Review: Ghosts

Ghosts is a very funny British comedy about, well, ghosts. It’s currently available on HBO Max, which is where I watched it. And it’s only got two seasons–or series, I’d suppose they’d call them–of six episodes each. So it’s very easy to binge and definitely worthwhile.

The premise: a young couple, Alison and Mike, inherit an old, decaying manor. They fall in love with the idea of turning it into a hotel, so they quit their day jobs and move out to start live-in renovations. However, the house is haunted by several ghosts, who would rather not have a bunch of mortals in and out. They try to scare the newcomers out, but they’re not really able to do much– one can cause the smell of burning if walked through, another can cause lights to flicker, a third can (with immense effort) touch or gently push physical objects, and the others are more or less useless. The tactile ghost decides to give Alison a push at an opportune moment as she reaches out a window, knocking her to the grounds a couple floors below. She survives but her near-death experience gives her the ability to see ghosts. While this leads her to want to move out and sell the place, Mike has already taken out loans whose early payment penalties would bankrupt them. And so Alison, Mike, and the ghosts must find a way to tolerate each other.

The characters gradually come to be fond of each other–except for Mike, who remains scared of the dead people he can’t see–but the series thrives even more on a lot of cringe-inducing situations emerging out of their various self-sabotaging and conflicting actions. It’s all very, very funny. From the first episode, my wife and I were laughing early and often. But getting to know each of the ghosts and their pasts was another reason to keep watching, definitely. There are certainly some fun subversions of expectations and twists of perspective along the way.

The show also manages to poke a lot of fun at spiritualists and ghost hunters, drenched in the irony that the charlatans and fools are so close to being right in this case, even as they ultimately conclude that the house is in fact not haunted (due to the overeager, greed-motivated actions of Alison and Mike to put on a show for some visiting paranormal enthusiasts). So often, the show’s playful spin gives a reason for why ghosts would be so fickle, inconsistent, and unresponsive. Of course ghosts have trouble communicating–it’s exhausting trying to tap out responses when even tapping a key on a keyboard is a strenuous effort! Of course ghosts sometimes manifest and sometimes don’t–they’re people too, and they aren’t there to amuse you, if they’re interested in you at all! Whether you’re a true believer or a hardened skeptic, whether you’re deeply engaged in the paranormal or couldn’t care less, you’ll find something humorously rewarding in the viewing.

I’ve said enough though. It’s just twelve episodes! Watch it!

A comfortable gaming routine

While I’m still struggling to pick up a regular reading habit again, I have found a very comfortable gaming routine. I try to spend some time in Ring Fit Adventure every day. I aim for 8 PM every night, but in reality this ends up being one of the last things I do before I get ready for bed most evenings. Then, my weekends get split between two games. A good chunk of at least one day is spent playing a single-player RPG; currently, that’s involved the Baldur’s Gate franchise, but I have a lot of other unplayed options lined up. Then I’ll spend a couple hours with some friends playing Star Wars: Squadrons on the other day of the weekend. It’s a satisfying cycle.

I’ve barely touched the single-player mode in Squadrons. If I ever get around to finishing the campaign, I’ll probably write a short review. But I’m there for the multiplayer, which is so very unlike me. We’re usually flying with a near-full squadron of friends at this point. The dream will be all five slots filled with friends. It’ll be a while before we’re doing more than battles against AI opponents, though. I made two important changes to how I play: I’ve switched from mouse/keyboard to a 360 controller, and I’ve finally figured out how to effectively use targeting and call-outs. Really basic. I would never claim to be a natural at these sorts of games! But now it feels like Star Wars, with really fun dogfighting, working together with a buddy to take on the enemy squadron, coordinating our strikes and retreats for resupply, swooping in to try to pull enemies off our companions or to draw attention away in anticipation of a bombing run. I’m sure I’d be absolutely shredded against a human opponent, of course! But it’s great fun and something to look forward to every week.

So I’m finding fitness, socialization, and immersive storytelling all in gaming. Now to find ways to implement more reading into my days!

Review: Camp Cretaceous Season 2

I watched the eight episodes of season two over their release weekend, but I didn’t feel particularly compelled to put my thoughts down right after. I think that impulse reflects what season two turned out to be: a pleasant but forgettable bit of television comfort food. I suppose that this puts it rather in line with my impression of the first season, but the first improved over the course of its run and set up exciting possibilities for the second, and I just don’t feel like the follow-up season really ran with anything or even attempted anything new. It did, at least, have several exciting action sequences!

As I mentioned in my first review, this show is rather character-focused over anything else. So, after having grown fond of the kids in the first season, I was simultaneously pleased with and disappointed by their portrayals in this season. This time around, there were more moments where the kids could almost relax, where they tried to just act like kids, but there’d always be some harsh new reality to force them back into survival mode. They’ve grown as characters, and they all get opportunities to shine. They’re also a rather tightly knit found family, although the constant stress does lead to inevitable infighting at times. All that said, sometimes the show forced an arbitrary regression of a character to suit the plot of a particular episode. In finding a situation for the star athlete Yaz to truly learn that sometimes she couldn’t help, sometimes even her best wasn’t enough, and sometimes she had to rest, the writers forced spoiled rich kid Kenji back into his obnoxiously lazy and selfish role to act as a foil. Sure, Kenji’s dumb and self-centered, but he’d come a tremendous way in the first season, and this felt like an unnecessary step back for him. At the same time, the show does appear to want to show what trauma looks like for these children, and having moments of regression does seem natural. Clearly, the show didn’t always convince me that that’s what was going on, though.

The best character development this season goes to Ben, presumed dead by the other campers (though the show made clear enough he’d survived at the very end of season one). Once he’s reintroduced as a wannabe-commando figure to a couple of his friends, the show focuses a whole episode on his arc of surviving on the island alone for however many days (or weeks) have elapsed. He was forced to find his own inner strength and courage, he prevailed over a series of hazards, and he eventually reached a point of power and competence. Yet he’s still Ben, the skinny, dweebish little kid, and so he’s also developed the amusing quirk in which he believes that he’s tougher than anyone else, all evidence to the contrary. With a whole episode devoted just to his survival story, however, it was still a little goofy that it conveniently skips over the point at which he’d made some serious outfit adjustments, and it just as conveniently has a brief falling out between Ben and Bumpy that allows Bumpy to mature into a full-size Ankylosaurus off-screen. (Bumpy remains as adorable as ever, even fully grown, and I still cheered for Bumpy whenever she did anything at all.)

The plot is more disappointing. The first season focused on the attempt to reach the evacuation point in time; the group failed, of course. This season again finds the kids attempting to reach a target for rescue–actually, two targets. The first one is an emergency beacon that can call for help. That objective is accomplished rather handily with the group’s new survival skills and teamwork. However, typical chaos ensues involving a Tyrannosaurus, and the kids aren’t sure if their message got through. They soon after stumble upon a small party of “ecotourists” who have made their way to the island in the days since the park shutdown. These yuppie adventurers promise the kids access to their yacht in a few days when it returns from refueling. They’re lying, and how the kids react to their alleged rescuers–and how the rescuers respond–becomes the major point of conflict for the remainder of the season. It’s all for naught because (spoiler alert) the kids find themselves stranded on the island once more, yet again barely missing a boat off the island.

The stakes felt lower this season. The adults could serve as dino food, but the show largely stepped back from any real sense that any of the kids would ever actually die. This made many of the dinosaur attacks (so, so many dinosaur attacks) thrilling rather than horrifying, but if the action-adventure show about killer dinosaurs doesn’t really have killer dinosaurs, it loses its edge fast. Likewise, there weren’t really any great moments of wonder this season. The closest would be the discovery of a watering hole shared by several dinosaur species, but it’s populated with dinosaurs we’re already familiar with, and something about the lighting or dinosaur models or design just made it feel like a bunch of CG dinosaur assets positioned around a flat surface. (Yes, of course, they’re always CGI effects, but the quality did not support the emotional effect needed from the scene.) On the other hand, many of the dinosaur attack sequences looked very real, as though the dinosaurs occupied physical sets, although in a somewhat jarring manner, as though they were claymation.

We get some new dinosaurs, but mostly it’s reused assets from before. That means that at some point, it begins to feel like the park is dominated by Parasaurolophus, Brachiosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Sinoceratops (especially unusual given that the ceratopsian is supposed to be a recent addition to the park, yet we don’t really see Triceratops or Styracosaurus). Where are the herds of diverse dinosaurs present in the films? I recognize the answer to that is that the show has a limited budget compared to a movie, but I can’t help but think how diverse and lifelike the dinosaurs look in Jurassic World: Evolution, a video game that also simulates animal and tourist behaviors, weather effects, and a park economy. There are some new dinosaurs, carnivores pulled from the films: Ceratosaurus and Baryonyx. However, the former only has a couple appearances. Meanwhile, the Baryonyx has been reimagined as a very social pack hunter and terrestrial pursuit predator, which raises the question: why did they use Baryonyx at all? It felt more than a little like the showrunners really wanted a predator to fill the gap left by the Velociraptors, so they just forced an animal into the role. Fallen Kingdom‘s introduction of Baryonyx was already far enough from the real animal, but the creatures in Camp Cretaceous seem rather out of step with the semiaquatic, piscivorous but opportunistic spinosaurid that the real animal appears to have been. (And why do you pick Baryonyx for this role when Allosaurus is also in the park, similarly sized, and an actual big game predator that might have actually coordinated in social groups?! Or why not Ceratosaurus, already an asset in the show??)

All that said, it might seem foolish to once again be hopeful about the next season. But there are several elements in play here that should finally push the story in new directions:

  1. The kids have decided to try to find their own way off the island, rather than being dependent on rescue, and they all now have the survival skills to potentially achieve that without always being on the run.
  2. The kids do not know if the emergency beacon worked, but the audience knows that a successful transmission was sent–to whom remains the big question.
  3. The kids accidentally unleashed some new experimental creature on the island, which will almost surely be a focus for the third season. (Is it a prototype Indoraptor or something else entirely?)

We have the pieces but I can’t see what this jigsaw puzzle is supposed to form. I’ll be interested to see what answers the show arrives at.

Pit stop on Ring Fit Adventure

I finally missed a day in Ring Fit Adventure last night. Work’s taken up a lot of my time and mental capacity lately, and I was exhausted by the time I got home. The tendency to get home after dark, which is so easy to do in the winter, doesn’t help with that. My wife and I ordered delivery from our favorite Chinese restaurant and finished off a familiar movie we’d started the night before, and I fell asleep shortly after the end, reclined in an armchair. When I awoke a bit later, I felt too exhausted to even attempt the game, so I went to bed, feeling a bit guilty about skipping.

But I hopped back into the adventure again today, and I was greeted with the same cheery welcome as ever, with an oft-repeated bit of advice reminding me that breaks are important. It was random that I happened to get that advice today, but it felt nice. The guilt dissipated quickly, I had a good workout, and I moved on with my day. No negative vibes from it at all, just a continued positivity. Just what I needed to rebuild my motivation moving forward.

Review: When Whales Walked

There’s a delightful little documentary about some of Earth’s evolutionary history on PBS called When Whales Walked. Looks like it was originally released in June 2019, though I just stumbled across it a little bit ago. It uses a combination of nature footage, extensive interviews with scientists, views of fossil digs and museum displays, and a bit of paleoart and CGI reconstructions to tell the tale of the evolution of crocodiles, birds, whales, and elephants. It’s just under two hours total, with roughly a quarter dedicated to each story. I rather enjoyed it.

You might think I’m here for the dinosaur content, with the origin of birds, but that’s a story I know reasonably well, and so while I think it was well-told, it was the least intriguing section for me personally. But I learned a bit about crocodiles, whales, elephants, and their ancestries, and it was all enjoyable and engaging. The interviewed scientists worked in a variety of fields, including biology and paleontology and genetics, and it seemed that the producers tried to seek out more diverse voices, even though I believe white men still represented the majority of speakers. The show hops around to a variety of locations, like an underwater cave in Madagascar in search of the remains of horned crocodiles, European fossil collections of ancient whale ancestors and Asian collections of early birds, and sites in Africa to observe living elephants and fossil digs of their ancestors.

There were some enjoyable depictions of various prehistoric creatures, but thankfully the show was more focused on letting scientists talk about how they’ve learned more about these animals and their connections, so it was as informative as it was entertaining. And the show managed to use the evolution of these creatures to point out how precarious their living lines are, how close to losing many of them forever we are. It made the prehistoric past immediately relevant to the present, and after seeing how special these animals are, the idea of losing them forever really hits home.

When Whales Walked is a great nature/science documentary that inspires curiosity and care. I’d recommend it to anyone!

Reviews – Adventure Time: Obsidian, Soul, and WW84

Adventure Time: Obsidian is even better than BMO, delivering an even more emotional story that continues to show the healing relationship that Marceline and Princess Bubblegum continue to work at. I was surprised and delighted by how clearly, unmistakably queer and romantic their relationship was here (where it was only subtly implied through most of the show), and by how normal that relationship was portrayed as (you know, the weird part being that one’s a vampire/demon and the other’s a sentient candy avatar).

Obsidian also really showed how both Marceline and PB had grown and overcome many of their earlier traumas. They were more mature and able to adapt to tensions and stressors to become stronger together by the end. That’s not to say that this is purely focused on emotions and relationships (though there were some tearjerker moments for me); there were some excellent action sequences throughout and plenty of weird and imaginative characters and creatures.

I really want to scream about the implications of the appearance of some characters at the end of the episode, but since I’m rounding up a few short reviews here, I’ll keep that spoiler-free. But oh boy, there are some interesting questions raised.


Soul was a really good movie about what it means to find purpose and meaning in life, offering up a bit of introspection in the context of a unique portrayal of the spiritual realm. The film tracks a middle-aged music teacher and aspiring jazz artist (portrayed by Jamie Foxx) who dies just after landing his big break. Determined to get back to his body and fulfill his perceived purpose, he escapes the imminent Great Beyond and falls into the Great Before, where souls’ distinctive traits are forged. He eventually encounters an old soul (Tina Fey) who refuses to ever leave for a life on Earth, and they agree to work together so that he can go back and the old soul can stay out of living for good. They both figure out some things about themselves, about what makes life worth living and fighting for, and about when you have to let something or someone go. It’s a Pixar movie, so I sobbed hysterically at the end. My wife and I realized that the last time I’d cried so hard at a movie, it was Inside Out. But then I also cried at Onward and Coco and The Good Dinosaur just in the last few years, so I guess the point is that (A) I cry a lot and (B) Pixar movies are crafted in a way to really hit me (and I think most people) right in the gut. If you have Disney+, watch Soul!


Wonder Woman 1984 was fun to watch, it had a strong theme (unchecked desire leads us to lie to ourselves and warp the best of intentions to bad ends), it had some good fight sequences, it had a couple of emotional moments, and yet it was troubled by some head-scratching plot beats and an over-liberal usage of deus ex machina.

There was a particular type of perceived problem, however, that I didn’t feel actually existed in the film. I’d seen concern expressed on social media about apparent racist undertones to the movie, particularly a vilification of men of color in favor of a narrative about white women’s empowerment, but I felt that those concerns were overstated and somewhat misleading in favor of generating outrage and controversy. I recognize that as a white man, I have blind spots to issues like race and gender, but the concerns raised seemed to inaccurately characterize what happened in the movie.

I thought the film’s very transparent examination of desire was interesting. Set in the consumerist excesses of the ’80s, Wonder Woman’s biggest battle is not with an enemy but with desire, her own and others’. She makes a desperate plea at one point to not give up her greatest love again, declaring that she gives so much and she deserved this one thing. She must ultimately make that sacrifice nonetheless to be the hero she needs to be. I thought that was an interesting opportunity to hold the mirror up to our own lives, how we tell ourselves that we deserve something or other because of all we do, how commercials often suggest that we have earned a special reward or convenience we can purchase simply because we exist and do the things all humans must do. It gives you something to chew on after the movie, I suppose, but it’s hardly a revelatory concept, and I imagine the point will be rejected by many (and is more than a little ironic in an industry context, given its method of delivery in a major blockbuster superhero movie that will serve as escapism for many and primarily exists to generate profits for the studio and its corporate backers).

My wife loved the movie, but she’s not the one writing the review. I thought it was fine, though I get what appealed to her about it. I’m sure this movie will continue to generate a lot of reactions, if not a lot of deep thought or serious conversation. It’s not a vital film, but it remains entertaining throughout.

My Five Favorite Games in 2020

Continuing the theme from the past couple years, I’m listing my top five favorite games that I enjoyed the most while playing over the past year. As is now tradition, they weren’t necessarily released in 2020; that’s just when I played them.

1. Ring Fit Adventure

Last week’s post should make it clear how much I love this game and how special it is to me. It’s made fitness fun for me. Enough said for this post. I’m so grateful for this game.

2. Jurassic World Evolution: Return to Jurassic Park

I’ve written a fair amount about Jurassic World: Evolution, even before it came out. Steam tells me I’ve put 200 hours into the game. I have unlocked 69 of 73 achievements and finished all story content. I’ve been playing intermittently since the game came out. But I did not include it on my favorite games lists for 2018 or 2019. Partly that’s because I played a lot of great games in those years, but partly it’s because the game felt incomplete and a bit rough around the edges. With a couple years of polishing and enhancements in the form of several free updates and paid DLC packs, the game is in a much better place. Furthermore, the nostalgia of running a park with the aesthetics of the original movie and a slicker, more streamlined economy without some of the more ethically dubious contracts of the base game make the Return to Jurassic Park expansion the singularly best version of Jurassic World: Evolution available. (Its story mode, while not incredible, is also the strongest in the game.) Encountering this new mode finally gave me the ammunition to add this to a year’s best list.

3. Prey

This creepy, compelling sci-fi story grows from survival horror to power fantasy all while presenting a smoldering plot guided by mysterious figures with competing motivations aboard a derelict and alien-infested space station. Moral choice, manipulable environments, a crafting system that requires you to make tough decisions with limited resources, and a varied and robust skill system make for unique gameplay experiences. And as required for a game of this type, the environmental storytelling as you explore the station and uncover its secrets is top-notch.

4. Dishonored 2

This is the peak of the Dishonored series for me. I enjoyed sneaking and fighting my way through the levels, and I loved the intimate characterization of its cast. As I said in my review, its plot was largely a repeat of the original game’s, heightened by an emphasis on legacy at least when playing as Emily. But that just gives it the opportunity to be bigger and better, the Terminator 2 to Terminator. And just like Prey, Dishonored 2 is another example of Arkane Studios’ excellent environmental storytelling.

5. Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition

I didn’t write about this one for the blog before now. Baldur’s Gate came out way back in 1998, and the Enhanced Edition was released in 2012. So even this newer version is still getting up there. Baldur’s Gate was such a formative experience for roleplaying gamers of my age; more broadly, it was hugely influential and came to form much of the basis of the Bioware style and of what people expected from CRPGs moving forward; even those who had never played it, like me, heard plenty about it. I had a disc at some point with several old Black Isle Studios CRPGS on it, and I gave Baldur’s Gate a try then. I didn’t get far. The Enhanced Edition, courtesy of Beamdog and Overhaul Games, provides several modern conveniences and lower difficulty settings, but my first encounter with it a year or so ago didn’t go so well, either. I decided to give the game another try out of the blue, and while the initial hours were still frustrating, it clicked with me enough for me to persevere until I got my party to a high enough level to where the game was actually fun and challenging instead of punishingly difficult. The story is basic, nested in tired tropes even when it originally came out, and the excessive and convoluted lore in this game feels so detached from the actual world-building, but there are a lot of distinctive, quirky characters (to be expected of a Bioware game) and several fascinating side quests that range from weird to funny to strikingly poignant. I might be playing more out of momentum than anything else, but I do generally enjoy myself, and it’s seen a lot of hours logged in the past month or so. I’d been wandering the city of Baldur’s Gate more recently, wrapping myself in the city’s intrigues, but the last play session led me off to a voluntary detour to Ulgoth’s Beard, and now I’m making my way down through the torturous labyrinths of Durlag’s Tower as I attempt to complete content from Tales of the Sword Coast. I’m having enough of a good time that I’m considering more isometric CRPGs for 2021, perhaps building up to another attempt at Divinity: Original Sin II, which I’d given up on near the start of 2020. Heck, maybe my newfound patience for old-school RPG mechanics (and their associated difficulty) might finally lead me to take another crack at Arena…maybe! For getting me excited about isometric CRPGs, Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition deserves to make this list. It didn’t hurt that I lacked strong alternative contenders this year…

I did it! Beating Ring Fit Adventure for the first time

It came on me so suddenly that I didn’t realize it until the weekend in which I would accomplish it: I was going to beat Ring Fit Adventure. Last night, I knocked out three mini-boss fights, just so I’d be prepared to devote today to defeating Dragaux one last time. And that’s what I did this afternoon, in a roughly 25-minute activity session devoted to the final level alone.

After growing accustomed to some repetitive gameplay and level design over the last several worlds, I was shocked to experience how refreshing this final level felt. There were interesting combinations of platforming challenges, as the game tested the variety of skills built up over the course of playing through the adventure; I zip-lined, stair-climbed, flew, paddled, sprang, and jogged my way to the final stadium battle. And that final boss battle was appropriately challenging, a proper synthesis of every fight with Dragaux before, reflecting how far the dragon and I had come. He used every tactic present before (blessedly free of any supporting enemies), which included hurling boulders and barrels, using a debuffing glare and a super-powered attack requiring Mega Ab Guard, and holding one of each main attack color’s special challenge attacks–that last set brutally delivered in quick succession here, one after another. Then, of course, defeating him the first time, knocking out a few full bars of health, only led to a Final Form battle against a Darkness-consumed version of Dragaux, requiring several more rounds to finally KO the dragon and free him of his curse.

The game ended in its charmingly cute, chatty, and blunt way. Dragaux released the Four Masters and was in turn released of the Darkness. Reformed, he was penitent and ashamed, but Ring convinced him that he should work with the Four Masters in opening training stadiums across the land. The end, for now. It’s a nice setup to the new adventure, a new game plus mode that promises more powerful enemies and more training gear to collect as I journey back through the land. I look forward to having Dragaux as a friendly rival and trainer, rather than an enemy, as I find him rather charismatic in his dorky way.

I’m a long way away from my ultimate weight goal, mainly at this point because my dietary changes have been more gradual than my activity changes. But I have lost weight, and more importantly for now, the last few months have seen me grow in strength and endurance; I feel good, and I have more energy. And I can see the results when I look in the mirror. It’s been a wonderful fitness journey, and I plan to continue it. Amazingly, I haven’t missed a day since I started, and that’s a wild achievement in and of itself. Fitness is now built into the fabric of my life, and I look forward to exercise every day with this game. Even back in August, I couldn’t imagine that I’d ever be this excited to get a workout in on a daily basis.

Ring Fit Adventure is not a perfect game. Its level design is great but not diverse enough, so levels become quickly repetitive even with mix-ups to atmospheric effects and enemies encountered. Monster design is fantastic and imaginative, combining classic RPG monsters with exercise equipment to create fresh, new, and often very cute opponents, but even so, the limited variety makes these feel somewhat stale after a while. The story is fine, but it’s elevated by cute and campy dialogue rather than a particularly compelling plot. For that matter, NPC assets are quite limited, so you see the same faces again and again when chatting up townsfolk in town for bits of info or side quests (in turn, overly formulaic and dependent on tired tropes like the classic fetch quest). Still, while other components may be less than excellent, the core of the game, the platforming and combat, remained stellar and engaging throughout. All these features come together strongly to provide a compelling gameplay experience, part platformer and part RPG but really something quite different and new. It’s a fitness game that offers both good fitness and a good game. I just can’t get enough of it, and while I look forward to the new adventure content and the jogging and custom exercise programs once I run out of story eventually, I certainly hope they consider making this into an ongoing franchise.

Yes, Ring Fit Adventure is not a perfect game, but it’s a perfect fit (pun intended) for me, offering a cute and colorful world, charming characters, and an addictive balance of (physical) challenge and advancement. And it gifted me a way to truly enjoy exercise, like never before, without skimping on actually providing a real work-out. This game might be my favorite of the decade for what it’s given me.