Posted tagged ‘best’

Great European Train Experience.

May 23, 2009

(Long delay between updates this time, just got back from some camping among other things. Hope to finish up a few half-written memories I’ve got saved before the next time I vanish.)

So you’re a backpacker, making your way across the world saving every last penny you can in the hopes of squeezing just a few more days travel outta the money you’ve got sitting in the bank. Plus there’s the entire ordeal of being able to afford to get home at some point. Now sure, you *could* in theory walk (or swim) everywhere you want to go. There was a neat video circulating around the Internet only days ago of a man who crossed China and I presume much of Australia or some-such on foot. Impressive! But me? I’m too lazy to walk that far! Do you realize how much walking that is? It’s insane. Plus I really don’t have the face for one of those ‘grizzled traveller’ beards that inevitably spread across the faces of wanderer’s everywhere, I’ve tried it and honestly think I look ridiculous. However I’m also far too cheap and, let’s face it, poor to fly everywhere, so what options do I have left?

The train, that’s what. Whether it be Eurorail or Britrail or any other ___rail, it’s the backpackers transportation method of choice. I’ve spent more time sitting on my ass bored outta my mind on trains than I dare to contemplate. Hell, during one particularly long trip I practically took root at one point and spent hours drifting too and fro between the dreary reality of this trains interior and the fantastical world that exists only within my mind (It’s awesome there, you should visit!). And in France I had the particularly entertaining experience of getting kicked off a train into the middle of nowhere all because the train I was *supposed* to take had been canceled and the only other train running that morning to my destination was of a particular brand which didn’t allow the pass I used and blah blah etc. The point it is was not fun. I can recall numerous unpleasant experience involving trains.

However not all is bad, indeed some of the most amazing moments you’ll ever enjoy, the most incredible sights and the most surreal experience are often on those amazing massive machines we call trains. And so in the spirit of adventure, allow me to recall a few of the most memorable experience I’ve had while riding upon the good ol’ train system, regardless of where or when.

-Scotland, Edinburgh-Inverness.

The Britrail train system is rather expensive but makes up for that in quality and comfort when compared to mtos other rail system. The problem however is that most of England honestly isn’t that grand to look at and what portions do sport a grand view, well, the locals also thought the view was fantastic and didn’t want a railway botching the view and so often planted trees and shrubs to obscure that unpleasant train from sight. Wonderful for the locals but miserable for those within the trains who’s view is obscured by layers of foliage. The exception to this is Scotland where the hills are free and stunningly beautiful to behold and the view is rarely obscured, leaving the trip a wonderful experience where you sit and relax in comfort and watch the Scottish Highlands as they pass by your window. Even now the lands look wild and untamed, the grass lush and the sky a mesmerizing shade of blue that leaves you breathless and wide-eyed. It’s a long train-ride and not all of it is so stunning, but what sections are more than make up for any restless boredom you might have built up. There’s just a certain rugged beauty to the landscape in Scotland that I can’t help but be impressed by and recommend for everyone to experience and see for themselves.

-Switzerland, Brig-Zurich.

This is one of the most well known ‘scenic’ train routes to such an extent that the trains themselves you’ll ride on this trip are specially designed for sight-seeing. So famous really that I was amazed to discover my Eurorail pass worked for the trip with no additional fees, something I was quick to take advantage of. At first I feared the typical crowds that come with any major attraction, but with a little patience I waited till a train arrived at such a time few other passengers boarded with me, most having crowded aboard the earlier train. So with the train all but abandoned and the weather wonderful that day, was the trip all it is hyped up to be? Yes! Absolutely yes! From the beginning to the end this is one train ride which will leave you in wide-eyed wonder with barely a seconds pause between one stunning vista and another. The Swiss alps are truly gorgeous to behold and this particular train ride grants its passengers an unobstructed and unrestricted view. Whether you stare in wonder at the massive mountains or the pristine lakes, the perfectly cut green lawns or the picturesque cottage villages that dot the mountaintops, you WILL be amazed.

-Italy, Pompei-Foggia-Termoli.

From the comfortable confines of the British rail and the famed views of the Swiss trains, we now go in a different direction to a less well known and less sumptuous experience. Riding in a beat-up single-car train among a few surly locals this train rout twists and turn amidst the Italian alps exposing view after view which will leave you amazed. This is a long stretch and likely to take an entire day, but will give you an unparalleled view of Italy as few travellers will ever see, from vast verdant farms to the wild mountainous alps and even Italian grasslands with massive hills of wheat all swaying soothingly in the pleasant Italian breeze. As wonderful as the view is however, the experience itself is what sealed this particular stretch into my mind. The rickety train, the small town train-stops you’ll encounter along the way, the locals as they ride alongside you. It all adds up to one memorable experience you’re unlikely to ever forget.

-Memorable experience in Termoli, Italy.

This is one of those stories which at the time left me endlessly frustrated but which even at the time I remarked ‘this will make for one helluva story when I get home’. Allow me to set the scenario; it’s early morning and I’ve just arrived at the train station to board a train to Ravenna. The weather is nice and although the train I board seems beat-up, this doesn’t surprise me. Italy in general has terrible trains and just as terrible service really. This morning would be the one to cement that idea within my mind as first minutes and then nearly an hour passes without the train moving an inch. No announcements are made, and even if there were they’d be unlikely to translate anything for the poor pair of Canadian backpackers aboard. Finally, impatient, I set off myself to try and find out what the blazes is going on… and that’s when I see it! A portly Italian man with a bristling beard and a pissed look on his red-flushed face push-starting the train with a long stick. Oh, you think I’m lying? Surely, you say, it is both impossible and silly. But I do not lie! You see, although the train was diesel or somesuch, it used an overhead power line in order to get that initial burst of power needed to no doubt start the engines proper. Problem was one of the connectors was failing to rise and so the train could not start. Naturally, you surmise, they’d call in a proper engineer to get that fixed, perhaps call in another train seeing as this one clearly is broken in a very fundamental way? But no, oh-no, the Italian solution? A portly sweating Italian man and a long stick. Seems like a decent idea even until you realize that power line he’s poking at is buzzing with more than enough electricity to reduce one large Italian man to a large Italian corpse. And then you are witness to the fascinating and terrifying image of one, by this point extremely pissed, Italian man pushing upwards and flinching away at the last second in a dance of electric poke-death, all to try and get the connector atop the train to touch that wire and give the engine a nice starting buzz. And yes, frustrated Italians do say ‘mama-mia’ all the time! It’d be a bit more comical were it not for the death-defying nature of the scene before me and the fact by this point boredom has seethed within me to such a point I’d be lying if I weren’t secretly hoping to see a little zap, just a little one, just enough to set the man a dancin and me laughing. But no, eventually the connection was made and the train was sent off to its destination where I’ve little doubt the next day it had to be poke-started all over again. Absolutely miserable at the time, but I was right, it’s a fun story to tell!

-Austria & Germany, Innsbruck-Munich.

There are a couple places in the world left that just seem to even now evoke thoughts of wonder and chivalry. Of armoured knights charging through mist-strewn forests and grand battles fought in ages past. One early morning departing from Innsbruck I got to see some of those places as my train twisted and turned through the mountains towards southern Germany. The mist was a perfect white that seethed as though alive amidst the forests, of magical vast mountain vistas being exposed to my view for a few brief, amazing moments before the sight is swallowed once again by that mystical white cloud. Small wood-built cottages still lingering as though sent from a time passed among the rocks and trees, glimpsed only for brief flashes before lost to sight. For a a brief stretch of time, riding along within that train, I could truly believe I were staring out from my window into a strange and distant land of wonder and beauty, mystery and glory! Truly that mornings train ride was for a stretch one of the most inspiring moments of my life, and although I cannot guarantee anyone else travelling that same route would experience the same thing, I can only say ‘go, go yourself and hope you too will get to see something akin to how I saw it that one misty mornings ride’.

-Memorable experience entering Germany via train.

Short one this, but entertaining. Everyone knows the German stereotype of big burly men with handlebar moustache and black leather caps, all but bursting forth in hairy power like some sort of terrifying bear/man hybrid no doubt designed from birth to appear in a certain type of film which I shall not mention. For the most part it’s not really true, but there was this one time… picture two men fitting the exact description above sauntering into your train cabin and staring at you with a look that seems to physically shove you back against your seat. Now picture them coming up to you, massive shadows of squeaking leather and exposed hair (So. Much. Hair! Gah!) and staring down towards you. And as you wonder if you’re about to be beaten up for some unknown crime one pulls out a badge and demands to see your passport. I’m a decent size guy, taller than most others so I’m not used to feeling intimidated through sheer size, but that was one such experience. I’d never before been asked for my passport while travelling along the euro train-line, but I was hardly in a position to say no and so I showed it to them. They hummed and stared over it, grunting then as they handed it back to me and in an anti-climactic finish simply walked away. I know, being asked for your passport by a pair of officers isn’t really that grand an experience, but still, it was one helluva thing at the time and really, why the blazes were they dressed for a cheap German porn flick anyway? Damn, I said it! They never did ask anyone else in the train car for their passports either I might add. I hope I don’t look like the criminal type, do I?

-Germany, Munich-Füssen/Neuschwanstein

Another southern-Germany thing, Bavaria, but this one a different sort of experience. I’m not really sure how to describe this one really, so I’ll let some pictures do the talking for me as the sheer majesty of the view on that train ride is of nearly indescribable beauty. These are all taken from the moving train, luckily my camera is well suited to snapping moving scenery.

Breathtaking!Stunning! –  Scenic!

Really, I can barely believe it now looking at those pictures that that was something I saw and enjoyed. That I was really there and that such places really exist outside of fantastical tales and movie magic.

-Germany, Frankfurt-Koblenz, along the Rhine River.

Germany again, what gives? Well for one the German train system is easily the best in Europe. Second, it’s a big place! This time rather than Southern Germany and Bavaria we’re talking the Rhine River. What’s so special about it? Not only are the natural vistas beautiful on their own, but… how can I put this? There are so damn many castles, palace and monuments along the Rhine that it’s almost silly. I can just picture these wealthy nobles staring out their windows from one hilltop to another yelling ‘We must build our castle bigger, more twisty towers and spiral staircase or our neighbors will outdo us!’. Even the sheer magnitude of castles and monument aside, there’s also the small picture-perfect towns you’ll pass and the pleasant ambiance to take in. It really is a fantastic trip.

That’s all I can think of for now, but perhaps later I’ll add another. There’s a particular stretch along the Italian coast that was postcard-perfect with jagged dramatic cliff strewn with wildflower and numerous small cottage dangling close to the coastal brink, but for the life of me I can’t remember where exactly this was and didn’t manage to snap any pictures to remember it by later.

What makes a truly great video-game?

February 16, 2009

It was inevitable that I’d start writing about video-games on this little journal of mine eventually. They’re simply too big a part of my life to be pushed aside, forgotten or ignored but for a side comment in my About info. By writing this I’m more or less abandoning the idea of this being a purely travel site, no, I suppose I’m going to grow it into something a bit more personal. More general. And I’m glad of it! I think I’ll be posting here much more often from now on.

But to the topic at hand; what makes a truly great video game?

Now anyone who plays video-games is going to have a different opinion on the matter and almost all gamers will have their own private list of ‘best games of all time’ and a laundry list of reasons why. But my goal here isn’t to list my personal favorite games so much as to simply try and nail down what it is… what it is that really makes a game not simply good or even fun, but legendary in a way few games are. The instant classics and the games released years ago which continue to have a following to this day! The games which define what games do!

So what makes a game not simply good, but great? Ambition for one. Most of the ‘best’ games out there, the most polished and highly rated are in truth re-treads of an established idea. A limited scope that’s been polished to such perfection that the player can find little to no fault and whether the game is good or not becomes less a matter of real debate and more simple taste. You look at the highest rated games and you’ll find sequels and spiritual successors to other games, games which take an established concept and stick to it. Just look at the latest gaming trends! Right now the popular genre is shooters and as such there’s a steady stream of unambitious but excellent shooters on store shelves and in development as I type this. Lots and lots of em! Now to be clear there’s nothing wrong with the games that do this, they’re fantastic, but they’re just not ambitious in any adventurous sense. There’s no risk or drama in the games creation. Oh sure, there may be a neat new ‘innovative’ gameplay idea or one feature which stands out (Our game has destructible environments! Ours has fantastic visuals! Ours has an amazing sidekick character! Ours lets you toss fireballs out yer bum!) but that’s all.

No, the ambitious games are those which try something entirely new or those which wander down a rarely tread path. Those which take an established idea and throw em out the window in favor of something different, does not even need to be a change in gameplay but perhaps a plot or overall concept! This doesn’t always end well, in-fact more often than not these are complete failures (There’s a reason so many games follow the same beaten paths: It’s safe and rewarding!) but for those few that succeed, those very few that manage to accomplish even just a little of what they sought to achieve, the rewards can be great as they truly stand apart from the rest.

What else? Immersion. This can be a tricky subject as what’s immersive can be quite subjective depending on the person so let’s look at the basics for a moment. What is immersion? It’s that draw, the lure and intensity when something becomes more than simply a moving picture on a screen or a scrawl of words across a page. It’s that moment when you realize you’ve become so absorbed into a fiction that you’re leaning forward, muscles strained and brow dotted with sweat, because the real world, even for just a matter of seconds, faded entierly from your mind and for those few moments that fiction was your reality.  It’s something movie directors have learned to use and books strive to create. It’s also something which games above all other mediums have the potential to create, being interactive as they are… And those few, those noble few games that have really mastered the immersive factor are among the most memorable experiences you’ll ever have. Game or not!

Which brings me to another thing I’d say makes a game great, this time a feature specific to games and games alone. Interactivity. Again, a tricky thing to really nail down as games can be interactive in many different ways. But in this case I mean more in an in-game sense. Interactivity in the way that you genuinely ‘feel’ like you have an impact on this virtual setting regardless of whether you truly do or not. Why do I say interactivity is one of the major features? Because this is what sets video-games apart from any other creative entertainment medium out there. This is the video-games defining attribute! You cannot interact with the story in a book nor the actors in a movie. In a game, you can! And *any* great game needs to exploit this in some way. Whether it’s making a virtual world that reacts to your every whim or one which you can control and enjoy in some strange or quirky way, it’s an absolute must.

I will add this however; Many games today and in the past have not been truly interactive in any real way. Look at a typical shooter, what is interactive about it? You control what you shoot, but in order to advance you MUST shoot exactly what the game has given you. There’s no real impact with anything you do nor do you have any real choice. You shoot, something likely dies, you advance. Being able to ‘interact’ with the environment by knocking over objects or even shooting a hole in a wall is little more than a flourish, the equivalent of those cheesy 3D glasses in theaters. A purely cosmetic touch that ultimately changes little beyond perhaps the immediate conflict. There’s no genuine sense that you have an impact, that the world is responding. It’s digital LEGO!

By this point if you’re reading this and you’re familiar with games you might be thinking “But not every game can be role-playing game or the like if that’s what you’re asking!”, and I can understand that, but it isn’t what I’m asking. No. What I ask is the idea that we can have an impact. That we are given at least the illusion of choice, that we’re not simply walking down a pre-ordained path but instead stepping into a world of our choosing. Interacting with a pre-determined fiction rather than simply guided through it. You follow?

So that makes three things: Ambition, Immersion, and Interactivity. It may sound extremely general or vague, but given the parameters I’ve given, what games meet those three requirements? Really think about it, toss favoritism aside and think. I’ll admit right now that the game I’d easily call my all time favorite, well, it doesn’t really pass those. It meets ambition and interactivity, but lacks immersion. So my all time favorite is out. Games that do make those three requirements are surprisingly few in truth, and I’m hard-pressed to come up with more than a handful, which is exactly how it should be.

The reason I write this is because despite the childish themes for many games, the over-the-top violence and the downright stupidity that pervades many aspects of the gaming industry, games as a medium have more potential than any before to not only tell stories but to entertain and expand our horizons and knowledge. You laugh, sure. They’re just games! But think about it; The stereotype that many games are childish is true enough, but at the same time the potential as another story-telling medium is incredible. Not only can you enjoy a story, but you can now interact with it in a way none before have allowed, and that’s amazing! The possibilities are endless.

Which is not to demean those games out there which focus entirely on being fun or entertaining. That’s what the industry is founded on! I just believe that those few games which truly stand out and expand our definitions of what games can do should be appreciated for what they’ve done. I think it’s an absolute shame so many classic gaming experience are simply tossed aside, where under any other medium a project of that sort of ambition would be remembered and held high as deserved.

So to that end I made this article. I’m not going to list any games which I believe meet the requirements because the instant I do this becomes a topic not so much about promoting the genre as praising my own personal favorites. If someone asks I’d be happy to name a few in the comments, I’m not one to deny curiosity, but the article itself shall remain without. Nevertheless I thank you for reading my latest rant and the first in what will undoubtedly be the first in a long chain of video-game related babblings. Thank you!