2508: The Cough of an Eighty Year Old Man

I am ill.

I do not like being ill, because it is annoying and painful, particularly when it is that particular breed of “ill” somewhere between a cold and flu that causes you to feel constantly stuffed up and occasionally cough like an eighty year old smoker. Also I have the shits.

It is not a pleasant day to be ill, either. Andie’s phone claimed it was -7C outside earlier and while I tend to take phone weather readings with a pinch of salt, the fact that it is still visibly frosty outside leads me to believe that yes, it certainly is at least a bit cold out there. Meg the cat certainly let me know that it was cold when I let her in just now.

I have spent the morning in bed accompanied by one or both of our cats at all times. I’m always amazed at quite how well cats understand people; they know exactly when you’re not feeling great, whether it’s physically, mentally or both, and they know that what you often need in such situations is company and affection. Ruby, who is typically the more irritating of our two cats, rather fond of walking across your face when you’re trying to do something, sat with me quietly and peacefully for most of the morning, even curling up and settling down for a bit, which is rather rare to see her do.

I’m up now and craving nothing more than “ill person food”. Specifically, I’m feeling a steak slice, nice crisps (Walkers Max!) and some chocolate might help with the doldrums of being ill, accompanied by plenty of Lemsip, of course.

This is a singularly tedious blog post, I’m aware, as there are few things more boring than listening to someone else talk about how ill they are — I’ve heard enough complaints from my parents about my grandmother having such conversations with them to know this all too well — but, well, it’s something to do now that I appear to have exhausted my capacity for lying in bed wheezing all morning. Now I am on the couch beneath a blanket like a homeless person while Andie puts up the Christmas tree and decorations, because now it’s December, it is an acceptable time to do so.

Time to dose up on drugs and steak slices, I think, and hopefully I’ll feel a bit better tomorrow.

2507: Into Duscae

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(Should have been posted last night, but I forgot to hit Publish!)

A little over ten hours into Final Fantasy XV so far and I’m well and truly on board.

Pro-tip: if you’re finding the opening a bit slow, make an effort to not get sidetracked by sidequests and instead push the main story on at least until you’re able to get into the Duscae region. From here, the game opens up a whole lot more and you’ll have had a taste of various different experiences you can expect to see a lot more of throughout the rest of its duration.

One thing I was very pleasantly surprised about was the discovery that Final Fantasy XV has proper dungeons. This isn’t particularly unusual for a Final Fantasy game, but it is relatively unusual for an open-world RPG, to varying degrees. Games like The Witcher 3 have kinda-sorta dungeons dotted around the place, but these often tend to feel like “oh look, another cave” rather than an exciting place to explore and loot. Games like The Elder Scrolls series have hundreds of the bloody things everywhere, but are often designed in a somewhat copy-paste manner, meaning that few of them feel “special”. And games like the Xenoblade series pretty much do away with dungeons altogether; Xenoblade Chronicles X did have some underground areas, but again, like The Witcher 3, they felt more like part of the scenery than a discrete experience in their own right.

Relatively early in Final Fantasy XV’s main story, you’re taken to your first dungeon, and it works in traditional Final Fantasy manner: it’s self-contained, it has its own music, it has secrets and branching routes to explore, and it has its own lineup of monster encounters. It felt like a significant gameplay moment to step into this place, and it was exciting and rewarding to explore. There were some surprising and interesting scripted encounters within, and the whole thing felt authentically… well, Final Fantasy.

And I think that’s part of the reason I’ve never really found open-world RPGs to do dungeons in a satisfactory manner for my tastes: you often end up doing exactly the same thing in them that you do out in the open world, whereas Final Fantasy XV’s dungeons look set to have unique mechanics, puzzles and methods of exploration. I’m looking forward to discovering more of them.

I think that sums up Final Fantasy XV’s approach quite well, actually. It knows when to use scripted sequences effectively — dramatic confrontations, boss fights, dungeons — and when to use the more freeform, unpredictable and emergent gameplay more typically found in open world games. Purely emergent games (I’m picturing the Elder Scrolls series in particular when I use this description) often end up feeling a bit sterile and characterless because nothing has had any real soul put into it — it’s all driven by mechanics. Final Fantasy XV, meanwhile, will surprise you with unscripted encounters out in the wilds (its equivalent of the random battles of yore), but also knows when would be a particularly effective time to have a monster burst through a wall or a villain to make their first appearance to make a speech and attempt to defeat you with Their Infallible New Weapon.

I like Noctis and his friends a lot; their constant banter, while occasionally repetitive, adds a lot more personality to wandering the fields than Skyrim’s mute protagonist, and by restricting the party to those four core members (and occasional guests) the conversations can flow naturally rather than having to work by triggering responses to one another as in something like Xenoblade. Already I’m feeling that core theme of “brotherhood” coming through very nicely indeed. The supporting characters are great, too, running the gamut from all-business badass (Cor) to the flamboyantly colourful and gorgeous (Cindy).

I’m having a blast, in other words. I’m looking forward to my next day off, when I’ll be able to really get stuck in.

2506: Fifteen

Well, it’s Final Fantasy XV day and I’ve spent a good five or six hours playing it this evening.

It’s good. Real good.

I haven’t progressed that far in the story as yet as it’s simply fun to wander around exploring, doing sidequests and listening to the soundtracks of old Final Fantasy games while the gang drive around in their car. However, I’m very much looking forward to the world opening up a bit more — I’m penned in to a relatively “small” area at the moment by barricades that prevent going more than a certain distance by road or on foot — and seeing what is out there to discover.

Even in this fairly fenced-off starter area it’s clear that it’s going to be a fun ride, though. In particular, I’m very much enjoying the combat; far from being a hack-and-slash action game along the lines of something like Kingdom Hearts, it manages to blend what looks like fast-paced action with relatively strategic, cerebral combat that rewards careful positioning and exploitation of enemy resistances and weaknesses.

And the world of Eos is one simultaneously filled with wonderment and pleasingly familiar mundanity. In the first few hours, I’ve spent time at a seaside resort, a motel and a truck stop, but also fought recurring Final Fantasy monsters such as goblins and flans, and run away screaming at the sight of an Iron Giant. I’ve hunted down groups of monsters and fished up a meal for a stray cat. And I’ve witnessed the devastation that Niflheim wreaked on protagonist Noctis’ home city of Insomnia.

And the music. Dear lord. I already knew that the soundtrack was going to be something special from the preview tracks I’d previously heard, but the full experience is something else. Multiple battle themes according to the context make me very happy indeed, particularly as they’re all wonderfully energetic, blasting pieces full of drama and excitement. But the more incidental music is very pleasant, too, changing according to the time of day and your surroundings and, in settlements, adjusting its mix according to whether you’re inside or outside.

The whole concept of it being “a fantasy based on reality” has been pulled off very effectively so far. The world and the places you visit are all very plausible and realistic, but overlaid on the top of all that is the wonderful sci-fi/fantasy blend that Final Fantasy has been so good at for years. It really, really works as a setting, and I’m looking forward to exploring it in more depth over the coming weeks.

For now, though, as I have an eight-hour shift to work tomorrow and I have a cold coming on, I should probably call it a night there. Probably.

2505: Final Fantasy

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With Final Fantasy XV out tomorrow and my excitement for it at an extreme level, I’ve decided that I’m going to devote the next month on my other site MoeGamer to an in-depth exploration of the series as a whole.

Final Fantasy as a whole may be a little outside my usual mission with MoeGamer — it is neither underappreciated nor overlooked — but it’s worth discussing nonetheless, particularly with regard to those installments along the way that are regarded less favourably.

It’s also worth discussing as it’s a series with a long, interesting history, and can quite rightly be described as genre-defining alongside its longtime rival Dragon Quest.

Mostly I want to talk about it because it’s been important to me for a long time now. Nearly 20 years, in fact, which is a scary prospect, as my first encounter with the series is still absolutely fresh in my mind, as if I’d just experienced it yesterday.

I first heard of Final Fantasy VII, my first point of contact with the series, through my brother. I had a PlayStation at the time (well, more accurately, I had a hand-me-down Japanese PlayStation that my brother left behind) but, what with it being a Japanese model, I hadn’t really explored the games available for it beyond the three I already had: Ridge Racer, Tekken and Raiden Project.

Hearing my brother describe Final Fantasy VII made me want to try it, though. I’d already had experience with story-heavy games thanks to our family’s mutual love of point-and-click adventure titles from Sierra and LucasArts, but this sounded like something different; something more. Specifically, the thing that got me interested in it was the promise of a scene partway through the game where pretty much everyone who had played it ended up crying. (Said scene is now one of the most famous scenes in all of gaming, but back in ’97, it was easier to remain unspoiled.)

So, reading up on the old “disc swap” trick that allowed you to play different region games on a PlayStation, I propped my PlayStation’s lid open with a biro lid and a bit of Blu-Tack and inserted the first of the three discs of my shiny new copy of Final Fantasy VII, not sure what to expect.

I was immediately blown away by the spectacular video intro sequence that moved almost seamlessly into in-game action, with polygonal characters moving perfectly in sync with the prerendered background camera angles. (I was then slightly distracted by the rather primitive field screen character models Final Fantasy VII is now somewhat notorious for, but I quickly became accustomed to them.)

The music drew me in. The action started right away. It was like being part of a movie. Then I got into my first battle and, having never really played an RPG before, was initially baffled. Once again, though, it didn’t take me long to become accustomed, and there was no turning back from that point: the game had me well and truly in its clutches.

I enthused about the game to my friends at school. They were initially skeptical, but it didn’t take a lot of convincing to get them to give it a try. And before long, they were as obsessed with this spectacular new game as I was. We played it through together, discussing things we’d found and things we’d achieved; we’d complete it, and start over again, eager to enjoy the story all over again. We devoured guidebooks and online FAQs about the game, keen to see everything it was possible to see. And, on one particularly memorable occasion fueled by tequila and various other intoxicants, we played for 36 hours straight, my friend Woody passing out midway through the G-Bike sequence, having some very peculiar dreams and suddenly waking up demanding to know “what’s an X-Walker?” (To this day, we have no idea. X-Potions? Sure. X-Walker? No clue.)

The impact Final Fantasy VII had on me drew me to explore the rest of the series. While at the time I found the NES original a little hard to appreciate — it was just a bit too clunky in comparison to the later games — from IV onwards (or II as it was known back then thanks to the fact Final Fantasy II, III and V didn’t see Western releases until many years after their NES and SNES original versions) in particular I found them to be just as compelling despite their more primitive visuals and sounds.

These were games that told stories that resonated with me. Stories about people who rose up from humble beginnings, gathering a group of close companions and achieving something incredible. This sort of thing is seen as cliched as all hell these days, but there’s a reason the standard JRPG tropes have been a thing for as long as they have: even before video games, this story structure is proven to be an effective way of telling a heroic epic.

Even in those early days, though, I could tell that the Final Fantasy series wasn’t one to rest on its laurels. While had a fairly Western RPG feel to it with its completely mute, characterless party, II introduced the series convention of having a party of predefined characters with actual personalities. III brought us the Job system for the first time. IV gave us an incredibly detailed story full of emotion. refined the Job system further. VI turned the narrative conventions of the series on its head by not really having a “main” character, instead allowing us the opportunity to spend time with an enormous ensemble cast. And so on, and so on.

I’ll talk about this in detail once I start writing the MoeGamer pieces, but Final Fantasy is a series that has constantly reinvented itself over and over again. Even in those installments that seem superficially similar (I-III, IV-VIVII-IX) there are enough unique components to each title to make them distinct from one another, and from onwards the series has enjoyed even more drastic, dramatic reinventions with each installment. And this isn’t even getting into the myriad spin-off titles, many of which are even more fondly regarded than the mainline titles in the series.

As you can tell, I’ll have plenty to write about. And I’m afraid you’re almost certainly going to have to put up with a lot of enthusing about XV on this here site from tomorrow onwards, too. I make no apologies for my excitement in this regard.

Now, just a good night’s sleep and a day of work between me and my first adventures in the lands of Eos. Can’t wait.

2504: Tears of the Prophets

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Reached the end of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s sixth season this evening and despite inadvertently spoiling myself on the death of a major character some months earlier (though given Deep Space Nine’s age, I’m surprised I lasted this long without spoilers!), it remained an impactful episode and an excellent season finale.

I really like how Deep Space Nine developed. While it started as something of a “soap opera in space”, which is why some people found it a little dull when compared to the galaxy-spanning adventures of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the gradual buildup of the Dominion storyline into all-out war throughout the sixth season gave the show scope to deftly and subtly readjust its focus over time.

At the end of the sixth season, it’s still recognisably distinct from the more “mobile” Star Trek series such as The Next Generation and Voyager, but the action following Sisko and his comrades into battle against the Dominion gets the action off the station often enough to keep things fresh and interesting — and Tears of the Prophets, the sixth season finale, features some spectacular space combat sequences, an area in which Deep Space Nine generally excels.

One thing I’ve found particularly interesting about the show as a whole is the development of the character Gul Dukat. Initially presented as a character whose motivations and overall alignment wasn’t entirely clear, he’s had plenty of significant moments over the course of the series, ranging from joyful to tragedy. When he’s at his lowest ebb, it’s hard not to feel sorry for him, because the show certainly kicks the shit out of him, but Tears of the Prophets makes it abundantly clear why it took such pains to make us sympathise with Dukat as he lost everything he held dear.

Dukat’s losses drive him to absolute desperation. He willingly allows himself to be possessed by a Pah-Wraith, the antithesis to the “Prophets”, aliens who live in the wormhole that Deep Space Nine protects. The Wraith kills [REDACTED so you don’t have to suffer like I did] and apparently cuts off the connection between the Prophets and Bajor before leaving Dukat’s body. We’re left to see Dukat with a few regrets — most notably the death of [AHEM] — but an overall sense that he’s enacted vengeance that he’s satisfied with.

This sequence — and the consequences therein — highlight another reason why I enjoy Deep Space Nine: it doesn’t attempt to explain everything away with (fake but plausible) science. Oh, sure, there’s plenty of traditional Star Trek technobabble throughout the series, but also there’s a real sense that some things simply are unknowable and impossible to understand by humanity at its stage of development in the 24th century. The recognition and embracing of this is the basis of religion (or spiritualism at the very least) and Deep Space Nine as a whole handles this sort of thing very nicely. It also makes for some extremely dramatic moments, as metaphysical, “supernatural” things are far less predictable than those which can be explained by science.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the series ends, and am very glad that I’ve finally got around to watching it all the way through for the first time. I’m even more glad that doing so is a simple matter of watching it on Netflix rather than collecting however many hundred VHS cassettes would have formed the complete run on its original release!

2503: What We Do in the Shadows

Watched a pretty great movie this evening: What We Do in the Shadows.

This is a 2014 movie written by and starring Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi. It’s a mockumentary film that focuses on the lives of a household of vampires that live in Wellington, New Zealand, and chronicles both the mundanity of their daily lives and some of the more outlandish events that transpire over the course of several months.

It’s a brilliantly written, beautifully acted film, delightful in its understatedness and use of awkward humour. The mockumentary style is used effectively in a similar style to The Office — there’s no commentary on the action, it’s pure “fly on the wall” observation, and in presenting itself in this manner it seems oddly plausible even with the obviously supernatural nonsense going on throughout.

The movie captures the struggle between vampires’ baser urges and their desire to retain at least some of their humanity. The central characters are all rather likeable chaps despite obviously being killers, and it’s all set up so that we sympathise with them. You get the real impression that they feed only out of necessity, and certainly aren’t averse to befriending humans, as exemplified by the presence of “Stu”, a singularly unremarkable man who works in IT that the gang all latch onto and make a pact never to feed on.

It’s not an angsty vampire movie by any means, however. There are a couple of tragic scenes that are played down to such a degree that they’re almost shrugged off, and this is both amusing and representative of the rather casual attitude towards existence that those blessed or cursed with eternal life tend to hold. The movie also subverts the audience’s expectations in a number of places, particularly with regard to one of the central cast members supposed nemesis, known only as “The Beast”.

It’s a lot of fun, in short. It’s a movie where not a lot happens — much like mockumentary TV series such as The Office didn’t really have a lot going on either — but this means it can focus almost entirely on the characterisation of the central cast. In doing so, we’re led to sympathise and empathise with them despite their obviously dark tendencies, and shown that a touch of humanity can show up in the strangest of places.

Most of all, though, it’s a movie that’s just plain funny, whether it’s the ridiculous visual gags involving the vampires’ ability to fly, the overblown gore when one of them accidentally nicks a major artery while feeding and makes “a real mess in there”, or the hilarious rivalry between the vampires and the werewolves, with both groups acting like silly teenagers rather than immortal beings of pure darkness.

Highly recommended, in other words; if you get the chance to sit down and watch it, it’s well worth a couple of hours of your time, even if you’re not typically into horror or vampire movies. It’s just some wonderfully gentle — and, at times, deliberately awkward — humour with plenty of heart, and a real feeling that everyone involved just wanted the audience to have as much fun as they did. And, for me anyway, something being produced with that kind of attitude is well worth praising and enjoying in this age of increasingly commercialised productions.

2502: Black Friday

Spare a thought for the retail workers of the world, who have to work on days like today.

I’m still not 100% clear on where Black Friday came from — and, moreover, why it crossed the pond from America to Europe — but I have pretty mixed feelings about it on the whole.

On the one hand, it’s nice to have a period of time when you know you can rely on getting low prices and decent deals on things that you might be interested in buying. In the online sector, events such as Steam sales and “Cyber Monday” deals demonstrate this clearly.

On the other hand, compressing aforementioned low prices and decent deals into a single weekend — or, in some cases, a single day — seems a little counterproductive when it comes to brick-and-mortar operations in particular.

An event such as Black Friday means that stores are probably going to be rammed full of people, making it a less pleasant experience for everyone shopping and significantly harder work for those people working the store who have to try and answer questions, ensure everyone gets served, keep the shop looking as presentable as possible and ensure no-one is wandering out of the door in possession of things they haven’t paid for.

At the same time, though, an event such as Black Friday may encourage people to pick up things that they otherwise wouldn’t have thought to purchase or been able to purchase at their normally higher prices. I personally haven’t bought anything this Black Friday — at least partly because I was working the damn thing — but if I was going to buy something like an Xbox One (the one “next-gen” console I still don’t own), Black Friday would appear to be a decent time to do so.

Like I say, mixed feelings. And if you’ve been out there in the rush and the chaos of people trying to get a hot deal, as I say, spare a thought for the folks who are rushed off their feet trying to make sure everyone leaves satisfied.

Now I’m going to bed to pass out and wait for my feet to stop hurting.