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Among Trees: Reflections on Introspective Survival and Thoughts About Returning Home at Journey’s End

“Going away won’t change anything if you’re running from yourself.” –Joyce Rachelle

An adventurer begins a new life in a pristine forest somewhere over the horizon. After bringing a derelict cabin back to running order, the adventurer explores the surroundings and locates the materials to craft an axe. As the days pass, the adventurer begins learning the different plants and mushrooms in the forest, identifies several landmarks and gathers the materials for expanding the cabin. Over time, the cabin becomes outfitted with a crafting room, kitchen, storage room, sewing room and even a brewing room, allowing the adventurer to cook delicious meals and build the materials needed to further explore the forest. Meanwhile, the adventurer has learnt to fish and successfully evades bears that patrol certain parts of the forest. As the days turn to weeks, the adventurer begins travelling further into the forest, befriends a fox and encounters rare materials required for crafting a new coat and backpack. Eventually, there is no corner of the forest that has remain untravelled, and the adventurer is now thriving, having mastered the art of fishing and cooking wild edibles into delicious meals. The fox becomes an old friend, faithfully accompanying the adventurer on their adventures into the furthest reaches in the forest. With a fulfilling adventure under their belt, the adventurer crafts a hiking pack for returning back to civilisation and home, where others are awaiting them. This is Among Trees, a highly relaxing and cathartic survival simulator developed and published by FJRD Interactive. Released in November 2021, Among Trees is a vibrant and colourful experience that represents a departure from conventional survival games in that, beyond the existence of a pair of bears on the map, and the risk of potentially freezing to death if one were out too late exploring the forest, there are no tangible threats to the players. While the game is polarising owing to its lack of content, it represents a wonderful portrayal of the universal fantasy of packing it up and escaping one’s obligations – in a temperate forest by the summer, there’s no distractions from the hustle associated with living among people. One spends their days gathering wild edibles and materials to better their existence, and one is enveloped in infinite solitude. However, there is a gap in starting out on this new journey: in the very beginning, it is immensely difficult to know what one’s next move should be, and without any a priori knowledge, making it on one’s own in a completely new environment can feel intimidating, even overwhelming. However, the feeling of discomfort begins lessening after one puts their home together, and has a place to consistently return to. In the beginning, Among Trees gives very little indicator as to what exactly players must do to survive, and leaves said player to work out what their biggest priority should be.

Among Trees conveys the feelings associated with starting out extremely well – in the beginning, things can seem quite difficult because people are hardwired to operate within routine, and worry about the outcomes of one’s actions, as well as the route it takes to reach said outcome, can make a journey feel insurmountable. Once one takes the plunge and overcomes the initial hurdle of starting, things become significantly easier. Armed with my own knowledge of Survivorman, I approached Among Trees as Les Stroud might: having the right items in my kit would doubtlessly have been helpful, and so, I set my sights on putting an axe and lockpick together with the materials scattered around points of interests. Now that I had access to enough resources to begin crafting, my ability to survive opened up considerably. In this case, the combination of having some idea of what to do, coupled with the knowledge that things do get easier after one can get past the beginning, allowed me to make headway into Among Trees. In this way, Among Trees acts as a very visceral representation of why things always seem to become more straightforward the longer one is in the game – as one becomes more experienced with how things work, one can make increasingly better decisions to improve survival. There are obvious analogues in reality, grounded in the fact that with experience, one is able to see patterns and optimise their solutions for things. For instance, six years ago, I struggled to understand how information from one view controller could be sent to another in an iOS app. In the present day, I would immediately suggest using delegates. In Among Trees, once players survive the toughest first few days of the game and gain access to the three most essential tools (the axe, lockpick and map), the game really opens up. A water canteen allows one to wander the drier parts of the map without worrying about dehydration, and a tent lets one overnight outside. The storage attic lets one hang onto a much larger amount of materials for crafting, and the kitchen allows one to turn even poisonous or low-nutrition foods into a delicious meal. Fishing becomes a reliable and enjoyable way of acquiring protein, which sates hunger effectively and even heals the player to some extent. As players become more familiar with the resources available to them and how far they can travel, a new routine forms. Gradually, the mystery of living in a tranquil forest is replaced by effective survival – food is no longer a concern, there’s always a supply of fresh water, and knowledge of where resources are allows one to craft the game’s more effective gear, extending travel range and eventually allowing players to fully explore the world and discover every bit of flora available to them. Having now survived, and thrived in such a location, there hardly seems any new experiences to be had, and so, Among Trees offers players one final note: it’s time to head back to civilisation, where one’s loved ones and responsibilities await.

In its portrayal of an ending, Among Trees provides a very meaningful and unexpected message to players; no matter the sort of adventure one goes on, one will eventually need to return home, back to their loved ones, and back to their responsibilities and obligations. As enjoyable as living in an idyllic forest is, and how calming it is to foraging for wild edibles and enjoying a campfire under a setting sun in the great outdoors might be, one cannot escape society and other people forever. There comes a point where every journey, no matter how grand, must draw to a close, and a major part of making this palatable is knowing that there is a home for one to return to when they leave. In Among Trees, there’s a sort of finality after the hiking kit appears; one knows they’ve know become sufficiently versed in the game such that they can easily craft all of the resources needed to prepare for a trip back home, and that their time in the forest is finite. Folks who take this route will end the game and learn that while a break from routine is pleasant, if such excursions were to be for the long-term, then a new routine would inevitably form. This speaks cleverly to the idea that the novel soon becomes the familiar if experienced with sufficient frequency, and the charm wears off. In Among Trees, for instance, it is initially a thrill to catch one’s first-ever Perch, but as one becomes comfortable with fishing, one will soon acquire a stockpile of trout. Exciting first experiences, like camping outdoors for the first time, or creating the first Wormwood brew, similarly become routine with enough time. Going home is a part of the journey, as well, and this is what makes things like travel and vacations worthwhile. Given this message, it stands to reason that Among Trees also vindicates one of my own thoughts – some of the folks I know who’ve become expatriates haven’t done so out of a genuine desire to broaden their horizons and find the sort of fulfilment that their home nation could not provide. Instead, they became expatriates to escape something that had hurt them, hoping that being in a new country would help them to rediscover themselves and dull the pain of past failures. However, in the long term, this isn’t viable because the weight of one’s problems will always follow one around. In short, it is impossible to run away from oneself because no matter where one goes, their self will always be present. Becoming an expatriate might be helpful in the short term, allowing one to gain perspective, but there comes a point where one must return home and deal with what was troubling them. In Among Trees, the game gives players a chance to take this route: whether it was to try something novel for two months or escape a problem, spending time among trees helps the player to understand that, as relaxing such an existence might be, the same kind of fortitude and courage to have started such an adventure is also what one needs to face their problems. This is an encouraging thought, and Among Trees suggests a route of moderation: when faced with adversity in life, taking some time off to regroup and reassess things is helpful, and it is among nature one can accelerate this process.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • When players start Among Trees for the first time, they’ll be met with a derelict cabin. Scattered around the cabin are a large number of sticks and fir planks. Once gathered, they can be used towards bringing the cabin into a livable state. The cabin acts as the player’s home base: the game can only be saved here, and for the first while, is the only place one can sleep.

  • Among Trees offers players with no instructions beyond restoring the cabin, and so, one is left with the freedom of choosing what their first priority is. I ended up playing Among Trees using the knowledge I picked up by watching Survivorman, so with shelter taken care of, I decided that the next order of business was to deal with water and food. There’s a stream just north of the cabin that provides unlimited, fresh and clean drinking water. Conversely, food must be gathered. It is scattered throughout the world, and range from mushrooms to berries and root vegetables.

  • The button mushroom was the first bit of food I found, and while the game indicates that cooking the mushrooms will make them more nutritious, eating them raw will refill one’s hunger meter on short order. Among Trees doesn’t have the best resource management system in that hunger meter depletes significantly faster than it should: players must eat with the same frequency that they drink water, whereas in reality, one could go for upwards of three weeks without food, but dehydration sets in within three days. I would’ve preferred to have seen the hunger meter drop at about half the rate of the thirst meter.

  • The health meter needs no explanation: if it drops to zero, the player dies. The sleep meter will deplete consistently and reach zero after every day, so in the beginning, it isn’t possible to stay up long periods into the night. Similarly, after night falls, the temperatures begin dropping, and the coat one is equipped with is unable to handle the cold effectively. This forces players back to the cabin, and early in Among Trees, it does feel as though one is tethered to their cabin, foraging for mushrooms and berries by day, as well as topping off on water.

  • Survival in Among Trees during those first few days is tricky for this reason – one lacks the ability to explore, and it feels like the act of keeping one’s hunger, thirst, warmth and sleep attended to can consume all of one’s efforts. As such, the initial priority in Among Trees is to get familiar with the area around the cabin first and get a feel for how long it takes to get somewhere and back. Once this is done, the next step is to get the crafting wing going. The rationale for this is inspired by Survivorman: the cabin has a kitchen as well, but the raw mushrooms and berries do a satisfactory job of keeping hunger at bay, and can be found in reasonable abundance.

  • Since Les Stroud always mentions the importance of a good kit, especially of having a good, sharp hatchet or axe as a tool for crafting survival items, I reasoned that being able to craft items would be helpful. To this end, I ended up travelling to nearby points of interest, marked by the presence of large, collapsed warden’s towers. At these locations, wooden crates, locked boxes and piles of raw materials lay strewn about. Things like steel wire, nails, bolts, rags and rope are survival essentials, but in order to get to these materials, one must have an axe or lockpick.

  • It therefore makes sense that the first item one should craft is the axe, and if there are enough materials on hand, the lockpick should immediately follow. Having access to these tools allows one to collect all of the raw materials to craft other items, and the axe also provides one powerful new capability – one can now chop down trees for wood. Larger trees yield three fir planks and three sticks, while smaller trees yield two sticks each. It takes a single stroke to fell a small tree, and large trees will take eight strokes to cut down. Wooden planks and sticks stop being a problem now, allowing one to quickly gather the materials needed to build other wings of their cabin.

  • Once the axe and lockpick are crafted, the next step is to begin visiting the other points of interest. Blueprints begin appearing, and these provide access to various items, including a tent, campfire, watering can, map, canteen and compass. Some of these items are more useful than others at the onset: the map is the biggest asset, allowing one to keep track of where they are in the world at all times. Initially, the map is covered in a fog of war, but as one explores, landmarks and locations become identified.

  • Having access to the map makes it easier to locate areas with specific resources: larch resin and limestone is only found in certain places. However, the map also has one additional advantage in making it easier to keep track of all of the spots one has visited, including especially scenic areas. Among Trees is a visually impressive game, and every part of the forest is gorgeous to behold. Here, I pass through a field of tall grass en route to my next destination.

  • The trickiest of the blueprints to acquire is probably the tent, which allows one to overnight outdoors for up to three evenings. It is found near a bear – there are no other threats in Among Trees, but bears are hostile by default and can kill players in two swipes of a paw. One can evade bears by crouching in the tall grass and sneaking around: when crouched in grass, players become nearly invisible to bears and can access valuable resources without being spotted. I took the same approach, but at the same time, crafted a first-aid kit in the event stealth failed. In this way, I managed to find all but one of the blueprints in the game.

  • Ten days into Among Trees, I’d become more familiar with survival, and I was surprised to find a fox in front of my cabin. Upon petting him, the fox became a pet of sorts. The fox only takes bleak fillets as food, so at this point, it became important that I master the art of fishing as quickly as I could. In exchange for fish, the fox will faithfully accompany players to the furthest reaches of the map and can even hunt down elusive loot for players. Of course, the biggest advantage about having the fox around is having company: my favourite act is to pet the fox.

  • As I began expanding out the cabin, Among Trees pushed me to explore more of the map, and in this way, I came upon some of the most scenic places in the whole of the game, including the larch grove. There’s a certain tranquility about Among Trees I’ve not found anywhere else, and how I came upon Among Trees is actually quite a touching story – I’d added the game to my Steam wishlist some time ago, and one of my friends, whom I’ve long lost contact with, suddenly appeared and gifted me the game as thanks for having been there with them through some tough times during our university days.

  • Said friend disappeared as quickly as they appeared – they dropped off social media and didn’t reply to my thanks for having gifted me a free title. Curiously enough, I was wondering how they were doing after getting back into Jetpack Joyride; after the move, I hadn’t set up my desktop and spent that evening play Jetpack Joyride, which I first learnt of after watching said friend playing it while we were waiting for Otafest Aurora to start many years ago. Jetpack Joyride still reminds me of the university’s downtown campus, and playing the game was a trip down memory lane. Here, I arrive at the larch groves; the trees are positively radiant, with a warm, golden glow.

  • Les Stroud has commented time and time again on the importance of having a good fishing tackle, so as soon as I was able, I crafted myself a fishing rod. While fishing initially was difficult, once I figured out that I could use mouse movements to control for tension, I was successful on all of my fishing trips. I now had no shortage of protein energy for myself, and I was assured of a food supply for my fox. Eating fish raw in Among Trees has no deleterious effects (the game abstracts out parasites and other pathogens), although cooking the fish greatly bolsters its nutritional value.

  • As I became familiar with the game, and survival became more routine, I was able to really appreciate the graphics of Among Trees. The game looks its best during the sunset hours, and despite its simple visuals, Among Trees actually has steep hardware requirements – an i7-4770 CPU and GTX 970 is recommended. My GTX 1060 and old i5 3570k would’ve handled this game without, but on my current build, things have been very smooth with respect to framerates and visuals.

  • Among Trees became the first Steam game I’ve had where I was able to unlock every achievement after a single play-through – most of the achievements are pretty straightforward and come with exploration, while others require playing a certain way. Most tricky of all are the achievements to complete every bit of exploration the game offers, and surviving fifty days – it is easy enough to find all of the landmarks and build every cabin wing, but some plants can be quite elusive to find. I spent several sessions looking for the Black Void Mushroom. Similarly, surviving for fifty days is a challenge for players because after one learns to fish, survival becomes significantly easier, and most do not feel any inclination to continue playing.

  • I ended up focusing my attention on sewing a new coat and backpack to pass the time. The base backpack only has 12 inventory slots, and this fills up very quickly, especially if one’s carrying many equipment items with them. Similarly, the base coat offers no protection against the element and is only moderately comfortable. A better coat actually increases stamina and running speed on top of improving cold resistance. Once I had a better coat, I could run to locations for longer periods, and this increased my range to the point where I was now reaching places that previously would’ve demanded an overnight stay.

  • Because Among Trees‘ premise is such that players are treated to a purely cathartic game, and the only real challenge is the pair of bears that roam small areas of the map, some folks consider Among Trees to be a bit of a disappointment – traditional survival games are much more intense in that there’s a much wider range of threats that can prematurely end the game, and this creates an incredible amount of tension, driving the stakes up. The difference in aesthetic notwithstanding, most players are more concerned by FJRD Interactive’s original promise of adding more content to the game, only to rescind this promise when a new project came up.

  • While Among Trees might not have the best reception, I’ve not found any indicator as to what precisely people want out of the game – all discussions seems to be focused on how the developers were being unfaithful to the players, et cetera. Upon finishing the game, I found that Among Trees actually does a satisfactory job of creating a relaxed survival experience with the content already available: there’s a satisfactory gameplay loop, and the idea of the game becoming “boring” actually stems from the fact that, once the player has enough to survive comfortably, things do become more routine.

  • However, a creative player will find ways of making the most of their time, and in this way, one isn’t just surviving; they’ll thrive. Here, I throw a tent up as night falls – the tent is limited to three uses, and there’s an achievement that requires players spend three nights in the tent. I originally made use of the tent to explore the furthest corners of the map for chicory, a rare flower that only spawns occasionally. While a large number of guides out there suggest that chicory only spawns at dusk and by night, in specific part of the map, all of the chicory I’ve found were found during the mornings and day. Moreover, I found them in random areas of the map.

  • Attesting to how rare chicory is, I only ever found five during my entire play-through of Among Trees. While it can be cooked and eaten, it has a much more useful purpose: four are needed to craft the game’s largest backpack, which has a total of sixteen slots. There is an intermediate backpack with fourteen slots, and while two slots doesn’t seem like much, being able to hang onto two more types of material can make the difference between being able to bring back the resources one needs to craft something, or being forced to turn back around and leave resources behind.

  • As such, a backpack with four more slots than the base backpack would extend one’s range further. I decided to save my resources for the larger backpack. By this point in the game, I’d also began working on the brewing room. Although it seemed a bonus addition to the cabin, some of the elixirs that can be crafted are downright useful: the wormwood brew acts like a strong coffee and allows one to stay out for longer. This is a lifesaver, allowing me to travel far without needing to bring a tent. On some occasions, I’ve run into elk in the forest, although the elk are harmless and immediately take off upon spotting the player.

  • The feather larch outfit would become my preferred coat – offering some stamina increase, its biggest attributes are greatly increasing one’s resilience to cold, and boosting movement speed. These two properties make it possible to cover great distances quickly, and now, I was able to sprint across the map and reach a spot before the sun had fully risen where previously, it would take me a half-day to reach the same point. Coupled with the elixirs, there suddenly was less of a need to bring a tent with me on resource-gathering runs.

  • Upon completing the best backpack and coat for my play-style, I felt that Among Trees had reached a point where I was now able to not just survive, but thrive. At the cabin, I had a large stockpile of mushrooms, beets, radishes and fish. Thanks to the storage attic, I filled my other bins with wooden planks, bolts, nails, wire and pipes. With all of the essentials crafted, I had resources left over to begin really sprucing up my cabin – the game allows players to create decorative elements around their cabin, and in the beginning, such items feel extraneous.

  • As one begins to build the essentials and get the basics taken care of, they can turn their attention to creativity. Among Trees doesn’t provide these instructions to players by default, but the order in which one should get things done is reasonably easy to figure out. I have seen some guides suggest that the kitchen be built first so one can greatly boost the nutritional value of the food they find, but for me, the best order is the crafting room, followed by the storage attic. The brewing room and greenhouse should be the last elements constructed.

  • The further I got into Among Trees, the more the game’s message became apparent to me – things are always difficult at the beginning, but as one finds their flow and becomes familiar with routine, they become increasingly efficient. Things become easier, and over time, the unfamiliar becomes comfortable. Of course, the problem with this is that all experiences eventually stop being novel. Along this brand of logic, even travelling can become routine and unremarkable. This is what leads me to draw the conclusion that I do: some folks value creating memories and seeing the world, while others would prefer to establish their career and developing financial stability. The choice of choosing one or the other is a hotly-debated subject amongst millennials, and countless articles defending one side over the other have been written on the topic over the years.

  • I believe that early on, one should focus on their career and finances first – life is a game of momentum, and if one doesn’t get in the habit of conducting themselves with discipline, it can be tricky to do so later down the line. If one has a steady career and a game plan for the future, then with a bit of planning, one can still fit in windows with which to see the world with: one doesn’t need to spend a full year in a foreign nation to appreciate another culture. A lot of the proponents of travelling while one’s young suggest that one will have plenty of time later on to catch up, but many professional skills are analogous to lifting weights. Much as one needs to train consistently in order to make appreciable gains, one must constantly hone their craft in order to remain effective in their field.

  • However, in moderation, travel is indeed a form of catharsis, a means of broadening one’s horizons, and a pleasant way of breaking up the routine. When done appropriately, travelling and taking breaks leaves one better prepared to handle things. I note here that this is approach is what works for me: what I do may not work for everyone, and I do not presume to say that any one method is superior to another. I get that people tend to be quite vocal about their positions because their choices, and the path that it led them on, is very much a part of their identity. Ultimately, I maintain that, if one accepts responsibility for the outcome of their decisions, I will not challenge their choices or identity.

  • Back in Among Trees, I’ve finally reached the northeastern edge of the map. Here, a vast lake creates a natural boundary. Some guides call it the ocean, but mountains can be seen on the other side, and moreover, platers can drink out of this lake, indicating that it’s fresh water – drinking salt water is deleterious, with the high salt content accelerating dehydration to a dangerous extent. Conversely, since Among Trees lets players walk up to the water and drink it, it stands to reason this is fresh water. Here, I’ve set up a campfire and cooking kit along with my tent, creating a moment that is quintessential camping.

  • The eagle-eyed reader will have noticed that I’ve written two posts today; this time of year stands as my favourite, consisting of warm days spent enjoying the outdoors and savouring foods that are associated with the summer. This past long weekend, I took advantage of the Monday off to cook a Swiss-and-mushroom melt burger with a side of thick-cut fries (washed down with a tall glass of Ginger Ale and chased by freshly-picked cherries) for lunch. The day had been very hot, bringing back memories of the past two Heritage Day long weekends in previous years. However, since the move, I’ve been rather spoiled by the fact that the new place has air conditioning.

  • This prevents me from forwarding the ports my private server needs to run properly. This means that, in the foreseeable future, I won’t be able to revisit Stormwind by nightfall, or return to the Stonetalon Mountains. Having said this, there are many other experiences I’ve got on my plate. Back in Among Trees, I’ve thrown my tent up beside a pond as night sets in: after checking out the lake, I head back into the forest in search of the remaining plants that have eluded me, including the Death Cap and Black Void mushrooms.

  • To help with navigation, I’ve finally crafted a compass. While a map is superbly useful, having a compass allows me to travel in a direction with greater certainty, and here, I pass through a more heavily wooded area of the forest. It was quite amusing to know that, armed with the axe, food to replenish one’s energy and plenty of patience, one could hypothetically try to chop down the entire forest. However, in between sessions, trees regenerate, and some items respawn. The only exception are the crates and lockboxes at points of interest: if one visits and opens them, but leave the materials in place, they will disappear later on.

  • Towards the end of my time in Among Trees, I returned to the lake one last time while on the hunt for the elusive Black Void mushroom. I ended up finding my target on this run, and in the process, also caught a glimpse of an elk along the shore. With the Black Void mushroom, I’d found all of the plants in the game, explored every landmark and built every extension to my cabin. Among Trees awarded me an achievement for my troubles and alerted me to the fact I could now craft the hiking kit. This was the remaining item I was missing from my crafting library, and as it turns out, this is the last item one can assemble, being meant as an item that brings Among Trees to an end.

  • The Black Void, Death Cap, Dotty and Angel mushrooms are poisonous – consuming them raw runs the risk of poisoning the player, but cooking them renders them safe to eat in Among Trees. Real life, unfortunately, doesn’t work this way, and even the high temperatures of cooking aren’t enough to denature the proteins. It goes without saying that Among Trees is not to be considered as being a resource for outdoor survival. I tended to avoid picking these mushrooms in-game, knowing that the other mushrooms and berries can be eaten raw (making them more valuable for situations where I was not near my cabin or had a cooking kit on my person).

  • Armed with the best jacket possible, plus brews for bolstering body temperature and ward of drowsiness, I am finally able to explore the forest by night. For my troubles, I am rewarded with the light of a crescent moon. One thing I noticed in Among Trees is that weather patterns are quite limited, and cosmetic in nature. It’s either sunny or rainy, and rainfall does little to impact the player. In reality, rain and wind can lock people down, making it difficult to travel great distances. Additional weather patterns in Among Trees would add to the depth of this game, but I imagine it would also represent challenges from an implementation standpoint.

  • Towards the endgame, I’ve fully made use of every facility available to my cabin. The cook stove allows me to cook highly nutritious and delicious meals. Sticks are needed to fuel the stove, but they can be easily acquired by chopping down trees. The resulting meals can fill the hunger bar to a hundred percent, and I made it a point to eat breakfast every morning before setting out, and then along the way, I would top off with the various mushrooms, berries and roots I find.

  • Observant readers will have noticed that I’ve now got potted plants, sculptures and other artworks around the cabin. Once most of the essentials are crafted, any metal one finds no longer has any use, so it is perfectly okay to turn them into art for sprucing up the cabin interior. I spent most of the game travelling around, hunting for resources, but at the endgame, I stayed at the cabin to craft things, and also to tend to my greenhouse. Having now collected seeds from the points of interest, I planted them and waited a few days for the turnips and radishes to grow, all the while watering them periodically.

  • The greenhouse is the most photogenic part of the cabin, and when all of the visual effects are cranked to maximum, it is gorgeous in here. Among Trees only allows players to plant radishes and turnips, and upon harvesting them, they occasionally drop seeds that allow one to have access to more vegetables. These roots do take some effort to cook, and radishes can only be eaten cooked, but having vegetables means not being reliant on the mushrooms and berries that spawn throughout the world.

  • All adventures must come to an end, and after fifty days of surviving in the forest, I finally put my hiking pack to use – in real-time, I’ve spent about thirteen hours over the course of a month in Among Trees, and I feel that the game has proven to be a remarkable experience, both from a gameplay perspective and from a thematic perspective. The thematic piece proved to be quite unexpected, a consequence of my own experiences feeding into how I approached the game, and I would imagine that a different individual playing this very game would likely come out with a completely different set of thoughts.

Among Trees is able to tell a compelling story that speaks to the values I hold despite being a sandbox experience that never quite reached completion; I’ve heard that FJRD Interactive originally had plans to improve the game’s complexity and depth, but shortly after, abandoned development in favour of other projects despite wishes from the community to wrap the game up. As enjoyable as Among Trees is, there are numerous elements that appear that the game wished to add, including more options for backpacks and coats. A more complex system would allow one to choose their gear more carefully (e.g. a higher-capacity backpack might reduce one’s movement speed). The game does not allow one to pick clams off the beach from the forest’s northeastern corner, or lay down crab pots. Similarly, while one can spot rabbits and elk in the game, there is no option to fashion traps and snares to catch smaller critters for meat, or perhaps hunt larger game with a bow. The greenhouse only allows players to grow beets and radishes, but it would be nice to let players farm their own berries and mushrooms. Besides expanding the crafting and clothing system, as well as adding a hunting system, Among Trees also would benefit from providing players with a variety of terrains to survive in. The game currently sets players in a warm, temperate forest during the summer, when temperatures are comfortable, and wild edibles are in good supply. It would be enjoyable to see the game use its temperature, food and hydration meters more effectively by providing players with a tropical island, desert and arctic tundra map to mix up what one should prioritise in a different region of the world. In the arctic, hydration may deplete more slowly, but temperature will always deplete quickly. A desert setting may cause the sleep and hydration meters to wear out more quickly. This would force players to look more closely at different goals, and add considerably to the game’s depth. However, as previously mentioned, it appears that FJRD Interactive has ceased development on Among Trees, and as such, the items on my wishlist are unlikely to be realised. Although Among Trees has an incredible potential to become a sort of Survivorman experience set in beautifully crafted and highly cathartic settings, lack of future work means the game’s current state is likely all players will get for the present. In spite of this, it isn’t all doom and gloom – the game does have an excellent message for players, and for me, a single play-through from front to back, wholly exploring every corner of the map, collecting every plant and fungi I could, and building my cabin to completion, took a total of thirteen hours. Consequently, Among Trees is a worthwhile experience when it’s discounted; although steep at full price, it is a fun game that is quite unlike anything I’d played previously, and having now taken a break from my usual shooters, it’s time to return to my favourite genre with a fresh set of eyes.

Routine Feat: Remarks on the Importance of Structure as a Route to Success and A Calgary Rodeo Reflection

Late night, come home
Work sucks, I know
She left me roses by the stairs
Surprises let me know she cares

–blink-128, All The Small Things

Developed by Alexandre Ignatov, who had previously published ШХД: ЗИМА / IT’S WINTER, Routine Feat was actually written before IT’S WINTER, but the assets were reused to create a very moody and contemplative experience. However, unlike IT’S WINTER, Routine Feat has additional depth to it – it puts players in the shoes of an office worker who appears stuck in a routine of monotony: day in and day out, the office worker heads to a dreary job where, in his office, he’s scrawled onto a piece of paper “My work does not bring joy and is not so important for me and the people around me, but I cannot quit it. Otherwise, what will I eat?” Between his duties, the office worker toils away on his own novel, occasionally struggling to come up with ideas, but over time, his perseverance pays off: on a sunny, peaceful morning, the office worker submits his finished manuscript and heads to work. Coming home, the office worker spots a letter and a pile of cash in his mailbox – the publishers love his book and have already placed an order for a hundred thousand copies, saying that such a book will move millions. At first glance, Routine Feat appears to follow in the footsteps of IT’S WINTER in conveying a sense of melancholy and longing. Note scattered around the office worker’s home and workspace suggests someone who’s living day-to-day, seemingly without purpose or motivation. However, the office worker’s novel is the one ray of light in his life, and by investing time into this project in between his work, while at the same time, doing his best in a daily routine despite his boredom and melancholy, the office worker is able to create something of worth and find new value in his life. Among the monotony of routine comes new joy, and in this area, Routine Feat shows that there is nothing wrong with routine. While social media glamourises spontaneity and travel, and relationship guides claim (without evidence) that dating spontaneous people is the singular key to happiness, experts universally agree that routine is vital in maintaining one’s mental health, reduces anxiety and increases resilience against adversity. People who follow a consistent routine sleep more soundly, and may also enjoy improved physical health on top of mental wellness. Having a routine creates familiarity which allows one to do more – knowing one’s always going to have an hour in the morning means being able to lift weights before starting one’s workday, and being assured of an hour of rest before turning in means I’m confident that I could get some writing or gaming done that day.

The melancholy and monotony that is seen in Routine Feat contrasts sharply with the beautiful summer weather – when players open Routine Feat, they are met with the same apartment complex seen in IT’S WINTER. However, this time, sunlight fills the rooms with the warm golden glow of a mid-summer’s morning, and the sky is a pale azure. The landscape is verdant and lush with vegetation. Even though there isn’t another soul around (I’m the only person around), and it feels as though the weather is mocking me, it’s clear that Routine Feat is not trying to convey the same sense of hopelessness that only a bitterly cold winter’s night could. The change of seasons is what sets Routine Feat apart from its predecessor – long days filled with sunshine instills a sense of hope, and having light out increases the incentive to stop to take a breath and live in the moment. Although it might not be a life-changing journey to Japan, there is a certain joy about being able to feel the warmth of sunshine while waiting for the bus. Similarly, more sunshine means after coming home from work, it’s still light enough to enjoy the last rays of sun before returning one’s attention to their pursuits. It is therefore appropriate that here in Routine Feat, looking beyond what superficially appears to be a dull and dreary life, one finds a world filled with nuance and excitement. It is unsurprising that the office worker is able to write a book under such conditions – no longer trapped by the winter, one is really able to stretch their feet and allow the long days of summer to provide inspiration. The combination of routine in Routine Feat has its basis in reality; I am reminded of spending endless days during the summer of a decade earlier indoors with MCAT preparations while the world around me enjoyed everything the summer had to offer. However, even though I was not engaged in activities associated with the summer, the warm weather and beautiful skies gave me a sense of comfort and reassurance. This sense of well-being, coupled with the fact that I’d settled into a fairly consistent routine, of studying, lifting weights and unwinding, meant that what had appeared to be an insurmountable foe would suddenly look more manageable. On this day ten years ago, it had been a gorgeous morning, and while the family had stepped out to enjoy the Calgary Stampede, I remained behind to brush up on verbal reasoning. It had been a particularly fine day, and after hitting my quota for the morning, I walked out to the local sandwich shop for a pork rib sandwich. I was struck with a thought: appreciating small things in life is what makes things worthwhile. Routine Feat makes it a point to convey this, and while the game might initially seem repetitive and pointless, once players take the time to slow down and figure things out, there’s an unexpectedly uplifting and optimistic message about how, in the throes of routine, people can optimise their schedules and come to do great things with the time that is available to them. I managed to have what was, in retrospect, a pretty enjoyable summer ten years ago despite having spent so much of it on the MCAT (I would later go on to travel and even put out a journal publication). The office worker in Routine Feat may live a routine life, but in growing familiar with his day-to-day patterns, manages to optimise things and find the time to pursue his own interests, chipping away tirelessly until things finally come to a head, and his efforts are rewarded.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • I became intrigued with Routine Feat after playing IT’S WINTER and discovered the game was free to download from Ignatov’s website. However, when the game became available on Steam back in May, I decided to pick it up to support Ignatov: both Routine Feat and IT’S WINTER speak to some of my own experiences with loneliness, of being trapped during both winters and summers during my time as a university student. In 2013, I earned my Bachelor of Health Science degree, but between all of my friends heading off to pursue their careers, and a one-in-a-century flood knocking out my summer plans (which entailed a kokuhaku), I fell into a mild depression.

  • As that summer drew to a close, I began dreading the imminent arrival of winter; the individual I had wished to deliver my kokuhaku to had left for an exchange programme in Japan, and I was left to pursue open studies while awaiting the results of my second shot at getting into medical school. In the depths of winter, my applications fell through, and I got a sneaking suspicion the person I was hoping to ask out would not wait for me. However, it was not the end; upon hearing about my applications’ outcomes, my supervisor immediately extended to me an offer of admissions into graduate school, as well as a position on what would become the Giant Walkthrough Brain project. Spotting an opportunity to walk a different path, and to immerse myself in something that took my mind off things, I accepted immediately.

  • This proved to be a pivotal moment for me, and I attribute my recovery to this turn of events – keeping busy with a project that would contribute to scientific communication in the community took my mind off the hurt of what had amounted to a rejection, and I thus focused my entire effort towards learning Unity. While I would slowly find my way again and ended up becoming an iOS developer as a result of my experiences in graduate school, I remained quite hostile towards winter for some time after. However, even this dislike wouldn’t last forever; I would come to take stock in the fact that, no matter how cold winters got, summers would always return, and until summers did come back, I had somewhere warm to return to every day.

  • IT’S WINTER spoke to me about this fact: while the game is supposed to convey an overwhelming sense of isolation and sadness, I found that the game actually captured something quite unexpected. To be able to wander outside in a bitterly cold winter’s night, and then returning to the warmth and comfort of the player’s apartment was quite reassuring: no matter how far my wanderings took me, I could always go back to somewhere with light, heat and food. It was with this mindset that I approached Routine Feat, which was similarly written to be a game that speaks to depression and melancholy associated with an unremarkable life.

  • When players start Routine Feat for the first time, they are met with blue skies and the light of a summer’s morning. I remember numerous such mornings in all of my summers, especially during the year I took the MCAT. Like the office worker of Routine Feat, I would board the bus and head for campus to either attend my preparation course or lift weights, before hitting the books and returning home. Buses to the university are practically empty in the summer, adding to my sense of isolation. However, while my MCAT year should have been lonely, I found that having a routine helped me to focus effectively.

  • The reason for this is simple: knowing what to expect on a given day creates confidence in having control. Having structure in one’s day provides certainty and reassurance, allowing one to know that they’ve got time blocked out to get certain things done. This is why, when the global health crisis hit some two-and-a-half years earlier, I was able to cope with things. I woke up early in the mornings, ate breakfast and got to work. Every day at 1030, I would stop for a yogurt break, and then I’d resume work until 1200, during which I’d break for lunch.

  • Lunch breaks would last precisely an hour, and then I would work until 1500. Here, I’d stop to enjoy the refreshing tang of a mandarin orange. Once this break was over, it was a straight shot until the end of the day. After work, I would either do light exercise in the basement or, if the weather allowed me to, go for a stroll around the block. Between my routine, I found enough time to game, blog and chat with friends. While I greatly missed being able to go to restaurants and my favourite places in town, knowing my days were well-organised, and that I was still getting things done, gave me some reassurance.

  • In this way, when restrictions began rolling back, I would come to look forwards to grabbing takeout from the local Cantonese restaurant, or spending some time in the nearby parks on weekends. This new routine has worked well for me: despite beginning a new position last April and moving house this year, old habits died hard; I ended up following the same work and life patterns I previously did, with the main exception that I’m doing more housework now. Curiously enough, doing housework is when I’m most at ease, as it gives my mind a chance to wander and unwind.

  • Having now moved for a shade over three months, I’ve formed a new routine by merging old habits with nuances of the new place, and this has in turn allowed me to acclimatise to life in a new part of town; there is enough time in a day for me to work, look after the new place, exercise, sleep well and on top of all this, continue to keep this blog going. Back in Routine Feat, I will note that the game gives players full freedom to do whatever they choose to. In mornings, a bus will appear at regular intervals, and boarding will take players to work.

  • One can choose to deliberately miss the bus without penalty: buses will keep coming ad infinitum, and the game will only advance if one boards, so one could spend as much time as they wish to explore the environment. Unlike IT’S WINTER, where there’s a soft boundary that will transport players back to the heart of the map, Routine Feat features hard boundaries at the map’s edges to prevent them from going further. The map is actually a ways bigger than it was in IT’S WINTER, and one can thoroughly explore the woods surrounding the office worker’s apartment block.

  • The lack of deadlines means Routine Feat is free to give players full agency over their decisions. This is especially important, since many things in the game can be interacted with. One can choose to cook a scrumptious breakfast with the ingredients in their refrigerator as a way to start the day, or go for a stroll in the woods surrounding the apartment. Reading the notes on one’s desk will also lead one to realise that the office worker is an aspiring author, and while he may occasionally struggle to come up with ideas, for the most part, the office worker can find inspiration to write.

  • One thing that I didn’t notice was that, in order to make any progress on the novel, one must type on the typewriter, and then when a page is done, it must be manually inserted into an envelope on the office worker’s desk at home. Every morning and evening, the office worker will produce two to four pages before calling it quits, and so, to finish Routine Feat quickly, one must make it a habit of writing every day, before heading for work, and then before turning in. However, there’s no obligation to move at such a breakneck pace: Routine Feat won’t punish players for finishing slowly, nor will it reward players further for finishing quickly.

  • Observant players will have noticed that in Routine Feat, mornings will look slightly different when a new day starts, and similarly, players arrive home from work at varying times of day. Sometimes, the sun is just setting when one gets off the bus, and at other times, it’s fully nighttime, with a full moon in the sky. On one of my mornings in Routine Feat, the sky was overcast and brought back memories of last year, when extensive forest fires a province over devastated entire towns and filled the skies with smoke.

  • This year, the weather’s been quite the opposite – we’ve been fortunate that no heat dome settled over British Columbia, keeping the forest fires at bay, and moreover, near-normal precipitation and temperatures have made for both green surroundings and comfortable days. July and August are the times of year best suited for summer adventures, and unlike the previous two years, this year, I am hoping to slowly ease back into planning out excursions on weekends to take advantage of the long and warm days that I’ve long expressed fondness for.

  • It suddenly strikes me that I’ve not yet shown a screenshot of the office worker’s bedroom. Although the quarters are spartan, especially for folks who’ve grown accustomed to living in a detached home of at least 1200 square feet, looking around the office worker’s apartment still gives a very inviting sense. Everything is reasonably clean and well-kept, and while there’s no living room, the bedroom is very large. Were I to live here, the only adjustment I’d make is to move the bed over to the right, closer to the heater by the window, and then put the TV stand underneath the tapestry.

  • Because of variability in the weather, on some mornings in Routine Feat, I wake up to sunlight filling the bedroom. This is how bright my room gets in the morning during the summers – it’s gotten to the point where I don’t need an alarm clock to wake up on days where it’s sunny, and I’m always filled with a feeling of peace whenever it looks like this. I’ve noticed that sleep is never really a problem in Routine Feat; inconsistent sleep is often associated with depression, as depression can create feelings of regret, sadness and longing that result in thoughts that wholly occupy the mind.

  • Players have no trouble sleeping in Routine Feat, and falling asleep is as easy as looking at the bed and pressing “E”. Once asleep, Routine Feat treats players to fantastical dreamscapes. According to Ignatov, the dreams themselves don’t have any deep or specific meanings, being meant to represent spaces that are quite different than the office worker’s home and day-to-day life. I’ve always been fond of creators who step up to clarify things and remind folks to take it easy: it’s not lost on me that, perhaps as a result of North American literature courses, people are taught to pick works apart and focus on nuances like symbolism and literary devices over the overarching themes and character experiences.

  • As it turns out, the approach of analysing every last element in a work is known as the reader-response criticism theory, in which practitioners can interpret a work independently of the author’s intentions, and in this way, produce any end conclusion because the reader’s interpretation is treated as the main authority on things. A handful of anime blogs out there subscribed to this approach and at their height, took things one step further by asserting that works can be analysed independently of cultural and individual influences to produce an “objective” interpretation. Behind the Nihon was fond of this, but I found their methodology flawed on the grounds that it produces a very narrow and limited view of the work, since Behind the Nihon Review’s writers still brought their own subjective tastes and backgrounds to the table.

  • Conversely, I always strive to pay attention to what the author attempted to convey, since how they present and execute a work is influenced by how they perceive their experiences. Reconciling the differences between what I experience, and what the author’s intentions are, produces the richest understanding of things. Routine Feat, for instance, is a game that conveys sadness and melancholy from routine, but because the game chooses to give the player an end-goal (of writing a book) that they do succeed in, the game also shows the nuances of following a routine. This is Ignatov’s intention: “if you stop and take a breath of air, then you might like [Routine Feat]“.

  • On a quiet morning with blue skies, I managed to get all twenty pages of the book written out, and submitted the manuscript to the publisher. What awaits the player is another day at work, but this time around, there’s a faint sense of excitement this time around. Routine Feat doesn’t have a large number of goals, but the office worker’s act of writing a book does advance the story. However, it is worth noting here that Routine Feat does not have any save points, and as such, one must play through several days in order to write all twenty of the requisite pages: leaving the game at any time will reset one’s progress.

  • Earlier today, I had awoken to gorgeous skies and a forecasted high of 26°C. However, it was no typical day: I was set to attend the Calgary Stampede with the company, and to ensure I arrived in time for lunch to begin, I left earlier. Today marked the beginning of the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, and this event traditionally kicks off with a large parade downtown. The light rail line runs right through the downtown core and intersects with the parade route, so the wisdom of leaving early became apparent. After arriving, I made my way to the Rotary House, which had been marked as closed for a private function (i.e. ours).

  • Once lunch ended, we moseyed on over to the Grandstand for my first-ever rodeo show, which featured Saddle Bronc, Barrel Racing, Tie-Down Roping, Steer Wrestling, Bareback and most exhilarating of all to watch, Bull Riding. The afternoon had begun with the entire grandstand bathed in sunlight, but a cool shadow stole over the venue as the afternoon wore on. While I’ve attended the Calgary Stampede in previous years, I’ve only ever checked out the midway and exhibitions, but otherwise, had never actually seen any rodeo events, so it was quite a unique and memorable experience to watch the events that are at the heart of the Stampede.

  • After enjoying the Unagi Sushi Taco, I ventured into the exhibition halls to see what arts were being displayed. This year, the BMO Centre is undergoing some dramatic changes: like the University of Calgary, which has seen massive construction projects, the Stampede Grounds are being upgraded. They had begun demolishing the Stampede Corral in 2020 after an assessment in 2016 found it was no longer viable to bring the building up to code. At present, the framework to the new structure is up, and it is expected that construction will conclude next summer. Fortunately, the exhibitor hall and Western Oasis art displays were still present, and I cooled off in here with a root beer before heading back home.

  • With today’s events, I’m reminded of why Calgary’s workforce jokingly remark that for 10 days of July, all work grinds to a halt as workers from all occupations take time off, whether it’s personal time or company events, to visit the Stampede. Today was quite far removed from my usual routine: I am usually found sitting at my desk and churning away at my IDE, or else pacing around whilst conceptualising solutions. This Stampede visit was a nice break from routine, and I’m left ready to relax this weekend before returning on Monday to continue with my current assignment.

  • Back in Routine Feat, I was pleasantly surprised to find a letter from the publisher and a pile of money in my mailbox after submitting the book. Players receive a small amount of money in their day job in Routine Feat, so to see this kind of money come in would probably be a shock. All of a sudden, melancholy and loneliness turns to joy. In reality, things would happen over a longer timeframe, but the outcomes are undeniable; hard work and perseverance is what brings about success, and having a routine allows one to be able to achieve their goals. Routine Feat works in a meta-gaming perspective: once players figure out the routine, they can easily advance the story and see the office worker realise his dreams.

  • I ended up taking the letter back into my room to read it, and it was a remarkably pleasant feeling: the office worker’s novel turns out to be a smash hit. The publishers have already ordered a hundred thousand copies and expect the book to sell very well. I did notice some HTML tags in the publisher’s letter, and in a few areas in Routine Feat, there are spelling mistakes, but these are comparatively minor, especially considering the rest of the game works smoothly. It felt fantastic to see the office worker succeed in his dreams, and the epilogue suggests that the office worker is able to pursue his own dreams freely now.

  • As a means of celebration, I gathered some of the items from the fridge and made the office worker a very nice meal: the usual eggs on toast was accompanied with sausage, cheese, tomato and cucumber, and then I decided to have an apple and banana, washed down with a glass of milk. Routine Feat automatically restocks the player’s refrigerator every time the player returns home or wakes up, so there’s always sufficient provisions. This aspect of Routine Feat was one I particularly liked, since it showed how while the office worker’s days might be monotonous, he’s still able to support himself well enough to pursue his own interests.

  • To wrap things up, I’ve climbed to the rooftop to get a look at the neighbourhood. There’s a bunch of beers up here, and after successfully publishing a book, it felt appropriate to crack open a beer and enjoy the summer evening. Routine Feat might be simple, but there is no denying that the game is successful with its messages. Further to this, aside from a few rough spots here and there, the game is polished. I’m impressed with how much fun I had in Routine Feat: while the game is not “fun” in a traditional sense, it was very instructive. I relate quite well to the environment and themes that Ignatov sought to convey, and so, Routine Feat became quite refreshing to play through.

Ignatov has expressed that the minimalism in Routine Feat and IT’S WINTER is deliberate: the game’s Steam Store description indicates that the theme is “overwhelming loneliness” that arises in a world dominated by isolation and abandonment. However, even on beautiful summer days with no one else around, Ignatov writes that one may find a sense of peace in taking the time to stop and smell the roses: the game was written with this in mind, and Ignatov has mentioned in an interview that the aim was to create a world that players could get lost in. Interactivity lies at the forefront of things in Routine Feat, and like IT’S WINTER, one can also deliberately choose not to hop on the bus and go to work. Instead, one could whip up a fantastic breakfast with the ingredients in their refrigerator, reorganinise their apartment and clear up the trash strewn about, or even go for a walk around the apartment block and take in the calm melancholy of a gentle morning. While Routine Feat offers this freedom to players, choosing to follow one’s routine by going to work, and then spending a little more time on the office worker’s novel, is where the game’s true genius shines: Routine Feat suggests that although one might seemingly be bound to monotony in their everyday lives, life is also what one chooses to make of things, and the familiarity offered by routine is what makes excitement so remarkable. This is why my own Calgary Stampede experience this year is particularly memorable: it was my first time attending the rodeo show as a part of a company-wide event, and after a lunch at the Rotary House, a rustic event venue, we watched the afternoon’s performances at the grandstand. I never imagined that, a decade after the morning I’d made the call to stay home and press forwards with MCAT revisions, I would have the opportunity to experience the Calgary Stampede in the most traditional way possible. On most days, my routine entails sitting down at my desk, reading through my day’s assignments and then opening an IDE to begin chipping away at my work. To be able to take a break of this sort was especially refreshing, although here, I note that things like the Calgary Stampede are so enjoyable precisely because they represent a break from routine.

ШХД: ЗИМА / IT’S WINTER: A Reflection of the Darkest Season on the Coldest Days of the Year

“He looked at the snowflakes dancing above the fire and remembered the Russian winter with a warm, bright house, a fluffy fur coat, swift sleighs, a healthy body, and all the love and care of a family.” –Leo Tolstoy

I’m standing in a dark kitchen, and there’s a snowfall outside. After retrieving the house keys, I walk down a flight of steps and close an open window before stepping out into the frigid night. There’s no one around: most of the neighbours are already asleep, although I encounter a sparkler that was left in the ground. A faint rumbling noise can be heard in the distance, and I walk on over to the bus station. A snowplow is busy clearing the roads from the snowfall, but there will be no buses at this hour. A sense of tranquility overtakes me: a familiar world is buried under a few inches of snow, drowning out almost all ambient noise (save my own footsteps). After a few minutes, my fingers and ears begin to feel the bite of this winter night. I prepare to head back to my apartment, passing by the local convenience store, whose sign is aglow in a vivid green despite being closed. I return to the warmth of my apartment and gaze outside again before turning off the lights and head for bed, falling asleep under the quiet of a new snow. This is Alexandre Ignatovo’s ШХД: ЗИМА / IT’S WINTER, a recreation of the Хрущёвка (khrushchyovka, literally “Krushchev Slum”, or panel housing) common to the Soviet Union. Although Ignatovo suggests that IT’S WINTER is meant to convey the endless melancholy of the Soviet Winter, and Russians can attest to the fact that IT’S WINTER accurately captures a world that otherwise remains far from the minds of those who live elsewhere, this title actually does something else, as well: it reminds those who experience it to count their own blessings. After wandering the deserted apartment blocks, my own small unit feels warm and inviting. I’ve got a roof over my head, a well-stocked fridge and a warm bed to return to. While the snow falls outside, I can read a book, watch some TV, listen to the radio or doze off. IT’S WINTER is not a game in a traditional sense: in fact, it lacks the features that make a game (a clearly-defined set of victory or failure conditions), and instead, gives players the freedom to do as they will. Imaginative folks can spend hours mastering the game’s mechanism for a manipulating objects to cook themselves up a fabulous dinner, or else do a bit of reorganisation if they so choose. In this way, IT’S WINTER also speaks to the idea of perspective, of counting one’s blessings: temperatures yesterday reached a low of -34°C before windchill (-40°C with windchill), so rather than braving the biting cold of an otherwise gorgeous day, I ended up staying in and eating tang yuan, at peace with the cold weather and short days.

Seven years earlier, I was enveloped by a sense of bitterness: after the Alberta floods took out any opportunity I had to attempt a kokuhaku, I entered my first term of open studies without resolve or determination. My work suffered for it; besides Japanese history and a course on proteins, I ended up taking a special projects course, where I attempted to continue the work I had done that summer on peer-to-peer networking as a mode for sharing computational loads in multi-system biological simulations. However, I was preoccupied and thus, never made the same progress as I did in previous years: in retrospect, I consider my grade in that course (a B+) to be highly generous, considering I made next to no advancements. That term, I only had the winter anime convention to look forward to, and even that proved to be a disappointment when I learnt that the organisers had unveiled a secret collectable pin available only to those who attended a special session. The winter break came and went, taking with it the festivities and lights of Christmas. During the dark of that year, I fell into a depression that worsened upon finding out the individual I’d been waiting for had begun seeing someone else. In the years following, I’ve associated the winter months after December with misery, darkness and the near-total absence of hope. Combined with the need to frequently shovel the walk, navigate icy roads and deal with bitterly cold weather, the winter does appear to offer people with very little to like. However, in recent years, this stance has softened somewhat: a failed kokuhaku does not render a cup of cocoa any less warming, and even after the last of the Christmas lights are downed, I have the consolation that every day I get through means I’m one day closer to the summer, a time of exploration and joy. Kokuhakus may fail, and darkness may fall upon the world after each summer, but as long as I’ve got it in me to put one foot in front of the other, there will always be something to look forwards to, and something new to work towards.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • When one opens up IT’S WINTER, they’ll always spawn in the dark kitchen of a Soviet-era apartment in the middle of nowhere. Developer Ignatovo had stated that IT’S WINTER could be set anywhere in Russia, from the outskirts of Moscow, to the heart of Vorkuta in the Komi Republic, or even the Kolyma region’s Magadan. I quickly glanced around the small but cozy-looking kitchen before deciding that I should get a feel for this small one bedroom, one bathroom apartment before taking a look outside.

  • The bedroom is the largest room in the flat, and there’s a balcony players can walk out to. Russians consider the balcony an essential part of their space, and while they are largely used for storage, some creative residents have transformed balconies into makeshift rooms. While balconies and patios are great for places where it’s summer for at least six months of the year, in somewhere like Russia or Canada, I would prefer more interior space instead: a lot of condominiums in my area have balconies, and while they’d be a brilliant space during the summer, we recall that in Alberta, winter dominates for up to eight months of the year.

  • I’d much rather have more interior space for something like a home office or reading nook. While the bedroom is minimally furnished, it does feel like a comfortable space, as well. I do realise here that my thoughts about IT’S WINTER stand contrary to what Ignatovo had intended to say: small hints of the protagonist’s monotonous and depressing life can be found scattered around the apartment, from anti-depressants to notes speaking to the inescapable boredom that one might face while being confined to their small homes for much of the year owing to the bitterly cold Russian winters.

  • IT’S WINTER can be thought of as a statement about depression from the Soviet perspective: the apartment is a small space, and even outside, there’s a limit to how far players can go before being enveloped by the winter weather. No matter where one goes, it’s always nighttime, and the skies are cloudy, only being lit by the glow of street lamps below. In this function, IT’S WINTER succeeds entirely in its function: there is little doubt that the me of seven years earlier would’ve found this experience to be a profoundly relatable one: I’d been dreading the arrival of winter, a time when being outside isn’t possible, and the only thing that I could do was focus on my open studies, completing courses that ultimately might’ve been completely pointless.

  • After I stepped outside for a walk, I found myself taken aback at how quiet everything was: the centre courtyard is completely devoid of life, and the playgrounds are deserted. Everything is bathed in a gentle glow from the streetlights: there is a beauty about this type of setting, although strangely enough, rather than finding myself feeling saddened by what I was seeing, I felt a sense of tranquility instead. IT’S WINTER offers players with no objectives or goals, but this near-total freedom meant I was also able to impart my own feelings on things.

  • Here, I encounter a lone sparkler that someone had left behind. Larger sparklers can burn for up to a minute-and-a-half, so it is clear that there are other people with me, but perhaps the brutal winter cold forced them back inside after they’d lit the sparkler. This small sign of life was regarded as saddening for some, but again, a different perspective from me gave me a bit of reassurance, that I wasn’t entirely alone: on nights like these, people would have an inclination to remain in their flats, and some might have even turned in already. I would chalk up my different stance on winter in the present to be a consequence of where things have headed for me in the past year. After conversation with family yesterday, I finally confirmed the date that I will be moving in to the new place: they’d figured out what date was the most optimal (i.e. lucky) for the move by means of feng shui.

  • While I won’t share all details at present, I can say that it is happening in the spring, and that I am very excited. The new place is a luxury condominium located in one of the best parts of Calgary, close to public transportation and numerous shopping and dining. I’d long been in love with that side of town, and it also means I’ll be much closer to my parents, and some relatives. After touring the space back in September, something in me clicked, and this space became something I found myself daydreaming often about. As a luxury condominium, there’s a well-equipped gym, complete with dedicated bench press and squat racks, plus a beautiful rooftop patio and meeting hall with a gorgeous view of the mountains. The unit itself is beautifully appointed, affording me with a gorgeous view of the north from the solarium, kitchen and my bedroom.

  • It’s a far cry from the view that the apartment in IT’S WINTER provides: the more I explored IT’S WINTER, the more I realised that this was a title that conveyed melancholy, depression and the inescapability of these conditions to me. I am aware that some time ago, I disparaged Depression Quest for its poor execution and portrayal of depression. My thoughts on Depression Quest have not changed since then – it is a low-effort hypercard game made by those with only the vaguest idea of what depression entails and no idea what software development requires. IT’S WINTER manages to do what Depression Quest could not, and the reason for this is because IT’S WINTER gives players options and lets players work out that whatever they do ultimately ends up being futile. Depression Quest, on the other hand, takes agency away from those who’ve got the patience to sit through it.

  • Moreover, IT’S WINTER visually captures what depression might look like – a foggy, cold and snowy evening illuminated by the occasional light, but in a dark world where everything is otherwise closed. There is no incidental music to speak of, leaving players to get lost in their own thoughts as they wander the frigid wasteland. By comparison, Depression Quest makes use of a repetitive and insensitive piano piece that feels completely out-of-placed. Altogether, it is sufficient to say that IT’S WINTER is a proper experience, whereas Depression Quest should be removed from the Steam Store for making a mockery of what is a very serious mental health issue. As it stands, I enjoy things where an honest and sincere effort was made into conveying an idea to players, and IT’S WINTER does this very well through its simplicity.

  • This leads to the question of whether or not IT’S WINTER is worth the price it commands: a lofty 10 USD (12 CAD) for an experience that typically lasts about a quarter hour. I can’t answer this for others, but for me, the price represents a means of supporting the developer and his other projects. Routine Feat is another work from Ignatovo, but it is set during the summer and has a slightly more developed narrative. The way I see it, since Routine Feat is free to play, contributing to IT’S WINTER means also supporting Routine Feat: looking around at the aesthetics, I feel that it would be a great game to frame my recollections of the MCAT, as well as of the flood that struck my home town some eight-and-a-half years earlier.

  • I found out about IT’S WINTER a few weeks ago while browsing around articles about Russian apartments. Folks over in North America are accustomed to their large homes of 1700 square feet or above, so the austere and small size of khrushchyovka can come across as being quite unlivable in comparison. While there are some aspects that can take some getting used to, such as the relative lack of space and nonexistent control over the heating, Russians have also managed to turn these spartan quarters into personalised homes. Russians are fond of redecorating their interior spaces, and the inside of a seemingly drab-looking khrushchyovka can look unrecognisable.

  • The nature of khrushchyovka contributes to the Russian belief that the inside is what counts, and in IT’S WINTER, this aesthetic seems to be retained: the lifeless apartment blocks outside stand in contrast with the small but cozy space belonging to the player, and I found that on several occasions, there was a feeling of reassurance whenever I stepped out of the winter night and climbed up the stairs to my place. It felt good to know that no matter where I explored, there was always a place I can return to. One small detail that I did find amusing was how I could jump off my fifth floor balcony and land on the snow below, unharmed.

  • Here, I encounter the snowplow that is making the rounds. Its cabin glows brilliantly: besides the sparkler and lights in the other units, it’s the only sign of life in IT’S WINTER. Despite its simplicity, I found myself watching its progress: some audio will play if players spend enough time looking at the snowplow, and this in turn prompts thoughts of who the driver is, whether or not he has any stories to share, and what his thoughts on the cold winter weather are. As it is, IT’S WINTER offers no answers for players, leaving them to draw their own conclusions.

  • Temperatures today reached a much more agreeable and comfortable -15°C, so I capitalised on this as a chance to go out and pick up ingredients for the New Year’s Eve dinner, as well as our annual New Year’s 打邊爐 party. Despite some issues with availability, we managed to pick up most of what we were looking for, and I am quite looking forwards to things. The forecast indicates that New Year’s Day is going to see a high of -8°C, which is very comfortable by all standards, but it’s still cold enough to really enjoy hot, savoury food and good conversation.

  • The fact that this year’s Christmas Day and New Year’s Day land on a weekend means that there have been observation holidays on Monday, so I’m going to be returning to work on Tuesday, January 4. With the time that has passed in my break, I’ve managed to take delivery of both beds and mattresses, and I’ve also moved most of my old university books over. In the time remaining during this break, I’ll aim to finish assembling a shoe cabinet. Whatever time is left, I’ll take easy: I’ve made some progress in levelling up in Battlefield 2042, and I’ve just unlocked the PKP, a LMG that is said to be as accurate as an assault rifle with the capacity of a machine gun. In Halo Infinite, I am at the excavation site, and I’ll be looking to finish that mission before writing a post about my experiences in the open world.

  • Here, I walk by a store with a green sign. WIRED erroneously indicates that this is a pharmacy, but closer inspection finds that it reads продукты (produkty), which refers to convenience stores. The nearest convenience store to me is about a three minute walk away, but they’re open twenty-four hours a day, so on paper, it means I could head out at 2 AM and pick up a coffee if I felt so inclined. Here in IT’S WINTER, the convenience store is about a minute and a half from the player’s flat, but it’s closed, so there’s no opportunity to browse around and see what they’ve got.

  • One of the most visually distinct features about IT’S WINTER is the fact that it has a very Minecraft-like aesthetic. This works to IT’S WINTER’s advantage: while photorealistic graphics are often touted as being the driving force behind hardware and algorithmic advances, they alone do not improve a game. What’s important to a game (or experience) is the aesthetic, and as such, while IT’S WINTER might not have the insane visuals of something like DOOM or Crysis, the art style works perfectly for what Ignatovo is trying to convey.

  • The quiet playgrounds here really speaks to IT’S WINTER‘s desolation: ordinarily, playgrounds are venues of amusement, filled with children’s laughter. I glance around the empty courtyard before making my way back into the player’s flat. One thing I had worried about was whether or not I’d be able to find the entry again after exiting: there are very few identifying marks, and I ended up making use of the fact that walking out, I could immediately see a flat with a purple light in it. Since I was across from it, if I could find this purple light, I knew I could find my flat again.

  • The interior of the apartment complex is filled with locked doors, and people seem to be fond of leaving their refuse in the hallways. Being a good Samaritan, I cleared the hallways out before returning to my unit. To remember which unit, one simply needs to recall that they’re adjacent to someone with a steel-black door. Of course, if this isn’t viable, then a fair way would be to approach every door and see if the prompt to open it appears. Upon returning to my flat, I head to the bathroom, wash my hands, turn the lights in the bedroom on and prepare to catch some shuteye.

  • IT’S WINTER is certainly one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever tried, and I can say that it was quite worthwhile in making me count my blessings, as well as showing me how even in a melancholy environment, there can still be things to be grateful for. I’ll likely play through this whenever I’m feeling introspective, and depending on my experiences, I might return to write about things again. With this post in the books, I have two more posts planned out for this year: a talk on PuraOre! now that I’ve crossed the finish line, and then as I’d noted earlier, a talk on Halo Infinite. It’s now a ways past lunch, and after enjoying an English muffin with sausage, there’s nothing left on my itinerary for the day, so it’s time to make as much progress as I can with my remaining blog posts, wrap up the excavation site mission in Halo Infinite and then see if I can get Ace Combat 5 up and running.

In the present day, winters no longer quite bother me to the same extent as they once did. While sleet and slush still evoke in me a twinge of annoyance (I hate ice more than I do extreme cold), the snow and darkness simply acts as a reminder that I’ve got a roof over my head, and like the protagonist of IT’S WINTER, my fridge is in good shape, so I’ve got much to be thankful for. In the New Year, the list of things I am to count my blessings for will lengthen: at the time of writing, all of our beds and mattresses have been delivered, and after speaking with a feng shui expert in the family, we’ve now locked in a time for moving-in day. This is going to be busy season, as my goal now is to begin finishing the move ahead of this day and finalise all of the furniture that we’ll need. Quite simply, I’m going to be focused on something with a tangible goal, and I’ve long found that to ward off feelings of loneliness and melancholy, a productive mind acts as the perfect countermeasure. The future is one I am quite looking forwards to, creating a bit of warmth in me even as we’re in the middle of winter’s darkest, loneliest months; after Christmas, winter is at its most miserable, but knowing there is something to both work towards and look forwards to is a massive psychological boost. Memories of months I once spent memorising physics concepts for will be displaced by shopping for furniture and arranging for movers, as well as packing and cleaning, and right as winter ends, it’ll be time to begin a new chapter in life. One could say that I no longer regard winter as poorly as I once did: it’s taken almost a decade, but I do feel like I’ve pulled through and overcome my dislike of the winter months. Like IT’S WINTER, an experience about winter melancholy and loneliness, I’ve found that changing my point of view on things transforms something negative into something more welcoming. I’ve only really explored a few areas of IT’S WINTER insofar, and I’d certainly like to try my hand at making a more scrumptious dinner with the ingredients available in the fridge seen in-game, and mess around with the physical objects in the apartment, as well as see how far I can go before I hit IT’S WINTER‘s map boundaries. Finally, Ignatovo has also released a title called Routine Feat, set in the same apartment blocks, but now, during summer. A decade earlier, I would’ve been staring down the MCAT, and nine years ago, despite the pleasant sunny weather, I found myself in the throes of melancholy after the Great Flood washed away my summer. I am now curious to know if Routine Feat is able to capture the melancholy and loneliness I’ve come to associate with those experiences.

Portal 2: A Reflection and Recollections of the Perpetual Testing Initiative

“All right, I’ve been thinking. When life gives you lemons, don’t make lemonade. Make life take the lemons back! Get mad! I don’t want your damn lemons! What am I supposed to do with these?! Demand to see life’s manager! Make life rue the day it thought it could give Cave Johnson lemons! Do you know who I am?! I’m the man who’s gonna burn your house down! With the lemons!” –Cave Johnson

Chell finds herself pulled out of stasis by the AI Wheatley, who informs her that the Aperture Science facility has fallen into a critical state and that they need to escape. Leading Chell through old test chambers, Wheatley attempts to work out a plan while Chell locates a portal gun. However, they inadvertently reactivate GLaDOS, who separates the two and sends Chell into a series of test chambers to continue on with where they’d previously left off. When Wheatley figures he’s got a solution, he creates a distraction, allowing Chell to escape into the maintenance passages beyond the test chambers. Chell sabotages the turret production line and disables the neurotoxin generator before heading off to face GLaDOS, successfully inititing a core transfer. Wheatley takes over Aperture Science’s main system and places GLaDOS in a potato battery powered CPU. However, he reneges on his promise to send Chell to the surface, and when GLaDOS reveals Wheatley was designed to inhibit her, he throws the pair into a shaft leading into the bowels of Aperture Science. Making her way through the old Enrichment Spheres, Chell learns that Aperture Science was once a shower curtain manufacturer for the military and received an incredible amount of funding to test their products. Helmed by Cave Johnson, Aperture Science began exploring the realm of science with a reckless abandon, and over time, the company began failing even as Johnson started developing an illness from testing products on himself. His final act was to transfer control of the company to his assistant, Caroline. When Chell reunites with GLaDOS, the two set their differences aside to return to the upper levels and stop Wheatley from destroying the facility. GLaDOS reveals that she has Caroline’s memories and begins opening up to Chell. Upon their return, Chell makes her way through Wheatley’s test chambers to stall for time and manages to elude his crude traps, eventually returning to GLaDOS’ main body. She manages to change out the personality cores and places a portal on the moon, sending Wheatley into the depths of space. Back in control, GLaDOS stabilises the facility and decides to let Chell go, figuring that killing her is too much effort. Wheatley laments his decision to betray Chell and wishes things were different. This is the adventure that Chell goes through in Portal 2, the 2011 sequel to 2007’s acclaimed Portal, a highly innovative and remarkable puzzle game built in the Source Engine with Half-Life 2 assets.

In contrast to its predecessor, Portal 2 is much livelier, and although Chell is exploring an abandoned, derelict Aperture Sciences, Portal 2 never had the same sterile, cold feeling that Portal did. Portal 2 explores a greater range of Aperture’s constructions, and in doing so, also explores a greater range of emotions. Wheatley provides an endless supply of comic relief, driving players forward with an improvisational tone even when he does take over Aperture and develops GLaDOS’ old tendency to want to kill Chell. When she falls into the depths of Aperture Science, Cave Johnson’s old recordings give insight into a once-brilliant mind and his fall from grace. The ruins of the old facility are the only remainders of his legacy, giving the entire area an air of melancholy. GLaDOS is a more multi-dimensional character, carrying out her directive per her programming but also recalling that she was once human and coming to understand why Chell chose to act the way she did. The characterisation creates a much richer experience that ultimately tells a story of regret and longing, as well as coming to peace with what has come to pass, set in the cavernous interior of Aperture Sciences. Besides an enriched story, Portal 2 features all-new mechanics to properly differentiate itself from its predecessor and Half-Life 2. Aerial faith plates propel players to new heights from fixed points, thermal discouragement beams require careful placement to activate exits, hard light bridges to reach distant points, special gels encourage lateral thinking to help players pass otherwise impassible areas, and excursion funnels provide a thrilling way of transporting player and materials across chasms. Like its predecessor, players must use a combination of their knowledge of previous mechanics to devise solutions for clearing different areas, and as Chell edges closer to escaping Aperture Science, she learns more about its storied past. In this way, Portal 2 and Portal share the same relationship that Halo 2 and Halo: Combat Evolved shared; both sequels participate in extensive world-building that enriches the player’s experience of the world, at the expense of the suspense created through the minimalist story-telling of their predecessor. In addition, the sequel’s introduction of new mechanics also changes the strategy players take in completing the game – in the case of Portal 2, the new mechanics cement the notion that the game has evolved into a separate entity from Half-Life 2 with its own distinct elements, but it also creates the caveat that some areas must be cleared a certain way, which restricts players’ freedom to solve puzzles in their own way.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • An indeterminate amount of time has passed since Chell last ventured through Aperture’s test chambers, and in that time, the facility has become dilapidated, overgrown with vegetation and mould. It is through these test chambers that Chell makes her way through, and initially, she’ll find the single-portal gun and advance a short ways before locating the full portal gun. Like its predecessor, Portal 2 gradually introduces players to game elements, although players familiar with Portal will doubtlessly have itched to advance further more quickly.

  • It’s been eight years since I last wrote about Portal 2 – eight years earlier, I had been staring down the MCAT, and at this point during the summer, I had just begun my MCAT course; my physics course had finally ended, and I could turn my full attention towards what would certainly be a challenge. However, in between studying, I was able to unwind by going through a friend’s Steam library: in between study sessions, I was able try a few of his games out, among them Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Portal 2. I blazed my way through the former before beginning the latter.

  • Chell’s gear has changed somewhat since the original Portal: long fall boots take place of her original her knee replacements, and she dispenses with the top of her jumpsuit. I’ve seen a few Chell cosplayers at Otafest in past years: when I first attended, Portal 2 would’ve been two years old. The game’s requirements aren’t steep at all, and even in those days, my old desktop had no trouble running the game smoothly, although there was the minor annoyance that the light on top of the portal gun never lit up owing to a limitation in my old GPU. This particular matter is no longer an issue, and in my current screenshots, the light on the portal gun lights up as expected.

  • Death lasers (formally, “thermal discouragement beams”) replace the high-energy pellets of Portal, and require redirection towards a receptacle in order to activate doors and lifts. Like the high-energy pellets, lasers can kill Chell, but only after prolonged exposure, and they typically must be redirected using a combination of portals and redirection cubes. Portal 2 also introduces hard light bridges, which function similarly to those of Halo. The new mechanics of Portal 2 are fun additions to the game, adding further nuance to various puzzles. Not everyone shared this sentiment, and many regarded Portal‘s simplicity as being more conducive towards creative solutions for solving a particular test chamber, whereas the new mechanics made it clearer how one could solve the test chamber and restrict novel solutions.

  • The lift taking players to the next level have changed in appearance: originally, they were solid, and Portal loaded different segments similarly to Half-Life 2, but by Portal 2, they look sleeker, and the game loads new levels quite separately. The lifts are surrounded by screens that give a visual representation of how a new mechanic works, and one of my favourite animations was the one depicting the turrets in action, showing the automatic chambering and firing of rounds. In Portal, turrets could be disabled by knocking them over, and while this is still viable in Portal 2, there is a rather more entertaining way of dealing with turrets.

  • Using a redirection cube allows one to focus a laser on a turret, which heats up its inner structure and eventually causes it to explode: back in Portal, the high-energy pellets could only knock turrets over, which, while functionally equivalent, was nowhere nearly as satisfying. Because Chell is completing these test chambers to occupy GLaDOS while Wheatley works out an escape plan, there’s the sense that something big is in the making.

  • The new test chambers of Portal 2 have a different aesthetic than the test chambers of Portal, being composed of sliding panels rather than the metal cubes. The amount of portal-conducting surfaces are also reduced in many places. While this initially felt restricting, it’s also a bit of a clever way to subtly hint at where portals should be placed. Here, I grab ahold of a weighted cube and make my way across a hard-light bridge: it suddenly strikes me that, since the Perpetual Testing Initiative days, I’ve not actually gone back through Portal 2 until now.

  • Test Chamber 20 is the only test chamber that’s completed and ready to roll: it most resembles the test chambers of Portal and every surface is capable of conducting portals. While seemingly simple, it involves redirecting the lasers into the right receptacles using a combination of redirection cubes and portals. I’ve heard that it’s possible to finish this test chamber without placing any portals, but this requires precise use of the redirection cubes. Once this test chamber is cleared, Wheatley returns and prompts Chell to go into the maintenance access surrounding the test chamber.

  • Portal‘s maintenance areas had a more Half-Life feel to them, and Portal 2 modifies them to have a different aesthetic. I can’t help but wonder if the design was inspired by areas of Facebook headquarters. Once Chell’s escaped, Wheatley will have her help in sabotaging the turret manufacturing line and disabling the neurotoxin supply before taking her to face GLaDOS. Chell manages to perform the core transfer, placing Wheatley in charge of Aperture Sciences, but the additional processing power drives him insane, and he reneges on his promise to Chell. When GLaDOS insults Wheatley, he loses his cool and smashes the lift Chell is in, sending her and GLaDOS tumbling into the depths of Aperture Sciences.

  • After falling into the depths of Aperture Science, some four-and-a-half kilometres beneath the surface, Chell is briefly knocked out and comes to just as a bird carries GLaDOS away. This is the loneliest it gets in Portal 2, and Chell can only count on her wits to figure out how to return to the surface: there is no Wheatley to lighten the moment up, and no GLaDOS to make snide remarks. The sense of scale at Aperture Science becomes apparent here, giving an idea of just how extensive the facilities are. When I first came here in Portal 2 some eight years ago, I was thoroughly impressed with how the older facility was presented, and it was here that the melancholy in the game became visibly felt.

  • Wandering through the unused sections of Aperture Science, I would come upon the vault door that leads into the next section. Portal 2‘s designers stated they wanted to play with some visual humour, in which they would use an immensely large vault door to conceal an ordinary door. At this point during my first play-through, I was wrapping up a physics course and making more headway into the MCAT preparation course. The timing of this was excellent: I had been a little worried about a potential scheduling conflict, but with physic concluding, I was free to focus purely on the MCAT.

  • By the time I’d set foot in the catwalks leading into the first of the Enrichment Spheres, Portal 2 had been out for just over a year. One of my friends had already completed the game and began using the music to test to in accompanying his videos of his Otafest experiences. Portal 2‘s soundtrack was carefully composed to fit the atmosphere of different areas of the game. The music of the Enrichment Spheres, in particular, create a light-hearted sense of science fiction that suggests a combination of whimsy and cleverness that is needed to complete this section of the game.

  • I’m guessing, then, that for my friend, Otafest represents a similar challenge for visitors in that it requires an open mind and awareness of one’s surroundings to ensure one doesn’t miss anything. This turned out to be true: when I attended Otafest a year later, I planned to attend for one day and played things by ear. While it was a fun experience, I would subsequently learn that I’d missed a bunch of events and a chance to collect special pins. For future conventions, I planned ahead and would go on to have a more comprehensive experience. Here, I pass through one of the older offices, and a trophy case of Aperture’s best achievements of the day are visible.

  • Besides Otafest vlogs, my friend had also made extensive cross-overs of Portal and Team Fortress 2 with The Melancholy of Suzumiya HaruhiLucky☆Star and Puella Magi Madoka Magica. I’ll admit that I don’t fully understand half of the intended themes in crossovers, and upon asking my best friend to take a look, and they were similarly uncertain as to what was going on. If I had to guess, they probably represent how he may felt about certain character interactions and themes in a show, brought into a context he was familiar with. Portal 2 captures the feeling of loneliness and the hubris of ambition in this section, so for me, these sections of the game were the most memorable.

  • Chell eventually makes her way into the control rooms that activate the different mobility gels: these modify the properties of a surface, allowing for movement in areas that would otherwise be impassible. While it’s a lonely journey through the bowels of Aperture Science, Chell is accompanied by Cave Johnson’s hilarious, but also increasingly erratic dialogue, which gives a rather detailed history of Aperture Science, which began as a highly successful company that Johnson ran into the ground with uncertain, experimental projects. While a man of science, Johnson evidently had a stubborn pride about him, as well.

  • After reaching a series of abandoned offices, Chell will find the potato that GLaDOS is stuck to; a bird had carried her away earlier, and GLaDOS becomes deathly afraid of birds for a period after she reunites with Chell. Having GLaDOS attached to Chell’s portal gun, Portal 2 suddenly feels a lot less lonely, and the two work out an alliance with the aim of getting back to the main facility so that GLaDOS can stop Wheatley from destroying everything in his incompetence.

  • Once GLaDOS is back, she’ll occasionally react to Cave Johnson’s recordings: it turns out that GLaDOS was built from Caroline, Johnson’s pretty-as-a-postcard assistant with a bright personality who was also evidently competent. Upon hearing one of Johnson’s recordings, GLaDOS responds with a heartfelt and genuine “Goodbye, Sir“, hinting at her origins. It turns out that Johnson had intended to have his mind transferred, but in the event that he died before the process could be carried out, Caroline would take his place. These exchanges match the melancholy, wistful feeling one gets when traversing these test chambers. The inquisitive player can locate a picture of Caroline and unlock an achievement for doing so in this test chamber.

  • I still have vivid memories of being stuck in this enrichment sphere after arriving for the first time: I had started playing Portal 2 as a bit of a study break, having hit a wall of sorts in revising the new MCAT materials, but wound up without a means of completing this test chamber. I ended up putting the breaks on Portal 2, returned to hit the books and ended up understanding the concept I was looking at. The early summer of 2012 was characterised by me being entirely focused on the physics and MCAT courses; most days entailed me going to campus to take the courses and then returning home in the afternoon to study.

  • By June, my physics course had nearly wrapped up, and all that was left was the MCAT course, which ran until the end of July. I spent many a beautiful day indoors doing review problems with friends who were also facing down the MCAT or had previously done so. I constantly swung between an impatience to take the exam and a gripping panic during this time, but with support from my friends, I weathered on. Most of my days were punctuated by a great deal of gaming, which helped me to unwind and focus in between studying sessions.

  • Finally, August came, and I sat the exam. When I had finished, it was as though a great weight was lifted off my shoulders. With the remaining twenty days of the summer, I spearheaded an effort that some of my colleagues had taken to submit a paper to an undergraduate journal earlier that year: we had become swamped with coursework and the paper was shelved. However, two of the remaining colleagues had expressed an interest in continuing, and since I was not officially doing summer research then, I had unlimited time on my hands.

  • After receiving everyone’s drafts, I ended up writing out the entire paper and then asked that my colleagues review it as they were able. As August drew to an end, and my final undergraduate year started, we had a fully finished draft. My supervisor was happy to review it, and we ended up submitting it to the journal. It was accepted some time later, and I was invited to participate in the undergraduate research symposium with my older project from a summer earlier. Seeing the extensibility of this project led me to build my undergraduate research project off it, and for my troubles, I ended up doing very well.

  • As I return further up the facility, I recall that because I had been in the midst of MCAT season and had wanted to finish Portal 2 as quickly as possible. I therefore skipped over the sections of Portal 2 where Chell and GLaDOS return to the more modern Aperture Science facilities, returning to the point after the pair reach the stairwell leading back into a more modern-looking test chamber, shaving about 15-30 minutes off my run. In retrospect, I needn’t have skipped this part, but what’s done is done.

  • According to the screenshots, I finished my first run of Portal 2 precisely eight years earlier and ended up writing about the new mechanics here. At that time, this blog was really more of a side resource where I could go to write shorter articles, supporting the content at my main Webs.com page. However, as the limitations of Webs.com became increasingly apparent, I transitioned all of my writing to this blog. Here, I make use of a portal conducting gel to coat the interior of this shaft, allowing me to freely place portals in critical areas to reach further up.

  • While I had finished Portal 2 and wrote about it eight years ago to this day, that same summer saw Valve introduce the addition of Perpetual Testing Initiative, adding co-op chambers for players to complete. Any owner of Portal 2 was automatically granted a special discount coupon for Portal 2 to gift to friends so that they could claim a copy of the game for 5 USD. My friend, having heard about my enjoyment of the game, sent me his coupon, and a few hours later, I was the proud owner of Portal 2. I started my journey late in August, and finished the campaign a second time just before term started.

  • On my second play-through, I went through every area of the game, including the shafts leading back to the more modern facility and the crawlspace just beneath the modern test chambers. As I passed through familiar test chambers and the bowels of the facility alike, I recalled with vivid clarity the old thrill of studying for the MCAT. Three days later, my MCAT results came back, and it was to my immense relief that I’d done rather well. I wouldn’t actually use the results in later years, having developed a keen interest in software development following my undergraduate thesis, but the lessons and experiences from taking the MCAT persisted: besides being a better tester, I also relaxed considerably regarding challenges.

  • I don’t believe I have any screenshots of Portal 2 left over from those days: all of the screenshots for this post were taken relatively recently. Upon returning back to the modern facilities, it’s evident that Wheatley has made a mess of things, creating illogical tests. Fortunately, there are solutions to Wheatley’s tests, and the introduction of the excursion funnels, which act similarly to the hard light bridges but also offer laminar flow, allowing players and objects to be pushed across an area.

  • Despite displaying fluid-like properties, the excursion funnels are not liquid in nature. Special switches allow their direction to be switched, and they become an invaluable mechanic for crossing over large chasms opening into the deepest reaches of the Aperture Science facility. Wheatley’s tests leave massive gaps in the floor, which expose infrastructure and also give an idea as to how vast Aperture Science really is. Chell can exit the funnel at any time by means of normal movement, but careless movement at the wrong time will lead to death.

  • Besides Chell herself and objects like weighted cubes, the excursion funnels can also be used to transport mobility gels great distances. Solving puzzles with a combination of the mobility gels and excursion funnels turned out quite fun: by this point in time, familiarity with all of the mechanics means that players will have no trouble figuring out what needs to be done. Of note was the part where one needed to use the repulsion gel on turrets to safely deactivate them: once coated, they begin bouncing around erratically and plummet to the depths of the Aperture Science facility.

  • A distant light can be seen as Chell heads towards Wheatley with every intention of stopping him and restoring GLaDOS’ access to control Aperture Science. Traveling through this excursion funnel, with a distant light illuminating the way, players cannot help but feel that they are almost at the light at the end of the tunnel. This screenshot here perfectly captures how it felt to watch the days between myself and the MCAT count down to the doom of my time.

  • The fight with Wheatley is hilarious: while he takes measures to prevent himself from being defeated the same way GLaDOS was defeated, conditions transpire against him, and Chell is given all of the tools needed to stop Wheatley, by corrupting his main core with alternate cores and prompting a core transfer. Once successful, Wheatley is sucked into space, and regrets betraying Chell, while GLaDOS stabilises the facility and allows Chell to walk free, since killing her was too much work. This brings my third play-though of Portal 2 to an end, and having gone through both Lucky☆Star and both Portal games, I turn my attention towards The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya next, which holds the answers to lingering questions I had surrounding Otafest.

Being more extensive than Portal in every way, Portal 2 ultimately is an immensely enjoyable and immersive experience overall. In particular, I was most fond of the game’s midsections, which sees Chell explore the abandoned ruins of the old Aperture Science. The sheer scope and scale of the old Enrichment Spheres are a monument to Aperture Science’s hubris: Portal 2 demonstrated that level design and voice acting alone can tell an incredibly compelling story: Cave Johnson himself never appears, having long died from being poisoned by the moon dust used in creating portal-conducting surfaces, but old heirlooms and artifacts do much in filling in the gaps. Together with the derelict state of the old facilities, one really gains a sense of the hopelessness and desperation Johnson had to bring back the glory days even as Aperture Science fell further into ruin. These missions are reminiscent of exploring haikyo: although the walls of abandoned buildings might not speak, an entire story lies beyond their silence, told in stone and mementos alike. Altogether, Portal 2 places a much greater emphasis on the human elements of the series compared to its predecessor, which, while succeeding on the merits of its simplicity, left many questions unanswered. Portal 2 answers some of these questions and suggests that behind the events of Portal, there was a human element to things, which help players to really understand the dangers of an unchecked desire for progress. Together with areas that capture the scope and scale of Aperture Science, moments that help characters grow, and a generally livelier atmosphere, Portal 2 represents a novel direction for Portal that adds nuance to the series, and while its story leaves players no closer to understanding the role Aperture Science and the Borealis plays in Half-Life 2, does offer closure for those who had lingering questions after completing Portal.

Portal: A Reflection

Didn’t we have some fun, though? Remember when the platform was sliding into the fire pit and I said ‘Goodbye’, and you were like ‘NO WAY‘, and then I was all ‘we pretended we were going to murder you’? That was great.” –GLaDOS to Chell

Twelve years after Aperture Sciences is abandoned, Chell awakens in a Relaxation Chamber and is given instructions from GLaDOS, an AI overseeing the facility. She acquires a single-portal gun and begins the testing procedure on the promise that cake is to be provided for all successful testers. As Chell progresses through the different test chambers and picks up the full portal gun, things become increasingly dangerous: some test chambers are flooded with toxic compounds, and GLaDOS also introduces test chambers with automated turrets. Chell eventually acquires the weighted companion cube in one chamber, and is forced to destroy it to continue. In the final test chamber, after successfully finishing it, Chell finds herself facing certain death, but uses the portal gun to escape to safety. GLaDOS attempts to persuade Chell into returning back into the facility, but she ventures deeper into Aperture Sciences’ maintenance areas, eventually locating GLaDOS’ chambers. Here, Chell eludes GLaDOS’ attempts to kill her and manages to crippled the system, causing an explosion that propels her to the surface. Beginning its life as a Source Engine re-imagination of an older title (wherein recycling assets from Half-Life 2 and using the Source Engine simplified the development process), Narbacular Drop, Portal was released in October 2007 alongside Half-Life 2 Episode Two and Team Fortress 2 as a part of the Orange Box. The game became an unexpected hit for its clever mechanics and narrative, as well as for its unique aesthetic and promotion of scientific principles in problem-solving.

Because of its minimalism, Portal is characterised by the immense sense of loneliness that Chell faces during the game’s events. There are no other humans in Portal, and as Chell progresses through each test chamber, the only interaction she has is with GLaDOS, an AI that becomes increasingly sarcastic and hostile as the game wears on. Chell also finds signs that everything is not what it seems after finding an opening to the maintenance area in one of the test chambers, where another test subject had hastily scrawled “The Cake is a Lie” on the walls. In spite of these ominous signs, Chell initially complies with GLaDOS right up until the final chamber, where it is revealed that GLaDOS had planned in killing her after all. After escaping, Chell is truly alone, and so, begins to follow signs left by the previous test subject, eventually deciding that the only means of survival is to destroy GLaDOS. In the absence of human contact, Portal succeeds in creating an unsettling atmosphere that suggests loneliness can drive individuals to follow anything that resembles social interaction. In Chell, this first takes the form of trusting GLaDOS and obediently completing test chambers, and then in placing her trust in the previous test subject’s discoveries. With its dark humour and play on the human psyche even as players complete the puzzles of the test chambers, Portal quickly became a success, and Valve would follow up with a sequel, Portal 2, in 2011.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • Because Portal was built in the Source Engine and recycles assets from Half-Life 2, the game even utilises the same menus and sound effects. The Portal Gun itself is a re-skinned Gravity Gun with the power to pick stuff up and place them, aside from its portal-making functions. Initially, the puzzles of Portal are very easy, designed to get players used to finishing test chambers, but as the game wears on, they become increasingly challenging.

  • According to my Steam achievements, the first time I played Portal was back in September 2011. This would have marked the start of a new term after a summer of research and adventure: besides building the prototype renal model that would form the basis for my undergraduate thesis, I also travelled about both to the Eastern Seaboard and regional mountains, spent memorable days at LAN parties and enjoyed the beautiful summer weather on campus. Entering the new term, I found myself rejuvenated and quite ready to get my GPA back on track for the Honours programme.

  • Late in September, Valuve made Portal free to pick up, and having seen one of my friend’s The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi mashups with Portal, I decided to grab a copy and began playing it later in the month. The first month of term is always slower, so I hastened to finish Portal before things became too crazy, and I would end up wrapping up the game closer to the Thanksgiving Long Weekend in October. Subsequently, I focused my efforts into my studies and wound up doing okay, sufficiently well to return my GPA to the faculty satisfactory standing of a B- or better.

  • I have no screenshots from that particular playthrough of Portal, but if I did, they likely would’ve been 1024×786. In order to acquire screenshots for this post, then, I beat the whole of Portal in a shade under two hours. While there are no mirrors in Portal, the fact that the game does render portals fully means that it is possible to see Chell, and as such, Valve ensured that Chell has a player model – I do not believe that Half-Life 2 actually rendered Gordon Freeman, but thanks to the simplicity of Portal, no crazy models are needed: Chell only needs animations for running and jumping. In Portal, Chell is equipped with the advanced knee replacement mod, which allows her to automatically right herself when moving through a portal and absorb the impact of a long fall.

  • All of the puzzles in Portal involve reaching an exit to the test chamber, and then variation comes from how to open the door and getting to the door. Weighted cubes can be acquired to activate switches, while other switches are activated by redirecting high-energy pellets into them. The pellets are Half-Life 2‘s Energy Balls, using the same asset and possess the same properties: coming into contact with one is instant death, and since they follow a linear trajectory, it takes a bit of creative thinking to direct them into their receptacles.

  • The relatively small number of mechanics in Portal belies a certain ingenuity in the game. The use of momentum in the fling manoeuvre is probably the feature that defines Portal: after players are introduced the idea that “speedy object in, speedy object out”, the game is really able to get creative with its level design. Obstacles and hazards are incorporated in a way as to challenge the player to see what is possible with portals, and because of the pure number of portal-ready surfaces available, players can also explore novel ways of getting around more quickly even in more ordinary environments: some test chambers are quite large, and portals can be used as a shortcut to traverse great distances quickly.

  • The fifteenth test chamber exemplifies the sort of genius that went into the integration of game mechanics with level design in Portal: it is a deceptively simple setup involving the Emancipation Grill and glass walls that prevent players from easily traversing the level. The lack of pits also means that flinging is not immediately an apparent manoeuvre, so players must get creative in portal placement in order to pass over the glass walls, then make use of the high-energy pellets to activate a platform. Because the platforms move in the opposite direction as one’s destination, use of portals is required to advance towards the exit.

  • Half-Life 2‘s sentry guns are repurposed as sleek, Apple-like turrets with a laser sight that indicates where it’s pointing. The turrets are sentient, and speak to the player. Chell can take a few rounds from a turret before dying, and the turrets themselves can be defeated simply by knocking them over. This is typically achieved by dropping objects into them, directing high-energy pellets at them or else opening a portal in the ground underneath them. In situations where none of these are optional, the old Half-Life 2 standby of picking up an object and using it to absorb incoming fire is also a possibility.

  • The weighted Companion Cube is a Portal icon, and while only appearing in test chamber seventeen, very quickly became counted as an integral part of the Portal universe. It is the only cube that must be destroyed, introducing players to the incinerator, but as it turns out, the Companion Cube is not unique, and others are shown in spin-off media, as well as Portal 2. Players who pre-ordered Portal 2 also received a Companion Cube pin as an in-game cosmetic reward for Team Fortress 2, and during my short-lived days trading for Team Fortress 2 hats to help a friend out, I ended up picking a Genuine Companion Cube pin up for myself.

  • The penultimate test chamber is the trickiest, requiring a combination of everything that players have picked up: flinging, use of the high-energy pellets, weighted cubes, avoidance of turrets and caution to avoid the hazardous sludge, as well as implements that require careful timing to activate. By this point, Portal has introduced everything that players need to survive, so even the most intimidating-looking test chamber suddenly becomes a fun challenge to overcome, rather than a rage-inducing puzzle.

  • The last test chamber supposedly marks the end of Portal, but players will feel a sense of unease: given how quiet its been, the probability of there actually being cake seems slim to none, and the mysterious scrawl from an earlier test subject indicates that there is more to Portal than meets the eye. Once players activate the platforms and prepare to progress into what GLaDOS promises to be a celebration, the truth behind Portal becomes apparent.

  • There is no cake, and instead, GLaDOS means to burn Chell alive by dropping her into an incinerator. Fortunately, armed with what is about an hour’s worth of skill with portals, Chell is able to beat a quick escape and avoid being charbroiled. From here on out, Portal dispenses with the highly-structured environments within the test chambers, and puts the player’s knowledge to the test as Chell pushes through the back doors and maintenance passages of Aperture Science.

  • The fact that Aperture Science possesses monitors and keyboards suggests that it was once staffed by humans: a purely automated facility would not have a need for any HCI and by extension, any I/O capture devices. Because Portal recycles so many of Half-Life 2‘s assets, the game does distinctly feel like Half-Life 2 without the Gravity Gun and things to shoot at: the sterile interior of the Aperture Science offices do have that gritty and worn feel as Half-Life 2‘s interiors did.

  • An ominous orange light fills these back ways, along with bits of lighting from lamps illuminating these areas. Filled with pistons and other hazards, it takes a fair bit of observation to figure out where to go, and even though I’ve already beaten this game some eight-and-a-half years earlier, some areas still required that I slowed down to find a suitable surface to place a portal on. Progressing through these areas, markings hastily scrawled in red paint point Chell in the right direction, and with GLaDOS hellbent on killing Chell, players have no choice but to trust these markings.

  • The page quote I’ve got for this Portal talk is probably my absolute most favourite line from the entire game. While it’s not very convincing, it exemplifies the sort of humour that went into Portal. It suddenly strikes me that ten years ago to this day, Otafest 2010 would’ve been starting: back in those days, Otafest happened on University grounds, and so, the organisers opened the event in the afternoon to avoid disturbing the researchers on campus, and the first day’s events were of a much smaller scale.

  • After clearing an arena’s worth of turrets out, Chell travels upwards into the Aperture Science facilities, passing through a cavernous open area that eventually leads into the chamber where GLaDOS’ main body is held. The use of distance fog in conjunction with the orange lighting creates an atmosphere that is simultaneously ominous, yet melancholy, and the colours stand in stark contrast with the welcoming glow of the portal gun. The scale of the interior at Aperture Science suggests to players that they’ve become entangled in something vast, although Portal does not explain what it is.

  • The rooms overlooking the skybridge leading into GLaDOS’ chamber brings to mind an atrium in the Professional Faculties on campus, which had a similar (but warmer) aesthetic. During my time as a university student, I only ever had one class in the Professional Faculties building, which was located a fair distance away from the events of Otafest: the proximity of the Science department’s buildings to the campus student centre meant that the areas where I took most of my classes in, and where my old office was located, would see host to most of Otafest’s events until they moved the venue downtown during my final year of graduate studies.

  • After surviving numerous perils, Chell finds herself face-to-face with her nemesis. Defeating GLaDOS is a relatively simple task: once the rocket turret is deployed, it’s a matter of using portals to redirect rockets to hit GLaDOS’ main body, and then chucking various personality cores into the incinerator before the molar concentration of nerve gas becomes lethal to Chell.  Eventually, damage sustained during the fighting causes the facility to go critical and explode, forcing Chell up to the surface. It turns out that Chell was dragged back into Aperture Sciences and put into stasis, being reawakened an indeterminate amount of time later for the events of Portal 2.

  • I will, of course, be writing about Portal 2 come June, and for now, the fact that we are sitting a decade after Otafest 2010 means I’m feeling nostalgic, so I will be revisiting Lucky☆Star tomorrow, which was when ten years earlier, the main events of Otafest 2010 would have taken place. The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi is another one of the anime that brings back memories of a simpler time, but since I’d forgotten so much of what happened, I do plan on spending early June on a re-watch before attempting to write about it. Because we’re on course for the end of May, as well, the last post I have planned at the moment is a massive one on Halo 2, which joined The Master Chief Collection nine days ago.

While elements of dark humour typically go over my head, what’s not lost on me in Portal is the strong gameplay. The gradual progression allows players to be slowly introduced to game mechanics, and so, when players reach the later test chambers, a bit of creativity will yield a solution. For instance, using portals allows Chell to “fling” herself great distances: as GLaDOS puts it, “speedy object in, speedy object out”. By applying the conservation of momentum, players can reach otherwise unreachable areas needed to solve a test chamber. Momentum is first introduced in a simple room with a pit, but later rooms with the emancipation grills and impassable glass walls prevent players from simply using portals to enter. Instead, players must recall that they can create a portal in the floor and then near the ceiling, after which they can build up the momentum needed to fling themselves into the next area. The end result is that players feel very clever for having completed Portal‘s puzzles, and after GLaDOS goes rogue, players are assured that they know all of the tricks needed to survive. Using only the most basic of mechanics and the laws of physics as defined by the Source Engine, Portal managed to create an experience that was memorable: this sentiment is shared by countless others who’ve played through it, and the game is counted as one of the best games ever made. My time with Portal began in 2011, shortly after Portal 2‘s release and Valve made Portal free to download for a while: coupled with an interest in the series stemming from a series of Otafest videos one of my friends had uploaded, I finally had the chance to experience what is one of the best-known games in recent memory.