on one side of your body and then swap, there was a risk I’d end up working my left side much more than my right as I’d win the fight before I’d completed the same number of reps on the 2nd side.

But these are minor gripes – when what matters is simply playing the game, doing the exercises, and getting fitter. The game (perhaps seeking to avoid any litigious activity) emphasises repeatedly that you should make sure you are hydrated, that you’re working within your own capability range, getting plenty of rest and not overdoing it. Which is generally sound advice anyway.

If your pandemic experience has left you wanting to get healthier, but you struggle to stick with an exercise regime, it’s well worth giving this a go. The Ring Fit is currently available via Amazon (affiliate links obvs – other retailers are available) for under £60.

Getting my tubes tied

Content note: contains frank discussion of bodily functions.

Once up on a time there was a little girl who realised she did not want to grow up to be a mummy. She was not alone in this realisation, but she was a bit anxious because lots of little girls did want to grow up to be mummies. And as she got older she read some scary stories about how difficult it would be to be a grown-up girl who didn’t want to have children. There were lots of ways she could make sure she didn’t have children, and she used these for many years. But these methods had side-effects that started to annoy her. So when she was ready, she decided to ask her doctors if she could permanently make sure she would never get pregnant. And she remembered all the scary stories, and she wondered if it would be really hard to convince the doctors this was what she wanted.

But it wasn’t hard. This is her non-scary story.

The decision

I realised I would never want children when I was a teenager. As luck would have it, the man I fell in love with felt the same. We may have been young, but I fancy we were pretty emotionally mature, and this was a conversation we had early on. We were categorically both on the same page – procreation was a state to be avoided at all costs.

I’d been on the combined pill from age 17 to 25, had an IUS for 5 years, and then switched to implants lasting 3 years apiece. As far as preventing pregnancy goes I can’t fault these methods. But coming to the end of implant #3 I was acutely aware that I’d typically get two pretty good years, then one year of irregular bleeding, skin breakouts & mood swings. Plus I’d been told that if I went for a 4th implant they’d have to switch to my right, dominant arm as the scar tissue was getting too built up in my left. Enough was enough. I wanted a permanent solution.

The referral

Unfortunately, just at the point I’d made a decision to ask my GP to refer me to a surgical consultant, the pandemic hit. So we went into lock-down in March 2020, and waited to see how events unfolded. Watching friends and colleagues struggle with the additional stressors of childcare & home-schooling was yet another reminder of why this was the right decision for us.

I finally managed to arrange a phone call with my GP in July. I wrote up my list of reasons, and prepared to do battle with the forces of the patriarchy. I’d read the horror stories of women getting refused this procedure, and to be honest those stories had put me off from asking for this sooner. But my worries were allayed immediately. My GP was friendly, professional, and showed zero inclination to talk me out of my decision. He put the referral in, and I waited.

The waiting list

A couple of weeks later I had another phone call, this time with the surgical consultant. Again, I was prepared to argue, persuade, beg, or whatever was needed to convince this chap that I knew my own mind. And again, my fears were unfounded. He was perfectly accepting of my happy, child-free situation, my desire to secure that permanently, and my frustration with alternative methods. So I was added to the waiting list – simple as that. Of course as the pandemic raged on, I was warned the procedure wouldn’t happen until at least 2021. Several months later – after I’d seen my GP for an unrelated matter and he’d given the hospital a nudge – I was finally scheduled for a pre-op appointment.

The preamble

The pre-operative appointment consisted of a 4 page questionnaire asking about my medical history and habits with regard to self-medication. I admitted to drinking alcohol in what I considered to be non-problematic quantities, and the occasional CBD capsule for anxiety. I was weighed, measured, swabs taken to test for MRSA, blood drawn to test for something else, blood pressure checked (a little high – but it had been quite a stressful journey there) and then sat down to have the procedure explained. I’d be given two weeks notice, and for that period I’d need to follow comprehensive social distancing and hand washing protocols (which obviously we should all be doing anyway). Then 3 days before the op I’d have to go for a Covid test, and then fully self-isolate until the day of the procedure.

I was also told it could take a further 16 weeks to schedule the procedure date, so was resigned to yet more waiting. But just a week or so later I was rung up with a date for mid April. Which meant the two week countdown started almost immediately. I’d managed to avoid having a Covid test throughout the entire pandemic (on account of basically going nowhere) so this was a fun new experience! I dutifully got a taxi to the test site (the instructions specified not to use public transport), had a long stick poked far enough up my nostrils to make my eyes water, and then got a taxi back home to officially self-isolate.

The operation

For a morning procedure under general anaesthetic, eating and drinking is permitted until midnight the night before. A snack before bed is encouraged, rather than just an evening meal. Then a small glass of water no later than 6am, and nothing further to eat or drink. I have to ‘check in’ at 7, which sounds like I’m off for a fancy spa treatment. I’m shown to a single-sex waiting room with half a dozen other women, who mostly seem to talk about their children and how hard parenting has been during the pandemic. Clearly the universe does not intend to try to change my mind at the last minute!

After a few minutes’ wait I’m taken to a room to meet the anaesthetist. And so begins the first of several safety checkpoints where they make absolutely sure who I am, what I am having done, what I am allergic to, and whether there are any issues which could cause problems with the anaesthetic, eg loose teeth, crowns, undeclared body piercings etc. The risks of the procedure are explained, and I sign my consent.

Then I meet a nurse who provides me with the obligatory paper knickers, hospital gown & surgical stockings which I change into, and I am directed to provide a urine sample for a pregnancy test. This is followed by a discussion with the surgical resident (who I gather will be doing the actual work under the supervision of the consultant) who again makes sure that I fully understand what’s going to happen and what risks are involved.

I’m summoned to a corridor where I relinquish my belongings into the custody of the hospital. I just about have time to send a hasty text to Terry to say I’m being taken down. I am given a pillow to hold, which puts me in mind of the companion cube from Portal, though I assume it will have a practical purpose to become clear in due course.

I’m deposited in another waiting room. This one has a telly and I watch half an episode of Fraser. Another member of the anaesthetic team calls me into a yet another room, and we go through the identity/procedure/allergy/risk call-and-response yet again. I have to say I’m impressed with their commitment to the Checklist Manifesto, or, as a former colleague once put it, Not Being at Home to Mr and Mrs Cock Up! Then we’re on the move for the last time and arrive at the ante-room outside the theatre, with me still clutching what I now think of as my emotional support pillow. There is a bed, and lo, my pillow gets its moment to shine. So up I hop, and the process of putting me to sleep begins. There’s a deal of squeezing and gentle slapping as apparently my veins aren’t playing ball, but eventually the cannula goes in to my left hand. I’m hooked up and feel a very slight dull ache as the liquid is drawn into my body. Then a soft falling sensation, and then nothing.

The recovery

I come round slowly, disorientated and bleary, but not too freaked out. I hear myself mutter “oh right, the operation” which seems like a very witty and urbane comment to make in the circumstances. A nurse asks me about my pain levels and if I need anything. I decline, and then change my mind about 45 seconds later as sensations in my abdomen start to register as quite substantial discomfort. I get a syringe of something sweet and syrupy which I dimly remember being told was opioid based. Whatever it is, it dulls the gnarly feelings well enough. I’m wheeled up to a shared ward with space for 5 patients, and manage to shift myself onto the bed.

I’m told I’ll be hanging out there for the next three hours, assuming nothing untoward happens. It’s around 11 ish in the morning, so I decline offers of tea or coffee (I’m kind of caffeine sensitive) but greedily sip water, then orange squash, to re-hydrate. My blood pressure and temperature are checked regularly, and don’t seem to be causing anyone any concern. After imbibing a good litre or so of liquid I finally need to pee, but am under instructions not to attempt to stand up unsupervised. I have a button to summon assistance, but with 4 other patients in the room the nursing staff are in and out fairly frequently anyway. I use the facilities without incident, although I am bleeding a bit (no different from a light period) which is entirely normal. I receive a standard-issue NHS maxi-pad to assist with that situation.

Throughout the entire process I have felt protected, cared for and respected. At no point have I felt like a number, or a piece of meat, but rather that my comfort and safety have been of paramount importance all the way through. The one small administrative mistake is in my favour – as a day patient I’m only meant to be offered drinks, and toast and/or biscuits. In error I have a lunch order taken and delivered, which shouldn’t have happened. I eat it gratefully, although I do get a sudden wave of nausea the next time I stand up a bit too quickly. This is completely normal as the anti-emetics used as part of the anaesthesia wear off. Fortunately no vomiting occurs, and I have learned my lesson that I’ll need to move slowly for a while.

Towards the end of the three hours I’m visited by the lovely surgical resident who informs me that the procedure was uneventful with no transfusions or any such drama occurring. I’m also de-briefed by a nurse who talks me through what to expect over the next few days. This is mostly a repeat of information I was given prior to the op. Air is used to expand the lower abdominal cavity, which usually doesn’t fully dissipate when you’re stitched up. This can result in referred pain, particularly around the shoulders, as the gassy pockets try to disperse around the body, pressing on various nerves as it does. Sure enough I feel pretty bloated, although it’s weird knowing this isn’t standard trapped wind in the alimentary canal, so I’m not just one good fart away from relief.

I’m also instructed to keep the dressings as dry as possible, to keep the surgical stockings on day and night unless bathing, and to make sure I am supervised for the next 24 hours. I’m issued with various bits of literature on these points for later perusal, my cannula is removed, and after a final blood pressure check I am discharged.

The aftermath

By 4pm I am back home safe and sound, feeling a bit grimy, dozy, and kind of beaten up. As a priority Terry gives me a sponge bath to remove as much of the remaining iodine and bits of dried blood as possible. I take some paracetamol and have a little nap.

Over the next couple of days I rest, with occasional naps between rest periods. The official advice is to take appropriate steps to manage pain levels. Now is not the time for misplaced displays of machismo. I use paracetamol as directed, which gets me through the first 48 hours. The most distressing effect I have to endure is constipation, probably caused by that first opioid based painkiller. I finally get relief from that state of affairs on the Sunday morning after a rare 2nd coffee, which leaves me jittery but slightly more comfortable.

There are two specific advantages of doing this during the pandemic. The first is that I am currently working from 100% of the time. As part of my discharge I am given a sick note which would sign me off work for two weeks. But by Monday I realise this won’t be necessary and I am perfectly capable of working, albeit taking things a bit easy. If I’d had to commute in on pubic transport and sit in an office I’d have taken the time off no question. But current WFH arrangements enable a more flexible approach to employment by default. And the second is that as I don’t share an office (or train carriage or bus) I can adjust my attitude to personal cleanliness (apparently I’m not the only one according to this Guardian article). Which means in practical terms I can continue with the sponge-bath approach to washing for the next 5 days. Ideally the dressings covering the incisions should stay sealed for that long, unless they get wet or there is any sign of infection. So I hot water and flannel it until the following Wednesday, safe in the knowledge no-one can tell over Zoom how greasy my hair has become.

By Monday I am off the painkillers, and taking gentle exercise each day. On Wednesday I finally have a proper shower and gently remove the two dressings. The incision points are healing up beautifully with no indication of any infection. I swab the areas with antiseptic liquid and re-dress with some of the spare dressings I was issued at the hospital. The stitches are designed to dissolve away, although the one in my belly button where the laparoscope was inserted is still just about visible.

On Thursday Terry and I go for a walk. This is the first time I have left the house since the op, and the first time I’ve left the house not for a medical appointment in months. Tomorrow it will be one week since the operation. I’m still being fairly gentle with movement, and avoiding lifting anything. I also get a bit fatigued in the middle of the day – again quite normal. But the recovery so far has been textbook.

Checking my privilege

I am fortunate to be in a committed relationship with an emotionally literate partner who shared my life preference for not having children. I am lucky to have had support and encouragement from friends and family. I am grateful to live in a country with a decent healthcare system, and lucky to be able to bear the incidental costs, such as taxis, without struggle. I had a wholly positive experience with the medical practitioners all the way through, and never once felt like I had to justify my choice to someone with pre-conceived notions of what a woman should want. I’m profoundly grateful for the care I received, and have written to the NHS Trust’s PALS team to pass on my positive feedback and for making this a non-scary story.

Game Review: Little Nightmares

After the balmy hours of My Time At Portia, I stumbled across this brief palette cleanser of a game on PS Now. Little Nightmares is simple but difficult, scarily atmospheric and really bloody frustrating in places.

You play as an unbearably slight little figure, barefoot and shrouded in a too-large yellow hooded garment. From the first moments of your minuscule avatar waking in an unfamiliar setting, the game quickly establishes a sense of foreboding and dread as you guide this childlike creature around an inhospitable environment. The music and soundscape expertly builds tension, although in places was distractingly similar to the incidental music from the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer game on XBox. Coupled with the haptic feedback and the pulsing heartbeat whenever peril is near, the game gets full marks for engendering a sense of mild terror.

The game is set at a single-difficulty level which was at time beyond my skill. On the plus side it did mean re-living the olden days when I had to ask Terry to do the too-hard jumping puzzles. This kind of game necessarily walks a tightrope between boring (too easy) and frustrating (too challenging) so whether or not the game gets the balance right will always be a matter of personal preference. I certainly wouldn’t want it to be any longer than it was, given the limited range of actions (crouch, grab, sprint, jump), and the repetition of the stages.

As the name suggests, the game is a meditation on primal fears: the dark, hunger, being pursued. There is something specifically nerve wracking about a game where your only survival skill is evasion rather than combat. At various points you can interact with the environment as a means of distraction. What you can’t do it chuck a bottle at an enemy and then glass the fucker, more’s the pity.

The graphics are gorgeous in a grotesque kind of way. But I was a bit disappointed that the game leans so heavily into the problematic horror trope of depicting evil by means of disability & disfigurement. Perhaps I’m missing some kind of social commentary equating the ills of greed and capitalism with the obese, grasping diners. But to me it felt like a lazy artistic choice. Similarly the climactic end whereby our (by now no doubt traumatised) protagonist decides the best way to handle fear is to become something even scarier seems a bit old-hat.

I’ve played worse, but probably won’t be bothering with the sequel. 6/10.

Game review: My Time at Portia

After the thrills and spills of Bioshock, and the slapstick comedy of Monkey Island I was after a change of pace for my next PS Now game. My Time at Portia seemed like a solid bet. After chatting with a colleague about it, he said it sounded like a ‘pipe and slippers game’ which is about as fair a description as any. If Crafting was your favourite bit of Skyrim, this could be the game for you!

You play as the new Builder, arriving in an idyllic post-apocalyptic village to inhabit the workshop left to you by your Pa. And by idyllic post-apocalyptic, I mean that the world as we know it clearly ended quite some time ago, and humanity has now sorted itself out, and for the most part embraced a simpler way of living. Imagine the Mad Max universe a few dozen years after the Fury Road credits have rolled, with the insane megalomaniacs dispatched, and the water crisis resolved, and Furiosa has instigated a sensible governmental structure and everything is now tickety-boo.

For the most part, it’s one of the most relaxing games I’ve played since Endless Ocean 2 for the Wii. This is a game to lower the blood pressure, and soothe the soul. Play consists of building up your workshop, acquiring building materials, and then taking on commissions to build stuff for the Portian denizens. As the meme puts it, video games allow me to live out my wildest fantasies – like being assigned a task and then completing that task. These ‘side quests’ are in fact placed front and centre, with the story very much a secondary element of the game.

Grinding features heavily, with a literal grinder! By far my favourite bit of the game was simply going to one of the mines with my pick axe and excavating out the various ores for smelting, happily stumbling across the odd additional ‘relic’ of the old world to facilitate building increasingly intricate machines. I also became low-key obsessed with the idea of tunnelling out the entire perimeter of each mine. Which I accept is a bit weird, but hey, aren’t we all just finding ways to pass the time at the moment?

There are a few odd little idiosyncrasies with the games physics, most noticeably in the mines where gravity applies to your avatar, but not the matter around you. As a result, I have a few polygons of soil and rock suspended in mid air where haphazard strikes of the pick axe have left gaps around any given point. But on reflection, it’s perhaps a wise decision on the part of the designers not to go in the direction of Cave-in Disaster Simulator.

I really like the way the game handles the passing of time. You awake in your bed at 7am, and have 20 hours of in-game time to go about your business. Going back to bed saves your progress for that day, which you can do at any time, but you are automatically sent back to bed at 3am if you are still out and about. It’s an elegant saving mechanic, and one that came in handy as unfortunately the game is pretty buggy in places, and on several frustrating occasions it just crashed on me. But at worst I just had to replay a single day, typically 15-20 minutes worth.

Alongside the building there is also a fighting element, and a few story missions required to advance the plot require a bit of combat. In my opinion this is something of a weak link. Although accumulated experience results in character development points which can be spent on fighting buffers, there is virtually no technique needed beyond equipping a weapon and button mashing your way to victory. There is a single strike action, plus jump, sprint and roll so if sophisticated tactics is your bag, you will be disappointed. Also, falling in battle appears to have zero ramifications, as you are simply transported back to your bed with your full inventory in tact. Even in the Lego games you lose a few studs whenever you died.

Portia is inhabited by a bunch quirky characters, and the third skill set that can developed after fighting and resource acquisition is socialisation. As the premise of the game is that you start out as a newcomer to this community, at the outset everyone is a stranger to you. Through chatting, sparring, fulfilling commissions and wishes, your relationship with each NPC develops, to the point where some can be romanced, and ultimately wedded. Although I have to say it’s slim pickings: from slimy Albert who fancies himself a player, to walking #FragileMasculinity Paulie, no-one exactly jumped out at me as mate-worthy. Ah, where is Thane Krios when you need him?

Perhaps it says something about me that I much preferred the company of my trust pick axe and chainsaw to hanging out with the NPCs, so my social stats were pretty low by the time I was done. But in my defence, some of the plot driven scripting in this game is just… weird. The over-arching context is that humanity has, barely, survived some kind of extinction level event, supposedly brought about by an over-reliance on technology. Which means the game plays out against a backdrop of tension between religious and scientific factions. Various bits of discovered machinery from ye olden times are essential to progress past the very early stages, but the game keeps trying to guilt trip you about using them, with the implication you might be about to cause a 2nd apocaplyse.

Given that this is supposed to be a family friendly game, it’s probably not surprising that it doesn’t go into too much detail about The Event. But there are some really troubling elements on view. It was harrowing enough realising that you have to routinely clobber the prancing llama creatures to death to harvest fur and bone. Once you get underground, the enemies that must be vanquished start to become unmistakably humanoid, such as the milky-eyed Lost Variants. At least with Last of Us Part 2 I had a shrewd idea of what I was in for.

It’s a very odd game, but it got me through a rough couple of months during winter. A solid 7/10.

Is it stealing to read by the light of your neighbour’s lamp?

There is a philosophical though experiment: The Reader wished to read their book, but night had fallen and it was too dark to see. The Reader was of a miserly nature, and did not wish to incur the expense of lighting their lamp. At that moment, the Reader’s Neighbour lit their own lamp, for they too wished to read. And the Neighbour’s lamp cast light out onto the street and in to the windows of the neighbouring houses. Such it was that the Reader was able to read their book by this light. The Reader was gleeful that they could enjoy the benefit of this light without incurring the expense of burning their own oil.

Stealing is, according to one reasonably uncontroversial definition, taking something that doesn’t belong to you. But is that definition sufficient? The Reader is deriving the benefit of something which is not theirs. But, the Neighbour is not losing that benefit. The Neighbour can still read their book, and so they are no worse off. So in this context, is simply taking something which doesn’t belong to you a sufficient condition for stealing, or merely a necessary one? Must the Neighbour also be deprived of something to make this a case of theft?

Formulated a different way, is the Reader acting fairly? Using a simple Game Theory matrix, the Reader occupies the Free Rider quadrant. They are not contributing to the provision of the facility (in this instance light) but they are leeching the benefit of that facility. Societies struggle when they become over-populated by Free Riders, although that is often the position that the Rational Self-Interested Agent would choose to adopt if possible.

This riddle got a fresh airing for a new generation back in 2007 when philosopher Julian Baggini considered this in the context of stealing WiFi. If you are broadcasting something far and wide, as a way to get the benefit for yourself, do you have any grounds to object to others using it as well?

As one of the many upshots of the past year, organisations are now considering how they might operate differently after 12 months of so many people Working from Home. It’s a contentious topic, and throws up a lot of issues around privilege and preference. I count myself extremely lucky to have gone through this period with no kids, a house large enough to afford both me and my husband dedicated office space, the kind of job that transitioned easily to remote working, and an introverted nature. WFH has been pretty damn good for me. If I’d been mired in home-schooling, only had a dining table or sofa, worked in a different sector, and was the kind of person that needed the daily companionship of colleagues, I imagine it would have been hellish.

So organisations are stuck trying to reconcile competing preferences from a diverse workforce, at the same time as juggling practicalities of office management. Many places can’t operate at capacity under current social distancing guidance. Some businesses will have activated break clauses to get out of paying rent for pricey city addresses that aren’t being used. This represents a golden opportunity to cut overhead costs, and if a chunk of your human resource would prefer to say a permanent goodbye to the daily commute then win-win!

But those overhead costs aren’t just about real estate. If you entice new employees with the promise of free coffee in the break room, how do you offer a comparable benefit to your remote workers? The UK government offers tax relief for home workers at the rate of £6 per week toward the cost of utilities (heating, lighting etc) but is that a fair calculation of the expenses the employee incurs? And what about broadband? It’s probably reasonable to assume that most UK household pay for some kind of internet connectivity for personal use. Some might spring for super-duper fast speeds, some might get a basic package bundled in with something else like a phone line or television service. So, if your employee is going to have that facility anyway, then is it fair for you as an employer to derive the benefit without paying for it? The employee is the Neighbour, lighting their own lamp to read by. The employer is the Reader, rubbing their hands with glee that they don’t have to burn their own oil.

When organisations talk about remote working reducing their costs, it’s worth considering which of those costs are just being passed onto to the employee, and if that is fair.

Schitt’s Creek is purgatory, and Twyla Sands is God *spoilers*

Much like the Wendy Cope poem, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, this may not be much of a blog post. But it was a thought that occurred, and I wanted to flesh it out a little.

Schitt’s Creek is many things, chief among them a redemption tale. It starts with a simple, if unlikely premise. Four people who are monstrously out of touch and pathologically self involved get their comeuppance. And, bought low by an abrupt change to their situation, they come to learn about the important things in life: empathy, responsibility, family etc etc. Over the course of six seasons, these four characters become entwined in a community of colourful personalities. For more details, go ahead and read one of the dozens of hot takes about the show on that internet they have nowadays.

But here’s one take I think is new: the Roses are dead, and have been flung into limbo to work out their issues and become better people before moving into the great hereafter. So far, so Lost. But in this case, their self-development is overseen by a benevolent deity.

Quick theological detour – common among the monotheists of the world, are the following three propostions:

  • God is all powerful
  • God is all knowing
  • God is all good

One of the less sophisticated arguments against the existence of god (as if there aren’t plenty of better ones to pick from) seeks to catch the believer in a paradox with the inclusion of a 4th propostion: evil exists. I say less sophisticated, as introducing a 5th (and 6th) proposition, namely that free will also exists (and that is a good thing) gets round this supposed paradox pretty easily.

So: Twyla. By day she’s a waitress in the local eaterie. She’s a bit put-upon, but generally an upbeat and optimistic character. By night – er, see ‘by day’, since Cafe Tropical seems to offer a solid three square meals a day to the denizens of The Creek, and Twyla has on more than one occasion worked late into the evening to facilitate a romantic night on the town for the benefit of her friends.

The big character bombshell comes in the final episiode, when Twyla somewhat bashfully admits to Alexis that she is a multimillionaire having split a lottery jackpot years prior. And just like that, we get a totally different perspective on Twyla’s life. She’s not unhappily trapped in a life she hates and determinedly trying to make the best of it; she’s there by choice. That sunny demeanour isn’t a coping strategy to get her through one humdrum day after another; it’s pure shining joy that she can spend her time in this community that she clearly loves. She could leave, but she wants to stay.

I accept it’s a bit of leap from that to my central thesis- but hear me out.

God is all powerful. Well, money is power and Twyla has loads of it. Granted she couldn’t use that money to control absolutely everything, but she certainly has the means to affect change in many aspects of her life if she so chose to.

God is all knowing. This is perhaps more of a stretch, but Twlya represents the canonical observer, much like another sitcom celestial being working in the hospitality sector. As she tells Alexis in that last episode, she gets to listen to all her friends’ stories. She knows everyone in the town, and she enjoys serving them. For this christian-raised atheist, it brings to mind the tropes of servitude (washing of feet etc) which litter the ecclesiastical cannon. Also, in an earlier Season 6 episode, she brightly informs everyone that she knows the exercise class they just completed is an entry level to a cult. What kind of person is quite happy to sign up to a cult, knowing it’s a cult, with no concern whatsoever that this will have any detrimental effect on them? How about a very secure, but curious deity?

God is all good. This one is an easier sell. Twyla exudes positivity, warmth, and empathy. In many respects her character embodies the show in its determination to be non-cynical, even whilst populated with a fair few cynics. And looping back to the original premise, this is someone who had the opportunity to become as the Roses are at the start of the show: shallow, selfish & snobbish to the point of real, if not irredeemable, unkindness. But, clearly, she turned down a life of vacuous pleasures and instead treasured the value of what she had: relationships of substance with her fellow townies.

To wrap up, I submit one last piece of evidence, which also handily addresses propositions 4,5 & 6 mentioned above. Twyla is one of the first people to bear the brunt of the Roses brash unpleasantness when they first arrive. These people are rude, overbearing, and noisily consumed with their disdain for their surroundings. They wallow in self-pity for their reduced circumstances, and bemoan everyone and everything around them. Twyla had the means to make this obnoxious problem go away from the get go. But she doesn’t. She shows them compassion and helps them grow as people, but also allows them to rebuild their lives themselves. She gives them the space to exercise their own free will – to learn and be willing to change. Just as you would expect from a benevolent god who is both all powerful & all knowing, but understands that suffering is sometimes an essential to allow someone to fulfil their potential and to grow. In her last scene, Twyla comes by the motel with a cheque which would certainly be useful to Alexis in her new found independent life. It’s played out as a classic Test of Character which proves the protagonist’s worthiness. Alexis passes, graciously, having achieved enough self-realisation to know that she will value what she will go on to achieve much more for having refused the easy path. It’s a lovely character moment which demonstrates how much Alexis has grown. And for the purposes of this theory, echoes how Twyla herself refused the temptation of the easy path (which would have been to get rid of these boorish creatures right at the start). Instead she chose to embrace the much harder path of patience and fortitude, supporting them on their path of redemption. Very godlike.

Disclaimers: I have no idea if Twyla’s lottery win was a plotted point right from the outset, or if it was an idea someone had later down the line. Perhaps tellingly, Sarah Levy (actor and sister to showrunner Dan Levy) talks in the Behind the Scenes farewell special Best Wishes, Warmest Regards about how the character was re-written early on to make her less pathetic.

Also, for the record, I remain an avowed atheist, although I still maintain that the ‘evil exists’ proposition doesn’t produce the slam-dunk paradox that some atheists use as an argument against the existence of god.

Lastly, the above should be read in the context of not entirely serious commentary about a silly (but really good) sitcom. I am not actually advocating without qualification a position that suffering is a good thing, lest anyone interpret this as a manifesto in self-reliance, pulling oneself up by ones’ boostraps and the moral turpitude of hand-outs. The fictional family of the Roses ultimately benefit from their struggles. This should in no way be interpreted as condoning a position that in the real world a good person, let alone a good god, should take a non-interventionist stance because helping people in need deprives them of the chance to better themselves. Just so we’re clear.

The Secret of Monkey Island (remastered) Review

According to my darling husband, my previous review was me blogging like it was 2007. Ok, you want retro – how about blogging like it’s 1990?

Several years back I delivered a BarCamp talk about all the computer games I played, which I then worked into a blog post. The Secret of Monkey Island features with reference to a primary school friend who let me play on her Dad’s computer. In hindsight she was more of a ‘frenemy’ (not that I had the parlance back then) as I remember we went through multiple phases of disliking each other really quite intensely. I also remember quite deliberately putting those feelings to one side with all the maturity of a 9 year old girl so she’d keep letting me come round to play.

I vividly recall this was the first time I felt that pull. That addiction. That reluctance to stop playing even when it was Time for Tea. Perhaps it was because I didn’t own the game myself, so I didn’t have control. I gorged myself on it as much as I could, knowing that a single cruel word in the playground might mean being cut off forever.

But to be fair to my slightly unhinged 9 year old self, it’s a bloody good game! And when I saw the remastered version was available on PS Now I nearly jumped out of my seat with glee. In these troubled times a bit of unproblematic nostalgia is good for the soul.

It also provided a welcome opportunity for Terry and I to re-indulge in a bit of co-op play. A few years back this was a major bonding activity for us, but in the intervening years since I wrote that Barcamp talk, I have gravitated more to single player games. It’s been ages since we played something together. So we load up the game, that familiar music starts playing, and suddenly I am transported back over 25 years with my friend by my side (only an actual friend this time) ready to take on the Pixellated Pirates of the Caribbean.

The remastering works beautifully, with some great voice acting bringing the hilarious script to life. I remembered most of the puzzles, at least for Part 1 of the game, but I had forgotten how funny the writing was. Or perhaps a few of the jokes just went over my 9 year old head previously. One really lovely feature allows the player to seamlessly switch between the smooth remastered version and the classic Scumm graphics version. As well as dialling up the nostalgia element, this also had a few functional purposes as we struggled to complete a few of the time-based puzzles using the PS4 controls (such as getting the fish away from that bloody seagull!)

Replaying puzzle games can lead to a slightly mixed experience. I just about remembered all the solutions to Part 1 and during the oddly paced Part 2 Terry accidentally held down the hint button thereby unintentionally expediting our progress. By Part 3 my memory was failing me, and I became acutely aware I was using the wrong part of my brain (ie trying to recall the solution rather than work it out. The same thing happens when I play Dingbats.) So in the spirit of openness and honesty I confess the hint button was used in earnest a couple of times towards the end. But that didn’t detract too much from the overall pleasure of this walk down memory lane!

Bioshock review

As a New Year’s gift to myself I have invested in a PS Now subscription (Sony is currently offering 12 months at the low, low price of around £49.99 so bit over £4 a month. The friendly peeps over at CDKeys will sell you a redemption code for the same package at £39.99 if you fancy bagging a bargain). With my clever clogs hubby about to embark on degree, and with no telling when a vaccine might make recreational Going Outside an advisable pursuit, I figure I’m going to have a fair amount of time on my hands in 2021. And PS Now has some awesome golden oldies just waiting for me! I initially looked into it to see if I could play the original Red Dead Redemption and thereby make sense of my narrative gripes with RDR2. Which I can, so expect a review of that at some point in the future. I also spotted Elder Scrolls Oblivion, which might well get a replay out of me (and if Skyrim ever shows up on there, don’t expect to see me any time soon – vaccine or no vaccine).

But having just finished 80-odd hours on Grand Theft Equine I decided to treat myself to a bit of a FPS palate cleanser. And what should catch my eye but the original Bioshock! Hurrah, I thinks to myself, I can finally complete my reverse-order playthrough of this seminal trilogy! And diving (pun absolutely intended) back into the dystopic depths of Rapture sounds like just the Tonic (also intended) to the endless hours of Lemoyne’s grassy prairie.

It starts with pretty familiar territory; navigating the hostile denizens of an underwater Art Deco hellscape. Collect some cool weapons, stock up on Plasmids & save the Little Sisters (because I’m not a monster). But after a few hours it felt really, really familiar. To the point I became convinced that I had actually played this game before. I remembered playing Bioshock 2, I had written a blogpost about it, but I started to doubt my own memory.

Apparently I’m not the only one to pick up on this. Bioshock 2 garnered some criticism for being too similar to its predecessor, a fact to which I was entirely oblivious on account of playing these games in reverse. But now I can fully appreciate the frustration gamers of 2012 must have felt; to say they are ‘similar’ is putting it mildly. They are near bloody identical! The plot is the same, the mechanics are the same & the aesthetic is the same. BS2 includes a couple of different characters, and getting to go all driller-killer is fun, but other than that it’s basically the same game split across two disks. In fact the RDR2 epilogue with its emphasis on Farming Simulatator 1899 much less in common with the preceding main story that it feels like an entirely different game bolted on to the end. With Bioshock and Bioshock 2 the opposite is true and it’s quite disappointing to see in the 5 years between games so little development was on show.

So, a bit underwhelming. But nonetheless a reasonable distraction to while away the last few days of my holiday before starting back at work, and as I effectively played this through on my 7 day free trial of PS Now I can hardly complain it’s a waste of money. Onto the next!

Red Dead Redemption 2 review (warning for spoilers and incoherent rambling)

Back in December 2019 (in the Before times) I had a two week holiday ahead of me. I also had £60 odd left in CEX credit having sold my old Xbox 360 and assorted games prior to moving house. So on my lunch break on the last working day of the year, I popped into the Tottenham Court Road store and loaded up with a bunch of interesting looking PS4 games. Lego Marvel Heroes, Spiderman, Witcher 3, Doom, FarCry 5, & RDR2. The total came to fractionally over the value of my remaining credit, so I spent something like 11 pence of loose change to walk out with half a dozen shiny new (well, pre-owned) games. Little did I know that would end up being the best 11 pence I had ever spent.

Fast forward a year. As both Terry and I have written elsewhere, we count ourselves ridiculously fortunate to have the comforts and facilities we do throughout this whole period. We’ve both been able to work from home, we don’t have kids, and we have sufficient space at home for work, leisure and exercise without having to leave the house. Overnight we stopped commuting and got around 3 hours per day back to do with as we wished. While the pandemic raged on outside, I could finish work for the day and literally seconds later be curled up on the sofa, immersed in another universe. Universes where ill-health could be solved with potions, problems solved via weaponry, vistas explored on horseback or in fast cars. Gaming had long been my escape from reality, and I needed that more than ever.

I never played the original RDR. I knew incarnation #2 was a vast open-worlder set around the turn of the century in the dying embers of the Wild West, but that was it. From hereon out be spoilers – you have been warned!

The below is going to sound quite negative, so I want to preface this by saying I bloody loved this game. It’s just that the reasons it’s so good have been covered amply elsewhere. The graphics are beautiful, the music is glorious, the voice performances outstanding. So taking all that as read (no pun intended…):

The story should have been epic enough to fill the game play hours available. By which I mean the slow collapse of the misfit community our protagonist Arthur inhabits, set against the backdrop of the slow collapse of the outlaw way of life, should have felt sufficient. We meet a bunch of characters, which get slowly fleshed out through eavesdropping, casual banter and discovered documents. As and when the deaths of significant NPCs occur they are earned and affecting. But, and perhaps this is unavoidable given the vignette structure of the narrative, after a while it just seemed like those primary plot-driving conversations kept going round in circles. We meet our motley crew having barely escaped with their lives after a heist goes wrong. Charismatic leader Dutch Van der Lin must maintaining the morale of his gang while they regroup. Starving, frozen, grieving the loss of those that didn’t make it and wanting to blame someone for the tragic turn of events. Dutch’s character is shown to be an idealist, a dreamer, a man striving to live by a code of honour whilst maintaining the pragmatism needed for survival. The player is Arthur – less of a thinker, more a man of action, but is clearly a trusted lieutenant, and the moral centre of the group. It all makes for a compelling group dynamic.

A few core missions later, and the re-grouping isn’t going too well. Despite relocating to slightly warmer climes, the schisms in the group are starting to show. There is blame for their fallen comrades and the loot left abandoned in Blackwater. Dutch is becoming paranoid, ever more demanding his acolytes profess unwavering loyalty. He has a plan, but he is losing patience at any protestation or expression of doubt.

A few core missions after that and… well, it’s pretty much the same actually. Dutch says he has a plan. Arthur says he ain’t too sure. Dutch says he’s sick of the second-guessing. And so the conversation goes, round and round. The game takes you to the brink of the group splintering apart forever, but then teeters there for dozens of further hours. Even as more key characters meet their demise, that core dynamic doesn’t get to go anywhere new until the very end. I guess the criticism is that the story is just a bit mis-paced given the enormous duration of the game.

My second major gripe is that the economics of the situation don’t quite hold up for me. Arthur has various options for raising funds. He can simply steal, he can sell animal products from hunting or items looted from bodies. He can undertake various side missions (bounty hunting, riding along with a colleagues’ stage coach robbery etc) which net him various levels of cash. The larger side and main story missions give him a pretty decent take. After a few dozen hours of playtime, my Arthur had nearly $4k stocked up. I’d donated plenty to the camp, fully upgraded the facilities (including the sodding boat which I never used because I really couldn’t get on with the fishing mechanic) and treated myself to a night at the theatre. I had a winter coat, but otherwise saw little point in purchasing clothing. I was perfectly happy using the guns afforded to me via mission completion so never ended up buying additional weaponry. I also kept forgetting to eat, so whilst my poor Arthur did end up a bit anorexic it did save on grocery bills. I was briefly concerned my carefully amassed personal fortune was gone forever during my brief sojourn to Guarma. But no, once I was back in Lemoyne and on my horse it magically reappeared (perhaps Mary-Beth had stuffed it into her corset for me – who knows!)

There various mentions of the fortune abandoned in Blackwater, and the general gang funds Dutch supposedly keeps safe. Incidentally I was entirely confused for a few hours thinking that was the same fund as Arthur controls for the camp, so I guess he just looks after petty cash? Towards the denouement of the main story, Dutch has another heist planned, yet again one last job so they can all retire, and announces it’s a few thousand. Only at that point I already had a few thousand. And there wasn’t a button for “if that’s all we need then I’ll just cover the cost of our boat to Tahiti (magical place) and we can all leave right now without anyone else getting shot by the Pinkertons”. Which is all a very long way of saying that my investment up to that point felt a bit undervalued.

This is also compounded by my 3rd annoyance. As mentioned above I hadn’t played the original game and had no idea how that story was structured, or that this was a prequel. I just felt pissed off when I learned less than 2/3rds of the way through the story that Arthur had a terminal diagnosis of TB. Perhaps it’s just the way I approach gaming, but learning the avatar I am striving to keep alive is going to croak soon anyway is a bit de-motivating. Not to mention the real world context of there being a coronavirus pandemic on, and playing a character with a new persistent cough who refuses to self-isolate!

I maxed out my honour meter (achievement unlocked: the ‘extreme personality’ of not being a complete bastard) and made a final Arthurian decision to help John escape rather than going back for money. So I got the ‘good’ ending as Mr Morgan splutters his way into the great beyond bathed in a sunset glow. Knowing what happens after, and also now appreciating that John Marston is in fact the protagonist of the original game, I assume this means that John escapes anyway, so what happens if I go back for the money? Prior to that point Arthur hands over a bundle of cash to Tilly so is that his whole wallet’s worth?

Another ten or so hours later John wraps up his epilogue discovering the missing funds, but it’s unclear whether that includes the Blackwater stash or not. In fact when John finally gets to Blackwater and meets Uncle, I was genuinely expecting a core mission to find the missing loot in a nearby cave or something. I remain slightly unfulfilled not knowing whether there’s another cache somewhere I failed to find. I also hoped that John would be able to interact directly with the bank to pay off his debt, but there wasn’t a button for “I signed up to this mortgage and now have a bunch of spare cash from looting dead folks (shh don’t tell my wife) so can I make an early overpayment on the capital please?” either.

Interspersed with the slightly underwhelming epilogue main story missions, John gets to play Frontier Sims, which is kind of fun, but IMO a weird decision to shoehorn in a compulsory unrelated mini-game (although to be fair Geralt does have to play a few rounds of Gwent in Witcher 3). Perhaps what I really want is an expansion pack. RDR2: Farmer Tycoon with Fully Interactive Banking Facilities.

Last of Us Part 2 – review

*Major Spoilers abound – you have been warned!*

I’m going to preface this by saying I actually quite like Alien³.

So, to get the obvious stuff out of the way, Last of Us is an amazing game. Building on the smart, challenging and emotionally gruelling original, this is a tour de force in interactive fiction told through 20-30 hours of exploration, combat & world building. Played on a regular PS4 onto a pretty decent 4K TV, the graphics are approaching photo-realism, the mechanics are not quite seamless but not far off, and the voice acting is superlative.

Here’s why I didn’t really like it that much:

It never bodes well to read a bunch of online reviews proclaiming something as literally the 2nd coming in Gaming before you get your grubby little paws on it. I mean that is a guaranteed recipe for disappointment! I fully intended to wait my customary few years to actually play this, thus reaping the economic benefits. Only I went through a rough spot a month or so back, and the gorgeous creature who just so happens to be my husband, decided to get hold of it to cheer me up!

Last of Us Part 2 uses a few tried and tested tricks to keep things fresh, and I want to dissect these in some detail.

First off – playing through multiple perspectives: Playing as a secondary protagonist is a legitimate way to inject some variety into gaming narrative. There you are, shooting your way through some scenario or other, get to the level end, cut into the cinematic which propels you through the story, and then, wham! You’re suddenly Playing as Someone Else. And that can work pretty well, providing a welcome change of perspective, and building up the textures and back story of this created world.

Secondly: Playing through Flashbacks can similarly be an effective tool for adding depth and gravitas; contextualising the decisions made by your avatar and the surrounding Non Playing Characters.

Last of Us Part 2 deploys both of these strategies – to somewhat troubling effect.

I have no problem with games using flashbacks as a form of discoverable fiction (in the manner of Gone Home) whereby the player retains responsibility for their interaction with the universe, and gets to learn the lore of the land at their own pace and in a non predetermined order. The ‘peril’, if that is the correct term, is only of missing a bit of back-story. This both distinguishes this mode of play from the passivity of the cut scene, and incentivises replay.

However making flashback scenes fully playable, with the mortal consequences of failing to vanquish enemies, risks a jarring temporal paradox. Obviously Ellie didn’t get mauled to death by an animal in the Wyoming Museum of Science and History, because if that were the case then we wouldn’t be here.

Likewise, I have no issue with a switch of playable character. For example the occasions to play as either MJ or Miles in Spiderman provides a fun twist on both the narrative perspective and the gameplay mechanics.

But in the context of LoU2, forcing the player to inhabit the murderous Abby, who is literally the uber-boss Ellie is trying to kill, seems kinda fucked up! I mean, sure, the extended sequences of Abby being ‘afraid of heights’ (that not-far-off-seamless gameplay mechanic looks a bit 90’s when your avatar suddenly throws themselves off a bridge for no reason) and buddying up with Yara & Lev go a long way to humanising her character. Except how much humanising was really necessary? The player is already invested in the context: society has crumbled in the wake of a devastating outbreak (!!!), and a potential cure didn’t come to fruition because of a schism between those who believed the collective benefit was worth the cost of an individual’s life, and those who valued the absolute rights of the individual over the Greater Good. I’m imaging John Stewart Mill and Immanuel Kant having shotguns.

The specifics, for those who have already played or who are unperturbed by spoilers – a doctor can generate a vaccine against the infection, but the process will kill Ellie. Joel is not willing to permit Ellie to be sacrificed, and in saving her he kills the doctor. The doctor’s daughter therefore undertakes to kill Joel. She does so (with rather more vigour than is necessary – which merits its own blog post) in front of Ellie, then (for narratively necessary, but strategically baffling reasons) lets Ellie go.

My point is that the player doesn’t need to take a huge empathetic leap to appreciate both Abby and Ellie’s positions. Both are grief stricken and traumatised by a situation which has eroded humanity (both literally and figuratively) to the point where survival is all anyone can hope for. But, in the context of the video game, Abby is the Baddie, and beating the game consists of beating her. Or, to put it another way, LoU2 forced to me play about 8 hours of meditations on the consequences of killing henchmen.

So when these two issues are combined, ie the player plays as Abby in flashback, there comes the doubly jarring risk of a temporal paradox which renders the entire purpose of the game null and void!

It’s like the game is trying to engender a personality crisis in the player. After the aforementioned 8 hours or so, I started to identify as Abby. Whereupon I came face to face with Ellie. And, following a miss-step onto a crafted trap, I (Abby) met a grisly demise. Only the game didn’t end, despite the inescapable fact that Ellie had at that point fulfilled her objective and could presumably have toddled back to Jackson with Dina and Tommy. Similarly, following a switch back to Ellie, a mis-timed dodge resulted in a watery grave for the Ellster, that proved temporary in nature.

For anyone wondering what the connection is between this and the oft-maligned 1992 threequel of the admired Alien franchise, it’s this: Audiences don’t like feeling cheated! The 3rd Ripley instalment crash lands the fearless heroine on a prison planet alongside the corpses of her ertswhile compatriots who survived to the end credits of the previous film, but no further. And people lost their shit, because it seemed like lazy writing to inherit a story and write out a bunch of characters before they’d even started. So: I don’t much care for being jolted out of the story because it’s chronologically inconsistent for Abby to get shot by a Scar (sorry, Seraphite) on the train tracks next to a very much alive Owen & Mel. Nor do I like battling a Conglomerate Cordyceps monster in a hospital to acquire desperately needed medical supplies to save the life of a young girl, only for her to get shot 3 scenes later! (Newt flashbacks – seriously!) It feels… cheap!

Last point – the pacing feels a bit off. After Acts 1 & 2, I was fully expecting the game to end. In fact the long suffering Dina squares up to Ellie with a cast iron argument against anyone ever considering throwing their life away in the pursuit of revenge: “We have a family. She doesn’t get to be more important than that!” Instead Ellie trundles back out, assuring Dina she doesn’t intend to die (Sorry Dina, but she dies a few times actually) to put her demons to bed. What follows feels like a rushed few hours of what could have been a far more interesting story regarding the mutual enemy embodied by the sadistic Rattlers. The enemy of my enemy is always an intriguing angle to explore three or four way conflicts, and IMO it’s a missed opportunity that this part of the story wasn’t given more breathing space.

Having said all of that, obviously Last of Us 2 is a minor masterpiece and gets a lot of stuff right. From issues of representation and inclusivity through to minimising the dreaded ludonarrative dissonance, it’s a tremendous game, and rightly deserves the accolades getting thrown its way. If the above sounds harsh, it’s because I’m taking it more seriously as a piece of fiction worthy of critical analysis than most other games I play. A solid 4 stars!