Thursday, August 31, 2023

The House On The hill

Something that happened to me very soon after I started playing Dawnlands that made me feel there was a lot more to the game than the bad reviews suggested was when I found an abandoned house not too far away from the starting settlement. There are a couple of spectacular geographical features in the area where you first spawn in that just demand to be explored and right at the top of one of them, a vast, rocky outcrop that looms over the countryside below, there's a house made of wood and stone that, from certain angles, looks not unlike a ship.

As the sunset shot above shows, I was still in my starter gear when I found it. I'd made myself the most basic hut down in the village but when I found this place I decided it was time to relocate. The whole place was empty. Whoever lived there had left a few bits of furniture, including a large storage chest, and there was a fire still burning in the hearth but of the previous inhabitants there was no sign at all. I didn't see any reason why I shouldn't move in.

I had a good look around and started to make myself at home. I dumped a load of wood and rock in the chest. I went outside and cleared all the goblins away. I found another chest half buried in the ground outside. Up in the attic I even found a magic spear that crackled with caged lightning. You can bet I helped myself to that.

I was all set to move in when a problem occured to me. The house was perfect. The location was stunning. The views were out of this world. The only downside was the commute.

At that point I hadn't even begun to figure out how the instant travel system worked. I didn't even know I could use the map to travel to the Shelter. About the only thing I did know was that if I died (When I died...) I'd either wake up in my bed or at the nearest Teleport Beacon. 

It seemed like it'd be a heck of a long walk back every time I wanted to sleep and at that stage I was far too nervous about being out after dark to contemplate it. I didn't even know at the time that you could teleport to your bed on demand but even if I had, the isolation of the spot would still have made settling down there seem like a bad idea.

I didn't abandon my ambitions to take over the abandoned mansion on the hill completely. In the above shot I'm wearing upgraded and distinctly more respectable armor, even if I do look like I've just finished my shift as a bike messenger, indicating a return a few days later to give the old place another look. 

I mean, who wouldn't want to look out on a sunset like that from their balcony? It's not the kind of prospect to be abandoned without a fight. Regardless, there was still one other consideration to take into account. Even imagining I was willing to deal with the long ride up and down that hill every day, if I did set up shop there in no time all the peace and tranquility of the setting would be shattered.

This is my makeshift camp back at the Grasslands Shelter. The picture was taken a few days ago . It's a lot worse now. I have two charcoal kilns set up, belching smoke into the sky. I have two smelters, ditto, only the smoke is even worse. There's a stone grinder, an anvil, a cooking pot and a roasting frame (each over an open fire), an oven, a loom...

I even have a windmill and a field of cotton. The whole place is a zoning disaster. And it's only going to get worse as time goes on. To set something like this up in the unspoilt beauty of the highlands would be a crime against both art and nature.

And then today (Edit: a week ago by the time this got published.) I made a most welcome discovery. There's a device you can make called an Echo Stone. It's one of the most basic items there is, the first piece of "furniture" in the list. I hadn't even noticed it before. I don't believe it gets a mention in the tutorial. The fanciful description doesn't make its function precisely clear but since I hadn't read it anyway I can't claim that's why I hadn't bothered to make one until now.

What the echo stone does is allow you to recall to it at will. It's your "bind", in EverQuest parlance or your Hearthstone, if that's more your era. I experimented a little and it seems you can have just one of these up at a time, so it's not the equivalent of Valheim's portals, but one is plenty for what I have planned.

Meet Karrid. She's my new best friend. Actually, she's my follower. I was looking through the store last night, something I haven't really bothered with before, when I noticed the diamond price to hire her had fallen to a very reasonable amount. More accurately, I'd saved up enough diamonds that just under a thousand didn't seem as wildly out of reach as it had a couple of weeks ago.

So I bought her. Or hired her. The exact relationship is unclear. I gave her all my best cast-offs and read to her from several books of instruction I happened to have lying around and now she's Level 4. I'm Level 28 so there's a bit of a gap but I'm sure she'll soon catch up.

Karrid and I have moved into the house on the hill together. The plan is to keep all our manufactury down at the Shelter and just move the personal stuff up to the mansion. We're going to try and stick with a minimalist theme, while still making the place feel cosy.

Finding a really nice place all ready and waiting to move into like this really sets Dawnlands apart from Valheim. I'm sure at some point Karrid and I will want to work on something we've designed ourselves but until then this rental is going to do us very nicely. Especially at the low, low monthly rent of nothing at all.

Karrid and I will have many adventures together, no doubt. I'm almost ready to build our first sailing ship. We're going to see what lies across the water. But when we're done adventuring, we'll be very happy to head back home. Just a click of fingers and there we'll be. Back in our mansion on the hill.

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Spiders. Why Did It Have To Be Spiders?

This is just a brief update on my experience with the Hildir's Request patch for Valheim, which got a brief mention in last Friday's grab-bag post. As I suggested then, I had some difficulty getting the patch to download. It kept stopping at 98%. Clearing the cache didn't help at all so in the end I decided to uninstall the whole game and reinstall it from scratch.

That went much better. Weirdly so, in fact. I realise Valheim has a very small footprint for the kind of game it is but I was still very surprised to see Steam re-install the whole thing in a matter of seconds. The Play button was up before I had time to tab out and do anything else. It made me wonder whether Steam had actually uninstalled the thing at all.

I wasn't about to complain either way. Valheim was back and it worked. Before I did anything else, I checked to see if the new difficulty settings could be applied to an existing world and I'm pleased to say they very much can.

I had a quick look at all the options. There are half a dozen pre-sets, five sliders and a four buttons. You can set things up using any combination to meet your particular tastes, from a pure sandbox with no threat and abundant resources to an unforgiving nightmare hellscape.  

I was expecting to have to make several adjustments but in the end it occurred to me that about the only thing I didn't like about Valheim the first time round was having to keep fighting mobs I didn't want to fight, when all I was trying to do was get from one place to another. I never had a problem with the difficulty of the fights (Maybe some of the bosses...) just the frequency.

All I wanted to do was make a quick trip to my tombstones (Plural) in the Mistlands so I could recover my lost gear. If and when I decide to go explore the Mistlands a second time, I want to able to start over and pretend I never ran off and got myself repeatedly killed like someone who only discovered video games last week. 

To that end, I decided the only change I really needed to make was to set all enemies to passive. That's a change I'd dearly love to be able to make in all games. I'm generally fine with having to fight monsters just so long as they're monsters I've chosen to fight. 

For all that EverQuest infamously offered a deadly and unforgiving experience to the unwary adventurer, with vicious, aggressive and extrmely powerful monsters scattered far and wide, the crucial difference was that those monsters were rarely piled right on top of each other along the only route through a zone. 

If you kept your eyes open and paid attention (And used a wide range of magical abilities available to you through spells, potions and magic items, as well as your own natural stealth, if you happened to have any.) it was quite possible to move around with considerable freedom in safety. I much preferred that to more recent standard practice, which is generally to stuff every corner of a map with fairly weak enemies that don't pose that much of a threat and expect players to hack their way past them, coming and going.

Somewhat surprisingly, I not only remembered roughly where I died but also which portal I needed to use to get there. In a couple of minutes I was jogging through the rain along some scraggy stretch of Black Forest coastline, wearing my third-best suit of armor and carrying an iron mace I was dearly hoping I wouldn't need to use.

Almost the moment I left the portal, I spotted Hugin, the enigmatic raven, sitting on a stump, cocking his head in my direction. I had a brief chat with him to find out what he wanted, which turned out to be to tell me about Hildir. 

He was about as helpful as he ever is, letting me know I might find the new merchant "somewhere in a forest such as this". He did at least apologise for not being able to narrow things down any further, which has to be a first.

After that, it was a short but very awkward trip back to my tombstones. The terrain was difficult to navigate, uneven and littered with rocks and fallen trees. It was very dark, although it was still supposedly only morning. As I neared the fringes of the Mistlands visibility was further hampered by huge spider-webs strung across every clearing. 

It was very obvious how I'd had so much trouble recovering my lost gear the last two times. The harder question to answer was what had possessed me to get myself into such a suicidal situation in the first place. And twice, no less.

When I finally managed to clamber over the many obstacles blocking the path to my graves, I discovered the final, fatal reason previous attempts had gone so terribly wrong. In the picture above, you can see the creature that killed me. It's called a Sentinel Soldier but it's really just a spider the size of a rhinoceros. Maybe two rhinoceroses.

In the next shot I've removed the special effects so you can see the damn thing. It's absolutely horrific. You can also see me just ahead of it, which gives you the exact scale. 

Last time I played, when this thing killed me then killed me again, I never got any kind of look at it. It charged me from the darkness, killed me in moments, then vanished again. Looking at it now, I'm glad I couldn't see it. If I had, I'd never have had the nerve to go back at all.

I was apprehensive as I approached, wondering whether the button I'd pressed had really made all mobs non aggressive as promised. Fortunately, it had. Very fortunately, in fact, since I now know that my death spot is in the center of a tight patrol kept by the Sentinel Soldier. There was absolutely no chance of my avoiding it. It never leaves the very small clearing in the trees where it killed me.

The weirdest and by far the creepiest part of the whole corpse recovery happened as I was crouching down, trying to sort through my belongings to take the good stuff. I obviously didn't have room to retrieve everything in one go. 

As I was making my choices, I found myself being physically pushed across the forest floor. The Sentinel Soldier had come up behind me and was determinedly trying to continue its patrol, even though I was in the way.

Since Valheim has full collision, that meant I was being shunted through the undergrowth by a slavering, giant spider. I could see and hear its disgusting mandibles clacking right next to my head. It was one of the most unpleasant things I've ever experienced in a video game. It only stopped when the spider pushed me right into a rock and couldn't go any further.

Even though I was sure the thing wouldn't attack unprovoked, I was still very nervous about accidentally poking it with my mace. I didn't dare touch any keys just in case I hit the wrong one so I had to wait until the horror moved off. It took a long while... or it seemed like it.

Once it was gone I grabbed everything and ran. I left one tombstone to loot later but all that's on it are some crafting mats and a bit of food I can easily do without. If the Sentinel wants it, it can have it.

Pausing only to take a couple of selfies with a passing troll, I legged it back to the portal and the safety of my strong, secure, stone citadel. I was very happy to put a good hour's travelling time between myself and that living nightmare. Whether I want to go back to explore the Mistlands, even with the security of knowing nothing will go for me unless I go for it first, I'm not at all sure. I'm thinking there are some things better left to fester in their own fetid lairs.

And I think it must be pretty obvious now why I'm choosing to get my survivalist groove on in the whimsical, brightly-colored, well-lit and generally happy setting of Dawnlands rather than the existential horror of Valheim. 

For now, anyway. I do hear Hildir has some pretty fancy frocks for sale...

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Situation Normal

Back at the beginning of Blaugust I posted a list of TV shows I was in the middle of watching. To recap, the shows were:

  • Good Omens 2
  • Two Broke Girls
  • Edens Zero
  • Young Sheldon
  • The Owl House
I have now finished all of them except for Young Sheldon, although in this context "finishing" Edens Zero meant getting to the end of Season One. I want to watch Season Two but I clearly don't want to watch it that much because the very low bar of swapping over to Crunchyroll has so far proven too high for me.
As for The Owl House, until someone green-lights another series, which will happen one day, I think I've probably said all I want to say about show for now. There are four Owl House episodes of the Disney series Chibi Tiny Tales I haven't yet seen, though... 
  Two Broke Girls

I do have something more to add to my earlier observations on Two Broke Girls. The show remained admirably consistent  throughout. It started with a ridiculous premise and a complete abnegation of any kind of logic or reason and kept up those stellar standards for the whole six seasons. Every time anything threatened the "sit", like the girls actually making enough money to stop being broke, the "com" asserted its authority and reset things to where they needed to be. I found that adhesion to the ur-concept in the face of all attempts to insert the least element of realism into the show to be one of its greatest strengths.

It's also a show that relies to the heaviest degree on repetition. Most of the humor comes from internal references and running gags. One of the tropes of the show that I particularly liked is the cash register that pops up at the end of every episode to show exactly how much money the girls have saved. 
In Season One, Caroline sets a target of $250k as the sum required to turn Max's Homemade Cupcakes into a viable business. At the time it seems like an unlikely goal but thanks to the sale of Caroline's backstory to Hollywood (Probably the most realistic and believable plot in the entire six seasons.) there is a point at which the cash register dings up a quarter of a million dollars. Which, of course, disappears as fast as it arrived. 
The girls both have significant relationships, the show being sporadically and in some small part a romcom, all of which are, inevitably and for sound plot reasons, doomed to failure. Perhaps the one fortuitous outcome of the unexpected cancellation of the series is that the final episode closes with Max engaged to be married to her wealthy lawyer lover and Caroline in a firmly committed relationship with her working-class, Italian-American boyfriend.
It's absolutely guaranteed that, had the series continued, neither of those relationships would have neatly folded away into happy-ever-after but because the series ends where it does it's entirely possible to imagine that's what happened next. It makes for an oddly satisfying ending. I came away content.

Good Omens 2

This is an interesting one. I should probably issue a trigger warning for fans of the show before I get started.
That does make it sound like I must have hated it but that's far from the case. I enjoyed it quite a bit. I just didn't think it came anywhere close to being either as funny or as compelling as the first season.

I remember Season One as being quite complex. It had a lot of characters and a number of sub-plots, all of which were fairly coherently coaxed together into a finale that made some kind of sense of and brought some kind of resolution to all of them. It felt quite novelistic, with its long-form heritage making itself evident throughout. If anything, it might have been a bit baggy. It certainly never felt like it was in any kind of a hurry.

Season Two, by comparison, felt short, rushed and incomplete. I found it quite unsatisfying at times, particularly during the zombie episode, which made some sense emotionally but just seemed to be quite badly done. I don't like zombies at the best of times but comedy nazi zombies are really too much to take for a whole episode.

The core of the show is, of course, the relationship between the two central characters, the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley, as portrayed so deliciously by Michael Sheen and David Tennant. In the first season the performances of the two stars are exemplary but in the follow-up I never felt quite the same chemistry between them. In narrative terms, the relationship only becomes more complex but on the screen it seemed just very slightly flat. 

The cast as a whole is very good, with Jon Hamm appearing to enjoy himself perhaps even more than he should as the memory-wiped archangel, Gabriel. All the newly-introduced characters are interesting and/or endearing, my particular favorite being Muriel, a somewhat naive, not to say dim, angel played to perfection by Quelin Sepulveda

The problem from my perspective wasn't really with the quality, for once, but the quantity. As I started watching the fifth and final episode I literally had to pause the stream and check it was the last one. It seemed the whole thing had barely gotten started before it was over. 

And yet, rushed as it felt, it also seemed as though too few ideas had been stretched too thin. It was a very odd sensation, to be left wanting more but not being able to say more of what. 
I have a suspicion Good Omens 2 is one of those shows that might make a stronger impression on a second watch than a first. I suspect much of my dissatisfaction stems from expectations created by my fuzzy recollections of Season One. I don't think the two seasons are as consistent in tone as I would have anticipated. Season Two would probably benefit from being judged separately rather than in comparison. 

Whether I will ever watch it again is another matter. I can readily imagine re-visiting Season One but I think it's going to be a good while before I regenerate any enthusiasm for another sit-down with the sequel.
Which just leaves...

Young Sheldon

Young Sheldon is, of course, a sitcom based on the character played by Jim Parsons in The Big Bang Theory. There's a lot I could say about the show already but I'll hold back on most of it until I've finished the run. I do have a few notes, though...

I'm going to say up front that I really like The Big Bang Theory. I know that's a controversial stance to take in many quarters. I've read a number of blog posts and web articles about why and how the show is disrespectful to the various communities who see themselves stereotyped and ridiculed by its characters and storylines and I don't fundementally disagree with some of those interpretations and reactions.

The thing, I think, that almost all of those analyses omit to recognize is that most sitcoms are reliant on stereotypes, which they ridicule. It underpins the whole genre to some considerable degree. 
I suspect the issues some have with this particular sitcom stem from an unfamiliarity with the form as a whole. As I was reading some of the commentary, it was noticeable how often the alalysis was prefaced by an assertion that the writer didn't usually watch sitcoms, or not sitcoms like this, successful, popular, mainstream, network half-hour shows. I also suspect that being confronted with a stereotype someone feels might be applied to themself makes that person less amenable to finding said stereotype amusing.  Few people appreciate being seen as the butt of a joke. 
What good sitcoms do, however -  and I would argue The Big Bang Theory is a good sitcom - is to make stereotypes feel more nuanced over time. Good writing and especially sympathetic or complex performance can cause a general audience to warm to personalities they would otherwise shun, simply by allowing viewers to get to know the characters as individuals, not just as representatives of a type. 

I'm considerably more inclined to listen to the arguments of those who seek to explain why the writing or acting in TBBT fails to open up the stereotypes it plays upon, thereby revealing the human beings inside, rather than those of the faction that thinks the show fails out of the gate just by trading in stereotypes in the first place. There's a very supportable case to be made that the writing and acting across the long run of the show is inconsistent, self-indulgent and sometimes lazy. Not every episode is good, let alone great.
Even though I very much enjoyed the parent show, however, I did not immediately warm to the idea of a spin-off featuring its most obviously annoying character as a ten-year old. It seemed to me that the kind of manic self-absorption exhibited by the adult Sheldon Cooper, manifesting primarily as it often does as a collection of tics and tropes, while it might be humourous in an adult character, would most likely be just disturbing and uncomfortable in a child.

For that and other reasons I didn't rush to find out if the writers managed somehow to avoid the very obvious pitfalls of the concept. It was only a combination of a gap in my sitcom dance card and a news item that said the show was - astonishingly - starting its sixth season that got me take it out of my watchlist and actually start watching it.

Honestly, it was the six seasons thing that did it. I just couldn't believe it had lasted that long. We all know how mercilessly fast shows get canned these days. For any show to get that far had to mean there was something there worth checking out.

There is and it's very simple. Like Two Broke Girls, Young Sheldon is just a plain, old-fashioned classic sitcom. There's nothing remotely fancy or clever about it. It relies wholly on sound charecterisation, consistent writing and some very solid acting by a strong, ensemble cast.

As with many of the best sitcoms, there's an extended family at the center. The set-up is instantly recognizeable no matter that most of the viewers will never have set foot in East Texas. All the storylines revolve around the usual quotidian concerns of growing up, going to school, making friends, working and getting along with the neighbors. 

The two things that most suprised me about the show, of which I have now seen the first two seasons, were firstly how unfocused on the titular character it is and secondly on how quickly it foregrounds Sheldon's meemaw, superbly played by the wonderful Annie Potts. If I didn't know the provenance of the show, I might have assumed she was the well-known character from a previous success, around whom a spin-off had been built.
Two seasons in, no-one appears to have aged. I am curious to see how that changes. One of the big problems all successful sitcoms starring child actors face is how to keep the storylines cute as the actors grow less so.
It's a particularly pointed issue in this show because Sheldon is already running well ahead of the usual  developmental markers. He's a ten year-old in high school, being courted by Universities. There's already been a storyline concerning the difference between his intellectual and emotional maturity and how it predicates against him moving away from home to take up the opportunities already coming his way. That's not going to work so well when he's fourteen, which I assume he will be by Season Six. 

Or maybe the whole thing doesn't unfold in real time. I can't say I've been keeping track. Maybe he'll be ten until the show ends and we'll just have to look at him like we look at the adult actors playing high school kids in Grease; with wilful suspension of disbelief.

It's not something I need to think about just yet. I have four more seasons to watch before I get there. I'll keep whatever observations I may have on what I see along the way for another time. For now, I'll just say it's another good sitcom. I'm enjoying it.

Glancing ahead, my current viewing slate looks like this:
  • Young Sheldon
  • Arrested Development
  • Carole and Tuesday
  • Captain Fall
  • Riverdale
Where last time everything was on Amazon Prime, this time it's all on Netflix. Again, I don't think that means anything, other than that obviously one streaming channel isn't enough any more.

I'll get to my thoughts on those shows when I get there. I also have a post I've been wanting to do for weeks now about Cannon Busters, a show I finished watching a good while back. I'm not sure I ever even mentioned it until now. 

So many shows; so much to say about them all; so little time to get it done.

Monday, August 28, 2023

Learning From Experience And Other Fantastic Tales

As Blaugust winds up for another year, we find ourselves in reflective mode with "Lessons Learned" week. Each year I come back to this event I find some new way of making it more difficult than it needs to be and 2023 has been no exception.

On the face of it, learning from your mistakes seems like a universal good. It can't possibly hurt to figure out where you went wrong, can it? And if you can spin that up into some way of avoiding the same mistakes next time, so much the better, right?

It's not always quite that straightforward. The problem with learning lessons is applying what you've learned. 

Something a lot of people probably find themselves doing is fighting the last battle not the current one. I do it all the time. You find something out about yourself or something you've done and swear to change it or do it differently next time, only next time is different to the first time so the solution doesn't quite match the problem any more.

Let me revisit my Blaugust record:

2015 - My first year although I didn't formally sign up. I was nervous about all the form-filling, apparently, which sounds like an excuse, and scared of Anook, which sounds like a joke. What the heck was Anook, anyway?

My goal was to post thirty-one times and I hit it. At the time I would have been working almost full-time, I think, so it was tough. My wrap-up "How did it all go?" post is hedged with doubts and uncertainties. I summed up with "If Belghast runs Blaugust again next year I'll think very carefully before deciding whether to join in". I also asked myself if I'd enjoyed it and answered "not really".

2016 - It seems I did learn my lesson that year. I did not sign up in 2016, nor did I "shadow" the event. I stuck to my regular posting schedule of the time, posting just twelve times in August. It doesn't look as though I bothered to mention the end of Blaugust at all that year. I just let it slip away.

2017 - And that, I guess, should have been the end of it. There was no Blaugust in 2017. Belghast explained the absence in his recent post about Blaugust's Tenth Anniversary, saying he'd "allowed the naysayers to convince me that I was doing more harm than good with this event". I don't think I was a naysayer per se - I wasn't really saying anything about Blaugust at all - but if asked I would certainly have been in the "I'm not sure this is such a great idea..." camp. Obviously, given Bel's comment, there was a lot of that going on at the time. 

2017 was also the year I published the lowest number of posts in the history of this blog. It seems a lot of people were feeling a bit flat on blogging around then.

2018 - Thankfully, it didn't last. Blaugust returned after its one-year hiatus and I signed up formally for the first time. Apparently I'd become a "mentor" somehow and I was throwing out advice like the Milky Bar Kid on a gold-top bender. Absolutely no explanation of how that happened.

Again, I aimed to post on all thirty-one days, even though I pointed out I didn't have to any more, since thirty-one posts across the whole month was "all" that was required. I made my target and added one for a total of thirty-two.... and I had a great time doing it! 

I don't really know what changed but apparently, despite having found it "slightly" stressful due to my dislike of having to post on work-days, I enjoyed the whole thing enough to finish my post-mortem with a cheery "...let's do it all over year!"

2019 - "Next year", when Blaugust arrived, I was recovering from almost dying from complications with the chemotherapy I was on, following my surgery for colon cancer. Didn't see that coming.  My first post for Blaugust 2018 is a detailed account of my situation, which thankfully was resolved successfully. So successfully, in fact, that for Blaugust 2019 I posted a record forty-two times. I was at home with nothing much to do other than rest and recuperate and blogging was helped fill the time in a hugely satisfying and pleasurable way.I thoroughly recommend blogging as a hobby for shut-ins.

I was so gung-ho about blogging, I didn't even get around to writing my Blaugust postscript until the second of September. My main lesson to be learned seemed to be the ever-unobtainable gold-standard of blogging:  "more short, pithy, posts instead of 2000 word essays" but even as I typed, I acknowledged it was never going to happen. And it hasn't.

2020 - This year, everyone got to experience life as a shut-in, when Covid blew in and blasted Blaugust all the way back to Blapril. In April I posted thirty-five times, concluding "The last thing anyone wants is for people to find blogging turning into a duty, a burden or a chore.

It hadn't for me. I loved it. Five years on from that tentative beginning, from which it seemed I'd learned Blaugust really wasn't for me, some nebulous ego-stroking, a series of medical emergencies and a global pandemic had somehow turned me into a convert. And you know how annoying they can be. 

2021 - Blaugust returned to its regular summer slot and I had a plan. The world was vaguely working again and so was I. Anticipating timing issues, I prepared the ground in advance, writing ahead on a theme I'd come up with, so I wouldn't have to post on work days. The plan came off splendidly, taking all the stress out of the event, which I enjoyed as much as the ones where I hadn't had to go to work. I posted thirty-three times and signed off in September with the relentlessly upbeat "See you all back here, Summer 2022. Let's make it a date!"

2022 - Last year I began by listing the first-time participants, while complaining about my own incompetence. I seemed to be in chaotic mood, claiming "Blogging is not for perfectionists, that's my take" but I managed to crash my way to thirty-one posts, somehow. Towards the end, a little early for once, I gave my thoughts on how it had all gone, quoting myself on lessons learned the previous year and snarling "Were those lessons learned? Were they hell!"

2023 - Guess what? This year I did learn those lessons and it still didn't make everything all right! 

Maybe I should clarify just what the lessons were. Looking back over all of this, it's apparent to me that I "learn" the same lessons every year. I could save myself some time and just have them printed on a card.

  • Do some prep.
  • Have some themes ready.
  • Write ahead.
  • Write for yourself.
  • Don't burn out.
  • Cut yourself some slack.
  • Pace yourself.
  • Accept you can't read everything everyone else writes.
  • Accept people may be skipping your stuff too.
  • Blaugust is a lot! Don't sweat it if it turns out to be too much.
  • Above all, have fun. And if you're not having fun, stop.

Probably a few more I forgot. Most of those recur every year I write this post, but the one I want to pull out for special consideration this year is "Write Ahead".

Last year I didn't do that and I got stung. I was scrabbling to get a post out more often than I'd have liked. I didn't take my own advice to cut myself some slack and just have fun because I was stubbornly determined to hit my thirty-one posts. I have that dumb "If I say I'll do a thing..." mantra running in my head all the damn time...

This year, I was determined to avoid any Blaugust stress so I thought of a bunch of possible themes, none of which I used. What I did do was write at least two, sometimes three, posts ahead for the whole event. It worked pretty well except for two things I hadn't considered:

  • If you write ahead you fall behind.
  • Life has a way of blind-siding you.

The first was predictable and yet it still surprised me. With Palia and Dawnlands, I found myself with plenty to write about but because I was publishing my adventures a few days in arrears, I kept getting the time sequence screwed up. I had to learn not to use times and dates to avoid confusing people, except I never did learn to do that so I ended up confusing myself. Also, as I made very clear yesterday, I kept finding out new stuff between writing a post and publishing it, making some of what I did put up just plain wrong and leaving me scrabbling to correct my mistakes.

The second was more of a sod's law kind of situation although, given my recent timeline, I might have guessed it would happen. I was already in the system for a hernia repair operation before Blaugust started but I wasn't expecting to be called in for several months, it being considered a non-urgent procedure. Instead, I got a call in the middle of the month asking me if I wanted to take a cancellation and I ended up having the op last Tuesday. 

I was home the same day but now I'm staying home for two weeks to recover, so all that writing ahead turns out to have been superflous to requirements. I never have any trouble getting a post out in days when I don't work and when I'm mostly confined to the house it's even less of an issue. 

I'm actually pretty mobile, able to take Beryl for walks, although throwing a ball for her isn't such a great idea, but I can't do much gardening or general household labor for a couple of weeks, so I have ample time to sit at a keyboard and type whatever comes into my head, as you can plainly see.

After all of that, I think I might be going out of the "Lessons Learned" business, at least until I learn to predict the future. I think I'm going to stick with the "deal with it as it comes" method instead. That's generally served me pretty well up to now.

When we get to Blaugust 2024 - making some huge assumptions there that it, I and the world will still be around by then - I will try to write shorter posts, come up with a few themes, do some preparation and get a bit of a post cushion going. They are all helpful techniques. I still endorse them all.

What I won't do is expect doing any of it to make much of a difference. However well you prepare to fight last year's battles, every Blaugust is a new war. In the end, you do what you can and if that doesn't work you do something else. That's the lesson I've learned. 

This year, anyway...

*** A note on the illustrations ***

All images generated at NightCafe. 

The first four were all generated using Stable Diffusion v 1.5 with the modifiers "cel shaded" and "pop art". 

The first three were generated using the same prompt with just the year changed each time: "A big poster with "Blaugust 20xx" on it". The years were 2015, 2018 and 2021. They are used in the post in chronological order so the "2018" poster is the one with the number "21" on it. The only one with a number at all, in fact.

The fourth was generated using the prompt "Write Ahead".

The fifth image was generated using Stable Diffusion v. 2.1. and the same modifiers. The prompt used was "Staying Home".

Sunday, August 27, 2023

On The Internet Always On The Internet

If I'm stockpiling for Blaugust, media posts have the best chance of not going stale. I still have a bunch of TV shows to write about but the tunes are piling up too and I'm in more of a music mood right now so let's see what's in the pot.

Hmm. Have you noticed that now I've been doing this for a few years, patterns are begining to emerge? When I first started throwing in a few music posts, I was hanging them on some odd pegs, like Cats vs Dogs or why ponies make good signposts. Then there were the quarterly - later, monthly - title megaposts. Those really got out of hand. 

All things considered, though, it gave much more of an impression of variety than the "What I've Been Listening To Lately" series I seem to have fallen in with now. There's quite a bit of the old usual suspects creeping in. 

Which is okay, I guess. I mean, the ears want want the ears want, as Emily Dickinson once texted Selina Gomez. It's not quite as simple as that, though. Back when I was hand-crafting music posts to fit a theme or trawling for any phrases that might fit, I wasn't also subscribing to NME, Stereogum and Pitchfork. Just Pitchfork, probably.

These days I notice my music posts do sometimes display a disturbing congruity with Pitchfork's "Best New Songs" or Stereogum's "The Five Best Songs of the Week". Particularly that second one. I do make an effort to find new artists and tracks on my own but I do feel I might have been farming the responsiblity out a little since I started watching TV shows in bed instead of surfing YouTube.

Anyway, a good tune is a good tune and even if all I'm doing is acting as a clearing house for the prozines, it's still a socially responsible act. I mean, I'm saving you from having to skip past Lizzo's lawsuits and the Melvins' drummer's spinal surgery to get to the good stuff.

And speaking of the good stuff...

bad idea right - Olivia Rodrigo

OMG! (No-one says omg any more, do they?) She can't keep this up, surely? Every one a total classic. It's such a timeless sound, too. This would have been a hit in 1972, 1982, 1992, 2002... 

Reminds me of so many things I just can't quite place, which is wonderful. The Nails' 88 Lines About 44 Women is in there somewhere for certain sure... And that breakdown towards the end is like Eno when he still wore a feather boa...

Cannot wait for the album.

Let's Do Drugs - NOBRO

Best. Title. Ever! If only I wasn't too old. It'd kill me.

They are so glam it's not true. Just listen to this one...

Don't Die - NOBRO

You're wide awake now, aren't you?


It's all about having your name in all-caps, right? That's what matters.

I'm never quite sure about CHAI. They never seem to be exactly one thing or the other. I guess that's good? I like this one, anyway.

Legendary (2023 Pokémon World Championships Theme) - Kero Kero Bonita

Wow! That only just fitted on one line. Everything I know about Pokemon, which is very little, I learned from TAGN, except the parts I learned from Tipa. I found this one all on my own, though.

Muriel's Big Day Off - Being Dead

If you've just started watching this one and you're thinking "It's fine but it really doesn't need to be three and a half minutes long", just keep watching. Some people really don't want to be commercial at all, do they?

Absolutes - SNOOZERS

Case in point. 250 views in eighteen months and I bet fifty of those were for the puppets. Also, another band with a faulty Caps Lock. There's a lot of it about.

Trauma Mic feat. Pink Sifu - Armand Hammer

Anyone getting Test Department flashbacks? 

A tad NSFW - or anywhere, really. I've seen Armand Hammer's name crop up all over the place - Pink Sifu's too, for that matter - but I think this is probably the first time I've actually clicked through to listen. To say it's not what I was expecting would be an understatement. Actually, it'd be whatever comes under an understatement. An underunderstatement. I'm not sure I'd listen to it without the video - it's their producer, DJ Haram, banging on a wheelbarrow with that pipe that sells it for me.

Wounded Coogi - Iceboy Violet

If we're going out of our comfort zone we may as well make a trip of it. Or a trip-hop. Although maybe this is soothing as well as sinister. Can you believe we used to listen to stuff like this at dinner parties in the nineties and I am not making that up. Tricky was pretty much obligatory back there for a year or two.

Can you believe people are still making stuff like this, too? I'm glad about it.

Candy - Pony Girl

I guess this is what passes for dinner party music nowadays. If people still have dinner parties. Young people, that is. I mean, we don't. I think the last dinner party we had was in the 'nineties.

Also, remember I said you can almost always trust a pony? Add this to the evidence board.

Anyone ready for a few more? I've kept the chat to a minimum this time so we can fit more in.

Knockin' - MJ Lenderman

This seemed to be getting a lot of traction in the trade press a week or so ago. Is he famous? Am I supposed to have heard of him? Because I haven't.

I only clicked through because of the "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" thing. It's one of my favorites of our Bob's. Pretty much bombproof but this didn't need protection. It's great. There's a lot of Sufjan Stevens going on in there, somewhere, wouldn't you say?

So You Are Tired - Sufjan Stevens

Is that spooky or what? Here he is! The inventor of whatever the hell that sound is. A guy called Tom who I worked with for a while introduced me to Neutral Milk Hotel, along with Animal Collective and Hank Williams. or maybe it was Hank Williams Jr. Probably both of them. 

A big improvement over my other colleague, who played Frank Zappa for two weeks straight, after which I was fit to kill someone. Zappa, preferably, except he was already dead by then. Lou Reed famously called Zappa "the most untalented musician I’ve ever heard", a sentiment I found it hard to argue with after being forced to listen to the old hippie's entire back catalog. Apparently the two vaguely warmed toward each other in later life. I can't say I've warmed to Zappa.

Joiner - Blondshell

Last time we did this I posted Blondshell's magnificent homage to Veronica Mars, noting "I just listened to it five times in a row". Make that fifteen. And another right now. Any excuse. 

I just couldn't stop playing it. I went through a lot of her other stuff too and it's all good. This is the one I liked second-best after Veronica Mars.

I prefer this live version to the dreamier studio take, which feels a tad too produced for my tastes. It's all a little rawer, live. Brings the lyrics out more. 

I really love her way with a lyric. Sometimes it can seem like she's just streaming her consciousness into the mic but it's far more constructed than that. It's almost like abstract expressionism in sound, somehow and I've always been a sucker for an abstract impressionist.

And finally...

Cool With You - New Jeans

The now-obligatory New Jeans number, here with a live band. It starts at one minute in if you don't speak Korean. This is smooth jazz, isn't it? It sounds like Sade. I never used to like Sade but I can see it now. She was big in France, you know. Still is, probably. She lives not all that far from me, apparently. Why are we taling about her, again?

And finally, for reals this time...

Not A Betty - Career Woman

Always leave 'em wanting more. That Y2K sound just never grows old, does it? And don't I ask a lot of rhetorical questions?

That's it. I'm all out of tunes. Haven't you lot got homes to go to?

Saturday, August 26, 2023

The More You Don't Know...

Here's a problem I have with blogging. It's quite specific to me, I think, but do please chime in if it affects you, too. 

I seem to play quite a lot of games no-one else in the blogosphere is playing at the moment. Sometimes it seems like I'm playing games hardly anyone else is playing. If they are, they certainly aren't writing about them. 

Quite often, they're new games. They're likely to be either MMORPGs or, increasingly these days, the plethora of survival/MMO/cosy hybrids that seem to be popping up all over. It reminds me of the WoW clone era, except it seems to be going a lot better, so far.

The games that make it are no trouble to post about. Palia, for example, despite a bit of side-eye for perhaps opening its doors to the world before it was fully prepared, has generally been well-received. Lots of people tried it, plenty are still playing and some of them are writing about their experiences. 

There are also plenty of guides to Palia. If I was writing a post and wanted to look something up or fact-check it before I hit publish, there'd be no problem. 

Well, actually, there might. That's down to the way I like to play my games. I straddle an uncomfortable fence between not wanting to spoil my own fun and not wanting to waste more time than I have to, which means I tend to try and work out how to do things on my own before looking them up, something I try to do only if and when I get stuck.

I find that works very well for me in terms of engagement and immersion. One of the big reasons I play so many new games isn't that I have a butterfly mind and can't settle anywhere; it's that a huge part of the fun for me is uncovering and understanding the systems and mechanics that make the games work. 

I kind of think there has to be a way to cook more than one sausage at a time but if so, I just don't know what it is.

It's all part of being a primary Explorer archetype. I don't just want to explore new worlds, I want to explore new systems and processes and as something of an academic manqué I also want to compare and contrast what I find with what I've seen elsewhere and maybe even draw some conclusions.

All of which is fine, when I do in fact understand what's going on. Often, though, I really don't. I muddle along, making assumptions and playing the game as I understand it, all the time not realising my understanding is flawed. 

It wouldn't matter so much if I wasn't continually committing my mistaken impressions to print. It still doesn't matter a lot because almost no-one who reads them will ever know they were mistakes. They'll never play the games to find out for themselves I was wrong.

Nevertheless, I am conscious of the very slight chance that someone googling for information on a game that no-one else is talking about might end up here and leave with the mistaken belief they'd found a source of useful information.

To be fair to myself, some of it is useful. The bits where I've gotten it right, anyway. I don't do guides as a rule but I do include factual information in reviews and tell stories that have descriptions of how I got past obstacles that were preventing me making progress. Someone might find some of it helpful.

Not if it's plain wrong, though. That's just annoying. I've done it a few times myself, gone to some website that seemed very authorative and tried to follow the advice there only to find it didn't work, either because something in the game had changed since it was written or things had never worked that way in the first place.

I found this giant, stone ball you can roll around but I have no idea why you'd want to. Treat it as a metaphor for this entire post.

That's why I tend to caveat a lot of things I write with cautionary warnings about my ignorance.The least I can do if I'm aware what I'm saying may not be wholly accurate is to make that clear up front. Only, as I said, when it comes to games no-one else is playing or writing about, that's not always as easy as it should be. If you think you're right you're not going to think you might be wrong. Or say so.

It's been a particular problem with Noah's Heart, a game about which almost no-one seems to care but me. If you try to look up information about even the most obvious parts of the game, like which are the Phantoms you should be trying to five-star, an absolutely basic piece of data about any Gacha game, you'll be lucky to find anything at all. 

Only, naturally, I just did. In typical sod's law style, the last time I checked I couldn't find anything more recent than last November but today I found this guide, written on August 15. Honestly, reading it does not fill me with confidence about its accuracy but it's something, at least.

In general, though, I think my point holds. For smaller, less popular games, the information available is both harder to find and harder to trust when you do. 

Dawnlands isn't quite as obscure as Noah's Heart. There's a fair amount of traffic around the game. Almost all of it seems to come from the mobile side, though, and not surprisingly it's mainly in the form of videos on YouTube.

YouTube videos are really handy when you want to research something like how to handle a boss fight. It's easier to understand and copy tactics and strategies for something like that when you can watch someone doing it. When it comes to things like how to plant and grow cotton, though, watching someone doing it for a few minutes doesn't feel like the best use of your time. Especially when it comes with a rinky-dink backing track and no commentary.

That video I embedded above, however, while it doesn't really explain all that much, is immensely helpful in revealing some potential aspects of the building systems I wasn't even aware existed.

Maybe I haven't just reached that part yet but nothing in the game itself has introduced me to the concept of Blueprints or the Advanced building techniques. Not that I plan on going to the extremes this guy has but it's as well to be cognizant of the possibilities.

Even when the game does include instructions, I don't always follow them. I tamed my horse when I was told but I never made the hitching post to tie him up to because, as I said in an earlier post, all you have to do is press "Y" and he appears right beside you.

Yesterday I got an achievement for something or other and when I claimed my diamonds for doing it, I happened to notice that all I needed to round out the whole section was to make that hitching post. So I made it and discovered it's not just a decorative addition to your home, as I'd assumed, but the item that provides functionality for your Mount collection.

Clicking on the hitching post opens the Mount interface, where you can see the stats of your mounts, name them and swap between them. It also makes it clear, if only by implication, that mounts vary in speed and robustness, so I've been doing myself no favors by sticking loyally with the first one I happened upon. 

I feel an unreasoning loyalty towards mounts that have their own names. Naming them is almost always a mistake.

There are horses in each of the biomes so it seems logical that they'd improve in quality as the difficulty levels go up. Again, though, that's an assumption. If I state it here as a fact, I'm doing anyone who reads this a disservice. A quick Google on "Dawnlands mounts" brings up almost nothing of value so the only way I'm going to know for sure is to go tame a Plains horse for myself and compare it with my current Grasslands ride.

Once I've done that, if I write it up here in any kind of detail, as likely as not it will be the only account available. I mean, if there was another I wouldn't be doing it, would I? Whether whatever I say about it will be comprehensive or even correct is another matter. It'll tell anyone who reads it what I know about the topic but that may not be much.

For example, I thought I knew a fair bit about how the instant travel system works. I wrote about it in some detail in this post, where I also talk about mounts (And probably get most of that wrong, too.) Here's how I thought it worked:

 "As far as I can make out, there's a network of Teleport Beacons you can find and, if necessary, cleanse of corruption so you can move between them. The Teleport Beacons are very few and far between, which would be highly restrictive if it wasn't for the fact that you can also teleport to all kinds of other locations as well - any of the icons marked on the map, in fact, which in practical terms means just about everywhere. 

Unfortunately, teleporting to any of them requires a Teleportation Potion every time. The potion is consumed on use and the only place I've found them is on vendors in the Shelters. They're cheap but there's only one vendor in each village, each vendor only has five potions to sell and they're never restocked. If there's a recipe to craft them, I haven't found it yet."

Bits of that are correct but some extremely important aspects are flat-out wrong. For a start, you do not need Teleport potions to travel between Shelters, Activated Teleport Beacons or pretty much any of the large icons on the map that represent some kind of portal or special event. All of those are free and they have no cooldown, either, so free, instant map travel is widely available.

I'm not going to try to be any more specific because there may be limitations I don't know about. I really don't know exactly how it all works. What I do know is that The key thing to remember is that when you click on any icon on the map it will open a panel that tells you if you need a potion or not. If there's a Teleport button and no picture of a potion next to it, travel is free. How it took me so long to notice this is not a subject I wish to discuss.

My original plantation. It's three times the size now I know how to port to and fro for free.
This discovery, inevitably, made a huge difference to my gameplay. Before then, I'd been spending long periods riding between locations, often finding myself away from shelter at night and having to fight a lot of monsters I didn't want to be fighting. I'd been ruing the lack of craftable teleport gates like they have in Valheim, when in actuality the functionality was already baked into most of the locations where I needed it, especially my house and all the vendors I needed to visit.

Now I can just zap myself instantly between my home in the Grasslands Shelter and the vendor in the Plains Shelter to buy seeds as and when I need them, then back again to plant them in the garden I've laid out right down the main street. It makes life much easier.

(And just to prove the point, since I wrote this post I've learned yet another very significant fact about teleportation options, which will now have to wait for yet another post I'm planning... None of which would have happened if this had been a game everyone else was playing, because someone would have put me straight in the comments weeks ago.)

Another feature I know a little about but don't even begin to understand fully are trinkets and the tinkering station you can use to merge and change them. I've just been throwing stuff in and pressing the button like we used to do in the Mystic Forge in Guild Wars 2 and I've had a couple of succeses.

I got some goggles that mark the position of animals on the mini-map and an anchor that increases sailing speed but as this video, by the same YouTube creator, Kazeyo, shows, you can make a huge range of much better trinkets. 

The problem with the video is, it doesn't really explain very much about how to control the process beyond merge blue trinkets to get purple ones. If there's a way to control the outcome or get the effects you're after, it's not clear to me what it is.

This is just the kind of thing that could be explained more helpfully in a written guide. I'm not saying I'd want to write one but if I knew how the whole thing worked I could at least give a few examples from experience that might be of some help to somebody.

As must be clear, though, Dawnlands is a very complex game. They all bloody are! That's both the joy and the terror of it. I played Chimeraland for weeks and never really understood much of what I was doing. Noah's Heart is a lot less complex and I've played it for a year but I still don't feel confident to talk in detail aboout some of the systems it employs.

None of this is going to stop me writing about the games I play but I am going to have to keep adding warnings that even if it sounds as if I know what I'm talking about, I most probably don't. I'm more interested in keeping a record for myself about what I've done and trying to make it entertaining for anyone who happens to read it. Giving people useful tips on how to play the game comes a distant third.

And if anyone can tell me what good "Accurate Time-Telling" is on a trinket, I'd love to know. I've got two fob-watches that buff it and I have no idea what it even is.

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide