Tuesday, 24 December 2019

FAR: Lone Sails

It's cold outside, so let's warm myself up by playing FAR: Lone Sails, a melancholic indie game set in a frozen wilderness where you are a tiny solitary figure in a vast dead empty landscape learning to let go of the past as you propel yourself into an uncertain future.

It's the debut and so far only product of Swiss developers Okomotive. It began as the student project of a chap called Don Schmocker, who was studying at the University of Zurich at the time. Judging by the credits he managed to persuade the entire staff of the university plus the people of Zurich to help him.

The game was released commercially in 2018 to almost universally positive reviews. There was particular praise for Joel Schoch's soundtrack, which sounds a bit like Michael Nyman's music for Peter Greenaway. The soundtrack has saxophones going dah-dah-dah and pounding pianos. I first became aware of the game when portions of the soundtrack appeared in Low Light Mixes' Best of the Rest: 2018 mix, available here.

At times you have to get out of your land train and fiddle with things.

What's it like? It's an arty puzzle game with lovely music where you push a few blocks and do some simple jumping, along the lines of e.g. Journey or Gris, and it's sad because the world is sad, but happy because you are alive, but sad because you leave so much behind, but happy because there is hope for the future, but sad because you are just a stepping stone for the next generation, but happy because you are alive.

The game has a day-night cycle, but it's entirely scripted.

The game scrolls from left to right although everything is rendered in 3D. There's no dialogue and only the merest wisp of a storyline, told with background objects and music. As the game begins you're a little character standing at what appears to be the grave of what might be your father. The game has a digital art book that explains that your character is a little girl called Lone, so the name of the game is a pun, e.g. Lone sails.

What does she sail? She sails a land train called the Okomotive, perhaps built by what might have been her father. The first part of the game involves working out how to drive the Okomotive. You have to feed it with fuel, let off steam before the boiler overheats, and learn which obstacles can be smashed through and which require you to get out of the Okomotive and do something smart.

In the second part of the game you upgrade the Okomotive with new components, including a set of sails that propel you along when the wind is favourable. The third part of the game majors on button-pushing puzzles, although you also have to rotate some hamster wheels and operate a winch. There's an absolutely awesome bit that I won't spoil except to say that it involves an even larger land train, but it's sad at the same time, but happy. If only there was a word for something that's sad and happy at the same time. Sappy? Swellancholic?

Don't worry, they get out of the way.

The Okomotive is the second character in the game, and I was upset when... but I don't want to spoil it. I'm being vague here because each puzzle appears once and the gameplay arises from the surprise of working out what you have to do. Lone Sails is essentially a metaphor for life. The little girl is your soul; the Okomotive is your body. The Okomotive starts off small, but it gets bigger, and eventually it has a moment of triumph, a heyday, but then it starts to break down, and at the end it can't go on any more and the soul has to hop out and await rescue. I don't want to give away the ending, suffice it to say that it's bittersweet.

Bittersweet, that's the word. As with Journey and Gris, Lone Sails isn't just a set of events, it has an underlying theme, and that's what lifts it up. It's about letting go of the past and learning to live with mortality. It's not overly glurgy or sentimental and it deserved all the plaudits it got. I finished it in three hours, so it's basically like a film or a good album. A small seed that plants itself inside your head, a happy place that you can revisit later in life, at least until dementia robs you of your memories, as it will.

Unlike those two games there is room for a sequel. Ignoring the underlying storyline the simple act of working the Okomotive is fun. You develop a rhythm, and there's something cosy about one sequence where you shelter from a hailstorm under some awnings. It's a shame that the main character can't boil up some cocoa and have a nap. I liked the Okomotive, and it was sad when... no, again I don't want to give away the ending.

Oh, it's no use. I was terribly disappointed with the ending. You just break into the enemy base and press some buttons and then a cutscene plays. You never get to fight the Authority or learn what happened to the characters you left behind. Furthermore the final level gives you an unstoppable gun that kills everything with a couple of shots, so there's no challenge. I saved up all that ammo for nothing.

No, hang on. That's not Lone Sails, it's Id Software's disappointing 2011 shoot-and-drive-em-up Rage. It's easy to confuse the two games. Lone Sails is available for the PC, the Mac, the PS4, the XBox One, and the Nintendo Switch. It's not technically demanding and could probably have been ported for the PlayStation 3 and XBox 360 if the will had been there.

I played it on the PC; it froze a few times, but if I ran it outside Steam it worked perfectly, so the problem lies with Steam. Is it any good? Yes, but you have to manage your expectations. It's essentially a music video with a very simple storyline and a few easy puzzles. There are no branching paths and there's almost no replayability. Kids might be upset when parts of the Okomotive catch fire, and at one point you can actually die - the game handwaves it as a dream - but there's absolutely nothing controversial about it, the end.

No, not quite the end. Apropos of nothing, if you've just bought an ultrawide monitor Lone Sails would be a good way of showing it off, and it really is the end this time.

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

MRE Menu 23: Pizza Slice, Pepperoni

Let's have a look at MRE Menu 23: Pizza Slice, Pepperoni. It was introduced relatively recently, in 2018, because the scientists who develop MREs couldn't find a way to make pizza remain shelf-stable for five years without it going off or turning brown.

South is at the top

Because I'm a debonair international man of leisure I decided to test out the MRE in Hong Kong, specifically Lantau to the west of the main island, and so I transported an MRE from Britain to the Far East, because I had space in my bag, and why not?

Hong Kong has army surplus stores, but I have no idea if they sell American MREs. My hunch is that army surplus stores in Korea are full of them, Hong Kong not so much. Of course if you're camping in Hong Kong there are plenty of other options for food. Pocari Sweat and Pocky sticks, for example.

I drank the coffee after coming back to the UK - I didn't have a kettle in Hong Kong. It was Bill's Brew, and as with all the other MRE coffee I have tried it was "hard" rather than "smooth".

Hong Kong is famous for its skyscrapers but it has acres of relatively wild countryside as well. A lot of the islands were abandoned in the 1970s when the locals got sick of living in abject poverty. They moved to Kowloon or emigrated to Britain and beyond, and no-one moved in to replace them. You'd think someone would buy up all the real estate and build houses there, but they would just turn into empty ghost estates because the islands don't have an infrastructure or jobs. Perhaps the Chinese authorities could dump refugees onto Hong Kong's islands and just forget about them. If they thrive, tax them; if they die, the spiders will eat well.

Hong Kong's islands are a bit like those Scottish islands that go on the market every so often. The idea of owning an entire island for five million pounds is intriguing, but my hunch is that the novelty wears off, at which point you're stuck with an extremely illiquid asset.

For this post I attempted to hike from Shek Pik reservoir (pictured above) to an abandoned fort in Fan Lau, on the extreme south-west corner of Lantau, but incompetence and inexperience defeated me, so I gave up half-way there. My tip is that you if you plan to do some hiking in Hong Kong, don't do it on the first day after you arrive. Start early in the morning and rest during the middle of the day. I'll write about it at some point.

Fan Lau is off on the horizon to the left of the mountain over yonder in the hazy distance

I reached this beach, Kau Ling Chung, and decided to turn back because I ran out of water. OSMAnd correctly pointed out that there was a water source at the beach's campsite, but it was untreated spring water, and lacking any means of water purification I decided not to risk drinking it.

It looked clean, but a little voice in my head kept saying "you're in Hong Kong, you moron", and have you ever read about the Death Valley Germans? None of the decisions they made were especially awful, and they were reasonably intelligent, but they still died.

The beach itself has mixed reviews on the internet. The big problem is litter. When I was there it wasn't too bad, but it did feel a bit grotty so I didn't hang around.

The meal contains a slice of pizza, some cherry cobbler - e.g. cherry crumble, minus the crumble - plus a vegetable cracker, cheese spread with jalapeno flavouring, an oatmeal cookie, and a chocolate drink. The accessory packet had some gum that I munched on the walk back, and some coffee I drank at home. As I drank the coffee I wished I could go back to Hong Kong, but sadly I only have a limited amount of money so Hong Kong will have to do without my sweet love for a while.

Top YouTube MRE reviewer and general good guy Steve1989 has also reviewed this MRE. I generally agree with his conclusions although I wasn't as fond of the main meal as him. MREs are packaged by different companies and have minor variations - his was packaged by Ameriqual, mine by Wornick:

Whenever I look at MRE packaging I think of the Fallout games. Ameriqual presumably stands for "American Quality". It's one of those government contractors that exists and employs hundreds of people, but you've never heard of it.

Two hundred years after the bombs drop there will be a sidequest where you infiltrate AmeriQual's factory in search of preserved food, but there'll be a twist. The food will be made of people, or it'll make you turn pink, or it'll be full of amphetamines etc, nb I am not suggesting that the real AmeriQual adulterates its food. I'm digressing here. Let's try the chocolate drink. I've had it before.

I've never noticed the sugar grains before. You're supposed to add water and swish it around in the packet to mix it up, but it doesn't mix very well. Every time I've had one of these drinks the chocolate ends up in clumps. Perhaps it would mix better with warm water.

My impression is that MREs are generally thought of as not bad by actual soldiers. The early menus attracted a lot of criticism, and some of the later meals are infamous - the vegetable omelette and "four fingers of death" sausages in particular - but on the whole the only major gripe is that they're salty and monotonous. In the comfort of my own home MRE chocolate drink is fine, but in the humid, 30c environment of Lantau Island in October the sugary-sweet mixture was pretty revolting, so I had to wash it down with more water.

For this review I ate part of the meal, then walked on a bit, then ate more of the meal. Hong Kong has tonnes of enormous spiders and other creepy-crawlies, and eating food is awkward because as soon as you put something on a surface ants crawl all over it. There isn't much shade, and in any case I don't trust the trees because they harbour giant spiders. The trees have no mercy.

Next I tried the cherry cobbler. You're supposed to heat it up, but before coming to Hong Kong I opened up the MRE and took out the flameless ration heater. British Airways' guidelines (PDF) implicitly allow FRHs - they mention MREs by name, and forbid the use of FRHs in flight, which implies that they don't mind if you simply transport them by air - but I didn't want to risk it. However the cherry cobbler was just fine cold:

It looked like the aftermath of a shotgun blast to the face but tasted pretty good, and the moisture was nice. Unlike the chocolate drink it wasn't overpoweringly sweet. In my experience the fruit flavours in MREs are surprisingly subtle.

Let's try the main event. The pizza:

It was surprisingly small, although in its defence it was chunky. Was it any good? Erm. It was thick and doughy and very dry. Perhaps if I had used the flameless ration heater some of the grease would have moistened up the pizza base, but it tasted like doughy bread with pizza flavour on top. It didn't taste bad, it just didn't feel much like pizza. In the end I had a few bites and tossed it into the undergrowth, because it was just too dry. This was a common theme running through the bulk of the meal.

Next up, the oatmeal cookie:

It was a big cookie, slightly larger than the pizza slice. I debated whether I should press it a few times or go for a true neverclick run, but after waiting a few minutes there were no golden cookies so visions of Dragonflight click frenzies receded from my mind. Then it struck me that the heat must be getting to my mind. Cookie Clicker isn't real life, besides which it's not even the right type of cookie. It doesn't have bits of chocolate in it.

It was perfectly fine but again very dry and sugary so after a few bites I donated it to the local wildlife. I threw it into the undergrowth and then tried very hard not to look in case I saw a swarming mass of giant spiders tearing it apart. For some insects on Lantau the day I decided to try out an MRE may have been the difference between life and death; for me, it was Wednesday. I am worried that I will find out that sugary cookies and MRE pizza are lethal to wildlife and that by introducing foreign foods to Lantau Island I have destroyed the local ecosystem, but on the other hand the beach had lots of rubbish so I suspect Lantau has already been damaged beyond repair. Aren't we all, eh? Damaged beyond repair. We're all damaged beyond repair. You can't mend people.

Let's try the vegetable cracker. It doesn't sound very appealing. Vegetables are vegetables and crackers are crackers and never the twain shall meet:

At this point I was in no mood to eat a dry cracker, so I took a bite and then threw it away. It didn't taste of much at all. It was a slightly different design to the cracker in Steve1989's meal. His was designed to break into four fingers, mine was just a big cracker.

I kept the cheese spread for later, and after carefully packing the plastic wrappers into the MRE bag - take only photographs, leave only footprints - I staggered up a bunch of rocky steps and then walked back to the bus stop and went back to Tung Chung.

Tung Chung, which is essentially the gateway to Lantau - you get off the MTR and get on a bus to explore the rest of the island

I necked down some Pocari sweat and made my way back to Kowloon on the MTR. In the end I put the cheese spread over some McDonalds fries, thus making cheesy chips. When people ask me what I ate in Hong Kong I tell them I gorged on street food in between trips to La Vache, and I was treated to some home cooking from friends of mine in Fanling, but in reality it was McDonald's five times a day 24/7 because Hong Kong's Big Mac index is highly favourable. As long as you promise to keep quiet no-one need ever know. I wonder if there's a connection between my prodigious McDonald's intake and the difficulty I experienced hiking in what were pretty mild conditions. Surely not.

In summary MRE Menu 23 is disappointing. The cherry cobbler is nice. The cookie has nothing wrong with it, but it's just a big cookie. The vegetable crackers are bland, and the pizza itself is a thick doughy pizza-flavoured slab of bread with pizza topping. I think the problem is that pizza's appeal comes from the mixture of melted fat and melted cheese, but neither of those things can be preserved, so MRE Pizza is doomed to be a compromise.

Perhaps if they included a sachet of cheesy sauce that you could soak into the pizza to give it moisture it wouldn't be so bad. But they don't, so MRE pizza is essentially a novelty. It might be more palatable if you were in a cold weather climate - Norwegian MREs have had pizza for several years, and their pizza looks nicer - but not on Lantau island at the beginning of Hong Kong's autumn, the end.

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Kowloon Walled City Park

Let's visit the Kowloon Walled City Park, a small park in north-eastern Kowloon, Hong Kong. It's named after the Kowloon Walled City, a densely-populated city block that existed on the site until it was demolished in 1994. During the 1980s around 40,000 people lived there, in a thirteen-storey shanty town that had the footprint of a couple of football pitches.

The walled city was famous for its narrow alleys and its unusual political setup. In 1898 the British Empire took over Hong Kong's New Territories, but the walled city remained part of China. It was a little Chinese island within Britain's Hong Kong. The Chinese authorities pulled out after a year and the British never tried very hard to police it, so it became a magnet for ne'er-do-wells and businesses that wanted to avoid regulations. It also attracted refugees who were prepared to put up with tiny apartments and poor-quality infrastructure in exchange for cheaper rents than the rest of the Hong Kong. In the 1960s and 1970s the almost total lack of building regulations meant that it expanded upwards, leaving the lower levels shrouded in darkness.

The walled city is generally portrayed in documentaries as a sci-fi dystopia that resembled something from Judge Dredd or the Fallout games. I have no idea what it was like for the people who lived there. By the time I visited in late 2019 it was long-gone.

North-east Kowloon was originally under the flight path of Kai Tak airport, and until Kai Tak was closed in 1998 there were no high-rise buildings. The approach was such that pilots had to make a sharp right turn just before reaching Chequerboard Hill, which is slightly west of the walled city; they didn't go directly overhead, but planespotters brave enough to climb to the top of the city had a great view.

Of television antennas. Antennae. They had a great view of television antennae. Nowadays north-east Kowloon is covered in tower blocks - the former residents of the walled city had to go somewhere - so the park is a little low-rise island in a high-rise world.

The park from the north-east; many years ago there would have been a huge shanty town across the road.

The walled city of the modern popular imagination had a relatively brief history. The original late-1800s-early-1900s shanty town was demolished at the end of the 1930s, and after the Japanese beat away the British at the very end of 1941 the rubble was used to expand Kai Tak airport. In the 1950s thousands of refugees from the Communist regime moved to Hong Kong from mainland China, and in the post-war years the walled city again became a lawless, tax-free magnet for refugees, Triad gangsters, and unlicensed dentists. Mao's Communists continued to uphold China's claim on the walled city, although they didn't push the issue very hard. China's Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s sparked off another wave of refugees.

Such were the extreme living conditions that the walled city became infamous across the world as a hive of scum and villainy. This parliamentary debate from 1974, recorded in Hansard, captures some of the flavour of its reputation at the time:
"LORD KENET: ... Throughout the 6½ acres, the streets or alleys are nowhere more than 3 feet wide. Mostly they are 2 feet wide, in some places they are only 18 inches wide. This in itself is perhaps not too remarkable in an Asian slum, but what is remarkable about the Walled City of Kowloon is that the buildings standing on these 18 inch-wide alleys are 10, 11 and even 13 storeys high.
No wheeled vehicle can get in there - not a lorry, not a car or even a bicycle. Nothing can get in except a pedestrian. The alleyways are unpaved and of earth. Down the middle of each runs an open drain with the sewage running down it, because the site is on a slope; and in the sewage you see very large rats."
Lord Kenet went on to point out that the walled city was popular because average rents were one-third lower than the rest of the Hong Kong. He batted away the suggestion that rents in the rest of Hong Kong were too high, because as a British Lord the suggestion that rents should be made lower was anathema to him.

Hitomi Terasawa, you did a good job.

In 1984 the governments of Britain and China formalised the handover of Hong Kong. This sealed the walled city's fate. The British didn't want to hand over a slum and the Chinese authorities wanted nothing to do with it, so in 1991-1992 it was cleared out and in 1994 it was demolished. The people who lived there had no say in the matter. They might have resisted, but it would have been futile. The walled city wasn't large enough to sustain agriculture and even a small fire would have been disastrous.

A park was built in its place. Chris Patten officially opened it in December 1995. Did it smell? I have no idea. When I was there it didn't smell of anything. It's still hard to think of Chris Patten as a major world figure, but there you go.

When I think of the walled city I think of a maze of wonky corridors, lit by neon, but that version of the city only existed for a few decades. Until the 1960s the walled city was no more slummy than the shanty towns surrounding it; construction didn't really get out of hand until the 1970s. The Hong Kong police greatly reduced the power of the Triads in the 1970s, so by the 1980s its reputation as a cesspit was over-exaggerated. It turns out that all those Hong Kong action films of the 1980s and 1990s with Triad assassins dual-wielding pistols were fiction. The Killer was not an accurate picture of contemporary Hong Kong. I feel betrayed.

I'm not a local and I have no idea what modern-day residents of Hong Kong think of the place. British society exists to benefit landowners and landlords, and throughout British history there have been numerous waves of slum clearances. Every few years a generation of anonymous, voiceless poor people are made homeless, while their former homes are demolished in order to make room for exclusive properties aimed at the wealthy, and if the McMansions fail to sell they are subdivided into houses of multiple occupation. By this process a new set of slums are created.

In contrast the clearance of the walled city seems to have been relatively benign. The residents were offered compensation and were assigned new social houses managed by the Hong Kong authorities. Were they glad to leave? Here in the UK tower blocks tend to be associated with crime and decay, but residents who had been rehoused in tower blocks in the 1960s spoke highly of having plumbing, and heating, and not having to go outdoors to use the toilet. I can't even begin to understand England's history, I am completely out of my depth when it comes to Hong Kong.

What about the park? It has a couple of audio-visual displays that show some of the walled city's history, but this aspect is very low-key - it's more a functioning park than a monument. It has a pleasant bonsai display and in general it's a lovely place to relax. Location-wise it's set back a block from the main road, so it's not too noisy.

I went late in the afternoon and the people were greatly outnumbered by birds. The park also has a baseball court and a sports area off to one side. I saw a turtle and a woman performing tai chi. I photographed the turtle because it asked me to; I didn't photograph the woman because people aren't props.

The turtle.

There is a woman performing tai chi behind that tree.

They have spunk, the people of Hong Kong. They have spunk.

In the streets surrounding the park I saw a golden Range Rover:

It dawned on me that it probably wasn't a good idea to photograph golden Range Rovers in Hong Kong. That street - Hau Wong Road - was full of cars parking next to each other, so either the shopping was good or a bunch of gangsters were torturing someone to death in a back room somewhere, or perhaps it's just that parking is difficult in Kowloon.

Google Street View reveals that Hau Wong Road is always busy, so perhaps it was the shopping after all. Perhaps they just had nowhere to park. The nearest underpass was full of protest stickers:

"Wave upon wave of demented avengers march cheerfully out of obscurity into the dream"

How do you get to the walled city park? North-East Kowloon is an MTR desert where the underground line doesn't go. I popped along to Kowloon Tong MTR in north-central Kowloon and took the 22 bus to Kai Tak airport. The bus goes down Prince Edward Road, which passes the park.

There is a McDonalds a couple of roads along from Hau Wong Road. As mentioned elsewhere in this series of posts the Big Mac Index is very favourable in Hong Kong, so for the entirety of my trip I gorged on Big Macs, sometimes eating three or four in one sitting. It dawned on me that the more Big Macs I ate, the more money I would save, until perhaps I could pay for my trip to Hong Kong by eating Big Macs.

McDonalds does not serve beer in Hong Kong. The local speciality is an unbreaded chicken thigh burger called a GCB, which I think stands for "grilled chicken burger". It was vile. The mouthfeel was like eating internal organs. McDonalds serves breakfast all day long in Hong Kong, but that's probably because Hong Kong is a very busy place, and for people who work the night shift the afternoon is the morning, the end.