Arena, Part XIV: Exiting the Labyrinth

It may be hard–even nearly impossible–to believe, but I’ve at last returned to Arena. I never really intended to be away for that long. Days turned to weeks and then months. In the back of my mind, I always felt compelled to return, but I always found something else to do when I had enough free time to get back to it.

I returned to find myself completely lost in the middle of Labyrinthian. Before long, I’d adjusted settings back to how I liked them, and I was plowing through all sorts of monsters and getting more and more lost and genuinely having fun.

Arena can be a tedious experience. There are a lot of narrow streets in towns, and there are a lot of narrow halls in dungeons. Responsiveness to your player actions isn’t great. The visuals and sound effects and music quickly become repetitious–as do the random fetch quests and the general experiences to be found in any particular dungeon. The open world outside of cities and dungeons stretches on endlessly and pointlessly. Arena is tedious because it tried to offer a world of possibilities but then didn’t have all that much to do. It was ahead of its time, with ideas about first-person open-world gaming that couldn’t be matched in implementation yet. So you could do a lot but it all boils down to the same sort of experiences repeated over and over. This can be freeing or frustrating, and I keep swinging back and forth between the two mental states.

I always have a lot of fun after a break from the game, though, because I’m coming back to it fresher. The game can’t feel so tedious if taken in little chunks with distance in between.

My play session on return felt productive, even though I didn’t really do anything to advance the story. I guess I advanced my story, and I was able to check off my own personal objectives.

My last check-in with the game was over six months ago (wow), so as a reminder, I’d planned to escape the dungeon of Labyrinthian and return to town to rest, restock potions, repair/replace equipment, and learn a new spell. I accomplished those simple objectives. It felt like a bigger deal because Labyrinthian is so winding, and I’d been away so long that I had no idea of the general direction to even start heading in to get out.

The enemies on my escape were varied but not too challenging. I ran into a wraith over a lava pit, but because I was at an elevation, I could snipe it with fire spells until it was defeated.

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I slew several spiders, goblins, wolves, and hell hounds with my trusty saber. I took out ghouls from range with magic and bow.

And I discovered another new enemy! As I was walking down a hall, this message appeared:

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Troll is regenerating? I didn’t even know that there was a troll around at all! Then, as I turned down another hallway, I heard a bloodthirsty saurian roar. I tried to get away, but the roar repeated, again and again. I hoped I could just run away, but I took a wrong turn and failed to make a jump to a higher passage. I was hit from behind and turned to defend myself. And there stood the troll!

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Much to my joy and relief, I was able to subdue the beast fairly easily. I do appreciate the increasing variety of monsters in the game, and I still love how you can tell what type of monsters you might be facing soon based on their unique calls.

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Eventually, I found a way to a green mark on my map–which I vaguely remembered indicated not just a door but an exit, either to another floor or to the outside world. The first exit I came across took me to the main floor. And once on the main floor, I was able to easily find my way back to the main entrance.

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I headed to the town of Dunpar Wall. In town, I went to an inn (the Haunted Wolf, a somewhat perplexing name) and tried to get a room for the night, but I was approached with a small fetch quest.

Since it wasn’t due until the following day, I still rented a room and slept until morning. Once done, I tracked down the Order of the Knights of Hope with the holy item.

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Since that took me near the Mages Guild and an equipment store, I went ahead and identified magic items and purchased potions at the Guild, then sold off all my gear and purchased fresh armor and a couple new weapons at the equipment store. While at the Guild, I also bought a couple new spells, including Lightning, so I feel a little more prepared to deal with any iron golems I might come across next time.

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Finally, I returned to the inn to complete the quest.

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While exploring Dunpar Wall, I found a homeless beggar who initially greeted me by saying he was too busy to talk. When I pushed him for more details, he answered:

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Is he delusional or sarcastic? Hard to say.

I also got some juicy (though vague) gossip from the bartender at the Haunted Wolf:

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And that same barkeep sold me a beverage with a pretty ridiculous name:

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It’s obviously just a fantasy-themed version of the gin and tonic! Gin by itself is already a juniper-flavored drink (we’ll learn in game five, of course, that juniper berries are found in Skyrim and used to flavor mead), it’s been enjoyed since the Middle Ages, and it’s associated with the Europeans! It would’ve been pretty appropriate to just have gin present, right? And djinn are genies, associated with Arabian folklore, so what’s this doing in a Nordic-influenced country? So many questions! And no answers (I suspect the answer truly is that whoever named the drinks was trying to be cute).

I’ve returned to the village gates. The next session will find me back in Labyrinthian. We’ll see when that happens…but this time around was fun, and I was glad to return to the game after all.

Things I’m Into Right Now

For this evening’s post, a short recap of Things I’m Into Right Now.

First, I’m still playing Skyward Sword. I’ve held Arena on pause for a while now, but I feel more like I owe something to finishing up that game. I don’t really feel like I owe anything to Skyward Sword. Visuals are sometimes pretty, and sometimes fall short. Game’s quirky, though sometimes the characters are more annoying than silly. Plot’s falling into some generic Legendary Hero bullshit, which I guess it has to as a Zelda game, but it’s not anything to keep me around. Game path still feels really railroaded, and while it seems there are a lot of things I could be doing, a lot of arbitrary Secret Places in each zone and a lot of dumb item collection things like bug catching, very little actually seems interesting or fun to do. And oh my god, the motion controls are killing me. Things that should be intuitive are difficult to replicate. Trying to get my sword to arc a repetitive circle is a nightmare that usually translates to Link spastically jerking about–and that’s a required task to get through several sealed doors. I’m now through the Faron region and, having held off the demon Lord Ghirahim, I’ve finished my first true dungeon in the game.

Second, I’ve intermittently been playing Sonic Mania. It’s another game I don’t feel driven to complete, but it’s a fun diversion at times. You can play it a lot or a little. It feels like the original side-scrolling Sonic titles in the best possible way. It’s fun, it’s light, it’s challenging–sometimes, for me, very challenging–yet seldom frustrating. Bright colors, imaginative reinterpretations of old levels, and a sense of smooth direction over the course of every level to keep encouraging just one more level of play make for good times.

While it’s not really a Thing I’m Into Right Now, I’ve been excited to see the return of many songbirds this week, especially several red-winged blackbirds. Robins come so early, but it really feels like spring when I start to see (and hear) those red-winged blackbirds! And we still have two days until the spring equinox. On the subject of birds, anyone have any idea as to an identification of the birds up-top? Larger version of the image below:

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Also, I’m on a bit of a 1930’s true crime kick right now. I recently finished John Toland’s The Dillinger Days, which was fascinating mostly because I’d known very little at all about those 1930’s bank-robbing and kidnapping gangs. Toland’s book is well-researched, and it was written in the 1960’s so benefited from interviews with many of the surviving actors. Apparently some of the information’s now viewed as inaccurate, but I enjoyed the book. Toland did a good job of keeping criminals and cops alike as human, resisting the impulse to romanticize or villainize anyone (it’s hard to say I really liked anyone, though, what with the criminals murdering innocents and kidnapping people and often being sort of stupid and cruel, while the cops were often willing to shoot first and ask questions later and seemed a little too zealous in stopping the Bad Guys without due process concerns, except for a few who were often just outright corrupt).

Relatedly, I’m reading Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend by Deirdre Bair. I’d never read a biography of Capone before, and this was a very interesting one to start with. Bair has extensively interviewed family members and shares a more personal, intimate take on the famed gangster, often relating family stories and breaking down which ones are false and which ones have grains of truth. She also references other existent biographies. If you wanted a just-the-facts narrative focusing on Capone’s criminal operations and efforts to take him down, it seems like you might want another biography. But this one is beautifully written and thoughtful and engaging–the writing alone truly makes this book worth it.

Finally, I watched the 2011 biopic J. Edgar earlier today (directed by Clint Eastwood; written by Dustin Lance Black, who’s credited with writing a few other biopics; and starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Hoover, Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy, and Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson, with an excellent supporting cast including a single-scene appearance by Adam Driver as an overly earnest gas station attendant). The original FBI director is such a ridiculous, legally empowered super-villain, and yet the film managed to portray him sympathetically by (1) presenting him as a true-believer law enforcement reformer who bought into his own myth, and by (2) spending significant screen time carefully building up the allegedly romantic relationship between Hoover and Tolson. Hoover’s fear of his own sexuality and his deep (yet apparently platonic) love for Tolson are elements that may or may not be true, but without them it would be hard to salvage a likeable man out of this. Tolson also conveniently serves as a very soft conscience, who challenges Hoover at his most disgusting and grandiose, though he unfortunately always backs down to the director. We are left without hard answers about who Hoover was–just one particularly artful interpretation. Aside from the pretty bad Old Person makeup for later-in-life Hoover and Tolson, this film was quite good.

And now, sadly, it’s time for my weekend to end.

Arena, Part XIII: Lost in the Labyrinth

I’ve made progress through Labyrinthian, albeit in intermittent bursts.

I encountered zombies for the first time, and in several groups. After one hit, which was not lethal but was nonetheless quite damaging, I learned to keep my distance. There are plenty of little tunnels weaving just above the floor line, which I can jump up to but which monsters can’t get into; it’s easy to rain down spells and arrows on my enemies. I’ve also made better use of my invisibility spell to set up attacks and evade enemies; the extra magic reserves over several level increases since whenever it was I learned the spell have certainly helped.

With the combination of tactics, I was able to get through a good portion of the dungeon with very little risk, even when facing off against tougher enemies. The raised passages are often long enough stretches, and the labyrinth is well-lit enough, that I can even use the very dangerous Fireball spell; it takes down enemies quick, and it has a broad area of effect, but the problem is that its area of effect is so broad that I used to get caught in it often (and its magic drain used to hurt me more in the past).

In addition to zombies, there have been several hell hounds, of all things, some ghouls, and lots and lots of spiders, among other low-level enemies. I’m getting used to dealing with the powerful but often self-destructive hell hounds.

My major progress in the dungeon was finding and clearing the path for Kanen the Elder. A riddle was of course involved.

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Arena is obsessed with riddles. It feels very much so like a product of the renewed interest in LOTR with the surge in popularity of D&D. At least none of the riddles are as bad as “What have I got in my pocket?” I guessed “hourglass” for this riddle, which was apparently correct.

There was a wraith or ghost behind a locked door, and I suspect I’d have to have fought it if I guessed incorrectly. It’s likely that the ghost is intended to be Kanen’s spirit, as indicated by the game text.

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But while my dungeon map had been filled in enough for me to know where to go next, I hit a bit of a wall in exploring the second area. The enemies were a lot tougher down this other area, for one thing; whereas I escaped death for the entire first part, I wasn’t nearly as lucky in the other portion. I wasted a lot of resources trying to take down some new type of atronach, but I didn’t make a dent. I’m guessing I might need a lightning spell, something I don’t have, to penetrate its metal armor and hide. (I’ve since looked this up; it’s an iron golem, with a large amount of health, and while I didn’t see any mention of weakness to electricity, a new spell and more potions won’t hurt.)

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While I could escape with the aid of invisibility and side tunnels, I was soon after eliminated by a ghost.

And that’s where I’m at, stuck in the labyrinth, dreading ghosts and atronachs. My plan to move forward is another run to town to rest, restock, repair and replace, and (probably most importantly) learn a new spell.

In-Universe Detective Fiction

When I was younger, my favorite type of game was the open-world RPG. I could play those for dozens or hundreds of hours. I still do, at times: my Steam version of Morrowind, for instance, has racked up 260 hours of play time since purchase in 2012. And there are other exceptions, of course, like Arena and Shadow of Mordor.

But as I’ve gotten older, and I’ve had less time to play video games, and I’ve wanted my time with video games to be more meaningful even in that smaller amount of time, I’ve gravitated more toward shorter, narrative-rich experiences. For instance, while I was never a big adventure game fan, adventure games have taken up more and more of my time. I’m okay with a game that does not require a lot of skill or reactivity, but it’s still important to me that the game offer a sense of choice and diverging paths. There should be a sense of personal investment and consequence.

As a result, I’ve played a few of the Telltale games, though certainly not all. My favorite was The Walking Dead, with an emotionally gripping story and rich character drama. I only played season one, though; the first season alone was so emotionally draining that I am in no hurry to engage with the title further, and I’m not a huge fan of the nihilistic death and violence and gore of zombie stories in the first place. I played the Jurassic Park game, because I’m a huge fan of the original book and film, but that story offered very little sense of real consequences for most of the game, and it was too dependent upon annoying quick-time events. And I played most of the Batman game, which definitely offered the feeling of real choice and consequence, and it had excellent detective scenes that were fitting for the character and excellent character interactions. But I never finished that game, after encountering a persistent game-crashing bug in around the third or fourth episode. It was frustrating to have to give up on the game; I know that a lot of people complained about bugs and glitches and unplayability for the initial releases of each episode, and I suspect that the problem may since have been resolved, but I’m not too eager to get back into that story now.

My favorite contemporary adventure game was Life Is Strange, by Dontnod Entertainment. I was heavily invested in the choice and consequence of that game. The story was mystical and bizarre. And the time-looping powers of the protagonist resulted in interesting gameplay moments and were fully integrated into the game’s narrative. Narrative and game mechanics fed into each other. The weirdo teens and their interactions with the weirdo adults, and the snapshot of the Northwest, were great (I only really understood the comparisons to Twin Peaks after playing, as I only started watching the cult classic show months after finishing the game). Not that this is much of a feat, given that the achievements involved completing episodes and taking optional photos, but Life Is Strange is one of two games in which I reached 100% achievement completion on Steam (I stand by my final decision in that game, saving the town and reversing everything that happened, even though it is emotionally devastating; the other choice seemed too selfish to me, and I’m glad that 100% completion did not require playing both endings).

I tried Dontnod’s Remember Me, which felt like a fairly conventional action-adventure title although with the fairly interesting gimmick of memory alteration (memory and the past are obviously important themes in Dontnod’s body of work). I look forward to Vampyr, which seems to be quite a different game for Dontnod, and I’m curious to see how memory and the past might influence that experience.

But I’m discovering that there is a very specific form of typically short, narrative-rich game that I especially love. It sits somewhere between adventure game and visual novel. It often, though not always, has some level of consequence due to choice; at the very least, players’ investigative skills and growing familiarity with in-game systems are critical to advancement. And it involves the use of some sort of in-game software, often an operating system. I don’t know that this particular type of game warrants having its own genre, and I don’t know if there is already a genre descriptor, but I’m going to call these sorts of games In-Universe Detective games.

What I love most about these games is that they use the limitations of the genre to actually build a greater sense of immersion. Instead of remotely playing as another character, the game operates under the assumption that you are you. You may have a particular role or function within the game, and “you” can be defined by the player out-of-game. But who “you” are is built out of direct interaction with the game. The game itself, by acting like a software program, allows for easy suspension of disbelief. The world of the game is your world.

I know of three entries in this genre: Analogue: A Hate Story (and its sequel, Hate Plus), Her Story, and Orwell.

In Analogue: A Hate Story (designed by Christine Love), you are a spacer on a salvage operation to investigate an old, abandoned colony ship; the entire game involves reading through archives and interacting with one of two AI programs. You attempt to discover what exactly went wrong with the ship, and in the process uncover a feudal Korean-inspired culture that developed after a regressive societal change aboard the ship. The game has interesting things to say about misogyny and the myth of the forward march of cultural progress. And it has just as many interesting things to say about identity, rebellion, and forgiveness. It’s a short game, but I played the hell out of it; it’s my other 100% Steam achievement completion title. If you’re into anime or visual novels, it’ll be an easy game to get into. If not for some favorable coverage, though, I would have passed; the cutesy anime girl avatars of the AI were a little obnoxious for me to deal with at first, but they prove to be quite interesting quite quickly.

In Her Story (designed by Sam Barlow), you use an old police computer to review archived clips of interviews with a suspect in a murder investigation. You slowly piece together what happened as you find new videos. You have to find ways to draw connections to other videos, as you cannot simply review them all at once. There’s a fun amount of searching and browsing and deduction involved. Even though the case is closed, you feel like you’re doing a lot of detective work in the searching. Plus, there’s very little interaction outside of this searching role–just an occasional text conversation with a third party–so that a lot of the investigation work you do is off-screen, out-of-game, implicit, personal. I took notes on paper as I worked my way through. It was engaging, and the ending resulted in an interesting shift in perspective for me. This is a game that I would have 100% completion in, if I’d ever bothered to play more of the computer application game on the in-game desktop background.

Lastly, there’s Orwell (designed by Osmotic Studios), which I just reviewed on Sunday. Of the three, I found this the least rewarding to play, although it maybe had the most to say. I’d point you to my review if you want more insight there.

You could say that all of the above are basically games from other genres, and that I’m just reorienting them around a gimmick. But if it’s a “gimmick,” it’s holding up rather well for me and inviting a very particular type of immersive experience. I’ll gladly keep playing games like that.

If you know of any games that fit the bill, please let me know. I’m certainly not tired of them yet.

Arena, Part XII: Beginning the Labyrinth

Well, I do have an update, though a small one. I’ve entered Labyrinthian.

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The entry halls prompted some interesting though so far rather vague flavor text in the form of clues etched into the walls and floors:

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I haven’t even solved the mysteries of door number one yet, though. I’ve only been slowly probing Labyrinthian. It’ll probably continue to be slow going–I might plug away a little bit at a time, and even a month from now I might not have a huge update. But it’s going. So far the enemies haven’t been too challenging for the most part–mostly spiders and wolves. I did encounter a room with snow wolves, and one room with hell hounds. The snow wolf room was challenging. The hell hound room was laughably easy: I fell from a high space into a hole, the hell hounds were in the room above the hole, and one of the hell hounds fired a fireball spell that eradicated them both. I didn’t have to do anything at all.

I’ve also encountered an interesting glitch. I used Passwall to get through to some stairs leading to another level. I could go through the wall and go up the stairs, but at that point I could not move except to turn around and go back down the stairs. Once back downstairs, I could not move except to turn around and go back up the stairs. I could not break free even with jumping and levitating. I lost some progress loading an earlier save. I won’t try to break a shortcut into stairs again. They basically function as a portal to take me to another dungeon layout, after all. Maybe entering backwards breaks something.

This reminds me that I encountered another big glitch back in August. I don’t think I mentioned it then. It was the Insufficient Memory error, which forced a crash to desktop. Loading resolved the issue. It’s not exactly an unknown issue with the game, either. Game-crashing bugs: now that’s classic Elder Scrolls.

The Zoo, Reductions, & Current Readings

My wife and I went to the Indianapolis Zoo today. We got a membership. We both like to go and just watch the animals. Her favorites are the walruses. My favorites are the giraffes. And we’re both fond of the cheetahs, especially when they’re up and around. The larger animals in particular have such grace, a relaxed confidence of movement. They’re beautiful and soothing to watch. Also, the zoo has lots of cool birds, so that’s nice for me.

The zoo’s in walking distance, so I expect (and hope) that we’ll be getting quite a few more visits in with this membership than the average. Then again, what is the average? Maybe 3 or 4 times a year, if you have kids? I suspect that the people who most frequent the zoo also tend to live further away from it, out in the suburbs. Disposable income and younglings who want to go, but maybe not the time or desire to make more than a few trips in a year.

I have some pictures I want to share, but this post will have some other announcements; check out my following post (if you haven’t already) to see the pictures. To begin with, I enjoy posting new entries roughly twice a week, and I think Sunday and Thursday work as well as any other days. But I’ve spent a lot of time playing and writing about Arena, and it’s fun until it isn’t, and it sometimes feels like a chore. I end up skipping Thursdays, the usual Arena days, out of avoidance or because I haven’t had enough time to play (or both), and then sometimes I write a silly sort-of-apologetic post (but why? I’m basically writing for myself and grateful for anyone who gets any sort of enjoyment out of these posts), and sometimes I don’t post at all. It’s not a great model of balance and sustainability. At the same time, I do enjoy playing Arena in small amounts, and I do enjoy writing about my experiences with the game. I think I’ll just cut back to intermittent Arena posts–maybe roughly monthly, more flexible and less frequent to reflect my schedule. This will give me more time to pursue my other projects (work, life, writing, etc.), and I won’t feel so guilty or pressured to write or play a game more than I really want. This is basically just a formal adoption of an informal policy, but I still felt the need to say it, so there. Now, I should still have posts every Sunday and Thursday, but the number of posts about Arena will be far fewer.

In other news, I’m currently reading three books. They are Hoosiers: A New History of Indiana, by James H. Madison; Star Wars: Kenobi, by John Jackson Miller; and Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View, the new short story anthology. I’m enjoying each of the three rather a lot, but I picked up From a Certain Point of View yesterday and have been spending most of my free time since then reading it (okay, I guess it depends on how I define “free time”–most of my day today was free time, and the zoo was great fun, but it was still a “commitment” of sorts in which reading wouldn’t really have been appropriate). It is really great. There are a couple of weaker stories, but most of them are at least good, and there’s something worthwhile or entertaining about all of them to recommend the anthology as a whole (at least so far, and as I’m more than halfway through I doubt I’ll change my mind). There are a few that I’ve absolutely loved, and the best part is that most of those now-beloved stories aren’t the ones that I went in most eager to read. So I look forward to talking more about this book when I get done.

I’ve been listening to some things, too. Three I’d like to point out. First, have you heard of First Person Scholar? It’s a student-run initiative, a sort of free online journal/academic space, that focuses on video game studies. If you have an interest in video game studies–or just video games–you should check them out. In addition to the new writing they publish, they also maintain a podcast, with new content coming up there about monthly (hence the listening component I referred to at the start). I especially like that they often discuss diverse perspectives and focus more on narratology over ludology, so it’s often more reflective of my personal interests.

Next up, I just started listening to Revisionist History on recommendation. Only one episode in, but it was fascinating. I suspect this is probably a pretty decently well-known podcast? And one episode in isn’t enough to judge much. But I like it, and I’d encourage you to check it out if you’re looking for something to listen to.

Lastly, I really like to learn about local and regional history, so discovering the Indiana Historical Bureau’s Talking Hoosier History podcast has been a real treat. It’s well-researched and has covered a variety of topics at just eight episodes in. It also sounds kind of…amateur, and the host sounds a little dorky and a little awkward, but those things can be endearing if you’ll let them, and the team does a really good job of picking interesting stories. If you were to listen to just one, I’d recommend Episode 3, about abolitionist George Washington Julian, or Episode 6, about the Indiana State Fair; the former highlights how they can drill down on an interesting local historical figure, and the latter does a good job of presenting quirky historical elements about an event or tradition. Just…don’t start with the most recent episode, about ghost stories, because it’s sooooo cheesy.

I also have a couple longer-term projects of my own that have been on the back-burner, but I am going to try to reduce the amount of time I burn on gaming (not that it’s normally a huge amount of time right now) to focus on them. One is maybe a little more appropriate to share here than the other, but I’m going to remain vague about them both for now until I’m a little further along. I’ll share what I want when I want, if at all!

Okay, that’s all. Next post: zoo pictures.

Collecting the Arena Posts

I have a new Arena post up today. I also have a new page, a list of all my Arena posts. Hopefully, it’ll be easier for newer readers to find older posts and read them in order, for older readers to relocate previous entries, and for me to quickly reference an earlier episode.

The page can be found from the menu, or by clicking here.