The “Better Times” Paradox – A Ramble

2023 Artwork Better times paradox article title sketch

Well, I was in the mood for talking about paradoxes and nostalgia today. This was something I ended up thinking about in mid-late November last year when I suddenly found myself feeling really nostalgic for parts of autumn 2019. Whether it was the intense optimism I had about the future, my emotions at the time or even things like the computer games I was playing and the music I was listening to, it felt nostalgic. It felt like a really cool and significant part of my past.

In comparison, I felt slightly gloomy about the present moment. I briefly wondered if it was possible to somehow re-create the general mood/context I was getting nostalgic about, but then I realised that I couldn’t… because my current life is better than my life back then was. I know more than I did then, I have better games/music than I had back then and a lot of more subtle things about my life are objectively better than they were back then.

It was then that I realised that part of the reason why this part of the past felt so “nostalgic” was because it happened shortly after two stressful things had concluded shortly before then. It was a euphoric time in my past because of stressful stuff, or rather the relief from stressful stuff going away. In contrast, whilst 2022 certainly had stressful moments for me, the year overall was still better than 2019 was in this regard. Yet, it was 2019 that I was getting so incredibly nostalgic about.

Getting nostalgic about objectively “worse” times or things is one of the more interesting parts of human nature. If seen completely “logically” or “objectively”, it makes literally no sense whatsoever. Yet, I’m sure that I’m far from the only person to have experienced anything like this. There’s obviously a good reason for it.

Even on a more collective level, you can see it in how people get “nostalgic” for scratchy, flimsy and not very durable vinyl records. In how things like 1940s/50s nostalgia are something of an undercurrent in parts of British culture. In how some gamers – myself included – will gleefully choose older or more low-budget games over the latest hyper-realistic “AAA” games. I could go on for a long time, but it’s fascinating how “better times” often include “worse” stuff.

And, naturally, I wondered why? And here are some possible reasons for this fascinating paradox.

First of all, there is memory itself. When you look back on “better times” – which were actually worse than right now – you will probably remember them (or the emotions of them) in the way you experienced them back then. Back then, you knew less and had experienced less. Things in general were probably a bit less advanced too. In other words, your standards were probably a bit lower. It was easier for things to astonish, amaze and enthral you. Even things which seem “ordinary” these days probably seemed new and exciting, or even wonderfully futuristic, back then. And you’re probably remembering these reactions.

Not only that, there’s also the whole “rose-tinted memories” thing as well. You’re more likely to remember or focus on the good parts of a particular time than you are to focus on the bad parts. Not only that, when you remember the past, you might also forget about the limitations of the time and just sort of subtly assume that any “upgrades” your life has had since then were also around back then too. This is difficult to describe, but the basic point is that – whilst the basic facts might be the same – your memories might be distorted in subtle ways which makes them “better than real life”.

Secondly, there is something oddly endearing about “roughness”. About people doing cool stuff despite limitations. The creativity and enthusiasm of it has a quality which can’t easily be replicated with “better stuff”. It’s why the original 1970s-80s versions of the first three “Star Wars” films have more personality and immersion to them than the late 1990s-mid 2000s prequel trilogy does, despite the latter having a larger budget and much more advanced special effects. There’s something about people creating a dramatic sci-fi movie just using “worse” things like practical effects that lends the older films an incredibly endearing quality.

It’s like how, in the days before the internet became omnipresent, learning stuff felt more like an achievement because you had to put more effort into researching it. It’s like how, before music streaming and digital distribution seriously took off, finding an amazing album on CD or cassette meant more because you had to actively search for it and probably didn’t have as much other stuff to listen to. Limitations and adversity can make good things seem even more impressive in comparison.

Thirdly, there’s probably something of the “hedonic treadmill” to all of this. This is just a fancy way of saying that almost anything can become “ordinary” or “mundane” after a while. For example, in late 2018, I upgraded from a really old computer to a mildly old one. For at least the first year or so, my “new” computer felt incredibly “futuristic” and powerful. But, at the time of writing, in autumn 2022, it just feels normal. It feels like the kind of functional, reliable everyday thing that my really old computer felt like before I upgraded. It’s cool, but it’s ordinary.

And the same is probably true for many of the other improvements in your life that have happened since the “better times” you are getting nostalgic about. You were less used to various good things back then, things you consider “ordinary” these days had more novelty value back then etc… Of course, you can remedy all of this to some extent with practices like “gratitude journalling” or just taking the time to appreciate your life right now. Even so, any improvements probably won’t have quite the same “WOW!” factor that they did when they were completely new.

Finally, these feelings can just sometimes be criticisms of the modern world in disguise. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to criticise about the modern world…. but that was probably also true during the times you are getting nostalgic about too. I mean, I remember when I had my first moments of serious “early-mid 2000s nostalgia” a few years ago. This really astonished me because I still just about remembered how cynical I was about the “modern world” of the time back then. Criticising the modern world is nothing new, and it probably happened during “better times” too.

So, yes, getting nostalgic about “better times” which were actually objectively worse can happen for all sorts of reasons. Still, it’s an interesting paradox. Especially since – several years into the future – you’ll probably be feeling exactly the same way about right now as you are currently feeling about the past.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚

Three Non-Horror “Fixed Camera” Games From 1997-2000

2023 Artwork Non-horror fixed camera games article sketch

Well, for this stand-alone article in my “Horror Videogames Series“, I thought that I’d talk about… non-horror games? Yes, seriously. Trust me, there’s a good reason for this that I’ll mention in the later parts of the article.

During the mid-late 1990s and very early 2000s, there were at least three non-horror games which used a camera/control scheme that was much more commonly associated with classic survival horror games. I’m not an expert on any of these three games, but I have technically played at least a small amount of each.

Two of these were tie-in games, based on PG-rated sci-fi films, namely “Men In Black: The Game” (1997) and “Star Trek: Hidden Evil” (1999). The other game was a spy thriller game from 2000 called “Chase The Express” (titled “Covert Ops: Nuclear Dawn” in the US).

Yes, “Dino Crisis 2” (2000) was technically an action game rather than a horror game but, since it comes from a franchise that began with a survival horror game, I’ve decided to leave it off of this list. Still, let’s look at the three games.

Although I have vague memories of playing the demo version of “Men In Black: The Game” (1997) during my childhood, and the few reviews of it I’ve seen since haven’t exactly been complimentary, I did actually manage to get a CD-ROM copy of the full version from a charity shop during the mid-late 2000s. I think I bought it for the sake of nostalgia, but didn’t get round to playing it back then.

Unfortunately, when I found it again and tried to play it on a modern computer before writing this article, it glitched out pretty badly. Even experimenting with dgVoodoo2 (unofficial DirectX drivers for older games) didn’t really seem to help:

Glitched-out screenshot from ''Men In Black - The Game'' (1997)

This is a screenshot of what happened when I tried to run a CD-ROM copy of “Men In Black: The Game” (1997) on Windows 10. Needless to say, Will Smith’s character isn’t meant to be psychedelic, he isn’t meant to be clipping through a wall and the lighting in this hallway is also meant to be a bit softer too.

From footage online, it seems to follow the basic template of a classic survival horror game – puzzles and action – but with a goofier sense of humour and without any serious horror elements. It also seems to be a very short game as well, although this was also true of some classic survival horror games too.

The same seems to be true for “Star Trek: Hidden Evil” (1999) too. This game actually got a modern digital re-release and at least one or two of the reviews on the site I bought it from mentioned the length.

Based on the 1998 film “Star Trek: Insurrection”, this game actually captures the atmosphere of the series surprisingly well – with familiar characters, tricorders, phasers etc… But it tells a side-story focusing on a character called Ensign Sovok.

Gameplay screenshot from ''Star Trek - Hidden Evil'' (1999)

This is a screenshot from “Star Trek: Hidden Evil” (1999), showing Ensign Sovok taking a Tricorder reading. The pre-rendered backgrounds in this game, at least in the early parts I’ve played so far, are absolutely stellar!

Again, it is very much an action/puzzle game. There’s a – slightly awkward – auto-aim system and, so far, the puzzles have been challenging enough to require thought but not difficult enough to send me running for a walkthrough.

Still, within just twenty minutes or so, I encountered at least two hilarious glitches (getting stuck in an invisible box, and being killed by monsters during a cutscene… which just carried on regardless). Even so, the atmosphere is really cool and it’s fascinating to see a “Star Trek” game in THIS style πŸ™‚

However, apart from playing part of “Chase The Express” (2000) on a friend’s PS1 during my early teens, I don’t know a huge amount about it. From what I can remember, it’s a spy thriller/action game set on a train, where you play as a secret agent or commando of some kind.

From footage I’ve seen on Youtube, the game not only seems to be at least somewhat longer than the other two, but it also uses fully 3D environments instead of pre-rendered 2D backgrounds as well. Like in the legendary survival horror game “Silent Hill”Β  (1999), this allows for more fluid camera movements rather than just abrupt background changes, albeit at the cost of graphical quality.

From clicking through the footage, the game also seems to be as much – or more – about exploration and puzzle-solving than it is about fighting. Again though, I don’t know a huge amount about this game.

Anyway, why have I been talking about three non-horror games?

Well, it’s because all three games appeared in a really interesting time in the history of videogames. Classic “point and click” adventure games – which also use fixed camera angles – were beginning to decline in popularity by the end of the 1990s. Meanwhile, following the release of the classic “fixed camera” survival horror game “Resident Evil” in 1996, developers were starting to get more interested in this style.

Whilst “Resident Evil” (1996) wasn’t the first survival horror game to use fixed camera angles – that honour probably goes to “Alone In The Dark” (1992) – it did a lot to popularise the genre.

Whilst this led to other survival horror franchises appearing during the few years afterwards, it’s also fascinating to see how developers of non-horror games obviously found the style worth using in their games back then too. And, to be fair, it does look very cinematic and – with 2D pre-rendered backgrounds – it also allows for great graphics on limited hardware too.

Most of all though, it speaks to a time when “fixed camera” survival horror games – almost solely thanks to “Resident Evil” (1996) – were cool and trendy enough that developers outside of the horror genre actually took inspiration from them. And this is pretty amazing πŸ™‚

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚

Review: “Bioshock Infinite – Burial At Sea” (Parts 1 & 2) (DLC for “Bioshock Infinite”)

2023 Artwork Bioshock infinite burial at sea review sketch

Well, since I got a discounted DRM-free version of the “complete edition” of “Bioshock Infinite” (2013) from GOG a while ago, I thought that I’d also take a look at it’s two-part DLC “Burial At Sea” (2013-14) today. From what I can gather, both “episodes” either were or are sold separately elsewhere but I’ll be covering both of them in this review.

I remember seeing trailers for “Burial At Sea” on the internet back in the day, and it looked ridiculously cool – literally a sci-fi “film noir” game with lots of neon lights and stuff like that. Thinking more, one of the many reasons why I eventually got the main game was probably to play this DLC. It looked that cool.

It’s well worth completing the main game before playing “Burial At Sea” though. Likewise, whilst it includes an optional recap of the events of “Bioshock” (2007), it’s well worth actually playing that game as well beforehand in order to get the most out of this DLC. It may look like a stand-alone story at first glance, but it won’t really fully make sense if you haven’t played these two games first.

So, let’s take a look at both parts of “Bioshock Infinite – Burial At Sea”. This review may contain SPOILERS. The game itself contains some FLASHING/FLICKERING LIGHTS, but I don’t know whether they are intense enough to be an issue or not.

Bioshock Infinite - Burial At Sea (2013-14) - Title

The game begins on the 31st December 1958, in the underwater city of Rapture.

Grizzled private investigator Booker DeWitt has a new client, a mysterious lady called Elizabeth who wants his help searching for a young girl called Sally who has gone missing…

Bioshock Infinite - Burial At Sea (2013-14) - Case

Yes, it’s a sci-fi film noir πŸ™‚ Seriously, the opening scene even reminded me a little of “Blade Runner” (1982) during a couple of moments πŸ™‚

One of the first things that I will say about this two-part DLC is that it is brilliantly creative and much closer to the original “Bioshock” (2007) in style than it is to “Bioshock Infinite” (2013) πŸ™‚ Whilst the story is as excellent as ever, this add-on actually places a bit more emphasis on complex gameplay than “Bioshock Infinite” did. Not only is it a cool prequel to “Bioshock”, but it is also just excellently creative too.

Not only does this DLC let you carry more than just two weapons (you can select the others from a weapon wheel) but you’re also – at least in the second part – actually able to choose when to use healing items too. Whilst the checkpoint saving remains, the general difficulty level and style of the game is a lot closer to the original “Bioshock” – with ammunition being a bit more scarce and enemies being a bit more powerful.

Bioshock Infinite - Burial At Sea (2013-14) - Fontaine's

Seriously, I have three bullets at the beginning of this level and everywhere looks eerie too! Ha! THIS is Bioshock… Infinite?!?!

The first part is – for the most part – almost like an expansion to the original “Bioshock” πŸ™‚ Leaving aside the brilliantly atmospheric introductory level, you’ll be spending most of it in a creepy abandoned building fighting splicers. It’s maybe equivalent to 2-3 levels from the original game but, if you’re a fan of that, then you’ll probably enjoy part one a lot. There’s also a new weapon as well – a 1950s-style microwave gun that can make splicers explode.

The second part – where you play as Elizabeth – shakes things up by adding some limited stealth elements and a very simple “lockpicking” mini-game. Whilst it isn’t exactly a “run and hide” survival horror game, and you can use weapons (including a new tranquiliser gun), you are heavily encouraged to play in a sneakier way. Weapons and ammunition are even more limited – and Elizabeth doesn’t have a “shield” bar – so direct confrontations are often a bad idea.

Bioshock Infinite - Burial At Sea (2013-14) - Through walls

Again, part two is still an action game – but it’s a more suspenseful one that requires you to use tactics and/or sneak about a lot more.

This adds a bit more suspense to part two and gives it a slightly different atmosphere, which keeps things fresh and interesting. Yet, you’re given just enough tools to defend yourself and plenty of options, so it feels a bit more like a proper “immersive sim” game too. Seriously, I even beat some parts of it by just running past all of the splicers and/or henchmen rather than sneaking around.

The level design in both parts also feels a lot more non-linear than “Bioshock Infnite” (2013) too πŸ™‚ With both parts sometimes including hub areas that you have to return to between objectives, and more optional side-areas that you can search for resources. Plus, it also re-uses very little from the original game. Seriously, aside from one relatively brief segment of episode two, its basically an entirely new game πŸ™‚ THIS is what DLC should be!

Bioshock Infinite - Burial At Sea (2013-14) - Rapture plaza

Seriously, it’s so cool to see even more of Rapture – especially before it turned into a “zombie apocalypse” kind of place….

Interestingly, both parts begin with a “walking simulator” type segment. Whilst this might sound boring on paper, the visual design and atmosphere do a lot here. Whether it is actually being able to explore the art deco streets of Rapture before everything went to hell – seeing this dystopian city in its prime – or the excellent dream/nightmare sequence at the beginning of part two, both parts take a little while to get into the gameplay but still manage to astonish you with atmosphere and excellent art design.

As hinted earlier, the story of “Burial At Sea” is absolutely stellar. As you would perhaps expect from a “film noir”, it tells a dark and gritty story. There’s a “film noir”-style web of criminal intrigue here too – with the characters often finding themselves working for different people, some of whom have different goals. A lot of familiar faces from the original “Bioshock” (2007) also show up as well πŸ™‚

Bioshock Infinite - Burial At Sea (2013-14) - Circus of Values

Welcome to the Circus of Values!” Oh, how I’ve missed you, creepy mechanical clown πŸ™‚

There are the brilliantly brain-twisting sci-fi elements from “Bioshock Infinite” (2013), but – this time – they are actually paired with some “Bioshock” (2007) style horror elements πŸ™‚ Seriously, THIS is a “Bioshock” game πŸ™‚

Plus, being a prequel to “Bioshock” (2007) and a sequel to “Bioshock Infinite” (2013), it also adds a bit to the backstories of both games – and actually connects them a bit more – as well. Again, if you’ve played both, then you’ll seriously appreciate all of this stuff – but it might be confusing if you haven’t.

As for length, it’s an expansion. Together, the two parts maybe took me about 5-6 hours to complete. They felt substantial enough to be satisfying, but this is definitely an expansion rather than a full game. Still, it is very much a case of “quality over quantity”. There’s very little filler here.

All in all, whilst I loved the original “Bioshock Infinite” (2013) for it’s amazing story, this two-part add-on excels in terms of both story and gameplay πŸ™‚ Add to this some seriously cool visual design and “film noir” elements and it is well worth playing if you are a fan of the “Bioshock” games πŸ™‚

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it might just get a five.

Why Metal Bands Write Lengthy “Epic” Songs

2023 Artwork Epic metal songs

Well, I thought that I’d talk briefly about heavy metal music today πŸ™‚ In particular, some theories about why metal bands will sometimes release long “epic” songs which can easily be seven minutes or more in length.

This was something I ended up thinking about after discovering DragonForce’s excellent 2017 song “The Edge Of The World“. It’s eleven minutes of dramatic, epic metal which sits somewhere between the power metal and traditional metal genres.

Though, of course this is hardly the only example of an epic metal song. Whether it is Nightwish’s “Song Of Myself” (2011) – a thirteen and a half minute symphonic metal ode to the poet Walt Whitman. Whether it is Aether Realm’s 2017 song “The Sun, The Moon, The Stars” – an almost twenty-minute folk metal/melodic death metal tale of someone who leaves to go on an epic quest but ends up missing what they have left.

Whether it is Helloween’s power metal song “Keeper Of The Seven Keys” (1988) – another fantasy genre epic. Whether it is Tool’s 2020 alternative metal song “Descending”, a song about survival. Whether it is the comparatively short, yet no less epic, eight and a half minute long sci-fi/fantasy song “The Wind That Shapes The Land” (2020) by Unleash The Archers. I could go on for quite a while…

The band that is perhaps most famous for these long epic songs is the legendary heavy metal band Iron Maiden πŸ™‚ Starting with either “Phantom Of The Opera” in 1980 or “Rime Of The Ancient Mariner” in 1984, they have dabbled with epic songs in the decades since – to the point that they have gradually become a fixture of their albums since maybe the late 1990s or so.

In 2015, Iron Maiden released the longest of these epics – “Empire Of The Clouds” – a nineteen minute song about the R101 airship disaster in 1930. Their latest studio album, “Senjutsu” (2021), contains more epics than shorter songs.

But why do metal bands release these incredibly long songs?

There are probably a lot of reasons for it but here are my theories about it. First of all, unlike pop music, hip-hop etc… heavy metal music isn’t really a mainstream genre these days. In other words, there isn’t really the need for short 3-4 minute singles that can easily fit into radio station playlists. Yes, metal bands will often write shorter songs too but there isn’t quite the same imperative to release short radio-friendly singles, because mainstream radio doesn’t really play metal.

Because metal bands these days make music for a dedicated fanbase, rather than a general mainstream audience, there’s a lot more room for experimentation and creative freedom. So, if a song needs to be seven minutes or longer, then it can be. Fans of the band are probably still going to enjoy it and buy the song or the album anyway. Because, well, metal is a genre that you either absolutely love or absolutely hate.

Following on from this, metal music can often be about a much wider range of subjects than mainstream music. The epics I’ve mentioned tell stories about historical events, they explore classic poetry (eg: Whitman, Coleridge etc…), they explore complex emotions in depth, they tell dramatic sci-fi/fantasy stories etc… These are sometimes things which can’t be quickly summed up in just 3-4 minutes without losing something.

Not only that, thanks to digital music, it’s easier than ever for metal bands to release epics these days. Yes, epics have certainly appeared on physical media – and Iron Maiden’s two most recent studio albums actually span two CDs each – but the lack of a hard physical time limit on digital music probably makes it easier for bands to release epics. Traditionally though, metal bands only had maybe one or two epics on an album for time/space reasons. Still, this often allowed for dramatic placement – such as using an epic to either open or conclude an album in a spectacular way.

Then there’s the fact that epic songs allow for an amazing amount of musical variety. Going back to Dragonforce’s “The Edge Of The World” (2017), this song is basically like an entire album compressed into just eleven minutes of music. There are melancholy quiet parts, there are more traditional power metal parts, there are some slower 1980s-style guitar parts (which reminded me a little of Iron Maiden) and there are even some growled death metal-type vocals at one point. There is a ton of stuff in just this one song. Again, it’s like an entire album compressed into one song. This is really cool πŸ™‚

Plus, of course, classical music is famous for long epic pieces. Symphonies and stuff like that. It’s kind of a clichΓ© to call metal “the new classical music” and this probably also only applies to the more melodic types of metal (eg: symphonic metal, power metal, traditional metal, melodic death metal etc...).

Still, although I’m not a musicologist, these types of metal are often a lot more complex than just a small number of chords or a repetitive beat or anything like that. Not to mention that metal cover versions of classical pieces (especially from Bach, Beethoven etc..) can just basically sound like… well… metal. The two genres do have some stuff in common with each other, and longer songs might be part of this.

Still, most of all, heavy metal bands release epic songs because they feel like it. Because the song needs to be the length it is. Because, sometimes, quality and quantity don’t have to be mutually-exclusive.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚

One Person’s “Normal”… – A Ramble

2023 Artwork One person's normal article title sketch

Well, I thought that I’d talk briefly about “normality” today. This was something I ended up thinking about after watching a random Youtube video about a guy who decided to try using a traditional notepad instead of a smartphone.

The video made it sound really dramatic and cool – with the video’s presenter talking about how it allowed for more “organic thinking” and less distractions. But then I realised that, honestly, I already have that. Whilst I use desktop computers and I used old Nokia phones for parts of the 2000s/early 2010s, I never really entered the smartphone age. I still write notes on little pieces of paper, write stuff in notebooks/ journals and stuff like that. All of these wonderful qualities he was describing so enthusiastically were just… normal… to me. Ordinary, humdrum, mundane, the way of the world.

Some of the comments below the video mentioned people who had become unused to writing things by hand too. Again, this seemed strange to me. After literal decades of daily practice, my “everyday” handwriting… is a fast borderline-illegible scrawl which only I seem to be able to decipher (seriously, it took me until my early twenties before I could type as quickly as I could write. And, yes, I’m left-handed).

It’s just an… ordinary… thing. Part of everyday life. A quick way of recording information or noting down ideas, thoughts, introspection, experiences etc… Sometimes I’ll type a more legible copy (usually in, ironically, Windows’ “Notepad” or an old version of WordPad) but, since I’m the only one who usually reads it, my usual high-speed illegible handwriting isn’t really a problem:

Illegible handwriting example (from 3rd November 2022)

This is an example of my almost-illegible “everyday” handwriting. Yes, I can make it more legible if I write slowly, plus I’ll usually use block capitals whenever I make comics too. Still, this is what my writing usually looks like. And if anyone is curious what this says, it was a description of the mood/atmosphere of playing the computer game “Bioshock” (2007) on a gloomy, rainy evening the previous day (in early November last year). The “timeless” atmosphere, the music I listened to afterwards, the noise of the pouring rain and the contrast between the warm light inside the house and the dark blue sky outside the window which felt like I was – like in the game – living underwater. It was a really beautiful moment!

Still, it was strange to realise that this thing I see as completely, but never quite boringly, normal thing was being touted as some kind of mental tonic for the digital age. Some revolutionary “This will improve your life!” type of thing. When, again, it’s just normal to me. Like anyone, I have good and bad moods, I still get distracted by things and, sometimes, my ordinary “organic thoughts” can be as annoying as they are amazing. Again, it’s all just kind of… ordinary.

But it clearly isn’t for many people, and this felt deeply strange. And this reminded me of something about normality – it’s all relative. Your “normal” might be someone else’s “weird” and vice-versa.

Because there are clearly people out there who don’t think in the way that I do – for whom so-called “organic thinking” is a strange, refreshing novelty. Who are constantly at the whim of notifications and bleeps and bloops, and who have adapted to this and probably just see it as perfectly ordinary. Who always have the internet with them at literally every moment, and find this to be not only normal but also deeply reassuring too (though to be fair, I usually spend quite a few hours online every day – albeit on a desktop – so I can totally see the appeal).

To them, I would be the “weird” one. An “eccentric”, a “throwback” or whatever. Again, normality is a surprisingly relative thing. Two people can have drastically different definitions of the same word, a word which literally refers to what is usual, commonplace and ordinary.

Which, when you actually think about it, is a hilariously weird paradox. Which, itself, is normal (seriously, there are a lot of paradoxes, contradictions and inconsistences in the world). And so on and so on.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting πŸ™‚