Experience – The Unexpected Part 2

The last weekend in February 2014 was a nightmare for me. I had come back from the hospital’s emergency rooms with a diagnosis most dire. According to the radiologist, I had torn all of the ligaments in my shoulder and was scheduled for rotator cuff surgery that following Tuesday. I had been booked off from work for a week, something that would’ve been a blessing under less tense circumstances. As it was, I was devastated, not because of my shoulder, my mind had a strange way of just accepting it, but – I was almost certain that I was going to lose my job. I had been warned by the emergency room doctor that I was most probably not going to be allowed to drive for three months. Driving played an integral part of my work and my company had a habit of getting rid of people who couldn’t do what they needed to. From firing my manager for tearing all of his knee ligaments, to firing a colleague on his death bed of brain cancer, tolerance towards injuries wasn’t going to be on the table. I had had to call our HR officer to explain to her why I had to leave the office early. She had listened to me in shocked silence then tensely told me that she wasn’t going to tell my CEO until a week later because that would give me another month’s pay check at least.

I struggled to get my affairs in order that weekend, organising with people to take care of my pets, trying to figure out what I would need for at least a week in hospital (worst case scenario) and putting my contingency plans in order for when I lost my job. It was a harrowing two days, made even more so because I couldn’t sleep from the pain.

Monday dawned and I was whisked off to the orthopaedic surgeon by a friend of mine. The pain wasn’t any better, but the night before I had realised that I could move my arm again. Just a little, and it hurt like hell, but I was starting to doubt the diagnosis of the first radiologist.

I was very fortunate to end up with an orthopaedic surgeon who looked first and cut later. He was gruff, appearing almost irritated that I dare intrude on his practice… But he was thorough. He doubted the scans immediately, moving my arm, getting me to move it and finally deciding that he would rather have them taken again. I was send for the full treatment, an MRI scan, an x-ray and a sonar, all pointing to one thing.

My ligaments were intact. Damaged yes and I did have a muscle tear but it wasn’t big enough to require surgery. The main problem wasn’t my tendons or ligaments, it was my shoulder joint. I had bursitis, something I didn’t even know existed until it was pointed out to me. Essentially, in layman’s terms, its an inflammation of the soft pad on which my shoulder rotates. Anything can trigger it, though I was told that it rarely occurs in women my age. It is treated, not with surgery but with cortisone injections right in the joint. Surgery was a last option for treatment. All I needed to do was rest, see a physio, and come for injections once every few weeks until it cleared up. There was an underlying problem, with all the scans pointing to the possibility that my shoulder joints were degenerating due to a misshaped acromioclavicular joint. That would have to be corrected with surgery, but it was something I could post-pone until I’m ready for it. The first order of business was simply to get the bursitis to clear up.

It was as long a recovery as the surgery would’ve been – but it wasn’t invasive.

In fact, it was a message.

Something had to change. My body couldn’t handle the pace and stress anymore that I was under. I had to take it slow, take care of myself, be aware of my limitations.

I had to sort out my life because it wasn’t working. Some people are brought to realisations such as this by a miracle, an epiphany. I am such a stubborn person that the only way I was made to see on what a destructive path I was, was by dragging me to a halt through near crippling pain.

The bursitis took months to clear up, the pain lingered for weeks and still bother me sometimes. I had to go to physio simply to get the joint moving again. My medical aid didn’t cover half of the medication and procedures that had been done so I was at the mercy of a kind friend who did pro-bono work on me. And work? Work was unrelenting, unsympathetic. I don’t expect to be babied but in the course of those weeks in which I struggled to get permission to leave the office early to go to doctor’s appointments and physio appointments I realised that I had to leave.

It wasn’t going to be easy. For those who knew me before 2010 would remember how hard I struggled just to get this job in the first place. And, a part of me is a strong creature of habit. I wasn’t earning a bad salary, I just had to work my ass off to get it. I was conflicted, feeling as if changing my companies would be like a betrayal. There are very few things that are as stressful as a new job and with my shoulder, I didn’t know whether I would be able to cope.

But, I knew that I had to figure out a way because it also dawned on me that I wasn’t coping anyway. This injury was proof of it, even the situation under which it occurred wasn’t right. I didn’t want to find myself on dodgy roads anymore needing to change my tyre for fear of being robbed and murdered before rescue came.

And I didn’t want to work for a boss that had absolutely no humanity in him.

Game Review: Banished

Image courtesy of pooterman @deviantart.com

It should be noted that most of the games I’ve played recently I didn’t go out to discover myself. Mostly I discovered them due to the persistent badgering of my friend Ris. I have a very love hate relationship towards gaming because it is very counterproductive. If you’re sitting down and playing games, then you can’t write, think about your plot or do any sensible kind of work. I’ll confess it was one of the reasons I liked having a Tamagotchi as a child because although you were constantly aware that you were ‘playing a game’ you could also put it into your pocket and forget about it while you busied yourself with school work.

I didn’t think that this sort of experience existed anymore until I was introduced to Banished.

Developed by Shining Rock Software, Banished is an indie game which makes you responsible for a group of villagers who had had to leave their birth place, most probably under suspect circumstances. You have to make sure they have lodgings, food and sufficient resources not only to get through the winter but to expand their population as well. You don’t have any direct control over the villagers, rather functioning as an omnipresent power that works as the inspiration as to where (or whether) they should put up that Brewery… You can decide how difficult you want your starting positions to be and you can decide whether your villagers can be affected by natural disasters or not so the game provides a fairly decent learning curve (though the training wheels fall off eventually, so be warned).

And, you can simply leave the game to run by itself.

It’s one of the reason’s I’ve clocked so many hours in it, because I set up my village and then leave to see how my new developments affect my people (or whether they bother completing it at all). I’ve had the game running in boardroom meetings, during NaNoWriMo, over weekends. Apart from trying to figure out how village expansion rate vs food resources, the game requires very little mental processing (if you’re not me that is, I went obsessive, set up an excel spreadsheet and tried to beat the game with pure mathematical statistics). You can simply set it up and let it run.

Apart from World of Goo that I played with its release, Banished was the first real exposure that I had to indie gaming. Originally, I had resisted playing the game simply because, like a badly advertised self published novel, I didn’t think that it would be worth my time. But, the persistence of a friend won out and I was proven delightfully wrong. The mechanics were solid, the graphics delightful and the attention to detail (such as needing to maintain a reasonable hunting rate, lest one depopulated the deer) was a marvel. And, it’s not as easy as it first appears, especially when you realise for instance that your population can become too old to reproduce.

It’s not action packed, it’s not emotional (thought you can get pretty emotional when you see a hurricane happily make its way through your village) and it doesn’t have a story. (Or, your village might not but I make a point of taking note who is born and what they achieve in their lifetime. Especially the child named Demon…)  But, it is fun and that is the basic building block, no, the foundation of games. And, it was developed by a single person, so you have to give him kudos for that.

It’s a game that feels as if it has been specially designed for myself. My obsession with numbers and predicting the statistical outcome of resource procurement, combined with my tendency to zone out in front of the computer without the need to think, made this the perfect game.

Ultimately, it’s the kind of game I’d comfortably recommend to anybody who needs a distraction without being completely sucked into another world. It’s reasonably priced and if you consider how many hours of gaming you can get out of it (as well as replay value – there’s something very exciting about starting up a new village, because you don’t know whether they’ll make it…) it’s certainly an economical buy.

Banished is easily available on Steam and GOG.com.

Experience – Unexpected, Part 1

2014 had started quite bleak for me. My last colleague and friend at my previous company had left us in January, one of 9 people who had moved on to greener pastures throughout 2013. I was completely on my own and the mercy of a somewhat unreasonable boss.  I was doing the work of 3 sales persons, monitoring all of the projects the veterinarians had started and doing grunt work like delivering product because our teams couldn’t dispatch anything in time.

I was at wits end come February 2014, travelling more than 8000km (5000 miles) per month. On one particular journey in February, I was rushing from the small town of Swartruggens to Zeerust (another small town) when I got a tyre puncture. Now, something I have to add is that this is quite a regular thing for me. I considered waiting like a damsel in distress on this dirt road in the middle of nowhere but then I realised that I a) didn’t have the patients to do so and b) didn’t want to risk being mugged. So, I got into my overalls that I normally keep for farm visits, changed the tyre and set on my merry way. I didn’t even think about it twice, apart from the grumbled realisation that I was going to have to replace another tyre.

The next morning however, I woke up in pain. I had been in an unfamiliar bed and had thought that I had simply slept the wrong way on my left shoulder. The bed and breakfast lady, (who treats me like a daughter rather than a client) volunteered to rub my shoulder for me. I allowed her to do so for about a minute but upon manipulation of the joint the pain was so excruciating that I soon bid her to stop. I drank an anti-inflammatory and went to my car where I discovered another problem. The shoulder refused to move. I couldn’t lift it, couldn’t change the gears, couldn’t even raise my arm to the steering wheel. As I sat there in my car, more than 300km from home, I began to suspect that I might have a problem. I went to the local doctor, hoping for an emergency consultation but the good town of Zeerust has only 3 doctors and on that particular day, only one was working. The secretary immediately pinned me for a foreigner and sweetly said that she could only help me the next morning. I explained that it would be a very quick consultation, but no. I had to wait till the morning. The pain in my shoulder was getting worse at that stage and because I had to drive home, I didn’t want to take too many pain medication so I lost my temper with Zeerust and decided to head back to civilisation. I called my friend and physiotherapist on the way home and requested that she sees me when I returned. She was able to fit me in immediately.

As luck would have it, with only one arm and no way to safely change gears, I was struck in one of the worst rains storms I had ever driven in that day. A journey that usually took me two and a half hours now took me four and I’ll be the first to confess that I was crying from frustration and pain by the time I reached my friend. She looked at the shoulder but her prognosis wasn’t good or comforting. I either had bursitis, an inflammation in the shoulder joint, or I had somehow torn my rotator cuff ligaments. I had to go to the emergency room but as I didn’t have the strength for it that evening, I stalled till the next day.

Which happened to be a Friday.

In hindsight, my timing probably wasn’t as well thought out as it should’ve been, but I still feel that regardless of what time one arrives at an emergency room, the level of service should always be professional. As it was, my experience hadn’t been very pleasant.

For one thing, because I’m not in the habit of putting up a performance, the emergency staff didn’t take me very seriously, thinking that I was there to waste their time. My shoulder was in agony, I could hardly close my hand from the pain, but I didn’t sit there with a moaning expression on my face declaring how much it hurt. I was friendly to the admittance staff, joked a bit and very clinical with the doctor as I described my symptoms. Her doubt was clear immediately and I would never forget how she had looked at me and said:

“Well, you realise that we will have to do a scan. And take x-rays. If it’s not serious and we don’t admit you, you will have to pay for it.” She had said it with so much doubt, implying that I was lying that I was angry immediately.

“I’ve brought my credit card,” I had told her and gave her its limit. “I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to cover whatever expenses I have. And I know that I’ll be scanned, that’s why I came here because despite my many talents it’s the one thing I can’t do on my own.”

In hind sight, I might’ve been grumpy because of the pain that I was in, but with a sceptical look, the doctor had taken me to radiology and left me at their Friday staff’s mercy. They were the ones who had the pleasure of delivering the blow of bad news to me. A hasty scan later, the radiology department confirmed that I had indeed torn all of the ligaments in my shoulder. The only treatment was surgery and I was lead back to the emergency room, with the knowledge that my life had suddenly changed in the blink of an eye.

You see, I knew that this surgery was complicated and it took months to recover from. The icing on the cake was that a few months prior, my CEO had fired one of our previous employees because had he had torn all of the ligaments in his knee and the CEO didn’t want to allocate him the given amount of leave. With my left shoulder out of action, knowing how difficult it as for me to drive, I couldn’t imagine that my CEO would spare me.

The emergency room doctor had turned a corner in her behaviour however. Upon seeing the results, she was suddenly concerned, even asking me in how much pain I was exactly. Despite my shock, I couldn’t help but be a little bit snarky.

“As much as I was in when you first saw me,” I had said. “More so now that my shoulder’s been moved for the scan.”

She had the grace to apologise to me and even offer pain medication. But, it was a very thin salve for a deep wound. They wanted to admit me to the hospital immediately, to schedule surgery but the orthopaedic surgeon was out of town and none of the other alternatives were available. I was scheduled to see the hospital’s orthopaedic surgeon the Monday and booked off for a week. Surgery was tentatively scheduled for that Tuesday and I was send home for the weekend to sort out my life that felt as if it had been irreparable turned upside down.

Movie Review: The Hobbit’s Treachery

One of the last posts that I did before I went on my incredibly long sabbatical from blogging was commenting on my disgust with The Hobbit movie. At that time it was the first movie and I still mentioned that I preferred watching Jack Reacher with Tom Cruise rather than the slow reeled 1/3rd of my beloved childhood book. My recollection on that article is rather vague (it was still on NerdTrek.com) but I DO remember comparing it to a Hallmark movie.

Two more movies later, my feelings of disgust have not changed. In fact, it’s become worse.

I’m not going to rant and rave about how I’ve been a fan of the series for decades but it bears mentioning that I read them for the first time when I was about eleven. The Hobbit was a delight, a book given to me by a woman who at the time was a substitute parent who encouraged my love for fantasy rather than judging it. So, I was pretty invested in the series and very sceptical when the first Lord of the Rings movies came out. In those years however, despite my doubts, I wasn’t disappointed because they were fantastic. There was something truly magical about them, about the effort that was put into bringing to live such a massive work of fantasy. It felt real, it felt authentic. It felt daunting and spectacular.

And it didn’t feel cheap.

The Hobbit did. More to the point, The Hobbit felt as if it cheated me.

Image credited to nebezial, deviantart.com

I’ve been sort of badgered into watching the series by the same super human individual who managed to drag me to all Twilight movies. The first movie actually had me quite excited – that was until I heard they were going to make a trilogy out of it. I went back to my wee little book, looked at the pages and wondered how on earth they were going to extract almost 8 hours of material out of it. Turns out all they needed was cheap comedy, silly, plastic looking elves, hallmark like close ups (and CONSTANT close ups) and very slow, very dramatic statements that were delivered by a ten second pause before and after each delivery of the line. I don’t know what went wrong with The Hobbit’s cameras but it was a disaster in my eyes. While looking at Bilbo’s pore ridden face throughout the movie I kept wishing that the camera would simply zoom out. Just… Show me more than the world an inch from Bilbo’s face. I like Ian McKellan but even I don’t feel the need to count Gandalf’s beard hairs. It felt cheap, it was frustrating and it was infuriatingly slow. As I sat there last night, watching the movie under protest with very little hope of it being good, I realised that it was a trap. It wasn’t even a well-executed trap. The movies had simply been made to trick myself and other fantasy loving fans out of our well earned money. The changes that they made to the story line like Legolas’s near superpower like ability to just save every moment of every day, was unnecessary. Yes, I liked seeing a ginger elf girl saving the day as much as anybody but did she forward the plot? No.

Did the last movie have a plot? No.

The Battle of the Five Armies was one long, slow, badly done fighting scene. And, because they refused to zoom away from the character’s facial hair, it was frustrating as well. Not even the 3D made up for it. I don’t know whether it’s just the fact that I need to wear the 3D glasses over my own, but I’ve never really seen much of a difference. It certainly doesn’t justify the overcharged price that we have to pay for the honour of shoving a plastic pair of glasses onto our faces.

The Hobbit was completely the opposite of The Lord of The Rings. There was nothing spectacular about it and gave me less pleasure than the Classic Movie channel. Heck, I’ve had more fun watching B – rated movies.

Or Xena Warrior Princess – at least they knew how to sometimes flaunt the scenery.

It might’ve been a movie doomed to fail. The directors, writers, screen writers or who ever tried to lace a darkness into the pages of The Hobbit’s tale that was unnecessary. We know how the story ends, trying to tie up loose ends that wasn’t unravelled to begin with was a futile task. And, the cheap idiocy like Radagast the Brown’s persona made me nothing more than furious. The Istari was always meant to be majestic, to be frightening and powerful. A wizard being pulled along by a bunch of hare on a sleigh was only one step short of Ronald McDonald. Where I had respected Peter Jackson for renewing the love for JRR Tolkien’s series, I now want to put that same bird poo they laced into Radagast’s hair onto his toast for exploiting it.

Because that’s what the Hobbit was. It was exploitation of fans of the series. It was an exploitation of those expecting the wonder of The Lord of the Rings.

And I fell for it.

Experience – Uniqueness

Due to circumstance, I’ve always been a bit of a console gamer. My reasons for this range from as simple as: Well, I have a PlayStation. To: I don’t like gaming where I write. The latter is especially true. My computer has always been for work strictly. Games provided too much background noise.

That concept changed this year. With the new console generation knocking at my door and demanding to be let in at a ridiculous price with whole bunch of unsurely friends that I don’t want to give the time of day to (Destiny, cough Destiny) I figured I’ll change my pace and get a computer capable of playing games. This goal was helped on by me unwillingly donating my computer to township charity when some smuck from the street broke into my house pre NaNoWriMo 2013 and relieved me of my laptop.

It took me a while to gather the funds but settled for a Toshiba 15’6 screen laptop with a Nvidia Geforce graphic card and a Core i5. I got it on a steal of a deal and although I know the i5 wasn’t ideal it does serve its purpose. Too well.

With desktop gaming came the inevitable exposure to Indie Games. I’ve always thought that Independently Developed games were the same as self-published novels. Ideas that never quite made the cut in big companies that’s… cute but not really worth the effort. (A bit hypocritical I know, but this statement comes from experience Indie Authors. I’ve never really read one book that was self-published that made me go: WTF was wrong with the publishers for not printing this?! I live to be corrected of course and love being proven wrong. And don’t tell me Fifty Shades of Grey was self-published in the beginning. That DOES NOT prove my point!!).

Getting off of THAT rant…

It turned out that indie gaming was more defined. It was independent developers standing up and saying: You know what, I’m going to make a game that I like. I’m going to take a risk and put something together that is unique. You won’t find an Assassin’s Creed serial in indie gaming, nor something as stretched out and thin of plot as Call of Duty or Battlefield. If I reflect on 2014 I hardly paid any mind to ANY of the triple A games (ok exception: Shadow of Mordor, Dragon Age (Damn you Bioware, DAMN YOU), Alien Isolation, I intend to bed you as soon as you become cheaper) and ended up filling my palate with Indie games downloaded from Steam and GOG.com. I have to confess that I would never have looked at them if it wasn’t for my mate Ris but I have and now there’s no coming back.

The fact is that every one of them deserves a review. Deserves notice and mention. And, as time presents itself, I’ll certainly do so.  What pulled me to the various games is their difference in presentation and the experiences that they provide. That risks and effort that I saw the developers put in. Last year saw Call of Duty Ghosts marketed with the phrase: We have a dog.

I can’t imagine a less thought out and slap dash advertisement campaign than that. Assassin’s Creed is marketed by “The Ultimate Multiplayer Experience.” My thoughts on THAT was: Well skippy do arseholes, join the line. I’m not sure whether this is just a part of growing up but I’m just not interested in all these franchises anymore because there is nothing new. The only new game (2013, yes, I know I’m behind) that I can think of to mention was The Last of Us. And it wasn’t that unique (stealth, killing, fighting off infected) as it was simply fantastically executed.

I’m not saying that all indie games are good, not all novels are either, but the gems that have come to light not only have replay value, but it has a charm that leads me to become bolder and taking risks with purchases. I want to give these people my money. Their games might not be as graphic loaded as the top developers but they pull me in and keep me. I had a look at my logs the other day to see which 5 games I’ve put the most time into in the past 2 years and the list was surprising.

It read like this:

Not only did Indie Games wrap up the top and bottom of my list, but they stood proudly among games that I found to be arguable some of the best time I’ve wasted in my life. (I’ll not think about the fact in general that, if I had actually just bothered to write in those hours, at a pace of 2000 words per hour, I could’ve had a series of 2,8 million words…). And the triple A games like Mass Effect cost me over R700 (About $50) to purchase – Don’t Starve cost me (or rather Ris, who gave it to me) R70 ($5). If you bring in the words: “return on investment,” Indie Games win.

I’ve become somewhat bitter about the big releases, about the future of gaming. I’m not sure whether I’ve just been at it for too long, but the truth is that I’m not excited by new big releases anymore. I look at the games and go ‘meh’. Or: Ag. Ok. Maybe. Someday. And then go back and try and save my village from starvation in Banished. The reality of my life is that, despite the figures presented above, I actually have very little time to put into games. So, if I have a moment to do so, I want to make it worth my own while. Rechewing the pimped out plot of Infamous (which should’ve stopped at 2 – just saying) or staring at another plot holed filled Resident Evil scene doesn’t strike me as time well spend.

Again, I live to be proven wrong and I have looked into my future and seen myself sitting beside a PlayStation 4. Because inevitably some big flashy company IS going to cough out something that I want. But that time isn’t now. This is the time for developers like Klei Entertainment to keep me up in the middle of the night.

For fledgling companies like Hinterland Studios to keep me at the edge of my seat.

This is the time of Indie Developers.