random thoughts to oil the mind

Tag: Review Page 1 of 16

2019 in Review

Another year, and time again to look back over 12 months of consumed media. Following on from 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018, here’s another summary of what I’ve been reading, watching and playing over the past year.

Summary

PC games played: numerous

Best PC games: Abzü, Overcooked 1/2, Risk of Rain, Firewatch, Battalion 1944, We Were Here Too, Hard West

Worst PC games: Prison Architect, Lethis – Path of Progress, Rage, A Story About My Uncle, The Last Express

Board games played: 41 (81 plays)

Best board games: Decrypto, In the Year of the Dragon, Unfinished Case of Holmes, Codenames: Duet

Worst board games: Sherlock: Whereabouts Unknown, The Mind

Films watched: 41

Best films: Her, Hunger, Senna, Doubt, Star Wars, Jurassic Park

Worst films: Suicide Squad, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Books read: 48

Best books: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion , Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, The Comedians, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor, Bad Science, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Battle Cry of Freedom

Worst books: Cybercrime And The Darknet, No Need for Geniuses: Revolutionary Science in the Age of the Guillotine

A Year in Gaming

Another twelve months down the line, and not much has changed on the multiplayer gaming front. Counter-Strike: Global Operations remains our go-to watering hole of a Thursday, despite the incessant wave of cheating accusations that accompanies it. I still play Quake Champions occasionally, though it normally takes me a season to play all my placement matches, and so my rank is only visible for a while before it gets reset. Similarly I play the odd game of Heroes of the Storm, but haven’t done any ranked matches this year as far as I can remember.

Apart from the usual suspect, we played a few weeks of Paladins in recent months, which was a nice distraction and fairly enjoyable. It reminded me a blend of Team Fortress 2 with some extra layers of complexity a là Overwatch, but without the same level of seriousness. Certainly there seemed to be lots of players of dubious skill level on there, so maybe once we reach a ranked level, the matches might be more regularly challenging, rather than alternating between walkovers and walkunders. That is if we ever go back to it!

In the background we’ve been playing some Civ VI in the new PBEM variety, two games in parallel thanks to Benno quitting the first one before it had been set up! With Tesh’s rash exit from the second game, both were soon down to three players, so we’ve been progressing fairly fast, and the new cloud save system is a vast improvement on sending save files around. I have to say, I’m not particularly enjoying the game though, and it reminds me of how things went in our old games of Civ III; an interesting start until you realise what vital resource you’re lacking, a moment of dispair when you realise all the iron is in your neighbour’s back yard, then someone quits and we start again. I’m pretty much just clicking through my turns waiting for the games to end, though it could still take some time. But I’ll probably write something about that separately.

For solo gaming, I did squeeze in a few interesting titles this year. Abzü and Firewarch stand out for being somewhat less ordinary, I suppose basically both of them pure exploratory adventure games, the latter even carrying the moniker of a ’walking simulator’. Relaxing, intriguing, beautiful to behold, both offer a short diversion of a few hours that doesn’t overstay its welcome and definitely places a different slant on what you expect of a computer game. Another game of a similar ilk I tried was A Story About My Uncle, which was however more of a freaky platformer and fell rather flat with me.

A few more worthwhile mentions for the year: Hard West is an XCOM-style tactical shooter set in the American west, with several short campaigns which are interesting enough in their own right, and only consist of a few short missions. An enjoyable game, even if I didn’t get particularly far in it. Risk of Rain was a fun multiplayer roguelike platformer, which had us struggling to beat it the few evenings it appeared on the menu. Quick to pick up and play, with that ’oh just one more try!’ that comes with failure in roguelikes. Battalion 1944 scratches the itch that Day of Defeat left, and is actually a pretty competent shooter in its own right, though it has some very annoying movement mechanics that slightly detract from my enjoyment. We Were Here Too, the sequel to a puzzle game I think I reviewed here some years back, was a pretty straightforward but nevertheless enjoyable escape room relying on asymmetric knowledge, where communication is the key, as well as a bit of lateral thinking. And finally I can’t leave 2019 without mentioning the Overcooked games, which Ric introduced me to in spring, and which Steffi became addicted to and had us spending many an evening finely honing our tactics to unlock an elusive fourth star. It was actually quite impressive how we would barely scrape enough points to clear the three-star requirement, and yet we’d practice and practice until we could jump the four-star hurdle which was twice as high. Certainly helped being able to stream this to the TV in the lounge and play it on a controller.

Didn’t play any particularly terrible games this year, but one vague disappointment was trying to play through The Last Express. It’s one of those overlooked gems from the mid/late 90s, with a unique art style and ambitious gameplay, an adventure with real-time elements and multiple different endings. I imagine if I’d played it at the time, I’d have had the patience (and the boredom!) to explore every nook and cranny, trying to get through every ending, and never give up, but today I’m just too impatient and we couldn’t get into it at all.

A Year in Boardgaming

It hasn’t been a particularly great year for us in boardgaming with only 81 plays, certainly on the lower end for us, and there hasn’t really been very much new in all that. The Exit Games series remains one of Steffi’s favourites, though I have to say I’ve played enough now that I’m not really excited by the prospect of any more. We’ve also played a fair number of other games of a similar ilk, and whilst some of them at least offer slightly different challenges, with many using an app so you have to enter the answers in a more detailed way than you can get with a three-digit code, there are still only so many ways you can hide a solution in a box of bits.

Still, we did see a few new games to the table this year. We had a lot of fun with two party-esque games in Codenames: Duet and Decrypto. The former is just a slight tweak on the earlier version, but I think makes the game more enjoyable overall; instead of playing in two teams against one another, you play in two teams cooperatively, with everyone being responsible for both making and guessing clues. Certainly worked for us. Decrypto on the other hand relies on teams of players communicating codes to one another using a common ’codebook’. But the other team always gets to hear the code too, and must try to intercept the message, so players not only have to come up with ever new clues for their partners, but also work out what the cryptic clues their opponents are giving could mean. It’s fairly easy to put together your own version to try out too!

A short mention to The Quacks of Quedlinburg which won the Kennerspiel des Jahres 2018. While a fun little push-your-luck game, I’m hard pressed to understand how it was the Kennerspiel, nor really how it won at all. We played it with 4 players and it felt like it wasn’t really designed well for that number, with the starting two players able to capitalise on the cheaper chits and the other players then locked out of certain tactics. Otherwise the game was basically like an elaborate game of Pontoon, each player holding a bag and deciding whether to keep drawing or hold their current scores – twist or stick?!

There wasn’t really anything that I didn’t enjoy playing this year. We had a few lacklustre escape room games, both from Exit games series and others, but they’re generally one-off games which still have some entertainment value and don’t overlast their welcome. One game we’ve started playing as a filler is The Mind, which I really can’t rate and always feel is a bit of a waste of time. Basically 100 cards in total, starting off with each player getting one, then without communicating they have to play them in ascending order; then the round repeats, each player getting two cards etc. There are a few rules with lives and special abilities, but this is a game you could easily play with a pack of regular playing games and is basically a game of "can you all count together in your heads at the same speed?" Yawn.

Another game I have to mention and I’m dead on the fence about is Detective. It’s pushing a bit really to describe it as a game: essentially the players take on the role of detectives and have to solve five cases. Each case has a stack of cards which the team can explore, plus there’s a detailed app database containing extra info on lots of characters and events in the game, and some puzzles even require a bit of Googling to find the answer. You then decide when you think you’ve got enough info to solve the case, and the app takes you through a few questions and tells you your score. Each case is unique, but they are all somehow interconnected, with the same characters and locations reappearing. What’s not to like? Well, for one thing the game comes with a board, different characters, some silly tokens and really a whole load of guff which is just absolutely unnecessary. There’s a board just for the sake of having a board which is supposed to indicate where the investigation team currently is, and moving around costs time, but quite frankly that makes no sense. Sure, it’s important to keep track of time, and I can see that there has to be a ’currency’ of sorts to force players to make decisions about how much to research or what leads to follow, but then each investigator has a certain number of ’special ability’ chips which only they can use at a certain time. But why? It just adds pointless cruft to the game, where all the fun comes from theorising, putting the pieces of the puzzle together, working out the who, what, where and why. Where’s the fun in not being able to read the back of a card because computer specialist John already looked at the back of a different card? The other major criticism is the way the time pressure in the game works: it’s fairly straightforward in principle, you have for example three days to solve the case, each day has 8 hours, and each lead you follow will cost a certain amount of time. But you don’t know how much time, and often the ’story’ has stupid things like traffic jams costing you extra hours all because… reasons! We’ve done three of the cases so far, and while the first felt too easy (maybe a nice introduction?) we completely failed the second two. I hope we return to it, because the actual story is very interesting and feels well constructed, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to wholeheartedly recommend it.

A Year in Cinema

Although we haven’t kept it up quite as religiously, Tuesday evening remains film night and we watched about 40 this year. A few films I hadn’t seen before stuck out, as well as a few rewatches.

Her with Joaquin Phoenix was fantastic, and I found it really interesting how the perception of talking to an intelligent AI massively reminded me of the uncorporeal minds of the early internet, back when cyberspace really felt like something distinct and separate from the real world, where other people were faceless intelligences in the void. The main character’s connection to his AI reminded me of some of my early experiences with people on the fledgling internet, people I would never see, never meet, and could only engage with through words.

On a less upbeat note, we watched Hunger about Bobby Sands and the Maze hunger strikes. It’s not a film I’d particularly recommend, decent acting and cinematography notwithstanding, as there isn’t really much substance to it that you don’t already know (if you know about the events). Nevertheless I found it particularly interesting to see how allergically Steffi reacted to the inmates’ decisions, a very visceral inability to see things from their perspective.

One film I enjoyed while Steffi was away one evening was the documentary of Senna. The first thing I ever heard about Senna was probably when he died, and remember the funeral in Brazil being broadcast on TV, probably on news reports, though at that stage I hadn’t really watched any F1 races and had only otherwise heard of Mansell. The film was an interesting look at his life, the controversies, the rivalries and the sport of F1 in general in the late 80s/early 90s.

Another dramatic outing which had some extremely good acting was Doubt, starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. There isn’t really very much in the way of ’action’, being based on a play, but it is not a surprise that all four main actors were nominated for an Oscar.

A couple of films I rewatched this year, just because they happened to be on telly, but which reminded me of how good they are, were the original Star Wars and Jurassic Park. Yes, Star Wars is relatively cheesy, yes it has some god-awful dialogue and dated cinematics, but the overarching storyline is simply good. The few plot holes can easily be put down to dramatic licence, almost everything in it makes sense within the universe Lucas created, and the result is a solid and enjoyable opener to the saga which stands alone in its own right and remains entirely watchable today. I already ranted about Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in another thread, but even trying to judge the films in their own right, which is obviously impossible, I’m not sure A New Hope comes off any worse for its age. I don’t think you could say the same about the moneymaker.

Jurassic Park is a similarly well constructed story. Watching it with a particular eye to the scriptwriting, it’s amazing how effortlessly the characters are introduced. The first few scenes lay the groundwork about who everyone is without any exposition, any uncharacteristic or irrational moments, and sow the seeds which will be harvested by the end of the film. Simplicity like that takes a lot of work, even if you only went to watch the film for the dinosaurs. The special effects are also still decent, I think the film was made just early enough to avoid the early wave of terrible CGI, but late enough that it stands up cinematographically.

In terms of stinkers, we sadly watched quite a few this year. Two comic book films stood out as being particularly awful, with Suicide Squad quite possibly winning my award for most pointless comic book film I’m seen to date. No drama, no character development, too many minor characters who had no purpose, exposition slapped on like it was directed at retards, there was nothing to like about this film beyond Harley Quinn (who was admittedly excellent). Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice wasn’t quite as awful, but had absolutely none of the drama of Nolan’s Batman films, none of the positivity of Reeve’s Superman, and Batman beat Superman (FFS!)

A Year in Books

I managed to smash previous records with more than 15,000 pages read this year and nearly a book a week. Maybe I should actually make that a target for 2020?

Among the hits for this year was an interesting work on psychology and morality entitled The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Not sure where I got the recommendation, but it’s a really fascinating look at how we consider questions of morality, how certain aspects can be measured on different axes, and where for example people on the right and left of the political spectrum differ is generally in how these axes are weighted and/or how they are interpreted, but a lot more binds the two together than separates them. Indeed, two things become clear from his thesis: that most decisions we make of a moral nature are first made, then justified (i.e. we feel something is wrong, and only later when asked to justify it do we come up with reasons, which generally don’t make any sense – cup of Brexit anyone?), and that today’s politically divided societies have more to do with people not talking to one another, than with actual radical differencies, i.e. things feel more polarised today because of social media echo chambers, rather than our views becoming radically different.

On a more upbeat and positivistic note, I finally got around to reading Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, a look at how computer games successfully manage to do what we in society really need to learn from. Some of what the book covers is a bit wayward and comes from her research work, but a lot of the core message is sound and has very interesting implications for everyday life. Nothing much of it is new, but the book summarises it fairly succinctly: gaming succeeds because it rewards achievement, binds people together, creates a sense of accomplishment, teaches new skills, etc. A bit dated now, but worth a perusal (or reading a summary) nevertheless.

On the history front, I continued my Roman history trip with SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard. I understand she’s something of a TV personality as well? The book is a brief overview of Roman society, rather than a blow-by-blow look at events, and I found it to be very balanced, despite many decrying too much conjecture.

Another history gap I tried to fill this year was in reading two books I’ve had on my list probably since Dublin – i.e. for more than a decade! – those being Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Battle Cry of Freedom. The first is an amazingly sad history of what can only really be called the genocide of the native American tribes, showing how different tribes reacted in different ways, and the result in each and every instance was expropriation, exploitation, maltreatment and/or eradication. A very depressing chapter of history, from which no lessons have really been learned as far as I can see. The second is a detailed account of the American Civil War, which I knew pretty much nothing about beyond a few western films. Aside from the course of the war itself, it’s fascinating to look at how the issue of slavery was at once the cause of the war, and its ultimate end, without ever actually being the casus belli. Similarly mindblowing how the Democratic Party remained officially opposed to the 13th Amendment even after the war as "unwise, impolitic, cruel and unworthy of the support of civilized people". Such an enlightened heritage!

A couple of books with a slightly sciency/political bent tickled me this year. This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor is more amusing than enlightening, but it certainly had some eye-opening passages about how health care is actually delivered in the UK, as opposed to how it is perceived. At once hilarious and terrifying. Bad Science on the other hand is a more engaging and sober look mostly at how science is portrayed in the media, and the concomitant problems that brings. Ben Goldacre wrote (writes?) a column for the Guardian and a blog of the same name, usually highlighting badly reported findings and the like, and this book is just a more in-depth exposition of a few of those topics. Pretty much nothing unexpected in there, but it’s still maddening when you see the kinds of rigorous argument that can be arrayed against the most insidious of lies, and yet still fail to land in the minds of the converted. It reminded me of both The Righteous Mind (above) and Thinking Fast and Slow (also highly recommended) which I read some years back. Goldacre’s ultimate message seemt all the more realistic/pessimistic for it.

I didn’t seem to read too much fiction this year, at least not much I could unreservedly recommend. The longest book of the year was the nearly 1000-page Der Schwarm by Franz Schätzing, which while certainly interesting, read too much like a silly Roland Emmerich film and overstayed its welcome a bit. The best on my list was probably The Comedians, just another classic from probably my favourite author. So much depth in so little material, truly refined, his books are only short but pack so much of the human experience into so far words. I also read his England Made Me this year, and it goes to show how much he developed as an author over the years. The lack of plot in the latter book was no different to the former, but the characters were soulless in comparison.

Two books get my stinker of the year award. The first is No Need for Geniuses: Revolutionary Science in the Age of the Guillotine by Steve Jones, who normally writes pretty interesting popular science books. But I couldn’t really see any purpose to this book, it’s just a collection of small vignettes which may or may not have some relation to the French revolution, but generally didn’t. Jones isn’t a historian and it clearly isn’t his suit.

But hands down the worst book of the year goes to Cybercrime and the Darknet. One of those books my dad picked up on the cheap somewhere, he read it first, probably learned a few things, and sent it to me thinking I’d be interested. And oh my god, what a badly hashed together mess! I don’t wanna go hating on the author, she generally writes books for kids which I’m sure are perfectly fit to purpose, and maybe if you know absolutely nothing about the internet, then you could learn a few things from this book. But otherwise, everything about it was pathetic, and worse. It was like an undergraduate essay, written with an eye on the word count, trying to squeeze in footnotes which aren’t required (and missing ones which are absolutely vital). It was journalistic to the point of maddening, always looking at individual instances and extrapolating to general rules, with whole chapters dedicated to theorising about things that may/may not have happened and showing how that is the way of the internet… unless it isn’t. She peppers the text with statistics that bear only a passing relation to the subject matter at hand, no explanation, no interrogation, they’re just left hanging in the air as if self-evidently supporting her thesis (Goldacre would’ve torn her a new one). I don’t think I’ve ever facepalmed so many times in 150 pages. If she’d been an undergrad, I’d have given it back and had her re-write it. But she already has a degree – from Cambridge no less! – and works at a fucking university. I’ll retire to Bedlam.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion

Surveying today’s political landscape, it’s easy to suppose we’re approaching a precipice. Passionate intransigence divides societies into blocks which, even where decidedly secular, are rallied around with religious fetishism. It seems that ideological boundaries are increasingly hardening, poisoning the political dialogue, preventing constructive discourse and contributing to almost maddening levels of senseless blustering.

In The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt investigates the concept of morality and shows how differing political groups can reach such disparate conclusions from the same starting point. Gradually building up his argument, Haidt succinctly retreads a lot of territory covered elsewhere in more detail, but which is vital to understanding his standpoint.

Of particular importance is the idea that morality has little if nothing to do with rational thinking. The human mind reacts intuitively to situations at a very basic level, leaving our cerebral rationality running to catch up when it comes time to explain ourselves. Moral reasoning is almost a misnomer; moral intuition is at the core of our decision-making. What this means at a basic level is that people tend to react to statements with their guts, and later defend those reactions with their minds. In politics, this is epitomised by the kind of debate you find on populist media stations, like this example from LBC’s James O’Brien (also available on their website should YouTube receive a letter):

Moving the goalposts

In the exchange, Brexiteer Ashley is asked to justify his strongly held position. Pinning down his argument is like trying to catch an errant moth flitting around a brightly lit room. It’s all those EU laws the country won’t have to obey. Which laws? Well, it’s not so much the laws, as how political the discussions are in Brussels. Politicians talking politics? Well, it’s not really the politics, it’s the uncontrolled immigration. From outside the EU? Well, if Britain were no longer in the EU, it would be better able to integrate the immigrants. Err… right.((I’d argue that’s why you shouldn’t ask people a stupid question, but that’s a debate for another post.))

It makes for amusing radio, but for O’Brien it’s an exercise in futility. This kind of spiralling debate has no end, because the fundamental impetus for the decision wasn’t arrived at rationally, but rather – at least judging by the responses – morally. Tear down the edifice stone by stone if you will, the invisible foundations go much deeper, and cannot be struck by logic’s hammer. When every vestige of rationality has gone, the argument generally reverts to something along the lines of ‘I don’t really know, it’s just wrong.’

Where the book gets interesting is where Haidt investigates the different reactions to moral issues amongst people of different social backgrounds and political persuasions, and attempts to weigh their stances up on a six-axis matrix. This ‘Moral Foundations Theory’ measures the axes of care versus harm, fairness versus cheating, liberty versus oppression, loyalty versus betrayal, authority versus subversion and sanctity versus degradation. While as human beings we are all affected by these, the differences between us are essentially down to our weighing and valuing these axes differently.

An interesting theory, though his ultimate conclusion seems to be the laudable but rather yawnable axiom that people need to understand where the other party stands and find the middle ground. A laudable suggestion, but one which doesn’t really do anything to help solve our intractable problems: as Theresa May might one day realise, a half-baked Brexit is about as likely to please all parties as a half-aborted baby.

Cybercrime and the DarkNet

Cybercrime and the Dark Net by Cath Senker

As society tries to catch up with the overwhelming advancements in technology of the past few decades, it is unsurprising that governments and legislators find themselves plugging the gaps where criminality can flourish. Developments in encryption, obfuscation, distribution and anonymisation give criminals and privacy activists alike a broad toolkit for conducting their activities away from prying eyes. In Cybercrime and the Dark Net, Cath Senker offers a brief and easily digested overview of this bewildering digital landscape. The book is essentially a collection of short vignettes covering a wide variety of different forms of cybercrime, with an essentially separate second section surveying the dark net.

This is a successfully written book, but unfortunately hardly a well-written one. There is nothing wrong with the craft, nothing wrong with the content per se, but it reads very much like an undergraduate essay written with an eye to meeting a word count, rather than sculpting a theory or trying to convey specific information. I would call the style journalistic, in the sense that there is a tendency to focus on individual instances, leading to sweeping generalisations without any valid attempt at contextualisation. We’re treated to two pages detailing an instance of a young American woman whose social security number had been stolen and used to file false tax returns. Senker makes some unfounded statements about what the thieves could have done with the information, and offers the rather dubious claim that people are now filing their tax returns earlier for fears someone else will file them first, before then revealing that the IRS responded to the woman in question saying that the issue had been settled. The victim never discovered how the security breach had happened, ergo this needn’t even have been a cybercriminal offence and has little relevance for the subject matter.

Senker has clearly done a decent amount of research into this subject. Give that this is designed to be a popular introductory book on the subject, a few small mistakes in the technical nuances are relatively moot, and can certainly be forgiven given that the author isn’t an expert in the field. Subjects are well introduced and explained, while plenty of footnotes are provided for those interested in following a matter of particular interest. But again, bearing more than a passing resemblance to a university essay, the text is peppered with quotes and statistics which only ostensibly support the text and in fact rather serve to bring up more questions. In a section on online grooming, we’re told that technology facilitates the contact between paedophiles and children. A fair claim, but to bolster this argument, the next sentence tells us that Childline reported a 50% annual increase in online grooming cases in December 2015. That’s it; the line is left without further comment. But how does this bombshell fact actually support her argument? Did technology change so significantly in 2015 to lead to such an explosion in online grooming? Is this part of a general year-on-year trend or a statistical outlier? Maybe this is evidence that support services are using more successful tactics to reach those in need and should actually be interpreted as a positive indicator? Or is this evidence of groomers changing their tactics? Since the site reveals that the sample size is only in the hundreds, it would seem rather sensationalist to see any significance in the figure, and its uncommented conclusion here seems not only unnecessary, but extremely misleading.

While many of the footnotes feel like cosmetic extras, there are also occasions in the text where it is anything but clear what the author actually wants to say. In the section covering the darknet and methods of encrypting emails, we’re told that Irish-Islandic privacy activist Smári McCarthy encourages people to use encryption to increase the costs of government surveillance. This is followed by the statement: ‘if they did the cost would rise from 13 US cents a day (9p) to US $10,000 (more than 7,000 GBP).’ The cost of what, government surveillance? Measured in what? Obviously this statement can’t be taken at face value, but I’m stumped as to what these numbers are supposed to refer to. She concludes this short section by stating that this might lead governments to place only suspicious persons under surveillance, or alternatively for governments to spend more resources on surveillance, driving ever more people to communicate via the darknet. While I don’t expect the author to have access to a crystal ball, the entire section is muddled and lacks clarity.

Frustrations like this sadly abound in this lightweight volume. Somewhere under the editor’s chisel there may be a fairly decent introductory book. As it stands, I found the numerous non sequiturs, sensationalist statistics, minor inconsistencies and incongruities to make this a dissatisfying reading experience. The book lacks a certain clarity of purpose and instead attempts to cover and tie together too many bases in barely 150 pages.

[Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash]

2018 in Review

To keep up an ancient tradition, I figured I’ll keep up my review of the past twelve months in consumed media goods. So following on from 2015, 2016 and 2017, the first wrap-up on the new forums! (I normally draught these things and write them over a series of days, but since this software doesn’t seem to offer draughts, I’ve penned this in one sitting and it’s probably riddled with typos. 🙂 )

Summary

PC games played: numerous

Best PC games: Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, HELLDIVERS, Transistor, Quake Champions, Bomber Crew

Worst PC games: Stardew Valley, any Battle Royale title

Board games played: 88 plays (48 games)

Best board games: Exit (series), Azul, Goa, Magic Maze, Terraforming Mars

Worst board games: T.I.M.E. Stories, Naufragos, Sebastian Fitzek Safehouse

Films watched: 47

Best films: Shaun the Sheep: The Movie, A Man for All Seasons, Trainspotting/Requiem for a Dream, Zodiac, They Live, Frost/Nixon

Worst films: Four Brothers, Total Recall,

Books read: 45

Best books: The Selfish Gene, I, Claudius, Memoirs of Hadrian, Master and Commander, Wesley: The Remarkable Story of an Owl

Worst books: The Infinities, JavaScript in Ten Minutes, The Shortest History of Germany

Countries visited: UK, Austria

A Year in Gaming

Just re-reading my round-up from last year and it all sounds very familiar. While I keep meaning to play through some of the many titles littering my Steam list, most of my gaming time involves returning to those few favoured watering holes of old. Or new! This winter I decided to try out the ranked games in Heroes of the Storm and am actually rather enjoying it. Apart from my very first placement match, where I was presumably thrown in with all manner of pillock, the games have been pretty relaxed and now I feel like I’m definitely in the right league for my skill level, the games are fair and rarely snowball, and the draught is usually where the weaknesses show.

Quake Champions has obviously been another highlight these past months. For a few weeks I was fair addicted to it, there’s something about the instant gratification and low downtime that I really enjoy, particularly standard deathmatch or instagib. It was also nice to see my stats improving a little as time went on, gradually my average deaths dropped and my damage increased slightly, though sadly that didn’t actually help my victory stats. I think I had multiple DM games where I’d top the scoreboard in damage, alive time, accuracy and K:D ratio, and still come 7th of 8 players! However I seem to have broken the addiction now, not having played for about a month. I’m sure I’ll return to it to try out CTF, but I dunno if it’ll have the same relish as a few weeks back.

In terms of solo gaming, I did manage to get into a couple of little titles. Bomber Crew was one which showed a lot of promise in the premise, and it definitely scratched an itch which FTL left throbbing all those years ago. Basically you pilot a bomber during the Second World War, taking it out on various types of missions, earning money and slowly gearing up your bird. There are the same kind of calculations to make, with more action stations than crew members, things like fires and broken equipment to repair, ammo to restock, and the same trade-offs in terms of whether you should upgrade the guns or the armour etc. Unfortunately it never got quite as intense as FTL, especially as you could crash your plane and continue with a new one, so progressing through the main storyline ended up becoming a question of grinding repeatable missions to earn enough money so you could afford an all-singing, all-dancing beast on your factory bombing run, and then to hell with the crew after that.

For games with actual storylines, Alan Wake is one I’m still trying to play a bit of but kinda have to force myself to bother. It’s fairly enjoyable in terms of the story – a horror writer with writer’s block ends up living out his nightmares on a holiday retreat, very Steven King – but the game itself just feels a bit dull, gradually bungling through the levels, fighting lack-lustre enemies. In particular I was annoyed that you’re supposed to pick up pages of the novel and discover the story that way, but I’m sure I missed some of them in the levels I’ve played through, and there’s no way I’m going back looking for them. Maybe I’ll carry on at some point, but probably not.

Another I’ve been trying to play recently is Transistor, which is a seriously delicious game from the polish and visuals, but in terms of gameplay just hasn’t really gripped me yet. The skills seem to all chain onto one another, so a bit like Magicka there’s a large number of potential ways to use those abilities, and I’m not really interested in experimenting with them, although I presume that’s a large part of the appeal. The storyline so far has been pretty intriguing though, so maybe I’ll stick at it.

A couple of honourable last mentions: Papers, Please has been on my list for long enough and I finally got around to giving it a run. A couple of hours with it was enough for me, but it’s a superb idea and really well implemented. Sit in your customs booth checking the papers of all people trying to cross the border, gradually ramp up the difficulty, include a few little subplots with certain recurring characters and decisions to make – do you take the bribe and let the criminal through or call security? Brilliant. The only problem I had was that I played it in short bites, half an hour here and there, and since each level adds an extra layer of complexity, I never got proficient enough to feel like I was learning anything. Maybe playing the game in one sitting makes for a more enjoyable experience.

I can’t say that for my final pick, where you definitely feel the improvements as the game continues, and that’s in Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes! A really fantastic idea for a game, we played a fair bit over Christmas with Steffi’s parents. Basically only one person can see the screen and has a bomb in front of them with various wires, buttons, batteries, symbols and the rest of it, and the other player(s) in the game have a manual of how that all fits together. The defuser has to explain exactly what they see in front of them, while the others have to work out what the defuser has to do, which wires to cut, which buttons to press etc. At the beginning you’re figuring out how to defuse a single module with loads of time, but gradually you get familiar with how they work and so the time starts ramping up, the number of mistakes you’re allowed is reduced, and we’ve got to the stage now where there are additional elements the defuser has to attend to to stop the thing going off. For a family game it was probably a bit too complex, and certainly gave Steffi’s parents headaches, but it actually helped in a way that the game is only in English, as some of the modules are designed to cause confusion in what information you give, but the homophones and potential misunderstandings are lost when you’re using German pronunciation. I guess Steffi and I will soldier on with the game as a twosome, but I may be roping in you guys to help when it gets really hard!

I didn’t really play any stinkers this year, but the one thing that just doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest is this whole Battle Royale fad. I already wrote about that in another post, but whichever version we’re talking about, whether Fortnite, Blops IV or the shitty CS:GO version, I find the whole concept boring. The scale of those games is nice, the idea of large battles certainly appeals to me (and I always thought it’d be cool to have a big 100 vs 100 on something like Operation Flashpoint), but Battle Royale is more like a big game of hide and loot. I can’t be arsed opening boxes to find guns, especially not opening ten boxes to still have nothing more than a shitty pistol. I don’t get any real sense of achievement for killing someone, in comparison to say vanilla CS or Quake, so there really isn’t much left to appeal. The recent CS:GO version feels like a particular waste of time, we’ve won a few rounds on there and most of the time you’re still sporting a pistol with three bullets at the end. Just not my flavour at all.

Finally, a game which I thought I’d take a look at and almost immediately gave up on for the sheer time-sink factor was Stardew Valley. I thought it might be a nice relaxing "farming sim" of types, but no, it’s an entire microcosm you could probably spend hundreds of hours in and still be none the wiser. I’m sure it’s amazing if you’ve the time to kill, but I don’t.

A Year in Boardgaming

Back to the analogue world and we spent about the same amount of time around the table as usual. Most of our gaming has been relatively light, though we did try out a few heavier games, including some real stinkers.

First up has to be the Exit Games series I mentioned last year. I think we’ve now played all of these, at least all which aren’t ranked ’easy’, going through them with different people. For a short little adventure which takes about an hour to ninety minutes all in one small box, you really can’t knock them. The only couple of criticisms I would have is that you’re supposed to ’destroy’ the contents when you play it, which is totally unnecessary and really just serves to waste paper and force you to buy the game new. In fact we just photocopy the few things you’re supposed to cut up and then pass the games on to friends when we’re finished. The other is that the clues can get fairly samey, which is understandable enough, but even within the same game sometimes they rely too heavily on a certain mechanism.

Another light game, and this year’s Spiel des Jahres, was Azul. Dead simple to play, I’d say fairly similar to Splendor, it’s one you can break out with just about anyone and they’ll soon get a feel for it. I don’t think it’s particularly strategic, particularly with four players there seems to be a lot of randomness to the scoring, but for a quick starter or as a family game, I can’t knock it.

In terms of heavier titles, we got around to playing the two games I bought alongside Caverna last year. One of those was Goa, which felt a bit like a light version Puerto Rico. Instead of trading goods back to the Old World for points, you ship them back to upgrade your skills, and like most games of that ilk you always run out of turns before you can really achieve what you wanted. There’s also a nice auctioning phase at the beginning of each round to add some player interaction which is kinda missing from Puerto Rico.

Another heavy title is one currently ranked very highly at BGG and that’s Terraforming Mars. We only played it once, so we were kinda just getting familiar with the rules after the first playthrough, but I can certainly see the appeal. Most of the game is based around playing out unique cards, similar to something like Seasons, so it’s a lot about maximising your hand to get the most out of your cards, and each player is playing their own game to some extent. But what was particularly cool is that there are some basic parameters for Mars itself which the players can influence through their actions and which affect everyone equally, such as the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere. In order to play your card, you might need the oxygen content to rise to X, but if that happens, another player won’t be able to play card Y. Obviously that means you need to be familiar with what’s available in the deck to really plan your strategy well, but otherwise that meant it was a nice mix between complex solitaire and interactive strategy title.

I think my favourite new game of the year was a surprising coop game our friends borrowed from the library called Magic Maze. Super simple, four players control four mice, directing them around a maze where they have to collect their weapons and get out of the labyrinth before the time runs out (if memory serves, maybe the goal was described differently). Every player can move every mouse at any time, the trick being however that the players can only move in one direction (e.g. only south, only north) and they cannot communicate! The maze itself is modular, being built up of smaller cards which add on as the mice explore the boundaries. The game then gets more complex as you work your way through the mazes, but that’s all there is to it in principle, and it’s surprisingly challenging and fun at the same time. Since the goal is almost always obvious, you don’t need to communicate (there are a few ’breaks’ where it’s allowed), but because you’re concentrating on four different mice, it’s easy to overlook the fact that everyone is waiting for you to move that one mouse one bastard square north!

Sadly, there were also a few tripe games this year. We went to our local little gaming convention again in winter and got a few things to the table, one being Sebastian Fitzek Safehouse. Having his name on the front (German thriller author) probably doubled the game’s price, because the game itself was pretty awful. It was like a cut-down and weak game of canasta against the clock, ostensibly you’re running through town being chased by a murderer and have to make it back to the safehouse before he does, and… yawn. Totally forgettable.

Another which was disappointing but for other reasons was the other game I’d bought together with Caverna, called Naufragos (or Castaways). Basically it sounded like a neat coop survival game, the premise being similar to Robinson Crusoe et al, where you’re stranded on a desert island and have to work together to escape. Fair idea for a game, but the execution was just terrible. First of all, the rules were so badly written my copy came with a second revamped versiom, and even they were so incoherent I had watch a video online to work out how to set the damn game up. But I could overlook that if at least the game mechanics had been solid. The game was basically divided into two halves, one part was kinda organising, the second part adventuring. The large island was divided into three parts, and the idea was that by adventuring through the deck, you would progress from the beach, through the interior, to the uplands from where you could spot ships or planes and get rescued, something along those lines. But the adventure cards were 90% of the time either ’X happens to you’, or ’roll a dice, if you get a 6 X happens to you’. There was no way to actually plan ahead or make proper decisions, and sometimes you’d just find yourself rolling over and over again just to survive. And that was the ’exciting’ bit of the game! The bookkeeping part sounded all well and good, placing workers on the board to harvest food, build shelters, chop wood, tend to the campfire, all things which made sense for the theme and should’ve been fleshed out more. Unfortunately it basically meant that one/two people simply spent their entire time moving wood from the forest to the basket and from the basket to the building site/campfire, while the other players rolled their way through a deck of cards. Yay. Given the fact that I couldn’t follow the rules, I couldn’t even recommend it as a light family game, it was way too dense for that, yet far too boring for adults.

But the most pathetic game of the year goes hands down to T.I.M.E. Stories! I am seriously at a loss as to how this game can be currently ranked 60th on BGG. We’d seen the name a few times and heard a few things about it, so when a colleague at work sold his copy, I thought it’d be worth a whirl. I suppose you could call the game a ’system’, where each mission is a deck of cards which uses the basic components of the game. There is no real board per se, but rather you travel back in time, taking on the bodies of four ’hosts’ in the past, each with their own special abilities/traits, and then explore a location to find whatever it is you’re supposed to fix. In the mission in the main game, you’re back in a French asylum in the early twentieth century investigating the disappearance of some patients. We’d read the one major criticism, that you generally fail on your first attempt(s) and have to start again and go through the same steps, but that didn’t sound that bad until we actually had to do it ourselves. Honestly, the entire concept of the game seems to be that you’re to work your way through each location through trial and error, finding out what you’re supposed to do in what order. That’s it. There’s no logic to your choices, no way of knowing or even guessing beforehand whether what you’re doing is correct, you just plough on through and find out which cards you need to look at, which rooms to visit and what to ignore. Boring as sin! There was one fairly decent puzzle in our mission, but even that we failed to crack because we just didn’t expect there to be anything like that as the rest of the game had been so asinine. And at full price it would’ve cost something like €50 for ONE adventure! Each expansion costs another €25 or something daft, so in comparison to one of those Exit games mentioned above, it just doesn’t bear even the slightest comparison. Obviously a lot of people have found something enjoyable about this title, or it wouldn’t be ranked so highly, but for me it felt like a waste of time and money, and I’m only glad I didn’t pay full price for it!

A Year in Cinema

After last year’s pitiful 16 films, this year’s haul of 47 films looks very healthy indeed. Steffi and I have made Tuesdays our film night, and we take turns choosing a title to watch. She’s a big Marvel fan, so we’ve gobbled up most of that series so far.

Just to pick some of the highlights, we saw Frost/Nixon earlier in the year, about the interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon following his resignation and withdrawal from public life. Obviously a pretty slow film, and with a fair amount of dramatic leniency, it was still really interesting to watch and the two main actors did an awesome job, especially in trying to mimic their ways of speaking.

We had a bit of a drug-themed season with both Requiem for a Dream and Trainspotting, both really cool films for different reasons. Requiem is pretty hard-hitting, but beautifully put together cinematographically, its acts divided into different seasons with a chilling soundtrack, I loved how it explored the nature of drug abuse and addiction from different perspectives. Trainspotting is obviously an entirely different kettle of fish. I saw it years ago, and it scores high on the nostalgia points for the fantastic soundtrack, but it has a much more up-beat vibe than Requiem while still being a pretty dire portrayal of the dangers of addiction.

Sticking on the serious side, I watched Zodiac for research purposes, the Fincher film about the Zodiac killer in California, one of those uncaught serial murderers of which America has so many. The fact that the resolution to this story is known from the outset is what made it interesting to watch from my perspective, how to build suspense and tension when the information is already out in the open. I only felt the film was a bit on the long side, since it covers the case from three different perspectives over a period of several decades.

A Man for All Seasons is a 60s film which has I think been on my "to watch" list since Dr Holland mentioned it in an English class. Basically about Thomas More and his inability to accept Henry VIII’s divorce on account of his religious conviction, it’s an excellent period drama with some awesome performances, showing its clear theatrical origins. A slow watch, but very enjoyable.

Slightly more tongue-in-cheek, we also watched They Live this year, an 80s Carpenter sci-fi thriller about aliens who have infiltrated society and the down-and-out hobo who saves the world. It’s suitably cliched to be something of a bubble-gum film, but there are a few scenes which really make the film memorably stand out. Definitely worth a watch if you haven’t seen it before.

The major disappointment of the year was hands down the 2012 Total Recall remake. I’m a big fan of the original, and I have nothing against a remake adding a new twist to the story or bringing something fresh, or even just a straight remake of the original movie with a few fresh ideas. But no, they managed none of the above. They rewrote the story but placed it in a world even more absurd than the original, taking the over-the-top characters and trying to play them seriously, and yet somehow even less convincingly. It’s not really Total Recall, and it doesn’t try hard enough to be something new either, so about the only moments in the film which end up being enjoyable are those which directly cite the original (e.g. three-breasted prostitutes and exploding head masks).

But Total Recall gets points for at least trying. Scraping the bottom of the barrel was Four Brothers, a film which had me muttering "fucking Americans" under my breath for about two hours. Loud, stupid, unrealistic, violent, vigilantist bullshit. Somewhat akin to Pain & Gain, I guess this is one Benno would enjoy!

A Year in Books

I managed to munch through another 45 books this year, roughly on a par with previous years for number of pages. One theme recently seems to be an interest in Roman history, with two of my favourites being I, Claudius and Memoirs of Hadrian, two extremely well researched and fascinating books written from the perspectives of the two emperors, the first as a kind of history of the Julio-Claudians, the second in the form of a letter to Marcus Aurelius. Both are fairly dense to read, not exactly page-turners, but very rewarding.

Slightly more exciting perhaps was Master and Commander, the first book in Patrick O’Briain’s nautical series which was turned into the film with Russel Crowe. It’s often compared to the Sharpe series in terms of being a series of multiple books on an English hero in the Napoleonic Wars, but judging from this first volume that’s pretty much where the comparison ends. Based on historical events, the book goes into some nauseating detail about ship’s rigging and the like, which leaves your head spinning if you’re trying to follow along, but otherwise it was a highly enjoyable read and is probably a rewarding series.

In terms of non-fiction, I’ve read a fairly eclectic mix again, though a couple are worth mentioning. The Selfish Gene is one of those classics of evolution which seems just as important to read today as on its publication in 1976, looking at evolution from the perspective of the gene rather than the organism. It’s the kind of thing that is barely even touched on in schools but really deserves more consideration. I’m currently reading The Righteous Mind which is more about moral psychology, but interestingly covers some of the same topics from the angle of the group.

Another random read, but one which pleasantly surprised me, was Wesley: The Story of a Remarkable Owl, recommended to me I believe because I read Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? last year. Basically this short memoir is the story of an owl taken in by the author, and their relationship together over the course of nearly two decades. The author turns from surrogate mother to life partner for the owl, and becomes a mass murderer of mice for good measure in the process. While not scientifically written, there are tons of fascinating titbits and anecdotes, along with touching observational insights.

A weird book I read this year was The Shortest History of Germany. One of Steffi’s colleagues leant it to her to hear her opinion, but she didn’t have any time so I gobbled it down one weekend. While there’s nothing particularly surprising about what you’d find in there, it’s seriously amazing how twisted the agenda is inside. Basically he puts forward the theory that any time Germany’s east gets the upper hand, things go awry. Everything west of the Elbe is okay, between Elbe and Rhine suitably westernised under Roman influence, but everything else is danger zone. That’s where the Prussians came from, the Nazis, the Stasi and now the AfD. Maybe an interesting gedankenexperiment for some folks, but it seems odd coming in a book with such an innocuous title. Maybe the author’s just a raging Catholic, I can’t tell.

My worst book of the year however has to go to The Infinities. Not sure where I got the recommendation, but I wish I knew so I could block them in future! The plot sounded interesting enough – a man lies at death’s door when his family flock around him, as do the Greek gods, the perfect setup for some antics and mischief – but basically nothing at all happens of any consequence. I ploughed through it because it’s short enough my frustration was never bigger than my ambition for finishing it, but the taste in my mouth never got any sweeter. I guess Banville is one of those writers who are praised for their elegant prose by other thumb-sucking navel-gazers but who remain beyond comprehension for ordinary folks. And to be honest I didn’t even find his writing worthy of a letter home.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife’s Head for a Hat

What happens when we are no longer able to recognise objects, but there’s nothing wrong with our ability to see? When we lose our sense of self and no longer feel the body we’re in? When the concept of ‘leftness’ is severed from our reality?

Oliver Sacks describes cases involving all these issues and more in a classic survey of ‘losses’ and ‘excesses’ in the human brain. The patients are a fascinating array of characters each suffering from such unusual problems that the symptoms seem almost comical. The eponymous man who failed to identify his wife’s head suffered from a form of visual agnosia, leaving him incapable of identifying objects, although his visual acuity was not impaired. Another sufferer had lost all ability to form new memories, and indeed was stuck at some point in his past, incapable of progressing past that point.

In a similar vein to Phantoms in the Brain, these eye-opening cases teach us much about the inner workings of the brain, they also encourage reflection on what it really means to be human, how our sense of self and perception is far more illusory than we really feel comfortable believing, and how little we really understand about how our cranial chemical factories really work.

If there’s one major detraction from this book in my eyes, it’s probably the fact that it’s written in English. The neglect the language has been shown by science leaves it so singularly pathetic at describing medical issues that we’re left with a gobbledegook of foreign words, even where Sacks tries to make the subject digestible for the average reader. Proprioception, for example, is a fascinating concept, and one so familiar to all of us that it’s amazing we don’t instinctively expect it to belong to that elite club of five senses, yet you won’t find me slipping the word into casual conversation any day soon.

On a side note, his descriptions of aphasia rather reminded me of my own feelings when learning a foreign language; that severe headache caused when trying to ram an idea down a set of neural pathways far too small to accommodate it.

[Photo by Jens Kreuter on Unsplash]

Page 1 of 16

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.

Close