2018 Weeknote 8

I’m quite enjoying the opportunity to record these weeks as they fly by – they don’t seem to go any slower by me doing this, but at least I’m able to half-capture them before they completely pass me by. We continue to march onward towards spring – this week the sunrise shifted to being earlier than 7am and the sunset later than 1730, which feels like another of those little milestones on our way to summer.

The weather remains decidedly wintry, with some very cold and clear spells, and some occasional icy cold showers. The temperature is set to drop further soon, so we are not out of the woods yet. But as long as I’m dressed for it, I love this kind of weather.

A few interesting bits at work, including dropping some keys off at some houses whose owners have access to some private land that we own. That felt like a very estate-y job to do – and getting to grips with those pockets of land we manage is always helpful to me. I also took a phone call from one very concerned resident who informed me that a car had driven over a very important area of our land. Thankfully the damage was minimal, and the remedy was more kick-some-soil-with-my-boot than re-landscape-the-whole-area. Still a useful reminder that wherever you go, there are always idiots around with nothing better to do.

Not much reading or film-watching done this week. That said, I have put some more time into Mini Metro, which has become my go-to mobile time-waster app of choice. The player must plot urban light rail links between stations that procedurally pop up as time goes on, and the ‘city’ gets more and more busy and complex. The games can be relatively short, and the game strikes a nice balance between feeling essentially random while still feeling like you can chuck some tactics at it.

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Mini Metro

What I’ve really enjoyed is the way the game has many (many!) ‘city’ models based on real-world cities, so in one you might have many short stops packed together in a small area, and in another you benefit from faster links serving very long lines. In most, the balance must be maintained between the number of trains in service, bridges/tunnels used to cross water, and how the lines interconnect depending on the type of passengers at each type of station.

I also looked into some guides to the game written by other players. As with all these things, there’s a mixture of snake oil and absolutely solid advice. Mostly it’s the kind of game I don’t mind figuring out as I learn to play. If I was doing badly every time, I’d start to wonder what I’m doing wrong, but as it goes, I think I’ve got it sussed.

Banished, meanwhile, is a trickier beast. I had a few more faltering sessions lately, including one where somehow, perplexingly, my citizens just completely ran out of food, and a particularly harsh winter struck. This immediately killed off first the children of the settlement, and then  the various food-gatherers, which only exacerbated the situation.

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Banished

I realised I could go back to a previous savegame of that town – not quite cheating, and I think permissible while I’m still learning the game – and tried to focus my efforts on food gathering. This went okay, but of course the game’s engine was still on a collision course with a very cold winter.

This time, although my citizens were well-fed and mostly hid indoors instead of doing their sodding jobs, I quickly realised that I hadn’t amassed enough firewood. One by one – and starting with the children, always starting with the poor children – they inevitably all began to freeze to death.

I have read glowing reviews of the game that where Banished is gripping and entertaining while the settlement grows, it suffers from a lack of end-game or narrative. I guess, then, in my muddling through the relatively early stages of the game, that is the game, in essence. Although the player is always striving towards equilibrium – or, dare I say it, flourishing success – it’s more about the journey than the destination.

Meanwhile, I struggle to sustain settlements of more than about thirty citizens, and I notice that in the absence of a narrative or any real milestones, the game does off some achievements when the player reaches a certain level. When I saw that the very first of these achievements is raising a settlement of three hundred citizens, I realised that I still have quite some way to go.

Both Mini Metro and Banished are a certain type of game – real time strategy (RTS), perhaps, or the more clunky ‘resources and placement versus the clock’. I grew up obsessed with other RTS games like Age of Empires II, C&C Red Alert 1/2, Transport Tycoon, Theme Park/Hospital and so on, and both the aforementioned games appeal to me in similar ways to these.

In broadcasting this week I was quite delighted to stumble on Chris Moyles’ morning show on Radio X on Thursday which was being done live from the London Eye. I have a strange fondness for Moyles; although I don’t particularly enjoy his style of presenting, it does have a very easygoing air to it, and I’ve enjoyed following his progress ever since tuning in to his late night shows on Capital way back when.

But it was the novelty of cramming an outside broadcast studio into one of the London Eye’s pods that captured my imagination. This combined nicely with the Eye’s inherent 30-minute cycles, which gave the crew a chance to nip out for a piss, and to let the show’s guests change over, swapping out a Warwick Davis for a pair of Wombats, for example.

I was pleased to read brief reviews of the show from other listeners: here was something a bit different, a bit fun, and it had some of the edgy magic that live radio can still convey.

I was disappointed to learn this week that Channel 4 have removed their HD channel from the Freesat platform. I haven’t the time to go into what this really means and why they’ve done it, but it came as a surprising blow to what seemed like a sustainable, forward-looking system. It was a slight wake-up call, too, when it is easy to idly wonder why we don’t just have a completely HD line-up of almost all channels on all systems in 2018. Alas, there are pressures of capacity and inherent costs in broadcasting such ‘big’ streams.

And I also read recently that the BBC will probably never get round to sorting out the weird problem of not having local news on their HD channels. All these little episodes just serve to remind that although it can seem mad that we can’t just crank up the quality or the coverage or the output, there’s usually politics or money or poor decisions made earlier in the process standing in the way.

A busy weekend started with a Friday evening trip to the V&A museum with work colleagues. We had tickets for the Winnie the Pooh exhibition and although my knowledge of those stories is quite limited, I can’t resist the opportunity to see such an exhibition, and it was a pleasure to go with such good company. That our visit coincided with the museum’s Lates event – this time entitled Pxssy Palace – raised a few eyebrows, but the atmosphere was busy and bustling, and we were still able to enjoy the exhibition itself.

It’s not a vast collection, but there was a sweetness to how it had been laid out which cleverly bridged the gap between making it a playground for children, and an interesting narrative for grown-ups. I was captivated by sketches, letters and notes made by Milne and Shepard, including hand-drawn maps, and recollections of trips to local woods when casting about for locations. It’s always heartening to see such collections of sketches and personal papers. It really makes you wonder at the size of the collections these exhibitions must draw upon. I also enjoyed a couple of items which showed the ‘animation’ in a series of still sketches, brought to life in GIF form below. We capped off the trip with a decent Indian curry and a few bottles of wine. A most pleasant way to spend a Friday evening.

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As often happens with exhibitions like these, I found myself taken with one small element I could have easily missed: one section described the process of taking the delicate pencil sketches and turning them into illustrations for the books. A fairly simple, integral process, but one I wanted to understand more about. This led to me taking out several books from the library the next morning on printing, typography and printmaking.

This impromptu trip the library was book-ended with first a short run and then a delicious brunch at nearby The Petite Corée, who use a subtle blend of European and Korean cooking. My smoked salmon had a yuzu dressing which was delightfully sharp and fresh.

I then did a little more website admin on two sites I’m currently working on. As with these sorts of projects, the tail-end tends to be a slower process of smaller tweaks, as opposed to the initial rush of big milestones.

Saturday was a celebration at a Hammersmith bar for some of Megan’s friends. We had a lovely time chatting with various people – old friends and new ones. And then Sunday was a sunny trip to Kent for Sunday dinner with Megan’s family. I can’t remember when I last had roast duck breast, but I’m determined to have it again very soon. It was exquisite. I felt like a medieval king by the end of it, with all the meat, cheese and wine I’d consumed.

2018 Weeknote 7

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A slightly different pattern to the week, with Megan off for half term. It meant for slightly longer lie-ins and some spontaneous activities.

The first of which was a trip to the cinema after work on Monday. We went to see Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri* and we really enjoyed it. Neither of us had expected the level of violence, having only seen quite a glib, chucklesome cut in the trailer.

We enjoyed picking a few holes in the plot and some of the characters afterwards, but overall it was a romping experience with some laugh-out-loud moments, and some hide-your-face-in-your-hands violence, and some right-in-the-feels sentimentality.

Personally, I was on board from the moment I saw the shot which directly lined up the window of the Ebbing Advertising office and the police station across the road.

* I agonised over the capitalisation of ‘outside’ here – the web generally does so, but I distinctly remember that the film’s own title card kept it lower case. The posters generally seem to be all-caps.

Spontaneous trips to the cinema are usually a great idea, particularly when I’ve had a gift card burning a hole in my wallet since last May. That being said, spontaneous trips to Vue on a Monday are an especially good idea, as it’s only £4.99 a ticket rather, than £14.99.

If you ask me, a fiver is too cheap and fifteen quid is too much. Can we strike a deal and call it £7.49 whenever I fancy seeing a film? Joking apart, the other pleasant surprise was the quality of Vue’s premises: clean, modern, comfortable, and terrific audio and visual systems.

Tuesday was World Radio Day, apparently. I don’t much go in for ‘World X Days’ as it is – particularly when, what can I say, every day is World Radio Day for me. That said, this week I finally received the pocket DAB receiver which had been the cause of some angst the previous week due to terrible communications from the seller. So it was nice – and a novelty – to walk to work listening to a mixture of BBC 6 Music, Radio X, Resonance FM  and BBC Radio 4, and with plenty more at my fingertips. Naturally, my smartphone gives me oodles more choice, but there’s just something so beguiling about it all coming over the air.

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The radio – a Majority (what?) Romsey (what?!)* – is a decent little unit, although its design is a bit uninspiring, and it feels very light in the hand. Not the worst criticism for a pocket device, but it’s light and boxy to the point of feeling weirdly hollow. It has a roughly 10-hour internal battery, but the ’emptiness’ of the case means it feels like it could take a much larger capacity one.

* The state of the DAB radio market in the UK today is a weird one. I expect I’ll spend a thousand words elsewhere on the subject, but suffice it to say that some of the market-leading radios besides Roberts and Pure are the VQ Blighty and the various models made by a brand called Majority, including the Romsey, the Petersfield, and the Madingley Hall. Apparently, radios are now named after Tudorbethan semis with the St George flag fluttering in the driveway.

Naming conventions aside, the Romsey has very decent sensitivity, and it has performed well in the short time I’ve been using it. I have noticed that the menu/interface can be a bit buggy. It’s best not to disturb it for the few seconds while it’s locking on to a new station, for instance. I’ll continue to test it out in various scenarios, but I’m content with what I’ve seen (and heard) so far, for the price.

Workwise, I had a few estate inspections to make, and a nice meeting with one of our allotment folks. It also brings to mind that I’m leading a walking tour in the summer on the subject of our open spaces, so I’m starting to think about how to frame that, and where to go.

I took Wednesday off, which broke up the week nicely, and Megan and I went to Oxford for the day. I’d only been once, ten years ago, and I took few pictures, got rather lost, and I was hot and bothered, it being a sunny, busy day.

This time it was grey, damp, and relatively quiet, and we had a good old look around. We followed a decent walking tour which took in some of the central sights. And we had a quick look around the Ashmolean Museum, following their own guide to their top ten exhibits. This worked a treat as we managed to see some great stuff, get a feel for the layout, and now I can’t wait to go back and spend a little more time exploring. I even came away from the gift shop with an apron with a Minoan octopus design on it.

The walking tour was nice and compact, too. We’d been considering a much longer route which got out of the centre a bit more, but this one combined with some stops for cake and beer was the perfect length. We made it up the Carfax Tower for a view of Oxford’s many spires, university buildings and, currently, rainbow flags. And we took in a number of fine doorways, arches, passageways and edifices, many in that gorgeous hue of local stone.

As well as gawping at some of the truly magnificent architecture, we also made it to three pubs and two cafes, which isn’t bad going.

Of the latter, the Vaults & Garden Cafe in Radcliffe Square was a lovely place to stop for tea and scones, and the Nosebag on St Michael’s Street was a wonderfully homely source of many different cakes. Both also do a certain amount of savoury dishes too, if you need a quick lunch.

Pub-wise, I had been told, emphatically, by no less than three friends all at once, to visit the Turf Tavern, and I’m glad we did. Its layout has an olde-worlde feel and reminds me a little of Ye Olde Mitre in Hatton Garden. It also does decent student-pub style grub, and we stopped for burgers.

Before that, we’d popped into the Eagle and Child on St Giles’ street for a quick pint and a recce, admiring some of the literary adornments scattered about the place. Its associations with the Inklings writers’ group are worn proudly on its sleeve.

And in between our long wander and the train home, we spent a pleasant hour or so at the Bear Inn, on Alfred Street. This traditional pub would be lovely enough even without its own quirks plastered all over the walls: framed off-cuts of ties, each given to the landlord in exchange for half a pint. They each have a small tag identifying the previous owner and the ties allegiance, and it makes for a fascinating display which seems to cover almost every wall and ceiling. The tradition has apparently stopped, but the dates of the many thousands of ties on show seem to cover a period around the 1960s and 1970s.

I finished Robin Sloan’s Sourdough on the way to Oxford. It was a breezy read, never taking itself too seriously, but taking what could have been quite a pedestrian plot and turning it quite unexpectedly. I enjoy Sloan’s love of secret societies, and gently skewering Silicon Valley culture.

And reader, speaking of culture, I’m not ashamed to admit that over the course of me reading Sourdough, I attempted for the first time to make not just one but two starters. Neither succeeded. Unbowed, I will continue the experiments. (Probably without the music of the Mazg, but golly this article on the book’s ‘soundtrack’ is a fun read.)

This weekend I did some cooking and some baking (including a loaf, some sushi, and another attempt at a double down burger, sorrynotsorry). I also played about six hours of Banished, which is very much in my wheelhouse and I’m itching to continue to learn its complexities, and I watched the 1989 film The Wizard.

Probably the least strange thing about this film is the presence of a sassy 13-year-old Jenny Lewis. Elsewhere, we have a surprisingly solid cast, an escapist fantasy child-led road trip across the US, weirdly accurate references and product placements for 1980s videogames icons, and it all culminates in a videogame competition which also purports to be the unveiling of Super Mario Bros. 3 in the west. If that wasn’t enough movie for your money, the film’s ultimate conclusion – handled with a surprising level of sensitivity – also sews up a subplot concerning a dead sibling.

Also in videogames, M and I continue to make good progress in Portal 2, which remains some of the most fun I’ve had with the medium. The puzzles are relatively simple, but the level of style with which they’re packaged makes it a thoroughly enjoyable experience. And there are so many levels included in what could so easily have been a throwaway local multiplayer afterthought. We’re about two-thirds of the way through and I’m damned if I know what we’re going to play together once we finish this.

We capped the week off with a Sunday night jog round the neighbourhood. We saw an urban fox, some pretty houses, and the distant BAFTA searchlights tracing the clouds high above our heads.

Here are a few snaps from Oxford:

2018 Weeknote 5

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Image from A London Year

What a busy week it’s been. Truly sticking it to January, I was. I think after too long these short days and dark evenings get to you and you just start to do things almost to spite it. I even managed two runs home.

Now February is here, perhaps there’s been a surge of energy, willing Spring to come along sooner. It’s also been nice to start a new month as it means turning the page in this lovely little book, which talks all about weather, the night sky, food, plants and folklore.

Workwise, I’ve had my head buried in the General Data Protection Regulation trying to work out how much of it applies to us. A lot, it turns out. There’s a bit of work to do, but it’s all fairly systematic and understandable and I don’t mind tackling it. It makes me think about things on a different level, too, with implications beyond just policy. It actually makes one consider people and other processes, too. I suppose it appeals to the side of me that quite likes rules and systems and processes.

To that end, a colleague and I attended a seminar on the subject in London which was helpful and got our minds going in terms of how it applies to us. It was also just really nice to be ‘forced’ into Central London on a weekday evening. The trip was bookended by witnessing an unusual chinook flight overhead and a post-wine meander across London Bridge looking either side and remembering that London is indeed okay.

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A few of my usual estate inspections this week, too. A utility company needed to dig a hole in one of our roads, so I’ve been keeping an eye on that. And about the most estate-management-thing that I did all week: clawing at fistfuls of damp earth, trying to locate an allotment water meter before realising it was actually located under a neat cover just nearby.

Mid-week we had supermegadeathmoon which did indeed stop me and my colleagues in our tracks: on our way to the pub, we stopped several times to take pictures on camera with lenses and sensors far to small to even replicate the unusualness of it all. It’s humbling but apt to realise how this very subtle difference in ‘size’ of a celestial object can have such an impact on our feeble monkey brains.

We celebrated the moon’s engorgement with the traditional scotch egg, cheese, platter of meats and red wine.

In radio this week, I learned about a self-described ‘pop-up’ DAB radio station which plays out repetitive sounds including tumble dryers etc to soothe babies to sleep. It reminded me of the Birdsong DAB station and got me looking into how such a station can exist.

I was recently made aware of the ‘trial’ London DAB multiplex as I’d been trying to see if I could get Resonance FM at home (I can – just barely), and of course, there are a number of other mini multiplex trials (also known as minimuxes) around the UK. A lot of them are trialling quite innovative systems, from using the newer DAB+ codecs (better efficiency and sound quality) to pioneering new ideas of what a radio station can be.

It also led to me learning about Upload Radio, where Joe Bloggs can record an hour of radio, upload it to a server to be moderated, and pay £20 to have it played out on a local DAB station. It’s an idea so ‘obvious’ but so great that I’m just thrilled to know it exists. Ditto the programmatic local weather services that just suck in Met Office data and use pre-recorded snippets to play it out. This is all done via cloud servers and is about as stripped-back a radio service as I can imagine.

What I’ve realised is that there is a lot of innovation occurring in the ten trial DAB multiplexes as much in terms of the business models as the actual output. Some are simply enabling a re-broadcast of community/local stations, but others are taking a look at the rather expensive, commercial side of getting on DAB and tearing apart the rulebook and I love it.

Later on this week I was thrilled to see an Ofcom licence awarded to Skylark, a Dartmoor-based setup which aims to broadcast field and folk recordings locally. I believe this is actually via FM, proving that innovation is taking place all over the place on radio.

I can’t resist the local angle on the radio – that a station can exist in a particular time or place. Of course, it’s fabulous that via the web one can just tune into any station and get a local flavour. But knowing the constraints of local broadcasting makes it all the more fascinating to actually be in the reception zone for a unique broadcast. I’m pleased to see Skylark, much like Sleepyhead did, has gathered a fair amount of press interest.

I assume I’ll be able to listen to Skylark on the web – but how much cooler to be within the FM broadcast area.

Finally in radio for this week, I happened to catch James and Nicky from the Manics on 6Music on Friday, sitting in for Iggy Pop. They played some fantastic music and it made me realise how rarely I listen to music radio these days. Not necessarily a bad thing, but a lovely reminder all the same of what’s out there.

Two things I enjoyed reading this week: Paul Stamatiou’s novella-length write-up of building a PC geared towards Lightroom, and I started Robin Sloan’s Sourdough, which I’ve enjoyed the first few chapters of. It feels familiar, somehow, having read Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, although for whatever reason I never finished that one.

This continues to amuse me whenever we happen to catch it on TV:

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After finishing Super Mario Land 2 last week, I made a start on the sequel, the first Wario game proper. I’ve only played a short while and it’s kind of got a different feel to it. Different flow. But it’s still great to play a game like this for the first time.

We also played more Trials Fusion (Megan is getting great at this and it’s fun to watch – Trials causes such twitchy fingers as you watch someone else attempt something that you’re SURE you could do – but then you try and fail just the same).

The big success this week has been trying out Portal 2‘s two-player co-op mode, which is surprisingly well-written and full-featured. It works really well as a two-player puzzler. Words can’t describe the joy I felt upon initiating my first infinite loop – truly one of my favourite moments in videogaming.

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This, followed by the use of the ‘see-saw’ bouncing platform also brought back fond memories of Circus Atari which, along with the use of those weird analogue ‘paddle’ controllers, was a very early taster of physics in videogames.

I also played a bit of Wipeout Pure on PSP this weekend, which I forgot made me very competitive. I like a bit of Mario Kart, but Wipeout‘s pulsing dance music soundtrack and insane high speeds (and high FPS) are pretty addictive.

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Why did I have time to play PSP this weekend? Well, I was on the train for a quite bit of it…

Y’see, my buddy John Tucker mentioned a few months ago that he was to attend his first ever comic festival (as an artist or an attendee), and I just had to get involved. But secretly.

For, you see, getting the upper hand on John isn’t easy.

So this weekend involved me hopping on a train to Cheltenham and going to said comic festival solely to show up at John’s stall and see his curmudgeonly face turn, however briefly, to one of genuine shock and surprise. It was very much worth it.

20180203_130028-4506016-scaled-7889386More on Cheltenham, and Sunday’s walk, to come…

Game review – Attack of the Friday Monsters: A Tokyo Tale

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I recently finished Attack of the Friday Monsters: A Tokyo Tale on 2DS.

I’d stumbled on it in lists of 2/3DS games worth checking out that were a little off the beaten track. I’d also read that it was a relatively short game, and occasionally sold with quite a discount in the Nintendo eShop. So I decided to check it out.

It’s a gorgeous little game in which you control a small boy wandering around a small town speaking to people, picking up orbs that you use in an in-game game, and generally trying to progress the story.

In terms of gameplay it’s part point-and-click and part visual novel. The story itself is initially very sweet and silly – a decent rendering of the imagination of a ten-year-old child making their own fun in a small town. It progresses into a weird, semi-fictional climax that you’re left wondering whether it’s ‘real’ in the game, or just a further extension of the hyperactive mind of a young child. Perhaps it doesn’t matter.

It’s also, for that reason, a fairly shallow and childish story. There are some elements of family/fatherly pride thrown in, and the white lies parents tell their children, but it’s really all quite two dimensional. You’re basically thrown into a 1970s small town where all is quite sleepy, and the majority of the residents bide their time during the week until the broadcast of the Friday evening monster show on TV.

Story aside, the game’s general ambience is what won me over. It features beautiful ‘painted’ backgrounds and there’s a constant small-town soundtrack with buzzing cicadas, chattering locals, and the surprisingly frequent train and level-crossing sounds. It’s soothing and does well to transport the player to a small Japanese town. Headphones recommended.

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(Irritating side rant: I’m unable to take screenshots in this game. Some 2/3DS games let you take them natively. Others you can utilise a workaround where you post to MiiVerse first. But this only works for games with a MiiVerse community, which (bafflingly!) AotFM lacks. So I’ve had to grab the ones you see hear from the web, along with some related artwork.)

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The in-game game I mentioned is just a little semi-random Top Trumps-style card battling system which is basically of no consequence in the game’s story (apart from once). But it’s a cute little extra addition to the world of the children, and it pushes the player to explore the town in search of the glowing orbs that are collected to top up the cards.

The story takes quite a sharp turn towards the end – the ‘Friday Monsters’ of the game’s title make something of an appearance, and you’re left feeling a bit disconnected from the simplicity of running round with your friends wearing a backpack. It doesn’t ruin the game by any means, but it comes as quite a surprise. In many ways it’s the right plot twist for this game.

Overall, it’s a lovely little game. I’d stop short of repeating the line from other reviews that draw comparisons with Studio Ghibli films. It’s not quite there, but it’s in the same neighbourhood.

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The biggest drawback – which I entered into knowing full well – is the game’s diminutive length. I kept putting off playing it as I knew it would be over in one sitting, and that was basically the case. My play-time journal reports between two and three hours’ play, which is about on par with what I’d read. And that’s from the word go to the end of the story and the credits having rolled. The game’s value for money is questionable on a time/cost graph but you have to consider its charm as well, and this is a strong feature of AotFM.

I could probably squeeze out another 30 minutes or so by collecting the few remaining cards and having some unnecessary card battles, but I’m not sure I will. To be fair, it would be worth it to just hear a few minutes of cicada-buzz, or the soft dinging of the railway level crossing. Playing through the story again would be pretty dull as there are no real options. The game uses ‘chapters’ – there are twenty-six of them – but they’re short, and they overlap, so you can be working through four or five at once, and complete one just by talking to someone, for example.

I want more of this game. And games like it.

I loved Shenmue on Dreamcast, but never got very far with it. The game’s story and ‘combat’ wasn’t so interesting to me, but the ambience and sense of place was palpable.

More recently I have developed a bit of a crush on the teenage girl life-sim Life is Strange. And I’m the type of guy to fire up Red Dead Redemption or Just Cause 2 and simply head down a rough trail until I reach a rocky point from which to watch the clouds roll overhead.

The maker of AotFM was previously involved with a Japan-only series named Boku no Natsuyasumi which seems strikingly similar to this game in terms of visual style and gameplay. It’s a shame that those games are Japanese language only, and by their very nature rely on text to drive the story. They look like exactly the kind of thing I want to sink a few hours into, but I’ll have to keep looking.