Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Culinary Lifestyle: Bubble Tea

I'm (partially) quoted in an article on The Yorker. My full entry is below.

I suppose what I dig about bubble tea is the uniqueness of it. To us, it's a weird and new thing, but it's like the cultural equivalent of getting a frappuchino. I first tried bubble tea at a place called the Candy Café, a tiny upstairs restaurant in London's Chinatown (I know that sounds incredibly hipster, but it's true, I swear). What stood out was the huge range of flavours they had (mostly fruit juices), with your choice of green or black tea as a base.

While some of the combinations are incredibly sweet (a chocolate milk tea will taste as saccharine as you'd expect), Cooling off in the summer with a lemon & green tea combo was refreshing, and arguably healthier than a large coke. A few of my friends I recommended the drink to were weirded out by the tapioca balls, but they have a neutral taste, so it doesn't spoil the flavour of the drink, and the chewiness reminds me of bubble gum or marshmallows.

While I wouldn't be craving one during the winter (and the unusual ethnicity of it would probably put off York locals); I definitely wouldn't mind having one around once summer rolls around.

Men's Lifestyle: Surviving Christmas Shopping

This article can also be found at The Yorker.

So it's December and the customary need to buy gifts for others has arrived. While going shopping isn't something alien to you (or at least, it shouldn't be), the idea of having to deal with increased crowds and the fear that you're going to be judged and scrutinised by your family and friends for not knowing anything about their interests is a scary thought.

But it's okay, you've been told by your friends that you're not expected to like or be good at shopping. After all, you're male and us lads don't know how to shop, right? Ha ha ha.

Congratulations, you have lazy and poisonous friends.

I don't think I'm a particularly special case when I say I get a kick out of going shopping. Maybe it's because I'm an urbanite, and I take pleasure from being part of the hustle and bustle; maybe it's because being the neurotic, task-driven sort, I get a warm sense of accomplishment from finding what I set out for, and getting a good bargain; or maybe I'm just a consumerist bourgeoisie pig - but the bottom line is that I have some solid hints for getting over your stumbling blocks when it comes to shopping - male or not. If you absolutely must bring up gender stereotypes, men are supposed to be good at getting a plan together - so let's all be Modern Men here, and scheme our way to an easier shopping experience.

Actually Know About Who You're Buying For
This seems obvious, but it's something that needs saying. If you're going to be parting with your hard-earned cash (or Student Finance's hard-earned cash) to buy presents for people you could arguably have bought for them at any other time of the year; then it stands to reason that you actually like them, and know something about 'em. By knowing some basic questions (something my experience in retail at GAME has made me start dubbing as 'Invite' questions), you can start to form a pretty good idea of what they'd like. These are questions like:
  • Do they have any hobbies? (This question makes nerds incredibly easy to buy for)
  • What colours do they normally wear? (Clothes shopping has now become much simpler)
  • Is there an author/artist/genre they follow? (They like Tim Burton movies? That's a huge clue... Defriend them.)
  • Are they in need of specialist tools? (Cooking, sports goods, audio equipment...)
If you can't actually answer these questions, then you probably don't know them well enough for you to be buying them gifts. Awkward if that's a family member or your significant other, but don't let a holiday custom force you to spend money.

Research, Research, Research
Even if you don't intend to do your shopping on the internet, it's more valuable than just access to Facebook. Almost every magazine-site and blog that cover some form of merchandise are putting out Christmas lists of suggested purchases; you're spoilt for ideas. Amazon and similar sites have customer reviews, so you can get a rough idea if that pair of headphones you're getting will crumble into pieces in under a month.

Furthermore, if you're going clothes shopping, checking out the website of the brand is going to save you a lot of wandering around to see if they have a blouse with the correct colour and neckline your housemate wanted. Knowing what you want and where you can get it will save you the embarrassing moments where you stand stock-still looking confused and scared. The other customers will judge you if you do that - goodness knows you don't want the ire of people you will never meet.

When To Put Your Plan in Motion
Ideally, as far away from Christmas as possible, but you already knew that. Your most sensible bet would be when you know the shops you visit receive new stock; it lowers the odds of your target gift being sold-out.

If crowds aren't your thing, you're going to have to go shopping at either the very start or very end of the shopping day. People don't get the idea of getting up early for Retail Therapy until January Sales, so you'll be relatively safe. If you're lucky enough to be in York this December, the high road shops will be open until 8pm every Thursday up until Christmas.

And of course, if you really hate crowds, shop online. Don't be a hero.

Other Hints and Tips
  • Accessory/Lingerie Shopping isn't Mandatory! - One concern/complaint I've heard regards dudes who are terrified and lost when it comes to buying certain items for their ladyfriends. I can sympathise with that, La Senza, Claires, and their ilk are some of the very few places where catering to men aren't at the top of their list. But think for a minute - were you expressly asked to get someone earrings or underwear? Mightn't they have some other interest that you can cater to without sticking out like a sore thumb? Getting a thong for your girlfriend might not go so well; and getting a thong for someone who isn't your partner definitely isn't going to go well.
  • Don't be afraid to just ask what people want - Let's face it; for a lot of the people on your Christmas list, you wouldn't be spending money on them at any other time of the year; let's not have illusions of undue benevolence. Asking about what they want sounds taboo; but giving someone something they don't want will bruise that ego of yours far more. If they are also under the illusion of benevolence, they may even say "I don't want anything", at which point you've got it made.

Film Review: Weekend

This review can also be found at The Yorker.

The majority of my experience with romance-type movies has been rooted firmly in the sappy, feel-good realm. And I can't goddamn stand them. Boy meets girl in a chance encounter - potentially a rather strange one; their stark personality differences make it seem like they're never going to make a deeper connection; they argue, but in the end see how badly they need each other and get together again in a sequence scientifically tested to produce the largest "Awwww" from its audience.
Weekend does check all those boxes, but at the same time it throws all those boxes out of the window, and calls you stupid for bringing up such a formulaic romance plot. Weekend tries to offer something much more real and bittersweet; and starts off by centering the entire thing around a gay romance. Which, for me, definitely puts it in 'real and bittersweet' territory, but more on that later.

Russell (Tom Cullen) is stuck in emotional limbo. While he's incredibly close to his friends, he's also really closed-off when it comes to talking about himself. On a whim he visits a gay bar, meets Glen (Chris New), and ends up having hazy, drunken sex. All he knows is that Glen is an artist, outgoing and agressively open with his sexuality; and over the period of a weekend, they find that meeting each other has become one of the best and one of the worst things that has happened to them.

This is where the Realness Factor comes in. Everything from the setting to the key events of the narrative are subdued and coated in that thick, matte grey that covers England's inner-city urban living. It feels so familiar - I understand and recognise the motorways, the glum rides on public transport, and the shitty and cramped nightclubs. However, that's not to say that Weekend entirely forgoes more traditional film techniques, or is entirely moody and grim. The tone switches from melancholic to funny to sexy (I'm way too prudish to talk about the sex scenes in any real detail but it manages to be both steamy and tasteful with little effort) at a regular rate without stumbling in pacing.

However, Weekend is a movie with a message - and a rather self-defeating one at that. Glen's openness about his sexuality is augmented with intense ire for a society that's so heterocentric and prudish, which Russell occasionally gets the brunt of. This means that every so often Glen will have a rant about his favourite topic, and the scene stops just short of flashing "HERE'S THE MORAL" on-screen. That's not to say that message imparted is wrong, quite the opposite (if asked I would wholeheartedly rave about how social stigma gives LGBT issues the short end of the stick), but no one likes being beaten over the head with a message - even if making it that obvious could be argued as necessary.

Building on this idea, at one point Glen discusses an art installation he's planning regarding gay sexual experiences, but admits that (and forgive me for not having the exact quote) gay people wouldn't go without the promise of nudity, and straight people wouldn't go because homosexuality is still considered a weird and taboo topic for many. You could hear a number of nervous laughs in the audience at that line.

That theme struck a personal chord with me - while inwardly I could agree with most of Glen's viewpoint, on every other level I embody Russell's emotionally-distant awkwardness. It made the romance between the two leads - the small silences, the confiding of secrets, the holding of hands - both heart-wrenchingly cute and depressingly unobtainable. The film's resolution, while not dancing to the rhythm of how a prototypical romance should go, instead sticks closely to the conclusion the general tone of the film implies.

While most first think of Brokeback Mountain as the must-see film with gay themes, for me Weekend is set to have much more social significance. That said, I am still waiting for a film where a homosexual protagonist doesn't have his (or her) own sexuality as the main conflict.

Mario Kart 7 - Glidin' & Divin'

This review can also be found at The Yorker.

Nintendo are pretty smart businessmen. They're very confident in their intellectual property - on any given Nintendo console, you'd be had pressed to not find a Mario, Zelda, or Pokémon title. And yet, these releases aren't yearly. In a market where Call of Duty, Need for Speed and Tiger Woods titles see a yearly incarnation to remain relevant, many Nintendo titles are released incredibly infrequently, but still rake in the sales.
Mario Kart is the best example of this avoidance of over-saturation. Mario Kart games are released not once per year, but once per console; and the titles will sell consistently through the hardware lifespan. Mario Kart DS came out in 2005, and new copies are still being manufactured and bought!

With that kind consumer success, Mario Kart 7 - 3DS' bite at the apple - had some lofty expectations. Many complained about how Mario Kart Wii was 'imbalanced' from a competitive point of view, and lately Nintendo have had to go to lengths to get more 'dedicated' gamers on board the Nintendo franchise - most likely in preparation for the WiiU. In that light, Mario Kart 7 had a clear niche to fill.

Mario Kart 7 is 'balanced'. It has in no way shifted from the established formula set down by its predecessors - people flagging behind get better items, you can drift around corners to get speed boosts, and that little trick where you can get a boost from the start line are all intact. These notions that were once 'hints' are now codified laws written into the fabric of Mario Kart (excuse the pretentious phrasing).

Yet at the same time, it feels a lot more... technical. Don't worry, I can't make any comparisons to realistic racers like Gran Tursimo with a straight face - but you can now choose the chassis and wheels of your vehicle to fine-tune how you want your car to handle. The new courses featured have co-ordinated drifting in mind, and the trick from Mario Kart Wii where hopping off of jumps to get a free speed boost returns here.

To compare it directly to other games in the series, gameplay-wise this puts MK7 somewhere between Mario Kart DS and Wii; but at the same time it lacks key features from both that made those titles more well-rounded. Beyond the Grand Prix, Time Trials and some forgettable battle modes, there are no additional challenges, while MKDS had a Mission Mode. Even with all the different kart combinations, they all still function the same - the inclusion of Motorbikes in MKWii was very refreshing in that regard.

That said, I don't want to accentuate the negative, here. The nature of games like these mean that they lend easily to be compared to past editions, but that doesn't mean in any way that MK7 doesn't hold up on its own. The karts are satisfying to drive, the new tracks are either fun to burn around or interesting technical challenges. As with games preceding it, 16 of the 32 tracks available are remixed courses from previous titles, but whether that's a good or bad thing is incredibly subjective.

With the limited single player, the meat of the entertainment is to be gained from the multiplayer and online options. And like with the online modes of other games, its worth is valued entirely by how much you enjoy competing with people you can't physically interact with. For me, part of the Mario Kart Experience is having others in the room with you; to taunt when you win, and to punch in the shoulder when you lose. Mario Kart 7 does have local multiplayer - and the ability for other 3DS owners to play, even if they don't have their own copy of the game, but that relies heavily on knowing multiple friends that live close-by who have also bought a 3DS. At the moment, the odds of that being the case are somewhat slim.

The online functionality does have one neat trick, though. Daily, your 3DS will download new 'ghosts' for you to race against. These are the times achieved by other Mario Kart players, and competing against them is satisfying in a different way from normal multiplayer. With no bananas or shells to lob at opponents, it comes to finding the best racing lines and getting the best use out of the 3 speed-boost mushrooms given to you. With no pressure of being called rubbish by your friends, you ease yourself into actually learning how to play the game better - and knowing what you're doing will improve the enjoyment of any video game.

Lastly, I should mention the gliding and underwater sections. While they featured heavily in the promotion of MK7, they don't have too much of a serious impact on the game. On almost all of the tracks feature a body of water to plough through or a long jump to glide over (courses taken from older games have been retrofitted with these). These sections handle a little differently from normal driving, but they don't require too much finesse to work through. Though honestly, maybe they don't need to - the first time you glide over a gap or submerge yourself is fun, and repeated visits aren't too intrusive.

Nintendo have played very safe with their newest Mario Kart, which - although annoyingly bare-bones - is made with the high-quality the series is known for, and will definitely go towards supporting the presently flagging 3DS system. Just make sure your friends buy it too.

Have You Played: SSX Tricky

This article was done as part of The Yorker's Advent Calendar.

I don't like sport much. Or at all, really. Blame it on the cliché of being bad at football in primary school, getting stick for it, and the ensuing negative feedback loop resulting in me rather staying indoors reading, or maybe, shoving hot needles into my eyes, than running around on a muddy field.

That blind, irrational dislike of physical past times is reflected in my video game habits, too. I won't give FIFA the time of day, I still don't understand how we've managed to shift so many copies of Rugby World Cup 2011 at the GAME I part-time at, and the NBA has only ever been interesting if it precedes the word 'Street'.

But snowboarding? Snowboarding was cool Maybe it was the exotic factor, maybe it was the pictures and videos of people essentially flying through the air, or maybe it was just the cool reflective goggles that everyone wore, but I was totally into the idea of shredding and powder in junior school. I had Snowboard Kids for the N64, and although it was a great multiplayer title (that I may well gush about some other time), it wasn't capturing that level of sick air and kickin' rad attitude that I wanted. Then in 2001, my best friend had a copy of SSX Tricky for Playstation 2.

And swearing on the deity of your choice, it was awesome.

Aesthetically, the title oozed cool. The player characters were realistically proportioned, but the attention paid to how real life works stopped there. Every inch of every mountain slope in the game was designed to give you the biggest airtime, the fastest grinds, and the most ridiculous setpieces. The very first jump you encounter in the game is a massive free-fall off a cliff that would turn any mere mortal into a fine paste - but in SSX Tricky, you're controlling a snowboarding GOD.

Speaking of the people you're controlling, EA Sports BIG took the time to make them all solidly distinct. True, there's the designated eye-candy female lead, and a hyper-excitable Japanese girl, but taking on the slopes as the disco-obsessed Eddie, or chronically chill faux-hippy Brodi (my personal favourite) were far more interesting. As you played the game, you formed friendships and rivalries with the other racers, who trash-talk before and after matches to give way more character depth.

The sound design was also something special. While many of the songs were taken wholesale from the prequel, SSX, the game had a clever trick of fading the audio levels in and out as you went off jumps, leaving only the bass behind as you aimed for the stratosphere. Audio cues were synced up to the beat, so doing enough tricks to fill up your boost bar all the way layered in a riff from It's Tricky (SSX Tricky's theme song, natch) in a perfectly natural manner, signifying it was time to let loose an Uber Trick.

The Uber Trick is what elevates Tricky over its predecessor - the ability to let fly super stylish and entirely impossible stunts. Each character had five Uber Tricks at their disposal, along with a signature move unique to them. Working up to performing one of these, landing it, and watching all the points pile in was the game's main joy.

Though, that's not to say such payoffs were easily handed out. SSX Tricky was a hard game to master. The surreal architecture of the courses meant that you needed to know the levels well - very well - to have optimum routes for speed or score. Shortcuts were everywhere, surrounded by pits and hazards for a palpable risk/reward factor. Aside from that, knowing when you have the height and the time to land the bigger moves took practice and precision, which honestly, I'm still not very good at.

The imposing level design and somewhat complicated controls mean that SSX Tricky may be a mite too technical for some, and frustrating for people who want to be able to do the biggest and best stunts right from the get-go. But there were few games at the time that made you feel the thrill of the spectacle in every aspect of its design.