The Infinite Zenith

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Category Archives: Gaming

An Introspection on Team Fortress 2, or How I Spent My Time In Between Preparations for the MCAT and Remarks on Hats

“Throughout history, men have worn hats as a way of asserting dominance over other men. ‘I buy hats,’ a behatted man seems to say, ‘I am better than you.'” –Classless Update

Team Fortress 2 remains one of Valve’s finest games. An improvement to Team Fortress, a Half-Life mod that created a class-based multiplayer title based on team play, Team Fortress 2 took the Team Fortress concept and cartoonised it, creating an aesthetic in the manner of a clever pastiche of spy films from the mid-1960s. The resulting product was fresh, innovative and fun: the classes are balanced against one another so that no one role can be dominant in a match, and that a team with good player coordination can utilise their composition to control a match. At the same time, Team Fortress 2 had a very low barrier of entry. All of the classes have a high skill ceiling – it takes time to master each class and utilise their abilities fully, but every class begins with a solid all-around loadout that allows beginners to remain versatile in their capabilities. Over time, players can pick up or craft weapons that are more suited for their unique play style by means of a drop system. Maps are thoughtfully designed to accommodate both the game mode and for the classes themselves. Wide open spaces favour snipers and soldiers, while narrower chokepoints allow engineers and heavies to set up defensive positions. The permutations possible mean that no two games will ever be alike; players can utilise their classes both in conventional and creative manners to impact the course of a match with the aim of securing a victory. In this way, Team Fortress 2 offers nearly unlimited replay value as one competes against other players in a game of skill, and all the while, receive items that help them to play in a manner most suited for their preferences. Valve has an extensive track record of producing exceptional games and making decisions that command player loyalty – after its launch in 2007, Valve continued to improve and expand on the game. Four years later, Valve would make a decision that would irreversibly shape the future of both Team Fortress 2, and contemporary multiplayer shooters, as well: they made Team Fortress 2 free-to-play in 2011 after realising that players were spending considerable sums on keys to unlock crates, which contain rare and highly sought-after hats, cosmetic items that alter a player’s appearance, but otherwise, do not impact gameplay.

I had joined Team Fortress 2 at the behest of a friend – there is no compelling argument against free, and at the time, I’d been looking for a replacement to Halo 2 Vista, whose servers were on the brink of being shut down. Team Fortress 2 appeared to fit the bill, being a remarkably engaging and deep shooter that seemed to offer precisely the experience I had found in Halo 2. The crates, precursor to the gacha-style lootboxes and cosmetic obsession that dominates contemporary gaming, had no bearing on gameplay itself; for both myself and my friend, we found a title that appeared to have staying power. However, it soon became clear that most players were disinterested in the excellence behind Team Fortress 2‘s mechanics. One day, my friend and I joined a server. After spawning in, we picked out classes and immediately set off to capture an objective. After reaching the nearest control point and occupying it, we were both kicked from the server. The kick reason was we had joined a server that was intended for players to show off their hats and discuss potential trades. In the weeks following, it was nearly impossible to find any servers where standard game modes were permitted; players became more concerned with trading for hats than the game itself. The ability to trade for hats accentuated the issue – a virtual economy had formed around hats, and players were reportedly willing to spend hundreds of dollars for Unusuals, a rare hat type with unique particle effects. Others yet spent hundreds of hours pursuing leads to acquire the highly elusive buds, which were given out to Mac OS players for a limited time. In spite of this, I was still able to enjoy Team Fortress 2 in between studying for the MCAT; Valve had introduced a bots-only mode for offline training, and it was immensely cathartic to be able to turn the weapons I’d picked up and crafted to see their effects in an environment that was conducive towards gameplay. The sheer thoughtfulness that Valve put into Team Fortress 2 meant that, even when the game was all but unplayable thanks to players focusing on hats, there still remained a way to enjoy the unique atmosphere and game mechanics in Team Fortress 2. In this way, I spent a considerable amount of time, outside of my studies, playing matches against AI bots and taking in a game that, at its core, still remained superbly enjoyable.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • When Team Fortress 2 became free-to-play in the summer of 2011, my friends and I immediately signed on: the game had been of interest to us owing to the gameplay loop and the interplay between the classes, as well as the campy spy film aesthetic. I found myself gravitating towards the Heavy class because the handling had been most similar to that of Halo 2‘s Spartans; while the Heavy is slow-moving, a deep health pool and a powerful mini-gun means that a Heavy could single-handedly clear out a control point.

  • The Soldier had been another class I found enjoyable. Faster-moving than a Heavy and with a lower health pool, the Soldier is armed with a range of rocket launchers that deal impact damage on a direct hit, plus a small amount of splash damage and knockback. Rockets take some skill to use, but properly utilised, Soldiers can clear objectives out for other players to move in. For my friend, he’d found the Sniper class to fit his play-style. Having long held that sniping is the highest representation of skill in a given shooter, my friend always enjoyed learning the ins and outs of being a good marksman.

  • However, Team Fortress 2‘s balance between classes means Snipers are vulnerable to spies. Unlike other FPS, where snipers can single-handedly control matches by picking off foes at ranges that leave them immune to almost everything except a counter-sniper, Team Fortress 2 has the perfect counter for Snipers. The Spy can disguise himself as another team’s classes and sneak deep behind enemy lines to backstab snipers, killing one instantly. However, the Pyro class and their flamethrowers can reveal disguised spies, nullifying their efficacy.

  • In this way, my friend would actually become a fairly competent Pyro as a result of trying to stick it to the Spies who were constantly ruining his Sniper experience. This unintended effect, an emergent behaviour, was one of the signs that Team Fortress 2 had been remarkably well thought-out. Every class has a unique set of strengths and weaknesses that make them more effective in some places, and less effective in others. A good team, then, consists of a mix of classes and players who know what their class’ intended roles are.

  • Besides playing on multiplayer servers, I also found enjoyment in being able to spin up a private server with AI bots to get used to any new guns that I’d picked up. One of my favourite weapons in the whole of Team Fortress 2 was the Machina, a sniper rifle that could only fire once fully-charged, but when charged, it could also penetrate multiple enemies on a successful headshot. Save the base weapons, which are all-purpose weapons everyone starts with, the weapons in Team Fortress 2 are all side-grades, possessing attributes that make them more useful in some scenarios at the expense of a drawback that makes them less effective in other situations.

  • To this end, one could actually stick with the base weapons in the game without ever equipping new weapons, and still do well in a given match. Battlefield 3 would later adopt this method: the starting weapons for each class are great, and new weapons one unlocks will fit a specific play-style better, but the starting weapons will always be versatile enough to handle most of the situations players find themselves in. Initially, the desire to unlock other weapons and try them out were what led my friend and I to idle, the practise of running a headless client on an empty server to pick up items, which drop randomly during gameplay.

  • Our intentions had simply been to pick up crafting parts more easily, although over time, we did end up beginning to run up against the free account’s limitations. By Christmas 2011, both of us decided to purchase keys, which made us a part of the paid tier of players. The advantages of doing so were an increased number of backpack slots and the ability to trade, as well as craft hats using materials from the drops we’d picked up. As more players ended up going down this route, my friend began looking into the community’s trading scene to see if it were possible to trade crafted hats for other items of interest.

  • In the meantime, we would continue to play Team Fortress 2 in between my studies. I vividly recall one day, I’d finished my assignments and hopped onto a server that was Minecraft-themed. Team Fortress 2 had excellent official servers, but also gave the community the toolset they needed to created custom experiences. Some community maps are excellent, but others were also uninspired and dull. I would make it a point to quit every cp_orange map I landed in. In matches, especially on custom servers, I did notice a growing number of people who were standing in the spawn areas, chatting rather than playing the game.

  • It turns out people had been conversing about trading hats, and back in the day, it was only possible to do trades in-game, as Valve had not yet implemented the Steam inventory and the ability to trade for items outside of Team Fortress 2. Things came to a head by the time I began studying for the MCAT: there were more trade servers than there were actual servers in North America, and servers overseas had high enough ping that the game was difficult to play. Moreover, talk of trade and the virtual economy had far overtaken discussions about Team Fortress 2 itself.

  • This was because the updates to Team Fortress 2 had finally made it possible for folks itching to get their hands on the Earbuds to do so, and folks hanging onto Earbuds similarly realised they could suddenly pick up a large number of items if they were to ever trade said Earbuds away. The Earbuds were a cosmetic item that was introduced with a Mac OS update for a limited time, and even my friend hadn’t been immune to their allure. He managed to find a trader who’d been willing to trade his Earbuds for a game, and a deal had almost been reached, but this had been a very arduous process, one that involved staying up until 0200 local time because said trader had lived halfway across the world.

  • In the end, this deal fell through when the trader unexpectedly vanished. When trading was a big deal in the community, I found it quite difficult to join any servers. However, playing with AI bots on private matches still gave me a chance to experience Team Fortress 2 and its aesthetic. This is one of the reasons why I’ve been so fond of AI bots; they allow me to play even when there are no online options available. In this way, I was still able to try out the items I’d picked up or crafted, and AI bots also provide a way of getting used to how players move, which is great for practising sniping.

  • Here, I rock a festive Frontier Justice, an item I picked up along with a festive grenade launcher during the winter of 2012; the first year I played Team Fortress 2, I went for the Nice Festive Crates to activate my account and gain access to the increased backpack slots and trading system. However, they yielded unremarkable hats that proved to be a disappointment, so the next year, I went with the Naughty Crates instead, which give festive weapons. Weapons cosmetics are actually worth having simply because one can see them, but hats feel pointless because they’re generally not visible to players.

  • Team Fortress 2 has clearly undergone many updates in the past decade; nowadays, one’s player icon actually updates to mirror their appearance, and here, I’m rocking an Unusual Carouser’s Capotain, a gift from my friend who, in a string of unusually good luck, managed to unbox four Unusuals from a create some time ago. While Team Fortress 2 fell from my mind ever since I got into Battlefield, my friend’s continued to maintain an interest in Valve’s games. It had been he who suggested I idle, and together, we had collected a large number of items in the process, which we would craft into metal.

  • The idea had been, after his lack of success in picking up the Earbuds, we would continue to collect items and make hats on our own. We could keep the hats we like, trade amongst ourselves if either of us had a hat the other was interested in, and generally partake in the trade system the way it was meant to be used: with friends at a small scale. Over the years, I began losing interest in Team Fortress 2, but for my friend, the thought of really sticking it to the traders lingered on his mind. Picking up the Unusuals in the manner we did would vindicate him: the two of us now had some of Team Fortress 2‘s most coveted items without once grovelling on a trade forum or server for them.

  • While the way my friend and I played Team Fortress 2 would be considered unconventional, I knew of another friend who used Team Fortress 2‘s assets to make YouTube mashups with Madoka Magica. The meaning of these mashups have long eluded me, but I believe now have an answer: the fact that the mercenaries from Team Fortress 2 are protecting Madoka and her team suggest a subconscious desire to defend Madoka’s group from the struggles they face and defuse trouble with the wit and humour Team Fortress 2‘s characters are known for.

  • This in turn would likely be a sign that my friend hadn’t been happy with the suffering Madoka and her friends went through under Gen Urobuchi’s direction. Said friend had also made the videos that would pique my interest in the local anime convention, Otafest, and on that note, the attendance numbers for Otafest are now available for 2022. It turns out this year’s showing was impressive, being 99 percent of what it’d been when they last hosted a convention. Despite efforts to get the event cancelled, Otafest 2022 was a success, and this is uplifting to hear; I’m glad that Otafest had not taken a hit, and depending on how things look for me next year from a scheduling perspective, I would be happy to volunteer again.

  • I still recall sitting out Otafest back then so I could study: the summer of 2012 had been characterised by my choosing to skip many things so I could concentrate. Unfortunately for me, I also opted to miss the Stampede fireworks, which were said to be especially gorgeous that year because it’d been the event’s centennial event. If the local news is to be believed, the fireworks for Stampede 2012 were of a scale that had never been seen in Calgary previously, being a show that lasted over half an hour and featuring choreography that rivalled those of Hong Kong in scale and creativity. In the decade that’s passed, this is one of the few decisions from 2012 that I regret to this day: Calgary has not hosted fireworks of such calibre since.

  • All in all, while I may not play Team Fortress 2 with any frequency in the present, I still have a fondness for the game. The fact that AI bots exist mean I’m able to play the game whenever the wish to revisit simpler times hits me. The fact that Valve made Team Fortress 2 support AI bots despite lacking any of the sophisticated machine learning technologies back in 2011 speaks to their commitment to players, and this is something they share in common with Call of Duty games, which similarly have bots. For me, bots simply represent a chance to continue playing the game even after the servers shut down, and more recently, games like Halo: Infinite and Battlefield 2042 have added AI bots to their games, too.

  • I’m not too sure if I’ll be writing about Team Fortress 2 again, but this game ultimately proved to be just what was needed on days where my thoughts were otherwise wholly consumed by the MCAT. At this point in the summer, my physics final would’ve been on the horizon, and from here on out, my days would be fully devoted towards the MCAT itself. My summer settled into a pattern that would be consistent and unremarkable, at least until K-On! The Movie came out, and what happened with K-On! The Movie had very nearly cost me the MCAT.

  • My decision to focus on the exam benefited me, but it would also leave a lingering regret on my mind for the past decade. I will discuss this aspect in greater detail as we approach the ten-year mark to the release date for K-On! The Movie‘s BD, and for the present, I return my attention to the next post for RPG Real Estate – I will write about this series after the finale airs this Wednesday and aim to do so in an expedient manner so I have a clean slate for Machikado Mazoku: 2-Chōme once its finale airs.

I still vividly recalling the days where my MCAT preparation course would end, and I’d walk along a sun-lit corridor, thinking to myself that, after I finished doing drills and revisions for that day, I would’ve liked nothing more than to spend an hour just blasting AI bots and allowing my mind to rest. The MCAT would come and go, and by the time autumn rolled around, it turns out that Valve had several more surprises planned out for players. When October arrived, a Halloween updated was queued, and Team Fortress 2 became a spooky, ghost-themed game with cakes replacing the health packs scattered around levels. Excited to try the Halloween-exclusive maps out, players would begin moving back into the servers with the aim of trying out the maps. Games became populated again, and Valve would continue to support Team Fortress 2 for years to come. Although Team Fortress 2 holds the infamy of introducing loot boxes to shooters, and ended up creating a community that cared more for hats than the game itself, Valve had also shown itself capable of both creating game modes and options to allow players to play even when no one was available for multiplayer, as well as righting negative trends it created and revitalising player interest in the game itself. Contemporary titles have not fared particularly well with their loot box mechanics: without the vision and talent Valve possessed, modern games have a very sophisticated set of cosmetics, but lack other elements that make them worth returning to. Conversely, owing to all of the care Valve has directed towards Team Fortress 2, the game remains enjoyable even today – playing through the AI bot training on my own brings back memories of a time when, after reviewing topics as diverse as exam technique, verbal reasoning, electromagnetism, metabolic pathways and halogen reactions, I would lose myself in a 1960s-style spy film world. Over the years, I would stop playing Team Fortress 2 – while the game was still enjoyable, I ended up gravitating towards Battlefield and its aesthetic. Like Team Fortress 2Battlefield gave new players a good place to start from, but rewards experience and skill, but the key difference was that the modes and classes were a little simpler, allowing one to also lose themselves in a round of TDM, something that Team Fortress 2 doesn’t offer. I’d been very much a fan of Halo‘s Slayer mode, and Team Death Match represents a mode where it was possible to unwind without having an objective to focus on. However, Team Fortress 2 has never left my mind, bringing to mind those moments in between lengthy and intense study sessions.

Reflections on Lessons Learnt From Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and A Turning Point in Kinematics on the Road to the MCAT

“Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.” –F. Scott Fitzgerald

It had been a brilliantly sunny day, but this fact was entirely lost on me as I left my first physics midterm, utterly defeated. Kinematics had never been my strong suit, and I ended up flubbing enough questions to wonder if I would make it through this spring course in one piece. I boarded the bus and made my way over to my friend’s place: although this exam had been devastating, I had not forgotten my promise of delivering to said friend a pair of headphones. He was scheduled to visit family in China in less than two days’ time, and after my bus reached its destination, I cut through a footpath to reach his place. When I arrived, my friend had another request for me: this was back during a time when Team Fortress 2 still was open to idling, and at the time, my friend had been quite keen on collecting drops from a headless Team Fortress 2 client, with the intent of transforming duplicate weapons into scrap, combining this into reclaimed metal and ultimately, refining this metal with the goal of making hats. To this end, my friend had created no fewer than four accounts, and the ask had been simple: I would leave a headless client running while I was at the university and cycle through each account. My friend would leave for China, and I began the process of idling. During days where the cap was reached, I spotted that my friend had Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in his account, and curiosity led me to beat the game over the course of a week. In between finishing lab reports and trying to keep up with the new topics in my physics course, I saw Sergeant John “Soap” MacTavish fighting alongside Captain John Price and Bravo Team to prevent Imran Zakhaev from seizing Russian ICBMs and levelling the Eastern Seaboard with them. Throughout Modern Warfare, I was impressed with the sheer grit MacTavish and Price demonstrated: regardless of being outgunned after trying to make their way to an extraction zone, or pressing forwards with preventing ballistic missiles from hitting the continental United States even after they’re launched, Bravo Team never once give up; they simply soldiered on with a grim determination to get the job done. At this point in the summer, I had been more than ready to throw in the towel: in the Bachelor of Health Sciences programme, summer courses don’t affect the GPA calculation for things like the honours thesis or scholarships, so it would’ve been sufficient for me to simply pass physics and focus on the summer’s main foe, the MCAT.

With its uncommonly well-presented atmospherics, Modern Warfare completely immersed me in its story. When I reached the One Shot, One Kill mission, I noticed that the game presented all of the variables Price needed to account for whilst placing the shot needed to take Zakhaev out. I’d been a little surprised that the bullet drop would be that severe over the distance: at 896.7 metres, I imagined that with the M82’s muzzle velocity of 854 m/s, the bullet would still fly true en route to Zakhaev’s cranium. I quickly broke out the kinematics equations and worked out the drop: the expression d = v₀·t + (a·t²)/2 was sufficient to work things out, and if the bullet was in flight for 1.05 seconds, then assuming a vertical velocity of 0 m/s when leaving the barrel, we can assume that the only acceleration the bullet experiences is due to gravity (8.91 m/s²). With these values in mind, the bullet would drop 5.40 meters (16.4 feet), to three significant figures, over that distance. Spotting this, I was swiftly reminded that although kinematics might not be my forte, there was still relevance in studying it. I thus resolved to put in a more concerted effort for the second midterm, which had been a mere two weeks after the first midterm. Doubling down on my studies, I also spent my spare time going through the remainder of the Modern Warfare campaign, striking a balance between becoming comfortable with the physics work and experiencing an iconic part of the Call of Duty franchise as a means of unwinding. I felt better prepared for the second midterm, and walked away from this one with a greater confidence: two days after the midterm ended, I published a post about my cursory thoughts on the One Shot, One Kill mission and finished Modern Warfare. When my midterm results returned, I was surprised that I’d done significantly better, and by the time the final exam rolled around, I was able to perform. In this introductory physics course, I turned my grade around from a C- to an A-, and moreover, this course acted as a refresher for a major part of the MCAT: kinematics was very much a part of the physical sciences section, and with biology, biochemistry and organic chemistry still fresh on my mind, I had enough of a background to begin mastering the exam-taking techniques. Completing my physics course on a high note gave me the confidence I needed during the early days of MCAT preparations. When my friend returned home from China, I returned the Steam accounts and no longer had access to Modern Warfare, but the atmospherics and emotions lingered with me. I thus entered the MCAT with the same sort of deadly focus and resolve that Price and MacTavish had when staring down what seemed to be certain death.

Additional Remarks and Commentary

  • Modern Warfare‘s campaign represents one of the most iconic in gaming history, right alongside the likes of giants like Half-LifeHalo and GoldenEye. Games of this time period were polished and thought-provoking, and when I first set foot here, during the infamous “Heat” mission, Modern Warfare would’ve just turned five. As memory serves, I became interested in Modern Warfare while looking up ghost stories surrounding Chernobyl and happened upon a text that described the Pripyat missions as being ghostly in terms of atmospherics.

  • Watching footage of Modern Warfare on YouTube convinced me that this was a game worth trying, but when my friend asked me to idle for Team Fortress 2 hats, I ended up  having the chance to play the game on his account instead. This experience allowed me to experience the campaign to the extent that I wished, and over the space of a week, I finished the entire game. In those days, I had an older computer that, while not quite powerful enough to run Crysis or Bad Company 2, could still play Team Fortress 2 and Modern Warfare without any issues.

  • I had nailed most of the questions, but I still remember the final question had me licked. I ended up with a 65 on this first midterm as a result. Looking back, this was a consequence of my going through the motions; the introductory mechanics course was basically a revisit of kinematics from secondary school, and I’d fallen into the trap of thinking that, since I’d done well enough back in secondary school, my old knowledge must’ve still been intact. Coupled with the fact that I was moderately distracted by Otafest and Gundam Unicorn‘s fifth episode, my focus wasn’t fully on physics.

  • After the shock of the first midterm wore off, and with a series of accounts to idle for, I realised that the only way to get through everything with a passing grade was if I focused on my studies when I needed to, and to this end, I would sit down and re-structure my days. I would only deal with laboratory materials on Monday, then catch up with lecture materials after classes ended on Mondays and Wednesdays by doing review problems. Tuesdays and Thursdays were devoted to assignments, and any leftover time I had in the week, I would focus on revisiting any concepts from the week I’d been feeling less confident about.

  • Each day of the week, anywhere after 1700 would be my downtime, in which I wouldn’t look at any coursework. This was when I’d go through Modern Warfare, and later, when I finished, Portal 2. In this way, I would regain rhythm in my spring course, and in conjunction with the grit and spirit seen in Modern Warfare, I would come back around and decided that, rather than throwing in the towel, I would do what I could for physics. On this day a decade earlier, I would sit down to my second midterm, which had been a mere two weeks after the first.

  • After conquering the second midterm and performing as I had wished, I had enough momentum to push on forwards. It helped considerably that things like momentum, work and energy were concepts I was much stronger with, and I’d also been more comfortable with collisions and energy transfer than I’d ever been with kinematics. My old spirits returned to me, and this timing was critical: shortly after the second midterm ended, my MCAT course had also begun. With only two months left to exam day, I received a crash course on MCAT content and also learnt the means of testing more efficiently.

  • Because I’d been fresh out of physics, and having taken several organic chemistry, biochemistry and molecular biology courses, the MCAT content ultimately wasn’t a concern to me: I knew enough of the basics to understand what was being asked, and testing thus became a matter of triaging the exam, keeping cool under pressure and managing time well. For me, strategy mattered more than content, and these elements were helped by the fact that by mid-June, I was simultaneously juggling physics and the MCAT course.

  • The strategies from the MCAT course would, curiously enough, carry over to how I took my physics exam, and I recall knocking out the final exam with a greater confidence than I had been. At this time, since I was still focused on wrapping up physics, I did not do well on the recommended practise MCAT exam when it became available to me. This performance was not yet worrisome, since I’d known that my attention had been divided, and that it was still mostly early in the summer.

  • According to the date-stamp on the screenshot, I would’ve reached this point in Modern Warfare on the same day as my midterm. Recollections elsewhere in this blog remind me that I had a lab on the same day, as well: spring and summer courses are far more condensed than fall and winter courses, and while this creates tremendous pressure to gain a satisfactory knowledge of the material, the flipside is that I wasn’t taking other courses, so I could focus on physics entirely. Whenever revisiting these missions in Modern Warfare, then, my thoughts always flit towards that June Wednesday back in 2012, during a time when I wished I were doing anything else with my days besides studying.

  • However, in retrospect, the summer of a decade before was ultimately what shaped how I approached challenges and adversity. In secondary school, and then for most of my undergraduate programme, I approached things with a brute force solution, resolving to learn principles and systems well enough to pass exams on my own. My cell and molecular biology course began changing this: being able to appreciate the context of a concept helped me to understand its significance. By the time my physics course ended, and the MCAT course had been in full swing, it became clear the old methods would no longer cut it.

  • Some of my friends, who’d already finished the MCAT, ended up holding study sessions for myself and a few other classmates who were staring down the MCAT. Outside of the MCAT preparation course and my own studies, we would meet up at the medical campus and spent hours going through exams together. In groups, I could ask questions and get a second set of thoughts on things. Even to this day, I’m impressed my friends went through this level of effort to get us through when they themselves had already finished the exam.

  • This is why, when my friends received their offers to medical school, I was thrilled; these are brilliant and compassionate individuals with the personality traits and moral fibre to be a physician. I myself would never make it to the interview stage: in feedback I received from my application, my commitment to ethics and sense of volunteering had been insufficient. In a private conversation with my friends, they felt that the day-to-day of a physician wouldn’t have been for me, and with a decade’s worth of life experience, I whole-heartedly agree with them.

  • While I would never again use my MCAT score for anything more than a conversational topic, the exam-taking process itself proved invaluable to me: I ended up performing exceedingly well in my final undergraduate year, and during an open studies term, I was able to excel in all courses despite being preoccupied with medical school applications and a lingering melancholy from the summer following the Great Flood. The same skills ended up carrying over to graduate school, which stand as some of my fondest memories of university: readers can actually spot this as when I really began writing for this blog.

  • Four years after the MCAT ended, I would pick up Modern Warfare for myself after it went on discount during the Steam Summer Sale. This time around, I’d been rocking a newer computer and was able to replay the game at 1080p: revisiting old maps brought back memories of the MCAT, and I found myself immensely glad to have finished. At this point in time, I’d also finished defending my graduate thesis. While this examination was supposed to be as tough as the MCAT, the main advantage I had was that, rather than only two months, I had a full two years to prepare for this exam.

  • In my revisit of Modern Warfare in 2016, I wrote of my enjoyment of how the game had remained highly immersive despite almost nine years having passed since its launch. The next year, Modern Warfare Remastered became available as a part of the Infinite Warfare: Legacy Edition. I ended up buying this because it’d been on sale, and because by then, five years had passed since my MCAT. The world is now a very different place than it had been since the MCAT, and in the past few months, I’ve taken advantage of the spring weather to revisit campus.

  • Some spots have changed beyond recognition: the library block and tower where I’d spent mornings doing revisions prior to the MCAT course (and where I watched Listen to Me Girls, I Am Your Father! during downtime) has been demolished and completely rebuilt. However, the building I studied physics in during mornings is still there, although the study spaces have now been repurposed as office spaces, and the home of my old lab remains as it had when I was still a student there.

  • In this post, I reminisce fondly of how Modern Warfare played a pivotal role in getting my game back together in physics, and how this would set me on a path to take on the MCAT with confidence. One would therefore wonder, had my friend not asked me to idle for him in Team Fortress 2, I would have never played Modern Warfare. I imagine that, while I wouldn’t have been as inspired or encouraged to make a comeback, the fact that I was more comfortable with materials in the course’s second half would’ve allowed me to still recover my grades somewhat, and since I’d just begun watching CLANNAD then, this, in conjunction with study sessions from my friends, I would still have some inspiration from other sources.

  • The short answer is that, even without Modern Warfare, I would have likely survived the summer, and had that occurred, I would likely have ascribed the outcomes of that summer to something else. However, it is the case that Modern Warfare did act as the catalyst for me to get my head back in the game and pull through physics: it is fair to suggest that Modern Warfare did have a nontrivial impact on how my summer unfolded: seeing Price and MacTavish motivated me to do what I could, and so, on this day a decade earlier, I was able to walk out of that second midterm with a much greater feeling of confidence that I did well.

  • After my second midterm ended and finals began approaching, my friend returned home from China. Although this meant my access to Modern Warfare would end, my friend ended up sending me a discount code for Portal 2 as thanks for helping him idle, and in downtime outside of my studies, we ended up playing Team Fortress 2, as well as MicroVolts. The games might’ve differed, but the outcomes were the same, and altogether, I would suggest that the combination of maintaining a balanced schedule, having things to look forward to on a day-to-day basis and support from friends would carry me through that summer.

Looking back, conquering the MCAT had a significant knock-on effect on my career trajectory: the techniques and approaches I used on the MCAT would prove to be immeasurably helpful during the final year of my undergraduate programme. I no longer worried about exams, realising that I could hit the principles and then reason my way through to solutions rather than attempting to memorise facts and figures, and used triaging methods to hit high-value-low-effort problems first. With this newfound confidence, I performed better in my final year than I had the remainder of my undergraduate degree, and for the first time, it hit me: doing well for the sake of doing well is meaningless, but when I changed my mindset to simply learn and appreciate the material, the pressure associated with scoring high on exams evaporated. I carried this confidence into graduate school; my medical school applications weren’t successful, but I would see another path I could follow. I thus walked this path with conviction, and ended up cultivating the skills needed to succeed in the realm of mobile development. It may appear to be a stretch that I say this, but if my successes on the MCAT imparted in me the know-how of rising up to life’s challenges more effectively, then turning my physics course around gave me the encouragement to do so, and this in turn was facilitated by the fact I was able to play through Modern Warfare and draw inspiration from the game’s progression. I would not have gone through Modern Warfare had my friend not requested that I help him to idle for Team Fortress 2 item drops, so it seems reasonable to suppose that my friend’s simple request set me on a path I certainly could not have foreseen taken. While some of my outcomes ultimately do boil down to what I brought to the table, independently of any external experiences I may have had, the fact is that having Modern Warfare to play through helped me in a tangible fashion: whether it’s Bravo Team surviving the assault from Ultranationalist forces, or MacTavish pressing onwards to stop nuclear-tipped missiles from flattening the Eastern Seaboard, I am irrevocably reminded of those breaks between a frenzied effort to stave off a poor grade in physics. Going back through Modern Warfare now, I am appreciative of the efforts I’d made back then, and the fact that nowadays, I can play though the game again without this particular weight over my head.

Go! Go! Nippon! ~My First Trip to Japan~: Reflections and Reminiscence on A Journey to the Land of the Rising Sun Five Years Earlier, and Revisiting My First Visual Novel

“Japan never considers time together as time wasted. Rather, it is time invested.” –Donald Richie

On this day in 2017, I was sitting on the benches at the Vancouver International Airport awaiting a flight back home. Although exhausted, I was immensely satisfied with my excursion. Early in May, I boarded a plane bound for Narita International Airport. We’d arrived later in the evening, so after reaching our hotel, we had time for dinner at a Chinese-style restaurant at the Hilton Tokyo Narita Airport before hitting the hay. The next morning, after a full Western breakfast, we boarded our ride and headed straight to the heart of Tokyo to check out the Meiji Jinju Shrine and Tokyo Imperial Palace. After stopping briefly in Ginza for a shabu-shabu lunch, the afternoon consisted of walking the Sumida River and exploring the Kogan-ji temple. The day wrapped up with an exquisite Wagyu beef and snow crab dinner at the Hotel Heritage. Here, I had the chance to soak in their onsen: having seen the procedure countless times in anime, I felt right at home in cleaning up and enjoying the experience. On the second day of our lightning tour, we travelled deep into the mountains of Yamanashi, stopping at Heiwa Park near Gotemba to view Mount Fuji from a distance. Following yakiniku, we visited Oshino Village and Mount Fuji’s Fifth Station. From here, we drove out to Shirokabako Resort by Mount Tateshima, where we spent the night. The next day opened with a drive to Magome-juku, where we took in the quiet of the Japanese countryside and had a traditional lunch before being whisked away to the heart of Nagoya to check out Atsuta Shrine. The final stop for this third day was Gifu: we were now within a stone’s throw from Kyoto, and on our final full day, we entered Kyoto itself, stopping by the Kinkakuji in the morning. Here, I enjoyed matcha ice cream and the iconic golden-leafed walls of Kyoto’s most famous temple under drizzling skies. Following a kaiseki lunch near Yasaka Shrine, we visited Todaji Temple in Nara, known for its free-roaming deer population. The day concluded in Osaka: after taking in the sights of the Sakai shopping district, we stopped for an omurice dinner, and I swung by a local bookstore to grab a copy of Kimi no Na Wa‘s manga before turning in: the next day, I’d been slated to fly on over to Hong Kong for the trip’s second leg, so early in the morning, we made our way over to Kansai International Airport. Although a flight out usually is more a matter of procedure, a pair of surprises awaited me here at Kansai International Airport; I was able to try authentic okonomiyaki, and I came upon a copy of the Kimi no Na Wa artbook while waiting for my flight. Like the protagonist Go! Go! Nippon! ~My First Trip to Japan~, I had a very short window in which to take in the sights, sounds and tastes of Japan, and I similarly realised an inevitable truth: that it would take a lifetime to fully experience everything Japan’s got to offer: this game had come into my path some five years prior to my travels to Japan in 2017.

As the story goes, on a miserable late autumn afternoon, I was typing away in the quiet of my office space: having finished building a sodium-potassium pump on the same principles as the renal filtration model I’d designed during the previous summer, I was working on a term paper ahead of a presentation for my research course. As I reached the section on my findings, one of my friends appeared at the lab. His classes for the day had ended, and he had something amusing to show me: a YouTuber was playing through a visual novel about visiting Japan, and was doing a throw-your-voice style voiceover of the dialogue. I’d only been mildly interested at the time, and despite having picked the game up to try it out, Go! Go! Nippon! remained a bit of a curiosity for me until, four years after its initial release, the 2015 expansion was announced. The additional content and visual improvements were enough for me to pick this up, and I’d beaten one of the Makoto routes posthaste. However, a post never materialised, and it is with some irony that I reflect on how my typical tendency for procrastination meant that I would only write about the game a full five years after I’d returned home from my travels to Japan and Hong Kong. The premise in Go! Go! Nippon! is simple: a foreign traveller decides to visit Japan at the behest of two pen-pals he’d met in an online chatroom, and upon arriving, discovers they’re sisters, Makoto and Akira Misaki. Despite the initial awkwardness, said visitor gets a very personalised tour of some of Tokyo’s most famous destinations, and along the way, becomes closer to Makoto or Akira, depending on the choice of destinations visited. Despite its hokey premise, Go! Go! Nippon! has proven to be surprisingly entertaining, being part visual novel and part Lonely Planet travel guide: the game is remarkably detailed about the history and information surrounding some of Tokyo’s attractions, from Ginza and Akihabara, to Shibuya and Mount Takao. The setup provides players the ideal environment to acclimatise to what a visual novel is like, using a story that is relatable for overseas players who might be dreaming of one day setting foot on the Land of the Rising Sun. In this way, despite being cheesy on first glance, Go! Go! Nippon! ends up being a fantastic experience for both introducing players to visual novel mechanics, as well as providing a guide to Tokyo’s sights to the same level of depth as a travel book might. The visual novel consequently received a pair of expansions, which brought Go! Go! Nippon! into the world of HD and provided animated character models using Unity. In addition, additional locations were added along with a more sophisticated decision tree that brings with it, new events for players to check out. The concept has proven quite enduring: Makoto and Akira have since become Virtual YouTubers, and the developers, OVERDRIVE, have also been surprised with the success of this series and its characters. When they’d started the Virtual YouTubers programme with Makoto and Akira, they’d made a tongue-in-cheek remark about how if they ever hit ten thousand subscribers, they would begin development on Go! Go! Nippon! 2. This particular milestone has since been reached, and all eyes are now on OVERDRIVE as they begin work on a sequel to a game that I’m certain that no one expected to reach the heights that it did.

There is a degree of irony in the fact that I ended up playing through and writing about Go! Go! Nippon! five years after my travels to Japan; a trip to Japan costs around 2400 CAD for an individual, whereas Go! Go! Nippon! and its expansions together are two orders of magnitude cheaper (since I bought Go! Go! Nippon! during sales over the years, my total for all three games was 14.91 CAD). However, despite the dramatic contrasts in the manner in which one gets to experience Japan, there are also striking similarities, attesting to how well Go! Go! Nippon! is able to capture the feelings of travelling Japan. While on first glance, Japan possesses a dramatically different culture, set of values and customs compared to somewhere like Canada, setting foot in Japan also made it apparent that the similarities were greater in number than differences. Outside of Japan’s numerous temples, attractions and sights, I found that whether it was Tokyo, Gifu, Nagoya, Kyoto or Osaka, the roads and streets were filled with people getting from point A to point B. Some were salarymen headed to work, while others were students who were out and about on their daily activities, no differently than how my days ordinarily went back home. My vacation had allowed me to see Japan’s sights, both iconic and ordinary. Seeing tranquil power surrounding a shrine to the striking views of Mount Fuji, enjoy some of their finest food, including kaiseki, Hokkaido Snow Crab and Wagyu beef and iconic experiences like soaking in an onsen was lovely, but I also had a chance to order ramen in a restaurant where the staff did not speak English (or Cantonese), buy manga from a bookstore and sit down to an omurice in a department store restaurant. The scope of my experiences thus ranged from the touristy, to the everyday, and in retrospect, this is what had made this vacation especially memorable. Recalling this allows me to better understand the reason why some folks seek out authentic experiences that allow them to do what locals do now, and having now revisited Go! Go! Nippon!, it becomes clear that this is also one of the reasons behind the game’s charm: Makoto and Akira take the players to iconic locations around Tokyo, but also gives one a chance to see things from a local’s perspective, whether it be a Japanese summer festival, fireworks performance or even Comiket itself. Thus, with this being said, being able to travel to Japan for real, curiously enough, gave me a better sense of appreciation for what Go! Go! Nippon! was going for, too.

Additional Remarks, Screenshots and Commentary

  • It may surprise readers to learn that, when this blog was about three months old, I’d actually written a first impressions piece about Go! Go! Nippon!. Back then, my posts had no consistent format and style; that particular post had six screenshots, and barely covers any of my reflections surrounding Go! Go! Nippon! (the idea of a reflection would come about four months later, after I finished cell and molecular biology). This post, then, aims to offer a slightly more comprehensive set of thoughts on what is my first-ever visual novel experience on top of giving me a place to reminisce about my travels five years earlier.

  • Typically, visual novels simply entail reading the text, gaining a modicum of understanding as to what’s happening and then playing through by making decisions at critical junctures, decisions consistent with one’s own values to see what the outcome is. Depending on one’s choices, an outcome can end up better or worse, pushing players to evaluate their own decision-making in specific contexts. Go! Go! Nippon! is a little more gentle in this regard in that there are no wrong choices. One’s itinerary in Go! Go! Nippon! impacts which of Makoto or Akira players spend more time with, and this cascades into a tearful ending that, sometimes, will end with a romantic outcome.

  • On my own trip to Japan, I ended up visiting Meiji Jingu (a Shinto Shrine just a stone’s throw from Shinjuku Koen), Ginza and Sumida Park, just across the river from the Tokyo Skytree. All of these locations are fairly close to the spots that are available in Go! Go! Nippon!: in its original incarnation, Go! Go! Nippon! had been focused on Tokyo’s attractions, but the expansions allow players to check out Mount Takao and Kyoto. On my trip to Tokyo in 2017, I did not have a chance tom visit Asakusa, one of the most iconic spots in Tokyo.

  • As a natural part of Go! Go! Nippon!‘s progression, players will “accidentally” walk in on Makoto drying herself after a shower. Of Makoto and Akira, Makoto is better-endowed, and it is in the expansion games, where the character models are animated, that players really appreciate the HD updates bring to the table. The newer games are rendered in Unity, and I imagine would use the game engine’s rigging to handle animations. Attention is paid to details: when Makoto perks up or leans forward, oscillation is also present in her model. As an aside, I prefer showering in the evening, so were I to take the protagonist’s place, there’d be no chance of this happening.

  • Dialogue with Akira and Makoto is such that players gain a bit of insight into their character; Makoto feels weighted down by expectations and is graceful, studying English at the local university, while Akira is a fantastic cook, tsundere and feels like she lives in Makoto’s shadows. In between Akira and Makoto explaining the history and details behind every location to the level of detail that would be appropriate for a Lonely Planet travel guide, one gains the sense that Makoto and Akira are full-fledged characters whom, in addition to their profound knowledge of Japan, its attractions and history, also have their own unique traits.

  • One could say that Akira and Makoto’s knowledge of Japan is encyclopaedic: both bring up nuances and details that really illustrate the history of a given area, but isn’t something that one could readily just recall off the top of their head. To put things in perspective, while I’m familiar with the history and trivia of some of the most famous attractions in Calgary, I can’t just bring this stuff up in casual conversation with the same level of detail. Granted, this is a visual novel, which allows OVERDRIVE to thoroughly research locations and incorporate them into the game, allowing Go! Go! Nippon! to be both instructive and entertaining.

  • Folks looking to learn about the locations visited in Go! Go! Nippon! can easily look up their details online, and Go! Go! Nippon!‘s expansions include a link to Google Maps, allowing one to get the precise spot that players visit in the game. Here, I’ve opted to try an izakaya out; the Japanese equivalent of a pub, izakaya are quite different than a pub in that food is served over a duration of time and is shared by a party. Having Akira and Makoto around would make an izakaya easier to experience: while my rudimentary Japanese allowed me to order food in a more conventional setting, I’m certain that without a guidebook at my side, an izakaya would be trickier to order at.

  • On the second day, players “accidentally” walk in on Akira changing after Makoto asks them to check in and see if she’d awaken yet. Unlike Makoto, who’d taken things in stride and is swift to forgive, Akira’s reaction is par the course for what one might expect in reality, and in most anime. Akira’s dissatisfaction is most apparent when she swaps out sugar for salt in the player’s coffee, but seeing the player taking their lumps leads Akira to forgive them in the end. This is where my old post ends: in 2012, my patience for playing visual novels was nil. In the decade that’s elapsed, I’ve come to appreciate a much wider variety of games.

  • From here on out, I venture into a side of Go! Go! Nippon! that I’d not previously visited; my choice of destinations for my first full play-through of the 2016 expansion took me to destinations that were quite similar to those I’d visited in my 2017 trip. This particular trip had been billed as “美食” (jyutpimg mei5 sik6, literally “beautiful eats”) oriented: attractions had been secondary to visiting places with particularly fancy Japanese cuisine, and as a result, the places we chose to visit were a bit more inconspicuous, selected to be closer to the dining venues.

  • While we didn’t visit the Tokyo Skytree itself, or Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Shrine as a part of this trip, the locations we did end up hitting were quite scenic and enjoyable in their own right. A bonus was that the crowds here were fewer, allowing us to spend less time in lines and more time exploring. In retrospect, I am glad that I picked the 美食 oriented approach: especially nowadays, it is possible to gain a good measure of what an attraction feels like using virtual reality and Google Maps. However, there is absolutely no equivalent for being able to sit down to a meal in another country and enjoy what foods a nation has to offer.

  • Unlike the original Go! Go! Nippon!, the 2016 expansion gives players a chance to visit Kyoto, as well. Kyoto was day four for me: having spent the first day in Tokyo, our second day was in Yamanashi, and the third day was spent in Gifu prefecture. On the morning of the fourth day, the Kinkakuji was the only destination I visited; this is an iconic part of Kyoto, and because we were there on a Saturday, the crowds were immense. Here at the Kinkakuji, I remember marvelling at how brilliant this gold-leafed temple was, even on an overcast day.

  • Aside from spotting some tourists decked out in maiko outfits (it was 1100 in the morning, and real maiko usually begin making their rounds at around 1700), I also had a chance to sample the iconic matcha soft-serve ice cream. Japan’s soft serve is in a category on its own: while visiting Oshino village at the foot of Mount Fuji, I ended up going for a blueberry ice cream, as well. Enjoying these smaller things accentuated my experiences, and I had been glad to have brought the equivalent of 250 CAD worth of Yen in cash for this trip. This allowed me to buy things where credit cards wouldn’t work: while Japan is an ultra-modern society, I was quite surprised to learn most places didn’t accept credit cards.

  • The Kinkakuji is such an integral part of Kyoto that every single anime with a class trip to Kyoto will inevitably feature this park, and of note is the fact that both K-On! and Kinirio Mosaic: Thank You!! visit the area as a part of their third year class trips. Besides being an iconic landmark with a storied history, I know the Kinkakuji best as Futurama‘s “Omaha, Nebraska”, and recall that one of the Kinkakuji’s most famous tales is that it was burned to a crisp by a monk-in-training during the 50s. Its lesser-known cousin is the Ginkakuji, which, contrary to its name, is not covered with silver plating.

  • Go! Go! Nippon! captures the look-and-feel of a quiet Kyoto side street perfectly; after my visit to the Kinkakuji ended, I headed on over to Torihisa, a kaiseki restaurant. Kaiseki is a multi-course meal in which numerous small dishes are served in an artistic fashion. I thoroughly enjoyed lunch; kaiseki had been high on the list of things I’ve wished to try. Torihisa is located across the street from Maruyama Park, home of Yasaka Shrine. Maruyama Park is a fantastic place for hanami,  but I’d arrived about two months too late.

  • Although the protagonist of Go! Go! Nippon! has two full days in Kyoto to explore, I was on a more rigid schedule: as soon as lunch ended, we immediately set course for Nara Park, home to their famous sika deer. The portrayals of Nara Park in anime is no joke: the deer are very friendly towards people, and I watched one deer boldly snatch a tour pamphlet from a visitor’s hand here. After Nara had wrapped up, my final destination was Osaka. During my last evening there, I had dinner at an omurice restaurant and decided to go with a curry-katsu omelet rice; this was an all-in one that allowed me to try authentic Japanese curry and tonkatsu in conjunction with what is a contemporary Japanese comfort dish.

  • Just like that, my week had come to a close. Go! Go! Nippon! makes it clear to players that there is so much to see and do in Japan that a single week will be insufficient to experience things in full. This message is accentuated by the visual novel format; one has the opportunity to go back to a save point and make different decisions, allowing for a more complete experience. The equivalent to doing this in real life would be prohibitively expensive, but I was impressed with the breadth of my experiences over the course of a week.

  • If I had to pick the most standout moment in a vacation that was one long pleasant memory, it would be on the first full night. After we spent the day exploring Tokyo, we went out over to Saitama’s Heritage resort, a secluded retreat on the western edge of Musashi Kyuryo National Government Park. This evening saw the fanciest meal of the entire trip: an exquisite Wagyu beef nabesashimi and several small, artfully presented dishes, including unagi, pickled daikon and a side of fried potato croquettes. This was a feast for the eyes and the taste buds. There is an old saying of unknown origin: the Chinese eat with their mouths (taste is king), the Japanese eat with their eyes (presentation matters) and the Koreans eat with their stomachs (a meal should be satisfying). I’m not sure where this comes from, but seeing the artful presentation of meals in Japan, I confirm this certainly holds true.

  • To round out what was an excellent dinner, I set foot inside the onsen, and because of my timing, I had the entire baths to myself. After cleaning myself off thoroughly, I lowered my body into the waters and felt all of my aches melt away. Meals on the other days were still solid: the second night saw me at a buffet at Shirakaba Resort Ikenotaira Hotel. What stood out most to me here was the fact that they had bakke and fiddlehead tempura available. We’d travelled through Yamanashi so we could see Mount Fuji from several different vantage points on this day, and although Mount Fuji remained completely obscured by cloud throughout most of the day (as Yuru Camp△‘s Rin would describe it, “wearing a hat”), we did end up hitting the Fifth Station at Narusawa for an up-close-and-personal look at Japan’s most famous mountain. Aoi, Hinata, Kaede and Kokona start their ascent of Mount Fuji here in Yama no Susume‘s second season, so my second day essentially had me visiting Yuru Camp△ and Yama no Susume destinations.

  • On day three, we continued through the mountains of Nagano on our way into Gifu. The highlight of this day was the stop at Magome-juku, the forty-third of the stations along the Nakasendō trail. It’s a beautiful village perched on a hillside, and after venturing from the top of their main street to the bottom, we stopped for lunch at Magomekan Food Stands. Their set lunch was as beautiful to behold, as it was generous in portion sizes, and tasty to eat. Featuring rolled omlette, karaage and grilled fish, as well as a massive bowl of noodles, it was the perfect way to round out the morning’s activities.

  • Back in Go! Go! Nippon!, I’ve reached the end of my first playthrough, and thanks to the way I roll, I ended up with what is considered the best ending for the Makoto route: I chose a Makoto destination for days one and three, and did an Akira destination for day two. In this way, I unlocked the ending where players and Makoto ring a bell together. Although Makoto struggles to be forward about her feelings, in the end, she comes through and openly returns the player’s feelings. Contemporary reviewers found the whirlwind romance aspect of Go! Go! Nippon! to be completely contrived, out of the blue.

  • However, players with enough maturity will quickly realise that Makoto and Akira are representations of the joys of visiting Japan itself: in this way, Go! Go! Nippon! might be seen as a visual portrayal of falling in love with Japan over the course of a week, coming to see for oneself the nation’s pluses and minuses, and deciding for oneself if their initial impressions were on the mark or need rectification. Whether it is house-hunting, travel or romance, there are many commonalities. All involve that initial honeymoon-like phase where everything feels perfect, and how over time, imperfections manifest. What happens next then depends on the person: individuals willing to accept imperfections and embrace what they’ve fallen in love with will find happiness, while those who cannot accept the imperfections will restart the process anew.

  • In my case, nailing the Makoto route on first try was quite entertaining. However, in the spirit of playing through Go! Go! Nippon! properly, I switched over to one of my other saves so I could check out the destinations I’d not visited on my first run. Tokyo Skytree ended up being first on my list; while in Tokyo, I gazed wistfully across the Sumida river: this hadn’t been a destination we had in mind, and therefore, we skipped over checking out the tallest building in Tokyo. In retrospect, I am okay with this choice: that day had been overcast, and the view from the top wouldn’t have been quite as impressive.

  • In 2015, following my journey to Taiwan, I ended up going to Hong Kong, and here, I did check out the Sky100 observation deck, in addition to Taipei 101. On any given vacation in East Asia, Hong Kong inevitably becomes a part of the itinerary because the flights are actually more economical this way, and it gives me a chance to visit family. Whenever heading into Hong Kong, I always get the feeling that I’m going home: to me, Hong Kong simply feels like a super-massive Chinatown, where Cantonese is the lingua franca. Unlike Japan, or Taiwan, where I only know enough phrases for the basics (and in the case of Japan, enough to surprise store clerks and servers at restaurants), I’ve got level three proficiency with Cantonese and can carry out conversations.

  • While I technically are a native Cantonese speaker, I have next to no exposure in legal and professional vocabulary, so I’m unable to conduct business in Cantonese; for instance, I have no idea how to describe the process for sorting out a build error in an Xcode project in Cantonese. While my Cantonese is practically native at the conversational level (I know enough slang to keep up with things, for instance), I hesitate to say I have native proficiency on things like a resume because that would imply I can read and write, as well. If I had to guess, I have level 2 proficiency with written Chinese, and level 3 proficiency with Cantonese, having worked in a Chinese language-setting previously.

  • Here, I accompany Akira to a ramen joint after picking the “ocean” option, and she demonstrates how to properly eat ramen. While it is appropriate to make some noise in Japan, the practise is not kosher in China or Hong Kong, but when I visited the ramen place in Gifu, I followed local customs just to express my enjoyment of the noodles all the same. Sushi etiquette is a little easier to follow, and this reminiscence did leave me with a hankering for sushi. Fortunately, there’s an excellent sushi place within walking distance now, and I’m making good on my promise to try things out. Yesterday, I ordered a combo with California, Volcano and Dynamite rolls, plus salmon, tuna and shrimp nigiri with a takoyaki: this was a very tasty lunch, a welcome change of pacing just before the Victoria Day Long Weekend arrived.

  • By now, I’ve become a ways more receptive of raw fish dishes: five years earlier, I ended up dousing my sashimi into the nabe at Heritage Resort, rendering it cooked, as back then, I wasn’t too fond of raw fish (exposure to shows like Yuru Camp△ have since broadened my mind). These days, I enjoy raw fish as much as I do cooked fish: the salmon and tuna nigiri were the highlights, being excellent with a dash of soy sauce. Although it is mentioned frequently, food is only a secondary aspect of Go! Go! Nippon!: being a virtual experience, things like food cannot be adequately mimicked. While one can see Akira explaining how to properly eat a ramen, one’s imagination must kick in to fill in the rest; imagination plays a very large part of enjoying visual novels: these games are quite static, and although they provide a few cues (such as sound effects and whatever visuals are available) to convey a moment, on top of what the dialogue yields, one must let their mind’s eye do the rest.

  • One of the numerous events players can unlock in Go! Go! Nippon! is the summer festival; although absent in the original, the expansions introduce events which unlock after certain conditions (flags) are met. The summer festival is a pleasant event and would allow players to really experience an authentic Japanese celebration; the natsumatsuri is equivalent to the state fairs of North America (or for my Canadian readers, the Calgary Stampede), featuring plenty of games and eats, plus performances and fireworks. If memory serves, unlocking the summer festival requires going to specific destinations on the first and second day.

  • Visual novels have a vocabulary that is quite related to programming. “Flags” in software usually refer to Booleans that control whether or not something happens (e.g. if the “isLoggedIn” flag is true, show the home screen, otherwise ,show the login screen). In visual novels, flags keep track of a player’s state, and “events” result from certain combinations of flags being set. I normally think of events as certain actions or inputs a program listens for, but in visual novel speak, “events” are simply things to show a player. Go! Go! Nippon! allows me to demonstrate this: if I visit certain destinations on days one and two, the flag for the Comiket event are set true, allowing me to experience it. It took me several attempts to get this right.

  • On the topic of conventions and gatherings like Comiket, it’s the May Long Weekend, and that means Otafest is now in full swing. Back in February, I declined to submit an application to volunteer, feeling it to be more prudent to leave time open in the event that my move had left me busier than anticipated. In typical fashion, I’ve finished all of the essential tasks, and even got my driver’s license and banking information updated to reflect the new address, so this long weekend, I’ve actually had more time than anticipated. However, I’ve decided against attending the local anime convention; having experienced Japan so thoroughly, the appeal of visiting an anime convention as a guest has diminished for me.

  • Instead, I became more interested in taking a more active role through volunteering, which gives me a chance to give back to the local community. My plans to continue volunteering at Otafest will depend on my schedule, so I’ll have a better idea of whether or not I’ll be returning closer to next year’s application deadline. For now, my long weekend has consisted of sleeping in, tending to housework and hitting the gym, before swinging by the local mall so I could pick up some new shirts and shorts. Afterwards, we sat down to our first-ever Southern Fried Chicken at the new place. This year’s Otafest looks like it’s a scaled-back event, and there’s nothing particularly stand-out on the schedule, so I’ve no qualms with sitting this one out in favour of a relaxing long weekend.

  • Go! Go! Nippon!‘s easy-to-use UI means the user experience is solid, and in this way, I was able to go through the game several times in order to accrue screenshots for this post. Here, I accompany Akira to Mount Takao, which Hinata and Aoi hit back in Yama no Susume‘s first season. Located about an hour from the heart of Tokyo, Mount Takao is about a ninety-minute hike in total and offers stunning views of Tokyo. It was nice to see Go! Go! Nippon! include a vast range of destinations into the expansions: the original game only had six destinations and two possible routes.

  • This would have made it considerably simpler to complete, and in retrospect, Go! Go! Nippon! “grows up” with players. The first game truly is a suitable introduction to the visual novel format for first timers, and I’ve long felt that while the game’s subtitle is My First Trip to Japan, the title also can count itself as My First Experience With a Visual Novel: the premise of travelling and exploring different destinations is a much gentler and accessible introduction to the format compared to something like CLANNAD or Higurashi, where making bad decisions can irrevocably alter the outcome of one’s experiences.

  • First-time players will also be unfamiliar with the save mechanics. Visual novel veterans will tell players to save right before decision branches come up. This is a matter of efficiency: if one makes a bad choice, they can instantly revert and make another pick. Similarly, in a game where a choice causes the story to open up in a different way, one instantly has a snapshot they can go to. On my first playthrough of Go! Go! Nippon! in 2012, I saved simply when I needed to leave the game, and this made revisiting the game somewhat cumbersome. By the 2015 expansion, I was better versed in how visual novels work and more ready to explore new routes.

  • In the present day, I know enough of the ins-and-outs so that I could easily navigate the storylines of Go! Go! Nippon! and swiftly acquire screenshots for this post. I am glad to have picked up the 2016 expansion; I had debated doing so when it first came out, having already dropped coin for the 2015 expansion, but after visiting Japan in 2017, I decided to bite the bullet and complete my Go! Go! Nippon! experience when the expansion went on discount during the summer of 2018. Although I had intended to play and write about Go! Go! Nippon! back then, 2018 was a bit of a more difficult time for me: my start-up was in dire straits, and I had been in the middle of discussions to take on a Xamarin project, which meant I needed to swiftly pick up Xamarin and C#.

  • Further to this, I had been invited to Battlefield V‘s closed alpha, and Harukana Receive was airing. Between everything that was going on, Go! Go! Nippon! was benched, and for four years after that, sat untouched in my Steam Library. The five-year mark to my return home from Japan, coupled with one of my friends bringing the game’s recent successes in the Virtual YouTuber scene and OVERDRIVE’s intention of making a sequel came together to provide the encouragement I needed to finish enjoying, and writing about Go! Go! Nippon! in its latest incarnation.

  • I am glad to have done so now: the game offers an interesting parallel with my own experiences, and although I didn’t have two kawaii guides walking me through the history and etiquette of various areas, I was able to see for myself the wonders of Japan, both historical and modern. While my experience with Go! Go! Nippon! started out as a joke, I was pleasantly surprised to find that even in a game meant to instruct and gently poke fun at foreign impressions of Japan, there is a considerable amount of depth in the writing. For instance, Akira’s tsundere personality is not representative of Japan as a whole, but from a broader perspective, shows how something that initially seems difficult to understand has more to it than meets the eye. Akira feels like a close friend, a companion over time as players spend more time with her destinations.

  • I’ve long been a Makoto fan, and my decisions on my first run through Go! Go! Nippon! reflect this. However, in revisiting the game, I learnt more about Akira. In time, I came to like her character, as well. Finding newfound, pleasant surprises in the familiar is something I’ve always been fond of, and much as how revisiting Titanfall 2‘s campaign allowed me to get my paws on the EM-4 Cold War in one mission, re-playing Go! Go! Nippon! let me to see a side of the game, and a set of destinations that I’d otherwise never see.

  • The premise in Go! Go! Nippon! shows players why there is incentive to replay the game again and make different choices; this outcome would extend to different visual novels and similarly encourage players to go back and try things out again. In the case of CLANNAD, for instance, players can make choices to go down the most well-written central route, which follows Nagisa, or they can opt to check out Kyou, Kotomi and Fuu’s stories. However, whereas Go! Go! Nippon! does not have a persistent state that lingers even after one has completed multiple play-throughs, CLANNAD does: certain actions can only be achieved by revisiting the game multiple times and making smart decisions. In this way, Go! Go! Nippon! can be seen as an introduction to a genre which is one that I do not play often, but one that has its own nuances, as well.

  • As a consequence of playing the Akira route with the aim of unlocking one of the events (at the time of writing, I’ve yet to succeed), I ended up with the second outcome for Akira, which has her bringing players to Toshimaen, a theme park that is quite special to Akira. After returning to Tokyo from Kyoto, the sum of a player’s decisions allow them to visit a special destination, and there is no “bad end” here in Go! Go! Nippon! in a traditional sense. Visual novels are legendary for their bad endings: unlike the average first person shooter campaign, which only has one ending, and any “bad end” is dying in the campaign, visual novels can take depravity and the macabre to the next level.

  • All told, spending a day with Akira at the waterpark isn’t a bad outcome by any stretch: it gives players a chance to see Akira rocking a polka-dot bikini. Tango-Victor-Tango incorrectly pegs Akira as being flat, although this moment also led me to wish that there was such an equivalent moment with Makoto. I’m now curious to see what the optimal route for Akira yields, but I’ll likely get around to this later in the future. The Division 2 had just opened their ninth season, and having spent the whole of last year on break from The Division 2 after completing the Manhunt event for Faye Lau, it’s been fun to return to the game and learn that my old standby, the Hunter’s Fury gear-set with the Chatterbox and Ninjabike Kneepads, is still viable. Similarly, I’ve recently resumed playing Ghost Recon: Wildlands on account of an excellent sale, so between these two games, I expect to be somewhat busy in the gaming front for the foreseeable future.

  • For the remainder of my revisit through Go! Go! Nippon!, I have a bit of footage from the other destinations I ended up going to as a result of trying to unlock various events. Here, I’m back in Ginza: in a curious turn of fate, Ginza was the first place I visited when I played through Go! Go! Nippon! in 2012, and it was also the first stop on my trip to Japan in 2017. Ginza is known for its high end shopping experiences, and while we browsed shops, we found that prices were jaw-droppingly high. Here, Makoto welcomes players to the district and the famous Wako Store, with its distinct clock face. I most vividly recall Ginza because we had shabu-shabu here.

  • Because of the scope and scale of any trip to Japan, I would contend that there is no right or wrong way to go about things. Anime fans tend to visit Tokyo and Akihabara, while folks looking for a more historical experience will tour Kyoto. Visitors looking for the ultimate seafood experience are best served checking out Hokkaido, while Japan’s southern section, near Hiroshima or Kumamoto, would provide a quieter experience. For me, one potential return trip would entail taking a closer look at Kyoto’s highlights; it’s a destination that K-On! and the Kiniro Mosaic movie both swing by the old capital as a part of the third year’s class trip.

  • However, this would be secondary to my long-standing wish to travel Takehara in Hiroshima. Well off the beaten track, Takehara is home of Tamayura, and even a full decade after I’ve finished watching the anime, the town’s iconic warehouse district has more or less remain unchanged. If I were to visit, I imagine that I’d be able to see the sights that Fū and her friends saw in their everyday lives. On such a trip, I’d likely choose lodgings anywhere outside of the Warehouse district: hotels right in the old town are considerably pricier. I imagine that a week in Takehara would be more than enough to explore all of the spots in Tamayura.

  • Back in Go! Go! Nippon!, for my shot at getting Makoto’s second ending, I ended up playing through a completely different set of locations, in turn allowing me to unlock a host of achievements to go with my adventures. The 2016 expansion is the only way to actually unlock achievements, but as of the 2015 expansion, Go! Go! Nippon! added Steam Trading Cards and badges. It took me a while to collect enough cards to make a level 5 Makoto card. The only way to get an Akira badge is to get foil drops, but badges cost a dollar apiece, so the logic of doing so wouldn’t be sound.

  • The CG scenes in Go! Go! Nippon! are of a varied quality: the protagonist is rendered without eyes, and this creates a bit of a disconnect whenever he’s visible. The faceless male is a long-standing element in visual novels, meant to give players additional immersion, but here in Go! Go! Nippon!, the effect is quite uncanny and looks a little off. Conversely, stills of just Makoto and/or Akira look gorgeous, and I found myself thinking that, were Go! Go! Nippon! ever to be made into an anime about touring Tokyo, I would have no qualms in watching it.

  • That no such anime has appeared a decade after Go! Go! Nippon!‘s release indicates that such a wish will remain a pipe dream at best. Here, at Tsukiji Market, I explore Tokyo’s largest fish market. After departing Japan and landing in Hong Kong, I had the pleasure of checking out Sha Tin Market, an indoor wet market, while awaiting a dim sum lunch with relatives. I’ve always been fond of wet markets because they represent a very active place where seafood is sold; by comparison, most seafood is frozen at home, although some supermarkets do carry live seafood, as well.

  • Looking back, the Hong Kong side of my travels were also superbly enjoyable: I know Hong Kong like the back of my own hand, despite only having visited a handful of times, and this is largely in part owing to the fact that 1) there are English signs everywhere and 2) I speak Cantonese well enough, allowing me to ask for directions without any trouble. The MTR is also intuitive, allowing one to visit any part of Hong Kong with ease. My time in Hong Kong was characterised by spending plenty of time with family, window shopping at various malls, and experiencing Hong Kong’s culinary landscape.

  • In Go! Go! Nippon!, since Makoto isn’t much of a cook, players won’t pick up anything from the fish market here, and instead, she’ll bring players to the Tsukiji Hongan-ji, a Buddhist temple that originally opened in 1617 but burned to the ground forty years later. It was moved to a new site, was destroyed by an earthquake in 1923. The modern temple was completed in 1934. This does appear to be a recurring theme in Japan’s landmarks, which have been destroyed and rebuilt on several occasions. While the buildings we see now might not be in their original form, seeing them rebuilt is a testament to the tenacity of the Japanese people.

  • Having now gone through three-quarters of Go! Go! Nippon!, it is evident that attention has been paid to the background artwork, as well. Backgrounds in this visual novel are intricate and life-like, and although some scenes are blissfully quiet, others are filled with people. This aspect is one of the most crucial elements in Go! Go! Nippon!: visual novels often feel empty and devoid of human presence, isolating players and forcing their attention towards the heroines. This was the case in Sakura Angels: although the artwork was stunning, the world felt very empty. According to my records, I began Sakura Angels in June 2015, but never finished, and the last time I opened the game was back in 2017, so the time is probably appropriate for me to go back and wrap this one up.

  • Stay! Stay! DPRK! had similarly felt quite empty, but then, it was a logical design choice because players are visiting North Korea. As such, when Go! Go! Nippon! strikes a balance between the tranquil areas of Tokyo, and the livelier ones, it gives this world a more life-like feeling: Sakura Angels exuded a sense of isolation and loneliness that is simply absent in Go! Go! Nippon: Makoto and Akira keep it lively, but cues in the game’s artwork and presentation also serves to capture the sheer energy (and volume) of crowds in Tokyo’s most iconic locations.

  • Having tea in Japan is a quintessential experience: for 850 Yen, one could stop by Nakajima-no-Ochaya for whisked matcha and wagashi. One element in Go! Go! Nippon! that initially appears inconsequential to gameplay was the inclusion of a wallet. Players are asked to enter the exchange rate (at the time of writing, 1 CAD is exactly 100 Yen), and then the game keeps a running total of how much one has spent over their travels. One could play the game as someone with infinitely deep pocketbooks, or approach things more frugally, but as far as I can tell, one’s expenses don’t affect outcomes. Having said this, the wallet mechanic helps one to ballpark how much their itinerary might cost in reality, to within a precision of ±20 percent.

  • As far as landmarks go, I know Tokyo Station best as being the home base for Rail Wars!, and in 2017, I do not believe we passed by this landmark: the original brick building was constructed in 1914, and over the years, became infamous as being the site of two high-profile assassinations. With a passenger volume of up to half a million every day, it is the busiest station in Japan and is Tokyo’s equivalent of New York City’s Grand Central Station. With the ten-year mark of Rail Wars! fast approaching, I have plans to revisit the series again.

  • On my all-Makoto run, I ended up wrapping up the day to Tokyo Station by accompanying her to a sweets shop of sorts, located in the labyrinthine interior of Tokyo Station and its many shops. Owing to the sheer volume of foot traffic at train stations in Japan, stations also double as shopping centres. This stands in stark contrast with home, where our light rail stations appear to be arbitrarily placed. Urban planning in North America is built around vehicle ownership, and while this creates sprawling cities where people have a great deal of space to themselves, it also results in inefficiency. Having now moved to somewhere within a stone’s throw of a light rail station, I am rather excited by the fact that I can now hop on a train and be anywhere in the city on short order.

  • Moments like these really serve to showcase Makoto and Akira’s personalities beyond initial impressions the original game presented: Makoto might not be a capable cook, but she absolutely enjoys her sweets. It was very endearing to see Makoto this way. This is something that was only introduced with the 2016 expansion, which really fleshes things out. I would hold that the expansions are not optional add-ons, but essential parts of the Go! Go! Nippon! experience: the expansions each give the UI significant upgrades, and the 2016 version will openly indicate which of Makoto or Akira will accompany a player to a destination.

  • This makes it much easier to determine which destinations one should visit when playing through Go! Go! Nippon!: on my first run, my thoughts were that I should bias the game slightly towards Makoto. To this end, I picked Makoto destinations for two of the three days, and then went with an Akira destination for the remaining day. If I had to guess, going with Makoto or Akira for all three days seems to create in Makoto or Akira an overwhelming sense of yearning, causing both to wish to remain with the player, whereas balancing things out gives either Makoto or Akira a chance to think things through and come to terms with expressing how they feel more openly.

  • On this route, I ended up taking Go! Go! Nippon! over to Shinjuku Gyoen, a beautiful park at the heart of Tokyo that folks know best as the setting for Makoto Shinkai’s Garden of Words. For the player and Makoto, a rainstorm soon develops, perhaps being a clever (and subtle) callback to the events of Garden of Words, soaking Makoto to the bone. During my trip to Japan, our destinations did not include Shinjuku Gyoen, and instead, the day began with a visit to Meiji Jinju Shrine, which is a twelve-minute walk away from Shinjuku Gyoen.

  • The end result of this route sees Makoto pick up a stylish new outfit, and with this, I’ve now got two of the three possible Makoto endings unlocked. I never thought that Go! Go! Nippon! would be quite as engaging as it was; my introduction to the game had been through a friend who was watching a YouTube playthrough of the game in between classes, and the game had seemed quite hokey at first glance. However, going through the game again, I’ve come around: while Go! Go! Nippon! might be a dating simulator pretending to be a Lonely Planet travel guide, it does feel sincere in its portrayal of things.

  • This is why I’m rather excited to see what Go! Go! Nippon! 2 has in store for players; since Makoto and Akira broke into the Virtual YouTuber scene, their popularity has increased, and generated enough buzz so that OVERDRIVE seriously considered a sequel. While Makoto and Akira are unvoiced in Go! Go! Nippon!, they have the traditional “anime dub” voices as Virtual YouTubers, which makes them sound like RWBY characters. High on my wishlist for Go! Go! Nippon! 2 would be to have some proper dubbing: in particular, Ayano Taketatsu is suited for playing Akira and her tsundere personality, and Ai Kayano similarly could play Makoto: Kayano’s voice has a matronly and warm character to it.

  • Besides complete voice acting, other items on my list include a wider set of destinations, extending north to Hokkaido, and south towards Hiroshima and Kumamoto, or even perhaps Okinawa. Additional things I’d like to see include high resolution character models and 4K support: Go! Go! Nippon!‘s character models look a little fuzzy compared to their CG counterparts and the background artwork, so seeing improved assets would be fantastic. Similarly, Go! Go! Nippon! only goes up to 720p, but even back in 2016, 1080p resolution was already commonplace. A 4K visual novel with 1440p and 1080p settings would bring this series into the present. Beyond these technical aspects, it’ll be exciting to see what OVERDRIVE chooses to do with their next iteration in the series.

  • Reminiscing about my vacation to Japan and Hong Kong in 2017 a full five years later was a fun exercise: since then, I’ve only travelled abroad for business (having gone to Denver to consult on and save an app, and then to Silicon Valley to attend an F8 developer conference). Aside from statuary holidays, I’ve been putting my nose to the grindstone for the past five years, and as a result, my world now is quite different than it had been then. While I had a life-changing experience in Japan, I continue to maintain that it would be most unwise of me to uproot my life and become an expatriate in Japan (as one of my former friends had done, at the expense of their career), but now, things have reached a point where I am able to begin considering a return trip: for me, one of the biggest joys of travel, outside of seeing the world outside my routine and enjoying a culture’s best, is knowing I’ve got a home and a warm bed to return to.

Although travel is doubtlessly a large aspect of Go! Go! Nippon!, the elephant in the room is the fact that this game also has elements of a traditional dating simulator, in which player decisions impact the story’s outcome in a tangible way. The setup in Go! Go! Nippon! prima facie appears implausible, and contemporary reviewers felt the romance aspect in Go! Go! Nippon! to be wedged in as a means of appealing to the demographic most likely to look at such a title. While it is the case that the romance in Go! Go! Nippon! can appear superficial at first glance, Go! Go! Nippon! cleverly utilises the dating sim mechanic to, again, speak to the joys of travel. It is the case that Makoto and Akira can be anthropomorphic representations of what travel entails: there are goods and bads, moments worth remembering, and accidents one would rather forget. When one travels to a destination for the first time, they fall in love with the initial impressions. As one’s experiences broaden, they learn more about the destinations, both the pluses and minuses, ultimately cultivating a unique and distinct collection of memories that accompany them home, and in some cases, creates a yearning to return. With this as a metaphor, it is not so implausible to suppose that one could fall in love with someone as quickly as they do a place. Watching the player depart, and how each of Makoto and Akira handle this moment, brings to mind what happens at the end of a vacation: there always is a desire to extend one’s stay, to do more. This aspect of Go! Go! Nippon! proves surprisingly enduring, and it is, curiously enough, through a dating sim setup that different facets of travel can be explored. I imagine that OVERDRIVE had initially designed this more as a piece to ensure players would gain the classic dating simulator experience when going through Go! Go! Nippon!, but the consequences of this element, intentional or not, is that it brings additional depth and enjoyment to the game. Curiosity to see what happens when one makes different decisions to see how things with Makoto and Akira turn out also pushes one to visit, and learn about, different spots. Getting to know Tokyo and its surroundings better, then, is analogous to getting to know Makoto and Akira better. On my first run of this game, making decisions as I would in reality earned me what is considered the “best end” for Makoto: I received a kokuhaku and the story allowed us to reunite. This speaks volumes about my character, but jokes notwithstanding, I would very much like to visit Japan again in the future. Until then, Steam is suggesting that I’ve still got about a quarter of the achievements to unlock in Go! Go! Nippon!, and its successor, Go! Go! Nippon! 2, looks like it’s going to be a reality now, so I’m curious to see what this entails. This time around, I will try to complete Go! Go! Nippon! 2 at least once before planning out a return trip to the Land of the Rising Sun.

Revisiting Titanfall 2: Exploring Hidden Depths in Blisk’s Philosophy and Reminiscing on the Start of a Journey to Japan Half at the Quinquennial Mark

“I’ve got other people with money to see.” –Kuben Blisk

On this day five years earlier, the sound of an alarm clock shakes me from my sleep. Blearily, I rub my eyes and prepare to start my day. However, it’s no ordinary day: on a typical day, I would wash up, get dressed, eat my breakfast and then drive to work. However, this day is different: I’m fulfilling a long-standing dream of flying out to Japan with the family. Although the itinerary states that this is a lightning tour, whisking us from Tokyo to Osaka up through Saitama, Yamanashi, Nagano, Gifu and Kyoto over the course of five days, before heading on over to Hong Kong to visit the other half of my family. Excitement for this particular vacation was enormous: this represented my first time travelling out of country since a pair of conferences a year earlier, and it was also the first vacation I’d taken since I began working. Having finished all of the preparations the night previously, this particular morning saw me drive to the airport for a direct flight from home to Narita. Upon touchdown, we found the shuttle bus that took us to the Hilton Tokyo Narita Airport, which overlooks the countryside and is elegantly appointed. After a hasty dinner, I was surprised to find that night had already fallen in full. Deciding against exploring the area nearby, I retired for the evening ahead of what would be a fantastic vacation. My vacation had come at a curious time: it had been booked for over a half year, and at this point in time, I’d been with my first job, a start-up, for just a shade over half a year, as well. The founder had bootstrapped said start-up, and six months into my work, I’d already delivered a rudimentary iOS app for a computational oncology firm based in the United States. Our founder, and the president of the American computational oncology firm, had spotted the potential in mobile apps, leading my start-up to pivot from a 3D visualisation tool, to a mobile platform intended to bring health data collection to users through smartphone apps. The concept was a revolutionary one, and at this point in time, our company had a number of brilliant and dedicated people looking after things, so I was able to go on vacation without worrying about the work that would pile up in my absence. In this way, I was able to enjoy what would become my favourite vacation in recent memory, and I came back to work refreshed and ready to go. Before I’d set off on this journey, I had spent the previous month playing through Titanfall 2, which had caught my eye when it first launched. Upon finishing Titanfall 2, I had been thoroughly impressed with the gameplay. More recently, nostalgia led me to play through Titanfall 2 again, and this time around, having already known how Jack Cooper’s journey concludes, I was able to appreciate other details within what was a superb narrative.

In particular, the presence of the Apex Predators, mercenaries led by one Kuben Blisk, and their role as Titanfall 2‘s primary antagonists, proved to drive the story and characterisation in ways that wouldn’t be possible had Cooper and the Militia directly fought against the IMC. The additional personality that each of Kane, Ash, Richter, Sloane and Blisk brought to the table indicates the size and scale of the IMC, but because the Apex Predators were mercenaries, Titanfall 2 had implicitly shown players that right from the start, the IMC were consigned to failure in their attempt to utilise the Fold Weapon against the Militia world of Harmony; after IMC’s fuel depot on Demeter had been destroyed, they were denied access to the Frontier, and in a bid to destroy the remnants of the Frontier’s Militia, the IMC have resorted to hiring mercenaries. Conversely, for pilots like Cooper, their motivation lies purely in protecting their home. The strength of their conviction rather outweighs the motivation the Apex Predators have for completing their assignment: mercenaries will fight on the behalf of anyone who offers a sufficiently large sum. Politics and ideology are irrelevant to groups like the Apex Predators, and it is not inconceivable that under different circumstances, Blisk and his crew may have fought the IMC instead. It is for this reason that Cooper and the Militia are able to have their victory in staving off the destruction of their home world. While Cooper’s achievements at the end of Titanfall 2 are doubtlessly impressive, the game also provides subtle cues to players that, while the IMC are doubtlessly a threat to freedom and the like, the Apex Predators themselves are not irredeemably evil, despite its members acting in dubious ways. In particular, Blisk is shown to have a sense of honour. He expresses a begrudging respect for Cooper and, after Cooper defeats Sloane, invites him to join the Apex Predators if he so chooses. In addition, Blisk is very precise and detail-oriented; he refuses to kill Cooper despite General Marder’s protests, stating that Cooper was never part of his original contract. That players never have the chance to fight Blisk directly suggests that the Apex Predator’s way of thinking is not intrinsically evil or macabre. Although it is respectable and honourable to demonstrate loyalty and fight for one’s way of living, the flipside is that there are cases where one must also consider fighting for themselves.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • Titanfall 2‘s soundtrack was what ended up persuading me to give the game a go: I previously had played Titanfall during a trial period, and Stephon Barton’s compositions had captured the gritty nature of warfare between the IMC and Militia. In particular, MacAllen’s Endgame had been a particularly standout track: about forty-five seconds into the track, the iconic Titanfall motif can be heard, and there’s a sort of somber finality about the war being fought. The emotional tenour conveyed in this track evokes a feeling of departure, and thanks to the wonders of shuffle mode, I listened to this song while flying out of Taiwan’s Taoyuan Airport at the end of my journey there in December 2014.

  • My vacation to Taiwan in December  2014 had been a first: traditionally, I travel during the summer months, but that year, I’d been busy with the Giant Walkthrough Brain. After arriving on December 24, we did a counterclockwise tour of the island, beginning in Taipei before heading over to the Xitou Yaoguai Village, a Japanese-style village that was constructed in 2011. This eccentric site features many Japanese features like torii and Japanese lanterns. Despite being a well-known attraction in the area, the fact that it was located in the deep forests of Taiwan’s central island gave it a bit of an eerie vibe, and that evening, I developed serious stomach problems while trying to turn in at the Leader Hotel, an old hotel surrounded by forest with a wing that clearly looked like it was not in use.

  • These stomach problems went away after leaving the area, and I was able to enjoy the remainder of my trip without issue, including a delicious all-fish lunch in a restaurant under the Kao-Ping Hsi Bridge. In fact, the only thing I wish I was able to try was the grilled squid I’d seen at the night markets: although night markets are sanitary owing to government regulations, I decided to exercise caution to avoid unnecessarily putting strain on my constitution. As we moved from west to east, we travelled along a narrow, winding mountain road that took us through Daren Township. From here, we headed north towards Taitung.

  • I remember that evening particularly well: we stopped at a vast jade warehouse on a remote country road under the mountain, and after hearing a pretty guide explain the details of jade production in Taiwan, we headed for dinner before retiring at the Yih Shuian resort. There were numerous sulfur hot springs here, but I decided against trying them out: unlike Japanese onsen, swimsuits were required. The next day, we travelled north towards Hualien for Taroko Gorge. The trip would conclude with a train ride to Yilan and a visit to Jiufen Old Street. This vacation proved remarkably fun even with my constitution troubles, although back then, I only had a Nokia Lumia phone with a weak camera and therefore, did not take very many photos.

  • On a return trip to Taiwan, I’d love to explore the Taitung and Yilan side in greater detail: this mountainous side of Taiwan has stunning scenery. With this being said, spending time in larger cities like Taichung, Tainan, Kaohsiung and Taipei would allow me to sample the foods at night markets, as well. On my to-do list, Taiwan would be second after a trip to Japan: my desire to visit Takehara or a ryokan has not diminished. Such vacations remain in the planning stages for now, but since I did listen extensively to the Titanfall soundtrack, hearing the music brought back old memories of my Taiwan trip.

  • Stephen Barton would return to score Titanfall 2‘s soundtrack: familiar motifs make a return, and this time around, Titanfall 2 would feature a full-fledged campaign set on the planet of Typhon. Here, the gorgeous mountain scenery and vast research labs, coupled with use of Traditional Chinese characters, gave the planet a distinctly Taiwan-like feeling. As I made my way through the campaign, I was thoroughly impressed with how the game handled. Movement was smooth and responsive. However, what stood out was the fact that every mission was unique in its own way, making use of a specific gameplay mechanic to challenge players and keep things fresh.

  • My decision to pick up Titanfall 2 for myself came while I had been queued up for a late February meeting with my financial advisor to get my investments renewed: I received an email that had indicated that both Titanfall 2 and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare had been going on discount. After my meeting ended, I hastened to get back in front of my computer and ended up buying both titles on sale: Titanfall 2 had been going for 60 percent off, and Infinite Warfare‘s Legacy Edition was going for a third off, allowing me to, in effect, pick up Infinite Warfare and Modern Warfare Remastered for the price of one game.

  • I subsequently made my way through both campaigns and found enjoyment in both. Although Infinite Warfare had been widely criticised for being a knockoff of Titanfall 2, I ended up enjoying that game quite thoroughly. Titanfall 2, on the other hand, was universally acclaimed, and a large part of this was the fact that the campaign was so solid. The combination of novel gameplay in every level, coupled with the fact that the campaign’s missions slowly opened players up to what Pilots could do, and a companion that greatly served to ease the overwhelming sense of isolation on Typhon made it quite memorable.

  • Although this isn’t usually discussed in great detail, Typhon itself proved to be a well-done location for Titanfall 2‘s events; the game opens in a verdant tropical valley with waterfalls and steep cliffs, and transitions over to a sewage processing facility. As Cooper and BT get closer to Major Anderson’s position, they pass through a vast underground complex that surpasses even the sewage processing facility in size. Once the pair reach Major Anderson (more appropriately, what’s left of him), Cooper explores a derelict IMC research facility, and then to get their findings back to the militia, they hit a communications site set in a karst landscape.

  • The terrain and vegetation on Typhon brought back memories of Taiwan, and I remember during one lunch break at work, I decided to see if I could find the Xitou Yaoguai Village. Because I’d travelled Taiwan without a good set of offline maps, I had next to no idea of where precisely our destinations were. One of the search terms I’d put into Google was “Ghost village”, and while this approach did eventually lead me to Xitou Yaoguai Village, I also stumbled upon, purely by chance, a remarkably well-written travel blog by a web-developer and travel photographer named Alexander Synaptic.

  • In this blog, Synaptic details various haikyo around Taiwan, and in one post, he writes about the Mingxiong Ghost House, a famous haunted house in Taiwan located just a ways outside of Chiayi in the Chianan plains. Although the precise story of how this once-gorgeous stone mansion fell into ruin is unknown, what is known is that the site is very famous, to the point where a café opened next door to provide visitors with refreshment after they’d finished visiting this landmark. At the bottom of the post, the related articles ended up sending me to Synaptic’s bike tours across Taiwan.

  • By coincidence, Titanfall 2‘s soundtrack came onto my music rotation, and I listened to Burton’s majestic compositions while reading about Synaptic’s travels through Taiwan’s central ranges, an unforgiving region lined with narrow mountain roads and tough conditions, as well as down the sunbaked eastern coast. The striking scenery fit remarkably well with the Titanfall 2 soundtrack, and since then, I’ve felt an inexplicable connection between Titanfall 2 and Taiwan. Subtle hints, including hanzi characters, and a subtropical climate, reinforces this connection to me.

  • I don’t mind admitting that I spent a little more time than I should have browsing through Synaptic’s blog; his writing style is precise and informative, and I absolutely love the pictures that are posted. In the months leading up to my Japan trip, and shortly after I purchased Titanfall 2, work had slowed down somewhat because the start-up I’d been with was mid-pivot: after I delivered my first-ever commercial iOS app to a computational oncology firm in the United States, our founder saw the potential for a genericised app for handling medical follow-up surveys.

  • At this point in time, the details were still being hammered out, and I was asked to develop a functional mock-up of what the app would look like. At the time, I wasn’t particularly versed in things like UIKit or Autolayout (another developer handled that), and therefore, spent most of my time working with the JSON parsing code, as well as designing survey formats that could be stored to a backend and then parsed within the app to deliver questions for users. This was a realm I was a ways more familiar with, and because this had been more tedium than difficult, my days ended up being a ways slower as a result.

  • As such, I did slack off during quieter moments, browsing through both Synaptic’s blog and Google Maps to see if I could find those same spots for myself. Through these virtual travels, I fell in love with Taiwan’s eastern side, especially the Huadong Valley extending from Taitung to Hualien. This valley consists of a vast plain surrounded on both sides by mountain. There’s a tranquility about this place found nowhere else in Taiwan, and I noticed a large number of bed and breakfasts located in this valley. In my mind’s eye, I saw myself waking up on a hot summer’s morning at one of these bed and breakfasts, sitting down to a scrumptious breakfast before biking off for that day’s itinerary.

  • In reality, I’m not too sure how well I’d be able to navigate such a trip: my Mandarin is weak at best, but I imagine that ahead of such a trip, a little touch-up and having some translation apps would probably be helpful. While enjoying the sights of Huadong Valley is within my wheelhouse, wandering Taiwan’s haikyo is probably something I’ll leave to the pros. Urban exploration has long fascinated me, but there’s an inherent danger about it such that were I to go on such an expedition, I would prefer to have a good guide handy.

  • For now, my exploration of haikyo is limited to video games, where there are no threats like broken glass or asbestos to deal with. Exploring the derelict IMC facility and seamlessly transitioning to a functional facility was probably one of the most innovative modes of gameplay I’ve ever seen, comparable to Portal and SUPERHOT. No games since Titanfall 2 have been this creative or enjoyable: many games of the present are completely fixated on in-app purchases at the expense of gameplay, and these trends have resulted in increasingly inferior games of late.

  • This isn’t to say there aren’t good games: DOOM Eternal and Ace Combat 7 have managed to maintain good gameplay without sacrificing it for cosmetics. While skins make sense in third person games, I’ve never understood why people care for them in first person games, when one can’t even see what they’re wearing. Since the success of Titanfall 2, even Respawn has entered the battle royale cosmetic shooter realm; Apex Legends is a spinoff set 18 years after the events of Titanfall 2, and with the IMC defeated, Blisk founds the Apex Games. Although Apex Legends is most certainly not the kind of game I’m interested in playing, it was interesting to learn that Blisk was the founder: Titanfall 2 denied players a chance to fight Blisk.

  • Despite being the antagonist, I never felt any animosity towards Blisk or his Apex Predators. Blisk himself openly expresses respect for Cooper and declines to kill him, stating Cooper and BT were never part of his contract. Five years later, I’ve seen now for myself why Blisk was adamant about Cooper not being a part of his contract; scope creep can make even seemingly simple projects into monstrosities that seemingly cannot be completed. When I signed the original agreement for that Xamarin project, the expectations were that I would spend about a month on the project, get the bugs sorted out and then walk the computational oncology firm through the App Store submission process, which had previously given them trouble.

  • Had we stayed within this scope of work, I would have wrapped up mid-September and had time to focus on our own product. Instead, this project expanded in scope as I continued working on it. Fifteen bugs became sixty, and I was asked to implement features that hadn’t been covered in the original contract. This pushed the project out to October, and I remember being contacted to fix a “high priority high severity” bug while I was out in Vernon for a well-earned break (the salmon run had been going that year), only to learn that it was a user error that produced the bug (they downloaded an outdated build).

  • This experience immediately sees parallels in Titanfall 2, being equivalent to General Marder asking Blisk and his Apex Predators to go after Cooper. Throughout the course of Titanfall 2, Cooper and BT-7274 become such a formidable pair that they are able to begin picking off Blisk’s subordinates. In this way, Kane and Ash are killed after underestimating what the pair are capable of. From the player’s standpoint, this follows logically, but I imagine that for Blisk, Cooper represents an unexpected thorn in their plans. However, despite Cooper and BT-7274’s actions, they are not successful in stopping the Apex Predators from bringing the Ark to the Fold Weapon.

  • Revisiting Titanfall 2 meant having a chance to explore more thoroughly, and here, I managed to find the only EM-4 Cold War in the campaign. This burst-fire bullpup grenade launcher fires small, but highly-damaging rounds in fours, and against the foes in the campaign, they are quite effective: a single hit will vapourise IMC soldiers, and even the Reapers will go down in a few bursts. Playing games again is fun for this reason: I get to discover new things about them, and oftentimes, revisiting a game under different circumstances impacts how I feel about a given scene.

  • In the case of Titanfall 2, I see a fantastic story that has aged gracefully, and with five more years of life experience, I also see a convincing tale of why scope creep is undesirable. Had Marder managed to convince Blisk into accepting that killing Cooper and BT-7274 was a part of their scope of work, Blisk likely would’ve died by the player’s hand. My Xamarin assignment with the computational oncology company indeed saw scope creep of an unreasonable extent, and I got the distinct feeling that the Winnipeg team was actively working to prevent me from finishing my tasks.

  • Reading through the commit history, it was similarly clear that the previous developer who’d been working on the mobile app was competent, but similarly hampered by the Winnipeg team; the changelogs show that the endpoints were added very late into the game (about a month before I was asked to start). There is little doubt in my mind that the fact I was nailing down issues, and fixing a fatal flaw in their user onboarding flow (transforming a ten-step process into a three-step process), was making their developers look bad, so they were attempting to save face by throwing more bugs at me, and even introducing changes prior to demos that they knew would cause the app to crash.

  • Thus, what was supposed to take six weeks at most doubled to twelve weeks, and I was left exhausted by this project. Looking back, I know now why Blisk states to Marder that Cooper was not his problem; Cooper represents a low severity, low priority issue to Blisk in that since he’s already delivered the Ark, he’s done his work. For me, my contract was explicitly stated as ending once I submitted the app to the App Store, although this was later expanded to “taking care of any high priority, high severity bugs that the Winnipeg team introduced”. Dissatisfaction at this project for dragging out as long as it had, coupled with the fact that it ultimately cost us the other deal we had, led me to resign from my first startup.

  • Although the work had been engaging, I was not able to see a future in which we would be successful: that the Xamarin project was allowed to expand in scope as it did also gave me little confidence that we would be able to work on our own products without being interrupted constantly by external factors. Had I continued, I likely would’ve continued to suffer as a result of the Winnipeg team’s incompetence. When I transitioned over to my next position, another startup, I found myself far happier, and under a new founder, I ended up cultivating a diverse range of iOS skills, from UIKit and Autolayout, to things like writing my own networking wrappers and reachability tests, push notifications and payment handling through the Stripe SDK. The only reason why I ended up leaving this position was because investment dried up after the results of the 2020 election. With revenue dwindling, the founder and I shared a conversation about our directions.

  • Unlike my first start-up, whose founder has fallen off the radar, I’m still in contact with my second start-up’s founder and occasionally lend my time to help out with a side project. Curiously enough, towards the end, my second start-up’s founder also asked me to lend my skills for another project, but this time, armed with significantly more experience, I delivered a product I was proud of, and one where there had been no scope creep because all of the lines were clearly drawn in the sand. More importantly, unlike the Xamarin project, I was also fairly compensated for my work: with the second start-up’s project, I was involved in every step of the process and knew exactly how much the client was paying, as well as how the funds would be dispersed.

  • Conversely, with the Xamarin project, I wasn’t involved with discussions when money was concerned, and although it sounded like the payout was considerable, in the end, my compensation only equaled the sum of my travel expenses. Considering the amount of trouble the Winnipeg team put me through, I was definitely shortchanged by this turn of events. Experiences like these reshaped my experience with Titanfall 2 a second time around, and so, while Blisk might be an antagonist, I completely empathise with his sentiments in the present; considering the amount of experience I’ve accrued as an iOS developer (and all of the ancillary know-how I’ve picked up), I agree with Blisk’s thoughts: “I don’t work for free”.

  • Blisk’s remark, that he’s got “other people with money to see”, shows that his skills are in high demand, and that he’s able to make his own call as to what assignments he wants to take. Since there are other clients implied to be bidding for his services, Blisk no longer regards Marder as his employer, hence his attitudes towards the end of the game. Others have argued that this lessens Blisk’s character: from this point of view, Blisk is only saying this because Cooper has thoroughly beaten his team of elites. However, given the tone Marder takes with Blisk, the opposite is true; Marder sees Cooper as a threat to the IMC, but Blisk simply has no interest in doing what’s outside of his original scope of work.

  • My experiences doing contract work at start-ups to help keep my lights on has meant that I look at Blisk’s character completely differently now, and for this reason, I’m glad they chose not to have Cooper fight (and defeat) him: it shows that Titanfall 2 understands the other side of things. The me of five years earlier had been more similar to Cooper, fighting loyally for a cause to both learn and protect. I only left my first start-up after it became clear there was no future, and I was fighting right to the end. This was, in part, because I was not confident in my skill as a developer at the time. Correspondingly, the me of five years earlier was a little disappointed at the fact that Cooper never did get to take Blisk on.

  • According my site’s archives, I reached the penultimate mission of Titanfall 2 mid-April. Fighting through the various IMC warship en route to the Draconis, I was fighting off a minor head cold at the time. However, a cold was not enough to dampen my spirits: at this point in time, my Japan trip was only a few more weeks away, and I was very much looking forwards to my experiences. After my experiences in Taiwan, I was most excited about the fact that I was rocking an iPhone 6: despite only sporting 16 GB of internal storage, this phone had an eight megapixel camera and shot images of a decent resolution.

  • Moreover, access to the App Store meant I had access to offline maps, which proved instrumental in helping me to remember which destinations I visited. This bit of technology allowed me to record my vacation in greater detail than any vacation I’d been on previously, and so, I am able to recall specifics about this particular vacation with a much higher precision compared to something like Taiwan. Owing to an incident when I was migrating machines a few months ago, I lost all of my original photos, which were carrying the EXIF and date information, but since I uploaded my images to social media, I at least still have a majority of the photos I took.

  • As noted earlier, I will be returning to revisit this particular journey later this month. However, rather than share the vacation photos a second time here, I will be recounting how this vacation shifted my perspectives. I will be fitting this discussion around Go! Go! Nippon!: this game acts as a virtual simulation of what an idealised first-time trip to Japan is like, and while it began as a bit of a joke, this visual novel is surprisingly well done, providing players with some useful information about Japan, along with an amusing scenario that makes the game more immersive than its premise would suggest.

  • Having said this, I’ve never actually written about Go! Go! Nippon! despite having beaten it twice. The game has received two expansions, once in 2015, and again in 2016, which dramatically upgraded the resolutions and number of destinations one could visit. As such, the time has come to correct this, and for my play-through this time around, I will be going through the 2016 expansion: my last play-through of Go! Go! Nippon! was for the 2015 expansion, which proved to be a remarkably enjoyable one. Games like Titanfall 2 are more commonly seen in my wheelhouse compared to things like Go! Go! Nippon!, but I will remark that, while I’ve got a bias towards FPS and action-oriented titles, I am generally open to a wide range of games.

  • Towards the end of Titanfall 2, as a clever callback to the overpowered MK5 Smart Pistol of Titanfall: the Smart Pistol was originally able to instantly kill a Pilot in the multiplayer. While automatic target acquisition took some time and only could occur at short ranges, a skilled Smart Pistol user could decimate foes in close quarters without retribution. However, the Smart Pistol was useless at medium and long ranges. To mitigate these issues, Titanfall 2 has the Smart Pistol become a boost rather than a loadout weapon, and while retaining most of the original Smart Pistol’s functions, the MK6 cannot be fired unless one has a lock, and players will be alerted to the fact they’re being locked onto.

  • In the campaign, it becomes a weapon that Cooper can reliably fall back on: after securing the Ark, Cooper is captured, and BT-7274 is destroyed, forcing Cooper to retrieve the SERE Kit and reach a drop point to continue the mission. Having the Smart Pistol offsets the overwhelming odds, and this is the only point in the campaign where the Smart Pistol appears. The speed and efficiency players have here is a culmination of everything one has learnt throughout the campaign, and it is expected that one can make full use of their weapon and environment to reach the drop site for a new Vanguard-class Titan equipped with the Legion setup.

  • On this date five years ago, I was on a plane bound for Narita. On that day, I certainly wasn’t thinking ahead five years; today, I’ve finished another workday, and by, this point in time, I feel like I’ve settled in after the move. Housekeeping has become smoother, and I’ve found enough time at the end of a day to write. I’ve also resumed my anime schedule, and at the time of writing, I’ve now finished Akebi’s Sailor Uniform, which I look forwards to writing about soon. In addition, settling in means being able to capitalise on both the fact I’ve got several brilliant parks and good restaurants within walking distance.

  • Over this past weekend, I had a chance to try out the pizza place just across the way: we ordered a Greek pizza (purple onions, green peppers, black olives, feta cheese and tomato slices), alongside a house special pizza (an all-meat pizza with pepperoni, sausage, extra cheese and crispy salami slices) and honey-garlic wings. Having not gone out for pizza for quite some time, what stood out was the fact that the pizzas from this particular place (a 2-minute walk) were packed with toppings. I’m not a pizza connoisseur, and the mark of a good pizza for me is the toppings: a winning pizza has a flavourful and healthy amount of meat, vegetables and cheese.

  • With this, I’ve beaten Titanfall 2 again, but this time, it’s under different circumstances. Five more years under my belt means I’ve been able to see the story from another angle, and in this way, I’ve also found that Titanfall 2‘s answer to the question I’d posed whilst playing Project Wingman is simple: mercenaries don’t really care for ideology and concern themselves with a job well done, so it was interesting to fight on both sides of the fence (as a mercenary in Project Wingman, and against them in Titanfall 2). I imagine readers tire of non-anime posts here, so my next goal is to swiftly wrap up a post for Akebi’s Sailor Uniform, and then kick off Go! Go! Nippon!: since I moved to my current desktop, I’ve lost a host of save files on top of my old travel photos. This means that I’ll have a chance to go back through Go! Go! Nippon! with a fresh set of eyes.

While I passed through the Meishin Expressway cutting through the farmer’s fields near Shiga, my iPhone began playing BT’s theme. The me of five years earlier had admired the majesty and scale of Titanfall 2‘s soundtrack, as well as the game’s movement system and visceral gunplay. I hadn’t yet caught onto the fact that Titanfall 2‘s portrayal of Blisk was strikingly similar to that of a software developer. Blisk is described as being in his line of work both for the fact that it pays well and because Blisk loves the the thrill of a challenge. In addition, Blisk is particularly fond of testing out cutting edge hardware and weapons, as well as experimenting with different solutions and pushing himself to complete assignments at all costs. Blisk is loyal to no flag or ideology, serving a client only until his task is completed as stated. As a software developer, I’m surprisingly similar: although some problems are frustrating, there’s a certain satisfaction in solving them. Working as a developer means being able to play with beta builds, new SDKs and even cutting-edge hardware. I’ve similarly worked on assignments (both in an organisation and as a consultant) where I stop development once the stipulated milestones are reached (and out-of-scope work is described as such). Seeing the commonalities between myself and Blisk led me to appreciate Titanfall 2 in a new way, and at present, I understand Titanfall 2‘s choice to let Blisk live by disallowing players the chance to fight him. Looking back, I’d been similar to Cooper in that I had been loyal, to a fault, with my first startup. As I accrued more experience, both professional and personal, realities meant that it became easier to see what drives Blisk’s character; Titanfall 2 has Blisk end the game by stating to Marder that with his current contract over, Cooper is no longer his problem, and that he’s got people with money to see. For me, the first start-up I worked for ended up failing: with the paycheques no longer coming in despite having delivered a working app, the time had come for me to move on, as well.

Project Wingman: Dethroning Crimson One and Avenging the Fallen At The Endgame

“They say it was three men.”
“Bullshit. How could three men do this?”

―Radio Chatter in Kaffarov, Battlefield 3

With the Federation’s supply routes in disarray, Cascadian forces move to retake their capital city, Presidia, before the occupying Federation forces have a chance to fortify their positions. The Cascadians launch a joint operation with Sicario, swiftly destroying their air forces over the city. Meanwhile, the Eminent Domain takes on the Federation fleet stationed in Presidia’s port. Hitman team assists the Cascadian forces in sinking the Federation fleet, and, having now established both air supremacy and neutralising whatever naval forces remain, the Cascadian ground forces capitalise on the chaos to advance and capture strategic locations. The Federation forces find themselves pushed back to the Port Authority building, but before they can be surrounded, the Federation government manages to negotiate a ceasefire with Cascadia. Cascadian forces are ordered to stand down and allow Federaation soldiers to evacuate, bringing an end to the war. However, some Federation forces refuse to accept this, and collaborate with the now-rogue Crimson One to detonate Cordium warheads throughout Presidia. The entire city is levelled, and along with it, the whole of the Cascadian navy is sunk. Piloting the experimental PW-Mk.I, Crimson One engages Monarch in a mano-a-mano duel. Driven mad by the loss of his squadron and the resulting damage to his pride, Crimson One attempts to utilise the PW-Mk.I’s overwhelming arsenal in a bid to kill Monarch. Despite being outmatched technologically, Monarch manages to evade Crimson One’s weapons and deals enough damage to the PW-MK.I’s Cordium engines, causing the plane to explode and kill Crimson One. Before he dies, Crimson One warns Monarch of his own mortality. Although Cascadia ultimately wins the war and inspires other nations to secede from the Federation, much of their own nation now lies in ruin, and the survivors must grapple with the millions of casualties resulting from Crimson One’s final act of defiance. Monarch lives to fight another day, although the cost of this operation lingers long after Monarch downs Crimson One in a titanic battle of one-sided indifference. With this, Project Wingman‘s campaign comes to a close, and I was left with an unparalleled experience, one that speaks both to the capabilities of Sector D2’s excellence and the Unreal Engine.

Having now beaten Project Wingman, it becomes clear that this game is the ultimate love letter to Ace Combat, albeit with several critical changes. In three key areas, Project Wingman actually surpasses Ace Combat. The first of these is the weapons and loadouts that are possible. Aircraft are permitted up to three special weapons in some cases, greatly expending their versatility. Ace Combat limited players to only a single special weapon type per aircraft, and this in turn made aircraft highly specialised of a certain role. If a plane could only carry anti-ship missiles, it would only be valuable on missions with anti-fleet operations. Similarly, carrying a tactical laser would reduce one’s ability to shoot down larger numbers of individually weak foes. Project Wingman has no such limitation: one can carry a mixture of weapons for anti-air and anti-ground combat alike, allowing them to remain effective in any situation. For instance, were a player to fly a fighter into a mission with large numbers of ground targets, having bombs would provide an additional option beyond the standard missiles. The guns in Project Wingman are also better thought-out compared to their Ace Combat counterparts; the integral cannons are more powerful, but different planes actually come with distinctly different cannon types. Most planes come with the M61 Vulcan or an equivalent 20 mm cannon, but the Sk.25U is equipped with a 30 mm cannon. With a lower firing rate and capacity, each 30 mm round does considerably more damage. Further to this, there’s four different kinds of gun pods, each with a specific use-case, and the guns find applicability in situations where missiles are less effective, making them a true part of the game: it takes skill to make full use of the guns, and Project Wingman encourages players to make full use of their aircraft’s capabilities. Finally, Project Wingman‘s presentation of devastation is nothing short of impressive: entire maps show the cost of large scale warfare, as forests burn and buildings crumble. Of course, Ace Combat has its own strengths. The progression system is deeper, with more options for aircraft, and there is significantly more mission variety. Similarly, Ace Combat is also better polished. However, the fact that Project Wingman gets so much right speaks volumes to the competence and creativity of Sector D2’s three-man team, showing that one doesn’t need a multi-million dollar budget to put together a memorable and engaging experience.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • In Project Wingman‘s final act, Monarch returns to the Cascadian capital of Presidia for one final titanic clash against the Federation’s remaining forces. For this mission, I’ve opted to fly the F/S-15 again: it’s the most advanced aircraft I could afford entering the endgame, and my goal is to ultimately pick up the PW-Mk.I, the ultimate aircraft in the game. Until then, the F/S-15 has proven to be more than adequate: the mission to re-take Presidia is a combination of both air-to-air and air-to-ground combat, and efficient ammunition use is key here.

  • In a way, this mission represents the culmination of all of the experience a player has accrued in Project Wingman. By this point in time, I’ve completely adjusted to the missile mechanics in this game: while it took a little getting used to, once I acclimatised, the missiles of Project Wingman are reliable and effective. They’re most useful against foes approaching one head on, or, if one is flanking their enemies, then they work best between 1200 and 1600 metres. Any further, enemy planes will be able to dodge them or deploy countermeasures, while at closer ranges, the missiles won’t be able to track.

  • The F/S-15 is able to carry a ludicrous amount of multi-target missiles: if the first two special weapon slots are outfitted with these missiles, players will be able to lock onto up to ten targets simultaneously. This gives the F/S-15 the ability to clear out entire squadrons in seconds, although the extremely large volleys mean that if one isn’t careful, their entire store of missiles could become depleted very quickly. Here at Presidia, I was finally able to try out how a prototype aircraft handles in dogfights, and it becomes clear that the higher cost for prototype aircraft is for a reason.

  • While the F/S-15 is the most inexpensive prototype in Project Wingman, it still surpasses all of the previous aircraft: it accelerates and can maintain a top speed comparable to that of the interceptors, while at the same time, possesses handling traits befitting a fighter. Aircraft in Project Wingman are well-balanced against one another; prototype planes tend to have good all-around traits and excel in all roles. Interceptors have great acceleration and top speeds, while fighters are highly manoeuvrable. Strike aircraft carry weapons suited for anti-ship combat, and attacker aircraft have a large number of hardpoints capable of carrying a range of anti-ground weapons.

  • Multi-role aircraft perform well in both anti-air and anti-ground operations, and prototypes fit into the spectrum as being extraordinarily powerful multi-role aircraft. Strictly speaking, prototype aircrafts are not necessary for beating the campaign: the standard missiles and integral cannons in any plane are enough to get one through any mission. This was especially true in Ace Combat games, where players could complete entire missions, even on higher difficulties, without relying extensively on their special weapon stores.

  • The use of the stock missiles and gun is a trait I call the “stock weapons paradigm”: this is a concept that dates back a decade, and it states that any well-balanced game will be designed such that a player will be able to do just fine with the starting weapons a game provides them with. This came about in Team Fortress 2, when I noticed that the default weapons were really all one needed. In some games, like Agent Under Fire, weapons are clearly tiered, and the endgame weapons are definitively more powerful than the weapons found early on. In a balanced game, weapons all fit specific roles, and one should be able to do well enough with what’s available to them from the start, whether it be the start of a match, or the start of one’s journey through a progression system.

  • Planes in Project Wingman all handle slightly differently and carry different special weapons to give them an edge under certain circumstances, but overall, a competent pilot will be able to make any plane work with their default loadouts. This speaks to the excellent design in the game, and accounts for my wish to go back through the campaign a second time so that I can unlock the remainder of the aircraft available: I’m particularly keen on flying the F/E-18 again. For now, I’ll return the focus to whittling down the Federation’s remaining airships. Despite their railguns, downing airships are old hat at this point, and their presence is hardly intimidating now.

  • During this operation, I was blowing things up left, right and centre: even this late into the game, the visual effects for destruction look superb, and I found myself admiring my handiwork every time a plane or airship was shot down. At this point in time, I’ve become versed enough so that I’m not slamming into wreckage of destroyed aircraft, but there have been occasions where I will be strafing an airship with a M61 Vulcan, only to smash into it because I neglected to check the distance indicator. During combat, enemy combatants can be closer than they appear, and this really gives a sense of how scale can be misrepresented in the skies.

  • It suddenly hits me that the pressure waves in Project Wingman are much more visible (and a little more rudimentary) than their counterparts in Ace CombatAce Combat 7 has fair-looking pressure waves, but for me, it is actually Ace Combat: Assault Horizon that had the best-looking pressure waves from an explosion. There, explosions created a subtle lensing effect. I would imagine that Ace Combat 7 simply increased the emphasis on these blast waves so they’d be more visible, but the end result was that explosions look a little less realistic. In Project Wingman, there is no lensing, and no refractive effects from explosions.

  • Ace Combat: Assault Horizon was my first Ace Combat experience, and while it was a fun game, looking back, it was also quite unlike anything I would later play: the game’s use of “Dogfight Mode” took a lot of the control away from players, and the fact that there were multiple perspectives meant the overall story felt more disjointed. However, Assault Horizon‘s being on PC did mean that for the first time ever, I had a chance to really experience an Ace Combat game for myself, as opposed to watching YouTube playthroughs from other players.

  • Project Wingman is often referred to as a “poor man’s” Ace Combat. Hving now gone through the game in full, Project Wingman offers a tangibly unique and enjoyable experience such that I would say that it is a worthwhile experience for any Ace Combat fan, and similarly, anyone who’s wondering if Ace Combat is right for them could gain a modicum of insight if they go through Project Wingman. Had Ace Combat 7 not released on PC, Project Wingman would’ve been the definitive answer to players looking for an Ace Combat-like experience, but I’ve found that for the most enjoyable and complete experience, one would do well to give both a whirl, since both Ace Combat and Project Wingman have their own distinct strengths.

  • There isn’t one game that is decisively better than the other. Project Wingman excels with its weapon mechanics and design, as well as its ability to portray the scale of each battle, while Ace Combat overall provides a more polished experience, deeper progression system and mission variety. The perfect arcade combat game would therefore allow players to tune their planes like in Ace Combat 7 and equip a much larger array of special weapons, showcase battles of a grand scale and vary up the mission objectives while at the same time, having full VR support as Project Wingman does.

  • With this in mind, I am curious about what the upcoming Ace Combat title is going to be like: so far, all I know is that it’s the eighth instalment in the series, and producer Kazutoki Kono has stated that it’s going to be their biggest game ever. I wonder if Project Aces’ team would’ve seen Sector D2’s Project Wingman and saw what alternatives were possible; an Ace Combat game allowing players to vary hardpoint configurations and perhaps even feature different types of guns would be a major improvement on an already successful approach, furthering the level of depth to dogfighting in Ace Combat.

  • While the guns in Ace Combat tend to be more generic, later iterations of the game feature faster-firing guns for fighters and slower, harder-hitting guns for attacker aircraft. By Ace Combat 7, American aircraft utilise the M61 Vulcan, while Russian aircraft use the GSh-30-1. The guns do handle differently, but the differences are not as pronounced as they are in Project Wingman, and overall, the guns have a similar DPS. In general, guns play a large role both Project Wingman and Ace Combat, being an essential part of one’s arsenal, but the mechanics in the former are a bit more sophisticated, giving guns slightly more specialised scenarios where they are most effective.

  • According to the history books, the difference between American and Russian aircraft guns are simple: American designs favour the 20mm calibre because it’s light enough to be mounted on an aircraft without compromising handling, has a high enough rate of fire to ensure a target is hit, and good ballistic properties. On the other hand, a 30mm round can carry more explosives, so a few hits would be devastating. Differences in methodology resulted in different weapons, and I’ve found that, at least in Project Wingman, the faster-firing guns are more effective in dogfighting, whereas the slower-firing guns are better for strafing ground targets.

  • Once the air battle over Presidia is won, the focus shifts over to the Federation’s remaining navy forces. Since I was flying the F/S-15, I simply switched over from the anti-air missiles over to the anti-ground missiles and pounded the fleet into oblivion. The multiple lock-on anti-ground missiles proved more effective against static ground targets than they do against ships: while each missile is capable of knocking out a ship’s weapon component with ease, each missile can only deal damage to its target, and ships in Project Wingman only go down from direct hits to its main structure.

  • As such, if one were to get a lock onto a ship’s weapons, they’d destroy only the weapons. This would demand that one circle around and hit the ship again in order to sink it. For this reason, anti-ship missiles are exceedingly powerful in Project Wingman, and balanced accordingly so one isn’t sinking ships left, right and center. A reasonably experienced pilot will be able to optimise their runs so that they aren’t reliant on anti-ship missiles when fighting fleets, and indeed, the basic gun and missiles is, more often than not, enough to take out fleets of enemy ships on short order.

  • Like Ace Combat, particularly skilled pilots can fly though some features on a map that would be counted as foolhardy or unwise. In the middle of a battle, one is so focused on the objective that stunts aren’t likely to be the first thing on their mind. Doing this sort of thing is usually reserved for the free flight mode, which Project Wingman does offer, and while I’ve indeed pulled off these stunts in Ace Combat 7, my priority now remains focused on finishing off Project Wingman. Flying stunts are far easier to achieve than some would suggest: after Ace Combat 7‘s launch, TV Tropes’ “Imca”, a charlatan who claims to be from Osaka, suggests that he only took damage in Ace Combat 7‘s campaign twice and “flies through the wires of suspension bridges for fun”, implying that only Japanese players had the skill to perform trick manoeuvres.

  • Said individual has a propensity for acting like a big-shot at Tango-Victor-Tango’s American politics (despite supposedly hailing from Japan) and military threads. Imca’s latest round of fabrications include claiming that he owns a Tesla. Going from a rule of thumb, which suggests that one can afford a car that is equal to or less than 35 percent of their annual income, Imca would need to be pulling in around 135000 CAD per year (assuming we’re going off of the price of the entry-level Model 3, which costs 47000 CAD). Someone who “[plays] way more video games than westerners do and have more practise” and spends their time at Tango-Victor-Tango’s forums is unlikely to be dedicated to their career and advanced it far enough to make six figures, so either Imca is exceptionally poor with money management, or is being untruthful.

  • Fabrications always fall apart upon scrutiny, and while anonymity online makes lying as easy as breathing, I make it a point to never exaggerate my experiences and exploits, whether they be related to video games or reality. This is why I don’t have any objections to admitting when, in a given game, a certain area gave me particular trouble. In Project Wingman, a few missions did present to me a bit more trouble than usual (especially the ninth mission), but overall, my experience with the campaign was quite smooth, and I never died from sustaining too much damage from enemy fire.

  • Project Wingman does not have checkpoints, so deaths are particularly unforgiving: dying sends players back to the start of a mission, and while missions are of a moderate length (usually, 15-25 minutes), losing that amount of progress can be incredibly frustrating. This forces players to really keep an eye on their hull integrity and fly in a way as to minimise damage: making full use of the flares and keeping an eye on missile indicators, as well as taking care not to fly into the path of enemy aircraft or their burning wreckage. In fact, I’ve died more to colliding with enemy air combatants than I have from missile damage or gunfire.

  • In the end, after clearing out everything in the skies, on the ocean and on the ground, the Federation begins to realise they’ve been beaten, and a ceasefire is declared. This is the outcome that players were hoping for, being a close to what was ultimately a meaningless and brutal conflict. However, the astute player will have spotted that the battle for Presidia ended without a showdown with a fanatic foe in an über-powerful aircraft. Almost right on cue, the skies fill with a bright flash of light moments later, and when the dust settles, Presidia is in complete ruin.

  • The culprit is none other than Crimson One, who’s managed to acquire the PW-Mk.I, a super-plane whose capabilities surpass anything that Monarch had previously faced. Crimson One promptly uses the PW-Mk.I’s universal burst missiles to shoot down every remaining combatant who’d survived the Cordium detonations, intent on squaring off against Monarch, whom he holds personally responsible for the world’s evils. Besides the burst missiles, the PW-Mk.I is armed with multiple railguns and a plasma launcher.

  • For this fight, Crimson One’s attack patterns are broken up into four phases. In phase one, he only utilises the burst missiles, and these can easily be evaded, even without making use of flares. In the second phase, Crimson One adds railgun fire into the mix: his aircraft comes with multiple railguns, and if these impact simultaneously, Monarch will be devastated. By phase three, Crimson one utilises the plasma orbs, as well. Owing to the PW-Mk.I’s unmatched mobility, missiles are all but useless against him, and to this end, one will rely almost exclusively on their guns.

  • An aircraft with gun pods will have an easier time of whittling down Crimson One’s health: even the less manoeuvrable aircraft, one can still keep up with Crimson One and train their guns on him. Keeping up with him at close quarters can be tricky, but in order to engage, Crimson One will fly off and make some distance, and this provides players with a window to attack. Crimson One will spend the entire fight badmouthing Monarch, and while this is hilarious in bringing to mind the sort of trash talk that Aaron Keener treats players to in The Division 2, the choice of words suggests that Crimson One is someone who’s now fighting purely for revenge, having lost everything as a consequence of the player’s actions.

  • Moments like these serve to remind players that in war, there are no victors: there is a macabre truth to what Crimson One is saying, and even if Monarch does shoot him down here, it won’t change the fact that millions of lives were lost during the Cascadian conflict. Here, I narrowly dodge a railgun round from Crimson One: unlike the railgun turrets seen earlier, Crimson One can fire multiple rounds at players with every shot. In spite of the gap in technology, however, this fight never once felt impossible. I simply broke off my engagement when he was firing and capitalised on cooldowns to get my shots in.

  • This final boss fight was about as thrilling and challenging as the fight against Mihaly in Ace Combat 7: while Crimson One might have an incredibly sophisticated aircraft that puts all of the other aircraft in the game to shame, the fact that Monarch is able to go toe-to-toe with Crimson One is yet another reminder that technology notwithstanding, it’s ultimately the pilot that makes the difference. In the end, I beat Crimson One without too much difficulty, bringing the campaign to an end. At this point, I unlocked the player version of the PW-Mk.I: it’s the most expensive aircraft in the game and will likely take some time to unlock.

  • Besides replaying the campaign to unlock all of the aircraft (primarily for completeness’ sake), Project Wingman also offers two more avenues for replayability. The first is the conquest mode, which is a procedurally generated collection of missions where players must fight off wave after wave of Federation aircraft to secure Cascadian territory. Along the way, one can purchase new aircraft and even upgrade the reinforcements that come to assist them. Death is permanent in this mode, although one’s unlocks carry over, and this gives one a chance to really test their skills in a more open, sandbox mode. I imagine that I’ll start this mode once the summer arrives; May is going to see me revisit several iconic games, like Titanfall and Go! Go! Nippon!, as I reminisce about upcoming milestones.

  • The other avenue is VR: since Project Wingman has complete VR support, I would be able to free flight or revisit older missions using my Oculus Quest headset. My previous desktop lacked the CPU and connectors for such an endeavour, but with my new build, I anticipate that I should be able to utilise the Oculus Link setup. If Project Wingman‘s VR mode proves viable, I would be in a position to consider Half-Life: Alyx – my GTX 1060 60 GB is capable of running the game, and this would allow me to continue my Half Life experiences.  Overall, Project Wingman is a very impressive experience, and I have no problem recommending this as the definitive experience for what independently developed games could be like; with the right skill set, such games can easily rival triple-A titles in quality.

  • As it is, Project Wingman is a worthwhile experience for both Ace Combat fans and folks looking to try out the arcade flight combat genre. I’ve heard that a major update is in the works for Project Wingman, which Sector D2 is suggesting will add new weapons, introduce previously unavailable aircraft and perhaps even bring in some new campaign missions. All of this is worth writing about, and while my Project Wingman campaign experience is in the books for the present, I have a feeling that I am going to be returning in the future to discuss my experiences with the game’s super-planes, VR missions and conquest mode. The time is also nigh to return to Ace Combat 7: during my playthrough a few years back, I ended up unlocking the Strike Wyvern, and I picked up the DLC which gives me access to iconic super-planes like the Falken, so I’m now curious to see how my experience changes when I’m rocking the best planes in the game.

The very fact that Project Wingman exists speaks volumes to how much a competent team can do with the tools available to them: despite lacking the resources available to a Triple-A studio, Sector D2 was able to not only put together a polished and smooth experience, but they created a game that rivals the quality of something that ordinarily takes an entire team of developers, graphic artists, voice actors, composers, sound engineers and QA testers to accomplish. In fact, Project Wingman exceeds expectations because Sector D2 was able to implement a complete VR experience within the game. To put things in perspective, Ace Combat 7 only had a partial implementation of VR, providing the experience only across three levels. What Project Wingman is able to achieve is therefore a show to large studios that standards are increasing, and that as the technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, expectations correspondingly increase: having now seen what a three man team can do with a small budget, one must wonder why larger studios, with their increased human resources and funding, cannot put together stable, content-rich and fun games when three people, working with just north of a hundred grand (Canadian dollars) were able to assemble a title that plays well, immerses players entirely and possesses features that are absent in games from much larger teams. Project Wingman represents independent development at its finest, and with Ace Combat 8 on the horizon, expectations are now especially high; both Ace Combat 7 and Project Wingman have shown that the arcade flight combat simulator genre is still alive and well. Having now seen what’s possible in these games, it is fair to expect that a successful title must tell a compelling story, immerse players in a world that’s rich in details, provide a deep progression system that makes replay and customisation worthwhile, and above all, give players the feeling that they can single-handedly change the course of a conflict, much as Project Wingman and Ace Combat‘s past ace pilots have done. In the meantime, Project Wingman‘s thematic elements remain strong for a game whose strong suit is allowing one to fly cool aircraft and blow stuff up in cool places: it speaks to the futility of war, and how regardless of one’s intentions going in, even a desire to go good and fight for what one believes in can become distorted and twisted as one witnesses horror upon horror. Although not quite as direct as how Ace Combat presents its themes, Project Wingman nonetheless is successful in presenting a coherent story. In response to the question I posed about mercenaries, I find that Project Wingman is suggesting that at the end of the day, one should not be consumed by their ideology and continue to do what’s right so long as it doesn’t cost them everything. As Monarch, one gains the sense that while Monarch is successful in this assignment, there are things that they will need to live with in the aftermath of a conflict that has cost so much.