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TV Shows: Australian Survivor (again)

September 28, 2016

Unfortunately, Australian Survivor has jumped the shark; there are still eleven contestants left in this competition, but nobody worth watching remains. In the last four dismal tribal councils, one good player after another left. (Well, I don’t know if Conner and Kate were good players in the sense that they always played well. But at least I liked them, which is still more than I can say for most of the others.)

I don’t think I’ve seen such a disappointing outcome in any series of Survivor. I mean, it’s rare that my favourite contestant wins – I think it’s only happened once (that was ‘Fabio’ Jud, heheh) but usually there one or two cool people left near the end. Now… hmmm. I would probably go for Sue; I like her take-no-crap style.

I think the way the ‘good guys’ alliance played things was really stupid. For example:

-Kylie, who ought to know better, stuck with the Saanapu tribe that’s never treated her well, and went dobbing to them. Maybe I can suck up to my alliance but still not get rid of Kate! Good strategy! Not! The only pro is that your alliance does trust you more.

-After realising that Nick knew of their plan to vote him out – and really, their blather at tribal could hardly have made him feel safe – they still put all their votes on him rather than going for a girl who couldn’t have used an idol. What they should have done was to make Nick feel unsafe – so he’d play his idol – and then actually voted for someone else. (However, it’s hard when you’ve got a whole alliance full of people who consider themselves too decent to lie and ‘scheme’. This is what happens when you get so-called ‘good guys’ together. They can’t make a proper go of things.)

-Lee and Sam didn’t vote the same way, thus undermining the whole thing anyway.

I thought I’d be really angry to see Kate voted off, but in the end I couldn’t muster the energy. When Conner got voted off, I swore a lot, but by the time Kate came around, there was a sense of fatalism about it all. Kate herself seemed so tired by the whole stupid game that by the time she got voted out, there might have even been a little bit of relief to get away from all those irritating people and the unfairness of it all.

(I mean ‘unfair’ from the point of view of that original ‘Saanapu getting all the powerful players’ twist that had consequences for so long. Not ‘unfair’ because she couldn’t make her plans work; that’s Survivor, sometimes.)

I don’t think, by the way, that the ‘good guys’ alliance is much of an idea – who wants to take good, decent people to the final 3 where they can beat you? – but she definitely had the right idea as to something that would appeal to Sam and Lee. And that was one pro about aiming to get rid of Nick. Because the guys personally dislike him, Kate could persuade them to take him out, even though it would make more sense to keep him and go after, say, Flick. However, if Sam voted for Flick, there would be no way back from that – no way to argue ‘oh, but I just wanted to take this one snake out of the game this one time; that doesn’t mean I’m turning on my alliance’. Taking out Flick would equate to turning on his alliance, no doubt about it. On the other hand, Nick was a target she could get them on board to gun for.

(Incidentally, I don’t think Nick is a bad guy. Doesn’t always know when to stop talking, maybe, and doesn’t do well in the way he presents himself to others, but I must say I agree with most of what he says. He really hasn’t been shown to lie to others. He has made an effort to keep his word and be transparent, but everyone still thinks he’s a weasel. He’s in an unwinnable situation he couldn’t climb back from. I do think he has a good amount of sense when it comes to the game. Most of all, I agree with his comment that all the bleating about integrity etc is pious and unnecessary.)

Basically, we have seen Vavau play Survivor – and all get voted off one after another – except with the twist that (probably) none of them will take home the money at the end. They didn’t even make it to the jury. It’s like watching a series of Survivor where everyone loses!

Now we get to see Saanapu play Survivor. Except that nobody in Saanapu is much fun to watch. ‘Strategy’ isn’t much happening any more. The minority who are controlling the game, are doing quite well with their decision-making, but nobody is succeeding in any upsets.

Possibly the only moment from these episodes I really enjoyed was seeing the Survivor auction. I was delighted to see both Conner and Kate getting the chance to shove some food down!

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(After Tuesday’s episode)

Now that all my favourite characters have gone, I actually watched Tuesday’s episode with a much less stressed feeling than I’d had the last couple of weeks. I no longer much cared who got out – one was as good as another – so I didn’t have much invested in it. (I don’t even care if Brooke and Flick get out. At least they are playing intelligently and making good judgment calls. I didn’t like them when they were smug and winning everything, but now that all the people I like are out anyway, I don’t dislike them as much.)

When I was invested, every episode I went in wanting something to not happen – please don’t let Vavau lose again, please don’t let Craig go home, please don’t let Conner get out, etc – and every time without fail, that was the outcome of the episode and it made me frustrated. (It’s alright to be emotionally invested if the people you like get occasional victories.)

It was funny editing, in a way. Getting the audience to really want something and then see it not happen might work a couple of times but after it happens every episode, it gets wearing. Maybe they should have tried to set up Conner and Kate with more of a villainous edit, so we’d be glad to see them picked off. Ha! See what you did to the Aganoans on your tribe? How they could never make much headway with you? Now how do you like it?!! Sucked in!!

Anyway, after a while you forget that these likeable players were once there and you just focus on who is left. At least this episode gave us a respite in that we got the letters. We got a nice moment with Kristie giving up her letter. We got a few moments of Flick showing sympathy or loyalty, thus humanising her a bit. We saw some epic endurance from Brooke and Kylie. (I can’t believe how long that was!! How boring for everyone waiting for that challenge to finish!)

If there was a legitimate reason for those guys to distrust Nick, it was mostly that he talks unguardedly at times, like at his final tribal council where he was talking all about who ranked where. If it was his final tribal, as he suspected, then no harm done, but if he was hoping to stay and continue to be buddies with his alliance, it wasn’t the smartest speech.

Watching ‘Rob has a podcast‘, Rob and Stephen made the point that one reason for the conservative play this season (ie, ‘let’s vote off anyone who shows a sign of having a brain’) is how long it is. With so many contestants and so many tribal councils, everyone is looking for some excuse, however trivial, to vote off someone else. If one person gets a couple of people’s backs up, there’s no great difficulty rounding up others to vote for them. It does result in conservative players, however.

I do wonder, if Brooke and Flick end up in the final 3 with someone else (ie, not El), would they want to take each other to the final 2? Or take someone less popular with them? Under the current system, they are getting rid of anyone who is even a little unpopular, because others can be persuaded to get on board and go after them. If they were smart, they might consider taking Kylie or Kristie (or would have kept a Nick, whom lots of people seem to dislike). Not that Kylie or Kristie are exactly unpopular, but I don’t think the jury would consider their gameplay as strong overall, and they haven’t made quite the social headway that others have.

(Then again, with this mix of people, who are all about ‘trust’ and ‘friendship’, being voted out by Brooke or Flick might be enough to make them vote against them at the end of the game. It will probably be the most likeable and uncontroversial contestant who gets voted for at the final council, even if the other has played a better game. Then again, that has happened plenty of times in the American version as well!)

I don’t get the thinking of everyone who sticks with the majority alliance until the point of no return. Once you get rid of players like Conner and Kate, there might not be enough of you to band together to take out the majority. Is there going to be a final 8 or 9 at the end of the game? No? Then realise that at one point, if you stick with the majority, it WILL be you out! (This is like what happened with Survivor: Redemption Island, where everyone stuck close to Boston Rob, who then got most of them out.)

Then again, you can only work with the people who are there, can’t you? It’s easy to think ‘you should get together a minority group who aren’t the top dogs, and take out some of the girls who are calling the shots’. But if you can’t trust a couple of the people in the minority to stick with you and have some guts in their decision, your options *are* limited…

Anyway, now that I’m over my frustration, I’m still watching the show with interest, if less passion than before!

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TV Shows: Australian Survivor (week 5)

September 21, 2016

I’m avidly into this season of Survivor so this blog will likely continue to be a bit Australian Survivor-y for a few more weeks. Spoilers as always.

That said, this was not a great week for the show. I felt more frustration than enjoyment at watching it play out as it did.

First and foremost, the unfairness of the two tribes. At first, I didn’t mind the twist of allowing one tribe to choose all its members. Sure, one tribe ended up a lot stronger than the other, but I assumed it wasn’t an advantage that would continue indefinitely; they’d mix up the challenges to have a wide variety of things that anyone could win, or swap the tribe members again after a few episodes. This did not happen. Instead, we had one tribe lose, and try hard, and lose, and try hard, and lose, and lose, and lose, while the other team continued smug and well-fed.

I know, Vavau shot themselves in the foot by voting off Rohan so soon, and then later Craig, but in neither case was that what a majority of players wanted anyway – they came about through Phoebe playing her idols unexpectedly – so the outcome *could* have been different. After all, this twist would have worked out fine if Vavau had won just a couple of the challenges – there’s nothing so exciting as seeing an underdog finally win something. As it was, this never happened, not once, so instead we had a wearying picking off of the Vavau numbers, one after another. I really think it was unfair on those members. By failing to get picked by Saanapu on the first day of the swap, they were condemned to get eliminated without ever having that much of a chance. So I think something should have been done to mix up the equation a bit after it was becoming clear that nothing would change.

And yeah, Survivor doesn’t have to be ‘fair’, and there have always been seasons where one tribe wins most of the challenges, but I’ve never seen it go to this extent – was it 11 or 12 challenges in a row that only one tribe won? – and to end up with one tribe of 10 and one of 3 was just ridiculous and made me angry to watch. I came to really like the members of Vavau and wanted to see them catch a break.

The result of this is that quite a few really good players have gotten out pre-merge, and that’s a shame. Worst was for Craig to go. He was my favourite – funny, good at playing, determined, charismatic – and with him, the best source of humour on the show. Then Phoebe, who has made some really good judgment calls and has been constantly shafted by being on losing tribes; finally she just ran out of time; the merge didn’t come soon enough.

It is interesting, though, how editing can make you feel differently about a character even from one day to the next. (And I say ‘character’ rather than ‘person’, because there’s always an extent, in reality TV, to which you’re not seeing someone as they really were, but as part of a story the editors are telling.) As an example, I liked Phoebe quite a lot as she struggled to make the right plays while being on the wrong side of the numbers. However, just before she got out, they started showing her in a more negative light – showing slight signs of arrogance, talking dispassionately about getting rid of her best ally – that made you feel a slight sense of satisfaction at Kristie taking her out.

That said, I’d still like to have seen her make the merge, at least; reward her for all her weeks of surviving against the odds! It seems like Phoebe constantly got hard done by.

Examples:

  • her tribe got forced to undergo tribal council – antagonising Kat, who was going to go home that day – and then the vote got cancelled, keeping a resentful Kat around to cause trouble later
  • got stuck on Aganoa, constantly losing
  • the one time her tribe, Aganoa, won immunity, the other tribes did not even vote someone off, but got to swap members
  • she didn’t get chosen for the new Saanapu, and lost her most reliable ally at the same time, ending up on the wrong side of the numbers
  • got stuck on an endlessly losing tribe again
  • Kat, through her dislike of Rohan, sabotaged the Vavau tribe and lost Phoebe one of her closest allies
  • Jonathan blabbed lots of information about Phoebe to Brooke, which helped lead to Brooke not choosing Phoebe to come to Vavau
  • in the episode where Phoebe successfully engineered to get Kristie out, once again, they cancelled the vote so that Kristie not only stayed, but learned that Phoebe was gunning for her

Some of this is just the nature of the game – like Kat voting for Rohan; sometimes people are unpredictable or act on emotions – but several times, Phoebe got shafted by some change to the usual formula of the game, like a tribal council that started but then didn’t end in a vote.

In short, it seems like Phoebe had more to overcome than any other player, and she overcame it over and over again, but finally ran out of luck. And that was another frustrating thing that happened this week.

As for other things that happened, just a few thoughts:

  • I was glad to see Sue not take any of Nick’s nonsense. Nick needs to get over it. Phoebe has been voted for twice and managed to get over it and keep working withe people. In Survivor, you have to take people out. I mean, back when he was ‘voted off’ (which ended up advantaging him hugely), Vavau was a really tight-knit group. Someone who was a good friend and ally would have had to be voted off somehow; someone would have had to be blindsided. I’m sure he wouldn’t have had any problem taking out someone who wasn’t him – so to be so resentful, so many days later, is ridiculous. I think most of the Australian Survivor players have shown good sportsmanship – people who are voted off and congratulate the others on their good gameplay, for instance – and that makes Nick’s childishness stand out all the more.
  • I was also glad to see Sue get a reward for once. I hope the others will get one at some point!
  • Poor Kylie, who is treated like she has a disease. I don’t know why this is. It’s clear she hasn’t clicked with the others, but is it just because the other girls have a high school mentality (“oh my god, can you believe she tried to sit with us?”)? Or has she done things we haven’t seen? At this point I’m more inclined to blame the others, who seem cliquey.
  • Kylie floated the idea of an all-woman alliance, and it went down like a tonne of bricks. It reminds of me Bianca trying to strategise early in the series – if you’re gonna try to make game-changing suggestions, you have to be one of those people who has everyone’s ear, a person who everyone wants to ally themselves with. (You’re also better off getting one or two buddies on side first, and then proposing the idea together, perhaps to one person at a time.) Kylie can’t sway people easily; she doesn’t have that social connection. Not to mention, she was proposing the idea to several girls who had male allies – why should they all flip on allegiances for her? That said, I can see why Kylie might go for it – an allegiance down gender lines is clear, it’s ‘safe’, it’s easy to know who’s on which side, it would give her some safety for a while, and it has worked on some seasons of Survivor before. However, in Kylie’s case, it wouldn’t even be a good idea. If they did go an all-girls’ alliance, who would be first voted out once the guys were gone? Her. I don’t see that Kylie has any strong allies, but I feel she’s more likely to have success with a guy or two than with those girls who treat her like a pariah.

Anyway, a merge is finally, belatedly coming up. All I can say is, if Kate, Conner, Sue or Kristie is the first to get out (especially Kate and Conner, whom I’m really rooting for), I’ll be really pissed off. They’ve been ripped off in this game long enough!

So what do I think will happen post-merge? There are a few possibilities.

Firstly, the possibility that Saanapu will immediately start picking off the ex-Vavaus. As I said, I hope that won’t happen. After all, Saanapu will mostly have to vote other Saanapus off eventually, so it would be clever of them to enlist the ex-Vavaus as allies – even temporary allies – to help them make up the numbers.

Secondly, a few people who’ve gotten others’ backs up – Kylie, Nick, Matt – could be on the chopping block.

Kristie, Conner and Kate might stick together (I imagine Conner and Kate would) and if so might have an in or two with former tribemates; they could join the former Aganoans – Kristie and El might have some sort of latent relationship still. Or they could join with Sue and JL (less likely; I think JL is more likely to be part of Team Brooke & Flick by now). Or with Sam, through Conner.

Brooke and Flick could inspire others to band together to get rid of, say, Matt, if he irritated them enough.

What I’d love to see is people going after Brooke and Flick, who have been queen bees for too long, but I think those two are likely to be key movers and shakers for quite a while – I suspect that whoever they want to see voted out will end up going home, at least for a few episodes.

Or the players could even decide to go after the challenge threats – Lee, Sam, etc – but I think this is unlikely on Australian Survivor, where being nice is usually rewarded and being ‘a player’ (ie, strategic/scheming) is met with swift retribution.

Anyway, lots of possibilities. Just please, please let Kate and Conner stick around a little longer, or I’ll feel that being put on Vavau really did screw absolutely everyone involved…

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TV shows: Australian Survivor

September 13, 2016

This season of Survivor has been really good. There’s been a great mix of exciting challenges, strategy, everyday life and unexpected twists and turns. The editing toward the end of episodes means I’m never quite sure who’s going to be going home, and that’s always good for drama.

(spoilers ahead)

I’m not sure how much I like the whole scenario in which Saanapu, after winning just one challenge, basically guaranteed themselves indefinite rewards and immunity for the next several episodes. That seems a disproportionate reward for one challenge. Their team is so stacked with strength, puzzle masters, etc, that it’s unlikely Vavau will ever be able to beat them. The solution to this would be to bring in different types of challenges – one using different types of intelligence (not just puzzles), skills, etc, that aren’t just based on athletic ability. I hope this will happen more and we won’t just see Vavau constantly losing.

On the other hand, whoever wasn’t picked for their tribe has now been given a significant handicap in terms of progressing in the game.

As a viewer, I always find myself rooting for the underdog. One thing that has changed is my attitude toward Phoebe. When she was top dog of her tribe, calling all the shots, I didn’t much like her; now I really want to see her stick around, get the better of Andrew, etc. I was delighted to see her get the immunity idol. Yeah! Fight!

On the flip side, I’ve always wanted to see Flick and Brooke get their comeuppance. They’ve done nothing particularly nasty, so objectively I have no reason to dislike them, but their complacent ‘we don’t know what it’s like to lose’ attitude – while others around them keep losing and fighting to stay in – makes me want to see them face a change of fortunes and see what losing really is like.

At the end of my last post, I made a guess about who might win, despite the fact that I’d only heard a couple of sentences from each of them. The three people I picked – Kate, with El and Brooke as ‘maybes’ – are still in play. Now that I’ve seen more of them, what do I think?

Well, I still think any of them has the potential to win. They are generally well liked, decent at challenges (especially Kate) but not so good they’d be major targets, and they all have a decent social game. Kate doesn’t seem to be in the strongest position in her alliance – she’s not one of the big decision makers – but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

‘Big’ game players – the types who call the shots, take risks and strongly influence others – do win Survivor sometimes. However, it’s rare for more than one of them to make it right to the end. If there are several, usually one will succeed in taking the others out earlier in the game, so that several less aggressive players make it nearest the end. (And then sometimes the aggressive players lose out on votes by a resentful, bitter jury.) That’s why I’d normally guess someone who seems like they make intelligent decisions, but doesn’t stick their neck out too much, to be a Survivor winner.

If Kate can lend her vote to teammates who need it, she might beat out some of her more unlikeable allies, like Andrew, and stick around… not sure if she quite takes enough initiative but we’ll see. Obviously we don’t see everything that goes on at camp…

At this point, El isn’t in the strongest position, because she only has one Aganoa teammate, Lee. Still, she has a buffer – Jenna is more likely to go before her – and could align with people from the other tribe. Also, it seems unlikely Saanapu will lose many immunity challenges for a while.

Brooke is sitting pretty at the moment and shows decent awareness of what’s going on around her. Whether she can make it all the way remains to be seen, but having an ally you can count on right there in the same tribe as you is helpful. It’s unlikely her alliance will all be broken up for quite some time.

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Books: Robert Whiting

August 30, 2016

I’m a sucker for all things Japanese, and I’ve read countless books about Japan, Japanese business culture, Japanese history, Japanese pop culture, travel in Japan, Japanese traditional culture, etc etc. I’ve even read a trilogy of books about Japanese baseball. Not just once, but many times. That I’d do so despite having very little interest in sport generally tells you how interesting the books are.

Robert Whiting has written, among other books, ‘The Chrysanthemum and the Bat’, then ‘You Gotta Have Wa’ and finally, ‘The Samurai Way of Baseball’. All three focus on baseball in Japan.

‘The Chrysanthemum and the Bat’ (which I’ve only just finished reading for the first time) was written in 1977 and focuses on a slightly older baseball scene in which the Yomiuri Giants were all-powerful and the Japanese were first starting to challenge Americans in ‘world series’ of baseball.

‘You Gotta Have Wa’ (which I’ve read about six times) focuses on the psychological differences between baseball in Japan and in America. It looks particularly at a number of foreign (usually American) players who went to play for Japanese teams and… well, let’s just say they had variable experiences. Generally, they’d find adaptation a challenge, and even those who made efforts to fit in with their team and the local culture would often be treated shabbily in one way or another. I find this one the most interesting of the trilogy, even though it often looks at negative sides of Japanese culture.

‘The Samurai Way of Baseball’ (which I’ve read three times) is the most recent and particularly focuses on the recent achievements of Japanese baseball players, such as Ichiro, who have made the move to American major leagues.

One of the most interesting aspects of these books is showing the great difference between the two games (American vs Japanese) in terms of how they are played and in everyone’s attitudes towards them.

For example, one common theme is that the Japanese have tended to treat baseball almost as a spiritual discipline. If one can surpass oneself, to keep giving one’s all, to practise hours to show one’s spirit, to ignore pain, to endure uncomplainingly and master one’s form, then one can really be a baseball player to be proud of. In this way, an American sport has taken on Japanese elements such as as the samurai code of Bushido. At its worst, this leads to far too intensive practices and camps that result in players burning out, hurting their pitching arms, etc, but it’s not a system the players can easily challenge. They have to do what they’re told, even if they are over-managed and robbed of initiative. Under this system, the coaches and managers know best; the players must just quietly knuckle under to their superiors.  Naturally, Americans, who may have developed their own style and their own sense of what works for them, may not react to this system well. They don’t want to be micro-managed, have their successful batting form changed, or exhaust themselves in excessive pre-game workouts. The result: plenty of cultural clashes.

Another example of the problems Americans face playing Japanese ball is that Japanese have (historically; perhaps less so recently) been inclined to treat Americans on their teams as ‘support’ players. They may pay big bucks to get big name players in, and the job of those players is to deliver, but in some ways they are still not entirely part of the team and they are still not treated quite the same as Japanese. One big example is that great baseball records will be protected; Americans have been deliberately prevented from winning certain records (for example, with pitchers pitching unhittable balls) if their victory would mean taking away the records from a Japanese. If an American is leading the team on hits or home runs or on brilliant pitches, he will probably still not get as much by way of plaudits, endorsements or fan votes as a quality Japanese player who is not his equal.  Meanwhile, an American who fails to produce the results expected might cop a lot of flack and be swiftly benched at the first sign of problems. There is not that same multicultural sense that most American teams would have in which members can come from anywhere but are all equal members of the team. There is some sense of ‘Japanese’ and ‘outsiders’.

I’ve seen a little Japanese baseball myself – when I lived there, I sort of supported the Yakult Swallows – but had no idea of the stories behind it all. Whiting makes it all come to life, with plenty of examples of news stories and details of what went on behind the scenes.

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TV shows: Survivor – how do you win?

August 25, 2016

Australian Survivor is on! Yay!!

I always loved (American) Survivor but over the last few years it’s been increasingly buried in horrible timeslots, so I’m coming back to the franchise after many years’ absence. The first two episodes have aired.

(Spoilers ahead.)

How do you win Survivor? After any elimination, it’s usually pretty easy to see what the ejectee did wrong.

In the case of Bianca, she started her scheming too soon. She is probably quite right that the alliance of girls is going to end up being strong and a factor in play; she might be right to wish she could break up the alliance, but sometimes moving aggressively just antagonises other people who would have otherwise left you alone. She also trusted the wrong person, trying to get him on side. Better to relax with a safe ‘elimination’ with Peter and hope to survive long enough to deal with alliances later. Try to more naturally build alliances by just befriending people and hanging out, without coming across as too strategic.

That said, I’ve got to say, people get eliminated for so many different reasons. If you were coming into the game, it’d be hard to know how to play things. For every strategic error that gets someone eliminated, there’s an opposite error that gets someone else eliminated.

For example: “He should have changed allegiances when he could and joined that other alliance.” vs “He shouldn’t have changed his allegiance; it meant nobody trusted him.”

Or: “She moved too soon to try to turn the others against him.” vs “She needed to try to turn the others against him.”

Or: “He shouldn’t have given up the idol; he got out immediately.” vs “He should have given up the idol; it would have gotten him a strong ally.”

Then there are also personal attributes:

“This person is weird and abrasive, so let’s get rid of them for the sake of team unity.” vs “This person is weird and abrasive, so they’ll be loyal to me if I’m nice to them (since nobody else is nice to them) and be an excellent person to take to the end.”

“This person is bad at physical challenges, so let’s get rid of them so our team is stronger.” vs “This person is good at physical challenges,so let’s get rid of them so they don’t win all the personal immunities.”

When all is said and done, winning Survivor requires a lot of things, and luck is one.

Still, it seems to be a general rule that if you are able to easily click with the others in your team in a kind of effortless, laid-back way, not attracting attention or getting on people’s nerves, then (as long as you’re not physically a total liability) you’re likely to make it through the first few eliminations. Bianca didn’t click, while a couple of other girls on her tribe did. It’s a shame as I’d much rather watch her, trying to make things happen, than a bunch of people who don’t stand out. I liked her.

I’ve probably only once seen someone play ‘perfect’ Survivor – that is, reading everyone else perfectly, getting everyone else on board, backstabbing at just the right moment to keep alliances together yet keeping trust, knowing who to take out when, being decent at challenges, etc. That was Rob in Survivor: Redemption Island. Seeing him play so perfectly was impressive, but it was also one of the most boring series of Survivor I’d ever seen. You need upsets to make things interesting.

It’s fun to try to guess a winner from the start, though a bit hard at the moment as I haven’t even heard every character speak. However, I’m going to guess Kate, just as a kind of random guess. She seems cool, is good at challenges, etc… well, she’s as good a guess as any other. I’ll also put in a ‘maybe’ for El or Brooke. I might make another guess after I’ve gotten to know the contestants a bit better.

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Games: Pokemon GO

August 16, 2016

I’ve been playing this mobile sensation lately, so here are my thoughts.

Overview of gameplay (for anyone who doesn’t know already…)

In Pokemon GO, your character walks about on a map (using GPS) and as you walk, you might encounter random Pokemon popping up. There are (probably) 150 different Pokemon – all different creatures with different skills – that can be caught, but you have to go looking. As you progress through the game, the Pokemon get stronger (and harder to catch) and you can participate in battles against the Pokemon of other players.

This isn’t a game you can play just inside your own home. As the name suggests, you have to go out your front door and go find the Pokemon.

Firstly, there are Pokestops (give you essential items and can be used to attract Pokemon) and Pokemon Gyms (can be used for battling and earning coins) which are fixed at real world locations. For example, there might be a gym at your local church and a Pokestop at the mural next to your local cafe. You can’t access these unless you are physically right next to them. So you have to get out there.

Secondly, walking is rewarding as you’re usually more likely to encounter Pokemon if you move around. There are also eggs you can get that hatch after you’ve walked (or very slowly driven) a certain number of kilometres, so the game also works like a pedometer.

Thirdly, getting out there doesn’t just mean walking around your own neighbourhood. You have to travel around your whole city, if not beyond. Different areas have different concentrations of Pokemon. If I only played Pokemon Go in my own neighbourhood, I’d end up with a vast army of Ekans. I can also get lots of Growlithes, Geodudes and Sandshrews, among others. However, given that there are 150 different Pokemon to collect – and filling your Pokedex (Pokemon Index) with as many different Pokemon as you can is the closest this game has to a goal – walking up and down your own street is not going to get you far.

This is a game that is much more rewarding for urban players; rural Pokemon Go players report walking hours without seeing anything, having to drive miles to the nearest town with a single Pokespot, etc. Even within cities, there are pockets that are pretty dead and others – usually the ones with dense populations and lots of visitors anyway – that are happening.

Connection to original Pokemon

Pokemon GO has netted a lot of players in their 20s and 30s who grew up on Pokemon; it has the nostalgia factor. That said, it’s certainly different from the original RPGs.

So how does this game resemble/differ from the original Pokemon RPG?

Both feature the same 150 Pokemon creatures, which you have to wander around and catch with Pokeballs. The more different types you can get, the better. You can use your Pokemon to battle others, and different Pokemon have different types, so different Pokemon will be stronger against certain opponents (eg, water Pokemon have an advantage against fire Pokemon).

Apart from the fact that Pokemon Go offers virtually endless terrain to explore, there is a lot less to it compared with the original. The original Pokemon had a story (well… sort of) with a few mini quests, lots of characters to interact with, a quest to follow (beat the 8 gym leaders and become a Pokemon Master) and some strategy involved in choosing which Pokemon to have on your battling team, which moves to give them all, etc. It did involve a few periods of level grinding – you had to get your Pokemon strong to face the gyms – but generally you could steadily make progress through the game.

Pokemon Go doesn’t really have a purpose – instead, you endlessly catch whatever you can, and catching things gives you experience points that can help you level up. As you level up, you can catch stronger Pokemon and get different items. But there is much less strategy involved. Even the ‘fighting’ is a lot less interesting, as you have less control over which attacks your Pokemon have and you cannot really battle other players, only AI.

In Pokemon Go, I suppose the goal is whatever you make it. ‘Catch as many different Pokemon as possible to fill up your Pokedex’ is probably the biggest, and is the goal I’ve taken for myself. ‘Get to the highest level’, ‘take over gyms’ and ‘get the optimum level Pokemon possible’ could be others. And it’s quite possible there will be more features and aspects of gameplay added in the future.

Where I’m coming from

I was a big fan of the Pokemon franchise about 15 years ago. I haven’t played too many of the recent games though. SoulSilver was the last one, and that was partly for Japanese practice.🙂 Still, the nostalgia factor helped to get me in.

I’ve also been a person who rather dislikes mobile phones for causing a distraction and interrupting ‘real life’. I have always tended to get the cheapest phone and then used it as little as possible. For the last three years I had only one app on my phone – a Japanese dictionary – and never used it for Facebook. This is partly because I use the Internet so much at home, so that when I go out, I want to leave it behind entirely.

That meant that these two weeks playing Pokemon GO make the first time I have walked around with phone in hand, constantly checking it.

Another thing is that I’m always reading about the latest fads in pop culture – I read Cracked, and Facebook, and see lots of references to various video games, superhero movies, big name series, etc – but usually don’t play or watch any of them myself. When I heard about Pokemon Go, I was enjoying reading about it – particularly those ridiculous stories of people walking into things (one guy even drove into a school – I mean literally o_O) or congregating in ridiculous numbers while playing – but wasn’t thinking of having a go myself.

My experience

I really enjoyed this game at first. When I first set off walking around the block and came across a Geodude down my street, or an Ekans outside my house, it gave me a kick! I was catching ‘real’ Pokemon in the real world! I felt like a character from a game or TV show come to life. That was rather fun.

It was also fun because, starting from 0 Pokemon, it wasn’t too hard to find a new type you’d never caught before, and to start filling in new entries on the Pokedex. Collecting games are always quite fun, and Pokemon also gives you intermittent random rewards – not knowing what kind of Pokemon you’ll get from an egg, for instance, or encountering a random Kangaskhan by the beach – that keep you coming back.

Playing this game, I have found myself walking a bit more. I usually find it boring to walk without a purpose, but Pokestops fill ordinary suburbs with ‘destinations’ to aim for. Instead of just having a coffee in my office building, I’d walk down the street to a cafe so that I could catch a few in the process.

I also enjoy, if I’m in an area with lots of Pokestops, noticing the people around me playing it, talking about it, etc. I haven’t been to any of those settings with hundreds of people all playing, but even just seeing fellow players around on the street is fun, and makes me feel part of the club. Participating in a pop culture fad for once.

Having started the game a few weeks after it came out, I did wonder if I’d left it too late, particularly for fighting. All the gyms seemed to be full of Pokemon over 1000 CP – and there was I with a collection of Pokemon with CP in the double digits. I am now at level 20, so I have caught up enough to participate – there are usually a few lower-level gyms around – if not to be a particularly tough contender. As time goes by, it does get harder for new players, I think.

(One thing I notice is that a lot of the stronger gyms are held by Dragonites, which is surprising when you consider how rare Dratini are. I have about 600 Pokemon but have only one Dratini. I have heard that there were originally places you could go and find ‘nests’ of certain Pokemon – including Dratini – but these were reconfigured. That might be one disadvantage to coming in late.)

Being able to compete in gyms properly is good, but for the most part, the further you progress in the game, the less rewarding it becomes. The guy on this thread got it right – scaling is off. As you get to higher levels, you encounter lots of higher level Pokemon – which are harder to catch – but do not offer you any advantages at all in terms of XP etc. So as you get to a higher level, not only does it get harder to GET XP, but you also have to get MORE XP to get to the next level.

Also, once you’ve taken the game to all the various areas where you usually hang out, it gets hard to find and catch anything new. I can keep taking my game to the places I frequent, but while at the beginning of the game, I could find several new Pokemon in a walk down the street, now I might find, say, one new creature in two hours of active, constant hunting. The rest is busy work, catching endless Pidgeys and Rattata and Paras.

The ‘getting out there’ aspect is a bit overrated too. After the first few days, being attached to my phone wore thin. I mentioned that I have walked a bit more, but at the same time, have done so without appreciating the world around me as much as usual. In the last fortnight I haven’t been for any walk without my phone in hand, and it’s not refreshing. Looking at my phone so much gives me a headache and makes me feel less normal. And by that I’m not saying it’s silly or embarrassing to play Pokemon; what I mean is that I don’t feel natural, not quite human, but someone living in an artificial sphere, disconnected from the world around me and always slightly distracted. Not living in the present moment. Can I really say that it’s getting me out and about in the real world?

Instead, I started to feel like it was more of a compulsion, or addiction, to keep checking the phone and catching things, even if I didn’t really feel like it, just to make ‘progress’.

If I was part of a more social scene with it, I might feel differently.

I think at this point, there is no more incentive to ‘level up’ or catch Ekans number 75. I’ve gotten over 80 Pokemon in my Pokedex – my initial goal. I might just check for Pokemon if I happen to go to a new part of town. The last couple of days, I’ve had a couple of bus trips or walks *without* constantly looking at the phone, and it has felt good.

 

Anyway, it was good fun for a while.

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Games: Banjo-Kazooie

June 5, 2016

Banjo-Kazooie is a fun 3D platformer for the Nintendo 64. I still can’t think of the Nintendo 64 as coming out that long ago, but this game came out in 1998 – geez, I was still in high school. This was definitely my favourite, and most replayed, N64 game.

You star as Banjo the bear and his loudmouthed bird companion, Kazooie, on a mission to rescue Banjo’s little sister, who has been kidnapped by Gruntilda, an evil witch. You have to venture into the witch’s lair, but it will take a lot of adventures in different worlds to progress through to where the witch is waiting for you.

Some of the worlds are typical video game fare – there’s a beach level, a snow level, a desert level, a forest level – but even these are full of unique touches and fun designs. The snow level, for example, isn’t just snow – it’s a Christmas-filled winter wonderland – and the whole level is dominated by an enormous towering Christmas snowman you can climb. The desert level has hot sand and pyramids, sure, but it also has lots of little puzzles, mazes and secrets in its various pyramids. The forest level has a unique design that lets you travel back and forth through different seasons to see the woods at different times.

The music is fun throughout, and one nice touch is that it adapts to what’s going on around you. So for example, you’ll be exploring Treasure Trove Cove, and the same basic tune plays, but once you get near the pirate ship, it takes on a distinct sea shanty flavour. If you swim, it gets muffled, as if you are hearing it underwater. If you fly high above the cliffs, the music fades as the wind picks up.

Another cute touch is that everything in this game talks – everything. Collectables will introduce themselves to you and explain what they are. You can talk to buckets. Eggs. Toilets. Notes.

Collecting things is a big aspect of this game. In each level, there are ten jigsaw pieces (needed to open subsequent worlds), 100 musical notes (needed to open doors within Gruntilda’s lair and thus get closer to rescuing your sister), 5 jinjos (little creatures to save – doing this gives you one of your ten jigsaw pieces) and 2 honeycomb pieces (to give you extra life bar). You do not need to get every item on every level, at least at first, but to beat the game, it will profit you to have almost all of them.

The moves are fun, since Banjo and Kazooie work as a team. You mostly control Banjo as he runs around, but most of your moves also use Kazooie somehow. You can get Kazooie to carry Banjo – she’s much better at running up steep walls, for instance – or even fly, once you learn how. Banjo’s jumps can be boosted through Kazooie’s wing power, and the bird can also shoot eggs, bash enemies with her beak, etc. Meanwhile, Banjo also has somersaults and punches, so there’s no shortage of ways to kill things.

These moves are not all available from the beginning of the game. As you progress, you’ll be able to learn new moves. Occasionally, this will mean going back to a previous world to complete a task requiring that move, but on the whole there isn’t too much back-tracking.

I really liked the difficulty level of this game. That is, it’s not super difficult – there are a few tasks you may need to try more than once to get them – but there aren’t many parts that will get you really frustrated and stuck. For a not-very-frequent gamer like me, it is challenging enough to be enjoyable.

Dying has one main penalty – you have to start the level over again and collect musical notes again. (There are 100 notes to collect on each level. The more you find, the better, as it’ll help you progress through various doors in Gruntilda’s lair.) So there is an incentive to not die; this adds to the challenge level somewhat.

The size of the levels was good, I thought – complex enough to explore and take some time to discover new things in them, but compact enough that doing so didn’t feel like a tedious task.

These aspects of Banjo-Kazooie’s gameplay I’ve just mentioned – all of which I liked – are probably the main reason I never much liked the sequel, ‘Banjo-Tooie’. The sequel was very similar in style and gameplay, but the worlds were bigger, more challenging, and the game was less linear. I found it too frustrating. I kept getting disoriented and lost in the worlds – compared with Banjo-Kazooie, it was harder for me to get a handle on where things were.

I also kept encountering things I couldn’t do – you can’t rescue this Jinjo yet because you haven’t learned this move. You can’t open this door yet because… well, you can’t. You can’t do this because you need to go to another world first. I felt like I was constantly being blocked. The number of new moves I was supposed to remember was getting a bit excessive. And I’ve never much liked boss battles.

All of which mark me as not much of a gamer, I suppose, which is true enough. I tried to play Banjo-Tooie a couple of times – each time perservering for several hours – and never really enjoyed it. It’s worth saying, though, that this sequel was a big hit with fans and more people seem to consider this sequel the better game.

I, for one, would still recommend the original though.