We had a wedding in the family this week, which was planned to be in the UK, before things got unusual, and so took place in the local Botanic Gardens instead. Permits were obtained, numbers were restricted, and everyone wore face masks for most of it, but apart from that it was very nice.
I brought my D-Lux 7 along and got some workable shots. I love that it has that old Panasonic trick of natively changing aspect ratios from the sensor instead of cropping, for when you need a wider angle. The alternative was the CL with 18–55mm Vario-Elmar which would have been useless in the evening (f3.5 and no IBIS). But by the time we were having drinks on a rooftop, the only camera that could reliably see anything was the iPhone 11 with its Night Mode.
The weather service says we’re in for storms and 22ºC nights in the days to come, which is highly unusual here in Singapore. Standing out in the fading sun at the wedding after 5pm was a rather sweaty affair, to say nothing of being out at noon. I think the average nighttime temperature must be around 28–30ºC, so I’m looking forward to seeing this.
Segue to things I’ve seen: the Snowpiercer TV series on Netflix. Am not a fan of any Bong Joon-Ho film I’ve seen apart from Parasite, so have not been keen to put the film on my list, but am slightly curious now that I’m done with the TV adaptation. It was not a complete waste of time. Fully expecting to be hit over the head with Themes will make it easier to go in, I suppose.
Better things I can actually recommend: John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man (1976) starring Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier, and Roy Scheider. It’s even on Singapore’s Netflix so it must be widely available everywhere else. I’ve seen snatches of this on random late-night TV screens over the years, but never the whole thing. They don’t make them like this anymore — it’s generous with scenes and shots that exist just for world and character building, and you’d never say it needed tightening.
Aaron Schneider’s Greyhound (2020) starring Tom Hanks is worth whatever Apple TV paid for it. I read an interview where Hanks said he was upset that the film wouldn’t get a theatrical release because it needed to be seen on a big screen. We saw it last night with the lights down, virtual surround sound bar cranked up, LCD backlight at maximum, and it was a thrill. Don’t see this one on your iPad.
Patrick Vollrath’s 7500 (2019) starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a gem of a hijack movie on Amazon Prime Video that’s practically a play. I know a couple of aviation nuts who’d love its opening minutes, devoted to the pilot and co-pilot’s pre-flight routine of checking meters and flipping switches amidst small talk. It’s a rarely seen moment on screen, rendered with a lavish amount of mundane detail and realism that sets the tone for a film that takes place almost entirely in the cockpit.
7500 got me looking for more quiet-but-intense films set at night or in relative darkness, because they’re perfect for watching in bed. I also quite enjoyed Into The Night, which makes me think maybe I just want more films set on planes? Anyway, this eventually led me to a subgenre of YouTube mood videos not unlike lofi hip hop radio – beats to relax/study to, but a blend of rain sounds, faint jazz BGM, and cafe noises. Check this one out.
I bought Ghost of Tsushima because I couldn’t resist a graphically gorgeous open-world game set in feudal Japan, Western gaze or not. One of my long-time wishes for the Assassin’s Creed series was for them to do a Japanese edition, but they arguably waited too long and now no one cares. This also marks the first time in at least six months that I’m turning my PS4 Pro on. The Switch can’t compete on looks, but not having to commit to significant time in front of the TV means a lot.
What made the service so refreshing at the start was its dedication to art and quality, stickiness and engagement metrics be damned. You paid a subscription fee, and got access to a peaceful library of games that didn’t try to milk wallet-attached endorphins out of your brain. We got delightful little experiences like Assemble with Care and WHAT THE GOLF?, and I stuck around on the promise that we’d get a steady stream of those. Well, it seems that train has stopped because somebody upstairs wants more addictive games that will keep people subscribed past the free trial.
One example of what Apple wants, according to Bloomberg, is Grindstone. I personally love it; a fun pick-up-and-play puzzler, and an evergreen game you could easily be playing years from now. But not every game needs to be a Grindstone, and there’s only room for one or two Grindstones in my life at any time. These are games you use to soak up free time, go-to icons for when a moment appears while in line for something, or on the bus. There are plenty of them already on the App Store, so Apple Arcade should supply a breadth of other experiences.
I see the potential of Apple Arcade as analogous to the Apple TV+ strategy : quality over quantity, unique visions only. A change of course so soon comes across as a lack of courage. It’s a long game, so to speak. If people aren’t staying past the trial, maybe they’re not reaching enough of the right people who’ll be their early adopters. Even Airpods didn’t take off immediately.
It’s a rare treat for me to be able to visit Japan two years in a row, but that happened last month after we realized my airline miles bank could handle it. Our time was largely planned around meals, exhibitions, and not a great deal else. Looking back, I should have spent a little more time making a good to-do list. As soon as we arrived home, I started hearing and reading about all sorts of other things we could have done. Maybe next year.
It became a bit of a tradition for me to make these konbini snack haul videos every night at the hotel, showing a camera all the native junk food and drinks I bought to eat while lazing around. Unfortunately, I didn’t do any this time around. Why? Leading up to the trip, I started eating less and being healthier so that I could pig out on holiday. Ironically, that had two effects: a smaller appetite, and a habit of reading nutritional info labels.
Once there, I was looking at the calorie counts on everything, and having more than a 400kcal sandwich and 150kcal milk coffee for breakfast seemed irresponsible. In the past, I was probably eating 1000kcals just at breakfast alone. Those colorful, convenient packages are more energy-dense than they look… like how a microwavable spaghetti ready meal from 7-Eleven will easily run you over 900kcals.
This trip will be remembered for having spent (too?) much of it in queues. Nearly straight off the plane, we stood three hours in line at Nakiryu waiting for their Michelin-starred take on Szechuan dan dan noodles. It was amazing but three hours is a little much. I’d do it again at twice the price and half the wait.
Another epic wait was at the fairly new “Borderless” exhibition by teamLab in Odaiba, where the line stretched as far as one could see, before extending around the corner for another equal length. You approach it from the head of the line, and then walk down the entire way to find the end, and it’s painfully demoralizing. We honestly considered skipping it and going home, but it moved quickly and only took an hour. Once in line, you will be kept entertained by the disbelieving faces of newbs going through the same rite of passage.
As an experience, I have to recommend it. teamLab pull off some amazing stuff both in terms of technical achievement and sheer conceptual audacity. I don’t know how many members they have, but I’ll bet they’re all overworked. This permanent exhibition is presented in conjunction with Epson, and when you look at the number of high resolution projectors employed to carve these interactive fantasy worlds out of the dark, it makes sense.
We were also fortunate to visit 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT when an exhibition about Naoto Fukusawa’s iconic INFOBAR phone was on in commemoration of its 15th anniversary and the new xv model. The anniversary model runs some severely restricted version of Android to recreate the minimal featurephone experience. It’s a beautiful object that I used to dream about being able to use, back in the pre-smartphone days. We just don’t get this kind of product design anymore now that the screen has become the primary element.
Every time I’m in Japan, I try to notice what games people are playing, the devices they’re using, what’s being advertised and so on, because it’s still quite an insulated cultural environment and many of those things don’t make their way outside or fail to catch on if they do.
Last November, a Korean-made mobile game called Destiny Child was being heavily advertised on TV and around the city on billboards. The ads were highly visual, showing off some detailed 2D character animations and no gameplay to speak of, so I had no idea what it was about but I wanted to try it. For a whole year afterwards, I’d periodically do a search for Destiny Child on the App Store to see if it had made it out in English. This year, upon our return after the 10 days or so in Japan, it was finally released globally in English. It’s a kinda ecchi mobile gacha game and not for everyone, but you can find it here: https://itunes.apple.com/sg/app/destiny-child/id1416959016?mt=8
I’m still waiting for Level-9’s The Snack World (3DS) to cross the language divide.
You already know this, but the Switch is killing it. The fact that it’s region-free, and a few games that come out first in Japan include support for English and other European languages, has been seized upon by some retailers who have stuck up notices for tourists about what games they can safely buy home. Sony had some pretty slick in-store displays for Judge Eyes and PSVR, but Nintendo had the crowd-drawing content between Pokémon Let’s Go, Smash Bros. Ultimate, and Mario Party.
Compared to a year ago, smokeless tobacco products seemed to be in decline. I recall seeing people use Marlboro’s IQOS devices everywhere, and in smoking lounges (at the airport, for example), the majority of people were using similar systems.
Now, it seemed like the proportions were reversed. I overheard (mostly inferred from snatches of words I understood, actually) a lady talking to her friend about JT’s Ploom Tech while smoking a regular cigarette, saying how it wasn’t that good. She even pulled the device out of a pouch in her bag to show it off.
Having tried Ploom Tech, I can see why. It’s nothing like a cigarette and really lacks a lot of the experience. IQOS is much closer. I’d be interested to know the reasons behind this pattern, if true. Was it just a fad, or do smokeless products have a future? I think their adoption could do a ton to improve the air in cities, and improve quality of life for smokers as well.
A couple of years ago, everyone on the train listened to music with cords hanging from their faces and that was the picture almost everywhere. Riding the Tokyo metro in 2017, I noticed many more making the move to wireless (the same story in Singapore), but the majority of these were neckbuds and the like — sub-$100 Bluetooth headphones connected by a cable.
This year, commuters were noticeably switching to so-called true wireless headphones, including Apple’s AirPods which have exploded in popularity. It’s an overall trend in consumer electronics, helped by the fact that prices have come down and identical OEM buds under a slew of new brand names can be had for very little. Just look in my Instagram ads sometime.
But after looking at tons of them in the big stores like Bic and Yodobashi Camera, I’ve concluded that almost none of them are competitive with the AirPods on battery life or charging case size. The Jabra Elite 65T has probably the smallest case (I bought a pair), and Sony‘s are laughably large. They are like mini coffins, and won’t fit in any pockets. Instant fail. Even after a year, no one has nailed battery life, solid connectivity, and portability like Apple did with AirPods. If only they fit my ears without falling out.
I don’t know if the reports of iPhone XR demand being weaker than expected are true, but you’d never know it from walking the aisles in a store. It had just come out when we were there, but the shelves were already filled with third-party accessories. And stores were pitching them at the front, with iPhone XS and XS Max goods relegated to the rear. Clearly, manufacturers and retailers were ready for it to be the most popular model.
Magazines and retail
I posted about this in an Instagram story, but it bears repeating here. The Japanese publishing industry and its continued survival is an interesting phenomenon I wish someone at Netflix would commission a documentary on. Digital devices are everywhere, and I believe Amazon had some success convincing people to read manga on their Kindles, but paper is still everywhere.
Walk into any magazine section and you’ll see specialist interest publications on niche hobbies: fountain pens, shooting film through vintage lenses, ballet, fabric decoration, birdwatching, and even individual apps and games. None of this is news, but every year I see that companies can keep doing this makes me feel incredibly bittersweet about not being able to read Japanese and live in their world. I’d love to know how close to the line of viability they stray, and whether or not young people are still considering a career in the industry.
Just this month, Bunkitsu, a mammoth new bookstore has opened with over 30,000 titles and a so-crazy-it-might-work business model: visitors have to pay a ¥1500 cover charge.
I’ve wistfully said similar things about their retail landscape in other posts, and how you’re sure to find supplies for (insert odd past time) somewhere. But while you can shop, learn, and find community online from anywhere in the world, it’s different when physical spaces are reserved for this exploration and sharing.
That’s why places like Tsutaya at Daikanyama T-Site (see last post) are so special; they’re like magazines you can walk around in. Feeling out of touch with culture? A quick trip immerses you in what Thom Yorke is up to (writing the score for a remake of Suspira, btw here’s the LP cover and a t-shirt and the movie poster and one of the costumes from the production… wanna hear it on this new pair of headphones?); what the new Pixel 3 feels like to hold; what drinks Starbucks is peddling for Christmas this year; which classic albums are 50 years old today; and a ton of other media about whatever you care about. Yeah it’s all driven by consumerism, but let me have it.
I have no doubt that we will collectively realize what we’ve lost if/when physical retail collapses, and attempt to restore it. Possibly through VR or mixed reality. Some form of socially curating, presenting, and trading is crucial to the creative process, and I think it has to have a tactility and presence to work. Or maybe I’m just old now.
I packed light with just an iPhone XS Max and the Panasonic LX10 I bought earlier in the year, and decided to try something new: processing every color photo with the same filter/film simulation in VSCO. It’s the KA1, aka their recreation of Kodak Ektachrome E100G. Because their Film X filters allow you to adjust “character” and warmth along a spectrum, you can actually make any single film sim work on a variety of photos; contrasty and warm in some, faded and cool in others. The goal was to set a consistent look across the two cameras and one moment in time. I’ll probably look back on these in the future and want to edit them all over again, but this is good for now.
There’s this spot in Akihabara Park beside the designated smoking area, across from Yodobashi Camera’s rear exit, where I’ve taken the same photo twice; on the second occasion purely because it was a beautiful evening and I suddenly remembered taking the first photo and wanted to replicate it from memory without referring to my Flickr account. They turned out pretty close.
The other day while playing the game Akiba’s Trip on my PS Vita, I decided to visit the same spot to try and take it again with the in-game camera feature (the title is quite an accurate recreation of the gaming/anime/gadget town); again trying to find the same spot from memory.
The level of detail is surprising, and this is just for one building out of many. I even got the same corner of the little rain shelter peeking in from the left. Makes me feel like I should visit again sometime soon.
I loved playing videogames as a kid, but I can’t say that I ever spent any time sketching out ideas for my own games like my brother and his friends did. (My doodles usually involved cute animals or spelling out my crush’s name in bubble…
The core concept is every kid’s dream: designing their own games for friends to play through, or just for the heck of it. But without some serious inspiration, what you can do in a short platformer level is very limited. I remember a D&D game maker tool for PCs in the 90s; that was infinitely better because you could create a STORY, and set up narrative funnels for your players. 20 years later, our idea of imaginative play can’t be restricted to letting kids carve out crude worlds in 3D chunks and 2D lines.
I’ve had the luxury of some console gaming time these past few months, and managed to complete Metal Gear Rising, BioShock Infinite, and the rebooted Tomb Raider, while making progress in Devil May Cry, Luigi’s Mansion 2: Dark Moon, and Super Mario 3D Land.
The observation here is that in my advanced age, the definition of fun has changed. I used to be excited for sandbox experiences, building/business simulations, and multiplayer combat. I think if Minecraft and LittleBigPlanet existed when I was younger, I’d totally see the point of building a giant robot’s head in a mountainside. Now, the thought of spending hours on that kind of play instead of catching up on reading or working on other projects is out of the question.
Open-world games are in a precarious position. Five years ago, I could spend hours collecting Crackdown’s Agility Orbs. I’d mess about in Assassin’s Creed and forget the main quest entirely, writing my own inner narrative about Altair being a medieval pickpocketing Batman. When life next comes collecting, these games will be the first to go.
So when the nights are short, what games make the cut? The aforementioned games on Xbox360 (Metal Gear Rising, BioShock Infinite, Tomb Raider, Devil May Cry) are marked by strong, cinematic narratives, or at least entertaining ones in the case of MGR and DMC. The remaining Nintendo 3DS titles succeed on pure mechanics, where joy is extracted purely from the timing of button presses, helped by exuberant character animations and inventive set pieces.
Luigi’s Mansion 2 might be one of the most charming games I’ve ever seen, and like most portable titles, it satisfies in a different way than a blockbuster console title. Each level is polished and detailed to the point that it vibrates. From one minute to the next, you’re constantly having your assumptions challenged by experimental level designs, new enemies, and ingenious puzzles. There’s a simple set-up about why the ghosts are loose, but the game’s real Story is located in the way that these parts interoperate, and in how the characters react, much like how design was famously said by Steve Jobs to be the craft of how things work, not how they look.
Stories are perhaps the best reason to engage with any entertainment medium; often they function perfectly being the only reason, but videogames call for a balance between play and involvement to be fully realized.
Take BioShock Infinite, one of the year’s most highly rated games, if not the highest. To experience a playthrough is to see an ambitious, first-person SF story with many smart things to say about games, politics, gender, religion, and whatever else people want to see in it. As a game, mechanically, it’s mediocre for a lack of innovation. Fights play out in the usual fashion, with a few superficial gimmicks. When the supporting character, Elizabeth, throws you a health pack mid-firefight with a press of your "X" button, it’s an Auto Heal/Use Potion action in disguise. Much like how artists can throw new textures atop a game engine to create an expansion pack, BioShock’s gameplay designers have reskinned a generic FPS using emotion and worldcraft.
Finding the combat somewhat boring, I started to cynically see places where narrative paint was employed to make the shooting gallery journey seem shinier than it was. It’s sad that a week after finishing the game, I mostly remembered its central conceit and frankly awesome ending sequence. This doesn’t happen in Luigi’s Mansion 2, because the gameplay itself is what you think about when not playing.
Why is BioShock Infinite so overloaded on the story side of things, constantly trying to shove more story in your face with voice recordings, environmental artwork, snatches of conversation, meaning-laden anachronistic pop song covers, in-game exposition cutscenes, etc., but so underdeveloped as an action game? I’m pretty sure the experience of watching someone play the game is >90% as satisfying as playing it yourself. It doesn’t have to be your hands on the wheel. I’ve played games where after a momentous moment unfolded on screen, I was left acutely aware of a lingering sensation under my thumb where things had been set in motion. The button press echoed through flesh and time. Triumph seemed to reside directly in my actions. Because of how little I cared for and enjoyed the gameplay, BioShock felt like pressing Play on a rented movie.
Tomb Raider is more successful in several of these places. While well-written, the story isn’t mind-blowing in the way BioShock’s is, but it has its own surprises and is superbly paced: you always feel like the game’s climax is drawing near, and then the story horizon stretches out in front of you again like a challenge, taunt, and gift all at once. Traversing the world, hunting with a bow & arrow, scouting for hidden objects… did I just get tricked into playing an open-world game I said I didn’t have time for? As a combination of story and fun, and critically, by allowing enough freedom for its player to feel a sense of grace and mastery of the world, it succeeds.
Although progression is linear, how you navigate Tomb Raider’s world feels under your control. Lara is continuously gaining new abilities that open up previously impassable areas. It’s the old Metroid design, and a sound one. You could argue that the superpower-granting Vigors in BioShock play a similar role, but they are few, and the fun is taken out of them by the ammo limits. Tomb Raider doesn’t charge you for the joy of shooting a rope arrow across a chasm and zipping down it. Incidentally, where the ropes go is largely predetermined, but because the player personally installs them, the feeling is completely different from BioShock’s steel skyline cables, which herd you heavy-handedly around the map like the rails they literally are. A minor difference, design-wise, but one with an outsized impact on the experience.