As we all know, the world has been gripped by a pandemic since the winter / early spring of 2020. The high infection and mortality rates of the novel caronavirus and its associated disease, COVID-19, lead to a mass panic that resulted in governments all over the world completely shutting down economies and recommending social distancing measures intended to mitigate the spread of the disease long enough to get it under control. This seemed to work up through April, when declining cases and general public boredness and frustration lead to the premature re-opening of businesses, and a few weeks later we started seeing huge increases in cases. As a society, we put money before the life and dignity of people, and tens of thousands of people have unnecessarily died because people couldn't wait three more weeks before going to the hair solon or the beach.

I wanted to write about the pandemic back during the height of the lockdown in April, but I kept putting it off until it seemed like a resolution was in sight. I didn't want to publish my thoughts on the issue until I actually knew how it would all turn out, and whether or not I would be personally affected by it. But now it appears that we are nowhere near the end of this pandemic, and the general public and our political leaders have seemingly lost all will to take any meaningful steps to deal with it. I guess now is as good a time as any to start talking about it.

The Las Vegas Strip was shut down for over a month. Shortly after it re-opened, casino workers started getting sick.

I want to talk about the broader socio-political impacts of the pandemic, but I want to take more time to get my thoughts together and do the proper research to make sure I get the facts right. So I'll be writing later about the lessons that I think society (American society more specifically) should have learned from this pandemic (but apparently didn't). First, I'm going to write about the impacts that the pandemic had on me, personally -- which (admittedly) isn't particularly dramatic.

We had a couple of minor scares, but they all turned out to be false alarms. Early in the pandemic, a friend had cold or flu-like symptoms within a day of us having her husband over. Turned out, she just had tonsillitis. Though a regular cold seems to have gone around their house a couple times over the months of the pandemic. We had another friend who works in a local supermarket and had a co-worker test positive for COVID. Her and her roommates all had tests and all came back negative, thankfully. I also had a couple work colleagues who had direct business contacts who got sick and tested positive, though none of my colleagues ever showed symptoms. As I said, multiple close calls.

Commuting from the Bedroom to the Living Room

Unlike many people who were furloughed or laid off, I was fortunate enough to keep my job and be able to work from home during the lockdowns. We were scheduled to re-open the office in mid-July, but the resurgence in local cases prompted our boss to keep everyone working from home indefinitely until new cases drop again. It was a good call.

Many of my friends and family weren't as lucky. I had several friends get furloughed, and most of them ended up being permanently laid off. My mom was also furloughed, and she does not expect to go back to work. Well, I guess she gets an early retirement. My sister also works in a health clinic, so was an essential worker who was potentially at high risk. Her clinic shortened its hours and only takes patients by appointment, so it wasn't nearly as stressful or dangerous as it could have been if she had been working at a hospital, but she still had a very rough few months.

Thankfully, I had my partner and proxy-daughter to keep me company while locked down in work-from-home mode. As for my partner, she's a teacher and was doing the whole tele-education thing over Google classroom, phone calls, and emails for the few weeks that were left in the school year. Then she got the summer off anyway, so she was even less impacted than I was. She was going to have paid vacation for the whole summer anyway. As for what's going to happen when the 2020 school year starts ... that's still up in the air as of the time of this publication. Our local school district has a plan for re-opening, but it's not ideal. I don't think any plan would be ideal in this situation. It's just all different degrees of bad.

Public schools are the last thing we should be re-opening during a pandemic.
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Well I'll be damned. This winter, I was pleasantly surprised by The Mandalorian seeming to pull the Star Wars franchise back from the brink of the abyss. And now I'm also pleasantly surprised to see that perhaps Star Trek might be pulled out from circling the toilet bowl as well. The first episode of CBS All Access' new Picard series was surprisingly "not bad".

Now, I do still have some serious reservations about the directions that I think the show might be going later in the season. And I'll get to that later. But first, I want to sit and bask in the delight of having just watched a new piece of Star Trek media that I didn't hate. After slogging through the first season of Discovery (I have yet to watch the second season), I was left with zero faith in CBS's ability to re-capture the spirit and soul of Star Trek.

Picard shows some good faith right from the start by opening with a clip of the Enterprise-D. Not some re-designed Franken-ship monstrosity like the "original" Enterprise in the 2009 Trek reboot, or as seen in Discovery. But the honest-to-goodness Galaxy-class Enterprise-D, pretty much exactly as we remember and love her -- and looking mighty gorgeous, might I add! We then zoom into Ten Forward, where Picard is playing a hand of poker with an unconvincingly digitally de-aged Brent Spiner reprising the role of Data. This scene pays homage to the beautiful final scene of the Next Generation finale "All Good Things...", and Picard laments that he's stalling going all-in against Data's hand because he "doesn't want the game to end".

Picard is a return (and continuation) of Star Trek as fans knew it almost 20 years ago.

We didn't want the game to end either...

The first few scenes of the episode then go on to show Picard giving brief (but impassioned) speeches about the decline of Starfleet ideals, the civil rights of sentient androids, and the moral imperative to provide aid and relief to the Romulan refugees whose home planet was destroyed by the [somehow unexpected?] supernova of the Romulan sun. And he's also trying to do some social justice for pit bull dogs, which (as my choice of pets should suggest) is something that I approve very strongly of. It's respectful and faithful (and reverent) to what came before. "Holy shit", I thought, "this is actually looking and feeling like the Star Trek that I know and love."

For a moment, I thought the soul of Star Trek is there, in those early scenes, even though it is shallow and lacks the idealism that has always underpinned Trek.

...

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Blair Witch - title

Blair Witch, as an intellectual property, is in a frustrating place similar to the Alien franchise. Both were innovative horror films that set numerous standards and conventions within their sub-genres, and which have been copied and ripped-off numerous times. Sci-fi games from Starcraft, to Metroid, to System Shock, to Dead Space have all taken heavy inspiration from Alien and Aliens. So much of the iconography of Alien and Aliens have been borrowed by these games, that when someone comes along with a game based on the Alien intellectual property, it's hard for that game to not feel like it's derivative of one (or all) of the myriad Alien impersonators.

the Blair Witch Project has similarly left a mark on the horror landscape. It single-handedly popularized the "found-footage" genre against the backdrop of a creepy, supernatural forest. Games such as Outlast, Alan Wake, and even Resident Evil VII all have a little bit of Blair Witch in their DNA. So when a game comes out that actually bears the "Blair Witch" name, it's kind of hard for it to stand out in the larger horror landscape.

Plenty of games (such as Outlast [LEFT]) have used tropes inspired by The Blair Witch Project.

This is the case with Lionsgate and Bloober Team's new Blair Witch game, exclusive to Microsoft platforms. Nothing that Blair Witch does feels particularly new or creative, even though most of the game's ideas are competently executed. Using a camcorder as a tool for navigation, exposition-delivery, and puzzle-solving feels pulled straight from Outlast or Resident Evil VII. Wandering through the woods and defeating monsters by pointing a flashlight at them gives me flashbacks to Alan Wake. Navigating the forest and occasionally picking up other people's trash also reminded me of Firewatch. Eventually, the whole game descends (rather predictably) into P.T. territory -- but, you know, without all the nuance or careful pacing that made P.T. so unnerving.

Who's a good doggy?

Blair Witch's most innovative feature is probably the dog companion (named Bullet), but even that feels pulled straight from Fallout 4. I probably would have been a bit more impressed if not for the fact that Bullet seemed to lose relevance as anything other than a monster compass, for a large chunk of the middle of the game. Without having healing items or ammunition or any other consumable supplies, the ability to send the dog out to find things feels like a sorely under-utilized mechanic.

Bullet is very well-introduced, and is integral to the early levels of the game. He finds clues for you, fetches key items, guides you to the next objective, and warns you of potential danger, all completely organically and without breaking immersion. But after a couple of hours, he just runs out of things to find and things to do. The puzzle shift away from using the dog, and more towards using the camera to do everything from manipulate the environment, to navigate mazes and looping paths, and even spotting monsters.

Your emotional support dog, Bullet, serves an integral role throughout the game.

...

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Friday, November 23, 2018 10:00 AM

New house, new pet

in Pets and Animals by MegaBearsFan

Yesterday, I wrote about how I took in my parents' pet tortoise, and then moved into a new house and had to build a burrow for him. However, that's not the only pet that we took in when we moved into the new house.

We took in one of my parents' tortoises when we moved to the new house.

Several years ago, shortly after my girlfriend and her daughter moved in with me, the little girl started asking us to get a dog. At the time, we were living in a relatively small house that was filled to the brim with our stuff. Board games, video games, costumes, kitchen appliances, kid's toys, furniture ... the house was starting to feel awfully cramped. So I told the kid that we would get a dog after we moved into a bigger house.

That's the sort of promise that young kids don't forget!

Well, this summer, we finally found that larger home. Before we had even moved in, the kid was asking to get a dog, but we had to get settled in and furnish the house first. We also gave her the chore of having to pick up the tortoise's poop as practice for a dog. We told her that if she wants a dog, she needs to get better at cleaning up. If she continues to leave toys laying around, then the dog is going to chew them up, especially if we get a puppy.

I didn't want to get a puppy, however, as I wanted to try to get a dog that was already house trained. We started looking at pet stores, but I wasn't really fond of the idea of buying from a pet store, especially one that is supplied by a puppy mill. I wanted to try looking for a rescue or getting a dog from the shelter.

We visited the local animal shelter, which was full of very depressed-looking pit bulls.

We went to the local shelter to look around, but that place might as well be called the "Sad Pit Bull Prison". It was so depressing to see all those poor dogs in those cages. We saw probably 250 dogs. Of those 250, maybe 10 of them were not pit bulls. Of the 10 or so that weren't pit bulls, about half were chihuahuas. Of the remaining four or five dogs that weren't pit bulls or chihuahas, every single one of them had a sign on the cage saying that the dog had already been adopted.

I wasn't opposed to getting a pit bull. They have a reputation as being dangerous, but I know that the reputation is somewhat unfounded. They are very strong dogs, but they aren't disproportionately more likely to attack someone than any other breed. In fact, my understanding is that they have much lower incident rates of bites and attacks than German shepherds, huskies, golden retrievers, and other popular dog breeds. Like with many other dog breeds, it all comes down to the individual dog's temperament, and the manner in which the dog was raised. In fact, one of my co-workers has a pit bull, and she's one of the sweetest dogs I've ever met. I had to go to his house to troubleshoot some hardware / software that we had installed there, and his dog sat calmly by my side the whole time looking up at me with a big doggy smile waiting for me to pet her.

However, all the dogs that we asked about at the shelter had unknown histories. The workers there didn't know if the dogs were good with kids or with other pets, and I didn't want to risk bringing any animal into my home that might be a risk to our kid or pet tortoise, regardless of breed. So our plans to get a dog fell on the wayside for the time being.

...

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Metal Gear Solid V: the Phantom Pain

Are you one of the poor suckers who paid $30-40 for Ground Zeroes and were ready for The Phantom Pain to make up for your disappointment with what was little more than a glorified (and over-priced) demo? I wasn't, because I got Ground Zeroes for free from my PSPlus subscription around the same time that Phantom Pain was released. I was obviously disappointed with the demo's short length, and I didn't bother doing any of the side missions. But since I didn't pay for it, I wasn't as enraged as some other players might have been.

I actually really liked what little gameplay Ground Zeroes had to offer. The Guantanamo Bay arena was well-designed and offered some good infiltration challenge that tested my Metal Gear capabilities. The A.I. was surprisingly competent and adaptive - not so much that I couldn't exploit them occasionally, but still good. The graphics, lighting, and weather effects all looked outstanding. It was a fun experience. Not "forty dollars fun", but pretty fun. At least part of the battle at Mother Base should have been playable, and I didn't like that large elements of the story were hidden away in collectible audio tapes, but whatever.

I got Ground Zeroes for free on PSPlus, instead of paying $30-40 MSRP for a glorified demo.

Ground Zeroes gave me flashbacks to the phenomenal classic Sons of Liberty demo that came packaged with Zone of the Enders on the PS2. At least that only cost me a $3 rental, and I got to play Zone of the Enders too. After Ground Zeroes, I was looking forward to getting my hands on the much bigger Phantom Pain, and was optimistic that it would provide an equally good experience that would be worth the purchase price. Phantom Pain is a very long, very complicated, and very uneven game. So buckle up, friend. This is going to be a long review.

Table of Contents

After having written a lengthy blog post about how open world, sandbox game design almost necessarily puts the game's narrative in a state of limbo, I was amazed to start up Metal Gear Solid V and see the very first mission took my criticisms to heart. Of course, the game had already been released by the time I had written that opinion piece, so I can't take credit for having influenced its development, but it was still refreshing and gratifying. Anyway, in the very first mission, Ocelot tells you that Miller has been captured by Soviets in Afghanistan, has been tortured for intel, and has three days - tops - to live. You must rescue him before that time.

Metal Gear Solid V - three days to rescue Miller
Ocelot gives the player three days to rescue Miller...

At first, I didn't put much stock in Ocelot's claim. After all, sandbox games are notorious for saying that something needs to be done ASAP, but they never have the balls to actually walk the walk and enforce that objective. Until now. When checking my map, I noticed something in the corner that I hadn't noticed in other sandbox games before: an "elapsed time" counter. The game was plainly tracking how long it was taking me to complete the primary mission objective. I treated this timer with a certain degree of skepticism. But sure enough, failure to rescue Miller within the allotted time actually results in a "Game Over"!

This is exactly how I feel that priority objectives in open world games should be handled: make it apparent to the player (through dialogue and/or explicit notification) that an objective is being timed or that it is otherwise a priority, and make sure that there are reasonable, perceivable consequences for failure to achieve that objective within the expected conditions. Then design some early-game quests or objectives such that the player is put in a position in which they can (or must) fail; thus, teaching the player that when the game says "do x or else", the game actually means it. I put down the controller and gave Hideo Kojima a standing ovation. But would this opening mission set a precedent that priority missions must actually be prioritized, and would that precedent stand throughout the rest of the game? Or was this just a one-off occurrence that would not be representative of the rest of the game? Regardless, a tone was plainly set for the rest of the game, and the stakes had been raised.

... Failure to rescue Miller within the allotted time results in his death and a Game Over.

Would this refreshing precedent carry over into the rest of the game? Well, sort of...

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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