Red Dead Condemnation

A little while ago I started playing Red Dead Redemption. Initial impressions were that it was a competent third-person shooter in a Western setting. It wasn’t anything mindblowing or groundbreaking (at least, not by my standards today. Then again, I am unfairly comparing it to masterpieces like The Last of Us), but I quickly came to like the protagonist John Marsten. He was an intoxicating mix of courteous, charming and honest-to-his-bones-good. I liked the way he referred to strangers as “friends”, friends as “sirs” and ladies as “ma’ams”. Before long I had adopted his Western drawl, just for the pleasure of it.

 

But despite a very loveable protagonist and very decent gameplay, an enchanting setting and a wonderful soundtrack, I am still struggling to like the game due to a moral repulsion to it. Perhaps repulsion is too harsh a word, but I frequently encounter ethical issues in the game which are more often than not glossed over. Let me give you some examples.

 

In the early stages of the game, it is made clear that my goal is to kill a bandit leader in a fortress. The game requires me to enlist the local sheriff’s help through essentially doing his job for him and taking care of gangs he has, for some reason, never gotten around to confronting. Having done this and proven my proficiency in storming bandit hideouts, I am keen to set my sights on the fortress and test my gun against theirs. Instead, for some reason I am not allowed to proceed until I rescue a travelling salesman and help him con villagers into buying his placebos (much like that episode of The Simpsons, when Homer and Abe team up). After cheating several honest settlers out of their money, I am encouraged to help a graverobber track down a man who is being held by the local authorities. This requires me to steal the horses of the lawmen so that he can break into the prison. The game then instructs me to help a drunken Irishman who is receiving a beating from two thugs. I disarm them both, but the game will not proceed until they are both killed. Reluctantly, I shoot the cowering men in the heads. My next mission is to retrieve a gattling gun from a group of strangers, whom I slaughter in cold blood without so much as a “Howd’you-do, can-we-maybe-talk-about-taking-that-gun-off-your-hands?”. It is only after these despicable acts that the game reveals why  I enlisted the help of such shady characters (reasons that are shaky at best) rather than storming the fortress with the sheriffs.

 

What bothers me most is that the game starts by having Marsten shot, so that it can show you how painful and expensive it is to recover. Yet in spite of this, I am encouraged at every turn to shoot people without concern for the consequences. If I see a man running away from other men, I’m expected to assume he’s an outlaw and am rewarded for gunning him down. If a man is slowly jogging away with a tied up woman over his shoulder, rather than chase him down or ask him what he’s doing, I’m directed to shoot him. If I deal him a less-than-mortal-blow, he turns his own gun on me until I finally end his life. If I see a man with a knife about to kill a prostitute, trying to lasso him results in his instant death because the game doesn’t expect me to care about trying to stop him without murdering him.

 

Long time readers of my blog (haha, just kidding. There are none.) might recall that I place a huge level of importance on moral decision makings in games. Red Dead Redemption creates the illusion that there is a morality system based on honour where you can choose to be a “good guy” or a “bad guy”. In actuality, the choice is between being “a heartless outlaw” and being “a sociopathic lawman”. I’ve shot and killed plenty of innocent people because I’ve mistaken them for criminals at a distance, and what have the consequences been? Have bounties been placed on me, like those that I regularly take on for people charged with lesser crimes such as assault or kidnapping? Nope. I lose a small amount of honour and no one’s any the wiser. Hell, I was caught cheating during a poker game and was challenged to a duel, and when I shot the unfortunate man in the arm, I was actually awarded honour for sparing his life.

 

As loveable as the characters are, (and as addictive as poker is), I just can’t stand being forced to make terrible moral decisions if I want the game to proceed. I’m about halfway through it now, and I’m not sure if I have the heart to finish it. Perhaps Undead Nightmare will be a little more satisfying.

 

Stay tuned for more rambles about my complex moral systems in games that no one cares about. See y’all next time.

Mini-gashuku at Lake Nenia: Iron Fist Retreat

EDIT: It seems I forgot to post this sooner. Whoops!

In an unprecedented stream of new blog posts, I wanted to write briefly about the recent gashuku I attended. It was my third mini-gashuku, the first of which utterly changed my life (though I did a very poor job of saying so). I’ve been training with the Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts for nearly three years now, but it feels like forever. As I’ve recently told several people, I would trade all my years of Shotokan, Shito-Ryu, ITF Taekwondo, WTF Taekwondo, Moy Lin-Shin Tai Chi and maybe even my experience in Iaido for just a few months of Wu-Wei Dao under the tutelage of Shihan Dan and Kancho Nenad.

I digress. The gashuku (or more correctly, the intensive training camp) was an excellent experience. I’m at the high end of the junior grades now and I’m not too far away from black belt, so just like in previous years I felt like I was already very familiar with the majority of the syllabus. And just like in previous years, I learned so many new things it amazes me. I refined much of my technique, smoothed out partner drills and learned a new weapon sequence. There was a grading on Sunday afternoon, and to be perfectly honest I’m a little disappointed with how I performed. I’d spent a long time (maybe forty minutes) coming up with really clever and technical applications from my kata, but I’d only practiced them once with a partner and dedicated the rest of my time to learning other drills. The result was that when I tried to perform them on the gravel, I slipped frequently, my partner reacted unpredictably and I had to change many of my beautifully planned takedowns to more generic leg sweeps. I still passed (achieving 1st kyu), which delights me, but I wish I’d practiced just a little more rather than trying to surprise everybody with my skill. Ah well, lesson learned.

I’m a little surprised to say that fear is something I experienced quite a lot of on the weekend. Fear of pain, fear of exhaustion, fear of running until I was empty and then running even more, fear of cold, fear of wet and so forth. Yes, looking back, there were many things to fear. The gashuku involved some discomfort and required me to push myself beyond what I wanted to do. But regretfully, I lost much of the magic of the present moment because I spent so much energy worrying about an uncertain future (which you might have guessed wasn’t nearly as bad as I feared it would be).

At the end of the day, I look back on the weekend and smile with fond memories of plenty of people sitting around the fireplace while they yell advice at the one guy trying to get the fire going. Of the dancing shadows cast by the trees. Of the glistening water and of the serene birdcalls. Of cat skulls and fox skins and swimming turtles and not-ducks. Of kyudo in the shade and of laughter at the table. Gashuku really is a special place where people come together, to live and train and share. It makes better people of us all, and I highly recommend it to anyone who’s interested.

Til next time.


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My 1000th blog post

This post celebrates the 1000th entry I’ve made to this blog since its inception nearly ten years ago. I hope I’m the only one that’s come close to reading all 1000, because to be honest most of them aren’t very good (particularly the ones that are pre-2008). Since it all began on 5th January, 2005, my blog has changed very much.

 

My very first post was some kind of rubbish about being teased and misunderstood and taken advantage of. It was whiny, and bitter, and jealous. I even created a new category for the occasion called “Personal Problems”. It all started as a cheeky counter to my then-current girlfriend starting up a blog (once again, this was in a time way before it was cool). I used MSN Spaces – does anyone even remember that? – a small offshoot of MSN Messenger. I wrote several entries, dropping hints to Ivy hoping that she would stumble across it. I kept it hidden from her was because I’ve always had a love of hiding things (messages, treasures) in plain sight for people to discover if they looked a little closer. From my recollection, she wasn’t particularly impressed when she found it, but her reaction did not deter me. I was onto something I loved, and nothing could sway my path.

 

A lot of my early posts were cut from the same tree as that first one. (Is that a real saying? It sounds like it could be.) They were full of teenaged righteous fury, written from a place of uncertainty of self and tenderness of ego. I make a deliberate effort to avoid reading too many such entries in one sitting, because I wince at the sort of person I was at the time. (It also serves as a reminder for me to be kinder to teenagers who are lashing out, not from being inherently annoying, but from circumstance and struggle.) Through my writing I was able to express myself, and although much of it was borne from pain and self-pity, I was also able to explore new ideas, reflect on what was important in life and write some not-so-bad creative literature.

 

What started off as a private venture became an online diary to me. And strangely, I got followers. I discovered that one or two, even three people followed my blog in secret, and so I wrote, knowing they would read. At times, I wrote prolifically (stacking up a mind-numbing 40 posts in May 2006), and I felt an obligation to post frequently, partially out of principle, but partially because I had a burning desire to share my identity with the world.

 

Throughout the following years I kept writing. Sometimes to share things of interest, sometimes as a forum for the exploration of ideas, but largely as a way to keep people updated on my life. Who were these people I was updating? Well to my astoundment, towards the end of 2013 I was averaging about 200 views per month (perhaps averaging 5-14 views per day). All kinds of people from all walks of life were finding their way to my blog. And then when I changed the url, that number dropped to about 30 per month (0-2 views per day). It was a bit of a step back, but it was one I was willing to take in order to renovate the place and reshape its nature. I wanted this to be a space that could be shared, not dominated.

 

I’ve realised that at the end of the day this is still just my personal weblog, where I can just chill out for a bit and write about life. But it also serves as a medium with which I can share ideas with the world. Through the experiences, stories, and perspectives of myself and others, I can help people to think about life or themselves in a different way. I can inject new ideas about how to think and how to relate to each other into the interwebs, to discuss ideas worth talking about and to challenge unhelpful lifestyles. And I guess I want to entertain as well – to write things that I enjoy reading, and that I hope other people enjoy reading too. And ultimately, I hope that through whatever ramblings I produce, people find their way here and enjoy it enough to stay a while and share in it.

 

So thank you for coming this far on my journey with me. I wish you all the best with your own, and I hope we can walk together a while longer yet.

 

Love,

 

Xin

My Love Affair with Wii Fit

I started playing Wii Fit U tonight. And to my surprise, it brought up a number of strong emotions. You see, I have a little bit of a history with Wii Fit.

When I first got it a few months after it came out I was so ridiculously into it. Every single day, almost without fail, I would do the daily fitness test. Even if it was 11:57pm, I’d rush home to boot up the Wii and sneak the test in before midnight. I did it obsessively for months, keeping a record of my results for no other reason other than I was proud I could manipulate the game into seeing how amazingly balanced and coordinated I was. I logged dozens of hours doing the exercises. I was a master at the soccer-based balance game, I’d unlocked the advanced shoulder stand in yoga, I completed the 100 jack-knife challenge in the strength section and I was thoroughly smitten with the female trainer. I think I clocked over 50 hours in total, and I have very fond memories of training late into the night, feeling healthier and stronger and more capable than I had otherwise been.

One day in school, I accidentally dropped my journal during home room. I went back to retrieve it after the first period, but someone had already found it, going through it and making notes on pages of interest. On the pages dedicated to my Wii Fitness Test results they had written “LOLOLOLOLOLolololOLOLOLOLOL”. It hurt me deeply, and I realised in a flash that other people thought my passion was dorky. Shortly after that I decided to stop mindlessly and obsessively doing the test every day, and soon after I stopped playing it entirely.

When Wii Fit+ came out a few years ago, I bought it out of nostalgia. I had a pretty good time with it, but I was only interested in seeing what new games and exercises they had introduced. I don’t think I played it more than twice or thrice in all. And when the Wii Fit U was announced, I was willing to give it a good try, and I was especially impressed by the Fit Meter (which acts as a pedometer and more). Once I’d booted it up, I had a really, really good time playing it, and all those fond memories came flooding back along with a peculiar sense of shame. It’s pretty senseless to hold onto the (rather low) opinion of a stranger from 2007, yet I can’t help but feel a modicum of judgement that lingers for enjoying something a little nerdy.

But there is something magical about Wii Fit. Shigeru Miyamoto’s dream of a healthier and happier population inspires me. It’s as if when he came up with the idea and shared it with others, he poured his heart into it, wanting nothing other than the people of the world to try his gamercising and love it as much as he hoped they could. And this vision is reinforced every step of the way as the Wii Fit Board tells me about the importance of good posture, healthy diet and adequate sleep. It’s as if Miyamoto-san, through the persona of the Board, really does want me to be the healthiest and happiest person I can be. And that inspires me to eat better, to exercise more and to be a more vibrant human being. And I am so grateful for that.

So, while this inspiration lasts, I am once more going to delve into the world of Wii Fit. I don’t think I’ll take the daily tests as I find them unhelpful. I know that my balance is excellent, and I’ve found that measuring my weight every day is quite discouraging. I used to score consistently between 58-60kg with the goal of putting on weight, but after my Japan trip I’m weighing in at about 66kg, which is about 4kg more than I was before I left! I’m surprised I haven’t lost the weight, but I’m not going to let it be important to me. It’s just a number, and at the end of the day it doesn’t really impact very much on how healthy I am. I’d like to lose a little more of it, but BMI is such an unreliable indicator of healthiness that I’m just going to ignore it entirely. For all I know, I could have put on stacks of muscle! (Not likely as my shadow of a six-pack has disappointingly faded, but still.)

Here’s to a happier and healthier future. I hope you’re a little inspired to make some lifestyle changes yourself! I might report back in a little while to see how things are going. Ja ne!

 

 

UPDATE: It’s kind of addictive to do the daily fitness test and unlock all the stamps. It still irks me that I’m not losing weight, and I feel myself slipping into a sense of self-criticism. But at the same time, it motivates me to eat healthier and exercise more, and I treasure that. Perhaps my fitness far exceeds the abilities of the Wii Fit board to assess, but I’m nevertheless having fun recording the amount of calories I burn and doing exercises that target different muscle groups. It continues to be a source of joy and motivation in my life, and I am grateful for it.

Kyoto Saga

So it’s been an appallingly long time since my last post about Japan. Let me then wrap up my adventures in Kyoto.

The first thing that struck me about Kyoto was that it seemed much older and far more traditional than Osaka and Tokyo. There were trees and streams and old buildings and, most delightfully of all, there were people wearing traditional Japanese clothes (similar but probably distinct from kimono). They strolled around like it was the most ordinary thing in the world. For instance, when we were at McDonalds a guycollected his meal and left, left, clutching his purse in one hand and his paper bag full of tiny burgers in the other. And while it wasn’t that common (maybe one in a hundred people), I immediately donned my yukata and hit the streets to see if I could pull off the same nonchalance. Incidentally, this ratio went up to maybe one in thirty when we were at the temples. And oh, the temples.

One ambitious morning, Craig and I set out on the Philosopher’s Path, starting at the very famous Ginkakuji (the Silver Pavillion). It was relatively quiet (something I’m told is uncommon, and due to the winter weather), and Craig and I took our time soaking it in. One of its most beautiful attributes was the meticulously sculpted representation of Fuji-san. Long did I spend in those quiet gardens, contemplating the nature of life and existence, appreciating the most wondrous and delicate moments of beauty in a world of perfect chaos. The walk back was serene as we trailed through temples and walked the ancient stone pathway.

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20140227_133022Of all the temples we visited (sadly, tired as we were I can count them on one hand), my favourite by far was Kiyomizu-dera, the Temple of Pure Water. It was pouring down on the day we visited, and I found it delightfully symbolic as we tossed money into wells, shook our fortunes from a tin and drank from the three streams of the waterfall. It was only after I returned that I discovered that they are meant to improve your longevity, success and love, and that to drink from all three might be considered greedy.

Yet as wonderful as the it was, my favourite memory of Kyoto is immersed in the sprawling streets and market stalls that surrounded the temple. Wandering from stall to stall to buy a belt, or a coin purse, or a shuriken (which customs promptly confiscated), we treated ourselves to chocolate pancakes and ice cream and other disastrously messy sweets. For lunch, we stopped in a beautiful teahouse where we ordered amazing food with matcha and sweets – an experience I treasure deeply.

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Along with my time in the ninja museum, one of my favourite parts of Japan was learning the art of kenbu, or the performance art of katana and fan. I had the best time ever taking a private lesson with the teacher, Houga-san, who taught me how to perform Hachimanko. I picked up the basics very quickly, though there were a few differences between iaido and kenbu, and I requested to incorporate the fan if possible. Eagerly he brought one out for me and showed me how to open it with just the right amount of force –crack! I was surprised at how complex the performance was for such a short piece – less than a minute in length, there was so much to remember. Even the minutest intricacies were considered, such as holding the fan so that the pin did not reflect light into the eyes of the audience, and covering the mouth of the sheath so that rain did not get in. In his masterful performance afterwards, Houga-san demonstrated how the fan could represent anything from the wheel of a carriage to a bow and arrow. I was spellbound by his aptitude. So inspired was I that I went out and bought a mae-sen (performance fan) so that I could continue practicing at home.

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And so ended our time in the Land of the Rising Sun. I miss it so, so much, and talking to friends who have recently been (to enjoy the cherry blossoms that we missed) has made the longing all the greater. I can’t wait to go back again, and inevitably I will as I continue to improve on my Japanese language skills and appreciation of culture.

All the best my friends. Jaa, mata!