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!

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!