Subnautica is one of the best games I’ve played in a long time. It marries a good narrative with excellent gameplay and a rare balance of complex game systems. It’s beautiful too and a nice mix of the pleasure of a well scripted game embedded in what looks like a complex naturally generated world. The rest of this post has lots of spoilers. It’s been five years since the game came out but if you haven’t played it yet I urge you to consider stop reading this post and play it instead.
My first comparison for Subnautica is Firewatch. Yeah, it’s a weird comparison, but it’s more than just a similar rendering style. Both games have a very strong narrative arc, a beginning to an end. Both games plop you alone in the middle of an unknown world with mysteries to explore. And both rely on a sense of wonder, occasional fear, and beauty. But while Firewatch is a great story it’s barely a video game, it’s the quintessential walking simulator. Subnautica manages to deliver both an excellent scripted story and have great gameplay.
The primary gameplay loop in Subnautica is survival crafting games. It’s often compared to Minecraft, Don’t Starve, No Man’s Sky. It’s a fair comparison, a lot of your time in Subnautica is spent finding resources and using them to progress along a tech tree so you can explore more dangerous and rewarding parts of the game. But those other games often end up becoming very resource heavy, rewarding collecting enormous amounts of materials for mass production. Subnautica’s crafting game is much tighter. You only need a few items of each type to build something and you typically only build one thing of that type: one weapon, one upgraded oxygen tank, one Seamoth. You do end up making a lot of food and water but even that is nicely constrained; about a third of the way through once you get one planter full of Marblemelons you’re basically set for life.
I love the subtlety of the tech upgrade tree, how awkward the advanced items are. Most games give the player a power fantasy, by the time you get all the best gear in Minecraft you’re god-tier power. But in Subnautica you never get anything very powerful. You basically never get weapons or armor that let you feel safe from the sea monsters, you are always running or hiding from them. The big crafting achievement in the game is the Cyclops, the big submarine. But it’s fantastically clumsy to manoeuvre and strangely vulnerable to attack. You end up spending the second half living in the Cyclops but it always feels like such an escape to jump back out and just swim free or use the Seamoth.
Exploration in the game is greatly improved by the balance between generated and scripted world. When the game first came out a lot of people thought the game was procedurally generated; that was the hot topic (thanks to Minecraft and No Man’s Sky) and the world is so beautifully detailed. But no, in fact the whole world is static, it plays the same for everyone. Not great for replayability but excellent for game design. The orderly progression through biomes and depths gives them a game a lot of story telling structure. You never quite feel led by the nose but you work your way through signposted encounters: the Aurora, the Degassi bases, the Lost River, the very deeps at the endgame.
That exploration is also where I had a little trouble. The game deliberately is disorienting; you’re never given a map and the mini-map like sonar images are not useful for navigating. All you get are beacon landmarks you place yourself. And the game is a 3d underwater maze, with the second half of the game entirely in cave systems! I finally gave up and used a fan-made map of the Lost River because I’d gotten a little stuck and confused. That was a big help to me. Getting lost is a big part of the game, I don’t mind that being a gameplay element. But video games are such a limited medium we don’t get to use our real-world navigation skills much. That’s why games always have HUDs and minimaps, they replace your innate sense of direction. I felt that lack a little here.
Being lost in the depths of the ocean is part of the fun of the game, the occasional fear. But what really accentuates that is the sound design. The creature noises are fantastic; you’ll be cruising along picking up quartz crystals and thinking you’re safe when you hear the most terrifying moan off in the distance. Stereolocated, and you can hear it’s getting closer. Such terror! Being in the Cyclops and hearing all the creaks of the hull, the thumps as fish smack into your ship. It’s a trick as old as Das Boot but it works remarkably well in the game.
Last note of appreciation for me, the end of the game. Most games like this by the time you reach the end both the player and the game designers are worn out. They’ve shown you all they have and you’re grateful just to read the final boss fight and end screen. Not Subnautica. First there’s no boss fight, that’d be totally wrong for a game with basically no fighting. Instead you have a boss… communion? Final crafting challenge? It’s great. And then, at least the way I played it, there’s a wonderful anticlimax. You’ve solved all the mysteries of the planet and are finally ready to escape but you still have to craft the rocket and take off. Which means one last trip to the surface, one last crafting challenge. I really enjoyed the feeling of scavenging my existing base and submarine for materials to use. That shield generator was hard earned and essential to my submarine survival but now I wouldn’t need it on the planet any more, time to reuse it for the rocket ship to escape. And even that rocket ship had a lot of grace notes; an elaborate launch sequence and the ability to create a time capsule. A very thoughtful farewell in a place most games would just have a single "you win" button to press.
Subnautica really is a masterfully crafted game from start to end. Depth, complexity, beauty. A good story and great gameplay systems to support it. Quite an achievement.
Like everyone I’m riding out this Covid-19 lockdown with a mix of depression, anxiety, anger, boredom. And obsessively reading every detailed quality article I can find about both the disease and the politics around the disease. And it’s just all too much. Ordinarily my goal is to research something and get at some truth people don’t know about, then report it. I did this a couple of weeks ago about an unfounded theory that SARS-CoV-2 was in California last fall.
But right now there’s so many awful things going on. And I go deep on some topic and it doesn’t matter because it’s just all too much. People don’t care about the details of some particular nuance of antibody test specificity and Bayesian statistics. They just want to know "is the medical science going to make us safe?" "Are our politicians doing a good job helping us be safe?"
The top level answer on medical science is "science will make us safe, but it takes time". The top level on the politics is "America is doing a terrible job". The Trump administration is full of vandals and science deniers. Trump himself seems worried only in trying to save his re-election chances and lurches day to day to new outrages. Some of the states, including California, are doing better but it’s all going way too slow. My particular anger is focussed on the lack of testing capacity. We are way below what we need to safely reopen the country.
Anyway, it’s all too much. So rather than meticulously run down a bunch of complicated stories I’m just going to list a bunch of the big outrages with minimal references, just so I don’t lose track or forget that they have happened.
It’s not a comprehensive list, it’s just the outrages of the last two months I could remember offhand. It’s too much.
If you made it all the way to the bottom of this bummer post, let me give you one silver lining in the Covid-19 cloud. J. Kenji López-Alt, my favorite food nerd, has been doing an excellent series of home cooking videos. They are a delight.
A favorite indulgent potato chip dip. It's the mild egg flavor with a bit of smoke makes this special. We generally have it as a holiday treat but there's nothing particularly Christmassy about it. Ken says he got the recipe from someone who worked with his Mom around 1960.
Chop the eggs in a food processor fairly fine. Put the cream cheese into a wide, shallow bowl. Add the eggs and mayonnaise and mix well with a fork. Add the remaining seasonings and mix again. Enjoy with your favorite chips. This is a mild dip so plain or mild flavored chips are a better choice.
I posted this recipe three years ago but that was me trying to reconstruct it; this better version is from Ken's own hand.
I went to DC a few weeks ago and visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It is an excellent pair of museums, I strongly recommend anyone visiting DC make it a priority. It’s still free and still a hot ticket but easier to get in to than before. If you’re going in summer reserve tickets three months in advance for your best experience. But you can also get same-day tickets and walkups, particularly outside of peak season.
The museum is clearly designed as two separate sections. Downstairs is history, upstairs is culture. The bottom half of the museum is a fantastic history of African Americans from the earliest days of slavery, through slave uprisings, emancipation, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights era. It’s ambitious. It will leave you exhausted at the end with no energy for the other half of the museum, the cultural museum. Which is also fantastic, a celebration of African American cultures. Food, textiles, sports, music, TV. I mean, they have the goddamn P-Funk mothership! It’s a lot of fun. Definitely also worth a visit, but plan a break for lunch or something in the middle.
I approached this museum from the background of having visited a lot of German museums about Nazi history. I was wondering how the Smithsonian would deal with America’s enormous crime against humanity. Thoroughly and honestly, but very differently from the German museums. The Nazi memorials tend to a direct documentation of how the genocide and other crimes were conducted. They are focussed on a recent history in living memory, and one that is meticulously documented in precise bureaucratic detail. By contrast formal American slavery is 150+ years old and there’s precious few direct records of, say, individual slaveholders and their daily abuses. The historical distance demands a different telling. Also the Smithsonian has made a decision to tell as uplifting a history as possible; in every room details of African American resistance, strength, and heroism are highlighted. I think that’s admirable but it doesn’t leave a lot of room for documenting the horrible abuses. Those are documented, but only as one facet of the whole museum.
So I was a little conflicted. Honestly I think America needs a fully uncomfortable museum about slavery where the abuses are the focus. How American people and government worked to subjugate other Americans, to keep them and their children in slavery. Far too many people still think that slavery wasn’t really that bad, or wasn’t really Americans’ faults, or that slavery is over so what’s the big deal now? The German museums exist to ensure that no German can be at all confused about what happened in the Nazi regime and could never consider even slightly lionizing that era. Plenty of Americans still celebrate Confederate "heroes" and do not admit to the horrible abuses of slavery, not just in its time but the echoes of it today. I fear in softening the message the Smithsonian does not do enough to communicate how horrible American slavery was. There are a couple of museums that are more focussed on the mechanisms of abuse which I need to visit; the Whitney Plantation near New Orleans and the Lynching Memorial in Montgomery.
One other thing I can’t let go… Nazi memorials in Germany are in no way museums of Jewish culture. They are museums of German history. The Smithsonian has chosen to put museums of both Culture and History together in one place. I think they’ve done an excellent job of it. The separation of floors makes for a separation of concerns. And I like the uplifting message in the history section, the story of how African Americans shall overcome. So the combination works, but it still makes me uneasy.
Mexico City is famous right now for its food culture. From the temples of fine dining like Pujol to casual street tacos people love to eat well in CDMX. I made thorough notes on all the places we ate on a short trip. My favorite places were Carmela y Sal, Corazón de Maguey, and Taqueria Califa.
Cafe Tacuba for lunch. Our tour guide suggested this as something near the Cathedral. I really liked it, a funky throwback cafe with a nearly ossified traditional Mexican menu. Honestly the service was a bit off and slow, but that was offset by the place being so retro and comfortable. I liked my chile rellenos quite a bit although I would have traded one of the two enormous chiles for a more complex sauce. Ken’s enchiladas tapatías were good.
Carmela y Sal for dinner. We told some of the hotel staff we were going here and they were all very excited; apparently chef Gabriela Lugo has made quite an impression in town. Us too, this felt like the exciting, trendy, yet comfortable kind of place that everyone says Mexico City is great for. The highlight dish for us was the "liar’s tostadas", a vegan preparation of coconut doctored up to taste like crab pork. Delicious on their own merits even without the hilarious cooking trick. My Poc Chuc was also fantastic, as was Ken’s creamy canneloni. Great wine list too. This restaurant was where we figured out Mexican portions are huge, we ordered way too much food. As dining mistakes go that’s not so bad.
Corazón de Maguey. Our tour guide took us here for a mezcal tasting; they are serious about mezcal here. Which was great, it’s interesting to taste a bunch of mezcals against each other. Nice restaurant too, good basic Mexican vibe with a leaning towards Oaxacan cuisine. I loved the Coyoacán neighborhood this is located in, the restaurant is right on the lively main park / square that defines the neighborhood.
Capital Grille. We decided we might want some familiar American food one night, and who doesn’t like a good steak? They delivered well here, although other than a couple of Mexican cocktails we could just as easily have been in Duluth or Miami or Toronto. Was nearly empty on Saturday night other than a lunch party that’d started 7 hours before; I suspect this is a businessman’s dinner kind of place. If you want a US steak at US prices go here, otherwise go somewhere Mexican!
Taqueria Califa. Casual and fast tacos but in a nice well lit place with table service. Certainly a good choice for gringos who want street food but are nervous about it. My favorite here was the classic tacos al pastor; with fresh onion, cilantro, and pineapple setting off the roast pork so well. Great place for a quick snack or casual full meal.
Porfirios. Dinner at a hilariously trendy / fancy restaurant. I think every single table had at least one tableside preparation, whether molcajete or something set on fire or the lady wheeling around a street corn sign. Great looking grilled steaks and shrimp, but we stuck with simpler chiles rellenos (good) and enchiladas mole (too sweet). This seems to be a place wealthy locals go to celebrate. The lighting in the restaurant is tragic though; so dark all the waiters have flashlights handy for reading menus but then also a super bright TV in the bar annoying everyone having dinner. On the balance I think the theater of it overcame the quality of the food. It was fine, but I wouldn’t go back.
Restaurante Meztli. Not in CDMX but rather right next to the pyramids at Teotihuacán, a good spot for thirsty tourists. Margaritas, micheladas, good guacamole and enchiladas. I can’t say it’s anything special but for the middle of a tourist zone it was quite good. The owner was super friendly, too.
Zanaya restaurant at the Four Seasons. Traditional Mexican, not great. Dinner felt more like an obligatory hotel restaurant than a place someone was running with love. Absolutely beautiful outdoor patio in the hotel’s magnificent garden courtyard. Sadly we had to sit inside which is not nearly as nice, despite the cool retro tile. Good cocktail list but the food seemed a bit ordinary, certainly not elevated. Definitely would not make a trip to dine here. (Breakfast here was good, but is a whole different thing.)
So those are all the places we dined. In addition I polled friends for places to go, here’s a list sorted by popularity: Pujol, Azul, Lardo, Tetetlan, La Clandestina, Alba in Roma Norte, Quintonil, Casa Hevia, Brassi, Dulce Patria, Casa Virginia, La Docena, Chureria El Moros, Rokai, Elilsito, La Capital, Lucerna Comedor, Rosetta, Masala y Maiz, Contramar, Maximo Bistro.
For my birthday this year we visited Mexico City in early March. It was great! I enthusiastically recommend it to anyone who’s interested in going to a big city that’s vibrant and has a long great cultural history. Also relatively inexpensive for American wallets. We went for four days and that was a good taste of the city. But there’s so much to do and enjoy I could see spending much longer, particularly if you start getting into neighborhoods and enjoying daily life.
There’s some photos here on Twitter. I didn’t do as good a job taking pictures this trip as I usually do.
I have to confess this trip was a bit of an education for me. I grew up in Houston with severe prejudice, so much that "Mexican" sounds like a slur to me, not a description of nationality. I think I’ve grown past the outright bigotry but my brief tourist jaunts across the border and on the coast didn’t really cure me of the idea that Mexico was somehow lesser. Mexico City is a whole different thing, a sophisticated international city bustling with life and excitement. Sure some taxis will rip you off and as a visitor you probably shouldn’t drink the tap water. But it’s a home to 21M people, fully modern, and full of excitement and modern culture and history and great food. Also people seemed very friendly, relaxed, and welcoming. I’m looking forward to going back.
We stayed at the Four Seasons which treated us very well. This hotel’s rooms all front on an enormous central courtyard so it’s quiet and beautiful. Service was excellent. Didn’t love their casual Mexican restaurant for dinner although breakfasts were great.
We booked this trip with a tour guide and driver via Journey Mexico for four full days. It was great; we saw a lot more than we would have on our own and understood more about what we saw. It was also exhausting and I think next time we’ll probably plan half days, stop at lunch. It’s an expensive way to travel but you can get a lot of the same value by hiring tour guides day by day and taking Uber everywhere. Here’s what we did:
Day 1: City Centre. The Templo Mayor museum, the Diego Garcia mural at the National Palace, and a quick visit to the San Juan Market. (We were supposed to see the Cathedral and the Palacio de Bellas Artes too, but skipped them). The museum offered us a remarkable view of historical Mexico City, the way the new city was built right on top of the old Aztec temple center. And the Diego Garcia mural is phenomenal, you can get something of a view of it here. I wish we’d spent more time just walking around the streets and less at the Templo Mayor, but we were moving slow. Fun retro lunch at Cafe Tacuba.
Day 2: Rivera/Kahlo/Trotsky and Coyoacán. The highlight here was visiting the Casa Azul, a privately run museum about Frida Kahlo at her home. The exhibitions were quite good and personal. Huge line to get in, even with advance tickets. We also visited the Rivera and Kahlo studio which was interesting architecturally but the exhibits are not so exciting. OTOH the Trotsky museum was fascinating; I had no idea Trotsky lived in exile in Mexico City and met a dismal end with an ice axe stuck in his head by a Soviet assassin. All these sites are near each other in the southern part of the city in the absolutely charming Coyoacán neighborhood where we had a great lunch and mezcal tasting at the Corazón de Maguey.
Day 3: Chapultepec Castle and the Anthropology Museum. The castle is a walk up a big hill but the views and exhibits are worth the effort. A preserved vestige of Hapsburg and French meddling in Mexican politics, the brief-lived Emperor of Mexico. Unfortunately that left us without enough energy for the anthropology museum, one of the best in the world and the very best for Mesoamerican history. I want to go back to Mexico City just to spend a couple of days slowly working through its treasures. For lunch I had the best tacos al pastor of my life at Taqueria Califa.
Day 4: Teotihuacan. An hour drive NE of the city, Teotihuacan is an enormous archaeological site of a city that lived from 150 BC to 600 AD. At its height it had some 200,000 residents, making it one of the largest cities in the world. It’s totally worth the drive to visit, particularly to see the reconstruction of the 2.5 mile long Avenue of the Dead and the scale of the Pyramids and Temples built alongside it. There’s also a lot of beautifully preserved original carving and painting on-site to see and a small museum of artifacts. If you want some companion reading this recent museum exhibition catalog is very up to date and has both great text and photographs. Lunch was nearby at the surprisingly good Restaurante Meztli.
In the evenings we went out mostly to fancy restaurants. See my companion blog post for more, but our favorite was Carmela y Sal. Our trip was a nice mix of ancient history and recent. If I had to pick three highlights off the list, I’d say the Diego Garcia mural, the Casa Azul, and the anthropology museum. What I wish we’d done more of was just getting into the town, walking around and enjoying neighborhoods and cafes. But that takes more time and local knowledge (not to mention language) than we had this first visit. But I’m sure Mexico City is a place I will happily return to, enjoy and experience more.
I had a nice two week visit to Portland. I have fantasies about moving back there so I indulged that for a couple of weeks renting a house like I dreamed about when I was in college right near Hawthorne & 39th (now Cesar Chavez). My Wanderings app captured where I went.
Mostly a lot of hanging out in SE, with a couple of trips to downtown and once out to NE. A lot of the activity is dining. Some of the best places I went were Teote for beer in the back garden, Pok Pok for fantastic Thai, and Coquine for fine dining out by Mt Tabor. Also nice experiences at Xico, Afuri, Tasty ‘n’ Alder, Han Oak, The Imperial, and of course the Rum Club. The food and beverage situation in Portland is really great and has been for a few years now. The economics are such that restaurants can do interesting things without having to charge outrageous amounts for it. Lower risk for everyone = more interesting food and drink.
It's great fun to visit Portland and see all my old and new friends. I'm amazed how many people have moved there; only about ⅓ of the folks I know in Portland were from my college days. I still can’t really move back to Portland, too many roots in California. But I like the idea of visiting and staying in AirBnBs in SE more frequently. Particularly in the four months of the year the weather doesn’t suck.
Ken and I went to Europe a couple of months ago. I spent a few days alone in London, then we spent a couple of weeks together in Portugal. So really two trips, but here in one blog post. As always Twitter has my memories and photos: here’s a Storify collection from London and another from Portugal.
My first time in London and I enjoyed it, would love to go back. I spent two full days at the British Museum. The part I remember best is the Enlightenment Room, a collection of miscellany presented as if you were in an 18th century library. It perfectly captures the optimistic spirit of the Enlightenment. The best part of Empire, when British scientists felt they could understand everything but collecting objects from all over the world and studying them. A good place to start a visit before seeing the grander “transported” treasures in the galleries. (My favorites of those: the Assyrian galleries and the Aztec masks.)
Portugal was great. We spent a week in Lisbon and Porto and another week poking around the countryside. Porto was my favorite place; a small city with beautiful topography and a lot of youthful optimism. I becamse fascinated with azulejo, the painted tile that’s a centuries-long tradition. Our visit to the smaller towns wasn’t as successful; Portugal still is a relatively poor country and the vernacular of food and accomodation is variable. But I’m glad we go to see some of the more remote monuments and the countryside was quite pleasant.
Ken and I took a lovely tourist trip to Scotland. Here’s a Storify of photos and comments; I tend to use Twitter like postcards while travelling, it works great for that. Scotland is a nice mix of modern European city and remote coastal landscapes. And so green! (And rainy.) Our trip broke down into two kinds of experiences: cities on either end, and lots of driving around the west in the middle.
We started in Edinburgh, a wonderful city. Highly recommend 3+ days in that city, it’s just beautiful and lots to enjoy. We ended the trip in Glasgow, which was also great. They say Edinburgh is the pretty sister. But Glasgow is the sister you’d want to hang out with in the pub. More of a regular city but a vibrant one with lots to offer. Also a city on the upswing.
Our countryside trip started with a couple of nights in Inverness. There’s not much to the town but it’s a convenient base for travelling to Speyside in the east and Loch Ness and the Great Glen to the southwest. Culloden made a big impression on us, the historical monument there is very well done. Loch Ness was a bit of a letdown, it’s just like all the other beautiful lakes in Scotland only this one is full of tourists so you can’t park to see anything.
The Isle of Skye is primary recommendation if you want some remote countryside tourism in Scotland. It’s beautiful and the northern parts feel very remote and sparse, the landscape reminded me a bit of the Faroes. Only there’s lots of hotels and restaurants and decent enough roads. The Clan Donald visitor center made a good impression too, much smarter than you’d expect a family-funded history museum to be. Most of the western part of the trip was just driving around remote roads from beautiful site to site. Lots to enjoy.
We stayed in some fantastic hotels along the way, see the map link above for details. Also ate at some great restaurants. The finest meal of all was at Martin Wishart in Loch Lomond, excellent Michelin star level food and service that executed perfectly. For less demanding dining we very much liked the Scran & Scallie in Edinburgh and the Ubiquitous Chip in Glasgow.
Maui is rural and full of natural beauty but with some upscale tourist hotels as well. We stayed down in Wailea which has nice resorts, restaurants, and beaches. We also drove all over. The famous Road to Hana made much better with this audio guide, although I regret not planning more time to stop and go swimming in the waterfall pools. Also Lāhainā which is interesting for its 19th century history. The helicopter tour of Molokaʻi was also phenomenal.
Oʻahu is much more urban. The North Shore has some nature but we never left Honolulu. Waikiki is remarkably convenient for a simple carless visit, I totally understand why people go just there for short vacations, but then Hawaiʻi has so much more to offer than one tourist mall! One highlight of Oʻahu was the Heart of the USS Missouri tour at Pearl Harbor, crawling around the engineering rooms of a 1940s battleship. The other was the Bishop Museum’s phenomenal collection of Hawaiian cultural artifacts, made more special by visiting with a friend who is an anthropology professor. We’re not really relax-on-the-beach tourists so it was nice to have some more organized activities in Honolulu.
We are food tourists though! Got some great advice from folks. On Maui my favorite meals were at Monkeypod and Mama’s Fish House. Spago was also very good although not particularly Hawaiian. On Oʻahu the most interesting local meals we had were at The Pig and the Lady and Mud Hen Water. We also really enjoyed Hy’s for wood-fired steaks and La Mer offers an excellent fine French dining meal.