Last night – and the last few times I’ve played The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, I’ve found myself getting into some sort of flow state.
A few sessions ago, I found myself stumbling into tackling my last Divine Beast. My third one had felt somewhat easy, and the super power it granted a bit lacking, to the degree that I felt maybe I’d tackled them in the wrong order. This isn’t to say I wish the game forced me to tackle them in a certain order, mind you; one of BOTW’s best features is the ability to do – or try and do – just whatever you like, whenever you feel like it.
The great part is that, even though this game lets you pick and choose when you do dramatic things, at times it feels like a natural pacing – you stumble onto something just when you least suspect it, and yet it feels like exactly what you want to be doing next.
I’m now about 150 hours in. I’ve tackled the four Divine Beasts, and the game is starting to show signs of me entering an endgame of sorts. This trouble me – I never want this game to end. I haven’t exactly rushed things. I’ve spent a lot of those 150 hours simply exploring and hunting down landmarks to see what’s there. That’s the real beauty of this game.
With the addition of the DLC that shows on your map where you’ve been, I’ve been able to identify places I haven’t been, which has also added a huge amount of value to a game in which – much like in life – you tend to explore the same areas, and it’s easy to miss whole chunks of locations just on your doorstep.
I found it very interesting how a lot of the scenery really close to where the game starts was left unexplored until I saw the fact writ large on my map.
But as the game now keeps offering dialogue and items that hint heavily towards me heading off to defeat Calamity Ganon, I’ve been thrilled to find yet more diversions. I’ve stumbled on at least two quite large new games-within-the-game – one of which is, I think, only unlocked at this stage, and possibly is part of DLC, and the other is somewhere I could probably have visited at any time.
But, as with so many ‘discoveries’ in this game, the fact that you can stumble upon them at any time has this uncanny ability to make it feel like now is just the right time.
So as I found yesterday, and continue to find with this game, there is plenty more to be done, even at this seemingly late stage in the game’s main story. I’m not sure if I can doulbe my 150 hours in the game as the story comes to its conclusion, but I’m pretty sure I’ll crack 200 tracking down Korok seeds, shrine and looking for side quests.
The game’s ‘overworld’, a Western-style town with shops and chatty inhabitants
Hey, I finished a computer game! That only happens like once a year or so.
I’ve had Steamworld Dig on my 2Ds for a few years now, I think*, and for a while I just chipped away at it. It’s the kind of game that you can just pick up and bash through a bit of here and there.
* Just checked and I purchased the game in June 2017
The problem is, there’s also a nice, steady levelling up and learning curve of sorts, and the game really rewards playing it in longer periods – or many short periods in quick succession. Mainly I was leaving the sessions too few and far between that I’d pick it up, move the characted round for a bit and ask myself “right, what am I meant to be doing again?”
The mine is where you’ll spend most of your time
This time I started a new savegame, and managed to bash through the whole thing in something like 8.5 hours. A decent length. A similar length, in fact, to two other games I’ve actually gotten round to completing – Attack of the Friday Monsters (also on 2/3DS) and Firewatch (on PC, and a game that spawned in me an obsession with fire lookout towers). Anything longer than that and I might not bother. Apart from Zelda: Breath of the Wild, of course, which I am currently 60 or so hours into and never want to end.
Steamworld Dig is made with so much charm that in many ways I also didn’t want it to stop. I had to do a bit of Googling to check if the levels were static or procedurally/randomly generated – if so, the game would be effectively infinite, but I suppose might have introduced game-breaking conditions unless very carefully designed. And so, very carefully designed it was, and all the better for it.
As you go deeper, the environment, music and critters change
The artwork is lovely, the soundtrack, though slightly repetitive, is wonderful, and the effects are perfect. It rewards playing with headphones. The graphics, incidentally, work well on various systems. The screenshots here are from either PC or games consoles I think. The 2/3DS version, despite much lower resolution, retains the charm, but benefits from the second screen which displays a minimap and the contents of your satchel.
The game’s design in terms of the various teleporting, levelling up and general progression are handled in such a way that it feels slick and enjoyable. It makes it a great game to chuck in your bag and pull out on the bus for a few minutes. The player is never left frustrated at something taking too long – any actual tension or frustration is purely from the game’s tricky puzzles, none of which are particularly difficult.
Even the final boss is enjoyable in its systematic nature and although it’s tricky and took me a few goes, I managed it in one sitting – in the bath, no less – and felt a great sense of elation upon completing it. Pride and relief, partly, but also the satisfaction at having beaten a boss that felt challenging but in an understandable and fair way.
And so, the game ended, the narrative hinted at a sequel which I am very happy to have already downloaded and am keen to begin, and the credits rolled. And I was able to enjoy the satisfaction at completing what was already a very satisfying game.
There are many ways to enjoy a nice three-day weekend, but here is just one set of ideas that worked for me this weekend just gone.
A little dash of videogames, including Banished, Anno 1404 and Firewatch
Banished, I fear, I have gone off a little on account of it offering little to no guidance on how you are doing, or how to do better.
I’ve quite enjoyed the long, slow grind to achieve equilibrium in terms of getting your growing population to continue growing while ensuring there is enough food and fuel. But beyond that, the game kind of stagnates. It deliberately has no ‘story’ – the game is itself an education in the basic need to just grind away in order to survive – but there don’t seem to be any opportunities to upgrade or progress or ‘win’.
A scattering of quite prosaic achievements are available, but they seem like box-ticking. I suspect my future enjoyment of Banished will come through trying new strategies, imposing my own artificial restrictions, and investigating the modding community.
With Banished growing stale, I turned to Anno 1404, which I’ve been enjoying. It’s very much a game of its genre, but it’s done with some style and panache. It has quite a hand-holdy tutorial, but it’s done through the medium of a story and several small individual tasks which must be completed for a cast of characters. But games of this complexity do require some hand-holding; it’s not possible to set oneself up for ‘the long game’ if one overlooks a crucial part of the game’s system.
I think I will return to Age of Empires II shortly – the HD remake, naturally – but that is a game I know quite well, so it’s been nice to give Anno 1404 a fair shake.
I’ve also enjoyed little stints in Firewatch, which continues to enchant me. The opening prologue was an unexpected punch in the guts, and I’m a little concerned that the story will give me the sads later on. But the story-driven gameplay – it’s sometimes little more than ‘go here, do this, now go here’ – works nicely, and it’s an enjoyable blend of a game in an artificially vast environment that’s actually really rather on-rails.
The above have all given me plenty of opportunity to get the Steam Link figured out. (It’s a small streaming box which allows you to play your PC games on your TV in another room.) Mostly I’ve learned that there is inevitably a little bit of latency inherent in a powerline adapter I know to be slightly flakey. For some games, like Firewatch, the lag isn’t too noticeable. For Anno 1404 I’ve had to reduce some graphical settings to find a compromise between responsiveness and playing comfortably on the 40-inch screen in the lounge. It plays beautifully on my computer monitor, but it’s nice to play games in the living room.
An overnight microadventure by bicycle to Buckinghamshire
A few years ago, I went on a few microadventures which usually consisted of bugging out on my bike after work with little more than a tent and some snacks.
Since moving to London, I’ve not had such easy access to do this, but the opportunity came up this weekend for Megan and I to hop on the Tube to Chesham, cycle to a tiny village near Wendover, and pitch camp for one night in a cute, remote farmer’s field.
Our rewards included: peace, space, woodland walks at dusk, the sounds (and, occasionally, glowing eyes in torchlight) of various animals, a lovely pub meal, the rare novelty of seeing one’s own shadow cast by the light of an almost-full-moon, and a simple but delicious breakfast cooked over a Primus stove.
We also popped in to visit my mother on our way home, which was lovely. And a good opportunity to dry off, as we were caught in a torrential downpour on the ride home.
One nice thing about a single night’s camping is that it often feels as though you’ve been away for several days, and this was just such an occasion.
And a trip or two to the cinema
We went to see Mission: Impossible – Fallout recently, which was far funnier and more enjoyable than I had expected it to be. As much as the film takes itself seriously, and the films increasingly feel like the Tom Cruise vanity hour, this one is just a stunning summer blockbuster, and just what the doctor ordered. The set-piece stunts are bonkers; there is enough humour scattered throughout – Simon Pegg is a fantastic addition to the franchise; and the whole thing rollicked along, and I loved every minute.
Oddly enough, I had decided to go and see M:I-F to scratch an itch I’ve had recently of having not seen a balls-to-the-wall blockbuster on a balls-to-the-wall GIGANTIC screen with a balls-to-t– LOUD sound system.
So you can imagine my joy, just days after seeing this film, when I learned that the BFI IMAX were showing a 10-year anniversary run of The Dark Knight on 70MM film. So that’s what we did on Monday, and I had a blast. I think Megan enjoyed it too.
The film itself holds up pretty well ten years on, and I couldn’t contain my happiness seeing the IMAX sequences on the biggest screen in the UK, and hearing the deafening explosions and stirring soundtrack using what sounds like all 11,600 watts at their disposal. Just fabulous.
Of course, it’s now about a thousand years until the next proper bank holiday weekend, and it definitely feels like Autumn is almost upon us. But that brings its own charms, and I am almost ready to embrace it.
Time to restart weeknotes, I think. Sorry about the hiatus.
This week I had a film developed and printed for the first time in a few years. I posted some of the pictures here. It was a very pleasant experience, not least because I have a handy branch of Snappy Snaps nearby, and I found an unused scanner at work that has done nothing for three years, but that scans film negatives in at remarkably good quality. It was of such great quality that it’s now got me thinking about films from my past that I only ever digitised from the prints, or where I feel I could make better negative scans.
The quality of the scans is one thing, but what I loved was convenience of scanning two strips of negatives in one go (so, eight shots), and having the built in software not just crop them, but also colour-correct them automatically. I frankly can’t believe that before now I made do with a) scanning prints, b) getting crap neg scans from the photo shop, or c) trying to do my own scans on a too-cheap neg scanner myself.
Finding a good way to digitise physical ephemera is so far in my wheelhouse it’s not even funny.
Elsewhere this week I watched Jurassic Park for the first time in a wee while. By God, does it stand up. It’s so hard, of course, to separate it from the version etched in your brain – the lines, the scenery, the concepts, the score – but it still feels rollicking and vital. Of course it’s dated in place – it’s 25 years old this year, which is insane. But it holds up magnificently.
I also played the start of L.A. Noire again. Years ago when I lived with him I watched John play through most of it and I think we both concluded that it’s gorgeous and nuanced, but ultimately quite boring. With the recent chat surrounding the remaster for Switch et al, it seemed like a good time to pick it up – especially as it was only £1.50 at CEX. Anyway the first few missions went by smoothly – the formulaic searching-the-scene-for-clues only feeling slightly clunky. But I forgot the ratio of mission to open-world, and I feel like that’s where I’ll lose interest in the end. But for now, as a primarily narrative-driven piece of entertainment, I’ll carry on until I don’t want to any more.
I also watched this interesting video about the current world record Super Mario Bros. speedrun. It was pitched to me, variously, as “like watching a Swiss clock maker explain his machine,” and, ” even if you aren’t into video games it’s pretty interesting.” I’d say it was somewhere in-between. At least, between M and I watching it, that’s the impression I got. It definitely had a handful of really interesting bugs and…. not hacks, but exploits, that are vital to shaving off the seconds – and sub-seconds.
For many months now, I’ve been in the habit of reading from a couple of diary compilations – one of London diarists, the other with a rural angle – and around the turn of the month, a few pages from an almanac which talks about natural occurrences.
On top of of that, I always have my Kindle handy, and recently I’ve gotten into the habit of sending a so-called long read or an edition of an email newsletter to it.
The latter works only some of the time – some newsletters are more text-based than others, with some being mostly links (to be ctrl-clicked while browsing) or containing too many images to play nicely with an e-ink device.
But now and then, a well-formatted, single-column newsletter consisting of mostly text works a charm. Two recent examples:
Craig Mod‘s Roden Explorers – the latest issue is here – usually contains tales of walking, meditation, photography, some tech insight, and whatever is bubbling around in Mod’s always-fascinating mind.
close, a monthly newsletter only onto its second issue – here – but this entry made for very interesting/familiar reading as a 30-something member of an extended collective community of folks who found kinship online in the early 2000s.
There are others, but I felt the need to jot down two solid examples while they were fresh in my mind. I tend to use one of two Chrome extensions for sending a newsletter (or any web article) to my Kindle – Send To Kindle by Amazon and Push to Kindle by fivefilters.org. They take a couple of minutes to set up, and your mileage will inevitably vary depending on what you send. But both can provide a preview of the content as it will be sent, so you can quickly see if it’s going to work or not.
It’s mostly been a ‘simple’ WordPress.org installation, but there was quite a lot of content to convert, a fair few design principles to incorporate, and – as always – more technical issues than I had expected, mostly around the hosting.
The client was fantastic throughout, and it was a largely enjoyable experience for me, with experience being the operative word as I was able to learn quite a bit even doing something I felt was very much in my comfort zone.
In weekend-related activities, last Monday was a Bank Holiday, so M and I popped up to St Albans to visit friends and have a little wander. It was the third of three ridiculously pleasant Spring days so much ice cream and iced coffee was consumed, and the cool interior of the cathedral was most welcome.
The previous night we’d spent camping in West Sussex – a glorious little site on the wilder side of things. No showers or buildings, and just a few portaloos or compost loos dotted around with the occasional cold water tap dotted around. And, most importantly, they allow fires, so I was in heaven.
It was a great opportunity to test out some new camping gear ahead of a longer trip in Summer. But mostly it felt remarkable in feeling like a 2-3 night trip away, all completed within 36 hours or so. The nearby village of West Hoathly also has a lovely pub or two. And one nice surprise were views across to the ridgeway of the South Downs. We were able to pick out Chanctonbury hill fort and various other landmarks from our recent walk.
And then this weekend just gone, the good weather continued, so we were able to have a little barbecue on the patio – partly in celebration at having decided to scrub the slabs, tidy up the plants, and to buy some new ones to replace the feeble amongst them that didn’t survive the winter.
Well, then. The snow came! And although it’s sometimes boring to talk about the weather, it’s hard to avoid the fact that this week’s snow changed things up a little bit. It meant a change in footwear, a change in walking style, and just a change in psychology for a lot of people. It’s funny how snow does that.
Workwise, it meant that a bunch of jobs went out of the window as I scrambled to ensure our contractors could grit the relevant bits of land we’re responsible for. And to make things slightly easier for them, I took it upon myself to do the land around the office and the two flats we own. There’s nothing like the ‘blank slate’ of a snowed-in driveway to get me out there sweeping, shovelling and salting until it’s clear. Or clear enough, at least. But still, progress with cyclical maintenance rumbles on, and as usual I realise all too late just how much work is involved in this job or that.
It was nice pottering about in the snow. For one thing, the acoustics are wonderful, as the bed of snow absorbs everything and turns everywhere into a sort of anechoic chamber. For another, I suddenly realised I could do some animal tracking on some of the less trafficked areas nearby. I was able to identify the tracks of a cat, a dog, a fox and – maybe? – a muntjac deer. No badgers, sadly.
Meanwhile, something I loved reading this week was Andy Kelly’s travelogue-esque thing about the inhabitants of a town in the Witcher 3. It really caught my imagination, not least because I often have this kind of reaction to games, where I wish I could ‘report’ on the goings-on therein in a series of diaries or similar. I even had a go at doing that with a version of Harvest Moon once, but it turned out to be a terrible idea. But the way he brings the place and the people to life is subtly very clever, and it was just a very enjoyable read. Naturally some credit must go to the game’s developers for creating a world so rich and alive that it bears this kind of reportage!
It also reminded me that I’ve not yet spent enough time with Skyrim yet to decide how I really feel about it. I had visions of being able to do something similar to the above article by mincing around the game, looking around the various settlements and treating it like a little holiday. I also had in mind the concept of the newest Assassin’s Creed game that has a tourist mode – it’s set in ancient Egypt, and although it initially has the usual cutthroat assassiny goodness, it now has this update that allows the player to simply go about the world observing the ways of its people and not having to do any of the fighting or level grinding the main game requires.
Alas, as I Googled ‘Skyrim combat free’, I realised that such a function was not present here. The nearest I found was this chucklesome column in which the player tried to do just that, only they still had to use spells to at least enable them to outrun danger if not remove combat entirely.
Still, I spent some time in Skyrim this week and, although I felt a familiar reluctance wash over me as the loading screens spoke of dragons and spells and orcs, I have to admit I love the world design. Solitude looks stunning – from the architecture of individual buildings, to how it is all laid out in a very organic way. It’s a very believable settlement, and the scale is overwhelming in the number of buildings one can enter.
There are a good number of other characters milling about – guards with snarky one-liners just biding their time in the cold night air, traders plying their wares, and drunkards loitering outside taverns telling tall stories of past adventures.
The lighting complements it all beautifully, whether in daylight or at night when the stars come out, a vast moon looms overhead, and occasionally a spellbinding aurora fades into view. As you’ll note from the slight pixellation above, I was dying for the Xbox 360 to have a screenshot function, but alas it doesn’t. Maybe that’s for the best; I’d spend far too long taking snaps as I went about the place. (I started to do this in GTA:V, but the process for uploading them was ever-so-slightly clunky, so I soon stopped bothering.)
I set myself the task of doing a task or two in Skyrim, to spend half an hour or so in the world, playing the actual game. And I did okay, although it just feels like there’s too much. Too much to learn, too much to know, too much to remember. And although I’m sure I could ignore certain things, it feels like I have a fundamental understanding of how the game plays.
For one thing, I kept accidentally unlocking/starting quests. I get that this is an open-ended game without a linear progression. But it gets a bit confusing not knowing which path I should be on. It’s fairly clear that ‘frightened woman’ and ‘drunkard outside tavern’ are side quests that are just there to fill your time, but I was stuck not knowing whether to storm a bandit-filled fortress or to go and retrieve an unknown object from an unknown place.
And then I fell foul of the world itself: it’s bloody gigantic, and the fact that it’s so organic and well designed means it’s actually quite easy to get lost.
Many of these problems are my own fault. I want to ‘get into’ the game. I want to play it. I want to progress. But I also realise that wayfinding and exploring and making personal decisions about which quest to follow are the game. Right? Just don’t get me started on having to learn spells or keep up to date with my inventory and so on.
This throwaway line in a Nintendo Switch round-up resonated with me, particularly as I had similar issues with Fallout: New Vegas:
That moment when playing Skyrim, scaling a mountain and seeing all that heady scale unfurl before you on a handheld. Followed by the moment, shortly afterwards, when you realise you don’t really like Bethesda games all that much and you just spunked away £49.99 to play a game you didn’t particularly enjoy five years ago.
Anyway. I’ll give it another whirl when I’ve got an hour spare.
Another game I decided to try out for the first time this week was Chrono Trigger (don’t worry – not the mobile or new PC version). But my current summary can be whittled down to “I just basically don’t like RPGs, no matter how beautiful they look.”
This weekend was nice and wholesome. Some cooking and baking, which included assembly of some smørrebrød on Saturday morning, and trying, and failing, trying again, failing again, and then finally succeeding in making some cinnamon rolls.
We haven’t baked much in this flat. Megan has loads of great equipment and is by all accounts a pretty decent baker. But it’s rare that we get the rolling pin out and do what I would describe as ‘proper’ baking. But this weekend on a flip through a Nigella recipe book, we alighted on her Norwegian cinnamon rolls. We were aware that it was quite a longwinded recipe (‘proper’ baking, remember), but also that we had a Saturday afternoon spare to roll up our sleeves and dig out the Kenwood.
Anyway, somewhere between that casual flip through a recipe book, and us stuffing our faces in front of a film on Saturday night, something truly uncanny happened. I’ll save the 900-page epic for another day, but the short version is this: digital scales can be off. I don’t just mean not correctly calibrated. I mean not calibrated properly from being powered on. How likely this is, I do not know. I only know it took us two lots of dough to realise something was amiss.
Reader, putting something with a known weight on a digital scale and it reading out the incorrect weight is an absolutely headfuck. I weighed about five more things. I started to try and work out how long it had been giving the wrong weights. How many other recipes it had subtly ruined. How I had been deceived for so long. I wondered if I could trust the glowing LED clock on the oven underneath.
It was all very unsettling.
But the good news is that we persevered, and we made some of the best cinnamon rolls I’ve ever eaten.
Ironic, then, that the movie we scoffed them to was one of sheer human endurance in the face of a seemingly impossible task. Yes, we watched The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young. And what a story it tells. As a documentary, it works pretty well given the tricky filming conditions. It’s supported by a strong cast of oddballs, visionaries, competitors and other misfits.
Without giving too much away – just find it and watch it, it’s a hoot – it tells the story of a unique sporting event (and in particular the 2012 event) in which forty entrants compete to complete five loops of a forest/mountain/wilderness course something like 20 miles in length. It involves navigating, climbing, descending, running, hiking, traversing a storm drain under a prison (I shit you not), and just enduring all this, up to five times in a row, over the course of sixty hours with as much sleep and recovery as your previous attempt allows before you must set out again. The event draws competitors from around the world, who all go through a bizarre application process before assembling and waiting for the unspecified start signal to strike.
It’s a great film. Gripping. And you watch through your fingers wondering, ridiculously, how much of it you could comfortably tackle.
This was the second of two films we watched this weekend, after Wild. Megan had recently read the memoir the film is based on, but I came to the film cold, and I loved it. It tells the story very capably of what it’s like to go on a long, solitary walk, and the mindset of the walker embarking upon it, and the vast amounts of baggage – both literal and figurative – that she took along the way.
I am quite fascinated by films like Wild that try to tell a true story, and that have been produced by, or with the cooperation of, the people involved. I’m thinking of films such as Almost Famous or Apollo 13 – from both ends of the spectrum of ‘personal’ versus ‘global’ story. It can just make for a much more interesting story-behind-the-story, especially if paired with a good documentary or director’s commentary.
On Sunday, not that Wild or The Barkley Marathons had inspired us at all, we set out on the London LOOP again. This time we tackled two sections in one day. It was a fairly tall order, but we’re planning on walking the South Downs Way in a couple of month’s time, so it seemed like a good opportunity to stretch the legs and get an 18-mile day in and see where any problems may lie. It also helped that the snow was quickly disappearing and the air felt positively mild after a week of sub-zero temperatures and a sharp windchill.
Section three of the LOOP goes from Petts Wood to Hayes, and section four continues on to Croydon. Two very enjoyable sections, with the latter consisting of a surprising amount of woodland and rural settings.
I’m sure I wouldn’t be alone in saying that when I think of Croydon I don’t think of ‘farmland’, ‘golf courses’ and ‘pockets of ancient woodland’. Sorry Croydon. That’s all changed now. Well, almost. Your weird Emerald City skyline still looms in the distance and – yay, trams! But – boo, no service!
The panoramic views back to London including Wembley stadium, the Shard, and transmitter towers was also pretty ace even on a grey day.
In general, something I found endlessly surprising about the Capital Ring, and that I continue to love about the London LOOP, is how you can emerge through a thick hedgerow, having stomped through miles of mud until you find yourself at a TfL bus stop and good transport links back to the centre of town.
Fortunately this was true for the end of section four – well, a kilometre or so short of the end, at least. Unfortunately even though the days continue to get longer, we were caught out by the quickly darkening skies and we had to cut our walk short. We had to choose between a busy, unlit road followed by fields, or to double back along a known, sheltered bridleway to the nearest buses – a pretty easy decision in the end. A smattering of photographs from the two sections is below. One of the last sights of interest before the daylight completely faded was the distinctive movement and white tail of a deer in Selsdon Wood.
But what a day. Long, varied, surprising, satisfying – and very encouraging, as it reminded us both that with even better prep and much longer days, we will be able to tackle 20+ mile days on the South Downs Way without too much trouble.