Let's Get Healthy 2021: Feb Update

As some of you may know, I'm trying to start a fresh save on my lifestyle by investing in some real workout classes and nutrition. You can read about the start of that adventure here, but I wanted to check in (with myself I guess) just so I have a log of how things are going a couple of months later.

Well, I guess right off the bat the good news is that I've lost a bunch of weight. I've never been obese, but according to my BMI (based off my height/age/witchcraft) I've always been heavier than I should be, mostly in my gut. Thanks for nothing, beer! Non-australian residents are required to get a health check every year (They're paranoid about tuberculosis here and after playing Red Dead Redemption 2 I can see why) and according to a "health professional" I have lost 7kg since I last weighed myself back in December. That's 15lbs, which is apparently a lot in America? So that's vindicating.

I'm still going to workout classes three times a week - 45 minute sessions which are broken down into rowing/running/weights groups that you cycle through. I've noticed that the order which I workout is actually quite significant - the running typically makes me a lot more tired, and when I get tired my technique in both the rowing and the weights seems to suffer significantly and my overall calorie burn (according to my fitbit) seems to drop. I really enjoy pushing myself for the running section of the training but it seems to use up any energy I have in the tank, so I've been trying to position myself in each class so that the running section of the workout comes last.

One of the unexpected side effects of going to group workout sessions is that I'm becoming weirdly dependent on them. I live alone here in Australia, work from home, and I have limited social interaction with the broader public even when we're not living through a pandemic. I can go weeks at a time where the only physical human interaction I get is from the people at my gym - so I was thrown for a bit of a loop when Melbourne was put into a snap 5-day lockdown and all the gym's were abruptly closed. It hit me a lot harder than identical 4-month lockdown we had last year, and I think the reason for that was because I've just grown to enjoy the companionship of participating in those gym classes. Something for me to think about, as I don't particularly want my mental health to be dependent on a service which can (and most likely will) be severed at the whim of the local government.

In terms of nutrition I'm still trying to eat as healthy as possible - I've managed to stay away from sugary snacks, and since I started drinking Kombucha I've found it extremely difficult to go back to regular soda/soft drinks. Coke just tastes so sweet and leaves this weird gross sheen across my teeth which I'd like to avoid at all costs. No thank you.

I'm also still ordering meal kits and eating at least one high-protein/low-carb meal a day. I sometimes order food online but I try to keep it as healthy as possible, so lots of salads. I found some low-carb protein bars which don't taste like shit so I'm using those to stave off any mid-afternoon hunger, and they also taste close enough to candy that I'm not getting the urge to nip to the 7/11 and stock up on Mars bars. The meal kits are definitely getting a little repetitive though - I love the convenience but after a while they all start to taste the same regardless of what's in them. Might be time to start being more pro-active about cooking again, though the issue there has always been that I'm no good at portion control and end up eating whatever is on the plate.

Anyway, that's enough for now. If anyone else is going through a similar health kick then I'd love to hear about it.

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Love Sweep

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Twenty big dog run, no bones about it: Let's get healthy!

I've always thought New Year's resolutions are pretty silly, but this year especially there's a much greater sense of urgency for change - a combination of the enthusiasm we collectively feel to distance ourselves from the last 12 months, with a desperate optimism that comes from knowing things need to get better.

I currently live in Melbourne which, as of writing this blog, was home to the longest lockdown in the world. In our second wave of 2020 we spent 110 consecutive days pretty much locked in our homes; Masks were mandatory in all public places, all non-essential businesses were shut, you could not visit other private residences unless it was to administer care to elderly or sick relatives, and the state government even went so far as to limit the amount of time you could spend outdoors to 1 hour a day, for exercise or food only, and no more than 5km from your home. I supported all these decisions but, as I was living alone at the time, it meant 3+ months of total isolation in a country on the opposite side of the world from my family. When Australians lock shit down they don't fuck about.

Unfortunately one of the early casualties of lockdown was the gyms. I've gone through phases of working out throughout most of my adult life. In my mid twenties I would casually lift weights once or twice a week with friends, but that was driven by a desire to be social rather than to be healthy. I paid for a personal trainer for a year to make sure my technique was good and to help teach me some more structured exercise routines, but after a year I didn't feel any stronger or healthier so it seemed like a waste of money. But if I'm really honest with myself, the reason I made so little progress was because my heart wasn't really in it. Any progress I could have potentially made was undermined by poor diet and life choices - in between workouts my exercise was minimal, my nutrition non existent, and the full extent of the lifestyle changes I made were limited to drinking vodka over beer. When the gyms were closed in lockdown what I felt, honestly, was relief; finally I had an excuse not to go. I could sit on my ass and eat pizza and play videogames and nobody could judge me for doing anything else. I live alone, so there was nobody to prompt me to go outside. I would make token efforts at exercise - an occasional jog around the park, purchasing a Ring Fit for my switch (soon covered in dust), and buying fresh vegetables which would more often than not slowly go bad before I found the enthusiasm to cook anything with them. I went full hermit, and honestly it's a little upsetting to me how easy that was.

By November 2020, when the lockdown was finally over, I had put on about 5kg's and felt noticeably heavier. I had convinced myself that because I was wearing the same clothes that I was still in roughly the same shape - and this is broadly true. My waist is the same size, but the weight was loaded onto my gut; I have a dad-bod now. So as soon as the gym's re-opened I was first in line. I wanted to try something different from lifting weights at my own pace, so I signed up for a crossfit style gym which exclusively offers hour long classes throughout the day. I'm pretty sure it was one of the best decisions I've ever made. I finally feel like I'm getting a well rounded workout, with a focus on cardio, weights, resistance training and just enough peer pressure from the people around me to push myself to keep going. My fitbit tracks which heart rate zones I'm in, so I can quantify exactly how hard I'm exercising and encourage myself each class to do better. I started out going to two classes a week, but this didn't seem enough; It felt like an echo of my mid-twenties, where I would push myself just enough to plateau - I wasn't getting any worse, but I wasn't feeling any fitter either. So I increased my classes to three times a week, and started paying for high-protein meal-prep kits, a workaround to streamline the nutrition chunk of my new active health drive. And now, several weeks later, I'm both feeling and seeing the difference.

One of the weird things about working out is, and this will probably be eye-rollingly obvious to anyone who already has a fit and active lifestyle but has eluded me for my entire adult life, the more you invest (time/money/etc) the more inclined you are to self-regulate and reinforce those choices. You're less likely to go for a beer on wednesday night if you know you have a workout thursday morning. You're less likely to buy sugary snacks at the supermarket when you're spending so much time carefully cultivating a complimentary nutritious diet. For a long time I dismissed counting calories as extremely try-hard, but when you're getting an accurate weekly breakdown from your fitbit of how many calories you're burning through you really don't want to undermine all that work you've done. And I think part of this, the most important part, is the psychological mindset that comes from frequently working out - when you work out only twice a week there's too much time in between to get into trouble. If you're a few days away from your next workout you're more likely to cave to pressure and eat a little bit more, go for a couple of beers, or even find an excuse to wriggle out of the workout altogether. I know everyone is different but for me I've discovered that the key to staying healthy is momentum - you need to exercise often enough that you're always mindful of the next one. It's like water-skiing; if you stop then you sink.

It's weird how one positive change lays the foundation for others. I've started cooking again - wanting greater control over what I'm eating and when. I bought a blender so I can make protein smoothies, and buy fresh fruit twice a week to mix them in. I'm sleeping better - my body is physically fucking exhausted all the time, which is a different exhaustion from emotional or psychological. These days I hit the bed and I'm out like a light.

So 2021, or Twenty Big Dog Run, No Bones About It if you're a McElboys fan, is off to a strong start for me. I've signed up for a local volleyball league and I'm extremely tempted to foster a dog from a shelter now that lockdown has ended here. I'm going to ride this wave as far as it will take me.

If you've made any positive healthy lifestyle resolutions or changes, let me know; I feel like it's time to take another crack at meditating even though it's never particularly worked for me in the past, but I'm open to other ideas as well.

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Love Sweep

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Should games reviews acknowledge poor studio conditions?

As I'm sure many of you are aware Kotaku/Jason Schreier ran a pretty revealing and insightful piece into the shitty studio conditions over at Naughty Dog. For those of you that aren't up to speed, here's the highlights;

- Naughty Dog encouraged rolling crunch for months at a time causing widespread burnout and depression among their developers

“It’s an amazing creative environment,” said one developer on The Last of Us II. “But you can’t go home.”

- Senior management seemed uninterested in addressing the concerns of their staff and actively pushed them to keep working. This led to long-standing employees leaving, with management assuming they were all replaceable, and this further exacerbated production deadlines.

Every newcomer means weeks’ or months’ worth of training and hard lessons about how the rest of the team works. A task that might take a veteran designer two hours could take twice or three times as long for a newer employee, and it can be hard to know what the directors want until you’ve been working there long enough.

- Senior management also seem to think that crunch is performed as a completely voluntary artist-driven sacrifice without acknowledging the overwhelming pressure and fear of job security, and no acknowledgment of the detriment to mental and physical health:

“People just naturally do it,” [president, Evan] Wells said. “Because we hire a particular type of person who’s motivated and passionate and wants to leave their mark on the industry. That’s why they come to Naughty Dog.”

Naughty Dog’s managers would never tell people to work overtime—it was always an implication, understood and accepted by everyone.

None of this is new

Rockstar North went through the same revealing reporting around both GTA4, and then again years later with GTA5. Everyone knows that videogame studios treat their artists like garbage, to the extent that it's more surprising when we hear about positive studio conditions than negative ones. I work in VFX and we have exactly the same problems - when production falls behind it's the people at the bottom of the ladder picking up the slack. The shitty economy means people will overwork out of fear of losing their jobs, and management either encourages it or simply turns a blind eye as the team works themselves to death. Overtime will usually be unpaid, and weekend work is expected as a default rather than a last resort. It sucks, and we've been desensitized to it.

So, what are the responsibilities of journalists, and game reviewers, and us as consumers?

Should studio conditions be taken into account when reviewing games? Do we have an ethical responsibility as consumers to hold these devs to account?

I mention this as a result of a tense exchange between Schreier and a couple of prolific writers, Neil Druckman (Naughty Dog, The Last Of Us) and Cory Barlog (Santa Monica Studio, God Of War) after another writer compared the Last Of Us 2 to Schindlers List, and Druckman expressed his frustration at the consequential (and very deserved) sarcastic internet reaction:

No Caption Provided

Petty squabbling aside, the implication here is that Schreier is being vindictive in his reactions to The Last Of Us 2 as a result of his expose on their work conditions. Is that justified? Is that something you'd like to know about when reading the review of a game, or is it something that you think should impact the score of a game?

Also, as an aside, the way those devs reacted here is bullshit and they should both be extremely embarrassed. Mean? Get the fuck out.

Personally I feel mistreatment of staff should be acknowledged in a review, as that's the only way to enforce meaningful change short of not buying the game. I'd go as far as to say that it's the ethical responsibility of journalists and reviewers to call out developers on their shitty work-culture, even while acknowledging the quality of a videogame.

I expect the answer will be for a lot of people that if a game is objectively good then the ends justify the means. Increasingly, I'm less and less happy with that mentality, and it's going to be hard to shift the bitter taste that comes from knowing the cost of The Last Of Us 2, regardless of how great that game may be.

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Love Sweep

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Star Wars Jedi: Falling Over

For a game that places so much emphasis on freedom of movement, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order (I feel like that colon is in the wrong place but it's not and that's upsetting) has some pretty terrible platforming. Many times I found myself repeatedly plummeting to my death as a result of clipping through geometry, Cal stubbornly refusing to grab on to pipes and ledges that were clearly, often offensively, within his reach. It's an issue which plagued the Uncharted franchise (and still does) where an unexpected plunge would break any sense of immersion, and is one of the ongoing issues with any plot-driven platformer; you hurry the player forward with the narrative, but how easy do you make the game to ensure they maintain their momentum? This is compounded by the fundamental jank of Fallen Order - sometimes the player will do everything right but still die, which is a cardinal sin of video game design. To compensate for this Respawn trivializes these falls, each trip to the void removing only a sliver of health - one can't help but feel this is because they expect you to fall so much, and reasoned it was easier to minimize the punishment than to fix the damn platforming.

Other than the slippery-ass jumps, bad cameras, and repetitive force puzzles (which weren't helped by the aforementioned jank and camera) it was pretty fun to traipse around the mandatory jungle/snow/rock planets and viciously murder the (bizarrely unimaginatively named. This big slug is called a Slyyyg? Come on) wildlife that lived there. I played through the game with my girlfriend, who is a huge Star Wars nerd, and she repeatedly expressed her delight at exploring some of the lesser known planets that had featured in the Star Wars books. I wish we had been able to explore more of these locations in a context that wasn't just murdering fucking everything, and it seems a shame that the histories of the towns and villages you explore are only available through audio and text logs while the few NPC's are granted generic and uninteresting dialogue. Although having seen the embarrassingly bad hair rendering on the Wookies I have no desire to visit Kashyyyk again any time soon.

There's still moments of genuine joy to be had in the simple things that, when done right, feel incredibly satisfying, whether that be force-pushing a squad of Storm Troopers off a ledge to their deaths, or nailing a sequence of parries and slicing a huge space frog in half with a lightsaber. Fallen Order entered our lives at a time when we were more willing to persevere and forgive it's jank as a result of not being allowed to leave the house. Now that we're done though, I don't think either of us has any enthusiasm to return.

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Love Sweep

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Mario Kart Tour is out and I am Not A Fan

I don't know why I'm so surprised, as familiar as I am with both the mobile games and F2P business model, that Mario Kart Tour is so grossly bloated with microtransactions and gatchapon style unlocks. For those that haven't played yet, the unlocks are sorted into

  • Drivers
  • Karts
  • Gliders

Each of which will give either a points multiplier or bonus items when used on certain tracks, so effectively; the more you have unlocked the more of an advantage you have when racing. You begin with only a couple of each, and then you're almost immediately dumped onto one of the (several) flashy store pages where you can buy "rubies" or item packs with real money.

For context, each loot crate costs 5 rubies, so for less than 20 loot crates you could buy the Switch edition of Mario Kart 8 with everything pre-unlocked.
For context, each loot crate costs 5 rubies, so for less than 20 loot crates you could buy the Switch edition of Mario Kart 8 with everything pre-unlocked.

It's also possible to simply buy certain racers or items with the reggo ingame gold coins, which can be obtained simply by picking them up as you drive about. There's a smaller shop which cycles a few items every day so you could potentially not buy any rubies at all and still obtain new items. I haven't done the math on how long that would realistically take to flesh out your collection without spending any real money, but considering how many items there are and how infrequently the shop rotates what's up for sale, we can safely say it would take a while.

The Driving

There are two control types; always drifting or never drifting. Obviously we went for always drifting, and while it does feel very good when you nail that perfect drift, a lot of the time a drift feels like overkill. The game heavily punishes you for not exiting your drift in the optimal direction because there's no easy way to correct afterwards, and I think it's pretty telling that invisible walls have been placed on the edge of every track to prevent players constantly falling to their deaths. There were many occasions where I only needed a slight nudge to the left or right but instead my racer launched into an epic drift straight into the very object I was trying to avoid. I'm sure with time the community will invent new racing lines that perfectly optimise the constant drifting, but it's very frustrating when you're just trying to drive in a straight line and can't because your kart is constantly snaking from left to right.

No Caption Provided

Ultimate I was pretty disappointed with the first impression. The racing feels good when it clicks (I'm playing on a Galaxy Note 9 which has a big screen and it both looks and performs fine) but all the stuff in between is tacky and feels alien and perverted when wrapped up in the Mario framework, and especially gross and insidious when you consider that these games have traditionally been marketed to children. I appreciate there's a long precedent for this stuff but it still left an extremely bitter taste in my mouth.

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Love Sweep

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Why is everyone hating on Epic over exclusives?

I got an email today that said:

No Caption Provided

Which I guess is the latest in a long line of games that have ditched Steam to sell themselves on the Epic storefront. And people are really angry about it, apparently? A whole bunch of games are getting review-bombed because they were listed on steam and now they're not?

Does anyone else think that getting upset over this is completely fucking bananas?

Firstly

Epic doesn't decide where games are sold, that's the publisher or developer. So people getting upset that Epic is "yanking" games off steam, as though Epic had any say in the matter, are extremely misguided. What's happened here is that Publishers listed their game on one store, then a second store opened with better incentives, so they decided to use that one instead. Let's take a second to consider some of the reasons a developer or publisher might want to make the switch;

  • The Epic store takes a 12% cut of every game sold, and waives the 5% fee if the developer is using the Unreal Engine. Valve takes 30%. Which means if a game using the Unreal Engine released on Steam, they're losing 23% of the potential profit that they could have made if they'd released on the Epic Store.
  • Steam has an open-door policy for hate groups, harassment, and unsavory game-design. Moderations are rare, glacially slow and/or invisible. There's plenty of Developers who don't want to be associated with that or give up 30% of their profits to support that business model. Case in point.
  • The Epic store is "hand-curated" instead of auto-populated by an algorithm, which means smaller indie games will still be featured on the storefront and given a share of the spotlight. Devs also have control over the appearance of their store page.
  • Players can decide if they want to allocate a slice of the games cost to a streamer when purchasing, as a way of supporting/rewarding streamers who may have brought the game to their attention.

If the cost of all of the above is an exclusivity deal with Epic then that seems like a small price to pay - especially as the increasing size of the store will mean more traffic and customers snowballing into bigger sales; developers with exclusivity deals will be happy that other developers are also getting exclusivity deals, because it means more customers will be visiting the store where their own game is. The more exclusives Epic gets the more customers they have in circulation, so it's in their best interests to operate this way.

Secondly

A lot of this comes down to the notion of "fairness" and that Epic are somehow not playing fair by "depriving Steam customers" of the games they want. This is a mentality that is perpetuated by Valve themselves after they left up store pages for games that had been removed and literally accused Epic of unfairness. Does anyone else see the irony of the biggest pc-gaming monopoly accusing other stores of being "unfair"? This is some manipulative playground bullshit. Steam has been hyping up the illusion that their store is "open" and "fair" but the reality is that those terms are defined by Valve themselves, because they've been sitting on the top of the pile for so long and can dictate how the entire industry is perceived. The fundamental truth is that Steam graphs and algorithms manipulate and track players just as much as anywhere else, and transparency is limited only to what Valve wants you to see. We like to believe that a "fair" exchange would be for the Epic store to attract customers with a better set of features rather than with exclusives, but ultimately when it comes to corporations competing at this level it's always going to come down to who is willing to throw around the most money. Valve has got the capital to undercut the prices of every other store at a loss, effectively running them out of business, which they frequently do with their steam sales. How is that fair?

Thirdly

Rather than get annoyed with the people running the shiny new store, maybe your frustration would be better aimed at the old store for not properly supporting and looking after the developers upon which their entire platform depends? It's not like they're short of money, so their lack of apparent effort seems extremely complacent and greedy. Competition is good, and healthy; it promotes growth and experimentation and all that good shit.

What number are we on? Four? OK, Fourthly

Both stores are free. This isn't some Sony/Microsoft console war where each platform treats customers as investors and attempts to steal then away from the other by securing exclusives. If you have a PC that can run steam then you have a pc that can run the Epic store. There is nothing to prevent you from having both.

Fifthly

I can't think of a fifthly. But you get the idea, anyway.

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Love Sweep

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The rise of publisher-exclusive game stores and the effect it will have on the industry

For a long time, Steam has reigned supreme when it comes to PC games; they had the best sales, the widest selection, the best support for independent developers and publishers. They seemed to be on the side of the players, finding meaningful ways to incorporate player-made assets and mods into their structure and rewarding their customers who made the biggest investments. Even games not installed through steam were often made easiest to manage through the robust steam client, allowing you to use your existing steam friends list and library to keep everything neatly consolidated.

What a time to be alive, eh?

But as we're all aware, it's not quite the perfect picture that it's made out to be; The marketplace was saturated with rubbish moneygrabbing titles that nobody wanted (diluting the cool stuff and making it harder to find unless Valve featured it on their store), reviews for games were frequently skewed by hordes of malicious players, and the few developers that actually managed to find an audience only received a fraction of their profits as steam took a large slice for themselves. The forums and games were predominantly unmoderated, making them a safe haven for abusive and hateful groups of people to congregate and harass other users. Worst of all, perhaps, was that there was nobody out there to challenge them - if you had a problem with steam then there were few alternatives - even the other stores that sold the games you wanted would usually give you a steam key in order to activate it. It's easy to claim you're the "best" when there's nobody else to compare yourself to, I guess?

But now in 2019 we have alternatives!

We have Origin, BattleNet, Uplay, Epic Store, GoG, and even the Microsoft Store, to name but a few. Many of these services have excluded their own games from Steam for years, but increasingly they seem to be promoting exclusivity and competition for games published by other studios, too - case in point, Epic is making bold moves regarding exclusivity with games like Ashen and Phoenix Point.

So what does this mean for the PC gaming landscape?

Despite the awkwardness of having to manage multiple clients and friends lists, my own thoughts are this is profoundly positive. Origin, Blizzard and Uplay long ago proved that their blockbuster games could convince an audience to move away from steam, and now that these stores are also seeking out exclusivity deals there will be plenty of bidding over the best games being developed; Instead of an independent developer having to put a game on steam, take whatever deal Valve offers and simply hope their game gets noticed, these stores will fight over the rights to publish and sell. Competition is healthy, as we have seen repeatedly from the Sony/Microsoft rivalry every E3 for the past billion years, forcing developers to continually one-up each other as the players reap the rewards. Hypothetically if people stop using steam as their default service then that, in turn, should prompt steam to actually try doing things differently; Better incentives for developers, better community management, better curation of their store. In theory, anyway. With their purchase of Campo Santo there's an indication that they might even start developing some real games again...

Some other potential knock-on effects;

  • The re-invigoration of the independent mod communities? I can't speak to all of the available stores, but I know Origin does not currently support mods (I just installed the HD texture pack for Mass Effect 2 and it was a pain in the ass). Instead of having to go through the steam workshop players will now have to scour old websites and forums, downloading shady zip directories from anonymous google drive and dropbox accounts. So that's exciting.
  • More support for independent developers? If there's several publishers fighting over each game then they have a better chance of working out a good deal and securing some solid financial backing. Capitalism!
  • E3 is going to be a lot more wild? More stores means more showcases and presentations. We've started to see a shift away from the big stages already, it would not surprise me if every store started doing their own treehouse-esque webinar on their upcoming titles and plans.
  • New approaches to community management? New ways to entice community contributors and positive community members means a more pleasant experience for everyone.

Ultimately I believe the increase in variety and diversity among game stores is good for the industry and good for the players. Which is refreshing to think about.

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Love Sweep

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The excellent difficulty curve of RDR2 (spoilers!)

It's been a few months since I finished Red Dead 2, a game I thoroughly enjoyed, and while hindsight has granted me the ability to acknowledge the game's flaws there's still several core aspects which I think are excellently designed and which I've been wanting to explore here in my blog. Top of the list is the difficulty curve.

Spoilers ahead!
Spoilers ahead!

By having the protagonist contract a deadly disease such as tuberculosis the writers put forward an organic and believable justification for making the game more difficult in the latter acts of the story. This is beautifully thorough, furthering the narrative and character development or Arthur himself while simultaneously providing a believable excuse to reduce his stamina and health in a way which doesn't feel arbitrary. Because of this decision the player is permitted to keep their weapons and upgrades, and their sense of empowerment as a brutal gunslinger, while emphasizing the fragility of Arthur as a human being without throwing him into increasingly absurd and excessive hordes of enemies.

Admittedly there's still plenty of killing to be done, and while the slowly developing illness is brutal to experience it never registers as anything more than a mild inconvenience in a gameplay sense; Arthur is still essentially an unstoppable murder-machine every time the bullets start flying. From a game design sense though I found it a very refreshing take on how difficulty curves can be entwined into the story of a game rather than simply shuffling numbers around or limiting the availability of the most powerful weapons/abilities.

If anyone has any recommendations for other games which handle difficulty curves organically I'd love to hear about them!

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Love Sweep

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Round 2 with Stardew Valley; starting from scratch in 2019

I recently found myself with a moderate amount of time to kill and having been swayed by the tales my girlfriend had shared from her time in Stardew Valley I wanted to jump back in myself. I'd played a little at launch on PC (Although hadn't even finished a single year of gameplay) and hadn't tried the game after any of the many updates, so I picked up a second copy on Switch and started from scratch.

The second time around I chose a different farm layout (forest) which was great for getting extra resources (as it rewards foraging gameplay) but also carves off a chunk of your farmland in a way which you're unable to shape yourself; frustrating to someone who always enjoyed managing the aesthetic of the farmland. Still, I stuck with it/couldn't be bothered to start again, and I'm now halfway through my second year.

Hearing Dan talk about it on a recent Beastcast (as Abby has also recently started playing the game) I felt like my progression mirrored his; you start out grinding away with little money and weak tools that leave you fatigued early in the day and have little else to do. It's difficult to make friends before your first harvest as many of the villagers want gifts that aren't available until a later season. Once you've got a routine in place things start to balance out and as you become more efficient and as the farm becomes more manageable, you pivot from the monotony of endless watering to getting to know the villagers, fixing up the community center, and exploring the mine. As time goes on your farm becomes increasingly self-sufficient, to the extent that you can focus on crafting more artisanal goods, fishing, and exploring the new areas that are gradually unlocked.

You'd better believe it
You'd better believe it

I'm enjoying the "social" aspect of the game a lot more than last time, and a lot more than I expected - getting to know each of the single ladies, bringing people gifts and trying to fulfill their requests, locking down each routine so you know where find each person (not in a creepy way), and generally making friends. I always look forward to the cut-scenes and interactions you have with the other characters and it's rewarding when they open up to you. Having said that, I frequently find myself underwhelmed by the bland responses that each NPC will offer the vast majority of the time. I'm not expecting a lengthy monologue, but for a game which actively encourages and rewards you for seeking out and speaking with each of the villagers it doesn't meet you halfway by way of engaging dialogue. The consequence of this is the town feels more like Westworld than a living breathing community, and those conversations can sometimes feel like a grind, especially when you've just spent half a day trying to track down one specific individual only to be rewarded with the same two lines you've already heard dozens of times already; which is a real shame - as it would have been (and still is) an easy problem to solve with a little more variety in the responses of each character to really flesh them out.

Still, if you are willing to invest the time then there are several characters who are worth the effort. I'm really enjoying the arcs of some of the less immediately appealing characters - Abigail is fun, though apparently was written to be the perfect "gamer-girl" which seemed a little too easy, so my courtship has predominantly been focused on Haley (superficial, vapid) and Penny (shy, timid), while the friends I enjoy hanging out with the most have been George (cantankerous) and of course, Linus (perfect). It is a cause of endless frustration to me that I can't invite Linus to live on my farm in one of the many cabins that it's possible for me to build, but I guess he's up in that tent because he wants to be.

At this point in my game I've reached the bottom of the mine, unlocked the quarry, and I've built enough sprinklers that my farm takes care of itself, for the most part. There's still plenty of mysteries to solve (anyone know what this skull key does? I figured it unlocked the sewer but it doesn't seem to work), and I'd like to finish up the community center and upgrade my barn.

Stardew holds up, and I'm enjoying being able to passively play in handheld mode while listening to podcasts or killing time at home. It's not flawless by any means, but it's still interesting to explore, and refreshingly wholesome. Sometimes that's all you need.

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Love Sweep

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