Ten years ago, I began a journey. To be 100 percent precise, I began the journey the day before, with a flight from Dublin to London, but since the purpose of my trip was to keep me sea- and earthbound as much as possible, I counted London as the start of the journey. And specifically, boarding the Eurostar service for a trip through the Channel Tunnel at London’s St. Pancras station.
The entire trip is written up elsewhere on this site, but a decade has passed and I’m not the same person I was ten years ago (thankfully—it turns out growing up is something you can keep doing post your teenage years). So this post is more a quick trip down memory lane, ten years on, to see what might be found there.
I stayed the night before with two friends, whom I’ve unfortunately fallen out of contact with since then, then headed for St. Pancras laden down with a large backpack and a substantial folder of printed out tickets and itineraries. These days they’d all be stored on my iPad and iPhone, but I had the sense to have backups in those days, and I’d get plenty of use out of them before I made it home.
Finding the British Library around the corner from St. Pancras provided a nice break and a further travel option sadly not available due to the absence of its operator. (Possibly for the best, that one.) In the end, the Eurostar served as a more-than-appealing substitute, allowing me to cross my first sea in subterranean fashion before whisking me past Liege’s gorgeous station and on to Cologne with its immense cathedral.
This is where I also had my first taste of travel drama. In the years since, a bit more travel experience and a general maturing of my outlook has allowed me to cultivate something of a stoic approach to misfortune. Not a completely heartless stoicism, just an awareness that shit happens and that while crying about it might be reasonable, it shouldn’t be the only response. I don’t think I cried back then, but I certainly had a yawning hole in the pit of my stomach for a few hours.
Anyhow … I had a few hours to spare in Cologne, so I decided a beer by the Rhine was a reasonable way to celebrate my first time in Germany (for such it was). Beer enjoyed and the light failing, I returned to the Hauptbahnhof to find my connection. Or rather to fail to do so. Because while I thought I’d carefully researched everything in my booking, I’d missed the ultra-efficient German practice of treating trains like Lego, with carriages as the bricks. Thus my sleeper carriage to Copenhagen was attached to the overnight train to Warsaw and left serenely without me.
In my defence, I did ask the station porter for help, but their English was no better than my German, and nothing was gained. Cue the dreadful feeling that I’d messed up the trip right at the start and some very much appreciated efforts on the part of a station attendant who did speak English and proceeded to get me onto another train that would get me where I was going, albeit a few hours late and in distinctly less comfort than initially intended.
And I’ll leave this initial bit of reminiscence there. That was only day one of the trip, after all, exactly ten years ago, when a very much younger me set out on his travels and almost crashed and burned at the first hurdle. Would the older me have fared as well? Probably. Would it have been as much of an adventure to him? Maybe not. He would know to get on the right train though.
If the global virus of the past year has been good for anything (other than billionaires), then it’s been good for the Marvel division of Disney’s entertainment megaplex. Not long after their ten-year story hit its climactic peak with Avengers: Endgame, the world got dropped into an enforced hiatus. As a result, instead of risking saturation of the market, Marvel got to take a break that Disney would never have allowed and instead begin its new era with smaller-scale TV offerings.
Moreover, those TV series themselves got rearranged in favour of those that could be filmed on closed sets, so instead of leading with the more traditional action offering of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Marvel kicked off phase four with the much stranger, much more personal Wandavision. Which, as its nine-week run unfolded, proved to be a tale of trauma and the harm that can spill out from it.
In an era when binge-watching has faded from prominence, but in which people are as eager as they’ve ever been for new media to consume, Wandavision was discussed and dissected endlessly online across its run, not just among Marvel fans but among more casual viewers. It’s mostly great in my opinion, so if you haven’t watched it, don’t read any further, as I’m mostly going to be talking about the ending.
For those of us hoping for a positive start to 2021, after (gestures vaguely) all of this, the first week has been a long year. The three horsemen of disaster—Trump, Covid, and Brexit—are abroad in the land, with Seasonal Affective Disorder loping along behind them like a particularly morose hound. After everything we’ve been through, self care remains very, very necessary.
One of the easiest ways to let the overtaxed brain drift away is to dive into some old-fashioned media consumption. But what to watch in these trying times? Netflix, Amazon, and their ilk have plenty to offer (I’m partial to a bit of Ted Lasso on AppleTV+ myself), but sometimes even the most easy-going narrative can require a little too much focus of the viewer. When seeking respite, it’s better to let someone else do as much of the work as possible.
At such times, YouTube is your only man. Cooking and baking channels are massively popular and might seem to fit the bill, but don’t be fooled. There are traps inherent in even the most alluring recipe video: not just the hunger they’ll inevitably spur, but also the subconscious guilt at the fact that you’ll never cook any of these delicious dishes, even though you could at least give it a shot. No, if you’re looking for pure guilt-free, stress-free viewing, you need to watch something where there’s no possibility of copying the feats depicted.
For me at least, I get that service from crafting YouTube. There’s an entire universe of YouTube videos in which expert crafters demonstrate their skills, and many of them rank among the Internet’s most soothing experiences. Stick on a video, or cue up an entire playlist, and let some of these voices (ranked below from least to most relaxing) ease all your cares as they demonstrate their skill and knowledge.
Born from the remants of the second version of the Man at Arms metalsmithing channel, That Works features a small group of forge-addicted smiths and their supporting craftspersons, mostly recreating weapons from popular media like games and TV shows, but also talking about their tools and working on more personal projects. They’re a lively and talkative bunch, and when they build a weapon there’s always a closing montage of it being used to stab, smash, and slice innocent fruit and veg. Even so, the actual process of smithing and grinding can easily lull you into restfulness, and perhaps a little bit of energetic destruction right at the end might be just what the doctor ordered to work off the last of your stress.
Metalwork on a much smaller and more precise scale than That Works, Clickspring sees a genial, soft-spoken Australian called Chris narrate his way through the creation of fascinating clockwork mechanisms. He seems to have only recently restarted posting after a bit of a gap, and he’s currently working on a recreation of the Antikythera Mechanism, but there are plenty of videos in his backlog, featuring both precision metalwork and the creation of the tools needed to do so. As long as you don’t have a problem with all the grinding and filing, or the Ozzie accent, Chris’s dulcet tones might be the perfect guide to a world of satisfying clockwork, demonstrating some of the surprisingly simple techniques that watchmakers have developed over the centuries of their craft.
A step further even than Clickspring in terms of precision and dulcet tones, Baumgartner Restoration offers up the wisdom and skill of Chicago’s Julian Baumgartner as he takes the dingiest, most damaged artworks and restores them to something close to their original form. There’s a lot to compare in the two channels, as both hosts are keen to emphasise the need to do things the right way and will occasionally throw in a wordless video as ASMR bait for their followers. However, Julian probably just has the edge in terms of the warmth of his voice, and there’s something exceptionally satisfying in watching cack-handed old restoration being removed and repairs to fine art being undertaken at the smallest scale. Plus, whereas Clickspring’s Chris breaks down his work into multiple short videos, Julian usually completes one restoration per video, ensuring a satisfying reveal of the finished work at the end.
For the ultimate in relaxing craft viewing, it’s to Japan we turn, and specifically the Ishitani channel of a Japanese maker of custom furniture. Carving, sawing, and hammering in a workshop set in unspeakably idyllic surroundings, these videos are almost entirely without narration of the kind that might tax a stressed viewer’s cognition. Instead, you’re invited to enjoy the simple satisfaction of seeing hunks of lumber being brought from their raw state into the form of furniture that you would weep to possess, with occasional cameos from the craftsman’s family and pet dog. In fact, the envy engendered by watching this furniture come into being, and the inevitable dissatisfaction with your own paltry surroundings by comparison, are some of the only minor issues with Ishitani. The other is the fact that the channel hasn’t posted a new video in over half a year, but with over three years of videos to watch, you won’t run out for a while.
A few years back, I was in the habit of writing regular reviews on this blog. Covering games, books, and movies, the poorly explained schtick of the reviews was that I limited them to three sentences each. This both leaned into the fact that this was more or less my job for over a decade (compressing information into tiny packages, not writing reviews) and was a fun writing exercise, even if it did occasionally lead to long run-on sentences.
Anyway, after a 2020 that proved very hard for writing, I figure it’s worth my while to develop a better writing habit, and returning to something that was once fun seems like a good start. So expect a few more of these review bundles in the months to come, but in the meantime, here’s what I thought of four movies that I managed to catch over the Christmas break.
Soul (Pete Docter)
Pixar’s latest musing on the nature of life, the universe, and everything may not have been the biggest movie to be released online-only at the end of the plague year, but it wasn’t far off the top of pile. Telling the story of a teacher and aspiring jazz pianist who finds himself hovering between life and death just as he gets his big break, it sets its characters to explore the question of what life is for: a single grand purpose or the simple joys of existing day to day. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Docter, who also directed Up and Inside Out for Pixar, lands on the latter option as the best one, and while Soul’s message might prove a little straightforward if you’ve already spent part of your life considering it, Soul tells its tale with warmth and humour and is definitely worth checking out.
Wonder Woman 1984 (Patty Jenkins)
Okay, so this movie was the biggest online-only release of the festive period, made all the more notable by Warner Bros’ decision to shift its entire slate online in 2021, and it’s just a shame that WW1984 turned out to be a colourful mess of a film. The first Wonder Woman cannily cast Gal Gadot as a fish out of water hero, but despite the sequel being set some seventy years later, there isn’t any character growth to be seen, and Gadot and her talented supporting cast find themselves tumbling through a series of set pieces that are barely connected by the central conceit of granting wishes with dark costs. WW84 has clearly suffered from its many delays and the chaos surrounding the DC cinematic universe, and the result is a colourful and occasionally exciting shambles that doesn’t build on the success of its predecessor.
Tenet (Christopher Nolan)
If the pandemic year had a tentpole film, it was Christopher Nolan’s time-twisting Tenet, which Nolan fought to get into cinemas and which proved to be divisive on its release. Nolan’s success over the years has seen him lean increasingly towards structural complexity, as seen in Inception and Dunkirk, and Tenet pushes that habit further still, to the point where the structural games overwhelm character development and even plot clarity. Tenet is certainly a spectacle, but its drabness is only really alleviated by Robert Pattinson’s louche secret agent, and while repeated viewings might provide insight into its depths, there might not be much impetus to watch it again if it fails to engage and inspire on first viewing.
Wolfwalkers (Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart)
Arriving just as the year was ending, in a small scattering of cinemas and on Apple TV+, Wolfwalkers is a spellbinding animated tour-de-force, set in a myth-soaked vision of the Irish past. Cartoon Saloon’s film tells the story of two girls—a hunter and a “wolf walker”—who connect amid the turmoil of Cromwell’s occupation of Kilkenny, with animation that sweeps and shifts in stunning hand-drawn fashion as the characters shift from human to wolf and back. Undoubtedly the artistic high point of all the films I’ve seen in the past month, Wolfwalkers benefits further from heartfelt performances from its voice actors and a story that invests viewers in the survival of the wolves and wolfwalkers as a vision of a threatened, romantic land.
On December 3rd, 2019, I got my second cancer diagnosis. It wasn’t wholly unexpected by the time it arrived, but news like that still takes time to digest. You can read more about it here, if you want. My assumption at the time was that this would be the problem that I’d spend the next year navigating. That I would have to shape my life around it, one way or another.
2020 laughed at us all, didn’t it?
From the vantage point of twelve months later, cancer was just one of three major issues I ended up having to deal with. Of the three of them, it hasn’t been the hardest to get past, and it’s actually had the least impact on my day-to-day life. The others were, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic, which has upended and ended lives around the world, and the unexpected death of my father just as the pandemic was seriously getting started. Amid all of this, I can actually count myself a little lucky: as serious as my cancer is, it hasn’t been a massive burden to add to everything else 2020 has brought.
Yes, my cancer was and is serious. Lung cancer, stage 4, not curable. I have regular checkups and slightly less regular scans to monitor its progress. My running career has come to a grinding halt, and I can still feel the cancer’s presence with every deep breath or truncated moment of exertion. But I had a lucky break: a mutation in the cancer gene meant I was suitable for a pill-based therapy. Four pills, morning and evening. Minimal side effects and no need to be plugged into a saline drip for hours at a time, or have bits of me irradiated.
The result is that after being beaten back at first—allowing me to sleep more easily and largely eliminating my persistent cough—the cancer has been held in check for the rest of the year. The last few scans have been almost boring in their sameness, and my doctor and I have been enjoying informatively brief get-togethers for the past few months.
There have been hiccups, of course. Back around April and May, I found myself coughing up blood occasionally. No cause was ever found, despite a bronchoscope giving the medical profession yet another chance to poke around the inside of my lungs, but the fact that this coincided with the stress of my father’s funeral and the aftermath seems to offer a neat explanation. The pills have not been entirely without side effects either: a rash on my legs and a lowered heart rate that has seen me heading for my bed earlier than I might otherwise. (Typically I’m more of a morning person anyway, as several ex-girlfriends have bemoaned, so I’m not sure that many would notice any difference.)
Back when I was first diagnosed, I expressed some hope that I’d be able to spend some of 2020 travelling and writing. Prioritising things and people that matter to me. As it happened, none of that worked out. COVID-19 meant that international travel of any kind was off the menu, and the stress of living through a pandemic, family bereavement, and a cancer diagnosis turned out to be (surprise!) not conducive to the creative spark.
As the year has drawn to a close, I’ve started to get moving again, though the latest lockdown has kept travel far away. I did the 2020 NaNoWriMo challenge and hit the 50,000 word mark on time, giving me a boost of achievement that was sorely needed. Okay, so I didn’t actually finish the book I was working on, but I did at least prod my writing habit back into life. I’ve also kept up my walking in the face of worsening weather: work’s “Walktober” event probably helped with that.
Last of all there’s been Christmas. A strange, truncated Christmas that I managed to spend with my mum in the face of imminent lockdowns across the island of Ireland. A grab for normality as hopes for 2021 are born in the swirl of Brexit deals, vaccine arrivals, and the departure of at least one straw-haired headcase from the corridors of power.
For the past year, I’ve been appending these posts with a “Cancer Update.” Doing my bit to let people know how I’m getting on without broadcasting it on Facebook. With the end of the year, I think it’s time to retire that. As mentioned above, I’ve been enduring well enough through the year, with minimal side effects and struggles (cancer-related at least). While I’ll keep updating this blog, the “Cancer Update” will only reappear if there’s actual news to pass on. If it doesn’t appear, assume that things continue much as they have in the past year. Though I won’t take it amiss if you contact me to say hi and ask for a more detailed update.
So the time has come to crumple 2020 up and consign it to the dustbin of history. We’ll take our good memories where we have them and look to 2021 for a chance to improve things instead. I’ll continue to post irregularly, no doubt, and hopefully will have a chance to inspire some envy with travel posts before too long. After all, one advantage of cancer is getting bumped up the schedule for a vaccine shot…
For the third time in its history, Apple is in the process of moving its Mac computers to a new line of chips. In 1994 it switched from Motorola’s 680×0 chips to AIM’s PowerPC chips, in 2005 it began to switch from PowerPC to Intel’s x86 chips, and now in 2020 it’s leaving Intel behind in favour of its own Apple Silicon, in the form of the new M1 chip.
These three switches have given Apple more organisational knowledge of how to accomplish such transitions than perhaps any other company. You can see this in how they’ve become better at it over time. Moving to PowerPC allowed Apple to compete against Windows/Intel PCs, but the advantages provided were thin and disappeared over the course of a decade. In contrast, Apple secured for itself favoured customer status from Intel when it switched and enjoyed several years of chip designs perfectly suited for its Macs. As for the switch to Apple Silicon? Well, we’ll get to that.
The transition to Apple Silicon was announced in June 2020, but no details were offered at that point. Only with the December 2020 announcement and release of the first new M1 Macs did people get a proper look at what the new chips offered. And though this is just the first step in what Apple has described as a two-year transition of its desktop and laptop line, the early results are very promising.
The three Macs switching to the new M1 chip are the absolute entry level devices in its lineup: the Mac Mini desktop and the MacBook Air and 13” MacBook Pro. These are some of Apple’s best-selling Macs, but they’re also some of the cheapest, so choosing them for the switch to new, faster chips is the opposite of risky—it provides Apple and its customers with a safe and secure first step into a new era.
First of all, the new machines look entirely like their Intel-based predecessors. Apart from a few differences in coloration and port selection (most notable with the Mac Mini), these devices are dead ringers for the machines they replace. For customers looking for reassurance that the new Macs won’t be in some way cut-down replacements more akin to iPads than “proper” Macs, this kind of familiarity will be reassuring.
More to the point, the low-end machines being replaced have the weakest performance in the existing Mac line. If the new M1 chip has any performance gains to offer, it will show best in this setting. And by all accounts, the performance gains are substantial. The M1 chip may be a derivative of the A-series chips to be found in iPhones and iPads, but Apple has been honing its chip design expertise over the past decade and the M1 looks like it’s coming out of the gate competitive with the best that Intel and its main competitor AMD have to offer. And this, remember, is arriving in low-end Apple devices.
More exciting for laptop users, perhaps, is the battery life gains that the M1 chips offer. Eking out battery life gains with Intel chips has forced Apple to make trade offs between speed and power consumption for years, but M1 seems to have broken that deadlock for Apple, with early reviews reporting that both laptops can run for a full 8-hour work day without needing to be plugged in.
Perhaps the most interesting factor about the three new Macs is how little performance differentiation between them there is. Despite their differing form factors, they all use the same CPU, with a simple choice to double the RAM from 8GB to 16GB when buying. The most notable physical difference lies in cooling, with the MacBook Air being entirely passively cooled whereas the MacBook Pro and Mac Mini sport cooling fans of varying sizes. This upshot is that while the Pro and Mini should enjoy better top speeds, the experience in day-to-day use should be much the same.
If the machines aren’t differentiated much among themselves, then they do at least offer Apple some degree of differentiation between Macs and iPads. Especially in the form of the iPad Pro, iPads have been creeping into the territory of Mac laptops for a while, but the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, with their greater RAM, better selection of ports, and larger batteries, not to mention the improved M1 chip, should be able to maintain a comfortable distance for a while.
For Apple users, and even PC fans, considering new machines, these M1 Macs are as safe a bet as Apple could make them. Every indication is that they already run existing Mac software as fast as the machine’s they’re replacing, with software recompiled for the new chips running far faster. They’re arriving in recognisable form factors, so no peripherals will have to be abandoned, and the fact that the M1 is arriving at the low end of the market means that the price is right for those interested in trying the new systems out.
Might Apple be playing it too safe? Maybe, as there were a few complaints that the new machines weren’t exactly exciting and new, but the performance and battery gains of the M1 seem more than enough for now. It’s the second generation of machines when excitement is likely to arrive, in the form of new designs and form factors. There are already rumours of a redesigned slimline iMac in 2021, probably with an M1+ or the equivalent at its heart. Beyond that, it’ll be very interesting to see how PC manufacturers respond to Apple’s new machines.
As for myself, the time has at last come to put one of my old Macs out to pasture and try something new. Not my nine-year-old MacBook Air, which has been mostly superseded by an iPad Pro, but rather my ten-year-old Mac Mini, which has kept chugging away with the benefit of various upgrades but was never a speed demon in the first place. I wavered for a moment before deciding to order in advance of the first reviews, but that’s mainly because I’m expecting the existing Mac Mini form factor to disappear once the full Mac lineup is upgraded. Its size and shape are still based on the DVD drives it no longer sports, after all.
Regardless, I eventually put the order in and will have my new Mac in a few weeks. It’s the cheapest of the M1 Macs at the moment (cheaper even than the Intel Mac Mini it’s replacing) and I expect it to act as a media server and general purpose PC for many years to come. Life’s too short to spend it waiting for the next big thing to come out. Sometimes you just have to enjoy yourself while you can.
Too grim a segue? Maybe, but please allow me my fun. I’m as locked down as anyone is these days, so apart from watching people pass by my ground floor window, the days are not full of entertainment.
Last week was particularly stressful, as I had a CT scan to check on the progress of my treatment and a meeting with the doctor to find out the results of said scan two days later. This usually causes a spike in my worrying, during which any minor complaint becomes a potential symptom. My head was not in a good space creatively, and my NaNoWriMo output was knocked out for a week. (And if that isn’t the most bourgeois whine I’ve ever made, I don’t know what is.) Luckily, the scan results came back positive, and the medicine I’m on continues to do its job.
As a result, locked down though I may be, I’m in a much better frame of mind this week and doing my best to catch up from my NaNoWriMo lapse. As long as this excessively mild winter persists, I’ll get out into the sun when I can too, and hopefully before too long I’ll get to visit my family again. Until then, and until vaccines start rolling out, keep safe and keep strong.
These are dark days for Britain. As chaos engulfs the land, a venal and vicious ruler has risen up, interested only in seizing power by whatever means are at hand. Some have sunk into despair while others have abandoned their morals and thrown in with their twisted rulers. Amidst collapse, disease, and the dying throes of a nation turning in upon itself, you must gather your courage and your friends and make your way to the Field of Camlann, where King Arthur awaits your aid.
Wait, what did you think I was talking about?
Inkle Studios’ newest game, Pendragon, arrives at a fortuitously relevant time (for it). Its themes of loneliness, loss, and struggle in the midst of desperate times might cut a little close to the bone for some players, but that struggle also heightens the rewards of connections both new and renewed and reminders that hope is never entirely lost.
Inkle has a strong heritage in narrative games, with both the wonderful 80 Days (if you’ve never played it, seek it out—on almost any platform at this stage) and the more recent Heaven’s Vault, an archaeology-themed translate-‘em-up that’s only available on PC but is highly rewarding for those willing to delve into its science fiction worlds. Pendragon is a game on a smaller scale than Heaven’s Vault but it’s just as creative and rewarding.
The core gameplay of Pendragon consists of a series of chess-like encounters between Arthur’s followers, friends, and family as they crisscross Britain in their quest to reach Camlann before the once-and-future king’s final encounter with his bastard son, Mordred. A single play through of the game takes less than an hour in most cases, but with the opportunity to tackle different difficulty levels, unlock a variety of starting characters, and experience the twists and turns of the game’s narrative engine, there’s ample encouragement for replay.
The chess-like gameplay strikes a careful balance between being too intimidating and too simple. The basic concepts of threat and territory control are easy to figure out and amply signposted by the interface, with the special skills of certain characters suggesting particular strategies. Each encounter takes place on a limited battlefield, and though it can become crowded with enemies, their abilities and preferred tactics are likewise clearly signposted. Every battle provides the information that the player needs to win it, though victory isn’t always possible, and sometimes necessity or failing morale will see you fleeing the field.
In fact, victory is rarely a simple matter. Learning Pendragon takes the player along a specific path: First, learn the basics and simple strategies. Then learn to think a few moves ahead so that you don’t end up in a trap. Then learn how enemies act and where their weaknesses are. Then learn how to lure them into traps and dispose of them safely. Then … well, that’s as far as I’ve gotten so far. I’ve yet to even hit the middling difficulty levels.
Amid all of this tactical back and forth, Pendragon’s story engine does its best to weave a compelling tale. Each starting character has their own reasons for seeking out Arthur. You begin with the disgraced knight Lancelot and his lover Guinevere, both freighted with guilt, but other collectible characters who join on the journey do so out of a love of battle, a need to make amends, or sheer vicious spite. In addition to these main characters, there are others who may become your allies, their motivations created randomly and shifting in response to the choices you make.
These characters join you both on the battlefield, where their own skills open up new tactics, and around the campfire, where tales can be shared each evening of knights, faeries, and other Arthuriana. One of the game’s greatest strengths is how well it nails the feeling of the Arthur stories. The ultimately doomed nature of the best intentions in the face of time and dissolution is a recurring theme within both the original stories and Pendragon’s Britain. The world is unkind, and it only takes one person with bad intentions to make it far worse. Only through trust and determination can something better endure.
Mechanically, Pendragon has clearly been honed through multiple iterations. The short duration of each attempt at the game is a priority, with the constantly depleting morale counter pushing the player ever onwards. Characters can sacrifice themselves on the battlefield, to be rescued when the day is won, but this is a trick that can only be repeated so many times, with the food that extends its use always being in short supply.
In short, even on the lower difficulty levels, Pendragon instils in the player the sense that they’re racing against time. Both within battles, due to that falling morale, and on the longer journey as food runs out. Even once Camlann is reached, the pressure of time remains as you face Mordred, who grows stronger as the final battle proceeds, regardless of who faces him.
Mordred is, perhaps, the game’s biggest weakness. Depending on your character’s talents and the randomly generated battlefield you face him on, it’s possible for the final battle to feel unwinnable (in some cases it can even be unwinnable). This is exacerbated by the decision in this confrontation to remove the need to confirm moves, which is present all through the rest of the game. Changing the gameplay in such a way seems an oddly artificial way to up the stakes, and all it achieved was to annoy me when I lost twice to Mordred as a result of misplaced clicks. To have a quest end in such an anticlimax undercuts all the hard work done by the game’s narrative.
In a year like 2020, Pendragon will either match your mindset or undercut it. With its themes of learning how to cope with adversity, of maintaining the struggle even when things seem bleakest, it might feel a little too downbeat for some. For me though, the atmospheric narrative and gorgeous stained-glass art style kept me going through the initial stumbles of plumbing its gameplay depths. This is a tale of camaraderie and persistence in the face of a crumbling world. We could all do with a little of that.
For the moment, Pendragon is only available on PC and Mac, but it’s not an expensive purchase. Moreover, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it follow 80 Days onto a range of other platforms. If it drops onto one that you frequent, do take a look.
I’m not as good at keeping this blog up to date as I was in the LiveJournal days. Sorry about that. The good news to report is that as of the most recent doctor’s visit, everything seems to be holding steady. I am a little worried about my medicine-induced low heart rate and the encroaching winter combining to turn me into a hibernating blob, but my workplace’s decision to run a “Walktober” event is at least encouraging my more active habits. We’ll see how well that lasts when the weather turns nasty.
There is also the issue of the ongoing global bastard (as one of my favoured YouTube channels calls it). Numbers are spiking in Ireland, especially in the North, which means that I may become even more housebound than I have been in recent months. My immune system is okay, but avoiding any trouble for my lungs seems sensible. I hope you’re keeping safe too, wherever you are. If we’ve ever met or talked, rest assured that you’ve been in my thoughts at some point during all of this.
If you were to drive to the far northwestern corner of County Mayo in Ireland, and then, just as you seemed to be running out of road, turned left, you might find yourself heading downhill to the sheltered cove of Rinroe Beach. Not far from this tiny strand is a graveyard. Or, to be more precise, two graveyards. The one nearest the beach is neat and square, with modern, polished gravestones packed in regimented rows. The other is older, its gravestones tumbled and strewn across a larger space, growing older and sparser as the graveyard extends towards a nearby stream.
It’s where that stream meets the graveyard that the mound sits. Taller than a man, it’s decorated with a few old grave markers, but exactly what it might be isn’t clear at first glance. I thought it might be some form of cairn, perhaps raised over the bodies of seafarers lost in a nearby Atlantic storm centuries past. Wikipedia suggests that it’s the remains of an early Christian church and resting place of St. Galligan, from whom the townland of Kilgalligan and the cemetery itself take their names. However, no one actually knows, as no archaeologist has ever investigated this remote mound. It remains what it first appears: an appealing mystery.
There’s much that appeals in this remote corner of Ireland. Myself and a friend (we’ll call her the SysAdmin) decided that if Covid-19 was going to isolate us, we might as well be isolated with a change of scenery, and so we rented a cottage (she did most of the organising) and drove there from Dublin (I did the driving). A four-hour drive, not counting stops, it was surprisingly uneventful for someone who is more familiar with the state of Irish rural roads as they were in the 1970s and 1980s. Whether due to investment in the Gaeltacht* areas (which Rinroe, Kilgalligan, and the village of Carrowteige in which we were staying form part of) or the more recent “Wild Atlantic Way” tourist promotion, serious effort has been made to make these areas more accessible than they once were.
Our AirBnB was a little way downhill from Carrowteige, with its single shop-cum-post office, and a little further uphill from Kilgalligan Cemetery and Rinroe Beach. It was while searching for the cottage that I first saw the cemetery, and I’d see it again multiple times as we walked past on the way downhill for an Atlantic dip or uphill while shivering. The mystery of the mound was never answered, despite the multitude of local stories that our AirBnB host had to share, but there was plenty nearby to explore.
One of the best stories he had to tell related to nearby Portacloy Head. There, on an exposed headland, a large ÉIRE marker had recently been restored. This marker was accompanied by a nearby number also marked out in white stone: 63. The name and number marked the site as one of Ireland’s Coast Watching Service, established during World War II (or The Emergency, if you were Irish at the time). The lookout posts aimed to watch Ireland’s coastal seas and skies, while the ÉIRE markers and numbers were to warn off planes (probably American) that might have lost their bearings. There were 83 in total, put in place during 1942–43, most along the west coast, but number 63 had one further twist: shortly after its restoration, part of Portacloy Head had tumbled into the Atlantic far below, taking a corner of the ÉIRE sign with it. We ventured up to see it, past some blasé sheep, and viewed both the marking and the gap where part of it had once been. It’s worth the trip for the view alone, but there are plenty of other markers to see around Ireland, some of them even quite close to Dublin.**
Over the three-ish days we had in Carrowteige, we did as much exploring as sea swimming and a desire for rest and relaxation allowed. Our trips usually began with us seeking out coffee for the SysAdmin (for SysAdmins need coffee in much the same way that the rest of us need air) but we ventured further onto nearby Belmullet, both north to the lighthouse and south to a rocky promontory where we found a stone spiral erected as part of a sculpture trail, where the peaks of Achill Island can be seen across the water.
Across the headland from Rinroe Beach, we found ourselves looking on the cliffs of Benwee Head near sunset. An Bhinn Bhuí, or The Yellow Cliff, in Irish, it towers over the Atlantic waves below, and the opposing promontory (the best place from which to view the cliffs) also hosts a sculpture of the Children of Lir that took abstractness in its representation to a whole new level. The cliffs themselves were more than enough to validate the visit on their own, forming perhaps the natural highlight of the whole trip. (And providing the header image for this post.)
Further east, we found our way to the Céide Fields. Buried for millennia under peat bogs, near the strikingly striated Céide Cliffs, these unprepossessing stone walls are in fact as old as the pyramids and form Ireland’s most extensive Neolithic site and the world’s oldest field system. Covid had closed the nearby interpretive centre, so it was hard to get a feel for the extent of the site (only part of which has been excavated) but its story of deforestation, climate change, and population collapse struck close to home.
After all, Mayo has a far more recent history with depopulation. In 1841, a census marked the county’s population as 388,000. Twenty years later, following famine and emigration, this had dropped by a third. The population reached a low point of 110,000 in 1991, and even though it has since rebounded a little, it remains at just a third of its pre-famine population. Looking over the remoter areas of the county in a satellite image, it’s not hard to spot the shadows of old fields and walls, as well as the shells of old cottages and farm buildings, left empty by those who sought a better life, or just any life at all, wherever they could find it.
It’s not difficult to see why An Gorta Mór (The Great Hunger/Famine) hit Mayo so hard. The arrival of the potato as a staple crop that reliably produced food in small plots of land, even in cold years, had enabled a population boom in Ireland. The arrival of blight in 1845 removed that food source for the desperately poor farmers and the policy of the British government exacerbated the disastrous impact. If you’re interested in learning more, I can recommend the Irish History Podcast for its in-depth and even-handed series on a topic that still stirs hard feelings 170 years later.
Before we left, Mayo had one last brush with history to provide. As Storm Ellen barrelled towards us from the Atlantic, I told the SysAdmin the story of Oíche na Gaoithe Móire (The Night of the Big Wind). This tale I learned from my father’s love of history, and it dates back to just a few years before the famine. In January 1839, a mighty storm blew across Ireland, damaging buildings, costing lives, and leaving its mark in Irish song and story. Thankfully, Storm Ellen, though it rattled our windows all night long, wasn’t half so destructive, and we were able to pack up and leave safely when the morning came.
Covid-19 may have robbed me of any chance to travel to and across far distant countries in 2020. But it did serve to remind me that I have a car now, and a country full of sights I’ve yet to see at my doorstep. While I’m once more back in my own place and isolating as per normal, there are other isolated spots out there, and yet more sights to see. Whether or not you choose to start with Carrowteige and Mayo, it’s an option I’d definitely recommend taking.
* A predominantly Irish-speaking area. The Irish language, despite government efforts to support it, has long been in decline. Gaeltacht areas when I was younger were mostly known as the sites of summer holidays for children aimed at teaching them everyday Irish. How successful they were at that is questionable, but with more people than ever learning Irish online, there may be hope for the language yet.
** After years of neglect, there has been a rush of interest in these markers in recent years, and several of them have been restored. The Eiremarkings.org site is an excellent resource if you’re interested in learning more.
One of the nice things about the trip was getting to be a little more active. Work keeps me seated most of the day, whereas sightseeing requires a little more walking. And sea-swimming required a little more walking and a lot more physical courage than has been asked of me lately. So I was happy enough to enjoy the benefits of fresh Atlantic sea air.
The trip began directly after a CT scan in St. James Hospital, and I got the results of the scan this Wednesday. The good news is that the medicine I’m on is doing its job—the cancer has been stopped in its tracks and has neither spread nor grown. I can’t speak for the effects of traipsing up and down Mayo’s peaty slopes, but I remain one of the healthiest-looking lung cancer patients you’re likely to ever come across.
It’ll be three months until the next scan, so I don’t know if there’ll be a health update with the next post. If there isn’t, I’ll probably be doing fine, keeping active as best I can and wishing I could get off on my travels at least once a day. Updates will continue though, as I’m thinking of extending my general disuse of Facebook into actually leaving that miserable platform. In which case I’ll just point people here if they want to keep up with me. No decision yet, but it feels overdue. Until then, keep well and try not to let 2020 get you down.
Apple Inc. is, by some measures, the biggest company in the world. From a near-bankrupt state in 1997, it has turned itself into a globe-spanning colossus, worth somewhere in the region of a trillion dollars. In an age of corporate technology titans, it’s been at or near the head of the pack for years.
And this week Epic Games declared war on it.
Not just on Apple either. On Google too, which along with Facebook and Amazon, forms a modern tetrarchy of technology. It’s a war that’s being fought on legal and public fronts, but exactly how does Epic plan to win? And how did these corporate David and Goliaths come to be at odds?
Founded in 1991, Epic Games started as a video game developer before segueing into developing the tools that others use to make video games, most notably its Unreal Engine game engine. Just as sellers of shovels made more money during Gold Rushes than most miners, so Epic did pretty well out of that move. Then, a few years ago, it released Fortnite.
You’ve probably heard of Fortnite. Even if you don’t play it, you know kids who do, or maybe just kids who watch video streamers who do. A free-to-play game with battle royale, creative, and cooperative elements, its in-game purchases have proved a massive cash cow for Epic, pushing the company’s valuation into the tens of billions.
With all that cash weighing it down, Epic decided to throw its weight around. Casting itself as Robin Hood, it first took on Steam, the dominant storefront for PC games, promising players cheaper games and developers a bigger cut of the revenue. The verdict on this ongoing war remains open, as while the Epic Games Store continues to host exclusive titles and offer free games to tempt new customers, many PC gamers are heavily invested in Steam. However, it’s now clear that this was just a warm up for Epic’s biggest fight.
Apple has faced years of criticism for its “walled garden” approach to releasing software on its iPhone and iPad devices. In short, if you want your software to run on an iDevice, you follow Apple’s rules and give Apple its 30% cut. While the ecosystem for Android devices is more open, the Google Play store, which has adopted similar rules and a similar revenue cut, is the quickest and easiest way to find and install new software. Hence, most users will use it.
This week, Epic said “nuts to that” and implemented a new feature in Fortnite, whereby users could make in-game transactions directly from Epic without giving a cut to Apple or Google. Apple swiftly removed Fortnite from its App Store: if you already have it, you can continue to play, but there’ll be no new users and no updates. Google followed suit not long after, delisting Fortnite from the Google Play store.
For players, the immediate impact is minimal. The difference will only really start to show when Fortnite’s new season begins. Unable to update, iOS and Google Play users will miss out on the new content. But Epic didn’t wait to let them know about it. Not only did they slap Apple and Google with a lawsuit accusing them of monopolistic practices, but they also hosted an in-game video that mocked Apple’s famous “1984” advert, arguing that Apple now held the same position as the corporate behemoths it once opposed.
It’s a fair comment. Apple is “the man” now, just as Google has long since ceased being a scrappy garage startup. Both companies have their share of questionable practices and wield ludicrous economic and social power. Yet the fact that Apple got a video whereas Google didn’t suggests that Epic is relying on public opinion being on its side in this fight. Specifically the public opinion of millions of young Fortnite gamers who might end up missing out due to this corporate spat over revenue sharing.
Apple’s argument is the same two-pronged one that it’s used to fend off anti-competitive arguments in the past. First, it built the App Store, and the host devices, and their operating systems. If Epic uploads a free-to-play game and makes billions through in-app purchases, it’s effectively freeloading if Apple doesn’t get a cut. To which Epic might respond, well, isn’t 30% a bit much? In their turn, Apple can say that the same rules apply to everyone, no matter their size. Epic might then point to Steam, which responded to the competition posed by Epic by implementing lower by altering its terms for revenue sharing. It’s a back-and-forth argument but not Epic’s strongest suit.
Apple’s second argument sees it on shakier ground: it controls its walled garden by checking the content it hosts. This has kept Apple’s App Store largely free from the knockoff apps and rubbish that plagued Android in the past, but it also means that the everything on the App Store has to be Apple-approved. With Apple having recently banned Microsoft and Facebook from hosting their own game-streaming services on iPad and iPhone, this is an opportune moment for Epic to draw attention to how Apple’s corporate culture defines what its users get to experience.
The stakes are high. Apple makes a good chunk of its earnings from hardware sales, and losing Fortnite could see it lose a chunk of those (it’s already facing threats to its Chinese market from Trumpian “diplomacy” to add to its vulnerability). On the other hand, Apple has more cash-in-hand than most countries and can weather the storm, whereas Epic is for the first time putting its cash cow at risk.
On the other hand, if Epic can’t quickly find acceptable terms with Apple and Google, some of its players and streamers might just move on. No game lasts forever as “the big thing,” and my own nieces and nephews are pretty happy with Roblox. Epic is not lacking in competitors who would be more than happy to carve off slices of the Fortnite billions.
Of course, Epic has its own war chest to fight this war, and the lawsuit against Apple and Google may prove to be nothing more than a negotiating tactic. After all, implementing changes to the law does require the presence of a justice system with the will to do so, and the U.S. has its own issues at the moment. Europe would be a more friendly venue in which to argue the merits of the tech giants’ market power, but that’s not where the lawsuit was served (as far as I can tell).
Which is where Epic’s social media strategy comes in. The video mocking Apple was a call to arms for Fortnite players to rally to the game rather than the platform. To think about a world where Apple doesn’t take a 30% cut of Epic’s earnings. Which, given that the game deliberately targets younger players with its marketing and in-game purchases, comes across as just a little bit skeezy.
Ultimately, this is a fight between companies worth billions about who gets how much money. Just because it’s the little guy doesn’t make Epic virtuous. As shown in its conflict with Steam, it’s quite happy to leverage its riches and fight dirty. Similarly, just because Google began in a garage and had a motto of “Don’t be evil” for years doesn’t make it the good guy either. And though I’ve been an Apple user for most of my life, I’m more than happy to see people calling it out when it’s getting things wrong.
This is particularly true in the area of games. It’s something that Apple has never quite got to grips with; a legacy of the Steve Jobs era. Now offering its own subscription-based games service, Apple Arcade, it looked dodgy in throwing roadblocks in front of Microsoft and Facebook. It’s a sore point that Epic has targeted, and it’s one in which Apple could do with reviewing its practices.
I’m just not convinced that there’s much more to this fight than money. There’s a possibility of a more even playing field that delivers benefits for consumers emerging from this spat, but believing in that takes optimism that’s in short supply in 2020. Epic wants more money, and it believes that it can force Apple and Google to the table. Time will tell if it’s calculated correctly, and in the meantime Fortnite users will be the ones to pick up the tab.
The gameplay of Ion Storm’s Deus Ex, released twenty years ago, begins with a choice. Preparing to deal with a group of terrorists, the player chooses one of three extra weapons: a rocket launcher, a sniper rifle, and a mini-crossbow loaded with tranquilliser darts. Unusually for a game of that era, Deus Ex announced from the start that the player’s choices mattered.
On my first full playthrough of the game, I selected the mini-crossbow. I had already been an active player of roleplaying games for years at that point, and I was happy to play into the fiction of the game that those trying to kill you might have valid reasons for doing so. (The sniper rifle is the choice for players unconcerned with lethality, whereas the rocket launcher is best suited to taking out robots and inconveniently locked doors.) This fiction is carried through the game’s plot, in which the initial truths you’re presented with are undermined and other characters react to whether or not the player is happy to shed blood through the course of the game.
Although a seminal game in showing how player choice and morality could be integrated into games, Deus Ex proved a hard act to follow. It received only one sequel, and its 2011 prequel, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, received notable criticism for forcing players into unavoidably lethal boss fights.
One year later, in 2012, a spiritual successor appeared in the form of Arkane’s Dishonored. In this title, the player adopts the role of a vengeance-seeking assassin but the developers leaned into stealth as a mechanic and decided to provide the player with the opportunity to find non-lethal resolutions to all of their goals. Not that these are any less dark in some cases: one “fate worse than death” sees a society hostess and supporter of the corrupt regime delivered to an obsessed stalker as an alternative to being murdered.
The ten year gap between these very similar games presents a degree of progression. Deus Ex asked players to think about how they solve problems and whether casual murder can be justified within the fiction of the game. Dishonored asked that question again, and reinforced it by pointing out that just avoiding murder wasn’t enough to make you a good person. Vengeance takes you to dark places.
At this stage, I ought to point out that both Deus Ex and Dishonored are first-person action games. The player literally sees out of the eyes of the protagonist, so opportunities to distance themselves from the morality of what they’re doing are limited. Action-oriented first-person shooters, such as Halo or Doom, tend to either present inhuman enemies like aliens, demons, or zombies as cannon-fodder or lean towards the multiplayer experience, where the targets are usually other players and an immersive narrative is tossed out in favour of an arena atmosphere: you get shot, you respawn, it doesn’t really matter.
The multiplayer-focused Call of Duty series does engage with this issue but in a fashion that passes over player choice. A mission in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s single-player narrative sees the player participate in a mass shooting. The mission is flagged for “disturbing content” and players can choose how to interact, but the massacre happens regardless. The narrative requires the deaths to happen, regardless of player choice. They’re a necessity of the narrative, just as the mission itself is seen as a necessity on the part of the player character. No moral choice is made.
Step forward another decade or so and we come to 2020’s The Last of Us Part II.* Once again the protagonist is hell-bent on what initially seems to be justified vengeance. As with Modern Warfare 2, the player has no choice but to deal with the deaths they cause. Worse still (from the perspective of the player character), an in-game switch in narrative perspective does its best to rob them of any belief that their vengeance was just in the first place.
Admittedly, The Last of Us is not the same type of game as Deus Ex and Dishonored. It’s played from a third-person perspective and is less a playground for player creativity than a canvas for the creators to tell a story. It’s also unrelentingly grim in tone, and its apparent theme of just how much choosing to kill costs is one that many players seem to have resented confronting. Even so, it’s another step on the same spectrum: engaging in a work of fiction requires emotional investment, and regret, shame, and horror are all valid emotions to feel around making the choice to kill.
Narrative is one of the strongest tools that artists have to generate feelings in consumers of their art. We have literally centuries of practice when it comes to affecting emotions through stories and of making listeners, readers, and viewers reconsider their preconceptions. Video games, as an interactive art form, are much newer on the block, and it’s hardly surprising that they’re going to crib from what came before. The first few decades of film, after all, copied heavily from theatre until the new art form developed its own language.
Yet the linear narratives that other art forms have developed sit uneasily within video games. The Last of Us hews closely to linearity and while it clearly knows the story it wants to tell, it gives players little real moral choice. Even Dishonored, where the player has the freedom to devise their own solutions to problems, has a linear narrative to follow and an external marker of morality: the more murderous the player is, the more the city they inhabit falls into chaos around them.
Deus Ex had things easy, after a fashion. Technology wasn’t advanced enough to create realistically human opponents, so the moral choices facing a player had a level of abstraction. Ten years later, Dishonored provided a more sophisticated world with more sophisticated inhabitants, but it was still a playground of sorts. That twinge of discomfort when handing over Lady Boyle is one of the strongest memories for players of that game because they were forced to reflect on their choices. In that moment, they were reminded that whatever the narrative might tell them, they might not be wholly the good guy.
A decade further on and The Last of Us Part II is even more sophisticated in its world building and character portrayals, but its directed narrative might be a dead end. By all accounts it is an amazing achievement and perhaps a pinnacle for current-generation technology, but if the player has no agency in the choices the narrative makes, how powerful can the moment be when the game forces them to reflect on the morality of those choices?
This problem of ludonarrative dissonance is hardly new, and people within the games industry have been hacking away at it for years.** In these few examples, I wanted to take a look at how some games flag the choice to be a killer and how they can either lead or force the player to reflect on that. The technological capacity for doing so has definitely advanced over the years, and narrative sophistication has likewise grown, but it doesn’t feel like the two have come together yet. I wonder if and when they will.
** I specifically limited myself to a few examples to restrict the length of this piece. The Mass Effect series is one that deals heavily with morality within the narrative, though less so with the morality of killing.
Yes, it’s been a while, I know. For what I hope are understandable reasons, my enthusiasm for writing anything here was at a low ebb for a while. Restoring my mental momentum took a while, and there was a recent recurrence of the whole coughing-up-blood thing that distracted me a bit too.
As a general overview though, I’m doing fine. A round of scans and another bronchoscopy found nothing too egregious (well, nothing that they didn’t already know was there) and I’m back on track, taking my medication and doing my best to dodge Covid by the simple expedients of wearing a mask, limiting the number of people I meet, and washing my hands (not all at the same time, admittedly).
My biggest worry for the moment is becoming a couch potato, which is all too easy when the couch in question is only two feet away from your work chair. Still, I have an isolation break to look forward to shortly, and in the face of Ireland’s fitful summer, it’s not so bad to be indoors. I’ll try to keep up with the posting in future, though no promises. In the meantime, I hope you’re all keeping well and safe.