Quite a lot of the people I pay attention to online – often, the Open Education / tech ethics crowd – use Weeknotes to keep track of their many projects, links and creations. I find the weeknote structure appealing, so I’m going to test it out as a way to a) keep a better track of the (many) things I start and don’t finish, b) talk about some of the interesting articles I read or games I play that wouldn’t ever make it into a full blog post or review. (I won’t be doing predominantly work-focused weeknotes – they’ll mostly be a reading list/link roundup – but I’ll mention work if there’s something interesting to include.)
A few days ago, I read this article about how smartphones are helping illiterate women in India by giving them a way to socialise with people outside of their household, run businesses, take part in activism and report information to journalists, all through voice commands and sharing images. This really made me think, because I’m someone who needs to write things down to make sense of them, and who learns everything by reading it, so I cannot comprehend what not having that option must feel like. The article describes how one of the women, Mallika, can now use WhatsApp to talk to a friend – before smartphones and data plans, she had to climb a mountain to communicate with them.
Now, on to ice cream trucks. I found this article interesting, because its a really good example of how one person being in the right place at the right time (and knowing the right person) can change an entire industry or movement. Finding out that the company which makes the music boxes inside 97% of all ice-cream trucks consists of just 2 people really reminded me that so many of the things we’re familiar with are the results of decisions made by a handful of people.
Clutching at Random Straws — This is a talk given by stand-up mathematician Matt Parker, to a school in England. It’s a great discussion, with practical and funny demonstrations, of how easily we can be misled when it comes to data. For example, Parker shows the students how collecting large amounts of data can fool us into finding “impossible” co-incidences easily, and how we can easily be influenced into hearing patterns such as messages in music played backwards. All of this is done in a way that doesn’t require high-level maths knowledge, and its a really clear introduction to some of the ways that we can be misled by data.
Somehow I’ve never owned a Tetris game before, so when I discovered Tetris Effect Connected on Xbox Game Pass soon after it was released, I decided to try out this version. The graphic style showcased in the screenshots and trailers seemed impressive, and the idea of head-to-head online matches appealed to me much more than experiments such as Tetris 99.
My first impression of Tetris Effect Connected was a little negative, purely because it seemed oddly pretentious. This was mostly due to its language and exposition; the campaign is called a “Journey mode” and is described as “a voyage of emotion and discovery”, while you are referred to as a “Guardian” whose job is to help save the galaxy from a negative void that’s going to erase existence. Leaving that to one side and jumping into the gameplay, however, quickly appeased my scepticism.
Its clear from the first information screen that Tetris Effect Connected aims to be an immersive, sensory-blending experience; its encouragement to equip surround sound or wear headphones “for maximum enjoyment” is presented with the same prominence as its photosensitivity warning.
This aim is reinforced by how the Journey mode is built to be near-seamless. After completing each stage, you automatically transition into the next one, while failing a stage resets you to the start of the previous stage rather than returning you to the stage selection screen. This approach feels like its designed to absorb players into a flow state, especially as the power-up mechanic is called “the Zone”. Once you’ve filled the Zone meter by scoring points, you can activate it to slow down time and hold tetrominoes at the top of the screen until you’re ready to release them. While activated, lines that you clear won’t vanish as they normally do, but will instead stack underneath the existing game board. When the Zone activation ends, all of those lines are cleared at once, allowing for not just the titular high-scoring Tetris (4 lines cleared at once), but an Octoris (8 lines), a Decahexatris (16 lines), and even clearing more lines than the game board contains at once (an aptly-named Impossibilitris).
Today I’m looking at indie game, and former Switch exclusive, The Touryst. One of my friends recommended it to me, as he found its free exploration and relatively short length relaxing.
Initially, I didn’t find it quite as peaceful, because the first thing I did was jump out of the arrival boat on the wrong side to see if I could swim in the surrounding ocean … I could, until I was eaten by a shark.
Once I respawned which let me quickly discover that there is no life counter and no major consequence for death, I began exploring the islands. The Touryst takes place across a cluster of small islands, which you travel between by boat. The boat being at the end of a boardwalk and accompanied by an ever-present Captain reminded me strongly of the balloonist in Spyro the Dragon, which added to the game’s nostalgic vibes.Some of the islands are inspired by real-life locations like Santoryn (Santorini) and Fyjy (Fiji); all of them are compact, colourful, and studded with secrets, mini-games and tasks.
According to TrueAchievements, I first played Saint’s Row: Gat Out Of Hell in July 2015. While I’ve dipped in for a couple of co-op sessions since, it’s been on my “I’ll finish this eventually” pile for years. My plan was to spend 1-2 hours finishing any remaining campaign missions on and fulfilling any close achievements, and then to retire the game completely.
What actually happened was that I spent around 5 hours that evening finishing every activity New Hades had to offer, and unlocked the 100% activity ending. After my second evening of exploring, I had beaten up Satan, and collected every orb, book, and piece of audio commentary. Then I saved my progress and realised I was at 98% game completion…
So the day after that, I went for full 100% completion. It’s safe to say that Gat Out Of Hell caught my attention, and my time, much more this time around.
Saint’s Row: Gat Out Of Hell is a standalone expansion pack that follows on from Saint’s Row IV. It features the same open-world gameplay and upgradeable superpowers found in IV, but moves the actions to a new location – Hell itself. As Johnny Gat and Kinzie Kensington, you must prevent Satan from marrying his daughter Jezebel off to Johnny. You do this by getting supernatural assistance from a cast that includes previous Saint’s Row characters as well as famous additions like Blackbeard and William Shakespeare.
Given that game reviews have accidentally become my most common posts on this site, I wanted to make sure I was doing them as fairly and as well as I possibly could. One part of this, for me, is figuring out how I compare games to each other. While I don’t want to get as granular as using a number or percentage system, as I think that I would then focus too hard on those numbers at the expense of looking at the individual games, I did want to add some kind of structure.
A more general tier or category list, that covers the most likely possible options without forcing reviews into a rigid scale, seemed like the best approach. While this will change in future if I need it to, the table below contains the rough framework that I’ll use for comparing games.
I’ll also keep a running list of games I’ve reviewed in each tier below – consider this post the meta-post for my game reviews!
Games that are so strong in design, gameplay and enjoyment that they offer an excellent experience to many different audiences. Games that are the pinnacle of their genre, or even the inventor of a genre.
Grand Theft Auto V
Games that offer a consistently great experience, are finished to a high standard, and have very few weak points.
Spyro Reignited Trilogy
Games that are just “good” – competent and fun, but not extra-special. e.g. games that are technically good but formulaic, or games that are enjoyable but not impactful. The default tier.
Team Sonic Racing
Games that had an interesting concept but executed it poorly e.g. technical or design issues made them difficult enjoy to their full potential, or promised features were missing on release. Alternately, very generic games that don’t have any new/creative ideas.
Games that are so novel, or so reliant on deconstruction or meta-narrative, that they are polarising. Generally, people who like weird indie games /art games will enjoy them, while people who don’t like them won’t.
Games that offer little or no enjoyment e.g. shovelware. Or, games with such extreme technical flaws that they can’t be played/enjoyed.
While I’m often the person my friends and family call upon for technical support for Windows, Android, or things on the internet, I have little experience with the Apple ecosystem. But when my friend Josh told me about his sudden and confusing issue with Final Cut Pro X, I was so intrigued that I had to investigate. We eventually figured it out, and I got a crash-course in OSX as well.
Final Cut Pro X (10.2) would crash and display a “Final Cut Pro quit unexpectedly” error message whenever an export option was selected.
OS – El Capitan
FCPX – Version 10.2, without Compressor or Motion.
iMovie – 10.1.6
No new applications had been installed recently, and FCPX had been working correctly after the last OSX upgrade.
We couldn’t try restoring from a backup as there weren’t any viable backups, but all of the following troubleshooting steps had already been tried without success:
Yesterday, I found out that UWE Bristol were announcing the potential shutdown of their Philosophy department to new students after this year.
I found this out from a tweet, which shared a petition launched by a just-graduated student yesterday. While I’m not sure how effective the petition might be, it has recieved 2700 signatures in a day. I encourage you to sign and share this petition, in the hope that it persuades whoever made this decision to change their mind. The decision to close the UWE philosophy course is counterproductive and destructive, for reasons I’ll detail below. More importantly, this decision was made abruptly, with little consultation or communication.
Whoever made this decision has acted rashly and callously, leaving a cohort of foundation year students (and their programme leaders) unsure of whether the course they are preparing for will even exist after their preparation year.No student or staff member deserves to be placed in this position.
So, why is this decision misguided? Below the cut are three major reasons:
Philosophy is one of UWEs most successful and highest-rated courses.
UWEs philosophy course offers a unique module other philosophy courses cannot match.
Philosophy is one of the most important subjects a university can offer, and philosophy graduates have essential skills and knowledge for today’s society.
Note: I’m not currently affiliated with UWE, aside from being an alumnus. I studied both of my degrees at UWE, and published my MSc research with supervision from UWE staff. I’m also not a philosophy student or graduate; my view of the value of philosophy comes from personal study and from how philosophy links to my degree subjects of psychology and science communication.
Sometimes I first play a game years, or even decades, after its release. Other times I get partway through a game, get distracted, and then revisit it years later. Calling any discussion of a long-lived or dormant game either a “review” or an “impression” feels incorrect, so the more literal title wins out. (However, I’m going to use “finished” to mean “finished by my own standards”, rather than 100% completed).
Going from my first recorded achievement date in 2014, to completing the career mode yesterday, I took 6 years and 1 month to complete skate … somehow I doubt this is the worst offender on my backlog!
So how well did skate hold up? Was it still enjoyable in 2020?
One recurrent technological question I have is why my MP3 players never display album artwork consistently. The issue often seems random; when I get some albums working, others are blank in their place. So I wanted to figure out what the problem was and write solutions down for future reference.
As I’ve used Sony Walkman MP3 players since about 2008, I initially checked posts and articles about Sony players. However, this problem applies to multiple brands of MP3 players and to other devices like digital photo frames.
Many people with Sony Walkman players have posted about cover art issues on Sony’s support website. But the official replies just tell people to transfer songs using Sony’s Content Transfer software, without explaining why the issue exists. I wanted to fix the issue within the music programs I already use (MediaMonkey and Mp3tag) instead of adding another program into the mix.
After looking on multiple sites, subreddits and software forums, I found three essential criteria for making album art and other tags show up properly on Sony MP3 players. (These criteria may apply to other MP3 players as as well, and the “baseline” JPG criteria may resolve issues with car infotainment systems and digital photo frames).
1) Every song must be tagged using ID3 tag version 2.3. 2) Every song’s artwork must be embedded into its ID3 tag. 3) Every artwork image must be a JPG. More specifically, it must be a “baseline” JPG rather than a “progressive” JPG.
Now I’ll explain what all of those words mean, and the steps that I followed to make my song files and cover artworks fit these criteria. It’s important for me to clarify that each individual criteria was figured out by someone else; I’m just putting them together so that I can show the steps in one place.
I can understand why streaming services have become so popular: being able to access a large library of familiar and new music that can’t be erased by a faulty hard drive or a wrong button-press is appealing. But, like most techies, I lean towards the “control” side of the convenience-control spectrum in many situations.
For music specifically, I prefer ownership over streaming. I like being able to buy albums from multiple places, store them and back them up wherever I wish, and play them on software I already use, rather than being restricted to specific marketplaces or software clients. (I would also rather rely on my storage and backups than on the unbelievably complex licensing arrangements between streaming services and publishers). For me, staying on team “offline library” was the obvious choice.
Investigating an issue with my MP3 player last year led me to an interesting program called Bliss, which I’ll give its own post in future. In short, Bliss manages your music library based on rules that you define. You set rules about how you want files to be labelled, named, and organised, and Bliss either highlights files which don’t fit the rules so that you can edit them, or adjusts them to meet the rules automatically.
Although Bliss is overkill for my relatively small and wholly-offline library, I really liked its rule-based approach. So I’ve taken the rules I decided on within Bliss and recreated them inside my desktop software of choice, MediaMonkey.
One of the ways my anxiety disorder sinks its teeth in is by spinning simple questions up until they seem like burning matters of either unreachable perfection or moral urgency.
A question like “how can I know if a clothing company is ethical?” led to a multi-hour internet rabbit hole on how that standard is regulated and whether those regulations are regulated etc. A passing curiosity about how tree-planting programs work led to me researching not just tree-planting but the entire concept of carbon offsets and the ways in which they can be corrupted or misused.
If I’m obsessing about something in this way, putting that thought down is near-impossible. The rational realisation that time spent thinking in this way about these questions is a matter of diminishing returns – that the hours spent locked in worry-led link-following are worth less than 20 minutes of calm, engaged research – doesn’t sink in until something wrenches me away from my thoughts. Usually, the best way to stop a runaway thought-train is just to wait until another one arrives.
Letter Quest: Grimm’s Journey Remastered (often referred to as Letter Quest Remastered) is a word-assembling RPG where you defeat monsters with your vocabulary, your scythe, and bacon.
I was introduced to LQR by two of my friends, who assumed that I would enjoy its celebration of verbal geekery. I’m happy to say that they were correct.
In LQR, titular young reaper Grimm must battle though the foes who are blocking him from his desired treasure … pizza. Battling is carried out by finding words in a board of Scrabble-style letter tiles; your score for each valid word becomes damage to the current enemy, who then retaliates with attacks of their own. Each defeated enemy and completed quest awards Gems, which you use to strengthen Grimm’s selection of scythes and to buy skill upgrades.
Imagine flying a Wipeout-style ship along the musical ribbon from Vib-Ribbon, while dodging lasers, while playing a twin-stick shooter at the same time, and that almost sums up Aəero.
Aəero is part of a new generation of indie rhythm-action games that has sprung up since the over-saturated -Hero games met their demise and Beat Saber took VR gaming by surprise. It shares two foundations with other experimental rhythm games; a blend of various gameplay styles, and an aim of creating flow-inducing multi-sensory experiences.
The core gameplay of Aəero is balancing the duelling roles of the left and right analogue sticks. With the left analogue stick, players follow the ribbon of white light that traces out each song’s most salient melody. The ribbon can soar and fall with the singer’s pitch, or swoop and spiral to follow synthesizers and bass. For me, the most challenging songs are the ones which quickly swap between delicate adjustments and larger jumps or spirals. When the ribbon isn’t on-screen, players instead use the left stick to avoid obstacles and fly through narrow gaps in routes interrupted by burning lasers or crushing platforms. The right stick controls the aiming reticle, which players use to target enemies and projectiles, while the right trigger fires the ship’s laser beams.
As Dear Esther begins, the protagonist stands at the entrance to a deserted island quickly revealed as being in the Outer Hebrides. Behind the protagonist is a short concrete path leading into the ocean. I promptly walk them into the ocean (for science, of course). As a result I discover some of the island’s mystery within seconds of playtime. My screen fills with indistinct images and pulses like a heartbeat, while the narrator’s own voice whispers “come back…”, before the protagonist reappears at the starting point. After walking into the ocean again to see if any of the environment changed as a result, and only unlocking an incongruous-seeming achievement for drowning, I start to actually play Dear Esther.
While I’ve played other Environmental Narrative Games before, I’ve somehow never played Dear Esther nor had its story spoiled. So I wasn’t sure what to expect from the game that brought ENGs into mainstream discussions.
Spyro 2: Gateway to Glimmer was the first game I recieved with my PS1, and also my first 3D game, so this is a nostalgic revisit for me. (As it’s named Ripto’s Rage in the Reignited Trilogy, I’ll just refer to it as Spyro 2 here). It was also one of my favourite games – I remember enjoying Idol Springs and Crystal Glacier, and finding the summer and autumn home worlds incredibly peaceful. I don’t think my 7-year-old self ever reached the final third of the original game, as it was mostly unfamiliar. This time, however, I beat Ripto at 98% completion after about 13 hours of in-game time, then reached 100% at about 14 hours (blame the Fracture Hills level for that delay!).
The major difference between Spyro the Dragon and Spyro 2 is revealed in the first cutscene, which shows off a more detailed story taking place across a larger set of worlds and also introduces you to allied characters who need Spyro’s help to take their homes back from antagonist Ripto.
I received Hello World for Christmas along with a few other books, and it was my favourite of the set … I actually abandoned one of the other books part-way through as this one was so much more appealing.
Hello World opens with the famous chess battle between grandmaster Kasparov and Deep Blue. Fry shows how Kasparov’s shock defeat wasn’t caused by Deep Blue’s mechanical power, but by how Kasparov interpreted and reacted to the computer’s actions. The engineers who programmed Deep Blue’s algorithm tactically let it appear hesitant. Deep Blue couldn’t play mind games, but the programmers understood human reactions well enough to make Deep Blue seem like it could, which threw Kasparov off his game.
This example lays out one of the three principles which run through the book – that we often blindly trust algorithms because we see them as infallible machines rather than instructions written by other humans. The other two principles are first that all systems, whether human-led or machine-led, are flawed, and second that algorithms and humans working together creates a better future than either rejecting algorithms or replacing humans with algorithms.
I’ve been taking my time with the Spyro Reignited Trilogy, as I wanted to enjoy each game fully without rushing them and without worrying about getting a specific completion % or making review notes along the way. I didn’t want to ruin my own experience in any way.
After completing most of Spyro the Dragon and Spyro 2, taking a break, then returning a few months later, I reached 120% completion in just over 12.5 hours of playtime. So here are my thoughts on Spyro’s renewed debut.
I didn’t remember much about the original version of Spyro the Dragon, as I played it after the second and third games, and found it less interesting in comparison. I remembered some early world themes, and the general plot of Gnasty Gnorc turning the other dragons into crystal statues, but much of the game was new to me.
The gameplay in Spyro the Dragon focuses on rescuing the crystallised dragons while collecting gems and dragon eggs. 5 dragon homeworlds are hubs that each contain portals to 5 levels: 3 standard levels based on the homeworld aesthetic, a timed flight level where you fly Spyro through obstacles, plus a boss level. The sixth homeworld, inhabited by antagonist Gnasty Gnorc, contains the remaining levels and final boss fight.
The blurb for Because Internet calls it “essential reading for anyone who has ever puzzled over how to punctuate a text message or wondered where memes come from”. But this book is not a fussy “how-to” guide for internet etiquette. Instead, it’s a broader look at how the weird world of the internet has changed how we use English.
McCulloch’s primary point is that writing produced on the internet – from Twitter and Tumblr to reactions and memes – is important because it lets linguists explore the missing piece of a linguistic puzzle.
We use different versions of speech – formal and informal speech – at specific times and contexts. While the same is true for writing, informal writing has historically been nearly impossible to study. McCulloch argues that our current era of internet communication marks the first time that linguists have been able to see people’s spontaneous informal writing in real-time. Positioning internet writing as the key to a previously-inaccessible aspect of studying language is a powerful approach, and this chapter conveys its importance well.
I rarely pay attention to upcoming games, because I dislike the media hype-to-disappointment cycle that comes with every new game. But a new version of Crash Team Racing, a game that my childhood self absolutely loved, was guaranteed to hold my interest. However, I worried that it wouldn’t be remade fairly – that CTRNF would be forced to take on the often-harmful baggage of modern gaming.
The original CTR was technically short but absurdly replayable. You could simply win each race once to reach the final boss and so nominally finish the campaign mode in 3 hours. But mastering CTR required learning the tracks inside and out to complete the challenging token races and devilish Relic races.
To me, any attempt to force attention-manipulation mechanics like season passes and time-gates into CTRNF risked ruining this tight design and its quality-over-quantity nature. So I’m disappointed that Activision and Beenox have followed the convention of including seasonal “content roadmaps”, time-locked shops and item rarity tiers. I’m happy about the prospect of continued interest and additional racers, but Activision’s attempt to shove the lifecycle mechanics of a looter-shooter or an RPG into a kart racer is shortsighted and unnecessary.
So from here I’m going to pretend those extras don’t exist, and focus on the game itself. Thankfully, the game is everything I hoped it would be.
While I generally find kart racers fun, I wouldn’t call myself a serious fan of them. Two exceptions to this are the original Crash Team Racing, which was one of my favourite games as a child, and the thoroughly enjoyable Sonic and All-Stars: Racing Transformed.
Although Team Sonic Racing (TSR) was made by the same development team as Racing Transformed, Sumo Digital, I was pessimistic about it before release.When I briefly played TSR at EGX 2018, I felt like it might be unable to differentiate itself from other kart racers. At the time, my opinion was: “Sumo Digital promise that unlockable parts will let you change your car’s looks and performance, but that’s just not the same as turning your car into an aeroplane.”
I wanted to be proved wrong, but unfortunately I can’t say that the game has done enough to change my mind. Before I follow that train of thought, I’ll explain what TSR actually is, and what it does well.