Squeak!

How to tell my cat from your cat, someone else's cat and those cats over there

Dorian, on pizza
"Pizza is a bread with food on top that we pick off."

Dorian, on sandwiches
"A sandwich is food between two slices of bread. You can eat one side and I can eat the other."

Dorian, on birds in gravy
"I like bird. Give me bird. Is that cream sauce? I'll just run off with this mushroom now."

Dorian, on definitely-not-cat-food popcorn
Seth: *hands me bowl of popcorn* "We may have miscreants."
Dorian: "HEY! Where's my popcorn? Is that popcorn? GIVE ME POPCORN."
Seth: "Here. You can have one."
Me: *amused resignation*
Dorian: "Nin-ja!"
Me: "Wait, that's MY popcorn! You ran off with my popcorn!"

Dorian, on meat curry
Me: "This curry is full of smelly spices cats won't like." *puffs*
Dorian: "This smells great. Is that lamb? I'll take this bite right here."

Me: O_o
Squeak!

Crafting and gathering in FFXIV—the closest thing to old-style MMOs

One of my favourite activities in MMOs is gathering and crafting. I suspect this is mostly because I am terrible at crafting in real life, and outside of my stabs at gardening, not really the gathering type either. Most MMOs offer crafting systems as an afterthought—since everyone offers at least something basic, they stop at the basics. Usually, the sum of crafting anything is click on a name in a list, press a button and the item is made. Older MMOs show that this was not always so and didn't have to be so. My favourite gathering and crafting system came from a now dead game called Vanguard. It gave you the option to gather items in the open world as a single player or with members of your party. More people cooperating usually led to better grades of materials (they weren't just one of each type!). When you got to a crafting hall in each city, you had the choice of using your mats to make personal items like armour and weapons, or fulfil orders from the local faction. In the second option, the faction provided you with the materials. The crafting process was not the "factory line style" familiar to say, WoW. You had an array of skills that grew as you levelled. During crafting, a variety of random conditions would happen as you went through each stage. You had to figure out how you wanted to react based on the skills you had. Depending on which you used, the item you made could have different grades of quality, traits and styles. Apart from solo-crafting, there was apparently cooperative guild projects I never got to try out because I joined the game nearing the end of its life (around the mid-2000s). But these let you build ships and houses, with lots of people contributing. I spent hours of time in Vanguard just making or gathering stuff and loved it. For a very long time, no other MMO even came close to level of granularity or group cooperation. Enter Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn.

We began playing this during its beta test in 2013, and stuck around for the next 7 years. We haven't stopped. The first thing to know about FFXIV is that it is a very story-driven game. Everything has a quest to get you started, from how to use the market board (auction house) to dyeing your armour. All the zones and content are in fact locked behind how far you are into the Main Story Quest (MSQ), which ties together all the different mini-stories you encounter along the way. Again, everything has a story. There are individual storylines for every single adventuring, gathering and crafting class, which you encounter when you reach set levels and complete to gain new skills. The game has 3 gathering classes (called Disciples of the Land): Botanist, Miner and Fisher. There are 8 crafting classes (called Disciples of the Hand): Carpenter, Armourer, Blacksmith, Weaver, Leatherworker, Goldsmith, Alchemist and Culinarian. Considering that this game has now had 3 expansions, with the latest, Shadowbringers, that's a lot of stories. The game likes to return to NPCs you may have met once somewhere else and completely forgot about, to help you connect to the lore and the things you've accomplished. For example, a random pirate you may have done some brief quests for when you first started playing might suddenly matter again 7 years later when you help a faction develop trade routes in new lands. I love this sort of thing and genuinely liked a number of my class trainers and their stories. The Goldsmith story from level 1–50 is by far one of my favourites, as it involves a mammet (essentially a type of clockwork robot used to perform menial tasks) that the Goldsmith Guild keeps around because it is an old faithful. The mammet gives no fucks about anyone or anything around it and is not afraid to say so. I got really fond of that cranky old bastard, looking forward to what new, terrible thing he had to say about the world around him in his discordant voice. I mean, it was darn near close to calling us flesh bags. In comparison, the Culinarian quest between level 50–60 throws you into an Iron Chef-style battle. I laughed hard when we got to the obligatory food critic who swoons in a whole animated sequence over the sublime tastes he is presented with. Then I laughed again when my husband went through the same quest and I saw his reaction to the surreal spectacle.

The second important thing to know about FFXIV is that there are no restrictions on the number of classes you can have or how far you want to play them per character. In fact, back at release and for at least the next two expansions, the only way you could get some important cross-class skills and take certain classes was to first level other classes. So for adventuring classes (called Disciples of War or Disciples of Magic) and DoH, you actually needed to try other things until you got to the level you needed. One of the aspects that really bugged me about other MMOs is that usually you are restricted to just 1 to 3 crafting class, maybe 1 gathering class and only 1 adventuring class unless you make an alt. Being able to dabble in a lot of different things and seeing what stuck was a real game-changer for me. Because I love crafting, I wound up specialising in 5 of the 8 DoH and all 3 DoL, although I levelled all the 8 DoH classes to max cross-skills and for materia-melding (think WoW gem slot). They've streamlined skills a lot in the latest expansion, doing away with the cross-class skills and cross-classing in general to access other ones. This has definitely reduced barriers to entry for newer players. I think the overall result is that crafting is more fun to do. You're not worried about having to level up something you don't want to, you get all the useful skills that make crafting interesting and it feels less restrictive even if you have only 1 class.

As you might also have discerned from the above, every single class in FFXIV has a skill set and rotation to use in their various tasks, although specifically all the DoH share the same skills. For DoL, Botanist and Miner share the same skills but Fisher is a totally different kettle of, well, you know. (I intend to write about FFXIV's secret history as a fishing MMO in its own post later.) The major reason I have been crafting and gathering in this game for 7 years is precisely because it's fiddly and random. And it's not an assembly-line, one-button job! FFXIV takes some of the detail of Vanguard-style crafting and streamlines it for a modern audience. Just like Vanguard had stages of crafting, in FFXIV, each crafting session is determined by the Durability score of the item you're making, say a Durability of 50. You also have a Quality meter that starts at 1% and goes up to 100%, which determines the chance your final product is Normal Quality (NQ) or High Quality (HQ). In general, you want everything to be HQ, as it increases the stats on the piece of gear you're making or the buffs if its food or potions. Taking as an example my previously cited 50 Durability, your job is then to achieve 100% Quality (or as high as you can manage), while also moving the Progress of that session to 100% (i.e. you successfully make the item) without getting to 0/50 Durability (a critical fail). During crafting, random conditions might occur that affect how far you can move up Progress or Quality, or affect Durability. The skills you are given and how you wield them are your tools in determining the outcome.

For DoL, your skill sets are used to determine how high quality the materials you gather are. Again, like crafting, HQ is always better. The Quality meter during crafting is pre-filled based on the amount of HQ materials you used to make the item. This in turn determines how difficult a time you'll have getting a HQ final product. End-game items are not just harder to harvest and make as HQ. Frequently, the amount of Progress/Quality you can raise per move is also exponentially lower. I won't lie. Until Shadowbringers, when they increased the amount of quality you got upfront from using all HQ materials in a crafting session, end-game crafting used to be intensely masochistic. The most Quality you got pre-filled was around 17%. The skills you have usually have a percentile of how frequently they succeed in doing what you expect. For example, Hasty Touch is a skill that has a 60% chance of increasing quality by a set amount when executed. The conditions you encounter during a crafting session and whether or not your skills work as intended are dictated by RNG (random number generator—the computer rolls your dice for you). Just because something says it has a 60% chance of successfully going off doesn't mean in any shape or form it will go off. Your level and crafting statistics (yes, we have crafting-specific statistics just like adventuring classes) can help mitigate some of the damage. But as anyone who has ever failed Hasty Touch 7 times in a row will tell you, the RNG of FFXIV is the stuff that makes you question your sanity and your grasp of basic mathematics. This was immensely improved in Shadowbringers...somewhat. If you use all HQ mats, the starting Quality percentile can be as high as 40%, which makes crafting a much easier and shorter process. It's not brainless and RNG can still kick you in the balls, but it definitely feels more rewarding to put the effort in. End-game crafting and gathering isn't for everyone precisely because of how nitty it gets, but if you love this stuff, and I do, it's just nice to see the armour you make on yourself or your friends, or see the furniture you made in your house after grinding an Extreme-mode (that's highest difficulty) boss that took you 2 weeks to learn and get the key component (randomly) from. (Note: Since some of the rarest end-game materials come from equivalently end-game fights, many of the most dedicated crafters actively pursue at least some end-game content.)

So what can you craft in FFXIV? Armour, weapons, furniture (outdoor and indoor for your personal house), minions (pets), food and potions, and their component parts. If you are part of a Free Company (FFXIV's version of guilds), you can have an FC Workshop. Here, your whole FC can contribute to projects like crafting an exclusive skin for the outside of your FC house, 24-hour FC-wide buffs or airships and submersibles, which are used for Exploratory Missions. The first and last type of projects are the most labour-intensive. It frequently requires days or even weeks of gathering and crafting the requisite parts, so it encourages people to work together to make something cool. The Exploratory Missions send craft out by air or sea to "explore" unlockable zones and come back with loot. This can be rare materials to power further FC projects, as well as rare minions, music and even furniture. Crafted end-game gear in FFXIV is usually a good starting point to qualify for raids, if not the equivalent of some raid-level gear itself. Any crafting/gathering-related tools, armour and buff potions/foods are things you have to either craft yourself or get others to make for you. These items are all sellable, so it is also possible to buy things off the Market Board. If you're a high-end crafter and gatherer, this is a great way to make gil (the in-game currency).

Which is a good segue onto my next subject, the game's first crafting raid.

The Ishgardian Restoration

In most games, you save the world, and that's the end of it. Even in MMOs, which may have continuous expansions to bolster their content, it's a matter of going to some new continent somewhere, saving that, then moving on to the next one. You might help people along the way, but once you are done saving them, that's that. As I said earlier, FFXIV likes to re-insert the people and places you meet on your journey back into the plot, which to me is important. It's not like these NPCs you saved a few years ago stopped their lives right there. More importantly, many of the places you saved are war-torn regions with a lot of infrastructure in ruins. These NPCs still need homes and jobs. In fact, dealing with the humanitarian needs of refugees is a long-standing issue the main plot of the game likes to address. Take for example, Ishgard. The city of Ishgard was the main city for FFXIV:ARR's first expansion, Heavensward. This was a city run by a lying, corrupt church that was trapped in a centuries-old war with dragons. Its people were strictly defined by class and rank. Upward mobility was practically unheard of, and the poorest people were often desperately so. As you might expect, your job as hero was to end the war and expose their false gods. This broke down some of the city's classism, creating new opportunities for a more egalitarian society, and also meant more attention to serving the most needy. Thus, in 2019, the heroes that saved Eorzea several times over (namely, us players) were tasked with rebuilding Ishgard to create homes for its displaced citizenry.

The Ishgard Restoration project was added to the game's content as a means of engaging the crafters and gatherers of FFXIV in server-wide city building. Each server (a World in FFXIV parlance) was responsible for progressing its own rebuilding of Ishgard. Players contributed to the rebuilding by crafting Ishgard Restoration-specific items or gathering its materials in a special open sand-box zone just for gatherers called the Diadem. Since this was designed partly to help players level DoH and DoL, anyone could take part from the lowest levels to max. Contributions were titrated to different tiers of player levels, so low-level players could hand in something relatively easy for them to gather/make and max level players got rather more difficult tasks.

A brief note from Expert-crafting hell
Hardcore end-game gatherers and crafters could enter a server-specific Ranking season held in 3 of the 4 Ishgardian Restoration phases released, i.e. a leaderboard battle for each DoH and DoL class. Players were "scored" based on the amount and quality of max-level items they contributed to the Restoration in a specific DoH/DoL class over each 9-day Ranking season. Items that gave the biggest scores per turn-in were called Expert-crafted items. Previously, I talked about how end-game crafting in FFXIV has always been to me somewhat on the same difficulty as an end-game fight. Expert crafting is the special tier of hell created for people who spend most of their time in MMOs crafting. Just like in an end-game raid, your gear and crafting stats had to first meet a minimum threshold to even begin. This helped restrict competition to people who specialised as a specific DoH/DoL and was therefore geared just for that.

To submit an Expert-crafted item, it has to be of a minimum quality percentile, which is usually about 75% or so of the Quality bar. The RNG for Expert crafts is exceptionally brutal. Moving up Progress/Quality is nightmarishly hard. Unlike regular crafting, Expert-crafting introduces a bunch of new conditions specific to it, so figuring out how to deploy your skills on the fly and being deeply familiar with what each thing does is crucial.It takes hours of practice and wasted mats to learn what you're doing. Every crafting session was a complex puzzle that had no guarantee you'd succeed, but made you feel super competent if you did. NaturallyI loved every minute of it. (Full disclosure: I ranked in the top 100 of at least 3 DoH in all 3 seasons.)


There appears to be no set time limit on how long each server's rebuilding can take, although new phases of reconstruction are generally released once all servers have completed the previous phase. Each phase of the reconstruction in turn is broken down into stages. These are open call periods for materials (gathered and crafted) divided by Concerted Works—a kind of public quest in the Firmament (the instance where reconstruction happens). The Concerted Works last for around 15 minutes. Any player in the Firmament may join at will, solo or in a party, doing small tasks like breaking up rubble and carting it off. Once completed, the reconstruction moves onto its next stage. Each Concerted Works causes a new part of the housing district to be built up. Players can actually see the results of their labour take shape around them and that's a really cool thing. Balmung, my server, has consistently led the North American servers in finishing their construction first. We completed building the whole of the Ishgard Restoration project last week. I was there the night we did the last Concerted Works. People were genuinely hyped just running around seeing the NPCs move into the houses, parks, stores—even a public bath—that we built. They congratulated each other on a job well done and completed that took thousands of us. 

Because FFXIV is story-driven, the Firmament had its own set of stories highlighting the NPCs who toiled alongside you and live there. Each new reconstruction phase revealed a little bit more of the story through quests and interactions between NPCs in the open world. For me, it really made me care about the place I was building and I'm sure it did for others too, since after every Concerted Works ended, everyone immediately looked for specific NPCs they liked, yelling out coordinates for where they were and how to find them. It was just nice.

I contributed to all four phases of the Restoration on Balmung over the past year and I think my favourite part about this experiment was the sheer kindness of everyone involved. Throughout the frenetic crafting and endless gathering of materials, people put out PSAs reminding others to get up and walk around, drink water, rest and even take their meds. There were shouts of encouragement to everyone involved. Some gatherers gave away lower-level materials for free to crafters who needed them for levelling. Others gave away free copies of gifts they won in the Restoration lotteries. Taking part in a massive community-building project, whether you were participating individually or as a group, it always felt like you were included. 

Finally, as a kind of "thank you" to players for contributing to the Ishgardian Restoration, the last thing built in each area is a monument to the topmost contributing crafter of each server. This monument does not name the specific player, which I think was a smart move that reduced the chance of envy. But it does show a stone carving of their DoH class. If you're wondering, on Balmung this was a set of frying pans, so the top contributor was a Culinarian. I have a day job—I didn't stand a chance in hell at being a top achiever, but I 'm proud of that person, whoever they are. 

I really hope we get to rebuild more places in the future. There's plenty of potential locations in the game's lore, and I do think the process brings out the best in each server's community. It gives people a reason to talk to each other (even if that's only if they want to) and support each other. Given just how 2019 and the beginning of 2020 has been, we needed that. As someone who does love gathering and crafting in this game as well, it gave players like me a big piece of exclusive content for my non-combat classes. This was a change from just doing what I do to gear myself or friends up, or building things to showcase in our FC house. We were building something everyone could walk around in and enjoy. The game already has many options for every kind of adventurer, but this is the first time gatherers and crafters really had something raid-like only they could help with. I want to see where we go next.
Squeak!

The little apocalyptic tamagotchi game you never thought you needed

We're big fans of Nippon Ichi Software games in this house. So when word came in last year that NIS might be having funding trouble, followed by the delayed release of Labyrinth of Galleria (sequel to my favourite game of 2018), we immediately gave a hard stare at NIS's library of weird, inexplicable and often slightly macabre titles to see what we could do to support and pre-order. Among the strange little things to turn up was an announcement for an upcoming PS4 rogue-like called void tRrLM (); // Void Terrarium. In a post-apocalyptic world devastated by killer fungi, it is up to you, brave robot dog, to raise and preserve the life of the last known remaining human child. Your job is to build a terrarium (really a glass globe) in which to raise, feed and protect Toriko, your human tamagotchi, venturing into dungeons to bring back materials for furniture, toys, food and medication. 

From this premise, we knew: 1) it's a rogue-like, so therefore turn-based; 2) it has base-building; 3) and an adorable pet human! This was more than enough to have us carefully watching for pre-orders to become available. I say we, but to be honest, it was kind of a given that I'd be the one playing most of it. Actually, I played all of it, wrung out the normal ending and the secret ending, and platinumed it to bits. 

The delightful thing about Void Terrarium is that the simple premise is both exactly what it says it is and also a precursor for two different stories and endings that really made me think. You do in fact play a maintenance robot dog called Robot (Robbie for short), who comes across the comatose body of a human child in a junkyard infected with a killer fungi that up to that point was assumed to have destroyed the entire human race. With the assistance of factoryAI, a sentient manufacturing AI that was once responsible for making everything that allowed human life, you build a terrarium and nurse the child awake. (Is she all human though? I mean, she does have a mushroom sticking out of one eye and horns out of her head).

Her upkeep is the primary purpose of the game. To that end, you wander into dungeons to fight fellow rogue robots and zombie animals for the materials you need. There's a small tamagotchi window at the bottom of the screen when you're away from home base, which monitors Toriko's health, cleanliness, hunger and boredom. It's impossible for anyone old enough to remember the tamagotchi egg devices in their heyday to not see the nostalgia of this—I can only surmise that's the whole point. Finding clean food and enough resources to build is difficult, as you would expect from the devastated environment, but the entire design of the game was meant to be quite adorable.

Toriko never speaks, but she does react to the things Robbie does. When it brings her food she likes, such as cockroaches (it's post-apocalyptic!), she starts smiling. Bring her food she doesn't like, such as balls of nutritious moss, and she grimaces. Petting Robot soothes her, whereas the toys you build, such as an easel, show drawings of the most recent food you gave her when you return from the latest dungeon. Leaving her hungry or filthy as per the tamagotchi window while you dungeon for too long, or continuously feeding her contaminated food, causes her to fall ill. The variety of illnesses are cute! To be honest, they were cute enough I actually cycled through them just to see what they did. (Note: I wasn't just causing my tamagotchi to suffer! This is a prerequisite for platinum!) For example, the default illness that teaches you about this mechanic has her growing and coughing up feathers. factoryAI's diagnosis: She has the bird flu! Other illnesses turn her into a zombie, cause brittle bones and slowly melt her into a pile of goo.

The two robots who help raise her based on their best assessment of past human records don't always make the right conclusions from the available data, resulting in hilarious monologues by factoryAI about what it thought people were actually doing. Robbie, like Toriko, doesn't speak. The prevailing dialogue is factoryAI's responses to Robbie's unvoiced transmissions. factoryAI, by the start of the story, is reduced to no more than a monitor screen half-embedded in the ground from its previous eminent role in human civilisation, which is why it needs Robbie to find things on its behalf. It explains that humans escaped farther and farther underground to avoid the fungi-apocalypse. During their travels, they used factoryAI to make stuff they needed to live. Eventually, humans became greedy, demanding too much of factoryAI and annoyed it so much that it killed everyone. In repentance, factoryAI consigned itself to life in the scrap heap, thinking there was no one else left to serve. Tragic backstory of a murderous AI aside, you can't help but symphathise with Robbie and factoryAI's quest to keep the mushroomed young 'un alive. I mean, they're again really, really cute. Like the way a cat murders mice in the dark. You know they do it, but they're still cute.

From a one-run all-platinum perspective, Void Terrarium is a relatively small game. I played it on straight hardest setting out of the box and saw the two endings in what seems like under two weeks of playtime. The combat system is simple yet addictive. You find special attacks and passive traits from exploring dungeons, which you equip to your controller buttons. In the beginning, juggling the enemies, going home in time to feed Toriko and finding the right resources (especially clean food) is pretty hard. This is a short game but by no means a game you were meant to speed run. Often, your exploration is cut short simply because you don't have enough time to do all you want and make sure Toriko stays healthy. There are upgraded traits for Toriko and Robbie that help explorations later on, but the first few dungeons are about patience, perseverance and just returning several times until you get it right.  

The terrarium decoration mechanics are equally engaging. You find blueprints throughout dungeons to make increasingly complex furniture and toys. Every time you return to base, the items in your inventory apart from food are melted down into 4 types of resources, demarcated by colour. Each blueprint in turn requires a corresponding combination of resources in different colours to make. Large items, like a holographic moon, require you to go dungeon sperlunking until you get both a special material and enough resources to create it. I won't lie. This is literally decorating a terrarium, so if you're the type who spends hours in aquarium or mansion-decoration games, this is going to eat up a large part of your time. You might obsess over finding the matching gothic lolita bed to the creepy gothic lolita chair, only to discover the several hours of dungeoneering you'll need to get the requisite parts.

And yes, this is a rogue-like game. All your dungeon runs are one-pass only. If you die, you get spat out back to base and lose whatever you were carrying. Should you have a successful run, any items you picked up to help in combat, like very necessary bombs, weapons and shield modules, will be melted down for resources the second you return, so there's no reusing those either. Every time you walk into a dungeon you'll start at Level 1, albeit with the benefits of any traits/attacks you equipped beforehand.

Graphics-wise, the dungeons themselves are pretty but generic, with a handful of terrain skins and colour-swapped enemy models. Simplicity seems to be the mood across the board, since the music is similarly inoffensive but not outstanding, with the exception of the dreamy track at home base. Higher-level dungeons have a really hard oontz oontz track that I have trouble figuring out if I like or got sick of after the first 50 hours. If you start feeling like the place turned into a dance club, you're likely at the more challenging dungeons. In comparison, the terrarium decorations are quite lovely. Clearly, this is where most of the design chops went into, on the understanding this is the part players would dig in and try to swivel, rotate and personalise their glass goldfish bowl to perfection. [Ending spoilers follow.]

Ultimately, the real winning trait for me was the story. All the post-apocalyptic background is simply the beginning. Just when you start to care for the little mismatched family, options open to use Toriko as the base material for rebuilding all of humanity in the future. Your quandary then becomes, do you really want to sacrifice her to that fate for the greater good, or do you want to keep her alone in her terrarium for posterity? The endings themselves are remarkably open-ended for a seemingly static question. They're told in a series of text records from cloudAI (think Skynet), an AI tasked with rebuilding civilisation on the basic premise that all created things improve over subsequent iterations. Even human beings. One ending is an increasingly distressing series of messages about making the perfect human, with an "ending graphic" I actually wanted to decipher as the world aboveground recovering and repopulating on its own, making your underground human factory merely a cruel waste. The other ending instead has the same AI replaying the last desperate text entreaties of humanity. Several people crying for help as they're eaten from the inside by mushrooms, a parent's final wish begging for their daughter to be saved. The secret "good" ending, if you chose this, is to keep Toriko safe and not use her as a tank-mother. By doing so, you abandon humanity to its destruction (and perhaps the ending it deserved). Cynical, maybe. I thought it was the feminist option, personally. But if you had to watch Robbie the wonder dog beat factoryAI to death to bring Toriko to cloudAI in the first place, dragging her cryogenic coffin manually towards what looked less like salvation and more of a crematorium—if you had to do these things as the game forced you to, one painful step and hit at a time by pressing the X button—you might come to your own conclusions on the lesser evil. It was a touching and not entirely cathartic experience in the middle of a worldwide pandemic (Void Terrarium came out in June 2020). I wouldn't replay it unless they added more story myself, but I do highly recommend it to anyone who's curious. It's an emotionally rich, simple and mechanically engaging game. A plus version is being released for the PS5 and Switch in 2021, which comes with new hairstyles, clothing and illnesses for Toriko, and the new content will be available as a DLC on the PS4 version. 
Squeak!

Lamb and pomegranate stew

When Seth asked me what I wanted for my birthday this year, I asked for something I've wanted for several years now: an enameled dutch oven. The gold standard for an enameled dutch oven is of course Le Creuset—which produces sturdy heirloom pieces at unapologetically heirloom prices. It happened that Amazon Prime Day shook free a nice wide casserole pot, so a Le Creuset dutch oven is mine. (I wasn't exactly picky about whether we got a tall dutch oven or a lower one, just so long I could conceivably stick a whole bird in there and put the lid on.) 

I immediately went about thinking of things to make in this new cooking device and came across some Persian-inspired recipes recommended by the manufacturer, including a delightful lamb stew with dried apricots. Originally, I had planned to make the stew with candied apricots I made a few months ago. However, our CSA sent us a pomegranate that I thought would work just as well. A whole bunch of tweaks and adaptations later, I came up with a fragrant stew that had both a unique taste and neither of us could stop eating, so I believe this was a success. I more than likely will make this again since the morning after, our house still smelled so delightfully warm and comforting, it just was nice.

The original recipe uses both saffron and turmeric, which I think is overkill. Both have different flavour profiles, saffron being sweet and turmeric being astringent. If you're using it for colour, just one will do. I chose turmeric to balance out the flavours I put in and also counter the gaminess of lamb. Goat or beef could be good substitutes for the meat (with a preference for goat).


Lamb and pomegranate stew

2 lbs lamb meat (cubed)
2 tbsp flour
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp cumin
2 tsp honey
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper (ground)
1/2 to 1 cup apple juice or apple sauce
1 leek (sliced thin)
4 cloves garlic
Seeds from 1 pomegranate (reserve 1/2 cup for garnish)
1/2 cup parsley or spring onions (chopped fine)
1/2 cup walnuts (coarsely chopped and toasted)
hot boiled water

1. Add 1 tbsp of oil to your stew pot. Sauté the leek and garlic over medium heat. 
2. Toss lamb meat in flour. Add to pot and brown.
3. Add all the spices, lemon juice and honey. Coat the meat as best you can.
4. Pour in just enough hot water to cover the meat. Add apple juice.
5. Bring mixture to a boil then lower flame to simmer. Cover pot with lid and cook for 1.5 hours.
6. After 1.5 hours, check to see that meat is tender (it might still have a slight bite to it, which is fine). Add pomegranate seeds, reserving 1/2 cup for garnishing later. Simmer on low flame for additional 30 minutes.
7. Turn off heat. Garnish with parsley/spring onions, walnuts and pomegranate seeds. Serve hot.

A caveat on almonds and cooking substitutions

The original recipe called for adding slivered almonds at the end, which seems very Persian (and Ottoman). I like almonds as much as the next person, but almonds are a rather fraught topic where we live in California. I substituted with toasted walnuts in my recipe and try hard to substitute for almonds wherever I can. I need to state up front that all nut trees are water-intensive. But it's the sheer scale of growing almonds compared to other nuts that is problematic. California is the largest grower and exporter of almonds in the world. We are not talking about a slightly large percentile. California accounts for 80% of the world's almonds. Huge investor-driven orchards have sprung up in marginal lands that shouldn't rightly be farmed, taking advantage of a high-priced crop. In order to water these fields, underground water aquifers are being sucked dry by deeper wells faster than they can be recharged. California has an incredibly calcified water distribution rights system designed for its food basket region that isn't adapting fast enough to climate change pressures, including recent long droughts. What's lost are the things that cannot survive the threat of economies of scale, things like small, family-owned farms; greater crop diversity and bee-keeping. It requires armies of expensive honeybees each season to pollinate thousands of acres of American crops, including almonds. A diet of single-crop fields is actually harmful to bee nutrition, which compounded by the stresses of being moved cross-country with pollination seasons and the fact that bees have to be raised in industrial numbers, contributes to the massive honeybee (and native pollinator) die-offs to disease and mites we keep hearing about.

All these things taken together form the bones of a much larger human-made disaster. I'm not saying, by the way, we should all just give up almonds, anymore than giving up fish, beef or dairy will on its own save the planet. I think using less of the resources we take for granted a little more smartly will help though. From a practical "what's in your pantry right now" standpoint, most nuts are interchangeable texturally unless a specific flavour is needed. As a home cook, I actually find almond milk pretty underwhelming as an ingredient. The vaguely thick (slimy?) texture just doesn't cut it compared with dairy, and it doesn't lighten dark gravies as much as I would like. If you want to substitute dairy, I recommend soy milk. It comes in unsweetened form, which is what you would use in savoury dishes. On its own, unsweetened soy milk makes a great base for East Asian stews and hot pots. If you are allergic to soy, another decent substitute is rice milk. This one's a little thinner and less rich than soy milk, so keep that in mind when you're subbing. I haven't tried oat milk yet (though, really, oat milk?!), but I'm going to suspect it's closer to rice milk than not. Soy milk is a traditional food and rice milk could very well have been inspired by amazake, a sort of lightly porridgey, mildly fermented sake precursor. They're both lovely and worth appreciating on their own merits as drinks.

Update: It occurred to me that I might at least want to mention that soy and rice have environmental pitfalls of their own. Again, it's the scale of farming rather than the plants themselves that become problematic. Soy famously fixes nitrogen from the air into a form it can use in soil, but this is usually not enough for the plant alone. Farmers still have to add nitrogen fertilisers. Soybeans in the US are grown primarily as feed for livestock (domestically and exported abroad to feed e.g. Chinese pigs) and the US is the world's largest producer of soybeans by far. Industrial livestock production is its own black hole of resource-guzzling which I won't go into at length here. Rice's real issue is wet rice farming, which traditionally requires immense amounts of water and produces methane over time. Because it's a staple food for billions of people, way more important than almonds or soy would be, we're incentivised to grow as much of it as possible. None of these things are grown in a vacuum. Growers, governments and scientists aren't immune to the fact that maybe, hey, the way we're growing things now has too much harm involved. As someone who likes food, likes to talk about food and think up new ways to eat tasty food, thinking about my food's lifecycle enhances my appreciation of the input it takes. It's not about drastically changing a lifestyle by force. Pay a little more attention to where your food comes from, change what you can, don't buy food that's clearly banking too hard on its credentialed packaging—buy stuff as close to its original form as is reasonable. You're not going to bake all your own bread if your schedule is 9 to 5, don't hate yourself for it. We're balancing life, not fadding it.
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A totally unscientific, non-empirical quantification of our safety

Last week, I got a text from my mother telling me to stock up food and water before the election. It was not what I expected to be told a week before the US election. Actually, my first thought was, "What are they saying about us on the Murdoch-owned telly in Australia?" Australia took its lockdown seriously, after all. When I spoke to my family about two months ago, they described empty stores, strict restrictions to two members of the same family going out to shop within a specific distance from home and only one person allowed into the supermarket. That sort of thing would send Americans into conniptions if it happened here. Riots would actually happen if this managed to last longer than a few weeks.

Comparatively speaking, an election doesn't step on quite the same freedom buttons. You see, out here, people like the choice to get sick if they want to. It's the choice, not the logic, that counts.

It later came out that my mother got all this from a video sent to her by an aunt. My mother didn't send me the video because it was in Cantonese and I wouldn't understand it anyway. She got that somewhat correct. I would understand about a third to half of it at best, and would be frustrated my ear for the language is progressively getting worse because this sounds like an excellent social science-y case study. Also gave me more advice about filling our tub with water and any buckets we had because someone might try to spike the water supply. 

In strange parallel, I've spent the past couple of years watching several prongs of mainland China's propaganda machine as it tries ever more tone-deaf experiments in authoritarian dictatorship. There's the police state-ghetto they've built around the Uighurs (fascinating from a social science standpoint; genocidal from a human rights standpoint), the crackdown on Hong Kong (there is no sugar-coating this, it's a hostile takeover by an alien entity), the horrifying build-up of militarised islands in the South China Sea (based on an utterly preposterous "historical" claim that has no standing in reality) and perhaps the tentacle most relevant to the discourse at hand—the PRC's spin on COVID-19 being somehow a foreign invention and that the US is a failed state with a populace gone out of control.

Everyone I know has some opinion on the first part, but I take offence to the latter bit. The locals aren't out of control. Most of them are actually quite civilised. The odd sprinkling of libertarian armed militias are an unfortunate post-apocalyptic emanation of American culture. Also, the US is not in a post-apocalyptic state (again, opinions differ), the militiamen just take their role-playing very seriously. Now, the truly fascinating social science-y case studies are actually the people who show up at Trump's revival tent rallies. As someone who is fascinated by why people adhere to cults, the thrall and wonderment of participants follow a strangely familiar cadence. 

Which brings me to the cult of personality being built, reinforced, but not always successfully around President Xi Jinping. He has all the powers and mandate the Orange One wishes he had but doesn't have because it's a totally different political system and habitat. This ties into the propaganda machine I have curiously read about on and off. It is entirely plausible, given all the variables we've seen already in play, that the PRC's propaganda arm would try to insert itself into the US Presidential Election to sow doubt about the stability of the state. They're clearly not the only government trying to influence the conversation. A video in Cantonese warning viewers about potential rioting after the election reeks of mainland Chinese interests. I am old enough to remember when emigrating from HK before 1997 was a big deal. The PRC has not shied away from trying to co-opt the Chinese diaspora in its intrigue but I think here we are looking at a more parochial concern. In the past month, some of the brave young people who demonstrated in Hong Kong's streets have made the news as either emigrants dissenting abroad or having failed to escape HK before it's too late. Currently, China is engaged in tit-for-tat battles with at least the US, UK, Canada and Australia—all popular emigration destinations for HK denizens. 

It's one thing to convince a population in thrall—and the PRC has if nothing else done extremely well for itself to control the flow of information in and out, as well as reinforce absolute loyalty in its citizenry—but quite another to reach out to people who have the distance to grow a perspective. I'm sad, honestly, that my Chinese diaspora relatives are being caught up in these tentacles even if I'm not remotely surprised. I can't exactly talk a big game about Malaysia, as the control of information there shadows and aspires to what the PRC can achieve. I lived and grew up in that propaganda machine. Even a light touch from a big brother government is insidious as it makes you start conversations already suspicious the other side has an ulterior motive. The ulterior motive in this case is usually within, not without.

Short story: We're fine. The supermarket is full of goods and unhurried. People actually wear masks in SF and use hand sanitiser. I'm not rushing to sit down at a restaurant yet, but that's kind of happening. The news is the exploitation of gig delivery workers and their ridiculously rich overlords, as well as the casualties of our extremely saturated restaurant scene. 
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Only so much agreeing to disagree can happen

The last week before the 2020 US Election is a cloud of nervous energy. Every presidential election is important, but even in the some-evils-are-better-than-others race, the implications of a second Trump term are utterly terrifying. For me, the nervousness is both ways. I am watching the worries of my husband, someone who faithfully votes whenever that opportunity arises, and those of our American friends. I am watching their fear whether this election will result in an armed confrontation regardless of who wins, whether the laws will be subverted in the event the "wrong" side loses. Americans are a peculiarly armed people—saying this as someone who comes from a place where guns are not legally available to most civilians—but I don't think anyone feared that armed militiamen could threaten polling places until this year. 

There is the personal fear as well. What would a second Trump term mean for me as an immigrant? What would it mean when I apply to renew my permanent residency? It should be a straightforward administrative issue. I pay local taxes, I've never sought any government aid and I have health insurance, that is, I'm not mooching off the government. The thing that would most likely be an issue is if the current administration's hollowing out of USCIS delays my application or a needed correction fails to reach me because there is a lack of staffing. I have long braced myself for both that second term and this possibility, but it's still not something I can take lightly.

For most of my adult life, I have carried a certain amount of guilt over my own responsibility as a Malaysian citizen. I have never voted, never registered to vote. I left the country right before I was of legal age. I could have registered as a voter during one of my brief forays back, but I would still not have been able to vote from overseas. Malaysia did not allow citizens abroad who were not away for a military posting or government-sponsored education from voting via post until 2018. Registration as a new voter from abroad was also opened during this time. Unfortunately, a Malaysian citizen has to have spent at least 30 days staying in Malaysia (though this doesn't have to be consecutive) in the five years before a general election to register as an eligible voter. By the time this came up, I had been abroad for far too long.

The longer you are away from the country, the less of a citizen you become. When I was growing up, Malaysia underscored the privilege of being its citizen. Though not generally said aloud, emigrants are ultimately ungrateful to the country that raised them. So the policy of the state has been one of disenfranchisement of its citizens abroad, with a weird tang of the big brother-style governance we left behind. I was horrified when I found out not registering that you are living abroad at your host country's Malaysian consulate was grounds to revoke your citizenship. It's not odd for a country to ask its travelling citizens to inform their local consulate you are there in case anything happens. These are usually voluntary requests, an emergency measure in case of disaster. It is odd for a country to disenfranchise you on the grounds of not telling them you're elsewhere. My guilt comes from being told repeatedly if you don't vote you have no right to complain. The variation on the theme: If you no longer live here, you have even less reason to complain.

Even if I could vote, I would have no one to vote for. Would I vote for the coalition of race-based politics whose non-Malay members must pretend to look away when someone gets strident about Malay rights? They did rule my country for half a century, they always won we thought—two years of opposition rule notwithstanding, like filler episodes in an overwrought series of events. Would I vote for the coalition with the Islamic party that wants to bring in medieval punishment with its Syariah, tied to the ostensibly multi-racial party run by an opportunistic Salafist? I mean, both coalitions would support the same kind of laws that put dissenters in jail, if not for racial crimes then religious ones. In my country, often those two things are the same.

Here, you have the Tea Party and hardline conservative-aligned Republican Party. Libertarians and Bible thumpers are not great choices for leaders. I understand that. I knew what it's like before people here understood it was becoming the mainstream around them. But the USA is also still a vastly larger country than my own, with vastly more migrants and wider perspectives than might be allowed in my own. Even for someone who has spent most of their life travelling, it took my breath away to look down at a cross-country US flight map and realise just how big this place is. So maybe, in spite of the media silos, those vastly wider set of perspectives could still matter. 

Today, Malaysia's 95-year-old, longest-serving, twice-elected ex-Prime Minister said that Islam believes in an eye for an eye and it is only the vast patience of Muslims that prevents them from murdering more random French people. I believe it is only the vast patience of most Malaysians that keeps these voices in power. I cannot be one of those voices that vote. But I can be one of those voices that disagree. If you have the power to do both, you should.
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A strange and dark time (announcing the publication of Finches)

Today I saw a painting of a derelict house against a setting sun. The whole thing was oranges and reds, framed by trees in full autumn plumage. Except this wasn't a painting. It was the charred frame of a burnt house, surrounded by burning trees shaking in the wind. The sun was shimmering in the background because it was veiled in smoke. All of this was a moment in someone else's nightmare, in the desert of southern California. If I didn't live in this state and saw our own sky over San Francisco turn red—beautiful, translucent red—I would perhaps be more driven to wonder over how any of this news made sense. How does a desert city burn from a forest fire? But the photos show Joshua Trees with strands of embers weaving around them, like if you took a photo of people dancing in fluorescent jewelry after dark.

The rather more familiar northern forest fires hem us in with its own smoke. Between heatwaves, an assortment of sinus pains and full workdays, it's hard not to stay tired. It's been a thoroughly tiring year. I'm still immensely grateful to be where I am. I can't underscore that enough. I'm grateful I live here and I wake up every day amazed that I am married to this amazing person who is perfectly fine with me whittling away at strange little video games, reading dangerous books and ensuring our cat is sufficiently kissed on the head. (As we know, cats that are insufficiently kissed on the head become feral.) But for all that my life is good, I don't, as a rule, expect good news. Have you seen this year? I'm already existentially terrified I could be torn away from my dear husband and cat over some missed comma of government bureaucracy. I prepared myself long ago that the current state of things will just be another post-election of the same.

Yet, here we are. Finches, the novella I've been trying to get out there for the past decade, is getting published in October 2021 by Vernacular Books. I'm currently in edits for the manuscript, which I hope to get out in the next month. To me, Finches is primarily built on betrayal. What does it mean to not live what you preach? What does it mean when your faith tells you a class of people should be beneath you, but in reality these untouchables are the most genuine representations of god's grace that you know? How do you parse all that when these people are your spouses and parents and siblings? It's a horror story—because I may not know how to write anything else—but I think horror is primarily a representation of our horror at what the world has become. In that sense, the world inside Finches is the place I grew up in, my acknowledgement that this awful, chauvinistic capture-in-time is true to its nature and how very much I wished it wasn't so. The nihilist in me knows nothing will change and I want to prove myself wrong. So as the parent of this maybe slightly dangerous book, I put it out there and hope someone listens.
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Wins and cherries

Fixed Seth's desktop. Turned out it wasn't the thermal paste, his Corsair water cooler wasn't working and probably hadn't been working right for some time. What probably happened was that enough water had evaporated out of the tubes so it wasn't pumping correctly anymore. Pre-pandemic times, this would usually mean that we would look up benchmarks online, walk to Best Buy, get the relevant product and come home to put it in over the course of the same evening. For absolutely logical reasons, Best Buy prefers curbside pick-up at this time. But that also meant we had to get what we could get the next day. I would much rather have switched to a high-end radiator-type heatsink—it's just one forged part and no liquids to worry about, plus newer models seemed to have comparatively good performance—but the only models available the next day were both "gaming performance" water coolers. One was another high-end Corsair and the other was a much more reasonably priced Thermaltake whose secondary selling point was that it was clearly a mini disco. Seth chose the Thermaltake, so as his dutiful wife, I looked up reviews. Performance on it seemed good, but the assembly looked finnicky about clamping the copper plate bit onto the CPU. A blow-by-blow assembly review I read also talked about the cables supplied for all its tendrils being unusually long.

Upon collecting the cooler the next day, both of these points turned out to be true. There wasn't a manual as such in the box, just a large folded sheet of instructions. Even though the instructions were heavily illustrated, it sure seemed like a lot of stuff was lost in translation. For one, the diagrams showed that the round copper plate bit would clamp onto this metal ring you would screw into place, but the actual thing didn't have any grooves that would logically lock the two parts in place. I finally gave up trying to put this part together first and instead concentrated on mounting the radiator and fan to the case. In comparison to the five-year-old Corsair unit, the Thermaltake one felt more cheaply made. Like, the Corsair feels solid when you handle it, more metal. The Thermaltake unit felt lighter. On the Corsair, the tubes also seemed to be doubly insulated, with a stiffer outer covering like you would find on a more expensive garden hose. (It has to be assumed that water in any closed loop water cooler will evaporate over time, regardless of how expensive the system is. The idea is that by the time you need to change the cooler, you would need to change your entire system as well.) The Thermaltake's tubes felt like thick-ish, soft rubber. They also weren't kidding about the extra long cables. I swear every cable was supplied 3 ft. long, even for pieces you would stick directly onto the motherboard next to the CPU. I wound up having to reuse all the cable ties to keep the cables folded so they wouldn't rest on Seth's barely three-months-old graphics card or anything that could stay hot. Note: The bit that goes over the CPU does fit once you hold it down and screw it in, but rather than try to attach the metal ring and plastic aid before you assemble the radiator, it's easier to install the radiator first as I did, then try to align everything on the CPU.

And yes, the cooler does also double up as a mini-disco. You can set the colours, speed of colour-changing and "pattern" with a controller inside the case (try as I might, I couldn't see how we'd snake this outside). It is very bling. When I asked Seth what settings he wanted, he replied, "Off". Looks like we're not going to signal at UFOs in the middle of night with the colours of the rainbow.

Given that both of us have exactly the same setup for our desktops, we also figured we might have to change out my cooler sooner or later. If that happens, I'm most likely getting the nice Noctua radial heatsink I originally wanted to get for him. I admit I'm already getting a bit of numbers envy after seeing the kind of temperatures he's pulling. His CPU is staying at 29C on idle and handily staying there even under stress. My desktop is still doing fine, but I also admit I don't play anything more strenuous than a 24-man raid on FFXIV. My graphics card fried when the Stormblood xpac came out four years ago, but only because launch weekend was in the middle of a summer heat wave. Generally, I've tried to lay off on the hotter days since then. With the next patch due in August, I am a little worried about the timing of the next Nier raid, since I'll be running that in excess with all the particle FX. But I probably should be worrying more about what new bullet hell Yoko Taro has invented for us.

On the way back from Best Buy, we passed by a supermarket that still had cherries, so I finally got 4.5 lbs. cherries this season. I'm trying not to eat them all because the supermarket also had my favourite brand of maple yoghurt. The emphasis here is on "try".

Unfortunately, not a few days later, our sink started dripping. I figured this was just a matter of changing some permutation of washer. (It turns out our faucet used a cartridge system, which I haven't seen before, but the Internet showed me how to take it out.) More difficult was figuring out the make and model of our faucet. I couldn't find a model number anywhere and both Seth and I independently came to the conclusion the worn branding on the side was written in cuneiform. Seth finally made out P-E-E-R-L-E, which was a hell of a lot better than my P-F-F-R-L-E for search words. Google suggested it might be "Peerless", and when I went to check the faucet again, I realised a glyph I thought meant "water" were really two heavily stylised, skinny Ss. Now, the faucet we have probably has been there for a couple of decades, so I wasn't surprised the manufacturer's website didn't have it anymore. I wound up picking the model that best resembled ours and comparing the cartridge in its model to the one we had so I could order a replacement. I also promised the spouse I would call a plumber if this failed. (It seems odd to me to call a plumber to change a washer.) Today I changed out the cartridge and it seemed to work just fine. This is great, since we now also have an extra in case the other faucet fails.

Having two repair things work in close order makes me a little more motivated to get back to that PS3. In spite of this going to make it harder to test for failures, I want to try removing the second GPU capacitor and replace that with tantalums too, to see if this somehow solves the RLOD. There's apparently a way to remove the plastic cap on the retail capacitor and try to piggyback the tantalums alongside, but I've not figured out how to do that yet. The original capacitors are already kind of finnicky to remove. If next week's work doesn't wreck me, this should be my next experiment.
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Persona 2: Innocent Sin - They really don't make games like these anymore

About 20 years ago, I impressed a boy online by saying I had also played this weird Japanese RPG called Persona 2: Eternal Punishment. We had both been blown away by how different it was from the fantasy RPGs we'd seen up to that point, how strange the art style was and what a surreal horror story it came out to be. At the end, we bonded over both losing steam at the final dungeon—"the yellow UFO dungeon"—and never finishing it. 

At the time, Persona hadn't yet become the phenomenon it is today and certainly not outside of Japan. Eternal Punishment was in fact the first Shin Megami Tensei game I'd ever even met. And if you were coming from other JRPG franchises, like Final Fantasy, this was a diametric opposite in tone. Instead of majestic Guardian Forces, you summoned grisly, sometimes horrifying demons and deities (personae) from several global pantheons to fight on your behalf. The plot was dark and moody, centred around a magical serial killer that people summoned by calling their own cellphone number and giving him the name of the person they wanted dead. Rather than lanky J-rocker types with $400 haircuts, your party members were these slender, fey creatures with angular faces and slanted eyes like cats. It was blasphemous and perhaps a little anarchic, and compared with the usual Chosen One Saves the World, really more my style.

Shin Megami Tensei—whom I've heard abbreviated as MegaTen or SMT—is a long-running series of RPGs developed by Atlus which all dwell on summoning aspects of the human subconscious manifested as demons and deities. Set in a variety of modern or post-apocalyptic settings, the stories ranged from fairly basic—just get me in the dungeon I need to grind for the next 250 hours—to rather more dramatic affairs. Usually, you kind of saved the world from itself, and SMT isn't shy about pointing out how much we are our own worst enemies. Sometimes, you killed Satan and led the demonic hordes of hell personally to Heaven's doorstep. The Persona spin-off series typically focuses on telling individual character stories within an overarching plot. Being one of the last stalwarts of the turn-based RPG, any Persona game is also eagerly anticipated in our household, except for those aberrant dancing games Sega (the current owner of Atlus) makes with Persona characters. (Surely all those monies earned from selling hundreds of costume packs can fund another mainline SMT dungeon crawler by now?)

Persona 2 is an oddity among the Personas in that it's the only one to date that is part of a duology. To make things even stranger, Eternal Punishment is the second part of the duology and was the only part available in English for twelve years after its release, until Persona 2: Innocent Sin was remastered for the PSP in 2011. Being late in general, I only completed playing Innocent Sin two days ago, thereby taking two decades to figuring out some of the more confusing references in Eternal Punishment like, what do these games' names even mean? (They turned out to be very, very relevant.)

It helped some that at the same time I was playing Innocent Sin, we were tag-teaming Persona 5 Royal. (We thought we would casually replay a new version of Persona 5 with some added flourishes. Instead, we dumped over 250 hours into it.) This gave me a good perspective on how much the series has changed over time and how much it hasn't. 

The first three Persona games all occur in the same universe, while the worlds of Persona 3, 4 and 5 appear to be separate, even if vague callbacks are made here and there. The teenage characters from the first game return as adults in Persona 2 as NPCs and playable characters. They are active participants in the plot and you interact with them throughout the game. I'm saying this now because that made the callbacks in Persona 5 to the earlier games (and particularly Persona 2) somewhat more wistful. It'd be great if Atlus returned to some form of world continuity, but I'm not really holding my breath.

That said, one of the unchanging aspects of Persona is that the games have stayed grindy albeit in different ways. Eternal Punishment, after all, was the game that taught me raising your characters ten levels per dungeon ensured the mobs in the next dungeon would be tender and the boss a pushover. In older age, I've had to revise that to five level gains per dungeon with Hard mode right out of the box. Your mobs will still be fairly pliant, and the boss tedious from all that HP but not punishing. Comparatively speaking, the PSP remaster for Innocent Sin clearly had some re-balancing done with the numbers. I didn't actually need to grind past the first two dungeons, and that's plain weird. Every single dungeon, and there are a ridiculous number of them, is obnoxiously huge. If you're the type of person who likes filling in the whole map, you'll have no trouble being ten levels over without even needing to walk in circles. I beat the final boss at level 74 with full legendary weapons using a hodge podge of not-so-ultimate summons. The newer games definitely have shorter and more balanced dungeons. They're grindy too, but usually you're at the end just when you're about to lose your mind. In Innocent Sin, I got to what I thought was the second last dungeon and found out I really had five more dungeons plus the final one for the end boss. I then spent every one of the last six dungeons and two optional ones turning to my spouse in a sleep-deprived haze asking, "When is it going to stop?"

Fight mechanics in Persona 2 will still be the pinnacle of the whole series. From Persona 3 and up, the games used a more conventional turn-based system, but back in Persona 2, you could control the turn order as it happened, switching out actions to match things on the fly. Say you set up 3 characters to do a collaborative attack, but during the first turn, one of the enemies downed a character you set with an instant kill. Before those 3 collaborating characters would move, you could bring up the turn of 1 of the remaining 2 characters (your party always has the same 5 characters and all of them would fight—there are no reserves) to revive the downed character, and in that way save your collaborative attack. In fact, Persona 2 depended on these sort of collaborative attacks, called Fusion Spells. Fusion Spells are triggered by chaining spells in a particular order. For example, Agi > Aqua > Magna chains into Hydro Boost, a medium water-based attack on a single target. Before you could use a Fusion Spell, you had to unlock it, and discovering what spells to combine in the proper order was virtually its own mini-game. This is the whole reason why Persona 2 allowed you to titrate turn order so finely. In any situation, the more Fusion Spells you pulled off, the more likely your persona would grow in strength, mutate into other persona or learn unexpected new skills—and the faster everything would die. You want things to die fast, because if you thought SP management in the later games was torture, Persona 2 will just seem masochistic. The only upside is that you recover SP while you walk around in dungeons upfront and levelling instantly fills up your HP/SP gauge—no namby pamby S-links to raise here.

The Contact system for persona you met on the field was way more complex. Unlike later games, you summoned persona in the Velvet Room by trading in specific numbers of Tarot cards from each arcana. So apart from talking to persona to get items or money, which remains to this day, you also had to talk to persona to get cards corresponding to their arcana. Each persona had a combination of three possible personality types and each of your characters had four approaches to communication. Characters could also work together as a group to communicate. Depending on your approach, who you chose to speak and the persona's personality, they could react with Anger, Interest, Happiness or Fright. Triggering three reactions of the same mood would conclude that conversation. Depending on which reactions you triggered, you could form pacts with that persona (giving you the option of asking for items, money and information), start a fight or trigger status effects. 

On top of that, there were these little bonuses you would get for having persona from the same pantheon together in the same fight. If you had Odin on your team meeting Fenrir on the field, for example, Odin would lament about Fenrir breaking free of his chains and Fenrir would retort that he hates Odin for locking him up. While these little conversations were rare, if you like mythology, it was great motivation to learn each persona's back story. Personae from the same pantheon could also cast extra powerful, exclusive Fusion Spells together, such as Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma or Genbu, Suzaku, Byakko and Seiryuu. These are not things that made it into the later games, and I highly doubt we'll ever see them again, but imagine the depth they could add!

It was ridiculously charming to look up from the Vita and see the same attacks you could make in 1999 show up in Persona 5 in 2020. SMT uses a largely unchanging spell list across all its games sort of the way Final Fantasy does. Kali in Persona 2 still casts Deathbound (a high damage physical attack to multiple targets) the same Deathbound she does in Persona 5, and your Agi/Agilao/Agidyne progression still looks the same regardless of when your game was made. Battle-related but not quite is that Persona 5 also features remixes of the pharmacy (i.e. the potion shop) theme song that appeared in Persona 1 and 2. You can hear it if you visit the 777 convenience store or Big Bang Burger in-game. It was surreal enough that when Seth walked into 777, he made me go to the Satomi Tadashi store (its Persona 2 equivalent) specifically so we could compare the tracks. 

Another theme that has remained largely unchanged? The Velvet Room theme. Now, they used the modern track for the Innocent Sin PSP remaster, but you can hear what it sounded like in 1999 if you play the original PSOne version of Eternal Punishment. The difference is visceral regardless of which version you hear for one specific reason. Back in Persona 2, the Velvet Room setup had more people than just Igor and a perky female assistant. Oh, no, the Velvet Room actually comprised four people: Igor, the Demon Painter, Nameless and Belladona. Nameless is the Velvet Room's blind pianist and Belladona is the singer—yes, that harmonic wail that sends chills down your back every time you step in once had a body attached to it. The beautiful piano track that backs her singing also feels more real when you watch Nameless actually play it in front of you. Your whole party would go into the Velvet Room with you, not just your silent protagonist as with Persona 3 onwards, giving you perspectives on what they see. If you're wondering, Yousuke in Persona 5 is a reference to the Demon Painter, who paints copies of Tarot cards you need on demand. The Demon Painter doesn't grow daikon radish shoots to supplement his meagre diet, but was instead a master painter in the real world who abandoned life to paint the human subconscious.

The thing that makes Persona 2: Innocent Sin and by extension Eternal Punishment the best games in the whole series for me though is undeniably the plot. They really don't write plots like these anymore. Some of that is changing trends, I'll give them that, and some of it is clearly creating tighter, more focused stories. Yet nothing in the modern Personas holds a candle to just how weird Persona 2 is. 

Innocent Sin, in a nutshell, is about five childhood friends who drift apart after four of them believed they murdered the fifth, finding each other again and reconciling the various aspects of their psyche, whether these are parts they like or not. The latter trait is another hallmark of each Persona game from past to present—the human subconscious goes awry when people refuse to acknowledge they simultaneously have the capacity to make horrible mistakes as well as do great good. The journey each character takes to reach their full potential is what drives the story. There's Tatsuya, your "silent protagonist" who would rather keep quiet than be forced to make a decision he'll regret; Michel, the fat kid-turned-visual kei rocker who while superficially narcissistic, might actually be the genuinely good character in the party and definitely the one who takes responsibility for mistakes first; Lisa, the rebellious, fully Caucasian child of an American couple who fell in love with Japan so hard they became naturalised citizens (still no mean feat in 2020)—unlike her parents, she's spent her whole life being picked on for being Japanese but "not right" and living with the assumptions people have about things foreigners should know; Jun, the effeminate boy from a home so broken he makes up his own family out of rumours and curls up in a ball on the floor at the mere notion of his real parents; and Maya, the unbelievably optimistic mother hen type who seems like the most easily likeable but least interesting character in the game until you realise why she's the main character in Eternal Punishment.

In Persona 2, people discover that rumours can really come true if enough people believe it is true. Specifically in Innocent Sin, a character called the Joker would grant your innermost wishes if you summoned him by played the Persona game. Trusting the general public to make responsible wishes and not constantly raise the stakes is quickly shown to be a wash. Conspiracy theories about Hitler finding the Spear of Longinus and faking his suicide become real, living celebrities who disappeared from public life are rumoured to have died and turn into restless spirits. Eventually, fake Mayan prophecies about humans being the bio-engineered children of aliens come true, people are hanging out in the public park waiting for extraterrestrials to hasten their evolution into higher beings and the Nazis are raining WWII plane mechs from the sky. Yes, it's all very mad, but it also captures a moment in time where even if none of these things happened, the basic kernel of why people would think that way was widespread. That year was 1999, not unintentionally the year when Persona 2 was set.

This is one of the aspects of Persona 2 that gains the most context if you were alive in the years running up to the third millennium. We can laugh at the doomsday/motivational cults in the game, but these sorts of cults really existed in the run-up to the year 2000. Only four years before Innocent Sin came out, the Aum Shinrikyo caused the Tokyo subway sarin attack that killed thirteen people and injured upwards of 1,000. By the same token, optimism was high that humanity would achieve all manner of goals by 2000, from world peace to sexual equality. Imagine what happened when your New Year resolution failed on a year everyone else was calling momentous and assuredly life-changing. As humanity's collective fear of the future reached a superstitious fervour, the charlatans and New Age gurus circled around them like vultures in Innocent Sin, but these guys weren't pulled out of thin air. For some of us, the world really ended, even if it wasn't in an explosion caused by the alignment of the stars.

Persona 2: Innocent Sin, really, works because it literally and figuratively answers, "What happens if we get left behind?"

Spoiler note: Persona 5 Royal references the same question, in the ultimate callback to Persona 2, but I found its answer somewhat more lacking.

For me, the relevancy of Persona 2 ultimately leads to a greater good. You see, I married that boy I commiserated about the game with all those years ago. The game holds an important place in our hearts because it was one more building block in our friendship. We still play SMT games together, Atlus still needs to release Shin Megami Tensei V and we need another Persona game where all the characters are working age adults. But until these things come to pass, we'll keep passing each other the controller and thinking fondly about what this added to our lives.
Squeak!

A PS3 repair for a special PS2 game (Pt. 2)

The ribbon I ordered came at record speed, pandemic be damned. Ordered Saturday, shipped Sunday, turned up at my door on Tuesday. If you ever need some rare part for an aging console, MyGameParts delivers legitimately good service. Taking apart the PS3 the second time was several orders of magnitude faster now that I knew what I was doing. The first thing I realised after pulling off the top case was that I really created the problems with my Power/Eject buttons myself. If you'll recall, the reason I had to buy a replacement ribbon was because I accidentally broke the original one while trying to figure out why my Power button wouldn't work. It turns out the Power button wasn't working because the small metal clasp that you push down through the plastic case for this button was accidentally flipped back (i.e. it was flush against the controller board under the case and couldn't be pressed down). 

I genuinely started laughing at myself when I saw this. It's such a mechanical user error. Definitely not something worth breaking a fragile ribbon over if I'd realised it the first time around.

Incidentally, I did get around to re-opening the later iteration fat PS3 we had to figure out why their Power/Eject button setup was more resilient, and I'd also gotten why completely wrong. What Sony did was, by the later iteration of fat PS3s, the metal clasp that you need to press for the buttons were attached directly onto the plastic top of the case. Instead of attaching a small controller board by a flimsy ribbon to the motherboard, those touch controllers look like they were built onto the motherboard itself and depressed from above (through the plastic top). 

To make extra sure everything was right with the PS3 I was repairing, I took the precaution of reheating the chips again before I reassembled the lot. Powered it up...and it worked. My jaw might have dropped. After the flurry of fighting dust bunnies to reconnect all the wiring and updating the system, I opened our precious copy of Eternal Poison and discovered the actual game disc was gone. Cue me and him ransacking the whole house trying to find our missing disc. In the process, I was momentarily proud of my foresight before storing all our PS2/PS3 games in the basement about two years ago. Before I packed everything away, I had matched every single game box with its associated game disc so that when precisely something like this happened, I could pick up a game and know that everything I wanted was inside.

Which made losing our Eternal Poison disc all the more baffling. Seth had a vague memory of trying it out on our PS2 Classic and being utterly depressed by how the console rendered the game on our overly-modern TV. He was right—though getting to said console required yet another dig through all the things I'd stashed away for winter. Being a hamster has its downsides.

24 hours after getting the PS3 running, we were now able to test all this mucking around I did. Both of us watched in anticipation as the Eternal Poison opening screen loaded, nicely rendered on our TV monitor and—everything went black. PS3 refused to restart, or even countenance the thought. I was crushed. I mean, I had everything up for at least two hours before that and it was running fine. My first worry was that I broke the Blu-ray player. Then I worried I killed the fan (though I distinctly ran my hand along the airholes when I first brought the console back up to feel for air, which was indeed blowing out at the time). And then I worried I had actually fried the chips. For real.

I'm not good at flailing my arms around if something fails. Especially if I was the one who broke it. The most likely reason the PS3 seized up was because it was still "overheating" the moment we made it do something more strenuous than install an update. That is to say, the system was telling itself the console was overheating even when it was not, which caused it to do the red light of death that was what I was trying to fix this whole time. Obviously, reflowing was a step in the right direction, but incomplete. First though, I had to rescue our game disc again.

I was prepared to try and eject the disc manually somehow, but ultimately didn't have to. After several hours of cooling down, I switched on the PS3 and got the disc out normally. This moment of optimism didn't last. Trying out a game that didn't require a disc killed the PS3 at the game's load screen just like before. 

More puttering around the Internet followed. I found a fascinating post on Reddit about how switching out potentially faulty capacitors resolved the issue long-term. The idea made a great deal of good sense to me. If you'd like to see how it works, the link is here: https://www.reddit.com/r/PS3/comments/cff5hg/ylod_conclusion_capacitors_are_the_problem_not/

Now, prior to this, I had been resistant about getting all the kit for a soldering job because it's an extra layer of detail and I wasn't sure if reflowing would work out to begin with. We answered the latter question, which was reflowing can work but everyone who's tried it agrees its a short-term fix that still yields unpredictable results. However, the OP for the capacitor fix believed changing out the capacitors was a long-term solution that potentially could add years to a PS3's lifespan. Given that the OP was a PS3 enthusiast who collects old consoles for repair, this gave me hope. Hope means I had to get a soldering iron. A soldering iron means I had to order capacitors and other odds and ends. If all goes well, and thus far the shipping gods have been kind, I'll get everything I need together by Wednesday. Provided I don't get buried under work, by the weekend, I'll either be laughing like a mad scientist with a soldering iron or going despondent that I actually destroyed our PS3 for good. We shall see.