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!

Goal progress

Eight weeks ago (yes, that really was eight weeks ago) I self deprecatingly posted ‘Lockdown Goals’ on Facebook without any serious intention of meeting them. Three weeks later I wrote up a post about why I’d chosen these and how it had dawned on me that actually trying to meet them might in fact be a pretty good idea.

So, how have I got on?

The Marathon

This was the first and easiest goal to meet: complete 26 miles on my exercise bike. As I mentioned in the previous post I was already comfortably cycling about a half marathon in the time it takes to watch an episode of Supernatural. So, on Thursday 9th April (the 1st day of my 6 day ‘Easter break’ from work) I cued up the dumbest movie I could find on Prime, (Angel has Fallen – the thrilling conclusion to the Mike Banning trilogy), hopped on the bike, and got peddling. Conscious I’d only done half of what I hoped to achieve I was braced to hit a bit of a wall. But actually, it was fine! The silly movie kept me sufficiently distracted and in a mere 88 minutes I had cycled 26 miles. Hurrah!

Exercise bike display showing 26 miles done

The DIY project

A couple of days later with my legs fully stretched out and back to normal, I donned my scruffiest clothes and set to purging the shower grouting of the black mould which had built up. First, some good old Cilit & Bang & Elbow Grease. Then I got the steam cleaner out and used that on the more stubborn bits. Then I painted on neat bleach with an old toothbrush and left it overnight. Then a quick wipe down to get rid of any residue, and got to work with the grouting pen. Have to say I feel pretty proud of the results:

A gleaming white shower cubicle

The Look

Finding myself at something of a loose end a couple of weeks later (since all I have right now is loose ends) I figure I’d tackle goal#3, Learn to Contour. Which is kinda difficult. And by difficult I mean, well, not impossible exactly, but just completely beyond my capability. I found a short You Tube video  made by someone with 731,000 subscribers so I assume she’s trusted as an authority on the subject. She appears to have similar-ish coloured skin to me as I figured it was pointless copying from someone with Kardashian-esque colouring. Also this specifies that it’s for people with round faces. Which is me. At least I think it is. I’ve always identified as being a Person with a Round Face, but now that I think about it perhaps that’s because my Mum used to call me her ‘little round faced person’ (look – family nicknames are always going to sound weird to other people) and conceivably that was more to do with the haircut I sported from age 3 to age 18. Anyway here’s me, au naturale:

Photo of Liz with no make up

Is that a round face? I feel I don’t know any more.

Things I learned during the exercise:

As per my previous post, playing around with cosmetics is harmless fun. I remembered the phase I went through aged 14 spending most of my time and pocket money in Boots on Saturday afternoons. Then eagerly lining up my new purchases on the bathroom shelf in the girls’ bathroom at boarding school, and experimenting with eye pencils, powders & lipsticks. It felt both frivolous and grown up at the same time.

It was fun to recreate that. But 20 years later I realise I am never going to be someone who invests a lot of time or money in this. Ms Fox seems to have a lot of different products and a lot of different tools. I couldn’t be bothered to calculate the retail price of everything she references, but I think it’s a safe bet it’s north of a 3 figure sum. However, more to the point, I don’t think I would ever have the dexterity to do this properly. For one things she seems to be able to identify so many different areas of the face. Like a two year old learning anatomy I can point to my chin, my cheeks, my nose and my forehead. To me, everything else is just… face! Like a skilled chess player can see forces of influence in three dimensions, or a programmer can spot errors in a sea of code, she can identify zones and lines and shadows that I just … can’t. Clearly what this requires is the tools, skills & experience to demarcate specific elements of each visage, and I have none of these. I’m also prepared to accept I’m probably using really crap products. Anyhow, I gave it an honest go, using what was available, and this was the result:

Picture of Liz wearing make up

I think it’s obvious I’m wearing make up. Beyond that, does my face look ‘contoured’? I’m unconvinced.

The Book

This took way longer than I expected but I finally finished Ruth Rendell’s The Keys to the Street yesterday afternoon. It’s a perfectly well written book, but not really my thing. Ironically, having left it over 20 years to read, I realised I might have enjoyed it more about 15 years ago when I was going through my Minette Walters phase. But if nothing else during this lockdown period, it was lovely to vicariously and nostalgically stroll through Regent’s Park during the mid 90’s.

The Game

I’ve taken to playing Little Alchemy 2 on Thursday evenings in front of whatever the National Theatre is streaming on You Tube. I probably have a whole of another post to write about watching recorded live theatre, so for now suffice to say neither Frankenstein nor Antony & Cleopatra took up all my attention, and I think I discovered about 50 new elements between those two productions.

Screenshot of Alchemy game showing 535 of 720 elements discovered.

Did it work?

From Monday I will have been working from home for 8 weeks, and the country will have been officially in lockdown for 7 weeks. I am extremely aware of the many, many facets of privilege I enjoy which have made this whole experience so much easier than it might have been. And yet, anyone might struggle when faced with a unknown period of time to fill without recourse to many of the activities that would usually consume the minutes and hours of each day. So I set these goals in an attempt to inject a bit of structure and purpose to the time I have when I’m not working, sleeping or feeding myself. So it’s 8 weeks later, I’ve done 4/5 of them, and I don’t feel like I’ve lost my grip on reality yet.

I’m finishing with this sketch from my all-time favourite comedy duo, who as it turns out, have a sketch to illustrate basically everything I ever want to say:

Bubbles and extrapolation

Earlier today someone tweeted the following: (I’m not linking to it, and I’m not seeking to out the person who wrote it; I just want to discuss the sentiment.)

“Is it just me or is it that people’s political opinions on NHSX have sunk the contact tracing app entirely and there’s no point doing it now? There’s no way in hell we’ll hit the density of users needed for it to work”

Compare and contrast:

Before she committed suicide, the Love Island presenter Caroline Flack expressed her anxiety that she was so well known & so instantly recognisable that she had no possible hope for a future where she wouldn’t be constantly plagued by her past.

(I am not commenting on the veracity of the claims against her, nor on their seriousness).

I was barely aware of Caroline Flack’s existence. I could have walked past her in the street and have no idea who she was. I was aware Love Island existed as a show but I couldn’t have confidently named a single person involved in it.

I’m not saying this to try to convey that as a Mature and Sophisticated Person I should be applauded on my lack on knowledge of something as low-brow as Love Island. I am simply trying to convey that she was outside my bubble.

I have the bubble of my immediate friends and family. I have the bubble of my work colleagues. I have my carefully curated social media echo chambers. I have my areas of interest, my cultural touchstones, the ‘famous’ people I look up to and the people I’ve heard of, who I hate or love-to-hate. Caroline Flack wasn’t in my bubble. I wondered, sadly, when I heard she’d expressed how her celebrity had trapped her, if she might have in fact passed entirely without notice if she’d gone to some of the places I frequent.

So, back to that tweet. This person is sowing Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt about a product intended to help make a horrible situation a bit better. However, I reckon ‘most’ people aren’t aware that NHSX exists as a specific entity, and ‘most’ people don’t have an political opinion about it.

Bottom line: over-extracting from a small data set can be deadly.

Bonus subscribers’ content:

In scrutinising my bubbles, I realise that many of my friends are white, male and very clever. In the main, I love you all. And I’m not saying that the friends I have who are not also white, male and very clever aren’t also guilty of the following on occasions. But, for the most part, it’s the white, male and very clever of you who do this. So listen up:

You are not the Messiah. You are not the only one who has spotted a possible flaw in the plan. The entire responsibility to scrutinise and hold to account does not fall solely on your shoulders. Using your platform, whatever it might be, to simply denigrate the work of others is not constructive. Sowing Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt when you know perfectly well there are other people who are better qualified than you to evaluate the risks of a particular venture is not helpful. You want to blow off some steam about how shit everything is and how the proposed solution might not work? Write a diary.

Making trifle

In the last few days before the UK went into lockdown, and the supermarket shelves emptied of toilet paper and dried pasta, incredulous reports circulated that packets of lasagne remained un-panic-bought. “Mate”, as one memetic commentary put it, “If we’re going to be stuck at home for the next few weeks, you’re going to have time to make a lasagne!”

When Shirley Conran decried that life was too short to stuff a mushroom I venture she wasn’t faced with the prospect of spending weeks, possibly months, unable to leave the house. The current predicament in which we find ourselves has changed my relationship with time, and consequently, with food. Even as someone who enjoys cooking as a leisure activity there have always been certain foodstuffs I enjoy eating, but can rarely be bothered to make. There was a prohibitively unfavourable ratio of time and effort invested to the pleasure of consumption gained. But now, when time is no longer a limiting factor, and any diversion is a sought after commodity, I found myself turning my hand to dishes I would normally only ever order in a restaurant.

Switching metaphors, I also relished the idea of completing tasks on Hard Mode. Which right now consists of two main limitations: dietary requirements and the availability of ingredients Terry has been vegetarian for as long as I have known him, but has recently developed an intolerance to lactose.

So, put all these factors together, and what do you get? Liz’s dairy free, vegetarian, lockdown trifle.

The sponge

I’m not much of baker, but I do occasionally indulge in making the odd cake. I figured a dairy free sponge should be pretty simple. Flora provide this straightforward recipe on their website. The only thing missing is self-raising flour, and that’s an easy one to fix as I have regular plain flour and baking powder in my cupboard. In fact since becoming au fait with Nigella’s tried and tested ratio I never bother buying self-raising anymore anyway.

I actually prefer sponges made with margarine rather than butter. I think it’s because I keep my butter in the fridge, never have the patience to let it get to room temperature, but invariably overshoot when I try to soften in a microwave. Whereas I can incorporate sugar into spreadable fat much more easily.

In short order we’ve made a pleasingly pale, silky looking batter. We halved the amounts which means there’s not enough to to go in one of my springform tins. So we use a solid Victoria Sandwich tin instead. Regrettably we don’t have anything to line the tin. I remember a technique from cooking show ones whereby cakes will happily pop out of tins if greased and lightly dusted with flour or cocoa powder. Unfortunately this doesn’t quite work. I don’t know if it’s because I used more of the margarine rather than butter. Is there a dairy free version of this technique available? So half our glorious sponge clings obstinately to the bottom and needs scraping off with a spoon. However since we’ll be crumbling the sponge up anyway, it doesn’t matter.

A slightly broken up sponge cake

The jelly

I converted to agar agar a while ago, and still have a pack in my cupboard which survived the recent house move. Unfortunately my very little precision scales I use for very small quantities didn’t make it (or did I give them away to someone?) So I eyeball what I reckon is about the 2.7 grams needed to go in with 300 mls of apple juice, some defrosted and squished up blackberries and a couple of spoons of sugar. Agar agar is one of those substances where the chemistry actually matters, so I really hope I have this right. We get it up to boiling point, let it cook for a few minutes, and then tip the contents of our pan into a flat pyrex dish. After 20 mins I’m satisfied it’s solidifying enough as it cools, and sure enough it’s reached the desired wobbly brick texture after 45 mins or so.

A block of red jelly

The custard

Custard is another thing I can rarely be bothered to do from scratch. The bought stuff is cheap and tastes (imho) as good as home-made, and it’s alarmingly easy to get it wrong. Since Terry cut out lactose we tried the Alpro soya custard, and can happily report it as a perfectly fine substitution. But, disaster, we used the last of it the other week. So, time to face my fears. The Dairy Alliance have this recipe, which was easy to follow, and worked a treat with the soya milk we have in the fridge. I understand from The Internet there are people who get extremely exercised about the inclusion of cornflour in custards and indeed in anything else. I have taken the decision to ignore them. My custard sits downstairs, creamy, uncurdled, and ready to assemble.

The banana

I sliced a banana up. That’s all I’ve got to say about that.

The squirty cream

Terry has been on the prowl for good dairy free alternatives to stuff for a while now, and we are grateful for the continued service of the fine folks at We splurged on a big ol’ box of treats a couple of weeks back, getting in veggie hot dogs, lactose free cheese & onion crisps, gummy bears and a can of shaving cream style coconut based froth. Just the ticket here.

The construction

To construct, or deconstruct, that is the question. I don’t own a trifle dish and can’t imagine doing this frequently enough to merit purchasing one. While I have faith in the structural integrity of the components, there’s not much of some of them, and I think unless you’re doing a massive party trifle with each layer in volume, the layering effect gets lost. So decontructed it is. Spoonfuls of sponge go into our sundae glasses first, with a sprinkling of sherry to moisten. Then the jelly, smashed into irregular chunks. Then banana, custard & cream haphazedly tumbled on top. For the finishing touch, I have half a pack of flaked almonds and considered giving them a light toast. But on further consideration of the lurid colours of my confection I decided instead to use the teeth destroying silver balls and fully embrace the 80’s vibe.

Glass bowl of trifle
The finished product!

My Lock-Down goals

Three weeks ago (oh god was it really only three weeks ago?) I self deprecatingly posted the following on Facebook:

Things I intend to do while isolating which will almost certainly not actually happen:
Discover all 720 items in Little Alchemy 2.
Read the dead tree Ruth Rendell I won in a competition in 1998.
Learn how to do conturing make up.
Regrout the shower.
Complete a marathon on the exercise bike.

Then, on further reflection upon the enormity of what might be coming, I figured these might be good things to do. To *actually* do.

The Book

Page with author's signature
Page with prize sticker

I won this book in 1998, coming first in the Reader’s Quiz (suck it Liam Pollard!) And something, I can’t say what, drew me to the signed Ruth Rendell rather than the other prize which was book vouchers. (This also worked out well for the aforementioned Mr Pollard who was pretty chuffed he got his preferred prize of vouchers, despite coming 2nd. Yeah – 2nd! Hah!) Only the book sat on my shelf, untouched, for the next two decades. I nearly got rid of it in the last house move, but somehow didn’t. Those who know me would hopefully attest that I am, in most things, a cast-iron rationalist, not given to belief in fate, signs or otherworldly nudges. And yet, faced with an unknown number of weeks, I just, somehow, felt, that it was the right time to pick it up and read it.

The Marathon

Home gym

I’m pretty happy with my body. It’s soft and curvy and gets appropriate levels of admiration from the only person whose opinion I value in such matters. But I am currently somewhat bigger than I have been in previous years, and, generally speaking, I feel a bit happier, healthier and more confident when I’m more compact. We nearly got rid of the exercise bike in the last house move, but somehow didn’t. Which was a good call, as after the initial chaos of moving etc we set up a decent home gym, which gets regular use. A fact for which I am extremely grateful in these times. I usually do 40-45 minutes every other day (or 1 episode of Supernatural) as a mix of cardio and weights. The batteries had gone in the display yonks ago, and I was perfectly happy peddling away for an indeterminate amount of time and distance. But happening across a spare couple of triple As, I figured it would be nice to see what I was accomplishing. It takes me about 1 episode to do 13 miles so I’m working on my stamina and hope one day soon to pop on a 100 or so minute film and achieve this one.

The DIY Project

Shower cubicle with dirty grouting

There’s a certain type of disgust reserved for Other People’s Filth. Particularly Other People’s Bathroom Filth. You know what I’m talking about. When we moved to our new digs we scrubbed and scoured our way to tolerable cleanliness. And then allowed a nice, comforting layer of our Own Filth to build up. As time, money and effort allows we have started to tick off some of the home improvement tasks we said we’d do when we moved in. So we got as far as installing a proper extractor fan. But steamy showers gonna steam, and we have a bit of black mould situation developing. So, what better opportunity to get stuck into some DIY than a lockdown?

The Look

Make up products

I’m pretty happy with my face. It’s soft and curvy and gets appropriate levels of admiration from the only person whose opinion I value in such matters. Occasionally I put on a bit of slap for fun, or to cover the odd blemish on important occasions. Underneath this professional exterior lies a frustrated teeny-goth who sometimes likes to come out and play panda-eyes. But beyond all that, I never really understood the whole cosmetics thing. I’m aware there’s a whole world of aesthetic embellishment out there, which never really seemed that relevant to me, but what else is a lock-down good for but learning new skills? So: contouring. I have no illusions that this will be a flattering look on me. I suspect my oft-commented rosy cheeks will rather undermine the sexy-austere effect intended. But as past-times go, it’s pretty harmless.

The Game

Screenshot showing progress through Alchemy 2

Regular readers will know I am an Avid Gamer and all about the long haul. I like narrative, complex character development, choices with consequences, and evidence some budget got thrown into script, voice & visuals. Back when I had a commute (remember those?) I’d dip in and out of more casual fare. I was maybe 10% of the way through Little Alchemy 2 when this all kicked off. Actually completing a mobile game, where it’s a simple calculation of X/720 items discovered as to whether you finish, would be new territory for me.

The Stretch-Goal (subscriber’s only content – not available on Facebook)

Image of The Expanse on Amazon Prime

I *really* don’t need to watch any more telly than I do already, but there’s a handful of shows hanging over my head which I know are brilliant, but I never made time for:

Space Above & Beyond – a recommendation from Terry which we got two episodes through before I lost interest.

The Expanse – Sci Fi shows get cancelled these days like they are going out of fashion, so I try not to get too attached until I know it has legs. Don’t want another Firefly yanking at my heart strings! #toosoon

The Wire – because it was supposedly the best thing on telly since ever, and yet it just didn’t happen for me.

Grey’s Anatomy – much like Supernatural this goes on for a crazy-long time, and it has Sandra Oh who I very much enjoyed in Sideways & adored in Killing Eve. Seems like a sound investment.

The Prediction

I am pretty confident I’ll do the book, the bike & the make-up. Also I’ll probably do the shower because after another couple of weeks it will gross me out if I don’t. If I keep chipping away at Alchemy I might get up to the high 500’s and then I’ll have an existential crisis as to whether I should carry on properly, cheat for the sake of being able to post a pic online of 720/720 discovered, or just give up because literally no-one is policing this. I reckon I’ll give Space Above & Beyond another shot, if for no other reason than I do tend to commandeer the screen and it seems reasonable to occasionally share with Terry. The Expanse looks pretty damn good, so I reckon we’ll both enjoy that. Terry hates blood’n’guts on screen, but I might sneak a gander at the odd Grey’s Anatomy ep now and then to see if it’s my kinda thing. As for The Wire – well, the Ruth Rendell waited over 20 years. So probably best not to hold your breath.

Alan Wake

Next up, 2010 title Alan Wake. This one was a recommendation from a friend at BarCamp 2012, at a session all about cool video games people had been playing recently (which is great idea for an unconference session and a great way to get suggestions).

We promptly acquired a copy which Terry sat down to play. But he didn’t get very far in before establishing that being recreationally terrified is really not his thing. It’s been sitting on our shelf waiting for me to try it out ever since, so I’m finally giving it a go.

After the dismal script of the previous game, I was looking forward to something a bit more literary. Opening with a Stephen King quote is a strong move and one that very much sets the scene for what’s to come. Alan Wake describes itself as a psychological horror, which is pretty much bang on the money for what you get.

For me games exist on a continuum. There are the plot-lite smash or shooters at one end where the purpose of the game is to enjoy the mechanics of exploring and surviving your environment and entangling with enemies. Then at the other end there are games where the narrative takes centre stage and the primary purpose is to engage interactively with the story as it unfolds. At this far end of the spectrum I would volunteer something like 2013 title Gone Home. Wikepedia informs me that the term ‘walking simulator’ was coined as a derogatory term by those who queried if it was even a game. I prefer the term discoverable fiction, as the point is to gradually build up a complete novella, but in a non-linear fashion.

Alan Wake makes heavy use of this discoverable fiction mechanic, in a very literal way, as our titular protagonist picks up pages of a manuscript to try to piece together what events have befallen him. Further story elements (not exactly backstory like in Bioshock 2, but an enrichment to the environs) are available through radios and TVs should you care to switch them on. Or you can choose to ignore them if, for example, you’re on a 2nd playthrough and don’t need a repeat off all the context.

But I made a decision early on that this would be a one-time only thing; I have a big pile of games to get through this summer. In addition to the manuscript pages (of which I reckon I got about 2/3rds) there is a further collectable mini-game of retrieving the 100 coffee thermoses scattered around. I stumbled across one right at the start where the dreaded message 1/100 popped up. Oh hell no! The prospect of ending the game with fewer than 100 collected, but not wanting to spend the time on a completionist replay fills my brain with icky feelings. Fortunately I died soon after and was therefore able to redo that sequence and ignore the thermos.

Checkpoints come frequently so the frustration born of repeated death is kept to a minimum. There were only a handful of occasions where I came close to rage quitting, compared to the dozens I experienced in my previous game. The combat mechanic of using light as a weapon works very well both in terms of fighting technique and in a more metaphorical sense.

This game really does throw all the horror tropes it can at the player. Stephen King looms large from that opening quote right the way through the game. The Shining and Misery are the two most obvious inspirations, with a heavy dose of The Birds and Twin Peaks in there as well. Duel gets a look too in with some heavy agricultural machinery imbued with murderous intentions. A hard-drinking FBI agent (Agent Nightingale – which just made me laugh as I imagined Dragon Age’s Leliana roaming around Bright Falls) who obviously makes time for reading keeps harassing our protagonist with a constant stream of (white, male) authors names. Although honestly if you’re an unstable writer I’m not sure being called Ernest Hemingway or Brett Easton Ellis is that much of an insult.

It all gets a bit heavy handed, but doesn’t detract from the sense of dread engendered by the game. It’s like when you watch a really well crafted horror movie, the fact that you know how your emotions are being manipulated doesn’t stop it from being effective. But I was pretty happy once I finally got to the end. Apologies now due to Terry for silently judging him for giving up on this one.

Far Cry Instincts Predator

Far Cry Instincts Predator dates back to 2006, and boy does it show! According to the sticker on the box the CEX asking price was £4.99 when I picked this one up a couple of years ago, but I think it was also the cheapest of a 3 for 2 offer. So when something is basically free, I’m not going to whine too hard about it.

It’s actually kind of relaxing in its simplicity, making it a nice little palette cleanser to some of the more involved games I’ve played this year (I mean I adore Dragon Age: Inquisition, but even I know sometimes it’s healthy to do something else than embark on a third consecutive play-through in order to romance a different character). I actually got a little nostalgic for the days of Doom, claiming ammo refills by simply walking over vertical standing weaponry.

I really enjoyed playing FarCry 3 &4 (Primal, less so, and #5 got such a lukewarm reception that I don’t fancy spending more than a tenner on it.) It’s kind of fun to see the genesis of those games here. Ok, so the graphics suck, and in the Instincts game your basically stuck in corridor mode right the way through. But you can just about get a sense of what the FarCry universe would become with sweeping island vistas, lush vegetation and gritty merc camps. They’re just a bit … basic for now.

All told, I spent a tense couple of weeks getting through the Instincts game, and kept getting stuck in death loops. I haven’t wanted to rage quit a game so hard since the first time I played Ocarina of Time. So it was actually pretty satisfying to finally complete the game.

Incidentally the Instincts Predator title reflects that this was a remastered version of the original PC game released for the 360, and included the sequel story Evolution (though I am still unclear where Predator comes with and reckon it was simply a marketing attempt at making the title sound 57% more masculine). I decided to jump straight into the Coda on completion of main story, partly so I could then dump the whole disk into my ‘done’ pile. But also because I have a realistic notion that having got used to the polygontastic graphics, it would really grate playing a later game and then going back to Evolution. Turns out Evolution is much shorter, taking a svelte 10-11 hours to get through. The story is as much a pile of bobbins as the previous one, but there a few nice little tweaks which further tease what FC will become in later games. There are a few multiple-objective arenas which mitigates the corridor feel of the first game. And our intrepid protagonist Carver has developed some botanical leanings and now gets his adrenaline kick from flowers rather than what looked like sacks of meal replacement.

Having said that, despite the quick playtime I found some bits of Evolution even more frustrating than Instincts. Specifically the stupid bloody jumping puzzles where you’re meant to leap into special climbable walls. When the graphics are so bad they actually hinder the gameplay things are not good. Compare and contrast with the rebooted Tomb Raider, and the way Lara’s body reacts to her environment so you can tell if you are meant to be climbing up, down, sideways, or jumping elsewhere.

So yeah, this one has serious dated, from the problematic character tropes, dumb dialogue, and poor graphics. But a bit of mindless violence does the soul good now and again. Onto the next!

Bioshock 2

First up in my ‘let’s play all the old 360 titles sitting on my shelf, and then finally trade the whole lot in for cash’ project is Bioshock 2.

I remember learning of the existence of the Bioshock Infinite thanks to an episode of the podcast Coverville which featured the oldey-timey version of Everybody Wants to Rule the Word. I played that back in 2014 (actually buying it new on Amazon) and enjoyed it greatly. So I figured I’d give the previous game a shot when I saw it going cheap at CEX.

Bioshock is all about the aesthetic: art deco gone to hell. It fits with the overarching narrative of the Bioshock universe perfectly; a constructed idyll of 1950’s society, corrupted by human weakness and descended into dystopia. Playing it a decade after its 2009 release on a slightly crumbling system, it still looks gorgeous. The underwater sequences provide an ethereal loveliness in contrast to the blood splattered grime of the main levels. The creepy little girl trope is working overtime here, as you employ clone orphans to suck out genetically modified upgrade goo from the many corpses dotted around. The moral angle is played fairly heavily, with specific ethical decisions making a substantive difference to the conclusion of the game.

One aspect I really enjoyed was collecting the audio ‘diaries’ left by the main characters, and other denizens of Rapture. These can be easily ignored if you like your violence un-contextualised (and no judgement here if that’s your bag) but it ticks a box for players like me who are here for the interactive storytelling. Crucially I really enjoyed how once you collect a diary you can set it to play, and it will do so whilst you carry on playing, meaning you don’t have to choose between getting your fill of backstory and maintaining a seamless integration into your environment. A shout out here as well for the voice-acting, in particular Fenella Woolgar who is truly menacing as Sophia Lamb.

Bioshock 2 took me a leisurely couple of weeks to play through over evenings and weekends. I didn’t get the addictive sense of being unable to put down my controller (probably a good thing) but it was an enjoyable enough yarn. Having played it through the once, however, I am more than happy to put it on my pile of completed games, although I might check out the other two endings on YouTube (I decided to play white hat and consequently got the most positive of all available conclusions).

On to the next!