Here Are Some Games I’ve Been Playing Recently (The Beginner’s Guide, Grow Home, Bloodborne, ねこあつめ)

Hello, it’s been a long time, hasn’t it? I’ve been busy. I’m sure you’ve been busy too. Let’s not dwell on it. Instead, I want to tell you a little about some interesting games I’ve been playing recently:

The Beginner’s Guide:


Like everyone else on the internet, I’m not going to tell you too much about The Beginner’s Guide before you play. It’s one of those games where you should go in blind. But some basic facts first: The Beginner’s Guide is the second game from one of the creators of the very funny, very intelligent The Stanley Parable. It’s similar in some ways but wholly different in a hell of a lot more. Like The Stanley Parable it involves walking around 3D levels and listening to a man talk. Like The Stanley Parable it’s largely concerned with examining the way games are made, and our relationship with them as players. But where The Stanley Parable is cuttingly funny and satirical, The Beginner’s Guide is just cutting.

In a little more depth: The Beginner’s Guide is a look at the psychology of making games (or more accurately I guess – making any art), and how that process both takes input from the lives, minds, and hidden anxieties of creators,  as well as having its own powerful effect on those lives, minds, and anxieties. But it’s also about the psychology of how we absorb games (or, again, any art), and the ways we extract meaning(s) from them.

It’s an incredibly personal game – at times punch-to-the-gut personal, and, speaking as someone who both (a) makes things, and (b) has plenty of those juicy hidden anxieties (both to do with making games/art, and to do with other things entirely that aren’t relevant and stop trying to guess what they are).  It’s conflicted and it will be kind of painful to play if it happens to latch onto anything about your personality that you feel conflicted and kind of painful about. If you’re a person who makes things it almost certainly will find something to latch onto, and if you’re not probably will anyway. And if that all sounds like a load of pretentious wank to you then my response is as follows:    :((((

It’s available on the PC and will take you about 80 or so minutes to play all the way through. There is one small puzzle. Go out and play it now.

Grow Home:


Let’s move onto a different kind of game entirely – one perplexingly devoid of such standard videogame fare as ’emotional isolation’ and ‘knife-sharp anxiety’. Grow Home is a lovely little game about being a robot that climbs up a giant plant and helps it to grow so high it reaches up into SPACE.

There’s a joy to the way your little robot (called B.U.D.) moves around in response to your inputs. It’s strange and slightly janky; like one of those great babies that doesn’t quite know what it’s doing and should by all rights topple over at any moment. But in a way that somehow never negatively impacts your ability to fluidly make your way around the world.

And really, there’s a joy to pretty much everything about this game. Climbing up rock walls and giant plant stems feels lovely and sticky, especially when you look down and see the curvature of the earth as the sun sets in the distance what feels like miles and miles below. Causing a giant bud to bloom, and then riding it as it suddenly begins to grow hundreds of feet into the sky. The way your A.I. helper M.O.M. seems genuinely proud of you in the charming way a mother feels proud of their baby for just generally being an all-round great baby.

Later on you can find a giant flower that serves as a parachute and a giant leaf you can use as a genuinely-thrilling paraglider. And after that I don’t feel like I need to say anything else to recommend this game.



I finally caved and bought a PS4, mostly just for this game. For everyone who doesn’t know, Bloodborne is a kind of spiritual successor to the Souls games (Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, and Dark Souls 2), with less of an emphasis on slow, careful prodding away at terrifying unknowns and more of an emphasis on fast, violent prodding away at terrifying unknowns. Set in the town of Yharnam, where a disease infects the blood and turns people into beasts (read: kind of werewolves, but not really), and hunters attempt to keep the infection in check, its desperate animalism is a stark departure from the dignified, decaying fantasy worlds of the previous Souls games.

I was a real shield-and-spear man in the Souls game. For me it was all about edging forward, making safe, sound judgements, and never, ever overstretching myself. Whenever I tried to play those games in a more aggressive style I found it almost impossible to get used to. But Bloodborne is built from the ground up to make you aggressive. Everything from the blood-rich setting to the inventive combat mechanics, to the game’s overbearing themes (the themes, at least early on are ‘blood’, ‘blood-induced frenzy’, and ‘isn’t everything a bit fucked, I wonder why that is (the answer is ‘blood’)?’).

It’s a staggeringly well-polished game. And everything fits together so well to hammer home this animalistic, transgressive atmosphere that constantly claws away at the back of your mind, not feeling quite right. And then you get halfway through the game and it just opens up and completely changes. I won’t say anything else about what happens, or where the game goes, but it’s unexpected and pleasingly jarring. One or two slightly rubbish bosses aside (as well as the optional semi-procedurally-generated dungeons, which are not particularly interesting), it’s been 22 hours of absolute love so far.

It’s difficult, yes, but (a) but the difficulty has always been the least interesting interesting thing about the Souls games, and (b) once you understand how the game wants you to play, it’s not really that difficult. And it’s a great place to start playing Souls games (the Souls series being, in my mind, easily the most interesting games series ever), but only if you have a PS4. :(



ねこあつめ (translation: Cat Collecting) is a free iPhone game where you collect cats. You start out by putting out some cat food, and a variety of cute little cat toys in your garden, then close the app and wait for cats to come along, checking back in whenever you like. When the cats do come, they leave you dried fish as thanks, and you can use these (as well as the much-rarer golden fish) to buy better cat food and ever-fancier cat toys to continue the cycle anew.

Different cats prefer different toys, and you can click on the cats to find out a little about their personalities. Eventually a cat might like your garden enough to leave you a special present. And eventually you might get lucky enough to put out a special cat’s favourite toy (these special cats look strange and unique, and have names that roughly translate to ‘Prince’, ‘Long Boots’, and ‘Mr. Satisfaction’).

There’s no real aim to the game. Instead it’s just a lovely, relaxing game about having a garden full of happy cats, and it’s surprising how delightful this can be. It’s all in Japanese, but it’s simple enough and there are websites that can give you a guide to work things out. And if you happen to be learning Japanese it’s a really fun way to pick up some interesting (probably not so useful) words. It’s also free, as I said, and you can spend a little real money to pick up a bunch of special golden fish. I ended up spending a little just because I like the game so much and wanted to throw some money-affection at it, but it never asks you to, and you never feel like you have to in order to have fun.

(Oh, also: if you want to get ねこあつめ just search the developer name ‘Hit Point’ on the games section of the App Store and you should find the game easily enough.)

ねこあつめ is such a small, simple game but I’ve been playing it a little every day for months and I’m still having fun, and occasionally seeing a new cat or a new cat-given-present that makes me genuinely overwhelmed with inexplicable happiness. Here is a picture of my Prince Cat giving me a gift after really enjoying the special cushion I put in my garden (video games are great):


Posted in Games Blather | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Monkeys, Hot Springs, and Monkeys in Hot Springs

IMG_3805A couple of weeks ago my friend Alyssa and I went on a trip to Yamanouchi, in Nagano prefecture. Our plan was to spend one day skiing, and the next looking at monkeys having baths. On that count the plan was a roaring success, but that’s not all we managed to do. We also saw monkeys fighting and bought monkey stickers. We rode through a desolate landscape on a big train. We experienced everything a kotatsu has to offer, over and over again.

After a three hour train journey starting at the austere hour of 7am, we arrived at Nagano station. From there it was another hour by train to the town of Yamanouchi, our base of operations for our monkey-and-skiing holiday. The approach to Yamanouchi was, to say the least, kind of nerve-wracking, as the town itself was preceded by a thirty minute ride through absolutely nothing. The entire landscape was populated by three things and three things only: (a) fields of tiny dead trees, (b) villages of tiny, dead-looking houses, and (c) no snow. As our journey continued and a fourth element – various kinds of rubble – was introduced we started to worry that our extensive one evening of planning had somehow led us astray. Had we come too late in the season for skiing? Had we gotten on a train for Yamanouchii rather than Yamanouchi? As the minutes passed and even the distant mountains seemed devoid of snow, we started to worry in earnest.

But luckily, we hadn’t made a mistake. Instead, we were witnessing rural Japan’s impressive ability to occasionally transform into a perfect simulacrum of a failed post-Soviet state. While Ghibli films might make us think of the Japanese hinterlands as serene, traditional places full of crystal-clear waterfalls and ornate mountain shrines, a large proportion of countryside here looks like it’s recently been hit by a bomb filled with wrecked car engines and partially-shredded tarpaulins.


When we got off the train, however, we found that Yamanouchi itself was very nice, with interesting-looking narrow streets, and steam from the underground hot springs rising from manhole covers. And soon enough we learned that the nearby Shiga-kōgen ski park was still snowy and open for business. After an all-too-brief encounter with the owner of our hotel – a man who spoke good English, but who spoke in such unusual ways that we could never tell if he was just slightly eccentric or if he was constantly and subtly mocking us – we were off to see the famed bathing monkeys of Joshinetsu Kogen National Park.

From the entrance to the park we took the long, winding path that led towards the hot springs. It was so long and circuitous, in fact, and we passed so many other foreigners on the way that we started to suspect that the improbable promise of monkeys in hot springs was merely a ruse designed to draw in the real spectacle – gullible foreign tourists – so that Japanese people can watch them undisturbed in their natural state – one of dull, impotent confusion.

But just as we we voiced these surprisingly plausible concerns a barrel of monkeys crested the hill and swarmed around us, nearly a dozen in all. Now having seen wild monkeys once before, and considering myself something of a wild monkey expert as a result, I knew that there was nothing a monkey finds less interesting than a human without food. So despite the proximity of the monkeys to us and our soft, unbitten faces, I wasn’t particularly worried. Alyssa, on the other hand, who is what we in the know like to call ‘monkey shy’, was understandably a little less tolerant of the sudden appearance of wild animals right next to her. And after beating a hasty retreat, we set about observing the monkeys from a safe distance.


The monkeys were obviously both hilarious and amazing, as all monkeys undoubtedly are. We naturally kept our distance, but some people clearly weren’t so cautious, as there were lots and lots of signs dotted around the area warning of various monkey-related dangers, including one sign that informed us in no uncertain terms that ‘the Japanese monkeys do not understand your language’, before providing an exhaustive list of all the myriad ways one can unwittingly provoke a monkey to violence.

But fortunately there was no violence, unless one counts monkey-on-monkey violence in which case there was loads. And what was most interesting about watching the monkey-on-monkey violence was that it was simultaneously so alien and so human. The incredibly needless, purposeless malice of one monkey slowly wading over to another monkey in the hot spring, before nonchalantly grabbing them from behind and plunging their teeth into their neck for literally no reason whatsoever. The sudden transition from placid calm to shock and confusion on the face of the victim. Having spent the last year teaching children I saw a lot I recognised in the actions of those terrible monkeys.

Also, while many of the monkeys were extremely cute, especially when they were sitting contented in the hot springs, I wasn’t aware of how terrifying some baby monkeys’ faces can look. From the right angle they’re nothing but cute, playful critters, but catch a glimpse of their faces and you’ll notice that they’re dead-eyed little skull monsters.


After we’d had our fill of monekys we decided to walk back to our hotel. It was about a forty minute walk up and down some fairly steep hills, but I’m glad we didn’t decide to get the bus as it meant we were able to see the Shibu onsen area. The Shibu onsen area is a small part of Yamanouchi filled with awesome traditional bath houses. Unfortunately, we soon found that, as tourists not specifically staying in the Shibu area, even the nine public hot springs lining the main street were off-limits to us. Slightly disappointed but not disheartened, we returned to our hotel and retired to the kotatsu, before going to a restaurant and trying out the hotel’s own hot spring baths, which was, like all hot springs, too hot for my pathetic baby-like skin.

The next day was all about skiing, including some runs on Olympic courses, some scarily big jumps in the terrain park, and of course a good deal of waiting behind groups of snowboarders who had decided to ruin things for everybody else. Halfway through the day we decided to ski over to another mountain, only to find ourselves trapped at the bottom of that mountain due to ski lifts that appeared not to know where they were going. Eventually we (just) made it back in time for the bus, only to then get on and off the wrong bus a good three or four times before finally stumbling upon the one we needed.


Both exhausted after around six hours of solid skiing, we decided to go to the Yudanaka public baths, which were free for anyone staying in a hotel in the area. I had a great time, sequestered as I was off in the men’s section, completely by myself. But I could hear the sound of multiple screaming babies from over the dividing wall, and sure enough Alyssa reported that the women’s section was so loud and full of screaming, running babies that she left after a few minutes to return to the safety of the kotatsu.

Our final Yamanouchi experiences were food and drink related: we found a quiet izakaya-style restaurant on a quiet backstreet, and fortunately there was none of the ‘oh my god just leave’ vibe that you so often feel as a foreigner when entering small Japanese business. Alyssa ordered a big bowl of oden, which is one of several, proudly traditional Japanese dishes that consists of various combinations of starch and meat in a bowl (Japan is rightly proud of its rich culinary traditions, though it does seem to extend that fervent pride to literally every kind of  traditional food, even the really boring ones.)

I ordered curry rice, and afterwards I tried a bottle of locally brewed porter called Shiga Kogen Porter (from the nearby Tamamura Honten brewery). I originally considered doing a review of it as part of this post, but since I’ve always found myself completely unable to describe even the most basic of tastes, I didn’t know how useful it’d be. Everyone else seems to drink wines, or craft ales and note how there are hints of persimmon and espresso chocolate, whereas the only flavours I’m really 100% on board with are ‘savoury’,  ‘twiglet/marmite-induced nice teeth aches’, and ‘this is so good my salivary glands are never going to stop going’. I suppose I can just say that the Shiga Kogen Porter is thoroughly recommended, and best enjoyed in an exhausted daze in the comfort of a kotatsu.

The next morning we were up early for the train back home. We were sad to leave, but our two day holiday in Yamanouchi was definitely up there as one of the best Japanese holidays. It was a nice change from the usual (and also brilliant) trips to bigger, more well-known cities like Hiroshima, Kyoto, and Osaka. I’m really looking forward to planning some more holidays in smaller, slightly more remote areas like Yamanouchi, and I’d recommend a few days there to anyone with even a passing interest in monkeys, hot springs, or monkeys in hot springs, even if you’ll have to pass through a lot of rubbish tarpaulin-and-rusted-car-part towns on the way there.


Posted in Actual Real Life Stuff, Japan | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A Business Trip to Shizuoka, or, 真由美の悪夢

In case you didn’t know, I currently work as an English teacher in Nagoya, Japan. My company is centered around three major Japanese cities (Osaka, Nagoya, and Tokyo), but it also has quite a few schools in less central areas, including some ‘rural’ communities (Japan’s definition of rural community generally being ‘a town of about 300,000 people, and nearly as many pachinko parlours).

These schools usually employ just one or two teachers, meaning that when one of them is sick someone from the closest hub city will be called out to cover their classes. These are technically classified as business trips, which makes me feel grown-up, so we’ll stick with the nomenclature.

Last summer I was lucky enough to be chosen for a week-long trip to Kagoshima. I climbed a cat-filled mountain with a dark past. I took a ferry to a volcano. I spent part of my daily stipend on a really great umbrella. It was brilliant. More recently I went on another business trip, though this time my destination was somewhat less exciting: Shizuoka.

I’d been to Shizuoka once before, and I didn’t have a great time. The area around both the school and the hotel seemed to consist mainly of ‘massage’ massage parlors, hostess bars, strip clubs, and endless signs featuring photos of women with sultry body language and thousand-yard stares. There was nothing for me there: even if I were really into depressing red light districts Nagoya already has that pretty much covered.


Important business trip in Kagoshima

But, when offered the chance to return to Shizuoka on a one-day business trip I decided to go. Why? Well, at the risk of sounding incredibly annoying I’ve forced myself to get into the habit of trying new things. God, I know, I sound like one of those bellends whose lives only seem to exist as a series of cloying Facebook status updates. But my point is: this last year some of the best things I’ve done have been a result of my saying yes to something new, difficult, unnerving, or just not initially that compelling. Coming to Japan was hugely intimidating. Actually making a solid effort to learn Japanese forced me to try very hard at something I’m naturally very bad at, which is itself something I’m naturally very bad at. Climbing Mt. Fuji seemed like a lot of money and effort for very little reward. But all of these – and lots of smaller things – turned out incredibly well, when otherwise I would have just been sitting in my living room being bothered by the internet.

So, I took the bullet train to Shizuoka to teach a day of classes. As before, the town wasn’t anything too special; while seeming far less sleazy this time around, there’s still wasn’t a whole lot to distinguish it from other cities. In my lunch break I had some average ramen and walked around a relatively nice park.

What did distinguish my time there were the students. First, I had a 80-minute lesson with two mid-60 year-old women (let’s call them Naoko and Mayumi, though I’ve changed names since things get a little bit personal further down). We were supposed to be discussing news reports on space travel, but we quickly veered off onto other subjects. Among other things, at one point Mayumi spent ten minutes quite happily telling us about her husband – a Buddhist monk who, upon marrying Mayumi decided to forbid her from leaving the country. She told us that she travels around Japan a fair bit, but in over thirty years of marriage she’s never gone on any of the international trips she planned on. A few years ago her friend invited her to go to Canada for her birthday, to which the husband agreed, only to later thrust divorce papers on her, stating very plainly that it was a choice between her marriage and her trip to Canada. In the end, she chose her marriage.

That lesson was more interesting than most, but since it was quite highly structured there was still a lot of time spent talking about space travel (Something they didn’t even feign interest in, with many discussion questions meeting answers like ‘No, I have no interest in space or going into space’, or ‘I’d probably die before we reached Mars, so I don’t see the point’). After the first lesson, however, Naoko and Mayumi signed up for a conversation class alongside a third student we’ll call Yoko. Yoko was also very high level, and also very nice, but rather less talkative than the other two.


There’s a relatively nice park over that bridge

It was in this lesson that things became really interesting. After discussing the recent abduction of two Japanese citizens by IS, I asked about their opinions on various Japanese political and social issues.All three were thoroughly unimpressed by the ruling LDP party, but were equally unimpressed by the state of the opposition parties. Extremely interested in politics, they were all very worried about the government’s increasingly evasive talk surrounding Japan’s role in world history, particularly during World War 2.

This conversation alone was fascinating. It’s so rare to hear people talk about these kinds of things, especially during a lesson, and I’m kind of ashamed to say that I was (happily) surprised to hear elderly Japanese people taking such liberal stances on these issues. It’s very easy to get the impression that older people in Japan are almost all ultra-conservative, but obviously it’s not that simple.

Then we started talking about the war itself, and though both Naoko and Mayumi were too young to have lived through it, they relayed some stories their parents told them when they were children. Naoko’s stories concerned the slow degradation of life during and after the war; her parents selling their clothes and possessions piece by piece to afford food. The post-war period and the long, difficult recovery of both economic and national hope. I can’t hope to do them justice here.

And somehow, Mayumi’s stories hit even harder. Her parents experienced the fire bombings of Tokyo, and she described how their descriptions of their experiences were so vivid that for years she had nightmares about being caught in the bombings, or seeing it from afar, alone in the woods at night.

Wanting desperately to hear more, but not wanting to keep treading on obviously-difficult memories simply for the sake of my own curiosity, I started to veer the conversation back to something lighter. But then Yoko interrupted me, and told us that she’d lived through the war herself. Without further prompting she explained how, as a small child, she moved with her family to occupied Manchuria in the early days of the war. Because she was so young she doesn’t have too many memories of the time, but she does remember the end of the war very clearly, when Soviet troops moved in and, well – you can look up the specifics of the Soviet invasion of Manchuria if you like, but all that really needs to be said is that Yoko’s few memories aren’t good ones.

After that we talked for a few more minutes, and then our time was up. I thanked them for the conversation, telling them how fascinating I found their stories. In turn, they told me they were very happy to talk about their lives and their experiences with someone so eager to listen. After that I taught a few more classes, caught the train, and headed home.

I realise that this blog post doesn’t have an overarching point, or really a message of any kind. It also veers kind of strangely between light-hearted observations of my time in Japan and incredibly-serious discussions I had about students’ personal experiences. But I suppose if this post has any point at all it’s that sometimes my job can be very special. It can be easy to get a little bored, and see it as just a job and nothing more. You’re teaching people English, and the purpose of any conversation that ensues is to practice their grammar, listening and fluency, and that’s the end of it. Conversation usually revolves around hobbies, holidays, and favourite foods, because that’s the easiest, most comfortable thing for both parties.

But if you’re open to it you can sometimes be lucky enough to experience moments of personal connection that stick with you. You’re not necessarily going to meet your best friend, or radically change anyone’s life, but connections with someone can be made, and you can both experience something worthwhile, even if you never see each other again, just as I don’t expect I’ll ever see Naoko, Mayumi, or Yoko ever again. I don’t think I’ll ever forget those snapshots of Naoko’s parents, Yoko’s childhood, or the vividness of Mayumi’s nightmares, though. A handful of times my job has become something special for 5, 10, 15 or so minutes at a time.

Yesterday my private student of four months left to work in America, and we were both genuinely upset to see each other for the last time. Recently a quiet, sullen student has become much happier and more talkative in my lessons, and we’ve been able to have some fun conversations after nearly eight months of grammar drudgery. This kind of thing might only happen a handful of times, but that’s more than enough for me.


Posted in Actual Real Life Stuff, Japan | 1 Comment