Skyrim: A Series of Shallow Interactions

Posted by: James on: Saturday, 9th March, 2013

When I was playing with my brother and friends in the garden as kids, pointing sticks at each other and making ‘peeow pyow’ laser noises there was no grand narrative. I don’t even know why we had chosen lasers instead of shotguns or miniguns or magic spells – it was a pretty simple game and it needed no explanation. It was, nevertheless, immersive (kind of) – a successful hit would elicit a death-cry and contortions of epic proportions, lasting approximately three seconds, before a lightning fast re-spawn, whereupon the newly alive player would take a revenge shot at his killer’s back. This broke the immersion somewhat, as the first player would turn around, stalwartly refusing to die on the basis that the second player should lie dead for a little bit longer and at least give him a chance to run away. At that stage in our lives, we hadn’t really learned to make ‘rules’ – all we had was that feeling of indignation when something wasn’t fair.

I’ve been playing a lot of Skyrim lately, and I’ve started comparing it to the garden game with the lasers, albeit with the notable absence of fresh air. Why? Because I think despite its massiveness and its cast of hundreds of NPCs and its rich mythology and so on and so on, it’s actually a very shallow game.

I think the similarity starts with character creation: you can be anyone at all – and that means that the game has to deal with you being everyone – a good guy, a bad girl, or a serial killer that happens to do noble deeds when asked. And I think the latter character is the one that everybody ends up playing, because practically the only choice in Skyrim is: do the missions or don’t do the missions – they won’t go away and you won’t be judged either way. In fairness there is a central quest that requires you to take sides, but the Imperials won’t give a hoot if you’ve spent most of the game supporting the enemy and the Nords, who are supposedly wary of magicians won’t bat an eyelid if you shoot lightning from your nostrils.

And Skyrim, like the laser game, doesn’t really care what weapon you’re using – there’s not much strategy there – if you shoot arrows or sparks or fists at an enemy, it’s going to have pretty much the same effect. Skyrim’s one rule is that if you hit something long enough, it’ll die, and that’s fine, but it’s not what I’m looking for in a role-playing game. We left that garden laser game behind a long time ago and it’s not just because we moved away: it’s because it just wasn’t very sophisticated. Skyrim could be sophisticated – but only if it weren’t trying to keep everybody happy.

A bad guy. How do we know? Why, the little red dot of course! Fair enough, he is shooting icicles at me.

I was disappointed when, after successfully assassinating someone at a high profile wedding and receiving a hefty bounty on my head, I was still able to become a ‘thane’ of the city. The people you’re hunting down are also pretty arbitrary – mostly the way you know who you’re supposed to be hitting is because of a red dot on the map. It’s weird: the map is full of red dots; I would estimate that bandits outnumber citizens by around ten to one, but then when you play a thief and a brigand, those bandits don’t decide that actually you’re not such a bad guy. There’s just no reaction to your actions in the game world, and well – that just makes it a bit boring.

Okay, so this isn’t new – this is the classic open world problem, where in order to keep decision-trees to a minimum, the player is only ever allowed to indulge in a series of shallow interactions. There’s the appearance of choice, but actually, it comes down to a Yoda-esque ‘do or not do’, and let’s be honest, what’s the point in not becoming a thief or an assassin? If there are zero consequences for following two completely contradictory paths at once, what choice is that? I finally went cold turkey (this is the correct expression) on Skyrim about a month ago, and coming back to it to get the screen-grabs my mission list just looks like a virtual ‘to-do’ list – it elicits the same feeling of boredom to look at. Who did I get these missions from? To whom are they critical? I don’t remember caring. Next time I play an RPG I want to feel like there’s actually a ‘Role’ element – because there are definitely more satisfying action games out there – even the ones with sticks.

Ah, the quest log – or ‘to do list’ as it’s more appropriately called. So filled with tawdry boring requests that it makes the wandering adventurer wish for an altogether more exciting life – in accountancy perhaps.

The cost of a brick

Posted by: James on: Monday, 29th October, 2012

I have a recurring thought when I look up at tall buildings: how much would a brick cost? I’m not talking about a batch of bricks, or even a single brick bought from a building supplier: I’m talking about that brick right there – that brick in that position – how much?

Boston is all bricks, with a few exceptions: the John Hancock, which is black reflective glass to straighten your tie in; city hall, which is bunker of thick concrete slab inside and out; the front building of the library, which is pretty white stone. Even the pavements are mostly red brick, as if the house builders over-ordered spectacularly and thought they might as well not waste it.

But the thing with bricks is it always brings up this question for me: what if I could own that one brick. I wouldn’t do anything with it – it would be useless on it’s own and it would be irresponsible to try to move it, but I might look out for it – I might care if it started disintegrating; I might even pay for a new one to be put in its place when that old brick needed to go to the big clay oven in the sky.

Where am I going with this? Well I’ve been hanging out in the library a lot recently – it’s terrifically well stocked from the point of view of somebody without an internet connection, or a printer, or a book, cd and dvd collection. If you grab one of the few areas next to a plug point, you can even get your power free here, but even though it’s providing a pretty wonderful set of services free of charge, there’s a lack of care that permeates the whole place: people pluck a book from the shelves, dip in and then leave it on the table rather than put it back, and I saw the most depressing notice about people stealing graphic novels – some have pages ripped out. There’s a big carved slogan in the entrance saying that the library was ‘BUILT BY THE PEOPLE AND DEDICATED TO THE ADVANCEMENT OF LEARNING’, but a good percentage of the people in here now aren’t builders and they mostly aren’t learners either – they’re generally disillusioned, disenfranchised, out of work and even homeless.

And right in front of the engraving, a Boston Public Library souvenir stand.
Sign o’ the times, eh?

‘The People’ have changed a bit, which is fine – there needs to be somewhere the real people can go when every other system of society has dropped them or denied them access. These people, though, don’t own the building; they don’t have a claim on a single brick. I wonder what would happen if they did – if each library customer were given a thing that was theirs to care for. Would they end up like the group of squatters at Friern Barnet library, taking on the role of service providers to the community? Maybe they would refit some of the beautiful, but redundant rooms with bunk beds and showers.

Of course that won’t happen. My point is that if you feel you own something it changes your relationship to it. I’m not a great believer in ownership as it stands: I think it serves us better as a metaphor – if everybody owned a brick of a library, that would be the same as everybody owning the library, because what is your brick without someone else’s underneath, supporting it? It’s a jumping-off point; a way to see public institutions differently. And if you can apply this logic to libraries, why not to a whole city or a state or a political system? If people don’t ‘feel’ ownership of a public institution or service they will feel no responsibility to maintain it or, in a political sense, even participate in it cf. riots and voter apathy.

But when many people don’t own much; when they feel like ownership is the end they need to be constantly working towards, then ownership is no longer a freedom, but a slave driver; no longer a choice but a law that governs without giving. Sometimes, looking up at the bricks, I think the people should take back ownership, then give it away.

On the platform.

Posted by: James on: Sunday, 15th July, 2012

He dances on the platform. In full view – more – he dances at the head of the platform. The direction the trains come from. So that everyone looking out for their train (or the two trains previous) will notice him. Dancing. On the platform. In plain sight.

Nobody dances with him. Nobody even stands next to him. They would look ridiculous. Standing straight while he dances on the platform. In their proper suit while he dances. In tracksuit bottoms. On the platform. Of all places.

The other day he was on the platform again. I didn’t recognise him at first. He wasn’t dancing. He was just standing. There. On the platform. A little to the tail end of the platform. He got on the second-to-last carriage and was gone.

There’s nobody now. Dancing on the platform. Or if they are, they do it invisibly. Or to music so slow it just looks like normal movement.

So I started. Dancing on the platform. I started small. Little movements. Just my head at first. Nodding. Then I tapped my feet. I’ve been working up. To dancing on the platform. Yesterday I tried to shimmy, then I felt self-conscious. I’ve been trying to dance on the platform. But it’s harder than it looks.

What if we scrapped presents?

Posted by: James on: Tuesday, 20th March, 2012

Why?

Because much of the time they are completely wasteful. That pen and binoculars set you got from your auntie three Christmases in a row. Where did they end up?

“But I might need this one day.” That there is shorthand for “I won’t use it, but I’d feel bad getting rid of it.” Why keep something you will never need? Just in case auntie comes around? “Why are you not writing with your new pen?” “Why don’t you look through the window with your new binoculars?”

Wrapping paper? Pure waste. “But what about the surprise?” If you’re not expecting a present, it’ll always be a surprise! Seriously, I love colourful wrapping paper – I just can’t defend it.

And we don’t all need one of everything. Borrowing and lending makes better use of space and resources and it’s more social.

The most harmful thing of course, is the culture of obligation. It’s your birthday. You are my friend/relative. I must buy you something. I could make you something, but actually that would take time I don’t have and might conceivably cost me more (for this is the curse of the hobby shop). Far easier to get you something off Amazon.

I don’t think we should expect gifts and I don’t think the giver should be under any pressure to produce them either: should I be grateful for a gift that someone felt they ‘had to give’ me?

“Hi James, convention dictates that I say happy birthday to you and offer you this gift. I wouldn’t have bought it, only it’s your birthday and convention dictates that I should.”

Okay, they look cute now, but they're just going to get neglected and gather dust on the shelf.

“But without presents, how will my loved ones know I love them?” Christ, has it come to that? No, you’re absolutely right: let’s upgrade Facebook so that every time it reminds you of your friend’s birthday, it also suggests a gift for your friend based on their ‘likes’ and automatically buys it for them, writes a card based around your favourite quotes and sends it to their registered postal address.

Let’s be clear: I’m not against otherwise occasioned acts of ‘I saw this and thought of you’ where ‘this’ is not:
a) tut
b) pointless
c) sporting a nationalist symbol and pretending to represent a culture

Oh, and it’s a bad idea to lust after material things &c. &c. It will leave you &c. buddhism &c. dukkha &c. capitalism &c. supporting a flawed system that &c.s people over &c.

Of course scrapping presents won’t work unless there is what the Christians call a First Mover, so for the purposes of experimentation, I declare myself God. Don’t buy me presents. Not unless you really really want to and it’s something that I could conceivably need. If in doubt, you can ask me. I will still appreciate it just as much as if you had boxed it up and covered it with wrapping paper and tied a big ribbon around it and said ‘happy birthday James’ – maybe more.

Cheerio.

Video games: it’s the implicit choices that are the most disturbing

Posted by: James on: Saturday, 21st January, 2012

God of War 3 jumped the shark. No, that’s not right – it got in the water with the shark and then, with a brutality that would make Gears of War fans wince, it ripped apart that shark and did seriously inappropriate things with its guts.

GoW3 was a while ago, but I’ve just watched the Darksiders 2 trailer and it brought that same feeling of shame: the one that makes you ask why exactly you’re beheading the monster and then gouging out its eyes. Aren’t I supposed to be the good guy? Well not in either of these cases: no, you’re not. But not only are you not going to be the good guy: you’re not going to be any kind of guy that you could possibly respect or wish to emulate, and that’s really what I want to talk about.

In GoW, you play Kratos, who starts off with very clearly defined parameters for his insane bloodlust – namely that he has been tricked by the gods into murdering his own family, and he is seeking revenge. Eventually the knowledge of his actions will bring him right to the edge – I mean literally, to the edge of a cliff, where he will try to commit suicide. He starts out as the bad guy, this much is true, but there is some kind of reasoning behind his killing and the plot (there is one) explores this great betrayal in quite a consistent manner.

By GoW3, the reason is gone. Kratos, it seems, has become a psychopath who (spoiler alert) kills literally everybody he talks to, with the exception of Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, who is of course, good for a shag – which I count as murdering the possibility of positive female stereotyping in the medium.

Kratos. Chucking the toys out of the buggy.

He doesn’t need to do it: he just does. Even in ‘justified’ kills there is pointless, unjustified violence, culminating in a scene where the player has to repeatedly press a button to make Kratos pound his fist over and over again into the bloodied head of his father, Zeus, causing the whole screen to gradually turn red. GoW is famed for violence, but playing the third instalment made me seriously uncomfortable – and it’s not just because I’m playing a ‘baddie’.

I think role-playing in games is fun; role-playing as a morally ambiguous character is even more fun – in fact it’s morally instructive! Playing Fallout 3 on my second playthrough, I decided I was going to play a really horrible person who would have the Wasteland running in fear. To this end I became a slaver. The way you do this in Fallout is you have a supply of explosive collars àlà Battle Royale and you slap them on someone’s neck and tell them they have to run all the way to the nearest slaver colony or that collar will explode. I found it surprisingly hard to do. I mean, I was just about okay with the enslavement thing, but if something went wrong with the collar or they were attacked on the way to the slave camp, I would reload that game – I didn’t want to kill them, and that wasn’t just because I wouldn’t get my reward from the slavers either.

Edwin from Baldur's Gate: evil can be fun.

So evil characters are interesting – in fact I think if you’re a stand-up kind of citizen, they represent one of the only real opportunities for role playing. Anyone can play as a ‘paladin’ (Lawful Good: Saviour of the Wastes: Idolized, Paragon of Virtue etc.), but to think about how a character who is radically different from yourself would really react – that’s interesting and challenging in a way that so few things are.

It’s a point that ‘Yahtzee’ has made time and time again, however, that games with moral choice elements have in practice only two choices: absolute saint or world’s most inconceivable bastard. The problem is that the saint option is always the one with the easy explanation: ‘look – the orphans are in trouble: let’s help’. The equivalent evil action is not ‘let’s ignore the orphans’ or even ‘let’s help the orphans, but then convince them to vote against their interests at the next election’ – it’s ‘let’s burn the orphans and shit on their corpses’.

Unnaturally black and white choices include Bioshock’s device where you can choose to either save the ‘little sisters’ – mutated children – or harvest them to add to your powers, and games like Infamous, where if you make a mix of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ decisions you end up being rewarded for neither.

The problem with the polar choices of good vs. evil is that the purely evil instinct just isn’t very common in the real world (which is for the best). It’s a fiction, but it’s a fiction that doesn’t really belong in interactive fiction because it’s too evil. Radiolab’s most recent podcast, The Bad Show, explores probably the most chilling type of ‘badness’ that you could ever possibly imagine. In fact it’s so bad that even if you could imagine it, as a well-adjusted person, it would be impossible to actually empathise with it. This is the ‘badness’ of an unrepentant Garry Ridgway, the Green River Killer, who, at the climax of the episode, fails to explain why he killed 71 women in the 1980s and 1990s. He can’t explain it. He had no reason. It’s the kind of evil that you can’t get inside the mind of, and yet the choices that we’re so often given in video games are either be an angel, or be this kind of cold-blooded psychopath motivated by ‘just because’ reasoning.

But actually I’m not concerned with the holes in moral choice in gaming: I’m more interested in the games where you aren’t given that choice at all – and here I’m looking at games that don’t sell themselves as role-playing experiences: games like God of War 3 and also games like Call of Duty. Now I’ll admit to being very foggy on CoD’s plot, but I don’t see that that makes my standpoint any weaker: CoD is simply a war sim. It’s a shooter: you play a soldier and you shoot other soldiers. Now I’ll preface this next comment with the fact that I’ve played all the way through CoD 4 and then halfway through the multiplayer prestige mode – it was an intensely gripping and, I think, enjoyable gaming experience.

Now, however, I’m wondering why I played it and whether I think people should play it. And again, another caveat: I hate it when people say that violence in video games leads to violence in reality – it’s bollocks. What I do want to say is that when I’m playing CoD I don’t know why I’m playing. If I analyse the content on my screen I realise that it doesn’t matter from whose perspective I play (in multiplayer the game will assign you a random army uniform) – all I’m doing is trying to kill the people on the other team for points.

CoD makes a kill really satisfying *shiver*

The thing is that all games are a type of role-playing experience, whether implicitly or explicitly: you’re not really leader of an empire, but you can play Civilization and give it a go; you’re not really a racing driver, but you can enjoy the fantasy in Gran Turismo; you’re not really a rock star, but in Rock Band we’ll do our damnedest to convince you that you are one.

What I’ve realised only very recently, is that I have no desire to role-play a soldier. And unless some element of reality is removed from games like CoD and Battlefield, that’s exactly what you are playing – a soldier in a conflict that comes far too close to being a reality. Just as I don’t want to role-play a psychopath as in God of War 3 because I find the head-space disturbing, I don’t want to role-play someone whose job it is to kill other people, because I don’t think anyone should be paid to do that, let alone enjoy it. When I look at Call of Duty now I can only imagine two types of people who could possibly thrive in the setting on my screen: one being someone that is certain to the point of being brainwashed that in killing they are doing the right thing; the other being Garry Ridgway.

Buddhism vs. Christianity! FIGHT!

Posted by: James on: Thursday, 12th January, 2012

“And it’s a tense match-up here at the Olympic Stadium. God opens with a plague to Buddha’s solar plexus – looks like Old Testament strategy to me.”
“That’s right, John, but Buddha’s on classic form – look he’s just sitting under the bodhi tree weathering that plague. Oh what’s this? He’s released the many-headed naga in a vicious attack. And JC is tagging in at this point for a special move – there it is – he’s turned the other cheek. Could be another disappointing draw, John.”

Actually, for the purposes of this post, I’m not concerned with doctrines – much less fighting styles; more with how religion impacts lifestyle. Hopefully I’m going to go some way towards explaining why a tourist can visit the UK and remain completely ignorant of religious practices, while this would be virtually impossible in Thailand.

I come from a broadly Christian background, but I was essentially allowed to make up my own mind about what I believed (for which I am very grateful). I’m now technically agnostic, I couldn’t comfortably cross myself in front of an altar and I don’t know many people who regularly go to church or who say their prayers before bedtime. I do dislike it when tourists answer phone calls in quiet places of worship.

Thailand has a practising majority of Buddhists for whom religion is a regular, integrated feature in their lives. One of the most obvious things you notice coming from a Christian background is that Thailand has more Wats than the electric T-Rex fence in Jurassic Park. (A Wat is a temple. No apologies.)

Okay, so what? There are lots of churches and cathedrals back home: I recently heard a tour of Europe described as “ABC – Another Bloody Cathedral”. The difference is that the temples here are not only really obvious, but they’re still being built in grand old fashion: people are still painting the things. I’ve included some pictorial evidence below:

Monk painting a statue.

A monk painting another shade of gold onto the base layer of gold to achieve that special depth of sparkle.

Naga (in progress)

A naga ready to have the detail (and perhaps some nice mirrored bits) added.

Chofah being added to temple

The holiest part of the temple – the Chofah – being added to a temple. What you don't see in this picture is the group of orange-swathed monks each holding part of a long string tied to the Chofah and blessing it as it goes into place.

I’ve not seen church construction in the UK ever in my entire life, but I see it quite commonly here and it’s not like I’ve been looking for it.

Another obvious difference is in the form taken by interactions with the religious institution – and perhaps there would be a less stark contrast here if the Catholic church still sold ‘indulgences’ (essentially donations in penance for your sins).

Devotions in Thailand are small, frequent and diverse. Again, I’ve taken a couple of snapshots:

Oil burningPeople adding oil to a burning candle in front of the day of their birthday. This is one of many ways to make merit and – see to it that you receive good karma. I’ve never been able to do this as I don’t actually know which day of the week I was born!

There are unfinished statues everywhere – and you can help finish them! All you do is grab some gold leaf and rub it in. The finished effect is great, but they tend to be a bit messy while they’re in progress.

You can also give to monks, offer flowers at temples, light candles and incense. You can get a blessing from a monk, which involves some words, some flicking of water and getting a piece of white string tied around your wrist.

At the beginning of this post I mentioned that I really don’t like it when a tourist disrupts the harmony of a sacred place, but somehow in Thailand it doesn’t apply in the same way. The reason is simply that once the locals have made their genuflections and received their blessing, they are quite happy to smile and pose for the camera in front of a massive gold Buddha – I’ve even seen someone point a camera at a monk as the monk blessed him. This doesn’t seem to bother anybody – least of all the monks.

Religion in Thailand gives you so many ways to interact on a daily basis. It’s colourful – literally – and it involves the whole community: it’s common practice for young men to ordain as monks for a short time to gain merit and learn some Buddhist teachings. You see them everywhere and of course you can give them food in exchange for merit (they aren’t supposed to touch money).

Perhaps it’s because I’m a foreigner, but I can’t help but love this interactive religion. You can even ring the huge racks of bells outside the monasteries and it’s accepted. Kids and adults both do it – there’s no venerable and serious religious teacher to come out and tell you off.

Fruit shake stall in front of the watTemples also help out the locals: above is a picture of one of my favourite fruit shake stalls outside the walls of a wat. She’s getting the power for her blenders from a cable leading from the wat. I’m not saying Christian churches don’t help anyone out – they are known for their charitable roles – all I’m saying is that there is a much larger division between secular and spiritual. Here, they are often seamlessly integrated.

Good thing/bad thing? Well, just because I like watching it doesn’t mean I’m going to start believing it. I don’t believe that you can earn karmic merit by paying to set free a cage of sparrows that will just be re-collected for re-release at a later date – I think that probably comes under ‘preying on the gullible’ and I think of many of these practices in the same way that I would think of Catholic indulgences: a dubious money-making scheme that supports the religious institution.

The thing that I do appreciate is the very different attitude of Thais to their faith – these religious practices are alive and they blend in with secular Thai life, and it’s a great spectacle even if you don’t share the faith.

Just another tourist in Thailand

Posted by: James on: Wednesday, 4th January, 2012

The background to this blog post is that after leaving NZ, Ash and I came to Thailand to meet friends out here. Ash headed back to the US early and I stayed with Chris’ lovely family in Chiang Mai for Christmas. I’ve stayed in Thailand while Ash and I work out the US immigration system.

Thailand is a bizarre mash of different people from various walks of life: there are obviously the fresh-faced gap-year student types gazing in wonder at all around them; there are the shaven-headed lads out on the razz; there are the overtanned and inappropriately dressed girls; there are the older age bracket, who just love the lifestyle and are probably enjoying the fact that their money goes that much further than in Europe too.

There are also the ex-pats who are here for the long haul, who are here for a variety of reasons, but have one thing in common, namely that they talk extremely loudly. You don’t need to actually get near these people to find out about the minutiae of their political views; their travel arrangements; their home lives and the complete history of their experimentation with drugs. All of this and more you will discover – whether you wish to or not – just by sitting within 200 yards.

These are the people who stand out to me – the locals weave in and out between them with consummate expertise. They know how to solicit their business, how to cater to their European tastes by serving up American or English breakfasts and if they don’t speak great English – which many of them do – they at least know the key phrase to attract their attention: “Hellooo – Where you goiing?”

It happens less in Chiang Mai than it does in Bangkok, but if you’re obviously a tourist – and unless you look Thai, you’re obviously a tourist – then you require some tourist service, whether it be relocation, food, lodging, massage or shopping, and you will be constantly solicited by tuk-tuk drivers and people on the street. Get a map out at your peril: nothing signals ‘I need help’ like a map – especially if you’re wielding a heavy pack too!

Of course, a lot of the tourist bait is worth taking.

This is probably fine for most tourists, but especially at the moment, my reasons for being here are far more nebulous than just ‘tourism’ – I want to take advantage of being somewhere so very different from the culture I grew up in to do some reflection and get started on a couple of writing and entrepreneurial projects I’ve been thinking about for a long time. I do want to see the temples, watch the Thai boxing and eat the wonderful food, but that’s not the main reason I stayed behind while my friends and Ash headed back to the UK and USA.

I suppose that’s one of the reasons why I see these broad ex-pat stereotypes everywhere and desperately want to say ‘I’m not with them’. But of course I still have a lot in common with them – in fact in some ways I’m far less culturally integrated than they are: I’m still a very long way from being able to really talk to the local people and unless my mastery of Thai gets further than ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ I don’t expect I will get under the skin of the place before I leave. I’m certainly not doing very well at understanding the culture beyond a fairly superficial level.

I am, however, working on my tolerance for spicy food, having inherited the family tradition of breaking out in sweats whenever I order anything above ‘very mild’. I soon hope to be perfectly comfortable with a ‘medium hot’ curry, which I suspect is still watered down for the tourists. It seems I can’t win!

10 things I’ll miss about NZ

Posted by: James on: Tuesday, 13th December, 2011

Whittakers 72% Cocoa Chocolate & Peanut Slab
I don’t know what I’m going to do without Whittakers. I’ve gradually moved away from milk chocolate and now anything less than 60% cocoa tastes like cooking chocolate to me. The Peanut Slab is just dark chocolate with peanuts in it – but as the name suggests, the size and texture are incredibly satisfying. This is what Yorkie should taste like.

Loopy Birdsong
I never actually found out what it was that made the noise, but one of the things we noticed when we first arrived was a distinctive bizarre warbling call – like a child let loose with a swanee whistle. NZ birds generally have a lot of character – from cheeky Kea that happily pose for photos and reputedly love to eat rucksacks and the rubber from car windows, to cute little Morepork owls that sit and stare at you from their perches.

Kea

Kea instinctively shows its best side.

Hospitality
The very first Kiwi we met outside the airport made us feel so welcome that we wanted to invite him over for tea. Since then, we’ve relied on the hospitality of several friends and relations of friends (who we hadn’t even met) for quite a chunk of our stay. The country may be beautiful, but it’s the people that can leave you with a warm fuzzy glow.

Being able to point to practically anything and say “I’m sure that was in Lord of the Rings.”
We actually had a road map that highlighted where scenes were shot. We never made it to any of those spots, but it’s hard not to think that most of the landscape must have been used at some time or other – so yeah, we totally visited Middle Earth.

Fruit
Unless you’ve been to NZ, You haven’t tasted a kiwi-fruit before. The ones shipped to the UK are NOT kiwis, whatever the label may say – they’re sour and hard horrible. When you get them in NZ, they’re beautifully sweet and refreshing – and if you get them in season, they’re cheap as chips. Feijoas are a similar thing that I’d never heard of before – eaten in much the same way, just with a more peculiar taste. I’m probably never going to find them outside of NZ. Ho hum.

The Cultural Mix
Auckland particularly has an interesting mix of cultures – it’s not all Pakeha or European-origin. There are Chinese festivals, Indian celebrations and Pacific islanders and Maōri have a presence too. It’s quite hard to feel like a foreigner in Auckland with the mix of backgrounds on the street.

Fish and Chips
The stereotypical Brit is supposed to be all about the fish and chips. The sad truth is that when we eat fish and chips in Britain, we’re eating a frozen fillet that’s probably months old, dipped in a vat of cardiac-arrest-inducing batter and served up with soggy chips. Imagine if your fish were freshly caught, fried in lighter batter and served up with perfectly crisped chips. All this and it’s still one of the cheapest foods around.

Camping
NZ really lends itself to camping. It has a winning combination of stunning scenery, no harmful critters (bar sandflies) and lots of space. Some camp sites are better than others and we often found ourselves gawping at the price of a tiny pitch (our tent was very very small) with shared facilities – but generally, it’s a great way to holiday. We even managed a night of ‘freedom camping’ on the Banks Peninsula near Christchurch – simultaneously the most beautiful and the most sleep-disturbingly windy of camping experiences!

Freedom camping with the sheep. I'm gonna miss this little tent.

The Colour
Gardening must be an incredibly rewarding pastime in NZ, with intensely-coloured blooms popping up all over the place with what seems like very minimal effort. Touring the South Island in November is an amazing experience as the Alpine views are flooded with yellow gorse blossom. It’s treated as a weed, but it really defines the landscape.

Volcanoes
As with anywhere, it’s easy to fall into the pattern of walking up and down the same roads every day, but it’s not many places you can break the routine by strolling up a volcano to take in the view. I’ve found that looking over the city from atop a volcano really helps to put the world back in its proper perspective!

I swear it really is greener

Posted by: James on: Saturday, 26th November, 2011

Before I arrived in NZ, I was only vaguely aware that it was comprised of two different islands. At the moment I’m wondering why I spent so much time on the wrong one.

Okay, let’s take off the rose-tinted specs for a second: we’re currently on holiday – a three-week road trip around the South Island from top to bottom, including rafting, cycling, wine-tasting, tramping, camping, caving and explorations various. What was I doing in the North? Well, working mostly, so fair enough – the South Island is going to come out on top, but there are a couple of other important differences that make this trip feel more like the real deal – what we really came for.

New Zealand is generally beautiful. That’s a good rule of thumb to follow, but there are areas that are more or less so. I think both Ash and I have been frustrated by Auckland, because what you see more than anything else is the human intervention in an otherwise incredible landscape.

Go on - beat this.

Go on - beat this.

Without getting into the minutiae of our preferred architectural styles, Auckland is criticisably sprawled with suburban-feel bungalows, shallow roofs and modern glass buildings: all sensible precautions for an earthquake-prone corner of the world, but it ain’t pretty. It wouldn’t even have a skyline without the post-phallic* skytower. That coupled with a motorway that bisects the city proper, creating an enormous anti-pedestrian precinct, Auckland will never be the “World’s Most Livable City” no matter how much Mayor Len wants it to be.

Down South, the building style hasn’t changed, but there’s far less of it. Far less people anywhere in fact. And with far less people, you can say hello to everyone you meet on the way. The further people are spread, the friendlier they can afford to be. London’s a fair example. There are few hours of the day that you could possibly greet everyone you met on the street and those are the hours it would be least advised.

So far we’ve had rather lovely conversations with most of the people we’ve met. We’ve heard two wonderful stories about people leaving jobs and setting up wineries in the Marlborough region, one couple’s stories about their 12-year yacht tour of the globe and countless conversations revolving around our travel plans and recommendations for what to see and do (these are the ones I’m actually getting tired of).

The long and short: having a wonderful time in the remoter areas of the South Island. As soon as you get to anything remotely town-like, the prices skyrocket and the buildings turn into grey cinder-block atrocities, but stay rural and it’s all good: unspoilt beaches, cheery people and all of that stuff you read about – in fact, you don’t need to hear it from me.

Best thing so far: staying overnight at the tiny town of Renwick, nestled snugly into the heart of wine country. We camped at a backpackers that also rented out bikes. Proceeded to do five wonderful wine-tastings on the trot with an average of four minutes’ wobbly cycle ride between them. All tastings were absolutely free bar one, which had a five dollar charge. Wünderbar!

Greatest peril: the sun. It’s strong enough to make you seriously consider taking a parasol wherever you go. I’ve had to throw away my wet-blanket European SPF15 and take up arms in the form of a Cancer Society endorsed SPF-godknowswhat. It still gets through.

*What’s post-phallic? Well, there’s a disc at the top, but it’s still a huge pillar of concrete erected by rich men.

Hope, Despair, Trade Me

Posted by: James on: Tuesday, 1st November, 2011

We’re winding up our life in Auckland. Where we’re heading next is not entirely certain. It’s actually not certain at all, but our destination must certainly fall within several parameters, the most limiting of all being that it must be a place where both of us – an unmarried Pom and Yank – are able to legally live and work.

This factor alone is pretty limiting. Our only other choice for a working holiday visa apart from NZ seems to be Singapore, which would stomach us for six months before vomiting us back out into the world.

There is hope of course: there are jobs out there which require particular skills that could entitle one os us to a visa; there are ways to hop around between countries on a tourist visa while holding down an international online job; and don’t imagine that we’ve missed the bloody obvious solution – so there’s hope.

One thing I’m finding hard is selling up. We were intending on a longer stay when we moved into this flat, so it didn’t matter too much at the time that it contained nothing but a bathroom, a cupboard, a sink and some floorboards. It’s the first time we’ve lived in a place we had to furnish ourselves and we’ve done it very cheaply. We looked hard for the bargains and the bits that would work well together and we created something quirky but homely too. It did take a couple of weeks of quite hard graft though, what with the organising of pickups, the bidding itself and, in the meantime, living without a fridge or a washing machine, or even a place to sit.

A very empty room.

Ash in a very empty room in a very empty house.

Undoing all of that work is a considerably faster process, but arguably no less stressful. We’re selling most things on Trade Me – the NZ ebay, and we’ve planned the listings so that the essentials go last – the vacuum cleaner; the chest of drawers; the fridge. But it’s a balance – we want to use them right up until the last minute, but we’ve got to give people enough time to contact us after our auctions have ended, then pay, allow the payment to clear, then arrange pickup. The worry that maybe we’ll be left in the lurch with a washing machine on our hands on the day we’re booked on the train to Wellington sometimes keeps me awake at night.

Trade Me also gives you both a depressing and an uplifting snapshot of human nature:

People on Trade Me are really cheap. Seriously, when we looked for bargains in the beginning, we would pay what we thought was reasonable. We also took the ‘buy now’ option quite often, just to get the bits we needed badly. With our own listings it often seems that nobody will even make a bit until the very last moment. This ‘sniping’ happens on ebay too, but the difference on TM is that auctions auto-extend by two minutes if there is a late bid. This leads to a little late bidding war, but nevertheless the only casualty remains the seller’s price, which is uniformly below expectation.

The other fun manifestation of Kiwi thrift is micro-bidding. We’re selling a floor lamp that we picked up for free and fixed. I figured I’d start it at a dollar – so 50p in UK money. What you see below is 7 bids of 50 cents each over a period of a couple of days.

Micro-bidding on Trade Me

Micro-bidding. Why bother?

Surely this kind of bidding is exhausting, isn’t it? One of the great things about electronic bidding is that you can put in your highest offer and walk away – the computer will auto-bid for you. Why hover over the page waiting for someone to outbid you by a fraction so that you can then up the bidding by another fraction? It beats me.

But as much as they can be thrifty, the New Zealanders who got their bargain have been rather lovely. On two occasions we’ve actually had people telling us to ‘keep the change’. Not that they’re talking about stacks of cash, but enough to buy a beer – and beer is pricey here.

I’m left wondering why – if they’re happy to part with the money – do they care so much about getting a bargain and pay bottom dollar whenever they can? It’s a charge I’m happy to level at myself too: I know I’m pretty tight – I drove Ash half crazy when we first arrived just trying to find the cheapest way of buying decent cheese.

I think it’s partly a question of cultural indoctrination: when it comes to spending, we’ve been trained to think thrifty, which is fine up to a point – but there is a point at which we no longer want to pay what something is acually worth – we’re just looking for the cheapest thing that will do the job. I suppose that this is the dangerous ground where the unscrupulous can undercut quality items by making their product a little less ethically sound; maybe paying their workers a little less. Paying bottom dollar really might not be such a good idea in the long run.

Of course, what I’m really saying is: “Buy my stuff, people! Come on – we need the travel money.”

QuaintJames

A fairly loose blog about the places I go and the things I think. May also include left-leaning social commentary derived in part from video games.

What I’ve been on about: