There is no AJ in Team

I have three friends – who I’ll call AJ, Madd and Potter, since those are essentially their names – with whom I play games online most Sunday evenings. It’s a nice way to stay in touch and it’s a lot of fun. They’re very patient with how bad I am at PUBG.

Over the last few months we’ve been playing Vigor, a free to play “shoot ‘n loot” from Bohemia Interactive. Bohemia are well-known for the ArmA series, which is a tactical military shooter notorious for its realism. Vigor shares some of its approach to weapon handling – running and gunning will not go well for you – but is a round-based game where cautious, paranoid scavenging is as viable and important a strategy as hunting for other players.

Sadly, Vigor does not sport four-player co-op play. This makes sense, as such a setup would run counter to its core design. At most you can take one friend into a match: someone to watch your back while you scavenge.

It is technically possible to get into a game with more friends than this. If you and three friends team up, and the two hosts don’t have too much lag between them, and they get the timing on an attempt to join a match just right, there’s a possibility you’ll load into the same map.

To do this with the intent to cooperate is a dangerous technique even if you succeed. Your friends look just like every other potentially hostile player. Communication and caution are essential if you’re to try this approach. But if you succeed the potential rewards are great. You can take your time scavenging and really clean up a map, and even make a strong push for the game’s greatest rewards.

Good communication is key. When we found ourselves in the same lobby for a match on Batterie Draug, a small 8-player map, we knew this. Madd and I spawned on the map’s southern edge, near the map’s locked safe – the second best loot point but also a common flashpoint for hostilities – whilst AJ and Potter spawned on the west coast.

“Let’s meet up at the south-western most buildings,” suggested Madd, who generally keeps a cool head. “Shaun and I will loot in the area while you guys cut south.”

A notification popped up almost as soon as the match started: a player had gone rogue. This means they killed their team mate. We were reasonably confident this player then immediately exited the map. (This is another popular exploit in the game: by making use of the ‘insurance’ feature that prevents equipment loss on death, it’s possible for players to ‘duplicate’ rare weapons for their friends via team-killing.)

We rejoiced. We had just moved from four against four to four against two. We were going to clean out this map.

“Potter, don’t shoot anyone in the back,” we joked. The guy has form, which is occasionally down to a twitchy trigger finger but more often straight-up griefing. He and AJ have been friends for years and AJ still ribs him about some of the shit he’s pulled. “Very funny,” is all he’ll say.

Madd and I set to looting around the agreed buildings. We still didn’t know exactly where the other two players in the match were so we remained on guard, taking it in turns to cover one another while we rummaged through chests and boxes. Madd played a benevolent and helpful role, as he was much more experienced with the game and was keen to help me advance.

AJ and Potter were making steady progress towards us. They were also looting as they moved but we were aiming to hook up quickly so that we could actually play together. Our game plan was to find and take out the remaining players so that we could scavenge freely.

There was plenty about to tempt us, though, as several players had spent currency in the lobby to increase the amount of loot on the map. We were having a rewarding time and spirits were high.

“We’re almost there,” AJ reported.

“Great,” Madd replied. “We’re just looting the houses.”

I heard the unmistakable sound of approaching footsteps. And then a cry from Potter: “There’s someone in the house!”

Adrenaline spiked. I dropped into a crouch. I snapped my camera back and forth between the visible doors. Where were they? The footsteps were suddenly all around us.

Gunfire erupted with savage immediacy. I saw flashes from a nearby window, and then I could only watch as my character crumpled to the ground.

“I’m down,” I say, into the chaos of panicked chatter and gunfire. I didn’t even get a shot off.

“Got one!” AJ crows.

More gunfire followed. It was all over so fast that it was hard to tell what had just happened. But in the end, Madd and I were both dead. Potter and AJ still lived, and were moving cautiously into the building. I was dumbstruck as I spectated the player who killed me.

“They’re all down,” AJ confirms. “Damn, I got one of them through the window! Did you see that shooting?”

I waited for him and Potter to figure out there were only two bodies in the house. For emblazoned across my screen were the words: you were killed by AJ.

A slightly dramatised tale of an actual match of Vigor, in tribute to AJ’s infamous 2011 article about Potter’s team-killing exploits: “There is no Potter in Team“.

Finnish beer, & keeping a Cool Head

Before C and I moved to Finland last year, we spent 24 hours in Helsinki trying the city on for size (sure, I also had a job interview).

We were relieved to discover that Helsinki has at least a few bars pushing craft beer. As big fans of the UK’s craft beer renaissance, and total newcomers to Finland, we were concerned we might be missing out on one of our preferred vices.

We tried out the Sori Taproom (nice beers, small quantities, rather expensive), Bier Bier (great beers, slightly larger quantities, very expensive) and The Riff (good music, okay beers, did unfortunately meet an anarchist Finn and a Bulgarian sound engineer who spent a full hour promoting the ‘great replacement’ conspiracy theory).

It’s now been a year since we uprooted ourselves and moved to Finland. In that time we’ve been to plenty more bars and also a number of beer festivals: Helsinki has a lot of them! C and I have missed at least one that we know of, and there may have been more. But we did catch the Craft Beer Winter Wonderland, the Sour Spring Break, the larger Helsinki Beer Festival, Great Beers – Small Breweries, and most recently the Craft Beer Garden Festival. These vary in size, attending brewers and theme, but there’s always been new and good beers to try.

Three of those festivals are organised by a particular brewer, CoolHead, in partnership with their venue (Korjaamo – a culture centre that includes a tram museum) and other businesses (such as Pien, a local bar and bottle shop that also celebrates its one year anniversary this month).

It’ll take a while before I can attempt to write about Helsinki and Finland’s beer scene and do it any justice at all, but I can at least introduce CoolHead to non-Finns. This feels appropriate as their mission statement is literally “put Finland on the craft beer world map”. But it’s primarily because they deliver a lot of really fucking good beers. They’re particularly strong on sour beers, which are very popular here and you’ll see some from pretty much every brewery in the country. CoolHead are the best of them, although an honourable mention must go to Fiskarsin Panimo, who have delivered several of the most interesting and memorable sour beers I’ve ever tasted.

As a rough sample of what CoolHead do, this year I’ve tried their Experimental #1: Pear, Walnut, in which you can genuinely taste those pear and walnut flavours, beautifully balanced with a strong scent of walnut, and a Peated Whiskey Sour about which my untappd check-in simply says “fucking delicious”. Among their current beers are Lumberjack Juice, a Nordic sour in collaboration with Tempel Brygghus, who I’ll need to check out after drinking this berry-rich and woody beer, and their Mango Chili Gose, which is not at the top of my list but certainly delivers exactly what it says on the can. A recent favourite is Smoking Nectarines, which is a fantastically rich and tart fruit sour with a wonderful smoke edge.

Their non-sours are very good as well: Juiciness, for example, is exactly the kind of fruity IPA with American hops that I grew to love in England, and at 5.5% it’s a fairly hefty session beer.

I’ll raise a glass to CoolHead continuing to pursue their mission statement, and hopefully – if you, reader, are outside Finland and see their beers for sale – you’ll do so too.

Remnant: From the Ashes

Remnant: From the Ashes is a game with a bad title from a team best known for the Darksiders games*, of which I have played 1.1 of them. I really enjoyed the first Darksiders, but never played far into its sequel, and know very little about last year’s third instalment.

Remnant: From the Ashes is a game I heard about via word of mouth. For some reason a good number of my friends I talk about games with were all curious about it, or at least discussing it. Why might that have been?

Remnant: From the Ashes is a game which, from the first moment I heard about it, was mentioned in the same breath as Dark Souls. Ah, so that is why my friends were discussing it. We just can’t get away from Dark Souls.

Remnant: From the Ashes, a name which I won’t be typing in full any more, because this bit is tiring and isn’t funny anyway, does have a few similarities with Dark Souls. At its core, though, it shares more DNA with DarkSiders.

This means that the combat feels pleasingly “chunky”: ranged attacks land with a wallop and melee attacks slice through mobs of weaker enemies. Even if I didn’t know the provenance of the development team I’d have likened its feel, pace and fluidity to my memories of DarkSiders.

Similarly to that predecessor, Remnant‘s setting is a shattered remnant of human civilization. This time it’s something called The Root rather than the unleashing of Hell’s denizens that has brought this about. I’m approximating aggressively here, but basically some Ents living near Isengard got pissed about rare earth processing runoff polluting everything, just for mobile phones which end up in landfill after a couple of years.

Yeah, our biosphere is so fucked. It’s okay though. There’s a new Apple Watch coming out, and the screen always stays on.

Where Remnant does have some similarities with the oft-mentioned Souls games is in its level of challenge – it’s pretty tough – and its handling of death – which is something you’ll encounter regularly. Remnant has what are basically Souls bonfires, to which you return on death, or can rest at if you choose. When this happens, all slain enemies reappear. Boom. It’s more forgiving than Souls with its meta-progression, but also interestingly crueller, as new areas are reportedly rebalanced to fit a character’s level. You can out-level one area, but not the game.

I’ve now played enough of Remnant to have an idea of how its procedurally generated elements work, and its various imposing bosses. Each campaign is rolled on start, with the broad objectives the same but the exact layout, and which bosses appear where, varied. Where in my own playthrough I fought a dragon, a friend I joined for co-op faced one of those ents I mentioned earlier. Although I recognised much of the environment I explored with him, the way its components fitted together was very different to what I had battled through.

So far I like what I’ve encountered rather a lot. Solo it’s a tense experience; in co-op it’s intense. I recommend it if you have two friends; the worst thing about the game is that it doesn’t have four player co-op.

One proviso for anyone who picks it up based on my recommendation: get through the tutorial as fast as you can, because it doesn’t showcase combat well and the dialogue is impossibly dreary.


(*A team twice reformed: Vigil Games was not bid upon when developer/publisher THQ went bankrupt in 2013. Most of the team reformed as Crytek USA, a studio that survived about six months before its dissolution during Crytek’s own financial difficulties. Most of the team reformed again, this time as Gunfire Games, who ended up making DarkSiders III anyway.)

Vignette #9

My mouth turns dry every time I enter slipspace. I don’t need a firsthand view of spacetime cloven in two, of the pure mathematics which lies beyond. I don’t even have to know when we’re transitioning. I can feel it on my skin, like a a static charge, and in the pressure inside my skull. Sometimes I even feel it in my bones, a sharp and thankfully brief pain like nothing I have felt elsewhere.

I’ve probably become conditioned by the pain and discomfort, and my mouth turns dry because of fear and anticipation. So now when I think of slipspace I think of how my mouth turns dry, because my body knows before my consciousness does and that’s the harbinger of what is to come.

Today, however, I have that firsthand view that I don’t need. I actively don’t want it, but here I am, newly promoted to ‘Science Officer’ – ha! – and stood on the bridge in a stained old uniform, like everyone else playing the part of someone still serving a greater cause than ourselves. God damn it, but the shadow of five hundred years of Imperial rule hangs long, even long after its violent dissolution. Our Captain has, at least, removed the Imperial eagle from his peaked cap, and replaced it with the insignia of our ship, and our home; the Last On My List.

Look, we don’t name the ships ourselves, okay? And most of us who are just struggling through life in a fucked-up universe don’t exactly choose where we end up, either. So here I am, stood about with a dry mouth on the bridge of the Last On My List, with a bunch of other tired women and men, waiting to violently rupture geometry.

A front-row seat for when spacetime is cloven, and we see the nothing and everything that lies beyond. But this time when the slipstream window opens, something comes out.

Many things. Hundreds of things. Then thousands of-

Sharp intakes of breath across the bridge. My mouth goes drier. The Captain looks at me. His knuckles are white. “The hell is… those?” he barks. The words fall out like half-chewed bread.

My mouth is so dry I can barely speak. I masticate my jaw a few times, forcing moisture from salivary glands. In the time it takes me to do this, thousands more have emerged. We’re so far away, and the slipstream window is so large, that it looks as if they are spreading like fine dust in a soft breeze.

“Trouble?” I finally manage. I feel like a desiccated corpse.

I ate some extra hot noodles

A friend recently gave me a packet of extra spicy instant noodles. “They’re extremely hot,” he warned. I took his statement at face value; he’s not given to exaggeration.

He also showed me a huge bag of dried birds eye chillis. We were enthusing about Helsinki’s Chinese supermarkets; the largest of which I’m aware cluster in Hakaniemi, near the “hip” Kallio district and punky Sornainen. Many ingredients, spices, sauces, accoutrements and sundries can be found here which can’t really be found elsewhere: I was particularly pleased to find a variety of Thai vegetables (a Tom Yam soup and any of those incredible coconut milk-based curries aren’t really the same without them), huge quantities of frozen pre-made dumplings (including Japanese gyoza and Korean dim sum) and every known variant of Flying Goose-brand srichacha sauce (including Extra Garlic, which my partner swears by – she is not wrong).

After we announced our decision to move to Finland last year, more than a few friends and acquaintances warned us that Finns don’t really eat spicy food, and that we’d struggle to find a lot of cuisines and ingredients we like. There’s probably truth to this historically, and in some areas of the country, but in the centre of Helsinki at least it feels like nonsense. Take, for example, sushi, which has boomed in popularity in Helsinki in the past ten years, complete with fat dollops of sinus-clearing wasabi (most likely horseradish, but hush). Nepalese restaurants are a common sight, and although the typical level of heat is low for, say, British tastes, the standard range of dishes always includes something pleasantly spicy. There are a few small Thai restaurants, and one of them – Bangkok9, in the City Centre mall – is reliably packed throughout peak times. Your burger vendor of choice (Helsinki has many) probably offers pickled Jalapenos, habanero mayo or chipotle sauce with the pattie or on the side. There’s a small ramen chain called Momotoko that’s a lunchtime favourite, and their broths are always beautifully spiced with a good amount of chilli heat.

Weirdly enough, the only foodstuff we’ve really struggled to locate is cheap anchovies in oil – the kind you want to dissolve into a putanesca, or slow-roasted lamb. Well, that and Bisto.

The instant noodles my friend gave me were delicious. Chewy, fat rehydrated noodles in what I think is a Jjolmyeon style (I’m fairly ignorant about Korean food), stir fried in a viscous hot sauce and with roasted sesame seeds and laver (a kind of edible seaweed or algae). They were hot, and while I may regret eating them once the meal has moved through my digestive system they weren’t that hot. If you’re the kind of person who’s ever attended a chilli festival and spent a day trying samples of mind-blowingly hot chilli sauces, drinking beer to take the edge off and occasionally weeping because you misjudged a sauce, you’ll probably know what I mean. And even if this post isn’t the lulzy “man eats food that’s too hot for him” junk food I originally planned, it’s at least given me a chance to write a little about two things I love: hot food, and my adopted home city.

Dead Rising 4

Zombies! Tens of thousands of ’em! They’re all over the mall, shuffling about and eating people. And there you are, photojournalist Frank West or one of the less good protagonists, treating them like a minor inconvenience while you chase down the story.

I’ve got a lot of time for the Dead Rising series, all the way back to the 2006 original. Initially intrigued by the technology that could put hundreds of zombies on-screen simultaneously with – for the day – respectable 3D graphics and performance, I found myself won over by game design. Frank, you see, couldn’t be everywhere at once, and the Willamette mall was full of survivors who needed saving, psychopaths (…mmm) who needed stopping, and leads that needed following. The game forced decisions and sacrifice on you, and made it quite clear you couldn’t do everything.

Not the most popular design choice, if you listen to people who shouldn’t be allowed to have opinions. Waaah. I can’t do everything. Whatever. Dead Rising was an intense and memorable experience, one that actively rewarded repeat playthroughs, exploring different paths and routes and choices. It actively reinforced this approach through its meta-progression, with character levels and abilities carried over after death, if you opted to start the story again rather than load your last save. It’s a game about experimentation to learn your environment: where certain items can be found, good routes from A to B, what can be accomplished against the relentlessly ticking clock. Or, if you prefer, a game about ignoring that clock and just dicking around, smacking zombies with parasols and trying on stupid costumes.

The zombies were usually the most minor obstacle, particularly as your skillset expanded to include tricks like hopping on zombies’ heads to easily traverse a horde. They were much harder work when attempting to save or escort survivors, where you often needed to directly fight through a horde – or simply, as Rab Florence memorably put it in an old videoGaiden review, when you’re off doing your thing and you forgot about the zombies.

The series has watered down these elements over time. The focus has shifted further toward zombie-infested locations as toybox, supported with (fun!) additions such as the combination of scavenged objects to make outlandish weaponry. As the focus shifted it the importance of making meaningful decisions declined; there was less need to accept compromises or miss out, or to deeply learn and memorise environments or carefully plan routes. None of this is inherently bad. These are just different design choices. What is a shame is that they are all choices that move away from what makes Dead Rising still a largely unique videogame, and toward the convergence point of so-called “triple-A”* sandbox games.

Dead Rising 4, then. It’s full of collectibles: not just blueprints for combo weapons but also newspapers, podcasts, cloud uploads, cellphones, keys and so on. There’s a few hundred of the sodding things. It’s just shy of full Ubigame, mainly differing in that in order to identify everything on your map, you need to secure a safehouse, then grind out a bunch of randomly occurring survivor-rescue events. This sort of works, because within each of the game’s environments there’s some pleasure in learning them, but the game world is also made up of four not well-connected locations with a main story that awkwardly shuffles you between them. Alongside collectibles, then, there’s another sin of contemporary sandbox games: it is simply too big, meaning too much boring traversal, too much repeated busywork between locations, and insufficient opportunity or encouragement to learn the environments in an interesting way.

DR4 also dispenses with all the character progression elements of the first two games. If you die, you load from a checkpoint. That’s it. Enticement to replay the game only comes in the form of scooping up those collectibles. Yay. Great for the one-run-only crew, I guess. There’s a traditional character build tree rather than the old approach of receiving a random upgrade every level. It’s fine to take that route, but I felt a lot of the options weren’t very interesting, and there was never a sense that my decisions mattered much except where I chose an option that would speed up future progression.

There’s also now a health bar rather than health pips, which basically means you constantly lose health when in proximity to zombies, compared to the calculable neatness of the older system. Again, this is just different. I pay less attention to health as a result. It’s also easier to manage health now. Dead Rising 4, in general, is easier and more fluid to play than its predecessors. In usability terms it’s hugely improved. Health, throwable, melee and ranged weapons are mapped to the d-pad, and choosing the right tool for a situation is much easier than the panicked left-right taps through Dead Rising’s common inventory ever was.

There’s a compromise there, too. It’s an improvement in usability that I imagine also makes the game more accessible, which is a very important consideration. But there is also a loss inherent in it, because poor usability can, intentionally or not, contribute toward a game’s theme. The shift from clumsy tank controls in Resident Evil to the fluid over-the-shoulder action of Resident Evil 4 is perhaps the most famous example, showing how control and interaction can be an integral part in transitioning a sedately-paced and nail-biting horror series into a fluid, intense action series. Not ‘bad’. Not better, or worse. Just different.

But back to Dead Rising 4. Yeah, I enjoyed it, and played its lacklustre story through to the end. In some ways it’s more fun to play than what came before. But in so many others it’s content to imitate competitors in preference to building upon its forebears. And in so doing, it can’t help but lose parts of the identity that once made a Dead Rising game stand out.

A coda, of sorts: I think a lot of people were made very angry by Dead Rising 4 launching alongside a paid DLC that promises to finish the story. Yeah, the main game that you buy for £60 or whatever doesn’t do that. Except that it does, in the sense that you see protagonist Frank West falling into a horde of zombies with no chance of escape. Of course he could escape, but at this point I’m content just to look away and accept Frank is, finally, dead.


* If you don’t follow the games press, and I can hardly blame you as it’s often dreadful and at best myopic, this terminology is basically adopted from corporate publishers and means “we spent a lot of money on it”. Some chumps are now using the term “quadruple-A”, which basically means “we spent even more money on it”.

Galactic Patrol, E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith

I’m a fan of space opera. Have been since I was a starry-eyed teen reading whatever SF I could find in my local second-hand bookshops. This inevitably included Golden Age works – van Vogt, Asimov, Pohl, E.F. Russel and more – with yellowing pages and, at least in my memory, instantly recognisable covers, usually by Chris Foss. Often via the same shops I also read various works of ‘new space opera’: Banks, Hamilton, Greenland, Sheffield, MacLeod and many others.

Coming to both epochs of space opera mixed together in one great melange meant that I had little grasp of how the latter reacted to the former, refracted through the lens of the intervening New Wave and the differing politics of generations and cultures. To me it was all science fiction. Yet whilst I liked much of what I read I enjoyed the new space opera more. A personal reaction, of course, and one reflected on two decades later. I’m just laying the groundwork for a little context, because around that same time I read an E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith book and I thought it was shit.

‘Doc’ Smith is usually regarded as the granddaddy of space opera, and his influence on a lot of works I have loved shouldn’t be understated. I didn’t know this at the time, of course. I just thought that the book I read was terrible. The story as I poorly recall it began with a couple of male engineers and their girlfriends hopping in a spaceship to pursue adventure and science, and culminated with galaxy-smashing energies being flung back and forth in an absurd game of one-upmanship between protagonists and antagonists.

Since I moved to Finland I’ve gotten to know in person a friend I’ve known online for over fifteen years. We’ve spent a lot of time over the years enthusing and arguing about science fiction. A few months back we got onto the subject of the ‘Doc’, and he persuaded me to give Smith another go. He loaned me a familiarly yellowed Panther SF copy of Galactic Patrol, the first actual book in Smith’s most famous Lensman series.

I didn’t like it much.

I get its place in SF history. I truly do. There’s something admirable, in a manner of nostalgia for an era that passed long before my parents were born, in its romance of engineers cracking problems and saving the galaxy. There’s adventure by the plenty, and it’s entertaining enough and briskly told. The concept of the Lensman is one I can see repeated, reflected and re-imagined in scores of other stories. There are nice things you might say about Galactic Patrol, and ten times as many observations you might make about its influence.

In 2019, though, it’s a rather ridiculous novel.

In chapter one we encounter the concept of the Lensmen themselves: highly trained, rigorously conditioned, a million winnowed down to a hundred, all to find specimens who are physically and mentally adept to the most extreme degrees, and most importantly incorruptible. It’s a cute but fundamentally authoritarian moral fantasy, and a discomforting one in an era of militarised police, surging state violence, and the valorisation of the police and military in an era when the inherent institutional flaws of such organisations have never been more clear.

1937 isn’t 2019. Yeah, reader, I get it. Also, it’s a pulp: it’s an adventure story written for starry-eyed kids. But here I am, a grown man reading this in 2019. Honestly, the first thing that came to mind as I read that first chapter were the Judges of Mega City, the peacekeepers, judges, juries and executioners rolled into one, only in a significantly more dystopian and morally compromised context, and one where Judges routinely fail to adhere to similar high standards of incorruptibility. A satire of authoritarian moral fantasy.

There are plenty of other absurdities, all equally easy to wave aside as a product of time and place, but equally irritating. Technological development is a matter only of breaking open an idea; once devised or reverse-engineered, design and fabrication is a simple matter. Forgiveable in a book written before the invention of transistors, before electronic computers, when many complex machines still used primarily large, manually-machined parts? Maybe; I can’t judge that. But I can say this is less of an engineer’s fantasy than a fantasy of the obsolescence of the engineer, where concept transitions smoothly into mass fabrication without a hiccup. The starship as Spitfire or Hurricane, cobbled together out of scrap iron from the home front.

All bar one character is a man. That includes those who are physically described as inutterably alien; mentally, they comport themselves and speak of a muchness. Even those who communicate solely via thought do so in a chummy I-say what-what boy’s-own-adventure diction. (Of course, this can be explained away as the Lens of a Lensman translating into the wearer’s own diction and vernacular, although you see it too in the rare moments where a viewpoint character is not hero Kim Kinnison.)

One character is a woman. She is of course beautiful, and smart, and does her part with spirit when called upon. To describe her as flat is perhaps to misrepresent other characters in a story where all, really, are flat actors playing out their parts.

There’s of course a sexism – it’s a book written in 1937 by an American man – that pervades every moment where women are present or described and, too, the void of their absence othertimes, though when overt it passes beyond grating and into hilarity. With three quarters of the book behind us, the one female character is introduced and almost immediately Kim’s commanding officer and the doctor for whom she works as a nurse spend several pages yapping about the quality of her skeleton and how to best prevent her and Kim falling for each other, at least just yet – though in the future it would be good, actually, for really their stock ought not go to waste. Gross, hilarious, stupid, and probably one of the most entertaining moments in my reading experience.

There’s also a spectacular moment near the climax, which you might see as a non-reflexive example of the colonial attitudes of the book’s origins. Our dear hero Kim visits a planet where his comrades battle endlessly against drug manufacturers and runners, ending their lives for the crime of distributing drugs. Kim discovers that he can communicate with a local lifeform, and almost immediately conscripts it to assist him in his mission by getting it and a group of its fellows helplessly addicted to sugar. This is done with absolutely no sense of irony whatsoever. How’s that war on drugs going, Lensmen?

So, yeah: Galactic Patrol. Important piece of SF history. Amusing curio. Terrible in so, so many ways.

Vignette #8

Pressure.

It’s all that’s on Hal’s mind: pressure.

Millions of tonnes of water overhead constantly press down on the submersible. It’s built to an existing specification; a design iterated upon and propagated across human space decades before. What they call a standard template machine. Proven.

The raw materials that compose it were scraped together by the involuntary colonists from the scraps of the wreck and what few minerals their other haphazard equipment has been able to liberate from beneath the ice. But the fabricators took in what the colonists had, and what they output fell within all the standard minimum safety parameters for the planned depth.

The submersible’s cabin groans, terribly slow and even, as the beast’s tentacle tightens its grip. Someone whimpers. No one else hushes them, even as they all hold their breath.

Pressure.

Hal wishes the submersible had met more of the standard safety parameters. Although nothing is designed for this. Although none of the colonists now trapped with him in this tiny reinforced bubble of metal and glass expected to find something like this down here. Or, more exactly, to be found by it.

The tentacle – or perhaps the arm, if this creature has more in common with terrestrial cephalopods than superficial appearances – shifts again. Hal watches in appalled silence as hundreds of suckers pucker and undulate, rippling across the glass bubble of the submersible’s cockpit. In the gaps between its labyrinthine flesh there is only darkness.

Pressure.

They are going to die down here.

Vignette #7

The air stank of black powder, mud and the fear of men. Euron glanced up the line, toward the reassuring presence of their lightly armoured pikemen. Their long blades glinted as they turned, even in the wan sunlight that managed to penetrate the morning fog.

Euron felt an elbow in his ribs and turned. ‘Got tobacco?’ leered an ugly face, a vicious purple scar slicing through its beard.

‘Don’t be a fucking idiot, Var,’ replied. ‘You’ll blow your bloody hand off.’

Var leered at him again. ‘You can chew the shit, you know,’ he said, conversationally.

Euron looked out across the grasslands ahead, in no mood for conversation. The fog’s getting thicker, he thought to himself.

‘Powder check!’ barked a voice, its soft vowels quite unlike the dialect Euron and Var shared. They both cussed under their breaths as they knelt in the dew-sodden ground, and began the laborious process of checking their weapons for the third time since they had woken two hours earlier, in the glimmerings before sunrise.

‘Oh, fuck’s sake,’ Var said. Euron glanced over and frowned. Var was gently rubbing his fingers around a powder twist. The paper that held the black powder for their muskets moved badly beneath his ministrations, tearing with a wet rip.

‘Sodden,’ said Var, and launched into a low stream of invective as he cast it aside and reached for another twist.

Euron checked his own supplies. His heart sank: even before he pulled the first out he could tell that it, too, was soaked through, rendering the powder useless.

Distantly, but rapidly growing, Euron heard the thudding of hooves that indicated rapidly approaching cavalry. He stood and looked. He couldn’t see far enough ahead to see anything, but as he glanced left and right down the line of gunners he saw men with panicked eyes, men casting aside useless wads of black powder.

‘The fog’s not natural,’ he said. Even to him, his voice sounded weak and thin in the gloom. He shook his head. He could no longer see the pikemen. Where would the cavalry charge connect? What could he do, armed with little more than a useless musket?

‘The fog’s not natural,’ he said once more, and looked forward into the fog, and wondered if he would see death coming.

Outer Wilds

You always know that the end of a cycle is coming. First the music builds to an emotional climax. Then it eases through its diminuendo. And then there is a moment, like a sudden building of pressure in the inner ear, when sound seems to rush inwards. If you have a suitable vantage point you might see a star folding in on itself, like a crumpled piece of paper crushed into an ever-tighter ball. And then it explodes.

Knowing that the end of a cycle approaches can be a blessing. Perhaps you have found your way into some secret place, where you can use those precious fore-warned moments to hurriedly root out a few more pieces of the puzzle. Perhaps you’re in a location where you can learn simply by observing what happens right now, at this moment. Or perhaps you have no such pressing business, and this is simply a fine moment to climb to the nearest high point, look toward that dying star, and watch patiently as the fury of untold trillions of tonnes of ejected solar mass boils across space toward you, obliterating all in its path. It can be quite beautiful.

For a game that sees an entire solar system perish in violence and fire every twenty-one minutes, Outer Wilds is a remarkable relaxing experience.

It’s not without its stressful moments. It’s a game of exploration, and that means oftentimes you need to figure out how to get from A to B. Maybe there’s a seemingly obvious route, but for reasons you quickly discover it is not one that is open to you. Perhaps you need to think laterally, or some clue might be found elsewhere, nearby or in some other disparate place.

Most often these moments of stress come when you think you may have cracked one of these little mysteries. You’re deftly moving from A, eating up the distance to B. And then you hear that inward clap of a dying star, and hear the photons rushing past you, and you curse that you didn’t have just one more minute-

You might think moments of stress come when you simply can’t figure out how to get somewhere, or one of the game’s many other mysteries. This rarely happens. There is always something else to try, some other lead to follow, and nowhere takes that long to reach, even if it’s on the far side of the solar system. You will never have more than twenty-one minutes to get anywhere, after all. Sometimes it’s best just to look, and think.

Outer Wilds is a remarkably tight game and its half-dozen or so major destinations are peppered with locations and mysteries, secrets buried here and there and mazes turning in on themselves. The majority of these are interconnected, nodes within an intricate web that promises, once its structure is sufficiently clarified, to reveal the mysteries at the heart of this solar system.

Perhaps it delivers on that promise. I encourage you to take up the mantle of adventure. Explore Outer Wilds, and find out for yourself.